Based in Chicago, Bruce Owens Grimm’s haunted queer essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Entropy, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Older Queer Voices, Ghost City Review, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an imprint of Hachette, in 2021. He has taught his Haunted Memoir: What Ghosts Reveal About Life workshop at StoryStudio Chicago and at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, which named him a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Fellow.
“Inventory of a Haunted House, No. 3”
I wait for someone to tell me I’m not allowed here. To tell me to go back to my own, less well-off neighborhood. But no one does. The logs blister against the flames in the fire pit. Crack and pop as they are consumed. I’m on the back patio in the crisp fall air with a classmate from the Catholic elementary school we attend. We are in the fourth grade. We have the same first name. We sit on thick square wooden stools. His mother and his older brother are with us. All of us are roasting marshmallows, which burst, ooze sugar, as we crush them between graham crackers.
Trees encircle the back of the house. They are not dense, not forbidding like the woods that run along the back of my street. Where I live nature fights against the asphalt and aluminum siding for space. Here, in this backyard with another family, there are jokes, laughs, easy conversation about the day without any sudden turns to anger, disappointment.
I yawn. I have difficulty sleeping at home, even at this age, and the cool night, the effortless sorcery of his family relaxes me, allows me to feel sleepy because I am comfortable here, safe.
We sit on the bottom half of the bunk bed flipping through his collection of Star Wars trading cards, his mother pops her head in to see if we need any blankets or anything else. “Don’t forget what we talked about, Bruce,” she points at her son. “You’re the top bunk.”
I’m nine years old, younger than my classmate who is already ten, but I’m taller and wider than him, husky as most adults called it then, so I assume the concern is that I’m too heavy for the top bunk, even one that looks expensive like this one. That this might be in reference to two boys sleeping on one mattress together doesn’t occur to me.
She closes the door behind her as she leaves. I hear another door close down the hall. Voices from the TV downstairs lift over the banister of the stairs. The ease from outside is still present inside.
Bruce flips through the cards. He’s told me he’s looking for Princess Leia because she is my favorite character. Whenever we play Star Wars on the playground at school, I want to pretend to be her because she’s the strongest, the funniest, the most capable. I don’t consider the difference in our genders and that boys are supposed to want to pretend to be men. It’s not until after snickers from the other boys that I remember the gender role expectations. But I stick with my choice. I can’t imagine being anyone else.
“Here she is,” Bruce hands me the card. It’s one with Leia from Return of the Jedi where she is in the Ewok community. Her long hair fully down for the first time in the original trilogy, the only trilogy we knew of then.
He gets up and flips the switch by the door to turn off the overhead light. A flood light that hangs from a wooden telephone pole by the driveway let enough light leak into the room to keep me feeling safe. At home, I have to fall asleep with my TV on. I cannot relax enough to fall asleep in the dark. I lay down, the card in my hand.
Bruce lays down next to me, tucks his arms into his chest so that we each have our own sides of the bed. We don’t say anything. I fall asleep.
I wake up.
Bruce is still asleep.
The seam between the dark floor and the flood light, somehow brighter, encroaches closer to the bed. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep. Minutes? Hours? There’s a crisp tap. Like long fingernails knocking against the glass one by one.
I rise up. Knock. “Bruce,” I whisper. “Bruce, Bruce.”
He doesn’t wake up, doesn’t even stir.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I push myself to the end of the bed. I cross the line on the floor where the darkness and light meet.
Pebbles are hitting the window.
Below in the driveway is a boy with dark hair like mine. Like Bruce’s. The boy squats down to pick up another pebble from the driveway. When he stands up, the light hits his face in such a way that his eyes are lost in shadow. He seems to be similar in age to me and Bruce. He hooks his arm back to throw another pebble when he seems to notice me at the window.
I’m not afraid until he motions for me to come down to the driveway. I’m tempted. I want to know who he is and why he chose this house. Does he know Bruce? Perhaps from down there he thinks I’m my classmate.
He bats his fingers faster for me to come down.
Perhaps he wants me to invite him in.
I glance back at Bruce asleep on the bottom bunk.
Knock. His motions become quicker, angrier.
I run back to the bed. Burrow under a blanket next to Bruce, hoping, as I do at home, that being covered will keep me safe. The knocks stop. Attending a Catholic school means my brain is steeped in the supernatural. I’m convinced the boy in the driveway is a vampire.
What is a vampire? The classic definition: a supernatural creature that must drink the blood of others to survive. Most people think of Dracula or other popular culture versions of vampires. They’re all thin. They’re all longing for the love of their lives. I’m not interested in the romance of vampires. Folkloric vampires were not thin as we see in movies, they were according to Paul Barber in his book, Vampires, Burial & Death, bloated. Folkloric vampires were fat. They barely spoke, if at all. They were not charming. They were not what we expect from Old Hollywood or more recent literary and movie renditions. However, the need, the desire for blood remains. Many folkloric vampires didn’t hunt randomly when they crawled out of their graves in the middle of the night. They went home to their families for blood, for the chance to turn them into vampires too.
