Guest Story: Insubstantial

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! In honor of today, please enjoy a story written by my wonderful friend and writing buddy, Kate Sheeran Swed.

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Image from Pixabay

 

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.

It is the sensation of waking with one arm splayed on the pillow, the limb drained and temporarily useless—only it tingles throughout her body. She can’t convince her numb fingers to grasp the doorknob.

The window is open, and she sneaks onto the slope of the roof more easily than ever before. Though she can’t manage her usual grip on the gutter, her ankles don’t smart when she lands.

She is weightless. She almost giggles, thinking of how she will surprise her mother by walking in the front door. But a cold feeling against her spine stifles her laughter. It is like getting up to use the bathroom at night, when the darkness convinces her to waste no time in returning to her room, lest the monsters should realize there’s a morsel out of bed.

If she loses her grip on the earth she will fly away, a balloon without a tether.

Calliope gives her head a shake, willing the dizziness to pass. Soon she will go inside, where her mother will press a cool hand against her forehead and check for fever. For now, she scans the yard for something familiar. The trees tilt, and she blinks to set them right. The flowerbeds wobble from daffodil to snapdragon, a double exposure in her brain.

Through the chaos, she catches sight of her lunchbox, anchored in the grass. She tries to remember the last time she held the handle, but it’s hard to distinguish the difference between days and years.

It should not be here. It belongs on the kitchen counter, jaw unhinged, waiting to be sated with peanut butter sandwiches and notes from her mother: Don’t forget to hand in your lunch money! Always with a heart.

On the street, kids hurry by, backpacks quivering as they cast wide-eyed glances at the house. Calliope kneels before the lunchbox. She expects damp knees, but no sensation leaks through her jeans.

There are two boys beyond the fence now, poking noses and fingers between the bars and whispering, jabbing one another with elbows. Calliope cannot hear what they’re saying. She wants them to leave her alone.

The lunchbox is decorated with a unicorn. There are rainbows on the thermos. But the hinges are rusty, the unicorn’s horn all but faded away.

Calliope reaches for the clasp.

One of the boys squeezes between the bars of the fence, pauses, looks back to his friend. The friend urges him on with a bright red sleeve.

“What do you want?” asks Calliope. The boy looks past her and swallows, then darts toward the porch.

Calliope decides to pay him no mind. She touches the tip of her index finger to the clasp on the unicorn lunchbox.

Her finger disappears. When she pushes forward, alarmed, the rest of her hand follows.

She jerks it back.

The boy reaches the porch, touches the bottom step. For a moment, the house settles in Calliope’s vision, and she sees it as if for the first time.

The porch swing hangs drunkenly from one chain. The welcome mat is gone. The kitchen window is broken, mold-black curtains hanging dirty and frayed.

It’s disorienting, like stumbling into a carnival and searching for a familiar strain through the cacophony of clashing tunes.

The boy hurtles back down the walk while his companion giggles.

Calliope is heat. She pours it into her fingers, curls them around the handle, and hurls the lunchbox with all the substance she has left.

The boys scream when the box hits the fence. They run.

Calliope sinks once more to her knees and tries to piece it all together, her thoughts no more solid than the ground beneath her feet. She will grow too heavy for the surface and descend through layers of earth, forget her place in time and fall through the years, until everything exists at once. She will hear the reason for the cockroaches, and how they keep the melody of the world from tilting off key.

The day slinks on.

*

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.


Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Following an idyllic childhood in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. You can find her at katesheeranswed.com or on Twitter @katesheeranswed.

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If it’s safe, say yes

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The view from Devil’s Den, Gettysburg

Ghosts. Spirits. Hauntings. Whether you’re a skeptic or believer, you probably have some strong opinions on the subject, but I’m not here to convince you of anything. I’m just going to relate a story.

When I was in college, my dorm suite was haunted. Other people might have explained it away, but my roommates and I believed that the creepy things that were happening weren’t caused by living humans. We believed so much we had my friend’s father, who is a Russian Orthodox bishop, come to the school and bless our suite. After that, the activity stopped and that just solidified my belief.

I spent this last weekend in Gettysburg, PA at a paranormal conference organized by a company called Strange Escapes. It was a weekend full of ghosts and theories, battlefields and talks, and wonderful camaraderie. It was soul-filling in a strange way and I got to see my writing friend, Christie, which just made the weekend even better.

The most eye-opening talk for me was given by John Tenney. I’ve been mulling over two things he said since Sunday.

The first was that he doesn’t like the word “paranormal” because these experiences are shared by so many people that they are more normal than not, but most people talk about them in whispers. This was mostly just an interesting tidbit that slightly realigned how I see things.

The second he said was that if someone asks you to do something crazy, and it’s safe, always say yes. And he proceeded to tell us amazing stories of things people have asked him to come see.

My life has been pretty routine lately. Work sleep work sleep ad nauseum. I haven’t been saying “yes” to many things lately. Maybe this one line spoken from the front of a crowded lecture room in amongst the weird ghostly happenings of the weekend, is the thing I needed to take away from this conference. I need to hang on to the sentiment and learn how to say “yes” more.

