Jenny Come Up the Well
by A.C. Wise
Jenny come up th’ water
Jenny come up th’ well
Ne’er let Jenny touch you
Or she’ll drag you down to Hell
The car had always been there, a 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass sitting on rotting tires in the woods behind the cul-de-sac where I lived. Even though its manufacture date meant it could only have been there since I was born, it felt older — like it predated the trees, like the woods had grown up around it. No one knew where it had come from, who’d left it there, or why.
It was called the Beater, not just because it was junked-up, tires dry to crumbling, stubborn, whip-thin trees growing up through the frame, but because kids went there to beat off.
A perpetually refreshed stash of porn could always be found in the glove box, which, like the car, no one ever admitted to leaving there.
It was one of the Beater’s many unspoken rules — the magazines were shoplifted, or stolen from underneath older siblings’ beds, but never bought. You never talked about the Beater directly. You never brought anyone to the Beater with you. Nobody went there under the age of twelve or over eighteen. If you took something away, you had to leave something behind. And that kept the Beater’s magic working.
Even though I was an only child and didn’t have to share a bedroom, I still went to the Beater. It was a rite of passage — sitting in the stuffy front seat, light coming through the cracked windshield, leaf shadows throwing patterns on the dash.
I gathered up images there and played them back later in the dark, spinning elaborate stories with the sheets pulled over my head and my fingers between my legs. The Beater existed outside time, outside normal rules. There, I could pretend the women displaying themselves for men were displaying themselves for me, and it felt like it could be okay.
The summer I was fifteen, I worked as an assistant at the local library, which mostly meant cleaning up after careless patrons. It was quiet enough most days that I could keep a book in one hand and read while re-shelving with the other.
The porn in the Beater had helped me figure out I liked girls instead of boys, but knowing what I wanted was miles away from knowing how to get it. All my friends either had boyfriends or at least crushes on guys. If there was anyone else like me, they kept it as secret as I did. As far as I knew, I was the only girl who liked girls in my town.
As I devoured books from the library shelves, I kept hoping I would come across a story with someone like me in it. A story of two girls meeting and falling in love, just to know it was possible. But every story I encountered was just like every movie and TV show and other piece of media I came across — boy meets girl, falling in love and living happily ever after.
The more I read, the more it felt like the whole world was telling me that I should be alone, or worse, that I was a mistake and shouldn’t exist at all.
“Emily? Could you come here for a moment, please?” Ms. Hartman, the librarian at the circulation desk, called to me, breaking into my reverie.
I jumped, guilty, tucking away the time-travel romance I’d been skimming while I worked. Like I did with the porn in the Beater, I’d mentally recast the characters so instead of the burly hero on the cover, it was a woman with flowing locks and cleavage spilling out of her dress seducing the heroine.
I took a moment to compose myself, hoping my cheeks weren’t red as I emerged from between the shelves. Ms. Hartman stood with a man whose back was turned toward me, beaming oddly as she waved me over.
“Emily, this is Brother Justin. He’s just arrived in town and he has some fliers he’d like to put up on the public notice board. I’d like you to help him.” Ms. Hartman took the tiny key that unlocked the board’s glass cover from her pocket and I automatically held out my hand.
At that moment, Brother Justin finally turned toward me. Except I was struck with the dizzying sensation that he remained still, and it was the library turning instead, leaving me off balance. He smiled — thin lips with too many teeth, going too far back as though it would tear his face in two.
“Emily.” Ms. Hartman’s voice was tight, and I wondered how long I’d been standing there, unspeaking and unmoving.
“Sorry. This way.” I pivoted, walking quickly as though I could leave the crawling, itching feeling at the back of my skull behind.
Brother Justin followed, and I fought down a wave of panic. There was no rational explanation for my reaction. My hands shook as I tried to unlock the glass. I dropped the key, and it hit the ground with a sharp ringing sound.
“You can leave the fliers with me. I’ll make sure they get put up.” I rushed the words without turning around.
“I’m happy to help you.” His voice was rich, but the edges of it seemed to buzz. It made me think of a fly — a dozen flies — trapped between two panes of window glass.
