BY CHLOE CLARK

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Girls went missing all the time in the city. Sometimes in groups of two or three on their ways to parties or headed to the store because a mother told them to remember milk on their way home, but most often alone. All alone.

Hannah Grossi wore her hair in a French braid. She could never do them herself and so her sister had helped her—brushing her hair out first until it seemed to glow. Hannah admired the braid in the mirror before going out.


The mall in the city had been so busy. She kept running into people she knew. It was the first time, in quite a while, when she’d gone out by herself. The people were so overwhelming.


Hannah wanted to call her sister, have her come to get her.Then Hannah ran into Tara Ross. Tara Ross, with her bubblegum pink hair and bright make-up. Tara Ross who would remember Hannah, a couple of years later, as she woke up in a hospital bed after a mistake—at least, that’s what she’d tell the hospital psych team—that she’d never make again, and would realize that she’d never quite forget Hannah. Never quite forget that moment.


Tara Ross who gently tugged down Hannah’s sleeve before Hannah could stop her. “Shit, you’re gonna never be able to cover those up.”


Hannah had pulled away, yanking her sleeve down to cover the still raggedly red scar tissue. She’d pushed away through the crowds, so many people pushing in around her.


Outside, the air felt so crisp and cool and she had trouble pulling in each breath. She’d just go home. The forest was a short cut. She started down the path.


Inside the woods, it was so quiet. Hannah reached into her pocket, felt her phone, thought of still calling her sister.


“Hello,” someone said. A person on the path, not far in front of her. The person was covered in shadows. But it wasn’t that dark, Hannah thought.


“Uh, hi,” Hannah said.


In the trees, a bird started singing. So low and deep. Deeper than any birdsong she’d ever heard.


“You’re afraid of the dark,” the person said. Somehow they were standing next to Hannah.


And she was. The dark and the party and the boy she didn’t know. Hannah had tried to get away then, too. Hannah’s phone rang, the vibration against her hand felt like when the train roared past her house when she was trying to sleep. But, it was too late to answer and Hannah heard birds singing and, only as the phone stopped ringing did she realize that the song was her.

Maura came to the city after her sister Maria called her to say that girls were disappearing in droves. Only her sister had said “Girls are, like, disappearing in doves, Maura.” And Maura had imagined that there were girls climbing into giant doves all over the city and then not coming back out.


Maura’s sister was a college student in the city. She studied interior design, how to make enjoyable spaces, as she explained it. So you’re not just in a house, you’re in your home, was her motto. Maura’s home, hours and hours from the city, was simple and the walls were unpainted and that was the way she liked it. Rooms with four walls and no weird angles.


“You’re here!” Maria exclaimed when she swung open the door, following Maura’s light knock.


Maura nodded and stepped inside the apartment. It had first apartment written all over it: A kitchen the size of a closet and bean bag chairs everywhere. Maria’s roommate was an art student named Greta. Maura often overheard her during phone calls extolling how the light looked or how the color of an avocado was just so abstract.


“So girls are disappearing?” Maura asked. She liked getting down to things.


“Like so many girls!” Maria shouted. She raised her arms up, spreading her palms out, as if to encompass just how many girls it was.


“How long has it been happening?” Maura asked, looking around for a place to sit. The bean bag chairs didn’t seem promising.


“Months, but more and more recently.” Maria said.


“And what have the police said?” Maura asked. Giving up on sitting, she leaned against the wall.


“You know, you know, what they always say.”


And Maura did know. The police always said: we have no new leads, the public should not be worried, the girls were out late, the girls shouldn’t have been talking to strangers. Or maybe, they just implied some of those things. Maura remembered when Indira disappeared. The police had talked to Maura for hours, feeling like days, had asked her if maybe Indira had just found someone else, someone her parents may have found more suitable. They never said “man,” but Maura heard it behind every word. Indira’s parents had loved Maura, had made her cups of tea when she visited, and sometimes Indira’s mother still called her up and they would share stories back and forth about Indira. The moments the other had never gotten to see: Indira’s mother would tell her about tiny Indira playing in the snow, and Maura would tell her about how Indira braided her hair after the shower, the quick deftness of her fingers as if she wasn’t even thinking about the braid at all.


