“When First He Laid Eyes” first appeared in Fireside, February 2016. Sometimes what is scariest in the world is what we normalize. This story is for the women who have lived this reality.
“Eyes That See Everything” is a Pseudopod original.
“Standard Procedure” first appeared in the anthology For Mortal Things Unsung.
“Us, Here” is a PseudoPod original. “A while ago I ran a roleplaying event, tabletop style, that explored a character’s dysphoria and body-anxiety through this kind of “meatscape” environment, basically exaggerating and inflating all of the points of greatest unease, making the internal external. I’d been thinking of incorporating that idea into a more discrete story for a while, and this seemed like a great time to do that”.
“Nothin’ ever seems to turn out right/I don’t wanna grow up”
When First He Laid Eyes
by Rachael K. Jones
A girl’s first stalker is always a cause for celebration. She will phone her mother with the big news and spill the story in a tangle of words, voice raw with emotion.
Her mother’s heart will swell at her daughter’s achievement. Every mother hopes for this day. A stalker means beauty. A stalker means desire. It is always a compliment for a girl to become a man’s intended. Her mother will fuss over the details: How did they meet? What was he like? When will they see each other again?
These are hard questions for a girl. If her stalker is a proper stalker, if he observes his social graces, his intended cannot pinpoint the enchanted instant when he first chose her, the moment their lives entangled. She thinks it might have been on a dark thirty run at Cape Canaveral, when the humid Southern air pressed hot and moist around her like a stranger’s breath. She remembers red Mars, hazy through the Spanish moss on the oaks. She fancied she could run there if she continued down the trail through the park, past the beach, and on into the Everglades, into an alien world. Her stalker must have spotted her on that route as he walked home from the bar that sold half-price beer to men in uniform. She probably waved to him, because a girl is friendly to everyone. A girl always smiles. A girl ignores the dread in her stomach when a man’s gaze impales her like a needle rammed through a butterfly’s thorax.
Dread is traditional, of course. It is only natural that a girl should feel nervous about her first stalker’s intentions, just as it is traditional for him to weave secret plans for their future together. Whether he intends a courtly affair which worships at a distance, or if he intends to close in on her gradually like a satellite on a collapsing orbit, or whisk her away in his car, or bring their relationship to its final consummation on the cold asphalt of an alley–well, whatever he intends, it would be gauche to spoil the surprise, which he has worked so hard to prepare. His intended should never know precisely what he intends.
A girl’s friends will celebrate with her when they hear the news. Some have had their first stalkers already. They will reminisce about their first time, how they met, what he planned, how it ended. The other girls, the stalkerless ones, will listen carefully to the wisdom of their peers, hoping to glean useful tips for attracting their own admirers. A girl will have to describe her outfit over and over. They want to know everything: the fabric, the cut, her accessories, her makeup. Everyone knows that stalkers prefer a certain look. They almost disbelieve her when she describes camouflage-print sweats, the ones that were supposed to melt her into the trees. A girl is lucky to have done so little and yet attracted him anyway.
No one compares to a girl’s first stalker. No one holds quite the same place in her heart. Others may address her as “Ma’am” or “Ms. Martinez”, “sister” or “Anya” or “Darling”. People call a girl a lot of things, but no one else would dare call her “girl”. That right is reserved for her stalker.
A stalker has the right because no one else is so dependable. Not her boyfriend, whose pride that his girl is intended sours to jealousy over the nonstop attentions. Not her friends, who will not forgive her sudden reticence, her avoidance of public spaces. Not her subordinates, who resent her for her tardiness when she takes labyrinthine routes to work. Not her mother, who calls her flighty when in rapid succession she takes up Portuguese, then astronomy, then sailing, then self-defense. Her stalker is always there for her. In the morning, she watches for him in all the usual haunts on her running route. He will appear, steady as the sun. In the evening, she spots his Ford Escort three cars back on the drive home. At the grocery store, she senses him staring through the gaps between tomato cans. He will watch while pretending not to, and she will do the same. They have come to rely upon each other, call and answer, strophe and antistrophe.
And if distance comes between them, what then? If one morning she fails to appear on the trail for their usual tryst? If he spots a stranger parking her car at an office that is not hers? If the curtains change color in her kitchen window, and a “For Rent” sign appears? If he finds her bedroom strewn with star charts and sea maps, and a suitcase missing? If, from their beach, he watches a sailboat launch into an ocean stained battle-red in the sunset, all his secret intentions swept away in a roar of breakers, a diminishing trail of broken surf?
