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SUCKLE, SWALLOW by em x. liu

In my mouth, your name is silt and sweet freshwater, like the stream that bounded you and yours into that space the rest of the village didn’t dare cross. Yong’en—Yong—En—Yongen. 永 for forever and 恩 for a kindness. It must have meant my kindness; you have never been kind to me, my Yongen. When we were girls you would organize the other kids so that as soon as my attention flagged, they would peel away from me–your long hair and shrill laughter flickering on the wind at the front of the pack. It was a shock every time, a reminder of my own freakishness. Proof of your own belonging. We understood each other in this way, marginal from each other. At the end of the day, we were the two who would sling our patchy knapsacks over our shoulders and trudge the long way down a longer dirt road back to the nothing and nowhere place we came from. You would kick every stray scrap of metal you found, just to see how far it could skitter. Yongen, have you ever loved me as I love you? I love you. I love you like I love the solid handle of an axe in my hands, the surety of its useful violence. I love you the way I love the chick we raised into meat, enough to slit your throat myself. I know now that your mother hired me not because of my inherent talent—although I have learned quickly what is expected of me—but for my unique ability to shoulder a necessary cruelty. Yours, and then later, mine. *We all wondered about the pigs your family kept, away from the rest of the animals. The day your grandmother died, some upperclassman asshole paid off the funeral home to tell him if anyone showed up. And, of course, no one did. What supposedly were her ashes were interred in the community shrine and we dutifully visited every Zhongyuan with our fragrant joss and tacky paper bills that came in stacks, plasticked together straight from the city. We mourned. I stopped trimming the ragged edges of my hair in solidarity with you, close enough to be considered a familiar person by now. Your mother spoke idly about her at dinner, each of us drinking the rich, steaming pork bone broth that fed us that winter. When we got in a childish spat–a pillow fight–we spilled your grandmother’s hair all over the ground. Still speckled pepper and not entirely grey. When your mother hurried into the room, sewing kit in hand and sterner than she’d ever been, I finally understood the peculiarities of your family. Your spirits were stubborn, sticky. Leave anything of the body unused and the soul would never rest, doomed to wander the earth, unaware.  Your mother startled at night, when you were too deep in sleep to notice and I was in the kitchen, sharpening her tools. She clutched at my sleeve often, paranoid that she had not done enough, that something of her mother was left behind, her essence congealed in a leftover morsel of her body like meat fibres stuck between her teeth. To leave anything behind was anathema to her–unfilial, ungrateful. She would have eaten clay had it been baked with her mother’s leftover blood, gobbled it down like soup tofu, its dark red delicacy. * I abruptly remembered the first time I had stepped foot on your family’s land—your mother was teaching you how best to butcher: she had your small hand encompassed in hers, fingers wrapped around a wicked blade. One cut, Yongen, she said, and you twisted your face inelegantly, like you were about to cry. But you didn’t flinch when you made the fatal slash. Your mother took the now-dead animal from your hands and drained its thick, dark blood from the clean cut you made so well. That night, we tossed the sweet chicken meat with mala spices, peppercorn and fresh onion; we fried the skin and licked crispy fat off our lips. When we picked the bones clean, we tossed them back into the already steaming broth, meant to last the week. You could never handle your spice, so I carefully scraped all that gritty red off your food, poured just enough soy sauce over to salt it well, and you ate what I fed you. Your mother offered me a job and a place to stay the next day. It was my job to scrub the bleeding basin clean—not a drop left over, she said, and I instinctively knew she meant it literally. I rubbed the little plastic tub until my fingertips hurt and wrinkled, rinsed it out half a dozen times so the water ran out clean and clear as a spring when I was done, and your mother gave me a chicken bone still bursting with marinated flavour to suckle on as reward. Afterward, she told me to chew hard until the pieces splintered under my molars. Swallow. *How did we end up here, Yongen? The branch, splitting you open. The dirt road with its skid marks like regret. I’d fallen beside you, but I was intact, miraculously. Your soft mouth, open in a scream. *“Did your mother make you eat after lao lao’s funeral?” I asked you, my teeth against your skin. You opened your mouth and moaned, low and long. “Don’t make me say it,” you panted, grasping onto my arm. “That’s so fucked up.” “What about Xiao Lu? When he drowned in the river that year?” Your cousin, pearly eyed and dimple-cheeked. Fat rolls still on his chubby arms. It was a strange year. All our crops flooded too, that fatal river overflowing with fresh rain, but our table was plentiful that spring. We feasted. 五花肉 bubbled in wine and dark soy, a rust coloured marinate that swallowed the gritty pieces of rock sugar greedily. A broth so thick and freshsweet it warmed me up inside out for the whole evening.“Don’t,” you said again, but I could see it in your eyes. Saliva flecked your lips. I wondered if you were thinking of that abundance again. Or if you were only scared. *You blinked, one fat tear rolling over your cheek. “You’ll take care of me?” you asked. “After?” I imagined your mother dutifully stuffing her own mother’s hair in that pillow. I imagined myself winding your long hair into braids, bundling branches with it, ready to burn. Carefully, I rubbed my way up your spine. You watched me with wide eyes, your lips parted. Through the blotchy red and your pinked eyes, I thought there was the beginning of some flush suffusing your face. I had left your hair half cleansed; some of it fell across your lips and left behind easy strings of crimson, your own blood streaking your mouth. My fingers found what I was looking for. The branch was thick, twisted, its surface ribbed where it pushed its way into you. The edges of you around it all soft. Skin taut. Slippery with more fluid. I leaned into you and you pulled me in close, your other hand winding in the waist of my shirt. “Please,” you told me, and for the first time, it wasn’t some form of denial, so I hugged you tender and started working you open. I fucked you before I ever kissed you, Yongen. The branch primed you for it, introduced the notion of being open to your body, at once so soft and yet so unyielding, but I was the one who pulled you apart. You clung to me as I eased the tip of my finger into you, crooked so I could find the right angle. Your lips moved soundlessly, your eyes fluttering shut. I slipped in one, then two, rocking slow enough to ease you into it. Your skin was stubborn. Even with the ragged edge, you tore so slowly. “Trust me,” I said, even marred and terrified, you answered me automatically with a soft sound, a nod. I would be grateful to you, Yongen. I would leave no trace behind.  
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An Interview With Rick Claypool