Brother Justin watched me, a physical sensation that made me dread facing him. I tried to glance past him to where Ms. Hartman watched us from near the circulation desk. Her smile was back in place, her expression almost radiant, and I wondered what Brother Justin had said to her before I’d arrived. Whatever it was, it was obvious he didn’t have the same effect on her as he did on me; if anything, it seemed to be the opposite.
Brother Justin handed me a stack of pages, all eye-searingly bright with block text announcing Brother Justin’s Revival Show would take place this weekend at the local soccer field. Come and Be Saved, the fliers promised, Come and Have Your Sins Washed Clean.
My mouth dried, my stomach tying itself in knots. In that moment, I was certain everything about me — my visits to the Beater, my late-night fantasies, the fact that I was a girl who liked other girls — was written all over my skin. The words on the paper weren’t a general invitation. They were meant for me. I was a wrong thing. I was broken. I needed to be washed clean.
I made the mistake of looking up, and the glittering black pins of Brother Justin’s eyes caught me. I’d never experienced anything remotely like drowning, but looking at Brother Justin was what I imagined it would feel like — the world narrowing to a terrible point, my chest crushed with pressure, everything in me screaming for breath I was unable to draw.
“I thank you for your assistance.” Brother Justin’s smile widened, impossibly, as though I’d just done him the greatest favor in the world even though I hadn’t done anything at all.
The papers dropped from my hands, scattering. Brother Justin bent calmly to pick them up, and the fear in me reached a crescendo. I turned, meaning to bolt through the doors, but Brother Justin spoke quietly.
My name in his mouth might as well be a spike, nailing me to the ground. My eyes stung, my whole body shaking, and I still couldn’t explain my reaction or why he terrified me. But he did.
“I hope to see you at the revival tomorrow.” Brother Justin slipped one of the fliers into my hand. “You are exactly the sort of girl who should be there.”
My fingers closed automatically even as I fought the heat building behind my eyes. I felt his smile, going on and on, even though I was still turned away. Finally, I heard him move back toward the notice board and the hold on me broke.
I coughed, putting a hand to my throat. It felt raw, bruised. I burst through the doors and out into the sunshine, not caring if Ms. Hartman fired me. I grabbed my bike from the rack beside the door. All I wanted was to get as far away from Brother Justin as I could.
More fliers greeted me as I rode home — neon pink and green, orange and yellow and blue. They filled shop windows and covered telephone poles; a plague of butterflies resting on every surface. My bike slewed as I took a turn too sharply, jumping from pavement to grass and nearly crashing into a tree.
Shaking with adrenaline, it took me a moment to realize I’d reached the soccer field. Heavy white canvas lay splayed across the green, a tent waiting to rise. In the middle of the field — a heart amidst the tent’s shed skin — sat a wooden stage, mid-construction.
The sides, front, and back of the stage were open, allowing a view of what looked like a small above-ground swimming pool embedded in the platform. Even at this distance, a sense of profound wrongness emanated from it. The same buzzing wrongness that emanated from Brother Justin.
And yet at the same time, there was a magnetic lure, a compulsion. I needed to go into the pool. I needed it like I needed breath. It wanted me as I’d never been wanted, and the force of that need crushed me, stinging tears from my eyes.
I gasped, a shuddering breath tasting of salt and gripped the handlebars of my bike as hard as I could. Of their own volition, my fingers uncurled as if something pried them loose one by one. I let go, slamming one hand into the trunk of the nearest tree as hard as I could.
The pain was enough to jolt me free. My hand throbbed, hot and red, but not broken. Before the pool could catch me again, I rode as fast as I could the rest of the way home.
When I reached the cul-de-sac, I dropped my bike, aiming for the Beater. It was the one place I was sure to be alone. Except when I got there a girl sat on the car’s hood wearing Doc Martens and ripped black jeans. She looked about a year or two older than me, with short, dyed-black hair, one leg bent, her elbow propped on her knee, smoking.
