“This story is partially autobiographical. My older cousins did, in fact, teach me how to induce a fainting spell, and I did, in fact, have some kind of seizure. Do not try this at home, in the woods, or anywhere else.”
The Fainting Game
by Nino Cipri
I held my arm out the window of the car and pretended it was a long sword slicing through the landscape. This was a game I always played on long car rides, holding my hand flat and my fingers rigid. The wind pushed the sword up, and I chopped through the tops of trees and telephone poles. Lower and I scythed through farmhouse attics and distant silos. I tried to control the sword by changing the angle of my hand, so I could hop over other cars without slicing their passengers in half. But sometimes, the wind forced my hand lower, and I’d apologize under my breath to the motorcyclist or hitchhiker I’d beheaded.
“Roll your window up,” Jenn complained. “It’s too much wind.”
I ignored her and let the wind fill my ears until she pinched me. I slapped her hand and said, “Mom!”
“Quit it, both of you,” Mom said sharply from the front seat.
Dad added, “Quiet down, or I’ll stick the two of you in the trunk for the rest of the ride. Maya, roll up your window.”
The wind pushed his words away. I kept my arm dangling out the window, cutting through the trees and hills until Dad started to raise the window from the driver’s console. I yanked my arm back.
All three of them ignored me as I crossed my arms and cried in the backseat, and when we got to Aunt Shauna’s house, they didn’t bother to wait and see if I got out of with them. I locked all the doors and lay down on the backseat, pretending that I was dead, pretending they were dead, pretending the car was moving all on its own, pretending I was alone and everyone else in the world had disappeared.
I always felt like I was on the verge of disappearing when I was a child—like I could sink into the dirt and never re-emerge. I could disappear; run away, fall into a river or a stranger’s car, and the world wouldn’t stop itself for me. I saw it happen all the time; girls and women being erased, or erasing themselves. Cautionary tales, but I took the wrong lesson from it.
It was Labor Day weekend, and it got too hot in the car with the doors closed and the windows rolled up. Or I got bored of sulking. I abandoned the car at the bottom of the long dirt driveway. Outside, I could hear snatches of a radio playing the classic rock station, and the metallic tink tink tink of someone hammering a length of pipe into the ground, setting up a pit for horseshoes. My uncles’ raucous laughter drifted down from the top of the hill. If I hiked up there, I’d see them gathered in clumps around Aunt Shauna’s big backyard, busy with their beers and games of horseshoes, busy telling Uncle Eddie how he should work the grill. My mother and aunts would occupy nearly every room in the house, carrying wine coolers in their hands and babies on their hips, sneaking out into the backyard to take drags off their husbands’ cigarettes. They’d pay attention to me long enough to tell me to go outside, enjoy the last days of summer before school started up again. Maybe they’d never notice I was gone.
I was most of the way up the drive when I heard giggles coming from the woods off to my left. Lanie and Sierra, Aunt Shauna’s daughters, liked to play in the woods on their property. Our ages lined up like a ladder: I was ten that summer, Lanie eleven, Jenn was twelve and a half, and Sierra had just turned fourteen. The giggling sounded like it belonged to Sierra and, oddly, Jenn. Jenn rarely laughed; rarely cried, either, now that I think about it. I veered off the road to find them.
Sierra was older than Jenn, prettier, meaner. She already had boobs, and wore shirts that showed off the straps of her bra. Our dad had commented on it when we saw them over Christmas, which made Mom’s face go pinched and angry. Sierra seemed to think that having a chest – “getting a nice rack” as my father put it – made her the first and greatest authority; like an underwire bra might as well be a crown.
I picked my way down to the woods, practicing moving quietly in case I wanted to be a spy when I was older – it seemed like a good choice for a job. I took the long way through the brush so they wouldn’t see me coming. The woods muffled the voices of my uncles and the radio, though the clang of horseshoes ringing against the spike still carried, clear and high like a warning bell. A flock of crows took off from the spindly branches of a pine, startling me with the noise of their wings and cawing.
