GO TO HELL by Katherine Plumhoff

I thought I knew what hot was. Humidity I could swallow. The wings of dead fish flies going translucent in the sun. Sprinkles melting off my ice cream cone the second I walk out of the shop. There is no ice cream here. There are plenty of dead things, but they are not stiff and quiet. They buzz. Shake. Scream. If I think about them for too long they’re all I can see. All I can hear. I like to imagine it’s a particularly exotic vacation. A desired hot — one I spent money on and rolled up all my clothes into small balls for.Before, vacations felt like something being done to me. It didn’t matter if I filled every hour with an activity, pinballing from tasting room to walking tour to theater, or if I sprawled on a towel and tried to doze. The time away had the texture, rough and abrasive, of an exfoliating mitt. I never knew what it would reveal in me. My last vacation ruined me.

***

D runs the paddle brush down one side of her hair and then the other. She presses argan oil into each side until it’s a glossy, nutty brown that reminds me of the wood inlays of my dad’s old car. The heat protectant goes on as a spray. The straightener sizzles as D runs it down her hair.D is soft textures and shiny surfaces — thigh-high suede boots, slinky paisley skirt — except for her earrings, two waning moons whose points cut into her rosy cheeks when she turns her head. Her rings glint in the low light and she shrugs on a canvas blazer.  "I've never done this," she says, her dark eyes glancing down as she drags her finger over the thread that keeps the blazer’s pockets shut. "I've been saving it for now."I want her to break it. I want her to mar her smooth lines of her own volition. “Do it,” I whisper. She doesn’t hear me.She rips the pocket open and smiles. “That’s it for now!” she says. “I’ll be going live again from the top of the Duomo later today, so make sure your notifications are on!”I put my phone away. I open up the album I’ve made of screenshots from her Lives, in which I can see different corners of her apartment. I soothe myself with what now looks familiar: the skylight, stamped into the sloping roof above her bed; the once-white enamel hotplate that is her only kitchen appliance; the wardrobe cabinet distinguishable from the storage cabinet by the candy-colored Anthropologie table runner that hangs down it. These wisps of knowledge give structure to the scenes I invent for when I confront her. I will be adult about it, thoughtful. I’ll bring over food that doesn’t have to be heated up. An abundance of cold dips. Baba ganoush, maybe. She served it once when her friends from America came to visit. I scroll to the screenshots from that dinner, see heaps of pallid mush on daisy plates she brought over in one of her five giant duffels when she moved from London to Milan. She’d wrapped them on a Live, swaddling them in wide-legged twill trousers that looked too thin to be effective cushioning. I watched her stack them, one on top of the other, oblivious to how easily they break. 

***

I’ve come to Italy to see D. I’ve followed her since last year, when Paul stopped fucking me in order to fuck her. She moved here six months ago. I held out till now to come, though I put a flight tracker on as soon as she announced the move. Two hours to get to Gatwick, a two-hour flight to Malpensa, a 40-minute bus drive down flat, gray roads papered with flat, gray billboards in front of flat, gray buildings. Five hours of travel and an hour of milling around in the airport, avoiding the food court and swiping £180 eye serums across the patch of skin above my mask and underneath my glasses. Six hours, maybe, in total. Six hours is nothing. I’m used to American distances. I’ve driven that long to saw through thick steak and push it around a plate in a chain restaurant — a neutral place my parents’ and grandparents’ propriety wouldn’t let them scream in — before turning around and driving home. 

***

Paul didn’t tell me her name but I found her easily enough. I told myself I wouldn’t look him up after he told me he didn’t want to be with me anymore, but I got around that by looking up his friends, and I saw her tagged in a poorly-framed shot someone on his rugby team had posted of the team and their various hangers-on at a pub in Camden. She was standing in front of big foggy windows and was the best dressed of anyone present, wearing an embroidered denim Free People suit. She had mussed lips and a red chin I recognized as courtesy of Paul’s beard burn. It looked different on her complexion than it did on mine, but I could tell, and two weeks later, it was confirmed by a video his school friend posted of a gallery opening in Shoreditch, where Paul’s hand, pale and finely scarred like old vellum, rested on the back of her delicate neck. The two of them stood in front of an oil painting of drying laundry strung across a dusty balcony in Andalucia. Their bodies stayed touching from shoulders to hip until the camera panned away. 

***

I started watching D’s get-ready-with-me Lives. I followed her antique shopping. Her trips to poetry readings in members’ clubs where her friends read unstructured pieces about fertility treatments. Sometimes I saw Paul, glowing like he’d been professionally lit, smiling the half-smile he prefers because it hides his small teeth. Then D went dark for an entire month. Nothing new came up, no matter how often I refreshed, and I worried she’d blocked me. I started checking on her from the account I manage for the gallery I work for. She reappeared there a few weeks later, announcing her move to Italy. She’d stream to us as she walked to Pilates, to therapy, to the Italian lessons she was taking to “reconnect with her heritage.” She walked everywhere. I told the gallery I needed to work remotely for health reasons. I watched her in bed, blinds drawn, my phone growing hot in my hand.

***

I get dressed for the Duomo from the top down. Tortoiseshell sunglasses. My thick blue sweater and loose brown corduroys, though little of my outfit will be visible under my coat. When I get the notification that D’s gone live again, this time from the Cathedral’s entrance, I slip on brown Chelsea boots and walk to the elevator, where I tap through Stories as I get sucked down to the lobby. 

***

I want thousands of people to witness every moment of my life and I want those moments to be perfect tableaux of wealth and good taste, each carousel soaked in contentment: hand-thrown pottery in cornflower blues transitioning to a rainy city street strewn with streetlamp light transitioning to me in a billowy blouse, open-mouthed and laughing. I want the people who witness me living well to be famous in their own chosen careers, blue-ticked and beautiful. I want to see and be seen at London Fashion Week and go straight to Milan Fashion Week after having RSVP’d no to New York Fashion Week because I needed some time to rest, some time to nest, some time to walk barefoot over the underfloor heating of my three-story townhouse where I host parties and serve artisanal bread and eight kinds of cheese to people who don’t eat.I want to be the one they all watch. 

***

I thought the shift in the tone of D’s Lives meant Paul had dumped her when she moved. I would still see her one day, I knew, but my daydreams of our time together changed. I’d be magnanimous, the hatchet fully buried, and invite her to aperitivos. We’d sit across a small metal table and our voices would rise with every round, until we’d be walking down a cobblestone road with our arms around each other, laughing at stories about the man who didn’t love us, wrapping ourselves in solidarity.Then Paul posted from Milan. (I’d seen this upon checking his profile a few weeks into sleeping with a man who was in the ensemble of the Oklahoma! revival, when I thought I was over Paul and wanted to confirm that hypothesis. I should have known better. You can only ever get over a man with a better one, and this one shouted “Yee-haw!” in an American accent when he came.) Paul had said he was too busy to go to Paris with me when the gallery sent me to cover the first international show of an Irish artist they’d signed. The artist cross-stitched portraits of male politicians in drag, and I stood in front of them, alone, pouring drinks for the balding would-be buyers and the waifs that accompanied them. While D wasn’t in his pictures from his trip to Milan, he posted a story at the natural wine bar I knew was D’s favorite. In it, a dismembered female hand poured opaque pink wine from a labelless bottle.

