Exploring the art of prose


Substances: A School Year by Zoe Ballering

alt text: image is a color photograph of a woodworking space; title card for Zoë Ballering's short story "Substances"

“Now we understood that while the substances might adopt a certain shade or texture, the school itself secreted them.” In a story that strikingly blurs absurdism and realism, Zoe Ballering’s “Substances” is a shapeshifting narrative. Each day a group of students meets in the art classroom for lunch, barricading themselves away from the unknown as ubiquitous substances residing in the school amalgamate and curdle into a much more nebulous form. Ballering brilliantly structures a story that defamiliarizes the familiar: people fear things that have no exact origins and so a fear of the unknown willingly elevates to a fear of the known. As the uncanny substances expand, the students become increasingly alarmed, increasingly suspicious of their familiar surroundings: “Later, we would ban all forms of hybrid cutlery because we mistrusted things that occupied the spaces in between—sporks, sleet, stew, prose poems, anadromous fish, adolescents, old people who looked young and young people who looked old, dusk, comatose states, semicolons, speed walking, deciduous conifers, marital separation, jammed elevators, tunics, and tadpoles with legs.”

As the story progresses, the substances become an obsession that consumes the body. Whether in the form of a school or an abstract vessel that self-contains and absorbs, the bodies in the story become an exploratory site that examines human antagonism. The high school students become increasingly aware of how the body’s anatomy is equally as grotesque as the disgusting substances their school produces. Ballering shares in her author’s note that she was influenced by a cover of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, which she describes as “pretty gross but also disquieting, because it isn’t placeable.” The story took its shape when she asked: “What if a quartet of high schoolers, trapped in their own gross bodies, attempted to make sense of the world by putting everything in its own right place? And what if that act of ordering created a sense of fellowship and purpose, despite being based in militant self-hatred?” While the story doesn’t follow traditional body horror narratives, each moment and movement in the story mimics that of a growing sense of dread being planted into the body that’s too difficult to ignore. The corporeal and the immaterial are not disparate entities, they’re connective tissues.

Amidst this strange new world, Ballering creates an emotional and poignant coming of age story wherein a group of high school students are expected to survive and navigate their uncertainties and contentions—first within a confining high school space, but also later, in the wider world. The themes accentuated in this story feel rather relevant, considering how this story parallels several of our own experiences living in a pandemic that redefined normalcy. In one of the many evocative lines that heighten both immediacy and internal plight, Ballering writes: “As the year wound down, we lost our single-minded focus. We exhausted ourselves. The school churned out certain products endlessly: substances, homework, isolation, stress. Our parents told us to start thinking about college, and as we peered into the future, all our careful laws decayed.” Indeed, for those caught within the confines of so many unknowns, what becomes of the future?  —CRAFT




Every day we met for lunch in the art classroom in the school’s east wing. It was the woodshop before the woodshop closed—a cavernous space full of defanged band saws and belt sanders stewing in desuetude. The art teacher, Mr. Devine, had dragged two long tables into the front of the room. Here, beneath the first bank of fluorescent lights, elective-hungry underclassmen swirled leaded tap water into watercolor paints. The woodshop stretched out behind them—dark, dusty, dank. During the lunch hour, Mr. Devine would sit at his computer and exchange direct messages with his girlfriend, an aesthetician named Oksana, who lived in Belarus. He left the door of the woodshop unlocked because we were quiet, orderly, and clean, and because of his fondness for Lisa, an accomplished watercolorist who always asked after Oksana’s health.

The far corner of the woodshop contained a set of metal stairs. Rather than connecting us to the endless secretions of the student body, these stairs—our stairs—opened onto a grated landing that served as a storage space for stacks of wooden toasters. The toasters lined the edges of the landing, leaving a small space for the four of us to sit. Diego held the clipboard at the head of the group, and Sayla and Lisa assumed their spots on either side of him. Leopold arrived last because he had fourth period in one of the portable classrooms. He used an antibacterial wipe to sanitize as he ascended, then sealed us inside. The toasters were fashioned from cubes of unfinished pine, each with two slots, each slot stuffed with a toast-shaped piece of wood. We liked the idea that pine oil was a minor antiseptic. We felt cocooned among the toasters, free of germs.

