fake pretty things

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Kyle Smith


Don’t open your eyes. We can skim along the seas, spin gold from air, take the sun in our hands, but only here, only in your sleep. Tell me, what’s so good about reality? Not every wonderful thing has to be something you can touch. 

You’re the most beautiful one here, don’t you know? Don’t look at me like that, I’m not a mirror, only a dream. I swear. Hold me, spin me, throw me to the sky, I won’t stop you. No one will. 

Now run, run with your mirage-feet. Death will never catch you if you’re fast enough.  There’s no such thing as need or want, only have and rejoice. Stay with me, stay with me. Please, don’t open your eyes.

Dig

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Scott Rodgerson


That morning, I buried a dog that didn’t exist.

The air was wet, the dirt hungry. Dawn fought her way up the horizon, bathing the world in breathless blue. 

I, of course, was digging a grave. The earth gave way ever so slightly under the shovel, gleaming brown-black soil staring back with each heave.

She must have been asleep. But she didn’t follow the clock’s hours anymore, threading her sleep through Earl Grey tea and Jeopardy. The previous night, she’d come to me with fragile youth in her shoulders.

She sits on the bed in my childhood home, smooths out the race-car bedsheets. Her hands are blue and knobby but the motions they make are timeless.

“You ought to get new sheets. You’re a big boy now, aren’t you?”

I’m thirty-four, I almost say. But I smile, and I nod.

“Of course, Mom. Maybe for Christmas.”

She hums, shifting backward painfully slow. “Where’s Rover?”

“Rover?”

“Did you forget to let him in again? How many times do I have to tell you to keep an eye on that damn dog of yours? And to think it was you begging us for it the whole time, unbelievable!”

I blink, and my ribs ache. Rover had been gone for twenty-five years, had slipped through a fence and ended up limp in the river. 

“Marky?”

“He’s-He’s gone, Mom.”

Her eyes go wide. “Gone? You mean he’s dead?” 

She starts to shake, and I’m by her side in an instant. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

“You need-You need to bury him.” Her voice comes wet and warbled through her throat but her eyes are dry. “You need to.”

“Of course, Mom.”

I didn’t know what I was doing with a shovel in my hand. I didn’t know what would fill this hole in the ground. I didn’t know where the dirt was going. I didn’t know where the tears came from.

“Marky, what are you doing out of bed?”

Mom stood at the edge of the fence, a towel around her shoulders. I looked at her, this husk of a woman, all gaunt bones, broken shoulders, thin lips. But her eyes glinted with the same light they did last year, and the year before, and when I was eighteen, fifteen, ten, five.

“I don’t know.” I dropped the shovel, wiped my trembling hands on my pants. “Let’s get you home.”

Divinity in our Hands

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Lukasz Szmiegiel


tw: suicide


The morning we found him, you plucked fiery leaves off the stooping branches and tucked them into the collar of your shirt, like a secret waiting to ripen. He was fresh when we saw him for the first time, hanging from the tree nearest the grove, head cocked to the side like there’d been something pressing on his mind.

“God, look at that!” You gasped, voice tinged purple with wonder. His feet just grazed the grass, and I was beginning to suspect that I would have a much better day than I’d expected. “Do you think he’s dead?”

“No, I think he’s about to jump down and do a dance for us. Of course he’s dead, are you dumb?”

“Well, obviously I knew that. Just asking if you did too.”

We looked at each other then, like we were in some sort of movie, and I was surprised we didn’t burst out laughing and run back, hand in hand. We were smiling fiercely, though, piecing stories together in the space between our eyes with no words at all.

“Magic?” 

“Clearly. Look at his hands,” I said, and pointed to marbled fingers, “Practically glowing. Those are angel hands.”

“Hmm, but where are his wings?”

“Not all angels have wings, stupid. How else are they supposed to blend in?” I huffed. “Maybe he’s not even dead. Maybe he’s just waiting for someone to reveal himself to, someone who won’t fall for the illusion that he’s dead.”

You shot up at that, and I could’ve sworn I saw your ears perk up like a bunny’s. “Of course! It’s all a test, and we’re about to be the first ones to pass it.” 

