1. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Annie Cardi

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    I decided Duncan had to die when we were juniors, when he was announced as captain of the Highlands High hockey team, but I didn’t tell my boyfriend Mack that until the following year, at the beginning of hockey season. We’d been drinking in the parking lot after I picked him up from hockey practice one night, and I let it slip that Duncan was a total douchebag meathead who could barely skate, let alone lead the team to the state championship. Mack looked at me like I just told him I thought it would be easier to play hockey without the ice.

    “Duncan’s fine,” he said.

    “Sure,” I said. “He’s fine. He’s bad on assists and takes way to many wild shots, but he’s fine. Dumb as a bag of rocks, but fine. But Highland High isn’t just a fine hockey team. I just think it’s gonna be kind of sad when he can’t take you guys to championships for your senior year. I mean, it’s your last chance, right?”

    He took a sip of Grain Belt. “I guess.”

    "I mean, you do what you can, I guess. The guys really look up to you. But you can only do so much with Duncan as captain, you know?”

    Another sip. “I guess he does fuck around a lot during practice. And he doesn’t know any of the JV guys, and they’re gonna be the ones who take over eventually.”

    “And you are always looking out for those guys. I just…” I sigh like this is something that’s hard for me to say and has been building up for a while. “I just don’t know why they didn’t make you captain instead.”

    We threw some bottles at the back of the hockey rink to watch them explode, and I noticed Mack was throwing them a little harder than usual. He chucked the last bottle against the cement and I cheered when it shattered into a dozen shining pieces.

    ~*~ 

    He was killing it in the next few games—seven goals, twelve assists, and skating like he was being chased by the devil. In the stands, the other girls eyed me with a combination of respect and jealousy, which made me happier than if I’d gotten those goals myself.

    I met Mack outside the locker room after the game against Lakeville and threw my arms around him, even though he still smelled like sweat and ammonia. “You did great, baby!”

    “Dude.” Duncan came out of the locker room and slapped Mack on the shoulder. “You are on fire! We are so gonna crush the Penguins next week.” He turned back to the locker room. “Some frosh, get my bag and bring it to my car!” Of course, a couple of freshman players immediately ran back into the locker room to find it.

    “Great game, Duncan,” I said, all smiles.

    “Thanks, Betsy. Let me tell you, between me and your boy Mack, we’re gonna go all the way. We’re gonna take the championship back from Bloomfield.” He hit Mack in the shoulder and backed away to the exit, where a freshman was standing with his gear bag. “You know it, muthafucker! See you guys at Trish’s for the afterparty?”

    Mack shrugged, which Duncan took to mean yes. We could hear Duncan peal out of the parking lot in his fucking new Land Rover. None of the cops ever pulled him over because they knew he was the captain of the Highlanders and have of them used to be Highlanders. Duncan also never got carded at the liquor store, even when he was wearing his fucking letterman jacket, and he never had to turn in homework and got free shit all the time. It wasn’t that I hated Duncan personally, but his dad was a fucking orthodontist, so why did he get all this shit for free? He was probably going to get a free ride to college, too, even while people like me had to bust their asses to get perfect grades (or at least bust their asses to cheat off the right people and steal old tests) so we could maybe get the fuck out of this nowhere town.

    But I didn’t tell Mack that. Instead I said “To Trish’s!” like the enthusiastic hockey girlfriend people thought I was.

    In the parking lot, the Berg sisters were standing around Mack’s car. They weren’t all the same age, but the way they all dressed in the same fake goth-y clothes and dye their hair black made it hard to remember which one was which. They were all looking at Mack.

    “Good game, captain,” one said.

    “Good job, captain,” said another.

    “Way to go, captain,” said the third.

    Mack paled a little. I looked between him and the sisters, expecting to see some charge of electricity flowing between them. Usually I don’t like other girls talking to my boyfriend like they have a secret, but I knew something was happening here and I wanted to hear more.

    “4-0, right?” the first one asked.

    He nodded.

    “Aye aye, captain,” the last one said and they all laughed.

    “Move along, you weirdos,” I snarled, and they walked toward the edge of the parking lot, still laughing.

    In the car, Mack’s hands were shaking over the steering wheel and before I even asked he said, “They told me we were going to win. Yesterday, when I was leaving the cafeteria after lunch, they were in the hall and told me.”

    “Of course you were going to win,” I said. “You’re on fire.”

    “They knew the score, and that I’d get three goals and one assist, and that Duncan would miss a shot in the first period and not get to take another for the rest of the game. They said they’d done some Ouija-whatever and seen it. At first I thought they were just high or whatever, but they were right.”

    I felt a charge run through my body, like I was a live wire and waiting for someone reach out. “I’ll drive,” I said.

     ~*~ 

    We didn’t go to Trish’s party. Instead we went back to my place and raided my dad’s liquor cabinet. He was either working the night shift at the factory or with some drunk-ass buddies at a bar, so I knew we wouldn’t be interrupted. I made us each a rum and coke, Mack’s favorite drink even though he pretends he’s all into whiskey.

    “How could they know?” He took a swig of his drink. “That was way too accurate to just fucking know.”

    “Don’t freak out,” I said.

    “They called me captain.”

    I took a sip. “I know. The Berg sisters are weird, baby, but maybe they’re onto something. I’ve always said you should totally be captain. You deserve to be captain.”

    “Yeah, but Duncan’s captain.”

    I shrugged. “What if he wasn’t captain?”

    Mack raised an eyebrow at me. “Babe, if he wasn’t captain he wouldn’t be captain and I’d probably be captain.”

