一秒鐘鞭炮

These were my stars: tiny little fireworks that my family called xiao pao pao, small street poppers that, when thrown onto the ground, pop. Whenever we visited Chinatown, my sister and I would beg our parents to buy us a box or two, each box containing around 30 little bang snaps. My sister played with hers immediately. I saved mine for when I really needed them.

I kept boxes of these in my drawers and would take out a single xiao pao pao whenever something bad happened. Sometimes two or three. A fight with my sister? Pop. Bad scores in piano competitions? Pop. Pop. Got into trouble? Pop. Pop. Pop. These xiao pao pao were my escape from the world. My problems always seemed smaller when my tiny fingers balanced the small ball of explosives wrapped in paper and flung it on the ground. The satisfying melody of a firework against the concrete silenced the incessant yelling that plagued my memories. The tiniest hint of a spark, the faint lingering smell of sawdust and smoke, all of this lasted for a second. And then it was gone. Flickered. Vanished.

But the days I needed them most were when my sister and I returned home from school, found my mom with swollen, red eyes, and smelled the distinct scent of Chinese herbal medicine wafting from her chest and legs. She would always do her best to hide these secrets from us, but when your body and heart and spirit and mind are all hurting, it’s hard to keep that hidden. On these days, I would step outside with my mom and sister, bring out an entire box of my xiao pao pao, and we would watch as they lived their ephemeral, powerful lives, sparking our hearts with laughter and joy. In these moments, it was the three of us against the stars, and we always won. It made us feel. In control. Fated for happiness. But it was all swept away—we shuffled, cleaned and scurried back into our room—the moment we heard the car pull up and my dad’s thunderous roars from the driveway.

Our lives continued like this for five years. Our happiness was transient lights begging for oxygen. But we were forced to hide them, protect them, shelter them from our harsh reality. We never thought we’d finally be able to let them shine.

It was on that day—the day when the sound of that one-way plane silenced the horrid memories—that my mom, sister and I rid ourselves of the twenty boxes I’d saved. That was the day we watched as all our stars flickered before us one by one. It wasn’t because we needed them. It was because we knew that they had outlived their purpose. They were finally given their breath, their full lives, their time to shine. And we let the stars fizzle on the concrete, refusing to sweep them away, for all the years to come.

Dreary Composites of Untold Suffering

Thick light dripping in dust motes comes pouring through my window. Our house is west facing, and after 22 years of living under its roof, I have timed our greetings perfectly. They swim around me.

Hi there.

Hello.

It’s me, again.

Not you. Again.

There were so many evenings where I would drag you from your phone, you complaining loudly that you weren’t interested in another sunset, that you didn’t care to watch the stars begin to flicker in the powdered blue sky, or watch as a heavy-handed painter poured navy into its crevices. Secretly, you loved it. We both knew that.

Angela, not again. What’s so different about tonight?

You were always smirking. Below those stubborn words and thick furrowed brows, there was a playfulness, a giddy need to wind the family up. Your CBT therapist said it was a symptom of being the youngest in a large family. I said it was because you were a Gemini. He pursed his lips and Mam frowned at me, but you would have smirked that smirk of yours.

This is my first sunset since you left. I wasn’t able to do it, couldn’t bring myself to it. Mam dragged me to the doctor and spat hot tears at him.

She won’t sleep, she won’t eat, she won’t talk.

As if I don’t have enough going on, and now I have to watch out for her, she said.

My exams were deferred, but I’m not sure when I’ll go back. It felt like a small eternity until I finally found sleep, and when I did, I slept like a baby, curled up in my bed dreaming of nothing. It was the dreams I was most scared of, the anticipation of what night would bring. I don’t really dream anymore. When you left, I stopped writing them down in the morning. No one would be bothered to listen. It was only ever you.

This is my first sunset. The rooks are making their way home. Did you know a rook can live for over 20 years? I wish you could have known that. You would have liked that. The kitten caught one at the beginning of summer and we had him in a box in the shower for three weeks. His wing was broken. Dad grew fond of the poor thing but let him outside one day. Mam found him the next morning under the kitchen table. Feathers everywhere. We all cried. Dad buried him next to the cats.

