Short

ROUTINE by T.J. Larkey

My girlfriend works late hours, without any real breaks to eat, so it’s my duty to feed us when she gets home. I take this duty seriously. Not serious enough to learn how to cook, but serious enough. I sit in bed fully dressed, waiting. Then she calls me as soon as she’s off and tells me about her day while I drive to the nearest fast food place. It’s our routine. I like routine. It keeps me in line. 

“You’re a boy that needs to be kept in line,” she tells me.

“Yes,” I say. “I like routine.”

I get to the fast food place. I always get the same thing and the kid that works the late-night drive-thru shift knows me well. More routine. Keep things simple, and nothing will hurt you. I pull around, collect the correct change from my pocket, and wait for the car in front of me to drive away from the window. On the side of the restaurant, amongst the rocks, the cacti, there are bugs and lizards crawling around. I’ve never seen this before. I watch as a grasshopper is struck down by a lizard, mid-flight, and it scares me. This is not routine. But it’s okay. Get the food, drive home, don’t die, feed your lady, go to sleep, repeat. Okay? 

At the window, the kid asks me how it’s going.

“I just saw a lizard end a grasshopper’s life,” I say. “It was ruthless and terrifying.”

“Cool. You want sauce?”

He always asks me if I want sauce. And I always want sauce. It’s routine. It’s comfortable. If he were to not ask me if I wanted sauce, it’s likely I would spin out of control, burn it all down-- the lizards and the sauce and the routine-- all torched. 

“Hit me with some ranch, young man,” I say. “And you know I gotta have that hot sauce.”

“Ranch and hot sauce?”

“Oh yeah.”

The kid walks over to the condiments. I watch him. He’s short and a little soft around the middle and he is missing an eye. I try to picture his life outside of the fast food place. And every night it’s the same. I imagine him at home, smiling, playing video games or watching his favorite TV show. I imagine him eating his mother’s cooking, a healthy redness in his cheeks, oh so happy and loved. But then it turns into picturing how he lost his eye. I imagine him screaming in pain, near death. Then I see him in the hospital, bandaged up and trying to come to terms with the fact that this is his new reality, his new view of the world, without depth or promise or opportunity. I feel so sad, thinking about him. I want to tell him it’ll be okay and have him believe me. I want to believe me. But mostly I want to climb into the drive-thru window and hug him and take over his shift so he can go home and play video games and kiss his mother. 

“Here you go,” he says. “Sauce and napkins in are the bag.”

“Thanks man,” I say. “Have a good one.”

On the drive back, I notice the SERVICE ENGINE SOON light is on. And my gas is low. I don’t get paid for another 3 weeks. The cost of fast food is cheap, but it piles up. I need to learn to cook. I decide cooking will become my new routine. I will become the greatest chef in the world but I will only ever cook for me and my girl. I’ll buy cookbooks, new pans, a spice rack, the whole thing. My girlfriend will come home to the smells of my love and labor. Scents so good it will become erotic. That’ll be the new routine. Learn to cook so well it makes you irresistible sexually, save money in the process, fix your car, don’t die, keep it simple, repeat.

Okay.

At home, my girlfriend is in sweatpants, starving, tired, but smiling.

“I missed you,” she says. “How was your day?”

“It was good. I didn’t die. And the same cannot be said for everyone.”

“Did you see another accident today?” she asks.

I’d seen an accident the other day. It was bad. One casualty. I’d told my girlfriend all about it, then went on a rant about how my biggest fear is dying in a stupid way. Like a car accident because I was day-dreaming about becoming a master chef/sexual chemist.

“No accidents today,” I say. “Just nature’s routine.”

“Good. Now come here and stuff your face with me.”

I sit down next to her and we stuff our faces. It’s great. It’s routine. I feel full. I look over at my girlfriend and she appears full too. We are tired. I turn the TV on. My girlfriend needs the TV on to fall asleep so she doesn’t think about bad things that keep her awake. And I cannot sleep with the TV on because my brain latches on to everything. So I stay awake. Reading while the TV is on. I use a night light she bought me to further enhance the routine-- holding the book in one hand-- while the other hand is placed gently upon my girlfriend’s ass. Until she falls asleep. I turn the TV off. And for a few minutes I think about my day. I know a good portion of tomorrow will go the same, and it makes me feel calm. For the first time in my life, I feel calm before bed. Because of the routine. I fall asleep.

***

A few days later, at the fast food place, there is a disturbance in the routine. I order my food, but the line isn’t moving. I start to panic. I text my girlfriend. Long line. But I’m okay. I’ll be home soon. In the rearview, I see a man approach. He’s one of the employees. Belly hanging over belted khakis. 

I roll my window down.

“Hello,” he says. “Sorry about this line.”

His voice is soft. Soothing. A bit of a lisp. And his face makes me trust him.

“It’s okay,” I say. 

“The man at the window right now,” he says, looking around at the empty parking lot. “He won’t leave. I just called the cops but he still won’t leave.”

He smiles. I love him. I would do anything for him. His voice has pain in it and I want to bottle it up and take it home for him. Make the pain my own. 

“You want me to talk to him,” I say, unbuckling my seatbelt. “I come here every night so I feel kind of protective of it.”

He laughs. “No. But if you wouldn’t mind pulling out and walking inside we can get you your food in a few minutes?”

I wouldn’t mind. I would love to come inside. It’s not routine. But it’s exciting. A whole new world.

I back out of the drive thru and park near the entrance. The cars in front of me do the same. I’m first to the door and I hold it open as a group of people, all wearing clothes they wouldn’t normally wear in public, walk in one by one. The man that was in front of me is in flip-flops and tank-top, making a face that expresses how much he’d like everyone to know how annoyed/exhausted he is. And a group of three very large women follow behind, wearing sweatpants and talking about how crazy/weird this is. 

“He’s probably drunk,” one of the women says.

“Yeah, what an asshole,” another says.

I stand behind them. Thinking about other strange occurrences that have happened in this fast food place. There was the time an ambulance was called because a man had a heart-attack inside, right before the dining area was closed for the night. And there was the time a man tried to break in because they wouldn’t let him order through the drive-thru on foot. I think, how would these women react to those incidents? Then I stare coldly at them.

“We better get a free taco or something for this,” one of them says.

“Shush,” the woman who started this conversation says. “They might hear you.”

The man in flip-flop’s order is called and he walks up to the counter. He pays. I watch the man with the soft voice apologize to him and hand him his food. Then I watch as the kid with one eye scrambles around making the women in sweatpants’ food. 

“Your food will be ready soon,” the man with the beautiful voice says to the women. “And, umm, we threw in some free curly fries for you.”

The women all thank him. But it’s not good enough. Nothing in this world would be enough for the man with the beautiful voice. Nor the kid with one eye. I think about the man that started all this, and I hate him, yes, but in another way I love him for creating this beautiful scene.

“Three cheeseburgers, and three large cokes?” 

“And curly fries?” one of the women says, walking up to the counter.

“And curly fries.” 

They pay. I wait. The suspense building. When my order is called, I walk up to the counter smiling.

“Here you go,” the man says. “And I threw in an extra taco for you.”

“No,” I say. “You didn’t.”

“Yeah. For the wait and everything. We’re really sorry.”

“It’s no problem. The guy still here? Need me to talk to him?”

“Actually, I think he umm, heard me say I called the cops to those women that were behind him because he left right after.”

“Good,” I say. “Was he drunk or…?”

“Yeah. He took a really long time to order and I couldn’t understand him so he started cursing at me and umm, telling me I should go back to my own country.”

“Fuck that,” I say. “He should go home, forever and always.”

He laughs. The kid with one eye brings the food to him and gives me a thumbs up. The exchange is complete. I feel sad. But I understand.

“Well,” I say, “Hope you guys have a good rest of your night. See ya next time.”

“You too,” the man says, his voice seeping inside me. 

On the drive back home, I start thinking about my life before the routine. Through all the memories, one obvious moment sticks out. Years ago. I’d woken up in a strange place, still drunk, and decided to spend my last three dollars at a fast food place nearby, in order to sober up. I hadn’t had fast food in years. When I was drinking every day, I ate very little. Mostly eggs and nearly expired deli meat—in order to save money for booze. But that day I didn’t have a choice. I sat at a table near the empty play-area for children, eating a two-dollar cheeseburger and sipping free water from a small paper cup. After the cheeseburger was in my stomach, I just sat there, watching people eat, feeling sad and unable to move but not sure why. It seems funny now. Life before the routine. I laugh. My entire life before the routine seems absurd and distant. But I realize that very soon, I will need a new routine. I will feel that same kind of two-dollar cheeseburger sadness and a new me must emerge from that sadness. The discarding of and creation of routines will become a part of a larger routine and they will all build and be called my life. 

When I get home my girlfriend is wearing one of my t-shirts.

“How was your day?”

“Full of love.”

“Kiss me.”

“They gave me a free taco.”

We kiss. We eat. We have sex. She falls asleep. The routine is complete. And the last thing that goes through my head, before I drift off, is nothing.

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PURSUED BY FURIES: THE LURE OF THE UNCANNY IN FICTION AND FILM by Kevin P. Keating

Madeline and Sophie Ryan are identical twins. They are eight years old. They exude a rugged masculinity and are built like their merchant marine father — thick, solid, broad shouldered, with eyes so dark and glassy they seem to be made from perfectly polished pieces of obsidian. Mass murderers of spiders, flies, moths, and the exceptionally brilliant brush-footed butterflies that sail above the surface of the family swimming pool, the girls constantly hunt for easy prey. They’re also accomplished mimics who delight in doing impersonations of adults, aping their vocabulary with unnerving precision in a single singsong voice and then squealing with malicious, porcine laughter whenever their latest victim shoots them a weary and wounded look. They can be cruel to younger children but reserve the brunt of their wickedness for their long-suffering mother, relishing their roles as jailers and persecuting her in ways that only the most heartless of wardens can. Clever, calculating, supremely subversive, they understand intuitively that parenthood is a kind of indefinite prison sentence, one in which beleaguered moms and dads spend most of their days sequestered from other adults. To neighbors the girls look like a pair of wretched, half-starved urchins out of a folktale, feral creatures that search the nighttime streets for rancid scraps of food before seeking shelter in abandoned barns. They commit acts of petty vandalism. They may possess preternatural powers. They are darkly comic flourishes, or so I once believed, from my novel The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015).

As I put the finishing touches on the book, I received feedback from several readers who said Madeline and Sophie reminded them of the eerie twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. I was a bit mystified, perhaps even disappointed, by this comparison. I truly believed, at least to a certain extent, that the girls in The Captive Condition served as comic relief. Curious, I viewed the movie again for the first time in several years and became so intrigued not only by the iconic imagery of the hand-holding twins in their periwinkle puff sleeves and ruffle skirts but by Kubrick’s masterful storytelling technique that I decided to teach it in two of my college courses, Introduction to Folklore and Introduction to Mythology.

While performing the obligatory professorial research on the film, I learned that Kubrick, justifiably famous for his attention to detail, conducted his own survey of the horror genre and fell under the spell of “The Uncanny,” an essay by Sigmund Freud. The uncanny, claimed that cigar-chomping, glossarial jigsaw-solver of the human psyche, was the only feeling that was more powerfully experienced in art than in life. “If the horror genre required any justification,” Kubrick remarked, “this concept alone would serve as its credentials” (Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, Michel Ciment, Faber & Faber, 1999). 

Toward the end of his brief essay, Freud posits that we experience the sensation of the uncanny whenever a storyteller denies us access to our reality-testing faculties. By this he means that most reasonable people, when faced with a spooky situation and tempted by their “primitive impulses” to attribute perfectly natural phenomenon to some supernatural power, can always rely on their critical thinking faculties to quell any lingering doubts and reveal the mundane truth. For example, we may be lying alone in bed on a stormy night and hear a door creaking open ever so slowly. Our “primitive minds” warn us that a ghost is approaching and yearns to slip under the sheets with us and whisper a bloodcurdling lullaby in our ears. But because we are rational beings who have easy access to those creature comforts provided by modern civilization, we can flip a light switch and quickly confirm that a cold draft has blown open the door and that the rusty hinges need oiling.

As Freud writes, “For the whole matter is one of testing reality, pure and simple, a question of the material reality of the phenomena.” The difficulty only arises when a storyteller keeps us in the proverbial dark for a prolonged period of time and doesn’t allow the trembling protagonist, and therefore the audience or reader, access to a conveniently located light switch. In order to create and sustain a sensation of the uncanny, the storyteller must keep us guessing about the true nature of the fictitious world he has created. Freud writes, “For the realm of phantasy depends for its very existence on the fact that its content is not submitted to the reality-testing faculty.” And according to Freud the critic, as opposed to Freud the psychoanalyst, readers and audiences may retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, “a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit,” if they see through the ruse and react to it as they would react to real experiences. In this case, the intellect serves as a metaphorical light switch and exposes the storyteller as an incompetent trickster.

In Freud’s view the stories most capable of creating a sense of the uncanny are those in which the storyteller “deceives us into thinking that he is giving us the sober truth, and then after all oversteps the bounds of possibility” by bringing about events that can never happen. In the completely fabricated and precisely structured worlds of “once upon a time” and “long ago and far away,” we accept the impossible as being perfectly ordinary. No one ever questions the validity of the tale of an innocent maiden who suddenly awakes from a poisoned-induced sleep and then runs off with a handsome and well-intentioned prince. 

Similarly, in a body of literature that makes use of what Freud calls “poetic reality,” we may experience a sensation of gloominess, but because the nature of this world is still imaginary, though less imaginary than the faraway kingdoms in fairy tales, we do not experience the uncanny. Freud points to the tormented souls in both Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey, particularly the episode in which Odysseus makes the treacherous descent into the underworld to consult with the spirits of the dead, including the grief-stricken spirit of his own mother. In both of these epic poems, the moods are somber, the settings somewhat disquieting, but we cannot say they are uncanny.

