Flash

m.c. zendejas

MEANING OF NIGHT by M. C. Zendejas

Dean never came around too much to start with, but after his dog died he stopped coming altogether. Claudia had just moved out, and there wasn’t anything to do anymore. I sat in front of the TV, flipping through channel after channel until I eventually hit static. The quiet became too much and I decided to go over and surprise Dean, but he told me no, that he wasn’t in the mood to see anyone. He said it through the closed door and I had to press my ear against its worn wood to hear him clearly. As I walked to my car I glanced back and saw him waving from behind the window, like he was trapped in there.

One night I was at a bar by myself. It was supposed to be me and my coworker, but she never showed up. She didn’t even answer my texts. I reread them until I got a headache from hating myself so much.

The fifth rum-and-coke of that night had just been dumped down my throat when I looked over and saw Dean sitting in the corner. His hat was off and to the side, and he stared down into the dark liquid swirling in his glass like it was a part of him.

He gave a small jolt and looked over when I touched his arm and slurred “Hey, Dean”. I forgot the name of what he was drinking, but it was strong and had no ice. I ordered myself two of them.

He asked what I was doing there alone. I made something up about my car being worked on down the road and asked him about his job. He was thinking of quitting. They weren’t paying him much of anything, and the hours were shit. I had to piece his answer together from the small bits I would catch as my unanswered text messages ran in a constant scroll at the back of my head.

I told him he should just quit if he was so tired of it. The music playing overhead swelled and the fuzzy tone of the guitars pulsated warmly around all of us. I saw a redhead smiling at me from across the room. Something about the way she looked at me made me forget about my coworker, and the texts, and Claudia. I told Dean I’d catch him later.

When the redhead and I finished we laid there silently, staring up at the ceiling. I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was a little after midnight, and her room was sunk in a deep navy blackness that wouldn’t let me see directly in front of me. I reached out somewhere into the dark, looking for her hand, but kept grasping the cold half of the sheets.

I made plans with Dean to have lunch the following Monday. Twenty minutes passed and I started thinking of earlier that day, when my coworker saw me wave at her and vanished into the filing room, and how I was left standing there. She’d been avoiding me ever since she stood me up. He rushed through the door, face red and hair undone, interrupting my thoughts.

“Sorry I’m late, I was walking my dog.” He saw the way I was looking at him and added “I got a new dog. Like a week ago.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and showed me pictures.

It was one of the ugliest dogs I’d ever seen. Not the so-ugly-it’s-cute kind, either. Patches of fur had fallen off of it, exposing bright red skin beneath that looked like raw hamburger meat. What fur was left was matted together and matched the dull yellow of its teeth. I smiled and said “it’s really somethin’.”

Our booth was next to the window. A piece of sunlight fell through the leaves of a tree. It settled across groups of smiling people walking around outside. Some held hands, some wrapped their arms around each other. From behind the window, I felt how far away I was from all of them. Wanting to see pictures of anything besides that dog, I asked him how work had been. He told me he quit his job at the office. He said he was waiting tables at a hotel restaurant until he could save enough money to move to the beach.

“There’s a celebrity staying there right now. A movie star. I’m not allowed to say who, though.” I nodded and leaned forward and swore I wouldn’t tell anyone if he told me who it was. His head shook.

“I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you something even better.” I leaned back when I saw the way he was grinning.

He took his phone out again. Fearing he was going to pull up more pictures of the dog, I pretended to be distracted by something beyond the window. He shoved the phone in front of my face.

“Someone sold Justin Timberlake’s left-over French toast for $1,025.” I grabbed the phone and read the article. The French toast was from a breakfast interview he did in 2000. Dean explained he could easily get a hold of the celebrity’s left-over steak. I asked why a steak. He told me steak is usually more expensive than French toast, so obviously he’d be able to make more money.

Leaning back in the booth, looking over at him, it hit me that something was different about Dean. I couldn’t point to what it was, though. His haircut was the same, and he was wearing one of the three outfits he’d had on a constant loop since I first met him. Before I could figure it out, our conversation was interrupted by the waitress bringing the food to the table. My soup was cold but I didn’t say anything.

When I got home, my dog was curled up on the couch with his back facing me. It was so quiet.

“Wanna go for a walk?” He didn’t respond. I decided to google the name of the hotel Dean was working at. There was nothing else to do. I scrolled through images of enormous double-doors and ballrooms filled with intricately gilded cutlery and laughing faces stuffed into black tuxedos. At the top of the webpage is the motto, “Where dreams are reality”.

After I heard the rumors, I called Dean and asked if it was true. He hung up and blocked my number. I tried going by his house, but it was completely empty. He’d even taken his mangy dog with him. Yellow teeth and all. So, all I can tell you is what the actor said in an interview:

I was in Houston shooting for my newest project when

this waiter snatched my plate off the table. I wasn’t do-

ne with it, so I said ‘excuse me!’ but he pretended he di-

dnt hear me & kept walking. There was still a pretty big

piece of steak on that plate, so I got up to try & follow

‘em, but that’s when he started running.  The creep was try-

ing to steal my steak! It was the weirdest thing. My se-

curity finally got ‘em on the ground, & he was rolling

around with the steak clutched real tight in his hands, &

 he was saying ‘I NEED THIS STEAK! PLEASE! IT’S

         MY TICKET TO BEING LIKE YOU! PLEASE!’. The cops

 took ‘em away & he was bawling, saying he was sorry

& that he missed his dog, whatever that means. Weird

 guy. If you’re asking me, probably just another stalker

or something. You’d be surprised how many weirdos you

 run into as an actor. It’s just part of what makes it such

a brave career choice, ya know? Like being a soldier.

