Galley Club: Mostly Dead Things

Tin House Staff

This spring, Tin House invited a few early readers behind the scenes for a glimpse at Kristen Arnett’s hotly-anticipated debut novel Mostly Dead Things. With appearances on more recommended reading lists than you could shake a stick at, and with glowing reviews everywhere from The Washington Post to Vanity Fair, we were so excited to finally get this book onto bookshelves and into readers’ hands. 

When Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into her family’s taxidermy business one morning and discovers that her father, a stoic, silent-type patriarch, has committed suicide and left a note addressed to her, the Morton family’s delicate balance is thrown into upheaval. With her mother’s grief erupting in the form of increasingly lewd taxidermy sculptures, and with her brother retreating further and further into silence, it falls to Jessa to save the family business and to hold her family together. After years of secrets and things left unsaid, for the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.

In her rave review in The New York Times, Parul Seghal called Mostly Dead Things her “song of the summer.” Is it stuck in your head yet? Check out what our Galley Club Members thought below! 

 

Do you have a favorite line from Mostly Dead Things?

  • “Is this what we’re doing now? Hanging out on dirty bathroom floors?”
  • “…a small, black part of me had seen how beautifully the bird’s feathers glistened in the sunshine and wished I could make it stay with me, always. So I cried for that: the fact that I was the kind of person who’d wish death on a creature just so I could make it my own.”
  • “We spent so much time looking for pieces of ourselves in other people that we never realized they were busy searching for the same things in us.”
  • “Love was a thing that needed constant care. Our intimacy was an uprooted plant, shriveled and withered.”
  • “People milled around, acting as if there weren’t a gigantic buffalo covered in S&M props taking up half the living room.”
  • “Though I planned out everything, my life was somehow comprised of an endless series of unwanted surprises.”
  • “I often wondered why we couldn’t talk about the present, why the past held all the promise while the future sat before us like stagnant water.”
  • “Need. It was a word that my father seldom used. I’d heard him say want, and expect. But there was never anything like need, a word that implied helplessness and frailty.”
  • “To need meant to be vulnerable. It was one of the scariest things I could imagine. Needing anything meant you were open to invasion. It meant you had no control of yourself.”
  • “It was the whole animal laid out in front of me again; unnatural and unknown. That was the first collaboration with my father. This would be the last.”
  • “It’s hard to talk about the ugly parts. How we can be that terrible and still worthy of love.”

If you liked Mostly Dead Things, you’ll also like ____.

  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • Made For Love by Alissa Nutting
  • The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott
  • Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Florida by Lauren Groff
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • Creature by Amina Cain

One reader recommends “early Tom Petty records and fried bologna sandwiches.” Another even recommends googling the Victorian-era taxidermy of Walter Potter—particularly the kitten wedding.

Thanks to our wonderful Galley Club members for exploring Mostly Dead Things with us. Interested in being part of Galley Club? We’ll announce the next Galley Club for Jeannie Vanasco’s gripping memoir Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl on social media in a few short weeks, with instructions on how to enter.

Infographics by Jakob Vala.

Mostly Dead Things

Kristen Arnett

Available wherever books and ebooks are sold:

                  

“Irresistible . . . This book is my song of the summer.” —Parul Seghal, New York Times

Mostly Dead Things is very Florida, very gay, and very good . . . a rock solid family novel, brightened by its eccentric milieu.” —Entertainment Weekly

One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles. Her mother starts sneaking into the shop to make aggressively lewd art with the taxidermied animals. Her brother Milo withdraws, struggling to function. And Brynn, Milo’s wife―and the only person Jessa’s ever been in love with―walks out without a word. As Jessa seeks out less-than-legal ways of generating income, her mother’s art escalates―picture a figure of her dead husband and a stuffed buffalo in an uncomfortably sexual pose―and the Mortons reach a tipping point. For the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.  

Kristen Arnett’s debut novel is a darkly funny, heart-wrenching, and eccentric look at loss and love.

Featured in Vanity Fair,  New York Times, Esquire, Washington Post, Vulture, The Week, BuzzFeed, NYLON, Bustle, HuffPost, The Boston Globe, and much more.

