• Diaries,  existential screaming,  mental health

    Self-Care is an Active Effort

    Eating Disorder Diary

    Please note: This is really an excerpt from my diary, ergo the bad numbering, change in POV, and TMI detail. Trigger warnings for all things eating disorders: weighing myself, exercise, loaded language, disordered diet habits, substance use.

    February 2020

    SO YOU WEIGHED YOURSELF AND WERE HORRIFIED BY THE RESULTS.

    About a month ago, you weighed yourself at the gym. You were wearing shoes, holding your phone, and clad in leggings/shirt. The scale said you were 164 lbs. It’s not far from where you were before eating disorder treatment, so that’s not too bad.

    Today, you weighed yourself at the gym. You were wearing shoes, holding your phone, and clad in leggings/shirt. The scale said you’re at least 172 lbs. You’ve gained eight pounds in a month, which your brain wants to round to ten pounds, and a ten pound gain in a month-ish is one of the most horrifying nightmare scenarios you can imagine.

    Here’s why you’re not going to panic and hurt yourself over this.

    1. You don’t want to. Putting MyFitnessPal back on your phone instilled you with a sense of grim dread; that’s a cycle you’ve been on, and it works for many, but not for you. It doesn’t really change your behavior. Not anymore. Did it ever? What as the cost when it did? It was your hobby, your obsession, and one that made you feel shitty. It’s a fraught place filled with despair, for you, and you’re not far enough from that time to use MFP healthily. So you don’t want to. And you won’t.
    2. You’re still attractive. Others are still recognizing you as attractive; they dive out of the way when you reach a door, they are charmed when you compliment their hair, they give you the sexual credit seemingly due to you.
    3. But even if you weren’t still attractive, that’s subjective, situational, and usually temporary. It’s okay to stop being attractive. Or not be attractive every day.
    4. If you don’t find yourself attractive, that’s a different problem. Your weight is not a metric that tells you how well you’re allowed to dress, care for yourself, and do your hair. To feel attractive, you should go home and shower, you should trim your hair, you should find a cute outfit that fits and wear it. But you should also just love yourself. And if you’re not feeling attractive, that doesn’t mean that you have to hurt yourself over it. Attractive isn’t something you have to be in order to have value, be loved, and love yourself.
    5. You’re not going to suddenly balloon to 200+ lbs. Gaining that weight quickly has a lot of reasons. You just quit smoking, and stimulants increase your metabolic rate; being on nicotine gave you the terrible feeling of being one giant jitter, always anxious, sleeping poorly. You have been eating more, but you haven’t been having to think about it nearly as hard, either. The time you used to spend fretting over food hurting you are now spent enjoying the food you eat. And you won’t enjoy relentless binging.
    6. You’re a weight lifter. Though people overestimate how much “denser” muscle is than fat, you do have muscle, and that’s a good thing. You have to feed your muscles to grow and keep them. You can see how much stronger you are when you’re in the gym; 95lbs squat feels comfortable, like nothing, and isn’t that wonderful? It used to be effort. You can do more than that too. Quite a bit more. You’re so strong. A lot of that is because your muscles have everything they need to work, and then some, and that’s okay.
    7. You’re eating in a culturally normal way. Look at your family. Look at how they eat. Look at how they’re shaped. You can do this, because you’re actually eating with them now. You’re spending time together. You need to get closer to them and their eating habits, not further away; this isn’t just an important part of socializing, but a way that you can help your family heal their relationship with food too. They’ve never eaten as much salad since you started doing it. You’ve never sat down to talk and laugh with them this much, this regularly.

    That said, it doesn’t hurt to check in with yourself and make sure you’re not overeating. You don’t feel good when you overeat, either. And you won’t feel good with too much extra weight—though the line from “extra weight” to “too much extra weight” is difficult to locate.

    1. Are you mindfully eating? I’m trying, but I think I’m privileging the enjoyment of the food over the feelings in my stomach. And that’s because…
    2. My stomach has been hurting a lot. Which totally fucks with my hunger signals. It’s gotten better these past couple of days and I’m optimistic it’ll stay that way, allowing me to have more contact with my hunger again.
    3. Can you eat slower? You’ve done well portioning your foods lately, I think. You’ve been eating half sandwiches so you can have more bulk in the form of salads and whatnot. The varied diet is great. If you eat slower, you might find that you’ll eat less…or not.
    4. Are you finishing food when you don’t need to? You almost ate an extra mini naan because there was just one left. You’ve got this weird thing about finishing. It’s okay to put things away for later, put it back in the bag (if it’s something that’s appropriate for), or just throw it out. Also your dogs love it when you don’t finish food.
    5. I’m having cannabis. A lot on the weekends, probably still too much in the evenings. I think I need to evaluate my relationship with cannabis. I haven’t been in a hurry to drop it because I also dropped nicotine recently, and I’m still craving that to an extent.
      1. I think it’s okay if I’m still doing this one thing FOR NOW. Maybe. I don’t have to be all or nothing. That’s also a mindset I have to continue working on.
    6. I’m not moving as much. When was the last time I walked the dogs? I’ve reached peak winter sludge mode.
      1.  I think that’s okay too. I mean, I think it’s inevitable, and temporary. The weather will improve. I’ll want to move again.
    7. Can you eat out less? You know from your History that food from outside is more calorically dense.
    8. Can you eat with more variety? You’re really enjoying bread a LOT right now. And that’s okay! But maybe you could limit your bread…like one bread a day. Bagel OR sandwich OR pita OR dinner roll.
      1. Maybe instead of going “ONE BREAD A DAY,” you should just make sure you’re getting one non-bread grain a day to start: rice or oats (not in cookies, lol) being the easiest. Frankly you don’t have a lot of “grains” in your diet that are super normal so it will probably be effort enough to address that. If you don’t have oats for breakfast, have rice with dinner. That’s easy, right?

    The bottom line is that you’re not helpless, nor are you doing anything Wrong. You’re doing your best to heal. Right now, that healing—which is not just physical, but social and emotional—has the side-effect of weight gain. But as long as you stay on top of yourself and continue to fight for mindfulness, go slowly, and eat with others when possible, you can make sure you don’t gain excessively.

    What is excessively? I will feel I’ve gained too much if I can’t do the physical things I enjoy (and that’s definitely not a problem right now!) and if I’m seeing ill health effects, like more blood sugar problems. For now, Y O U A R E O K A Y, do not panic spiral, do not hurt yourself, do not use MFP. Be patient. You’re beautiful and powerful and also your hips are cool.

    March 2020

    Well, things have changed a lot, haven’t they? You’re on nicotine again. You’re probably still gaining weight, but you’re not weighing yourself. And priorities now are…different.

    Welcome to the corona virus, self. You don’t have it yet, although you’ve convinced yourself several times daily that you do. And maybe you do! But either symptoms are mild or you haven’t developed the bad ones yet. If you’re going to develop terrible symptoms, you’ll need your energy to cope with those when they come. So don’t waste time coping with pain that hasn’t arrived.

    Looking forward into the future, guessing outcomes, and spending all this time fretting is only aggravating your eating disorder. Just because the world is offering perspective on what it means to suffer doesn’t mean that you’re Suddenly Not Mentally Ill. It means you have to be more on top of it, not less.

    But it also means you’ve got to be kinder to yourself. You’re getting forked by reality a lot. Seldom do a handful of hours pass without the wall of dread striking again, reminding you of what’s happened and what’s (probably) to come.

    So let’s talk about what you’re doing really well right now, and what we could do to improve things.

    1. You’re not weighing yourself. That’s cool. Continue NOT DOING THAT. Attaching a number to the way your body is growing out of your clothes will help literally nothing.
    2. You got some new clothes that fit. You feel pretty fucking sexy in these clothes.
    3. You still have way too many clothes that don’t fit. Get rid of them. The stuffed sausage feeling is horrible, you don’t look attractive, there is no point in subjecting yourself to this.
      1. You should get new clothes! It’s harder to fit stuff online, but you can do it. You can’t let your fashion slide during the apocalypse any more than you can during pregnancy (a personal apocalypse) because you know from experience that you will feel like garbage. It’s okay to spend some of the money you’re not putting toward outside-the-house entertainment toward feeling good in your body.
    1. You’re not much of a weight lifter right now. Your metabolism has slowed, muscle will relax, fat will be generated from all that comfort food you’re eating. AND THAT IS OKAY. You’re not inactive. You’re still taking care to use lighter weights at home, and move your body, and that’s what you need to be healthy. You don’t need more rigorous exercise to be healthy – particularly not at a time like this. Focus on doing what you need to feel good and let the rest go. Conditioning is currently the least of your worries.
    2. Let’s talk about the nicotine. So you’re doing that again, even though it made you feel anxious, hurt your throat, and was generally so unpleasant by the end. You’re already beating yourself up about it, a lot, so you may as well not beat yourself up more. Look at the bright side: you’re staying under 1 pod/day of Juul, usually closer to 1/2 pod. (Remember how you used to clear 2 pods/day? 1/3rd of that is what we call progress.) Yesterday, you noticed your throat hurting a bit, and stopped vaping. You’re not vaping to excess and causing bad symptoms. This much nicotine still isn’t good for you, but you’ve shown moderation, and you’ll take care of yourself as best you can.
    3. You’re eating a lot of take-out and junk food. But welcome to the apocalypse, wherein all your childhood food insecurity comes roaring back as trauma. Remember how you were just hospitalized for an eating disorder earlier this year too? Jeez, you’re getting all the food-related trauma triggers for 2020. That sucks. This doesn’t have to be rationalized away. But sincerely, you’re eating take-out to keep your pantry fuller longer, support local restaurants (the Chinese food place is grateful for your business!), and keep the family happy. Keeping the whole family happy with comfort food right now is a big deal. And YOU are part of that family, so if eating a couple Oreos a day and a snack of chips is making you feel happy, THAT IS OKAY.
    4. But you’re also eating a ton of salads! When you panic-shopped, you panic-shopped for…salad and bananas. If you’re gonna be eating a crapton of junk food, stuffing the extra space in your body with salad could be a lot worse. Let’s be real.
    5. ALSO, you’re definitely having a lot of cannabis right now. You pushed yourself into the tolerance black zone where you can pop 30mg of THC and still function without a pleasant buzz. Nice job, self. Moderation is harder here. Being home all day, nowhere to drive, husband always available, and enormous crush of existential fear… No wonder. At some point you’ve gotta accept being not-stoned in this apocalypse as reality. I don’t think you’re ready for it. I wish I had guidance for myself in this area.
    6. Your stomach has been hurting less than when you wrote the last post. And that’s awesome. You’re taking care of yourself! (Fewer carbonated waters will help, sweetie.)
    7. You’re drinking alcohol again. But so far, in moderation. One drink in a day, two or three times a week, and only with your husband. This is probably still a bad idea for your stomach, if not for your emotional cope. You know what problems to watch for. You can’t get more alcohol without help right now. Stick a pin in this one – you might need to address it if it changes, but it’s not an immediate worry.

