THIRD HEAVEN by Rebecca Grace Cyr

The next day, I bought the cheapest plane ticket I could find and booked a night in the Super 8 outside of Coeur d’Alene. The room had red checkered half-curtains and free toothpaste.

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JUNE by Rosella Birgy

I.

The lady who owns the condo keeps a bonsai tree that she regularly forgets to water. She wears an ankle bracelet and her best friend is a nineteen-year-old boy who “works” maintenance for the complex in the summer in exchange for a living space that’s not with his parents. His father is a no feelings kind of guy and his mother hasn’t stopped taking Valium in the three years since his older brother died in a car crash and he doesn’t know if college “is for him,” the lady writes us in her letter of instructions for general upkeep of the condo.

“There’s a six-pack of beer in the fridge for him,” she says, “if he stops by. His name is Jack and he has a key but he’ll probably knock anyway.”

Somehow, these small facts do little to reaffirm the sense of grandeur which we may have wrongly assigned this first family vacation. My parents have no intention of cracking open a cold one with an underage kid in the way that a lonely, forty-some, Floridian woman apparently would.

My mother doesn’t feel great about the aforementioned young man having a key to our home for the next week so my dad calls up maintenance on the dial-up landline because cell service is routinely patchy. They send Jack over and he gets comfortable on the floral couch. Sand from his open-toed shoes leaks onto the floor—he is unapologetic.

“You understand we can’t give you the alcohol,” my dad says as Jack nonchalantly hands over his copy of our key.

“Yeah,” Jack says. “I feel ya.”

“You drink often?” My dad asks out of curiosity.

“I dunno,” Jack replies. “It’s not much fun without someone. I’d come over once in a while and have a drink with June. She’s a cool lady. You don’t meet a whole lot of folks like her. They get in your heart.” He thumps a fist to his chest like he’s making a heartbeat but it’s on the wrong side.

“Like a second mom,” my mother offers as if mothers are qualified by their ability to supply their kids with alcohol.

“No,” Jack says and nobody makes any more observations about the nature of the relationship.

My mother’s lips purse like a skinny pufferfish.

Immediately after Jack leaves, my parents each open a can of the beer. To my dismay, June’s fridge is empty except for the remaining four beer cans, a stick of margarine, and some equally unappealing tins of tuna fish. These, I feel, are representative of June and the condo’s personality.

It’s a strange little place. The view of the ocean is spectacular. A fat, cartoonish, clay statue man sits on the kitchen counter that is bizarre enough to make people lose their appetite. A glass mermaid perches on the back of the toilet. All the furniture is mismatched and the plastic covering on the couch makes it seem like this home is only temporary, not actually lived in. The plants—including the bonsai tree—wilt in the heat.

I try to imagine June here—somehow coaxing a meal out of the tins of tuna or lovingly dusting the furniture. I try to picture her watering an assortment of dead things. I can’t, as much as I try.

 

II.

June pours her can of beer into a glass because she has done this since she was fourteen and it makes her feel more mature—like a real woman. She ogles the foam as it deflates in the way that all cheap beer does. She has turned all the water in the fridge to beer, like a convenience store Jesus. She sits on the couch and her skin sticks to the plastic covering. She traces the floral pattern with her finger. Her own sweat disgusts her.

June thinks about the nice man from Pittsburgh with a job and a cookie-cutter house in a city with all four seasons and how he asked her to marry him. He would’ve made her mother very happy. June knew that the sun would give her premature wrinkles. No one between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five deserved to live on a beach. You had to earn it at some point, which June never had considered herself to. A summer away—or longer if she felt particularly ambitious—would be penance.

June thinks about her birthday (in June, of course) and tries to remember how old she is. She thinks about the young maintenance boy and how much he deserves the beach and the heat and the sun and everything good under it and she does not.

She knows that she must leave. She takes an inventory of everything that matters to her and begins to write instructions for summer renters with a lease on bronzed bodies and saltwater pools.

  1. Water the plants

Even she does not water the plants. She has never been nurturing towards anything that can’t hold up their side of a conversation. She starts again.

