Bonus Episode #001

What is Magical Realism?

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Island of Fiends

I stumbled up the beach after drifting several days on the open sea. I didn’t know if anyone else had survived or what their fate might have been, but I could scarcely consider it because my mouth was so parched and dry from thirst. Ahead of me there was nothing but a grove of trees, but to the north I saw a break.

Hurrying toward it, I came to a stream where I fell to my knees. I took deep swallows of fresh, clear water. The moon would soon begin to rise and would find me without shelter, but, in my mind, being on dry land more than compensated for this. I washed the salt from my face, cleaned my beard, and ran my hands through my long hair.

The sky changed quickly from midnight blue to black. My shirt was dry and whipping against my chest as I sat beside the stream. My hair had dried also and blew in the stiff wind. What struck me was that the birds seemed to quiet as night fell. The insects, on the other hand, could not keep from chirping and humming in a cacophony.

I felt utterly alone on that stretch of sandy beach as the stars pierced the night. As I looked up into the heavens, I recognized the constellations and that gave me a vain hope that I was not too far from home. I was still under the same sky. This hopeful thought may have allowed me to fall asleep, but my sleep might also have been the result of exhaustion.

Soon after, I was awakened with a jolt. A man stood above me. I jerked back and wound up scrambling into the stream where I stood in knee-deep water, looking around frantically. There was no one there, but I was sure I’d seen a figure of some kind. My heart pounded in my chest and I was chilled. I narrowed my eyes and stared deeper into the grove, then back out over the ocean where the moonlight shone on the rippling waves.

As I sat back down, I was sure that I had dreamed the man. But had it been a man? In the darkness, it was impossible to tell. In fact, it had appeared more like an apparition or living shadow with the height and shape of a human. After I laid back down and was just about to close my eyes, I saw the fiend again. And this time there were two.

I stood, saying, “Who’s there? Who goes there!”

There was no answer, nothing but the moonshine and faint light of the stars. And as quickly as I blinked, the fiends had dissipated. This did not stop me from moving quickly to the grove and rummaging around in the brush until I’d found a broken limb that I could use as a weapon. I carried the stick with me back to the beach where I sat and began to wait out the night.

My nerves were now playing tricks on me. I saw dark movements all along the sand, which slowly led me to believe that this was all I’d seen–some kind of shadow play on the beach. It was simply that my eyes had deceived me. I had taken on too much salt water and it had made me dizzy. Therefore, I had to remind myself that it was just a dream and that I was needlessly working myself into fits. But, at that very moment, I felt someone or something standing behind me. I jumped to my feet again and turned, and when I did, several of these figures darted off in varying directions.

I wielded my stick screaming, “Stay back!”

It didn’t matter what I said because they did not retreat for long. Instead, they moved quickly and overtook me. I was lifted into the air and taken through the nearby trees. I didn’t understand how these men could move so fast. They carried me, each holding an arm or a leg, running inland like jungle cats. Tree limbs and fronds slapped against my face and arms as a burgeoning terror began to swell in my chest.

When they dropped me to the forest floor, I found myself flat on my back in the sand. Upon sitting up, I tried to regain my bearings. In so doing, I saw something ghostly white before me. I picked it up as I stood. Then, I moved toward a clearing, noticing that the object wasn’t heavy enough to be a stone and felt more like a giant seashell. Moving slowly toward a part of the clearing where the moonlight shone more brightly, I searched for the dark figures that had carried me but did not see them. When I came to the light, I held what I thought was a piece of a white conch shell up to it and saw that what I was holding was actually a fragment of a human skull. I dropped it and nearly cried out, but was stopped by the harsh sound of tree limbs breaking near me.

Staring into the dark jungle, I said, “What do you want! What do you want from me?”

I now understood these were ghastly figures–not ones I could reason with. What I did not know was if they were ghosts or just painted islanders. Standing there, I began to believe I’d stood a better chance surviving at sea. There might have been another island that was not filled with cannibals or devils that I could have come upon. But that had not been my destiny, and I did not think it much mattered how I felt for I would soon be dead.

