After the Twilight Fades25 min read


Sara Tantlinger
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Sexism and misogyny

Emilia stands in the field, bewitched by the blue haze of an early evening. Fur like brown rust contrasts against the dusk. She catches the fox in her peripheral, only for a moment before it disappears into the woods. A dense population of trees stand guard at the end of the field, and it would be so easy to slip into the wilderness and never return. She considers following the fox and vanishing into the twilight with crepuscular animals. A nighttime hunt, the excitement and energy it must bring—when was the last time she felt that alive?

She’d have to pass on hunting birds, though, for she loved them too dearly. Her dream as a child was to grow up and have wings, to fly away into the horizon. Instead, growing up had only brought the death of dreams.

While she doesn’t mind finding herself in this delicate moment before nighttime falls, she wonders how she got here.

The field belongs to her closest neighbor, which still requires a half mile of walking. The fox distracted her, but it wasn’t a part of her original motive for trekking through overgrown weeds and brambles.

She closes her eyes, searches through the fault lines of her memory.

The light, she remembers. Something fell from the sky.

She’d been sitting alone on the porch, rocking in the wicker chair, which she’d sooner burn, but Dylan cherished the ugly rocker. Whatever Dylan loved always took precedence over her own distaste. Daydreams of incinerating furniture left her thoughts when she noticed the object in the sky. The trajectory was so close, and its descent ended somewhere near the field and trees. Her house on the hill provided a good view, so she’d set off to find the rock or debris, or otherwise.

She doesn’t remember actually leaving the porch though, or putting on her shoes, yet she’s done both. Before the distraction of the fox, she’d been fixated on the memory of the object’s flaming tail, how it morphed from golden to bright green. An ethereal green.

Ethereal. Not a word she uses a lot, but it blooms into her brain before she has much time to consider the choice.

She stands on the edge of the field, peering into the labyrinth of trees. Light footsteps carry her across a dirt trail, and not once does she think about which direction to turn. An invisible string pulls between her and whatever has fallen, and she listens to its summons. Laughter, so joyous, she thinks it’s emitting from the trees, but she is the source. When was the last time she laughed so genuinely?

And to think, the cause is this small rock, shimmering in the woods. At first, it looks like a small rubber ball, no bigger than her closed fist. She steps closer, and then examines the craggy surface. It isn’t perfectly round, but it’s close. Of all the photos she’s glimpsed through on the internet of meteorites, they’ve never looked so spherical. They always appeared to be uneven slabs, like any old rock.

And none of them were ever glowing green after their fall, at least not that she’d read about. The same luminosity she witnessed from the sky radiates again, this time from the meteorite’s center. Around the small sphere, grass smolders. Dying wisps of smoke curl up and disappear into the darkening twilight. No fire danger, she assesses, but the autumn blades have been reduced to curled, black strands. The grass smells more like burnt hair than foliage, and it forms a dark halo around the cosmic rock.

The intensity of its glow, like an ember refusing to die out, excites nerves within Emilia. Such curiosity hasn’t come to her in ages. She kneels in front of the rock, letting the trees surround her like a forested chapel.

She doesn’t pray, but she does whisper. Maybe if she tells the rock a secret, it will tell her one back. The divinity of this uneven sphere invites her to crawl closer. The green of it nearly corrodes her vision.

Or maybe it’s radioactive and will kill her.

Either way, her fingers stretch out and trace over small bumps on the surface. Glassy dewdrops. How satisfying they feel as she runs the pads of her fingers across each tiny protuberance. This first contact of skin and celestial rock is sacred. Oils from her hand meet the warm light of the meteorite. Microbes mingle and dance. A smile stretches on Emilia’s face, tugging at muscles she hasn’t used in so long. The delight of a true grin almost makes her cry.

Any thought of the meteorite harboring contamination leaves her suspicions. The rock emanates balance and trust. The grace of its power transfers into her very bones.

The meteorite murmurs to her: What do you want?