The dust motes call to me. Why tonight?

I guess I came to say hello to you. I suppose I’m hoping it’s you who’s painting the sky tonight. I’m sorry I’ve missed so many. Could you do me a favor though? Could you paint it that dusty shade of blue that fills the air? The one we both loved. The one that stills our breath and makes us think of someone far away, under that same moon and that same sky.

The Time I Killed a Deer in Upstate New York

Apparently, animals perceive time completely differently to us. That’s why you sometimes see a crow wait until you’re nearly on top of him before he flies away. In his eyes, you’re moving much slower, and therefore, he has much more time to leave. Animals also sometimes don’t see danger in the things they ought to....
Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.

Cosmic Calamity

The day we climbed out of the pit, the stars flickered and died, relinquishing their throne to our thirst for vengeance. This was a convoy of hallowed punishment. It was our right to exact justice.

We were evil, evil, evil—bandits and thieves, traitors and whores, oath-breakers and heart-renders. We preached the shattering of skulls and the tearing of tendons, singing psalms of slaughter, bestowing a benediction of bloodshed. Murderers, monsters, assassins, plunderers, outlaws, bastards—we were all the same. It didn’t matter what you called us. No one wanted us then, and no one wanted us now. But we were here, the enduring, and we knew how to take.

We descended on all seven worlds in a flurry of spiked tails and poisoned claws, obliterating everything in our path. We gorged ourselves on the scent of fear, roaring our triumph as life cracked under our fingertips. We tossed strands of lava over our scaled shoulders, wearing their nightmares like sacred jewels, and smeared mercury on our cheeks, silver warpaint that glimmered in the heady zone that wavered between darkness and dawn. We let them know we were coming. Let them hear us blasting the litany of their sins. Let them quake and wail and tremor for the end.

We hunted those who would have had us slain.

Too long we sat in the abyss. We were abominations—the experiments-gone-wrong, the avert-your-eyes and the get-them-out-of-heres. They tried to stifle us like a forbidden secret, leaving us in the fog of a life never fully lived. But our hearts have always been wreathed in thorns. What did we care that they put us away for a while? We would always come back. We would make them beg.

Have you no mercy, they cry now, crawling away from us on all fours, wings in tatters, feathers plucked, horns torn asunder.

No, we say gleefully, citrine blood dribbling down our chins. No, we do not.

The moon crows, then ceases.

The world is as it should be—a ballad of howls from the dying, a sonnet of retribution to us who have already died.

if you listen closely you can hear the stars flicker

we always look skyward for guidance
so i know
what i saw that day.
          how the sun turned our bodies into
wounded echoes so soft they
feared being snuffed out
          by an errant thought.
the way light held us there
two wildfires stalled in want.
no lazy cloud dared fly
over us.

that summer i drowned an old self
in the river, maybe two
          under the company of stars.
tired of waiting for god
i put my faith in something
           i could wish on.

i found him
always asleep with his fists clenched
buried under
            a pillow stretched thin with worry.
his breathing
a theory of tenderness
          steeped in the essence of us.
the moon smeared across his back          
          illuminating a glossy dark colt
beside me & my own body
fearing his warmth

i listened for the stars
but like anything i loved
they wouldn’t spare me.
          i stepped out the door
& they tore through the sky to
pin me
          to his floorboards.

A Bum Green Thumb

On the afternoon of my goldfish’s funeral, you give me a ZZ plant.

I am angry with you because you refused to give a eulogy.

“For you,” you say and press the plant against my chest.

I wrap my hands around the ceramic pot, holding it like a squirming toddler.

You mutter something about “virtually indestructible” and “impossible to kill.”

You always underestimate me.

***

I am tired of you thinking I need to be surrounded by new life.

First, it was the puppy. His death was an accident but due to my negligence. I left the back gate open, and our neighbor flattened him with his truck like a souvenir penny. You yelled at me for laughing. I wasn’t laughing because he died; I was laughing because, even though I never told you, I named him Pancake.

