When I close my eyes, I can still see her.
Before I go to bed, Alice, my cute little sister, dances behind my eyelids.
When I throw my head back with a shot of vodka, Alice’s gap-toothed smile cheers me on.
Eyes shut in the pain and ecstasy of sex with my drug dealer, I can almost feel Alice’s chubby fingers, sticky with peanut butter and jelly, reaching for my hand.
Every time I tie the tourniquet around my upper arm to shoot up, Alice is right there with me; knocking on my bedroom door, sticking gum in my hair, saying, “I love you,” her face all lit up like the time I bought her a toy rhinoceros for her birthday. And so I close my eyes again, and again, and again, because sometimes, it makes me feel like she never disappeared at all.
Alice had eyes as blue as the puddles she liked to splash in and cheeks red and like tiny balloons. She was shorter and chubbier than the average eight year-old, and looked even fatter in a beige T-shirt two sizes too big and jeans, ripped at the knees, that trailed in the mud.
She was full of spunk and energetic, loved me when I thought I was unlovable. I know a lot of my friends resented babysitting their younger siblings, but I enjoyed it. Her make-believe games were innocent and playful, and honestly, sometimes I got completely immersed in them, like a good TV show.
On the day of her disappearance, Alice had been fighting a monster. She’d taken a karate stance, weight resting on her back foot, red-and-blue polka-dotted umbrella held in front of her like a lance.
Recently, all her make-believe games had focused on the monsters in the bedtime stories I told her: worms with multiple rows of sharp teeth, spiders with extra legs, and see-through humanoid vampire ghouls from hell. The stories got more and more grotesque each time I told them until they nearly gave me nightmares, but Alice — the freak — couldn’t get enough.
The air was thick with the smell of wet compost and post-rain musk. An icy wind whipped through the bare tree branches and spun her long hair like straw around her face and into her mouth. She was the polar opposite of how I’d looked at that age.
I was curled in a hammock on the front porch, my long, bony limbs tucked underneath my butt. It was the first warm day of the year.
I was reading a book: Factotum, by Charles Bukowski. I remember thinking at the time that the narrator was weird; how could you spend your entire time drunk, useless, and without purpose? But ten years have elapsed since then, and I’m living with my parents yet again, hopelessly addicted to smack, uselessly obsessed with a girl who’s long gone.
With a thrust, a lunge, and a karate chop, Alice jumped off the sidewalk and into the street. And then, in a moment of triumph, she stabbed the umbrella into the creature’s invisible heart.
“Victory!” She cheered.
From far away, without my glasses on, she looked like a wiggling blob of color against the gray sky. Her arms were spread triumphantly, palms facing upward, an enormous grin on her face. I looked back down at my book and began reading Chapter 34.
And then a scream, a bloodcurling scream. I felt like a truck had smashed into my ribs as I looked up to see what had happened —
It would have been better if she had been hit by a truck, I think sometimes. If she had died, at least I would have had some closure. But there was no body, no nothing. I knew how to heal wounds; I didn’t know how to deal with nothing.
“Charlie! Charlie, help me, it’s got me!”
Alice was writhing on the floor, pretending the monster’s giant pincers had pinned her down. I sighed, half exasperation, half relief.
“Don’t scream like that, Alice,” I reprimanded her, returning to my book.
I read sixteen chapters before realizing how quiet the street had gotten. It was completely still besides the whoosh of the wind and the dead leaves shaking. And when I looked up, she was gone. Only her polka-dotted umbrella, rolling lazily in the middle of the street, gave any indication that my little sister had ever been there.
Triumphant, smiling Alice, this is the last picture I have of her and this is how I’ll always remember her when I close my eyes.
Closing my eyes to cry even when I think I have no more tears left, I see Alice reaching out her tiny fists to dry them.
As I’m drifting off to sleep, Alice reminds me to pray to God. I don’t listen.
And when I’m jamming my needle into a vein for the fourth time that night, Alice tells me to stop. So I stop.
“I mean it, Charlie,” says Alice, “I can’t always be here for you. It’s time for you to start fighting the monsters now.”
“Don’t leave me,” I beg.
She’s turned into a see-through humanoid vampire ghoul from hell and is eating her own organs. I don’t want to see this.
“Go away!” I scream.
