Day 143,263

The worst thing about death, Soli figures, is that you can never get better at it. You can practice anything else, no matter how unpleasant: exercise, taxes, divorce, surgery (performing), surgery (receiving)…

Just do it repeatedly, and it gets easier, and you get better at it. Simple. Easy. Respectable.

You only get to die once, though. That’s it. Even if one believes in reincarnation, there are no mothers left on the Earth to give birth to her again. You don’t get to examine how you could do it better, or what there was to improve. How in the world is Soli supposed to be the best at dying if you only get one lousy, uninformed shot at it? She trembles with indignation at the thought.

Soli is not arrogant. She does not need to be the best at everything; she merely is. It’s a simple, objective fact.

For one, she’s the only human being left alive. Thermonuclear war broke out between the world’s superpowers: someone called someone else’s bluff, big red buttons were pushed, the skies alighted with hellfire and fallout, and every living being on Earth died, humans and animals and plants and otherwise. All except for one teenager who escaped the initial blasts and won a bizarre genetic lottery. The lack of competition makes perfection easy.

For two, she’s immortal now, forever frozen at fourteen. Which, for the first twenty years, is pretty rad. Unlike her, it gets old.

Having nothing else to do, Soli practices. Everything. Anything. For 143,262 days, she has perfected every activity she can imagine.

Archery. Nailed it.

Gymnastics. Aced.

Public relations—part of the list of a few hundred things she could only read about, but she reads everything her local library has on the matter, and feels she’d be pretty good at it if humanity went and unvaporized themselves. Maybe if aliens ever find her, alone on Earth.

Performing and receiving surgery (it’s both at once when you’re the one doing it). She removes her appendix, because it seems the most removable of all her inside parts, checking a textbook occasionally for guidance. The scar is gnarly, but she doesn’t have the (figurative) stomach to do it again. She chalks this one up to ‘expert by default’ and stops there.

Cooking. This one was first, somewhat by necessity.

She throws engineering on the list by the time she repairs what remains of her city’s water processing plant. Then she writes an essay about it, and adds creative nonfiction to the list when it turns out immaculate. Then she draws an abstracted version of the plant; it does not turn out immaculate, and she takes another few decades of practice to feel comfortable in adding art to the list. She likes to believe she’s an honest and self-assessing person.

Now, though, as she finishes scrawling ‘quantum physicist’ onto the list, she pauses and looks down at the two hundred and thirty-seven books that compose The List in their entirety, and she realizes with some degree of horror that she cannot think of anything else. She cannot think of one other activity: she has practiced, refined, and perfected everything. Every last activity she’s ever heard of or been able to find in a book.

None, except dying. Which she is biologically incapable of doing naturally.

Of course, she isn’t invulnerable. She could just snap her own neck or something. She’s thought about it hundreds of times, if she’s being honest with herself—it gets lonely sometimes, with only the skeletons to keep you company—but always froze right before drafting a plan, bothered, more than anything else, by the possibility of imperfection.

It takes 10,000 hours to perfect something. How on Earth’s remnants could you excel at something you only get to do once? It’s absurd! It’s one massive, glaring flaw with biology, and an irrational swell of resentment towards a hypothetical god overtakes her. It is not the first time, of course, but she was rather out of the habit before this.

What now? She is certain she cannot accept the possibility of a mediocre death; neither does she have any desire to prolong her time alive further. Perhaps pantomime? But no amount of pantomime could ever control how her body falls after her spinal cord is severed, out of control of itself. What if she lands in an inelegant manner? What if aliens show up the day after she dies, and she hadn’t yet been able to decompose into an elegant skeleton? She would be nothing but rotting meat! Unthinkable. Completely, utterly, absolutely unthinkable.

And then it hits her: the one subject she chose to avoid forever. The one skillset, and its one outcome, that she had previously decided never needed to exist in the world a second time.

She is going to build a nuclear reactor. She is going to build a nuclear reactor, and then she is going to overheat it, capturing her form in an eternal shadow superimposed on the planet.

It’s genius. She adds ‘planning own death’ to The List, and then skips off to find the one that had her notes about mining. She’s going to need them.