A crackle of electricity in the air. She almost responds with the wish to be numb, but numbness and detachment have already been a part of her life for years. What she wants now is to feel everything. Perhaps then, she could understand the love others carry for her. Love has been a cold void, and she wishes to embrace its warmth and peace again. The wish is about more than love, though. Every day, she goes through the motions of being a human, but it’s like watching a movie of herself. She knows the script, the words to recite to make her a good worker, a good wife, a good whatever, but there’s no satisfaction. No fulfillment. The rock hums as her fingers trace around its crevices, as if showing her it understands. It knows she’s lived in this gray state of mind and heart for long enough.

Speaking of love, look at Dylan. How he barrels down the field waving his arms like one of those silly inflatable tube guys outside of a car dealership. Her husband yells across the field as he nears the trees.

“Don’t touch it!” His voices reaches her, but poor Dylan, it’s too late. She’s already caressed every inch of smoothness, every contrasting crag and color. He moves toward her still, as if he can save his wife, but then he becomes suspended in time. This moment is just for them, Emilia and the rock.

“I want to feel every moment, every emotion. I want to connect to the very core of this universe,” she confesses, and the rock absorbs her words with the finality of sealing a wish in wax.

Time shifts again with a green blink in the sky. Dylan lurches forward, then kneels beside her. His lips move fast and she cannot process his words.

“Emilia?” Fear reflects in his big eyes with an endless ocean of concern.

She grips the meteorite harder, afraid Dylan will pry it from her fingers. The rock heats up to a gentle burn, then sears into her flesh with a kind of ecstasy. She falls under its trance, and lets the blister slither beneath every inch of skin. If this is the granting of her wish, then she wonders what consequences will follow?

Double irises with functioning pupils. She looks up the technical name: True polycoria.

It happened after the meteorite encounter. She’d been so out of it, wandering the house like a listless spirit. Dylan had walked over to her, arms outstretched as he went in for a hug, and then he’d gasped in such a dramatic way, Emilia laughed for the first time since she’d grinned at the rock in the woods, at least until she went over to the bathroom mirror to see what the gasp was all about.

That was two days ago, when the pupils started to form. Today, the amber of her irises has fully doubled, and her pupils reflect a blackness she imagines can be found at the bottoms of oceans, or in the vast nothingness of space. Which is she bound for, drowning or drifting away into the unknown?

True polycoria. A rare condition, but not impossible.

The words echo in her thoughts. When she tries to speak aloud, her words die in the cobwebs of her throat. Her blood demands quiet, and her only choice is to obey.

Since that evening in the woods, the rock relinquished its hold on her palm, and now it rests peacefully on the living room coffee table. Emilia spends most of her days sitting on the couch, staring at it. Thinking. She also experiments with the eye development. They seem to be operating independently and granting her an odd ability to focus on four different objects at once.

She turns her left hand over. In addition to multiple pupils, the meteorite left its mark on her palm with small scars. The meat of her hand and all the way up to her fingertips is decorated with pinpricks of faded purple dots.

A few more days pass, and then there is a woman who looks so much like Emilia standing in the living room. Holly cries and doesn’t try to hide her worry like Dylan thinks he’s doing, but Emilia always could see through that.

There is a press of warmth as Holly hugs her, and Emilia wishes her heart would unthaw, but the stillness of her body now must be like hugging a statue. Her sister retreats into the kitchen with Dylan where he’s been making smoothies for the week. Emilia can slowly slurp them down, but otherwise, she’s been unable to open her mouth and chew and eat. The very thought exhausts her.

Dylan’s low voice carries out to the living room as he tells Holly about the useless visit from the family doctor. She barely remembers the white-bearded figure. He’d asked some questions, checked her blood pressure, looked in her ears, then left.

“Can you hear me?” Holly emerges from the kitchen and sits next to Emilia on the sagging gray sofa.

Yes, of course. The words don’t leave Emilia’s lips. Instead, she blinks twice at Holly.

