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Fiction

 

She Who Sees with Closed Eyes and

Hears with Closed Ears

Caeley Pittman

Her name is Blue September. At least in her mind.

 

Alone in her room, she closes her eyes—not to escape, but to open the door to all that her sight overpowers during the day. She sees neon signs in her head—or just neon flashes, perhaps, since they signify nothing. People fool themselves into thinking that when they close their eyes, they see nothing. But look again—really look. There’s movement, shifting shapes, filled with possibility for interpretation like clouds or abstract art.

 

Blue sees tribal dancing, though generalized to a point beyond recognition. She sees someone pulling a stream of babies out of a van like a chain of paper dolls…

 

She stops. Opens her eyes. Squints, just for herself, to acknowledge her own strangeness. My mind has access to over two decades of memories to work with, yet it chooses to create an image of babies streaming out of a van? She cringe-chuckles as she considers the unreasonable, yet persistent, paranoia that someone is hearing her thoughts. The more she tries to return her mind to sensible realms, the farther away it drifts.

 

Distracting herself, Blue peeks through the window-blinds. She sees something breath-taking; or, rather, she creates something breath-taking. No photograph can capture that which she sees with her eyes now closed. What was a sunset becomes a fiery image of the universe. Jet streams that reflected the coral sunlight against the fading blue expanse transform into sideways spiral galaxies in her mind as Hans Zimmer’s “Cornfield Chase” begins to play, music notes swirling through stars.

 

Blue September is in space—in Van Gogh’s space. She spins without dizziness; she smiles, laughs, simply being. In this place, she forgets her flint-steel heart that cannot help but start fires with each beat. In this place, she breathes. She recognizes the irony in her beginning to

breathe only once she is in space, chuckles (without the cringe this time), and opens her eyes again. The sunset before her appears as it was, yet with remnants of her dream in its design.

 

Still alone, still in the quiet, Blue realizes that music continues to flow within her mind. Dynamic harmonies permeate the external silence and narrate her every movement. Blue spins again, with some dizziness this time, and moves to the beat of her thoughts. Her flint-steel heart begins to join the movement, sparking laughter in forgotten places. The dreams, the dancing, the music envelop this heart to protect it against the belligerence that has tried to become its fuel. She breathes again—not in space, but in her room, alone, with closed eyes and disengaged ears. Blue sees, Blue hears, Blue breathes.

 

As she opens her eyes and leaves her room, she smiles, looks up at the night sky, and remembers, her steps expressing a barely perceptible rhythm in tune with the workings of her mind.

The Whale

Kaitlyn O'Neal

   The day she leaves Seattle, the sky can’t even bother to properly rain. Instead, it drizzles like an afterthought, on and off in waves throughout the afternoon but never with much conviction. The damp clings unpleasantly to her clothes, her skin, her duffel bag, but neither she nor any of her fellow passengers can find the inspiration required to jog through the rain. The plane, parked a hazy distance away at the mouth of a runway, appears too small to hold all of them, what with its hunched spine and rain-blurred edges. Not that there are many of them to hold. Only fourteen people in total. She’d counted earlier, while eating a bag of cold, slick French fries at the gate: a few middle-aged couples, two men with hands so identically nervous that they had to be twins, one man with the sort of beard that made passerby believe he probably had a hatchet in his ragged backpack, and two girls wearing parkas identical to the navy blue one she’d received in the mail a week earlier. The girls had sat with their heads hunched over a chunky camera, scrolling through photos and periodically exclaiming about distinctive markings and tracking tags.

        During the eons-long half-hour wait for the boarding call, she had ached to speak with the girls across the gray space of the terminal. She had debated digging out her own parka from the bottom of her stuffed suitcase in hopes of catching their attention, but they seemed so enthralled by their gleeful project that she refrained. The opportunity fled, anyway, when the bearded man had tossed his possibly hatchet-heavy backpack into the seat beside her and started jabbering about how she reminded him of his wife before she’d run off with a bounty hunter. The invitation to board had saved her just as he launched into an uncomfortably hymn-like praise of blonde-haired women.

        Fourteen people slump across the shimmering tarmac into the low-slung belly of the plane, yet they still seem like thirteen too many. They shuffle around each other in the curved steel closeness, careful not to tread on toes. Nobody makes eye contact with her. She slings her luggage into an overhead container and contorts herself to avoid brushing against passing backs. Her seat is in the row of singles, bordered by wall on one side and aisle on the other. In front of her, one of the bird-handed twins hunches under the luggage bin, picking at his cuticles as his brother moves further towards the back. She turns back to her own window. It looks out over the wing.

        On her other side, across an aisle that consumes far more space than allotted to the narrow seats or pinhole windows or stalactitic baggage racks, the two girls from the terminal slide into their seats. The one nearest her consists almost entirely of elbows and eye sockets. The other one’s head seems permanently craned towards her camera screen, her face shielded by short blonde hair. The pair crinkles a little with every breath, their parkas noticeably more plastic in the dim overhead light than in the drizzle. On their right shoulders, the white stripes of the company logo shift like sea birds against a dark background.

        The pilot’s voice crackles overhead. They’re stuck on the tarmac until a few jets take off. The flight attendant stands at the back, swinging the safety demonstration seatbelt around in lazy circles. Everybody is silent with the pressure of physical proximity. Time to talk to the parka girls: just friendly chatter, hopefully, names and smiles to make the looming distance seem a little smaller. She leans towards them.

        “I’m Claire.” She taps the spot on her shoulder where her own logo would be, if she was wearing the parka. “I’m one of the summer interns, too.”

        The closer girl turns to look at her with lazy disinterest. The other scarcely glances up from her camera. “Zoe,” Camera girl says, motioning towards herself. “And Nora. Are you a scientist?” The girl with the elbows — Nora — crosses one leg over the other, letting one booted foot hang out into the aisle. She raises her eyebrows and pinches her lips together to stifle a smirk, her predetermined answer clear: I don’t think so.

        “Yes.” Claire can’t quite meet Nora’s eyes. “I just graduated, so this is my first real job out of school, but —“

        Nora cuts her off. “Where’d you go to school?”

        Claire hesitates, unsure why this matters more than an explanation of her skills. Zoe pulls out her cell phone, snaps a photo out the window, and thumbs through potential filters, already disengaged. “Florida.”

        “Your first job out of school and you picked Alaska?” Nora scoffs, scraping one fingernail down the side of her boot. She rubs the collected rubber between her fingertips for a moment before flicking it to the floor and leaning closer. Her deep eye sockets cast her actual eyes into shadow. Claire has no idea what color they might be. “Are you running from something?”

        Claire’s stomach twists down to her toes. “What would I be running from?”

        Nora smirks with one side of her mouth. “That didn’t answer my question.”

        “No,” Claire says, but she doesn’t know if it’s an answer to Nora’s question or an affirmation of her statement.