***

I’m climbing to the top of the Duomo. I saw in D’s Live that she and the German girl she’s been hanging out with since she moved are sitting on the roof, answering questions from her followers and showing them the view.The roof isn’t as corded-off as I thought it would be. Nothing could be that high and that gothically depressive in America without chin-high fences to discourage jumpers. The Madonnina, gold-leafed and gleaming, is looking up into her crown of stairs, as if she’s already interceding on behalf of the faithful swarming her.On my phone, D is talking into the camera about how this is her first time at the top of the Cathedral even though she’s lived here for months. “We didn’t go to bed until four but we weren’t going to miss this,” she says. “We pre-bought the tickets!”In front of me, D and her friend are sitting atop a marble ledge in the wan winter sun, D’s face tilted down into her front camera. They’re framed between columns capped with gargoyles. It looks like they’re floating between graves. I make my way over to them.Two little kids in puffy jackets dart in front of me and line up behind one of the slats that make up the roof. They climb up it, then scoot down gingerly, half a foot at a time, before scampering back into line to do it again. I close out of D’s Live and watch as a little girl in a toggle-front coat and a fan of dark hair lands at the bottom of the slide. Her shoes thwack against the marble and she waves in my direction. I turn and see, between D and me, a woman sitting against a column. She has a scarf tucked around her face and over the shape of a bun. She’s not encouraging the girl’s fun but she’s not discouraging it, either. On another day, D and I could have laughed at how cute these little European kids and their little European grandmother are, how much joy there is to go around; we could have taken turns on the makeshift slide, inching towards the saw-toothed city below. Today, here, now, on the roof, I open my camera and start filming as I walk closer to D. “Remember to put the 1st of March in your diary,” I hear D say. “I’m going to the season premiere of The Mandalorian and I’m bringing you all with me!”“Did I ever tell you how I gave my first handjob to Star Wars?” the German girl says.“You’re so lucky I just turned off Live,” says D. “Otherwise your DMs would be absolutely flooded with filth.”The girls start laughing and I’m there, I’m right next to them, the sun is shining and we’re all laughing at the joke, and I go up to D and her friend and stick out my hand to introduce myself.“Hello!” I say, already laughing.D squints at me. “Do I know you?” she asks politely. I take off my sunglasses and D’s face goes slack. “Hi, D.”“Shit!” she says. I wait for her to calm down.“This is Paul’s crazy ex,” she says to her friend. She turns back to me. “Why are you here?” she asks, shirking away from where I’m standing.I didn’t think D would recognize me. I follow her, but she doesn’t follow me. She has hundreds of thousands of followers and Paul deleted the two pictures he’d had up of us after he left me. I thought I’d have to explain to her who I was, tell her details about Paul — the acne scars scattered across his shoulders in pencil-eraser pink — for her to believe me.This isn’t how I wanted it to begin. I can hear the kids screaming and I want to start over. “I just—” I start, stammering a bit.“Have you not bothered me enough?” D says. She turns to the German girl. Her cheeks go pallid under her bronzer and her eyes rake across the people behind us, all of whom are consumed in their own moments of communion with the church or with their cameras. “She’s the one who messaged me saying that Paul was cheating on me, who called me 15 times a day until I changed my number.”My stomach starts to roil. I was meant to have the upper hand here. I breathe deep, counting one, two, three. I pitch my voice low: “I only want to talk. I thought you should know—”“Wait, this is the freak who sent copies of your nudes to your house?” asks the German, stepping closer to me.Ever since Paul had left his Google profile logged into my work laptop, I reviewed his emails with my morning coffee. In August, D sent him a series of shots from her vacation in Biarritz. I’d simply printed them out and sent them to the address I found on his Amazon receipt for a women's rash guard. I did write “slut” across them before sending, but considering the content, that seemed irrefutable.“Yes! I literally moved to get away from her!” D’s arm flails between us. “You emailed my mum and told her I was sleeping with my primary school teacher!” “Okay, but—” I say, reaching out to D.D scrambles farther back on the marble ledge. There’s not much space left, and she loses her balance. As she falls backwards, her legs fly up in a tangle of knees. She looks graceful even now, windmilling into nothing. “Jesus fucking Christ!” shouts the German, running to D. “Get the fuck away from us!” she screams at me, her loose blonde hair sparkling in the light. “Aiuto! Aiuto!”It’s all gone wrong. I don’t want D to die, not really; it would get her out of Paul’s life but it wouldn’t get me back in. I run to the ledge, German girl’s imperatives ignored. I see her there, balanced on a thin ledge, centimeters away from a catastrophic fall. The city below her looks tiny, the people too petite to be real.I reach my hand down to where the German girl has already been reaching. My arms are longer, and I’m stronger, and together, we haul D up one fistful of fabric at a time, fishermen bringing in the catch. D’s feet touch the ground and I try to pull her towards me. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”“Go to hell,” she spits.And so I do. The hallowed ground yawns open and swallows me down, depositing me in a slump at the gates of hell. When I can bear looking upwards, I find the gates’ inscription: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. It would make for a good caption, I think. Back on earth, on the roof of the Duomo under a blue-flame sky, my phone clatters onto the slanted marble where I just stood, still recording.

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“TORN BETWEEN THE PAST AND THE FUTURE […] UNSURE IF ANY TANGIBLE PRESENT EXISTS”: An Interview with David Leo Rice