Anarchic weirdism triumphs in Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War (Anxiety Press, 2024). Rick Claypool’s wild novel unveils new visions of absurd abandon, wrapped up in a hyperreal rush of cartoonish wonder. As a whirlpool of body horror kitsch drenched in neon trash nightmares, Claypool’s demented sensibility evokes creature feature mayhem and B-movie unruliness. Never did slime glow so good. I spoke to Rick about the book.Rebecca Gransden: When did the idea for the book first appear to you? I’m curious about the genesis of the characters and the origin of the world they inhabit. What came first, a character? an image? a concept?Rick Claypool: The idea for the characters Skullface and Tentaclehead came to me about five years ago, in 2019. They’re sort of a doomed comic duo, like Vladimir and Estragon or Ren and Stimpy. Skullface is the angry one, whose reaction to life’s frustrations is this uncontrollable destructive rage that manifests as killer puke. Tentaclehead is the depressed one, whose reaction to life’s frustrations manifests as self-loathing and suicide attempts, except he can’t really die. I thought it would be funny to have them be spurred into this adventure through their shitty, upsetting world after discovering this weird baby in a two-liter bottle of soda, an idea that’s a little bit inspired by people in the ’90s supposedly finding objects contaminating their cans of soda that should not have been possible to find in a can of soda. RG:  His neighbor is enjoying himself. Actually enjoying himself. His neighbor who just a few hours earlier was so overcome with despair he cut off his own head is having a lovely time. Early on, we are introduced to the characters of Skullface and Tentaclehead as uneasy neighbors. Any weird experiences with neighbors?RC: The guy who lived next door to us when I was in high school killed himself. I remember my mom bringing me home from a guitar lesson and there were all these cops everywhere. But also like, in general for me there’s always a weird tension with neighbors. Like, as a person who believes in existing in solidarity and friendship with the people around me, especially the people physically closest to me in my community, I think it’s important to try to have the best relationship with my neighbors that I can. But as an awkward introvert who is always carrying a lowkey fear of other humans, neighbors can be kind of terrifying. RG:  The world you’ve created is one that is hyperreal and colorful, filled with trashy neon and fluorescent slime. What is the pinkish glow in Skullface’s eye holes?RC: I love that meme with the skull-faced chair with the glowing eyes – it has this look that says “I’m powerful and deranged and overwhelmed.” You know the one? My therapist once told me human vision narrows when we become so upset we’re suddenly in fight or flight mode. (And paying attention to your peripheral vision is a strategy for calming down.) So it makes sense to have the glow appear as a precursor to when Skullface gets so upset he pukes killer pink foam, which of course creates many embarrassing situations for him.RG: Tentaclehead takes his place in the grand tradition of depressive yet endearingly maudlin inventions such as Eeyore and Marvin the Paranoid Android. How does your earlier novella Tentacle Head (2022) relate to the Tentaclehead of Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War?RC: Tentaclehead is such a fun character to write. I’m someone who is inclined occasionally to fall into these depressive doom spirals, and so Tentaclehead is sort of a ridiculous personification of that. My 2022 not-for-children children’s book Tentacle Head came out from Bear Creek Press a few months before its infamous collapse. That book is basically the backstory for a somewhat less developed version of the Tentaclehead character. Like, this was before I understood he should puke knives. Also I have to say Tentacle Head’s illustrator, Piper Bly, is an absolute genius. RG:  “WHERE’S THE MANNEQUIN?” Tentaclehead repeatedly inwardly screams. “WHERE’S THE MANNEQUIN? WHERE’S THE MANNEQUIN?” Tentaclehead possesses an unhealthy obsession with a mannequin. What’s with that?RC: Any desire can become an unhealthy obsession, can warp our view of the world and influence our decisions in unexpected ways, especially when the object of desire is just out of reach. It's the object petit a of Lacanian psychoanalysis – the acorn the proto-squirrel in the Ice Age movies is always after. In Tentaclehead’s case, I guess I’m a sucker for a tragic romance. What could be more tragic than falling in love with something incapable of loving you back? And which, despite being completely inert, remains somehow always just out of reach?RG: Absurdist humor is central to the story, with parts of the book taking on the quality of a deadpan domestic farce, the characters a type of dysfunctional pseudo-family in a surrealist soap opera, before the narrative moves to hijinks on a more epic scale. What led you to this approach? If you have comedy influences, who are they?RC: I’m always trying to balance horror and humor. Growing up, my mother worked in a hospital, and over dinner she would often share stories about awful, tragic things she witnessed – body parts on a lab table, that kind of thing – and somehow, her stories were always funny. So I’ve always been drawn to stories like that. As a writer, the bleak hilarity of Samuel Beckett, wild absurdity of Daniil Kharms and merciless deadpan humor of Joy Williams have all been hugely influential. I’m constantly being inspired by writers like Zac Smith and Ivy Grimes and Sam Pink and Claire Hopple. Also, if I’m being honest, I’ve been more than a little influenced by Adult Swim cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and cult films, like early John Waters movies and Troma stuff and Peter Jackson’s weird old gloopy pre-Lord of the Rings movies.RG:  Who is the hero of Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War?, and who is the villain? Is it ever that simple?RC: It’s never that simple. I think maybe just about all the characters are heroes but they all suck at being heroes? Like they’re constantly being overcome by their desires and their emotions and the material limits of their world. Which to me is a lot like what life over the past several years has felt like, where you can always be trying your best to make smart, good, ethical choices, but the forces you’re up against – pandemic, genocidal war, catastrophic climate change, rising fascism, and so on – are just too much to deal with, especially on top of personal mental health struggles, y’know? It feels like there is no dealing with any of these overwhelming forces without completely losing your fucking mind. RG:  Eat them all! Eat them all! Eat them all! At one point there is discussion among factions on who should be eaten. Of the three mutants under debate—Skullface, Tentaclehead, and the infant named Abomination!—which would you choose to consume? A general theme of the book is that characters ingest, or are ingested, in a variety of ways. Is a metaphor happening here, or are mutants natural eaters?RC: Skullface would be too spicy and Tentaclehead would be the most sustainable choice. I’m sorry, but Abomination! would for sure be the most delicious of the three. Which is horrible, right? You’re not supposed to eat the baby, even the mutant soda-dispensing baby. But like if there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, what’s stopping you from eating the baby? And if you choose not to eat the baby, well, yay for you, but who’s to say the baby won’t grow up and choose to eat you? Eating is the purest form not only of consumption, but exploitation. You can be thankful for what you eat all you want, you are still literally taking another living thing and using its body as fuel for your own body. RG: One day Skullface reminisces aloud about different meatballs he’s been served during his time in the facility tasting somewhat differently. “They used to be sweeter and tangier,” he says, “but before they moved me from my old room into this room with you they became less tangy and more salty. Yesterday’s meatball was hardly tangy at all. Do you remember yesterday’s meatball?” What is it with mutants and meatballs?RC: Just one meatball contains all the vitamins and minerals a mutant needs for a whole day.RG: FUCK THAT, Skullface thinks. He tries to say it too. He realizes his jaw being all dangly is making it impossible for him to speak. He tries to grab it to lift it back up to his face but his arms don’t work the way they should and his jaw keeps swinging around on those slime threads in a way that makes it hard to catch. He just keeps getting slime stuck to his fingers. Oh fuck oh fuck.Mutant life can be challenging. Are there mutants you created that didn’t make the final book?RC: A few of the mutants went through different versions before I settled on their final forms. Like there was a version of Oogus Boogus where she had a stone for a head and a whole bunch of crystal eyes, and a version of Pegasus where they were more like a giant locust. I took a lot of inspiration from toys from my childhood when creating these mutants, like those little M.U.S.C.L.E. Man guys. And there are artists still designing amazing little weird toy creatures. Like there’s one guy who goes by Basement Puke. His stuff is amazing and fun as hell. RG: Did you listen to music when writing Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War? While reading, I kept soundtracking scenes with a particularly demented fantasy variety of psychobilly. How do you imagine the score?RC: The score, based on what I was listening to while writing, would include a lot of noisy, synthy stuff like Fire-Toolz and Black Moth Super Rainbow and Magic Sword. RG: Moontown’s lore suggests a rich history. Are there plans for future works to further explore Moontown, or Moontown adjacent locations, and the inhabitants? Prequels, alternate timelines? Any thoughts on how the world could translate to comic book, animation or live action form?RC: Yeah, there’s a lot there that might seem random to some readers, but there is an underlying system to things, which I will not be explaining. I don’t have any immediate plans to revisit the world, which came out of a particularly difficult time for me in terms of my mental health. I don’t want to say I’d never go back to it though. Honestly, collaborating on an adaptation would be a dream come true. I also have zero idea how to make that happen. I’m guessing I’d probably need an agent. So I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Adult Swim to call me up, but like if some underground animator wants to talk about it, I’d probably fall all over myself trying to make it happen. RG: You’ve chosen to publish Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War with Anxiety Press. What attracted you to work with them and how have you found the process?RC: It’s been great working with Cody Sexton at Anxiety Press. He wrote a review of Tentacle Head in 2022 and loved it, so that was an early indication he might love Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War too. And he did. Also, Anxiety Press is keeping some of the weird vibe that went down with Bear Creek alive, publishing talented folks from that scene like Tyler Dempsey, Scott Mitchel May, and Jack Moody. But yeah I also had a particular vision for how I wanted the book to look and I wanted to include my goofy illustrations and to maintain a particular tone throughout. Cody was cool with letting me pretty much get away with whatever I wanted, which I know not every publisher will do, even in this offbeat little indie corner.RG: What’s next for Rick Claypool?RC: I’m a little bit addicted to writing short stories right now. So the immediate next things from me are stories that will be published in anthologies later this year – one in Monsters in the Mills (an anthology of Rhode Island horror writers), one in Dark Spores (a fungal horror anthology coming out from Crone Girls Press), and one I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about yet. I don’t know, maybe I’ll start thinking about compiling them into a collection. Once things settle down I want to get back to the next longer form thing, which is a sort of minimalist sword and sorcery-flavored novella I’m writing entirely in second person. I’m a slow writer – once I settle into working on that, that’ll probably be enough for me for a while.
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THE COPY by Lana Frankle

