Sink Monkey

Alyssa Proujansky

In the video, the monkey sits in a woman’s bathroom, legs dangling. I don’t actually know that the monkey is a boy, but still I think he. I watch the video on my phone, sound off, curled on my side in my bed. I watch it over and over. Sink Monkey is what I call him—though he is actually sitting on the edge of a bathtub. Sink Monkey has a large head, long, tufty fur. Heavy eyelids. Expressive eyebrows in constant motion. They go up, up when the woman’s hands move into the frame, down as she washes his spindly toes. She cleans the bottom of his feet with a cloth. Pats them dry, places them gently on top of each other. I press my palms to my abdomen. I’ve been bleeding all day, though nothing like before.

Sink Monkey is the only way I’ve been able to imagine going through with the pregnancy. Whenever I pictured a human child, I felt nothing. I’ve been ambivalent for weeks,
going on long walks with Ethan, talking in circles. Neither of us wants a child—in fact, it was one of the first things we agreed on. But as we talked, the question evolved: was it an accident or an “accident”? On a scale of one to ten, how badly don’t we want one?

Mandy texts and I press pause on the video. I’ve been swiping away texts all day—she’s the only one I’ll answer. I feel like I caused it, I write, by not wanting it enough. Every time I go to say miscarriage, I screw up and say abortion. Then I hate myself for using those words. I have no claim on either. I deserve nothing, I think—not grief, not sympathy.

I text Mandy a long paragraph about ambivalence. About two robust cells floating in fluid. How I’m stuck, as always, in the space between them. How this stuckness encroaches on all aspects of my life. But as I type, I buzz with a secret: I can still feel Sink Monkey curled inside me, warm and protected.

While I wait for her reply, I replay the video. I think dear about each of Sink Monkey’s features. Dear tummy, rounding out over his legs. Dear face, turned up toward the woman as she cleans his ears with a Q-tip. Dear legs, hanging gently over the lip of the bathtub. Dear eyes, fluttering closed as she combs the fur on his chest with a wide-toothed comb.

Mandy texts back a flurry of sorrys. She ignores the ambivalence paragraph, which feels like a kindness. She wants to know whether it hurt, and I sit up. I pause the video at my favorite part. The woman is preparing Sink Monkey’s toothbrush. He’s touching his mouth, craning toward her.

The internet, I write, says it’s like bad period cramps. It’s nothing like that. Like, not even remotely. I tell her that now I know what contractions are like. That I can only describe the smell as kind of like honeysuckle. Then I can’t breathe. Gonna try to sleep now, I type.

I go back to Sink Monkey, try to focus. I list words about his eyes: Trusting. Eternal. I write down whatever I want, no matter how stupid. But as the woman moves behind him, I notice her arm. Pale and puffy, like she never goes outside. A scaled rash creeping from wrist to elbow. Who am I to think that Sink Monkey is happy? It’s not like I’m a primatologist, I think, in the hacked-up voice Ethan and I use to mimic our neighbor. I turn off the video and then I turn off my phone. I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling.

I think: drink water, eat toast. Take iron, take B vitamins. I can see myself leaving the bed, walking to the kitchen. I can see myself having, getting. I imagine these good things raining down into the glowing chamber of my body. Repairing Sink Monkey, making him thrive.

Alyssa Proujansky is a writer from Ithaca, New York, currently residing in Brooklyn. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast Online, Passages North, Third Coast, Columbia Journal, Hobart, The Rumpus, Moon City Review, Lunch Ticket and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She is a member of the PEN Prison Writing Project’s Poetry Committee. Her website is



Dance Dance Revolution

Ben Jahn

The Office of the Child Advocate reports that the young man who shot the schoolchildren with his mother’s Bushmaster was obsessed with the video game Dance Dance Revolution. It describes him playing, in the months leading up to the massacre, frenetically, hours on end, at home or at a local theater, dancing until he was drenched in sweat, dancing until he was out of money, dancing to keep his mind off his mind.

And one of the children said to him, “I don’t want to be here.”

“Well, you’re here,” he said.

We think of our kids begging to skip school. Mornings, eating standing at the sink, the refrigerator door slightly ajar, some of the dishes in the dishwasher clean, jam in the peanut butter, peanut butter in the jam, forced air from the vent in the floor warming a pile of laundry. “You have to go,” we say. “Everybody has to do things they don’t want to do.”

The artistic director tweaked the Nutcracker storyline for the area’s progressive left. In this version, Clara and Fritz are destitute, living on the street, until an act of generosity shows them a new future. When the show opens, they’re huddled outside the toymaker’s house, shivering, sharing a tattered blanket.

At the end of Act One, sinister, dream-conjured mice surround a toy soldier who stands quavering at center stage, wooden rifle aimed at the audience. The music is dubbed with a pop at the bottom of an eight-count, and the dancer-soldier simulates rifle-kick, scattering the harassing mice.

In the lobby at intermission, one ballet mom can’t get it out of her mind. She keeps hearing the report, says it has torn through her. She tells me the Bushmaster’s ammunition was designed to disperse its energy on impact, to do maximum damage and remain in the flesh. Parents were barred from the bodies, asked to identify them with pictures. 

Nothing could keep her from the body of her child. “Pictures aren’t real. I would never believe it was true. Who designs a bullet to not act like a bullet, to not go through? An entrance with no exit.” 

Last year, on the day of the shooting, Act Two, the Little Angels bourreed on stage on demi-pointe, first-grade girls dressed in shimmering ankle-length gowns with pleated sleeves, smiling eyes drawn taut by topknots. Innocent little angels in line behind their Big Angels. 

Every year they shuffle on, the energy shifts, the audience awwws. It is pure, reflexive. But not last year. Last year there was no sound. Just the impossible welling up of wet silence. Of sound swallowed down.

To escape the peppermint and perfume, we walk along the footpath that perpends the avenue, running back to the studios and dressing rooms. We glimpse dancers flitting out for fresh air, lithe in leotards and tights. We stop in the shadows away from the yellow cones of light meant to fend the homeless. 

She says she dreads the Little Angels. “We’re all going to awww again like nothing happened.”  

“Like it was a liberal hoax,” I say.

“I think I understand that,” she says. “It absolves us of comprehension.”

One year, we shared a joke about the program, its half-page ad for the company’s open house event for boys: a photo of a soccer goalkeeper and an opposing striker, leaping, arms and legs balletically extended. “Look, dudes,” she said, in the voice of the ad. “These guys are basically dancing—and they’re not pussies.”

“I tried to sign Nick up,” I said. “But he watched the other boys chase the ball and went, Dad, I’m not a dog.” 

“I didn’t know you had a boy,” she said, meaning a boy in ballet.

“I’m the one.”

The ad is still there. But now the keeper seems to be attacking the striker, a player I recognize from a local professional team. He has one of those smug, suburban names—Landon, or Hunter, or Trace. My teammates and I used to pick them out before games, saying, “Who’s your red card?” 

I don’t mention this because her own son’s name is Hunter, and today is not the day to casually discuss boyhood aggressions. 

We talk about mothers who only have girls. She envies the purity of their fear and outrage. “When you have a boy,” she says, “you never know.”

She wishes she could judge the shooter’s mother—and she can, to some extent. “It was her Bushmaster.” She wishes the woman had lived, so she would have to comprehend with the rest of us. His killing her first was an act of mercy. “Or was it?”

“We’ll never know.” 

“And where was his father?” The report says his father tried to reach out via email, suggesting a ballgame, a hike. “I think we can agree,” she says, “an email is not reaching out.”

Someone comes by to congratulate her on her daughter’s progress. “She’ll be Clara soon. Then the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

“Nothing is guaranteed,” she says. 

The chime sounds, and people begin to drift toward their seats.

“I don’t want to be here.” 

“Well,” I say.

The next year, her daughter is Clara, and Nick is Fritz. 

We drop them off at Saturday rehearsal, and I follow her home, staying close to her bumper so we don’t get separated. 

At a stoplight, I text her: “What about Hunter?”

She texts back: “With his dad.”

At her place, in the living room, I take off my shoes and jacket while she sets up the game. “Have you ever done this?”

“Never,” I say. “Never anything like it.”

“It’s pretty intuitive,” she says and unfolds two vinyl “dance mats” printed with blue arrows, up-down-left-right. When the game begins, she cranks the TV volume, and we move our bodies to 90’s pop. 

I’m clumsy, at first. “I haven’t danced in years.” I try to track the digital arrows sliding up the screen, but my eye is drawn to the swaying avatar, glowing blue-white. I know without having to ask that she thinks of the avatars, ghost-like figures trapped in another world, as little angels.

“The trick is to let the music go through you,” she says between songs.

Or, I think, to let it enter and disperse its energy.

We dance until our clothes are soaked and shucked, we’ve thrown the windows open, and the TV is the only light, its grainy, pulsing radiance a medium through which we might connect in a suspended present. 

It’s as if we’re living in a GIF, perfectly looped, like the one Nick showed me of the spinning ballerina. “You can make it switch directions with your mind,” he said. “But it never stops.” I said, “If it switches directions, doesn’t it have to stop?” I didn’t want to tell him I could only see it turning clockwise. “No,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. Whichever way it’s turning is the way it’s always turned.”

I wake on the floor in the dark with the rain outside. Wind gusts suck the curtains against the wet screens in great heaved breaths. The TV is off, and I look for a digital indicator that might define the space. It takes me a few seconds to realize we’ve lost power.

I’m cold, except in the places our bodies touch. I reach for a dance mat and draw it over. The flexible plastic square settles stiffly around our torsos. A poor blanket, it gives little warmth. It’s something no one should ever have to feel.

Ben Jahn’s work has appeared in Fence, PANK, ZYZZYVA, McSweeney’s, and The Santa Monica Review. He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in fiction, and his story, “Reborn,” appeared in The Paris Review as the winner of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction contest. He lives in Richmond, CA, teaches English at Contra Costa College, and spends his summers traveling with his longtime partner and her kids. For infrequent updates, go to 

Hall of Hauntings

Rebekah Bergman

That October, their father suggested they wear an animal costume for Halloween. A horse or a donkey or zebra. One twin could be the front half, and the other the back.

“Won’t we have trouble walking upstairs?” they asked, horrified.

“Ah, right,” said their father. They saw, in the mirror, how his face fell and they felt a twinge of guilt for him. His best ideas never panned out.


Naomi used to handle the costumes and Lionel didn’t know how she came up with the ideas or made the girls go along with them. His only thought was to put them inside one costume. Save them all some trouble and money too, but the girls had raised an important concern.

So, what now, Naomi? he asked in his head, but his late wife did not respond.

He had shaved off his mustache long ago, before his wedding, but lately, he felt the ghost of it like a phantom mustache hovering over his lip. As if being a widower returned him to bachelorhood. He looked in the rearview.

“What will you be then?” he asked the girls. “It’s Halloween. You can be whatever you want.”


Their father was wrong. They could not be whatever they wanted. Not this year. What they wanted was secondary to what they needed to be, and that was: different.

Each of them had made the decision not to be matching. They’d been matching every year before then, in costumes their mother had made. But now they were seven, their mother was dead, and their father was helpless. They longed to be something—anything—for once, of their own.

Neither twin told the other about the vow she had made with herself, so it became a waiting game. She could not choose a costume until her sister did. But, of course, her sister could not choose a costume either. They were stuck and they more or less figured out what the other was up to because of it. Even this private pact became something shared.

When their father parked, they looked at each other and shrugged.


Hall of Hauntings was open all year. The adult costumes were horribly gruesome. Bloody werewolves, bloody doctors, bloody brides. There was blood everywhere and a million body parts. Swollen lips, bulging eyeballs, hairy man legs.

It wasn’t the most kid-friendly store. Lionel had forgotten that.

“Let’s stick together,” he said. “I’ll grab mine first.”

Lionel wanted to be a cow. It was the subtle gender swapping of it that was fun. He’d have udders. And fake eyelashes. It would be almost like dressing up as a lady. That’s what was great about Halloween. On a normal day, he had no desire to dress this way. But because he could on Halloween, he figured why not?

“Wait here,” he said as he went into the dressing room. He put on the cow suit quickly and came out to show them. He stared at himself for a minute, loving it. A cow was such a majestic, maternal creature.

“Girls,” he said. But his girls were not in the reflection.

“Shit,” he said. Then, “Sorry,” to apologize to them for the swear.

But no, his girls were nowhere behind him. His tail swept back and forth on the dirty ground as he paced and then ran.

“Girls?” he said, shouting now. “Girls!”


Silently, they walked away from their father and away from each other. They parted separate paths through the wigs and the face paints, passing a dress made of doll heads, two clowns with yellow teeth and bloodshot eyes. They wondered about this holiday. Why did adults return to these childish things? The dress looked so heavy. And all those doll heads would bang together whenever you walked. There was something about the clown’s smile that looked like their father. They hated that they thought that. But they did. The baby aisle was similarly confounding. Babies as lobsters being cooked in pots. A baby as what looked like a homeless man. A baby with a lump of poop it could wear on its head. Humiliating.

One sister strolled slowly with a hand out, touching every costume she passed. She’d stop to consider an option before finding its flaw. She could be a shark but that was boyish, a cat but that was boring, a giraffe with a long neck that would extend up from her head with a hole for her face. Disgusting, how a face would come out of a neck like that.

The other sister walked more deliberately. She thought she knew what she wanted. She’d eye a section and rush toward it and then stop, look at a costume and know that no, she was wrong. Even when she did find what she’d been looking for, the reality of it wasn’t what she had pictured. She rejected a watermelon, a vampire, a pilot.

Ok, each sister thought. Pick something. We don’t have much time.

When their father found them, they were inside costumes that they’d tried on over their clothes: a hotdog and an elderly man.

“I couldn’t find you,” he said, breathless. “Do you know how scared I was?” One daughter was blanketed by a hotdog bun. The other had a bald cap and a cane. They were beautiful, his daughters.

“Do you know how scared that makes me?” He meant to yell at them for leaving him in this store full of nightmares, alone. He meant to make his voice loud and foreboding.

To frighten them with his own catastrophic ideas of what might have been.

“Girls,” he said again and bent toward them. He could do it, be angry. Do it, he said to himself, in Naomi’s voice.

He saw them, all three, reflected: a cow, a hotdog, a shrunken old man. He didn’t know who was in which costume, but it didn’t matter.

The old man’s wire glasses slipped down her nose. He put a hand around each of their heads and pulled them into his shoulders. The hotdog smelled slightly of relish.

“Ok,” he whispered. “Ok,” he said, crying softly. “We’re ok. We’re ok.”


Their father paid for their costumes and they left, still wearing them. The girls didn’t know why he had cried like that. His eyelashes, as a cow, looked longer. Didn’t they? And they felt a little afraid of his udders—why? It was a small fear that they found fascinating. The way they felt about the tooth fairy, whom they no longer believed in but who remained—strangely—a greedy, invisible possibility. They kept thinking about it as they drove home. How, when he had bent down to hug them, his udders had been right there, rubbery, hollow.