Lisa had secured the landing at the end of sophomore year, and now, as newly minted upperclassmen, we debated the nature of the substances as the school enveloped us again. We didn’t care about anything the other students loved: homecoming, house parties, horoscopes, laser shows, lanyards, voting, veganism, volleyball, game shows, ESPN, Thespian Club, macro- or microeconomics. Only the substances awakened us from our ennui.

“I have another sighting to report,” said Sayla as she pried open a segmented Tupperware that kept her celery sticks from mingling with her baby carrots. It was the Friday of our first week back. “A soup-like substance on the floor five tiles to the left of Mr. Zerba’s classroom door.”

Diego made a notation on the map. “Sighting time and detailed description?”

“Second period. Partial solids. Some thin yellow noodles. Also, carrot chips and three peas, apparently rehydrated.”

“You’re describing the contents of a Cup of Soup,” said Diego.

“Yeah,” chimed in Lisa. “Someone must’ve poured it on the floor.”

“That’s vomit, Lisa,” said Sayla, shaking her head.

“No way,” said Lisa. She scrunched her freckled forehead with displeasure. “It’s a joke, alright. Like someone saying, ‘This is like one third of my daily sodium intake, I am basically ingesting a Cup of Salt. This is fit for a floor, not a human body.’”

Leopold, who was currently ingesting a Cup of Salt, set down his spork and turned pink.

Lisa patted him on the leg. “Don’t worry,” she murmured. “Everything’s fine in moderation.”

Later, we would issue an injunction against all liquids except for bottled water.

Later, we would forbid unprotected contact, including the patting of legs.

Later, we would ban all forms of hybrid cutlery because we mistrusted things that occupied the spaces in between—sporks, sleet, stew, prose poems, anadromous fish, adolescents, old people who looked young and young people who looked old, dusk, comatose states, semicolons, speed walking, deciduous conifers, marital separation, jammed elevators, tunics, and tadpoles with legs.

Later, we would strike the word “moderation” from our meeting minutes, because we considered it a slur against sterility.

But those were our salad days, September, back when we were young and we did not understand the nature of the substances.



We had just settled into our routine—pep rallies in which acned cheerleaders performed thigh stands to thunderous applause, early release on Fridays, a vending machine on the second floor that spit back even the crispest dollar bills—when a truly evil substance tried to ruin us.

Sayla heard about it first. One of the jocks from her third-period civics class burst through the door, the hall pass swinging from his hands.

“Dude,” he said, “there’s a bloody tampon in the water fountain.”

“Someone find Manny!” shouted Mr. Arney, the civics teacher. Manny was the head custodian. He was stocky and hairless and had a deep, gravelly voice that itself seemed like an implement of cleanliness. We imagined him chipping gum off the underside of desks simply through the act of speaking. When faced with any substance, even one that would make us scatter, he would squint, scratch his chin, and eliminate the substance at its source.

In the ensuing pandemonium, as the students groaned and high-fived and Mr. Arney called the office, Sayla slipped away to document the scene. She passed around her phone as we gathered together on the landing.

“That’s ketchup,” said Lisa, scrolling through the photos. She handed the phone to Diego and then dredged a chicken nugget through the very substance that she had just identified. Later that week, we would issue an injunction against condiments.

“Everything’s a joke to you,” huffed Sayla.

Lisa bit the nugget neatly in half. “Ketchup,” she repeated.

“Right,” said Sayla. “Because menstrual blood is ketchup, mold is just green-colored glitter, and even the phlegm we found last week is nothing but the tapioca from a Snack Pack.”

“Regardless of the nature of the substance,” said Leopold, “it’s hard not to feel that this is directed at the two of you.” His eyes bounced back and forth between the girls.

“What do you mean?” said Lisa, but we were sure she knew. The other day we had noticed a stash of tampons in her backpack when she was digging around for a pencil. They were individually wrapped in pink plastic and might have been mistaken for some type of specialty candy, but our sophomore health class had taught us all about these things. That particular substance struck adolescent girls earlier and earlier according to our health teacher, Mrs. Horne.

It was statistically likely that both Sayla and Lisa had menstruated for several years, though Sayla insisted that the Great Omnipotent Unpolluted One had gifted her with amenorrhea. We believed her. We had never noticed any smells or stains or secret stores of feminine hygiene products that would cause us to question her purity.

