Faces, Madelyn Falk

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            “I want to take it off.” He looked her straight in the eyes when he said it. The slight greenish cast of the moonlight lit his pupils with an eerie excitement.

            The girl’s glance flickered to her toes. “Take what off?”

            “You know.”

            He was right. She did know. “I don’t.” She insisted. She needed to hear him say it first.

            The boy gripped the denim of his jeans, drying his sweaty hands. He looked at the ground. He looked at the moon. And then finally, he looked at her. “Your face. I want to take your face off.”

            The girl almost smiled under her lowered brow. Of course that’s what he wanted. “But They said you should never take your face off.” Her hands were beginning to sweat as well. She wiped them on the hem of her dress.

            “Do you believe everything They say?” The boy asked. He took a step closer, so that their noses were only a few inches apart, and pressed his thumb against her lips, forcing her to look up. The moon rested behind his head like a halo, and that strange green sheen coated his features.

            “Fine,” She whispered against his thumb, caught like a mouse between those wild, gleaming eyes.

            A smile as wide as the moon slowly split his face like a cracked egg.

            She felt his thumb tug at her bottom lip as it slid below her chin and around, just below her jaw line, feeling for the dried and slightly crusted fringe of her face. He started picking as the chapped edges, gently at first, so as not to break the skin until enough had been peeled up the he could regrip. It was a similar process to pulling rolled cookie dough up from the counter.

            As the             skin peeled up and over her chin, the evening air chilled the moisture that had been trapped beneath the cool, dank skin. The girl could see the flesh now. It pulled away from her cheeks like layers of wet paper.

            The only part that hurt was when he got close to her eyes. It was an uncomfortable sensation. The softer flesh was peeled all the way up to her water line, yanking at her lower lashes. She tried to close her eyes, but a moment later, her eyelids were gone as well.

            Her forehead came off easily, and the boy dropped his hand to his side, clutching what looked like a saggy purse made of flesh.

            The boy’s grin had lessened slightly. The girl could tell he was surprised that she had actually let him remove her entire face. Standing there, under the green moonlight, he seemed at a loss for what to say. With a slightly shaking hand, and wonder filled eyes, he gently glazed a finger over her cheek, pulling away bits of slime and mold with it.  He then handed her the face, and the boy and the girl parted ways under the strange green night.

Spiders in Her Eyes, Madelyn Falk

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           There were spiders in her eyes. I knew it from the moment I met her.

            I told my boyfriend.

            I told my best friend.

            I even told the stuffed rabbit on my bed.

            They didn’t know what to say.

            So one night, I snuck down the hallway.

            The walls were pasted over with the familiar nursery pattern of daisies. They watched me like the eyes of owls and vermin, glowing in the moonlight, as I wondered towards her open door.

            Her room was cloaked in the kind of silence one only finds in an empty church. Though her chest rose and fell, not even the whisper of her breath could be heard.

            She lay on her bed like a princess before burial. Her slender arms were crossed over her chest, and her nightgown fanned around her thin frame. Moonlight dripped from her cheeks and her hair, staining the sheets beneath.

            I tip toed through the doorframe, cringing after each step. The silence was sacred. And I was a disruption to this burial chamber.

            Soon I stood over her still body, casting a shadow on the sheets.

            I leaned over her like a mother, careful not to let my hair brush over her cheeks, and held my breath as I assessed her eye lashes.

            The lashes stuck together in thick, spindly clumps that pointed upward in odd angles, sometimes even crossing over one another. They held a strange resemblance to the clawed hand of a scarecrow, straw fingers jagged with tension.

            The lashes fidgeted even in her sleep.

I wondered if the spiders knew I was here.

            If perhaps they were waving.

            I placed a hand on her check, index finger along her nose, and thumb under her jaw. When she did not move, I brushed my other hand over her eyelid, and very carefully peeled the skin away from her eye.

            It felt like film over a marble.  As the lid pulled back and the eye was unveiled, the lashes began to dance frantically, twitching and curling into themselves, desperate to cling to their blanket of an eyelid. 

            I pulled the lid away further, until I could see them.