* * *

I woke up in the clearing where I’d found that piece of skull. As I climbed to my feet, the sun shone bright and high in the sky and I realized there were no bones to be found. There were also no dark figures. Alone in the grove, I saw for the first time a small path. One that seemed to be used by animals given the fact that I could see fresh tracks and droppings. As I followed it, I wondered if I could escape this island by building some kind of raft.

But I still wondered if I’d imagined all of the events from the previous night. Had I carried myself through the grove by sleepwalking? This is exactly what I asked myself as I meandered back to the shore. I also thought that this was a strange island and that I was severely disturbed. Of course, I was assuming it was an island. I had not seen enough to be sure. I knew only the passage we’d taken and that after twenty days and nights at sea we could not have reached mainland.

I found another limb and sharpened the end with a rock. Then I waded into the stream to spear a fish. I spent most of the morning fishing and eating my catch. I even dozed in the warm afternoon sun on the island, planning to walk around it once I woke. Without much hope, I’d decided I should attempt to learn if anyone else had survived. Perhaps then we could escape together. But I must admit that I did not have high hopes. It had taken a good deal of effort to stay afloat for as long as I did. And I had been lucky enough to find a charred piece of decking to hold onto.

After drinking from the stream and waking from my nap, I began down the beach. I walked until the sun began to set. The beach went on to a vanishing point that I could not reach. And as I headed back to my stream, night began to fall. I walked as far away from the grove as possible at the upper reaches of the crashing waves. I slept under the same stars that night but felt a little further from home than I had the evening before. I also woke continually expecting to see the fiends, but there was no one. It made me question even more whether or not I had dreamed the entire episode.

I worked on a raft the next day, but felling trees proved difficult without any tools with which to fell them. I wasn’t sure it mattered because the chances of rescue were minuscule. My raft’s progress was also limited because the task of gathering enough food took up a great deal of sunlight. I managed to produce a lean-to to give myself some shelter but it would not keep out the animals or anything else for that matter. The lean-to was also knocked over by the wind several days later during a heavy rainstorm. Finally, I decided to return to searching of the perimeter of the island for other survivors. I went much further than I had the first time and slept on the beach but found that I was utterly alone. However, other pieces of the ship had washed ashore. I rummaged through them finding no usable supplies.

I returned to the stream where I first washed ashore at dusk. I could scarcely believe it, but I saw the figure of a man sitting by the stream just like I had been a few days before. As I was about to call out to him, I saw four fiends emerging from the grove. These rushed toward the one and picked him up just like they had me. As the apparitions carried this unfortunate soul into the woods something came over me. If someone else had come to shore, then I needed to help him. Perhaps I was too late to warn him, but I still rushed through the underbrush chasing after these shadows.

I quickly found that I was running along the trail I’d followed several mornings before, crashing through the foliage. When I came to that same clearing, I saw the man sprawled out in the sand just like I had been. Approaching him slowly, I glanced side to side searching the darkness for those which laid him there.

Kneeling beside the body, a sickening feeling came over me. The man’s face was turned away, but I recognized the clothing. It was my body still lying here in the clearing. I reached for my head and turned it so I could stare into my own dead eyes only to find that my skull had been crushed. The entire left side of my head was caved in, forcing my left eye to bulge slightly from its socket.

I turned my gaze in disgust, but, not a moment later, I wondered why I should be so disgusted by my own death. The tragedy was not that I was a deceased castaway. My fate was far worse. I had been condemned to an island of fiends, seemingly destined to become one of them.


Justin Meckes is the Founding Editor of Scrutiny. Find out more at justinmeckes.com.