Her sister smiles, then whispers, “You can.”

It’s a game from their childhood. They had discovered the best way to irritate their mother was refusing to speak with words. Emilia and Holly invented their own language in a series of blinks, knocks, stomps, and other noises. They’d giggle between chirps and snaps, and they’d even taught their two pet parakeets some of the more ridiculous sounds. It took several weeks, but Fern and Spangle both learned a few noises, including the ding of the kitchen timer Emilia and Holly used to end their wordless conversations. She’d loved them fiercely. Fern with his pretty jade feathers, and Spangle with the purple-black specks around his face. When everyone called her difficult to deal with, even in childhood, the birds never judged her.

“I have an idea,” Holly says, and the young woman radiates a nervous energy Emilia recognizes all too well. Whatever she is going to suggest, Dylan most likely won’t agree with, and Holly knows too, but it won’t stop her.

“What is it?” Dylan’s voice is guarded as he asks the question.

“My friend knows a hypnotist. A good one, I promise.”

“Really? That’s your solution?”

“Hey,” Holly protests. “She helped my friend quit smoking. Give her a chance.”

They argue quietly, desperation making itself known, and Emilia is touched by how much they care. She zones out though, lets them make this decision on her behalf. Her focus is on the meteorite. So close, yet she cannot pick it up off of the coffee table. When Dylan and Holly turn to go back into the kitchen, the rock glows in a prism of burning green.

Ethereal, Emilia thinks.

You will be, too, the rock hums back.

The hypnotist arrives the next day. Holly remarks on how kind the doctor is to make this house call, but Dylan only nods. He lingers by the door, away from the rest of them as he watches.

“I’m so glad you got my voicemail,” Holly says, her breath comes out in a nervous rush. “I wasn’t sure if I called the right number.”

Come over here, Emilia wishes to tell her husband. Hold my hand.

“This is my sister, Emilia.” Holly leads the woman over to the couch, and the hypnotist sits next to her rather than taking the chair across from her.

“Hello, Emilia. I’m Dr. Aelina.”

She blinks once in a version of saying hello, but then she can’t stop staring at the doctor. The woman is striking, perhaps ten years older than Emilia, and with hair the color of a sand dune. Black liner contrasts with the intense emerald eyes.

“And this is the rock.” Holly points to the meteorite. No one has touched it since Emilia placed it on the coffee table.

“Oh, how lovely. So unique.” Dr. Aelina admires the rock, studies it from afar. She doesn’t pick it up, but her fingers twitch. Does she sense it, how the rock whispers? “An amazing lunar meteorite sample. I’ve never seen one quite like that.”

“You can tell it’s from the moon?” Holly settles into the armchair across from Emilia.

“Well, a moon. Not necessarily ours.”

Dylan snorts and paces across the room. “Is that even possible? And what are you, a hypnotist and expert in cosmic rocks?”

“Dylan,” Holly seethes, and Emilia is grateful her sister can show anger on her behalf. She wants to ask Dylan what the hell his problem is, but she cannot speak. Cannot move. If only she could rip her skin away and crawl out of its sticky, stinking mess.

Dr. Aelina smiles. Her lips glisten with a clear gloss, and it makes Emilia think of glass. As if those lips could fracture and shatter.

“It’s quite alright. He’s allowed to question my hobbies.” She turns her scorching gaze toward Dylan. “I am many things. Today, though, I am someone who is going to help, Emilia. If that’s okay with you?”

Dylan clears his throat, perhaps searching for an apology. “I don’t know a lot of women who are hypnotists.”

The doctor arches an eyebrow. “Maybe you just don’t know a lot of women.”

Dylan withers under her scrutiny, and some sense of satisfaction blooms in Emilia as she watches him retreat. The woman focuses again solely on Emilia, and she lets herself sink into the doctor’s soothing voice.