    “See?” I said. “Without him, you’d be captain. And hockey’s a tough sport. Guys work hard, play hard. Accidents happen all the time.”

    I could practically hear all the gears in his head clicking as he put it together. “Are you saying—”

    “I’m saying no one would be all that surprised if Duncan had an accident. Before the next game.” I held his gaze hard so he knew this wasn’t us just fucking around or throwing bottles against the side of the hockey rink. This was us and this was for real and this was forever. “If you get a sports scholarship and I’m at the top of our class, we get into college and we get the fuck out of here and we get to live it up for the rest of our senior year. People would be falling over each other just to give you stuff—booze, gifts, money. You’d never have to do homework again. Why should Duncan have any of that instead of us?”

    He stared into his rum and coke like it was some magic cauldron that would give him all the answers and everything he wanted.

    “Tell me you don’t want this,” I said.

    He held up his glance. “Let’s do it.”

    We clinked glasses. “Fuck yes,” I said. We drank heartily, jumped on my bed whooping and cheering and daring anyone to mess with us. Life was about to get great. Mack was on fire and I was burning.

     ~*~ 

    The next post-game party was at my house. It wasn’t even hard to arrange; all I had to say was ‘my dad’s barely ever home’ and everyone was instantly getting kegs and setting up a beer pong table. Duncan talked about how wasted he was going to get after the game. It was perfect. It would look like an accident.

    The only problem was that Mack was getting nervous. He cornered me in my bedroom just as cars were starting to pull into the driveway.

    “Seriously, Bets, I don’t know what we were thinking,” he told me. “Let’s just forget it.”

    He must have expected me to smile and nod and say, yes, babe, you are so right, what a great joke that was, let’s go do a keg stand, go Highlanders! I was done with that.

    “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. “You’re backing out now? Just when everything is working out perfectly and we could everything we’ve ever wanted?”

    “Babe—”

    “No,” I said. “Don’t give me that shit. You don’t go out there and win the game and then come tell me no I’m scared. Don’t be a fucking pussy, Mack. Not with me.”

    He looked around my room like he might find something to help him, but it was all mine. “If we get caught—”

    “We’re not going to get caught.” I held his gaze. “You do what I tell you, and no one’s going to know anything.”

    He nodded and I smiled and we kissed and finally it was all about to happen.

      ~*~ 

    Duncan was true to his word and got completely shit-faced at the party. He shotgunned two beers at once and then made a couple of freshman try to do the same, laughing with his mouth wide open when they were gagging and coughing on it. When he tried to lead everyone in the Highland High school song, he jumped up on my coffee table and it collapsed underneath him.

    “Whoa, sorry about that, Betsy,” he said once he got up. “Shoddy Walmart craftsmanship.”

    “Right,” I said.

    “Hey.” His face came really close to mine. I could see the sweat at his temples, how acne spread across his forehead. He tugged on a lock of my hair. “Do the curtains match the drapes?”

    I thought about stabbing him with a bottle opener right then and there, but even I couldn’t disguise that as an accident. “Oh Duncan,” I laughed, “you’re hilarious. A bunch of us are gonna climb up on the roof. You can climb up from the back porch. You should come.”

    “Yeah, cool,” he said. “Let’s go.”

    “I’ve just gotta grab Mack.”

    Which I did. I pulled Mack into my bedroom like we were going to go hook up, but he could climb through my window and onto the roof, where two JV players were already passed out. I heard thumping footsteps on the roof and a whoop and the shattering of a beer bottle on the cement patio below.

    “Showtime,” I said.

    He swung through my bedroom window and onto the room. We’d done it together before, when we were freshman and it was the last days of summer and we starred at the stars and felt like anything was possible. Now I knew that anything was only possible if you make it that way.

    More thumping footsteps overhead. Hushed voices. More footsteps. A dull cry and the thud of a body hitting the pavement below, skull first. Voices from inside the house going out onto the patio, wondering what happened.

    Mack swung back through my window. “It’s done,” he said. “He fell.”

    “You pushed him,” I said.

    He nodded. “I pushed him.”

    In the yard, people were standing over Duncan’s body and shouting “Call an ambulance!” and “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I put on my best concerned face so we could join them.

      ~*~ 

    I answered all of the police’s questions—was he drinking, where did you get the alcohol, who else was with him, etc. They knew what hockey parties were like because they’d been to a bunch when they were our age, so they weren’t surprised about the drinking and looked at me sympathetically when I said I didn’t know how the party got so out of control, I’d only invited a few people over to hang out. I cried. I was always good at crying.

    The news called it an accident. There were reports about binge drinking, about how the hockey team was grieving but would go on playing in Duncan’s name. “He would have wanted us to keep going, to win,” Mack, who was named captain at the next practice, told one of the local reporters.

    Things were different now, just like I told Mack they would be. People offered to let us copy their homework. They moved out of our way in the hall, didn’t say anything when we skipped class, gave us the good table in the cafeteria. Gifts showed up in Mack’s locker and on his doorstep. People were being supportive because of what we went through, because of what Mack was now. He was a leader and he had to have the support of the community behind him. It had all worked out like we planned.

    Except I saw Duncan’s parents at the memorial service. I remembered them from games, but it was different to see them crying and holding each other like they might break apart otherwise. Once during the service, Duncan’s mom looked across the room and her eyes rested on me and she looked so sad and hateful all at once, I was sure she knew what happened.

    She looked away but I kept feeling her eyes on me. Even later, even days after, I still felt it.

