Written by Atticus Payne
Art by Salvator Rosa

A week ago, you bugged me—practically harassed me.
                   you weighed down every thought with a tiny stone, sewn gently, seeds of doubt into the high-strung knit of my heart just where you knew the seams would be. Because you sewed me: from dust to bone to this reckless mind. But just a speck and nothing more, borne by every thought till it coalesced in—
No. Certainly something close, though. The same colour, in a different shade.
Funny, what unseating a mere day’s thoughts will do to you; gentle waves working at hardened silt formations, dissolving rough ridges into something a little softer. You’ll pause, choke; your eyes blinking, search for some way out. 
At least let me understand what this is. Discomfort? Too general.
Guilt? Warmer.
There it was: the thought that had been sinking its sharpened roots in. “This is not right.” There. There it was. Now that it’d been named, I could barely think of anything else without the words taking all the space. It is how some describe love, and yet, infinitely worse. Love is a haze, not a blinding light. Right? 
It was night, and the lamps were dimmed. So with a silent room and locked door, I…knelt. 
I have not done this in a longvery long time. 
Fine. So I did the speaking. The more I spoke, the more the words came, till with the torrent, the pressing weight of shame had lessened somewhat. I could think again. 
How I thought. 
The world’s a rather judgement-based place. Yet when your knees are bruised and your neck a mess from bowing the head; when your lips are cracked from speaking of everything you could possibly think of, it’s hard to get unsettled again. There’s a steadiness to being on your knees—a kind of peace.
A week ago, you bothered me, and it was the best, most uncomfortable bothering. 
Why would you go silent now? 
What have I done to stop it? To block you out? How can I bridge this gap?
Bother me again, will you?
I miss you.
Am I mad? 
Blind me, bind me. 
Without you I’m now left, stranded in the in between, floating between two ends of complete and incomplete. 
Come on, now. How could you do this?
There’s no cleverness to this. No hidden commentary or thought, nothing weaved in the narrative. I am nothing but


Written by Atticus Payne
Art by William Blake

(Ihminen: human)

We humans, all so tastelessly mortal. Dropped onto cliffs hugged by ravines, a cord around the neck our only harness, frantic fingers; opposable, fragile thumbs, gripping, slipping, holding on ‘til we fall.

No landing kills you—just your own porous bones.

One by one, I watch them lose their hold. Fingers with skin worn ‘til only bone shows, others more torn by their eyes and not the stones. One by one, I watch them die, hear them cry, shake most from anger in their last sigh as they try so much to stay alive, while next to them, another ihminen falls.

I’ve seen some try to climb—upwards, in a game of chasing the rain. The air thins that far above; presses down on the chest ‘til ribs crack, ‘til you can’t catch your breath. “Searching,” they say. “For what?” I reply. 


Then, again, I watch them die.

They crumple from the shivers, so easily that for a moment you could forgive yourself the thought that they’d gone and done; that this was their climax. 

It’s just death. Just as futile as the rest.

So I stand and wait and lock my muscles as best I can. It’s useless, I swear. All it does is make you stare at the gasp of the gallows and wonder if you’re next. I stand, and wait, and watch, and pray; for mercy, for control, for anything to end it all. Slowly, I lessen the pleas. Just gouge my eyes out.

Words get swept by the wind.

Ihminen. Human. Frail, and unmade for this plane. 

Unknot the cord, step off the ledge. What end is there if you can’t see it?

Should I die, I will have earned it.

Have flown, for a second, and not cared.

Son of Sirens

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by John William Waterhouse

“I saw him once, the son of sirens. That’s all you ever need to go mad,” the crone said, to no-one in particular.

“He kept to himself, his back turned and unmoving till I approached, tapped a shoulder, and felt skin on skin, a snap like two magnets finding each other at last; skin on something else entirely, something rough, tough like hardened leather. Like the rocks of the sea, shapes beautifully slicked by the potter of the waves, hundreds of years forming textures one of a kind. To know this was my first mistake; to let it draw me in, my second. Though I’m not sure I could’ve resisted either way—one does not hope against the work of a riptide. ‘Tisn’t done. 

