Twenty-Seven, Genius Loci

Thirty-two.

On the days when I miss Les the most, I take a walk in my twenty-seventh year.

It’s always spring in twenty-seven, and wild. But twenty-seven’s nature isn’t very natural: boulders that migrate like elk; conifers purple with lilac blossoms; streams that twist through the air. Nor does Les ever appear, though I visit twenty-seven only to recall our friendship. My imagination is too cowardly for such candor.

Or perhaps it’s just my biochemistry. One of Les’s theories is that porlocin casts the familiar in supernatural colors. I’ve always thought it did just the opposite — make the extraordinary seem routine. But maybe Les is right, and I’ve just grown used to the drug. That’s how habit works, after all.

“Sarah.” The chief resident shakes me from twenty-seven, where I’ve escaped to dream between rounds. “That’s the third time this week. You can’t keep doing this.”

But behind her on the ward TV, a familiar voice is speaking. I look up, past the chief, and my shoulders tense.

It’s a morning talk show, and Les looks uncomfortable. I feel for them: these hosts are the type who fumble pronouns and ask stupid questions. “No, it isn’t really time travel,” they say. “Porlocin makes the past into a place you can visit, but you can’t change anything there. What? No, there are no military applications.”

“Sarah,” says the chief, “Are you listening?”

The anchor’s white grin never breaks. “Can you tell us how you came to study porlocin, Dr. Foxden? I’ve heard that you were introduced to it by a close friend, pharmacologist Dr. Sarah Stowey …”

Les’s eyes meet the camera. “We’re not close anymore,” they say.

“Sarah!”

My beeper wails, just in time.

Thirty-two: A thatched cottage, set alone on a windy plain. No roads lead to its door, or away. Before it lies empty moorland; behind it, the sea. I have lived here for a very long time.

Twenty-six.

Though the Boston Foxdens are a known family in medical circles, I first heard of Les through their graduate work. Their reputation had been forged while studying under an NYU clinician who researched memory disorders. Somehow, during four sleepless years in med school, Les had managed to publish several papers on the therapeutic function of memory. Two were first-author; one even had NIH sponsorship.

I had never been brilliant, or gotten NIH funding. But near the end of my own degree I isolated a compound with strange effects on the memories of lab mice. When I learned that Les and I would be interns at the same Manhattan hospital, I rode the subway three hours downtown to introduce myself.

“Sarah Stowey,” I said, thrusting out a hand. “From the email. I know I’m a nobody, but I promise I’m not here to waste your—”

“You found a memory drug!” Les cried, leaping forward to shake. “What was the name again? Porlocin? Tell me everything. Oh, yes, I’m Leslie. Would you like a tea?”

They pulled me inside. Four hours later, my coat was still on, my mouth was dry from talking, and we had not moved past the airy foyer of Les’s apartment. We only realized the day had ended when my phone’s alarm reminded me that my shift at the diner was starting.

“You have to go?” Les asked, their face falling.

“It’s just for another month, until my first hospital check comes in.” I smiled, a little bitterly. “Scholarship student, you know?”

“Right,” they said, subdued. “But we’ll talk again soon? Your research, this compound — it’s extraordinary.”

My whole body felt warm.

A week after I’d first knocked on Les’s door, I was leading them up the back stairs to the gravel-strewn roof of their apartment building, two small vials in my hand.

“Is this how you normally work?” asked Les uncertainly.

I laughed. “Until I get funding for human trials.”

“That’s … unorthodox.”

“Well, it’s all I’ve got. Unless you want to call the NIH on my behalf?” I uncorked a vial and held it out to them. “Your whole research program is about memory. Doesn’t the prospect of visiting your past attract you, just a little?”

Les took the vial.

As they leaned back against the concrete stairwell, one hand fidgeting with the empty tube, I chatted to distract them — hospital gossip, bad puns, the soothing repertoire I’d perfected tutoring coked-out legacies at Columbia. Slowly Les’s jaw softened, and their eyes settled on a point in the middle distance.

Porlocin’s reverie lasts no more than ten minutes. When Les returned, they did not speak at once, only lifted a hand to their mouth. At last they said, “I was ten again, at Tuckerneck. I’d climbed the cliff for gulls’ eggs. It felt like I was the only person on earth — and the wind …” They shook their head. “What was that?”

I knelt beside them, checked their eyes, pulse. “You said you visited a scene from your childhood?”

“As if I were there again. But it felt — supernatural, somehow. The wind … spoke to me?”

