BUTTLOAD by Caleb Echterling

The king’s chief of staff flipped the display numbers. The occupants of the blandest room in the kingdom clutched their flimsy tickets, and sucked in a collective breath. Trumpets flared, and a crier bellowed, “Petition the King Day, now serving A377.”

A group of well-dressed, barefoot gentlemen rose to their feet. “That’s us, move aside,” they said as they elbowed through the crowd into the throne room. “Your majesty, we are representatives of the Cloth-Sellers Guild. Look!” They each thrust one bare foot into the air. “We all have different sized feet.”

King Rupert stroked his beard. “I’m afraid the absolute powers of the monarchy do not extend to ordering my subjects’ feet to grow. If you wish, I could take a page from Solomon and trim the excess from the biggest ones, although I do not see what that would accomplish.”

Guild members hopped about on one foot to let King Rupert take in the true scale of the difficulty before him. “Sire, perhaps we should explain the problem in more detail. You see, we sell our wares by the foot, which we measure by removing our shoes. Some of our less scrupulous competitors are hiring short-appendaged apprentices to cheat the public. Our guild is getting a bad reputation.”

King Rupert nodded. “What you require is a standard measure. The one perfect foot, so that all across the kingdom, there is no question what is meant by ‘a foot’. I, of course, nominate my own foot. Clerk, make it so.”

Workers scurried to the throne, built a form around Rupert’s foot, and took a plaster cast. Copies of the cast were distributed to the Cloth-Sellers’ Guild, and sent to each corner of the kingdom. Guild members showered praise on the king, and rained kisses upon his royal appendages.

Trumpets flared, and a crier bellowed, “Petition the King Day, now serving D183.”

A group of gentlemen with pants around their ankles entered the throne room. “Your majesty, our butts are all different sizes.”

King Rupert covered his eyes. A wince rolled through the royal court like the wave at a football match. “If it’s any consolation, they are all equally hairy.”

“A thousand pardons, your majesty. Allow me to explain. We are from the Banana-Sellers Guild. According to local custom, our wares are sold by the buttload. A few unscrupulous banana sellers are hiring small-bottomed apprentices to swindle the public. We ask the royal court to order all small-bottomed purveyors of the banana trade put to death immediately.” The Banana-Sellers Guild, as if executing a choreographed dance number after hours of practice, all scratched their respective right cheeks.

“What’s wrong with selling bananas by the hogshead?” a royal courtier asked.

A representative of the Banana-Sellers Guild swished his hand about. “Hogsheads? We live in a modern, cosmopolitan kingdom, not some ignorant backwater. Now please kill all the banana merchants with small butts.”

King Rupert thumped the floor with his mace. The room fell silent. “If I may interject, what you need is a standardized measure. The one perfect butt, so that across the length and breadth of my kingdom, there is no confusion about the quantity conveyed by ‘a buttload’. I, of course, nominate my own butt.”

Workers scurried to the throne, built a larger frame, and submerged King Rupert’s hindquarters into wet plaster. The cast of the royal butt was, with much fanfare, distributed to all corners of the kingdom.

Trumpets flared, and a crier called the next number. A group cupping piles of excrement in their hands entered the throne room. “Your majesty, we are the Useless Junk Merchants, and our poops are all different sizes. It’s complete chaos. No one knows how big a crapload is.”

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I HOPE THERE’S NUZZLING by Marisa Crane

The universe is held inside a crunch bar. Everyone knows it. We are all just waiting for the sloppy giant to unwrap that beautiful blue wrapper and take a big bite out of it.

And then what?

Well, fuck if we residents of the universe know. We’re just here.

Will time stop? Cease to exist? Learn how to dougie all on its own?

Will Saturn and Jupiter finally rekindle their romance or will Venus slip on her lace thong and distract Saturn yet again?

Will the protons and electrons set aside their differences and make a pot roast together? Or perhaps a quiche? A quiche would be nice. A quiche is an adult thing to make.

Will the sun have an identity crisis? Join a cult? Begin dressing in drag? Become a levitating street performer?

Will the various alien species quit fighting over who deserves to possess the Earthlings as slaves and shake hands, then nuzzle each other’s soft fuzzy cheeks instead?

I hope that there is nuzzling involved. I really do.

These are the things I think about as I stand in the corner of the party. Drinking from a red solo cup. Because that’s what you do. You hold a red cup full of toxic fluid, then pour the poison into your mouth-hole, and let it weasel its way down your elastic tube until it hits your stomach where your stomach lining inevitably screams in agony. That’s what happens when you burp. It’s your stomach crying out for help.

X walks over to me, kinda smiling, kinda snarling, and Y, who’s sticking a vial up her nose, laughs like, oh, you two know each other? And I’m like shh, I’m trying to listen for the crunch of the crunch bar, and she thinks I’m kidding. Says something that is either a backhanded compliment or a fronthanded insult.

I decide that I’m okay with either.

X asks what I’m doing. I think it’s fairly obvious what I’m doing, but I hold up my red chalice of poison as a response anyway. She slams her cup into mine, thinking that I was signaling for a cheers situation. My golden poison spills all over my pineapple shirt. It happens.

X holds her hands up like, how did that happen? She says that the walls are shaking but no one ever notices.

I excuse myself to go retrieve more beer, holding onto the walls as I walk. Kind of like a secret agent in those movies. You know.

At the keg, Z makes a noise that sounds something like an alien having an orgasm. I think this is nice. I hope that an alien is getting off right this very moment. Before the giant tears the blue wrapper open.

Z gives me a head nod. I return it to him, unused. He says the beer is cold or mold or bold. I drink it. It tastes bold.

Back in the corner, X is gone and Y is giving me the silent treatment, I think for acknowledging X’s existence. Or at least she’s trying to. Every time she says something, she follows it up with—okay that’s it, I’m done—then eyes me like a pit bull wondering why it doesn’t get to sleep on the bed or eat crème brulee with the rest of the sad humans.

Y breaks her vow of silence. Says, you know X has one of those male sex dolls, right?

No, why would I know something like that? I ask, drinking my bold beer. Fucking intrepid. It travels to my stomach, slaughters every cell inside.

Haha, I don’t know. I don’t know, okay? Says Y. She’s grinding her teeth. I wonder if I am a male sex doll. That would explain a lot.

Z’s fluffy cat approaches and rubs up against my legs then Y’s.

Hi hi, little guy or girl or non-binary feline, I coo, bending down to pet it. It hisses. Fine, control freak.

You ever think about how Seaside has tons of cats outside but you never see any at the beach? It’s one massive litter box, says Y, holding her arms out to show me what the word massive means. I pour more beer down my mouth-hole.

Shit, you’re right, I say. None of the cats shit there. It’s like this beautiful, pristine toilet they’re missing out on. It’s like if someone turned down taking a dump in Buckingham Palace.

Yeah, she smiles. She sticks the vial up her nose and winks at me. I listen for the crunch. Nothing yet. I bet Y is one of the Rice Krispies.

I know Y really means it when she says yeah. She says it with gumption like I just asked her to join Beyoncé’s presidential campaign.

Yeah!

We leave the party without saying goodbye to anyone because saying goodbye is kind of like holding your breath underwater in the shallow end of the pool. Just stand up, fool.

On the walk home, Y laces her arm in mine and I can feel her protons wiggling around in their skin suit. We see three dogs, all of which bark at me. I bark back at them.

You’ve gotta practice your bark, says Y.

We talking ‘bout praaaaaactice, I say, making an outdated Allen Iverson reference and thinking I am funny in the way that time thinks doing the dougie is.

X texts me that it was good to see me tonight. I write back that she needs to find the giant and then we’ll talk.

Do you like her? Y asks, her skin translucent. I look through her and read the For Sale sign tilted in the grass. She is not for sale.

No. Do you?

I heard that she has zero credit, like literally. It’s like she doesn’t even exist, she says. I take that as a yes.

When we get home, Y puts a homemade mask on my face. To de-bloat it, she says. It has egg whites, coffee grounds, and I don’t know what else. I’m supposed to lie down while I wear it so that gravity pulls my cheeks back instead of down, but instead I decide to make a quiche.

Like the protons and electrons. I want to settle the differences within myself.

The important thing to remember when you’re making a quiche is that you’re not Martha Stewart. No one is paying for your recipe. Most likely you’re going to ruin the quiche and everything else around you. Your cat doesn’t care if you smile like a clown while whisking the eggs. You’re not Martha Stewart. You didn’t go to prison and increase your street cred. You don’t hang out in kitchens with Snoop Dogg. You don’t get to forbid Snoop Dogg from dropping the pan like it’s hot and watch the joy dissipate from his face.

You don’t get to crack the shell of yourself and cascade into a mixing bowl and come out 30 minutes later looking like a million bucks. Sorry, not even your therapist can help with that.

I am making a quiche. More accurately, I am making 12 muffin-sized quiches. Each its own tragi-comedy. Each its own little world.

I put them in the oven, wave goodbye.

My jowls are dangling past my nipples by the time I wash off the mask. I don’t bother sliding my skin back into place.

I wonder what Saturn and Jupiter are doing this very moment. If they are kissing, I would like to kiss Y. I go into the bedroom where she is reading a book about snails and underlining her favorite ones. It’s such a Y thing to do.

I give her a kiss on the cheek. Her skin is so warm and alive. I almost can’t believe it. I crawl into bed with her and nuzzle my face into her neck.

I forget all about the quiche and I wake to us burning beautifully, the giant standing over us, like hey, man, I’ve heard so much about you.

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nikolas slackman

SHAVER by Nikolas Slackman

“All of my hair is leaving me.”

But I was the one who’d shaved it all away. To say it left me was a compulsion to attract that rich melancholy self-lovers look for. I knew within mundane choices was the opportunity to feel abandoned.

I’d electric razored the whole thing top-down and looked like a flesh pear. I ran it against the arms, down the back, around the tits. A little cut up shaving the neck, but the cuts from nerve damage jitters don’t count, I’d said. Tweeze the brow, but you always tweeze the brow. I could feel George’s smirk inside the razors hum. What makes you think it grows just for you to shave it?

I waited in the lobby for my haircut. Doctor Gupta said coffee would do my nerve’s no favors, but I took up the receptionist’s offer. I could save the complementary Milano cookie for after the haircut. I drank the coffee in maybe four gulps, despite the heat. You could hear my curls screaming “Don’t cut us off, you motherfucker!” under the sips, if you listened closely.

My hair had been shoulder length since middle school. Before George started cutting my hair and turned me onto garage punk, before my late body hair had sprouted. Before high school, where I’d made some real friends then lost them, made some new friends then lost them, and Mia, who I’d dated and broken up with and dated, broken up with, and was in some inbetween thing with, maybe, when I suddenly heard the sound of my own thoughts. They sounded like buh dee duh dee duh dee duh and my hair sounded like horrible screaming. I remembered when George told me he’d watched his friend OD back in the 80’s. I thought that he was the only punk I’d ever met. I downed another coffee and asked for more, trembling.

George looked ridiculous when he came out from the back. The tight leather pants with chains draped around the thighs were notable. His stupid Noel Gallagher haircut even more so. His former muscle bro haircut was gross but understandable. This was not understandable. Not nearly enough of his shirt buttons were buttoned, and his chest was comically bare. He came up to me and said something like how’s it going man and I was like what’s up man so both questions were left rhetorical.

He sat me in front of his mirror when I noticed my scalp’s violent trembling. It only showed in my eyebrows, but I could feel it where the curls would root and bisect. He offered me the usual trim but I interrupted him with this story about how my friend Jordan told me I have Dad hair. George gave me this “you totally do have Dad hair” look. He started listing all the options I had but his voice drowned under the intensifying screams. I smiled and nodded, pretending they’d stopped until they did. He slapped me on the back and said “I’m glad you’ve come to this realization” while his assistant led me to the sink. I asked for another coffee.

Waiting in front of his mirror, I took some final gulps. George fixed his apron around me.

“So what have you been up to dude?”

I responded buh dee duh dee duh dee duh.

“Your brother, how’s he been doing?”

Same answer. I wished I had eaten that Milano earlier, the coffee made my stomach growl.

“You still with that one girl?”

I smiled and blinked insanely ha ha ha ha ha kind of I’m not sure, where’d you get those pants?

George went off about his budding fashion career. He knew the guy who assisted the woman who would custom tailor pants for Slash, through a mutual friend, apparently. They’d been chatting the last couple months and he was hoping to take her style, but apparently that’s a big no in the fashion world, even though she’s been an off the grid junkie for, like, six years. George said Lars Ulrich and Nikki Sixx miss that old style. Apparently George planned on calling her to ‘borrow’ that style to sell his own brand. George said he’d love to see those designs on Slash again. George said he’d apparently rather be home right now working on his designs than here cutting my hair. I looked up and my head wasn’t my head anymore. It was George’s old head.

I smiled and glanced towards him. I heard his assistant sweeping the death away. There was no more screaming. No more nerves. He put a shitload of product in my hair and that was that.

He shook my hand and looked at me with eyes that said you have no idea what real death looks like.

I stared at him with his head and drank the cheap melancholy fumes in the air. We were abandoned from each other, it tasted like the Milano I ate walking home.

Apparently George’s old head snubbed dreams about girls, about Mia, or whatever. That night, it had a wave of swarming red light sink through its eyes. It penetrated the cornea, it’s sharp breath wrestling my half-baked nerves. I couldn’t tell if my body was rejecting the head or the head my body. It smiled in sleep, savoring the conflict. My body lay still, I’d always shirked confrontation.

Soon, the wave saturated into a reflection of the sclera, all white. The old head opened its eyes. The light had drilled deep, and lingered unaffected. Triangular shadows patterned into a spiral formation, collapsing the tense whiteness into a new dimension. They inverted and warped. Nothing budged. The lost dreams rang through the act. Another few minutes passed before the light had emptied out into a leathery darkness. He’d hijacked everything.

“It isn’t the nerve damage then?” the head asked.

“Not entirely, just somewhat” Doctor Gupta replied.

The tarp beneath the body would crinkle whenever I squirmed, which was often, still adjusting to shaven skin. The pediatrician I’ve been seeing since middle school offered a list of ophthalmologists to consider.

“How long’d it last, do you suppose?”

“Only a few minutes, maybe.”

There was a sticker poster of Spongebob in front of me. His right leg was torn off, and the top of his head stripped away. His gigantic cartoon eyes spilled crudely into the pale wall. He’d been on the walls for the decade I’d known Doctor Gupta, but it seemed unfamiliar now. White noise filled the room, maybe the low hum of air conditioning, the sigh of growth droning above.

Gupta changed the subject. “Eating too many hamburgers, eh?” he joked, squeezing a roll of my torso. I would have done my typical ha ha ha, but George didn’t flinch.

I worried that Mia would be upset about the weight, then George reminded me she was gone. An effect of change, he said. The body dreamed about the end of change. My dying nerves reached for the end of change. George said she’s made you sick and ignored me from then on.

Gupta tussled my hair.

“Handsome boy.”

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X-R-A-Y ISSUE #5

DOWNLOAD ISSUE #5 JULY 2018simon graham // jim ruland // jonah solheim // shane jesse christmass // jason teal // jon berger // avee chaudhuri // alistair mccartney // elytron frass // marc olmsted // vanessa norton // jeff phillips // andrew miller // stephen mortland
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jocelyn hungerford

FAITHFUL by Jocelyn Hungerford

A cool Sydney night at the beginning of spring. We were smoking a joint on the verandah. The lights on the harbour twinkled and the possums were rasping out their mating calls.

He’d been ‘scraping it together’ for a year, he said, to be able to come here. A few weeks’ respite. Fights, a kid, a mortgage, a business.

‘Why don’t you leave?’ I asked. He looked shocked. ‘Because she’s my child. I won’t do to her what was done to me.’

I hmmed and murmured a soothing noise. I could feel his mood sinking. It seemed to be my fault; something in the curl of his lip, his nostrils wrinkling as if he smelled something wrong about me. I wanted him to be nice again so I butted my head into him and growled. He kept still, staring straight ahead. I leapt off the couch and crawled over to a stick the eucalyptus tree had shed. I picked it up in my mouth and brought it to him, making my best puppy-dog eyes and growling low in my throat. He started to laugh. He tried to take the stick and I wouldn’t let him. I bared my fangs and growled louder; he laughed harder.

He told me he wanted to kill himself. My emails were keeping him alive. I moved to his country and into his house. He gave me a box under the stairs where I could keep my private things. He said it was all mine. I could bury my bones there.

On the first night he made us dinner. It wasn’t spicy enough; I asked if I could put chilli in mine. His eyes flushed dark, angry. ‘What, and destroy my carefully balanced flavours? You might as well be eating dog food.’

It was hard to sleep. I turned around and around in the bed, trying to get comfortable. It made him laugh, the way I scratched about. When I fell asleep he watched me grinding my teeth. He teased me about gnawing on bones in my sleep. I didn’t like the laughing or the teasing but it was my job to keep him happy. And the rages scared me.

He liked to fuck me from behind. He came more quickly when he couldn’t see my face. He could get further into me. My arse looked better than my face, anyway. I didn’t have the same face any more: it was longer, leaner, whiskery. It put him off when I got excited and growled.

I stopped shaving and waxing. I let the hair under my arms and between my legs and on my legs grow. ‘You look like a fucking lesbian,’ he said. It didn’t stop him touching me, though, as long as I was facing the other way. Even my arse was starting to grow hair but he could still pull it aside to get into my soft wet insides. I didn’t like him so much now but animal, I still got excited. He liked to bite the back of my neck while I bucked against him.

One day I was out walking when a stranger started patting me. I was still allowed out by myself. His hand felt good on my head so I let him stroke my back. His hand felt good on my back so I rolled over and let him scratch my stomach. His hand felt good on my stomach so I let him put it between my legs.

It was getting harder to type because my fingers were shrinking and getting wider and blunter, and my nails thicker and sharper. Still, I was a clever dog and if I used my tongue and my nose I could still write an email. I wrote to the stranger: ‘I wantr to ber yoiur dog, panting afdter youy. Iu want youi to opwn me.’ We knew it was a game. He liked it when I stood on his chest with my paws on his shoulders, running my tongue through his fur. We were the same size. He didn’t mind that.

But because I didn’t wipe all the drool off the keyboard, my owner knew I had been doing something I shouldn’t. I cowered at his feet while he shouted, ‘I bought this computer for business purposes! It is not a toy!’ When he found the letters he said: ‘You’re sick. If you saw a doctor he’d have you locked up.’ He called me a bitch in heat, running around offering her arse to everything that moves. He called me bestial and chained me up.

He looked through my cardboard box and found a leash the stranger had given me. He brought out his whip: it was long and cruel and when he lashed me hard with it, my back arched and I whimpered in pain. ‘I’m only doing this because I love you,’ he said. ‘It’s for your own good.’ He whipped me again, harder. He was getting excited; I could see his cock bulging in his trousers. ‘I’m only doing this because I love you so fucking much. But I need you to understand what you’ve done.’

But I couldn’t understand any more. It’s hard to say what happened next; my mind isn’t as clear as it was. Words are harder to think, harder to form. I remember how quickly he went down; that although his chest and shoulders were broad, his legs were slender and he toppled easily when I jumped him. I remember his yell of pain and fury; I remember the sharp metallic scent of blood. I remember that I ate his entrails first.

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A SILENT MOVIE by Chris Dankland

On the sixth day, Victor started staring at Antoine's feet. A pang shot through him every time he saw Antoine's plump toes wiggle. They were soft, pampered feet that had only walked on the prostrate backs of others. I bet they're tender, thought Victor, licking his cracked and bleeding lips. Like the winged feet of Mercury, Antoine's feet had only trod the most rarefied of airs. He didn't even carry his fucking camera onto the boat, thought Victor, snarling. The chauffeur had done it.

Antoine appeared to be passed out. Not dead yet, his chest was still moving. But how close was he? Victor wondered. Close enough to not put up a fight when his foot got chopped off with an axe?

It was the sixth day that they'd been floating in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with no gas, no food, and no water. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink, like the fucking piece of shit junkie poet had said. Victor curled his bloody hateful lips. I oughta chop that cocksucker’s foot off on principle, he thought.

Antoine said he'd been inspired by Victor's red cringing face in the mirror when he was fucking his ass. You looked poetic back there, he'd said. So wild. And so lost. Can I make a film of you?

Will there be drugs? asked Victor. Antoine nodded. Will you suck my dick? asked Victor. Antoine nodded faster. Do I have to memorize a bunch of shit?

It'll be a silent movie, said Antoine. I'll make my own version of The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. On my dad's fishing boat. I'll give you some mushrooms and we'll have it done before you start to come down.

That cocksucker didn't say he'd be taking mushrooms too, thought Victor. I thought he knew something about being in a boat. I thought he was used to it or something. I trusted him. When the sun started going down the first night, they decided to stay on the boat and fuck all night and watch the sunrise in the morning.

You killed me, Victor moaned. He was surprised by the sound of his own voice. It barely sounded human. It sounded like the whistling wind. You killed me, he moaned. Victor crawled under a tarp to keep the burning sun off his face. He drifted into utter darkness and void.

///

Six hours later, Victor started staring at the axe. The sun had gotten into his bones now, moving through the marrow like underground lava. He wasn't hungry anymore. He wasn't thirsty. He couldn't tell if Antoine was breathing anymore, or if he was dead. Victor sat up and the bright reflection of the sun slid across the axe's curve like a snake's tongue. He crawled over to the axe and grabbed the handle. It weighed much more than he'd expected.

///

Ten minutes later, Victor started staring at the foot. What the fuck am I gonna do with this, he wondered. He wasn't hungry. There wasn't any way to cook the foot. Antoine had rich boy toes, but it must be tough to bite into a human foot. The foot is not the part that a starving person should be eating anyway. Blood gushed from Antoine's stump. Well, he was dead for sure. Good fucking riddance. What a stupid idea this whole thing was. I can't even remember what the fuck happens in that poem, I was stoned when we covered it in high school.

Out of the corner of his eye, Victor spotted a giant fishing pole. I know what I'll do, he thought. He pulled back the skin on the foot and used the tip of the fishing hook to make a small hole in it, big enough to pull the line through. He snipped the end of the line with some pliers and tied it together.

He held the severed foot necklace up high, as though he was presenting it as some kind of sacred offering to the Gods. He slipped the necklace over his head. Victor's tragic death was completely pointless and insane. Why not embrace it.

FUCK YOU! he screamed, flipping off the sky.

///

Three hours later, Victor started staring at the sun. He couldn't move anymore. Flat on his back in the boat. Could barely breathe. Looking up. The severed foot necklace had oozed blood all over his body. Some thin worm-looking tendon had slipped out of the foot and fallen into his lap. Victor was waiting. The longer he stared at the sun, the blacker it got.

He'd dumped Antoine's body over the railing a few hours ago. He was tired of looking at it. What was the point of this idiotic death trip they'd taken? Did it mean something? Did it say something about Victor? About Antoine? About this miserable idiot universe? Was it...did it mean something, that ancient mariner bullshit? Was there a significance?

When you slowly die over a week, this is how you start to think. This is the train of thought that consumes you, chasing everything else away. What does it mean? What does it mean? What does it mean?

The big black sky started to pulse and turn slowly. Windy tentacles stretched out from its perimeter, slowly spinning. The sun was turning into some kind of whirlpool, some kind of gate. The ocean coiled into long spinning strings that were sucked up into the sky, down the black sun's devouring hole. Victor could feel the sun pulling at him too.

What's the symbolism? he moaned.

The boat slowly lifted up into the sky off the face of the waters. Caught in the whirlpool.

Is this it? thought Victor, panting. And nothing else answered? Nothing revealed, nothing shown? Nothing? Nothing? Nothing else answered. Just sucked up by the sun. What does it mean? Just nothing? Nothing? It's all just a  big nothing? It's nothing?

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benjamin devos

THE LOBSTER by Benjamin DeVos

I clock in at Pirate Cove and try to find a good place to hide.

I stay in the bathroom as long as possible.

Until my boss barges into the stall and tells me to get my ass in gear.

The shift’s starting.

The first table is always the worst because I’m not ready to act like a pirate.

I’m never ready to act like a pirate.

My first table is a father with his daughter.

“We are ready to order,” the father says.

“I want to get the best of the best.”

He’s young, but his hair is already starting to gray.

He’s wearing khaki pants with a shirt that has sweat stains forming on the armpits.

I want his life, to have something worth stressing for.

He orders lobster for himself and his daughter.

I write down his order on a pad of paper then stop.

“Arr sorry me matey,” I say. “There’s been no lobster for a wee fortnight.”

And I know this because we only get lobster at the beginning of the month.

Sometimes I serve the scraps from the back of the freezer, but I don’t want to ruin this family’s day.

“Lobster is our favorite,” he says, looking at his daughter.

“We’re out, me hearty,” I say, watching the daughter sink with disappointment.

“Darn,” he says, looking at the menu with intense focus.

“My apologies, wee lass,” I say, hobbling on my wooden peg leg to gain sympathy.

I imagine the man and me on a pirate ship together, and the man unable to cope with disappointing his daughter, jumping overboard with an anchor strapped to his waist, letting the weight carry him down until he sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

He’s still looking at the menu.

He says, “Well how about the crab, I bet that’d be as good,” trying to convince himself and his daughter.

He hands me their menus with a smile on his face.

“This meal should be excellent; we are a seafood-loving family.”

I want to tell him about the quality of the food, how most of it is frozen and reheated.

I don’t tell him about all of the complaints we get, how much food gets sent back for being sub-par.

Because he’s doing his best to give his daughter a great meal and I respect that.

“We love lobster,” he says looking at his daughter, “So we’ll come in next time it’s available.”

“Crab is good,” I say, taking the menus from him.

“It’s the best,” he says.

I say, “Lobster freaks me out; they’re like, the cockroaches of the sea. Every time I go to the beach, I try to avoid the lobsters.”

The father takes a long gulp of water.

“Yeah, we like our lobsters. They’re so delicious. It doesn’t matter what they look like; they’re good eating.”

“But they’re undeniably freaky looking,” I say, “Just like so weird.”

“Sure, but what animal isn’t weird when you truly think about it.”

He rubs his brow and looks at his daughter, whose posture is wilting like a dehydrated puppy.

“Well, monkeys look pretty normal,” I say, scratching the hairy area between my two pectoral muscles.

“True, they kind of look like people,” he says.

“Well, evolutionarily they are people,” I say, “They just haven’t become them yet.”

“We’re Christian,” he says.

“Oh, cool,” I say, “Does that mean you don’t believe people originated from monkeys?”

He says, “We believe people were born from Adam and Eve, and that humans have always existed.”

I cough.

I say, “I wonder if the first people were freaked out by all the different animals. Like they probably saw lobsters and were like, whoa, what are those things?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Probably,” I say. “And crab is pretty close to lobster, but they’re more like the spiders of the sea.”

I think about the man going to church and bowing down to a bloody cross on the wall, holding his palms together in a praying position, lifting them toward the ceiling and shouting something about how God has not provided enough lobsters, begging, pleading, for more lobsters to be born so that he and his daughter can eat them, rip them apart limb by limb, chewing on their flesh for sustenance, knowing that the Bible says that man has dominion over all creatures, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants, killing and consuming, tearing them apart with his teeth.

“Yeah, well we’re really hungry,” he says, sending a covert message with his eyes that he wants me to leave them alone.

I take a few steps backward before turning and wobbling on my prosthetic toward the kitchen.

The chef once told me that I take too long to bring him orders and that the customers become annoyed if they have to wait too long for their food.

I imagine myself with lobster claws for hands, pinching the chef’s jacket, and telling him that we all have to wait our turn in this life.

It feels good to be assertive.

I take a smoke break even though I don’t smoke.

I stand outside and let the wind hit me in the face.

Maybe I need to start smoking cigarettes again so that I can relax.

I used to smoke cigarettes with my older sister when she was sixteen and I was nine.

She would come home from school to babysit me, and I would ask her for a smoke, and she would give it to me.

It was fun.

Not the best, but still fun.

Just me and my big sis smoking.

The two of us would sit on the front porch in old rocking chairs looking at each other and rocking back and forth, with smiles on our faces and cigarettes between our lips.

For five minutes at least.

Then no more smiles.

Which is how I feel when I’m serving a table.

Five minutes, then no more smiles.

Just doing my job.

After serving my table their crab, which was just chunks of imitation meat over unseasoned pasta, I go over to the busser’s station to fold napkins.

I fold napkins whenever service is slow.

It’s my favorite thing to do at the restaurant.

I fold the napkins to be shaped like pyramids and place them in a row.

Sometimes I try new shapes, like a lotus, or a star.

I can do a swan, but it takes a lot of time, and I can only do one before continuing my pyramids.

I imagine starting a business with the sole purpose of folding napkins like origami and selling them back to restaurants for ten times the price of the actual napkin.

I examine the pyramid-shaped napkin and each unique fold that brings it together.

I feel like more of an architect than an artist.

I picture myself with a construction helmet on, watching as a group of laborers erect a giant pyramid out of a million napkins.

I think about the customer who will eventually use the pyramid napkin, and how enjoying the intricacies for more than a moment would be impossible, because the rules of society state that one must unfold the napkin, flatten it, then place it on one’s lap.

And how the flattening, the disassembly of the folds, is just another example of how humans destroy everything that they come in contact with.

Folding napkins helps me understand the world, makes me feel better about all of the destruction I’ve caused in my own life.

I look around at the customers in the restaurant and think about how in the end, we’re all the same.

We’re the destroyers.

My boss comes up to me from behind and says, “The little girl at your table just asked me why we’re out of lobster. We have too much lobster as it is. God, you are such a dipshit.”

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kevin sampsell

THE RAZOR by Kevin Sampsell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe while wearing this black shirt.

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

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

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

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shook

THE 11 SIGNS OF BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER by Carey Cecelia Shook

(According to the National Institute of Mental Health, and also Me)

1) Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating. 

When I was five, I’d sneak sandwich meat, pudding, cereal—anything quick and easy to snack on—into my room and hide it so my parents wouldn’t find out how much I was eating. I did this until I was nine when my mom cleaned my room and found moldy bologna under the bed. Since then, I mindlessly eat almost every time I eat. I can’t control myself. I’ve been doing it for eighteen years.

2) Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self

I was always the fat kid growing up. When I was twenty, I joined a gym and went six times a week, stopped eating like crap, and drank only water. I lost fifty pounds in three months. Everyone around me said I looked great—even skinny. It was the best compliment I had ever received. The only compliment that mattered. So, I kept losing weight. People told me I should stop working out so much because I was going to wither away. I still thought I was fat.

3) Self-harming behavior, such as cutting

I cut myself the day my brother attempted suicide in 2010. It was my first time. I was in ninth grade Earth Science, standing in the back of the room, running scissors across my left wrist. I wasn’t breaking the skin. I wasn’t bleeding. I couldn’t control all the pain Andrew’s attempt caused me; I wanted to control my own pain for once. When I got home from school and my parents were halfway to Charlotte to see Andrew, I tore apart my razor. I sliced my left forearm once, twice, three times. It worked much better than the scissors.

4) Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days

One Thursday, I had a lot to do—homework, class, sending/reading e-mails, searching for post-grad jobs—and I planned to get everything completed during my four-hour shift at work. I wasn’t too worried. When I got to work, I looked at my color-coded planner and my inbox. I cried. I was so behind on everything. I did what work I could, but I was so depressed by the end of the shift. I thought about what it’d be like to dig through my secret hiding spot where I keep my razor blades and use them for the first time since August. I skipped my classes and meetings that day. I needed to cry in bed and sleep the emotions away. By the end of the night, I didn’t feel depressed anymore, just stressed.

5) Recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviors or threats

I missed the last three months of my junior year of high school because of a back injury. When I went returned for senior year, rumors said I had just been released from a mental hospital. My friends abandoned me. After not cutting for almost a year, I relapsed. Both my forearms looked like ladders. I thought it’d be better if I weren’t here. I planned how I would kill myself. I was too afraid to actually swallow a bottle of Ambien, but it was always in the back of my mind in case I decided to.

6) Feelings of dissociation, such as feeling cut off from oneself, seeing oneself from outside one’s body, or feelings of unreality

Last spring, an hour after a boy I was (practically) dating and I solidified our plans to watch Mean Girls, our favorite movie, I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at my closet door handle. I felt off. I couldn’t stop crying. It was a drastic change from ten minutes earlier when I was excited and bubbly. I texted the boy, described the feeling to him: the front part of my brain knew what was going on, but the back part just wasn’t me, and the back part was taking over. I didn’t feel like I was part of my own body. I canceled the plans with him, despite the fact I’d been obsessing over going on another date with him just an hour earlier. I asked a friend to drive with me to Myrtle Beach for the day—I needed to get out of my apartment. I didn’t trust myself. I hoped my friend would be able to bring me back to me. After half an hour of driving and talking, I finally felt like I was myself again: laughing, making sarcastic jokes, and having fun with my friend like always. All day, I thought about how I felt like I was watching my life happen from another point of view. I thought about how I never wanted to go back to it.

7) Chronic feelings of emptiness

 

8) Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger

Three of our neighbors were with my parents outside as I yelled at my father the second I parked my car in the driveway.

How could you get rid of Andrew’s clothes? They were clearly marked. You knew we were going to have a quilt made out of his T-shirts. Mom told you, I told you. What’s wrong with you? Is it ‘cause your brain is fried from all the coke? The twelve beers you drink a day? The pain pills? What the fuck is wrong with you? I hate you. I fucking hate you. I can’t believe you fucking threw the bins of his clothes away. Jesus fucking Christ. I can’t believe you. Fuck you. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.

9) A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)

Blake

Alli

The marching band from freshman year

Tim

Gillian

Robert

Becca

Laney

William

Mariah

Jamison

Bry

Jared

Jamison (again)

Melissa

Adam

The 2018 Orientation Leader team

Krysta

Jamison (again)

10) Difficulty trusting, which is sometimes accompanied by irrational fear of other people’s intentions

I was drunk and crying when I told my best friend that I didn’t trust her even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. It slipped out as she sat with me on the ground outside my twenty-second birthday party. I saw the hurt in her eyes. She told me again how much she loved me and that she wished I could trust her. I told her I was trying but didn’t know how. I didn’t want to scare her away like I had all my past friends.

11) Efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, such as rapidly initiating intimate (physical or emotional) relationships or cutting off communication with someone in anticipation of being abandoned

Three days before our four-month anniversary, I almost broke up with my boyfriend Alex. I wanted to break up with him before he could break up with me. I felt my random, deep depressions were too much for him. It didn’t matter that he’d just spent the past three hours holding me as I cried, or that he’d told me dozens of times he loves me no matter what—everything in me screamed that he was going to end things with me, so I should do it first.

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HEAD TO TOE by Molly Montgomery

One day, Penny woke up with her consciousness in her feet. She could still feel her head, blink her eyes, watch the procession of sunlight from her shutters ripple onto her bed, but it all felt very far away. Closer to her, the flannel blankets cushioned her arches and as she flexed— her feet that is, but it felt like she was stretching a larger muscle, like her back— her toes popped out of the warmth of the blanket, giddy like bright-eyed children, singing at last, at last it’s our turn now. They waved, creating a breeze in the rumpled blankets. She sighed with her feet, her heels arching and releasing, breathing, in a way. It didn’t occur to her that it would be strange to go through the day with her soul stuck to the floor. After all, she was a yoga teacher— maybe she had jumbled around her energy a bit too much the night before while performing a handstand. She rolled out of bed and let her feet sink into the carpet. She hadn’t vacuumed in a while, she realized as she felt the sharp edges of leaves and other unpleasant textures prickling the pad of her feet. The dead skin on her heels caught on the carpet, tugging painfully. How could she not have noticed before? It was like waking up to realize you hadn’t combed your hair in a week. She had to do something about it, immediately.

The cool bathroom tiles sent a shiver of pleasure up her legs. In the shower, she commanded her arms, which felt like phantom limbs, tingling and barely present, to twist the knobs and release a stream of hot, hot water onto her thirsting feet. The rest of her body winced, but her feet, tougher than the other parts and tired of taking beatings for the rest of her body’s sake, incited her to turn the temperature higher and higher until, at last, they eased. She flailed her feet before her, the rest of her body sinking into the bathtub. Finally, the pressure released, the terrible pressure, which she hadn’t realized was there until it was gone. It was like a migraine lifting, as she let go of the pounds and pounds of useless flesh pressing, pressing, pressing on her feet all day long. She scrubbed the hard calluses that roughened her feet like stubble, stripping off layers until they were raw and throbbing. The throbbing filled her. Her hands turned the water off, and she crawled out and wrapped a towel just around her feet, writhing with pain and pleasure.

Her toenails, slicing menaces, cut into the neighboring toes. Stop stabbing, stop stabbing, please, she pleaded and grabbed a nail file from her box. These toenails had not risen up in protest this much since her pointe days when they would rip her already demonically twisted feet to shreds and bleed on her satin shoes, the resin mixing with the blood to make a crusty callus of its own.

How much damage had she done her poor feet, she now wondered as she struggled to calm their fiery furor. Massaging them with a soft towel, she reached for some eucalyptus lotion she had in her medicine cabinet and began to knead the ointment deep into the crevices of her feet. She felt the blood vessels in them opening and a calming feeling spread from her feet, up her legs, and to her core.

Now that she was down in her feet, things seemed so different than they did above. She didn’t recognize herself. Who was this woman who could have exploited parts of herself, treated her own foundation like it didn’t matter? She would have never banged her head around like she had her feet, or let it get cut and scraped and swollen with infection like she had when, as an impetuous college student, she launched herself foolishly into a bacteria-laden river from a rope swing, the heel of her foot catching on sharp jagged rocks on her graceless tumble downward. She would have never choked her mouth the way she had choked her feet in sweaty, unbreathing sneakers in PE until a fungus invaded her toenails. She would have never constricted her fingers like she did her toes when she shoved them into wedges that narrowed to an inhuman point. Even her moment of triumph, the highlight of her career— stepping onto that stage with steady powerful strides that she had taken for granted and accepting the award for her choreography— it twisted horribly in her memory as she let herself feel the pain she had held back that night, her feet strapped like hostages into those teetering, torturous stilettos. How she resented her selfishness now, so bent on recognition, her head taking credit for the work of her feet.