“Together, we will wade through the darkness. We will find what’s troubling you and keeping your tongue a prisoner. You will emerge stronger, brighter than ever before.”

How does she know of the darkness? It’s been growing heavier in Emilia’s thoughts, like a great storm cloud come to chase all sunlight away. There were times where she could hold onto memories and moments with perfect clarity, as if her wish had truly come true to feel an omnipresence. Then, rolling black clouds shook her with thunderous nothing. Heartbeats slowed, and her veins operated in dizzying lightning strikes, whether to keep her alive or kill her, she wasn’t sure.

Does Dr. Aelina sense it too, how Emilia’s bones shift? How her sinews are rewiring? With every moment of stillness and silence, they alter a little more. Invisible. Her statuesque pose is their ruse, and she can tell no one.

“Can she write in this state?”

Dylan shakes his head. “We tried days ago. She refuses to hold the pen.”

“That’s not her fault.” Holly bristles like an angry cat.

“Easy now, both of you rest,” Dr. Aelina tells her audience. “Let me try a few things to help.”

Hopefully help is a reality. Her whole mind seems off, like a clipped wire sparking at both ends.

“Emilia,” Dr. Aelina’s voice is breathy and gentle. She likes the way her name sounds on the doctor’s tongue. “Are you ready?”

She blinks twice.

“She’s ready,” Holly confirms.

“I’ll tell you everything as I do it. I promise. No surprises here. I will explain each step.” Dr. Aelina reaches for the lunar meteorite.

“Wait!” Dylan juts forward, panic in his voice. “Touching that is what drove Emilia into whatever state this is.” He gestures at her like she’s a catatonic zoo animal.

The hypnotist merely chuckles, and then grabs the rock from the coffee table. “This item is harmless to me. Emilia’s mental state is born from events much more complex than a meteorite.”

A strangled noise dies in Dylan’s throat.

“Focus on the meteorite,” Dr. Aelina says. It’s easy to follow this command. She has concentrated on little else. “I will keep the meteorite in my hands, safe. You are safe, too. Look at the glittering crags here. Let their gleam fill you with a sense of security.”

Safe. She’s always been safe. Nothing else. She wants more.

“When I touch your neck with my finger while saying ‘numb,’ your neck will go numb. You won’t feel that spot at all, as if an anesthetic has been localized.”

The pad of a finger applies pressure to Emilia’s neck, and rubs cold circles into the skin.

“Numb, numb,” Dr. Aelina repeats.

A flash of bright green blazes in the room, and then Emilia falls into the darkest depths she’s ever known.

Numbness spreads from the spot on her neck and encompasses her torso like being submerged in murky waters. Her head remains above the numbness. Earlier, she was aware of her hands, her fingers, the beat of her heart, now she can only assume they are still there and functioning.

“Keep breathing,” Dr. Aelina says. “The numbness won’t steal your breath. Command your body to breathe, and your lungs will obey.”

Emilia inhales and manages to suck in a breath though her torso feels crushed.

“Your eyes are closed, and you’re swallowed by darkness. Try to find a light there, no matter how small.”

“This is ridiculous,” Dylan mutters, but it seeps into the dim and threatens to shatter Emilia’s meditation. Her darkness flickers at the edges. Out of place.

“Ignore the outside that threatens to pierce your world,” Dr. Aelina continues, and her voice is so smooth it lulls Emilia back into tranquility. “Search through the dim. What can you find?”

She lifts her hands and tries to find a surface or wall in the black space. Are there objects here she could bump into or trip over, or is this place an empty vacuum?

There. A pinprick of light. It beams through the dark like a small laser.

Another dot. And another. Green streaks emit from a source, and when Emilia glances down, she sees the source is her palm. The strange purple scars left by the lunar meteorite have come to provide illumination.

Dr. Aelina whispers, and it’s so intimate, Emilia is quite sure the doctor is talking to her in her head, not aloud.

“What do you see?”