      ~*~ 

    Mack started seeing ghosts. Or at least that’s what he said. “I couldn’t sleep so I snuck into the rink to get some early ice time. I saw him in the stands.”

    “You’re tired,” I told him. “This is what your brain does when it’s tired.”

    “It’s not the first time. It’s like he’s always in the corner of my eye and when I turn he’s gone.”

    “Better ghosts than regrets,” I said. “Stop freaking out. In a couple of months you’ll win championships and forget any of this ever happened.”

    But he started missing shots, losing the puck, looking lost on the ice. People felt bad for him, thought they understood. “He’s up against a lot,” they said. “Poor kid.”

    After the Highlanders lost their first game, I went to meet Mack outside of the locker room and ended up running into Mack’s mom. For a second I thought it was one of Mack’s ghosts but I remembered she wasn’t dead; it was just that I’d felt her eyes following me for days.

    “Excuse me,” I said and rushed by before she could say anything. She watched me go, I knew it.

    It was an accident. Her son was drunk and on a roof. Accidents happened all the time. What did she expect from me?

    But there was still a blood stain on our cement patio. My dad and I washed and washed and washed it but the shadow of it was still there. It was like she saw the stain on me.

    This wasn’t what I’d planned. I had to do something.

    I had to see the weird Berg sisters.

     ~*~  

    I found them smoking behind the library, staying out of the sun to maintain their pale goth pallor. They didn’t seem surprised to see me.

    “How did you know?”

    “Know what?” one said.

    “What should we know?” said another.

    “We’re just a bunch of weird bitch sisters,” said the last.

    They blowed their smoke at my face and for a second I saw it all again—Duncan falling, the blood seeping into the patio, the red-and-blue flash of police cars, Duncan’s mom’s face staring at me over and over and over again.

    Even if I got out of this town, I’d never escape that.

      ~*~ 

    I started getting up in the middle of the night to wash the stain on the back patio. Every night I scrubbed and scrubbed until my hands were raw and red and bleeding. But the stain kept getting bigger. It had leached through the cement and the grass below it and the earth below that.

    One night my dad found me. “Betsy,” he said, “Come on. You gotta come inside.”

    I kept scrubbing. “I need to clean it just a little more. It’s almost gone. I need it gone.”

    His hand rested on my back and I nearly jumped at the touch. “We’ll replace the cement. Come on, just try to get some sleep. It’s gonna be okay.”

    Even if we replaced the cement tile, the blood would still be soaked through underneath and have spread through the earth and no matter where I went it would always be there, waiting for me, I could never leave it behind.

    “It’s okay,” he said, and I didn’t tell him how wrong he was.

     

  2. THE OATH, by Elle Cosimano

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    I’m probably going to hell for this, but I can’t help myself. I pull the boy behind me and look both ways down the darkened street. I don’t know which car is his just like I don’t know his name or where he goes to school or his favorite color — and I don’t care. We could climb inside any one of the cars along the curb, as long as we’re alone.

    He’s staring at a red Beretta. It’s parked under a streetlight and I hesitate a half-second before dragging him toward it. We scramble into the front seats, and then we’re staring out the dashboard, beading with sweat and waiting to catch our breaths. We’re alone, I tell myself. No one saw us. I’m ninety minutes from home. No one could possibly know I’m here.

    He leans in, pauses, his lips a breath away from mine and his hand beside my knee, like he’s asking permission. And it kills me a little, because he can’t possibly know what he’s asking for. He looks in my eyes and holds them, probably waiting for them to drift closed in anticipation of a kiss.

    But I never – NEVER — close my eyes.

    “You didn’t tell me your –”

    I climb over the gearshift into his lap and kiss him hard. I don’t want him to know anything about me, in case I’m right this time. In case he’s still around tomorrow and decides to come looking for me.

    The steering wheel is digging into my back and we kiss until we can hardly breathe. The air in the car is hot, the windows fogging us in a cramped cocoon. We’re alone. I can’t see the street anymore and I don’t dare wipe the glass.

    His lips graze the skin behind my ear and his fingers dig into the seams of my jeans. I press my hips into his, wondering how much we might get away with in here. He moans, a soft urgent sound that gets lost in the spill of my hair. His breath is warm and ragged.  The fog on the windows is thickening white and my eyes begin to drift shut.

    And then I hear it.

    A quiet snap and pop.

    It begins slowly. Then the crackling speeds up, like I’ve stepped too far out on a frozen lake and it’s splintering all around me. 

    My eyes fly open and I turn to the window. The fog is turning to frost, hardening in jagged patterns across the glass. I pull the boy to me, wrap my arms around him and bury his face in my hair, like maybe I can hide him. Or save him. His shallow exhale curls cold around my neck as a sheen of ice consumes the car. Frost creeps over the dashboard, across the windows, around the backseats. 

    I’ve gone too far. It’s too late to turn back.

    Peter’s found me.

    My breath crystalizes in short, panicked puffs. The boy’s skin grows cold where he clings to me and he shudders. I push him away, searching his face in the dim light of the car. His lips are blue, his eyes wide and terrified as the whites begin to fill with red. He begins shaking, racked with tremors big enough to rattle us both. I scramble backwards, but I’m stuck between his thrashing body and the wheel and his fingernails dig into me like a drowning man, and no matter how hard I push away from him, I will never forget the look on his face.

    Suddenly, his chin slumps against his chest and his breath falls quiet. The air is thick and cold at the same time, and silent as falling snow.

    Until the boy twitches…

    And I’m clutched by a terrible and certain fear. 

