PseudoPod 864: All the Ways to Hollow Out a Girl

All the Ways to Hollow Out a Girl

by Gwendolyn Kiste

It’s almost noon on Friday when the neighborhood boys murder me again for the third time this week.

They do it with their hands today, bulging knuckles blanching white, their sweaty fingers wrapped tight around my throat. The three of them circle over me, grinning and guffawing, like this is a fraternity hazing and not my life at stake.

We’re in a field out behind the high school where we’ll all start ninth grade in a few months, provided I live long enough to see it. Crushed beneath their weight, I kick and scratch, desperate for this time to turn out differently. Then all at once, the world fades to a dusty gray, a familiar numbness coming over me, and that’s when I know I’ve died.

I’ve never asked the boys—and I doubt they’d tell me—how long I stay dead, but judging from the fact that the sun never dips too far across the sky while I’m gone, I’d say it’s no more than a few minutes. From my end, it feels like only an instant, the same as waking from a long night’s sleep, when it’s as if no time at all has passed since you closed your eyes.

The boys come back into focus, hazy at first, their bodies still lingering over me. I hate that they get to watch me while I’m away. The thought of them pushing nearer, crowding around the husk of me. How they get to be with me, even when I’m not here.

“How are you feeling?” one of them asks and helps me to my feet, as though he honestly believes he’s a gentleman. The question, of course, isn’t for my benefit. These boys are genuinely curious what happens to me, where I go, what it’s like. That’s part of the fun for them, though let’s face it: most of their fun comes from the killing.

I don’t answer them. Instead, I inch away, one small step at a time. While I can think of a few things they do deserve, an explanation isn’t one of them. Besides, I have to be quick and get out of here, or else they might try to do it again.

“See you tomorrow,” they call after me, snickering, and I wish I could cut their tongues from their mouths, so I never have to hear them laugh at me again.

It’s always a long walk home after I die. My head’s still swimming, and the edges of my vision catch strange shapes like restless spirits or demons that tagged along for the ride. I try to steady myself and see them clearly, but they’re only hitchhikers, and they’re gone before I can ever properly introduce myself.

At home, all the lights are out. Mom’s gone at work, and Dad’s been gone for years, hightailed it out of town when I was only four years old. We haven’t heard from him since. I barely remember his face now, the way his lips curled up and twitched at the corners, whether he was smiling or snarling.

His voice like a razor blade has stuck with me longer.

In front of the staticky TV in the living room, I eat cheese curls for dinner and drink half my weight in Coca-Cola. Dying should have some sort of consolation.

My mom comes home late—she’s always picking up extra shifts, partly because we need the money, and partly because everybody knows they can drop their shit at her feet, and she won’t argue. She’ll take their hours, and they’ll take her time. Away from the house, away from me.

“You still awake, Nyssa?”

“I’m here.” I stash the empty bag of cheese curls under the La-Z-Boy recliner and meet her at the door. In the hallway, she pulls me in for a hug. Her hair smells of vanilla perfume and butterscotch, these comforting scents that make me think there’s nothing bad in the world, even though I know that isn’t true.

“What did you do today?” she asks, but when I open my mouth to tell her, no sound comes out.

The first time with the boys was an accident. Or so they say.

It was halfway between the abandoned lake and the old strip mine. I was hanging out there first, but they decided it was their turf and I had to go. Then I must have said something they didn’t like. Or maybe I didn’t say anything, and that’s what made them mad. I can’t remember that part now. All I know is that their hands were on me, their fingers digging into my flesh, and I yanked away, only to lose my balance. Down into the dirt, head against a stone, blood in my eyes.

“Oh, shit,” one of them said, as I faded out. I was dying right in front of them, but nothing in his voice quivered with regret. It was more a spark of annoyance, like the vice principal had just caught him smoking in the boiler room, and he didn’t want detention.

I died quick that time, and returned quick too. There was quite a racket when I did, with the boys shoving one another back and forth, scared and confused and blaming the others until they realized it would just be easier to blame me. That was when the three of them turned and flashed me those ugly grins of theirs.

