Ex Nihilo (The Jogger)

A pre-publication first look at the short story by E. Fox, in the upcoming anthology from our imprint, Ink Tone. Curated by River Alison.
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Explicit & Trigger Content Warning

The Little Things

Mike had these dreams at night. They would often start the same, coming back into her apartment from a run. Sweat clung to the Lycra as she peeled it off her aching limbs, limping through her industrial kitchen like a wounded animal. Her musk was strong, the smell of life.

Without transition, confident as a dreamer through hard cuts, she stepped into the shower. In her loft, the bathroom was nearly as big as her bedroom. A tall window looked out over the river, all those pines and sycamores. Parking lots. The highway snaking through. 21st century brick and glasswork. All of it beating, coursing like the winding river, with the money of a city on the come-up.

Mike was like a bird at her window, stepping into the downflow of the water, and that was how she felt sometimes, in front of the city. That part of her life wasn’t even a lie.

The living room window of course wasn’t in her bathroom in waking life, but in the dream this huge daylight pane was easy to accept right in the shower, with the tan tiles that spanned floor-to-ceiling.

The double-wide showerhead was a thing of her college dreams, and as she stood in the flow of that clean, cool water, it cascaded over her closed eyelids and rivered through her hair. It was, feeling the sweat peel away like just another layer, so nice that she nearly failed to notice the pain.

It started with a little pinch. Hardly there in the overflow of her senses, it was persistent enough that it only took about a second before she looked down. Nothing to see other than the cool rush of water over her sore muscles, but it sure stung. Then, in a point, blood appeared.

On the top of her thigh, near her left knee, this dot of red stood out, like a star on the first night. A trickle, wafting into the water, disappeared almost instantly. Like smoke, steady. The pain increased, as she looked, wondering only What the fuck?

The water was heating up around her, steaming, and she looked at the silver drain for a sign of what had bit her. Then she saw the little red thread coming around her heel. Twisting her leg around and inward, she pulled the flesh sideways to see the back of her thigh. The hot shower curved over her pores. And there was another hole, in the back of her leg.

The same hole, she realized. At that moment came another stabbing light, but she saw it this time with her eyes open. Faster than anything you could claim to actually see, she yet sensed the flash, where this light came down through her leg with the water. Like a drop sharpened to a razor tip, a shard of glass that was nothing but edge, a pin of radiance went right through her thigh, and out the other side. Then there was blood, a tiny circle and a stream, a little rose on fire.

The third struck her almost immediately after, in the right shoulder. Her bent spine came upright as if with recoil, and she scooped back her hair with her opposite hand, leaning that shoulder forward all at once, to see.

Having no idea what was happening but freaking out all the same, she reached for the shower control, ratcheting it leftward. This did nothing. The water came at her, hotter, and then it was all brightness and steam, as a barrage of these laser-light needles struck through the walls, like a sudden constellation in a daylit sky.

Quicker than she could react her body was penetrated by them all. Blood ran red into the shower, but the tiles and wall were pierced as well, she saw now, by these tiny, light-speed particles storming through.

With no sense of the absurd, as only a dreamer can unselfconsciously experience such terrors, she shielded her face from the shower with both arms.

The glass partition cracked and shattered. The storm of atomic particles from space was everywhere.

Like nails, each one a fairy from hell, they tore into her, peeling back bits of her skin, just another layer, exposing the raw meat of her arms, her stomach. Punching microscopic holes into her hands, her heart, her bones, she felt them like hot acid rain.

It only increased as she tried, with a scream, to crawl along the wall toward the door, pulling herself from one towel hook to the other as if the room was turning on itself. There was too much steam, too much blood all over the crackling walls, like a waste of spray paint.

The air was boiling with them now, and the earth was falling away as they came sparkling through her eyes, like her world was a stone colliding with a galaxy of fire – flicking the flesh right off of her, into nothing.

The Jogger

She ran. Waking up in a sweat, feeling the cold wet of her sheets like a cocoon, she needed to escape.

Grand River Park at 3 am in January was a five-mile figure-eight, her frosted oasis. With nothing but nature around her, the city sleeping through, dark and heavy in cold silhouette, there were the tall groves, the rippled sounds of water moving, the shadowy shapes of two deer, across the field. Mike could breathe. Air this clear was a panacea. A little silver cross bounced against her skin, beneath her layers.

Rhythm was the key, as much as anything else. Get those muscles moving, lungs working, heart thumping. She usually wore her earbuds, though not tonight.

Awareness came through her, as if her life were a river, thoughts and senses passing like rocks in rapids, each an object to be witnessed and set aside. This was, after all, the purpose of the run. Process.

Pumping her calves, holding just enough spring in each push, her ankles were precision machines, her feet in high tech footwear, on soles that flexed with her toes the way they should. She wore a brace on one knee, a holdover from the tendonitis, from last year.

Teddy was such an asshole. Funny how rich men always are. Be fair, she corrected herself. There’ve been a few, like Abbot, who had it better. Fuck even Abbot’s a bit of a bigot though.

Faster than that, because thoughts don’t often get so fully spelled out – it’s more like they were stones, passing in the rhythm of the run – it was gone. Dad, she thought, Dad really shouldn’t have paid for AJ’s bail.

In the heart of the park the trees were tallest. She was the only one there. That wasn’t unusual at this magic hour. A few blocks in either direction would find homeless camps, but the city was mostly successful at keeping them out of the park.

Her fox was an infrequent sight. Crossing her path, way up ahead, nothing but a shadow that you’d miss entirely if you weren’t attuned to its shape, it moved tonight with a swift grace, an assured – but still hungry, a wolf in the city – kind of step. There was a loping, unselfconscious, angelic quality to nature.

Mike hoped to mimic this sometimes. Full steps. Stretch. Accept.

There was a hawk as well, some nights, a shadow amid shadows. That’s all I want to be. A twinge in her stomach, like a runner’s cramp, slowed her pace. Then it was past.

She tried to exhale her thoughts. Let go. Everything is exactly what it is. Every heartbeat is nature, even here, even in you, even in the city. Of course, she had only a certain measure of success at chasing away her thoughts, most of the time, with her mind.

The practiced awareness in her run, each touchdown of her feet reading the traction, the level of icing always changing, as the cold seeped on toward that moment before sunrise, when it would finally hit peak and retreat, was the focus she needed. Each cut of her arms into the air. Each rise and fall, and every sensation chasing out a thought.

Still they stormed, like a hovering and frosty rain.

Dee is so annoying. Get your own friend. I’m so tired of being nice to her all the time. Gravel crunched beneath her as she passed from one section of the path to another. Her friends are using again.

Theodyra needs a text back.

Her maroon hoodie was as dark as everything else, more of a heavy gray in the park’s unlight. The tall lamps were off, just dead spears. Light pollution from the city was a steady glow, blacking out most of the milky way, but Grand River Park was as close to nature as she could get without driving.

Came a scream from the night,

H e l p  m e ! ”

Out of nowhere, the sound sucked right back into it, as if it had not even happened. Mike stopped, over the course of a few steps, to listen.

There was no further noise. Her senses were insistent. It was hardly a human sound, more emotion than words, a shrill cry.