“He faced me, and my eyes caught not on the well-worked yet wild features that I can’t ever hope to forget now, but on the resin-glossed piece of art in his hands. Casually held, irreverent to the meticulous carving of ebony, flamed maple and spruce. That was the trigger of that ringing noise I’m always having now. If sounds could burn the ear, this would be a concentrated assault. Does that paint a picture clear enough for you?”

The mist breaks for a moment, and darkness replies. It groups into vague shapes, jagged around the edges and never visible for longer than a second, before the landscape clouds with gray once more. For a moment, this sequence is comprehensible. 

“‘Are you one of ——’s students?’ he asked, and the name left me in half the time it took to say. Two syllables, I think. Can’t recall much since that day. His accent clipped the words gently before they finished, playing to a High rhythm. 

“‘No,’ I replied. ‘I seem to have the wrong person, I was—’ the ringing grew louder, bearing through my skull and into whatever part of your head was used for synthesising words. The echo of his voice, the flamed streaks of the instrument’s back; now not simply magnetic, but familiar. 

The crone gasps. She feels her hands shake, realises she has a body for the first time in…time. How long does a second stretch when there isn’t anyone to measure with breaths? Time has become the enemy, for lack of better company. 

This part. One of a cycle.

One note. A wrong note, and a whole movement turned to a broken, imperfect ruin, and to an ear trained for discrimination, it was not impulse, but self possession. Remember. Remember, remember, ‘you will not be like him’. 

“Do you know me? Do you know who I am?” I grabbed him by the shoulder, curling my hand to focus my nails on the skin instead of my palm. Seaspray and coarse rock threatened to blind me again, but I was careful this time, keeping ahold of that unfinished sentence. ‘I was looking for my brother.’ I was looking, and I had found him. That discordant note, the cough in the pianissimo was the mast I lashed my limbs to, binding tight enough to bite till it bled. 

He growled, widening his eyes to Hold mine. I blinked my gaze away, then back, just for a second, then away. 

“I know you,” I spat. “I know your mother destroyed my life.” 

“I am sorry for your father—” he began, and I used the sound of his voice to locate a spot in his jaw. I punched it. Gods, even his groan was musical.

I know you. I know you. I have been searching for you.

“You didn’t know my father,” I said, grabbing his neck and holding it downwards. “You didn’t know the man you stole from this world before you Thralled him.”


“You raped him, then shattered his mind!” I kicked him to the dirt. No sea would aid him here. Our voices were barely audible to others over the din of the people milling about on the street, crying out about prices and services and other stupid things. I knew the words I said, had rehearsed them for decades on end. “You took my father from me—”

I am not my mother!” he cried out, getting up again. I fell backwards, right ear struck with a ringing so loud it pinged when it began. And again, unending, infernal grate—

My mistake, in kicking him. I’d lost control.

I looked up, my final, damning wrong. Looked upon him, as if I could aim a blade through the cavity of his chest even when I tried. His eyes bore into mine, freezing the rest of the street’s sound away in a muffled gale. Seaspray and wind and waves. 

Adoration above.


Brother. He was coming again. 

That was how it ended. Now, the crone remembered.

His steps sounded, and it began the last movement of the song against the walls of the crone’s space. The final memory the crone ever had, she knew by then, was the sad reflection of her own face, turned High, turned into a boy. 

“Forgive me, sister,” he said, his voice breaking. “Forgive me.”

“Why?” The crone knew, but knowing the end notes of a symphony didn’t make it any less terrible when the silence came again. 

“You saw your father’s end. It’s no life, living without the Thrall’s siren. You don’t want to live that way. I know you don’t.”

“Where am I?” 

“It’s better not to know.”

The crone wept, and wept all the harder as the boy left. His eyes, so beautiful, and so sad, had left her. She hated seeing him leave. She hated the silence. 

The crone couldn’t live without putting a stop to it. 

“I saw him once, the son of sirens. That’s all you ever need to go mad,” the crone said, to no-one in particular.

The Twenty-fifth Hour

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by Dom Lay

“With the rough rope against your neck, you’ll feel the floor give way, and you will be hanged.

“Fear it, of course. Fear’s what’ll keep you alive, just barely, as your heart races, as your back breaks. Let it pound through your chest, follow your instincts and fight it. Fight it until you catch your breath. Count on it. 