The truth is this: a woman will attempt an escape. She will throw her weight against the ropes to turn the sails. She will lift the sextant and sight Mars ascendant in Libra, and correct her course against the tyrannical stars. She will watch the continent recede at the aft, while a shore approaches, remote but clear, on the fore.
Only when she has landed will she think of her stalker, when at the dock the locals greet her in a foreign tongue and she finds herself watching for him among their faces, throat tight, heart a-thumping. That is when she will realize that a stalker’s gaze is no needle. It is a hook, and his hand patient, and his line is long, and just when a girl forgets him, he will tug, and she will feel the keen red star pull on her like a baleful eye that will not blink, and remember that she is intended, and what he intends for her is fear.
A girl never forgets her first stalker. This, too, is traditional.
Eyes that See Everything
By Karen Bovenmyer
“Back off, retard.” Jeanne and Stacey block the hallway to the bathroom, arms outstretched, hands knotted together so they make a human chain. “This toilet’s for normal kids.”
Max is angry. I feel him heavy in my pocket, but I don’t want to get in a fight and pee my pants, so I pick Luke instead. I pull him out and his feet get caught so I have to untangle him while they taunt me.
I hold him up so they can hear him. “Excuse me,” he says, in his most even voice, “I need to use the bathroom.” Luke is the most level-headed—thick chestnut hair, denim jeans—non-threatening, like somebody’s brother on TV.
“Get. Lost. New. Kid.” Jeanne nods her blonde head, as if dotting the period after each word. Her movements jerk Stacey forward, who laughs, blue eyes narrow and mean, dark curls bouncing.
Oi! She is vicious, no? ‘Ette talks in the way dolls talk only to me. Her father is in love with another woman. Next week he goes, she will feel so badly, yes. I don’t want to feel sorry for Stacey. My dad works too much, but he is going to be a good dad until he has a heart attack thirty years from now. ‘Ette told me so. I worry about it sometimes, but thirty years is a long time. ‘Ette says I’ll be grown up and out of prison five years and able to take care of myself by then.
“Excuse me,” Luke tries again. “Class starts soon. We will all be late.”
“Not gonna happen.” Jeanne walks forward. I grip Max—his breathless mumbles haven’t stopped—push her down and stomp on her face but you’ll need to elbow the other one show them right for being bitches do it now while they are close and surprised and they won’t be able to stop you before they are both bleeding—
Do not listen, ‘Ette says. What trouble he is, non? Be nice, remember Jeanne’s time is close to gone. ‘Ette knows three years from now Jeanne will die in a car crash.
“What is wrong with you?” Jeanne’s face is so close I can see the broccoli stuck in her pointless braces. She shoves me hard. A little pee comes out. She grabs for Luke and I try to yank him back, but she twists my wrist until I let go.
Don’t worry. We will be all right. Luke’s voice is distant and afraid. I lift both fists, Max in one, ‘Ette in the other. Everything about Max is hard and stark—pale skin, black hair, shiny shoes. He has thick eyebrows and a deep frown. ‘Ette’s layered skirts float around her like a tissue ghost, her long white hair in fluffy waves. Her features are too large for her face—huge eyes that see everything under a high forehead.
“Oh!” Stacey’s breath comes out in a gasp. ‘Ette is that beautiful.
“There is no need for this, mon ami,” ‘Ette says. “Life is too short.”
Jeanne turns Luke upside down and laughs. “Is that supposed to be an accent? God! You are such a weirdo.” She thrusts Luke in my face, bobbing him up and down. “I’m a super freak baby who plays with dolls.”
Stay calm. There is panic in Luke’s voice. Not Max.
—hit her in the soft place in her belly and then push her and take the pencil out of your pocket and ram it through her eye—
“Non, non. Put ‘im down gently, s’il vous plaît?” ‘Ette is upset too—more French creeps in. If ‘Ette loses it, we will only have Max, and that will not end well. Max can change even ‘Ette’s futures.
Jeanne grabs Luke’s head and twists. He screams, but only I can hear it.
“I want this one,” Stacey says and she lunges forward, her fingertips tangling in ‘Ette’s hair. I hold on to her, but Stacey kicks me hard in the stomach, pushing me back, pulling ‘Ette from my grasp. Sharp pain, and a hot flood of pee rushes down my legs.