“We can’t fight this evil alone,” said Diego, calling us back to the tampon at hand.

But who could help? The other students, perhaps aware of the import of our mission, avoided us when we passed them in the halls. We were glad that our dedication cleared a sterile space around our bodies, but sometimes we felt like there were only four of us in all the world. Other than unlocking the classroom door, Mr. Devine had no time for us. The only substances he cared about were the ones he imagined making with Oksana. When Lisa asked Ms. Deng, the school nurse, about the substances, Ms. Deng took her question as a declaration of substance abuse and sent Sayla home with three brochures. Mrs. Butler, Sayla’s college counselor, grumbled about how hard it was to keep the building clean.

“This building was intended as a midsize women’s stenography school, and now it holds 1,500 teenage bodies,” she said as she closed her office door. Sayla worried that Mrs. Butler had added a demerit to her file—a black mark that oozed across the paper.

“So much for Stanford,” said Sayla, who had always struck us as Most Likely to Succeed. “I’ll probably end up majoring in business at one of my safety schools, and then I’ll graduate with $30,000 in debt and spend the rest of my life as the teller at a credit union, shuffling through other people’s grubby bills.” Every time she took a bite of baby carrot, she held up the nubby remainder as if she could read her future in the smooth orange flesh.



Then one day Leopold was dinking around with a hall pass, killing time before the end of class, and he walked past Manny mopping near a locker at the exact same moment that the locker disgorged a stream of sour milk. Later the story came out that one of the drama kids had left an open carton inside and that a textbook must have fallen over and knocked it loose. But we knew better. Manny and the substances were in cahoots. He didn’t clean up, so much as he caressed the messes.

“It’s like he knew it was coming,” said Leopold. After his encounter with Manny, he returned to fourth period in the portable classrooms, then jogged to reach us when the bell rang. The armpits of his shirt were stained with sweat. We pretended not to notice.

Leopold’s story convinced us. No more tapioca truthers. Blood, mud, milk, paint, phlegm, poop, pudding—it was immaterial. Now we understood that while the substances might adopt a certain shade or texture, the school itself secreted them. We imagined Manny dragging his mop back and forth across the floor until the school released that gush of curdled cum.

Both Sayla and Leopold had a free sixth period that they devoted to tracking Manny’s movements. They brought back reports of how he sniffed his fingers or ate the snickerdoodle left on a Styrofoam tray that some kid hadn’t thrown away, or answered his phone in Spanish. “Mi amor,” he repeated, “mi amor,” and Leopold, who had taken intermediate Spanish, informed us that this meant, “My love, my love.”

“He’s describing the school,” said Sayla. “He’s telling someone else about his lover.”

All four of us were tracking Manny by November’s end. He rubbed mops and brushes and paper towels across the ready flesh of our school, his lover, and we scuttled after him like sterile crabs, crouching next to water fountains, shielding our bodies behind locker doors, and holding up three-ring binders to hide our faces. Mostly, we kept detailed maps of the spots to which he tended to return. These, we surmised, were the pleasure centers through which he stroked the school to a froth of ecstasy. Health class had given us an understanding of the student body, but we did not understand the school. We only knew that if we memorized the tender spots, we might also find the weak spots, the organs of pleasure that could easily shift into organs of pain.

“Leave me alone, you crazy kids!” shouted Manny whenever he saw us in the halls.



As the year wound down, we lost our single-minded focus. We exhausted ourselves. The school churned out certain products endlessly: substances, homework, isolation, stress. Our parents told us to start thinking about college, and as we peered into the future, all our careful laws decayed.

Lisa patted Leopold all the time, despite our warnings.

Leopold arrived later and later, and we wondered if he belonged to a competing faction, perhaps a separate quartet devoted to charting the spread of STDs.

Sayla’s grades started to slide. She became addicted to hand sanitizer. We wouldn’t let her light the Bunsen burners in chemistry class because we worried that the alcohol might ignite her skin.

Diego developed an enormous whitehead on his chin. We pinched our fingers in anticipation.

“Pop me,” pleaded the pustule. “Bring forth more substances. Admit that you are us and we are you.” But we refused.