“Then push your feet into the ground. Suck freezing air into your lungs. Fear’ll only keep you alive as long as you remember to count the minutes. Of all things in your life you forgot—your lady’s birthday, your mother’s errand—don’t forget this. Else you’ll be just like every other idiot hurtling through death. You’ll speed right through.

“Remember to stop at the twenty-fifth hour.”

Falling. The feeling of almost-suspended animation, the kind that happens when you jump and the elevator goes down and you find there is no difference between falling and flying. That, but overblown by about a thousand degrees.

He did not remember. Not quickly enough, anyway. When hours go by in split seconds, one becomes incredibly aware of how, even in experiences of fastest panic, the human’s reflexes crawl. 

His birth. His father, storming out and never coming back. A shivering woman holds him close as he suckles, then teeths, then he’s asking so many questions. Faster and faster, years slip through. Now there’s a large hall. Academy. 

‘You react even slower when you’re trying out something you’ve never considered before,’ a slow voice shoots through his head, in one ear and out the other, scraping some dying brain tissue on the way, remember, remember, the shaking timbre of his master, hells, why hadn’t he listened better? Tried harder? Focused more. 

Focus. There’s the crunch, he realises, barely in tune with the real world. One crack, the second, third, and now he’s halfway there. Three more bones to break before his chance of stopping is up, before the car collides, the blade falls, the rope snaps, and he becomes nothing but a majority, an average, an oh-poor-him, an example for little kids being trained in the ways of life after death to shudder at and shun. God help him. Is there a god? Is anyone watching at all?

The answer is no, and he shakes it away as the fourth bone shatters, and the roughness of corduroy pants disappears; there’s a sudden warmness near his crotch that he notices just before it, too, vanishes. Ah. Paying too much attention in one place, too little in another. Where is it, where? 

Running, the near-dead grass springing up between his toes. Laughing. Stolen rays of moonlight clutched in his hands, the jailers surrounding him and the boy he was with. The greatest treasure in the world, taken simply because he’d felt like it. Yes. Here. The chill of being pushed towards the uniformed men, the sight of the boy walking free. The moment he’d known he was a dead man. That’s when a person really dies. Not at the gallows, but in the betrayal itself. Right?

Fifth bone cracked. No. Not right. Not when you could’ve been stabbed right through, or marked with a traitor’s kiss from him, and felt just the same, so filled with nothing that everything rushed in and out in a mad dash to fill the vacuum. Strange, how that never resolved. Nothing stuck to the walls. Nothing crumbled either. A dead man walking, not yet a corpse.  

Find it. The voice. The last thing that flashed before his eyes, choked by the noose. Last regret. Only regret. 

Running through a field at harvest-time, trampling stalk after stalk to find her. Calling out her name. 

Oh, Claudette. 

He’d felt like it since the day they’d been parted, him to the fields and her to the mines. Romance, he’d had plenty—he wasn’t picky, and none of the boys cared in the fields. It’d all been physical. No scent to inhale before sighing in relief. No fingers to kiss. Nothing gentle, and nothing that brought pain. That was all everyone longed for.

Kiss me and call me teacher. Stab me, but in the chest, so I die quick. Run my hair into tangles with your fingers so I know you forgot the world around us. 

Sensation pooled back into his toes, touching down on cold stone. The mines, the very ones he’d tried everything to visit. He’d almost missed it: the twenty-fifth hour, for him, was to be but ten minutes. And that was enough.

She felt it the moment he’d been dropped at the entrance of her section. Her legs had turned weak, something that hadn’t happened since she was a girl. How old she was, now. Surely she was just dreaming. But if this was a dream, there would be no problem in indulging. Dreams meant nothing.

Tearing down the winding pathways, she found her strength again. Like it had been before—before the mines. She knew, then, that this was not a dream. There was no sleep here, she remembered. There was no change. 

The fool, she muttered to herself. Yet she still dropped to her knees at the sight of him. 

This was the farewell. 

She picked herself up, pulling his form with it. “How?” Because she was dead, she had been dead for ages, and now he’d followed her into it. And for what? He couldn’t stay here. That wasn’t how things worked. 

“You had a life,” she whispered, touching her forehead to his. “You promised not to throw it away.”