Nothing more. It seemed to have come from up ahead, though she couldn’t immediately say exactly what direction. So she resumed running. Quieter. To her credit, she didn’t give a moment’s thought to her own safety. There was mace in her hoodie pocket. Glancing quickly to the sides as she jogged ahead, she saw every dark shape, cutting the outlines in her mind, looking for movement.

It was female. Somebody being attacked? Raped? Those were the immediate possibilities spelled out by the desperation of the cry.

For some reason she thought of a girl she knew once, that pretty girl with the dislocated jaw.

If her mind doubted it, her skin knew that what she heard was real. She continued toward the far end of the park. 1 in 5 women are raped.

She came to the loop, near the softball fields and the picnic shelters, without sight or sound of anything else. A car, in the distance, unhurried.

No animals. The night was so completely still as she doubled back for the second half of her run, like the empty branches of all the trees reaching into the frosted winter sky, with the stars themselves – few as they were – every bit as cold, silent and alone as she was.

Selling It

The sound, as she thought back on it the next day, was a riddle, and it shuddered in her imagination. The more she thought about it, the more urgent it became.

Micah Jane Vettermen thought of herself as brave. Her middle name was inherited from her grandmother, like her thick hair and good teeth, and, or so it seemed to her parents, like her nature.

There was a story about her as a small child, where she followed an injured squirrel into a rose bush, and it became emblematic of the character she believed she was all through her adolescence. The kitten had scared it more than anything, but it was limping (so was the kitten). Little Micah had plans for that poor rodent’s recuperation in a more proper, organized way.

In the grove outside the fence were large bushes, some of which gave flowers in Spring, but this was a midwinter day, and they were empty bones like the trees. Even if she’d been more grown, it would’ve been easy to mistake the rose bush for a different kind, with fewer thorns.

When she was studying for her ASN at Grand Valley State, Mike was reminded of that origin more than once.

A competitive swimmer all through high school, Mike thought for a while that athletics were her future. The butterfly was her favorite stroke, if not her best. Mom always called it her hummingbird. The butterfly is all about steady, full-body power, syncopated rhythm – 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2 – kick, kick, pull, kick, kick, pull. You can’t rush it. Everything needs to flow as one. She was more competitive by far in freestyle.

There’s a point in most sports, between high school and college, where the next level is culled by a certain degree of physical prerequisite. The short girls don’t play basketball after 12th grade, no matter how much they practice their ball handling. Similarly, and maybe more than others, a college level swimmer must come from Olympic stock. A broad back, powerful torso, long limbs, the streamlined shape, from the brow to the toes, every aspect represents priceless tenths of a second that no amount of training, no degree of heart can replace. The water magnifies every imperfection in your body.

Mike was hydrodynamic, but too small. That’s what it came down to. Not to ignore the exceptions, but in professional sports, destiny is at least 50% genetic. That is to say, her best 100 Meter sprint was about 4 seconds too slow for serious competition. It was years after Ford High when she began to fully process the resentment she felt toward her parents, for pushing her so hard after stillborn dreams.

You can’t waste yourself swimming or running. But there was a part of Mike that really believed she was going to be great, all through her youth. They wanted it so badly. The two of them fed it, this beast of hers, until all the wind had lapsed from its wings, after college left her with a degree but no job, a strong body but nowhere to put it. It was this monster that hung over her like a demon from another world – a world where she was.

Swim, and dad, and school, taught her dedication to a cause. He had been a marine for all of four years, you’d think it was a lifetime. How to manage the social espionage of youth competitions – a lamb among hyenas. She gave everything, and in the end not a soul among them proved worthy. Or maybe that was how she projected her disappointment when she could no longer keep up.

In this world, Mike could get a good job as an RN, if she was willing to relocate, but that wouldn’t pay for a loft apartment downtown, anyway. She was on a path for further school. She did enjoy helping the sick. Yet there was something about it all, about that path that left her, and that broken angel that shadowed her all through these years, whispering, hungry.

“Tamara, boot up my studio.” There was no denying some small feeling of godhood each morning, for those first two hours, when the lights reacted to her voice commands. The ring light, the studio flash and the overheads all clicked on, one after the other, as the AI went through its routine. The double-wide iMac screen came online with a cool glow, cycling its login wallpapers. The Sony camera, under its shade, showed a little red light, which glowed for about five seconds and then faded.

A wall-size tapestry print framed one side of the small bedroom, a weeping willow like a wonderland reject, waiting for Absolem. Inspired by her old bedroom at home, the walls were soft peach, and the room was as if lived in by a kid, despite the cameras. Orb lights strung along the vanity. A few clothes scattered. A poster of a pro skater she used to crush on, neatly hung. She left the trophy case out of it. The chest of drawers here was cute, if a bit too small.

Mike left the studio door open, walking through the open layout with a towel wrapping her hair, and another around her hips, that whipped gently. Dew lit the curve of her iliac, disappearing beneath the towel, and a kind of hot shine took her shoulders, light streaming through the floor-to-ceiling living room window. On the 19th floor, she had plenty of privacy even with it open. From the outside, the row on Bond Street where she lived would be like chrome, fielding the morning sun, blinding westbound drivers on the freeway over the river.

Winter there in the north was a sort of perpetual twilight, from the late dawn until the early dusk. Sunlight came such through the clouds and glass, defining her nipples, her neck, but keeping her secrets yet.

She didn’t stop at the window today, coffee in hand. The little plants that framed it, in their white pots, on their faux-wood shelves, would be lonely, a couple of times each week, when she woke up feeling less focused.

Today she just wanted to get to the other side of the job. Smile for the camera. She pushed the scream and any other distractions from her mind, intentionally compartmentalizing. The refrigerator had a glow, making her skin blue.


Milk. Cheeseburger. Cold, it was like a jellied rabbit, days old, left in the ground like a wolf would do. She brought her teeth down into it, needing something inside of her to quell the nerves that came up, right before she went on camera.

Grizzle slipped into her mouth, and she sucked it greedily in, without thinking directly about it. American cheese. More coffee.

A few odds and ends tossed back, then finish that glass of milk.

The scream echoed in her.

Walking back toward the studio her towel was slipping loose around her legs, so she unwound the other free from her hair, dropping them both over the arm of the couch. Feeling tension, crawling in her own skin, but also feeling the rush of adrenaline that followed her nerves before the camera, she stayed a second, solitary in the morning light. Rustled her wet hair. She gave her thigh a scratch, then her calves a stretch, crouching. A drip followed gravity down her neck.

“Tamara, shut off the monitor and start recording on the Sony. Thank you.”

Things Manifest

The sugar was the last thing out. That’s how she knew it was over. The toilet was dripping down from the interior rim with milk, and a bubble of her stomach acids. There was nothing frightening in that bowl, just the remains of too much food. A bit of chocolate that she didn’t remember eating. Oh yeah, there was that one doughnut hole left in the plastic container.

She sat backward on splayed heels. The tan tiles were cool beneath her as she leaned into the wall, and the fibers of a towel curved along part of her back. Against her right shoulder she felt the chill of drywall, painted, the familiar and solid frame of the room. It cupped her like an android parent, without warmth or softness.