Mostly Dead Things is one of the strangest and funniest and most surprising first novels I’ve ever read. In Kristen Arnett’s expert hands, taxidermy becomes a language to capture our species’ impossible and contradictory desire to be held and to be free.”
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

“Precisely as strange, riotous, searing, and subversive as you’d want it to be. And, yes, its humor is as dark and glinting as the black plastic eye of a taxidermy ferret. . . . [A] celebration of the strangeness of life and love and loss.”
—NYLON

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel like it. There’s a gunslinger cool to every sentence, like someone is telling you the last story they’ll ever tell you.”
—Alexander Chee, author of How To Write an Autobiographical Novel

“Filled with delightfully wry prose and bracing honesty, Arnett’s novel introduces a keenly skillful author with imagination and insight to spare.”
Publishers Weekly

“Kristen Arnett’s debut novel is a generous, delightful and eccentric portrait of family life and questionable taxidermy.”
Kelly Link, author of Get In Trouble

“It’s the kind of book that sneaks up on you, the kind you read until you realize you have to pee or that the light has left the room.”
Autostraddle

Mostly Dead Things packs messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida into one delicious, darkly funny package. Kristen Arnett is wickedly talented and a wholly original voice.”
—Jami Attenberg, author of All Grown Up

Tour Schedule

  • 6/19 – Tampa, FL — University of Tampa, Vaughn Center
  • 6/21 — Baltimore, MD — Bird in Hand
  • 6/22 — Washington, DC — ALA Panel: Fiercely Female
  • 6/25 —  Lake Worth, FL — Book Cellar Book Club
  • 6/27 — Gainesville, FL — Civic Media Center
  • 7/1 — Brooklyn, NY — Greenlight Bookstore, Fort Greene
  • 7/2 — Philadelphia, PA — Black Hound Clay Studio
  • 7/8 — Nashville, TN — Parnassus Books
  • 7/16 — Iowa City, IA — Prairie Lights
  • 7/19 — Chicago, IL — Women & Children First
  • 7/22 — Portland, OR — Powell’s City of Books
  • 7/23 — Seattle, WA — Elliott Bay Book Company
  • 7/24 — San Francisco, CA — Green Apple Books on the Park
  • 7/25 — Los Angeles, CA — Skylight Books
  • 7/27 — San Diego, CA — Last Exit Reading Series
  • 8/2 — Washington, DC — OutWrite
  • 8/2 — Washington, DC — Politics & Prose
  • 8/9 — Boston, MA — Brookline Booksmith
  • 8/12 — New York, NY — Mid-Manhattan Library
  • 8/15 — Columbus, OH — Two Dollar Radio
  • 9/11 — Atlanta, GA — Write Club Atlanta
  • 9/26 — Brooklyn, NY — Books are Magic

About Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth’s Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She’s a columnist for Literary Hub and her work has either appeared or upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett

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.

Origami

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.

Preservation

Maria Lioutaia

Over the past month, Valentina had attempted every procedure, from reputable to highly experimental. She’d bathed Lenin’s body in hydrogen peroxide and potassium acetate, employed benzene wipes, adjusted the dosages of intravenous polymer, applied refined paraffin wax in a thin layer over the face to maintain the appearance of skin, even resorted to botulinum. But the corpse had ceased all cooperation. After seventy years of successful maintenance, Lenin’s body was deteriorating faster than the morticians and biochemical scientists could keep up. Patchy dark spots bloomed across the dome of Lenin’s skull. His eye sockets collapsed like sinkholes. That morning, as Valentina inspected a gray fleshy protrusion on his temple, his left ear had fallen off into her hand like the handle on a poorly made clay mug. Most worryingly, there was a new smell about him. A damp, ghoulish, subterranean stench.

