UNCLE POOH’S SECRET RECIPE by Joseph Haeger

The first time I made grits I used water, the same way I made my oatmeal. Granted, I'd never had grits, but was told it was a staple food in the south, so when I saw a two-pound bag for a dollar at the Grocery Outlet it seemed like a no-brainer to give it a shot. I mean, this was a food that helped mold a culture.

The red sedan in front of me slows down, or I come up on her too fast. I tap my brakes to keep a comfortable distance between us. My speedometer reads thirty-five exactly. She's going the literal speed limit, but I'm not in a hurry today. All I have going tonight is cooking our family's new favorite recipe: Uncle Pooh's Secret Shrimp & Sausage Grits.

The grits were underwhelming that first time. This, I thought, was what an entire region kept in their pantry at all times? I made it just that one time, and I was so disappointed I threw the whole bag of grits into the trash. It was like eating a sub par oatmeal. The consistency of hot mashed baby food. I sprinkled cheddar cheese into the lumpy concoction, but the grits absorbed any flavor the shredded cheese had to offer, and instead made it into a bland, glue-like mixture.

A blue SUV zips past me. It's a two-way double yellow lined road, but some people can't ever stand going the speed limit. The impatience builds in the pit of their stomachs and they let impulse take over. Most people act on impulse at one point or another, like me with the grits.

It took the one meal of failed grits to decide they weren't for me. I could let the restaurants and family kitchens keep them in rotation, but they weren't going to enter mine. Or that's what I thought.

The SUV whips in front of the sedan and slams on the brakes. Smoke rolls off the tires out of the wheel wells as it skids to a stop. The red sedan's brake lights shine as they come to an abrupt stop.

My wife sent me a recipe she wanted me to cook for her: Uncle Pooh's Secret Shrimp & Sausage Grits. It was on the internet, so it wasn't all that secret, but I appreciated the attempt at mystifying the dish. She requested it, and I acquiesced. I wasn't about to withhold her request because I'd sworn off grits years earlier. I gathered all the ingredients, again going to the Grocery Outlet to buy another two-pound bag of grits, but this time it was a dollar fifty. While I portioned all the ingredients out I noticed water wasn't anywhere to be found. Uncle Pooh called for the grits to be cooked with whole milk and a heavy whipping cream.

A man in a dark blue suit steps out of the SUV. His clothes matched his car making it look like a surrealistic painting: him standing there blending in with his car with a double barrel sawed off shotgun hanging at his side. Before the sedan has a chance to open their door, or even attempt to drive away, the man levels the gun and fires. The driver's side window shatters—and while I know I'm imagining it, I think I see a mist of blood evaporate into the air. The man pops the barrel down and loads two more shells into the gun. He snaps it back and cocks the hammers, firing once more into the open window. This time I do see strings of blood launch out of the car. It lands on the gunman's lapel. He uses the back of his hand to wipe it away. He yells something that is too muffled for me to hear, then spits into the car.

The grits with dairy was to die for.

The gunman walks back to his car. It is still running, like he ran back inside for a forgotten cup of coffee. He pulls his door shut and drives away. The sedan's door opens, slow and methodical. The woman tries to pull herself out, but collapses under the weight of her body, crumpling onto the pavement. I squint to see if she's breathing, but can't tell. All I know is her eyes are open and she's laying on top of the double yellow road strip.

The heavy whipping cream thickened the grits so it wasn't mushy. It was able to bring the cheddar cheese flavor to the forefront of the dish without gumming the entire dish together like glue. It was rich and filling, but I couldn't help myself from getting seconds. And then thirds. It was me who had ruined grits the first time. It wasn't that I didn't like grits, it's that I made them like a jackass. I had trouble sleeping that night because I was so stuffed. Well, that and because I wanted to eat more grits.

The traffic from the other side of the road moves around the dead—or dying—woman's body. This isn't going to work for me. She is too central, and her car is on the shoulder. The line of cars begins to build behind me. Honks waft up from cars backed up in a line. I pull off to the side of the road, inching the tires over the curb and onto the sidewalk. I drift around the red sedan, keeping my eyes ahead to make sure there aren't any pedestrians walking down. Once I'm past the stalled car I drop back onto the road. My car bounces as it reenters the lane. The cars behind me follow my lead driving onto the sidewalk and continuing up the Post street hill. It takes cops forever to clean this kind of thing up these days. When I was a kid this would have been newsworthy. These new generations have no idea.

She wanted Uncle Pooh's Secret Recipe again tonight. I tried to play it coy, but I think she was aware of how much I loved the dish as well. It calls for bell peppers, but I'm going to try mushrooms and sweet potatoes instead, like a meeting of two regions in one delicious meal. Even if that's not good at least I know the grits will be worth all the effort.

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RAW LIVER by Dylan Gray

i am eating a bagel as the fucking cat jumps onto the counter and stares me with what i feel is hate. from the first day we met, the cat and i were never close. it was dereck’s cat. we bought it together, but it was more of his idea than mine. the cat and i kept our distance. when we broke up, he left the cat. it started throwing up all around the apartment. whenever i tried to go near, it would start scratching at the carpet. another morning, while i was sleeping, it sneezed in my mouth. i still haven’t forgiven it for that. but here i am stuck taking care of it now. staring at me now, i can feel it saying i hate you…i hate that you’re always here…i hate that i’m stuck here with you…i hate this depressing-ass apartment…i miss dereck…i hate you won’t leave me to die…know that if you were break your neck, i would eat your body.

but i don’t give in to intimidation. especially from a cat. i whisper back, so will i.

the cat hops down, saunters to its bowl. we finish our meals in silence.

in the morning i go grocery shopping. this is the best time to shop. afternoons are filled with too many old people looking at your skin. from there, it just gets worse. going in the morning decreases my odds of seeing anybody i would know. i hate grocery store conversations, or any conversation stricken up for that sake that we’re two people who sorta know each other. oh how are you doing? no one’s ever asked that and wished someone would tell them everything horrible in their lives. they’re just being cordial and i don’t appreciate it. next time someone asks me how i’m doing in public, i’m going to start crying. that would make them think twice before being polite.

and if i can’t go in the morning, i’ll wait until midnight, when i’m sure i’m all alone.

i place bagels, wine, butter, and seven cans of organic cat food in my backpack. this is will last me a good week.