After her injury, the one that ended her career on the dance floor, she had hated her feet, her weak left ankle in particular, which cracked under the stress of night after night of pirouettes. Her feet had failed her, so she stopped paying attention to them, like a mother who stops reaching out to her son after he breaks her trust one too many times. Then came the endless months of physical therapy, which she performed diligently, though she knew her body would never be the same. She built strength back into her muscles until they contained not as much as before, but enough for her to feel dignified. But how could it be even after she had recalibrated her relationship with her body, finally finding a sort of equilibrium in yoga, she still wasn’t at peace with her feet? Then again, she wasn’t at peace with her mind either, and that’s where she spent most of her efforts these days. Rewiring her circuits, talking through her loss with her therapist, trying to figure out how to her meld her mind into a body that no longer obeyed like it used to. Fuck that, she thought. It was a relief to be in her feet; the darkness in her head hovered like a thundercloud, but it couldn’t reach her down here. Still, she couldn’t hang out on the floor forever.

Vaguely, she reached for thoughts in her cerebrum, like rummaging in a dark cabinet. She had appointments, a class to teach; her daughter, still asleep, needed a ride to school and back. But her feet, objecting to her wavering attention, sprang with cramps that undid the tenuous connection to her task-oriented brain. Pedicure first, cancel everything else, spa day, spa day, they cried, and soon a chorus of rebellion resounded throughout her bounded body.

Massage me, her knee croaked as her consciousness jumped to it, then to her strained back tight with resentment. I’m next, cried her neglected neck. And her feet continued to pound, pulling her down, down, down.

Yes, let’s, she thought, let’s spend today together just for us. Her feet sought her soft slippers, kicking off whatever attachment she still felt to the rest of the world.

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melissa goode

HERE WE ARE NOW by Melissa Goode

We play this game. You say something nice. I say something nice. You say something mean. I say something mean. We fuck. You aren’t so into it now. Your nice isn’t that nice—beautiful, really? That sounds like a lazy lie to me, but it’s my turn to say something nice. Your mean isn’t that mean. Something about my driving, like I care.

You say, “Are we just trying to manufacture feeling here?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s keep it simple,” you say and take hold of my ponytail and pull it hard.

“Better,” I say. “Make it meaner.”

You do, making it hurt—I try and hide my smile.

You drain your beer and you don’t watch me over the bottle. You close your eyes and I tell myself it is against the glare of the fluorescent light in our kitchen, but there was a time when you wouldn’t let me out of your sight.

#

Last Friday night. You opened the bottle of tequila, sniffed the triple sec, and pulled out the fancy margarita glasses that were a wedding gift from someone forgotten. I couldn’t make the salt stick to the rim of the glass. You poured the salt into a saucer and left it on the table between us. We drank and put the salt to our mouths with a wet finger—my mouth, my finger. Your mouth, your finger. When did this happen?

The yard at the back of our house slopes downwards and has no fence, ending with a gully of trees. That night, it was a hill to be run down, full throttle, screaming all the way.

#

We don’t go out anymore.

Sometimes, I say, “Oh, [insert band] is playing at [venue in the city where we used to go].”

“I don’t even know who they fuck they are,” you say.

I say, “Maybe if you stopped listening exclusively to your nineties playlist on your phone, you would know them.”

This is your cue—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, early Pearl Jam and no one else has ever measured up.

#

We don’t dance anymore, unless we are a bit drunk. Then it is in our front room, under the dim, yellow ceiling lamp littered with dead, gray bugs. It is slow. More like leaning against each other. You hold me close though, your mouth pressed against the top of my ear. I like that and I should tell you, while we still dance.

#

“Proud of you, babe.” You used to say that all the time. I didn’t have to do much—bake cookies, kill a spider, get you off.

#

“I don’t want to become maudlin,” I say now, when I’ve had three drinks, because that is my arbitrary point of no return and I don’t get happy anymore when I drink and it has nothing to do with the gin.

I know alcohol is a depressant, but I didn’t think it was until now.

You say, “Get drunk with me. Let’s get fucked up.”

I try. I do.

Every time, I come so close to saying it—can you believe that one day one of us will die first?

#

It isn’t too late for us to be the hipster couple making coffee in that new way that takes forever. Drip, drip. We have the red plaid shirts. You’ve got the facial hair. We’ve got the cannot-give-a-fuck attitude, except we mean it. I don’t know if they wear Converse.

#

Your appendix scar is a thin, silver-white line sewn near your hip when you were sixteen. We have been together for so long, but I want more. I want you from when you were sixteen and I was fifteen—as if we could run backwards into time.

I would have rushed to the hospital and brought you chocolates and a little teddy bear holding a helium balloon—GET WELL! And we would have made out, me lying along your uncut left side, until one of the nurses told me to leave your bed, this was a hospital not a hotel, and shouldn’t I be at school? Or maybe she would have smiled and told us we had three more minutes, but that’s all, swishing the curtain closed around us before she left, and we would have got it all done in three minutes in deathly silence, your hand covering my mouth.

#

This still works—you rising above me, lying down along the length of me, above my head, below my feet. Everywhere. Your mouth on mine tasting of our last meal and our last drink.

#

Sometimes you wash the dishes and you take your time with it, like you have all fucking night. You stare at the window above the sink, a mirror with the night behind it, and you sway and hum and sing every song from Nevermind, starting with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ending with “Something In The Way”.

“Can’t you mix it up?” I said last time.

You were elbow-deep in lemon-scented suds and looked over at me. I swear you didn’t even see me when you sang, “I’m not gonna crack”.

#

You went outside onto the deck and made a call.

“We used to do shit,” I heard you say.

I didn’t know who you were speaking to, but I knew it was about us.

I pulled out our box of photos—when photos were printed, stacked in envelopes with negatives. There are photos of us on our phones and on the computer—not many though. Most of us is in that box.  

You came back inside, bringing the night-cold with you, tucking your phone into the back pocket of your jeans. I wanted to ask who you were speaking with. I didn’t though.

#

“Nothing lasts forever,” I heard you say. Or maybe I dreamt it. I dream about you all the time—me telling you not to leave. Know that. I don’t want you to go.

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DESERVED IT by Sebastian Mazza

But I know, it's my own damn fault. – Jimmy Buffett

The lightning bolt lit up the parking lot, fizzing, spitting, then evaporating into the gloom. After my eyes adjusted, I could just make out Dad’s fuzzy supine form across the lot and the man still standing over him. Before that night I’d never seen the man, who looked a bit woebegone and clumsy and irresponsible, a bit stocky with a bristly mustache, but not like a truly bad person, even now in memory. I’ve tried to pull up anger at him but end up mad at Dad instead, at how he left me all alone in the teeming shopping mall while he ate his ice cream cone in the food court farther underground. Now he’s left us all alone forever.

Eventually I found him finishing his cone just through the sliding doors to the parking lot. They slid and slid. Then the man bounded up to us and said Dad’s name, who couldn’t shake hands because his were very sticky. The man’s hand hung briefly in the air alone. They got to talking, speaking as if they had this long history or rivalry together, referring to strange names and other things I didn’t understand. Actually, it kind of shed some light on Dad, who had always been so guarded about his life before Mom and me, to think of him in relation to this man, to think of them as basically similar.

But the crux of the encounter, from what I was able to make out after Dad ordered me back to the car, was that suddenly the guy got really dangerous and turned on Dad, a bit like if you get hopelessly lost on a hike, or if a drunken hookup with a stranger becomes violent. There’s this residual half-smile of disbelief on your face, but now the trail is gone, the trees are black, these hands are in your mouth and on your throat and here’s this seriously horrible thing happening to you.

​Next morning Mom and I tried to speak but couldn’t, felt fewer by so many more than one. Household objects stood in for Dad wherever we looked—the stupid terracotta flower pots sculpted with faces with open mouths, a folk guitar, a leather chair—and Mom cleaned all the dishes while I tried to read. It turned out that all along our lives had been that stale gray dully glowing layer we’d sometimes taste just underneath.

It kept replaying in my mind. The glowing parking lines. The insectile shapes of cars. The weight of the shopping bags. When Dad gave the man a jovial pat on the back with the heel of his non-ice cream hand, he stiffened.

“Don’t touch the back,” he said.

I remember him saying “the back” instead of “my back,” as if it were no longer a part of him, as if every part of him were becoming progressively detached from his core of authority, and that all these fragments, the humid mouth, the oily face, the sex, the stomach and the hand, were subsequently going mad and turning back upon his inner core to take revenge.

I laughed nervously then, too loudly, and the man looked at me with his blue and beady eyes.

He described a surgery he needed but could not afford, involving the threading of inch-long steel needles through his spinal cord. Then he took a heated, whispered phone call, the blue beads rolling around the lot. But I looked at his phone, a flip phone, and he hadn’t even opened it, it wasn’t even on. It was squashed against his stumpy ear as he cursed and muttered into nothing. That’s when Dad gave me his bags (the milk bag, the veggie bag, the grain bag, the bag of foreign coins) and sent me to the car.

​It was like in dreams, when the big things happen so fast you never quite have enough time to think or consult anyone’s opinion. At home I kept walking into rooms and stepping over different glowing laptops on the hardwood floor and barely noticing. I kept waiting for the police to come, someone from the government, to file a report of death. Sometimes I checked Dad’s Facebook wall. Mom would go to work or tie up her hair, which she had grown out in Dad’s absence, and lie with magazines across the couch in the living room. Lights from cars and street lamps through the windows sometimes passing over her and lighting up strange novel sections of her face. I always assumed that if Dad went away, Mom and I would hang out more. Then I felt the closest thing to a sense of purpose since that night: since I’d seen it all happen, and Mom had not, I had a story for her.

“Mom,” I said excitedly from across the room in Dad’s old leather chair. “As Dad sprawled out on the asphalt, clothes in tatters, bloodied and beaten, and that man stood over him, panting, eyes wild, holding the thrumming lightning bolt aloft, Dad never looked away, or closed his eyes, or moaned in fear, or pleaded or cursed or screamed.”

But Mom wouldn’t swoon at Dad’s resilience. She would not cry with me. I don’t remember her saying he was coming back or anything like that, but I realized that way back when I’d walked into the house without him and she hadn’t said anything or asked any questions and had slept that night in their big bed all alone while I hugged my covers to me on the far side of the house, the lighting bolt flashing repeatedly before my tight-shut eyes, and then the next morning when she and I sat at the table with our coffees just the two of us forever, Mom’d already felt something subtle about why Dad wasn’t there, assumed something that had nothing to do with death, at least death as I’d conceived it up until that time.

​At high pressures, sadness begins to resemble dread. Memories that used to wet my eyes dried out and sort of wrinkled in relief. Dad’s scratchy falsetto singing “Margaritaville” in the basement, strumming his cheap guitar diffidently. I think Mom’s feeling was the kind that has to develop over a longish period of time, so you can refer back to things. And I did begin to get some sense of those old things—not a clear sense, just an outline, a hint—and they were the terrible complicated sick hot honeyed lovely things of love I knew I could never bear to think about my parents for too long. And I was surprised to feel my own feelings finally, to realize how hard Dad’s going had made me, how angry and stupid and slow, the fact that he was never coming back compressed into itself, away from anything unnecessary. And still how much it throbbed and hurt and made me scared, now maybe even more, that there was still so much out in the world of which to not be sure, of which I knew nothing at all.

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IN THE END DAYS YOUR FATHER COMES TO VISIT by Frankie McMillan

He wants a photograph of the baby in the bath. Or maybe lying on a sheepskin rug. You say you haven’t got a sheepskin rug and the baby’s already had a bath. Your father says, ‘ Well make up your mind, sweetheart.’ He wants a photograph of his grandson before he gets back on the plane.  

He picks the baby up, holds him by the window for a closer look. ‘There’s nothing wrong with him,’  he says. You point to the baby’s hairy legs.

‘It’s nothing,’ your father snorts. He declares the baby perfectly normal. He unscrews the cap on the camera lens.   

The baby, surprised by his own good fortune, kicks up a storm in the bath.   

You lift him out, a soapy shawl of hair over his back. Normal you say, perfectly normal as you wrap him in a towel. You wipe soap off his developing moustache.  Pat his legs and arms dry. You wonder whether a hair dryer would be better. But then you worry he might grab it, stick his little finger into the whirring head.

The baby’s warm, fat body presses into your back as you jog with him into the living room. Your father has already gone. He has other grandchildren to photograph. Already they are developing faster than he can ever record them.   

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clio valentza

A CATALOGUE OF TEMPORARY OBJECTS by Clio Velentza

One by one they sat for their portraits. Littlest ones first. They stopped at the door and undid their braids. They rubbed their hair with vinegar and pinched their cheeks. The oldest ones were fearsome, they didn’t know how to listen anymore. One pricked her finger and spread the blood on her lips. They rolled up their ribbons and stuck them in their shoes. They spat and brushed their eyebrows. One by one. Littlest ones first, these ones still had hope.

The photographer had one grey eye and one black. He would close an eye to look at them, and then the other. The grey eye was polite and dim. The black one was the one they liked best, because it seemed to tell the truth. Then he hid underneath the cape of the machine. The headmistress thought it looked too much like he was putting his head under a skirt.

The stool was perilously high and had a cushion embroidered in Latin. The littlest ones sat squarely. The oldest ones parted their knees a finger’s width. The headmistress slapped those shut.

“We’re looking for parents, not husbands.”

The photographer took his time. Every now and then he emerged and observed them for a while with both his mismatched eyes. The littlest ones laughed at that. The oldest ones sometimes teared up, sometimes clutched at their chests as if recalling something urgent.

flash

“What are you making?”

“A catalogue of temporary objects.”

flash

“What is an object?”

“What my black eye can see.”

flash

“What is temporary?”

“What my grey eye can’t see.”

flash

“Am I an object?”

flash

“Am I temporary?”

One by one they sat. One by one they stepped off the stool, blinded by the light.

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kai ming mckenzie

BUS PORTRAITS by Kai Ming McKenzie

A man on a bus is writing in his day plannerThere is a slender man who spends every morning bus ride one winter scratching out notes to himself in a little day planner. He looks so busy that we who are seated near him are tempted to try to read over his shoulder to see what he is writing about. He has tiny and meticulous handwriting, and he writes straight through the delineated intervals of his days with a fine-tipped pen.Everything is done with quick and efficient motions, which paradoxically give the impression that there is something wrong, a neurological syndrome of some kind at work. Perhaps it's just that he never seems to have to pause to wait for the next word to come — if those tiny marks even are words. Maybe they are symbols forming some other kind of record.When he gets close to his stop his busy hands loudly rip apart the velco straps of his insulated, soft-sided lunch container and put the pen and the planner back into the front pocket. Then he pulls his knit hat down over his ears and carefully rewraps his scarf around his neck, three times. It is eight o'clock in the morning, but the page of his day is completely inked over.We want to know where he will record the rest of his hours, since his day is already filled in.A kind of fastidious graphomania or sheer nervous energy channeled out through the fingertips — that's how I described it when I wrote about it in my own little book, while I was sitting in the seat behind him, looking on. One bus rider draws portraits of anotherA woman is sitting near the front of the bus. She can't stop waving her arms. Her crooked fingers brush her black nylon kerchief and catch in it; her head bobs left and right with the ruts in the road. She is making gestures that seem devotional or beseeching, but may be meaningless. There is a white crust around her lips. Her face is gaunt, her muscles taut and ropy under her warm, dark brown skin. Naturally we do not look directly at her, but around her, carefully.Seated further back is a white man in his fifties who got on earlier. He is balding, but retains a ponytail; he is dressed casually; he is not on his way to work. He has a large newsprint sketchpad propped on the seatback in front of him and he is drawing this woman with soft vine charcoal which he pulls from a ziplock bag in the pocket of his leather vest. He spends about a minute on a portrait, then turns the sheet over with a quick flourish and starts again. They are pretty good gestural sketches. She is shown in profile, since she is in the handicapped seats and he is facing forward. He pays attention to the face.This is what this guy does — we see him on the bus all the time. He pays his fare and rides around for a couple of circuits, drawing the passengers, then when he gets bored of us he puts his pad under his arm and gets off at the coffee shop near the university.After the fourth or fifth portrait she seems to notice he’s drawing her and she grows agitated, but can't seem to turn to him to communicate, can only glare at him out of the corner of her eye. His sketches begin to show her evolving rictus of distress. If she wanted to get him to stop, she would have to rely on help from someone who could read that this was a new and different kind of distress than her default state. Actually, we do understand — but we are trying to look away. None of us tells the artist to stop.Eventually, and with some trouble, she produces a ballpoint pen and grasps it in the air before her, making parodic, palsied sketch-strokes in the air, still not looking at him directly. Now her expressions are genuinely ugly. Then she finds a piece of paper and slashes at it with great effort, producing some marks — a portrait of the artist — which she clumsily rips up and tosses to the floor.We do our best to ignore this exchange. We have ridden with the artist before. Those who have sat in front of him have been annoyed; those who have sat behind him have mostly just watched him draw. A woman writes a note in the stairwell of a busThe bus lurches down a dark street, behind schedule by a few minutes. Although it is night, there are still plenty of us riding, headed towards downtown. At the stop at the corner, a woman is waiting in a dull yellow pool of light with a two- or three-year old girl in a stroller. The bus stops in front of them and the doors open, but instead of getting on, the woman tries to ask the driver something. She doesn't seem to be able to move her lips and tongue in order to form words; she can only gesture and make loud, inarticulate noises.While she does this the bus driver is half-yelling, what? where? to her while keeping both hands on the steering wheel. She can only respond with more blocked sounds.We passengers sit listening to her moaning and the bus driver yelling back for a while, seemingly in a stalemate. The engine has an irregular idle, and it rocks us gently. Finally someone from the back of the bus says in frustration, for fuck sake, give her something to write with, and everyone comes back to life, fumbling for pen and paper to take to her. We are glad to have something we can do.She gratefully takes the pen and the scrap of paper from a passenger and writes something down and passes it up to the driver, who says, with an emphatic head nod, yes, I stop there, get on. So she stands her daughter up on the sidewalk for a moment, then collapses the spindly stroller and tucks the U-shaped handles over one arm while gathering her daughter in the other. She mounts the steps and takes a seat at the front, quickly unfolding the stroller, setting the brake, and getting the child buckled back into it.As the bus pulls back into the street she starts to take off her coat and, while doing so, finds that she is still holding the pen and the scrap of paper that she wrote her destination on. She folds the paper up and pockets it — she might need to show it again when she gets off at the other end. Then she looks up at us, holding out the pen to return it, scanning our faces to find the owner, showing no emotion that we can see. Keep it, keep it, we say, shaking our heads.From the stroller on the floor the child is turning her head to catch her mother's every movement, looking mutely up at her with love in her bright eyes. She fidgets against her seat belt, looking like she's got something to say, as if she is getting ready to speak for the first time, to say I know what it’s like.
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scott garson

FUTURE COOKIE by Scott Garson

They were running a charter school out of a city building that stood in a quiet bureaucratic limbo of disrepair. Hanes had laryngitis, but Gutierrez asked him to cover L3 for the teacher whose name he always forgot, a twenty-some boy who was unable to smile without blinking convulsively, as he might with a fist in his face. The boy had a cold. Meanwhile the boy’s students showed up, took seats, and moved to straighten themselves in their endless fight against sleep. Hanes knew one or two. Yevgeny, Ukrainian man, droll, somewhat pedantic. Fallou, kid from Senegal, hard-core: stocked dry goods over night and sold flowers on the street by day.

“So what was the lesson?” Lila B. wanted to know.

Hanes made use of his wounded voice as he let smoke seep from his body. “Modals.”

They sat on the crumbling steps of a fire exit on the building’s north side, with a view of the grounds: denuded tether-ball poles, chains hanging loose at their sides, like tools of affliction. Some malefic growth that would chime when the wind started in.

“They wrote fortunes, for cookies,” Hanes went on. “Only Lydia—you know Lydia?”

“Salvadoran?”

Hanes nodded. “She was bent on calling them future cookies.”

“Fuck did you do to your voice?”

Lila B. was a tall lesbian of arresting glamour. She brought to mind Morticia Addams—but with a tendency to go on manic jags. Hanes might have told her the rest of the story if he had been able to speak. How the woman, Lydia, had written her fortunes in the first person. I will visit my father next week. How he had been willing to let that slide—because she had produced the grammar—but others were not. Yevgeny, Alberto, Jinhui. They took over. They wouldn’t authorize this failure to get what a fortune was.

You will have much prosperity.

You will enjoy a quantity of wisdom in your life.

You will get nice house, good place for family.

You will be rich.

The fortunes, as they had been declaimed, kept going through Hanes’ head.

He turned around.

Gutierrez stood in the doorway. She was framed in graffiti—the word ‘SURVIVAL’ rendered in characters that interlocked as if part of an alien alphabet.

“Join us,” Hanes said.

Gutierrez ignored this. “What are you doing?”

Lila B. held up her cigarette and faced it. “Hello, I’m Lila,” she said. “Hello, Lila,” she said for the cigarette. “I’m Death.”

“We were talking about cookies,” Hanes tried.

Gutierrez produced an indignant smile. “I’ve got like ten situations I’m dealing with here?”

“All right.” He held up his hands in surrender.

He got to his feet.

You will live on streets of gold.

You will receive a marvelous surprise in the federal mail.

You will own a big ship. You will travel the sea.

In Hanes’ own future, he’ll come to recall this one bit of a day. He’ll remember standing, wiping the grit off his hands—and since the time will seem to float up pure, without lines of significance, he will feel wonder, and will cede to that. He’ll reinhabit this wayward piece of a life—when he fought to start a school, when students fought to learn. When he was still smoking. When they tried to dress okay, in shirts with uncomfortable collars, and tended to feel that the good in the world was far-off, like a storybook dream.

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BURGLARS by Francine Witte

I used to wish my parents were burglars. That would have been more honest.

Instead, we had to live in a shadow. It looked like a house, but it was a shadow. All dark and hushed and Daddy about to lose it anyway.

Always about to lose everything on some bad business deal. Some neighbor or something would tell him a mountain of lies, and Daddy would climb it like a stupid goat.

One night, I woke up to my mother screaming. Daddy started pounding the piano keys. When that didn’t stop her, he pulled the vacuum out of the hall closet. Ran it back and forth and back and forth.

And me upstairs, shushed up in pink curlers, transistor radio next to my ear. I was wearing the paper ring Daddy gave me from the cigar he bought that day to celebrate the money he had suddenly found. Kiddo, he had winked, sometimes, the thing you need is right there for the taking.

And now, later, much later, the vacuum roaring, looking to eat everything it saw. Then it stopped. Just like that. And my mother still screaming how he took the money from my Alzheimer uncle, and didn’t he have a soul?

And that should have stopped everything right there, but it didn’t, and Daddy yelled back how she was getting all wrinkled, and how would her boyfriend like it, and oh yeah, he knew about the boyfriend, and my mother screaming back that she had to take love wherever she could find it.

Next morning, my mother came in, panda mascara and hair like a scratchy tree , and told me that daddy lost us the house this time for real.

And I tore off Daddy’s paper ring, and wished again they had been burglars like the ones on TV, who wore masks and jimmied windows on sleeping houses, maybe making off with rings made of diamonds and gold, and that way my parents wouldn’t have to scrap for whatever money and love happened to be lying around.

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michael mungiello

MILK by Michael Mungiello

I’m on my way to mom’s apartment.

*

I’m at mom’s apartment.

Wow, nice. She’s really spruced up the place.

Mom?

I’m in here!

Down the hallway, wood floor, wood walls, wood doors, wood frames around photos (of me as a baby, me at my wedding, none in between); plants.

Mom?

Kitchen. Mom’s cluttered kitchen, Tchotchke salt shakers, detergent blue water sitting in the sink, a mini-TV in the corner and a little man saying in the Voice of Concern

A Storm Is Coming.

I look at the whole scene through the linty light coming through mom’s drawn translucent curtains.

Hey, Mom! Came to check up on you before the big storm. Do you need anything?

Oh, how neglected I am!

No one takes care of me!

For all you care, I could die!

Woah woah woah—what?

And she does the aftercry sigh and shiver and explains: last night she fell; couldn’t get up; called me but I didn’t answer (my phone was dead and I was out and she calls me once a day so sometimes, you know what, maybe I’m entitled to ignore a call, maybe it feels good); she called dad; he picked up; came over; helped her up; left; mom fell again; and couldn’t get up until early this morning, she had to move around on the floor and leverage several equidistant pieces of furniture.

Jesus, that sounds terrible, mom! Why didn’t you call dad again?

She doesn’t say, exactly, but talks about pride, pride, pride. Dignity; couldn’t I have called back? And dad, she didn’t want to steal him away again from whatever he’d been doing at that hour

Yikes, mom.

But it’s nice to be with her. Why? She asks about my job (I’m a pharmacist) and roasts me about the stupid things I say and she roasts me in a way that confirms that those things are stupid but that I’m not. Critiquing is how she connects. She has long grey thick hair like she could be a famous poet with a black-and-white headshot but she’s not a poet.

She points to my belly.

I’m pregnant, by the way, 4 months.

You look fat.

Yeah, mom, I just found out it’s twins.

(This is a lie. It’s not twins.)

I’m worried though. What will the baby’s life be like, Lorenzo is on another business trip, left with no notice. Things between us? Not good. And I know he’d always provide for the kid with money but as Lorenzo would say in business-talk:

I’m afraid I’ve written a check I can’t cash, emotionally.

The phone rings.

Mom answers.

Hello…Completely?...Okay.

Yes. Soon. Thank you.

I decide not to ask, it’d just give her an excuse to talk about how nobody cares about her, again. Mom’s quiet. She gets a tall glass and fills it with water and drinks it in a swig. Then she gets a gallon of milk from the fridge (I spot her like she's lifting weights, which is ridiculous because someone should be spotting me! I'm lifting weights) and she has a tall glass of milk.

Ah, milk. I have milk memories, like how in college I used to put vodka in my half-full gallon of milk so I could drink during the day without roommates noticing. (Milk gets rid of the smell.)

Ah, memories.

Mom makes the ahhh sound and puts down her glass.

Wow, what thirst!

She turns to me, panting with slaked satisfaction.

That was Cheryl. Dad’s dead.

*

Dad and I once went to a baseball game. He bought me a pretzel and looked very tall, very strong. I told mom the truth, he and I had a good time. Later she hurt her back and I connected the dots and didn’t speak highly of dad ever again. Her back didn’t improve, and hasn’t.

*

Outside birds and worms, pedestrians and rats, everybody scurries to a place where they’ll be safe. Meanwhile I’m on my way to dad’s, alone. Big clouds darkly hover over me. I feel ashamed. Was it something I did that made dad die? Or is this some kind of joke?

*

I take a cab and despite myself relish the opportunity to spend money like that. If not now, when?

*

Hi Cheryl.

She opens the door and is sad. Paramedics already there have given up and logged time place cause.

Hi Karen. Is your mother…?

Mom isn’t feeling well, she needed to go lie down after the shock. (That’s what mom told me to tell Cheryl.)

To me it all feels autocompleted. Of course dad died. Of course I’m here. Of course I’m consoling Cheryl, perfectly adequate stepmother. Of course of course.

You sure you’re okay?

You’re not even crying!

Yes, Cheryl. Thank you, Cheryl.

You have to feel your feelings!

Yes, Cheryl. Thank you, Cheryl.

I sincerely try to earnestly sniffle.

Cheryl grew up on a farm in Vermont and is into energies.

The difference between mom’s place and dad’s place is that dad’s place has an upstairs and a basement: three levels total. Mom? Just one floor. I guess that’s just the difference between a house and an apartment.

Photos here too, above granite countertops and under mini-chandeliers. Dad and Cheryl on their honeymoon and on fun vacations to Greece (I like these). Me and mom and dad—my communion, graduation, wedding. I wear a version of the same dress in all three.

Dad won’t meet his grandkid.

That’s sad.

It makes me angry.

Their cat is on the ground. He shows me his belly.

Cheryl, what did they say? Oh I see. Heart attack.

The phone rings. Cheryl goes but the person hangs up as soon as Cheryl says hi.

So difficult to believe.

I know, Cheryl.

He was the best man I knew.

And it’s stupid but I agree. He was actually nice. When he asked if I liked a movie or a book or a song on the radio that played while we were in the car (he’d ask after every song when it was just the two of us in the car)—he cared about my answer.

He was curious about me, fascinated. When he was around.

He’d also do this thing where he didn’t visit for a long time, even though he was a subway away.

(Dad: Park Slope. Mom: Upper East Side.)

Oh.

He’s dead.

Actually dead.

The paramedics are leaving with the body. Cheryl follows and I’m going to get mom.

The storm speaks!

Rumble Rumble

I look out the wide windows in dad’s study. Little rain sounds on the windowpane, steady then faster like—sorry—heartbeats.

I’m feeling sensitive.

I want to be with mom.

I clutch a photo of us all and take it with me when I leave, I don’t really look at it.

I’m in a cab to mom’s and now I look at it. It’s us at the Grand Canyon, the trip we all took, even Cheryl.

Mom looks pissed.

Dad doesn’t seem to notice she’s pissed.

I realize, if I was mom, that would only make me more pissed.

(Cheryl, nervously cheery.)

Thunder Rumble

Lorenzo calls but I decline.

I get to mom’s.

Knock.

Knock.

Knock.

Knock.

Freak out, get the landlord to let me in.

Mom’s dead.

On the ground, on her back, hand on her belly.

She looks vulnerable but she’s not vulnerable she’s just dead.

The landlord says

Oh no.

Your mom’s dead.

*

The rain is coming down not in sheets nor in blankets but in beds, California Queen. Like the weather is furious at the windows.

I don’t call Cheryl because I know mom would kill me. The landlord calls an ambulance but the streets are already flooding.

The other tenants are calling him—leaks!—and he has to check on his own room.

They’ll be here soon.

Everything’ll be handled.

I have to leave.

It’s okay, thanks for unlocking the door.

Well mom, you and me.

I hear a beeping sound over the rain brigade. What the hell?

The smoke alarm in the living room is going. I glance up and get a whopping drop of water right in my eye. Then a bunch of other drops on the back of my head when I turn away to wipe my eye. Then a torrent, a pillar, a fire hydrant’s worth of water. It’s like a whale is upside down on the roof and its blowhole is lined up exactly with the alarm. The alarm is blown right off, I’m drenched, I put a bucket under the hole and it doesn’t do much.

Crrrrack

I look outside and a tree comes down at one end of mom’s street. The tree blocks the road.

Crrrrrack

Another tree! Blocks off the other end of mom’s road.

Then ambulance sounds. But they can’t get past the trees. I see them pull up to the first one and then back out and swing around the block and try the other end of the street. It’s pathetic, futile. They know mom’s dead. No rush, guys. No worries.

I’m suddenly starving. I go into the kitchen and make a cold cut sandwich with Italian bread, mortadella, and mozzarella. A wayward branch bandied about by the wind smashes through mom’s window. Some glass comes dangerously close to getting in her hair. For propriety’s sake I drag mom into the kitchen with me, which I know I’m not supposed to do with the baby, and draw the curtain that was functionally the kitchen door, so nothing will mess up mom’s face, no broken glass or whatever.

Her eyes are still kind of open.

I want to close her eyes but I don’t want to touch her so I put the family photo from dad’s house over her face. It helps. It feels respectful.

I think I hear her try to talk. Garble. She’s not dead.

Mom?

But she doesn’t answer.

*

The storm is hard to describe.

Like, “I look at the storm and see myself.”

Like, “I feel I’ll die due to storm-related head trauma.”

Like, “And what about the people who aren’t me? What’s the storm like for them, where are they? It’s useless to wonder this but do nothing. I think I’m bad.”

Like, “I actually make a dark and stormy. In my mind I raise a toast with mom’s ghost.”

Like, “The thunder is dad, the lightning mom, the raindrops Cheryl. The baby?”

Like, “Thinking of my baby as the storm rages, I feel badly about the environment: specifically, climate change.”

Like, “I don’t hear the knocks at the door over the storm sounds so the paramedics have to break mom’s wood door.”

Like, “The paramedics’ ponchos seem used up and the paramedics themselves are still soaked all the way through. I’m swept into my old bedroom like dust while they work on mom. No windows in my old room. Safe.”

Like, “The paramedics come in to tell me that mom’s not dead but that she has overdosed on her back pain meds. They are taking her to the hospital now. They will try to brave the storm conditions. They ask if I will be riding in the ambulance—they understand if I don’t want to risk it.”

Like, “I decline another call from Lorenzo. I text and tell him I’m okay, just bad reception because of the storm. He responds with a thumbs up emoji.”

Like, “The back doors of the ambulance close and the rain’s hit me so hard even the baby feels wet. The ambulance wades in our race against time.”

Like, “There should never be a season for things like this.”

Like, “The storm is just a device. Like mom or dad or Cheryl or Lorenzo or the baby.”

Like, “I look at the storm and ask, Why can’t you be other, better weather?”

The storm stops.

The storm starts.

The storm says, What storm?

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harris lahti

BONDO by Harris Lahti

That summer I started working at Lexington Home for minimum wage. I spent shifts convincing residents to swallow pills brimming from paper cups. It was a powerful position. Or at least that’s what I told friends. I told them I could’ve swallowed every pill if I wanted. But the only question anyone ever asked was: “What happened to you?” I was permanently limping. My hips, shins, elbow were riddled with lumps and eggs. The city of Albany was full of cracks that stopped skateboard wheels dead and, it seemed, I’d found every one. I discovered the pink goo of car Bondo worked best for patching. In minutes it formed a hard, smooth layer. At night I dreamt of a seamless world where one could roll forever. Back then, friends were everywhere, too plentiful. It got so the nerves inside my face ached from laughing. I decided skateboarding was a legend factory. One night, we branded our legs with a hot iron then went dancing until the blood filled our socks. On the way home, we stole things from the park. Our best find was a billboard-sized Christmas sign depicting a happy Santa tossing presents that we stole from an unlocked shed. We plugged it in and blew the fuse of the apartment before he could toss any presents though. A week later someone went to the hospital with a staph infection while my own self-inflicted wounds healed nicely. The small miracle made me feel powerful. Other times I thought I might die I was so fragile. I called out of work constantly. But they refused to fire me. I hit another crack and separated my shoulder. It healed all wrong and began hanging awkwardly from my bones, straining the muscle over my heart. For a short time afterward I became convinced I was having a heart attack and admitted myself to the hospital. When the ER nurse asked me if I’d had any drugs, I lied and said, “No, never.” She brought me pills brimming a paper cup and told me I was okay to go. I tossed them back, showed her my tongue but she wasn’t looking. On my way home, I kicked over garbage cans, thinking I’d run into someone. I didn’t know where anyone was anymore, it seemed. I tried remembering if I’d called out of work already, if I should go in. Behind one can, I discovered a painting of Black Jesus rimmed in heavenly light. I carried it home and scrubbed the glass with Windex to give my new savior a brighter domain. Why had I started working at Lexington Home in the first place? I wondered. Black Jesus didn’t know either. Was it an ad in the paper? Sometimes I thought I just showed up at Lexington Home without invitation and slipped in among the residents, all seamless. Other times it was even less deliberate. Regardless, as I limped the halls that day, a happy Santa tossing out pills, electricity surged through my cracked bones as the residents shivered and rolled out their tongues.

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andrew higgins

DULUTH by Andrew Higgins

The plane fulfills its purpose: we are no longer ascendant. The engine winds down smoothly, a game show loss sort of draining. The tarmac is ice-sheathed but our skid in was mild. Men outside in reflective gear gesture meaningfully towards the hull, and we look at them through the ovular windows with a small, first-world pity. My body is still hallucinating movement at six-hundred miles per hour.

We are all seated uncomfortably, waiting for permission, exchanging mild sentiments until we can get off. The thin fury of air-conditioning is louder than before. The seatbelt chime rings, finally, and we all jolt to our feet. It’s a group-rise, liturgical. We’re hunched under the rounded ceilings, staring into our respective middle distances. The plane seems to close in on us as we stand in needless silence. The reek of a changed diaper leaking into the cabin. Benign mechanical screeches issuing from under our feet. Nearby someone’s belly croaks long with hunger. We’re a fuselage of bodies, wanting to get off.

The woman seated beside me, stringy-haired and jumpy, was telling me about comparative taxes rates in Ireland, where she lives now with her husband because of his job. “They take half!” She exclaimed quietly. “Half!” Her voice was nasally but reassuring, an accent I haven’t heard for a while. I can’t guess her age. She has that life-long waitress sheen, tight-skinned, wide-eyed, always chewing gum.

A man leans over his seat, giving us both a world-weary look. Balding, wide-set predatory eyes, his collar yellowing a little after our red-eye from New York. Our eyes meet and we raise our eyebrows at one another, a way of greeting. We are open.

“Ya know,” he says to neither of us in particular, “it’s not much better here in the States. Between state and federal, my 401k, and health insurance—my one kid’s special needs—it comes out to over 50% of my take-home, too.”

The woman glances up to me for confirmation.

I say, “That’s about right.”

Her face goes gloomy. She seems to be burdened by some previously unknown woe. “Ya know,” she says in a vaguely didactic tone, “a lot of kids are turning up autistic these days. I tell ya, I saw on the news that it has something to do with all these WIFI signals in the air!” Her eyes fall to her lap and she shakes her head, a look of pale distress on her face. “You just never heard of that autism before this whole online thing.” I realize as she says this that she’s much older than I’ve guessed.

