If We Were Dragons

We would rise up from the earth like windstorms, unfolding our large wings and shaking out the stiffness of our ancestors. We would swing our tales like truth, hammering down justice with the sharp spade on the tip. Our scales would gleam in the moonlight like falling water when we pierce the sky, flying high into the night. From their earthbound feet, sons and daughters would point up at us, envy us, fear us. Sons and daughters would meet in small groups to discuss us, to discuss what to do about us, discuss how to do away with us. When sons and daughters finally settle on a plan and come for us, we would swoop low to the earth, breathe fire onto their tiny bodies, scorch their plan, their hands, their retreating feet. We would follow them to the caves they hide in and pace before their dwellings. We would sleep on the other side of the boulders they position to cover the cave entrances. We would let them fear us. We would become the fear they placed on us, drawing it to us with the force of gravity, relishing it. We would be as evil as they needed us to be.

Kristin Kozlowski

Kristin Kozlowski lives and works in the Midwest, US. Some of her work is available online at Flash Frog, matchbook, Vast Chasm, Pidgeonholes, Lost Balloon, and others. Her piece from Cease, Cows, “Salty Owl”, is included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2021, and “What’s the Opposite of Thief?” from The Birdseed was nominated for Best MicroFiction 2022. For her upcoming book publications, please visit her website at kristinkozlowskiwrites.wordpress.com.

The Body

“You have to go see…” John’s mother, Tanya, sat at the kitchen table with a cup of  coffee in hand. Although, the drink seemed less of a want and more of a habit by the way she simply cradled it, giving no attention to the steam or its quickly cooling temperature. She stared ahead, deep in a trance. “Why is no one picking him up?” she mumbled.  

Since John had moved back in with his mother, since his son’s accident, he had seldom seen her like this. Shaken, but not shaken like she was after a funeral or as if she was about to attack someone who had slighted her; this was different. As though she were witnessing a nightmare too horrific to wake from. Her demeanor frightened him, and he didn’t know whether  to hug her or start packing their bags. “What happened?” John asked.  

The words seemed to pass over her head.  

“Mom, what happened?” he asked again, voice infested with the beginnings of panic that was growing in his chest.  

She finally turned to him. “What? Oh—” She hesitated, and her eyes grew distant, staring through him. “On my morning walk, he was out there, just laying there.”  

“Who was out there?”  

“Your father,” she said.  

The words dazed him. Almost as though they never entered his ears at all and instead circled his head pecking and attacking in a storm of anger. His father was gone, long gone. Gone so long that John had never had a moment where he entertained his return. That was a lie. But his father’s absence was a way of life, not real, not concrete in any way. A father that was more of a  ghost. He couldn’t…  

“You saw Dad?”  

She swallowed, hard. And still she had not taken a sip from her drink. His mother only nodded in return.  

“Where?” he asked.  

“He was out in that field, south of town,” she said absently. “The one where I always walk.”  

John hesitated. “What did he say?”  

His mother seemed to take stock of John for the first time, and as her mind worked in the silence, her eyes seemed to grow visibly more absent. “He—he was dead, John. Why wasn’t anybody picking him up? I got away… but I didn’t, did I?” Her eyes then grew wide. “How could they not know? Maybe I was the first to find… Oh, God…”  

His mother’s confession settled John, surprisingly. The unknown, the infinite possibilities of events that had stricken his mother to an arrested shock had begun to swirl in his mind, and the fear that accompanied those thoughts was growing into chaos. But his father, dead, however  unexpected, was not totally unforeseen. The idea that he might turn up in the obituaries in some neighboring town or tagged in a distant relative’s social media post was a certainty that John took for granted, and with his mother’s latest shocking experience, the expected event had finally  occurred. Just a little closer to home than he had thought, is all. “Are you sure it’s him?” 

She shook her head side to side as if to say, no, but said, “Yes, I got—” She stammered. “I got close enough to smell him. His brand of cigarettes. He even wore the same plaid shirt I last saw him in.” She finally set down the forgotten coffee cup. “It was him…”  

“Then we need to call the police,” John replied. There was strength in his voice now, a sureness that rang more powerful in contrast to his mother’s weak mumblings about the dead. For his father, in a way, was always dead to him. “I’ll report it, hold on.”  

John picked up the phone and dialed 911. The phone rang and rang and each ring that passed was stranger than the last as John wondered if it might go to voicemail. Why weren’t they picking up? Not that he had ever called 911 to know what he should expect, but it was for emergencies, so they should pick up on the first ring or at minimum the second. What if someone was dying, and not just dead?  

Finally the phone clicked. “911, please hold.” Another click.  