The interview goes on for a few more pages, but I can’t stomach it. Once I get to that part, I always fling the magazine away from myself. Its glossy cover makes a slight fluttering sound as it hits the floor.

Every now and then, I walk my dog. He just got through a flea treatment, so patches of his fur are missing. Sometimes we pass by Dean’s old house. Sometimes I just stand in front of it and look. No one else has moved in yet, and its colors are becoming more and more dull from the weather beating up on it.

I think about texting Claudia or asking my coworker to get drinks again as my eyes trace the worn shape of the house. The roof sinks towards the ground, and no curtains hide its bare walls. Dead leaves sweep across the brown lawn, whirling around in the voiceless wind before zigzagging towards the ground like bodies from a crashing plane.

We walk around town, looking at the laughing couples. The window isn’t there anymore, but I can’t help but feel so far away from them. From everyone.

I end up moving into the house. Tabloids calling Dean a stalker drove property prices so low they practically gave me the place. It’s easy to feel alone in its echoes, in nights so dark they seem endless until every morning, when a pale-blue creeps through the curtains, past the still-bare walls, and I stare up at the ceiling, waiting, grasping the cold half of the sheets.

 

 
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OH, THE MEADOWS by DAVE K

Five pairs of hands let me go on Monday morning. Only one pair was needed.

My supervisor did a lot of the talking, though the other four men in the room would chime in at intervals to finish his sentences. There was no pattern to their interruptions.

Poor head for numbers. Ledgers carious with miscalculations. Antisocial personality, unfit for the camaraderie of professional life. These were their words, their nasal Ivy League voices shared like a common uniform, their faces scrubbed and shaved waxy under the lights, their ties and suspenders, their matching socks.

I sat in front of them feeling like wadded-up paper, my feet planted on the white floor. I didn't want to cross my legs because my trousers were too short and my socks didn't match.

Later I would pass a man whose dog was sniffing around in the bushes. All I could see of the dog was his tail, his lead wrapped twice around his owner's firm wrist. This man looked like his socks matched.

I don't know what it's like to be that kind of person. I am done putting on such airs.

There was a pattern to their interruptions. I just couldn't see it.

They allowed me to collect my things before I was shown out. I knew the way, but I wasn't the one being shown. The rest of the accounting chamber stared down the hall after me, their shoulders bent, eyes narrow and dry under their green visors and behind their bifocals.

Five days earlier, I'd passed the rummage shop near my apartment and saw a chipped plaster replica of an Easter Island head staring out from the piles of rusted mechanical parts and wormy furniture and children's toys. I asked the proprietor how much the giant head cost. He told me. I asked who would pay so much for it. He told me he only sold what he was given. I walked away.

My supervisor did not say I was “fired.” He said, with help from the others, that I had been “let go,” which is worse. Being fired suggests a trajectory that will end somewhere. I will land somewhere. Being let go is just falling falling falling and slick stone walls on all sides and no light.

I left the office and turned left where I normally turn right. I passed rows of houses with stone porches and dark lamps in the windows. The grass and trees were green, burnt yellow in patches by the sun. The trees bent towards the sunlight and their branches drooped into the street. One house's small yard had been stamped raw, down to the dirt. Hopscotch squares had been drawn on the sidewalk.

My father used to say that a man's hardest fight was between himself and the mirror.

As I was being let go, my supervisor asked me if I had anything to say. I stared past him and the others at the stack of ledgers, their leather covers bruised by my fingerprints. I knew they'd been marked up by the senior accountants. Pens scratching in the margins and red ink welling up in loops of inscrutable cursive.

My mother used to say that what you will not do is what I will do. She drowned when I was nineteen. Nets dragged her out of the ocean, onto the boat where my father and I stood. She was smiling.

Two days earlier, I'd passed the rummage shop near my apartment and saw a dented suit of armor for sale. It was wedged between two brass outhouse fixtures, probably to keep it from toppling over. I asked the proprietor how much the armor cost. He told me. I asked who would pay so much for it. He told me he only sold what he was given. I walked away and wondered why the proprietor would sell it at all, why he wouldn't disassemble it and keep one of the arms for himself.

When my window is open and the weather is mild, I can hear the drone of crickets and birds, and the distant, funereal tones of church bells on the hour and half-hour.

My landlady hates me. She is a Christian.

Today, I passed by the rummage shop near my apartment. Twice. The first time, the proprietor wasn't sitting out front in his rocking chair. The chair was empty except for a note: Back in five minutes. There was an oversized cannon for sale. Someone had painted it like a barber's pole. I left.

I returned ten minutes later and the proprietor was there, rocking and smoking. I asked him how much the cannon cost. He told me. I asked who would pay so much for it. He told me he only sold what he was given.

When I was nine, I stepped on a fish-hook and the wound never healed properly. I think I have been slowly leaking over time, depleted by every step I take. Perhaps this is why I am a bachelor, a shelf waiting to be stocked.

I bought the cannon on credit and the proprietor offered to drive it back to my apartment for me. I rode beside it in the back of proprietor's steam-junker, trying to decide if it would fit in my building's freight elevator. I ended up leaving the cannon in the grassy lot behind my building.

Sometimes I dream of swimming towards a dim, vanishing shore, salty and sunblind, my mouth full of seaweed.

The cannon is a deceit. The fuse is a rope that, when pulled, deploys a springboard inside the barrel. Maybe there is no cannon. No window. No building. No street. No landlady. No me.