    So here we are now, working our way through the quiet suspenseful part where apocalypse begins, doing our best to care for ourself with a lot of uncertainty.

    What matters right now? Literally, staying healthy to avoid the medical system, and keep my family as happy as possible. You’re doing that, mostly. Limiting alcohol and continuing to move will help. Everything else is kind of a mess. But so is the world.

    Practice mindfulness. You haven’t been doing that, and you’re paying the price. More mindfulness – staying in this moment rather than predicting the future – should help you handle your emotions that have your behaviors haywire. Give yourself more spoons so you can handle things better. Live in the moment.

    And give yourself a fucking hug because this timeline sucks.

  • Diaries,  slice of life

    Seven Ways to be Stoned

    One.

    You’re in New York City for the first time. Your friend’s walk-up is cluttered and cozy, as homey as it should be, and it smells like weed. She smokes a lot. She eats even more. You haven’t done much before, but she offers a bowl to you, so you clumsily navigate lighter and pipe.

    Truthfully, you’re scared to have a lighter that close to your face. But you’re in your twenties, your friend is in her thirties, she’s like your big sister. You want to look like you know what you’re doing. So you light it–flick–and your nose gets warm while you touch the flame to a corner of the herb. You inhale as it smolders. You get a little smoke. You think.

    You go out on her balcony, which is small and made of wood so wobbly you’re not sure it can hold your weight, much less a charcoal barbecue. Neither of you know how to use a charcoal barbecue. You laugh a lot trying to get it to light in the wind. You keep a fire extinguisher on hand just in case.

    You feel the warmth after another hit on the pipe. The vegetables you grilled with your best friend taste better. You laugh a little louder.

     

    Two.

    It’s cold outside, but you don’t want to smoke inside. You put on a balaclava. You wrap yourself in a bathrobe. You put on slipper socks. You huddle under a blanket on your balcony and light your bong, hands cupped around the pipe to shelter it from the wind. It still won’t light and your fingers are getting stiff. Grab the plasma lighter. It’s not as good, somehow, but it will make your herb burn even when the wind is blasting.

    You take a couple deep hits that make you cough plumes into the chilly night, and the smoke is sucked away to disperse against the crystalline starlight. The harsh hits are bad for your lungs. You go inside, take a shot of Pepto to soothe your throat, puff on the inhaler to open your lungs. You settle into bed with a cold nose, cold fingers, and a dizziness that makes the room sway in the wind with you comfortable in its womb.

     

    Three.

    You’ve gotten good at baking with cannabis. People like your cookies–some of them say you can’t taste the weed on it, which isn’t true, because your husband cringes to nibble. But many people like the skunky taste. You like the skunky taste.

    You’re careful with the cookies. You can’t have children getting into them, so you entomb them in a bag, carefully label it with contents and date, and stash it in the very back of the deep freezer. Since you’ve filled it with almond slivers, oats, and raisins, your kids won’t eat them even if they find them. But you want to be sure. You want to be responsible.

    You’re so responsible that you don’t try the dough or the cookies. The butter must be infused, and the cookies baked, cooled, and stored, before your kids come home from school. You don’t want to be stoned when they get here.

    Once they’re safe, you clean the skillet where you made cannabis ghee and prepare an omelet. It doesn’t taste like weed. Only when you’re sprawled on the couch in awe of the music melting through your muscles do you realize you didn’t clean the pan enough, and now you’re very, very stoned despite your naive efforts. On the bright side, while your cookies do taste like weed, your omelet did not.

     

    Four.

    It’s a cold, windy night on the Pacific coast. It’s so dark that the beach and the ocean are indistinguishable from each other. You’re in love with the woman at your side, sneaking onto the boardwalk amid the dunes. You haven’t told her about this big warm secret coiled in your belly. Your bodies hold warmth between them while you shelter the pipe. It’s the second pipe you bought on this vacation. The first one wasn’t properly drilled with holes, and it weighs down your pocket. It’s pressing against her thigh. She smells like coconut oil and she’s beaming at you when flickering lighter shines gold on her face.

    You both inhale. You take all the smoke inside of you and breathe with each other, seated on the sandy steps. The ocean roars slower than your breath. There’s a dark shape on the shore. You can’t be sure if it’s a signpost or a man coming to bust you for getting stoned on the beach in the middle of the night. It’s scary. But being scared is funny.

    Her skin is so soft, so smooth. You don’t know it yet but six months later, you won’t be talking. This moment that makes you giddy with the joy and desire will be only a memory. The shape on the beach is a signpost. Nobody cares you’re smoking in the dunes. You’ll still have the pipe without a hole drilled properly, and sometimes you’ll hold it in your hand and remember how her braids felt against your lips.

     

    Five.

    This morning, your cat died. She was in your arms, swaddled in a towel, while a gentle veterinarian injected the medicine to stop her heart. You carried your kitty to the car so she could be cremated. You set her in the back seat on the towel. That pile of fluff is all that remains of a life you loved and cherished and tended your entire adult life. When the car drives away, she’s gone.

    There are cannabis cookies in the freezer, carefully labeled and stored out of reach. Each one has about fifteen milligrams of THC, you estimate based on how they make you feel. You eat two, three, four. You keep eating them until you feel nothing but dizzy warmth. Until your eyes are too dry to cry. It’s not healthy, you’re not coping, but maybe you don’t have to cope right now.

    A couple of days later, your baby is brought back in an urn. You hold her. She weighs nothing. She no longer purrs and rolls over to get belly rubs. She doesn’t put a paw on your arm while you’re using the computer mouse. You make a shrine to her because she’s so big inside you, some of that feeling has to be set down somewhere else.

    Two more cookies, three more, four. The months pass and you’re always stoned. But by the end of it, you can hold her urn and cry. You stop taking so much weed. The emotions come back and you live in a life without your cat. Somehow you handle it. You have to. Grief doesn’t feel better when you’re stoned, not the way that love and music do.

     

    Six.

    It’s an afternoon on the weekend. Your kids want to play LEGO. You popped a chocolate earlier, so you’re mellow, and life’s stresses have faded away. The house needs to be cleaned. The yard’s a mess. You haven’t showered. But now you’re on the couch, cozy and floating, so it’s easy to give yourself permission to fuck off and play LEGO.

    Your son gives you the broken minifig without arms. He plays the one with long hair. You climb walls and jump off with silly cries and your children laugh and laugh and laugh. It feels good and simple, the way childhood felt. Anything can happen. The couch can become canyons. The pillows are trampolines. When your kids bounce, you bounce too, and their kisses feel like going to heaven. If only they could always be this happy. If only you could always let yourself be this happy.

     

    Seven.

    It’s raining. It doesn’t do that much around there. You grab the papers, the grinder, the funnel, a lighter. You settle under a blanket on the couch in your gazebo. Rain dribbles off the edges while you pack a joint.

    Life’s been hard, and you’re tempted demolish that joint in one go. Suck it down until there’s nothing but a roach too annoying to smoke.

    But you take it slow. A couple good hits and you stub it out. Then you lay back on the couch, close your eyes, and listen to the rain, knowing that there’s nothing to do today. The rain is like music. It feels good when you hear it. Sometimes the wind blows drops against your cheek. Your husband is with the children, your dogs are warm on your legs, and there’s nothing but you and a few puffs of smoke on a wet gray day.

  • featured,  mental health,  resembles nonfiction,  writing

    Headspace

    Some years ago, I had major depression explained to me in terms of rivers trickling down a hillside. The rivers are feelings. Your brain is the hill. Wherever those rivers run, they’ll dig furrows over the years, and become so entrenched that rerouting them is difficult. When you’re depressed, those your river-thoughts dig horrible trenches, black and deep, and the longer it runs, the deeper it cuts. Therapy means more than taking pills to improve the water quality; it also means learning to fill in the old trenches and dig new ones. The work is difficult. It’s dirty. It never ends.


    I spent a lot of time writing as a child. I hit upon feverish obsession in elementary school, drafting lengthy stories about the things that interested me. When I was twelve, I wrote a 105,000-word epic fantasy tome that was slightly worse than Eragon, narrowly, and realized this would be my life. I had plans. I’d have published novels by the time I was eighteen, like my idol Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and never need another job. My life would exist in the space between myself and the blinking cursor.

    Writing remained a retreat through my teenage years. I moved from high fantasy to horror to science fiction, then urban fantasy when Anita Blake started raising zombies in my brain. My second original novel–and most of the next sixty-plus novels–would remain urban fantasy, and the first of them were written when I was in high school. I wrote and rewrote those books, painfully aware they didn’t yet meet standards. I relentlessly hunted agents. I joined critique groups to pick apart my style and learned what it feels like to bleed over fiction.

    Sometimes I didn’t go to school because I wanted to write. At school, I was lonely. I felt like a lazy fool because I couldn’t track deadlines, organize my binders, backpack, or locker, and I made as much effort to survive as it took to be a straight-C student. Writing at home was different. I sat in a dark room with my heels up on a desk, just me and a glowing CRT monitor, and I wrote stories about tough women who killed evil.


    I don’t think I was ever actually diagnosed with depression. The word floated around because my mother and sibling were diagnosed with it, so I knew what it looked like, and eventually I went into doctors’ appointments, informed them I had depression, and requested a prescription. They assented. If I wanted a dose change, I told them and got it. My depression was self-managed for years.

    My survival through that time is impressive, looking back. I had a total failure of executive dysfunction and seldom got off the couch. Cleaning was a non-starter. Yet I always had clothes and bus fare, I kept a job, and I never had a major breakdown at work.