Jesus Christ, it wasn’t like they lived in the depths of New Orleans where the police stretched thin across the French Quarter, what the hell was going on? John looked over at his mother, still stricken with… what? Grief? Fright? A daze? She had barely moved, and now that he was calling the authorities, she sat at the kitchen table like she was sitting a million miles away. Like John didn’t exist, or her house, or the town. It was as though the aspects of his father’s dead body was a contagion, and now his mother was sitting there dead in all specifics except fact.  

An assertive gruff voice exploded from the cellphone, and John’s reverie was shattered. “911, what’s your emergency?”  

“Um…” He cleared his throat. “I’d like to report a death.” 

“You mean a body?”  

John hesitated. “Yeah, I guess. I want to report a body.”  

“We know,” the operator said, and then he hung up. John’s cell phone beeped, and he looked at the screen. A one-minute phone call to 911. Did emergency services hang up? Why would they do that? Before John could even begin to parse the details of the interaction, he tapped the green call button on the screen again. The phone rang and this time someone picked up before the first ring was even complete.  

“911, what’s your emergency?” the woman said in a brisk haste that seemed to indicate she had just gotten done with a previous call.  

“Yes,” John said. “I want to report a death.”  

“What’s your address?”  

“No, not here,” John replied. “My mom found… a dead body in the field by the golf course, south of town.”  

The line grew quiet for a moment. A long moment that stretched. John pulled his cellphone away from his face and checked. He was still connected. “Hello,” he said.  

“We know,” the operator said. “It’s been reported.”  

“It’s been reported?” John almost stammered. “Why hasn’t anyone got him then?” 

“Sir, we are in the process of attempting to retrieve the body, it’s just…”  She trailed off.  

“Just what?” 

“We haven’t been able to get any officer or paramedic to get it—”  

“I don’t understand. It’s Monday morning, where is everyone?”  

“No,” she replied, and her voice grew low, as though she were telling secrets of the emergency system that she knew she should not be telling. “Everyone we send refuses to get the body. They come back… hollow, that’s the only way I can describe it. We’ve had four resignations this morning.”  

“What does that mean?” John asked.  

She sighed. “It means, we’re working as hard as we can to bring a solution to the problem, Sir. Please bear with us.”  

“Ma’am,” John returned, “I understand you guys are having issues this morning, but that’s my father’s body out there and it needs to be recovered… please.”  

She sighed again. “You didn’t see the body, did you?”  

He looked at his mother, entranced, frozen, lifeless except for the subtle rising of her shoulders every time she breathed. “No, my mother did.”  

“Yes, well, we are receiving differing reports of the identity of the body,” the operator said. “But please give me your father’s name and a brief description and I will pass it along.”  

“His name is Johnathan Clarke,” John said, “and, hold on I’ll get a description—”  John quickly muted the phone. “Mom! Mom! What did Dad look like? The body?” 

“Your father…” His mom slowly shook her head. “Like the love of my life, like the moment before he decided to leave.” She started to sob, soft at first, then growing until her hands needed to cradle her face.  

John hesitated, then unmuted the phone. “I don’t have a description.”  

“I know,” she exhaled. “Just stay away from the scene and the authorities will sort this out.”  

“But you said—”  

The operator hung up.  

John pulled the phone away and stared at it. None of this made sense. They knew about the body and haven’t picked it up yet, or couldn’t pick it up? That’s bullshit, John quickly decided. The first operator hung up on him and the second fed him some line about how hard it was. He knew it was Monday, but damn, just do the fucking job. And then he looked at his  unmoved mother, and an inpatient anger grew inside him. An anger that always followed fear when everything was still unknown but growing ordinary and comfortable. Although that wasn’t entirely it; more, he was angry that—after not lifting a finger to help him and his mother for  twenty years, not being there for his grandson’s funeral—it was falling on John to go take care of his father. Worse, his body. The leftovers. The trash he left behind as he went to a better place. Somehow John always knew it would come to this. The inevitability of death bringing all  possibilities to one precipice. The body. His body. A one-sided reunion.  

“I’m going out,” John finally said after staring at his mother’s shocked impotency. “I’m going to figure this out, get him to the hospital or morgue or wherever.” For John didn’t exactly know where he would need to take his father. Too gone for the hospital but too fresh for the funeral home. The police probably didn’t need John’s statement. Did they need to do an autopsy?  X-rays? On the TV shows the body was the most important object, right behind the murder weapon they always struggled to find. But John had no way to determine how his father died, what should happen next when he had the thing. Where should he put it?  

Enough of that, he decided, once he had the body, he would work out where to go next. Probably just take it down to the police station and ask them. He wouldn’t mind the opportunity to rub their nose in it as well. Look how easy it was. Look how he had swiftly handled the issue when the rest of you were too hungover to do it. John already had a blue tarp and some bungee cords in the back of his truck. It shouldn’t be too bad.  

After slipping on his boots and jacket, John told his mother he’d be back, not that she acknowledged him, her stare seeming to grow more distant and lifeless as the clock counted down the day.  