The giggling quieted, and I ducked behind a beech tree, standing as straight and narrow as I could.
“We can see you, dumbass,” Jenn called. She sighed, loud enough that I could hear. “Did you get tired of crying in the car?”
I thought about running away, but I wanted to see what they’d been giggling about. I came out from behind the tree and walked towards the clearing where they stood. There were signs that other people used the spot: a collection of crumpled beer cans and cigarette butts, charred wood and ashes where someone had built a fire. Among the detritus, I spotted three fresh cigarette butts on the ground. I could smell smoke—not the greasy smell of charcoal and lighter fluid, but tobacco, menthol ones like Aunt Shauna smoked.
I would have made a good spy, I thought then. I still think it now, but it seems like all spies do is hack each others’ computers. Not so fun anymore.
“What are you guys doing?” I asked.
“Talking about how much you suck,” Jenn said sourly. “God, go back to the car.”
“Don’t be so mean,” Sierra said. “She’s your little sister. You should be nice to her.”
It was an odd thing for her to say, since I’d seen Sierra make her own little sister cry plenty of times. Lanie herself was sitting with her back up against the fence, staring down at her hands, which were smeared with dirt. She was painfully shy, even around family. Sometimes it seemed like she was trying to be invisible in a crowded room. I understood that, and thought we should have been friends, but we never were.
“Were you smoking cigarettes out here?” I asked. “It smells.”
Jenn opened her mouth, probably to tell me what she’d do if I told on her, but Sierra cut in. “We were playing a game.”
“What kind of game?” I asked.
“We’ll show you,” Sierra said. “Lanie, get up.”
Lanie shook her head. “I don’t like it. I still feel dizzy.”
“Don’t be such a baby.”
“Do it to me,” Jenn said. “I wanna go again.”
Jenn stood, brushing leaf litter off her butt, and walked over to one of the thin beech trees at the edge of the clearing. She bent over at the waist and started breathing hard and deep, like she’d just run a mile. The sound of her breath was the loudest thing in the woods. I felt hypnotized by it, like my heart beat to the same rhythm she was keeping. Then she suddenly stood, and Sierra grabbed her by the throat, pushing her back into the tree. Jenn’s face puffed up red, cheeks ballooned out. Gradually, she went boneless, slumping forward into Sierra’s arms and slithering onto the ground. She’s dead, I remember thinking, we killed her. Just as I was about to start crying, Jenn let out a stream of giggles, rolling over onto her back.
She looked happier than I’d ever seen her; no pinched look on her face, no anger or resentment, no self-consciousness. Her T-shirt rode up, exposing her pale, soft belly. She was a different creature than the one I’d rode in the car with, who had complained about the wind and our dad’s choice in music and the fact that we had to come to Aunt Shauna’s at all.
“It’s called the fainting game,” Sierra said. “That’s all. You bend over and breathe really hard, and then you stand up, hold your breath, and someone presses on your neck. It feels really cool. Weird and cool”
Jenn’s giggles tapered off. She pulled her shirt back down over her hips, then rolled over and sat up. She still looked calm, though, not as annoyed as she had before.
“I wanna try,” I said.
“You’re too young,” said Jenn, picking leaves out of her hair.
“You let Lanie do it!”
“She almost puked,” Sierra said, pointing at her sister. Lanie did look pale and queasy, but I was stronger than her.
“If you don’t let me play,” I said, “I’ll tell Mom you were smoking. I’ll tell Aunt Shauna you were sneaking Kools out of her pack.”
Jenn sighed in disgust. “Fine. Come here.”
“I…” I was suddenly afraid. “I want Sierra to do it.”
Jenn gave me a look, surprised and hurt. I dropped my gaze. Sierra had a mean streak, but she didn’t hate me like my sister frequently said she did. I was scared that Jenn wouldn’t take her hands off my throat, a fear so sudden and clear that it had already tangled its fingers around my airway.