Next, it was the goldfish. I elected not to name him but still found myself calling him Fish. After Pancake, I couldn’t let my attention wander for even a moment. I fed Fish too much without meaning to. The food collected at the bottom of his tank and rotted. You said the toxicity killed him.

***

I tell my therapist about the ZZ plant at our next session. She takes your side. Of course. She says I should welcome distractions. She says distractions might help me forget about the accident.

“What accident?” I ask.

She shifts in her chair and the leather shrieks.

I like the cruelness of this question. I like forcing her to say what really happened. I like to make her face the reality.

You can get away with things like this when your mother slits her wrists. It’s one of the few perks, I suppose.

***

Now, it’s the ZZ plant with its dark green leaves and low maintenance attitude. I don’t water it for the first week. I want to test its resiliency. The soil dries and cracks, but the plant still stands vibrant and lively.

For the second week, I water it daily. I fill an empty milk jug and drown the plant with cloudy water. The plant is unfazed.

 I carry it outside and place it where we buried Pancake and Fish and Mom’s ashes. The plant isn’t meant to withstand direct sunlight, but its leaves stay firm and peppy. Worse, they look greener, and I can see new buds beginning to sprout. I pluck the new growth and crumble it between my fingers.

I shove the plant into my closet where no light peeps through. I leave it there for two weeks, completely undisturbed. When I come back for it, the plant is more radiant than ever. It is mocking me with its steadfast determination.

I throw the plant against the wall. The pot cracks on impact, sending bits of broken ceramic and clumps of dirt scattering.

You come into the room and look at the mess.

You return with a broom and a dustpan. You don’t ask me about it, and I don’t explain.

Salt White, Rose Red

Don’t.

So, I did.

*
I hadn’t come across green in so long.

The sea stretches for miles in every direction. Choppy grey, swelling to overwhelm the deep black rocks the lighthouse is built on. Everything is either black, white or grey. The mainland isn’t visible and I—

I ached for green. It was the skipped beat in my heart, the lie caught in my teeth. I tossed and rolled awake at night, window open to the sea air, everything muted in its spray. Sprawled on her back and still smelling of kerosene from the lamp, she slept beside me, steady and oblivious.

*

The supply boat was late, and she went to the mainland to meet it. The revving of her boat over waves followed me as I hurried down the path.

It sat, waiting for me, panes frosted with salt.

Don’t, she’d said.

I opened the glass door and slipped inside.

The walls swam with moisture and heat.

It was so green, it hurt. Leaves and vines and flowers spilled from pots. Everything burned with life.

I leaned on the door and cried. Heavy, thick, gulping.

*

My eyes adjusted gradually. By the time I eased myself off the door, sweat was dripping down the back of my neck.

It was deeper than I’d thought. The paths tangled, snarling with vines.

But the roses. Oh, the roses.

They bordered the greenhouse, a guard of honour soaking up the wet. White, pure white—a different kind of burn from the green.

This wasn’t the white of salt or the white of the lighthouse tower. This was a new white. A white that breathed of snow and new beginnings and clean slates. All the things she’d promised.

I reached out and stroked a petal. Velvet, her cheek under my hand when I first kissed her.

I let out a breath.

They were living. Out here, on this rock, separated from salt by lightning and sand. Proof that something could root here. Survive. Thrive.

A high-pitched whine she’s back and I flinched—

Ow. The thorn dug in. Blood welled, a red tear. I sucked it away.

I met her at the dock, thumb tucked behind my back. If she noticed my sweat-soaked hair and flushed cheeks, she didn’t say anything.

*

Now I dream of red. Red running down glass. Of satiation. Of breathing for the first time in a century.

I break awake into heat and swimming walls. The sheets have twisted around my waist and the bedsheets on my side are drenched. My thighs throb.

When I lift my nightgown, I see dozens of tiny punctures. And when I next visit the roses, they are a deep, deep red.