7:56 am on saturday and i am paralyzed in anxiety. i had a dream i was writing a paper for class that was 10 days overdue and hadn’t started and woke up sweating in mid-panic attack.

at 8:03, my heart rate returns to semi-normal. when i walk into the kitchen, the cat is inside its food bowl. it looks at me and runs out. i place cat food in the bowl and a bagel in the toaster. at 8:08, my bagel is consumed.

i flop on the couch. my body wants to die but won’t because it hates me. i toss on my left side. i elongate the length of my body.  my back bends slightly inwards. the notches in my spine decompress. i flip over. i repeat and hold that pose until my heart rate slows and i am perfectly calm.

i feel slightly less corpse-like.

i turn on television. a male newscaster shouts RAW LIVER IS IN! i turn off the television. the thought of raw liver makes me ill. i scroll through my phone instead, but everyone online is talking about raw liver, raw liver! according to all the major news outlets, raw liver is on track to change the world. celebrities have come out saying they’ve been eating raw liver for years. i watch a video of a guy in a lab coating pointing to a pie graph. apparently, early humans favored the liver to all other forms of meat. he purports, animatedly, our innate fascination with raw liver, our predilection for its life-giving properties, our physiological desire for the cleansing sustenance. i chuck my phone across the room. i stare at the ceiling. i try to clear my thoughts, but all i’m thinking is raw liver. i see it floating in my mind, suspending in a black oblivion. it appears hyperrealistic and drips with blood. i imagine it floating towards me, like some dickensian phantom. i imagine myself and i’m run away, but as i imagine this, a separate but equally vivid image occurs of me not running away, of me approaching the gory wraith, grabbing either side of its flesh, bringing it to my chest, embracing the liver.

as both thoughts occur, i grip the sofa cushion. i feel crazed. i look for something to distract me. my copy of moby dick that i need to read for class lays on the coffee table. the pain increases. the recliner. purple. i feel at once uninspired/desperate/overdramatic by its banality. i feel ridiculous but have no idea how to change. with a recognized self-awareness, i let out a deep sigh. i think this as, vaguely, something someone would do in a movie if they were experiencing what i am. i feel slightly better/oriented. i am still in crisis, but i feel better in knowing i know i know.

i see the cat step out the bathroom. the sink is its favorite sleeping spot. i sense an air of smugness as it approaches. there’s something dark is in its mouth. i sit up to inspect closer. something dead. i scream. i retreat to the furthest arm on the couch. the cat rushes towards and drops the carcass on the cushion next to me. i scream again and, with an instinct surprising to even myself, hurl the bloodied corpse away. a red stain blotches the door now.

the cat perches on the purple recliner. taunting me. i fall for it. i lung forward, but it dashes the other way. it skitters towards its food bowl where, within a foot or so, it slows down, switching its pace from flight to composure, and, eats, mockingly, its chicken.

i think our walks humiliates the cat and this pleases me. with a leash around its neck, i walk it around the neighborhood like a dog. when the cat wanders off, i like to give it some leeway until, once it’s off-guard, i reel it back. the cat jumps in fright, its neck tugging mid-air. that is my favorite.

after a few laps around the block, we get home and i pour myself a glass a wine and log-on to facebook. the cat stares at the blank television. it’s mad at me. good. with the night to myself, i continue my work of flash fiction/poems i base on people’s profile pictures. this started with dereck. i feel as though it will be never be complete but i enjoy working on it. it’s my escape/invasion into reality. i can draw up people’s lives without ever having to meet them (and not that i would want to).

i click on a profile where its picture is of a skull wearing an american-flag bandana and breathing fire. i think it’s cool. his most recent status is from three months ago and reads “who do u miss”. no one has replied. this makes me sad. i thumbs-up his status. i hope he’ll like this. i scribble in my notebook story: sad skeleton feels lost/alone in modern america until he meets equally sad/alone blob of flesh and they have sex and become human. i stalk through dereck’s profile next because i hate myself. i go through all his most recently tagged photos. annoyingly infrequent. his most recent picture is of him with a group of people i’ve never seen before. the caption says “elemental”. i don’t know what that means. he’s at a hookah bar. we never went to a hookah bar. i suddenly want to go to a hookah bar.

i go to bed cry for an hour and feel empowered.

i turn on the television. still at war. i turn off the television. feeling queasy. but not because the news. something else is wrong.

i open the cat food. the bagel is toasting. but beyond the smell of canned chicken and crisping bread is something bitter, ammoniac. that is when i see the huge wet blotch on the couch. i bend over and give an investigatory smell. definitely that. i look up to see the cat sprawled on the recliner. it meows villainously. anger. i grab a pillow and launch it towards the recliner. it bumps the cat on the butt. a nefarious meow bellows. i must be going crazy, because i saw a flash of gold in its teeth when it meowed. i butter my bagel and slam the front door behind me.

i go to buy cat spray. while on the bus, i search on my phone natural cat urination repellant. i find: one part water to one part apple cider vinegar, with lemongrass, lavender, and peppermint for added aromatics. i have none of those except water. the man seated across from me is holding a bloodied paper parcel. he inspects around the bus and opens it. he places tiny bits of what i assume is meat in his mouth. could it be raw liver?

i ignore that and think of the cat. that stupid cat. why does it make my life so arduous? i google do cats spray in spite? some cat forums say this can happen, and i feel vindicated in my assumption that the cat has been plotting against me. i also find that sometimes the spraying can be caused by diabetes. i hurry off the bus, remembering that it’s already 5pm and the store would be infested with people. on my way out, i grab the cat food containing fish. its high omega-3s, i read online, helps prevent diabetes.

the cat has sprayed everything. i grab the refrigerator handle and it’s slick. i do yoga and my mat is soaked. i sit to read my copy of moby dick and the pages are stuck together, and putrid.

i go on a rampage with my spray too. i spray the litter box, the bed, the sink, the television, the lamppost, the countertop, the couch cushions, the recliner (the other side). in the hallway, we have a standoff. i make a scowl like clint eastwood (i think) and think, this town ain’t big enough for the two of us or i’m the sheriff around these parts and don’t you forget it. i imagine the cat personified in a dark, wide-brimmed hat, sometimes smoking a cigar, as my arch nemesis. i imagine when it sees me it says nasty things in foreign tongues, and if i were to ask them what it’d mean, it’d translate with perfect clarity into a language i could understand, and then we’d draw our sprays, unload clip after clip at each other until we are both drained, out of bullets, as the silence of war settles around us, our differences tangibly futile as we both lie bankrupt in our own self-pride.

and then we go separate ways.

until the sequel.

and then we go again.

monday night. i have not left the apartment. i have watched netflix in bed all day. this is my day of rest. after having not eaten today, i am decidedly tipsy after just one glass of wine. after this, i return to netflix underneath my blanket. it is under here where i am most content. do not take me from my blanket. leave me here to die entertained in peace. i do not wish to be disturbed world.

after a few hours, my body is stiff from stasis. i rise to my feet and touch my toes. i rise up again and again touch my toes. i do this again. and again.

my body feels better and in turn i do too.

in the kitchen i pour myself another glass of wine and open up my moby dick. after two hours of reading, i complete about forty pages. i decide i am going to sparknotes the rest of the book. fuckit. after that i pour myself another glass and turn on the radio. the news. i switch it off. a slight pressure presses on the back of my skull. i need to stop listening to the news. i finish the rest of my drink, grab the bottle and go back into my room.

