Jacob Strunk


          Thank you so much. Again. Really.

          The woman smiles. It’s tender, raw, like the flesh around a wound. She looks down, breaks contact, and Allison feels her already receding, their tenuous bond broken, a string of spit between lovers’ mouths stretched as far as it can stand to go. The woman pulls a few neatly folded bills from a pocket of her handbag and pushes them at Allison –

          – who takes them, places a hand on the woman’s shoulder, and then gently steps back. The wood of the old deck creaks almost inaudibly beneath her bare feet. It’s a signal, and the woman gets it. Without looking up, without attempting that smile again, she turns and is gone. Allison hears her steps ascending hurriedly up the stairs on the side of the house, senses the vacuum left as the woman reaches the street; she probably already has her keys in her hand, walking double-time to her car, eager to start the rest of her life, tilting her face toward the August sun already falling low in the sky.

          She doesn’t bother counting the money. It’s not like anyone would stiff her. Not here. Especially not a regular, one who has the money set aside, neatly folded, tucked waiting and ready in an inside pocket. Thank you. Really. Really. Allison flips open the top on the old cigar box on the shelf under the coffee table next to a few photography and fine art books. She tucks the bills inside amongst the others. The box is nearly full, and it’s one of the few annoyances of working exclusively in cash, off the books, away from Uncle Sam’s prying eyes, literally under the table.

          Allison stands, stretching. Her back pops a little. That happens now. Her knees pop, too, almost daily. And it seems like at least once a week she discovers a new muscle she didn’t know could ache, a new tendon screaming to turn back the clock. Thirty-nine. That’s almost 40. Which is almost 50. And 50’s old. Right?

          She pulls the stub of an incense stick from where it’s burned down in the seemingly artisanal incense holder she found on Amazon. She wipes the errant ashes from the Ikea table into her hand. Beside the incense, next to the cold dregs of hibiscus tea in two cups and the aged box of matches she ordered from Crate and Barrel, the woman’s cards lie in a row, a few overturned, a few crossing the rest, overlapping. Something’s off. She studies them, even as her knees beg her to finish with the ashes and stand.

          Her eyes scan the upturned cards, the way they march across the table, the scant ash from the incense blown near them by breeze from the open window. And then it’s gone, the feeling, whatever it was. And her knees finally get through to her. With a grunt, she straightens and heads for the kitchen to put the kettle on. She thinks she’ll have some of that smoky Earl Grey. It reminds her of scotch.

          She’s already sitting, has already placed the hot mug on a coaster when she notices. It’s not a shock. She doesn’t gasp or recoil. Instead, she pauses thoughtfully. Her head tilts just the slightest bit to one side. The cards on the table are not as she left them. A single tall column of cards stretches the length of the table, neatly spaced and evenly aligned.

          Her eyes find the card at the top, The Star: a naked woman’s long hair hangs down, almost touching a calm stream as she bends to fill a clay pot from the flowing water. Allison has seen this card many times. It’s one of her favorites, frankly, tranquil and alluring. The meaning of the cards, of course, is hers alone. But that doesn’t stop her from believing in the practice. Reading tarot, as far as Allison is concerned, is a conduit for her to share her thoughts, her feelings, her perspective on another’s life, choices, sometimes looming decisions. And it’s a small town; it’s not like there are secrets, not really. She’s like a hair stylist, she’s told herself when guilt gnaws at her in the dark of night; her clients pay as much for companionship and an inviting ear as for the thing itself. It’s an art, a performance art. And this here, well, this is –

          The card nearest Allison, face up, is The Tower. And now Allison has to admit to herself the chill she feels running down her spine, humming like a plucked cello string. She leans in, just a bit, her eyes taking in the men leaping from the high windows of the stone structure, the flames licking at their boots. Black forest waits below to catch them, to gobble them up. For just a second, she thinks of September 11, 2001, her jaw slack and eyes rimmed red as she stared at the shaky video of the World Trade Center in the UW Madison commons, surrounded by the sobs of her fellow students, all of them knowing they were living in a different world now, that there was no going back, no turning back time. For just a second –

          And then she reaches down, collapsing the column of cards. She takes the cards in her hand, reaching for the velvet pouch embroidered with a rune the Etsy seller claimed meant healing and rebirth. But then she stops. She places the deck on the table. She leaves The Tower facing up, staring up at her, she thinks. And she pulls another card, laying it atop The Tower:

          A man sits upright in his bed. With his hands covering his face, it’s impossible to know what he’s thinking, but Allison has an idea. Behind him, fanned like peacock feathers, are nine swords, shining in the dark even in their crude two dimensions. Allison turns the two cards back over, straightens the deck, and stuffs the cards into the pouch. She blindly tosses the cards under the table, where they land next to Pete Souza’s Intimate Portrait and the cigar box of cash Uncle Sam will never touch.

