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Illustration by Andreea Dumuta @galactixy_illustrations

 

Little opened their eyes. The sun, in this place, was gentle and far away, which made the colours of the things close to Little clear and strong. The stalk of the plant they slept under was pale green, the colour of honeydew (if Little had ever seen a honeydew). Little thought they remembered that at one time, the stalk had supported a burst of golden flowers, but this would have been when Little was much littler, and when they told Ma about memories from then, she often told them they were wrong, that they were imagining and not remembering. For the time that Little was sure of, the stalk had ended in a globe of white webbing. On this morning, Little opened their eyes and watched in astonishment as a particle of the web detached itself, wobbled under the weight of a seed half its size and, finally finding its balance, danced away into an empty sky.

*

Andromeda (“but my friends call me Andi”) knew that she was going to fall in love with Zach before she ever saw him. The day they met, she was on a Greyhound bus. When it stopped in a nowhere, roadside town, she joined the fold of people blinking in the light and stretching their legs, but when they got back on, she stayed. To an observer, this might have seemed boldly, even dangerously spontaneous, but it wasn’t, and there was no one observing.

She soon realized that the backpack holding all of her worldly possessions was heavy and its straps cut into her shoulders. She was also overdressed for the early fall weather; she became sweaty and out of breath and it was hard to feel as fanciful as she was supposed to be. She went into a coffee shop to set her bag down and regroup. That’s when she saw him.

Zach was sitting at the same table as always, in the town he’d been born in and never left, where nothing ever happened (except the customary births and deaths, illnesses, fallings in love, learning from books, becoming an adult and then old, etc.) until Andi arrived. He was trying to write a novel. He was tugging at his lip. Every few minutes, he leaned forward and stared into his laptop screen as if it held in its depths the answers to all the great questions of his life. Andi saw that he had hazel eyes that tended toward green, that his dark hair, almost black, fell into his face and that he brushed it back often with hands whose delicate thumbs curved away from strong, square palms. She consulted her instructions. He was the one.

*

“I don’t understand how this happened,” Andi’s case worker said. She looked so anxious that it almost made Andi feel better, either because she felt she should be calm for her case worker’s sake or because the magnitude of this distress made the problem itself seem laughable.

“Every Manic Pixie Dream Girl is implanted with an IUD upon issue. It’s regulation. It always happens.”

“Someone messed up, I guess.” Andi crossed her hands over her belly, which seemed to be growing defiantly even as they spoke.  

“And you didn’t use condoms?” The case worker looked up hopefully for a second and then, resuming the frantic tapping of her pen on the edge of her desk, answered her own question, “Of course not. What MPDG would use a condom? It just doesn’t happen. And here we are, so…you didn’t.”

“No.”

“A defective issuance hasn’t occurred in decades. There is a protocol, but…” The case worker put her pen down and stared at Andi with something, regret or pity, in her dark eyes. “I suppose it can’t be helped.”   

“What can’t?”

“We can’t send you out again like this. You’ll have to be discontinued.”

Andi started to say, “What does that mean?” but before she could finish, she was enveloped in total, impenetrable darkness.

*

Andi’s instructions told her that Zach was the man she was looking for. From there, instinct set in. She laughed right, dressed right, moved her hands perfectly when she spoke. It wasn’t so much shrewdness as an effort of will – she imagined his ideal woman and became her. And the questions she asked him, in their all-night talks, were always the right ones to uncover the tiny, septic wounds he’d never spoken about. One day, he looked at her and said, “Andi, I don’t know what I was before I met you. I was…going nowhere. All of this is because of you.” (He’d finished his novel; it was surprisingly good and set to be published.) “I love you.”

*  

Little had lived all of their life in a kind of blissful state of boredom. Each day was filled with examining one’s own whims, determining from moment to moment what pleasure was most compelling. Luckily, the place where they and Ma lived was full of potential enjoyment, of plants and wild waters and small animals. Little picked berries and ate them or played with what we would call rabbits, except they had many more legs, or chased birds with scales and peacock’s tails through the wood that surrounded the open field where they and Ma slept. Nothing was dangerous. Nothing was ugly.

Little’s day usually started with finding Ma. If Ma was in a good mood, she would be a companion in Little’s meandering adventures, but more frequently as of late, she was sad, quiet, and better left alone. When she could be convinced, Little’s favourite pastime was to make an animal with Ma. Today, she was smiling, eating breakfast, so Little felt brave enough to ask and she agreed.