“So what else can you do?” they asked, and then I knew I was really doomed.

It was fun for them once they knew I’d come back to life. Fun because they wouldn’t get in trouble and fun because it meant they could do it again, so long as they could catch me.

Fortunately, I’m good at hiding. My mom’s always said that I’m small for my age, and I’ve figured out how to use that to my advantage. My body slides into the narrow places where no one else can follow. Into culverts and beneath bleachers and under crawlspaces.

Today, I’m tucked inside a rusted-out locker in the old middle school where no one learns a damn thing these days. The county closed it almost a decade ago and shuffled us all into the mid-sized building across town where the teachers perpetually look tired and the kids are always angry. Everybody’s angry anymore, and I wish I understood why.

I squeeze my eyes shut and imagine staying here in the dark where no one will ever find me or hurt me again. It’s safe here, because no matter how clever these boys lie and tell themselves they are, they can’t possibly search the whole school before dinner. And that’s the one rule their parents have for them: not that the boys can’t chase girls, but that they better be seated at that supper table come six o’clock.

“Where do you think she went?” one of them asks, as he brushes past the locker, and I hold my breath, so they can’t hear me wheezing inside.

I stay hidden until sundown when the boys return home, one by one, kicking and cursing under their breath. This means I made it. I get to stay alive.

Because I’ve been cramped inside that locker all day, I want to stretch my legs a little, so I take the long way home, out past the junkyard and around the lake where the water is always brackish and thick. Moldering fishing boats and splintered canoes dot the blackened shores, as though their owners just gave up and forgot about them. Before I was born, this place was a small tourist trap with hot dog stands and shell games, but then a whole family drowned out here one spring. Their boat capsized for no reason on a perfectly serene day, and because the lake is so muddy and deep, their bones just had to stay where they are. Mother, father, sister, brother, together in the dark forever.

Since then, the lake has become a dumping ground for the factories and the frackers. One or two of the old-timers still like to go fishing here, but I can’t see why, not unless you’re eager to play catch-and-release with a carp that’s got two heads or three eyes. Between the arsenic and the sulfur and the algae blooms, the water out here is poisoned, just like everything else in this town.

The house is dark when I get there, but it won’t be for long. Mom will be back in time for dinner tonight. As a reward to myself for not dying today, I order a large pepperoni pizza with the last scraps of my allowance, making sure it arrives just before Mom gets home. I even put out our good Corelle plates, the ones with the little olive green flowers arraying the edges.

Mom’s face brightens the moment she walks in the door.

“What’s the occasion?” she asks, and I just smile.

It’s a week before the boys catch me again.

I’m almost to the abandoned middle school, ready to hide inside my favorite locker, when their arms loop around my waist from behind, and they take me down to the asphalt.

“Not today,” I say, mostly because I need to say something and not just go mute like they want me to.

Not that it matters, not that anything ever matters. They find a ditch along the side of the road, no more than a deep mudpuddle really, but it’s enough. The water is gray and reeks of sewage, and it takes me longer than before. A full five minutes of splashing and spasming and gurgling before the world falls away.

As I flail for the last time, I comfort myself that this isn’t that lake out past the school. That seems scarier to me than other ways of dying, how your body could sink so deep and never bob back to the surface. I don’t know how I’d return from that. If I’d return. Though at least beneath water that deep, I couldn’t hear these boys’ hideous laughter.

They don’t stick around today. Once I’m back, the three of them just ride off on their bikes, chortling, as I’m left to pick up this body that always feels both old and new to me. I pull my knees into my chest and just take a moment to be me again.

Me, the girl everyone in town feels sorry for. They’ve already decided my fate. I’m just like my mom, after all: quiet, pitiful, no friends, no future. Only maybe I do have a future, a longer one than I’d like. Part of me wonders if I can die at all, or if I’ll be trapped in this body forever. An endless boomerang back and forth, between here and there, a cycle I’ll never break.

I shake my head as I walk home alone, holding my breath superstitiously for the last block to my house. It’ll be okay, I tell myself. When it’s on my terms, when I’m old and wrinkled and finished with this life, then I’ll go. But not until then and certainly not because these boys say so.