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tocin

we have evolved to survive, no matter what
even when surviving isn’t what we want
standing on the edge of a bridge will always give you vertigo,
even when your heart
and your brain
and your soul
disagree on the next course of action

what i resent is not your need for space to breathe,
it’s turning the air i exhale into smog
it’s turning me into the bright blue tree frog
you have evolved to avoid
and acting like my skin secretes just as much toxin
when all i feel from yours is oxytocin

i am not a predator
i do not wish to tear your heart out with my teeth
i want to tear mine out,
and hand it to you,
and know that you will treat it gently
not feel it scald your hands
and make you need to run off to rinse them under the sink
until the water runs red with my blood

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inhale, inhale, inhale

i’m pretty sure that butterflies are a metaphor, in the same way that
i’m pretty sure that diseases are a cure for the human condition.
i’m beginning to suspect that i’ll never be happy, and i’m beginning to suspect that that’s a good thing. i hope i’m not.

a little propriety.
a smidgen of decorum.
a concord of accordance according to the ants, and the liars, and the neurons, and the caterpillars becoming literary devices.

synapses on fire. molotov cocktails of half-drunk kool-aid. a smile is a grimace you’re not allowed to make.
breathe in.
breathe in.
breathe in.
don’t exhale. don’t ever exhale, you worthless conglomeration of fucking atoms. i’m fucking furious that i’m made of carbon.

just
inhale
slowly

if your lungs expand enough, you’ll float away. if you float away, evolution will find it necessary to give you wings, and then you, too, can become a metaphor.

or at least a simile.

or at least, be forgotten.

maybe then you’ll be clever.

(i think?)

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On our third date, she told me she was a graverobber.

We met at a sushi bar, of all places—one of those fancy ones where the food comes out on a conveyor belt and you’ve never seen anyone but the cashier enter or exit the rooms gated off by Employees Only signs. It was one of those places where no one had ever been a first-time customer. You were born having already visited Nikkō Sushi House, in a city where no one moves to but you somehow ended up. In all the years I’ve been going, I haven’t seen a single person order: people walk up to the cashier and start talking about their divorces, family deaths, cancer diagnoses, miscarriages, difficult days at the office, and the silent Japanese man at the window would nod with sympathy and ring up the order that you wanted before you remembered you hadn’t named it yet. The sushi was worse than a gas station’s but better than anything you’ve tasted since your childhood; stale, days-old fish, wrapped in deep, warm nostalgia and concern. You don’t go to Nikkō when you’re having a good day.

In four years, the cashier has only spoken once that I’ve seen, to ask why I came back every Saturday at 3:47 PM and ate the same three shrimp tempura rolls without comment. I thought of coming up with a lie on the spot—something to save my dignity—but, for whatever reason, the truth came out like every other secret that found its way to his ears from someone who had something to confess: I was looking for love. Anyone who orders sushi is refined enough to be worth speaking to, but anyone who comes here is at a rough patch in their life and has low standards for comfort. I’m not a great conversationalist, but I soak up misery better than fish that could double as a Faraday cage. I had never had luck with women before, but I knew enough to know that I had to make my own.

He didn’t look at me with sympathy that day, and my sushi has come out burnt ever since. No matter to me, though. It wasn’t why I came to Nikkō. It wasn’t why anyone came to Nikkō.

This woman, though. This woman. I had never been more attracted to anyone in my life, that moment I saw her. Hair that smelled like dime-store candy and crooked teeth that sparkled like the bitter sting of not being able to afford better. I could see a need for comfort buried deep within those dull baby-blues, and I knew I could deliver.

We got off to an inauspicious start, actually. We both happened to order the same thing, and when mine rolled out, we reached out for it and had an awkward tussle before I convinced her that hers was coming out next. “You can tell it’s mine because of that oil-slick sheen”, I assured her. “They only try to poison me.” She laughed, and I laughed too despite it not being a joke, just to hear that untuned violin mirth that little bit longer.

We talked for hours after that, everything from philosophy to philharmonic concerts. I don’t know why—maybe I was too punch-drunk on my burgeoning attraction—but I didn’t think to ask for her number before I finally peeled myself away to get in some SportsCenter hours before bed. The realisation the next morning devastated me. I thought of going back that day just hoping to see her again, but I decided against it, to not seem as desperate as I was to see if she was available.