“Whatever,” Jenn said. She went and sat next to Lanie and pulled a crumpled cigarette out of the pocket of her shorts. She glared at me as she lit it, daring me to say something.
I stood against the tree, and Sierra stood next to me.
“Lean over and breathe in and out really fast,” she instructed.
“I know,” I said. I braced my arms against my knees, feeling self-conscious and nervous. “How long do I do it for?”
Sierra shrugged and said, “Thirty seconds? That’s probably enough.”
I closed my eyes and began to count to thirty. I tried to do five breaths per second, then six. I got up to eight breaths a second before realizing I’d actually counted to forty-three and was already feeling dizzy. I stood back up and was taken off balance as Sierra clamped her hands around my throat and pinned me to the tree. I forgot it was a game, and dug my fingernails into her wrists trying to push her away. But Sierra was bigger than me, stronger and taller, and the weight on my throat didn’t let up. She pushed until red static crawled across my vision; pushed until I toppled off an invisible ledge and fell downwards, watching the scene in the woods recede away.
It feels like I shouldn’t remember it as well as I do. But my entire body keeps the memory: dangling like a kicking corpse at the end of a noose, not knowing how much space was beneath my feet, or above my head. Not quite falling, and never landing. The only thing that grounded me was Sierra’s grip around my neck, which had followed me all the way down, stretching like silly putty.
I stayed down in the static place for a long time. I screamed, but my voice went nowhere. I thought someone would come get me, but nobody did. Just like in the car.
Eventually, I climbed out myself, hand over hand up Sierra’s arms, the only path that I had. It took me a four tries to get out, and everytime I fell, it seems like I sank down a little further, had to climb a little higher and a little more desperately. There wasn’t any thought of disappearing now. I made the kind of bargains that anyone who’s been in desperate situations would find familiar. I guess one or more of them took because I could eventually see a light, like a window cut into space. As I reached for it, Sierra’s hands came loose from my throat, and floated back down into the darkness. There was pressure and a soft pinch on my hand, that I heard as much as felt: like the feeling as when your ears pop going up or down a mountain, a relief that’s as much pleasure as pain. I could smell oily charcoal smoke and dirt. I’d gotten out.
The relief was temporary. I opened my eyes and a wave of pain rolled over me, burning and scraping down my face. I screamed and pressed my hands to my cheek, then sucked in a breath and screamed again. When I opened my eyes, it was to Jenn, looking down at me. She tried to pry my hands away to look at my face, and I kicked out at her.
“What did you do?” Jenn said.
I tried to open my eyes, but one of them was already swelling shut. I caught a quick glance of her face, shocked and angry, and a dim, blurred outline of Sierra. My eyes seemed to skate right past her. I shut my eyes again.
My hands were still pressed to my face when my mother and Aunt Shauna arrived. “You’re all right,” Mom said calmly. “We’ll take you to the doctor and they’ll fix you right up, baby.” Usually she didn’t say anything much more than, “I can’t believe you got me up for this.” Mom’s disregard was its own source of comfort, as much as her soft hands when they smoothed band-aids into place. “You’re going to be okay, Maya,” she said, but her voice was sharp with fear, and she touched me like I was already broken.
My mother recounted the story to her friends by telephone, over and over until it was a script she had memorized and made sense of. After fainting, I’d had a seizure, which had startled Sierra so much that she dropped me. I’d fallen face-first to the ground and cracked my cheek against a rock.
“It was Sierra’s idea, of course. The girl’s turned into such a little—“ My mother would pause here, shaking her head and sucking on her cigarette, or taking a sip from her ginger ale. “If Shauna hadn’t gotten to her first, I would have killed her dead.”
I liked hearing the story in my mother’s words. They made me feel safe – made the whole thing feel comfortably real.
