's 2017 Horror Write-off:

All Souls

Submitted by Erika Backman

Dearest Emily,

When I was a child, our village was a rest stop for migrating monarch butterflies. The bare trees would come alive again with a blanket of burnt orange Autumn, thousands of gently fluttering wings their new leaves. It was the most spectacular optical illusion. It always took a moment to see it. At first glance, just a row of October trees, then - there! a wingspan! antennae! - and the whole would be alive for us in an entirely new way.

I remember lying in the fallen leaves looking up, watching the living canopy of insects writhing above me, the orange and red and black shifting in and out of every pattern imaginable like a fractal map of some faraway country with ever-changing borders.

You don't see them much anymore. Some years, you still get one or two solitary butterflies blowing through, but the branches stay bare. Growing up in the dusty basin of a dried out ocean, trilobites and Cambrian creatures etched into every stone, I came to know extinction early on. Once the world was this way: now it is another. Everything is always changing.

Even so, I still see them sheltering me from midday sun, the mass of wings and fragile bodies so voluminous it left me in twilight.


This is all a lie, by the way. Don't let yourself forget that. Every word of it is true, but none of it means anything. Okay? It's just a story to tell yourself when you start thinking, I don't matter. Nothing matters. Nothing's real. That's the truth. But wouldn't it be nice if it wasn't?


It had been a bad year and I came home with wounds to lick. My mother had moved back to our old village and needed help settling in. I needed a break from work and escape from the shadow that had hung over my life since Emily's suicide. A quick visit home - even if it was in an unfamiliar house - seemed like a good idea. After dancing around the idea without ever clearly stating it, my mother and I somehow decided on late October. By then, I had resigned myself to the fact that we would likely never be able to communicate directly.


Phosphenes floated effervescently across my field of view as consciousness slowly slid back into place. Dark swaths of gorgeous unreality gradually resolved into a substantial image. I felt with shaking hand over my skin. Still warm and damp. It was only a few minutes, then. Perhaps less. My tongue felt fine, but my lip was swollen where I had bitten it upon impact. A small amount of blood had dried on the cool tile.

I rose weakly from the floor and took a towel from the rack, wrapping it around myself and sitting down on the closed toilet seat. A shape flickered somewhere in memory like a dim light at the end of a dark hall.

"Are you all right, Ceci?" My mother's voice, outside.

"I fainted," I said. Should have lied.

"Do you need help?"


"Are you sure?"

"I'm fine." Did lie, this time. Turning around the small, strange bathroom searching for lingering ghosts, surprised my heart sank in seeing they'd gone.


"You said it happened in August, too." She led me to a raised stool chair at the end of the bar. Wouldn't let me walk myself. A mixture of shame and gratitude washing through me like a heat rash.


"I worry about you. What if it happens again, when you go back? Who would take care of you?" My blood goes cold and I hold my tongue at this. She continues, not seeing my sudden pallor. "Maybe you should think about taking more time off, stay here a while."

In my mother's kitchen now, the lighting somehow unsettling. Too warm, orange, something. Slight derealization at being in such a familiar situation, in such an unfamiliar place.

"No," I said. "I'm taking long enough. I can still write." Feeling a mixture of embarrassment and satisfaction as I accepted the mug of hot cocoa she brought over. All her efforts to comfort me.

She gave me a Look, but allowed the lie to fade. "What was it you were working on this time, again?"

Grateful for the change of subject, I said, "White nose syndrome," and took a long sip, blowing carefully on the scalding liquid. Waiting for her curiosity to pique. As soon as I saw her eyebrows raise, I went on. "Little brown bats... Well, a lot of bats in North America are dying from it. It's a kind of fungal infection that's killing them in huge numbers. There's this cave in Vermont that was the largest hibernaculum in the northeastern U.S... Went from nearly a quarter of a million bats per winter to just... about a hundred, at any given time. Because of white nose."