I’m on the edge of my parents’ bed, folding maroon cloth napkins my mother needs for a catering job her employer has booked. The triangular folded ones stacked neatly in the box they came in. My mother is not here. She’s at Tom’s house, a cook where she works, a friend. I should be reading Flowers for Algernon for my junior high English class. Instead I’m watching Roseanne as I fold, the unfolded cloth in a pile on the bed next to me. Roseanne and Dan are fighting, yelling and making jokes at the same time. By the time the episode is over they will make up, express their love for each other in some way. If only that happened in real life. Yet, I laugh.
Down the hall, down the stairs to the next level of the house, I hear the hiss and crack of my father opening another beer. He grunts loudly to himself. I hear him bang up the stairs. He appears in the doorway with his beer bloated belly. I look his way for a second, careful not to lock eyes with him. I turn my head away, towards the wall, to avoid triggering an incident.
Pink and grey dribbles that look like candle wax run down the length of the wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom. My aunt had once told me that her blood was pink rather than red.
I’ve been given a task. I knew my mother would be angry if I wasn’t done before she got home. The studio audience laughs at the show.
He moves so that he blocks the TV. He rocks back and forth, his arms folded across his bloated belly shelf. His face bloated too. He clears his throat.
“Get out,” he says. “My room.”
“No one thinks of this as your room,” I say.
He slaps me. The crack of his skin against mine echoes off the walls. My head turns from the force of it. My cheek feels swollen already.
I throw myself toward the door and into the hallway. No matter how drunk he is, he moves with the speed and force of the undead when he wants to strike. He pushes me. I fall to the carpet in the hallway. He grabs at the waist of my sweatpants. Pulls me along the carpet towards him. It burns my arms and elbows.
I kick at his hand and arm with my left foot trying to get free from his grip.
No matter how hard I kick, his hand is solid trap. He grabs at the waist sweatpants. Begins to pull them off.
I kick quicker, harder. I kick his face. He’s dazed for a moment. It’s an accident, but now I see a weakness, I see the full strength of my thick legs. I kick him in the middle of his face. Again. Again.
Blood oozes out of his nose. I kick again and he lets go.
I run down the stairs and run to the house next door. It’s a short distance but feels long. Fear tingles up to the back of my skull. He could grab me at any second.
I make it to the door. I ring the doorbell. Bang on the door. I shout, “help me.”
The TV glows blue in the crack of the curtain in the bay window. Someone is awake. I keep ringing the doorbell. Finally, the light in the foyer pops on. A shadow moves down the stairs. Our neighbor, Bobby, opens the door. He’s the adult son of the elderly couple that lives here. He seems as elderly as his parents with bushy silver eyebrows and gray hair.
He looks down at me through the screen door. I gasp out that my father hit me, may be coming after me.
He opens the door. “Quick, get in here.”
I follow him up the stairs to the living room. Gertie, his mother, sits on the couch. She motions for me to come sit next to her. “Bobby, get me a towel.”
She wipes my face and asks me what happened. I tell her. She tells Bobby to call the police. I start to cry.
I stay on the couch with her and we focus on the television. I daydream about living in a relaxing, easy environment as this house. I cannot tell how much time passes before the red and blue lights flash through the window. Bobby goes down to the door. I hear murmurs in the foyer.
Bobby calls for me.
Gertie nods at me. I go.
A police officer stands there with my grandfather. My father stands behind them, his face points at the ground, his shoulders are hunched. “I hear you let your emotions get the best of you,” the police officer says to me as he steps over to me.
I don’t know how to respond as I grip the railing of the stairs.
“Let’s go home,” my grandfather says. “Stop bothering these nice people.”
The police officer puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Listen to your grandad, young man.”
My father says nothing. He lifts his eyes towards me. He smirks. Whatever he told my grandfather, his father, and the police, they believe him. They won’t believe me.
Vampire as Ghost
The line between a vampire and a ghost. For most of my life I thought of them as two different entities. A ghost hovers, can walk through walls, and you only see them out of the corner of your eye. They can be in your house, your room, your bathroom. Anywhere. They can show up whenever, wherever they want.
Vampires have also returned from the dead. However, it’s their actual body not their spirit that has climbed out of their grave. Unlike a ghost, they cannot enter whenever, wherever they want. They must find a way in or be let in. Invitations don’t matter for folkloric vampires. There is a story Paul Barber cites in his book a place in Serbia where vampires are called ghosts. They stalk around in the dark and make their relatives feel haunted. Later, in the book, he relates the story of vampires in South Russia that can be invisible, saying, “…there is no difference, functionally, between the concept of invisibility and that of absence…”. Absence hurts. Ghosts are absence. Like a ghost, you may feel absence standing behind you. It will make you feel guilty. It will make you sad. There is no way to have a last conversation, even if it’s one sided when people are absent, gone. It’s scary when I feel the presence of someone, which my brain has labeled as my father, behind me. Since I can’t see him, I’ll never know for sure it’s him. I’m at the same time afraid it might be him. I don’t want to speak out, ask him to identify himself, in fear that there might be an answer.