“Come on then, help me get him loose.” I ran forward, groping in my pants for my pocket knife. Climbing up the oak was the easy part, but sawing through the rope was another story altogether, like trying to gnaw through a tree with your teeth. 

“What do I do?” 

“Get right down there, catch him when he falls.”

But you didn’t move, didn’t tear through the grass and nearly tripped on your feet twice on the way. “Aren’t there better ways to pass the test? Like ask him questions or something?”

“You’re so boring. Let’s try, why don’t we?” I leaned over the branch, got as level with him as I could. There was blood crusted at his throat, and his face was black, blue, white, and red—like fireworks during a storm. “Hello, sir, do you happen to be an angel? And if you are, are we good humans? Can you grant us three wishes? Can you tell us when we’ll die?”

He didn’t say anything. I was almost surprised. Whether I believed any of it or not, stories had a way of making themselves real. Everything was true in its own form. 

Cherry-faced, you floated to the oak, arms tensed and held out in front of you. “If I get any blood on me, we’re switching clothes.”

“Great, then I’ll get the less bloody clothes,” I said, working at the rope. “See, there hasn’t been any flood or lightning or great fire yet, we’re not in any trouble.”
“So what now? I just catch him?”

“Now?” I loosened my fingers from their grip around the rope, in two pieces now, and grinned down at you through the wisps of his reddened hair. “We see whether he flies.”

Rules for Feral Children

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Donovan Reeves


  1. Leave before the sun sees you and take nothing. You will not be returning.
  2. Follow the moss, and when there is none left, the dark. It won’t hurt you, but if you linger, you will be swallowed whole.
  3. Remember: the calls you hear in your mother’s voice are never your mother.
  4. When you see lights, turn the opposite way. They will be waiting for you where the grass breathes the most dew, where dark and moist breaths vibrate into laughs.
    • Don’t fear the talons, claws, fangs, and yellow eyes. Once, they were you. Once, they slept in their own ribs, coaxed melodies out of themselves by burning their bones. 
    • Nowhere to go, nowhere to live, a whole world to die in. 
  5. There is a difference between mythical and mystical, and you are crackling with magic, head to toe. 
  6. Become a witch, goblin, demon, wretch—become something horrible. Become something with talons and fur. Shed your old skin. Cut your hair. Unfold your tongue from behind your teeth. 
    • There is no one here to strip you of yourself but you.

conversation in a dying forest

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Joanne Francis


i have always known it would end in burning. 

quiet. you have never known anything worth more than dirt. 

look at you, slave to the melded once more. metal has always been the best conductor of heat. 

and you the best conductor of frost. how much longer have we remaining?

as long as it takes for screens to flicker with a blaze. you know well we only matter from a distance, through a television or computer.

how biting your words are. the children will come for us. 

for rescue or harvest?

hope is no disease, stop pretending so. is it day? the sky is blackening.

the sun, she gleams as bright as she can through the dark. 

i think i hear a wailing.

ah, the sirens. let’s see how much salvation they will spit. funny now, how we, of the earth, decades old, buy mercy from skin and teeth.

can’t you see? we are them, they are us. nature will recycle us into hands and fingers and eyes, laughter and prayer. and yes, maybe you are right. maybe we will use them to kill more of us. but maybe we will use them to nurture life from the earth. we are all one living, breathing thing. 

you and your rosen heart. 

brother, i think this is the end.

tears will not put out our flames. guilt or not, we will die. 

and flame or not, they will mourn us.

Least Common Factor

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by NRD


At the beginning, we’re five. The sidewalk’s cracked, but your hand that hasn’t yet gone hard at the edges reaches for something wet and warm on the pavement. Our moms are talking over tea somewhere in the backyard as you step forward. It got lost, you say, and you hold out your finger, worm curled around it, to me. Take it. And even though I don’t want to, I do. 