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The Screw #004

Writing, Books, and Bourbon III

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An Appointment with Mr. Dee

If you had to choose his very best characteristic (and there were so, so many), he would tell you that it had to be his ironic sense of humor. He was perhaps the most talked about, infamous representation of all of God’s handiwork, enjoying his role in the grand scheme of things immensely. Sometimes, every now and then, all the good, important work he did threatened to bring him down. For although he was a celebrity in his own right, he did not always experience the adulation and credit that he felt was his due. At times, he was rebuffed, evaded, other times embraced and desired. It ran hot and cold, day in and day out always the same, the duality of his calling becoming more jarring to him with every passing year. If one could not find amusement in such a boring, maddening situation, really, what was the point of it all?

He considered taking a vacation, to try to “find himself,” as they say. He knew that he was too invaluable to take any time off (modesty admittedly not being one of his strong suits), so he decided to incorporate a part-time career into his busy existence.

For a while he played around with being a stand-up comedian, prowling the clubs on open mic night. The late hours got to be a little much, his famed droll sense of humor going over more than one head. Politics tickled his fancy for a bit, his peculiar talents being well suited for that bloodthirsty arena, but the sheer brutishness of it eventually repelled even him. He was, at various times and in no particular order, a journalist, divorce attorney, aspiring YouTube star, and card carrying member of the paparazzi, the latter profession utilizing his unrivaled ability to be seen and unseen all at the same time. None of them lasted very long or ever filled the urgent longing residing in his heart.

If he were to be completely honest with himself (as he always prided himself to be), he would say that he was simply worn out. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis of some sort, searching in vain for any kind of self-fulfillment. He was never much for talking about his feelings, as much as he had any. In the end he decided to embrace the solution of the modern age. He went to therapy.

* * *

When Dr. Ethan Childs first saw the patient he came to know as Mr. Dee, he experienced a sudden feeling of deja vu, convinced that he had seen the man somewhere before. Mr. Dee assured him they had never met, that he simply evoked that reaction. “My countenance is one that captivates or repels, occasionally at the exact same moment,” the man said as he lowered his long, elegant form onto the nondescript black pleather couch in the corner.

Ethan prided himself on always putting his clients at ease, the gold standard of what a good psychotherapist should do. He was always professional, masking any random reaction to a particular client, making sure to never prejudge or make any assumptions. This time, however, Ethan had to admit he was more than a little intrigued.

Dee always wore an expensively tailored suit, usually black pinstripe with a jaunty silken red pocket square expertly perched in his left breast pocket. He was tall—well over six feet, but carried himself with such a natural grace that his height was not intimidating. He had soft and well-manicured hands, taking Ethan’s own hand warmly into his in a firm handshake upon their first meeting. Ethan couldn’t place his age, guessed him to be in early middle age due to his thick head of salt and pepper hair, but he could have just as easily been older or younger than that. The most striking thing about him was the polished black cane he always carried. It had an enormous gold knob at the top, a symbol that Ethan couldn’t quite make out, for he didn’t want to seem rude and stare. With his confident air and refined stature, Mr. Dee would have fit quite nicely into any era. There was a certain timeless, classic quality about him.

Dee’s voice had a slight lilt to it, an accent he couldn’t quite place, piquing Child’s curiosity even further. Ethan was discovering that he had to be wary; conversations with Dee were completely intoxicating. The man’s razor-sharp wit and knowledge on a variety of subjects was extensive. They had long, impassioned discussions about history, philosophy, and art, Ethan always attempting to steer Dee back to talking about himself, as the man would wax on poetically from one subject to another.

Mr. Dee had an uncanny way of turning every question or subject around so that Ethan would find himself fending off personal questions about his own life. This was something he knew was strictly forbidden, doubling his guard whenever Dee would steer the conversation in an uncomfortable direction. It was clear that Mr. Dee had experience in this kind of thing, telling Ethan, “I treasure confidences and pride myself on discretion. You can trust in me.” More than once, Ethan had to remind himself that he was the therapist, and not the other way around.

* * *

In the three months that Ethan had been working with Mr. Dee, he came to look forward to their sessions, found himself thinking about seeing the man with anticipation. Ethan tried to mentally step back and assess what was happening in his own mind. Am I attracted to this man, is that what’s going on? The question tortured him late into the night.