  1.  

 

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DUNHUANG, IN THE SUMMER by Jiaqi Kang

is beige and washed with soft, settled dust. It nests between sand dunes, two-tone hills that whistle and whisper at dusk, the breeze bringing mysterious dreams to those who sleep under its soupy night sky. My guests, pilgrims whose cotton shifts are streaked with the brown patterns of their journeys, spend the last of their silver on a bed and a meal in my inn. They are tired, worn, and bone-thin, but there is that momentary sense of relief in their eyes when they clap an ugly coin into my palm. I lead them to their cots and my husband ladles precious wine into their bowls; twice a year, he makes hard candies out of the sugar grains that have stuck to the bottoms of jars, and I hand them to the pilgrims’ children. “Ah—” I tease, holding the candy just out of reach. “Say, ‘Thank you, Mister Innkeeper!’” The parents smile as the toddlers’ fingers work to unwrap the treats. Inside the wrapping paper, my husband makes an inscription: a character from a sutra, painstakingly calligraphic and minuscule—just big enough to cast a spell. I don’t believe in these words anymore, but he does, and I adore him for his insistence on sewing whole sheets of sutras into our winter clothes so that they sometimes swish and crinkle when I do the morning chores. 

Not that we need winter clothes here in the desert, but even after twelve winters—a full zodiac cycle—we haven’t shaken that habit of renewing ourselves for the start of each year. In the weeks before the spring festival, we sew them for each other, then exchange them over a rare feast of pork buns. It would shock our younger selves, the effort we put into every stitch and our miserly use of the cloth, but now that we’re poor, we pay more attention. In recent years, I have become worried that our annual gift-giving lacks fairness, that he has ruined his eyes copying our sutras by candlelight. I have offered to write my own, but he says it wouldn’t work—heathen that I am. It has taken me some time, but this summer, I have prepared an extra gift for him: his own sword. 

When we’d left the world, he pretended not to mind leaving it behind—, he threw it nonchalantly into the Yangtze and didn’t look back. In that moment, I’d thought of that idiom, ke-zhou-qiu-jian, about the fool from the Warring States era who, instead of diving to retrieve his drowning sword, carved a mark onto the edge of the boat and said, This is where the sword fell. When we reach shore, I shall dive from here. They don’t say what happened to him afterwards. For what was a wuxia without his weapon? A martial artist without his art; a fool; a wastrel; an innkeeper, a cook—someone without a name hiding somewhere far off doing ordinary things that would never be told of over campfires across the jianghu. I’d thought of selling the sword, but my husband hadn’t wanted to draw attention with such a famous weapon. 

He’d been right, as always: when, some years ago, I began to discreetly ask about the sword, it was too easy to track it down to some middle-class collector in the capital city with the audacity to admit visitors in exchange for an entry fee. The hard part was stealing it. I debated whether to reveal myself to one of our old friends, an imperial general, perhaps, who might remember what I did for him in the war, or instead to venture out on my own with some plausible cover story. In the end, it was one of the rare merchants at the inn who helped me secure the services of a rogue wuxia who could travel to the capital and back, no questions asked. All it took was a tumble in the hay with the merchant, under the watery eyes of our one wizened donkey. And money, of course; money all the time, the entirety of my secret savings as well as one of the two gold bars we hid under the kitchen floorboards, which my husband does not often check and which I will blame on a thieving pilgrim when he does find out. 

Would a thief only steal half our gold? I must continue to work on the story, but it is hard to focus when all I can think of is the smile that will bloom on my husband’s face when I present him with the sword next week, the kind of pure and joyous smile that even he is unable to suppress, maybe even a smile with teeth! Or else I worry about the naked blade’s condition after having traveled such a distance—I could not afford the scabbard, which remains at the collector’s. I think we could go retrieve it together. We’ll shut the inn for a month or two, go on vacation for the first time; a kind of honeymoon. We could detour through Jiangnan, spy on those we left behind: our shifu, our sworn brothers and sisters who by now will have taken on disciples of their own, the teahouses where we eavesdropped on local gossip, and my husband’s grandfather, though perhaps he has died. Would it be too painful? I suppose that question is too far into the future, considering that we cannot afford to shut the inn. Business slows in the summer for reasons I still haven’t fully comprehended. Some days, there are so few guests that I am able to leave our hired girl in charge and accompany my husband to the market. 