Valentina took the creaking elevator from her basement office at the Red Square mausoleum to the viewing chamber, where she could peek into the main room through brocade velvet curtains. Lenin was arranged on the central dais, as always, strategically spotlit by a soft peach wash over his recessed features. Today he was dressed in a black wool suit with double lapels and a maroon pinstripe tie. They’d had to change his suits almost daily this week, to keep up with his skin secretions. His face was serene, as though he were simply indulging in closed-eyed contemplation after a busy day of guiding the proletariat. Despite the flattering shadows of the room, Valentina could see the cluster of fungus on his bald pate through the glut of concealer.

Galley Club: Famous Men Who Never Lived

K Chess

At the beginning of the year, Tin House invited a few early readers through a portal and across universes for a sneak peek at K Chess’s debut, Famous Men Who Never LivedIt’s been featured by the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog, The AV Club and The Verge; The Millions called it a “story about immigration wrapped inside a post-apocalyptic fable . . . that also manages to be a meditation on art, fate, trauma, and loss”; and Foreword declared it “an awesome and humbling literary achievement”. 

To escape the outbreak of nuclear war in an alternate United States, Hel and her partner Vikram go through a portal and find themselves living as unwelcome refugees in our world. To Hel, New York City is both reassuringly familiar and terribly wrong; the slang and technology are foreign to her; and while Vikram tries to assimilate, Hel instead sets out to commemorate the world she had to leave behind, and to preserve artifacts and memories of her vanished culture. Her attention focuses on The Pyronauts, a sci-fi masterwork from her old world which never existed in ours, and when the only copy of the book goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and reckon with how much she has lost. 

Curious yet? Take a peek at our early readers’ thoughts below.

Do you have a favorite line from Famous Men Who Never Lived?

  • “I have to behave myself. Behave the way they expect me to. I have to be unfailingly polite, dignified-maintain that image. I can only be angry at specially chosen times, and only in response to egregious injustices against my people. I have to, or I’ll give it all away.”
  • “…but I can’t go there knowing the city itself is gone. How I miss that empty, nothing place, my home. And that feeling after I left it all through the blue, that long backward glance.”
  • “And outlaws never compromise?” “If they do, what’s the point of being an outlaw?”
  • “The possibilities stretch into eternity, for all of us. It is dizzying.”
  • “We humans tend to see whatever befalls us as our fate. We perceive good things and bad things alike as happening in just the way they are meant to. To teach us lessons, maybe. To make us into the women and men we ought to become. If one lives to be old––as I have––it’s terrifying to imagine the infinite slew of choices made over the course of a lifetime. Different events. Different luck.”
  • “If you closed your eyes, the world stayed right where it was. Looking back at you. Searching you out.”
  • “He was a sinner, too weak to have survived–or was it his very weakness that had preserved him? that was what John Gund thought to himself just then. Or something along those lines; Hel couldn’t quite remember the terms he’d used to berate himself. He was too late. He’d made himself too late. Hel had to read it again, to know the rest for sure.”
  • “In this life, each of us must find a single thing that we think is worthwhile and do it faithfully.”
  • “Work like The Pyronauts, ill bound between paper covers and sold for dimes to people who didn’t know better, to dreamers and newcomers, paupers and children. Work like that explored realms of possibility, Vikram thought; not what was past and could not be undone, but an improbable future from which humanity was obliged to try to learn. Not that which seemed most likely to happen, but that which could teach readers the most about themselves.”
  • “He thought about all the things he knew about, all the minutiae he would take to his grave.”
  • “There was no mercy, she realized, floating outside herself. There could be no kindness for its own sake.”
  • “From the right distance, all movement looked like fate.”

If you liked Famous Men Who Never Lived, you’ll also like ____.

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  • We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
  • Vox by Christina Dalcher
  • The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
  • Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Tell The Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
  • Blackfish City by Sam J Miller
  • Sea Oak by George Saunders
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • White Noise by Don DeLillo

Thanks to our wonderful Galley Club members for exploring Famous Men Who Never Lived with us. Interested in being part of Galley Club? We’ll announce the next Galley Club for Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things on social media in a few short weeks, with instructions on how to enter.

Infographics by Jakob Vala.

Natural Order

Elin Hawkinson

An earthquake destroys the bulk of a coastal European city. Eve is still young, so it is in a time before the 24-hour news cycle with its gushing stream of horror and pleas for foreign aid. But the quake makes the papers because a photographer from National Geographic is there to document the reproductive process of a rare breed of starfish, and he survives to capture the devastation.