Emilia’s mouth opens, and for the first time in nearly two weeks, she speaks. Her voice is a dry crackle of static, but it’ll do. “Green sparks. Who are you?”

“A friend. Now tell me, are you ready to follow the light, to feel its true burning? You’ve had a taste. Do you hunger for more?”

“What is this?” She rotates her hand, and the beams follow, shooting from the tiny scars like holes into another realm, but it comes from within her. What exactly has happened inside her body since she touched the meteorite?

“You will awaken when I count down from ten and press the rock to your neck.”

“Wait. What did I just see?”

“The truth.”

Her mouth seals shut again. The lights radiating from her palm fade, and she misses them in an instant. That light belongs to her, it found her, and now the hypnotist is taking it away.

Wait, wait, wait.

The countdown ends, and a smooth part of the lunar meteorite connects with the skin on Emilia’s neck. Numbness dissolves, and she’s back in the living room. Dylan and Holly gather closer and look at her with expectations written in the lines on their faces.

Emilia is so tired of expectations.

“Can you speak at all?” Dr. Aelina asks gently.

She tries, but her body disobeys the command.

“I can try another method. We need to dig deeper into what is causing Emilia so much pain.”

“What pain?” Dylan crosses his arms and sounds like he’s taking this a little too personally.

The hypnotist ignores him. “Holly, tell me about a happy childhood memory. What did she love to do as a kid, above all else?”

“Hmm,” Holly says, taking her task seriously because Holly always took everything seriously, ever since they were in elementary school.

“We always liked to play together. We’re two years apart, so we spent most of our childhood sharing toys and dreams and adventures. But it was the birds she always wanted to come home to the most. We had these two parakeets. Emilia used her allowance to buy books about owning birds or to get them new toys. They were her world.”

“What did they look like?”

“Green. Vibrant green. So pretty. They had some funny markings around their beaks. Emilia could get them to talk and do tricks, but they’d bite the rest of us. Fern and Spangle. Gosh, I haven’t thought about them in years.”

How is that possible? Emilia wishes she could ask. She thinks about them all the time, despite it being a decade since they were taken from her. She’d had Fern and Spangle from the time she was ten until she turned seventeen.

“A good memory, Holly. Thank you. Now, this next method can be a little dangerous. It applies vital-spot pressure, but I believe Emilia will respond well to it.”

“What do you mean dangerous?”

“Not to worry, but tell me, does she have any heart conditions, high blood pressure, or ulcers?”


“Does she faint? Get nose bleeds?”

Holly’s cellphone rings, and her cheeks go red. Emilia wishes she could laugh. Poor Holly, she always was easily prone to embarrassment.

“Excuse me,” her sister says and dashes away into the kitchen.

Dylan answers the doctor’s questions, but his voice is gruff. “No fainting. Nose bleeds have been rare.”

Dr. Aelina shuffles closer, and then there’s a cold forefinger and thumb on either side of Emilia’s neck; she feels pressure and wonders if the woman will strangle the words out of her disobedient throat.

“Breathe deeply. Hold out your arms to your sides. Good. Now revolve them in a circular motion, clockwise.”

Emilia does as instructed, and she’s surprised her arms lift and rotate. Her limbs have felt like dried cement these past few days.

“You have been asleep for so long, now it is time to awaken, Emilia. Breathe. Keep moving your arms, yes like that. You are not a cog, not a machine. Soon, your body will be freer than it ever has been. You will look at the world with those beautiful eyes. The new vision, it’s a gift.”

“A gift? She gets some mutation from a space rock disease, and you call it a gift. I think it’s time for you to go, doctor,” Dylan says with no attempt to hide his venom. He never believed the universe could contain mystic secrets. Emilia had liked to believe in something greater out there, that nature contained its own magic and mysteries, but Dylan tried to squash those beliefs.

Her gaze falls to the tan carpet with its uncomfortably stiff fibers. When they bought the house, she had dreams of ripping it out and repairing the hardwood underneath, but Dylan complained wooden floors would get too cold.