They thought of their mother, too. They missed her. She would never have let their father dress in that cow suit.

Still, they had done it, found something different to be for a while. This is what it felt like. They tried to comfort themselves with that, looking at each other look different. But they knew that even inside their separate costumes, their thoughts were the same. And they didn’t feel any different, anyway.


When the car pulled into the driveway, nobody said anything. Inside the house, they each stood in a different closet with the door closed. They peeled off one set of clothing, and they put on the next.

Rebekah Bergman’s fiction is published in Hobart, Joyland, DIAGRAM, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Masters Review, among other journals. She is a contributing editor of NOON. Read more:

As Close as We Dare

Gwendolyn Paradice

When we arrive at the airport and wait for our minibus, we tell stories about multi-headed goats standing in the crooks of trees. About plants twisting their limbs and leaves to mimic the DNA of viruses. About bodies, and how they are frail, and susceptible, and only ours until they belong to age, or science, or the millions of mundane accidents that can maim, reshape, melt, or destroy.

When we get in the vehicle we drive for hours. Through old borders of old countries. Through fields that have not grown crops for more than one hundred years. Through a town that is like a body whose mind had left, all the people emptied out to cities: larger bodies, better bodies, healthier bodies, or if not healthier, at least more inviting.

When we get to the checkpoint with the sign that reads


we sigh. Sit up straighter in our seats. Cup our hands against glass as we bump over ill-kept roads, the kinds too expensive to maintain, the kinds no one repairs because, who, in this day and age, cares about disaster’s memory?

We ask each other, can a relic be a novelty? And the answer, by consensus, is yes.

We listen to stories told by our tour guide. Grim tales of a warning we no longer need to heed. He says, we are lucky to have advanced. To have found new forms of energy. He says, people didn’t used to care, and we nod agreement. We listen to stories about bodies that wither. We listen to stories about stories: old television shows and movies that capitalized on (but informed about, too) catastrophe. We listen to stories about sarcophagi and instead of thinking about those who died, we imagine them alive. We imagine 4,000 people hefting with the inhuman strength of desperation the concrete and steel, and then pouring out from under it into the wilderness that had claimed this space.

The guide tells us, no more lives will have to be lost. He stresses the word have. He tells us, this is why we have robots, and we do not think of the programs and bodies who replace the sarcophagus. We think of the creatures in our homes: the dogs that don’t shit on lawns, the Kitchenmate that never burns the toast, the Laundrybot that even when it malfunctions, at least perfumes the house with a scent of our choosing. We nod our heads and agree that the value of human life has been appropriately calculated. Thank goodness we’ve evolved, we say.

When we exit the vehicle near the fence, the guide tells us the elephant’s foot—the remains of the reactor—is radioactive for 20,000 years. While we stand, and sit, and crouch, we try to find the best way of looking through the rows of thick, wire fence. We try to see the beyond, what normal-looking trees and foliage are hiding. We ask, what is the half-life of a sign, because it reads, in a language we subvocalize to our comms, DANGER> BANNED> RADIATION, and like the sarcophagus, it will need to be replaced, again, and again, and again. He tells us, laughing, that signs don’t have half-lives. He tells us the half-life of the metals comprising the sign are much longer than the 19,000 years we still need to wait out. He says, this sign will be here long afterwards, and we nod our heads.


We want to see more. We do not like the term exclusion zone, because exclusion carries too many connotations.

We press against the fence. One of us wiggles a finger through, and the fence takes it: cauterizes to the bone with us staring at a blackened joint. The guide says, this is as close as we dare.

But he is wrong. Afterall, he is just a robot.

This is as close as we dare, he repeats when one of us pulls a rope and hook from her backpack, throws the rubber coated claw upward, and begins to scale the fence.

He says, I wouldn’t do that, and we scoff. We hit him in the head with the rods we have hidden in our bags and watch his metal crack and bend. We watch something like plasma leak from exposed wires.

We travel the length of the fence, hackerchips on our fingertips. We place them at intervals and the bravest of us drops to the other side, where she lands, on hands and knees, on grass that cushions her fall and we smile.

As close as we dare, we mock, pulling our own ropes and hooks.


We say, when we get sick—when our bodies weaken in the ways science cannot yet repair—they will confuse what we’ve done with stupidity.

But when we are uploaded into new bodies, we will be able to carry this memory. We will travel on new legs and spread an old gospel. We know some will call us crazy, a cult, relics, but as we’ve already decided: a relic can be a novelty, and a novelty can be marketed, and to be marketed means to be visible, which is what this place is not, forgotten as it is, a blip on a map, foliage too dense even for drones.

When we are on stage, we will invite them all to come as close as they dare, to see the revolution of remembering. We will let them finger our sockets and peel back our skin. We will let them plug into our memories of sickness and slow decay. Some will be angry that they have died once—with us—and must now die again. But some will come to understand—when they put their palms on our chests and feel the emptiness inside, waiting for the thump thump thump that never comes—that there is always suffering, because the past is not the past, but simply the slow heartbeat of the future.

Gwendolyn Paradice is hearing impaired, queer, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her writing has earned nominations for both the Pushcart and Best American Essays, and her nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Brevity, Fourth River, Booth, and others; her short story collection, More Enduring for Having Been Broken, was the 2019 Black Lawrence Press Husdon Prize winner, and is forthcoming January 2021. She retains a MA in Nonfiction from the University of North Texas, an MFA from Bennington College, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri, where she lives with her partner. When she’s not weightlifting, playing video games, or trying to read all the books she’s amassed, she writes speculative fiction, nontraditional nonfiction, and bends genre.


Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
translated by Ryan Choi

Swamp I

On a rainy afternoon, at an art exhibition at the Academy Hall, I discovered a miniature oil painting in the corner of one of the rear galleries. To say that I discovered it is not an understatement—the painting was shoddily framed and hung out of sight in the worst possible light as if meant to be forgotten or shunned. It was called “The Swamp,” and its style was as unfamiliar to me as the artist’s name. Perhaps because the work was minute in size and the subject matter superficially clichéd with its imagery of floods, thickening mud, wild foliage and the like, I saw no one stop in front of it, much less even begin to appreciate what a remarkable achievement that it was: the artist, for one, used no green on the plants; the common reeds, poplars, and figs were a viscous yellow that was textured like wet wall plaster. At first, I couldn’t decide if the painting represented the artist’s perception as it was, or if it was a kind of caricature of it. I admired his nuances of line and shade, and became convinced that the painting could only have been done by someone with a visionary eye: it had frightening power, but one that revealed itself only by degrees. I was entranced by the foreground mud, the intricate yellows of the plants, feeling myself inside the scene, ankle deep in smooth dense mud, the sounds of my treading feet. In this modestly sized oil, the unknown artist demonstrated a command of nature on par with the canonical greats. Of all the paintings on display that rainy afternoon, some by the most celebrated masters of our time, none approached the eminence of “The Swamp.”

“You’re his number one fan,” a voice announced with sarcastic intimacy, and a hand clapped on my shoulder, shaking me from the sanctum of my thoughts. I turned toward the man, and recognized him as the art critic for one of the papers. I had spoken with him on a few occasions and had never cared for him.

“What’s so special about it?” the critic said, pointing at the swamp with the tip of his manicured beard. He wore on his spry body a brown suit cut to figure in a style that was ubiquitous at the time, and he conducted himself snobbishly, with the calculated grace of a man who believes in his infallibility. I addressed him with extreme reluctance. 

“It’s a masterpiece,” I said.

“A masterpiece? It’s interesting, I’ll concede that.” 

He erupted in laughter. I could see his belly punching the inside of his shirt. Some people glared at us, thinking that we were a pair, which magnified my antipathy.

“It’s a fascinating story, since it’s the only painting in the exhibition that’s not by a member of the Academy. The artist used to come in all the time and pester the office about showing his work. No one took him seriously of course, and then one day he stopped coming and everyone forgot about him until his family began showing up in his place with his paintings in tow, making the same request. And their persistence paid off, the Academy finally relented and accepted this one, whatever their motives, as long as the family didn’t mind it hanging back here.” 

“Is the artist dead?”

“Dead when he was living.”

“What do you mean?” I said, more curious now than miffed.

“He went mad, haven’t you heard?”

“He was mad when he did this painting?”

“Obviously yes.” The volume of his voice had spiked. 

“No sound mind paints colors this detached from reality. But we disagree. You say this painting is a masterpiece. For me that’s perplexing.”

He chuckled pompously. He seemed to think that I was ashamed of not knowing the backstory of the work, and more so he tried to exploit my ignorance by imposing his viewpoint on me. But his words were ineffectual. I was arrested with wonder again by the swamp, and my vision of the artist as a petulant man, tormented by anxieties and an exquisite eye for the light.

The critic rested his case, sharpening his look of self-belief, “The man went mad by attrition, from his inability to get the images from his head onto the canvas. Say what you like, but this is the nature of the work that you prize.” 

His lame assessment was the artist’s only recompense from the establishment for a work that had cost his sanity. I peered further into the swamp, and had a feeling again of unsettling clarity, seeing there the turbid waters and skies, the common reeds, poplars, and figs textured like pulpy yellow mud, and as dynamic as nature itself. 

I looked at the critic and repeated myself. 

“It’s a masterpiece.”

April 1919

Swamp II

Walking on the bank of the swamp—

I don’t know if it’s night or day. I hear the wail of the blue herons, see the watery light of dusk leaking through the canopy, the shadows of the creeping vines, the swamp brimming with towers of reeds. No motion in the water or the floating duckweeds, no ripples from the fish.

I don’t know if it’s night or day. 

I have walked on this bank for days, my body drinking cold dawn light, the stench of bog and reed. The frogs in the branches of the vine-swathed trees croak in turn at the dim star glow.

Walking on the bank of the swamp—

The swamp brimming with towers of reeds. 

It is said that a world once existed in the reeds—even now, I believe, this world exists. I hear its strange and lovely vestiges, songs on the air from L’invitation au Voyage. Only where are the nectary scents of the Sumatran forget-me-nots in the bog and reed?

I don’t know if it’s night or day. In search of this world, I have walked for days among the vine-swathed trees in a state of waking dream. Flourishing around me, the towers of reeds, bound by boundless swamp, which I must enter to find the forget-me-nots.

Wading in, I come upon the gnarled torso of an ancient weeping willow looming above the reeds. From the tree, I can dive into the swamp, into that strange and lovely world of dreams. 

I climb the trunk of the tree, and at the top I throw myself headfirst into the swamp. On my descent, I hear the chanting reeds, the murmuring waters, and the frogs gasping as I break through the duckweeds and my body sinks like a stone to the swamp floor, the image of infinite little green flames flashing and flitting around me.

I don’t know if it’s night or day.

Velvet mud entombs my body, immaculately blue waters eddy around me. 

There is no strange and lovely world. By whom was I deceived? Was it myself or the swamp nymph singing L’invitation au Voyage?

A slender green shoot grows from the dead man’s lips, punctures the surface and continues skyward, blossoming into a glorious white waterlily above the reeds and reek of duckweed.

Perhaps this is the world that I was looking for—

The musing corpse, its eternal gaze at the pearlescent waterlily.

March 1920

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), born in Tokyo, Japan, was the author of more than 350 works of fiction and non-fiction. Japan’s premier literary award for emerging writers, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.

Ryan Choi lives in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, where he was born and raised. His work appears in New England Review, Harper’s, BOMB, New York Tyrant, The Yale Review, and elsewhere.


Elaine Hsieh Chou

The film was Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon. The women’s voices were panicked yelps and warbles. They sounded insistently out of breath, as though they were on the verge of orgasm. When people cried, tears bubbled from their eyes. The inside of a girl’s bedroom was beautiful—too beautiful. I watched a scene of a moving subway and sobbed. Whether the people in the film were Japanese or not, I couldn’t tell. Their eyes shrunk and expanded. Their noses disappeared and reappeared. Their skin was cream and green and gray and pink. Not yellow at all.

I was panting by the time the credits rolled. Now that I had seen a Japanese animated film, I was certain nothing would be the same.

Previously, I had only seen Italian films.

When I looked around the theater, I noticed that everyone present was a white man. This had always been the case when I watched Italian films. Ho hum, tweedle dum. Nothing to see here! But now they stared at me as I made my way to the exit. Their smiles slid horribly around their faces. They looked, how to put it, pleased. I lay my hand against my cheek. I thought my skin was sloughing off. I thought I was going to peel apart like an orange. I thought of shouting, YES? HELLO? HOW DO YOU DO?

Instead I went home, locked the door, unlocked it, locked it again. I went to the kitchen to eat a slice of bread, but when I took it out, I felt instantly unwell. It was too soft in my hand, like a poor animal, a half-alive creeping, crawling thing. I thought of pushing it against my face like an extra absorbent tissue. I threw it in the sink and turned away.

I went to the Internet. I asked it about animated Japanese films. I watched GIFS of ramen in golden broths. GIFS of clouds scudding across blue skies. GIFS of wetly glistening omelets. Steaming coffee disturbed with a silver teaspoon. A cat on a stone wall stretching its paws. It was soothing and erotic, serene and revoltingly wonderful.

What was this? I had never heard of it. Who did this? Why? How come no one had told me about it? I had lived my entire life in ignorance.

I went back to the kitchen and took out a bottle of milk. The bottle in the film had looked better; it had featured a picture of a gentle cow. The glass had been a translucent blue I had not encountered before. As I reached for a cup, I accidentally made eye contact with the bread in the sink; it looked hopefully at me. I put the bottle of milk back and began eating from a bag of potato chips. They tasted mundane. I wished they were edamame instead.

Everything on the Internet was kawaii. KA-WA-II! I sat on the floor and wrapped myself in a comforter I dragged from the bed. I rocked back and forth, but only a couple of times. The kawaii was killing me. It was a giant pastel marshmallow suffocating my eyeballs. It wasn’t unpleasant, is the thing. I understood that everything would be different from now on. I had done something irrevocable in a medical sense. I felt a sudden intense desire to go to Japan. I looked at plane tickets; bookmarked a website; set an alert.

The Internet showed me more animated bodies. Women with invisible noses and eyes that could swallow up a whole city. Sharply drawn boys with icicle hair, others softly sketched with tender cheeks. Cherub-looking adults. Bouncing, friendly breasts. Matte skin and shiny skin. Lamp-pole legs lacking knees. Flesh-toned lips that could pop open in a perfect O, slide shut in a straight line. Violet and honey and neon green pupils. I realized I possessed a limited vocabulary for beauty.

Previously, I had styled myself after the glamorous Monica Vitti and her caramel spun hair. I had taken two semesters of Italian. I wore winged eyeliner. I was planning to study abroad in Florence and look at marble statues in winged eyeliner. How I wanted to be Monica Vitti. The anguished longing I felt, because I could not. My hair didn’t have a natural curl. And then there was my face, just—all of my face. When I walked out of theaters screening Italian films, no one looked at me. No one said, oh yes, I see the likeness now. When I tried to speak Italian, people grimaced as though I had committed an unforgivable crime. I had written many an online journal entry about it.

