Disaster Insurance or Suicide

This selection is paired with Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno. Get NonBinary Review #19 from Zoetic Press. 

If your tree is really a person
stuck in bark, lamenting
the lot, gazing over your little
house for one hundred years—if
your tree did something terrible
once upon a time, fell off
a roof, undid his pants in public,
misused the word no—God
knows what justice is, to be
trapped in one’s own body,
encased in wood—But I’m saying
if your tree is really a person
watch the way you cut
it down. What do you want
out of this? A new fence,
a place to bury the dog—let
that tree fall, dried out
like a corpse through your window,
burst the pipes, the wires, then
build a boat from the wreckage,
escape the flood as if foretold, tell
everyone you always knew the will—
how impartial it is
to wait, and then
to escape.

Sara Moore Wagner is the author of Hooked Through. Her poetry has appeared in Glass, Gulf Stream, Gigantic Sequins, Stirring, Reservoir, and Arsenic Lobster. She was a finalist for the Edna St Vincent Millay Prize.

That Day We Read No More

This selection is paired with Canto V of Dante’s Inferno. Get NonBinary Review #19 from Zoetic Press. 

A vengeful sheering Great Lakes wind,
uprooting trees, flinging roof shingles—
split stumps and flayed branches. A whole dangle
of modifiers. Infinitives finding
syntax amid the wreckage. I can almost
make out the spoken scrawl, part malignant rant,
and part avowal, part warning and part advance
directive. Yet what I hear most is boast

when winds subside: Love led me to betray,
and the agony that betrayal once begot
afflicts me now, like you, who’ll stay
to hear my tale. You, like me, who sought
to authorize illicit love—you’re doomed
like some obsessive-compulsive, forever caught

in the act of betrayal. Forever damned.
Give me details, I demand, hoping
our stories do not match. There’s no stopping,
she says—Francesca, mother, who charmed
Paolo with her quizzing glance. I asked
my would-be lover to admit out loud
with certain sighs he wanted me. He held
his breath long as he could. And then, unmasked,

indifference and restraint abandoned, distance
obliterated—we agreed to read
together the tale of Lancelot’s romance
with his King’s wife Guinevere, and the bed
in which they found delight. That pleasure is
now pain—in inverse proportion to the deed.

Leonard Kress has published in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Thirteens, and Walk Like Bo Diddley.

I Can Do Nothing For the Woman In the Air-Conditioned Room

This selection is paired with Canto III of Dante’s Inferno. Get NonBinary Review #19 from Zoetic Press. 

Alighieri ma non troppo

So I twirl through revolving glass into the swelter of August, indoor chill burned off my skin before I reach the parking garage. The gate bar lifts, releasing me from the place where tiny whirlwinds of fear puff out from the mouths of the self-concerned. She can’t understand how she got here; it wasn’t fair, she looked out for herself—what else to be done?—and now trials of needles and scalpels, the bondage of bandage, a roommate who constantly coughs and gets the better bed.

Road work traffic—rows of glinting, asphalt fuming. My coffee in the cup holder has wept out all its ice. A wasp bumps the windshield, tormenting itself and me. (How did it get in?) Nervous Celtic flutes—news till you puke—god flag trucks—dance and sex and dance—and when I see the sign that points one way—the Oldies station snaps me back to high school:

The summer of Mom’s shabby temp rental, a tree of rotting plums, me in a room with an air mattress and gooseneck lamp reading Seventeen and all of The Lord of the Rings. My rubber flip-flops slap concrete as I walk to the drugstore in short-shorts to buy cheap eye make-up, chocolate chip cones. Just walk away, Renee, you won’t see me follow you back home.

The wasp staggers. I trap in it a napkin, guide the vibration out the window—it flies! A straight shot of lightning lands in the middle of the highway. One Mississippi, two Mississippi—rain! Wipers jump to clear. You’re not to blame…

Have I become Renee? I take the next exit. A field of tall corn—fat ears, brown tassels. In this downpour, the irrigation system pulses water in wide circles.

Sara Backer has published two chapbooks: Scavenger Hunt and Bicycle Lotus. Her writing has been honored with residency fellowships from the Norton Island and Djerassi programs.


This selection is paired with Canto I of Dante’s Inferno. Get NonBinary Review #19 from Zoetic Press. 

As I ran from the shadows of the other beasts, the third of their cohort came before me. A she-wolf, lean and burdened with the cravings of every unfortunate soul who’d traveled this path. Her snarl and her bared teeth inspired a fear so great that I forsook my mountain destination for the darkness nearby, hoping to hide from the gaze of the lupine huntress.

As I ran into the dark and lost my way in the wilderness, I saw a form not much unlike my own, and called out, “Good man, please aid me.”

“I was once a man,” my rescuer began. As he recounted his history and his deeds, he became recognizable to me, the cadence of his speech reflecting his celebrated prose. When he explained he’d lived in Rome under Augustus and reached “I was a poet,” he erased all doubt about who was speaking.

“You are the great Virgil,” I stated. “Who chronicled the flight from fallen Troy and fair Dido’s tragedy in the bosom of Carthage.”

The poet, or the faint shade that still held his form, nodded his acknowledgement. “I am who you say. It is my task now to convey you forward.”

“Then you will help me face that beast, so that I may return whence I came?”

“I am here to take you on a journey to another realm. For the beast you encountered allows no man along her path, but drove you here with purpose. Come.”

As we entered on the steep and savage path, the poet spoke of our surroundings. Though we passed a sign urging any who entered to abandon all hope, my curiosity bested my despair. Even the arrival of Charon and his eyes of ember seemed a singular thrill in its novelty.

“No good soul ever takes its passage here,” great Virgil warned as we took our river journey, yet I remained focused on our surroundings until the moment we plunged into darkness, falling like men with seizing sleep. When I stood erect on the brink of an abyss, the poet bade me follow him into the blind world.

Virgil’s lack of fear stayed my own, and we entered the first circle. The air filled with sighs from sorrow without torments, and the crowds held many multitudes of infants, women, and men.

When I queried as to the reason for their fate, Virgil explained that they had come in the time before. “They did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism.” He continued as I examined this realm of limbo, incredulous. “For these defects, and for no other evil, we now are lost and punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing.”

“By ‘we,’ you suggest you count yourself among those punished thus?” I asked, and the Roman’s shade confirmed. Armed with that knowledge, I looked more closely at the crowds, and found I was no stranger to many of the figures moving all about us.

“Is that blinded man not Homer, the supreme storyteller of his age? Do I not see the bearded figure of Alexandria’s Euclid? And that greatest of inventors, Archimedes, who fell in Syracuse in Rome’s conquest of your dear Phoenicians?” Around them I found the finest minds of antiquity. Horace and Cicero and Plato. Men without whose ideas my modernity would be all the poorer, doubtless still mired in the darkest of ages.

“Please, we must continue,” Virgil implored. “We have many circles yet to view, and only I may lead you there in safety.”

I remained where I stood, glancing at the shades of Moses, Noah, Ruth, and the others left unharrowed, with no mercy granted even for the virtue of their own bloodlines.

“Then it was no action of yours that condemned you to this realm?” I asked my master. “Save the absence of a choice you could not have known to make?”

“Yes, but we have far more to see. We will view the true torments of the unjust, and you will see how minor is our punishment.”

“For what reason would I want to see this?” I queried. “For the beast that drove me here was fearful enough.”

“When we have finished, I promise you will journey to the realms of paradise, the finest fruit borne of mankind’s goodness.”

“Then this is not paradise? How comes that to pass?”

Virgil began to explain the promise of those realms to come, and their own congregations of great men and women wrapped in freedom from all suffering. When I remained obstinate, Virgil spoke of fair Beatrice, wrongly supposing I found him an inferior guide or wished to part his company.

“What could more be paradise than a realm full of our species’ brightest lights?” I implored. “Why would a simple soul like mine scoff at the chance to roam free among them? To converse with them as I have you, and glean all the knowledge they have to impart.”