For Freud the situation is dramatically altered when the storyteller “pretends to move into the world of common reality” [italics mine]. I believe this phrase, indeed this single word, is fundamental to our understanding of the uncanny. Through the slow and careful accumulation of minute details, the storyteller pretends to create a simulacrum of the world as we know and typically experience it, but from the very start he or she has something else in mind entirely. For example, at the beginning of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick gives his audience, and the doomed Torrence family—parents Jack and Wendy and their six-year old son Danny—a pleasant tour of the Overlook Hotel during a sunny afternoon in early autumn, making everything appear perfectly ordinary and familiar. Only after the hotel closes for the season and Kubrick turns his attention to the secret inner lives of his characters do uncanny feelings germinate. 

One of the earliest and most memorable harbingers of the uncanny comes shortly after the Torrence family is left to care for the now vacant hotel during the long, brutal winter. Jack’s son Danny, while riding his Big Wheel through the labyrinthine hallways of the Overlook Hotel, sees the figures of the twin girls and listens to their unnerving refrain: “Come and play with us, Danny. Come and play with us. Forever—and ever—and ever.” It’s interesting to note that Kubrick’s twins, though peripheral to the plot of The Shining, continue to occupy a central place in the minds of most viewers, maybe because Danny cannot possibly explain the presence of these unfortunate girls who have been badly butchered by their demented father, the previous caretaker Delbert Grady. The indelible image of these girls, purportedly based on a photograph by Diane Arbus (though Kubrick adamantly denied this), serves as a warning to Danny about the very real dangers he will soon face. 

Bruno Bettelheim, in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, argues that these fantastic stories can serve a trouble child and help him overcome life’s travails. “Psychoanalysis,” writes Bettelheim, “was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving into escapism. Freud’s prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seems like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence. This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable.” The trick, of course, is to “master all obstacles and emerge victorious.” A resourceful child, Danny Torrence memorably manages to elude the same grisly fate as the Grady girls by entering into a hedge maze while his deranged, dipsomaniacal father pursues him with an ax. 

Throughout the film Kubrick uses mirror images as the primary means of unmasking, rather than concealing, repressed aspects of Jack Torrence’s persona. To establish this idea, Kubrick stages a scene early in the film. While eating breakfast in bed in front of a mirror, Jack reveals to his wife that he feels oddly at home at the Overlook. “It was as though I had been here before,” he tells her. “I mean, we all have moments of déjà vu, but this was ridiculous. It was almost as though I knew what was going to be around every corner.” 

Soon he begins to see ghosts in the hotel, and in every scene in which he confronts one of these spectral figures — the bartender in the gold ballroom, the deceptively beautiful woman in the green bathroom, the racist caretaker in the red bathroom — Jack is standing in front of a mirror. To fully grasp the significance of these ghosts, and all of the subsequent horrors the Torrance family must face, one must understand certain hidden realities. “The uncanny,” Freud states, “is something that is secretly familiar but has undergone repression and then returned from it.” It’s easy to see that the ghosts in the film are manifestations of past traumas, which are secretly familiar but which Kubrick renders as "uncanny figures" after they have "returned from repression.” For example, Jack Torrence's repressed alcoholism becomes the bartender, an uncanny figure who shouldn't exist but who manifests a "secretly familiar" repression. Similarly, Jack’s uninhibited lust manifests itself as the naked woman in the bathtub of Room 237.

Unable to face the terrible truth of his moral weaknesses, Jack begins to identify with these apparitions until he is in doubt about his own identity. Freud writes, “The subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which self is his, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own.” In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self, and thus we have characters who are to be considered identical because they may look or behave alike. There is also the constant recurrence of the same thing — the repetition of the same features, character-traits, vicissitudes, and — most importantly for The Shining — the same crimes. Freud explains, “These themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of the double, which appears in every shape and in every degree of development.” 

By referring to Freud's work, Kubrick seems to be making a larger metaphorical point: that the spectral images he presents to viewers are not supernatural or mysterious in origin, but rather, completely familiar. Freud cautions us that humanity’s horrors aren't something to be explained away with mysticism, ghosts, or magic, but to be fought off with logic and intelligence; nevertheless, we interpret the disturbing images in The Shining as bizarre, horrific and odd simply because Kubrick denies his characters — and therefore his audience — access to reality. His characters, because they are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to confront the troubling nature of their past experiences, fall victim to their own unconscious minds, which transform these buried memories into a series of warped and nightmarish images.

According to Freud it’s all a matter of intellectual uncertainty. Are we supposed to be looking at the products of a madman's imagination, “behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth?” This is a distinct possibility, and yet our critical thinking faculties are incapable of explaining away our sensation of the uncanny. Storytellers like Kubrick know this perfectly well and attempt to manipulate our emotions by exploiting our uncertainty. We cannot be entirely sure whether the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel are products of Jack’s imagination or real apparitions. Our rational minds are searching for an explanation, but uncanniness is derived from the storyteller’s ability to make us doubt any rational explanations we might devise. The most successful stories deliver a raw, emotional experience, and in order to accomplish this goal, Kubrick used every tool at his disposal. 

“Primitive man,” Freud argues, “ascribes meaning to numbers, objects or events which are repeated.” He theorized that we equate things like repetition and patterns with “destiny” and “mysticism,” and Kubrick bathes his film in a semiotic language of repetition, hidden numbers, symbols and patterns, knowing that these images will likely lead to uncanny feelings when discovered. The audience is left confused and enticed by these mysteries and then attempts to bring them to light by creating meaning. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the imagery of “the double.”

But why is such a technique so universal to storytelling? One possibility, according to Freud, is that doubling is “a preservation against extinction.” He hypothesizes that the desire to transcend death led people in ancient civilizations to develop the art of making images of the dead in lasting materials, for example an Egyptian sarcophagus, so they could live forever and ever. Such ideas, however, have sprung from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. For modern people, the “double” reverses its aspect; from having been an assurance of immortality, it has now become an uncanny harbinger of death.

This ultimately futile desire to make, or perhaps remake, the image of the dead in lasting materials is presented quite explicitly, and with tragic consequences, in the final shot of The Shining where doubling is used to extraordinary and almost vertiginous effect. As the film draws to an end, Jack Torrence undergoes a startling transformation of character until he seems to be composed of several different personalities and finally becomes a permanent part of the “haunted” hotel, memorialized in the unnerving 1921 photograph. The film’s self-referential ending highlights the ambiguity, or rather, deliberately confuses the distinction between reality and imagination. An uncanny effect can often be seen when reality (a caretaker in the present day) interacts with our imagination (the caretaker’s likeness in an old photograph). Freud says this is precisely the moment when our “infantile and neurotic elements” start believing in magical practices. We focus on mental realities and ignore the material reality. 

Despite The Shining’s bleak ending, Kubrick does allow Danny Torrence to escape from the hedge maze and reunite with his mother. As Bruno Bettelheim writes, “It is not that the evildoer is punished at the story’s end which makes immersing oneself in fairy stories an experience in moral education. In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent and that is why the bad person always loses out.” Bettelheim continues, “Morality is not the issue in these tales, but rather, assurance that one can succeed. Whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is also a very important existential problem.” 

Many commentators have noted that the true hero, when faced with an existential crisis, can only escape a terrible fate by coming to the realization that “the self” is an illusion created for the benefit of other people. We all craft stories about ourselves, stories that are partially true and partially false. In time they become semblances of an identity, but it is crucial that we recognize these stories as the different masks we wear in order to present—or to disguise—our true selves. The problem is just this: many of us are unable to identify with any degree of certainty a single persona that seems entirely authentic. Who are we when in the presence of our friends? Who are we with our parents? Our children? Our employers and colleagues? Who are we when we are alone? The more we think about this, the more likely we will find that there is no “I” at the center of our consciousness. The ego is a culturally conditioned fiction and in storytelling is often associated with the monster—a deceptive, selfish and self-seeking creature that spreads fear and destruction. 

One solution to this conundrum is to become egoless or selfless or, as Odysseus becomes in the episode with the Cyclops, to become Nobody. To be Nobody is not to enter some fantastic condition of egolessness. Rather, it is simply one’s willingness and ability, when the time comes, to drop the self, to let Somebody go and surrender to circumstances. As a reprieve from the cultural demands of egoism, it is important that we slip into a condition of anonymity from time to time. We always worry about what other people expect and want from us. Dropping the illusion of the ego can help us overcome these everyday concerns. Accepting that we are “nobody” can be a difficult and even frightening realization, but relying on pride and ego more often than not leads, at the very least, to profound disappointment. 

In The Shining Jack Torrence is an ineffectual husband, father, writer, caretaker, and former school teacher. Perhaps by becoming Nobody he can escape from these culturally conditioned and predictable roles. The problem, of course, is that Jack is deceiving himself more than anyone else in his life. Consumed by different aspects of his own repressed and twisted ego, he rapidly descends into madness, and this, I think, is the final point that needs to be made about the film.

Just as he uses ghosts to reveal disturbing aspects of Jack’s personality, Kubrick uses Jack to reveal something rather disquieting about human nature in general—namely, that the ego can be characterized by one basic rule: it always wants something. Thus, for the person driven by ego, life is characterized by chronic desire and chronic frustration. We are frustrated because so often in life we don’t get what we so desperately want. Jack wants to become a successful writer. He wants to have a drink and even says, “I’d give my fucking soul for a glass of beer.” He aches to posses the beautiful women in the bathtub. He wants to escape from his wife and child. Since these paths are not open to him, he naturally begins to repress his desires until they gradually transform into terrifying phantasms.  

Looking back on my own work, I can now see how Madeline and Sophie Ryan serve a similar function in The Captive Condition. The adult characters in my novel, fearful of serious introspection and therefore lacking in any kind of meaningful self-awareness, have a tendency to perceive the twins as devious little fiends and, later, as a couple of cajoling ghosts, mainly because the girls have an uncanny talent for revealing the moral shortcomings and the secret, forbidden desires of adults. At certain moments in our lives, our emotions can become asphyxiating clouds of uncertainty, and in a passage near the end of the book, I briefly make use of mirror imagery to acknowledge that, for many of us, determining the difference between what is real and what is imaginary can be difficult:

Some people, when they pass away, leave behind fond memories and wonderful legacies of love, but many more leave long trails of misery and despair, and when the bereaved claim to sense a presence floating along dark hallways or glimpse hooded figures rising up in shattered mirrors or witness fantastic apparitions advancing and receding above bogs and fens and festering swimming pools, they likely are perceiving the enduring gravamen of the dearly departed, a disappointment so profound that it somehow transcends death. So who could say for sure if the spectral figures that…floated above the streets of town were in fact ghosts or illusions conjured up by the drunk and disorderly revelers making their way home on New Year’s Eve. Madeline and Sophie wondered the same thing themselves: was this how ghosts were supposed to feel?

There can be no definitive answer to a question of this kind. We are now in the realm of the fantastic. The passage is meant to reveal more about the reader than the characters enacting the drama, but of course the whole art of the drama is to put into words and images those experiences people know are secretly true but haven’t yet noticed or are themselves unable to express. In this sense storytelling becomes a kind of meditation on the self. As Bruno Bettelheim puts it, “Stories also warn that those who are too timorous and narrow-minded to risk themselves in finding themselves must settle down to a humdrum existence—if an even worse fate does not befall them.” 

Only those who rid themselves of superstitious beliefs can see through the uncanny. Such individuals can shrug off deceptive sights, signs and repetitions, and perceive the underlying truth. In contrast, those who cling to the ways of our primitive forefathers are doomed to believe in the supernatural. Freud states that our ancestors’ fondness for mythology and fables is largely what causes our belief in ghosts, apparitions, and monsters. Thus, our current irrational beliefs are largely due to the irrationalities of our ancestors. They’ve been passed down from one generation to the next, much as generational violence has been passed down in Kubrick’s film. Jack Torrence, who clings to the ways of his predecessor Delbert Grady, reenacts the same heinous crimes simply because he conjures up ghosts of the past, which he uses to affirm his own existence. Freud cautions, “Unless a man is utterly hardened against the lure of superstition, he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to these phenomena.”

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AL WAITS FOR RAIN by Jonah Howell

1

I haven’t worn glasses since I was sixteen, so I heard him before I could make out his features. “So you’re not coming?” Pacing back and forth at the corner of Ninth Street, he shoved the phone in his pocket without hanging up. Let the other guy do it.

He walked into a pizza shop, a narrow hallway between Ninth and whatever street runs behind Ninth. I followed. Pizza seemed wise: Forecasts showed a storm, but I was still scheduled for a long landscaping shift.

He stood in the doorway, a tall man, probably six-four but hunched to six-flat, and he kept intense eye contact. I assumed he managed the pizza shop and had been yelling at a no-show employee. I tried to relate. “Kids these days, huh?”

He responded with silent confusion, and a wide Italian man appeared from behind a mountain of pizza boxes. “We don’t open ‘til eleven.”

I left. Tall guy followed me now. “I don’t work there,” like he’d read my mind. “But yeah, I’m stressed out.”

His eyes glowed yellow, and the word, “stressed,” required serious effort. He sank onto a bench in front of the pizza shop’s neighboring laundromat and held out an enormous hand with knuckles like old brass doorknobs. “Abe.”

Looking up at a cumulonimbal colossus, I decided my shift would be canceled, so I leaned against a wall and slipped outside time. “Why so stressed?”

“My girlfriend overdosed on Monday.” He drained a Steel Reserve in a brown paper bag in one quiet gulp.

I have often been accused of pathological optimism. “Is she alright now?”

“The hell are you talking about, is she alright? She’s dead.”

I gave up. “Sorry about that.”

