Betty by Didi Wood

They probably didn’t say why they were hiring but the girl who was here before you died, she died here at work, right in the breakroom, but nobody talks about it. Don’t say I told you. Don’t say anything.

Here’s a uniform. I think it was Lexie’s. She’s not here anymore, either. Obviously. If it doesn’t fit, you can try this one—it was Molly’s. That’s just a stain, sometimes they don’t come out but it’s clean, I promise. You can pin a nametag over that.

Pick one of these—do you want Hailey? Ginny? Emily? It’ll be a while before yours comes. I guess there’s a problem with the supplier or something.

Oh, my god, you really thought my name was Betty? That’s so funny! It must be left over from the 1950s, it’s so retro, right? No, I’m not going to tell you my real name—you have to guess! Here are some more nametags for you—Tammy? Libby? Ashley? No?

You’ll need to pull back your hair super tight—see mine? Just like that. Nothing escaping or you’ll get written up. I did ballet for nine years, that’s why I’m so good at it. You can use gel or spray to keep the wispy pieces in place. Make sure you take it down when you get home, though, or you’ll get traction alopecia. This one girl I knew, Sophie, she lost all the hair in front, her hairline started way back here, at the top of her head, and she had all these sores and infections where it used to be. I think she died.

Not from that, probably. I don’t think so.

Don’t worry about the smell—it’s part of the process, off-gassing or emissions or something, it’s not toxic or anything. It says so in the handbook. You won’t even notice after a while. Which is good because it’s a lot stronger in there. You’ll see.

This is your timecard. When it’s time for your shift, just stick it in here, like this—hear the sound, that little punch?—and then put it back on the rack. Try to put it in the same place every time so you can find it fast, in case you’re running late or something. But don’t be late, okay? Don’t. Here, we’ll put it—wait, let me pull some of the old ones, these girls aren’t here anymore. Abby, Chloe, Lucy… Annie? Wow, she—I—

No, I’m fine, I’m fine. Really. I just get a little, like, Whoa sometimes. Everybody does, it’s all the time on your feet, the blood gets stuck down there and then your brain’s all, Um, help? When it happens, just punch out and take a break. There are chairs in the breakroom, you can sit and put your head between your knees until you feel better. Not more than five minutes, though.

Here’s the breakroom. You don’t punch in for ten minutes so maybe we’ll just hang here and then I’ll show you where the gloves are and we can get started for real. There should be more nametags in this drawer.

Wow, check it out—Trudy! Elsie! These must be ancient. Hey, look, you can be Laurie—like in Halloween? Better start practicing your scream. I’ll just sit for a bit while you decide. Seriously, I’m fine. Maybe I’ll be Laurie next week. No, I told you, you have to guess. Just call me Betty until you guess. Did you pick one yet? Well, keep looking. We’re almost out of time.

 

Didi Wood’s stories have appeared in WigleafSmokeLong QuarterlyJellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Rattle & Rue,” originally published in Cotton Xenomorph, was chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2019. You can find her on Twitter @DidiWood and online at www.didiwood.com

Everything Works Differently in Darkness by Kaj Tanaka

Sometimes when I get sad, I think about how Raven created this world from a pebble for his convenience. He’d been flying through the eternal night carrying a pebble and he needed somewhere to land, so he dropped the pebble into the water and—boom—the world. It doesn’t need to make sense. Everything works differently in darkness.

It’s sort of like: there’s a jacket, okay, and pretty soon someone comes along and picks it up and now there are two people—the original space inside the jacket and the person who came along to notice it. I guess I’m saying even if you seem to be alone, you probably aren’t.

Most of my friends are parasocial friends. By that I mean my friends are social media people who I watch on my phone. I know all kinds of things about them, but they know nothing about me. Like this one woman—she smiles a lot and puts things into her backpack. Or this other couple—they clean up messy houses and talk about movies they have watched together. Or this other person—they go on long and aimless and mostly silent walks through a city on the other side of this planet, a city I will probably never visit.

