The first day at Triassic Land, my Spinosaurus tail got torn off in the door of my dead grandad’s old Camry. I left home because I was sick of Mom babying me. I was single. Grown up. I was like a twenty-four-year-old boo-boo she wouldn’t let heal. I’d typed up a fake acceptance letter and showed it to her a month ago. Told her I was starting at Central Michigan University’s summer business program early and that a buddy I used to play video games with had a room. She gave me a hundred dollars, a kiss on the cheek, and said she was proud.I could see all the coasters I’d grown up riding over the barbed-wire security fence. Mad Meteor, Cretaceous Coroner, Chicxulub Impactor—Quivering Timbers had always been my favorite though. No loops, but the wood shook your head like a speed bag. It held all that thrill without any worry of slipping through the harness and falling into the inevitable. I was considering how long it would take to hit the ground when a giant red Silverado pulled up next to me.“Well guy,” the old driver said, hobbling out of his 4x4 chariot, “that tail’s dangling like a dingleberry.” He looked like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino if Clint Eastwood had been addicted to Diet Coke. When he squinted, he looked older instead of meaner. “I—”“I’ll fix y’up don’t worry. I should’ave some duct tape…somewhere ‘n here.” He heaved his duffel bag out and dropped it on the cracked pavement like a treasure.“It’s really okay, I’ll fix it later,” I said.He pulled out some duct tape and shoved it in my face like a trophy.“Only’ll be a minute and you’ll thank me,” he said.It was easier to let him do it in the end. Last thing I wanted was a fight with a geriatric Dirty Harry on my first day. When he was finished, he slapped my pleather ass and fondled the Camry to stand back up.“Name’s Pat. You Gordy’s replacement?” I’d seen it on the news with Mom one morning. Mom’d said, How is anyone supposed to feel safe anymore? and I’d said, you can do that for a living? The posting online had read: Dinosaurs wanted! 12/hr + meals!“Yeah. I’m Mortimer.” “Jordan?”“Mor-tih-mur!” He reached out and squeezed my hand, like he was trying to juice me.“Or Mort. Either’s fine.” I’ve never had a good talking voice either. I mumble or I feel like I’m yelling.“Suit yerself,” Pat nodded towards the park, “Welp, we don’t want to keep the ‘missus’ waitin’ do we?” His back bent under the weight of his tool bag. I thought to offer help, but I could tell Pat had that old man syndrome where he didn’t let anyone help him, even if it meant he was going to hurt himself. 


 I remember taking photos with Sal the Spinosaurus as a kid. There was a photograph I’d left at home of me crossing my legs thinking it made me look cool only to realize I looked like I had to piss, Mom oblivious, grandad tight-lipped because of his broken teeth, my older brother and his perfect smile. Besides those memories, I knew next to nothing about being a dinosaur. They’d given me no training, just the rule that I couldn’t let people see me with the suit off, which was fine. I was a solid 5, on a good day. On a bad day? Captain Neckbeard. Sal the Spinosaurus suited me.There was a yellowed, stained fridge in the break room with a picture of someone’s family and shitty motivational posters. Plastic employee of the week plaques littered one wall, each staff member holding up some gift card to Chili’s or Olive Garden. I saw a man with my outfit, the Spinosaurus head roaring under his arm. He didn’t smile. When I saw Pat on my route, I asked him if that was Gordy.“Scalies used to be able to get away with stuff. Pouncing on people. Gnawing on their bags. People came here to feel something. To get an experience. Now you so much as tap someone with yer tail and you’ll get a bunch of lawyers bearing down on us, again.” A hammer jangled at Pat’s side like a big iron, sweat collecting in the wrinkles of his gray uniform and forehead.“Guy, the world’s gone soft.”Someone next us on the Pterodactyl Terror Shot screamed—a bungee type thing over the pond filled with swan boats in the middle of the park. You sign a contract for “liability” sake and pay extra for it. I’d never done it, but I’d watched my brother launch over the pond. Saw the worry on mom’s face as he soared.“So you fix things?” I asked Pat, really quiet and real close, my plastic teeth scraping his waxy ear. I waved at kids like I’d seen people do on the floats for the 4th of July parade back home. “Fix things? Guy!” He swatted at my maw. “If you’re being simple about it, sure, but I notice things. Things no one else notices.” In front of us, a little girl tugged her dad’s arm. Mad Meteor careened in a corkscrew above.“Some stupid soccer mom bust the turnstile? My job. Plank hanging low on a coaster? My job. The freezer in the Dippin’ Dots cart overheats? My job. If there’s too much shit for me to do? I tell the ne'er do wells mannin’ the rides what needs fixin’. And customer-staff relations? Oh, I track that too Martin.”“Um, what’s—it’s Mortimer—”“Yup, I’ve been around long enough to know how people are. See her?” he pointed at the little girl and the two men holding her hands. “She’s only been listening to her uncle and her dad hates that.”“How do you know they’re brothers?”“What else would they be?”I didn’t respond.“Them three come here a lot, yeah. The girl loves it when yuh scalies fall over. Saw Gordy faceplant last year and that little girl laughed so hard she almost gave me an ulcer.” I could fall. Did it all the time. Tripping over nothing. Hesitating whenever I rounded a corner or stopped at a 4-way. I was an expert at making mistakes for no good reason, and now I had one.I ran out in front of the family and stumbled into a trash can. Melted ice cream and soiled paper bowls full of crusty chili like dry blood spilled all over the baked concrete. The men glared. The little girl shrieked. For some reason the Peanuts theme song was playing over the speakers. “Stupid stupid! Isn’t he stupid?”“Come on Olivia,” one man said.“We don’t call people stupid,” said the other. He whispered, “ front of them.” I remembered how I felt when I was a kid. How I knew there was someone in the suit but how it was more fun to imagine something else was making them stomp and roar and make their way through the world.“Stupid, stuuuupid!” The girl pointed.I wriggled on the ground until the girl’s giggles were out of earshot, then stood up, cotton candy stuck to my mesh eye holes so it was hard to see. Pat came over and wiped it off. “You’re a natch-u-ral Mikey!” Everything is a bit when you’re wearing a dinosaur suit. No matter what stupid shit I did, someone would want me. 


 Home feels different when you get back after a new job, and my studio apartment in Mt. Pleasant didn’t feel like much of a home to begin with. I had a lawn chair in front of the TV, a mattress I’d spent an hour contorting to fit in the Camry for the drive from the west side, a bunch of Faygo varieties in the vegetable tray of the fridge, and a series of Stouffer's frozen casseroles.It didn't make any sense why the city I was in was called Mt. Pleasant either. There aren’t any real mountains in Michigan, and all the best parts, all the big lakes were about as far away as they could be. The only water in walking distance was a tiny stream behind my apartment complex flanked by two golf courses and a strip mall containing a Subway, a Family Fare, and a pole-dancing studio. The walls of the apartment were thin, but sometimes that made life more exciting. Guessing that banging sound next door gave me something else to do besides playing Halo and watching Jurassic Park—you gotta enmesh yourself in your life in the character, or at least, that’s what people like Daniel Day Lewis do, right? He’s a good actor, I’d heard. It was a small space, but that was okay. Too much space and you start to feel like you should have more stuff, or even moreso, someone to share that space with.After I’d get back every day, I’d shed my suit and drape it on the lawn chair in the living room. I’d crack open a cold Red Pop Faygo and sit down. Boot up my Xbox. My brother always gave me shit for the living room lawn chair at Mom’s house. I say having cupholders is important, and I couldn’t afford a full-ass recliner on a dino salary.During the first few weeks Mom texted me a lot. Eventually, because she kept asking the same questions, I started calling her instead of texting back.“Hey.”“So, how'd today go?”“It went fine.”“...and?”“That’s it. Nothing to report.”“The apartment okay?”“It’s alright. Kinda small, but you know, I like that.”“How’re classes?”“Couldn’t tell you Mom. Still feeling them out.”“Are you looking for a job? You know your brother says he has a job in a warehouse over there he could get you, right?”“I know Mom.”“I’m just saying, it pays good.”“I’ll figure it out.”“I know. I know. I just hate, y’know, seeing you…y’know.”That’s how most of our conversations went. Tip-toeing around each other until either of us had the stomach to bear our grievances, then backing down anyway. Our family was easy that way. Life was easier that way. 