The great poet struggled to answer. “I was sent to save you from that great beast, and to show you these realms rarely seen by man. For I can no longer pass this knowledge to the living, and it is to you this task must fall.”

“No, for the beast that drove me here must have meant that I find you, no less than Juno brought your Aeneas to his mission. For it was not the lion nor the spotted beast that pursued me, but their lupine compatriot.

“Was it not a she-wolf that birthed the founders of your great city? Who suckled the brothers ere their eventual quarrel? Why would she decide my way if not for me to find one of Rome’s leading lights?”

Virgil continued to protest, but soon conceded to my argument. It was now he who followed me, as I moved among the crowd and began to seek the wisdom of those who formed it. Before long, I’d joined a dialog between Herodotus and Livy about the virtues of Rome, and found my intellectual curiosity sated as never before.

My abandoned hope returning as I contemplated the sheer numbers of great figures sharing their fate in this ambiguous circle, I turned to the poet and voiced my chosen lot. “Yes, I have decided it is here I will abide.”

Jeff Fleischer is the author of Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections, Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries, and The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias.

Catching Inferno

This selection serves as an intro to Dante’s Inferno. Get NonBinary Review #19 from Zoetic Press. 

virtue signaling like a fire beneath a
lake of brimstone. have you ever seen
anything as reviled as the canopy of
trepidation that stretched up over her
liquid lap? languid as a cat in heat and
no less trumped up than a concubine,
it would laugh were there not such a
melancholia permeating the place. the
stink of the wretched. it’s as catching as
moth’s vein when you blink and the levers
peel back as if you never missed anything
at all.

touch me there. do you feel it? the quiver
quick as heat and no less as lovely? we met
where the rowan kissed the never-will and
then we met no more. I think of that at times
sometimes when you’re nearby and there’s
nothing left to think of but catastrophe. if
there was another mention she’d sick herself
but then again she never does. whisper and a
wrinkle and it all comes rushing back. touch
me down and wear again your white-capped
lover’s best.

two years on and still cutting teeth; still—
trying to bite to the edge to fill the bellies
that never sleep. two more in the cradle and
one in the bush and there’s a dozen more that
lost their lives on a battlefield with no name.
blood comes rushing to the knees and the arch.
touch the concrete of the pavement and there
clutters down the bricks. two shades in the song
of a circle. it was fated to be so ill managed.

you never miss a thing. blood capillaries set
to kill. once manipulated and two times as shy
she trembles and the road meets shale. erasmus
had a lover but she was never so skilled, that old
harpy of the heartstrings that never played luck so
well. he was captivating in the sack and you triple
wrung my heart, so have at it. pieces complex in
nature were never so divine as the first and won’t
outlast the second so we better buckle up.

do you hear me? do you hear me? do you hear
what I’m screaming when I tell you to turn it
down and tone it up and never speak to me again?
gnash your teeth to the fury and reckon with that
thing that eats your belly. Worm in system, a
digestive rigor mortis. Two more swallows and
we’ll be swallowed up by revenge. Blood spurt
eyes; a captivating loveliness. engorgement in
putrified remains, we bask. Nea hestia.

down with the leaders. make them bleed, then
tear it down again. false idols give way to true
give them someone to lead or they’ll find their
oblivion. cast back; too good to be true and a bit
less false, to believe him would be a frenzied flag
alibi spiked with rhetoric. tumble down the hill
till the catch stones break the mountain and make
it rumble. we’re copper cast on the line and a little
less weak. make me your believer.

strip it bloody and ride the burning sand to the
raw ache that leaves you awash in trembling.
she took the elevator to the third floor and never
came back, slipping into the darkness like she slid
into your skin; the nevermore. are you any less com-
plex without her heaving at your shoulder; whispering
anything to make you a little less shy. rip her down
and start anew. a fresh way tomorrow for a little less
due. tithing’s for the charity-less.

pander cross the gap, another stony divide. a
little more seduction and he’ll be yours. hell bent
like a flatter with a penchant for the grave. it was
boosted in lavender and the petal of a rose but you
didn’t know where the tide was looking when it
washed you away. crisp, quiet cuff of patrimony.
greys fleshed out in folds of falsifying alchemists.
trencher and a stale mate. one last pulse and we’ll
be through.

caina, caina; enemy they called her when they
couldn’t find other names to fit her crimes. bury
ice caps and find me in the trench where the loam
and the fence post meet to make it another hell.
he hurried when he heard me but it was too little
too late. she would have kept him wandering long
after dark if he hadn’t a hammer to the ice with a
breakneck speed. too little. too late.


calcified in hell fire, we were all burned up too late.

E.B. Johnson is an aspiring poet and author who hails from the American South. She is inspired by culture, history and all things weird, dark and wonderful.

Ghost in the Way

This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Shirley Jackson’s story of a child named Mary Katherine Blackwood, who, after poisoning her family, lives with her sister Constance in a large house, which she eventually sets on fire. Constance was originally blamed for the murders. She indulges Mary Katherine (Merricat) in all of her misbehavior and outlandish fantasies. The sisters lock themselves away from a world intolerant of murderesses until an insufferable cousin shows up, and that’s what leads to the fire.

Or is this the story? They live with an invalid uncle who flirts with senility, saying at one point, “My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead. . . . [She] died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister’s trial for murder.” And one may think of other Shirley Jackson characters: Jannie in Life among the Savages, the child who adopts a bewildering variety of names and moves among them comfortably, shifting the blame for her mischief to whichever one she is not currently inhabiting; the conceivably schizophrenic Natalie in Hangsaman; Elizabeth in The Bird’s Nest, as she wrestles with her multiple personalities.

So it’s possible that this isn’t the story of two young women living in an old house but of one young woman living in an old house. She was originally blamed for the murders because she committed them. She handles the pain of that by splitting off the uncontrollable, stream-battling, world-ruining part of herself and naming it after the little sister she killed.

Is cousin Charles a fantasy too then, the embodiment of an intruding past and an intruding world? Or is he real—his rough treatment of “Mary Katherine” a rough treatment of Constance simply transposed onto the imaginary sister and managed that way? The scene in which the strangers from the village come to see the fire and end up participating in it orgiastically suggests a certain flair for persecution fantasy, so Charles should be a finger exercise for her. But all too real in his petty acquisitiveness, Charles could just as well be the mote of reality that gets in the mind’s eye of the imaginative girl and triggers a conflagration.

Of course, none of this is the actual story. The actual story is that of a house, the huge, ramshackle house that everyone knows from childhood with the haunted-house legends attached to it. By the end of the book, though Mary Katherine and Constance seem not to have aged, the vines have grown up so that evidence of the fire is erased. There was no fire. There were no murders and no sisters. There is just a scary house that needs explaining. This isn’t on the surface a ghost story, but all stories are ghost stories in a way, all fictional characters ghosts of a kind. That’s the sense in which they have always lived in that castle, out of time or in the parallel stream of story.

How many of them are there in the castle,
That scattered family or just a girl
Living there with her personalities?
Or do such odd inhabitants exist
More in the minds of us, the villagers,
Who need these bogeymen, these bogey-girls
To fill the haunted houses of our towns?

Remember “Mary Katherine has been
A long time dead,” words dropped by one who flits
Around the edges of his own decline.
This tense—what does it mean to have been dead
Unless now dead no more; that is, a ghost?
Ghost in the way that every story is.

Jack Granath is a librarian in Kansas. 

Shelley’s Arm

This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 

It was a Tuesday, and I would have to go to town.

I was in abnormally high spirits about the prospect of going into the village that day. I put it off without thought. Bundled in my warm blanket, and with Jonas at my side, I slept away the morning in my hiding place in the woods, the frost beginning to melt and birds chirping and chattering away around me. I woke to find a spiderweb, glistening and silver, stretched across the entrance.

I knew that the web was a very strong protective omen, but I would have to knock it down if I were to get out. “I am very late to go into town, Jonas,” I said. Jonas blinked at me. I reached out to knock it away, but couldn’t bring myself to. “The magic will all be spent if I do it,” I told the cat. He flicked his tail, then stood, walking deliberately through the web.

