Fiction Pick of the Week: "Descending a Staircase"

The mysteries and dreams of life and rural living.

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"I leaned back into my chair. I thought of the abandoned houses, of the wasteland I could no longer see from the window of the plane because we were too far up. It occurred to me that somewhere along the line I had to have chosen to nestle in that ruin, whether to perpetuate my wounds of abandonment, or to deal with them once and for all. Then I thought of cows pasturing in the fields alongside highways. Then my neighbor pointed out the page in the magazine he was laughing about."

Fiction Pick of the Week: "Enzo Ponza"

A girl kidnaps a mysterious figure.

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"What has he spared me, this Enzo Ponza? What, with his constant presence, has he prevented happening in my life, and what, if anything, has he caused to happen? Does he care for me, my mother, my children? Is he escaping something, or is he just biding his time? Why has he never once asked to leave? And why did I never investigate whether he had any living relatives to whom I could send a ransom note?"

Lithium Tetrachloroalum and Other Servants of God's Will

Religious mysteries surround a strange young child.

"'And of course the one book she had arrived with onto the stoop was none other than a New International version of The Holy Bible, which sparked the longest conversation the girl and I ever had. One afternoon while her alleged father was in the basement workshop of his, tinkering. I sat there flipping its pages and heard her clonking down the hall. Now, was I looking for notes or marginalia? Arguments? So I see the souped-up red lights and then there she is, sitting on the floor in front of me with a banana in one hand and a stuffed doll in the other, suspicious narrow eyes. Asking whether I was a Catholic. I am indeed, I told her, which she answered by affirming, me too. Which gave me pause, cautious not to trigger and witness again her version of tears. Well, I said, technically speaking, that isn’t true. Not until you take your first communion. And at this point she stared into my own face in a way I couldn’t describe if you gave me a full week.'"

Even Quieter Than This

Nighttime mysteries of flower petals and animals.

"The streets filled with coyotes at night. Their cries pulsated into our sleep in such a way that everyone thought they were a dream and never mentioned them to anyone else. I slept in their sounds until the last few skirted back to hiding places. Under cars and in bramble thickets."

Impulse

Two classmates/Boy Scouts forge an uneasy, unspoken bond.

"I was aware that something in him seemed broken, he seemed to retreat, shrink, gradually something had turned in him. A chemical transformation, or imbalance. I felt a kinship in his pain, two notes struck in harmony. I wouldn’t realize how wrong I was until later, how I’d mislocated the ache. I thought I’d made this come to fruition, a product of my will."

The Names [Excerpt]

Scenes from a scary faith healing session.

"The one to be delivered shook at the apostle’s touch, recoiled from his voice. His boots stamped the floor, wrung more sweat free from his jumping body. It was darkest bluest winter and the one was dressed for the weather, had kept his coat on the whole dance. The look in his eyes, the exhaustion, the fear, his and not his. He named some of his demons at sentence length, readying his voice for story, but the apostle stopped him."

In the Light of What We Know

Memories surface after an old friend reappears; an excerpt from Rahman's forthcoming novel.

All the same, it is not guilt alone that brings me to my desk to put pen to paper and reckon with Zafar’s story, my role and our friendship. Rather, it is something that no single word can begin to describe but which, I hope, will take form as I carry on. All this is quite fitting really – how it ought to be – when I call to mind the subject of my friend’s long-standing obsession. Described as the greatest mathematical discovery of the last century, it is a theorem with the simple message that the farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall short of the limits of what is true, even in mathematics. In a sense, then, I have sat down to venture somewhere undiscovered, without the certainty that it is discoverable."

Feats

Misguided love sustains a groundskeeper through multiple deaths and decades.

"Murdering all those Emmetts had been especially hard on Archibald who was never adept at taking the lives of non-gazelles, however plentiful those lives might be. He grew more and more ill as the Emmetts came and dropped. He became increasingly fearful of silence and the dark, spending hundreds in oil to keep the house bathed in flickering light, a whole house drowning in amber. He’d taken to leaving tarpaulins up on the walls for when the Emmetts arrived so he could minimize his cleanup time, but as he spiraled deeper into paranoia he neglected to scrub them, and they wriggled blackly with flies. With an eye to hygiene, he had once tried strangling an Emmett, but this had proved too horrific for him to bear."

The Lady

A mysterious figure appears to early settlers in Wisconsin.

"t would make sense to Tellie later, after she'd hear it at the mill, after she'd race back the four miles in her bare feet to the home of the family where she'd just that morning left her babies, that it had happened to Adele Brise in the woods. The Lady, the Queen of Heaven, showing herself."

The Skin Thing

Space colonists live in fear of a horrifying creature.

"The Skin Thing dragged itself along on two great stalks that looked like elbows. Imagine a person, out prone on the ground, that drags himself by fits and starts. The elbows strove to gouge the earth, as sharp and tall as circus poles, and they levered the body along by great drags. Its head stuck out eyeless, oblong as a horse’s. Behind the elbow-things it used to drag itself across the ground there stretched, like a laundry sheet strung out for drying, a tensile wall of thick pink skin."

Neshoba

A woman takes a job as a typist for a Southern con man.