It rained overnight. The cannon's gullet stayed dry and cool.

Before the rain came, I sat on my windowsill with my legs and bare feet dangling down. I swung them back and forth, my heels knocking against the bricks. My back was turned to my degree in mathematics, crooked in the frame my father bought for it, and by proxy for me. I imagined water just below my toes, even though I live on the fifth floor of my building and everyone below me would have drowned.

I will crawl inside the barrel. I will pull the rope. I cannot pull the rope. Someone else will pull the rope. Being fired suggests a trajectory that will end somewhere. I will land somewhere. I live on the wind now.

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gene morgan

XBOX VIDEO GAME REVIEWS 2018 by Gene Morgan

Fortnite

Fortnite is a riot simulator for children. Characters lives are short like ours– the game is filled with moments to reflect upon hard choices, choices in the format of a fun cartoon-like murder game young boys love. Fortnite for Xbox is a perfect way to get killed over and over again and feel emotion as you grow old and work a job and come home to smoke weed from a battery, make vegan hot dogs, take kids to basketball practice, and fall asleep before making love. This game is an easy diversion in an otherwise asinine journey where you live and die just once. Five stars, I've never played it.

Monster Hunter: World

Monster Hunter: World is about harvesting flesh. The monsters you gut, you pull the meat from them, and you sell or trade that meat for a shield and maybe clothes. How many pelts are too many? You decide. Live with excess. Life is excellent. You have a cat and your cat brings you health. Cats fucking protect you. Cats live forever. You can give your cat a beautiful name, like Susan. Susan will fight for you. And when you're ass-deep in entrails, Susan's only worry is a monster planet filled with lush vegetation. In Susan's world species have not yet begun to die-out at the highest rate since the last great extinction. There is no end. For Susan, an excess of monsters seems like the only hell any player can thrive in– A hell where there's nothing left to do but hunt, so you dig deep inside yourself and flood the world with meat.

Cuphead

Blessed that the devil exists, two cups look to settle a debt. My daughter let me know a fish smokes in the background of this game. I'm not sure if it's a fish. I can't remember, My head hurts. I've never had another life, so I don't understand, I don't understand all of the accomplishments I'll never see, all of the unfinished projects I left alone in my inbox, all of the shoes I never wear, the way I smoked while I was looking after my children, like my mother. Cuphead is a visual achievement, and it's impossible to play. My life is slowly losing any focus on the past, and I can only hope the devil opens a casino near my home, a place where I can gamble for something worthwhile or, really anything I lost in childhood.

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claire hopple

THIS IS GONNA BE GOOD by Claire Hopple

“Do you know where Bernie is?” a stranger asked the man as he was headed in to change.

“Not sure. I think I saw him in the parking lot a minute ago,” said the man, trying to be helpful to the stranger even though he was technically a stranger.

“Who’s Bernie?” the stranger then asked.

“I thought you were looking for Bernie. How can you be looking for him if you don’t know who he is?”

“Why can’t I be looking for someone I don’t know?”

The man had had enough. He went inside to change for his shift so he wouldn’t be late. Coming back out to the main room in full garb, he saw Bernie picking a bandaid off the plaque in the corner. It read: PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, was engraved and everything, but was screwed into the wall high enough so that it was unclear what one wasn’t supposed to touch. The bandaid was covering the word “NOT” rather defiantly.

“I think that was someone from the Association,” said Bernie.

The bandaid was flapping at the edge of his middle finger, successfully dislodged from the plaque. Bernie peeked at the gauze portion to see if it was used before tossing it into the trash.

“The Association?”

“Yes, The Association for Living History Farm and Agricultural Museums. Those guys.”

The man didn’t know such an association existed, had just started this job a few months ago, but didn’t want to rankle Bernie even more by asking followup questions.

“This place is not in shape for visits from the Association. This could be bad. I don’t want to end up like the settlement. You know what happened to Todd at Jamestown.”

The man tried not to remember what happened to Todd at Jamestown. It was Bernie’s standard cautionary tale for when anything went wrong.

He knew what this was really about. Tourists would rather drive eight miles out of the way to visit the wildlife refuge than come here. There, exotic animals appeared unencumbered by civilization. Their labyrinthine pathways seemed especially natural and created a pleasant plume of dirt when you scuffed your feet along them.

The man visited once but didn’t want to go back. The animals looked mutinous and the humans hypnotic. He had found a cage marked “Horned Viper” that appeared empty and struggled not to apply any meaning to it. Push pop carapaces littered the paths. Maybe we should be handing out push pops, the man thought.

*

Power lines buzzed above him on his way to the coffee shop. The buzzing forced him to imagine what impulses were being carried across right then, directly over his head. He entered, ordered, found a nice table near the wall of windows at the front. Outside, a woman was telling a rather animated story to her friend on the bench up against the window. She was gesturing high enough to look like she was reaching to give the man a high five.

He unceremoniously gulped his to-go cup and waited. The sleeve on the cup kept slipping and he thought about the frustrating nature of gravity, but also wondered why the barista had given him a portable cup rather than a mug. Did she expect him to leave?

He was not leaving. He was meeting a manager or director of some sort from an in-home aide service.

The man’s father was not doing well. In fact, the man was pretty sure his father was gradually becoming a recluse. His father had mentioned something about conch shells, how he could hear the sound of muffled waves just as clearly from pressing a mug to his ear as he could from a shell found near the wave’s end. At the time, he figured his father was just lonely or perhaps becoming a poet. He thought about getting him a no-nonsense pet, something that didn’t require a lot of maintenance, like a turtle. But the pets that require the least amount of maintenance also seem to provide the least amount of comfort.