“And what is the gossip?” Maura asked.


“Oh, everyone has different theories. The best was aliens, the worst was serial killer.”


Maria moved into the kitchen, so Maura leaned back upwards from the wall and followed her. “What do you think, Maria?”


Maria shrugged, opening the fridge door and pulling out a bottle of sparkling water. “They’re all young. They mostly disappear alone. That’s why I called you.”


Maura watched Maria struggle to open the bottle. She’d never had a strong grip. As children, Maura always opened everything for her. Their mother would sigh, “Let her do it herself, Maura or she’ll never be able to do it.”


Maura took the bottle from her, twisting the cap off with ease. “I don’t do that anymore, Maria.”


“Why not? It’s your gift,” Maria said.


“A gift?” Maura responded. She thought of her childhood, the sharp turn of her body when a girl needed her. It had always seemed a curse.


They’d discovered her power when Lucy Albertson, age seven, never came home from school one day. Maura, age four, sat in a tree, and her body had suddenly wrenched to the right. And then she fell, body twisting in the air. She felt like a maple key turning with the wind. Landing on the ground, her body pointed due east. The fall hadn’t hurt, not even knocked the wind out, and so she stood up and walked in the direction her body told her. It was into the woods, McCarthy’s place, where her parents always told her not to go. She walked and walked and walked until she found Lucy. Lucy had passed out at some point from pain or blood loss. Her leg was clamped tight in a coyote trap.


Years later, Maura would sometimes spill a glass of wine down the sink and the swirl of red would make her queasy, reminding her of a little girl with her bright yellow pants stained darkly maroon.


Lucy lived, though, her leg didn’t. At first everyone praised Maura, though her mother also yelled at her for wandering off, but then another girl went missing. Amber Halloway, sixteen, and everyone’s favorite cashier at the Pig. Maura found her body in the middle of the night, having sleepwalked to the spot, her body directed as skilfully as a marionette. Amber Halloway had been killed. Maura’s mother took to locking her in her bedroom at night. “This might be a gift, but you don’t need to use it.”


And Maura rarely did when she was a child. She used it more as a teen. Sneaking out at night, climbing down the trellis by her window, to find friends who’d had a drink too many, who were climbing into the cars of boys they shouldn’t, and Maura would be there. She liked those ones best—the just about missing. Those were the only times when it felt like it might truly have been a gift.


“It is a gift,” Maria insisted.


Maura sighed. “But, I don’t do that anymore.”


Maria took a sip of her water, swishing it in her mouth for a long moment. “I know. But please?”


Maura nodded, though even that small of an acknowledgement felt like slipping of the edge of something.

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In the dark of the room, Indira sat at the edge of the bed. Her face hidden in shadows. Maura pretended to still be asleep. The vision always left when she was fully awake. Indira was drawing something. A pad of paper in her hand. Indira’s hair was the shade of the night. How many times had Maura went through color catalogues trying to find that exact kind of darkness and not been able to?


Maura couldn’t help herself. She reached out and her hand touched the nothing that was there. Indira faded.
Maura’s gift had only not worked once. The one time she would’ve given anything for it to have. She had thought about that. What it might mean. Maybe Indira was beyond missing. She was gone, gone, gone, as if she’d never existed. Excised. Erased. Even the police stopped caring; wouldn’t take Maura’s calls after a certain point. Eradicated.


Maura turned on the light. The hotel room was tiny, uncomfortably not her own. She wondered if Maria was up. If another girl was already missing.


Maura stepped out of bed and went to the window. The city shone with the rising sun. The glass in windows sparkled. The street below slowly came to life. Maura’s gaze fell on the forest at the city’s heart. It looked like it didn’t belong exactly, like someone had transplanted it out of the realm of faery and no one had noticed. As Maura stared, she barely noticed as her body leaned forward, pressing against the window. Her fingers undid the latch, as if of their own volition, and the window swung out, and she swung out with it.


“Shit!” Maura yelped. Luckily, the window’s safety hinge locked into place, leaving only a six-inch gap open, and so Maura didn’t fall.


Maura slowed her breathing back down, felt her heart returning from its exaggerated pace. Her arm raised, her fingers bending on their own, so forcefully that her fingernails dug into her palm painfully. Only her index finger remained out—pointing at the forest.

