Dead Letters

Every December I carefully address cards

to my extended geography, willing filigrees of warmth into ink;

I scribe canned sentiments trying to recall faces,

discern whether familial patronymics are appropriate and realize

I can't remember names, new children,

wonder if I'll ever meet them or if I care to,

if this ritual still evokes the belonging I require

knowing the persons missed most are already gone,

if I'll ever understand a winter of fresh solitude,

if I will be remembered for nothing

more than a clever, areligious greeting,

a careless postcard in a distant box that whispers

happy holidays, I'm sorry for your loss.

I am salt water

When I step off the floating dock into the dragon boat, a clammy band of anxiety cinches my chest. The boat sways precariously as my teammates hop in and adjust themselves, easing their weight to the rails. I white knuckle my paddle, focusing on drums sounding over the water. A moment later, I identify my unease.

It’s been eight years since I nearly drowned.

As someone who grew up with the ocean, this shouldn’t seem so remarkable. There’s always a brief terror as you’re dragged backwards through the trough of a wave and the crest breaks over your head, temporarily trapping you beneath a surge of water; and just when you’re sure you won’t be able to claw back to the surface, the water calms. The power passes.

The ocean requires a requisite surrender of control to enjoy.

~

It was one of the older shells, a wooden four-person relic at least twice as heavy to carry to the dock as its more modern, fiberglass descendant, but we bore the weight with a certain measure of curmudgeonly pride. As one, we hefted the boat up and over our heads and rested the rails on our shoulders. Furrows carved into our skin as we trudged down to the docks with our burden. No, we told our teammates, it’s really not that heavy.

Crude, lace-up shoes decorated each foot board. As we haphazardly balanced into the narrow shell, we slipped our feet into the oversized footwear and laced them tightly to avoid slippage. The shoes were nailed to the boards.

We pushed off from the dock just before six a.m., fog of our breath punctuating each stroke. We strained in unison, hyper cognizant of the person in front of us, of the feather and sweep of the oars’ blades. We knifed across the bay, bioluminescent plankton lighting our wake. Catch, check, feather, release, repeat. The rhythm stuttered only once, faltering as a teammate caught the edge of her blade in a small wave. Our momentum compounded the error. The blade jacked the shell like an emergency brake, flipping us toward her buried oar.

Time is fickle. When I replay the capsize, we should have had plenty of time to haul our asses onto the rails and right the boat before it became unrecoverable. We should have been able to reach down and unlace the shoes. In reality it happened in seconds. The shell turtled, shiny wooden hull beaming toward the dark sky, and—still laced to the boat—the water dragged us under. Bay water flooded my mouth and saturated my sweatshirt. The shock of cold water immediately deadened my limbs. I didn’t even think about the other rowers.

I floundered in mute panic, choking as I scrambled to detach myself, to juke my body into a position that would allow my head to break the surface. Wood connected with my skull just as my fingers managed to unknot the laces. Oblivious to the pain, I kicked free from the boat and my teammates, rocketing to the surface. I coughed explosively, water pouring from my mouth and nostrils, and draped my body over a floating oar. Shivering, weighed down by my sodden clothing, I tried my best not to vomit. An eternity of blankness had passed in less than thirty seconds. 

The four of us bobbed in the center of the bay, gently drifting with the current. We said nothing. By the time the crash boat arrived, we were trembling, unable to pull ourselves up and over the sides into safety. Our coach hauled each of us out of the water, raking our skin over the metal gunwales. We stripped away the wet clothes and huddled in misery, willing warmth into our pale bodies.

Rowers don’t wear life jackets.   

~

This river is a trickle compared to the Atlantic. We’re not alone. I’m bundled into a long boat with twenty people, and hundreds of spectators in colorful tents line the banks. I remind myself that a caught paddle will do little more than slow us down. I raise my arms, paddle poised above the water. Our flag catcher huddles near the head of the dragon, waiting to launch himself over the bow.

The gong sounds. For eight seconds, I fly. 

 

Like Stones

Sometimes when it’s dark and the quiet rises like a solemn ghost
I hear my heart thudding past the whisper of my breath, feel my ovaries like stones,
weighing my belly with useless potential, and if I cross-examine the moment,
brush too close to the seat of my anxiety, my lungs swell against my ribs,
force me to inhale quickly and gulp down startled anguish; I hold the wail
in my throat until it burns. Exhale grief and dead calm. I want to reach across
the bed, traverse the yawning gulf between us, grasp the bones of your hand
and lay it over my breast, say, listen, it’s not beating, it’s ticking.

A Voice

When I say that I haven’t written anything since my grandfather died, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I am not emotionally crippled. His death and my dog’s subsequent euthanasia didn’t dry up some supernatural creative well. I’m exhausted, maybe, but being “too tired” seems a poor excuse for laziness.