        Nora leans back in her seat. She finally looks away to fish earbuds out of her pocket. Claire feels like a butterfly that’s just been unpinned. “This is Alaska we’re headed to,” Nora announces, loud enough for the whole plane to hear. She jams the earbuds into the jack on her cellphone. “If you’re innocent and I’m innocent, then who’s flying the plane?”

        The Fasten Seat Belts sign dings on overhead and the flight attendant starts her safety spiel. When Claire glances at Nora again as they’re coasting down the runway, she is reclined in her seat with her eyes closed, comatose in the music. Zoe, too, seems preoccupied with one of her various devices. Claire turns to face the peeling headrest before her and tries not to become too aware of the breathing all around her.

        *   * *

        It was March when she confessed to her mother. They stood outside under the orange tree, the ground soft and dewy beneath their bare feet. She’d buried her toes in it as she spoke, looking for roots. The ground was stable and the tree was blooming and when she finally said it out loud, her mother did not cry. She did not scream. She did not grind her teeth or swing her fist or stomp back inside. No, she just said Claire’s name once. And nodded.

        And March turned to April, when the postcard from Megan arrived and it was addressed to “the Diaz Family” instead of just Claire, but her mother slid it under Claire’s placemat anyway, where syrup from the morning’s frozen waffles turned one corner to glue.

        Turned to May, when the acceptance letter arrived and Claire told her mother over dinner, but the only response was the omnipresent hum of the TV that played too loudly in the background of all their shared meals.

        Turned to June, when the parka and the pamphlets arrived in the mail and Claire printed the pre-paid plane tickets that same evening, all the while praying for an explosion. She longed for her mother to rename her Sinner and kick her to the streets in disgust. When the room was silent and heavy, she imagined her mother’s voice on the phone with her grandparents, loudly accusing her of treachery while she sat one room over, listening through the wall. While she packed her suitcase hundreds of hours earlier than necessary and her mother lurked in the hallway, pretending not to care, she replayed the confession in April. In each reimagining, Claire blamed and provoked until she finally drew tears.

        A week before she left, she stood outside under the orange tree again and shoved her toes into the rift opening in the dried-out dirt. Since April, the ground had solidified and split and spit out all the life it once had harbored, choking her yard with cracks. She imagined her mother’s palm slicing her lip open. Her own blood watering the earth. God, how she ached for that fight, for that sweet justification of the resentment bubbling under their every interaction. Surely the noise of collision would be easier to handle than this careful avoidance, this subtle un-becoming[1] .  But her mother had never hit her, not even once, so she got on the plane and left.

*     * *

        Nobody tells her about the whale, though they have ample chance. By the time she arrives in that snow-globe town balanced precariously between water and wilderness, the distance from Florida to Seattle to Seward has already blurred into liminality. After the four in-flight hours, there are another three spent in the back of a beat-up SUV driven by a woman who picks them up from the arrivals terminal in exchange for a box of caribou meat promised by their boss. The woman drives too fast and the road swells beneath them. Claire lets the silence in the car dry out her mouth and occupies herself with the hum of the tires against the pavement, a blacktop contrast with the white-topped mountains.

        Once they enter the town, the SUV drops them at the harbor with instructions to wait for Sasha before gunning it back onto the highway. The girls, left standing on the open docks, continue ignoring each other. Nora takes shelter behind a dog-eared field guide she pulls from her bag. Zoe’s camera swallows her face as she aims across the valley at a fog-obscured peak. Claire watches them for a moment before looking down at her sneakers.

        The sea laps and lilts against the wood planks of the docks and Claire follows its song without thinking. Her feet lead her deeper down the jetting arm of the dock, into the oppressive emptiness of so much oceanic space. The water rolls and rolls and rolls and Claire walks like a woman seduced by will-o-the-wisps, mindless and certain and searching. She stops mere inches short of the edge; the mist off the water collects like stair steps just below her feet. As she stares, entranced, the mist swirls back down to the water before spraying up towards her in a sharply exhaled puff. Startled, Claire stumbles a step backwards. Under the dock, the water sloshes and splashes. She steps up to the edge again and peers into the water.

        There, the water is a shade blacker and dense like a shadow, all swirling and viscous. Just beneath the surface, two white wings flicker like ghosts. Then the water spurts again and the shadow sticks its blunt nose out of the water, and Claire understands: a whale. Smaller than anticipated and there-just-there close, but unquestionably a whale, its rounded torso narrowing to an arrow-like tail and its two onyx eyes peering at her curiously from beneath two light oval  patches. For a moment she thinks she’s dreaming, because if she fell forward she could touch this sleek miracle with her own two hands and maybe nature would forgive one more transgression.

        But a hand closes around her right wrist and yanks her backwards, dragging the soles of her shoes against the nails in the dock. “What the hell are you doing?” Nora-or-possibly-Zoe demands, Claire can’t tell which because their voices are still so unfamiliar and either her head or the sky is spinning and a whale, a whale, a whale. “Didn’t you hear him yelling at you?” The girl who pulled her back — short strands of blonde[3]  hair streak across a wide-eyed frown, so it must be Zoe — has both hands on her shoulders and gives her a single shake. “You’re not supposed to be down here. Didn’t you know? He said you’re not supposed to interact with it.”

        Claire blinks and struggles wordlessly, her lips moving like a fish, before she manages, “Who said?”

        “Get away from the whale! Christ!” A Russian accent bellows from the start of the dock. Zoe glances at her in answer to her question: he said. Considering shame and frozen in fear, Claire watches as Nora storms up the dock towards them, smiling like she’s found solid gold. The Russian man accompanies her, now spewing expletives like he’s sprung a leak. As they approach, his features move into focus: hairline peaking above his temples, broad shoulders about to burst from his blue parka, feet apparently too heavy to manage any gait other than a stomp. He keeps up the yelling all the way down the dock.“Why did you wander off? Fuck! Did the driver not tell you to wait? You could’ve ruined the whole — Hell! — the whole project!”

        By the time he finally draws within normal speaking distance, with Nora flanking him, Claire has successfully suppressed the urge to recoil and stands before him with gritted teeth. His eyes snap up and down her frame once before meeting her gaze directly. They stare each other down. Somewhere beneath their feet, the whale blows slow bubbles that burst on the surface. Claire lifts her chin higher; she’s done nothing wrong. At least, not knowingly.

        Finally, the man breaks the silence with a deep inhale, drawing himself up straighter and clenching his hands behind his back. “Apologies,” he says. “You did not know. But now you do, and that whale is very important to us, so you are to pretend it does not exist. Let us leave now, before it gets too terribly thrilled about our presence.” He scowls down at the water before looking back at her. “My name is Sasha Petrov. I was stationed in Seward by NOAA to study the sea life and to keep the interns from accidentally killing themselves. You would know all this if you had stayed where you were told.” Claire opens her mouth to protest, but he doesn’t stop speaking. “I am your boss now. Do what I say.” Turning on one heel, he marches back up the dock.