    He comes to life slowly, rolling his shoulders like he’s pulling on a coat. His head jerks upright, and his blood-black eyes blink and find me pressed against the dashboard. I stifle a scream. I couldn’t tell you what color the boy’s eyes had been, but I know these are not his. They are horrible and familiar and I would recognize them anywhere. I will never escape them.

    I scramble for the door handle. The locks snap shut.

    “You’ve been a bad girl, Lita.” The boy’s purple lips peel back in an unnatural smile, like someone else is wearing his skin. His rigid, cold fingers trace a clumsy pattern over my lower back, chilling my blood. “We had a deal.”

    “That was a long time ago!” Tears spill down my cheeks, hot with frustration. “We were just kids. We didn’t know what we were agreeing to!”

    The boy’s body shakes with laughter. He laughs and laughs, but doesn’t breathe. The wrongness of it echoes from some dead, unfeeling place inside him.

    “Please don’t do this.” I try to sound contrite, but instead I come off angry and demanding, and it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s already too late.

    The boy’s nose begins to bleed. Bruises are blooming under his skin. He leans in. His lips are cold and close and coppery with death. They twitch with a fabricated smile and for a moment, I think he might try to kiss me. I scramble sideways into the passenger seat, pressing as far back as I can against the door. A trickle of blood dribbles from his ear. His head turns to me, his movements awkward and stilted and slow, a marionette of a dead boy.

    “You made me a promise,” Peter says through a twisted smile. “I will not let you break it.”

    The boy’s chin snaps hard and lightning fast while his shoulders remain still. There’s a sickening crack, and his head falls to rest at an odd angle against his shoulder. Blood drips from the boy’s ears and nose, falling in slow spatters against his shirt. The temperature in the car warms, my cocoon melting down the face of the windows.

    I fumble with the lock with trembling hands and fall on my knees onto the pavement. I pull my phone from my pocket, wipe my eyes, and hit Rose’s number on speed dial.

    “I need a ride,” I say when she answers. “Bring the tarp.”

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  3. GOOD NIGHT, SWEET PRINCE by Rosamund Hodge

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    Stop struggling and listen: Once upon a time, there was a prince who wanted to marry Death.

    You already know this won’t end well.

    #

    There was a prince who had never been denied a thing that he desired. One day when he was hunting in the woods, he saw a white deer of such surpassing beauty that he pursued it without heed, outstripping all his companions.

    At last he felled the deer with an arrow in its heart. But as he approached his dying prey, suddenly he saw kneeling beside the deer a young woman, dressed all in white. Her hair was like the depths of night; her face was like the moon, as lovely and as desolate.

    She stroked the deer, then held its head as she slid a knife into its throat. The blade came out as clean and gleaming as before, and left no wound behind. But the deer slumped lifeless to the ground.

    She looked up at the prince. Her eyes were like a precipice, and he, fool boy, was happy to fall.

    Then she vanished.

    The prince was a foolish boy, but not ignorant. He knew who wielded the bloodless knife: Death, who lives in ivory halls at the edge of the world. 

    He knew, but he thought the whole world was an apple for him to pluck and eat as he pleased. It did not matter how his father stormed or his mother wept; he swore by his heart and his breath that he would find Death’s palace, and that he would woo her, wed her, and bed her, or die in the attempt.

    The king had him locked in his rooms until he should regain his senses. But the prince lived by a code of taking what he wanted. He bribed the guards and fled the castle. With him went three three fools who loved him more than reason: his younger brother, his squire, and his hound.

    #

    I do not care about the children who have nestled in your womb and now smile at you each morning. I do not care about your husband, who would weep upon your grave. I do not care about the apples you will never see ripen, nor the colors you will never have time to weave into your tapestries. I do not care about you.

    I am Death, and all mortals are the same to me.

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    (Source: agswitch)

     

  4. THE PAMPHLET by Bethany Hagen

    Greetings, nascent superhero!  Welcome to the diverse and always interesting superhero community.  This pamphlet, brought to you by the Council, is designed to acquaint you with the logistics of your transition from Class Z (or “normal”) to Classes A-Y (or “super”) but it is by no means an exhaustive survey.  If after reading this pamphlet, you still have questions, please consult your regional superhero coordinator.  You will find forms for Superpower Registration, Vaccination History and Application for an Alias attached to this pamphlet.  (A nonrefundable $15 fee is required for each alias application.  The Council Bursar will accept cash, credit and ethically-sourced bullion.)

    Getting Started

    Whether you were bitten by a radioactive insect or given a magical object that imbues you with extraordinary abilities, discovering your new powers is an exciting and confusing time.  Likely, your dawning realization that you are above and beyond the Class Z population of humans will be accompanied by euphoria and excitement.  You may recklessly use your new powers simply to flex your metaphorical muscles (unless you are a Class B, then your actual muscles.)  Usually these bouts result in a humbling experience or in near-exposure, and your euphoria will be dampened by a new wisdom and sense of responsibility.

    You probably also have a lot of questions right now.  That’s very normal.  However, it’s important to put your agonizing in perspective—many superheroes find it helpful to put a time limit on their existential doubt.  Official Council recommendations state that one to two weeks is the ideal allotted brooding time.  If you find yourself brooding longer than this, please see your regional coordinator.

    Attire

    The Council has found that most superheroes prefer the aid of a costume, particularly those with Class A-L powers, including but not limited to: Super-strength, super-speed, flight, fire-manipulation powers, weather-control powers, laser vision, and gluten digestion.  You may find the anonymity of the costume comforting, a metaphor that is nonetheless satisfying and real-feeling, and with the wind whipping past your flexible Kevlar, it’s almost possible to forget the yawning void where your pre-hero self used to be and the fact that you can’t remember your mother’s face and that your life has become a cycle of justice and vengeance, of fear and exhilaration, and once you were just a person who watched Netflix and liked sushi and where even is your cat—have you fed her?  Is she dead?  Have you lost sight of everything that isn’t epic in scope?  Why do you even continue living this farce?