Seeing my mother's expression, I could tell I'd been speaking slowly, dreamily, and felt a small knot of anger tightening in my chest. It took so much effort just to speak. "How awful," was all she said.

"It's not exactly strange," I shot back. "We're seeing so many species threatened by extinction in so many ways... Microorganisms introduced from other biomes, climate change, land development, ocean acidification and anoxification... We're in the start of a mass extinction. North American bats, Panamanian golden frogs, Yan--"

"How depressing," my mother muttered, rising and leaving without another word. Suddenly, my words returned to me and it would have been easy to continue on. Except she'd already gone. I always had more to say than she had patience to listen.


The thing about ghosts is that, once they've appeared, you never know if they've gone away again. Hauntings linger like echoplasm, revenants reverberating.

Here's what I saw when the aura broke across my vision: my grandmother standing just outside the bathtub, smiling.

I always did love her. She was an amazing woman, talented and fiercely independent. Worked her whole life teaching two languages, doing volunteer work every weekend. Her house was full of an adopted menagerie. She always accepted those who had nowhere else to go.

She had a way of seeing me that no one else in our family shared. When I was fifteen, she took me aside and asked, gently enough, about the bright bead bracelet around my wrist. Blushing, I must have stammered out some unconvincing half-answer. She'd said she knew April Munoz could make pretty bracelets. Said she knew April liked other girls, had been bullied because of it and could use a friend who'd understand. Then she'd led me back into the house and carried on as if nothing unusual had happened. And that made me feel nothing unusual had happened. Her nonchalance made it true; just another part of life.

Sometimes I wonder if she could have held my mother and I together. If she could have saved Emily. She was so sweet to Emily. Just as she'd always been so sweet to April. Maybe that shouldn't have been such a surprise, but my expectations of others had been lowered by subsequent years of experience.

So, about seeing my grandmother standing on the cool, clean tiles of my mother's new bathroom, smiling warmly in greeting, not a shred of embarrassment in her expression: my grandmother's been dead four years.


She came back the next night, killing any proper suspense before it could build. That was just like her.

Returning to the guest room after dinner with my mother, I'd turned on the light and there she was, on the edge of the bed. There was something conspiratorial in her eyes. She wore a simple dress I initially mistook for white before realizing it must be made of light. It glowed gently against my skin.

"I'm having another seizure," I said.

"No," she said. "Not as far as I can see. Sit down."

I did. I touched her. I couldn't help it. She was warm, solid.

"You're real. You're alive."

She spoke again, but her voice had vanished. Only her mouth moved. No sound carried. Seeing my incomprehension, she stopped, smiled. Reached across and held my hand. We sat like that for half an hour. It scared the hell out of me.


We spent the next week like that. It was weird. Every night, after dinner, she'd be waiting in the guest bedroom. Her voice didn't come back, but sometimes she'd try to speak. I used to live in a big empty desert and at night, sometimes you could pick up stations from all over. It sounded like that, when she tried to speak. Distant, faded, almost some signal to the noise. But never quite enough to make out anything coherent. It creeped me out.

Writing worked better. She was as solid and real as anybody while she was "tuned in," so we'd pass a pen and notepad back and forth.

"What's it like being dead?" I wrote on that second night.

"I don't know," was her reply.

"What do you mean?" I wrote back.

"I've never been dead."

I gave her a significant Look. "You know what I mean."

"I do but you don't know what I mean. I'm alive."

Then, "Touch me."

I felt her arm. I couldn't deny it.

When she left, it was like a radio station lost into static. She'd flicker in and out of existence more and more until she just wasn't there. That first night, I couldn't sleep, which left me plenty of time to wonder if she was really gone or just, I don't know, invisible. I asked her on the second night, and she said she had no awareness of time passing in between our meetings, but you never really knew for sure with my grandmother. She said it with a wink.


This isn't a ghost story. There were never any ghosts. You may not understand that right now, just as I didn't then, but you will when you come here and see for yourself, someday soon. I'll be waiting, on the other side of the fire.


