Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monté Miller || Edited by Lyric Taylor

Chapter 1: Uneasy

Everything dies.

 

Every single thing you touch or feel or say will die. Sentences will leave your mouth, ill-thought and unwise, and they’ll die halfway through the air. Some things take longer, some things take more effort. But in the end, they all die.

 

I’m no exception. My mother is no exception. But we’re more like plastic than animals. We’re more like nuclear waste.

 

I thought about Styrofoam and plastic as I read the letter, ignoring Noah’s anger as she prepped my arm for bloodwork.

 

“I can’t believe you opened my fucking mail,” she spat, searching for my vein. I ignored her and kept reading and rereading the letter.

 

Noah, my best friend for over a decade, opened my mail all the time. I’d find opened bills on my coffee table after work, come across my children’s report cards sitting on hers. She never actually let me know that she’d taken any of it; I always had to find them. New debit cards with post-it notes that read “ACTIVATED IT HUN” with whatever pin she’d chosen for me. Cell phone bills with “I PAID IT ALREADY! DON’T GIVE THESE VULTURES ANY MORE MONEY” written in her swirly handwriting across the top. She’d renew my car insurance and respond to inquiries about services for my speech therapy practice. Sometimes, my husband would walk in the house with an incredulous frown, whining about a stack of my mail that he’d found sitting on top of her car. She’d always had an insane privacy issue that seemed reserved for me, my things, my personal space.

 

I never told her not to do it. It didn’t change my life in any way, really.

 

The letter I’d opened was the first thing of hers that I’d ever snooped through. And Noah was immediately vile with anger. Seething. I understood why before I even reached the second sentence, but I wasn’t sorry.

 

The letter traveled with us to our lab appointment, despite her angry protests.

 

“Can’t even keep mail on the fucking table. It’s either covered in applesauce by the time I get to it or your ass is in my house opening shit…”

 

I read the letter slowly, sucking in each word, and nodded. There wasn’t really anything to nod about. The most recent company Noah convinced to fund her research into my blood, to pay for the lab work, wanted to “change the parameters,” “go in a different direction.”

 

Destroy the body.

 

Noah waited for me to quiet my nerves before she plunged the needle into my skin. I felt the pull of the plunger but nothing else.

 

We recommend burning her.

 

I thought about those words while Noah pulled back another plunger on another needle, sucking my almost-black blood into another syringe. She swapped the containers, glancing over at me periodically, and I ignored her glances. The anger sifted out of her as she continued. Shame replaced it.

 

When it felt like there wasn’t any blood left to suction, she stopped.

 

“Same as always, hun. Eight vials get the sweet spot…you still don’t see it?”

 

I didn’t move. Something about the practice embarrassed me, made me feel open.

 

Try not to think about what you deserve.

 

“There’s, like, a yellow color in there. It’s really faint, but I can see it for sure. Can you put that down and look?” I ignored her. Noah sighed, irritated, and I yanked my arm away. A long line of blood bubbled up and slid down my arm. It hit the floor and was dry in seconds.

 

Just like that. Completely dry.

 

Noah spent a long time rolling her huge eyes. Neither one of us looked at the blood drop again.

 

We recommend burning her. We need to know what happens when her body is destroyed. Please note, we have yet to receive your report going over the methods you’ve tried already. Yvette Lincoln, the head of our financial department, will stop by as our most senior representative to…

 

“It’s really yellow now. Like the fucking sun.” Slowly, she reached her short arm over and grabbed the letter from my hand. I realized she was shaking, too. The floor seemed calm compared to our faces, our attitudes, so I watched that instead of trying to speak. I wished I could sink into it.

 

Noah ripped the letter in two and placed her tiny hand on my shoulder.

 

“Let’s get on with our day, hun.”

.

After the lab work was done for the day and we’d shared a solemn lunch, we traveled from her small downtown office to her house. Sitting in her living room, she passed me letter after letter. She had boxes of them. Some of the wording seemed nicer than others; she’d lost a lot of investors over the years, as they slowly figured out she wasn’t going to meet their demands, that she was stalling. She’d been threatened with legal action too many times. She used tricky language and lied too much to convince universities and corporations to donate lab equipment and give her grant money.

 

She mentioned immortal cells a lot. She mentioned a lack of aging. An inability to produce tears.

 

Eon Tech was one of the last investors willing to work with her.

 

“How long has Eon been asking you to do this type of thing to me? Did you tell them that you would,” I asked. Noah stared down at my hands instead of at my face.

 

“We’re going to be late to meet the boys if we don’t go soon, Astor.”

 

… …

 

“Hun…get out of your head and pass me my lighter. It’s behind your gigantic ass.” Noah, with her thick curls rested on my thigh, held her hand up without looking at me. The waves under us seemed to drag me through memory after memory; she hated coming to the dock for that very reason. I didn’t mind being in my head so much. It helped me forgive things, forget things, not strangle people and throw their limp bodies into the water for lying to investors and me for years.

 

For putting me at risk.

 

I liked to sit and think over the calm shifting of waves under the docks, think about what I deserved and what I didn’t.

 

“Astor, please pass me the lighter before I kill everything. This water is making me nervous. This whole fucking day is making me nervous.” I laughed a little and found the lighter behind me but didn’t move it. She struggled to hold her cigarette in the cold, salty breeze.

 

“For once, hun, don’t think about anyone dying. Not while I’m sitting on this flimsy ass wood. Please. Relax.” She kicked her tiny feet up, crossed them, and nearly crushed the cigarette. Her work slacks scraped against the dirty boards, but she’d plopped down as soon as we’d gotten there, dragging me down with her. We hugged for a while. I held her tight enough to let her know all was forgiven, and she repaid me by keeping me company on what she considered a deathtrap.