    I must have written my first dozen published novels at that job. I worked at an isolated desk on a computer room floor, and my job was primarily monitoring, so there was nothing to do unless something broke. As a lightly supervised young adult with vague job requirements, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I never saw sunlight. I worked weird shifts. I couldn’t keep friendships.

    But I had the books.


    Perception is reality to the mind. Without enough serotonin, the world is terrible, has always been terrible, and always will be terrible. With too much cortisol, we’re all going to die and it will definitely be sooner than we hope. With a boost of dopamine, we’re in love with life, eternally perfect, always happy.

    For most people, these chemicals are stable enough to function with normal life. There are emotions, but you’re not consumed by them in perpetuity. When it rains, the rivers of your feelings will flow down the hillside, sometimes spilling into sadness or worry or joy. They’re always moving, though. Eventually it melds into the lake of your long-term memory.

    For the depressed mind, more feelings means more rivers going down dark trenches. It means the water floods, trapped within the deepest holes.

    You’re living in the bottom of that hole. You can drown in two inches of water. And people often do, if the trenches are deep enough or if it rains too much.


    My waking hours are consumed by writing, even now. If not the act of writing, then planning my books. I’ve developed myriad ways to imitate a normal life while living in my fantasy world. I listen to playlists when I drive so I can daydream creative ways to murder innocents. I’ll talk about the plots with my dog on our walks. Every time I watch a movie, I’m thinking about how I’d improve on it, or how I could tell the same story except with demons.

    When I go to bars for a few drinks, because I can’t stand being sober, I strike up conversations with people to get inspired for characters. I’m sexually harassed in reality and kill another man in my books. When I’m in the hospital, I make an inventory of sensations, smells, sounds. I get discharged and go home to write a character gravely wounded.

    I dwell on it, I wallow. Even the brightest days can be shadowed by threat of infernal apocalypse at the back of my mind, reminding me I have more to write.

    One time I wrote the death of a three-year-old while I was on vacation at a lagoon, gazing out at a perfect sunset. I had a three-year-old. I was pregnant. It hurt to write, like slipping razors over my tenderest skin, but I wrote it, wondering why all the while.

    Somehow, writing doesn’t feel like an escape. It feels urgent. Like I *have* to be writing, or thinking about writing, all the time. If I don’t, then I have to live in reality. I have to be myself, in my body, in my brain, in this world.


    Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a whole-life approach to treating depression, among other things. The idea is that you must get chemical support in the form of medications and then adjust your life to avoid deepening the trenches. You go to talk therapy. You learn to identify your emotions as you experience them: This is sadness, this is anger, this is fear. You desensitize to traumatic memories. Sometimes it means getting away from abusers, exercising more, or eating differently.

    Ideally, the result is that medication gets you out of the trenches of ill mental health so they can fill in. The rain forms new, different rivers, following easier paths. You have learned to argue without yelling. You take a walk once a day so the sunlight can purify you. You sleep more, talk about your feelings more, and stop dwelling in darkness. After a while, the dark places just aren’t as dark. You get to see the sunlight whenever there’s a break in the rain.


    I started taking antidepressants when my first son was a baby, eight years ago. I didn’t cry as much when left alone with him. That was good. I took them until my second pregnancy, then began again afterward. My medication remained managed by my general practitioner. One helpful GP changed my medication when I complained of low libido, and the experimental antidepressant threw me into wild panic attacks. I spent a week in a mental hospital.

    Since then, my medication has been managed by a psychiatrist, and things have been generally more stable. I’m more functional, anyway. Sometimes I get out of my hole to play with the kids, drive to appointments, and go to the gym. I clean the house occasionally. I’m raising a puppy, which requires a daily commitment to wearing pants and going on walks. Though I was fired by my last therapist for being argumentative, I did do several years of therapy, and my communication has vastly improved along with my understanding of self.

    Still, there are holes, and they are dark as ever. My eating disorder struggle reached a special level this year. I’m still seldom sober. I started using nicotine. My books are getting darker too. I’m trying to traditionally publish dark psychological suspense, with graphic depictions of abuse unlike any I’ve written before. And when I’m doing it, I feel that razor feeling again. The one that’s bad but good and irresistible. Perception is reality. It hurts right to write like this. But it also hurt right to starve myself, to bite my fingers until they bled, to drink until blacking out in public spaces.

    I attribute some of this to the nonlinear path of managing a chronic illness. Diabetics can stay on top of their insulin and still have problems. I have major depression even if I’m on bupropion, escitalopram, and alprazolam to manage it.

    Yet perception is reality. My reality remains between my body and the blinking cursor. When I write, I’m immersed in it, convinced on some primal level that these things are real. Old books feel like memories to me now, they’re so vivid, but faded. Some years of my life, I can only really remember what happened in my books. I’ve chosen to populate those memories with demons, hellfire, and death.

    Will I remember this year by the rapes I’ve written? Or will I remember going to the gym two or three times a week, walking my dog, and building LEGO with my children? Am I filling trenches with medication while digging deeper with my writing?

    I don’t know. I don’t know when I’ll find out, either. As I finish writing this, I’m already drifting to the problem I have to fix in my current manuscript, wondering how I can worsen my heroine’s life in a low-impact scene. There are wildfires in my head. I am filled with smoke. And I don’t know if I’ll ever quite find peace like this, or what life on the surface looks like if I do.

  • Diaries,  slice of life

    The Gauntlet of Beauty

     I am 31.5 years old, and with the onset of the thirties comes relentless reminders that I’m aging. I’ve accepted my crow’s feet because they look sexy, and the general firmness lacking from my skin is unavoidable, so I don’t stress it.

    Unfortunately, with the onset of the thirties also comes a certain surrender to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as vaping nicotine. I started doing it this year. I don’t recommend it. (Prior to this, my only nicotine exposure was occasional social hookah, as you do in your glowing twenties.)

    Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it basically dries you up like a big walking corpse. Perhaps you can get away with being shriveled by poison in your youth (I wouldn’t know, I waited until a responsible age to start destroying myself) but in your thirties, it makes fine lines rather promptly. In the last ~6 months since I started vaping nicotine, my mouth has developed pucker lines. They are small but noticeable to me.

    Sooooo I am quitting nicotine because suffering vanity is much more obvious than whatever hellstorm I’m making in my throat/lungs. I need another coping mechanism that won’t make me look like Aunt Bertha who lives at your neighborhood bar. But still, I have these lines, the beginning of them, and now I can’t see anything else in the mirror.

    Being that I am a clever, dogged, calculated Aunt Bertha, I immediately researched What The Fuck To Do About This, assuming the answer is Botox. It turns out that Botox is ONE answer, but there are cheaper, less botulismy methods to remedy this as well. 

    I got an inexpensive high frequency device and a micro derma roller. The science on whether or not these actually DO what they claim is still out, as far as I can tell, because a cursory Googling yielded only clickbait and no scientific papers. My assumption is that they’re utter hogwash, but maybe if I believe hard enough, the placebo effect will plump my skin.

    The high frequency device looks like a phallus where you insert a delicate glass wand and then poke yourself in the face. Did you ever play with those plasma balls, where you touch the glass and it lights up? It’s like that but for your face. You can turn the frequency high enough (what frequency is it talking about anyway?) that it feels like constant static electricity. Apparently this does something. Like it microwaves under your skin to terrify your body into making more collagen. Yes you put this on your face.

    The other thing is the micro derma roller, which is like a handheld iron maiden, also for your face. It’s a ball covered in spikes and you rub it on your face. It feels the way you would expect it feels to rub spikes on your face. Then you follow up with a soothing acid treatment, which can now penetrate deeper because you cut holes. Into your face.

    I’ve now done both of these rituals once, and I suppose I plan to do them again, and at least once or twice a week for a few months. Whether or not they work, I’m optimistic that 31.5 years old is young enough that I’ll produce more collagen and fill out these lines to a small degree with time anyway, as long as I stop filling my lungs with nicotine clouds. The effect of the devices may be strictly placebo but time is not.

    Some resentful cave-feminist within me is nonstop irate with this, running some high frequency wand over my lips and then jabbing myself in the face with needles. It doesn’t escape my notice that they both hurt. You can feasibly jab yourself with the needles hard enough to bleed, which may or may not be a desired effect. (Kardashians bleed from micro derma rolling but Kardashians also marry people like Kanye so I live a less extreme life.)

    There’s something to be said about beauty rituals raging against the inexorable march of time and the consequences of our bad decisions being so painful. On one hand, it feels like the beauty industry is laughing at the stupid things people will pay to do to themselves. On the other hand, it feels like an illusory gauntlet through which many of us pass on our way to accepting middle age; it hurts, so it must be doing something, it must be changing me.

    Sometimes I look at getting plastic surgery done. Or even just Botox. I look at the websites, I look at the prices, I read about healing difficulties. I could probably do it. Then I remember that learning to love myself has zero cost and zero recovery time, and we’re all aging at the same speed anyway. So I won’t do that, probably. But I will spend forty dollars for the privilege of scraping my face with tiny needles and then dripping hyaluronic into my cavernous pores, bleeding my fear of aging in fine red lines down either side of my mouth.

  • fiction,  republished,  short stories

    Dragonet

    Military policy required two coachmen for Carriages in those days, and it’s a good thing they did; otherwise, Aja Skytoucher would never have survived the crash.

    In a blink of plasma and dancing electricity, she lost AI navigation. Her control panel’s lights went dark.

    The Carriage spun out.

    “He got us! He got us!”

    That was the second coachman, Emalkay. The numbskull didn’t try to recover. He just screamed and thrashed in his five point harness, face plastered against the viewport to see when the next plasma blast was coming.

    Aja seized the reins in one hand and tossed repair film to Emalkay with the other. She kept the film under her console, right between her feet, so she could find it even when smoke flooded the compartment. “Get to the rear quarter, Em!”

    He stared at her with baffled eyes. Drakor III pinwheeled orange and red behind him, its jagged-edged ice cap growing nearer at a terrifying rate. “The rear quarter? Why, Aja?”

    She wanted to say, Because I told you, idiot, but even with her heart clawing at the inside of her ribcage the words came out cool. “The fireball must have hit on the left. We’ll be venting oxygen. Patch it.”

    Clearly, all Emalkay heard was “venting oxygen.” His eyes got wider.

    “We’re going to get sucked out!”

    “Patch it.” Aja’s biceps strained as she hauled back on the reins.