The next one said its name was Hazel. It appeared as a rippling purplish stain of vague good-humored mischief on the ceiling. It said that being incorporeal is better than living as a "discreet organism." In its current state, it could be anything or anywhere without limitation. It said it was talking to itself, in life, as it spoke to me.

"You're in the past?" I asked dumbly.

"I'm right here, Turkey. So is she." It wouldn't call me "Cecilia," even after I asked; only "Turkey." I never figured that out. It spoke by taking on certain patterns that I felt as a kind of itch in my brain. I tried not to think about long-term after effects.

"But you said you died. You're a..." I couldn't bring myself to say it.

"I'm right here," was all it said. "So is she. We are all present. Turkey."

This one was worse than my grandmother.


I've never believed in an afterlife. Funny thing for me to say, isn't it? Cecilia Flores, author of the New Book of the Dead, never believed in an afterlife.

And do I now? I don't know. I think I only believe in life. The definition's simply expanded, that's all. Even so, I think back to the things Hazel and my grandmother told me, everything I would learn in the weeks to come, and I hope with all my heart even half of it is true.


One thing Hazel tells me is that the dead ghosts incorporeal are offered a wider perspective that gives them a richer view of life. Being without discrete bodies in distinct points of space, they can be anywhere. Being without set form, they can be anything. Being unable to be harmed, they have nothing to fear. From a certain way of seeing things, the dead have never been more alive.


God, there's no time. It's burning all around me and I haven't even told you half of it. Why is it so short? My grandmother says everything is eternal, but she's dead. What do the dead know? From the way they talk, you'd think everything. And yet she's in such awe - as if knowing everything brings with it greater mystery.


None of them speak out loud. On that first night, I heard my grandmother, almost, but it was like a synthetic sequencer that could approximate her voice. Roughly. Since then, they've all been silent. I ask her why and all she does is shrug. I ask her if that means there's music in the life after life. What's the point of living forever if there's no music?

"Everything is music, Ceci," she scratches on our now-cluttered page, our conversations overlapping in increasingly tinier print.

I listen for a moment, then say I don't hear anything. I don't even hear her. That's why we're writing.

She just smiles and scribbles down, "You will hear it. You will sing it loud. Your voice will soar."


My father sang. He was a horrible singer; but he sang, loud and unashamed. He used to carry a Walkman with him when he mowed the lawn, shouting half coherent lyrics to the world, oblivious to the neighbors' bemusement. My mother and I would watch him from the window and laugh with each other about his folly. It sounded awful; but it was music to us.

Now we can't even speak to each other.


Here in the kitchen again, helping dry the dishes. Not too many, with just the two of us here now.

"I'm sorry I left so suddenly the other day," she says. "It sounded like you had more you wanted to talk about, but I had just remembered something I needed to file."

Murmur some half-feigned forgiveness, dismissal of reopening the subject.

"Really," she says, rinsing suds from her fingers and leaning in to dry her hands. Looking up at me. I see so much of myself in her. The shape of her face, the color of her hair, the light in her eyes, all some fading resonance that echoed me out. She must feel the same, seeing me seeing her. Used to hate that. Now, after all of this, it merely makes me laugh. "I'm proud of your work. Everything you've accomplished." In spite of your handicaps, she doesn't say. But I know she understands something about that, herself, so I can't bring myself to resent her.

Sighing and drying my own slightly damp hands, I sit down at the table and steeple my fingers in imitation of her own typical posture. Maybe she's being sincere. There was more I had wanted to say. Wasn't I angered by her apparent unwillingness to listen? Here she is, asking me to continue.

"I was going to tell you about Yangtze river dolphins," I near whisper. Why is it so difficult to talk to her? I wish that question didn't have an answer.

"What are those?" my mother asks.

Half smiling at my visible irritation at the expected question, I reply wryly, "Dolphins. That lived in the Yangtze river."

