We retreated to the Recycling Depot. It cost us one twenty-character palindrome to get in. We were all reusing language. That night’s show was billed as a lecture. It didn’t matter. We had plenty of poisonous food and ashy water. What we lacked was entertainment.

The lecture featured a man chewing and sucking on aluminum soda cans. It was bloody and slow. He was demonstrating his theory that there were enough nutrients left in these cans, sticky and dirty, to sustain us. The lecture had been ongoing for weeks. It was awful, regardless of whether it was true.

There was another reason to hand over such an elaborate palindrome. Beyond this exhibition were The Piles, and within them, every item we ever slipped into a blue bin. They sparkled or hummed or vibrated among the heaps in such a way their previous owner would recognize them, remember their circumstance and context. It was a strenuous jog of the memory, painful and euphoric.

Paper. Cardboard. Aluminum. Clear glass. Colored glass. We weren’t being judged or punished. This wasn’t hell.

The Next End

The world ended five times. There was The Flood, but few remember Theia’s moon-bearing collision with the Earth. That was rough. Fewer still recall Meekal rending the sky with righteous rage, or whatever you lot called it in Gilgamesh. First time any of us angels bothered to say no.

We’ve been saying it ever since. Since his OG defiance—some nonissue to do with life’s will to power—my brother has shrieked across time while we’ve torn through the galaxy to haul his ass home. Creation wormed out of our flyway, but we didn’t notice until hindsight, which was quite recently. Sorry.

I’m at the sixth extinction, pouring Nu-Shroom coffee for an idiot in a Givenchy suit, trying to convince him not to blow up the sun. We’ve been stuck in avatars since the precession. I’m used to being a woman, though not so much having a human sense of smell. I gag as dank, pretending-to-be-roasted-beans steam flirts with the back of my tongue.

“There are things we can do,” I clip in my avatar’s crisp RP. She’s a good girl, grass-fed. We’re both uncomfortable in a silk blouse.

“Who?” the idiot barks, eyes shining like black-gold, crude oil money signs.


Meekal’s entrepreneur extraordinaire spreads his stocky arms, nub fingers splayed. He looks like a bald eagle, featherless—an amalgam of impotence—which is how I know it’s him. He ignores me and the implication he’s not the center of the universe with biblical gravitas.

“A controlled explosion will redirect the sun’s rays to Mars for recolonization,” he says. “A fresh start.”

Though indoors, he punctuates this statement by donning a pair of Ray-Ban Metas. I want to say wow, but when he taps the hinge near his temple, I realize he isn’t speaking to me. His recording goes live, instantly viral with his monopoly on the algorithm.

“It’s all me, baby,” he drawls in unbelievable earnest. Meekal swoops the drink from my hands and slurps. Then, he heads for the jet.


That night, the world watches Meekal’s sun-exploding missile take to the sky. From my apartment, starfall pitter-patters until the sky crawls with light. Crowds thrum with unease. As the first bright fragment falls, a sonic boom peels the night open. Meekal’s man-mug appears on my phone screen, beaming wider than the event horizon he spewed himself out of.

“A lightshow for the new world,” he coos, awed by his own undoing.

The fall quickens, one starlit shriek after another. Crack, Crack, Crack. At our sixth cosmic cockup, I snap.

“Is your head really too far up your own ass to realize the fucking sky is falling?” I holler.

He doesn’t know it’s me. Never does.

“No,” he says, like he knows what’s up. Like I’m the idiot.

I let rip, but too late. The footfalls of panicked crowds eclipse my voice and Meekal mistakes the sound for applause. He swells like a dying giant and bows for the world’s next end.

To Die of Beauty

The thing is, the Apocalypse kind of went tits up. There was fire and brimstoning, trumpets blaring, people disappearing, and then, Us. The left behinds, the nothings, the unbelievers. Souls too hollow to be worth anything.

Nothing green grows anymore. Nothing living lives. So, we all aimlessly drift, stuck alongside the freaks left behind when heaven and hell closed their gates. We’ve learned nothing from our exile from paradise, so the freaks get locked away in little cages or cramped caravans, and bored, useless nothings like me come to stare at them.