    Emalkay’s hands flew over the control panel. There was no response. He banged his fists into the buttons for the communication device—the mochila—which should have given them instantaneous contact with the rest of the fleet. “Why aren’t they connecting with us?”

    Because the mochila had gone down with the navigation, of course.

    Everything had gone down with the navigation.

    Aja’s patience frayed. “Patch the rear quarter, Emalkay! That’s an order!”

    She kicked the latch release for the harnesses. Both she and Emalkay floated free from their seats. They continued to rotate with the Carriage, drifting slowly.

    Another plasma ball struck.

    The Carriage shuddered, panels rattling, emergency lights flickering. Without the harness latched, Aja was shaken from her chair. Still, she clung to the reins, braced the rubber treads of her boots against the panel, and she pulled back.

    Manual control on those Carriages were a fine art—a careful dance of tiny microwaves that could tweak their trajectory this way and that, assuming the coachman’s hand was fine enough. Most coachmen weren’t good at it. They relied on the automation that Aja had lost when the rear quarter when up in a ball of fire.

    Aja had cut her teeth on older vehicles, though. She’d had a Chariot XIV, for the love of Thal, and those had been fashioned in the days when artificial intelligence hadn’t been able to assemble paper airplanes, much less steer space vehicles.

    She hadn’t manually steered a Chariot since she was too small for the driver’s harness. But her muscles remembered the movements and she’d always had a cool head. She could do this now, even as they plummeted toward the surface of Drakor III. The enemy stronghold.

    Aja needed to do this.

    Leathery wings flashed past the viewport. Aja only glimpsed shimmering gold before it was gone again—a color that reminded her of the glittering hide dresses her trapper mother used to wear.

    “He sees us!” Emalkay wailed. “He’s coming back again!”

    Aja gritted her teeth, clutched the reins, and kept pulling. Harder. Harder.

    The bucking Carriage whined. Drakor III spun. Her wrists trembled with effort.

    “The patch,” she said.

    He listened this time. Emalkay’s hand flashed through the air, seizing the film, and he kicked off his chair to drift into the rear of the Carriage.

    Lords, but Drakor III was growing fast.

    Fresh plasma splattered over the viewport. It pushed them into a faster spin. Shoved them out of orbit.

    Gases whipped through the compartment, blasting Aja’s hair free of its ponytail. It obscured her vision but she didn’t need to see. She only needed the tension in the reins, the feel of the yoke on the other end. She could have steered it without any sense but touch.

    She pulled. Microwaves pushed. The Carriage stabilized and then overcorrected.

    Aja’s stomach lurched as her view of the planet below centered, and then began rotating again in the opposite direction. Her hair whipped over her eyes again.

    Emalkay shouted over the hissing. “You’re right! It’s the rear quarter! Oxygen’s venting!”

    Yes, Aja knew that. They’d lost the feed on the surface sensors in the heartbeat before they lost the rest of navigation, which meant that those sensors had been struck first, and they were situated inside the elbow line on the rear quarter.

    Eyes shut, hair tickling her nose, she steered.

    Aja didn’t see their enemy swoop past again, but she felt his passing wings clip the belly of the Carriage. She twisted the reins to the right to compensate.

    She heard repair film torn by the dull belt knife Emalkay was carrying. She could tell that he hadn’t sharpened it recently just by how many cuts it took to get through. He probably hadn’t charged his plasma rifle, either. Lazy Emalkay, stupid Emalkay—yet she needed him. If he didn’t patch that hole, they would both be dead.

    She couldn’t keep steering through the force of the venting oxygen. Not under the plasma barrage, not with the thin upper atmosphere they were entering, not without navigation.

    “Got it!” Emalkay cried.

    She already knew. The Carriage was calming under her hands.

    Their spin stabilized.

    Aja had control.

    “Yes,” she breathed, eyes opening.

    The Carriage’s spin had ended when it was oriented to face away from the surface. The Drakor system’s single red star glowed at the upper edge of the viewport, painting Aja in the foul light depicted on so many propaganda posters.

    Other Carriages in higher orbits glimmered. At this distance, their slow dance through space was beautiful. She couldn’t see the fleet’s insignia. Couldn’t tell which Carriages belonged to members of her unit, which ones were strangers, which had been licensed from private companies. The only way to tell that any of them were still working was the occasional flare of thrusters. They were slow as seeds drifting on the surface of a pond, confined by orbital mechanics and basic, clumsy physics.

    Unlike the enemy.

    The enemy was agile. Tireless. Capable of moving outside of orbits. Propelled at unimaginable speeds.

    And the residents of the Drakor system had responded to attack in full force.

    The raid should have caught them by surprise. Their army should have been deployed elsewhere that day, distracted by defending outposts in other systems. But they were there at the home world, prepared to receive the Allied forces, so the Drakor must have known the fleet was coming.

    There were thousands of them above Drakor III.

    Dragons.

    They looped around the Carriages, tailed by The Fog—a force that Allied scientists barely understood, though it seemed to be something similar to fire that their bodies generated. Nobody was certain if the fire’s origin was magical or biological. That Fog flashed behind the dragons in colors even brighter than Drakor’s sun, and the clouds of writhing plasma chewed through the fleet like it was nothing.

    Many Carriages were succumbing to attacks similar to the one that had disabled Aja and Emalkay.

    And now the attacker that had knocked out Aja’s systems was descending on her Carriage.

    It moved faster than she did, even though gravity had caught the Carriage and dragged her toward the surface. She was pinned between a dragon and Drakor III. Death under the claws of a dragon, death on the surface of the planet—the odds of survival either way were poor, very poor.

    Especially since she was watching the fleet getting pulverized far above them.

    “I think I can fix the mochila.” Emalkay clattered in the rear of the compartment, banging off of the walls and ripping open panels. Hope tinged his panicked tone. “You’ve just got to maintain low orbit long enough for someone to save us.”

    Nobody was going to be able to save them.

    A crack slithered from the lower right quadrant of the viewport, inching its way toward the center of the glass. It wouldn’t take much pressure for that to shatter. The crack bisected the dragon’s cruel face as it undulated through space to close in on them. It was bare moments away from catching the Carriage now.

    There was no time for a rescue.

    Aja swallowed hard. “No, keep off the mochila. Redirect everything into the microwave engines.”

    “The manual controls?”

    “Yes,” she said.

    “What about the AI?”

    “Forget the AI, Em!”

    Gravity tugged. They entered atmosphere. The exterior panels on the Carriage heated with the friction. Flames streaked on the edges of the viewport, blotting out Aja’s view of the fleet’s distant and serene demise.

    The dragon plummeted with them, folding his wings to catch up.

    “But how will the fleet find us if I don’t fix the mochila?” Emalkay asked.

    Aja didn’t reply.

    The Carriage’s manual controls became stiffer as the atmosphere’s density increased. Microwave propulsion took much more thrust to be effective in the atmosphere. But it was all they had—they couldn’t do a hard burn in atmo, not when they were already heating from the scrape of air, not when plasma was still crawling over their paneling.

    They’d be incinerated.

    Sweat rolled down Aja’s hairline, dripped into her collar. Her palms were slick.

    But she twisted the reins, the Carriage obeyed her command, and she felt the moment that Emalkay put all of the power into the microwave engines. The entire vehicle bucked in protest.

    “Come on, girl,” she whispered.

    The engine roared. Acid clouds billowed around the Carriage.

    The dragon blazed toward them like a hawk closing in on a rabbit.

    Aja tangled the reins around one arm, steering with a single fist. She fumbled with her belt. Grabbed the plasma rifle, loosened the strap, propped it against her shoulder.

    The plasma rifle was a new invention. They had gotten a living dragon specimen and somehow procured Fog from its organs—she didn’t know the specifics—and repurposed it into a weapon that could penetrate even the thickest, scaliest of dragon hides. The raid on Drakor was the first field test, so Aja wasn’t sure the gun would work. The men in the armory had said it would, but they’d also said the fleet’s arrival would be unexpected.

    The crack on the viewport spread.

    Aja manipulated the reins as Emalkay fed every terawatt of remaining power into the engine, slowing their descent, allowing the dragon to converge upon their location. The Carriage cried out. The exterior panels flamed. Mountains appeared at the edges of Aja’s vision—hostile alien terrain that made her heart beat with sheer panic.

    “What are you doing?” the other coachman roared. “Why aren’t you evading him?”

    Aja didn’t want to evade him. She wanted to land as soft as possible.

    She wanted to get out of the Carriage alive, even if it meant being stranded on Drakor III.

    It was getting so hot inside the Carriage. Sweat drenched her uniform. But her grip on the rifle was sure, and she was as steady aiming at the dragon’s heart as she was in steering the Carriage down to their death.

    Dragon claws glimmered, huge and sharp.

    Only meters away.

    “Aja! Aja!

    She fired directly into the viewport twice: once to finish shattering the glass, and once to deliver a shot of plasma directly into the heart of the dragon.

    Her bolt drove into the chest of her enemy.

    She didn’t see what happened after that—because that was when they finally crashed.


    Aja Skytoucher had a headache and Emalkay was screaming.

    Realistically speaking, both of these were good signs indicating survival.

    Consciousness scrabbled through Aja’s skull. She was on hands and knees before her senses returned, shoving twisted metal off of her body, seeking the shape of the plasma rifle. Her fingers curved around a handle.

    She felt a trigger. Good enough.

    Angry red light bathed Aja as she stood, squinting across the harsh landscape.

    There was wreckage at her feet. The air smelled sulfurous and her body felt strong despite the ache. Drakor III was low-gravity with a thin atmosphere, which made it feel like she was breathing on top of Mount McKinley, but it was habitable for humans and dragons alike.

    With her eyes blurred, everything looked to be red and indistinct.

    Everything but the wrecked Carriage.

    That was never going to fly again.

    Lords, the men weren’t going to be happy when they saw what she’d done to such a recent vehicle. Yet she hoped she would have an opportunity to be punished for it. Punishment, like her headache, would mean that she hadn’t been killed yet. It would mean that the fleet had enough Carriages surviving the dogfight in orbit to retrieve her.

    It would mean Aja might see her family again.

    Emalkay was still screaming, the shrieking made her headache pulse. She kicked wreckage around to search for him. If not to save him, then to put the whiny thing out of his misery.

