Short

LIFE, AS OF NOW by Kamil Ahsan

The courtship practices of Shalimar Gardens spiked on Pakistan Day. His breath is raggedy. The trees brush the air with heart-shaped leaves, a reminder that the world is passing him by without noticing him sink—the cars that move too fast, the motorcycles that almost run him over, the people, oh all the people, so many people, everywhere everywhere everywhere…

It’s nightfall. He’s never been to the Shalimar Gardens. He never needed to. Fate grabbed him by the collar and shook him before he had a chance to know what he expected. All around him is noise, very ordinary noise. He thought he would feel exhilarated, pained but born anew, terrified. But he only feels the dirt kicked onto his knee by a motorcycle. A man and a woman and two children, one carried by the woman, stop by the side of the road. The din is sliced through by the man’s gravelly voice, as his hands pull on his wife’s dupatta. The older child says she wants to ride in front of him, and there’s a flash of repugnance across the man’s face—even he can see it, from a distance—and it lands as a blow across the child’s cheek. Before he can register his shock, the child disappears, a ballast between her father and mother. The motorcycle speeds into the crowd: the thing holding bodies together. A collective brain containing all these bodies that move like a wave, bursting through the bottleneck’s seams in the traffic. When many things squirm through small openings, it is the smallest of those things that gets bruised.

He feels his face peeling, crackling. A stray dog scampers to his right. He doesn’t really notice it. That is, the part of him that notices the dog is not conscious of the dog. Nor does he really notice that the dog is more careful with the traffic than himself. 

At the signal, a family in the car closest to him is squabbling. He goes closer without realizing. A little girl looks at him imperiously and rolls up her window. There must be a shadow, he feels, working independently of him. If a passerby—say, the little girl—took a picture of him, what would it show? A vacant vessel of bone and sinew? A roving shadow stealing away round the corner? If someone was interested by the photograph, would they fail to see beyond this general part of the city, or would they see him—a being that did not coincide with a self?

The cold facts are that in this moment, on this day, on the 23rd of March in Lahore, he has been stripped of all the currency into which he was born. He has no wallet, he has no belt, he has no shoes, he has no cell phone. His shirt pocket is ripped, partially baring his chest. His jeans are shredded at the buttocks, and he holds the fabric together, even as he approaches a restaurant where he thinks maybe he can ask to make a phone call. He stands at the foot of the steps and hesitates. Behind him, there’s a man stabbing through brambles on the sidewalk and onto the small lawn. Ahead of him, people sit inside a glass window on restaurant tables, happy; or at least, ordinary. If this army of the living lives because it has the dignity of the soul, he is dead—or at best, a suggestion of a self.

And the fear and the panic and the pleasure and the longing and the confusion, the absence of all knowledge of an encounter that has happened to him and to him alone, the apprehension, the chance, just the smallest, the smallest of chances that this man who follows him and hides in the darkness can get close enough and grab his arms, thus exposing his bare buttocks mottled with violence that had to have been accidental—"It had to be! It must have been!"—along with the guilt; but then, all of that could just be a consequence of him remaining stationary in a cacophony of lights here, somewhere on Mall Road, the night alive with the smell of foods, each competing with the other, and so he moves as if with this swirling tide up the steps and begins to cry, not for an innocence he’s suddenly lost, but because what if this is relief, or ecstasy, or growth? Despite whatever he failed to feel, and despite his utter lack of innocence, his anxious limbs, prehensile arms and legs pushed. And he ran. And that gave him the forward momentum to speak the minimum number of words for a waiter to lend him his cell phone—until he realized it wasn’t a good idea to call anyone, and then there he was. A trickle of blood pooled over a left thigh, a fulsome pain.

He dials a number. It rings three times. 

“Who is this?” Sara asks.

“Listen—I’m in trouble,” he says, and he begins to weep so loudly it orients the nature of the phone call so as to demarcate the ordinary from the extraordinary.

“Umair…What happened? No, fuck that, where are you? What’s going on?”

“I fucked up. I fucked up, I don’t know, I’m at Salt & Pepper, the one on Mall Road. I’m in trouble, I’ve—” He trails off. His eyes drop to the floor and float.

“Have you been running?” she says. She sounds bewildered and as if she’s trying to hide it. But that is not true. She is feigning surprise. It is not a complete surprise.

“Yes. No. Not running…no, maybe you don’t need to come,” he says before a crippling pain travels straight up his legs. He doubles over.

“Where’s your phone?” Sara asks.

“…lost it. Wallet too. Should I take a rickshaw and pay when I’m home? Tell me what to do. I can’t go home.”

He retches, once, twice, and on the third, a wet honk from the pit of a spectral wound empties his stomach.

“Okay, get it out, okay. Okay, stop. Listen. Say yes or no: I shouldn’t call Saad or Raza, right? I can call, um… oh, fuck, well, Zehra’s closer, I can call her. No, wait I’ll come myself. Yes or no? Should I come?”

His feet are bleeding. He barely notices. Two waiters look at him nervously. They whisper to each other. 

“Umair! Okay, I’m coming to get you. Umair, just stay where you are, okay?” she says. She’s yelling.

He tries to pull himself together. “No, it’s fine,” he says. But it was like squeezing a pair of trousers five sizes too small; he was maybe a little closer but still too far.

Her voice cut a single chord, flawlessly. Without dropping a note. “Umair, stay right where you fucking are! Come on, stay on the phone, keep talking.”

“I need to give the phone back,” he says.

“Oh. Fuck. Okay, give it back, sit tight.”

“Yes, please.” he says.

“Acha, leaving now,” she says.

“You have to come in,” he says.

“What, why?! OK, I’ll come in but stay put, not even to the bathroom.” Sara’s voice rises in irritation, and it makes him feel as if it is she who grasps the urgency of the situation, not him—and then there’s a relief to that, an impatience that is soothing. Maybe he has overreacted. Maybe there is nothing to any of this. Maybe he is a child as she is a child and they behave like children and things are melodramatic and urgent because they desperately want their lives to be melodramatic and urgent, for perhaps in their world there is a high premium on trauma, a bigger story, a sadder story, a taboo story, a few little white lies stitched into a story that sounds not better but much worse than it is, because fifteen sleeping pills make a teenage socialite more interesting than seven sleeping pills, because three jilted ex-girlfriends are better than one, because two bottles of Absolut in one evening will always be better than one. 

This is not one of those stories, even if it retains some of the same elemental capacity for exaggeration. This is the story that would not get told. 

He sidles into a booth, taps his feet on a damp tiled floor, a dub dub dub that takes some of the rhythm away from the pain. His eyes droop over the ketchup packets strewn across the table, along with small pieces of chicken, charred bits of food, empty soda bottles. Nobody in Lahore ever cleans up after themselves. Just how it is. Outside the door to Salt & Pepper, there is a soft patter of footsteps. The man sees Umair through it, into a mannequin across the pane of a storefront into it. Or so Umair believes. 

The ride to her house in the back of a silver Corolla is quiet. She looks at him and wonders if he’ll ever tell her the whole truth. He avoids looking at her. He thinks she must be thinking he was creating a drama. He is a boy. He could have gotten a rickshaw. 

But then she holds his hand, and it is for him an ultimate act of kindness that she looks away from him, though it is for her the natural order of things; an inexorability. The form of something she'd intuited would happen had happened. He dozes off. She wakes him when they get to her house. His breath catches from old cries he was trying to subdue. Like hiccups.

They go inside. He stands in the dark foyer next to a console and a giant round mirror. Sara orders the driver to go. She looks at him standing with his back to her, at the foot of the stairs, shorn of all the willful unrest and commotion that makes Umair himself. She closes the front door behind her. 

He’s safe. He’s let go of his torn jeans. The door latch clicks shut. He turns to face her. And although the story will only be told in splinters and things will run their course and nothing will be asked or prevented from happening again, in a knotty shudder of a moment, all of a sudden, Sara’s heart begins to break in ways she does not understand. It will be the barometer she will use for heartbreak for years to come.

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THE FLIGHT OF LIU XIAN by Matt Zbrog

He stared out at the world through paneled glass. At his fingertips lay a suite of controls. Switches. Buttons. Joysticks. HUD. Chrome. Glass. Metal. All that blinking light. But Liu Xian focused on the world beyond, gazing out from the cockpit at a domed sky. He breathed in pressurized oxygen through a ribbed and rubberized tube. A voice in his right ear counted down. A voice in his left gave final instructions. And, for the last time in his life, Liu Xian did what he was told. 

He fired up the twin jet engines. Cut tether with the launch deck. Blasted forward, soaring down and then up and off the aircraft carrier's ski jump ramp, into blue sky, rushing towards it. Behind his oxygen mask: a little grin. He powered down his comm-link. Veered off his designated flight path. Did a tiny barrel roll -- just because. Then punched on towards the horizon and its afternoon sun. 

He would bring the world closer to him. 

*

Not all that long ago, he'd taken an oath: 

I am a member of the People's Liberation Army. I promise that I will follow the leadership of the Communist Party of China, serve the people wholeheartedly, obey orders, strictly observe discipline, fear no sacrifice… blah, blah… and under no circumstances will I betray the Motherland or desert the army. 

Well, Liu Xian thought, so much for all of that. 

*

She'd married someone else. If there were any reason for this egregious and drastic course of action he'd taken, it was that. Not that Liu Xian had ever held any illusions of marrying Mai himself. No. From those first days at the civilian college, he'd known she was destined for greater things than a military-bound farm boy from Xinjiang. She'd been to Paris. Spoke French and English. Wrote poetry. Dearest Mai. Still. She'd treated Liu Xian as if he were an equal. Smiled at him, without shame. No one could deny she was brave. There was that picture she'd given him, in secret. They'd argued about what it'd meant, in whispers. If anyone had ever found out – well, they didn't. And who's to say it mattered anymore? Even though he hadn't seen her in years, even though he'd long ago burned that picture, its resonant image now flickered in his mind as he flipped on the afterburner: a man, in front of a tank, in Tiananmen. 

*

Cruising at 2,100 kilometers per hour, Liu Xian felt something akin to vertigo, a sensation he'd only read about before, but never felt. He attributed this new feeling to his lack of any immediate plan. It was new psychic territory for Liu Xian, the man of the memorized oath, the man of groupthink, the man of math and plotted trajectories. So much order and obedience and for what? Something pinned to his chest, near the heart? One day flying for the August 1st Aerobatic Display Team, a role in which his precise non-deviation could have been a source of entertainment for drunken crowds during Tet? 