When I went back next Saturday, ignoring the icy glare sent my way by the cashier, there she was again, already at a table with food for us both. “I asked him to prepare yours, too, but to have them make it a little better.” When I looked down at the table, it seemed like he smashed ours both with a meat tenderiser out of spite, but the gesture still touched me so deep I felt it roil through my spine like a night sweat. She emanated that kind of giving that was more desperation to be held onto than empathy, more about being loved than being kind, and it shone through with every inch of marionette softness in her voice.

After talking until the sun began its sleepy descent behind the horizon, we both agreed that we could hardly wait to see each other again, and agreed to meet at the local park on the morrow at daybreak. I showered specially that night and gave my hair a once-over, just to impress the pulchritudinous siren that had washed ashore into my life.

That day, though, when I turned to her, eyes squinting to fight back against the sun, and asked what she did for a living—why, her soul itself seemed to shrink back a little. I couldn’t imagine why, and I tried to reassure her that I wasn’t in no position to judge, but her eyes and vocal tone both darted around like a rabid deer counting each sizzling neuron in its brain (one-by-one, on account of only having hooves). I tried to guess what it was, listing some of the worst assumptions that could be made of her to win her trust.

“Streetwalker?” She shook her head.

“Tax accountant?” A gulp, and another denial.

“… Politician? Debt collector? Public defender?” I shuddered to think, but right in the middle of tellin’ me no to the last and worst of them all, she blurted it out:

“I—I’m a graverobber. It’s all I’ve done, ever since I was a little girl.”

I stared at her, startled, for what must’ve been half a year, before I burst out laughin’ so hard I was worried I’d sprain a spleen. The dawning shame was clear in her callaïs irises, and I tried to reassure her, I did, but I couldn’t form words right through my unassailable chortling. I think I might’ve wheezed out something about unconditional love, but I’m not positive it came through intelligible.

She stood to run away from the perceived mockery, which sobered me just enough to grab her arm and calm some of the unholy noises erupting from my face parts. “No—ha!—no, babe, no. I ain’t laughing at you! It’s just relief!”

“… Relief?”

“Yes! You had me all a-fearin’ that you were a rough in the diamond, a pearl in the swine—an un-American traitor. Graverobbin’ ain’t a sin. Why, the stiffs are already in heaven, what with its golden arches—what use they got for golden watches?”

She looked at me like I had grown a third head; not unkindly, just the most perplexed I’ve ever seen a human be without an imminent demise on the horizon. She choked out, “you… you’re the only person who’s ever understood”, stars in her eyes and a toad in her throat. She looked so co-dependently cute right then, I had to kiss her, and kiss we did until our lungs hurt.

With a laugh, I tossed in, “‘sides, I put half these bodies here myself.”

She quirked her head to the side. “Excuse me?”

On our third date, I told her I was a hitman. We were a match made in heaven, the two of us, and nothing but the slight waver in her voice and split-second delays before returning my adulation ever clued me in that this wasn’t her happily ever-after, after the long nights and my crimson-stained hands and the dirt on hers. But it was mine. It was.

She was.

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hypnagogic anamnesis

standing in the snow with stale winter hair
singing along with feeling to her formerly favourite songs
the cloud of breath that spills from her lungs provides the musical accompaniment
as her drowsy memories make the sound warmer than the hot chocolate she forgot
back on the porch
of the home
she lost
an age
ago

it’s hard to be unloved, but harder to be forgotten
the bite of the frost feels like penance and epiphany at once
the chill that nips at her heels as sharp as the words that fell from her lips
and the numb fingertips that fit like gloves remind her she’ll never—

—never—

—never get to trace them along their body again

but the snow that falls from the sky still cradles her body
and surely that’s enough
to feel like love
at least for one sleepy night, deep in her hazy recollection
of days where wintry nights
burned
like fire

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hꜵllow

auld lang syne awe evaporates along the line of the autumn of life
bitter jagged edges down the ends, biting back at reflection, reflections
reverberate deep dark deep down, ring, render the hallowed hollow

it will never feel the same
it will never feel the same
you will never feel the same

you know too that you will fade from fabric, ink will erode, lift you down
fire never burns bright when fuel evaporates, white bright clear deep dull
gnash your teeth until your tongue rests on gums and resin, porcelain

it will never feel better
it will never feel better
you will never feel better

but at least you felt it at all

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A Self-Portrait of the Author

A miscellaneous human being. They stitched together her skin haphazard from thrift store fabric, and the words she extorts from her mouth are nothing more than the bottled detritus that have fallen off of people far more interesting than her. She’s the type to get accused of missing the forest for the trees, then try to address the grievance through deforestation. You find yourself unable to decide whether her joints or her disposition are more jabbing and angular.