From the safety of an over-stuffed armchair, ten-year-old Eve flips past pages of starfish to a single image of chalk-dusted bodies laid out on the sand. She reads that five hundred and thirty-nine people are confirmed dead, several hundred more still missing. Interestingly, the bodies belong to tourists, mainly, and the wealthy, crushed beneath the weight of their many-storied luxury hotels, their hilltop marble manors. The poor, packed like sardines in squat hovels and unregulated tenements, were simply swept out to sea. Fifteen years later, the photographer revisits the city and finds it restored and bustling, with only a vague memorial sculpture to mark the loss of life.  Fractured streets have been repaved; rebuilt hotels have doubled in size. The photographer writes that there is very little visible difference between before and after the tragedy, with one notable exception: the many tons of debris that washed into the ocean killed the rare starfish population.

Alien Hunters

Dylan Brown

You need a clear night, all dead stars and Milky Way. After that, it’s just luck and persistence. At least, that’s what they say on the forums. I’m still waiting for my first sighting. Once a month my sister and I drive to the same viewpoint up the hill from her trailer outside Phoenix. No one ever comes here; no one reads the sun-bleached placards about the Apaches. You can tell because there’re no burger wrappers or coffee cups. Tonight we brought the 50 mm Celestron Travel Scope, a pair of lawn chairs, a six-pack, and some weed. Alma likes to “star stalk” just as much as I do, but more for artistic reasons. It can vary as much as the day sky in shade and hue, she says. Like the ocean: sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes black. She’s a painter and her favorite planet is Saturn—its skirt of rocks gliding through the viewfinder. She lights a bowl and the cherry blooms.

“Do you hear that?” she says, blowing smoke.

I do. It sounds like a desert banshee, lost and wailing. A pinprick of light shoots from her phone and we walk towards the cry. There, on the other side of the lot, by the locked bathroom huts, is a baby carrier. Inside, wrapped in a blue blanket, is a baby. Not a ghost or alien, but a baby.

“Mother of hell,” Alma says.

Saturday Night Special

Regina Porter

Gohegan Man came back from the dead and told Ezekiel Applewood he was too old to lie across his bed boo hoo crying.

“What for you cry now, Zekie Boy? Who you know come in this world to stay? Who you know got the power of everlasting eternal life clutched fist ball in his hand? Even Christ set free his human form.”

But Ezekiel Applewood, preternaturally small in stature for a fourteen-year-old boy, would not look up from his sleigh bed. A bed that he had always suspected was too low to the ground. A bed made of native satinwood, a relic from America’s baby-teething Federal days in a style his father referred to as Hepplewhite. The bed, a curving, narrow thing, along with nearly every piece of furniture in the Applewood house, had once belonged to someone else until Ezekiel’s father had seen fit to swindle it away from an “Everyday Sucker.”

Ezekiel had learned at a young age that Everyday Suckers weren’t meant to have or keep anything, even their most precious possessions. You were doing Everyday Suckers a favor when you stole their possessions or bought them for next to nothing because Everyday Suckers were bound to lose the things they loved anyway.

The Atlas of Reds and Blues: An Excerpt

Devi S. Laskar

An excerpt from The Atlas of Reds And Blues (Counterpoint Press)

Inciting Incidents

. . . in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no . . .

&

Possibly the exact moment the mustached state policeman, in monogrammed Kevlar and matching navy pants, stands in her driveway and points his assault rifle at her head on a cloudless morning in May, right after she took the girls to school, before she has her shower, and while she is still wearing her brown “Hard Work Never Killed Anyone but Why Risk It?” T-shirt and gray sweatpants.

Possibly one minute later when she counts the number of police and the number of automatic guns on her front lawn: all weapons at the ready as if she would cower before them or be impressed at the demonstration of force or be more inclined to listen to their list of demands.

Possibly a moment not too much later when the firecrackers are unexpectedly displayed, and she finds herself on the ground, bleeding.