Plus, the turtle was sure to outlive his father. And what was the man ultimately going to do with a turtle once his father passed, especially one that he indirectly inherited from himself?

The man wasn’t sure about the in-home care thing since his father was in very good physical condition. He didn’t know if reclusive tendencies was a box you could check on a form. But mental health is just as important, he thought.

And people talk about nervous breakdowns but maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. If you lean into it, accept the madness creeping over you, maybe it can be a peaceful adjustment. Like slipping into warm bath water. Like the gradual murk clouding the waters in a turtle tank.

She was late.

Being a historical interpreter mostly meant advising visitors to hold on to the railing along the stairs. Telling kids as well as adults, “Everyone has to hold on. No one is above hanging on.”

It also meant trying to fuse history with the present to a horde of students on field trips and retirees finally able to travel. And they came to this vaguely colonial site to hear about farming practices and blacksmithing techniques while the jake brakes of semis shuddered on the overpass. A submissive, sonorous percussion giving into the slope.

The man had applied, desperate for a way out of a misleading corporate position. He had been told travel would take up around 25% of his time but it was actually closer to 40%. The man’s ears kept popping and clogging from elevation changes to the point where he could no longer hear what went on in the meetings, the ones the company thought were worth flying the man hundreds of miles to attend, 40% of the time.

He suspected he landed this job with absolutely no interpreting experience merely because he was a man. With no battle scenes to reenact and no weapons to wield, the staff was mostly made up of women. Guys thought the big show was in Williamsburg. But these women wielded plowshares and ironwork and could maintain the fields far better than he could.

Some of the reenactors used to be street performers and some thought they deserved to slough off the first few letters entirely, transforming purely into actors.

The only other male on staff was Ames, an aspiring magician, who practiced tricks when things were slow. The man wasn’t impressed with his tricks. They were sloppy and unrehearsed. And also because what doesn’t disappear? What doesn’t eventually dissolve on its own?

Ames fumbled through stunts. He muttered things like, “I’ll get the hang of it. It’s just muscle memory. Like learning guitar.” But he wasn’t improving. Ames would say things like “This is gonna be good,” and “Wait, we’re getting to the good part,” which totally diffused any possibility for goodness in the impending act.

Muscle memory isn’t always ideal, the man kept to himself. Isn’t it just practicing an action over and over until it’s automatic? So that if every action were purely muscle memory, your whole life would be forgotten before it’s even gotten? The man thought about all of this while he nodded to Ames, polished the spinning wheel display.

*

The man had come to expect two things from his father. First, he wasn’t going to let an aide swing by his home a few days a week. This was less of a suspicion and more of a reality, since his father had already kicked out the aide within the first hour. Second, his father wasn't going to go out into the world anymore, but he could let some of the more entertaining parts of the world in.

So he drove Ames out to the house, switching out his straw farmer hat for a tall black one. They parked next to his father’s overly reinforced mailbox. His father understood the importance of mail but also understood the power of baseball bats and midnight teenage angst.

He made Ames tuck his long hair into a skinny ponytail. Ames had that mangled look caused by hair that’d been dyed for decades, like split and dried firewood stacked indoors. Just like the man’s mother used to have.

A song played on the radio in the car but it didn’t sound right. After listening for a few seconds, the man realized what was off about it. This song had become such a popular choice for karaoke that the original now sounded like a remake. No squeals or squawks or jumbled lyrics. It stuck out precisely because it was performed so cleanly.

The man gave Ames an encouraging pat on the shoulder before shutting off the engine and opening the door.

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nathaniel duggan

IMITATION CRABMEAT by Nathaniel Duggan

Dad spends Christmas Eve on the beach killing green crabs, before he returns home to turn on all the holiday lights. The house flashes and dazzles like a landing strip. The sky, meanwhile, looks foreclosed.

“You should’ve seen the fuckers,” he tells me, pinching his fingers to imitate claws. “Some of them big as your face.”

He has no heat, furniture, or future, so we sit in lawn chairs in the living room, our breath glowing like neon. His expression is sour-smug: he is a man who knows his own expiration date. When he dies shortly thereafter—without complication—I bury him in the garden and discover the action figures he stole from me during my youth to prove important points. There they all are tucked an inch below the soil, dirt-clotted and tangled in rhododendron roots.

I crack a beer, plotting my next move.

I spend maybe a few too many years sitting alone in dark living rooms at 3AM.

People claim I approach them with slanted intentions. I am between jobs and lovers. I live as an alleyway, defined mostly by the clutter and the things I keep apart.

For the sake of staying busy, I steal my last friend’s wife. The friend himself cannot be reached for comment; he has long since scuttled off to some forgotten corner of Alaska. As for the wife, she drinks.

This works out pretty well until it doesn’t. We drink too much too early, spend most of our days passing out. Our lives live outside and without us, and we are perpetually slumped against the kitchen cabinets or else spread-eagled on the bathroom floor, piecing together where we last left off: usually the entangling business of her bra.

Sleep scrubs her skin as pale and thin as a bedsheet. Her eyes close into her face. She fades, recedes into the background of herself, until all that’s left is a mapped suggestion of a person, pure theory and postulation.

On the other hand I grow puffy, weighted with my somnolence. I develop certain unsociable tendencies, namely clamming and a technique of eating Chinese food by the fistful. By the time I notice her absence, she’s already gone.