            They were ugly little things. Small black bodies with a dusting of peach fuzz. Long, spindly legs. Some were on their backs, waving confused limbs. Angry at being roused from sleep. Others tried to slip away behind the girls eye, and got stuck in her tear ducts. And others scurried down her cheeks like small back tears.

I was right. There were spiders in her eyes.

            The next day I told my boy friend, I told my best friend, and I even told the stuff rabbit on my bed. They still did not know what to say.


Look at Him; Let Him Look at You, Danny Jackson

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Pull out a cigarette and light it. Lie down, open a sketchbook, and begin to draw in it like you can’t feel your heartbeat radiating into the sand. Draw until he sits next to you, until he asks you for a cigarette.

            “You should take your underwear off,” he says. Shrug. Chuckle, just a little.

            Say: “Maybe in a bit,” but don’t mean it. Don’t tell him that you’re afraid of the sun burning your penis, that you’re afraid of putting sunscreen on your penis because the touch might make it hard and that you’re afraid of being hard and naked on this beach. Don’t look at his penis, either, because that might make you hard, too, and your tight, black briefs won’t hide much. All right, look at his penis, but quickly. Get a little hard.

            When he asks, “Have you been to a nude beach before?” tell him, “No, but I’ve been to nude hot springs.” When you say nude hot springs, remember the lukewarm pool next to the river. Remember the rain. Remember the nakedness of her and of you, remember the thick mud between your toes. The clubhouse feel of the redwood trees and the light fog floating through the bushes. The childhood of it.

            Ask him his name and tell him yours. Put your cigarette out. When he shakes your hand, try not to think of your dad. Try not to think of your professors. It will feel like networking. It will always feel a little like networking. Say: “It’s nice to meet you Nick” while you watch his eyes wander down from yours, with your hand still in his. Watch the corners smile while the rest stays quiet.

            When he asks, “Do you have a light?” blush a little. He’s been holding an unlit cigarette that you forgot to light. Dig through your backpack slowly; keep digging after you find the lighter. Hand it to him only once the blush falls from your cheeks. Or rather, don’t hand it to him. Light his cigarette for him. Watch the flame reflect in his eyes.

            The two of you lie quietly on the sand, his smoke floating softly over your back. You open your book and start to read, and he slips headphones into his ears. His breath steadies and you look at him after a chapter, see that he’s asleep on his stomach. You look at his mouth, half open and squished against the sand. You look at his dark hair and light stubble, at his eyebrow piercing. A white tee and tight jeans, you decide, if he were wearing clothes. He’d wear a hat too, but not like a baseball player nor like a late night college boy. He’d wear a hat that pressed his dark hair against his forehead and that threw shadows beneath his cheekbones.

            Close your eyes and slip your trunks off. Lie naked next to him. Feel your body fall into the ground, unrestrained. The air brushes against your skin, between your toes. The sun dances through the hairs near your navel. A grain of sand rolls down your hipbone. The men walking along the beach pause, now, as they near you. Some whisper, but your eyes are closed. They gaze less when you can’t see them. Pull your trunks back on.


            He’s gone when you wake up, but he moved his towel next to yours. The morning clouds have burned off. The beach is still; the men have stopped walking. When you take off your trunks again, you know that no one is watching. They are irrelevant, now. You are wondering how well your penis is taking to the sun. They have not met often. You are wondering not just about your penis, but parts of your thighs too. You want to look down, to see what you look like in the daylight, but instead you stretch. Casual, you remember. Be casual. No one is watching. Everyone is.

Walk toward the ocean. Walk like you are used to an absence of cloth between your legs, like your gait has not been shaped by the fit of your jeans. You stand in the water, waves crashing on your calves and pulling at your ankles. Glance down;, pretend to look at the waves.

You walk until you wear the water over your hips. You want to dive in, to hide underneath. You want your bare ass to slip between the dry world and into the wet (one) with his eyes on it. You want to emerge from the water, your long hair arcing through the air, but your hair is short so maybe you want to rise with a smooth shake, your hair falling in thin lines around your closed eyes.

When you dive in, want nothing.

Wanting is for the air, but underneath you are both naked and clothed. You are suspended and invisible. You are punching the ocean floor, seashells sliding into your knuckles. The water clouds around you and the waves sweep over you and your frustrated sweat slips away.