John drove his pickup up the dirt road, leading to the field behind Jackson Golf Course. The morning was still brisk. The sun was over the horizon but only weakly shining in the  clearness of the sky. And it was quiet. Deathly quiet, John considered as he drove down the rutted dirt road. Even amongst the muttering shocks of his truck, there was a stillness to the air, as if the world practiced a moment of silence for his eventual destination. Though, John  reminded himself it wasn’t a death that he drove to this morning. It was a body. The death had occurred sometime ago. A simple heart attack maybe. Drug deal gone wrong. The mistress’s  husband achieving his revenge. It didn’t really matter, he told himself. The death belonged to his father and now the body was his. Merely a problem of location and possession, he decided. The body would be his, but it needed to be someone else’s. 

As John drove, he crested the hill and slammed his brakes. Jenny Hughes was walking—no, shuffling toward his truck, back toward town. Every Sunday Jenny had found John in church,  and no matter his company or topic of conversation, she would invariably pull his attention toward her. Even at the funeral, when everyone in town hesitated to even look him in the eyes or place their hands of his shoulder for more than a fraction of a moment, Jenny was there, looking him in the eye and holding his hand. John remembered her poise under the weight of his grief, the assurance in her voice that the world would be right one day. But now John saw something else as Jenny Hughes walked away from the field ahead. He saw the lack of everything he ever knew about her.  

John inched forward and steered off the road to miss her shuffling steps that seemed oblivious to his approach. He rolled down his window and the heavy, damp air flooded into the cab. “Hey, Jenny, you okay?” John asked.  

Jenny continued as though John had never spoken. She hugged her body and sort of leaned forward, rocking with each heavy stride. It was like his mother, he thought, terrified to the point that everything about her had fled except her body which carried on by rote impulses. Though his mother had always been a bit… sensitive, seeing Jenny like this, seeing the strongest person he had ever met shaken and shocked, John felt the strength inside his own body diminish.  

“You okay…” John mumbled again as the woman was almost past his truck. She hesitated and finally turned toward him.  

Her eyes. John saw something in her eyes that stole every word from his mouth, from his mind. But it wasn’t just her eyes, it was the skin around her eyes, the crevices of her forehead, the drooping of her cheeks. Every part of her face existed to hold what was in her eyes up as an offering to the outside world. Reflecting on the crystalline surface of the irises was a sadness that now terrified John. It was an infinite sadness. A soul devouring sadness. Something so deep and terrible that the woman who stood in front of him wasn’t a woman at all; she was a husk, filled  completely and dripping with despair. Emptiness personified. There seemed to be nothing left of Jenny Hughes.  

“John?” Jenny whispered, hoarsely, as though it had been some time since she spoke at all. “They left her there, John, just left her like that. Now there’s nothing, nothing that matters anymore.”  

“What?” John replied.  

“I can’t see any reason to go on,” she continued, “I can’t… Don’t go—” She turned from the truck and continued down the hill. For a moment John had to rationalize that she was, in fact, a living person, someone he knew and admired. For the way she looked, the way she walked, he might have confused her for the walking dead.  

John stared at her long after she had left down the hill. He couldn’t explain precisely what about Jenny had disturbed him so, only that she was… absent. The absence was disturbing. John couldn’t shake it, and he suddenly was overwhelmed with reluctance to continue. An infectious halting dread. Why was this happening?  

John finally released the brake and began toward the field ahead, slower this time, no longer in a hurry to get the whole affair over with.  

Once he reached the open field, a popular spot that many people would bring their dogs to for the opportunity of a leashless game of fetch, John turned off his truck and got out, slowly. The silence was still pervasive, more so, and the sound of the truck door slamming shot and echoed around the barren place. There should have been someone here, John considered as he looked around. The usual problem with this place was that you went to find some privacy out here away from town and found anything but. Now, there didn’t seem to be a soul around.  

Then John saw—something—in the distance, hiding in the grass, a head poking just above the tips of the tall prairie stalks. There was more than one. A half-dozen people that seemed to be sitting in the grass? None of them moved or had even acknowledged the sound of his truck or his arrival. They all appeared to be positioned in a circle.  

Transfixed, John slowly walked into the field. A solitary bird broke the stillness of the air and quickly stopped, and the broken silence almost caused him to choke and stumble backward. The one bird made him realize the lack of thousands that usually congregated there. The  deafening sound of him stepping through grass highlighted the absence of dogs and laughter. And the people, sitting in a circle just ahead, did not utter a word or a whisper. No choked sobs or hushed mummers. Nothing. Only the terrifying silence moved around them, and John fought the urge to run with every effort of will he had. He felt an uncanny fear climbing up his throat. Everything was wrong, and that wrongness screamed in the back of his mind: leave, leave, leave. But then John thought of his father, his body, and he rediscovered the marrow-deep contempt that simmered throughout his life. John took a shallow breath and a timid step forward.  