The artistic ambition and imagination of David Leo Rice seem to know no bounds. His latest novel, The Berlin Wall (Whiskey Tit, 2024), carries forward investigations and ideas worked out in his earlier books while exploring new landscapes, deeper heresies, and alternate means of storytelling. I’d heard rumblings of this novel’s existence quite a while ago, and was excited to finally get my hands on a presale copy earlier this year: it did not disappoint. David was kind enough to sit down with me for a conversation about the book, its generation, genre, fanaticism, heroism, and various “hatchings” of selves (among many other things).Danny Elfanbaum: The Berlin Wall —an alternate history of 2020 — nevertheless brought up a lot of what I remember from that year and the early days of the pandemic, with resonances about the news, missing- or misinformation, and the memory of a kind of passive, omni-present terror, but I gather that this wasn’t strictly intentional.David Leo Rice: I actually wrote the first draft in 2018, after traveling in Norway. It was written then as a work of near-future speculative fiction about what 2020 might look like, and then just because of the nature of editing and publishing, it ended up coming out in 2024. So it’s become a work of revisionist history instead, which is maybe more fitting because the book itself is so much about revisionist history, driven by people arguing about what did or didn’t happen in the recent past.In terms of how those arguments tell the story, and how that might relate to our real experience of 2020, I wanted YouTube to almost be the narrator, a voice that on the one hand feels neutral — like it will just tell you anything, with no agenda, because it’ll take all comers, a very promiscuous type of narrator, and one that’s not conscious of the meaning of what it’s saying — but also a narrator that you fear does have a hidden agenda, in which all these clips and partial stories are coming together to lead you somewhere. Maybe they’re leading you in an exciting way toward the “truth behind the illusion,” or in a sinister way toward a horrible conclusion that you’ll then be stuck with.Through this lens, I hoped the reader would experience some of the news paranoia that I think everyone experienced during the first Trump years, where you could never be sure if what you’re taking in is converging towards a kernel of what’s actually real, away from nonsense and spin and propaganda, or if it’s all divergent and you’re just going through the wood chipper, spraying your mind across the screen. This is a version of the cosmic question about whether the universe converges if you understand it deeply enough, upon something like God or a singularity, or if true wisdom means overcoming the illusion of convergence and accepting the totality of chaos for what it really is – though what if this acceptance itself is also a kind of convergence? And on and on, maddeningly.I wanted this narrative approach to create the feeling that something horrible was happening offscreen, but so far off that it might not be happening at all, and therefore the horrible thing might be the idea that it’s happening, seeded in your mind by forces seeking to control you. In a series of essays that I wrote at the same time as this book, I called this aspect of the 2010s and 2020s the “Unworkable Equilibrium” — the feeling that we’re always on the edge of total collapse and abject horror, and yet never all the way over that edge (at least not in America and Western Europe), so the fear that we’re on this edge might itself be the root of the problem. Are we pretending things are worse than they are, or denying how bad they’ve become?When you reach the end of your rope with this question, you can admit that you just don’t know — which is in some ways more honorable — or you can latch on to just about any ideology, which can become the root of fanaticism.DE: And there is plenty of fanaticism to contend with in the book! But first I’d like to ask you a little bit about the Wall itself, the “Living Wall,” as its believers call it. Why the Berlin Wall, and what does it mean in this book when characters refer to it as “living” — or in fact literally embody it?DLR: As a central controversy or heresy in this version of 2020, I thought about what if the Berlin Wall had been a living entity and, when it was destroyed in ’89, the pieces wandered off and began to live their own lives on the margins of Europe? What might they be doing in 2020? This is the question that my dubiously omniscient narrator deals with at the start of the book.When I first heard about the Berlin Wall as a kid, I pictured it as an insane medieval monolith that was a thousand feet high — something you would be in awe of if you ever saw it. But that’s not true; the actual Wall was only something like 15 feet high in places. It’s therefore telling that its legend is still so grandiose, because it means that it stood for something beyond itself. How could it supposedly change the whole world when such a small wall was built, or when it fell? I wanted to transpose this disjunct between physical and narrative realities into a science fictional conceit, where an idea becomes a real thing, and then you take it from there.And I wanted this book to be about the present, where all the characters are in a specific moment. The idea was that the year 2020 would be a character in the novel too, asking what it means to be this far beyond the Millennium but still litigating the same things, still fighting between socialism, capitalism, and fascism, and dreaming of the end of history while arguing about whether it’s already come or could ever come. Why doesn’t 2020 feel newer? Is there something in the recent past that still has to be resolved before we can actually move to a new era, or have we reached a kind of temporal wall we can’t see beyond? This has been Germany’s question since the ’40s, right? Is there something in that culture that still has to be resolved, or do they have to admit that they can’t resolve it and find a way to move on anyhow? And if that’s true, are they always going to exist in a haunted state, overcompensating for something they can’t heal from?There’s the actual “Living Wall,” but the book is more about how people would respond if they thought something like that was possible. I like conceits that let you think about real life in a new way, rather than “genre” books that are more about the conceits themselves. I like the way my father put it when he read a draft: he said, “This is a book about people trying to put their lives back together.”DE: The book flirts with various notions of “genre”—sci-fi, horror, video games—but definitely isn’t a “genre” novel. Were you thinking about genre when you were putting it together?DLR: I never think about genre explicitly, and I even try not to think about it as I’m writing, though I’m certainly influenced by it and I let that influence come out however it wants to. I feel like if you’re aiming at a genre, you’re already losing the project — the genre is taking it from you, whereas if you’re trying to make a genre-inflected conceit feel as real as possible, that’s where exciting developments can occur, because you’re swimming against the current.From a marketing point of view, it could be useful to serve fans of a given genre, but I’ve always aspired to “be a genre.” I want people to read my books because they want to read my books, not because they want to read sci-fi or horror per se. When I’m writing, I try to see if I can peer into a nickelodeon or a microscope into a world where these events are what’s actually happened. Rather than trying to make the fantastical aspects seem real, I try to find a realm in my imagination where they already are.DE: “Peering in” feels right, especially in this book. The other novels of yours that I’ve read and that we’ve talked about typically are told or follow a single point of view, but there are a handful of characters we follow throughout The Berlin Wall. What prompted this change?DLR: The goal was to write something more distant from my own experience. There is the geographical distance from where I live in that this book takes place wholly outside America; then there’s the alternate history dimension, which is distant from the things that have actually happened; and then using multiple point of view characters meant that none of them could exactly be me. I felt more like a journalist reporting this story rather than an avatar experiencing it.Still, even though they’re motivated by their own needs, all the characters are dealing with the problem of how to reach terra firma in 2020. They’re all involved with the way that the Berlin Wall exemplifies both of the tendencies we were talking about earlier: On the one hand, the Wall was built as a concrete signal that times had changed — that WWII was over and the Cold War had begun — but on the other hand, a wall is a symbol of stasis. Walls are some of the most static things on earth, both immobile in their own right and designed to arrest the movement of others. So everyone in this book is torn between the past and the future, between racing to move on and fighting to stay put, and unsure if any tangible present exists in between.DE: And while all of what I’ll call the “point of view” characters respond in different ways, there’s one character, György,  who responds with a violent, intense fanaticism, joining up with one of the major (horrific) social movements/undercurrents within the world of the novel.DLR: It’s probably strange to say, but György is kind of the moral center. Everyone in the book has to deal with the lack of grounding in the news they consume and the uncertainty they feel in the world around them, but he’s the one who has the greatest crisis about it. He’s the youngest and least established, and thus the one who, in theory, has the greatest stake in the future, though he can’t find any means of embracing this fact. He can’t deal with the condition of 2020 except by falling into fanaticism, white nationalism, and so on. Which of course doesn’t help him deal with it, but it does provide the illusion of unshakeable grounding in a mythic past that will become a mythic future after enough violence is unleashed upon the zombie present.As a corollary to his conundrum, I wanted the style and structure of the book to create this frustrated yearning for something definitely true in the reader. Almost to draw out the reader’s latent fascism, a desire to force a definite meaning onto the events that are occurring, no matter how much violence that requires. So the question becomes what’s good and what’s bad about this yearning?There’s something natural about wanting to know what’s real