When they released me from the hospital, I was the owner of two new scars. One was a shallow divot on my right cheek from the tree root. It would fade from an angry red to a soft purple within the week. The other was a small, bony stump where the smallest finger on my right hand had been. My mom, confused by my reaction to it, reminded me that I’d lost the finger in an accident when I was a toddler, too young to remember. When I didn’t believe her, she sent my father home to get a photo album as proof. We looked at the pictures together: a little girl with an awkward smile, tangled hair, and only four fingers on her right hand. But I remembered the pinch on my finger when I’d climbed back out, that snap of pressure. I knew the static place had taken that bit of flesh, rather than a car door when I was eighteen months old.
“Retrograde amnesia is normal in concussions and seizures,” Dr. Robards told my parents. “I will say, though, that Maya’s case is quite unique.With your permission, I’d like to write up her case for a research paper.”
I liked all those medical words enough to roll them around in my mouth when I was alone: retrograde amnesia. Zygomatic arch. Tonic-clonic seizure.
“Are we going to get any money from it?” my father demanded, and when Dr. Robards said no, he rolled his eyes. “Call me when you can pay us,” he said, and ushered us out the door. My mother’s mouth was pressed down into a thin line as we walked into the waiting room, and she snapped at Jenn. “Get up, we’re leaving.”
Jenn put down the issue of Seventeen that she’d been reading and followed us out the door. She’d always accused me of being the sulky one, but since we’d played the fainting game, she’d barely spoken to me. I couldn’t help but remember the way the game had turned her into a laughing, happy stranger rolling in the dirt, all her familiar edges softened and blunted. She was probably right to be angry at me. She had tried to escape me for just a little while, and instead I had dragged them all into a mess. I sympathize with her now. Sympathy’s easy when I’m on this side of it.
It took about a week for Sierra to fade completely away. I don’t know what the process was like, since I wasn’t there to see it. (I’m almost never there to see it.) I didn’t even know it had truly happened until Aunt Shauna called our house, a couple weeks later.
“She’s hysterical about something,” my dad said, handing the phone to Mom and going back to the TV.
I saw Jenn stand and walk quietly out of the living room and down the hall to her room. I waited another minute, and then followed her, pushing open the door to her room. She had her phone off the hook and was listening in. When she saw me, she looked murderous; if she could have killed me with a thought, all my arteries and veins would have peeled open for her then.
Let me listen, I mouthed.
No, she answered, one hand over the mouthpiece.
I leaned out the doorway, ready to call my mother. Jenn let out an explosive, angry shushing noise, and impatiently beckoned me over. She held the phone up so we could both hear.
“—Since two nights past, Mel, and she’s been acting so goddam strange.” Aunt Shauna’s voice wavered and hiccupped.
“Didn’t the police—“
“They said they’d put word out, but they’re treating it as a runaway case.”
“They think Sierra ran away?” Mom asked. I heard gentle skepticism in her voice. She agreed with the police.
“They think she’s just being a goddam teenager, and I told them no, she’s been different. You’d barely recognize her. She stopped talking, stopped coming to meals, it was like living with a ghost.”
The crackle of silence. Jenn and I both covered our mouths, so Mom wouldn’t hear us breathing.
“God, Shauna, why didn’t you tell me?” my mother asked.
“I didn’t want to worry you. After everything that happened with Maya–“
Jenn hung up the phone, and looked at me carefully. I stared back. After a moment, Jenn replaced the phone in the hook, stood up, and went back downstairs. I followed her. We watched TV together, on the floor in front of our father’s chair. I kept an ear cocked towards my mother, who’d taken the phone into the kitchen. I still remember her saying, “I’m sure it’s something else with Sierra. She’ll come back. You know how kids are.”
School started again. Nobody reacted to my missing finger, not the other kids nor the teachers, though I had plenty of comments on the scar on my cheek. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but the kids I played with during recess agreed that it made me look dangerous, though we couldn’t agree on what kind of dangerous.
In science class, Mr. Cranston started teaching us the scientific method. Observation, hypothesis, testing, thesis. I wondered if maybe I could be a scientist instead of a spy when I grew up. I drummed my remaining three fingers on the desk.
One. Fainting had knocked me down into the static place.