Part of my problem is rereading “The Peabody.” Each paragraph convinces me that some stranger wrote it, and I’m pissed and ashamed that it’s apparently the best eulogy I can offer a real person. Who is this pretentious jerk? Why is this person writing about my grandfather? My frustration tightens all the muscles in my jaw. Yes, those are my memories, my abstractions of emotions. Yes, I assembled a collage of moments because I couldn’t manifest a linear narrative. I posted because at the time, it seemed necessary.

I wonder.

I can hear you, you know. Maybe you’re thinking it’s not really about my writing, that I’m unearthing a deeper line of insecurity and inadequacy I’m finally willing to examine. You’re thinking I just don’t know who I am these days. Maybe you’re right.

I’ve turned into a weird, jangled ball of raw nerves. A few nights ago I started in on ghosts. “Listen,” I’d said, rolling over on my side, “let’s just pretend that ghosts are a Thing That Can Happen For Real, and I die tomorrow, and I come back and haunt your ass.” My partner probably rolled his eyes in the dark, but listened, because these ridiculous what-if thought experiments are sort of what I do.

“I’d prefer not to think about you dying.”

“Just, pretend for a minute. That ghosts could be real. I would haunt the bottom of the stairs and endlessly wail, ‘Where’s my kitties?’ so that the cats would keep running into the basement looking for food. It’d drive them nuts.”

“I picture your ghost voice as the sound of a dial-up modem slowed down 700 percent.” He suddenly fiddled with his phone and played back a recording. For a moment, we lay in the dark, listening to the spectral dial-up. A thousand dying modems languishing into tonal static. At once, the hair on my arm prickled.

“What if I’m one of those ghosts stuck repeating a specific task? You have company over and my ghost appears and tries to jerk you off for fifteen minutes and then vanishes.” We laughed and I shut up for a few minutes. Dave put on the soundtrack for Kentucky Route Zero, and I eventually drifted off.

The next day, as I was shrugging into my coat for knitting circle, I read an article my cousin wrote. She’s an excellent writer. While she clearly benefits from a strong command of the written word, her prose is made more powerful by the way her voice manipulates you into the narrative. She is fully present in her work.

I am not.

My recent writing reflects only ghosts. Specters of something interesting. Though I write and edit every day, at work I am not myself; I am a corporation, a parent, a magazine, an elf, a yogi, a salesperson. I’m a goddamn hired gun. While I’ve been busy holding someone else’s megaphone, I’ve developed a case of laryngitis. I open my mouth and vomit static.

The crux of my “Peabody” problem is that I’ve lost my voice. I worry I never had one to begin with.

 

The Peabody

“Do you know where the phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’ comes from?” my friend asks. We’re staggering up the massive slope of a dune, ground shifting beneath each step. Sand sieves through the mesh lining of my running shoes, entombing my feet.

“No,” I admit, bracing my palms against my quads. My friend isn’t even winded.

“It’s a misquote. The real phrase is, ‘the blood of battle is thicker than the water of the womb.’ The people you fight and bleed with are truer family than the people you’re related to.”

I have no way of knowing whether she’s right, but at that moment, it feels important.

~

I’ve been pondering family, particularly because I’ve never felt good at it. I’m not close with my cousins, aunts, or uncles; I shimmy out of hugs and take long sips of water to avoid conversation. While geography and age play a large role in my distance, the reality is that I don’t think they understand me—or care to. I am insular. I’m a little strange. More than that, I am lazy and slow to trust.

My grandfather isn’t, wasn’t, related by blood. He married my grandmother after she was widowed, while her four kids were still young enough to be causing teenaged-flavored trouble. He embraced the family’s idiosyncrasies—even coddled the vicious Persian cat. Though he was a part of our family for nearly twice as long as I’ve been alive, he understood outsider status. Trying to fit in.

~

I’m less than ten, and we’ve just arrived at the Daytona airport. My grandparents show up at the baggage claim dressed as Raggedy Ann and Andy: handmade red-yarn wigs, rosy cheeks, and gingham. I’m still young enough to be delighted with their hilarity—and they know it. My grandpa stoops and throws his arms wide. “Jenny-penny!” he exclaims.

Everyone must have been staring, but I can’t conjure the faces. I don’t have any recollection beyond my excitement and my grandfather’s embrace.

~

She leans forward. “He was a great dancer, you know. Back in the day he used to do The Peabody. None of the young people knew how to do it. He’d start at one end of the ballroom and just sweep all the way across to the other side.” My grandma flashes a brief smile. “Turned a lot of heads.”

The blanket draped figure on the bed stirs. Without opening his eyes, my grandpa lifts a paper-skinned hand, thumb gently touched to middle finger, and mimes a coupled whirl across an imaginary dance floor.

