and you’re not here.

Panic moves me down the hall like a rook on a chess board. Screaming. Something squirms on the floor in the center of the room. Dark red and greasy.

And screaming.


It’s dark in here. The overhead lights are off. Candles throw vague shadows across the floor; pale orange light that pulses as the fire flickers and dances.

My body moves closer. I don’t want it to. This place isn’t right.

It’s not like I remember.


Before I realize it,

I’m standing right on

top of the thing.




b  a  b  y .


And all but consuming her, a disaster of letters: crumpled and torn and tossed, retrieved and smoothed, discarded. Scraps of the same flax paper leading down the hall. Hundreds of them; thousands, maybe.


The baby writhes on them like a worm on leaves. Staining the pages red as she moves.


What the hell is this? Where are you? How long have you been gone?

The child looks newborn. Her skin is wet and tight. The grit on her face could be afterbirth. Could be rat shit. There’s no blood on the floor.

Did you carry her here?

She’s so red. You didn’t have time to bathe her. She couldn’t be that red just from crying, could she? Her lungs work alright. Mine feel stiff. Artificial, the way it feels to touch something with dried glue on your fingers. Disconnected.

Screaming isn’t the right word for what this child is doing. She has weaponized sound itself. Explosions of noise.


This place tells a story. My nose isn’t what it used to be. Test the air. The sharp-toothed smell of wet neglect. Ashes. Plastic. Chemically-yellowed glass. Lavender. Rust. Hospital bouquet: ammonia, solvents, and fish, like an aquarium filled with dirty mop water. Nicotine.



The main lights don’t work. Dead switch on the wall. That explains the candles. Ants make the countertops squirm like scanlines across a dead channel. An empty purse tells me everything and nothing. Spare change on the counter.

More letters. Piles of snowballs. You were preparing for war. Skinny and bitter, swollen and wanting; swaths of pale, deckled memories. All those beginnings. The weight of that room, pressing.

My ears search for sirens. If a neighbor called in the noise, they could already be en route. In ten minutes I’ll be gone. That’s all I need. Ten minutes to search. I still know all our old hiding spots.

Check the rooms one by one. Then deal with the kid.

Echoes. Danse des voix. An insect hum leaks through the windows, forms a symphony. We used to dance to this song. You always loved cicadas. Called them angels. This is a world so separate from the one outside, the one before—

Everything is distant. Your face is a frail, receding thing. Like staring in a mirror as I drive away. Your shape in the window.



Please come back to me.


You left messages everywhere.

Mattress worked half off the bed, belly splayed, guts spiraling out. The floor is a landfill of misplaced screws, fingernail clippings, and busted light bulbs. One of your letters spills off the page, across the bedroom wall:


u         c


y            o        

The nightstand vomited, sending up orphaned remotes and more papers; a cherry chapstick with no cap lays exposed on the soiled carpet. Anger glares in long, pained letters streaking down the wall beside the window:

g      o            d                   

i    s               a              M    O    N   S     T    E  R 

And around the corner, to where I’m standing now:

w    i      t   h     o   u      t                  a       

m  i     r    r      o         r

Someone stole god’s mirror from the bathroom. Mystery solved. The towels and shower items are gone, too. They left the floss as a ransom note. A tampon in the corner looks like a slain mouse against the white linoleum.

You sold the trash can for scraps. Replaced it with a cardboard box overflowing with wads of stiff toilet paper. Cotton balls stained with fingernail polish.

There’s a syringe on the counter. Hanging over the edge of the cardboard box like a hand towel is a sad, purple condom.


I’m so sorry.

The room grows still, silent. Close my eyes and count for thunder:

One Mississippi
Two Mississippi


My feet move quick. Something in my stomach feels off. I’m down the hall a heartbeat later, watching her chest move.

Rise. Fall. Breathing.
She’s okay.

Candles weep over every shelf and mantle, leaking time forward, onward. Downward.


The worm makes a whimpering sound and extends her hand, but her eyes are closed. She must be out of batteries.

My watch puts 7 minutes on the sirens and I still don’t have what I came here for. My mind is a river of static and this room is a bridge to nowhere.

The sleeping child, thin and larval. A worm napping on leaves. Fuck’s sake. None of this is real. I’m sleeping. We never came here. We never got so lost.

I’m just—


Did you know I’d find her?


Where are you?




What happens next? The door in the hall stands open, night seeping in slow, the way dogs wander to smell a threat, cautious. Curious.

Am I hers now?

You Belong To Me - DRIP | Red Wyatt Aster


Her nest of blown glass and cigarette butts is a miracle of demise. What promise did you give her? You’ll be safer here, you said. Crooked, fulvous lies.

Should I pick her up? Set her free? Give her a name?

Beneath her head, a book of crossword puzzles with half the pages dog-eared; coffee stain crown on the cover like a halo behind wisps of her thin, wild hairs.


Nine across.
So many down.

My face contorts. The coffee stain makes a sound. Its voice from my mouth:


Did I give her the name, or did you? Was it hers all along? Is she trying to steal the crossword’s identity?

I need you to tell me. You were always the deep thinker. I’m just the hound.

The corners of the crossword book are split and wrinkled. Its pages curl in protest, reaching for the lightless ceiling, flat as a sun-baked sidewalk roach, legs twitching with the flutter of the two-armed fan overhead. Creak-creak, says the fan.

Round and round, stirring fumes. Hardly a fitting mobile.


On the far wall, the lampshade sits crooked on its neck like a shady hustler peddling on a street corner.

Hustlers - Drip | Red Wyatt Aster

You buying? Nah. Not today.

Not yet.

I thumb the hammer forward to uncock the pistol and bury it in my belt. I’m steady, scanning the room. No sign of a struggle. The stash is gone. My hands are free. I’ve still got four minutes.

Something fragile pops as I step toward her, crunching like fresh snow. I slide my fingers behind her neck and butt and bring her to my chest, shushing and rocking, a reenactment from some movie or other, probably. My mind creates a shopping list: bottle, formula, diapers. Blanket, wipes, college. Can’t be all that hard.

In the kitchen is a coffee maker, hunched against a wrinkled wall beside the rust-sick sink. The pot is gone. Empty box of filters wants me to believe you’re at the grocery. Just popped out for milk and smokes.

Mama’s coming right back, I promise. You’ll be safer here.

Cabinets are empty. Fridge unplugged, scant buffet of condiments and opened box of baking soda be damned. O will have to wait for dinner. I’ll see that she gets it.

“Shhh, baby. It’s ok. It’s ok.”

The name comes to my lips again. I hear myself whisper in her ear:


Are you watching me right now?