On the last day before Winter Break, we selected one of the toasters and placed it at the center of our circle. One by one, we Sharpied a private prayer onto a single piece of toast, then fit the slice back into its slot.

“O Great Omnipotent Unpolluted One,” intoned Diego, “give us the strength to defeat the school. May all contaminants burn in the fire of your purity. May sanitizer rinse the sin from our hands. Forgive us our bodies, our weakness, our pubescent imperfection. Each and every day we consecrate ourselves again to You.”

Diego pressed the wooden lever and the toast leapt up and clattered cleanly to the floor.

“Amen,” we said in unison. We agreed to go home for Winter Break and return with renewed exactitude, fortitude, obedience, loyalty, and vigor.



We returned with renewed exactitude, fortitude, obedience, loyalty, and vigor. On our first day back, we experienced five substance-related events, including, most notably, a series of brown clumps near the first-floor lockers. Lisa insisted that the women’s soccer team had tracked in mud on their cleats, but Sayla and Leopold identified the brownness as poop.

Even just the possibility of fecal matter marked a major turning point. We decided that the time had come to assemble our materials of war.

Lisa swiped a bunch of jars from her mother’s spice rack, dumped the spices in the trash, and started storing samples in a corner of the landing. As soon as she received word of a possible substance, she finagled a hall pass and appeared on the scene with a pair of tweezers. Flakes of ketchup-blood with a dusting of nutmeg. A scoop of tapioca-phlegm in a jar that still smelled like freeze-dried shallots. A smear of mud-poop with the last pinch of paprika.

Sayla had a knack for thievery and stole, in the course of one week, three boxes of latex gloves from Ms. Deng, four pairs of plastic safety goggles from the chemistry lab, and a stack of surgical masks from the hospital where her grandmother was currently succumbing to a different set of substances.

Leopold brought the shower liners from his stepmom’s house so that we could make protective suits. We had him lie down on one of the liners, and then Lisa traced the outline of his body with a Sharpie, lingering perhaps a little too long in the U of his crotch.

“Lisa,” hissed Sayla. She picked up a baby carrot and threw it into the section of her Tupperware designed for celery.

“What’s wrong?” asked Leopold.

“Sayla’s just being jealous,” said Lisa, pausing and looking up, one hand planted between Leopold’s legs.

“I am not,” said Sayla. “I’m being cautious. I’m trying to prevent contaminant touch.”

“Sure, Sayla,” said Lisa. She finished the crotch swoop and dragged her Sharpie around Leopold’s shod and lolling foot. Sayla pouted. Lisa paid no heed.



Lisa suggested that we attend the Sweetheart Dance.

“It’s happening in the cafeteria,” she said. “That’s one of Manny’s most-frequented locations. This is our chance to finally find the weak spot we’ve been searching for.”

The Key Club had transformed the cafeteria. Taylor Swift bounced off the acoustic ceiling tiles while paper hearts endured a double penetration—pricked with thumbtacks, pierced with arrows. Driblets of crepe paper fluttered on the walls. Chaperones milled around the perimeter of the dance floor, making nervous jokes about teenage hormones. “That’s amore!” cried a PTA mom each time she snapped a photo of a couple feigning happiness beneath an arch of pink balloons.

“There’s Mr. Devine,” said Lisa brightly, and she marched us over before we could protest. Mr. Devine was wearing a crumpled dress shirt and standing by the refreshment table. The Key Club had appointed him to guard the punch bowl, but instead, he was messaging Oksana.

“Hi, Mr. Devine,” said Lisa in a lull between pings.

Mr. Devine looked up. “Hi, Lisa.” He paused. “Hey, why are you wearing those funny plastic suits?”

“It’s the style now,” said Sayla, because although Mr. Devine unlocked the woodshop door for us, none of us trusted him but Lisa.

“But all the other kids are wearing normal stuff.”

“We saw it in a music video,” piped up Leopold.

Mr. Devine’s phone pinged again. “Okay,” he said. “Have fun.”

We were lucky, really. One way or another, they all had their Oksanas: CrossFit, crocheting, quarterly taxes, garbage and recycling on different days, ailing parents, aromatherapy, paying rent, sailboats, migraines, opioids, book clubs, hysterectomies, college football, younger women.