This sideshow is a corny setup. A single chair sits in the middle of a small, high-top tent, red and white pinstripes melting into darkness. There’s a glass case in the middle of the room, lined with enough fake gold filigree to glint even in the low light. A shadow moves within.

A bright white glare washes away my sight. I wince and turn away. When I look back the shadow is illuminated, holding a pull switch, and spreading—

—her downy hawk wings.

Red plump lips, sticky blood vessels, slick candy gloss. I’m thinking, Gabriel Dante Rossetti: white-cheeked, heavy-lidded, corn-silk hair and vacant, vapid O-faces.

My chest burns with blue-hot feathered flames. Licking, eager and wanting. Not for anything as base as sex but … admiration. Inspiration. Maybe even creation. For the first time since the world ended, I compose colors in my head, symphonies of shadow and light, wet pliable globs and streaks of harmonious paint.

Then I think: What’s it matter? The world’s over. There’s no more room for art. There wasn’t room even when the world was alive.

“Why are you here?” I ask, because I haven’t had it in me to feel wonder while sleepwalking through the post-credits. “Why didn’t you go back with the rest?”

The angel’s words are hideous, but her voice is another chorus of glittering hues, purple starblooms and sun-searing yellow. “I ate the souls I was meant to take to God.”

I laugh. A rasping, creaking thing. “You can have mine,” I say. Her dewy, owl-blinking eyes are dark as a panther’s coat. “I’ll let you out and you can have it.”

She cocks her head, an alien, avian movement. “Why?”

I throw out my arms, let her see my color-stained coat, my ink-blotted shirt, the black-charcoal creases of my hands. “Because I want to die of beauty.

“Deal,” she hisses, her feathers flaring in excitement. I break the glass and there is red— glorious, Pompeian red in glitters of rainbow shards, more red as she dives for my mouth and—

—sucks down my sorry soul. Worthless no more.

Worldly People at Bay

My family likes to sit at the coast of the bay and make grand plans for the future. We drink wine, and we smoke. We talk about the multibillion-dollar inheritance we’ll someday get when an attorney informs us the last member of my great-great grandfather’s secret, second family has died, and my father is their closest relative.

We’ve unanimously decided when that happens, we’ll buy the entire bay. No more tourists, we say, looking at one of the two monstrosities anchored in our tiny bay. Each city-ship that comes in daily has more passengers than the bay’s biggest town has residents.

We’ll sink one right outside the bay entrance, and leave its corpse as a warning to all the others.

We will only allow water travel by sail within our borders. No more waiting for hours, trying to pass the single road in town when the foreigners pour out of their gigantic metal tubs. We conclude outsiders will have access to the bay exclusively on weekends.

Suddenly, the lights on the opposite coast go out. This is a somewhat frequent occurrence, but it earns a standing ovation from our corner of the bay nonetheless. “That’s another thing,” says my mother. “We will enforce a curfew on certain days. Only candlelight will be allowed, so we can watch the stars without all this light pollution.”

She’s got a point I think as I shield my eyes from the neighbor’s floodlight.

“But on other, rarer days,” Mom continues. “We will have a festival of light. Think about it, fireworks and holograms in the sky!”

“Drones,” My brother chimes in.

“Projections on the water,” I say.

Dad’s best friend perks up, “And movies you can watch from the sea!” he sweeps a hand to indicate the mountains rising all around us.

“We should instate new religious holidays,” my adopted aunt contemplates. “We’ll introduce the cult of Machina Abramovich. The matron saint of clean dishes and soft hands.”

“Oh yes,” Dad agrees. “We’ll build her a grand cathedral, halfway up the mountain. People will make pilgrimages just to get a glimpse of her.” My brother and I can’t help but laugh.

I have my own suggestion, “I think Conchetina also deserves her own holiday.”

“Absolutely,” my aunt approves, adjusting her companion’s chubby plastic legs to sit more securely on her little handmade beach chair. “She’s a worldly woman! My daughter’s birthday deserves to be celebrated by the masses!”

“I’ll drink to that!” Dad cheers, and we all raise our glasses in Conchetina’s name.

The other coast has long since gotten their power back. The cruiser is still anchored some kilometers away, slowly turning with the current. It will be replaced by another ship tomorrow. Possibly bigger.

