“Do you resent your purpose?” Zorina asked, tugging one of their discarded gloves over her left hand. She flexed her fingers experimentally, watching as the black organics molded to her skin. The faceted ley lines in the smart fabric remained dark.

“No more than you resent yours, I imagine,” Aeron replied. They touched Zorina’s wrist, and the ley lines glowed white, electrifying the skin beneath the glove with a delicious shiver. When they slowly drew away, the thrill of energy receded with the dying light. Zorina shucked the glove one finger at a time and dropped it into Aeron’s lap.

“But no one’s forcing me to do what I do.”

“We all function within parameters, little Infiltrator,” Aeron said, giving a hank of Zorina’s damp red hair a yank. “You, me, we’re both programmed. That I’m a fragment of a quantum algorithm is inconsequential. When I split from the cluster, a wave function collapsed—all other universes were instantaneously closed to me. Though I’m coded for the resurrection imperative, I also am solely the product of my collected experiences.”

“Then why—”

“Your insecurity bores me. I know what I like, same as you. In fact, I’d say I know your body better than you do. I can feel the quiver of blood in your heart, see the silver stretch of tissue that protects it. I can visualize the precise angles at which you’ll break and map the interstitial matrices of desire.” The soul healer’s inky pupils met her mismatched eyes.

Zorina sneered and kicked a mirrored helmet into the corner.

“Show me,” she demanded.


Light as a

She stared cross-eyed at the duratyne feather her claws held aloft. It was short for a secondary, but long enough that she could lay it across her armored forearm and link her elbow and wrist. The tip was broad, the body wide—these were the pinions that locked tightly during flight, formed the airfoil and generated lift. Zorina rotated the feather, peering at the leading edge. A very close observation revealed minute serrations that muffled the rush of air through each barb and vane.

Similar feathers were folded into a neat interlocking mesh against her back, miraculously preserved after so many hundreds of years. A curious and elegant affectation, one that favored internal batteries and personal resources for the long haul. A long-term investment, so to speak.

She remembered the mapping process when they’d been installed, the excruciating uplink as each nerve cluster grew into the organic metal. The spinal fusion, skeletal injections, muscle stims that engorged and lengthened her muscle fibers—a new and elaborate internal scaffolding.

And pain. Always pain.

She turned the metallic plumage over and over, recording the minute details between her fingers.

“Whatcha got there?” called one of her charges, swiping a dirty claw at the pristine treasure, jerking her back to reality.

The Maw had been stealing children from the local settlements—for what purpose, she didn’t know. Part of her wondered if they’d be rifted ring-wise to Ryjel for some nefarious scheme, an experiment, a brainwashing campaign, but the rational part of her knew the Maw hated her golden counterparts and their apparent good fortune as much as anyone. Plagued by their own low post-Beam birthrates and an inability to reliably map their neural networks, it was possible they simply wanted young minds to mold. Carriers of ancient cultures and tradition. Still. The sleek-furred Maw had always been secretive, but nabbing children felt strange, a step too far.

But the Coalition wasn’t paying her to speculate, just deliver. After she’d glitched into the Maw’s hanging village and whisked the children through the canopy, the questions from the brats had been ceaseless until they’d fallen asleep.

Zorina flicked the feather to her other hand, watching it gently seesaw through the warm air before plucking it back. A familiar face briefly appeared in her mind’s eye and then ghosted into memory.

“A trophy,” she lied, holding the quill between her first and second claws. She dangled it in front of the youngster’s face. “Sawed it off the first Ryjellian I killed just before he drew his last breath.” She forced a grin, baring a mouthful of teeth for feral effect.

The apparent drama wasn’t lost on the little one, her lips forming a distinct ‘o’ of interest.

“You should tie it to your sword,” she offered, gesturing to one of the blades strapped to Zorina’s waist. “That would look really neat. Can I touch it?”

An ancient patience managed to keep her from flinching away from the grabby claws, but a guilty dread shivered her featherlights beneath the distant twin dawn. Another tight smile.