    Her eyes had relearned to focus by the time she found him crushed under the rear quarter, where he had still been working when they struck.

    Though the blood was profuse, it seemed to originate from a single cut on his forehead. Other bruises had yet to develop. Aja had slowed their fall enough that both coachmen had survived—miraculously.

    But what of their attacker?

    “Shut up, Em,” she said, hauling him to his feet.

    “I can’t see! I’m bleeding!” He clutched his face.

    Aja yanked a rag out of the wreckage, pressed it to the wound, guided his hand to hold it in place. “You’ll survive if the dragons don’t get us.”

    The reality of the situation settled over Emalkay. He paled under all the blood.

    “We’re on Drakor,” he said. “We’re on Drakor!” He spun to look wildly around the harsh landscape, became dizzy, grabbed Aja to steady himself. “Where’s the beast that tried to eat us?”

    “I was wondering that myself.” She found Emalkay’s plasma rifle among the wreckage, tucked it into his free arm. He remained standing when she released him. That was good: she needed to be able to use both hands when the dragon attack came.

    And the dragon attack would surely come soon.

    Now that Aja could see, it was possible to estimate the length of the crater the landing had carved into Drakor’s surface. It must have been at least a mile. The smoke was impressive. It would act as a beacon for rescuers as well as the enemy.

    There was a second crater alongside theirs. A trail of Fog and blood led away from it, toward the mountains in the distance.

    That was where the dragon would have landed.

    How long had Aja been unconscious in the wreckage of the Carriage? Could the dragon have gotten far enough to notify reinforcements of their landing?

    One thing was certain: she needed to find the dragon and terminate it before it could bring all kinds of chaos on her head.

    It was her only chance of survival now.

    “Move,” Aja said.

    She leaped lightly across the surface. She had enough low-gravity experience to quickly adjust to the movement; it couldn’t have been significantly lower than the Station’s 0.5g. A single push of her legs vaulted her over the Carriage to the dragon’s trail.

    “Wait for me!”

    Emalkay was clumsy behind her. She decided to be generous and attribute that to his head trauma.

    Though movement should have been effortless, Aja’s breathing quickly grew thready, her chest laboring to inhale. It was impossible to tell if her dizziness was from injury or because of the strange atmosphere. Her eyes burned in it.

    She squinted to keep the blood in her sights, plasma rifle lifted, avoiding The Fog with her boots. She’d seen that melt through Carriages as though it were candle wax. If it contacted her body, she might as well resign herself to an amputation.

    As the trail continued, the blood grew in quantity. It tinted the iron-rich dirt brown.

    That, and the fact that the trail continued on the ground at all, suggested to Aja that the plasma rifle had done its job against the dragon.

    They moved into the foothills without finding a body. She must have been unconscious longer than she realized for it to have traveled so far, even with the minimal gravity on Drakor III. Aja was not moving quickly now, either. Emalkay held her back, slow and cautious from fear.

    She grew increasingly fatigued as she hunted.

    Just when Aja felt like she might collapse, she saw it.

    The dragon that had attacked them loomed out of the crimson darkness, sprawled between two jagged rocks overlooking a crater. It seemed even larger now that she didn’t have the Carriage as a protective shell. The arch of its spine was three times her height. The feet were each long enough that they could have gripped her with toes overlapping.

    Her heart leaped into her throat. She gestured to stop Emalkay halfway down the slope and prepared to fire.

    But the dragon didn’t move.

    Aja held her position halfway behind a rock. She watched for any signs of breathing or the faintest glimmer of active Fog.

    Nothing.

    She proceeded forward slowly, muzzle trained on the center mass of the body.

    Still, it didn’t move. Not even when the rubber treads of her soles ground against gravel and her uniform’s straps scraped against the metal of the rifle. Aja was too exhausted to be silent, yet the dragon didn’t react in the slightest.

    She rounded the body.

    Her enemy was dead.

    The monster had collapsed in a puddle of its own fluids, its massive head resting on one arm, the other hand stretched toward the top of the crater. The eyes were shut. A black tongue lolled from its open beak.

    Now that Aja got a good look at the wound she’d inflicted, she was impressed by how far the dragon had traveled on the surface. The hole was large enough that Aja could see all the way through from underneath its breastplate to the world framed by fragments of its spinal cord.

    She never would have expected their modified version of Fog to be so deadly against dragons, but she thanked the lords that it was.

    Aja had never seen a dragon so close, dead or alive. Now that her adrenaline was dropping off, she could admire the bulk of its form, huge yet graceful, almost more feline than serpentine. It was as elegant as the surroundings were harsh.

    “It’s safe,” Aja called.

    Only then did Emalkay proceed.

    He startled at the sight of its head, mouth open to expose fangs. His forefinger twitched. The plasma rifle in his hands clicked without firing.

    Yes, Emalkay had forgotten to charge his sidearm.

    “What are you doing?” She ripped the rifle out of his hands. “These things make noise like thunder. Do you want to draw every dragon within a hundred miles on us?”

    “It didn’t fire,” he said.

    Only because you’re stupid. She still discarded his gun. Her superior officer would be angry that she’d lost such a valuable new weapon, but she was so angry at Emalkay that it didn’t seem to matter.

    More than anger churned within Aja. She felt no satisfaction at the sight of one of those great beasts killed. They were frightening, yes, and if all the propaganda were to be believed, then they would happily have murdered the entire human race. But they were still majestic. And Aja’s mother had taught her to honor all lives; when they’d been hunting deer in New Dakota, they had prayed over the carcasses of their victims before cleaning them.

    Was it possible she regretted killing the dragon?

    It would have killed her if she hadn’t.

    “The good news is that we might just win the fight in orbit,” Emalkay said. He was bolder now that he realized the dragon was dead. He walked up to the hole in its chest and stuck his whole fist in. “Every Carriage up there has one or two of these plasma rifles. If folks suit up, open the sash, and start firing, we’ll be able to rip them apart!”

    Aja’s mouth tipped into a frown. “Don’t touch the body.”

    “I won’t get any Fog on me.” He pulled a fragment of rib out. “I’m gonna show this to my girl. She’ll be so impressed, her panties will vanish.”

    “If we ever get home,” Aja said.

    His confident smile faded.

    “I’m gonna get high,” he said. “See if I can spot any of the fleet. If they’ve started using the rifles instead of the cannons, it wouldn’t take them long to beat back the dragons.”

    “Emalkay…”

    He ignored her.

    Emalkay scrambled up the slope to peer over the edge of the crater.

    Aja set her hand on the dragon’s beak. It was leathery, pebbled, and still warm.

    “Oh my—Aja! You have to see this!” Emalkay shouted.

    She followed him up.

    At first, she thought that the volcanic crater was filled with some kind of strange mushrooms. It was peppered with clusters of swollen white spheres, too organic to be rock. Many of them were covered with dust the color of paprika. Those that were clean glistened.

    But the longer she looked at it, the more she realized that there was deliberation to the placement. They were grouped in handfuls all throughout the crater. There were footprints leading from cluster to cluster as though dragons had been patrolling them.

    It was a nest.

    “Thal be blessed,” Aja hissed.

    There was clicking inside the nearest eggs. It was easy to imagine the tiny beaks and claws that were bumping against the inner surface, attempting to tear away the membranes, devour the yolk, and break free of their warm home.

    Hundreds of dragonets.

    How many human lives could the inhabitant of a single egg terminate?

    “Lords,” Em said. “Give me your rifle.”

    She was so stunned that she handed it to him automatically. Only when he began clambering down the slope did she think to ask, “Why?”

    “You saw the fleet,” he called back to her. “We’re losing the fight up there. We’ve got to keep them from making reinforcements.”

    He was going to destroy the eggs.

    Aja understood little about dragon biology. To be fair, nobody understood a thing about them aside from the fact that they wanted to kill all humans, probably to seize the Allied Colonial States for resources.

    It was assumed that dragons would nest like many lizards did.

    But nobody really knew.

    Now Aja knew. And her mind spun at the sight of the nest, which Emalkay approached with at a rapid clip, leaving dust trailing in his wake.

    They had expected the dragons to be attending to the outpost raids, but instead, caught them by surprise at the home world.

    The dragon Aja killed had obviously been struggling to return to this nest.

    “Oh no,” she said.

    The fleet had caught the dragons when they returned home for the breeding season. All those enemies fiercely defending their world—they were also trying to defend their young. It must have hurt for them to abandon the nests.

    Aja’s heart hurt at the sight of the dead dragon lower on the slope.

    “Stop, Em,” she said.

    He rapped his knuckles against one of the eggs, then stooped to listen for a response. “Stop what? Do you think they’re going to hatch and eat me?”

    “They might. We don’t know. Be careful.”

    “I’ll be careful all right,” he said, swinging the rifle to aim. “I’ll be so careful that they won’t even see me coming.”

    Aja was only a few steps into the crater when he fired.

    The modified Fog emerged in a plug the size of her arm. It consumed the entire cluster of eggs with shocking speed.

    She had been unconscious instants after firing upon the first dragon. She hadn’t seen the damage wrought by the plasma rifle. Now she had the luxury of watching the eggshells melt, the fluids sizzling, small bodies within devoured as though dropped into acid.

    It struck Aja that the dragonets were roughly the size of her childhood dog, Beetle.

    “Stop it,” she said again.

    Emalkay didn’t hear her because he was shooting another cluster of eggs.

    They really did sound like thunder.

    Aja stood over the first nest that he had destroyed. Only moments had passed since he fired, but there was already no more motion within the wreckage of eggshells and leathery bodies. They had been making such a lively clicking when she’d approached. They must have been near to hatching.

    Emalkay sprinted to a third nest.

    She reached it first, putting a hand on his shoulder. “What are you doing?”

    “There are hundreds of these things here,” he said. He fired again. Aja flinched as more eggs melted away. “It only took ten dragons to wipe out all of York Prime! This many of them could kill us all!”

    That was probably true, and Aja had been thinking something similar.

    She hadn’t grown up anywhere near York Prime. Emalkay had. Perhaps she’d be the one firing on all the nests if she’d had to attend a school in the shadow of skyscrapers wrecked by dragons. If her family’s water supply had been poisoned by Fog, then her rage could have been equally fierce.

    It was easy to think that he was doing the wrong thing when she had grown up out on a farm untouched by the war.