It seemed strange to him now that he'd been fine with such a destiny for so long. But for so long he'd had Mai. Or rather the idea of Mai. The enduring symbol. The quiet hero. The source of a type of hope that one might feel for one's children. She'd existed in a pure and independent state. Untethered from a system Liu had felt powerless against, even as he'd helped perpetuate it. She'd wielded both the power and pedigree to bring about a new future. A change. Was that naïve to think? Even though it flew counter to his own life trajectory, he felt it'd been her duty to remain that contrarian beacon. She'd owed that to herself. To Liu Xian. To the vast and evolving country they called home. To the children of the coming century. But she'd broken that silent promise. She'd married someone else. And not just any someone else. A politician.

Fuck, Liu Xian said, in English, out loud, to no one but himself. 

He tilted the joystick and rocketed towards Taiwan. 

*

Most of the English Liu Xian knew, he knew from Mai, from unofficial study sessions in her private room at the civilian college. Hello. Please. I love you. Yes. Fuck. But when she'd tried to teach him the word democracy – she fell into a laughing fit. Perhaps it was the way he'd pronounced it, his northwest accent mangling the letter R. Perhaps it was the way he’d repeated and repeated the word, fruitlessly attempting to grasp its proper sound. Perhaps it was all these things, the absurd context of it all. But she laughed, and couldn't stop, turning her pale cheeks bright red. And it made Liu Xian feel embarrassed, poor, dumb, mad, and exactly like the farm boy from the Northwest that he was. So he stood up and shouted. Scolded her in Beijing-dialect Mandarin. Forget her precious Cantonese. Forget her Anglo affectations. He told her what that funny word of hers really meant. What it cost. What it wrought. He lectured her with textbook rhetoric. With a guffaw: democracy. He called her nasty names. He mocked her tears. And, still, she begged him to forgive her. He laughed at that, and it made him feel strong. Then he left. He hadn't seen her since.

Now, at nearly 10,000 meters up, Liu Xian wept. 

*

The blue sky hardly seemed to move, even at such speed. The horizon, never nearing. The sun, slowly setting. The enveloping roar of twin jagged-nozzle engines washed out the world. There didn't seem enough time to change anything. He was a traitor now. A refugee from an old way of living. Where else to go but into the arms of the perceived enemy, to a different vision of the same homeland?

Is this what Mai felt, he wondered—then pushed the thought away.

Perhaps he could prepare some sort of statement. Something to say upon arrival in his new land. Words that could one day be chiseled beneath a statue of, yes, him. The hero. The rogue. The brave Liu Xian. Perhaps the statement could even be made in English. He'd taught himself a little more in those lonely intervening years. Mostly short phrases he could use as playful barbs if ever he saw her again. There's only one China, my dear Mai, he could've said. Yes. The irony, the wit, the new Liu Xian, the master of pronunciation and complex linguistic sentiment. Would that line have impressed her, made her laugh, been apology enough?

But as he entered Taiwanese airspace, the only English that came to mind, for some reason, was a jingle he'd taught himself as a way to practice his pronunciation, a jingle he'd whispered to himself over and over, late into the hot nights of the barracks at flight school, never knowing for certain what all the words meant but repeating them all the same, under his breath: Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese, pickles onions, on a sesame seed bun. 

*

It took him by surprise when the Taiwanese opened fire. It shouldn't have, but it did. New psychic territory. And, as his strange and half-made plan disintegrated, his old training and reflex kicked back in to fill the vacuum. The fruits of past obedience manifested in action, and they did the thinking for him. Obedience, training, reflex, yes, but something else, something older – an ancient muscle stretching itself. 

He evaded his pursuers. Re-engaged his aircraft's stealth. Ran quick diagnostics. The damage was real. But he still had fuel left. A slight bleed, yes, but enough to get away. He lit up his HUD, only for a moment, to keep his radar signature minimal. He watched himself lay in a course for Kiribati, a sparsely inhabited archipelago several thousand kilometers to the east. He wasn't sure exactly why he'd picked it. He knew little about it. Better options, more practical options, existed. But instinct had decided. He went with it.

Perhaps the symbolism was all that mattered. The resonant image therein. If only for something for himself to hold onto. Kiribati. The last land mass this side of the International Date Line. He was headed for the future. 

*

There wasn't much left to do in that final leg of Liu Xian's trip. Nothing to do but watch the clouds fly past as he thought back on old decisions. He hadn't made a whole lot of decisions in his 25 years. 

Perhaps that's why his mind flew all the way back to Xinjiang Province, that 'New Frontier' where, when he was nine years old, he'd attended his first day of a new school. Dust on the classroom floor. The air smelling of animals and manure. The teacher read off roll call, and Liu Xian learned he was seated both in front of and behind students also named Liu Xian. In retrospect, it wasn't that unusual. There were a quarter million Liu Xians in the country. But he didn't know that then. Liu Xian, the teacher said. Liu Xian. Liu Xian.

Liu Xian pushed himself away from the desk. He stood up. And then he ran. 

Out of the classroom. Into the field, where the wheat stalks rose high above his head. He couldn't, then, have told you why he ran – and maybe couldn't still – but he ran, and he ran. It was a command from somewhere on high in a time when he wasn't allowed to believe in anything on high. It was a command he obeyed at full speed, with heaving breath. And when he reached the far side of the field, he hopped atop the saddled horse that stood there. He untied its reins from that crooked fence. He couldn't have told you the breed of the horse, but he definitely knew how to ride. It was easy. You trust the horse. Trust the huffing and hot-blooded mass of muscle and limbs that sit below you. Direct the speed and vector from above. Meld will with power. Harness the language and kinetics of instinct.

So off he went. With a click of his heels. He hadn't known where he was going. 

And here he was, running—flying—still.

*

Nothing lies near Kiribati. It's surrounded by a vast expanse of deep blue. Somewhere out there over the Pacific, after the sun had set, a warning light blinked on in Liu Xian's aircraft. He'd run out of fuel. He couldn't turn back. He kept going until the engines made their last sputtering breaths. Then he took his hands off the controls, and, in his final, roaring, flaming, smoking, screeching descent, he ripped off his oxygen mask and screamed and into the cockpit's black box: There is only one Liu Xian!

He hit eject. 

Liu Xian floated in space. Through a sky full of stars. The air – cold and clean. A dream-like fall. He splashed down into the twinkling sea. Training kicked in and cut his parachute lines for him. But it was a youthful instinct that made him start swimming. 

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WHAT IT HAD IN ITS MOUTH by Arielle Burgdorf

What can make viewing it so memorable is the fact that as each day passes, the rock changes colour depending on the light and atmospheric conditions, and never remains the exact same permanent hue.

 

Red, the only color that stays with you. A massive red rock, rising out of a grassy field. Sun warming the stone, casting shadows in the crevices. The golden, reddish-brown fur of a wild dog peeking out from behind a bush. And the final red, rusty, dark splattered all over the white jumper. A baby, missing from the jumper. The same question, on yours and everyone else’s lips: where is the baby? Remember the days when you used to cover your eyes with your hands and whisper to her: Where’s baby? Then you’d remove your hands: There she is. A stupid game. But Azaria loved it, and you would do it for ages before she tired of seeing your face reappear between your fingers. 

And now they ask again: Where’s baby? The question is always the same. The problem, is that everyone has a different answer. 

This is not a story about dingoes, no matter what anyone tells you. It is not even a story about Australia, or media circuses. It’s a story about mothers, and how we punish them. 

*

For years, you prayed for a girl. You loved your boys, but you wanted another kind of love. And finally, she came into the world. You named her Azaria, meaning “helped by God.” You smiled and sang to her. Three children and a loving husband. You were, you thought, blessed. 

You know the exact moment and place everything changed. August, 1980. Ayer’s Rock. The Anangu people call it Uluru, which doesn’t mean anything in particular. For them, it is a sacred site. The rock is not passive, but a living, breathing entity. 

A family camping trip. Laughter. Like any old day, and then a night like no other. After that night, you would never sleep fully again. 

BABY GIRL ‘STOLEN BY DINGO’ 

You remember fragments. You were walking with your son back to the tent. And then: red fur. A lean body, running off into impossible dark. In court, they will ask you: Did you see the dingo drag the baby out in its mouth? Did you see it’s jaws clasped around the head and neck? You don’t know. Where’s baby? You don’t know that, either. 

What you do know, is that you have seen how dingos eat meat. How they ruthlessly strip back the skin as they go. You know, without a doubt, that it was possible for a ravenous wild animal to take warm flesh out of its protective shell, just the way a human would peel an orange. You know this, and so it’s what you tell the press, when they ask how it could have happened. This is your greatest mistake. 

Cold. Calculating. Hard-faced bitch. 

Nothing in your demeanor suggests maternal. What you want them to understand, is that this is maternal. The outback is harsh, filled with poisonous, deadly animals found nowhere else on earth. Every day is a struggle to survive. A mother has to be extremely tough, willing to kill. This is what the dingo knew. That a morsel of red muscle, bone, and fat would sustain her and her young. Salt in her mouth. A minute’s relief, from a hunger that never subsides. 

No one wants to see your stoic acceptance of nature. They want to see you cry. Tears, confirming your humanity. But you cannot help them. You have just lost your baby daughter. You have no more tears. 

MOTHER SUSPECTED OF MURDER 

You will not believe the atrocities they decide you are capable of. They accuse you of slitting her throat with nail scissors, decapitating her, stuffing her body into a camera bag, performing infant sacrifice for a religious cult. Too much blood, that’s the problem. When a dingo breaks a baby’s neck, it wouldn’t have produced that much blood. And we found no dingo saliva on the jumper, they tell you. The saliva must be on the matinee jacket, you tell them. She was wearing a white matinee jacket, with pale lemon edging. Really? That’s the first we’re hearing of this jacket. 

*

The men on the jury take some convincing, but the women? The women vote you guilty immediately. The nation agrees: by 1984, 76% of Australians think you killed her. This is the price of telling a story too strange, too unique to be true. 

Up until now, a dingo has never killed a human. But there were signs. A three year old girl dragged out of a car by a dingo, a few weeks before Azaria went missing. The dingoes were getting hungrier, and bolder. There will be many more children killed, or nearly killed by dingoes in the years to come. You will try and warn them, but they are not ready to hear what you have to say. 