Embarrassed for me, he pulled a tiny book from his pocket. Prayers for Times of Hardship. “People tell me it’ll help, but I can’t get into it.” He flipped through it. The first and last pages were coated in names and phone numbers, and he had highlighted several of the intervening passages. “I want you to answer something for me.” He flipped back and forth, pausing at each yellow section. “Here. The bit with the star.”

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

“‘Son of David.’ Nobody’s managed to explain that to me.”

“The original verse, in Hebrew or Greek or something, probably read ‘descendant.’”

He looked at it for a while, nodding occasionally, then looked up as a beat-down Ford Explorer struggled to park parallel to us.

“That’s my niece.”

She smoked a long cigarette and yelled expletives at the cars in front of and behind her. Two kids with mid-length dreads sat in the back seat, calm and silent.

Abe yelled at her, “What are you doing with those two boys?”

She got out of the car. They stayed. She launched into conversation with Abe in an enervated whisper, so I walked to the coffee shop up the road and sat in a wicker chair three sidewalk-slabs away from an ACLU canvasser. In a neuter radio voice, he repeated to each passer-by, “Hi, I’m here defending civil liberties and human rights with the ACLU. Will you help me?” His white mustache ruffled the same way every time like an inched tape. Truly incredible. Rejection after brusque rejection.

After the thirty-seventh a man stopped, green bucket hat aflutter in the antediluvian wind. He looked about ten years older than the canvasser. His stone-blank face could have been a topological map. “Do you oppose the draft?”

“There is no draft.”

“Do you oppose it, though?”

“Well, we’ve recently forced the administration to reunite 2,173 Latin-American--”

“Do you oppose slavery?”

“Of course we’re against slavery.”

“How can you say you’re against slavery if you don’t fight the draft?”

“Sir, there is no--”

“I was drafted.”

“I thank you for your service, sir.”

“For my slavery, you mean? Good day.” 

He started to shuffle off, but the canvasser called out to his back, “Are you sure you can’t make a small donation to defend civil liberties?”

“If you don’t oppose slavery I can’t possibly support you. Good day.”

As he made his slow escape, a hoarse panhandler walked by with an unreadable cardboard sign. He fixed the canvasser with a knowing look and stepped close to him. “I hope you get it just like I do.” He walked a few steps then turned back thoughtfully. “Actually, I don’t hope. You will, just like me, I promise.”

2

Consider the geometry of our Ninth Street Rube Goldberg machine: 

On this block we have a line of forty-three rectangular sidewalk slabs, from the gutted skeleton formerly known as Francesca’s to Vintage South, whatever that is. Numbering from Francesca’s, the canvasser stands on slab four and faces the street. O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, weakly, weakly. 

My wicker chair sits on seven. In this freeze-frame, the Vietnam vet and his green bucket hat shuffle up the row, one foot in slab ten and the other lagging back on nine, turned slightly to one side. He plants his feet with every step as though the wind might blow him away at any moment. The panhandler has overtaken him. We see him paused, airborne, running, above fourteen, where Abe and his niece now reenter the frame, lumbering toward me. They have already parted to allow the Vietnam vet to shuffle between them. Outfold, infold. Like birth, the marble shoots on down the lines and curves. 

The two kids are nowhere. The Rapture, perhaps. If we focus, we see that shimmering translucent strings attach each character to the next, creating a drag on all our movements as storm clouds gather at both ends of the street, walls closing in, pressurizing. We are all Han Solo in the trash chute. The first faint snorts of thunder rattle the strings, and Abe’s eyes darken from highlighter yellow to old book yellow.

3

Niece plopped down in the wicker chair beside mine as Abe paced toward the street and back toward us. “Church said they had $130,000 in donations this month, but I’m still sleeping in the woods. How’s that?”

Niece recited, “Religion’s bad, but God is good. He sent Jesus to die for your sins, so there’s free will. It’s not religion; it’s something you believe.” She took a long drag from her cigarette and hiccupped and coughed simultaneously.

“I ain’t buying that bullshit. There’s something up there, but hell if I know what it is.” 

His shoes had no laces, so the canvasser didn’t join the conversation, and Abe ranted on uninhibited, pacing faster and swinging the book wildly.

“Grandma told us to believe in this man with a beard and all our problems would go away. Where’s he at?”

“You’ve got to change your insides.”

“I ain’t buying that bullshit. God can be good or he can be powerful. Pick one.”

Niece, exasperated and at the end of her cigarette, turned to me for help. I pointed at Abe. “Maybe he’s God.”

She lit another cigarette and walked up the road. By the time Abe realized she’d left, she’d passed the cyclery on slab twenty-eight and fished her car keys from her purse. Abe watched after her for a few seconds then took off his shoes with a sound like someone plucked the string of a homemade bucket-bass. He pointed to his grass-covered socks. “I’ve been sleeping in the woods. And that preacher took out a credit card reader midway through his sermon, had people line up, and told them not to swipe if there was nothing on the card.”

4

I wondered what Abe’s name was yesterday. I wondered what it would be tomorrow. He stared at his laceless shoes, and the canvasser stopped a hunched woman with a yoga mat, and the first drips of rain inflated the parched grass on God’s socks. 

5

A flashbulb of lightning illuminated the street, but the thunder shuddered several seconds later. Abe put his shoes back on. The tongue of the right shoe was under his foot, but he seemed not to notice. He walked back toward the laundromat, book open, highlighter in hand. Behind him, a new figure emerged from a CBD dispensary and stood next to the canvasser and yelled at a Lexus, “How’re you gonna have a nice car like that and can’t even park it? Disgusting.” He paused for a moment and leaned his head back before screaming so hard he doubled over, “Disgusting!” 

Still the canvasser didn’t turn his head but watched the Lexus roll out of his line of sight, his eyes bulging with loss. Abe had walked away and now stood statue-still on slab thirty-one, staring at the parking space his niece had occupied then gazing slowly up the street, down the street, and back at the parking space. He blinked several times, as though something were caught in his eye. He then gazed up the street, down the street, and back again at the parking space. Still unsatisfied, he blinked several more times and shook his head before gazing down the street, then up, then back at the parking space. He slouched back onto the bench in front of the laundromat. His right hand flipped the pages of Prayers for Times of Hardship twenty at a time while his left hand rubbed the bench and his eyes remained fixed on the parking space. Then it started to rain.

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CHAMP by Anthony Sabourin

Most days I would sit in a big jacket in my stall in the dark of the parking garage and I would open the gate for people when they drove up in their cars. When they were gone and it was quiet again, my brain would be full of this image of a spaceship screaming towards Earth, burning up as it entered the atmosphere. I wanted to shed all of the pieces I no longer needed. To burn away until I was almost nothing. I don’t know, other times I’d just watch pornography but not jerk off. I appreciated everything. 

Today I sat in Greyhound bus in Ottawa; my big jacket with my cold face amongst the heaving bodies and stale air, and suddenly the bus moved and we were on our way to another place. It felt like I was in the middle of a period of great transformation. I had stolen five hundred dollars and two grams of hash from my roommate. I was going to Montreal. 

Outside of the terminal there was snow and cold, and the sidewalks were blue from rock salt. I breathed deeply and it felt sharp and good. I loved it. Matt was there to pick me up. He lived here now, and I had called him from the bus and sold him on old friendships and good times. We hugged and called each other shitheads and talked about how good it was to see each other and we didn’t acknowledge the distance between us. He looked clean shaven. 

I didn’t bring any luggage. I saw him notice this and begin to look worried so I gave him another great big hug before he could talk about it. He walked me through the crowd past buildings that were brown and jagged, avant-garde and ugly. That’s the art museum. This is the subway station. I didn’t trust it. The signs were in French. He handed me a weekend metro pass and we walked into one of the brown buildings and submerged. The whole ride, Matt was talking about his new city - he was effusive in his praise, using words like “history” and “culture” and “Leonard Cohen”. 

I remembered a night from when were in undergrad and the group of us took a bunch of mushrooms to watch the sunset from the Prince of Wales bridge. When the sun went down it looked like the sky above us was on fire. And we looked down and the water below us was on fire too. It felt like the end of days was coming, like this enormous hellfire was reaching out to embrace us and there was no escape. Matt looked at us and shouted out, “If we’re all gonna die then I want you to know that none of this has been worth it! None of it! You’re all pieces of shit!” 

He jumped into the water and he was fine. The sun that night continued to set and instead of armageddon it just got dark. It looked like he was doing well for himself now. 

He took me to his apartment and it was a long rectangle of open space and soft white light. There was an exposed brick wall and minimal furnishing. By the kitchen with the gas stove and the new fridge there were sliding glass doors that led to an outdoor seating area that was snowed in. Matt pointed out that in the upper left corner of the view you could see a small ‘+’ that was the cross on top of Mount Royal. The rest of it was blotted out by neighbouring apartments. He said that Montreal was the last affordable Great Canadian City and I said I had read that in a magazine, but I was lying. I was waiting to ask him about doing hot knives. There was a picture of him and his wife Lauren that was framed on the wall. It was from their wedding. They were holding each other happily and there were white flowers in the background. They had met in law school. She was hard-working and relentlessly cheerful in her disposition and so we hated each other. I asked Matt where she was and he told me she was working late. I asked Matt if he wanted to do hot knives. 

We had sunken into the couch with blank smiles on our faces and scorched knives in the sink when Matt remembered he made dinner reservations for us. We walked through the streets at night with faces red as our bloodshot eyes, in the kind of cold that makes everything crunch. The restaurant, when we got there, was burnished metal, big windows, and tasteful wooden accents, a chalkboard menu written in elegant cursive handwriting and no prices - it was unadorned by branding, which meant expensive. 

The people in the restaurant looked pleased and inert and they chortled away in their language. I didn’t know what anything was. Matt spoke casually to the waiter and a man came out from around the kitchen and made a show of presenting us with a bottle of red wine. He uncorked the wine and took Matt’s wine glass and poured a mouthful in and placed it in front of Matt. Matt picked up the glass by its stem and how he drank this wine was he swirled the glass around and brought it up to his nose and closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the wine and brought it to his mouth and closed his eyes again and took a long slow sip. When he was done he nodded. 

Now this motherfucker came up to me with the wine and I was too high to be around all of these rich people. After he poured it I wondered if I could have the same experience as Matt, so I did what he did. I swirled it around and I brought it up to my nose and inhaled and then took a long slow slip. But to me it just smelled like wine and tasted like wine. I started to drink quickly.

When it was quiet again I asked Matt what I should order and he said poutine so that’s what I did. To be honest I wasn’t sure if I liked food anymore. I mostly ate breakfast wraps from the coffee place on the way to the parking garage, and if I got hungry again I would buy another coffee and if I was hungry again at home I would pick at the leftover shawarma platters my roommate would leave in the fridge. My mouth felt like it was always full of acid. My diet made getting high more efficient, and I was becoming gaunt but in a fashionable way. 

To say something, I told Matt that I was training for a marathon. I had been really into telling people that I was training for a marathon ever since I watched this video of a person in this spandex bodysuit undressing. It was this black room; all you could see was this person and their suit and it was like this tight blue androgynous cocoon. As the camera got closer you could see by their eyes that it was a woman. And then she started to unzip the suit and she took the head part of her suit off and this long blonde hair  flowed out of it. It made me think that we can all be anything we want. Two naked men walked into the frame of the video and then it was pornography. In the parking garage I thought that I would better myself by becoming a marathon runner, and I did research online and bought nike running shoes at full price and a grey sweatshirt that said “CHAMP” on it, with the quotation marks, in welcoming letters that arced like a rainbow across my chest. I told my roommate and my dad and my manager at the parking garage that I was training for a marathon. Everyone is so happy when you tell them you are running a marathon. Or not happy, but they act like they are impressed with you, and it’s nice. My stuff came in the mail and I tried to run once but it was stupid. There was nowhere to go.  Still, I started to wear the sweatshirt around to show that I was serious, and it became something to talk about with people. “It’s harder to train in the winter,” I said now, “but the key is to invest in good crampons.” I nodded to emphasize the importance of crampons. 

Matt told me it was inspiring that I was training for a marathon. 

We got lost in old memories. We talked about the time we did thanksgiving for our other roommates but we got too day drunk and fell asleep and almost burnt the apartment building down. It would have burned fast too - that apartment was littered with balled up Subway wrappers like so much kindling. Matt’s dad died when he was a kid and his mom never had much money so he worked at Subway for all of undergrad, and the smell became a part of him, it lingered on him like he was haunted. I remember I’d go to his Subway when it was quiet and I’d make logic puzzles out of convoluted sandwich orders to help him with his LSAT. He didn’t need the help anymore though - the waiter was coming with our food. 

I looked at my poutine and there was this strange grey meat on it. I asked what it was and Matt told me “Foie gras.” They make foie gras by sticking a feeding tube into a duck, and force feeding it until its liver is big and fatty. They do this for a hundred days, sticking the feeding tube into the duck and feeding it against its will, and then they kill it and take out its liver. I knew this because when I felt bad about watching too much pornography I would watch a video about factory farming. I was curious about the foie gras though. Maybe it was worth it. 

I took a bite and it made me sad. It was this smooth rich blankness, but it was just a texture. I wanted to eat a breakfast wrap. I sat picking fries and watching my food congeal into this brown-grey sludge. I looked at it and thought of soft splayed legs and sexual pumping and food tubes shoved into baby animals and rows of ducks in tiny cages. 

Matt, overtaken by hunger from the hash, was drinking wine and eating lobster pasta with an intense focus. After a long pause, Matt looked at me like he had something important to say, some big epiphany that he wanted to share with me. He told me there was something that had been on his mind a lot lately, and so he told me a story and it went like this:

THE BLUE SHIT STORY

Lauren’s law firm has this famous bake sale. It was this big charity thing to raise money for cystic fibrosis or diabetes, he couldn’t remember. The partners at the firm took it very seriously though, it raised a lot of money and made them all look like pillars of the community. Lauren was an excellent baker, and she wanted to impress the partners at the firm. She wanted to make something that was decadent, artful, and difficult to bake, so she made macaroons. They were perfect blue clouds that tasted of chocolate and raspberries. People at the bake sale loved the macaroons. They sold out, and therefore they were making a difference for the people with the cystic fibrosis or the diabetes. 