She smiles back and something cool inside me warms a little.

I press on, more serious. "They're functionally extinct, now... A whole bunch of factors, but what it comes down to... Too much human activity in their habitat..."


"Of a sort... Noise. See, they're adapted for fantastic hearing, practically blind... And people, boats, they make noise... So these dolphins, their brains fried from overstimulation and they'd just swim right into propellers..."

Shrugging, I add, "There were a dozen other things going on there, but that's... the one that stuck out, to me."

My mother's quiet for a moment, then says in a far heavier tone of voice, "I can see why."


The decoy duck rocks gently as I undulate my linked palms in imitation of gently bobbing water. My mother enters and sits on the opposite end of the sofa, smiling at my silliness. "I'm so glad you like those," she says.

I laugh. "I used to have nightmares about them!" She laughs with me, but doesn't interject, so I continue. "Really creepy ones, actually... Not about the ducks themselves, but the concept... I'd be home, and you or dad or someone else, Jerri maybe, would be around, except... I could somehow tell it wasn't you, it was... a decoy that only looked like you, being...operated by some...things I couldn't perceive, hunting me, luring me into a trap..."

"Brrr! That does sound creepy! Sometimes you have too much imagination, Ceci."

Smiling to myself, I have to admit she has a point. "Maybe so."

A moment passes without either of us speaking. It isn't tense, like how it usually is. There's something else here with us, now, keeping things calm. Looking around the room - the arrowheads, the ducks, the atlatls, the bullroarers - it suddenly occurs to me what it is. "He really did like making things," I say.

"Yes, he did," she said. "And I'm glad. That leaves us with something to enjoy."

"Artifacts of his presence."

"Exactly," she says. She doesn't see him, but there he is, as clear as day. My dead father between us. Bridging the gap.

"It's like a part of him is still here," I say, only the remotest waver in my voice.

"Exactly," she says. And smiles. He smiles, too, his bristly mustache widening. Stretches an arm around both of our shoulders. The weight and warmth is as real to me as anything. Watching the tension in her neck evaporate, I have to believe she feels some distant tremor of it, too.

Facing the window, away from her, so she won't see my tears, I smile back at his reflection.


"What is happening to me?" I scribble down. After a moment, I circle and underline "is happening" for emphasis. "What is happening to me?" This looks too colorless, so I make a small addition below with an arrow indicating placement. "What the hell is happening to me?"

She scribbled back a lot of nonsense: "You came home so that you'd be here when the first tides of the Presence wash through the flame veil."

I give her a hostile Look and she shrugs. Makes sense to me. Not my fault you're so dense.

I cross out "what" and replace it with "why," underline "me." "Why (the hell) is this happening to me?"

"You're a part of the Presence, too."

"What is the Presence?" Another shrug. It was useless. She'd either tell me or she wouldn't. I'd either understand or I wouldn't. There was no point in talking about it now. At least she had the decency to try and hold my hand for wordless comfort, but I felt like sulking and wouldn't allow her.


Something changed, after that. The scales reversed. My grandmother became a source of tension and secrets, hushed resentments, but things were a little easier between my mother and I. We started to talk again, in earnest. We went for walks together, like we used to. Seeing her unwind in front of me, I realized how afraid of the world she had been. Like I had been before I met you, Emily. Insult of the implication aside, I always admired your bravery. That came out wrong, when I tried to tell you. Always wished I'd get a do-over there. But there was still truth in it. You weren't brave because you existed in spite of a world set against you. It was simply your nature. You were unafraid, even when you had reason to be. It never occurred to you to feel fear about anything.

We talked about you. How I found you. Your body. Everything so clean. Your note so direct. I didn't want to talk about that, but I had needed to. She hesitated, then called you by your name. Only the once. After that it was back to diplomatic avoidance. But I caught it. It's not enough now, but I treasure that single moment when my mother's voice carried your name.