I’m back in the “real world” now and it’s a little jarring. There’s a definite lack of magic in the way I carry out the humdrum of my daily life and this conference really showed me how unacceptable that is.

I want to live a weird, wacky, amazing life. And acknowledging that is the first step, so I think I’m on the right path.

I’ll write more about the actual conference at some point, but this has been what I’ve been thinking about since I left yesterday.

Madcap Aspiring Writers Workshop

Last week, I attended the 2016 Aspiring Writers Workshop hosted by Madcap Retreats. The event brought 42 aspiring writers together in a big house in the middle of nowhere, TN for three days of learning, listening, and being.

I drove from NY to TN. On the way down, I broke up my trip into two days and stopped at Luray Caverns in VA. I love caves so much and I felt like visiting one before the workshop was an auspicious way to start the trip.

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The reflective underground lake in Luray Caverns.

When I arrived at the retreat house, a giant wall of windows greeted me inside. The space was light and airy. A perfect place to host the workshop.

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It was incredibly soul-feeding to be among people going through the same journey I am. There was no explaining necessary because everyone just got it. The number of times in my life when I’ve felt this way can be counted on one hand.

I laughed with my new friends and cried with them. In the space of three days, I felt like I found family. And I learned so much. There was an incredible amount of information thrown our way during those long days of workshops. I think the important parts stuck the most, so I’m not worried about the parts that are lost to me now.

Maggie Stiefvater spent a lot of time ingraining the idea that we are idea-makers, creative people, not just writers. This is a concept that I’ll carry with me because it helps me see the world differently.

Courtney Stevens’ words are mostly lost to me now, but her infectious zeal for life and improving oneself stayed with me. Of everyone at the retreat, she gave me the courage and desire to be better.

And I’d like to give a huge shout-out to Natalie Parker who organizes Madcap retreats. She invests huge amounts of time and energy into organizing and her efforts are evident in how wonderful the workshop was. It was life-changing. And soul-feeding. And everything I wanted it to be.

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The last night there, we had a bonfire where we all burned boxes we’d been decorating with ideas for the past several days. We had the chance to write one last thing on the box before we burned it. I burned my fear and self-doubt, letting them rise into the night with the burning embers.

This workshop has not only given me tools to improve my craft but the love and support of everyone who attended. I can face the hard path of a writer because I have my tribe behind me. And I am so incredibly grateful that I was able to experience this with everyone there.

Ocean’s Pull

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Photo by Lisa

Nothing’s been the same since Pa left us last year. He got up early one morning, said he was going for some cigarettes, and he never came back. Ma said he left us for that bimbo secretary of his, but I know different.

He left us for the sea.

And now the same waves crest and crash in my soul. I’ve been trying to ignore it for Ma’s sake. She needs me. But the pull is strong and I can’t resist anymore.

It’s a wonder Pa lasted out as long as he did. I’m not as strong as him.

So tonight, when the moon is high and the night is deep, I’ll pack my things, kiss Ma’s sleeping forehead, and leave. She’ll understand. She’s got to.

Pieces of my Heart

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Photo by Lisa

“It’s not what it once was,” I said. We stared at the run down house, trying to imagine it in its prime.

I blinked back tears at the gaping windows and falling roof and porch overgrown with weeds. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

You placed your arm around me and I tried to stop shaking. As you squeezed me tighter, heaving sobs surfaced and I buried my face in your chest. I soaked the front of your shirt with my tears.

“It’s okay,” you murmured in my ear. Over and over, a mantra I clung to. I wanted so badly to believe you, but I knew it would never be okay.

They say you can never go home again. I finally believe it.

The Void

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Photo by Lisa

Silence lives on the other side of the door where the Other Family dwells. No one believes me when I tell them people live there.

“That’s just the pantry,” they laugh and open the door to show shelves full of cans and vegetables. “There’s no one living in there.”

But I know the truth. Every time I go past, light leaks around the outside of the door. I place my ear to the rough wood, hands splayed out in front of me as I balance myself, and try not to get splinters. There is nothing to hear. Not the comforting murmur of adults or the laughter of children.

There is nothing but the brilliant white void that leaks around the door. Vast, blank, and deafening.

My love is like a jellyfish

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Photo by Lisa

“My love is like a jellyfish,” I told him. We stood watching them undulate around their saltwater tank.

“That’s stupid,” he said.

He turned to smile at me. An attempt at lessening the rudeness of his words, but they did not hurt me. I smiled back to show him I was not hurt.

As we moved through the aquarium, he kept asking if my love was like an otter. Or a turtle. Or a minnow. I sighed and grinned with forced patience and told him each time that, no; my love is like a jellyfish.

One day, when I break his heart with stinging words and leave him crying in the space we once shared peacefully, he will understand what I meant. Until that day comes, and it comes sooner with each inane question he asks, our love will be as soft and beautiful as a jellyfish in motion.