Raven was hungry—that is Raven’s deal. Raven wanted something to eat, so he dropped a pebble and pretty soon boom he was chilling in a hot tub and the room was filled with casseroles and eclairs—AKA the world. Raven created the world out of necessity. Lots of people don’t get that creation isn’t about beauty or truth or whatever, it’s about an urgent need to exist.

Recently, my neighborhood experienced a major power outage because the wind has been unusually high this year. When the power goes out, my internet also goes out, my parasocial relationships disappear, and I am thrown into aloneness not unlike the dark Raven flew through before he created the world.

When I get very very sad, I remember the Raven thing is only a story. You can’t drop a pebble and make the world. You can’t call the disembodied space within a jacket a person. And a person you watch on the internet isn’t really your friend. These lies are cousins, which is why I grouped them together here.

I once had a real friend who tried to live only on packets of ramen noodles. She succeeded for a while, but then she ended up with a serious case of the shakes—her entire body, she said, seemed to be trying to vibrate itself into its constituent parts. This happened for seven days. During that time, she disappeared, and when she finally came back she told us she said, “shaking uncontrollably alone in my apartment,” which is what I think about when my power goes out because I have been going through a version of the same thing, maybe for years.

I think: I am shaking myself apart into my constituent parts.

For my friend, her case of the shakes was just the wake-up call she needed, and after that, she went back to eating other foods besides packets of ramen noodles.

During the power outage, there was a knock on my door. I waited in the darkness, listening, and when I pulled back the locks, outside in the night a disembodied space hovered in the hallway outside my apartment, looking at me expectantly.

The emptiness in my hallway resembled somehow the dark space you find inside a jacket. But now, lacking a form to contain it, it spread its wings as far as I could see, swallowing up everything. The disembodied space looked hungry and tired. I opened my mouth, and—boom—the world. I know it doesn’t make sense, but everything works differently in darkness.

It never occurred to me that in this version of the story I might not be Raven, I might be the pebble. Imagine my surprise.

 

Kaj Tanaka’s fiction has appeared in New South, Hobart, The New Ohio Review, and Tin House. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and Wigleaf’s Top 50. Kaj lives in New Mexico. Find him at kajtanaka.com.

1000 by Rob Roensch

I have been as tall as I will ever be for one whole year. I will never be as tall as my father.

This spring is no surprise and, for the first time, barely a relief. Our flooded, muddy bank of the Far River and the new green leaves mean the return of life; they prove the strength of the circle that cages us.

In our first summer, touching the skin of the mother of my son was like seeing lightning through closed eyes. Now she is in the earth, with my son, who never saw a storm, or a morning. The stories say I will see them after I die; I will never see them again.

The night before my father died, he talked in his sleep, which he did not do. The words he spoke were nonsense.

Or they were in an older language, from the other world.

The stories say that on the far slopes of the mountains beyond the Far River are black forests and lakes of ice. There live men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, and women beautiful as snakes, all banished from this fertile valley by God.

The mountains are real. From anywhere in our valley, I can see them. The rest of the stories is only as real as the monsters that haunted my dreams as a child.

Prayer, the acknowledgment of the presence of God, used to be my mother’s voice singing in the dark. But there is only one world: smoke, torn grass, a handful of cold water. Fog, first dawn-light. The only path is to work and, later, try to sleep.

And yet, this one blank morning, I do not follow the men to the fields.

I stand on our bank of the Far River and watch the mountains carve themselves visible against the day. I cannot find the prayer.

I had been told by my father, with the threat of a fist to the temple, never to attempt to cross the Far River until I was as tall as he was. He knew I would never be as tall as he was.

So I enter the Far River.

The hand of the current sweeps me up and for a moment I am lifted and carried, a child. But then I’m pulled down, wrong, hands squeezing my lungs, the river pressing against my mouth, and I’m smashed into stones, and I could let go.

I do not let go.

When I open my eyes I am lying in the mud of the far bank of the Far River. I hear the cry of my son’s mother wishing to die, and the cry of our son wishing to live; it is the same cry. It is my voice.

But I am in the other world.

I lift myself, part by heavy part, to my feet. My head rings, but I am whole. I am as close to the mountains as I have ever been. I know I will reach them. I will know if the stories are true.