She keeps breathing, keeps moving her arms.

Footsteps echo on the carpet, and Emilia glances back up to see rage coloring Holly’s cheeks, but Holly only glares at the hypnotist.

“Who are you?”

Dr. Aelina smiles. “I’ve told you my name.”

Holly crosses her arms. “My friend called to let me know the hypnotist who helped him is sick today. She won’t be able to make it over.”

The smirk never vanishes from Dr. Aelina’s face. “As much as I admire my colleague, this case was not for her. When I heard your voicemail on the office phone, I took the case in her place.”

“There is no Dr. Aelina at that office. I checked. Get out.” Holly marches forward with an angry Dylan at her side.

A force sends the pair backward. Emilia’s sister bangs her closed fist on something invisible, separating them from coming any closer to the couch.

“I’m impressed,” the doctor says with what sounds like genuine affection. “I didn’t think you’d be able to put up a wall already, but look at that.”

I did that? Her heart beats with the erraticism of a bird with mighty wings, trapped in a cage.

“Your energy is trying to protect you from what feeds off of it,” Dr. Aelina says. “Like parasites. I know, that’s not a very nice comparison for these two people who are your family, but sometimes love is like that. Sometimes love takes and takes without giving much back. From the energy wall you’ve constructed, they can hear us, but we can’t hear them.”

Emilia centers herself. Breathes in. Breathes out. Moves her arms.

“Speak,” the hypnotist gently coaxes.

Her throat is so dry, but through the painful gravel swallow of it, she squeaks out a few words.

“What is it?”

“The energy?” Her fingers cinch tighter at Emilia’s throat, not once letting go. “Free your mind. Embrace the lunar meteorite’s power. The world it came from, it calls to us now. Do you feel it?”

Emilia’s mind swirls in cloudbursts of thought, weak attempts to understand the woman’s words. She scans the room, all four pupils concentrating, looking for answers.

“Don’t you see yet? You have been granted memories, both of love and pain. You hold the light of constellations in your palm. You’ve been chosen to ascend.”

“Is there a choice?”

“Always. But why would you want to stay here? The lunar meteorite has forced rest upon your body, but it’s been inside of you, making you stronger. Making you ready.”

Emilia doesn’t respond, but she keeps breathing, keeps moving her arms.

“Tell me more about the parakeets. What happened to them?” She pinches the nerves of Emilia’s throat tighter.

Between ragged gasps, she talks. “My father. He killed them.”

“I’m so sorry. Did Holly know what happened to Fern and Spangle?”

Tears sting her eyes at the mention of their names again. So small and innocent. How cruel, to not even stand a chance once her father decided he hated them. She’d been at school, expecting to come home to their happy squawks. Instead, silence and an empty cage greeted her.

“Our father manipulated her into keeping his secret. It wasn’t her fault.” An ache weighs so heavy in her arms. “I was mad at her for years, but I got older. Realized she was just a kid then, too. Our father was the only bastard to blame.”

Holly sobs from behind the invisible wall, and Emilia cannot hear her, but she sees the red face and streaks of tears.

“What do you feel now?”

“Nothing. I tried anger. I tried love,” she looks toward Dylan, “and it all added up to nothing.”

“I sense more in you,” Dr. Aelina says, and her intense gaze sends familiar electricity to sizzle in the air. “You harbor more pain toward both your husband and sister. What is it, are they sleeping together?”

The vibration of a laugh frees itself from Emilia’s pinched throat. “No. That would be simpler, honestly. It would be a real reason to shut down and want to get away from everyone.”

“What do you think your reason is?”

She hesitates. Her arms ache so much, and she nearly stops moving them, but the doctor glares and squeezes delicate throat skin. Holly keeps beating her fist against the unseen wall, harder and harder until blood drips down from scraped knuckles. The wall Emilia didn’t even mean to conjure now makes her sister bleed. Is she doomed to bring hurt to herself and others, no matter where she goes?

