From The New Pen

Illustration for From The New Pen by Allison Hummel

I don’t think I’ll ever tell anybody what I did to wind up there, and I certainly won’t be telling you. But really, it doesn’t matter. My formative crime was a conduit: essential in its way, but ultimately just a tide-spat pebble next to the colossal bloodstone that followed.

I can tell you what everyone else did, though. Or at least what they told me they did. Katya stole four bottles of pills from her grandmother. The contents of one made her puke black stuff, a pat example of the truth coming out in the wash.

Ann lit her stepdad’s trailer on fire. Jean pulled a pocket knife on a police officer. And that was after she was found digging through the contents of some septuagenarian’s purse. We all wound up shoved into the old pen where we were sifted into tidy lines. Ugly dolls in bizarre, monastic tunics and socks that made us look ankleless.

Piggies in the pen. It’s what they called us. Piggies. They called us other things too, clever little girls and leeches. I like to believe that we earned some of these monikers. Our feats of innovation could be stunning. Did you know you can make liquor out of celery? 

But this missive comes from the new pen. And regrettably, this one’s so locked down that even the toilet water is beyond the scope of my industry.


When we woke up at five forty-five, it was dark. If you’ve never been subject to a rigorous schedule you might not be familiar with the five forty-five sky, but it’s purple, and very thick, in the way that milk is thick in water. Its opacity is revealed by the translucence of what replaces it. 

We woke up to the usual bell, which sounded exactly like the first few seconds of an airstrike siren, but cut off before reaching potency (Repeat this unnerving and impotent snippet of sound several times and you too can experience, in the playground of your own mind, the sound of the 5:45 bell!).

Ann looked over at me from her bed with her lovely, huge gray eyes. She was beautiful beyond description and my whole spirit cries when I think about her. Not that my face cries, or my eyes; I obviously don’t cry anymore. But my spirit cries. This is technically a supernatural story I’m telling you, but as far as I’m concerned, the beauty and perfection of Ann is the only real supernatural aspect of it. Or of my life. God, she was perfect. You know that saying, “They broke the mold?” They broke the mold. With Ann, they did. 

I looked back at her and we smiled. There was always a shared joke between us that did not actually exist and was unspeakably funny. The joke was our lives’ sum total, its bleakness objectively hilarious. At least we thought so. Miss Dymphna came in during our staring game and clapped her tiny hands together with her trademark neurotic efficiency.

“Time to get up, girls. Be down at the yard in ten minutes and we’ll assign you your duties.”

As we dressed, Jean sang her favorite song, which could have been annoying, but oddly wasn’t. One day we actually heard it on Mister Dennis’ radio and all agreed that Jean’s rendition just sounded better. Her voice had a dovey quiver as she sang, “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces; an airline ticket to romantic places.” When we were all dressed, we walked down the shiny stairs (cleaned just yesterday by yours truly) and out the front door. 

In the yard we were given some tools:

I was given a wheelbarrow and a rake. I attempted to balance the rake within the wheelbarrow with the goal of simplifying my journey up the hill and this was ultimately unsuccessful. In fact, it was unsuccessful over and over. So remember to picture me with both hands free, but my body curled below the wheelbarrow trying to grab that fucking rake during our upcoming denouement

Ann was given a pitchfork. I can’t even bear to think about it, how she looked with that pitchfork. Truly, she was a perfect angel. If I could do anything, if I ever got out of this new pen, I would go outside and say “Ann” and light myself on fire. Anyway, I can’t. 

Katya was also given a wheelbarrow and a rake. She did not attempt to use the wheelbarrow to transport the rake, and instead tried pulling the wheelbarrow behind her with one hand while holding the rake in her other. The result was a sort of agrarian spectacle, like a perchten dragging along a bad leg.

I don’t think there’s anything that we could have done differently, that day, to change the outcome of things. Life just shakes out how it shakes out. I guess I just remember the tools we had that day because they’re the last things we touched, other than each other. 

Jean was given hardly anything, just a bag full of work gloves. All of the Misses liked her because she professed an interest in salvation through the Lord. She was a glorious bullshitter and we were all proud.