We’re ten and I’m still following you around to learn how to skin my knees the right way, jagged at the edges and almost pretty-looking. I don’t know how to tell you that the pits of your knees are raw as the mouth of a peach, too. You’re leading the way to the woods–no, the bridge. I can tell ‘cause your brother’s butterfly knife’s hanging from your pocket like someone killed it. Where our shorts end, the grass starts. Hurry. We hop the fence, hands tangled in the chain-link, and you flip the knife open like you’ve done it a million times (you haven’t). I know what to write. You carve our names into the wood and look back over your shoulder and for a moment it’s as if we own the world.

We’re fifteen and looking for things to say that aren’t about taking each other’s throats in our hands. The roof of my dad’s barn is cold and hard against our backs. You’ve got a cigarette between your lips that you nicked from the corner store instead of going to the homecoming dance.  You ever wish for something more?, you ask. And I’m not sure what you mean but I say yes. You turn to face me, teeth gleaming milk-white. They’re gonna sing songs about me one day. I’ll die if it means I’ll become a legend.

We’re twenty with a thousand miles between us, but the AC still sings of you. The last time I heard from you, you still thought you’d see me again, and I still thought I felt no guilt. I’m more a person now than I’ve ever been, but you’re barely real except for an echo through my throat whenever I see a beetle on its back, kicking and kicking at nothing but air, wings pinned beneath it. 

I’m twenty five and a ghost in the town that raised me. The nails on the bridge are as rusty as I remember (do you remember when you got one stuck in the heel of your hand? Like a shard of treasure, like a living gem breathing metal through your skin?). The funeral was last Friday. I swallowed apologies over the phone to your parents so I wouldn’t have to see your empty bed. But here I am now, anyway, looking for traces of you wherever there’s life. I never thought that your search for  immortality would drive you to death. The wood dips beneath my hand in the shape of our names. I trace them now, all soft and mossy. Maybe we were never kids at all, just stories waiting to unhatch. I dig my keys from my pocket, carve us deeper into the bridge, and once, deeper into my skin and the fabric of this place. Death or not, you were always going to live forever.

heavenbound

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Min An


Sometimes when Mom’s not home, I climb up to the roof to see if I can touch the clouds. Once I hear her truck hum out of the driveway, I lace my feet into my tennis shoes and crawl out onto the shingles. There’s a cricket somewhere below me that sounds like a door groaning. Open or closed, I haven’t decided yet.

It’s clearer tonight than it was yesterday, but I reach up anyway. One hand on edge of the window, the other strained towards the sky. There was a boy in my class whose daddy used to make him hang by his fingers from the tree down by the creek, said it’d make him taller’n all the other kids. I never did find out whether it worked, but I’m doing more or less the same thing now, just right-side up— hanging from the ground up to the sky, hand outstretched to wherever gravity takes it.

The stars like to blink back at me on nights like these. I haven’t quite skimmed the edges of the clouds yet, but they whisper out at me. 

Higher, reach higher. Breathe out deep and long and imagine you’re a stick of saltwater taffy.

I do as they say and when it doesn’t work, I bounce back from my toes and onto the edge, but I keep my gaze on the sky. “Get lonely up there?”

Sometimes. There’s a million miles between each of us, it’s easier just to talk to y’all.

“I get it. Mom told me she had a friend all the way in China she used to write to. Pen pal, she called her. One day she just stopped writing back. And so Mom did too.”

It’s not all bad. We can see everything.

“Everything? Even asteroids? And black holes?”
Even asteroids and black holes. See, when you live in nothing, you haven’t got a choice but to see everything. And that’s what we do. It’s quiet up here. Peaceful.

“Must be nice,” I say, and the cricket laughs at me.

Say, you could be one of us. Wouldn’t you like a spot in the heavens? Looking down at every particle in the universe? 

“That’s alright, I’m fine down here. Someone’s gotta feed the cows.”

Don’t worry about the cows. Don’t worry about the cows when you could have the universe in your hand. Wouldn’t you enjoy that?

I pull at the loose string on my pajama shirt even though Ma told me to leave it alone. 

Just let go of yourself. Let go of the roof. We won’t let you get hurt.

I inch to the edge, hand clenched in my pants like it’ll stop me from the fall. The sky’s more white than black now but night still soaks the fields. 

Go on. We’ll catch you.

I dangle my legs in the air, get a taste of free fall. One finger. Two fingers. A hand. 