 

The dock was small and unfortunate enough to be too close to a more popular pier, a huge one that crawled with sailors night and day. We’d lived in too-quiet Lostine long enough to lay claim to the creaky boards. There were four spots for boats, and our husbands took them all up—two for their workboats, two for their play boats. They usually stuck to the biggest boat for trips over deep water. I wondered for a moment why my husband, Osh, had taken his own boat along on their mini-vacation but shook the thought out of my head.

 

Ask him when he gets back.

 

A long pier stretched out onto the water; we sat at the very start of it. The two workboats remained then, empty; just the two of us, our sleeping daughters, and the sky to keep them company.

 

“This book is garbage.” Noah’s soft hair flopped against my thigh in irritation.

 

“Burn it,” I mocked quietly. A thick, ugly groan filled the air. Her anguish seemed stuck behind the cigarette, the third one she’d had since we’d gotten to the docks thirty minutes earlier. She reached around my back for her lighter, grabbed it, and lit the cigarette, resting the “garbage” book on her chest.

 

“Should we talk about the investors you lied to, or are you going to huff and puff all over my legs?”

 

Noah groaned once more. “Fuck, fine. Eon Tech has been asking me to do…that type of stuff…for a while now. It’s not a big deal. Investors always end up going down that road after I send enough blood. There’s only so many ways I can say, ‘She’s probably immortal but maybe not but kinda, so give me money to figure it out.‘ Once they get over the whole ‘possible fountain of youth’ thing, they always jump straight to the sick shit. They accept that I just want to do blood work for a while and then, boom, someone in charge wants me to prove you can’t die.”

 

I cleared my throat and murmured, “You can’t just trick people out of money like that, Noah. No wonder Eon Tech is asking for so much …”

 

“They’re scumbags; who cares?! You should hear the dumb shit most companies ask me to do when they think it’s off the record. Shoot you. Or stab you. Or any other number of disgusting things. I give them some excuse about it jeopardizing the research, or say we found proof that your cells might NOT be immortal, and they back off and take their money with them. Boom. Done.” Her fingers shook a little as they rolled the cigarette around.

 

“These losers at Eon are really interested in it going further. They haven’t pulled funding. They haven’t even threatened to. But I feel threatened, almost. I feel like they want to find a way to make me do what I said I would. Beyond court or something, I don’t know. They knew a lot. I sent one sample of blood, and they sent back questions about you that I didn’t lead them to. ‘Does the subject have Devil Syndrome?’ and ‘Is the subject related to this person and that person?’ Like … connect the dots or something. Now they don’t care about your blood. They want the other shit. And it’s ridiculous; it really is. There’s no way to know if you’re actually … I’m not …” Noah huffed in frustration and sucked the cigarette so hard it could’ve evaporated.

 

“So they know who I am, and they want to hurt me?”

 

“They can ‘want’ all day. Hurting you wasn’t part of the deal, hun. I didn’t go to school for that shit. I didn’t put together a team for that shit. We could’ve just kept doing what we were doing if they were going to … to … mandate something like this.” We sat with the slight wind, my hair tied in a loose ponytail, softly nudging my lower back. Her five-foot-one-inch frame seemed to stretch, growing more intense the angrier she became. I tapped the ash off her cigarette and continued staring out at the ocean.

 

There was always something about the way the water turned black in the dark that I feared and loved.

 

“Well. That’s the reality of funding. If you want the money for your research, sometimes you have to do things you didn’t expect. If you imply that you’re willing to test my mortality, they’re going to want you to do that.”

 

“You don’t need to tell me stories about funding, Astor. I’m well aware. We can stop the research. It will never be more important than you.” I smoothed her hair against my thigh and met her gaze for a moment. Gigantic, super light brown eyes that always looked either bored or sad looked back at me. Growing up, I’d hated her staring at me for even a second; her eyes were so huge. It was like having a praying mantis watching you, waiting to grab you and eat.

 

“Maybe we should do it, Noah. I’m not sure I can feel that level of pain anyway. My mother used to do worse. Let’s just get it over with and see what happens.”

 

“We’re not a torture chamber. Ask your dude to burn you if you’re into that sort of shit.” The snarkiness was a defense mechanism that sprung up in varying degrees, from sarcasm to outright vitriol. She sucked the cigarette again, coughing on release. The air was never clean around her. Noah existed as a tiny chimney, embodying smoke and smoldering looks.

 

Pushing herself up, she gave a loud and exaggerated huff. “How long does it take a bunch of nerds to sail home? I have shit to do. We have shit to do.”

“It takes as long as it takes. I’m not leaving until I know Moose is fine …”

 

“Yeah, yeah, psycho helicopter mom. I get it.” Noah flicked her filter and pulled another cigarette from between her breasts, so used to the movement that it was almost lit before it left her skin. She embodied chimneys.

 

“Well, now that you know about my very impressive lies, after being so damn nosy,” she started, sighing in defeat. “They keep sending this woman around to ask me questions and look over my paperwork. And she’s so fucking terrible at conversation, she just stares at me. I specifically asked them to send someone else, maybe someone with actual etiquette, and they sent the most … just … ticking time bomb-ish bitch they could get their hands on. Get this shit; she asked me whether or not our ‘subject’ would be subdued during the ‘experiment.'”

 

I smirked a little, thinking of anyone trying to subdue me with Noah around. “I’m ‘the subject’ now?”