But how now? There were forums and fan clubs dedicated to this anime stuff? Japan was cool? People liked it? You don’t say. I decided, somewhere around 2 AM, to become obsessed with my culture. I would have to refashion my identity and the objectives I aspired to.

The thing is, I had not known that I was inherently interesting.

I started with Hello Kitty. I was mostly attracted to the post-WWII stuff. Soon I moved onto themed bento boxes. Stickers. Harajuku fashion. Maid cafes. Cats wearing bonnets knitted from their own fur. Neat, tidy packaging. Documentaries about sushi. Jiggly cheesecake. Herbivore men. Gigantic, singing pudding. At that point, I felt I had probably finished plumbing the depths of my culture.

I finished all the potato chips and began licking tiny granules of salt inside the bag. I shuddered and yanked my eyes away from the computer screen. It became clear that everything in my apartment was ugly. Cups. Plants. Chair legs. Notebooks and pens. I didn’t want any of it anymore. I wanted a toilet that could talk to me. I wanted a sponge in the shape of a peach. I wanted  a pretty toothbrush and a prettier toothbrush holder. My lint-strewn carpet was a monstrosity. I would live for linoleum now. Was that what people walked on in Japanese kitchens? Why didn’t I own a cat? This seemed a great oversight on my part.

It was four-thirty in the morning. My eyes started to blur. The colors on the screen were mixing themselves of their own accord. I began to surreptitiously chew on the aluminum bag of potato chips. I was, I think the word is, spiraling. I could no longer grasp all the corners of myself. My hair, my eyes, my mouth, what were they? That? It? Over there? Something was tugging me apart. I was but a skein.

Maybe, I thought, if I just closed my eyes and squeezed hard enough, I would level up and enter another dimension. I could float in a bowl of udon with shrimp tempura and a soft-boiled egg. Walk in the rain without getting wet. Discover love in a matcha latte. Die inside a cottage in a meadow in a country where the sun never said goodnight.

I could see myself reflected in the glare of the computer screen. I did not look Japanese. I did not look like anything. Where was my sharply upturned nose? My watery, swimming, illuminated eyes? My endless limbs and celluloid hair? I opened my mouth to hear the breathy gasps of a Japanese woman speaking Japanese—nothing came out.

I felt myself quaking. My bones, the tissues and sinews that sutured me together were rearranging themselves. Their atoms yearned to become that light as air Technicolor thing that tripped across the screen. KA-WA-II!!! It wasn’t too late. I was going to connect with my culture. If other people could do it, I could do it, too.

Did I not have more of a right?

I  clenched  my fists,  smashed my eyes  shut and counted to  ten. Very carefully, I considered the body’s temporal trappings. When I opened my eyes, I saw someone through side of the screen. She was rocking back and forth in a comforter, a bag of chips dangling from her mouth, her face dumb and immobile. 

Goodbye, Annie! I called. My voice sounded like a child’s laugh. My laugh, like a fistful of wild flowers. I was standing on a paved road in a quaint town. There was a bakery and a cafe. A plump gray cat walked past me; I had a feeling he could talk. I lifted up my hand, pale as a slice of the moon, and admired it. The pixilation was minimal—I was impressed.

Goodbye! I called again. I couldn’t stay long. I had to go live in two-dimensions. I could move unnaturally through space and time. I was brighter and shinier, sharper and better defined.

When I walked out of movie theaters, people would say, oh yes, I see the likeness now.

Elaine Hsieh Chou was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow at New York University. She is an alumna of the Tin House Summer Workshop and co-curator of The Sweet & Sour Readings in Chinatown, Manhattan. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Black Warrior Review, Guernica and Tin House Online. You can find her at

Conditions for Growing

Beckie Dashiell

Inside the plant shop, Nora’s glasses fog. She takes them off to wipe on her shirt and holds them in her hand until they adjust to the warmth. Everything is green and brown and blurry. Up close, she sees a fern in a cool blue pot and wonders what it needs to survive. 

She is looking for a housewarming gift. Though it’s more than that, really. Her friend Sherry has moved into an apartment with her boyfriend. There is also the baby and a wedding soon. Sherry has had a year. 

Nora found an ad for a room in Sherry’s apartment when she first moved to the city six years ago. It is Nora’s apartment now. Sherry had had the bigger bedroom, had joked about how Nora would like to move herself in, paint, fix it up like a real person’s room. It is still empty. 

Sherry could never be counted on to unload the dish rack, but she always brought back expensive cheeses from the market which they ate with bread and olive oil on the living room floor. She never remembered to water any of the houseplants, but now with the baby, surely that would be different? 

She puts her glasses back on to read the handwritten card next to a plant with fleshy green leaves. The kalanchoe will bloom even in early January, when you least expect its flowers, set against the dark gray days. She thinks of Sherry waking in the night to tend to the baby, thankful for the delicate white flowers keeping her company.

But perhaps the kalanchoe is too much work. The trimming of dead flowers, cutting back of growth. Maybe this is the wrong kind of gift.

To encourage blooming, your kalanchoe must go through the darkness. Complete, 12-14 hours a day. May we suggest you use this opportunity to make space in your closet, to donate what you no longer use.   

She senses someone behind her. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” She turns around to find a man the same height as her, graying hair tucked behind his ears, a tattoo—spindly, like tentacles— peeking out of his collar. “Is there anything I can help you with today?” he asks. Likely within five years or so of her in age, he’s maintaining eye contact in a way she finds men don’t often, at least not with her. He looks as if he genuinely wants to help.

Normally, she would smile and decline help. But he hasn’t broken eye contact, his eyes are so kind. She finds herself explaining the new apartment, the baby, Sherry’s lack of attention to detail and routine. “It’s not that I don’t think she can handle it,” Nora says, “but what if she resents the extra work? What if she doesn’t appreciate it? What if she lets it die?”

The man nods patiently. “It can be a lot of work, can’t it?” he says. 

Nora nods and follows him to a hanging display of tillandsia, each in its own fragile-looking glass bulb. “I’m getting the sense this is more her style,” he says. “Low key.” She would love to see this man’s apartment. What kind of greenery he’d chosen to surround himself in. The care he takes with each plant. Their different needs. His closets. 

“What does it need?” Nora asks.

“Just a misting,” he says, “once every week or so.” He smiles. “Think she can handle it?”

Sherry and Nora used to talk about trips to Mexico, Portugal, China. Nora had thought they would navigate their late 30s together. Long vacations, sleeping in late, wine with lunch, walking back to their hotel arm in arm. The space to admit that despite all this, there was worry about finding a partner, if they’d ever be mothers. 

Nora cups one of the glass bulbs in her palm. She would like to smash it, but the man is so hopeful he’s figured it out. That by buying Sherry this particular plant, he can lighten whatever load weighs on Nora. That causes her to share too much too quickly with a man who is in fact only doing his job. And that if the air plant dies, there is still the beautiful glass to catch the light.

Nora says, yes, thank you, this is it. Is there anything else, he wants to know. She’d like to ask, did you write the description for the kalanchoe? Do you ever sit in darkness, listening to the noise from the street? Knowing everyone outside is living a life you never will?

“No,” Nora says. This is just what I was looking for.

Beckie Dashiell graduated from the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro and currently lives and works in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in the Forge Literary Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Short Édition.


Tyler Meese

Every Ikea is the same. Canton is the same as Bollingbrook is the same as Columbus. Even the space station’s Ikea has the big blue bags, the paper rulers, Småland for the kids.

We’re not a nation up here, but we remember holiday sales. It’s Labor Day. Bath mats and throw rugs are half off. Where would I put plastic spoons in my single room?

If Kay would have followed me, maybe we could have gotten a studio with a kitchen, a bathroom. Given the opportunity, what choice did I have? It’s getting harder to secure a spot, even a single room, on the space station. Shortages. Kay wanted to finish out her degree. I left.

I don’t go to Ikea for the holiday sales. I don’t go for the meatballs.

The showroom apartments are my favorite. I pick the perfect one. In an immaculate and useless shower, I twist the hot and cold knobs. The curtain is shut. There’s a tag on a towel that hangs from a hook. Vikfjärd.

I hear Kay lift the toilet’s seat, tinkle, rip tissue. She flushes but my pressure and temperature stay the same. This showroom bathroom has great pipes!

Back on Earth, more than a decade ago, over the Labor Day holiday weekend, Kay kissed me in a camper we rented. It sat on a little Michigan lake. We had no running water, no electricity. I still think about the cramped space.

What if I had moved to Ann Arbor, helped pay the rent for her one bedroom on Lawrence street? What if we had gotten a rat terrier? What if my uncle hadn’t known a guy who knew a woman who had access codes?

I tiptoe out of the shower and into the showroom’s living room. This is my living room, with the pink and perfect accent wall. I stand in front of it, my blue linen shirt complemented. My cut offs complemented. The books on my shelves are in Swedish. We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Couples. Euphoria. All in Swedish.

Kay slides down the black sofa, lets her long auburn hair trail like a streak that ends with her head, her body. Her cutoffs ride up. Her tank top bunches in her armpits.

I press buttons on a remote with no batteries for a cardboard TV. In my perfect showroom, everything happened different. This is my friheten. This is our gullklocka.

Kay unsticks herself from the couch, comes toward me. She adjusts the collar of my shirt but keeps her hand at my neck. She looks at the thick hairs coming out of my skin. She notices a mole she doesn’t know. When did you get that? I’ve always had this. She’s gummy with summer’s light, constant sweat. She pulls the seat of her cutoffs, dislodges a wedgie. Her body odor is starchy, like pasta cooking, and the tufts in her armpits trap it. I breathe more.

What if she would have accepted the invitation? What if we had two bedrooms but one bed?

We turn up the cardboard TV so we can hear it in our kitchen. It’s all straight white lines, in the wall’s tile, in the cabinet’s wood. We look like a cheap catalog in our cutoffs, sitting on our metal barstools. Råskog.

I let the water run while I peel spuds. Our potatoes will be cubed! The window is open and the air humid. Kay puts a thin pillow between her knees and the linoleum. She unbuttons my cutoffs and they fall to my feet. She drags down my boxer briefs. I laugh when she kisses my butt, but I stop when she uses her tongue. 

When I turn around she scurries into our guest room. I kick off my bottoms and Donald Duck after her. 

Kay pulls back the bedding and disappears into the ruffles of the king-size comforter. She’s been away, seeing family in South Bend. She’s been in another room, doing a crossword, getting every answer wrong. She’s been in the backyard, planting perennials, already eager for their reappearance. She’s been gone so long.

I stand in the doorway and look at the big, empty bed. At first glance, it just looks like a classic bed with a handcrafted feel in every detail. But beneath the surface, there’s a big secret: storage space. Perfect for storage that will last for years.

Tyler Meese’s fiction has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He is completing a collection of stories about the Midwest and outer space. He answers every email sent to

The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear

Kelly Link

A few years ago, I was on my way home to Massachusetts when bad weather stranded me in the Detroit airport for four days. I’d been at a conference in Iowa City—I travel rarely, but this was a point in my career when professional advancement required that I go. I was to receive a signal honor, one that conferred much benefit upon not only myself but also upon the university where I had tenure and no teaching responsibilities. My university had made it clear that it would be ungracious of me not to go. And so I went. I attended panels and listened to my colleagues discuss my research. Former students, now middle-aged and embarked upon their own careers, greeted me with more affection and warmth than I felt I merited; I bought them drinks in the bar, and listened to reports of their various successes. Some of them knew my wife. Others were Facebook friends, and remarked on recent photos of our daughter, Dido. How much she had grown. There was, of course, talk of politics and of the recent winter, how mild it had been. How wet this spring was turning out to be. I have never cared much for change, but of course change is inevitable. And not all change is catastrophic—or rather, even in the middle of catastrophic change, small good things may go on. Dido had recently learned to write her name. The children of my colleagues, too, were marvels, prodigies, creatures remarkable in their nature and abilities.

On the last day, I packed up my suitcase and drove my rental car back to the airport in Cedar Rapids. When I called my wife, she seemed distracted but then neither of us has ever been good at phone calls. And then, there was an appointment on my calendar that could not be postponed, and we were both thinking of it.

In Detroit, my connecting flight was delayed once and then again. Even someone who travels as infrequently as I do knows that travel in this age is an uncertain enterprise, full of delays and inconveniences, but eventually it became clear even to me that something out of the ordinary was happening here. There was a storm system in Atlanta so severe that flights operated by Delta had fallen off the grid all across the country. In consequence there would be no more planes going to Hartford tonight.

I called my wife so she would know not to stay up any longer. “How late is it there?” she said, “One hour back, isn’t it? No, you’re back in Eastern Standard now? So, not quite midnight. You go find a hotel quick before they all fill up. I’ll call Delta and get you on a flight tomorrow morning. You’ll be home in plenty of time. Dido wants you to pick her up after school tomorrow, but we’ll see.”

My wife is twelve years younger than I. This is her second marriage, my first. We look enough alike to be sisters, and she says sometimes, jokingly, that the first time she looked at me, she felt as if she were seeing her future. The longer we have been married, the more, I believe, we have come to resemble each other. We have a similar build; we sometimes wear each other’s clothing, and we go to the same hairdresser. Each of us has a birthmark on a thigh, though hers is larger, three fingers wide. Her breasts are larger and her nipples are the color of dried blood. After she had our daughter, her shoes no longer fit and so she donated them all to a women’s shelter. Now we wear the same size.

When we decided to start a family, there was no question that she would be the one to carry the pregnancy. Carry the pregnancy, she said. As if the doctors were talking about a bag of groceries. But she asked if I would supply the egg. And so I did and perhaps I should not have. I would have loved a child just as much, I think, if she had not been my child biologically. But then, Dido would not be Dido, would she? If she were less like me or even if she were more like me, would I love her more or would I love her less? Would my wife have fallen in love with me quite so quickly, if our resemblance to each other had not been so remarkable?

Dido is Dido and may she always be Dido in exactly the way she chooses to be. That is what I would choose for her. When Dido is older, will she look at me and see her future?

I do not like to think too much about the future. I don’t care for change.

· · ·

I was back at the airport at 7:00 AM for a 10:00 AM flight. In an excess of optimism, I went so far as to check my carry-on bag. And then, when that flight was canceled and then the flight after as well, I was told my carry-on was now in transit though I was not. It could not be retrieved. That night, I took a Lyft to Target and purchased a toothbrush, underwear, and a cheap bathing suit.

Just past the throat of the lobby of the airport Sheraton, where I was paying too much for the privilege of a cramped room with a too-large bed, there was an indoor courtyard with a concrete-rimmed swimming pool. There was a cabana bar, too, in the courtyard, shrouded in plastic sheets; unpersuasive palm trees in planters; deck chairs and little tables where no one ever sat.