This is not a typical response. Many people would be happy to see and hear from a dead relative. The families in those folklore stories who saw vampires could see their dead relatives. It must have been upsetting. Perhaps also a comfort. Even though they had changed, bloated, lusting for blood, the family member could at least see a person they had wanted to see again.
The trees have long needles hanging off of them instead of regular branches and leaves. Some of them have fallen and now layer the dirt walking path. I’m careful because despite having flip flops, I worry that the needles will stab me. Tree roots have broken out of their graves and wait to grab my ankle, to make me fall, I imagine. The path feels dangerous. I keep my focus towards the ground. But I can see my father’s calves, his feet, enough to know that I’m not lost. He walks at a pace that he is only a few steps ahead, leading the way to the pool. I’m young, small, no more than four or five years old. My grandparents have taken us with them to visit friends who live in a RV complex. If there are other people around, I cannot see or sense them. It’s only my father and me.
Dirt transforms to concrete. A mixture of sour chemical chlorine mixes with the sweet, almost maple, scent of the green leaved, gray branched trees around the pool complex. I jog down the covered pathway, past the closed concession stand as my father signs in on the checklist posted on the wooden wall of building that forms the tunnel.
We have the pool to ourselves. I don’t even consider the lack of people around us then, at that age. Later, I will understand that we visited during the off-season. Later, I will be told that we could only take this trip because my grandparents, my father’s parents paid for it because my father was often out of work and my mother’s waitressing job money went to some groceries or fast food meals during vacation. But I don’t think about who is paying for what as I jog to the edge of the pool that looks like a vast but contained clear ocean.
My father holds my hand as we walk down the stairs into the shallow end. The glossy water reflecting the grey clouds moving across the blue sky above. He lets go and submerges underneath the water to the deeper end. I doggy paddle because I don’t want my feet to make contact with the rough, spikey plaster on the bed of the pool. The skin on my feet crack and peel, have not become thick and rough like my father’s.
He emerges. His hair slicked back. His wet chest hair forms almost the shape of a bird’s tail against his skin. I’m a buoy that has attracted the attention of my father. He pushes his way through the thick water towards me. I don’t remember being afraid of him. He gets closer, and I reach my arms out. He picks me up out of the water, holds me close to him. I shiver from the cold water and the cooler, early spring southern air. He spins us around back towards the deep end.
“Throw me. Throw me.” I shout as my teeth clatter.
“Get ready to launch,” he says.
I’m both afraid to let go of my grasp on his shoulders, and excited to soar through the air. He throws me. I splash into the water of the shallow end. A little water goes up my nose. My feet push into the bottom of the pool. The puckered plaster pokes into my soft skin. Blood leaks out as I swim up to the surface. My head makes it above water, my hair matted down to the top of my forehead. My father pushes through the water towards me. He smiles. I doggy paddle towards him.
“Again. Again,” I say.
Jordan E. McNeil [she/her] writes fairytales, rages at videogames, and takes selfies with goats. Her work can be found (or is forthcoming) at Curating Alexandria, The Arcanist, Arsenika, and Liminality. She can be found on Twitter, @Je_McNeil.
Grief is a palpable thing i can clutch from the air and hold, pulsing, in my hand, when i walked down the halls after a student took his life, when a kid from my sister’s grade did as well, when a family in the community lost a husband, a father, a child in an automobile accident, when another from a different community lost their mother to one as well, when a roommate lost her dad, when Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Chester Bennington and people took to the internet to grieve, because where else can they share this emotion over people they never really “knew” but loved deeply anyway. i cut the grief into slices and placed them one by one into my mouth to chew for eternity, for grief is not a fast emotion, but slow like molasses, sticky like saltwater taffy but rarely sweet.
i have experienced far too much grief for someone my age, and societal normalized jokes about loss about death about suicide are not funny to me anymore. If you tell me you want to jump off a bridge, i’ll believe you, and you bet your ass i will comment on that post saying “don’t” saying “i may not be much help, but wanna talk? want some cute animal videos?” saying “i may not know you, but i will notice your absence, i will grieve you, you are not alone, how can i make you believe that, please believe it.” while anxiety burns in my chest, while my heartbeat races because my mental illness also manifests as worry, as what-if worst case scenario pessimistic as hell and what-if that tweet is not a joke, what-if i’m not able to help because heaven knows i’m not qualified. i’m just a girl, barely out of teens it seems, with atypical neurology herself, what am i supposed to do but reach out and pray i won’t have to see others grieve again and again and again, pray that you’ll believe, pray that for once beautiful starlight can stay on this earth, for we are all made of star dust.
Hannah Cajandig-Taylor resides in the Upper Peninsula, where she is an MFA Candidate at Northern Michigan University and an Associate Editor for Passages North. Her prose and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Gordon Square Review, Drunk Monkeys, Third Point Press, Coffin Bell, and Sidereal Magazine, among others. She has a bike named Stella and enjoys murder documentaries.