        Next to her, Zoe tries to conceal her laughter. Nora, however, makes absolutely no effort to hide her glee at Claire’s humiliation. In a last effort to regain some dignity, she shouts, “I’m Claire!” after his receding back.

        “I know this.” Sasha doesn’t pause to look back, just hollers over his shoulder. “You are too tan to be one of the ones from Washington.”

        Zoe and Nora obediently follow him with long-legged strides. Claire attempts to join them, but they close ranks, brushing shoulder-to-shoulder and forcing Claire to fall behind them. Nora leans conspiratorially closer to Zoe, but her failed whisper still reaches back to Claire. “I bet he’s killed somebody before. He walks like a wanted criminal.”

        Zoe shoves her with her shoulder. “He can’t possibly be a wanted criminal, stupid. He works for the U.S. government.”

        From a few paces behind them, Claire tosses out, “So he’s probably wanted in Russia.” Zoe and Nora both turn back just enough to look at her sideways. Neither one smiles. Claire bites her tongue and turns her face back towards the water. She imagines the whale following in her wake.

*     * *    

        Before the whale, before the plane on a rainy tarmac, before the orange tree confession, there was Megan. Megan played flute on scholarship. Whenever she ate M&Ms, she dumped them into her palm and tossed them back like pills. Her favorite sweatshirt had holes in the sleeves where her thumbs poked through. Megan and Claire had been randomly assigned as lab partners in Intro Biology freshman year. They didn’t talk much those first few weeks, just what was necessary to get through the pig dissection. After the first test of the semester, though, when they were the only two in a class of sixty to score higher than a C, they quickly became allies. Then, after Claire’s assigned roommate came back at two AM every day for a week, they became roommates. Then, after shared lunches and easy late-night whispers, they became friends.

        Sometime after Megan but before the miserable ache that was graduation, there was Lucy. Lucy designed the costumes for the school theater productions and sang in the performance choir. Claire couldn’t remember what Lucy’s major was — something to do with art and communication and possibly museum management — but she did remember that the first time she saw Lucy walking across campus, her eyes followed Lucy so completely that she fell down a flight of stairs. After that, she remembers Lucy not as specific moments, but as an undefinable atmosphere, gentle and sprawling like the glorious warm wind that carries the summer. Throughout the blurred months when their lives intertwined, Lucy’s laughter fizzed like popping candy, like the mist at the bottom of a waterfall, and Claire was sure her sweet soprano could clear the smog from every city in the state, if not the nation, if not the world.

*     * *

        The whale, Sasha explains over the course of the first week, is a year-old female calf. She belongs to a pod that roams the coast between the mouths of two local bays. Sasha shows them how to issue fishing licenses to tourists and he says the pod swam all the way up to the harbor one week back in April. Nora catalogues the bird species in the area and Zoe photographs locals when they’re not looking and Sasha explains that the pod swam back out to sea but the calf got left behind. Sasha teaches Claire to drive the flat-bottomed patrol boat they use to chase away eager people who get too close to wildlife and Nora discovers that the on-ship megaphone has a siren function and Zoe reads a book on underwater photography. The whale has a name, Sasha says, but he does not tell them. She has a string of numbers, too, which are recorded in some files in an office somewhere, but he will not share those, either. As if not knowing her name will somehow decrease the significance of her presence. As if simply saying “the whale” doesn’t send chills down Claire’s spine.

        Their third day in Seward, they chase away their first intruder: a whale-watching boat full of tourists leaning over the railings to snap amateur pictures. Sasha and the interns hover a distance away, pretending to check a buoy, waiting for the boat to get too close. When the whale swims up to the tourists and rolls onto her back, exposing her belly in playful surrender, Sasha orders Nora to get out the megaphone and picks up speed so quickly that Claire is tossed into Zoe’s lap.

        “Get away from the whale!” Nora gleefully shouts through the megaphone, sirens wailing as Sasha skids to the starboard side. The tourists flinch and try to look innocent. “You must stay at least one hundred yards away. Disturbing whales is punishable by law.” Sasha spots the captain out on deck and yanks the megaphone from Nora.

        “Stay where you are. We will guide the whale away and then you must slowly leave. Do not approach again.” Thunking the megaphone back into Nora’s hands, he turns to Zoe. “Take a picture of their boat.” Zoe complies, then turns her lens towards the whale, who chases the boat’s wake as they speed out to sea. When they finally slow to a stop, the whale loops in circles around them, periodically poking her head above water to make sure they’re still watching.

        “Do not look at her. It is too encouraging.” Sasha orders, staring directly at the whale as she blows a spout of steam. “People must not go near her. If she learns that people are her friends, she will not leave.” He talks in a monotone, slowly steering the boat back towards the bay. Claire and Nora and, for once, even Zoe all listen, carefully directing their eyes towards the distant horizon. “The boats here, they could hurt her. Their propellers are sharp and she is too playful. Whales are social animals. We must isolate her. We must make her so lonely that she returns to her own kind.”

        Claire swallows around the tightness in her throat. “That sounds,” she can’t think of a word, hopes the others believe it’s the coarse sea air constricting her throat. “Cruel.”

        Sasha meets her gaze for a moment, ignoring Nora’s shaking head. “Perhaps. But otherwise she will not survive.”

        After another week of chasing away curious onlookers, both locals and tourists, Sasha decides the whale is too much of a temptation. “We have other tasks,” he sounds agitated and desperate one night as he aggressively fillets fresh-caught fish for their dinner. “We cannot be watching that damn orphan at all hours.” So he assigns each of the interns a six-hour watch during the day and takes the midnight to six watch for himself. Claire can’t quite bring herself to be sad that their little group will be permanently separated. “Stay detached.” He orders, serving them each their meal. “Keep people away. Do not interact with the whale. I know it will be hard because everyone wants that magical moment of connection,” his face turns sour at the cliche. “But remember that your friendship could kill her more than your neglect.” The fish turns to tasteless mush in Claire’s mouth.

*     * *

        Lucy was better. Better than Megan’s sleazy boyfriend who talked about her ass whenever Megan left the room. Better than the cool homemade potato salad Claire’s mom sent in a refrigerated package one day in mid-September, which Claire ate with a plastic fork on the floor of her room. Better than the molecules they studied under microscopes. Better than the knowledge that so much life could fit in such small a space.  Better than the pictures of angels in the Sistine Chapel in Lucy’s textbook that she so loved to show Claire. Better than any other secret Claire had ever kept. Better than church-camp quiet, than the posters of Scully from the X-Files that hung in her childhood room, than the sense of accomplishment whenever she diverted her mother’s questions. Better than any other disagreement that had ever come between Megan and Claire. Lucy was better than all of it.