There’s nowhere to go but up.

The wind’s whistling in my ears like it’s screaming, like the trees have turned themselves inside out and the air’s caught fire.

You’re so close. Let go. 

I clench my eyes closed, then open. The front of the house purrs. Mom’s back.

With a grunt, I heave myself back onto the roof, grin at the gleaming night. “Maybe tomorrow.”

I fling myself back through the window and pull my covers to my chin just in time for her to come in and tuck me back into bed, with a kiss on the forehead that feels like gasoline and honey.

The Happy Ones

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Harut Movsisyan


Rocky calls me the day I come home for Christmas break, and it goes exactly how I expect it to.

“What made you decide to come back? Money? Wanted to do some charity work?”
“Come on, Rocky, you know that’s not how it is.”

And he coughs in the way that means the conversation is over and tells me to meet him in the Walmart parking lot, so of course I do.

He’s smoking by the shopping carts when I get there, even though I’ve told him a million times not to. He looks like shit, but I don’t tell him that. Instead, I roll down my window and let him walk over, shoelaces dragging behind him like limp rattlesnakes.

“Get bored of New York yet?” he asks.

“Not yet.” I chuckle. He doesn’t.

“I hear you’re trying to write stories.” It’s not a question, just something he uses to punctuate the puff of his cigarette. He’d heard it from me, of course, but Rocky’s not someone you correct. It’s not that he’ll get mad. It just won’t do you any good. 

“I am.”

He props a hand onto the side of the car and looks down at me again. There’s something like a crook on the side of his mouth but I blink before it cements itself into reality. “What’ve I gotta do to make it into one?”

“I don’t write about real people, just made-up stuff. Think Harry Potter.”

“You’re missing out.” He looks at me. Not like he did before, scraping his eyes across my clothes and face. He shreds me and puts me back together with his gaze, and does it again. “You look like them, y’know.”

“Them?”

“The strangers. The ones from not-here.” He steps back. “You’re not who you were when we were kids.”

I blink. “I’m still the same James. Just a little more grown up is all.”

He shakes his head. “You and me, we were the same once. Trailer trash, that’s what your friends in the city would call us. Rolling around in the mud, nicking lighters from the gas station, climbing fences to throw rocks from the school roof. But you’re above it all now, aren’t you? I’m just a backstory, aren’t I? You’re disgusted by me. By us. But this is where you came from.

“You can run, you can try to scrub us off your arms and face, you can buy fancy shirts and hang out with rich kids who smoke cigars and quote Shakespeare, but it’s always gonna be there. Under your skin. Behind your eyes. Doesn’t matter how deep you bury a seed, it’ll still grow.”

“That’s not how it is,” I say for a second time, but I don’t know if I believe it.

“Then open the door.”

I don’t. I stare at the Coke can a few feet from his ripped sneakers.

“Open the door, Jamie.”

His voice is shaking now. So am I. 

“Just open the door. Please. Open the door, James.”
I think he’s about to make a move for the door himself, and I’m not sure whether I’d stop him.

But he doesn’t.

“It’s lung cancer.” 

I look at him. He looks at the cloud stretched across the sky. “What?”

“They told me last week,” he says, throat taut and bobbing.

“How long do you have?”

He turns and kicks a cart. It makes a noise like a lamb shrieking.

“Rocky.”

“Three months.”

“Oh, Rocky.” I can’t find anything else to say. “Do you need money? I can pay for the treatment. There’s a hospital out in Nashville that—”

“God, stop talking like that. I’m not a fucking charity case.” Something fractured flutters across his face before he sets his jaw against it. “I’ll deal. I just—I thought you should know.”

And he stands there, and I sit there, and we don’t look at each other, and the wind whistles across the pavement like it’s trying to get us to say anything. 

“At least stop smoking.”

“C’mon Jamie,” he grins with gleaming black teeth. “You know the happy ones don’t get stories.”