and where you stand, and wanting to stand for something that endures throughout time and context, whether that’s honor or community or your word or faith, just as there’s something natural about wanting to understand the book you’re reading, and trusting that all the pieces will fit together in a satisfying way. These things aren’t intrinsically bad, but I wanted to ask, How do they turn bad? Why, in the 2020s, do we fear these desires in ourselves and others?It’s something about the nature of this polarized time period, wherein one facet of society says that to want these certainties at all is evil and you should just be comfortable with pure relativism and fungibility and an infinitude of non-convergent opinions, while the other facet of society that continues to want these things starts to pursue them in a way that is evil. As in any polarized moment, each side eggs the other on to a more extreme and eventually more grotesque version of itself, until no one can act in their own best interest, let alone that of the larger society.And therefore the final question is if there is something in between, a third option whereby you could rehabilitate ideas of the definitely real and the transcendent, something larger than ourselves, and be honest about the fact that this is a legitimate human craving, maybe even a human necessity, while also saying that not every way of trying to reach this is acceptable.DE: For many of the other major characters — here I’m thinking specifically about the Chancellor and Anika, the academic who becomes a kind of propagandist for the status quo — part of the response seems to be a constant donning and shedding of selves, as if identity — ontological or otherwise — is almost a non sequitur.DLR: Maybe one of the central questions in everything I’ve done is to ask what it means to act now, in the world, today. The world that, as a writer, I’m trying to participate in too. For me, it’s too easy to just say, “Well, I can write” as my way of participating. I don’t want to only write about writers, so I’m trying to think about other, more direct forms of participation, even if I can only enact them from a remove.Thinking about characters who are trying to act in the world as it appears today unifies questions about character and about place, and the ontological instability of both. It’s the question of, What world? Where are you mounting your attack from, what are you defending, what are you trying to conquer? Or is that way of thinking about the world just hopelessly antiquated?This relates to my understanding of mysticism, in which individuals try to access eternity not by looking away from the specific times they live in, but by looking through them, hoping to catch a glimpse of Time itself within the messy present tense that happens to bound their lives. In terms of selfhood, the question becomes, How do you come into your own, or how do you find out who you really are, given that part of you is specific and temporal, and (you hope) another part is universal and eternal? And this is related to the question of heroism: What journey do you go on such that your disparate or latent selves get unified or hatched? Many of my characters yearn to become heroes, at least in their own eyes — as all mystics do, and as I do by completing the lifelong writing project that I’ve embarked upon — but they also doubt that heroism is possible and fear that it’s a childish yearning they need to overcome. Perhaps overcoming this yearning is the route to heroism.DE: And depending on which iteration of self the characters in the novel are in, the answers to these questions change dramatically. What was interesting though was that these iterations are not progressive, in the sense that the identity that comes next might not be as good, or as useful, or as stable as the identity that had been assumed before.DLR: Absolutely. Once you start asking the book, or the universe, to “swap you out,” all bets are off. You have to view change as a good, or a necessity, unto itself. You can’t hope for what the prior identity would have viewed as an improvement. I’m drawn to characters who reach the point of total necessity, where it’s not a matter of hoping for a good change, but rather a matter of needing any change at all in order to go on living. I made an animation in college that ends with a title card reading, “Then we reached the point where we could go no further as ourselves,” and I’ve kept that sentiment as a kind of mission statement ever since.There’s a lot of hatching imagery in The Berlin Wall, which goes back to Dodge City 2, where there was the question of how do you really get born? In that book, people are always being born but then aborted, or aborted but then born, and there’s an underlying question about whether you’re ever born for real, or if you’re always living in an on-deck situation where you’re waiting to be made real by forces you can’t call upon. How do you actually get deployed? This is a strange thought, but sometimes I feel that my characters aren’t really the characters they seem to be, like they’re waiting for the actual characters they’re supposed to play to get called onto the field of action, which the book may or may not allow to happen. In the meantime, as you say, there’s a constant donning and shedding of selves.So the question then is if not through violence — which would be the traditional meaning of the word “deployed” — then how? It can’t be just sifting through endless screens and feeling like you’re acting in the world from this peripheral, meta position. And so if it’s not that, and also not the fanatical response of killing a bunch of people on the orders of some figurehead, then what other way is there? Everyone in The Berlin Wall grapples with this question.We’ve talked before about the idea of a post-postmodernism, where postmodernism mocked the idea of heroism, because when everyone in the modernist era tried to be heroes they ended up destroying themselves. So the postmoderns sort of sat back and patted themselves on the back, showing why it was ridiculous to yearn for this kind of direct, unironic relation to reality.But irony was its own dead end. Maybe it’s a curse and a blessing, but I think there’s something good about the fact that we were born after this work in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was already done. We don’t have to reveal what was ridiculous and dangerous about modernism anymore. Therefore the burden of writers today is the question of what else can we do, or what does a new kind of heroism look like that is not just a return to the ideas of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and such, which led to fascism, nor a debunking of those ideas? Speaking again of a third option, how can we accept the work that those generations did and evolve the conversation forward again?DE: And how might you come to any kind of conclusion when there’s no real stable ground or reality upon which to build up some kind of edifice, or a metaphysics of heroism?DLR: Part of what the post-postmodern means to me is that the grounding no longer matters. It’s no longer salient whether you can prove that everything is a simulation or prove that supernatural phenomena are genuinely occurring. Some characters in The Berlin Wall claim they’re acting within a gigantic video game, but I wanted the world of the book to function in a way that makes this claim irrelevant – it doesn’t matter whether it’s true. I think we’ve moved past the point where it feels productive to do something like point out in a novel that “this isn’t really a character, it’s just words on a page,” the same way the claim that “Twitter isn’t real life” is kind of moot as well. It may be true, but if Twitter functions like real life for enough people, then something about its reality has to be recognized. The 2020s feels like a time where disparate worlds have bled together into a mishmash, and the work of separating them back out is a recipe for madness.So when it came to this book, speaking of continuity of character, I didn’t want that to be an easy out. A character might say, “Oh, I’m just a part of some propaganda machine,” or “All of this is a simulation,” or “I’m not my real self yet,” but the operative theme is not whether any of that is true. It’s “You still have to live and act in the world, so what do you do?”To take an example from the slew of movies that came out right before the Millennium, which I’ll group under the heading of “The Matrix,” The Berlin Wall is considering something like, What if inside The Truman Show and outside the show are the same? There’s the “real world,” and there’s the “fake world,” but all those worlds have leaked into each other. It’s no longer cathartic to picture Jim Carrey going through a door between them.So how do people respond? Extreme neofascism is one way, and extreme neoliberalism is another, but what if you could just enjoy this fact as it is rather than trying to solve for what is true or suffer from being unable to? Maybe heroism for my characters comes from finding a way to play within the perverted realms they’re stuck in, rather than escaping or redeeming them. It’s not a means of finding stable ground, but rather of surfing the instability.DE: And the book itself, structurally, sort of refuses to try and solve for it. I laughed out loud when I realized that you’d stuck a 50-page epilogue on there. If that’s not taking pleasure in a kind of indeterminacy…​DLR: Yeah, definitely! I wanted it to be so that you could read the book without the epilogue — the book really does end. And I was trying to have the most grandiose, lyrical, operatic moment be the end of that last main part. Then the epilogue is a return to a kind of banal reality, and I think that’s a large part of what the book is going for — this question of how do we normalize the most extreme events? What does it mean that everyone survived the apocalypse that the book seems to point to, and survived it so easily that many won’t believe it even occurred?If you think of this book as an outsider’s testament to contemporary Europe, and you think about the continuity of people and place that the epilogue lays out, that to me is the fundamental uncanniness and uneasiness about Europe: how could it have proven to be so resilient? How could WWII and the Holocaust, the worst thing that’s ever happened — at least as we’re taught it — have happened there, and happened recently, in living memory, and yet Europe has still turned into the most normal place in the world?It makes you think either that the things that happened there weren’t so bad, or today’s Europe is not as normal as it appears. And neither of those options are very comfortable to consider, right?