 

Hun … I thought about the years of schooling I’d be throwing out the window really hard, and I still had a hard time keeping my fists to myself. What an idiot! What a stupid project! We should’ve just stuck to playing in your fucking blood on our own time. They’ll … they’ll do so much damage, Astor. It’s like they’ve been looking for you, specifically YOU. We should’ve kept you to ourselves like … like always.” We were stuck for a moment, taking in the ocean. It filled me with a type of fear that I’m used to. An old panic.

 

Something so old I couldn’t quite name it, couldn’t quite identify it other than to say it was in my bones. In my skin. My veins.

 

Noah’s book had long ago slid to the boards, forgotten. I instinctively pulled the last few cigarettes from the pack between her breasts and held them hostage.

 

“Say something, hun. You feel it. Something is wrong. Not even just with the project changes. It was so out of nowhere. The fucking woman talks to me like I’m her fucking subordinate, and she talks about you like you’re some type of creature. Like this is animal testing. You feel it, right? You always feel when things are off.” I put the cigarettes in my mouth playfully and raised an eyebrow. Of course, I felt something. But I always wandered around feeling things, wondering things.

 

I looked over at our daughters sleeping on the docks. Their tiny heads poked out of the pile of blankets we’d arranged under and over them, both just big puffs of hair. Noah, naturally, had wanted to leave them at my house instead of hauling them here and getting them back to sleep. Of course, I wanted to avoid the destruction her daughter Chaunce could wreck in ten unsupervised minutes, let alone what was obviously going to be at least two hours. Stairs, a stove, curtain cords, and outlets didn’t faze Noah, and I often wondered how four-year-old Chaunce had managed to survive as long as she had. So, not for the first time, I’d overruled her.

 

Motherhood never came naturally to her. I supplemented ferociously.

 

We’d cuddled them up together, away from the human chimney, and they slept soundly.

 

“I just … this is a shift, Astor. The woman, the … mandate, if you want to call it that. The stupid thing with the investors. It’s a fucking shift. “

 

“A what?”

 

“You know what I mean, bitch. A change.”

 

This is a shift.

 

“Yeah. This is a shift.”

 

.

I slipped into the past so easily by the water.

 

When I found out I was pregnant at 18, given away by swollen breasts and a spreading nose, Osh gave our son a name. He sat with his arms under his head and smiled up at the sky, a type of smile only he could give you, and he asked me what I liked. We were on a blanket under the stars, the sea beyond us, and the lights were brighter than they’d ever been. Or so I remember.

 

“I don’t know. I never thought about kids.”

 

“You don’t want any?”

 

“… I don’t know. Anything but Osh would work as a name, honestly.” Osh chuckled and waved me off in a way that was uniquely him. He smiled up at the glimmering sky, tracing the outline of a single cloud with his eyes.

 

That was something Osh always kept with him—daydreaming. Tracing things in the air or staring off for long, somber periods. He snapped out of it quickly enough; a wide smile, a wink, and he was back. There should have been an indentation on his shoulder from years of being tapped back to reality.

 

“You’re not worried? I don’t know how my foster mother will … react. I’m her favorite unadoptable kid.” I waited for his response, filled with anxiety.

 

“Nah, who cares? We’re going to be together forever, anyway.” We both paused at forever. Forever meant something different for me. He knew that. Even back then, he knew that.

 

“Aren’t you worried about money? I’m not missing any school. I’m not …”

 

“I’m not worried about anything but his or her name right now. You can’t think we won’t handle it. We handled worse.”

 

And we had. Covered in blood, wrapped in fear, we had. There was another thoughtful pause, as I battled my guilt over that statement. Anything Osh had handled up to that point was because of my mother or me. He retraced the cloud, lost in some thought I wasn’t invited to, and then sat up with a roll of laughter.

 

“Man. We’re going to have a kid! Two fucking orphans making a new family. Can you believe that shit? We made it. We really made it.” He gripped my thigh so hard at the thought that my flesh indented. Or so I remember. I moved his hand politely, worried about my veins.

 

“What about … you know. What if I give ‘the kid’ Devil Syndrome? What if …” Osh’s smile faded quickly, and he stared, blank. It scared me.

 

“All I care about right now is the name, Astor.” Quickly, embarrassed, I nodded.

 

“What about Rick? If it’s a boy. After my dad,” Osh asked, staring intently at my face.

 

“That’s nice.”

 

“Or … we can combine the names? I always liked Astor. We could do something with your name in there. Since we’re not allowed to use an OG name like Osh.” I smiled again despite myself. Osh grabbed a piece of my hair between two fingers and smoothed it down to the boards.

 

“Astor and Rick? I’m not sure what you’ll get with that.” Osh seemed annoyed again and turned away, thinking. “And what if we have a girl?”

 

“Astrid.”

 

“Quick! You must want a girl, old man. You’ve been thinking about it.” Again, he was quiet. I tried to think of names, to jump-start his enthusiasm, but nothing came to mind. The little being was just that. I couldn’t connect it to myself enough to spare any imagination for it.

 

“I know what I’ll name it either way. Don’t worry.”

 

And I didn’t.

.

I thought about that day every time my best friend and I sat at those same docks, so many years later, waiting for our husbands to come home, salt sticking to our skin and hair. Whenever I called my son by his real name, his ridiculous real name, I thought about his father and me under the stars.

 

I often found myself by the ocean when Osh was away. Most times, I came out alone, leaving Noah with the kids she hated being around. Sometimes I woke up Moose and put him in charge until I came back. A lot of times, I came out with Noah’s husband, Juke, my other best friend. We liked to talk at night, bouncing ideas off each other, laughing about old times, being generally loud.