What do you do with so much nothing? Me, I leave the clams to die in the basement. Whole pounds of them, just slowly dying. They make little screaming noises throughout the night, but it’s one of those things like lobsters: you’re not sure if they’re really screaming or if it’s just the water compressing inside their shells or whatever.

Lately the rum I drink has taken on the plastic tang of action figures.

Lately my heart is the size of a face.

Midsummer I set up Christmas lights. I drape the bannisters, hedges, drainpipes. The bulbs throb sickly, pulsate underfoot like crabs on the march. This accomplished, I stumble into the front yard, chug the last of my cocktail. The house swims in my vision, so lucid I can’t look at it straight on. For a while I feel that I am expecting the arrival of something, until I realize I am expecting to have finally arrived somewhere else.

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THE NAVIGATOR by Kelby Losack

Because your friends are assholes, they toss us in the trunk in the sixty-nine position.

They duct-taped my ankle to the steel rod of my prosthetic leg. I don’t even know how to feel about that.

You think that twin telepathy shit is real?

Check, one, two.

Nod your head or something if you hear me.

How are we getting out of this alive?

One-two, one-two.

Fuck.

We’re going to die, huh?

Check, check, one, two.

If I had any memories of being in the womb with you, I think being curled up next to you in this cramped darkness would trigger some flashbacks. Nod your head if you feel me.

I can’t imagine where your friends might be taking us. This ride is bumpy as fuck, though. Remember learning how to drive? We couldn’t see where we were going then, either. Too small to see over the wheel, so we learned how to drive by the feel of the road. I was always careful not to keep the wheel too straight, swerving this way and that, like I’d learned from watching Mom. Always thought of her driving all over the road as her version of rocking us to sleep. It usually did the trick, except for when she’d slam on the brakes and laugh hysterically at some shit we weren’t privy to, reaching back with a hand that always shook, saying, “You okay back there, babies?”

Then there was the time she didn’t so much slam on the brakes as she did just let off the gas and sink into the driver’s seat, hands sliding to her lap, head bobbing against her shoulder in rhythm with the tall grass blades slapping the rearview mirror. I don’t remember if that was the first time we rock-paper-scissored for who would drive/who would navigate standing in the shotgun, but it wasn’t the last time, I know that.

Those times, when we took Mom by the underarms and ankles and sort of carried/sort of dragged her gently as we could into the backseat—thankful she didn’t weigh much more than the pitbull we had at the time—she always smelled like burning plastic, like when we’d use one of her lighters to pretend those little green soldiers had real flamethrowers. Same way she smelled when we found her the last time, slumped against her bedroom door, not waking up.

That first time we drove Mom’s car out of a ditch, it was you standing in the seat, telling me which way to turn as I steered blindly with my foot reaching down to the pedal, my chin ready to get smacked by the airbag if I fucked this up and crashed us into something. I was too scared to take us all the way home, so you told me where to turn into a gas station parking lot and that’s where we stayed until Mom woke up several hours later and she was so proud of us, she gave us some money and said, “Go inside and get you some candy, and bring Momma a pack of cigarettes,” but the clerk wouldn’t let us buy cigarettes, so we came out empty-handed and she said, “Fine, I’ll get it,” and she adjusted her hair and bra strap and checked her teeth in the mirror then staggered inside and when she came back out, she didn’t have any candy, but we didn’t say anything about it.

Check, check.

One-two, one-two.

Are you hearing any of this?

You know, come to think of it, you were always the one navigating, and I was always the blind driver.

That’s why I can’t blame you for any of this.

Your friends are going to kill us—probably tell us to run off into the woods and then shoot us in our backs—and yeah, it might be ‘cause I freaked out thinking the neighbor’s TV was a real police raid and went and flushed all the dope down the toilet, but this is your fault, too. I was just the one steering.

Still, I can’t blame you.

And if we could go back, I’d probably do it again, because without you, I’d be lost.

Nod your head if you can hear me.

Check, check, one, two.

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derick dupre

LITTLE CACKLES by Derick Dupre

A windy morning outside Denny’s in Carefree. Windshields and gas pumps ping with dust. Rosettes of yucca twitch and sway. Inside it sounds like a light rain passing through. A waitress saunters up to a table where three men sit. Her dirndl skirt swishes in time to the dust, and for a moment it seems like the only sound in the world. The three men are John Huston, Rich Little, and Orson Welles. She recognizes Little right away and fangirls out in front of the two older men.

Oh my god I knew it, it’s him, can I have an autograph Mr. Little? Make it out to Sue. No to Ralph.

Make it out to Ralph. Oh my god. Do Nixon. Do Bing.

Little smiles uneasily, accepting Sue’s pen, knowing that in a just world she should be asking for John’s or Orson’s hasty scrawl, not his, not that of one whose sole talent is sounding like other people. But what do other people know, anyway. The older men fidget on the leatherette. To Ralph, he writes aloud, best, wishes, always. Rich. Little slides the napkin to Sue.

Joan! It’s the man of a thousand voices! Sue shouts to a coworker. Oh my god. Do Jimmy Stewart.

Do Jack Benny. What are you doing in Carefree, Mr. Little?

Little, doing Johnny Cash, says, Well we thought we’d check up on the Carefree sundial. We were driving through and John here wanted to know the time, so I said, let’s make a stop in Carefree.

Johnny Cash! Joan get over here. Oh, we do have quite the sundial, don’t we, Sue says.

Joan saunters up and twitches a hip to the right, indicating Welles, and asks Little, So who’s your fat friend?

Welles, nosedeep in a menu, shifts his glance from Hot n Hearty to Lean n Low to Tempting Desserts.