Ethan’s partner had died four years earlier from cancer, twenty years of life together passing by, seemingly in an instant. He felt the life drain away from his love as he sat by, day in and day out, powerless against death’s relentless assault. Ethan was angry, still grieving. The pain lived like a dull ache just under the surface, coloring every aspect of his life. He had refused to even consider dating again, much less ever develop feelings for a client. Ethan had always been extremely professional in every regard, would never dream of crossing that line. He analyzed himself relentlessly, thought about seeing his own therapist about the dilemma before deciding that there was really only one solution. Ethan would have to stop treating the fascinating Mr. Dee, no matter how painful that would be for both of them.

* * *

Ethan spent the morning of their last session in a state of high anxiety. He really thought they had made some progress in the past few weeks; Mr. Dee was finally starting to open up. Dee refused to reference his childhood, even the slightest detail, except to say that he worked in a family business and had many diverse accomplishments to his name. He would never say exactly what that meant, but Childs knew that they were close to a major breakthrough—he could feel it.

Ethan rummaged through his desk, searching for his ever-present roll of Tums. His heartburn was particularly bad that day, the stress of what he had to do wreaking havoc with his body. He felt like he was coming down with something, physically sick about having to tell Mr. Dee that he would need to find another therapist. Ethan had put together a referral list for him, had it waiting on the desk as he practiced what he would say over and over again in his mind.

He had just gone over it once more when he felt a quiet presence move in directly behind him. It was eerie how Dee could enter a room in complete stealth, giving Ethan a physical shiver down his spine. He jumped to get up, completely caught off guard by the man’s sudden appearance as Dee gently placed his hand on Ethan’s shoulder, guiding him back down into his chair.

“There is no need to get up, Doctor, I already know what you are going to say.” Ethan stared up at him, noticing that the symbol on the golden head of his cane appeared to be a large, grinning skull. “You see, I was afraid of just this very thing happening. I am an irresistibly charming fellow, another of my many positive attributes. Back in the Enlightenment years, I was a highly sought after guest. I think even old Ben Franklin had a thing for me then, ladies’ man though he was, through and through.”

Ethan felt a mild, warm sensation work its way from his toes all the way up to his chest and settle there. His mind was a blank, refusing to believe what Dee had just told him was real. Maybe this was all some kind of a strange dream.

“I am sad that our acquaintance must come to an end, Doctor. I have so enjoyed conversing with you. While I appreciate your graciousness in compiling a list for me, I have no further need of therapy. No other doctor will do and I am afraid that I just got the word from headquarters this morning, you are due to be processed momentarily.” Dee pulled out an antique round timepiece on a golden chain, checking the time before clicking it shut and continuing on.

“Oh, the things you will see, Ethan! I am a bit envious, I’m afraid. It is a blessing and a curse to always be wandering the earth. Life is beautiful and violent in all of its manifestations. I do tend to get rather attached to you all. I have become worldly throughout the long centuries—it is a particular fault of mine, you see.”

Ethan felt the warmth in his chest suddenly explode, his heart seizing up as he desperately reached out, Dee placing a hand on each of Ethan’s shoulders in a fond embrace. “My dear man, you are going on a wondrous journey. Do tell Jonathan hello for me.”

In the midst of his pain and fear, Ethan jolted up at the mention of his partner, never having told Dee anything about him. He had a sudden realization of what kind of business Mr. Dee must be in, who he was; the breakthrough he had been after had finally occurred. It was his last conscious thought before the darkness began to close in around him, the sympathetic face of Mr. Dee bidding him farewell, his final sight.