“She wet herself!” Jeanne laughs, then pulls Luke’s head so viciously it tears from his body. His scream stops suddenly.
Non! ‘Ette’s voice is tight with pain. She dangles from Stacey’s fingers as the other girl looks from her friend to me, her mouth open. I will never forget her expression.
Max’s voice continues to howl in my head—the pencil right now while she is laughing—and Luke is silent and ‘Ette is crying and I have an empty hand now so I pull the pencil out of my back pocket and jump on Jeanne, hitting her in the mouth with Max. The pencil comes up, then down at her face.
There’s a soft pop and the yellow spike of wood is sticking out from her eye as she screams and drops Luke’s body. Stacey drops ‘Ette and runs away down the hall, yelling, yelling.
I pick up Luke and ‘Ette and step over Jeanne, who is rolling on the floor, clutching her face, and lean against the wall, sliding down until I’m sitting in my own puddle. Very bad, my little cabbage. ‘Ette says. Now we will go to another school. We are running out of schools. I hold Luke’s parts and watch Jeanne. But you have saved her, oui. ‘Ette tells me that the boy who was going to ask Jeanne out, the boy whose car she died in, is creeped out by her staring glass eye and never asks her out, so she gets to live, and her braces aren’t so pointless after all. ‘Ette’s whispering voice tells me that Stacey’s father decides not to leave his wife and child just then, after such a trauma, and the other woman gets angry and leaves him instead, so he stays with Stacey’s mom. But I’m barely listening. Luke is broken, and I am broken, and like Jeanne’s eye, I will never, never be normal.
“Bon rien,” I whisper over Jeanne’s crying. It’s nothing.
by Dagny Paul
When you turn twelve, they take out your teeth. Before that they’re bendy and kind of see-through and can’t do much damage, but after they get hard and brittle. And sharp.
Today is my twelfth birthday.
Mama helps me get ready, using the special soap the doctor gave us. She says that it’s important, that it’s an exciting time in my life because it means I’ll be a woman now, but she doesn’t look at me. She smiles at the floor instead and says that she’s proud of me and that daddy is proud of me, too.
In the last year, I’ve touched my teeth a few times, even though they say you’re not supposed to. They say we shouldn’t play with them because they could hurt us, but they also say we shouldn’t because girls shouldn’t be touching themselves there. I’m not sure which one is right.
My teeth are thin and smooth and getting sharper. I don’t tell anyone, but they feel warm and tingly when I let them open up, yawning, and rub the undersides with my fingers. It reminds me of the way a kitten I once had would open and stretch his claws when I touched the little jellybean pads of his paws.
I like to sit in the bathroom with the door locked, when everything in the house is quiet, and practice retracting them and pushing them back out. When I pull them all the way in, they feel like hard little nubs under my skin. It’s nice to have something I can control, that makes my blood race through my body in happy waves.
I can’t tell Mama because she’s still looking at the floor and smiling at the carpet. I wonder if she wanted to keep her teeth, too.
She pulls a cotton dress over my head. It slips over me easily because I don’t have breasts yet, but Mama says that they’re coming soon, and even if they don’t, getting rid of the teeth is the most important thing. Men will marry a woman without breasts, she says. They will not marry a woman who still has teeth.
I’m not wearing underwear and it feels weird, but Mama runs her hand through my hair and whispers to the floor not to worry, it will be all right.
Daddy doesn’t come, because Mama says he is busy, so she drives me to the doctor. On the way, I practice retracting my teeth and pushing them back out without using my hands. It feels good.
The receptionist tells us to wait in the straight-backed chairs across from her desk. She doesn’t look at me, either. Mama reads a magazine and I look around. There are no windows, but there are posters of smiling girls in bright colors.
I pull my teeth in. I push them out. It’s nice.
The doctor opens the office door and calls us back. He is old and wrinkly and white-haired, and he is the first person to look at me all day. He smiles. I try to smile back.
We walk down the hall to a little room with a table with stirrups at the bottom, and the doctor tells me to lie down on it. Mama has her hand on my shoulder, and it’s shaking a little, but she gives me a push and I climb on the table.