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MISTER INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT by Kirsti MacKenzie

“Told you,” says Dirt. “I knew he’d lose his shit.”I’m not losing my shit. Annie doesn’t say anything. She keeps her eyes trained on the gym bag under the desk. “Pay up,” says Dirt.“Fuck off,” says Annie. Dirt’s desk chair squeals as he leans back, lacing his fingers behind his bald head. The chairs are old and broken, an afterthought. Like everything else here. I’ve got my jacket halfway off and a glass container with dinner in my hand. I put the container on the desk, then grab it again.“He can’t get it,” scoffs Dirt. “He’s a raccoon, not Garfield.”“How do you know it’s a he,” says Annie.Dirt rolls his eyes. I put the container down again. “I dunno,” says Annie. “They’ll do anything for food. They get garbage bin lids open, those fancy ones in Toronto. With their little paws.”I scoop the container again, furious. “I thought you said it was knocked out.”“It is,” she shrugs. “But if it gets hungry, I’ll feed it.” She taps a granola bar laying in front of her dusty keyboard. “I’m thinking rabies,” Dirt says, “and this guy’s first thought is but my lasagna.“No,” I say, “what if there’s an emergency?”“This is an emergency,” Annie says.“Like a real one,” I say. Annie cuts me a look under her beaten Habs ballcap. She folds her hands across her belly, straining against her camouflage vest. Plants her hikers and rolls her desk chair back and forth, back and forth across the carpet, carpet so worn it’s greasy under the wheels. The job requires a certain kind of tolerance for mess. Nobody’s here unless they fuck up, or they’re fucked up. You’d think, given the gravity of it—intercepting terrorism, foreign interference, war strikes, cyber attacks, all that shit—they’d give us better digs, but no. Somehow the most important, least important station there is. The gym bag shifts slightly under her desk. Dirt eyeballs it, but Annie stares me down. “Guess you’ll handle it, bud,” she says evenly. 

***

 “Annie showed up real early,” Dirt says. Dirt is always on time. It’s his one redeeming quality and the only thing Annie and Dirt have in common. “They drilled that shit into us,” he repeats, like I don’t know they’re both former military.“Hate rush hour,” Annie says. “Leave early, when the roads are—”Dirt goes, “Jesus Christ, Annie, I’m trying to tell a story here.”“You’re telling it wrong,” Annie says.Dirt goes, “I get here and you know what Annie does? She shushes me. I think she’s being a bitch so I go, fuck off Annie, real loud, right? Then she goes, Two things: One, shut your mouth. Two, I called animal control. And I’m about to go off cuz I think she means she’s calling me an animal. But she points to her GoodLife bag under there. Now I’m confused, like, maybe, it’s the first day since basic training Annie decides she wants to grind out some pushups—”“Holy fuck,” Annie says, “you’re a moron.”“You tell it then!” Dirt says.“He didn’t believe me so I unzipped the—”“—and I go, shit you weren’t kidding—”“—anyway it was just lying there on the road, and I jammed on my brakes, and poor thing, its foot was at a funny angle and it was breathing funny so I called animal control, and they said they can’t be bothered with roadkill, they’re backed up with a coyote problem in Gloucester and someone reported a black bear in Orleans so I’m standing there arguing, like what kind of person would I be if I just left—”“—so she grabs the GoodLife and a granola bar, what a fuckin’ hero our Annie —”Annie holds up a finger. “Dirt,” she goes, “you’re a sick bastard and you’re a troll, but I know you wouldn’t have left him behind, neither.”“No,” Dirt says, after a beat. Annie cuts me an emphatic look. “—so,” Dirt says, “she rolled this little guy into an old sweatshirt in the GoodLife bag and fired him into the passenger seat and drove to work, still got the operator on Bluetooth in the car, mind you, kept this poor sucker on the phone til she got downtown, parked, marched her ass upstairs holding the bag like a newborn—”“—trying not to shake him—”“—him!–”“—it, whatever—”“—and she swiped her pass all the way up and into the office and she put the bag under the desk and said to the operator, get this—”“—now it’s no longer a roadkill problem; there’s a live raccoon in a government building and I am requesting your assistance; here’s the address. See you soon—”“—and she hangs up.” 

***

 Dirt follows me into the break room, leans against the counter rattling a protein shaker. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. Stories followed him from DND. Burpees and jump squats and incline sit ups with his feet hooked on stairwell railings. The grunting, the smell. Dirt’s first computer monitor is for work; his second one is for gambling; his third one is for porn. Sick shit, too. We know because he leaves his computer unlocked when he takes a shit, unlocked when he goes on mid-shift dates, which are frequent. Somebody at DND threatened to report him—the smell, the gambling, the porn, the dates—and legend has it Dirt got his name because he just laughed and said go ahead, make my day. Dirt’s the one who told the legend, so take it with a grain. “She’s not supposed to tell them where we are,” I say, watching my lasagna spin in the microwave. “That’s like, rule number one.”“They have to get that thing out of here,” Dirt shrugs. “They don’t need to know what we do. She’ll just meet them in the lobby.”“Why haven’t they come yet?” Dirt gestures broadly with his shaker. “Coyote problem. Black bears.”I pull my lasagna before the microwave beeps. Burn my tongue on the edges but the middle is still cold. Another thirty seconds to get it right.“What if it gets loose?” I ask.“Yes,” Dirt says. “Gimme rabies. Time off. Big fat workers comp settlement.”“She could get fired,” I say.“Not Annie,” says Dirt. I chew my lasagna slow, shaking my head.“Annie’s name isn’t Annie,” he says. “You should ask how she wound up in this shithole.” Stories didn’t follow Annie the way they did Dirt. All anyone ever says is that she’s a tough broad. Good soldier. Best kind. Everyone here has some kind of story: they buried the wrong document or threatened a director or brushed their teeth with a fifth of something high proof before the 9 a.m. priorities call. Not Annie, though. This is the first I’ve heard anything of Annie’s story. “Still,” I say. “Nobody here gets fired, man,” Dirt laughs, spraying chocolate shake. “You know that better than anybody, after what you did.” 

