WE CLEAN UGGS by JP Sortland

Yes. No. Hand washed. No machine.

He was the only man who shined shoes at George’s Shoe Repair. The tiny refuge was located below ground at the 51st and Lexington subway station.

Yes. Hand. Wash. Personally. You’ll like.

There were two or three ladies of an implacable foreign origin who also shined shoes in silence. Customers predicted the mystery women came from Bolivia to Tajikistan and everywhere in between.

Buddy’s origin was clear as mud too. But wherever he’d come from before ending up at George’s had made him an amicable fellow. Unlike the shoeshine girls, the patrons of George’s never wondered where Buddy was from. Instead they wondered how anyone could be so nice.

Friendly like a Canadian, one customer said to his coworker. German maybe? Yeah, kinda I dunno. Except a different accent and everything.

The leopard coat girl had little faith in Buddy and therefore she had faith in nothing.

His hands rested carefully atop her Uggs. His fingertips ready to pluck them off the counter with a gentle squeeze of his fingertips into their furry insides. To Buddy, this exchange should already be done. Those soft boots should already be in line with the others.

You’re sure you won’t like ruin them, right?

Buddy gave her a smile to deflect the insult. Hidden behind his friendliness was a plea for understanding and trust.

Clean Uggs every day.

And you’re not gonna throw them in a washing machine right? Because the tag says spa-cifically they have to be hand washed.

Yes. No. Hand washed. See? Wash by hand. Stuff with paper to keep good form. Help dry. Protective spray for leather. Good care.

Um. Okay?

The leopard coat girl released the boots. The cynicism however, her lack of faith in Buddy and therefore mankind, stayed with the Uggs.

Buddy handed her the ticket and the leopard coat girl hesitantly took it. Her face twisted in confusion and looked like written information had never been conveyed to her.

Buddy wanted nothing more than for George’s shop to be profitable. A busy shop meant money for Buddy. However, a crack in his resolve made him wish the leopard coat girl had never stepped foot into that business. Into his consciousness.

I need those by tomorrow.


Yes. No. I don’t know. So sorry.

Buddy shook his head at George. His arms fell to his side.

I have the ticket? They were here yesterday?

The leopard coat girl snapped her gum. Buddy silently thanked her for it.

He knew how George loathed the sticky substance. He had seen more gum on the bottom of shoes than anyone in New York City.

I’m real sorry, miss. We’ll compensate you for the loss.

They were like two hundred.

George winced.

Two hundred new. How about one-fifty?

Fine. Whatever. I’m never coming back here.

Understandable, miss.

Buddy remained quiet at George’s side. Obediently bearing witness to the berating.

You sure you didn’t see them nowhere?

Yes. No.

Buddy shook his head.

I like just don’t understand how you lose boots?

Buddy looked down at the floor.

He’d be paying for those boots unless George found forgiveness in his shoe polished heart. It was the price he had to pay. It was a fair price.

Someone could’ve run in and snagged em. Buddy here turns his back for one second and that’s all they need.

George handed her the monetary apology.

Buddy weighed the relationship he’d built with his employer. This was a setback, but it was repairable.

He’d looked high and low but the boots were nowhere in the shop.

He knew because the last time he’d seen them they were flying off the Queensboro Bridge into the East River.

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AN ESSAY ON BIGNESS by James Tadd Adcox

I am a man who never needs to do what other people tell him to do. I am so much bigger than they are. When someone tells me to do something, I give them a look. It is a calculated look. In this look, I share with them the artificiality that lies at the base of this interaction, and indeed all of our interactions. It is a look that says, “Whatever you might tell yourself about rights and authority, we both understand the physics of the situation. Perhaps, after you have told me to do a thing, I will do that thing; perhaps I will not; but do not confuse the telling and the doing.”

A smaller man, in similar circumstances, might refuse to do what he was told, or do the opposite, merely to show he could. I have no such need. I am vouchsafed by bigness. It is more impressive if I choose to do as I am told than if I refuse, since there is never any question whether or not I could have refused. When, for example, at the bank, the man behind the little window asks me to step aside for the next customer: I give him my look, then step aside. The man behind the little window is shaken. It is as though he observed a tornado pass by the house in which he stood, or the ground open up and swallow the person next to him (another man in a tie and light-blue shirt, behind another little window). If I had chosen to do otherwise, if I had allowed my bigness to erupt upon him, what protection would his window offer then? But I did not; how much more fearsome and remarkable that I did not.

I have met taller men than me, but they were not bigger than me: they were lanky, disproportionate, long rather than big. One never needs to look up at such men. Usually they’re hunched over, in any case. It goes without saying that I have met men fatter than me. And I have met men smaller than me who were nonetheless exceedingly muscled, men who emerge at irregular intervals from the gym so that they may be observed. They dehydrate themselves and wear shirts designed to draw attention to their arms. Their muscles are a layer they have placed over an anterior smallness. They can remember a time when they did not have muscles. They know there is a future in which their muscles will leave them.

My bigness is of a different order than these bignesses. My bigness is an essential bigness. There has never been a time when I was not big. Even in my cradle, the bars separating me from the space outside were a formality. As I learned to stand, gripping the leg of a chair, my parents looked on, nervous. They were not small people, neither my mother nor father, but in me they gave rise to a bigness that neither could comprehend. I don’t mean to say that I was grotesque as a child, please don’t misunderstand: I was child-sized, much smaller than I am now. But it was obvious that my child-size was its own form of bigness. Bullies avoided me; smaller children grouped themselves under my shadow, knowing I felt no need to prove myself. I have never needed to be anything other than polite.

Tall, beautiful women love me. I answer a certain anxiety they have felt all their lives, instilled by mothers and television commercials, regarding their tallness. Yet the women I prefer are extremely small. This is not because I like to push anyone around. I could push around much larger women or men, no problem. (Anyhow, I’m not that type of a guy.) It is, rather, that I enjoy the contrast: such a large man, such a tiny woman. At night I dream of perfect women, tinier and tinier, women that fit in my cupped hand, women dancing on the ridges of my fingerprint, becoming ever more perfect as they disappear.

On the street, I often step to the side for oncoming pedestrians, simply to see their reaction. Relief, mostly: and a kind of love.