The minutes after a purge were like the minutes after sex. With that intense rush of emotion, the irresistible urge, released – the minutes after were a process, her breath and heartbeat slowing down, things regaining their true shapes. Emotionless, like the hours after a race, after the buzz of all that dopamine and terror has worn away – emotionless reality takes on the simple shapes of truth.

And for it, Mike was thankful.

Shame had not risen just yet, and could be as much as an hour away. She had long since found her balance about it all. Mike was more than simply functional, to a point that made others jealous.

McDonald’s is an eating disorder. Her thoughts wandered over so many connections, like a hawk above a landscape. In her clarity, for the moment she didn’t notice how consistently those thoughts were shaped to reinforce her worldview. Teddy’s going to love this one. After I edit.

She frequently heard voices during these moments – things her dad said, things her friends said, half-lines from movies, all mixed up with her thoughts.

Vegan? So long as you’re getting your protein. If he had any idea what milk means to a bulimic. I like my bones to show. Why lie? The world is obsessed with bones.

Mike knew her caloric needs better than anyone, and she was healthier than any of them.

If my teeth don’t rot out.

Some holes don’t ever heal.

Her teeth were fine. She may not have had the Olympian body, but Grandma Jane had the bones of an Amazon, the gums of a shark, and this body could eat tacks. Nobody would ever guess her secrets by looking at her teeth.

Coming up on her bare knees she reached out and flushed the toilet. As the water spiraled down with her breakfast, she was reading the titles on the spines of the books laid on the porcelain shelf, though she knew them already, of course – she had put them there. Lolita. Manifest Your Best. The Grapes of Wrath. There was a two-inch-tall Dopey figurine, a gift from her dad, on a little green cloth.

The Steinbeck was her mom’s. No professor by any means, she was a working class, retail woman her whole life, fierce though, like a wolf. But Mike’s mother instilled a love of art and philosophy into her only (surviving) child, and there it was, looking back at her now. The way Mom told it, every artist is a sellout. But you shouldn’t hold it against them. Everybody is objectified in the working world.

Maybe this is why she pushed Mike so hard in her athletics, in her studies, so that maybe, by some miracle of perseverance, in her next life Jillian Reed Vettermen wouldn’t need to sell herself.

A student of class consciousness from the 60s, this is why she loved The Grapes.

That was part of why Mike didn’t really have a problem with the more literal selling of her body – to the camera. Hands off me now. Life was a conflict, every day pitting body against mind.

Sick. Control.

She sat on the toilet now, letting loose the flow of urine she held, for after filming. The boys never got it all – that well runs deep. Always pee after you come. There was a healthy amount of lube coating her labia like glaze. They hung just a little from the push of her thighs toward the water, though she held a comfortable gap, around these slices of a peach. Any man’s going to prefer a little hair down there.

But that’s not true. How little you know about sex, Daddy. Any real man would want some meat on those bones.

Meat is the enemy, Dad.

Check my pay stubs. And I’m not even 30.

Anyway, maybe he was right about the fur,she thought, wiping front to back, with a broad pressure to remove the lube, knees spread apart over the bowl, raised up on her toes. No man she’d ever met in real life was honestly interested in the finite details of her body – not like her fans. Teddy’s software let her check stats in-video. Viewers could leave comments, and tips, anywhere in a scene. There were followers online that spent literal hours studying the shape of her cervix, with her pussy held wide for the zoom lens, the sex-shop speculum opening her, like a rude dentist checking her larynx.

It was somewhat more creepy than flattering, but there was no denying the feeling. It was a rush, being seen. It’s probably even true that nice guys make better lovers.

Creeps are the most patient, perverted. The world may never know. They clearly don’t go outside. And there was no denying they preferred it clean. When you run the numbers, men are easy to predict. Besides, she knew when it all came down to it, she made her videos her way.

That was the way to do it, for Mike. That way she could cut every shot, and that way she could consider it an art, worthy of her minor in design.

The industry was very different from what it used to be. She was far from L.A. Sure, she was well acquainted with the mental gymnastics. She invited any paying customer inside her teenage bedroom to watch her masturbate – from a safe distance. A safe anonymity.

“Tamara, play my favorites.” The speaker in the bathroom picked up where her playlist had rested the night before, with a Boyz II Men ballad she’d loved for 20 years.

You’re looking so healthy lately!

Her nightmare had begun when she stopped swimming, it’s true. Her aim at that phantom finish line wasted, her laser-harnessed willpower flustering, she’d never been heavier than that 18th year. Until the 19th. Anyone would’ve taken extreme measures.

Nobody does it like me, anyway, thought Mike. She truly believed that. Her secret was an original, she had cracked the code, tight in her chest like a second heart. The only way she could keep on her feet, in this shattered realm of real life, the unsettled city – was this undermining habit.

Sick. Control.

It would be half an hour yet, before the crash came on, but this too would pass before nightfall.

The Invader

Circles follow circles, cycles inside of time, and each day like each year we find repeating the truth of what we are. Of why.

The dreams came back, as reliable as sleep after a melatonin gummy, though it was, like any good fear, never quite the same thing twice.

On one foot in the kitchen, she took off her Lycra shorts like an extra skin. Not that it was painful, but more like opening a sticky eyelid, her sweat keeping the process moist like gauze.

Images cascaded. There was a labrador on the couch, a dark ghost, watching her. Captain. He’s ok, he’s my angel.

Cheeseburger. Too much milk. It’s disgusting. The girl with the dislocated jaw. She was in the bathroom.

The tiles were reflective like glass, Mike’s naked body stepping toward itself from many angles. Steam thickening as the water heated, she reached forward, retching down toward the handle. The water was too hot. Something stuck in her back.

It felt like a needle, or a spider bite, and she came upright. Another pinch, in her ribs. She thought, No that was a dream. Pushing to the front an effort to calm, to gain control of her fear and therefore of the dream space, she took an intentional breath.

There was the hole. In her ribs, on the left, beneath her breast, that flower looked at her, smoking red into the water. It was still there. Bigger than a pin.

Scratching the back of her hip, she stared at the wound. It was small but jagged, the kind that would make a scab. Vapor settled in drops around it, curving against her skin.

Something moved just under the flesh, a wiggle, and then it dove, beneath, into her. It didn’t take much of that sensation to raise her panic.

She came past the glass shower door, to stand by the mirror. Examining the hole near her rib, nothing happened. She pulled it apart, but it was just wet, a bit bloody.

The door behind her was ajar, though she thought she had closed it. A towel hung long, from a hook, blue on white.

Looking at her face in the mirror, as if to see what she was afraid of, as if her thoughts should be embodied inside, her iris was full of furrows and crypts. Her pupil was a camera lens.

That rail-thin girl with the dislocated jaw came to her mind again. Mike knew the girl’s name, but that wasn’t how her subconscious would remember her. Rehab was not a place Mike ever wanted to return to.

All those fat white girls, in their unnecessary scrubs. They had eating disorders. Every. Last. One. They never blocked the bathrooms, in that white-washed cafeteria, with the plastic partitions falling down – they never blocked the bathrooms after meals.

Don’t tell me how to eat.

There was screaming. Of that she was certain, when she was running, thinking back on the dream. The park loomed around her, like the oaks were threads weaving the sky right from her troubled mind. There was screaming. Nothing now, in the silence of the night. Her mace bounced lightly in her pouch.