Mr. Devine was oblivious to our mission, but also, therefore, to the danger of the substances. The punch bowl beckoned. We’d always heard that students snuck substances into school dances, so we regarded with suspicion anyone who came too near. Could the school have assumed control of that pothead burnout wearing a bowtie designed to look like a crumpled hundred-dollar bill? He ladled lackadaisically into a Solo cup, perhaps in an attempt to lull us before he spiked the punch with a flask of bile. Sayla growled at him. He scurried off.

Sayla protected the punch bowl. Diego took notes on the clipboard. Lisa looked at Leopold. Leopold looked at Lisa.

“Leopold,” said Lisa, “would you like to dance?”

“Okay,” said Leopold, but then we turned toward that seething swamp of bodies, where girls in glittery dresses ground rhythmically against their dates.

“That isn’t a dance floor,” said Sayla. “It’s a pit of filth.”

“Sayla’s right,” said Diego. “Let’s keep our distance.”

Lisa glanced around the room like a lost dog looking for its owner. We thought she might ask someone else to dance, but the other students laughed and fidgeted, and the boy in the bowtie pointed at Sayla in her plastic suit.

“I think she growled at me,” we heard him say.

“What a buzzkill,” said another girl and turned away.



Sayla insisted that the emissions stemmed from some past act of evil on the property. She researched at the library, though all she discovered was that the stenography school had produced scads of well-trained stenographers who recorded court proceedings with astounding speed.

“Not even one deadly fire or a serial-killer stenographer,” said Sayla sadly. We were passing around a book related to the history of the school when Lisa flipped to a page whose margins were covered in rust-colored squiggles.

“I think it’s trying to communicate!” cried Leopold. He leaned so close to the page that we worried his safety goggles might not be enough to protect the vulnerable mucus membrane of his eyes.

“I can’t make it out,” said Diego, squinting.

“Can anyone read shorthand?” Sayla asked. No one could.

“Maybe it means well,” said Lisa. She reached out and traced her finger above the squiggles. She barely held her hand back, as if at any moment she might flick her wrist and touch the thing itself. “Maybe the school is just like us, but, like, a bigger body and the substances it emits are like the substances we emit, because—let’s be real—all of us poop and pee and throw up and sweat and vomit and wipe our runny noses, and it’s no big deal.”

“I have to return this book tomorrow or I’ll be fined,” said Sayla after a moment of stupefied silence. She closed the book and stuck it in her backpack. The spell broke. Lisa immersed her errant hand in a snack-sized bag of SunChips.

“I saw leftover diarrhea water in the boy’s third-floor bathroom,” said Leopold.

“Sighting time and detailed description?” asked Diego as he took down the clipboard from the wall.



Every Easter Lisa’s family drove to Idaho to visit her grandparents and she missed an extra day of school. During her absence, we met at the landing and tallied her transgressions.

First, although it had never previously occurred to us, we began to mistrust her skill with watercolor. Paint, after all, was just another substance. We found it suspicious that her paint did exactly what she wanted, while our paint blossomed strangely and soaked into the cheap thin paper that the school provided.

She had so many freckles on her body—they formed freckled chains that were almost, one might say, like a series of rust-colored squiggles communicating some kind of sacrilegious shorthand message. And, frankly, she was just too friendly. Although we valued the landing, we began to suspect that Mr. Devine unlocked the door for Lisa because he secretly desired to make substances with her. We suspected Leopold of the same offense.

“No,” Leopold insisted. He was eating reduced-sodium salami stacked between two slices of white bread. “I don’t care about Lisa. She freaks me out.”

“She admits her own emissions,” said Diego.

“She revels in them,” said Leopold. “She’s as eager as Manny.”

“She can’t even keep her words clean,” added Sayla. “She’s always using nonstandard contractions like m’kay and must’ve and c’mon.”

“We should correct her,” said Leopold.

“We should kill her,” said Sayla.

“We should pass a series of new injunctions that will force her from the group,” said Diego.

We settled on Diego’s idea, because killing seemed certain to produce more substances.

On the Monday after Easter, we posted a bulletin on the woodshop door that announced the prohibition of all nonstandard contractions, the possession of more than twenty-five freckles, nonnovice watercolor skills, maintaining friendly relationships outside of the group, and human-to-human substance creation, which, of course, had always been forbidden, but never in a formal way.