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HOW TO TAME A FERAL CAT by Katherine Beaman

It was a point of personal identity for Lula that she refer to no plant as a “weed” and refrain from assigning labels of “good” or “bad” to any creature. Her property: a lot which was adjacent to her daughter Valerie’s own house, and on which sat a mobile home with two attached porches and a mess of plant matter almost entirely obscuring it. Corpses, or almost-corpses, of junebugs lie scattered and belly up all over.

Many an afternoon, Lula would study the cat the hung around by her fence. She would glance over at him from her chair on the porch as she took a sip from her glass of iced tea and ate her morning toast. Sometimes, she’d stand up from a gardener’s squat to wipe sweat from her forehead, look over at the cat, and test out kissy clicky sounds on him. The cat would slink around, dotting from here to there, always keeping an eye, as cats do. After this went on for some time, Lula made the decision to befriend the cat. She set a can of vienna sausage on the porch.

Flies darted around the can on that muggy morning of that summer. Many of the flies resolved to stay and loiter in the ripe aroma, such that the joint became a full-on insect and feline cantina. What if the flies wore wife-beaters, the way they hung around like men outside a gas station? Suppose the cat pulled together enough change for a can of beer! With each new morning came new charities from Lula and the cat began to develop something resembling trust in her. After his alert posture slacked, Lula managed to trap the cat into a carrying cage which was onced used to carry her guineas (who had long since become breakfast for the local coyotes). Valerie never learned to tell the difference between the howls of coyotes and dogs.

Summers like these, in this place, have always been violent. There is a constant rhythm of swatting, biting, itching. Your own sweat falls into the corners of your eyes and it adds to the sting. There is no place to escape the heat and the restlessness in your gut burns you up. When Lula gripped the cat with her thick green rubber gloves and plunged him into the cage, the cat’s primal screams were nearly drowned out by the air around them, air too saturated with survival to pay any notice to what occurred on the porch of Lula’s mobile home that morning. The great paradox of this place is you’ve got to have a little feral in you to be able to call this place home.

Home was something of a loosely defined, abstract concept to Lula. Lula’s Pa once made tweaks and repairs on tracks and freight cars of rapidly expanding rail lines which carried oil from here to there. As a child, Lula’s family slept in box cars. Lula found playmates roaming the ground. She and her brothers learned to catch bullfrogs and box turtles, snakes and armadillos. When her Ma called the children in for a lesson or a meal, the creatures were released to scurry off into the surrounding bayous, hills, sands, or whatever the environment was like where the locomotives of capital took the family.

Ma, can I keep it just this once? Lula once pleaded of her mother with regards to a rabbit which she and her siblings had somehow gotten into a wooden crate. I’ll take good care of it. I’ll feed it and clean its crate and everything. Promise!

Lula’s mother once placed a calloused hand on her hip and pointed a ladle at her daughter. The only way that thi-ing is coming in this car is if it’s shot, skinned and boiled in stew for supper. Now, shoo!

Lula’s brothers once smiled big. Ma, can we shoot it? Can we? Can we? They once raced to grab the shotgun which was propped up by the door of the boxcar.

Ma once felt it a healthy part of a boy’s bringing up to quench their thirst for blood, so she waved them off with a grunt and a nod. Lula refused supper that night and cried herself to sleep.

The lesson that Lula’s Ma once tried to teach her and which Lula seemed to have failed to learn or accept is that feral critters are better left to their feral ways. The kindest thing to do for a feral cat, should you come across one and think it cute, is to leave it be.

I don’t get why she thinks she needs another animal around, let alone a wild one. Bless her heart. But what really gets to me is that poor cat. He’s been in her bathroom for two weeks now and he’s just as hostile as the day she brought him inside. That cat doesn’t want to be there. I wish she’d just give up on this silly idea and set him loose.

Dionysus voiced is own views on the subject, venomously hissing at Lula’s outstretched gloved hand which held a morsel of tuna.

You can’t keep that thing in your bathroom. It’s not where it belongs. Let the creature go free. Well, we’ll see. He’ll come around with time.

It would not come around with time. Some cats, if taken in as kittens up to two months in age, can be domesticated into lovely housepets. But much like people, as cats age, they become more and more set in their ways. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a feral cat to become domesticated.

What if it has diseases? Not to mention, you could get hurt. At your age you don’t need to be setting yourself up for injury and infection. Who do you think has to care for you?

Well, we’ll see.

After Dionysus was left to his own devices in Lula’s sparse, stark white bathroom, he would help himself to the offering of cat food left behind. He would then rub his face and body against every surface in the bathroom: the walls, toilet, door, tub, sink. If he must be held in this place, he figured, he might as well claim it as his own with his feline scent. After this ritual came a prayer consisting of cacophonous cries that pierced the air with his prisoner’s sorrows.

Here are some facts about feral cats: The more generations that have passed since a cat’s last domestic ancestor, the wilder a cat will be. No matter how many generations of wildness, however, most tend to be largely dependent on human kindness and waste products. Without welfare and hand-me-downs, roughly fifty percent of feral cats die within their first year of life.

Things continued much in the same way as they had been going. In spite of feedings which occurred twice daily and numerous extensions of a heavily-gloved hand, very little progress had been made toward building amicable sentiments in Dionysus. He always reacted to any gesture with an arched-back hiss as if he had been plucked from his Eden that very morning. When Lula left, he would resume his routine of eating, pacing, praying, and plotting his revenge.

Like most any cat, if Lula were to die, Dionysus would not hesitate to lick every morsel of meat off her bones. Dionysus, however, actively fantasized about the idea of dining on the flesh of his captor. He absolutely detested his sterile cell. He sharpened his claws on the door and waited anxiously for it to open long enough for him to burst free. His prayers were offered piously. He would humble himself for falling short of wild glory and then he would seek forgiveness for his sins. He thought of all the rats there would be to hunt in cat heaven.

Lula would pray to her own cat gods, the gods who had driven the first domestic cats from streets to hearth in Egypt. The Egyptian cat goddess Maftet ruled over justice, war, and execution. She later became Bastet, the goddess of motherhood. The relationship between war and maternity is a complex one, birth as violent of an ordeal as death. How quickly bodies and homes become battlegrounds. How devastation is passed down the generations. These gods, surely, would have the power to undo iterations of increasing ferality and isolation.