Delusion of control has long been a fascinating yet unnerving symptom of schizophrenia and other psychoses, as well as derealization and depersonalization disorders. While some antipsychotics do show promise in treating this symptom, treatment resistance is common and can be stymying, and no therapy specific to it exists. The inventive paradigm described here will be a game-changer for people with this condition. The inspiration for our intervention comes from the famous, decades-old experiments by Benjamin Libet, who observed using electrophysiological techniques that the neural impulse that generates motor actions occurs several hundred milliseconds prior to the action, and more importantly, a few hundred milliseconds prior to one's own awareness of the intention to move. This occurs in stark contrast to the commonsense and foundational notions of individual agency and free will. The explanation proposed at the time and largely accepted since is that efference copies generated by the motor cortex lead to a retrodicted sense of ownership, known henceforth as antedating. In a small subset of psychiatric patients, this efference copy appears to be absent (confirmed using EEG data, see figure 1) leading to a lack of felt ownership of one's actions. This explanatory gap then often sadly leads to fabricated explanations and delusions, such as that one's actions are being controlled by a third party, be it a demon, machine, alien entity or mad scientist. Fortunately due to the simplicity of the mechanism at work, rectifying the feeling which serves as the initial trigger for such thoughts becomes fairly straightforward. While Libet himself did not anticipate such an application of his work, or even make the connection between his observed data and psychotic experience, in more recent decades, researchers and clinicians have pioneered the use of non-invasive ways to use electromagnetic waves not only to measure but also to induce or suppress human neural activity. One such method, gaining in popularity as a treatment for medication-resistant depression, is transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). This technique uses electrodes attached to the scalp to administer magnetic pulses to various brain regions, most commonly the left frontal cortex. Its effectiveness has had a huge impact within the field and on patients' lives, financial cost of the treatments notwithstanding. The mechanism behind this treatment, that of activating or suppressing any superficial brain area, gives it enormous and broad potential, potential which has largely gone under-utilized. In addition to its use in research studies focusing on decision-making, it has also been applied to the treatment of depression and other disorders. This study marks the first of its kind using tDCS to treat delusion of control, by simulating the missing efference copy. As a pilot study we used only one patient, with the intention of following up with a larger study using a sample test group. Our reasons for this are technical but also include some difficulty in recruitment for a therapy this novel and ambitious, despite its total safety. Persons with severe psychiatric disorders are a category for which many legal and logistical protections exist within experimental research, even when the research concerns topics of interest to that group specifically. Furthermore, psychotic patients who are not wards of the state or under the care of other legal guardians who act as medical representatives for them (and most of them are not) may be apprehensive to engage in an experimental study this different from existing approved treatments. This hesitancy, far from paranoia, can be understood empathically as a reaction to systematic marginalization and dismissiveness in a world that is perhaps already seen as confusing and hostile through the lens of disorganized perception and cognition. However, it is lamentable that the potential benefits of our treatment are difficult for this population to realize even when explained clearly, as our attempt to help mitigate the differences in processing and ease the fluency with which they interact with the world and with others is most definitely an admirable goal. Our hope is that with the positive data from this pilot study we will gain traction in recruiting volunteers, and that any further studies will cement the benefits of this therapy as well as the complete lack of ill effectsThe participant, a 28-year-old Asian male diagnosed with schizophrenia four years previously and on antipsychotic medication, had recurrent, near-constant delusions of control. He acted as his own control by completing some routine physical tasks both with and without applied magnetic stimulation, and completing a semi structured interview before and after the tDCS. The physical tasks were given by instructions: bend your arm at the elbow, open and close your hand five times, pick up a ball and throw it at a target. The interview contained standard assessment criteria for positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia, although the particular focus of our lab centered on the questions concerning the symptom of interest. "Do you ever feel as though someone else, or something else, is controlling your actions for you?" In the first interview, the patient answered "Yes, most of the time." and then went on to give an elaborate description of aliens from Venus beaming electric rays into his arms and legs. We asked him if he felt this way during the tasks he'd just completed, and he answered in the affirmative. We then applied the electrodes to target the motor cortex and re-issued the same set of instructions. The patient complied, his face still blank and affectless, but beneath that mask, mild surprise. We removed the electrodes and sat him down in a different room, where we'd done the first interview, and asked him the same set of questions. His answers were the same, uncannily so, the same wording, as though he had it memorized. But the shifting tone in his voice, which parts lilted and how, made it different enough from the first time so as not to be strange. Then we got back to "Do you ever feel as though someone else, or something else, is controlling your actions for you?The patient paused, almost furrowed his brow a little. "Did you feel like this during the last set of tasks?" I prodded. "No," he said. "I guess I didn't." The exit interview he gave subsequently provided ample assurance of the safety and comfort of the procedure. While repeat administration over multiple sessions would likely be necessary in order to have a lasting effect, observing whether this can occur is one of our future directions for this research. With adequate insurance coverage, these sessions could be made accessible and affordable for anyone who can be convinced of the benefitsThe success of this therapy is no trivial accomplishment applying merely to the treatment of a miscellaneous fringe symptom, as ultimately the core of our very humanity stems from our subjective experience of acting as free agents in the world, capable of making deliberate choices when interacting with our surroundings. When we are cruelly robbed of this liberty by the malfunctioning of our brains, we are reduced to the status of mere automatons living a flattened and colorless existence. In restoring the sense of agency to these lost souls, physicians are doing no less than reigniting the spark of purpose, and reinvigorating the animus that has dulled. The current that flows from the electrodes placed in the wearable cap can thus fundamentally restore the ghost in the machine.           
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SWELL by Lamb

We went 0-fer at the tournament, but La Jolla Sports Park has this insanely soft grass, these big ol triangle canopies with shade for days that make it hard to not feel like a winner. But, yeah, on the ride back it was getting dark, and since Jesús and the busdriver are chill, a few of us, just the boys, really, we went to the very back and kicked it, stretched ourselves across the aisle to just vibe for a while, each in his own row. By the way the busdriver smiled at us in his mirror, you could tell he’d have joined us if he didn’t have to drive the bus. Like I said, he’s chill with Jesús. We were a few flat stanleys back there, relaxing, half-sleeping as we listened to the road gentle in our backs. Then Douggie folded himself over the back of his seat, so his arms were loose and swaying, and told us the entire plot of Rosemary’s Baby.Now, as I lie in bed trying to unfocus my eyes to stop a hundred faces from appearing in the ceiling, what doesn’t make sense is how someone like Douggie, nice guy, nice parents, Christian, I’m pretty sure, ends up watching a movie like that, and why he’d bring it up on the bus, when everything was perfectly quiet, just as we’d finished forgetting about our big loss. How could you have something so evil inside of you and not know? I don’t know how that’s possible. Then again, as I rub my swollen shins together, I don’t know why some bruises are dark purple, and others orange.
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THE TEST by Arpita Roy