 By the end of the first month, I was the Mickey Fucking Mouse of dinosaurs, stalking people on all fours, bobbing my floppy muzzle like a bird. I became a skilled practitioner of Cretaceous Cardio, started looking at myself naked in the busted bathroom mirror, watching those little love handles I’d earned doing nothing with my life and dating no one melt away. Even better, they announced a year-round initiative. They’d have a winter carnival in the off months and build an event space to make up lost revenue from the Gordy incident. I’d have a stable gig where I didn’t have to man a register and put on a face. No one would have to see my crooked smile. My yellow teeth.Once my routes became ritual, I realized everything at Triassic from when I was a kid was still there. The horses-dressed-as-ankylosaurs. The viking-boat-turned-megalodon. A random Harley Davidson they still had on display, because why not. The park proved that time doesn’t actually change everything like Mom was telling me more and more every year. I kept pictures saved of every ride for when I was ready to tell her what I was really doing in Mt. Pleasant. Once I’d proven I could make it here on my own. Maybe, once I’d found someone to share the apartment with.Besides Pat, none of the other staff talked to me, so I didn’t talk to them. From the conversations I overheard in the break room or behind the rides, they treated the place like it was just a stepping stone on the way to their next big thing. As if everyone can have the next big thing. You know what was a big thing? Dinosaurs. To be a dinosaur is to embrace nostalgia for a time we can’t be sure even existed the way we imagine. What’s wrong with that? With Pat’s tips about regulars, and late nights watching every dinosaur movie I could get my hands on, I started pulling five-star reviews. I broke in the hard plastic of the claws. Figured out how to piss without taking it off. By June, the break room was littered with pictures of Sal the Spinosaurus holding Chili’s and Olive Garden gift cards. People asked why I kept the suit on. “You don’t get anywhere without some extra commitment,” I said. Pat had told me that one day.There was this one girl though. She started the month after me. A new “scalie” called Rachel Raptor. I told Mom about her over the phone. Told her Rachel was in a class on entrepreneurship, or whatever business classes were called.Rachel and I weren’t supposed to be in the same place at the same time, but sometimes we’d cross paths in front of Coroner, right under the loop. I studied her. Waited for her to say something. She didn’t walk with the weight of her life in each step like I did. She didn’t hesitate before she did anything. She was gentle to the concrete and knelt down to let kids pet her. I wondered what she looked like underneath. I hoped she hadn’t noticed me watching. Whenever people notice me looking at them, I feel like I’ve been shot. Like one of those dreams where you’re naked and you don’t know how you ended up where or why you even are. 


 Mom called to offer a trip to Florida my brother and his fiancé were going on. I held the phone to my ear while I was playing Halo, some kid shouting about how gay I was in the background. Telling me to touch grass. That I probably had no bitches.“I don’t like the beach, Mom.”“What are you doing instead?”“I told you, I’m in the campus cafeteria.” I wondered what the most convincing job was. Burrito wrapper? Sandwich crafter? Everything seemed perfectly menial.“The warehouse job pays pretty good Mort. I could talk to your broth—”“I’m good at this and I’m paid enough Mom.”“I know…what about that girl?”“I’ll keep you updated. I’m going to ask her to get coffee soon.” 


 By the middle of sweat-bucket-summer, the park had spent a lot of money prepping for the new winter initiative, but numbers were down. They made some cuts to the maintenance team. Pat was busy trying to figure out what was wrong with the bolts in Quivering Timbers, whining about how he used to have a whole army of guys with tools at his disposal. I looked up at him from the ground, waiting for some other guests to walk by me. I liked watching him when I could. There’s something about a guy fixing a massive roller coaster that seems divine. The knowledge of what bolt to use, the deftness with a wrench or a drill. I dreamed of the day someone would witness me like that.Pat was asking me for a socket wrench when I heard a group of high-school kids staring at me and whispering evil teenager type shit to each other. I didn’t know what the fuck a socket wrench looked like. Just another thing I felt like I should have learned before Grandad died. I looked through the duffel bag, hoping some manly instinct would kick in. I heard the teenagers hee-haw from behind. “Losersaurus Rex,” one shouted standing in line for the Mammoth Ears.“Pervert.” another said. Despite being far shorter, squatter, and, from what I understood, better at the job than Gordy, people occasionally thought I was the same guy. Some creep. A prehistoric peeper.Pat ignored me asking him what the wrench looked like, climbed down the coaster stairs, and stuck his hand in the duffel bag.“Don’t worry Mort, most of em’ probably won’t stop sucking their mom’s teet till they’re thirty. I tell you, when I was a teenager I wasn’t hanging out at a theme park. I was in a war.” Pat shook his head, patted his hammer on his hip, “I could make an accident happen to em y’know. Rig a ride to go a little too fast when they get on.” He winked.That’s when I felt something hit my back. I’d stopped wearing anything but underwear underneath to cool off; I could feel things better that way anyway. Whatever hit me was damp. Cold. Smelled like the color blue. They’d thrown a fucking slushie at me.I stood still, boiling in my suit. Literally and metaphorically. The ice packs under my armpits had gone lukewarm. I turned to face the teens, careful to maintain my signature Spinosaurus poise; me, Poiseasaurus Rex. I saw a bush the same green-brown as my suit between the teenagers and the corner of the Mammoth Ear stand as an opportunity. All my time spent watching dinosaur movies, being patient playing Halo, listening to Pat and practicing—I had a skill. I could get payback.While the teenagers were ogling some girls coming from the waterpark, I huddled behind the bush. Waited for about three minutes. I was Saunasaurus Rex stalking his prey. When they came up to order, I sprang out and swatted at them with my rubber arms. One fell over so hard it looked like he might have shattered his elbow. He started crying. I squeezed the sound box from Ebay I’d programmed with roar sounds—a fucking steal for $10 plus shipping—over and over, standing above him making eye contact through the mesh in my mouth.The teenager reeled back to punch me, but instead he started crying. I looked back at Pat heh-heh-heh-ing and wheezing, one crooked, hairy thumb up. They ran away. I thought I would feel better.What I hadn’t noticed was the American dream-type family behind the teenagers. One with a girl and a boy and two parents that looked like they ran together at 5 in the morning before work and posted pictures of the sunrise.One of the kids, the little boy, was crying. Scared. Blonde bowl cut like I’d had. Chunky fingers despite the rest of him being a fucking twig. Looks like he’d get bullied. Like he’d play trumpet in middle school and get so angry he can’t hit high notes like the rest of the boys that he’d smash the instrument into his bed post and make his mom pay $200 to fix the rental.I tried to play stupid and ran into a wall. Being stupid’s only funny because I shouldn’t be stupid. A dinosaur should have some instinct that defends against stupidity. Some feeling of where to go and what not to do. An instinct for a successful life. No one wants someone who can’t decide what to do. The kid kept sobbing and the parents pulled him away, looking at everything but me. When I looked back, Pat shrugged. It was as good a time as any to cool down, so I went to the break room to swap out the ice packs. On the way back, I watched the ticketers at the turnstile. Saw the look of death on their faces. One swiped on their phone. I’d thought about getting on a dating app, but that meant I needed pictures. Maybe the suit would be a funny gag.When I pried the screen door open, Rachel Raptor—the girl who played her—was at the lunch table. I still had a little bit of adrenaline left from my ambush, so I sat next to her. She had this short purple hair and freckles I’d never seen on anyone before. She shifted a seat away and put the bottom half of her costume between her and me.She was drawing a cow skull adorned with snapdragons, like the one’s mom kept in her garden. Little flowers I’d spent time sticking my pudgy fingers in, imagining them coming to life. I’d make fire-breathing noises and tell mom each dragon bulb’s name, which ones was mom, dad, and the kids. I’d fabricated a whole family. A comfortable family. “Snapdragons! Right?” I blurted out, forgetting to breathe.She jumped.“Um, yeah. That’s right?”“I’m Mortimer.” I stuck out my hand.“Nice to meet you?” she didn’t grab it.Questions, right, I thought. Grandad always told me to ask questions. People are supposed to enjoy talking about themselves.“So are you doing skulls to say you’re not afraid of death or something?” I tried to mask how I’d forgotten to breathe. I did my best to stay still. To be still was to be stoic. Prehistoically-inclined.“Uh, no. I just think cow skulls are cool.”“They are pretty cool.” I caught my reflection in a mirror, stared at the inhuman eyes. My floppy mouth. Rachel stopped drawing.“So you’re…” she asked, pointing at the employee of the week pictures adorning the walls.“That’s me, yeah.” For the first time since I’d arrived, I wasn’t proud of the pictures.“You really never take off the suit, do you?”“I heard about this thing called method acting. Daniel-Day Lewis did it for—”“Yeah, I know about that. Everyone on set called him an asshole.” She looked at the door across from us for a few seconds. I felt like I was talking to an alien and no one had given me the briefing on first-contact engagement.“Do you uh, what do you do?” I asked.“I’m in art school.”“That’s cool.”“What do you do? Outside of here?”“Uhhh…well I….” I couldn’t tell her I played video games. That was too unimpressive. I thought about telling her I played music, but then she might ask to hear something. Maybe writing?“Sooo, I actually have a specific question for you. Maybe it’s a little personal.”I leaned in, terrified and excited to answer a question. Smelled her coconut shampoo. Felt too close to her. Leaned back.“I’ve got an assignment. Like an art project. I’ve gotta ask people what they’re in awe of and draw something inspired by it.”“Oh. That’s cool.”“Honestly, since you’re a total stranger,” I ground my teeth at the word stranger, “I think this is more interesting. Everyone else here is giving me normal answers.”“Well. I dunno. The ankylosaurus-horses. Pretty cool right?”“No no no, anywhere else but here. Like, you’ve never seen something or thought of someone and you just go, wow?” I thought about the last time I was home, driving on the S-shaped highway that cuts through the city, coming back from the mall movie theater to see Zombieland 2. I’d been swimming through that post-movie existentialism, blasting the jazzy theme song to Halo: ODST, pretending I was in a destroyed civilization, the one living person left behind, a hoard of invading aliens oblivious to me in the camry, swerving left and right with one hand on the wheel like I actually knew what I was doing. I got chills thinking about it. Or maybe that was just my sweat getting cold. I wondered if I smelled.“I really don’t know. Guess I never thought about it.” I said.“That’s kind of sad. I mean—sorry,’ her mouth hung open, “Uh, you should do something! Go somewhere. Everyone should have something.”I thought I was doing something. I had gone somewhere. Bumfuck nowhere.“I’ll let you know when I think of something,” I said. “Cool.” She shrugged.I’d never been so disappointed in myself that I wanted to cry before. I stood up, swapped my ice packs out for the new ones, stashed the sweaty ones next to Pat's brown bag in the fridge, and walked towards the door before Rachel had a chance to leave first. Moments like this were why I kept the suit on.  