“Tamara, look up the number for Missing Persons.” Asking this question reminded her she was dreaming, lost in the pool of that iris, those waves inside of its circle.

In the steamed bathroom mirror, she remembered that Tamara will only respond in the real world. Itching her back with one hand, she pulled over the skin of her rib with the fingers of her other hand, exposing that little bleeding gash a little better for the mirror. The pain was searing but finite.

That wound, that dirty window, was just this little red thing.

Mike was waiting to see if it would move again. Something in her was by then excited at the thought that it could.

Running (Montage)

She ran after a dream, to shake off the cold. Midway through the park she was a furnace beneath that hoodie. Icy air drummed her cheeks in the ecstasy of her solitude. The moonlight thrummed, an ancient cello, and nothing moved like her body.

She was getting used to the scream in her mind, internalizing it in a new way. Unexpectedly, she just couldn’t lose it. Mike was a grown woman who’d heard more screams than she could count. Horror movies were great fun for her friends, ever since those middle school slumber parties.

Homeless, drugged out, soccer moms and stockbrokers alike were all too familiar with reasons for shouting bloody murder in the streets. Even in a smaller city, there was plenty of urban insanity. Sometimes she wondered if it was a racial problem, how it happened around her. Hell, maybe that poor soul is giving voice to generations of pain.

That was something her dad had said, that stuck with her. It was the alcohol. The cycles of poverty and addiction go hand in hand. Mom had taught her that.

Somewhere she knew, however, that addiction doesn’t discriminate against success.

Like a white frame on a black picture, Grand River Park at 3 am was its own kind of nothingness. That silence was only louder now. She couldn’t deny that it brought to her mind immediately every missing persons true-crime doc, every human trafficking thriller she had ever seen. Tens of millions of people are trafficked, each year. For sex, for violence. Many different kinds of slavery.

She tried not to think about it, but she was a modern American woman, and Mike took some pride in her thick skin. You can’t cry all the time, was something her mom would say, when she was confronted by the tragedy of the world.

Mike had been an atheist for half of her life by then, but that did nothing to stop her from praying. God, help them. I’ll look up the number for Missing Persons in the morning. It was eating at her by now that she had failed to call the police. Of course, being put on hold was not the first thing she had thought of, to help. Could she pinpoint where it had come from when they asked? It floated in her memory. But why didn’t I yell back?

The answer to that was also clear, and so her mind circled itself as she jogged, earbuds tight in her sweatpants’ pocket. She listened, and nothing moved. Intermittent cars crossed the highway bridge, unseen and from here no more of a roar than the night wind in the trees.

Her body shot forward, measured, cutting the air with the knuckles of her hand. Like the nose of a clammy fish it went on, slicing back, as her other hand came up. Unique among the shadows she wondered if, from afar, she had any more shape than that fox. There she was, in essentially the same spot she was in last night. Funny how nature moves without seeming to move, without revealing its intentions. She melted into the woods, and Mike wondered what parts of her could ever be seen the same way – known and still unknown. God, let me be her. If you can hear me.

“There’s not much we can do, but I’ve taken down the report and I’ll pass it to the regional office . . .” The operator at the station had quite the attitude about it all, when she finally called in to report.

Showering in the waking world, the third day after the scream, she didn’t regret the call, even so late. The voice hung on a window in her mind. She had decided that it said more than its words, no less than blood red in her mind, scrawled like the font of a good scary movie.

A small bruise on her right thigh caught her attention, though not for long – sore but not injured. She was already captive. She wondered at the nuance of what lay beneath a voice. She kneaded at her lower back with her fingers, as she lifted her face into the rush of the water.

She sounded like a prisoner with just one chance.

She looked in basement windows, jogging through the neighborhood that bordered the park, intentionally going near the more crooked homes.

Broken cinderblocks. Slave quarters had been found in these basements, that were a hundred years old, but which post-dated any legal slavery even so by decades.

Having jogged past that neighborhood six nights a week for a year, she really didn’t know them. The small, opaque windows could hide anything. Where poverty clung, like old mold, to the edges of the city, you couldn’t see a thing.

So she didn’t stare. She listened. Your body is a weapon.

Jogging through a different block each night of that week, her dad’s advice about corporate life seemed a touch more literal, universal. People trust what they can see.

Standing by the window in an oversized tee she’d taken off the floor, drinking her coffee, she thought back. Hone every edge. Processing, in her mind, was a multichannel affair, where she never really knew just what was going to surface next.

That’s what it’s like though, being in the front seat on one of these carnival rides. Thoughts like slipknots slid by, uncritical until she saw them. Days like M&Ms. Don’t get caught up. Half of a thought was usually more than enough, all that she had time for, but at that pace she struggled to know herself. A little hiss sounded, as the plants by the window watered themselves.

An unattached observer, and of this she was aware by that stage of life, would find her motivations surprisingly easy to untangle.

It’s easy to reduce what we see from afar.

These people were retirees. Or disabled. Smokers and alcoholics.

Some of the houses were nicer than she expected. Over a few nights she got to know the lee of the city, by the park, near the river. Jogging under the highway overpass, there was a single homeless man always there, wrapped in blankets.

Strange, she thought, how stuff went along with poverty. Piles of it, soft in windows, jagged in heaps on the side of a house. How do they go so long without sweeping the streets? That same chipmunk had been there all week, with his cheek smashed, long and red, charcoal like everything at that hour.

It was utterly foreign to her, some of it, including the notion of allowing one’s life to fall into disrepair. Making willful mistakes was unacceptable. Everything in Micah’s life was measured. Every step she took mattered. Yet even as these blue hours came and went beneath her, though she had heard nothing yet, she started to see some things.

For instance, she was the kind of girl who had always appreciated trees, ever since those hikes with her dad as a kid.

As she met the oaks of Cheshire, she couldn’t help but notice how the pavement swelled beneath them. Roots bulged like subterranean monsters through the earth at her feet, and mostly the sidewalk had bent to make way, curving without breaking, over so many years.

A couple of these behemoths loomed into the sky, over the road, holding trees within trees, and she had to wonder just how old they were, fanning out over the yards with trunks that branched from trunks, like gargantuan broccoli.

This land was far older than modern architects liked to believe.

In the evenings she liked to go club-hopping with the girls. Free drinks, a couple cigarettes, thumping dance floors. The week flashed by, a series of bass drops and half-texts, hard lights, and as little small-talk as she could manage. Truth was, she just loved blowing off the boys, getting the eyes of the girls, and some nights she would count them on both hands.

Dancing, running her hands on her ribs, lightning against the hard bass, she felt so good.

On the 5th blue hour run after the night she’d heard the scream, she was still going to the park without her earbuds in. Just in case. She had upgraded the weapon in her hoodie pouch to a 14MV stun gun. It bounced with only a little more weight.

When she came to the hill where the fox had stood, now it was not to be seen. Before she passed, she had an impulse to turn, into the woods, to see if she might find its shadow.

My Confession

Mike went by Nessie, for her fans. High-powered video software made editing a snap, stitching a couple of highlights from the end of a video onto the front. Not every show ended the same, but every show did start the same (even when she just did interviews). If you closed your eyes, you might think she was eating something really good, at first, and then perhaps that it bit her.