I went inside and washed my face before starting on my way, as Constance had told me I must, and took the library books off their shelf, carrying them in a bundle at my side.

“Be very careful, my Merricat,” Constance said, her voice like a song. “And don’t take too long.”

“I won’t. I love you, Constance.”

“I love you too, Merricat.”

The library is the first space on the game board of the village. It lies just beyond the black rock and the gate that protects the Blackwood property from the encroaching rot and villainy of the villagers. I climbed the marble steps, went through the door, and lay the old books on the counter, then went about choosing three new ones. A mystery or criminal study for Uncle Julian, of course. Constance preferred romance, or cookbooks. I turned the corner behind a tall shelf, and stopped.

A woman stood before me, with long, auburn hair and a stylish emerald green frock. She was not one of the villagers. She was not ugly and grey and full of rot. She was beautiful, red and brown and green, like the forest. She looked at me, and smiled. I looked away, thinking perhaps she had mistaken me for someone else.

“Hello,” she said. “My name is Shelley. Shelley Banks.”

I nodded politely. “Are you new to the village?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I had never seen her before. It was a very small, very dull village.

Shelley took a book from the shelf, examined it for a moment, then put it back. “I live in the city, actually.”

I let out my breath in relief. Somehow I wanted very much not to hate her as I hated the villagers. Shelley Banks continued. “I’m coming on to teach school here, starting in a week.”

She smiled, and so I smiled back politely, but in my mind, I cursed the devilish brats who would, no doubt, be terrible and wicked to their lovely teacher. It was sad to think of her surrounded by their ugliness, a pretty jewel among the muck.

“I’m terribly indecisive about books,” she said. “Have you any recommendations?”

“Oh,” I said, surprised that she continued to converse with me even in my stunned silence. I looked around. We stood in the “B’s”, and I spotted Wuthering Heights within reaching distance. I plucked it off the shelf and handed it to her.

“I’m very fond of Catherine,” I said. “The first Catherine, that is. There are two.”

“Oh, how confusing,” Shelley Banks said. “Well if you say it is good, I have no doubt I’ll like it, too.” Her cheeks were round and rosy and her face was very pleasant. I felt very warm, as though I were at home in the kitchen and Constance was baking a pie.

I was suddenly aware of the passage of time, and I quickly picked a third book at random from behind me, in the “H” section. “I must be off,” I said, “But it was very nice to meet you.” I was surprised that I actually meant it.

“You never told me your name,” said Shelley Banks, as I turned to hurry off.

I thought very quickly. If I told her that I was Mary Katherine Blackwood, no doubt she would hear all about me from the townsfolk in no time, and I would lose her favor forever. I very much wanted to avoid this, although I did not quite know why. I paused for a moment before answering, “Mary.”

“Good to meet you, Mary,” Shelley Banks said, and smiled at me again, all pink and red and brown and green. My stomach felt something close to queasiness, but not as unpleasant. I hurried to check out my books.

When I left the library again, I felt as though I had left my shimmering house upon the moon and stepped into a squalid swamp. The grey village loomed before me, and I set off, walking deliberately, space by space. I was a metal game piece, and nothing could perturb me. Past the post office, with its windows hiding watchful eyes. The Rochester house, toward which I avoided looking. Across the highway – lose a turn, as there was traffic. I would not stop at Stella’s after buying our groceries today. I had been far too long already.

Finally, the black rock and the gate. End. The wretched game board would remain unplayed again until Friday’s grocery run.

On Wednesday, after I had checked the fences, and mended a few wires which had rusted or become bent out of shape, I got to thinking about the library. Normally I would not go back until the next Tuesday, but something told me the schoolmistress would be there again. I had to come up with a device which would make her warm to me, stop her from being infected by the townspeople and their hatred.

“What would you suggest, Jonas?” Jonas leapt after a grasshopper, catching it in his mouth, then turned and blinked slowly.

“I suppose a book would do nicely,” I said. “She is a teacher, after all.”

I went back to the house, leaving a wild flower near Uncle Julian’s chair by the window and greeting Constance warmly.

“We are having vegetable soup for lunch today,” Constance said, her face flushed from stirring the pot.

I felt a little badly for Constance, keeping something from her as important as my acquaintance with the schoolteacher. I resolved to help her more in the kitchen. I wondered if Constance would get along with Shelley Banks, or whether she would be too frightened to allow her over for tea, even if she wasn’t from the village. I decided that I wouldn’t ask Constance about it until I was sure my new safeguard would work.

After lunch, I took a little leather-bound notebook out of a drawer in my room. I hadn’t used it in quite some time, but when I had, it was used to mark down the names of the villagers who had treated me the worst. Nearly every villager known to me had long since been added to the list. I carefully tore out the pages in the front where the names were written, and set the book on the windowsill. It would be best if the book could sit in the moonlight for three nights; since it was Wednesday and I was going back to the library on Friday, two nights would have to do. It helped that one of the nights was Thursday. Thursdays were my most powerful day, and therefore my most powerful night.

I took the loose pages outside and buried them. The villagers would surely face consequences sooner this way, anyhow, I thought.

Friday came, and although I was nervous about speaking to Shelley Banks again, my thoughts were filled with magic and shining things. We had not yet finished reading the books I had checked out on Tuesday, and so I brought only the notebook with me. The grey-haired librarian looked at me coldly as I passed her desk without returning any books, but I ignored her, as I always did.

Shelley Banks was standing, still in literature, but this time among the “M’s”. She flipped through a volume of Anne Shirley tales, looking amused. I cleared my throat softly, and she looked up, smiling again. The brightest smile, which made her face round and her cheeks sparkle, and my knees ache.

“Mary!” she exclaimed. I was pleased. She did not appear brimming with questions and suspicions just yet. I approached her, holding out the notebook. “What’s this?” she asked.

“I would like you to have it,” I responded, not sure what the protocol was for giving gifts to near-strangers. “It’s for writing in,” I clarified weakly, my head suddenly spinning.

“Oh, lovely,” said Shelley Banks. “What should I write in it?” she asked, turning it over in her hands. “What would you write, Mary?”

“I would write about my life on the moon, and about riding on my winged horse,” I said, not really thinking. She blinked her deep brown eyes at me, and I continued, “And I would write down all the stories my cat, Jonas, tells me.”

Shelley Banks giggled, and for a moment my stomach dropped and her dress lost a bit of color, but then she took my hand and said, “That is truly wonderful, Mary.” My face grew hot as she said, “I will try to write something half as good as that.”

I left the library feeling lighter than air. I am living on the moon, I thought. I am bouncing along the spaces of this imaginary game board of a town. Nothing can get to me when I am so high up.

Constance was ready with a savory egg tart when I got home, and I ate each bite with a twinge of guilt. I had thought of her so little these past few days, my thoughts wholly consumed by the strange—what was it? friendship?—I had struck up with the schoolmistress. Worse, I didn’t feel I could tell Constance about it, not yet. Anyway, I worried I might frighten her if I brought it up too soon. Now was the time to wait.

Constance had begun to suspect something, I gathered, because that night she asked me, “Merricat, did something happen in the village today?”

I was chilled. “No, dear Constance, why would you think so?” I asked, keeping my voice steady.

“Never mind,” Constance said. “It was only a feeling.”

“Silly Constance,” I said.

“Silly Merricat,” said Constance.

*   *   *

Perhaps it was time to think of another safeguard.

I decided that it would be too strange, and too much of a change if Shelley Banks were to come over for tea. I didn’t think poor Constance would like it, and resolved that it was a reckless idea. I went to the cellar, where many generations of Blackwood women’s china sets were kept. I chose a rather ugly beige cup, one from a low shelf, that I was sure Constance would not miss, and I smashed it on the floor. I picked up the pieces carefully and wrapped them up in my dress. I hurried outside with them, and left them in a long trail along the driveway. Now I would not think again of asking Shelley to tea.