 Approaching fall, the park was getting slower. This was normal, Pat told me, like how the dips and peaks of climate change are normal. I spent my free time thinking of something to tell Rachel. Something that would show her I wasn’t just a loser in a suit. I wasn’t artsy. I considered the few times I’d gone camping with my family, watching a storm roll over Lake Michigan from the height of a dune, the view looking down from my first skyscraper in Chicago, the first time I’d nailed a trumpet solo. They all felt too normal or too lame for me to be in awe of. I avoided the break room so that I wouldn’t bump into her before I had the answer. But, when I stopped running into her under Coroner’s loop, I asked Pat if he’d seen her lately.“The weird one with the purple hair? Guy she no-call no-showed twice. No surprise there. No one wants to work any more.” 


 Pat was wrong about the normal dip in park numbers. We were tanking. Management sent an email with the subject line: “WHAT CAN YOU DO TO SAVE THE DINOSAURS?”. It seemed that no amount of good reviews could make up for the worry that staff, that people like me, might be a total creep like Gordy. Not in the age of internet memes and Twitter.Pat and I spent more time by the central pond. He said he’d planted fish in it fifteen years ago to give himself something to do on lunch break.“Ain’t got no mercury poisonin’ in them like the big lakes neither.” All I knew about mercury was that it’s the stuff that they put in thermometers. Did someone dump a bunch of thermometers in the great lakes? People call things like that accidents all the time. Like they’re pretending it isn’t anyone’s fault. But you have to try hard to fuck something up that bad. I suspected a conspiracy somewhere, like how people said Obama turned the frogs gay.“So why are you actually here, Mort?” “I don’t know. I like it. I’m good at it.”“That’s right.” I watched him catch a couple bluegills, or at least, that’s what he called them. I didn’t think their gills looked blue. I never understood catch-and-release. It seemed cruel, especially in a place like this. As if the fish stuck in the theme park pond hadn’t had enough. As if they weren’t doing the best they could with the pond they were stuck in. 


 I stuck with Pat by the pond instead of my routes after the third round of layoffs. A bunch of empty swan boats where normal people who loved each other used to fill up bobbled. Pat had a bouquet of pink work orders tucked in his belt.  “Guy, hasn’t been this bad since a guy’s safety belt came loose on Chix—, Chic… Chaclub, oh fuck whatever it’s called.”“Chicxulub?”“Yeah, that one.”He spat on the ground.“You know what Mort? You could be Donald Duck. Go on down to Florida and make them Disney bucks, but you’re here. Doing work that matters in a place that people forgot was good to them.”“I’m too old for Disney Pat.”“Guy, too old like the ocean’s too blue.”“What?”“I was younger ‘n you in ‘n Vietnam.”“I know.”Next to us, one of the few mothers left and her two sons were petting an Ankylosaurus-horse while the handler explained how their tails were clubs. One kid reached for the horse’s exposed leg and his mom yanked him so hard the kid dropped his Dippin’ Dots. He watched them melt. The mom said, “I told you to be careful!” and they walked away, her son reaching back towards his coveted, disposable plastic bowl. The kid started crying. His brother looked up at the sun stupidly. It was Sal’s time to shine.I ran to the ice cream stand and got some more. I stomped over and handed him the cup, holding on with both of my stubby plastic claws. His mom went, “Oh that’s not necessary. Oh, thank you so much.” I pretended to gobble the ice cream the boy had dropped like a predator gnashing at its prey, shoving my face into the concrete and smashing my roar button over and over, like pressing harder would make it sound any different.The kid stopped crying. He pointed and looked at his mom while his older brother fried his eyeballs in the sun. The younger one looked like he had something important to say, like he’d just had an epiphany.Maybe that was it—that look on that kid’s face. The way you can fabricate a good memory out of nothing for someone. That was the closest I’d ever come to being in awe of anything. 


 In early fall—that fake fall where you know it’s going to get muggy and shitty again but you try to enjoy the little time you have left anyway, hoping this time it will be different—Pat was fixing the Chicxulub Impactor, arguing with himself about how to pronounce it. The asteroid that was supposed to smash into the plastic-mold crater was broken. It was going too fast. Crashing into the crater with a real force over and over again. No safety breaks.“What happened to the guy who’s harness came off on the coaster?”“Splat,” Pat said, not taking his eyes off the electric panel.“I mean what happened to the park? When did things get better?”“I ever tell you the story about the kid in the rice patty, Mort?”“What?” “We were up in Da Nang.” Pat leaned against a fake stone wall with plastic vines hanging down, wiping the sweat from his stubble with an already-dirty rag. I knew how these war stories went. Those memories had swelled up inside Grandad until he was bloated with them. Told me all about it on his deathbed. Dead friends. Dead kids. Dead dreams. He sent my grandmother a letter and told her to start finding someone else because he didn’t think he’d survive.“Little kid missing half his hair comes up to us asking for candy every single day while we’re working on a bridge over a patty. Even has this little pet monkey who follows him around. Asks if he can sit with us in the jeep.” Pat turned and smacked the meteor so hard it fell off the metal spring. I reached down and picked the plastic rock up as he talked. It was heavier than I expected.“One day, kid walks up and says his monkey has a present for us. Has this thing wrapped in flimsy paper. I thought it was a gift.” Pat took the asteroid out of my hand, held it up to the sun like an offering. “Turns out, it’s one of our grenades. I threw it back in the kid’s direction. Didn’t mean to. Just instinct.” He twisted the asteroid back on the pole. Every problem I had seemed infinitely small. I imagined a young version of Pat. Him and a wife swigging Diet Coke in their kitchen dancing to oldies. Them in a swan boat.“That’s fucked up.”“Guy, that ain’t the worst that happened. Wanna know what’s really funny?”I knew that wasn’t really a question.“The monkey got away. Not a scratch on ‘em.” Pat laughed, and whacked the asteroid again for good measure. That fixed it. We sat there and watched it, the fate of the dinosaurs playing over and over again the way it always had, like a cautionary tale told too many times to mean anything anymore. 