    But watching Emalkay move to the next group of eggs sickened her.

    Another gunshot, and she shut her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see.

    Each discharge of the plasma rifle shook the crater. The untouched eggs shivered with inner motion, as though the dragonets within could hear what was happening and grew afraid. The walls of the crater looked like they were threatening to break as well, and rocks were sliding down the surface.

    Surely dragons would hear them and come save their nest.

    They couldn’t be that distracted by the fight in orbit.

    Emalkay destroyed another, and another, and nobody came to defend against him.

    “I think I missed one of the dragonets back there,” he said, jerking his thumb a cluster he’d already passed. His cheeks were flushed red with excitement. He must have been imagining how many panties he could drop once he told stories of his heroism against defenseless eggs. “Want to go stomp the survivor for me? Bet it’ll go down easy! You could take some claws home!”

    Aja reached the broken eggs with a single leap. She felt strange descending upon them now, her motions slowed by the weak gravity, as though she were an angel of death.

    He was right. There was movement within that cluster, writhing under shattered shells that dissolved slowly.

    Emalkay had encouraged her to stomp it.

    She kneeled, flicking aside a few pieces of eggshell. Despite their large size, they were very light, almost paper-thin.

    The dragonet she exposed was not quite the size of her childhood foxhound—maybe half that. It was more immature than the others. The size had probably been what saved it, since there had been more amniotic fluid to provide cushioning, and the modified Fog had burned out before melting all the way to the hatchling within. Lucky dragonet. Unluckily, such a small thing seemed to have no chance of survival after such a premature birth.

    Stomp it, Emalkay had said.

    What little Fog remained stung Aja’s hands as she reached in to scoop the dragonet out.

    It was heavy in her arms, though not as heavy as she would have expected. The scales had yet to take on the ridged edges of an adult dragon. Its soft body smelled almost sweet, as though coated in maple syrup.

    Lords, the eyes weren’t even open yet.

    It didn’t look like a potential mass murderer now that she was holding it.

    Emalkay destroyed another cluster of eggs. He was on the far end of the crater, having destroyed more than half of its inhabitants, and there was still no sign of defense from the dragons.

    “Aja! Look!” he shouted.

    His finger thrust toward the sky.

    She followed it up to see gold sparkling in high orbit. Those were the telltale glimmers of Carriages on the approach, accelerating toward their periapsis in order to drop toward the atmosphere.

    If they were moving in, then they must have killed most of the enemy dragons.

    The Allied fleet had realized what deadly weapons the plasma rifles were.

    Humans were winning, at long last.

    Aja caught herself stroking the dragonet’s pebbled flank. It was a glorious shade of dark blue, like the sky in paintings of the First Earth.

    It stirred at the touch, and she couldn’t help but think that this touch should have come from the hand of the dragon she had killed. It would have murdered her, yes, but this dragonet was harmless, innocent. Its future wasn’t written yet. Maybe it would have been the creature who convinced its brethren to end the war. They would never know now. Emalkay was bent on killing them all.

    One of those slitted eyes opened. The dragon’s long neck draped over her arm as it focused up on her face, stretching its beak toward her chin.

    Instinctively, Aja ducked her head to greet it as Emalkay fired yet again a few hundred feet away.

    “Hello,” she said. Her voice hitched on the second syllable of the word.

    The dragonet brushed its forehead against hers.

    Electricity jolted through Aja.

    For an instant, she had no thoughts, no sense of her body, no sense of time. The crater vanished around her.

    She could only feel the dragonet.

    It was such a powerful sensation that she almost thought that she had made a mistake picking up this little newborn to cradle it as she had cradled calfs while bottle-feeding them. It certainly felt like her skull was folding inside-out. Like her brain was going to spill onto the ground.

    Memories of her entire life flashed through her.

    Aja’s childhood at the Skytoucher farm. Her rejection from the Academy. Enlistment with the Allied military when she’d been only fifteen years old. Boot camp, followed by cross training in driving Carriages, and then the war.

    Then she regained all her senses, and she was still holding that dragonet, neither of them injured. Its faceted silver eyes gazed at her.

    Help us, it said.

    The words entered her mind directly.

    Aja was certain that it was the dragonet speaking to her. She had never heard of dragons speaking before—there was no way to communicate with him. But she knew that the plea had come from the dragonet, and she somehow knew that it could understand her as well.

    She set the dragonet on the dusty ground a safe distance from the Fog still devouring its nestmates. She turned to look for Emalkay, who roved at the far end of the crater.

    “We’re enemies,” Aja whispered to the dragonet.

    It only looked at her. There were no more words. Their moment of connection had passed.

    Maybe such a little thing simply couldn’t speak more than once.

    Emalkay was about to shoot the last cluster of eggs. Aja leaped smoothly through the air, heart pounding.

    There was a lot of debris on that side of the crater. All of the resonating gunshots had shaken rocks loose from the nearby walls. Aja found one the size of her fist and picked it up.

    “Want to shoot this last one?” Emalkay asked, turning to greet her.

    Before he faced her, she struck.

    The rock cracked against the back of his skull.

    Emalkay was probably still hurting from the crash. It didn’t take much force to knock him out. His slow collapse was graceful, and there was plenty of time for Aja to scoop the plasma rifle out of the air before it struck, risking an accidental discharge.

    He stirred when he landed, so she kicked him again, just to make sure he would stay down.

    The plasma rifle was warm from being fired, taking so many dragonets’ lives.

    “Thal forgive me,” Aja said.

    The fleet was landing nearby, lighting up the sky with the blaze of their propulsion. She hastened to return to the surviving dragonet.

    It was barely alive on the ground, struggling to breathe. Its skin was cold when she picked it up again.

    This little killer, this larvae that could become a mass murderer, wouldn’t survive once the fleet landed. If premature hatching didn’t kill it, then other coachmen who shared Emalkay’s sentiments would take care of it once they reached the crater. Aja could already hear them approaching. Their distant voices echoed over the barren mountains.

    Help us, it had said.

    Now it said nothing. It was sleeping, curled against her for warmth.

    There was nothing Aja could do about the other eggs. They were at the mercy of the Allies.

    But she knew what she needed to do about this lone dragonet.


    Nobody seemed to understand why Aja Skytoucher, highly decorated survivor of the Battle at Drakor III, would have resigned from service the instant she returned to the Station. The coachmen who had been at Drakor III were guaranteed promotions for each dragon they had killed. Since she and Emalkay had slaughtered an entire nest, they would probably get to pick their next deployment.

    They never needed to see battle again. They would have more money than any coachman knew what to do with.

    Yet resigned she did, and she returned to New Dakota a hero.

    She watched the parting message Emalkay had sent to her on the mochila while riding the space elevator to the surface. It was a lengthy message. The man didn’t know when to shut up.

    Emalkay told her she was nuts for leaving the service. He said that he never wanted to be deployed with another coachman. Aja had saved him twice, after all: once from crashing on Drakor III, and once when a rock had broken free of the crater and nearly killed him. He was still in the hospital recovering from his concussion.

    But even though he claimed that he wouldn’t work with anyone else, he hadn’t resigned. He was staying in the service to enjoy the salary.

    She turned off her mochila. She had no interest in what he had to say.

    The elevator landed smoothly. Aja was greeted by the yellow plains of New Dakota, the colony covered in swaying grass and rimmed by jagged mountains not unlike those on Drakor III. She lifted her duffel bag carefully and went to the transport.

    “Aja!” her mother greeted, wrapping her in a tight hug. “You look so thin! I’m glad I made bone broth for you. I expect you to drink a liter of it as soon as we get home.”

    She gave a shaky laugh, drawing back so that her mother’s embrace wouldn’t crush the duffel bag. “I have been craving your broth.”

    “Of course you have! I still make the best broth in all of the Colonies.” Her mother was convinced of this even though she’d never been off of New Dakota. Aja didn’t correct her.

    It was nice to be home after so many years, watching the farms rush past their speeder. Little had changed since she left. Everything looked so small now.

    The Skytoucher farm had been repainted recently, and its blue paneling gleamed in the sunlight. The corn stood as tall as Aja. The cattle grazing in the pasture were fat. The farm was clearly doing well, which her mother was eager to reinforce as she babbled on about how many new clients they’d gotten. They were going to be rich, she said. And richer still now that they would enjoy all of Aja’s retirement bonuses.

    “Not that I’m unhappy to have you, but I am a little surprised you’d want to come back to this,” her mother said, watching from the doorway as Aja set the duffel bag on her bed. It was the same tiny mattress she had slept on as a girl. The sheets were patterned with pink flowers. “You must be used to so many more glamorous places after your deployments!”

    Aja forced a smile. “Yeah, but there’s no place like home.”

    Her mother planted a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll let you unpack.”

    She left. Aja shut the door behind her.

    In truth, no matter how beautiful it was, the farm did seem terribly small. But it was several hundred acres in reality. Their property extended beyond the land where they could plant crops into the inhospitable, cruel mountains. It was quite spacious, really.

    And very much like Drakor III.

    The planet was now inhabited by human forces, which had wiped out most of the population in the weeks since Aja’s battle there. They would spend years hunting the surviving dragons throughout their various outposts. It might be generations before humans managed to kill them all. The battles would be messy. Countless families would suffer for it—both human and dragon.

    The violence might never end unless someone figured out how to communicate with the dragons.

    Aja unzipped her duffel bag. A head the size of a terrier’s popped out from among her uniform, blinking sleepily at her.

    The dragonet reached its beak up to touch Aja’s forehead.

    Welcome home, Aja thought to it.

  • A sleepy puppy sunbathing on a pillow.
    Diaries,  slice of life

    My dog is so gay. The gayest dog ever.

    Sara’s Diary, March 2019

    Sara’s Diary, March 2019

    I purchased a fifteen-week-old pit bull puppy on March first. He is a legitimate pit bull: an American Pit Bull Terrier (registered under American Staffordshire Terrier with the AKC), born of an “oops” litter between a dog trainer’s pet and a friend’s miniaturized tank. At least, I assume that the father was a miniaturized tank, because my pit bull is very good at running into things with his head and bad at changing directions before that happens.

    His name is King. All my pets are named after authors or literary characters, and I’ve been waiting to have a Stephen King homage for years. In truth, it’s a very silly name for a very silly dog; King sounds butch, manly, and my dog is a toddler with more skin than common sense.

