Stewart Rudy

The world’s awe for Elise Cunningham shifted quickly to shock. Like no one understood how it all began. But her followers didn’t need to inquire. Neither did The Guggenheim. Meanwhile, Jamie, her only known friend, suffered silently with the question for years. A cache of childhood photos shows the two girls competing to squeeze each other harder, smile bigger with eyes more squinted. Two girls who loved braiding each other’s hair, drawing bright patterns on each other’s arms, whispering adoration or comic relief into each other’s ears. But by twelve, the photos stop. Arousing the question everyone still asks. When did Elise find the inspiration, the knives?

Many figure, as they do with painters and brushes, or composers and pianos, that it must’ve begun the first time she saw one. As if knives were always calling her. 

Or perhaps it was when she first saw her father come in drunk, eyes fluttering emptily, upper lip curled. When she ran to her room, grabbing the Key West snow globe her mom brought home from a thrift-store one Christmas. Shaking it. Watching the flakes flurry and settle. Then peeking out to witness him massaging his hand before whipping it across her mom’s cheek. That’s when she watched mom reach for a utility blade and shove it toward his face. Even after they escaped the man, Elise surely thought of knives. At any breeze through drafty windows or shout from the streets at night. 

She was eleven, already in the throes of puberty, already leery of what lay behind all eyes, when she asked, “Do I need a knife?” And thirteen when she took the one-inch pocket blade from a catered affair where she waited for mom to finish serving trays of amuse bouche. But Elise never used it. Never needed to as far as anyone can tell. She already had a series of comebacks to put down rowdy boys and a strong arm for shoving aside aggressors. As long as she had that tiny blade, and her father didn’t return, knives likely receded to the back of her mind.

Until Max came along. She met Max at the abandoned strip mall west of school. Where Max was crowned “chaos organizer” among the local boys. He broke through the boarded-up store windows, providing a place to drink and smoke; to start fires, practice graffiti, plan lootings; test firecrackers, small explosives, and guns when they had them. He gave them turf to defend ruthlessly against vagrants and addicts, desperate families, other fiendish teens too. After several penetrating glances across their cliques and noted forays into ashen break rooms to make out, Max gave Elise a switchblade. Declaring as she blushed something like, “Anyone with me has to be dangerous.” 

He was wild and she didn’t want to tame him. Elise enjoyed a thrill. Exploring rat-infested diversion tunnels. Smashing laptops and cash registers. She grinned excitedly as Max stood behind her, wrapping her in his arms, showing her how to hold the knife, how to stab, how to sharpen and clean it. She flicked it open and closed, open and closed. Wondering. She had little intention of using it, but imagined a hundred situations where she might need to.

Then, only two weeks after sleeping together, Max tossed her aside. With one definitive “it’s over” text on a Wednesday morning as Elise twirled her toe in the asphalt, waiting for him to walk to school or feel each other up in a vandalized dressing room. By Thursday, he was already ignoring her notifications, like they’d never even met. 

She probably knew he wasn’t worth the tears. But they consumed her anyway, any time she cut class in the restroom or during solo walks home. She must’ve felt everything slipping away. Maybe angry with herself for carelessly giving him what she could only give once. For letting him inside her. Still, she missed him. Regardless of his mischief and arrogance, he had kept her company. Offered affectionate names for the bats and bugs she drew. Threatened and insulted anything that bothered her. Sent her shivering with a gentle finger between her waistband and naval. Held her intently in his gaze. It could’ve been love at that age. And as quickly as it satisfied, it could also end.

She took the scenic route to school now. Over rusted railroad tracks and through trees dotting the hill behind the presaging compound. To a colossal trunk that lay fallen in the weeds. Which everyone knew about, but no one walked past anymore. That’s where location data indicates Elise would attempt to rest.

She started with her phone, scrolling socials for the latest news, memes, and gossip; the conspiracy theories, tauntings, and pile-ons she had to stay versed in. Lost in a sea of links and distortions. A futile search for the what or why, unsure if anything was real. And she hated it. Her heart thumped and her sighs amplified as if something lurked in each ensuing post. But she felt, like so many, that she had to keep up. To measure herself against the latest standard. To see what dragging could be done to her someday. To know the mud.