 When I was a kid, my birthday being in early September was good because it’s pretty far from Christmas and I’d get gifts in the middle of the year-ish. Now I was just excited for Labor Day. Despite me not responding to her for a few weeks, Mom had sent me a Visa gift card. We called. She asked about Rachel and I told her she was gone and she’d said something in that Mom voice that made me feel like a boy in the worst way possible. I put on the button-up Mom had gotten me. Took out all the pins and needles knowing I’d never be able to fold it back the way it came. I’d lost weight so the clothes didn’t fit me right. I tried to tuck the shirt in, but it made me look like an old man or one of those churchy kids you knew would turn out to be a sicko one day. I went to the coffee shop I’d planned on going to with Rachel, hoping that I might see her. Argue for why our shared vocation was something deserving of awe.When I got there, the coffee shop was busy. There was a line with people who had the money for good-fitted clothes and who knew how to wear them, but no Rachel. I thought about leaving, but I pictured someone noticing me leaving after walking in—like someone would see a squirrely guy who can’t decide what to do and go what’s his problem?I ordered a mocha latte because I knew mocha means chocolate. I sat down in a cubby. When a woman walked into the cubby, I felt like I was intruding on her space, so I moved to the bar against the wall where people usually set up their laptops, next to a little library. I grabbed a book about dinosaurs—Triassic infected the whole town. There was a chapter listing alternative theories to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs: an ice age, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, all perfectly reasonable things to stop something from living to its full potential. I wondered, who would I hold onto if the world ended like that tomorrow? What would I do? I looked at everyone in the coffee shop. The smiles. The focus. The contentment and normality they exuded. How comfortable they were in their own skin.Rachel hadn’t even been her real name. 


 The nail in the coffin for Triassic was the kid that died on Timbers, just an hour before closing on one of the last days we were going to keep the coasters open. Right when it was getting cool enough for me to stop wearing ice packs. After one of the guys running the coaster saw the bloody body in the cab, he called the ambulance. From what I could overhear, it was a plank that had been dangling too low. Our boss sent a group text saying we can’t talk to anyone, not that I wanted to, reminding us of the NDA we signed. They also mentioned the winter festival was on hold indefinitely. I went back to the swan pond and found Pat fishing like I thought I would. Nothing we could do but wait for the paramedics to get here and pronounce the kid dead. To pronounce the park dead.“I’m a damn good repairman, but I’m not God,” he said. The few guests on the other side were being shooed away, confused and complaining that they’d paid for their tickets, that they’d planned these couple days months in advance, just to bring their families here. “Management cutting my team killed that kid. Not me.”By the time the paramedics had left and the few remaining customers had been ushered out, it was getting dark. The inside of the park looked like a level in a video game without any NPCs walking around. Triassic was going to be one of those abandoned places you see on TruTV with a poorly reenacted story about that kid who died haunting it, or something like that. “You afraid Pat?”“Afraid of living long enough I want to die, maybe.”We could see the reflection of Coroner and Timbers in the pond. It was beautiful. Like two contorted snake-fish water dinosaur things in a mating ritual. I think Rachel would have dug that. I wished she were here so I could tell her about it. She’d probably noticed already, but it’d be something to say.“You ever thought about building one of your own?” I asked. It was a stupid question but anything not about the dead kid was better than nothing.“My own what, Mort?”“Roller coaster.”“Haven’t,” he said. Then he gulped. The coasters wriggled in the pond water. “Fixing things is a helluva lot different than building them.”“It’s getting cold,” I said.“Starting to think I should have worn a suit like you right now,” Pat said, laughed, then coughed.“I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself, Pat.”“Well, guy, I don’t know either. Guess I could do something with the old swingset in my backyard now.”“You have grandkids?”“No.”I stared.“Guy! Something wrong with a grown man having a swingset?”“No. I guess not.”“You could help me fix it up if yuh want.”“Not good with my hands,” I said, flopping my pleather arms.“Just need someone to hammer nails.”“I’d probably break it.”“I’ll pay you a fair wage.”How? I thought, but I didn’t say it.“I’m going to the top of Timbers,” he said. You wanna come?”“Not really.”“Gonna pussy out the last time you could ever do this? Regret’s a bitch Mortimer, trust me.”“Fine.”I followed Pat to the Timbers entrance, to the open air and narrow stairs bolted along the coaster’s track. There was a sign that said “AUTHORIZED PERSONS ONLY”. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was trespassing.“You gunna keep gawking at me or are you gunna grow some dino-gonads to match yer skin?”I followed him to the stairs.“Told you you wasn’t a loser.” He grinned.Our weight bent the steps. I kept my muzzle pointed up. The costume broke the wind for me mostly, but I could see Pat’s arms shaking as he grasped the splintered handrail. He looked brittle for the first time since I’d met him in the parking lot.When we reached the top Pat was squinting so hard it seemed like the creases would stick together. We sat in the two-by-four box at the top of the first peak, the highest peak, the Triassic Park flag waving wicked beside them. A cartoon version of Sal—of me—flailing next to us. Pat sat down so his legs hung over the side, the swan boats swirling below. It almost looked like they were alive, celebrating their freedom. I pointed my snout at Pat and waited for him to say something, but nothing came out besides guttural sighs and the occasional “yup” or “guy”. I mulled over options for conversation until a question busted out of me like an alien.“You ever been in awe of anything Pat?” I said it so stupidly. Pat didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure if he heard me or not. “I mean, have you ever seen something and just gone, like, wow, this is impossible and I can’t explain wh—”“I heard yuh.” Pat looked up, almost shocked, smiling. “Whaddabout this view, eh?” Before us was a sea of trees that surrounded the park grounds. Blinking lights above Chicxulub and Coroner. Headlamps from the final cars blinking through the slants of the trees all around the park. In the corner of my eye, I caught a stray dog pissing on a tree.“Gotta be honest with you Mort.”“What?”“The kid and the monkey,” Pat’s face was a rock, “there was no damn monkey.” He took the hammer off his belt and started tapping it on a loose nail sticking out of the wood posts, then hammering it. He kept hammering after the nail had all but disappeared into the dry, rotted wood. “I just shot that kid cuz he scared me.”We just heard the wind for a while.“It’s a nice view, yeah,” I said. In twilight, the cracks in the parking lot looked like a face. Like it was watching and waiting for us to realize something together. I stood up and crossed my arms. Uncrossed them. Crossed them again. Stared at the plunge down.“Welp.” Pat slapped his knees and groaned as he stood back up. “S’pose it’s time to retire.” He looked at the water below too. The sun dipping behind a cloud was making it harder to see the reflections.“So you’ll come around to help with the swingset?” he asked.“Sure,” I said.I turned and walked down the stairs expecting him to follow me. I heard his tools jangling, then nothing. I didn’t look back. I was too worried he wouldn’t be there. On the way down the steps, I imagined holding Rachel’s hand. When I reached the turnstiles, I stopped. Looked around. Took off the suit and draped it over a ticketing station. I walked back to the camry in nothing but my underwear, keys jangling in my hand. I texted mom that I was coming home. I got in the car, and pretended Rachel was in the passenger seat. Told her everything I was in awe of.

Continue Reading...