In town, we are careful not to walk too closely together. Everyone on the Silk Road has a secret, and people in Dunhuang don’t mind these things, but it also means that any tanned, forgettable face could be masking violence. The assumption, I think, is that we are brothers, and technically we are—brothers-in-arms, fellow disciples under one shifu. I don’t mind: it reminds me of our youth, when there was always this invisible hurricane that raged in the space between our bodies and into which we would throw everything we weren’t allowed to say or feel. Sometimes I miss those days, not because we were wealthy, but because of the back-and-forth of our dance, how precarious it all was, how miraculous, how heartbreaking. Everything was so new that I’d sometimes forget we were fighting a civil war; even in the midst of a battle, when across the melee in the corner of my eye I could watch him slash and parry, I’d felt so attuned to him, as though we were the only ones there, as though my hands weren’t full of someone else’s blood. I miss that, too, but I don’t tell my husband that I do: he’d made me promise, that day on the Yangtze, that we’d leave it all behind. I think he prefers Dunhuang, our inn, the lazy fog of sunlight, the spices and curiosities brought in from the West, the foreign languages that he practices with the street sellers. The callouses on his hands have faded; instead, he has little cuts here and there from the cleaver brought down too fast or too hard. 

Today, a week before the wuxia arrives in Dunhuang with the gift, the sunset sends rays of glimmering pink clouds across the sky, and my husband stops by a Persian carpet-seller to feel the soft weave on the tapestries. I am admiring the way that his face, bathed in golden light, seems to be chiseled from the sand dunes that surround and cradle us when I am hit with a nauseating premonition and stumble a little. I steady myself against the merchant’s camel, which wavers its head, as if aware of my distress. It has suddenly occurred to me that my husband may not want his sword back at all, that I have made a terrible mistake; I have overreached, overstepped, overwhelmingly overstated—it is over. I imagine him trying and failing to hide his profound disappointment, turning his back to me as he rolls up his sleeves to knead more dough, the rise and fall of his silent shoulders. My husband is gripping my arm now, saying something with his low voice that I can’t make out—all I hear is the rush of blood in my ears and the fuzziness in my mouth. I am frozen, like that night on the battlefield so many years ago, an agony I’d forgotten. He leads me away from the crowd, into a quieter alley, and I start to calm down a little, I think. He leans against the wall next to me as my breathing slows. After some time, I shuffle closer, lean my head against his shoulder, touch his hand. He lets me. 

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JEOPARDY by Ruth Aitken

As my ex-husband the Jeopardy champion won thirteen games, I racked up quite a résumé myself. I followed advice to shampoo with raw eggs. I dropped a knife and drove myself to the emergency room. I fell in love with a man on the Metro, because he made eye contact when my hand bumped his on the pole. I successfully overheard someone in the break room say about me: Yeah, her voice makes me wanna die. I wondered for the first time whether I wanted to have sex with a woman. I went too far on party drugs that were too young for me, walked into a tattoo parlor and told the guy to surprise me. The whole world was spun on serendipity, and I thought whatever he tattooed on my body would teach me some lesson I needed to learn. 

Every light source in the parlor gave off swimming starbursts of color. I had helium in my veins instead of blood, so I was taller than the tattooist. I knew plain as toast that a connection was opening between me and the divine — because eight months earlier I’d had a vision of my [then soon-to-be] ex-husband on the Jeopardy stage. I couldn’t recall him ever watching the show, but in my head he looked so right against that blue background, smiling a stiff little nerd smile behind his podium, trying too hard to make Alex Trebek laugh. And then eight months later he was right where I’d put him. He must have picked up trivia because he needed a rebound hobby once he lost his old hobby of making me feel bad. 