On your eighth birthday, long before you were in love with weather, your dad took you to Big Surf Waterpark because your parents had just gotten a divorce, and you found out on the third of July, which you used to recognize as an anti-holiday, but now you just don’t recognize at all. You slouched in a bloated inner-tube, floating down a lukewarm lazy river, clouds popcorning in the humid sky. You were afraid of the tallest flume, the yellow painted tunnel in which your body would twist and turn before being dropped into a deep pool, and only took the ride to prove yourself wrong—that your fear would not pull you under with it.
When you parents sold the house you grew up in, you cried about the real estate agent’s insistence on painting over the abstractly ugly bathroom wall. One evening, you scratched out a four page essay with poorly drawn graphics that defended said bathroom wall. Said you saw other worlds in it. Saw the head of a wolf. A dancing voodoo doll. A boat with paper sails.
Nobody else saw your worlds.
You were anxious. Had trouble adjusting. Couldn’t keep track of homework assignments. Cried for three hours in the fifth grade because you forgot your backpack at home and had a meltdown in the bathroom. Moved into a sun-colored house. Called your mom when she was at work because the landscapers across the street looked like bad people, and you were sure they were going to break into your house, and nobody else saw that world either, because they weren’t bad people and your brain was in overdrive and it was sad and you were doing the best that you could.
Tornado sirens gave you panic attacks. Panic attacks gave you panic attacks. Your sister’s boyfriend hung himself. A boy touched you and it was okay. You were a storm warning, breaking however you could. During freshman year of college, you almost failed out halfway through spring semester because you were scared of touching doorknobs because what if you got ebola and died and what if that spot on your upper leg was cancer and what if you have head lice and what if there is no world after this one is over. That year, you saw a psychiatrist. Started taking medication. Finally lost your virginity. Wanted to spill your soul to somebody. Your parents were married to different people.
You wrote a poem about stratus clouds and didn’t hate the thunder of your own voice. Began jotting down birthdays in your planner. Broke up with your high school boyfriend. Adopted a dog. Got sick after pounding a red solo cup of cheap vodka in your best friend’s living room. Studied the names of your favorite constellations. Saw lions and planets in the unclaimed stars.
The falling sky loved you back. Watched you write letters to your eight year old self. Wept when you wept. You were alive for another birthday, and when you finally got an actual night’s sleep for the first time in weeks, you nightmared over water slides and wind storms and fireflies and airplanes and dark wine and a girl who might have been you, but you still can’t remember her face.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, The Washington Post, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) were published in 2019.
I woke up with a wooden stake held to my heart, as if the lore was true. As if it ever had been.
“What did you do with her?” a voice shouted, shrill and bordering on hysterical. The man’s face that became clearer as I opened my eyes looked so familiar. He looked so very much like Thane that for a confused moment, I thought he had forgotten everything we’d shared and was attacking me for reasons I couldn’t yet fathom.
But no. This man was older, his straw-like blonde hair graying at the temples. His blue eyes were red-veined and beginning to lack clarity. The shirt that came down to his shaking wrists was conservative, plaid cotton and white plastic buttons. Thane would look much younger than this for the next few millennia, at least. I woke from my deep daytime sleep, my dreams of old villages and newer crumbling cities, and understood exactly what was happening.
Thane had carried all the sadness in the world when I met him. That was how I knew.
The night we met, I’d been in a pitch black club shot through with razors of light. My photosensitivity was in full effect; even artificial light in those pulsing, jarring blades can trigger the same unpleasant effects I get from the sun. After too much of it, I began to feel sick. Then I began to hallucinate. The blades of white light in the darkness became white-clad angels with flaming swords, the sweat pouring off of bodies was suddenly the baptismal water splashed by men in long robes who hid in the shadows. I had to get out and clear my head, so I went to the brick alleyway and lit a joint.
I didn’t feel anything from the drug, but it had its desired effect -- a person with thin shoulders and so much sadness I could taste it in the air came towards me. Later, I would learn his name -- Thane.
Thane couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. How different he wished his life to be was palpable. It was in his drunkenness, wobbly and full of desperation. It was in the way he devoured the joint, as if some great prize were at the end. It was in the way he hunched his shoulders to hide the smallest hint of breast tissue still visible beyond the body-damaging ACE bandages wound tight around his chest. I was just another clubgoer to him, a petite woman with long white-blonde hair, complexion maybe a bit too pale -- but who could tell in the dark club and the alleyway?
I reached out to hand him the joint. The skin of his fingers brushed the skin of mine, electric, wanting.
I didn’t want his blood, you know. I never needed his or anyone else’s. Humans have always thought their blood so pure and special. Animal blood does fine.
What drew me to him was the sadness I had once known so well.
We shared a cab back to my apartment. It was a cavern that had once been a warehouse space. So few people lived there, still, even after most of the rats were chased out and it was divided into units. My blackout curtains, my refrigerator empty but for pouches full of cow’s blood -- they were too far away from anyone who mattered to matter at all.
“What do you do?” he asked. We were in the car, the driver in front of us glancing up at the GPS map on his phone and pretending to ignore us.
“I manage,” I said, shrugging my thin shoulders.
I slid my hand into his. There was something unspoken, like in all love. We could not say what we intended. But I did intend the best for him.