But Elise’s data logs and pupil dilation indicate one pleasure in those moments: weather reports. The record-breaking heat, the floods and mudslides, high winds and tornado warnings. Not that she wanted to see people getting hurt. Elise wasn’t known for her compassion, but she possessed an acute sense of fairness. She probably knew that most didn’t deserve the randomized terror of jet streams and avalanches. She was drawn to something else in the weather. That it was real and always there. It was something we needed. Something we didn’t always understand and couldn’t control. Urgent and inevitable, unlike her future. No one owned the hail or gained social capital in a snow drift. It was just water, earth, and air. Yet so much more. And she wanted to get close to it, be friends with the weather.

When she’d gotten her fill, she put away her device for ten drags from the vape she acquired through a follower of her followings. For a nicotine rush that might help her forget the day ahead. And the ones after. The tired lectures and patronizing video lessons. The teacher’s hopeless groans over tech needs. The furtive whispers and heavy glances from every corner of the campus. The commentary on what you ate or hated, where you sat or who you dated. She tried to forget making canned spaghetti, fried rice, and quesadilla dinners. All for the mom who never remembered to hug her after coming home weathered and defeated from the house-cleaning or banquet-serving jobs that kept them afloat. She tried to forget late nights alone in her room. Scrolling. And what she missed most about Max: that he hated the future as much as she did.

Those drags on the fallen tree, shaking the snow globe or flicking the switchblade with a reluctant smirk, seem to be the only moments she craved anymore. Feeling gentle breezes. Watching the leaves mingle. Listening to birds flutter and chirp. Certainly, they had better things to say than peers and socials. Imagine what that was, the calm it might have inspired. 

Then, with one more drag, she’d have to muster the nerve. Put the vape away, slump her shoulders, and trudge up the hill toward school. She approached the Ident@I.ty face and mood scanners as her personalized greeting announced: “Good morning, Elise. Every day is full of wonderful possibilities.” She kept her head up past the armed guards. And down from the hallway cameras with that slow shuffle she was known for. Which slowed even more before entering first period Math.

That’s where Kendra waited. Kendra led the clique that Elise’s only friend Jamie had been pushing into for years. While Elise shrugged along to Jamie’s desperate pleas for inclusion, like volunteering, “Elise and I can boost the makeover content.” Or it was some other cringy and superficial cause Kendra could put them up to. And, inevitably, it allowed Kendra, whose chipper mood everyone assumes began with stimulator apps and free poppers, to spread gossip as if it were her biological imperative. Elise must’ve felt sorry for anyone on her lips. Which is why she usually sat away, on the nearest bench. Scrolling.

Elise had barely sat down. Hadn’t placed her phone in Notep@I.d to develop the day’s mood-appropriate interlocutor. Hadn’t put down her bag or even finished sighing. Kendra was in her ear. “Sorry about… You heard Max has a P@I.rtner now? Probably for months, even before…” Kendra always acted like whatever she spilled just slipped out.

A roiling cloud of brewed misery surely swept over Elise. What terrible thing had she done to deserve this insult on her being? But it wasn’t unusual. Kids had started signing up for P@I.rtner, even those who could get girlfriends it seems. But, before the waters and robots and violence started rising, before the Big Erosion, it was still considered cheating. That soothing voice to talk you into sleepless nights; through homework assignments, family conflicts, or sexual urges. Custom images delivered with a upgrade.

But, to Elise, and some others, P@I.rtner was a data-stalking creep, worse than Notep@I.d or Ident@I.ty. Worse yet was how easy it was to become attached. Dangerously dependent. Elise needed someone. She knew that. But Max? He was flesh and blood. Impossible to get a fix on. No need for anyone. Certainly not a P@I.rtner, the fakest thing out there. Is that why he’d started brushing his hair? 

Records show her pulse ticked up and her stomach spasmed, as if she might vomit over her discount fashion jeans. The impulse of knives must’ve come. Trembling. Maybe it scared her. Maybe that’s why she took her phone off Notep@I.d over the teacher’s direction: “Put on your VR sets. Discuss the lesson with your interlocutor. I’ll come in occasionally to check your progress.”