When you surface, push your hair back from your forehead. Hope he can see your armpit. Hope he sees your ribcage and the tense muscles of your back draped lightly over it. Look back to the beach, where his towel is still empty.

Dive again, and again. Sometimes smash the surface of the water rather than the floor. Be angry, beneath. Fight against the currents that try to shape you. But always, always rise with grace, waiting for him to see.

He’s back on his towel and you’re walking back to yours. Be wet and shriveled and naked when he smiles.

“You lost the trunks,” he says, squinting at the sun. And then: “You’ve got great balls.”

“Thanks,” you say, and kiss him when you sit down. Don’t realize until later that you hadn’t kissed him before.


When he talks to you, his voice rumbles—it is deep but sharp. It flows with the ocean waves, crashing and rebuilding, crashing and rebuilding.

“I didn’t realize until it fell apart,” he says. “But it pulled me out of the community. I wasn’t meeting new guys or going to events. Guys just don’t talk as much when they aren’t trying to have sex.”

Your palm is on his chest and you feel his lungs pull the words from the air, shake them around, and let them tumble out again.

“So you’re single now?” you say.

“No, but it’s open. I don’t need to know what he does when we’re apart. I just need him to always come home at the end of the day.”

“That’s cute,” you say, and you mean it. You think about your boyfriend. Realize that you won’t tell him about this day. Realize that you haven’t thought about him all day. Feel guilty, and then let it fade. Stop thinking about your boyfriend. Remember why he isn’t here, and why you came to this beach. Curl your fingertips against the chest of the man lying next to you. “Does it feel serious?”

“Just as serious as everything else,” he says as he lays his hand on yours. “We share bills, share a bed, but we aren’t entangled yet. I don’t think we ever will be. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t something serious.”

His eyes flick toward the sky, so you follow them. A few hang gliders drift above you. One waves, and Nick waves back. Think about the hang gliders landing just to the south. Think about them landing next to children and families; think of how they will soon be telling about their fall. Wonder if maybe they will tell about the naked gay men they floated over. Wonder if it makes you uncomfortable that strangers will be sharing the story of your nakedness as if you were a curiosity on their afternoon adventure. This story is not yours, anymore. Remember when you clutched all the threads of your story and hid them from everyone. See the threads you still hold close, embrace them, and then let them go.


You walk away from him again. You feel like you need to be under the water among tangible currents. You invited him, but are glad that he declined.

The sand burns your feet, so you walk at the edge of the waves. You walk past naked couples and they smile into your eyes. You walk past lone naked men, and they smile with restlessness. A man sitting on a towel watches you, says hello. You smile. Keep walking. You look for a break in the crowd of men, hoping to swim out of sight. But the sun is high, now, and they are awake.

You keep walking, though, because you enjoy the feeling of moving your legs without any clothing. You enjoy moving. The joints in your hips test new motions as they fight to carry you through the sand, broader motions than clothes allow for. You look down and watch your legs move.

He is also walking, the man that you just walked past, the one that had been sitting on the towel. Pause and walk a few feet into the ocean; feign wistfulness. He pauses too. Walk again. He walks. The men so keen to see you earlier are gone now—you’ve moved past the heart of the beach— and the two of you walk and pause down the coast.

He yells, “Hey!” a few times but don’t look. Remember his patched hair, his long white socks, his sandals and hidden feet. Think about the rays of the sun on your penis again. Try to remember if you reapplied sunscreen.

Keep walking, slowly, with him still behind you. Angle away from the water, toward two men, each with skin that’s more sun than man. One sits up—sit next to him. Whisper to him. Look uncomfortable. He takes your hand as the man with white socks walks up and sits across from you.

“I’m Jared,” the man that followed you says, and sticks a hand out. You ignore it, and his hand drops to your leg.

The man next to you squeezes your hand. “Hi Jared,” he says. “I’m Tim.”

Jared’s eyes have fallen with his hand and stopped on your crotch. His hand slides up your leg and he says,

“Want to hang out for a bit?”

“No thanks.” Push his hand from your leg. He puts his other hand on his dick, pulls at the skin. Bend your knee.

“Hi Jared, I’m Tim,” Tim repeats, this time with a hint of musicality. “And you should probably go.”