*     * *

        Claire takes the six to noon shift, and every day it absolutely breaks her heart. The sun hardly sets on Seward summers. Instead, it dims to a glimmering pink just above the ocean, sending diamonds of color dancing across the surface of the water. In that nature-hushed quiet, she steers the boat along the docks, half-heartedly scolding the elderly fisherman and the exhausted seasonal tour guide and the grandmother with her grandchildren who all come down to the water in hopes of seeing the whale. Of course, they are never disappointed; the creature can sense human presence and always appears at their feet with a flourish. Every smile the whale draws from their faces inadvertently encourages these people to participate in her own undoing. Even when she trustingly bares her belly beside a boat full of middle schoolers, begging for a scratch from their uncertain hands, all Claire can see is a jagged mouth-like wound in her stomach spilling out secret intestines, dark water staining the white of her pearlescent skin. Claire chases the people off as best she can. She pretends not to notice the way they refuse to look at her when she passes them on the streets.

        The mid-day confrontations with the massive boatloads of cruise-goers and out-of-town gawkers hardly bother her as much; in these cases, Sasha is right. They do not care as much about the whale as the whale cares about them, and her sweet innocence does not understand that these people could literally gut her and leave her for dead. So Claire screams at them without hesitation, sometimes even with a spark of enjoyment at the forced shock on their faces when she tells them they are doing something wrong. But in the mornings, when she must enforce that gentle boundary between man and beast, she is never so certain of her own righteousness. “We just wanted to say hello,” the grandmother pleads, drawing her children back from the sparkling edge. “They only come here once a year.” The whale bumps against the dock and deposits a soda can within arm’s reach. The children squeal with joy at the trinket, trash made to treasure by a new friend’s intelligent eyes. “Seward is so small, you know. This whale has probably seen more of the world than I have.” The whale sprays the children, who shriek and rub their eyes. “Why won’t she go home?” Claire doesn’t know, and when they leave, the whale rocks in the water and cries, her pitch so high Claire can barely hear it.

        At the end of her shift, Claire idles the boat against the dock and waits for Nora to come take over. The whale cautiously approaches on one side and Claire pointedly moves to the other. Five minutes later, the whale bursts from the water on the other side, flicking her tail, but Claire just turns her back. The boat steadily rocks as the whale bumps her nose against the side, clicking with glee at Claire’s faked indifference. As she sits in the shifting boat, back to the water and eyes to the sky, Claire hopes the whale will tip her over, putting an end to this agonizing neutrality. She imagines opening her eyes underwater to find nothing between them except open ocean.

*     * *    

        On that particular day — one of the few with Lucy that Claire remembers as more than a dream — the textbook was open, the angels face-up on the dorm room floor. Lucy was there, her hair soft as dandelions against Claire’s cheek, the tendons in her neck drawn taught like harp strings, like Claire could pluck Lucy’s tender music right from the source. Lucy laughed when she said she hadn’t shaved her legs in a week because it was October and she was lazy, but Claire didn’t mind, of course she didn’t mind that gentle texture kissing her palms. Lucy was sweet and soft and her toes curled a little, slipping on Claire’s sheets.

        And then the door opened.

        And then Megan knew.

*     * *

        Halfway through July, Nora starts turning up late to her shifts. Claire knows why without having to ask, and she wants to strangle somebody for it. Every second she spends on that wretched boat, ignoring the whale’s joyous chatter, Claire comes a heartbeat closer to plunging right into the water and swimming out to sea herself. Two weeks into her tardy streak, Nora finally boards the boat half an hour later than agreed. Claire doesn’t look up when she says, “You’re late.”

        “I know,” Nora pulls her parka on over her head and settles in the driver’s seat. She holds her hand out towards Claire, who grudgingly fishes the key out of her pocket and dangles it in the air. Nora grabs it and holds on for a moment, making Claire glance up in irritation. When their eyes meet, Nora says, “Surprisingly, he wasn’t rushin’.”

        The pun sends bile spiking into Claire’s throat so forcefully it muffles Nora’s laughter. She yanks her hand away, leaving the key, and gets up to leave. Just as she swings her left foot onto the dock, Nora’s phone rings. Claire can tell from Nora’s flirtatious sigh of a greeting that it’s Sasha. Down in the water beneath her, the whale nudges her fin against a pillar. Again, again, again, the fin brushes the wood and Claire stands enraptured, still only half on land. When the whale catches Claire watching, she sticks out her tongue. Claire wants to laugh, but as she looks down at the thousand-pound infant, her stomach sinks. Her spine tingles as if something else lurks beneath them, belly towards the sea floor, waiting to violently capsize them and send them paddling for shore. The whale slowly sinks down into the water and disappears.

        Nora’s phone clatters onto the floor and slides towards Claire’s foot. “Get back in and help me anchor this thing.” Nora jams the key into the ignition and shifts into reverse, forcing Claire to leap back into the boat. “We’re leaving.” As Nora backs around the corner, one side of the boat screeches against the dock.

        “Watch it!” The corner of the dock nearly takes out Claire’s knees. She reaches down and shoves off, wincing as her palms scrape on the wood. Nora tosses the anchor into the water, backsplash drenching the front of her jeans.

        “We’re leaving Seward.” Nora says, picking up her phone and cramming it into her pocket. “There’s been an oil spill on the other side of the peninsula. They need our help cleaning up.”

        Claire stares at her for a moment, trying to swallow around her suddenly swollen tongue. “You’re serious?” Nora pinches her lips together and nods solemnly before abruptly turning and leaping onto the dock. Claire glances down into the water one last time before following Nora. She does not see the whale.

*     * *

        The twenty third day of winter break was the last time she spoke to Megan, who had moved down the hall two days after opening the door to find angels on the floor. The fifth day of spring was the last day she said hello to Lucy, who French-braided her hair after returning from choir practice. Their conversation turned to things Claire’s mother didn’t know, things Megan had suspected, things that burned bitter on Claire’s tongue. The braid pulled tighter, tighter, tauter, and then Lucy was leaving, left, had gone.

        *     * *

        Four of them leave Seward, but five days later, only three return. Zoe stays behind with a National Geographic reporter she met while scrubbing a baby seal. She promises that she’ll send them a free — and autographed! — copy of her cover-story issue. Claire watches her recede in their rear-view mirror, the sun glinting off her camera lens, and thinks how relieving it would have felt to force an aching fist into her jaw. Before she can figure out exactly how to feel about somebody who uses tragedy for self-advancement, though, she falls asleep in the back of the car.

        They get back to Seward in the early morning hours, before the birds but after the sun. To escape the through-the-wall sounds of Sasha and Nora warming each other up after days spent knee-deep in frigid waters, Claire goes for a walk down to the docks. The faint sunlight makes everything hazy and her feet fall too quietly against the wooden planks. When she reaches their little boat, still haphazardly anchored where Nora left it, she reaches in her pocket but finds only lint. Rolling the fuzz between her fingers, she boards the boat anyway. The water does not move, doesn’t even ripple as she walks across the deck. Across the bay, an industrial fishing boat struggles out to sea.