The gods blessed Lula with a solution over breakfast one morning. As she took care to spread butter evenly over a slice of toast, she realized that the toaster was the key. Whether the lock the key opened was a door of control or liberation was not a matter to which she gave much thought.

When Dionysus was confronted with the cage a second time, he resisted defiantly. In his cat’s mind, the cage had brought him to somewhere terrible and to somewhere terrible it was sure to take him again. Yet the cage was not to leave the bathroom, let alone the bathtub, during his term of occupancy. Dionysus writhed under the stronghold of his murderer’s green gloves as they sentenced him once again to the cage. He employed every survival tool with which he was equipped. Every hiss, a supplication. Every scratch, a sacrifice. Even as the glove turned the faucet of the bathtub and cool water of imminent death drenched his body, he did not surrender his faith in the Almighty. He cried out and cried out, declaring his allegiance to the gods. One final prayer, that his soul may be wild in the life to come.

The toaster’s cord could barely extend from the bathwater to the nearest outlet, but Lula managed. The electricity which pulsed through Dionysus’s earthly body was more feral than he could have ever hoped to have been. When it was all over, his limp corpse permitted Lula to hold him close to her breast as she carried him outside. His head fell pathetically over her arm and his body hung like a garment. Though his fur was cold and damp, warmth had not yet left his body.

Slain Dionysus was lain on a table in the garden where no plant is a weed and no creature is good or evil. Next to him lay a steel blade with which a long line was cut into his flesh from his throat down to his anus. The head, tail, and paws were chopped off and tossed aside. His skin peeled back just like an orange. All internal organs were excavated and deposited on the pile of dismembered body parts.

When Lula had toast and sausage for breakfast the next day, it was very quiet.

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HEAD TO TOE by Molly Montgomery

One day, Penny woke up with her consciousness in her feet. She could still feel her head, blink her eyes, watch the procession of sunlight from her shutters ripple onto her bed, but it all felt very far away. Closer to her, the flannel blankets cushioned her arches and as she flexed— her feet that is, but it felt like she was stretching a larger muscle, like her back— her toes popped out of the warmth of the blanket, giddy like bright-eyed children, singing at last, at last it’s our turn now. They waved, creating a breeze in the rumpled blankets. She sighed with her feet, her heels arching and releasing, breathing, in a way. It didn’t occur to her that it would be strange to go through the day with her soul stuck to the floor. After all, she was a yoga teacher— maybe she had jumbled around her energy a bit too much the night before while performing a handstand. She rolled out of bed and let her feet sink into the carpet. She hadn’t vacuumed in a while, she realized as she felt the sharp edges of leaves and other unpleasant textures prickling the pad of her feet. The dead skin on her heels caught on the carpet, tugging painfully. How could she not have noticed before? It was like waking up to realize you hadn’t combed your hair in a week. She had to do something about it, immediately.

The cool bathroom tiles sent a shiver of pleasure up her legs. In the shower, she commanded her arms, which felt like phantom limbs, tingling and barely present, to twist the knobs and release a stream of hot, hot water onto her thirsting feet. The rest of her body winced, but her feet, tougher than the other parts and tired of taking beatings for the rest of her body’s sake, incited her to turn the temperature higher and higher until, at last, they eased. She flailed her feet before her, the rest of her body sinking into the bathtub. Finally, the pressure released, the terrible pressure, which she hadn’t realized was there until it was gone. It was like a migraine lifting, as she let go of the pounds and pounds of useless flesh pressing, pressing, pressing on her feet all day long. She scrubbed the hard calluses that roughened her feet like stubble, stripping off layers until they were raw and throbbing. The throbbing filled her. Her hands turned the water off, and she crawled out and wrapped a towel just around her feet, writhing with pain and pleasure.

Her toenails, slicing menaces, cut into the neighboring toes. Stop stabbing, stop stabbing, please, she pleaded and grabbed a nail file from her box. These toenails had not risen up in protest this much since her pointe days when they would rip her already demonically twisted feet to shreds and bleed on her satin shoes, the resin mixing with the blood to make a crusty callus of its own.

How much damage had she done her poor feet, she now wondered as she struggled to calm their fiery furor. Massaging them with a soft towel, she reached for some eucalyptus lotion she had in her medicine cabinet and began to knead the ointment deep into the crevices of her feet. She felt the blood vessels in them opening and a calming feeling spread from her feet, up her legs, and to her core.

Now that she was down in her feet, things seemed so different than they did above. She didn’t recognize herself. Who was this woman who could have exploited parts of herself, treated her own foundation like it didn’t matter? She would have never banged her head around like she had her feet, or let it get cut and scraped and swollen with infection like she had when, as an impetuous college student, she launched herself foolishly into a bacteria-laden river from a rope swing, the heel of her foot catching on sharp jagged rocks on her graceless tumble downward. She would have never choked her mouth the way she had choked her feet in sweaty, unbreathing sneakers in PE until a fungus invaded her toenails. She would have never constricted her fingers like she did her toes when she shoved them into wedges that narrowed to an inhuman point. Even her moment of triumph, the highlight of her career— stepping onto that stage with steady powerful strides that she had taken for granted and accepting the award for her choreography— it twisted horribly in her memory as she let herself feel the pain she had held back that night, her feet strapped like hostages into those teetering, torturous stilettos. How she resented her selfishness now, so bent on recognition, her head taking credit for the work of her feet.

After her injury, the one that ended her career on the dance floor, she had hated her feet, her weak left ankle in particular, which cracked under the stress of night after night of pirouettes. Her feet had failed her, so she stopped paying attention to them, like a mother who stops reaching out to her son after he breaks her trust one too many times. Then came the endless months of physical therapy, which she performed diligently, though she knew her body would never be the same. She built strength back into her muscles until they contained not as much as before, but enough for her to feel dignified. But how could it be even after she had recalibrated her relationship with her body, finally finding a sort of equilibrium in yoga, she still wasn’t at peace with her feet? Then again, she wasn’t at peace with her mind either, and that’s where she spent most of her efforts these days. Rewiring her circuits, talking through her loss with her therapist, trying to figure out how to her meld her mind into a body that no longer obeyed like it used to. Fuck that, she thought. It was a relief to be in her feet; the darkness in her head hovered like a thundercloud, but it couldn’t reach her down here. Still, she couldn’t hang out on the floor forever.