A man is pelting stones at a dog. In this story, because it is an old story, the dog is going to become a secret test for his humanity. The man is going to think to himself, if only I had known that this was a secret test, I would’ve chosen to keep the stones hidden inside my shoes. But the man doesn’t know and cannot choose, so he chooses stones and well, the dog was already there. As a child, the man had been a boy, small, and as a small boy, the man had seen his big father pelt stones at a dog and that dog had never turned out to be a test. It was a good ol’ non-test, regular dog with a regular bark, howling, when the pelted stones hit its body. A thwap and then the twin stones thwap thwap; the dog’s howl a mix of wince and surprise. But this dog on this day is a test dog, so when the man pelts his second stone – he would’ve anyway stopped after three – the test dog transforms into a god. God says son you failed and in reality the stones, too, were disguises of time, like I am, and thus for every stone cast, you’ve now lost a decade of your lifeThe man looks at god and wonders how he is going to break this news to his wife or his kids – or his landowner who will ask him to pay his debt. And what about his daughter’s surgery. And what about that mango tree he had planted. In ten years, he was going to hold their delicious flesh. And what about –  At the end of this long thought, the man looks at god and says okay. He swallows the last stone.
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KEY FRAME by Graham Techler

Five years I’ve been in animation. The doctor at the walk-in clinic says I have the wrists of an eighty-year-old. I’m not an eighty-year-old. He says by the time I’m actually an eighty-year-old, you wouldn’t be able to sell my wrists on the black market. According to the doctor, a black market buyer would say “you call that a wrist? This is not what I come to the black market for.” The doctor doesn’t have a very good bedside manner but that’s what you get at the walk-in clinic. Suffice it to say that when you meet me at the beginning of this story, I’m looking at my career the way a professional baseball player would: something one should try and enjoy while it lasts, while it’s a job the body can still do it, before it makes the body crumple in on itself to cries of “belly itcher,” “broken ladder,” etc. Only I don’t earn four million dollars a year. I earn seven hundred and sixty-nine dollars a week. I never work less than fifty hours a week. I do not have sick days. I do not take vacations. And for the last six months, it’s something I’ve failed even to enjoy whilst bringing to life the following section of Dustin Down the Drain

INT. THE DRAIN - CONTINUOUS

Dustin, now fully shrunken down to the size of his action figure, wails as he slides down the drain, through a series of forks in the pipe, before being deposited in a pool of scummy water. 

DUSTIN

UM, this is not what I signed up for, dude!

 Dustin Down the Drain is due in theaters next Summer. Dustin Down the Drain is budgeted at one hundred and fifty million dollars. In order to break even, after marketing costs, Dustin Down the Drain will need to gross three hundred million dollars. After the breakout success of Dustin Gets Big a couple years ago, the studio thinks Dustin Down the Drain has the potential to earn more than nine hundred million dollars. If you’re not in the industry, just trust me: nine hundred million dollars is a lot. Oh, for context: 

“Dustin is an ordinary kid who is tired of his ordinary life and wishes he could get big again like he did last Summer. But when his wish gets misinterpreted by the wish machine on the boardwalk and he shrinks down to the size of an action figure, Dustin gets more adventure than he bargained for. Next Summer, Dustin is going: Down the Drain.”