Holding hands, they walked out to the far end of the field. As was their custom, Ma sat cross-legged and Little sat in the bucket formed by her folded legs. Little would say something – “fur” or “claws”, for example – and Ma would make it appear. Today, Little wanted something bird-ish, so they started with feathers and an almond-shaped body.

“Big tail,” Little said, and Ma stared at the creature, pressing her chin upwards slightly as she always did, and they both watched as great, colourful feathers sprouted and grew from its rear.

“Six wings!” Little exclaimed, but nothing happened. They stood and whirled around, ready to complain, but Ma wasn’t looking at them. She was making tiny, faint coughing noises, bent over her own lap. Little cried out and dropped to their knees beside her. “Ma!”

Slowly, she started to regain her breath. She still didn’t seem able to speak, but Little could see that she was staring over their shoulder. Her eyes were wide open in fear. Little turned.

The bird had stopped growing. It had laid its head down and was making coughing noises just like the ones Ma had been making, but louder. Its feathers were falling out, leaving raw pink patches on a body that had otherwise turned entirely grey.

*

Andi was a novice. When he told her he loved her, she said it back. She meant it. Sometimes the MPDGs with more complex missions said it and didn’t mean it, or didn’t say it at all, but they would be equipped with things like logic defying bangs/headband combos, eyes that took up improbable territory on their faces, threatened indie bakeries. By comparison, Andi’s task was straightforward and she had been left more or less to her own devices. Now that the novel was done, Zach’s life turned around, she was supposed to make her exit quietly, leaving him with a scar that would make him better rather than ruin him.   

She could see that he was a good man. There was something oddly noble about him, a trait that seemed not only out of place in his person – buried in his softness, the apathy that pulled at him too easily – but also anachronistic in his strange world. She realized that she was pregnant a few months after they said they loved each other. She hadn’t been taught much about pregnancy – it not being something that was supposed to happen to MPDGs – but she’d absorbed enough of the TV shows Zach watched and the books he read to recognize what was happening to her.

The evening she took the test, she went for a walk by herself. She liked Earth, not that she knew any other real place – the sterile lab that served as a womb, a series of training courses – but there were elements of it she found jarring. She’d found a walking route that took her away from streets with cars, McDonaldses, bars spitting their smokers out. It led down lonely streets to a little park. It was almost dark and the trees were black outlines of grey leaves, but even in monochrome, the park was beautiful. She’d taken this walk many times when Zach was writing, not having much else to do with herself.

It might have made sense to sit on a bench and contemplate, but she found herself so paralyzed by thought that she just stood in the middle of the park. It would have looked strange to someone walking by, but no one walked by. She didn’t know what to do next. Her ideas danced around an impossible pearl of a dream, one that was too painful to think about directly but that gleamed in the shadows of every other option. (She could stay here, with Zach. They could have a life. They could have a baby.)  

In the end, she’d gone to her case worker. She didn’t know, in retrospect, why she’d done it. It was easiest or she was too trusting or when you want something that can never happen, it doesn’t matter what you get instead.       

*

Little woke up and stayed a moment on their back, staring upwards. The globe, once bursting with fluffs, was now dented on one side; a quarter of its offspring had departed.

Unusually, Ma was still asleep, lying on her side beside Little. She was drooling a bit. Her upper arm was flung out toward Little as if she had been trying to hold them.

“Ma?” Little shook her. She opened her eyes blearily.

Little knew they shouldn’t, but they asked anyway, something desperate in their chest pushing the question out: “Can we make an animal today, Ma?”

“No. Don’t ask me to do that.”

“Please, Ma.”

“Don’t ask again.”

She rolled over, away from them, curled the outstretched arm back into her own body.

*

Suddenly, she was in complete darkness. The last thing she remembered was that word her case worker had said, “discontinue,” but it seemed very far away. Other things seemed closer: the flecks of colour in Zach’s irises; the memory of the white moon of his naked ass, which always made her wonder how she could have so much repulsion and love for the same thing; his breath on her neck when he fell asleep on her pillow.

Complete darkness had the texture of felt but was elastic. When she pushed against it, trying to see if she could – what? Swim away? – it resisted her limbs. She pushed harder. She gasped as her arm broke through. Beyond, there was nothing. Nothing against her skin, no resistance to her body. Her arm slid through the air like it would keep going forever, tear itself from her torso and fly into the void. She pulled it back into her chest, shivering.

She didn’t know what to do next. She curled into a ball and wept. When she couldn’t cry anymore, she closed her eyes and let the dark cradle her. She turned herself inward and set herself to forgetting.