Thane stumbled into my apartment as I walked soundlessly in my slipper shoes. Industrial dirt stained the floor. I told him it was best to leave his shoes on if he wasn’t in the bed.
“Who are you?” he asked, looking around at the blackness of the floor, the curtains, the sheets on the bed. There was not much in the room. After so long, I have learned that even the things I love don’t always come along. I used to leave a place to crowds and fires, to shrill terror and blood. But it’s been different. Now it’s the whispers that chase me, the rumors of a life lived too long, a face unchanged all those years. When I came here, I came with a suitcase, all of my last life’s prizes left to gather dust or be claimed by those brave enough to make their way into abandoned places. Things fade. It is only in the rare moments, the moments that stretch and last and make promises they can’t keep of “forever,” that I forget. And, often, it’s best to forget what you’ve left behind. It lets the rest happen.
“I’m just....well, I suppose I wonder about you, too?”
“I’m nobody,” he said. “Almost gone. Just looking for an okay time.”
It was a lie, all of it. He was clinging to life so fiercely. There was fire in him, small and hot as blue embers you have to kick away the charred wood to reach. Okay was the least of what he deserved.
I made sure Thane found my supply before anything happened between us. I wanted him to know everything. It’s safer that way.
“Are you going to kill me?” he asked, the refrigerator door open and the pouches of cow’s blood glowing ruby in its light.
“It’s….never been that way,” I said. “The stories you know -- they’re from The Pure. Propaganda. Hands with yellow talons reaching for their round-cheeked babies. Carrying their women off. Making their men unholy. Maybe you know stories like that?” I asked.
He closed the refrigerator. “I may have heard one or two of them,” he said.
“The only men I’ve killed have deserved it,” I said.
“There are men who do bad things,” I said. “I wish I could say just one, but I’ve lived a number of lives. Anyone would have done the same. I just happen to have the strength to break a neck with my hands.”
He paused. “Are you going to turn me?”
I reached my hand behind his head, my fingers tangled in his hair, and kissed him gently, so he would not be afraid.
“The story about having to invite us in?” I asked, leaning my forehead against his. Our eyes could see nothing but each other; our mouths breathed the same air, hot and wet below our line of sight. “That one’s almost true.”
Thane took his clothes off slowly that night, as if his body was to be a surprise. There are no surprises left, not after a life this long.
Days spent sleeping, nights together. I forgot forever was the worst lie in these moments.
Thane and I liked to read books together in the warm water that filled the giant claw-footed tub in my bathroom. I am still catching up on what are now called the classics. Imagine the futility of reading all the books of several lifetimes. When humans despair of ever reading the ones released in their own lives, I multiply by thirty. I will never make it through them all. The edges of my hair brushed the surface of the water, the tips dripping and darkened when I stood to get out.
One grey day, I went to the grocery store. I hadn’t been there in this city I lived in now, ever, and I found it lacking. I wandered all day to the vegetable and fish and meat stands and markets within a fifty mile radius. I picked the closest to the ingredients for the favored foods I’d seen over multiple lifetimes and many continents. I made brioche, truffled mushroom soup, game meat terrine, shucked oysters, made miniature beef Wellington with tender cuts of beef. They were all the foods that I had watched others eat with longing after food meant nothing to me. I was so young when I turned that I never experienced the joy I saw on others’ faces when they ate them. I cooked them, and fed them all to Thane.
I watched him devour them. I understood longing again, in ways I have not for so long.
After many days passed into many weeks, he did not leave the room when I drank from the ruby pouches I kept in my refrigerator. That -- it was not longing. It was survival.
Once I asked him a question about his childhood, and a smooth blankness fell over his face. He looked up, searched his mind, and found only the slick surface of forgetting. His face contorted; his sharp chin dimpled and went soft.
He couldn’t remember. After-effects of the electroshock therapy his parents had signed off on when he was younger. It had been designed to make him forget who he was. To be someone else.
Once, he woke up in the day, asking where he was, who he was, who I was. His thin arms and slight back were covered in sweat. He shook. I have only seen the fear that was in his eyes in the hunted.
The light around the edges of the blackout curtains disoriented me, but Thane’s fear made me calm. Light could not do to me what had been done to him. I wrapped my arms around him and repeated my name, his name, the date, the street where I lived, the name of the city, the state, the country, the continent, the planet.
He asked me if I remembered changing.
“From before,” I said, “I mostly remember the sadness.”
“What did it feel like?” he said.
“Like being a puppet of yourself, and pulling the strings from just behind. Always apart. I don’t know what to say. I remember being my own ghost. Then I was who I am.”
He was crying. He cried most nights. We would hold each other’s bodies, our skin pressed close, our mouths together. After, he would weep and shake.
“If I wanted you to, would you change me? Could I stay here? For good?”
I kissed his lips. They were puffy and slick from the tears on his face.
“I could only ever do it if you wanted me to. It’s never been the way The Pure say it is, all that terror. The Pure’s nightmares---for the rest of us, it’s just surviving as we are. Impure. Imperfect.”