Vaguely, she reached for thoughts in her cerebrum, like rummaging in a dark cabinet. She had appointments, a class to teach; her daughter, still asleep, needed a ride to school and back. But her feet, objecting to her wavering attention, sprang with cramps that undid the tenuous connection to her task-oriented brain. Pedicure first, cancel everything else, spa day, spa day, they cried, and soon a chorus of rebellion resounded throughout her bounded body.

Massage me, her knee croaked as her consciousness jumped to it, then to her strained back tight with resentment. I’m next, cried her neglected neck. And her feet continued to pound, pulling her down, down, down.

Yes, let’s, she thought, let’s spend today together just for us. Her feet sought her soft slippers, kicking off whatever attachment she still felt to the rest of the world.

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FRIENDHYRE by Leland Cheuk

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I really wanted to go to DonutFest but none of my actual friends were as fervid about donuts as I, so I thumbed FriendHyre on my phone and hired someone for just $20.

I thought of the cost as a surcharge on the event, which had a $50 cover for all the donuts you can eat from the top ten artisanal vendors in The City. I bought two tickets and met up with Damon at 9 a.m. in front of The Copper Mine, that warehouse concert venue by the river. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and went inside. Damon was dressed blankly, dark outer layers, short brown hair, and a squarish, halogen-toned face—combined with his above-average height and thick and convergent brows, I’d be able to find him easily if we got separated.

DonutFest was packed. The warehouse was dark and opaque with theatrical smoke and fog lit by red stage lights, and a Top 40 rap song about cunnilingus thumped. Almost immediately I bumped into a young woman who spilled a thimble of the free pour over coffee from the local roaster with the table by the entrance. I brushed myself off. No worries. The stain was invisible in the darkness because I was dressed like Damon, dark outer layers of durable and pricey fabric from a major multinational brand headquartered in Sweden (recent manufacturing worker pay controversy in some small nation I couldn’t remember). I closed my eyes to inhale the sweetness of the freshly baked donuts (admittedly faint because The Copper Mine has no kitchen, which meant the donuts weren’t freshly made). I listened to the mmm’s and “that’s good’s” from all these people my age and thought: this is youth, this is living, this is why you pay to live in The City.

“How did you come to like donuts?” Damon asked.

The Simpsons.

He smiled. “Like Homer?”


I liked Damon.

The vendors had tables around the edges of what would have been the pit if this were a concert. It was more like a really dark corporate tradeshow. We each got five different donuts, sampling from each vendor, and made our way to the back, where we placed our tiny plastic plates on a wooden ledge and divvied up bite-sized pieces of each donut with knife and fork, commenting on each and ranking our top fives. I liked the strawberry-infused béarnaise one best. Damon awarded the cakey marmite-covered one his Number One slot. All of them went well with our pour over thimbles, which were just large enough to fit the stamp that read “Fair Trade.” We watched the pit of young men and women dancing to “All Night” by Chance the Rapper, even though it was 10:30 a.m.

“What are you doing the rest of the day?” I asked Damon.

“More FriendHyres,” he said. “Got a meetup at an experimental prose poetry reading by all LGBTQ female authors. Then tonight, I have a men’s rights rally.” Damon smirked as he crushed the thimble in his palm and flipped it onto the ledge where it was shepherded to the recycling by a black man wearing a blue DonutFest Staff polo and vinyl gloves.

“How many of these do you do?”

“This is what I do,” Damon said. “Been doing it about a year. I get to meet a lot of people, do a lot of very niche things, some of which are pretty cool. I make enough money to stay in The City. What do you do?”

“I work at a bank,” I said. “Compliance.”

“Oh cool!”

His words were perfectly pitched to emulate a sincere interest while cutting off further conversation on the topic. Damon popped a piece of the strawberry béarnaise donut in his mouth. “Mmm!” he said, while chewing, even rolling his eyes a little. “So good. I can see why you ranked this one best. Thanks for inviting me. I feel like this was an experience I’ll always remember.”

What a pro. He was a great FriendHyre. After we parted ways, sugar-mouthed and buzzed, I rated Damon five stars.

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If I have a complaint about FriendHyre, it’s that it is damn near impossible to get the same friend twice.

None of my buddies in the office like music…like at all, so I tried to get Damon again to go see My Meechi out in East Durwood Docks. But once Damon surpassed 1,000 five-star reviews, his rate quintupled, as made resoundingly clear by the FriendHyre Premium exploding star emoji bedecking his profile. I couldn’t justify paying $100 for a friend to go with me to a $15 show.

I read Damon’s reviews and they were all like: “I recently got divorced and had these tix to a black-tie fundraiser for Even Rural Americans Deserve Clean Water at The Metropolitan Center, and Damon was so nice and kind that he never asked me any personal questions and we both enjoyed such an incredible meal from ten different TV celebrity chefs and I would totally hire Damon again.” The event was obviously at least $1,000 a head.

I ended up FriendHyring a young woman named Maybe for $5, and she was fine, but she was a soft-talker and I couldn’t clearly hear what she was saying at the concert, and when I could, she only talked about herself. She never asked me any questions. We watched about half the show in silence, standing beside each other but not really experiencing it together. Then Maybe saw people she knew and told me she was going to say hi. She never came back! I waited for her outside the venue after the show, but she was gone. I still enjoyed my night. My Meechi has a way of sounding like she’s singing just to you, which, of course, is exactly the way I wished Maybe would have approached my FriendHyre experience.

Still, I didn’t want to ruin her rating, so I rated her four stars.

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I had coffee with one of my friends who used FriendHyre to build her social media presence. She’s a high-level publicist at a retail brand and often posts about new developments at work on her own account. Each day of the week, she hired a $5 friend for a 30-minute coffee date. She liked meeting and talking to new people who did different things from what she would normally do because she worked all the time and seemed to only meet corporate types.

“Once, I even met a real coal miner,” she said. “He’s trying to transition to a career in elder care.” Most importantly, she got him and his FriendHyres to follow her on social media and promote her posts. Within a year of starting these coffee dates, she had added thousands of followers.

I told her about my experience with Damon at DonutFest and how I felt like my first FriendHyre experience was my best one and I didn’t like how good FriendHyres ended up pricing themselves out of long-term FriendHyreships.