          Everything went to hell two winters ago, the first weekend of December. She wasn’t drunk. She wasn’t high. Every Thursday morning was therapy, which meant sober as a priest on Sunday, antiquated as the saying may have been. This Thursday morning Allison told Gwynn about a recurring nightmare in which she found herself folded into the backseat of the Geo Prism she drove her last two years of high school, parked on the wet asphalt drive of her hometown’s Catholic cemetery, getting fingered by her teenage boyfriend as her father’s casket was lowered slowly into the earth outside the window.

          We’re not even Catholic, she told Gwynn. My father’s still alive. He’s not even dead.

          The creative writing faculty of Massachusetts State College would have called what happened next an inciting incident. The kid’s name was Dave Fisher. Most of the other undergrads called him Fisher, but Allison had heard more than one refer to a “Fishsticks” she was fairly certain was the same guy.

          This morning, Allison arrived on time, if a bit rushed, for her 11:20 lecture on Dubliners, not entirely sure where her notes were but confident she could wing it; she’d long since learned to tee up an argument over Araby’s last line on mornings she was hungover. Today she turned the corner down the hall that led to 210 with plenty of time, expecting the usual few students milling near the door to catch her and apologize for a late submission or ask for an extension or share a gem they’d found on Reddit in hopes of currying favor.

          But not this morning. This morning, it turned out, she was too late. The Class Cancelled notice must have been posted early, and any students who showed up had headed home when they saw it. Interesting, she thought, that admin hadn’t sent an email. Or a mass text. She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone, hit the home button to light up the screen.

          Nothing. She hit it again, then remembered. She’d fallen asleep the night before to a Breaking Bad rerun. Stephen had gone to bed already. Shocker. She didn’t remember, but doubted he’d bothered to say, Goodnight. Allison was on the couch, neck throbbing, and left her phone on the coffee table. Tomorrow. Fuck you, she’d thought, gently straightening her neck, one hand massaging the ditch between her shoulder and spine. She left the phone uncharged. She’d thrown the phone in her purse this morning on her way out the door. On her way to Gwynn. I’ll plug it in when I get to work.

          And she did. Back in her office, she plugged in her phone and watched it boot up, and after a handful of missed group texts from her English department colleagues about that week’s Love Island, the next alerts were an email and a text from MSCS: classes cancelled due to credible bomb threat. She laughed. In her office, her winter coat still clinging to her shoulders as she sat behind her desk, the door open on a silent hallway, she leaned back and laughed. A bomb threat, she whispered. Her chair creaked.

          And then there was a knock on the door, and there was Dave Fisher, half leaning in, thin fingers rapping their arrival on the doorjamb. And she wished she was high. Her breath catching, leaning forward in her chair, every story she’d heard of Fishsticks and his parents’ generous endowments rising like bile all the way up her body, pooling in the back of her skull. What she wouldn’t give, suddenly, to be drunk or at least that nice fuzzy kind of hungover.

          But he was always polite, and even as he invited himself into her office, let his Citizen messenger bag slip casually off his shoulder, his confidence – his goddamn assurance – ignited something in her. Her fingers tightening against the arms of the chair, the last gasping shadows of a laugh dying in her throat, she felt her core engage as Fishsticks lowered himself to crouch at the side of her desk. She felt her body rock forward, straightening itself, pulling taut like a drawn bow.

          His face split with a smile, he said, Believe this? Balanced on the heels of his feet, knees bent, his eyes rolled back like a shark’s, casually he said, It’s a bit of blessing because, listen, I’ve been working on my paper –

          And it’s not that she’d been tensed waiting for this moment or one like it, expecting something like this at every after hours meeting for the past decade and every walk to her car in the east campus faculty lot where lightbulbs seemed more precious than gold, and it’s not that she thought of Fishsticks as a threat – not necessarily, really not at all – but it made sense what he was doing. And so when he reached out a hand to touch her forearm, those two inches above her wrist exposed when she pushed up the cuff of her jacket, when he rolled his fingers over the bone of her wrist, she acted on nothing but impulse. It was a charge built up in her the past week. The whole semester. Hell, if she was being honest, there were ten years behind the electric crackle that finally shocked her to life.