The jury chooses to believe the expertise of a dingo expert from London. 

Exactly how many dingoes are there in London? you laugh bitterly. No one appreciates your anger. The women glare at you from the jury bench with a stare meaning,  She has no right to call herself a mother.

 Somewhere, there’s a dingo with a mouthful of blood, grinning. 

*

No one ever gives a satisfactory explanation of why you want to kill your baby daughter so much. There doesn’t have to be a reason. A baby is gone, and you are the baby’s mother. That is enough. If you didn’t kill her outright, you killed her through negligence. From every angle, her death remains your fault. This is how we crucify mothers. 

*

There is one group that believes your story. The Anagu people who know and respect the desert, who are aware of what the dingo is capable of. They are the people to whom this place rightfully belongs. The Anagu tracker was the one who found the jumper, who followed the footprints to the dingo lair. But he is not allowed to testify.  We can’t get the right interpreters is the official police line. Besides, they’re all drunks. 

In the movie version of your life, the police show up to shoot the Anagu’s dogs until Meryl Streep calmly assures them that none of the dogs look anything like a dingo. There is too much said in the silence. You can feel the tension tighten like a noose in those few minutes of celluloid, the entire weight of history playing out in the faces of everyone on screen.

*

You are sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. It feels like you are punished for being punished. Your husband is also declared guilty of murder, but allowed to remain free in order to raise your two boys. This makes very little sense to you. They are saying: he helped you murder, decapitate, and hide the corpse of your infant daughter, but he is fit to raise these children. The father’s crimes are forgivable. But a mother is beyond redemption. A mother should weep more, a mother should’ve protected her child. 

And on this, you agree with the press. 

A mother should’ve protected her child. But you do not need their help being punished for that. 

*

There is something you have kept from them. Another baby girl, growing inside you. She will never be Azaria, but she will be enough to save you from madness. You would kill for this one, like all the others. 

Another red: an opening. Kahlia. When she is born, in jail, they will allow you one hour with her. One hour to hold her, to touch her skin, to apologize to her for this brutal world that you’ve brought her into. Then she’s gone, and you are alone once more, in the wilderness. 

When she is gone, you will cry, but no one will see it. 

*

Because you have no other choice, you continue serving a sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether you did anything or not. You’ve lost all sense of true and real. There never was a baby you want to tell the jury. The dingo didn’t have anything in its mouth. There never was a dingo. Just me, out there in the desert. 

*

One day, a jogger at Ayer’s Rock will come upon a white matinee jacket with pale lemon edging, lying not far from a dingo lair. 

*

Where’s baby? Six years later, you don’t have answers. Sometimes, there aren’t any answers. 

Regardless, the matinee jacket buys your freedom. You are told to be grateful. You are “free” from prison, you name is “cleared.” 

But you know these are not accurate terms. You are never free, nothing has become clear. For the rest of your life, you will carry this inside your chest. You don’t know it yet, but your marriage is already over. Strangers, to this day, are convinced of your guilt. Girls call the tabloids, claiming to be your long-lost daughter. I’m Azaria they say. Pulling back their ponytails, trying to show you the twin scars on the sides of their heads. For years, the cause of death on Azaria’s birth certificate will read “unknown,” suspicion lurking. Your life boils down to a national punchline, a quip, a graphic to sell T-shirts. You will go down in history as the woman who cried dingo. 

You are alive, but you have not survived this ordeal. You feel the jaws clamped like a vice around your skull, canines sinking in. You stare down the deep red throat into nothingness. 

Then the light shifts, and you realize you are alone again. A solitary figure in the desert with a giant rock, and a baby with no body. 

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THE COAT by Sheldon Birnie

“Hell yes,” Dave answered when his cousin Lisa asked if he’d like to see something weird.

Dave followed Lisa off the deck and back to where the cars were parked as the sun was sinking in the west, cutting through the trees in brilliant bars of gold. Down by the lake, children shrieked and splashed in the late afternoon heat. He was sick of answering his family’s questions about his dumb job and why his girlfriend, Sandy, hadn’t made the trip out because they’d “sure like to meet her.” Something weird, whatever it was, was certainly a welcome change. 

 “Dave,” Lisa’s husband Rick said, glancing back as he rummaged through boxes of clothing in the back of their Golf with one hand. “Wait till you get a load of this...”

Rick and Lisa ran a vintage clothing store, and Rick had just finished a buying trip to the small town thrift shops in the area. Dave kept up with their latest finds on Instagram. While he could appreciate their taste, he didn’t quite understand how the market for such kitsch actually functioned profitably. But he certainly envied their ability to make a go of it. 

 “Here we go,” Rick put aside his beer and pulled out an old suitcase from beneath the mound of clothes. Carefully, he laid it down on the bed of dried pine needles that covered the rocky ground. Lisa and Dave leaned in to see as Rick popped open the brass clasps. A mosquito buzzed in Dave’s ear. 

Rick checked over his shoulder to see that nobody had drifted over from the deck. Out on the lake, a big engine whined. Then he opened the suitcase and delicately reached inside, pulling out a black fur coat.

“Feel it,” Rick said in a hushed voice, holding the coat out before him as though it were an offering. 

“What is it?” Dave asked, running the long, twisted strands of jet black hair between his fingers. It was soft, almost delicate, yet also thick and grainy. The lining was torn, the pelt cracked at the left shoulder.  The thing had to be a hundred years old. “Bear? Fuckin otter or something?”

“No,” Rick answered with a conspiratorial grin, brown eyes glinting. “Gorilla.”

The hairs on the sleeves danced in rays of sinking sunshine. Repellent as he felt a coat made from the skin of man’s closest evolutionary relation should have been, he was curiously, undeniably drawn to it. What would it be like, he wondered, to pull a gorilla’s skin over his own? 

“Can I try it on?” Dave said.

*

Later that night, Dave slept fitfully while his younger cousin Frank snored like a log on the bunk beneath him. In the morning, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d been dreaming, dreaming of gorillas in the damp city streets, their deep bellows and shrill cries echoing off the drab grey buildings. Dreaming he was one of them, proud, noble, and strong.

After returning home following the long weekend festivities, the dreams seemed to follow him. Dave also found himself thinking about the coat more and more as the days of summer flew by. Sitting in his car, in his office, chewing a sandwich at lunch, he thought of the weight of the coat on his shoulders, the way the hair glistened in the setting sunlight. How it felt between his fingers, so unexpectedly soft. 

When he and Sandy first saw each other after the long weekend, they spent the night fucking with vigor that left the both of them breathless and sweating, raw and exhausted.

“What’s gotten into you?” Sandy asked, red faced after their second round. Lately, if they did it at all they did it sporadically and in a desultory, mostly missionary manner. “You’re like a goddamn animal!”

“Dunno,” Dave panted, surprised himself at his own sustained virility. “Must have just really missed you, I guess?”

Yet as he lay next to Sandy, raw, spent and slipping towards sleep after their third round, Dave suspected the uncharacteristic verve he displayed had something to do with the dreams he’d been having where he was a silverback gorilla roaring into the darkness. 

That it had something to do with the coat.

*

 “Yo, careful with those clasps there, Davey,” Rick said.

Startled, Dave realized he had begun to finger the delicate, finely crafted clasps that ran down the front of the coat, from the neckline to the waist, slowly doing them up one by one. The coat fit surprisingly well, though a little tight across the shoulders, the arms perhaps an inch too short. Otherwise, it was perfect. Dave felt as though he could wear the coat forever, summer heat be damned.

“What’s something like this set you back?” he asked Rick.

“Hard to say,” Rick shrugged. “Got a super sweet deal. Estate sale outside of Detroit Lakes. Lady had no idea what it was. Goddamn, eh? Thing’s, like, basically fuckin priceless, right?”

Rick maintained that while it technically wasn’t illegal to buy the pelt of an endangered animal, had the lady who’d sold it to him known what it really was, she could have found herself in some hot water. 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, man,” he’d said. “Fucked eh?”

Dave just nodded, lost in a misty day dream.

*

At work, Dave became increasingly distracted. When he was in front of the computer, he found himself drifting into Google searches, keywords: “gorilla + coats.” He’d wade through fashion op-eds decrying some celeb or another for sporting one to some event or other, animal rights sites calling for the heads of anyone who’d even think to buy or sell one, blogs extolling the virtues of faux fur over the real deal, whatever, so long as there were photos of the coats in question embedded in the post. 

Hours disappeared. He shuffled between work and home in a haze, thinking, coveting the coat. Evenings in his empty apartment it was more of the same. Dave stared at the blue screen as light faded from the summer sky outside, imagining how it would be to live within the gorilla’s skin, to live as a silverback among the misty mountains.

As August long weekend approached, Dave casually mentioned to Sandy that it might be fun to take a little day trip to the zoo. 

“Why?” Sandy scoffed. 

“Why not?” Dave suggested, feigning nonchalance. Of course, he hadn’t told her about the coat. He couldn’t exactly place or explain the fascination the coat held to himself, let alone to Sandy. Instead, he kept his budding obsession private. He wasn’t sure she’d understand. Then again, she hadn’t really seemed to notice, anyway. During the week, she was either working, at her parents, or out with her friends. The few hours they did spend together over the weekend mostly involved eating, sleeping, bickering and the occasional fuck. “When’s the last time you went to the zoo?”

Sandy had rolled her eyes, yet when Saturday morning came around they drove to the zoo. The day was a hot one, the air at the zoo humid and pungent. Dave and Sandy saw bears, wildcats, muskox, all manner of exotic rodents, and a tiger lolling in the shade. There were monkeys -- zany macaques and bored chimps -- but no gorillas. 

On the way home, after a lunch of chip truck burgers and fries, Sandy coyly suggested they pull over into a nearby park so they could make it, hot and heavy, in the backseat. 

“How about a bit of that jungle love?” she said.

But Dave just shook his head and kept driving.

“Not really in the mood,” he sulked.

*

Later that night, as Sandy lay sleeping while the oscillating fan moved the muggy air in the apartment around, Dave lay wide awake. Sure, they’d gotten it on, but the spark that had been there that first night back from the lake and those first few nights that had followed had already faded away. 