Every animator says they’ve wanted to be one since they were a little kid. I can back it up. When I was six, the projector showing me and my fellow children a cartoon broke five minutes in. The projectionist let me keep a section of the damaged reel. I could see exactly how the cartoon fist went from being cocked one moment to hitting another cartoon’s face the next. I could see the exact frame in which movement started, and the exact frame in which it reached its conclusion. Nice, right? I’ve used this story in every job interview I’ve ever had. It’s a little cute, but you have to tell them something like that. You can’t just tell them that you need a job or else you’ll die, and that (oftentimes) you don’t want to die—no, you have say when you were a kid your house burned down, and your dog ran into the flames to rescue your sketchbook, and you swore that his dog death wouldn’t be in vain, or something. If I told a story like that, I’d have gotten every job I’ve ever applied for. I don’t talk to many children. When I do, and they tell me that they want to do what I do? I try my best to scare them off of it. I ask them if they like having wrists. I let them know that the job I have is twenty-years-worse than the job I dreamed of getting when I was their age, and if they get it, their job will be twenty-years-worse than mine. Then I smack the ice cream cone out of their hand so they know what the world’s really like.  I didn’t always feel that way, exactly. At the time, I was just a normal animator: overworked, underpaid, battling a head cold. My immediate superior was in my work space, showing me my own work, and leveling the very serious accusation that I was not making movie magic.  “You’ve got Dustin bouncing off this pipe here and then tumbling twice before he hits that pipe there. The line of continuous action is shattered”—he said, using some animator argot so I’d know he knew what he was talking about—“and it’s just busy, busy, busy!”I told him I could clean that up, no problem. “This is not the kinda work a crunch is supposed to produce,” he said. “I can’t pass this up the chain of command, because this is just not the kinda work a crunch is supposed to produce.”They had set up bunk beds for us in our work spaces. They had ping pong tables too. You know, to make it fun. Like a fun little work sleepover where you don’t get any Vitamin D for days on end. I promised him that I was gonna get that line of continuous action looking way more continuous. He paused as he ducked under the bunk bed in my work space. “Oh,” he added. “I heard that you put in a request to take Christmas off to drive to Nevada for one day and spend it with your family? Now, I don’t know exactly what the fuck you meant by that, but that’s not the kind of attitude a crunch can really accommodate. You wanna give your family Christmas presents? You are going to give all four quadrants of the human population the best Christmas present they could ever hope to receive when Dustin Down the Drain arrives in three thousand theaters on July 7th. Alright? I know twenty kids at USC who would kill for the job you have right now. They would kill you if they even thought it might get them your job. They’d kill you just for having a job at all, when so many others don’t. Now, I wouldn’t let them, because we’re a family here. But I need you to start acting like the hills are full of hungry wolves. Because they are.” It was the most hardcore thing I’d ever heard someone say half-crouched under a bunk bed. I’d frequently take my midnight lunches at a diner down the block from the studio called Louie’s Lunch Car Luncherarium. The futuristic hobo train theme was confusing, but the milkshakes were good. I liked to just get a big milkshake for lunch because it’s something you don’t need wrists to consume. That day, I was too angry about my immediate supervisor’s criticisms of Dustin’s line of continuous action to care about my wrists, so I was doodling on my placemat, something I never did anymore unless I was in a terrible mood. I didn’t look up when the hobo boxcar front door slid open and another customer walked in. I didn’t look up until she was sitting in my booth across from me. She was wearing a long red leather coat and sunglasses so skinny I didn’t know what the point of them was. I felt confident she was the most striking customer in the history of Louie’s Lunch Car Luncherarium. The kind of woman who makes you really self-conscious about all the empty milkshakes in front of you. “That looks good,” she said. “Milkshake,” was all I could think to say, so that’s what I said. “No,” she said. “Your drawing. That’s really good.” I looked down at my doodle. It was a character I’d created in my youth, back when I had real convictions about the effect my work could have on the world if it was done with craft, truth, and rigor. His name was Spiggletwit Montpelier. He was a duck who ran a boarding school. I thanked her. “You’re a real talent,” said the stranger. “I’d say you should become an animator or something, but I hear that job is actually really terrible. In fact I hear it sucks shit.”I agreed that it sucked shit. She asked if I was indeed an animator. I told her. Sheasked what kind of work I did. Did I ever do movies? I told her I did do movies. “Well that’s better!” she winked. “More money for them, more money for you.”   I disabused her of this. She shook her head in dismay. “This fuckin’ industry,” she said. “This motherfuckin’ goddamn industry.” “Tell me about it,” I said. I liked how often she swore.  “You know,” said the stranger. “I’m also in the industry, in a way. “Oh yeah?” I said.“Yeah,” she said. “I represent the interests of a major competitor.”  This very weird thing to say hung in the air. “Yeah,” she continued, as if she hated to bore me with all this, “I represent the interests of a major studio competitor who’d really love to hobble the upcoming release of a film called Dustin Down the Drain. They (the major studio competitor whose interests I represent) just won’t shut up about how much they’d love to give someone $50,000 to wipe the hard-drives at the studio producing Dustin Down the Drain, which, if it doesn’t erase the film from existence, will at least damage the workflow so bad that Dustin won’t be able to go down the drain for years and years, probably causing the studio to suffer permanent reputational damage that could be parlayed by someone like my client to the benefit of themselves, and the proprietary, economically competitive artistic content they’re currently developing.” She was being coy as hell, but I had a feeling I knew what she was talking about. It sounded like she was working for the studio behind Mikey and the Shrink Ray: Requiem—an upcoming film with a very similar premise to Dustin Down the Drain (“regular-sized boy becomes tiny”) but not the red hot buzz a sequel to Dustin Gets Big could hope to generate. They had also made a recent major marketing fumble thanks to that subtitle: Requiem. The rumor was that the studio was too embarrassed to admit they’d made a mistake after a press release announcing the year’s slate had mixed up Mikey’s subtitle with the subtitle of a vampire film that had instead been announced as Oathhunter Elegy III: Always Bet on Small! The stranger went on to explain that it was actually so funny but she actually had the $50,000 in a briefcase right that very moment, alongside a stylish two-piece suit lined with extraordinarily powerful magnets. Magnets that could easily annihilate a computer server if someone was to give that computer server a little hug and rub up and down on it a bit.  “So,” she said, “my project right now is to tail Dustin’s animators around the city until I find one who wants to take it, hopefully a disgruntled one who wishes their life and wrists had turned out differently.” I felt a briefcase-sized object slide under the table and rest between my legs. I explored this object with my feet. It sure felt like a briefcase full of money and magnets. Still, I hesitated. I had never engaged in corporate espionage before. And nothing in my worldly experience suggested it wasn’t the kind of thing I would probably mess up. I stood. “You haven’t paid for your three milkshakes,” she said. I still didn’t know what to say. So I just said “milkshakes” again.  “Actually, allow me.”She put the leather briefcase on the table, popped it open a crack, and placed a hundred dollar bill on the table. All the forks and knives slid over and affixed themselves to the leather.  St. Bartholomew’s Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles has, for many years now, partnered with a nonprofit organization called ‘Miracles for Hope,’ which gives the most messed-up children on their saddest wards the opportunity to make their dreams come true before it’s too late. ‘Miracles for Hope’ has shown a kid what it’s like to perform a stadium rock and roll show. They’ve helped a kid experience zero gravity. They’re a really special organization, and we’re glad to help them out whenever we can. At least that’s what my immediate superior told me back at the studio the next morning when he introduced me to Dylan, a smiling, super cute little child decked out in Dustin apparel. “Sorry, who is Dylan?” I asked, distracted. My suit was extremely uncomfortable. There was a good reason most professionals wore suits without magnets in them.“He’s Dylan,” said my immediate superior, pointing at Dylan. “Dylan is here from St. Bartholomew’s Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.” “You’re making my miracle come true,” said Dylan. “For my hope.”My immediate superior explained that Dylan was afflicted with Zweimann’s Syndrome, an extraordinarily rare disease that gave him a small bubble in his brain which, at any moment, could explode, killing Dylan on the spot. “But,” he added, “we’ll be damned if that’s going to happen before Dylan can get a special sneak preview of Dustin Down the Drain.” I turned to the boy: “Are you sure that’s what you want your wish to be, Dustin?”“I’m Dylan,” said Dylan. “This is Dylan,” said my superior. “Dustin is Dustin. Dylan loves Dustin, though.”“I think that Dustin and the drain mouse are going to get married!” said Dylan. “Well, you’ll know for sure in seventy-four minutes” said my immediate superior. “Right this way, Dylan.”I stepped in front of him, impeding his path. “You’re impeding my path,” he said. “You can’t show Dylan Dustin,” I said.“Every moment you impede my path could be the moment Dylan’s brain bubble explodes. You do know that, right?”“This is a security breach,” I pointed out, wiping sweat from my brow. “Next thing you know, that kid is going to be talking to every blogger in town, and then everyone will know what happens to Dustin. Everyone will know whether Dustin marries the drain mouse, or not.”My immediate superior shoved a finger into my chest. “‘Miracles for Hope’ has shown a kid what it’s like to perform in a stadium rock and roll show, buddy. They’ve helped a kid experience zero gravity. And Dylan is going to find out what happens to Dustin when Dustin goes down the drain.”Before Dylan followed my immediate superior down the hall, he turned and smiled some more at me with his big toothy kid mouth. “Hey mister,” he said. “If my brain bubble doesn’t explode too soon, I wanna be just like you when I grow up. I’m gonna draw all the pictures for the movies they make for kids just like me, and I’m gonna win every award in town, and I’m gonna dress like a million bucks, just like you.” “Sure you will, Dylan,” I said. “Sure you will.”This would have been a sweeter exchange if I hadn’t already done it. While the servers that once housed Dustin were quietly inspected, I waited for someone to put the pieces together and find me at my desk. But no one came. No one said anything to me at first. And then no one said anything to me at all. The $50,000 went towards a $70,000 loan I’d taken out to attend the University of Southern California. I’d already paid off $90,000 of it at the time. After the lump sum, I’m still paying off the remaining $120,000. Dylan didn’t get to watch Dustin Down the Drain that day, but thankfully, he’s still waiting to die—much like the rest of us, but different. He no longer harbors pie in the sky fantasies of overcoming Zweimann’s Syndrome and becoming the next great me. If he lives much longer, maybe he’ll thank me for it. The studio quietly moved Dustin Down the Drain’s release to the Fall. When they were sure that the damage was irrevocable, they moved it to the Spring. There was no kind of profit that could justify the cost of making Dustin Down the Drain twice, but nobody in this town will ever admit something’s over when it’s over. They move it to the next Summer. They slowly take people off the project one by one. They move it to the next Fall. Now it’s just a few of us going over the same salvaged frames again and again. Paid a small allowance to keep the work going in the basement forever, just to spare them the embarrassment. It’s going great. It’s almost done. It’s going to do boffo box office numbers. It’ll be out in time for Christmas. I make a sketch of Dustin bounce from pipe to pipe. His line of action is perfectly continuous. It’ll be out next, next Summer. It’ll be out for the twentieth anniversary of Dustin Gets Big. It’ll be out on my eightieth birthday. The muscles in my wrist will keep shrinking somehow, even when it seems like there isn’t any more wrist left. We’re going to celebrate one hundred years of Dustin by finally sending him down the drain. I read it in the trades, so it’s definitely happening. The motion picture event Dustin fans have been waiting two hundred years for. Three hundred years. I bounce him back and forth down the drain for a thousand years. Two thousand years. Ten thousand years I sit at my desk, drawing Dustin bouncing back and forth down the drain for the millionth, two millionth, three millionth time. I have to agree with him. Not what I signed up for, dude. 
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TRANSMISSIONS: PaperBird

Welcome to Transmissions, an interview feature in which X-R-A-Y profiles podcasts and book youtubers.PaperBird can be found on YouTube: www.youtube.com/c/PaperBirdCOURTING THE MUSE: PaperBird talks about obsession, recognition, and those damn teenage years.Meeting PaperBird was harder than I expected. It's not that he's reclusive or antisocial or anything like that; no. It's just that his house is damn near impossible to find. He warned me about this beforehand, on the phone, saying that it takes "a car with all-wheel drive, a mountain bike, and a pair of hiking boots," just to get there. I got directions to his house anyway -- pretty detailed, I must say -- and made about three miles into the forest before my car broke down. Then it started raining. I didn't have the requisite mountain bike or hiking shoes, just a few sticks of chewing gum for food. I didn't see another human for days, maybe even weeks: I'm still a little fuzzy on this. All I know for sure is that I woke up one morning in a hospital bed, with Mr. PaperBird right there beside me, looking concerned.Author of three novels (Bored and Aroused in Boston, Lonely and Anxious in London, and Puking Towards Paris), an autobiography (Baby Penis), and a self-help manual (Introvert's Guide to Being a Power Asshole), PaperBird has been getting a lot of attention. Not because of his books, which remain unpublished, but because of his YouTube channel. His blend of humor and absurd surrealism (or what he calls "absurrealism") has excited, frightened, and tickled mainstream audiences and academics alike. Looking at Mr. PaperBird in his loose-fitting clothes in a way reminded me of the under-nourished cats you find lying on the side of the road. The man can't be more than 120 pounds, if I had to guess. There's a mysterious scar on his nose. His eyes are so brown they're black. One eye is lazy.-Terri Bradshaw 

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: First things first. I'd like to personally thank you for saving my life.