“You’ll get your own someday. Go wake the others,” Zorina ordered, nodding to the sleeping bundles arranged around a smoldering fire. “It’s about time we break camp and head home. You’ve got folks interested in seeing you.”

Charged with this new task, the girl scampered back over the loose rock to the fire circle. Zorina sighed, starting to carefully tuck the feather back into her pack when she noticed a dark red spot by the root of the quill. Blood? Without thinking, she brought the feather to her lips and touched the cold, hollow point to her tongue.

Tried to remember how he tasted.

She’s Fine

Solitude suits me—

no susurrus of exhaled breath

or half-formed words chasing ghosts

from my pillow case,

no warmth weighing

solid against the small of my back

or circling my hips.

I am just fucking fine.

A Rendezvous With Death

She exploded into consciousness the way a fish flees a predator—leaping, terrified, gasping in the alien air.

Years earlier, she’d waded past the foaming green breakers between two sand bars, her pockets filled with stones. The rip had quickly dragged her out to sea. She relinquished control to the fetal embrace of water, floating in the womblike troughs between waves. Eventually, the face of a massive roller towered before her, plunging her into a buffeting surge of water as the wave crested and broke over her head. For a moment, there was nothing but cold water, weightless oblivion, and a muted roar filling her ears.

It wasn’t a peaceful drift like she’d hoped. Zorina tried to force her body to relax, plumb oxygen from a new medium. Her coat, laden with jetty rocks, tugged her head below the surface but wasn’t heavy enough to sink her to the ocean floor. The tightness in her chest corkscrewed into an exquisite need, and she inhaled deeply, bright spots dancing behind her burning eyelids. When she choked down her first mouthful of brackish water, her traitorous body bucked the mental imperative to calm, legs frantically trying to brace against a sandy bottom that wasn’t there.

It felt a little like that now: drowning in reverse.

“She’s alive,” a voice called. A gloved hand clapped her shoulder, electrifying her skin with rush of warm energy and making her teeth chatter. Zorina blinked against the terrific brightness of the afternoon. The smell of acrid smoke stung her nostrils and tickled her sinuses, and she bristled, fighting off a sneeze. Alive! She resisted the mighty urge to claw at her throat, trace the line of her sternum, and examine the phantom wound. She swam in an overload of confusing sensory input.

“I hear the first death is always the worst,” the same voice quipped, coughing out an obligatory chuckle. Zorina’s eyes finally focused, zeroing on the source: a figure in a dark bodysuit, faceted gloves, mirrored mask. A soul healer.

“It was nothing,” she rasped. And yet she felt trapped in the clutches of some somnolent ghost, mind separated from body, observing herself at a distance. She recalled a moment of agony as hot metal sheared through her organics. The taste of blood filling her mouth. Could see, but couldn’t feel, her body crumpling into the dirt after the weapon sheared through her spinal column. A curtain of darkness as a man hoarsely shouted her name.

Someone cleared their throat, snapping the eidetic string of memory.

The soul healer was offering her a hand up, their gloves crackling with energy. Zorina ignored the proffered palm, wary of another teeth-clenching jolt, and forced herself to her feet. She tried not to sway. The burning smell—something like an ozone-fired barbecue—lingered in her sinuses. The soul healer dropped their hand and placed it on their own waist instead, head tilting as though surveying Zorina critically. Their mask remained blank.

“Slow down, glitch. Outpost is a solid day’s march.” One gloved finger rose in warning, preempting a protest. “Rapid transit’s offline, and you’re in no shape to fly.” The soul healer’s voice filtered through the mask with a robotic twang.

The feeling of helplessness multiplied. Zorina stretched, chest out, shoulders down, and wings erupted from her back, snapping to their full span—twice as long as she was tall. The duratyne featherlights fused to her spine shivered before collapsing and folding flat again. She’d almost forgotten they were there. Just the thought of pumping them made her bones weary. She nodded slowly to the faceless soul healer. “Where’s—”

“I’m here.” A blood-smeared face wearing a hesitant grin appeared over the soul healer’s shoulder. Zorina fought to keep her face neutral as panicked relief flooded her system. “You totally breached protocol with that save, you know,” he said.