“I didn’t,” he begged. “I swear I didn’t. I died there and you know it. Please. I had to live again.”

cooking for two

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by ruoyuart

It’s only a spoilt child that won’t like cooking, that’s what I always say. Oh, it’s not like the other things everyone’s always about doing, scrambling and chasing, trying to make head or tail or wing. No: cooking is simple. It’s the only simple thing in life, I’m afraid.

It’s all about the instructions, you see. That, and your ingredients. If it’s only mediocre, that’s because whoever’s made it hasn’t put in the right effort into finding the right things. That’s all. Now, I didn’t say it’d be quick and easy. It’s work and a precise one, alright. But follow the instructions, put in the time, and, poof! Just like that, you’ve got one perfect pie, or cake, or soup, or any other lovely thing that’ll make everyone happy. It’ll keep them that way, so long as you’ve made enough. There’ll be no shouting, no tussling. No one will be angry if you do it right. Or, or; cooking…cooking…

Cooking is all about your senses. The scents, the methodology—oh, anyone can be good if they just use what they’re given. Nothing hard. And when you’re cooking for someone, ah! I always cook for someone. Every day. 

Or, well, there was yesterday, I suppose. Day before…most every day, then. Um—yes. And today I cook for—who? Who, who, who. Who likes this? Why am I cooking this? Why? If there’s no one coming… . No, that’s not right. I’m cooking for,

Cooking for—who?

The chair’s always a good place for a rest. Especially—especially when you’ve started doing poorly. When you’ve had a fright. A fright, that’s all, nothing more. A fright’ll go away, nothing to worry ya. It’ll be all right in a moment. Just—just sniff and think and breathe in a bit. Cooking is lovely that way.

Ah, yes. There we go. Barely remember the fright now. 

It’s only a spoilt child that won’t like cooking, that’s what I always say. Oh, it’s not like the other things everyone’s always about doing, scrambling and chasing, trying to make head or tail or wing. No: cooking is simple. It’s the only simple thing in life, I’m afraid.

It’s all about the instructions, you see. That, and your ingredients. If it’s only mediocre, that’s because whoever’s made it hasn’t put in the right effort into finding the right things. That’s all… 

I’m afraid.


Written by Atticus Payne

i — Black

Some say I am a demon, spawn of hell, brought to test the caution of their souls. I will tell you this, as I sit covered, draped in a curtain of black, black for a void, black for a shadow, black for hiding every shade underneath, I tell you that I am but a painter that loves these four shades: black, red, white, blue. That is our promise tonight. That we are but painters, and nothing more. Though ‘we’ is hard to place in a room absent of a single face. All colour, blotted out by thick cloth, shielded to keep our every feature, shade, shape, from the threat of a wandering light. We wouldn’t want to cause a bout of chaos. So we cannot see each other, and we cannot mouth to silently speak: this is silence. This is a canvas. Black in broad strokes scattered across a hall where we kneel, back unbowed for hours on the ground like a sort of stubborn grass. Kneel or be knelt. But it is painful when knees are shoved quickly to concrete, so the former is preferred. When I kneel I am black and nothing more, or so I promise tonight.

ii — Red

Some say the sight of red is cowardice or shame or shame in cowardice. Red spills as blood trickles into a soaked cloth, desperately washed as a sister’s last one replaces it. The red of shame. Red pulsing as a sister takes her life, at last breaking to be more than black cloth and shadows. The red of cowardice. Red blooms through thin white cloth worn as if the Lights are innocent; I believe the stains match their skin better. The Lights are the ones that shroud us in shadow. I have said, I am a painter. We think of the colours alone when the knives go in and life goes out. Bullets release and we begin to stand; so now I know whom among us carries death under their cloth. There is so much of it even lengths of metal are not hard to hide. Perhaps not enough to finish with our souls all intact, but that is not the concern. We paint. This is art, and this is anger. 

iii — White

Some say that that which is art must not be wrong. They were born cowards, running from the weight of sin. There is an evil to this art in which my sisters relish. We were born for nothing else but to channel the anger of centuries’ cries. As I pivot, the ground slick for movement with blood still bright and red, I think: wrong or right, fair or impossible, what of those variables? Metal is metal. Sharpened and against the softness of a human body, it will never lose. There is always an excess of metal and bodies, no matter how many are gone through. I leave every blade I sink in the hole it made, and simply take another for the next blood to be shed so the white does not tear away and stick to my hands. Yet still they grab me, so, still, they fall. We begin to sing and scream the grief of our sisters, pouring the blood of the shame and cowardice grown in this hall through the ages. Shame and Cowardice are not the faults of those that bear it. That is our chant, as all the lights’ white turns red. For so little against so many, I think we have done well.