          She pulled her wrist back, sucked her whole body inward. It felt like a snake bite. What she should have said was, Listen, hey, hey, listen. What she said was, The fuck? And as she pulled back, she pushed out. Her arms, still cocooned in goose down winter sleeves, shot out, pistoned into Fisher’s shoulders. She didn’t push him hard. He barely moved. His feet remained steady, his knees locked; even perched as he was, like a parakeet, he didn’t lose his balance. But, shocked, he rocked back and stood and his shocked mouth opened and a word fell out of it.

          Once the word was out, there was no putting it back, and Allison felt her hand close around her laptop, felt her elbow tense, felt the impact before she saw it: the long arc of the laptop from her desk to Fisher’s annoying face. She heard the impact as it found his perfect cheekbone, of course, felt it all the way up her shoulder. The dense crack, the suck of Fisher’s eye socket collapsing – like teeth crunching bone – found a satisfying home deep in her shoulders.

          As he fell – and he fell – she stood. Slowly. And in hindsight, she knew this was the moment where everything turned. In hindsight, she supposed it all made sense. And so there was no sense lying to herself. What happened happened. No turning back the clock. Something happens, and then it has happened, and then something happens next.

          What happened next is that she hit him two more times as he knelt there on the floor of her office, the first fingers of bright red blood beginning to peer out from his burst perfect face. Not hard. Twice again with the flat bottom of the laptop. Alone, those blows wouldn’t have even left a mark. Her heart wasn’t in it. But she was chasing those last screaming, twisting arms of the spark. One. Two. Not enough on their own to leave a mark on the guy. But after a man’s had his cheekbone splintered up and through his eye socket by the speeding edge of a Macbook Pro, as a river of freshly oxygenated blood begins spurting and gurgling and tracing its way along gravity’s path from this man’s face and down the front of his smart shirt and across the strap of his smart bag and his smart pants as his eyes actually dim and there’s enough blood that she can hear it – it was enough to leave a mark on the woman who swung the weapon. The laptop. A fucking laptop. And as she stood over him, watched him raise a trembling hand to the split seam across his face, pulling open like a sly grin, as his eyes went soft and then dark, she knew.

          She was not drunk. She was not high. And still the MSCS creative writing faculty would call that an inciting incident. It was the first weekend of December, two winters ago.

          The sun bleeds out behind the trees. Her deck faces west, and sprays of red and amber throw themselves against her, against the wall behind her. She squeezes her eyes half shut. She opens them. She squints, the light peeling away the technicolor behind her eyelids, rays of gold blinding her. She raises the mug to her lips, breathes a cloud of steam through her nose and up into her sinuses. She lets the sun and its heat soak into her skin. It’s the last week of August, and in Salem it’s a tidal shift. The summer tourists float out, foaming like polluted brackish as they go. The university fills slowly like a backwater, students seeping into the nooks and crannies, filling the bars and alleys with their dizzying youth. It’s a full month before downtown is flooded with tourists broadcasting Spooky Season to social media. Allison remembers a poem by Denis Johnson she read in undergrad, August all gin-sticky hair and steamy hatred coiled like a snake.

          Here, now, it’s the last of the smoky Earl Grey and it’s the brilliant waning blades of sunlight stabbing through the tree line to the west, coming from somewhere out beyond 95, past Danvers, past Pennsylvania and the Mississippi and everything she knows. Thirty-nine; it’s nearly 50. It’s nearly old. It’s nearly dead. Here now it’s the still air between seasons in the town she’s somehow lived half her life.

          The last tendrils of that watercolor sunset spill up and reach beyond the trees as Allison sets her mug down on the kitchen counter, steps back in the living room, stops in her tracks. She hasn’t had a drink in well over a year, but she sways on her feet. She can’t say for sure she’s had an orgasm in five years, but she feels now something like fingers crawling along the hairline at the back of her neck. One finger on her left hand extends and contracts with the beat of her heart.

          Twenty minutes ago, Allison blew the steam off a cup of tea and walked past a perfectly empty coffee table, the last incense ashes wiped away with a damp sponge. Now she’s reaching for the corner of the couch to steady herself, looking down at the cigar box set dead center in the middle of the coffee table, a few errant dollars sneaking their corners out from under the lid. A single tarot card sits atop it. Face down. As far as Allison knows, she’s not crazy. She’s done the work. She’s doing it every Thursday with Gwynn. As far as Allison knows, this is impossible. And if she is crazy, she thinks she’d know. Wouldn’t she?