    Superheroes with illusion-based or ESP-based powers occasionally wear costumes as well, but more rarely, and usually when they are complementing a team comprised of more powerful superheroes.  The Three C’s of choosing a costume are: conspicuousness, color and crotch-cling.  

    Sidekicks

    The superhero community is varied and large, and you will meet friends along the way.  The Council encourages this, specifically if you are an eccentric billionaire playboy/billionaire genius inventor.  You may find a helper to be very humanizing/grounding.  

    It’s not important for you to coordinate costumes with your sidekicks, but it is helpful to have a constructive conversation about the role you want your sidekick to play.  Remember, everybody is the hero of their own story, but not every person can be the superhero of their own story.

    Archvillains

    It’s almost inevitable that you will make enemies as a superhero.  Important things to remember whilst engaged in a seemingly never-ending struggle with your nemesis:

    —Typical enemies will have powers comparable to yours, or powers that will test the limits of yours.  In many cases, you will only succeed in a temporary containment of their mindless evil.  It is perfectly to normal to feel like you will never defeat them, that you are Sisyphus and that life has been bled of all purpose and progress and that there is nothing left of joy for you and every breath is like ashes in your mouth.  Please see your regional coordinator to arrange for life-coaching sessions.

    —The most interesting enemies are those whose intelligence and tortured pasts give them depth.  In time, you may find yourself attracted or even secretly in love with your nemesis.  This is very normal and all part of the hero life cycle.  (Please do not search for your name paired with your enemy’s on the internet.)

    —There will come a point where you may need to kill your nemesis.  This could be due to his or her wanton destruction, or perhaps he is fatally wounded at your feet, obviously in the throes of intense pain, and he locks eyes with you and murmurs please while the blood gurgles in his mouth and you are moved with pity and mercy all at once.  Make sure that his or her death only comes with great reluctance and also that the public sees that you are marginally scarred by this.  Then wait for your next nemesis to appear.

    In Conclusion

    We here at the Council are excited for you and your potential!  We know you will do great things (and hopefully not of the “terrible-but-great” variety.)  We hope you have been enlightened and reassured by our introduction, and we’d also like to invite you to the ice cream social on Friday at 7 p.m., which this month is graciously hosted by the Wayne Foundation.  The social is nut-free, and please bring a canned good to donate to the Orphans of Zod Society.  There is a mandatory $10 coat check.

    (Source: i500.listal.com)

     

  5. The Secret Language of Light by Julie Murphy

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    I was invisible, melting into backgrounds like a chameleon. I watched as people I’d known my entire life milled through the fairgrounds around me. I knew each of them by name, but it seemed the only person who saw me was my sister. Even our father who, eight years later, was still mourning our mother. Our mother who always saw me.

    I sat on the blue drooping fairgrounds bench with Luna as she shoveled spoonfuls of Italian ice into her mouth and swung her legs back and forth, kicking up little clouds of dust around her white patent leather shoes. She’d begged me to bring her to the circus. None of the posters had said how long it might be in town, so every day could possibly have been the last, which meant every day Luna didn’t go to the circus ended in tears.

    She wasn’t rotten. But with only me and our father at home, there was little time for anything that wasn’t a necessity.

    “Julian,” said Luna, syrup dripping down her cheek and onto last month’s Easter dress. “Can we buy a souvenir program?”

    I fished around in my pocket and came up with a few coins I’d found on our father’s nightstand. “Sure.”

    Once she was through with her Italian ice, we lined up for the main attraction.

    I’d never liked circuses or zoos. Maybe I was too old by the time I went to my first one, but seeing exotic animals pent up in cages, outside of their natural element, left an ache in me that sunk all the way down to my toes.

    Girls in gold sequined leotards pranced through the ring, balancing all kinds of objects on their heads or the tips of their fingers, and even riding elephants whose every step shook the ground below us as drums rolled and symbols crashed. They all looked different, of course, with their various body shapes and colors of hair, but their sequined outfits unified them like bridesmaids in a church.

    The ringleader in his riding pants and suede-fringed jacket unfurled his whip and said, “I’ll be calling on my assistant, Magdalena, to help me with this portion of the show!”

    That was when I saw her. She broke through the curtain of darkness and into the pool of light. A tall girl with white hair, a wooden leg, and lips so bright they could wake a dead man. She was a shock of lightening in the dead of winter.

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  6. MUSES OF THE LOWER WORLD, by Natalie C. Parker

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    They say it’s not the song that kills you. It’s the silence.

    That’s our claim to fame in Middle Ground – a song that rises like a tide and kills anyone dumb enough to get caught in it. It shouldn’t be the sort of thing that drives tourism, but it does. No sooner does summer arrive than do the adrenaline junkies, the professional skeptics, and even the severely depressed. They fill the two boutique hotels and every available room to let from one end of town to the next, and we settle around each other with an uneasy grace.

    No one knows exactly when the song will arrive, so we end up with a fairly stable transient population that we get to know in spite of ourselves. Mom would never in a hundred years rent the spare room in the attic and encourage the spectacle, but Mrs. Fitz next door always has guests. She came here a decade ago looking for a shortcut on a long trip, and sat in the same lawn chair day in and day out waiting for that song to come and take her life. When the song finally arrived, she ran for cover and put down roots.

