078. Cleanse. Zachary Toombs

After that incident, she would lay in bed for a while after the sun rose. Her room became a cave, and her bed a nest. The sheets were the girl’s cocoon, encompassing her in a warm refuge. Light was the plague, and any that spilled through the curtains had to be muffled by a blanket or garment or piece of tape.

She would only eat if the hunger hurt her stomach with its groans. Sometimes, she’d wait until she writhed in a coiling circle upon those sheets. And those sheets, speaking of, were not dirty. They had no stains because those stains would have no source. The girl had nothing within her to exhume, nor anything to spill.

But laying there into the afternoon turned into a race.

A race to the shower.

All the marks that were left—but couldn’t be seen—needed to be removed. The girl, from the inside out, needed to rid herself of the grime that served as pestilence. Wash and scrub and wash and scrub and wash and scrub. Week one of this habit—of showering three or four times in a day—was therapeutic. It calmed her breath, drawing it out like the steam that swirled through the surrounding air.

It made her forget—albeit for a single moment.

But the second week amplified things. There were aspects of her regiment that could be changed: how often she showered, for how long, and most of all the heat. At first, the girl preferred the water cold, because it allowed her to shiver. And shivering meant shedding that filth from her skin—as well as from beneath it.

However, she pivoted into a full one-eighty. If the water was scolding, then the girl could singe those wounds away. She could turn her once tainted skin red. Clean. But as she continued to crank the temperature into oblivion and stand beneath the fiery needles for longer, her skin brought imperfections into advent.

Her skin—and its underlying flesh—started to look different.

That girl she began as through this whole ordeal was unrecognizable—she had vanished. This encouraged her to deface even more, with even greater heat and more drastic measures.

And by the end—by the third week—she was a unique person. A vile, incoherent materialization of disgust. Now, no one would ever linger their eyes.

No one would touch the girl ever again.

077. In the Ditch. Sinéad Delaney

I found a dead baby when I was playing hide and seek. It was blue and its eyes were bulging out. There were flies eating at it. My stomach heaved. I thought I was going to vomit, but I didn’t. I ran out to my Mammy and told her and she rushed out. I was surprised she believed me.

She saw the corpse and froze. Then, she screamed at us all to get inside. I don’t know why she did that. Maybe she thought it was dangerous. I felt it too, but I didn’t know why. It couldn’t hurt me.

I was disgusted with myself for a thought that entered my mind. I was thinking the baby would get more love now that it’s dead. When people die, it’s all what could have been. I realised that people were scary, the way their thoughts worked.

My Mammy was frantic on the phone and she wouldn’t let me hear what she was saying. Later she hugged me and sobbed. ‘Oh, my poor baby, having to see that.’ She was sadder about me seeing it than she was about the baby, because she knew me, and she could see it clearer.

I couldn’t sleep that night, because I kept picturing the bulging eyes, and my stomach kept lurching. Mammy understood and let me sleep in her bed with her and my Dad. She stroked my hair and said ‘poor baby’ again, even though she wasn’t talking about the baby.

The guards had come and I didn’t see what they did with the corpse. I think they couldn’t find who it belonged to. My Mammy said they asked her how old it was and she said she didn’t know.

I kept replaying the scenes I saw, even though they were upsetting me, because I was scared the images would fade, and the dead baby would be offended.

People are scary, the way their minds work.

076. The Girl From Hollywood. David Henson

On my way to the countryside, I pedaled through what’s known as Hollywood, a cluster of shacks at the edge of town. It was said some still had dirt floors. A young girl in a feed sack dress stood by a wash tub at the side of the road. As I approached, a man sitting on a recliner in the yard motioned to the girl. She nodded and drug the tub into the road.

I stopped, straddled my bike and saw the tub was half-full of water, with little green snakes, turtles and a black-and-white puppy submerged to its shoulders. The girl asked if I wanted to buy a pet. My first impulse was to get the hell away, but then the puppy whimpered. How much for the dog? The girl looked at the man, who held up his hand. She nodded and said the price was five dollars I took my wallet from my backpack and fanned a few bills looking for a five or singles.

The man hustled from recliner. The girl shrank away from him. He said the girl misunderstood. The dog was fifty dollars, not five. When I told him I didn’t think I had fifty, he said he’d throw in a snake. I counted my money. Thirty-seven. He held out his hand and told me to take the dog.

I lifted the pup from the tub, unwound a snake from around his back leg, then put the pooch on the ground to shake off some of the drench. I asked if he had a name. The girl said they called him Lucky Six. I told her the lucky number is seven. She said they called him Lucky Six ‘cause the first five didn’t make it.

I gave the pup to my parents, who’d recently had to put down their 15-year-old dachshund. Lucky outlasted Hollywood. Three or four years after I got him, the people were relocated, and the shacks were bulldozed for a gas station.

The day the dwellings were razed, an area TV station interviewed a few of the Hollywood people. I think one of them was the girl with the wash tub. She looked pregnant and was holding a young boy’s hand. She said she was sorry to leave Hollywood because it was her home. Then she looked off-camera, nodded, and complained that the place they were being moved to didn’t allow pets.

075. Cliff Hanger. Lorette C. Luzajic

The six of swords, the five of orbs. Things are looking grim. You pull another card, half hoping for a ten of anything or maybe just one of the more nurturing goddesses, but it is the hanged man. Look, you have a story to tell and you’ll keep seeing it appear until you tell it. Stories are like that; they stand in the corner like haunts, long and patient and lonely. Think of the chains you noticed threading along the red cliff walls. Didn’t you say then, this feels like a sign?

074. Little Izzy from Poughkeepsie. Salvatore Difalco

I thought of little Izzy during the lockdown, and her bad ear, if she could hear now after the operation. I wondered if she still hated her dead father, I miss him. What would he have made of 2020? What would he have said to Izzy when her fucked up ear was fixed? Speaking from one side of my mouth, I want to say I miss you Izzy. I miss your frizzy red hair and your big smiley teeth. I miss your freckles. I even miss your very American rudeness. How is Poughkeepsie these days? How is your aunty these days, your daddy’s sister, my ex? I suspect she’s okay, doing well, doing her thing. Tell her, if you see her, if you see this — tell her that I miss her less than her dead brother and less than you, my ex-niece, little Izzy from Poughkeepsie.