We talked about names. "You were almost an Agatha," she said. "Or a Thora."

"I rather like that one. It's much cooler than Cecilia!"

We're sitting on the side porch, watching the light fade over the horizon.

"That one was my idea, naturally. Well, your dad wanted to call you something else... I can't even pronounce it. So we compromised."

"Where did Agatha come from?"

"Oh, that was your grandmother's grandmother."

"Grandma Viv?"

"Yes. Her mother was an Agatha."

I listened to the peacocks howling off in the distance. They'd always sounded like wounded cats to me. It was always such a great joke; how such beautiful animals made such hideous sounds.

"I am proud of your writing."

A sigh. "It's just so difficult. Writing. All my words get so tangled up in my head... It's so exhausting to untie them and set them down in order."

"Still. I am proud." There's another of those silences without tension. "You know it's hard for me to express myself, too. And I know sometimes it seems like I'm tuning you out..." Her face seems strained. I wait for her to order her thoughts. "You spend so much energy on broadcasting and I spend so much fine tuning dials until I can pick you up, loud and clear..." Shakes her head. "Sorry, that's probably a bad metaphor."

It isn't, I don't say. I understand. Loud and clear.

The chance to speak passes. "The sunset is pretty."

"Yes," she answers, "It is. That's one thing you can say for this place. The sunsets are always pretty."


Speaking of which, I've neglected to mention. My grandmother's name is Vivian. Isn't that a laugh? We always said she was so full of Life. We had no idea how much.


About Emily. About you. She is - you are - the real reason I'm composing this at all. To exorcise her ghost even as so many spirits come calling. Maybe that's cruel; that's not my intention. Just that you're soaked through every page and pore. I had wanted to talk about you, finally, leave some record that could be buried in the desert and abandoned till another age.

But I never will. I've grown too fond of the drawer I locked all my feelings in long ago.

All I offer is the skeleton stripped of flesh: Emily and I had always been close. Before anyone else, I knew who she was. For many years it was a secret between us. Then it was something anyone could see. Her family disowned her. My mother retreated into denial, anger and venom. That's a source of the gap between us.

Emily and I had very good years together. Both of us were troubled people.

Then she was gone. That's all.


I wish I were better at lying. That's the trick to storytelling. You take something true and wrap it up in lies. A good storyteller makes treasures of truth in their prose presents.

I'm not a good storyteller. My lies keep falling off. There's too much truth here for stories to stick.

All I can do is hope you don't believe that.


The Presence is something I still don't know how to explain, or if I even understand. Ever since my grandmother began revealing it to me with a naming, I've wondered about it. Here's what I think now:

Life is a force in itself. We are animated by a compulsion to dance to the song we each silently hear. Maybe that melody is powerful enough that it could be considered in its own right alive.

Or maybe it's a spectral alien swallowing our world's biosphere, engulfing us in its unknowable embrace.

Maybe our world is one of many embedded in infinite succession. At death, we slither forth from our bodies into the world of the Presence, look back one last time at the living like earthbound pupae, then soar elsewhere in a direction we've never noticed before.

Is she really my grandmother or something acting through my memory of her? What is it, really? What does it want? What is it trying to get me to do?

Perhaps the only thing that can be said is that it exists. You can't deny that, on the other side of the flame veil. It's as obvious as the empty sky.


"All this time," my grandmother wrote on a blank page, "you haven't asked the question I anticipated." At first, it annoyed me that she'd turned to a fresh page only to write a needling accusation. Our conversations had become so routine that the waste of paper irritated me. "'Are you really her?'" she wrote underneath the first line. "'Are you really my grandma Viv?'"

My eyes widened. Without waiting for me to formally ask, she continued to write. "Yes, I am; but I am more now than I was when you remember me. As you will be, too. As you are, behind that mask you wear. Take off this costume called 'Cecilia.' Go look at yourself in the mirror. See what you really are."