~

“Why is it taking so long for me to die?” he whispers to my brother. To his God. We have nothing to offer but musty blankets and ginger ale. Tears. What is it to be alive in a disintegrating body, your mind as sharp and quick as razor wire? We are only here to bear witness.

~

We’ve spent the day dazedly rolling through airports. Since our departure, my grandfather’s drifted into an unresponsive state and my grandma’s fallen—fracturing her spine. My own bones, brain are brittle with exhaustion, and it’s midnight before we finally shut our garage door. Home.

The ammonia stink of piss greets us. When we flip on the light, the dog smiles next to a cold puddle of urine. It’s clear from her balloon-shaped belly that her mysterious illness returned while we were gone. Of course.

“We’re going to have to put her down, you know.”

There’s nothing left in my personal armory. I admit defeat by dropping my luggage onto the floor and grabbing a roll of paper towels and carpet cleaner.

~

I don’t pick up the phone, even though I know who’s calling, and why. I’m at work, trying desperately to focus on the swamp of tasks that accumulated during my absence, and I have zero privacy. Despite that, I give in and listen to the voicemail twenty minutes later.

“…grandma’s doing better, sitting up and taking calls. Don’t think they’ll be doing surgery. I don’t get any service in her hospital room, and everything calms down around 7 p.m. You should give her a call. We did end up switching funeral homes, and I’m trying to get that figured out today. I thought you’d want to know that I had to get grandpa’s wallet for his license, an ID, and when I opened it, an old picture of you fell out. He loved all of his grandchildren, but I just, I thought you should know. Your picture was the only one.”

~

I can’t call.

Left and Leaving: Part 1

November 27, 2014

The day Corey threw himself in front of the train the first bombs hit the East Coast.

Corey squinted down the tunnel, trying to catch a glimpse of the train he already could feel clattering over the rails. It was running late. He hazarded a glance at the ceiling, stomach clenching. Nothing but cracked tiles and creatively placed graffiti. He wasn’t sure he would have preferred the sky, knowing what was coming. When the bright yellow headlights glared around the tunnel bend, he stuffed a cold, half-smoked cigarette back into his breast pocket. Corey closed his eyes, waited for the rush of stale air to fill the station, and toed off the yellow line. From the crowded platform, a woman screamed.

January 1, 2014

With a gasp, Corey startled awake. Damp flannel sheets twisted around his legs, temporarily immobilizing him, and he panicked, sliding off the bed shoulder first. He hit the hardwood with a thunk and lay there a moment, cheek pressed to the cool floorboards. Breath hitching in his throat, he brought a trembling hand to his face, tracing the familiar angles, the old scar near his ear. Corey shut his eyes. He could have sworn he’d felt the intimate explosion of his skull shattering against the terrible impact of the subway car. Bright starbursts of pain, unfathomable pressure, a sizzling jolt after being tugged under the wheels, over the third rail. Blackness.

He kicked his legs free from the tangle of sheets and pressed his palms to the floor, pushing himself up to his knees. And promptly threw up.

“Corey?” a confused voice murmured. “Are you—” A face framed by messy blonde hair peered over the side of the bed, nose wrinkling. “Jesus, Corey. Are you sick?”

His skin went cold, even as he heaved another teaspoon of bile onto the floor. Mind racing through a fog of confusion, he tried to manifest a reason for her presence. Corey rocked back onto his heels, wiping his mouth with his hand. His panic magnified. The voice belonged to a woman who’d been gone since last February. And gone, he thought, was a polite way to put it. She’d fallen down the stairs, cracking her head on the edge of a wooden step. The resulting injury had landed her in the hospital where she’d languished in a medically induced coma from which she’d never awoke. The last time Corey had seen her, she’d been breathing through a machine.

“What are you doing here, Amy?” he managed, bringing his gaze level with the clock radio. It beamed a luminous orange 4:27 a.m. Corey realized his tone was off. He’d sounded rude rather than surprised, which was a more accurate reflection of his mental state. Rude rather than nervous as hell. He winced again when a light snapped on and the bedroom washed into focus under the harsh yellow light. Corey blinked. The lamp. He’d liberated the avocado-green relic from his parents’ basement years earlier, and he was reasonably sure he’d gotten rid of it around the same time he’d gotten rid of Amy. Yet here they were.

“I live here, asshole,” she returned, pulling the bedspread up to her chest like a makeshift robe. “Happy New Year to you, too.” She threw her legs over the side of the bed, pointedly dragging the covers with her as she strode past the soupy contents of his stomach. Corey watched her, dumbfounded, as she collected herself and slammed the bathroom door shut. Her voice was muffled by the sound of running water and the barrier of the door, but he could still make out a final grumble. “Still drunk. Typical.”

