The Last Spin Cycle
Hannah Lee Defrates
Imprisoned and disgraced from their surreal society of plague doctors, Meadowlark and Caraway seek escapism to escape the inescapable, even if for just one moment.
Meadowlark- disgraced plague doctor; not as tough as they appear
Caraway- disgraced plague doctor; not exactly timid, but not tough; has a lot of abandoned dreams
Sage- plague doctor; nonspeaking role
Thyme- plague doctor; nonspeaking role
*All characters are suited to all races and genders and are at least 18 years of age.
Any time after the invention of washers and dryers
A laundry room-turned prison of sorts
(At rise: The sound of a dryer beginning a cycle pierces the darkness. Lights up on a basement laundry room. The floor is made of stained black and white linoleum. The walls are peeling and yellowed. On one wall there is a row of washers; on another, a row of dryers. On another wall hangs a succession of sepia-ed photo portraits of people in vintage-looking clothing. There are two windows and a door, but all three are covered in thick blackout curtains so that the only light comes from a flickering overhead fluorescent. In one corner of the room, there is a red, thermoplastic-coated picnic table, strewn with plastic place-settings and faded playing cards. MEADOWLARK, a plague doctor, sits at the end of one of the benches.)
MEADOWLARK: (Half-singing) Fifty-six bottles of crap on the wall, fifty-six bottles of crap. Take one down, pass it around. Fifty-five bottles of crap on the wall. Fifty-five bottles of crap on the wall, fifty-five bottles of crap. Take one down, pass it around. Fifty-four bottles of crap on the wall, fifty-four bottles of crap—
(The door opens, and through the curtains come three additional plague doctors. SAGE, THYME, and CARAWAY. SAGE and THYME force CARAWAY onto the bench, chaining them to the picnic table and leaving from whence they came. As soon as they leave, MEADOWLARK continues…)
MEADOWLARK: …Take one down, pass it around. Fifty-three bottles of crap on the wall. Fifty-three bottles of crap on the wall, fifty-three bottles of crap. Take one down, pass it around. Fifty-two bottles of crap on the wall…
(CARAWAY puts their head in their hands.)
MEADOWLARK: …Fifty-two bottles of crap on the wall, fifty-two bottles of—
CARAWAY: Could you please not?
CARAWAY: I think you know what.
MEADOWLARK: Oh. The song?
MEADOWLARK: I think it’s a nice song.
CARAWAY: It isn’t. And it doesn’t even make any sense. Why would anyone, first of all, have so many bottles of crap? And why would they “take them down and pass them around”?
MEADOWLARK: Fine. We can sing something else. (singing) Row, row, row, your boat—
MEADOWLARK: Seriously?! What do you suggest I sing then?
CARAWAY: Could you just not sing? Please.
MEADOWLARK: What else do you expect me to do?
CARAWAY: I don’t know. Just please let me have a moment.
MEADOWLARK: You know what? No. I was here first.
CARAWAY: That’s not exactly something to be proud of.
MEADOWLARK: Maybe not. But I’ve got seniority. So—
CARAWAY: How are you so calm?
MEADOWLARK: Who said I was calm?
CARAWAY: Sorry. You just don’t seem worried.
MEADOWLARK: I know what happens here. Why worry about what’s inevitable?
CARAWAY: Easy for you to say.
(They sit in silence for a moment. Then, spotting a broken plastic fork on the table, CARAWAY picks it up and begins to attempt to carve their name into the table. A horrible squeaking, scraping noise results.)
MEADOWLARK: Oh, so you’re allowed to do that, but I can’t sing?
CARAWAY: Sorry. I’ll be done in a minute.
MEADOWLARK: What are you trying to do?
CARAWAY: Make my mark.
MEADOWLARK: Like a dog?
CARAWAY: Ew. No. I just want to leave something of me behind. My name at least.
MEADOWLARK: What are you doing that for?
CARAWAY: Honestly? I want folks who’ve never met me to miss me when I’m gone.
MEADOWLARK: And you think that’ll do it?
CARAWAY: I don’t know. Maybe. I…It’s all I got.
MEADOWLARK: You’re a fool.
CARAWAY: Well, we can’t all just sit here nonchalantly!
MEADOWLARK: What do you expect me to do?
CARAWAY: I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.
MEADOWLARK: Okay. Then stop.
CARAWAY: I guess I just—
MEADOWLARK: Thought we would band together and escape or something? Would never work. Cause let me tell you. These fellas… (They tug at the chains anchoring them to the table.) Unbreakable.
(They don’t talk for a long time. Then…)
CARAWAY: I’m sorry but this just isn’t fair!
CARAWAY: Aren’t you at least a little upset?
MEADOWLARK: (mumbling) Yes. At you.
CARAWAY: Because I’m pissed. Because to tell you the truth, I think we’ve been scammed.
MEADOWLARK: How do you figure?
CARAWAY: It isn’t enough they got our pasts and our presents. But now they get to take our futures away. They shouldn’t have that kind of power. It’s—
MEADOWLARK: You had a future? Good for you, buddy.
CARAWAY: Well. I mean, there were things that I wanted. Plans. Goals, I guess.
MEADOWLARK: And what were they?
CARAWAY: I don’t think I want to tell you.
MEADOWLARK: Sheeshamole! You wanted silence, so I gave you silence. But then you wanted to talk. So, I’m talking. And now you don’t wanna? Make up your mind! Is it not enough that we’re here? Why must you torture me?
CARAWAY: Me? Torture you?
MEADOWLARK: That’s what I said. So, are we talking or not?
CARAWAY: Well, I’d rather not sit in silence.
MEADOWLARK: So, talk. You said something about plans or something.
CARAWAY: I…uh…On second thought, it might be a little personal…I—
MEADOWLARK: Fine. I didn’t want to talk about that anyway.
CARAWAY: Then why—
MEADOWLARK: I just thought you did.
CARAWAY: Not with you.
CARAWAY: I mean, I don’t even know you.
(They sit for a moment and let the words sink in. Then, MEADOWLARK takes off their hat and mask and plops it onto the table.)
CARAWAY: Oh. Um. I’m Caraway.
(CARAWAY removes their headgear as well.)
MEADOWLARK: So, are you gonna cut the crap now and tell me your freaking thing, or what?
CARAWAY: Okay. But you have to promise not to laugh.
(MEADOWLARK attempts to cross their heart.)
CARAWAY: I wanted a full life. A job. To get married. To have a family. To be happy. Pretty generic stuff. Stupid, right? Doesn’t matter though. Not anymore anyway.
MEADOWLARK: C’est la vie et c’est la mort.
CARAWAY: Is that supposed to make me feel better?
MEADOWLARK: No. I don’t know how to make you feel better. I was just speaking French.
MEADOWLARK: But hey. What if you could still have all of that stuff you wanted?
CARAWAY: But you said—
MEADOWLARK: I know. But I mean what if we did all of it? Here.