Nessie’s orgasming lip shape was like an apple, but full of negative space behind her teeth. If the light was right you would see her tongue in there, like some sea beast hinted at behind waves.

Her partial wink was unintentional, a muscle so far from her pussy but twinging all the same. The sharp hands she laid on her skin were steady, like her breath. Her sphincter tightened reflexively, in full view for the camera.

That was how her videos began.

Masturbation tamed her, like a horse does a rider. It was an escape into her body, from all of the complexity of being known.

Her fingers were little animals of their own, pulling down her underwear, sliding it off one ankle.

Something in her always wondered, and she had long since learned to let it fly, quietly, when she pulled down her panties for an audience. If Captain’s in the corner of the room.

The red light held on, gently pulsing, but that black lens stood in for a world of imagination. It rose like the sea every time she tugged them down. Breathing was Aegean, anyway, always has been, when you’re getting off.

Mike had a loyal following, and growing, and she knew it was because of exactly thisillusion. The ability to get herself off with all of the focus and self-absorption, the empty vessel’s transportation, of a pro violinist.

Her labia exposed, she pulled them lightly from each other. They let go, reluctant like best friends.

The lens was never simply black, on that side of a camera. It saw every pore these days in 4K. Every edge of her flesh was expressing angst, like a raised hip. These were the secrets that most people wouldn’t know, to see her clothed. So many edges – these bones.

She thought of how Mike used to kiss her. That was her doorway, and nobody knew it but her.

That’s her girlfriend Michaela, in 7th grade. They were Mike and Mike to her dad. M&M to Michaela’s sister. She remembered her often, even so many years after they moved.

They moved because of Dad.

Micah Jane had been rubbing her clit like Aladdin’s thimble since the old house, since those reveries in that big bed, when she was a kid and nobody was watching but Jesus. Back then she believed in Him, as more than a habit, more than a camera lens. She used to make promises to God to stop touching herself, like so many Catholic kids do. That all stopped after 7th grade for Micah.

When she was with Mike the world made sense.

For Nessie sex was like gunfire, masturbating like a piston for her own version of Little Hollywood, for this very loyal group of guys and girls, from all around the country and even Europe, Japan. They were every bit as anonymous as she was, watching her online. Saving her videos to the cloud. It was one-directional, though she had plenty of demographics. Sometimes full conversations. They weren’t allowed to send dick pics, though some had still tried. Just be a gentleman. Watch me fuck myself for graduate school, 6 days a week.

Nessie’s fingers were practiced at both what felt good and what looked good. Her body was the product of so much work, after all. Everything she fought for, ran for, lied for, was in these ribs, that collarbone. The strong locks of her knees. The skin of that shaved mound, above where it curved down and split, for her wrinkled hood, too pink when it was agitated by so much friction. The razor bumps.

Some days she wore wigs, or costume jewels, like a desert princess. Some days she roleplayed just that little bit before getting to it. Maybe a doctor’s mask, stethoscope. Pretending to play house. But the show was her body. Some girls in porn were degraded, the whole thing was objectifying. She knew that, but for Mike, doing shows for Teddy was honestly so much better than nursing.

It was fifteen minutes each day to pay her rent on that postmodern industrial loft on the 19th floor (two hours for editing, the way she did it). Driven by her ecstatic heartbeat, punishing her most sensitive folds like a lover, for itching that good itch. It was filling herself with fingers. The spread open lips where she hid her beating heart from the world, too soft for headlights.

Nessie’s show was a safe place for bodies, masturbating with her, so many invisible hands and eyes inside that lens. Her first show was more than five years back, and still received more views than any other single work of art she had ever created in her life – exponentially so. It had more traffic than her college thesis, every single day. Her vagina was arguably more successful than some doctors. She’d been approached by industry directors, but was happy to stay with Teddy. Asshole that he is.

Each nook of Nessie moved, in the rhythm of her body’s mechanics. Every muscle, the soft flesh, every bone. A blanket wrinkled beneath her on the bed, a throw with these beads of yarn across it, a gift from her adopted Navajo aunt in Arizona. Cool to the touch, it was easy to wash, giving just a little maturity and culture to the intentionally teenage, American setting.

The gathering strawberry lube was translucent white, indistinguishable from the genuine salty dressing on her fingers, over her tongue. Good sex was at least a little like cannibalism, she knew, and she loved it.

A woman has everything she needs within herself. She wasn’t sure, but she thought Maya Angelou had said that. Mike had enjoyed the taste of her own since long before she had admitted it to herself, since the first time it had ever found its way to her curious lips.

But around the time in high school when she decided God didn’t actually exist – the year she found her dad’s porn collection – was when she had started to be ok with it. When she found out how much boys loved it.

Girls were experimenting, in those basement parties at Vanessa’s in high school, where the cool girls were comparing their topless bodies in all possible cruelty, talking about throwing up and being eaten out.

Get to know that darkness, she was paraphrasing Jung, tongue in cheek.

God is a female. No man could ever create a woman. That was what Grandma Jane told her when she was nine. It was one of the first things that made Micah question her father’s church.

Boys are all perverts – and idiots.

Nessie’s worship was infallibly faithful to the temple of her estrogen, and the bodied artichokes of her ovaries, sometimes literally aching. Or maybe that was her kidneys. The vibrations of her abdomen. There was a unity, a clockwork of dangerous perfection, to womankind that was orders of magnitude more complex than men. Not less so when her stomach moved, with the softness of a natural curve, a stretch mark like a solar flare on the instrument. A light-yellow bruise.

Her lips were the archway to a tunnel, where no eye could get very far without the right tools. What was to be seen was so little compared to those millions of nerve endings, twittering like piano wires, her fingers hammers – like a chorus in a church line where the music knew that fairytales are just more birds, lit up with the pink of her blushing pleasure. Every end of the universe was a passion.

All those dripping dicks. She was under no illusion that everyone who saw her videos was of age, or properly paying with their own credit card. Or pretty. Anything online is there forever.

Nothing is more honest than taking off your clothes. For many, it was a blushing humility they could rarely afford. For the camera however, after edits, it was a wonder if anything true showed through at all, even when her clothes were scattered around the room.

Jesus knows, she was a virgin the last time she saw Michaela. The first time she ate another girl out wasn’t until long after Vanessa’s parties. She’d been far too shy back then. And all the lies they all told each other. But she had enjoyed the taste of her own, for so long.

Her underwear on the floor, she was dressed only in a wet vitality, the humming of her genes.

Sex became like a cloud, a celebration of the absolute unclarity of life. Like a cock head, her two fingers together pushed and slid. When she decided it was time to make herself come, it was well after most of her audience. Stats showed that many never reached the end. This was part of why she started stitching the highlights up front. So long as I’m editing it anyway.

Her two fingertips formed a shape like a heart, split down the middle.

Everything came to the top. Pushing her body, folding her back into an arc to express the energy – drunk on selfless, bodied vanity.

She lost herself, lost time.

Every fantasy bubbled up as the first orgasm tumbled through her, a surge of fire like what might spread through a forest, nothing filtered.