“Do you really want long-term FriendHyreships?” she said. “The whole reason the service exists is because long-term friendships are inadequate. You like sports. I don’t. I like running. You don’t. You make less money than I do, so you can’t afford to do some of things I like to do. Our friendship, while you know I love hanging out with you a couple of times a year, is a pain in the ass sometimes. If you developed a long-term relationship with this Damon guy, it’d just end up sucking, like actual friendships.”

After she was done talking, my coffee tasted like dirt. “I never thought of our friendship that way.”

“Don’t get butt-hurt,” she said. “I would have gone to DonutFest with you, if I didn’t have anything better to do.”

“I didn’t think you would like donuts. Or want to spend fifty bucks on it.”

“You didn’t ask!” she said. “We communicate like the old friends we are. We act like we know everything about each other, but in reality, we hardly know a thing. I love FriendHyreships. They’re short and sweet and no one pretends it isn’t.”

After my friend’s impassioned defense of your service, I went back and changed all my four-star ratings to five-star ratings.

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I saw Damon at a drugstore. He looked much as I remembered, darkly clad, pale, and smiling. He was in the cosmetics section. To my surprise, in his hand was a box of Just For Men. He didn’t look old enough for gray hair, but I guess that’s why he was holding said box. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Remember me?”

He peered down at me, squinting.

“DonutFest,” I prompted.

“Oh, yes,” Damon said. “How have you been?”

“The same,” I said. “I looked for you on FriendHyre, but you’re, like, super-expensive now. That’s my only complaint about the service, really. It’s that you can’t keep getting your good FriendHyres. Congrats on your success, though!”

“I just quit.”

“What? Why?”

Damon smirked, as he had at DonutFest that morning months ago. “When you factor in all the expenses, I end up making about three bucks an hour,” he said. “I pretty much had to respond twenty-four-seven to make rent. It took about a year, but I finally got hired as a junior analyst at a bank.”

“Really? Which one?” He named his. I named mine. They didn’t match.

“But you were making like a hundred bucks a hire,” I said.

“And seventy would go to the tux rental,” Damon said. “The event would go for four hours. So that’s seven-fifty an hour. At least I got to eat well on those nights. I would starve myself all day and then gorge. Mm, so good! That’s what I did at DonutFest. After you left, I went back and grabbed all the leftovers. I got so sick that night.” He laughed, but then swallowed as if the memory made him bilious. “Never doing that again!”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Thanks for rating me five stars, though.”

“You were one of the good ones,” Damon said. “At least you didn’t try to have sex with me.”

My eyes bulged. “There are other apps for that!”

“No one told those fuckers.”

“What does FriendHyre do to protect you?”

“They don’t even let you talk to a real person,” he said. “You can only give feedback through the app.” He shrugged. “It’s cool. Whatever. I just introduce the problem people to my pepper spray.”

After an uncomfortable silence, we began to drift toward the checkout counters. I told him I was glad he was in a better place. “Maybe we should grab coffee sometime,” I added.

“Oh cool!” he said, in the exact tone and pitch he used at DonutFest when I told him what I did for a living. I knew then we would never have coffee together and that if we saw each other again, it was likely he would not acknowledge me.

Damon’s story changed the way I felt about FriendHyre. I started browsing through the profiles of smiling faces and five-star reviews and people saying they were up for all types of fun and how much they liked my favorite bands and sports teams, and I would think about how they were probably lying for the money, and all they had to go through just so I could feel a smidge less lonely eating donuts and going to concerts and baseball games and such. There has to be a better way. Maybe there’s merit to this service but adjustments need to be made so that the people who make the service possible can benefit in real ways with actual value, not just ratings and emojis and theatrical smoke. That’s my feedback, FriendHyre. I look forward to your reply.

Until then, I’ve lowered all my ratings to two stars.

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You live two blocks from a city park that hosts the Fourth of July parade, carnival and fireworks. Once a year your sleepy neighborhood will be taken over. Hoards emboldened strange by the holiday license to drink in public and be stupid with explosives will arrive bearing lawn chairs, blankets, coolers, flags, transistor radios and cherry bombs. They blithely make your yards their parking lots, trespass and trample and choke sidewalks and streets in lit processions of flash lights and aluminum sparklers. Their orange cigarette tips will bob ahead like lures.

Soon their blankets will cover the fields all the way to the woods. Progress in the dark is a mine field of hands and feet, plates of potato salad, dry humping teenagers, dead soldiers of Blatz, Schlitz, Strohs, Rolling Rock, Fanta or Seven-Up bottles, a land where any unthinking remark or misplaced look or bump or nudge or gesture can set off the explosive potential waiting whenever so many people come together in the dark. Do not be afraid. It is your first taste of civic anarchy, to be forever flavored with the tang and bitters of gunpowder sulfur and beer. Everywhere the adults are eating, drinking, smoking, tonguing, grasping, gasping, laughing, cursing.

They who run the world will all be here: in straight sharp lines of brow and jaw like tail-fins; in car interior colors of cream with red, blue or black; in men’s crew cut, ivy league, d.a. or rockabilly pompadours; in women’s bouffant, beehive, pixie or artichoke cuts; in pants of cuff-rolled denim or white Capri; in shirts Hawaiian or Cabana or T’s, (the latter tight and bicep-rolled to hold non-filter cigarette packs). Many of the men will brandish “back from ‘Nam” (or Baghdad or Afghanistan) stares, cadences, shrugs, slang, stiletto-macho X-15-age werewolf sideburns and teeth and eyes that will have you, the different kids, in a seizure of terror, and release. Now will be the time to act.

You will talk and scheme and worry out minute plans without regard for what the Big Night will actually be. Someone will say it is like “striking a giant match across the skull of the world” and you settled for that. You are “the brains,” “the mad scientists,” the 11-year old nobody “nerds” (at a time when the term has the obscene punch of “kike”, “cunt” or “nigger.”)  You say, Come Kill Your Darling Country.

On the early morning of the third your plan is to break into the fireworks truck parked in the corner of the field and tamper with the charges. You have talked about living lives risked in extreme experiment, and here is the big one: mixing combustibles for a new world of shapes and colors, out-doing their show with fun that will hurt and laughs that give all of them the same stranger’s face; incantations in sparkler across hot night air, striking a giant match across the skull of the world. Come, kill your darling country.