iv — Blue

Some say that the death of one who is not a coward must always end in a scream. Still, I chant as I begin to taste metal. Still I speak the wishes, the prayers, the hymns each sister sung crying out for our help. A hand comes on my throat. Death is not an end, but a simple inevitability, and I begin to count towards ten. Beauty has been made today, and so, my task is finished. No longer am I simply black. I am simply a sister. I am just a dying girl. A face turns blue as it dies, so I feel it calcify as I reach the number ten. 

Then I am back again, and this time I will sing the anger of a different world.

Would It Be That I Was Born First

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by joshtffx on Deviantart

Sister dearest.

 Those that claim a fine line between love and hate must never have heard the words “sister dearest.”

I’d theorized that the more one heard it, the bigger the gap grew. Now at the edge of his bed, soaked cloth in hand, I knew it. There were plenty of reasons why I’d finally settled on waking him before I put him to sleep, and they all came back to those cursed words. 

“Brother dearest,” I whispered. I didn’t need the light to know where  the canopied bed in which he lay alone was. He was so easily asleep. It was one of many, many details I would never chase from my mind. Him, though—maybe someday I could chase him. Maybe someday people would forget his shadow, and see not his absence, but me every time I entered a room. Maybe someday I could compete against nothing, his nothing, and finally win. 

My words worked, waking him slowly. They were gentle, signalling him no need to panic. His inertia would do the rest for me, nudging him to grasp the simplest answer—not a question to why I was crouched next to him, nor why the room was still dark.

I didn’t know why I’d kept it dark. He would remember my voice. Darkness would never hide me. Only my fear, my cowardice. His sister dearest.

He said it again, as he woke.

“Do not move,” I said softly.

He took a slow breath, and I knew he’d understood. “Very well. But is that poison I smell?”

“Worry not.” I carried it a little closer. Some of it dripped onto his neck, and true to his word, he did not move. The poison was harmless as long as it wasn’t inhaled too much—rather safe, which was the reason it’d been chosen in the first place.

“I should think that it’d be significant cause for worry.” He kept his tone relaxed, however. He knew he’d never be in serious danger—he was calling my bluff. 

And he’d likely win, as with everything since I had been born. When one was the eldest son, one always won. The eldest son had years of an early beginning—yet were measured to the standard of the younger. Because a prince would get what a prince was due: every opportunity there was to give, and every choice there was to make. Every chance to excel.

It wasn’t the throne I wanted; it was that. 

The one whom people noticed. The one that’d come first. That would always come first, and be given the first, yet never notice he was first.

My body seemed to shake, but my hand held steady. The scent had begun to cling to all in the room, hanging in the air, the cloths, the walls. All of it, proof. Memory. This, he would notice—and not forget.

“Now, brother,” I said. “Do you think that I hate you?” 

“Yes.” He remained still, though pressing hard now into the mattress.

“Then you would be right.” 

“How comforting.” He began to stiffen. Not an effect of the poison, however: just a tell of his distrust. “Oh, to know that I could be dead in about ten seconds.”

He was right. I brought my hand closer, almost up to his nose—still, it did not shake. I bit down on my tongue to keep it that way. His breathing turned shallow, and in the low light, I saw his eyes widen. This way it would take longer, torturing the victim far more before the lungs gave out from sheer paralysis. Then would begin the slow process of a human body dying. Seconds more, if I just kept it there.

I withdrew. What would killing do? Make me first in something, for once; but not much else. Everything he had or ever would have, thrown at a memorial, which would only serve to remind me, possibly to guilt me. My skin prickled.

I knew I didn’t quite want it. But jealousy had to manifest somehow, and preferably before someone did wind up dead. And I knew it would never be myself. The second reason I was doing this, and rather, why I would not fully do it.

Sister dearest.

“Brother dearest, do you think that I love you?” 

“That I would not know.” His words were narrow and strained from his jaw having locked. Tension. It wouldn’t have locked quite that fast had he been relaxed, and as assured as he presented.