“New Year?” he asked the door, vigorously running his fingers over his scalp, trying to dislodge the mystery. Amy’s accident swirled in his mind, threatening to overwhelm him. It felt anchored in his subconscious. He surveyed the room as he rose unsteadily to his feet. It spun briefly, and he pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead. The bedroom had the familiar qualities of a place that had been lived in, decorated, and then lovingly neglected. An unremarkable sheet of dust draped the overstuffed bookshelf in the corner. He recognized the patchwork quilt on the floor as one of Amy’s grandmother’s abominations: neon green lions on one side, taupe zebras on the other. A numbered photograph of the ocean hung askew over the bed, and he suppressed the urge to straighten it. Something told him it wouldn’t have helped.

Corey stepped over the puddle of vomit and picked up the cell phone resting on his nightstand. He automatically ran his finger across the front in a zig-zag pattern to exit the lock screen and then stared in disbelief. According to the phone, they were in Michigan. It was 22°F, and it was indeed the first of January. The bottom line was that he wasn’t in Boston. He was alive. The train and his prior purpose receded, turning to smoke beneath his brain’s frantic queries. He felt as though a year of his life had vanished in a single night. The bile rose in the back of his throat again as he considered the woman in the bathroom. A dream, or a premonition?

He was still standing in front of the nightstand, staring at the wall, when the water shut off and the door opened. Amy emerged less disheveled, wearing a gray terrycloth bathrobe. She held a plastic tumbler of water in one hand and a worn hand towel in the other.

“Who’s Sal?” she frowned, some of her previous animosity smoothed from her face. He started, dropping the phone on the nightstand.

“What?”

“Sal,” she repeated, louder this time, and nodded at the phone. “Did someone call?” She handed him the cup of water with a brief flash of concern, and tossed the towel over the mess on the floor. She’d brushed the tangles from her hair, laying it flat against her head, and her cheeks were pink, as though she’d freshly washed and scrubbed her face. How long had she been in there? Corey glanced at the phone resting on the nightstand.

“Sal.” He conjured his mental Rolodex. After a moment, he succeeded in attaching a name to a face, a fuzzy recollection of close-cropped hair and a wry grin. She seemed desperately familiar to him, but easily could have been conjured from the same world as the oncoming train. Still, the mental image made him smile. He cleared his throat. “No. No one called. Must have been talking to myself.” He wasn’t sure about that. “You know, I had a really strange dream.”

Amy eyed him dubiously, folding her arms across her chest, but let the matter slide.

“You drank a lot last night,” she offered as statement of fact. “Again.” She stepped past him to the bed, and parked herself on the edge. The hem of the bathrobe rode up her thigh, and he couldn’t help following the smooth expanse of leg with his eyes. “I had to get Lucas to carry you up here after I found you passed out under the card table.”

He toed the towel on the floor, haphazardly mopping at the spill. If Amy could be trusted, it was mostly alcohol anyway. “I don’t remember,” he offered truthfully, clearing his throat again around a sip of water. He felt disconnected. The dream lingered at the edges of his consciousness, somehow more real than what had happened the night prior.

“I’m not surprised,” she remarked dryly. “Listen, I just thought we’d talked about this. You told me you were going to lay off.”

“I wasn’t sick,” he protested, feeling a hot blush of defensiveness rush through him, grounding him in the moment. “I told you. I had a weird fucking dream. It was—”

“Embarrassing. You embarrassed me, Corey. I know you don’t get to see all those people very often, but it’s not an excuse to drink yourself into a stupor. You completely lost control of yourself, and I had to see everyone out.”

He was half listening, he realized. In fact, it seemed that they’d had this discussion before. He could picture her beckoning him over, putting her hands on his shoulders so that he’d be forced to look into her eyes. He would apologize, trying not to breathe on her with the stink of sickness lingering on his teeth. In a week, she’d be gone. He wasn’t sure how he knew it, but half a moment later, she bent her index finger into a hook. Head tilted slightly, she gazed up at him, raising her arms to put her palms on his shoulders once he’d stepped close enough.

“I’m sorry,” he said, taking a step closer, trying to shake the nauseating déjà vu. He let her lean her head against his stomach, and he fixed his stare at the window over her shoulder. “It won’t happen again.” That earned him a wan smile. She swung her legs up over the side of the bed and scooted over, making room for him in the once-warm nest. He noticed that she’d ditched the bedspread in the bathroom, leaving them with the hideous, threadbare quilt. Corey finished the water in one long, slow gulp, and left the glass beside the phone. Sal. Was she at the party last night? Why was she so damn familiar?

He clambered back into bed, arranging his limbs so that she could curl up comfortably against him. It was less desire and more a habit—it was just the way things were. He lay quietly, examining the ceiling as though it would yield answers when pressed. But in a moment, his breathing slowed, eyelids drooping. Maybe he had been partying excessively. Just before the somnolent haze pulled him back under, his lips worked.