    She’ll say – and it’s not gossip because she’ll say it to anyone that asks – that the reason she rents her room every summer is because, “That song saved my life by showing me how much I wanted to live.”

    This summer it’s a group of boys and they’re forever outside in shorts and tank tops working on Mrs. Fitz’s house. It’s the best sort of work if you can get it. No one ever wants to be too far from home until the song’s come and gone. Which also means I’ve been seeing a lot of these boys.

    There’s Max who likes to be called Maximus and who can’t resist flexing a little when someone obliges. He’s as much a hammer as his hammer. There’s Bryce; tall, quiet, and brooding, Bryce. His vocabulary is very much in question. And there’s Leo who’s the only one of them that drives the punished Jeep they share, and spends half of his time correcting the work of the other two.

    One evening in mid-June, Mom invites them over for lemonade on the front porch. As soon as she turns in, they unleash all the questions they deemed inappropriate for adult ears.

    Bryce asks, “Have you ever seen anyone die in the song?”

    “Of course not,” I answer, and then, because I can’t resist, “but I’ve seen the bodies.”

    This always impresses people, but it won’t be interesting for very long. Everyone in Middle Ground has seen the bodies left the next day.

    “Has anyone ever survived it?” Max asks, leaning in on his meaty forearms.

    “Not a soul,” I answer. This used to bother me, but thinking about anything gets easier with practice. I can see by the turn of his lips that it bothers Max, though probably for different reasons than it should.

    “That you know of,” he challenges.

    “That anyone knows of,” I say, and if that isn’t enough to convince him not to do what he’s thinking of, then I wash my hands of him.

    It’s Leo’s turn next and we all look to him, but he’s gazing down the street with his thumb and index finger pinched on his knee. A breeze ruffles the oak leaves and carries the scent of charcoal and cut grass. Our lemonade is long gone, but Max slurps at the dregs in his glass.

    Finally, Leo shifts his narrow eyes to me and speaks. “Have you ever seen them?”

    This is far from a typical question. So far, in fact, that I find myself answering as honestly as I know how. This is the story I tell:

    I don’t remember the first time I heard the song. Just like I don’t remember the first time a hurricane took the roof off Mr. Mack’s BBQ Shack, or the first time Grams complained about mom’s taste in men. Like storms and Grams’ grumping, the song was just something happened from time to time. 

    But I do remember the first time I feared it. I was eight-years-old and uppity, Grams would say, and I’d set my mind to climbing the old oak in Five Sister Square. Uncle Henry was at the edge of the park with Mr. Gabe, both of them with eyes turned to the harbor. The rest of town was in full summer swing, buzzing with tourists and street performers. Tate Cross and I had the tree all to ourselves. We raced to see who would make it to the top first. The air tasted like rain and cotton candy, and my palms tingled against the rough bark as I climbed. Just as I reached the thinnest branches still strong enough to support me, the song arrived on the back of a pleasant summer breeze. 

    Uncle Henry was beneath me in a second, his voice stern. “Come down, Steph. We need to go.” 

    Looking down, I saw how far I’d come and how far there was to fall. 

    “I can’t,” I called. 

    “This is not the time, Steph,” he answered. “We need to go. Now.” 

    The town was full of noise as folks scrambled to get home in time. Before the clock struck noon and the song stopped. And for the first time, I realized it was because they were very, very afraid of what might happen if they didn’t make it. 

    I could no longer feel the warmth of the summer sun and my shivers frightened me even more. “I can’t,” I called, my voice meek and very far from uppity. 

    Then the tree, too, began to shiver and I held tight to the skinny branches until I felt a hand grip my calf. I looked down and found Uncle Henry’s tan face locked in a very specific kind of smile. Fear landed like a bird on my shoulder. 

    “Take my hand,” Uncle Henry instructed and then, “Hang on tight.” 

    And somehow I was on his back and we were out of the tree and the song was all around us. 

    Uncle Henry said, “Sing into my ear, Steph, and don’t stop. No matter what, don’t give in to the silence.” 

    He ran and I sang all the way home, and as he vaulted up the steps to our front door, I saw them: a line of ladies all in black strolling down the sidewalk as the song began to fade. And all at once, their heads turned to me.

    When I finish, Leo’s smile is unexpected, but not half as unexpected as his next words.

    “I knew it.”

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  7. Why, yes, those are the GIFs for our next cycle of GIFtion. And this time, we didn’t pick for ourselves, but let the other 7 choose. That makes this…THE GAUNTLET ROUND. 

    They’re posted in our traditional order. (Is it truly a tradition if we’ve only done it twice? Irrelevant!) If you haven’t committed it to memory, the order is this: Natalie, Julie, Rosamund, Elle, Bethany, Annie, Kate, Amber. 

    Maybe in the future we’ll let you choose. Maybe. 

    Maybe.

    Okay, definitely, but I should probably run this by the others first.

    (maybe)

    See you Monday! 

    -NCP

     

  8. 8-GIF: Quotes from THE CHANCE YOU WON’T RETURN by Annie Cardi

    When I told my mother I was the worst student in driver’s ed, I wasn’t lying.

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    "If I decide to run away, I’ll bring you with me."

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    I hadn’t exactly thought past that point, but then he started kissing me back and we were pressed together and his arms were around me, and I never wanted to stop kissing him.

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    I felt like the universe was something I could touch; it was all around me and humming with potential.

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    "So when you said, ‘Somebody’ll probably wear a Christmas sweater,’ you meant yourself, right?" I asked.