Tuesday came again, and in the morning I asked Constance to make a coffee cake. When we finished our breakfast, I broke off an extra piece and wrapped it in parchment paper. I tucked it in the middle of the three books from the previous week (the “H” book I had grabbed by mistake—The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall —I had devoured on Saturday, finding it strange and amusing) and made off toward town.

I am on my winged horse, I thought, I am collecting cinnamon and honey, and deep, dark, topaz, brown and sparkling, and I am bringing them to Shelley Banks in the library.

The grey-haired librarian did not look at me as I returned my books, and I was grateful. Her stare would not have perturbed me much, I imagined, not today. Shelley Banks was in the “W” section, looking at some book with a dull red cover. My heart raced as I approached her, but when she looked at me, everything stopped.

Her face was different, her smile tinged with pity. Her green dress and brown eyes and red hair began to blend together into a featureless grey.

“Hello, Mary,” she said. “May I ask you something?”

I was aware of the air around me, pressing up on my face and hands, pushing me down against the earth. Shelley Banks continued, “Is your name Mary Katherine Blackwood?”

There was a sudden ringing in my ears. I nodded. Though I wanted to cry and scream and run, I did not. I will not run away, I thought, I cannot run away.

“I only ask because, well—the children, they sing this song…” She looked embarrassed. She stopped. “I’m terribly sorry. Children say such awful things sometimes.”

I clung to the piece of coffee cake wrapped in parchment. I wished that I had put death inside of it.

“Mary, please don’t be cross with me,” said Shelley. “Only I’m just so curious.” Her eyes were dull and colorless and I wondered if she had ever had a soul in them at all. “Did she really do it?”

“You shall never be invited for tea,” I said coldly, and spun around, walking quickly (I must not run away) out the door.

I rushed past the post office and the Rochester house. I wanted to smash the coffee cake on the ground and stomp on it. I wanted to stomp on Shelley Banks’s feet, pull at her hair, watch her cry and scream on the ground. I hoped that when she wrote in the leather notebook her long, thin fingers would shrivel up into knots and her hand would fall off. I smiled, picturing her crying over her stump of an arm, no longer able to write on the chalkboard during lectures.

I did the shopping with a sort of dull roar in my ears. The rotten villagers and their watchful eyes and their little whispers followed me until I reached the black rock and the gate. I set down my shopping bag to undo the lock and dropped the package of coffee cake on the ground. I smashed it with my foot, thinking of Shelley’s long, white fingers beneath my mother’s brown shoe.

“Hello Merricat!” Constance sang. She had been waiting for me at the edge of the garden, and I felt the little knot inside my stomach loosen a bit. Constance, her yellow hair and blue eyes and lovely pink dress, her warm smile and musical voice, was the only color I needed in the world. Jonas ran up to me, rubbing his cheek against my ankle.

“Hello, Constance. The village is dreadful, and I’m so happy to be home.”

“Let’s go inside, Merricat,” Constance said with a little laugh.

I waited until Thursday, then dug up the pages which I had torn from the little leather book. I wiped as much dirt from the last page as I could, then wrote another name at the bottom. I would bury them in a different place, this time. I pictured Shelley Banks and her stump of an arm again, and smiled, scooping dirt over the paper with relish.

I heard Constance calling from the back of the house, and wiped my hands together in a futile attempt to rid myself of dirt. Constance would tell me to wash up before we could eat. I thought of Constance, and of Uncle Julian, and our beautiful, lovely house, and Jonas. I was silly to think of bringing someone else, an interloper, into our world. Now, I thought, I will never think of anyone more than I think of Constance; I shall never love anyone as much. We are so, so happy.

Meghan Elaine Bell is a northern California transplant and avid horror lover living in Portland, Oregon, with her girlfriend, Carly, and her cat, Midnight Monster. Her work can be found in the current issue of RFD Magazine


On Account of the Living

This selection is part of Nonbinary Review Issue #14: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Get NonBinary Review #14 from the Zoetic Press website. 

John Carlyle stood from behind his desk and extended a hand. “Thank you for making time in your schedule to meet with me, Mr. Marinkovic.”

His visitor ignored the handshake offer and sat brusquely. “Save it, please, and let’s cut to the bloody chase. What’s the problem this time?”

Carlyle sat, face sober, and steepled his fingers before him. “It’s not often easy for a parent to hear…”

“Skip the handjob, please.”

“Very well.” He cleared his throat. “Your son does not appear to be cut out for this pre-K school.”

Marinkovic’s expression didn’t change. “Didn’t Ignacio Estrada say something like ‘If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn?’”

Carlyle did not immediately respond, but instead leaned forward for his desktop computer mouse. “Permit me to illustrate the problem?” Without waiting for a reply, he clicked at his computer and a video began playing silently on a television to one side of his desk.

A young boy with mousy brown hair is clearly engrossed in finger painting on beige paper, along with several other children. In walks an older, heavyset woman with her hands cupped together; the children jump up to greet her with excitement and cluster about her. She walks with them to a low table, says something to them, and they respond by moving their things off the table. The woman places what she’s carrying down on the table and removes her hands to reveal a blue jay, its neck clearly broken. The video pauses.

“The bird flew into one of the school windows and died,” Carlyle explained. “Ms. Gordon brought it in to show the children.” He then clicked the mouse.

The video resumes. Children begin to point and speak animatedly…all except for the boy with the mousy brown hair whose lip begins to quiver for some seconds before he begins to cry. The video pauses.

Marinkovic shifted in his seat. “What of it? With no context, Sergei might have…”

Carlyle held up his left hand, palm out, and wordlessly clicked to activate another video.

It is the same room, but the camera shows a different angle. It is darker than in the earlier video because the shades are down. The children lie on mats on the floor in various poses of sleep. The young boy—Sergei—begins to twitch, then grimace. His tiny arms flail, and his feet kick about. He begins to pant, head shaking emphatically back and forth as if forcefully screaming “NO!” The camera zooms to show tears streaking his cheeks, then pans lower to show a wet spot form at the crotch of his blue shorts.

“This? This is what I’m paying for?” Marinkovic stood abruptly.

“He had a nightmare, and wet himself, Mr. Marinkovic.”

“So? Lots of children do when they’re young!”

Carlyle gestured at the screen where the video had paused. “This was the afternoon after seeing the dead bird. Note that the other children are all sleeping soundly.”


“If you’ll calm yourself and be seated, I’ll show you the most significant evidence I have as to why your son doesn’t belong at this special pre-K program.” He studied his computer screen, moved the mouse and double-clicked once more. “Given the above episodes, the following test was absolutely warranted.”

Sergei is alone in a play room, playing with building blocks. The door opens and a young girl with curly blond hair and dark eyes comes in. The boy raises his head and looks to at her, and there is delighted curiosity on his face. He stands up as the girl walks over to the table and says something to her. She glances at the table, then back at Sergei, who smiles and nods. She reaches and takes a block, then adds it to what the boy was building. Soon they are taking turns, and both are laughing.

Suddenly, the girl stops laughing and her eyes go wide. She appears to be choking, struggling for breath. Sergei jumps to his feet, hitting the table, and the blocks fall and scatter everywhere. The girl falls backwards and the boy falls to her knees at her side. The camera zooms in as his lips begin to quiver, and his face screws up and tears begin falling as he starts yelling out loud. The video pauses with him mid-cry.

Marinkovic frowned and glanced at Carlyle with a loathing typically reserved for finding a dead mouse in one’s cupboard. “Just what kind of sick bastard are you?”

“I am the headmaster of the most exclusive pre-Kindergarten school program in the world; I’ll do whatever is necessary to preserve the reputation of this school and its children.” He jutted his chin in the direction of the video screen, his eyes never leaving those of the furious parent before him. “You’re just angry because I’ve forced you to face the fact that your son is simply not suited to this program.”

“His new playmate collapsed in front of him, and….”

Carlyle’s hand slapped the desk with the sound of a gavel banging out a sentence. “Come now, Mr. Marinkovic! You knew the girl was dead the moment she entered the room, even via the film, didn’t you?”