He lay on his back, his arm stretched out to me. “There’s so much I’ve forgotten,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be gone. I wanted to remember my first bicycle, the color of it, the first time I saw snow -- but it’s all faded away. When I try to reach it in my head, there’s just nothing, like a song lyric or a word you just can’t recall. But it’s my life.”
I touched his face. What was it in this boy that made me want to play games of forever? I knew what a long thing forever was.
“I wish that I could give you those things back,” I said, “and make the sadness go.”
The door slammed open, spilling sunlight all over. I began to feel nauseous.
“They’re threatening to come after me,” he said. He was wild with fear.
“Who, Thane? Who?”
“The same doctors, the ones with the electricity. And they’ll let them do it again.”
“Thane, please calm down.”
“No, no,” he said. “They can’t do it again. You won’t let them, will you? You’ll change me first? Please, do it now, before they come.”
I held him, trying to calm him. “Not now, Thane. Not like this. Not with all this terror.”
I closed the door, still feeling sick to my stomach. The darkness wrapped its arms around me, just as I put mine around Thane. He pulled his straw-like hair and wept into his hands. I held him until he fell asleep.
We awoke at sunset. He peeked around the edges of the curtain to the descending orb. It has never been able to hurt me as it is sinking, as the light becomes swollen and orange.
“I still want you to,” he said. “I want to stay. I want this forever.”
He was calm, collected, so unlike the person he’d been that morning. As he said the words he said to me, some of the weight seemed to lift off of him.
I rose from the bed. My long hair swept down my back and I walked toward the window, towards him. In the dying light, I put my mouth on his neck. The taste of his blood ran through my lips, warm, sweet, metallic, him. I had been able to smell the taste of it in his veins since that first night. The longer I kept my mouth on him, the weaker his body went. Not just the life, but the sadness was slipping away. I choked on it at first, recognizing its bitterness. But I was stronger than it. It flowed through me, and away.
Finally, I pulled back. The person he had been was gone. After a long pause, I felt his heart wake up, sluggish at first, then beating with new strength. His limp body, slumped against the wall, stood straight. The ACE bandages had slipped down his flat chest, around his waist. His features had changed, ever so slightly, but I could see how. I could see that all of the sadness was gone.
“Hello,” he said, blinking, standing in his new self.
“Hello,” I smiled.
I came fully awake, days later, with Thane gone out, and with Thane’s father standing over me holding a silly, ineffectual tool of destruction against my chest.
“What did you do to her?” he demanded again. “Where is my daughter?”
He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything, least of all that I could turn the stake, snap his wrists, destroy him quicker than he could move. And he would deserve it. I didn’t doubt that.
He pressed the point against my skin, annoying me but not doing much else.
“She was here,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of sick thing you’ve done with her, how you’ve made her think this is all okay, but I won’t have it.”
I let him go on for a minute. His daughter. His property. The same old stories of The Pure, with a different name.
Finally, I grew tired. I grabbed the stake and leapt up from bed, so quickly he never saw it coming. In a heartbeat, he was on the floor. I was over him, my eyes wild, my teeth like those he had only seen on beasts, and the point of the wooden stake against his throat.
“You never had a daughter,” I hissed at him. “Do you understand me?”
I could see the fear in his eyes. I could smell the fear as his pants went dark and wet with urine. That was one thing Thane remembered from the shock therapy this man had allowed to be performed on him: pissing himself.
“Do. You. Understand. Me?”
“Where is she?” he whimpered.
“You never had a daughter. If you want to keep living, say it with me. Say it until you believe it. I. Never. Had. A. Daughter.”
“I…..never had a daughter.”
I made him repeat it until the words became senseless. Only then did I let some of the fire drain from my eyes. I slowly released his collar and pulled the point away from his throat.
“Sometimes it’s best just to forget,” I whispered to him. The same cruel option he had forced upon Thane. It could be a blessing, to forget. Or a torment.
I let him walk out the door, alive, though I didn’t trust him not to come back. I could have killed him. Maybe I should have. But I could see the face of the person I loved inside his. For all he had done, Thane would not exist without him. And in a sudden tender space in my heart that I had assumed long gone, but that had grown in the months Thane and I spent together, I felt that he deserved mercy for that alone.
It didn’t matter if he tried to come back. Tomorrow, Thane and I would be gone. We’d go somewhere else in the world, somewhere beautiful and full of lore. We’d go somewhere where they would never be ready for us, and begin the work of living.
Marisa Crane is a queer writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Wigleaf Top 50, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, Our Debatable Bodies (Animal Heart Press, 2019). Originally from Allentown, PA, she currently lives in San Diego with her wife.
Outside The Joint, I bent down to pet a stray cat that looked like a moldy loaf of bread, which is what I told the cat right before it hissed in my face. Rank said hurry, we’ve got to keep moving and did I know that the feline had herpes? When we made it a few blocks away he pulled a bottle of Cholula out of his jacket pocket and smiled this cheesy smile. I hated him not because he stole hot sauce from restaurants but because he didn’t trust me enough to tell me in advance. I wanted to be in on the plotting and execution. Stealing was a family tradition. My dad stole my other dad from a woman and my brother stole years from my sister’s life, only he didn’t call it stealing, he called it brotherly love. I once spent an entire year shoplifting tiny spoons from antique stores to remind myself that I could follow through on something—I wasn’t a goldfish like my ex-girlfriend, Caroline, had suggested when I quit my fifth job in three months.