“Strange.” Unfolding, I settled beside them on the gravel. “I’ve done porlocin twice before, but I only get my past in symbols — strange landscapes, though they’re still clearly memories.” Oceans of infant music; an adolescence cut in glass thorns. “I guess your chemistry’s different. How do you feel?”

Les was silent for a moment. Then they turned to me, their face seeming bewildered by its own smile.

“Miraculous.”

I nodded. And then eagerly, “I’ll go next.”

A minute later, I was a skiff slicing through the emerald sea of seventeen. Far above me, Les’s voice, like the wingbeats of a great startled seabird:

Miraculous. Miraculous. Miraculous.

Thirty-two.

I’m in the breakroom, drifting in twenty-seven, when the chief slides a printout across my lap. It’s an abstract from the latest JAMA. Yawning, I rest my forearms on it without reading. Her brows furrow.

“There’s been a porlocin breakthrough,” she says. “They’re looking for trial patients.” She nudges the abstract out from beneath my elbows.

My arms don’t move. “Why are you giving me this? Do you think I have a problem?”

After a pause, she says carefully, “As chief resident, I think you should read this study. The PI is this neuropsychologist, Dr. Leslie Foxden. They’re supposed to be a—”

“A genius. Yes, I know.” Slapping my hands to the bench, I rise, frowning. “Thanks, chief. I’ll read it later.”

She backs out of the room.

When she’s gone, I return to twenty-seven.

Twenty-seven.

No one expects interns to do groundbreaking work. We’re usually too busy learning to stay alert through thirty-six-hour shifts; to navigate the ward hierarchy; to give good news humbly and bad news gracefully. There’s barely time to breathe, much less conduct research. Yet somehow, in that year of miracles, Les and I published four papers, all on memory. Cell, Brain, the BMJ. Les was always first author, since most of the ideas were theirs.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that they had studied memory longer, and that porlocin itself was my discovery. And with Les’s company, which quickly became indispensable.

When not writing, we talked. We pitched studies to each other in the breakroom between rounds; we argued on the subway going home, and in cabs going back. We rarely slept. Though I could barely afford it, I took a new apartment downtown to be closer to Les’s flat, then spent most nights on their couch anyway.

Those nights are what twenty-seven feels like. The forest of flying streams and music-scented air, all life vivid and synesthetic — it is Les and I, texting furiously and finishing each other’s sentences, living afloat a friendship that felt endless.

Porlocin was that friendship’s heartwood. It rooted us deep in one another’s pasts.

On the rooftop, I talked Les through nineteen, the year my scholarship ran out. Bottomless thorn-forest, full of biting vines to which I clung for survival: waitressing, tutoring, faking essays for Long Island socialites, nights of bartered Adderall and resentment. In turn, Les recalled fourteen, the year they were exiled to a Brooklyn boarding school, because the Boston Foxdens could fund but not face what they called their heir’s lifestyle. And we commiserated over med school, whose porlocin translation as a battlefield was only barely figurative.

Since I was more experienced with the compound, I was more often our subject.

“Sarah?” Les’s voice fell through my reverie like sunlight. “When are you? What’s it look like?”

Above, the year bared its fangs: a vault of ice, unfathomably faceted, millions of eyes in which my own reflection shivered. “Twenty. Mom in rehab, failed o-chem. Living off a friend’s couch when my job fell through.”

The sunlight blinked. Far above, I felt Les’s hand touch my shoulder. “Will you be all right? I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” I said, reflexively shirking their pity. In twenty’s cold mirrors, my face held itself together. “I’ll be fine. The past isn’t the present, or the future, thank god.”

Les’s tone was thoughtful. “Yes,” they said. “Of course.”

If the bad years bound us, the good drove us forward. They were better for Les’s research, and more pleasant. Beyond pleasant — they were intoxicating. Les hypothesized that in most cases, the earlier the year, the happier its reverie and the more potent its healing. Proof of their brilliance: the theory matched my experience exactly. In ten, I romped through a technicolor romance whose every hero I played, knight, queen, and winged unicorn. Five was a warm red sea in whose embrace I rocked, safe and beloved. And two was simply wheeling patches of color, each hue a new world I had discovered myself, explorer and genius at once.

When the spell of these early years broke, I did not want to return. Reality was stale by comparison, and I was nobody in it. Worse, the trips left me muddy, too slow to keep up with Les’s conversation. Returning, I had few desires save to revisit the years I had just left.

Les’s face clouded when I reported these symptoms. “The hangover troubles me,” they said. “Maybe we should switch roles more often?”