* * *

Dee sighed and gently lowered his therapist’s eyelids, arranging him in a dignified fashion. Ethan’s next patient was due in about an hour; he would not be left unattended for long. Dee had really enjoyed their sessions together. It had amused him. He gripped his cane tightly, allowing his emotions to overcome him for just a moment, before leaving the office and closing the door softly behind him. Each passing both fed and diminished Dee, allowing him the sensation of approaching perfection without actually attaining it. All of life’s infinite tragic comedy swirled around him, heartbreaking and euphoric as their souls ascended, passing him by, only ever allowing him to scratch at the surface of the grand plan like some sort of metaphysical lap dog. It was maddening, frustrating. It was pure bliss.

Dee sighed in resignation. Such were the perils of his existence, had been since time immemorial. Maybe he should continue with therapy after all. He did appear to be in need of further exploration of his feelings—oh, how Dr. Childs would be pleased to hear that! A real breakthrough, if he did say so himself.

* * *

Dee stepped out into the bright sunshine. He had just over thirty minutes before his next appointment, a job interview with the local IRS office, was scheduled to begin. He was excited for this newest opportunity, knew it would be a perfect fit for him. Oh, the irony! he laughed to himself, whistling tunelessly as he sauntered down the street in pure contentment, therapy obviously agreeing with him. He was in good spirits, better than he’d felt in over a millennium.


A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had short stories featured in Bewildering Stories, Cafe Aphra, Dark Fire Fiction, Edify Fiction, Fictive Dream, 50-Word Stories, Friday Fiction, Literally Stories, New Realm, Peacock Journal, Pilcrow&Dagger, Quail Bell Magazine, Speculative 66, Storyteller, The Flash Fiction Press and Under the Bed. She has also published non-fiction work in Denver Pieces Magazine and bioStories, and completed a novel called Wet Birds Don’t Fly at Night that she is hoping to find a home for. For more of her work/contact her at sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter

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The Screw #003

Writing, Books, and Bourbon II

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La muñeca de cristal

Javier De La Cruz was an honest and somber man. He didn’t ask for anything unearned and he certainly never took. The old caballero, owner of a small business that made little ceramic dolls with faces painted like sugar skulls, received an invitation one spring to hand deliver the biggest order he’d ever seen. He was to leave his one-room shop in Mazatlán, cross the border, and drive into Tucson with fourteen handcrafted muñecas, each wearing unique, fragile smiles and dresses that danced in the light. The trip would be a long, lonely one. But Javier told his wife, who had always remained unwavering in her support, to fear nothing, for she was all he truly needed. She put a hand on his cheek, telling him to drive safe and come home soon. He said he would.

The master craftsman packed his rusted van, complete with its two missing hubcaps, one on each side, with his many carved, painted, and sealed boxes. As he got out of the city and onto the highway, the horizon opened up before him. The clouds were such a deep color of blue that they seemed almost purple to Javier, who thought that they looked like oddly colored cotton balls. He imagined it was God himself that shined through the tiny gaps found here and there, shooting divine, golden rays to the earth. It wasn’t for some time that Javier recognized that his favorite muñeca, the one he crafted last and had poured the most amount of time, energy, and amor into, had pried open her box and crawled into the passenger seat. It was her gaze he first felt. And as he turned his head, Javier nearly took the van off the road, swerving at the sight of the small, child-sized muñeca casually sitting beside him.

Once confident that the doll was in fact alive, not simply a manifestation of a shattered mind, Javier pulled the car to the side of the road by the Navojoa exit. He took his creation in, recalling each steady stroke of her painted face. He cautiously ran his finger over the intricate pink locket shaped like a heart in the center of her forehead, the tiny blue petals that danced and floated around it, and the swirling ribbons of bright pink intertwining a bloody red racing down her cheekbones. He asked his new companion whether she was an angel or demon. Should he fear or rejoice? La muñeca gave him no answer. She simply sat there, staring with her empty, hollow sockets. He felt the call to flee, but couldn’t. He was drawn to the ceramic doll sitting there, a compassion of sorts. After all, it was he who had made her, he who had shaped her, molded her, given her vida.