MEADOWLARK: What other time we got?
CARAWAY: Okay. Fine. Let’s do it, I guess.
(MEADOWLARK sits up straight, picking up a plastic fork and a playing card, as if they were a pad and a pen.)
MEADOWLARK: Your credentials are remarkable and your references, impeccable. So, Dr. Caraway, what do you think you could bring to this job?
CARAWAY: I…um…I believe myself to be quite skilled in the art of bloodletting.
MEADOWLARK: Ah, yes. Phlebotomy. I see here some have referred to you as the “leech whisperer.”
CARAWAY: Yes. That is true. The leeches hear my voice…and obey?
MEADOWLARK: Impressive. Impressive. How flexible are you with your schedule?
CARAWAY: I…I am very flexible.
MEADOWLARK: Ah. Can you do a split?
CARAWAY: Right here?
MEADOWLARK: Whenever you’re ready.
CARAWAY: I…uh, can’t do a split.
MEADOWLARK: Good, good. That was a test. Acrobatics distract from the profession. It is a very good thing that you are not engaged in that tomfoolery. Well, Dr. Caraway, you have proven to us that you are more than qualified. We look forward to your joining us at the practice.
CARAWAY: I got the job?
MEADOWLARK: You got the job! Congratulations! Now what’s next? You wanted to get married, right?
MEADOWLARK: Great. Let’s get married then!
CARAWAY: For real?
MEADOWLARK: I mean, you can’t just fake ‘get married.’
CARAWAY: Oh. Uh. Meadowlark. Uh. I don’t know how to say this, but when I said I wanted to be married to someone…I…well…To be honest, I just don’t think of you. At all.
MEADOWLARK: And you think I think of you?
CARAWAY: Fair point.
MEADOWLARK: Besides, you didn’t say anything about love. You just said marriage. I can do that.
(The two turn away from each other, busy themselves making bouquets of old playing cards and head ornaments of plastic utensils.)
MEADOWLARK: You ready?
CARAWAY: As I’ll ever be.
(Slowly they turn to face each other. MEADOWLARK hums a wedding march. CARAWAY tosses torn up pieces of a playing card like rose petals.)
MEADOWLARK: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this doctor and this doctor in holy matrimony.
CARAWAY: Meadowlark, do you take Caraway to have and to hold, in plague or in health, till death do you part?
MEADOWLARK: I do. And do you, Caraway, take Meadowlark to have and hold, in plague or in health, till death do you part?
CARAWAY: I do.
MEADOWLARK: Now the rings.
CARAWAY: Oh crap! I forgot about the rings!
MEADOWLARK: No, you didn’t. Here they are.
(MEADOWLARK slips their finger into one of the links on their chains. CARAWAY follows suit.)
MEADOWLARK: I now pronounce you married. You may now kiss your spouse.
(The two strain as far forward as their chains will allow…which is not far. They eventually settle for air kisses. After, MEADOWLARK picks up a plastic plate from the table and chucks it at the floor.)
(The plate doesn’t break, but instead clatters against the linoleum, remaining intact. The both of them lose their composure, breaking into a shared fit of laughter.)
CARAWAY: So, we’re married now.
MEADOWLARK: So we are.
CARAWAY: Now what?
MEADOWLARK: Just…give it a moment. Take it all in. It is your wedding day after all.
(They take a moment of silence.)
MEADOWLARK: Okay. Let’s go on our honeymoon.
MEADOWLARK: Of course.
CARAWAY: What? How?
MEADOWLARK: It’s the logical next step. Besides, you said you wanted a family…
CARAWAY: Yeah…but…maybe not now…seeing as…and…oop…So, you see?
MEADOWLARK: Yeah. We’re gonna do it anyway. I say we honeymoon in the Laundry Room.
CARAWAY: I say we don’t.
MEADOWLARK: Party pooper.
CARAWAY: No. Hold on. Because it’s not the Laundry Room where we are.
CARAWAY: It is the beach. A beautiful, tropical island. Feel the warmth?
(The two stop to observe the humidity of the room.)
CARAWAY: Smell the soft breeze?
(They sniff the air, catching whiffs of laundry detergent.)
CARAWAY: Hear the waves splashing upon the sand?
(They listen for the sound of the dryer, tumbling and whirring.)
MEADOWLARK: You’re right. And it’s all very beautiful, my love. (beat) Okay! Time to make a baby!
MEADOWLARK: Sorry. I mean “start our family.”
CARAWAY: Meadowlark. Sweetheart. Let’s just not…
(MEADOWLARK does not take no for an answer. They make an obscene gesture. Grimacing, CARAWAY mimics it back at them. Then MEADOWLARK picks up a card from the table and flashes it at their spouse. It bears the King of Spades.)
MEADOWLARK: Here’s our son. Isn’t he the ugliest baby you’ve ever seen?
CARAWAY: (laughing with relief) Yeah. He’s pretty hideous. He gets that from your side of the family.
MEADOWLARK: Hey! Well, either way, what shall we call him?
CARAWAY: How about Reginald?
MEADOWLARK: Reginald? That’s an awful name.
CARAWAY: Call a spade a spade, and I say we call this one Reginald.
MEADOWLARK: If you insist.
(They laugh. MEADOWLARK slides the ‘Reginald’ card across the table. CARAWAY catches it and mimes rocking it to sleep.)
CARAWAY: Goodnight, sweet boy. This world is screwed but here’s hoping you won’t be.
(Eventually CARAWAY puts the card down. As they do, they notice the dryer that has been tumbling the whole time has begun to slow.)
CARAWAY: Finally asleep. Now it’s just you and me.
CARAWAY: So, Meadowlark, we’re married now, but I don’t know a single thing about you.
MEADOWLARK: There’s not much to tell.
CARAWAY: I’d be interested in anything you were willing to tell.
CARAWAY: Come on. I shared my thing. And I mean…we’re technically married, so it would be nice to know something about you.
MEADOWLARK: Fine. Okay. I—
(They are interrupted by the beeping of a dryer. At the sound of it, MEADOWLARK’s demeaner softens.)
MEADOWLARK: I’m dying today.
(MEADOWLARK searches for the right words, but none come.)
(The sound of a door. In through the curtains come SAGE and THYME. The two go over to the table and unchain MEADOWLARK, seizing them and pulling them to their feet. MEADOWLARK does not struggle.)
CARAWAY: No. (to SAGE and THYME) Put them down! You can’t just do that! (to MEADOWLARK) You can’t just leave me. Not like this! It’s not fair. Meadowlark.
MEADOWLARK: (face crumpling) Good thing we didn’t say anything about love…just marriage. It’s a good thing…
(SAGE and THYME begin to lead MEADOWLARK away.)
MEADOWLARK: (twisting their head to face CARAWAY one last time) Caraway. Thank you for the future, love.