 

&

Or, years earlier, the moonless night before she goes into labor for the first time, the air thick with mosquitoes. Hands, face, and feet swollen from gestational diabetes. She wears flip-flops everywhere, the police precincts, the courthouses she covers, and the newsroom where she works as a journalist. For months, all jewelry had been off her hands, ears, and neck to quell the tide of swelling, the tide that never ebbs. The dangerous pregnancy and its forty daily admonitions and precautions always looping in succession in her mind. Labor Day weekend, 1998. After work, she lives in black stretch pants and a maternity T-shirt that has a cartoon picture of Garfield on it because those are the only two comfortable things she owns.

It is close to midnight and neither her husband nor she can sleep. So humid that even the crickets in the Georgia thickets stop chirping to conserve personal energy. They decide to watch a movie, but notice there is no popcorn, her only obgyn-approved snack, left in the pantry. She volunteers to go to the 24-hour grocery a few miles away to lap up the hyper-air-conditioned air, while her husband, her hero, tries his luck at renting Titanic.

A beached whale trying to navigate the aisles with a shopping cart, she remembers to take advantage of her human hands. She enjoys the forced air-conditioning, relishes the empty aisles and stocked shelves. She picks out her popcorn, and for her husband she chooses a variety of tasty garbage including a pint of ice cream that is called, appropriately enough, Coma by Chocolate.

One checkout lane open. Manned by a man named Manny who, according to his name tag, is the night manager. She looks like she is carrying some sort of obscene food baby ex-utero, chips and popcorn for the torso and legs, chocolate chip cookies for the pair of arms joined together, and ice cream for the head.

He gawks. “Ma’am, do you know about prenatal care? There are some vitamins on Aisle Twelve, next to the baby wipes.”

She turns around but finds herself alone. “Excuse me?”

He cocks his head. “Hables español?”

“What?” She gulps. “Yes, but . . .  no.”

“Ma’am, you need to put back the chips and the ice cream, and drink some milk.”

She attempts to clamp shut her jaw but fails. “It’s for my husband.”

“Are you kidding me?” He pounds his fist on the price scanner. “What kind of man allows his pregnant wife to go to the store in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t want to go to the video store.” She swipes the credit card. “It smells in there.”

He grunts. “Are you sure you’re married?”

A small hiccup of laughter escapes. “Why?”

“Where’s your ring?” His stare almost a glare. “People will talk.”

“At home.”

“Where’s your house?” His finger wags near her face.

“Three miles that way,” she says, pushing away his hand.

“Do you have a doctor?”

“Actually, I have two.” She signs the promissory note and waits. “And I have a medical condition that prevents me from eating anything after dinner, except for this popcorn I’ve bought.”

“Bless your heart, ma’am,” he says. “I’m just concerned for you.”

Huh. “That’s excruciatingly touching.”

“Excuse me?”

“Can I have my receipt now? Please?” Nothing has changed. The dolls are still judged. She is thirty-one years, ten months, and six days old.

&

Or, years later, after she moves them from the city to homogeneous suburbia, cookie-cutter identical for everyone but her. No one answers their doors when mother and daughters march up and down the cul-de-sac and ring the doorbells, homemade brownies in hand. Not only do the new neighbors not come over to see if they are all right after the lightning strikes the new house, none of them bother to say welcome. No chicken casseroles forthcoming, no chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies, no smiles. They, the family, wait patiently, every day, like maiden aunts at a charity dance, waiting to be asked to waltz.

No one calls.

&

Maybe, just maybe, it all starts one morning in the fall semester, 1986, when she meets her man of the hour and coins her nickname for him. The starting line for the hard looks and comments that will follow them for the next twenty-four years, strangers unhappy when they hold hands or kiss in public. That Friday, the leaves burnishing gold and crimson and copper among the evergreens, the air brisk even in the afternoons. It is her turn to feed the meter, not just for her clunker, but for her roommate, Donna, as well. The meter maids on campus have been cracking down and the Real Thing knows she cannot afford yet another parking ticket. She is in danger of losing her car, her parents had warned her it would be confiscated if one more parking offense reached their mailbox, and without her car, well, she will lose her part-time job as a newbie reporter in the local bureau of the second-largest newspaper in the state of North Carolina.