        A lime green square stuck to the steering wheel catches Claire’s attention. She watches it for a moment, holding out hope for movement. Maybe it will flutter away in the wind. The sun inches a bit higher in the sky; the shadows creep steadily forward. The paper does not flicker. Claire reaches for it.

        Scrawled in water-splotched ink, the note merely says Sasha — Call me. The phone number has already smeared down the page in a blue-black dew droplet, rendering me unreachable. But the water is still, and Claire thinks, oh, God, and she runs the two miles back to the station.

        When she shows the note to half-clothed Sasha, he doesn’t say a word. Instead, he just holds that slip of green paper pinched between his thumbs and stares. Nora rests a hand on his back and guides him to the car. The entirety of the brief ride to the docks, he crumples and re-crumples the paper until it’s softer than skin. Nora plucks it from his hands as they get out of the car, but he keeps rubbing his fingertips together.

        They form a small procession down to the boat, and Nora offers to drive. Claire passes her the keys, but once they pull up the anchor, Nora just sits there with her hands on the wheel. Sasha gazes into the water, then into the rising sun, and Claire places her hand on Nora’s shoulder. With a shudder, they pull out into the bay.

        It does not take them long to find her. The sun stretches in a halo around her silhouette, darkening her surface-bound shape into shadows. As they approach, the sea pulls itself backwards like a blanket, spilling her naked form into the newborn light. Nora kills the engine 100 yards out. They drift closer in dreadful silence. The water moves only to slowly push them nearer. Claire stuffs her hands under her thighs to quell a nonexistent shake.

        When they drift up beside her, she is not gruesome or gory, but she is still far from glorious. A single clean line splits her skin just in front of her blowhole: no blood, no bone, just clean tissue slowly waving in the water. “Propeller,” Sasha finally speaks, but so softly that he might not have. “A big one. Looks like it severed an artery. Death would have been…instant.” Nobody speaks as the waves push her and pull her. Her tail sways in the current. “She’ll sink in a few days, once all the gases clear.” Claire holds her breath and watches the sea birds circling overhead.

        “What do we do?” Nora’s voice wavers. Sasha doesn’t respond. Claire leans her head against the side of the boat, carefully angling her face so she can see only the limp bobbing of the once rigid tail. What do we do, what did we do, what have we done? They all sit for hours, adrift in that great rolling echo, the sea slowly pulling the whale further out of reach.

*     * *    

        On the twenty third day of winter break, Megan asked if Claire understood what she’d done. They sat in a coffee shop sprinkled with impersonal holiday decor, identical tinsel taunting customers in thousands of locations across the globe. “I still care about you, I want you to know that.” Megan dragged her cup in a slow spiral as she spoke. “But after all that, I just…don’t feel safe in that intimate a space with you. Do you understand?” That this was all Claire’s fault? Yes, she understood.

        On the last day she said hello to Lucy, Megan found her in the bathroom, rinsing the tears from her eyes. She stood just behind Claire and a little to the side, watching her own reflection. “Did you ever feel…that way? About me?” Claire detected offense in every direction. Not quite hateful enough to answer, she shoved her whole head under the running water. Megan grabbed her by the collar and pulled her, sputtering, backwards. Their eyes met in the mirror. “You do understand, though, don’t you? Why we can’t, you know…anymore?”  Claire bit her tongue until the words came clean:

        “I understand.”

*     * *

        The boat jerks and Claire’s cheeks burn. Sasha’s hair resembles seaweed against the pale powder of the sky. The anchor splashes down and Nora kneels in front of Sasha, cupping his jaw with her hand. “You were just doing your job, just your job.” She chants it three times, but nothing comes back to life.

        “She was supposed to go home.” Sasha mumbles through chapped lips. “We were never meant to kill her.” Nora hauls him to his feet and wraps his arms around her waist. They limp down the dock to the car, Sasha’s footsteps heavily mocking Nora’s calm tread. Claire turns her face to the sky and closes her eyes. Against her eyelids, all she can see is the horizon, the hard light, and the whale —that great bloated behemoth— blocking out the sun.

        When she opens her eyes again, Nora stands above her, one hand stretched down towards her. Somewhere behind her, Sasha shouts in Russian.

        “What’s he saying?”

        Nora unfurls her fingers, revealing the delicate silk of that horrid green note curled in her palm. Tenderly, Claire takes it and smooths it along her fingertips. Along the back, unnoticed in before’s beating panic, it says, the loneliness got to her. I’m sorry. We found her yesterday morning. “Claire,” Nora says. Claire folds the note and puts it back in her pocket; the lint is gone. Nora’s palm looks warm and dry. Claire gently places her hand into Nora’s and lets herself be helped to her feet. They turn towards the car. Somewhere behind them, the sea starts to softly rock again, sliding against the side of the shore.

 

Just Look Again

Brielle Buntin

   She stowed the body in her roommate’s brand new mini fridge.

   Three hours had slipped by since then, and she had not touched the Frigidaire in that time. Instead, she sat on her deflated beanbag, staring at the gleaming facade of the refrigerator, picturing the lifeless body wrapped in a plastic Walmart bag that she had tucked into the freezer compartment with light, careful fingers.

   As night crept in, she remained motionless, watching the shadow of the fridge grow and then fade into darkness until she could only see the silver glow of moonlight on the hinges. The darkness was worse, because even though she couldn’t see the fridge, she could always hear it. Once, it had been a comforting sound, a soft hum that lulled her to sleep on many a night as she waited for her roommate to get back. Sometimes, when her boyfriend stayed over, the fridge formed the backdrop to their romance. But now the fridge’s growl made her teeth ache, like fingers grinding across a chalkboard, a constant reminder of her mistake. The sound kept her transfixed, unable to get up even to close the window as a chill settled over the room.

   She wondered if Anita would call the cops. How long would it take her to notice that Benny was missing? Would she assume the animal had somehow gotten out of his cage and wandered off? Or would she guess that Benny had been stolen? Would the cops even care about a case like this? Lily didn’t know, so she waited in silence as the time went by, waiting to hear an authoritative knock on the door, a demand to come in and search the room. Or worse, that Anita herself might show up. Anita would know.

   She needed to get rid of the body. She had to get rid of it, before the cops came looking for her or her boyfriend showed up or her roommate got back from her national volleyball tournament and went rummaging through the fridge for a snack. That gave her a couple hours, at most.

Yet every time she mustered the strength to get up, to face the fridge and take care of the corpse, she found herself shrinking away. She could not bring herself to open the fridge, to see the wad of plastic bag wrapped around the body of the beloved pet rat.