It took Lauren a day to realize what she had done. She used a lot of blue food colouring to make the macaroons the right colour, and now Lauren was in the bathroom, and she had just taken a shit, and it was blue. Matt ate some of the macaroons and his shit was blue too. All of these lawyers who had loved the macaroons were going to the bathroom and looking at their blue shit and they all knew why their shit was blue. All of these people who were supporting the people who had the cystic fibrosis or the diabetes were dropping these big blue hosses. Lauren was embarrassed. She wondered how she could go to work and practice law and also be the person that made everyone in the office shit blue. She was worried about getting a nickname like Blue Shit Lauren. Like she would be in courtroom and the judge would call up Blue Shit Lauren to present her closing arguments. But she went to work the next day and nobody ever talked about it. 

Matt said he thought life was like that blue shit. He said life was this strange and wonderful collective experience that nobody was talking about. 

He spun a tumorous mass of spaghetti around the tines of his fork, and shoveled it into a wide open mouth. I thought it was a terrible fucking story, like of course Laura would make macaroons, and who even cared what happened to a bunch of lawyers, and now all I could feel was foie gras lingering in my mouth and maybe it was the wine or the hash or I don’t know, but I felt the saliva pooling and I looked at the floor and one moment it was fine and the next it was covered with so many chunks of grey mush, so much reddish bile, and I felt like I would never stop heaving. 

Outside of the restaurant, I was breathing out puffs of air while snow fell around me in fat flakes. Matt was still inside, smoothing things over and apologizing. 

There was a concert we went to in our final year of law school. It was a reunion show in a small club, some punk band Matt was into. When the lead singer came out he had this substitute teachers head attached to a substitute teacher’s body - kind of frumpy and washed out. It was shit - the band was too drunk to do anything, and after four songs the substitute teacher just set his guitar up by the amp to generate a wall of feedback, and he walked off the stage to leer at the young girls who were waiting by the bar. After the show Matt kept apologizing to us. I really enjoyed it though. I think it was the first time I understood getting old. 

Matt came outside and he looked at me, only now where before his face was flushed and happy, he just looked sad. He asked me if I needed help. 

I told him I did. I told him I needed the kind of help I used to give at Subway. I needed help to go to shitty rich restaurants to feast on suffering, and that I needed so much of his help to be so pretentious and empty.

And still he did not jettison and burn off and fly away. He told me that he was worried about me - that I looked sick, and that he was scared for me, and that he wanted to get me help if I needed it. He told me that he worked hard to get the life he had, and that it made him happy. 

I didn’t talk for a long time, but when I did I asked Matt if he thought that the average person could step into his life and do a better job with it. He asked what I was talking about. I took the five hundred dollars from my pocket and told him that it was my fee, and that I could free him. He looked at me one last time and left. 

I was relieved. My throat was burning from the vomit and there was so much more that I could be doing. I had always felt like a patient zero in search of a disease.  

*

Sometimes when I pictured the future, I saw myself as the King of this Great Pile of Garbage. I was seated on a mound of garbage bags, and it was so comfortable. People would come to me and seek my advice, and I would tell them to throw it all out. My garbage empire would grow and grow. Other times I could only picture blackened wood, embers fading into smoke. I was okay with that too. As for Montreal, it was alright. I walked by a costume store that was selling masks of babies and horses and dogs, and in the display window they were all perched on mannequins of male models. I walked by bars and saw young people who moved around as lithe and panicked as gazelles.

I had been drinking and was now great friends with these two punks. They both had shaved heads and leathery skin. They were older but spoke English. One of them had a head that was dented like a soup can. And the other one had a growth on the right side of his forehead, and that was how I could tell them apart. Otherwise it was a mess of patchwork denim and bad tattoos. I was buying us quarts of Fifty because I was rich. Quarts of Fifty were great because they came in these big bottles and were served with a tiny glass on the side, and you could poor from the big bottle into the tiny glass and feel like some kind of foreign dignitary. The guy with the dented head was telling us about how he got all of these dents. 

HOW I GOT ALL OF THESE DENTS

“So I’m waiting at the Bonaventure Metro, right?” he says. “And, wait, shit, you don’t know. The Bonaventure Metro is brick everything. Even the benches. With the heat from the trains it feels like you are trapped in this great furnace.” I nodded. “So I was there waiting for my train and I look across the tracks and I see this deer. It’s just standing there on the tracks opposite from me, and I look at the deer and the deer looks at me and then it goes back to grazing. And I look around me because there’s a fucking deer on the metro, and I am telling people, regardez, c’est un fucking deer but nobody is doing anything. Actually, they are looking at me like I’m the crazy one but I know what I see. And then I hear the rumble of the train coming, and I get really nervous because the deer is right there, yes? It’s still on the tracks and it’s not moving. It just looks up again and stares right at me, and now I can see the light from the train, and there is more noise and you can feel the rush of air, and I just walked right onto the tracks.”

“Bullshit you walked right onto the tracks,” I said.

“It’s what I did!” he said. “I walked onto the tracks and I reach out for the deer only it’s gone, it was like it had never been there at all, and now the only sound in my head is the sound of the train, and I look and the train hits me smack, right here!” - he smacks the middle of his forehead with his palm - “and that was it, that was all I could remember. I woke up later in a hospital, and my head was covered in bandages. I became very famous in Montreal for a time as the man who survived getting struck by a train. They let me shake Jean Béliveau’s hand.”

His friend, the other punk, laughed and said “You got those dents in a bar fight don’t be an idiot.” Then they were both laughing and I was laughing too. I felt comfortable with these old punks. 

I told them about how I had lost my job at the parking garage because one day I just left the gate open and went home because it didn’t matter. I talked about my roommate and how I was always stealing his food and how I owed him two months rent and had stolen all of his hash and money to come here, but that I’d left the rest of my hash at my friend’s apartment. I asked them where they bought drugs because it looked like they knew where to buy good drugs. They asked what I was into and I said that I pictured my body as this purification plant. I wanted to take in the world’s poison and process the chemicals and feel good or bad or powerful or ecstatic or tired or sick and leave only piss and shit smoke behind. 

The guy with the growth on his head never told us about why he had the growth on his head but we all agreed about the drugs, and so we left the bar together to go and buy them. 

We walked past portuguese chicken places and butcher shops  and rows of houses with walk up stairs. It was late and people were leaving bars and clubs, pushing past us in the streets with their jackets full of the feathers of dead baby geese. The punks talked about hockey riots and jaywalking tickets and how Montreal was a city built on old garbage dumps, nobody knew how many, they just paved over them and built schools and parks and houses. We walked down sidewalks narrowed like clogged arteries from snow. I was impressed by the state of disrepair I encountered. There was exposed piping and holes in the street. I wondered if my friends the old punks were going to kick the shit out of me and steal my money but I didn’t care. We walked for so long that all feeling left my body.

We stopped in front of a house. It had white siding that was yellowing at its edges and windows that were covered in garbage bags and tape. This was the place. They walked up to the door and knocked on it and it opened. I couldn’t see past them into the house. They held open the door and I walked towards them. I could only make out curdled wallpaper and a soft blue light inside of the house. I walked inside. It felt like a church to me.

*

I smoked something crystalline out of a foil packet and I didn’t feel like I was drowning in the undertow of euphoria, I didn’t get to watch my spirit hover over the Lachine canal while my body stumbled alongside watching, and I didn’t get to meet the lizard king of my third eye. I smoked it all up and sat there with my head of asbestos, and my ashed cigarette body, but this was normal. 

I looked over at the punks, who were passed out inside of their own heads like monks at peace with the world and I rifled through their pockets but found nothing except receipts and lint. I walked around the room kicking things over, knocking down lamps and picture frames and breaking glass. I punched at a wall but it didn’t make a hole like I wanted, it just really hurt my hand. I was bored of everything. 

I left the house and stepped into the midnight blue of the sky and the yellow of street lights. The quiet of the street was interrupted by the crack of a drum and the sound of trumpets, and I watched as a procession of revellers marching in a dance down the street, in the middle of the road. They were wearing strange masks and thrift store clothing - tattered plaid jackets or dirty leather; nobody was dressed alike but it still looked like they were in uniform. Their leader  was wearing a rubber face with cut-out eyes and I couldn’t place who it was supposed to be. He had a snare drum, and behind him there were women in animal masks with cut out mouths swaying and making cheerful noises with their trumpets. Behind them was a crowd of people - thirty or so men and women, all dancing behind them, shooting confetti into the sky. It was a cacophony of noise and jubilation. I watched as they came down the road, but when they got to where I was standing in front of the house everything stopped. There was no more marching or drums or sound, just confetti slowly tracing seesaw patterns in the air as it drifted down onto the street and a bunch of masks looking at me.

I said “English?” out loud and there was no answer. 

I said ““If we’re all gonna die then I want you to know that none of this has been worth it! None of it! You’re all pieces of shit!” and I dove into the snow on the sidewalk and writhed around in it and got snow down my neck and back but it was still quiet on the street. 

I got back up and looked at them and the grotesque shadows cast by their masks in the light of the street, and said “I don’t know what you want.” 

A child in a jester’s costume broke through the crowd and grabbed my hand and pulled me in. The people in their masks patted me on the back and shook my hand and wordlessly welcomed me into their ranks. Everything smelled like tobacco, but there was something sharp behind it, like vinegar. The drumming started again, the quick rat-tat-tat of the snare, and we were dancing through the streets again. 

We moved through the city past the fluorescent lights of Jean Coutu pharmacies and parks with trees that were collapsing under the snow. We passed under bridges and through neighbourhoods where houses were being demolished to make way for unfinished condos. When we passed people on the street they cheered us on. I thought of the mother I saw the day I left the gate up at my parking garage job, of her rusted green Corolla and car full of plastic bags and children pulling at her from the back seat and how it felt to leave the gate up. Of how it felt to see the spandex suit unzip in that movie, that moment of shedding your skin, and how I could never find it again afterwards; how some days I thought that I’d just dreamed it, but when I pictured it in my head it was so real. And we danced through the streets in the dark, and I felt a sense of belonging. More and more, people in the street applauded our marching. 

As I scanned the faces in the crowd, I saw one that I recognized as my own. The face was my own dumb face, but it the cheeks were fuller, the eyes a bit brighter. The man looked like me but different - he was put together, a nice peacoat and an expensive haircut, but he was less interesting somehow. I broke off from the people in their masks and I approached this man and he said “Avez-vous besoin d'aide?” and I took whatever money was left in my pockets and thrust it into his hands and hurried back to the revellers, who again clapped their arms around my back and welcomed me with open arms as we moved down Rue de la montage past rows of old houses and construction sites and garages, galleries and glass buildings reflecting nothing but the cold.  We continued to march until we approached the mouth of a tunnel. The man with the drum walked up to each of us and shook our hands and when he got to me he took of his mask and I understood. And he went back to the mouth of the tunnel and started drumming again and he led us inside, and soon there was only a perfect darkness. I reached out with my hand and felt for the person in front of me, and I found them and we walked together, and another hand reached for my back and we all walked like that in the dark, linked to each other. We followed the echoing sounds of the drums, and the story of the tunnel was this: as I kept on walking through the fertile, fetid darkness, I told myself I didn’t feel any different, but I didn’t know anymore if this was true. 

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SEVEN DROPS OF SALT WATER by Ariel Kusby

First, she thought he was a man. Then, she thought he was a seal. But if you’ve ever seen the way a sea mammal disappears, becomes dark water, you’ll understand why she never thought he was a warm body but a bit of ocean contained for a while. When a slick being emerges fully formed from a void you want to grab hold of it. You want to ask it what it’s seen. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re any different, that the deep is darker than your own blood. The body is full of stories. Your blood will always let them in.

Her story begins with rough water. A year of sleeper waves that claimed beachcombers, obscured by pulses of marine layer. They say she was born on a night like this. That she rushed out of her mother’s body in a giant wave and after that, they couldn’t keep her away from water. She learned to swim before she could walk, and before she could swim, her father took her into the swells in a plastic pink floatie, far beyond the break.

By the time she was twenty, no one could navigate a red-flag day like she could. They say she would have made a great lifeguard, better than the stoner boys who patrolled the beaches for extra cash, but there was something about her that was too odd. She rarely made eye contact. She walked the beach by herself and swam at night. The neighbors judged her father for letting her go alone but he believed he had taught her well. 

Imagine her: lonely, filled with adrenaline, ecstatic in her held breath as her body curved below fifteen-foot swells. Silver turbulence, sea spirits rising up from the drop-off. How deep could her legs have propelled her? How powerful can a body ever be? 

Mornings she’d work for her father, a fisherman. She’d slice each catch and gut it, smearing blood along her arms no matter how careful she was, then wash it off before school, where she studied folklore.

Do you think she did it intentionally? During all of her sea-walks and secret sadness wrapped up inside her like invasive kelp, did she cry seven tears to tempt fate? Or did they just come, unaware of what they would bring?

Before this, she’d dated a few young men she’d met in class. They couldn’t swim, were afraid of water, but inevitably she’d end up in the shallows with them, holding their bodies like a reluctant mother, telling them to kick, to breathe, to cup their hands and move. 

Then, one day he appeared like a washed-up flower from a funeral boat. Dark and surprising. Swimming in the shallows where moments before, there had been no movement. 

The first thing she loved was the way his body moved. With soft intention, a moonpull. Then, his voice, friendly like he already knew her. Like a shell knows how to whisper intimately into an eardrum. 