i am awake. it is still dark. netflix is still open on my laptop. an empty wine bottle is in bed next to me and also, to my surprise, is the cat. i listen to it breathing. it looks so peaceful. i pet its fur. it’s very soft. i sometimes forget that this cat is only a cat, and not, like, a person who has an agenda or vendetta or desire to inflict war crimes; it wants to eat and sleep and be left alone. i feel that. something vague warms me, like a déjà vu, but nostalgic. i don’t think of anything but the solidarity of this moment. i pet its fur and feel myself getting sleepy. but as i’m going back to sleep when a horrible thought occurs  – i forgot to feed the cat!! my laptop crashes to the ground when i fumble out of bed but i don’t care. i am suddenly aware of how drunk i still am. i can’t even figure out how the can opener works. how did i ever use this?? i’m fumbling with the thing and my drunkass slices open my finger. leaning over the sink, i press a dish rag against the cut. blood drips from the rag into the sink. the cat stumbles in. in that moment, i forget my pain and tear into the can like a true fucking savage. the cat looks at me and looks at the food. i’m waiting. something like a bow or a thanks man! from the cat. anything to show me that i matter in this relationship. but that never comes. the cat stares at me. i will never know how it feels. no matter what i think it feels or want it to feel. i’m me and the cat is a cat. we’re two different creatures. the cat nibbles at the food some. I’m back at the sink. it turns around and walks towards the bedroom. with my towel-wrapped hand, i follow. it hops onto the bed and curls back into a ball. i return to my covers, clenching the towel and petting the cat until i fall asleep.

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BE SCARED OF YOUR YOUNG by Sam Phillips

What if it’s all torn down, she asked me.

I thought this was an odd question coming out of such young mouth. I wondered what exactly it was they teaching her at the preschool. We, me and her mother, me and my wife, are giving nearly half of our income to to that place.

What if it’s all torn down, she asked again and I had to figure out how to reply.

Time was running out.

Well what if what is all torn down?

My reply was hopeful, I wanted the next words she said to recapture her innocence.

The people that we love, and things that we love, and the thoughts that we think, what if it all falls apart?

Damn it. I realized I was in a spot. I was in a spot and after I got out of that spot I was going to have to go down to the preschool and find out what exactly the curriculum was. This was too advanced I thought. You can’t make my daughter think this deeply without my knowledge, or my consent.

Where did you get that idea, I replied to her.

What’s an idea?

An idea is a thought, like an opinion.

What’s an opinion?

You know, how I might say ‘I think that blue is a good color,’ I said while pointing to my shirt to show her again what blue was.

Oh, well what if those thinks don’t work anymore?

Well why wouldn’t they?

I don’t trust you.

Her eyes seemed blank, the words didn’t affect her and they did affect me because I knew I was losing control. I hate losing control and I hate knowing that I’m losing control even more. I like when the people around me can at least be nice enough to let me pretend that I still have it. I like when people pretend they still have it too. Then we can all go along thinking that we all have control, when in reality there’s just no possible way.

Why don’t you trust me?

Because you lie.

No I don’t darling, when do I lie?

You lie every night.

No I don’t.

Then why do you pretend to look around for monsters when you can’t even see them?

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THE PAINTER by S.F. Wright

Lands wanted to be the next Jackson Pollack; his parents and siblings told him he should pursue a field in which he could get a real job. But Lands couldn’t see himself as a professional, and he figured, while he had the chance (his parents would pay for college, even if it was art school), he might as well study what he wanted.

Art school was, at times, memorable. Lands didn’t live the promiscuous, bohemian lifestyle he imagined an artist-in-training would, but he did get laid once (a fellow student who later left school to join a religious convent after a bad acid trip); he also developed a taste for booze: scotch, whiskey, gin—he loved it all. Alcohol made Lands’ life seem better than it was, and if he was too depressed for liquor to help him achieve even that, booze would still make Lands forget: that he had no future, that only with incredible luck would he ever make it with his art, that he’d probably spend his life working undesirable jobs and painting in obscurity.

After graduating, Lands lived in an apartment with two friends from school. But soon, even with two roommates and Lands’ working as a waiter and record store clerk, the city got too expensive. Lands had to move out; with nowhere else to go, he moved back with his mother. (Lands’ father had died of a heart attack when Lands was in art school.)

He got a job at a Pearl Art and Craft Supply. He still went to the city, but more and more frequently he visited alone, his friendships from art school dwindling. Usually Lands stayed home; shut himself in his room with a bottle of gin, vodka, or bourbon; and drank: not only to forget the day at Pearl Arts and Craft Supply, but also to numb himself to the fact that his was a squandered, sad, and hopeless existence. Lands’ mother disapproved of her son’s drinking; she’d yell at Lands when he passed out on the floor. But there wasn’t much she could do except kick Lands out, which she wouldn’t do.

When Lands was thirty-four, his mother sold the house and bought a condo. Also, Pearl Art and Craft Supply closed, leaving Lands unemployed.

He moved with his mother, having nowhere else to go, and for a while Lands remained unemployed. But he liked getting up when he wanted, drinking whenever he felt like it, and having no responsibilities. Lands even started to paint again (the condo’s extra bedroom had decent light for it), but his mother soon grew tired of her son’s not working. And what little savings Lands had was quickly going toward booze. So at thirty-five, he had to look for a job, and he applied to the Barnes and Noble which was situated across the street from the former Pearl Art and Craft Supply (now a Modell’s Sporting Goods).

Lands got hired. His mother was happy. Lands was depressed. He was able to get a daily seven-to-three shift, which meant he could drink if he had work the next day, as long as he started when he got home and cut himself off before it got too late. But Lands disliked the work, and he hated the customers and crowds. Only the first two hours he didn’t mind, when the store was empty except for other employees, and he shelved books.

For years Lands did this: working seven to three, five days a week; drinking when he got home; cutting himself off when he had to work the next morning; getting obliviously drunk when he had the following day off. His mother simply lived with his drunkenness, and as long as Lands kept it behind his bedroom door, mostly didn’t say anything.

Holidays were awkward. Lands would go to one of his siblings’ houses, or they’d come to the condo; and the elephant in the room was always what a failure Lands was: still living at home, no one in his life except for his mother. Or at least it felt like the elephant in the room to Lands. He saw himself as a failure, and couldn’t imagine how anyone else, especially his siblings, wouldn’t either.

Lands’ taste for and love of alcohol refined and honed itself into a discerning palate and passion for bourbon: Old Gran-Dad, Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniel’s. Good bourbon was expensive, though, and consequentially, Lands didn’t save much money. But he figured, What would I be saving it for anyway?

Lands still went to a museum every couple of months: the MOMA, the Met, the Guggenheim. Sometimes he thought he might see someone from art school. He never did.

And every few months or so, Lands would take a fresh canvas and put it on his easel. He’d stare at the canvas at first, but after a few sips of bourbon Lands would get inspired; he’d paint religiously for ten, fifteen minutes, thinking he was creating something of genius. But then Lands would get tired and feel more like drinking than creating, and he’d tell himself that he’d resume working on the painting the next day. He’d wake up the next morning, hungover, though, and look at these streaks of paint as nothing but a futile, aborted attempt at art. Lands would consider the painting with shame, and then throw the canvas out; he’d then try to forget what he thought was a terrible effort, even though he really didn’t know any more if it was or wasn’t, and then he’d get ready for work.