I did. More than I knew I hated him, because otherwise there would not be such a strong tug toward a different direction than this. Hate and love: hate which coiled around inside the chest, prickled skin, thrummed in one’s neck; and love, which was steady, assured, and now, bitter.

I loved him. I wish I didn’t. 

There was a vast chasm of difference. Love told me to let it be, and turn around that instant, leaving the poison with him. Love nearly leashed me. He was born first—and born with my blood. 

So I had to ignore love and hate. Else I would never get anything done, and then I’d be even more invisible than I was.

“And why would I kill you? Of that, do you know?”

He gasped softly, his chest unable to rise properly. “The throne? I don’t know, sister; I have never known. Please hurry up with this, one way or another.

I smiled halfway. 

And I threw the cloth behind me. 

“Your scholarship that you will not be using regardless. And your backing in the next council meeting.” I’d see what I could use that for, then. Maybe to buy myself out of here completely, getting passage to a place that’d never heard of me.

“You could do it yourself, you know,” he said weakly, as his body regained control.

I got up and picked the cloth from the floor. “But that’s not what I want.”

Building The Perfect Human: Fear Fosters Success

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by Zeen Chin


Here are the unpublished findings of unknown. 

How do you create the perfect human? The first path this question opens is of definition: what does it mean to be perfect? What does it mean to be human? Then method: how does one achieve perfection? Humanity? To be human is to be imperfect, as much as to be an infant is to be helpless. It’s what a mother expects of the baby, a god, of its creation.

So, this, really, is the question; and the question, the task. How does one override human nature and achieve perfection?

Humans feed off emotion. This phenomenon defines humanity, and in this definition lies the method to perfection. In this experiment, emotion will act as fuel, a carefully controlled variable within a monitored, sheltered environment. Things grow in the direction of pressure, taking the path of least resistance. Children are no different—cage them up for a while, and soon enough they grow in that direction, and that direction alone. 

The emotion should act as a perfect, organic drug. While anger would be costly to contain and sadness would encourage sloth, fear would prove optimal. Fear: encourages action, and more than that, fast action. It ensures precision, heightened awareness, adrenaline-given energy, and best of all: addiction. This fear was administered by the humans’ own bodies, trained to be in constant rush. 

The humans are raised in survivable homes, with sufficient resources for the typical growth cycle seen in them; those being nutrition, physical shelter, education, and upon reaching a suitable age, social stimulation within society in the form of classrooms and caregivers. Care is taken to this last variable, ensuring the specimens are grown with only the bare minimum needed—brief interactions when being served or required to serve. This is to avoid the possibility of each specimen’s fear being transferred to other “safe” spaces.

Specimens’ environments are also created with the added element of fear instilled. This included unstable living situations (constant moving of homes and unpredictability of resources), unstable caregivers (high stress environments in education and volatile caregivers), and the practice of harsh, triggered punishment (whipping or otherwise physically harming the human, public shaming and danger of the human, and various methods of starvation; as well as the mental harm of the human, such as the witnessing of violence or threatened violence, and the threat of inconsistent punishments). All of these lead to a higher level of stress in the specimens, which induce a constant state of hyper-awareness, defence, and energy.

This led to the heightened efficiency of the grown humans, therefore creating the “perfect” set of humans. In constant states of alertness, they are forced to perform at exceedingly high levels. In all forms of work, the specimens are precise, methodical, and quick. They are as close to perfect as a human can get. 

Grown in the direction of applied pressure. My perfect humans.

The humans joined the real, uncontrolled world upon reaching the legal age of adulthood. They’ve already begun climbing in their respective fields, most having made notable success within weeks. They never know when to stop achieving, because they do not know what’s driving them. And even if they do find out—say, one becomes a scientist, or an investigator—they won’t want to stop.

What they have, while uncomfortable, is a gift. A constant drug that will only make them function better.

Maybe you can try spotting them, however. They’re everywhere.

Why Fear the Monsters Under Your Bed?