Angry eyes glared back at him, but there was no reply.

“We’ve use her for years to test our students’ aptitudes—she was animated by Ms. Gordon, in fact, in this instance. Do you know what most children do, sir?”
Marinkovic looked away and said nothing.

“Most have the same reaction as when the see the dead animal—the blue jay, in this case. Sometimes it’s a turtle, or a mouse… Regardless, they typically respond with fascination, looking to understand. One in a fifty begins to explore their own abilities at this point; it’s a rarity, but some talent manifests so early and powerfully that they can make ‘Necro Nellie’ twitch, or move her hand.” Carlyle leaned back in his chair and again steepled his fingers. “None who cry, or wet the bed during a nightmare after seeing and touching a dead creature go on to become great necromancers.”

Marinkovic’s face was red when he turned his gaze back to the headmaster, and when he spoke it was through gritted teeth. “I’ll have you know that his grandfather was the scourge of the Ukraine, finally caught and burned to death after the uprising of the cemetery at the St. Peter’s and Paul’s Garrison Church in Lviv! That his father has surpassed even that feat, through the selective animation of historical figures over 500 years old!”

“That may all be true, sir, but…”

“But nothing!” Marinkovic stretched out a hand, fingers rigidly clawed.

“Oh please. I have my own powers, and…erk!” Carlyle’s mouth gaped open and moved silently. He stood abruptly, palms flat on his desk, and struggled for breath. His head snapped up, and his eyes went wide in horror and disbelief. He brought up one hand to his chest, the other curled to gesture, but nothing happened. The headmaster made the gesture again, more frantically, but again nothing happened. He fell back into his chair, back arched, eyes panicked, chest heaving but unable to breathe.

Marinkovic stood slowly, clawed hand turning over, as if he now held something clutched in it. “My son will be a great necromancer, you pissant, self-important little fool,” he snarled as he moved closer. “And do you want to know a secret? Something to which no one else living is privy?”

Carlyle heaved like a fish in air, eyes rolling back in their sockets.

Sergei’s father leaned close and whispered to the dying man. “When I was young, I, too, wet the bed. I grew out of it.” He suddenly squeezed his hand into a fist and the headmaster went absolutely rigid for several seconds before he finally slumped in his chair and did not move again.

“And so will my son.”

* * *

Alina Marinkovic leaned her head back and rested it against her husband’s chest as his arms enfolded her. “Are you certain this is for the best?”

“Of course. Look at how happy he is now.”

She turned within his embrace to gaze up at him. “But what about you? You were so proud to have him in that pre-K.”

Marinkovic smiled at her. “Let’s just say it didn’t quite live up to its reputation. I’m sure he’ll do fine with home-schooling for a while.”

“Well. I will say it’s nice to have him here, and it’s more convenient than having to drive him there and back every day.” She turned once again, and they watched Sergei together wordlessly for a few minutes. “And you’re sure about his tutor?”

“Mr. Carlyle and I spoke at great length, and I’m sure he would rather die than fail our son.”

Alina beamed. “That’s so sweet! What kind of man is he?”

Marinkovic thought for a moment, then kissed his wife on the cheek before replying. “Animated.”

David Hoenig has had stories published in Flame Tree Publishing, Cast of Wonders, Elder Signs Press, Zoetic Press/NonBinary Review, Drunk Monkeys Literary, and Dark Chapter Press. He is working on his first novel.

Oooo la la or, The Empress Liang Chi’s New Clothes

This selection is part of Nonbinary Review Issue #14: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Get NonBinary Review #14 from the Zoetic Press website. 

The plane lands at the Orly Airport and on her way to the fashion runway the New York Photographer thinks she sees The Girl With The Cloak. The dark cloaked shape spins through the river of traffic like a bateau mouche on the Seine.

The Paris fashion hall fills with double-breasted tiers of buyers and photographers positioning, flashing, networking.

A buzz of excitement merges with applause as Ooo la la in a slinky plum sarong takes the mike to introduce her new collection.

“Liang Chi’s Wife was a second century fashion setter,” she announces in flawless FrenChinAnglo. She breathes seductively into the microphone, dancing around the wire in high sling heels. “The Emperor’s wife put the Capital Huan-Ti on the map. She may not have been able to read, like most court concubines, but her compartmentalized make-up box with safflower and cinnabar rouge, rice face powder and blue-black and green for distant mountain eye brows was as dear to her as the scribe’s ink pots.

“‘I am tired of perfectly arched brows,’ she concluded one day. ‘From now on, ladies, we will wear Worried Brows like the peasants. Smiling faces are boring. From now on, as the Emperor’s favorite, I command you to wear Weeping Faces.’”

Ooo la la holds up a little red lacquer box. The New York Photographer flashes a photograph at the moment the box clicks open to display small colorful compartments and mirrors.

Buyers salivate with anticipation, feasting on the cosmetic appetizer. Gold Worried Brow sticks, Silver Weeping Face creams, and opaline Decayed Toothpaste tubes gleam in the spotlight.

Ooo la la adjusts a glittery rose butterfly on her chignon and strikes a pose. Power books click, cell phones ring, flashes burst like fireworks over Versailles.

Ooo la la smiles at the applause and continues with a flutter of lashes.

“Encouraged by the success of her cosmetic creations, Liang Chi turned her considerable talent to hair styling.”

With a dramatic flourish Ooo la la removes the butterfly clip and her waist-long hair falls to one side in lustrous turmoil.

“For centuries men and women had worn the butterfly topknot. The George Lucas of her time, Liang invented a hair style that took the country by storm. Like a floppy-eared Starwars creature, her Horsefall Hairdo fell to one side in lopsided disarray. And when my collection hits New York boutiques. The Horsefall will be as popular in America as the Pony Tail of the 50s!”

“Ooo la! Ooo la ! Ooo la! Ooo la!” they chant from the edges of their red plush seats.

She holds up a tattooed palm and continues.

“Like most women, Liang Chi’s Wife was cradled on the floor. ‘Why must I stand tall and decorous as a bamboo?’ she asked.

“‘See how my old slave bends and creaks. The hump on her back increases her height so that she stands taller than Emperor Liang Chi. I will fashion a hump to rival hers and stoop so low I’ll see the dust she sweeps under the couch!’”

Ooo la la dramatically lowers her voice. “Ladies and Gentlemen of Fashion, this year hems are long in back and short in front.”

Reporters on the fashion beat text, talk, and download with excited frenzy.

“The models you are about to see have been trained by certified dowagers and professional peasants to learn Liang Chi’s Broken Waistwalk. And I’m here to tell you, folks, the Lindy is out and The Broken Waistwalk is in!”

Ooo la la licks her upper lip provocatively with a long tattooed tongue and laughs for the camera. “But I want to assure you my girls have been taking their calcium supplements. The humps in my collection are made of the same dependable dust-mite proof fibers that went into last year’s Glass Ceiling Shoulder Pads patented by Ooo La La Labs.”

A press photographer crouches at her feet. She turns slowly, caressing the mic with rose tattooed lips:

“At the height of Liang Chi’s fashion career, The Instructress of the Women’s Court pronounced a Heavenly Admonition: ‘Your Horsefall Hairdos will tumble down and soldiers will break your backs for good. Women will no longer need to pencil their brows crooked or wear smudges as though they’ve been weeping.’

“‘Nonsense,’ said Liang Chi, ‘my ladies and I shall do as I please.’

“Within a year she and her husband were dead. A few women of her court survived because the soldiers mistook their high padded humps for heads.”

Ooo la la stares wistfully into the hall.

“And so, my friends, Emperors wore new clothes and the Bent Waist Walk was virtually forgotten.”

Not a bulb flashes or beeper beeps. She turns on a high heel, and arches an indicting brow.

“Ooo la. Ooo la. Ooo la!” they chant, with insistent clapping.

The house lights dim. Ooo la la steps into the shadow. “Forgotten, that is, until today.” Her décolleté voice curves through the darkness. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the fashion look of the century—The Liang Chi Collection!”