The water in the pool was a cloudy jade. No one else ever went into the pool, and the cabana bar was never open. The lighting indicated a perpetual twilight. Except for that first night when every seat on the shuttle to the Sheraton was occupied by a stranded traveler, all of us attended at check-in by a single teenaged desk clerk, I never saw any other guests in the public areas of the hotel.

In every way I am a poor traveler. I do not like to be confined in small spaces; I am a picky eater and easily overstimulated; in adolescence I was diagnosed with hyperosmia. I do not sleep well when I am away from home, but I have discovered that if I swim to the point of exhaustion, some amount of sleep is possible. The acridity of chlorine masks almost all other smells.

I wish I could make you see what the courtyard in that Sheraton was like. It had something of the feel of a subterranean grotto, or maybe a Roman amphitheater. As a child, I’d pored over a book called Motel of the Mysteries, in which archaeologists in the year 4022 discover a motel and attempt to deduce how the artifacts they dig up were used and by whom; when I floated on my back in the courtyard pool, one hundred feet above me a popcorn ceiling in place of sky, I was as liberated in time and place and purpose as I had ever been. On one side of me was my professional obligation, now fulfilled. On the other was my home and my family and an appointment that I knew I could not delay, and yet here I was. Four nights I stayed in that hotel. I swam in the pool and tried to keep my head free of useless worries. In all the years that I have lived with this condition of mine, I have learned it is wise to mitigate stress. Stress is a trigger.

Four floors of breezeways rose up on all sides of the courtyard. No one came in or out of the hotel rooms that looked down on the pool, and neither did I ever hear anyone in the rooms on either side of the one where I slept. I swam silently so that I would not break the vast still spell of the place, staying in the pool for so long that when I went to sleep, my skin and hair gave off such a satisfactory stink of chlorine that the other smells in the room were little more than ghosts—the burnt-toast smell of the laundered sheets, lingering traces of perfumes and deodorants, stale remnants of repulsive foodstuffs, musk of sex and sweat, mildew-laced recycled air.

Each night I swam, and each day for four days I went to the airport, which was in every way the opposite of my tranquil courtyard. I woke up at 6:30 each morning and rode the shuttle as if I were going to my workplace. I waited in lines and passed through security and went to my assigned gate to see if my flight this time would depart. As the day wore on, and each successive possible flight was delayed and then canceled, I moved from one gate to the next, where, it was hoped, a plane might at last take off. I was one of several thousand people, all of whom were out of place, paused in transit. And here, this was the swimming pool, too, after all, it began to seem to me. A kind of suspended and purposeless motion.

The reason for the canceled flights might have been a storm system, but in Detroit the weather was mild and cloudy, like the water in the swimming pool. The bad storms had only truly affected Atlanta, but Atlanta was Delta’s central hub and for many days, Delta planes continued not to be where they should have been and where there were planes, there were not enough flight crews.

I sat near outlets when I could, and charged my phone and texted friends, called home each time I was bumped to a new flight, and debated renting a car. If Dido was home, sometimes she would speak to me. She could not understand why I would not come home. My wife said that in my absence Dido was having nightmares again. Nightmares about what? “Toilets,” my wife said. “An overflowing toilet. Yeah, it sounds comical but she wakes up screaming. And she wet her pants today because she didn’t want to use the toilet at school.”

I said, “I could rent a car. If I drove, I would be home in about twelve hours.”

“No,” my wife said. “That’s ridiculous. You hate driving. You’re a terrible driver.”

Which was true. And every time a flight was canceled, there was a new gate where I could go and wait, suspended in the cloudy green day. I read the new Kate Atkinson. I drank iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. Passengers swapped gossip and stories. There was a family, I was told two or three times, who had flown over from London to take their three young daughters to Disney World. Now they had been stuck in Detroit for three days. They had not gotten to Orlando, and now they could not get home, either. Eventually, I, too, began telling this story, though I was not sure that I believed it.

Every now and then, a ragged cheer would go up at a gate. By this, we would know that a flight crew had arrived, and these passengers were escaping Detroit Metropolitan Airport. By the third day, I no longer waited only for flights that might take me to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. I allowed myself to be booked for flights that might go to Logan or LaGuardia or even Philadelphia. But these, too, were delayed and then canceled. Each night I left the terminal between 10:00 pm and midnight and rode the shuttle back to the Sheraton. In my room, I washed a pair of underwear and socks with shampoo, rolled them in a dry towel, and put on my bathing suit. I swam until I felt as if I had washed time off of my skin again, and then left wet footprints across the courtyard that would be gone by the time I was asleep. In the morning, I woke up and traveled back to the airport. My wife was growing tired of her role as a single parent, but  in the end we agreed there was no need yet for me to rent a car. My wife felt sure that I would be home soon. I told her the story of the English family. Still, she felt I would be home soon. I would be home soon and the appointment on my calendar could be safely marked off once again. Life would go serenely on.

In the middle of the night I woke from a terrible dream. Dreams, too, are markers of my condition, or so I have come to believe. It is possible that Dido has inherited my condition just as I inherited my mother’s face, although it is possible her bad dreams are just bad dreams.

In my dream there was a pool in a courtyard, only it was full of moonlight instead of water, so bright I could not bear to look directly at it. But oh, there was a smell that was so delicious and enticing that I went into the pool, my eyes open so I could see what smelled so very good. The moonlight buoyed me up just as water would do, and I immersed myself in that wonderful smell, and my eyes watered and my mouth was so full of saliva that I had to swallow over and over again. I rubbed my eyes and then I saw that standing all around the pool were all of the people I have ever hurt or injured without meaning to. Some of them I didn’t even know or maybe I didn’t remember them, but I knew the reason they were standing there. There, too, were all the people that I would inevitably go on hurting even though I do not wish to—there was my mother, and my wife. There was Dido. Their eyes were so full of pain—I realized that they felt pain for me, because I was in the pool and I could not get out. I was in the pool because of my condition, and because they cared for me, they could not leave me here alone. I was hurting them in this way too, and when I realized this I was so full of anger that I burst into a thousand pieces and bits of my skin flew everywhere and that was how I woke up, soaked in sweat as if I had been running.

I got out of my bed and put on my wet bathing suit and went to the courtyard pool. I wanted to make sure that everything was the way that it should be. I needed to see that my dream was only a dream and not something true. And, too, I could still smell that delicious smell. I needed to know if it was something real.

It was the middle of the night, but in the courtyard where nothing ever changed, it was only twilight. The delicious smell dissipated. I swam lap after lap and no one came to tell me that I should get out even though the hours were clearly marked on a sign tacked to the side of the cabana. No one came and so I swam until my head was clear again and my dream was gone.

· · ·

All of my life, I have been a person in whom strangers have confided. There is something in my face that says, “I am interested in you” to some, and “I will keep your secret” to others. I have my mother’s face, and it is true that my mother was sincerely interested in everyone she met, and that she was a faithful keeper of other people’s secrets. I am not my mother. Sometimes, I think, I am not even myself. But whether a trick of physiognomy, or a habit of expression learned as her child in the way that all children mimic the behaviors and mannerisms of their parents, just as Dido sits at my wife’s desk and makes a face at my wife’s laptop and polishes the glasses that she does not wear, my face has said, all of my life, “I will listen to your story.”

Pity the introvert with the face of a therapist or a classroom aide in a kindergarten room. Like the werewolf, we are uneasy in human spaces and human company, though we wear a human skin. The airport itself was bad enough, but even worse was the shuttle I rode back and forth between the airport and the Sheraton. The driver was a woman in her seventies, an ex-servicewoman, the mother of three grown children. One was an addict, and one had had a breast cancer scare. The other was estranged from her mother, though she lived only twenty miles away. The shuttle driver prayed every night to be reconciled with this daughter—who, it was determined, was my age almost to the month. With each ride, her presumption of our acquaintance grew deeper and by the third morning, she embraced me when we arrived at the airport in case she did not see me again. But although her daughter would not return to her, I did. I had no choice.

Pity the werewolf. Wash off a stranger’s sadness in a green pool. What should a stranger’s story mean? Wash it away. Fall asleep in the clean reek of chlorine and inhabit the fragmentary and uneasy dreams of departed guests whose strands of hair, dander, lardy fingerprints, odd bits of trash, and inconclusive stains inhabit these transitory and poorly lit spaces. If you listen, a hotel room speaks too. It says: I will keep your secret.

· · ·

I tallied my receipts on the fourth day. I checked in with my research assistant, who keeps the lab running on days when I’m looking after Dido, or when I have a flare-up and am confined to my home office. My university had covered my flight, the conference, and my hotel in Iowa City, but now there was the cost of airport food: coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, breakfast sandwiches, packets of unshelled pistachios and Snickers bars, bananas and burgers and power bars. There was my trip to Target; the room at the Sheraton at $119.00 plus taxes every night, checked out of so hopefully each morning; the five dollars I left on the bureau as tip; and the two dollars I gave each time to the shuttle driver. There was the cost of the babysitter my wife was paying to look after Dido while she was at work. My work schedule is flexible, coordinated with my wife’s so that one of us can be at home most days with Dido when her school lets out, but still there was a great deal of business, now, to take care of at the lab once I was home and could go in. That would be more money for the babysitter.

My wife and I had decided that if there were no flights to Hartford or Boston or New York today, then tomorrow I would have to rent a car. This would give me two days to get home before my appointment. Even I could manage six hours in a car one day, and six hours again the next. I could even, my wife suggested, look around at my fellow would-be passengers. Maybe one of them might be willing to share the cost of a car. “Maybe,” I said. “You think the English family has made it home yet?” she said. “Maybe,” I said. “Next month we’ll go camping,” she said. “I ran into Molly at the co-op and she was telling me about this place in New Hampshire. Right on a lake. A little playground for kids, and lots of trails. She’s going to send me a link to the campsite. That sounds amazing, right?” “Maybe,” I said. It was a little hard to think past the next few days, getting home, and my appointment, and then catching up with work. I had my phone plugged into an outlet, and right then I was scheduled to leave on a 2:15 flight, and we talked until my flight was canceled and I had to hang up and unplug my phone and again go to book a new flight. Dido was asking about a dog again, because she’d snuck down the basement stairs to hunt for treasure. We have the usual sort of New England basement, which is to say that it is damp and cold, with a floor of tamped-down dirt. I have never liked spending time down there, but Dido is fascinated by it. The previous owner died in her nineties, and her children didn’t bother clearing out the basement before they sold the house to us. There are old chests of drawers, some of them hiding photo albums or Depression-glass saucers, celluloid hairbrushes decaying around the horsehair bristles, the tangles of human hair coiled around the animal hair. There is the rocking chair, the hat rack and the hatboxes full of mouse droppings and shreds of silk, the washing board and the bundles of faded letters and the dog crate that is big enough Dido can stretch out inside it on her back and look at the gouges on the interior ceiling. Dido wants a dog so badly that my wife said she could almost taste it. Could almost hear clicks on the wood floor upstairs while she was downstairs, as if Dido were conjuring a pet into existence by force of her extraordinary will. And Dido was still having nightmares. She was making my wife go with her into the bathroom each time to hold her hand while she peed. My wife had tried to get Dido to explain what was so terrifying about a clogged toilet, but Dido could not articulate this to her. She could only dream it over and over again.

In the same way, my last day in Detroit followed the established pattern. I moved from gate to gate until there was only one flight left to wait for. This last possible flight into Hartford was scheduled for 10:30 PM, and then its departure was postponed and postponed again until eventually it was almost midnight and the agent at the gate got on the speaker to tell us that it was looking likely to be canceled. The airport was shutting down for the night.

On my phone was a series of texts from Dido. Dido loves texting, because she knows that it is something that adults do. Earlier in the evening she had somehow gotten the phone from my wife and used it to text me her name, over and over. Dido. Dido dido dido dido dido. And so on. There was a long string of emojis too, mostly made up of toilets, ominously, and then strings of words made up from predictive text. Then more toilets. By the time Dido is a proficient speller, perhaps it will no longer be necessary to spell at all.

I began to text my wife as people around me disconsolately collected their belongings. But the agent at our gate came over the speaker again to tell us new information had been supplied to her. It now seemed possible that a flight crew from Cleveland would be arriving in twenty minutes and might yet be assigned to our flight. So we were to wait.

We waited without much hope. We had all heard similar announcements over the past few days. But in the end, there was the crew, and here was the plane, and we all got on and the plane took off. It was a full flight, of course, and I had a middle seat. There was a woman a decade or two younger than me in the window seat, whose clothing was more youthful still. Dickies jeans, plum-colored hair, shitkicker boots, and a cropped T-shirt with DTF in a Gothic font. In the aisle seat was a woman just a little older, heavyset and tired looking, wearing the kind of clothing and minimal makeup that signals camouflage worn by lesbians in administrative offices. And when they looked at me, I knew what the two women saw. I was wearing the same slouchy black cardigan over the same black jersey dress I had worn for the past four days. It was my wife’s cardigan, and days ago it had smelled like her, but it no longer did. I had on a wedding ring and a smoky eye, thanks to the MAC boutique in the Detroit airport, where a bored aesthetician told me about the Roller Derby match that her girlfriend had dragged her to the previous weekend and how she’d realized, watching the very first jam, that her girlfriend was cheating on her with the worst skater in the league. The smoky eye did not suit me. I’d been wondering, though, if it would stay on in a swimming pool. I’d been thinking all day about the swimming pool. Even here, on the plane and on my way home, I held that swimming pool, that cool and empty space, inside my skull as if by holding it there I might contain everything else that must be contained. I do not do well in small spaces. I do not feel safe when I am far from home. I am not safe when I am far from home.

I texted my wife again. On a plane! Getting in around 3, so don’t wait up. I’ll take a Lyft. Love you. Then I turned off my phone. You could feel every passenger on the plane holding their breath as we waited to see if we would, in fact, take off. And then the exhalation when we did. I clasped my hands tightly in my lap as the plane taxied and then rose up, the ground visible only as stacks and necklaces of lights that shrank to sequins, then bright pinpricks, shrank until everything was a velvety black.

There was no reason for it, but I thought of the shuttle driver’s daughter. Though the daughter was my age, a middle-aged woman estranged from a woman who was near my mother’s own age, her face was the face of my Dido.

“Well,” the woman in the window seat said. “I guess we’re going to get home after all.”

On my iPad I had the first three episodes of a television show that my wife did not care to watch. But the woman in the window seat waited as I took out my headphones and just when I was putting them on she said, “I don’t know you, do I?”

I lifted my headphones. I said, “I don’t think so. No.”

“No, I do,” she said. “Don’t I? Martine?”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m Abby.”

“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Did you ever live up in Vermont? Burlington?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve been there a couple of times, though. It’s pretty.”