“I’m fine,” I said, thinking of two.

Most nights, we returned late from our shifts to the roof of Les’s apartment. There we speculated to the stars leaking through the haze. I lay on my back, eyes shut, while Les paced restlessly in the gravel. Our minds were pliant with fatigue, daring as only great exhaustion, and rapture, and friendship can make them.

“Think about this,” I said, ten humming behind my eyes. “Porlocin makes time feel like space. It throws me into my past because it’s behind me, like a room I’ve just left. Could it throw me forward, too?”

“You mean, could it let us see the future?” Les asked. “How? The future hasn’t happened yet.”

My hands lifted dreamily above my head, tracing the outlines of two’s colored lights. “I don’t know. But porlocin feels more like traveling than remembering …”

“Of course! Brilliant, Sarah!”

I smiled. Les had slipped into their excited voice, and, as happened often, attributed whatever leap they had just made to me.

“Porlocin is a drug that lets you visit yourself at different times,” they continued. “What’s the difference between past and future? One’s over, the other’s not. That’s why memory heals: visiting the past renews. But visiting the future is more like an interruption—” Their long strides quickened, and they began babbling jargon into their phone’s recorder.

I leaned back against the gravel, languid, perfectly happy.

A year after scrupling over self-experimentation, Les published a paper on porlocin in The Lancet: Neurology. I was second author. When the proofs appeared in their inbox, Les swayed and had to steady themselves on a chairback. Leaning over the laptop, I read aloud:

“‘Memory and Chronologic Distortion Through Induced Hallucination Using Porlocin Compound.’ L. Foxden, M.D, and S. Stowey, M.D., et al. Incredible, Les!”

I hugged them, pressing my face against their shoulder blades and trying to balance my joy on its fleeting pin of self-reproach. I knew then that I would always be second author to Les. In the laptop’s late-night blue, a halo seemed to sing about their head, an annunciation from porlocin crowning its prodigy.

I tried not to let it bother me. Though I was competitive as any scientist, I could also recognize my limits. If Les was to be the researcher in our partnership, I could consent to be their subject. What I could not do, they could.

Beside Les’s hand sat our small case of porlocin. I looked at it, and thought of two.

Twenty-eight: The prior year’s forest, heaped like cream atop a high cliff. The same floating streams; the same incensed trees; the same birdsong, like fingers touching a great windy harp. All the same, unless I look down.

Thirty-two.

Back at my apartment, I click open the JAMA article the chief had printed out. “‘Successful Regulation of Porlocin Chrono-Hallucinations Through Cortisol Therapy.’ L. Foxden, M.D, et al.” The abstract reads, “Using timed micro-doses of cortisol, patients remained lucid during a controlled porlocin experience. Secondary results suggest the amelioration of dependency, which can occur when experienced users learn to select the year of their hallucination.”

Below the article, there’s a link to an interview with Les. Beside the title “Rising Stars in Brain Science” floats a picture of their face, smiling.

My chest tightens, and I snap the laptop shut.

Tonight, for variety, I’ll visit twenty-eight.

Twenty-eight.

Through one of those mysterious shifts that spin certain topics into public consciousness, porlocin abruptly caught media attention. Bound to that wheel of fortune, Les and I endured the usual round of profiles, interviews, and misquotations that besets young doctors working at the cutting edge of neuroscience. Our captioned pictures became familiar to us: Dr. Leslie Foxden, neuropsychologist; Dr. S. Stowey, collaborator.

“Can we be off-trend yet?” Les groaned as we slumped together on their couch, exhausted after a shift capped at both ends with podcast appearances. “I just want to do our work.”

“It’s good, though,” I said. “Attention means funding. Now the NIH might actually look at our grant.” Stretching, I sagged further into the cushions. My mind felt leaden. Ten’s unicorns pawed enticingly at its edge. “I’m so tired. Do you want to do a porlocin session? I think I could use an hour of five…”

A long silence. Then Les said,

“You can choose the years?”

I stumbled. “I mean, not for sure…”

“But that’s huge! If it’s possible to control a reverie, you could learn to visit the good years, the healing ones.” Their voice fell. “Which for you is five, I guess. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t think it mattered,” I mumbled. “It’s just confirming a theory you already had.”

They sounded mystified. “But that’s how research works. And they’re your theories, too. Porlocin’s your compound. We’re studying it together, remember?”

I sat up, biting my lip. Beneath my skin, five’s red love crooned, inviting me toward an easier time, obscuring the white noise of my inferiority. “Yes. But I’m not the brilliant one. You are. I’m just the guinea pig.”