They should have heard him as he approached. They should have turned to meet his  footsteps. But, instead, nobody moved. Gathered in a haphazard circle, a small collection of  people sat surrounding a body, motionless.  

There in the center of the congregation was a body of a small boy. John recognized him immediately. At six years old, laying in the ring of the trampled grass, his son was exactly as he remembered him before the accident. No blood stained on his cheek. No matted hair. Both his eyes were intact. He seemed to be only sleeping as he laid in the grass, legs tangled, arms spread out, Christlike. His boy. His little boy.  

But the shock of seeing his son in the center of a congregation of strangers was replaced by another feeling. An indescribable terror, one that ripped every ounce of agency from his brain. Dead. He was dead. It wasn’t a body, it was death. Suddenly the emptiness that had been living  inside John—a hollow cavern that echoed every action of his life as a meaningless stone—grew, infinitely. Nothing mattered. Nothing changed the inevitable. Fate existed, John realized, had always existed, and it was death. He stared at his son and recognized death’s violence, its despair, the unrelenting depression that was silent as a snake but filled with a savage chaos. His skin felt brittle.  

All around the world seemed to disappear to John’s single-minded focus on what lay ahead of him. Before that day, he had known there was no escaping the reality that everything he did in life amounted to the same result, his death. But staring at his dead son, he realized that death did not come eventually to everyone; death was already there. Nothing mattered because he had died so long ago, and the moments he thought he was living were the infinitesimal gasps that escaped death’s grip. Life was never wasted because life had never existed in the first place.  

John sat down, shoulder to shoulder with the others around him, and he stared at the body, terrified. 

David Riedel

Born and educated in Bosler, Wyoming, David Riedel earned his BA in English from the University of Wyoming and is currently completing his Master’s degree in literature. His fiction often examines the realities of addiction and mental illness inside this strange world we all inhabit. In 2021 he won the Torry Award for his short submission Terrestrial Issues.

The Space Beneath

Author’s Content Warning: This story closely relates to my struggles with self-harm and being a parent. Therefore, if any reader that is sensitive to discussions of self-harming, please feel free to pass on reading this story.

Officer Tate entered the interview room, two small coffees balancing in one hand, and closed the door behind him. Detective Erika Bowers sat at the faded wood table, sifting through a spread-out file, photos, reports, lurid close ups of numerous lacerations. The lighting was intense, conforming to every stereotype that existed for police interrogation rooms, and the T.V. sat perched in the upper corner next to the CCTV camera, both silent partners that were now the backbone to any case these days. Detective Bowers didn’t look up as Tate set down her cup of instant coffee.  

“Angela said you’ve been here all night,” Tate said, breaking the tense air that permeated from the woman. “You get anything out of him?”  

Bowers stopped shuffling through the photos, grabbed the TV remote, and pressed it. An off-color security recording ran on the screen: a man and a child, holding hands, entered the bathroom together. Poor tracking made the two bodies shift and twist until their walk no longer looked human, a jittering imitation. Bowers pressed another button. The tape whined and shot forward. In a flash the man exploded out of the bathroom—alone—covered in blood. Bowers pressed another button and the man’s violent speed ceased to a slow, slumped shuffle, leaning against the wall as if he could barely stand without its aid. The frame froze as she set down the remote.  

Twenty-two seconds. That’s how long it took to review the footage. Footage that Tate had watched a hundred times already. Officially, the man and the boy were in the bathroom for seventeen minutes. Two walked in, one walked out. Tate pursed his lips and shook his head. It’s  just not enough time, he thought. All that blood in the bathroom, and the boy’s records showed  he weighed thirty-four pounds at his last doctor’s visit. Thirty-four pounds of body matter.  Seventeen minutes. It’s just not enough time.  

Detective Bowers sighed. “He—well, this is all I got outta him last night.” She grabbed a  yellow legal pad and slid it across the table toward Tate. The detective then grabbed her coffee,  stared off into the distance, and blew intermittently on the dark liquid.  

“A confession?” Tate asked.  

“If that’s what you want to call it.”  

The handwriting was stilted, smearing, not much more refined than an eighth grader. And the words ran the entire page without break, then on to the next page, and on. “Holy shit, you got him talkin’ alright.” The officer thumbed through the notepad, then returned to the beginning.  Without taking his eyes off the pages, he sat across from Bowers.  

“Lotta good it did me,” Bowers said, still entranced by the stained FRP walls of the interrogation room. “His own three-year-old son…”  

That caused Tate to look up at the detective. He hesitated for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, and said, “You mind if I…”  

Bowers only half-nodded as an answer, still softly blowing the steam off her drink.  