The tattoo artist eyed me with caution. My dilated pupils and messy hair, my skirt shedding sequins on the floor. The hospital bandages on my foot. I cried a little, which didn’t increase his trust. 

Why don’t you go sleep on it, he said. 

I said I no longer let other people tell me when to stop being stupid. 

I was so reborn that even my ex-husband the Jeopardy champion and his $268,730 couldn’t bother me. That’s what those dragonflies of light said. 

What would you die for? The tattoo artist asked. 

These days, thank God, not much, I said. 

He gave me a paper airplane, right above the crook of my elbow. It restored my faith in people, to know that you could give your body as a blank canvas to a stranger and not emerge with something big and ugly and vengeful, asshole on your forehead or Garfield on your asscheek. 

I still liked my paper airplane when the drugs wore off, still liked it when the redness healed. I went to a bar I’d never been to before and I met someone. 

What does your tattoo mean? 

I leaned so close I could smell her shampoo and said, I don’t know yet.

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I WANTED TO SAY by Michael Harris Cohen

The body farm looked like any other chunk of rural Tennessee, black and white oaks, cherry trees and clearings. Only this chunk had a 12-foot fence circling it, razor wire on top, and rotting bodies within.

“Why the fence?” I asked. 

Landon, my brother’s best friend since kindergarten, shrugged. “It’s science. Can’t have people messing with science.”

We followed Landon through the woods. Last I’d heard, Landon worked night security at the mall. Now he was day security at the body farm and (supposedly) enrolled in night school. He’d abandoned his signature mullet for a crew cut.

We came upon the first body. It didn’t look like a corpse. It was more mummy or Halloween prop, skin motor oil black and bunched like a deflated air mattress. Its skull all eye sockets and teeth, the mouth gaped in a frozen moment of awe. 

“Blacker they are, longer they been dead,” Landon said. “Don’t worry. Your old man won’t look like this. He’s fresh.”

***

I’d skipped my father’s funeral and flown down two weeks later. My girlfriend said I needed “closure.” When my brother picked me up at the airport, I’d told him how I wanted to see dad and say some words. Maybe touch his hand. Kiss his forehead. Closure. 

My brother had shaken his head and stroked his tangled beard. “There’s no closure with the dead. It’s a one-way conversation, like talking to a busy signal.”

“Still,” I’d said. “Gotta try.”

But here I felt less certain. In life, my father was as predictable as taxes. In death, he surprised me. How was this what he’d wished and willed for his eternal remains?

***

There were more roped off skeletons and corpses. Some looked alive, just napping in the woods, face down and naked. One was half-covered with black plastic, legs stuck out, like an abandoned car in a yard. 

 “Hey,” my brother said, “remember how Pops used to take us to the cemetery at night? To light candles and summon spirits?”

Landon snapped his fingers. “That was fucking cool. Your old man was cool as shit.”

“That never happened,” I said.

Landon and my brother stopped and turned back to me. 

“What’re you talking about?” My brother said. “Of course it did.”

“He never did that.”

They locked eyes. 

“Mandela effect,” Landon whispered and my brother nodded.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

Landon raised his eyebrows. “I thought they taught everything in lawyer school.”

Landon spat in the direction of a stray ribcage. My brother stared at me with a look borrowed from our father. An open-mouthed, droopy face that said: Is your head screwed on backwards? 

“Maybe you just weren’t there,” my brother said. 

***

The path turned to gravel road. We followed it awhile, and then I saw her: the old man’s ‘71, 280SL. In the rush of his death, I’d forgotten Marilyn, his convertible. The vanity plates, TOPLWYR, still on it.

“Marilyn Mercedes?” I said.

“Pops stipulated it.” 

Landon whistled. “Hell of a car.”

“Mom thought you might try to contest the will. She said, and I quote, ‘I don’t want your brother digging his legal beak into my husband’s last wishes.’” 

“Why’s it called the Bar Exam, anyway?” Landon said. “Seems like a test I’d get cozy with. One I’d pass with flying colors.” 

Bar is short for barrister. It’s an old thing.”