The New York Photographer points the lens at a model poised for take-off at the end of the foot-lighted runway. Her mouth is down-turned like a sad clown, her eyes blurry as though she has been weeping. She shuffles into the spotlight and leans on a cane; the switch of her hair flowing over a deceptively authentic floating underwired hump. The hunchback shadow on the curtain lurches as she crooks her arm through the sackcloth sleeve of a tugless tunic. “How adorable, yet comfortable and durable. And it comes in three knock-out colors: classic ash, horsetail dung, and blood red.”

Author’s Note: Emperor Liang Chi and his wife’s fashion trends are Ancient Chinese historical record: During the Yuan-chia period (AD 151-153) of Huan-ti, fasionable women in the capital affected the worn postures and appearance of their servants and serfs. The heaveny admonitions of the court Seer predicted that outside armies would breech the capital walls, seize them and truly maim and cripple the women. In the second year of Yen-hsi (AD 158) Liang Chi’s entire clan was executed.

Julia Older is the author of Appalachian Odyssey, and Boris Vian Invents Boris Vian. New essays-stories-poems appear in Uproooted, Poet Showcase, and Zoomorphic.

I Set My Ship to the Brightest Star

This selection is part of Nonbinary Review Issue #14: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Get NonBinary Review #14 from the Zoetic Press website. 

When the Snow Queens took Kai, Grandma warned me not to follow. “Whatever you do, you will lose,” she said to me, just a little girl.

It was too dangerous. Kai had left our home planet of her own accord, with the Snow Queens, those visitors with the icy breath and icicle fingers and cold hearts. Tall and curved and smoke emitting from their mouths when they spoke, they were winter drifting from planet to planet.

Kai was not a prisoner. She went as a friend to the monsters. Or a friend to their sweet serums she shot into her arm.

The Queens pointed to the brightest star when they told Kai where they were from. So I set my ship to the brightest star and I sailed through the dark.

Somewhere along the line in my expedition I lost my way. I found the rebels. I heard their stories about the Snow Queens. All those people they’d carried off with them, so many of them were dead. Or prisoners.

But I know she’s out there. Her name is Kai. She’s alive.

* * *

It’s been forty-five years. I am sixty. I still stand among the stars, only glass and steel between us. There have been other missions. The rebellion against the Queens grew, then rebels got killed, and now we shrink.

But today, a sound arrives. My name through the stars.

I hear her voice over the intercom radio. My name, whispered through the stars. “Gerda,” she says. “Gerda.”

It has been forty-five years since I’ve heard her say my name. It has been forty-five years since I’ve heard her say anything. Now I know for sure: she survived. And it shakes me, because she is worth more than the universe.

Rover watches me closely as I lean over that radio, tracking that voice, that quiet strained voice. And I know Rover can see my usual determination has changed to a quivering fear. She doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know the person on the other end of this blind frequency. After years of telling Kai’s story, no one wanted to hear about Kai anymore. So Rover has never heard the name or the stories.

But Kai isn’t at the brightest star, where the Queens pointed and promised. The frequency puts her somewhere near the star, but in the worst possible place. The Queens’ prison ship, orbiting a cold planet in the oldest district of space.

The prison ship has no windows or day or night. They say the worst things imaginable happen in that place.

I won’t get clearance from the Commander. The rebellion is so small now. In rebel stories, the resistance is a scrappy group that will overcome with some clothespins and rusty ships. All of that is true, except for the overcome part.

“Absolutely not,” the Commander says.

“You don’t get it,” I say. “This is why I found your lot in the first place. I’m willing to risk it.”

“And your crew?” Rover stares at me.

“No,” the Commander says for good measure. And he slams his radio off.

“Who is she?” Rover says. “The voice?”

“Her name’s Kai,” I say. I throw the coordinates plate down. It clatters. “She’s alive,” I say, because I have had dreams about being able to say it, and now that I can, there’s a deep weight off my back. And then there’s an even heavier weight, because now I’m sure she’s out there and I can’t save her.

I can’t save her.

The Commander rejects my proposal. But my crew does not. They’re loyal. They’re young. They’re not making good decisions. Rover looks to me and says, “Like you said, some people are worth more than the universe.”

My crew have all have lost someone. And this one, maybe we can bring them back.

So together, without alerting the Commander, we return to the old solar system. We’re rebels with no silver skin and piercing ice eyes. We still eat chocolate and smuggle music onto their ship. This old solar system is unlike us: sterile, taken care of. We stick out from the moment we arrive. We are probably all going to be killed or worse, and we’re probably never going to escape.

Some people are worth the whole universe.

“If you want to turn back,” I say to them, “you take the ship somewhere safe. I’ll go in alone. You’ve done enough.”

There are six of them. All six say nothing, not even little Rover. I am more frightening than anything orbiting the ice planet. This one-armed grey-haired beast is on their side. And this beast is a damn good Captain who has kept them alive through this war. To leave now would be ungrateful, cowardly.

“No, you don’t understand,” I say. “Where they have her, it’s a death camp. It’s run by the Coat, the worst of all the Queens.”

But the conversation is done. We’re already here. Instead, we quietly watch the red planet grow closer through the windows, a sense of deep mistake settling like thick dust.

She’s in there somewhere, past the Coat, past the nightmare chambers, she’s in the silver ship circling around the ice planet like a loose ribbon on a maypole. And somehow, she got to a radio, and encrypted my name into the stars. If she can find me, I can find her.

So even when those silver ships turn to face us, even when they start shooting and jetting closer through the silence of space, I do not balk.

“They’re going to dock,” I warn my crew. “Don’t fight back. If you fight back, they will shoot you. Raise your arms. Let yourselves be taken.”

They raise their arms as they hear the dock door force itself open. I just raise one arm, the pinned sleeve limp at my side.

The silver soldiers appear. They are younger than I remember soldiers being. They have soft faces and unblemished bodies. So many of them aren’t Snow Queens at all, they’re humans or droids or dothlons or one of a thousand other species that are not who we’re fighting. But they look nothing like the rebels.

Was I that young? “We surrender,” I say.

Then the silver soldiers shoot my crew. Rover screams and runs for it. They grab her and beat her down. They don’t touch me. They know who I am. I am a trophy for their camp. I am the one-armed fury. I deserve more pain than a bullet to the head.

But as they walk Rover and me off the ship, I keep in mind that I would have never shot people with their arms up.

* * *

The death camp is one silver ship the size of seven normal silver ships. But I know I am certainly in the place where Kai is. We are connected now, even if it’s by curving hallways. But if there were no guards or guns or doors, I could take one step and then another and eventually come to Kai’s side. Where I should be. Where she should be.

I know what to expect here. Most rebel Captains don’t know. But when I joined the ranks, one of the first people I admired was an old woman who was the first and only person to escape the death camp. I listened to her stories, just in case I ever needed to become the second person.

“Think,” the old woman told me, “of your worst fears. Think of the worst thing that could happen to you. That is what will happen in that camp. They’ll find a way to break you. Those in charge of that prison are the most ruthless in the whole silver army. The Coat has an active sadistic imagination and not a lot of patience. The prison doesn’t execute you. It doesn’t keep you alive. It rots you.”

I asked her how she escaped.

“I kept one story in my head,” she said. “A story they couldn’t take from me.” She croaked a laugh. “And I made a shiv out of my own teeth, there was that, too.”

I have a story.

They throw Rover and me into a cell, and I’m not surprised when they don’t return for hours. I’m expecting the dinner to be perpetually frozen stuck in a block of ice. Seen but never eaten.

Rover is afraid. All the other prisoners in this ship are afraid. Not me. The silver soldiers shake when they bring the shit food to me. They know me. They know the stories. I’ve fought in the war longer than they’ve been alive. There are books written about me. When I lost my arm, my kill count tripled.

And these guards know what they’ve done. They’ve taken Kai from Gerda. And now Gerda has come. They should be afraid.

