The X-R-A-Y Staff

The X-R-A-Y Staff got in the holiday spirit and made you this ridiculous exquisite corpse treat.


Between 7th and 8th period, Becky tells us she can speak to the dead. She swears she can show us after school.

When she pulls the box from beneath her bed, we expect a ouija board. Instead, she produces Mall Madness, fun for ages eight to eighty. As she unfolds the board, it greets us. “Attention shoppers: There’s a clearance at the sunglasses boutique.” 

The four of us gather cross-legged around the game, and Becky explains the rules. “Wait to ask your questions until it says your car lights are on and you must go to the parking lot, That’s our cue.”

“I guess this is better than getting locked in the Spirit Halloween,” S’tanael says, deflecting from his giddy exuberance.

That each of us has a dead person is well established. It was the impetus for (if not the substance of) our friendship. Each of us suspects with near-certainty that another of our number is The literal Devil. We suspect this bringer of death—the killer, if only indirectly, of someone we love—is the worst-kept secret at Cheverus Jesuit College Prep Elementary.

And none of us agrees about which of us it is. 

We pick our players and color-coordinated credit cards. Somehow, without prompting, we all begin to chant in unison, and it feels more campfire kumbaya than anything spirit-led.

Ready! Set! Shop!”

S’tanael’s buying everything. We start thinking: He’s the Devil. He’s killing it—the game—so maybe he could kill other stuff. Then again, Nate also seems to have maxed out one of his cards within minutes.

Downstairs, the movie Swamp Monsters rumbles. Becky’s stepdad’s doctor recommended he drink beer and watch  Swamp Monsters on repeat if his back is ever gonna be up to truck driving again. It’s hard to concentrate on a question for our respective dead person with all the cinematic gurgling and roaring, not to mention that one of the group has just let one RIP.

“Eww, S’tanael!” Nate says and punches his shoulder.

“Smelt it, dealt it.” S’tanael shrugs.

We scream as the real source of the smell emerges from under the bed. Becky hisses at her ancient cat, Macavity, who hauls his scrawny body, his grey fur dull and matted, toward the game. Becky shoves the window sash aside, scoops up Macavity, and deposits him on the roof. She ignores his screech as she slams the window shut. 

“That cat stinks of death,” S’tanael says.

“How would you know?” asks Nate, adjusting his glasses.

“Guys, quit it,” says Becky. “Get back to the game. You ready with your questions? I totally know what I’m gonna ask.”

Mall Madness finally makes the announcement we’ve all been waiting for. “Your car lights are on, and you must go to the parking lot.” 

Perhaps today one of them will ask a question I want answered. “Which of you suppressed a smile when I ‘fell?’” “Which of you sat cotton-eyed at my funeral?” “Which of you is the Devil?”

Mall Madness won’t be ignored. “Attention all shoppers. Attention! Attention! Your car lights are on!”

The lights flicker. Becky gasps the way she gasped when my body hit the ground all those weeks ago. 

That day, Becky needled me as I climbed the rotting tree in her backyard. “You can’t reach the top branch!” Despite her taunting, I found a knot in the trunk to place my foot. I felt certain it would hold me, and I wanted to rub it in her face when I grabbed that top branch. I put all my weight into it and slipped while reaching for the gnarled limb. 

“Attention! What is your question?” Mall Madness insists. “Go to the parking lot. Attention. Your car lights are on. Ask me. Ask me. Your lights are on. Your lights are on.” Mall Madness gets stuck like scratched and skipping vinyl.

I remember the fall, the impact with the cold ground, the faces above me as I blinked my eyes for the last time.

Before anyone can give in to Mall Madness’s demands, a low yowl bleeds through the rickety window. Becky yanks it open, sticks her head out. "Macavity! Shut up!" 

S’tanael reaches for Becky’s arm and says,  “Get out of the way!”

Becky and McCavity slither back inside just as the window drops like a guillotine. Glass shatters everywhere. A small shard embeds itself in Becky’s forearm. In shock, she studies it but doesn’t attempt to pick it out. 

“Where’s S’tanael?” asks Nate, voice quivering.

The whoosh of the October wind rushes in and fills the vacuum of silence. The creak of the last tree I ever climbed fills the room. Crack! 

We stare wide-eyed, panting. Two cat ears rise from behind the discarded pizza box in the corner. Macavity’s eyes gleam. He witnessed it all that day, hidden in the fateful tree’s top branches, watching me fall to my death. 

Thumping on the roof snatches our attention. Not the pitter-patter of an old cat’s paws, but the stomp-stomp-stomp of hellish hooves. A dark shape enters through the window. “Attention,” it growls. 

 The power fails. Becky whispers what we’re all thinking. “The Devil.”

“Yessss,” Macavity hisses, channeling the game. “There is a sale at S’tanael’s Soul Emporium.”

S’tanael staggers from a dark corner of the room. “Black Friday’s gonna be insane this year,” he says with a sneer. “And remember, Hell takes cash or credit. No layaways.”

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My dogs strain at the yoked leash I was so clever to buy. I dream of a free hand for my phone or a coffee cup, to wave at neighbors, flip off speeding teens. A stinky bush next to me suggests skunk. I scan for the varmint, but instead find a stain on the asphalt, not unlike the hundred other oil puddles in my driveway. I peer closer. It’s dark red.