The stirrups have socks that hide the metal underneath. The socks have little happy faces on them, yellow circles with black dots for eyes, a curved black line for a mouth. The doctor tells me to take my shoes off, and when I ask him about the socks he gives me that awful smile again and tells me it’s so my tootsies don’t get cold.
I can hear Mama breathing. She is sitting in a corner on a small, straight chair, and she isn’t looking at the floor anymore. She’s looking at the silver tray of instruments next to the doctor’s stool.
He sits and rolls toward me and tells me to pull my dress up to my waist and put my feet on the smiley-face socks and scoot my butt to the edge of the table. “Scoot, scoot, scoot,” he chants. I do.
He takes a tool from the tray and puts it between my legs. I feel a shock of cold and my teeth come out without me wanting them to. It doesn’t feel good, the way it does when I do it myself, and I am scared.
Mama’s breath whistles through her nostrils.
The doctor doesn’t notice, or maybe he pretends not to. He pokes at my teeth, making little humming noises, and then his head pops up from between my knees and he smiles at me again. He’s still trying to look friendly.
I am cold. My flesh is covered in goosebumps and I want off this table. My teeth feel as angry and naked and exposed as the rest of me.
The doctor turns to his instruments and picks up what looks like a pair of tweezers, long and clean and sharp. Mama says she has to go to the bathroom, and she bumps her shoulder hard on the door on her way out.
The doctor puts his gloved hand between my legs again. I can tell he’s being careful, and his smile falters. His lip curls a little, the way Mama’s did when she found a dead mouse on the doorstep and had to use a plastic bag to pick it up.
He raises the tweezers. “Are you ready?” he asks.
I’m not. I nod.
“This won’t hurt a bit,” he says, and his smile is back, Santa Claus and favorite grandfather. He looks at me for a long time. He wants me to believe him.
I want to believe him, too. But I don’t.
by Victoria Winnick
We are crawling. The space around us is tight and hot, and beads of muggy condensation run down our face– positive feedback ramping up the heat and the wet until the difference between breath and sweat is lost. Finally we’re out, gulping air and lying sweatslick on flesh that heaves beneath us, skin sticking on skin and apart as we breathe, and the ground breathes beneath us.
There’s a pillar in the distance. Thick, veined, prominent; never straight, never upright. It sags against the horizon, its bulk imposing even through the blood haze and the forest of curling spires that look like smoke, or a tangle of wire, or the nest of a bird that built only with ash. Our eyes drift to the shivering mass of it before our mind can process, and the meat below swells under our body, umbrage and shame and revulsion driving it up and around and over, trying to swat us away, a deep and ancient reflex. We sprawl, buffetted, not injured but not unhurt, and try to give the imposing, wilting tower the blessing of our ignorance.
It’s always the same dream.
We close our eyes and we turn, facing the opposite direction, willing the spire out of our minds, but it’s there again on the horizon. Smooth flesh beneath our feet grows rough with tiny pinprick spires beginning to rise here, too. They grow and climb, and perhaps in time there will be another forest of ash on our horizon. Spires climb from flesh in whatever places it remains unpierced, remains unburned, and they will always. We try to run. Eyes pressed shut and meat heaving apart from meat, we tilt to run, heedless, but the first step finds void, and our stomach thuds against our throat as we feel the beginning of the fall.
My leg jerks, and I spasm awake. I feel my hand slip out from underneath the skin at the small of Sam’s back, the junction in my palm snapping loose and severing my connection to her dream. I can’t see it anymore — the fleshscape of her dream, her meat draped in sinew and quivering, the spires, and the ever-present tower above it all. There’s a thick and heavy darkness in our room, but I can feel her shaking, inches away, as the dream begins to overtake her. I’ll never know how she managed to hold on before we found a way to share the strain of it.
I squirm forward and wrap my left arm around her shoulders, pressing her back against my chest. She almost elbows me when she feels my touch. If she were awake, we’d do our ritual exchange of apology and assurance-that-apology-is-unnecessary. And it is, truly. I know just how much it means that Sam lets me this close in the first place. I’d have to be a stone-cold bitch to hold a reflex against her.
I wriggle in close, my lips brushing the nape of her neck, and whisper; “Hold on, baby. I’m coming back.” Reaching down with my free hand, I feel for the part in her skin at the small of her back. It’s raised a little from the flesh beneath, like the hem of a shirt. I curl my fingers around it and lift, hearing the soft, wet sounds of flesh spreading apart from itself, and I slip my hand inside and press down. In my palm I can feel the crests of her spine pressing back against me, and… there. There, between bones, the little metal contacts, mated to the ones in my palm, clicking together with magnets like an expensive laptop and its power cord. It’s not even a second before her body begins to still, her breathing begins to slow, and I am we and we are…
In the dream.