Her English professor, Dr. Shelley, had let them out late, nine and a half minutes late. An entire semester devoted to the verses of John Donne, one ecstatic poem after the other, a graduation requirement. The professor’s voice more irritating than her fuchsia-painted nails that accidentally scratch the chalkboard as she writes out her lecture during class. In her haste to reach the cars before the meter maids do, the Real Thing trips over a brick paver by the planetarium entrance and the quarters fly from her fingers into the labyrinth of rosebushes. She spies one, and scratches her left arm on the thorns as she retrieves it.

The meter maid is six, maybe seven, cars away from her hatchback but only a few cars from her roommate’s. Her trot turns into a jog, backpack slung over one shoulder, toward her roommate’s white Chevy Cavalier. She stops at the car, and notices that beside it is its twin. The meter maid is two cars away. She dashes to the back of the car, but the license plates are virtually the same, and each car is sporting identical university magnets and business school logos.

The meter maid is close enough that the Real Thing could reach out and touch her cap. She reaches the meter, and puts in the quarter, and buys another hour.

“Thank you for rescuing my cadaver,” a voice says by her ear.

“What?” She looks up to see the chiseled jaw, the brightest blue eyes, a bemused grin. “Wait, did I pay for your car?”

“Yes,” he says, and introduces himself, tells her he’s named the car a cadaver because it often fails to start in cold weather. “Are you okay? I saw you fall back there.”

The Real Thing feels a cinnamon-red blush flooding her face. “I’m trying to beat the meter maid, for my roommate.”

“Allow me,” he says, and fishes for something in his pocket but comes up empty. The grin fades as he looks on the ground and on the curb. “Damn it.”

“What’s wrong?” she asks, aware of the meter maid inching closer.

“I thought I had an extra coin or two,” he says, then looks closely at a spot just above her shoulder. He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and produces a quarter, tucks another strand, and produces three. “I knew they were here somewhere.”

He feeds one of the quarters into Donna’s Chevy.

The Real Thing laughs. “You’re the man of the hour!” She snatches the remaining coins from his hand and runs to her car, feeds her own meter as well as the meters of the cars on either side of her. She looks back to see her new friend speaking to the meter maid, a small white package in his hand, and then the maid hopping back into her vehicle and moving toward the exit. She walks back to him. “What did you say to her?”

He shrugs and shows her his roll of quarters. “I promised her I’d feed everyone’s meter.”

She wonders why he has this money, and remembers the arcade just down the block. “And she believed you?”

His smile holds the glow of a campfire in the deep woods.

She pictures herself as a moth.

“She’s coming back in fifteen minutes, to check.” He breaks the roll in half. “You’ll keep me honest, right?”

She takes her half of the stack.

&

Perhaps it’s when an older boy, Michael, follows Middle Daughter around during first-grade recess on the school playground, pushes her down in the hallway near the library, bumps her elbow in the cafeteria, calls her names that allude to the darker side of the color spectrum, calls her a coconut, white on the inside, for even wanting to attend this fancy Southern school. Michael gets on the cross-campus bus that transports the children to and from the school gymnasium and natatorium three days each week and sits behind her and taunts.

Middle Daughter announces her decision to forgo education for a life of flight. “I’ll just go to the moon sooner than I thought,” she says, breaking open a chocolate cookie and crumbling the sweet white frosting between her fingers. On TV, news anchors are showing NASA’s photographs of the Phoenix soft landing on Mars.

“You have to finish high school, college, graduate school, a stint in the Air Force, and then NASA training,” Mother says. She takes a sip of the black coffee and puts down the cup.

Middle Daughter’s lower lip juts out, the cookie crumbles on the tabletop. “I just can’t go to school anymore, not while HE is there.”

Mother’s heart crumbles too. “Can I tell Daddy now? Please?”

She shakes her head, unable to speak.