Before I have taken the first step I see, in the near distance, massed like too many birds in a tree, men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, watching me, my death in their eyes.

But if monsters are real, then so is God.

 

Rob Roensch is the author of the story collection The Wildflowers of Baltimore (Salt) and the novella The World and the Zoo (Outpost19). He lives and teaches in Oklahoma City.

We Thought It Was Lost Forever by Eileen Frankel Tomarchio

The rewind button, remember? Popped off the remote when you threw it at the TV that time? I was rubbing the nubs where your toes had been while you watched a nature show. All those sea walruses crowded on stony cliffs, tumbling in slow motion into an Arctic sea, their writhing hulks like bodies in a bag. Bellows so loud that next-door pounded the wall. It was telling, the way you curled your hands into yourself after the throw. I know you wanted me to think it was a neighborly fuck off! that missed the wall, or a shot at me for not rubbing hard enough. (I never could rub hard enough to relieve the numbness one minute, choke the stabbing sensation the next). But it was those walruses, wasn’t it? Their odd cave noises in open air. They must have sounded to you as if your own pain were being fed through a landline a thousand miles long, across a continent, coming out on those cliffs a garbled, whiskered lament. 

I remember thinking this was a perfect chance for a big-picture talk. The kind you couldn’t stand and that I hated hearing myself say. Some facile link from the panicked beasts to melting sea ice to forest loss to palm plantations to the processed oil on the list of ingredients in the Fig Newtons and Tombstone Frozen Pizza you loved to high A1C levels to neuropathy to gangrene to amputation to stuck in a chair watching nature shows. Except I could imagine your side-eye too well, hear your You learn that stretch in yoga? Then something about how I’d rather dump the world’s problems on you than, say, get together with my sweet, funny cousin with MS, or make a donation to the local Catholic Charities, or bake you a tray of dream bars for the freezer, just to have on hand, the only pleasure left to you, so why would I deny you unless I were the cruelest sort of daughter?

It was easier to spare you the talk and go hunting for the remote behind the TV. I lingered in a crouch back there, feeling weak from the surround-sound of walruses and sad violins. For months afterwards, you controlled the rewind with blunted toothpicks until it got too hard to finesse. You resorted to the pause button a lot, just to absorb, catch up. You’d always been a mindful viewer, doubting everything you saw and heard that you couldn’t go back and watch again, see right, hear for sure. But in the end, you stopped bothering even with the pause and kept the TV running live, believing too easily the things you barely caught or filled in wrong or just wanted to believe.

I’ve got it in my hand now, the rewind button. I found it at the edgelands of the carpet with some mouse droppings and a cracked Metformin pill. It snaps right back into the remote. I press it a bunch of times. A reversed Lester Holt un-reports the wildfires out west, scrolled script pages in his downturned prayer hands, the straining flames sucked back into the ground. When I release my thumb, the rewind stays stuck at triple-speed, the backward programming a slapstick blur. But I don’t fix the jam with a toothpick, a ballpoint pen, my teeth. I leave it alone. I hang here in your chair and close my eyes and let rewind send me back to before you had to go into nursing care. Back further to before your amputations. Further still to the days I rubbed your toes with your favorite palm oil-laden Gold Bond. To you and the neighbor chatting over tea, trading door wreath tips. To you pushing your cart through the grocery aisles in sunny flip flops, before the mobility scooters. To you making me vow never to move back home, no matter how sick you ever got, and me lying when I said I promise. To my last summer before college and a Sunday afternoon we watched TV together, me breaking off half a still-warm dream bar to share, both of us making happy eating noises while walrus families lolled on plentiful ice floes in healthy seas, before they were forever lost.

 

Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small New Jersey suburb. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Forge Lit Mag, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. She’s on Twitter at @eileentomarchio.

Starburst: A Dispatch of 100-Word Stories by Julia Halprin Jackson

Take care

After the cicadas stop humming, after the moon flushes the sky clean of stars, we hear it. A thrashing, a clanging, a hurtling, is whirling towards us from below the campground. You pace on the pulsing soil. “Don’t worry,” you call. “I’ll take care of it.” The earth is loud. Insects gather at my feet. Then I notice it: the ground has seams. Stick your finger in and up it rips, soil and roots and worms, concrete foundations, wooden beams, gravestones. “Don’t!” you say. But my fingers are hungry. I pull back the earth beneath your feet. I take care.