Getting up, body numb, moving slowly, as if underwater, as if in a dream, I leave the room and stalk the darkened hallway, slip into the bathroom where she first appeared. No need for light. Not for this.

I do what she instructed. And scream.


arms legs tendrils feelers chelicerae pedipalps ears noses whiskers tails wings wings antennae proboscises jaws fangs roots hairs spines stamens corematae infundibulum leaves buds bulbs cirri chitin skin pores fur scales fins claws eyes eyes eyes eyes



slit down the forehead like surgical incision, skin peeling back

a face split down the middle, falling to each side

long tense proboscis extends

moulting, nymph leavings disintegrating to dust

wet wings spread

just another part of life


The black page filled. And another. Another. Information poured from the breaking dam of silence. Eyes never opened looked out at light never seen.


A week passed in the world, but I was elsewhere. When I came back, I was driving in town to purchase a pumpkin. Instantaneous flood of backlogged memories. Shaken, shaking, I park in front of the supermarket. Take a moment to reorient to my own anatomy - bilateral, two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes. Five senses. Just five. Okay. Step out of the car. Freeze. Across the street, an enormous creature I could only think to describe as a gorilla-horse was pulling a tree branch close to its face and stripping its leaves.

A plated, man-sized scorpion-shrimp swam elegantly between buildings, dipping under the banners draped over the downtown street.

Another thing vaguely resembling an inconceivably huge plunger drifted serenely high above in the sky like a blimp, a mass of miles-long tendrils swaying hypnotically behind it.

A basketball sized sphere ambled over on a dozen thin, elongated twiglike limbs. It watched me with thick, grey, unnervingly reptilian eyes.

"Well, hello there," I whispered. Held out a hand, palm upturned. A curious, thorny pedipalp making brief contact. My skin felt electrified.

I forgot the pumpkin. Had to go back for it later.


"What do you think happens when we die?" I asked, pulling out another fistful of goop. My pumpkin's absurd grin inspired me to imitate its expression, making my mother laugh.

"I don't know, probably nothing," she said. "Why would you ask?"

Separating a cluster of seeds from their vegetable viscera, I say, "It's been on my mind lately."

"Because of your..." A sigh. She wouldn't finish that sentence. Did. "Because of Emily?"

"Yes. I suppose."

"Well, they aren't suffering now," she said. "I know it hurts, and it'll take time to heal, but keep that in mind."

"I'm trying not to," I say. "It's awful," I say, "Nonexistence."

She turns her pumpkin to face me, much more elegant than mine. A bird in flight. It's a nice image, and I say so. After a hiccup of hesitation, she returns to the topic at hand. "Is it? I mean, I didn't exist before I was born. That wasn't so bad."

I huff a frustrated sigh. "It's just," I try to find the words that will fit. "I want there to be something left. A record, at least. An echo that is in its own way a living thing. Some indication that a life existed, even if it doesn't now. I want that so badly.

"Listen," I add, something feverish, manic, in my tone. "I don't think we stop existing. I think we become part of a... an animating force, a totality of life. Like water poured into a lake, rivers running back to sea."

The pity in her Look tells me all I need to know. She doesn't believe. She will, though. My grandmother is right. The tide is coming in. I feel it now. I'm almost ready to be swept away.


Later she asks how my writing's coming along. When I frown, she says, "Keep at it. Really."


"This is the last night we'll talk like this."

I stared at the slip of paper in my hands. Couldn't bring myself to look her in the eye yet. Finally, dread growing with each letter laid down, I etched a reply. "You're going away again?"

A touch of familiar mischief crept across her smile. "No. You're coming to see me."

And a whole space below that: "In my fullness."

She showed me the page, then took it back without giving me a chance to reply. Began writing out much more. Somewhere in her message, the words became audible to me, not as spoken sentences but as a primal, unnamable ur-language sung inside the mind.

"Events are occurring more rapidly. Coherence is heating up, dissolving. You're starting to see many other facets of the Presence, starting to guess at what I am now. What you were and will be. Look. Let me show you."