&

In this new neighborhood the wives take baths (not showers), put on pumps, and apply mascara just to retrieve the morning newspapers from the edge of the driveway or check the mail before their children come home from school. Their husbands take notice of other things, and leave curt messages duct-taped to the front door of Mother’s house. Her man of the hour is usually not home, he is usually out of town for work. But her man of the hour happens to be at home when the latest note about their failings as residents of the subdivision, on cut yellow Post-it, is posted.

“We have to be nice,” he says to her, softly, as he sits down next to her on the couch. “We agreed to follow their rules when we moved here.”

Greta is by the fireplace, and she opens her eyes. She wags her tail weakly but does not sit up.

“A lightning strike. We couldn’t close the doors to the garage.” Mother pokes holes in the yellow Post-it with a ballpoint pen. “Everything was broken.”

Her hero turns on the TV and finds a college basketball game. “They don’t care.”

She looks at the box, the score is tied. “But we couldn’t park in the driveway. The repairmen were parked there.” The pen breaks the skin of the paper and goes through.

He starts to channel surf. “They don’t care.”

She puts her hand out and they trade, note and pen for remote. “They didn’t even check on us when we were hit! We could have had a fire. We could have died.”

He crumples the paper into a ball and puts the cap back on the pen, and then juggles them high into the air. Greta takes notice and her head follows the paper ball like an avid tennis fan at Wimbledon.

Mother finds The Wizard of Oz, it is the moment that Dorothy falls asleep in the field of poppies. Greta rises and wobbles to Mother’s side of the couch, sits back down again. They all watch in silence until a mouthwash commercial interrupts the film just as Dorothy and her companions enter the Emerald City.

Her hero sighs. Maybe in resignation. “If we fight this, we’ll end up in court. They’ll have the law, and then we’ll have to apologize and we’ll have to pay a fine.”

They trade again. She tucks the pen behind her ear, and makes a perfect shot with the Post-it into the wastepaper basket on the other side of the couch. Greta follows the shot and goes to investigate the trash can. Mother says, “I just think we should . . .”

Her hero changes the channel back to the basketball game. Overtime. “Be nice,” he says. “By the way, I have to go out of town again.”

&

More likely, it began on the playground when Mary-Margaret Anne Moriarty expounded on her theory of love. Recess, at St. Luke’s co-ed. Last full week of April 1978. A day when the azaleas are already in bloom, when sixth grade still means elementary school, and the term “middle school” hasn’t yet replaced “junior high.” While other schoolkids embrace the Bee Gees and John Travolta, the Real Thing and her classmates argue with nuns about attending mandatory morning mass, even as non-Catholics. On the playground Sister Joan drones on about school uniforms, which look suspiciously like habits except they are an ugly green plaid, and how their souls would be in mortal danger if “boys” could see the girls’ knees or calves or shins or even ankles. She wants to know what mortal danger really means but doesn’t understand the correlation between that and her bony kneecaps—scarred by the rough tumble off her bike in the woods near the creepy cemetery managed by the Bible thumpers who want to save her soul but know better than to ring the doorbell and argue with her mother once more. The school bell rings, calling them back to their classrooms.

Mary-Margaret Anne, as she likes to be called, stands two feet away from her. Dirty blond with tiny pixie freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her bulbous nose. Her father is a businessman who is never in town except on Friday afternoons, when he picks up Mary-Margaret Anne from school in a white Mustang convertible. Her mother roams in a station wagon with three boys still in diapers, rolling down the window at the curb, begging Mary-Margaret Anne to get in. And Mary-Margaret Anne never hurries her pace, and finishes speaking to Ellen and Paige and Jeanette before strolling to the car and flinging her hot-pink bag into the trunk. The Moriarty parents never offer the Real Thing a ride, but drive by as she trudges past the firehouse and an abandoned wooden structure with a caved-in porch that even animals stay away from, to the city bus stop a half mile away. Monday through Friday. Rain, shine, sleet, snow, like the postman. The boy Mary-Margaret Anne is “going” with, Eric Moynihan, has ignored his girlfriend that morning but utters “excuse me” as he whizzes by on his way back to his seat, his blurry form jostling the Real Thing’s left arm. Mary-Margaret Anne’s eyes flash green in the sunlight. “What did he say?”