No vacancy

Night falls over Crater Lake, that blue gully with its mouth open to the heavens. The man and woman approach the summit as the rain drops like marbles. The campgrounds are full, as are the chalets; there aren’t any hotel rooms this close to the crater’s rim. What if we could make it to the island? she says. It’s probably vacant. When he doesn’t answer, she puts the car in reverse, aims for the rim’s biggest lip. Floor it, he says. Rain steers them down, down. The sky has never been more vacant. They push the stars aside. They land.

Ways to fall in love

One bought me glucose tablets. Another held my hand while we biked. Another took me to see the seals in the snow. One left a birthday gift outside my parents’ gate, close to midnight on a day I thought he’d forgotten. These are all the ways I’ve fallen in love. But this one unrolled the country and we hiked right through it. He vacuums. He lets me drive his ATV. This one woke me that night I’d fallen off the bed, wet and shaking, and didn’t mind that I’d broken his glasses. This one is afraid of the right things.

Transit

We park my bike next to yours in the shed overnight. The next morning, three small tricycles lurk under my back wheel. The tricycles have my curvy handlebars and your racer stripes. My bike looks tired, her tires deflated. Your bike’s pedals spin midair. You reach for a trike, but it rolls out of view. Someday these might come in handy, you say, patting my belly. You reach for the door but I stop you, saying, Let’s leave it open. We’re not gone long, but when we come back, the bikes are gone, a trail of grease staining the floor.

Bean counter

It’s a tireless game, all this imagining. You want a universe and so you must invent it. You want a popsicle and so you must make it drip down your chin. You want a man with a Frisbee for a head, so you draw him. Etcetera. Other people—PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs, CFOs, UFOs—other people perform real services, create real goods. Other people can weigh what they’ve created in two hands. Other people chat you up at cocktail parties, say, What you do sounds so fun. You smile, but inside you know. Your hands are dirty from counting words.

 

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work has appeared in Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern, and elsewhere. A graduate of U.C. Davis’s Master’s in Creative Writing program, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer.

Superposition by Josh Denslow

Unobserved, the dog is able to exist in two places at once.

He lies at the foot of his owner’s bed, her hand idly stroking his fur as she struggles to find the inner resources needed to finish the book she began reading over a year ago. On nights like this, expectant and alone, the book is a morass of words. She can no longer remember the characters or the plot or anyone’s motivations, so she starts from wherever she had put the bookmark previously and mouths each word as she moves toward the inevitable, and frankly disquieting, end. The dog likes when she reads. There is more room for him, on nights like this, when she craves another presence. Someone to prove she’s alive.

The dog is also, at this precise moment, across town, running loose in the yard of the object of his owner’s affection. He’s a vibrant man who hasn’t read a book in years. Not since his ex-wife gave him a copy of Mending a Marriage: Who is the Needle and Who is the Thread, which he read with an earnest fervor he’d never felt in all their years together. He highlighted and underlined and copied his favorite passages, but they never once talked about the book. They signed the paperwork without ever attempting to mend anything. He thinks about that book more than he would care to admit.

The dog doesn’t give a shit about books, or even words for that matter. He can feel his age in his bones and his loosening skin and his drying hair. He wants two warm bodies in his bed, one on either side, like bookends. These two, the dog’s owner and the object of her affection, will do nicely. They are the needle and the thread.

So the dog puts his head on his owner’s thigh and sighs, tilting his deep brown eyes up at her; while at the same time, he rubs against the man’s leg, his tail whipping uncontrollably.

The woman mouths more words as the man says, “Whoa, buddy.” His fingers reach out, those magical digits with the power to move all the matter in the world, and he clasps the dog’s collar.

He sees the name there and the number, and the dog rolls onto his back on the bed next to his owner because he knows what happens next.

The phone rings and she puts her bookmark in the book and closes it. She has no idea when she will open it again.

“I found your dog,” the man says.