It doesn’t go away. On the contrary, it’s advancing on me; I stumble back, but my feet are tied. I’m high as balls and can’t even tell if I’m standing or lying in fetal position, awake or asleep.
Alice’s polka-dot umbrella stands, as it has for over a decade, in the corner of my shoddy room. I’m shaking as I pick it up, shift my weight to rest on my back foot. I think I’m prepared to fight.
Helen Cattan-Prugl writes in Massachusetts, USA.
Ted struck a match and held it up. The glow of the flame bounced off his glasses, illuminating his pointy nose. He flicked the match into the night. When its ember died out, he lit another one.
Dinah tried her phone one more time but it wouldn’t turn on anymore. She kicked the tire and swore.
“That won’t fix it.” Ted didn’t look at her. Just kept his position on the hood of the car.
Dinah threw her heels at him. He hopped down and grabbed her by the arm, pinning her against the passenger door. He felt her heart pound against him. “You need to chill out.” He poked a finger at her chest, then pushed off her and hopped back onto the car.
Dinah huffed and picked up her heels. She felt stones poke through her nylons. She hated that expression. Chill out. It was abusive; his actions and words were abusive.
“You could do something,” she pleaded. Her blood boiled. She hated him, she absolutely hated him. She got close enough to see if he reacted. “Are you listening to me?”
He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. She knew he wouldn’t say more. She went to the road and stared into the emptiness. It was so dark there could have been anything out there. She thought for a second that something could be right at her shoulder and she shivered with fear. But she was too angry to let it linger. She didn’t pick this route. She didn’t even know what road they were on.
Into her misery came a bright light that quickly disappeared. She squinted and saw it again; then the light brightened, then dimmed, then disappeared. It rounded the final bend. She waved her arms wildly, stepping out into the vehicle’s lights. It screamed to a stop in front of her and she ran to the unrolled passenger window. She peered in and smiled at the pretty blonde driver.
“Hi. Sorry. Thanks for stopping. We think some kids must have slashed our tire or something. It’s been a pretty slow burn the whole trip. We’ve been out here for hours now, I swear, hours, and we don’t have a spare.” Dinah caught sight of the dashboard clock and felt sick. It was two in the morning. She wondered if anyone even missed her at the banquet.
“Get in,” the driver said. “I don’t have a spare but we can get some help.”
Dinah turned to Ted. She almost invited him but instead said, “I’m leaving.”
Ted looked over and shrugged, didn’t get up. Dinah got in and slammed the door. She turned to the driver with a relieved smile as they drove away. “Thank you so much.” She squeezed her sore feet into her heels. “I was afraid I’d have to sleep out there. My phone isn’t working and we usually have a car charger but for some reason my bonehead fiancé took it out this morning.”
“It’s no problem at all,” the blonde said. “You know this isn’t a road, right? It’s a driveway.”
“What? He turned into a driveway?”
The blonde nodded. “Yep, another few minutes you get to an old farm house.”
“We should probably turn around, then.”
“When are you getting married?”
“September, if ever.” Dinah messed with her phone, punching it into the palm of her hand. “Shouldn’t we turn around?”
“No, this is where we’ve been going.”
Dinah looked over at her and the driver gave her a curious smirk. Dinah’s stomach lurched.
“You don’t remember me, do you, Dinah?”
Ted’s phone buzzed half an hour later. The voice on the line was quiet. “It’s done,” she said.
“Did you love her?”
Suddenly he was very tired. He opened the trunk. “Does that bother you?”
“Of course not.”
“I’ll contact you soon.” He hung up and took a bag of clothes and a metal container from the trunk. He threw his phone onto the backseat and scattered the clothes around the interior, then doused everything with gas from the container. There was one match left; he lit it and tossed it into the back seat. He headed down the winding path with plenty of light from the flames.
Desiree Wilkins lives near Philadelphia with her husband and their son. Her fiction has appeared in the print literary magazine Happy and online at First Stop Fiction and Cleaver.
My ship finally eased to a complete stop next to one of the countless stationary white-blinking buoys that lined the Interplanetary Autobahn between Earth and Mars, only open in estimation to the two planets near-biennial passing. I had just completed a year-long mission on the asteroid belt and was looking forward to getting back to Earth. Behind me sat a police cruiser, red and blue lights flashing brightly.
