Size / / /

I stanch the blood with a handful of toilet paper. Red wicks through the white, and then the paper wilts and shreds. I toss the mess in the bin.

I breathe through my mouth. I lean over the sink and watch my blood splash down and diffuse into the water from the running tap.

The door swings in and shoves me against the countertop.

Swearing: Ginevra's voice. She stops when she meets my eyes in the mirror.

"Crap, Deirdre. Not again."

I shrug.

"You're going to the doctor, right?" Ginevra says.

"Next week."

" . . . 'Cause that's not normal."

"I'm not normal," I tell her, thickly.

On another day, she'd comfort me. She'd walk me to the nurse's office, or call my dad to come pick me up. Today, she's already in makeup, and alight with nerves. She smells of cigarettes and Noxzema. Her fingers touch the back of my neck, then skate away.

"I go on in an hour," she says, brushing past me and into a stall.

"Break a leg," I say.

I hear her jeans unzip, and a moment later the clink of her belt buckle hitting the floor.

I turn away, look down. My hand has been fiddling with my ballpoint. Blue scribbles mar the cuff of my jacket; they almost make a word.

I don't know what else I'll say to Ginevra if I stay. I leave her and walk out into the rain.

One hour until curtain. Two dollars and eighty cents in my jacket pocket; a few cigarettes, a pack of gum. Nothing to eat, but I'm not hungry anyway.

Rainwater collects on my hair and runs from the lank tips onto my forehead and down to my chin. My jean jacket soaks through and turns stiff. I turn my face up into the downpour: at least it can rinse some of the blood from my skin.

Maybe it's the chill, or maybe it's just time, but I think the bleeding is slowing.

I start toward the Bleaker Public Library, as the rain slackens. As I reach the crosswalk, at the uppermost limit of my field of view, black birds cross the sky, one and one and one. When I tilt my face back a little to watch them, blood runs down over my upper lip, and into my mouth.

Making friends with Ginevra was like taming a stray cat. First I started hanging around in areas where she might be found. If she showed, I didn't approach her. I just stood there, smoking, or I read something, glancing at her secretly from behind my hair. Then I started catching her eye once in a while. Then I started smiling.

Then I started dating Christopher Potter; I dumped him after a few weeks, but that got me introduced to Pete Janaczek, which got me the invite to Pete's party, which got me in the same room as Ginevra while she was tipsy and expansive, and then—finally—it happened.

All that was a lie, you know. As if I could plan anything like that. It's only in hindsight that I realize why I started spending time in the smoke-hole in the first place. So many of the things we do, we keep from ourselves.

She told me the playwright was so much against the idea of his piece being performed by women that when someone in the Netherlands tried it, he banned the entire country from putting on his plays.

"Why are you doing it, then? Aren't you afraid he'll ban Canada too?"

"He's dead. Too bad: it would be great press for us," Ginevra said. She bit off the thread, put away the needle, and showed me what she'd been doing: adorning my jean jacket with a Violent Femmes badge.

I resolved to go out and buy the album as soon as she left.

I lock myself in the handicapped bathroom at the Bleaker Public Library, and I kneel under the hand-dryer. In the rush of hot air, the last trickles of blood dry to sharp crusts within my nostrils. When I look in the mirror to gingerly prod them out, I see that I'm a strange colour, like old newsprint.

I always thought pallor would be more attractive. I think I've been imagining pale people as if they were made of marble, delicately veined and smooth: not this chafed and flaking skin, with all the moles and hairs brought into sharp contrast, and the leftover summer's tan yellowing me like dirty ivory.

I've got blood on my jacket, too. As if the Violent Femmes weren't enough.

Without warning, it comes again. No pain this time, just a hot gush down my face as the pressure overwhelms whatever fragile membrane held it back.

I slam my forehead into the paper towel dispenser in my hurry to reach the sink. That bleeds, too. In fact all this bleeding is making me feel spacy enough that I sit down on the toilet seat with my head on the sink, and I do nothing at all but wait.

After a while I'm not bleeding any more, and I get myself upright slowly, like a person with a truly vile hangover.

For some reason, I'm not using my left hand. I look at it, and discover I'm holding my pen again, in a bit of a death grip. I set it on the counter before I can make it explode, and begin the lengthy and awful process of cleaning myself up.