“Oh, my son doesn’t have autism,” the man begins apologetically. “Tommy’s mentally retarded.”

Good afternoon passengers. This is your captain speaking. Looks like it’s a cloudy sixty-four degrees outside…

There is a silence that the woman beside me obviously wants to fill. “Well,” the woman starts in a vaguely conspiratorial tone, “if it weren’t for Comrade O-BA-ma’s health care plan...Plus! these government people with their federal salaries and pensions and benefits!” She shakes her head again, this time, at a world bent on specific fiscal waste.

The man dips his chin towards me, looking for the third side to our burgeoning revolt. “What do you do for work?”

I look at my feet.

“I’m a consultant, with the GSA.”

They both find a variation of frown-smile at this, and a feeling arises that we’ve all sort of had enough of each other.

The door opens and the plane is depressurized, an entirely controlled danger. We all descend into the small barbarism of hasty disembarkation. Bins are pried open. Bags are ripped out. I am pushed, I push back, and no one acknowledges it. Wordless negotiations take place between opposite sides of the aisle. Each of us has our own reveries and despairs and we wear them on our faces. The passengers all enter the terminal as a dissipating community, and we fuse as individuals into a larger faceless crowd. We will abandon all knowledge of each other: we are, above all, strangers.

Duluth is convinced it’s coming up in the world. This is my hometown, but I’m disoriented in the new terminal. welcome to the james l. oberstar terminal runs across an exterior skyway. It was built recently in memoriam of a late-senator, a Democrat, and I recalled this only dimly because my Republican parents say his name with offhand venom. I walk past a pseudo-luxury coffee house, local displayed prominently on the signage (although the coffee is neither grown nor roasted here in Minnesota). There’s a full British pub next door, its ruddy baroque wooden panels bleached out by the sunlight coming in through the wall-sized windows. Next, a languid young man, dark and vaguely foreign, coughs and offers me pink salt from The Dead Sea.

Travel noises. Intercoms, electric doors, the hushed tension of people moving toward destinations. I turn towards the baggage carousel, following a sign. The slow tide of traffic outside. A few passengers’ families have paid the one-hour parking fee to greet them indoors. I see the man hug the son he described and a few others who share his general traits. I am enjoying the sight of this, hardened by the city I now live in—one of the elite coastal bastions. Then the woman from the flight waddles up to my side. She peers at me, wide-eyed. I can see that she’s waiting to tell me a secret. I raise my eyebrows, a gesture of openness, and she begins speaking from the side of her mouth. “I can’t believe they say that about their own kids!”

“Say what?” I ask, confused.

Re-tard,” she whispers, casting a look to each side. “That’s like saying the N-word!

The word hangs in the air. I realize she’s come to misunderstand autism as some sort of PC term for mental retardation. Given her feelings about taxes and health care, I find this consideration mildly ironic. Bags begin thudding down onto the conveyor belt, and the silence her statement has engendered, I realize, belongs to neither of us. Goshes and darnits and hons fill the air. I part ways with my seatmate now and wish her a Merry Christmas. This is my tribe, what I came for.

I am home.

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jenny fried

EYE BITES by Jenny Fried

What You Need to Know

I cut off a rat’s head with a guillotine, and it told me I looked like someone who ate cereal for every meal, which was one I hadn’t heard before. I do not in fact eat cereal for every meal, but there’s no use fighting with a rat head. I learned not to argue when I tried to kiss someone and was so nervous I missed her mouth. At first she told me it was cute, but later she said she didn’t know why she bothered with me. I got lost in the forest once. I remembered reading about mazes, so I took only left turns for as long as I could. I found a hill made all out of sand and a man with long straight hair. I knew I knew him from somewhere but I couldn’t figure out where the information I wanted was, trapped inside my head. It was like a seal I saw on the beach once. All its flippers were fine, and its tail was touching the water, but it couldn’t figure out how to get back in.

#

Things I Know

The animals commonly known as seals are referred to as pinnipeds in the scientific community. Kingdom: Animalia. Phylum: Chordata. Class: Mammalia. Order: Carnivora. Suborder: Caniformia. Raskovnik is the Bulgarian name for Marslilea quadrifolia, a small plant that looks like a four leaf clover. It is not particularly rare, nor does it grow in remote areas, but is completely unidentifiable to the untrained eye. A legendary herb of the same name was said to be able to open any lock. The distance from the earth to the sun is 4.85 million parsecs, 149.60 million kilometers, 92.96 million miles, 327.22 billion cubits. Thousands of people have childhood memories of a series of kid’s books called the Berenstein Bears, pronounced like steen. They never existed. It’s the Berenstain Bears, pronounced like stain. The erroneous memory is embedded so strongly in some people’s heads that it has been cited as proof that we are now living in a parallel universe, that it was -stein when we were kids, but that timeline was erased somewhere along the way.

#

What I Say to You

I think if I were an animal I would be a seal.

#

That Night

I make out with a chair and then it rips off its face, but it isn’t you its someone else I know. We go to a protest at my old high school and I am so so late for Spanish but this is important. A short kid with a beard sneaks away with my backpack while I’m chanting. I run after him I think but my legs are still at the protest and he gives my bag back because I ask him nicely. I go to an Italian restaurant with my parents and my mom kisses our waitress on the cheek. When she turns into a frog I wonder how I’m going to pay my college tuition. My frog mom swims around the glass of water the waitress keeps refilling and I keep drinking it because I don’t know how to tell her to stop. I don’t know how to tell you to stop looking at me because its not that I don’t like your eyes I do I just know that your pupils will start taking little bites of me when they dilate because that’s just how these things go.

#

Out Your Car Window

Even when it isn’t that hot yet if you look closely you can always see asphalt shake and shimmer a little. I think it’s jealous. Everything always moves over it and it has to stay still. Its just like how when you see deer next to the highway they’re always looking at you and their eyes are always full of that look you give bridges when you’re wading through the water. But there aren’t any deer this time because I asked you to go the slow way, only boys on bicycles and a dirty Laundromat every couple of blocks. Somewhere inside there’s probably a chute where they throw all the lost socks and a place where their ashes stay and the sock ghosts crawl out and go haunt feet and doorknobs. It’s kind of weird to look at someone who can’t look back but what else are you supposed to do if you aren’t the one who’s driving?

#

What I Say to You

Do you know what paper tastes like?

Sort of. I ate straw wrappers when I was a kid.

I ate old newspapers. I didn’t realize they didn’t taste good until I was done eating.

Like aftertaste?

Kind of.

Not quite?

It’s more like you forget what it tastes like while it’s happening.

Like you have to think about it later?

Yeah.

What are we talking about?

Eating paper.

We’re talking about eating paper?

Sure.

That’s it?

I guess.

#

Last Year

The bites started small, with just the eyes. Little love bites. Then there were words I could see on my skin. Then the big ones. Bite one pushed the air out of my belly. Bite two left a mark on my face. Bite three put a chip in my tooth. Sometimes I still cut myself on it when I’m trying to speak.

#

Things I Know About You

You walk with your heels turned in.

You always have cough drops in your pockets.

You don’t turn the radio on in your car, even when we aren’t talking.

You know more kinds of bears than I do.

You do your laundry in the sink.

You always forget to staple your papers together.

You wear shoelaces that are too long, and they drag on the ground even when you     remember to double knot them.

You don’t have any pets

You answer my questions, even stupid ones.

You go the slow way if I ask you to.

#

Your Place

I know that walking through doors makes you forget things because I read it somewhere. When I walk into rooms sometimes I forget what I am doing there and then I lie down on the floor and look up at the ceiling and wonder how many doors I have to walk through before I forget everything.

I know that you are looking at me because your eyes take three bites.

I like your eyes. I like your eyes. I know I like your eyes, I do, and my tail is in the water. You put your hand on my arm, you put your hand on my face, and look, look it’s you. But what if it isn’t, what if you rip off your face and it isn’t you it’s someone else I know, and your hand is on my face. Again. Her hand is on my face again.

Shut up don’t argue with a girl who wants to eat you.

#

Under the Table

You find me under the table and you put my head in your lap. We stay right there, and you don’t say anything, and I think you are good for me, I want to say you are good to me, I want to say stop looking at me, I’m under the table for a reason, and your eyes are just little bites now but what if they get bigger. I want to say what if I want to say stop but instead I just think it, but instead I just think it.

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nayt rundquist

DUETS AND THE CRACK IN EVERYTHING by Nayt Rundquist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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christopher gonzalez

MINOR GRIEVANCES by Christopher Gonzalez

Adam tells me no one else will be by the water after such a bad snowfall. Edgewater Park should be deserted: just us and the lake, frozen into solid hills. It would be quiet, which I preferred—I kept quiet about a lot. Like the Grindr app I downloaded onto my phone as soon as I turned eighteen. How I’ve scrolled down that wall of guys, those photos of abs and round bellies, and the few faces concealed beneath the bill of a trucker’s camouflage snapback. I’ve tap-tap-tap-tapped the flame icon on a number of profiles, hoping to create a breadcrumb trail to the man of my dreams.

At least today, it’s led me to Adam.

There are no other cars around, so Adam drives onto the beach, parks close to the water. “Maybe when we finish, we can climb the waves and walk across them all the way to Canada.” I don’t laugh but sense that I should. He squeezes the steering wheel. The entire ride up I hadn’t said a word. “Come on, that was funny,” he says. “Picture it: you, me, and Justin Trudeau, frolicking.”

“Sorry, sorry, I’m having a moment.” I point out the window. There is still some sunlight over the lake; I want to thaw out under its burning glow.

“Yeah, it’s beautiful, huh? Almost as pretty as you.” He moves his hand from the wheel to my thigh, begins sliding it closer to my crotch. I’ve been here many times before. All those Friday nights spent following Siri’s voice across Northeast Ohio, spider-webbing down back roads and alleyways, to meet some random guy in the black mouth of night.

I place my hand over Adam’s, try to absorb all of its heat in my palm. Then his mouth is on mine and I wince at his cold tongue. My lips crack and sting at the edges, and his beard scrapes too roughly along my chin—but these are minor grievances. I keep quiet and lean back in the passenger seat, familiarize myself with the sensation of his body pressed against mine.

The guys I connect with are always older, sometimes by decades. They’re white men, mean men, greedy men. They live in dark houses, keep to themselves. On occasion, they own a dog. They shoot guns and kill fish and salute the flag and pretend they fit into the idea of a nation that wants very little to do with them and nothing to do with me. And still I slide beneath these men, risk disappearing altogether. Perhaps I’m already gone.

Neither Adam nor I make any sounds of pleasure, then it ends.

After, we walk along the edge of the lake where the ice meets untouched snow. He climbs onto the lake and reaches down to help me up. It’s eerie—the waves are so still. I can almost hear them crashing into one another, can’t stop imagining all that movement, exactly as they should be.   

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kristin lafollette

SHOOTER by Kristin LaFollette

I was walking next to Maureen at a slower pace than usual. She was always walking slowly, mostly because she was usually talking too much. I was actually surprised to hear from her when she had called me the day before. It had been months since I’d heard from her. I knew it was because of the incident, but if I was truly being honest, I wasn’t sorry for what I’d done. Maureen had always been a subpar friend, even if we did claim to be “best friends.” Every time I had a crisis situation going on in my life, she would still find something about herself that was more important to talk about instead. She drove me crazy most of the time, but I had agreed to meet up with her in an attempt to clear the air about the whole Ryan situation. Over lunch, she hadn’t even mentioned it once, which was good, I thought. I didn’t want her to see my less-than-genuine apology if it came to that. Plus, I didn’t want to have to tell her that Ryan and I were still seeing each other.

“So, how’s your job going?” Maureen asked as we walked into the coffee shop around the corner from the deli where we had eaten lunch.

If there was one thing I hated talking about, it was my job. I was home for the summer between my junior and senior year of college and had landed an internship at a small magazine in town. I thought it was going to be prestigious and give me great experience to take back to my writing program at school, but all I did was follow the editor around and do his paperwork for him. The truth was that I was embarrassed about how belittling the job was, so I always felt the urge to lie every time someone asked me how it was going.

“It’s fine,” I said, standing in line with Maureen behind a couple of young girls in halter tops. “I think I’m getting a lot of experience.”

“Have you written anything lately?” she asked, staring at the menu behind the counter as if she didn’t always order the same thing when we came in.

This was another question I hated to be asked, but I was always getting asked it anyway. I had really slacked off on my writing that summer, mostly due to the fact that I was spending so much time with Ryan. But I couldn’t tell Maureen that. I was starting to question why I had agreed to meet up with Maureen in the first place. Ryan was all for us meeting up and talking; he said Maureen had a right to know about us, but I felt differently about the whole situation. I would have rather ignored Maureen for the rest of eternity than tell her the truth. I hated conflict.

“I’ve been working on some short fiction for a compilation I’m putting together,” I lied. “I’m hoping to have it finished by the time I go back to school.”

She looked skeptical. If there was one thing Maureen knew about me, it was that I loved to talk about my writing in detail. When I didn’t, she had to know something was wrong.

We ordered our drinks and waited for them at the end of the counter. Maureen was playing with a curl of her blonde hair, something that was a very annoying habit of hers. It made her look stupid. I was trying to think of something to say when she spoke up again.

“Chrissy, I just want you to know that the whole situation with Ryan is in the past. I’m over it and have moved on. Things don’t have to be awkward between us.”

I should have felt relieved, but I felt suddenly nauseated instead. I felt a strange pain deep in my organs somewhere. She was willing to move on from the whole thing, but she didn’t know the whole truth. Ryan was actually waiting for me a couple streets over in the parking lot of a bookstore we often went to together. We were meeting up after my outing with Maureen. I knew he would want to know how lunch went, and I would have to tell him that I didn’t tell her the truth.

“Great,” I said. “That’s what I was hoping you would say.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I felt like a coward, especially because I wasn’t quite sure how Ryan and I would continue our relationship without her finding out at some point in time. I just didn’t want to start an argument with her, especially in the middle of the coffee shop.

We left the coffee shop, walking slowly again while Maureen examined her paper coffee cup in an effort to avoid the silence between us.

“Don’t you have anything you want to apologize for?” Maureen finally asked.

Here was the moment I had been hoping to avoid the whole time. I kept looking down at my feet as we walked, unsure of what to say. My first instinct was to lie.

Before I could say anything, I noticed a one-hundred dollar bill lying in the grass next to the sidewalk. I stopped walking. Maureen took a couple more steps and turned around. She saw the money, too.

For a moment we just looked at each other. I turned back and the money was still in the same spot it had been. I looked a little closer and it looked as if the bill was stuck to the ground with a sewing pin.

“Aren’t you going to pick it up?” Maureen said as I stared at the bill.

“It’s pinned down, like someone put it there,” I said. “Like it’s a joke or something. Like some prank.”

As I was contemplating whether or not to pick it up, I glanced up at the high-rise apartment building in front of us. About five stories up, I saw a man standing in the window. The window was open and the white drapes were fluttering around him in the breeze. He had a gun propped up on the windowsill and was looking down at me through the scope.

I pointed up at the window and screamed.

“Run, he’s got a gun!”

There were many people lining the street and sidewalks, and they all looked up at the window. Everyone started to run at the same time, a stampede of wild animals.

I took off running with my head down and as I heard the gun go off. I didn’t know what kind of gun it was, but it kept going off. I had my back to the shooter as I ran. I kept expecting to feel a sharp pain and then a hot stream of blood down my back. I ran as fast as I could to try to clear the street and get around the corner. I didn’t turn around, but I heard people screaming as I ran. I thought of Ryan, sitting in the driver’s seat of his car in front of Barnwell’s Books on Main Street, waiting for me to jump in with my coffee in hand and tell him all about how Maureen had given us her blessing. Could he hear the gunfire?

I finally made it to the end of the street and ran around the corner, dropping to my knees as soon as I did. I couldn’t catch my breath. I didn’t realize until I had stopped running that I had managed to lose my purse in the process of getting away from the shooter. I didn’t dare look around the corner to see how many people were down or if the police had arrived. Or to find Maureen. It was like I was deaf. I couldn’t hear anything but my own breathing.

My feet hurt from running. I looked down and saw that my skin was raw and red from the straps on my sandals. I took them off and left them on the sidewalk. I needed to find Ryan. I started jogging to put more space between myself and the guy with the gun. As I neared the street where I knew Ryan would be waiting, I saw the Barnwell’s Books sign in the distance. Underneath the sign was Ryan’s blue car. He had the windows down with his music playing, as if nothing in the world had changed. As if people weren’t dying on the street nearby.

I sprinted to his car and pulled the passenger side door open, nearly diving in and slamming it behind me.

“Chrissy?” he said, reaching forward and turning down the volume. “What’s wrong?”

My hair was stuck to my forehead with sweat and I wiped at it with the back of my hand. I was sweating everywhere. My hearing was coming back to me and I heard police sirens in the distance.

“Didn’t you hear it?” I nearly screamed at him. “Couldn’t you hear the gun?”

“What are you talking about, Chrissy?” he said, his expression changing from curious to something between concerned and angry. “Where’s Maureen?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “There was a guy standing in a window with a gun. He started shooting. How could you not hear it?”

We sat there for a couple minutes in silence, not saying anything. Ryan had his hand on my back, my sweaty heat radiating to his palm. My skin stuck to the leather seat of his car.

Finally, Ryan said, “I’m getting out. I’m going to find Maureen.”

I slowly opened the door of the car, putting my raw feet on the hot concrete one at a time. I had been so worried about not letting Maureen know about Ryan and me, and now all I wanted to do was find her and tell her. Maybe out of guilt. Maybe because I didn’t want to feel like a coward.

We walked back toward the street in silence. I heard ambulance and police sirens echoing off of the buildings around us. As we rounded the corner to the street where the shooter was, I saw a figure in a blue dress standing in the distance. Her blonde curls bounced as she talked with a police officer. She was crying.

“Maureen!” Ryan yelled as he took off running.

I hugged my arms around myself.

Maureen turned around and ran to Ryan. They hugged each other as Maureen spotted me over Ryan’s shoulder.

“Chrissy?” she said. “Chrissy, I had no idea where you went. I thought he got you, the shooter.”

I walked up and hugged Maureen. Her sweaty hair clung to my neck.

“Ryan, what are you doing here?” Maureen said, wiping tears from her pale cheeks.

Ryan glanced over at me. I kicked a cigarette butt around on the ground with my bare left foot. For a moment, we were all silent.

“We never stopped seeing each other, Maureen,” I said, looking down at my feet.

Maureen looked at Ryan. She was still crying. Behind her, dozens of policemen and emergency workers were ushering people out of the street and onto the sidewalk. I saw one man lying on the pavement, writhing around and grabbing at his leg. Another woman lay face down in the middle of the street.

Maureen reached up and slapped me across the face. I didn’t move or say anything, I just looked down at my red feet again.

“Chrissy, I told you my brother was off limits! How can you be my best friend and go around with my little brother behind my back? Don’t you have any boundaries? Any morals?”

Ryan stepped in between us and grabbed his sister by the shoulders. He was talking to her but I wasn’t listening. My ears started ringing and I feared the deafness would return. I turned and looked up the street again. Off in the distance, I could still see that one-hundred dollar bill stuck to the ground, the sun reflecting off the tiny piece of metal pinning it down.

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dylan gray

RAW LIVER by Dylan Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i feel slightly less corpse-like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and then we go separate ways.

until the sequel.

and then we go again.

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

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

my body feels better and in turn i do too.

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

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

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X-R-A-Y ISSUE #6

DOWNLOAD ISSUE #6 AUGUST 2018zachary kennedy-lopez // benjamin niespodziany // jonathan cardew // troy james weaver // bob raymonda // anastasia jill // nayt rundquist // kevin sampsell // joseph grantham // paul curran // marston hefner // s.f. wright // sam phillips // dylan gray // bud smith
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THE TURTLEMAN by Patrick Reid

The turtleman has dark green skin, a thick, spongy surface, like wet clay. The turtleman lives by the lake. The turtleman has long, smooth legs, and even longer, skinnier arms. The turtleman reads fiction. The turtleman writes screenplays, hoping he will eventually sell one to Hollywood, but he doesn't let his hopes get too high, because he knows a lot of depressed screenwriters who have long since lost their creative spark. The turtleman has a mere bump for a nose, slits for nostrils, and two large eyes, cartoonish, mostly white. The turtleman has a shell. The turtleman walks on two legs, like the teenage mutant ninja turtles, although he looks nothing like them, he thinks, being much taller and lankier, although, sometimes, out of fascination, late at night, looks up YouTube videos of the live-action ninja turtle films from the 1990s and watches, with fear and fascination and a grotesque, uncanny sensation, the same way a normal man might feel watching the puppet character in "Mr Meaty".The turtleman tokes. The turtleman wakes and bakes, and then before breakfast, and then before driving to work, and then on the drive to work, and then at his first break at work. The turtleman has a job at Dunkin Donuts. The turtleman thinks the job is shitty, but he does not care what he thinks. The turtleman considers himself mindless and insignificant, and does not have a trace of self-interest, ambition, or ego. The turtleman is viewed by his coworkers as remarkably friendly and cooperative. The turtleman is responsive to people, like some kind of liquid moving around their solid, fuller existence. The turtleman steals white powdered munchkins throughout the shift, but only when he is working alone. The turtleman is nice to customers. The turtleman is never on his phone, but he does not correct coworkers who do use their phones, who read Twitter until customers grow visibly angry and shift or move something on the table to make a noise and get the coworkers attention, or say "hey" under their breath, because the turtleman understands why they would rather be on their phones than paying attention to their work. The turtleman knows that his coworkers could give a shit about their work at Dunkin Donuts. The turtleman still does his job well. The turtleman is Dunkin' Donuts employee of the month. The turtleman freaks his boss out, because she said once he seems like "a fucking robot," although she apologized later, so the turtleman was confused, although he understood where she was coming from. The turtleman understands people really well, and has a lot of compassion, and understands human flaws. The turtleman exercises 5 times a week, doing full body workouts, with an emphasis on back and legs. The turtleman plays basketball to cool down. The turtleman, after exercising, sits down in his apartment to write. The turtleman never finds it hard to be creative. The turtleman completed a screenplay last week about a woman who was raped, and sent it to Hollywood, fingers crossed. The turtleman, this week, is working on a screenplay about a man who was raped. The turtleman tokes while he writes, and feels it helps him think more clearly. The turtleman has many other ideas about many other kinds of people and creatures getting raped. The turtleman is always excited to get started on a screenplay. The turtleman reads. The turtleman has read Infinite Jest and Ulysses many times. The turtleman has murdered exactly 15 people over the course of the last 3 years. The turtleman is cute. The turtleman is desired by many women, but he feels no sexual attraction. The turtleman pokes himself sometimes to see his spongey skin pressed on like a memory foam mattress. The turtleman kills for fun. The turtleman feels bad after he kills. The turtleman does not rape. The turtleman has a very peculiar taste in art. The turtleman only likes art that centers around the topic of rape. The turtleman has right wing political views. The turtleman breathes. The turtleman tries to fall asleep. The turtleman thinks "fuck I'm fuck retarded" as he tries to sleep. "I can't articulate myself for shit" he says out loud. The turtleman says "Fuck. I want to rape. I want to get raped. I want to rape. I don't want to rape." The turtleman begins to cry. The turtleman screams. The turtleman smiles. The turtleman thinks "I can't even begin to express how retarded I FUCKING AM!" The turtleman thinks "3am shift, fuck," even though his shift is 4am.The turtleman wants to murder again. The turtleman is bloody thirsty. The turtleman, the turtleman, the turtleman. Then the dick slides off like butter.

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wayland tracy

THE ELEPHANT EATS THE DOG by Wayland Tracy

I’ve rested my eyes upon the kit cat clock that keeps manic vigil of my darkening apartment. Either this or another video of fish eating birds, and I’ve figured out how all those end.

Its eyes shift front door to back door, synchronized with pendulum tail, sixty back-and-fourths to the minute. A maroon coat with white beard and a clock face on its belly grasped tightly by claws. And a bowtie. And ears like devil horns. Surely the devil keeps time, is timely, time of our lives. But I’m waiting for those eyes to break rhythm, waiting for those orbs of seeming mechanical animation to meet my own and grant me something of a different something, and no, I don’t think it will be good but that’s not what different means.

I’m drinking gin and juice, cranberry juice and gin poured from a broken bottle and even seasoned with the elusive glass flakes that could not be filtered out with fork. I think of Snoop Dogg. I think we could have been friends, but time feels thin now, wavering like mist in the sun, yes, but no who cares, it wavers like the ghost of my grandmother visiting me on the can. I could cry now as I did then, but I’m far too stupid these days. Won’t allow it. I’m sorry, Snoop. Besides, weed makes me doomful and I’m so goddamned tired of being the big bummer.

The gin and juice and glass goes down a little scratchy, but I believe in paying for my vices. I paved the road with five beers. I dropped the sixth after the fifth and let it pool on the kitchen floor. In time it will evaporate, glass and all, and my apartment will be pillaged by old friends and landlord, all matter renewed in the great cycle, kissed cheek and wreathed neck. My deposit withheld. That’s why I don’t clean unless it stinks.

Gin is for all seasons, as is all booze. Don’t be a fool. A Kansas summer is like an old farmer beating you unconscious with a haybale. So you drink gin and tonic with extra lime and oh so much ice. A big glass. Steal the ice from the front of a gas station. A big glass to peer through the bottom and see the future.

I imagine, I must, the cat looks to steal a lover or pull one over a on fool. I am overlooked, time and again passed over. Ha. I actually know the cat to be a dragon hoarding over its treasure, yes, it collects the time I drop at the threshold every evening, and that is why it pays me no mind. I had time and I used it to jack-off before work. Grace up and gone with the beer bottles and sardine cans.

I sneeze something awful, a god-hollering achoo that expels my precious blood through mouth and nose. Kansas is very bad for allergies. It subdues me every year, the gears precise in my sinuses, every year. My cough can only be dried out by smoke. The medicine weakens my blood.

My blood. My blood is sprayed across my arm and speckled on the couch. My mind shouts, Cranberry juice! but no, you fool, it is my blood. That makes sense. Undesirable but expected and all together honestly pretty cool. I take a picture and post it on Twitter with the words, Blood in the sneeze is worth two teens in the trees. I had made my profile private and blocked all my followers. I don’t even get it. It’s not funny.

I had the bottle opened before I opened my car door. Terribly parched and illogical. It jolted my head and kicked my empty stomach as the sun belched in my face. An old woman sat in the passenger seat of the car next to mine with her window cracked as might be done for a dog. She said, Take it easy, young man. As I lifted fist with bottle, middle finger pointed to heaven, the gin slipped from my sweaty hand, nosediving into the asphalt and snapping its neck.

I’m starting to hear whispers beneath the clicks of the cat. Like the voices I’ve heard before sleep, pieces of conversations floating through a crowd. But something else. This now, here, hear it just enough to know its real, one voice sickly sweet and not stopping for air. The mouth is painted on. Eyes frantic search.

The pain is thickening. The scratches in my throat have crawled into my guts and are working it like dogs in a rat nest. Reminds me of the time I had pneumonia as a child. From that I learned the benefits of suffering. No one expects anything of you, me, the contorted and moaning pile of puke and cold sweat. Akin to the dead but with all the advantages of the living: being alive.

I had poured out two water bottles and filled them with the gin I had managed to save. The glass shards floated like dazzling alien fish. Ah, you see? Delusion is simply a positive frame of mind. However, I’ll cut to the chase. The tonic water was missing cap and flat; the limes were rock and rotten. So fuck all that. However, as God gave Noah the rainbow, he gave me a bottle of cranberry juice, at one time intended to be drunk before a drug test. These are the winding currents of shitsville—trust them.

Do you believe in demons? Neither do I. If you said yes, then sure, why not. I tend not to believe in anything, which breeds endless maybes, a hopeless burden. But these whispers. Aren’t all whispers sinister? Didn’t she whisper in ways? Sinister? Sinister, sin, evil, devil, demon, hell? I think perhaps this is a case in which the answer is correct but the question is wrong, like shooting Ted Nugent with a silver bullet. So I call my friend, the priest.

We had gone to high school together, a Catholic institution—uniforms, gym mass, homophobia, plenty of pot, etc. We waited together for our mothers after school. He gave me the lunch he didn’t eat. I admired him because he was quiet and funny without crudeness or vulgarity. And he never condemned me as so many tried. Our lives are on opposite sides of the baptismal font, so to speak. I haven’t seen him in over a year. Love and solitude and all that shit.

Ring. Ring. Pour, sip, ring.

Soft and unsure, he says, Oh, hi Wayland.

Hey, buddy, what’s up?

Oh, you know. Just thinking I guess.

Someone’s gotta do it. I tried once and my hair started falling out.

He laughs like an ill man. It’s easier than saying something.

He says, You sound kind of ill. Are you okay?

No, not ill. Could use some blessings, sure. Always. But the thing is my clock. It’s talking to me. Probably not serious, but you know.

He’s silent. I cough blood into my fist. This has lost its charm. At last, I make out a word from the slick whispers: pejorative.

Are you… Are you on drugs?

No, Jacob, listen…

I think you’re on drugs.

No. I’ve been drinking glass. I know, I know. But it is a Tuesday night!

He doesn’t laugh. He sighs. Let’s get lunch soon.

Ok. Yeah. But don’t transubstantiate it this time.

Again.

You know the church has programs…

Yes, I know. Let’s get lunch.

He hangs up and I finish my drink.

One time at mass, I took the eucharist from the priest and pocketed it. Later, in the hallways, I licked it and stuck it to my forehead, then shook and spoke in mock tongues for the amusement of some friends. Jacob saw me and cried. Right there, in front of everybody, and they looked at him as you might a horse taking a shit in a parade and laughed. He didn’t need any more of that.

I hear the whispers with more clarity, like I’m tuning into a new frequency, but they’re jumbled and missing something, or I am. I cup my ears to the cat. Close my eyes.

collective damage and fusion             guilty parties      beguiled and bled through

the management of waste        you have painted       the gaul

you have      tasted and never once      I watch        I watch     I watch and never once

 this faux misery         entrusted to the blind and        guilty parties         never

     seldom sought in a seething pit I know        the opportunities arise

I used to talk with this homeless guy back in that time when I wandered downtown in the bad hours. Named Mislow and plagued with the creeps. He moved in escape. He conducted our chance meetings like a general losing the war. Crickets crawled over his bare feet and sang within the caves of his rags. He had told me that moles invaded the city offices through the sewers, that g-men were rounding up vagrants for weapons testing. He told me the truths as never before imagined, in hi-def technicolor 3D explosions. I offered him cigarettes and anything else I had to share. Secrets swapped for secrets. I’ll look over your shoulder if you look over mine. I gave him a hunting knife and he slipped it into the labyrinth of his garments. Said I’d get him a gun if I could. He reminded me of my father.

I told him one night that I planned on falling in love soon. A girl who gave me the day. With music and laughter and so fond touches on my face. It was to be. But it halted him, his eyes, hands, and lips. He had finally pinpointed an enemy, the deceiver lying low in my chest. He punched me in the gut, knocking the wind out, grabbed me by the shirt and said with a spray of garbage juice, You want pussy, fine. But these are the times of war.

Last I saw of him was a mugshot after he stabbed a cop.

I’m on the second water bottle of gin and trying to remember if alcohol is a blood thinner. Regardless. I add more cranberry juice to put it in as fast as it comes out. Mindful. Such a cheap word.

Now rhythm. Droning. It appears the cat has found its mantra: the elephant eats the dog.

I have had no luck in fixing anything by smashing it. This, a life of handcrafted logic, an artisan belief system. Everything works until it doesn’t. I have the brain of a lizard wearing a beret. The elephant eats the dog.

My hands shake, spilling my drink over and over and now I sit feeling silly and soaked in blood, gin and juice. Those eyes aren’t slowing down, though, and I don’t believe they will ever stop, not for me. Suspicion creates the future. The desire to fuck and love and be reborn creates the future. My blood creates the future. The tracking and ticky tocking of time finds the future too late. The future, in all its wisdom, whispered into your ear the dreams you had in your crib.

Now, a sound of world crumble and rattlesnake, an offbeat screech: the tell-tale buzz of my phone left on the floor. It shines in the darkness like an end of a tunnel. The name on the screen cannot be, a mistake and malfunction of our collective dumbass unconscious, surely. It rings and rings and rings.

The elephant eats the dog.

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EYE UPON THE DONUT by Gregg Williard

"She could be one of them.”  Matt nodded toward the end of the counter.  A Japanese woman of indeterminate age with fuchsia hair and an aqua hoody sat alone with a donut and coffee. Jake had never seen anyone eat a donut the way she did, from the outside surface moving in, turning it with each nibble until there was nothing but a perfect ring around the center. She placed it on the counter to study between sips of coffee.

Matt whispered, “She’s here every Saturday morning.  Orders coffee and a cake donut, always real careful not to bite the hole.”

Jake said, “Yeah?”

Matt leaned closer, talking low and fast.  “So, let’s say that everybody and everything is a projection of extra-dimensional forces that ‘interpret’ us in three dimensions, OK? And if we’re all electromagnetic metaphors downloaded from quantum data streams compressed to infinity inside the sentient black holes that are ‘dreaming’ us, then some people, just a few people , like that woman there, could be a black hole’s version of a ‘lucid dream’.”

“Yeah…”

“…which posits the donut batter as ‘objective correlative’ for plasma crushed in a torus of solenoid magnets, pressurized and accelerated until the nuclei fuse, which of course makes her eating the donut a representation of a representation, an avatar of a circular particle accelerator that is, in turn, a lower order, non-sentient expression of their dreaming us into being, you know?”

“Yeah.  But…”

“But what?”

“But don’t black holes eat matter and galaxies and stuff?  Are they dreaming us up just to eat us? Like, you know, a chef imagining a new recipe for poached quail eggs?”

Matt blinked.  “That’s a complete distortion, Jake.”

“I just don’t get what they want.”

“What they want?   Jake!  The question has no meaning. Even if it did we’d be incapable of ever knowing the answer. The consciousness we’re considering is infinitely more complex than ours. I mean, do you even ever know what your own consciousness ‘wants’ , let alone anyone else’s?”  At that moment Jake’s eyes met the woman’s. Neither looked away. Her pensive expression softened. She smiled, and he blushed. And smiled back.

“You know what I mean? Jake?

"Jake?”

 
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edward mullany

NINE STORIES by Edward Mullany

Bay Ridge

I’d fallen off my barstool and had been helped back up onto it by the man who’d been sitting next to me and who was laughing at me, or with me, as I was laughing at myself, though this man wasn’t someone I’d known before I’d entered the bar that afternoon, several hours earlier, when I’d found myself on the street on which it was located, having walked a long way, without much purpose or direction, from the neighborhood in which my apartment was, and in which I’d been arguing with the person with whom I’d been living and with whom I was in a relationship, and who, in fact, I had been and still was in love with, though it had become clear to me that this person was no longer in love with me, and maybe never had been, though this person did not want to admit it.

 

Translated from the French

I’d been reading a novel about a woman who is haunted by the ghost of her husband, though she does not at first realize she is being haunted by anything, and though, even after she does realize, she does not know that the ghost who is haunting her is her husband’s ghost, though after a while she begins to sense that maybe it is his, for it interacts with her in a way she begins to recognize, or remember, so that by the close of the novel she knows for certain that it is her husband’s ghost, though after she arrives at this certainty, and is relieved of the sadness with which she till then had been living, his ghost no longer haunts her, and her life proceeds without incident until it ends, many years later, one night when she is peacefully asleep.

 

Orpheus at Rest

When the old man who was sitting on a stool beside mine at the bar discovered I was a writer, after I’d told him as much, after he’d started talking to me after I’d come in from the rain and had sat down and had ordered a beer and had drank it and had ordered another, he told me he had a story about his life that he himself would’ve written if he was a writer, but that he was going to relate to me now, as a favor, so that I myself could write it, as if it had happened to me, though I would have to promise him, he added, that if I became famous from it, and made a lot of money, that I’d return to this bar and buy him a beer and thank him for the inspiration.

 

Paulette

After I’d finished what I’d said was going to be my last drink, and had headed toward the door of the bar in the company of a woman who was my friend and who was trying to get me to leave with her, so that she could make sure I got home safely, though she had not come to the bar with me, but had only arrived after she’d realized, from the texts we’d been exchanging, that she was worried about me, and had thus left her apartment, in her neighborhood, and had gone down to the street and had hailed a cab and had gotten in it and had told the driver to take her here…yes, after all this, when we were almost to the door of the bar, which was open onto the sidewalk, where one could see that it had been raining, I wheeled around and went back in and tried to order another drink, so that the woman who was my friend felt compelled to remain there with me, by my side, though at this point the bartender had seen what was happening and had decided not to serve me anymore, so that now I really did leave with the woman who’d come to retrieve me, although I did so in a belligerent way. 

 

Almost Over

On the sidewalk out front of the bar we’d only now come out of, having spent several hours inside it with a number of friends who’d all now departed, either in pairs or by themselves, so that you and I were the only two people remaining, though even we were not so much remaining as we were waiting in the vicinity of that place we would’ve been remaining had we not gotten up and gone outside and begun looking at our phones and watching the vehicles on the street for the next available cab, so that one might have said that we were no longer conscious of our present surroundings, or happy to inhabit them, but rather were anxious or impatient for what we hoped those surroundings could provide us with, or for how they might imminently change...yes, while we were standing out on the sidewalk like this, outside the bar, both of us in possession of our phones, but not very much aware of one another, or how one another was feeling, or what one another was thinking, if we’d been thinking anything at all, I realized we hadn’t said a word to each other since we’d found ourselves alone, after the last of our friends had said goodbye to us, and something about the knowledge that this realization imparted to me scared me.