That night, Mom uses a butter knife and scrapes tiny spots of green mold from four pieces of Wonder bread before making us fried bologna sandwiches. She asks me again about my day, but my lips go numb, and I can’t imagine how to tell her about it all.

“I’m fine,” I say instead.

Afterwards, our paper plates crumpled in the garbage, we sprawl out on the couch and watch reruns of Bewitched. Mom is all vanilla and butterscotch again. This wasn’t always the scent I remembered on her. Back around the time my dad took his rage and his pickup out past the county line and didn’t look back, she came home with a strange scent in a cloud around her. Something like rotten eggs and sweat. I always wondered if it was her grief over losing him, if her loss had become so potent that it had its own odor. Even then, I couldn’t understand why she’d be sad, considering the bruises on her arms soon vanished, and all that screaming went away. Once he was gone, it didn’t seem like we’d lost much at all.

On the fraying couch cushion, I curl up and clutch tighter to her arm. She smiles and smooths a tangle from my hair.

“You know I love you, right?” she asks, and I murmur yes and close my eyes, slipping off into the dark of my choosing.

In the dead heat of July, all the families on the street take their vacations, one right after another. Everyone except me and Mom. She can’t get off work from the stock room at Wal-Mart, and besides, we wouldn’t have the money for motels and carnival boardwalks and two tanks of gas for our old Toyota Corolla anyway.

“Maybe next year,” she lies, and I always smile and pretend to believe her. As a consolation prize, she sets up my hand-me-down Slip N Slide in the backyard, and though I haven’t really liked it since I was ten years old, I run up and down the tattered plastic all day anyhow, and come back inside for supper with my nose peeling and shoulders red.

“Did you have fun?” she asks, and I say yes, because now it’s my turn to lie.

Down the street, the boys leave with their families on different days for South Carolina, so they make a pact not to do anything to me while the others are away.

“That wouldn’t be fair,” they say as they search for me in the halls of the middle school a week before they depart, their voices echoing inside the locker where I’m hiding. “We’ve got to stick together.”

I never thought someone else’s trip to Myrtle Beach could be my reprieve, but I take what I can get, and once they’re gone, I spend the week wandering the neighborhood, untethered and out in the open. I walk around town all day and hang out by myself on the elementary school playground, swaying back and forth on the tire swing, remembering when things seemed better or at least different. At night, sunburned and halfway to heatstroke, I wait up for my mom, no matter how late her shift is.

When she sees I’m still awake, one eyebrow twitches up, and her eyes go a little gray. “Are you sure you’re okay, Nyssa?”

Every time she asks me this, I part my lips, ready to tell her—about me and these boys and what they’ve done. Even if she can’t help, I just want someone to know. It seems like it might feel better that way. But then everything in me twists up tight, and I can’t even look at her, this shame searing through my body for no reason.

So I don’t say anything, not to her or anyone else. It probably wouldn’t matter if I did.

It’s the next Saturday morning, and I’m at the convenience store on the corner, buying a can of Chef Boyardee for lunch when a long shadow blossoms down the aisle.

A lump swells in my throat, and I turn toward the figure. It’s one of the boys, back earlier than the rest.

“You know it’s only a joke, right?” He grins, and his gaze slides up and down my body. “I mean, look at you. You’re not really dead.”

I nod and glance back at the shelf of mini ravioli. I just want to pick out my food. I just want him to go away.

But what I want has never mattered much. He inches another step closer, and his shadow all but swallows me whole.

I stare back at him for a bottomless moment, and a memory rises up in my mind. This boy was at my ninth birthday party. He ate three pieces of yellow cake and didn’t bring a gift, but back then, I didn’t mind. It was just nice to pretend that I had friends, even though the other parents only sent their kids because they pitied me and Mom, and how Dad left us without anything, not even a goodbye note.

That pity didn’t make too much of a difference though. Because here’s this boy still standing in front of me, waiting for me to react. A cash register clanks and clatters up at the front of the store, but it might as well be in another county.