(SAGE and THYME force MEADOWLARK out through the curtains, leaving CARAWAY alone to dissolve into the feelings they are feeling. Then, after a moment…)
CARAWAY: (Singing softly) Ninety-nine bottles of crap on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of crap. Take one down, pass it around. Ninety-eight bottles of crap on the wall. Ninety-eight bottles of…
(The lights fade to black.)
[End of play]
I hadn’t told anyone except my parents that I was doing this. I went all the way to Miami from Maryland to have a masculoplasty with Dr. Gallagher. The rest of my family didn’t know I identified as transgender or went by Aiden. Confessing to murder would’ve been easier than telling them at this point. Maybe I didn’t need to tell them. I’m getting my breasts removed; it’s not like they would have the opportunities to see me naked anyway. I spent that night composing drafts of my coming-out texts that I would send to my family before my surgery although I wouldn’t respond ‘til the next day. This was a move of cowardice on my part.
Our rented Hyundai Sonata pulled up to Miami Sunset Surgery Center half an hour before the scheduled appointment time. My mother came to sit in the back seat with me. She hugged my waist and put her head on my chest. She nuzzled her head into the soft tissue there. This brought awareness to the part of my physical being that made me the most uncomfortable. The touch made my whole body itch. “I’m losing my daughter.” She sobbed against me. I was put in a helpless position: comfort my crying mother or keep my dignity? Saying “it’s okay” would’ve fed the fire. Sitting behind the wheel, my stepfather could’ve taken my “it’s okay” as a sign of me not wanting to continue. I did not say anything. I pet my mother’s thinning blonde hair.
Thanks to COVID-19, I had to go alone, which I preferred. The nurses would push me back to the car in a wheelchair when I was done. Despite arriving half an hour early to the center, I walked in ten minutes late. My mother would not let go of me. When I pulled away, I dashed down three hallways and up four horrid flights of stairs in three minutes.
I had many surgeries as a child: open heart surgery and two tumors removed. For those, I had been put to sleep in a hospital room; I would lay in the bed and watch my surroundings disappear. Unlike my previous surgeries, I walked into the operating room. They didn’t put me to sleep beforehand, only stripped me of my clothes and inserted the butterfly needle that would hook up to the IV machine. I stood in the doorway, naked, pale flesh exposed for the surgeon. Her blue gloved hands were gentle as she touched, prodded, and drew the lines of where she would soon be cutting. The air flowed coldly, yet an overwhelming warmth spread through my body. My years of waiting had dwindled to minutes.
As Dr. Gallagher drew on my chest, my eyes fixated on the nurse as she set out the scalpel and other tools on a sanitary table. I tried not to think about the scalpel sliding into my flesh, but when my mind conjured up the image… it was nice. The next step: anesthesia. My dad had told me that when I had surgeries as a child, I would fight the anesthesia and try to stay awake as long as possible. Now, I took deep breaths of the gas. That is all I remember.
Later, I thought about the only walnut tree on our property back home—the only walnut tree in our town. This dying tree continued to drop his fruit for us, littering our backyard with green, fuzzy nut casings. They smelled bitter, especially when the river would flood through the marsh and into our yard. When the casings were opened, the nuts were undesirable and crummy because of the river, but we still thanked the tree for his hard work. As years passed, hurricanes took branches off the old guy, and he stopped dropping walnuts. Despite his discolored limbs and withered trunk, he stood strong. His roots clutched the often damp and unsteady soil of the yard and did not give up in the slightest bit during weathering challenges.
When I woke up, a deep ache spread throughout my core, and my feet dangled off the ground a few inches. Staring down at my feet, they were moving. My hands rested softly on the wheel handles of the blue chair I was being transported in, my mind trying to grasp how in the hell I came to be moving. The hallway depicted a spinning image; there were more turns than when I ran up here. The wheelchair kept pushing forward, giving my sensitive intestines a thrill ride. The once white walls of the hallway looked speckled now, like a bland easter egg. I pulled my eyes away from the walls and identified my Cookie Monster pajama pants. The pretty nurse with curly black hair must’ve put them on for me before I started waking up.
The wheelchair seat made my bottom hurt more than the fresh incision on my chest; the incision seared. The trek from the surgery room to the elevator felt five miles long and the walk from the elevator to the car, even longer. Sweat bubbled on my forehead the closer we got to the rental car. The nurses helped me get into the front seat of the car, and I fought them. I never get to sit up front. Even in my state of being barely conscious, I knew kicking my mother to the backseat would only add to the tension that made the air in the car thicken. My mother stayed silent. It must’ve been a week before she spoke again.
Sitting up straight was uncomfortable, laying down was unpleasant, and twisting in any stretch of the idea was unbearable. Every pothole in Florida congregated on the highway that connected the surgery center to our hotel. The hotel room, actually Miami in general, smelled like a musky mixture of smoke and saltwater from the ocean. The stench, the pain I felt down to my bones, and the anxiety of my mother added to the nausea that the anesthesia had already induced. Vomit rose in my throat, or medicine and bile, but I held it in my mouth and forced it back down.
With the pain killers given to me after the anesthesia wore off, the week that followed became a blur. Bits and pieces of my memory were vacuum-sealed under the weight of codeine in a far corner of my brain. Except one. I woke up one morning tasting salt from the tears that had fallen down my face overnight. I smelled iron and quickly realized the pain killers tricked my body into moving about while I slept, and I only woke at the recognition of my yellow button-up and white bedsheets being dyed red. My parents just watched me sit there in a puddle of blood, and they probably were thinking, you did this to yourself.
Do I not remember anything besides that, or do I just not want to remember?
By the weeks end, the bandages came off, and I could stand up straight. The bandages weighed me down, and I no longer had to hunch over to hide the mountains that genetics strapped to my body. There was a weight off my literal chest. However, with the bandages gone, my mother thought I could immediately go back to normal; we were in Miami and had a lot of fun options just around the corner. I forced myself to try and participate since this happened to be the first time in a week that she showed an interest in talking to me. Neither of us had seen a palm tree before.
“These trees are really pretty,” my mother said and reached to touch the bark. It looked harder than the trees at home.
“They’re tropical,” she continued, stating something obvious to merely fill the silence. “I’ve always wanted to see one in person. I’m glad I’m here!”
“I’m glad I’m here, too,” I said with excitement in my voice, reaching my hands toward the tree. I felt something break. My skin. My grey button-up was turning a gross brown-red.
There was silence again, as if seeing me bleeding through my shirt detailed another reminder of how I had disappointed her. I looked like a crazy murderer walking around Miami in a blood-soaked shirt without saying a word. My mother and stepfather trailed me like abused animals, but I became their master. Crazy looks or not, I walked with the confidence they lacked.
Before I got on the plane to go home, I sat on the sidewalk outside of Miami International Airport. The sun beat down, hot on my face, and for once I did not mind. I did not mind anything. I unbuttoned my shirt, and it stayed that way. I sat, chewing on tapioca pearls that were in my green bubble tea. The pearls were ambrosia, a simple food that was now a delicacy.