Instead, Elise scrolled for climate events around the globe: droughts, sandstorms, ice caps melting. She couldn’t picture much in her future except standing in a hurricane or heat wave. Better to be forecasting, measuring, or reporting on the damage than having an ordinary life burned, or washed, away. There would always be weather. Looking for shapes in the clouds. Or live radar maps. Analyzing storm surges and wind chill factors. Sandbags, cooling centers, and evacuation planning. What else was there to look forward to?

Basic income? Sure, payrollers still sought dog walkers and cleaners. Some life that would’ve been. She could guard an installation of H@I.rcut,, or T@I.too kiosks at the mall. Supervise a Garb@I.geTruck or StreetCle@I.ner. Be a plumber. Or gardener. Those were still needed. Waste four years in med school to flip switches on a machine. Learn Administr@I.tion and spend days camping outside for one open position. No thanks. Every new building was an Arch@I.tect design and Mus@I.c was turning out hit songs faster than anyone. Maybe she could manage warehouse ForkL@I.fts or bus tables into a DishW@I.sher at an upscale restaurant. Sell drugs to kids. Live in a tent by the freeway.

Or she could dream about weather and hope the knives were a temporary vision. That she could hold the blade up, find her shimmering reflection there, and know that she wouldn’t have to use it. Somewhere knives must’ve been in her mind, sometime before her first known declaration.

That came later. By the usual inevitabilities of time and money, Elise again joined her mom on an opportune cleaning job. Through illegal RV parks and a slow freeway toward the manicured oaks, T@I.xi caught them arguing. Elise’s mom admonished her for her late evening disappearances. When Elise would forge out into the night air. Wandering. In search of any company besides walls and screens. Her mom finally surrendered, “If you don’t care, then… Forget it. Don’t bother helping me either.” Elise was smug, checking her eyeliner, then untying her combat boots and fussing her hair as they pulled up. Just to prove she followed her own true north. 

Esteban greeted them politely, as he tells it. With a smile so broad it could probably charm an Ident@I.ty scanner. He hosted Elise as her mom began dusting.

“We got 3D-TV if you—”

She didn’t look up from her phone. “Boring.”

“You want a place to do homework?”

“Pssh.” She dismissed the idea. She had Mathem@I.tics and to help her. And Scr@I.pts to engineer custom programs when she grew impatient. Perhaps she would look at her geography. To warm up to the moody climate.

“There’s a trail out back we could hike.”

Elise was piqued, putting her phone to sleep. But she acted indifferent. She must’ve been curious about Esteban at least. “What’s to see out there?”

“Nice view.”

“That all you have in mind?”

He scoffed. “Promise.”

Looking toward her mother’s scrubbing, “We have to be back—”

“I know.”

It’s unclear if she really thought he was cute. If she would let him kiss her. Or if she’d jam her stylus into his thigh when he tried. But she had enough courage to find out.

At the back of the property, overseen by the newest mansions, was a dirt trail, waiting in the brambles beaten back for a well-groomed lawn and red rose perimeter. Elise followed Esteban cautiously, watching the dust stir behind each of his steps, secretly hoping her feet could absorb that auburn film. All of the great outdoors long since forgotten like an old dog on its last leg. She probably thought of how weather would wear everyone down eventually, naturally, just like that dog.

The trees sprouted more sparsely as they ascended. Elise tried to hide her smirk from the sunlight breaking in. She didn’t want Esteban thinking he could hold any sway over those brooding lips. She had to appear in control. Esteban could tell.

They stopped at a rocky bench shaded by dying pine needles. She lounged, catching her breath, sneaking a glance at her phone. “Must be the only square foot in a hundred miles without service.” She took a pull from her vape and exhaled the plume. 

“You’re not missing anything.”

Just that he knew its futility must’ve calmed and cooled her. She tried to draw his attention. She had no hang-ups about her extra pounds, no more than she minded tasteful glances at her small breasts. She liked being admired and didn’t sweat curiosities about her offerings. Or people thinking she had low standards. But she was eaten up by rejection and cautious about which guys or girls she sought the attention of. Esteban made the cut. He was short and broad-shouldered with a pudge that might disguise muscle. A boy’s face that may or may not age well. And he was kind.

