Vex Version 2.0 by Serena Jayne

My doctor wouldn’t approve of my little excursion. I wasn’t supposed to leave the house or drive or desecrate graves. I wasn’t supposed to do anything, but wait to die.

The woman at the kill shelter doesn’t comment on the dirt underneath my ragged fingernails nor the crusts of dried mud on my jeans. She doesn’t lose her patience as I thoroughly inspect each of their eight black cats for tufts of white to find the best match. When I snap a battered blue collar around a female cat’s neck, the shelter worker doesn’t raise an eyebrow. The woman doesn’t say anything at all as I pay the adoption fee with coins and crumpled singles.

She is blissfully ignorant of the whole sordid operation I’d recently undertaken. I’d dug with a small spade and then with my bare hands to retrieve the box my brother had buried. Fearing the corpse of my daughter’s cat was amass with maggots, I squeezed my eyes tight before burrowing inside the box, feeling the fur and the stiff little body. As I struggled to remove the collar, along with the jingling of the bell, I’d heard something snap.

Even though she’s barely eight, I’ve been teaching my daughter how I balance my bank account and pay my bills. Can’t have Charlie seeing a canceled check or a charge from the shelter. Can’t have her knowing I’d replaced her beloved pet with an imposter. Can’t leave her with no one to hold as I move into hospice.

I try to sneak the cat into my home, but a pitiful wail from the carrier gives me away.
My brother turns on the kitchen light. He takes the carrier from me, and I nearly stumble.

“I should’ve realized you were up to something stupid when you asked me to babysit.” He pokes his finger into the carrier and scratches the cat’s chin. “Charlie’s gonna know that ain’t Vex. Anyway, might be good for her to get a little lesson in loss before….”

“It’s just a fucking cat,” I say. “And it’s none of your fucking business.”

Exhaustion is a flame and my body a matchstick nub. I square my shoulders, using the dregs of my energy to keep myself upright.

He pulls me into a rough hug. “Amy’s gonna lose her shit when she finds out we’re adopting a cat along with your kid.”

I don’t remind him that he was responsible for Vex escaping and running into the street, because he wasn’t responsible for the speeding car that spelled the kitty’s doom. And he’d only come at Charlie’s request, after she found me unresponsive, lying in a heap on the floor of the shower.

Charlie loves on that cat as much as she did the original Vex, but she never challenges its decidedly unVex-like behavior. The way the feline has become my shadow. The way it sleeps on my pillow instead of at her feet. The way it ignores its predecessor’s toys and turns its nose up at tuna.

As Amy hugs Charlie and sprinkles catnip on the carpet, I try not to bristle. She insists on taking the cat to the vet, and I make her and my brother promise to use a new doctor, one who has never seen our original Vex. I hate that he’s clued his wife into the secret, then hate myself for being angry. They’ve always be there for us, and they’d be there to keep Charlie from burying herself in sorrow. She belongs in the light with her replacement pet and her replacement family while I slowly slip into the darkness of death.

The cat was supposed to be my daughter’s pet—not my comfort animal. As the days go by, I start slipping the cat scraps, and let its gravely purrs lull me to sleep. I stop raging at the unfairness of not being able to see my daughter grow up and make mistakes of her own.
Morphine makes my eyes heavy and my head foggy. The bell on Vex Version 2.0’s grave-robbed collar seems to beckon me to the afterworld. Sometimes, I have double vision, and I’m certain the original Vex is with me too.


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Serena Jayne has worked as a research scientist, a fish stick slinger, a chat wrangler, and a race horse narc. When she isn’t trolling art museums for works that move her, she enjoys writing in multiple fiction genres. Her short fiction has appeared in the Arcanist, Shotgun Honey, Space and Time Magazine, Unnerving Magazine, and other publications

The Better to See by D.E. Hardy

In my memory, your body is teal and olive and chartreuse, the afterimage of that day. You and I, inside the wolf’s glowing gut, covered in mucus, limbs distending our host’s gastric folds, our bodies slipping over each other while bile licked our heels.

It was disgusting; it was perfect.