“Besides,” he says, “dying must be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to you.”

Another step, and he leans in closer, his face so near to mine that I can taste his curdled-milk breath.

“What’s it like?” he asks, his voice like a razor blade, like my father’s.

I breathe in to steady myself. “It’s better than here,” I say, my fingers curling into fists.

Leave me alone, I want to scream and spit in his face, as he reaches out to take hold of my arm. But then a woman with a cartful of children and soda cans shoves her way around the corner, and I take this chance, my only chance, to turn and run—down the aisle, out the automatic front doors, and all the way home without stopping, not even once. All the muscles in my body are twisted up tight, and I wish beyond reason that I could always run this fast.

Then nobody would ever catch me.

Sadly, vacations don’t last forever. All three boys have returned by the first week of August, these dog days of summer that make the sweat turn sour on your skin before noon.

I don’t know they’re back, so I don’t know to hide, which makes me easy to track down. They find me out past the old strip mines, up on a mound of earth that looks like a pyre. Maybe it’s the blistering heat that inspires them, or maybe it’s just their own rage. Either way, they choose fire this time. A week away certainly hasn’t softened them at all. If anything, it’s just made them meaner, having to come back to themselves and realize that nothing’s changed. They’re still the same.

And I’m the same too. The girl who might die but who certainly won’t stay dead.

“What’s so special about you?” they ask me, their eyes whirlpooling with hate, before they light the match, and I start to scream.

After sunset, I walk home alone, coughing up smoke, the edges of my hair singed and smoldering. That’s all the evidence left of what they did to me today. Otherwise, I’m more or less as good as new. Part of me wishes there were more marks of what happened, some kind of proof, but mostly, I’m just glad I don’t have to keep looking at what they’ve done. Here I am, and I’m still me, no matter how hard these boys try to take that away.

And I won’t let them take it away. I don’t go walking anymore. I don’t even leave the house unless Mom’s with me. These boys will have to tear down my front door if they want to get to me, and then there will be evidence. Breaking and entering at the very least. Then someone will have to believe me.

(That’s what I tell myself anyhow.)

Of course, it doesn’t stop them. They keep making circuits around the block on their bikes, reminding me they’re still out there.

After dinner, my mom gazes out the window as they make another loop. “Do you know those boys, Nyssa?”

I waver in the kitchen doorway. “Yes.”

She glances back at me. “Are they bothering you?”

I nod. This is it. I need to tell her. I need to tell anyone. Otherwise, this will never end.

“There’s something wrong with me,” I say, and the words sound like they’re coming from a stranger. “Something different.”

I expect my mom to ask what I mean or to argue and claim there’s nothing wrong with me at all, but instead, her face goes gray, and I suddenly realize she knows about me too. She knows what this body of mine can do.

I lean against the wall, the edges of my vision pinwheeling. “When?”

My mom hesitates, and I hate it, because I’m afraid she’ll cry, that I’ll make her cry. “You were four. Your father—”

Her voice cuts out, and dread seizes up inside me. This isn’t a story I’ve heard before, but it’s one I recognize anyhow.

“You were so small,” she whispers. “I remember holding you after what he did. Then I don’t remember anything else until my hands were red, and he was on the floor.”

I swallow a ragged breath, as it all becomes clear in an instant. No goodbye note, because he never said goodbye. Not willingly anyway. I should have guessed. Men like him never leave on their own. They’ll just keep using their hands until the whole world is bruised and battered.

“I was ready to call the police,” she says. “Call anybody really. It didn’t matter. But then there you were, toddling around the corner, asking for your blanket.”

Her eyes seem to stare right through me now.

“Then I knew I had to get rid of him. Every trace of him. Or they’d take you away. I couldn’t let them do that. Not after you’d come back to me.”

Her face splotches red, as though this shame should be hers, instead of his. I open my mouth to say something, to try to make this better, but then the boys are knocking on our front door, and I know beyond reason that it’s time.

“I have to go,” I say, and outside, the three of them surround me in my own backyard.