The first skyrockets will tear into the sky and the ahhhs and ohhhs rise from the quaking blankets all dark around you in a sea. You run and dive as into an oncoming wave at the beach. You will be heedless, fearless, senseless. You will kick at faces and ran faster, climbing people like stair steps, flying over grasping hands, battling through screams of pain and rage lost in booms, and groans of awe for the hot chemical show overhead. You keep on, straight into the woods. Angry voices are close behind. You will enter the woods in an exalted state of fearlessness and inexhaustible energy, skipping down a narrow switch-back path we know by heart, to the right of the shale cliff you call “H,” (without knowing why).

A sharp zigzag down the back-way crashes into a narrow, noisy stream. You take positions off the path and a little downstream, at the edge of a gully behind big mossy rocks. Above you a willow tree catches a new, cool breeze, fluttering leafy vines over the ebony water. Your panting breaths finally slow and you listen but hear no sounds of pursuers. Above you silver mag stars, fat on titanium and bromides, flash revelations of smoke, solid and sheer as cliffs. They are quickly riven apart by detonations of other hot metals, fuel and casing types: copper halide blues, strontium reds, cesium indigos, potassium violets, barium greens, calcium oranges, lamp-black golds playing The Palm, The Ring, The Diadem, The Crosette, The Spider.

The show reaches its finale: multi-break Whistlers and Hummers that “strobe” multiple explosions falling closer and closer to the crowd. You count the explosions. After many bursts you count one, two, three too many, too loud. The rockets will reach the ground while still burning, hissing and twitching, like cicadas locked to mate and die, igniting grass and blankets and flesh. Shrieks will cut through the booms, echoing into strange cacophonies between pain and pleasure, the human and the animal. There are alarms and sirens and cries to God. Then echoes, the crowd dispersing, cars starting up and driving off. Stars poke through the colored smoke. It thins, they brighten, and the air goes cold.

You will wait. Then one of you, then another and another will whisper of your getaway, your next move. The way ahead, someone says, is lit by a giant match raked across the skull of the world! Your voices join and rise into chant, hot and luminous, words lit from inside your throats as if you’ve swallowed sparklers whole, and do not and will not feel one damn thing in the great parade ahead. Come, let’s kill their darling country.

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In times of life-and-death, nobody quite grasped the concept of “be quiet.” But for us, it didn’t matter. My peers panicked, whimpered, some nearly hyperventilated—but nothing outclassed the tormenting screams coming from an adjacent room. Nothing could abolish the cackling gunfire, bullets penetrating walls and possibly bodies. Nothing stopped the killer from heading to our room next, glaring at us with a face of apathy, drawing our attention to boast about his body count, and how we were going to add to it. Nobody could do a thing, except for me.

I wouldn’t consider my actions gallant. I charged the moment the boy appeared distracted. An amalgam of fortunate events led me to overpower the shooter, using his weapon against him, my following actions fueled by pure trepidation. I realized I’d rather the boy fall than to witness a firearm pointed at my face again or hear the anguish of my friends. The worst part: the shooter was a student too. We acknowledged his bleeding corpse more than we ever did him. His name was Ethan, and only a few of us knew that.

An absolute silence plagued the air, and I began to pace the classroom, “no” continually slurring from my mouth. Nobody mentioned a word about the murder, not our teacher or my friends. No one.

* * *

There wasn’t much blood on my hands, although the few smears on my shirt reminded me of the monster I had become. I expected my classmates to see me in the same light. That wouldn't explain their reluctance to speak, or even to move. They were afraid of me, their fear cemented in a truth that not only had one of their peers became a killer, but also another.

My best friend began to speak, my name slowly rolling off her tongue.

“I can’t, Marissa,” I interrupted.

“Jerome, you saved us,” she whispered.

“I still killed Ethan! I’m done for. My future, everything. I could go to jail.”

“No, you’re a hero,” she said. She searched for validation from our other classmates. “Right?”

Everyone remained quiet. Then, some of my classmates began to cry while others seemed to struggle to preserve their sanity. And I felt for all of them. I understood, but I knew I had to withdraw from my emotions to prepare for the arrival of the authorities. Picture this: an emotional, erratic, brown teenager with the blood of another student on his clothes. Yeah, that’s a minimum of 25 years.

“Jerome…” Marissa murmured.

“Stop. Please, just stop.”

* * *

Ten minutes passed, and the authorities arrived. Everyone was escorted from the building to the fields outside, like we were in a  prison line, distress printed on their faces, or even scarier: the expressions of those who were still processing—blank, unworldly.

I couldn’t stop picturing Ethan, another student, his glare, a rifle dangling from his hand, blood stains on his clothes—imagining my face stamped above his. A monster. If I wasn't a monster, then why did the authorities scrutinize me with disdain?

Police officers pulled aside students from my class for questioning. Paranoia struck me like a chisel shaping a stone statue—one final tap and I’d crack. Some of my classmates clearly talked about me, peering back and leading the cops to notice me more than they had. Before I knew it, I stood alone. Then, it was my turn to be probed.

A stocky pale officer approached. “How are you, son? What is your name?”

“I’m okay. It’s Jerome.”

“My name is Officer Anderson. You don’t seem too shaken up by things, Jerome,” he said, examining at the small blotches of blood on my shirt before returning eye contact. “You’re quivering. You seem more terrified of me than anything.”

“That--that’s not true.”

The officer huffed. “Can you tell me what happened? If you’re uncomfortable talking about it, we--”

“No,” I said. “It’s okay.” I gave him a detailed chronology of events, up until Ethan’s death.

“So, the student massacres the entire classroom next to yours and then comes into your room to provoke everyone before killing himself?”

It sounded more artless after the officer repeated it. When I nodded, he suddenly grew reticent, looking down on me with eyes of censure. “That’s not what your classmates are saying. In fact, they’ve claimed you convinced Ethan to cease fire, and when he realized his wrongdoings and felt contrite, he impulsively took his own life. Correct?”


“You and your entire class could’ve died if it weren’t for you.” Officer Anderson patted my shoulder with his right hand before meandering back to his colleagues. “Son, you’re a hero.”

“Hey!” Marissa called and trotted over to me. “Why are you all the way over here, Jerome?”

Attempting a smile, I replied, “I don’t really know.”

“We need you.”


Her eyebrows furrowed. “Because you saved us. Word is spreading fast, and people from other classrooms aren’t taking this well. The media is already here.”