“They won’t feed us tonight,” I tell Rover. “They will douse the lights in about an hour. They’ll stay like that all night. You won’t be able to see anything.” I put my back against the wall, getting comfortable and kicking off my boots. “They aren’t here to scare us. They’re here to rot us.”

“What are we going to do, Captain?” Rover asks.

“I’m going to tell you a story.” I hear my voice, and it’s unwavering but it’s old. I wonder if Kai will recognize me. When I lost Kai, I sounded younger than Rover.

The lights power off with a clunk and a guttural thunk as the ship chokes the electricity. The prison cells go blind.

“Stay calm,” I warn. “Keep your mind together. They won’t come on for another two days.”

“You said it would just be overnight!” Rover whispers.

“We’re in space,” I say. “Morning is whenever they decide. Now listen to my story.”

“I don’t want to listen to a story.”

“What else are you gonna do?” I say. “Knit a scarf? Shut up and listen.” I clear my throat.

“We lived on a planet where there was clear blue water and deep green trees on the land. There weren’t big continents like on Earth, only little islands. I lived on an island called Washington. I was an adorable child. You should have seen me, running around causing trouble, always wanting to climb to the top of the island or shake the trees bare or whatever else I could do to make myself laugh. And one day, Kai was there.”

“What’s she like?” Rover says.

“She’s kind,” I say. “She’s funny. I know everyone says that about people, everyone is funny, especially after they die or get lost. She’s so nice and funny. But Kai? She was actually funny. She’d sing songs and throw fruit at people and when anyone started getting too serious, she’d say something so witty and quick, it gave you whiplash.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t tell you, because I’m not as witty and this was half a century ago,” I say. “But let me think of a specific story.” I wander from thought to thought for a moment, trying to find the perfect example. Maybe the elephantianturus? No. The pirate play? No, that wasn’t funny if she wasn’t there. “One time, when the silvers finally made it to our planet, she tricked them into washing their uniforms with some special cleaning elixir so their uniforms turned purple.”

“Ah,” Rover says.

“But it was the way she did it,” I say. “She always made an elaborate stage show out of it. Quite literally. So there I am, walking down the street, and there’s this short man standing on the back of a horsdragoon, this gigantic beard all the way down to his feet, and he’s holding up this potion bottle spitting verses on its great powers. He even made a banner and had one of our friends hold it behind him while singing a theme song. It was Kai, of course, the old man.”

I tell her about the time we faked our deaths so we could see our funerals. I tell her about the submarine we failed to make (it quickly became a fishbowl full of fish and ocean). I tell her about a thousand things we did under a thousand sunrises and sunsets and the space between. And Rover smiles. I can’t see Rover, but she’s laughing and I can always hear when someone’s talking through a smile.

I finally tell her about our garden. Two little girls, sitting in a suspended garden between trees, looking out to the ocean and watching the sun spin around our little planet in the middle of nowhere.

We were going to be a family one day. We were already family.

“What does Kai look like?” she finally asks.

“She’d be taller now,” I say. “Not a shrimp anymore. She’s got big bushy eyebrows. Blue eyes. Black hair. And she’s got a tattoo on her neck. It’s her family’s tattoo. It looks like three sticks bound together.”

Rover says, “You think she has a plan for us? How to get out of here?”

“Sure,” I say. “And if she doesn’t, she’s gotten us this far. We’ll find her.”

Morning still won’t come. I tell her about the time Kai baked a cake but didn’t know she had to add things to chocolate other than cocoa. I tell her about the time Kai wanted to run away, so she tried to ride on the back of a turtleish. It didn’t work.

But my voice becomes hoarse, until Kai can’t light up the room anymore.

Our cell gets too quiet.

Rover starts humming to herself. Then she screams and cries and laughs and sings loud. Then she starts begging people to turn the lights back on.

“Kai sang,” I interrupt her. “Hey, yo, Rover, did you hear me? Kai sang. You want to hear the song?”


“Focus, Rover,” I say. “Kai had a good singing voice. She sang ‘up the back crack of oleander,’ which was the name of the cove near the island but also our nickname of our teacher, because our teacher had a gigantic ass.”

Rover is silent. And then she gives a little laugh. “The teacher never caught on?”

“No,” I say. “Kai was cunning. She never sang in front of Oleander. If she did, she’d just hum it or be like, ‘You’ve never heard that song before, Miss? It’s an old traditional tune!’”

Rover laughs.

“At least they didn’t take away the sound,” I say.

Then, without warning, the lights turn on and Rover screams. I cover my face with my arm. I push off the wall, trying not to shake. Rover vomits.

I estimate the time. I’ve taught myself how to do this. In space, you have to have an internal clock, tally marks no one but you can see.

The night has been three days long.

“Calm down,” I say. “Your eyes will adjust. It’s over.”

“Don’t turn off the lights again,” Rover pleads with the walls, with the ceiling, “Please don’t, please please –”

“Rover.” I bark.

The door opens. “Roll call,” a soldier says from the corridor beyond. I stand with a little difficulty. Rover is hysterical.

I shove her against the wall. “You shut the hell up now.” My eyes lock into Rover’s, like two dogs staring each other down. “Roll call is a firing squad if you show you’ve broken. Their goal is to eventually kill you. They want a reason to do it today. So shape the fuck up.”

Rover takes my hand. We walk out into the hall. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the other prisoners. Some don’t have a Gerda to warn them. They’re screaming and crying and holding their faces and falling to the ground like a mental asylum. They’ll be shot.

“Now listen to me,” I say to Rover. “They will come down the line. If you look sick or crazy, they’re going to shoot you. Get yourself together, and start looking at the faces around us. We don’t see the other prisoners that often, and we need to see if she’s here.”

Rover spasms like she’s just been pulled out of an icy lake, but she nods. “Yes, Captain,” she says. And she looks around to the faces, mumbling to herself. “I … I don’t remember what Kai looks like …”

“Dark hair,” I say, collecting myself. “I told you this. Got that tattoo.”

“What if she’s not here?” Rover says. “This is just one little corridor. It’s a big ship.”

“Well, then we’ll know she’s not in this corridor. Check it off the list,” I say.

The roll call begins with the shouts of soldiers down around the corner. Our piece of the hall falls silent as they listen to boots clacking against the grated floor, gathering closer and closer to their huddle. There will be a calm voice, then a plea, and then a scooting of a chair, and then a gunshot. It’s methodical, like killing is as menial as doing the dishes.

It must be the Coat.

The Coat, the mad Queen who runs this camp, is ruthless. If I heard Kai’s voice seven days ago, she may have already been killed. This could be for nothing.

And if that’s so, woe be to the sad sack who did it.

Just as the shooting is about to round the corner, the roll call is cut short for some reason. Rover breaks to her legs and cries. I shuttle her back into our cell before anyone sees her. Anger rolls through me. I was unable to run away, unable to look around to assess. It will be another spell before I make a move, and Kai could have been in that line ahead of us. Kai could already be dead because I’m not smart enough to figure out how to get to her.

That night, they chain the prisoners into headphones. They take away our sound. It never made sense to me the Coat’s obsession in controlling everything, depriving and giving and depriving again. It seemed the whole of the tyranny I’ve seen in the war rooted from here. Here is where the trunk of evil stood taut, and then the branches all spread from this cell, where there was no sound. No sight. No time.

Time dissipates. All that is left is my heartbeat.

“Most of the prisoners’ time is in the cells,” the old lady had told me. “But once in a while, they’ll move you to an interrogation room or to a lab.”

It’s impossible. But the prison underestimates someone like me. “Rover?” I say.

Rover can’t hear me. I can’t hear me. My voice has been snatched from my ears, and I only feel the rumble inside my skull and throat and chest but nothing more than a rumble. But my lips still move. My story is still out there in the air. So I keep speaking it.

“When the Snow Queens first came,” I say, “they didn’t bother with me. They immediately went to the kids who didn’t have parents. Of course Kai always had my grandma, but she didn’t think so. We loved her. But for some reason … the serum they gave her loved her more, I guess.”