 

The Glitch in Reality

One morning, on my way to work, I found no one on the platform in the subway, waiting for a train, though when I’d been up on the street, walking toward the corner, I’d seen many people, as I always did, crossing in front of me, or going past me, or alongside me, entering stores or coming out of them, waiting at the stoplight as traffic went by, standing and talking, or yelling, in a word, doing many things, so that it seemed to me now as if everyone had disappeared, or as if they’d decided that day not to commute into the city. Though when I went back through the turnstiles and up the stairwell and out onto the sidewalk, so strange had I found the sight of the empty station, I saw everyone again, doing all the things that they were doing. And when I went back down again, slowly this time, with an awareness or consciousness of every action I was engaged in, or was undertaking, I saw that people were now where I’d expected them to be, on the platform, looking at their phones, or standing with idle expressions on their faces.   

 

Gowanus

We get in an argument on the sidewalk outside the bar where we’ve spent the afternoon drinking, though we do not finish the argument there, but continue it as we walk down the block in what we think is the direction of the nearest subway, though because you are ahead of me, and won’t let me walk beside you, and are not, in fact, responding anymore to any of the things that I say to you or ask you, I eventually lapse into silence, and can imagine that we must appear, to anyone who might pass us or observe us, not as two people who are walking together, but rather as two people who happen to be near each other, heading the same way, but who may or may not even know each other.

 

Thursday

The bottle that I’d finished the night before, when I’d come home from work after a day on which many things had gone wrong, or, anyway, had transpired in a way that was not to my liking, though they may have transpired in a way that was to the liking of some of the people with whom I worked...yes, the bottle that I’d finished when I’d come home that night, after such a day, and had decided to have a drink or two, but had ended up having more than I’d intended to, was the first thing I saw the next morning when, waking on the floor in the shirt and tie and pants I hadn’t changed out of, I groggily and painfully, and somewhat unwillingly, opened my eyes, though the bottle itself, which was near enough to me that I could’ve reached out and touched it had I wanted to, though just then I did not want to, and in fact wished that it was not there at all, even to be seen, let alone touched, was no longer upright but had been tipped over onto its side.

 

Carbon Prevails  

I’d decided to quit drinking, and had done so, and had stuck by the decision for many months, so that, with every passing day, the sense of accomplishment and resolve that had come to me, upon making that decision, was increasing, though so was, strangely enough, a sense of precipitousness or danger that I had not anticipated, and that seemed to be inversely related to that sense which I’d first felt, and which had caused in me a feeling of tranquility, or well-being, but which now I understood was at risk of being undermined, at any given time, by some part of me that wished to return to that life I’d had prior to making the decision that I’d made, and that was not a happy life, but rather an unhappy and dissolute one; or, if not return to that life, merely to find pleasure in ruining the life I now was attempting to build, as if I was not constituted solely of one volition, or will, but rather of two of those things, or, at any rate, more than one, though however many volitions or wills did comprise me, if that was the case, I couldn’t have said.  

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SOMETIMES HEROES CAN’T WEAR BROWN SKIN by Delvon Mattingly

In times of life-and-death, nobody quite grasped the concept of “be quiet.” But for us, it didn’t matter. My peers panicked, whimpered, some nearly hyperventilated—but nothing outclassed the tormenting screams coming from an adjacent room. Nothing could abolish the cackling gunfire, bullets penetrating walls and possibly bodies. Nothing stopped the killer from heading to our room next, glaring at us with a face of apathy, drawing our attention to boast about his body count, and how we were going to add to it. Nobody could do a thing, except for me.

I wouldn’t consider my actions gallant. I charged the moment the boy appeared distracted. An amalgam of fortunate events led me to overpower the shooter, using his weapon against him, my following actions fueled by pure trepidation. I realized I’d rather the boy fall than to witness a firearm pointed at my face again or hear the anguish of my friends. The worst part: the shooter was a student too. We acknowledged his bleeding corpse more than we ever did him. His name was Ethan, and only a few of us knew that.

An absolute silence plagued the air, and I began to pace the classroom, “no” continually slurring from my mouth. Nobody mentioned a word about the murder, not our teacher or my friends. No one.

* * *

There wasn’t much blood on my hands, although the few smears on my shirt reminded me of the monster I had become. I expected my classmates to see me in the same light. That wouldn't explain their reluctance to speak, or even to move. They were afraid of me, their fear cemented in a truth that not only had one of their peers became a killer, but also another.

My best friend began to speak, my name slowly rolling off her tongue.

“I can’t, Marissa,” I interrupted.

“Jerome, you saved us,” she whispered.

“I still killed Ethan! I’m done for. My future, everything. I could go to jail.”

“No, you’re a hero,” she said. She searched for validation from our other classmates. “Right?”

Everyone remained quiet. Then, some of my classmates began to cry while others seemed to struggle to preserve their sanity. And I felt for all of them. I understood, but I knew I had to withdraw from my emotions to prepare for the arrival of the authorities. Picture this: an emotional, erratic, brown teenager with the blood of another student on his clothes. Yeah, that’s a minimum of 25 years.

“Jerome…” Marissa murmured.

“Stop. Please, just stop.”

* * *

Ten minutes passed, and the authorities arrived. Everyone was escorted from the building to the fields outside, like we were in a  prison line, distress printed on their faces, or even scarier: the expressions of those who were still processing—blank, unworldly.

I couldn’t stop picturing Ethan, another student, his glare, a rifle dangling from his hand, blood stains on his clothes—imagining my face stamped above his. A monster. If I wasn't a monster, then why did the authorities scrutinize me with disdain?

Police officers pulled aside students from my class for questioning. Paranoia struck me like a chisel shaping a stone statue—one final tap and I’d crack. Some of my classmates clearly talked about me, peering back and leading the cops to notice me more than they had. Before I knew it, I stood alone. Then, it was my turn to be probed.

A stocky pale officer approached. “How are you, son? What is your name?”

“I’m okay. It’s Jerome.”

“My name is Officer Anderson. You don’t seem too shaken up by things, Jerome,” he said, examining at the small blotches of blood on my shirt before returning eye contact. “You’re quivering. You seem more terrified of me than anything.”

“That--that’s not true.”

The officer huffed. “Can you tell me what happened? If you’re uncomfortable talking about it, we--”

“No,” I said. “It’s okay.” I gave him a detailed chronology of events, up until Ethan’s death.

“So, the student massacres the entire classroom next to yours and then comes into your room to provoke everyone before killing himself?”

It sounded more artless after the officer repeated it. When I nodded, he suddenly grew reticent, looking down on me with eyes of censure. “That’s not what your classmates are saying. In fact, they’ve claimed you convinced Ethan to cease fire, and when he realized his wrongdoings and felt contrite, he impulsively took his own life. Correct?”

What?

“You and your entire class could’ve died if it weren’t for you.” Officer Anderson patted my shoulder with his right hand before meandering back to his colleagues. “Son, you’re a hero.”

“Hey!” Marissa called and trotted over to me. “Why are you all the way over here, Jerome?”

Attempting a smile, I replied, “I don’t really know.”

“We need you.”

“Why?”

Her eyebrows furrowed. “Because you saved us. Word is spreading fast, and people from other classrooms aren’t taking this well. The media is already here.”

In spite of what she did for me, she still didn’t quite understand. “Marissa, thank you.” I looked down at my palms, slowly twirling them while opening and closing my fists. “But sometimes heroes can’t wear brown skin.”

She nodded before tightly gripping one of my arms, that and the familiar way her nose twitched before speaking gave away her frustration. “People also don’t get to choose what color skin they’re born into. For what it’s worth, I think for you to be able to do these things, while fighting so many other battles, is something that deserves recognition.”

I smiled, shaking my head. “That’s incredibly sweet. But, there are consequences to my actions, all of them. Risks I’m usually not willing to take.”

She turned to see how our peers held up. “Well I’m glad you took one today.”

“May I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Why are you so calm? Everyone’s freaking out.”

Marissa finally looked back at me. “I could ask you the same.”

“Well, where I’m from … let’s just say this isn’t the first time a gun has been pointed at me, or has been fired in my vicinity.”

She looked away again. I guessed she couldn’t grasp the idea of such horror. “I think it’ll hit us sooner or later. This all feels too surreal, but being around you helps.”

“As long as I’m me, I can never be considered a hero.”

Exhaling, Marissa placed her two hands on my shoulders. I could tell she wanted me to own the title, or maybe she was hinting that I needed to do that for everyone else, at least for now.

“Jerome, we’re friends. We’ve got each other’s back. That’s all that really matters.”

Perhaps Marissa’s right, but probably not. Because of her and a few others, despite the color of my skin, I didn’t go to jail. I thanked Marissa once more. And with her, I joined my class.

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joseph haeger

UNCLE POOH’S SECRET RECIPE by Joseph Haeger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grits with dairy was to die for.

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

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

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

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

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sara chansarkar

NOT FOREVER, SNOWMAN by Sara Chansarkar

You be my Christmas, Snowy. Keep me company this holiday season, that’s all.

No Forevers for me, now.

Forever lasted only four years and 17 days and left me with this I-am-sorry-note on a neon post-it stuck under the coffee machine, this black-and-white check scarf hung between my coats, and a weight pulling me down like dumbbells attached to my body parts.I’d seen that little minx and the sorcery in her mascaraed caramel eyes ─ the liquid ones made to steal ─ as they bore into his. She’d smiled at me wicked as she sized up my full body.

But, she was not the first to have caught his gaze.Soon, my dinners ran cold and I slept, head on the table, waiting. Foreign smells danced in the closet. The succulents on the kitchen windowsill started to wilt.I worried, but not much. Forever had enough sinew and tendon to survive her. But, I was wrong: she was a force and Forever was still a child with brittle bones.

Now, I keep the sorry-note in my size-40D bra, a weighty lesson: never again.

You, Snowy, just be outside my window till New Year’s. That’s all. Watch me undress and dress and brush my long hair and paint my lips. I’ll gouge your eyes out if they stray.

I’ll wrap the check scarf around your neck, and let me take a picture of us to send to the happy folks who keep flooding my mailbox with their arms-around-each-other holiday cards.

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kevin hatch

RENTAL by Kevin Hatch

My sister was a Blockbuster Video. She was a happening place. She kept her aisles clean, her shelves organized. Children begged for candy inside her. Families made special trips to see her.

My sister was the church of Friday night. She was too inviting. A track-star type took her out, filled her with words and other flesh. Made her too-family. Made her un-happening. Made her un-rewindable.

Her posture changed. Late-fees and rental-rates changed. People tried to be polite. She breathed dust in their face, forced expired candy in their hands until they just stopped coming.

My sister drove her Honda Accord through the divider. The car leapt over the guardrail. Our father and I tried to find her. I climbed into the ditch filled with fridges and trash. I followed the trail of broken glass to the blue-Accord puddle. Father tried to mask my eyes but I saw my sister’s aisles everywhere.

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s.f. wright

THE PAINTER by S.F. Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HOW TO TAME A FERAL CAT by Katherine Beaman

It was a point of personal identity for Lula that she refer to no plant as a “weed” and refrain from assigning labels of “good” or “bad” to any creature. Her property: a lot which was adjacent to her daughter Valerie’s own house, and on which sat a mobile home with two attached porches and a mess of plant matter almost entirely obscuring it. Corpses, or almost-corpses, of junebugs lie scattered and belly up all over.

Many an afternoon, Lula would study the cat the hung around by her fence. She would glance over at him from her chair on the porch as she took a sip from her glass of iced tea and ate her morning toast. Sometimes, she’d stand up from a gardener’s squat to wipe sweat from her forehead, look over at the cat, and test out kissy clicky sounds on him. The cat would slink around, dotting from here to there, always keeping an eye, as cats do. After this went on for some time, Lula made the decision to befriend the cat. She set a can of vienna sausage on the porch.

Flies darted around the can on that muggy morning of that summer. Many of the flies resolved to stay and loiter in the ripe aroma, such that the joint became a full-on insect and feline cantina. What if the flies wore wife-beaters, the way they hung around like men outside a gas station? Suppose the cat pulled together enough change for a can of beer! With each new morning came new charities from Lula and the cat began to develop something resembling trust in her. After his alert posture slacked, Lula managed to trap the cat into a carrying cage which was onced used to carry her guineas (who had long since become breakfast for the local coyotes). Valerie never learned to tell the difference between the howls of coyotes and dogs.

Summers like these, in this place, have always been violent. There is a constant rhythm of swatting, biting, itching. Your own sweat falls into the corners of your eyes and it adds to the sting. There is no place to escape the heat and the restlessness in your gut burns you up. When Lula gripped the cat with her thick green rubber gloves and plunged him into the cage, the cat’s primal screams were nearly drowned out by the air around them, air too saturated with survival to pay any notice to what occurred on the porch of Lula’s mobile home that morning. The great paradox of this place is you’ve got to have a little feral in you to be able to call this place home.

Home was something of a loosely defined, abstract concept to Lula. Lula’s Pa once made tweaks and repairs on tracks and freight cars of rapidly expanding rail lines which carried oil from here to there. As a child, Lula’s family slept in box cars. Lula found playmates roaming the ground. She and her brothers learned to catch bullfrogs and box turtles, snakes and armadillos. When her Ma called the children in for a lesson or a meal, the creatures were released to scurry off into the surrounding bayous, hills, sands, or whatever the environment was like where the locomotives of capital took the family.

Ma, can I keep it just this once? Lula once pleaded of her mother with regards to a rabbit which she and her siblings had somehow gotten into a wooden crate. I’ll take good care of it. I’ll feed it and clean its crate and everything. Promise!

Lula’s mother once placed a calloused hand on her hip and pointed a ladle at her daughter. The only way that thi-ing is coming in this car is if it’s shot, skinned and boiled in stew for supper. Now, shoo!

Lula’s brothers once smiled big. Ma, can we shoot it? Can we? Can we? They once raced to grab the shotgun which was propped up by the door of the boxcar.

Ma once felt it a healthy part of a boy’s bringing up to quench their thirst for blood, so she waved them off with a grunt and a nod. Lula refused supper that night and cried herself to sleep.

The lesson that Lula’s Ma once tried to teach her and which Lula seemed to have failed to learn or accept is that feral critters are better left to their feral ways. The kindest thing to do for a feral cat, should you come across one and think it cute, is to leave it be.

I don’t get why she thinks she needs another animal around, let alone a wild one. Bless her heart. But what really gets to me is that poor cat. He’s been in her bathroom for two weeks now and he’s just as hostile as the day she brought him inside. That cat doesn’t want to be there. I wish she’d just give up on this silly idea and set him loose.

Dionysus voiced is own views on the subject, venomously hissing at Lula’s outstretched gloved hand which held a morsel of tuna.

You can’t keep that thing in your bathroom. It’s not where it belongs. Let the creature go free. Well, we’ll see. He’ll come around with time.

It would not come around with time. Some cats, if taken in as kittens up to two months in age, can be domesticated into lovely housepets. But much like people, as cats age, they become more and more set in their ways. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a feral cat to become domesticated.

What if it has diseases? Not to mention, you could get hurt. At your age you don’t need to be setting yourself up for injury and infection. Who do you think has to care for you?

Well, we’ll see.

After Dionysus was left to his own devices in Lula’s sparse, stark white bathroom, he would help himself to the offering of cat food left behind. He would then rub his face and body against every surface in the bathroom: the walls, toilet, door, tub, sink. If he must be held in this place, he figured, he might as well claim it as his own with his feline scent. After this ritual came a prayer consisting of cacophonous cries that pierced the air with his prisoner’s sorrows.

Here are some facts about feral cats: The more generations that have passed since a cat’s last domestic ancestor, the wilder a cat will be. No matter how many generations of wildness, however, most tend to be largely dependent on human kindness and waste products. Without welfare and hand-me-downs, roughly fifty percent of feral cats die within their first year of life.

Things continued much in the same way as they had been going. In spite of feedings which occurred twice daily and numerous extensions of a heavily-gloved hand, very little progress had been made toward building amicable sentiments in Dionysus. He always reacted to any gesture with an arched-back hiss as if he had been plucked from his Eden that very morning. When Lula left, he would resume his routine of eating, pacing, praying, and plotting his revenge.

Like most any cat, if Lula were to die, Dionysus would not hesitate to lick every morsel of meat off her bones. Dionysus, however, actively fantasized about the idea of dining on the flesh of his captor. He absolutely detested his sterile cell. He sharpened his claws on the door and waited anxiously for it to open long enough for him to burst free. His prayers were offered piously. He would humble himself for falling short of wild glory and then he would seek forgiveness for his sins. He thought of all the rats there would be to hunt in cat heaven.

Lula would pray to her own cat gods, the gods who had driven the first domestic cats from streets to hearth in Egypt. The Egyptian cat goddess Maftet ruled over justice, war, and execution. She later became Bastet, the goddess of motherhood. The relationship between war and maternity is a complex one, birth as violent of an ordeal as death. How quickly bodies and homes become battlegrounds. How devastation is passed down the generations. These gods, surely, would have the power to undo iterations of increasing ferality and isolation.

The gods blessed Lula with a solution over breakfast one morning. As she took care to spread butter evenly over a slice of toast, she realized that the toaster was the key. Whether the lock the key opened was a door of control or liberation was not a matter to which she gave much thought.

When Dionysus was confronted with the cage a second time, he resisted defiantly. In his cat’s mind, the cage had brought him to somewhere terrible and to somewhere terrible it was sure to take him again. Yet the cage was not to leave the bathroom, let alone the bathtub, during his term of occupancy. Dionysus writhed under the stronghold of his murderer’s green gloves as they sentenced him once again to the cage. He employed every survival tool with which he was equipped. Every hiss, a supplication. Every scratch, a sacrifice. Even as the glove turned the faucet of the bathtub and cool water of imminent death drenched his body, he did not surrender his faith in the Almighty. He cried out and cried out, declaring his allegiance to the gods. One final prayer, that his soul may be wild in the life to come.

The toaster’s cord could barely extend from the bathwater to the nearest outlet, but Lula managed. The electricity which pulsed through Dionysus’s earthly body was more feral than he could have ever hoped to have been. When it was all over, his limp corpse permitted Lula to hold him close to her breast as she carried him outside. His head fell pathetically over her arm and his body hung like a garment. Though his fur was cold and damp, warmth had not yet left his body.

Slain Dionysus was lain on a table in the garden where no plant is a weed and no creature is good or evil. Next to him lay a steel blade with which a long line was cut into his flesh from his throat down to his anus. The head, tail, and paws were chopped off and tossed aside. His skin peeled back just like an orange. All internal organs were excavated and deposited on the pile of dismembered body parts.

When Lula had toast and sausage for breakfast the next day, it was very quiet.

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SONNY CROCKETT CIRCA 2004 by Ryan Hall

The chain-store you were employed at made so many bad decisions that you pictured board meetings full of cross-eyed and drooling executives, giving power-point presentations that were actually crude finger-paintings rendered in their own feces.And it was there, at the end of things, that you met Ricky. He first showed up wearing faded acid-washed jeans and neon blue cowboy boots, with fluffed and teased hair pulled into a pony-tail. He walked right up to you, stationed in the cafe slinging shit coffee and stale snacks for every third customer that didn't ask where the nearest Starbucks was.Standing in front of your register he pleaded into a giant mobile phone."Hello? Hello? I swear if the weather turns south this damn thing just goes kaput."In this act, he looked like a failed country heart-throb purged from Nashville circa 1991, three parts Ichabod Crane to one part Billy Ray Cyrus."Excuse me, sir, but you got a place I could plug this damn thing in back there?" he asked. "I got some business I need to sort out on this hunk of junk, and it just went and dogged out on me.""Sure, no problem." This was a phrase you used multiple times a day, trapped in a ghost town mall filled with bare drywall. The coffee shop was the lowest level within the hierarchy of the store's dwindling skeleton crew. You were put there because they wanted you to leave, not deeming you worthy of sticking around for the meager severance package that everyone knew was coming.The only co-worker who bothered talking to you was the guy from the music department, who broke store code by playing heavy metal on the overhead. But, there was Ricky, who would come in with his phone and have long conversations littered with random business jargon and silver-tongued negotiations."This is ground floor I'm offering here, Randall. And I just happen to be offering you the honey spot in all of this. You read them numbers? Sweet as cake, baby. Sweet as cake."On these calls, he carried a folksy charm and confidence. But between the calls he would look around the cafe nervously, getting up to pace while carrying a worried look. He would sit back down, and stare at his phone planted like a monument on the table. He would then pick the device back up, this time with a weariness."Hey, baby. You sleeping? Ah, you shouldn't nap so much. How you feeling today?"He would wait for answers within these exchanges like a man walking a tightrope, his expressions changing from anxiety to relief within seconds."I just got off the horn with Randall. I'm telling ya', he's as tight-assed as they come, but you'd think I was trying to sell him on bricks of shit. I know. I've pulled in harder cases before. You take care now. I miss you too, baby. How much? Like a man in need of savin'."He would hang up, let out a long breath of air and sit with hands and elbows propping up his brow, his eyes closed, twitching in place as if electrical currents were sending tremors through his body.You found yourself anticipating these visits. He never ordered anything, just setting up camp in the corner, pouring himself a glass of ice water. His phone never rang, but he'd eye it for long pauses as if he was sensing it to spring to life. Eventually, his patience would give out, and he'd pick it up and hammer in a call. Suddenly he would beam with new blood, taking clients through the various virtues of what he was offering, the benefits weighed against the pros and cons.But towards the tail end of his second week, more and more his eyes would flicker with the pain of recognition that he wasn't going to land this one. After such a call he wandered up to the counter, eyeing the daily specials on the lunch boards."Man, I'll tell you what. They say it's a rough go out there, but that ain't hardly the half of it. I just spent the last week getting strapped over the barrel only to end up with squat to show for it. Any of these sandwiches any damn good?""In a pinch, they aren't too bad. But nothing you would want to write home about.""Those the real prices? What the hell is an aioli?" When he pronounced aioli, he butchered it horribly, with a sour look like he just took in crop-dusting of fresh methane."It's just a fancy word for seasoned mayonnaise.""Now why can't they just say that? Why they have to put on airs just to sell a damn sandwich? I don't mean to talk down on your place of employment, and I'm sure you had nothing to do this aioli business. But goddamn there's a bunch of stupid shit in this world I'm never gonna understand."He looked dead tired like he was just about to collapse in place."I'm sorry for my use of language, partner. I've just had one hell of a week, and I'm dreading having to call my lady-friend with the shit news. Speaking of, you mind charging this thing for me?" He handed over his phone. "It's just about bone dry on juice.""Sure. No problem. No problem at all."For the first time in what felt like years, you meant it, and once he sat back at his table, you slipped him a roast beef sandwich, some chips, and a Dr. Pepper. When you put the food down, he grinned up at you wildly."Well, I'll be. A gesture fit for an angel."He ate like a man who stumbled on food after nearly starving in the wilderness. Looking at his gaunt frame and pale skin you wondered how long it had been since he'd actually taken the time to eat. Once he finished, he thanked you and asked for his phone back. He reached out for a handshake and asked your name. Usually, you lied to customers about it, but this time you gave it up. As you shook his hand, he looked deep into your eyes with a warmth that felt so pure you almost had to look away. "Ricky, the name's Ricky," he said. "Always good to meet a new friend."He went back and sat at his phone, trying to muster up the nerve to call and inform on his failure. "Hey honey, it's me. Oh, I've been doing right rotten. Yeah, in all his divine wisdom Randall is taking a pass. Well, there is no cure for stupid, so they say. Just trying to do best as a breadwinner. Now speaking of breadwinner, this fella in the cafe I'm working out of gave me one of the best damn sandwiches I've ever had. That's right. Been working out of a fancy cafe since I got here, in the biggest goddamn mall I've ever laid eyes on. God, I wish you were here to see it."You were wiping down tables, taking in Ricky's conversation when the music department guy walked in on his way for a coffee refill."Checking out Mr. Headcase Chatterbox over there?"You found yourself feeling defensive. "Come on man, he's OK.""OK, huh? This is what happens when you geezers shut out technology." The music department guy was only eight years younger than you but fully immersed in new social mediums, while you stubbornly paid your monthly phone bill for a landline. "When was the last time you saw anybody use one of those things, outside of an episode of Miami Vice?"You wouldn't see Ricky again until the home office delivered the news to liquidate inventory before closing the doors for good. Bargain bin shoppers descended like a biblical mob of locusts. Ricky showed up the second to last day of business, with a middle-aged woman that might have been his mother, but just as easily could have been a paid handler. He had gained about twenty pounds, his hair cropped short and uneven. He was wearing purple sweatpants and a stained t-shirt sporting the main alien character from the tv series "Alf."Shifting through the store with his companion, he stared at the racks of priced-to-move items like he was on the terrain of a distant world, weaving through the throng of shoppers with heavily medicated eyes, silently mouthing an unknown language. You tried to remember the Ricky from before, immersed in conversations through an archaic phone. You tried to remember you and Ricky, right before the end of things.
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FRIENDHYRE by Leland Cheuk

Feedback Entry Form:

I really wanted to go to DonutFest but none of my actual friends were as fervid about donuts as I, so I thumbed FriendHyre on my phone and hired someone for just $20.

I thought of the cost as a surcharge on the event, which had a $50 cover for all the donuts you can eat from the top ten artisanal vendors in The City. I bought two tickets and met up with Damon at 9 a.m. in front of The Copper Mine, that warehouse concert venue by the river. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and went inside. Damon was dressed blankly, dark outer layers, short brown hair, and a squarish, halogen-toned face—combined with his above-average height and thick and convergent brows, I’d be able to find him easily if we got separated.

DonutFest was packed. The warehouse was dark and opaque with theatrical smoke and fog lit by red stage lights, and a Top 40 rap song about cunnilingus thumped. Almost immediately I bumped into a young woman who spilled a thimble of the free pour over coffee from the local roaster with the table by the entrance. I brushed myself off. No worries. The stain was invisible in the darkness because I was dressed like Damon, dark outer layers of durable and pricey fabric from a major multinational brand headquartered in Sweden (recent manufacturing worker pay controversy in some small nation I couldn’t remember). I closed my eyes to inhale the sweetness of the freshly baked donuts (admittedly faint because The Copper Mine has no kitchen, which meant the donuts weren’t freshly made). I listened to the mmm’s and “that’s good’s” from all these people my age and thought: this is youth, this is living, this is why you pay to live in The City.

“How did you come to like donuts?” Damon asked.

The Simpsons.

He smiled. “Like Homer?”

“Totally.”

I liked Damon.

The vendors had tables around the edges of what would have been the pit if this were a concert. It was more like a really dark corporate tradeshow. We each got five different donuts, sampling from each vendor, and made our way to the back, where we placed our tiny plastic plates on a wooden ledge and divvied up bite-sized pieces of each donut with knife and fork, commenting on each and ranking our top fives. I liked the strawberry-infused béarnaise one best. Damon awarded the cakey marmite-covered one his Number One slot. All of them went well with our pour over thimbles, which were just large enough to fit the stamp that read “Fair Trade.” We watched the pit of young men and women dancing to “All Night” by Chance the Rapper, even though it was 10:30 a.m.

“What are you doing the rest of the day?” I asked Damon.

“More FriendHyres,” he said. “Got a meetup at an experimental prose poetry reading by all LGBTQ female authors. Then tonight, I have a men’s rights rally.” Damon smirked as he crushed the thimble in his palm and flipped it onto the ledge where it was shepherded to the recycling by a black man wearing a blue DonutFest Staff polo and vinyl gloves.

“How many of these do you do?”

“This is what I do,” Damon said. “Been doing it about a year. I get to meet a lot of people, do a lot of very niche things, some of which are pretty cool. I make enough money to stay in The City. What do you do?”

“I work at a bank,” I said. “Compliance.”

“Oh cool!”

His words were perfectly pitched to emulate a sincere interest while cutting off further conversation on the topic. Damon popped a piece of the strawberry béarnaise donut in his mouth. “Mmm!” he said, while chewing, even rolling his eyes a little. “So good. I can see why you ranked this one best. Thanks for inviting me. I feel like this was an experience I’ll always remember.”

What a pro. He was a great FriendHyre. After we parted ways, sugar-mouthed and buzzed, I rated Damon five stars.

Feedback Entry Form:

If I have a complaint about FriendHyre, it’s that it is damn near impossible to get the same friend twice.

None of my buddies in the office like music…like at all, so I tried to get Damon again to go see My Meechi out in East Durwood Docks. But once Damon surpassed 1,000 five-star reviews, his rate quintupled, as made resoundingly clear by the FriendHyre Premium exploding star emoji bedecking his profile. I couldn’t justify paying $100 for a friend to go with me to a $15 show.

I read Damon’s reviews and they were all like: “I recently got divorced and had these tix to a black-tie fundraiser for Even Rural Americans Deserve Clean Water at The Metropolitan Center, and Damon was so nice and kind that he never asked me any personal questions and we both enjoyed such an incredible meal from ten different TV celebrity chefs and I would totally hire Damon again.” The event was obviously at least $1,000 a head.

I ended up FriendHyring a young woman named Maybe for $5, and she was fine, but she was a soft-talker and I couldn’t clearly hear what she was saying at the concert, and when I could, she only talked about herself. She never asked me any questions. We watched about half the show in silence, standing beside each other but not really experiencing it together. Then Maybe saw people she knew and told me she was going to say hi. She never came back! I waited for her outside the venue after the show, but she was gone. I still enjoyed my night. My Meechi has a way of sounding like she’s singing just to you, which, of course, is exactly the way I wished Maybe would have approached my FriendHyre experience.

Still, I didn’t want to ruin her rating, so I rated her four stars.

Feedback Entry Form:

I had coffee with one of my friends who used FriendHyre to build her social media presence. She’s a high-level publicist at a retail brand and often posts about new developments at work on her own account. Each day of the week, she hired a $5 friend for a 30-minute coffee date. She liked meeting and talking to new people who did different things from what she would normally do because she worked all the time and seemed to only meet corporate types.

“Once, I even met a real coal miner,” she said. “He’s trying to transition to a career in elder care.” Most importantly, she got him and his FriendHyres to follow her on social media and promote her posts. Within a year of starting these coffee dates, she had added thousands of followers.

I told her about my experience with Damon at DonutFest and how I felt like my first FriendHyre experience was my best one and I didn’t like how good FriendHyres ended up pricing themselves out of long-term FriendHyreships.

“Do you really want long-term FriendHyreships?” she said. “The whole reason the service exists is because long-term friendships are inadequate. You like sports. I don’t. I like running. You don’t. You make less money than I do, so you can’t afford to do some of things I like to do. Our friendship, while you know I love hanging out with you a couple of times a year, is a pain in the ass sometimes. If you developed a long-term relationship with this Damon guy, it’d just end up sucking, like actual friendships.”

After she was done talking, my coffee tasted like dirt. “I never thought of our friendship that way.”

“Don’t get butt-hurt,” she said. “I would have gone to DonutFest with you, if I didn’t have anything better to do.”

“I didn’t think you would like donuts. Or want to spend fifty bucks on it.”

“You didn’t ask!” she said. “We communicate like the old friends we are. We act like we know everything about each other, but in reality, we hardly know a thing. I love FriendHyreships. They’re short and sweet and no one pretends it isn’t.”

After my friend’s impassioned defense of your service, I went back and changed all my four-star ratings to five-star ratings.

Feedback Entry Form:

I saw Damon at a drugstore. He looked much as I remembered, darkly clad, pale, and smiling. He was in the cosmetics section. To my surprise, in his hand was a box of Just For Men. He didn’t look old enough for gray hair, but I guess that’s why he was holding said box. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Remember me?”

He peered down at me, squinting.

“DonutFest,” I prompted.

“Oh, yes,” Damon said. “How have you been?”

“The same,” I said. “I looked for you on FriendHyre, but you’re, like, super-expensive now. That’s my only complaint about the service, really. It’s that you can’t keep getting your good FriendHyres. Congrats on your success, though!”

“I just quit.”

“What? Why?”

Damon smirked, as he had at DonutFest that morning months ago. “When you factor in all the expenses, I end up making about three bucks an hour,” he said. “I pretty much had to respond twenty-four-seven to make rent. It took about a year, but I finally got hired as a junior analyst at a bank.”

“Really? Which one?” He named his. I named mine. They didn’t match.

“But you were making like a hundred bucks a hire,” I said.

“And seventy would go to the tux rental,” Damon said. “The event would go for four hours. So that’s seven-fifty an hour. At least I got to eat well on those nights. I would starve myself all day and then gorge. Mm, so good! That’s what I did at DonutFest. After you left, I went back and grabbed all the leftovers. I got so sick that night.” He laughed, but then swallowed as if the memory made him bilious. “Never doing that again!”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Thanks for rating me five stars, though.”

“You were one of the good ones,” Damon said. “At least you didn’t try to have sex with me.”

My eyes bulged. “There are other apps for that!”

“No one told those fuckers.”

“What does FriendHyre do to protect you?”

“They don’t even let you talk to a real person,” he said. “You can only give feedback through the app.” He shrugged. “It’s cool. Whatever. I just introduce the problem people to my pepper spray.”

After an uncomfortable silence, we began to drift toward the checkout counters. I told him I was glad he was in a better place. “Maybe we should grab coffee sometime,” I added.

“Oh cool!” he said, in the exact tone and pitch he used at DonutFest when I told him what I did for a living. I knew then we would never have coffee together and that if we saw each other again, it was likely he would not acknowledge me.

Damon’s story changed the way I felt about FriendHyre. I started browsing through the profiles of smiling faces and five-star reviews and people saying they were up for all types of fun and how much they liked my favorite bands and sports teams, and I would think about how they were probably lying for the money, and all they had to go through just so I could feel a smidge less lonely eating donuts and going to concerts and baseball games and such. There has to be a better way. Maybe there’s merit to this service but adjustments need to be made so that the people who make the service possible can benefit in real ways with actual value, not just ratings and emojis and theatrical smoke. That’s my feedback, FriendHyre. I look forward to your reply.

Until then, I’ve lowered all my ratings to two stars.

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marston hefner

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

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

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

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

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

He called them up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello honey,” she said from the kitchen.

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

He went around her waist and held her like that.

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“What if I don’t know what I want?”

“You’re a big girl.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

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

“I know.”

“And no pre-nup.”

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

“Not really fair. I break my back.”

“Bear.”

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

“What are you talking about Bear? Meth?”

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

“Berry. I’m worried about you.”

“What?”

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

“I was just talking. Just now.”

“But you weren’t talking to me.”

“Here we go.”

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

“Looks like salmon and mashed?”

“That’s right.”

“Mother’s recipe for the mashed.”

“I know you love the mashed.”

“Sweet. It’s very sweet.”

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

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

“Alright.”

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

“Because it’s not. Not really.”

“No.”

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

“I know.”

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

“OK. It’s ready.”

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

“You’re so soft right now Bear.”

“I could consume you.”

“Oh not little ole me.”

“Come here.”

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

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” she said.

“So you’re going through with it?”

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

“…”

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

“That’s not good enough,” said Berry.

“I can’t give you what you want.”

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

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

“You’re very perceptive.”

“You’re a good man.”

“So you’ve said.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“No mercy.”

“What was that?”

“What?”

“I heard glass breaking.”

“What?”

“Towards the living room.”

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

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

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

“Are you high?”

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

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

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

“…”

“Excuse me.”

They walked into the kitchen. The wife screamed.

“Maam,” said Deuce.

“Who are you?”

“We represent Berry. Have a seat.”

She looked at Berry confused.

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

“I’m going to call the police.”

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

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

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

The wife shrieked.

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

“You see this?” Deuce licked the knife.

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

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

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

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

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SPD TOOK MY BLIND DATE AWAY by Braxton Younts

Once she told me she was an Iraqi war vet, I was hesitant to meet up with her, but I was lonely and horny, so I invited her to join me at my neighborhood bar after work.

Back then I was more attracted to militant feminists. I liked my women brooding over gender politics, listening to Bikini Kill, tattooing their arms, and dressing in combat boots. You know the one: mohawk haircut, bone through her nose, and an anarchy patch on her black leather jacket. Studs intricately arranged as if bedazzled by a seamstress on meth. Let me see if she can hang. See if she can verbally spar with me and my boys. If she can drink with the best of us.

Directly after clocking out of the kitchen at work, I booked it up hill on Pike Street, but before arriving the watering hole where we were to rendezvous, I stopped off at The Comet for party favors, including but not limited to one gram of shitty-stepped-on coke. Dad may have been a functional alcoholic. Dad may have enjoyed the competition of NASCAR racing and ACC basketball. He may have wondered why I preferred painting and science. But over years of self-realization, I gained a competing edge, winning the battle of egos, when I one upped his substance prowess and graduated to the hard stuff. And the hard stuff wasn't straight whiskey, rather my hard stuff was mainlining heroin and snorting eight-balls of cocaine on the back of toilets in Seattle's dive bars. In dank holes in the wall, I found camaraderie. Guys who didn't care about sports, stocks, jobs, life, or limits. Unlike my role model, Dad, we broached subjects like shortcomings, tattoos, and latent homosexuality. Fears and weaknesses. The unfairness of capitalism and racism. We even allowed each other to cry, sometimes.

When my date finally joined William and I at the bar, we had been there for a couple hours prior. You know, warming up. The more I drank the more loquacious and affectionate–the more human–I became, so theoretically it behooved me when trying to impress a potential lover to get a jump on the liquid buffet.  A few bumps of shitty coke with William. A few beers, and I was worth being around.

"Don't talk to that guy. He's not friendly until he's had at least three beers," said Brad. "He's a sensitive writer." Brad said with a suggestive, presumptuous, indicative lisp.

"Fuck off,” I said. “Had at least seven since work."