 

This time the ‘boys’ (it was hard to call them ‘the men’ when we’d known them since they were skinny teens) would get their favorite welcome. They loved the excitement the kids displayed when they docked. Astric, or Moose (for my sanity), was finally taking his first trip with them. They’d been gone for four days on a much-needed break from work and school. “Just the men this time, Astor. Moose has to learn the ocean someday …” Moose seemed pleased when his father waved away my protests at him joining the trip. I had a hard time allowing him out over deep ocean.

 

To fall in and drown.

 

To slip and die.

 

Osh never brought his phone out with him, so I painstakingly packed Moose’s bag, took care of his hair, made sure he wasn’t sick. I went over every little thing he should look out for, ways to get help if he went overboard, what to do if his father or ‘uncle’ went overboard.

 

I sat with my nerves crunching through my stomach.

 

“Astor. Relax.” Noah’s cigarette-scratched, feminine voice broke through waves of fear. I laughed.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

But, of course, I wasn’t. There would never be a moment where I wasn’t gritting my teeth or twisting my hair or wondering what would happen.

 

Almost an hour later, night blanketing us, the boat appeared on the horizon, the fog clearing dramatically to reveal them. We saw it growing bigger and bigger but didn’t get up. By then, Noah was as anxious as I was, but we both knew not to look eager. We stayed put right up until Juke docked the boat in its usual spot. They were in Juke’s well-kept Downeast Cruiser. I quickly noticed that my husband’s play boat was still gone.

 

Did he leave it at the other dock?

 

Moose, tall and lanky for a 10-year-old, stumbled down, avoiding eye contact. Juke grabbed him, swinging him up on his shoulder with no effort and whispered, “You’ll be fine, boy, calm down.” They walked toward us, Moose as somber as he usually was and Juke beaming.

 

Osh didn’t appear.

 

Juke was jolly, and suspicion rose in me immediately. He lifted Noah with one arm, still carrying Moose on his shoulder, and he kissed her through shrieking protests. She loved to pretend she wasn’t pure liquid whenever he came around. Juke made sure Noah was the first person he looked at whenever he entered a space with her in it, the first person he held, the first person he acknowledged. There wasn’t an ounce of love in him that wasn’t reserved for her. Juke was huge, a long and outdoorsy six feet four, and he made tiny Noah look like someone’s lost baby.

 

The speed the man possessed was inhuman. One minute, he was on the boat; the next, he was scooping Moose up; the next, he was walking towards me with Noah under his arm, screeching in anger. They stopped in front of me. Neither Moose nor Noah looked happy to be picked up. I stared way up at my old friend’s cheerful face, waiting.

 

He didn’t speak.

 

“Where is …”

 

“He’s not dead. He ain’t drown. He’s not cheating. He’s not hurt.”

 

“Good. So where …”

 

“Astor, I can’t keep track of your man for you. Either you go look for him, or you take my word for it. That’s as far as I’m willing to get involved.”

 

Moose made a noise I couldn’t identify and tapped Juke to let him down. Noah seemed to sense the mood and, already irritated at being carted around like a child, playfully bit her husband. He placed them both carefully on the ground, studying me. I studied him back, trying to figure him out.

 

“That’s unacceptable. You all left together. Where is he? Where’s his boat?” Juke tried to smile again, almost pleading with me to leave him alone. Noah snuck off to have another cigarette.

 

“I’m serious, Astor. I don’t know. We got out to a certain point, and he just suddenly asked me to bring him back here to get his boat. He said not to worry about him. You know how he is when he gets in his head. I didn’t press him about it. Moose came with me, and he went off in his own boat. We still had a good time, nothing changed. Right, Moose?” Almost childishly, Juke looked to Moose for confirmation. My son didn’t turn around.

 

“Juke …”

 

“Astor, I’ve never lied to you. No one has your back like I do—other than you, Noah, shut up—I wouldn’t lie. He seemed fine. He just said he had to go do something. If I thought it was a big deal, I would’ve come home and said something to ya’ll! You know me.”

 

He smiled a big, goofy smile, and I faltered a bit.

 

Juke was handsome. His smile was a weakness for me, much to Noah’s amusement. It was what he did when he wanted to get away with something that he knew I wouldn’t shut up about otherwise. Dazzle me with his sharp teeth.

 

“Damn, Moose, tell your momma what he said!”

 

I felt a pang of fear and turned to my children. Quietly, almost stealthily, Moose started gathering the blankets from the girls and nudging them awake with his foot. They both grumbled and moved to stand, slow and heavily. Realizing I was staring, Moose looked down at the ground and shook his thick head of hair vigorously.

 

“Dad said … he said he’d be home tonight. He promised.”

 

… …

 

Osh has known me since I was alive enough to be known. Our mothers were best friends; they had us in the same hospital. In certain ways, Osh and I match our mothers’ lives.

 

Except I am not a vicious, vitriol-spewing, abusive monster.

 

And he is not the woman she murdered in red, angry blood.

 

Every word that is exchanged between us since his mother died has been wrapped in either silent guilt from me or natural love from him. Somehow, saving my life seemed to make me his responsibility in his eyes. And he passed that responsibility on graciously. Our son was battered with instructions on how to protect me, how to protect his sister, how a man should act. Moose soaked it all up. When Moose raised his head to look at me (barely needing to these days), the love that radiated from him utterly washed away any fear or guilt I held onto.