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LOOK AT IT RIGHT IN THE FUCKING FACE YOU METH FUCK by Marston Hefner

He was just having a terrible anxiety attack on how this was all going to end. Berry was in the darkness of his room when he realized he was willing to go to any lengths in order to maintain his own personal property and respective riches that no one but himself had earned in his own lifetime with no trust fund or outside help but the sweat off his back and his best faculties put to use and the 20 mg tablets of Adderall he’d been prescribed ever since he burned out and thought everything was coming to an end for him; a pill that returned vigor to not only his career but sex life and had his wife remarking he was a “hyena” in bed. He would then laugh at her like a hyena and she would beam.

But the Adderall had its down sides towards the end. He could not go to sleep during reasonable hours and he was often found scratching at his desk.

So it was Berry’s not addiction but by the books Adderall intake that brought his marriage to the brink. His wife asked for a divorce and left Berry really worried, the Adderall didn’t help the worry, about what would happen to his own hard earned money? Because out of a romantic notion of forever and ever he never did make her sign a pre-nup. It was unromantic, they thought together, though now he thinks it was her idea and he agreed. And sometimes people want to come close to ruining their whole lives, they want to put it all on black, which is what the no pre-nup really was, Berry realized now.

So to counter his insane wife he had to get a specific team together. Lawyers who didn’t go by the books, didn’t even know what the books were. A team of lawyer brothers who symbolized in a peculiar way hunger and destruction.

He called them up.

“Deuce,” said someone coolly on the other side of the line.

Berry broke down and told the man how he just needed someone, something, who wouldn’t follow the rules. Please God.

“It takes this sort of desperation for us to take the case,” said Deuce. “They need to be as desperate as we are hungry and addicted. Our clients need to be so disoriented about the world, so close to breaking, that they don’t know what living means.”

Berry thanked “Deuce” endlessly and said you’re saving my life and the guy just hung up the phone but not before telling Berry to bring 100 thou to their office door tomorrow morning.

Berry did as they said and went to work where he felt he had a new lease on life. The Adderall was perking him up. The gym, in a section of his building, was warm and inviting. He spent an hour doing crunches, handstands, knee bars, and pushups. The smell of sweat meant progress. The attractive woman on the treadmill could be his next wife. The man who just walked in and started on the pull up bar could be his new best friend.

Berry went home half expecting the impossible, his wife’s ashes on the front step. That this was the kind of quick and efficient service people had come to expect but not take for granted from “Deuce”. But when Berry came home he found the dog on the couch barking at him—a small black Pomeranian. He heard a sizzling pan and the kitchen vents.

“Hello honey,” she said from the kitchen.

His steps faltered. The kitchen had been remodeled twice. The first time, you just would not believe the contractors, said the wife, oh they got what they wanted alright. The second time had been better. White walls and wood oak drawers. Nothing to distinguish it from any other upper-class kitchen. No parrot cooking gloves. No Swedish themed salt shakers.

He went around her waist and held her like that.

“Why do we fight?” she asked. “Why do we fight?”

“I don’t know.”

“If I could take back all I said. Would you forgive me?”

“It’s too late for forgiveness. We have lawyers involved now. I thought this is what you wanted?”

“What if I don’t know what I want?”

“You’re a big girl.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“I don’t like the feeling that I’m making this choice for you. It was your idea.”

“I know.”

“And no pre-nup.”

“I told you I’m not talking about that with you.”

“Not really fair. I break my back.”

“Bear.”

“You just have it comin to you is all. A team of meth heads going right at you. Boom. A bee line for you. Throwing the whole book your way. No stone unturned. Half of the money going to the addiction. The addiction fueling, burning the midnight oil at both ends. 48 hour marathons of looking for ways to get me to keep my money. And let’s not even start on the trial.”

“What are you talking about Bear? Meth?”

“The trial will be the worst. These guys are going to be talking like 2000 wpm. No joke. They’ll be doing loops around your lawyer. Nothing will go without an objection. Your lawyer will get dizzy.”

“Berry. I’m worried about you.”

“What?”

“You don’t listen to me when I’m talking.”

“I was just talking. Just now.”

“But you weren’t talking to me.”

“Here we go.”

“You never work on yourself Bear. You’re always ranting to people. You’re not talking to people. It’s the Adderall. I don’t think it helps.”

“You know you’re right. What can I say? You’re right.”

“Oh Bear. I’m going to miss you. You’re a good man.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t you want to know what we’re making tonight?”

“Looks like salmon and mashed?”

“That’s right.”

“Mother’s recipe for the mashed.”

“I know you love the mashed.”

“Sweet. It’s very sweet.”

She smiled. He hugged her back and said low in her ear: “I only wish the lawyers I hired would be so sweet. Because, hun, they’re not going to be sweet. Not at all. No mercy. Like machines.”

“Oh let’s not talk about lawyers or pre-nups or anything ugly like that. Let’s just talk about tonight.”

“Alright.”

“Let’s just act like everything is alright. That everything here is working properly.”

“Because it’s not. Not really.”

“No.”

“I find it strange we aren’t together. As if something irreversible has happened to us,” said Berry.

“I know.”

“Once you talk about divorce. No, once it happens. There is no going back.”

“OK. It’s ready.”

“Let’s eat together. Like we used to.”

“You’re so soft right now Bear.”

“I could consume you.”

“Oh not little ole me.”

“Come here.”

The lights were dim as Berry exhaled. The television was on but there was only static. They lay on the couch. A vanilla couch that was coarse and expensive. Berry went over and took a bite out of the salmon then scooped the mash in his mouth. He walked back over and lay with her. They didn’t have to do it. He could let go of that 100k he gave to “Deuce”. Let it go. He could fix their marriage. He could sleep in their bed. He could give up the Adderall.

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” she said.

“So you’re going through with it?”

“I told you I don’t want to talk about it.”

“…”

“Let’s just enjoy tonight for tonight,” she said.

“That’s not good enough,” said Berry.

“I can’t give you what you want.”

“I’m not giving you anything. Not a penny. You can keep that yoga studio I bought you. You can keep the studio, of course. A gift. You’re not keeping the house.”

“You always say something mean when I don’t give you what you want.”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“You’re a good man.”

“So you’ve said.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“No mercy.”

“What was that?”

“What?”

“I heard glass breaking.”

“What?”

“Towards the living room.”

When he reached the living room he spotted a figure half inside and half outside his window. There was another figure behind the first. They were both dressed in black. The man in the window was cursing as he pulled himself into the room.

“What the hell are you doing?” asked Berry.

“We go to any lengths. Any lengths. You know that. Professionals,” said Deuce.

“Are you high?”

“Through the roof. There you go. Alright.” He brought his brother through.

“You two can go. Now is not a good time.”

“You hired us and now we’re going to do our job.”