“Yeah,” she said. “It is. I lived there for a while. Oh, God. A while ago now. I moved up there because my girlfriend was opening a gallery, and I’d just gotten my degree. But then she dumped me a month later, and I should have just left but I didn’t. It just seemed so embarrassing, packing up after just a month. So I slept on her couch for a couple of weeks until I found another place to live. And then I stayed there for eight years! Until another breakup, like one of those burn everything down to the ground breakups. But fuck, it’s pretty up there. Just, you know, the dating scene is a little incestuous.”

“Small towns,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” the woman in the window seat said. “I was trying to explain it to a friend in New York once. I ended up drawing her a diagram with everybody’s name on it, and then these different colored lines. You know, who’s dating, who used to date but now they’re just friends, who broke up with who and now they won’t talk to each other, who’s in a poly relationship, who hooked up but thinks that no one knows, and then all the asterisks.”

I said, “Being married makes everything a lot less complicated. Sometimes.”

The woman in the aisle seat, on the other side of me, shifted. Her thigh rubbed against mine. She was pretending to read the in-flight magazine but I could tell she was listening.

“For Christmas, my friend took the diagram I’d drawn her and embroidered it all. Got it framed. I was like, what am I supposed to do with it? Hang it on a wall? But it was pretty. She used different stitches for the different kinds of relationship lines. What do they call that? A sampler, right? Anyway Martine was part of that whole scene. You look so much like her. I wish I had a picture. She and Leila. They were married when I met them, but then it turned out that Leila had this whole other life. She’d had a girlfriend in Quebec the whole time she and Martine were together, which you would think would not be easy to pull off, but Leila was a sales rep for a company in Quebec, this printing company, and so she was up there for a couple of days out of every month. Sometimes a lot more. But then Martine found out and threw Leila out and Leila moved up to Quebec, although she kept coming back to Burlington and telling Martine that she really thought they could work it out if Martine could just figure out how to get past it. She wanted to try therapy, and when Martine wouldn’t go for it, Leila used her keys to let herself in while Martine was at work. She texted Martine and said not to worry, she was just there to pick up a pair of jeans she’d left behind, but when Martine got home, it turned out that Leila had actually been there to pick up her favorite strap on. Like, seriously? They don’t have sex shops in Quebec? After that, Martine went through this whole phase. She was wild. She fucked any girl who looked at her twice. She would have fucked a cat if the cat had seemed into it. And she tried everything else too. People do that sometimes, you know? When they’re going through something? Like my best friend growing up. She used to say she was putting the ‘ho’ in Hoboken. But you know, it turned out she was having all these other problems at home. It was how she felt in control.”

“Did you?” I said. “Sleep with her? Martine?”

“No,” the woman in the window seat said. “I mean, I hooked up once with Martine at a party. But we were both pretty out of it. There was some good shit at that party. This one girl, Viddy, she got this idea that she could juggle anything. She took a bunch of knives out of a kitchen drawer and threw them up in the air. Cut her hands all to pieces, and then everybody was just dealing with that. It was bad. I was an ambulance driver for a while, so I was doing first aid, and I had Viddy’s blood all over me, and I really wanted to get cleaned up and this girl, Martine, it was like she didn’t even notice the blood. But it kind of ruined the mood for me, and Martine went home with somebody else. There was something she was looking for, and I guess she just had to keep looking for it until she found it. I don’t know what happened to her, but I hope she found it.”

“Maybe she did,” I said. And I did hope she had.

“Who knows?” the woman in the window seat said. “Maybe.”

The flight attendant came down the aisle with drinks. I will be honest. I badly wanted a real drink. But I had a Coke instead. The woman in the window seat had a gin and tonic and the woman in the aisle seat asked for a tomato juice. She said, “I used to know a girl like that. In New York. A long time ago.”

We both looked at her, me and the woman in the window seat.

“She worked in advertising,” the woman in the aisle seat said. She drank her tomato juice and then wiped the red off her lips with the back of her hand even though there was a cocktail napkin right there on her tray. “She’d come to poker nights with a friend of mine. Tuesday nights. Penny something. My friend said Penny had the nicest apartment you’d ever seen. This enormous prewar apartment up near Columbia that no one could have afforded, but Penny was subletting it for hardly anything at all because it was haunted. No one else could live there. Apparently you couldn’t even spend the night without seeing things or hearing things, really awful things, but Penny slept there like a baby.”

“Some people just don’t see ghosts,” the woman in the window seat said. “They’re not sensitive or whatever.”

“No,” the woman in the aisle seat said. “Penny could see the ghosts just fine. She could see them, she could hear them, for all I know she played poker with them on every night of the week except Tuesdays. She just didn’t care. She wasn’t afraid of them. She wasn’t afraid of anything.”

“I’m not really afraid of ghosts either,” the woman in the window seat said. “All that kind of stuff is kind of stupid. No offense if that’s not what you think.”

The woman in the aisle seat said, “No, you don’t understand. I mean this Penny literally wasn’t afraid of anything. She wasn’t afraid of snakes or the dark or thunderstorms or serial killers or being mugged or dogs or heights. She told my friend that she didn’t really understand what fear even was. Her mother used to hide behind doors and then jump out at her, to try to scare her when she was a kid. Took her on roller coasters and to therapists. She was mugged at gunpoint twice in one week in New York and my friend said she just laughed about it. But she was curious about what it was like, to be afraid. So she and my friend would go to horror movies and afterward she would ask my friend why they were scary. What it felt like.”

“That would be nice,” the woman in the window seat said. “Not to be afraid of anything. I’m not afraid of ghosts, but I’m afraid of everything else. I don’t even know what that would be like, not to be afraid of everything.” She turned to me. “I mean, you’re afraid of something, right?”

“Flying,” I said. “Myself.”

“Right?” the woman in the window seat said. “Right! I mean, imagine not being afraid of anything.”

“Straight and curly hair,” the other woman said. “People with straight hair wish they had curly hair and people with curly hair wish they had straight hair. You wish you weren’t afraid of anything, and my friend said Penny wished she could be afraid of anything, even though she had this gorgeous apartment because she wasn’t. She had a lot of girlfriends, but the relationships never lasted very long because none of the girlfriends would sleep over at her place. The ghost or whatever was there frightened them away the first time they slept in her bed. Nothing Penny could do could make them stay, and Penny didn’t want to give up her apartment. But eventually she fell in love with this girl Min Jie, and she gave up the apartment for her and they moved in together and got married. My friend went to the wedding. Min Jie was a cheesemonger. She knew everything about cheese. Did you know that for a while you could buy a cheese made from women’s breast milk? Min Jie said it was a soft cheese. A little like a goat cheese. She worked in this shop in Midtown that had every kind of cheese, imported chocolate, pâtés, tongue, marrons glacé. Lobsters, Golden Osetra caviar, tupelo and lavender honey, Sacher tortes, so the spread at the wedding was amazing, my friend said. The wine was some of the best wine she’d ever tasted, and there was plenty of it. Fountains of it. Tables of smoked fish and shrimp and mussels in carved ice bowls. Penny got up and toasted her bride and said that perhaps she would never know fear, but now she knew love.”

“Very romantic,” the woman in the window seat said. “Nobody’s ever said anything like that to me.”

The woman in the aisle seat said, “That night they went home and they made love and afterwards Penny lay in their bed in their new bedroom, which was so much smaller and dingier than the bedroom in her old apartment had been, and she was happy. And Min Jie came out of the bathroom with a bucket of live eels she’d procured at work, and she dumped the eels over the bed and all over Penny. And my friend said Penny sat straight up in the bed and started screaming because she finally understood what fear was.”

“Seriously?” the woman in the window seat said.

“That’s what my friend said,” the other woman said.

“That’s fucked up,” the woman in the window seat said.

I said, “Excuse me” to the woman in the aisle. In the last few minutes I’d become aware that I was getting my period, days before I should have had it. Everything was wrong, everything was happening that shouldn’t have been happening. But I was almost home. Surely we would be home soon.

I went in darkness down the aisle of the plane, passing women sleeping, women playing games on their phones or their iPads, women talking. That delicious smell from my dream was in my nostrils. Blood that shouldn’t have been there was between my thighs. But we have no control over our own bodies. The things we feel. The things that happen to us, over and over again. The things we crave.

At the back of the cabin, there was an Out of Order sign on one toilet. The other was occupied. So I waited as patiently as I could. I tried to picture Dido, who would be asleep in her bed. Or perhaps she had had another nightmare and Martine was letting her sleep in our bed.

What my wife shared with former lovers does not diminish what we have together. It isn’t as if, before, she killed a lot of people. She just fucked them. And perhaps we would not be together now, if Martine had not been who she was then. She was one person then, and is another person now. I never met that other person. That other Martine. And yet sometimes when I think of those years when I did not know her, I am filled with such a frenzy of jealousy that I imagine, as if compelled, finding those lovers in whatever homes or lives they occupy now. I imagine tearing at them with my nails, rending their flesh with my teeth. Making blood run in thick streams, enough to fill ten thousand swimming pools. So much blood it obliterates everything that came before she and I—

I pictured my swimming pool, cool and green and empty. Why would anyone be afraid of eels? Why be afraid of a creature, harmless, caught in a bucket? They only want to get out. In a plane, too, you are suspended. You cannot do anything. You cannot get out. You cannot always be the person you thought you were, no matter how badly you want to be her. Change is inevitable.

The toilet door opened and a woman came out. She said, “The toilet’s clogged. I wouldn’t go in there.”

In the galley just behind us, one of the flight attendants turned and said, “Oh, that’s not good. That’s not good at all.”

“Excuse me,” the woman who had come out of the toilet said. I let her go past.

I began to go into the toilet and the flight attendant put her hand on my arm. She said, “No. I’m sorry. You can’t go in there. We’ll be landing soon. Can’t you wait?”

The floor of the toilet was wet. The stench was intolerable. Swollen plugs of wet toilet paper sloshing in the metal basin. Writhing. I turned and looked at the flight attendant, and she recoiled. She took her hand off my arm and stepped back. She said something in such a small voice that I could hardly hear her over the sound of blood in my ears. Mice have louder voices. She said, again, “Are you okay?”

I could not answer her. I could not speak at all. What she saw in my face was not the thing that is usually there. It was the other thing, the thing that lives inside my skin. I turned and went back up the aisle to my middle seat. The moon in the window in every row went with me like a cold white lozenge that I could have slipped under my tongue.

It went with me like a thing on a leash, all the way back to my seat.

They would be announcing our arrival soon. I might get a little blood on the seat, but what’s a little blood? Women bleed. Everyone bleeds.

The women on either side of me had been talking to each other. The woman in the window seat had a car in long-term parking, and she was asking the other, who didn’t have a car, if she would like a ride into Northampton. She said to me, “Do you have a car, Abby, or is someone picking you up? Do you need a ride? Where do you live?”

I had a feeling as if I could have run the whole way home, all thirty miles or so. But I wanted to be home with my wife and my child. My appointment was waiting for me, though I thought perhaps I might be a little early for it this time.

“Sure,” I said. “I would really appreciate that.”

Kelly Link is the author of the collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get in Trouble. She is the co-founder of Small Beer Press and co-edits the occasional zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Link was born in Miami, Florida. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts.


Mary Kate McGrath

Allison sat cross-legged on the bed. She put her body in this position, using her hands to tuck both feet underneath. Soon, the man she wanted to sleep with would return from the bathroom and unfold her limbs. He would find all the hidden parts. Atrophied legs marbled blue with veins, the tightening knots of muscle between her shoulder blades. The scar on her back.

“It looks like a zipper,” she said, before anyone new saw it. “Or train tracks.”

That morning, she looked in the mirror and ran her fingers over her calves. The injury made her body feel like a glacier. She couldn’t see daily changes but felt constant seismic activity underneath her skin. Patches of sensation prickled like television static, or her feet would spasm as if possessed.


Two years ago, Allison leaned against a window at a college party. Guests came straight from commencement, gowns and mortarboards tucked under their arms. A group of fraternity brothers shuffled past and she steadied herself against the screen, which popped out of its hinges. Her friend grabbed her shoulder – the surgeon later told Allison the shift in position saved her life – but couldn’t get a strong enough grip to prevent the fall. Allison landed in the yard one flight down and suspected she could no longer walk even as the EMTs lifted her onto an ambulance stretcher.


After the ICU, Allison was transferred to a rehabilitation facility. Patients were expected to attend a community support group, and one week, the theme was sexual health. Edna, the resident nurse, promised the meeting would be mortifying but informative.

“You don’t have to go,” Allison’s mother said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “There’s no pressure.”

Allison’s family treated her like an emotional pipe bomb after the accident, bracing for a meltdown that never came. She went to the meeting if only to get away from her parents’ nervous company.  

Patients wheeled into a conference room and sat in a semi-circle. Allison scratched her back brace. The velcro was on the inside, turning the contraption into an itchy plastic clam.

“The number one question we get,” Edna said, fumbling with a VHS player. “Is about intercourse.”

The television clicked to life and the words “Sex and Spinal Cord Injury” faded on screen. A woman in a baggy suit with shoulder pads stood at a desk, clutching a plastic erection. She looked eerily like a gym teacher Allison remembered from high school. Even so, the gym teacher gave the dildo an aggressive stroke, and Allison blushed. She rested a hand on her hot cheek and felt relieved. Since checking in, she developed a fear that her remaining body functions would disappear as well, including blood flushing her face.

That night, Allison caught herself thinking about the forearms of the overnight nurse who checked her blood pressure and changed the catheter. Being human was so irreversible, she realized, no matter how dumb the condition could be. The thought was clear in her mind, the first in a long time.


Once, several months after being discharged from the hospital, Allison was waiting in line at a coffee shop when a stranger tapped her shoulder. She was used to unsolicited attention and waited for him to offer a healing tea or a patronizing pep talk.

“Excuse me,” he said, gesturing to his crotch. “Can you, you know…”

Allison blinked. He was asking about sex, right there, in front of the chocolate croissants. So casual, he could’ve been asking for directions. 

 “I have to ask the big question,” a different man asked, this time in a bar. “I think you know what I mean.”

Her body emboldened curiosity, and men were especially shameless. Or maybe not shameless enough, since even the most inappropriate strangers used innuendo. She almost wished the questions were more explicit.

Nobody asked, “Can you orgasm?” or “In what position do you fuck?” Men wanted this information, didn’t they? Maybe the question was more existential. People thought desire disappeared after the accident, as if a feeling didn’t exist if it couldn’t reach below her waist.


Allison had sex for the first time with a boy in her freshman biology seminar. During the lab, she caught him glancing at her over the rim of a microscope. She spent months wondering how his wheat-colored hair would feel in her fist instead of modeling osmosis, or whatever the professor put on the syllabus that week. He kissed her in the supply closet, next to the methylene kits, three days before the final. She touched his curls and thought, getting an answer was the best part.


After the accident, consciousness and body became two separate things. Sex seemed impossible for months until a therapist pointed out that being one and whole were not the same thing, and besides, everybody puts themselves in pieces.