Hollow and aching, she fawns and agitates in equal measure, an antagonistic sycophant desperate for approval but terrified of the people who come close enough to give it. Shame burns her; it is a fire that scorches her veins, a spotlight that shines bright from within and projects her insecurities onto the surrounding walls. It feels like a threat to her survival itself, yet her need to avoid it has done more damage than it ever could have.

She wants so badly to be original, yet is incapable of defining herself as anything other than an amalgam of the media she consumes. She wants so badly to be good enough, but she’ll never be okay with who she is whilst she still feels like scratching her own skin off every time she’s forced to be alone with her thoughts. All she wants is to feel her existence is justified, in a way that it doesn’t feel it justifies itself.

Endless self-deprecation to cover real insecurity, as if awareness of her flaws excuses their omnipresence. Your laughter becomes less sincere with every repetition of the pattern, and after a time you draw away in discomfort once you realize she has a poverty of personality beyond disingenuous self-awareness.

In the end, she is a faded Polaroid picture of a blank wall — instant film framing whitespace.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Shadowsoon

Two weeks and four days into March, they wait. The light from the fire does not stretch far, but it is sufficient to cover everyone that lives in their small town if they huddle close. It gets less warm with every passing moon, but the luminescence stays strong, and it almost blinds them to the eyes that watch them from the dark. It is all that they have until Winter gets what it wants.

There are only a few days left before their calendars will tell them the start of Spring has arrived, but no one wants to be the first to sate the frost’s hunger. So, they sit around the fire, and talk, and share hollow laughter, and wait crooked minutes on crooked hours on crooked days. Someone is bound to work a little too late to notice the dipping of the sun soon.

They all inch a tiny bit closer to the flame. They pretend they do not see the others do the same.


It is her in the end, she realizes. It is her, in a barn, getting lost in her head and only finding her way out when she feels the cool sting of breath on the back of her neck. They will be sad to forget her name, but not enough to wish it was theirs fading from the others’ lips instead. Terror blooms from within at the sight of the setting sun, and it is only the resulting flood of adrenaline that allows her to light a nearby oil lamp before the darkness engulfs her; the lamp bites with cold at the touch, even after the flame begins to flicker, and she grasps onto the handle so hard her knuckles go white.

She stumbles backward as she feels the weight of eyes that never blink. Her back never touches a wall. She shivers, then walks toward where she knows the others are. They could all walk the long path blind.

She walks, and she walks, and she walks. It is a straight line, yet she passes flora she knows she has already seen again, and again, and again. Her heart pounds faster every time she sees it. She convinces herself that she’s wrong, for a while. It lasts until she feels the exhaustion creeping up her legs.

She will find the fire before the last drop of oil lights up and the chill claims her. She will.

Photo by Antti T. Nissinen | CC BY 2.0

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Oxygen, Code One

He has a Reputation, but she needs, and she is shaking so hard she can feel herself tearing at the joints. A friend warns her not to seek him, and cries in the nape of her neck as she rips apart her story’s canvas. She spends a week’s worth on one, instead, so she can hope she will not remember in the morning.

(She doesn’t.)

The last penny she held is now fire in her veins, and she finds herself up for auction, closing her eyes as they’re open and trying to pretend it is anything else. He runs his hands down her bones and whispers how hot it is to know that she is flaking away. It has to hurt, so much. So much.

(It does.)

She is clean for three weeks. And then five. And then two. And then one. And then one.

And then one.

Lights, and sirens, and the compassion in their eyes fading away as they see her marks, and the clinic turns clinical. They are very professional, and very professionally take her blood through the scars, and very, very professionally tell her they can’t help with the pain. They write a note of discharge in regret, and come back soon! in invisible ink.

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