 

But Osh didn’t save my life, and we both know that now. Still, his hugs, his smiles, are backed by so much love. I only worry that I’ll eventually need to worry again. I only fear that my one job is to accept his love, and I’ve never done it correctly.

 

Pressure to accept love is still pressure, isn’t it?

 

Noah and Juke wanted some alone time after his four days out at sea, so I volunteered to take their daughter for the night. They lived directly across the street, our kitchen windows facing each other. I’d helped Noah pick the house when she was pregnant with Chaunce and decorated most of it for her. Our daughters each had two beds in their rooms, and there wasn’t really any separation between the two homes except for the street (and it was rare that anyone else traveled it).

 

After I trudged into my own house and busied the kids in their playroom, I cooked an elaborate tea-smoked, five-spice salmon that I wouldn’t bother to eat once it was finished. Osh didn’t arrive. I pulled Astrid and Chaunce away from their playroom long enough to get them bathed and ready for bed, and he still wasn’t there. I braided my hair, purposefully slow and detailed, and by the time I tucked the last strand into the braid, I was near rage.

 

Osh’s cellphone sat uselessly on the nightstand. The house phone sat silently in the corner. I thought about him sinking, reaching for air, struggling against wave after wave.

 

He would never do something like this. He’s dying somewhere. He’s dead.

 

Noah called me two seconds after I put on my coat to go back to the docks.

 

“Your idiot get back yet?”

 

“No. He didn’t call; he hasn’t shown up; there are no fucking carrier pigeons outside. And he’s not working, Noah. There’s not enough field work for him to be gone right now. There’s nothing out there but cold water. Has Juke said anything at all?”

 

“Hun, whatever they were getting into, it wasn’t regular. My idiot’s been acting weird all night. If he smiles any bigger, his face is going to split. He’s hiding something. Just … let’s worry about it after the lab tomorrow. You know it’s already stressful enough. He’s Osh. Nothing ever happens to your boring ass man.”

 

“I’m going to the docks to wait for him.”

 

“Astor, it’s late. You need to stay home with your kids. And mine. I don’t feel like getting up to come get her. Pleeeeaassseee? I stopped myself from making any sounds of irritation and agreed.

 

Osh, coughing up freezing black water, wheezing …

 

A shift. I felt like the ground was moving when we hung up the phone, my usual goodbye tainted with uncertainty. An intense pressure built behind my eyes. He’s drowning, he’s bleeding, he’s lost …

 

Something rattled as I got into bed, as I pulled the thick bundle of blankets up to my neck. Something ached, whined, and moved in me.

 

I tried not to think it, but I eventually decided that I didn’t deserve this.

.

I avoid food a lot. It’s a nervous habit I picked up from the years I’d spent with my mother.

 

Eating was a chore; I didn’t get hungry. It just never happened. My mom would watch me for hours as if to note every moment that I might be wasting away. To note every second that I didn’t waste away. Her giant pupils filled most of her iris, intensifying her stare. She’d stare at me, not bothering to breathe, waiting for something.

 

She stopped cooking for me so I wouldn’t come downstairs to eat. Sometimes weeks would go by before I found the courage to ask her to make me something, to at least go food shopping. The longer I went without food, without nourishment, the more fixated she became. My father didn’t seem to know what to do and took my mom’s word that I was eating.

 

It took seven months for me to lose even a single pound, and by that time, my mother was moving on in her life, leaving Osh and me in a house of death.

 

One thing led to another and to another and to another. And one foster home led to another and to another and to another. Each foster parent was a little different, a little meaner or nicer or calmer. And eventually, I just learned to stop eating because it didn’t matter. People would always be afraid of me for some other reason anyway.

 

Try not to think about what you deserve.

 

Osh had a rule: I had to eat three times a day, every day. He liked to joke, walking in the house with bags of food, “Oh, I stopped by the store. I figured you were hungry.”

 

We took turns making big meals for our little family, Noah, Juke and Chaunce joining us so much that we had a system: Snows cook, Dills clean. I ate every night. I ate every morning. I ate so frequently around him that I started to eat out of habit, like smoking, like a vice.

 

You’d think I needed it to survive.

 

That night, waiting for my husband, I allowed myself to skip the dinner I’d made, wrapping it up for the kids and Noah.

 

In the early morning, I woke up and got the kids ready for their day. I cleaned a little. I did as much as I could to stall, to give him time to come home.

To be resuscitated. To fight through the dark, ugly waves …

 

By the time I made my way to the docks, it was mid-afternoon. Sitting at the very edge of the pier in my coat, with my feet dangling over the water, waiting for Osh, the sea reminded me of my mother’s deep black pupils, dilated and engulfing. I just sat, listening to the water swishing around under me. The pressure in my head crept down my neck, into my chest.

 

He didn’t show up.

 

.

Three days went by, and they all seemed to rot me. Work was impossible. I canceled all my appointments on the fourth day and waited in bed. Every noise rang through my head like cathedral bells; lights caused agony to the left side of my face; anything below or behind my eye was on fire. I tried to keep my mind clear; not thinking seemed to help. Not wondering about Osh’s body sinking down to the ocean floor, picked apart, mangled …

 

Noah kept her distance. The longer Osh remained out at sea, doing whatever he’d decided was more important than being home, the longer she stayed away from my house. No one understands me better, I think, and I appreciated the distance at first. She still dropped Chaunce off when she knew I wasn’t at work, and I watched the small ball of orange hair break things, get stuck under things, climb on furniture with her outside gear on. I appreciated that less.