When he introduced himself at the bar, there was no discomfort in his expression. He asked lame questions, like, was she a dog person, or did she enjoy her job. She asked him the same.

“I work in finance,” he said, and Allison looked disgusted, so he immediately course-corrected. “I’m joking. I’m a history teacher.”

She laughed. Strangers were often uncomfortable around her. Their eyes wouldn’t land straight, they spoke to the space above her left shoulder and made panicked comments about her upper-body strength. This behavior was easy to identify, but when someone wasn’t passing judgement, the ease was more difficult to describe. 

She invited him back to her apartment, and he said yes, and they went, as people do. After arriving, the history teacher went to the bathroom, and she arranged herself on the bed. There was a flush and a tap on the bedroom door. He leaned on the edge of the mattress, resting his hand on her thigh. Allison took a deep breath and yanked her t-shirt out of the top of her jeans. 

Mary Kate McGrath is a writer and journalist living in Boston. She is a graduate of Emerson College where she studied nonfiction writing, literature, and music history.

Abyssal Gigantism

Bridget Chiao Clerkin

The Sunlight Zone

The expedition to find the sea monks was funded by a benefactress whose husband and two adult sons had been lost at sea. She said “lost” but people tended to say “dead” when she wasn’t in the room.

She herself knew better: her husband and sons had been taken in by the sea monks. She gave staggering amounts of money to clean-ocean initiatives. The planet was changing, and the woman was plagued by nightmares of her loved ones watching in impotent horror as die-offs percussed the oceans and reefs bleached and jellyfish bloomed. Part of her felt that if they had chosen not to return, she shouldn’t disturb them—she pictured her loved ones’ human hands clasping the sea monks’ fins as they joined together in a Paternoster, man and fish side by side, tending seabed gardens, illuminating waterproof manuscripts, brewing wonderful underwater ales—but she wanted to know. Having heard about a new technology that allowed craft to stay underwater for theoretically any amount of time, she consulted the local monsignor, who, as the woman spoke, strenuously kept his focus on how generous the woman had been in the past and off the cartoon reel in his mind of miniature friars bobbing around like bath toys, riding little sea horses through kelp forests. With the monsignor’s blessing, she decided to fund the sea monk expedition.

Ruby was on the expedition because she was the receptionist at St. Egbert’s in the parish adjacent to the benefactress’s country house. Those organizing the expedition hadn’t been able to find anyone from the benefactress’s own parish willing to go. They hadn’t found anyone in Ruby’s parish of employment either, but then somebody had said, “Why don’t we ask Ruby?” Ruby had never been on anything even approximating an expedition, and she was acutely aware that her presence was a clear indication of the organizers’ minimal expectations. Ruby had just ended a relationship and thought maybe going on the trip would help the transition. Help as in, Hey, Lloyd, what have you been up to since we broke up? Oh? That’s cool. I’m going in a submarine. I’m going to touch the edge of the unknown.

Sea monks had failed to assert themselves into the popular imagination the way mermaids had. They lacked a certain appeal. The few pictorial depictions stuck a tonsured human head on a fish body, scaly fins and tail forming the monk’s robe. These were all in dated natural history volumes that took Herodotus at face value and featured unicorns, cynocephali, and Blemmyes. Following the Reformation, sightings had petered off from rare to virtually nonexistent. Ruby doubted she’d ever known anyone who had even heard of sea monks, not even the boy she had gone out with in high school who had shamelessly noted on his college applications that his intended career path was in cryptozoology.

The high school boyfriend was now a realtor. Ruby had looked him up online when she and Lloyd were breaking up. She’d looked up a few other exes, too, men who had secured gainful employment only after they’d broken up with her, as if she were a job-securing talisman they’d needed to rub a few times.

When Trevor had explained that their benefactress believed the sea monks had taken her sons and husband in, Ruby had replied, “That’s so sad,” meaning pathetic, but in a sad way. If Lloyd had been swept out to sea, she too could be sad, sad but grateful for the time they’d spent together. This seemed preferable to resenting how she’d wasted her time as well as her security deposit, to which Lloyd had been unable to contribute.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Trevor had said. “Hope is a beautiful thing.” Trevor trafficked in such ingenuous statements. “To her credit, there are documented encounters with sea monks. There’s one story about a king who finds a sea monk—I think this one’s referred to as a sea bishop. The king put him in a tank but the sea bishop started to look a little sick. A little green around the gills.”

He paused to let Ruby absorb this.

“As it were,” he said.

“Ha,” Ruby said belatedly.

“So some human bishops prevailed upon the king, convinced him to release the sea bishop. They brought him back to the water, he thanked them, made the sign of the cross, and then swam away.”

“Is that the whole story?”

“What, you need more? More than a half fish, half human who isn’t a mermaid but who for some reason is a bishop?”

Trevor then told another story about how someone in the seventeenth century had caught a sea monk and refused to release it despite its pleading. It turned down food, pining for the sea, and died after about a week. Trevor, who still seemed miffed by Ruby’s reaction to the sea bishop story, had ended this anecdote with “You like that one better?”

The submarine was an Ohio-class sub with miles of corridors that curled intestinally within. During the orientation, which had been held on the boat that had brought them to the submarine, the first mate had explained the mechanism that was letting them stay underwater for so long, called gills, or possibly GILLS. The captain was not present at the orientation, and the first mate apologized for his absence: the captain was already aboard the submarine, he said, attending to the final preparations.

An Arizona police department had acquired the submarine under the 1033 Program and then auctioned it off at their annual Back the Blue Gala. The winning bidder was an entrepreneur who intended to be the trailblazer of the luxury underwater cruise experience industry; he had traveled all the way from the Bay Area just to put in his bid. When investors failed to materialize, the benefactress had stepped in.

The entrepreneur had completed an overall update, including the installation of the GILLS. The construction had been cleverly contrived so that you could spend days without seeing the machinery or the crew. There was a grand chandeliered dining room, and at the bow there was a viewing area with huge windows, couches, and booths, originally conceived of as a lounge where you could get top-shelf pickled while watching the ocean pass by in the crepuscular intensity of the submarine’s spotlights. The viewing window, which was thirty feet high and stretched around the front of the submarine, was said to be made of a five-foot-thick sheet of plexiglass. The spotlights made what could be seen murky and velvety.

The last-minute additions to accommodate the current expedition included a large state-of-the-art lab, sponsored by a clutch of drug companies whose names were on a plaque by the door; a workout room; and a rec room with a TV and VCR, a VHS library dominated by Kevin Costner, and an air hockey table that nobody could use because it sucked air in instead of blowing it out.

The lab was bright and white like a Mac store, and the lights were always on, unlike the hallway lights, which were on a timer that mimicked a day-night cycle. Saliha, who studied the brain and human-animal relationships, had warned Ruby that if deprived of these rhythms people tended to exhibit very strange behaviors.

Saliha was one of the three scientists on board, the other two being Maria and Natasha. Add Trevor, who had introduced himself as the team coordinator, and Ruby, and you had five, a small team considering the ambitious size of the lab: most of the solicited institutions hadn’t been able to get past “sea monks.” Collectively Saliha, Maria, and Natasha held four doctorates, which meant somebody had more than one. They had never worked together or even been at the same institutions, yet seemed to know all the same people: Maria knew Natasha’s advisor’s advisor, Natasha as an undergrad had lived on the same floor as Saliha’s advisor’s daughter, and Saliha was friends with the editor of a journal Maria and Natasha had each contributed to in the past. When they realized they had all signed the same open letter in the New York Times, a comradery beyond professional obligations was sealed. Natasha had just finished a postdoc and specialized in marine snow; Saliha worked for some big think tank that was often cited on NPR when statistics concerning large groups of people were called for; and Maria was at a well-known East Coast university and spent her summers in Venezuela doing something Ruby hadn’t quite caught. They had consented to swallow “sea monks” because the submarine would grant them unprecedented access to the parts of the ocean they specialized in.

Trevor often referred to places the others didn’t know about. When someone inevitably confessed unfamiliarity (and even when she didn’t), he’d say, “Yeah, not many people have heard of it. It’s off the beaten path.” Sometimes he’d say “track” instead of “path.” He seemed to do the same thing in each of these exotic places: get drunk on cheap local beer with other westerners. Supposedly Trevor had been hired to run everything, having worked for several global backpacking outfits. Later, after they started fucking, and spurred by the recollection of her own hiring process (“Why don’t we ask Ruby?”), Ruby came to question the decision-making that had resulted in Trevor’s employment.

The other three women were researchers whose long-term projects were meant to be carried out over the course of the entire voyage. Ruby herself was single-use: she had one task. She was to deliver a papal bull, the document from the Vatican that would start the process of officially recognizing the monks’ underwater order in its current iteration; since the last recorded sighting had been in 1855, there was concern that the sea monks had missed the news about Vatican I and II, big things like papal infallibility and not having to say Mass in Latin anymore. The bull was rolled up in a fancy poster tube. The cardboard was thick and of an elegant matte black. The tube was stored in a larger FedEx tube that still bore the dents, smudges, and stickers that had ushered it from Rome. Ruby had never seen the bull, and she didn’t know if any part of it was waterproof, but she could hear the metal papal seal, the bulla, thunking around inside the tube.

It was not until Ruby was unpacking that she processed that the priest who’d blessed the expedition had not boarded the submarine with them. Because she hadn’t been convinced they were actually going to find a sea monk, she hadn’t thought about the details of her task; now that she was on the submarine, she was no longer so sure she wasn’t going to be called upon to fulfil her duty. Were the sea monks coming into the submarine? Was she to go out in a diving suit—and was she meant to have taken a class and gotten certified for deep-sea diving?

Some thought sea monks were walrus sightings; what if she saw a walrus and didn’t realize it was a sea monk? If they had fins, would it be rude to extend her hand for a handshake? Did they understand English or, worst-case scenario, high school Spanish? There suddenly seemed to be many particulars that needed to be addressed, but when she asked Trevor what the expectations were, he replied genially, “Yeah, however you want it to go down works for me.”

They each had their own cabin. Each cabin had two double-decker bunks with a small chair between them pushed against the wall opposite the door. The cabins had been hastily refurbished for the expedition, and too many cabins had been prepared with far too many beds.

Ruby was sure she’d read that a large percentage of the casualties on foreign ferry tragedies, and maybe even the Titanic, could be attributed to passenger disinterest in posted emergency procedure. She made a point of studying the maps on the back of her door. They were marked with labeled routes and “You Are Here” stars, and vigorously color-coded (though there was no key). Ruby’s room was assigned to Evacuation Group Purple.

The first full day of the voyage was spent traveling near the surface to reach the coordinates where they would begin the dive. Over the course of that first day, Ruby watched from the viewing window and through her own porthole as they passed teeming tableaus of wild flashing colors.

At first, she felt optimistic that the water sloshing up to submerge her was easily reversible; she was still able to picture the submarine resurfacing, the five of them blinded by the sun leaping and glittering on the water like handfuls of tossed coins. This optimism held until the first morning of the dive, when she woke up to see all that utter nothing still there, framed in the little circle of the porthole.

She had known academically they would be deeper under the water, and thus farther from the sun, but she suddenly understood what that meant. They had descended into an endless night, and she realized that her worry wasn’t so much that the night was eternal but that there was no day to approach. The window seemed to bubble in toward her. She had slapped the cover shut. Now she avoided looking at the porthole at all, even covered.

The Twilight Zone

On the second day of the dive, the submarine began to descend alongside an immense cliff that they would continue to follow into the earth for the rest of the journey. The cliffside was riddled with holes and caves and tunnels that the lights from the submarine picked out but couldn’t reach into.

When the drill came that day, Ruby set out for the emergency meeting point, repeating the directions from the map in her room: turn right at the bathroom, turn right at the bathroom. She turned right at the bathroom, and after several minutes of speed-walking found herself in front of her own door. She hadn’t made any extra turns. The hallway didn’t curve. The klaxon was still sounding off. Again, the captain, or someone, said, “Please report to your emergency meeting area,” and so again she lit out. Again, she wound up in front of her door. She looked up and down the passageway, but nobody was there.

Her door began to open. She watched it, fascinated. Trevor stepped out. It wasn’t her room: it was his.

“I’m lost,” she said.

He sounded like he had been sleeping. “How long has that been going off?”

“The alarm? Ten minutes, maybe,” she said. “An hour. It feels like an hour. It’s disorienting.”

“We’d better go. They’re pretty serious about these things.”

She trailed after him. They turned right at the bathroom, the very same bathroom she had turned right at earlier, but this time they came almost immediately upon a small area where the hall met another hallway. Natasha, Maria, and Saliha were there. So was a crew member and a man in a kitchen uniform, but not the first mate who’d delivered the orientation. The crew member was holding a clipboard.

“Finally,” Natasha said. The man in the kitchen uniform seemed to take this as a cue and left.

The crew member had Trevor and Ruby initial a sign-up sheet that had nothing on it but the other three’s initials. “That’s all of us, then,” he said briskly.

“All of us?” Trevor asked.

The crew member was writing rapidly. He spoke without looking up. “There are several evacuation meeting points. They’ve been designed to get you to safety as quickly as possible, so you’ll want to make sure you remember yours.” He clicked his pen shut. “Okay, stay here until they sound the all clear.” He left in the direction opposite that taken by the man in the kitchen uniform.

The all clear never sounded. It took some time before one of them summoned the gumption to suggest they all just leave.

By then it was dinnertime, so they made their way to the dining room, which was located one level down from the lab, the cabins, and the workout room. Meals were laid out and the doors unlocked three times a day: seven, noon, and six in the evening. There were dozens of tables, but the food was always at the table farthest from the entrance so that you had to cross the whole room to reach it. Something about the huge room and the scores of empty chairs discouraged lingering.

As they ate, Trevor asked Saliha how she had gotten into her field.

She said that as an undergrad she had taken a psychology class where she learned about an experiment in which a nine-month-old baby, Little Albert, had been conditioned to fear animals that he had not previously feared: rats, dogs, rabbits. The scientists would present him with one of the animals and at the same time hit a metal bar directly above his head with a hammer. Because most if not all infants react fearfully to loud noises, Little Albert began to also fear animals.

“So you were interested in that? Conditioning behavior in humans?” Trevor said.

“Not quite,” Saliha said. “What I found most interesting is that today, the experiment would not be performed. It would be unethical. The challenge of gathering knowledge under the constraints of ethics is what I find exciting about our fields. Shortcuts will always have an impact on someone. Sometimes it’s thousands of people, like the thalidomide babies, and sometimes it’s just one person.”

“Like Little Albert,” Maria said.

“Exactly. But not only that. Not taking shortcuts also impacts someone, someone who might be depending on us while we figure out an ethical way to embark on our research.”

“It’s interesting to think about everything we’d know if we didn’t have things like laws and ethics,” Trevor said. He was using a knife to scoot some bright yellow rice pilaf onto his fork and so missed the contemptuous look Natasha favored him with. “That’s what war criminals are for,” she said.