I Think My Houseplants Must Hate Me

I think my houseplants must hate me, dead as they are. I can’t help but be me, relentlessly wavering between absent and overbearing, never quite right. When they need me the most, I am not there to feed them or to open the shades far enough to let the light in. When they wish I was gone, I smother them with water and far too much affection. Philodendrons, monsteras, rubber trees, spider plants, and even succulents all inevitably perish with the tiniest tremble of my hands.

Everything dies.

I should be used to this by now, being a goddess of death and all. Still, I cannot help but feel defeated and depressed that my efforts on this side of the ground have gone unrewarded. It would be nice, for once, to be able to bask in the glow of growing something or even simply just letting something live by its own volition. I cannot even begin to fathom how the humans do it—houseplants seem to be the most wretched creatures, just unequivocally determined to die, always plotting their own passing.

The tea kettle whistles sharply from the kitchen and with it, my fiddle leaf fig falls. My sigh takes out an orchid on a side table as I pass. Father pours the tea into dainty china teacups, his hands looming far too large around them to be anything different than absurd.

“Would you like to come home now?” he asks.

I look around the kitchen of the tiny cottage I have tried so very hard to make my own up here on the surface, but all my plants are dead and gone. Crumbling leaves, almost dust now, cover the floor, and streaks of dirt are smeared every which way from my many unsuccessful resuscitation attempts. Yes, it’s time to go home.

*

The Underworld is different from the world above—quieter, and ironically, so full of life. Shades brush against me at every turn, soft conversations between them singing through the air as Father leads me through the hallways. His hands cover my eyes, hiding the oh-so-familiar twisting and turning pathways from my gaze. He says that the humans call this a surprise, though I’m not entirely sure why they would ever wish to willfully endure the unexpected and astonishing. After all, you would think they would have had their fill of that at the thought of death.

“Surprise!” he calls out as he uncovers my eyes. The room we are in is peaceful and calm and full of my houseplants! They sway to a music only they can hear, and as my hand hovers over a bromeliad, it leans into my touch. My plants are happy and thriving and I am just enough for them. I am a goddess of death and I think my houseplants must love me, dead as they are.

It Started with the Roses

They were innocent enough—a fragrant bouquet from the attractive boy who introduced himself as my new neighbor. He knocked on my door, eyes shining the same rich blue as the flowers he held.

“To attaining the impossible,” he said, smiling contagiously. “To life!” I spent the night dreaming of bright blue eyes.

A month later, he knocked again, this time carrying a flower I didn’t recognize. Still in that impossible color, it had flat, square petals on a red stem that matched the little scars peeking under his gloves. He seemed flustered, some of that compelling confidence gone.

“Althea,” he said breathlessly, folding the flower into my hand. “This is Calydon, created to flourish under your rule.”

I displayed it with the still-fresh roses on my coffee table and dreamed of blue eyes that knew my name.

And every month after, he was at my door holding another flower named for me: Helen, after my mother, then Soleil, because I was “his sun and solace.” No longer suspicious, I simply anticipated perfect flowers from the boy who knew things.

The last time I saw him, he was pale, and shadows bruised his eyes. His hands were bare, revealing deep scratches on his fingertips that coiled up his arms, shoulders, and neck, then grew over his hollow cheekbones like ivy. He looked sickly, diminutive in my low doorway.

“Please,” he said, pressing the flower into my palm and leaving, shoulders hunched to his ears. The stalk was dry, the petals papery.

Please went in the vase, joining the other flowers in now-meaningless blue; though the flowers grew more elaborate each month, the boy who made them special seemed to wilt, dull in comparison.

Now, the flowers were just pretty decorations.

I dreamed of blue eyes that had faded into mournful grey, resolving to ask him next time why his eyes were sad and empty.

But next month came and went, and he didn’t come—perhaps he’d fallen ill, the shaky paleness a symptom of his sickness.

Then November passed too, and still no grey boy came bearing blue flowers for a bouquet finally beginning to wilt.