David closed his eyes hard enough to see colors. All stimuli. Almost no presence. Measured breaths between sips of lukewarm tap water. The heat of vomit rose from the sink and worked into the sweat ringing his neck.
The vault opener had marked the coffin’s end with mud to indicate where her head pointed. The pipe behind the faucet grunted.
The motor whirred. His wife lowered into the ground. He pressed his finger against a nick on his chin. Behind a sweating pane of glass, the sky, a slate sidewalk, beckoned the idea of slick steps, of falling down the hill and rolling until his neck could not unturn. He poured the cup into the sick. His sick formed a ring at the sink’s edge.
The pastor hemmed and nodded. “Give her, o Lord, your peace and let your eternal light shine upon her.” David flipped the switch and darkness snapped back in. Lightning severed the sky.
When their daughter died, almost two weeks ago, she was barely noticeable beneath the daisy-addled sheet. While Leah sobbed, David smiled and pursed back the tears; he needed everything to be a joke, for her to jump from beneath the covers and try to scare him. He had watched the attending physician stare at the clock and write on a chart. His ears beeped less as he exited their house.
Light bled through the sky like wet charcoal. Helicopter seeds flitted from a red maple. He reached for one and past his fingers and the horizon, he saw the back of his head. The dry mulch crunched and frayed around his feet as he propped a photo, edges fluffed with wear, against the tree. Heat wrapped around his bare ankles, yet he felt immensely cold. In the picture, Leah held an impossibly large stomach, with Madeline inside and then something smaller than an eye’s sparkle in her. He’d wrap his arms around her from behind, squeezing her hand three times. Rub her belly to produce a kick. Maybe he’d brush his teeth and wide-mouth blather through a conversation, or nod minutely at her while shaving. Razor blades from his subscription service sat open by her, and she laid open by him. He adjusted a kitchen chair beneath the tree’s largest limb.
A few steps forward; they weren’t real, just tests. His toe lost the pressure of earth beneath it—is this one tight enough, giggle. Sitting on the chair, he held his phone and watched a video on how to tie a noose. He struggled, even after clicking through the multiple suicide hotline warnings, to make an efficient knot. If he jumped up from the height of two chairs, he’d maybe reach the branch. Tie the knot. Throw it; an adventurer exploring bravely into the new world. History in the making. Mosquitos buzzed. The loop felt like a child’s arms around his neck, and he felt like dying so he stepped off.
Peacock-brilliance. Like welder sparks, like struck matches, veins in the back of your eyes. All David could think of was how to justify what he had just seen pierce the sky, something beyond a super-heated lump larger and larger as it tailed towards his house, his tree, him, but at the same time, just that, and the oxygen jammed in his neck and rushed through him, anywhere but his lungs. Everything squeezed. He held his own hand. Whatever it was came crashing, shining like a snowball locked in a sun’s ray, grazing the rope and David’s leg. He fell, and a few teeth dislodged into the soil.
Each synapse fired, comprehending something he hadn’t seen in all the thirty-four years. A cannonball, then a child splashing; frightened pigeons with puffy wings, smoke rising from where it shouldn’t be. Memories paraded his head in infinite speed to mark what he had seen. So, he breathed. His chest pierced itself with a fear not unlike falling. The dewy grass steamed, vapors escaping and screaming.
His arms could do nothing but hide his head. Chemically blood, salt and heat in his mouth and the fright of no stop in bullet-speed; oh, he hated himself for killing himself without even a real try. Leah’s death had a purpose, had some thought behind it. He regretted ever being a father, regretted that thought, and wished his daughter would be behind an open eyelid, that she was swinging from a tire attached to the rest of the rope and unafraid. These thoughts leaked out from his lips, from the gash in his leg. The piss soaking into the wound.
He coughed, a tooth dangling in his mouth. Motes of ash rose and smeared against his face. The heat wavered from the meteor’s surface and like a pressed hand on television static, stopped. Around a blob. A clump of seafoam, mossing the photograph that drifted at its surface, gathering scum. The air thickened with heat yet thinned without oxygen. Seagulls hovered nearby. Heat lightning cracked against large stones, miles away. The birds fled. He stood and thunder ricocheted along the cape and his eardrums throbbed and blood stuck to his leg hair.
His stomach made no movement, no feeling came but for the superheated queasiness surrounding his organs. His house is 2560 square feet. He has a Honda Civic with 170 thousand miles. His wife and child are dead. Why is Madeline where the blob was. “No.” No.
It crawled lizard-like, arms and legs working on sides rather than upper and lower halves, up the tree and wrapped the limb. No belly button. Her hands pawed at her stomach as she struggled to stay put, but no scratches surfaced; the creature lacked fingernails. Her breasts, the size of daffodils, bared no nipples, and her eyes registered only fear. With shoulders broader than an eleven-year-olds. Hair tangled around wafer-thin seeds and the burgundy leaves. It smiled without teeth, then strained its neck so hard, forceful enough to make other facial movements, oh it flicked between every emotion he could register and ones David had only ever felt, had been unable to show. It looked scared.
David fell to his backside, and the child struggled to stay in the branches. The sky crackled. She screamed and dropped against a rock, stood slowly as if to test her asleep limbs, her knees unbending until the rigidity lessened. Crawling from the all-surrounding sound and now a few paces from David, she leaned in and reached for a gash at his head, twitching forward with minute motions. Looking side to side, full-faced and stiff, she flinched as David met his face with her palm.
Deerlike, mouselike, whatever animal David thought of was and was not this thing, but she removed her bloody hand at the same pace she had approached, and squeezed her eyes shut; up close, both eyelids, vertical, rotated to horizontal as her proboscis snaked and wrapped her hand. He could not tell if she looked like Madeline or if that’s what he wanted. But wasn’t it just close enough…? From her collarbone, the torn edge of a photo poked from inside her skin. She did not see the rock David picked up with his other hand to crash against her skull.
She nursed her palm. No resistance when David scooped her up. In the dark of a tarp, tied close with a charred rope, this was when David realized as he carried her to the kitchen table, he had felt the bundle lighten until she was the size of Madeline. The Before Madeline.
Red brine leaked from within and onto the wood. Inside her head, he imagined nuclear reactions occurring at the speed of light within and without one another, green tadpoles chasing each other and nibbling Polaroid fragments and oh-negative donuts. What had he bore witness to? Created?
Blood pasted his legs together. He undid the noose but did not open the bag; if she was awake, she’s old enough. Jesus Christ. Her skull cracked, the sound low as a campfire. The little helixes wriggling, filling her body like solemn nurses do hospital rooms. He hoped she knew that the darkness wasn’t something to be afraid of. Her shoulders had narrowed. Her hair reached her belly button. David took a knife from the kitchen sink and slit his palm, holding it over the bag and waiting until he had dripped enough blood to make an alien human.