Jared turns his head toward Tim, his eyes still on you for a moment before he blinks and stares at Tim, then at the man sleeping next to Tim, then back at you.

“I get it. I get it. When you get bored with the daddies, come find me.” He stands up, winks, and jogs down the beach. Let go of Tim’s hand and pull both knees against your chest. Set your chin on your forearm. You are naked and shriveled and cold in the sunshine. Tim lies down again and closes his eyes. Wish you had pockets so that you would have your phone so that you could text someone and be in a conversation outside of yourself. Bite your forearm until it turns red.

“Can I borrow some sunscreen?” you ask Tim and he laughs.

“Sure babe. Has he been bothering you all day?”

“Just started following me down the beach,” you say as you stretch your legs out, lean back on your elbows. “Sexually aggressive guys always remind me of straight men.”

Tim laughs, and the man sleeping next to him does too.

“They aren’t really part of our culture.” He pulls a bottle of sunscreen from his bag and lays it next to you. “You’re right, they’ve learned the rituals of relationships from watching straight men. They don’t know the beauty of mutual want. They just know their own desire.”

“I feel like I just met a human dick pic,” you say, and squeeze the bottle onto your palm. “Is there an etiquette for sun screening?”

“Do it quick, and don’t ask a buddy for help in front of the patrol.”

“Thanks.” You start to stand up, but he pulls you back down.

“You also have to actually rub in it.” His hand paws at your thighs, at your genitals. “You shouldn’t be walking around here with white goo all over your dick.”

You thank Tim, again. You kiss his cheek before you leave.

            Walk back to your towel and to Nick. Don’t think about the movement of your legs or the smiles of the men you pass. Don’t think about Jared or about his socks. When you lie next to Nick again, tell him about the strange kindness of an older man wiping sunscreen from your penis. Remember nature documentaries with British accents, with monkeys pulling bugs from each other’s fur. Imagine sitting on a tree branch next to Nick, the bark against your skin. Imagine eating a piece of fruit while he pulls bugs from your hair, a gross kindness. Imagine trying to suck his dick on a tree branch.

            You sit up and kiss him. He turns on his side.

            “You never told me if you’re single or not,” he says.

            “I’m single here.” You think you smile coyly, but guilt tugs at your eyes. You think about why you are single here, on this beach, in this state, on this vacation. Remember telling your boyfriend that he couldn’t come with you. Think about the fight. Think about how neither of you were fighting the other, but rather yelling together at a wall that you weren’t strong enough to knock down. Not a wall between the two of you, but between the two of you and your family.

            “Where are you not single?” he asks.

            “Up in Seattle. I go to school there.”

            “And your boyfriend?”

            “He bartends. We met a couple months ago at his work.”

            “Cute. My boyfriend and I met at a bar too.”

            He rolls onto his back and tosses a shirt over his face. He reaches out for your hand, and you give it to him.

            You lie with your eyes closed, sight turned salmon by the sun, and push a headphone into your right ear. You check the time and close your eyes again. You open them again when Nick’s hand pulls from yours.

            “Hey, this is my friend Sean.” You rub your eyes and guess at which silhouette is Nick.

            “Hey Sean,” you say and shake the hand that materializes before you.

            “Sean and I are going to the back trails to fool around a bit. Do you want to come?”

            You decline, but your skin shivers with a desire that you refuse to acknowledge. You wait until they’ve walked out of sight and you head back toward the ocean.

            The water plays with your skin now, and your body stops longing for the men behind you. When the ocean pulls at your ankles, you listen to it and tread deeper into the water. It laps up your legs to your stomach, and then falls back down. Do not wear it on your waist. Learn the freedom of the water. Let it decide what parts of you to hide. Let it clothe and unclothe you as the waves crash and retreat. Dive into a wave and trace the ocean floor with your fingertips. Feel for seashells and sand dollars. Cross your legs and sit just barely on the sand, your hair drifting around the tips of your ears while you masturbate and think of what would be lost by fucking someone other than your boyfriend. Give up on touching yourself; give up on playing a role in a play written for someone else; give up on sitting below the reflective cover of the water and decide to be seen. Float near the surface and feel the waves tug at you. Let them push you into shallow waters, and then lie in the sand and let the waves crash onto you. Let the water fall between your calves and let the foam stick to the hairs on your legs and let the sand crawl into the folds of your skin. Don’t be sexy, but be seen.