She looks at her dog and the man looks at her dog, and thus observed the dog chooses a location.

Alone in bed, the dog’s owner rubs the spot where her dog had been moments before. “I’ll pick him up,” she says, the book forgotten now. “I’ll come to you.”

 

Josh Denslow is the author of the story collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books) and the novel Super Normal (forthcoming Fall 2023, Stillhouse Press). He listens to a lot of music.

 

The Man I Killed… by Corey Miller

sputters and beats his wings like a stink bug, always returning to the ceiling of Wal-mart. He bashes his antennae and thorax into the metal rafters, looking for an escape as I sideswipe cereal boxes into my shopping cart: knockoff Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Life.

Headstones name the dead to be remembered. I don’t know where the man I killed is buried — if he is buried — so I call him Coffee.

Coffee had a son in my Geometry class who wore shiny braces and a #44 football jersey. I always wanted a son, one who would grow explosively stronger than myself and play sports on the front page of the local paper. Enough ball to earn a free ride through life.

Being a teacher earns me food stamps to deliver passing grades.

This shopping cart bears a bum wheel pulling me left, veering across common grocery store traffic. I push harder with my left hand to correct this misguided vehicle.

Coffee’s forty eyes follow me whenever I stock up at Wal-mart, the only store for miles. I considered making the road trip elsewhere, but we need to history book each other.

Solve for X: If Coffee’s wife sucker punches me in the face with a velocity multiplied by doctors pronouncing her husband dead upon arrival, how long will my nose make a wheezing noise? My students couldn’t stop laughing behind my back those following two weeks as I contrived mathematical equations on the chalkboard. Different angles to get to the point.

My arm weakens and my cart rams into oncoming traffic. No apologies. The shoppers try to fear-swerve my aim. They mumble to themselves, I hear how their mandibles jabber.

The dairy aisle is freezing, solidifying the milk into blocks that could break a foot if dropped. I don’t notify the underpaid, underappreciated, overwhelmed staff. How will kids drown their cereal? Will the boxes displaying puzzle distractions remain on the shelves?

I’m the teacher. The one with the answers to the questions. Where is your father #44? He’s a bug man hovering above me. An exoskeleton scared to float down and be crushed under my foot.

Walmart is wonderful because it’s a one-stop-shop. I can buy everything I need in one place: batteries, wiper blades, tissues, prescription glasses, SPEED on BluRay. I run into former students of mine. Outside the Math Room we don’t acknowledge each other. I used to say Hi, but they’ve stopped responding.

I grab a newspaper. On the front page: Our high school Hornets win regional, #44 still front and center after my car missed him five years ago. I roll the paper into a tube and monocular Coffee. Each of his spurred tibias grab for the steering wheel to jerk away. The lifespan of bugs ranges from five minutes to fifty years. How long will Coffee consume me?

The coffee aisle is where I first saw him, when he was alive. His family a face full of grinning teeth. I always drink my coffee black, the heat scalding the roof of my mouth, awakening me to start my morning. I haven’t slept in days. Like a tree falling in the woods, I wonder if Coffee is always here, even while I’m away, waiting my return.

Solve for X: If a car is traveling 25 miles-per-hour in a grocery store parking lot and not watching for pedestrians, hitting and dragging the body beneath the car for 15 meters with the nearest hospital a forty-five minute drive, how fast does the ambulance need to move to keep him alive?

Growing up, I was terrified of bugs. It spawned from an overnight camping trip that my parents made me attend. Each rock I lifted revealed creatures scurrying every direction. Now I see how silly my fear was. In the cleaning aisle, I catch a tiny mufflehead by the wings and watch it flail. They can’t bite and only live the last week of May, right before kids graduate. Right before families celebrate a milestone. I squeeze its body between my thumb and index, feeling the smallest of pops. What’s left behind is nothing but a dark smudge. The considerate thing about bugs is that they have no names. I don’t want to call them anything. I can pretend they never had a life to forfeit.

“Did you see that, Coffee?” I yell to him, as he crawls around a condensate lamp.

A woman with a cart full of wasp spray and ant traps questions me, “What are you doing here?”