“Like you.” My brother rabbit punched me, and I wrestled him into a headlock, like old times. He struggled, and I squeezed, but my heart wasn’t in it, especially with what lay ahead. I let my arm go slack, and my brother wriggled out and ran to the car, like we were kids again, homebound after a family picnic.

As a teenager, I’d told my father how much I hated Tennessee. He’d said, “No rust and nine months top down? Paradise.” 

Marilyn’s top was still down, even though it was December. Her leather seats were glazed with leaves and animal droppings. Landon rooted the keys out of his pocket. “You ready?”

I nodded, but I wasn’t sure at all. 

“First, I want you to know that your father has done a great thing. Donate your body to medicine, and they maybe use it six months. The research here, with some corpses, goes on forever.”

My brother nodded solemnly, tucking one hand under the elastic of his sweatpants. A candy bar appeared in the other.

“Second,” Landon continued, “prepare for the smell. Especially with a freshman like your father. This ain’t no dead mouse behind the fridge.” 

I nodded and he popped the trunk. 

The smell struck like a bushel of rotten fruit, a blinding, musty-sweet stench. I covered my nose and retched in my hands. The flies droned like a chorus of tiny saws.

Landon grinned wide. “That bouquet you don’t forget.” 

Inside the trunk, our father curled, chin tucking knees, fully dressed in his blue suit. It could have been anyone, but it was dad. There was the scar from his Navy years. His gold wedding band squeezed a swollen finger. 

I spoke through my hands. “Why’s he dressed?” 

“They like to study all the variables with PMI—post mortem interval,” Landon said, flicking his shoulder. “Some are naked, some are dressed, under tarps or underwater. Some in car trunks.”

I stared as  flies crawled in and out of his ears and nose. 

“The flies show up ‘bout a half hour after you die. They crawl inside and lay—”

My brother punched his shoulder. “Shut the fuck up, Lando.”

We all shut up. I stood there, gaping at a dead man in the trunk of a car. 

A crazy fantasy rushed my head. I’d swipe the keys from Landon and drive off in Marilyn, Dad still in the trunk. Top down, I’d get on I-40 and drive straight to Los Angeles, right up to the edge of the Pacific. 

My brother dropped a hand on my shoulder. “You want to speak your thing? Last words for Pops?”

I did. I didn’t. What was there to say? I’d been rehearsing my ‘done with the law’ speech for months. I’d wanted to say that the people in law school were the worst people I’d met in my life. I wanted to say that the worst of the worst, the gunners, reminded me of him. How I’d never retake the Bar. 

But I’d rehearsed the speech with a living man as an audience. Talking into this trunk felt useless. The finality of what lay there swallowed my words before I spoke them.

“It’s a weird thing,” my brother said. “Like all that’s left is an empty human suit. An empty cocoon. Like the part of us that is us goes on to something else.” 

Landon whistled “Dust in the Wind” and looked at me. 

I finally nodded, and he slammed the trunk shut.

Closure. 

***

Driving to the airport, my brother cleared his throat and spoke. “You’ve been back two days and haven’t once asked how I’m doing.” 

“You have chocolate in your beard,” I said. “Your life uniform is sweatpants and Crocs. What am I supposed to ask?”

He grinned, fingers drumming the steering wheel. “I’m in a transition phase.”

I took the bait. “You’re finding yourself.”

“I’m a caterpillar.”

 “Slow to leave its cocoon,” I said.

My brother giggled. I remembered all our father’s rationalizing riffs, the things he told himself and others on behalf of my brother, 30, and still living at home. 

My brother reminded me of the time he’d bit a bar of vanilla soap, figuring it would taste sweet. “Remember how hard Pops laughed?” 

“He was red as a stop sign. I thought he’d have a heart attack.”

My words rung like a vacuum, sucking out all sound. We rode two miles in quiet.

“He still talked about you all the time,” my brother finally said. “You know, his ‘Golden Boy,’ the New York lawyer. In Pop’s eyes, compared to you, I was one-inch tall. I started hating you.”

“More than before?”

“A lot more.” 