          She kneels.

          She breathes.

          She reaches out. She flips the card. Of course she does. Because life is hard. And she’s doing her best. And she turns the card, and all of her – not just her eyes, but all of her – takes in the angel, the golden wings unfurled from its back, the sword held high over its head above a huddled mass of terrified… what? Innocents? Criminals? The angel’s face reveals nothing. Its eyes evade Allison’s. She scans its face for clues, but finds none. The figures knelt beneath it, bare backs awaiting punishment. Awaiting salvation. Awaiting Judgment.

          Without her knowing, her hands reach under the table, pull up the velvet pouch, open it, and being pulling cards. Spreading them on the table. Her back straightens. She feels sure somehow, and the pain that’s been dogging her shoulders retreats, creeping back and down and away. She moves her hands deftly across the cards. She flips the ones she knows:


          The Nine of Swords.

          The Tower.

          She flips a new card, damp in the evening heat, and drops it across them: The Hanging Man. Hands tied behind his back, eyes squeezed shut against the bright sun hanging in the sky above him. A gathered crowd, fists raised. On the hillside behind them: fire.

          The breaths she takes grow shallow. Her eyes narrow. There’s a tingle somewhere deep inside her. Down below, in the sacred place. It spills up to fill her abdomen, sink into her hips, crawl up her back. It envelops her, an embrace. It pulls her tight, holds her close.

          Another card: The Devil, eyes closed, one red hand extended. Open. Beckoning. Inviting.

          She bites her lip, feels sweat run down her temple, the back of her neck. An ancient warmth buds between her shoulder blades and she feels it blossom against her flesh as it washes across her. She feels it trace the needle-thin barely-there lines of the wings she had tattooed in white on her back last summer. It’s time I spread them, she’d told herself and anyone who would listen. I’m free now, she’d said in the dark, trying not to finger the still raw piercing in her left nostril. It’s a pin in my map, she’d whispered into another mug of smokey Earl Grey, the steam kissing her face, reminding her of scotch.

          She holds her hand steady over the cards, willing her fingers not to shake. Willing them to stay still, to not disturb even the air around them. She pulls in a deep breath, then wills those fingers to pull the next card, to flip it and drop it and let it land. Face up. It’s not an invitation now. It’s a taunt. It’s a threat. The card is Death.

          Not even ten minutes later and she’s pushing loose, damp earth over the cards; her knees sinking into the sodden lawn, she feels ridiculous. Scooping handfuls of dirt into the hole she dug with the plastic trowel she’d found on sale at Home Depot the day she went looking for tomato seedlings, wiping sweat from her brow in the dark, she’s mad at herself for… what? Getting spooked? Ruining the perfectly good set of archival-quality tarot cards she found on special at one of the witch shops downtown? That’s eleven dollars. The velvet pouch from Etsy was another seven. Including shipping. So what?

          She stands. Her knees crack and pop. Her back shouts. Fuck this. She wipes her hands on her pants. Stomps mud off her feet. What is it, 10:00? And she’s out in the yard behind her rental, down a flight of creaking wooden stairs from Bow Street. Down here out of sight where she belongs. Her left pinky hurts, and she imagines the knuckle will throb for weeks. Fuck this.

          She fishes in one pocket, then another, finally finding the lighter. Three flicks, each one a fifty-cent spark back to that girl choking on a joint in the high school parking lot, and then the sage is lit and she’s half-heartedly waving it over the hole. Smudging, they say. Healing and rebirth.

          Then she’s stubbing out the sage next to a bunch of half-smoked American Spirits in the bucket of sand the neighbors use as an ashtray. And she’s in her kitchen splashing Bragg’s apple cider vinegar into a glass of sparkling water. Chugging it. Another. It’s good. And it burns. Just a little.

          It’s not alcohol, she said to anyone who would listen. It’s not alcohol, she said to herself. But no one cared. She wasn’t even sure she did. She wasn’t tenured, but that wouldn’t have mattered. It would’ve drawn things out, maybe, and she could’ve fought it. She wouldn’t have, probably, but she could have. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Shattering the face of a wealthy alumnus’s heir apparent did not bode well for one’s further academic career, however satisfying the fan of blood it left across the pile of ungraded papers on the nearby desk might have felt in that one perfect moment in which it made sense. Leaving a student’s faceprint on the underside of a university-assigned laptop looked bad on a CV. Somewhere in the faculty catalogue was: No bleeding on the carpet.