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    I could hear her going on about how the stars were so bright, how it felt to be all alone, so high above the ocean, and how everyone else in the world was just voices in the distance.

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    No one knows when or how rescue could come.

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    Text by Annie Cardi

    Gifs by The Hanging Garden Team (in order of selections): Amber Lough, E.K. Johnston, Elle Cosimano, Rosamund Hodge, Julie Murphy, Natalie C. Parker, Bethany Hagen.

     
  9. La Vie en Rose

    Clara Worthington had never seen anything quite like Nice. The wind was warm and salty, and the buildings were the soft golden color of fresh bread. For the first time in her life, she was grateful for her bonnet’s wide brim and, as she scrambled over the rocky beach, for her strong ankles.

                With one eye on the sea and one scanning the pebbles for bits of shell or glass, she didn’t notice the figure approaching her from the promenade until he was directly beside her.

                “Mademoiselle,” said a deep voice.

                She looked up to find a young man in a blue velvet jacket with matching cap. Thick black hair curled over his ears, and dark, wide-set eyes peered at her with an open expression that defied the brightness of the sun.

                “Oui?”

                He held up a pair of ivory lace gloves. “Are those yours?” he asked, in French.

                She held out her own hands, encased in linen. “They are lovely, but no, they’re not mine,” she replied in French.

                “You are English?” He tucked the lace gloves into his jacket pocket.

                “Oui,” she said with a sigh.

                “You are not happy to be English?” he asked, in English.

                “Oh, I am. I am not happy with my accent.”

                “You have not perhaps had a good tutor.” He was grinning, and she was taken with his straight teeth. “I will teach you.”

                She swallowed. “Excuse me, but have we met?”

                “Clara!” Her parents were further ahead along the beach, and her mother was calling to her.

                “Not yet, I think,” and then he tipped his cap at her and walked away.

    They met at the shore the next two mornings, always when her parents were far ahead. He would appear from whichever direction she was not looking, even though she scanned the promenade and the shore, hoping to catch his approach.

                “Clara Worthington,” he would say, and she would turn to find him smiling and holding out a tiny shell, pinched between his fingers. She would take the shell, her cheeks would blush as soon as their fingertips touched, and then she’d say,

                “Enrico de Vence.”

    The fourth day she went to the beach early, hoping to catch Enrico’s approach. She had begged her mother to let her go alone, promising (and lying) that she would speak to no one. She was scanning the stairs jutting down from the promenade when he said her name behind her.

                “Clara Worthington.” She turned and saw him pointing up along the beach. “Your parents, they are gone?”

                She swallowed, finding her throat thick. “They are not here yet.”

                “Come with me?”

                “To where?”

                “To meet my mother.” He offered her his arm, and she took it. While they stepped away from the shore, she looked over her shoulder, hoping no one who knew her would see, and wincing at the thought that her parents would be livid when she returned in the afternoon.

    The village of Vence was an hours’ ride from Nice, deeper into the foothills of the alps and away from salt-tinged air of the coast. Vence glowed from atop its hill, reflecting light throughout the scrabbly, sharp-edged valley. The stone buildings squished together leaving barely enough room for the alleys to breathe, but Clara did not care one whit. She followed Enrico as he wound deeper into the village, pausing often to look back at her.

                “I am sorry it is too narrow for the carriage,” he said, “but my mother prefers to live in quiet places.”

                Dodging a youth who was running down the steps, she wondered where this quiet place was. It was as loud as Birmingham, despite the lack of horses.

                A minute later, they stopped and Enrico pointed at a church with stone spires bleached from reaching for the sun.

                “Welcome to my house.”

                “That’s a church.”

                “It used to be,” he said with a nod. “It has been in the family for centuries, and my mother decided she’d like to live there, in the back.” Gently, he took her gloved hand in his and led her across an oddly empty square to the front door. It was wide, arched, and painted cherry-red. Rose bushes, heavy with blossoms, dotted the gravel beneath the stained-glass windows.

                He rapped once on the red door and twisted the bronze handle.

    Enrico’s mother was thin-lipped, bright-eyed, and well-heeled. She swallowed loudly while she poured the tea, and then smiled with all but her eyes as she handed over the cup.

                “Welcome to Vence,” she said. “I hope the drive was not too long?” Her skin was a rich olive and her hair was thick and dark, as though she’d frightened the gray away in a lengthy Italian curse.

                “It was lovely,” Clara said. She flicked her eyes to her cup.

                Enrico’s mother pushed a China bowl across the lace-topped table. “Sugar?” Then she took a sip of milk tea and waved in Enrico’s direction. “Enrico, this girl deserves some roses, don’t you think? Go and get some from the garden.”

                “But—“

                She raised an eyebrow.

                “Clara, will you be alright?” he asked, avoiding his mother’s gaze.

                “Of course,” she said. She dropped a spoonful of sugar into her cup, stirred, and took a sip. “This is lovely tea.”

                Enrico frowned at his mother, but left the room anyway.

                “Now that we are alone we can speak frankly,” the older woman said.

                Clara’s hand shook. “Yes?”

                “What do you want from my son?”

                “I…I do not know what you mean.”

                With a great sigh, Enrico’s mother leaned back in her upholstered chair. “He has never been convinced to bring a girl home to meet me before. What sort of creature are you?”

                “Excuse me? I…I…” The teacup was heavy in Clara’s hand, and the tea was turning an odd green color.

                Then her vision turned black.

     

    “Clara, darling, you can wake up now.”

                She blinked until Enrico wasn’t blurry anymore.