Some time passed in silence, some miles beneath the tires went by, and eventually Javier realized, or at least thought, that he was not in any danger. He figured it was rather silly to fear something of his own doing. Now the man was simply intrigued. He made multiple attempts at sparking conversation, unsure of whether or not the child could even understand him. She only replied with reticence, occasionally lifting her hands with their long, meatless fingers, opening and closing them with a slight creaking noise. He turned on the radio and decided it best to just drive.

* * *

When the van approached the border between Mexico and the United States, Javier grew restless. Crossing was nothing new for him. He had done it many times throughout his years, mostly with his wife by his side and a wild coyote leading the way. They often traveled there as a young couple, going up the coast of California and back down again. Together they had seen the giant sequoias, with their massive trunks and limbs that reached to the clouds. They saw the wake of God’s anger in the Grand Canyon. They had crossed too many times to count, but that was before the broken hearts. When having a family was still an option. That was before he became a craftsman, before they struggled to feed themselves. It was back when they didn’t have to work so hard to love one another. Now, though, was the first time since those bright days that Javier was crossing with what he could only describe as love’s gentle warmth.

“Esta es mi hija, Ofelia De La Cruz,” Javier told the man with a badge. The border patrol officer had just asked Javier what on earth sat beside him and, upon hearing this answer, asked why she was dressed in carnival colors with a face painted like muerte. Javier simply told the officer that his daughter was to perform in a play. A grand spectacle just outside of Tucson. The officer spit a blackish stream of saliva out and peered over his shades, passing a watchful grin to the odd pair before him. Now, it must be understood that this particular patrol officer, Mr. Brian García, was as crooked as they came. He’d guarded the border for four years and liked to think he knew a thing or two about rats. One thing he knew for sure: Rats don’t play in plays.

So with that, García tipped his hat, told the two to hold tight, and moved to the back of the van. He couldn’t help but notice the fourteen child-sized coffins within, and found that reason enough to ask Javier to step out of the car for a second. The old craftsman didn’t argue, but reached across the cab of his van and tenderly picked up la muñeca. He held her close, shielding her from the sun and the wind, while she rested her head on his shoulder. She was far heavier than Javier recalled. The officer, circling the vehicle with his hand on his radio, peered through the slightly tinted windows in an attempt to decipher what all this was about. He poked a tire with the tip of his brown boot and rounded to the front of the van. For just a moment, Mr. García let his eyes wander. They strayed to the father and daughter. He noticed how tightly they held onto each other. The old man embraced her like she could shatter, like she was made of glass. García deemed him too old to have such a young child and was beginning to contemplate what he’d be able to get for snagging this old fool.

As he reached for his radio, the little girl lifted her head, giving the badged man an opportunity to see her face in all its color. He noticed how her skin, in the spots where the paint was missing, reflected the sun a little and was as white as a bone. He then looked right into her empty, endless eyes and something he must have found there led him to quickly change his mind. What’s an old man and a little girl worth, anyways? Wiping his mouth with the edge of his sleeve, he told Javier to get back in his van and get out of here. Mr. García wondered where the sun had gone and why the air felt so damn cold all of a sudden.

* * *

With the border in his rearview, Javier was surprised when he didn’t feel any sense of relief. He figured crossing would’ve been the worst part of it, the hardest moment of this journey. But now he was beginning to feel apprehension toward reaching his destination, toward separating with this thing of his, this thing he now considered his own. When they finally did arrive, Javier was shocked by the massive estate before him. It was glorious. More money went into the stone and iron fence work surrounding the property than he had seen in his fifty-some-odd years of being alive. He parked the car outside the gate and got out; the little muñeca, who over the past few hours practiced in many ways the bounds of her new body, climbed clumsily into the muddy drive after him.