“…”

“Excuse me.”

They walked into the kitchen. The wife screamed.

“Maam,” said Deuce.

“Who are you?”

“We represent Berry. Have a seat.”

She looked at Berry confused.

“Now if you don’t do what the plan is… You have a choice. You can do what we say, you can give this up, or you can go against us,” said Deuce.

“I’m going to call the police.”

“Now you can do what we say or you can go against us,” Deuce scratched at his arm. “There’s something in my veins! There’s spiders in my fucking veins.”

“Hold on just a second,” said the wife with the phone by her ear.

“You’re not listening to me lady,” Deuce said. He went to the phone and ripped it out of the wall.

The wife shrieked.

“OK. I understand. I understand,” she said.

“You see this?” Deuce licked the knife.

“I understand. I understand. It’s over.”

“By the fucking books,” Deuce stabbed the knife into the phone. “Have a good day maam.”

The brothers walked towards the living room from where they entered.

“Boys,” Berry said catching up to them. He gave a professional nod. “You did good.”

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LIL ULYSSES 666 by Paul Curran

It feels weird talking to a camera. I must look like a terrorist or a school shooter. I'll turn off the light. That's better. Your music sucks anyway. What makes you say that? I thought it sounded funny. You're the one who asked me here. 

Let's rape and kill some kid. Do you mean physically or metaphorically? I mean metaphysically. That's predictable. Many lyrics are worse. Are you taking notes?

I heard you faked your own death. Glued on a beard and hitched a boat ride to Indonesia. Killed a backpacker and stole her passport. I've got the scars to prove it. Everything I worry about sounds foolish in comparison. A blow to the head. Jet lag, boredom, neurosis. Meditation, spaghetti, asphyxiation. One day the tide might bring you something clean that slipped off the edge of a boat. I shot up the last of our heroin in a public toilet on the banks of the Ganges and vomited so much an astronaut was drilling through the wall. The pornographic ideal of becoming happens to people to ease delusions of failure. Each problem overcome is a peculiar masochistic achievement. The result a skillful pregnancy.

Is there nothing better in this world than nibbling rat poison and watching security monitors? I'm either too tired to answer that or ... Amazing. Truly beautiful. Take a look.

In recent weeks I've written so many rhymes about so many people and forgotten what they said or what they call the method of remembering. If we brand this an album it might result in a return invitation to speak at a linguistics conference in a derelict beachside town.

Hey, kid. Do you mind if we rape and kill you? I don't care. Can I hold your bag? Why so heavy? The room's at the top of the stairs. Some of the steps are broken. Don't touch the banister.

It's so quiet around here. All these dumb fantasies. We've become so good at predicting what we're going to say it's impossible to distinguish. Last night I put a portable fan in the sink and plugged it into the shaving socket with a travel adaptor. The smell made me cry. Again. Is it even possible to mentally relate? That neck, that depth, that blood sting, the boy who found a grave in that dampened bed.

Have you got a direct line to the source? We are a model. Excessively pointless and eternally lucid. In order for anything to happen, there must be space, space, space. That sounds like the same lyric. Sometimes I miss her. I never knew you did remixes. There are times when safe words must be recycled, wiped clean, altered beyond recognition. Shit like that. Gut readings. Heart beatings. Off the record. I regret everything.

What are you thinking about? Oxcarts and farmers on bicycles and motorbikes dragging supplies along the beach road. Covered in red dirt and dust. The grass nothing but rust, sparse clumps around fields, growing from ruined colonial buildings. Children playing with guns, needles, human and animal remains, garbage lining alleyways. The nervous laughter of rubbing cracked skulls on undeveloped crotches.

Spin something else. Have we got any more drugs? I can't move. Let's get some more drugs. I've gone blind. I want some more drugs. I can't hear you. Whenever your limbs twitch it's like someone's sending me a secret message. A crude nail hammered through the head on a missing person's poster. Our entire species destroyed by narrative. Have you got a dictionary? I had one somewhere ... I can't even find anything.

What if you had another superpower? A really hot girl, not as hot as her brother. Guess what's for lunch? Breakfast? Is this track even music? I poured gasoline over his back and set him on fire with a lighted candle handed to me by a fortune teller. The trail of wax went on forever. I was going to talk to him but it never happened. Love is weird. Anyway, thanks for listening.

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PAYCHECK by Joseph Grantham

Scott had a reading in St. Louis and Julia couldn’t go with him because she had to teach, so I went with him because I lived in their house and was unemployed and Scott needed company.

We drove to a gas station and Scott bought cigarettes and then we drove halfway to St. Louis and while we were driving Scott showed me his favorite albums by Nick Cave and we smoked a lot of cigarettes and then we got a room in a hotel in a place called Santa Claus, Indiana.

It was late at night and we were hungry and we drove past a Taco Bell but I didn’t want Taco Bell because once, when I was eighteen, I ate a chalupa from Taco Bell and it made me shit water while vomiting for an entire night and on into the morning.

But we found another Mexican restaurant that was open and that was where we ate.

I ordered chicken flautas and the chicken inside of the flautas was blackened and tough like beef jerky but with less flavor than beef jerky and Scott ordered tacos and he said they weren’t any good.

I asked Scott about Finnegan’s Wake and if he’d read it and, if he had, if he’d liked it.

He said he had read it and he said oh yeah he liked it.

I pointed a flauta at Scott and asked him if he could explain Finnegan’s Wake to me so that I didn’t have to read it.

Scott explained Finnegan’s Wake to me while I chewed on a charred chicken flauta and I was tired but the way he explained it to me made sense and then we got the check and I paid the bill because I felt bad for making us choose that particular Mexican restaurant over the Taco Bell, where Scott had wanted to eat, and Scott thanked me and we left and went back to our hotel.

The hotel lobby smelled like body odor and the girl behind the front desk smiled at us as we walked past her and to our room.

There were two beds in the hotel room and a television on a table and a desk.

Scott sat on a bed and looked at his laptop and I sat on a bed and looked at my laptop and on the television Willem Dafoe was interviewed by someone.

We listened to Willem Dafoe for a while and then the interview ended and another episode of the same interview program with the same interviewer came on, except that this time the interviewer was interviewing former professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez.

Alex Rodriguez was less interesting than Willem Dafoe and Scott turned off the television.

He closed his laptop and said he was going to bed but that I could stay up as late as I wanted.

He turned off his light and I closed my laptop and turned off my light.

The next morning we drove to St. Louis.

Scott’s publisher paid for our hotel room and Scott made sure they got us one near the bookstore where Scott was going to read.

We checked into the hotel and my pants were loose and I remembered that I forgot to bring my belt with me.

I asked the woman at the front desk if she knew where I could find a belt in St. Louis and she laughed and thought about it for a little while and then she told me about a Target that was far away from the hotel and the bookstore and so I decided I wouldn’t get a belt and would just pull up my pants whenever I had to.