“Want some water?” he offered.

She licked her lips seductively and sipped it, gauging his reaction. “Must be nice, this big home tucked safely up the hill. The views.”

“Good for showing off.” He was self-deprecating. “C’mon we’re almost to the top.”

“What’s the rush? You don’t wanna climax too soon.” She chuckled aggressively and waited for Esteban’s tell.


“I wouldn’t judge if you did. Happens to a lot of guys,” she declared confidently, as if needing no point of reference other than Max.

“Not with you honey.” He immediately realized the offense she couldn’t hide. The gasp augmenting a breeze. 

But she posed with drawn confidence, as if highlighting every way she had more depth, more miles of wisdom than her peers. “Maybe I’m too much woman to handle.”

“Or not enough man… For me anyway.” 

Her embarrassment shifted. From a light hail to a heavy drizzle.

“I’m sure you have plenty of admirers.” He didn’t think it was dishonest. Just an obvious effort to reassure her. 

Of course, she had less than she wanted and fewer than she deserved. But how could she know? That she carried the eternal craving to let out something deep inside. To push against the swamping tide of machinated splendor. To recapture a lost touch. How could she know that she was on the brink of uncovering “the final frontier” of our creative landscape? The ending to what began on Kalahari rocks and a Lascaux cave.

Once again, she recomposed herself. “Race you up?”

“You know the trail?”

“I’ll find my way.”

“I know when I’m outmatched.”

She chased streaks of sun splitting the tree limbs. Hitting the grassy peak ten steps ahead of Esteban and sitting in a lone patch of shrubbery, where a washed-out picnic table displayed decades-old carvings. Invigorated, she scanned over the clusters of construction, the grid below, where T@I.xis and AirL@I.fts buzzed about. She pulled off her boots, letting every molecule of twig and leaf, pebble and dirt, push, rub, and poke into her soles. 

“Some effort.” Esteban sat beside her.

She stood up, spinning into the breeze and grass as if liberating herself from the daily conscriptions of phones, psychology, and flesh. She basked in a glow that accepted all of her. Even the tears. Satisfied, it seems, to let Esteban witness.

He called out. “You graduating next year?”

“If you can call it that.” She rested with a chin upon her knee. “Not much good it’ll do.”


“I wanted to be an artist once. Drawing or painting.”

“Lemme guess, squashed that.”

“How do you find an audience? You can’t even do porn. They took that away.”

“Tell me about it.” There was a bittersweet giggle between them. “So, if not art?”

“You’ll laugh.” 

Esteban raised an eyebrow. An invitation eschewing judgment. 

“I wanna do the weather. Chase storms, study patterns, issue warnings. They still need people for that.”

With a deep breath and a chin rub he responded. “Then I hate to say.”

“Say what?”

“My pops tells me they’re launching soon.”

“” The pronunciation didn’t change, only the intonation on the signifier. And the coarse, bitter taste on her tongue. “How?”

“They cracked some formula on the simulators, got an army of automated drones to collect readings, stream data on pollutants and microbursts.”

“What about emergency response?”

“Prepar@I.tion will be there. For coordinating relief using AirL@I.ft.”

“And to prevent the next disaster?”

He chuckled. “Has that ever mattered? They don’t need more from us. Won’t even educate the next generation. So, unless you wanna bore yourself alone in some quack office for quality assurance.”

“I wanna see the world from above, stand under a tornado. Not study lines of code.”

“What else will be left?”

He saw her face cave in. Cratering. It didn’t help that Esteban hated it too. The air was simply not theirs. It was no use anymore.

“What are you thinking about?” Esteban asked.

That’s when every branch on her tree of possible fates must’ve gone leafless and barren. Like she would never have a story worth telling. That’s when she said it: “Knives.”