PaperBird: (laughs) No problem. I have to do that once in a while. It's gotten to where no one comes to visit.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: I was kind of anxious to see where you lived.

PaperBird: It's just a cottage, really. I built it a couple years ago with my brother. He's an architect, you know (not officially licensed). I think that was like his first real project.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: But why out in a forest? Why so far away from society?

PaperBird: At first I thought it would be interesting, to pull a Thoreau or something, stay unplugged, but then I checked my finances and realized I had no other choice. Did I mention I have a Patreon? Just kidding. (It's a "Ko-fi" - https://ko-fi.com/paperbird)

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Speaking of platforms, you're mostly known for your YouTube videos. Those wacky book reviews. How would you describe the channel to someone who is unfamiliar with what you do?

PaperBird: I guess you could say I make videos that dive deep into books but miss the mark completely and end up getting shattered a few feet away where the book and the author (if still alive) glance over, shake their head, sip their margarita, and nudge the sunglasses back up onto their face.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: How long have you been at it -- "diving deep and getting shattered"?

PaperBird: The channel’s been around since 2014… woah, almost 10 years now! That's really sad. Masochistic, even.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: We do get some whiffs of that, yes, but we'll get to your fetishes in a bit. At first you posted these very lofi rambling videos filmed in your car during what appeared to be your lunch break at work. I bet it was hot AF in the summer but figured after filming you’d come back in all hot and happy, high on your own supply.

PaperBird: (laughs) Exactly!

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Are there any channels that influenced or encouraged you to start the project?

PaperBird: Not really, I started posting videos as an excuse to not continue writing in a traditional sense but still stay connected to books. Being on YouTube though I got hooked into watching knife review videos, especially ones made by Nick Shabazz. On his videos, he never shows his face, it’s just his hands holding the knife as he’s reviewing it. That inspired me to move out of the steamy in-car POV and adopt the same top down / table top style, except with books instead of knives, kind of as a joke.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Which of your videos would you recommend to someone who is new to what you do?

PaperBird: Here's a good sampler pack: Gary LutzGerald MurnaneJon FossePierre MichonClaude Simon.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: How do you go about selecting what to feature on each video?

PaperBird: It used to be as easy as grabbing the next book on the pile. I would read it a couple times, take some notes, talk about it on camera, then rinse and repeat. But over time I got tired of that, in fact now really dislike talking about books straight-on. It’s the same with the books I like to read -- the less hand-holding, the less information the better -- although in a “review” you kind of have to do that a little, give out information.

Now it’s more about building a container to dump in whatever's going on in my life, and somewhere along the way, an author or a book gets sucked in and spread out as the foundation. After a few months, if the structure holds, that load-bearing book (pun intended) becomes what is featured.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: You used to publish short stories, poetry, and book reviews in more traditional places, maybe 15 years ago, under a different name, and if I had to guess, you still scribble in your notebook every day, though it's more a stream that feeds into whatever video is bubbling up, like background processing, am I right?

PaperBird: Yes, well… when things are flowing, creating the video feels similar to writing, actually it’s more rewarding because things can happen quickly, moving things around, sometimes you get this euphoric mix of imagery, music, and voice that couldn't possibly have been planned. I remember this review I did on Wilson Harris which I gave up on midway and instead turned it into a meditation on death. Maybe the method is more like abstract painting or DJ'ing.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Or like that show Iron Chef? Where the grandmaster would announce the theme ingredient and the contestants would use it to make their own original dish? The ingredient in your case being the book under "review."

PaperBird: Something like that, literature as seasoning on the larger animal inside that you want to serve up and knock people out with. Hit them with your own spices and herbs. That’s the beauty of this medium, it’s like a blob of hot dough that stays gooey for longer and you have a bigger sweetspot in which you can shape it, even randomly sometimes, it’s that forgiving. And the synchronicities happen more often and more quickly. It's the best feeling in the world when everything clicks.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: You mention somewhere in Baby Penis, your autobiography, that your creative tendencies really took off when you were in high school?

PaperBird: That's right. I'd say around the time I was a sophomore. And I had the strangest motivation for writing. I wanted to impress a woman. I'm not going to say who… Let's just say she's a celebrity. (I reveal who she is in my Esther Kinsky video.) But yeah, I was very lonely and thought that if I wrote a novel -- I was fifteen at the time -- I thought that if I wrote a quality literary novel, at the age of fifteen, I would get recognized and become a celebrity, too, and that way She would know who I was. That's all I wanted in life then: to be recognized by this person whom I was obsessed with. We're talking Taxi Driver here.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Good thing you didn't kill anyone.

PaperBird: Yeah, it was only a teenage daydream, but a really strong one. Writing this novel was all that I thought about. And Her, of course. She became a muse or mother goddess, the "female personage" that Gerald Murnane writes about. I began to see Her in others. The girl who sat next to me in math class (Lauren). The girl who also liked to write, whose house I rode past on my bike almost every day (Kathleen). The girl I once slow-danced with whose perfume I would recognize even now (Angela). They all had brown hair and blue eyes. But can you see what else they had in common? It's all in the letters in their names, the colors of those letters… I still sometimes… I still search…

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Hello? Hello… Earth to PaperBird… (snaps fingers) OK, let's pivot from that for a bit. For the techheads and aspiring booktubers out there, which single item of kit do you consider essential for the production of your channel?

PaperBird: You mean other than a knife?

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Ah yes! I was hoping you'd get into that! For those of our readers who may not know, you have this penchant for cutting up your books with a knife on camera. Before we get into exactly why, let me just say, I've noticed that your knife handling skills have really improved over time. I remember early on, maybe it was the video on John Yau or Samuel Beckett, where it looked like you almost cut off your thumb. But then you're starting to hold the knife better, dare I say with more confidence, as you slice through your books. Are you trying to turn them into chapbooks or something?

PaperBird: It's a way of getting the weight down. Some of my compatriots on booktube -- Leaf by LeafTravel Through StoriesW.A.S.T.E. Mailing List -- they gravitate toward the chunkers. I like chunky shapes too. But after years of typing, cooking, crocheting, saxophone playing, whatever, my wrists blew out. Can't hold up anything weighs more than a Kindle now.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: I ask because I think it was in the Sally Rooney video, where you go off on this 20 minute tangent just "deconstructing" one of her books, and I must say, the knife handling in that video was superb. You said you cooked? It was almost like you had worked in a butcher shop for years. And in the Gordon Lish video, where you chop off what appears to be your penis with a meat cleaver, just incredible, the way you handle both heavy and lightweight cutlery.

PaperBird: Thank you.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: There's this one digression in the Fernanda Melchor video that I haven't been able to get out of my head. It's the part where the twins are starving and Fernanda has to get them food somehow, and so she goes on this long hunt through the forest...

PaperBird: Yeah, she's chasing some kind of unidentified animal. A boar, actually.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Right. And so she slaughters the thing and drags it all the way home, where she has to dice it up before dawn comes and the twins awake. And through the magic of editing, you show Fernanda Melchor skinning and chopping up and preparing this animal for over thirty minutes, and the overall accruing effect of the passage is just mind-numbing. It's like nothing I've seen before.

PaperBird: That's one of those digressions that demand a lot from the viewer but ultimately pay off in the end, I hope.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: It was particularly exciting for me, all the details you worked in there about, for example, the sound of the animal's hide ripping, and the texture of the animal's striated muscles, and the way the tendons and ligaments would stretch on the bone and then snap off. I think the sound they made was "tCHew!"