“What? Is that how you see us? That’s ridiculous—” Frustration tangled their voice for an instant. Ashamed, I raised my legs to my chest and ground my chin against my knees.

Les said more gently, “I didn’t realize you felt that way. You’re a great scientist, Sarah. I’m sorry if I haven’t been treating you like one. Please, let me be the test subject for a while.”

I watched five recede from me, a red wave, drawing my security with it. “No!” I cried. “No, it’s fine.”

“I don’t understand.” Les had pulled back on the couch, and was watching me with a strange expression.

My mind felt hollow. “I’m just tired. Forget I said anything. Come on, let’s do a session.”

“It can wait. You’re upset.”

“You say memory’s healing, right? I could use some healing right now.”

Slowly Les rose from the couch. “No, we should wait,” they repeated, and this time it was not Les speaking, but Dr. Leslie Foxden. “Using porlocin now might … tire you further.” More chilling than their denial was the fear they had left unspoken. “You should take a break.”

Caught, I snapped, “Sure thing, doc.”

“Sarah …” In Les’s gaze, behind the exhaustion, was a pain I had not seen before. “Never mind. Let’s go to bed.” They began gathering blankets for the couch where I would sleep.

As they passed the table where our vials of porlocin lay, their eyes flickered, counting.

That night, I dreamed of five.

Thirty-two.

The next morning there are two new emails. One is from the chief, with the subject “sign up” and the JAMA piece attached. The other — my breath catches — is from Les. The subject is a question: “JAMA article?”

I delete both without opening.

My shift begins at noon, so I’ll spend the morning in twenty-seven.

Who says porlocin isn’t time travel?

Twenty-nine: Endless freefall through crowds of roots, the cliff above, its crumbled edge trailing lilac blossoms. Delirious, always accelerating: the speed at which a friendship dissolves.

Twenty-nine.

I hid it for a while, my compulsion towards the past. Before every shift with Les, I would dip into five or ten to quell the urge to visit when we were together. During our porlocin sessions, I traded places with them, performing gratitude. I made scrupulously sure the years I visited were unpleasant.

I hid it as best I could, while around it my life circled, in a holding pattern whose springs wound ever tighter and higher.

Our research circled, too.

On the roof, Les’s pacing was tense. “We’re stuck. I’m sorry I doubted you. You can’t choose the good years. You barely get them at all anymore.” Higher, tighter. “And those are the ones that heal…”

Too tight: in the spring, a coil jerked. With horror I heard myself asking, “But do they?”

Les’s pacing slowed. “What do you mean?”

I spoke with helpless pressure, like air escaping a puncture. “I study drugs. The first thing you learn is that every cure is also a poison. What if good memories are, too?”

“Poison?” Worry rose in their voice. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

“No,” I said, too quickly.

“You’re not having … trouble, with porlocin?”

In my chest a hungry panic sparked for two, five — anywhere but twenty-nine.

“Not trouble,” I said. “It’s just — the past is more complicated than you think it is.”

“Sarah, tell me the truth,” they said softly. “Can you still visit those good years? Have you been?”

“It’s research.” In ten I was heroic; in two, brilliant.

“No. If porlocin is habit-forming, we need a controlled trial. And we should both stop using it.”

For the first time I could remember, I scowled at them: poised and patient, blessed equally by wealth and genius. “You think we can wait for a trial? I wish I had your faith. I take the chances I’ve got because I know I might not get another. I’m not rich, Les. Or gifted.”

A skid of gravel, and their pacing stopped. Silence limped in after.

In five I was beloved.

“You want me to apologize for being myself?” Les asked at last. Their voice was hurt. “Fine — my parents gave me lots of practice. I’m sorry, Sarah. And I’m sorry you can never see how brilliant you really are. But we still need a controlled trial.” They shook their head. “It was so stupid testing this ourselves.”

My stomach dropped.

“That was my stupid idea, Les. I guess that’s how brilliant I really am, huh?”

Around me it felt like air was rushing.

“I didn’t mean—”

I pushed myself off the gravel. Les’s body stood rigid, like a tree hung over an abyss.

“No, go on, say it. This isn’t news. You’ve always been first author, remember?” I was falling, the wind bitter in my face. “It’s fine. I’m just your experiment, so let me be your experiment, all right? Don’t pretend to mourn some magic collaboration we never had.”

Les swayed. “That isn’t true.”