“Not you. Where’s the legion.”

“I am the legion,” he deadpanned, balancing his halberd over his shoulders like a vicious yoke.  

Something sounding suspiciously like a snort emitted from the soul healer’s mask as they shook their head and tapped the flimpad on their forearm. “You seem adequately functional,” they observed, and engaged their optical camouflage. “Duty calls.” With an audible pop, the disembodied voice phase shifted away.

Zorina sighed, waiting for her legs to firm before attempting to walk. Her first step nearly tripped her over a blackened pair of lightblades, and she automatically bent to retrieve them. Hers? She squinted at the serials on the grips, but the numbers eluded her. The blades were still hot to the touch. Where were her gloves? Zorina hoped the post-resurrection fog would lift soon.

“I knew I’d come back, Marcus. It was nothing,” she repeated firmly, and switched tacks. “You must have missed rendezvous. Did you—”

“Ride the slip? No. Still in one piece. I waited for the soul healer to initiate backup protocols.” For me, she thought unhappily. He didn’t clue into her expression or else did a fine job ignoring it. “I figured I’d look like a real hero bringing back the Red Fox.”

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped, slamming the daggers into the scabbards at her hips. Marcus held up his hands in a placating gesture.

“Glitches are valuable resources. Famous ones, especially.”

“Infiltrators,” she insisted, stressing the military designation, and drew beside him.

He might have rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean. The remnants fell back to bunker six-zero-four after detonation. A bit of a draw, if you ask me.”

“A draw.”

“Relatively speaking, of course. The Skrit pulled out.” He winked, but she caught the vague note of concern in his voice, the tightness of his jaw. “How’d you know?”

“Know what?” She stumbled slightly as she fell into a slow march, an unpleasant reminder her neurons were still regrowing. He swiveled to regard her, narrowly avoiding braining her with the shaft of his halberd. “And for fuck’s sake—watch where you’re swinging. I’ve already died once today.”

He tipped the weapon to oblige her, and tried again. “How’d you know most of the infantry were out of kisk range?”

“I didn’t,” she admitted. But she’d suspected. How did one defeat an immortal enemy? Separate it from its regeneration technology.  Successful resuscitation required a local, personal kisk and a soul healer to guide the process. It was theoretically possible to come back without one, but not both. Not safely.  

The latest rash of concentrated Skrit invasions had pulled their response teams into increasingly remote locations, daring the legion to abandon their kisks or permanently risk losing settlements, resources, civilians before they could relocate backups. It’s what she would have done, after all.

A chill swept through her body, and for the first time since she’d resurrected, she surveyed the smoldering earth. Coniferous trees popped and sizzled. She recognized the obliteration of pulse weapons in the wrack of smashed corpses dotting the crater. The harvesting station was gone. At the edge of the new clearing, her soul healer sat on their haunches, mask catching the glare of the setting suns. They struggled to will life into a charred body, white lightning briefly illuminating both healer and patient. And though the corpse’s dark skin obliged, stretching to cover burned meat and smoking bones, the fresh muscle only twitched once before stilling. Out of range.

Zorina drew a small circle over her chest with one finger. She’d been lucky, then.

“If you hadn’t stepped between us…” He trailed off, mouth compressing into a grim line. His gaze drifted toward the narrow, wooded path that would eventually lead them to 604’s bunker.

She followed his stare, a memory unspooling. The siren’s call of conflict had been unmistakable. She’d felt it reverberate through her bones, stir the featherlights at her back, and snake its way inside her skull just before her comm thrummed with warning: Unexpected casualties. Repeat. Unexpected—the fwoop-boom of a pulse blast cut the message short. Heavy reptilian bodies swarmed the station below her, their figures shimmering with scattershield glare. A lone trio of legionnaires defended the gates: two on the ground, one with his back pinned to the force wall. Marcus. She ducked formation, wings tucked tightly against her sides, and fell like an invisible meteor into the fray.