 

Juke still refused to talk about it. It was the first time in years that they didn’t venture across the street for dinner. The thought of throwing Chaunce into the sea eased the pressure in my head just a little. Instead, I walked across the street to drop her back off with them. Maybe I was feeling a bit confrontational.

 

Juke opened the door and smiled at me, again. He held out his arms and Chaunce did some type of kid parkour to crawl up his legs and end up upside down, screaming in delight. He secured her over his shoulder and kept up his creepy clown smile.

 

“Juke. Please. What happened to Osh? Did something happen,” I asked, my voice breaking. He allowed his face to fall, finally, and gave me a more serious look.

 

“I honestly don’t know. He didn’t seem strange or anything. The only strange part was him wanting to come back and leave by himself in the first place. I’m not worried at all, though, if it makes you feel any better. I mean that.” I nodded, wrapping my arms over my chest. We both ignored Chaunce’s light face turning a violent red and her worried groan.

 

“Daddy, headache! Turn me up!”

 

He stared down at me, leaned against the door, and for a moment, I felt like a teenager again. We talked and stared at each other too much as teens.

Sometimes we talked and stared at each other too much as adults.

 

“I’m going to go check again. I have to; I can’t think about anything else. This is so strange, Juke. Something is wrong.”

 

“You want me to check with you? In case you panic or whatever?” I stared at him awhile, out of it.

 

“No, it’s fine. I’ll go with the kids and come right back. I’m sure you’re right, everything’s fine.” Juke gave me an understanding nod and backed into his house with Chaunce, careful. Right before the door closed, I heard him gulp.

 

Would he lie to me? Would Juke leave Osh somewhere to die?

 

Headache worsening, I rushed home and gathered my children to revisit the docks. I needed salty air.

 

… …

 

Astrid walked with the zeal, the imagined invincibility, and the unstoppable confidence of a six-year-old bursting through her. Her brother, much less clumsy, watched everything she came within an inch of. I trailed behind them. We were only walking about three streets over, but I’d dressed them clean and crisp. It took my mind off of things to make sure they were presentable, to pull Astrid’s long torso up when she slouched, to commend Moose on his perfect posture. It kept me busy to nitpick.

 

“Mom. Are you feeling okay?” Moose asked, as he continued to survey Astrid’s surroundings.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I don’t believe you. I know when you’re upset. I pay attention.” He tugged at his clean sleeve, itching at something. I popped his hand away, lightly.

 

“It’s been a stressful week. Thank you for being so observant.” Dissatisfied with my answer, Moose called for Astrid to slow down. His thick hair blew in the wind, and I considered, not for the first time, that I should just cut it all off. I imagined Osh coming home and seeing his son’s hair in clumps on the ground, his brown skin turning bright red, and his utter shock when I yelled what I’d always wanted to yell at him, straight to his face, hitting him with the words like a steel bat.

 

What kind of a fucking name is Astric!

 

“Mom, if you need to talk to me, you can. Dad is a better talker, but don’t let that stop you. I might be able to help you even better than he would. I know that sounds strange, but it’s true. I am getting really good at helping people with their problems.” Moose was so quiet that I was the only one who could hear him at times. His diction was clear and concise, mimicking my own speech. He talked to Astrid’s back, watching her skip and dodge side to side. She was even quieter sometimes, but that was my fault.

 

I wanted to vomit when she spoke, and I wasn’t good about hiding it.

 

“Astrid! Slow down. I’m not going to tell you again,” Moose admonished.

 

She sighed and responded, “Oh … kay, okay. Okay … I will, okay, I will.”

 

“Say it once.” I dug in my purse for a piece of gum, feeling a pressure building in my head. Astrid jumped a little slower.

 

She just couldn’t talk. It didn’t matter how much therapy we gave her, how much I sat her in her room and made her pronounce every vowel over and over, she just couldn’t get it. I had a Master’s degree in linguistics, and I couldn’t correct her speech, couldn’t get rid of the echolalia, couldn’t stop the stammering. Chaunce was two years younger and could speak better than she did. It filled me with a type of shame I couldn’t clarify. A kind of violence.

 

I wanted to take everything she loved, down to the last fucking thing, every time she said ‘uh-skettiinstead of spaghetti. When she said ‘even-chews-olly  instead of eventually. When she repeated full sentences back-to-back, stopping in the middle the third time, butchering every word the fourth. Nothing matched that rage. I wanted to burn my own skin when she stammered over herself over and over.

 

When I was young, I was drowned for less.

 

The pressure heightened.

 

We walked. Moose still glancing back from time to time. I fought the urge to turn his head for him.

 

“Mom, birs! Birds! Mom, birs, mom!” Astrid shrieked in joy and pointed at the flock of crows lining the houses. They watched us, heads tilted.

 

The pressure slowly crossed into pure panic. I imagined birds lining every house, the windows, the trees, the streets, waiting. I imagined them floating down, picking at Astrid’s hair, taking chunks of her, coming for me next and picking me to pieces before flying off to their nests.

 

Take us.

 

“Does your eye hurt? It looks funny,” Moose asked, glancing back again.

 

“No,” I lied. It felt like glass was slowly sifting through it. I’d spent much of the night doubled over in agony, my head searing. Whether it was from my missing husband, my shaky future at the lab, or some other hidden ailment, there’d never been a moment where I wished I could produce actual tears more.

 

Astrid turned and shook her head. “Hur! Hurt hurt. It hurt. I do … not … like them hurt … you. They hurt you at wor … kuh.”

 

“Who? The people at the lab? They don’t hurt me, Astrid. You WANT to see them hurt me?” I mumbled whenever I talked to her. She could hear so well, sometimes I just wanted to see if she would respond. There were times when I breathed sentences to her, and she answered.

