SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by Jen Julian (Read author interview) May 20, 2019

Art by Mei Sa Gou

For quite a while now, these people have been falling from the sky above our town. The fall is not easy to survive, though some of them manage. It’s a problem we have all been dealing with. My mother, being my mother, brings religion into it. She says these people are being punished, that they are fleeing a wickedness we can’t see. I admit, I used to believe her. Nowadays, I think it’s probably just bad luck.

Once, when I was little, a woman fell into our backyard. I found her climbing down the tree house ladder, naked and trembling, the whole left side of her body blood-purple like a smashed blackberry cobbler.

“Is this Chicago?” she asked. She really wanted to know.

“No, this is Versailles,” I said.


“Versailles,” I said again.

She opened her mouth but stopped short, like her tongue had just caught on a wire. “Do you mean Ver-sigh?”

“No,” I said. “It’s pronounced Ver-sails. Ver-sails, Indiana.”

She was disappointed. She didn’t seem to have heard of us.

When I called for my mother, she brought out one of our old blankets and some bottled water, placed them into the woman’s battered arms and told her that she could very well get to Chicago if she caught the bus out of town at 4:00pm. But the woman didn’t have any money for bus fare, and my mother wouldn’t give her any. On principle, she told me.

The woman ended up staying in town for twenty years. She got a job first at Keegan’s bagging groceries, then pouting for tips at TJ Todd’s Café and Cigar Emporium. I felt sorry for her, always smelling like smoke. She didn’t have much to say to anyone. Sometimes, she gathered with the other survivors who’d stuck around for reasons they never explained, not so much talking to them as sharing anxious glances, like they were all in on some terrible secret, like the danger in the unknown place they had come from was still with them, tucked like a pill down the backs of their throats. I don’t know; they never told any of us about it. That made some folks in town uneasy, which I get. At best, it was impolite of them.

Last September, I heard that woman finally followed my mother’s advice and moved on. I don’t know if she ever made it to Chicago.

Now that I’m an adult with a child of my own, I make it my job to attend town meetings where we can talk about this problem with open minds. The hardliners among us would like to mount spikes on our roofs as a deterrent—you can bet nobody’d fall within fifty miles of here, they say—but the kindest among us would like to install nets. We are proud of being kind. Eventually, we reach a compromise in the form of nets woven out of razor wire. I teach my son that progress is made through compromise.

I admit, it took me a while to tell him. Whenever he heard the screams dropping in from the sky, I used to say it was only stars—that this is the noise they make before they hit the ground.


Notes from Guest Reader Tyler Barton

It’s so tempting to write characters who act morally, in the way we like to imagine our best selves to be. But it’s braver and truer to write reality, and this story, even with its magic element, keeps it grimly real. Most people who know me know that I do not often like magic realism, but this story may have changed my mind.

About the Author

Jen Julian’s fiction and essays have been published or are upcoming in JuxtaProse, TriQuarterly, Beecher’s Magazine, Greensboro Review, and Chattahoochee Review, among other places. Her first short story collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, was awarded Press 53’s Short Fiction Prize and was released in 2018. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an MFA in Fiction from UNC Greensboro. Currently, she teaches fiction and literature at Allegheny College, though she considers North Carolina her home.

About the Artist

Mei Sa Gou (美撒郭) is a photographer living and working in Hangzhou, China. His work explores the way in which deception and illusion have become dominant phenomena in the contemporary world, from the nature of the food we eat to the pollutants we’re exposed to in the air we breathe. In a world characterized by surveillance and unknown intentions, his work nevertheless expresses a message of love.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Four of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Four

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