My date and I had only seen pictures of each other via email. When she walked in, I didn’t readily recognize her. A cotton candy-colored, asymmetrical bob with Chelsea fringe and a fatigue jacket was what I noticed. Warning signs in my flight manual. Yet she took to me like a duck to water, running her fingers through my greasy locks without invitation. I introduced her to William, and she said she could tell by our boyish giggling he and I had been sitting a spell and to pay her no never mind. By her calculations, she simply needed to slam a few tequilas, and we’d all be on the same level. Over her shoulder, I spied bulging set of blue eyes and plum-colored mug observing the entire mess. With Bukowski breath, Tim was not only a playwright, but also an actor and director. A literary movement was in the making. More than one of us artists would make it. I was positive.

After a few more rounds and very little equalization, a naked man waltzed into the room, past the row of bar stools, past the jukebox, past the big gay Indian who always became more affection toward me with each beer. At first no one batted an eye, for it was Friday evening in Capitol Hill, Seattle’s most odd neighborhood. Mr. Birthday Suit began pestering the bartender for drinks and said-bartender refused him service. All the while, beers were imbibed, and people made merry.

"How do I know I'm not gay?" said Turpin. Shaking my head, unsure I wanted his answer, I waited in kinetic anticipation.

"When I was locked up in NOLA, I let a guy fuck me in the ass. And didn't like it," Turpin said, laughing. William and I laughed, nearly spewing beer out our nostrils.

William was a barstool philosopher, an addict and an artist. Turpin was a cook, a junkie, and a tattooist. I was a writer, a cook, and a drunk. Were drunks attracted to the arts? Or did the arts attract drunks? Or did crushing self-doubt attract us to substance abuse? Who knew? Who cared? Not us.

True alcoholics we were. Nights when booze and coke absconded all our money Turpin and I, on occasion, popped in at The Man Ray or Sea Wolf to wrangle drinks from men. We cozied up to flamboyant, intoxicated patrons, gave a sly smile, and made small talk. Attention starved, these guys bought us beer after beer. If it worked for women, then shouldn't it for us. And, brimmed of what we craved, Turpin and I parted ways and staggered to our respective beds.

How we arrived at this level of chaos was vague. The bar atmosphere here was jovial and thus conducive to heavy-handed pours and over-consumption. Feeding the jukebox quarters, the bartender, Bayonne Bob, was playing quintessential AC/DC: "Highway to Hell," "She Shook Me," and "Have a Drink on Me."

At some point, not long after aforementioned Mr. Birthday Suit’s entrance, Bayonne Bob, nonchalantly locked the front door, trapping Birthday Suit. When someone phoned the authorities, my date decided to become a liberator. She took up the cause of freeing the imprisoned naked man. Like so many innocent Iraqi civilians, Mr. Birthday Suit needed liberation from a dictatorial bar staff.

About then two Seattle Police Department pigs rolled up, and my date was in a full-on donnybrook with bartenders and customers who were attempting to corral Mr. Birthday Suit. As the police entered the establishment, they inadvertently released the naked man while scraping with my date. She thrashed around and cussed at the cops. To no avail, implored them to release her war-torn ass. After a quick word with the bartender to ensure all was good in the business of intoxication, the pigs cuffed and stuffed my date into the back of a police cruiser.

A time later, after the we stopped giggling and gasping for air, William and I slammed one last beer, paid our tabs, and staggered out into the dank air to say our goodbyes. And as I was walking away, I heard my name, disembodied, from the interior of a parked cop car, “Braxton, can I call you?”

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shane kowalski

CRAWL ON ME by Shane Kowalski

A lot of times, after having disgusting sex at her slow nephew’s cabin, we’d just get very sick of each other and begin volleying hurt back and forth.

Don’t call my nephew slow, she’d say.

I have a cousin who’s slow, I’d say. It’s okay.

My nephew’s not slow though, she’d say.

Have you met him? I’d say.

She’d put her silver hair up, spit in my shoe. I’d tell her not to do that. Oh what are you going to do, she’d say. And I wouldn’t do anything.

Why am I thinking of this now?

…I think it’s because I was feeling very bored yesterday: a deep, gnawing kind of boredom that begins to change the community of blood inside me. So bored I was, in fact, that I had raced in my car away from my big house to the nearest grocery store. I thought it was going to be like the old days. I’d pick up an older lady in the bakery section, whisk her away, pack of donuts hitting the floor, and let her do disgusting things to me, and vice versa. She’d have a slow nephew, too, and we’d go to her slow nephew’s cabin and not have children that looked like us.

Nothing happened though. The grocery store was practically empty. A couple construction workers waited for meat at the deli. A little boy in tiny crutches, with his average-looking mom, was walking down an aisle. Not one older vixen! Outside, an ugly as hell employee on his smoke break asked me if I wanted to get high. I hated his stupid fucking dumb as shit red hair. I told him that, too. I was looking for something to happen. He punched me in the face—he was strong!

I stayed down on the ground for a little bit: desperately hoping somebody—anybody—might crawl on me and do sexual things to me while I lay there. Soon though the manager of the grocery store came out and said get. Just kick me a little, I said. Go, he said. Just spit on me and give me one kick! I pleaded. Get, freak, he said, or I’m calling the cops. I got up, unsatisfied, and left.

On my way home—after wondering if I might be the exotic topic of dinner conversation later in the grocery store manager’s home; his wife and children all going to bed with steamy, misty thoughts of me in their boring heads—I ended up with only my memories of when getting hurt was fun. I was older now, too. I was naïve to think there’d always be a person willing to hurt and be hurt as much I myself. Then I started to laugh! Ha ha ha! I was in a BMW, unlucky as fuck, lights all turning on around me in the evening, not caring at all that I had somehow let myself—finally, after so many years—become myself.  

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troy james weaver

HOOKS by Troy James Weaver

A few days after I heard the news, that he’d tried to carve a hole for himself inside the earth, I wondered if it were possible for a man to rip out his own vocal chords. One night, I actually Googled it, came up with a bunch of misleads. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway—I’d just get a little black board and hang it around my neck and write it all down for him with chalk. The things I saw, the thoughts I had. Voices still exist, even if you can’t hear them. Maybe it all came down to selfishness. For a minute I thought I’d just swallow down some fish hooks and rip them back out of me and hope for the best—what I’d call “trying to be a good friend.”

Often he’d stand at the corner outside Al’s, sipping at his Mocha while holding court with himself, just talking and blabbing away to nobody. If anybody tried to join him, which, as friendly and welcoming as his smile was, was often, he’d clam up and do more drinking than talking, staring right though their caring faces out beyond and over the dirt road to a place where the sun patched the hills with gold.

He hadn’t always been like that, sure, that all started up after Marti took the Mazda and hitched a U-Haul to the back, stuffed all of her belongings into it, and headed off into the great belly of America, telling him she had to go out and find herself, where exactly she fit in in this too-short disaster called life. That’s when he stopped talking, around then, even though he kind of still talked to me. You couldn’t call it conversation, or exposition, or anything, really, other than short observational bursts, guarded clues into the state of his thinking. I even made him go to the doctor one time, and not without a fight, either, because I figured maybe he’d had a miniature stroke or something, but Dr. Bruner said he was healthy. His face didn’t droop any more than usual and he still seemed to walk just fine.

After the attempt, though, he had to spend a few weeks locked away with some head doctors out in Mulridge County. The day he got out, I went over and found him in his rocking chair on the front porch whittling away at some totem he held tightly in his palm. From where I stood, it looked like he’d fashioned himself a tiny baby.

“Hey, Scott,” I said. “Long time no see.”

He looked up and nodded, kept whittling away at the infant, sweat beaded along his brow in thin rows. I detected in the dying light a few streaks of gray in his sideburns. He was only twenty-five and starting to age at a rapid clip, though his face remained boyish, in fact, strangely so, and you couldn’t help but think that there were a million other faces that were just the same, you’d just never seen one.

He finally folded and pocketed the knife, set the baby on a little table to his left, and said, “Finn. Been a minute.”

“What’d you carve there?” I said.

“Marti,” he said.

“Looks like a baby.”

“It’s Marti,” he said.

“All right, then,” I said. “Marti it is. How’re you feeling?”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded.

“Looking good,” I said.

He lit a cigarette, took a long pull and sighed, staring off through the lighted windows of the house across the street.

“Well,” I said. “I’ll go ahead and get out of your hair. Just wanted to stop by and say hi, that’s all. Don’t want to be a bother.”

As I was walking away, I heard him.

“Sure is hot,” he said.

I turned around. “Hit ninety-seven today,” I said.

“Hot,” he said.

I nodded right into an immense moment of silence and just kept nodding.

“Want to come in?”

Still nodding, I followed him in and sat at the dining room table, a darkly varnished thing littered about with unopened mail, while he rummaged through the fridge.

“Want a Coke or something?”

“That’d be great,” I said.

He sat down across from me, offered me a cigarette.

“Thanks,” I said, but he just sat there staring at me, not saying a word.

We smoked in silence for a while, sipping our Cokes.

“I have to clear the air,” he said.

“You don’t have to do that, trust me. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s not Marti. It’s my job. My job’s got me all fucked-up,” he said.

“You’re an IT guy, right?”

He nodded. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“The half of what?” I said.

“My job.”

“Well?”

“I work in the city.” he said.

“And?”

“I sit at a table with rows of other people. These people, they do the exact same thing as me.”

“Yeah?”

“I worry about them.” he said. “They don’t even know what kind of damage they’re doing to themselves.”

“Okay? What do you mean?”

“What I do. You want to know what I do?” he said.

“Of course.”

“All the evil shit you hear about being on the internet. My job is to view all that stuff and decide whether or not it should be scrubbed from the internet.”

“Seems like the lord’s work to me,” I said. “Why you feel so bad about it? Somebody has to do it. It’s honorable, right?”

“You just don’t get it. Nobody gets it. Marti didn’t get it. You don’t get it. The doctors don’t get.”

“Hey, hey, slow down,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m not upset. Just get on, you should go. But finish your fucking Coke first. Don’t want it going to waste.”

I chugged the Coke down and said, “You need to chill a bit, okay. Calm down. I love you.”

“There is no such thing,” he said.

“Whatever, man,” I said. “I’m leaving.”

When I got out onto the porch I took his stupid little wooden baby he’d carved and threw it across the street into the neighbor’s yard. My anger got the best of me. I started thinking about how if he tried killing himself again, he’d do well to pick out a surer method. Rather have him dead than crazy.

We didn’t talk much after that. His hair grew long. He stopped going to Al’s, recused himself from the world around him. And in a way, so did I.

Maybe if I could’ve kept my mouth shut long enough, his silences would’ve been voice enough for me to “get it.” Perhaps that’s the real matter, after all—“getting it.”

It’s never so much the swallowing that hurts, it’s the ripping out. If fish hooks could talk, I swear to god they’d tell you to run.

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MICHAEL by Sean Thor Conroe

Michael, who stayed posted out front of Walgreens, requesting eats from entering and exiting Walgreens customers, was presently posted out front of Walgreens, requesting eats from entering and exiting Walgreens customers.

“Yo what’s good,” I said as I approached, timing this utterance and my gaze, should he choose to reciprocate either, with the moment we crossed paths, so as to avoid a prolonged interaction.

Michael averted eyes and seemingly deliberately pretended to not see or hear me. Kneeling, he adjusted the Velcro on his foot brace, through which his enlarged, pale, callused toe was visible.

Once past the San Pablo X Ashby bus stop and around the corner, shortcutting through the gravel that hypotenuse-d the sidewalk’s edges while scanning its surface, in the fluorescent Walgreen sign-light, for dog or human shit, I said: “Damn, that was cold.”

Rosie remained silent, head bowed, hair shadowing the right side of her face. Ten-or-so paces later, she said: “He’s probably just embarrassed is all.”

I considered this. Then said: “Huh. That never occurred to me. You’re probably right.”

#

While we, Michael and I, were by no means besties, our repartee did go back a ways:

Michael slept outdoors; I was frequently nocturnal and spent much of my nighttime hours outdoors also, either to smoke strolling up and back Ashby, or on a bench on Ashby, or on the back bumper of my van once I secured a parking spot out front the apartment; or else to or from my van which, until the spot opened up about three months into Rosie and my year-long lease, I’d park on some shadowy one-way or dead-end in a five-to-ten block radius of our apartment.

He’d ask for cigarettes; I’d always have cigarettes, and would always give him one, even if I had to roll it for him.

We knew each other by face and, in his case, by the stimulants I could be counted on to be holding.

#

One night he knocked on my door—the back door, on the side abutting a ’bando, that tenants less frequently walked down—to ask for a cigarette. He was clearly lit—I could smell it, plus he had an open forty in a paper bag right there in his hand. I was decidedly not about him encroaching on my allotted space like this, but happened to be going out for a cig anyways when he knocked, not to mention had just toked the one-hitter so was feeling receptive and open I guess. We ended up smoking two cigs consecutively out back of my apartment, the furthest off-street of the four comprising the first-story of the eight-unit complex that, on first glance, most resembled a seedy motel.

Adjacent to the complex’s collective dumpster, our unit’s back wall was bisected diagonally by a stairway leading to our upstairs neighbor Olaf’s; beneath the stairway was a large, maybe ten-by-six-foot—just about wall-encompassing—window, which at its lowest point was low, say two feet above-ground, and had, on either end, matching, two-foot-wide slot windows that opened sideways, like doors do, operated by a rotating handle. At least one window was generally left ajar at minimum a cat’s width when one of us, Rosie or I, were home, so Winnie could come and go at will; and the blinds were generally pulled up a foot or two since if they weren’t, Winnie would be sure to paw at them repeatedly until one of us (meaning me) lost their shit.

#

But we were back there smoking, and Michael was just going in, rambling about this and that. I learned that he was good homies with the previous tenant of the apartment we lived in. I learned that the previous tenant had lived in the apartment for ten, twenty years, and had died, presumably in the apartment, just months ago. Months before we moved in.

“For real?” I said, feeling like someone, our landlord or neighbors, should have told us about this by now.

“Oh yeah. George lived here forever. I used to, uh, I used to come over and he’d give me food, help me out.”

“Word,” I said, understanding a little better now why he thought it kosher to knock on my door, if still, ultimately, not about it.

The blind ruffled. I looked over and saw Winnie’s head poke through, before retreating back inside when she saw me. Or likely when she saw, or smelled, Michael.

“Yo, how’s your foot though? Getting better?” I asked.

It wasn’t, nor would it. It was initially injured by a cop, who ran over it, either accidentally or not unclear. When it didn’t get treated, it turned into trench foot, and had been in this enlarged, damn near ossified state since.

Michael asked what I was about. I told him I made coffee and wrote some.

“Man, I need someone like you!” he said. “I need someone to write my story. I have the craziest story, just crazy, but I don’t have the time to write it down.”

“You don’t have the time?” I asked, laughing.

“Naw man! You see me out here, just trying to get by.”

“OK, I feel you,” I conceded, nodding.

When I finished my second cig I dapped him up—his hands were so leathery they felt fake, like prosthetic, or like tight-fitting leather gloves—and watched him shwhip it away, tottering, on the much too small Huffy he showed up on.

This must have been in January.

#

Weeks ago we’d gotten hit with a bout of nonstop rain, like the East Bay can produce periodically, just to keep its meteorologically spoiled inhabitants in check. It was one of my days off, I’d slept all day, woken up shortly after Rosie got home from work. She was fixing herself a salad in the kitchen area, listening to a podcast on her phone. It was dark out.

“Really coming down, huh,” I said.

Rosie, who still had her button-up on, made a gesture to the window like Go look. Confused, I went to the window, started to open it. I only rotated the handle maybe twice before I saw something was off: there was a pile of what appeared to be clothes, wait shoes—

Michael.

Homie was straight up passed out basically beneath our window, his head wedged into the lowest couple steps of the stairs leading to Olaf’s. The left side of the faux-leather couch we had in our living area was pressed up flush against the window, and I generally sat right there nestled against it, so as to be able to exhale THC smoke directly outside without having to get up, or activating the smoke alarms.

At first I did nothing. Rosie left to go on a grocery run, came back, took a shower, went to sleep. I took a shower, made food, got dressed, and went out to work in my van for the night, figuring he’d be gone by morning. When I got back around 3 a.m., however, he wasn’t. I smoked my hourly cigs until sunup on my designated cinder block pretty much right next to him.

But it kept raining.

And Michael came back the next night.

On the third night it was only somewhat raining, was on and off, so Rosie let Winnie out, at maybe 7 p.m.

Winnie had an ongoing beef with this dog in an adjacent lot and would often disappear through this crack in the fence, sometimes for hours. She was by no means an outdoor cat though: her fighting technique consisted of lying on her back and swiping lamely at her attacker, and she’d sometimes come back with scratches on her belly.

I went out for a smoke at maybe 8:30 p.m., with my headphones in, and damn near sat on Michael. I was like Bruh—I said, “Bruh,” out loud—but he didn’t budge. I knew he heard me though, because he burrowed deeper into his jacket and grumbled like a kid who didn’t want to get up for school. Like I was the mom.

I finished my smoke, headed back inside.

The rain started coming down harder. An hour, two hours passed: still no sign of Winnie. I posted up in the living room, worked on whatever it was I was working on, glancing outside to see if Winnie was out there—opening the front door for stretches in case she wanted to come in that way. I made all the sounds I could think to make that generally made Winnie come a-running. Nothing. All I could do was hope she’d found some awning or Totoro leaf-umbrella beneath which to take cover (although she did have fur, I reasoned).

Come 3 a.m. I’d had it.

It was time to re-up on coffee anyhow, so I put two cups’ worth of water on the stove, scooped generous spoonfuls of Maxwell House into two mugs, added sugar, then near-boiling water, to each, stirred, and went outside.

The rain had subsided somewhat, it was heavily misting at this point; and the air, even at this ungodly hour, was warm and dank.

“Yo,” I said, whispering.

Then: “Michael,” louder this time.

Nothing.

“Ayo, Michael,” in a conversational tone.

Before finally: “BRUH!” damn near yelling.

He jolted awake.

“Listen, you gotta make moves, bro. Hate to do this but you can’t sleep here, you’re fucking up my shit. My cat’s been gone like ten hours now, and you’re blocking her path home.”

“Huh?” he said, trying to do the thing where he burrowed deeper.

“Nope, don’t do that bro,” I said. “Here, hit this, it’ll make you feel better.” I handed him the coffee. He sat up. Took the mug, downed it in four gulps, spilling some on his chest. He ahhh-ed. Belched.

“There’s gotta be a shelter,” I said, pacing. “How the fuck is there not a shelter?”

Michael looked at me surprised, and handed me the empty mug, before saying, “There is. It’s just far.”

“What about those trees by the Aquatic Park? By the tracks? If you get a tarp—. Like, I just can’t have you—”

“I know, I know, I got it,” he said quickly, like he’d been through this before.

Gathered himself, put on his hood, and stumbled off into the darkness.

Five minutes later, Winnie jetted out of the gap in the fence and booked it back through the window. She was sopping, meowed loudly at me in a way that sounded eerily human-like, and sprinted under the bed.

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marc olmsted

ART NAZIS by Marc Olmsted

Spainhammer's gone, of course.  Flattop blond muscleman Viking male stripper and street hustler who wrote for Curtains' ReSurface, grumbling about not getting paid, and mad at Crazy House Press publisher Enoch Poorboy (whom he threatened with a syringe of his own AIDS blood ) - that was the event of Floyd Lice's "ironic" Hitlerian performance rant at the Bijou, where my Japanese friend Tony Amida ran into the famous Satanist's daughter "who was surprised they let Asians in.")  I liked Mick Spainhammer and sat on Tony's back porch 1988, both of us smoking cigarettes, as he discussed the "art nazis" framed within the kitchen door at the party which included Floyd Lice in usual arrogance,  holding the hand of a razor-thin Aryan punkette in a dress with a lowcut back that showed her asscrack, that "new cleavage" that still hasn't quite caught on. Mick was still ready for his close-up, Mr. DeMille, with no sign of the ravages to come, not just to him but to our city, our day jobs, our planet.The most amazing story about Mick Spainhammer was told to me by Tony 25 years later, reminiscing about this old San Francisco that was evaporating before our eyes.  Spainhammer was fisting a trick and Spainhammer was on acid.  The trick farted and a spray of blood went all over Mick's chest.  On acid. It definitely took our hustler to another realm - staring into the Abyss, so to speak. Still, he didn't freak out or go on a bummer. That was something you had to respect.

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SHE HAS DISCOVERED COSTCO by Shannon McLeod

It’s Friday the thirteenth and day number four of your leave. You’re taking some time off work since “the incident.” You’re at the DMV because you’ve been meaning to go for months but you’re always working when it’s open. You’re afraid of seeing your students’ parents in the waiting area. You’re wearing the same Alf T-shirt and stretched-out underwear you’ve had on for the past two days. You’re pretty sure you stink. You glance at the people sitting beside you and determine they are too old or too young to have children in middle school. You may never return to work. All these years you’ve prided yourself on flying under the radar. If you return there will undoubtedly be meetings, performance analyses, watchlists. Maybe it’s time for you to switch careers. They call the number on your ticket. The woman behind the counter tells you to back up against a grey screen. “They let you smile in these pictures now, you know?” she says. Your face may have changed shape in response, but if it has you can’t feel it.

The last you saw of work was the hallway ceiling. Your co-workers, Margaret and Anita, carried you out to your car after you couldn’t get up from the floor yourself and you couldn’t stop sobbing. You hadn’t had much of an opportunity to talk to Anita, who was new to the district. After this, you are certain, she’ll only ever think of you as the lunatic. You’re pretty sure you broke some things – school property – but you can’t remember what. Margaret, the more maternal of the two women, made you promise not to drive until you were ready. You assured her you didn’t need someone to pick you up. (There wasn’t anyone to pick you up.)

When you were down there, intimate with the linoleum, the other teachers locked your classroom door. You heard a knock and a whiny voice calling, “Ms. Winn?” It was Ethan, the kid who visits your room each week to argue about his grade. Margaret opened the door a crack, stuck her head out and replied, “She’s busy right now,” as you sat merely two feet behind her, your face in your hands. You contemplated telling them you’re suicidal. But you were hesitant, knowing it’d land you in the hospital. It wasn’t so much that you wanted to kill yourself as it was that you couldn’t stop fantasizing about how you’d do it. And was that suicidal?

Either way, teaching had become difficult. You used to be confident. You were the ever-grinning entertainer for your daily audience of twelve-year-olds. Lately, your hands shook, you could barely speak. When a student asked you whether 64 was a root number, the only thought you could summon was leaning back in your Buick, listening to Sinead O'Connor while your garage filled with carbon monoxide.

You went home. You turned off your phone. When you finally turned it back on, six hours later, you had a voicemail from your supervising administrator and several text messages from your co-workers, who all seemed to think that what was happening in your brain could be fixed with enough wine.

After the DMV, you visit your grandmother. She has discovered Costco. Grandma is excited for you to stop by so she can fill shopping bags with her overflow of products for you to bring home. Today she has extra grapefruit and broccoli, tiny cups of microwaveable soup, frozen sausage patties filled with cheese. She dumps half a bag of kettle corn into a gallon ziplock and throws it on top of the pile of food. You come here now instead of grocery shopping. You sit with her in the living room after she’s offered you an individual bottle of iced tea from the pallets stored under the dining room table. It’s room temperature, but it tastes good. You realize you must be severely dehydrated. You remember one of your cousins telling you Grandma had depression too. When your mothers were young, Grandma would spend weeks in bed. By the time she got up, the whole back of her head would be matted. Your aunt would spend hours with her in front of the television, brushing the tangles out of her hair. Your cousin said, “Back then, Grandma called them ‘headaches.’” It seems a good euphemism, you think. Your head hasn’t stopped pounding from all the crying.

Grandma asks you how your sister, Trisha, is doing and you say, “She’s good,” even though you suspect the fights with her boyfriend get physical. They’re both covered with bruises when you see them. You worry about Trisha. You think she will open up, seek out your support, when she’s ready. For now, you call her on the phone but avoid seeing her in person. Your grandmother looks at you expectantly. You guzzle down the bottle to avoid saying more about Trisha.

“You like that?” Grandma asks.

You nod.

“Well, I’ll give you some to take home, then.” she smiles. It’s hard to picture her in a week-long nap while her children cried from heavy diapers. Your grandmother seems so happy now. You reach into the second shopping bag she brings you and open another iced tea. You drink it, and the pounding seems to ease a bit.

You’re about to ask her what it was like for her, when it started, how she made it stop. You’re staring at the hall closet while you try to form the words in your head. The words should be gentle. She is eighty-three. Grandma notices your stare and gets up. She opens the closet, yanks at the vacuum that’s too heavy for her to maneuver.

“I suppose you want to get to it,” she says.

You stand up to begin the chores she can’t manage on her own anymore. You catch a whiff of rotting fruit and remind yourself to take out the garbage before you leave. It’s a good sign, your sense of smell returning.

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mike corrao

NO THANK YOU by Mike Corrao

becomingplateaubecomingmachinebecomingplacebecomingbodybecomingbirdsongbecomingdirectionbecomingstasisbecomingmattressbecomingthinbecomingessencebecomingmaterialbecomingpersonbecomingurnbecominganimal (or No Thank You)

 

There are a thousand plateaus spanning across this plane. Each occupied by strange machines eating each other, who stare at the remains for as long as they can bear to. “What kind of fucking place” is this: somewhere locked within itself.

A body that crawls out of stasis, so tired of its previous immobility that it stretches out in every direction until it is so thin that it cannot see itself. It feels like there is a jackhammer at the face of my chestplate. And it’s telling me that I’m late for whatever I’m supposed to be doing / that I’m supposed to have done by now (jesus christ).

What kind of person finds themself in a place like this, where the sky is made out of static and echoing birdsongs. But this is not the point (there is a reason) (geographical purpose)

yy told me that ff used to live under a stranger’s mattress. I couldn’t imagine occupying a space like that, or spreading myself out so thin as to disappear from myself. (I want to materialize)

which means finding myself in a space. Wolf-man locked in the urn-shape (stasis again) (unmaterialized)

It feels like the echoes are crawling out of my bones (unmaterialized)

How should a person be? (materialized) (unmaterialized)

Someone caught in the act of becoming (materialized) (materialized)

then caught in the act of fully forming, then caught in the act of watching the essence fall out of their head like liquid. And then they don’t seem like Someone anymore (unmaterialized) (becoming)

Their head looks hollow and weightless, it floats over their body. (I want to materialize)

but I’m lost in the midst of these plateaus, lingering under cannibalizing mechanisms and gears soaked in blood and oil. I don’t feel like I contain anything anymore, more like I am a part of the contents, and our coagulation forms something unstable and loud (materialized)

I’m worried that I can be heard and found (not hiding)

but incapable if I wanted to hide / when I need to start hiding (because there is always a reason to be disappeared)

No sun / No moon / No sky / No ground / No way to orient myself

Sounds so deafeningly loud (how should a person be)

physically speaking, should I be made organismally, or would you allow me to build myself out of new parts? Could a larger Someone remain stable for longer? (materialized) (unmaterialized) (return)

This will be a fleeting shape, that reveals itself in my death throes. Form me out of the sea foam and watch as the air slowly returns into the atmosphere, bear witness, examine what this container is made out of (materialized)

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bud smith

RIVALS by Bud Smith

Last night a cop came uninvited to the party and tasered people for ten dollars. He was a year away from retirement, and so, was relaxed, even breathing from the mouth, acting like a pal.

A lot of guys tried the taser. One even was shocked while he was downstairs in the shower. The cop got so excited. Three women did the taser too, holding hands together sharing that electric. They paid $3.33 each, pretending to be Siamese twins.

It was whatever it was. They secretly hated each other. They publicly hated each other too.

When the taser ran out of battery the cop went out to the cruiser and got the charger. He also carried in his ‘spoils o’ war’ collected in a big plastic bin, hoisted on one shoulder.

Now he had left his badge and uniform in the car, and he was down to his white undershirt and his boxer shorts, black athletic socks, shined up cop shoes.

It’s impossible to love anyone more of less out of their costume.

I mean, I should know, I used to be the mascot for the local college. The team being the Charging Bulls. Their uniforms were brown and shaggy and they had little foam horns on their helmets. Because of their uniforms, and their losing record, they were known un-lovingly as, the Shit Monsters.

The Shit Monsters had never won a game for as long as anybody could remember. But then, out of nowhere, my twin brother leapt out of the gene pool and started throwing touchdowns.

Speaking of things changing, now he is on death row, awaiting execution.

We’ve all got our biblical problems just like any small creature would. Put it to you this way, I don’t love my brother any less now that he wears those orange coveralls and spends his time in the penitentiary getting fat, smoking and watching TV. I love him the same now as I loved him when he dressed up like a Shit Monster.

While the cop charged the taser he leaned back on the couch and put his hands behind his head, fingers laced together. The little sister of someone else I didn’t know had her hand on the cop’s knee and the little brother of someone else I don’t know had their hand on his other knee. There was a show then that began in the bottom of the sunken den.

Two friends of mine were rolled up in an emerald carpet and having sex inside the carpet. Or making faces like they were. It’s always hard to tell. They urged everyone to step harder on the carpet while they grunted. Step harder! The hostess stomped and stomped and the couple seemed on the brink of orgasm, and the hostess started jumping on them with both feet. But the phone in the kitchen started ringing and she went away.

I’d placed the call, my friend who was on the bottom had turned blue.

I said, The call is coming from inside the party.

And she said, Oh you, Bozo.

She slammed the phone down.

I came out of the garage with a lite beer and the couple was unrolled from the carpet, all sticky and sweaty and with basically Xs over their eyes. I kept waiting for someone to dump a jug of icy Gatorade over them. But nobody did so I walked over and poured my lite beer over them and they laughed like people did when it was revealed that they were on Candid Camera.

The mess didn’t matter. There was a big tarp on the floor with plastic over that. You could have cut someone apart with a saw and the tile underneath would still be nice the next morning.

And then the cop had got off the couch and the taser was ready and he prowled up the stairs like a creep, visible boner. Socks off. I wanted to call the cops on the cop but I was worried that the cops who came to arrest the cop would be worse.

The hostess sat down at the table. She said, You’re acting weird.

I figured she meant the collar and the leash around my neck. The lead, my own, was in my hand. So I said, I lost my dog the other day.

She said, What’s your dog’s name?

My name, I said.

Oh, she said, raising both eyebrows.

She was digging around in the spoils o’ war cubby by the coffee pot.

Confiscated heroin, oxy, PCP and magic mushrooms.

I think we are on the honor system, the hostess said.

I put six dollars in the cubby and bought a 1/4 oz. of mushrooms and ate them immediately, handful after handful washed down with Sprite. Then I went out looking for my dog.

I lead myself away from the glowing house and into the peppermint night. Calling my name in a booming voice. There was two inches of crusty snow where I started, falling forward. Sometimes the snow got waist deep, and then got shoulder deep, other times it disappeared.

At the end of the cul de sact I saw my childhood home lit up in red and yellow. It had fallen to a fascist regime. Spaniards. My mother and father were dead and the Spaniards could not get them in the underworld where the Norwegians go to be with the other Norwegians. Our dead parents could sit together and drink aquavit and munch on crispbread. They’d killed themselves just a week after Scotty’s sentencing. The suicide note said they’d had this pact since they’d met as youngsters at the skating rink. Sixty years old was as far as they were willing to go. Also the note said, Uncle Kim and Aunt Aud, can go fuck themselves. Well! Thanks for the heads up Mom and Dad. Enjoy your crispbread and aquavit. I’ll make sure Aunt Aud and Uncle Kim never see this sad note. Yet, considering their suicides, I was neither proud, nor ashamed. With the money from the sale of the house, I bought a house boat that sank quickly in a freak storm and I bought a tractor trailer full of Marlboro lights, which I still cart over to the prison at the bottom of the valley.

Before too long I found myself sitting in the warm grass, and my hands were quaking uncontrollably and I got furious again at the college’s museum which had made me pay for the damage that Scotty had done to their suit of armor. He’d cut the metal hands off and  had started wearing them whenever he wasn’t on the field.

I should tell you how it happened, once and for all.

First those boys broke my hand because of that nursery rhyme regarding how to deal out the treatment of identical twins: Cause one pain, the other feels it. This was during a football game of no significance other than 100 years of rivalry. Well my pain didn’t stop the winning touchdown pass. After that those boys got me again, our teams meeting in a further bowl of no importance. Mind you I was just a nobody but the team mascot, with my rodeo clown head off, feeling the breeze. Pre-game they got me. But this time they were dead drunk and mistaken in another way, thinking I actually was my brother, the star quarterback. They shattered my other hand, so now I had none to use. My brother was wearing those heavy gauntlet gloves. When he heard the news of my attack, he came out from the locker room to seek revenge. It’s sad but it’s funny. He killed two of the three, one punch each, and went to prison instead of playing the rest of the game. So, after all, it seemed, they got us. Our second stringer throwing four interceptions and losing it before halftime. But still I say, we won. Some fans broke the mascot’s hands. Our QB took two of them out of this world.

I tied a bandana over my eyes, spread out in an X on the fifty yard line, and entered into a world inside my lost dog. I searched through her guts and then her veins. I came to a big beating heart. The heart was afraid. I saw there was a door. I opened the door of the heart and looked inside and saw an even smaller room with a couch and a TV and a bookshelf full of books. I picked up one of the books and it slipped from my hands because my hands always have lightning bolts of pain. My friend at the video store did the surgery. Finally though I was able to open the book with my teeth and my tongue and wouldn’t you know, the story in my trip was a story about me, about how I was no longer in any kind of danger. I’d finally found peace. Euphoria washed over me.

There was some noise and I lifted the bandana and the marching band was taking the field and the players in their Shit Monster costumes were running drills all around me and the stands were filling up with a few straggler Shit Monster fans on one side and a throng of opposing fans waving orange pendants on the other side and the moon was an ice cube eyeball and I stood up and got out of the way of the marching band which looked to me in that moment like a panzer tank engulfed in flames, set on annihilating everything in its path.

That’s when I was apprehended by the Shit Monster coaching staff who thought I’d returned! Thought I’d decided to accept my fate again as the mascot of their sorry team!

Someone was yelling, What are you doing? Get dressed get dressed. The  game is about to start.

I tried to pull away but the football team wasn’t having it. A Shit Monster line backer had my left arm. A Shit Monster defensive end had my right arm. A punter had my foot, I shook my foot free and kicked him in the gut. A Shit Monster tight end gabbed that foot. The assistant coach came running over with the rodeo clown outfit and I went into wild hysterics. The mascot’s outfit was pulled over my thrashing body. They finally released me when I was zipped up in it and had the zipper Velcro’d down so I couldn’t find the way out. I’d become the clown and I was loose on the field, stumbling and rumbling across the thirty yard line and then sharply into the visiting team’s orange huddle.

I broke away from them and fled under the bleachers. Some kids were under there, I didn’t see them first as kids. They were crabs passing glowing white orbs back and forth in their pinchers. I burst out the back of the bleachers and hit a chain link fence, kept thrashing against it. And behind me there was cheering, something had happened on the field. I could hear the marching band making mistakes. The whistles went wild. Voices were closer and mumbling my dog’s name.

I grabbed the clown head and I pulled it and then there were other people helping and it came off with a savage tearing and I began to scream. I’d wrongly assumed that my actual head had been ripped from my spinal column. But there was the cool night air and the back glow of the stadium lighting bathing the cedars in blue, and I was alive!

The pinchers hoisted me over the fence and I crashed down into the forest on the other side. That’s where I learned I still had my own skull and my own face and my own past and my own future. I took the head of the jester in my oversized gloves, with my bells jangling, and threw it violently back over the fence onto the playing field. The size twenty clown footwear, acted like snow shoes that helped me trudge through deepening powder, away from the contest.

When I reached town, I saw my reflection in a shop window. I looked like a mutilated cartoon, but all the gore was scribbled on with a white crayon. I decided to walk to the jail to see my brother. On my way there, I saw a pile of dog shit outside of the VFW hall and I stood in that spot for an hour or so, trying to figure out if there was any chance it had come from my dog who was lost out here. I’d take a gun from a sleeping guard and I’d shoot the locks and break Scotty out and then we’d go to the underworld to get drunk with Mom and Dad. But I knew—ah, my brother is in the underworld already. And headed to another, as soon as the judge finally signs the order. Wait, on closer inspection, this couldn’t possibly be my dog’s shit. It was just a paper bag stuffed between the leg of a park bench and an overflowing garbage can. I put my hands on the icy chain link, composed myself.

Down the street I saw the cop coming. He was shirtless in his car. He stopped, You need a ride?

No.

I found the velcro, I found the zipper. I gave him the costume for his bin.

He waved and kept going around the bend.

Did I tell you? I forget if I told you.

At the joint wake, my father’s identical brother, Kim, was there looking down into his brother’s casket, holding the edge so tight I thought he’d splinter the wood. While just feet away, my mother’s identical twin sister, Aud, was looking down into my mother’s casket and her palms were up as if supporting an invisible baby.

Meanwhile, our lives whatever was left of them, were suddenly, same as ever, our own to live.

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DIPIETRANTONIO

KENTUCKY SHITS by Giovanni DeJaneiro

Steven lived alone in a small house on a cattle ranch at the bottom of a hidden valley.  He didn’t have city water, air conditioning, or internet. The kitchen stank. Empty beers crowded the table and counters and stovetop.  A flyswatter hung on the wall—flies hummed through the air. Dishes towered in the sink. Bright orange slime curdled in a dirty saucer, seemingly the source of the hideous reek.

He inflated a mattress in the family room, where a floral couch faced a huge wood stove.  Grains of rice, toenail clippings, bottle caps, and dirty tissues overspread the coffee table.  Envelopes and invoices carpeted the carpet alongside coins and coasters and crumpled socks and another flyswatter.