My skin pebbled, a mix of visceral anger that the Beater’s magic had broken, confusion, and embarrassment at the Beater’s contents and what the girl would think. Anger won out, but before I could speak, her head shot up, and any words died in my throat.
Smudged black makeup circled her eyes, indicating she’d been crying. My own tears had dried as I rode. The inexplicable terror that had gripped me in the library, and again at the field, fell away. The girl on the Beater’s hood, the girl who shouldn’t be there, the girl glaring at me with burning eyes, was the only thing in the world.
“He took her away.” Her words, the pain in them — it was as though she’d put a hand to the center of my chest and shoved.
“What?” I stared at her.
She blinked, as if she hadn’t seen me until I spoke.
“Who the fuck are you?” She jumped from the Beater’s hood, a fight or flight stance holding her body rigid.
“I’m Emily. I live here. Who the fuck are you?” I tried to match her bravado and failed.
Nothing else about the clearing had changed. It smelled of green and earth and stillness, but everything about this was wrong. I’d never seen this girl before. She shouldn’t be here, yet I felt like the one intruding.
“I’m Annika.” Her shoulders slumped.
“Who took who away?”
“The preacher. He took Lyssa.”
My breath caught. Brother Justin.
I didn’t realize I’d said the name aloud until Annika’s eyes narrowed.
“He’s here. At the library.” I hesitated. “He had fliers and a tent.”
“I thought I could get here before him. I thought even if he cut his pool from the network of other wells and corrupted it, maybe Lyssa could still use it to find her way to the well here.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Confusion made my words sharper than I intended. “There’s no well here.”
“Not anymore.” Annika pointed. “But look.”
And just like that, I saw. In the shadowed undergrowth surrounding the Beater, I caught sight of a rounded stone, and another beside it. More appeared the closer I looked, just enough to suggest the remains of a structure. How had I never noticed? How could a stranger know about this and not me? Annika gave me a pitying look.
“It’s okay. No one really knows about the wells, except Lyssa and me, and that’s because neither of us belong here.”
Of course she didn’t belong here, but I had the sense that here — this town — wasn’t what she meant. Looking at her, it briefly seemed there was a whole other self, a second girl lying just beneath the surface of her skin.
“Brother Justin set up a tent in our town, too.” Annika’s words sped up, tumbling over each other as I struggled to keep up. “He’s going from town to town, anywhere there used to be a well. Lyssa’s aunt made her go to the revival. Brother Justin claimed he would erase Lyssa’s sin, but when she stepped into his pool, she vanished, and now it’s like no one remembers her except me.”
Annika lowered her head, dropping her cigarette and grinding it to nothing with the toe of her boot. Piercings all up the cartilage of her ear winked in the sun and the tips of her ears reddened above the line of silver studs. Her empty fingers clenched reflexively at her side.
“What sin?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking, voice cracking, heart beating too hard. Something in her words snagged at me, filling me with a combination of fear and hope.
“Lyssa was my girlfriend.” Annika raised her head. Her eyes burned gold as ancient coins tossed into the depths of a well.
The breath left me in a rush, left me dizzy, but not in the way Brother Justin’s fliers had. I felt like I would burst out of my skin, like it was suddenly too small to contain me. This was what I’d been looking for. But the sorrow in Annika’s eyes drew me back. She’d had what I wanted, but it had been taken from her.
“Why did you think you’d find Lyssa here?” I asked it as gently as I could, not wanting to further her pain but desperate to understand.
“All the world used to be connected by sacred wells,” Annika sighed.
She tilted her head up, looking at the trees and the pinpoints of light coming through them like she was looking at a field of stars.
“They were watched over by a guardian, Jenny, and if you gained her favor, she could transport you anywhere. Even to another world. I thought when Brother Justin sent Lyssa away through his pool, there was still a chance Jenny would find Lyssa and keep her safe.”
“Jenny . . . Like Jenny Green Teeth?” I’d come across the name in a mythology book at the library that I’d been perusing as I worked. “Doesn’t she lure people into the water and drown them?”