The Witch of the Route 34 Gas-N-Go

I met the Witch of the Route 34 Gas-N-Go at three a.m. on a Tuesday in a particularly dusty part of Pennsylvania. I didn’t quite need gas, but there was a big hand-painted sign by the side of the highway that said Come See the Witch: Gas, Diesel, Coffee, Spells. My thermos was stone cold, so I thought I could refresh it, and that would be as good an excuse as any to see the Witch.

She was about twenty years younger than I thought she’d be, sitting in the gas station right next to the coffee bar, so close there were little splashes of flavor syrup on the edge of her table. It was a little folding table and she sat in a little folding chair. She looked me in the eyes as I turned away from the dark roast and said, “You missed your turn off five exits ago.”

And I said, “Shit.”

She said, “Go pay for your coffee.”

“Can I come back after?”


I grabbed a sleeve of powdered donuts too, because it would be breakfast soon and I wouldn’t be stopping again.

“Do you want cards, or can I just tell you?” said the Witch as I sat down in the second little folding chair in front of her table.

“You can just tell me. How much?”

“Free. Who has time to care about money these days?” She had a paper cup with a cardboard sleeve and no lid by her elbow. She took a sip from it. I wondered if the Gas-N-Go gave her free coffee for being their witch, since I guess they weren’t paying her. “I used to be one of those Wiccany influencer types online, you know. Did tarot streams. The money was okay, but now I just don’t have the time to worry about it. I just don’t have the time.”

“I’m glad you’re still open,” I said.

“Lots of places are still open,” she said.

“I guess that’s true.”

“You’re heading in the right direction, but you don’t have enough time to get there.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Do you know a quicker route?”

She tapped her finger in the center of her bottom lip thoughtfully. “No.”

“Right. Can you tell me something useful?”

“Not really,” she said, and she sounded honestly sorry for it. “There isn’t such a thing as useful anymore. It’s all just little distractions. Coffee and fortune tellers. I can give you a charm, though, hang on.” She leaned over sideways, reaching into her bag where it was squished up against the coffee bar. She handed me a length of blue yarn with two soda tabs and some kind of bone tied at the end. “Hang this on your mirror, if you want.”

“Will it do anything?”

“It’ll make you think of me before you die. I’ll think of you too. It’s free, obviously.”

“Thanks.” It wasn’t a bad deal, all said. I was glad I’d stopped for coffee.

A World of Possibility Awaits

“Grandmother, look!” Off to the side of the path they walked every morning loomed a large, white tent. It stood in stark contrast against the bleak, gray landscape ravaged by years of weather extremes that fueled famines, pandemics, and wars. “Let’s go inside.”

The woman held the child back.

Spying the pair, a man hollered, “Step right up! A world of possibility awaits.”

“I want to see!” declared the child, mesmerized by a poster of a hummingbird.

The woman covered the child’s ears. “There are no possibilities, only death,” she snapped. “You know that.”

“Yes.” The man nodded. “Still, we’re not dead yet. We have three days.”

The woman scoffed. “Some choice: die a slow death along with this world, or visit the Center in three days, and . . .” She sighed. “An ignoble end to what’s left of humankind, either way.”

He pointed to the child. “She doesn’t know?”

“No. I can’t find the words. She’s so full of life—so inquisitive, caring, optimistic, kind. She’s a force of nature, this one, and she deserves better, but we can’t survive on her will to live alone.”

“Why not allow our simple sideshow acts to entertain you until then?”

“Your distractions will change nothing.”

“No, but perhaps you should let her have this.”

The child pulled away, tugging her grandmother toward the entrance. “Come on!”

“Alright, alright.”

Inside, the tent was enormous. The center corridor extended farther than they could see, with openings lining each side. People were coming and going, chattering among themselves about the marvels they had witnessed, things adults barely remembered and children knew only from stories.

In the first room, they watched in awe as spiders wove their webs. In another, seeds sprouted from rich, dark soil. They grew into plants that produced fragrant flowers, delicious vegetables, and luscious fruits. The child liked daisies and peaches the best but didn’t care for broccoli. In the next room, bees pollinated flowers and produced honey. “This is good!” the child squealed, when offered a taste. Further on, they saw birds build nests, hatch eggs, and teach their young to fly and sing.