            Wash the sand from your body and walk back to your towel. Nick is there, alone. He kisses you when you sit down and this time you taste something new, something that might be Sean.

            “How was the ocean?” he asks. You smile and tell him that you saw a leopard shark.

            “They like to hang out here a lot. There aren’t as many swimmers to bother them.”

            “How was Sean?” you ask, and he smiles.

            “We almost got caught by the patrol. We walked out just as they were heading down the trail.”

            You lie down, and Nick lies on his side. He moves close to you, lays his shoulder next to yours.

            “So you didn’t want to come.”

            “I wanted to swim.” Look up at his face. Bend your right arm behind your head, resting on your knuckles.

            “I wanted you to come.”

            Look at his fingers, which are now between yours. Look at how dry they are, and sandy. Feel the edges of his fingernails with your thumb. Bite lightly on the tip of his pointer finger.

            “Sean didn’t do it for you?”

            “I didn’t let him try.”

            You let go of his hand and put your fingers on the back of his jaw. You kiss him. You pull him against you. Want him. Want him, but not just hidden in the trails behind the beach. Want people to see the two of you in the trails behind the beach. Want the politics of fucking him behind the beach and in your car and in a hotel room paid for by your parents. Want him, but also want the rebellion of him. Want the concept of him.

            Then realize that he wants the concept of you, too. The politics of you. Realize the statement that his body makes as it presses against you. Recoil from the idea that your body is a statement. Slip your tongue between his teeth. Embrace the politics of his body feeling your body because you’ve never known sex without it. Push him away and stand up. Pull him to his feet. Walk together away from the ocean and into the back trails.


            Lay your head on his thigh and let him rest his arm on your chest. Feel the rock against your back and your legs. Feel both the sharp edges and the warmth against your skin. Watch the clouds move slowly behind his head. Want nothing.

            “You should know that I’m on PrEP,” he says. “My boyfriend is positive.”

            You lay your hand on top of his.

“That fucking sucks. How is he?”

            “He’s good. Better. It’s still new for the both of us.”

            “How are you?”

            “I’m fine. Just learning how to be...”

            You squeeze his hand and look back at the empty sky.

            “There’s a fundraising event tonight, if you’re free. Five dollar cover at the club downtown and all proceeds go to HIV support groups.”

            “I can’t,” you say. “I have a family thing.”

            He slides his fingers through your hair. You want to tell him you will be there. You want to bring him with you.

            Walk with him back to your towels. Put your sketchbooks into your bag and shake the sand from your trunks. Dig your phone out of your bag and get his number. Get his last name, too, and his Snapchat username. Stuff your clothes into your bag and walk away. Walk to the end of the gay section, the beginning of the straight nude beach, and then put your briefs back on. Put a shirt on, too. Wait until the end of the straight nude beach to step into your shorts.

Hospice Care, Dina Lipsten

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The door gave way on the third pull, which meant the cabin was untouched. Nobody left alive would be so cavalier as to leave their fate with a single knob lock. Zanna breathed a low sigh of relief and pushed the broken wood inward, setting the crowbar down against the wall. She was used to living lean, now, drinking water all day to convince herself she was full. But stopping to pee on the side of the road, she was at her most vulnerable.

            She searched the kitchen first. The powerless fridge gasped out a cloud of fruit-rot when she opened it. What were you expecting? she wondered as she doubled over, heaving. The inner monologue voice still sounded like Bethany, her last travel companion. It was hard to get her out of her head.

            The cupboards did better. A few cans — clam chowder, chili beans, stewed tomatoes. She swept them into the mouth of her pack mechanically, in one smooth motion. Zanna didn’t search houses for survivors first anymore. 

            She had meant to sweep the place and eat as she walked for the rest of the day if she got lucky, but sight of the chili on the label made her shake. She’d run the next five miles if she had to. Today, she would take her meal sitting.