Little, in a rare moment of speechlessness, slowly widens his eyes. Huston, not known for his whipcrack humor, clarifies: We actually don’t know this man. Wepicked him up on the highway and he seemed undernourished. We were planning to feed him and send him on his way.

Little cackles.

Huston just stares at the menu, forgetting whether or not Denny’s serves scotch. Welles squirms against the leatherette. Huh. I’m not surprised. I used to work up at the Denny’s up in Seligman. All kinds of freeloaders there. So, big boy, what’ll you have? Sue says.

Peaches, cottage cheese, hold the rye wafers, please, Welles says, as though delivering a line he’s waited his whole life to give. His order has the tone of a funeral toll. An atmospheric shift disrupts the dining room, in the way it will if somebody farts or breaks a glass. Other tables are silent. Meandering jowls now pause midchew. The dust outside is again the only sound in the world. After a few moments, Joan breaks the trance. I know that voice. I’ve heard that voice. Mr. Little, who’s this friend of yours?

Little, doing John Wayne, says, This man here is the bravest man I know. This man staged an entire war. This man is as good as any general, the great Orson Welles.

Duke! Joan squeals.

Orson Who? Sue says. Oh my god I can’t believe I’m taking Rich Little’s order. What is your order, Mr. Little?

Little does Cagney, delivering his order and snapping his fingers with immense menace. Jumbo Dennyburger, got it? Hold the lettuce, I don’t wanna see no lettuce at all. Cook it well-done - bravo, you got it? There better be extra ketchup, and a coffee.

Sue can hardly contain her squealing. Extra kitchup! Did you hear that Joan? Jimmy Cagney - she winks at Little - wants extra kitchup! Of course! Well-done!

Huston sighs and says, Is there any chance you have single malt.

We have all kinds of rich and creamy malts sir, yes.

Huston looks at Welles, indicating he’s run out of fucks to give. I’ll just have a coffee, please.

Two coffees all day. And what’ll your fat friend have to drink?

Welles fidgets and thinks of Oja, of her love and cunning, thinks by now she would’ve stabbed one of these women. He thinks of something rich and creamy. A hot tea, please, with a slice of lemon.

Another atmospheric disruption befalls the Denny’s in Carefree, Arizona. The dust sings. Joan says, I don’t know who that man is but he sure knows how to talk.

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michael mungiello

A BOLD NEW KIND OF STORY by Michael Mungiello

Something new…

Something new…

I need to do something new…

Something new…

Something new…

I need to do something new…

It will be new…

It will come now…

Somehow…

Somewhere…

I know…

It will start on the next page…

One time I was reading important books…

It was very important that I read them…

They addressed concerns…of the people…of the elites…history…art…religion…politics…

I was interested in those things…

People I admired were interested in those things…

So I read in pursuit of these people’s interest…

In the hopes that one day…a book would be written…about me…by all those I admired…

When we are young we believe such things…

We feel born to be admired…

Books feel like they can go on forever…and we can keep riding the train…along with these writers, their writing, their voices, their faces waiting for us at the station of arrival…

I was on a train…

I saw a sign…a train sign…

A sign for the train…

To tell it what was coming…

How fast to go…

How far away it was from somewhere…

What it was leaving behind…

I don’t know…

It was in another language…

I was travelling by train, to see a woman I was in love with…

No I wasn’t…

I was there to visit my Dad…

He was on a business trip…

I was abroad…

But I was reading a book about a love affair…

And I thought to myself…

My, what splendor…

The romance…

What it must be like to be young and travel in a train in Europe to the woman you love, whose role in your life is…mysterious…

Yeah…

Hey…

Give me a break…

I was young…

Books made an impression on me…

But this sign distracted me from this book…

Which I thought meant so much to me…

And which I thought would continue to mean very much to me my entire life…

But I looked up from the book…

To contemplate a line I’d read in it…

To look out the window and think…

Oh, wow…

What a good line…

So true to life and my heart…

Look, the landscape…

It almost reflects what that line means…to me…

But I saw the sign…

And the font…was so much bigger…

And I thought to myself, That…

That contains more meaning…

Than anything I’ve ever seen before…

I couldn’t read it…but it was telling me something…

Not just me…but the whole train…

The letters were so big that even people who couldn’t read would be interested…

The letters were so big…God would be interested…

This…

This was something new…

This was something I would never forget…

I forgot the exact letters…

But I have never forgotten the sign…

The feeling…

To perceive something I knew was important but also knew nothing about…

I have tried all my life to capture that feeling once again…

I had the feeling that I could recapture this feeling by…

By…

By…

Doing something new…

Getting back there…

But how…

Become…rich…

No…

Become…good…

No…

Become…strong…

No…

Become…pure…

No, haha…

I could do it one way and one way only…

By writing a book of my own…

To make my own letters…

My own signs…

Charting the course of my own voyage…

That was the ticket…

But how could I write a book…I had nothing to say…no argument…no expertise…no polemic…no religion…no politics…no art…only the desire for people to never forget something that didn’t mean anything to them, beyond being unforgettable…

But that still had something to do with Dad…

With love…

With journeys…

Was that enough to make a book for… with…towards…against…

Well…

Well…

Well…

I don’t know…

But then I thought…

Well…

Well…

Well…

If I just…make the font…really big…then…

Then the book will write itself…

All I need to do is provide the…elementary materials…

A narrator…(me)…

A setting…(Europe)…

A character…(my dad)…

A plot…(the quest to recapture a feeling)…

A point of view…(mine, the correct one)…

A theme…(literarture)…

And it’s all there…

And everyone will root for my demise…

The end of the book…

The return back to life…

Which you didn’t like while you were there…

But now that it’s been interrupted…by this story about me and my Dad…and my imaginary lover…and Europe…