She had never seen him before. He greeted her, walking up the shore to his belongings. A black canvas bag she hadn’t noticed. He was new in town and wanted her to show him around.

Picture her walking with him, amazed that she could talk with him more easily than with anyone she’d ever met before. He seemed lonely too, hungry to talk about books and folklore with someone who shared the same esoteric interests. 

Some say they saw the two eating together, and then they left town and walked back to the beach, where they disappeared beneath a pier. They lingered there for hours between the barnacle-crusted pilings. Imagine his silken hands on hers, his lips tracing her collarbone. Imagine her suddenly wet on top of the sand, wet like a wave spilling over him. Salt concentrated in their mouths, surprising heat overriding the damp cold. His energy like a wave sloshing into a coastal cave, rippling all the way into its back corners. A phosphorescent red tide of wild hormones and tenderness and the idea that they’d finally found something really good. Imagine him cumming on her belly, semen shimming in the moonlight like a silver snake. 

After that they were never seen apart, swam together everyday. He kept up with her even when the swells grew into monsters with enough power to kill. He taught her a trick for holding her breath.

Some say what eventually happened between them was the result of great passion. Or of getting what she asked for. When a human and a sea creature love each other too much, it will always lead to destruction. Some say it was her cruel heart, a sealhunter. Others believe he transformed in more ways than one. He was many seals and many men, and mapped the bodies of young women to find deep spaces he could glide into and haunt.

She found it in the black bag in his closet, where she was looking for a lost pair of underwear. It’s glint from the overhead light caught her eye, and she pulled it out, repulsed and terrified. It was a sealskin with the cleanest slits, like a wetsuit, ready to be stepped into and zipped up. Was it fresh? Why did it look so immaculate, almost freshly laundered? She didn’t know what to think, but she knew he had a secret. 

And then she remembered the passage from her book about sea legends: “Selkies, or seal people are shapeshifters. They can be summoned by seven tears shed into the sea. Selkies often seduce humans on land, only to quickly leave them again for the ocean. The only way they will stay on land is if their lover hides their seal coat. Then, they will be locked in human form.” 

She couldn’t leave it but she couldn’t hide it, so she did hide it because being alone felt unbearable. She buried it in the dirt in a public park far away from the water.

She considered confronting him, but was it worth it? She was finally happy for the first time in her life. So, he had a secret. She spent her days cutting the hearts out of fish. Who was she to make assumptions? 

She hid her knowledge like an anemone bloated with water, sucked up inside of herself. Truth is, she was never good at hiding anything. A toxic feeling congealed. In her body, muck built up. 

He became moody and withdrawn. When he came over to her house, he touched her with rough hands and foggy eyes. She asked him what was wrong. What did he need from her? He threw a plate against the wall behind her head. Nothing. She ran out of the house all the way to the water and dove in, dropping tear after tear into each indifferent surge. He ran after her, crying too. I’m sorry, he said. How can you ever forgive me. I would never hurt you. And then he held her, warmer and softer than the water did. 

So they stayed together. And every week this pattern repeated. Often they would be body-surfing, tethered by their intensity, and then: a comment he didn’t like. A wrong question. And they were like two sharks turned against each other. 

Below the surface, who could know what ultimately happened between them? Some say he would take her underwater and breathe into her mouth and it was a sort of high for her, breathing half-air, her blood a roiling boil molten in cold water. 

How could she have known he’d find it? That he’d end up in that park with another woman he’d secretly been seeing the whole time? The myths never mentioned that a selkie would be able to smell their own skin and step back into it. 

Like that, he dissolved. They say she went to the ocean every day, and that eventually he did approach her, transformed again from a fish to a man. She asked what it was like down there. Surprisingly warm, sublimely bright, he said. If you want to come with me, I’ll take you. Then they’d fuck in the water, so desperate for it that the awkwardness didn’t matter. Salt water inside her, semen dispersing like pale squid ink. Then he’d melt back down into the darkness, and all night she’d ruminate about joining him.

They say there were months more of late-night conversations, of wet trysts that ended in fighting, and then an evening when he grabbed her and pulled her underwater against her will. Fading light, tightening muscles. Love sucked up by the instinct for air. Or perhaps not love, but something else. She fought her way back to the surface and knew. She liked it better up there, away from him. Even if that meant facing a different type of void.

Not long after this, she moved away from town. Some say to the mountains, where she lives beside a river, and has never come back to the ocean again. They still love to talk about it. They call her the sea spinster, or the water witch. No man would want her now, the women say. She was soiled by a figment of the imagination, a dark archetype. 

Imagine her now living amongst the trees, bathing in the river filled with pinkly glittering trout. The deep feeling of the body: something dark swimming, rising up and holding her. Perhaps it breaches and disappears, only to breach again, different every time. 

Truth is, she isn’t close to water. She knows what it must have felt like for our ancestors when they crawled out of the ocean, fins flailing in the dirt for a chance at something better. Was it for a good reason? If you’ve never known anything but slipperiness, you want something to hold onto. Imagine her now, having made it for herself. Imagine her warm and dry.

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THE BALLAD OF BOBBLEHEAD LERN by Anthony Sabourin

ILern Dobronski woke up to find that his head had grown gigantic overnight. He could feel the weight of it. As he touched it with his hands, surprised fingers prodding the growth, he panicked. He had to almost fully extend his arms in order to feel the hair on top of his head. It was like one of those cheap rubber toys that soaked in water and doubled or tripled in size, except it wasn’t a toy, it was Lern’s head. He scrambled towards his bathroom to get to a mirror, hyperventilating with big-headed panic.He used to look at his reflection in that mirror, pushing his hair back and inspecting his hairline, wondering if it was receding. He’d really study it, worrying over imperceptible changes, afraid of one day waking up bald. He looked in the mirror now and saw his oversized head, which had grown in proportion to itself but not his body, and thought, I didn’t know I had to worry about this too. He decided that he should go to the hospital, but tiny humiliations kept getting in the way. He went to put on a shirt but nothing would fit over his big head. He had to resort to this wrinkled oxford button-down, his one dress shirt, stained red with tomato sauce. While scrounging around for change for the bus, he kept bumping into things in his apartment that he had never before considered. The new geometry of his head made ducking under desks and tables very difficult. He started crying as he ate his cereal, realizing that he would have to go out in public to get to the hospital. The weight of his head threw him off-balance as he tossed back the last sip of his morning coffee. He decided to cover up his head before going outside. This was how Lern ended up riding the bus with his head in a pillow case. He had cut eye and mouth holes into the pillow case for the occasion, and people gave Lern a wide berth.On the bus he imagined good news. A doctor saying this happens all of the time, just a routine case of head gigantism. He would poke Lern’s head with a needle and air would rush out in a big fart, his head deflating to its normal size. Or the doctor would talk about twenty-four hour giant syndrome and give Lern a fast-acting pill so that his body would grow in size to match his head. For a day he would be able to pick up cars over his head, juggle his enemies, or open any jar in the world. This is great, Lern thought. Some jars are super hard to open.He entered the hospital and was directed to the emergency room. He could hear the room go silent, nurses looking up at him wide-eyed, a guy with a skate sticking out of his head looked at Lern with an expression of deep concern, but overall Lern was optimistic about his potential diagnosis. This optimism was unfounded.Dr. Paschek was an old woman with an unworried face. She took measurements of the diameter of Lern’s head and subjected him to x-rays. Many other doctors gathered around to look at the x-rays. “We don’t know what this is,” they said about Lern’s head. “Yeah, it looks okay in there though,” said a doctor with a clipboard. “Is it because I’ve been eating too much sodium?” Lern asked, trying to be helpful.“No probably not.”“Oh.” Lern paused. He was sitting on a hospital bed holding the weight of his head in his hands, wearing a crinkly paper robe. He felt dumb. “Hey, if my head is so big, does that mean I’m smarter?”“Lord no,” Dr. Paschek said, answering very quickly. Man, Lern thought, that was a really immediate answer. “Hey,” she said, “We could try running you through our Big Metal Machine.” The other doctors started murmuring in positive tones about the Big Metal Machine. They strapped him into the Big Metal Machine and spun it around a few times but it did not yield further answers. Eight hours later they were ready to send Lern home. “Yeah, it’s fine,” Dr. Paschek was saying. “Will I ever get better?” Lern asked.“Who’s to say what’s better?” the doctor said, making air quotes with her fingers as she said the word ‘better’.“I mean some of us have regular heads though,” Lern said. “Is there any medicine you can give me?”The doctor narrowed her eyes into an expression that looked thoughtful and reached into the pocket of her white doctor coat and handed Lern a plastic baggy full of thick gelatinous multicoloured blobs.“What are these?” Lern asked.“Oh, these are jujubes. They are a tasty snack, except for the black ones. Eat them as a special treat.”“That’s it?”“Oh, and this pamphlet of neck exercises. You should do neck exercises.”Lern took the pamphlet and left for home.The journey home did not go well. Lern lost his pillow case in the hospital, and sitting on the bus he felt exposed. People loved staring at a giant head. It was like seeing a normal-sized head, but way bigger. He could feel the attention of everyone on the bus, and could no longer entertain himself with notions of his head being shrunk by modern pharmaceuticals. Instead he was thinking about the carnival. Elephant shit and popcorn and gape-mouthed plastic horses with wild eyes spinning in circles. He was specifically thinking about the freaks at the carnival - the mutants, the bearded ladies, strong-men, cyclopses, the chicken-head-eating geeks, and of course the big-headed Lern Dobronski’s. He’d have to ride in a convoy of trucks with de-constructed and rusty carnival rides from city to podunk city. They’d arrive in a new town and he’d have to set up his own cage; have to endure the gawking of strangers before returning to the temporary reprieve of the companionship of his new freak friends. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe society would be accepting of his new deformity. He looked around at the people on the bus and saw a young family with a sleeping infant, an elderly couple holding hands, two teenagers tagging their seat with permanent marker, two more awkwardly trying to kiss, groups of university students and coworkers, an old man reading a book - why couldn’t Lern fit in amongst all of this mundane life? Lern sat back and felt at peace. Then a kid with wiry red hair and freckles pointed at Lern and shouted out “Bobblehead!” The bus erupted with the sounds of laughter.It was at this moment that Lern decided to commit suicide.