"Nor did he notice that her bag was packed and sitting at her feet where she waited by the window, twisting the curtains in her hands. But then, Cal has no reason to notice these things. He is not her lover, not really her friend. Just a man who pays her to take notes, a man she has known only a few months, a drunk, a liar, and when he suggested this outing, when he asked her if she’d like to take a break from her note-taking, have some fun, she should have known better."

The Wenceslas Men

An isolated apartment sitter sees apparitions of mysterious beings.

"And then, after a few days, I returned to the living room, to sit in the blank and quiet night and watch them pass in darkness. And after a few more nights, I crept closer to the curtains. One night, having left them closed, I peeled one back as the last of them passed. I watched them proceed down the street in their own strange strides, walking steadily, not turning a corner, not entering some structure, not vanishing in mid-air."

Specters

A farmer's marriage to a Native American woman is plagued by problems and supernatural phenomena.

"The other thing about Lily that half-annoyed and half-charmed me was her belief in all sorts of supernatural horseshit. I figured she couldn’t help it, for the most part, being unavoidably disposed to things like honoring her dead ancestors and crop ceremonies and who knows what else; but every once in a while she took it too far. One of the biggest arguments we ever had came after I found her tacking up little bundles of bones and animal guts over all the windows and doors of the farmhouse. She’d gotten it into her head that the farmer’s spirit was still wilting around in the rafters of the front porch. He was just melancholy now, she said, she could feel it; but he might turn malevolent if we didn’t communicate to him that he didn’t live here anymore, that he needed to cross over."

The Jugulars

A woman is sent on an ominous mission to collected a jugular vein.

"The hands are still clapping when I jump, when I take on the air, when I dive. My body slams into the dirt at the bottom of the hole, some of the jugulars beneath me, I can feel the softness of them, I pull the rest near me, bring their thick heavy softness near the heat of my body."

Dream House

An island house; a series of apparations, dreams, and mysteries.

"Sara put trances on Leigh in the middle of the night, while Leigh was sleeping. Leigh knew but didn't tell Mum or say anything about it to Sara. All three had terrible secrets they kept safe. They kept them safe for so long and so devotedly that they were no longer secrets—they were alternate ways of navigating the world."

The Daughters Of the Moon

Women are swayed by the moon's pull in a world dominated by consumerism.

"It was a depressing sight. We went out in the crowds, our arms laden with parcels, coming and going from the big department stores that were open day and night, and while we were scanning the neon signs that climbed higher and higher up the skyscrapers and notified us constantly of new products that had been launched, we’d suddenly see it advancing, pale amid those dazzling lights, slow and sick, and we could not get it out of our heads that every new thing, each product that we had just bought, could similarly wear out, deteriorate, fade away, and we would lose our enthusiasm for running around buying things and working like crazy—a loss that was not without consequences for industry and commerce."

Monochrome

Two artistic teenagers create art and mysteries in a cabin.

"When the sky was blue Andi hooked sheets over the windows. She cooked meat until it was black. While Shot slept she powdered his cheeks with fireplace ash. When they walked about the cabin they looked like subjects in pencil sketch flipbooks, skin brushed gray over a monochrome background. Sometimes Shot would track in mud or some paint would flake, and Andi would be there with a can to police the evidence."

There Are Two Pools You May Drink From

Memories both unique and ominous surround a woman's childhood.

"I liked to visit the Moon kitchen, a grease-laden cave that stank of meat. The table had a plastic covering patterned with wagon wheels and rustic scenes. The Moons cooked foods I’d never seen before in vats studded with dumplings. At dinner the Moon men mopped up their stews with slices of white bread and guzzled cartons of milk. They had a big cat-killing dog that they had trained to sit upright on a chair at the table, and they took turns feeding it buttered toast smeared with jam. After dinner Mr. Moon sat in the kitchen when he wasn’t at the tavern, drinking beer and bluing the air with swearwords and tobacco smoke."

A V of Geese

Interlocking narratives of relationships and a potential murder.

"Metal ran in an extensive and intricate network in streams across the countryside and densely through the city. Metal channeled the blood, and metal screws held Sarah’s glasses together as she left the parking lot and exited Le Roy onto the freeway. She felt sad to have missed a chance to get involved with a crazed dangerous person like Mike. Had he really committed a murder before she picked him up? She thought about the geese and drove home."

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo

A giant talking frog enlists the help of a timid Japanese man in saving Toyko from a massive earthquake.

"I'm an absolutely ordinary guy. Less than ordinary. I'm going bald, I'm getting a potbelly, I turned 40 last month. My feet are flat. The doctor told me recently that I have diabetic tendencies. It's been three months or more since I last slept with a woman—and I had to pay for it. I do get some recognition within the division for my ability to collect on loans, but no real respect. I don't have a single person who likes me, either at work or in my private life. I don't know how to talk to people, and I'm bad with strangers, so I never make friends. I have no athletic ability, I'm tone-deaf, short, phimotic, nearsighted—and astigmatic. I live a horrible life. All I do is eat, s1eep and shit. I don't know why I'm even living. Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?"

The Designer

The unique, haunting talents of a dinner-party guest have long-ranging complications and implications.

"In July, my old friends Gabe and Lila tried to crack the designer’s secret. Gabe invited the designer to one of his parties and Lila seduced him that very night. But when she had him in bed and asked how he wrote like that, he just smiled and told her, 'I listen to the party but try to focus on nothing, purely. It’s very relaxing. When I look down later, the pages are full of words.'"