As they approached the unopened gate Javier slowed, his knees aching from the many hours spent sitting. La muñeca, with mud caked to her velvet shoes, reached up and grabbed for his hand. Javier looked down at her, receiving a reassuring glance, and took her cold hand in his. The gates shuddered open without warning, echoing a dismal moan. Javier told the girl to not be afraid, that everything was going to be okay, and that he would keep her safe. She nodded back, beginning the walk forward. The two went a fair distance down to the door, passing by a small pond with tall cattails and two white swans watching them. They stood before the biggest, oldest building that he had ever seen. It was made of reddish-brown bricks with a certain sense of proportionality running throughout. Thick columns guarded the door with their titanic proportions and a single, lonely saint, carved in marble, sat niched above the door. A looming clock was embedded in the center of the edifice, its slow ticking slightly audible.

Javier had never been more frightened in his life. Dry knuckles rapped the wooden door. There was nothing for some time, so long that Javier had nearly decided to simply pick up the little one and run. But just as the thought entered his mind, a series of shifting bolts and turning locks could be heard. The ugly door opened and a woman stood in the entryway. She had long, red hair as bright as the embers of his kiln and wore golden earrings studded with obsidian stones. To Javier, the woman didn’t seem a day over thirty. She addressed the craftsman politely, telling him to come in, all the while looking down at la muñeca who shied behind the man. Javier took off his frayed hat, entered the abode, and the door closed behind all three.

The curious woman, introducing herself as Mrs. Mictlan, ushered Javier and the ceramic muñeca to a great mahogany table covered in a long, tassled tablecloth and ornate candelabras that flickered patiently. The columns that stood outside continued inside, spreading across the room. His shaggy brown coat and cap made him feel entirely out of place amid the elegance. The hostess instructed them to wait as she fetched refreshments and Javier thanked her, pulling a seat out for his skeleton child. He took a moment while Mrs. Mictlan was away to excitedly whisper to the little one that he planned to take her back home, back to Mazatlán, so she could meet her madre, his wife. See, as Javier approached the colonial mansion with the girl holding onto him, he decided that this was the feeling he had been missing his entire vida, the passion of being a father and of loving something more than anything else. This was his creation, his own work; surely the woman would understand his argument, especially with such wonders at play.

Upon returning with two tall glasses of what Javier could only assume was either blood or wine, the woman asked him how the drive had gone. He told her it went well, that he’d made many long trips as younger man. He asked her to share a little about herself, inquiring as to what a woman could want with so many dolls. The woman told him about her husband, a traveling doctor, who often left her alone in this dreary place. She shared with him stories of her daughter, about how she was lost to a sickness many years ago. Javier told her he understood the feeling, that he’d seen those dark days too. She flashed a smile, briefly, and told Javier that she saw it as though she was protecting the little bone dolls. Though he felt a touch of unease, Javier managed to lean forward in his chair and looked down at his chalky hands. The master craftsman told Mrs. Mictlan that he had an awful request of her. She took a sip from her glass, leaving behind a touch of lipstick, but didn’t give him a response. A few seconds passed before Javier felt the need to say something again.

“I have never loved something the way I love her,” he said, putting his hand on top of the doll’s naked skull that fought to reach above the table’s edge. The lady laughed maniacally, falling back in her chair. When her breath returned she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and told Javier that they’d figure something out. He thanked her again and told her anything, anything at all, would do. The woman asked to see the rest of his work, sending Javier to retrieve his van with the thirteen other lifeless dolls. When he had finished placing each one delicately upon the table, he asked the woman how she wanted to move forward. The crimson lady, softly playing with one of her earrings, proposed he could simply work from here, that she had all the necessary tools and materials to weave new dresses and craft elegant jewelry. He began to argue, seeing this as the most problematic idea imaginable. But upon catching his daughter standing before her useless counterparts, he swallowed his doubts and extended his hand to her. She took it.

That evening, Javier penned a letter to his wife on an old piece of parchment and tied it to the leg of an owl. He wrote of their skeleton daughter, of the woman bathed in embers and the deal he had made with her. He pleaded with her not to worry and told her he’d return soon enough. He asked for her to forgive him and explained that she must understand. Signing the letter with amor, Javier De La Cruz sent the bird over the plains of Arizona toward home. But that was three months ago now.