How many parent’s lives have been disrupted by a child winning a goldfish at a school festival? My dads accidentally killed Mr. Fishy Fish when they replaced the murky brown tank water with clean water. Mr. Fishy Fish wasn’t the first being to ever die from shock but he was the first that I knew of, which made my suffering feel unique. My brother destroyed the cardboard tombstone I arranged in the front yard then we smoked Black & Milds in the basement and found different household products to huff. He said sorry in the same silky voice that he usually reserved for my sister.
Back at the apartment I opened the refrigerator and changed my clothes behind it while Rank stuck his thin, squirrelly tongue in the peanut butter jar. Someone had planted cameras in my apartment while I was at work. I knew this because I began receiving strange texts from an unknown number. They didn’t exactly come out and say they’d planted cameras, but the texts were way too specific to be a coincidence. How did this person know I had run out of blue cheese? What gave them the right to comment on my numerous blackhead extraction tools? How did they know where to find my missing vibrator? Why did they find joy in making fun of my nighttime retainer?
I hadn’t the faintest idea as to who was watching me. They gave me a different name every time I asked. All I knew was that there were cameras and that I’d much prefer that there weren’t any cameras. I considered moving, but I feared that if I did then I’d be forced to face the fact that it wasn’t the cameras that were holding me back.
“You think it was the delivery man?” asked Rank, staring at a spot on the kitchen ceiling where there was most definitely not a camera.
It was clear that he didn’t believe me but instead of telling me that he was concerned about my mental health, he’d decided to play along with my alleged delusion. He didn’t even trust me with my own brain. No doubt he thought the text messages were a part of some elaborate scheme I was pulling, despite the fact that I was famously lazy; putting a fitted sheet on the bed required enough exertion that it met my work quota for the entire week.
The problem was that now that I’d let Rank in, I didn’t know how to get rid of him. Getting rid of people I loved was easy—I did that all the time—but people I hated? I stuck to them like chewed-up gum on the bottom of a middle school desk.
“Leave Benji out of this,” I said and he laughed a graceless laugh.
“You would have frozen if I’d told you, you know you would have,” said Rank, running his hands through his blonde locks, probably proud as all hell that he picked up on my irritation about the hot sauce. I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a humble empath. There is only a person who has read a few self-help articles they found on their Facebook feed and decided to abuse you with them.
Benji was the one who delivered my deep fryer every other week. My three friends and I shared custody of a deep fryer and Benji was decent enough to get it where it needed to go every Monday. I usually rewarded him with deep-fried crickets, only I told him they were carrots.
“I can do so many courageous things with this hot sauce,” said Rank.
“I wish you’d use that courage to describe me in five words,” I said.
He huffed and placed his prize in line with all the other hot sauces he’d stolen when I wasn’t looking. He was quiet for a while then raised his fist and counted the words on his fingers as he spoke.
“Needs a pair of stilts,” he said, triumphantly.
“What the hell. I’m taller than Mugsy Bogues,” I said, reciting what I knew from my childhood spent watching Space Jam on repeat.
“Alexa, how tall is Mugsy Bogues?” Rank shouted at the robot living in our house.
“How many packs of Huggies would you like?” Alexa responded. I thought I detected a hint of sass in her voice. I gave her an air high-five then quickly shielded my face from the camera in the cabinet. Two seconds later I received a text that said, “Dump his ass.” Then another: “Do me a favor and ask Alexa if she’d like to be my date to a work party.”
I’d initially been attracted to Rank because of his sideburns. Actually, that’s a lie—the reason we fucked in his car outside Alibi that Sunday afternoon was because he’d told me he had a statue of himself in his backyard. I’d thought, great, nothing to worry about here, while his black leather seats burned my ass cheeks. When he was about to come he begged me to call him an emperor and instead I gripped his butt and told him he was about to have a successor, clenching my vagina muscles to slurp the sperm up.
“That’s not funny,” he said, pulling out after a brief struggle.
That was when I noticed the tattoo across his collarbone that said: “Done With Everyone.”
On my walk home I called my dads and told them I finally met someone I deserved. They had me on speakerphone so everyone at their dinner party learned that I thought I deserved someone who was considering switching his major to Meme Studies. “A lucrative business” was what Rank had called it. My brother was back in prison so I thankfully didn’t have to pretend to care about his nonexistent pro tennis career. Dad said he was happy for me and Papa told me we would discuss this later, which meant he’d make the two-hour drive just to sit in my parking lot and forget about the getting out of the car and seeing me part.
Rank disappeared into the bedroom and returned with Braxton, his stuffed koala. He held Braxton next to his cheek and took a selfie with as many of the hot sauces as he could squeeze into the frame. This is what I was living with. I swallowed hard, my stomach threatening to rebel. He looked at me with this peculiar hopeful look. It took me a second, but I knew that look. That was the look that said, In spite of everything, do you still love me?