The theatre is called a black box, because it is both of those things, and nothing else. Its stage is bare but for a dead sapling planted in a bucket, and a diffuse light coming down from the grid.

I've been up there: up through the trap door in the booth. I've spent a half-hour unhooking fresnel lights from the rack and handing them to people, because I couldn't make myself edge out from the wall onto the grid itself, so far above the stage. If we had to hook our wrenches to our belts, I thought, why didn't we have to hook ourselves to anything?

My stomach lurches, what with the thought of the people on the grid, and the others waiting in the wings. Or maybe they'll be in the green room still, warming up their voices: "Round and round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran."

In the heat, the inside of my nose crackles. Everything that should be moist is parched, and everything that should be comfortably dry is soaked with rain: jacket, trousers, Converse, hair, bookbag. Where I had doodled Ginevra's name in ballpoint across the white rubber toe-cap of my shoe, there's nothing but a blue smear.

The lights rise on Eve Morrow and Leslie Kulyk, both in bowler hats. Their faces, bare of paint, look tired and hollow and so much older than they did during lunch period.

They are waiting at a crossroads. It reminds me of something.

I try to remember. It seems important. Their dialogue teases around the edges of it, whatever it is.

Then I try to forget it, because Ginevra takes the stage.

Ginevra Iacovini: her father owns Bleaker's only cab company. Her mother works part time at Danylow's, selling fine leather. Between them, they've raised a changeling, all huge dark eyes in a face studded with piercings. She's taken those out for the show, and her face looks thinner and younger.

She enters stage right, with her bowler flattening her cap of curls, a rope about her neck and a whip cracking at her ankles. The whip is in the hand of Tyra Cross; she makes Ginevra stop and start and carry her things and take the whip in her mouth and give it back. Tyra speaks, and I watch Ginevra's silent lips.

"Think!" Tyra commands.

I almost miss Ginevra's first words. The excursus. Ginevra said it to me earlier, in the smoke hole, a bit of it. "For reasons unknown but time will tell," she said; and "plunged in torment plunged in fire." It comes back to me now, and with it a warm metallic tickle in the passage of my throat.

I lean my head back, pull my knees up to my chest. Above me, the grid shows faintly, black on black, behind the fresnels. Below, Ginevra delivers a stream of words.

My hand gropes in the pocket of my jean jacket, and finds my pen, and a wad of toilet paper. I blot my nose with one hand and clutch the pen with the other, as if the pressure will help get this under control.

Maybe it does. I swallow, less each time, while below me Ginevra's voice rises, and with it the sounds of a scuffle.

She gasps, and shouts, and halts.

So does the trickle of blood down my throat. I raise my head, cautiously. Ginevra stands listless, lost and swaying. Her hat is wrecked.

She returns to the stage again in the second act. I was afraid her part was over. She says nothing, this time. Even her hair hangs lifeless about her cheeks. Her fall is inevitable.

She's called Lucky. That's irony. If I forget again in English class what the definition of irony is, I'll only have to summon this image to my mind: Lucky, slave to Pozzo, most miserable of a miserable crew.

When she is beaten, she whimpers once, and I think Leslie's given her a real kick with that steel-capped boot.

The whimper reminds me of nothing, though. The desperate remembrance in my brain has gone quiet. The blood in my head flows in the usual channels. It does not start again until what turns out to be the very last scene: Eve and Leslie, alone together once more, in the bleak light, by the spare tree. As that light dims I feel it all over, the familiarity, and with it the blood.

The applause ends. The rest of the audience rises, collects jackets and purses, files out.

I stay in my seat, hands to my face, until everyone has gone.

I wake early the next day. Saturday. Dad will be in bed for a couple of hours still. I dress in my jean jacket, and go for a walk.

From our house you can see Bleaker spread below the lip of the escarpment: a pitiful little grid of Monopoly houses and patches of orchard, and beyond it the highway. I walk the other direction, between bare fields and windbreaks.

At a crossroads, a single tree. It reminds me of the one on the stage last night.

No: that tree reminded me of this one.