I didn’t look at the officer until he was beside my window. He was dressed in a fully contained suit and helmet coated in a fluorescent material that appeared white under light but, when in darkness, glowed neon blue: A regulation spacesuit. What separated it from most civilian suits was the red lining around the shoulder solar pads and the authoritative badge on his chest.
The officer tapped on the side window with the back of his gloved hand. I took a deep breath of easy-to-breath air and hit several switches and latches to allow me to open the window. As the seal of the window gave way, a brief rush of air ran through the ship from the pressure equalization that occurred.
The buoys that lined the stellar road created a mock-atmosphere path for safer travel between planets. Breathing was like standing on top of a mountain, though a healthier alternative to the vacuum that existed just a dozen yards away.
It was as the breeze of air hit me that I remembered I was wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. After the first hundred thousand miles out of Mars I had decided my suit would be uncomfortable to wear for the long ride and had taken it off. Common for travelers to do. That didn’t stop it from being embarrassing.
“How’s it going?” I greeted — within the buoys field of mock-atmosphere there was also enough air to speak without radio communications or ear implants.
The officer undid the latches sealing his helmets visor and slid it up. Beneath the helmet was a thick beard that hid most of his facial features as it protruded through the opening, as if trying to escape. I hoped he was just a beard enthusiast and not an officer who had been out here so long he had recently grown it.
“License and identification,” the officer said bluntly. He gave the fact I was nearly naked little notice. He must have dealt with it often.
“Sure thing,” I said as I reached into the driver side compartment and removed my fold. I retrieved my identification cards, handing them to him with a makeshift smile, “Here you go.”
He took them and looked over my information.
“You’re Maximilian Kento?” he asked. “With Stellar Dynamic Solutions?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Do you know why I stopped you?” he added.
I shook my head, “No, sir.”
“You were speeding. What’s your hurry?”
“They want me back on the Moon with my satellite reports ASAP,” I lied. The reports had been transmitted before I left and would have been received Earth-days ago. However, he was less likely to cut me some slack if he knew I was going on vacation.
“You work on the satellites?” he asked.
“Fairly,” I explained, “We’re upgrading the array on Stickney in order to speed up communications with the Ceres Station.”
“Stickney. That’s on Deimos, right?” he asked suspiciously with a squint of suspicion in his eye.
“Phobos,” I corrected. I had a feeling he already knew that and was merely testing my story. The Ceres Station construction had been all over the news recently as the project attempted to garner funding. His cruiser’s radio was probably set on a discussion about it right now.
The officer nodded, relaxing his stare.
“Think they’ll get it functional?”
“If we don’t we can kiss dreams of Ganymede goodbye,” I said with a shrug.
As I had spoken, the officer removed a small electronic scanner from his pocket. He was about to scan my license to dock points off it for speeding and, more importantly, fine me. I couldn’t afford another traffic ticket and getting stuck on Earth with a suspended license could literally cost millions of lives.
“We need it fully operational before we finish construction on the other side of the belt for civilian occupation,” I said in attempt to distract him.
“If you ask me,” he waved my cards like a pointer in my direction, “If we don’t finish those domes off Jupiter before the Sun expands again, we’re gonna see a major population problem.”
“Glad you’re on our side.”
He looked hard at me, then down to the scanner. I crossed my fingers, hoping I had won him over. After what felt like several intense years of waiting, he held out my identification and license to me.
“Tell you what, I’m gonna let you off with a warning this time, Maximilian. But in the future, obey the speed limits. Understand?”
“Crystal clear, Officer.”
I eagerly took back my cards before he changed his mind, not bothering to put them back into my fold and instead tossing them on the passenger seat. If he had scanned my card he would have found I only had two points left — far less than what he would have docked me.
“Make sure you seal your window up before you get moving,” he slid the electronic scanner back into his pocket and prepared to reattach his visor, “and obey the speed limits in the future.”
With that he shoved off back to his cruiser, reattaching his visor as he floated. I resealed my window and took several deep breaths as the internal pressure returned to normal, then waited until I saw the officer’s lights turn off as he pulled away before I continued on my way back to Earth.
Roderick Holl writes in New Mexico, USA.