“I’m a burden to them. Love isn’t enough sometimes, is it? It can’t always bring someone back from the ledge when they are so close to slipping off.”

“What do you want?”

No one has asked her that question in years, not until the night in the woods two weeks ago when the rock said it to her. How beautiful the twilight had been before such a dark night.

“I’m so tired,” she responds, “of feeling indebted to people when I can’t love them back. Not truly. I wished upon this useless rock to change my numbness, but it was a foolish fantasy.”

The ceiling shifts until it isn’t a ceiling at all. In place of white plaster, storm clouds morph. Flashes of electricity spark between clouds.

“A lunar meteorite is not a wishing stone.”

The words slash at her heart, but she’s grateful to have the pain. It’s better than the nothingness. Thunder from above rumbles, perhaps in agreement.

Dr. Aelina keeps one hand around Emilia’s throat, and then moves her free hand to place long, cool fingers against her cheek. The gentle touch is like ice against her boiling skin. Heat emits from inside Emilia, scorching away at the meat to make room for something else.

“The meteorite is much more powerful than any old wishing stone.” Another green flash in the room. When the light fades, Emilia watches Holly silently screaming on the other side of the invisible barrier.

From the strange clouds above them, falls a rain of bright green feathers. How gently they drift down, like a soundless snow. Every single feather is splashed in blood, and metal fills the air with an acerbic tang.

It is the worst memory Emilia possesses, times a hundred. As if a thousand parakeets, a thousand Ferns and Spangles, had died gruesome deaths at the callous hands of her father and his knife—for no other reason than how much he hated to look at the birds. To listen to them sing. How much he hated seeing anything give Emilia happiness.

The grief, even from childhood, is overwhelming. Shocks of love and pain fry her nerves into frayed strings.

“They’re draining you,” the woman mutters. “Free yourself.”

“I’ve always been told I’m the draining one. I’m the one who is too much.” She keeps rotating her arms as the doctor squeezes her throat’s pressure points. Tears fall freely down her warm cheeks, and bloodied feathers stick to the sweat of her skin.

All the exasperation she’s been holding back pushes through her emotional dam. She doesn’t have to stay here and be told she’s too much to deal with. Maybe she can’t even blame Holly and Dylan for not wanting to wallow with her in the gray landscape of her mind, but she didn’t have to stay here either.

“Is this what you wished for?” the woman asks, and Emilia supposes it is. Her own pain couples with the distraught nerves of her sister, the exasperation of her husband, and then she connects with the quiet of the trees outside. The calm of clouds as they drift across a sunset. It’s almost the twilight hour, that beautiful blue moment before the night. Are the foxes waiting for her again? She senses them stalking prey in the woods, small paws on withering grass.

She doesn’t remember the day disappearing. When Dr. Aelina arrived, the sun still blazed with yellow warmth outside of the living room windows on this unusually hot autumn day.

Now, bright light emits from her palm.

“A constellation. The lunar meteorite has given you a gift, stars in the shape of a parakeet.”

It’s an abstract shape, as many constellations are, but as the glow forms around her palm, the pinpricks make up a birdlike form.

“From your palm, to the sky. Come with me to see it.”

Feathers tornado around the room as Dr. Aelina stands up and holds out a hand, but her other hand is still secured around Emilia’s throat. The blood coating each plume makes her stomach rumble, and she wonders in horror what kind of hunger this is?

“You’ve been famished so long,” the woman comments, and her burning green eyes blaze. It’s the same ethereal green of the lunar meteorite when it descended from the sky.

“What is happening?”

“Ascension, Emilia. As soon as you touched the lunar rock, you’d never be able to escape it. There is a price, though. You haven’t been eating much, while your body prepared, but you’ve rested long enough. I will guide you through this. No one will drain your energy, your life’s essence, from you again.”