“Anyway, I’m not a lawyer.”

“I heard a lot of people don’t pass till the third time,” my brother said.

I wanted to say how it was better to be a one-inch caterpillar—who got to light candles in graveyards and go water skiing—than the butterfly, saddled with legacy expectations. But I just shrugged and watched the cornfields scroll past. 

At the airport, my brother pulled my suitcase out of the trunk and hugged me at the curb. He stepped on my toes, an old trick, and kissed my cheeks like a Frenchman. It was a thing he’d picked up from our father, who’d been to France exactly once during his Navy years. 

My brother winked, chocolate crumbs in his beard like mud flecks. 

“You’re in a transition phase,” he said. 

“Finding myself,” I said.

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NEVER REALLY OVER by Kate Shapiro

1.

My resort in Thailand is a beautiful picture ringed with spider eggs. I angle the phone so the fat cockroaches with long wandering antennae are not within the frame of my selfie, but the beach is. I know I look beautiful because beaches make you beautiful. They make you shimmer. I am shimmering now, like an iridescent fish.

Two weeks before Thailand, Charles put my face between his two palms and told me he met someone named Suzanne at a live sitar show and he could not deny their attraction any longer. He said that he loved me and believed we would get married someday but he had to see how it worked out with Suzanne first.

What if I love her? he said, as dumbass-tears leaked out of his right eye and a lizard crawled over his hand and joined the other lizards congregated by the door watching us break up. Charles threw a rock at the lizards.

2.

An Israeli soldier named Noy stays in the cabana next door and does mushrooms every morning at the mushroom-shaped club blooming out of the cliff over a guava-shaped resort. I find him one day inhaling nitrous out of a rainbow-shaped balloon. Give me some, I say, and sit next to him. 

Noy needs a haircut. His army uniform is rolled up over his shoulders, the green of it lightened from the sun, stains dotting the collar and sleeves; badges peeling off.

How does it feel to kill a Palestinian, I ask.

I build radar equipment, he says.

But how does it feel to kill a Palestinian, I ask.

They send us to Thailand to make us forget we do it, he says.

Noy and I watch a girl with a fiery baton do backflips on the sand. I put my arm around Noy and tell him to smile. We have a glow around us. It is like the world is a bright, shining thing and we are the deformed creatures that inhabit it. The contrast is stunning. I post it on social media.

3.

A text arrives from Charles. Hey, how you holding up? I hold my phone close to me and scream. I tell him, Great! Just Great!

I gleefully swat at bugs. I slice millipedes in half with my index finger. 

I slap a spider so hard its guts are splayed in a perfect circle on the inside of my elbow. Sugar ants swarm the dregs of a pink, plastic champagne flute. 

Noy watches the centipedes and drinks a Chang. A rocket once landed in an abandoned lot choked with weeds and beer cans next to my kindergarten, he tells me. It never exploded. My teacher told me to go underground and I remember my classmates hugging each other and crying. I thought, what for? Nothing will happen. This is how they want us. Scared and also bored. There is a word for it in Hebrew.

4.

The next day I sob while a Scandinavian family does yoga. 

What’s wrong, Noy says. 

I show him my phone. He shields it with his hand. It’s an Instagram post of Charles and Sitar Suzanne with their arms around each other on top of a dusty mountain. She is very thin; you can see every one of her bones, and her hair is straight and shiny.

Noy asks her: is this what is attractive to Americans?

The sitar girls are the most attractive, I tell him. They are a clean white sheet to throw over a dusty piece of furniture.

She is not prettier than you, Noy says.

You only think that because you are on mushrooms. I am actually fat, I say and point at my fat belly lined with bug bites and moles.

But fat is good, Noy replies, perplexed. 

Thank you, I say, but I know better. Charles is better. He is the bare-faced Birkenstocks-wearer and I am the cretaceous organism desperate to split in two.

5.