Hours later, when Dave finally fell into a fitful, sweaty sleep, he dreamed yet again of great apes and mountains shrouded in mist, of big guns blazing and the belching of a steam-engine chugging full throttle up a dark river. 

*

When Sandy left the next morning, back to her parents’ house, Dave shuffled into the shower, hoping a cool blast off would clear his muddy mind. Instead, he wondered if gorillas ever luxuriated in the midst of a tropical downpour. Did they enjoy the respite from the sweltering jungle heat? Or was it just another meaningless change in the weather they had no choice but to endure? Dave rubbed shampoo into his hair, thought about the soft, thick gorilla hair that had hung from his arms, the odd golden lock that caught the fading sunlight off the lake. 

He wondered if Rick still had the coat. 

Why, it occurred to Dave, don’t I just ask him?

A moment later, he sprang from the shower, leaving the cold water running. He grabbed his phone, scrolled madly through his contacts until he found Rick’s number. His wet thumb hovered over the screen. 

What would Rick and Lisa think of him, Dave worried fleetingly, obsessing over some dusty old coat? 

What did he care, though? Really. He only ever saw them once or twice a year, anyway. 

If he had the coat, what did he care what Rick or Lisa, or Sandy, or Simon or anybody, really thought of him? At the end of the day, he would be the king of the jungle, or as close to it as you could expect to become in muggy old Ottawa after 5 p.m. What does the noblest of beasts care for the opinions of others?

Not a goddamn bit. 

 Fuck it. Dave pressed the green call button.

“Dave?” Rick voice crackled after a couple rings. “What’s up my man?”

“That coat,” Dave said, stumbling over his words in haste. Shampoo ran down his face, burning his eyes. “The gorilla? I know you said you can’t, like, sell it or whatever. But I was hoping, maybe, we could, like, come to an arrangement or something?”

“Oh man,” Rick laughed. “That old thing? Sorry bud. No can do.”

“Why not?” Dave stammered. “I got some money. I’ll pay whatever.”

“No, no,” Rick continued. “It’s not that. I don’t have it anymore.”

“What?” Despite the swampy heat of his apartment, a chill ran up Dave’s back. “But you said, you know, you couldn’t sell it, or whatever. Right?”

“Didn’t sell it. Made a trade with a buddy of mine out west. He collects weird shit. Freaky stuff. Had him in mind when I first picked it up. Sorry man.”

Dave stood staring in his bathroom mirror. A pathetic, pale and mostly hairless monkey stared back at him. His bottom lip quivered. 

“Dave?” Rick’s tinny voice chimed from the forgotten phone in his hand. “You still there, buddy? Dave?”

Tears ran down Dave’s cheeks, softly at first, then following fits of wracking sobs. The tear had nothing to do with the shampoo in his eyes. Nothing whatsoever.

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LUCY by Paul Nevin

Lucy saw me first, so I didn’t have a chance to avoid her this time. 

We were standing on opposite sides of the narrow road that ran along the beach, her by the sea and me in front of the shops. She had one hand at her hip, thumb up and forefinger pointed at me. 'Hey Craig!' she shouted, and when I looked over she pretended to shoot me with her finger and blow imaginary smoke from its tip.

I clutched at my chest, which was the accepted response to this little in-joke of ours, while Lucy laughed and mimed holstering her hand-gun. With her other hand she pulled her sunglasses off big bee-eye frames that covered half her face and she waved at me with them.

Lucy stepped off the curb and dashed over to me through a break in the traffic. She jumped up and hugged me, kissing my cheek and swinging from my neck, perfume and sunscreen rubbing into my tee-shirt, her too-big beach bag crushed between us. She was twenty six, five years older than me, but in her excitement she seemed almost childlike.

She let go and stepped back. There was a navy blue lock in her hair. That was new. Even with hair as dark as hers it stood out, and I wondered how you got away with that working in a bank. 

'They let you out of head office?' I said. 

She smiled and nodded. 'They let me come back here at night and weekends. It's been ages, Craig,' she said. 'I miss you.' There was a pause, just a beat, and then she said 'I mean, I miss all of you guys.'

'Yeah, me too,' I said, and then played the same game back at her: 'Everyone misses you too.' I hadn't seen her since Christmas, when she'd left our local branch of the bank to work in London. We said we'd keep in touch, but I'd put a wedge of distance between us as soon as she left.

I nodded towards the Starbucks on the corner. 'Have you got time for a coffee?' I asked, thinking that she would say no, that she was on her way to the beach, and we would say how nice it was to bump into each other and leave it at that. I could carry on with avoiding her, and forgetting about her. But instead Lucy blinked in the sun, dark blue eye shadow over light blue eyes, and nodded to The Ship on the other corner. 

‘Or a proper drink?' she said.

***

We bought drinks and sat on high stools in the window, looking out to sea around a barrel that had been converted into a table, and I realised that the last time we were here alone was the night she had kissed me. 

That was payday drinks, a year ago. One minute it was eight o'clock. What felt like half an hour later it was closing time, my head was spinning, and only Lucy and I were left in the pub. There's a gap in my memory. I can't recall leaving, but I remember the two of us standing at the bus stop just outside. Lucy leaned in to me and said 'see you tomorrow, Craig,' when her bus turned the corner onto the seafront. But then she pressed her lips onto mine, one hand cupping the back of my neck, one grabbing the front of my sweater, guiding me toward her, keeping me in place, both of us drunk and unsteady. I kissed her back, my fingers curling around the toggle buttons of her coat, but she pulled away. 

She smiled and stepped onto the bus. She didn't look back,  just walked to the back and sat down on the far side. She wiped condensation from the window with her sleeve and stared out at the sea as the bus pulled away, but it was so late and so dark that she must have seen only her reflection staring back at her. 

I stood at the bus stop with my mouth still open, swaying and shocked at a little kiss, as if it had changed my whole world.

The next day I suggested a drink after work. Lucy said no, and joked that after last night she was never drinking again. There was no awkwardness, but also no mention of what had happened between us, and I wondered if she even remembered it.

***

I shook the memory away.

'and the people are really nice,' Lucy said. She was talking about her promotion, something to do with managing the accounts of the bank's wealthiest customers. 'It's so corporate though,' she said. 'Not like here.'

I looked at her hair again, and that blue band of dye running through it like the shine on an old vinyl record. 

‘And how are things with you?’ she said.

'My contract comes to an end in August,' I said, and I realised as soon as I said it that this was like a rumble of thunder, rolling in to rain on the good mood we were both in.

There was a pause, and then Lucy said: ‘Well, once you finish up you can do anything you want.’ She had suggested a proper drink, but while I’d ordered a pint, Lucy was drinking lime and soda through a straw, the bee-eye sunglasses lying upside down on a beermat on the barrel-table between us. She had slipped her sandals off, and was tapping her naked feet on the sides of the barrel.

'Yeah, I suppose I could travel,' I said.

Lucy put her drink down. 'You could,’ she said. 'There'll still be some summer left here, but you could go on a big trip like you always wanted to. Chase the sun!' She grabbed her glass again and smiled as she put the straw between her teeth.

'Chase the sun,' I repeated. I liked that. I liked the way that Lucy put things. And she was right. I could see out the contract and then have an adventure chasing the sun wherever I wanted. But was that true? My job didn't pay well, and I'd have to get another one quickly.

Lucy shook her head, as if she could read my mind. 'You don't have to go on a round-the-world cruise,' she said. 'But you can afford to go away somewhere, and it'll do you the world of good!' She nodded on the last word, as if that settled the matter.

I'd forgotten about this, her infectious enthusiasm, and the way she could turn the bad things in life on their head, as if they couldn't touch her. It made her seem carefree, years younger than me instead of years older. 

'You could come with me!' I said, and I cringed as soon as I said it, my toes curling into fists in my shoes. This felt very much like we were headed back into the territory of Making A Pass.

Lucy shook her head, still holding the straw between her lips. She gulped and put the glass down. 'I'll be away myself then,' she said.

'Where to?' I tried to appear casually curious, but my voice sounded high-pitched and needy.

Lucy stared out of the window, to the sea beyond. I didn't follow her gaze, but looked at her instead. She seemed serious now, the high spirits evaporated. 'Just away for a week or two,' she said. She added nothing else, no mention of where she was going, or who with. 

I’d forgotten about this, toothe way she could seesaw between being over-friendly and aloof, when the focus shifted to her, when there was the chance that I might get a foot in the door of her life.

'Oh, how lovely,' was all I said back. It was as bland and lifeless as what she'd said to me, and it sounded almost sarcastic, as if I was making light of having just stepped in dogshit.

A song came on through the speaker above usEvery Little Thing She Does Is Magic by The Police. 'I love this song,’ Lucy said. She sounded relieved, saved by the music and back on safe ground, talking about things that didn't really matter and wouldn't make either of us uncomfortable.

We'd heard this song before, Lucy and me, on the radio in her car, when she gave me a lift home from work one random rainy night, a few weeks after that kiss outside the pub.

Lucy had bounced along to the music in the driving seat as her Corsa inched through heavy traffic. While she stared at the road, I stared at her, watching her singing, rain drumming on the roof like a rapid heartbeat, almost drowning her and the radio out.

'Do you want to go for a drink?' I said.

She glanced over. ‘I’m driving,’ she said.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Not now. Another time.’

‘After work?’

‘Yes.’

Lucy frowned, as if mulling it over. ‘It’s payday drinks next week,’ she said.

‘No, not payday drinks,’ I said, worried that I hadn’t been clear, that I hadn’t been unequivocal. ‘Just you and me, on a date.’

We stopped at traffic lights, and Lucy turned the radio down and faced me. She smiled, but it wasn't the kind of smile you want in response to being asked out on a date. It had pity in it. Embarrassment too. The smile you give your dog when the vet is about to put him to sleep; a smile that says sorry, this is going to be awful, but we're going to get through this. We're going to be okay.

‘Craig, we work together,’ she said.

‘I’ll resign,’ I said. I meant it as a joke, but it didn’t sound funnyit sounded desperate.

Lucy said nothing, just smiled that benign and pitying smile.

‘But you kissed me,’ I added. Now I sounded petulant, and entitled.

The traffic lights changed from red to green, and Lucy turned back to the road. She wasn’t smiling anymore. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘But it was just a drunken kiss Craig. Just something that happened in the moment.’ She glanced over, nibbling her lip, worried how I might react to being rejected. ‘It doesn’t have to mean anything more than that, you know?’