PaperBird: Um, actually it was "tCHaw!"

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Watching that video repeatedly and its attention to detail made me wonder if you've ever had any actual hands-on experience slaughtering animals. I mean, the scene with the blood caking on Fernanda's hands and all that, the shimmer of the freshly-killed animal's intestines -- it doesn't seem like you could whip that up from scratch.

PaperBird: Well, there was some research involved. I read a book on general swine anatomy, and then visited a meat market where the butcher was kind enough to let me observe. But the rest I pretty much made up, although I did dissect a cat in the eighth grade.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: How big was it?

PaperBird: The cat? I'd say about a foot and a half.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: The reason I'm wondering is because I happen to work with animals. Mostly dogs and cats, but sometimes deer, possums, and armadillos. They're usually dead by the time I get them, or rapidly reaching that state, so I'd say I know more than your average joe about the death of animals. And let me be the first to attest to the accuracy of your scene concerning the boar's death and dissection in the Fernanda Melchor.

PaperBird: Thanks. (laughs) What is it you do exactly? Aside from working for X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine?

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: I guess you could say I'm a type of artist, or what some would call a "roadkill artist." Basically, I drive around interstates and highways and look for animals that've been run over or knocked dead by cars. I take the animals home and hack off as much meat as I can without damaging their skeletons, and then boil the rest off their bones.

PaperBird: Not for eating purposes, I hope.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: (laughs) No, no. I'd say it's fairly dangerous to eat roadkill. What I'm interested in are their bones -- the ones that haven't been shattered or splintered by the impact. Sometimes the cars do so much damage I can only extract about 20% of their bones intact. Usually they're the small ones, like the carpals or patellas, but every once in a while I'll be able to get a whole femur or pelvis. Complete skulls are hard to come by, and always require that I drain the brain out through the nostrils.

PaperBird: No kidding.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: The key to working with dead animals is to get to them before rigor mortis sets in. That way you'll cut your flaying time in half. And it's always important to know where the bone is in relation to the muscle, so you won't accidentally cut in too deep and make abrasions on the bone's surface. Usually I just feel for the bone and leave about a centimeter of meat on and throw the whole thing into a vat of boiling water. I have these vats at home for this purpose. They loosen up the muscles and tendons and kill off any bacteria. Then you just slide the meat off and you're left with clean bone. In my younger days, I used to just snap it off, like Fernanda did in the video, but I found that doing that'll strip away some of the outer layer, or what's called the periosteum. The ligaments did make a sort of tCHaw! sound when I ripped them off, though. Actually it was more of a tCHwee!

PaperBird: tCHwee?

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Right. I guess the exact sound would depend on what ligament you're dealing with, but I think it was a tCHwee!

PaperBird: Hunh.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: Anyway, getting back to what I was saying. Once you get all the muscle and connective tissue off the bone, you'll want to paint a coating of enamel over the surface in order to preserve it, keep it from deteriorating. Maybe also add a layer of glossy white paint to give it that clean look. I've heard of some roadkill artists working in ceramics. It's up to the individual. Myself, I like having a clean and durable bone because I work with furniture. That is, I make furniture out of bones. I've made tables, chairs, dressers, beds, and footstools. Once, I built a staircase for a friend of mine. That one took a couple years and an insane amount of roadkill. I practically had to drive cross-country for that one. And you can see why it's important, when building furniture, to want a bone that isn't splintered or damaged in any way. Especially for something like a staircase.

PaperBird: I see.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: But there're probably limits to how much roadkill you can find in a given year. Sometimes driving around I'll get as many as two or three a day, freshly-killed. Then it might take weeks before I find another roadkill, and it might just be a bird or a squirrel. Which makes things hard for me because lately I've been getting lots of offers from clients. They want maybe a throne of bone by the end of the month, or some sort of man-sized bird-cage or what have you. They can get really specific, and that's totally appropriate because everything I make is custom-designed. Hand-crafted. I think the price is fair, and I always give a one-year service warranty. But lately I've just gotten too many offers. I only have so many resources stock-piled in my vault. Can you see my predicament? It doesn't help asking my friends and neighbors if I could have dibs on their pets after they die. Their pets, that is. But right now, I'm in the process of cutting a deal with a veterinarian who happens to like what I do, so there's some hope for me yet. And the other day I got contacted by a record-company who wants me to build an elaborate canopy-style bed that can be used to promote this death-metal band's next album. Have you heard of Sarcophagi? I think that's their name.

PaperBird: Not a fan.

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine: But you know the name? I'm hoping this'll give artists like me the kind of exposure we need. Not that roadkill artists have an alliance or anything. I think we just need some credibility and recognition because things're really hard for us. I live out on a farm in Minnesota with a few of my carpenter friends. We built the place ourselves. They're all sort of marginal artists like me: Sherry makes Egyptian-style caskets out of papier-maché, Trent works with rubber, Steven's an engineer in roller-coaster design but so far no amusement park will contract his work because they think his stuff's "unethical." But what can you do? You just plug away at it and hope that something good'll eventually come out. That's my advice to young artists: never take the easy road and never give up. As long as you remain true to your work, keep your work genuine, you'll be all right. There will always be times when you really doubt yourself, like when you're not eating as well as you should be because you can't afford anything besides microwave dinners and corndogs, and you're working at the IRS or for some low-circulation magazine or newspaper writing soft journalism and counting down the days to your next paycheck, and you have no love- or sex-life because you don't have the time or energy for that kind of thing, although you really do want one, it's all you think about, having an understandable and caring person be there for you, to buffer the pain and constantly tell you that you're not alone in this world, and you wonder to yourself, Are these sacrifices I'm making truly worth it? Am I putting out anything into the world that will make it a better place -- or that will help me be remembered after I die? Will I ever achieve the sort of recognition I honestly think I deserve in this lifetime, or at all? Or am I just going to have to fantasize about it in very strange and elaborate ways? Is it worth it to even go on with my life? Sometimes you'll think that the world doesn't need another someone like you, another dreamer, another hopeful who for some reason couldn't make it and is relegated to a life of mediocrity, who doesn't make an iota of a dent along the passage of time, and passes easily through the anus of history as if they never existed. But you just have to keep at it. Even if your spiritual back is broken, even if you're down to your last can of Spam, even if you've wasted away to 120 pounds when you really should be 160, even if you truly are all alone in this world, you just have to pick yourself up and reach for the next bone.

PaperBird can be found on YouTube: www.youtube.com/c/PaperBird

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YOUR WIFE’S GYM FRIEND IS DRUNK by Kyle Seibel

Your wife’s gym friend is drunk. Not outrageously drunk, but too drunk to drive. According to her, he went to a work happy hour thing that morphed into a dinner thing which became a cocktails thing and now he is stranded somewhere in the city. There are no Ubers apparently or the wait is too long, so he calls your wife and asks for a ride, that is, of course, if it’s alright with you.“I don’t understand,” you say. “He’s getting kicked out of the bar?”She’s standing near the door with car keys in her hand. “No, just drunk. I said that already.” “You’re really going downtown now?” She taps her phone. “It’s not that late.” You turn off the TV and say you’ll come too. Your wife drops her keys and they crash on the tiles. “Perfect,” she says, picking them up.

#

It’s just after Christmas last year that your wife declares war on her gunt. When you ask her what a gunt is, she lifts up her shirt and pulls down her pants and points to the crepey pouch of tissue on her lower stomach. Say goodbye, she says, grabbing and shaking it. To her credit, she follows through. Your wife wins the war against her gunt. She wins the war and just keeps going.And at first, there’s no issue. Not really. The gym is her space, her time. You’re happy for her, even. You have your places too. Your own gym, for example. Your office friends, you’re close with them. You know intimate things about each other. Brad from account services tried to kill himself in college, for example, and Sue Ann the media planner recently had plastic surgery on her vagina. But they know you as well, know when something’s off. It is Brad, in fact, who brings it up first. Comes over for a beer one night and asks where your wife is.“At the gym,” you say.“Didn’t she go this morning?” Brad says. “Didn’t you mention that?”“That was a class,” you say. “Boot camp or something. This is free weights. Or yoga, I forget.”“Does she do that a lot, go to the gym twice a day?”“Well,” you say. “She usually goes three times.” Brad takes a long drink of beer, wipes his mouth, looks away, and says jesus.