Their eyes are dark and strange, and I can already tell tonight will be different.

“How long did you think you could stay in that house?” they ask, and their hands grasp my wrists, my arms, my throat.

I wrench away. “I don’t care what you do, just make it quick,” I say. Then almost as an afterthought, “And no water tonight. I’m so tired of drowning.”

Instantly, their faces brighten, and my body goes cold, because it’s too late to take the words back. I know where we’re heading now.

It’s a ten minute walk to the lake, the three of them dragging me behind them through the sparse trees and fields where nobody lives and nobody can hear me. On the silent shore, they pick one of the half-rotted boats, and once they push me inside, the three of them climb in after me, their eyes wide and greedy.

“What if we chain her to the bottom?” The boys speak as though I’m not right here. “Then she can keep drowning and coming back over and over.”

I don’t look at them. I just sit back, knees into my chest, as the boat creaks along, further into the darkness.

“That way, she can get really cozy with the afterlife.”

The shore is so far that you can barely see it now.

“Don’t worry,” they say to me. “We’ll come back for you. Eventually.”

We’re in the middle of the lake before I glance up at them, my hands clenched into fists

“I lied before when I said it’s better.” My voice is clear and calm, ringing like a bell through the empty air. “It’s not. It’s cold when you die, so cold, like you’ll never know warmth again.”

The boys gape at me, and I smile back at them.

I didn’t ask my mom where she put my father, his body tucked away like a secret. In this town, it’s easy to guess where he is, especially when I remember her scent that night.

Rotten eggs and sweat. The sulfur in the lake. This hungry water that swallows everything and never even spits back the bones.

This will never end. Not unless I end it.

I don’t have long before these boys figure out what I’m doing. Fortunately, the decay in this town is the one thing I can rely on. I raise my foot, only a few inches, and bring it down hard on the bottom of the boat. It’s enough. The boards splinter, and dark water gushes in all around us.

It’s a cacophony of cursing and screaming and even maybe a few tears. These boys are far more delicate than they look. Wailing, they try to jump into the lake to swim away, but I entwine my body with theirs. An elbow locked around a knee. Fingers wrapped tight around a squirming wrist. My embrace more permanent than theirs could ever be.

Together, we go down with the moldering boat. Their screams slice through the night air, but they learn at last what it’s like for no one to hear you.

I awaken beneath the darkened water, mud in my lungs. I’m not alone. The boys are deep within the gloom too. Though I can’t see them, their flaccid bodies float all around me, their hands forever stretched upward toward a shore they’ll never reach.

But I can reach it. Before I die again, I unravel myself from them and let them slip to the bottom. Then I swim with everything left in me, crashing to the surface and dragging myself to the abandoned shore, where I cough up phlegm and stones and wet earth.

I’m alive. I’m here in the open, and I’m alive.

The police won’t find the boat, and they won’t find the bodies either, not of these three boys or any of the others that hide in the dark.

When I get home, all the lights are out except the TV, but my mom’s still awake. She meets me at the door, and instantly, she smells it on me. The rotten egg from the sulfur and the sweat of what had to be done. She recognizes this scent, and more than that, she knows what it means.

Her face contorts, as if in pain, as if this is the one fate she never wanted for me. She could say a thousand different things right now, platitudes or psalms or apologies, but nothing would change this. Instead, she just wraps my damp body in a frayed towel and sits with me on the couch, the two of us huddled together.

My mom might not have said anything, but I need to. I need to tell her everything. What it’s like to be so afraid you can’t fathom feeling anything else. How you can’t remember how to speak, even when you have to scream. I want to tell her what it’s like to die.

But somehow, none of that matters. Besides, she probably already knows too well about those things. So I say something different instead.

“You know I love you, right?” I ask, and she holds me closer, my body dripping gray water on the floor, as the shapes on the television flicker across our faces in the dark.