I smiled and nodded. ‘I know,’ I said, shifting to damage control mode, ready to downplay what I’d said and walk it all back. ‘It’s really fine. It was just an idea.’

Lucy smiled back, relieved. ‘Let’s just get you home,’ she said. ‘And maybe we can have that drink another time.' 

It sounded like a gentle let down, and maybe it was, or maybe the timing was just off. I never got to find out, because a month later she was promoted to head office, a sudden departure, and I found myself promising to keep in touch at farewell drinks in The Ship, the conversation in the car never mentioned again.

***

Lucy finished her drink, mining the last of the lime and soda from the bottom of the glass with her straw.  She put the bee-eye frames back on. ‘The beach awaits!’ she said.

We walked out into the sunshine, past the bus stop where we had kissed.

‘It was good to see you Craig,’ she said. She leaned in, hugging me goodbye, hands around my neck again, perfume and sunscreen on my tee-shirt. Then she kissed me, aiming for the cheek, but catching the side of my mouth. ‘Next time you see me,’ she said, ‘stop and say hello.’

I watched her walk towards the beach, wondering if she might turn around, but she didn’t look back. As she reached the steps leading to the sand she lifted one arm and flapped it behind her. It could have been a wave, but she didn’t turn her head, and I thought afterwards that maybe she had just been swatting a fly.

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CRACKED by Nick Farriella

Someone who was once very famous, but not so much anymore, said, “Every whole person has ambitions, initiatives, goals,” about a boy who was very particular and wanted to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. This is not about said boy, but a different boy, a peculiar boy who had never read that story and whose goal was to crack every joint, every ligament, every air pocket and poppable piece of cartilage in his body. The boy was seven.

The origins of this habit, to which he simply called “Cracking” were unknown to him, but if given some thought he might be able to discern two instances in his young life that would have acted as trigger events—as in unrelated, seemingly random phenomenon that took place in distinct separate moments of time, the way a few talks behind closed doors in one nation and one act of violence in another, coordinate with bubbling protests in a third-world country, inevitably leading to a world war. That’s what this was for the boy, a war with his body, a war with tightness and pressure. The two aforementioned random and insignificant events that led to this curiosity, if brought to the front of his memory and studied, would be as such:

1. Driving on I-80 heading south in his mother’s minivan, probably somewhere in Virginia—the strip of VA that feels endless—looking out at the passing nothingness and earnest poppy billboards of advertisements remnant of the ’70s from the back seat, the then three or four-year-old boy, out of boredom mostly, had an urge (probably subconscious) to squeeze his index finger down into his palm until the metacarpophalangeal joint, commonly known as the base knuckle, suddenly popped.

2. Since the knuckle popping car incident, the boy began bending, squeezing, twisting, clenching, extending, contorting and pretzeling each of his fingers until he achieved loud pops and high cracks along each of his metacarpophalangeal, proximal interphalangeal, and distal interphalangeal joints, which led to frustration, swollen fingers, and––inevitably––boredom. That was until almost a year later when the boy was four or five and had started playing recreational tee-ball down at Dawson Park every Tuesday and Thursday. At his first practice on an especially wet April evening, he joined the team of boys and girls for stretches. The first of which was a Lumbar Rotation Stretch––lying supine, arms spread, right leg over the left making the shape of a capital P. At first, he felt stupid being crossed and soaked on the grass of the outfield, but after a gentle (probably subconscious) lean into the pose, his spine rattled like a string of firecrackers, consequentially blowing his young mind. Later, he would do research on the internet to discover he had cracked from the L3 or L2 vertebrae of his lumbar spine (lower) all the way up to the T6 or T5 vertebrae range of his thoracic spine (middle), becoming open to the idea that each of his vertebrae were labeled with numbers and letters, wondering if the rest of his joints were labeled, because if so, he could treat his body like a game of Connect-the-Dots, just with cracks instead of ink.

By the age of seven, the boy was Cracking pretty much all day aside from periods of non-cracking to let his joints fill with air, which he liked to imagine as bubbles filling each crevice of bone and tissue. The cracking, which started as a curiosity, had now—after the concept of pain, like human suffering level of psychic pain, which he begun to feel after his parent’s divorce—had now become an obsession. From the time he woke up, he had a routine of Cracking that he would cycle through. First, he started with the back. Supine, he would lift one leg over the other with his arms out and jerk back, twisting upward; this would cause a cracking sensation similar to the baseball stretching incident, a lineage of cracks, but sometimes only a deep thud or worse, no cracks, and he would feel a sense of tightness swelling in his back, which would mean that was a bad day. Next came each finger in six different ways, followed by each toe in three different ways; he found that his toes were harder to crack, because instead of having three joints like the fingers, the toes only had one—the interphalangeal joint. Lastly came the neck. Sitting up in bed, he didn’t crane his neck slowly, as some videos on Youtube had suggested. Instead, he whipped his ear towards his shoulder, getting a consistent slash of cracks on each side. When once witnessed by his mother at breakfast, she had said, “That looks like you’re going to snap your own damn neck.”

Which he did by the winter of that year.

The boy was now ten and after three crack-less years due to snapping his C2, C3, and C4 cervical vertebrae in his neck, he felt tight like all hell and ready and motivated to release every sac and joint that had filled with air and fluid since his accidental injury. Apart from the sullen days of recovery and times in which he could almost feel a part of himself dying inside from seeing his lonely mother float around the house like a ghost, the boy still remained hopeful that one day he could get to a point where he no longer felt the immense pressure build-up, the tightening and squeezing pain he routinely felt not just in his joints, but also in his mind and his heart, that one day, maybe if lucky, he would be able to finally crack and relieve that pressure from deep within and he could, if lucky, go back to how he felt when he first starting cracking, before the divorce, just a loose and curious boy with nothing but a field of happiness in which he could grow.

So, to get better at Cracking he began watching more YouTube videos titled, “Epic Cracks” for inspiration and within three months of having his neck cast off, he was back to cracking every vertebra and joint in his back, neck, fingers, and toes.

His mother, bless her big southern heart, started to get worried about the boy again when he would grow agitated at not being able to crack certain parts of himself. He would tantrum—crying, swinging fists, throwing his clothes off at a jammed knuckle that wouldn’t budge. She considered taking to him to see the town therapist to have her run some tests, as she saw all this cracking as a possible manifestation of some internal strife—what her mother, the boy’s grandmother, would call, “The Devil’s Innards.” But she was not her mother; she was more of her father that didn’t believe in the devil or the psychiatric arts, for that matter. Not to mention that she probably felt a little guilty for the so claimed internal strife for the epic meltdown that was her marriage. So, she let the boy fuss and pop and crack, figuring it was just a weird phase, like all young boys go through to navigate their world.

The Cracking seemed to mean more to the boy than just a routine or phase because over time he had learned how to contort himself in all strange ways to crack more and more advanced spots in his frail, thin body, as if the cracking itself, meaning the act of cracking and the short time in which he was relieved of tension, became his sole purpose for living, like he was living for the few minutes of relief at a time. He would snap his wrists back like he was revving a motorcycle for a good crack; twist his arms to crack his elbow and shoulder joints; spread his legs out in a horse stance and thrust his hip to each side until both flexors popped; spin his ankles like pinwheels; press his hands along his shins, forearms, ribcage, collar bones, and femurs looking for cracks; collapse his knees, tucking both legs underneath him, bounce until each gave the sound of victory. Craaaaaack. 

One night, after the boy had used his desk chair to dig into his lumbar spine for a few good cracks, the boy felt a strange new pressure in the center of his chest. It had felt like gas had seeped in and was causing him to feel bloated and tight. He felt that he needed to crack there. Unsure of how he could get it done, he first pressed his chest up against the side of his bed frame. Instead of a crack, the wooden post just dug into his sternum and made the pain worse. He then went over to his medicine ball and laid on his back and stretched while gently rolling back and forth, but the pressure just would not budge. Next, he thought he could press down each vertebra in his sternum using his thumb, the way he had discovered places to crack on the top of his foot. But, with each press, he felt more and more pain, until finally, in agitated surrender, the boy stretched his arms far-out and reached each behind his back with a jolt, until the tips of his fingers nearly touched in a Sistine-like way. Alas, a massive crack shuddered through his chest and released a wave of tingles through his ribs, up across his shoulder blades, and down his arms to his fingertips. He fell back onto the floor, frozen like a mannequin that had been pushed over. A wave of cold sensitivity rushed through him and soon he felt nothing, just stillness, free of pressure and tightness. He had done it; he had cracked his way into eternal bliss, never having to feel anything ever again.

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MURMURATION by Daniel Fraser

Chip Disco hated chips, and disco. He only ever danced alone. Chip worked the skeletons in the Blackpool Ghost House and had done for three years. Four rooms in, the skeletons crept out from a false cupboard that looked like it wasn't part of the house at all. Everyone said it was the best bit.  

The timing was everything; the timing was Chip's special skill. Just when the customers thought they were safe, after fleeing from the slime pit and the array of plastic bats, Chip would catch them unawares. A camera hidden in a pumpkin took a picture of their faces distorted with fear. There were three photo points in the Ghost House but Chip's sold the best. He always knew the perfect time. 

The Ghost House was part of Adventureland, a complex of amusements and arcades knocked-up in the shadow of the tower for those who couldn't afford the Pleasure Beach. The owners were too cheap to buy a sensor, but Chip's boss Graham still threatened every now and then to replace him with a little red light.

'More reliable too,' Graham would tell him, and then laugh like any of this was new.

They weren't allowed to call them customers, in the park they were always referred to as adventurers, 'to make it seem more real,' Graham said, 'a fully immersive experience'. Chip and Sally, who dressed as a clown and came down the last corridor with a kitchen knife, smirked at one another.

'An immersive experience,' said Sally afterwards, with a face that said sarcasm but also said help.

'Like sticking your head in a toilet is an immersive experience,' said Chip, grinning.

Chip and Sally were friends. They watched DVDs in bed together and sometimes had sex.  Sally liked to watch a whole series in one night and Chip slept badly so they got on just fine. They had another friend named Benny who worked as a dolphin in Splash Town, the place for the under fives. Benny worked part time and employed two boys, both inexplicably called Jason, to sell drugs in nightclubs on Friday and Saturday nights. Benny never paid entry in to anywhere and said he did the dolphin thing 'just for fun'.