GO TO HELL by Katherine Plumhoff

I thought I knew what hot was. Humidity I could swallow. The wings of dead fish flies going translucent in the sun. Sprinkles melting off my ice cream cone the second I walk out of the shop. There is no ice cream here. There are plenty of dead things, but they are not stiff and quiet. They buzz. Shake. Scream. If I think about them for too long they’re all I can see. All I can hear. I like to imagine it’s a particularly exotic vacation. A desired hot — one I spent money on and rolled up all my clothes into small balls for.Before, vacations felt like something being done to me. It didn’t matter if I filled every hour with an activity, pinballing from tasting room to walking tour to theater, or if I sprawled on a towel and tried to doze. The time away had the texture, rough and abrasive, of an exfoliating mitt. I never knew what it would reveal in me. My last vacation ruined me.


D runs the paddle brush down one side of her hair and then the other. She presses argan oil into each side until it’s a glossy, nutty brown that reminds me of the wood inlays of my dad’s old car. The heat protectant goes on as a spray. The straightener sizzles as D runs it down her hair.D is soft textures and shiny surfaces — thigh-high suede boots, slinky paisley skirt — except for her earrings, two waning moons whose points cut into her rosy cheeks when she turns her head. Her rings glint in the low light and she shrugs on a canvas blazer.  "I've never done this," she says, her dark eyes glancing down as she drags her finger over the thread that keeps the blazer’s pockets shut. "I've been saving it for now."I want her to break it. I want her to mar her smooth lines of her own volition. “Do it,” I whisper. She doesn’t hear me.She rips the pocket open and smiles. “That’s it for now!” she says. “I’ll be going live again from the top of the Duomo later today, so make sure your notifications are on!”I put my phone away. I open up the album I’ve made of screenshots from her Lives, in which I can see different corners of her apartment. I soothe myself with what now looks familiar: the skylight, stamped into the sloping roof above her bed; the once-white enamel hotplate that is her only kitchen appliance; the wardrobe cabinet distinguishable from the storage cabinet by the candy-colored Anthropologie table runner that hangs down it. These wisps of knowledge give structure to the scenes I invent for when I confront her. I will be adult about it, thoughtful. I’ll bring over food that doesn’t have to be heated up. An abundance of cold dips. Baba ganoush, maybe. She served it once when her friends from America came to visit. I scroll to the screenshots from that dinner, see heaps of pallid mush on daisy plates she brought over in one of her five giant duffels when she moved from London to Milan. She’d wrapped them on a Live, swaddling them in wide-legged twill trousers that looked too thin to be effective cushioning. I watched her stack them, one on top of the other, oblivious to how easily they break. 


I’ve come to Italy to see D. I’ve followed her since last year, when Paul stopped fucking me in order to fuck her. She moved here six months ago. I held out till now to come, though I put a flight tracker on as soon as she announced the move. Two hours to get to Gatwick, a two-hour flight to Malpensa, a 40-minute bus drive down flat, gray roads papered with flat, gray billboards in front of flat, gray buildings. Five hours of travel and an hour of milling around in the airport, avoiding the food court and swiping £180 eye serums across the patch of skin above my mask and underneath my glasses. Six hours, maybe, in total. Six hours is nothing. I’m used to American distances. I’ve driven that long to saw through thick steak and push it around a plate in a chain restaurant — a neutral place my parents’ and grandparents’ propriety wouldn’t let them scream in — before turning around and driving home. 


Paul didn’t tell me her name but I found her easily enough. I told myself I wouldn’t look him up after he told me he didn’t want to be with me anymore, but I got around that by looking up his friends, and I saw her tagged in a poorly-framed shot someone on his rugby team had posted of the team and their various hangers-on at a pub in Camden. She was standing in front of big foggy windows and was the best dressed of anyone present, wearing an embroidered denim Free People suit. She had mussed lips and a red chin I recognized as courtesy of Paul’s beard burn. It looked different on her complexion than it did on mine, but I could tell, and two weeks later, it was confirmed by a video his school friend posted of a gallery opening in Shoreditch, where Paul’s hand, pale and finely scarred like old vellum, rested on the back of her delicate neck. The two of them stood in front of an oil painting of drying laundry strung across a dusty balcony in Andalucia. Their bodies stayed touching from shoulders to hip until the camera panned away. 


I started watching D’s get-ready-with-me Lives. I followed her antique shopping. Her trips to poetry readings in members’ clubs where her friends read unstructured pieces about fertility treatments. Sometimes I saw Paul, glowing like he’d been professionally lit, smiling the half-smile he prefers because it hides his small teeth. Then D went dark for an entire month. Nothing new came up, no matter how often I refreshed, and I worried she’d blocked me. I started checking on her from the account I manage for the gallery I work for. She reappeared there a few weeks later, announcing her move to Italy. She’d stream to us as she walked to Pilates, to therapy, to the Italian lessons she was taking to “reconnect with her heritage.” She walked everywhere. I told the gallery I needed to work remotely for health reasons. I watched her in bed, blinds drawn, my phone growing hot in my hand.


I get dressed for the Duomo from the top down. Tortoiseshell sunglasses. My thick blue sweater and loose brown corduroys, though little of my outfit will be visible under my coat. When I get the notification that D’s gone live again, this time from the Cathedral’s entrance, I slip on brown Chelsea boots and walk to the elevator, where I tap through Stories as I get sucked down to the lobby. 


I want thousands of people to witness every moment of my life and I want those moments to be perfect tableaux of wealth and good taste, each carousel soaked in contentment: hand-thrown pottery in cornflower blues transitioning to a rainy city street strewn with streetlamp light transitioning to me in a billowy blouse, open-mouthed and laughing. I want the people who witness me living well to be famous in their own chosen careers, blue-ticked and beautiful. I want to see and be seen at London Fashion Week and go straight to Milan Fashion Week after having RSVP’d no to New York Fashion Week because I needed some time to rest, some time to nest, some time to walk barefoot over the underfloor heating of my three-story townhouse where I host parties and serve artisanal bread and eight kinds of cheese to people who don’t eat.I want to be the one they all watch. 


I thought the shift in the tone of D’s Lives meant Paul had dumped her when she moved. I would still see her one day, I knew, but my daydreams of our time together changed. I’d be magnanimous, the hatchet fully buried, and invite her to aperitivos. We’d sit across a small metal table and our voices would rise with every round, until we’d be walking down a cobblestone road with our arms around each other, laughing at stories about the man who didn’t love us, wrapping ourselves in solidarity.Then Paul posted from Milan. (I’d seen this upon checking his profile a few weeks into sleeping with a man who was in the ensemble of the Oklahoma! revival, when I thought I was over Paul and wanted to confirm that hypothesis. I should have known better. You can only ever get over a man with a better one, and this one shouted “Yee-haw!” in an American accent when he came.) Paul had said he was too busy to go to Paris with me when the gallery sent me to cover the first international show of an Irish artist they’d signed. The artist cross-stitched portraits of male politicians in drag, and I stood in front of them, alone, pouring drinks for the balding would-be buyers and the waifs that accompanied them. While D wasn’t in his pictures from his trip to Milan, he posted a story at the natural wine bar I knew was D’s favorite. In it, a dismembered female hand poured opaque pink wine from a labelless bottle.