Host Commentary

PseudoPod Episode 864

May 5th 2023

All the Ways to Hollow Out A Girl by Gwendolyn Kiste

Narrated by Rose Hofelich

Audio production by Chelsea Davis

Hosted by Alasdair Stuart


Your author this week is Gwendolyn Kiste. Gwendolyn is the three-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, Reluctant Immortals, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, Pretty Marys All in a Row, The Invention of Ghosts, and Boneset & Feathers. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Tor’s Nightfire, Vastarien, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Interzone, and LampLight, as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Gothic Fantasy series, among others.

Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, their calico cat, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can also find her online at Facebook and Twitter.


This week’s narrator is Rose Hofelich. Rose is a gamer and caretaker of maybe too many cats. Rose’s work brings disparate parts into a cohesive whole while her love of esculent art is peppered throughout. Through collaboration with a diverse range of clients & varied industries, she explores function, encourages interaction, and successfully differentiates narratives through the visualization of her design work. She acts at the junction of simplicity and elegance to craft experiences that go beyond design. She is fueled by X-files, lonely people glitter, and beige carbs.


So get ready to find out just how hollow a human can be. Because we have a story for you and we promise you it’s true.


‘The dark of my choosing’ is one of those lines that shines, even in the middle of prose that’s as precise, and seething, as this. It’s a response a lot of us are familiar with; trauma, horror, is the default. The flavour of it is the only choice you have. 

What traps our protagonist there is the twin mires of adolescence and misogyny. The thing about the eternal summers, the thing Bryan Adams doesn’t sing about, is they’re eternal. The Long Now stretched to breaking point as you find yourself trapped between ages, between lives, between who you want to be and who you are. Exhausted, sweating, terrified, furious and running in place even as everyone else pulls away into the middle distance.

That’s the single, solitary piece of context the blank-eyed monsters in this story receive or deserve. Everyone is trapped in this period of their lives and no one makes good choices. But almost no one continues to make bad choices. Their violation of the protagonist, their reduction of her to an object, a violence toy, is made even more degrading by how little they care. She’s something to kill besides time. They know that. So does she.

But she knows something else and there’s horror in that too. The only way out of these situations is, to quote Alanis Morrisette, through. That’s why the scene with her mom hits so hard for me. This is small town gossip, of the sort we all know, embody and listen to, given a murderous supernatural twist. There is no dark side of the street, there is no wrong side of town. There’s just the kid that can’t die who rides the bus next to you and a trio of serial killers whose voices haven’t broken yet. A situation as all encompassing as it is horrific, as banal as it is terrifying.

Realizing that, standing up on it and making use of what she is should be an empowering moment. It’s Ripley in the power loader, the warrior woman gearing up to get the job done because she has Had Enough with capital letters you can here.

But the horror is here too. Ripley is so often the one image we have for beats like this even decades later. More importantly because while what doesn’t kill our protagonist makes her stronger, it also makes her a murderer. The fact that bothers her is what separates her from the boys she takes out of the world. That’s how she can breathe. How she can escape. But it makes her life harder as well as, at last, her own.

Stunning work from everyone, thank you.

We’re a non-profit 501c3 organization now! That’s going great and is going to help us continue to do what we do AND help you when you donate. It’s a long process and we still need your donations to keep going. In fact, we need them more than ever. The cost of living crisis is hitting everyone, and that includes us.


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PseudoPod is part of the Escape Artists Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this episode is distributed under the Creative

Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. 


And PseudoPod knows you don’t have much time. The Grabber hasn’t been sleeping. He thinks this might be it. That he’s going to figure it out.

About the Author

Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books; and the occult horror novelette, The Invention of Ghosts, from Nightscape Press. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Vastarien, Tor’s Nightfire, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Unnerving, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at

Find more by Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste

About the Narrator

Rose Hofelich

Rose Hofelich is a gamer and caretaker of maybe too many cats. Rose’s work brings disparate parts into a cohesive whole while her love of esculent art is peppered throughout. Through collaboration with a diverse range of clients & varied industries, she explores function, encourages interaction, and successfully differentiates narratives through the visualization of her design work. She acts at the junction of simplicity and elegance to craft experiences that go beyond design. She is fueled by X-files, lonely people glitter, and beige carbs.

Find more by Rose Hofelich