Emilia chokes a little as pressure from the doctor’s thumb and forefinger meets her throat stronger than before, and for a moment it’s like a knife has sliced across her windpipe. Dizziness invades her senses, and the world goes sideways in a haze of static and gray hues.

“You are getting dizzy, but it’s okay. You will ascend. Keep breathing deeply. Don’t stop moving your arms. My name is Aelina and I am here to guide you.”

Dylan and Holly fade to smudges in her blurring vision; they’re still trapped behind the barrier that keeps them silent. Perhaps they’ve always been there, unable to reach her.

“You are getting dizzy, but it’s okay,” Aelina repeats. “You will ascend. Breathe deeply. Don’t stop moving your arms. Do as I tell you.”

The pressure nearly causes her to black out, but she keeps breathing. Keeps moving. She gives into all of the pain, to how it promises ecstasy if she can see her way through this. Just like the elation the rock gifted her before.

“You are ascending. You are ascending. You are—”

Emilia bursts with light. She is a newborn star, gathering mass. Ascension becomes stellar evolution. She gushes with ethereal green, takes comfort in the way her bones shift and reassemble into a new Emilia.

Joyous laughter sounds from Aelina’s throat, quite literally. The woman has another mouth there, smiling at the room from where there should be an esophagus. She shifts, too. Like Emilia, the woman has two pupils and irises. Unlike Emilia, rows of eyes cascade down Aelina’s shoulders to the left and right arms, from neck to wrist.

“What do you see with your eyes, Aelina?”

The woman-creature takes Emilia’s hand. “I see someone who is starving. Who experiences too much until it feels like nothing at all. Reclaim this hunger. The meteorite found you, and I will always find the meteorite. This sphere is special. It finds the broken and offers them a new life.”

Emilia steps through the whirlwind of bloody feathers, and she lets the grief touch her new skin. It felt silly before, to so deeply grieve the birds she loved, but that was the first turning point in her life. She carried the ache and squashed it down. People she loved walked over her, or in front of her, but never beside her.

Her four pupils focus on the unseeable wall, but as she embraces the meteorite’s power, the energy becomes visible. A dark mist traps Dylan and Holly like animals in a pen. Energy glows tangible in the air. How deliciously it floats around them in prismatic swirls, but the doctor, or whatever Aaelina is, was right. Their energy is connected to Emilia’s, feeding off of her, turning her once kaleidoscopic vitality into gray mist. No longer.

Emilia inhales the electric scent, and her stomach rumbles again.

Dylan screams, and Holly pleads, but she blocks it all out. Instead, she swallows their light whole, and absorbs it into her still-changing body, not giving herself too much time to think about her actions. This is better.

Their every emotion becomes one with her, a knowledge in her blood she can keep forever. This is how she takes their love and gives it back, at last. From within her, they linger, always. Next to her past, her grief, and now her love. She plucks a green feather from the ground; like the others, it is speckled in blood.

She swallows that, too.

Emilia burns—whole and complete. Iridescence razors through her flesh, splits skin away like a baby bird cracking through the goop of an eggshell.

Sticky. Wet. She pushes through bones and meat, then grows too big for the room, the house, and the Earth. For a moment, she connects to every blade of grass, to each human heart no matter how broken, to any form of life on the planet she can grasp before it’s time to move on.

Aelina leads her through the clouds above them that spin with fiery emerald light. Beyond time, to somewhere endless. She absorbs every sparking part of the journey along the way with a clarity so sharp, she lets tears of joy fall and sizzle against her skin. The lunar meteorite guides her as well as Aelina. As they ascend, Emilia glances back one last time to watch the twilight fade into night’s totality.

  • Sara Tantlinger

    Sara Tantlinger is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes, and the Stoker-nominated works To Be Devoured and Cradleland of Parasites. She has also edited Not All Monsters and Chromophobia. She is an active HWA member and also participates in the HWA Pittsburgh Chapter. She embraces all things macabre and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraTantlinger, at, and on Instagram @inkychaotics.

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Short Fiction
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