Lisa hadn’t shown up for the past four days—we congratulated ourselves on her successful expulsion. During our period of anti-Lisa legislation, we had tabled all other initiatives. Now we debated the formal censure of open-toed shoes. Sayla skipped ahead as we climbed the stairs to the landing. Leopold sealed us inside.

Then we heard footsteps crunching slowly up the metal stairs. We knew it was Lisa. We could feel her germy hands as they dragged across the railing, her dirty shoes as they smeared the sterile, sacred stairs.

“You’re not welcome here!” cried Sayla, but Lisa kept on climbing. Step by step, her body built itself as she ascended. She was still wearing her protective suit, but she had ripped it open down the front and we could see her street clothes peeking out from underneath.

“Hi, friends,” she said, and her words felt like salt on a wound, a raw pink ooze that made us cower. “Long time no see.”

She took her spot beside Diego, and we all gazed crazily around the circle, avoiding Lisa’s eyes. She held a tray from the cafeteria that she’d heaped with taboos: a spork speared through a slab of Mexican lasagna, a carton of milk, a gob of sour cream.

“Student #1097,” said Diego finally. It was her student code. We only called each other by our names. “You are in violation of a series of recent injunctions and must leave the woodshop space immediately.”

“Mmmmm, no thanks,” said Lisa, and then she did a truly heinous thing. She reached behind her, grabbed a jar from the sealed collection of samples, and unscrewed the lid. We felt the spores drift up and overtake the landing.

“Retreat!” cried Diego, and we all leapt up and clattered down the stairs.

“Is everything okay back there?” called Mr. Devine.

“We’re fine,” Diego yelled. “We’re celebrating. Sayla just got her scores back on a calc test.” When we heard the clack of Mr. Devine’s keyboard a moment later, we breathed a sigh of relief.

In the woodshop proper, we regrouped. Diego reached beneath a workbench and removed our emergency cache: squirt guns and a Costco-sized tub of sanitizer. We loaded the guns and then distributed them among ourselves. A moment later, Sayla ripped off her gloves and shot her gun into her hands.

“Goddammit, Sayla,” said Leopold as we watched Sayla’s chapped red skin absorb our ammunition. Sayla kept rubbing and rubbing and rubbing. She reminded us of that scene in Shakespeare that we strongly disliked—the one where Lady Macbeth faces a substance so insidious that she can’t get it off of her hands.

“Are you contaminated?” demanded Leopold. “Do we need to establish a quarantine zone?”

“Hold up!” cried Diego. “Sayla, pull yourself together. Leopold, don’t you see? The substances are trying to divide us. We have to go in as a seamless unit. One mind, one body. Secure in our purity no matter what we see.”

He looked around the circle. “Are we ready?”

“Ready,” we said. We squared our shoulders. We raised our guns. For the second time that day, we climbed the stairs.

She was kneeling in the center of the landing with all of the sample jars spread open at her feet. She licked her finger as we watched, swirled it around one of the jars, then licked her finger again. A brown substance smudged the edges of her mouth.

“Lisa, no,” begged Leopold, and for a moment, we thought that she might listen. It was Leopold who had invited her to join our group. It was Leopold whom she had always loved.

“Hungry?” she asked, and she dumped the gray-green contents of another jar across her tray of food and took up a heaping sporkful of lasagna. We stood there paralyzed: horrified, fascinated, incredulous, aroused, unbelieving.

“O Omnipotent Unpolluted One, protect us,” whispered Diego. Then he raised his gun and fired. The shot hit Lisa on the forehead, but it did not seem to burn. She massaged the sanitizer into her face.

“Piss off,” she said.

At that moment, Sayla turned and fled, and the rest of us followed, leaving Mr. Devine and his distant lover alone in the woodshop with the newly formed avatar of filth.



We relocated to an abandoned supply closet on the second floor. We taught ourselves shorthand, waited for another book to speak.

We observed how Manny greeted Lisa. “Have a good day,” he would say. “Thanks for all you do,” she would answer.