“I need to press on.”

I self-checkout, scanning the vitamins and fats, over packaged and shipped around the world. Will this be the day Coffee comes down? Sucks the life out of me? He springs towards the ground, but is drawn back up to the ceiling like reverse gravity. We’re becoming old pals who get together as often as I need to replenish my food supply. How’s the family? Job treating you well? Life okay?

I never married. Never found that special person. Not that I wasn’t searching. That special someone must have been in the one place I didn’t look.

Wal-mart’s parking lot is overflowing, the heartbeat for a town in the middle of nowhere. I load my Nissan Pathfinder, drive through the striped lines webbed on the pavement. My rear view mirror reflects a man who’s aged twenty years in the past five. Pedestrians cross, and it’s him, the man I killed, walking with his family as if he’s alive again. As if he’s happy once more. A three corner fly circles my sweaty head, landing and biting me like it has a point. I steady the wheel and let them pass this time, not fumbling with the receipt and coupons to confirm I saved X amount of cents.

 

Corey Miller was a finalist for the F(r)iction Flash Fiction Contest (’20) and shortlisted for The Forge Flash Competition (’20). His writing has appeared in Booth, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, Hobart, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. He reads for TriQuarterly, Longleaf Review, and Barren Magazine. When Corey isn’t brewing beer for a living in Cleveland, OH, he likes to take the dogs for adventures. Follow him on Twitter @IronBrewer or at CoreyMillerWrites.com.

Tongue Depressors by Emily Behnke

It’s murky, but at the bottom of Sadpond I think I see streaks of green and yellow. Mabel watches me from the window with worry winnowing across her face, so I cut my staring short and go inside. She asks if there’s something wrong with Sadpond. I don’t know, I tell her. Something’s growing in it. She looks at me, serious as she was as a little business-like infant. Ponds are habitats, she tells me. Okay, I say. Things will grow, she tells me. She walks away from me to let that sink in. I haven’t had it in me to tell her about the sunflowers, but she’s putting the pieces together quicker than I can stop her. I don’t go back out to Sadpond for the rest of the day, but I don’t talk to her either, not until she comes out of her bedroom red in the face and sweating. I have a fever, she says in a long yodel. My fingers are ice against her head. She sinks against me and I toss her to the couch. My daughter, I say. We are so easily taken out. Soon enough, her throat is crawling. She hacks up green and asks me to look at her throat so I get the tongue depressors, even though she’s too old for them. We both like the woody taste. I press down. Inside her: swaths of bright red patched with yellow and green, just like at the bottom of Sadpond. Did you drink the pond water, I say, and she pulls away from me in disgust. I’m not fucking stupid mom, she says. I roll my eyes. There isn’t time for this. She hacks again and something comes out like a silken petal. I made a mistake, I say all choked up, and hurt flashes across her face. For some reason, I think she assumes I meant having her. Obviously, that isn’t it. My mistake: thinking I could protect her alone. My mistake: thinking the sunflowers wouldn’t come for her.

 

Emily Behnke is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program. Her work has been published in trampset, Bear Creek Gazette, Tiny Molecules, and other venues. She’s currently at work on a novel.

There Is Only One Object in the Museum of Darkness by Helen Harjak

It all started with these pains deep in her eye sockets. From there, a tightness would snake into her temples before settling in the back of her head. She felt people’s piercing gazes on her, assessing and questioning. She dropped out of her courses and got an office job, but the pain didn’t seem to go away. Her mornings were spent willing herself to get out of bed.

When she quit her job, the throbbing stayed with her. She moved into the family cabin, tucked away at the edge of a pine forest. She didn’t leave the house much besides a daily walk to the local shop to get the paper—there was no phone line and the TV reception was sporadic, amounting to three different channels that all showed the same shows where the people said the same things.

One day, she read an article in the paper about a young man who had won a novel-writing competition. He was only two years older than her. He was asked how someone so young could come up with a work so deep and meaningful. The young man listed a number of inspiring writers the girl had never heard of. He said he’d gone through a very difficult time in his life. ‘But what really changed me was the Museum of Darkness,’ he said. ‘It’s in England. A bit of a journey from London but well worth the effort.’