Now that you’ve come this far…

You’re back in your life…and you can regard your life…the same way you would home…after a trip…the pleasure of return…

Thank you for reading this…

It is a mystery, is it not…

The ways we deserve each other…

How we see each other across the tracks…

Books are like trains…books are like tickets…books are like stations…

But reading is boring…

We just do it for…some other reason…

 

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lanny durbin

LIBERTY KID by Lanny Durbin

I saw the kid's face when he got hit by the car. He was standing there on the sidewalk with a blank look and then the car jumped the curb. Just nailed him. The blank look stayed on his face when he flew through air, stared right at me. Like he meant to do it. A party trick.

He was wearing a statue of liberty costume, which, for a short moment, made the visual a little funny. He stood out in front of the Liberty Tax building a few nights a week, one of those preying fast tax return spots in the same lot as the grocery store I work in. He stole a pack of smokes out of my car one night I'm pretty sure, but he was just a kid, seventeen at max. I wished it was the regular guy standing there that day, the day shift statue. That guy danced and waved at the passing cars like he really cared. Either he would have seen the car coming and been vigilant enough to dodge it or he would've been the one to get creamed. Both seemed like better outcomes. The kid was just there for a couple extra bucks—he wore the foam green hat and matching frock with no pride and stared at his cell phone. Lady Liberty's lost disappointment of a son. The hat caught the wind and drifted away when he careened over the hood of the Nissan. It looked like he was doing a killer move on an invisible skateboard.

The EMTs showed up, cops showed up, blinking lights and stoic professionalism. They set out orange cones, scraped the kid up off the asphalt. I watched them work quickly. I stocked shelves most of the day. I opened the store and counted the till. I dealt with the customers, took the trash out, locked up the store at 9 PM. I watched the EMTs take the kid away and thought that I could probably do that. A little training and I’d be alright, but then someone would need to be here to receive the produce delivery, so I’ll leave the rescue work to guys with nothing else to do.

The officer was terse when taking my statement, like, this dipshit in his work uniform better give me a straight answer. I thought, hey man, we both wear uniforms. Yours is dark blue, mine's orange and white creamsicle. We both have our names on our shirt pockets, but hey, mine's only safety pinned—they stitched yours right into the fabric. Officer Ottman. You’re locked into the force, like a blood oath. I could take my name tag off right now and disappear to a new life. I can stock shelves anywhere. A valuable skill set.

Maybe I don't know how to hold a pistol or book a perp at the station but I do know when the frozen goods delivery is coming, what'll be on it, where to stock it. You don't have to deal with Ms. Henderson when I tell her the Amy's Chile Relleno meal was out of stock, she'll have to wait until Friday. Your stern bullying wouldn't work on her—she requires a more delicate approach. I'd like to see you be the shift supervisor in this goddamn place. I'd love to see it.

They towed the woman’s Nissan away while she gave her statement. She was crying, inconsolable. Was on her cell phone and bam, jumped the curb. She probably killed a teenager but she did get to read that Facebook notification. I recognized her from the store. She came in to buy slivered almonds, which reminded me that the bulk order was due in by noon and all this police business was holding me up.

The next morning, the regular Statue of Liberty guy was out on the curb, inches from where the kid was nailed. The guy danced and waved like a real dipshit. I went out and asked him if he’d heard about the kid.

“Yeah,” he said. “Heard he broke his legs and ruptured his spleen or something.”

“So he’ll live, huh?”

“Sounds like it.”

“Can’t you live about the same without your spleen?” I asked. “I think I read somewhere your liver just takes over for it.”

“Heck if I know,” dancing statue said with a big dopey grin. “Hey, I’ve got to cover his shifts until he gets back, so hopefully one can live without a spleen. I should get back to work now.”

I walked back inside to the office in the backroom and googled spleens. I thought about the kid without a spleen. I read that you sure can live just about the same without one; you could just become more susceptible to infection. I thought, hey, that’s not so bad, considering. Plus, working in the vitamin section here at the store, I’ve picked up a few things about nutrition. The kid would want to cut back on dairy fats, for starters. I decided that, if I saw him again, I’d offer the kid a job on the spot, here at the grocery store. Your life was rarely on the line in here, Nissans rarely careened into you in here.

I knew that Officer Ottman wasn’t going to help the kid get back on his feet. Offer the kid a badge? Yeah right. He didn’t really know anything about protecting and serving his community. I’d love to see Officer Ottman try to run this store. I’d love it.

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LONGBEARDS by Chris Dankland

Before The Smiths signed the contract for the brand new house they were set to purchase, the real estate broker said: I have to tell you that in the last few weeks a few of the construction workers have sighted some Longbeards near the woods. I'm only mentioning it because you said you have a small dog.

Yes, said Mr. Smith. Thank you. We'll be sure to keep him inside the house at night.

That's what I'd do, said the real estate broker, nodding. Just in case. I'm sure that as more and more people move into the neighborhood, the the Longbeards will retreat further into the woods. Longbeards like to be left alone. Maybe you'll hear them howling late at night.

Gregory! said Mrs. Smith, playfully poking their seven year old in his chubby belly. Are you excited about hearing some Longbeards howling? Sounds like fun, huh?

Gregory nodded ecstatically, lifted his head and cried: A-WOOOOOOOOOO!

