from "When Fire Splits the Sky"


Today’s the third time Maranda’s called off work to secretly trail her husband, driving up Glacier Highway out of Juneau. She knows it’s stupid, but her mind is an in-spiral. What else can you do but follow it?

Ben’s been acting different lately. He comes home and paces the kitchen, muttering. She pretends to be asleep on the couch with the TV on, but she’s not asleep.

A guy like Ben could’ve had anyone. He’s ideal. But he chose her. Maybe, just maybe, that says something about her.

Of course, a voice says, if he’s out here doing what you think he’s doing, that says something about you too.

Shut up, she thinks. Shut the fuck up.


For as long as she can remember, Maranda’s been accompanied by voices. They orbit her head like moons.

Planets have to hate their moons. No goddamn quiet. Jupiter’s got, what, like 70? Probably at least a two-dozen of them are bitches.

The voices talk to her, sure, but a lot of the time they talk to each other too. It’s like she’s listening to a full room. They’ve got names, accents. One of them’s a dude.

Sometimes, her voices take over. Hip-bump her right out of the frame. Sometimes she’s aware of what’s going on when they’re out, and sometimes she’s got no idea it’s even happened until she’s back. There’s no rhyme or reason, really.

She tries not to think about any of this, and sometimes gets long stretches without hearing them. It was worse right after she got out, and then they quieted down for a while when she and Ben got together. But now, now they’re going again.

Now she can definitely hear them.


Maranda’s a black hole for pain. Pain comes screaming out of the air like jet fighter-knives. They sheathe themselves in her flesh, handles sticking out of her eyes, her chest, her everywhere.

Normal people sometimes feel two things at once. For her it’s four, eight, two dozen. Her head is a DVD player that can’t read the disk. All the goddamn time.

She checks her phone—twirls it between her thumb and middle finger—but she’s not going to call him. If she calls he’ll know she suspects.

She tries to swallow the tension in her chest. Something’s about to happen.

Haven’t you always thought that? a voice says.

Sure, and hasn’t she been right?

Her life’s a blender. Lid off. The cupboards are spackled with memory and ruin. Chunks of red dripping from her face.


She’s always tried to out-drive her thoughts, and the Audi, her car—well, she picked it out—moves like friction isn’t a thing. She surges by a minivan that has been going exactly 55 for a mile now. As she passes she can feel the mom at the wheel staring at her.

Inside, the dude voice says, There a problem, bitch?

Her head is like a daycare. She has to shout to hear herself.

She doesn’t have the AC on because she can’t stand to have the windows closed. You need to have a little bit of air moving. Otherwise it’s a coffin. Plus it lessens the virginal machine-smell Ben tries to hold on to, though she tries not to think about that. Sometimes, if it ever does get hot, she’ll drive with the windows down and still let the AC blow. Ben teases her, and truthfully she doesn’t feel good about it either, but she still does it. He tells her to imagine all the havoc she’s wreaking on poor Mother Earth. The bunnies staggering from foot to foot with one paw to their throats, gasping. She tells him to shut up, and he laughs, and she laughs too. To show that she’s in on it.

She turns the radio on. The volume hits like an out-of-nowhere backhand.  

“…where summit talks entered the third day. Leaders are committed to…”

She shuts it back off. It feels like she ought to listen to more news stories as an adult and all, but she just can’t. At least not now.

She drives another twenty miles. The time blips by like she slept right through it. She’s in one place and then another, just like that.

It looks like rain, but spears of glare hit the hood of the car and explode. She takes the exit past Thane, hardly noticing what she’s driving through. Everything’s at the top of her stomach now. Up against the middle of her chest.


The Audi crunches over gravel. Ben calls this the cabin but it’s really a lodge. He’s supposed to be out here hunting, but his Land Rover’s not in the lot.

Hotels have always been a thing. She hates them. She tells Ben it’s because you put your head down where somebody else just did their dreaming but it’s so much more than that.

Her whole body’s a beehive. Her hands are doing their own thing. She flattens them on her legs as she walks inside, up to the man at the counter.

“I’m looking for my husband, Ben Watters.”

“Ben Watters,” the guy says. He’s wearing a bolo. “Ben. Watters.” He clicks through his computer screen. She watches his eyes scroll down, up, down again.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. No one by that name’s checked in.”

Her life’s a blender. Lid off.

Things click into place. In a way, she expected this. At least now she knows where they stand.

Inside she hears the angry voice, the dude, deep and clear, Well, you knew it, bitch. Didn’t I tell you and tell you?

The dude voice starts taking over. Snakes of fire wiggle in her arms. Fucking electricity, man.


Suddenly she’s outside. It’s like no time has passed. Like the world moved on without her and now she’s entering its course mid-stream.

She’s at the car, yanking and slamming the door—over and over and over—without any kind of volition of her own. Her arm keeps at it until someone touches her shoulder, the bolo guy from inside.

“Hey lady, you okay?”

The voice that comes out of her throat is the dude voice, not hers. It’s sandpaper. It says, “I look like a fucking lady to you?”




Tyler James Russell

Tyler James Russell is the author of To Drown a Man (2020), a poetry collection, and When Fire Splits the Sky (2022), a novel, both from Unsolicited Press. He works as an educator and lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Cat and their children. His writing has been nominated for the Rhysling and Best of the Net, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction, F(r)iction, Janus Literary, and the NonBinary Review, among others. You can find him at, on Twitter at @TJamesRussell, or on Instagram @_TJamesRussell. Tyler recommends the Polaris Project.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, November 28, 2022 - 22:05