Falling faster. “Oh yeah? Then why are you always Dr. L. Foxden and I’m always ‘collaborator?’”

Two, five, ten. Anywhere but now.

“Sarah, I’m sorry — I’ve hurt you—”

I could not stop falling.

“So prescribe me a memory, doc. That’s your cure, isn’t it?”

“Sarah, I’m your friend—”

Faster.

“No. You’re the genius and I’m broken, right?”

“Sarah!”

Faster.

“So fucking fix me!”

The hard, hurt thump of a body hitting ground.

On the roof silence lay, and the weak stars. My mind blazed, snaring Les in its angry floodlights. Their silhouette shook.

“I’m taking a break from our research,” they said at last. The gravel shifted as they walked past. “You should, too. Go home, Sarah.”

I heard the roof door shut behind them.

That night, instead of five or ten, I decided to visit twenty-seven.

Twenty-nine.

The next morning I awoke to Les’s text: “I’m sorry, I’ve been an ass. Do you want to come over?”

I ignored it.

I did not visit their apartment the next night, or the next. When they approached me in the breakroom I rose, pretending my beeper had rung. When they passed me in the hall, I averted my eyes. At home, I opened my email and began — Les, I’m sorry — then deleted it. Salvaging twenty-nine was too painful, especially when twenty-seven hummed so warm and easy beneath my eyelids. Each time Les walked by, each time the shame rose to suffocate me, I fled to the forest.

A month passed in this way. Then another.

Eventually, Les began to avoid me, too.

Thirty: My fall is broken by a thatched cottage, set alone on a windy plain. No roads lead to its door, or away. Before it lies empty moorland; behind it, the sea.

Thirty-two.

The fall happens during morning rounds, without warning. I’m usually lucid enough to work through reveries, but I’m halfway down my chart, drifting in twenty-seven, when something snaps and I collapse against a wall.

Twenty-seven vanishes. Against the swallowing darkness I flail, reaching for ten or five; but there is only the wet flap of wind on thatch, and a guttering candle before which a gaunt woman looks up, startled.

I am on a gurney, the chief jostling my shoulder.

“I’m putting you on probation,” she hisses into my ear. “What are you doing? You can’t go on like this.”

I do not answer her.

To the woman in the cottage, I exclaim, “What year is this?”

“Get out,” she snaps. “You’re interrupting my twenty-seven.”

The chief: “You need help. Call that Dr. Foxden, please!”

My head lolls on the gurney, in the candlelight. “I can’t call them,” I tell her. “I can’t do it. Not now.” My voice cracks — am I crying?

A small pop as the chief uncaps a sedative. But the woman in the cottage stands up. Though her face is hollowed by sorrow, I know it.

“What year are you from?” she asks. And then, so softly I can barely hear her, “Do you still talk to Les there?”

“Swallow,” says the chief.

Thirty-one: No one ever visits the cottage. Outside, the wind never stops and the sun never rises. Inside, I shut my eyes and dream of the past.

Thirty-two.

The sedative lingers, prolonging the porlocin distortion. For the rest of the day I reel from present to past and back again, tumbling through a maze of years from the solidity of the recovery ward’s cot. But I do not meet myself again.

Slowly, I realize that I cannot place her year. Though the cottage is familiar from thirty and thirty-one, in no prior trip have I seen myself, or felt so hostile toward my own presence.

What had Les said? If to visit the past renews—

“I can’t call them,” I had told the chief. “Not now.”

Now I am thirty-two. What does thirty-two look like? Exactly like thirty, and thirty-one. Empty plain, sunless sea.

What about thirty-three?

When the sedative finally ebbs, I inform my attending that I’m taking the rest of the day off. I promise to check in with her tomorrow. Then I go home to my apartment and lie on the bed. Like a train of dancers the happy years call out behind me, laughing, inviting me to join them.

I will, I promise, and hope they do not notice the deception.

For momentum, I place the image of twenty-seven before me. I tell myself that I will go hurtling toward those violet forests, floating streams.

Then I lean back and unscrew a vial.

When the hit comes like a punch, for an instant I fall toward the forest — but then, twisting the wind, vault past it and down, down the cliff toward the plain and cottage below.

The plain is empty, the sky dark. A wan light flickers at the window. When my knocks are ignored, I shoulder through the door’s dusty lock.

At her table, thirty-three scowls, her dark hair plastered against the side of her face. “I told you to leave,” she snarls. “Let me go back to twenty-seven.”

From her through me I feel the hunger pull. Far above us, the forest gleams.