Laughter filled the office like the bubbles in their glasses of champagne.

///

The first time the family heard the Longbeards was two weeks after they moved in. A sound like seven singing trumpets broke the seal of night. It was 3am. Mr. and Mrs. Smith sat up in bed at the same moment.

Longbeards! said Mrs. Smith in a hushed gasp, touching her lips.

There's a lot of them, said Mr. Smith. He headed toward the window.

Gregory appeared at their bedroom door. Mommy! he shouted. On stubby chubby legs he ran in and dived into their bed.

It's okay baby, said Mrs. Smith, cradling her son to her stomach. It's just Longbeards.

Everything's fine. Listen! Do you hear them howling?  Gregory moaned and pushed his face deep into his mother's side.

Sparky ran into the bedroom and hid beneath the bed.

They sound sort of spooky, don't they? said Mrs. Smith. The Longbeards' howls were a combination of tornado sirens, rat screams, and alligator snarls. Woe to the usurping inhabitors of the earth, they howled. Woe to those who wear the crown of pride. Woe to those who scatter and destroy the sheep of the pasture. Woe to the wicked gluttons. Woe to you all on the day of our furious wrath.

Mr. Smith nodded. They do sound strange, he said. A wave of unease rolled through the room. But they're much more frightened of us than we are of them, he added.

///

The Smiths were one of the first families to move into the new neighborhood. All day the surrounding streets were filled with the sound of hammers and buzzsaws and the chatter of Latin American construction crews. But at night, after the construction crews had gone, the neighborhood was as still and silent as a stone dropped in the ocean.

Mr. Smith was proud of the new house that he'd bought for his family. It had not been acquired easily. It had cost tens of thousands of hours of toil at the law firm where he worked. His legal specialty was handling peanut allergy lawsuits. Mr. Smith worked for a candy company that made a small chocolate covered confection called Bloopers. The candies were sold in nearly every movie theater in the country.

But, six or seven times a year, some unfortunate soul with a deadly peanut allergy would purchase these candies, consume them in the dark theater seats, and go into immediate anaphylactic shock. Due to the contents of the candies, which contained a particularly potent peanut butter cream center, these allergic reactions were sudden and almost always fatal. Men, women, and children alike would swell up and suffocate in a matter of minutes, choking in their seats even before the previews were over. This created terrible litigation problems for the company. It was Mr. Smith's job to ensure that lawsuits from grieving families had a minimal impact on company profits.

But they are gone! the families whined. The ones we loved are dead forever! And now we are alone.

It's the unfortunate nature of the universe, answered Mr. Smith. The universe gives and the universe takes away.

You are responsible! the families cried.

We are not responsible, answered Mr. Smith.

You are the cause of all our misery! You have destroyed our happy home! the families cried.

It wasn't on purpose. We all just want nice houses, answered Mr. Smith.

///

The house is on fire! screamed Mrs. Smith. It was ten o'clock at night.

What? asked Mr. Smith. He was in the living room, watching cable news.

THE HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET IS ON FIRE! screamed Mrs. Smith.

They ran to the backyard and poked their head over the fence. The fucking house is on fire! shouted Mr. Smith. Luckily it was an unoccupied house far away from them, in another part of the neighborhood that was still being built. Bright orange flames swirled through the house's walls and windows like solar flares on a distant star. A giant black river of smoke snaked up from the burning roof.

Longbeards! shouted Mrs. Smith.

Fifteen or twenty Longbeards surrounded the house, jumping up and down on their heavy hindlegs. They were screaming. With giant clawed paws they beat their furry chests and kicked dust into the air. Their gaping mouths were wet with slobber, silver in the moonlight. Their huge eyes glowed like yellow light bulbs. Thick mossy beards hung from their jaws all down their bodies, tangled hair tossing through the air while they danced and howled, blurring the air. They shook their fists above them as if to rip open and tear down the sky.

I'm getting the machine gun! said Mr. Smith, rushing inside. Call the cops!

A minute later Mr. Smith had his machine gun in hand, pointing it over the top of the fence. He pulled the trigger and sprayed wild bullets at the Longbeards. The Longbeards darted in twenty different directions. In less than fifteen seconds they had completely disappeared into the night.

///

Mr. Smith didn't sleep that night, but his family did. Mrs. Smith dreamed that a Longbeard arm was growing out of her mouth. At first the arm was limp and dead, but then it started moving. Little Gregory dreamed that there were thousands of lollipops in his veins. Suddenly a hundred gaping slobbery mouths appeared all around him, sucking at the air. Little Gregory rose up into the air and was pulled apart by the suction. Sparky dreamed that he was trying to run away on broken legs.

After the fire department put out the fire, after the cops came by the house and wrote down his report, Mr. Smith stayed up in the living room with the machine gun resting on the loveseat. His wife had wanted a house with lots of big windows. She loved sunlight. Mr. Smith drank coffee and sat in the living room till dawn. He watched. He listened. He waited. He worried.

///

In the deep dark woods, The Longbeards huddled in their cave. The Longbeards waited too. They lay awake, stretched longwise against the wet March soil, full of freshly sprouted spring buds not yet emerged but slowly clawing out. One by one by one the humans would all be turned to whispers, mere coils in the wind. Evaporated. Dissipated. Forgotten. Tear their poison roots from the ground and purify the dirt that life might rise anew. Better to blast the trumpet and drown the deafened world with silence than to let it mumble endlessly its parched and wicked sickbed hallucinations.

Furious breaths filled The Longbeards black twitching noses. Kill them all and eat the children.

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