The hood drawn back by the fleshy upper parts of her fingers, like that dewy pink was her best friend – and touches were gossip – she always wondered, on some level as it happened, and these days she no longer fought it. It stampeded through her.

Staring at that black camera lens, those eyes out there – she didn’t know if God was watching, and she often wondered, if Dad knows I’m coming.

As a kid, she thought about getting caught literally every single time she played with herself, for years, and after college she was aware that this had habituated the pleasure centers of her brain.

Something bad girls do, had habituated her arousal. By the time she was twenty-five, she had figured out how to make that work – how to let it all just flow.

She wondered if Captain is curled up in the corner, one eyebrow raised in my direction, like he used to do in her bedroom, for so many years.

Held open by her spec, with those googly Oscar eyes she’d glued to it to be funny, letting all the anonymous boys come like doctors watching her (bleeding) cervix, she could hardly breathe sometimes, let alone think. Her experience was something few of them ever kept up with.

Afterward, her pussy often ached for hours.

Things Left Unsaid

The drool from her lip touched the toilet before it had left her quite entirely. There were drips down her thigh that had not yet quite let go of her inside.

The contradictions were too much, everything a little too connected to everything, uncomfortable, and it felt better to let them flow, like she was used to. Like the milk of breakfast. You can’t take communion like I do. This vomiting ritual, my mornings with Christ. You have an eating.


Meat isn’t even meat, in the Styrofoam that never melts under the city dumpster sun. Fuck you, fucking me up with all of your lies. Telling me, literally anything.

I’d sell my soul.

The burger was in lumps, halfway above the water. She sat back on her knees, in the android cold of that bathroom. Naked, there was vomit under her tongue. It’s never enough. Today it left her angrier than usual. Something about the scream was undermining her habits. Her self-sabotage.

Mike had systems inside of systems. Timers were going off in her mind every two hours, six days a week.

By Sunday she was often so exhausted that she would sleep all day. No coffee. No breakfast. No lunch. Fuck eating.

Fuck living.

Nothing was more disgusting than that need to consume. Yet by dinnertime the compulsion was so strong that invariably Sunday nights were her worst binge of the week. Meat followed desert. Nothing was more dangerous for a bulimic than to live alone.

No matter how much it seems like she has it together.

In the space before the night, on Sundays Mike was curled over herself in the bathroom, seizing her abdomen with her forearms, heaving mechanically. Wondering if she was going to burst. Deadly fear cold in her skin. Knowing that she deserved whatever came next.

Nobody would hear me anyway.

Her stomach was swollen after eating so much. Life for an addict gets swollen into unhealthy shapes. Sometimes she felt like her eyes were coming out.

These were the kind of irrational fears that belonged in dreams, but the eating disorder made them real. Bulimics end up dead, split open on the bathroom floor, red and purple, spilling food out, discolored by the time anyone finds them.

Micah wanted to scream. Instead she pushed, lunged forward over the bowl.

Today was Friday. Sitting back, staring past Lolita and The Grapes as if they were a camera lens, she was more lucid. Anger could do that. Pain was a zoom lens. She wondered why nobody had yet made a toilet seat for women.

She was a trained nurse, after all, so she knew these things like she knew the names of Olympic swimmers, by heart. 1 in every 20 women is anorexic or bulimic.

Mike knew that she had not been counted. She knew something a little more like the truth.

All your favorite movie stars are killing themselves.

Vomit lolled under her tongue, but Mike was utterly spent, sitting naked on the bathroom floor. She was used to being exhausted, and so remained upright by default, as her body settled, and her butt pushed her calves apart. If you can see her bones, it’s because she doesn’t eat.

There was a certain kind of lie that cameras were exceptionally skilled with, a particular kind of woman that movie executives had decided was everything. A certain angle could make skinny girls fit a lens as if they were the crop of God.

Mike was clear-headed enough to know that real beauty had more . . . life, and many of them were pretty scary, in reality. The third dimension wasn’t often the kind one, least of all to fake women.

It’s why we fall for mirrors.

There was no denying that men with money like their girls hungry. She maintained her weight a touch above starving, and that made her editing task much easier – which was great, because she didn’t always have the will for it by the time she was getting up from her after-purge nap, weekday afternoons.

Two hours was how long things could be in her stomach and not be digested.

60% of Americans are obese. If that’s not an eating disorder, it’s only because nobody has admitted how much money is in it.

As a student of history and a dedicated pupil of humanity, somehow this insight didn’t slip her, no matter how many times she was taught otherwise. Nobody needs three meals a day.

Lions would laugh at you, with your little canines. Meat at every meal? Are you kidding? Acne is grease. All of you binge, you’re just not dedicated enough to do it right.

Of course, these opinions didn’t make it into her college thesis. No school would pass a nurse who refused to accept basic nutritionary education. The stats became her thing, because nobody could argue with stats. More than 50% of Americans consume a half-pound of sugar every single day.

Jung would say they had something pretty heavy to sublimate.

Mike, after a purge, could tell herself jokes. An ease and surety came over her in those moments of staring at the back of the toilet, like few other times.

Christ, control. All the things you never talk about.

Her mind wandered, if never too far. She was used to it, after all. Ob-jec-ti-fy. She mouthed the syllables.

I hate that there’s never any good sex in movies unless it’s fucked up. That was something insightful Michaela had said, when they still talked occasionally on the phone, around fifteen.

Her Intro to Law professor never hit on her, but he was famous for sitting girls in the front row. He was cute, but that didn’t stop it from being weird. Everything in its place, I guess.

Nothing’s scarier than a naked body. That was Mom again, when Micah was 12. A sly smile. Like that’s just . . . it. What’s under here? Bones?! She overemphasized the word. They were driving to soccer practice. Sunlight was coming through the window.

Micah was a late bloomer. But that body she had at fifteen, playing field sports, swimming competitively – that thing was practically superhuman, the way she remembered it. Eating just because I was hungry. It was shocking, to her adult mind, to look back on the simple river of childhood, the confidence in every cue, every movement – even when she thought she was embarrassed, really, even when she had felt unsteady – and glimpse just a fraction of the things she had taken for granted or thrown away.

If only someone had told her Vanessa’s insecurity was going to ruin her life.

All your favorite porn stars are killing themselves.

Everything men wanted was a contradiction. Little waist. Big eyes. Weak jaw. Skin and bones. No body hair. Men want little girls, statistically speaking. Or at least their genes. Sometimes they enjoyed her education, it wasn’t a lie, that just didn’t show in the demos. Hold a gun or a sword and you’ve got them by the balls.

Your daughters are killing themselves.

But it was different to learn a thing, than to simply know it. Mike reached forward, arm lengthening in the ripple of her skin, ribs rising, coming up on her knees again, flexing her thighs with so much ease it became clumsy. Time for her after-work shower, then a nap.

The dream space of the big couch called out to her. She could see guilt’s shadow, that arch angel standing behind the furniture, like a reaper in the full shroud of heaven, if not quite clear against the dark wall. It was welcome, in truth by then, utterly familiar.

Manifest Your Best.

The ideal of beauty that Mike killed herself for, day in and day out, was none but her own. She wanted her own perfection like a flower wants the sun.