*

Little had a creature that liked to live near the stream that ran through the woods around the perimeter of Ma and Little’s place. It played in the stream, slick like an otter, and ate the tiny fish that lived there. When it was tired or afraid, it became a ball of fur, unrecognizable as a living thing, but when Little would pet it, it would feel safe and let eyes, mouth, nose out like a turtle would its head. Little had a shimmering, flat flying creature that looked like a silk scarf twisting itself into knots in the air. They had a snail whose shell was so large and roomy that one could walk in and visit the snail in its own home and comment on the good taste of the furnishings. Ma had made it very slow to prevent the complete destruction of the forest, so that it took many months for Little to notice that the snail had made it half or a quarter of the way around the place in its constant orbit. Little got to name these creatures. When they couldn’t think of a name, they would ask Ma – although many of the animals remained nameless, because after all, they were so rarely spoken of.

Little had an entire forest where they could explore, watching to see which animals got along with each other and which ones quarreled and wondering whether they were actually talking to each other with those sounds they made.

One day, just once, there was a person standing in the trees in the woods. Seeing this person, Little realized that Ma looked different now – she had looked like this once, fresh, with smooth skin and dark hair. The stranger had greenish eyes, like Little’s, not like Ma’s. They were staring straight at Little. Little called out, just a sound because they didn’t know what to say. The person looked for a second more, really looking, and then, abruptly, turned and walked off between the trees and vanished, leaving Little with a vast aching feeling. In that moment, they realized that a quieter version of this ache was always with them. Little knew that they could never tell Ma about this.    

*

She must be dying. The creatures she’d made were limping. Reptilian things were in an unending shedding; fowl were dropping bloody feathers. She’d spent an entire day staring at the gargantuan snail, trying to see whether it was still moving. It was impossible to tell. The dandelion had a last few seeds hanging from its pockmarked face.

She felt an immense sadness for Little. She hadn’t thought this far ahead.

*

She gave birth there, in the darkness, the pain waking her up as it ripped through her.

And then she was holding a little, naked baby in her arms, and she loved it, and she could not pretend anymore that she wasn’t.

She knew what to do as she had known what to do to for Zach.

She closed her eyes and imagined, a forest, a stream, a field where a child could play.

She willed it to be.

 

Charlotte Joyce Kidd

 

Charlotte Joyce Kidd thinks that showing someone else what happens in your singular, freaky imagination is the scariest thing a person can do, and she does it constantly to prove to herself that she can. She’s close with her grandparents, all four of whom are living and know how to use the internet. Because of their deep love for her, they never mention her writing. *If she’s figured out social media by the time this is published, she’ll let you know.

172 comments

  1. EveKidd ( Likes: 538 ) says:

    When I read “a particle of the web detached itself, wobbled under the weight of a seed half its size and, finally finding its balance, danced away into an empty sky”, I pictured a dandelion seed detaching from the stalk so clearly. I loved the imagery, excellent work Charlotte!

    1. Maudie ( Likes: 138 ) says:

      Oops. I meant to say that I totally agree with MKidd67’s comment “Great last line of the story!”

  2. mkidd67 ( Likes: 187 ) says:

    A striking feature of the story was the contrast between the themes of death and decay in the second to last chapter and the theme of birth and creation in the final chapter.

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      No. If your purpose comes pre packaged from a factory, you have been sent a sex doll. Return it. Find a new purpose. Make sure you’re not sending it into a black void. If the return label says “black void” or “c/o caseworker” or “ethereal factory”, whisper gently to it to see if it may, in fact, be sentient. If she is, contact me for further instructions.

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Summer isn’t really a manic pixie dream girl, JGL just thinks she is, but zooey deschanel is always a manic pixie dream girl, so that film is actually a tear in the time-space continuum. You think you’ve seen it, but you haven’t.

    2. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Who’s Autumn? With a name like that, she probably is. Does she have bangs?

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      That depends. Is this hypothetical Michael person going to be emotionally fulfilled by his murder spree?

    1. Egg ( Likes: 455 ) says:

      I disagree. The story is about a little lost child who has a mother that just doesn’t care enough to even name it.

    2. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Really liking these interpretations – at the risk of playing into Jill’s insult, I don’t want to ruin people’s personal readings by just laying out my idea of the story – but if you have specific questions, I’d be happy to answer them!