 

“No, nope. Really hurt, can tell. Stop them. I can stop them. If they hurt … you … Mom!” Her sentence structures hurt me worse than anything anyone else could do.

 

A thick, ugly laugh bubbled out of my throat. Stop them? A six-year-old girl? Moose looked up from his guard duty long enough to laugh with me, confused. A sharp, high pitched ten-year-old laugh. What a momma’s boy!

 

Their father was probably dead in the ocean, probably being picked apart by seagulls on his boat, and they were merrily spewing meaningless words and laughter.

 

An irrational rage pushed against me, and I rushed forward to put my hand over Astrid’s mouth to stop the constant blabbering.

 

“Oh yeah? How would they understand you? How could you make them understand you long enough to stop them from hurting me?”

 

“I … I tok?”

 

“You ‘talk‘? Huh. You can’t stop anyone from doing anything. Can you?” At this, they both stopped moving. Moose cleared his throat and slowly touched my hand, a bit of aggression behind his fingers.

 

“Mom. It’s okay.”

 

“I just want her to know.”

 

Before I could sink deeper into my rage, Astrid shrieked in delight.

 

A ridiculous number of squirrels were following us. They blocked Astrid’s way, but she just plowed forward as if they weren’t there, knocking some over to get to a small one in the back. Maybe they weren’t there. Maybe I imagined them all, and I was just sitting in some white room somewhere, trying to make the most out of my straitjacket. She moved to touch one, and Moose grabbed her hand too tight.

 

“Don’t. They’re not clean. Mom, are you sure you’re okay?” He looked at me, his face a blanket of worry, but I was busy. The squirrels were watching us. I felt their tiny eyes in my bones, felt them walking along my spine …

 

So many of them.

 

“Mom?” Moose finally completely snapped me out of it. There were only about six of them in reality. Six squirrels running up along the road, watching us. My son eyed them warily but stayed steady. Astrid wiped her teary eyes, irritated that she couldn’t touch the squirrels.

 

“They do. They do that. They dothat. Like me. They likeme. Is oh kay! Stop being mad!” Before I could stop myself, before I could talk myself out of it, I rushed forward again and grabbed her shoulder, hard.

 

“It’s not okay, you monster. Shut up and walk.”

 

… 

 

Osh’s play boat was docked, sitting eerily on the water next to his workboat. We boarded and looked around and around for him, looked everywhere for him. He wasn’t there. We checked Juke’s boat; my head pounded with violent imagery of Osh floating face down in the water, of him being choked to death by a squid. Osh dead dead dead.

 

The pressure in my head was so intense. I couldn’t understand it, couldn’t take it.

 

He wasn’t there.

 

… …

.

“Hold your head back, hun. Don’t gag this time. Act like you’ve been married to a freak with a third leg for 11 years.” Noah’s smirk made me laugh, and my laughter made me gag again. She gripped my throat with a latex hand and pushed my head back, sucking her teeth. Her assistant moved forward and then stopped suddenly, gulping. Some of them were afraid, some weren’t.

 

“Go get us some coffee, sweetie. You know how you are with biopsies.” Her assistant scurried off.

 

Most of the time, it was just Noah and me. She went through great pains to make sure most of the team was only around once or twice a week. When they were around, they weren’t allowed to talk to me. They did their lab work, reported to Noah, and left. Whatever they saw in my blood was enough to freak them out, but, like almost everyone else, they only had half the story. Juke liked to refer to our spouses as ‘The Science Nerds,’ and I’d taken to calling Noah’s team that as well. They were like a blur of lab coats and hazmat suits, depending on what we were doing.

 

“You didn’t offer me any coffee, Mrs. Dill.” A deep, bland voice taunted Noah from the wall of the small office. Noah whispered to me, “And I bet I won’t, bitch.”

 

Noah poked around in my mouth, and the woman stared through me.

 

With a mess of pushed back black curls, she leaned against the wall, partially hidden behind Noah. Her arms seemed permanently crossed. A tall heel pushed against the clean white paint with blatant disregard. I could tell she wore suits everywhere. There was no appreciation lost for her designer, fitted cashmere suit, grey with white trim. My eyes stayed glued on her, while Noah pulled a small chunk of the lining out of my throat to test, to combine with other liquids and check for whatever she looked for.

 

The woman watched me.

 

“Is this all you do in your research? Biopsy and draw blood? What are you looking for?”

 

“Everything I do and seek in my research is outlined in the reports I sent. And the ones you went through twice already in my filing cabinet.” Noah’s tone was box cutter sharp.

 

“I’m glad you know what’s in those reports you lilt your way through. Spare me the runaround. What are you looking for?

 

Noah flipped her long red braid to the side and kept working. The next piece she pulled felt like my entire throat.

 

“I saw in your application that you’ve been involved in independent research for some time. Who did you work with before then?”

 

“My brother-in-law’s employer.”

 

The woman nodded. Her dark eyes crawled over me, sticking to certain parts of my body.

 

“Is she exhibiting any other unnatural symptoms? The blood samples were astounding. We took an interest the minute we received them.” Noah huffed rudely and too close to my open mouth. Tired of talking to herself, the woman finally blurted out, “When are we going to move forward with the proposed experiment? The one you detailed in your documents for the funding increase?” Her voice dripped with impatience.

 

“Astor, do you feel any pain?” Noah asked sharply, and I shook my head. “What am I saying; when do you ever?”

 

“She has CIPA Disease? What is the problem, then? She won’t suffer.” Finally climbing out of my throat, Noah turned my face from side to side. I grabbed her hand gently.