   It wasn’t her fault this had happened. If the university would grant her permission to keep an animal, she wouldn’t have to seek out other people’s animals for comfort. The university didn’t understand that she needed an animal. When she went to the administrative office seeking permission, they told her she needed to provide documentation from a professional before they would even grant her an appointment to discuss her request. Lily knew she would never go to a “professional.” Those so-called professionals couldn’t be trusted, and there were some things you could never say to them, some truths that couldn’t be spilled so liberally. It was exactly these sorts of truths that you could say to animals, who would keep your secrets safe.

   She had a friend down the hall named Jasmine, and Jasmine’s roommate Anita had two pet rats. It was easy enough to befriend Anita—Lily would hover around her room under the pretense of visiting Jasmine, and Anita, like any decent human being, would make casual conversation and invite her inside. It didn’t take long for Anita to happily show Lily her two rats. Apparently they were supposed to alleviate Anita’s anxiety—they weren’t actually pets, Anita explained, they were “emotional support animals”—but Lily didn’t see any evidence of anxiety in Anita. Anita made top grades, participated in two extracurricular clubs, and always seemed perfectly happy and unworried. That was another problem with these “professionals”—they gave allowances to the people who didn’t need them, while leaving the people who did to suffer in silence.

   Still, Lily knew Anita would be upset. Anyone whose pet went missing without a trace would. But, Lily reasoned, Anita would get over it. Hadn't she said it herself?

   “Why rats?” Lily had asked one day, watching the animals nap in their cage.

   “Well, contrary to popular belief, they're very affectionate, and very clean. They're on par with dogs and cats in intelligence and companionship.”

   “No, I mean . . . Don't they die easily?”

   “Well, yes,” Anita admitted. “They only live about three years. But I guess I’ve lived around animals so much that death is a part of life. So, yeah, it will be sad, but I see it as an opportunity. Most people only get to own a few cats and dogs, but I’ll get to own a hundred rats in my lifetime.”

   A hundred companions. Lily tried to imagine what it would be like to have that many friends. Friends who would be happy to see you, whose entire lives revolved around you. Her own friend group was growing thin. She hardly saw her roommate between her roommate’s classes and volleyball practice, and her boyfriend spent most of his free time working. They couldn’t be counted on to be there when she needed them. People were fickle, flaky. Animals stuck with you.

   Once, Lily had tried owning a fish after learning the university did allow students to keep fish. Lily’s ex-boyfriend bought her a betta fish, a flashy red creature with a sweeping orange tail. She’d named the fish Ignis—Iggy for short—after the Latin word for fire. Iggy lived for two weeks and then died of a sudden and unknown cause, his red fading to a disgusting brown and his magnificent tail shrivelling into a withered petal. She made her ex dispose of it and return the fishbowl. No less than a week later, her ex broke up with her, accusing her of being selfish, of all things. The fish’s death had clearly been a sign, and Lily hadn’t heeded the warning. She resolved to be more vigilant, to head off more crises before they happened.

   Thus, when her thoughts were not on the cops that might come crashing through her door at any moment, Lily wondered what the dead rat meant. She wracked her mind for meaning. Did this dead animal forewarn that her current boyfriend was going to break up with her, too? The thought came to her just as she reached for her phone after seeing her boyfriend’s name appear above a new text message. Her fingers hovered over the device, her mind barrelling down a runaway train of thought. She had barely seen him over the past week. When she did see him, he spent most of his time talking about his plans for the future. Plans to go to grad school, to build his career, to travel. He never asked her where she saw herself fitting into this future. What if the text message was her boyfriend breaking up with her, or else preparing to break the news? She couldn’t bear the thought of seeing the classic “we need to talk” text that could only mean he was planning to leave.

   She didn’t answer the phone, and, mercifully, her phone died after the first hour of her wait. Several times she eyed the electrical socket on her wall, but every time she thought about plugging in her charger, her hands began to shake. It would only take one quick movement to plug in her charger above the cord of her lamp, but the thought was unbearable. She couldn’t stand the way the electrical socket, with its three slits that looked like a wailing face, stared back at her as though it knew. It was the rat’s fault that she couldn’t even find the courage to recharge her phone. The rat had cut her off from the world, but perhaps it was for the best. The rat had sacrificed itself to warn her.

 

* * *

 

   The first time Anita let Lily hold the rats, she knew these rats were her spiritual soulmates. There was one named Charlie, who was pure white with eyes like rubies. He was energetic, always in motion, clambering up her shoulder and sliding down her back as he looked for treats.

She knew she shouldn't play favorites, but she always looked forward to seeing the other rat. His name was Benny. His back was brown, his belly white, a pattern called “hooded,” as Anita informed her. His eyes were little chips of obsidian, and when he looked at her straight on, he always looked so solemn, as though contemplating a deep philosophical truth. He would lick Lily’s fingers, place his own tiny paws in her palm. While Charlie tumbled around and ran off to explore, Benny would sit quietly in Lily’s lap. She would stroke his soft back, rub his velvety, vein-laced ears. He emanated pensive energy, and with each stroke Lily felt that energy settling into her own limbs. Benny leached away her worry, eased the burden of the world off her shoulders. He drowned out the stress of society, the constant pressure of the university to parrot unoriginal ideas, the whispers of other students that Lily knew were about her. Benny was always there for her on the mornings that she couldn’t make it to classes. Benny helped her bear the curse of living.

   She knew there was a strong connection. It was something deeper than simply having a pet, or Anita’s “emotional support” companionship. The rats knew what she needed, and their very presence soothed her. Their soft fur seemed to crackle with universal energy, and every twitch of their whiskers scattered invisible stardust. They radiated innocence and life, mystery and revelation.

Always, Anita would be the one to break this connection, saying she had to go to class, or that the rats were tired and needed to go back into their cage.

   “I can watch them,” Lily would say, placing a protective hand on Benny’s back.

   But Anita would always shake her head. “They’re tired. Besides, I’m the owner, and I’m pretty sure it’s against the university's policy to leave an animal without me being present.”

   Screw policy, Lily would always think as she handed Benny back to Anita. Did Anita really think Lily would be the one to snitch on her for leaving her rats with someone else? And anyway, what claim did Anita have to these animals? Anita had only chuckled when Lily proposed the rats held the secret to the universe. It was Lily who really understood them, Lily who sat petting them for hours at a time while Anita kept her nose in a book, earning grades by saying what her professors told her to say. If anything, the rats didn’t even belong to Lily; they belonged to the universe, and Anita had no right to say they were tired and wanted to nap.

   She would visit the rats nearly every day, but it was never enough. Even when she had left the rats for only a few minutes, the craving was strong as ever. She would sit in her room and try to focus on homework, but would always find her thoughts wandering to the rats. Once, when she couldn’t stand sitting alone in her room any longer, she crept down the hall to Anita’s room. She knocked, waited. No answer.

   Lily realized she was shaking now. She needed to see the animals, needed to see Benny’s excited little face.

   She knocked again. Perhaps Anita was just sleeping, and needed more encouragement to get up. She waited to hear the conventional, “Who is it?” echo from inside the room.

   Nothing.