I’m climbing to the top of the Duomo. I saw in D’s Live that she and the German girl she’s been hanging out with since she moved are sitting on the roof, answering questions from her followers and showing them the view.The roof isn’t as corded-off as I thought it would be. Nothing could be that high and that gothically depressive in America without chin-high fences to discourage jumpers. The Madonnina, gold-leafed and gleaming, is looking up into her crown of stairs, as if she’s already interceding on behalf of the faithful swarming her.On my phone, D is talking into the camera about how this is her first time at the top of the Cathedral even though she’s lived here for months. “We didn’t go to bed until four but we weren’t going to miss this,” she says. “We pre-bought the tickets!”In front of me, D and her friend are sitting atop a marble ledge in the wan winter sun, D’s face tilted down into her front camera. They’re framed between columns capped with gargoyles. It looks like they’re floating between graves. I make my way over to them.Two little kids in puffy jackets dart in front of me and line up behind one of the slats that make up the roof. They climb up it, then scoot down gingerly, half a foot at a time, before scampering back into line to do it again. I close out of D’s Live and watch as a little girl in a toggle-front coat and a fan of dark hair lands at the bottom of the slide. Her shoes thwack against the marble and she waves in my direction. I turn and see, between D and me, a woman sitting against a column. She has a scarf tucked around her face and over the shape of a bun. She’s not encouraging the girl’s fun but she’s not discouraging it, either. On another day, D and I could have laughed at how cute these little European kids and their little European grandmother are, how much joy there is to go around; we could have taken turns on the makeshift slide, inching towards the saw-toothed city below. Today, here, now, on the roof, I open my camera and start filming as I walk closer to D. “Remember to put the 1st of March in your diary,” I hear D say. “I’m going to the season premiere of The Mandalorian and I’m bringing you all with me!”“Did I ever tell you how I gave my first handjob to Star Wars?” the German girl says.“You’re so lucky I just turned off Live,” says D. “Otherwise your DMs would be absolutely flooded with filth.”The girls start laughing and I’m there, I’m right next to them, the sun is shining and we’re all laughing at the joke, and I go up to D and her friend and stick out my hand to introduce myself.“Hello!” I say, already laughing.D squints at me. “Do I know you?” she asks politely. I take off my sunglasses and D’s face goes slack. “Hi, D.”“Shit!” she says. I wait for her to calm down.“This is Paul’s crazy ex,” she says to her friend. She turns back to me. “Why are you here?” she asks, shirking away from where I’m standing.I didn’t think D would recognize me. I follow her, but she doesn’t follow me. She has hundreds of thousands of followers and Paul deleted the two pictures he’d had up of us after he left me. I thought I’d have to explain to her who I was, tell her details about Paul — the acne scars scattered across his shoulders in pencil-eraser pink — for her to believe me.This isn’t how I wanted it to begin. I can hear the kids screaming and I want to start over. “I just—” I start, stammering a bit.“Have you not bothered me enough?” D says. She turns to the German girl. Her cheeks go pallid under her bronzer and her eyes rake across the people behind us, all of whom are consumed in their own moments of communion with the church or with their cameras. “She’s the one who messaged me saying that Paul was cheating on me, who called me 15 times a day until I changed my number.”My stomach starts to roil. I was meant to have the upper hand here. I breathe deep, counting one, two, three. I pitch my voice low: “I only want to talk. I thought you should know—”“Wait, this is the freak who sent copies of your nudes to your house?” asks the German, stepping closer to me.Ever since Paul had left his Google profile logged into my work laptop, I reviewed his emails with my morning coffee. In August, D sent him a series of shots from her vacation in Biarritz. I’d simply printed them out and sent them to the address I found on his Amazon receipt for a women's rash guard. I did write “slut” across them before sending, but considering the content, that seemed irrefutable.“Yes! I literally moved to get away from her!” D’s arm flails between us. “You emailed my mum and told her I was sleeping with my primary school teacher!” “Okay, but—” I say, reaching out to D.D scrambles farther back on the marble ledge. There’s not much space left, and she loses her balance. As she falls backwards, her legs fly up in a tangle of knees. She looks graceful even now, windmilling into nothing. “Jesus fucking Christ!” shouts the German, running to D. “Get the fuck away from us!” she screams at me, her loose blonde hair sparkling in the light. “Aiuto! Aiuto!”It’s all gone wrong. I don’t want D to die, not really; it would get her out of Paul’s life but it wouldn’t get me back in. I run to the ledge, German girl’s imperatives ignored. I see her there, balanced on a thin ledge, centimeters away from a catastrophic fall. The city below her looks tiny, the people too petite to be real.I reach my hand down to where the German girl has already been reaching. My arms are longer, and I’m stronger, and together, we haul D up one fistful of fabric at a time, fishermen bringing in the catch. D’s feet touch the ground and I try to pull her towards me. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”“Go to hell,” she spits.And so I do. The hallowed ground yawns open and swallows me down, depositing me in a slump at the gates of hell. When I can bear looking upwards, I find the gates’ inscription: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. It would make for a good caption, I think. Back on earth, on the roof of the Duomo under a blue-flame sky, my phone clatters onto the slanted marble where I just stood, still recording.

Continue Reading...

THIRD HEAVEN by Rebecca Grace Cyr

The next day, I bought the cheapest plane ticket I could find and booked a night in the Super 8 outside of Coeur d’Alene. The room had red checkered half-curtains and free toothpaste.

Continue Reading...

JUNE by Rosella Birgy


The lady who owns the condo keeps a bonsai tree that she regularly forgets to water. She wears an ankle bracelet and her best friend is a nineteen-year-old boy who “works” maintenance for the complex in the summer in exchange for a living space that’s not with his parents. His father is a no feelings kind of guy and his mother hasn’t stopped taking Valium in the three years since his older brother died in a car crash and he doesn’t know if college “is for him,” the lady writes us in her letter of instructions for general upkeep of the condo.

“There’s a six-pack of beer in the fridge for him,” she says, “if he stops by. His name is Jack and he has a key but he’ll probably knock anyway.”

Somehow, these small facts do little to reaffirm the sense of grandeur which we may have wrongly assigned this first family vacation. My parents have no intention of cracking open a cold one with an underage kid in the way that a lonely, forty-some, Floridian woman apparently would.

My mother doesn’t feel great about the aforementioned young man having a key to our home for the next week so my dad calls up maintenance on the dial-up landline because cell service is routinely patchy. They send Jack over and he gets comfortable on the floral couch. Sand from his open-toed shoes leaks onto the floor—he is unapologetic.

“You understand we can’t give you the alcohol,” my dad says as Jack nonchalantly hands over his copy of our key.

“Yeah,” Jack says. “I feel ya.”

“You drink often?” My dad asks out of curiosity.

“I dunno,” Jack replies. “It’s not much fun without someone. I’d come over once in a while and have a drink with June. She’s a cool lady. You don’t meet a whole lot of folks like her. They get in your heart.” He thumps a fist to his chest like he’s making a heartbeat but it’s on the wrong side.

“Like a second mom,” my mother offers as if mothers are qualified by their ability to supply their kids with alcohol.

“No,” Jack says and nobody makes any more observations about the nature of the relationship.

My mother’s lips purse like a skinny pufferfish.

Immediately after Jack leaves, my parents each open a can of the beer. To my dismay, June’s fridge is empty except for the remaining four beer cans, a stick of margarine, and some equally unappealing tins of tuna fish. These, I feel, are representative of June and the condo’s personality.

It’s a strange little place. The view of the ocean is spectacular. A fat, cartoonish, clay statue man sits on the kitchen counter that is bizarre enough to make people lose their appetite. A glass mermaid perches on the back of the toilet. All the furniture is mismatched and the plastic covering on the couch makes it seem like this home is only temporary, not actually lived in. The plants—including the bonsai tree—wilt in the heat.

I try to imagine June here—somehow coaxing a meal out of the tins of tuna or lovingly dusting the furniture. I try to picture her watering an assortment of dead things. I can’t, as much as I try.



June pours her can of beer into a glass because she has done this since she was fourteen and it makes her feel more mature—like a real woman. She ogles the foam as it deflates in the way that all cheap beer does. She has turned all the water in the fridge to beer, like a convenience store Jesus. She sits on the couch and her skin sticks to the plastic covering. She traces the floral pattern with her finger. Her own sweat disgusts her.

June thinks about the nice man from Pittsburgh with a job and a cookie-cutter house in a city with all four seasons and how he asked her to marry him. He would’ve made her mother very happy. June knew that the sun would give her premature wrinkles. No one between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five deserved to live on a beach. You had to earn it at some point, which June never had considered herself to. A summer away—or longer if she felt particularly ambitious—would be penance.

June thinks about her birthday (in June, of course) and tries to remember how old she is. She thinks about the young maintenance boy and how much he deserves the beach and the heat and the sun and everything good under it and she does not.

She knows that she must leave. She takes an inventory of everything that matters to her and begins to write instructions for summer renters with a lease on bronzed bodies and saltwater pools.

  1. Water the plants

Even she does not water the plants. She has never been nurturing towards anything that can’t hold up their side of a conversation. She starts again.