The tooth in his mouth had ceased bleeding, and David didn’t know whether to worry about that or not. He watched himself in a homemade-knickknack mirror atop the mantle and plucked the nerve like a harp, then ripped the fucker. His head hit the coffee table’s edge as he fell. On the rug, in a pooling warmth, he allowed himself to rest.
The daughter-thing peeked from the table, leapt, then straddled his chest. She took the tooth and placed it in against her tongue and swallowed, grinning far too wide. Tongue-proboscis wrapping the inside of her mouth like cucumber ivy. She grinned and shifted her cheeks side to side, finally spitting something between the spots in David’s vision. His mouth felt hot and wet again. Teeth pushed through her gums as she studied his face, most likely continuing to even after his eyes shut.
He dreamt about a cat burglar coming into the house and stealing his daughter and his cat. Everybody laughed in the end. Sensations role-called. His temples pounded him into alertness: a mouth on his. He pushed her from his chest and wiped his lips, expecting blood but seeing only black spots, like confetti. The blood must have dried into little fish food flakes.
“Daddy,” she said, tilting her head to the left. It cracked eight times. “Can I have some milk?”
David nodded, for his own sake, and crawled behind the couch then ran to the basement.
With the door pressed against his back, he slid and pounded his fists against his skull. In rapid movements he slammed his thighs and balled his muddy shirt, biting and sobbing into it. Blades of grass rubbed into his sore gums. Footsteps, creaky ones from the hallway, so he ran down the stairs and paced, focusing on the dryer, all he could think about was the loose change that had rattled inside the day prior because that was the only thing that made a fucking iota of sense in this situation. It didn’t. He should have just died, right?
His tooth. In crime documentaries, they find you with your dental records. How much information is in a tooth? How much of David is in his molar—in the daughter-thing? He shook while filling a laundry detergent cup with water, then dashed it lethally to the side: it hadn’t died in the atmosphere, so a splash of water to its face wouldn’t fix anything. Knock. This isn’t a movie. He skirted to the other side of the room, clutching a claw tooth hammer.
“David?” The doorknob at the stair’s top jiggled.
A half-window, one that Leah snuck through in their early years when they couldn’t remember keys, framed the wall above the sink. David knew he couldn’t fit. “Yes?” He scrubbed his face into the shirt. “Yes, honey?”
“I’m sorry I asked for a drink.” He listened to her press against the door and slide to the ground. “When are you and… Mommy, gonna make dinner?”
David bit into his knuckle and rocked against the dryer. “I don’t know.” He repeated this to himself, faster and quieter each time. He knew he could never hurt her, running upstairs to watch her through the crack.
“Oh. I’ll wait.” Her fingers wiggled beneath the door, and before David could move his foot, her pinky tapped his shoe. She giggled.
David left, and opened the cabinet, and poured some Borax, beating the box to loosen the clumps, into a cup. He mixed this with water and stirred it with two fingers, then swallowed it. His throat burned and he gagged.
“Daddy,” she said, inquisitively. “Dad?” She tapped the handle, then rattled it in a rhythm. Slow, then. Little locks wriggled in the door. She made no more sounds because the door opened.
David retched into the sink. Outside, the sky had cleared some but oily darkness spread in the clearest parts. His eyes closed, throat burned and blood fringed the bile. Madeline hugged his leg.
She squeezed him tight enough to make his knee crack. Each cough took away more and more until an overwhelming neutrality settled into his chest. Within this, hangnails of thoughts boomeranged, and David wondered why he couldn’t be with his daughter again. She whimpered into his groin. He listened to her inhale.
“I’m here, Madeline.” His jaw tightened around her name. “Here.” David bent and took her into his arms, ready to live or die.
“Madeline? Madeline.” She smiled. Her teeth all reached the same length. She looked behind him. “My clothes.”
“Your clothes.” David hesitated, reaching above, on top of the dryer, to the pile he never thought he’d search. “Get dressed.”
“Okay, David.” She licked her canines and clapped.
“Please call me Dad.” Then, “I’ll get you a bath.” The lights in his head hummed. He took her hand, clammy but smooth, and guided her upstairs at a distance. She sat on the toilet lid while the bath filled, and David pressed into the wall. He wanted to ask her, like a stranger, where she was from. “I’ll be out for just a bit.”
“Why?” She was in front of the door. A spider dangled down from the ceiling between them. David instinctively clapped it.
“Why would you do that?”
“What? Oh. I, I don’t know. We just… we do that. Kill bugs. Not anything bigger than a bug, though.”
“Oh.” She smiled and grabbed his hand with more strength than needed and licked off the guts. He opened her mouth immediately and scraped it off her tongue, then fell to the floor. This is not Madeline; I can’t treat her like this.
“We don’t kill bigger things, but farmers and hunters do. We eat those, like chicken. Not spiders. You remember that, right?”
Her stare felt empty, and behind it a desire to be full.
“But there’s nobody big that kills us.” He felt like he was lying. “So if, if you’re worried I’m going to leave somehow, don’t be worried.” She twitched her lips until frowning. David took her hand, clasped it, and kneeled. “If you think I’m going to leave. If, you think I did leave, or that you left… I’m going to be around. We will.” He realized this moment was real, very much so happening, and the water trickled over the tub’s edge.
With the drain unplugged for a moment then stopped, she settled into the water until only her nose broke the surface. From the wavering lens of dirt and blood inking towards the top, he watched her. Steam hid the mirror and David felt scared without his reflection. Within the space between her fingers, a filament, billowing like sediment in tea, stretched across the gap and formed a web. Water poured down her nostrils. He felt sick, imagining the swishing of water within his own stomach. She paddled and sent small waves against the faucet, then traced the outline of her hips. David left to give her privacy.
In the backyard, smoke billowed from the porous surface of the meteor. Something between spent charcoal briquettes and well-used pumice stones, sitting on the tub’s edge in mildew, by an almond-scented shampoo.
He gave it a wide gait. Through an orifice, the inner core, blinking like the lapse after a yellow light. The tarp from inside fit almost halfway over its top. He washed his hands and the scummy sink. He heard a shower running upstairs and, of all things, worried that Madeline had flooded the upstairs, found some way to ruin things like kids do. Like trying to shave.
Droplets clung to the plastic liner. Behind it, a figure much larger than Madeline pumped a bottle and reached for its head. David pulled the curtain open, afraid to be fast or slow.
Leah stared back at him.
He shut the curtain and left. From his, his, bedroom, he heard the water stop and the rings travel the curtain rod. It entered the room wearing Leah’s clothes and fell on top of him. It placed his hands on its breasts and squeezed control of his hands. David struggled enough to move away but hopefully not to insult. He wanted to know why she looked wrong; she smelled exactly the same. This was the worst part.