Two. I had pulled part of Sierra in with me. Used her to pull myself back out. Literally climbed up and over her. And I’d left part of her in there.
Three. The missing joints of my finger. Sierra’s dim and blurry outline when I’d woken up; a few days later, she was gone.
Hypothesis: the static place had taken its own payment. Maybe it had taken Sierra, too. Maybe the static had followed me out and nestled in her body, taking it over until it, too, was nothing.
One, two, three.
I had to perform a test.
That Saturday, I rode my bike to a park, and asked a couple of kids if they wanted to play a new game that I’d learned over summer break.
People think that every child will be missed, but it’s not true. People miss certain kinds of children less than others: the ones that cause problems, that get angry, that cry too often, that feel too much, whose emotions are unwieldy or unpleasant or unrecognizable. They used to call us changelings; I read about it in a book. Strange seeds from familiar flowers. I could have been one of them, but I was something different: a doorway that other people disappeared through. It feels good to know that. It’s good to know what you are.
I had a few more scars by the time summer rolled around again. The rest of my pinky was gone, along with the finger next to it. My whole right hand was thinner than it had been, and ached strangely, in the places where parts of me were missing. I wondered if the ones I took to the static place, who got pulled over the course of a few days or a week, if their bodies ached like mine did.
If I were to go back to the static place—
Not that I will. Well. Not that I plan to any time soon. You should never say never.
But if I did, and I took the time to look around, I wonder how many people I’d find. I can’t be the only person who’s gone down there, who’s left someone there. How many girls live down there, who everyone thought went crazy and ran away? The third time I went, I stayed there for a while, calling out, straining to hear a voice in reply. But there was nothing. It’s like going down into one of those caverns, so big and so dark that you feel like you could choke. I’m not sure I could find anyone down there, even the people I put there myself.
At the next Labor Day barbecue, nobody spoke of Sierra. Nobody said her name. The door to her bedroom was closed and locked. She was still in the photos on Aunt Shauna’s mantle and wall, but she always seemed to be on the edge of the frame, slightly out of focus. Lanie stayed at her mother’s side, ensconced in the kitchen with the other women, but Jenn and I were shooed outside.
The radio played, the same as last year, Aerosmith and Led Zepplin, but none of my uncles sang along. They played horseshoes studiously, drinking from cans of Budweiser that they pulled slick from the cooler. I snuck a cigarette and a pack of matches out of Uncle Eddie’s pack, which lay unattended by the grill, and walked into the woods.
The day was overcast this year; no sun, no floating dust motes. The woods were damp and smelled like rotting leaves. I sat against one of the trees lit the cigarette that I’d taken from my uncle. Maybe it was the one that Sierra had pushed me against when I first played the fainting game. I couldn’t remember anymore; all those trees look the same.
“Mom’s gonna kill you when she finds out you were smoking.” The voice surprised me enough that I sucked in too much smoke and started to choke. Jenn was leaning against the other side of the big fallen hemlock tree. She’d snuck up on me – or maybe she’d already been out here, and I’d blundered into her hiding spot.
“I thought tattling was something only babies did,” I said, standing up, still coughing.
“It’d be payback,” she said. “Eye for an eye, for all the times you told on me. It’s only fair.”
It was something our dad said a lot, usually when he was lazily doling out some kind of judgment when the two of us fought about something. When Jenn would hit me, but only because I hit her first: Eye for an eye. Fair’s fair.
“Go ahead,” I dared her. “I’ll just tell her you were out here smoking too.”
“So what?” she shrugged. “Mom already hates me because of your stupid stunt last year.”
“Then I’ll tell her you gave me the cigarette. And that you were there for the first time I ever smoked.” Not quite a lie, though it was Sierra who had procured the cigarette, and I’d gone along with it as enthusiastically as Jenn. Our mother could detect a full lie. But I always put in enough truth to convince her.
“God.” Jenn shouted, so loud and sudden that the crows in the trees started scolding her. “God, I wish you’d never been born.”