It had been a Tuesday and raining. They met waiting for a bus. Maura usually took the earlier one, but had been lost in a daydream and missed it. She didn’t have an umbrella. Her hair was drenched. Then she saw a woman, dressed in yellow galoshes, spinning a pink umbrella. The woman saw her, hair the color of the sky removed of stars if that could be beautiful, and motioned to her to come hide from the rain with her.


And then it had been a Saturday, years later, and hot outside. And Indira had gotten called into work. She’d kissed Maura once goodbye, sighing at the heat as she swung the door open. Maura hadn’t been watching her leave, had already turned, but she’d turned around when the door closed. There was a feeling in her throat like she was about to cry though she didn’t know why. Often, she’d come back to that. There were so many warnings in life that people never paid attention to.

Maura stepped into the forest. She had called her sister once, said what she was doing but not where she was going. Maria was the kind of girl who ran in before calling the police. Maura didn’t need headstrong and foolish.
The path was winding. The trees dense.


She walked and walked and walked. The forest seemed unending. The light from outside the trees was dull, distant.


“Hello,” someone said. A person standing on the side of the path. Not necessarily a man or woman. Just a shape like a person. Their face was completely obscured in shadow.


“Hello,” Maura said. Her body turned to stare at the person full on, though Maura had not meant to turn. So this, then, was her answer. “Who are you?”


“I am…” The person shrugged. “Who are you?”


“What are you?” Maura asked. Asking the right questions was always important.


The person chuckled, deep and unsettling. “I’m the path.”


“To what?”


It shrugged again.


“What do you do to them?” Maura asked. “Where are the girls?”


“Gone. I take away their fear. I eat it all up. I’m…Helpful.” It said, sounding pleased to explain itself.


“Fear?”


“Girls are so full of them, you know. They’re gorged with fears. Fear of being ashamed, of being called names. Petty fears.” It laughed again and Maura felt her hands curling into fists. “Best of all, they’re all afraid of the dark.”


It stepped closer to Maura. So like a person, but not. Like someone’s imagining of a person.


“Who are you to call them petty?” Maura asked.


“I’m not afraid,” it said, as if that were answer enough. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”


It was right next to Maura.


“I’m not afraid of the dark, either,” Maura said.


“Everyone is,” it said, opening its mouth. Around them, birds began to sing, hopping on tree branches. They were calling out a warning, Maura understood.


But it wasn’t true. In the dark, Indira came back to Maura. In the night, drained of any light, she saw Indira’s hair spread across a pillow. Maura begged for the dark some nights.


Its mouth was like a black hole, filled with the caught screams of so many women. Maura reached into Its mouth, down its throat and grabbed at the darkness. It struggled, surprised. Maura pulled at something. She felt a swell of something inside her, her whole body fought on her side, and she wondered if it was rage she was feeling. Or if it was grief.


It started to shriek and its screams made It sound so afraid. Maura pulled and pulled and It began to unravel. Spools of darkness flickering out into the air. Maura felt her strength giving out and still she pulled. The trees were fading around her. The birds were singing louder.


At last, the person-who-was-no-person was completely gone. The forest itself was gone. There was just a stone in Maura’s hands—black and dull. A rock that no one would’ve picked up from the ground.


Maura fell onto the earth. A bird landed next to her, followed by another and another until a hundred birds had surrounded her. One hopped onto her hand and tugged loose the rock. Then the birds began to peck at it until even that was gone. Obliterated. The birds rose into the air, singing. This time their song sounded mournful, but not without beauty, not without hope.


Maura got to her feet. Her whole body ached. She wondered what her sister was doing. Perhaps, over dinner, Maura might tell her what she’d seen. Or, maybe, she’d just say it was over.

That night, Maura woke in her darkened hotel room. Indira sat at on her bed. Maura said something she’d never said before, a single word. A word she hoped would help Indira move on. And then there was no one there, just the song of some night bird outside the window—feathers as dark as loss itself.

Chloe Clark's poems and fiction appear in Apex, Future Fire, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and teaches at Iowa State University. Her debut chapbook The Science of Unvanishing Objects is out . Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.