She did not relent. Beneath her sundress was skin as smooth and malleable as an earlobe. David grazed the line where her thigh and groin met, and it too was indistinguishable from the surrounding flesh, the texture unchanging. Images of his daughter’s Barbie came to his mind. He pushed her and rolled to the bed’s edge, flexing his calves enough to induce a Charlie horse, pressing his legs together. The lamp beside them illuminated a picture frame. He saw his wife. The creature grabbed his crotch and squeezed. He felt heat, choking pain of teary God-awfulness in his throat rising against his tingling brainstem. He no longer wanted to die except for the small part of himself that enjoyed this.
“Now, I’m Leah.” Her eyes flitted across him as if a teleprompter were there, checking him for an understanding. “You want this. I don’t know your thoughts, I am them.” She fell forward against his shoulder, her cheek brushing his. “This is love. I am love. I am yours. I am you.” She rolled in the sheets and waited, burrowed in the duvet.
She frowned, her face shifting in parts: somewhere, Helen Hunt met Lucille Ball, her lips for a moment Marilyn Monroe’s then tight as Dreyfus’. “I watched you, David.” The alarm clock by the bed crackled. The indicator diodes matched its solid red hue. “I watched everything, for a moment.”
Behind the eyes she had taken from David, that David had taken from Leah, stars fought their way forward. “What you saw when I crashed, I saw. Your world is, our world is… I can’t be her, exactly. I’ve been trying, though.” An over-boiled pot of expression, she simmered into Leah. She inched towards him, and with teary eyes, smiled. “There’s these little thoughts. Smaller than big ones, and they wriggle around until I give them attention, David, they’re bubbles that gather but won’t pop. I can’t stop thinking, and what I’m thinking is how much you, in human and in animal, want her back.” She traced the veins of his arm.
“I know.” He didn’t and did, angrily, then fell into her arms. “I know.” He didn’t fear her and couldn’t place why. “We could make this work, though.”
With her face pressed into his hair, she inhaled. “Let’s pretend, David,” she whispered.
A pillow-fort future, but it could be reinforced with the ends of couches, coffee tables, outstretched arms. “Pretend. Even… what all do you know? Remember?” His vision couldn’t steady itself. “You were Madeline, and that’s okay.” David ran his fingers through her hair, the shampoo slick. “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay. You can learn. Did you learn about Leah from my tooth, or the blood, or what—”
“Leah. I could really be, I really could. There’s much more than man in you, David. I was nothing hours ago, but with your help, your guidance, oh, David, I am her.” Her neck twitched.
A clock downstairs chimed. “Do you think I deserved what happened?”
Smiling, smiling smiling smiling; she grinned as if that could be an answer, then opened her mouth and looked down at him with her arms spread in a lack of knowing. In doing so, she knocked a bottle of perfume from the nightstand. To think by himself, at least feet away, he mopped the spill with a pair of underwear. The smell of alcohol and roses made him vomit.
Inside the pile of undigested church cookies, ink-black tadpoles wriggled. One screamed like boiled lobsters as he pressed it into the floorboard. Leah rolled in the bedsheets and looked at him. She shook her head, and stood. Stepping on the glass and next to David. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Pressed a finger to the nape of his neck. “You killed our kid, David.” He fell into the mess and gave himself permission to go away.
Sunlight settled on the staircase’s landing. Around the corner, she fried bacon on the stove. Clicking the tongs around a flimsy piece, trying to flip it, she worked but each attempt was unsuccessful. She turned toward the table and reached into the pan; her skin sizzled as she adjusted the slice. Satisfied, she sucked her fingers and faced David.
“Oh. I didn’t even see you there.” She placed her palm on the counter, under a kitchen towel.
“I don’t remember sleeping.” He settled against the fridge and slid to the floor. “Did you? You did. Well, did you sleep well?” He tucked his foot under his thigh, stomach bulging from last night’s dinner. Couldn’t remember things too well. Backyard Mount Rushmore. Madame President peeling fatback off cast iron. His nose ran.
She fell beside him, uprighting, then forced her face into his shoulder. “I can’t believe you forgot what today was.” The words ran muffled through his veins as she spoke into his skin.
David ventured his hand up her neck. The edge of her hair felt like milfoil, slick and fibrous. She hadn’t dried from the night before, the shampoo still oily. “I think we need to talk. Nothing major, just need to go over some things.”
“It’s not your birthday, is it?” She smiled. When he didn’t return, she tilted her head and smiled larger. “And it’s not my birthday!” She leaned in, kissing him. Pill-like objects rolled from beneath his tongue.
“What the fuck was that?” He spat onto the floor. “Oh. Oh oh oh.” Notes of vomit worked through his throat. Roses. Screams. His neck ached.
“David, dearest, dearest David. You need to calm down, you’re right. Let’s talk. Honesty is important in a marriage.” Each word felt tailored. “I didn’t mean that. I know I’m not quite Leah but I’m trying, goddammit, and that’s what marriage is really about, isn’t it David?”
“No, no. No. I, I never fucking married you. This isn’t you, isn’t cute, you were a ball of fucking slime—”
She pushed off his chest. “We take offense to that. Those, what did you think, tadpoles? Yes, those are almost near-perfect combinations of your DNA and your perception of”—her face shifted to Madeline’s for a moment—“us.”
David walked around the counter, Leah opposing him. He ran his tongue against the back of his teeth and felt holes lining the inside of his gums. “That doesn’t matter anymore. I didn’t ask to have kids. I didn’t ask for a second chance, I really didn’t.” His throat hurt for too many reasons. “Even if I did, she wouldn’t do this to me.”
Her lashes, full, caught tears, yet nothing else changed.
“You aren’t even good at being her.” His teeth throbbed. “What the fuck did you do to me? I don’t”—he sucked in breaths—“deserve this.”
Leah leaped to the countertop. “And why would you say that?”
David stared at her, and for a moment, it really was Leah. She could be waiting for breakfast as he finished the eggs, contributed to the family… He knew if he just accepted whatever happened now, he could maybe make it out. “She knew things. More than that. Things change. And she knew I changed with them. I sometimes like my bacon chewy.” The smell of burning meat continued to increase. “I am not the same as I was yesterday, but I bet you need to suck the life out of me to figure that out. Some sort of backwards, update? You need me to be anything and pity you. I didn’t let go but I should have.” He felts his bowels loosen.
“You and I aren’t very different, David.” She sat on the counter, legs spread. “I need a child, too. And you—” She grabbed his throat, pulling downwards. Oblong masses worked through his neck and blocked enough air to scare him. “You got your kid. And you wouldn’t let go. You got your wife back and wouldn’t even sleep with her. You could just accept things as they are. I know what you’re thinking, and I mean that more than others do. I know what you’re thinking. At all times I’ve operated with a David in the back of my head, like… a tumor.” She stepped back. “You can’t get to the knife that fast. I put them in the dishwasher.”