Then: scent of fresh water wafting through a hot summer's day. Spring and new buds blooming. Youth and vitality. An innocent optimism not felt since the flames of experience burned possibility to melted nub. A desert superbloom, rioting defiant against oblivion. Hope. Life. Eternal.


Butterflies. So many. Can't even begin to count.


Tip-toeing down the unlit hallway at two in the morning. The full moon lights passage almost as brightly as an electric bulb. The shadows cast by such brilliance stand long and distorted, strange companions eager to accompany. No idea when - or if - I'll be back. It feels so much like the late night walks I'd take as a teenager. Our village so safe one could go for a stroll around the block at any hour.

Careful not to wake my mother with any noise, I quietly tug my denim jacket from its place on the back of a recliner, slip it on. Moving slowly to wrap silence around me, I turn the doorknob, pull and step out into a mildly crisp Autumn evening. There's a half second disorientation where I expect to recognize my old front yard. It passes and so do I.

Nothing impedes me as I walk the darkened path. Nothing greets me. Nothing follows me. Nothing accompanies me.

Nothing awaits me.

The village sleeps, so still as to seem a corpse. There are no lights in the windows. There are no sounds of habitation. The only illumination is the moon high above and the occasional lamps strung at the end of every other street corner. The only sound is the blood in my ears. It sings a tidal, buzzing insect song in roars and susurrations.

My grandmother told me to wait at the green, woody park at the center of the village. It's a place almost as familiar to me as my own home, and was often a destination on my youthful midnight sojourns. In the long, bright days after school, I would lie in its soft grass, shaded by the thick copses as I read or daydreamed. In Autumn, those branches would be filled with butterflies, a symbiotic resurrection briefly returning the trees to life.

As I grow nearer, the streetlamps increase in number. Each behind me blinks out in my wake, the world fading into murk and possibility. I can only move forward.

Store windows look dustier by the moon's pale light. Items displayed for sale look weirder. Half-formed dream things whose silhouettes are incoherent, with purposes unguessable. A substantial mass like a damp plaster cocoon pulses in smooth expansions and shuddering contractions inside a shop selling sports equipment.

Water burbles from a pyramidal fountain in a little grassy circle some ways from the small shopping center. Colorful patterns line each side, depicting many scenes of animal-headed people in various circumstances. Vast dark shapes loom in the distance, conch shell buildings larger than anything in the village.

The street lights all cut out with a pop as soon I step onto the bridge that dissects town. The moon hides behind a cloud. Whether accident or something far more fatal, this has the effect of making my destination that much more obvious. A crimson jewel glimmers a mile or two down the road.

The wooded park is burning.


The smell is lovely. Warm and nostalgic. Wood burning steadily in a stone fireplace. The pleasantness of the sensation clashes with the knowledge of what it is. I travel toward the flames in a trance, some small part of my consciousness screaming to turn back. It's speaking sense. I ignore it.

The first butterfly passes without warning an inch from my face. Its tiny body aglow, burning, pursued by a trail of smoke. Startled, I look around and spot another. And another.

Their numbers steadily increase the closer I get. It isn't until I see a whole swarm of them darting straight up into the sky that I realize they aren't on fire. They are fire.


There are more of them than ever were in my memory. Great masses of wings flapping, unfurling, folding together in clusters. There are more trees than I remember, too. Where are the houses? Where are the buildings? There is no road any longer. Only a ground of fragrant soil and fallen leaves.

A white fog has floated in, mingling with the oily smoke. Insubstantial grey fingers caress my ankles. Shapes wriggle and squirm, only half glimpsed - an entire ecology of heavy mist obscure to me thriving just out of sight.

The smoldering jewel has disappeared underneath a hill. It's strange. I know this hill, but I should have already walked down it. Now I'm climbing it. Did I get turned around somehow? No. But the smoke is so thick. The only lights now are those little wisps of flame flitting about.