          And no, He gripped my wrist wasn’t an excuse, even in 2019. And especially with a history of questionable conduct and more than one willing, innocent undergrad ready to speak at length about a certain associate professor’s behavior at institution-sanctioned social functions. And as the murmurs grew to a roar it dawned on Allison that accepting a perfectly newly legal joint passed innocently from an undergrad to her professor outside a reading may have consequences. And Allison knew she shouldn’t have let her TA drive her home when she had four hot and dirty pickle martinis at the Lobster Shanty after winter thesis presentations. And she knew that not kissing her grad students at these events did not make up for her wanting to kiss them – to kiss anyone – and that everyone seeing and knowing and living in the knowledge that the kiss was so palpable as to be real even if it didn’t happen – even as she pressed against their chests, holding a wine glass between them like a shield, coyly smiling as she praised their work in sexy slurs – none of that was professional. All of that was exactly not professional. And it’s not like she was tenured.

          So just like that she was out of work and out of a career. Thirty-seven, nearly forty. Just about old.

          And just like that, Stephen was on his way out, too. That wasn’t a surprise, either, as he’d been on his way out for awhile, and she’d frankly encouraged it. But it still felt like a tectonic shift if her world. You can spend a lifetime watching the pendulum trace its slow arc up away and then back down toward you, and you can wake each day knowing the inevitable is coming, but still the day comes that you have to brace yourself for impact. She wasn’t braced, not really.

          And so when he left – and it was he who left in the end, and without much of a mess; she would give him that – she found herself for the first time in her entire life upended and without any idea of where she’d land. Well, she knew it would be close; she knew the flaming arrow of her life had been launched skyward at a shallow angle, and it would plummet back down somewhere near where it started. But Stephen was gone, and he took the dog, and the house they’d lived in for eight years sold in the first week it was on the market. They were barely above water on their shared assets, and the market wasn’t great, and after Stephen signed the final papers he squeezed her shoulder looked away and without a word got into the Toyota Corolla that had once been theirs and pulled away from the curb and into the street and around the corner and out of her life forever. She knew it was her fault, all of it, but it was a lighter weight than she’d expected. It was, truth be told, a lighter weight than the marriage.

          She rented the apartment on Bow Street because of the backyard. She knew she wanted outdoor space, and she didn’t mind being below street level. It was just over a dozen steps down from the sidewalk, and she had a deck and the yard and it felt like more of a home than she knew most small apartments would. The landlords lived in the main house but were gone most of the time: all winter to their condo in Florida, and half the summer to their cottage in Portland, Oregon, where the kids and grandkids lived. Her first two months she read books and smoked pot and drank a lot of wine, dancing topless to ‘90s rock Spotify playlists in the sheltered backyard. It was everything she wanted and needed. It was great.

          But it wasn’t great, and eventually one friend – then another – convinced her to go to a meeting. The Anonymous type. She went. Usually twice a week, sometimes three or four times. She made some casual friends, and sometimes they’d grab a coffee afterwards; on rare occasion she’d meet Tracy or Becky or Chelsea at Isabella’s, downtown at street level, for breakfast. She fucked three guys that first year. No, four. But it seemed to her like that was something they all did, and it was fine, and no one needed to talk about it, and they could all remain cordial as long as no one got drunk.

          And life chugged along that first spring into summer, when one of her former students stopped her in the street outside Coffee Rock and suddenly just figuring things out bleeding dry a severance package and the tragic dregs of her former life’s equity wasn’t enough. Listen, Kacey the former student said. I think you’ll dig this, Kacey said. But she wasn’t Kacey. She was Kandy. And Allison was interested.

          It was performance art, she figured. A massage. Reiki. What’s reiki? Even reiki masters couldn’t tell you that. It was performance. It was bullshit. It was art. A massage. A handjob, if they asked for it. What was one handjob? It was a performance. Scatter some cards around a table. That’s how she saw it. Kandy showed her. A character. An act. A tarot reading. An energy bath. A handjob. A character. Microfictions, she thought; she was finally putting her advanced degree to use. A new project; she started a journal.