Noy and I drink one milkshake full of mushrooms each and watch a group of monkeys on a nearby cove. One monkey picks a leech off another monkey’s butthole and eats it. Kindness, I believe, is not a thing humans value. I have a theory that we are not the product of our parents, or their parents, or our stupid fucking genetics, but instead a product of the country we are born in and its stupid fucking ideas of how to live and die. I tell Noy this as the ocean fractures into a million black centipedes.

Can you please stop mentioning the Palestinians? he asks. 

He removes his uniform, then his pants, until he is naked, stretching his limbs out like he is an Israeli starfish. I also remove my clothes and spread myself out so I can touch his toes and fingers with my toes and fingers. 

6.

I tell Noy that we must ride a jet ski in order to kill our past. I tell him, in America, jet skis represent the apex of happiness. 

It is the first time I want to kill my past and not resurrect it into a slug that I fuck.

I let Noy drive it into the open ocean and clutch his waist as he hits the waves head-on. I let him scream for a long time when nobody can hear us. I scream too. A wave kicks us off and we tumble into the open ocean. I can hear the sting rays, giant squids, and whales swimming underneath us while Noy squeezes me.

We park the jet ski at a cay populated with feral cats. They fight with each other over crushed guavas swarming with fruit flies and maggots. The victor feasts on the spoils as the loser watches from behind a rubber tree. Noy tells me he killed someone once with a 160 mm gun from two miles away. I felt nothing, he says, then I felt I should feel something, which was much much worse.

The cats do not bother me and Noy because they detect us as comrades. I like the horizon because it does not contain Charles or Sitar Suzanne. I like it because it is just that: a horizon. It’s not even that good. Boring, really. No pretty islands. The water is ugly. The cats begin to wail. Noy produces a peach. I ask where he got it and he shrugs. We split the peach and watch the horizon. Maybe we hold hands. Who cares.

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BAD SEEDS by Tanya Zilinskas

You were supposed to turn them over to the Department of Agriculture if you received them. Packages without return addresses showed up in mailboxes all over the country, each one containing a single packet of seeds. The official line was inconsistent but grim: they were from China, they were from Russia, they would kill the crops, they would release pests, they were a Sino-Russian hybrid that would release pests that would kill the crops.

When I received the seeds, I planted them. I planted them because I wanted to see what would happen. I planted them because I didn’t trust the government. Because I was bored. Because with this, I was chosen, and because I had nothing else to grow.

The first child came on Monday, scratching at the patio door, naked and covered in earth. I fed him everything in the pantry and after he ate it all he said to me, have you considered how your environment contributes to your mental health? We spent the rest of the day purging. We took down the television that was hung like art, unshelved the books I hadn’t read since college, and gathered the face creams that lacked the alchemy of beauty. We threw it all in the trash and rolled the bin out to the curb. Then we sat on the porch until we were sunburned, eating blackberries from the bushes that had taken over the yard.

On Tuesday the second child came. This is always how creation goes, one new thing a day, one day after another. The second child said nothing until that night when the neighbors’ dog barked itself hoarse. I can’t bear when something’s in pain, the second child said. The children and I went into the neighbors’ yard, unleashed the dog, and opened the gate. We ran after it in the street, barking and howling, darting between the headlights of bleating cars.

Wednesday’s child was already yellow when he came to us, and by noon he had withered away. We buried him under the blackberries so we could eat him next summer. Thursday’s child went straight into my bedroom and refused to come out. Friday’s child was a pyromaniac, so Monday, Tuesday, and I spent the day dousing everything with water. When questioned, Friday said some things needed to be burned. Saturday arrived and said they were the last of the children. They were excruciatingly beautiful; we learned nothing they said could be trusted.

Monday had grown tired of all this. He said there were too many children; this had gone too far. He said we had grown too wild, and I agreed, but there was no putting them back in the box. 

On Sunday, I picked the last of the blackberries and fed them to the children for breakfast. I played Dolly Parton’s Wildflowers and told them to listen to the lyrics—that I was the garden setting them free—but the children didn’t like country music or metaphors. I opened the front door and told them to go forth and multiply. I took a picture of us before they left with the sun just right in the sky. I watched my seeds go out into the world, and then I went back inside and locked the door.

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