The green light on the rinse cycle said about twenty-eight minutes left. She shook her head. “David, this all happened so suddenly. So very sudden. We could have made this work—I was willing to make it last. You could get me, and I’d get a chance at having a family. I don’t even want to hurt. I just want to spread. You aren’t some bug that I’ll kill. Your body won’t rupture. It isn’t going to be pleasant.” She clicked her tongue. “And that’s honesty. You’re going to shit your whole insides out, and I can fix that! You have water, hydrogen dioxide, enough for me to fucking bathe in! The things I can do, the magic I can create. I’ll take care of you, ways people on your planet can’t. You have a cold, dark place just downstairs for us to snuggle up and work through this pain, together. Though, it can’t be worse than what us women go through.”
David hated how she tried to be some bastardized version of Leah, a woman, fading further and further as much as he tried to hold the photos and make them talk back, but this was the plug to be pulled, goddamnit. The veins in his neck thickened. The smoke alarm went off, and the sound pierced through him but halted at the now egg-shaped mounds in his chest. A cookbook caught fire on the back burner. The open window sucked fluttering ash towards it. “Why can’t we go back,” he coughed, pivoting on one leg.
She saw this and looked into his eyes, shaking her head. Veins rose to her skin. “You did. Oh, David. I get it now. All humans do is fake, and pretend. I learned from the best pretender there is, the one who pretends he can work the courage up to even kill me. To kill himself.” She tipped the pan to the floor, and grease splashed into his pant legs. The scream reached the bottom of his throat and burst one of the things within him. “You didn’t die last night. This isn’t… what, heaven or hell? I think that’s what you thought.”
“I can try again.” He scratched the floor. A page tore off and rubbed against the wall. The fire spread to the curtains.
“David, you’re dying. Here and now. Want to know why things would have been easier if you did just kill yourself?” The rest of the polyps burst inside him like overboiled eggs. She stood over him. “Because I wouldn’t have had to take a rock to the head. Rather, I’d be in your basement using your body as my breeding ground. I wasn’t lying, by the way. You could have made it. We could have.”
His veins wriggled. A fire raged at the stove, wallpaper peeling from the room. Sirens blared across the city.
“Could you stay with me?” He knew something moved inside his chest. “I don’t want to die alone. I don’t want to, want to, want.” The smoke burned in his throat, and the skin from his neck hung.
She laughed and stopped smiling. Shook her head. Knelt and brushed his hair. “No, David. You’re coming with me.” Before she could lift him, David used everything in him to pull the fridge onto both of them. His ankle cracked. Her’s burst.
“You. Oh, oh you you you David, we could have been different and better and I’d be her her yes and you’d be David Daddy Dad dead. Stay at home dead.” Flames from a smoldering rug seared her cheeks, which grew back to only liquefy again. “This was all too rushed. Kid back and me back and you a crisp—” She wheezed. Fat streamed from her skin and she lost shape, seeping into the cracked floorboards. “I never lied to you. I wanted so many things, everything you wanted. Fall is coming closer, with trees breaking apart but they come back.” She stared at something he couldn’t see. “I don’t want to die either, David.” She held his hand. “I never did.”
When Leah, Madeline, and David had moved into their new home, their first actual house, they finally had reason to unpack all of the things they neglected to do between each move. In one box, Madeline found a dead mouse but protested it could still be saved. When David elected to bury it, she watched in silence. He pressed a hand to her shoulder and squeezed. A lump on her collarbone. Leah looked at it, too. That night, Madeline took a hot shower and cried, though David could never tell if it was over the mouse or what they had convinced her was as normal as a skin tag. A dimple. Something we could worry about tomorrow.
A week after the doctor’s appointment, test results showed the mass to be cancerous. Then, the lump left and reappeared twice-fold. While Leah stayed with her in the hospital, David went to church after twenty-three years of absence. He prayed for her to die soon so that she wouldn’t suffer and immediately recanted. She died after eleven months, without thought.
In David’s arms, in the heat only burning homes can produce, she died again. Inside David, pollywogs swam and waxed into themselves. Each one fought his DNA which only boiled. He continued to stroke Leah’s hair as her body melted, benign as lard, even when his arm stuck to the floor. Leah burst open. The house topped in on itself and oxygen poured over its skeleton, the flames pricking the indigo sky. One last creature wriggled out of her stomach, and David held it against the floor as it shrieked, until docile as a child’s hand. Men yelled in at the front door. The fire crackled, whistled, orangish-reds falling over the family, leaf-like; David fell into the pile and waited to open his eyes again.
Beer Goggle Love
Spiked with caramelized
tipped hair, the lead singer
sat at cherry countertops.
The jukebox sputtered,
sharp overtones rising
like a Sunday-school church choir.
I slid on the stool beside him.
A bead of sugar stained
the rim of his drink. Caked rock’n’roll red,
my head thudded against my palm.
“Would ya order me a drink?”
Riddled with rings
he drummed, knuckles
to the bar. He waved at the bartender.
Tattoos peeked from rips
in his jeans. Chains
snaked from his pockets
and through his belt loops.
I bounced my foot against his stool.
Would we have an Elvis impersonator
with tin cans sounding like broken church
bells in a Disney movie? I’d wear a busty,
white jumpsuit while he would flaunt
his leather jacket and laced boots.
The bartender returned
with our drinks. The singer handed
me the tall glass, our fingers touching.
“One tall glass of tap water for the lady.”
Voyage Inédit (Unedited Voyage)
Rame, Rame, Rame
Le regard guère au ciel
Voler toujours pas notre destinée
Mon Soldat dans le froid
A nous le pouvoir, les bourgeois.
La terre, une amie très chère
Protégée de ta fierté,
Détruite de tes colères,
Ah, l’aventure guidée par ta voix.
Voleurs des grains,
Chasseurs des indiens, Y a-t-il du vin?
Pouvoir maudit à jamais,
Le malheur arrivera,
Protège les cœurs purs,
Leurs maisons, leurs terres,
Donne-les, sans rancœurs.
Vieil ami, le poison,
Je t’embrasse, Au revoir
A jamais, l’abattoir
Un œil fermé,
Deux yeux fermés,
Pourquoi, si tôt?
Je n’ai pas dit mon dernier mot.
Ton avidité, ton repas du futur,
La honte sur ton bataillon.
Mon dernier mot,
Au paradis, aux cachots, tes sympathies.
Row, Row, Row
The gaze hardly to the sky
Flying, still not in our destiny
My Soldier in the cold,
The power is ours, my bourgeois.
The earth, a very dear friend
Protected by your pride,
Destroyed by your anger,
Ah, the adventure guided by your voice.
Indian hunters, is there wine?
Cursed power forever,
Misfortune will happen
Protect the purity in their heart,
Their home, their lands,
Give it to them, without resentment.
Old friend, the poison,
I kiss you, goodbye
Forever, the slaughterhouse
One eye closed,
Two eyes closed,
Why so early?
I haven’t said my last word.