“Nothing,” she replies, wishing she knew kung fu just then.

Mary-Margaret Anne pirouettes on her left foot, and she looks poised to do a jeté. She has the body to be a ballerina, and unlike her own mother, the Real Thing bets Mary-­Margaret Anne’s has no problems parting with the money, if only to get her daughter out of the house for a short time. “You know what I heard? I heard you and Henry have been kissing in the library during reading hour.”

Sister Joan’s head turns on her broad neck, like an owl. She stands equidistant from Mary-Margaret Anne and the Real Thing and their shadows all lie flat on the blacktop. Sister Joan’s stare through her thick spectacles is thoughtful.

Henry and his parents had moved to town from Michigan over Christmas.

He is the first Black boy at school. Well, his mother is Black but his father is white. And from where she sits, Henry is just another student. Hair neatly combed, pressed collared shirts, impeccably shiny shoes. Shiny copper pennies glistening from his penny loafers.

He never raises his hand.

He doesn’t open his mouth.

She sits next to him, in the back of the room, watches him doodle battleships and helicopters on notebook paper during class, watches him crumple up the imperfect drawings and shoot hoops into the trash can, watches the nuns hand back perfect scores on his test papers. “I don’t think so,” she says, picturing Mary-Margaret Anne’s head in a guillotine, like the one she read about in history after an unflattering description of Marie-Antoinette. “He’s never even said hello.”

Mary-Margaret Anne’s grin is all knowing, the way her lips spread thinly over her even teeth. It is the same smile that she produces when she talks loudly to Ellen and Paige and Jeanette about how she and Eric are one day going to “do it” when her mother isn’t at home; and that after she “did it” with Eric, he would have to marry her. She can only imagine what “it” is, and judging from the bewildered look in Paige’s hazel eyes, their classmate doesn’t know either.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me,” Mary-Margaret Anne says. “But it’s nice that you two are going together.”

Sister Joan raises her eyebrows, and through the magnification of her glasses they look like perfectly synchronized caterpillars doing aerobics.

She shakes her head. “We’re not going together.”

Mary-Margaret Anne shrugs. “It makes sense.”

It does not. “Why?” she asks, pinching her fingers together so she won’t shout at Mary-Margaret Anne in front of Sister Joan and spend another afternoon in Sister Grace’s musty headmistress office hearing about her lack of gratitude for being “taken” off the streets—although she doesn’t quite understand what streets she is being spared from, since she still has to walk a half mile every weekday to and from the city bus stop to school.

“He’s Black,” says Mary-Margaret Anne, a coo at the back of her throat.

No, actually the color of his skin is coffee with cream. Since he never smiles, it is coffee sans le sucre. “I’m not Black.”

“Sure you are,” she says. “You’re not white.”

She feels hot in her face but knows she can never cry in front of Mary-Margaret Anne, or she will never be able to come back to school again.

Sister Joan’s head turns back to a forward position, her step takes on a definite marching intonation. She simply enters the building and disappears.

“Nobody,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, enunciating the first syllable at twice the length it normally requires, “like Eric will ever ask you to go with him.”

The Real Thing pinches her palm as hard as she can and the ocean of tears at the eyelid shores recede. “Why not?”

“Because,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, suddenly touching her skin, creating a crater of shock, “this doesn’t rub off.”

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Tin House and Rattle, among other publications. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and is an alumna of The OpEd Project and VONA. Laskar is the author of two poetry chapbooks, and The Atlas of Reds and Blues is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Stories Out of School

selected by Cheryl Strayed

Teachers have the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet, and their work days are filled with stories. Yet teachers seldom appear in fiction. This contest, a joint venture of The Academy for Teachers and Tin House, was created to inspire honest, unsentimental stories about teachers and the rich and complex world of schools. There were two criteria for submissions. The story’s protagonist or its narrator had to be a teacher and the story had to be between 6 and 999 words. This year, Cheryl Strayed volunteered to choose our winner.

—Sam Swope, Founder and President, Academy for Teachers