            As she went to fetch a bowl, she noted the crockery collecting dust, in full sets, in the cupboard near the window. Nobody had been living here recently. There weren’t even dish towels on the cabinet hooks. A short-term rental, she reasoned. Ski-in, ski-out cabin. Zanna had never been skiing and didn’t know what that would look like.

            While she ate, she read the label over and over. Bush’s Chili Beans — subheading: pinto beans in mild chili sauce! The exclamation point struck her as phony. She had once taken a standardized test in English that described the process of food styling — mashed potatoes groomed to look like ice cream and drizzled with viscous hot fudge, apples hand-picked for perfection and waxed to a photogenic sheen. She’d gagged, hunched over her scantron sheet. Nowadays, she’d probably eat the hot fudge mashed potatoes and not think twice.

            Bowl licked clean, she stood from the table and caught herself taking the dish and cutlery to the sink. What for? she thought. And, perhaps because she could, she dropped the bowl on the floor. The spoon clattered out. The can rolled toward the fridge. But the bowl bounced once and landed face-up, completely intact. Zanna grumbled, shouldered her pack and stomped up the stairs.

            She ran her fingers over the gaudy carved railing as she went. Her sister Lacey had exactly this pattern at the farm. Zanna had vivid memories of clutching the rails in her little fists, watching a narrow-hipped Santa put newspaper-wrapped presents under a grubby little bald tree. And then memories of standing at the bottom of the landing, looking up at her playing nieces, shouting, “I’m home!” and reveling in the shrieking pitter-patter of tiny feet racing into her arms. She had moved in with her sister at fifteen, and stayed until the collapse. It was terribly lonely at times, but better than before.

            Upstairs, the bedrooms were immaculate. A small one with bunk beds, a larger one with a queen sized, both made up with hospital corners. It had bed-and-breakfast wallpaper, the kind of place Hunter Bowley took her to after a school dance so they could fuck in peace — the cops patrolled the kissing point with flashlights when the high school threw events.

            The bunk bed room proved mostly useless, though she picked up a scratchy woolen blanket she figured might be worth something at the next trading post. She tried the closet door in the master bedroom halfheartedly, and opened it onto a demure series of pre-assembled outfits. A gingham short-sleeve and jeans, a thick flannel and fleece-lined trousers. Five or six sets. Something in her stomach curled. The flannel beckoned to her - she needed something to wear underneath the increasingly useless leather jacket. But it would not receive her; it felt the same as if she were to snatch it off a breathing human body. She returned downstairs, touching nothing, and pressed herself against the wall beside the gaping broken door. She gasped, sucking in air hard; she hadn’t realized she was holding her breath.

            She would have left the house completely were not it for the woodshed she knew she’d seen in back from her lookout. She had to return with real tools. Pliers, wrenches, a better knife, anything. Her gear was in bad shape and wouldn’t last her the rest of the way. Before Bethany, she had traveled with Mitch, one of her little brother’s school friends. The kid had supplied the small camping stove, the survival knife, both bikes and an extensive wilderness first aid kit. “We need to kick over a Sports Authority or something,” he’d insist. “This stuff won’t get us by, it’s my boy scout shit.” He’d shift his gaze nervously when he swore, like his mother might come down on him and bend his ear.

            “We’ll find something,” she’d say. “We’ll figure it out.”

            Three weeks later, she left him shivering and crying in their only blanket, under a tree in a beautiful national park, the infection spreading. Even then, she had known a kill shot to the head would be more merciful, but she couldn’t pull the trigger. She had left him with their only gun, penance for her cowardice. Sometimes, in moments of self-loathing, she wondered if he’d had a chance to put it in his mouth before the infection took hold. It was Zanna’s favorite solitary pastime — punishing herself for the people lost on her watch. Bethany had fought her on it tooth and nail, and ironically had become another source of the self-flagellation.

            “Okay,” Zanna said to no one, standing up straight and wiping her soaked brow. Almost theatrically, she picked up the crowbar, marched through the still house and opened the back door. The woodshed was padlocked. She’d have quite an ordeal prying the thing off, but she’d do it.