The mattress deflated while I slept.  I woke up on the floor. Steven wasn’t awake.  I took a shit and washed my hands. Stripping down, I tiptoed into the tub.  I let the water warm and danced under the stream.

Fifteen minutes later, the water choked and ceased.  

The water deliveryman said he couldn’t refill the cistern until Monday.  Steven had to wash up with bottled water in the bathroom sink. We agreed not to shit in the toilet.  I told Steven I would shit at the library. But I clenched my ass until I didn’t have to go.

I sat on the porch and watched Steven leave for work.  I would have been at the office had I not decided to quit.  I elbowed my brain and feigned gratitude, but then I took a hit and forgot.  Fat cows grazed in the green hills and birdsong twinkled in my ear. The landlord’s guard dogs, tongues dangling, bandied into my arms and shed handfuls of dirty coat as soft as warm crayons.  The sun smiled like my grandma and even the wasps seemed lazy.

But I couldn’t relax.  Dry mouth and bad breath and eye boogers, dog shit, bullshit, dead flies and glue traps swarmed my mind, among other things.  I felt like a fugitive. I managed to smoke the feeling out of my head, as well as every thought until I achieved dementia.

I never worried about smoking myself stupid—a return to innocence would have been a happy turn of the screw.  No, I worried about smoking myself eccentric and unemployable. I took another hit and blew my brains into the ether.  

When Steven came home, we ate bad pizza and drank vodka with Coke.  We both drank too much. Steven caved and took a shit he couldn’t flush.  I tried to browse porn on my phone, but I didn’t have enough bars.

Steven seemed exasperated after his shit.  I laughed at him.

“Hey, are you sure you don’t want me to pay some rent where I’m here?”

“No.  You’re my guest.  You can stay as long as you want.”  

“Okay, cool.  I’m not going to move in, you know.  Remember, I’m going to Colorado the week after next, so I’ll be out of your hair soon.”

“So, why exactly do you want to move to Colorado again?”

“I don’t know—a change of scenery.  Mountains, I like mountains. And weed is legal—”

Steven smiled.

“Bullshit.  You’re full of shit.  I know why you’re going.”

I made a funny face.

“Why?”

“Because of that girl, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Look, man, I don’t mean to doubt your judgment, but I have to say, I’m a little worried.  She requested me on Facebook—”

“Yeah, I told her about you.”

“It says she’s in a domestic partnership with someone.  Is she married or something?”

“What?  No. She has a boyfriend, but I don’t like him.  I mean, I’m definitely a homewrecker. But this time I paid for the home I’m wrecking.”  

“What do you mean?”

“I mailed her five hundred dollars last month so she wouldn’t have to sell her car to make rent.  It’s just that she gets her license next month, provided she doesn’t have another seizure. She’s so close, and I would hate for her to have to sell her car, and I love her—”

“I’m not trying to tell you what to do or anything, but you should be careful.  So she doesn’t take advantage of you.”

“She’s not, no, it’s not like that.  I also bought her some concert tickets and a stuffed animal for her birthday, but she didn’t expect or ask for any of those things, you know?”   

“Okay, I hear you.  You know her better than I do.  I’m just saying, in my experience, poor people can’t love.”  

“Is that right?”

“Look, all I’m saying is, be careful.  You want another beer?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, get it yourself.  Get me one, too.”

Steven waddled toward the bathroom.

“I’m probably going to shit myself.  Jesus Christ! Was there a time when I didn’t have to shit myself?  I guess this is what it means to be a prisoner.”

I tried to browse porn again, but the page wouldn’t load.  I also tried to look up the average salary of technical writers in the Milwaukee metropolitan area.  But the page wouldn’t load.

“Stay out of the bathroom for a while.”

I chuckled and changed the subject.  

“I’m so fucked, man.  I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I shouldn’t have quit. I should have learned how to code!”

“Maybe, but I think you would kill yourself if you were a coder.”  

“Yeah, probably.  I don’t know how you do what you do.  I know I couldn’t.”

“Well, I’m only working where I’m working because I want to buy the company eventually.”

“What, really?  How?”

“They offered me stock options when I started, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.  They’re full of shit. The reality is that I’m lucky they haven’t fired me. And if I don’t make $300,000 by the end of the year, they might.”

“Damn, man.”

“Yeah.  I’m in sales because I could make a lot more money faster than any engineer.  That’s the carrot they dangle in front of me, anyway. It’s not bad, but I don’t like it.  It’s about the money. Why do you think people do it? It’s funny, my manager told me, you work hard, you buy a Porsche and a nice watch, and then you get a girl.  I’m like, is that true? And he’s like, yeah, that’s what I did! I knew my character wasn’t going to get me by. That’s why I put a spoiler on my car.”

“Well, goddamn.  I don’t know, man.  That’s bleak. I can’t believe people live like that.”

We laughed.  I raised my voice.

“Don’t you want to FIRE, man?”

“What’s that mean?”

“Financial Independence, Retire Early, man!  I’ve been reading this Reddit, the financial independence Reddit, and these people, they’re like bankers and coders and shit.  They advocate living below your means and putting your savings in stocks so you can retire early.”

“That’s just spastic retard shit.  I actually talk to CEOs and people in charge of shit all the time, and once you’ve heard enough about the way stocks are, you know, created, you realize it’s all bullshit.  It’s made up.”

“What, you don’t want to retire early, man?”

“Retire early?  For what?”

“I don’t know, some people said they want to play video games in solitude, you know.”

“So?  They can play video games anytime.”

“But they want to play video games all the time—some of them.”

“Well, good luck with that.  Hey man, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel too great.  I’m going to go to bed, alright?”

“Hey, that’s fine.  Farewell and goodnight!  Feel better, man.”

“Thanks.  Goodnight.”

I woke up in the middle of the night with a stomachache.  I unspooled a wad of toilet paper and stumbled outside. The guard dogs barked and howled somewhere in the valley.  I thought they might ambush me. Panicked, I fumblingly unbuckled my pants and squeezed runny shit in the grass behind the barn.  The odor gagged me. More and more dogs began to bark and howl. I braced myself for a fight.

The dogs didn’t show.  I wiped my ass and attempted to scoop the wet pile into a plastic bag.  Liquid shit speckled my fingers. I sniffed them and threw up. My stomach finally settled.  I tossed the bag of shit and went back to sleep.

The next day, Steven still had the shits.  He thought he might have to go to the hospital, he shit so much.  I held my shit, but I had to piss in the toilet several times. We slowly flooded the toilet.  

It was too hot to go outside.  Having sweated all day and all night, grease slicked my skin and I couldn’t breathe through either nostril.  Using his phone as a mobile hotspot, Steven streamed a South Korean police drama on his laptop. We watched thirteen hours of the show, pausing only to piss and shit and order takeout.  

Steven insisted I try Joella’s Hot Chicken.  

“No, I want the real thing.  Let’s get some Kentucky Fried Chicken,” I drawled in a terrible southern accent.  

“I’m telling you, they don’t have KFC in Kentucky.”

“No way, I definitely saw a KFC near the highway.”

“Well, yeah, there’s KFC, but they’re usually attached to Long John Silver’s.”

“Weird, I’ve only ever seen Taco Bell Pizza Hut.”

“Have you tried Cincinnati chili?”

“What, that orange shit in your sink?”  

Sunday afternoon, the water deliveryman came.  I watched him back up the driveway in a red pickup with a rusty tank chained to the bed.  He slipped a green hose inside a hole in the front yard and poured forty dollars of water into the cistern.  Here’s a productive member of society, I thought, a pillar of the community.

Steven and I cheered when the faucets sputtered water.  We could finally flush the toilet—a small victory. I could smell my crotch through my jeans, so I immediately took a shit and a shower.  

When the cistern ran dry, I thought I was roughing it, but I couldn’t imagine having no electricity, no clothes, no shelter, least of all no money to spin the situation.  The house could burn down, my car could blow up, my clothes could shrink and my family could die. I would still have enough money to live.

I couldn’t believe I had quit my job and wound up staying rent-free in a quaint home on an isolated cattle ranch in rural Kentucky.  People aspire toward my rock bottom, work their whole lives away. I feared the worst was yet to come.

I stared at the ceiling and contemplated suicide. I suppose I should have been grateful for my life and my friend and running water, but I felt undead and lonely and thirsty.  I suppose I should have been grateful for the opportunity to kill myself, but I couldn’t decide how I wanted to die.

I didn’t want to shoot myself because I’m a lousy shot.  I didn’t want to jump because I’m afraid of heights. I didn’t want to slash my wrists because I’m squeamish.  I didn’t want to overdose because I might wind up merely brain-dead, a drooling caricature in a bed of medical bills, confined to my mother’s basement for the rest of my life.

My mother didn’t want children, she wanted dogs.  Turns out she’s allergic to dogs. But she wasn’t back then.  I couldn’t understand why she bothered to create me. Childbearing is busywork, childrearing a career all its own.  She must have loved my father.

I would’ve liked to have been a dog.  I could have shit anywhere. I opened the fridge and grabbed several slices of raw bacon.  I sat on the porch. Waving the bacon, I watched the guard dogs scamper toward me.

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EXCERPT FROM “DRIFT” by Chris Campanioni

Born Under Punches

The things I recall, I recall in zip pan, POV, a pullback shot without mise-en-scène. Or in darting moments, a brief flash, a passing scent, transposing and unblinking, and utterly distinct. Yet the whole of history favors similarities and slight anachronisms. The schism of time is in a class all its own, and even now I am racing through hallways of my subconscious without taking notice of the hall itself. The lino. A railing. Reverse angles by which you see your own self speaking. Everyday details. Everything passes. As a rule, I strive for lucidity in loneliness, long takes in cover shots, covering myself with the candy of imagination, the sweet gaze of the mind’s eye that seeks amusement and finds instead the truth. It strikes without warning. I am either writing it down, or scurrying for a pen. And of course, my palm as paper never does the trick. Too many callouses, rough spots or swollen joints makes for disjointed prose, words rising and falling on the flesh, out of frame, a chronic fear like a cough, or coughing fits in an elevator filled with mysophobics without relief of medicine. Time is relentless. All the memories I have of a certain age arrive with an eye for dissolves and split screens, ellipsis narration, the Kodak Junior camcorder above me, rising higher, slung across somebody’s shoulder. The older I got, the more conflated I became: rapid cuts into a montage set to something serious by Radiohead or Kurt Cobain’s hoarse voice asking to be raped. Again and again. Only every five seconds, three more images arrive in the form of bridging shots: a birthday party, Carvel cake, wrapping paper unfolding a gown and tassel. In the interest of time and patience, the camera skips the in-between phases, puberty, the Middle Ages, and suddenly time’s up, or forever passing, the screen goes dim. Remove the reel and I don’t exist, unfilled as an indecision, a figure shot from extreme distance, an unrequited gaze . . . The memories I have as a child, eyes agape in solicitous childhood, of five years and five months, or at nine, balloon mind, afraid of almost everything—¡Tribilin!—every converging train and each whistle and telephone ring and my mother’s laugh and my dad’s demands, and under tables all the faces I never knew from just their feet rising higher in the address of my dreams, conflated voices all talking separately at the same time around a dinner table, or at a cocktail party, or in my own mind, into and out of intuition . . . Readjust the lens to find emptiness, which is only thirty-three frames per second, a vast expanse of images, the darkness of the cinema, the places my mind goes when I stop to think, an isthmus for hermetic memories lost in the time it takes for perceiving anything. And time’s passing.

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WE CLEAN UGGS by JP Sortland

Yes. No. Hand washed. No machine.

He was the only man who shined shoes at George’s Shoe Repair. The tiny refuge was located below ground at the 51st and Lexington subway station.

Yes. Hand. Wash. Personally. You’ll like.

There were two or three ladies of an implacable foreign origin who also shined shoes in silence. Customers predicted the mystery women came from Bolivia to Tajikistan and everywhere in between.

Buddy’s origin was clear as mud too. But wherever he’d come from before ending up at George’s had made him an amicable fellow. Unlike the shoeshine girls, the patrons of George’s never wondered where Buddy was from. Instead they wondered how anyone could be so nice.

Friendly like a Canadian, one customer said to his coworker. German maybe? Yeah, kinda I dunno. Except a different accent and everything.

The leopard coat girl had little faith in Buddy and therefore she had faith in nothing.

His hands rested carefully atop her Uggs. His fingertips ready to pluck them off the counter with a gentle squeeze of his fingertips into their furry insides. To Buddy, this exchange should already be done. Those soft boots should already be in line with the others.

You’re sure you won’t like ruin them, right?

Buddy gave her a smile to deflect the insult. Hidden behind his friendliness was a plea for understanding and trust.

Clean Uggs every day.

And you’re not gonna throw them in a washing machine right? Because the tag says spa-cifically they have to be hand washed.

Yes. No. Hand washed. See? Wash by hand. Stuff with paper to keep good form. Help dry. Protective spray for leather. Good care.

Um. Okay?

The leopard coat girl released the boots. The cynicism however, her lack of faith in Buddy and therefore mankind, stayed with the Uggs.

Buddy handed her the ticket and the leopard coat girl hesitantly took it. Her face twisted in confusion and looked like written information had never been conveyed to her.

Buddy wanted nothing more than for George’s shop to be profitable. A busy shop meant money for Buddy. However, a crack in his resolve made him wish the leopard coat girl had never stepped foot into that business. Into his consciousness.

I need those by tomorrow.

*

Yes. No. I don’t know. So sorry.

Buddy shook his head at George. His arms fell to his side.

I have the ticket? They were here yesterday?

The leopard coat girl snapped her gum. Buddy silently thanked her for it.

He knew how George loathed the sticky substance. He had seen more gum on the bottom of shoes than anyone in New York City.

I’m real sorry, miss. We’ll compensate you for the loss.

They were like two hundred.

George winced.

Two hundred new. How about one-fifty?

Fine. Whatever. I’m never coming back here.

Understandable, miss.

Buddy remained quiet at George’s side. Obediently bearing witness to the berating.

You sure you didn’t see them nowhere?

Yes. No.

Buddy shook his head.

I like just don’t understand how you lose boots?

Buddy looked down at the floor.

He’d be paying for those boots unless George found forgiveness in his shoe polished heart. It was the price he had to pay. It was a fair price.

Someone could’ve run in and snagged em. Buddy here turns his back for one second and that’s all they need.

George handed her the monetary apology.

Buddy weighed the relationship he’d built with his employer. This was a setback, but it was repairable.

He’d looked high and low but the boots were nowhere in the shop.

He knew because the last time he’d seen them they were flying off the Queensboro Bridge into the East River.

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zac smith

FLIPPED by Zac Smith

Brad flipped his car after hitting a fire hydrant, right downtown, right on Fifth Street, right near our old apartment, the prefurnished one with the broken window and the red wall and the kitchen that had bookshelves instead of cabinets, he was driving, something happened, who knows, he hit the hydrant and the car went upward, upward, from the height of the hydrant and the height of the curb, and the car veered upward and over the hydrant, and the hydrant's base cracked under the weight and pressure of the car and the angle of it, and the cracked base gave way so that the water could come out, and it came out, one huge spray into the underbelly of the car and out into the street below while car ascended into the air itself, at an angle, fast and strange, twisting, up and around, the body of the hydrant lifted, dislodged, entirely broken free, the water coming out as a geyser, up and out, the body of the hydrant rolling away, or more tumbling away, bouncing under the force of the impact, the force of the water, the car's wheels spun and the engine roared freely, the tired no longer struggling against the friction of the road but against nothing, free air, spinning madly, the engine just bellowing as the car veered upward, the clanging of the hydrant as loud as the screaming of the engine and the roar of the water, all three a unified cacophony on Fifth Street near our old apartment, right in front of the convenience store where people would gather to smoke and scratch off lottery tickets and ask for change and sell weed and catch up with the other people who lived on the block or around the corner, and who we would sometimes buy forties with and scratch off lottery tickets and talk about what the other people on the block were doing, who they were with, where they had been and what they planned on doing, who was leaving town, alone, or leaving with someone else, people we knew or didn't know or had only heard about, or people who we saw buying beer but who never hung out, and right next to the laundromat where someone died once in the bathroom, then they closed off the whole place with police tape, and everyone was crowded around trying to see who it was, if it was anyone we thought it would be, anyone we expected to die in a bathroom, or who always hung out in the laundromat for whatever reason, but it was just some nobody that no one knew, it was right in front of that laundromat where he flipped the car, his foot still on the gas, the car in the air, the tires spinning, engine screaming, water spraying, hydrant rolling off, and when the car landed it was the loudest of everything, a real crashing down, the whole car coming down from the air with its full weight, just a huge crash, the windows crunching into a million tiny bits and the hood crumpling in and the engine letting up, finally, a big groan into nothing, but the water still spraying up and wide, less murky now that it was finished clearing out the old silty pipes in the neighborhood and pushing in fresh clean water, spraying all over the upside down car, all over the street, the curb, like the car, car half on the curb, half in the street, Brad pinned between the wheel and the seat and the roof of the car but able eventually to wrench himself out through the busted-out window, on his back, coming out like a baby covered in glass and blood and just staring at the water coming up and spraying out everywhere while the radio kept playing, louder than almost everything else except for the water spraying out and splashing down, louder than Brad muttering “shit, goddamn," over and over again, louder than him just muttering the same thing over and over again, wondering when the cops would come, whether anyone would call them, whether he would have to call them, wondering what would happen if they came, what would happen if they never came, all kinds of shit, over and over again, the same shit just over and over again in his head.

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isabella esser-munera

BANGKOK by Isabella Esser-Munera

He begins to paint.

Frescos. No. But layers. Layers.

There are faces. Clouds. He paints feverishly. Time is obsolete. His hand is limitless; it isn’t his. His body; not his. He makes love to himself in paint.

~

It is July 4th and he takes the four pieces that are left from the box in his drawer.  He eats them quickly and quickly lays down on his bed.

It is a mat, long and thin.

The room is bare and feels like it is opening. Like a box, as though the walls were slowly falling away by a pulled string. The color white, but something softer than that.

The man is not old. His arms are thin and at his sides. They fold over his chest. He is waiting for something.

Then he gets up, rapidly, like he knows. This is when he begins to paint.

It happens like this:

He left the room, saw two people. More accurately: two people saw him. Face bent, angled, Asian. Sharp hair, sharp features, light cutting across his shoulder. A staircase shadow, sinking down the steps. Cloaked, eclipsed. Harrowed. Gone. He was quick, he did not see them.

It is difficult not to pause, outside the door.

He pauses outside the door.

He is breathing.

What he is breathing: smoke, gasoline, food, other things. More importantly: the building, and their inhabitants. There is color. Flesh.

He walks.

Swiftly, anonymous. Like everyone else. It is fascinating. He thinks this to himself: fascinating. Escape: into, onto—others. There is color, there is flesh.

He hears it: gently, twinkling like a lullaby. Not the cart, the infinite piles of avocados. Not the man, woman, child. A pruned face giving way to a smooth one. Not the multitude of flashing eyes: lecherous, tired, pleading, bored. The twinkling, silver drums.

He sees them: ten thousand silver, pure, thin-sheet-silver metal drums. Tiny porcelain dolls, robots, playing on the drums. A long line like dominos. They are drumming their nails.

There. A window like a fish tank. It is glowing. He feels it, there, in his chest. His ribs are plastic. They are bowing out. He feels bigger. His heart overflowing. He walks into the store.

Things are slow and up close.

Or maybe no.

In the store there is color.

No flesh.

Color. Brilliant, saturated, blossoming.

He feels it in waves of texture. He breathes, dizzy. So much. The paint lined against the walls like dominos.

A small windmill outside the door spins, is singing.

It sounds like an angel.

He wants the color. He swallows it, standing there. It is not enough. He wants more. His ribs are plastic. Burst into arms. Reach out. His heart is bigger. Overflowing. Dribbling to the floor. Drooling.

He wants the color like a lover. Like water. It is not enough, standing there.

He steals the paint.

All of it.

There are no cameras. He fills his pockets, his pants, his hoodie. Mechanical. He is a robot.

He leaves the store.

He does not stop outside the door.

The flesh surrounds him. A wall.

Get through.

He moves. The flesh surrounds him, parts.

He is swelling. He is peeing. He is fine.

Back in his room.

His room is a box. He never noticed before.

Sweating, sweating. Sweaty. He peels off the navy hoodie with his thin, pale arms; the white, wet shirt. So much white. Sticky. Sweat on his forehead, clinging black hair. He lets out a moan. Unintentional. Glass is falling to the floor. Nothing breaks. There are no cameras. He breaks.

There is color.

White.

He is in a city that does not celebrate July 4th.

He begins to paint.

He does not have a brush. He does not find it until later.

He uses his ribs. His thin arms. His tongue. His penis. He lets out a groan. Unintentional. He is masturbating, he is naked.

Writhing.

There is color, there is flesh, he moans.

He holds up his hands.

They shake. Some asshole called them feminine once. Against the light they are snowflakes. His face is wet. So is his body, so. He looks at them, slender, plastic bones. He wants to bite them. He doesn’t. He looks. Snowflakes.

His cheeks are high and spread across his face like dove’s wings. Dovetailing down: his sharp chin. Like his mother. The blinking eyes which close, curtain. The hair, flattened back in odd angles.

His mother with her face over the bowl of soup.

As if it were a round pocket mirror, propped up, the reflections doubled, split down the spine like a horizon line, one face on the table, one face floating above it. A stillness in the morning, with the feeble light filtering through.

It caught her eyes, set them glowing. The house filled with stillness, cold light.

Her skin was pale and as thin as moth’s wings. Raising her eyes, over the bowl, over breakfast, she was all light, he said nothing. And at the seam where her faces met, the clasp, her chin an arrow pointing in—a necklace dangled, the one his father gave her.

His father is in the United States of America, Long Beach Island now. He could be his younger brother instead of his son, if. His elder sister, glamorously sprawled on the couch with a magazine, smirking, “When you get there, what’re you going to do? Make art? Fuck men? Huh? Fuck men and get high? Go, faggot. Go like your fucking dad.” Her legs scissoring over the couch, cupping a cushion like two fingers the plush meat of a cigarrete. I can’t, fuck, those. Kinds of hips, white as the sky.  

The downturned navy hoodie, she would remember, flattened down in the middle like his nose, his sister thought, as he left. As he left he lifted it over his head with pale, thin fingers. Like a cloak, a curtain, closing, edging down, and with a hiss, sweeping the cloth over the floor.

His eyes are closed.

Making love to himself in the paint.

There are cameras. They are like mirrors. They are like eyes. His room is a box, he is sure. He is sure there are cameras. He is on a stage, there are floodlights, the opening magician’s act, he will saw himself apart, his bones will oblige.

He paints with his body, the white white room.

Finds a toothbrush.

He is going to paint a fresco.

No. But there are faces. Clouds.

He is determined, so he paints. He paints frantically. He is in a city that does not celebrate Independence. Independence Day. There is color. He makes, bleeds, cries color. There is no flesh. He paints. He will find a lover. He will come home. He will not come home. He will not find a lover. He might be crying. There is color.

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james mcadams

WHERE WE MARCHED, HIS FINAL YEARS by James McAdams

Here’s a pic of Dad and me marching at the Inauguration Protest, January 20th, 2017, he’s holding the IMPEACH TRUMP sign I duct-taped to his hand. He voted for Trump but that didn’t matter—what mattered, according to his neurologist, was that he get fresh air, sunlight, and exercise, away from the confinements of Lush Horizons. This one, yes, that’s him marching with the pink Breast Cancer Awareness cap at the Women’s March, January 21st. His gait palsied, hands slapping the air, mind still in the 60’s, the decade he said changed everything, the decade I was born.

At the airport, on January 28th, we marched against the Trump Travel Ban.

In the county park, on April 29th, we marched for People’s Climate Change.

During the marches, he had lucid moments when he’d look around at the spectacle of half-clothed college students taking Instas and Snaps, middle-aged women screaming into megaphones like rock stars, the squeal of the vuvuzelas. He’d croak my name questioningly but I’d just push him on, saying “Everything’s okay, Pop,” as he glanced skeptically at his T-shirt captioned “LIAR” in Republican colors.

Was it wrong of me to do this? Maybe it was because every time I watched the news I thought of him, a sort of “double consciousness,” always arguing against him in my head.

“You love him too much,” my therapist said.

“I can’t stop thinking of him,” I said.

She smiled, folding her hands. “Love can be a very frustrating emotion.”

Is my account of Alzheimer's just literary, a figuration, a synecdoche for media saturation? When Obama was elected, Dad, still lucid, entered a different world. FOX News. Drudge Report. Breitbart. Limbaugh. Our weekly dinners devolved into polite discussions about the weather and traffic, tending to Mom’s grave, was I dating any special women. I was 52, he was 75. We’d drink two Yuenglings then shake hands. He spent his days reviewing the HOA budget for his condo association, walking the streets to ensure nobody had modified their external structure.

We joined the National Pride March, June 11th.

We joined March for Black Women, September 20th.

We joined March for Our Lives, March 24, 2018, three weeks before I removed him from the ventilation machine.

After March for Our Lives, I put him to bed in Lush Horizons, changing his diaper and applying lotion to his lower joints. He was exhausted, but made a clicking sign that meant turn on the TV. FOX was running a story about Hillary’s servers. Dad sighed. I remembered that sigh from childhood, when I’d appear at the dinner table with black nails, claim Reagan was a war criminal at family parties, refuse to attend church.

I got into bed with him and secured the bed rails. “I love you too much, is the problem,” I whispered.

He motioned me closer, his face grimacing, and pointed at the TV. “Lock her up.”

“Yeah,” I said, placing another pillow under his withered head. Then I rested my cheek against his heart, back like when I had nightmares. “Lock her up, Pop.”

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r.e. hengsterman

GRANDMOTHER by R.E. Hengsterman

A low metal growl rises, and I leap from the bed.

Ten... nine.

By seven, she's reached the cornered hill of Fletcher and Fields. Her brakes protest with a tinny squeal. By five, I'm half dressed. At three, the throaty rumble of the eight-cylinder engine grows. 

By the time I reach zero, Grandmother has arrived. She slides from the bench seat of her station wagon and navigates the piles of dog shit left by our beagle. 

Her pink, black-strapped handbag drapes her forearm. Her coifed hair is motionless. She has pressed her clothing into fine lines of order. 

Mother, Father, and Grandmother have a silent, transitory meeting on the lawn amongst the dog shit.  

***

In the kitchen, Grandmother unpacks her handbag; Kleenex, three pieces of bread, Pop Tarts®, a small change purse, cheese and crackers, a sleeve of thin mints, and a handful of peppermint candies. She is squat heavy and gray but determined to ignore the angry pop of gas trapped within her arthritic joints as she prepares my breakfast. On school days, Grandmother feeds me Pop Tarts® or Thomas’ English Muffins® slathered in butter. On the weekends, when without Grandmother, I resort to sneaking dry oatmeal from the kitchen cabinet. 

While I am at school Grandmother tackles the laundry and cleans the house with meticulous detail. In the afternoon, with her chores complete, she appoints herself to the living room couch to watch General Hospital. After school, Grandmother chatters nonstop. She's upset that Mikkos Cassadine has a plan to freeze the world using a weather machine.

***

The following Monday Grandmother was ill. There was no rumble. No tinny squeal. No announcement. Just Mother heavy-footing her way around the kitchen, slamming cabinets and cursing. 

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Grandmother is unreliable. I’m going to be late for work.”

Mother goes on to tell me Grandmother had visited Grandfather in the Army when they were dating and never left. 

“Hung around,” Mother says. “Like a stray dog.”

Your Father says Grandmother is the reason he gets angry. But I believe Father enjoys being angry. 

Mother tosses some crackers in my lunch box and says that years back Grandmother drove a red convertible, smoked cigarettes and killed her unborn baby in a car crash. The Grandmother I know is wrinkled and kind. Not a baby killer.

Mother talks all the way to school.  

The next day, when Grandmother is feeling better, I tell her what Mother told me. Grandmother says Father is an asshole and Mother is clueless. I’ve never heard Grandmother be foul-mouthed.  

Grandmother never missed another day for the entire school year. 

***

In the summer Grandmother and I take the old, ugly wagon everywhere. I sit in the rear facing, third-row way-back seat and watch the faces of terrified drivers who follow to close behind Grandmother, and her sudden, unplanned stops. I lip-read as their blood drains. Sometimes a smile jostled by fear escapes my lips. Most don’t smile back. Instead, they honk, shake their fists and flip me the bird. Grandmother flashes a wolfish grin in the rearview before tapping the brakes again. 

“Keep them off my rear,” Grandmother says.

***

Today we have lunch at the Apple Knockers on Pawling. Grandmother and I are regulars. They have the best battered, deep-fried fish in town with large pieces of naked Cod poking from the tiny bun. Apple Knockers should buy bigger buns.  

Grandmother likes the house-made tartar sauce with her fish. I order the semi-sweet tangy chili sauce, a milkshake, side of homemade cinnamon-flavored applesauce and unsalted fries (you have to salt your own). 

We sit in our favorite corner both varnished with a permanent layer of vegetable grease. As Grandmother wipes tartar sauce from her lips, I realize how ordinary we are. 

After lunch, we shop at the Price Chopper. For Grandmother, it has the better coupons. For me, the better toy aisle; filled with jacks and paddle balls and weird gum that you stick to the end of a straw and blow into lopsided, ugly bubbles.

On the way home, Grandmother and I pass the Pentecostal Church. Grandmother says I attended daycare there when I was younger, and she still worked at the department store. There’s sadness in her voice. I search my memory but have no recollection of daycare or God or Grandmother working. 

“I don’t remember,” I say, and her face brightens.  

***

We arrive home in time for Grandmother to settle into her soap. As General Hospital demands her attention, I sneak into the basement and unlock the metal door housing the water well pump. The pump sits in a small stone room cut into the earth. The air inside is dank and reeks of musty dishwater. Using my father’s wrench, I loosen a valve and let water spill onto the dirt floor.

When my parents return home from work that evening, and Grandmother has darted from the house, I ask why they are so mean to Grandmother. Mother brushes me aside, and Father swats at the air above my head.

They prattle. Work this. Work that. There’s no mention of the spotless house, the folded laundry or waxed linoleum floors. I wait several minutes and then interrupt. 

“I think I hear water in the basement. Come quick.” I say. 

Father rushes into the basement while Mother grabs a handful of laundered towels. It’s the most excitement our house has seen in weeks. Standing at the top of the stairs, I hear wet cotton socks slapping the concrete floor.

“Where’s my wrench,” Father yells. 

I say nothing.  

Mother and Father submarine into the low-slung pump room. The stone tomb muffles their cursing.

“Come here,” Father screams. 

I slip to the threshold of the pump room door, and Father tosses me a flashlight. 

“Shine the light here,” he says. 

I position the light. “Not there, here!” 

As Mother and Father scramble to stop the water, my hand hovers over the brass lock.  

***

Days later, Grandmother and I are on the couch. Mikkos Cassadine and his brothers Victor and Tony are held up at Wyndemere Castle on Spoon Island. Luke, Laura, and Robert Scorpio are desperate to stop the weather machine.

Grandmother pinches her eyebrow into a curious arc, smiles, and turns up the volume as Mikkos is seconds away from flipping the switch and destroying the world.  

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michael prihoda

THE HYPOCHONDRIAC SOCIETY by Michael Prihoda

The Hypochondriac Society met every Thursday night in the basement of Knox Presbyterian Church.

The church was like a Russian nesting doll: the Presbyterians on Sunday morning, some Mennonites on Sunday night; a children’s Montessori school met in part of the basement during the week or whenever the hell kids attended school nowadays and for a while I think Paul, this one guy I knew from somewhere (maybe he served me food at Shish, that Mediterranean deli on Grand near the university that I generally avoided because, well, undergrads) said Monday nights were AA meetings but I didn’t buy that. For some reason. Maybe it was the shape of Paul’s face. Who am I kidding, I can’t remember his face.

But so the hypochondriacs got it on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 8:00, officially, though some of us lingered after that, as if every Thursday were a wretched party we couldn’t help prolong, knowing the hors d'oeuvres, so to speak, wouldn’t be as good back home.

There were ten of us for the most part. But if you count the people I talked to, it was four: Trey, Tull, Diogenes. Shit, that’s three. Whatever.

We brought our maladies like the shitty nephew brings a ring down an aisle toward a semi-entranced couple, the male counterpart of which probably harbors resentment and not a bit too little of put-offishness at having to tolerate this dweeb carrying potentially the most expensive piece of anything he’s ever purchased for anyone, excepting that Camaro he may or may not have purchased back in LA but whose payments he quickly defaulted before prestidigitating a new life with a family containing one of these trite extras: i.e. said punk nephew of bride.

Each week was the same but different. I’d had rumors of testicular cancer brewing for seven months now and every time I whispered this fear Diogenes would puff her cheeks, the same as certain fishes; her eyes would go all blurry and crosshatched and outsiders would think she wasn’t paying attention but really she was like an anti-muse, absorbing all our shit through her nostrils to pack away somewhere deep until her time as oracle might be called upon.

She always looked that way except for this time when a new guy came, threading some story about constant jaundice, MS, atherosclerosis, arthritis, tonsillitis, two bum knees, chronic shoulder pain, halitosis (a dead give away for a faker, since no such malady exists, I mean, c’mon, do your homework, as Trey would say), but so the list goes on and finally, after his lungs fully unwound his sails, Diogenes gets this feral look on her face, so bad I thought Vesuvius had reincarnated itself in the form of a 5’5’’, Greek-yogurt-eating self-proclaimed virgin who had dreams of being the first celibate porn star in history (don’t ask…). By the time she had picked up a chair (roughly shoving some guy, whose name may or may not have been Marvin, from said chair; the one operative detail I knew about him was the shape and expenditure of his glasses, overheard amidst the meandering exchanges of post-meeting time: oracular, the frames alone running him a morbid $340, “and that’s not counted in yen…”) the new guy skedaddled, dropping three paper clips, two rubber bands, a plastic clip like for a bag of chips, four number two wooden pencils (not the cheapo kind you see on sale at K-Mart in early August), and a grape sucker. I felt bad because that was classic hypo repertoire, the junkies’ toolkit.

The next time somebody new showed up, everyone kept shooting wry side glances at Diogenes for the first ten minutes as someone named Chris(?) said the usual.

Then it got to the new girl. We tensed.

So far she’d been calm as a nonexistent ocean breaker so when she up and Mt. St. Helens-ed us by whipping off her cardigan, t-shirt, and bra, exposing her breasts, and then pointing at a point near-ish her right aureole, only to scream, “SEE THIS!?” you could say we more or less had not seen it coming.

Well, sure, we saw. We saw a decently attractive woman whip off her top(s) and jab an index into the flesh of her right/left breast. But we didn’t see.

“BREAST CANCER.”

Then she sat down.

It made us uncomfortable. This was not at all procedure.

I looked at Trey. Trey looked at Tull. Tull looked at the floor, ceiling, Chris(?), then me. Then we all looked at her.

The older woman who walked with a cane some days to play up her failing hips happened to be sitting next to the new, breast-exposed woman. She patted her gently on the leg, which up ended up awkwardly landing somewhere around her thigh/butt cheek/hamstring since the woman was sitting and the half-naked girl was standing. “What’s your name dear?”

“Did you hear me?” her voice had rumbled into a lower register, less scream, more molasses to it. Considerably more mortality.

Something was wrong.

I wanted Diogenes to pick up a chair and make to hurl it. I wanted Tull to squeak so I could start talking about how I swear those mosquitoes from that weekend I spent camping with my cousins three weeks ago were carrying Zika virus. It wasn’t even my turn. There was procedure. But this was no good. I felt people shifting in their chairs.

The girl broke the spell by snapping her bra back into place, then putting her t-shirt on, then her cardigan. Very diligent, almost business-like. As if she had tried something on at Gap and found it not entirely agreeable.

She sat down. Her demonstration having birthed enough ghosts to fill Iceland.

Next Thursday four people showed up: me, Tull, Trey, and some other rando. Diogenes had come down with the flu, or so her text to Tull had said, which she’d half-related to us in malformed sentences lacking adhesion to the English language. I saw breast-cancer girl outside Knox on my way in, just standing near the steps to the door, in a pool of approaching darkness. I couldn’t/didn’t meet her eyes.

The meeting didn’t last until 8 that night. She wasn’t there when we left.

The week after, Trey and I were the only ones who showed up. Diogenes’ flu had progressed into full-blown malaria and Tull’s text also indicated house-arrest Ebola might be in her system.

Trey and I tried to have a normal session but the point was sharing, not talking tete-a-tete, mono-a-mono. That was too personal. Hell, if we wanted that, we wouldn’t meet in a church. The person we really spoke to at these things was the space between the circle of chairs. The god in the room. Breast-cancer girl showed us what we worshiped and it got embarrassing.

I helped Trey stack the chairs and we barely raised a hand to say goodbye.

At home, I took my shirt off and stared at myself in the mirror, squeezing my pectorals to make the aureole bulge, wondering what lay beneath.

I had nothing.

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sam phillips

BE SCARED OF YOUR YOUNG by Sam Phillips

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

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

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

Time was running out.

Well what if what is all torn down?

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

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

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

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

What’s an idea?

An idea is a thought, like an opinion.

What’s an opinion?

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

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

Well why wouldn’t they?

I don’t trust you.

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

Why don’t you trust me?

Because you lie.

No I don’t darling, when do I lie?

You lie every night.

No I don’t.

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

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jennifer greidus

ALTOIDS BURN SO GOOD by Jennifer Greidus

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

“Whatever. Can I have a cigarette?”

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

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

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

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

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

Cheetah snorts. “Good luck with that.”