In this way we trudged up the hill. 

The goal of the morning was fire clearance. This was pine country, and the year prior, a wildfire had taken out both the local junior high and the nearby health clinic. Fortunately for the Misses and Misters, the pen had a workforce ready to steward and protect its structures. I imagine the idea of what we piggies might do if suddenly freed by a fire’s melee may have sparked some degree of apprehension within the Misses’ minds, and I hope it caused them at least a bit of discomfort. I was never as vengeful as Jean, who teemed with itchy rage and incessantly plotted micro-inconveniences in the hopes of savoring their small ripples. But we all liked the idea of seeing them squirm. 


At the top of the hill, there was a pokey wire fence. It only went up to my shoulders, but was sharp enough to deter any idea of escape, and besides, even if we hopped it, we’d just end up at… you guessed it. Another pen. The boys’ pen.

Two hundred yards of cold, gray clearing separated the girls’ and boys’ pens, but we could still see them. It didn’t matter, though, because I was the only girl who knew a boy in the pen. Jonathan was in the boy’s pen, and I sometimes considered flashing my ass at the faraway shapes of those boys, on the off chance that one of them might be him, that he would know that it was me, would know it was my ass, and would thus infer that I loved him still and, you know, je ne regrette rien. 

There are lots of reasons why I didn’t, mostly boiling down to the fact that it was incredibly cold up there, and also that none of the girls knew about Jonathan. As I’ve said, I don’t talk about how I ended up in the pen. It drove the girls crazy but I think that they also enjoyed the novelty of an untapped tale. Maybe they thought I’d get around to the story eventually, but I guess that just wasn’t in the cards for us. 

I do remember though, the way Jonathan smelled. Kind of. I remember the way his smell felt in my nose. I wish I could have kept the actual scent, but it might be better this way, because all of the best scents have been perverted for me. 

The clean, cold pine smell of the hill used to be sort of life-affirming and beautiful, but it became the smell of offal and corpse, the reek of which still makes me want to jump out a window. There are bars on the windows here, of course.


Jean handed everybody gloves and we started to rake the pine needles into prickly hillocks. We began at the top of the hill, with the intention of working our way down, and letting gravity give the wheelbarrows a push back down to the yard. 

We were cold, but carefree, complaining about Mister Dennis, laughing at Jean’s impression of him proclaiming “No day like today to make a new start!,” oblivious to the fact that every day was hypnotic in its sameness, with the power to catalyze only the worst impulses and ruminations. 

“What would you do if you could sneak into the boy’s pen?” Jean asked us, a mischievous curve to her smile. 

“Sneak back out,” I said automatically. Ann cackled. 

“How is it possible that you don’t miss boys?” Jean wondered. “You don’t have any fantasy about what you’d do if you wound up in the same room as a cute boy?”

“No,” I said shortly. “Easier to get a running start if you’re not pregnant.”

We all stared across the clearing at the boys. There were six or seven of them, digging a new patch for their garden, a crevice forming between rows of beans and a shed mottled with rust.

We couldn’t make out the boy’s faces, but as we stood, rakes idly in hand, staring at them, they stopped working and stared back at us. One of them waved slowly. 

“It’s love!” squealed Jean, and we all laughed. 

At that moment, my rake slipped out of my hand and rolled beneath my wheelbarrow, its comb stuck behind one of the wheels. I crouched below the wheelbarrow to free it. 

“Holy Mary,” said Jean. 

“What is it?” I called to her from under the wheelbarrow. 

But there was no response. Everything had gone silent, the strangest silence I had ever heard, as if all the oxygen of the world had been replaced by wax. A stillness beyond stillness. 

I poked my head up and saw an undulating cloud of what appeared to be black smoke. As I stood, a tendril of the smoke reached out, arm-like, and swiped across Ann’s face. Katya and Jean stood completely still, and Ann was still too, until the swipe crossed her face. Then her knees gave out suddenly, like crushed beer cans, and she fell to the ground. 

The black smoke was flowing away, quickly, much quicker than wind. I looked down at Ann’s face. It was slick and tacky with blood, her eyes gazing up at me and her mouth open. She did not cry, just breathed, little puffy, animal breaths. Then she coughed. She coughed up her teeth. 