December arrived, and by then, the flowers drooped down to the tabletop, rot-brown tarnishing the once-special blue. I threw the flowers away.

Or tried to. Looking closer, I saw the stems had grown through the vase, sewing it down with red roots of unbreakable silk.

Paranoia grew and flowered, accompanied by dead flowers that refused to disappear. No longer dreaming, I stared at them, wide awake with insomnia.

What were they plotting?

The flowers grew through the table and branched into the ground in some elaborate system connected to the grey boy. The once-sweet scent became cloying and suffocating, and when I emerged to ask, no one knew of the boy who had moved in last year. At night, I stared and listened. “Althea,” the dead flowers murmured. “His life. Your sanity. Our cure. Your cure.”

The Pothos Breakup

My houseplants are plotting something! I can tell by the way their stems reach toward each other, as if bending over to whisper a secret. Their leaves huddle together. Their pots inch closer and closer.

I’ve never been a good plant mother. I ping-pong from drenching them in direct sunlight to abandoning them in corners dark with shade. Their leaves droop and I stop watering them for weeks. Their roots rot and I douse them with the tap. I never know what they need.

It’s September in New England, and the windowsill they’re crouched on is arctic compared to the hot greenhouse summer. I’m drinking tea cross-legged on my kitchen counter, watching them—the perfect stakeout. The pothos is bright, its leaves draped on the sill. The spider plant is fanned out and proud. The echeveria is squat, contemplative.

They are still, but I know they’re up to something.

My girlfriend is at a conference and after a six-hour stakeout, I call her.

“They don’t look right,” I say. “They’re more alive than they were before.”

“That’s what happens when you water them,” she says. I can hear her chewing something crunchy. Pretzels maybe; she always loved pretzels.

“They’re communicating somehow, I’m sure of it.”

“You really shouldn’t anthropomorphize the plants.”

“That’s not what I’m doing. You never listen to me.”

“I always listen, even when I shouldn’t. Have you called your therapist?”

I hang up on her.

The next day, their leaves are brighter, their stems straighter, and the echeveria has sprouted tiny red flowers, small bells reaching toward me.

I avoid the kitchen altogether. Refill my teacup with the bathroom tap turned as hot as it can go, steam rising. My tea bag is old, the taste of its leaves tepid and light on my tongue, like a whisper of what it used to be.

By nightfall, I can’t stand the taste of plain, hot water anymore. I sneak to the kitchen to scavenge a fresh tea bag, leaving my mug on the counter, spotting the plants only in my periphery, tall shadows in the dark. Satchel in hand, I escape the kitchen, refill my mug in the bathroom, and dunk the tea bag in, watching as the water transforms to a light green haze.

I down the entire mug in one gulp, trying to drown the image of my houseplants waiting, skulking, creeping towards me. I swallow and my mouth burns.

My lips swell.

My tongue bloats.

I squint at the bottom of my mug, and there.

Torn green leaves stick to the bottom.

I call my girlfriend.

“Are pothos poisonous?” My tongue feels twice the size. The words sound swollen too, crammed with extra sound.

“What?”

“Can you look it up?”

“Em, we broke up. Two months ago. I know you need to talk sometimes, but this is too much.”

“I’m serious, I think I’ve been poisoned.”

“Then go to the ER. I can’t help you anymore.” She hangs up.

Small Magic

Lucy didn’t have big magic. She wasn’t the chosen one. There were no prophecies foretelling her great deeds. She wasn’t ever going to save the world. 

Instead, Lucy had small magic, a slight tickle at the back of her mind that she’d reach out to and tell what she wanted. It was only little things. She could keep her tea warm, her silverware clean, and her matching socks together.  

Her specialty was houseplants. Lucy had a vast collection of flora that she stayed in constant connection with. Stay alive, she’d tell them. Grow. Bloom. And they did, growing bigger, living longer, and being more vibrant than any houseplant had a right to be. 

So, when a virus swept across the globe, Lucy’s small magic couldn’t stop it, and she floundered with the rest of the world. She stayed home, learned to detest video chats, and poured her anxiety into managing the little things, turning her apartment into a microcosm of control amidst chaos.  