Scott and I went to our room and set our things down and sat down on our beds and Scott looked at his laptop and I looked at my laptop and then I asked Scott if he wanted to go get a cup of coffee because I looked up a list of the best coffee places in St. Louis and I felt like having a good cup of coffee.

He laughed at me and said sure, he’d go get a cup of coffee with me if I wanted to go get a cup of coffee, and I said something about how I thought it’d be a nice way to see some of St. Louis.

I used an app on my phone to call us a car and we waited in front of the hotel and I pulled up my pants and the car pulled up in front of us.

I told Scott that we were going to the highest ranked coffee place in St. Louis and he smiled and nodded and I know he didn’t care and our driver kept driving and I noticed we were leaving the city.

Our driver drove us out of the interesting looking part of St. Louis and down a long road and finally stopped in front of a nondescript office building.

I was confused but when I looked at my phone it said that we were at the right place and I noticed that the coffee place was on the first floor of the nondescript office building.

We went inside the coffee shop and there were men wearing polo shirts tucked into khaki pants and belts with holsters on them for their cellphones and they were all sitting at tables looking at their laptops.

I ordered a coffee and asked Scott if he wanted one and he said okay, and I bought the coffees because I felt bad for dragging Scott all the way out to this boring building and we waited for ten minutes while the barista ground our beans and made us individual pour over coffees.

The coffee was okay and we went outside with it and smoked cigarettes while I called us another car.

We went back to the hotel and from the hotel we walked a few blocks to the bookstore and we decided to look around at the books in the bookstore before the reading.

In the bookstore we didn’t see much but Scott convinced me to buy a couple of Milan Kundera novels and for some reason I was surprised that Scott liked Milan Kundera.

After I bought the books we walked outside and decided to get dinner and Scott seemed nervous and like he wasn’t hungry, so we chose the first place we saw.

The first place we saw was across the street from the bookstore and it was a Mexican restaurant.

I ordered a burrito and Scott ordered a couple of tacos.

I ordered chips and salsa to share with Scott but he didn’t want any of the chips and salsa so I ate all of it and, with the burrito, it was a lot of food compared to Scott’s two tacos.

Scott and I split the bill and then we walked back across the street to the bookstore and they were setting up the reading in the children’s section.

Scott seemed unsure about the whole thing and a bookseller whose name I can’t remember greeted us and shook Scott’s hand and told Scott that he thought the prose in his new book was beautiful and Scott nodded and told the bookseller thank you.

The bookseller nodded and reemphasized how beautiful he thought the prose was in Scott’s new book and Scott smiled and said thank you.

The bookseller asked Scott if he needed a drink or anything and Scott said no but I asked the bookseller if I could have a bottle of water and he went into a closet and found one for me.

I thanked the bookseller and then he told us we should probably get things started so we followed him into the children’s section where a small group of people were gathered.

Everyone was sitting on the floor and there was a table with a tub of beer on it and Scott told me I should go get a beer and I wanted a beer and so I went to go get one.

I asked the man behind the tub of beers if the beers were free and he said of course and I took one and went back to where Scott now sat, crosslegged on the carpet.

The carpet was bright and colorful, neon greens and pinks, and covered with letters from the alphabet and trains and train tracks and places where you could play hopscotch if you wanted to play hopscotch but no one was playing hopscotch.

A couple of poets were supposed to read with Scott but one of them didn’t show up because her flight got canceled or because she said her flight got canceled and the bookseller asked Scott if he would read one of her poems to start the reading.

For some reason I thought Scott would say no but he didn’t hesitate and he said yes of course.

And then everyone quieted down and clutched their shins and Scott stood up and walked into the center of the children’s section and read the poem by the poet who didn’t show up.

I almost burst out laughing while Scott read the poem but not because the poem was bad or because Scott did a bad job reading it but because it was clear Scott didn’t write the words and they didn’t mean anything to him.

Scott finished reading the poem by the poet who wasn’t there and then he sat back down next to me and I told him good job and I drank from my can of beer.

The poet who was there stood up and walked into the center of the children’s section and introduced himself and then he told a story about the poem he was going to read and how it was about something horrible that had happened to him when he was a little boy and the story he told was a lot more interesting than the poem he read.

He did this a few more times, telling the story behind the poem that happened to be a lot more interesting than the poem and then reading the poem that seemed to be a vague, lifeless rendering of the story he’d just told.

I drank from my can of beer.

The poet finished reading and everyone clapped and I stood up and went over to the tub of beers and grabbed another beer and then went and sat back down.

Scott stood up and walked into the center of the children’s section and he read a part from his new book that I’d told him to read because I was sick of hearing him read the same part he always read at the other readings I’d seen him do.

And while he read, people laughed and cringed and suddenly got very quiet and then laughed again and shook their heads and then Scott was done reading the section from his new book.

And then he recited a poem called “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley and he put my name in the poem in the part where Riley mentions a little boy who won’t say his prayers and it made me laugh so hard that I teared up and I drank from my can of beer and stood up and walked to the back of the bookstore because I was laughing so hard.

I had a buzz from the two beers because I hadn’t had any alcohol since I’d lived with Scott and Julia and it seemed like it’d been a while.

And then the reading was over and I told Scott good job and he said thanks and that he’d recited that “Little Orphant Annie” poem so many times and that people were probably so tired of hearing him doing that.

He said that this was the last reading he was ever going to do.

He was done.

Before we left the bookstore, the bookseller stopped us and told Scott how wonderful his reading was and how he thought that Scott’s new book was beautiful and Scott thanked him for everything and we said goodnight.

Outside, a woman closer to my age than Scott’s stopped Scott and told him how much she loved his work and Scott said thank you and introduced her to me and told her that I was a writer too and I laughed and  pulled up my pants and shook her hand.

She asked us what we were doing for the rest of the night and Scott looked at me and then at her and said that we were probably just going to go back to the hotel and go to sleep because we had a long drive back to West Virginia the next day.

She gave me her phone number and said that if we wanted to get breakfast the next morning before our drive, we should text her and she’d take us to a good place.

We thanked her and said goodnight and started walking back to the hotel.

Scott told me he was sorry about wanting to go back to the hotel and that if I wanted to go out drinking with the woman I should.

I laughed and said it was okay and that I wanted to go back to the hotel too but that I wanted to get a cup of coffee and maybe a snack to bring back to the room.

We walked to a Starbucks but it was closed and we walked to a cookie store but they didn’t sell coffee and then a man approached us and told us about how St. Louis was a racist city and how he was just visiting from Ohio and he had cancer and all of the white people he’d talked to seemed afraid of him but not us.

We told him we were sorry about that, about the racism, and he told us again that he had cancer and could we spare some change.

But we didn’t have any cash or change in our pockets and we told him that and he looked annoyed and walked away and said something to himself about how this cancer wasn’t going to cure itself.

And then we found a Whole Foods behind our hotel.

I got a coffee and then we browsed the snacks for a while and Scott picked out a big bag of chips and I was picking out a bunch of individual cookies to put in a box but then Scott suggested that I pick a box of cookies that was already prepackaged, so I put back all of the individual cookies and threw the box in the garbage and then grabbed a box of the prepackaged cookies and we paid and brought everything back to the hotel room.