Mike’s vanity was lesbian in self-reflection, a power trip over her dad, her grandmother, God himself. God herself. Mike knew the calories in a glass of unsweetened vanilla milk, like a nutritionist. Unlike a nutritionist, she knew exactly how best to waste every single thing she ate.

The storm that took it all down the bowl was short-lived, a one-directional swirl. Nothing ever came back. Compartmentalization was like that. This was how her many selves cohabited the space of her mind.

Mike was entirely coherent, despite her secrets. Nessie was successful. She loved to dance. Micah was in love with her dog, and slowly burning away, peeled off by all these little things. She never had a prayer of understanding. The Jogger wasn’t even addicted.

The angel was the demon, it was true. Days were like needles, time like burning acid rain. Michaela had stopped calling around the same time Mike stopped going to church with her dad. She had never really forgiven her for that disappearance.

Pushing her face up into the heated spray, she felt the plains of her cheeks with her palms.

For a second then there was truth, coming distinctly behind that perfect clarity. The clarity was, after all, just another drug. A reaction to dopamine. The angel held her hand. The demon washed her, guilt wiped her, patient and without shame. An ache, not really a hurt, this ego dying, but like you’ve been sick for far too long. This little death is ok, by then.

Guilt didn’t bother with makeup, taking it off or putting it on. She’d have time for that before going out. Much later. She would have money to burn.

On Sundays she often came right past her breaking point, sobbing dry on the bathroom floor, crawling to the kitchen. Not unsteady by that point, she yet remained on all fours, hallucinating about her dog. On Sundays it wasn’t just her pussy that ached, through the afternoon nap, it was her stomach, where she’d punched herself repeatedly, until sore. When it was all out, and she was empty like she wanted, there was nothing left. But the urge to scream had never come to fruition.

Nobody would hear me anyway.

Her legs ached, every muscle crying abuse. Her biceps hurt, like burnt ropes. Her wrists were weak. Her jaw was melting, so slowly that it would take years, and nobody would even notice because she wouldn’t go to the dentist, as she became that slack-jawed sack that hung out in the subconscious of her dream space.

You can edit around that kind of thing.

On the other six nights of a week, this particular Friday being one, by the time her nap was done her hair was mostly dry, and this left her a solid two hours for editing the morning’s show, before the nightlife.

If her fans could see her, like a scribbled note about their own illusions, bad posture, enrapt to the widescreen of her own sex, perfecting the Babylonian fiction of her life, cell by cell entirely broken, but still upright, coherent, moving on from one thing to the next – her white sweatpants sagging over the chair like a movie star’s old skin – they might not look twice.

Texts to Taylor and Jo came and went about the club, of course. Good music, Taylor’s hub. Slowly, Mike came back to herself every time.

The Frogs of Grand River Park

Growing up, she wore a crucifix that her mom had given her, on a fine silver chain. Michaela put it in her mouth the first time they made out.

In one of her more manic moments of anti-Catholic fervor, around 11th grade, Mike cut Jesus free with a handsaw. She continued to wear the necklace, with its thereafter bare cross – those little strafing blade-marks where his wrists had been – and nobody ever mentioned it. She was pretty sure by that point Mom was tuning out to the small things.

A certain kind of insanity ran in Micah’s blood, it’s true. She knew all about it, but she also knew it was nothing compared to the sickness in the world.

Trash fluttered like leaves in the breeze outside the gas station, as she passed in her sweats and hoodie, late that night.

She wore that same bare cross, and it bounced silently against her breastbone, under the layers of her clothes.

If I don’t say it, it didn’t happen. Sometimes she clenched her jaw when she ran. Sometimes she would wake up and her teeth would seriously hurt. Sometimes her fists would be such tight balls that she would need to pull her fingernails back from her palms slowly, like removing thorns from skin.

Often, Mike took her breathing into the front of her consciousness in these moments, methodically rinsing her awareness in the sweat of each pore, moving her mind from one arm, one stomach muscle to the next. Her hips were underappreciated, she knew. Her knees had taken the accumulated blunt force trauma of a ship on the ocean, by that time.

They pumped yet, and she couldn’t for the life of her imagine how, what fuel they were burning. Sometimes she knew that her body could run on starlight.

It was nothing, compared to the endless need of the mouths of the people. Everything in a waking day in this city was about getting. Piling things on top of things. Literally shoving them into our selves.

The nightlife was the only time she could socialize without being expected to eat. She was never more alone than on the dance floor, surrounded and admired. Nobody knew her, least of all her friends. Nobody could, truly. She would not dare let them in.

The ocean was plasticizing. Rainforests were burning. The wetlands beneath her had been choked dry. The nightlife was just neon and concrete. She loved the music, but their religion was a sickness, and it had nothing to do with their choice of God.

It was just what he learned from his father.

Micah’s heart rebelled against everything in modern life, as she ran, though the trash that was like leaves didn’t register any specific sense of alarm. It was only more needles. Like going to the grocery store and watching how they filled their carts. Everyone paying for her time.The park was already around her. This transition was what she lived for, if she ever gave herself the time to recognize it. This was what quelled her fear.

This was her virgin night, and it had nothing at all to do with her sex. God, take me home. Please hear me.

A cramp welled in her abdomen. After a moment however, it had passed.

Nature let her in, no matter her mistakes. Unclenching in stages, like a child letting go of a tug of war, her breath became easier. Darkness among the leaves was like guilt, familiar, but like a nap, freeing.

There was another recurring dream she had, during the days, where she was resting her head in Michaela’s lap. Looking up into her face. Waking from this was often more painful than any nightmare – from this world where things were what they should be.

The stun gun bounced lightly against her. Something told her that her hawk might be out tonight, so her eyes moved among the higher limbs and stars. There was a comparative warmth in the cold night air, a hint of Spring. She felt that in her moments of reborn virginity, nature would want to be near to her.

Somehow she had retained a child’s sense of invincibility well into her third decade. It’s not like I’m not in shape. Functionality was not a valid argument against the beasts of addiction. Mike was educated well enough to know that. A double minor in psych had occurred to her, but where does that even lead?

She’d learned from her parents that life was a competition, and it was perfectly understandable if that took years yet from here for her to work through. She’d practiced a Marine’s discipline for no real reason through her adolescence, in the end, and coming around to a valid pacing for her life was going to be entirely up to her. She couldn’t stand the thought of going back to rehab.

The closer you look, the more fucked up things get. Like going through the neighborhood instead of around it. It’s the only way you’re going to hear.

Fucking anything.

After her worst binges there were layers of partially digested food, filling the porcelain bowl. With a surgeon’s detachment she thrust her bare arm down into it, to clear the line, before flushing.

Our lives are way too short, compared to what we need to learn. Grandma Jane Reed’s voice came to her. So go easy.

The huge oaks and blank sky overhead moved around her as she cut through the park.

Sometimes you only get to make a mistake once. Other times you get a thousand chances. So learn from those, kid.

Grandma Jane had a thing for frogs. Little statues on her dresser, bright green. In her time there were real frogs here. Near the river.

Amphibians, had become just a word to Mike, like horses to her father, or Indians to her Grandfather – just a thing that used to exist – not all that long ago, pretty much everywhere.