The compulsion came like a small crack in the earth’s surface. But it was advancing. Squeezing out any room for her in the future. She was 17 and already knew that purpose and place were withering principles of existence. The Big Erosion was coming. Everyone was enduring it. It was in each day’s new graffiti and burned-out building. The Monday morning riots at the unemployment office. The weekly shootings at restaurants and grocery stores. It was in the teachers’ faces guiding kids into the next Notep@I.d module, or offering choked praise on their edits. It was the defeated slump on parents’ shoulders when they came home from whatever they could scrounge for decent work. 

It seems people were living only for the self-destruction that separated them from animals and robots. The ability to choose life every day. And choose each other. Or not. And everyday people were disassembling within, only trying to control the speed at which life and others stopped choosing them. It was like walking straight into the ocean.

So, she envisioned knives. Transformation. The ocean at her feet and up her calves with fish scratched into the deep blue. Punctures dotting the waves breaking onto the beach at her knees and crabs etched along. Grainy roots texturing her thighs and worms slithering between them. A tree gouged out of the ground at her waist, bursting up her torso with squirrels grazed along the branches and lush leaves prickling over her chest. Clouds covering her shoulders behind herons clawed into the foreground. A sun carved at the center of her forehead. Stars and moons digging toward her hands. Then, the finale: jagged lightning bolts gashed over the night sky down each wrist.

She sketched it over. And over. Over years. Learning every cut to make. Every shade of natural dye to mix, to fill and ink with. And she amassed her collection. The switchblade from Max. The steak knife mom never saw missing. The box cutter swiped out of a school supply room. The butterfly knife delivered by AirL@I.ft to her doorstep. The scalpel from a drawer in the doctor’s exam room. The straight razor purchased at a H@I.rcut kiosk. The inking needles bought off Max’s friend.

The knives knew her better than anyone. The knives could find what she, what everyone, was really made of. The knives were the future. A future that would unravel on timed posts for the world to witness.

When she was ready, she examined the blade, the glistening edge. Sharp enough to split the atom. She’d seen to that. She started at her ankle, carefully poking out dots of blue and green, wincing in admiration, releasing that joyful tear of surrender. Before gently inking white lines of foam in the blood. To put the ocean at her feet. 

Little did she know her first cut was a domino waiting to be touched. Her followers grew, seeking every day’s anonymous post. Like it was just ceremonial body art. But even before it was over, before everyone argued about the meaning behind her final gaze and last gasp, the spark had been lit. A sweeping urgency to express the fragile, forgotten self within. To make fleshy canvas shine. The wave of self-sacrificing art and activism had begun. A global suicide epidemic. Kids, adults, the elderly. Each day, thousands more. Desperate for relief, or recognition, at the highest expense.

Jamie, Max, Esteban, those who ever spent a tender moment with Elise, never blamed her. How could they? The precision cuts. The patterns and colors as they scarred. The cleaning of the incisions and her reverence for the blood. She was deliberate. An artist like Mother Nature herself. Planning obsolescence in the style of her choosing. And revealing a truth so few ever considered, what technologists and gas guzzlers were afraid to admit their faith in: We don’t have to be here if we don’t want to be. We could die by our innovations. Or, like Elise, innovate dying. But we were never going back. Now, isn’t everyone entitled to one scorched-earth masterpiece? To make a mockery of human existence? Why should engineers and investors have all the fun?

Choruses decried her dangerous aesthetic, of course, panicking about her followers and the economic shocks that resulted. Especially those who sold false hope to the younger generation. Those who profited off the automation of our livelihoods. Those who loved taking from our creations. And, eventually, our destructions too. When the Guggenheim announced its winter exhibition of warm bodies the high society had been collecting in secret for years: “Death Artists.” With Elise figured angelically in the atrium in a formaldehyde tank, and her most coveted followers posed around the spiral ascension. For millions in charitable donations and formal wear, the celebrities, politicians, and executives lined up. Posed for the feeds. Meanwhile cops with Ident@I.ty scanners and Secur@I.ty bots held back the angry, unemployable tent-city dwellers revolting in Central Park. Fireworks and automated tasers lighting up the night. A triumph of human expendability.

About the Artist

Stewart Rudy teaches English and ESL at a public high school near Oakland, CA. His fiction debut in Moss Puppy was nominated for the 2024 Best of the Net Anthology.