            Not two steps out the door, she heard a shriek. No, not a shriek — a crackle. It was a slightly mechanical gasping sound, increasingly more normal to her every time she encountered it. And it was right by her head. She whipped around, tingling with panic, and found the culprit. The skeletal remains of what had been an old man. Eyes gouged out by crows, flesh fused to the padding of his deck chair. He didn’t reach for her or turn his head, only gasped again, that skin-crawling rattle.

            “Hey, old man,” Zanna stuttered, her voice shuddering. If she could just keep talking to him, the shakes would subside. “You don’t mind if I borrow some tools, do ya? I’ll give ‘em right back.” The man gave a short, ragged gasp.

            His face sagged a specific way — not a side effect of rotting flesh. She recognized it in the down-curl of the mouth to one side, in the single sagging lower eyelid. As a young teenager, she had visited her father in the hospital, days before they moved him to hospice. She hadn’t realized how old he was until she stood over him, limp and twitchy-eyed on his cot. Somewhere in the endless hours of sitting beside him, nose in her book, afraid to see him, an unbearable odor bloomed in the room between them. The shift nurse came in, and her face fell. “Shit,” the woman said. Zanna rarely heard adults curse, and she remembered it. She remembered being forced into the hall by the appalling smell as the nurse flipped her father over like a rag doll and began to change him. Later, lingering in her niece’s nursery as her sister swapped out a fresh diaper, Zanna was overcome by sobs.

            “Thanks, old man,” she muttered, already half-turned to the woodshed. The crowbar bent with the strain of the lock but, several dozen kicks and pulls in, the thing came clattering to her feet, engulfed in the cacophony of inhuman hisses and crackles behind her. She punched the air softly with a fist, a gesture that didn’t leave the line of her waist.

            The tools were lined up along the wall like the clothes on the hangers, but the saw on the workbench was askew, as if it had been left mid-use. There was a half-prepped tool belt hanging from a hook. One hammer. A cylinder of a hundred nails. Something crunched under her boot, and she realized she had stepped on loose plywood, mostly cut in the size of a window. She could still hear the corpse rattling and snarling quietly outside.

            She took the tool belt, the pliers and hammer, a drill with two alternate bits in the handle, and a multitool that seemed out of place there. “That’s all you need,” she said aloud to herself. She never talked to herself outside her head and didn’t know why it seemed right, now. “Let’s go.”

            As she paced back through the house, rocking the crowbar up and down edgily in one hand, a snatch of music wafted by. Her mother, bent over the basil plant, snipping and humming the tune of “Oh Susanna!”

            “You’re humming off key,” Zanna would observe.

            “It’s not perfect, but it’s your song,” her mother would sigh. “My Susanna.” And she’d brush Zanna’s hair behind her ear. In the later years, as their relationship bent to disrepair, Zanna would ache for that gesture, even when she caught her sister packing her bags under her mother’s watchful eye. She was fourteen then, and understood. Lacey had been her dad’s. Zanna’s mother had come into the cracks of a broken home like a sidewalk weed and insinuated herself in the spaces. It was a wonder Zanna herself had escaped Lacey’s ire in the teen years. It was a wonder how they loved each other so much.

            “It’s not my fault. It wasn’t my fault,” her sister kept saying that night.

            Even now, with no love left for the blurry specter of the past that had been her mother, Zanna sympathized. A husband and a young son gone in the span of a year. A hateful stepdaughter, a belligerent teenager aimlessly skulking the halls all day. It must have been lonely.

            The tightness in her chest bloomed and burst into butterflies as she thumped back down the steps, backpack heavy on her shoulders. Keep going, she thought. Keep walking. But her feet slowed, and she stopped halfway down the hill. “Don’t do it,” she whispered, clenching her fist around the crowbar. “Don’t.”

            And even so, she found herself turning around and marching back up toward the house, through the broken front door and out to the backyard. She stood in front of the old man’s corpse, gnarled and sightless, its head jerking feebly side to side. Flies rose in clouds around the dried-out human excrement below the rocking chair, buzzing dangerously close to her nose and mouth as she inhaled. She gave herself no warning, allowed no shred of thought, as she plunged the crowbar into one gory eye socket and twisted hard. A smattering of blood and brain speckled her face and hands. The rattling stopped, the head slumped, and the silence rose up around her like flies.

            She left the guilt at the top of the hill and walked back down to the road.