Six or so of her teeth tumbled from her mouth, rolling to meet the teeth that were already scattered across her chest. Her eyes were very frightened as she looked at me. 

“Ann,” I said, “Ann, you’re going to be okay.” 

Her eyes rolled from side to side, their tiny vessels leaking blood across the whites until her irises seemed to swim in lacquer-red pools. She coughed again, and I looked at Jean and Katya. 

“What was that?” I said, but they didn’t turn back to me, didn’t acknowledge me or Ann at all. 

They were staring across the clearing, and I gazed across it too, seeing for the first time the full anatomy of the black smoke. 

It had an anatomy. Not skin, but a shape- like a human, with legs, arms and a head. But it was huge- fifteen feet tall, and the smoke was diaphanous, could be seen through, thicker than gas but entirely different than flesh. It had climbed onto the shed next to the boy’s garden and was stretching what appeared to be fingers. Then it leapt off the shed and swept one of the boys up with its arm, a ribbon of oilblack smoke, and tore the boy’s head off. I heard nothing- not crunching or popping, the silence was impenetrable. But the black smoke tossed the boy’s head away, and his neck sprayed and spurted, and the smoke pulled the arms from the sogging, caving torso of the boy. 

The black smoke grabbed a boy crouched on the ground and placed its vaporous hand below the boy’s jaw, then pulled, ripping the boy’s head off and sending it careening through the air. Again and again, he plucked the heads and limbs from the boys, until I couldn’t see any boys at all. It was as if they had never been there, their body parts scattered across the ground, too small in their excised state for me to see from the top of the hill. 

Then the black smoke looked back over at us, and my chest contracted with one abrupt shudder as it bound back across the clearing. 

Like Jean and Katya, I stood still, Ann’s body at my feet. The silence made me feel blind, and the impossibility of the black smoke made me feel like a blot, scarcely conscious, suspended in a realm of nonexistence. 

I probably don’t have to explain what happened then. The smoke snapped Jean’s head off like a dandelion. It tore her limbs off and tossed them in graceful arcs through the air. It moved toward Katya, grabbing her throat with its hand, and held her suspended in the air. Blood leaked from her eyes and ears, dripping into her hair, then it dropped her. 

With nothing in its hands, the smoke turned and looked at me with its eyeless face. I suppose I looked at it, too, but only because I couldn’t move. I didn’t try to look, or try not to look. In that stretch of time, I did not really exist. 

My perception was like peering through a holepunch in paper. But where the black smoke was present on one side of it, there was nothing on the other. I saw, but I wasn’t myself–I was nothing. An eye that couldn’t close, but that belonged to nobody, nothing. The smoke seemed to recognize this, because after a moment, it barreled away, a roiling gesture of black smudging across a landscape that bore no significance or familiarity to me. 

A moment after the black smoke left, sound came back to the hill. I walked to where the smoke had dropped Katya and kneeled next to her. 

“Marie,” she said. 

I held her hand and watched her face, which was deeply red and twitching gently, blood pouring from her nose across her mouth. 

“I see God,” she said. 

I patted her hand. Her eyes gazed up, unfixed, blood rapidly overtaking the whites, as Ann’s had. 

“God says there’s ice cream,” she said. 


The old pen closed down and I got sent to the new pen. The Misses were all nice to me after what happened on the hill, and they gave me presents to take with me, like a fuzzy pink scarf and a little prayer book with a picture of Therese of Lisieux on it. No one talks to me at the new pen and I feel fine about it. I think that I’ve already lived up my life, like sucking a milkshake through a straw. Now there’s nothing left but crackling air. 

There are no Misses at the new pen, but there are Sisters. Sister Mary Edith says that it’s not that the other girls don’t like me, it’s just that they’re still scared of my eyes. I don’t think the white parts are ever going to go back to white. 

Allison Hummel is an LA based writer and reader, with a particular love of genre fiction. Mostly a poet, her work has appeared in JMWW, Annulet: A Journal of Poetics, Wax Nine and other journals.