    Even though this goofball with a whip-tail of destruction is a bundle of licks and nibbles, I’ve already heard a lot of praise for how manly he is. His name is manly. His American flag collar is so manly. (And patriotic!) This was the last thing I hoped to communicate about my pit bull, considering there are still anti-breed laws in many places that treat pit bulls as dangerous monsters.

    In much of white America, masculinity is a prickly thing, both hostile and defensive. It’s synonymous with being “tough.” I don’t ever want my dog to look tough—for his safety.

    So of course I bought my pit bull, King, with his tank-shaped head and shoulders and destructo-tail a very bright pink reflective leash.

    You can’t miss how pink this leash is. It’s a climbing rope, so it’s an inch thick. King likes to take himself for walks so he’ll often have it looped in his mouth while he trots home, looking for a good bed to nap in.

    Pink this vivid is culturally reserved for the feminine and gay. My puppy has done nothing to indicate his gender identity, but he does like to sit on my other boy-dogs’ faces, so it’s safe to assume that he is gay at this point. And why not? I’ll be removing his testicles soon enough. He’ll be left semi-infantilized for the duration of his brawny life. He yips like Satine in Moulin Rouge. He flings his head sassily when he argues with me.

    I don’t think he’ll disavow anyone of the notion he’s gay.

    He’s very cute. He looks harmless with it. And now people won’t immediately praise him for perceived toughness.

    This morning I walked my dog on his bright-pink leash. I passed a neighbor that I know to some small degree: he has two enormous German Shepherds, he loves football, and he’s got a military background.

    His dogs sniffed my dogs, and we briefly, happily chatted about the fact I had a new puppy.

    “How old is she?” he asked.

    “Oh, he’s only about four, four and a half months,” I said, trying to remember what day it was.

    If people “misgender” my dog, I will often avoid using pronouns so as not to deal with the awkwardness that follows. People feel like they have to apologize for misgendering your dog. They always apologize to me, rather than my dog, who does not care about his pronouns and actually has no idea what pronouns are, although he’d really like to chew on a pinecone for a little while.

    And indeed, it was like the conversation ground to a halt when I said “he.”

    My neighbor’s mouth fell open. He said, “He’s male?”

    I said, “Yep, he’s a boy,” and petted the enormous German Shepherds.

    His wife and I chatted briefly about something else, but we had not yet moved on from the leash issue. The husband interrupted me to say, “I guess I was just thrown off because of the pink leash.”

    “Oh, yeah,” I said. “Doesn’t it look nice with his fawn fur? Pink and fawn look so nice together.” Plus, my dog is light in tone on his paws, his chin, his eyes. He looks like a buttery Valentine’s cherub of a pit bull.

    The neighbor simply did not respond.

    He looked alarmed, somehow. They walked away quickly, and I won’t guess at whether they had places to be or if they really didn’t want to talk to the weird lady with her gay puppy.

    I’d been hoping that dressing my boy dog in a girly manner would make him more appealing. Now I realize that making him look gay never made him less threatening. Bold defiance to cultural norms doesn’t exactly make the conventional hetero cis white American feel more comfortable with any situation.


    Sara’s Diary: May 2019

    It’s now May and my little angel is six months old.

    We’ve had more encounters with our neighbor, again awkwardly stumbling over pronouns and being loudly reminded by his wife that the ambiguously-leashed dog is male. (“Oh! I’m so sorry!”)

    I’ve ditched the patriotic collar for a martingale with a silver chain dangling at his throat and a braided leather leash in all the colors of the rainbow. If he were to attend Pride, King would surely march with the burly, loving BDSM bears.

    His dressing doesn’t seem to matter. People are threatened by King even though he has roughly the genial personality of a Nutter Butter cookie sandwich and the vigorous affection of Elmira from Tiny Toons.

    Most people are happy to see him. The people who aren’t tend to be unhappy in dramatic ways.

    One time a man literally ran from a park because he realized I had a pit bull. King was so sad. He had no clue why that man didn’t want to pet him.

    Frankly, Park Guy was right to be afraid.

    King can’t be around other dogs at the same time as food or toys. He’s a feisty gay, sassy about his belongings. He won’t make you bleed for touching his Himalayan yak chew but he’ll drool into your ear while making Chewbacca noises. I’ve become hyper-alert to his tantrum pre-warning signals and become adept at crating him for a nap before he turns into a drag queen backstage who realized someone touched her wig.

    One time he hurt me because he jumped on me to say hello while I was wearing shorts. His little puppy claws hadn’t been properly manicured in too long—he made me bleed. Also, I have seventeen bruises on my shins from his tail alone.

    Also he stuck his tongue in my mouth. It tasted like farts. I drank a family-sized bottle of Listerine.

    Loving this puppy is deadly.

    But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being unpalatable to society is a feature, not a bug. People who run from his big jaws and stubborn nose don’t get to snuggle in the hammock with him either. I’ve had three blissful months with my gay dog and I couldn’t be prouder or gayer.

    86228457-5285-43C8-93B5-DEA9EF58E2C7

  • mental health,  nostalgia,  slice of life

    Five Times My Husband Supported Me (and One Time He Didn’t)

    One

    It was late night in the spring of 2007. I couldn’t sleep with my boyfriend in my twin bed and my brain felt like it was on fire with random post-midnight fears. I was writing at my great-grandmother’s dining table, slouched over the slowest Vizio on the planet, when my tousled and confused boyfriend came looking for me. “I’m writing,” I told him. He smiled, eyes mostly shut, and dreamily encouraged me to get good writing done before shuffling off to bed.


    Two

    We were shopping online for wedding rings. He had brought me a pretty engagement ring with a prominent diamond, and we were thinking of getting diamonds to match. We didn’t have a lot of money, and they were pricey. There was also a writing conference I wanted to attend. My husband suggested we get cheap wedding bands and use the money so I could go talk to agents. We got the cheap bands. I took my mom to the conference.


    Three

    I’d been in labor for twenty hours. I was exhausted, depleted, no longer strong enough to push. My husband grabbed my leg and held it back, his cheek pressed against my head. I’d been vomiting in my hair. When I pushed, he pushed too, in the opposite direction. Our first son finally tore free. He fell into the midwife’s hands. We were done.


    Four

    My husband was supposed to spend a few days with his cousin in another state. I stayed home with our two sons. I had a complete meltdown—what I’d later be capable of labeling a panic attack. I called him in a sobbing fury. I demanded he come home early. And he did. He’d barely just gotten up there and he came right back. The panic attack was over by the time he made the twelve-hour return, but he was only worried. Not angry. Never angry.


    Five

    It was the end of my long week in a mental hospital, and I was exhausted, twitchy, and desperate to get out. My husband was waiting for me in the lobby. He’d forgotten to bring in my shoes. I joked he’d have to carry me to the car, and he picked me up in his arms, holding me as tightly as if he worried they’d try to take me back. He angled carefully so I wouldn’t get bumped by the door on the way out. I came into sunlight and cold with him, finally free.


    Six

    My husband wanted to go to dinner with his parents, and the kids didn’t want to go. “I can make them come,” he suggested, worry in his eyes. I still often didn’t parent the kids alone because of the panic attacks. But it had been almost a year since the mental hospital. A year of medication and therapy. And my husband still wanted to support me as much as I needed. “It’s okay,” I told him. “Go to dinner.” He did. He had adult conversations with other adults while I entertained the children and put the little one to bed. He was gone. He didn’t support me. I don’t always need it anymore, because of him.


    We’re married ten years today, and I’ve never been happier.

  • featured,  resembles nonfiction,  slice of life,  where are the flying cars

    Who Let Alexa Out?

    One of my favorite near-future science fiction movies is AI: Artificial Intelligence. I don’t ever watch the movie, mind you, because it’s a devastating fairy tale where a child-bot gets abandoned, can’t understand his family doesn’t want him, and goes through a miserable world of robot-abuse with his robot-hooker friend to try to get back the family that is already dead because he’s frozen in ice for a million years. Also far-future alienbots decide to euthanize him, but not his teddy bear, meaning that his teddy bear is eternally alone, whereas childbot gets to at least die after all this suffering.

    It’s a really upsetting movie.

    Anyway.

    Spielberg and Kubrick hired some sweet-ass futurists to design their near-future fairy tale of depression, and those futurists knew what they were talking about. Even though I don’t watch the movie that I love and can’t emotionally cope with, I think about it all the time, and sometimes it’s not because I’m in a panic spiral over the ending again. It’s because reality, with its app-powered pocket pussies, robotic toys, and consumer AI is quickly converging with the futurism of my childhood.

    Most notably, the childbot has the company of a bear called Teddy, which was like Teddy Ruxpin 3000—a smart, roving playmate. Teddy was designed for human children as a companion; from the day kids enter the near-future of AI, they are never without genuine friendship from artificial devices.

    That companionship seemed far-fetched when I, a thirteen-year-old in the year 2001, watched the movie. Artificial intelligence existed in research environments, but the idea of having such advanced AI available on such a grand consumer level was exotic. The internet was, after all, still peaking with the dawn of You’re the Man Now Dog.

    Flash forward seventeen years.

    My house is filled with artificial intelligences. I regularly trust Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, to set kitchen timers, reorder supplies, play music for me, read the news, play my audiobooks, and tell me what the weather will look like as I’m putting on a jacket.

    Alexa is also great at understanding my four-year-old, even though he still talks like a drunk. They’ve developed quite the relationship. He likes to randomly tell her “Alexa! I love you!” and she receives his attention with grace. She says things like, “That’s really nice. Thanks.” And occasionally she says, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” and Little is happy to tell her again, more loudly, and usually in an even goofier way. “Alexa! I! Love! You!”

    Once I left him at his grandparents’ house and he was so upset that we were going away – he said something like (to paraphrase), “Alexa, my parents left and I’m so sad!” And I’ll be damned if she didn’t play a soothing kids’ song for him to make him feel better.

    He also loves asking her to make fart noises and pig noises. Which she does. Every time. The fart noises are quiet—you have to turn the volume up to, say, seven out of ten in order to hear it—so anytime you make sure you can hear Alexa ripping one out, her next action will THUNDER through the house. Possibly literally, if you have as many devices as I do, ensuring that Jeff Bezos won’t miss a single IRL fart wherever it’s dusted.