I stop walking, and fumble in my pockets: pen, bloody tissue, matches. My throat hurts. I light a cigarette.

I remember something now. I come here often, on Saturdays. I wait here. Don't I? Someone meets me at the crossroads. But who? How will I know it's the right person?

Why don't I ever think of this when I'm elsewhere? Is it so terrible? Is it just so large?

When I have finished my cigarette, they come for me, and I remember everything.

On Monday I meet Ginevra in the graveyard after typing class. She's drawing, perched in the big tree, up in the branches.

Every tree is the one from the play, I think. Strangely familiar, and awful, and full of meaning that vanishes if you look at it directly.

Ginevra closes her sketchbook and swings down when she sees me coming. We kick our way through the drifts of leaves that have gathered around all the stones. My mother's buried here, on the far side, but I haven't told Ginevra that, so I steer us the other way, out the north gate.

I know a bridge, across a little creek that rushes down from the escarpment. The bridge is rusted; bits of it come away on my fingertips when I stroke the iron. We lean on the rail and watch the water trickling below us. Light rain begins to fall.

"So," Ginevra says.

"It was . . . I want to say it was amazing, because it was. More than that, though."

She glances at me from behind the fall of her hair. "You got it?"

"It got me, I think."

"I thought you'd get it. You always have that look."

My turn to glance at her.

"You know. I used to see you by yourself, just leaning on the wall or something, with your hands in your pockets—"

"You used to see me?"

"Sure, I did." She takes a long drag, and exhales slowly, deliciously, into the autumnal air. "The deep one, we used to call you: me and Chris and Pete, back when we were wondering who you were."

She had a name for me.

"I don't think it's about God," I blurt.

"I don't, either. And I'm Catholic. I think they're waiting for something . . . more personal, if that makes sense."

"More vital."

"More important."

"We sound like Didi and Gogo."

"It gets into your brain, a bit." She smiles ruefully, and looks away. She's wearing her bowler hat from the play, an old white waffle-weave shirt, and a denim vest. Her lips were wine-red, earlier, but some of the colour has come off on her cigarette. Her eyes flash wide and dark like the eyes of an owl after sundown.

I wish I could kiss her.

Instead I watch the water, which falls, and the leaves, which also fall, and the rain, which—ah, whatever.

"You're kind of a mess," she says.

"I guess." I look down at my shoes. The toe-caps are smeared with ballpoint ink, and I thank the rain for smearing it before Ginevra could see what was written there; it might have been her name.

"Me, too," she says quickly. "All of us. There's so much we don't know."

I know, I almost say. Just for a moment, it's all there. The cause of my troubles. The thing for which I wait. The meaning of the crossroads tree.

But if I speak, something will burst in my head, and I'll spill blood all over the rusted bridge and the place where our hands rest.

I hold very still. The tide of blood recedes, and with it, the knowledge. All but the memory of forgetting, and the sense that time is short.

After a last inhalation, Ginevra drops the butt of her cigarette into the water. The tiny light hisses out, and there's only the smoke from her lips.

Claire Humphrey

Claire Humphrey is the author of Spells of Blood and Kin (St Martin's Press, 2016). Her short fiction has appeared in magazines including Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Crossed Genres, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle, and anthologies including Beyond Binary and Long Hidden. Find her on the web at her website, or email her at
Current Issue
24 Jun 2024

I am a little sad that story has ended, even though I could have been the target
We are all harmonic oscillators / Sloshing around in watery bags of salt,
The Rise of Speculative Poetry 
Strange Horizons
Speculative poetry has the power to detach and disarm, to tease and pull, to play and emancipate.
Wednesday: Island Witch by Amanda Jayatissa 
Friday: The Silverblood Promise by James Logan 
Issue 17 Jun 2024
Issue 10 Jun 2024
Issue 9 Jun 2024
A Tale of Moths and Home (of bones and breathing) (of extrinsic restrictive lung disease) 
Phonetics of Draconic Languages 
Critical Friends Episode 11: Boundaries in Genre 
Issue 3 Jun 2024
Issue 27 May 2024
Issue 20 May 2024
Issue 13 May 2024
Issue 6 May 2024
Issue 29 Apr 2024
Issue 15 Apr 2024
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
Load More