A text from the unknown number: “Call me basic, but Frank’s Red Hot is my shit.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I leaned over and vomited in the sink all over my collection of tiny spoons. Hovering there for a while, I wondered if that was it or if more parts of me wanted to move from the inside to the outside. My sister’s save-the-date glared at me from atop a pile of bills and circulars. She was smiling an easy, J.C. Penny smile at her fiancé, a vanilla dud with disturbingly good posture. I was dizzy and terrified. To categorize this terror: I wondered, why does no one look at each other in real life the way they do in engagement photos? What exactly are they looking at anyway? Promise? Security? Attachment? If I didn’t do something and fast, I would wind up in one of those photos—me, Rank, and Braxton.
“You okay, babe?” said Rank, coming up behind me and rubbing my upper back.
His touch felt slimy, like that of a costumed character at Disney World.
The second time we fucked he came in my belly button and said, “Sometimes I’m too in love with you to speak.”
His mouth tasted like the Eucharist.
I started to cry because I loved him too and it wasn’t fair, having to love someone.
The next day the cameras appeared and I was too embarrassed to find out what happens in the final season of Vampire Diaries. The last thing I needed was this stranger’s input.
That was three years ago. Sometimes it feels like it all happened to someone else.
I wiped my mouth with a marinara-stained kitchen towel. The numbness in my face crept down my spine and into my arms. I took one last look at Rank’s wood-chipped face, grabbed a six-pack of hard cider, and ran out of the house. If he said anything, I didn’t hear it. I plopped down in the grass and opened a cider, spilling all over my lap. Then I opened another. Then another. The unknown number texted me asking me where I’d run off to. “Your man is building a fort,” the stranger said. “Why didn’t you ever think of that?” I sent them the emoji of a levitating man then chucked my phone in the bushes.
A woman in overalls was walking her black and tan wiener dog around the courtyard and cheering every time he stopped walking to point at something with his front paw.
“We’re so evolved,” she cooed, taking a video.
“What’s he pointing at?” I asked from my position in the grass. Legs spread wide, welcoming the world in.
“Dachshunds point when they’re hunting. It means they’ve found something,” she explained.
Her eyes looked spooked.
“Yeah but like, what did he find?” I said.
“Hell if I know, lady,” she said, tugging on the dog's leash so he’d follow her to safety.
I jumped to my feet and caught up with them. I didn’t like being called lady, and I found it rather rude that she didn’t care what I liked. “It just doesn’t occur to people,” Rank had once said, defending an antique store employee who’d called me “girl,” as in “Hey, girl,” when I’d entered the store. That was the first place I ever stole a tiny spoon from.
“Do you mind?” I said, ripping the leash from her hand. She opened her mouth as if she might scream but she didn’t.
The dog and I took off running down the street and into the woods. Soon we could no longer hear the highway traffic. The night fell. The moon spilled into my hair. I followed him wherever he wanted to go. I trusted that he knew what was best for us.
The third time Rank and I fucked, I said, “Let’s run away somewhere,” and he said, “What would we do that for? Europe has even more McDonald’s than here.”
The dog and I walked for years and years, his nose pressed to the ground and long brown tail curled in a U. My feet bled. My knees gave out. My spine folded in on itself. And still, the fearlessness of this new world stuck to my clothes like burs.
He stopped to point at trees and squirrels and holes and owls and blue jays and condoms, both used and unused, and beer bottles and wine labels and cigarette butts and diary entries and raw chicken and cardboard boxes and scrap metal and cut-up credit cards and old sneakers but no tiny spoons. He pointed to everything he could. The world was full of things no one wanted anymore.
I had a birthday every day. And every day I asked the dog, “Did you remember to look up today?”
He did, was his answer every time. Then he’d point in the direction of my family and whimper. I wondered what they were stealing now. If it counted as stealing when they were still unhappy.
The last time Rank and I fucked, I didn’t make a single sound. I tried to pretend that I was the statue in his backyard. Eventually, I said, “Call me emperor, bitch.”
He raised his fist like he was going to hit me but at the last second, he punched the pillow beside my head. That type of disappointment excited me.
He said, “You didn’t invent depression, you know. Your parents and your parents’ parents had it too, only they called it laziness or like, the flu.”
Today I turn 10,000 years old.
I lean on a burnt tree, brushing its white flaky bark.
“Why are dead trees so beautiful?” I ask the dog, who is busy digging a hole at its base.
I kiss the dead tree until my lips bleed. Then I kiss it some more. It’s the only thing I can think to do.
The dog follows the trail of something, sniffing loudly and aggressively as he zigzags. He disappears into a thicket of trees then returns with a red wig covered in spider webs. He drops it in front of me and grins a stupid grin that reminds me of Rank. I put it on and sing myself a song that has neither the word “happy” nor the word “birthday” in it.
I feel so alive I am almost certain I must be dead.
After I blow out my candles, the dog lifts his stumpy little leg and for the first time in 10,000 years, points directly at me.