“They’re coming.”

“Who?” Amy whispered against his side, measuring the rise and fall of his chest.

There was no reply. 

Cemetery

The new Stormwind Cemetery was a surprisingly pleasing place to relax: fewer mounts traipsed through the cobbled streets, vendors ceased hawking their wares at the gates, and if you didn’t mind the occasional bouts of sobbing (she didn’t), it was quiet. Wonderfully quiet. Shackleton doffed her spired helmet and rested her head against a marble tombstone, listening to the gentle lap of lake water against the far bank. It was the kind of place, she thought, where death could be peaceful.

Glacierthief obviously approved. The ghoul's blackened mouth gnawed on the corner of the headstone, slobbering over the carved figure of a spirit healer. Despite this, the ghoul was at ease amidst the expanse of tidy graves, comfortable in the presence of his sleeping brethren. Shackleton handed him her helmet to hold and kicked her long legs out in front of her, admiring the grass tickling her hooves.

“I am surprised about this Grael,” she offered to the ghoul. “Frost described her as a formidable warrior, but she is a small woman. A priest. Given his general aversion to those who blindly follow the Light—”

Glacierthief made a non-committal grunt as he shook the helmet, tapping it lightly on the marble headstone.

“He is also a priest now. I know this,” she snapped, snatching the plate helm from her minion. “But she does not treat him so. She asks me about his—” A pause. “His second life, with eyes like scared child. Why bother? Why worry? She must embrace this opportunity without doubt or regret. Have many children.”

Shackleton closed her eyes, blotting out the dappled shade of the apple tree overhead. “I am missing something.” She tapped her fingers on her knee, plate clinking. With a sigh, she considered this last thought at length before drifting into a state of half-sleep, ghoul at her side.

It was difficult to shake the feeling that the fear in Grael’s eyes hadn’t been for Raiek, but for her

Frost

Sorina watched one of the dwarf’s gnarled hands come to an uneasy rest on the heavy hammer suspended from his belt. The other meaty paw white-knuckled the handle of a massive tankard still resting on the bar. She made a point of slowly unfastening the leather baldric that secured her runeblade to her back, carefully propping the entire harness against the wooden stool at her side before taking a seat.

“How d’yae know Raiek again?” the dwarf rumbled, squinting up at her beneath his woolly, red brows.

She paused. “Frost?”

~

“Frost!” she called, the hollow echo of her voice nearly lost in the storm.  She wrenched her battle-axe free from the entrails of a rapidly cooling body and pointed a long finger toward the moaning figure of a shield-bearing woman. With a squeal, a shaggy ghoul leapt from the corpse at her feet and set upon the struggling paladin with his yellow, blunted teeth. The wailing stopped.

“Have you seen these little books they carry around with them, Shackleton?” Raiek Frost smirked, emerging from behind a decrepit cabin. An embossed, leather-bound tome sailed through the red rain and landed at her feet. The pages splayed against the desecrated ground, ink smeared beyond recognition. “Pathetic.” Even with the poor visibility, his eyes were blue lamplights illuminating the pale outline of his face.

She kicked the libram toward an arm that had lost the rest of its person. “Who were they with?” she asked, wiping her axe on a stained tabard before fastening it to her back. The corpses bore no scarlet tabards, argent tokens, or symbols of the so-called Lightbringer. Nothing but their little books and a ramshackle assembly of dented, gray armor.

Done with its feast, her ghoul trundled over, hunkering by her side.

“No one, it seems,” Frost replied, upending a simple leather purse that had been tied to one of their belts. “Just some young fools who think that the Light makes them invincible.”

“Still.” She smoothed back her water-drenched hair. “A little strange, no?”

“Paladins!” he spat, sneering at the spread of bodies steaming in the rain. “Mindless lunatics incapable of perceiving anything beyond their petty cause. Probably some new ‘order’ trying to convert the carrion grubs and make a name for itself.”

She snorted, laying a blood-spattered gauntlet on her ghoul’s shoulder. “Come. Let us be done here. Perhaps there are stragglers we have missed.” With a grin, she started toward a muddied trail where two death chargers stamped impatiently.

“Wait.”

Shackleton turned, arching a thin brow over the glowing sockets of her eyes.

“We’re going to burn them. Every last one.”

~

“Aye, Raiek Frost.” The dwarf nodded, inching his hand from hammer to knee. The tavernkeep deposited a glass of caraway burnwine in front of her, which she briefly considered. She rubbed the slender stem of the glass between her thumb and middle finger before fixing the dwarf with a sunken-eyed smirk.

“We have had a history of ah—how you say? Successful busy-ness ventures.” 