Your greed, your meal of the future,
Shame on your battle.
My last word,
In Paradise, in the dungeons, your sympathies
Nouveauté De L’ancien (Novelty of the Old)
O, terre d’opportunités
Nouvel air, nouvel idées,
Travailler dure, Vendre de la fourrure. Ces mémoires,
Des prairies, des réservoirs,
Nourriture de mère,
Moments avec mes confrères,
Retrouvaille! Mon pays!
Mon enfance, ma famille,
Heureux comme des fleurs de camomille.
Attends, ces différences,
Différent de ce que j’ai vécu,
Différent de ce que j’ai rêvé,
Politique, Diplomatie; Qu’est qui a changé?
Ces barrières, séparation,
Protège moi de ces inondations,
Je crois à l’armée zombies
Je veux être en vie
Pays réel, Pays rêvé,
Suis-je un étranger?
Mes mots de mon cœurs,
Au plus profond de mon chair,
Toujours dans ses énigmes,
Tout le monde n’est pas digne.
Respect à toi mère,
Cyclone et Guerre
Tremblement de terre,
Toujours aussi fière,
De toi, femme de fer.
O, land of opportunities
New air, new ideas,
Work hard, Sell fur. These memories,
Moments with my friends,
Reunion! My country!
My childhood, my family,
As happy as chamomile flowers.
Wait, these differences,
Different from what I’ve been through
Different from what I dreamed,
Politics, Diplomacy; What has changed?
These barriers, separation,
Protect me from these floods,
I believe in the zombie army
I want to be alive
Real country, Dream country,
Am I a stranger?
The words of my heart,
Deep in my flesh,
Always in his riddles,
Not everyone is worthy.
Respect to you mother,
Cyclone and War
Of you, woman of iron.
The Creek Demon
Preacher man told O’shua there was a spirit in Creek Town. It had moved in and driven all the people away. They hadn’t seen hide nor tail of it, but they knew it was there, sure enough. Its thirst was unquenchable.
O’shua was a spirit hunter with a long steel sword, and when they answered the notice Creek Town had put out for help, what they saw concerned them.
The entire town had packed up and moved out from the hills onto the wide salt plains. The sun was merciless in the center of the valley, and water was scarce. The crying of thirsty children populated the hasty camp the people had set up. The noise went up to the heavens, but there was nothing to hear their prayers.
Creek Town was a half day’s ride from the camp. The minimal recommended distance to put between yourself and a spirit. O’shua had no mount, so it took them a bit longer to walk. They arrived in the dead of night.
Now they stood on the town’s outskirts where the buildings ended abruptly, where human shelter gave way to vast and yawning open space. The moon rendered the world in pale colors. Everything was amplified out here in the desert: sunlight, midnight, drought, and cold. It was a land that hadn’t yet been pared down by the blades of men. It was still wild, subject to wild whims. Though wells were being drilled and rails were being laid, it was slow, painful work, and the desert disdained the efforts at every turn. Mankind hadn’t yet discovered how to make the desert bow its head, how to turn it soft and pliant and usable for their purposes. And until they did that, they were in danger. The unpredictable qualities of the dead lands were an adversary few could stand in the face of.
O’shua admired the sentiment. They liked a good fight, understood the necessity. But this is the truth about the nature of conflict: there’s always something set against you, and it’s your job to win.
Metal rasped on metal as they drew their sword. The edge was sharp, the hilt soft and gleaming with oil. Blade at the ready, they paced forwards into the rotting town.
Creek Town had only been empty for a few days, and at first, it looked like there was nothing askance. The doors were steadfastly shut, all the windows unbroken. O’shua had seen the work of destructive spirits before. There was no sign of that here. In comparison, this was clean.
Then they heard a soft knocking noise, hollow like the beating of a drum. They turned up their collar against the cold desert wind and followed it to where a pail was knocking against a wall. It was the kind often set under eaves to catch rainfall when the sky blessed the dusty earth, but when O’shua picked it up and set it upright, they saw it was bone dry.
They looked up at the fading storm clouds from yesterday and frowned.
The sound of bleating and breathing drew their attention, and after tracing it to its source, they found a pen filled with goats that stared at them with terrified eyes. O’shua had never seen an animal left alive in the wake of a spirit. They examined the goats and found not a single scratch on them. And there was no sign of blood or bones or rotting fur anywhere in the area.
But the water trough was bone dry.
O’shua pinched the neck of one of the goats and saw how the skin slowly returned to its normal position. They had an idea of where the spirit might have hidden itself.
The creek in Creek Town came from the mountains and wound its way slowly along the bottom of the valley. It was the reason people had gathered there in the first place, seeking the precious minerals that settled between the rocks along the bottom.
O’shua could hear faraway rushing water, but when they found the creek, it was bone dry. They held their breath as they stepped around the bodies of fish and riverweed that had festered in the sun and now chilled in the night.
They followed the sound of flowing water upstream, into the foothills of the mountains, until finally they found the spirit. In the light of the moon, its fur seemed gilded with silver. It was lying on its side in the creek bed, its mouth stretched open as wide across as a man knocked prone. The creek gushed down its throat. O’shua stood and watched a minute, sure that it would burst at any second, but the spirit must have had a hollow leg. Or maybe it was secreting the water away through the trick of some strange spirit magic. Or maybe it was just plain thirsty.
Preoccupied, it did not notice them, so O’shua readied their blade and charged. They slashed at the spirit’s leg. It jumped to its feet with a watery wail, liquid cascading from its overextended mouth. The creek, now unhindered, flowed back into its normal path. O’shua fell back as water crashed against them. Their elbow cracked painfully against a stone.
A shadow blocked the moonlight. O’shua rolled out of the way as a clawed paw came down towards them. Water found its way into their nostrils. They scrambled to their feet. They parried with the flat of the blade as the spirit swiped again. Then drove forward towards its heart. The spirit struck a glancing blow across their shoulders. The air left their lungs in a surprised whuff. They stumbled on the loose river stones, but they ducked under the spirit’s arm and spun to face its back. They drew a deep slash across its side as it turned towards them. Instead of blood and intestines spilling out as they expected, muddy water poured from the gash in the spirit’s skin, mixing with the clear creek.
It wailed angrily, its wide snout curling back to reveal splintery teeth. On all fours it snapped at them, but it was already deflating, water gushing from its side like a contaminated fountain. O’shua backed up into the shallows to avoid its bite. They grabbed a handful of pebbles and hurled them at the spirit. The momentary distraction was enough. They darted forward and sliced open the spirit’s hairy neck. More muddy water flowed freely forth, and this time it pulled gristle and bone out with it.
The spirit’s lifeless skin folded over and was washed away down the creek to wherever all water eventually meets at the end of the world. As the moon began to set and the sky rolled over from night to day, O’shua knelt in the creek and washed the spirit blood from their blade.
There was no longer a spirit in Creek Town, and the land was no longer bone dry.