In spite of what she did for me, she still didn’t quite understand. “Marissa, thank you.” I looked down at my palms, slowly twirling them while opening and closing my fists. “But sometimes heroes can’t wear brown skin.”

She nodded before tightly gripping one of my arms, that and the familiar way her nose twitched before speaking gave away her frustration. “People also don’t get to choose what color skin they’re born into. For what it’s worth, I think for you to be able to do these things, while fighting so many other battles, is something that deserves recognition.”

I smiled, shaking my head. “That’s incredibly sweet. But, there are consequences to my actions, all of them. Risks I’m usually not willing to take.”

She turned to see how our peers held up. “Well I’m glad you took one today.”

“May I ask you something?”


“Why are you so calm? Everyone’s freaking out.”

Marissa finally looked back at me. “I could ask you the same.”

“Well, where I’m from … let’s just say this isn’t the first time a gun has been pointed at me, or has been fired in my vicinity.”

She looked away again. I guessed she couldn’t grasp the idea of such horror. “I think it’ll hit us sooner or later. This all feels too surreal, but being around you helps.”

“As long as I’m me, I can never be considered a hero.”

Exhaling, Marissa placed her two hands on my shoulders. I could tell she wanted me to own the title, or maybe she was hinting that I needed to do that for everyone else, at least for now.

“Jerome, we’re friends. We’ve got each other’s back. That’s all that really matters.”

Perhaps Marissa’s right, but probably not. Because of her and a few others, despite the color of my skin, I didn’t go to jail. I thanked Marissa once more. And with her, I joined my class.

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rob mclennan

THE NAMES OF THINGS, by rob mclennan

I gave my attention to the pause.Angela Carr, Here in There


I am downsizing, for practical reasons. I gift my belongings before the choice is no longer mine. Ending six months of aggressive treatment, some small strength returns. Moving through boxes and bins and shelves, I name items as I release them into the world. I name you, glass figurines I salvaged from my grandmother’s possessions, as her quiet death ended the decades they sat in her sitting room. I name you, pilfered coffee mugs, each adorned with a different company logo.

That summer we drove through the prairies and out to Vancouver, as yet another mug slipped into my bag at a rest stop. You were not amused.

I name you, dresser: the scratched and scarred second-hand chassis with lime green coat over almond brown over deep red over powdered blue, salvaged from Neighbourhood Services when I was eighteen.

Downsizing, sized. My body erodes. The clothes on my back.

I name you, silver pocketwatch: handed down from my great-grandfather, from his time in Montreal. Now set in the palm of my sister.

Family lore holds that during his first decade away from home, he worked as a conductor for one of the newly-established lines of the Grand Trunk Railway. A decade saved, and spent, before relocating again with the emergence of a wife and three children, back to his eastern Ontario nesting grounds, where he gathered a further fifty-five winters. They say he moved non-stop until he finally did.

I name you, small wooden box, discovered in my mother’s closet. The musty nest of crumbling paper scraps: correspondence, postcards, a pendant. A locket, held in an envelope. Dust. Her maiden aunt’s engagement ring. This is all that remains. She, who died when my mother was young. I name you, Marjorie, aunt of my mother.

Heirlooms: objects for which we are but temporary caretakers, a loom that weaves in and out of the hands of ancestors down, and from mine to my sisters, nieces, nephews. Brother.

I name you, long dark curls, like my mother, back in the day; as her sisters, too, and their mother as well. Curls that hadn’t the seasons to autumn, to silver.


In my youth, I collected; perhaps more than I should have. I saved, and kept everything. Girl Guide badges, nuts and bolts from the driveway, miniature carvings of frogs. I constructed scrapbooks of fauna and flora, a field’s-worth of clover. I gathered my late grandfather’s wartime diaries, secured in a steamer trunk. I collected a single smooth stone from each childhood beach, carefully placed on my bedroom bookshelf as tokens. As tangible memories. From our suburban backfill, a daily memory of a particular Nova Scotian beach at sunset.

A vial of red sand from Prince Edward Island shores, St. Margaret’s Parish, where my mother’s family historically cottaged. A vial of water from the Athabasca Glacier. What had once been what it no longer can.

In our first shared apartment, there was the alchemy of a half-hidden compartment of books in a cupboard, unlocked. Paperbacks, mostly. Mass-market stuff from an earlier decade. I immediately decided they were there precisely for me, and read everything. Susan Dey’s For Girls Only. The Hawkline Monster. A Brief History of Time. I absorbed each one, until there was nothing unread. Upon our eventual move, more than a couple of titles managed to slip in among our possessions.

I name you, library. I name you, history.


I name you, rage. I name you, anger. A cracked wooden bowl. Stage four. The one where nothing left can be done. Meeting with doctors and lawyers and further doctors. I name you, comfort; I name you, recollection. I name you, heartbreak.

In a fever-dream, the moon asks: Why do we melt?


They say to name a thing is to suspend it, freeze it into a singularity. To name is to reduce, some say. To name is to provide weight to something otherwise nebulous, unformed. To name is part of being. Biblical Adam, who spoke, and the animals became what he named; as the Word of God, also. He speaks, and what has spoken is solid.

I name instead to remind myself of each object’s purpose, and to give them air.

To make concrete, self-contained, and release.

I have been contemplating both religion and spirituality lately, but am undecided, as yet.

Soap bubbles, carried away.


I name you, signed first edition of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, from a lover whose name I’ve long forgotten. I name you, soft and dear and nameless. I name you, address book that belonged to my mother. I name you, Red Maple leaf, set between the pages of a hardbound, wax paper saved from summer camp. I name you, first kiss by the strawberry bushes. I name you, lakewater silt that spawned from our overturned canoe.

I name you, squeamishness. Layers of blood, burned brown on white linen.

I name you, intimacy. I name you, pigmentation. I name you, jade elephant.


Lorelei believes that people are a construction of memories and experience, and can be pieced together though what they have abandoned. Nigel remains unconvinced. He claims: we are made up of stories. Without stories to accompany, items are stripped of their substance. And yet, once beyond us, they become clean, able to collect anew. Are our possessions allowed lives beyond ours? If no-one knows why I owned a jade elephant or where it originated, will that even matter?

I have a jade elephant, attached to a string. Purchased at an outside market, I think. London? Paris? I suspect I might be losing my rigorous attention to the integrity of each object.