Fireworks

Every Fourth of July the local orchestra put on this fantastic rendition of the “1812 Overture.” My friends and I watched, sprawled on tattered blankets and aging plastic lawn chairs at the back of the green, agreeably wasted on cheap sangria and Smuttynose. An ancient dude in the percussion section glared furiously at his bass drum, mallets trembling. Each time the score called for cannon fire to punctuate the boastful fragments of La Marseillaise, he summoned his entire body to swing the mallet, jowls shaking as he delivered a single, tremendous blow to the head of the drum. In each resonating boom, he was the entire Russian Army reveling at France’s imminent retreat.

I spent a long minute trying to explain the history of the piece, how we’d co-opted someone else’s victory celebration to commemorate our own, but Dan produced a suspicious pair of bottle rockets he’d proudly constructed pre-boozefest, mercifully cutting short my inevitably boring diversion.

Bottle rockets, Dan explained, were an ancient incendiary art. You needed a measured handful of black powder (sulfur, charcoal, potassium nitrate), a paper tube, a guide stick, a few “secret ingredients,” and a fast-burning fuel to kick it off the ground. His fuel of choice was what professional pyros call a “whistle mix,” named for its obnoxious high-pitched whine. Combine seventy-percent potassium perchlorate and thirty-percent sodium benzoate and carefully ram it into the tube with a hydraulic press. When ignited, the fuel strobes, producing a gas that burns in a rapid on-off cycle and screams. As for that secret ingredient? Despite Dan’s insisted mystery, it wasn’t exactly hard to figure out. Only so many metals burned off bright-yellow scintilla, and sodium sulfate, the crack version of sulfuric acid, was a relatively common item in any chemist’s closet.

Dan happened to be said chemist. We tittered as he jammed the rocket into the soft grass beside the blanket and waited for the next gleeful chorus of La Marseillaise.

“Check this shit out,” he said, flipping an orange Bic from his pocket and holding it to the fuse. It lit instantly. The rocket fizz-walloped into the air just as the bass drum thundered, shrieking merrily over the heads of children and blanket-bedecked grandparents. Everyone (save Dan, who shot to his feet, straining to follow the rocket’s trajectory toward the concert shell) dove to the grass. Kate dumped the last Solo cup of sangria onto a smoldering corner of our blanket.

I gasped as the homemade firework hit its apex and crash-landed Challenger style into the brass section in a lopsided burst of yellow stars. “BOOM,” cried the bass drum. The Fourth of July picnickers exploded into shouts. Families tripped over coolers and fell out of chairs, frantically dialed 911, and searched the skies for hijacked planes. The rocket ricocheted off a music stand, igniting a half-inch pile of sheet music, and nailed the nearest trumpet player. Dan hastily stuffed the second rocket into his pants, and the rest of us lab junkies climbed wide-eyed to our feet. This was it.

The orchestra flailed wildly, a cacophony of tipped stands and reedy squeals. I watched in amazement as the players scrambled off stage in an indeterminable wash of white and black—a stampede of instrument-laden penguins. One of the trombone players looked like he’d gotten the flaming music under control, or had at least stomped it into submission. In the distance, a Doppler peal of sirens clamored into existence. I silently reminded myself never to disturb any of Dan’s research projects.

“Fiona,” Kate hissed, hazarding another squinting glance at the stage. “I think someone’s hurt up there.”

“Maybe we should be going?” I asked, chewing the corner of my lip, but found myself motivating toward the concert shell after nestling my Smuttynose IPA between the now-damp blanket and the Coleman. Dammit.

“Should’ve used mortars,” Dan remonstrated at my retreating back, as though clucking his tongue at some other explosives amateur. “Can’t accidentally redirect after ignition.”

Before any of us could think better of it, I stumbled through the melee of panicked revelers who waited for the reassurances of emergency response. They parted naturally. That’s the thing about crowds—they either behave patiently for anyone who looks like they might have a fucking clue, or they tear you to pieces. I was too drunk to project anything beyond mild excitement, a veneer of calm in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Onstage the conductor knelt next to the trumpet player. A worried brass section surrounded them.

I swung a leg up, hauling myself over the edge of the platform. “Hey,” I offered over the immediate protests of the conductor, and promptly tripped over a trombone. It took a minute to rearrange my limbs and get back on my feet. “Listen, I’m a doctor.”

The conductor’s face screwed into the facial equivalence of a fart, but he pointed at the guy with the horn. “Simon,” he added. I bent, peering at the man at the end of the conductor’s finger.

The trumpet player lay on the stage, braced uncomfortably on his elbows. His face had a certain wry lopsidedness to it, one eye just slightly lower than the other. I couldn’t help wondering how a pair of sunglasses would sit on his nose. Even his haircut seemed a little crooked. I reluctantly dropped my gaze, cheeks heating.