II

Lern had to figure out how to tie a knot. Then he had to figure out where to hang it. He was worried about the weight of his head being too great. He could picture the noose giving way, and then he’d just be a guy who jumped from a chair to the floor with a piece of rope around his neck. Once he was satisfied with the rope situation, he moved on to writing his suicide note. He would start to write, “I love you all,” and then he would stop and crumple up the note and start again. Something about the note felt more real than the rope. All told it was two in the morning and Lern was still writing when his suicide attempt was interrupted by the physicists.  They opened the door to his apartment and found Lern sitting at a desk with a noose in his arms, looking over a stack of papers. Lern looked up from his desk and saw three thin bald men in lab coats. They looked like variations on the same person. Lern said “I’m busy right now.”“You must stop,” said the first physicist. “Please, listen to us,” said the second physicist.“We are physicists,” said the third physicist. They all had the same voice. Lern hated the physicists.“Ugh, how did you guys even get in here?” Lern said. “The universe is this big hologram so doors don’t really exist,” said the first physicist.“If you can understand the math it’s actually pretty trivial to travel without boundaries through this plane of reality,” said the second physicist.“You left your door unlocked too,” said the third physicist. “But we have pressing matters to discuss with you, regarding your new giant head.” Lern made fists with his hands around the noose. “What, can you guys fix it?”“Hahaha, oh, of course not,” said the first physicist. “No we can’t and we wouldn’t want to.” “Lern,” said the second physicist, “We intercepted hospital readings from the Big Metal Machine, and we believe that your head now houses a potential space-time singularity.” “A what?” Lern said.“A singularity,” said the third physicist. “You know? The start of the Big Bang? The inside of a black hole?”“Singularities,” said the first physicist, “Could be really good or really bad.”“We’ve done all of the calculations and we still don’t know,” said the second physicist. “This is so exciting!”“I mean, we know everything,” said the third physicist, “So having a new unknown is really great. The inside of your head could house the secret to the infinite!”Lern could picture the physicists looking at his head and seeing nothing but a giant italicized x of a math equation. He tried to remember high school physics but all he could picture was the smell of weed and the cover to Dark Side of the Moon. “What do you narcs even want?” he said. “To run tests, of course,” said the first physicist. “Yes, and to activate the singularity,” said the second physicist.“We have to know what happens,” said the third physicist.Lern crumpled up his note and threw the rope on the floor. He stood up and told the physicists “GET OUT OF HERE YOU BUMS! NOBODY UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT ANYWAY. HOLOGRAMS?? SINGUWHATEVERS?? YOU’RE JUST A BUNCH OF FAKE MATH PHILOSOPHERS!”The physicists stood quiet and dumbfounded at the entrance of Lern’s apartment. Their faces reflected a look of hurt, but also defiance. It didn’t look like they were leaving so Lern kept on shouting “OUT! GET OUT YOU GODDAMN QUANTUM NOBODIES!”A neighbour’s voice came muffled through the wall: “Is everything okay in there?”“NO HAL, I GOT PHYSICISTS IN MY APARTMENT.”“Those cockroaches,” said the neighbour through the wall. “Stay right there, I’m getting my shotgun.”The physicists hurried to leave, dodging a shoe thrown by Lern as they left. Word had spread quickly throughout the apartment building, and they were heckled and pelted with fruits and vegetables as they ran through the street.Lern looked out his window at a particular flying zucchini and felt ashamed that moments earlier he had been trying to end his life. He took his noose and walked to his floor’s garbage chute. He placed the rope inside and closed the chute. The sound of the rope clattering down the chute was pleasing to Lern. That night he dreamt of the cosmos. IIIIn the morning Lern woke up and did not go to work. It was hard to go to work when your head was gigantic and your couch was comfortable. There was so much he was not ready to do. He didn’t want to tell his mom or his dad, or any of his three sisters. He ate cereal until it turned soggy and watched TV until there was nothing but infomercials. Eventually he forced himself to go for a walk outside. Walking through his building’s hallways, with their oatmeal coloured walls and ticking fluorescent lights, felt like leaving the comfort of hibernation. The street outside was covered with smeared produce. He looked up at the sun and it felt like a spotlight. He knew where he wanted to go, and took deserted side streets to get to a small, nondescript rectangle of sand nestled amongst a busy road and a heavily polluted stretch of river. It was his favourite beach.It was early afternoon when Lern arrived, and everyone on the sparsely populated beach turned and looked at him. Lern tried to ignore this and found a solitary spot of sand where he could sit alone. He sheepishly took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and sat cross-legged, looking out at the water and people. Eventually they looked away. Lern felt hot but not from the sun. More people arrived at the beach as the day stretched on, and Lern continued to sit in the sand, getting used to the activity, getting used to the glares of people, and getting sunburnt.  He noticed two teenage girls approaching, one with her face obscured by sunglasses and another forcefully chewing gum. They were talking and looking at their phones. They stopped short of Lern and snapped open a towel and Lern could feel the air. He winced and felt his eyes water. He didn’t want the company, but the two girls sat next to him. “Hey wow, you look like a big red baby,” said the girl with the gum.“Lisa, Jesus you can’t just fucking say that,” said the girl with the sunglasses.“Ugh, why? Hey dude, what happened to your head?”Lern rubbed his eyes and said “I woke up like this yesterday,” “No way.”“Yeah it just happened. The doctor’s don’t know why and some physicists said maybe there’s a thing in my head. I hate physicists, who can understand them.”“Man, physicists gets on my nerves,” Lisa said. “Like if you are so good at physics why don’t you just do straight math. Hey, do you want sunscreen for your big red baby head? I’m Lisa by the way.” Lisa held out the sunscreen. Lern reached out a hand.“I’m Lern.”“I’m Deborah,” said Deborah. “Hi Deborah,” said Lern.“Well Lern, we are going to eat sandwiches and listen to music in your general area so I hope that’s cool. Don’t worry about your head, Deborah has a peanut-shaped one and we all still like her.”“Lisa that is big talk for someone with an outie bellybutton.”“Ahh! Ahh! How can you even see that with your lazy eye?!”It didn’t look to Lern like Deborah had a lazy eye, and Lern continued to listen to Lisa and Deborah pick apart real and imagined imperfections until they both burst into laughter. Lern laughed too, in spite of himself, his whole head lolling back and forth. “You are the first people I’ve talked to all day,” he told them.  Lern decided to stay at the beach. Lisa took Deborah’s phone and put on a song that sounded to Lern like a colourful and apocalyptic future. The girls broke out sandwiches but decided they weren’t hungry, so they fed them to gathering seagulls, in willful ignorance of the ‘DO NOT FEED THE BIRDS’ signs posted nearby. A seagull grabbed a piece of sandwich bigger than its head and choked it down in big gulps. It turned towards the rolling tide and started screeching. A second gull landed, stood beside the first one, and started screeching too. It made sense to Lern. He thanked the girls for the sunscreen and left as the birds continued to shriek by the incoming waves of brown water and garbage.As Lern was walking home, he caught the glint of an alto saxophone in a shop window, dying sunlight reflecting off of polished brass, and he bought it on sight. The neck strap didn’t fit, and the cashier tried to talk him out of it, but Lern couldn’t be helped. He smiled the whole walk home. In his apartment Lern took the saxophone out of its case. He set up the reed and mouthpiece, attaching them together with the ligature, which took a couple of tries to get right. When it was done he attached it to the neck of the saxophone, and attached the neck to the body. He said “What am I going to do with a saxophone?” out loud to the empty room. He set it on the chair across from his at the kitchen table and looked at it while he ate spaghetti. He laughed at himself. The saxophone made the rest of his apartment look dull.Now that there was nothing else to do but play the saxophone, Lern found that he could not. He thought of blowing into the saxophone with all of his strength, red-faced, neck muscles bulging, and no sound coming out. He pictured the saxophone falling apart in his arms. The failure felt too big to imagine. He sighed, did his neck exercises, and fell asleep in his bed while the saxophone sat in the kitchen. In his dream, Lern was a big red baby, floating lost through empty space. Suddenly, he was engulfed in a bright light— Lern’s eyes snapped open and, still in his boxers, he grabbed the saxophone and left for the roof of the apartment building. Lern ducked his head under the door and was met with open air and the quiet of a sleeping city. He wedged the door open and set foot on the gravel surface of the roof. He looked out towards the grey brutalism of the new government buildings, then past them towards the gothic revival style of older government buildings, which were in turn surrounded by modest downtown skyscrapers. He held the saxophone steady and placed his hands over the keys. He took a deep breath. He felt ready.He blew into the instrument and no sound came out. The calm of the city was indifferent. Then Lern remembered embouchure, the way the guy at the music store said you needed to shape your mouth to direct the tunnel of air from your lungs to the saxophone. He tried again, resting his upper teeth on the mouthpiece while the reed rested on his bottom lip, which was curled over his lower teeth. He took another deep breath and closed his eyes. He felt his swollen head spinning in the pressure of the Big Metal Machine. A crowd of people leering at him and chanting bobblehead. A crumpled note next to a thick knot. He blew into the saxophone and felt the instrument vibrate, heard a noise disturb the air.IVAs his fingers started moving with unknown purpose along the keys, a huge, immense sound emptied itself out of Lern. Screeching, mournful wailing - geese squeaking at the earth as they fell like bowling pins out of the sky; dive-bombing in straight lines out of immense grey clouds.As Lern continued to play, his body powering a deep thrum of squawking bellows, he saw the white light of his dream; he saw infinity, a nothingness beyond comprehension. Out of that void came a sensation like the colour red, and out of that sensation Lern could see the red expand into the solid brick walls of a tiny bar, vibrating to the music of a group of thrashing punks. He saw a man with his oversized head bobbing at the back of the club, singing along with the refrain of a song that goes: You will always, be a loser! You will always, be a loser!The man with the big head collides into a tall woman with striking black hair - spilt drinks and future laundry. They make eye contact as the singer continues: Aaand that’s Okay! They find themselves singing along, and they start to laugh. They eat pizza slices in the cold November air after the show. Lern’s whole body shifted with the saxophone, as he continued to burst forth with sound and vision. He saw the inky blackness of stars spit out of a black hole. He saw dark hair flowing out the window of a rented camper van driving through the desert. The man with the large head lies in the back of the van. They set up camp and eat hotdogs that split and curl over themselves in the heat of an open fire. They sit by copper gorges of earth cut down by water that doesn’t exist anymore, watch the sky dance and the sun set over the dessert. Stars swirling like water circling a drain around the density of a blue giant.A jubilant cacophony ripped through the air above the street and Lern saw everything at once: a gurney ripping through hospital hallways. The milky way in an expanding whorl. A hand gripping his. The woman with the dark hair screaming as she gives birth. Crowning. A cold dead sun suddenly flaring. The woman with the dark hair holding new life - an infant crying as she learns to breathe. Planets spat back into orbit. A tiny life swathed in cotton. More and more in a torrent Lern can’t control - hands and feet clambering over his head as the child treats her father as an obstacle course. Living in the basement of an old box home given to veterans after the war. First steps and first words. The weary feeling of parenting, stealing sleep by the glow of televisions, in front of open books, the comforting feeling of that head of dark hair fitting like a puzzle piece in the crook of Lern’s neck. A wealth of seasons - rain, heat, autumn leaves and white snow. Planets circled a vibrant sun. Pencil marks along the edge of a wall as an infant ran screaming, the marks creeping upwards as she turns into a three year old. These marks twinned by another child. Colouring crayons and a tiny blue dress. Soccer balls and dance shoes. A calm and even universe. The man with the big head and his saxophone settled into an exuberant groove but there is still more.Faster and faster - images that Lern can’t make sense of - stars losing sense of themselves and turning into primordial clouds, boxes of pamphlets, city council signs with giant heads on them, hand shaking, so many strange faces, so many loved ones, sleek black caskets and dead parents, new nieces, new nephews, new cousins, clouds shedding atoms, and a frantic tone on the saxophone now. And more and too much; dark hair turning grey beautifully, gracefully; a house of textbooks, dumb boys, okay ones, scratched cars and university tours, canoes like matchsticks in a great river, atoms falling apart, subatomic particles freezing, a cold beyond imagining. An elegiac saxophone slows as Lern sees the end – a cabin, a still lake, grandchildren by a gnarled willow tree - and stops playing, a wetness on his face drying in the warm glow of morning.VAn old man with a giant head drifts slowly away from the laughter in the cabin. A young voice calls for him so he waves a hand. In the darkness, the man walks along a dirt path from the cabin to a great undisturbed lake. He finds comfort in the stillness, the stars, the vast geography. He sits at the base of a tall, gnarled tree and takes a last look at the cabin, its happy sounds and warm glow. The man closes his eyes and rests.When his head splits open, the stunning light of the infinite bursts out.
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THE PITS by Christopher X. Ryan

It was all over the news. Skull fragments got discovered on Jimmy Wallace’s land during a septic dig. Just a few chips turned up, no bigger than the tokens Jimmy dishes out at the carousel he runs, but rumors cantered across town faster than you could say ex-wife.

The cops quashed the rumors though, saying it was probably a native skull, an archaeological or anthropological thing. They cordoned off Jimmy’s property with yellow tape and erected floodlights and stood with their thumbs hooked in their belts and their feet splayed like sentries at the portal to some savage place in our distant past.

If true they were native skull bits, it would be a ginormous relief to me and Carl Clancy. He and I had in fact interred a body back there, a kid we’d killed by accident one time when were high as banners. Carl was at the wheel—ka-thump—kid on a kick-scooter went under us. You wouldn’t expect the jeep to lurch and list on such a tiny body, but that soft skin and rich blood nearly diverted our trajectory into the oak at the bend of Rattlecan Corner. It happened the night of the fireworks and traffic vehicular and bodily was heavy, so we tarped up the boy and stuck him temporarily in the vast expanse of dirt between Jimmy’s garage and the marsh, a soft place with decades of old leaves and centuries of bent nails and eons of broken-up roots. Six months later, after the hubbub of the boy’s disappearance died down, we dragged the body to the cliffs and tossed it into the sea for the birds and fishes to particularize. Whether we spilled some head parts I don’t know but it seems like a true possibility if I get to pondering it. That was three years back.

Now, after two days of drinking and furious puking of the sort that makes your brow feel like it’s been substituting for a rock sledge, I slink down to the carousel where Jimmy works and strike up a friendly chat to get the lay of the land, almost literally.

Despite the notion that unsettled souls are haunting his land, he’s doing fine, distracted by business. The carousel downright hops all summer on account of the horses having real hair and being the oldest in the country. Look in them horses’ eyes and you’ll see gems and figurines and such but the carousel animals don’t bounce, just whirl in a lazy circle. Catch that brass ring though, you get a free ride. People love it, being simpletons and lovers of glimmering novelty, and Jimmy makes a killing running the place for some overseas consortium. Also, they’s got lots of arcade games in the annex.

“Now they’re thinkin’ there’s a whole village deep down,” Jimmy says, rocking on the heels of his ugly but comfortable looking shoes while jiggling the two pounds of change he keeps in his pockets. I don’t full-on hate the guy, but there’s something about him that makes me wonder if he ever got laid in his life. He’s that tense and under-socialized.

“A village, you say.”

He snorts his wet, god-awful snort, indicating he thinks something idiotic just been said. “Either a horde of natives got kill’t or someone’s been a-dumpin’ bodies there for years.”

“Huh—that’s—a thing to contemplate about.”

“Yup.”

“Yup.”

“Indeed.”

After that I hit the paddles on Galaxy War but don’t even come close to beating Fred Sutton’s high score, then head over to the construction site where Carl Clancy gets paid to clean up wayward nails and Tyvek sheets and the other shit the carpenters chuck off the roofs. Soon as Carl sees me coming though, he gets twitchy and his eyeballs do that shaky thing.

“Who else been a-dumpin’ there?” I ask.

“I mean, fuck. Years back my grandpa and Josiah Pundt used to rob the natives of they’s liquor and car parts and sometimes it got ugly.”

“Who else?”

Now Carl is all but dancing but not the kind that’d make a gal jiggly and wet. “Shit, man. Your dad. My dad.”

I rub my jaw. “I suppose that’s a good thing. They call it possible deniability or something like that.”

“It’s just—”

“What?”

His eyeballs take to quivering again, flitting back and forth like a hummingbird on fermented nectar. “Only problem is—”

“Spit it out before I yank it out, Carl.”

“Garrett Simms is on the case.”

At that name my skin prickles. There’s only one person on Earth I hate more than God himself and that’s Garrett Simms. “What in the hell for? He’s just a regular ol’ street pig.”

“Naw, he got up-moted to detective. It was in the newspaper and everything.”

“Goddamn it, Carl.”

“Ain’t my fault.”

“We got to do something about this.”

“Such as what?”

“We got to mess up the dig zone. You still got them deer skulls?”

The next day I call in sick and park my van a short ways from Jimmy’s house and sit there drinking joe after joe until my balls are sore to the touch. I take frequent pisses into a jug but I don’t sleep none and my eyes don’t droop and I watch the pits like it’s my dharma. All the while my mind drifts tither and yon and I think of the times Garrett Simms pulled down my pants in the locker room or pinned me down so kids could slap my calves with wet rags and of course when he full-on grabbed my cock in the group showers.