I shake my head. “No. We can’t — I can’t — go on like this. Listen. A year ago, the chief emailed you about Les’s cortisol trial. You should sign up for it.”

Her eyes flash. “Why don’t you do it, whenever you’re from?”

“I can’t.” How absurd: it is so hard for me to be honest, even with myself. “Not now. I don’t have the strength. I’m too … ashamed. And afraid.”

“You think a year will change that?”

“I don’t know. But I want you to think about it.” She looks skeptical, as I will, of course, in her place. “You’re my idea of the future,” I explain. “I’m interrupting you.”

“And what if I don’t want to be interrupted?” I recognize my recoil, defensive, pained. But I know myself too well to be fooled.

“You do,” I say.

Thirty-three.

Probation lasts a year, with return contingent on evidence of “rehabilitation activities.” But what rehabilitation exists for a drug no one understands?

Barred from the hospital, I watch my bank account dwindle, and my supply of porlocin. I’ve been here before. I ration.

In the darkness, sour wind rakes wet thatch.

My head is clear, mostly. Whatever physical dependency I have does not feel acute, though maybe I’m just misreading the darkness into which my past years flare once and then sputter. Each match burns shorter than the last: I’m developing tolerance.

Am I addicted to porlocin, or memory, or both?

No more blackouts occur, at least. Nor do I see thirty-three again. Maybe it’s because I am her, now.

One afternoon, my cellphone rings. It’s the chief.

“I’m calling to let you know that the director dismissed you this morning. I wanted to tell you first. You’ll need to clean out your locker by the end of the month. I’m sorry, Sarah.”

Outside the cottage, the wind rises.

I do not feel interrupted.

Thirty-three.

Two weeks later, I stand before my dusty locker. In my pocket sits a vial of porlocin.

It is already October. In a week I will turn thirty-four. Perhaps my dream of recovery was merely a fantasy, like all the others.

For an instant, twenty-seven gleams through my shame, tempting, but I shrug it off. I am so tired.

Though I check my email rarely since leaving work, my phone still alerts me to pings on my online CV. As I’m stuffing my stale gym clothes in a bag, it buzzes: someone has cited an article of mine. Idly I open the citation, with the same muffled hunger as a porlocin fix.

I start. The article is in JAMA: Neurology, where I have never submitted. I don’t recognize the title, either. “Memory as Cure and Poison in Experimental Trials With Porlocin Compound.” And the byline — “S. Stowey, M.D, Ph.D, and L. Foxden, M.D, et al.”

Les’s year-old email is still in my trash folder. “JAMA article?”

Trembling, locker forgotten, I click it open.

Dear Sarah,

The chief says you’re doing okay. I hope that’s true.

I want you to know that you were right. Memories are more complicated, even the good ones. Especially the good ones. My hypothesis was lopsided. I suppose I just wanted to believe that the past cured. I wanted it so badly.

I’ve been running more trials with our NIH funds. The results confirm your ideas. There’s enough to publish now. I want to submit an article to JAMA, with you as first author. A draft’s attached here. I’d like your input, if you’re willing to give it.

I’m so sorry for everything that’s happened, and for my part in it. I don’t know if you saw the cortisol trials, but they’re promising. I want you to know that if you ever want to participate, there’s a space open for you.

Be well. The past isn’t the present, or the future.

You were right about that, too.

xo,
Les.

I fall back on the bench before my empty locker.

Today I am thirty-three. I live in a cottage, alone, by the sea. I have lived here for a very long time.

I lift my phone. Opening my inbox, I click New Message.

I don’t feel interrupted — better, braver, less ashamed. I don’t feel like thirty-three should feel, change or agency or escape. I’m merely exhausted.

I stare numbly at the subject line.

Porlocin makes the natural seem extraordinary, and the supernatural seem routine.

I take a breath, and type.

“Hi, Les.”

Thirty-four: Outside the cottage, rain hammers the roadless darkness. Leaving feels useless: it’s so wet, and so empty. I light a lantern anyway.

Thirty-five: I trudge through mud. In the distance, rain parts around a familiar cliff. Above it the clouds are lighter.

Thirty-six: In the cliff’s shadow the rain thins to mist. High above gleams a hint of sunlit green.

I look up, and climb.


B. Pladek is a literature professor and writer of speculative fiction based in Wisconsin. She is a graduate of Clarion West 2018 and has previously published fiction in PodCastle, Flash Fiction Online, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. She tweets @bpladek and blogs occasionally at thecalloo.com/writings-brittany.