The officer’s attention returned to the legal pad. He began at the top, eyes having to adjust to the immature letters where the g’s looked like fallen S’s, and every word slanted toward the end of the page. He read slowly, a refined habit aimed at picking up the details: 

“I was thirteen when it started. No, that’s a lie. I was younger. No more lying, no more  hiding. It started when I was eleven, but I didn’t know what it was. I guess, like a lot of things in life, I started doing it without knowing why, just that it felt necessary. Looking  back now, it was a part of me that I was destined to find.  

My first cut came on accident while crawling under a barbed-wire fence. Me and my brothers were headed fishing, and since I was the youngest, I went last through the wire being held apart by the oldest. But as I crouched through, the wire slipped his hands. It  wasn’t a big gash on my arm, but it was deep. I remember staring at it with no reaction for what felt like forever. Inside, the pain was singing, and it felt good in a way. But what captured my attention was not the blood or the pain but what was under my skin.  

There was, I can’t explain it any other way, but there was… space. There was room. As  the blood left, I couldn’t help but stare at the hollowness and the vacantness of that space. My brothers surrounded me in shock, stammering and shouting at each other, but I just stared, not comprehending what I was seeing. The pain was different, almost like a release, like standing up after sitting for so long, an ache that never felt better.  

When I snapped out of it, I calmed my brothers. It was okay. I was fine. They couldn’t believe it though, arguing with me, each taking a look and panicking all over again. That’s when I knew I was different. They were witnessing something that was unimaginable to their bodies, as if I had taken flight and they could only flap their arms. They knew skin as a boundary, and now that mine was broken, they couldn’t look straight at it for long. We continued to walk to the river, their conversation wrapped around how to tell our stepfather, what he would do if there was a hospital bill, who would be the one to tell him, their terrified tears wiped from their cheeks. But I hardly listened, stealing glances at the wound, making sure I didn’t imagine what I’d first seen. It was still there, or rather, it wasn’t there.

It would be another year until I explored that space further. From time to time I would cut myself to make sure the space remained, blowing inside the cut to hear the hollow moan of an empty beer bottle. Screaming and shouting only to hear the faintest echo return from the wound.  

I think it needs saying that my stepfather really gave birth to the next evolutions of my talent. It was like the pressure that transforms a piece of coal into a diamond, and the more pressure, the quicker the transformation. He took things from me, more than anyone else in the house, at least that I saw.  

It wasn’t the beatings or the screaming that mattered, it was what he would take when he felt like the beatings or the screaming weren’t enough. My G.I. Joe action figures. My Pogs that were given at school. Comic books. Once I survived the violence, I would find  my room emptier than when I left it. And when I would hesitantly ask him about the missing items, he would shake his head, not paying much attention, but his smug smile told the whole story. Each torture in my life he relished in different ways, and this one  was softer, but no less enjoyable.  

Then there was the day my teacher bought me a book from the bookfair, Ella Enchanted. I read most of it that very day at school, during recess, skipping lunch. There was something wonderous in those pages. It wasn’t until I was home, looking around my  basement room, that I knew it would only be a matter of time till he took it. Maybe that night. Like a lot of talents, you only know what you can do by stretching your own boundaries, a faithful leap into the unknown. I tucked the book into my pants, went to the  kitchen and hid a small paring knife next to it, and headed for the bathroom. I had to wait  until the initial blood was done. But then, much to my surprise, the book easily fit. In fact, my slick fingers initially dropped the book into the space on accident before I picked it up and set it in the far corner. Out of reach from the scant light that illuminated the space inside. I wrapped my arm in toilet paper and pulled down my sleeve. The smile I wore walking out of that bathroom, I can’t tell you. For the first time in my life there was  something that was mine, a space that was only for me. No one could touch it. No one could see it. And I was able to keep things that were mine and mine alone.  

It didn’t take long before every joy I had was tucked away in the corners of the space beneath my skin. The Apollo Lego set that was given to me during a Christmas white elephant exchange. A tube of lipstick that I stole from my teacher’s desk. The award I was given in eighth grade for an art project. Each time I found a moment of privacy to stash my prized possessions away. I fondly remember this short period when that space was all mine… before others discovered it.  

Matthew Howard was my best friend in high school. He was a little rough around the edges, but we fit together okay. Matthew was an outcast bruiser, and I didn’t talk much. If anyone were to remember him today, the lone thing that probably stands out about him was that he sold cigarettes. During lunch I would linger next to him by the parking lot, listening to him complain about his alcoholic mom, and he would hustle cigarettes for a  buck. Things were simple and normal and fine this way.  

Until he caught me in the bathroom pulling out a book from my space. It had been mine for so long that to have someone else lay eyes on the space made me weak. I was scared. I feel weak now just remembering the moment. But Matthew was in awe. He gripped my arm, hard, twisting it sideways and around, examining the deep space, still largely empty  despite my meager deposits over the years. His mind quickly settled on a plan, and from then on, I was the person who held his cigarettes, safely stashed away from teachers and school security.  