***

 “Dare you to look,” says Annie. I grimace and shake my head, staring at my phone. “Tim’s run says it’s hentai this week,” she says. “Thought I heard squeaking earlier.”Dirt left for his midshift date. We have five minutes after he leaves. On my first shift, Annie asked me to lock Dirt’s computer and laughed and laughed when I found the gambling, the porn. Said everyone who stays here long enough winds up a bit of a sicko, so don’t judge.Annie looks like some kind of back-camping, born-again Christian bush mom so I thought she’d be shocked, but she just bets me double-doubles on what kind of kick he’s been on, or whether he’s losing money on the Oilers again. “Squeaking,” I mutter. “That’s probably your new pet.”“Jesus,” she says with some degree of awe. “You’ve really got a stick up your ass about this.”“You brought a fucking raccoon into the office—”“What would you have done?”“I don’t know,” I say. “Leave it?”Annie snaps her fingers into a gun, fires it at me. Cold expression settling into her weathered face. “You sure about that?”“Look,” I say, “Something bad happens in the country, anywhere in the world, we’re the first to know about it. We’re supposed to focus—”“Don’t need you explaining the job, bud.”“—so doesn’t it seem like if a raccoon gets loose in an office—this specific office—it’d draw a lot of attention? Nobody takes us seriously. Now you drag a raccoon in here? If that thing gets loose it’s not only a cliche—it’s a legit national security risk—like, total shitshow—”“Yeah, no, for sure,” she says. “Don’t want another one of those, do you.”I suck my cheeks in. Bite down hard. Not gonna take the bait.Annie dons a pair of leather driving gloves, takes the granola bar from her keyboard and breaks the wrapper. She reaches under the desk and I hear the zipper peel back slowly. Slowly. Faster now, all the way to the end. There’s no squeaking, or rustling, or munching sounds. “Shit,” she mutters.“Dead,” I scoff. “Nope,” she says. “Shit. Shit.” 

***

 Annie gave me the sweatshirt and gym bag as defense. I didn’t want to touch them at first, and she called me a pussy. Sometimes Dirt takes naps under his desk with this ratty old quilt and she asked if I’d rather have that. It looks and smells like PigPen’s blanket. I put my jacket back on and took the sweatshirt and bag.“He couldn’t have gone far on that foot,” Annie reassures me. “He was pretty out of it.”“Probably juiced on adrenaline,” I say, like I know what the fuck I’m talking about. We creep around the office. Annie takes the lead because, logically, she was the one to pick him–it, whatever–up in the first place. Maybe she has some kind of bond with it. Maybe it’ll recognize her smell, or something. “Any word from Dirt?”I check my phone. Dirt’s got a system for the mid-shift dates. Takes ‘em to a movie theatre around the corner, mostly to hook up. He has Annie text 9-1-1 half an hour into the date. If they’re ugly or boring, he checks his phone and uses the text as an excuse to bail. Tells ‘em it’s a matter of national security. But today the text came from me, and the response I got was nice try, fucko so either his date’s really hot or he doesn’t take my 9-1-1 for real seriously because national security events never happen that often. Well, almost never. “I don’t wanna mention about the raccoon because he’s on his work phone,” I say.“Like texting 9-1-1 every single shift isn’t heatbag enough?” gripes Annie. “Nobody’s monitoring our texts.”“What if it gets in the news?” I protest. “What if some animal control person spills that there’s a fuckin’ raccoon in the national security comms centre?“Right,” she sighs. “I forgot they sent you from narc city.”We creep around cubicles, checking all the corners, and under the desks. We have the whole floor to ourselves but only a corner of it gets used. Most of the office looks like what I imagine a crypt might. Everything covered in a thin layer of dust from the ancient central air system. Even the cleaners know we only use part of the floor; they’ve given up on the offices that line the outside of the building. I move to open one but Annie sighs.“Don’t bother with the closed doors,” she says. “Raccoons can’t open doors. This isn’t Jurassic Park.”Feeling like an idiot, I take my hand from the knob. I lean against the office door, scanning the hallway. Dull fluorescents hum overhead. Red EXIT/SORTIE sign glaring at the end of the hallway. It’s the exit Dirt uses for his incline sit-ups, for his dates. Only one with a broken security camera. Straight shot from our desks. “What if he—it, whatever—tailed Dirt out of the office?” “Maybe that’s his date today,” snorts Annie. “Better than his Tinder. He swipes right on some real uggos.”“Look, Annie,” I say, “Dirt says your name isn’t—”But Annie’s neck snaps to the left, toward our cubicles. Something grey and black streaks across the hallway toward the break room. Surprisingly fast for something fat and furry and limping. Annie takes off after it and I take off after Annie and when we round the corner we see it scramble up the break room cupboards, clamoring for my dirty lasagna container on the counter. It looks at us with big, panicked eyes and for the first time I can see why Annie couldn’t leave the stupid thing behind. Annie gives me a shove.“Get it into the sink and get the bag over it!” she yells.Her cellphone starts ringing.And goddamn her, she answers.I lunge toward the counter, but between me and the cellphone the raccoon shrieks and lunges at me so I shriek and feint with the bag covering my face and it bolts off the counter, shrieking even more as it lands on its busted foot and skitters under the table between metal chair legs and I drop to a crouch and hold the bag open muttering it’s okay you know her smell now and all the while Annie’s hollering the address and directions and can’t you get here any faster for fuckssake it’s been hours and just as she hangs up I lunge again and the raccoon shrieks and blazes past me and I shriek and bump my head on the break table, hard, swearing, as it tears past Annie and back into the hallway.She hangs up, shaking her head.“They’re on their way,” she says, adjusting her ballcap. “Lost it again,” I huff, rubbing my head.“I think I know where we’re gonna find him,” she says. 

***

 We crouched first. Came down slowly, so we wouldn’t scare him. It, whatever. He watches us with sad eyes while his paws work the granola. It’s one of those Nature Valley bars, the ones that crumble the second you touch them.He scoops little bits out of the green wrapper and shoves them in his mouth. We’re blocking his exit from the cubicle, bag and sweatshirt ready to grab him if he makes a move. Annie peels her gloves off.“Think that’s wise?” I ask.“He’s too tired to bolt,” she says. “Guy told me he’d be here in twenty minutes anyway.” We sit silent and watch him. He finishes the granola bar but paws at the cellophane, looking for more. He’s dextrous enough that I think he probably could have opened a door, if he wanted to. Like if he’d been on the shoulders of another raccoon. Or little stilts. “Get your gun,” she says.“What? I don’t—”“My name isn’t Annie,” she says. “They named me Annie Get Your Gun a while back. When I was still serving.”I can’t take my eyes off the raccoon, but I glance at her. “You know that day on the Hill?”“The shooter?”“Yep.”I whistle. The raccoon’s ears prickle, and he crouches defensively.“Some shit went down that day that you don’t hear about,” she says. “I know about the shit.”“That’s why—?”She nods.I swallow hard. “I know I said sorry before, but I just wanna say again—or like, thank you—I don’t know, sorry and thank you, I guess—”She waves me off, then points to the raccoon. He’s still crouched, watching us with sad, wet eyes.“When I walked into that shift you looked exactly like that,” she says. “Scared shitless. And you know what, yeah. You fucked up real bad. Three nations? False alarm? Holy shit did you fuck up.” I wince. Tears prickle the back of my eyes.“But they’re never gonna fire me,” she says. “Union says so, for one thing. But more importantly—”“You know about the shit.”She nods.“That’s why you—? For me—?”“Yep,” she says. “Dirt says you’re nuts,” I say, staring at the raccoon. His eyes are drooping and I pray to fuck he’s just tired and not dying. “Says he would have thrown me under the bus in a heartbeat.”“Well, they’ve got enough to can him,” she says. “The porn, the sports betting. Don’t think they don’t know about the movie hookups, either.” “But they can’t touch you,” I whisper. “Nope.”I study the stitching on the GoodLife bag, trying not to cry.“So you fucked up,” she says. “So what.”“Twice.” “That just means you won’t fuck up again.” She snorts, shaking her head. Rough smoker’s laugh rattles her chest. “China and Iran, fuck. You really know how to pick ‘em. Mister International Incident.”Somewhere down the hall, the door opens. All three of us turn our heads toward the noise.“Animal control?” “No,” she says. “I have to meet them in the lobby.”“We should tell him,” I say.“Nah,” she says, pointing at the monitor above the raccoon. Dirt’s ragged stressball and protein shaker are next to the set up. It’s his cubicle. She slaps my shoulder and rises, creeping around the partition, motioning for me to follow her. “Not yet. Tim’s run says he screams like a girl.” 