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by Namia on Artstation

Why do you fear the monsters under your bed? I knew a girl, once, who did. In the nights she spent as a helpless baby doing nothing but crying in a swaddle, she had no choice but to listen to fools talk of the things each monster would do. A monster born out of spite, her wet nurse would say, was one that would carve out her heart bit by bloody bit and eat it slowly, keeping the girl’s eyes on her mantel-piece so she could watch. A monster born out of jealousy would do the same, only it would scrape at your belly first, stirring up every naughty thing you could think of into a thick soup, sliding into your head, that would infect your brain until even the maggots would retch. A monster born out of bitter fury, however—that was, a mix of sadness and anger, love turned to hate—would skin you whole, burn each layer of fat, and tear the meat off your bones. It would make you feel its chills deep in your marrow; first a strange, familiar caress, then a raging pain. 

Each monster has its special appetite, the nurse would say to the girl, born of the worst parts of you. So never would she look underneath her bed before she slept; never would she peek when she woke. Even when the rays of sister sun beat down hardest, her toes skirted the edge and climbed instead on the bed frame. 

And once she had settled into her quilt, the girl would cry all the way to the gray lands of sleep, and another monster would be built. Her cries were plenty and unquiet, but no one came to look. How could they, after all? She knew that they feared the monsters under her bed too much to check. If those so strong as to leave marks on her skin from a simple touch were afraid—how much more should she fear, clinging tightly to her shield of sheets as the day turned at midnight?

Then one day, the girl decided to look.

At the first gray sliver of dawn, she fell to her knees and peered under the wood. Darkness lurked back at her; waiting, trying, in its own way, to look at the face of their master. It was small, pale, and unafraid.

The monster of envy turned its head sideways, curious. Slowly, it crawled forward, pulling back slightly with each step it took. Envy was a strange thing—not entirely devoid of fear, certainly afraid of what it might never have.

The girl reached her hand out to touch the monster’s shadowy wraith. The girl smiled: now that she had touched it, she knew it. 

The girl smiled, and the monster smiled back, gaps forming in its face for a mouth and large, nosy eyes. Then they turned slitted from an expression so fey the girl knew in her heart that it would not harm her. After all, it only wanted everything; as did she.

Seeing this, the monsters of pain, fear, grief, and bitter fury, countless others besides, came forward to touch her also. Now every wisp on her skin was a feeling not of discovery, but a remembering of that which she had always known. Her wet nurse had been wrong: the monsters under her bed weren’t to be feared.

She’d talked to them. Nurtured them, tended to every burn, in the nights that the girl had cried. She had birthed them, her army. And now, she would use them.

The girl whispered to them, and they readied. Then they erupted into the house.

The One That Stays

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by William Blake

At some point in the world’s strange existence of turning, I was spat out into the unending gray Hills of Life. I had no say in the matter of who I’d be nor how close to the end of the hills I was. That much I was told by the middling parts of the journey’s beginning. It’s not nearly as soon as I’d have liked, but hardly anything here is suited to what anyone likes. And that’s how the place stays functional.

Throughout the pilgrimage,the only thing I would be able to control was the company I kept. And even then: bad weather, and the terrain, and other circumstances such as the not-very-remote-chance of you or your companion being conflagrated by a star falling out of the sky—I could certainly pick that out of your control as well. But it was as close to control as control would get, or so I was told when walking alongside my first companion—my parent, who indeed, I’d had no say in. With them, there was only the choice to walk away.

Exception number one, then: you get to choose your friends (sort of), but you can’t really choose your family.

So of course, the question of what makes a good friend turns up. Some miles into the walking when my legs were tired and my tongue was not, I turned casually to the walker by my side and dared to raise a question. They were busy yammering with someone else next to them, but I was very bored. Such were priorities.

“What makes a good friend?” I asked, the moment there was a pause between the babble. 

Whether they were annoyed or not, I wasn’t bothered enough to remember. They did say, however, something along the lines of don’t hurt ya, make ya laugh, got my stamp of approval, someone respectable. The last bit was fittingly vague.

Alright, then, I thought. Armed with that golden knowledge and ready to set off into walks of my own journey through the long plains, I began to walk faster and farther away than before. I’d stopped holding my companion’s hand as much, and before I knew it, they weren’t my companion any longer at all. I’d walked away, and I’d never go back. I was out. 

And very alone.