She found out that the museum had opened when she was at school. It was popular then, but nobody had written about it in recent years. Yet, according to the museum’s website, it was still going and free to enter. She used what was left of her savings to book a plane ticket.

* * * *

The Museum of Darkness wasn’t easy to get to. You either had to drive along winding, gravel-strewn roads, or walk five miles from the nearest village with a train station. In the initial bubble of excitement, when many people made their way there, they travelled by taxi. It was busy enough that there would always be somebody to pick you up on the way back. But that was then, and this is now.

Nobody sees the girl walking up the road. She takes a small digital camera from her backpack and photographs the front of the building: concrete walls with a vaguely cubist texture forming little turrets, and balconies jutting out full of lush green vegetation. There are many windows on different levels, but it’s hard to gauge what lies beyond them. The girl doesn’t venture off the narrow path that leads to the entrance. She observes her reflection as she approaches the large tinted-glass sliding doors. She can’t bring herself to look away from the two hollows in the middle of her sunlit face. She stops and takes a photo.

The doors slide open when she comes within an arm’s reach. In front of her, another wall of darkened glass. She steps inside and the doors behind her close, trapping her in the narrow space. When she glances over her shoulder, she can still see the outside. With slight unease, she realizes she might be watched through the set of doors in front of her, just as she can look at the rose bush growing alongside the path she has taken.

“Welcome to the Museum of Darkness,” a voice rings out. “Please switch off your mobile phones.”

She can’t tell where it’s coming from and whether it belongs to a man or a woman. It has the metallic twang of a robot but with a tone to it, something subtle, almost mocking. She hasn’t turned on her phone since she landed. She checks it just in case.

“Please mind your step in the dark,” the voice says as the second set of doors in front of her open.

When she walks into the darkness, she discovers she can’t see through the layer of glass that has closed behind her. She’s caught by a sound. A rustling? No, a shuffling. There are waves nearby. And the sea breeze—she’s sure she can smell salt and algae. The ground underneath her feet crumbles like sand. She starts moving towards the waves but stops after a while for fear of hitting a wall. She reaches out a tentative arm. The wall isn’t there. Yet, she can feel the warmth radiating from it, an uneven rock surface heated by the sun. It’s close enough, so she’d better turn left.

The air is damper now. Her thin top clings to her back despite the relative chill. She recalls being in the cellar with her grandmother, removing sprouts from the potatoes. They sat on small stools, her thumb growing calloused from pushing the growths off the surface of the icy-cold vegetables. Her grandmother was telling her a story. That’s when the honking starts.

She jumps to the side, expecting the glare of headlights to illuminate everything in a second. Instead, she hears the clatter of tracks, catches a whiff of something bitter, exhaust-like. She moves away from it and her hand brushes against a flaky tree trunk. A man’s voice is calling out in the distance. The floor underneath her feet dips and squelches besides the occasional sharp crunch of twigs or acorns. There are others around her now, with their tentative footsteps and quiet breathing.

She smells burning, heavy and musky. The smoke stings her eyes. Something falls on her face: little feathery touches run across her skin. She tries to brush them away and detects an earthy odour, of tobacco, something herbal. By instinct, she navigates the corridors of the block of flats. The sound of a distant TV, a child wailing a few doors down, the scent of onions and spices cooking in the kitchen. She hears whispers, a giggle. Somebody takes her hand, squeezes it as they climb the stairs. Then, the hand is gone and she’s grasping at emptiness.

“Are you here?” she asks when she stops, one foot poised in the air. Her voice echoes back at her. She takes tentative steps in one direction, then another. The door! She remembers reading something about an emergency door. Were there stairs leading up to it? She only skimmed old articles about the museum because she didn’t want them to spoil her experience. She lowers herself to the floor and is surprised by the warmth of it.

The floor eventually leads to something solid and rough to the touch. She slides her palm along the wall until she feels a little blister. It’s a small rubber ball, or maybe a large piece of gum someone had left behind. She pokes at it with her index finger. At first, nothing happens when she pushes it. But gradually, the darkness around her begins to hum. Overhead lights blink on one by one, illuminating a vast space painted a soft grey, with clean walls and a shiny floor. By the far corner, a narrow red door bears a sign that says: EXIT.