It was a bad week in the Ghost House; the season should not be ending so soon. Graham was dragging everyone to team talks and going on about the ‘Adventureland family’. One evening when they were in bed Chip caressed Sally's head and kissed her dark neck softly and sweetly. She asked if they were 'becoming more real,' and Chip said 'maybe'. They put the TV on low and held one another in the fuzzy light.

The next day Chip and Sally met for lunch at the Blue Dragon Chinese buffet. Benny joined them with the dolphin folded up inside a big sports bag.

'How are you?' Sally asked.

'Kweeeh,' said Benny. He had to stay in character all day in Splash Town so he didn't spoil the magic for the children. Sometimes he kept it going for a laugh. The first time Chip called him 'Marlon-fucking-Brando' and Benny did a version of the dolphin noise mixed with the Godfather and they laughed so hard that Sally nearly choked on a fried tiger prawn.

'It's bad today,' said Chip, 'I feel down or something.'

'I know,' said Sally, 'I feel it too.' She was staring at a piece of sesame toast like it was a playing card.

'This place,' said Chip.

'Yeah,' said Sally with a vague kind of long-term sadness.

'An immersive experience,' said Chip.

'Kweeeh,' said Benny. They laughed and went to get a second plate of spring rolls.

Benny asked if they wanted to meet up on Friday and go to the big hotel. There were bands playing and Benny could put them on the guest list. They both said they would see later on. Benny nodded and clicked his tongue. They paid £5.95 each and Sally held Chip's hand. Benny went to the bathroom with his bag and came out dressed as the dolphin. The waitress in the buffet shrieked with laughter and the owner pretended to chop Benny into pieces with a meat cleaver. Then they went back to work. 

It was early afternoon. The day was cloudy. A mother and son had just gone in. Chip sat in the dark booth waiting for them to enter the skeleton room. He waited. The woman and the boy did not come through. Chip checked the camera in the slime pit but found no one. He used the intercom to ask the vampire (an acne-ridden teenager called Joseph with a deformed hand following an accident with a deep-fat fryer) if he had seen anyone pass through. Joseph said he hadn't.

Chip wondered where they could be. He snuck out of the booth and up into the place where the mechanism moved the skeletons. From there he pushed through and out into the Ghost House. Chip looked at the pumpkin camera, trying to think if there was a way to take a picture of himself. He went backwards through the slime pit, feeling the strange texture of spider webs and furry bats brushing through his hair. At the entrance Chip saw Sir Spooks-a-Lot manning the ticket booth. Spooks-a-Lot nodded, his plume swayed. Chip nodded then turned back inside the house. He carried on through his own room, climbed back into the skeleton cupboard and left through the staff entrance. Chip walked round to the exit tunnel and waited. No one came. He went to the shop and asked Jenny if anyone had collected any photographs. Jenny said ‘no’ and blew a bubble of yellow gum that inflated and swallowed up her eyes.

Chip went outside and stared at the pin-board covered with photos; a selection of staff favourites mixed with the most recent visitors. He saw the wall of faces, terrified for their lives. Lone adults, limbs distended, shaken white. Little boys and little girls, clinging to their parents for dear life. They seemed twisted with pain, wretched before the skeletal creatures that stood slightly out of frame. Chip looked at the ground. A thick lump of feeling grew inside him, a dark pain or a kind of sickness. He walked away from the Ghost House and through the turnstile exit of Adventureland.

Chip wandered down along the waterfront, following the coast south. A heavy wind was blowing across the grey expanse of sea. A few gulls swept up into the cloud. It felt big, he thought, bigger than anything he could imagine. Some vague stuff about life and death drifted through him and he felt as though the wind might tear up all the land and the ocean and carry it away into the sky. He imagined the Ghost House and the whole of Adventureland breaking up over the Atlantic, the debris swirling like a great murmuration of birds. 

A lone donkey trotted in the damp dunes, unattached to any purpose, its rope bridle dragging in the air. Chip bought candyfloss from a yellow cabin and waved the chewy pink stick in front of him like a lance. Further down he came to a windmill rising from a traffic island. It had been painted white and black. The blades were completely still, like someone had broken it on purpose, to make it just for show. It looked like a sad giant, he thought, frozen and bleached by the cold. He passed by a statue of a footballer, standing with one foot on a copper ball. Chip walked on. He thought maybe he could just keep walking until all the land ran out. The Ghost House, the adventurers, the dolphins, and the flat screaming faces pressed down like a weight against his chest. 

Chip looked up again. It was cloudy—the same cloud as before. The same sky. He wondered if he would feel better if it was blue. Rain started and then stopped. The wind carried on. The big feeling came back, whirling through him like a storm. He felt sad and thought for a moment he might cry. There was a little spark in him—he knew that. Something worthwhile. Everyone had one. On bad days he wanted the spark to go out. Work was easier then.  

One autumn Sally convinced him to go to night classes at the college. He took one on photography and one on literature. When he told the photography students about the pumpkin they all laughed at him but the teacher said Chip had a fantastic sense of time. He liked reading too, especially the old classics, big tales of demons and adventure, but afterwards they all got confused and he couldn't separate them. Even so, there was something inside him then, a spark, another big feeling—different. A kind of moving forward.

Chip realised he had reached another town. He saw it had the same mud, the same grey sea, the same run-down arcades, but all the names had changed. Chip thought about the woman and the boy who had vanished, about whether they might be trapped in the Ghost House, the horror turned real, desperate and unable to get out, or if it would turn out they were just in his head, part of his imagination—a vision of lost innocence, his failed youth—or some other cheap trick. Chip laughed out loud, the heavy feeling was pulling free. He felt loose and light. Sally called and asked if she could stay over. He said he'd like that, and he would buy her dinner. As Chip went to say goodbye the last thing she said was lost to the wind. He ended the call and felt a little warmth rustle in his body.

Chip entered an amusement park called Virgil's with a pirate-alien in a red spacesuit moulded in plastic on the outside. He put a pound in a slot machine and got three back. He played the Evil Claws game and won a level-two prize. Chip took the ticket to the counter. The owner wore an eye-patch but no other pirate clothes. The wind was flicking hot sand into his mouth. He made a halfhearted pirate sound and handed Chip a cuddly leopard. Chip decided he was 'on a roll' and played the ice hockey machine. He won 3-1 against the Devils. Chip went further inside the amusement arcade, grinning at the bright lights and strange games. In the very back was an empty dancehall. Chip ducked through the red curtain and went inside. Down there you could not tell day from night. There was the warmth again, a little spark. As the music pulsed up through his body, Chip began to dance alone.

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THE PENCIL TEST by Grace Loh Prasad

I once dated a Famous Author—someone you might have heard of. He’d written half a dozen nonfiction books by the time I met him at a writers conference, and had recently published a surprise bestseller that was made into a movie. He’d lived and traveled all over the world as a journalist and was on the masthead of a venerable magazine. 

The Famous Author was teaching a class on how to write and sell travel stories, which seemed like a good entry point for my first-person writing about Taiwan. After the conference I emailed him to introduce myself and mentioned that we had lived in Hong Kong at the same time. I asked if I could show him some of my writing, and he said Sure, let’s meet up when I’m in California next month. He asked me to email a photo of myself, so I did. 

He wrote back: You’re not the one I was thinking of. But I still want to meet you. 

A few weeks later, he invited me to meet him in Los Angeles where he was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel. He offered to buy me a plane ticket from San Francisco to LA. 

Oh no, I said. I’m not that kind of girl. I’ll pay my own way.

I know what you’re thinking, but nothing happened at the Four Seasons except that we had a nice dinner on his expense account and caught a glimpse of the actress Elizabeth Hurley. Her eyes were smudgy with black eyeliner and her lips were set in a scarlet pout. All heads turned as she walked through the dining room in her skintight jeans and stiletto heels, hips swinging, looking mightily pissed off. A hush fell over the room as though we had witnessed Aphrodite herself storming out of a lover’s quarrel.

For the next several weeks the Famous Author and I carried on a long-distance flirtation. Not a relationship exactly, but a growing intimacy that hinted at future plans even though I had a boyfriend, and he was still married to his second wife. I suppose I should mention the age gap: I was 30 years old and the Famous Author was 55. So what, I told myself. That’s the same age difference between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. 

What attracted me to him was his worldly sophistication and success as a writer. He represented everything I wanted to achieve: literary success, a globetrotting lifestyle, and the confidence to write about whatever interested him. I was especially intrigued by how he had traveled across China and written extensively about it. He had a command of the country’s history, culture and geography that eluded me as a second-generation Taiwanese American just starting to explore my identity through my writing. It didn’t occur to me to challenge his expertise, to consider what he might have missed or gotten wrong as a gweilo writing about China from a colonizer’s point of view.   

When I met him he was putting the finishing touches on a book about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, using his training as a geologist to make pronouncements about how the geography of the area affected the history and volatile politics of the Balkans.

The Famous Author spent a lot of time talking about his past relationships and sexual conquests. His second wife was a busty redhead and successful entrepreneur that he met somewhere in the South Pacific. He enjoyed her ambition and her flair for adventure, along with her penchant for setting up threesomes with “office girls” she liked to chat up. They split amicably and moved on to other lovers but didn’t divorce because he didn’t want to give her half of his assets. 

His most recent girlfriend was a statuesque African American beauty, but the relationship didn’t last. She was disqualified when he found out she disliked hiking, and was so afraid of heights that she had a panic attack upon reaching a beautiful vista in the Scottish Highlands.  

In one of his books about traveling through China, he reminisced fondly about the “knock on the door in the middle of the night” accompanied by soft giggling, which meant that an enterprising hotel manager had sent him some companions for the night in the hopes of a favorable write-up.

Through these stories I got a distinct sense that I was auditioning for the role of the Ideal Girlfriend: someone smart enough to keep up with him and his literary friends, adventurous enough to accompany him on rugged trips, attractive enough to qualify as arm candy, and young enough to be a trophy.

Our long-distance relationship deepened over the summer and we spent hours talking on the phone during the month I lived in Sonoma, where I was housesitting for friends. He said he was going to dedicate his Balkans book to me, and my heart soared. When I returned home, I broke up with my boyfriend. 

Here’s the thing about long-distance relationships: none of my friends had met the Famous Author, and they were confused as to why I broke up with a boyfriend they and I adored. All they knew were the bits and pieces I would tell them, and all they could do was nod and pretend to understand as my love life unraveled. 