Well, define alone. In my wanderings of relative silence without a designated companion, I’d come across a group of similarly dressed figures of blue, chattering amongst themselves about everything and nothing; nothing of consequence to me. Some of what they said was amusing, and some of what they said was mildly intriguing. Tales of the angels and monsters; tales of great human crafters; tales of the sun itself. I referred to the mental checklist.

They didn’t hurt me. They made me laugh. And the other two didn’t really matter anymore, anyway, without my first companion beside me.

So those were good friends for a bit. We walked together, and got deeper into the plains. A couple miles, and then I met the figure in pink. She’d appeared as nothing more than a figure in the horizon, but even then, something had clicked. I knew I had to talk with her. Ask her about my favourite things.

Music, and books, and colours, and several stories later, we were getting along just fine. The figure in pink was just like me. She spoke of dragons and castles, but never of crafters and the sun; of music and books, but never of the fields around us. Never lessons, either. Yet there was always something new awaiting our talks—something brighter, further away: a new adventure we could dream together.

It was then that I considered a good friend. Exactly like me, and always ready to talk of more. We would accompany each other forever, I’d thought. And thoughts are often disappointing, in the fields.

She was a mirror to me until I was not me. The fields, they change you, eventually. Walking through them, the grass sometimes tickles, and sometimes, it cuts. Your feet get calloused, your calves scribbled with light scars. Though maybe she changed as well. I could never tell.

We left, after that. I walked the next mile alone. It was strange, after so long, to have silence among the buzz of the fields. Others were walking around in their own directions, but none were close enough to me. I had no wish to venture towards them, either. Maybe if I let them come to me, would that make a better friend?

And so the next friend I had came to me, not I to him. He loved the colour green, loved stories with castles as well as crafters, music that flowed in the way music should never flow, and cared nothing for books, as much as he loved a good story. Stories don’t have to be told that way, he insisted. For the longest time, I couldn’t agree. But he was decent company: a person I’d never been exactly like, anyway, would never leave simply because we’d changed. Right? We could talk about the sun’s setting and rising, and all that came with it, all the change, because we were always changing too. He wouldn’t leave for that.

No, I left. He’d fallen down and didn’t know when he could carry on. To be stranded out in the fields while everyone else continued their walk was a waste of time. You only had so many sunrises and sunsets to walk the length of the world. When your days were up, you’d leave. And that was it. No say in that, either.

I left, and walked for a mile more. Occasionally, I drifted into gaggles of other walkers, then walked alone again. The silence wasn’t right, the talk wasn’t right, even the pace of walking didn’t feel right. So I took to walking with the people that stopped and changed direction every so often. None of us had any end in sight, and at least they were honest about it. They were hard to find, but popped up often enough. Whenever they were walking my way, I’d latch on to them for a while. Walk a mile or so before they changed course again. Just to wag my tongue. They understood that there were no promises, not even a hope for companionship for the rest of our days. 

Yes, it still wasn’t the same as the one I’d left. But it was decent enough to settle for.

What makes a good friend? I asked one, some day.

Love, they replied. 

And what makes that?

They only shrugged. Ask someone that stays. 

Again: they didn’t lie about knowing anything they didn’t. So I thanked them for their time when they decided they’d leave. Then I paused, sat down, and watched the horizon.

The sun was sinking. I was alone again, with the other walkers continuing their journey some distance away. I waited for a bit.

Then I decided to turn back. Lost time was only lost time, and I had to know the answer more than any extra miles I’d get. If he was still sitting. I had a feeling he would be. He hadn’t been one to continue walking—only because of me, had he walked so fast. Another way in which we had never quite agreed.

Miles passed and miles more stretched before me. I didn’t quite remember the terrain—I’d never bothered to properly take it in. I had always been walking too fast. 

That didn’t matter. He stuck out like a beacon, still just sitting there, when I reached the place where we’d split. 

I came back to him. I asked about his leg.

Just fine, he said. 

Then why aren’t you walking?

He shrugged. Felt like waiting.

Of course he had. I held out my hand to him. 

Maybe he wouldn’t take it; maybe he simply wanted to die in a place where he was comfortable. Maybe he had been more comfortable without me.

He didn’t take my hand, but he was smiling. Only if we can walk slower, he said.

I thought about it for a bit. Then I nodded, If you’ll stick with me. For the rest of the journey.

He took my hand, and we began to walk at a slower pace than before.