Zorina blinked back to the present. She watched Marcus unseat his weapon from where it rested on his shoulders and collapse the shaft, making it manageable to sling across his back as he marched onward. Dried blood filled the lines of his face, and one of his hands trembled. He was exhausted, she realized.

No. Terrified.

“You finished it though,” she offered, almost afraid to hear his reply. “You saved the research team.”

He nodded, left corner of his lip curling. “In a way.”

The crater yawned behind them.

The Osprey

The osprey understands the physics of falling

feet-first—talons snatching at soft bellies

shifting beneath the murky surface—and emerging with

nothing save a spray of salt. Mottled wings row

a steady beat, breaking the shallows’ grasp and carving

a tight trajectory clear into the clouds. Its ochre eyes

sight a second flicker of shadowed water. Later,

briny morsels dangling from the hooked grin,

the osprey whistles, tips a beady wink:

the trick, madame, is always being hungry.

A most unapologetic predator.


She leaned back on her elbows, kicking a branch into the fire with the heel of her boot. The flames protested briefly, coughing and sputtering on the damp wood, but slowly licked their way back into a crackling cone. The damp hadn’t quite crept through the thick cloak she’d laid out onto the packed snow, and her carefully tended fire kept her organics warm and supple. She kept her blades close to her body, discouraging the formation of frost that could jam the daggers in their scabbards in a time of desperate need.

A hook-beaked bird, perched on the buckle of her haversack, cocked his head to one side and keened quietly. The assassin stirred, shuffling a tattered scrap of blue cloth from her knees. “Bad hunting today, Marcus,” she agreed, brushing the small raptor from her pack. She unthreaded the buckle and produced a worn parcel of waxed paper containing a few dismal scraps of dried fish. The bird hesitated for a moment, yellow eyes glittering in the firelight, and then tore into the flaking meat.

“It wasn’t always this way,” she lamented to the treetops blackening the night sky. Just beyond the grasping branches, Ryjel gleamed bigger and brighter than the surrounding stars. The bird listened, scattering morsels from his curved beak. “There was—”

Even after 500 years she plainly remembered his skin, like the creamy underside of a pre-beam flower petal, and the gold freckles speckling the bridge of his nose, tips of his ears, his shoulders. He practically glowed beneath the sun, radiant in its presence, a testament to a life full of verdant pleasures and warm afternoons. Free from endless night, the klaxon of radiation alarms.

She tracked him through the fungal forest, her figure a flickering green shadow darting between the stalks.  He made steady progress, stopping occasionally for a cube or fluids. She noted the halberd lashed to his back, calculated its potential reach and how quickly he could draw and swing 180 degrees. (Assuming, of course, that it was an unmodified blade.) She counted the number of steps he walked between each break. Though he was wearing what looked like a full suit of duratyne armor, it didn’t seem to slow him down. What was his purpose? What sort of sun-sucking Ryjellian planned a camping trip to the Frill? He was an enigma brazenly striding through the wilds.

On the fourth day he stopped and made a proper camp on the bank of a fetid stream. She watched him unhook a complicated baldric, lay the massive halberd beside the fire, and remove each piece of armor, the fine plates retracting and collapsing in precise lines. She squinted. Duratyne that expensive could have been equipped with optical camouflage. It took one to know one, after all. Even without the armor, he cast a thick shadow.

When he started humming, she froze, fingers curling around the hilts of her daggers. Something about the melody tweaked an old ghost in her brain. But he kept moving, ducking to pull a handful of bright red fruit and a half-plucked bird from a small sack. He arranged these over a crumpled foil, waited for the flames to settle, and shoved the foil into the glowing orange coals.

Before he could straighten up, she melted out of stalks, disengaging her optical camouflage at the precise moment the tip of her poisoned dagger pressed into the back of his neck. An oily green tattoo wicked into his skin.

“You’re a long way from your kisk, friend.” The second stiletto eased into the flesh above his tailbone. In two neat motions she could sever his spinal cord. He didn’t move, and she leaned in to her blades. “Any final words?”

A beat of silence.