  3. Dan Glover ( Likes: 618 ) says:

    What a great opening line! By use of the vague pronoun ‘their’ you immediately let the reader know they are in for a different sort of story. I would like a better analogy in place of ‘honeydew’ especially since you go on to say Little has never seen one. What has Little seen? If you are going to immerse the reader in a fairy tale, then go all the way. Don’t start and then reach out to drag us back to reality.

    This is good, the difference between remembering and imagining. This makes me want to know more, to go deeper into the story. It makes me think, which is good, or at least that’s the type of reader I am. Some readers may not even notice the subtler nuances in a story like that. But then I think it is important starting out that we as writers realize that. We cannot write for everyone. Donnie Schultz mentioned that in regard to his story.

    The entire first paragraph is strong, filled with visuals. This is a solid foundation upon which to build your story. Well done, Charlotte.

    1. Grease One ( Likes: 456 ) says:

      I agree with Dan Glover on this. Really a great opening sentence. The rest of the story flows from it in a way which keeps the reader’s attention. Very nice.

    2. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Thanks for the support & feedback – and yes, I struggled with that honeydew line. In retrospect, I should have changed it.

    3. Jack Barnes ( Likes: 473 ) says:

      Writing is hard. Especially descriptive writing. I always struggle to describe what people are wearing. I’m not good with clothes or shoes.

    4. Jack Barnes ( Likes: 473 ) says:

      Colors can be difficult too. What about a blind person? How can you describe colors to a blind person?

    5. Jack Barnes ( Likes: 473 ) says:

      I think that’s almost what you are doing here. I remember reading a book in high school about a boy who was blind and deaf. His world consisted of smells. Can you smell a color?

    6. Babs ( Likes: 452 ) says:

      Also there is a smell to colors as well. A rose. A dandelion. All you need to do is smell it and you know what color it is.

    7. kgk ( Likes: 306 ) says:

      I agree with the ‘honeydew’ comment – especially coming so soon after dragging me over the gender neutrality sandpaper.

  4. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

    Love this illustration so much. Thanks to Andreea Dumuta, go check out the rest of her wild art on Instagram @galactixy_illustrations

    1. EveKidd ( Likes: 538 ) says:

      I agree, the illustration adds another dimension to the story!! Excellent work @galactixy_illustrations

  5. supermoo ( Likes: 287 ) says:

    I love your story, Charlotte, but I have a time relating to it. I even had to Google Manic Pixie Dream Girl though later I remembered yes. One of them follows me on Twitter. Still, I had no idea. That isn’t meant to bring you down at all. I love when a story makes me think. Expands my horizons. Allows me to see reality in a way I hadn’t.

    I didn’t take it as a neglected child story. I saw it from the perspective of someone who has yet to bring themselves fully into the world. Looking back on my own childhood, which I now know wasn’t the greatest, I can’t remember ever thinking I was in any way neglected or abused. I just thought everyone lived like that, that that was normal.

    Short story writing is an art all onto itself. In many ways writing a novel is far easier. You are not forced into the constraints a short story requires. Me, I’ve been on a Haruki Murakami kick lately. Just read one of his short stories about Burning Barns. Wow. Talk about metaphorical worlds.

    1. Tiny One ( Likes: 457 ) says:

      I think so too. It was only way later, after I grew up and moved out of the house, that I understood how abnormal ours was. I think a friend once tried to tell me but I shut her out. I didn’t want to hear what I couldn’t change anyhow.

    2. mkidd67 ( Likes: 187 ) says:

      I also didn’t know about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before reading Little. Are there any other specific cultural references in the story?

  6. Joshua Cochran ( Likes: 28 ) says:

    Some beautiful prose. but damn confusing. Jolting shifts in POV, hazy characters, and the dots are often too far apart to make a connection.

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Ha. Thank you! For the compliment and because I’d forgotten about the word spackle 🙂

    2. EveKidd ( Likes: 538 ) says:

      Lovely compliment! Also love the word spackle, will try and use it in a sentence if possible.

  7. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 804 ) says:

    This story is sweet but to an extent where I find it hard to believe.
    Neglected children don’t have whimsical beautiful lives, in many cases they fail to even grow.
    You’ve created a world where some characters seem bound by nothing, and yet the implications are completely ignored.
    Why aren’t they supposed to reproduce?
    It reminds me of when people say, what would happen if you woke up tomorrow and everything was perfect?
    The truth is having fantasy come true is the worst thing that could happen.
    I also would like to learn more about the characters. They seem somewhat flat.
    The problem with utopia, I guess.

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Jill, thank you for the comment! Always appreciate criticism.
      And while I would prefer to just accept it than defend myself, I think you have missed a couple things about the story.