“No.” Annika’s reply was sharp, a rebuke that filled me with shame. “She helps people, protects them.”
Her expression softened.
“You remind me of her,” Annika said. “Jenny.”
My pulse leapt in a complicated rhythm. My hand was still red from striking the tree, and I tucked it behind my back. I felt Annika looking at me, but how was she looking at me? How did I want her to look at me?
She’d spoken of Jenny like she was someone real. I thought of the stories I told myself, the ones where I recast the women from the Beater’s magazines and the characters from the novels I read. Annika made me feel like I’d fallen into one of those stories, and my skin burned all over. As fantastical and as terrible as it sounded, I desperately wanted Annika’s story to be real.
“Emily.” She seemed to read my mind, saying my name softly, a spell that compelled me to meet her eyes.
“Stories are magic.” She held my gaze — old coins, pieces of sunlight reflecting off water. I’d been certain her eyes were brown, but now they were every color and no color at all, mesmerizing and beautiful.
“Stories make the truth, not the other way around. Stories let us shape the world the way we want it to be.”
A wildly inappropriate thought filled my head and wouldn’t let go. I wanted to kiss her, fall into her, swim in her, drown. Except it wouldn’t be like drowning. It would be like finally learning to breathe.
“Let me show you something.” Annika bent to retrieve a sketchbook from a backpack leaning against one of the Beater’s rotting tires.
She flipped pages, and I leaned closer, catching the spicy scent of incense and sweat mixed together. Dappled sunlight illuminated a page covered in colored-pencil drawings, all shades of green and blue and purple. The same two characters over and over again, some just details of heads and hands, some full or partial poses, limbs fading away into ghostly mist.
One girl was green-skinned, with wet ropes of long, dark hair. Her parted lips showed a hint of sharp, pointed teeth. The other girl had bluish skin dappled with grey, making me think of a seal’s fur. Her eyes were over-large, liquid and round.
“This is us,” Annika said softly, “me and Lyssa. We’re not human.”
Below the blue-grey girl, the word selkie had been written; below the green-skinned girl, the word rusalka. My blood sang at the last image on the page. Annika had finally drawn the girls together, a webbed hand resting on a blue-grey shoulder, heads tilted, lips parted, frozen in the moment before a kiss. Better than all those glossy, sun-drenched pictures in the Beater — here were two girls, loving each other, not a show for anyone else, but lost in their own private world — a magic I’d scarcely dared dream.
“You drew all this?” I couldn’t look at Annika.
This felt more private, more intimate than any of the porn in the Beater. Longing bloomed, making my eyes sting.
“Brother Justin knew Lyssa and I were in love. He knew we were magic. That’s why he sent her away.”
Just like that, she said the word — love — like it was the easiest thing in the world. A breeze stirred the trees, making the leaf shadows flicker.
“I’ll help you find her.” The words tumbled from my mouth, a promise I had no idea how to keep. All I knew was I wanted Annika to keep looking at me the way she was looking at me now, like she knew me, like I belonged somewhere. Like I wasn’t alone.
I crouched beneath the bleachers, muscles aching from holding still. Sweat dried cold on my skin as I watched friends and neighbors file into Brother Justin’s tent. I saw Ms. Hartman, several of my teachers, others. Couldn’t they feel the hunger? The palpable sense of something wrong?
High voices, broken by the complicated rhythm of a clapping game drifted across the field, coming from two girls standing by the entrance to the tent while their parents talked.
“Jenny come up from the water, Jenny come up from the well. Never let Jenny touch you, or she’ll drag you down to hell.”
I wanted to run to the girls, shake them and demand they tell me where they’d learned the song. Was it just a coincidence, or had Brother Justin already got to them, convinced them Annika’s guardian spirit was a monster?
The girls’ parents broke from their conversation and hustled them into the tent. I waited to make sure there were no more stragglers, then crept closer, peering through a gap by the tent’s door. Brother Justin made his way to the front and climbed the steps to the now fully assembled stage and stood beside the pool.