I consider writing your name on a paper scrap, something I can ingest. Something I might keep.


Terminal illness can’t be fixed, it can only be carried. I am putting it down. I release it. From here on, everything lightens. Even my step. Living well, as they say, the finest revenge.


I name you, school portrait of my first love, squirreled deep in the pockets of my leather jacket, circa 1995. I name you, 1980s Polaroid of my father in the kitchen window.

I name you, shadows; cast in the doorframe, the hospital blinds.

I name you, tears of my mother. I name you, legs and arms. I name you, mouth.

I name you, morphine. I name you, breath.

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nikolas slackman

SHAVER by Nikolas Slackman

“All of my hair is leaving me.”

But I was the one who’d shaved it all away. To say it left me was a compulsion to attract that rich melancholy self-lovers look for. I knew within mundane choices was the opportunity to feel abandoned.

I’d electric razored the whole thing top-down and looked like a flesh pear. I ran it against the arms, down the back, around the tits. A little cut up shaving the neck, but the cuts from nerve damage jitters don’t count, I’d said. Tweeze the brow, but you always tweeze the brow. I could feel George’s smirk inside the razors hum. What makes you think it grows just for you to shave it?

I waited in the lobby for my haircut. Doctor Gupta said coffee would do my nerve’s no favors, but I took up the receptionist’s offer. I could save the complementary Milano cookie for after the haircut. I drank the coffee in maybe four gulps, despite the heat. You could hear my curls screaming “Don’t cut us off, you motherfucker!” under the sips, if you listened closely.

My hair had been shoulder length since middle school. Before George started cutting my hair and turned me onto garage punk, before my late body hair had sprouted. Before high school, where I’d made some real friends then lost them, made some new friends then lost them, and Mia, who I’d dated and broken up with and dated, broken up with, and was in some inbetween thing with, maybe, when I suddenly heard the sound of my own thoughts. They sounded like buh dee duh dee duh dee duh and my hair sounded like horrible screaming. I remembered when George told me he’d watched his friend OD back in the 80’s. I thought that he was the only punk I’d ever met. I downed another coffee and asked for more, trembling.

George looked ridiculous when he came out from the back. The tight leather pants with chains draped around the thighs were notable. His stupid Noel Gallagher haircut even more so. His former muscle bro haircut was gross but understandable. This was not understandable. Not nearly enough of his shirt buttons were buttoned, and his chest was comically bare. He came up to me and said something like how’s it going man and I was like what’s up man so both questions were left rhetorical.

He sat me in front of his mirror when I noticed my scalp’s violent trembling. It only showed in my eyebrows, but I could feel it where the curls would root and bisect. He offered me the usual trim but I interrupted him with this story about how my friend Jordan told me I have Dad hair. George gave me this “you totally do have Dad hair” look. He started listing all the options I had but his voice drowned under the intensifying screams. I smiled and nodded, pretending they’d stopped until they did. He slapped me on the back and said “I’m glad you’ve come to this realization” while his assistant led me to the sink. I asked for another coffee.

Waiting in front of his mirror, I took some final gulps. George fixed his apron around me.

“So what have you been up to dude?”

I responded buh dee duh dee duh dee duh.

“Your brother, how’s he been doing?”

Same answer. I wished I had eaten that Milano earlier, the coffee made my stomach growl.

“You still with that one girl?”

I smiled and blinked insanely ha ha ha ha ha kind of I’m not sure, where’d you get those pants?

George went off about his budding fashion career. He knew the guy who assisted the woman who would custom tailor pants for Slash, through a mutual friend, apparently. They’d been chatting the last couple months and he was hoping to take her style, but apparently that’s a big no in the fashion world, even though she’s been an off the grid junkie for, like, six years. George said Lars Ulrich and Nikki Sixx miss that old style. Apparently George planned on calling her to ‘borrow’ that style to sell his own brand. George said he’d love to see those designs on Slash again. George said he’d apparently rather be home right now working on his designs than here cutting my hair. I looked up and my head wasn’t my head anymore. It was George’s old head.

I smiled and glanced towards him. I heard his assistant sweeping the death away. There was no more screaming. No more nerves. He put a shitload of product in my hair and that was that.

He shook my hand and looked at me with eyes that said you have no idea what real death looks like.

I stared at him with his head and drank the cheap melancholy fumes in the air. We were abandoned from each other, it tasted like the Milano I ate walking home.

Apparently George’s old head snubbed dreams about girls, about Mia, or whatever. That night, it had a wave of swarming red light sink through its eyes. It penetrated the cornea, it’s sharp breath wrestling my half-baked nerves. I couldn’t tell if my body was rejecting the head or the head my body. It smiled in sleep, savoring the conflict. My body lay still, I’d always shirked confrontation.

Soon, the wave saturated into a reflection of the sclera, all white. The old head opened its eyes. The light had drilled deep, and lingered unaffected. Triangular shadows patterned into a spiral formation, collapsing the tense whiteness into a new dimension. They inverted and warped. Nothing budged. The lost dreams rang through the act. Another few minutes passed before the light had emptied out into a leathery darkness. He’d hijacked everything.

“It isn’t the nerve damage then?” the head asked.

“Not entirely, just somewhat” Doctor Gupta replied.

The tarp beneath the body would crinkle whenever I squirmed, which was often, still adjusting to shaven skin. The pediatrician I’ve been seeing since middle school offered a list of ophthalmologists to consider.

“How long’d it last, do you suppose?”

“Only a few minutes, maybe.”

There was a sticker poster of Spongebob in front of me. His right leg was torn off, and the top of his head stripped away. His gigantic cartoon eyes spilled crudely into the pale wall. He’d been on the walls for the decade I’d known Doctor Gupta, but it seemed unfamiliar now. White noise filled the room, maybe the low hum of air conditioning, the sigh of growth droning above.

Gupta changed the subject. “Eating too many hamburgers, eh?” he joked, squeezing a roll of my torso. I would have done my typical ha ha ha, but George didn’t flinch.

I worried that Mia would be upset about the weight, then George reminded me she was gone. An effect of change, he said. The body dreamed about the end of change. My dying nerves reached for the end of change. George said she’s made you sick and ignored me from then on.

Gupta tussled my hair.

“Handsome boy.”

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