I look over my shoulder for a neighbor I could call witness to this sticky offense. My dogs jerk me forward, but the yanking doesn’t distract me from what’s in my periphery: There’s a head perched on the cab of my pickup. It sits tilted left, tongue out, one oozy eye open, the other squeezed close in a gross, flirtatious wink. 


Last October, I was met with a month of specters of jazz musicians. They were off-key, off-beat. They stayed up all night, and so did I because of it. Buddy Rich on my porch. Jelly Roll Morton in my tub. Lady Day across from me at breakfast.

The year before, nothing but bugs: bugs in my bed, bugs in my shoes, bugs in my Rice Chex. But nothing has topped a decade ago when I woke every night with a series of prairie children in bonnets or suspenders squeezing my hand, cold fingers slipping from my clammy ones as they whispered, “Protect your family.”

I guess this year it’s severed heads.

Something about that one on my truck right now seems familiar. Is it the nose? I run down a list of celebrities, imagining each face distorted into a pus-filled mess on top of my truck. No matches. But, still—it’s downright familiar. 

Someone calls my name, and my attention turns from the nasty noggin to the origin of the voice. Shit. I’d recognize that cackle anywhere. It’s my landlady, Skinny Lynnie, her shrill nasal tone an accusation in itself. 

I keep walking. That’s how much I hate Skinny Lynnie; avoiding her is more urgent than investigating the dead head on my pickup.

The dogs huff. I break into a jog for two blocks. We enter the park, heading to our usual weather-worn bench by the scummy pond. My heart slows. I unclip the dogs’ leashes, and they race to the water.

Daisy swims out as far as she usually does and then does a few dolphin dives while Fat Sam paddles in circles closer to shore. Daisy the Deep-Diver is down there a good long while. Too long. I’m about to get up and go in after her when she breaks the surface. Her teeth clutch a large, sopping sphere. 

Both dogs paddle back to shore. Fat Sam paces the waterline, shaking off fish-stinking droplets into a shaft of sunlight, catching an inverted rainbow.

Daisy brings it to me, dropping the gift at my feet with a thunk

Though now waterlogged and blue, I’d recognize it anywhere: the same gruesome orb from on top of my truck. Pond water leaks from a puncture below the gift’s eye socket, and I lurch. Daisy barks at me, then at the head. 

Through the swelling, I take note of the nose and finally place the familiar face: Ross Fucking Perot, Presidential Candidate, 1992.

Fat Sam wanders over and slurps at the dead man’s swollen ear. Ross Perot’s eye snaps open. “Will you stop that?” His wrinkly stare darts to me. “Hey. You. Tell your dog to quit it.”

I call Daisy to my side. Ross Perot’s head sighs in relief, and mechanically starts reciting his script: “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to tell you about my plan for an electronic direct democracy, you see—”

I edge away slowly, whistling for the dogs to follow.

Hey there,” Ross Perot calls as I walk away. “Let me finish. Let me finish.”

Back at the apartment, I pull out my keys. The dogs whimper at the door. I hear my name and startle. It’s Skinny Lynnie, standing there in her matted bathrobe. She rants about a broken pipe and tenant responsibility. As she turns to leave, she jerks her thumb over her shoulder, and says, “There’s a man in there for you. Says he’s your brother.”

I open the door, and the dogs scurry inside. There on my couch sits Bill Clinton. But not svelte, global ambassador Bill Clinton. This is red-faced, puffy, 1992-Arkansas-Governor Bill Clinton. 

“If there’s a theme for the day,” I say, tossing my keys on the dining room table, “then you’re in the wrong place. You’re not dead yet.”

“But I am.” says a voice from under the table. 

A fully zombified George H.W. Bush crawls into view. Bill helps him to his feet and brushes dust off the shoulders of his decayed suit. 

Then, from behind me: “Ma’am, you didn’t let me finish.” Oh, that wet whine. I roll my eyes, turn, and see Ross Perot’s head held aloft by Skinny Lynnie, who’s wearing a pointy black hat and a witch’s sabbath smile. Smoke billows from her mouth. I breathe in the ghost of electoral politics past. 

Bill sidles over, doing his thumbs-up-for-emphasis thing, says in Lynnie’s voice, “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

Finally, someone making a play for my cicada shell soul. 

I’d pictured more build-up. I wanted to be offered butter or a pretty dress, to hedge, pigeon-toe, lash flutter. I wanted to trip through a leafless forest, the sky pinned up by thumbtack stars. A silver moon. The smell of rust on a rattling breeze. A hot belly full of rollercoaster fear.

But what do I get? Politicians.

Bill Clinton flashes a Good & Plenty smile. Daisy pisses on the rug. Skinny Lynnie’s bathrobe gapes. I guess this’ll do. 

“Yes, yes. A thousand times yes.” 

They hold me to it. George and Ross’s heads roll over to me. Bill rubs his belly, and it’s time. They take me, and I hold the heads in my arms. Bill and Lynnie sing to me. Chant to me. Like I’m the only one. 

Holding the heads is heavy work, but to sing and be sung to is more than enough. Tepid water spills onto the floor. Daisy growls. I call her name, but my mouth is full of words I don’t know—

To live deliciously is to take what isn’t yours.



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