He spread his arms, his voice rolling through the tent, welcoming everyone and asking who would step forward and be made clean. The words struck me, a reverberation in my ribcage and toes. They were hooks, tugging at me, wanting me to go to him. I clenched my jaw, using the hand I’d punched the tree with yesterday to grip the earth beside me, letting the lingering ache ground me. People murmured, an electric charge passing through the tent.
Brother Justin didn’t look toward my hiding spot, but he didn’t need to. His words were for me, and it was getting harder to stay in place. I shouldn’t have come. Had I expected he would produce Lyssa like a rabbit from a hat? That I could swoop in and save her and have and Annika look at me like a hero from one of my stories?
Brother Justin dragged the plywood cover from the pool with a terrible scraping sound. I couldn’t see the water from this angle, but I could feel it — dark and wanting, slick and hungry. I tried to angle my body away, lessen the pull, but as I turned my bones felt like they were splintering inside my skin. Words crowded my throat, longing to shout themselves and give me away, cutting off my breath.
I wasn’t sure whether I heard the name aloud or only in my head. It sounded like the hush of the tide coming in, a dropped stone echoing from the depths of a well. It was cool water, washing over me, drowning the sound of Brother Justin’s voice and setting me free. I fled.
Back to the cul-de-sac and the Beater where Annika sat waiting. I felt foolish, guilty, and relieved all at once. I’d run off without a plan, failed, yet I wanted her to fold me in her arms, tell me it would be okay.
“I’m sorry. I tried, but I couldn’t. I went to Brother Justin’s revival to find Lyssa, but . . .”
My eyes leaked and my nose ran. I tasted salt, thick at the back of my throat, and I couldn’t stop my chest from hitching.
“I shouldn’t have let you go alone. I was a coward.” Annika patted the hot metal of the Beater’s hood beside her. “Here. Sit.”
Despite her black clothing, and the fact the metal had been baking all day in the sun, she didn’t seem bothered. Warmth rose through the backs of my legs as I eased into place, sharply aware of how little space there was between us. I wondered if she had a car stashed somewhere nearby, or if she’d she slept rough in the woods somewhere, waiting to see if I would return.
I focused on the shadows, the place where I now knew the well to be. I pictured Jenny, green skin, like Annika’s picture of the rusalka, but softer, a creature with pointed ears and eyes slit by vertical pupils. I could almost see her, crouched on the lip of a well, hands braced, knees pointed upward like a cartoon frog. There was a slickness about her. She glistened. Her head cocked to one side, a long braid hung over one shoulder. Her teeth were green, but not with moss or rot; they glittered, like she’d been chewing emeralds.
I wondered if I should tell Annika about the clapping rhyme, that Brother Justin was already spreading his lies here, or that I’d heard someone call Jenny’s name and that it had felt like they were calling to me.
“I’m going to try again,” I said, not daring to look at Annika. “Tonight.”
“I’m coming with you this time,” she said, her eyes that moon-gold again. Old. Inhuman. “I never should have let you go alone.”
For a moment, I thought she might kiss me. Everything in me seized up with desire and fear, but she gave me a sad smile instead.
“I’ll see you tonight.”
Then she slid off the Beater’s hood and was gone.
I’d passed the soccer field hundreds of times in my life, even played there when I was younger, but Brother Justin’s tent — hulking between the goals and shining brighter than the clear night warranted — had transformed it into something sinister.
“Hey.” Annika spoke close enough to my ear to raise the tiny hairs on my skin, and I almost yelped.
She’d melted out of the darkness. Nowhere a moment before, then close enough to touch.
“Let’s go,” I whispered.
We crept into the tent. Everything remained set up for Brother Justin’s sermon, rows of chairs facing the wooden stage, the plywood cover over the pool. Did he plan to keep holding revivals until my will broke and I went to him so he could make me vanish? Until he found Annika too? The thought chilled me.
Even now, the pool called me. Beside me, Annika winced too.
“You feel it?” I asked.
She nodded, her expression pained, as if speaking was too much effort. I still had no clear idea of how to get Lyssa back, if it was even possible, but I climbed onto the stage. Beneath the plywood cover, the distinct sound of water lapping the pool’s sides filled the silence.