“Why do they call you the red fox?”

By the Ring. She stiffened in alarm, and he moved then, a slight pivot of his shoulders and neck, letting the dagger carve a furrow through his deeply tanned skin. Blood welled over the blade and spilled onto his tunic, beading over the fabric. Beautiful, she realized, with a growing sense of unease. So drenched in melanin he probably could have photosynthesized. Envy briefly tempered her anxiety.

“You were always such a sneaky little thing.” His grin met her mismatched eyes.

“Marcus,” she whispered, snatching her daggers away. She sheathed them at her hips without breaking his stare, wondering at the sharp angles of his face. “How did you—”

Unsteadily, the tranquilizing poison singing through his veins, he rose to his feet and tugged his bloodied tunic straight. “When I heard the name, it tickled my memory,” he began, hazel eyes examining her critically. They’d been darker the last time she’d seen him, just like his hair. He was a gilded, resplendent version of his former self. “Ancient by now, but I placed it eventually. Who else would it be?” And if the name was on the lips of Ryjellians, there’d been inquiries. Again.


“Your wings would fetch a fair price on Ryjel, Zorina.”

“You’re here to kill me, then.” Her claws itched toward her hips.

“Maybe.” He paused for a beat. “But I’m not foolish enough to chase bounties.” He laughed. It was a distinctly melodious sound, and nothing like she remembered. What had happened to the rough and tumble young man she’d fought beside so long ago? He was all angles and carefully veiled strength now—a threat, she reminded herself. Ryjellian.

“You’ve managed to gain a modicum of wisdom in the past five hundred thirty years. I never would have imagined,” she joked, swallowing hard. Quantifying the distance between their past and present unwound something hard and cruel beneath her ribs. The feeling blossomed from a seed of bitter regret, digging into her lungs and pushing up the back of her throat.

“You look—I don’t know—different. I mean, have you put on weight or something?”

Zorina choked down a hiccup and threw a shaking, balled fist at his face. Even slowed by the poison, it wasn’t difficult for him to catch her sinewy wrist in one of his large hands. Ah, hands. With fingers that tapered into half-moon, chewed up nails. Her claws suddenly felt monstrous. He brought her up short, peering at her face, and stroked the inside of her wrist with his thumb. “You found me,” he offered, flashing a bright white strip of teeth.

“You’re in the Frill,” she spat. “I didn’t find shit. You were looking.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Close enough.”

“And yet here you are,” he started, touching the nape of her neck where a scarlet mane tapered down her spine, “the scourge of Forward Command. New enemy, old tricks. Nothing really changes.” He seemed to ignore the talons, the green cast of her skin, the preternaturally sharp teeth. She could get rid of him then and there, she knew. It would be a simple matter to gut him with the concealed knife in her bracer and watch him bleed out as he gazed longingly into her eyes. She clenched her jaw.

“What do you want, Marcus?”

“What the Beam never gave me a chance to finish.”

Later, she’d remember his hands the most, the way they gently stroked her cold skin and left behind heated fingerprints. In those moments, she was sure he’d marked her with an indelible ink crying her betrayal: Lover of Light, Mistress of Ryjel. She remembered how he’d carelessly draped his blue cloak over them both and tucked the edges around her body, how he’d nestled her close to his breast and fallen asleep. He’d been a veritable furnace, a source of warmth she hadn’t felt since she’d had the sun. Just before what counted for dawn, she’d kicked the cloak to one side, craving the crisp air’s relief. An innocuous looking flim pad slid from a concealed pocket, hit a damp rock, and turned on. It had immediately started broadcasting orders. An impossible order.

The red fox never asked any questions.

In the present, Zorina glared at the faint ring arcing across the night sky. “There was a man with the keys to my past, my feathered little friend.” She paused, fingering the tattered cloak. “And I killed him.”

Dead Letters

Every December I carefully address cards to my extended geography, 

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 invokes the belonging I require

knowing persons missed most are already gone,

if I'll ever understand a winter draped in 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.
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.


“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. 


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


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.


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.” 


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.”