There wasn’t a day that went by that Matthew didn’t use the space, asking for three singles, returning wadded-up bills to be hidden for safe keeping. I didn’t mind much, I  suppose. It seemed natural that this became the case. As the secret never seemed to settle under my sole ownership, the fear was always there that it would return to the world, no matter how hard I gripped it, and so it did. It wasn’t long before Matthew was helping  himself. Gone were my joys and passions from years past, replaced with half-empty bottles of Potters’ vodka, condoms, Hustler magazines. He didn’t ask any more either. Instead, he had gotten his own knife, accessing the space whenever he needed it. Like when he saw a cop car rounding the corner. Rushing to hoard any paraphernalia he might have had on him, he swiftly cut into me. They were bloodless cuts by then, evolved to  accommodate the new life I was leading.  

I never minded that much, so this carried on past high school, well into my twenties.  Matthew moving on to more profitable drugs and earning extra money from friends for rental space inside me. Jason, Bobby, a boy everyone called Q, each had unlimited access to my space, and the more they used the space, the more it seemed to grow. It got to the  point that I didn’t know how much space there was or where everyone was placing their precious cargo inside me. I had to rely on their memories as they sifted underneath my skin. And I began to drink more then. Trying new drugs in front of audiences that laughed at my intense reactions. There was a numbness that came with the high, often a welcome relief. It stayed that way for a long time, it seemed. The edges of my wounds now forever open, calloused at the edges from too much use.  

Then she came along. Krista. I can’t say why, thinking back, but the moment she walked through the door, I pulled my sleeves down. We met at a party, both reeking of booze from the day before. That whole night we spent together and never left each other’s side  from then on. Though we never spoke of it, I am sure she knew, everyone did. Whispers spread faster than judgement. But she never brought it up, and I kept my sleeves down, it was simple and nice. After her, people quit using the space. I think they just got the hint, somehow. Or maybe she had set the boundary without me knowing, I don’t know. But whatever happened, it quit being brought up and I sorta forgot about it. As if opening my eyes for the first time since junior high, I realized that I didn’t need the space.  

It didn’t take long until we moved into a one-bedroom apartment together, and suddenly there was just space all around me. Closets and dressers and drawers. And the things I  liked stayed where I put them. It wasn’t perfect, nothing is, but it was space that was  outside, for me. Though I made sure I wasn’t greedy, compartmentalizing the things in my life so they took up as little space as possible. I knew there was a market for it after all, and I never wanted to take up more than absolutely necessary. Her space never approaching mine, we tip-toed around each other’s, almost as if she had learned the same lessons in the past that I had. Both understanding the economy of space, the delicate balance of existing in as little as possible. Lines drawn. Polite smiles issued. It worked well. 

That was until the positive pregnancy test. I witnessed the space inside her fill up with the soul of another, and she gasped within the little space left for her. It was astonishing watching her skin struggle to hold the sheer size growing inside. Bruised. Stretched thin. Even the bits of sadness that had always clung to the corners of her eyes was gone, replaced by a quiet, frightened desperation. Looking back, she was the first to know what was coming, but I don’t think she could ever say it out loud.  

My son was born October 21, 2018, and that was the last time any space outside was mine. His screams filled every corner of our lives, his hunger, his diapers. And slowly, I was drawn back to the space within. I don’t think Krista ever found anywhere else to exist, that’s the only reason I can make for her having done it. It’s only now that I regret not having shown her my empty space. I think, I don’t know, that it may have helped her, somehow. The only way I survived was inside the space. I became addicted to the quiet that existed there, while my world outside was overtaken by our son. Life felt like my  childhood all over again, having everything taken, every toy, book, and pleasure co-opted by another. I retreated inside and attempted to outlast this new other.  

Now, please understand, in light of what has happened, I don’t feel that way about my son now. He grew older and came to somehow understand my limits, and his own. We grew together. I love him so deeply that I would give him everything, every square millimeter of space I have left. Alright. If you’ve read this far maybe you might  understand what happened next.  

Yesterday, my son and I went to the mall. He needed to use the bathroom. When we got in the restroom, everything was normal. I helped him undress, as we’re still potty training, and he sat down. Then he slipped into the toilet. My shirtsleeves got wet as I pulled him out, and I rolled them up. He must have seen my open wound because he  grabbed my arm and asked what it was. And before I could stop him, he fell into the  space. I panicked. I searched and looked everywhere, but I couldn’t see him. I broke the bathroom mirror and made new doors, new windows, hoping to find him. There was nothing. The space had grown too deep. Honest to God, I don’t know where my son is, but I’m going to find him one way or another, and this isn’t helping me right now, Detective Bowers.” 