I nuzzled your throat under your chin the way you said you’d done for your grandmother. It’s not goodbye. Just a pause. I agreed, imagining how it would be when it was my time. You and me, swirling in eternal red, our ancestral grandmothers holding us close, all of us waiting for our future granddaughters, possessing and longing, contracting and expanding, a universe. I should have asked if wolves were necessary, or could we get there on our own. I was so focused on you, on the ritual, on getting your instructions right: wait until your body was still, until the wolf had suffocated under our weight; take the embroidery scissors from your apron and snip my way out; sew you inside the wolf as a shroud; bury you both under the pedunculate oak. The way a granddaughter should.

We shared the wrong words—I can see that now—but I couldn’t yet imagine a wolf-less world.

And then, the ax. We oozed toward the light that beamed through sliced flesh and slid onto the floorboards of your bedroom, your grizzled hair matted with gore and wet as if newborn, as if you and I were now sisters, daughters of the wolf. Ersatz twins. A pebbled-eyed woodchopper loomed above us, saying, I got here in the nick of time. I wanted to scream—You ruined my grandmother’s death, you fucking idiot—but your hand on my knuckles halted my words. We were taught to thank men who decided to act on our behalf, so I said nothing, believing silence was a protest.

That was before. When the woods still stood. When your lungs still burned red.

Armed with assumption, the woodchopper started cutting, saying: Wolves hide in bushes, in brambles, in grasses. Everything has to go.

Inevitable townsmen arrived, two, then ten, then dozens, wielding hacksaws and hatchets, chainsaws and shears, files and razors. Didn’t we know it wasn’t safe in the woods? Didn’t we know about wolves? I tried to explain—the wolf was an old woman too—but my words bounced off unconcerned ears. Words were the wrong way to use my mouth. I should have shown them what great teeth I had, bitten their heels, gnawed on their shins until my maw glistened red.

Fallen trunks lay everywhere, the land shaved clean to its skin. The sight cleaved you, made you yowl: There is neither good nor bad. Wolves just are. Tears down your cheek, down your breast, your hand to your heart, clutched as if you might pluck it out and throw it to make them stop, always your eyes upon the heaped trees, jumbled like a child’s game—five, six, pick up sticks—your heart imploding, your cheek already upon the earth, its pink vanishing.
You were gone, and I was alone, an only child again.

They drooled as they altered our story, their eager mouths changing our lives, our tradition, into some kind of bullshit morality play for budding girls. Beware the woods. Beware the wolf. We don’t even have names in their version. I’m called by my outfit, and somehow that’s not the part that’s the cautionary tale.

You’d hate what they did to the land even more, how fast they planted fences, a patchwork of symmetrical acres. Neat and buildable. The fate of houses popping up, each with a different strategy for keeping its women from harm. This one, made of furniture catalogs, taupe and tan, able to withstand a hurricane of wolf-breath, brown like the dirt that would never be allowed inside. That one, made of candy, pale blue and lilac, its gingerbread trim painted silver with arsenic, perfect for luring any remaining wolf kids inside where double ovens waited. Nothing is red. An endless neighborhood of beige and egg pastels, everything see-through and plastic-coated for safety. Nothing to rip or pierce or make anyone bleed. A wolf-less place.

It’s their perfect; it’s disgusting.

Sometimes I pretend the wolf really was our mother, that I have wolf ears, wolf paws, a wolf’s snout. At night, I tramp about the streets on all fours, down the alleyways, between garages, hoping to attract my lupine kin. Surely, there is one left. My way to you. I sniff among the trash cans as if they were berry bushes, and wait, let my wolf-eyes show me the old forest: thick stands of oaks and beeches and ash that force light to dapple upon the underbrush, the earthen floor alive with ferns, their spores filling the air with mirky rot, the smell of life cycling, the promise of a path half-sketched among the brambles—how it was before—when I was just a flash of red against the green, walking and skipping and running to you.


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D.E. Hardy’s work has appeared in New World Writing, FlashFlood, Clockhouse Magazine (Pushcart Nomination), and Sixfoldamong others. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be followed on twitter @dehardywriter.