She had, of course, seen pictures of frogs. Maybe five of the little things in real life though, to be honest, including two that had been other kids’ pets, by now. The wild frog was all but extinct. She had seen a few wild turtles, over the years. Two of them roadkill.

We ate the rest. Maybe it was the last frog, dying.

Downing a liter of water, naked in the bathroom, she bounced up and down. After vomiting, she pushed her fingers past her tongue, past pain, drawing up tears that had nothing to do with sadness, already empty but needing to get every last thing out of her stomach.

If she missed the window, if food was in her too long, when it wouldn’t come up she panicked. Heaving, digging, cracked, she suffocated, choking on her hand. Desperate and alone, she went full minutes without a breath.

The sound of this night was simply the light crunch of her feet. Even white noise came apart when you listened close though, like thoughts. The river rippled, off in the dark where you couldn’t see it from here. Traffic moved on the bridge, sounding like distant waves. Grandma Jane had said you could listen to the frogs at night in her hometown by the lakeshore – a river of sound all to themselves, their chorus in the air. All those frogs. You’d have loved them, kid.

Passing the curve where the fox often showed, there was nothing to be seen again, and feeling a sharp pain in her gut, she took a hard left away from the path, into the wooded grove.

In her captive imagination, some vague dream from another life, she had visited the fox’s den many times, leaving bread. She had met her pups, left them eggs to eat. Mike imagined on that Friday that her absence signaled a new, perfect pregnancy, and her heart rose as the pain in her stomach subsided.

There were darker possibilities, to explain its absence, and these shot through her just as fast, but she chose to retain this particular blue dream as it first appeared – a fox in motherly repose. The virgin Madonna as a beast of the night. Shadows around the den, dark green against her brown and gray fur. Too skinny.

The sounds of the highway.

Where does your hunger come from?

Philosophy never sleeps. She laughed, just a little at herself. The answer was plain to see.

Everywhere she put her footfall, the earth changed beneath her feet. Resisting simplification, turf was never the same, and yet never really moved. Her ankle was the most precise machine ever devised, inside her skin, inside of her thick socks.

Her hoodie was hot. Her skin was a feast of cool sweat and bone. These contradictions had no trouble coexisting. Mike grinned, looking among the roots and tall grasses, the dark skirts of the night, for signs of a den. Her sore muscles yet pushed.

There was the part of the crucifix she had cut off, laid in her jewelry drawer, in the back. Jesus. Nobody really knew where Yeshua should go, in modern life, even if they did get him free of that cross. Throwing the little silver statue away somehow stopped her, and he had lived ever since, not something to wear, yet not something to be forsaken either, a statue in that little, dark box.

There was no sound of life, just the scream in her head.

These days between had torn it from any original form, to become a mythic silence, echoing shapes instead of sounds.

In every direction a deeper view revealed more details. What appeared solid was invariably some kind of denser fog. Like a tree revealing its roots, guilt unraveled into the shadow.

After editing, getting ready for the night, she liked to get another orgasm – on good days. Sometimes it came as she put on her makeup, playing dress up for the club. Little straps. Trailing her fingers over her own body, she didn’t need the mirror. Digging into her collarbone with her fingertips, these orgasms came like bulls. Coveting her own ribs. She imagined fucking herself, with a dick, slipping it hard down her throat, hurting her. Coming in her own mouth. Those hungry cheeks sucking it down like mana. Often she rubbed herself far past the point of pleasure – not loving, owning. Multiple orgasms, steady and full. Reveling in the pain of almost making herself bleed. She imagined the semen leaking out of her lips around it, the shuddering, the perfection of it.

Unbidden, she saw in her mind as clear as reality, her hawk, screaming.

Beak open and sharp. Wide. Talons curled. Feathers shaken. In its throat was an injury. Blood the color of expensive wine, dribbled out. She jogged to a stop, breathing heavily.

That . . . was a dream.

Hands on her hips, the way a practiced athlete will give themselves away when they stop to rest, because like every other step they have studied exactly how to do it right – she looked at the sky, the treetops, all those vertical shafts of darkness striping the forest. Mike’s vision penetrated the deeper grove. Nothing was there.

Then came the pain. It started above her groin like a runner’s cramp, but flowed down then, with a rush that left her dizzy.

She stepped backward to feel a tree trunk behind her, mossy, huge and stable. Leaning into it, she couldn’t shake the sensation that she was wetting herself – and the pain didn’t stop.

After a few seconds of this, wincing through her whole body, her breathing was going arhythmic and she felt panic coming up like vomit. There was nothing in her though.

So the sensation washed like a wave and ran down her thighs with a dribble of warmth. Suddenly knowing that she was going to shit her sweats, Mike went low, yanking them down and over her knees. Her stomach wrenched, awful, like a broken washing machine.

Forcing her breathing into an intentional flow, she pushed back against the attack. But there was no doubt that something moved inside her. Warmth spread out from her groin, and she forced herself to look down. The blood didn’t really surprise her, spewed like dark piss in lines across her thighs.

Micah looked again to the sky. God what is happening? No answer, just that eternal, celestial silence in the face of her panic. Something her mom had said about cysts came halfway to mind, hot and red. She had long feared that her ovaries were probably ruined.

She screamed. “ H e l p  m e ! ”

Something heavy shifted in her belly, and pulling up her hoodie with one hand she could see it molt, like an insect cocoon, like there was suddenly something . . . there. Like she was about to throw up a river. What came next, as she crawled backward, unable to get away from it all, into that bed of leaves, in the dark silence of the park, was even in the moment hard to reconcile as fact or dream.

But came it did. First clots of blackness tumbled out, and for a long while there was just the painful storm of growing, pushing, opening sensations.

Then a small, split hoof. Reaching out from her, amid a flow of amniotic fluids – wet fur. It was darkness on darkness, recognized by touch much more than disbelieving sight, in some euphoric post-emotion where nothing else could feel – that wet, unmistakable, fur.

Screaming then, or silent in gasping, digging her claws into roots, humming that singular, desperate song, for an unknowable length of time, Micah gave birth. Tearing open from the bottom. In the dark, wet grass, in the musk of the river’s shadows, one shrieking, impossible knuckle at a time, this unknown life came through her into the world.

Feeling the end of it fall from her at last, the entirety of everything sucked back in – stars and limbs and all – and eventually she found herself staring at it. It breathed on the ground, curled between her legs, a mess, way too large. Connected to her. A fawn.

Those black eyes.

By the time it stood, she was crying, eyes dry but sobbing without tears because that’s all that was left in her. Her blood was a long puddle, sticky in the grass and leaves. It stood, a newborn doe that glistened with starlight. Every smooth angle of it caught the moon, and felt the shadows of leaves.

Mike found herself unable to move, with a fear that the child was going to drag loose her intestines – an inexplicable and sudden desire to eat. But after a time the fawn steadied, crept close, looking down at her. A curtain of gloss held over its wondrous eye. Eventually it knelt, awkwardly, and chewed itself loose of the soft cord, with a mouth of full, if brand new, teeth.

Her head propped awkwardly against the tree, more of a cast-off skin than a mother, Micah felt her life moving away from her as the doe took an uneven step. In the crunch of leaves she paused, before instinct told her how to move.

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