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THE SEWING KIT by Chad Sullivan

Grandma spoke to ghosts and refused her dentures. She’d shit herself and call us thieves. She said her dying was taking forever and that Grandpa stopped loving her, and both those things were true, but only because Grandpa was dead. At sundown, she’d turn werewolfShe’d call me Donald and flash her gums. I’d go to the garage, disturb Grandpa’s tools, taste corrosion; thumb old magazines, and smell decay. I’d sit amongst rot (avoiding the rot in Grandma’s brain) and tie knots in Grandpa’s sewing kit just to feel closure.Grandma’s mouth puckered like an asshole. She’d eventually miss Mass, but never her coffee.

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PURGATORY by Amy DeBellis

Julia starts noticing David when he kills the fish in their bio classroom. The class finds it on the floor when they come in, stranded in a too-shallow puddle of water, tiny mouth open in a last desperate gasp. Like everyone else, David wears an expression of puzzled sorrow, his pale eyes wide with sympathy, but nobody besides Julia notices the spots of water on his sleeves. The thin trapdoor of his smile, flickering in and out of existence.So Julia starts noticing other things, too. She registers the curve of his lips, the cupid’s bow as pronounced as those of the girls in Renaissance paintings. She wonders what it might taste like. Rust or moss, maybe, blooming in dark secret places where no one looks.One evening she sees him walking into the field behind their houses. The slim rifle, straight path into the woods, and then a shot. Venison on the neighbors’ table for dinner. He sees her seeing him. On the path between their properties, into the narrow space between their bodies, he says, “I can teach you, if you want.”It’s that sliver of a pause, that hesitation before if you want, that decides her. Because for a second, before he thought to add those words, he didn’t even consider that she might not want it. And in that second she was ready for anything. She wants to live in that second. She wants to pull that second over her like a cloak and walk so far in it that she can’t find her way back home. ___ The next day, in the forest, David stands very close to her. He has to, in order to show her how to hold and load the rifle. There’s a metallic odor seeping from his skin, as though he’s chewed up a bunch of rounds, gritted them to dust between his teeth, digested them and turned them into sweat.“Man, you’ve never even held a gun before,” he says in wonder. “What planet did you come from?”“Some sheltered girl planet, I guess,” Julia replies, and then feels like an idiot.But he doesn’t seem to mind the distinction she’s drawn between the two of them. “Make sure you’ve got it pointed away from your head. That’s the first thing you need to learn.” Hes grinning, his teeth small and chipped in the crescent moon of his smile. He teaches her the anatomy of the rifle, demonstrating with his rough woodblock hands: “This is the action. This is the safety. This is the trigger…” He makes her recite every part until she’s got it memorized as well as the topography of her own skin. Only then will he let her hold it. He says: “Only ever point the rifle at things you are willing to destroy.”She nods seriously. She thinks of aiming it at every tree on her property, at her house, at her mother’s car. Into the open cavern of her own skull. ___ When he lets her start shooting, he stands next to her, as though he can guide her shots just by his presence. She misses and misses until finally she doesn’t. It’s a rabbit, small and delicate when it was making its way across the grass, but when she picks the body up it’s ugly, heavy, waterlogged with death. Nothingness spreads through her. It’s after her first kill that she learns what David tastes like. Not rust, or moss, or even metal. He tastes like what you might find at the bottom of a pond. Like something that was once green but slowly turning liquid, falling apart to rot. She doesn’t hate it. There’s none of that artificial bubblegum flavor she’s tasted on other boys, no chemical chapstick taste, no spearmint mouthwash. It’s realer than life. As real as death. It draws her in, makes her reach out for more, and he pulls away too soon—smiling, knowing. He teaches her how to bring down deer. They’re fast and shy, but a single buck can feed a family for months. Their slim bodies, so elegant in life, lose all their grace at the moment of the bullet’s impact, and what was once a whole animal splinters into a collection of fractures: spasms, synapses blindly firing, intricate circuitry torn apart. Every kill earns her a kiss. The loamy warmth, the taste of decay, is addictive. The nothingness spreads through her like poison or wine. They go to the forest more and more. They take turns, passing the rifle back and forth between them: a deer for Julia, a fox for David. Julia’s mother doesn’t notice her absence because she doesn’t notice anything anymore. Except the TV, and her cans of beer, and cigarettes that she smokes with fingers that grow increasingly thin and whittled down, like brittle sticks of wood.  David doesn’t talk about his family, but she knows that he knows about hers. He pulls her close as they hunt frogs in the ponds, not wasting bullets but crouching low to the ground and trapping them in coffee cans, listening to the frantic thump of their bodies, the sound like wet beating hearts. “Should we name them?” he asks.  “What’s the point? We’re killing them anyway.”She can tell he’s not fooled by her casual tone. A twinge of disdain crosses his face. “You mean, you could never kill anything with a name.” ___ In the evening the fields turn leaden gray like the skin of her parents. Like her mother with her fingers that will soon be the same size as her cigarettes. Like her father dying sunk full of morphine, painkiller rushing silver through his veins, hospital walls closing in around him like an artificial womb. They stop by the edge of the forest. The wheat is as tall as it will ever be. David is by her side, the cool pale of his eyes reflecting the sky. There aren’t any deer here, just a neighbor’s cat, not even thirty feet away. “See her?” Julia asks. She is the one holding the rifle.“Yes.”The cat doesn’t notice them. Her name is Luna, Julia remembers. Luna or Lulu, something like that. Her tabby pattern blends in with her surroundings, melts her into them like a stripe of paint blurring into a stone-colored background. She slinks through the wheat thinking herself unseen. “Lulu,” David whispers, soft as a thought. Soon she will disappear into the woods. Only a few more steps until she’s in; only a few more seconds left for Julia to make a shot.  “Your turn,” David says.The feeling of her own heart beating is what makes her raise the rifle to her shoulder. She aims, stares down the barrel. She thinks about how they both have hearts, her and David, her and Lulu, her and all the things she’s killed. How everything with a heart is fair game. The trigger like a bone under her finger, and then the crack, the nothingness blossoming outward from a central point.The two of them stand motionless in the algal gloom, in the murky raucous dark. David smiles. And although it’s ostensibly an expression of openness, of transparency and warmth, something about it makes her think of a trap twisting shut. 