With nothing to stir it, the water should be still, but it moved, like a sentient thing with a will of its own. The longer I listened, the more it sounded like words, a lulling murmur saying my name over and over again. Emily. Emily. Emily. It would be so easy to give in. The world didn’t want me. Girls like me were wrong, we didn’t fit anywhere, but in the water, we would be absolved, made clean.
Annika let out a low noise, almost a whimper. I gripped her hand, winding my fingers between hers and squeezing hard.
“I won’t let you go,” I said. Then, after a moment, “Should we look?”
Annika’s eyes were wide in the dark, but she nodded. She let go of my hand. I felt the absence of her touch, but I could still resist the water if she was at my side.
We wrestled the cover free. The water lay utterly still, but the lapping noise went on, a sick, low chuckle. I knew the pool couldn’t be deeper than the base of the stage, but it seemed fathomless.
“What do we do now?” Uncertainty colored Annika’s voice.
Part of me had expected her to have a plan. She was the one who knew about wells and pools. She claimed to be a rusalka. But what if she was only a confused girl, as scared as I was? Maybe there wasn’t anything special about her at all — about either of us — and the drawings and Jenny and the wells and all of it was just a story she’d told to find her way out of something terrible happening to someone she loved.
A hand grabbed my shoulder, wrenching me backward. Brother Justin loomed over me, as if he’d solidified from the darkness itself — massive, blocky and impossible. Terror froze me.
Annika let out a wordless shout of rage, throwing herself at him. He flicked her aside without even looking, and she bounced off of him, crashing into the first row of chairs. I scrambled up, trying to reach her, but Brother Justin caught my wrist — the hand I’d punched the tree with, and I hissed in pain.
“You.” The edges of the word fractured into a broken, jittery sound.
His smile stretched past his cheeks. Just like in the library, I had the sense that he could see under my skin to the thoughts I’d had in the Beater, to the way I’d touched myself in the dark.
“Emily!” Annika shouted as Brother Justin dragged me back toward the pool.
She threw one of the chairs, but it missed. Brother Justin wrenched my arm. My knee struck painfully against the edge of the platform as he hauled me up.
“You will be clean.”
Cold radiated from the water. It wasn’t water, it was a mouth. And it was Brother Justin too. They were the same.
And as terrible as I knew it was, I still wanted to go into it, to let go. To drown.
My foot slipped, skidding over the platform, as I tried to dig my heels in. Brother Justin used the hand that wasn’t wrapped around my wrist to clamp the back of my neck and force me to my knees. He pushed my face closer to the pool, my reflection rising to meet me.
My breath echoed back from the surface. The pool smiled. The same horrible zipper-like teeth that threatened to split Brother Justin’s face apart were in the water too, in the hard, glittering bits of light reflected from nowhere. They opened for me, and I leaned toward them. I wanted to press my lips to them, to my reflection. Kiss her. Drink deep. Swallow her whole. This is where my desires had brought me, the only end I deserved. Like Lyssa before me, Brother Justin wanted to erase my sin by erasing me, a mistake that shouldn’t exist.
Then, flicker bright, my reflection in the pool changed. Instead of my face, I saw Jenny, just as I’d imagined her with green skin and slit-pupil eyes, wicked teeth for devouring emeralds. She winked, almost surfacing, then gone in a flash.
“Annika,” I gasped, wanting her to see.
The pool was still Jenny’s. She was still there, which meant there was a chance Lyssa was safe.
I threw my head back as hard as I could, catching Brother Justin off guard. I felt his balance shatter, then Annika was there, all angles and fury. I rolled free to see them grappling, fighting for control on the edge of the pool. She was the girl I’d seen on the Beater’s hood, and she was something else entirely. A rusalka, made for drowning.
Icy water doused me, splashing up from the pool as two bodies hit its surface. Brother Justin and Annika.
They flailed, his head surfacing, then hers as she forced him down. She was a human girl, all fury and sorrow, black mascara running on her pale skin. Brother Justin had taken the person she loved, and she would have her revenge.