On her way to the rec room, Ruby had to pass the lab, where she often saw the three women moving about in lab coats, sometimes gloves and safety glasses, labeling containers and typing on computers that were suspended on arms from the ceiling. Their research determined their daily schedules so that even the quotidian was dictated by advanced thinking. Saliha usually left lunch early to check on her rats, whose circadian rhythms and other behaviors she was monitoring as the submarine went deeper and deeper. Natasha was always late for breakfast because she had to record observations first thing in the morning. She was there to study marine snow, the slow drift of organic waste matter in the water. There were organisms out there that existed entirely on the stuff. Natasha had racks and racks of samples in tubes that looked like water until you put one up to a bright light, and then you could see the particles clouding the water. The searchlights outside the submarine’s viewing window did this, too. Once you began to focus on the particles, it was easy to go cross-eyed and stop noticing everything else, even the bioluminescent creatures glittering past in the dark: tiny dragonfish; little glowing jellies; and anglerfish, their lures lighting up their nightmare needle teeth.

“So, what did you do before this?” Natasha asked Ruby. They were watching a movie in the rec room. Trevor was trying to fix the hockey table.

“I was a receptionist at a church.”

“What does that entail?” Natasha asked. On the TV, Kevin Costner was peeing.

“It’s not much different from other office jobs. A lot of scheduling. I had to take over the altar server schedule after the vice president of the Italian League quit. The kids are supposed to find substitutes if they can’t make it, but they never do.”

“But you must have been pretty involved, right? To get sent?”

“Honestly,” Ruby said, “I think a lot of people said no.”

Trevor said, “It’s not important that they said no. It’s important that you said yes.”

Natasha ignored him. “I looked it up online. They think it’s just people who saw seals or giant squid, the way they thought manatees were mermaids. What’s the paper say?”

Ruby shrugged. “I think it tells them to get in touch. It’s probably in Latin.”

“So you haven’t seen it?”

“I didn’t open it. If we find them, I give it to them.”

Natasha shook her head. “The shit we put up with to get funding.”

“The more preconceived notions you bring in with you, the less you get out of a situation,” Trevor said. “The harder they come, the harder they—”

“This movie is even worse than I remember,” Natasha said abruptly, and stood up and left. Ruby was surprised by this, but then later realized that Natasha and Trevor must have already been fucking by that point.

The first time Ruby and Trevor had had sex was tricky, the starts and stops of a sober first time amplified by the cramped environment. The bunks were narrow and low, and everything was metal.

The best way to do it ended up being over a chair pushed against the wall, Trevor behind her. Of all the things about Trevor, and about her plus Trevor as a thing, this she minded the least. She found that the position suited her in terms of depth and angle.

The Midnight Zone

Ruby, walking down the hall to the communal bathroom, saw Trevor standing completely still outside the workout room window. She knew what he was looking at. She could hear the pneumatic exhales of the equipment, knew that the three others were in there. She had watched them, too.

Ruby never stayed long, afraid they’d turn and spot her, or see her reflection in the mirrors. They all wore white earbuds and workout clothing, breathable and wicking. It hadn’t even occurred to Ruby to pack workout clothing. As she watched, they all three seemed to grow streamlined, longer-limbed, more lithe, more wondrously female, rising up with each stroke of their machines like Venus, the mussel-black stationary bikes and StairMasters their shells.

Brushing her teeth in the bathroom, Ruby looked in the small hazy mirror over the sink. She thought about how Natasha’s long braids stayed centered exactly at the small of her back, even as she went up and down on the workout machine, so regal was her posture; and she thought of Saliha’s calves and the gentle flexing of the muscles beneath the sleek skintight leggings; and Maria’s narrow ankles like swans’ necks, the slight sheen on her forehead as if applied by a makeup artist. Ruby watched in the mirror as a pimple scar on her chin started to darken and widen, become a blemish, a blotch, a continent. The hair on her arms grew long and coarse, and her lips became drier and then cracked open to show bright seams of blood. Her teeth yellowed and her gums receded. A freckle on her neck put out two wiry hairs that could probably pick up radio signals, and then the freckle became a mole, grew taller and more three-dimensional and developed cancer. She watched it all, mesmerized. If she went out in the hall, stood very still and waited, she could really scare someone, the way she looked.

The halls were carpeted with dark red movie theater carpet. The lighting was of varying quality so that you might at any moment step from a well-lit stretch of hallway into a dim wavering pool. When the lights shut off at night, they were replaced with a strip of guide lights on only one side of the hallway, which sometimes made Ruby feel as though she was walking on a tilt. You could, in theory, use the guide lights to find your way back, keeping them always on your right or whatever, but if she was in the rec room or the viewing room when the overhead lights went off, she’d usually stay put until the artificial morning. If she was in the rec room, she tended to stay up all night watching movies, then sleep when she returned to her cabin; on such days, she often missed breakfast and sometimes lunch.

Returning to her cabin one of those mornings, she’d seen Natasha coming out of Trevor’s room, sneakers in hand. It was then Ruby realized that it was not a commentary on Kevin Costner that Natasha’s suddenly quitting the rec room had indicated, but one related to Trevor. Ruby thought now too of when Maria had first explained the work she did and the organisms that lived around the thermal vent—extremophiles—and Trevor had said, “I consider myself an extremophile. Carpe diem, right?” Ruby realized Maria’s look of pure disbelief was twin to Natasha’s reaction in the rec room, and to the disgruntled feeling Ruby was beginning to feel anytime Trevor opened his mouth.

Ruby slept fitfully on the nights she camped in front of the viewing window. The couches were not uncomfortable, but the room was large and with the window it was like sleeping in public. She would come in and out of consciousness to catch glimpses of huge things, or the ends of huge things, as the creatures passed out of the submarine spotlights; when she finally rose in the morning, she often had trouble determining which had been dreams and which had not: the flat long end of an oarfish hanging down from the top of the window, its tulle-like fin fluttering, the part she could see suggesting a fish as long as a telephone pole is tall; an anglerfish, the male, atrophied into a sperm sac, attached to the much bigger female; spider crabs or skateboard-sized isopods clinging to the cliffside or crawling over the whale falls and other carcasses that had settled onto ledges.

Natasha said the isopods were really just enormous roly-polys. “Things get bigger down here. It’s called abyssal gigantism. Maybe because it’s cold or there isn’t enough food. It takes longer to reach maturity, so they keep growing.”

They were sitting on one of the couches: a whale carcass had sunk into sight, and now it was keeping pace with the submarine. It was covered with writhing hagfish lacing muscularly in and out of the holes they’d chewed into the whale’s side and head. Over the two weeks since the dive had begun, they’d seen a number of these in varying states falling sedately past the viewing window; each one sported a unique variety of creatures that had chosen to help it in its transformation. Now that they were deeper, the carcasses were usually more thoroughly broken down by the time they came into view; this one, however, was relatively intact.

“You’re sleeping with him, too, aren’t you?” Natasha said.

“A few times.” Ruby wondered if she should mention she thought Maria was, too, but then she was surprised to see that Natasha’s face was buried in her hands. “Hey, now,” Ruby said tentatively.

“I don’t know why it bothers me,” Natasha said to her palms. “Maybe it’s because I’m competitive. Or stupid.” She began to rub her eyes with her fingertips vigorously. “Maybe my emotions are experiencing abyssal gigantism.” She brought her hands down and blinked many times, and then pointed at the whale; by now, most of the flank closest to them had been eaten away. “Sometimes the bones drop out the bottom of the whale when it’s still decomposing and the blubber is released. Tons of it.” Natasha explained that while the bones sank, the blubber floated up to the surface and sometimes landed on beaches, terrorizing whoever found it, this pile of hide and fat, its form untied by decomposition and then restrung by the currents into something not resembling a whale. “Those things people find on beaches and they think they’re sea monsters? It’s really just piles of fat. They’re called globsters.”

“I feel like a globster sometimes,” Ruby said. This, as she had hoped, made Natasha laugh.

After Natasha left for the lab, Ruby stayed. The big, gently plummeting whales made Ruby think of astronauts who had become untethered from their space stations and were now floating into a great void. She watched until it finally outpaced them and descended past the bottom of the viewing window, and then she was alone.

L’appel du vide,” Trevor said. Ruby jumped. He had come up behind her and gone to the viewing window and was now also looking down into the darkness.

“Excuse me?”

“That feeling you get when you’re up high that you want to jump.”

Ruby knew this feeling: high balconies, a trip as a child to Hoover Dam, giddiness. What happened if you jumped? It might be exactly what you think. Or it might be something different. There was only one way to find out.

But, not particularly interested in common ground with Trevor at the moment, she said flatly, “Like suicide?”

“No,” Trevor said. “Like curiosity.”

They rarely saw fish anymore. The organisms they did see were often a worn-out sort of white, sometimes a strange dark red color that Ruby couldn’t recall ever having seen in nature above the water. It was difficult to recognize the life they now saw as animals. The basket stars, for instance, looked like plants. They were usually curled like fists with dozens of fingers, and their long, fern-like arms unfurled to feed before clenching back up.

The cliffside was thick with rock chimneys that jutted out and up, some as tall as multiple-story buildings. Great white plumes of hot gasses blew from their tops, and the water was rippled and glassy-looking from the heat. Sometimes on the big ledges there would be whole fields of chimneys, with groups clustered into towers that loomed over the rest. Maria said they had names like Loki’s Castle and the Lost City.

“Some of the organisms that live around these vents only live in that one particular vent,” Maria said. “In the entire world, our entire planet, they can only be found right there. So each time one of those vents goes dormant, for all we know, we’ve lost an entire species.”

The Abyss

One day at lunch, Ruby learned that Saliha’s rats had died. Natasha and Maria seemed bothered by this news, but Saliha was thoughtful and quiet.

Trevor said, “You know what I’m thinking? If the crew came and killed them, we would never know. All that chicken they’ve been serving us?”

“It’s not funny,” Natasha said.

Saliha said patiently, “All the bodies are accounted for.”

“Are you sure?”

“I dissected them and incinerated them.”

“Wow,” said Trevor.

“Not that I agree with Trevor,” Maria said, “but he has a point. We’re totally segregated from the rest of the sub. We can’t see behind the scenes back on the surface, either. I was thinking about it the other day—it’s like this one time, I was maybe seven, and I grabbed a gallon of milk from the case at the store and a hand suddenly reached out from inside the case and started straightening out all the milk jugs. It had never even occurred to me that there was something back there. It scared me.”

“Think about it,” Trevor insisted. “If the crew just disappeared, we’d have no way of knowing.”

“Stop it,” Natasha said. “All this Halloween shit. You won’t stop talking about the Flying Dutchman—”

“Doomed to forever wander the seas . . .” Trevor intoned.

“If you know something, say it. If you don’t, shut up.”

Trevor turned to the others. “She won’t listen, but I’m telling you, I got a spooky feeling when we signed that paper during the emergency drill—like we were signing our souls away.”

Natasha said despairingly, “Oh my God.”

Saliha cut in. “Listen, rats die. When I was at Caltech, the control group and the test group just—bam.” She paused, then said, “Have you ever heard of the fear frequency?”

Maria said, “They discovered it accidentally in the eighties.”

“Yeah, that one. It’s a tone that makes you feel scared. It tells your brain there’s a presence in your vicinity—you’ll even see movement around you. As soon as the noise stops, the feeling goes away.”

“Okay, there you go,” Natasha said. “Maybe the engines are humming at that frequency and some of us, like Trevor, are particularly sensitive to it.”

Saliha said, “What do you think, Ruby? We never see the crew. We should have reached the bottom of any abyss on Earth by now.”

Ruby said, “Wait—when were we supposed to get to the bottom?”

Maria said, “There was a pretty broad window on the itinerary I saw. We know more about the moon than we know about the ocean floor. We were meant to spend a week in each post-photic zone, which we did, but we’ve now been in the abyss for two weeks. Even if we’ve spent more time moving laterally than vertically . . .” She looked pensively at the other two women. Natasha shook her head and Saliha shrugged. “We each came up with a different estimate of how long it should’ve taken.”

“Wildly different?” Trevor asked.

“Close enough to know it’s been more than enough time.”

Saliha had turned back to Ruby. “Any theories?”

Ruby was reaching  into the past now to something the high school boyfriend had once said. “Maybe,” she said, “okay—maybe it’s like that planet that crashed into Earth? That formed the moon?”

They were all looking at her. Maria was frowning. She said, “Theia? That’s just a theory.”

“But isn’t it inside the earth now, and if you keep going down into a cave, you can end up inside it?”

“Come on, people, hollow Earth theories went out with the hobble skirt,” Natasha said.

Late that evening, Trevor said to Ruby, “Do you think Saliha is here to study us? All, What’s your theory? What’s your idea? How do you feel?

“What? Why would she?” Ruby asked. Ruby had come to Trevor’s cabin, feeling restless, but now she had an urge to get away, particularly when she realized Trevor wanted to talk.

“I don’t know,” Trevor said slowly. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

“You picked the team,” Ruby said. “What did you hire her to do?”

“Observations on the sea monks. How human are they? I was told to find a human behavior specialist instead of, like, a fish scientist. They want to emphasize the human in any reports. I was told there’s some pushback against integrating the sea monks into the Church, especially in America. American Catholics are notoriously conservative. I guess there used to be a saint with a dog’s head, but they demoted him.”

“I thought she was studying her rats.”

“She’s obligated to report on the sea monks when we find them, but the rats are her own research. When I first started wondering about her, I thought they were just a cover: you know, give her something to do that would distract us from the truth, that we’re the lab rats. But now I think they’re a key part of the whole setup: I bet she killed them to see how we would react. Saying we haven’t reached the bottom—same thing. She’s applying the screws now.”

The linchpin of Trevor’s argument was that Saliha wouldn’t sleep with him. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to. She can’t. It would be unethical.”

“Wouldn’t trapping people on a submarine be unethical?”

“That’s what all the Little Albert stuff was about. She was trying to tell us she feels guilty.”

This had gone far enough: Ruby said, “I don’t care about Saliha. I think you’re a fraud.”

Trevor looked surprised. “That’s a lot of negative energy right there,” he said, gesturing at the air between the two of them.

“Nobody would put you in charge of an expedition,” Ruby said. “You act like you’re some expert but all the sea monk stories you told me are on Wikipedia. You don’t know any more about any of this than I do!”

Trevor leaned with one shoulder against the top bunk, his arms crossed. “You know the others think you’re a Vatican agent? A spy.” This made Ruby pause.

“It’s not true,” she said.

“I know it’s not true.”

“Why would they say that? I’m pro-choice.”

“I’m just guessing, but you remember their open letter in the Times? It was about stem cell research. They’re paranoid. They probably think they’re on some Vatican watch list now and you’re here to monitor their research, sabotage it, even. Maybe they think you killed the rats.”

“I’ve never even been in the lab!”