* * * *

You came from where you came from. You came to leave behind what you no longer needed, the parts that kept you tethered to your fear and grief. The darkness in the museum grows every year, but its walls stand firm.

Nobody sees the girl leave the museum. For a while, she stands by the exit door squinting up at the sky. She wonders how many hours or days have passed since she has last looked at it. Then, she adjusts her backpack and begins her walk back to the village.

 

Helen Harjak was born in Estonia, studied literature and philosophy in Scotland, and now lives in London, where she works as a freelance journalist and copyeditor. In 2021, she was chosen to participate in A Brief Pause, a professional development program for short fiction writers, run by Dahlia Books. Her work has been published in Visual Verse, Fudoki Magazine, and the anthology Small Good Things.

How to Take a Vacation: A Guide for Medieval Women by Maria Poulatha

1.  Pretend You Fell into a Well.

You are up before everyone, so take your time lowering yourself into a dry well. If it is full of water, be sure you know how to swim. Do not forget to pull the rope down with you and bring a meal that does not spoil. After you are discovered (because the bairns will sniff you out), tell them that you have enough food and water, and to fetch an extra-long ladder that only the chimney sweep two towns away owns. Count how many clouds passing over the window of your well-mouth are shaped like wheelbarrows. Listen to the sound of mud settling.

2.  Break a Leg.

Hold an iron pot as you collapse onto one leg. Continue to scour soiled clothes, stir the pottage, milk the sheep, and plant vegetables with a splintered cane because you can. If you have earned no more than four hours of vacation time, see number three.

3.  Break All Your Limbs.

Jump into a dry well, then order the husband to lower a basket. Stay in bed avoiding all household chores and farming, but remain immobile and unable to dodge even your toddling littlest. Rest your bones as you are fed boiled turnips from a wavering spoon and get assailed with crusty kisses. Limp off in three weeks, otherwise die from thrombosis or bedsores.

4.  Get Abducted by Pirates.

Stay put and look smug, as others flee while your village is getting sacked. Learn new songs, see the world, and abet some despicable crimes. Imagine how much the children would enjoy this.

5.  See Visions.

Describe a field of flaming poppies in the shape of the holy babe, remove yourself to a cloistered space the length of a broomstick (the shed where the dog expired in labor yesterday), and like the mystic of Norwich, accept only visitors wishing to confess their deepest darkest secrets through a peephole or children in need of a wound kissed.

6.  Join a Nunnery.

A convent may not admit a woman with six children, but insist that your husband has lured your offspring with the dark arts and is now trying to convert you. Complete a needlepoint cushion, see a book for the first time, and press it to your breast so that the words may seep into your heart. Notice that the tallow in the votive candles is the same hue as your youngest’s complexion when she has a humid fever. Announce you miss fornicating with the devil, get returned home in a horse-drawn cart full of garlic.

7.  Go on a Pilgrimage.

Make a vow to visit the Holy Land, then collect funds from friends and family to secure their heavenly passage and a slice of the True Cross. Discover that there are new names for birds and flowers and even bugs in Flemish and Breton. Feel faint at the French words parapluie, pantoufle, choufleur. At night, when you lean your head on a rock to sleep, remember the husband’s muscle and jelly arm under your head, and giggle at the way the brute could make you laugh. Go as far as Marseille, then return on your pirate friends’ ship sailing in the opposite direction.

8.  Grow Old.

With the help of wormwood tinctures and magical amulets, reach the all-gum and barnacle age of forty-nine. The surviving children have their own families and the house overflows on Sundays. The eldest daughter brings candles she molded herself and the middle son arrives with baskets of turnips. Bend tiny loaves into bunnies for the little ones and in the evenings, let your husband knead the knotted twigs of your feet, as he tells funny stories about the neighbors. Laugh until the sun sets.

 

Originally from New Jersey, Maria Poulatha lives in Athens, Greece with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly (finalist for the Grand Micro contest), Copper Nickel, trampset, and others.