   She placed a hand on the doorknob, her palms sweaty as she sent a prayer to any spiritual forces who might be listening. She turned the doorknob, and the door, miraculously, opened.

The blinds were drawn, casting the room into deep shadow. Standing exposed in the doorway, she forced herself to wait several seconds, searching for signs of a sleeping form hunched in either of the bunks. No, the room was empty, and Jasmine and Anita were out for class.

The door screeched loudly as she closed it, making her jump. She heard the rats shift curiously at the sound of a newcomer.

   She shouldn’t be here. She should leave, before Anita or Jasmine returned and found her here.

But she would only be here for a few minutes.

   “Hello, friends,” Lily said. She knelt down. The white rat, Charlie, stood on his hind paws. Lily pressed a finger to the cage. Charlie sniffed her, whiskers twitching. Lily craned her neck to find Benny in the shadowy corner of the cage. Benny had been napping, curled up in a corner of the cage, but when Lily called his name he blinked blearily and waddled over to join his brother.

   Both rats now pressed their faces to the cage, sniffing intently and pacing back and forth. It was cruel to keep them confined like this, Lily thought. They deserved to explore the world.

She opened the cage door. The metal latch clanged loudly, and Lily started, looking back towards the door, waiting for someone to rush in and see her crouched before the cage like a criminal.

No one burst in. As she turned back, the rats poked their heads out of the cage. Lily put her hand out, and Benny placed his paws on her palm, tiny clawed toes gripping her fingertips.

   “Do you want to come out?” she asked. She lifted Benny up, holding the animal in one hand and closing the cage door with the other. The abandoned Charlie looked disappointed as Lily sat down in Anita’s chair, cradling Benny in her lap.

   “Hello sweet thing,” she said. “I bet Anita doesn’t play with you as much as me. Are you lonely?”

The rat perched on the end of her knees, raising up onto his hind paws to sniff the air.

She stroked the rat. Relief flooded her limbs, and her pounding heart slowed. She didn’t know how long she spent in the room until Anita’s alarm clock beeped to announce the hour. Lily looked up in surprise, and then quickly hurried the rat back into his cage. She was out of the room and had just rounded the corner when she heard Anita and Jasmine approach, laughing, from the other end of the hall. That had been close. She would have to be more careful next time.

 

* * *

 

   So it went. Lily would wait until Anita and Jasmine were out, and then she would enter their room, grateful that the confidence of youth kept them from locking their door. She would feed Charlie and Benny pieces of carrot and cheese. She would stroke their soft fur and cup their small, warm bodies in her hands. Then, with a twinge of regret, she would leave, with a solemn promise to return.

One day, a dark November day, she realized she forgot to bring a treat for the rats. She was holding Benny in her arms; cradling the rat, she stood up and headed for the door. It would only be a few minutes. Anita was always at her tutorial class through the whole evening like the proper student that she was. Lily would give the rat a treat and put him back before Anita ever suspected a thing.

Still holding Benny, she left the room and went to her own door. Closing the door, she set the rat on her desk, and opened her roommate’s new mini fridge. There was a leftover ham and lettuce sandwich, and she pulled off a small piece of bread.

   Pausing, she watched Benny wander across her desk. He sniffed around her dusty textbooks, took a moment to sneeze, and then raised onto his hind paws to stretch against the wall. Then, just as Lily moved towards him with the treat, the rat’s teeth connected with the exposed metal prongs at the end of her lamp cord.

   “Hey, don’t do tha—” Lily managed before a crackling pop and a squeal met her ears. The creature collapsed under the electrical socket and didn’t move.

   “Benny?” Lily asked.

   The rat remained motionless.

   “Benny?” Lily said again, voice quavering.

   She prodded the animal experimentally. Its jaw hung open, forming a sad, downtrodden v-shape.

   She stared at the animal, her gaze blank. Mere seconds before, the animal had been alive, a wiggling ball of love and curiosity. Now it was just a mound of cooling fur and a limp tail. An object. A bundle of matter with no life in it at all.

   Her stomach lurched, and she looked away, her gaze instead settling on a plastic bag tossed into the corner. She picked the bag up and, without looking at the rat or touching the body, slid the creature into the bag, wrapping the plastic tightly around it.

   What did one do with a dead animal? She hovered near her small trash can. She couldn’t just toss it into the garbage—it would start to smell. Even if she took it to the dormitory’s trash room, there was a chance someone would find the rat. No one could know about this.

Her eyes lingered on the open mini fridge. She crouched down and placed the plastic-wrapped parcel into the cramped freezer compartment, turning the freezer’s settings to the coldest temperature. She let the freezer compartment fall shut with a clang, and then closed the fridge with a firm shove.

 

* * *

 

   Three hours later, and she still had no idea what to do with the body. But with each passing second, she knew she had to get rid of the rat.

   Mustering courage, she stood up on shaky legs. Feeling like a ghost treading on holy ground, she crossed the narrow room. The fridge gleamed ominously in the early morning light as she reached for the door. The magnetic strip hissed slightly as it pulled away from the body of the fridge. She could see the lettuce and ham sandwich, a chunk torn out of the bread.

   Her hand trembled as she reached into the fridge, lifting the plastic flap on the freezer compartment. She took a cautious breath, and then let out a sigh of relief. There was no smell. The the sight of the bag brought an uncomfortable, prickling heat to her face, but she knew she would be sick if there was a smell.

   With trembling fingers, she reached out, sliding her hand to the back of the frigid compartment. Her fingertips brushed the plastic bag, and a bolt of icy heat ran up her arm. She shuddered and closed her eyes, fingers curling around the parcel.

   She jumped as someone knocked on her door.

   Had they finally come for her? Would they take her away, lock her in solitude and darkness? Would she be put into prison forever, for her simple crime of wanting to give the rat a treat?

   She swallowed, her throat dry. Please go away.

   The knock came again, more half-hearted, and this time accompanied by the voice she dreaded to hear: Anita. “Lily, are you there?”

   She looked at the closed door. Did Anita know?

   “Lily?”

   Her hands shook. She licked her lips. If she let Anita in, she would see the rat. But if she didn’t answer, Anita might suspect her of the crime. She had to do something.

   In one swift motion, she thrust her hand back into the fridge. Her hand wrapped around the frozen body, and she ignored the cold sparks that ran up her arm as her fingertips fell into the contours of the rat’s body beneath the thin material.

   Clutching the bag to her chest, she kicked the fridge door shut and planted herself in front of the window. The parking lot below was quiet, the early morning sky a dull gray.

   Lily balled up the plastic bag and hurled it out the window as hard as she could.

   Without watching to see where it landed, she turned back to the door. She forced a smile onto her face as she opened the door and greeted Anita.

   “Lily!” Anita turned from where she was already making her way back up the hall. Her eyes were wide and glazed with concern. Anita stepped forward, and Lily took a step back.

   “Thank God. Something horrible has happened.”