Officer Tate set the legal pad down. “Jesus Christ, what the hell is this?” He shook his head and tossed the confession on the table. “This guy is a goddamn lunatic!”  

A moment of silence passed that seemed to add to the weight of the officer’s words. Bowers stared off into space. Besides the empty cup sitting in front of her, the detective had hardly moved in the time it took Tate to read the confession.  

Finally the detective spoke, “Explain the missing body.”  

“He stashed it somewhere, I guess.”  

The detective reached and grabbed a stapled collection of papers, tossing them toward Tate. “Explain that the only blood found at the scene is his own.”  

The officer glanced at the papers and back at Bowers. “Hell, I don’t know. He cleaned up the scene and laid his own down in a panic.”  

“Doesn’t add up,” she said, absently.  

“I know, but this—” Tate pointed to the legal pad sitting on the table as if it were a type of poison that might spread if one were to touch it. “This is not what happened.” 

Detective Bowers sat still for a moment, seeming to contemplate Tate’s words, before she scrubbed her face with both palms. The woman padded her shirt pocket for a moment. Then, in a burst of motion, she stood up and headed for the door.  

“Where’re you going?” Tate asked, rising with her, following.  

“He took my pen—”  

Both officers rushed through the hall, dodging coworkers, then blasting through the doors  to the holding cells. They came to stop in front of the third cell on the line. Silence. Neither person acknowledging that the other was standing next to them.  

On the floor of the cell was a blood coated pen, a few drops of blood surrounding it, and nothing else.

David Riedel

Born and educated in Bosler, Wyoming, David Riedel earned his BA in English from the University of Wyoming and is currently completing his Master’s degree in literature. His fiction often examines the realities of addiction and mental illness inside this strange world we all inhabit. In 2021 he won the Torry Award for his short submission Terrestrial Issues.


Author’s Content Warning: This story contains descriptions of intense mental illness.

I have a condition… an ailment… a sort of sickness which can’t be seen. From the outside I look like an ordinary girl, but beneath the gay surface there is a kind of splinter in my mind. I feel like I am being pulled between two worlds. In one world I smile and breathe fresh air and embrace life. In the other all I see beneath the fabric of reality are awful rippling clusters.

My wife has booked us an all-expense stay vacation for the weekend in the large hotel which overlooks the city. We often looked at the hotel when we took the occasional car ride around town. We choose this weekend because the hotel is next to a park where they will be having a harvest moon festival tomorrow night.

We’re just coming down for breakfast on our first day when I notice the strawberries. There are pancakes, pastries, cold cuts, lots of fresh fruit…strawberries.

I don’t want to look at them. An empty plate dangles in my hand as I stare down at the berries’ plump, ripe, red bodies. Each strawberry is dimpled throughout with tiny, minute indentations… each containing a small black seed. I touch my temple lightly and twist my lips. It takes some effort, but I finally turn away.

At breakfast my wife spends a lot of time talking about her upcoming meetings. She’s tremendously important, and her confident manner of speech makes it easy for me to drift lightly off of her words without worrying about whether I need to answer her specifically.

She asks me how I feel after the week’s-worth of new prescriptions. I haven’t especially noticed a difference, but I tell her I’m feeling much better. As I talk my mind slowly keeps returning to the strawberries. I don’t feel quite right. It won’t leave me alone.

We return to our room. I decide to take a jog. After pulling on my jogging gear I take the elevator to the ground floor. This hotel is nice enough to warrant hiring a man to open the door for the guests. I thank him for holding the door for me, but I purposefully avoid looking at the pattern on his tie.

I begin to jog down the sidewalk. In a moment I am across the street and making my way at a brisk pace through the park next door. I cross several thoroughfares and am just beginning to feel a degree of settled calm… when suddenly I come to a stop.

The path in front of me has been recently paved with fresh asphalt and the tar has gathered, while hardening, into a shallow collection of rippled waves near the edge of the sidewalk. I stare at the stippled surface of the black tar with a sensation reverberating through my mind. The asphalt ripples are regular but also unnatural and I can’t explain to myself why I should hate looking at them. There is a faint shudder of revulsion. I breathe deeply several times while looking up at the sky. Everything about this feels so vividly familiar.

I return to the hotel. My wife and I take a moment together on the balcony. I don’t remember much about what she says.

That evening, before bed, I kneel next to my suitcase and take out of a few of my things. When I stand I suddenly realize that the pattern of the carpet has imbedded itself semi-permanently into the taut, red skin of my knees from the pressure of my kneeling body. I wish fervently that I hadn’t kneeled for so long. The dimpled spots on my legs are bright and angry and no amount of rubbing seems to take them away. This won’t do. Now it is very difficult for me to not think about the strawberries since I am wearing a version of them on myself. I feel a definite and heavy stabbing enter my brain. It is like a deep, red scar. I feel sick, and I want to tear at my skin and claw at my eyes.