At first we carried out patrols, but although the substances continued to appear, Lisa didn’t seem to notice. Sometimes we passed her laughing in the halls, but she didn’t flinch or back away or declare her allegiance to the substances. We had known her since elementary school, but now it felt like we, who were all the world, had shrunk to nothing. She avoided our eyes like the others. She never spoke to us again.

We didn’t want to speak to her, of course, but it bothered us to never get an answer. Had we hurt her so badly that she attempted suicide by eating substances? Was she finally giving in to the urge that we had first noticed when she nearly touched the rust-colored squiggles? Had the substances seduced her, or had she always been their spy? We wondered if she experienced agony or ecstasy when the poop-paprika sizzled on her tongue. We wondered what she did with her life now that we were not a part of it.

On the last day of school, we stood at the entrance waiting for our parents to pick us up.

We would spend the next three months in the haphazard pollution of our homes, where our mothers dragged damp rags over dusty bureaus and a pink film filled the grout between the shower tiles. There was no order there, no malevolent organism orchestrating the discharge of the substances. Things were sometimes dirty, that was all.

“We’ll meet every Wednesday to build our strategy for senior year,” said Diego.

“I believe we need to adopt a more aggressive approach,” said Sayla.

“Look,” interrupted Leopold. “There’s Lisa.”

She was wearing a spaghetti strap tank top. Freckles shone on her arms and back, rose up from between her breasts, and dappled her face. Her hair, unnetted, bounced on her shoulders.

She wasn’t wearing a bra. Her breasts bounced too. She ran down the front steps, crossing above the school motto etched into the riser: “Provehito in Altum”—“Launch Forth into the Deep.” It was sunny outside. We could see her shadow as it broke across the stairs, the black smear of her body on the gray cement. She looked up once and met our eyes and then she crossed the street and turned the corner. Her body vanished. We could still see the pattern of her freckles. They hung like motes before our eyes.


ZOE BALLERING lives in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart and Rougarou and is forthcoming in Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading.” She is the winner of the 2022 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, and her collection of stories—There Is Only Us—will be published in November.


Featured image courtesy of Yasamine June on Unsplash


Author’s Note

This story began with a classic grad school text—The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Third Edition—with a cover that featured a long brown smear. I dragged that book around for half a year, and I still couldn’t make sense of the image. Was it supposed to be dirt? Chocolate? Poop? A visual representation of what happened to my soul when I read the knotty prose of long-dead men?

One of my greatest pleasures as a writer happens right at the start, when I find the ignoble seed. Some stories spring from a lofty impulse to interrogate the world, some from a dumb observation. And I love that the ignoble seed, despite beginning so ignobly, can become a spiky green shoot and climb up the lattice I have crafted.

First observation: That Norton cover is pretty gross but also disquieting, because it isn’t placeable. Second observation: High school was pretty gross too. Epiphanic moment: What if a quartet of high schoolers, trapped in their own gross bodies, attempted to make sense of the world by putting everything in its own right place? And what if that act of ordering created a sense of fellowship and purpose, despite being based in militant self-hatred?

I most often write in the first person singular, but “Substances: A School Year” begged for the communal voice. It’s a technique that works well for any insular and ultimately brittle group. The story’s quartet initially claim to be of one mind, even as a member of the “we” peels off and becomes an “I.” And still the upheaval doesn’t end. They regroup, but they can’t return to what they felt they were: four as one, arrayed against the icky world.

The initial draft of this story had substance, but no shape. It was an undivided mass of words. I was in grad school at the time, wrangling that enormous Norton, and I remember being struck by how absorbed I was by the arbitrary measure of time. Nothing mattered more than reaching summer. I saw how my characters, like me, might be propelled by the power of the school year toward the absolute finality of June.

Once I understood when the story had to end, I had a better understanding of how to end it. I had the image of the trio watching Lisa leave for Summer Break. What I love about the ending is that while most of us have never battled the substances emitted by our schools, most of us have felt what the trio feels in that moment—the loathing and the longing as a piece of ourselves seems, so easily, to float away. It is this sense of familiarity that causes me to return, again and again, to stories that begin with such dumb strangeness. From the ignoble seed springs the ordinary flower. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


ZOE BALLERING lives in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart and Rougarou and is forthcoming in Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading.” She is the winner of the 2022 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, and her collection of stories—There Is Only Us—will be published in November.