          And then suddenly a handjob wasn’t weird. Out of nowhere, a couple hundred bucks to read some cards and maybe get some divorcée off was normal. It was expected. Now there were men she knew, men from the university, men from work. And women. And they heard she had a special touch. And she did. She knew what to do, how to flip the cards, how to work her fingers. Folded bills, all prepared. She didn’t need to count them. She knew them by feel. By weight. She knew by the way her fingers traced lines, rounded curves, teased lips, tipped girth.

          Suddenly a job was a job again, and the meetings didn’t feel real. And she didn’t need a drink, didn’t want one, but there was still something missing. She flipped the cards. Her fingers traced the edges, delicately pulled them back, laid them down, read them and spoke their messages in soft tones through understanding lips. And whether it was a handjob or a healing, everyone wanted the same thing. In the late August heat, sticky and transient, everyone just wanted to get out alive.

          Everyone she knew, she knew, was doing their best. And what’s a handjob, anyway? She carried this question with her; she held it, her brow furrowed, as she ran her hand along a German graduate student. Twenty-seven years old; studying anthropology. Four percent body fat, he told her proudly. He biked 200 kilometers a week; her math sucked, but she knew that was pretty good. Especially in a slushy New England spring. She didn’t bother asking, he didn’t bother propositioning, and it all felt very natural: when the moment came, her hand wrapped tight, pulling against him. Just like she always did. But then a little bit of friction and –

          He gasped. His body tensed. She felt a sickeningly gentle give and the wet zipper-pull of tearing skin, and then blood pulsed out and up and coursed down over her closed fist. It shot up over her shoulder, past her face. She heard it hit the ceiling tiles like a silenced gunshot. She felt the heat of all that blood running down across her fingers before she saw his face tighten in a grimace, pull itself into an impossible caricature of pain. She opened her mouth to say something, but it was too late. She saw her fist already puling down, sliding ripped skin with it, the flesh pulling and tearing. She heard him start to scream, and as she tried to pull her fist away, she saw her fingers peeling away with them strings of –

          Allison sits bolt upright in bed, her mouth wide open in a silent scream. Her fists hold bunches of sheets pulled tight at her sides. Her skin is slick with sweat. Her hair sticks to her forehead, her neck, stragglers trace rivers across the map of her shiny chest, stark and bony in the moonlit gloom. She gasps. Her hands claw. Her feet kick. She can’t get air. She feels her throat closing, her vision dimming, time stretching out and out further and further  away  from her –

          But then she hauls in a big breath, and the oxygen fills her lungs and her blood and her brain, and her eyes clear and she here’s again.

          She breathes deep with relief. The room is empty. She looks at her clean hands. She looks at the clean sheets. She runs her fingers through her hair, wet with sweat and mussed with sleep. She runs her fingers up and down her sides, making sure it’s all there. Making sure it’s all real. She runs her fingers up her stomach, her chest, sliding across her neck, still slick with sweat. She covers her face in her hands.

          With her hands covering her face, it’s impossible to know what she’s thinking. It’s impossible, she thinks, to know what is real. Here in the dark. She sucks in breath through her splayed hands. Healing, she tells herself. And rebirth. She sucks air. She exhales. She breathes. She breathes again. In the kitchen, she drinks all the water left in the Brita pitcher. She refills it, replaces it in the fridge, and then cups her hands under the sink and drinks even more, even deeper. She splashes water on her face. Here in the dark, she lets the water run down the front of her pajamas, lets it cascade down her neck, splash on her bare feet.

          She rubs her eyes, looks long out the open kitchen window at the waning moon. She breathes deep of August’s last warm whispers before she knows autumn will suck the life out of the earth and the sky and everyone here in Salem. She knows when the students return, so will the rumors, and so will the looks. The whispers.

          Running her hands through her hair again, she steps from the kitchen into the living room. She is consumed by shadows, and she feels her features swallowed by them. But even in the darkness she recognizes the form rising from the gloom, stitching golden tendrils across the black as it traces its wings against the vacuum of the night. Allison stops herself, facing forward, straightening her back. She clenches her fists tight against their trembling, and her eyes narrow as she stares across the room at the place where Its eyes should be, hearing – feeling in her bones – the drawing of air as Judgment raises Her sword.



Jacob Strunk has been short-listed for both a Student Academy Award and the Pushcart Prize in fiction and received filmmaking grants from Kodak and Fotokem. His films have screened in competition and by invitation across the world, and his fiction has appeared in print and online for over 20 years. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and teaches film and media in Los Angeles, where he lives with a few framed movie posters and the ghost of his cat, Stephen. You can find more information about Jacob’s work and previous publications at www.sevenmileswest.com.