Continue Reading...


is beige and washed with soft, settled dust. It nests between sand dunes, two-tone hills that whistle and whisper at dusk, the breeze bringing mysterious dreams to those who sleep under its soupy night sky. My guests, pilgrims whose cotton shifts are streaked with the brown patterns of their journeys, spend the last of their silver on a bed and a meal in my inn. They are tired, worn, and bone-thin, but there is that momentary sense of relief in their eyes when they clap an ugly coin into my palm. I lead them to their cots and my husband ladles precious wine into their bowls; twice a year, he makes hard candies out of the sugar grains that have stuck to the bottoms of jars, and I hand them to the pilgrims’ children. “Ah—” I tease, holding the candy just out of reach. “Say, ‘Thank you, Mister Innkeeper!’” The parents smile as the toddlers’ fingers work to unwrap the treats. Inside the wrapping paper, my husband makes an inscription: a character from a sutra, painstakingly calligraphic and minuscule—just big enough to cast a spell. I don’t believe in these words anymore, but he does, and I adore him for his insistence on sewing whole sheets of sutras into our winter clothes so that they sometimes swish and crinkle when I do the morning chores. 

Not that we need winter clothes here in the desert, but even after twelve winters—a full zodiac cycle—we haven’t shaken that habit of renewing ourselves for the start of each year. In the weeks before the spring festival, we sew them for each other, then exchange them over a rare feast of pork buns. It would shock our younger selves, the effort we put into every stitch and our miserly use of the cloth, but now that we’re poor, we pay more attention. In recent years, I have become worried that our annual gift-giving lacks fairness, that he has ruined his eyes copying our sutras by candlelight. I have offered to write my own, but he says it wouldn’t work—heathen that I am. It has taken me some time, but this summer, I have prepared an extra gift for him: his own sword. 

When we’d left the world, he pretended not to mind leaving it behind—, he threw it nonchalantly into the Yangtze and didn’t look back. In that moment, I’d thought of that idiom, ke-zhou-qiu-jian, about the fool from the Warring States era who, instead of diving to retrieve his drowning sword, carved a mark onto the edge of the boat and said, This is where the sword fell. When we reach shore, I shall dive from here. They don’t say what happened to him afterwards. For what was a wuxia without his weapon? A martial artist without his art; a fool; a wastrel; an innkeeper, a cook—someone without a name hiding somewhere far off doing ordinary things that would never be told of over campfires across the jianghu. I’d thought of selling the sword, but my husband hadn’t wanted to draw attention with such a famous weapon. 

He’d been right, as always: when, some years ago, I began to discreetly ask about the sword, it was too easy to track it down to some middle-class collector in the capital city with the audacity to admit visitors in exchange for an entry fee. The hard part was stealing it. I debated whether to reveal myself to one of our old friends, an imperial general, perhaps, who might remember what I did for him in the war, or instead to venture out on my own with some plausible cover story. In the end, it was one of the rare merchants at the inn who helped me secure the services of a rogue wuxia who could travel to the capital and back, no questions asked. All it took was a tumble in the hay with the merchant, under the watery eyes of our one wizened donkey. And money, of course; money all the time, the entirety of my secret savings as well as one of the two gold bars we hid under the kitchen floorboards, which my husband does not often check and which I will blame on a thieving pilgrim when he does find out. 

Would a thief only steal half our gold? I must continue to work on the story, but it is hard to focus when all I can think of is the smile that will bloom on my husband’s face when I present him with the sword next week, the kind of pure and joyous smile that even he is unable to suppress, maybe even a smile with teeth! Or else I worry about the naked blade’s condition after having traveled such a distance—I could not afford the scabbard, which remains at the collector’s. I think we could go retrieve it together. We’ll shut the inn for a month or two, go on vacation for the first time; a kind of honeymoon. We could detour through Jiangnan, spy on those we left behind: our shifu, our sworn brothers and sisters who by now will have taken on disciples of their own, the teahouses where we eavesdropped on local gossip, and my husband’s grandfather, though perhaps he has died. Would it be too painful? I suppose that question is too far into the future, considering that we cannot afford to shut the inn. Business slows in the summer for reasons I still haven’t fully comprehended. Some days, there are so few guests that I am able to leave our hired girl in charge and accompany my husband to the market. 

In town, we are careful not to walk too closely together. Everyone on the Silk Road has a secret, and people in Dunhuang don’t mind these things, but it also means that any tanned, forgettable face could be masking violence. The assumption, I think, is that we are brothers, and technically we are—brothers-in-arms, fellow disciples under one shifu. I don’t mind: it reminds me of our youth, when there was always this invisible hurricane that raged in the space between our bodies and into which we would throw everything we weren’t allowed to say or feel. Sometimes I miss those days, not because we were wealthy, but because of the back-and-forth of our dance, how precarious it all was, how miraculous, how heartbreaking. Everything was so new that I’d sometimes forget we were fighting a civil war; even in the midst of a battle, when across the melee in the corner of my eye I could watch him slash and parry, I’d felt so attuned to him, as though we were the only ones there, as though my hands weren’t full of someone else’s blood. I miss that, too, but I don’t tell my husband that I do: he’d made me promise, that day on the Yangtze, that we’d leave it all behind. I think he prefers Dunhuang, our inn, the lazy fog of sunlight, the spices and curiosities brought in from the West, the foreign languages that he practices with the street sellers. The callouses on his hands have faded; instead, he has little cuts here and there from the cleaver brought down too fast or too hard. 

Today, a week before the wuxia arrives in Dunhuang with the gift, the sunset sends rays of glimmering pink clouds across the sky, and my husband stops by a Persian carpet-seller to feel the soft weave on the tapestries. I am admiring the way that his face, bathed in golden light, seems to be chiseled from the sand dunes that surround and cradle us when I am hit with a nauseating premonition and stumble a little. I steady myself against the merchant’s camel, which wavers its head, as if aware of my distress. It has suddenly occurred to me that my husband may not want his sword back at all, that I have made a terrible mistake; I have overreached, overstepped, overwhelmingly overstated—it is over. I imagine him trying and failing to hide his profound disappointment, turning his back to me as he rolls up his sleeves to knead more dough, the rise and fall of his silent shoulders. My husband is gripping my arm now, saying something with his low voice that I can’t make out—all I hear is the rush of blood in my ears and the fuzziness in my mouth. I am frozen, like that night on the battlefield so many years ago, an agony I’d forgotten. He leads me away from the crowd, into a quieter alley, and I start to calm down a little, I think. He leans against the wall next to me as my breathing slows. After some time, I shuffle closer, lean my head against his shoulder, touch his hand. He lets me. 

Continue Reading...

JEOPARDY by Ruth Aitken

As my ex-husband the Jeopardy champion won thirteen games, I racked up quite a résumé myself. I followed advice to shampoo with raw eggs. I dropped a knife and drove myself to the emergency room. I fell in love with a man on the Metro, because he made eye contact when my hand bumped his on the pole. I successfully overheard someone in the break room say about me: Yeah, her voice makes me wanna die. I wondered for the first time whether I wanted to have sex with a woman. I went too far on party drugs that were too young for me, walked into a tattoo parlor and told the guy to surprise me. The whole world was spun on serendipity, and I thought whatever he tattooed on my body would teach me some lesson I needed to learn. 

Every light source in the parlor gave off swimming starbursts of color. I had helium in my veins instead of blood, so I was taller than the tattooist. I knew plain as toast that a connection was opening between me and the divine — because eight months earlier I’d had a vision of my [then soon-to-be] ex-husband on the Jeopardy stage. I couldn’t recall him ever watching the show, but in my head he looked so right against that blue background, smiling a stiff little nerd smile behind his podium, trying too hard to make Alex Trebek laugh. And then eight months later he was right where I’d put him. He must have picked up trivia because he needed a rebound hobby once he lost his old hobby of making me feel bad. 

The tattoo artist eyed me with caution. My dilated pupils and messy hair, my skirt shedding sequins on the floor. The hospital bandages on my foot. I cried a little, which didn’t increase his trust. 

Why don’t you go sleep on it, he said. 

I said I no longer let other people tell me when to stop being stupid. 

I was so reborn that even my ex-husband the Jeopardy champion and his $268,730 couldn’t bother me. That’s what those dragonflies of light said. 

What would you die for? The tattoo artist asked. 

These days, thank God, not much, I said. 