Lily swallowed. “What?”

   “One of my rats is gone.”

   “Gone?” Lily pressed her lips together. “Like, dead?”

   “I don’t know,” Anita said. Lily could hear the quaver in her voice. “I don’t know where he is.” She took a shuddering breath. “I’m guessing you haven’t seen him?”

   “No,” Lily said.

   “Oh God. Oh God.” Anita pressed her hands to her face, squeezing her eyes shut. When she opened them, Lily could see the sheen of tears threatening to escape.

   Lily stepped forward and hesitantly reached out. She pulled Anita into an awkward embrace. Anita let out a choking sob.

   “I’m sure you’ll find him. Maybe he’s just hiding.”

   “I don’t think so.”

   “You never know. Why don’t you go give your room a second look? Just look again.”

   Anita sniffed. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” She gave a small shake of her head and pulled away. “Sorry, Lily. I’m not thinking straight.”

   “No need to apologize,” Lily said. “I’ll keep an eye out for the rat, too.”

   “Thanks, Lily.”

   Lily gave her an affirming nod and then closed her door. She could hear Anita’s sniffling disappear up the hall.

   She collapsed into her beanbag, her chest feeling heavy. She leaned against the windowsill, looking out into the cold morning.

  A flash caught her eye, and she saw the plastic bag. It had landed in the skimpy bushes that formed a thin curb between the dorm building and parking lot. The edges waved in the breeze, but the bag was firmly snagged. It looked like any old piece of garbage.

   She looked away. Leave it to campus cleanup. It wasn’t her problem.

   Burdens eased, she inhaled deeply and stood up. She closed the window and plugged in her phone. The screen blinked on in the darkness.

 

Mirrors

Jessica McGowan

There was a girl with a name so holy we could not speak it.

Her skin was made of mirrors; her face was a pane of pure glass, still and reflective like a puddle of water. All day long she sashayed from class to class, a mythology, a glass god. We followed her and peeked into her shoulder blades and her elbows, and we scribbled her epithets on the doors of the bathroom stall: She-Who-Bears-Truth, Mirror Girl, No-Face, God.

 

Every day we baked in the sour fluorescence of matchbox classrooms, waiting anxiously, and then scattered to look for her. Every day, she sat on the bench by the old church in a patch of lavender. Every day, she gleamed a lipless smile in our direction and when we gathered we heard a metallic voice scraping from glass vocal cords, muffled as if by a mask: Who first? We took turns. We held her cold hands and looked at our reflections. They were warped by the contours of her body: we became ink blossoming up, mushrooms of flesh, starless button eyes, and pink coils for mouths. She was a funhouse. Or a seer. When we wanted truth, we looked right at her face and she became a canvas for us. She kept perfectly still as we aligned ourselves, forehead to forehead. We saw our faces overwhelm her blankness.

 

We called her Diamond and Mimic and One-Of-Many-Faces. We kept in touch as we grew older. Some of us went to college with her and we always knew where she was because she glittered, burnished gold in late summer, white stars blinking into your retinas as the sun passed steadily overhead. It was obscene and it was sacred and we called her Iridescence. We always considered her a close friend – she was a diamond in the rough and when she laughed, she sounded like a wind chime in a headwind. We crawled into her bed and looked at ourselves in her brow as she slept, and we cupped our shivering reflections in our palms, gods in miniature. Sometimes she had smudges of fingerprints trailing down her face, like make-up. We touched her. Ever gently.

 

She graduated. Her glass feet, scuffed and worn, crunched on the hardwood floor as she strode to get her diploma. She crushed the paper with her cold, unmoving fist, the fist of a store mannequin, and she gave a stiff smile. We saw a sea of heads cling to her body, under hard bright lights and a high ceiling, and she was Apollonian and Orphic and she was a pornographic cosmology of camera flashes, lenses, faces. When we took pictures of her we took pictures of ourselves, and she became Portal that day, she became Display Case, she became Us. Later she started working a low-grade retail job and left a trail of glass shards wherever she went, fine as dust and sharp as teeth. But she could never truly leave, and we were drawn toward each other; we were neighboring planets in their inexorable dance of eternity. We knew that which could not be spoken: she wanted our self-indulgence. We wanted her silence. We wanted to look inside the mirrors and see the unstoppable wildfire of ourselves, a fever burning up the vast, arctic void of her.

 

We grew up and got married. Some of us had children and worked quiet jobs. Some of us died. All of us remaining kept tabs on her, and we wrote in the margins of our paperwork: Crystal Ball, Opal Eyes, One-Who-Is-All, One-Who-Becomes – Us, Us. We were shameful hoarders, rats, and we stuffed our hidden places with lists, the ink still wet and smeared, and we found her on street corners and morning cafes. We hunted her down while scribbling maps on the back of our too-soft hands. She was shiny, as always. A fractal looping endlessly.  We begged for another glimpse. We called her, Me. Me. Me. She shimmered, an empty pool, and we were vultures, starving things. Our faces swelled larger and realer than the sun. We were in love. We grasped, hungry.

 

Maybe it was us who drove her to die as a star dies: in emptiness and fervor. We knew that her lidless eyes were full of us, and her face was a satellite, our darling mirror, tuned into us, into our bodies. Me, we said, looking into the still panel of her face. She never blinked. We were surging into her as surely as a tidal wave envelops a ship and we crushed our guilt before we could bear it. Maybe the ship wanted to be consumed; maybe it saw the wall of foam and dark and opened its heart like a fist. Maybe it begged to drown, just as reflections begged to be seen and mirror girls begged to be filled. And if not, then? She was just glass. Only glass.

 

One day she was warped and open, receptive, a many-sided gem that glistened in the gloom of winter-twilight. The next day she was not a mirror girl. We saw her on her old, creaky bench with lavender in her lap, and she had brought destruction upon herself; a coat of black tar hardening over her beautiful reflective surfaces, like asphalt or a beetle’s shell. She was a crypt, a ruin, a graveyard of us; we howled like dying things and felt our hearts palpitate under three layers of molasses. She spoke in scraping shards, but we could not understand. All we knew of ourselves lay in her bones, and now she meant to bury us, our deity, our mirror, the reverse of us.  We didn’t know our faces any longer. We weren’t certain if we screamed; we could not see our mouths.

 

Nobody knows now became of her. She left and there was no star-shaped glint to follow, no trail of glass, and we knew better than to speak her name. Instead we trudged onward, smearing tar onto our faces like war paint, trying to understand. We are still trying to understand. Every now and again we see a glimpse of ourselves, black-eyed and unfamiliar, a splinter of glass embedded in our image and we don’t know what it means but we are learning. We are Us and Me and she is gone but her names remain, untouched: She-Who-Calls-Down-The-Dark, Harbinger, She-Of-Obsidian, Meteor, She-Who-Sings-Her-Truth-And-Doesn’t-Falter. They are black, like tar. They remain.