#

Your wife’s gym friend is wearing an untucked black shirt with the top three buttons undone. He is sitting in the passenger seat and giving you directions to his condo. Your wife follows behind, driving his car, which is some kind of SUV off-road type thing. It’s got a big stovepipe situation coming out of the hood, which he says comes in handy more often than you might think.He talks about work. He asks you what you do. When you tell him, he makes a face and says, “Damn dude!” Looking over, you notice your wife’s gym friend must shave his chest. You can tell because he has stubble. It distracts you for some reason. You roll a yellow light and pull over on the next block to wait for your wife to catch up.“Ah, just keep driving,” your wife’s gym friend says. “She knows where she’s going.”

#

You’d be more concerned if there was more to be concerned about. There’s a thing called trust, you tell Brad and Sue Ann. I trust her, you say. Ten years, you remind them. That’s a long time. But they don’t look convinced. They think it’s weird, all the time at the gym. And it’s not their fault, they just don’t know, don’t understand the extent of the situation. You’re not one of these shithead husbands. You do the dishes, your own cooking. You’re not ignorant or moody. You’re an adult, goddamnit. It’s how you’ve always been. Virtually nothing has changed since the day you were married. Hell, you wore your tux last Halloween and went as James Bond. You tell them you’re exactly the same person you were on your wedding day. The microwave in the breakroom bleats in bursts of three.“So, okay,” Sue Ann says. “Maybe that’s the problem.”

#

“How does she know where you live?” you ask your wife’s gym friend. You are still pulled over, waiting for the light to change and your wife to join you.“Hmm?” he says.You swallow and repeat the question. Behind you, your wife flashes her brights.“Oh, she’s taken me home from the gym before,” he says.“What?” you say.“Sometimes I jog there,” he says. “Double exercise, you know.”“Right,” you say, putting the car into gear. “Double exercise.”

#

It’ll take you three weeks to look at your wife’s phone and when you do, you’ll see her gym friend’s penis in the folder for recently deleted photos. You’ll be shocked by its color, its fluorescent redness. You’ll think, did he use a filter? Does he have high blood pressure? Is there something else medical going on here? You’ll look down at your own crotch. So normal looking, so boring. How can you compete with a day-glo dick? You can’t, you think. You can’t, of course.You’ll throw the phone against the wall. You’ll think, I should throw the phone against the wall. Then you’ll realize you already did that. You’ll pick it up and throw it against the wall again. A buzzer will go off in your ears. Your wife will come into the kitchen. She’ll be screaming at you, that was the buzzing. She’ll follow you out to your car, sawing like a cicada. You’ll leave the house and go to Brad’s and against Brad’s advice, you’ll return home a few hours later. For five days, your wife will refuse to go to the gym. She’ll lie in bed sobbing, begging for you to talk to her.On the sixth day, she’ll move in with her gym friend, into the condo where you dropped him off that night. Over the next couple months, she’ll intermittently try to get back together. She’ll text you baby names and call late at night. Your lawyer will advise you to not pick up. Your lawyer will also advise you to not prevent her access to the house, so when she asks to pick up some stuff, you’ll say that it’s fine, just don’t bring her gym friend. He’ll come along anyway.Your wife or whatever she is at this point, will run off upstairs to collect her things and leave you in the kitchen with him.He’ll say that none of this is her fault and that he understands how you’re feeling. He’ll say that neither of them meant for this to happen, but that it’s against nature to deny true love. He’ll say that in a couple years, we’ll laugh about this. You’ll tell him quietly that you’re going to punch him in the face. He’ll do this shitty laugh scoffing thing and shake his head and say he’s trying to have a mature conversation and so that’ll be when you punch him in the face. He’ll fall down, out of surprise mostly, and without thinking, you’ll kick him as hard as you can in the back, the spot where the kidneys are. You’ll do this a great number of times. He’ll writhe around on the ground. You’ll step on his head a little and grind his face against the kitchen floor. Something religious will fill your chest when you hear his nose crunch under your foot. Your wife will hear the yelling and come running and see the blood on the white tile and faint, but when she comes to, she will be looking at you in a whole new way, and it will disturb you, it will turn your stomach, because you’ll realize that somewhere in all this violence, the seeds of your eventual reconciliation have been planted.

#

You keep the car running as your wife walks her gym friend to his door. Driving him home was your good deed for the day, you reason. There’s really no point in overthinking things. Tomorrow’s Thursday. You can take Friday off. There’s nothing wrong that can’t be fixed by a long weekend. Your wife gets back in the car, turns the heat up full blast, says something you can’t hear. You ask her to repeat it. She says never mind. 

###

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BREAKING by Emily Rinkema

On the designated day for punishing mothers, those of us who got our applications in early enough show up, mothers in tow. Most look like they came willingly, walking ahead of their children, mostly daughters, but not mine. I had to sedate her to get her in the car.I paid for the deluxe package, which includes interrogation. The application allowed three questions. Two were easy: What really happened to the kitten I brought home in third grade? And, Why did you only let me shave my legs to my knees until I was sixteen? The third was harder to decide on, but I went with, How can Kant’s categorical imperative ever truly be a reliable guide to moral obligations if humans lack rational agency?I prop Mom up next to me to wait our turn for interrogation. She puts her head on my shoulder, but only because her neck won’t hold it up. I may have over sedated her. I take a granola bar out of my bag and Mom lifts her head enough to give me the look that says I can’t believe you’re eating again.The door opens after only a few minutes and a mother and daughter come out of the room. They have both been crying. The mother is missing a few teeth and a finger, has bruises on her neck, is soaking wet. For a moment, I wonder if I am overreacting, if maybe it’s not too late to cancel and take Mom home, but then I see her sit up straight, roll her shoulders. I can tell she is judging the other mother for being weak, for breaking. She gives me that smile that says she can’t believe I chose to wear these shoes in public and cracks her knuckles.
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LESS DEAD by Samir Sirk Morató

When asked, Dad says, Don’t worry about Ximena—she’s just a girl good at running away, but you find a shoebox of condoms, calling cards, Selena CDs, baby name lists, and blush palettes squashed between a bed leg and a wall, the last of Ximena in her whirlwind-emptied room, which reminds you of Diva Fridays:Come on, she’d say, I’ll teach you about eyeshadow, before putting her heavy handed brushstrokes on your lids, which made you miss Marco—who lived in her room before he too fled—all cropped shirts, eyeliner, and laughter mixed with hair oil and truancy.He had a box of condoms too.The animals look like them, you tell Mom. She doesn’t understand that squirrels are gnawing with baby teeth, raccoons developing pink palms, vultures singing raspy cumbia, your beagle watching you through Marco’s eyes rimmed in black skin; she sees only laundry, lunch boxes, and outlines.One Saturday, after you follow these animals into high weeds, burrs on your socks, Dad-tied pigtails on your head, you find the rotted lumps they’re eating: skin and bear paw people-fingers and maggots plated on shattered bones. It smells like basement.Your dad says it’s just deer. Leave it alone.Later, a woman calls you, asking if you’ve seen Ximena. She barely speaks English. You finger landline phone curls, safe and bored, before saying No.No have money to call again, she says, so please—Get more money then.You hang up.Many bad, fun runaways later, when police turn your boneyard into a poppy field of flags and shoot your animals for evidence, Mom weeps, vowing I didn’t know, while you tell yourself that you lied to be good, to be a girl missed, knowing you lied for no reason at all.
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