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CATFISHING by Bridge Lower

Catfishing happens at night and the bait smells like blood and cheese. We fished for what felt like hours in a cloud of mosquitoes, and we only caught one fish. We pulled it to the floor of the boat, and I couldn’t believe it actually looked like a cat. It fought hard, flailing wildly. The man called it a beastly motherfucker, his foul language thrilling my sister Ellen and me. “You know catfish got tastebuds all over their bodies?” he said. “They’re just swimmin’ tongues. You lick one and he’s lickin’ you right back.”“Gross!” we screamed. “Why would you lick a catfish?” He laughed. “Knowin’ that, why wouldn’t you?”When the fish finally succumbed, we laid it in a cooler full of ice, its glassy eyes cold and detached. The man promised us fried catfish sandwiches the next day, which I’d never had and didn’t know I wanted until right then. To eat this very fish would be primitive in a way for which, at age ten, I didn’t possess words or experience. Every fish I’d ever eaten had come from a blue Styrofoam tray, wrapped in layers of plastic that encased a dozen different smells, all of them factory and none of them sea.We slept in the car, something I don’t think was planned because there was only one blanket. The man made do with a thick canvas coat, putting the driver's seat down as far as it would go and resting his hat over his face. Ellen and I curled up in the backseat and held hands all night, the way otters do to keep from floating apart. She couldn’t sleep so I whispered to her everything I knew about dogs, making friends, black holes, puberty, Christmas, Egyptian mummies, different types of candy, and kissing.In the morning, we sat up and saw two deer, a mother and a baby. The man told us to be still, don’t make a sound. The pair walked past the rear window, their soft dappled fur nearly brushing the glass. On the way home, the man dropped us at a Wendy’s and said he was going to find a payphone. “Let’s get your mom on the line,” he said. I was happy to have a break from the car. The smell of the catfish was beginning to leak in from the trunk. Even on ice it was starting to spoil. He handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “That’s ten each,” he said. “More than enough, but don’t spend it all.” Wendy’s had recently launched a ninety-nine cent menu. We ordered modestly, just a burger and small fries each, and a Frosty to share. We didn’t want to get into more trouble. Then we went outside and looked for the man, for his car, and found neither. We stayed there for hours, spending the rest of the money. First, Ellen was thirsty, so I bought her a soda. Then she was hungry, so I bought her some chicken nuggets. Then she was scared, so I bought us both another Frosty. On our table grew a mountain of sweating yellow cups, cardboard boxes, and greasy wrappers. We somehow knew not to draw attention to ourselves, sitting out of view of the employees and moving tables every half hour. Each time I ordered more food, I told the cashier, “My mom said to buy this”, but the employees didn’t care. They weren’t thinking about us at all. We quietly sang Bruce Springsteen songs, avoiding eye contact during “I’m On Fire.” Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go and leave you all alone mmmm-hmmm.“Darlington County” felt better, full of references to things like union connections and World Trade Centers, things we didn’t understand but flew off our tongues with less self-awareness. I told Ellen the man was coming back, of course he was, he probably had trouble finding a phone. She gulped and nodded. I looked out the wide windows to see if there was somewhere else to go, but everything outside held much more uncertainty than the Wendy’s booth. There, in the plastic refuge, we were safe.I told Ellen that Dave Thomas was a real person and he named Wendy’s for his daughter, also real. I wasn’t sure if she really looked like the grinning, freckled girl who stared up at us from our pile of trash. She was almost certainly never left behind at a Wendy’s, or anywhere for that matter. She was loved. I told Ellen everything I knew about leprechauns, monkeys, Garbage Pail Kids, dreams, Hawaii, Helen Keller, bras, weddings, and secret diaries with locks and tiny keys. We spoke about the doe and the fawn we’d seen when we woke up that morning, walking past the car, oblivious to our presence. We named them after ourselves.We ran out of things to talk about and began to eat whatever was left, picking at the smooth edge of a hamburger bun, the skin of a baked potato. Ellen ran her tongue around the inside of a fry box and I was jealous I’d never thought to do that.Then she whimpered. Our eyes met; her mouth twisted terribly. She had an accident – too much stress, too much grease. I took her into the bathroom, which smelled of lemon disinfectant and urine, and in the stall, I helped her remove her shoes, socks, and pants. We threw her underwear into the trash and buried them. The stink of feces persisted, filling the tight space. Ellen cried hot tears while I wiped her legs with wet paper towels oozing with electric blue soap that rubbed her skin until it stung. I removed my own shoes, socks, and pants and gave my underwear to her. I was fine without them, but she would not be. She needed them to feel safe, a thin shield against the world. It was getting dark when the man came back. I watched his wiry frame move across the parking lot, silhouetted against an astonishing pink and purple sunset. He walked with purpose until we locked eyes through the glass, and then he hesitated. I suppose there are things in life that feel right in the moment but will grate at your being over time, leaving you porous. You become a sieve, unable to hold anything for any amount of time without remembering the awful things you did. Maybe he came back because he didn’t want to be a sieve for the rest of his life and leaving two young girls at a Wendy’s will do that to you. He saw us through that window and knew he was nothing but fucked. Many years later, I entered this Wendy’s into Mapquest and found it was over two hundred miles from home. To get to the catfishing lake, we had gone up and over the Rocky Mountains, passing several ski resorts. On the drive, in each direction, when we approached Hot Sulphur Springs, the car filled with the stench of rotten eggs, and both times, Ellen opened her eyes and asked who farted. We’d laughed on the way there, but no one laughed on the way back. The man raged as he drove, telling us how our mom had tricked him, said she had an emergency and could he take us for a night. He said she begged and cried, and having no kids of his own, he didn’t know what to do with children, didn’t know how much attention we required. He said he’d do anything for her, move mountains, drain the widest river. He kept referring to her little rendezvous, which I made a note to look up later, but I couldn’t find it in the dictionary because it’s not spelled how it sounds. Over and over, he said he should have known. He never stopped talking, comparing her to all sorts of animals: snake, dog, cow, pig. He used other words too: bitch, whore, liar. He called her a fucking slut and then apologized for swearing. I dozed off with Ellen’s head in my lap and woke to see a roadside sign with reflective white letters that said Denver 87 miles. Ellen snored loudly, the seatbelt tight under her chin. The man was still talking circles, though quieter, hissing to himself. It was darkest night by the time we got home. Our unwashed hair absorbed the smell of oil and the char of beef hung on our coats. He dropped us at the end of our cul-de-sac, told us to go up to our own house and ring the bell. We climbed from his car, bedraggled and drowsy, and before we slammed the door, his last words came floating out.“I didn’t touch you. I didn’t touch neither of you. You be sure to let her know. I ain’t going down for something I didn’t do.”I woke up in my own bedroom, the cheap blinds no match for the bright Colorado sun. I rolled over and faced my sister, searching for the night in her hot morning breath.

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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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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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