 

“Does she sweat?”

 

“It’s not CIPA. She can feel pain. Certain types of pain. This information is documented in my …”

 

“What’s your name?” I asked the woman, raising an eyebrow.

 

She answered with a long stare.

 

“Her name is Kandice or something boring like that, and I’m sure she has enough information to make her decision.” Noah talked to my left eye as she surveyed it, face screwed up.

 

Yvette, actually. I was very impressed with your initial request for funding, with your entire application, Mrs. Dill. In fact, I was the one who approved that funding.” Both Noah and I scoffed at her tone. If she thought for a second that Noah cared about that, she’d be wrong.

 

“Great. I’m guessing you’re here to revoke it, then? We’re not comfortable with the direction you want the research to take. I’ve provided all documentation, detailed reports, and samples of blood and hair as promised. We’ll seek further financial assistance elsewhere.”

 

“No, I don’t think so. We’re interested, Mrs. Dill. This isn’t some type of cruel experiment to torture this … woman. What if I told you that I worked with the first Devil to come forward? The one that publicly displayed the symptoms, that allowed herself to be studied? And that there may be others.” I stopped moving. My body felt heavy, suddenly hammered to the floor.

 

“Cora Free? You mean my great-grandmother? There are more people with Devil Syndrome than just … there’s more than me left?”

 

“… yes. We want you to take over where Cora left off. She was an incredible boon to your … kind. We may be able to help others like you, to truly help others navigate with your symptoms. My daughter has it. We’ve been studying her as well, with our own team. I want to gain an understanding of it and help her.”

 

“Why don’t you burn her, then? Or bring her here; I’ll burn her for you. I love taking risks in the name of science,” Noah mocked.

 

Yvette stopped talking, glaring down at her. They were at an impasse.

 

“What happened to her? To Cora? Why do you need me if you have her?”

 

“Why don’t you tell your friend what we discussed earlier, Mrs. Dill?”

 

Noah cleared her throat. She played with her hair a bit, staring at the floor.

 

“Just … they killed her? It was an accident, but they … thought she couldn’t die. She was just extremely tough to kill. And they did it. They went as far as they could, and she didn’t survive. And they want you, for some strange reason, to take over where she left off. Except she left off being tortured to death. Like the letter said. Destroy the body or something, like 90% of it. There was hardly any of her left when they were done.”

 

I took that in.

 

“So, for Noah to maintain her funding, and for you to further the research into Devil Syndrome, I need to die like my great-grandmother? While you watch?”

 

Yvette went back to ignoring me, adjusting her suit jacket.

 

“Mrs. Dill. This research could change the world for your subject and for my own daughter. And we will be discreet. There is no sense in spreading her condition around to the fanatics and, well, to the possible dangers out there.”

 

Something about the way her tone was changing unnerved me. A thick, aching pain pulsed through my eye, through the back of my head, and I struggled to ignore it.

 

Tired of being the messenger, Noah turned to face me completely. Her expression told me exactly how she felt about the idea.

 

“Well, to be fair, Noah. They know about me now. What’s to say they won’t come after me? Or anyone else?”

 

“That’s what the men and the guns are for, hun.” I laughed a little. The woman leaned back against the wall and resumed staring through me.

 

Listening to my own words, I realized that I didn’t have an actual choice. We’d made a mistake. You could mask the symptoms as random things all you wanted. Call the excessive hair growth a genetic disorder. Call the gut bacteria an oddity. But sending those applications out with my details invited the wrong type of people in. For most of the world, it was just odd. But maybe, for other parts, the parts I’d never been involved in, it was recognizable. It was familiar. As clever as Noah was, the right type of wrong person finally took her bait.

 

“I want to know about Cora. About the research. I want all of the notes on her and on Devil Syndrome.” I kept my voice steady and my eyes on Yvette. Noah huffed, but I felt the pressure in my head ease the more I went on. The more I thought about what I could gain.

 

Try not to think about what you deserve.

 

“We have to know that you have the condition first. Your blood makes you unique, yes, but it doesn’t prove that you’re … immortal.”

 

That fucking word.

 

“Does it have to be fire? Can we do it a different way?”

 

Yvette gave a creepy smile and looked up, interested, encouraging me to go on. “You just need me to die, right? To show that I can get back up?”

“Yes. We figured fire would be the most complete way. We need to at least … destroy your body. Otherwise, we won’t know for sure.”

 

Noah made an ugly noise. “She’s not indestructible, you goofy idiot. We’re not doing that.”

 

I thought for a long time. “How was Cora killed?”

 

“… Industrial microwave.” I gagged a little.

 

“Fuck off, lady. This is over.”

 

Yvette ignored Noah and watched me, a slow smile spreading across her face.

 

“Tell me, Astor, would you settle for a compromise? Maybe we can ease into it. We could kill you in a less ferocious way, leave your body intact, and give you a little more control. More choice. And we can do the research here—just me, you, and Noah. And Noah’s team, of course, for backup. We’ll keep it simple. I just need to see it happen, to know you’re the real thing, and then we go from there.”

 

Again, I sunk deep into thought. Was it better to choose now, or have Eon Tech come for me in the night? Would they do that?

 

Of course they would, Astor. People are like that.

 

If I was going to choose, there was only one way I knew well enough to go forward with. There was only one way I knew I would survive, that I could be confident about emerging from it nearly unscathed. Noah paled without me saying a word.

 

“You want us to drown you, don’t you?”

Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monté Miller || Edited by Lyric Taylor