Trace blood speckled a singed hole in the otherwise pristine tuxedo shirt, and I hooked the fabric aside with one finger. Just a little burn, probably. No big deal. When I opened my mouth to offer some advice about a tetanus shot, I hiccupped loudly enough to startle the conductor leaning over my shoulder. The trumpet player managed an embarrassed half grin that I found myself mirroring.

“You’re fine,” I offered instead.

“So are you.”

Opportunity

“How ‘bout you give me the name of Walker’s ship?”

“Specify: Walker, Dorian; Walker, Belle; or Walker—?”

“Dorian, ‘course.”

“Dorian Course not found.”

“No—listen, here. Fix your shit. Tell me the name of Dorian Walker’s ship.”

“Request confirmed. Specify star date.”

“Alright. Okay. I ken your drill. Tell me the name of the ship from Perils of the Lost Planet.

“Request confirmed. Processing.” A tiny scanner extended, sweeping the air experimentally. A robotic head scratch. “Ship name, Blue Horizon.”

“Ba-looo horizon!” she whooped, slapping the posterior surface of the scanbot. It wobbled in midair, a frantic display of lights illuminating its meridian.  “Hell, Rhubarb, you’re gonna have the best trivia bot this side of the Fringe. What else can this bucket do?”

“Just Rue,” the woman in question stressed between gritted teeth. She thought about amending to Dr. Starwind, but had a feeling it wouldn’t stick. Her fingers tangled into her mop of curling white hair, intermittently massaging her scalp or plugging her ears. Rue hunched over a data pad, trying to focus on the contents: a treatise on silicon-based molecular nanotechnology. “Have you been using The Major to scan comic books?”

“Just Rue,” the soldier repeated, tipping back in her chair with a wide grin. She folded one arm behind her head and used the other to grasp the edge of the table for support. The chair teetered.  Rue knew that a solid kick in partial grav would send the flim-chair rocketing into the bulkhead. She resisted, focusing on the whir of the engine beneath the deck. Listened to the hum. The ship was rattletrap transport at best, but after the way the last job had gone down, she really couldn’t complain. “The Major’s a growin’ bot, honey. You gotta keep him focused. Keep those little servers whizzin’.”

“Servos.”

“Whatever. My point’s that he’s bored cooped up on this ship.”

“Lycentia, it ain’t a he,” she started, tapping the data pad on the arm of her chair, “and it’s incapable of bein’ bored. It’s a rudimentary AI dressed up in a fancy metal jacket.”

“Not so fancy,” Lycentia offered, squinting at the scuffed and dented fab-metal. “D’ya think we could sell ‘im for a few plat at our next stop?”

“Un-fucking-likely. That little bot’s crucial to my work. Why don’t you sell that monstrosity instead?” Rue pointed at the massive sword leaning against the wall. The blade was nearly as tall as the warrior who wielded it and was made of a light, carbon-fiber material reinforced by a loftite matrix. She occasionally considered stripping it for its material components.

Your work’s been earnin’ us nothin’ but heartache and a coupla mighty empty bellies. My work ensures we don’t end up in any of those bellies. Keep your dainty mitts off my piece.” Lycentia relinquished her grip on the lip of the table to offer a pointed jab in Rue’s general direction. Support gone, the chair flipped up onto its back legs and tipped over with a satisfying whomp.

“Ba-looooooooo horizon!” the Major screeched in monotone, buzzing over the fallen soldier. Rue chucked the data pad at the robot, which promptly shut up and assumed a forlorn, sulky orbit over the card table. Red-faced, Lycentia stood up and righted the chair, rubbing a tender elbow. Rue arched a brow.

“Must’ve hit a bump.”

“Sure.”

Lycentia cleared her throat. “I know you’re particularly wanting to get on to Thayd and set yourself up with some like-minded folk,” she paused, holding up a quieting palm before Rue could halfheartedly protest, “but sister, this planet is going to chew you up. And let’s face it—you’re not exactly the greatest physicker planetside.”

“I’m not that kind of doc—”

“Point is, we’re good together. We got a right proper set of complementary skills.”

Rue’s skeptical expression softened, lines at the corners of her eyes relaxing . Lycentia had a point. Her abject ferocity and willingness to wade headlong into dire circumstances paired nicely with Rue’s confounding ability to find said circumstances. She sighed, rolling her head from one side to the other to loosen the vertebrae. “Maybe so.”

Lycentia brightened immediately, swiveling her chair around to face Rue’s crate. “So I was thinkin’, well, what do me and Rhubarb need? Opportunity!” She spread her hands in front of her face and let them go wide, illuminating an imaginary marquee. “See, this message came over the wire today.” She pulled out the communication device and tossed it to Rue. Rue caught it reflexively and flipped it to text display. OPPORTUNITY! the little message twinkled. Rue groaned.