“He’s a homebody.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s your spirit animal?”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EXCERPT FROM “COLLEGE NOVEL” by Blake Middleton

The next day around 6:00 p.m. Jordan drove to the corner store near his apartment and bought a Peach Cisco. He drove down I-95 with the windows down and drank Cisco and listened to Propagandhi. In the song the lead singer sang about sticking an American flag up someone’s asshole. In the parking lot of Eric’s complex Jordan sat in his car and swallowed an Adderall then drank some Cisco.

He walked toward Eric’s apartment. All the apartments looked the same. People were starting to come home from work. Jordan walked up the stairs to the third floor. He knocked on Eric’s door and Eric opened it. ‘Drinking Cisco already?’ Eric said.

‘Yeah,’ Jordan said.

‘Take this,’ Eric said. He handed Jordan a beer. ‘I just opened it. Put that shit in the fridge. It’s not even dark.’

Jordan walked inside and saw Eric’s roommate, Sam, lying on the carpet, holding a beer. ‘What’s up?’ Jordan said.

‘Drinking beer on the floor,’ Sam said. He got up and sat on the couch, grabbed a TV remote and a PS4 controller, turned on the PlayStation and the TV.

Jordan put his Cisco in the fridge. He sat on the couch next to Sam. Sam was holding a controller, searching YouTube. Eric sat on a different couch, facing the TV. Sam played ‘Sound System’ by Operation Ivy. They talked and drank beer.

An hour later Jordan was shirtless on the back porch, sitting in a lawn chair, holding a beer. Sam was behind Jordan digging through a bag of haircutting clippers. He attached one to a razor and ran it down the center of Jordan’s head.

‘Hell yeah,’ Eric said. ‘I'm pulling up a seat.’ He grabbed a milk-crate and sat on top of it. ‘Did you tell Emma you're shaving your head?’ Emma was Jordan’s girlfriend. They lived together with Zach. Had been dating for about four years.

‘Um,’ Jordan said. He texted Emma and said he was shaving his head. ‘Yeah.’  

Sam shaved off a long strip of Jordan's hair. ‘That feels good,’ Jordan said.

‘Give me your shirt,’ Eric said. ‘It's going in the freezer.’

Jordan picked up his shirt and handed it to Eric.

Eric walked inside. He walked back outside. He drank some beer and burped. ‘We’ll be drunk by nine,’ he said.

‘Right when we have to drive,’ Sam said.

‘Perfect,’ Eric said.

Sam finished shaving Jordan's head. Jordan rubbed his head. ‘Does it look alright?’

‘Looks good,’ Eric said. ‘Go ahead and pull your shirt out of the freezer.’

Jordan walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He rubbed his head with his hands. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed his shirt and put on the shirt.

‘It's cold,’ Jordan said.

‘Feels nice, right?’ Eric said.

‘Yeah,’ Jordan said. ‘Not bad.’

They sat on couches in the living room.

Sam talked about getting high at church when he was in high school.

Eric played a music video for the song ‘Jesus is a friend on mine.’

Jordan said it sounded like the Talking Heads.

Sam said something about the guitar player’s hip motions.

‘I need more beer,’ Eric said and looked at Jordan. ‘Wanna come to the gas station?’

Eric opened his car door. ‘Don’t get in yet,’ he said. He pounded on the seat. ‘It’s infested with roaches. You gotta pound the seat so they go back into hiding.’

Jordan and Eric drove to the gas station near the interstate. They passed a McDonalds, a Wendys, a Taco Bell, a Walmart, another McDonalds.

‘Jesus is a friend of mine,’ Eric said. ‘He taught me how to praise my God and still play rock-n-roll.’ He parked the car. ‘Man, I really wish they made eight-packs of tall-boys.’

Eric walked inside the gas station. He walked outside the gas station, holding two four-packs of tall-boys. He got in the car. He looked at Jordan and held the four-packs next to each other. ‘Eight pack,’ he said.

They drove back to Eric's apartment and walked inside.

‘Let's take some 800 milligram ibuprofen and get fucked up,’ Jordan said.

‘Ibuprofen is generic trash,’ Sam said. He was lying on the carpet again. ‘I only get high off Advil extra-strength.’

Eric put beer in the fridge. ‘How does it feel to be two of the dumbest assholes on the world?’ he  said. He grabbed a beer and closed the fridge.

‘Feels pretty good from down here,’ Sam said. He took a drink of beer, spilt some on his face.

‘You spilt beer on your face,’ Eric said.

‘That’s what the carpet is for,’ Sam said. He rolled over and rubbed his face on the carpet.

‘Jesus Christ,’ Eric said. ‘I’m getting drunk tonight.’ He pulled his shirt off, walked to the kitchen, put the shirt in the freezer.

A little later Eric’s girlfriend, Kim, showed up. She sat on the couch next to Eric.

‘Can we get high tonight?’ Jordan said to Kim.

Kim reached under the coffee-table and pulled out a bong.

‘You're not allowed to smoke weed,’ Sam said. ‘You just got a haircut. That's illegal.’

Eric played depressing music on YouTube.

‘Sounds like American Football,’ Jordan said.

‘No,’ Eric said.

‘Very similar,’ Sam said.

‘Very sad,’ Kim said.

‘Sounds like Postal Service and American Football,’ Jordan said.

‘I’m gonna kill you,’ Eric said.

Jordan and Kim smoked marijuana.

‘My mom is going to find out,’ Sam said. ‘This is smart. This is really smart.’

Kim handed Sam marijuana and Sam smoked marijuana.

‘Play Ricky Calloway,’ Jordan said.

‘Shit,’ Eric said. He played the song ‘Get it Right’ by Ricky Calloway. ‘This is the guy that pressure washes UNF.’ UNF stands for University of North Florida. Jordan and his friends went there because you didn’t have to write an essay to get accepted.

‘What?’ Kim said.

‘This is Ricky fucking Calloway,’ Eric said. ‘He's a funk-singing pressure washer.’

‘Shit,’ Kim said.

‘He's not good at pressure washing,’ Sam said.

‘Leave Ricky alone,’ Eric said. ‘He does a fantastic job of pressure washing. He’s an excellent pressure washer and a magnificent funk-singer.’

‘Yes he is,’ Jordan said.

‘I'm an asshole,’ Sam said.

‘You are,’ Jordan said. ‘He does a fantastic job.’

Jordan stood and walked into the kitchen. He was feeling buzzed. He opened the fridge and grabbed a beer. He opened a cabinet and picked up a glass. ‘Why does this glass have Dough Mahoney written on it?’  

‘That's mine,’ Eric said.

‘Who's Dough Mahoney?’  

‘That's me. Dough Mahoney is PEN name. I have to use a PEN name because I’m going to be the fucking president. Kim made me that.’

‘Dough Mahoney,’ Jordan said, and poured the beer into the glass.

‘Dough Mahoney,’ Eric said.

It was quiet for a few seconds. ‘My mom is autistic,’ Sam said.

‘My Mom is Zach Braff and so am I,’ Eric said. ‘She’s big Zach Braff and I’m little Zach Braff.’

‘Shut up,’ Sam said.

At the party an hour later Jordan sat around a table with Eric, Aubrey, Olivia, and Sam. It was a glass-top table and the base was made of ceramic dolphins. There was a large bong in the center of the table. Aubrey was painting something on a small canvas. In the living room there was a drumset, a guitar, a bass guitar, and a microphone. Jordan was stoned and staring at the ceramic dolphins, not really thinking about anything except how stoned he was. He was very stoned, he thought. He heard a tambourine. He looked up and saw Olivia smiling. It was her birthday. She was twenty-two.

‘This is my tambourine,’ she said, and shook it again.

‘Cool,’ Jordan said.

‘I'm putting on Die Antwoord,’ Olivia said, and put on Die Antwoord. ‘I want champagne.’ She walked into the kitchen and came back with a bottle of cheap champagne and two glasses. She shook her tambourine. ‘Would you like some?’

‘Sure.’

She poured Jordan a glass of champagne. He drank some.

‘Don’t drink before we toast,’ Olivia said.

‘Sorry.’

Jordan held up his glass and toasted with Olivia. Olivia smiled and then Jordan smiled.

‘Where’s Emma?’ Olivia said.

‘She didn’t wanna come. She’s probably at home watching The Office.’

Olivia shook the tambourine again. ‘This isn't loud enough,’ she said. ‘I’m tired of hearing everyone's voice that hasn't said hi to me yet.’

Jordan didn’t know what to say. He took another drink. The champagne was good. Or the champagne was bad, but Jordan didn’t know what good champagne taste like.

Someone walked up to Olivia and said happy birthday. The person was wearing a colorful jacket and eating a carrot. ‘That jacket is funky fresh,’ Sam said. ‘That is some serious jazz.’

‘Yeah man,’ the carrot-guy said, and took a bite of his carrot and walked away.

‘That was strange,’ Jordan said.

‘What?’ Sam said.

‘That whole thing,’ Jordan said. ‘What you just said.’

‘You didn't like that?’ Sam said. ‘You gotta get freed by the funky fresh jazz beast.’

Eric walked up and said something about Billy Collins.  

‘Billy Collins is dead,’ Jordan said without thinking. ‘He died a week ago.’

‘No he didn't,’ Eric said. ‘Fuck off.’

Aubrey held up the canvas she was painting.  ‘It’s Eric,’ she said. The painting was deformed-looking.

‘The sagging lip represents years of untreated alcoholism,’ Jordan said.

‘Fuck off,’ Eric said.

Sam stood up and sat at the drum set. The carrot-guy walked over and played guitar. His carrot was gone.

Eric walked up to Jordan and said he had a confession. Eric said he never received money from the U.S. government for being one-eighth Native American. Jordan had been convinced for over a year that Eric received money from the U.S. government for being one-eighth Native American.

Jordan looked out the back window. ‘There's a fire out there,’ he said. ‘Let's go.’

The fire was big. There was a small tree next to the fire. Kim walked outside and stood next to Jordan and Eric. ‘This is how white people die,’ she said.

‘White people die in Iraq,’ Eric said. ‘Chill the fuck out.’

Someone threw an onion in the fire. ‘Burn the onion,’ someone yelled.

‘Is that an onion?’ Kim said.

‘It's okay,’ Jordan said. ‘We're going to get high.’

‘Who started this fire?’ Eric said.

‘Banksy,’ Jordan said.

‘Capitalism is the fire, and the tree is the people,’ Eric said.

‘When Bernie Sanders becomes president I'm going to request that all parties have large fires and Adderall,’ Kim said. Jordan gave her some Adderall on the drive over.

Kim talked about moving to Portland. Everyone was always talking about moving to Portland.

Jordan didn’t have anything to say about moving to Portland. ‘We need to burn this tree,’ he said, because it felt like it was his turn to say something.

‘It's alive,’ Eric said. ‘It won't burn.’

‘We need to burn the tree,’ Jordan said. He was drunk.

‘I'm not going to burn the tree,’ Eric said.

‘Okay,’ Jordan said. ‘Don't burn the tree.’

‘I'm not going to,’ Eric said.

‘Good,’ Jordan said.

Someone threw a pallet on the fire. The fire got bigger. There were about twenty people outside, talking in groups of three or four.

A little later Robert showed up to the party. Everyone was still standing around the fire.  Robert was wearing his Winn-Dixie apron.

‘Why are you still wearing that?’ Eric said.

‘I forgot,’ Robert said.

‘Keep it on,’ Jordan said. ‘It's good.’

Jordan asked Robert when he was going to bring him some ham-steak.

Robert said the ham-steak at Winn-Dixie wasn't on sale anymore. One time Robert and Jordan got stoned and ate ham-steak on the kitchen floor of Jordan’s apartment. Jordan said the ham-steak was shaped like a dog's head and Robert got scared and threw the ham-steak in the freezer, only to be discovered months later.

‘They sound kind of good in there,’ Robert said about the people playing instruments inside.

‘Should we go inside?’ Jordan said.

‘Take off your apron,’ Eric said.

Robert took off his apron. He threw it in the fire.

‘Hell yeah,’ Eric said.

Eric, Jordan, Robert, and Kim walked inside. They stood in the living room.

There were about twenty people in the living room. They listened to people play music. No one was singing.  Jordan walked to the microphone. He sang a song about ham-steak and Bernie Sanders. He walked outside and felt extremely intoxicated. A person walked past Jordan. ‘What is on your shoulder?’ Jordan said. ‘A hamster?’

The person said it was a rat. Jordan asked if he could pet the rat and the person said yes. ‘Her name is Little Miss,’ the person said.

‘Hey Little Miss,’ Jordan said. He looked at the rat. It had big eyes. ‘This rat likes you a lot. You can achieve things.’

‘Okay,’ the person said. ‘Thank you.’

Robert and Eric walked outside. Robert talked about leaving the party to go see a rapper named Kevin Gates. ‘I don't want to see Kevin Gates,’ Eric said. ‘He fucked his cousin.’ Robert said that it was cool to fuck your cousin in the year 2015. Jordan went pee behind a dumpster near the garage and then walked inside the garage. The garage was the rat-person's art studio. Jordan said he liked the art. The rat-person said it was shitty beach-art he got commissioned to make for rich white people.

Little Miss was in a cage hanging from the ceiling. Jordan put his finger inside the rat cage. The rat licked his finger. Jordan asked if the rat was going to bite him and the person said no. ‘It's licking me,’ Jordan said. He walked outside the garage. He walked inside the house. Someone said something about a terrorist attack in Paris. Olivia was singing and playing tambourine. Sam was asleep on the couch. Robert handed Jordan a beer and they both shotgunned a beer.

College Novel by Blake Middleton is forthcoming from Apocalypse Party Press in early 2019.

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TRIAL by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

The mystery shopper is ambitious, athletic, with a big dick. It looks good on you. I’ve been here for a while. I ask him what his Myers-Briggs type is and he says he is an INFP. What, INFP, but I’m an INFP. You don’t seem like an INFP, I don’t know if you are actually one. I am, he says, that’s what I got when I did the test. Ok, I say, I’m going to the test right now and pretend I’m you while I’m doing it.

I walk the perimeter of the mall. I really want to buy something but I can’t find anything to buy. Then I can’t find my way out of the mall. I get lost three times. As I am getting lost someone I know messages me to say they just matched with my ex-boyfriend on an online dating site. I am late to my job trial. The job trial is in a suburban but industrial part of town. I have to put pasta sauce into 50 plastic bags with a very large ladle and I’m not supposed to get any sauce on the sides of the bags. I am very slow and I keep checking the weight of the bag and trying to scoop up excess sauce back out of the bag with the large ladle which keeps touching the sides of the bag. I’m not a practical person. Two people are watching me and the warehouse we are in has high ceilings and no windows. One of the women watching me says, Are you just out of school? I say, No, I’m 26. She asks me what I studied at university and I say creative writing and she says Oh, well, that’s not going to lead to a job is it. She criticizes the way I am placing spinach on rice. She pulls me aside. We’re not really sure what you’re looking for, she says.

I take a taxi to the mystery shopper’s house. Did you get paid for the trial, he says, and I say no. We lie on the bed. I say my hand is too sore to give him a handjob right now sorry because of the arthritis in my hand. He says, You don’t look sick, you seem too young to be sick. I want him to be my boyfriend but he doesn’t want to commit. The mystery shopper says, Maybe you should be a teacher I think you’d be good as a teacher and additionally, you already dress like a teacher. I say I already thought about that. I applied for teacher college and a few weeks after my interview, the interviewer called me to her office and asked me what my plans were for the upcoming year. I said, Well, the teaching course?? I hope? She told me I was academically strong. But that I seemed too fragile and submissive to be a teacher. Are you sure you want to a be a teacher, she said, Why don’t we brainstorm some other possible options for you for this year?

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VICTORY PARTY by Sheldon Lee Compton

He talks to me through the trees. Not through them, like he’s standing on one side of a treeline and I’m standing on the other, but like he is the trees.

We will stay together, become taproots, strong and lasting, he says. Or we are both oaks.

Discussing trees and strength becomes tedious, and, sometimes, he starts in about my little sister. Those conversations don’t last very long.

***

The Olympics. 1984. Summer, because both Daddy and the man were wearing tshirts instead of coats. And because I’ll always remember Katarina. It was their fight that brought the police to Fox Bottom. Our area anyways, the part in the far northwest corner where Fleet Mitchell had his ratty garage fixed up as a body shop. But he didn’t fix vehicles, he sold cocaine. And this was at a time when almost everybody was only selling pot or cheap liquor.

One of the two men was my daddy. The other man, John something or other, was a nobody to me, just some guy who decided that night, the night the Olympic ice skating was on television, was the night he was going to shoot Daddy. It was Fleet who wanted him to do it.

That’s what he told us right before the fight started. He looked at me and my sister and said he was going to go shoot our dad. I remember his eyes were like wet glass in his sockets and his mouth sagged when he talked. I remember he smelled like mothballs. Then he whispered as he walked away that Fleet was going to set him up nice for doing it.

***

Before Dad went to prison we used to get together with all the uncles and aunts and cousins on Sunday nights and watch episodes of Chiller. It aired late Sunday night, 2 a.m., and me and my sister didn’t have to worry yet about school, being so little. The night Fleet tried to have Dad killed I kept thinking of how the show opened with that dark swamp and the craggy old tree and then the weird hand coming up out of the fog of the swamp. The music sounded sinister and then how, from somewhere in that deep blackness came a voice saying only hooooo and then chillllller. These days horror movies or shows remind me of how alone I am, skipping to the bathroom in the dark and back to an empty bed.  These days I’m in one of those episodes all the time.

***

It’s not that we shouldn’t be talking about my sister, his daughter, our kin, it’s just that we shouldn’t be talking. As in hearts would be lighter if we kept words out of it. We should be keeping that line, holding that grudge. But trees have that knack of sticking around, and I’m not going anywhere soon. So here we are, swaying and dying and returning to life and not talking about my little sister as best as I can manage. I have to remind my father. I’m right on point with, Let us remain positive; let us lift our chins. Let them not touch our breastbones in defeat.

***

Mom and a lot of her friends knew something was coming that evening and rustled all the kids into the top floor apartment where Mitzi had her little beauty parlor set up. It was the only place with a television. She turned on the television, told us not to go outside, and left. The channel it landed on happened to be showing the moment Katarina Witt took her second gold medal in figure skating events for East Germany.

All these years I’ve thought it was an argument about my mom, but that wasn’t even close. Daddy and the John guy were fighting over cocaine. And they were fighting, and yelling, more importantly, about cocaine loud enough so all of Fox Bottom could hear.

Estill Buchanan heard. And he called the police. He’d been waiting for a reason ever since Fleet moved into the bottom a year before and I blamed him hard at the time, but looking back on it I see he was an old man with no family. He was scared all the time.

***

It’s not that he died recently, alone at the head of a holler four counties away while I ate ice cream in Chevy Chase and later went to a Wildcat game. It’s not exactly that. It’s that the last time I saw him was at a victory party for his first cousin, a close family member who had just won an election for county clerk. He sat beside me when I got there and held out his hand for me to take. I didn’t take it. I still remember how the long hairs on his arm glowed in the sunlight and how he shrank into an old man when I got up to leave. It’s a ruination, forgiveness. I can’t have my mind changed about that. When he spoke he sounded like Shakespeare writing the Bible.

***

Before we talked through the wind in the leaves he gave me one, and only one, piece of advice that has lasted and never failed me. Always slap a man, and make sure you do it at the first sign there’s going to be trouble. They can’t charge you with any real conviction in a court of law for an open hand slap. This as opposed, of course, to a nice, tight fist. And, little missy - this is how he said it - and, little missy, it will break a man’s will with him standing right there in front of you.

***

When the police came the whole place lit up red and blue. The mountains went from dark to disco bright and dark again with trees flashing like Christmas lights. We all went to the windows to watch three cops drop Daddy to the ground and handcuff him. They dragged him belly-first to the squad car. It hurt like heartbreak at the time. It hurts like heartbreak now, and nothing makes me angrier. Not what happened, but that I still hurt.

So, yes, Katarina Witt won two gold medals for East Germany. That’s what I focused after the arrest. For weeks I followed news about Katarina Witt. I wanted to change my name to Katarina. Later on, the East German government gave her cars and jewelry, property and homes even, to keep her from defecting. I don’t know if she ever accepted any of the gifts but I always imagined she did. And I hated her for it, being famous, beautiful, successful, and getting gifts. And because it wasn’t only East Germany who loved her, the whole snobby world loved her.

***

I sat in a swing covered by a wedding ring quilt my aunt made. She was my dad’s older sister and therefore one of the few who would speak of him without reservation for the fragile and small amount of pride he had built up since prison. Part of that was this election win, his cousin’s day in the sun and, of course, his day in the sun. Maybe his first.

Seeing him move around the party so naturally, so organically, but, at the same time, with that underlying insecurity when he thought he might not be as welcome as he hoped reminded me of a wind hoping to gain strength but always held back by some object in its path. Even a force of nature is only as strong as the nature it encounters.

***

Little sister heard the same advice about taking a man’s pride by stunning him with an open hand but hardly listened. Something inside our father had been broken apart and my sister could see it, could sense it like a stench all over the man, and she was offended that she came from such weakness. She knew that for all the braggadocio and mustache pulling, our father was weak. The man’s desires made him so, the way he gave up on a thing the moment it took a little fight. His neediness. I was never able to feel that hurt as sharply. It never darkened my mind in the same way.

***

He had went from one end of Pike County to the other campaigning, knocking on doors the same way they did it in the old days. He bought votes; he drove those same voters to the polls. He attended church picnics by day and argued good old boy policies in honky tonk bars until they shut out the lights. And he loved every minute of it, that’s what it’s important for me to remember. The political process, the human side of it, the side where a campaign can become a spotlight to dance in, fed his ego. Now he wanted his daughter beside him, holding his hand at the victory party. He wanted the cake and wanted to eat it too. He wanted someone to bake it, in the meantime, and pay the grocery bill, pour the milk, light the candles. I’m of the mind that he’s old enough that his wants won’t hurt him.

***

But let us remain positive; let us lift our chins. Let them not touch our breastbones in defeat. Maybe I am a white oak and you are a hickory. And maybe you say one strong thing and it’s always another, weaker thing. So here we are, still talking and then not talking. The trees wave along the hillside, bending, but not for long. If taproots hold the ground here, you wouldn’t know it by the way the wind bullies them.

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AN ESSAY ON BIGNESS by James Tadd Adcox

I am a man who never needs to do what other people tell him to do. I am so much bigger than they are. When someone tells me to do something, I give them a look. It is a calculated look. In this look, I share with them the artificiality that lies at the base of this interaction, and indeed all of our interactions. It is a look that says, “Whatever you might tell yourself about rights and authority, we both understand the physics of the situation. Perhaps, after you have told me to do a thing, I will do that thing; perhaps I will not; but do not confuse the telling and the doing.”

A smaller man, in similar circumstances, might refuse to do what he was told, or do the opposite, merely to show he could. I have no such need. I am vouchsafed by bigness. It is more impressive if I choose to do as I am told than if I refuse, since there is never any question whether or not I could have refused. When, for example, at the bank, the man behind the little window asks me to step aside for the next customer: I give him my look, then step aside. The man behind the little window is shaken. It is as though he observed a tornado pass by the house in which he stood, or the ground open up and swallow the person next to him (another man in a tie and light-blue shirt, behind another little window). If I had chosen to do otherwise, if I had allowed my bigness to erupt upon him, what protection would his window offer then? But I did not; how much more fearsome and remarkable that I did not.

I have met taller men than me, but they were not bigger than me: they were lanky, disproportionate, long rather than big. One never needs to look up at such men. Usually they’re hunched over, in any case. It goes without saying that I have met men fatter than me. And I have met men smaller than me who were nonetheless exceedingly muscled, men who emerge at irregular intervals from the gym so that they may be observed. They dehydrate themselves and wear shirts designed to draw attention to their arms. Their muscles are a layer they have placed over an anterior smallness. They can remember a time when they did not have muscles. They know there is a future in which their muscles will leave them.

My bigness is of a different order than these bignesses. My bigness is an essential bigness. There has never been a time when I was not big. Even in my cradle, the bars separating me from the space outside were a formality. As I learned to stand, gripping the leg of a chair, my parents looked on, nervous. They were not small people, neither my mother nor father, but in me they gave rise to a bigness that neither could comprehend. I don’t mean to say that I was grotesque as a child, please don’t misunderstand: I was child-sized, much smaller than I am now. But it was obvious that my child-size was its own form of bigness. Bullies avoided me; smaller children grouped themselves under my shadow, knowing I felt no need to prove myself. I have never needed to be anything other than polite.

Tall, beautiful women love me. I answer a certain anxiety they have felt all their lives, instilled by mothers and television commercials, regarding their tallness. Yet the women I prefer are extremely small. This is not because I like to push anyone around. I could push around much larger women or men, no problem. (Anyhow, I’m not that type of a guy.) It is, rather, that I enjoy the contrast: such a large man, such a tiny woman. At night I dream of perfect women, tinier and tinier, women that fit in my cupped hand, women dancing on the ridges of my fingerprint, becoming ever more perfect as they disappear.

On the street, I often step to the side for oncoming pedestrians, simply to see their reaction. Relief, mostly: and a kind of love.

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CHERYL by Michael Seymour Blake

There was a loud crash outside the apartment.

We were in bed talking about leaving the city just as we always had around ten p.m. every night for the past million years. I’d bring up a photo of some paradise with green grass and a nice big blue sky, no skyscrapers or office buildings in sight, and Terry would go, “Yep, that’s the place for us,” and then we’d settle back into our misery and forget all about it. I was delinquent with two of my loans, Terry took a pay cut to save her job, and we had a whopping fifty bucks in our savings account. We were sick of the city and sick of ourselves and sick of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which is all we ate because who has the time and energy to make anything else?

“What was that,” I said.

“Dunno,” Terry said.

We stared at the wall for a minute. She nudged my ankle with her big toe.

“Guess I'll see what's going on,” I said.

I looked through the cloudy peephole—flickering bulbs, slimy brown banister, a pile of smelly shoes outside 2B. I opened up to see a massive chunk of ceiling right in front of our door. Dust and debris everywhere.

“Holy shit, we got a roof out here.”

Something moved in the pile of dust. I closed the door, leaving a crack open for peeking. The thing shook stuff off its fur. It was a damn coyote.

“We got a coyote too.”

Terry shuffled over, all crusty-eyed. She glanced through the crack, then at me, then back through the crack.

“Wait, there’s an actual coyote out there.”

“Yeah.”

She smiled. “Something’s finally happening.”

We named her Cheryl.

I built a home for her out of cardboard and reflectix and duct tape. She was a wild thing with green eyes and a burping problem. She burped like forty times a day. We fed her protein bars and baby formula, plus anything we could find in the neighborhood trash: pizza scraps, stale arepas, stuff in jars.

The landlord didn’t allow cats let alone coyotes, so we decided to keep her permanently inside. I resented the landlord for being such a stereotypical landlord. If we were a day late with rent, he’d come by with his chest puffed out, eyes like black crescents. He wouldn’t even say hello.

“Look at the hand,” he’d say.

I’d play along and look. The hand was thick and tan. It would be open, palm up.

“What’s wrong with the hand,” he’d say.

“Let me get the checkbook.”

“Answer me.” The hand twitched.

“It’s empty.”

“That’s right, empty. The hand hates being empty. Gets bored. Better give the hand something to hold, or the hand will busy itself by writing an eviction notice.”

So we tried to toilet train Cheryl. We’d sit her on the bowl and say, “Go potty! Go potty, good girl!” She’d stare at us. “Come on, use that potty!” She’d stare. Then we’d let her down and she’d pee on the floor.

Nights, Cheryl would sleep between our asses. It got harder than ever to leave for work in the morning. I just wanted to be home with the girls. Always. It was all I could think about. That, and the lioness.

I’d put up this image in my cubicle a while back—a lioness standing in a field of green grass with a cerulean sky up above. She had a desperate look in her eyes. Her lean muscles were covered in glistening, flaxen fur. Whenever my boss yelled at me for something, I stared at the lioness in a trance. Nodded and stared, unphased. Yes, I’m sorry. Won’t happen again. You’re right, I am a waste.

You learn these tricks after twelve years in data entry.

A week passed. There was a knock at the door. We were in bed with a burping coyote between our asses, which made things a little more bearable.

It was the landlord.

“Roof came down,” he said.

I looked at the pile of roof sitting in a sunbeam. We’d just been walking over it.

“Whoa, crazy,” I said.

“I have some people coming today, so don’t bother complaining about it.”

Cheryl came to the door. I tried to kick her away, but she bit my ankle.

“Get that thing out of here, no dogs allowed,” said the landlord.

“Oh, her? She’s a coyote.”

The hand twitched. Cheryl growled.

“Pretty sure that’s not allowed either. I’ll get back to you.” He squinted at Cheryl. “Don’t get comfortable,” he said.

I shut the door and thought about the lioness.

Next day, I let the cleanup crew in the building. Four sad looking guys in oversized overalls. “We’re here to fix a ceiling,” one of them said.

They brought a ladder to the top floor, scuffing up every wall they passed. After setting up the ladder, some brooms, spackle, paint buckets, brushes and stuff, they left, taping a note to the front door that read, ‘Back in five days.’

I went downstairs to get the mail and ran into 1B. We nodded at each other. She had the desperate lioness look, just like the rest of us. On my way back up, I saw a butterfly hanging out on the bannister. Bright yellow with tiny black spots. It lit up the hallway. I tried to save it, but it fluttered out of reach.

As I stepped back into our apartment, I heard a resounding thwack downstairs. 1B hated insects.

Terry was at the store getting some paper plates. Our sink was full of dishes, and neither one of us was going to clean them. We were happier now, but that last bit of lassitude clung to us like a bug to wet tile. I cornered Cheryl in the bathroom.

“No more going on the floor. Use the toilet like a normal person.”

Cheryl peed on my feet while maintaining eye contact with me. I let her out, and stood in the warm urine thinking about the lioness.

When Terry got back, we all choked down some peanut butter and jellys.

Someone knocked on the door.

It was the landlord.

“Coyote’s gotta go. You have until tomorrow night.”

“That’s not a lot of time to arrange something.”

“Tomorrow night, or the hand will start writing that eviction notice.” The hand twitched. “And get some air fresheners or something in here. Smells like hell.”

“All right.”

I shut the door and spied through the peephole. The landlord went upstairs and started inspecting the ladder. He peered up at the roof, mumbling.

I curled up on the floor, head resting on Terry’s crossed ankles. “We need something to happen again,” she said.

“Nothing’s gonna happen.”

“Then maybe we need to make something happen.”

But we couldn’t think of anything.

Cheryl burped.

The next night I got home from work and realized the ladder was gone, but the hole was still there. I went to investigate. Turned out the ladder wasn’t gone, just knocked over. I lifted it upright and positioned it under the hole. Then I thought, “Hell, I’m gonna climb this thing.”

And I did.

I climbed right up. I was heading towards the sun, but it was eight p.m. I popped my head through the dusty, crumbling roof and was met with a fresh breeze carrying the scents of soil and sage and summer. No offices or busted up apartment buildings in sight, just hills and grasses of all different kinds and lengths in shades of greens and golds. I ran my hand over some. My fingertips tingled. A yellow butterfly landed on my chest, did a little spin, and flew away.

Paradise.

“I think we can make something happen,” I yelled, bursting through the door.

I told Terry about the impossible world on the roof. We went to the grocery store and bought a few boxes of cherry Go-Gurt, fruit, water, and a big thing of trail mix, then I stuffed Cheryl under my arm and up we went.

We hoisted ourselves onto the grasslands. Cheryl ran circles around us, tongue wagging from her mouth. I picked a clover and handed it to Terry. She ran her fingers through the white, spikey flowers. Cheryl growled at something fifty feet away in a cluster of foxtails. We went over.

It was the landlord.

He was all eaten up, stomach torn wide open, bloody loafers resting in the grass. The hand sat separated off to the right, palm up.

“What could have done that?” Terry said.

“Don’t know,” I said. But looking at the landlord’s remains, I did know. “We won’t survive long here.”

“Maybe not, but I don’t want to go back.” She tore open a Go-Gurt and started slurping it down.

I launched a defiant burp at the sky and Terry responded with a monster burp of her own, cherry yogurt dripping from her lips.

Cheryl trotted ahead and we followed. We could hear hammering and voices behind us. They must have been fixing the roof. Goodbye city, goodbye data entry, goodbye everything.

Cawing black birds flew in a V overhead. A cool breeze made the cream-colored shrubs dance and whisper. Silhouettes crept across the horizon. The lioness was waiting out there. We’d have to deal with her when the time came, but first we needed to find shelter. Terry grabbed my hand. It felt good to walk in the sun with my family, felt good to move, felt good to know something was happening.

We followed Cheryl towards some trees in the distance, all of us panting in the wonderful heat.

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WARMAR by Sean Kilpatrick

One day I could speak the language hidden beneath my scabs. There were alphabets above the vacuum overhead that revealed themselves to me, but it was like diving after a flea with safety scissors. Almost enough grown to fill a coffin, still using gunshots to count sheep at night, I discovered, quite by fluke, much to the chagrin of the anorexic model whose head I crayoned off, how repugnantly negotiable human beings found love. I needed a denomination of stray to be cast adrift with, someone also awake, bowed out of society, willing to mate, common sense of history notwithstanding, and she arrived, everting her eyelids until sunshine intruded on both of us in stymied, peristaltic waves.

She slithered beneath the rat-damaged wood of my family’s garage, chanting like an oracle shampooed with WD-40. I thought she flicked roadkill into her eyes, thought this was perfume in the future. Snorting Wite-Out, blowing a bubble from her mouth to mine, she said we’d enter blacker holes than birth. Which category of goddess heaved Lamaze while jump roping? We crept back through the stasis that first afflicted us as unsolidified matter inside a pair of jeans and stamped that certificate into speech. Adam and Eve joined forces to seduce the serpent. My name always sounded mutilated by other mouths.

A couple psychos going steady, gorgonized devotees too antsy for school, we snuck to our meeting place and her feet were defied. She issued subliminal suggestions I played out in hopes of deleting my ineligible company from her munificence. Caressing papillae with dead cat magic, poking a degraded thorn of lumber through its tongue, we emulated the feline rictus. Neighbors here didn’t bother burying pets. Even I stopped pinning every cockroach in my bed to the wall for the white noise of their wriggling. She blew my scraps a kiss and, immured in that exhalation, nerve endings became inconsequential. We appeared lost beneath the rifle sight of smokestacks.

A security guard at the hospital down the street sensed my pull toward the morgue. He knew I dreamt of rigging the burn ward with outdoor speakers. The second he and his ordinary ilk stopped biblically stoning me, I anticipated that they would swap victims and snuff out the object of my affection for turning everything further vulnerable with her beauty. Paranoia of cosmic rebuke convinced me to rush home early and peek out the garage’s rat hole into the alley where, indeed, three males stood dwarfing her. I was set to self-sacrifice, but she rehearsed a laugh, mimicking our private cryptophasia. She crawled in and gesticulated under newfound critical assessment. Dubbed the pilgarlic of her expo, rococo jackass honoring duplicitous onlookers, I didn’t buy the panting. How might I have handed her all the turmoil she caused my bowels? It felt ridiculous, anyway, to be understood as having meant one feeling.

My parents stopped loving each other after years of piss-streaked legs across the same bedsheet proved marriage had a plot hole. They both drank and visibly shuddered in my presence, but dad helped construct what devolved into a playhouse. It was far from a lair for sacrificial black masses. The girl would survive, regardless, not because I was incapable of harming her, but because there wasn’t time, before the sun exploded, to enact my revenge. “Cool playhouse” she’d remark, giggling to her clan. It consisted of cheap plywood and rotted in the rain. A perfect, if accidental, representation of our potential. The neighborhood graduated from working class bog to fledgling ghetto, holding up bunny ears on my own decline. State-abandoned mental patients populated the alley. I picked through their leavings when they took refuge in my imitation property. The stench that lingered provided a sizable foundation. I was getting to know my kind through diet.

As if to replace the fourberie of the previous ritual, a man materialized, stained front of his orange peacoat upsetting the streetlamp’s reach. Minor subcutaneous filler was outlined only by an ostensible and never ending nod that made him seem attached, by some untraceable means, to the wall behind. Having learned to take anything appearing to defy nature as a trick at the expense of my emotional wellbeing, I approached him with bravado. He seemed to be in the process of detaching himself from the mold inside his shadow, his countenance transmogrifying against the fetid clutch of plywood, giving voice to the bruises in each corner. A wiry beard, like staples colored by a marker, dotted the chin stuck out beneath newspaper stripping. There was a croon, without accompanying projection from the lips: “This is what you parents put down for a pet to use and my face happened instead.” Relaying to the squatter my boring love troubles, I noticed rattails protruding from his pocket. Perhaps they were his food, alive or not. He interrupted, a startling octave deeper: “Bring her to Warmar.”

I wasn’t sure if my lodger spoke of a location or of himself in the third person, but I decided to deliver the girl. The boldness of my disruption when next we met caught her off guard. I took her hand without warning, the venous coating of her upturned eyelids waxing free in shock. Warmar throbbed from the square foot window of the playhouse. The girl instinctually broke hold, maintaining a distance. I felt her trembling change the air. Such a shame to see her eyes revealed, so jaundiced by their mere humanity in meeting a literal aberration, someone like myself: practitioner of blank appetites. If only she’d scream across this moment forever. Warmar disentangled from the barrier and edged between us. A black cylinder wreathed with slime forced its way from his mouth, plashing onto the playhouse welcome matt. Her hair now appeared spray paint white.