Jon’s morning world is dark and quiet. He moves in silence through the kitchen of his studio apartment, where he keeps the lights off to avoid waking his roommate. The near-vacant streets are soundtracked by his footsteps and the rustling of newspapers that blow in the breeze like urban tumbleweeds. He descends into the station precisely two minutes before his train is scheduled to arrive. The bright lights emerging from the tunnel are his sunrise.
The only thing Jon likes about taking the 5:42 a.m. train is that he can always find a seat. He doesn’t need to go in so early — no one else bothers at his new company — but his father impressed upon him the philosophy that he should always do more than necessary at work. First in, last out. Only in the past two weeks, as hushed rumors of downsizing have grown to near certainties, has Jon considered the other meaning of first in, last out — and more relevant to him, its inverse.
He takes a swig from his water bottle and glances down the platform, counting. Nineteen other commuters wait for the train. He recognizes a few, those familiar strangers to whom he is bonded by morning routine. There’s the young couple who always waits next to the timetable, whispering in Spanish and holding hands. Right now they’re stealing kisses with the excitement of new lovers, though Jon’s seen them together nearly every day for the past four months. At the far end of the platform stands the blond woman with bangs nearly covering her eyes, scowling at her smartphone as though it’s offended her. Jon moves away from three nurses in scrubs and sneakers, one man and two women. They’re chattering on about some doctor they can’t stand. Dr. Jones, this time — yesterday it was Dr. O’Malley.
One minute left before the train’s arrival. Jon steps forward onto the tactile flooring that alerts the visually impaired to danger. A familiar pull, the one that always reaches for him from just beyond the ledge, beckons him into the dark.
What if I jumped?
What would it feel like, to jump?
Am I crazy?
He glances at the blond woman, who has put her phone away and is now staring at the tracks. Does she feel it too? Not the wish to die, which he does not wish to do — merely the wish to leap. He lives by rules and logic, but this he can’t explain.
The red lights, the ones that always remind him of the footlights at the proscenium of a stage, begin flashing. He looks again at the nineteen others on the platform, now twenty as a balding man with a briefcase dashes down the escalator. Some scurry to the ends of the train where there are fewer passengers; others move to the precise spots where they know the doors will stop. They know this station, this routine, like Jon does — like it’s home.
It’s the void, Jon thinks, that’s really home. Rootless in this city, he’s left his hometown for a job that might leave him. In the eternity of space and time maybe it doesn’t matter. Everyone returns to the void.
He glances again at the tracks, litter and gravel filling the spaces between the rails and ties. But there’s something else, too. Something green. A plant has taken root in this man-made tunnel and, impossibly, begun to grow. Without rain or sunlight, life has staked a claim. It’s a beautiful middle finger to the universe and everything Jon thought he knew.
The train’s headlights shoot through the far end of the tunnel. Jon steps forward. He pitches the contents of his water bottle onto the tracks, hoping some will reach the little plant.
Later this week he will sit on a hard chair outside the boss’s office, waiting his turn to defend his worth to the company, wondering for the first time what the company is worth to him. Later this year he will turn the people on the platform into characters in a play called The Green Line and don his best suit for its opening night at a local festival. He will peek from behind the curtain into the dark theater, so full of people he doesn’t know.
But for now he steps onto the train, resisting the call of the void. He thinks about getting a cactus for his desk.
Anna Zumbro lives in Washington, DC. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fantasy Scroll, freeze frame fiction, and other publications.
Toast was too loud, and cereal even louder, and Julie was too hungry to stay asleep. She wanted to be out of the house by the time her father got up anyway. So she ghosted her way through the kitchen and out to the garage.
There was a jar of peanuts on the worktable, next to the radio and some empty bottles. She poured a handful of peanuts into an old plastic grocery bag, looped the bag over the handlebars of her bike and hopped on.
Her house was at the bottom of a steep hill, and she pedaled in tight circles to build up speed before she flung herself up the slope. Soon she was standing up on the pedals, pulling back on the handles. But she wasn’t going to make it today, not with no dinner last night and no breakfast yet this morning. She scowled as she got off and walked the bike the rest of the way.