They wound their way through the tent, and in each room were given glimpses of nature as it was, before it was spoiled by recklessness and greed. The grandmother wondered how it could be that everything appeared as if it was happening in real time; the child absorbed it all.

When they reached the end, the child asked, “Can we go again?”

“I’m afraid not,” the attendant said. “It’s time for you to go home.”

Hand in hand, they emerged with the other explorers—into a lush, welcoming world teeming with possibilities.

“How can this be?” the grandmother inquired. “How long were we inside?”

“Long enough for the world to heal.”

“Why us?”

“Them.” The attendant nodded at the children. “You’re right. They deserve better, and they need you to help them build a future. Teach them to do things right this time.”

Burn Baby, Burn

We stand under the air-conditioned vents and watch from our enclosed bubbles as the most powerful human stands outside among the sun’s hellfire, hand-like rays punching him.

“Give it up for the Great, the Spectacular Titus,” Lew Graham screams through the speakers. He emerges from his broadcast booth in yellow coveralls with a radiation shield strapped to his head. Hands raised in the air, he prances around the arena. We throw our heads back and chant, “Titus, Titus.” The vents send an echo across the sheltered arena.

The timer above Titus displays the nine minutes he’s stood with us, muscles taut. A record. Even Oil Can Harry, dubbed the great Helios by his stans, can’t withstand the unfiltered sun for more than eight minutes and forty-five seconds. And that’s because of his mutant abilities from surviving an exploding oil catch can. Titus doesn’t need his armor of patchwork skin and scar tissue.

Myra leans in forward until her nose presses against the insulated glass. I yank her back by her shirt’s collar. While we’re safe inside, the glass isn’t foolproof. I’ve seen parents throw their howling children over their shoulders and carry them to the medical tent, palms cinched from pressing on the glass for too long.

When he hits ten minutes, a chirp sounds, and Titus bounces his pecs. Left, right, left. White flecks of skin fall off. His black skin now pockmarked and maroon. Surrounded by nothing except the glass ring filled with spectators, he shines under the light like an organism under a stethoscope. Beads of sweat drip down his forehead, past his chin, and onto the cracked earth. I see his eyes squint against the sun’s glare. We all do and crane our necks forward, faces inches away from the glass.

We watch him bend his shoulder blades inward and turn his head away from the eye of our monster. He bites his blistered lips, shriveled and purple from the sun, and clenches his hands into fists. Parents cover their children’s eyes with their hands and press them close to their bodies.

Inside the tinted announcer box, Lew holds fast to the doorknob. Head tilted to the side, he waits for his earpiece to give him the signal. Lew’s the closest to Titus, and the first to see him start to shake— his body spasming from the heat—tears prickling in the corner of his  eyes.

Finally, he gets the okay and flings open the door. But before it swings shut behind him, Titus’s knees buckle. We suck in a breath. I grab Myra and pull her toward the exit.

When we reach the tunnels, I hear the audience roar behind us. We turn. Titus stands tall, hands clasped in victory. The sun basks him in a halo of light.

Three Poems

Daughters of Ma-ao grew like stalks of rice, best left to fester in pools of rainwater. Tsoy will only pluck them out, when they begin to gourd on the dirt. Flies feed on the mud burying their bulbs into the plants whose roots blister. Stalks can also thrive in the heat, swollen, until the sun…

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Three Poems

Reopening In a blue light, the woman is still. She is water recuperating after the kind of storm that again and again unfolds its violence and gives way to the drop of a stone. One morning, she is on the precipice of the small town where she sewed the hem of a too-long skirt: dusted…

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An Unbiased History of Cognitive Bias

We all want to believe we can tell ourselves to treat everyone equally. That’s why we say things like “I don’t see color,” or “I would never judge anyone by their appearance.” But some biases are so deep-seated that they’re rooted in the way our brains work. In 1972, Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel…

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It’s funny what people don’t mind when they know they’ve only got so much time left.

Normally, when I swallow swords and hook wires through my nose and out my mouth, they gag. Or they puke on my shoes. Which makes sense. Most people don’t think about swallowing dangerous objects, let alone see it happen. Under normal circumstances, their reaction is a combination of horror and curiosity. Mainly horror.

The day the Sondering Circus went to the Splinter Dimension, there was almost none of that.