I hit the back of my head against the wall behind me. “It didn’t make sense. She was always there for me. When I was drafted by our island to go hunt the big creatures in the water beyond the reef, she came with me. When I got on my ship to go, she was right there behind me to hold my hand. She wasn’t afraid. She was determined. Her mind was made up. But … once she tried that serum, she was gone. And I didn’t see that determination ever again. It was like watching someone disappear right in front of me. Died while still alive. And when the Snow Queens left …”

The night Kai left, the rain came down like knives. Kai didn’t even look at me when she got on the ships to leave. Grandma said it was her choice. Grandma said I was lucky I wasn’t wrapped up in going myself. Grandma said no matter what I did, I would lose.

“Let me tell you more about when we hunted the big creatures in the water,” I said. “That’s a better memory. Now Kai, she made us smoreys right there on the ship. She said, ‘See? No big difference between land and island. Both have land in them. Both have me in them.’ And we kissed that night. And when it started raining, she grabbed my hand and made me dance. She never stopped moving. I finally fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, Kai was standing on the edge of the ship, looking out to the big rocks of the reef, facing the green sun and she said, ‘Make way! It’s Kai! Gerda and Kai, make way!’”

Once, she followed me into the universe. There’s a debt to be paid.

The only question left is how to pay that debt.

“At the next roll call,” I say. “At the next roll call, we’re going to break out. We’re going to find her.”

I feel those words vibrate in my body. We’re going to find her.

* * *

The soundless night keeps on for another two days. Finally, the headphones are removed. Lights turn on. Rover rocks, staring at the floor. She says nothing. I spasm, my ears hurting and my brain trying to turn on all the way.

Make way. Make way for Gerda and Kai.

It brings me back, enough to keep Rover on her feet as we head out to roll call, and then who knows where.

“So after Kai left,” I say, getting in line in the hallway, “I hocked a ship. I went out into the world. Ran into a meteor stream, an old hermit woman on a moon all by herself, princesses and princes, and each one of them said it wouldn’t end well. Well I’m still here. Because I found you and the rebels. They all kept me alive, for this one moment. You understand that?”

Rover stares at me. But she’s not listening.

The shots fire again around the corner. The boots clunk closer and closer until they turn the corner.

Rover laughs as the Coat comes into view.

The coat hangs off flat shoulders like a curtain. On a smaller Queen, or maybe even a more timid Queen, the coat would swallow her whole. But on this executioner, the coat is like a part of her being. It curls around her neck, it turns at the ankles when they switch direction to look at a new prisoner in the line. It is immaculate. The Coat’s hat settles on gray hair and shields her brow with a black brim. Her big black boots slam into the grated floor. Her thick black gloves are the only hands she’s known. She looks as if she’s were born in that black uniform. It’s as natural as her tattoo of three sticks bound together.

The only thing Kai does not wear is a smile.

Sound leaves me. My eyes blur.

When did she get old?

When did she turn into ice? When did she melt into snow? When did her body stretch and her face become someone else’s. When did she become a Snow Queen?

The Snow Queens, they were all someone else once. And I can see traces on the Coat’s face. Kai’s eyebrows. Kai’s small freckle on her cheek. Kai’s teeth. And Kai’s tattoo.

Was it the serum?

The Queen soldiers around her step out of her coat’s quake. Her empty eyes dart down on each of the prisoners, still holding a girlhood glimmer. That’s what is eerie about the Coat, she still looks to people as if she’s going to help them. There’s an older man down the way from us, and when the Coat sees the man struggling to stand, her eyes get large and glassy. She offers the man a chair.

And then she shoots the man.

She shoots out of pity, like putting a dying dog out of its misery. And she’s so convincing, for a minute, I even believe she’s doing the right thing.

“Here you are.” She hands the gun to one of her soldiers. She doesn’t hold her own weapon. I remember once, she told me when she was rich, she would have someone else decorate her home because it meant stability. I always wondered why those things mattered.

She goes to the next prisoner, then the next, those glassy eyes smiling and those kind lips asking, “How are you this morning?” “How do you do?” “How was your rest?” Sometimes she just goes past, not saying anything, just making sure everyone is standing. But she strides along in a good mood.

Some of the prisoners are fooled. Most of the prisoners are terrified.

My heart pounds as she comes to see me. I feel that wrench twist in my stomach, just like it did back when I was a little girl. I thought little Gerda had died somewhere along the way, on that moon with the old lady or when I found the rebels, or when the arm was taken. But I’m still here, beating against my ribs and clawing her throat and working my way into my old eyes. All I’ve wanted is to look at her again.

And then she looks at me.

For two seconds, there is once again Gerda and Kai. Gerda and Kai and nothing else.

Two seconds fall flat. The Coat moves to Rover.

“How are you today?” she asks Rover. “You look tired. Would you like a seat?”

“That’s her,” Rover says, ignoring the scary Queen in front of her. “That’s Kai, isn’t it? Yes, I’d love a seat.”

“Don’t take a seat,” I say.

“Go on then,” Kai says, “Soldiers? Can we get this poor girl a seat?”

“We’ve come to save you,” Rover says, too chipper. “Gerda, I found her!”

And before I can move, Kai puts a bullet through Rover’s head. The crew is now wholly dead. Rover twitches, but she’ll stop soon.

And in this heaviness, I wonder if I knew all along.

Her big icy eyes look to me. She looks to me the same way she’s looked at every prisoner who has come before me. A stranger. The bridge between us, the garden suspended by two trees, it’s gone. Erased. It’s as if it was never there.

* * *

They leave the lights on. They give me sound. They put Rover’s rotting body in the middle of our cell and lock the door.

I tell her my favorite story.

The garden in the trees, between our two houses. Kai and Gerda’s place. It’s gone now. I never went back to my home world, because it wasn’t home anymore. Everything has disappeared in one way or another. And everyone let it, and no one cared enough to stop it.

But there were once was a suspended garden on that island, and it smelled like grass and moss and chopped wood and lilacs and fruit. During the day, their green leaves caught the sun and cut the air with great pillars of morning light. During the night, the stars danced between their shadows, tangled up in branches.

Kai loved playing pretend in the garden.

One day, we stood between the trees. I took her hand. We listened to the wind rush between our bodies.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for making this place with me.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the creek below, singing old rhymes and splashing water. We spent the evening eating smoreys. We spent the night in the flowerbeds next to the rutabagas, curled together like two little pups. The next morning, we cooked breakfast and readied to return to town.

“I feel guilty,” she said.

“Why?” I said.

“Cause we didn’t get close until my parents died,” she said. “In order to meet you in this world, my other world had to burn down.”

My least favorite story.

* * *

Every morning, we stand for roll call. They’ve strapped Rover’s body to me.

Every morning, Kai asks how we are all doing.

She kills lots of people. She never kills me.

She just asks me how my morning is going. But she never acknowledges. She never says my name. It’s like she doesn’t recognize me.

Rover is getting disgusting. I still tell her stories. I still sing to myself, the shanties Kai knows. The nights are long the days are short and neither really exist.

Sometimes, when I finally fall asleep, they crawl into our prison cells and they put serum in our veins. I know they’re doing it. I’m starting to lose her, even in my own brain. The serum is starting to matter more than Kai.

But there will be a day she says my name again.

She said it once. She brought me here. And I will wait until she breaks. Just a moment of recognition. Just a moment of admittance. Just one little moment.

It was all real. She was real. She really did love me. I know she did.

I will wait.

Every night for the last lifetime of years, when her message never came, I at least knew this: wherever she was, whatever she may be doing, there was some portion of her brain that still remembered me.

That day, however many days ago, or years … had it been years… I should instead say, that time before coming to the prison when I still had a ship and a crew, that time that was marked with the things I have given up for Kai, I heard her say over the intercom radio: “Gerda. Help.”

My name, whispered through the stars.

Some people are worth more than the universe.

J.R. Dawson is an active SFWA member. She has been seen in Escape Pod, Mothership Zeta, Eclectica, and The MFA Years. Dawson has a forthcoming story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.