At least it was too early for anybody to see her. More than once Joe Farley and his friends had blown past her as she struggled up a hill. “Don’t feel bad, everybody knows girls suck at riding bikes,” he’d called back over his shoulder a few weeks ago. So Julie made a point of taking on any hill she could. And one day soon, maybe by summer, she’d be stronger than any of those boys. Stronger than anyone.
At the top, she looped through the quiet streets for what felt like a long time, until she guessed it had stopped being too early to head over to Amy’s house. She didn’t want to miss breakfast. Last week she’d arrived too late and had to wait for Amy in the kitchen with the smell of waffles lingering in the air.
She headed up a few blocks so she could glide down the big hill on Aspen Street. As the bike picked up speed, she lifted her hands up and spread them wide, feeling the wind slipping through her fingers, going faster and faster. She could always beat the boys, all the boys, at this. She might not be as fast going uphill, but nobody was faster going down.
At the bottom she hooked a left onto Cedar, and sat down on the curb in front of Amy’s house, choosing a spot in line with the kitchen window. She had just finished her peanuts when Amy’s mother opened the door, still tying the sash of her bathrobe.
“Julie, hi,” she said, a little wearily. “Would you like to join us for breakfast? I’m making pancakes.”
“Sure, thanks, Mrs. Morgan,” Julie said, leaving her bike on the lawn as she headed inside. She ran through a brief mental checklist, all the things she’d heard Mrs. Morgan tell Amy. Stand up straight. Pull your stomach in. Look adults in the eye when you talk to them. Directives that could all be translated as, Act like you belong here. Even though Julie didn’t.
A week ago, when Julie was sleeping over, she’d been walking down the hall to the bathroom, moving silently out of pure habit, and overheard Amy’s mom on the phone.
“It’d be nice if Amy could make some friends who could return the favor. Where she could sleep over there and play at their house sometimes.”
Now Julie stepped into the house, taking a deep breath. The air smelled of coffee and clean cotton, very different from the kitchen at her house.
“Amy’s still asleep, but you can go in and get her,” Mrs. Morgan said.
“Could I… give you a hand? Set the table, maybe?”
Julie had wanted to offer help before, but had been too afraid she’d mess up. She’d figured out which plates Mrs. Morgan liked to use for breakfast, which glasses and coffee cups, which cabinet each set came from, and rehearsed the process in her mind over and over. Even after she’d been sure she had it down, she’d worried that it seemed presumptuous. But Mrs. Morgan looked so tired today.
Mrs. Morgan stopped, her face softening. “No, that’s okay,” she said. “Just go get the sleepyhead.”
That’s pity, not affection, Julie told herself sternly as she headed down the hall. But she couldn’t help but hold that flash of tenderness close to herself, threadbare though it might be.
Julie knocked on the door of Amy’s room and went in without waiting for an answer. Amy was awake, stretching and yawning under her pink polka-dot bedspread. Amy wanted her mom to repaint her room and get her a new comforter, she said. She hated the pink. It was like her mom thought she was a little kid still. Julie had nodded along in commiseration. As if she had the same kind of troubles. That was one of the things Julie liked about her friend, actually. Amy never tread carefully, never stopped in the middle of sentence, looking at Julie, saying, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean…” and then trailing off.
The girls headed toward the kitchen. Amy’s brother appeared, and shuffled through the doorway, tousle-haired.
“Pancakes? We must have guests,” he said. “Who could it possibly be? Oh, wow, Julie! What a surprise! It’s been so long since we’ve seen you. Hours, even.”
“Ben,” Mrs. Morgan said in half-hearted warning, as she flipped a pancake.
Amy’s dad walked in, smiling as he headed for the coffee maker.
“Morning, kids. Looks great, honey.”
Julie felt her eyes get hot, and had to look down quickly at her lap, where her jeans still had a stain from the tomato sauce in the cafeteria lunch on Thursday. It was just that she was so hungry. And she imagined slathering on butter and syrup, so much that Amy’s parents would politely try to hide their distaste. But that was okay. Because what Julie knew, and Amy’s family had maybe never had to learn, was that sometimes you just had to take what you could get.
Deirdre Coles lives in Seattle and reads too much, and yes, that is a real and serious problem. Her stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Free Flash Fiction, MicroHorror, Infective Ink, 365 tomorrows and Kazka Press Fantasy Flash Fiction.
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