And she was something else entirely. Older and stronger, far more beautiful and terrible than could be contained in just one skin. Her eyes were the gold of ancient coins. Her skin shone wet, tinged green. She smiled, wide, and showed me her fangs.
She wrapped her arms around him, then both of them vanished.
I pushed myself upright, dripping, shaking.
The pool stood empty. The water rippled, black, showing only my reflection. Then it fell utterly still, and reflected nothing at all.
My heart ached as I rode my bike back to the Beater. Part of me longed to find Annika there, but I knew she’d be gone. All I could hope was wherever she was, she and Lyssa were together and safe.
The clearing seemed emptier than ever as I stepped through the trees. But two pieces of paper sat wedged under the windshield wipers. Pages torn from Annika’s sketchbook, like she’d known what would happen, like she’d left them for me before meeting me at the field.
I unfolded them with shaking hands. Annika had outlined the drawing in colored pencil, filling it in with watercolor, giving the figures an even more ethereal quality. The rusalka and the selkie in each other’s arms, full-sized instead of rough sketches, their lips finally meeting.
I turned to the second page, and my breath caught. Annika had drawn Jenny just as I’d imagined her — crouched on the lip of a stone well, head cocked to one side, braid trailing over her shoulder. Her smile, lopsided, revealed the sharp point of a single tooth. She looked like I’d imagined her, and at the same time, the way Annika had drawn her, she looked just like me.
My eyes stung. When had Annika had time to draw these? But it didn’t matter; it was just another piece of the Beater’s magic, allowing Annika to leave me a gift. A gift and a beginning.
Stories could shape the world. Annika had told me that, and I knew it for truth. I’d spent so long believing there was no place for me because all the stories I knew left me out, told me I shouldn’t exist. But I was still here, breathing, surviving, refusing to be erased. And Lyssa and Annika were somewhere too, together. Free.
It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, that I could write my own story, the one I’d been searching for so desperately and never found. All the fantasies I’d spun for myself in the dark, they weren’t for nothing; they were a framework to tell a story I needed to hear. A story other girls like me might need to hear too.
The summer after Annika disappeared, I went to the Beater one last time. No one remembered Brother Justin had ever come to our town. The tent had vanished, the fliers advertising his show dried up and blew away like leaves. He was like a wound, healed.
Even though I hadn’t been there in a year, the Beater remained unchanged. There was comfort in knowing that long after my time, it would still be there waiting for a new generation to discover themselves, with the same starburst crack in the windshield, the same torn seats and sun-struck hood. Leaning against it, with my eyes unfocused, it was easier to see the remains of the well.
A breeze ruffled my hair. I’d been growing it longer, experimenting with wearing it over my shoulder in a braid. I opened the Beater’s door, sliding into the passenger seat and breathing the warm, trapped air. It smelled like dust and green things. Like sweat and sex. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was comforting.
I unfolded Annika’s picture of the selkie and the rusalka. All around the edges, filling the white space, I’d written their story — the selkie and rusalka who’d saved each other. A love story, a story about sex. A story about two girls who didn’t belong to anyone but each other.
I tucked it into the glove compartment on top of the glossy magazines, my own offering, though I didn’t take anything away. I hoped, someday, someone who needed the story would find it. A roadmap to happily ever after, proof that there was a place for girls like me, like us, in the world.
About the Author
A.C. Wise’s fiction has appeared in publications such as Uncanny, Shimmer, and the Best Horror of the Year Volume 10, among other places. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella published by Broken Eye Books. Her work has won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, as well as twice more being a finalist for the award, twice being a finalist for the Nebula Award, and being a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. In addition to her fiction, she contributes the Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read series to The Book Smugglers.
About the Narrator
Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History and specializes in Science Fiction/Fantasy and Indigenous American Studies. She is staff on the StarShipSofa podcast, Editor in Chief of Hocus Pocus Comics, and faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University and Signum University. She lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge highlands of Virginia in the United States. Her website is amyhsturgis.com.