Hello, citizen!

Thayd's Best, the liquor choice in many fine Exile establishments, is now hiring! We are looking for dedicated workers to help in all phases of our production! We need farmers, brewers, sales representatives, guards, transporters, and more! If you would like to apply, please respond to our mailing at your earliest convenience. Have a Thayd's Best day!

Thayd's Best—not your bathtub hooch!

“Lyc, this here’s a junk message. You can filter these.”

“This is legit. Like, there is some money involved, y’know what I’m saying?” Lycentia reached over and snatched the datachron away. “Says they’re lookin’ for all sorts. I’ve got the muscle and obvious mind for strategery, and you’ve got whatever’s left over.” Rue pinched her nose and briefly closed her eyes. “Maybe you can wrangle some of your nanotech into production. Binary brew. Robot rotgut!” Lycentia hooted.

“Well.” Rue rubbed her face, feeling the sharp screw of a headache turn behind her left eye. With a blink, she scrutinized Lycentia’s face. Rue thought she could detect a hint of pleading behind that toothy grin. Even the Major, which was scanning the flipped-over data pad on the floor, radiated an air of desperation. She inhaled, the air heavy with the scent of oil, stale smoke, and gear that well and truly needed a wash (or a final walk to an incinerator). She couldn’t argue that a steady source of income and a base for future operations seemed a mighty fine premise indeed. On cue, her stomach growled. “Who does it say to call?”

You don’t call; you don’t write.

Forty-two hours each week, I write and edit marketing materials. I read case files and verdict reports. I watch the window for blue jays and mourning doves and signs of the elusive coyote. I seldom carve out time for my own work.

But even though my day job (and my freelance business) eats up an extraordinary amount of time, I'm not too busy—I just make increasingly preposterous excuses. I need to edit someone else's manuscript; I need to run four miles; I need to play video games with my partner; I need to clean all the bathrooms; or—my favorite—I need to bake six loaves of bread. (On the plus side I'm in great shape, I'm well fed, and the house is spotless.) My point is that, while I've self-identified as a writer since elementary school, I'm barely writing. I cannot even access my anger as fuel.

I am a pretender. I am incapable of finishing ideas.

I can only try to do better.

Exposure

Leaf peepers, those voyeurs of dappled death, 

perverts accoutered with disposable cameras,

deviants hoping for a bared glimpse of a rouged 

maple or slender birch paling by the roadside.

They delight in nature's subtle malevolence,

the slow turn of chlorophyll unrenewed, the

brilliant rigor mortis of carotenoids, anthocyanins:

a deciduous lividity. Always, they depart before

the end, when the brown, crinkled ghosts of once

splendor, of "Quick, hun! Take a picture!" descend,

waiting to be burned or buried. 

Clowder

When the last cat is chloroformed, and

we swallow the frightened cries, steal the rumbles from their throats;

when we bare our teeth over the pinned bodies,

hold the warm hearts in our hands;

when we draw sanguine whiskers with scalpels and slowly shed our clothes,

stalk the halls wearing their matted coats, and

we forget ourselves, howling 'til we're hoarse—

until the others come to silence us, 

we will revel in our borrowed skins and scratch the bones of our oppression.

Sleepwaking

Misfirings begin at dusk. Already she’s cognizant of the minute hand

marching forward, announcing the triumph of a second passing, her skull

buzzing with six thousand anxious insects. There’s no time. She upends

bottles of water into her bromeliads, refolds rows of clothes, piles

Tums in rounded, impossible little pyramids. She counts spare cylinders

of Chapstick, teeters on the only two legs of a wooden chair touching

the floor—3:47—and draws her index fingers beneath her eyes, testing the

not-quite wrinkles, the soft purple hollow. Endless lists skim the dark lake

of her consciousness, and she flounders, briefly breaking the surface. In that

moment, she stares at nothing, everything, wishing less for some poetic

awakening and more for blankness, a certain unrippling quiet. Fear creeps

into curled limbs, but she emerges from the cocoon, shakes the lingering

stiffness from her body. She begins reorganizing the desk, her deliberate

fingers washed white by the monitor’s light. Nothing now but the hum

of a computer, the hushed whisper of breath.  She catches her darkened

reflection in the window glass, stares at, through the glare, and considers

the sleeping populace before her. Envies. 

Solicitude

Before it rains,

a low-pressure system swirls beneath my patella

and slips slowly past my internal Coriolis

back into pure atmosphere.

Before it rains,

I feel the aching damp, a catch

in each unhurried step – umbrella spines

briefly declining to align before reaching

an understanding.

Before it rains, I carry

this interminable gray sky, knowing

in the marrow, in the interstitial fluids,

a storm is coming.