                “What happened?” Her voice was raspy.

                “She’s gone.” He grinned. “She’s finally gone. I woke you as soon as I was sure.”

                “Who…” She rubbed at her neck and yawned, then realized Enrico—a man—was bent over her prone figure and she pushed herself up onto her elbows and inched away.

                “My mother.”

                “Why was I asleep? What time is it?”

                She was lying on a narrow bed set low to the floor in a room lit by a few cracks in a boarded up window. Sheets draped over lumps of furniture and crates, and they matched the dusty one pulled back from her face.

                “She’s dead,” he said. He pulled the rest of the sheet away and held out his hands. She took them and he pulled her up onto her feet. “Careful now,” he said just as she noticed her feet were tingling.

                “She’s dead?”

                “Yes. I think the war did her in.”

                “The war?” Nothing he was saying made any sense. Why was he cradling her? Why was she not strong enough to push him away?

                “Clara, the sugar my mother gave you was poisoned.”

                “But I’m not dead.” She tried to shake away the soggy thoughts in her head. She knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. “Instead, she is.”

                “It only made you sleep.” He turned his head and fingered the hem of the sheet, which she now saw was embroidered in roses and long strands of bramble. “For a very long time.”

                “How—how long?” Why was her throat so tight?

                “It’s been a hundred and seven years since I brought you here.”

                She lost all strength in her legs.

                “I’m so sorry, Clara,” he said to her hair, and she noticed his accent had hardened.

    He came to her hourly asking if she was any better. He brought her newspapers, novels, and a variety of food and drink.

                It didn’t matter because everyone she’d ever known was dead. And, according to the newspapers, so was all of Europe. A great war had ravaged the continent. London had been broken by bombs that fell from the sky.

                The fifth time, when she still wasn’t speaking to him, he stopped by the door on his way out.

                “She told me you’d left when I went to get flowers. I ran over every street out there. I searched the hillside. You disappeared. Then, two days ago, she told me what she’d done. That she’d ‘preserved’ you.”

                Clara looked up. His silhouette was outlined by the light from the hallway, and bits of dust swirled around his halo of hair.

                “She said she didn’t want you to live and die out when you were not yet needed, since I had her. So she kept you for me, for this moment.”

                Clara finally spoke. “What sort of creatures are you?”

                “The worst sort.” He hung his head and left the room.

    She changed rooms, choosing one with a wide window from which she watched him climb into his “automobile” every day at noon. She studied him. She studied the car.

                A fortnight later, she walked out at dusk and drove away.

                There wasn’t a love that could bear a century of being tucked away in storage.

                

     

  10. For One Night Only

    Pygmalion, beloved one,
    Who stands
    Stock still or stooped;
    A warning to creators all:
    Be careful, or you’re —-

    “Dammit!” he says, then throws the pencil across the room. It’s not the first time he’s done that tonight. It won’t be the last.

    It’s a nice room, really, for all the pain and suffering he endures within it. Hardwood floors slope unevenly so that you couldn’t drop a marble and expect to find it any time soon. The boards are sanded down by years and wear, but he always has on slippers, so he barely notices the soft carpet he put under the window. He doesn’t like the window. Too much goes on outside of it.

    But the room, the room is his. It’s got a heavy desk and a comfortable chair. The desk is for his dignity, the chair is common sense. He’s not about to put himself through physical pain as well as emotional. His pride and joy, though, are the shelves. They’re heavy too, with leather-bound books he’s never read but which give the room just the right look, the right smell. Great men, great thoughts, and someday he’ll be worthy of them.

    The desk is dark wood. The antique dealer who’d sold it to him swore there was a hidden compartment, only he’s never been able to find it. He decorates it with a red blotter, on which sit his paper and row of neatly sharpened pencils, and a single lamp.

    He had planned this room down to the scent of the air, but he hadn’t planned on her.

    “You spend too much time worrying about alliteration,” she says, leaning in behind him, just outside his line of sight. Like always. But he knows she’s there. She was made for this room, too, for all he hadn’t planned a space for her.

    She’d found one instead. She wedges between the books on the shelves. She stands on the panels of the globe, making it creak and spin right when he’s found his rhythm. He’s pretty sure she can read the indentations he makes on the blotter, but if she does, she does it while he’s gone.

    “I find them compelling,” he tells her.

    “Yes,” she says. “And now you’re stuck with ‘stooped’.”

    He picks up another pencil and worries it between his fingers. Maybe he should change brands.  He’s been with these ones for a while and they are not helping.

    “Don’t remind me,” he says.

    “I can think of a word that rhymes,” she says. She’s teasing. He hates it when she teases. Like she’s got all the best ideas and enjoys waving them just beyond his reach, as though he were a bull and she the cape.

    “Please,” he says, and presses his hands against the desk. “I’m trying to preserve some dignity.”

    He almost turns, sees the hem of her dress in the corner of his eye, but then one of the kids across the street screams at something, and his attention goes to the window. Goddamn thing. He should have got curtains.

    “There’s rarely anything dignified about bad poetry,” she says.

    He balls up the paper and drops it in the empty garbage can beside his desk. Tonight, tonight, he won’t fill it. Maybe.

    “I’ll just start again.” He gets another sheet, and holds the pencil at the ready.

    “That’s what you always say,” she sing-songs at him.

    There’s a moment when he thinks maybe he should go outside. See what the kids were screaming about. Learn their names. Find out if they have a dog. The moment passes. The sun is setting and there is work to be done.

    “I hate you,” he says.

    “I know.”

    She isn’t teasing anymore.

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