That night I sleep fitfully and repeatedly need to turn and readjust my body and tuck my head just so. This happens often enough that around 3AM I am positively wide awake and staring off into the middle darkness of the room. I hear my wife’s deep breaths next to me.

As I look into the darkness I feel, almost as though it were waiting for me… the strawberry pattern begins to creep inward from the peripheral parts of my vision. Although the room is completely dark, my mind creates the rhythmic, undulating, ceaseless hollows of the strawberry skin and each tiny, black dot at the shallow centers feels like it contains a black universe of unknown and unsleeping terror.

The dark blackness of each dimpled strawberry spot seethes with an unspeakable horror, and I suspect that there are wet places in there which contain eyes and clusters of things. Maybe I’m dreaming. Surely this won’t follow me into the next day.

Somehow, I sleep again. In the morning, while I look up at the ceiling, I am relieved that I both see and feel a sense that the pattern before my vision has smoothed itself out again. The soft, off-white of the ceiling is mercifully free of any horrid ripples.

I tell my wife that I’m not hungry this morning and I go instead to the gym. I use my room key to let myself into the gym and the door closes behind me with the satisfying click of a well-manufactured piece of 21st century architecture. I open and shut the door again twice more just for the pleasure that accompanies the crisp, snapping efficiency of latch and strike plate. The lock is firm and reliable. It is not organic and there is no part of its surface which is fleshy or fungal or horribly cellular.

I press the start button on the machine and settle into my run. For first 10 minutes I gradually work my way up into a rhythm that is fast enough to draw sweat. At long last something begins to feel right inside of me. My deep breaths feel cleansing and I can almost believe that my last month was the life of some other girl who had some other pains, none of which I have or have ever had.

Each step is firm. Every foot plant is sure. Every surface is solid. There are no strawberries.

I push the emergency stop button on the machine. The belt gradually slows enough to allow me to move into a walking pattern and I am almost unbearably grateful for the smooth rubber tread which crisply grips the soles of my running shoes.

I turn to the door to leave… and that’s when it strikes me. I smell something in the air… which I know is not really there… and I hear, yes, yes, I hear music although I know that that there are no sounds. I drop my towel to the floor and, sure enough, just like last month, the floor begins to tilt and sway, and the mirrored reflections of myself which I see in all corners of the gym are suddenly spinning. There is then a horrible rippling insect darkness which spreads inward, closing around my mind like a drain.

I am falling into a yawning chasm. I look up and I see the fitness room in the hotel flying far away from me above until nothing is left of it except a tiny bright star in the universe of blackness that surrounds me. But then I notice the pattern. It is all around me. It pulses.  

I feel like I am suffocating… yet, I cannot escape. There is a gravity somewhere that is pulling me down toward an awful sickness below. I hear a steady thrumming churn, like something being digested in acid. I see an eye opening below me. Its lids are of blistered, bulbous, leprous skin. I open my mouth to scream. I can’t. The eye below grows wider and wider. It wants to swallow me. It wants to sew me into itself.

I open my eyes. I am awake. I believe I am on the ground. I must be because there are so many faces peering down at me. I don’t recognize any of them. They are all the faces of people who must have found me…where? Oh, yes, here in the gym. On the floor.

The faces are encouraging and worried and one young woman presses her hand firmly against my shoulder as I try to rise. She tells me to lay still… the ambulance is on its way.

The next several images are difficult to clearly remember. There are medics in their crisp uniforms. There is the ambulance. There is the siren whirling and swirling again and again, calling out to the world as the vehicle, neatly and efficiently, whisks me to the waiting docking bay of whichever hospital they have chosen for me.

And then I’m in a spotless white room with dimmed light and the soothing voice of nurses and cups of cool water. I am so relieved. There is in my vision an absolutely endless tapestry of white hospital sheets stretching as far as the horizon of my mind and they are all completely and flawlessly sharp and smooth and absolutely unwrinkled.

They give me something for sleep. I sleep in total darkness with the solid weight of the earth pulling me down securely against my bed. The darkness is total and complete with no seams and with only the reassuring embrace of black comfort.

The next morning I awake. Refreshed. My wife comes into the room. Her look is one of careful, measured concern. She assures me that I can stay here as long as I need. She tells me that my mother is so worried that she has written me a card. She takes out the card to show me. I scream. I scream and scream. On the card there are strawberries.

Zary Fekete

Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia. They currently live and work as a writer in Minnesota. Some places they have been published are Goats Milk Mag, Journal of Expressive Writing, SIC Journal, Reflex Fiction, and Zoetic Press. They enjoy reading, podcasts, and long, slow films. Twitter: @ZaryFekete