Dinnertime

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Jill Wellington


They wait for me in the morning, when I come down to eat. How dear of them to wait. The table is as set as always, and they hold their forks like knives, knives like feathers. It took me longer than usual to wash my hands and longer yet to seat myself in a way that they may see me. Mother’s lipstick is looking dashing today and I tell her so, and she continues to smile, cracking rouge. When I turn to Father, he turns to his plate. How shy he’s always been, how timid. I right his neck and the clouds in his eyes thank me. Normally he and Mother would go on and on about their day at the law firm, speaking about paperwork as if it were riveting. I would become a utensil, a tool to spoon forward the conversation with occasional sounds of acknowledgement. Now, they look at me, and they listen. I smile. They smile back with all the teeth in their mouths. We will eat well tonight.

Cliff’s Heel

Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Tatiana


The summer before high school, Jackie and I collect watches off the rocky shore by his house and drag them behind us in a shiny black bag.

“Look at this one!” he calls out from up front. I catch up and he holds out his arm, rotating it like he’s in some sort of TV ad. “Isn’t it nice?” 

The watch must have been silver once, but now it’s caked in dirt and he has to pick a pill bug off of it. “Y’know, I’m not sure it’s the best idea to put that on before washing it off. ‘Specially when it’s someone else’s. You want the money, don’t you?”

“God, you’re so uptight.” He wipes it on his shirt, and it doesn’t do anything but leave brown streaks up his side. “If they cared so much about it, they’d be back by now.” 

And we keep walking along the rocks, same as we have for weeks.

When the sheriff’s office put up a poster saying they’ll pay anyone who brings back the things people leave behind at the beach, Jackie showed up at my door with a garbage bag from his kitchen and told me to come along. I told him I’d do it for the money, which is as true as it needs to be. Someone has to make sure he doesn’t crack his head open on a rock to see if there’s confetti inside.

The thing about Jackie isn’t that he doesn’t care about danger or disease  (or weird bugs). Really, it’s the opposite. He chases trouble like he was born for it. The balding policeman who came to our school last year would call it an “addiction”. I call it a craving. He calls it going after what he’s made for. When we were in fifth grade he nicked his dad’s pocket knife and brought it to the lunch table, stabbed it between his fingers until he skinned the inner side of his thumb pink. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile as wide since. 

Once we’ve picked the ground clean of everything shiny, we walk up to the bluff and share a cigarette he nicked from the corner store. 

“How’re the folks?” I ask once we’re sitting with our legs swinging from the edge. 

“On my back. Like always.” He takes a drag. He’s always been better at doing the things he’s not supposed to. “Can’t even come up here unless they know you’re babysitting.”

“Sounds rough. But maybe it’s for the best.” An elbow to his ribs, a crook of the mouth upwards. “Who knows what you might get into otherwise.”

He doesn’t laugh, only looks out at the water. There’s a bed of fog gathering behind his eyes. 

“There’s nothing left when you take away the thrill,” he says, “life’s just black and white and grey once you’ve filed away anything labeled ‘fun’. What’s the point if it’s all just tying your shoelaces and keeping your head down? What’s the point if there’s just one path we’re all s’posed to go down?” 

“It’s not about paths, Jackie, it’s about not getting yourself into trouble.”

“Trouble! You all love that word, don’t you? My parents, the teachers, even you. You follow me around ‘cause you care, is it? If you cared any, I wouldn’t be living like a prisoner. There’s nothing left of me if there’s no fun. There’s nothing left of fun if there’s no wrong.” 

There’s something sharp at my back. “Jackie. Don’t do this.”

“I need this. I need it so badly.” His voice is shaking, but when he looks back at me, he’s smiling the same smile from fifth grade, ear to ear, freckle to freckle. “You won’t have to worry about me down there. I won’t take anything else.”

“Jackie, please.”

His free hand clasps itself onto mine for a breath, and I almost think he’ll pull me back and call me an idiot for falling for his joke. But instead, he slips something smooth onto my wrist, caked with dirt and big enough to slide up and down my arms, still warmed from the heat of his skin.

“Here. You need it more than I do.”

When I go over, the fog reaches out for me and wraps around my ankles, and I swear I fall a little slower. Jackie’s still on the bluff looking down with his fingers in his back pockets, and even after I’m under and gone, I still see him.