So many.

There! I see fuller light breaking--


Forgive me for leaving you something so fragmented. You know how I struggle to write. You used to laugh about it, how we could talk together until daybreak but as soon as I set fingers to keys my words would leave me. Maybe that's why I'm thinking of this as a letter to you.

Even then, it's laughably inconsistent, I know. Sometimes I refer to you directly, sometimes by name. Tenses shift without warning. Everything just trails off at the end. Tone is all over the place. There are too many "I"s. Timeline's all confused. Well, you can't criticize too harshly for all this fluidity. It's a living document, after all, ha-ha. It's all about the spirit of the thing, ha-ha-ha.

Okay. Enough of that. Time's running out. I can feel the heat on my cheeks as the fire draws close. Listen. Here's what I want to say, really, before I rest:

I cannot tell you how much I have missed you. I cannot tell you how deeply I've hoped I would see you again. I cannot tell you anything now.

All of this: it made me long so hard for a miracle. It made me believe everything was possible. That's the problem. Everything is immensity itself. How can I possibly find you in all that is? A finite life, and one shorter than average, is nothing in Eternity. An infinite life is nothing in Eternity.

I have no hope of seeing your face again. No chance of making up for all my mistakes or undoing my regrets. I'll never laugh with you again; never whisper in your ear or hold you or hear you. It's all gone, but nothing's lost. Even if this is all a lie, even if there is no Presence, no Life Everlasting telling itself its own eternal story, your presence in my life made you an enduring part of me. Our time together created the person I am now. I'm eternally grateful for that.

What I tell myself now is this: we are never apart. We never were. We never will be. I am you are me. No boundary between us. Both of us are woven together in an endlessly vaster tapestry. Even if I can't see you, your threads still hold tight to mine. So I'm right here.

And you're right here.

And I'm so glad you are.


Love You Always,

Cecilia Catherine Flores


--coughing against the stiflingly thick smoke, I crest the hill and peer out at the valley below. The expectation of inferno is so great that for a moment my brain refuses to register the scene before me. Then I accept with total shock that I really have stepped past the fire curtain.

And there they are. An infinite procession in celebration of the miracle. Faces I recognize, and many, many more I do not. Arms and legs, yes, and fins and hooves and feelers and claws and paws. Wings, too, avian, arthropod and a furry flurry of mammals. Eyes and eyes, all manner and shape; and a lack of eyes, no form ever being absolute. Other things I cannot name attuned to perceptions I cannot imagine. Great amorphous beings like sacs of jelly with stalked antennae jutting here and there like nothing ever formed on this planet. Long aerial things with trailing leafy wings like flower fronds. Sessile round things with roots extending deep into soft flesh whose borders I can't discern. Looping impossibilities with filter faces and lines of undulating pads ascended from some distant seabottom soaring enormous through the sky. Thick trunks trundling forward on large rootline appendages, translucent branches swaying and flashing myriad colors, salutations in some subtle language. Small yellow flittering things with long, unfurling proboscises, bodies flickering in tune to crystalline birdsong. Machinelike things, insects in elegant finery, the people of the future, of the alien past, of truly other worlds. Architecture rising and falling in the inhabitation of every city's susurrations. Life, in endless forms most beautiful and wonderful, fluid and flickering and enduring neverending change before my own leaden and unbelieving eyes.

All the souls of the dead are coming back.

I search desperately for my father, for my grandmother, for Emily, for anyone I want back, but it's like trying to find a single drop in all the ocean. Instead I go numb soaking in more than I can absorb and listen to the roar of the coming tide. My grandmother was right: at last, I can hear them singing. Even the voiceless are blessed with song swelling to cosmic chorus.

"We never left," they echo in a trillion strange sing-song voices. And, "We're always here." And, "I exist!" And, "Now you're born!" And, "We're home!"

Slowly, unsteadily, I open my too-frail arms to welcome them, as if their enormity could be held.