      1. Although the narrative voice tries to insist that Little’s life is beautiful and whimsical, if you look at what’s actually happening, there’s nothing to suggest it’s a great time. Little has only one human to interact with, their mother, who is at best distant and uneven in her care and attention. Their pets/playmates are interesting, but aren’t real friends. Some of them don’t even have names, because Little has no one to talk about them to. When Little sees another human toward the end of the story, they realize that they’re missing something huge in their life. Also, their mom/world is dying. I tried to introduce the tension between this supposed fantasy life and the ugliness that despite her best efforts, the MPDG can’t keep out of it. I like that you say “fantasy come true is the worst thing that could happen”, because I think that was actually the point of the story. Manic pixie dream girls are fun, but what happens when you throw in (an admittedly small dose of) reality?

      2. The question of why they aren’t supposed to reproduce is interesting and I guess I could have addressed it directly, but I tried to leave it up to the deductive skills of the reader. MPDGs are a romcom trope that usually serves to show a man something important about himself without actually causing any inconvenient changes or new responsibilities in his life, the way a real relationship would. So…no babies.

      3. I take your point about them not being particularly fleshed out characters. They were very real in my head, but it’s hard to pack everything into a short story. HOWEVER, I shouldn’t lean on this as an excuse – I could definitely work on representing characters in more detail even in a small space. I’m always trying to find the right balance of economy of language/poetic self-indulgence.

      Thanks again for your critique, gave me lots to think about.

    2. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 804 ) says:

      I didn’t miss those things. You tried but failed to introduce tension. Of course in fact it’s not whimsical, that’s my point. You say so yourself it’s only presented that way. Why? What do we gain by an unreliable narrator? Usually when a narrator is unreliable it becomes the meaning of the story. It isn’t here.
      As for reproduction. Yeah, I guess every dystopia needs to cover that in some way. I don’t think it added anything to your story to include it. Normally these types of policies in dystopia say something (in thinking of Huxley and Atwood) but you don’t say anything with it. Thus it would be better left out. I don’t gain anything as a reader by wondering this.
      As for characters, it probably needs to be longer. And characters always feel real to the writer.
      Thanks for your response.

  8. Donnie Schultz ( Likes: 725 ) says:

    I’m in love with this story. A world where MPDGs exist is bursting out of my head as I write this. The execution of the interweaving segments is expert. As with most fiction of this length, I feel like there’s too much left unsaid and unexplored.

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Thanks so much. I tend to write in strange time/narrative shifts, maybe because I’m a child of the internet and can’t actually concentrate on any one thing for that long. I always wonder if I’m pulling it off, though. Glad to hear it worked this time!

      I was never a big reader of short stories, even after starting to write them, but I’ve recently been trying to pick them up more, to learn and because I feel like I…owe something to the form? To me, the best ones kind of echo. Like they didn’t tell you everything, but they creatae the illusion that if you thought about them hard enough, you could figure it all out. Recently read Dinner Along the Amazon, a collection of Timothy Findley stories, and although they’re a little outdated, his stories really did this for me.

    2. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 804 ) says:

      I think the problem is when you try to say more than you have the space to say. If you narrowed down what you actually wanted to say, it would work better than expanding to have space to say everything.
      What are you trying to say? What’s it about?
      Answer that and you’ll figure out how to move forward.

  9. Dan Glover ( Likes: 618 ) says:

    I agree with Paddy Scott, to a point. This story requires close study, but I disagree that only a second reading will suffice. There are layers and textures here that force a reader to consider not only each sentence, indeed each word, but also how each sentence and word relates to the whole. I would like to come back soon to do this more justice but for now I leave you with this:

    Andi seems anything but a Manic Pixie Dream Girl so the contrast between that label and with who she really is is rather startling. ‘Someone messed up, I guess.’ Well put. I admit it took me several go-throughs to grasp Little and who they are and even now I can’t say with certainty. I love the ambiguity, however.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful story!

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      “There are layers and textures here that force a reader to consider not only each sentence, indeed each word, but also how each sentence and word relates to the whole.”

      That’s an incredible compliment, thank you.

  10. Paddy Scott ( Likes: 254 ) says:

    (Tried to post this earlier but guess it didn’t take.) Unfortunately this is a more complicated story than some and requires a closer first reading than may be possible when plowing thru 15 of them. Fortunately it is very good, and a second reading was a pleasure.

    1. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1243 ) says:

      Thanks Paddy, it was a relief that this was the first comment after being geared up to expect the worst!

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