He gave me a paper airplane, right above the crook of my elbow. It restored my faith in people, to know that you could give your body as a blank canvas to a stranger and not emerge with something big and ugly and vengeful, asshole on your forehead or Garfield on your asscheek. 

I still liked my paper airplane when the drugs wore off, still liked it when the redness healed. I went to a bar I’d never been to before and I met someone. 

What does your tattoo mean? 

I leaned so close I could smell her shampoo and said, I don’t know yet.

Continue Reading...

I WANTED TO SAY by Michael Harris Cohen

The body farm looked like any other chunk of rural Tennessee, black and white oaks, cherry trees and clearings. Only this chunk had a 12-foot fence circling it, razor wire on top, and rotting bodies within.

“Why the fence?” I asked. 

Landon, my brother’s best friend since kindergarten, shrugged. “It’s science. Can’t have people messing with science.”

We followed Landon through the woods. Last I’d heard, Landon worked night security at the mall. Now he was day security at the body farm and (supposedly) enrolled in night school. He’d abandoned his signature mullet for a crew cut.

We came upon the first body. It didn’t look like a corpse. It was more mummy or Halloween prop, skin motor oil black and bunched like a deflated air mattress. Its skull all eye sockets and teeth, the mouth gaped in a frozen moment of awe. 

“Blacker they are, longer they been dead,” Landon said. “Don’t worry. Your old man won’t look like this. He’s fresh.”


I’d skipped my father’s funeral and flown down two weeks later. My girlfriend said I needed “closure.” When my brother picked me up at the airport, I’d told him how I wanted to see dad and say some words. Maybe touch his hand. Kiss his forehead. Closure. 

My brother had shaken his head and stroked his tangled beard. “There’s no closure with the dead. It’s a one-way conversation, like talking to a busy signal.”

“Still,” I’d said. “Gotta try.”

But here I felt less certain. In life, my father was as predictable as taxes. In death, he surprised me. How was this what he’d wished and willed for his eternal remains?


There were more roped off skeletons and corpses. Some looked alive, just napping in the woods, face down and naked. One was half-covered with black plastic, legs stuck out, like an abandoned car in a yard. 

 “Hey,” my brother said, “remember how Pops used to take us to the cemetery at night? To light candles and summon spirits?”

Landon snapped his fingers. “That was fucking cool. Your old man was cool as shit.”

“That never happened,” I said.

Landon and my brother stopped and turned back to me. 

“What’re you talking about?” My brother said. “Of course it did.”

“He never did that.”

They locked eyes. 

“Mandela effect,” Landon whispered and my brother nodded.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

Landon raised his eyebrows. “I thought they taught everything in lawyer school.”

Landon spat in the direction of a stray ribcage. My brother stared at me with a look borrowed from our father. An open-mouthed, droopy face that said: Is your head screwed on backwards? 

“Maybe you just weren’t there,” my brother said. 


The path turned to gravel road. We followed it awhile, and then I saw her: the old man’s ‘71, 280SL. In the rush of his death, I’d forgotten Marilyn, his convertible. The vanity plates, TOPLWYR, still on it.

“Marilyn Mercedes?” I said.

“Pops stipulated it.” 

Landon whistled. “Hell of a car.”

“Mom thought you might try to contest the will. She said, and I quote, ‘I don’t want your brother digging his legal beak into my husband’s last wishes.’” 

“Why’s it called the Bar Exam, anyway?” Landon said. “Seems like a test I’d get cozy with. One I’d pass with flying colors.” 

Bar is short for barrister. It’s an old thing.”

“Like you.” My brother rabbit punched me, and I wrestled him into a headlock, like old times. He struggled, and I squeezed, but my heart wasn’t in it, especially with what lay ahead. I let my arm go slack, and my brother wriggled out and ran to the car, like we were kids again, homebound after a family picnic.

As a teenager, I’d told my father how much I hated Tennessee. He’d said, “No rust and nine months top down? Paradise.” 

Marilyn’s top was still down, even though it was December. Her leather seats were glazed with leaves and animal droppings. Landon rooted the keys out of his pocket. “You ready?”

I nodded, but I wasn’t sure at all. 

“First, I want you to know that your father has done a great thing. Donate your body to medicine, and they maybe use it six months. The research here, with some corpses, goes on forever.”

My brother nodded solemnly, tucking one hand under the elastic of his sweatpants. A candy bar appeared in the other.

“Second,” Landon continued, “prepare for the smell. Especially with a freshman like your father. This ain’t no dead mouse behind the fridge.” 

I nodded and he popped the trunk. 

The smell struck like a bushel of rotten fruit, a blinding, musty-sweet stench. I covered my nose and retched in my hands. The flies droned like a chorus of tiny saws.

Landon grinned wide. “That bouquet you don’t forget.” 

Inside the trunk, our father curled, chin tucking knees, fully dressed in his blue suit. It could have been anyone, but it was dad. There was the scar from his Navy years. His gold wedding band squeezed a swollen finger. 

I spoke through my hands. “Why’s he dressed?” 

“They like to study all the variables with PMI—post mortem interval,” Landon said, flicking his shoulder. “Some are naked, some are dressed, under tarps or underwater. Some in car trunks.”

I stared as  flies crawled in and out of his ears and nose. 

“The flies show up ‘bout a half hour after you die. They crawl inside and lay—”

My brother punched his shoulder. “Shut the fuck up, Lando.”

We all shut up. I stood there, gaping at a dead man in the trunk of a car. 

A crazy fantasy rushed my head. I’d swipe the keys from Landon and drive off in Marilyn, Dad still in the trunk. Top down, I’d get on I-40 and drive straight to Los Angeles, right up to the edge of the Pacific. 

My brother dropped a hand on my shoulder. “You want to speak your thing? Last words for Pops?”

I did. I didn’t. What was there to say? I’d been rehearsing my ‘done with the law’ speech for months. I’d wanted to say that the people in law school were the worst people I’d met in my life. I wanted to say that the worst of the worst, the gunners, reminded me of him. How I’d never retake the Bar. 

But I’d rehearsed the speech with a living man as an audience. Talking into this trunk felt useless. The finality of what lay there swallowed my words before I spoke them.

“It’s a weird thing,” my brother said. “Like all that’s left is an empty human suit. An empty cocoon. Like the part of us that is us goes on to something else.” 

Landon whistled “Dust in the Wind” and looked at me. 

I finally nodded, and he slammed the trunk shut.



Driving to the airport, my brother cleared his throat and spoke. “You’ve been back two days and haven’t once asked how I’m doing.” 

“You have chocolate in your beard,” I said. “Your life uniform is sweatpants and Crocs. What am I supposed to ask?”

He grinned, fingers drumming the steering wheel. “I’m in a transition phase.”

I took the bait. “You’re finding yourself.”

“I’m a caterpillar.”

 “Slow to leave its cocoon,” I said.

My brother giggled. I remembered all our father’s rationalizing riffs, the things he told himself and others on behalf of my brother, 30, and still living at home. 

My brother reminded me of the time he’d bit a bar of vanilla soap, figuring it would taste sweet. “Remember how hard Pops laughed?” 

“He was red as a stop sign. I thought he’d have a heart attack.”

My words rung like a vacuum, sucking out all sound. We rode two miles in quiet.

“He still talked about you all the time,” my brother finally said. “You know, his ‘Golden Boy,’ the New York lawyer. In Pop’s eyes, compared to you, I was one-inch tall. I started hating you.”

“More than before?”

“A lot more.” 

“Anyway, I’m not a lawyer.”

“I heard a lot of people don’t pass till the third time,” my brother said.

I wanted to say how it was better to be a one-inch caterpillar—who got to light candles in graveyards and go water skiing—than the butterfly, saddled with legacy expectations. But I just shrugged and watched the cornfields scroll past. 

At the airport, my brother pulled my suitcase out of the trunk and hugged me at the curb. He stepped on my toes, an old trick, and kissed my cheeks like a Frenchman. It was a thing he’d picked up from our father, who’d been to France exactly once during his Navy years. 

My brother winked, chocolate crumbs in his beard like mud flecks. 

“You’re in a transition phase,” he said. 

“Finding myself,” I said.

Continue Reading...