“Look, I said it was a guess. They’re highly educated women, in very specialized fields, but they don’t know shit about the real world. It’s what the ivory tower is all about. They can’t believe that people really are just receptionists. They don’t know that the rest of us are just putting our heads down and keeping on . . .”

Ruby resented this: she might only have an imprecise idea of what peer review was, and she might not have an opinion on whether DOIs reinforced an already-racist taxonomy (a discussion sustained through lunch and dinner earlier that day), but she certainly had more in common with the other three than she did with Trevor. She said, “The Vatican doesn’t even have spies.”

“Come on, yes they do. I meant I don’t think you’re the spy.” He said fondly: “You’re a mess.”

“This is some divide and conquer bullshit. You’re trying to distract me,” Ruby said. “We’re talking about you.”

Trevor said suddenly, “You’re right. I’ve misled you, misled you all.” He grasped her hands in his and began to talk very quickly. “On my CV? Says I have a BA. But I don’t! Never graduated. Junior year—couldn’t pay my student fees. Wow, that feels good to get that out in the open! You won’t expose me, will you?” And then he burst out laughing.

The next day, instead of lunch, they found the leftovers from breakfast still on the table. Trevor was still there too, sitting in the same chair he’d been in that morning, intensely zoning out. When roused he explained that he’d been waiting since breakfast to catch sight of the kitchen staff. Among other things, he wanted to discuss the menus, which had gotten progressively less diverse until they were eating chicken breast with mushroom cream sauce, wild rice, a side salad with Italian dressing, and a roll three times a day; also, could the dressing please be on the side. Ruby often needed to pause to remember if it was the lunch or dinner chicken. Breakfast was easier to differentiate, as there was still coffee, though the cream had long ago been replaced with a bowl of Coffee-Mates.

Maria said, “Why are the breakfast things still here?”

“Nobody came,” Trevor said.

“Because you were in here!” Natasha said.

“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Trevor said. “Why do they wait for us to leave?”

They sat down. There was scattered conversation, but it was as if they didn’t want to be too engaged when lunch arrived. But it never came.

At six o’clock, they returned and found Trevor in the same chair, the same array of dirty dishes before him. He was asleep, his arms folded and his head down.

“I think we should set a watch,” he said when they’d woken him up. “How many of us are there, four? So, six hours each?”

“No,” Natasha said impatiently. “There’s five of us.”

Trevor was staring past them, frowning. “I still think we should give it a try,” he said. Then he shrugged and picked up the cup in front of him, drank the melted ice, and stood. About half an hour after he had left, the other four left as a group. There was an agreement that they would prevent Trevor from lingering the next day after breakfast.

The next morning, the table was laid. All seemed forgiven, the chicken breast less dry than usual, the romaine icy and crisp in a way it hadn’t been in a long time. After eating, everyone, including Trevor, immediately left the dining room.

Two days later, days happily free of mealtime complications, Maria came into the rec room, visibly agitated. “I’ve just spoken to the captain.”

“You saw him?” Natasha asked. None of them had ever seen the captain.

“No,” Maria said. “I spoke with him on the intercom by the gym. You just push the white button. Trevor showed me.”

Saliha said, “He knew? I wonder how he knew.”

“He looks like the kind of person who would just push a button. Who can’t help but push buttons,” Natasha said. “Like a little kid.”

They all went down the hall and crowded around the intercom.

“Who did you talk to, again?” Natasha said.

“The captain,” Maria said. She paused. “He said he was the captain.”

“What’s his name?” Ruby asked.

Maria turned to look at her. “You guys don’t believe me,” she said.

“We believe you,” Saliha said. She put her hand on Maria’s arm.

Maria said, “I called him because we’re passing a hydrothermal field, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Unbelievably active. Crawling with life. I wanted to stop and send the cameras out. He said we couldn’t stop.”

“What’s that mean?” Natasha asked sharply. She reached out and pushed the button, said, “Hello,” brusquely at the box.

“I had to wait a while before I got anyone,” Maria said.

Trevor had come out of the workout room. They hadn’t realized he was in there. He was shirtless and held a small towel. He had a seamless tan that Ruby had never noticed. The tan made it seem as though he’d only recently joined them on the submarine.

“I thought you didn’t work out,” Natasha said.

“Have to keep busy somehow,” Trevor said. “Impress you ladies.” When nobody responded to this, he asked, “What’s going on?”

“Hey, hey,” Natasha was saying into the box. “Hello?”

Trevor said, “It can take a while. And they don’t always answer.”

“What do you tell them?” Natasha asked him. “What do you say to them?”

Trevor reached over and gently removed Natasha’s finger from the button. “If you keep holding it down, you won’t hear them when they reply.” Natasha snatched her hand away from him. “I know that,” she snapped.

Trevor sighed. He said, “I don’t tell them anything. I’ve asked them to replace the lightbulb over my sink seven times. They tell me to restrict intercom use to emergencies.”

“This is an emergency. Maria can’t do her work. We all have contracts, you know, to produce a certain amount and type of material.”

“I do know. I had to sign off on all that, remember?”

“So what’re you going to do about it? You’re the team leader.”

Trevor paused, as if deliberating. Then he said to Natasha, “You’re the one who is worried that changing ocean temperatures will affect the composition of your marine snow and destroy the food chain and life as we know it, right?”

“I’m worried because it’s already happening,” Natasha said.

“And haven’t you also been taking data on microplastics in the water, the microbeads and whatever?”

“Yeah, you know that already.”

“Well, then, be happy Maria can’t do her work. She works for Shell. What do you think she does in Venezuela? Thermal vents are notoriously mineral-rich.”

“I told you not to—” Maria began angrily.

“Pillow talk,” Trevor said. He turned and walked down the hall.

“Pillow talk?” Saliha was asking Maria, who said, “He’s mad at me.”

“What a piece of shit,” Natasha said.

Ruby thought this might be a good time to follow up with how Trevor had accused her of killing the rats, but she couldn’t bring herself to become, in the eyes of the others, the sort of person who believed Trevor.

Saliha was now asking Ruby: “Not you too?”

Ruby said, “A few times. Not recently.”

“You can’t let him get to you,” Natasha said.

“Am I the only one who turned him down?” Saliha exclaimed.

The Trenches

Ruby had fallen asleep in front of the viewing window. When she woke up, she turned on her side and looked blearily out the window, blinking to clear the gumminess out of her eyes. Outside, the lights had just picked out a large patch of tube worms that furred the cliffside. They made Ruby think of cilia, as if the sub were now within some huge vital organ, from a long-ago high school science textbook.

A small part of her felt a little flattered that the others thought she was a spy. In the rec room was an extravagant James Bond VHS set that stopped right before Pierce Brosnan. What would a spy do if her cover was blown? Only Trevor knew that she was aware of the others’ theory, so she’d need to get rid of Trevor. It would be a net benefit anyway: he was sowing dissension, trying to get them to turn on one another. A spy knew how to work for some greater good, even when the work was distasteful; a spy would wait for him in the hallway, her hands and feet braced against the walls to keep herself suspended up near the ceiling, then drop down and eliminate him, push the evidence out of an air lock. He would be an offering to the sea. She imagined tendrils of warm currents curling around him as he was borne up, swaddling him against the cold of the deep water until he could be delivered to the surface. Or maybe his bones would fall out the bottom of him, his destiny to terrorize the beaches. She imagined the ecosystem that might colonize his body. Like a whale fall, he would become an entire planet to the decomposers, and they would devour him, and he would give them life.

For the first time since they had embarked on their voyage, she thought of the benefactress’s lost husband and sons. Even if there had been nothing or nobody to take them in once they had plunged toward the bottom of the abyss, she wondered if the woman would ever draw comfort that at least each of them had become a planet, a source of life. She tried to think if she would ever be able to cherish this idea, if one day, like people who jumped to defy a burning building, they would decide to leave the sub and become something new.

She sat up. There was something outside the window. She suspected the thing had been gesturing at her for some time, trying to get her attention. She ran to the window.

The sea monk was emerging from the gloaming of the cliffside. She thought she saw two big black eyes, gentle round eyes, unhuman eyes, but she wasn’t sure: the sea monk was holding one fin up to shield its face from the submarine spotlights. As Ruby stared, the spotlights lit up a shimmering veined pattern on its fin that struck Ruby’s eyes with a disorienting blue-and-green dazzle; Ruby rubbed her eyes and tried to peer past the burning afterimages. The sea monk was as tall as a house. The Vatican had gotten it so wrong! The bull they had prepared, scaled for a human, would be novelty-sized for this abyssal giant; it would be like trying to read fine print on a matchbook.

Ruby pushed her face against the window. The sea monk was waving a great diaphanous fin, beckoning in a slow and elegant sweeping motion of welcome that seemed capable of carrying the entire submarine to its scaled glittering breast. Ruby banged on the plexiglass, shouted for someone to come, to help, to get the captain, as the submarine continued to descend.

Bridget Chiao Clerkin lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

The Fourth Trimester

Debbie Vance

It was a man who made the discovery. The mothers could’ve put up a fight but didn’t. Whatever is best for the baby, they said, because they believed it, because they knew they should.

My baby is almost three months old, her fourth trimester nearly complete. She smiles and coos and does tiny crunches to pull herself up to sitting. Every day, she needs less of me. The umbilical cord connecting us grows longer.

In the early days, the cord was so short that I couldn’t even pass the girl to the man beside me without a painful tug deep in my belly. She lay on my chest, not nursing, the placenta more of a mother than me. When I had to pee, she came with me. When I had to bathe, she too got wet. Now, the cord is long enough that I can do downward dog in my living room while she sits in her father’s lap at the kitchen table. I can shower while she lies on the other side of the curtain in a bassinet. When my mother-in-law comes to visit, I can turn my back and pretend not to see the way she drapes my cord between her legs, the way she claims my girl as her own.

Sex is still impossible. In addition to the sutures, there’s the pulsing blue-red cord, hot with blood and stem cells, which prevents every imagined intimacy. When I leave the house, I keep the spare length of cord bound with soft ribbon, an accessory that compliments nothing.

There’s no more guessing if the baby is hungry, though. No need to extract a milk-swollen breast in public. No blocked ducts. No cracked nipples. There is also no wine, no beer, no mai tais. Cuban coffee, sugar-dense and dark, is almost entirely off-limits. Sushi, cold cuts, eggs over-easy. The line to the baby is just as direct as when she was in utero; my body is just as much hers.

New Fruit

Te-Ping Chen

It was a peculiar fruit. The orange-red tawny skin, its flesh dense and velvety and luxurious. It was shaped roughly like an egg, with a tiny yellow pit, sold packed into crates lined with its deeply green leaves.

No two pieces of the fruit were alike. For Lao Zhou, it smelled like it did when he wiped the shavings off a bench he’d carved himself, and applied a creamy varnish. For Zhu Ayi, it was the scent of her mother cooking rice, long-remembered from childhood, and the sound of rain outside. For others it was the look of mingled envy and admiration that came when you were young, and beautiful, and wearing something new that suited you exactly.

The fruit was a taste marvelous and rare, sweet with an underside of acid. We lined up for blocks to buy it from street peddlers. We exchanged bites, though never satisfactorily. What tasted like the look of freshly arranged sunflowers in a green vase to me might taste like the way your daughter’s tiny socked feet sounded romping down the hall to you.

The fruit had arrived one day in trucks at the city’s wholesale market in crates that said SUNSHAN PRODUCE, sharing space with peaches and plums and grapes and other fruit with which we were more familiar. At first it was just the peddlers who sold the fruit, who’d picked it up because it was cheap and novel and sweet, but soon grocery stores were stocking it, too, under the name qiguo, peculiar fruit.


Sabrina Helen Li

When I was six, my mother abandoned her body and left it for me like a present. I learned how to fold her body. Slender cranes, boats to ride in, paper balls puffed up with air. By the time I was nine I knew how to fold my mother into the shadows of my hair, her paper bird bodies tangled in black strands. When I turned twelve, I learned how to build palaces out of paper, kingdoms of animals all made out of the same body.

My mother always felt safer in small spaces. She wore a necklace of keys, each opening one of the eight doors that needed to be unlocked to enter her bedroom, each door smaller than the last. With every door she opened, the air became colder, stiller. As if she were quietly tumbling down a hole until she landed on some sticky, dark heart. I imagined my mother crawling by the eighth door, her hands padded with dust, reaching out blindly like a baby.

It was never my idea to start folding my mother. The doors are what began to slowly crease her. Her limbs would get stuck in between the frames and then something would close shut, something would let out a noise. Sitting on my own in the living room, I would imagine that door three had closed on her right arm, then door five on her left leg, door six on her knee. I’d wonder if rooms and rooms away, my mother was lying crumbled and stuck, expanding and collapsing like a wheezing accordion, crying out a song that none of us could hear.

L’Heure Bleue

Susanne Lee

Kari loved a solitary walk on the beach, especially on an early Sunday morning; but her absolute favorite time was at dusk.  

Dusk, that wonderfully tranquil time between night and day, when the fading light was exquisite and that blurred hazy line between rose and blue appeared in the sky.

The beach on Lamma was a refuge from Hong Kong, a pleasant mix of open space and outdoor joints serving up the freshest seafood and Kari’s current favorite, yu dan fun, fish balls with rice noodles. The view was unhampered by the neon skyline and the mass of humanity from the MTR, the minivans and the double-decker buses haphazardly spilling the masses onto Nathan Road. Everything smelled clean like salt and sea, instead of sweat, durian, and exhaust.

She felt the comforting swishing of the surf and the soft sand under her feet. Her toes freshly painted a pale pink. Kari nibbled on a daan tat, still warm from the hole-in-the-wall bakery, the Phoenix, located around the corner from Eva’s family’s apartment she was staying at that weekend. Kari bit into the creamy rich slightly sweet egg custard tart with a delightfully flaky crust, and admitted that it was even better than the ones from the bakery on Grant Street she remembered as a child. Perhaps it was being in Hong Kong.

Raw Season

Xavier Navarro Aquino

I. Shadow Dancing

The Dominican cats call it fukú but we call it fufú. An incantation said to be a curse. A medley brewed with a nip of postcolonial flavor, left behind in the Caribbean. Inherited through the dead and the living, even family members get in on the spell-slinging. Some say in order for a fufú to work, it needs a vessel. Something beyond the uttered words, a familial scar, or a melody as dark as a tormented bolero performed by a strung-out salsero.

Ma once told me that she cast a fufú on Pa, in case he ever got any funny ideas. All those sheets and good-fortuned shirts Ma anointed with her brujería, and Pa so proudly wore, carried the stains of fufú. This was when my parents preached maintenance of family traditions. Before Yamil grew old enough to keep a memory. Most fools didn’t buy into our old master spells, talk of slaves and overseers be damned. We boricuas chalked it up to old curses and legacies. Yet Ma was convinced she could hold on to all of us with her fufú after Tío Raul croaked. Pa, Yamil, me.