She’d said the words to me a hundred times, a thousand, maybe. They barely even hurt, now.
“You’re just jealous because everyone likes me more than you,” I told her.
“Only because they don’t know what you’re really like,” Jenn spat. “Not like I do. But they’re starting to figure it out, you little psycho bitch.”
I could feel my eyes starting to burn. This is the thing Jenn never understood; I didn’t fake crying. I couldn’t stop myself. I sometimes wished that I’d lose the ability to cry altogether, like she had.
“Oh, are you crying? Did I hurt your feelings?” Jenn said, stalking forward. “Are you gonna throw yourself against a rock again? Cry for Mom and tell her it was all my fault?”
“I didn’t throw myself–”
“I don’t believe your bullshit.” She got right in my face as she said it. “I know you did something to Sierra.”
I went silent. The tears dried up, quick as they had started. I didn’t have control over that either. I’d learned that I didn’t cry when I was afraid, truly afraid.
“You did,” she insisted. “I know it. I saw…”
Jenn trailed off, sounding unsure. What had she seen? And did she know about the other kids? Even if she didn’t, it was only a matter of time before she put it together.
“Oh, what now?” Jenn spat, as I bent over at the waist. “Are you crying? Go find someone who cares.”
Instead of counting seconds, I counted syllables. Tonic-clonic seizure. Zygomatic arch. Retrograde amnesia. I recited them like a prayer. Four breaths per phrase. Then five.
“What are you doing?” Jenn asked. She didn’t sound as dismissive this time. She sounded scared. I didn’t answer, too busy trying to get six breaths a second, then seven. Her voice faded as the sound of my rushing blood filled my ears.
My eyes were shut tight, so I didn’t see the hit coming. Jenn’s fist cracked hard across my cheek, the same one I’d broken. But I think it had healed up harder than it had been. After the impact, after the heat and numbness spread across my face, I got my rhythm back.
Tonic-clonic. Three breaths. Zygomatic. Four. Retrograde amnesia. Five breaths.
“Stop it! Maya!” She said my name — I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her call me by my name. She sounded so scared.
I stood up and wrapped my hands around my throat, pushing and pushing against the pulse point. Just as my vision was starting to narrow, Jenn grabbed at my hands, trying to pull them away from my neck. She was shouting, but I couldn’t hear her anymore. I clapped one of my hands around her wrist, and threw us both backwards over that ledge, into the red and gray static. Down and down we went.
It wasn’t just a finger I lost this time; when I came back to myself, there was a smooth, round knob of bone and skin that ended at my wrist. I knew enough not to say anything this time, only to ask for our family photo albums. Even in my earliest photos, my right arm terminates in a narrow knot of bone, covered with smooth, unblemished skin. I never wear a prosthetic in the pictures; I probably never needed one. My left hand has always been stronger anyway, and my right arm smoothly turned the pages of the album, skilled from a decade of practice that I have no memory of.
When I woke up in the hospital, the harsh fluorescent light seemed to shine right through my sister, though I was the only one who noticed. And in the photos, Jenn is already fading away. She stands half-out of the photographs, face blurred, little more than a silhouette, permanently displaced.
If you asked me if I missed Jenn, I’m not sure what I’d say. Sometimes the emptiness where my hand used to be aches, cramps, or tingles. When that happens, I worry that the static place is reaching out for me, reminding me of its hunger, and its patience. Mostly, though, I don’t notice the absence at all.
About the Author
Nino Cipri is a queer and nonbinary/trans writer, currently at work on an MFA at the University of Kansas. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has also written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a teacher, bookseller, bike mechanic, and labor organizer. Their writing has been published by Nightmare Magazine, Podcastle, Fireside Fiction, and other fine venues.
About the Narrator
Larissa is a Vancouver-based voice actor and producer, most recognized for her work on The Centropic Oracle, a science fiction and fantasy short story audio magazine available on YouTube, and is the co-founder of the YouTube channel The Templin Institute.