When she dove against her pillow, that face stayed smudged on every vision to follow. The sheltered tool down the block who worshipped spirits had spent his absurd adoration on a threat she no longer found curious. Jolted by the still-captured visage leaking all over the floor of her room, she forced open her eyes and had to spin in her sheets several times, rotating her strained perception, before the effect wore off. Weeping with alarmed frustration, only understanding hours later that this was not permanent, she finally stopped hyperventilating, but the furnace clicked on and the creature shuffled up the vent next to her bed, whispering in tune like an omniscient bellows fouling the house’s oxygen and her own, its breath growing in her lungs. She would have to pass it from her, torn as a prepubescent birth, flattened along in spasms through what felt like sharp cilia attached to her nervous system. Anyone else became another violation. She divorced her thought from her actions, made a rind of the present moment, dissociating her from her.

Her brothers raised her while their mother worked. Cornered by this parody of affection, anything sentimental always took on quotation marks in the cruel lampoon she understood as human relations. If the neighbor’s corny, doe-eyed, Shakespearean fixation with their sister could be exploited to either jump him in as a one of them, or to expel him from the violation of an intent they subconsciously shared, she, by no prevailing opportunity a brother herself, would make use of how her looks worked on people. Her body didn’t matter to her, as long as she could picture it having the strength to challenge any boy. Someone got duped into loving her for biological reasons. Had he the ability to see through it and to love the boulder she thought she was, despite the prank of her existence – but no male would ever be capable of loving himself in her. That love was kept quiet in the family when her brothers developed first. She ignored her size as best she could, but the damage that face accrued in her shattered who she was, fashioned her into her worst nightmare: a frail girl. She hid and resented her lame fixation with animals, but studied them in glimpses while her brothers channel-surfed. A hippopotamus father killed its offspring so it could mate more often. The mother absently nudged her infant’s corpse across the bottom of the pond, unable to process the futility of her repeated attempts at resuscitation. A puma and an elk sat in the high grass, the elk stranded alive all day in its predator’s grimace, bleating unceasingly like something death couldn’t mute. She was fasting through her transformation into a poor symbol of this version of her life and would seek reparations for the inconvenience.

Warmar spat me her whole biography. He had spared her for reasons I found specious. Blinking was a pastime of no concern to me. I could log into the sun by staring up. There I saw taxidermy with gangrene, the depths of a medical journal brought to life, the big fungus who raised me.

“Come closer and I will tell you a secret about the rain,” Warmar shushed. Digested through the texture of the wall, floor humming as I matched its frequency, eliminated piecemeal into the alley behind, reciting my master’s DNA, the girl’s brothers said hello, mentioning how lucky I was to live close to a hospital.

I began showing up in their garage, leaving notes with symbols outside their sister’s window. They realized I’m someone you can’t scare away and brought her out as a peace offering. She hadn’t slept in weeks, was paler and thinner than I thought technically possible, and, most importantly, trembled for me on sight. I explained in plain English that she and I needed to perform a rain dance together. This way Warmar could detach himself from the playhouse and drift free. Their sister’s condition would then be cured and I’d leave her to her mediocrity.

We met in the backyard of an abandoned house a few doors down. The earless and half-starved strays, hatched there and kept as pit fighters, were enraged by our scent. Her brothers flanked her, keeping watch, goading us to hurry. The grass came past our knees. A tiny snake twisted through the girl’s sandal. She thought she was the featured food in a nature documentary. I beckoned her to roll those eyelids up. She stepped forth, quavering, arms proffered skyward, shorts patching because she lacked the willpower to demand privacy. We could all comprehend the additional terror of the first event of womanhood. A capacity for torment should have readied her for a dance that stole everything from me.

Febrile below exploding grass, she was battered between consciousness and a ringing in her ears. Her brothers punched every muscular inch of the escaped pit bull’s body, causing it to lock down harder. They pried the fastening grip upward and out of their sister’s skull until the entire mandible dislodged from the thing’s throat with a soggy clap noise. After they’d carried her home, one of them returned, grabbed a beer bottle from the driveway, and smashed it over my head. I stared back through the bloodstream.

The dog trotted in reverse against a corner of fence, its body wrenching spasmodically, jaw hanging from a vomited thread. Both of us came alive once digested, married in twin defecation. A small storm cloud settled over the playhouse. Warmar was leaning almost horizontally by the remaining strings of mildew connected to his spine, climbing up the rain. He raised his arms and the dog limped down the alley, crawling from the garage, barking through its concave fissure. Warmar popped his fist down the gaping hole in the animal’s head and searched inside. He handed me my beloved’s blood-clotted ear, slick with stomach acid, and levitated above the storm cloud, disappearing hat-first within. I waited hours, until the freak weather dispersed, standing far enough toward the alley to see her at her window, swathed in bandages, and offered up Warmar’s memento, whispering sweet nothings.

The playhouse didn’t buckle until the right angle of wall and floor were disjointed with a sledgehammer, sliding the roof down on top of me, scalp-white revealed. No one came around to be impressed by my wounds anymore. Dragging floorboards to the alley dumpster, a charcoal tsunami, an infinite mischief swirling separate concentric rat king knots stampeding additional carcasses in their flight, obstructed all comprehension. They were graining each other’s hides, dehaired in red thickets, panicking to navigate. Tabulating through the abject fog, I could affix a final image of Warmar, sticking up his middle finger, and saluted in return.

I lost interest in any further interaction with the world. A high school ghost, I only paused next to girls to overhear how well my future bride was taking socially. She should be allowed to live life well, I thought, because time was something I could roll up my sleeves with now. Bullies never looked me in the eye. I did the bare minimum schoolwork to graduate, spending time online, cataloguing survivalist videos and becoming a gradually popular fixture in extremist chatrooms. I typed: we must be programmed against the false logic of our comfort and select what to block out in order to accomplish the atrocities demanded of us.

My notifications tripled in an evening. I gave up gaming, let my guy run into a wall. People sent videos concerning eradication of parasites from the body. One featured an online avatar snatching a writhing, centipede-shaped organism from a person’s ear and referring to it as the icicle he used to help him function, the zygote kicked through his truer being. We contributed memes, studied explosives. Each ritual matured us early. Every supposed cure brought our bodies closer in shared agony. The girl, having decided against tutelage from an early age, embraced a popular and highly functional group of friends. Luckily, her hair entirely disguised the scar. The few who found out were perversely intrigued. Nothing diminished what drew others to her. By always choosing the opposite of what her instincts told her, she consistently came off like the most attractive and docile girl at school. She stayed out as much as possible with friends and boyfriends whose silliness acquitted her oppressive moment to moment thought process. Requiring deeper fulfillment would be ostentatious. Besides, she knew where that led. Her brothers had begun jail sentences. When she saw me in class, it was as if we had never met. She misremembered me as someone vaguely uncomfortable. I saw only her, of course, only heard students or teachers when they mentioned her. They noticed my handiwork in the locker room, but kept their mouths shut. Upwards of sixty lettings a day. My nerve endings acted as a valve I adjusted to extinguish the racket from adjacent heads. I pictured her showy clothes covered in Sanskrit. We’d need a shroud for the honeymoon. She wanted out of the city the moment she graduated. Her friends hooked her up with a job and roommate situation in Marquette. She purchased a train ticket a week into that summer. I and my online associates signed off, divvied by one name.

I preferred surveillance footage posted online by anonymous users over getting to know anyone. Perhaps my bitch envisioned opulence, a neatly medicinal antiquation, and packed light, not caring to taint the new locale with objects involving her past. Stepping onto the platform, searching for the right train, she didn’t see me approach, didn’t notice the crowd turning as I turned. Nourished by the long-stoked expectation that escape was forthcoming, once age permitted, she recognized my face, the staples all across, the snot-damp newspaper, as I went down on one knee, opening the jewelry case, black prune of her ear placed in its center. She replied yes only because she knew that the fun she had had as a teenager was a façade built to domino her into a life of formalities. Noticing the intense weaponry protruding from my peacoat, finally seeing every face as the face that wrecked her childhood, she backed away, and it took such strength of mind, a decade’s hiatus inside the mask, sustaining all the enfeeblement of human relatability, for her to lift both middle fingers and grin.

The pain was only surmounted by how much she depended upon it to guide her body. Almost from birth, she had been gnashing against the common qualities of her gender, practicing excruciatingly to feign the emotive roleplay necessary in fulfilling every expectant potential mate. More so than the vague confirmation of want from others, she wanted her life back, even though she had no clue what life could hold meaning. Gunshots receded from the station as the train shifted into motion, occurring to her as if a pair of dentures had lodged suddenly beneath the skin of her thigh. She talked back to the jokey chatter in her panties, hunched over like a basketball coach enraged by having genitals, trying not to be lulled to sleep, until the man one seat over shoved a dollop of toothpaste into his shorts, perhaps to spoof the nonsense she increasingly believed, and told her she was now his wife too. His general malevolence persuaded her. She had been betrothed and widowed moments before and was coming to appreciate skipping the courting process. People were always struggling to appear so unavailable to one another that they missed out on the number of strangers who might milk them efficiently. Besides, she understood, on a telepathic level, that he would bomb the train if she refused to help him ejaculate. Everything in her life and in the culture validated the image of herself as victim, regardless of relevant paranoias, convincing her to hurry and diminish the impact of this man’s predation by complying before he could institute it. She would submit even if it was in him to let her be. More important than if men were abusive was their potential for fucking every memory of hers into remission. Cocks were too big when they wanted her and too small the few times she wanted one. Living as a piece of carrion without the typical power to exclude even herself felt promising on occasion, especially if she was spared actual dick meat being soldiered through her by allowing some minor frottage while she pretended to be asleep. As long as any sexual completion left her the better person overall, which she considered fair enough, having sacrificed her hymen to a pack of dogs, so that even the piss dots on her toilet paper still resembled an exclamation point. She noticed for the first time that not all of the blood covering her belonged to her. She could have sprung a lifelong leak. Her makeshift husband viewed hours old Wi-Fi footage of the station prior to their disembarking. Due to the ignorance or fleeing terror of the conductor, they proceeded toward Michigan while factions of Warmars, enlivened by some greater onslaught, contagiously activated or were activated by a compendium of like stories across the globe. The title was as unimportant as the revolving story behind it. She glanced up from the costumed image of the boy her consciousness had always willed itself to block as he executed random women against the tracks, doling out knives and shooting those who refused to induct their bodies with lacerations and join me in the killing, halving children on the platform before their withering parents. The city dispersed pockets of smoke. She felt, per usual, like begging everyone’s forgiveness might be in order, but knew that the future picked out for her in homely compliance between fate and self-hatred would keep her a passenger forever, the consensual statuary of the psychopath seated next to her, an airtight shriek within the plaster, wearing his control like a bonnet throughout the new and somehow uglier country and that his use for her would wield a tenacity that might, over time, with luck, abstract her from every municipal standing, or at least leave her his numbest remnant. The man snatched the blood-caked jewelry box from her hand and bit the blackened ear inside like he was testing gold. She got under him worse than any pillow and cleared her throat so he could speak.

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LAYING ON HANDS by Aaron Buchanan

At Garron Lake Baptist, all the hands were up in supplication to God as bodies swayed and voices sang “Just As I Am.” In the front, Pastor Charlie Schmidt was laying his sweaty, psoriasis-afflicted hands on Grace Switowski.

Pastor Schmidt prayer was heard above the din of chanting, moving bodies. His voice elevated above the song, booming out over the microphone clipped to his lapel each time he said “blood” of our savior, Jesus Christ.

Grace Switowski was 24. Stringy brown-gray clumps of hair fell from patches on her mostly-bald head like wet papier-maché.  At the front of the worship hall, the pastor, the church deacons, Grace’s parents, four brothers and sister watched Grace in her wheel-chair as the preacher anointed her and laid on his hands.

It was 1985 and she was in stage four lymphatic cancer.

I was seven and in my groove. I sang the song. I didn’t need the hymnal. I’d been to church since popping out of my mother’s vagina, fully spawned, in leisure suit, and with a King James Bible tucked under my tiny, cherubic arms.

My older brother, Jeremiah—named for the Hebrew prophet, of course—sat on a pew next to me, doodling a crude representation of a woman with big tits and hairy muff looking cross-eyed at an oddly-muscled and veiny dick protruding from a curly patch of pubic hair lining the bottom of the page. Jeremiah and Kenny pointed, laughed.

This act of pornographic defiance was drawn on the back of this week’s church bulletin.

Jeremiah was 14 and always doing things like this. It was a contest between him and his best friend, Kenny, who never took showers and never went home and whose parents never seemed to care if he did. He was on the pew next to Jeremiah, pointing, laughing.

The ceremony went on for at least 30 minutes after Kenny and Jeremiah’s bulletin-drawing. While Grace’s family, her mom, her dad, her brothers, and other members of the congregation were on their knees praying for and over the young Grace, the ever-peculiar Jeannie Thompson laid supine in the aisle, arms stretched toward the ceiling. The even weirder Rebecca Kent sat on her knees next to Mrs. Thompson, bending over, sobbing, sitting upright, raising her hands to God, praising Jesus, and singing piecemeal the words of “Just As I Am” before returning her face flush to the floor.

The song-leader motioned for a repeat of the hymn and our mom pedaled the intro to the hymn on her organ.

Pastor Schmidt’s prayers had grown to a whisper. I forgot about telling on Jeremiah and Kenny and I gave myself over to the words:

Just as I am—poor, wretched, blind;

Sight, riches, healing of the mind,

Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,

—O Lamb of God, I come!

The music stopped, suddenly, almost violently. And I was somewhere else. I opened my eyes and found myself unable to look at the room. My head was swimming and I blinked my eyes open-closed-open-closed rapidly in panic.

I was in a small house, stone masonry making up the walls. Ahead of me was a woman sitting at a desk, staring out the small squares of an old window whose ancient glass made circular puddles of the view outside. With the sun shining through, I could make out the woman’s shape. But I also heard her humming. The woman stood up from her desk and steadied herself uneasily, warily. When her eyes met mine, her mouth opened to…

And then I was back and on the floor, listening to Jeremiah.

“You all right, Asa? C’mon, man, you, all right?”

My eyes felt glued to the tops of my skull and I tried to stare through the static orange of my eyelids. In that moment, I was hyper-aware of my surroundings: the antique oak pews my own uncle had refinished, Kenny sticking his hand through his shirt and up to his armpit, making fart noises that, over the continued singing, I could not hear. I also had somehow lost my sense of identity. Jeremiah and Kenny both said my name, but it was a word I felt no connection with.

No one else in the church paid us any mind. Jeremiah had me by the collar of my dress shirt, shaking me. I said something to him that I had no recollection saying.

On the way home from church that Sunday night in 1985, Jeremiah rode in the front seat of our mom’s Impala, he turned the radio up—the rock station out of Kalamazoo my mom never let us listen to on Sundays, but even she must have been sick of hymns after two hours on the organ. He turned around to Kenny and put up his devil-rock horns on his fingers and stuck out his tongue, then swiveled around and rub-patted me my head.

“You said you thought you went back in time,” he tousled my hair in a way he had not done since my baby-blonde hair had turned its permanent coffee black.

I sat back, said nothing, lost myself in “Modern Love” on the radio.

A week and four days after the cheirotonia—the laying-on of hands ceremony—my mom played the organ at Grace Switowski’s funeral.

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teddy duncan

THEME PARK SUICIDE by Teddy Duncan

I'd been to six flags before and I knew that there was a ride called goliath that you could manually unbuckle the seat belt even after the ride had begun. I don't fully understand what I was thinking at the time but I don't think anyone does when you get away from a sickness like that, like when you have a stomach ache and forget what it feels like for your stomach to be normal and you wish and hope and pray for it to be normal and for the stomach ache to end, so that normal becomes a glorious thing. But when you're normal again you remember there's nothing great about normal, it's just the absence of bad but not necessarily good and when you're normal you don’t even understand why you made such a big deal out of a stomach ache. That's the position I'm in now. I did something drastic over something I now see as ordinary. I went to six flags by myself so I had to get in the single riders line with families and couples who intended to get through the line quicker but really didn’t want to ride by themselves and didn’t actually expect someone to come to a theme park by themselves and to actually ride a ride by themselves. I wanted someone to know, and I didn’t care who was on the ride with me. I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with the result and that everyone would just know I was dead or momentarily think I was just really hurt. The one’s that do it alone in their rooms are the brave ones, the one’s that can just pull a thoughtless trigger or put their heads through a loop in a rope, I just didn’t buckle my seatbelt. Well I did at first when the bored 16 year old employee came and tugged at everyone’s crotch to make sure that their seatbelts were secure. After he checked my row and went onto the next I just pressed the button and put my arm over the belt to make it look like it was still clicked into place. I could have waited until the ride started to unbuckle my seatbelt so I wouldn’t have to risk an employee seeing that my seatbelt was off and maybe seeing my bloodshot suicide eyes and making me leave. I was too pussy to do it so close to my actual death. I was just going to ride the ride like normal and try to forget that I wasn’t fastened by anything and when the first sideways loop came instead of being pushed up against the seatbelt I didn’t push against anything and went sprawling through the air for maybe 2 total seconds of fear before impact. I just really didn’t want to feel alone when I died, no matter how fucked up it is if I was going to do it I needed an audience.

This micro-story is part of an unpublished fiction chapbook that no one's fucking with, so if you like this and publish small books/chapbooks hmuuuuu here.

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PLAGUES AND OBLIGATIONS by Simon Henry Stein

After nine days of nights, I went. On each of those nights I hadn’t gathered more than four hours of sleep, adrift still-dressed from the previous day on a bed that used to boast plural ownership. On three or four of those nights, I twisted toward the ceiling and tried to mumble a prayer or blessing so quiet it wouldn’t bother anyone, not even me, but failed. Baruch atah Adonai––blessed are you, Lord. That’s as far as I would get. There’s even a prayer to wake up having slept without sleep greeting death halfway, the Hashkiveinu. I don’t remember the words, only one of the melodies. I remember a lot of things from when I was young; words are not one of them. Failing to start the engine on a prayer, sometimes I’d twist to the side and whisper a fact: two years and I still don’t know if that’s his real name. I’d also sometimes try to decide whether shadows could be considered a subcategory of night, or the other way around. I never could.

The days between the nights were crowded with various shadows, sometimes in the form of small refusals I could present to myself as if ceremonial offerings or in the form of translucent avoidance that gave my coworkers the gift of not having to ask, but mostly in the form of lessons in reluctance, alone in my office, door locked, shirt sleeves rolled up, braced against the desk lost in something between vertigo and nausea and tremors and unattached grief I was reluctant to give a name. When I was younger but not young I learned reluctance isn’t just a vocabulary but an entire language, and that while speaking it fluently made me feel better, it wouldn’t help me make myself understood. The recent past: I didn’t learn much else. I learned how to manufacture importance (but was unsuccessful) and I learned the difference between hopes and expectations (I don’t remember what it is) but I learned fewer names than I should know. Awake at night in a bed that isn’t entirely mine and is sometimes partly a stranger’s, bought by the stranger at an outlet down on 76th St., a store with big-enough windows to disguise its real identity as a warehouse, I would sometimes search for what it is that wasn’t a name. Some important thing. Actions, maybe, I thought for a few days, until deciding even actions were names. Names could not be escaped.

I met him two years ago at a fundraiser. Met him and was introduced. He told me he admired my tie, a quiet, unironic bowtie. Wearing them helped me know how quickly I could ignore men who commented on them depending on the shape of their descriptions, the hesitation or smugness slid beneath their queries, their explanations for bringing it up. “Met” is an action, not a name, though he never used the word when we used the bed for stage whispers. Found. “I’m so glad I finally found you,” he said. I wanted to imagine a younger version of him roaming the Earth, using his thick hands to help describe an outline of who I might be. I wanted to imagine this but could not. I could imagine the plagues retold every spring, but couldn’t recall all of them, or even how many. I remembered blood. I remembered a plague of complete darkness but couldn’t remember how it had arrived. I remember the rabbi always pausing to ask us all why we thought God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

On the tenth day, thinking something soft about plagues and blood and children I’d never have to worry about providing names that would make them sound successful, I peeled a lunch hour away from my Tuesday early and walked seven blocks from the building where I worked to the building where he worked without bothering to button my coat in the January wind, and ask I walked my misgivings began to solidify into more reluctance, familiar and uncomfortable like a wool sweater worn because it was the gift of a person encountered often. I stood in his building’s expensively empty gray lobby, hands in my pockets, thinking of whether one swipe of blood on the door would’ve been enough, back then, to be avoided, to be left unembraced, and readied myself to turn heel in order to paint my own door. When the elevator opened and he walked over to me, I forgot what my plan had been. I think I had wanted to ask him his name. Instead I told him I forgave him. I told him I almost forgave him. I want to forgive you, I told him, but I don’t know who you are. He watched me wait, and all he said is this: More than words, he said. More than words is how much.

I let him kiss me and I told him more than words was close enough. I even believed it, at least for a few years. I believed it for long enough to maintain warmth momentum through a yearlong storm of illness the specialists could never name, all of them whispering “stress,” I believed it until I was free to move west to a larger, less-icy city where I hoped no one had been searching for me but, when people did meet me, I’d say yes when they asked me if I tied the tie myself, and when they would ask my name and I would ask theirs, most of the time neither of us would lie.

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joel tomfohr

UBERLIFTER OR MY BUM HEART OR WOMEN WHO REJECTED ME OR THE RAIN TREE IN THE GOLDEN VALLEY by Joel Tomfohr

Which brings me to this afternoon, like many others this summer I hope. How I was out by Lake Merritt, out next to the giant Children’s Fairyland sign and the fountain, out on that hill right there in the sun trying to you know, like, melt into the earth. That’s my goal. To melt into the earth. And, if I can’t do that, then raise my vitamin D levels as much as I can.

And nothing really in particular happened; I guess this:

An older man pushed his bike up next to my head to get my attention while I was lying there listening to Ambulance Blues and he asked me if he could ask me a question.

“You already did,” I said.

“Hey man,” he said back to me. “What’s your problem?”

I told him I was tired and he asked me again if he could ask me a question and I said sure.

“My wife needs tampons, but we don’t have any money, so can you give me some money so my wife can get tampons?”

I was afraid he was going to roll his bike over my head or kick me in the head or do something to my head. I was lying there in my cutoff jean shorts and nothing else. Prone, you could say. He walked off, though, without saying anything else and then I felt like an asshole for being a wiseass to a man who looked like he was at least fifteen years my senior and like he did need the money and it didn’t really matter what for, so much so that he would suffer the ignominy of having to ask someone at least fifteen years younger than him for money so that he could buy his wife tampons. But it was true. I didn’t have any money on me. It was also true that I could just as easily be him if my landlord decided to evict me. I can’t afford rent in Oakland anymore.  

I rolled over and fell asleep while the last bits of Ambulance Blues played, the final duet between the harmonica and the violin—it sounded extraterrestrial, like a portal had opened up and this was the music transmitted out of it and I was following the sawing sound of the harmonica and the violin through that portal and when it finished I realized that I had fallen asleep. When I woke I was disoriented, like I had come back through the portal and forgotten where I was and hazy from the sun and it reminds me now how last summer when I was in Abiquiu for a week staying in a yurt behind the house of two Sufi mystics, a husband and a wife, my girlfriend knows there. So, one of the afternoons that I was staying there, I drove twenty minutes up the highway to Ghost Ranch and I walked through Georgia O’Keefe’s house with its viga-and-latilla ceilings and I saw a bleached out cow skull hanging above a door and outside the little square windows all the red and yellow-colored bluffs like huge walls boxing it in, except that they really couldn’t, not really, because the sky was so big and I hiked up this trail to what was called Chimney Rock and when I got there that’s what it was, a giant rock that looked like a chimney but I realized that that was not really the best part of what I could see. I could see out across the landscape, the old volcanoes, the steely flint of Cerro Pedernal and the blue, blue Abiquiu Lake and the field of white clouds scudding across the sky vividly. I stood at the ledge and I remember being afraid of it. Gales of wind blew and whipped my hair all around my head and dried out my eyes and so I turned around and hiked back down the trail, satisfied that I had seen all there was to see but also not because one could spend an eternity at a place like that and not see all the ways in which it could be seen, the changing light and colors. The sky at night the cosmos like an infinite dynamo.

When I got back to the yurt the Sufis were home so I knocked on their door and the old man greeted me. He wore a light blue kufi and a matching light blue flowing kurta. He brought me to the kitchen where there was a table made and carved from pinon, lacquered beautifully so that I could see the wavelike grain of the wood. His wife was sat there; she wore an emerald green headscarf. They offered me chai, and it was pink and they asked me what I had seen that day. I told them about the Ghost Ranch, the Cerro Pedernal, the red and yellow bluffs. They nodded and smiled.

“It is beautiful here,” the wife said.

“Very beautiful,” the husband said.

When I finished my pink tea I felt more awake, but also calm. “Thank you,” I said.

“Of course,” the husband said.

“Of course,” the wife said.

I went to my yurt around back and lay out on the bed I was so tired from hiking but awake and calm in a way that is hard to describe. I put in my ear buds and listened to Beethoven’s Ninth and I was listening to it and drifting off much in the same way that I drifted off to Ambulance Blues next to Lake Merritt this afternoon and I did and then I was back up on that ledge at Chimney Rock out at Ghost Ranch with the red and yellow cliffs and blue lake and ancient volcano and fleet of white clouds scudding vividly except that this time I was not afraid of the ledge. This time out in front of me just beyond the ledge was a door (a portal) that had opened up and the silhouettes of two human figures stood in the door (the portal) and behind them was only this bright white light, but they were serving me pink tea like the Sufi mystics and I was reaching out for it and I can’t remember if I took it or if it was already in my hands or maybe that was what I was trying to figure out in my vision and then I rose up out of it and I was back in my bed in the yurt and now it was completely dark outside.

So it was in the middle of the day on the little hill next to the Children’s Fairyland sign next to the lake with the fountain splashing when my brother Jason sent me this text about a script he’s working on about a guy who works odd jobs, one of them being an Uber driver, and is estranged from his daughter who lives in Rio (Why Rio? I wondered) and this was the text: Should I call it My Bum Heart or Uberlifter or Women Who Rejected Me or The Rain Tree in the Golden Valley. I ignored it. Instead, I decided to listen to Neil Young with Crazy Horse and I nodded off to the final fuzzy distorted bars of Cinnamon Girl and I decided that that is the greatest closing to a rock and roll song ever and when I woke up again Cowgirl in the Sand was playing and I opened my eyes and Jason was standing there above me blocking my sun wearing his Ray-Bans that make him look sort of like Jason Patric in The Lost Boys. No kidding. He has the same thick curly hair and bone structure, and it occurs to me now that they both have the same name.

“I thought you’d be here,” he said.

I squinted up at him sort of disappointed that he had come here to my spot because I was busy trying to melt into the earth as I said, but I said hey and rubbed my eyes and put on my Ray-Bans and sat up.

“So,” he began. “What are you doing?”

I wanted to say what does it look like I’m doing, but I didn’t. I told him how I was trying to waste my life out here and melt into the earth and he kind of chuckled, but I could tell he was a little concerned.

“Or at least raise my vitamin D levels.”

I couldn’t tell if he was giving me a puzzled look because he was wearing his sunglasses, but I imagined he was.

“I like the titles you sent me.” I paused. “For your script.”

“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “Which one?”

“Why not call it all three? Don’t settle for just one.”

He looked down at me and I looked up at him and then I lay back down on my back. “Can I sit down?” he asked.

“Be my guest.” Now I was happier that he’d come by but also wishing that he hadn’t. I had felt another portal coming on before he appeared but sometimes that happens. I think the moment will arrive and then it gets interrupted or it simply doesn’t and then there are other times when—Boom!—it does and everything opens up and there I am laying in the middle of it all, the sun setting and melting and I’m melting into the earth and generally wasting my life or at least trying to gather vitamin D from the final rays of sunlight and my brother Jason next to me thinking of titles for his script.         

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louis dickins

DROP SHOT by Louis Dickins

Sonia is ashamed of her husband.

She’s sitting with a crowd of people at the local tennis courts in horror, as her husband Paul prepares to serve. He hasn’t won a game, and he and his opponent are deep into the third and final set.

It’s a hot, windy day at the South Morang Tennis Club. There’s a barbeque sizzling in the corner and cups of cordial set up for the kids. It’s the quarterfinals of the local tournament, and Paul’s lifelong dream of winning the cup is being violently dismantled.

At 48 years old, Paul is seriously overweight and has onset emphysema from years of chain smoking. Paul’s heritage is Albanian, immigrating to Australia as a ten-year-old, he loved the place immediately and connected to the nation’s love of sport.

Unfortunately, he’s being torn apart today by a much younger opponent.

His wooden McEnroe racquet has seen better days - it’s tired and wants to die. His Dunlop volley runners are undone and overcome by depression. Paul is out of breath, his sweat-drenched polo shirt clings against his skin.

He lifts the tennis ball into the air and connects with a powerful serve - off spin, curling into the court. A perfect serve, he thinks, until his opponent hammers it down the line. ‘Christ,’ Paul calls out as he throws his racquet against the artificial grass, ‘I can’t do anything right!’

Paul is a butcher by profession, he’s owned a shop in Richmond since the mid-eighties. His lamb chops are acclaimed by the locals, and he’s well-liked because of his social, happy disposition. His aspiration, though, has always leaned toward tennis and becoming a champion. As a boy, posters of his idols like Rod Laver and Fred Perry hung on his bedroom walls. At night he dreamt of aces and topspin backhands.

What was the defining moment of your life in tennis?

PAUL- Pat Cash’s 1987 victory over Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon. Boy, he played a magnificent match. Wonderful, graceful groundstrokes, ripper serve, and a killer drop shot. And he had presence. Something indefinable… he was magic. I sat transfixed as he played Lendl in ’87, I couldn’t look away. When he won, I started crying, real, physical tears. It changed my life. See, Pat Cash and I are around the same age, and we both grew up in Melbourne, so in a way, it was like I won Wimbledon, truly.

What is it about tennis you love?

PAUL- I’m into the unpredictable nature of the game. I thrive on its sense of competitiveness, and I like the community aspect of it. But, really I love the way the ball moves through the air, the sensation of movement. To me, there’s nothing better than hitting the ball with the sweet spot of the racquet, right in the middle. It’s wonderful.

Paul’s down three match points. It’s over. Even Paul’s resilient sense of determination has conceded defeat. He lifts the ball into the air and hits it with his dejected racquet. It lands in but is crushed back cross-court, Paul watching helplessly as the ball bounces away. Done, disappointed, his head sunken, he walks toward the net and shakes his opponent's hand.

‘Good game, mate,’ Paul says.

‘Yeah, Thanks.’

Defeat never changes. It hurts Paul in the same way it did when he was six. His whole life he’s dreamt of winning, the praise and adulation of being the best. Not just trophies and confetti, Paul wants admiration.

On quiet days at his butcher shop, Paul would rest his arms purposefully on the counter, close his eyes and daydream. He could see the shots, the pattern of the rallies, drop shots and smashes. He could see them. Seizing each moment, he could hear the roar of the crowd. He was the man, and this was his game.

In the months he spent preparing for the South Morang Tennis Tournament, he never considered not winning. It didn’t dawn on him that he could lose, it just wasn’t his destiny.

But now, as he shuffles off the court, his racquet packed up across his shoulder, sipping at an orange Gatorade, defeat hits Paul like a pile of bricks. He wasn’t good enough, not even close. Reality hasn’t lived up to his expectations, losing hurts like nothing else.

Inside the clubhouse, Paul walks straight toward the men’s bathroom. He turns on a tap and splashes cold water onto his tired face. He lights up a low-tar cigarette and looks at his reflection in the mirror.

Obscured by his heavy eye bags and grey hair he can still see the ambitious, dream-induced kid he used to be.

As a teenager, Paul had a wonderful tennis coach. They trained together every Thursday night for close to eight years. His name was Frank Price. Unbelievably overweight, he insisted on wearing track suits two or three sizes too small. He had dark black hair, slicked back. Frank was a part-time drug dealer, he supplemented his income as a tennis coach by selling crack cocaine from his car. His dedication to tennis was tremendous. He was not a preacher of push-ups, of weights and treadmills; instead, he was a believer in the beauty and spirit of the game.

Can you describe the influence Frank Price had on you as a young man?

PAUL- Frank believed in me, he understood me. He sat me down one day and told me the most important thing about competitive tennis was eye contact. You could size up and intimidate your opponent by looking at them directly in the eyes, their weaknesses, their insecurities, it was all in the eyes. In terms of style of play, he told me to be creative, to be original in your shot selection. Whatever shot, a lob or a drop shot, you had to hit it with conviction. Don’t doubt yourself, he’d say, don’t second guess your instincts, have belief… I was shattered when he was convicted of drug trafficking, I lost someone very special.

Paul reaches for some paper towel from the dispenser to dry his face, but it’s empty. He sighs and heads outside toward the carpark. Sitting in the passenger seat of their Holden hatchback is his wife Sonia. As he approaches the car, she gives him a smile.

Paul sits down and closes the door.

‘I’m sorry Paul, bad luck.’

Paul doesn’t respond, he sits in silence looking at the steering wheel.

‘It’s ok, Paul.’

Outside Paul can hear kids laughing and locals chatting. The summer wind whistles through the trees as cars go by on the highway. All Sonia can see is a sad, disappointed man.

‘I’m so ashamed,’ Paul says quietly.

‘… Why?’ Sonia asks.

‘Weren’t you watching, Sonia, he smashed me. All those people watched me lose. They saw a delusional old man embarrass himself. Nothing worked for me out there. From the start it was a total train wreck’ Paul removes his tearful headband, ‘All that work and all that preparation and all I did was disappoint myself. I was going to put the trophy up in the window of the butcher shop, I told everyone about this tournament, and I let them down. I let you down.’

‘Paul, no. You didn’t let me down. I’m so proud of you.'

‘What are you talking about,’ Paul says sharply.

‘You gave that match everything you had. You had it all on the line, and you had a crack. Listen to me Paul, the only losers in life are the people who don’t try. Who aren’t willing to have a go, who give up on their dreams. I don’t care about the score, you’re a ripper for trying, you’re a real champion.'

Paul turns to Sonia. Her blue eyes and tied back blonde hair.

‘Ok,’ he says.

He turns the key in the ignition, puts the car in gear and heads back home. It’s a quiet ride as Paul thinks over the match and his opponent. He can’t get over what Sonia just said to him; those beautiful words have slowly lifted his soul. As he puts the indicator on and pulls up at the driveway to their house, his resolution and commitment to tennis have come back. He’s no longer bitter or upset about how the match turned out, he’s starting to move on.

What motivates you?

Paul- You know, for a long time it was emulating the champs like Lendl or Pat Rafter. As a kid, my old coach Frank Price really pushed my buttons. But right now, really it’s Sonia, she just lights me up. She makes me want to be a better tennis player, a better butcher. The best me I can be. I can’t help but be excited about next year’s tournament, I’m already signed up. I can’t wait. And, you know with some hard work, a favourable draw, maybe a new racquet and with Sonia on my side, I think I’m in with a chance of clinching the trophy. Bit of luck here or there and who knows? I’m in love with the possibility of it all.

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LIL ULYSSES 666 by Paul Curran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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harris lahti

DARK WOODS by Harris Lahti

Another flashbulb blanches the room white. “Smile,” her mother tells the purple, howling baby swaddled in its crib. Everywhere the baby—in picture, on magnets, JPEGs plastered across the internet. Roswell can’t even pull a frozen pizza from the refrigerator without being confronted with its alien face.

Roswell flips the channel from the couch. A nature documentary. Onscreen, a peregrine falcon divebombs an unsuspecting pigeon, and the baby’s howls mix with its cries.

“I think I’ll have a beer,” she tells her mother.

“I think I’ll have some unprotected sex,” she says. “Or maybe I’ll take the truck out for a joyride.”

“I said I think I’ll take a joyride,” she says.

Then Roswell goes over to the key rack her stepfather fashioned from the antlers of an eight-point buck and waits for her mother to chide her. She is fourteen, without a license.

However, her mother is too preoccupied to notice. And as another round of flashbulbs goes off, Roswell slides the keys from the rack. “Smile,” she hears her mother say, walking out.

Deer. That summer the woods were thick with them. Roswell drives the back roads, smoking her mother’s cigarettes from the glovebox, hoping to hit one. To wake up in the hospital, with her family assembled along the bedside. Not a full body cast. Just a slight brain bleed perhaps. Serious sounding but minor.

For weeks, she drives, smokes, hopes to hit one.

The way the trees clasp overhead is her favorite. The yellow spray of headlights on a grey asphalt tongue. The deer eyes that roll through the woods like marbles.

One night, a screech owl flies into the headlights, a frog elongating from its beak like a ragged hang-glider.

Another, a neon green asteroid slices the starry night.

And another, a hitchhiker: a sight so rare she stops to pick him up. It seems the next best thing to the deer, this dark figure seeping out of the woods. The way his thumb worms its way out of his torn coat sleeve intrigues her. He is so tall his knees press up against the dash. “I’m a Eunuch,” he says.

“Prove it,” Roswell laughs.

Afterward, the hitchhiker instructs Roswell to let him out. He sticks his head back inside the open window and orders her to count to a thousand before driving off. “One, two, three, four,” she counts as he seeps back into the woods.

Who, who. A screech owl comes to life.

Then Roswell stops counting, lights her mother’s last cigarette, and drives off again.

And as the trees clasp, the deer eyes roll through the woods beside her. Then, a deer emerges into the headlights, followed by another. Another, another. Until, suddenly, an entire herd has turned the asphalt tongue furry.

Roswell slows to watch them.

None of this is real, she thinks. None of this is happening.

She presses on the gas. The deer buck like crazy at first, but even crazier as the truck sends them flying. That last part is her favorite yet: the way the white underside of their tails explode like an endless stream of flashbulbs—pop, pop, popping.

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