* * *

Over the first few weeks, Javier was not made uncomfortable by any means. Mrs. Mictlan, while relatively shrouded, remained polite. She fed him well and provided him with all that he needed. It was not hard work, either. He was simply required to sew new dresses and craft small trinkets. Javier got along fine by spending time with his little bone princess. Each night, at the top of the pointed tower, behind the clock, he’d read to her and they’d dance to the norteño playing through an old wooden radio. He’d fall asleep in the highest room, his muñeca cuddled beside him, and each morning he’d wake to her colorful face and obsidian eyes.

However, at the end of the first month things began changing. Mrs. Mictlan demanded his work go uninterrupted, pulling his daughter from him often. The work itself became more difficult, more intense. At the end of the second month, Mrs. Mictlan started to lock the man in his workshop for days at a time, insisting he focus. He grew impatient and troubled. Javier knew he had worked enough to pay for his daughter twice over, but never said anything for fear of insulting the lady in red. On the last Friday of the third month, Javier figured he had done enough. For the first time in his vida, he decided it was okay to take. He packed his few belongings into a small bag, explained to his child that he planned to escape within the night, and waited for the sun to fall behind the mountains to the west.

In the safety of shadows, when nothing but the winds could be heard, Javier snuck down the spiraling stairs, daughter in hand. He kept her close to him, staying against the wall and within the darkness. Mrs. Mictlan had always made Javier uneasy, like there was something beneath her skin crawling to escape. He didn’t know how she’d react to this betrayal, so when he reached the bottom of the stairs he proceeded with caution. All seemed silent, save for the ticking that echoed. As he stepped toward the front door, a voice came from behind asking him where he was going. He turned slowly and saw the woman, donned in a red silk nightgown and holding a single, dancing flame that cast long shadows across her face. He held his chin up and told her his work here was done, that he was taking his daughter and leaving. A laughter filled the entryway, sounding as though it came from the walls.

My little girl of bones isn’t going anywhere, she told him. Javier saw the woman’s face, usually a perfect example of beauty, contort itself within the candlelight. He told her this muñeca was his, not hers. Mrs. Mictlan let out a hideous wail that extinguished the light, and she flung herself at the craftsman. Her body passed through him, pushing him with a force that knocked him off his feet and la muñeca from his arms. The little skeleton, who had never before found her voice, called out for her papa. As she put her delicate hands out in an attempt to catch herself, they shattered, glass meeting stone. The rest of her tiny body quickly followed. Ofelia De La Cruz laid on the floor of the dark entryway, strewn in a million bits of dazzling whites and reds and blues and greens. Javier let out a cry, the wail of a man who had just lost everything. He began picking up the shards, wrapping them in the bright dress that they had just filled. The hysteric laughter filled the room, fading into the recesses of the mansion. Welcome home, Death, it seemed to say.

Javier ran from the house with the broken pieces of his daughter and got in the van he hadn’t used in months. He turned the engine over and barreled through the gate. He went straight to Mazatlán, not noticing the border for even a moment. He sped down the highway, all the while telling the heap of nothingness beside him that everything would be okay, that he’d fix her up just like new. As he burst through the door of his one-room shop, he threw the remnants on the table and began gluing them back together. Javier worked for two weeks, ignoring the pleas of his wife to stop for only a minute, to please come eat something, to sleep just a little. He wouldn’t listen. He worked endlessly, eventually piecing his daughter together again. And as he pulled her from the kiln for the second time, he cradled little Ofelia, running his fingers over the heart-shaped locket with sharp, white scars that ran like rivers where the pieces met once more. He peered into the dark, empty eyes of his little muñeca, hoping he’d succeeded in giving her life once more. Javier, in this moment, didn’t know whether to fear or rejoice.


Chaze Copeland is a recent graduate of Miami University in Ohio. He’s come to realize labeling himself is always awkward and that he’s not very good at it. His personal website is undergoing reconstruction, but you can still find him at www.chazecopeland.com.

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