Scott sat on his bed and I sat on my bed and he shared his chips with me and I shared the box of cookies with him.

He asked if I wanted to watch a short animated documentary about the country singer Johnny Paycheck and I did so he brought his laptop over to my bed and we sat there on the bed with the laptop between us and we ate chips and cookies and I learned about how Johnny Paycheck once shot a guy in the face and how if you wanted to quit your job the best way to do it was to tell your boss to take the job and shove it.

Then we got into our beds and went to sleep and at seven in the morning we left the hotel.

We drove back to Beckley, stopping only for gas and cigarettes and crackers and chips and beef jerky and candy and cigarettes and for most of the drive we listened to country music and Scott told me about each singer and each band and each song.

When we got back to the house Julia was making dinner and we sat down at the table in the kitchen and then we all ate dinner and told Julia about the trip.

And Scott and I thought about it and decided that the trip probably wasn’t worth it for Scott’s publisher or for Scott but that we still managed to have a good time.

And Scott said it was the last time he was going to do something like that and then he gathered everyone’s plates and cups and rinsed off all of the dishes in the sink and put them in the dishwasher.

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THE RAZOR by Kevin Sampsell

This is the black shirt my ex-wife gave me before the divorce. The one her father used to wear. I have another one just like it, but it has long sleeves. These short sleeves fit me better. I imagine her dad wearing it. Standing outside, on the roof of his house, a cool breeze blowing through the looseness of the cloth, against his sloping shoulders. His arms, freckled and tired at the end. Patches of gray hair, waving.

I wonder if he died in this shirt. Probably not. You don’t pick a black shirt to die in. I look in my closet and wonder what shirt I would pick if I knew I was going to die. Maybe something sturdy and tough, like denim. Perhaps a brown t-shirt, the color of camouflage or dirt. I think it would be uncomfortable to wear a tie. Too much like a circle closing, choking, squeezing me.

I’ve seen so many dead people wearing ties. How do you get a tie on a dead person?

Once, a friend of mine had acquired a bunch of mannequins. He took the old clothes of his dead brother and dressed them all. These statue-like objects were easy to care for. He’d use a cat hair remover on them. He’d roll it over the shoulders and down the arms, and then smooth any wrinkles with an iron. He’d look into their flat eyes and talk to them.

Humans have to stay presentable when they’re alive and also when they’re dead. My friend didn’t believe these mannequins to be alive or dead, but rather in a state of limbo.

Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and wonder if I even look human. Last year was the most depressing year. Last year, her father died. That’s how I got this shirt. Her and her siblings went through his stuff and divided it up.

Last year was when we got divorced. Last year was when we stopped talking. Last year was when we tried to replace each other.

As I shave my face in the bathroom mirror, I realize the electric razor I’m using also belonged to her father’s. I’m touching my face with it, pushing it into my skin. I never have understood how these razors work. Something rotating under the surface, grabbing a hold of my whiskers, pulling them out quickly with a slight burn. This razor also touched her father’s face, made it smooth and presentable. It vibrated in his hand when he was looking into his own eyes in a mirror, thinking about his life.

Maybe while wearing this black shirt.

One of my earliest memories is walking by a fancy new department store with my mother when I was probably four. One of the giant display windows had two mannequins in it, wearing bright polka-dot shirts and flared jeans, posed in front of a wall of pulsing multi-colored lights. There were about ten other people standing there, smiling and enjoying the lights and the strangeness of the mannequins’ poses, as if they were in mid-dance. There was a murmur of thumping disco behind the glass, but I could be imaging that part. Right before we started to walk away, one of the mannequins moved. People gasped. And then the other one moved, and people laughed. They were doing small silly dance moves. I smiled too, though I was confused. Sometimes mannequins are real, my mother said.

We stayed and watched the dancing mannequins, like an animal you’d watch at a zoo. Another little boy and his mother walked up and the mannequins suddenly stopped moving. The people laughed again, knowing it was because of the new spectators. The magic of them stopping, being completely still, statue-like, statuesque, not human but wearing human clothes, looking better than most humans, but also pretending not to be human, was something I didn’t really want to think about but ended up pondering a lot when I was a kid.

I watched the two mannequins and also the faces of the mother and son watching them, waiting for them to witness that surprising moment of movement. The silly dance. Everyone laughing. The very second when something dead comes to life.

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DUETS AND THE CRACK IN EVERYTHING by Nayt Rundquist

She’ll break open the world, just a bit, and tell them how they’ll end, how they’ll get there, who’ll wrong them along the way. They’ll drown in it, their fates, choking to take it all in, no matter how certain they’d been they could swim. But she’ll be there, on the shore, waiting to pull them sputtering back to present, steaming stew to fend off the chill.

Creaking floorboards in her age-shriveling hut groan as she grunts across them, fists stabbing her curving spine. Her clawhand brandishes her knife, her only artifact that still carries a sheen. The blade slices into its aria she dances to through arthritic muscle memory reinforced by years, decades, centuries? of their duets. But it’s imperfect—a jagged slice through one molecule, split in lopsided halves.

Crack in everything as she punctures a hole in the universe—just a little one, barely big enough to see through—with a finger gnarled and knotted as a tree root. And it pulls at her soulstuffs, tears at it, whipping it like her hair when she walked alone through that hurricane. But she’s used to this vacuum; she knows it and can stand it. And she folds the knife back on itself, back through the years, back through its own past, sharpening it ’til it’s like brand new, ’til it is brand new, ’til it’s sharper than when He’d plunged it into her heart.

Flawless melody this time, and she harmonizes—humming just soft enough of a hoarse to match the vibrations in her chest to those of her instrument. Carrots, ugly and gnarled as her fingers, are first for the cauldron. The knife breezes through, whispering so quiet only the carrot can hear.

She stitches up that crack in everything with a hasty swipe of a clawhand, smearing ethereal sludge through the air, through spacetime. She’ll find that blood last Tuesday and three months in the future. The crack would have self-sealed eventually, but best not to chance it. He’d left them open, slathering gashes—pus-oozing wounds in the flesh of existence. The lesions still find her, dragging behind them slathering reminders of Him, of how He’d haunted her, hunted her, made love to her, whispering so softly only her heart could hear.

Her door will moan open, as He had moaned. A visitor will arrive. She’ll stumble to add more vegetables to the cauldron. She’ll be so off her time, this guest will have a long wait, a longer reading—a deeper well to surface from.

But its bones will creak as it shambles over the threshold. Its claws rasp off the knob, still enough left alive, nearly alive, within to confuse its way through old habits. Heelbones will click ’cross warped floorboards, worn through leather skin from such shambling—stalking. Wisps of remnant hair drift in the gasps of wind it’ll welcome into her home, a jaundiced, shriveled husk drowning in the breeze.