Around noon a team comes in to sweep at Jimmy’s dirt with toothbrushes and blowers. Sure enough the devil Simms himself pulls up in an unmarked car. It’s nothing fancy but his suit looks tailored. He’s still fit and handsome but you put a turd in a shiny pouch, it’s still fecal and liable to smear everything it touches. He and the other pigs have gridded out the dirt and cordoned it off with yellow tape but them forensic types have only dug a foot deep, or so my binoculars tell me.

News reporters hover. A hearse appears but no one gets in or out and then it leaves.

Garrett and the other cops stand there chatting until evening and Jimmy brings them cold ones. He’s an authority sycophant. A termite with skin. You ever seen what a tire does to a human skull? They’s eyes leap out as if trying to see who just done this. Man, what’d I’d pay to get Jimmy and Garrett laying crown-to-crown in the road.

When dark plummets for good and Jimmy’s acreage goes still for the night, I slide out the back door of the van and wander over and stand at the rim of the pits a good while, thinking about the blacktop that led me to such a moment and the options that could steer me away from it. Then I notice the cooler’s still there, half-filled with ice, and a few of Jimmy’s brewskis are bobbing in it like overboard sailors. His home brew is probably the best in town and after all the coffee I’ve been swilling I get a hankering for something smooth. So I have one, then a second. It doesn’t take long before the happies set in and my limbs start to float. Because my gut is empty things go sideways on the third. The bottle slips from my hand and the pit starts to shift, sliding here and there until it’s all around me and I feel like I’m last in line to receive communion and the whole congregation is staring at me. A second later the air goes cold with a sharp rush of wind. A shovel or something of its ilk ker-klonks me on the brainpan and instantly my knees puss out. My body goes snaky in response and down I go, right into the dig pits.

Things invert a moment. Sound changes, like I’m at the bottom of the swimming hole. My head lolls around of its own accord and when my vision returns I see stars above me, only they’re all spinny, going round and round like the lights above the carousel. Then I see the horses up in the sky. I see myself too but I’m not alone—the kid we killed is on the horse ahead of me and we’re both reaching for the brass ring. He misses it and I feel bad, so I miss it on purpose too and we both lose out on the free ride.   

My head bobs in the other direction and I see a figure slinking about in the pits. They’s got on a bandanna and a clever hat so his identity is lost to me. He comes closer, bearing down on me like an ugly angel, jabbing at the soil with the shovel, and each time the blade hits a rock all I can think is that the sparks look like fireflies.

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SARCASTIC MIND JAIL GOES TO A PARTY (W/ TRIPARTITE DENOUMENT) by Sebastian Castillo

“If anyone sees that he can live better on the gallows than at his own table, he would be very foolish not to go and hang himself.”

—Baruch Spinoza

for Kit Schluter

 

Another party, and the people who go to them.

My former boss, whom I distrust on a fundamental level, invited me to his retirement party held at his vacation home on the coast. He hadn’t used it since the summer. At first, when invited, I said no. I had to wash my hair that night. But later, as so often is the case, I said yes.

I was surprised, initially, by how many people attended the gathering. My distaste for him was not unique—most people in our office held our boss in contempt, and generally thought it unlikely that he would have people in his life outside of work. We were wrong. Our boss was a generous donor to his former university’s football program, and it seemed as if several generations of players and coaches were present, all thinking and talking about football, a sport for which I don’t care. Men would say, “Football?” to each other, and in response hear: “The football.”

We had reached a lull in the party. Perhaps only an hour had passed, and there was markedly less chatter than when I had first arrived. I spent most of my time eating tiny hotdogs and telling people I didn’t know anything about sports. They would smile sadly, as if I had told them I recently lost my calling in life, or that my dog had died.

A man named Joseph with broken teeth approached me. He said, “I want to show you a party trick that will make you never want to leave this place.” I told him I had very little to lose, and that a gain would be both unexpected and desirable at present. Joseph unzipped his skin, starting from a large copper zipper on his forehead, which I hadn’t noticed initially because of his wretched teeth. Underneath his skin was my dead mother. “See?” he said. I told him it was a tad too autobiographical, and somewhat puerile in nature.

“Oh?” he responded, “You think you’re capable of better tricks? Tricks that would lead the guests of this party to never depart—ever—from the place which they’re enjoying themselves so fully? So harmoniously? So effortlessly? Though, of course, there is quite a bit of effort. The cost of travel is getting pricier by the day. It’s hard to leave one’s room.”

“That’s true, but no,” I said, “It’s not that. I am capable of no tricks. I can barely tie my shoes in the morning. But a stunt as cheap and suburban as yours requires no respect on my behalf. You can take that up with the internet.”

Joseph’s first skin, dangling limply from his calves, was creating a puddle of brownish mucus on the floor. I could see it dripping towards the legs of the grand piano in the living room, which a football player had tinkered with earlier in the evening, admitting that he hadn’t played in quite a bit. He got through the first few chords of the Charlie Brown Christmas song (it was the season, after all), and meekly stopped on a bum note. One of his former coaches slapped him on the forehead and screamed at his wife to get them more treats.

The mucus had, at this stage, enveloped the entirety of the piano in its substance. Now the piano had transformed into my first boyhood crush, albeit in the shape of a piano. I believe her name was Yasmin, though I could be mistaken.

“This is really too much,” I said. “And I should get going.” It was true: I would be flying to Patagonia early the next day. I had been having dreams that I would soon die. The dreams were all different: sometimes an anvil would fall on my head from a high distance. Other times, I was inveigled into a terrorist plot which resulted in the destruction of the United States White House, and my body along with it. Either way—I feared death’s approach was coming, and coming soon. I drafted a list of things I wished to complete before my demise, and a trip to Patagonia was chief among them. The reason was simple: it was far away. I seldom want to leave my room. And so, a trip to Patagonia could only speak beneficently to my character, my belief in historical dialectics, and my hope that the human soul was, underneath it all, good.

My boss approached Joseph and me with a dumb smile. “A trip to Patagonia would prove nothing of the sort,” he said, and laughed haughtily. “My boy, it is true that you will die soon. At least that’s what my own dreams have told me. But to carry forth with this trip is simply ludicrous. You should spend your remaining days in the company of handsome women, like the one my piano has recently transformed into, and in excessive consumption of hard drugs, specifically cocaine. It shatters your heart, I hear, but that won’t matter much to you, will it.”

It was things like this that made me dislike him. What right had he to peer into my mind—sarcastic and witless as it was—and tell me what I should do? What I should think?

“Well, what do you want out of life, Sebastian?” Yasmin asked. The mucus dripped over the floor and approached me. “Really? You have such little time left.” Her kindness, even in that moment, was boundless. I had once purchased a pearl necklace—which I bought from a vendor on the beaches of Margarita—and given it to her, though we barely spoke. She accepted it without reproach, and continued our lifelong silence.

I breathed in deeply, tongued the remains of a hotdog stuck to my teeth. “It’s true that I am not doing well. I don’t know if I’ll ever be doing better,” I said. “And for that, I blame my mind jail. However, there are small changes I’d like to enact in my life. I should eat less hot dogs. I should drink alcohol only when an occasion calls for it, like today. I should get back on my medication, which I stopped taking because I disliked the idea that I had to take it to function in a standard fashion. Besides that, I look forward to the end of winter. When it is warmer out, things will be clearer to me. I will wake up and behave in such a way that I am crossing off the tasks on my list. I will walk to the park because it is a pleasant thing to do, and I won’t have planned it in advance. I’ll go to the park because I can, and want to. When I arrive, I won’t do anything but sit on a bench. Maybe I’ll smoke a cigarette, which I should stop doing, but I’ll allow it in this particular future, because it means that I am taking ownership of my pleasure. I will not feel suspicious toward the things which give me pleasure. I will drink a glass of water that I have placed on the kitchen table because I’d like that, not because it’s good for me. Afterward, I’ll move to a new city and go to the events held there. I’ll talk about things which are amiable, unpredictable, and filled with flowers that others will want to smell. I will want to smell them too, even though they are in my hand, not very far away from my nose.”

The room had stopped. Conversations of football were snuffed out like oxygen leaking from a candle’s flame.

“Puerile,” Joseph said, speaking with my mother’s mouth, though he was gathering up his first skin from the waist up, ready to re-zip, hopefully for good.

“Not likely to happen,” said my former boss. He was already on his cellphone.

“I’d have to agree with the boss man,” said Yasmin. “Too self-pitying. And I never did like you. Your mawkish gifts and ceaseless projections, etcetera.” She played a waltz with her teeth (those were the piano keys) and all in the room danced with vim: the people of football, my co-workers, my former boss, Joseph, even Yasmin herself.

Before I knew it, I was back home. It felt as if I had fallen asleep as soon as I opened my bedroom door. I had no dreams that night—which was a relief—and my bags were already packed. The rest of this story happened in three parts:

  1. In the morning, I hailed a cab to the airport. The driver asked me what I thought about the new song that was getting popular nowadays. “Puerile,” I said, “though, that’s not such a bad thing.” The driver spat out of his window. “That’s enough of your opinions for now. I was just trying to pass the time.” 

  2. At the airport, a TSA agent dumped the contents of my bag into a plastic bin: my laptop, some clothes, a few novels, a notebook. She examined each. I handed her my passport again. “Your name sounds like a weather man. Like the ones on TV.” I told her I had heard that before. “No need to get testy,” she said. 

  3. I boarded the plane, and after seating myself, the pilot greeted me. “Would you like to fly the plane today?” he asked. “I’m unfortunately lazy in temperament, somewhat suicidal.” I said that I would not, and that laziness was a virtue, depending on how one looked at it. People had written books about that. “That’s true,” he said. “Hey, this guy is funny,” he said, a little louder. “Hey everyone, check out the brains on this one,” emphasis on brains. He pantomimed a plane flying with his hand and then crashed it into the ocean, making a child’s sound with his mouth, thankfully his own. “Big brain man over there,” he said, walking back to the cockpit.
 

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NIGHTHAWK by Zach VandeZande

There’s a yellowy light. It’s not fluorescent. This is not the IHOP. It’s the other one. The local diner. Yellowed sign, yellowed menus, yellow, yellowy light.

_________

Nothing that happens here is important. Important is elsewhere is the point of a place like this. This place is meant for in-between.

_________

She is at the hostess station looking lost. Looking like a customer who doesn’t know if she should seat herself. The post-bar rush is over. A last-call-at-2am town in a last-call-at-2am state. But: it’s later than all that. There seems to be no one in the restaurant at all. Bacon grease on everything. Pancakes in the very air.

_________

There are some things a body can do, and some things a body cannot do. Some things stand inside the scope, and then some things stand outside the scope, with their mocking smile and wave, with their cannot. The sum of these two types of things together is called a person.

_________

She has always been an IHOP person, if that’s a type of person to be.

_________

A man stands up from the one working video poker machine in the corner. This man has a great quality to his hands, prominent knuckles, a meaty rectangular strength to them. There is a tattoo in the webbing between thumb and forefinger—a small cross, hastily done. He wears a maroon polo shirt with a black collar. His hands look capable of doing things to other things, of being here and then here and then here and it helps or it hurts. He waves her along, leading her to a booth by the window. She will not look at his face. She looks at his transitive hands.

_________

Notably, the drunks have all gone home for the night.

_________

To look at a face is to have a face looked at is to invite comment. She is still beautiful, despite it. She still radiates youth, she still accidentally looks at people in a way that captures their complete attention, despite it. Some things do not change as easily as all that. To say that one thing is the essence of a person is to be naïve. She is in many ways naïve.

_________

She sits at a table. She says “Coffee,” she says, “Water with no ice.” In the blackness of the window she can see herself say these things. The yellow light overhead casts her reflection in dingy ghost shapes. The table lacquer is coming up at one corner, the booth she is sitting in has a slight tear in the seat back. There is damp and ache coming from her breasts. The man leaves her with a menu, which she ignores.

_________

A prison doesn’t require a key, after all. What it requires is belief in a key.

_________

The waiter brings water and disappears again around the corner. Behind her, somewhere, coffee futzes and sputters. He doesn’t bother telling her it’s brewing. She imagines him on the other side of the wall, playing video poker. On slow nights, a waiter might spend more at the video poker machine than he earns. She thinks he cannot help it. His nametag is peeling, his name rolling back into itself. That it were so easy to disappear, just a furl, a rolling in and away, gone.

_________

She finds him, suddenly, boring, wants to stop imagining him. He rubs a dollar against the corner of the video poker, making the money presentable, making it good enough to be accepted by the waiting mouth of the machine. She cannot see it, but this is what he does.

_________

Sitting there, she becomes aware of her breathing. She breathes manually, and then she panics that she won’t be able to stop breathing manually, that her body will never take over again. How long could she last? How long would it be before that responsibility too became crushing and she let herself collapse gasping to the floor? Could she make it through a cup of coffee, through a meal? Could she make it to daybreak?

_________

Never went in for the girl stuff, aside from being deliberate in her beauty. A breath. She thinks of herself as an angular person. A breath. She is all hard edges when she can help it. A breath. Doesn’t brook bullshit from anyone. Sees it as strength. A breath. Was not this for a time. A breath. And now. A breath.

_________

There’s an old joke, and it’s this: What’s the worst thing that can happen in a falling elevator? It stops. And what’s the best thing? It stops. Which isn’t funny, so maybe it’s not a joke. But it’s true.

_________

She tries to calm herself the way she was taught by her college roommate years ago: breathe out twice as long as you breathe in, count it out, name three things you love about being alive, realize that you are only your body, or realize that you are not just your body—she couldn’t remember which it was or if it was both—just ride the wave, live through this and then this and then this and guess what: now you’re living, present tense and actual. Now you’re now.

_________

It could be said fairly that every moment is life-changing, each insuck of air irrevocable. Thoughts like these are banal at every moment they aren’t.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

The waiter reappears, passes her, returns with coffee. The presence of him forces her to be calm. She sits. She sips her coffee. It is surprisingly good. She expected something over-roasted, bile-sour, stale. Something that cried out for the little tub of cream in its basket on the table, sitting by the plastic tower of assorted jellies. There is a kind of betrayal in the robust flavor, in how good it feels to put the warmth into her body.