There were so many warning signs. He recommended that I read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, a novel about a young woman in a relationship with a much older man who’s a well-known writer. He said he loved Britney Spears, and preferred her naughty schoolgirl persona to her more recent work. When I visited the Famous Author at his home on the East Coast, he failed to tell me that he had a live-in personal assistant, a 22-year-old recent college grad. The assistant and I circled each other like a pair of cats and I concluded that she wasn’t a threat because she didn’t seem to be his type. She was a tall, sturdy girl with rosy cheeks, the wholesome kind you see in Russian propaganda posters. The Famous Author had told me that he liked petite Asian women because they were more likely to pass “the Pencil Test.”

What’s the Pencil Test? I remember asking him on one of our long-distance calls.

He explained: If you tuck a pencil under your breast and your breast is heavy enough to hold it in place, you fail the Pencil Test. If the pencil falls, you pass the Pencil Test. 

I assured him over the phone—since he hadn’t yet seen me undressed—that I would pass the Pencil Test. I had never heard the term before and assumed it was something he made up, rather than a standard measurement used to determine when a girl is ready to begin wearing a bra.

I know what you’re thinking. Run away now! But of course I didn’t, because I was young and naïve and blinded by my desire to be a writer, which made me think I was in love with him when in truth I was in love with the idea of him, and a version of myself I had yet to become that felt tantalizingly within reach.

This isn’t a story about consent. It’s a story about power and projection and the unspoken internship that a hopeful young woman enters into when she meets a much older man who can advance her career. 

Later that summer I had a business trip to Paris, and the Famous Author invited me to join him in Scotland, his “favorite place in the world.” I understood this was a test to see if I was outdoorsy enough to deal with mud and rain and rough terrain. Scotland was the midterm; the final exam was to be New Year’s Eve of the Millennium, when I would join him on assignment on a cruise to Antarctica that would require sailing through the famously turbulent Drake Passage. The climax of the trip would be a New Year’s Eve countdown in blinding daylight because the sun would not set on the South Pole as 1999 rolled into 2000.

I nearly missed my flight from Paris Orly to Edinburgh and sprinted through the terminal to get on the plane right before the doors closed. From Edinburgh, I took a train to Inverness where he picked me up and drove us to the restored castle where we would be staying for several days.  

That night in the hotel restaurant, he insisted on feeding me oysters, which I had never tried before. I slurped one down and did not enjoy it, then ate a second one just to be sure, and hated it as much as the first. What I remember most, but did not say out loud, was how everyone stared at me, the only nonwhite person in the dining room and quite possibly the entire property.

The next day, the Famous Author wanted to visit a friend nearby who was quite elderly and didn’t get out much. He planned to go on his own, so I would have the afternoon to myself to relax, read a book, and explore the castle. Before he left we decided to have tea in the lounge downstairs.  

I ordered a pot of Earl Grey. He had Darjeeling or English Breakfast, I can’t remember. We sat awkwardly on the opposite ends of a long, low table, drinking tea out of blue and white Wedgewood cups. He broke the news to me that he’d decided to dedicate the Balkans book to a friend who had recently passed away. I was disappointed, but couldn’t argue with that. Then we started talking about Taiwan.

He said: I think Taiwan should reunify with China. There’s a common language and history. It can be like Hong Kong: one country, two systems.

I’m not sure what I said in reply. Perhaps, I don’t believe that at all. Or, Why do you think that? Or maybe I didn’t say anything, because I was speechless that someone who seemed so knowledgeable about world affairs would take a stance that was so clearly against the wishes of the Taiwanese people—including me. 

We sipped our tea and I thought to myself, so this is how it ends. The Famous Author left to go see his elderly friend and said he’d be back by dinnertime. I didn’t tell him how upset I was. Instead, I went up to our room, packed my things, and booked a seat on the next train to London. By the time he came back, I was gone.

I never spoke to him again. It took two strong cups of tea to open my eyes and finally see how mismatched we were. Even though he had read some of my deepest thoughts in my essays, he did not know me at all. 

He was wrong about Taiwan, and wrong about me. 

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NEGAUNEE, MICHIGAN by Ron Riekki

I grew up in Negaunee.

It’s a town you’ve never heard of.

My ancestors are Saami.

It’s an entire culture you’ve never heard of.

My father was a sampler.

It’s a job you’ve never heard of. He collected iron ore samples from the mines for testing.

We live by a lot of mines you’ve never heard of—Empire, Tilden, Jackson.

Upper Peninsula’s often misspelled Upper Penisula. I swear to God. Although God wouldn’t like me swearing about how the place I was born and raised is called a penisula by people who don’t use spellcheck.

But this all happened before spellcheck.

Before the internet.

Before cell phones.

Back when the world was simple. Back before revenge porn and hacking and texting-while-driving and the whole stupidity of living now.

This was in the 1980s. In the U.P. With my parents who were off-the-grid before there was a grid to be off of.

We didn’t even own a TV. I mean, we did. For three months. Then my mother saw a boob on HBO and she said, “Enough” and it was gone as fast as it came.

We went back to euchre and Scrabble and solitaire and backyard bent-rim basketball and my favorite game—and this was an actual game I’d play with my brother—Getting Lost in the Woods.  That was the entire game. Go in the woods and try, on purpose, to get as lost as possible and find your way home. Mostly, it was easy. There was the Negaunee airport where the occasional plane might come or go and that always gave you some sense of direction.  And then there was something called the sun that always gave you an east and west and, really, what more do you need than that to get home? Then there was something called memorization. We knew every birch and creek and patch of switchgrass for ten miles in all directions from our house.

My father had taken us to see The Fox and the Hound and my brother had decided he was now a fox, so he wanted to play this game every day.  Every single day. Even after our mother banned us because of what we were doing to our socks.  Our socks were turning orange from the iron ore that seemed to be everywhere, as if the mines were bleeding with it.  And, worse, we had prickers in everything, so that our mother would prick her finger folding our shirts, impossible to get them out with washing so she’d have to pick them out one by one. But our mother threw away a pair of socks and a shirt that weren’t salvageable and we’d taken them out of the garbage, then went into the woods and changed into them, putting our good clothes up in a tree fort we half-tried to make. Foxes are not good at making tree forts. But they are good at getting home. We’d spin in circles to disorient ourselves, then purposely try to go down paths we’d never went down before, searching for the most unknown parts of the woods possible, and we ended up discovering cliffs where you could see Lake Superior all the way from Negaunee, and a den of snakes where my brother pushed me into it so I fell forward and experienced a snake go down the front of my shirt with me standing and screaming and my chest wriggling around with the serpent inside me, and a river that was untouched by ore so that we swam under the noon June sun with the world shining around us like it was showing off its green perfection.

The problem was I wanted to go see another movie.

My father said fine and took us to Back to the Future.  Instantly my brother was not a fox anymore.  He now wanted to play guitar and ride a skateboard.  And my brother is obsessive. Every single day I’d hear him butchering Chuck Berry riffs to the point that my father banned the guitar from the house, my brother off in the woods where I’d hear the weak sounds of off-key “Johnny B. Goode” working to reach my ears.  And the hill in front of our house was not made for skateboarding. It was too rocky. And the skateboard my parents bought him was cheap, so it couldn’t take the rocks. My brother would try again and again but it was useless. There was no skateboarding with that piece of crap.

After he started talking about wanting to invent a time machine, it was me who got the idea of taking him to another movie, to see if he’d fall in love with another character, if he’d switch from Tod the Fox to Marty McFly to something else.

There were a few theaters in Marquette and Ishpeming, none in Negaunee.  And they’d show current just-released stuff but also popular films that’d come out in the last few years. The theaters were beautiful back then, before they were all torn down and corporate boxes put up to replace them. I remembered walking into those old theaters and just feeling transformed before the movie even started. There was one theater in Marquette where it felt like the back row had you a football field away from the screen and the whole theater curved like a spoon so it was like you were in a concert hall.  And there were old-world designs on the ceiling so that you’d put your head back and look up in awe at the attempts at Michelangelo.

Maybe it was those theaters that did it to my brother.

Or maybe it was a mental health issue, a mental health issue you’d never heard of before.  But we could choose between E.T., Aliens, or The Breakfast Club.  I told my father maybe it’s best if we don’t go to a movie about aliens, especially not one where the aliens tear people in half. I didn’t want to wake up and find my brother trying to tear me in half. Although I suspected he would leave the movie thinking he was Ripley, that he’d try to protect us from aliens that would never come.

We went to The Breakfast Club and, after, my brother was on a mission to have everyone in the school get along.  He’d invite the jocks and heads and nerds and loners to our house. He’d play basketball with the jocks and get lost in the woods with the heads and he’d play solitaire with the loners and Scrabble with the nerds and, best of all, he’d try to get them to overlap, to get the jocks smoking during Scrabble and the heads to play basketball with the loners.  And sometimes it’d work.

I saw my brother as the film director of our hometown, controlling it all.

The problem is that one of the jocks took him to see Gremlins.  And you’ll guess what happened: my brother thought he was a gremlin.  The jocks and loners and heads quickly disappeared. A few of the nerds stuck around.  One said he was a gremlin too. They became inseparable best friends. And I’d wake up with milk in my bed.  An entire gallon poured into my sheets. I’d open my closet and all my clothes would fall on top of me. It got so I was terrified to ever go into our basement or garage or—if we actually had one—an attic.

I told my parents about the movies, how my brother becomes the movies he sees.  They told me they know, that they’d spoken with a child psychologist. I asked if was helpful and they said no, that there was talk about fandom and character bonding but that the counselor didn’t ever have a patient before who became the characters in the film he saw.  The counselor asked if he did this with television too and my parents said we don’t own a TV, but I know that when we had a TV for that short time my brother didn’t ever suddenly think he was a surgeon in the Korean War or a bartender in Boston or a member of the A-Team.  No, television did nothing for him. It was all films. Something about movies. My parents tried to bring my brother to the counselor but my brother, in full gremlin mode, disappeared when he went to the bathroom and the police picked him up four hours later in Sands trying to climb down into a chimney. And, yes, there is a town named Sands near us. And another named Champion, which, as far as I know, has never won a sports championship in the history of its existence.

I told my parents that counseling was a waste of time. As fast as possible, we needed to take him to another movie, but we needed to be selective about what it was.