She could shriek a thousand spells, infinite curses, wards, hexes, repellents, but it’s heard those excuses before. Instead, she’ll watch. Cast her eyes into the abyssal pools sunken into its blanched, parchment skull. There, within those swirling pools of nothing, of absolute absence, she’ll find the one thing she dares not search for—the one crack that can’t be mended, that would tear existence from itself, and the universe and everything that ever was and will be and might be and shouldn’t be but will be anyway will whisper out of existence—softer than His nothings, softer than her knife through carrots. Oblivion will be silent. It shows her her own future in this where without a when.

And it’ll sway there, three steps into her home. Creak as what remains of its leathery skin twitches and shifts over shredded muscle. Creak as its eyes clutch hers as tightly as He had, as tightly as she’d grasped his shirt. And her eyes will ask its the same question they’d asked His.

And she’ll get the same answer as it shudders, turns, and slouches back out the door, as though forgetting its reason for stabbing back into her home.

Her breath shivers back into her brittle ribcage, and she digs free the roots that held her in place. She gropes her way to the table and crumples back into her seat, into her stupor, into her waiting.

Still clutched in her clawhand, the knife sings her a solo, so soft it isn’t sure she can hear.

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ALTOIDS BURN SO GOOD by Jennifer Greidus

Cheetah’s mom is dead. So’s his dad. He lives with his almost-deaf uncle Grant. His uncle plays a lot of solitaire and has a lot of different girlfriends. When Cheetah was in fourth grade, Uncle Grant was a volunteer fireman. He laughed a lot. He made casseroles and brought them over on Sundays. Now, Uncle Grant doesn’t put out fires, cook, or even laugh. For three months, he hasn’t left the apartment. Uncle Grant made Cheetah change the locks because the rent’s been overdue since June.

Cheetah would like to be a volunteer fireman, but he can’t until he’s eighteen. That’s three years from now. He might have to have a GED, too. He can’t remember and doesn’t know if he’ll bother if that’s the case.

Uncle Grant sleeps hard, and his girlfriends come and go. They bring him Wendy’s, wake him, feed him, fuck, and leave. When they forget to bring extra salt packets for his fries, Cheetah knows it. The girlfriends get apologetic, and they’re loud about it so Uncle Grant can hear their remorse, how they know they’re stupid.

Most of the girlfriends think Cheetah is cute, almost handsome. They flirt with him. He thinks they think statutory rape accusations are only for men.

One girlfriend, Jeanette, is especially frisky. Tonight, she seeks him out. After the fast food and the fucking, she leaves Uncle Grant’s bedroom and joins Cheetah in the living room. He was just thinking about jerking off again into one of the hundred fast food napkins Uncle Grant left on the floor next to the recliner.

Jeanette touches his shoulder. “Aren’t you bored here alone all day?”

“Nope.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Nope.”

“Do you want one?” She lights a cigarette and plops down on the coffee table, next to where Cheetah’s propped his feet. She pinches his big toe and blows smoke in front of his face. She nods at the TV. “How about we watch something more upbeat.”

She squeezes the arch of his foot. Her pink nails--homemade manicure--dig into his sock. He yanks his foot free because it tickles. For the first time, he takes his eyes off the Cops marathon and looks in her eyes. “I like this show. I like it a lot.”

“Looks like you like it a little too much.” She nods at the mound of crumpled paper products next to the chair, all sticky with Cheetah’s jizz. The one on top is from just fifteen minutes ago, and it crowns the lot of at least fifty others like it.

“Whatever. Can I have a cigarette?”

“You’re too young,” she says, although she’s retrieving one from the pack.

Just as she pulls it out, Cheetah says, “Just kidding. You were gonna give me one, weren’t you? Pathetic.”

Jeanette glares at him, but after a lifetime’s vying for men’s attention and approval, she seems used to this cruelty. Her eyes widen as if she expects an apology. Cheetah sees the same eyes on every one of Uncle Grant’s girlfriends: searching for the next person who’ll give them the feeling that they matter in some way.

“Why do you come here?” Cheetah says. “To be treated like shit? Used. It’s kinda disgusting.”

“We like each other. It’s just some fun.” She lights up and cocks her head to the left. “It’d be nice to leave the house sometime, though.”

Cheetah snorts. “Good luck with that.”

“He’s a homebody.”

Cheetah sits up and turns down the volume on Cops. He leans forward, elbows on his knees. He puts his face nearer hers. “You know he’s fucking, like, twelve other chicks, right? You don’t see all those fast food bags in the trash? You don’t ever go to Burger King, do you? No. You’re a Wendy’s chick. Fridays. Nine o’clock. Wendy’s.”

Jeanette frowns and looks down. She fingers the chipped glass of the coffee table surface. Cheetah feels like shit about what he said. He can’t take it back, though; she’ll be here all night, thinking she has a friend.

He picks at one of the coffee table’s legs, bitten up from a Shih Tzu they had last year but who died. Cheetah had locked the dog in the bathroom before school because the dog always chewed Cheetah’s cum-crusty underwear. The dog clawed and ripped at the chipboard bathroom door all day. When Cheetah got home, he found the dog’s tongue impaled with a thick dagger of wood. The floor and the dog were slick with vomit. With his fingers, Cheetah pushed past the vomitus in the dog’s mouth and tugged a five-inch piece from its throat.

Jeanette squeezes Cheetah’s knee. “Anyway, no girlfriend for you?”

“What’s your spirit animal?”

“What?”

“Spirit animal,” Cheetah says, sitting back in the recliner and turning up the volume a little. “You know. Native Americans. Those totem pole things?”

Jeanette slides her ass across the table, so Cheetah’s thigh is within reach. She squeezes that. “I don’t know. I’ve always felt special about jellyfish.”

Cheetah mutes the TV again and sneers at her. “You think the Native Americans gave a fuck about jellyfish?”

He feels a pull in his groin. He checks the time on his phone. It’s been about a half-hour since he came. He needs to do it again soon, or he’ll start to think about the Shih Tzu, dropping out of high school, and his parents, who were shot by a disgruntled bus driver on their way home from a Revival meeting in Pittsburgh. If Cheetah keeps ejaculating, he’ll never be sad again.

He stands and tosses the remote on the chair. “I know you know where the door is. I’m going to bed.” He’s not going to bed. He’s going to the bathroom to come in the toilet. Maybe the sink. Sometimes Uncle Grant leaves piss unflushed, and it creeps Cheetah out for a little while.    

His dick is sore, as usual, and his hand is rough. This is the seventh time he’s come today. At this point in the day, the callouses make it better. He shoots in the sink and rinses the dime-sized glop down the drain. He’s surprised when much of anything comes out of him at all.

He stands in front of the bathroom mirror and pops an Altoid. He hates the mints. Loves to hate them. They burn the fuck out of his cheek, and he knows they’re supposed to, that someone made them this way. The mints must be meant to burn the fuck out of your cheek, and the world knows nothing bad is going to happen if you like that burn, because they’ve done tests on bunnies or whatever. The bunnies thought Altoids burned so good.

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