The tower has risen, sturdy for the briefest of moments. This time, instead of trying to look away, we look up. The part of we that is still I whispers, “Look up!” and we agree. Above is other flesh. Not our flesh — flesh that is smooth and uncomplicated, distant as if seen through frosted glass, forming the sky of the world we live in every night. It is flesh that has come to us from places other than our body. Flesh that lives in our mind, set there by light and sound and thought.
We feel a yearning, we fight the yearning, for the impossible flesh that makes us love and hate our own. Our gaze falls back to the meat around us, the meat that is ours, the meat that aches and bleeds and shrivels. All that we can do is try to live here. Here, where the spires grow up and pierce our feet. Here, where the tower menaces with its shrieking need to be ignored. Here, where disgust will vomit us and doubt will squeeze us and desire will bleed us and we will know every grisly inch. Here, because this is our flesh, and it is the only dream we’ll ever have.
“You are wearing a text. The lines
Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need
Any other literature than this poetry of mud
And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily”
Crazy Weather, John Ashbery
About the Authors
Karen Bovenmyer is the Assistant Editor of PseudoPod. She is an academic, writer, and teacher at Iowa State University.
RACHAEL K. JONES is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in dozens of venues, including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and PodCastle. She is a SFWA member, an editor, and a secret android.
She cares about friendship most of all, and for this she crosses continents. She has a mind like a cenote, placid on the surface but sinking deep beyond the arm’s reach. There are dinosaurs down there. There are strange glowing fish unseen by human eye. She’d seen them, and lived.
She wears her body like a mech suit, like armor, like a faithful sword that had never abandoned her. Every inch of it loved, every nick earned, every strand of hair on fire inside.
Dagny Paul is a lapsed English teacher, failed artist, and sometimes writer who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies, which she consumes whenever her five-year-old son will let her (which isn’t often). Dagny was Assistant Editor of PseudoPod, and guest editor for Pseudopod’s Artemis Rising 3 event in 2017.
Victoria Winnick is a writer, editor, and chef, living in Calgary, Alberta. She’s been an Associate Editor with Pseudopod since the aughts, has written educational books for children, and her magazine writing has covered everything from the ins and outs (so to speak) of the adult film industry to jumping fences with punk bands. You can hear her own contributions to the podcast on episodes 467 and 532, and if you’re a fan of roleplaying games or compassionate anarchy, you can follow her blog at lady-luminoth.tumblr.com.
About the Narrators
Jen Albert is an entomologist, writer, editor, narrator, game-player, cosplayer, streamer, reader of All The Things, and haver of far too many hobbies.
Jen somehow became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast; she now wonders if she’s still allowed to call it her favorite. She works full-time as an editor at Toronto-based publisher ECW Press.
Jen Roper lives in Atlanta, GA. She works as a software engineer. Some day she will probably embed SETI on your thermostat and in your car assuming someone else doesn’t beat her to the punch. In the meantime, her hobbies include drinking and knowing things and making pop culture references. She also enjoys long walks after dark and seeking out Eldritch abominations in an alternate reality known as “pocket monsters”.
Laurice White is a voice actor who has read stories for all four Escape Artists podcasts, and for John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey on The End is Nigh and The End is Now, the first two volumes of The Apocalypse Triptych.
Tatiana Grey is a New York City based actress of stage, screen, and of course, the audio booth. She adores traveling and counts her lucky stars that acting and dancing have taken her all over the United States, to Montreal, Vancouver, Ireland, and Holland… but she loves coming home to New York where it all started. Equally at home speaking heightened language in a corset, in a leather jacket spouting obscenities, and as a dancer she has been compared to such dark, vivacious heroines as Helena Bonham Carter, a young Winona Ryder and Ellen Page. This depth and facility with multiple genres garnered her a New York Innovative Theatre Award Best Featured Actress nomination for her work in The Night of Nosferatu. Her facility with accents has landed her quite a few audiobooks and numerous on-camera roles including the role of Evgenya in the award winning I am A Fat Cat. Tatiana is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.
About the Artist
Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.