Three months in, when Lucy thought it couldn’t get any worse, the phone rang.  

Hospital. Very sick. No visitors. Mom

For the first time in thirty years, Lucy drank cold tea and wished she had big magic. She wished she were special, a savior, powerful. She wished she could be connected to people like she was to everything else. 

That night, Lucy went to bed without tending her plants. She could feel them, whispering at the edges of her consciousness, a meeting of two life forces. She relented and poured a little bit of herself into them before going to sleep and dreaming of small magic. 

In the morning, Lucy knew what she had to do. She picked the orchid. It was her oldest plant with the strongest connection. She wrote out a card, tied it to the stem, and called the hospital.  

Two hours later, Lucy sat in her car in the hospital parking lot and stared at the fourth-floor window she was told was her mother’s room. She held her phone up, zoomed in with the camera, and found the spot of purple that was the orchid. Lucy closed her eyes, felt for it in her mind, and began to speak. 

Energy. Life. Transfer. Her. Please

Lucy gasped when the connection abruptly snapped, and she scrambled for her phone to check the orchid. It was brown now, wilted.  

Lucy went home and waited for a call from the hospital. None came. 

The next day, she sent her succulents. And the day after that her primrose. And after that her African violets, and her amaryllis, and her peace lily. She spent her days in the hospital parking lot, begging and pleading and watching vibrant petals turn brown. 

And one day, when the world was even worse and the houseplants were almost all gone, the phone rang. 

Hospital. Much improved. Discharged. Home

Lucy didn’t have big magic, and she couldn’t save the world. But she had small magic, and it was enough. 

Fractured Portraiture of Indoor Mango Tree

You inherited the mango tree from your mother. Standing at just under seven feet, you had a difficult time moving it up two flights of creaking stairs and into your studio apartment. Despite its towering size, you manage to find space for it next to the fridge.

*

Though you’re not sure what to do with it all, you are grateful the tree bears so much fruit. You have made endless puddings, smoothies, bread, and even an unsuccessful curry. Your cat spends hours licking at the mango skins left abandoned from your cooking on the table. Your friend suggests you try selling excess fruit.

*

You learned how to cut mangoes from your mother. You remember how she would squeeze each one softly in her grip, knowing their exact ripeness only by their tenderness—how she would swiftly slice two halves around the pit, letting the juice drip between her fingers and onto the floor. She would tear the fruit from the seed then, only to leave it naked on the sink next to empty skins.

*

You take your cat to the vet because she’s been more lethargic than usual. The vet looks you in the eye and asks if your cat has been eating anything new lately, so you tell her about your unending supply of mangoes. There’s a chemical in mango skins called urushiol, she says. It’s kind of like poison ivy—too much, and you’ll turn red and itch. You should make sure you get rid of them when you’re done.

*

It’s now the oppressive oatmeal warmth of summer, so you decide to start selling your mangoes at one dollar each. One woman buys a dozen and says they’re the best she has ever tasted. Another man grimaces and says he can find better ones at Trader Joe’s. You still owe hundreds on your vet bill.

*

You remember how even when you had next to nothing, your mother would buy premium plant food and hum softly to the mango tree under the moonlight.

*

Urushiol. You roll the consonants around on your tongue and let the vowels linger. You learn that urushiol is also used in a lacquer to restore broken ceramics. You write it down in your notebook, connecting the waves of each letter like an ocean, building and building until they finally break.

*

You keep the last letter your mother sent nestled within the branches of the tree. You read it in bits, not yet able to read it all at once. Her writing loops in a way that is still unfamiliar, and it takes you a moment to decipher the last lines. I’m sorry we haven’t talked much after I left. Can I see you again sometime?

*

The pile of mango skins grows steadily on the kitchen counter, each of them in varying states of decay. Their scent fills the room with nostalgia, and you remember the careful dance of you and your mother in fish sauce kitchens—memory is an itch you cannot bite down on.