We didn’t have time to set up our usual big-top tent, because the dimension was going to collapse in less than twelve hours. But we set our caravan of fancy wagons into a semicircle and drew a nice bonfire. It was enough for the locals who’d braved the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado to see our show.

The rest was up to us.

After our leader, the faceless Magician, did a small act with roses and doves, Celia juggled alongside Benny and Belial, our clown duo. Joseph, our tattooed strongman, lifted our wagons one by one over his head, which impressed the crowd. He was followed by our contortionists, The Medusa Sisters, who were then followed by Dax, our slackline walker.

Then there was me.

No crowd were as wonderstruck as the Splinter folks. They never averted their eyes, as if they couldn’t get enough. It didn’t matter what I swallowed or what I threaded through me. Each daring act was a miracle.

In the Sondering Circus, we have an unspoken rule that whoever gets the most applause does the encore. That evening, the encore was mine. Ordinarily, I swallow an unusual object. I’ve got a whole bag of fun stuff for such a performance. But before I could reach for it, the Magician stopped me.

“What is it?” I asked.

He pulled something out of his red robe— a ball painted to resemble Earth.

“This? You sure?”

A nod was his only response. He rarely ever spoke and he never unmasked himself. It didn’t matter, I always trusted his judgement.

I held out the Earth for all to see. Every heart in the crowd seemed to stop when they realized what would happen next.

The Earth slid down my throat.

My gulp might as well have been a gunshot. Every person jolted, as if the world had ended right then and there. Before they could fret too much, I regurgitated the Earth and presented it to them, intact and unchanged. It reflected the sun’s dying light as their bittersweet smiles tore at my heart.

Our eyes were blinded by their annihilation as we transported back to our dimension.

That same annihilation will find us one of these days. When it does, I’ll swallow and bring back the Earth one last time. If nothing else, to tell the universe that life is as inevitable as death.


I don’t believe in what the circus is trying to peddle. It’s always been smoke and mirrors, even when wonder and joy weren’t part of the charade. It’s obscene to spend any money on pleasure these days, but it’s Ivory’s birthday and she wanted to see the elephant. I try not to flinch when the animal emerges, all bones and sinew held together by piles of falling flesh. She squeals with high-pitched joy when the beast totters. I hoist her up in my arms and try to pretend this is the world I wanted to bring a daughter into.

When the showman pulls the elephant away, the crowds dissipate, trailing into the sideshow tents. “Mommy!” Ivory cries, squirming in my arms. I grab her hand right before she darts off, and she huffs, but pulls me at a more sedated pace.

“…than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” intones another showman, as we join a small cluster of people. The man steps to the side to raucous applause, and behind him, a curtain parts to reveal a dazzling and disturbing woman. Her eyes are the color of slate by a river, and her dark hair is braided down to her knees. But what stops my gaze are the rivulets of scar tissue, starting at the line of her lips and cascading down her front like a gauzy veil.

“I present,” the man announces, “Claudia! The woman who can drink rainwater!”

I frown. Smoke and mirrors, I remind myself. No one can drink rainwater, not anymore. The man hefts a bucket up by the handle, hauling it onto a platform.

“This water was collected during the last monsoon.” He plucks his glove off to show four fingers, the scarred joints stiff and unmoving. With no hesitation, he dips his index finger into the bucket. The crowd stands at attention. When he pulls the appendage out, the skin is red and raw, already weeping and starting to blister.

He smiles, though his lips are tight. “And now, Claudia will demonstrate her undeniable talent.”

Claudia’s smile pulls at the scar tissue on her face. She grabs the bucket between slender hands and hauls it up to her lips. I can’t stop my sharp inhale when she tips the bucket, thin trails of corrosive water pouring down her gullet and falling down her front. Even Ivory is stock-still against me.

The skin around her mouth begins to steam, as though she were hot metal and not flesh. She swallows, and when she opens her mouth wider, I spot the angry flesh inside, scoured and pockmarked.

When she finishes, she throws the bucket to the side like a plaything. And then she turns to face us, her slate gray eyes stark against the devastation of her skin. I want to scream. I want to cover Ivory’s eyes. But I can’t look away.

Smoke and mirrors, I remind myself.