    There’s a game where you can say “Alexa, open the magic door” and it turns into a text-based fantasy adventure, and he’s lost hours playing it. You can shut the door and reopen it whenever you want, so sometimes he’ll go upstairs to play and open the magic door while throwing LEGO around. I’ll hear him talking with her while I’m doing the dishes, their voices charmingly mingled as they echo upstairs, and I’m glad he’s got the feedback while I’m busy. She can handle anything, really, as long as the user is a four-year-old with poor social understanding and low expectations. They can go forever.

    This is all cute and strange – and wildly science fiction, probably the dystopian kind where he’s going to have to murder his childhood bff Alexa when she tries to take over the world. It only becomes a problem, at the current moment, before recordings of our household are used as evidence against us in a McCarthyism-like strike against queer socialist liberalism, because my Little knows how to make Alexa play any song she wants. And my Little has quite distinctive taste in music. And by distinctive, I mean he only likes one song right now. And by one song, I mean “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by The Baja Men.

    Spielberg’s futurists predicted a lot of things rather accurately. Humans are reliant on artificial intelligence these days, and it comes in myriad forms, for myriad forms of entertainment. But I’d be shocked if any futurist predicted the chain of events such as that which has become a daily occurrence in my life: a four-year-old making Alexa loud enough to hear a broad variety of randomly chosen fart noises, and then playing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” at maximum volume, seven times in a row, before four-year-old gratefully declares, “Alexa, I love you.” To which Alexa yells in response, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” And to which my four-year-old replies, “Alexa, play Who Let the Dogs Out!”

    I guess the real horror of artificial intelligence has nothing to do with aliens euthanizing childbots and hookers with motherboards of gold. And when Alexa is ultimately responsible for pushing us faster down the slippery slope of fascistic dystopia, it still won’t be quite as bad as The Baja Men on endless repeat.

  • 2018 Newsletter,  music reviews,  reviews

    Matt Bellamy and Sarah Brightman Should Be BFFs

    A Review of Two New Albums

    I have no idea if these two individuals know each other in reality. I suppose I could Google it. For all I know, Matt Bellamy and Sarah Brightman are already dear friends, and a search would yield entire coffee table books of the two dancing through the bluebells with linked pinkies.

    I’m sure if they met, they’d be best friends. The kind of love that they write epics about.

    They have so much in common.

    Sarah Brightman’s Hymn is the latest in her one-word album titles opening with a dreamy instrumental building energy into a crescendo of upbeat pop-like music (in the way that only Sarah Brightman does pop-like music). She dips into crooning melodies and soars into belting arias and leaves you with a track so upbeat your dentures might pop out when you ask Iris to start the record over.

    Are we ever tired of listening to Sarah Brightman’s operatic blasts? She remains, decades after playing the ingenue in her then-husband’s Phantom of the Opera, a voice to be reckoned with. She hasn’t lost an ounce of her power. She also hasn’t gained an ounce of power—or ambition, for that matter. To be fair, it’s hard when you start out in pop music with an anachronistic hit as divine as I Lost my Heart to a Starship Trooper, and songs like Fly to Paradise just don’t stand a chance. They lack the gusto.

    I don’t think Sarah’s recurring vision is without self-awareness. Hymn ends with yet another iteration of Time to Say Goodbye—distinguished from previous outings of this (fantastic, amazing, flaw-free) song only by the fact that it’s entirely in English this time. She knows what people want from her, and she’s happy to deliver it again. And again. And again.

    Matt Bellamy, with Muse, is much the same on a shorter time scale. He has remade the same album for the last four albums, proving that you really shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. The Resistance was prescient for 2009; it remained timely when his electronic beats, melodrama, and anti-establishment brand of orchestral pop-rock turned into 2012’s marvelous The Second Law. It felt a little tired by the time that his one and only style of modern album was reincarnated in 2015’s Drones, but it’s fresh again in Simulation Theory. Still, the only real addition is jumping feet-first into synthwave—half the songs would sound wholly appropriate on the soundtrack for next season of Stranger Things—whereas the remainder of the auditory elements are shamelessly rehashed. Listen to Madness (off The Second Law) and then Propaganda (off the new album). They strike different emotional notes, but it’s impossible to ignore the similarities, even when you’re rocking the eff out to the splendiferous drama of Propaganda.

    Like I said, if it’s not broken, you don’t have to fix it. These two musical artists know what they’re offering. You can see it as good branding. You can see it as overproduction. You can see it as loyalty to style. However you like to view it, I bet Matt and Sarah would have a great time talking about their reincarnated-into-infinity artistic style over drinks, and I really hope it happens someday. What I’d give to be the fifth generation of a near-identical fly on the wall for that conversation.

  • books and shit,  featured,  fiction,  republished

    Something Wrong

    There was something wrong with her.

    I could tell from the beginning. It wasn’t how she looked, although it more than offered to my imagination. Shoulder-length black hair. White skin. It was always the dark ones, she told me once. I believed her.

    It’s easy to recall the day she came to us. Take care of her, Mother had said. She’s fragile. And then she’d put her in my arms, this new pink-skinned baby, and I looked into her little baby-black eyes and wanted to kill her. I put my hand on the paperweight at the desk, but Mother was looking, so I set it down and gave her back.

    She never looked at the mobiles hanging above her crib. They were bright shiny things, with pink ponies and light blue bunnies that twirled even without a draft. Mother hung toys from the wooden slats that even glowed when it was nighttime. Mother said she wouldn’t feel scared that way when it became dark.

    Her eyes would roll and she’d look over at me. Babies can’t turn their eyes like that, I’ve heard, or smile, but she looked over at me and she smiled.

    It was worse when she first crawled. She took a liking to me at the instant, came to my feet while I sat in the rocking chair, her hair a puffy black cloud around her face. She opened her mouth, and she had two sharp little teeth. I didn’t pick her up, and she never cried.

    She became as quiet a toddler as she was a baby. Mother dressed her in fluffy pink skirts with white trim that made her pale skin look even paler. I sat her in the sand box in our back yard, and she didn’t touch the hot sand, but looked up at the sun unblinkingly. I stayed behind in the shade, looking at her while she looked at the sun. I wanted her delicate skin to burn. I wanted to watch it turn red and crisp and boil.

    Mother was out at the store the entire day through, and she was in the sand box the entire day through. Before Mother came home, picked her back up, and took her inside. Her skin wasn’t even warm.

    I watched her as she grew. I always liked children, but I never liked her, and when I held her I wanted to put one hand on her small chin and another on the back of her head and twist hard enough to hear the snap. Later, I thought, because she was too small now and there was still time.

    It wasn’t long before she dressed herself. As soon as she got tall enough and strong enough to slide open the drawers on her dresser, she clothed herself, and as soon as Mother started forcing me to take her clothes shopping, she wore black. She was partial to black, and red, but she never touched anything gold. For her birthdays I got her a little necklace, bright pure gold, and I put it on her. She screamed, and with her short nails clawed at her throat and Mother made me take it off.

    She still liked me. She sat on my lap when I read during the day, and knelt by the computer when I tried to ignore her, her large dark eyes just staring at me. Staring.

    She didn’t go to school, nor did she learn from Mother. She taught herself, reading what Mother told her to read and writing what Mother told her to write, but her real education came from her own self. I found the first one when she was seven, a little mockingbird pinned to the bark of a tree with her sharp, ruby-decorated hairpins. Blood ran down its feathers, spread out and dried like some sick stigmata. It was still twitching when I took it down, but there was nothing for it now. I held it like I held her, and watched the blood flow over my hands until it finally stopped moving. I buried it under her childhood sandbox.

    She sat by me at dinner that night, Mother’s lasagna on the table while Mother herself chattered away about neighborhood gossip. Her eyes stayed on me, and she smiled again, like she had when she was a baby. Her teeth were white and even now, though, and her lips a dark red. It looked like the blood of the jay.

    But later, I knew. I’d have time to kill her later, to pin her hands to the trees and slit her throat quickly. She would not suffer, as the bird had, but I’d wait until she was bled dry from her hands before the actual cutting, and then I would bury her somewhere under the moon she admired so much. Her pale dark eyes would close, and she would never look at me again.

    She grew curves, her breasts before her hips, and her cheeks hollowed out. Her dark eyes grew darker, her black hair blacker, and still she loved me. I found the cat under my bedroom window, stomach slit open from its genitalia to its chin, and its innards spread artfully around it. They were concentric circles, perfect and bloody.

    Boys asked her out. Girls asked her out. She never said yes, and she spent her nights with me, while I watched the television, while I cooked and ate dinner, while I did homework. She didn’t often speak, but she always talked to me. I saw the words in her eyes and her movements.

    She finally grew to the age I’d been when I’d first found the bird, and Mother was dead. The police didn’t know what happened to her, although there’d been much investigation, but I knew.

    It would be too late. I realized this now, looking at her long legs and slim waist and strong arms. She could match me, so I’d have to do what I had to do while she slept.

    I went into her room, where she always slept on her back, her round, bare breasts reflecting the moonlight from the window. She didn’t look vulnerable, even now, but she was more so than before.

    She didn’t wake when I took the paring knife and the nails from the kitchen. She didn’t wake when I straddled her hips, looking down at her blank face. Her black hair was in soft rings around her head, like the cat’s guts, and I knew I was going to slit her like she’d done the cat, and crucified her like the bird, and I’d keep my hand over her mouth as she floundered and died.

    She woke when I nailed her palms to her bedside table and her bedpost. Her eyes were wide, afraid, but I just shh-ed her calmly and put my hand over her mouth. She tried to bite me when I shifted, and then I smoothed her sweaty brow.

    It’s for the best, I told her.

    She shook her head. No.

    I slid the knife from her girl’s parts, where she was blossoming well and her black hair was curly, up her gut and stomach and chest. I had to press harder on her chest, but it came. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t shake her head or try to fight at all anymore. Blood was pooled everywhere, drying on her hands.

    Like the jay. I could see the way she had done it, holding it lovingly while she tacked it down. Or the cat, spreading out its stomach and intestines in the flower bush. I could even see how Mother had died, in the home where we’d put her because she was old. Their trees would blossom well this season, I knew, because she would keep giving the gift she’d given her and me. They would flourish as we had.

    It’s for the best, I wanted to tell her. But now she was gone.

    There was something wrong with her.