I recommended Gandhi.

My parents expressed concern saying that 1) they were worried he’d lead a revolution, and 2) it wasn’t playing at any theaters up here because it had been released in 1982, a bit too long ago for even the theaters that did reruns.  I called around and found there was a theater showing it in Detroit. My parents compromised and instead brought back the TV with the addition of a VCR. They bought a VHS of Gandhi because, mainly, it was the only movie we all could agree on.  There was immediate consensus on what not to show him, entire film genres, in fact. No horror, no action, no comedy (there was concern about nonstop jokes, which my mother said would “get on our nerves”) and—along those lines—no musicals, and no Westerns, no sci-fi, no crime films, no thrillers, no war movies, no disaster movies, no martial arts, no buddy-cop movies.  It was a long list.

For a while, there was some brainstorming about romance, but my mother said he was too young for romance and my dad said no one is too young for romance and a fight ensued, which my mother won. I recommended a documentary, but we couldn’t come up with a good one since none of us had ever actually seen a documentary.

My father yelled out, “I got it!” and left us waiting for his answer, but it turned out his brilliant idea was having my brother watch a silent film.

But my mother said she was worried if he couldn’t speak.  “What if he had to go to the hospital? How would he let us know?”

“Charades,” my father said, “We could figure it out.”

My mother gave a definite no.

My father set up the VCR while my mother watched my brother intently in his bedroom.  There was worry he’d escape, somehow get hold of the VCR and melt it or worse.

We all sat watching the movie.  Or, to be more exact, my brother watched the film and we watched my brother watch the film.

It was beautiful seeing the transformation take place. It happened around the moment when Ben Kingsley gives his protest speech to the packed auditorium.  My brother took on this intense calm. I exchanged looks with my parents. We knew he’d be all right.

Later that week, he hitchhiked to Washington D.C.

We haven’t seen him in twenty years.

The last I heard, he’s in prison now.

Unfortunately, after Gandhi, he must have watched a comedic gangster film shortly afterwards. In Trenton, New Jersey, he robbed a bank with a banana.

I get letters from him every once in a while.  He said they show movies every Friday at the prison.

I imagine him, every Friday, taking on a whole new persona, going back to his cell and being Batman and Cobb and Gandalf and Michael Corleone and Neo and one day, I wonder, if they’ll ever show The Shawshank Redemption, if he’ll escape to some distant version of Zihuatanejo, a place with crystal-clear beach and no electricity.

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WE THE PEOPLE by Nicholas Grider

    WE THE PEOPLE

Hi there! Thank you for your patience as you adjust to our way of life. We are the people. We're just like you, except our clothing is less wrinkled and our databases are better organized. We're grateful you allowed us to ask you to welcome us in, and then kindly gave your consent to our decision to stay.

LET'S JOIN HANDS IN THANKFULNESS

We like it here. The reason we like it here is because this is where we are, which makes things a lot more convenient for everyone, especially us. That's what we mean when we point at the floor and say "Hallowed ground belongs to no one, but someone needs to make sure it stays presentable."

No one, of course, conquers any land they didn't think couldn't be improved, and while we admire your society, we don't think it is a utopia, but we held a meeting while you were busy scavenging for food and decided that a little bit of conquering never hurt anyone, and in any case, we'd rather avoid the term "conquering" in lieu of the word "upcycling," even if we do still prefer to roam the streets with our rifles loaded.

We're here at the center of what we've deemed is the center of anything that has a center; it has a nice view and is warm but not too humid and the kind of place where we'll all be long dead before anyone deals any consequences and we especially like that it's politely sunny and often April or May and forever spacious. An untamed lifetime of wide green days around which grand architectures of seduction and discipline and nocturne can be built.

The new, glistening fences are mostly decorative. Also seductive, depending which side you're on.

We are the people, and you are also the people, so we're just like you, simply a more efficient model or small cul-de-sac of "people" than many people. As far as peoples go, we are 0-60 in five seconds with an engine of progress quiet as an elderly cat's purr. 

We like it here. We're glad you're happy to have us as your guests even though we have already spent time belonging everywhere. We have decided, though, of everywhere we belong, we belong here the most, though you belong here almost as much, for which we're glad.

FOREVER IS A LONG TIME

Don't worry, you won't be forgotten. Beginnings and endings have never been forgotten, and now, with the gleam of metal pressed against the gleam of sun, nothing will ever be forgotten again, unless we hold a referendum on it, but we have yet to decide how much each of your votes count.

Our preference for the past, for light blue oxford shirts and creased tan slacks and comfortable grins, does not make us ghosts. Not even the friendly kind. We are very real and work very hard to build monuments to our potential so large they will be easily understood centuries from now when hardly anyone is left to understand anything.

We organized and arrived here because that's what our people do. Our people invented adventures. Our people invented guest and host, arrival and departure, escape and captivity. Our people invented mirrors. Our people were responsible for the brief trend of everyone now living pausing at mirrors, turning to smile, leaning in and whispering the word whore at ourselves and/or whispering if it ain't broke, don't fix it and/or whispering I wanna know what love is.

Our people were the people who made the 1970s safe for carefully selected representatives of the populace to exercise public flamboyance. This is why God ushered polyester into being, so that we might be elastic without anybody getting any kind of ideas.

THE BENEVOLENT RULER EQUIVALENT OF ALL FIT

We're glad that you're glad that we spread the gospel of wellness to the people. Fitness, wellness, discipline, loose sweatpants, tight sweatpants, and the contextual encouragement of public shirtlessness among the men of the species, who are better at glistening outdoors in the May sunlight, hard at work making our world an easier place for you to live in.

We smile because our teeth are white. As white and cold as the soul of a child five minutes before conception, as white and cold as the flesh of a snake-shaped angel.

We're very grateful you welcomed us and gave us a tour and allowed us to rename everything and organize everything according to priority, then adjust priorities to move in sync with the market shuddering under low, bedazzling clouds.

We invented capitalism, and God invented Esther Williams as a reward. The heart of capitalism is this: why have just one Esther Williams when you can have two? Or more than two? That is why a mirror is always more important than what is placed in front of it.

God invented spandex bodysuits so that Slim Goodbody might survive and prosper, traveling the land like Johnny Appleseed dispersing the fruit of subtext instead of apples. 

WHAT IS TO BE DONE NOW

We would like to teach you how to help us make the world a better place. In a small nameless stretch of the bible largely hidden from the light of political arguments and game shows, Jesus  shrugs and says to Thomas, "Well I reckon in order for things to get better for some people, for other people it has to get worse. I don't know. When I asked my dad why sometimes I stop in places where people made in God's image never stop and just squint off into the insufficiently polluted air, one time he told me well, Adam and Eve forgot to eat the whole damn apple. Another time he told me this: kindling's not the same thing as the fuel for the fire. When he talks like that, it's a sign not to bother the part of him that is not me via divine intervention in the magic of sexual reproduction. I don't know. You hungry?"

We would like to teach you how to help us make the world better for as many people as possible, especially us. We would like to teach the world to sing, time permitting. Think of it this way. For every one Paul Simon in the world there are ten John Denvers. This is important because ten is usually a larger number than one.

Another thing Jesus sayeth unto some disciple, probably Jeff if there were a disciple named Jeff, "If I were to tell you that sometimes saying goodbye is saying goodnight, does that sound thoughtful or do I just sound high? Be honest. I won't ex-disciple you or anything."

The cure for doubt is not salvation. The cure for doubt is vacation. We would like to invite you to learn more about us by observing us at a distance as we settle in your homes, digging through your drawers and cupboards for unconsumed opiates and making fun of your dirty cutlery and your ideas about interior direction.

We're glad that you've agreed to our suggestion that you should cease the magic of sexual reproduction. We have taken a shine to you, and all children really do, anyway, is replace you, and we would never want to replace you; we like you just the way you are. We also like like to be in charge of who replaces whom.

Blue skies are on their way–blue the color of blue we have decided to name "sky blue" so that we may never forget. We wander your streets, cylinders of clouds in our pale blue oxford shirts with our hands on our hips or our fingers close to the safeties no our rifles, squinting at confusing buildings and animals and signs, debating each other whether it is better to be very good at winning or simply to win as much as possible, and to check our watches and say to each other, "Oh my, Harry, will you look at that," or "Hmm, the natives are probably getting restless," after which we all chuckle, spines curving so that we all slightly lean away from each other as we laugh, the social equivalent of a nigh orchid in time-lapse bloom.

Harm isn't on our agenda. Harm is just a common side effect. And side effects are what make being healthy seem all the better in comparison.

IN CONCLUSION (PART ONE)

We're glad you haven't raised any objections yet, at least none that have needed attending to. Everyone's happy when all the blades of the world are still sharp.

In a dusty corner of scripture, Jesus asks The Lord Our God "What's the deal with death? People live, sometimes not for long, and then die, and mostly stay dead after that. I dunno, it just seems inefficient. There was silence, according to the gospel, after which The Lord Our God sayeth unto his only son, "Well dancing's not efficient either, and you can't do it forever. Wanna know why?" When Jesus shrugs and digs the toe of his sandal into the Hollywood silt and says sure, God sayeth unto him, "If dancing were permanent, it would stop being dancing."

We're glad you've been so hospitable. We've learned a lot. We've learned that suffering is like dancing and bleeding is a form of suffering and, one way or another, bleeding always stops. As you flee into the new chapters of your lives as dwellers of periphery, keep this in mind: there is an end to everything, but there's also an exception that proves the rule. We're happy to share with you, gathered here today beneath sky blue blasts of noise swirling down the narrow streets of our home, that there's an end to everything, which is God's plan, which means it's a good thing. Someone has to be the exception, though. So we have decided there will be an end to everything but us. We hope, someday, whispering to strangers in the shade of distant trees, you'll sometimes stop to say to each other "it was very gracious of those people, whoever they were, to give us the gift of adventure, shoulder the burden of being the motionless locus of the world's sphere, and to share with us some helpful hints about sharing in the profit margin of God's providence."

IN CONCLUSION (PART TWO)

By now, of course, you are already gone. But we generally prefer to remember not to forget. This is why the God we've chosen to invest a lot of money in and to allow to so often bless us was kind enough both to invent databases and to allow us to view them as infinite. We don't want to have to say goodbye, though. And so: goodnight.

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