_________

From the video poker machine, bleeps and bloops move softly through the dining area.

_________

There is an absence of need in her that’s new, or worse, long-forgotten, the mark of an earlier version of herself pupating within her, ready to reemerge. She opens a tub of cream and dumps it in, then another. The coffee grays and whorls. It blooms. The way the black outside snugs up on the windows makes her feel as though she is attenuated to bigger truths lurking in the mundane. She wants things to be this still for her from now on.

_________

She might be connected to something new. A great heritage of loneliness. Nighthawk. That one Hemingway story she hated so much. Aaron made her read it in college, Aaron who got so upset when she didn’t care about all the nada, when she found it too cliché to be interesting. At the time she felt so sorry to hate the story. How often had she been sorry for her own opinion?

_________

She is not quite sure what it will be like, what she will do with so many empty hours, if it will ever feel as though this is what life is instead of feeling like, well, like what, exactly? Like she’s her own ghost, staying behind, carrying on.

_________

A body is still a vessel when it holds only itself. She learned this when the baby was born, and then somewhere she unlearned it, as the baby began to grow and occupy more space, kept finding more space to occupy than she knew was even there in her to occupy. It’s a thing she’d like to know again: how much space can fit in the vessel.

_________

She trembled and slipped back into breathless panic. She thought I fucking told you. She thought Do not think about the Pollywog. She thought She didn’t cry when you set her car seat down on pavement, when you hurried away. She thought She stayed right asleep that scary way the Pollywog would sleep, scary baby too-deep sleep.

_________

The waiter comes back around to see if she’s ready. She apologizes. She forgot about the menu in front of her. He looks over his shoulder to the kitchen and says it’s fine. She is overly apologetic. He says it’s okay, but she persists in performing the act of apology, fingers squirming at the menu.

_________

In some ways she will always be in that two-bedroom apartment, man and baby and her as ghost. She does not want to know this, but she does.

_________

The waiter lingers. The waiter notices the quaver of her and wants to help. He asks her where she’s from and she says, “Here.” He puts two fingers on the table. He says, “No, I mean your peoples.” And she is looking at him, fierce, reddened eyes. He’s from somewhere too, by the look of him. “Guatemala,” she says, “Libya.” He whistles and says, “That’s some mix.” Her shoulders tighten. She does not want to talk to a waiter about anything, least of all this. That a person can reach adulthood without knowing this kind of small talk is terrible, sticking your finger in another person’s nose.

_________

She does not want to be hard angles right now, but she is with the waiter. She wants to be a not. She thinks she might unwrap her fork from its napkin and jab his fingers off the table. He stands there, not letting her be a not, forcing her to be a person in a context that came from somewhere. It’s horrible. He’s horrible.

_________

An in-between is a place like any other. Everybody lives in the present, all the time. Horrible.

_________

She was not always this woman. She learned to be another woman with Aaron. Aaron saw different because Aaron wanted her to love him, wanted that plain, and that came with a desire to bend the will of her to his, get her, the organism, a little closer to her, the idea in his mind. She’s not that idea, though. Not that she blames him. She did it, too, though not so much with Aaron. Aaron was Aaron, without consequence. She did it with the Pollywog. She did it until she realized she couldn’t.

_________

With Aaron she saw she could be not unhappy. Which is nothing at all like happy.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

The waiter stands there expectant and she asks him for a cigarette. He says no. They’re there in his pocket. She could reach for them. She could take what she wanted. She looks up at him. He says city ordnance. He says. She holds out her open palm.

_________

It’s possible to feel weightless, freed, awful. It’s possible to feel everything you know, all at once.

_________

Cigarette in hand, to lips. The waiter nervous. Something electric in the scratch of the lighter, in him bringing the flame to her. The waiter’s hands. Used to trouble, probably. In trouble. She can make him feel a way about her, about himself. She need only reach across with her free hand. She need only grab the nametag and peel it free, and what comes after comes after.

_________

Her biggest regret is that she knows she could become anything at all and didn’t, still might.

_________

She tells him she wants to drink coffee for a while. She tells him he can say he didn’t notice the cigarette, if anyone asks. He nods and leaves her alone, disappears into the kitchen.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

For the pieces of this to fit together, there must reasonably be some measure by which she would consider herself whole. She was capable of things, once. She could read a baby like a tarot card, every burp a star aligned. She could bear the wailing. She could give herself away, all the way. She could be unmade and still be made. Simple enough things.

_________

She takes a deep drag on the cigarette and her lungs fuzz out. Somewhere a baby wakes in the cold. Somewhere a baby. Somewhere a loss without language. Somewhere a light going on at the precinct, a savior arriving, not the wanted one. Somewhere a vessel being made unwhole.

_________

But who has ever been whole. It’s there in the word itself. Whole, hole. Cruelty, homonym.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

That coffee goes cold. That dawn comes on. That a different now is on the way.

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LEPIDOPTERA by Shelby Colburn

She told me she caught a moth in her throat. We sat in a roadhouse munching on fried pickles as snow fell past the window. She reached into her mouth with a finger and pulled her right cheek to the side like a hooked fish. I leaned closer to her face and peered down her mouth. There it was, a grey moth lodged in the opening of her throat. Its small wings fluttered behind her uvula and tonsils. She popped her finger away, closing the opening to the moth’s new home.

“It chose me,” Priv said as she attempted to clear her throat, “I felt it one day and there it was.”

She took her hand from under mine and picked up her glass of seltzer. She sipped a few gulps while I watched as the condensation formed moisture against the edges of her chipping maroon nail polish.

“I feel it against my neck if I press hard enough,” she said, “And it won’t tell me why it chose me,” Priv put down her drink and folded her arms against her chest, “It speaks to me. Tells me what it wants.”

I popped a pickle in my mouth letting the juice trail down my chin. Priv sucked a glob of ranch off her fingers. I wondered if the moth would spit the dressing down into the cavern of saliva and mucus. What if Priv displeased it—would it stretch out and choke the air from her trachea? My sadness formed a lump in my own throat.

Priv smiled and swallowed another pickle.

***

When the last traces of snow melted into the earth, I saw the effects of the insect spooning itself against Priv’s pharynx.

I was reading a book when I looked over and saw Priv staring at her lamp.

“The lights are magnificent,” she told me, “They look like life and death.”

I asked her what that meant, but she reached up and lifted the shade from the LED.  

“I see pixels and swirls of purples and pinks. Oranges are mating with yellows to create greens. There is black behind every surface mixed with scarlet.”

I reached over and turned off the light. Priv blinked her eyes and turned her head back to me. Her pupils were dilated enough to leave no white.

“Return them to me,” she said.

I pulled the string down, and she reached her hand towards the burning bulb.

***

When I saw her the next day, Priv was sitting on a stool slumped over her kitchen island. Bags hung below her eyes and the paint from her nails had been chewed off.

She was whispering and placing her index finger in her mouth. I watched as she chewed the tip of the nail with small nibbles. “Your fur scratches my throat,” she said quietly while tipping her head back. She hocked, but smiled as she rested her chin against the grain of the island.

I leaned down beside her and tilted my head to meet her blank gaze. She turned her neck slightly towards me, her pupils still large in her eyes. I asked her if she wanted to try and get rid of it. She chomped down hard on her nail and tore a crescent from her finger. With a gulp she sent it back to her throat.

“Why?” she said, “Jealous?”

A glint of spit dripped from her bottom lip.

***

When bulbs began to bloom, I watched as bandages replaced her fingers. Priv munched her nails down to the lunula. Her shirts and sweaters grew damp with drool while she sucked and nibbled at the edges of her sleeves.

“I don’t want to do that,” she whispered to herself one day, taking her sleeve away from her mouth. I stood back from her and she began laughing, “I don’t want to drink the flowers.”

I asked her what that meant, but Priv told me not to worry about it. “Moth things,” she said while sticking her sweater over her tongue.  

I tried taking the sleeve out of Priv’s mouth, but she pushed me away.

I didn’t want to smother her, so I let her be.

***

Two days later I found Priv examining her garden, her hands digging into the dirt to tear up her credenzas’ roots. I watched as she plucked the flowers from her garden and tilted the head of the plant to her lips, her tongue soaking up the morning dew that rested on the surface of the florets. She crushed the flower in her hands, looking up at me with a yellow-green moustache; her smirk tainted with a clear syrup falling down her chin.

***

In mid spring, when her garden was strewn with the corpses of tulips, hydrangeas, and camellias; Priv began to tear and gnaw her clothing. She plucked with her teeth the cotton and polyester blends that scooped around her neck. Lint caught between her incisors, so she flossed with loose strings from the leftovers of her rags.

“I can’t eat anything else,” she said, her eyes circled with faint black rims, “Nectar and lint…”

She walked over to her sink and ripped the curtains hanging over the window above. She tore at the sewn chickens and apples, ripping the cloth into samples that she could plop into her mouth. She swallowed and I could hear a buzzing form in her throat.

“I always hated mom’s curtains,” she said chewing. She clicked her tongue in her mouth, her eyes beginning to squint with thought. “I wonder what sweat tastes like?” she said turning to me, her teeth holding a brown Welcome sign in the gaps of her gums.

***

When the humidity of July drenched our bodies with salt, Priv began to lick her arms and hands, wiping the drops of moisture from her forehead. When she tried to lick me, I pushed her back, telling the moth to stop it.

“It’s not the moth anymore,” she said, her voice wild. She climbed up her stairs and left me alone by the entrance of her porch. The light hanging over her door frame had scratch marks.

***

That night I sat in my bed and felt the fan blowing warm summer air on my body. I was unable to fall asleep as the muggy heat held me down on my sheets.

As I scrolled through my feeds, Priv’s face popped up in front of me. I answered her call.

“I need more,” she said, her voice sounding desperate and dry.  

I buried my face in my pillow, my sweat seeping into the synthetic fibers.

“Can’t you do anything for me?” she said, her voice booming in my room.

I didn’t answer her.

“You never cared.” She hung up.

***

“I need more,” a voice said coming from my window. I opened my eyes and twisted my head from my pillow. I saw Priv’s blue glare gleam as a car passed on the street below. My window fan lulled beside her.

As I wiped dried tears from the corners of my eyes, I heard Priv whispering to herself:

“I need something I haven’t tasted before.”

She opened her mouth, releasing a red string. It floated above her head in the current from the fan.  

She inched closer to me, eyeing the sweat that was forming under my hairline. She lunged at me, pinning me down against the fabric of my sheets. Before I could scramble away, she locked my arms down with her knees and opened her mouth.

“Just a bite,” she said while licking the side of my face, her breath smelling of nectar and Nike. I tried struggling beneath her, but she engulfed me. All I felt was the strange sensation of wings batting against my consumed skin.

***

When I came to, green scales clutched the caves and crooks of my epidermis, and I was struggling to breathe in a suspended world of metamorphosis. I could hear Priv’s voice shake the cavern around me: Just pretend to like it.

I looked down at my body and saw that my limbs were forming branches of black with spikes of hair. How long have I been down here? I thought, disbelief running through my mind. I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t alive. What was I?

My eyesight was beginning to merge into millions of diamonds, and I felt my head sprout two antennae. My blonde hair fell from my scalp into the abyss below, followed by crumbs of tonsil stone. I brought my fingers to my disillusioned eyes and saw my red blood had turned yellow.

I looked around. I was twisted and snarled within a golden-brown cocoon just dangling below the rounded hood of Priv’s uvula.   

I’m not ready to swallow you, her voice echoed around me. She laughed, swinging my cocoon back and forth. You tasted so good.  I had to save you for later.

***

My fingers were beginning to form as one when I heard a voice in my ear begin to speak to me.

It’s almost over, it whispered. It didn’t come from Priv’s throat—the sound was too clear against the ringing of my ears. But the soft cadence of the voice died against the shuffling and scratching my cocoon made. As I searched for the sound, I found my diamond eyes locate the red reflection of gems hiding behind the scars of forgotten wisdom teeth.  

She doesn’t like to swallow, it said raising its voice, She wants to absorb us. The moth’s proboscis did not move with the words that formed in my head—we were connected by the tissue that held us above Priv’s throat.

What can I give her?

Everything I couldn’t.

***

You think changing will help her? Priv’s throat said undulating. It didn’t help you.

The moth crawled into the red glow that shown from Priv’s cheeks, the outside world just out of reach behind flesh and veins. The moth’s white fur clashed with large red eyes, its hair coaxed in bits of lint and sap. Its left side was torn with bite marks forming over ripped trunks of leftover legs and torn aileron. Yellow blood splashed up against the thorax.

She tried eating me but she liked the taste too much.

Priv laughed again.

The moth climbed over my cocoon and began nibbling the seams that kept me suspended.

Make the decision, its voice called to me as its front leg stepped on my ridged home.

My surroundings vibrated with my every shake.

I didn’t want to leave her. It said while snipping away at the branches that held me up above the gaping esophagus. Even when I turned, she didn’t release me.

The green scales of the cocoon tightened their grip on me with every utterance. They snarled at me and dug into my furry skin.

Do what I should have done.

Priv’s jaw began to move, clipping the moth against her back molar with a large clush. Her throat motioned in repeating rows that drew back pieces of the moth.

I’m done with you, Priv said.

With one last slash, the moth tore open my cocoon and looked at me with its red eyes. It opened its mouth and screamed at me.

Priv’s mouth opened and a bright light filtered in past her gums. As her tongue bashed the moth down into her body below, I leapt forward. Two orange and black wings opened from my shoulder blades.

I flapped out of Priv’s mouth. She chomped at me with a lunge, but I soared out the gap between my fan and window. Her ethereal cries echoed below me.

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