AUTOGRAPH PARTY by David Williamson

All the girls have their binders and they are all beaming, and she just has her arms all covered in her sleeves and wondering if her mother will come back before the party ends. It appears to her that the ends of Beth Beachie’s mother’s mouth almost touch her ears. Beth Beachie’s mother smiles crazy and starts it off by going to the record player and dropping the needle. A song plays that she thinks she’s heard before in a department store. Beth’s Beachie’s mother rings the bell. All the girls bounce around the floor and come together like atoms colliding on shag. She pushes her back against the corner of the fireplace.

Blaire Gurnsey comes up, starts sharing. Blaire Gurnsey has Krista Kelli the mall-pop star and one from rapper Eponymous Rex. There are others like Vic Vittles and Damien LeStrange who Blaire says are a pair of celebrity priests. When Blaire asks for hers, she shakes her head and Blaire does this back-stepping away thing even before Beth Beachie’s mom rings the bell again.

Beth Beachie comes up with a cardboard box of binders of autographs from every civil engineer from the previous year and is pushing a trade for LaDonna Marie who replaced all the town’s stoplights with artisan roundabouts but was recently fired for blocking off both lanes of traffic when managing the bridge-tunnel repairs. The bell rings and Beth Beachie moves on.

Marcy McDaniels has one single autograph from her father Dante Ferguson. Marcy McDaniels says she’s never met him and is not willing to trade anything for it unless it’s a photograph of Dante Ferguson to know for sure if she has his eyes, which her mother says she does. Does she have a picture of Dante Ferguson? No, she shakes her head.

Her arms ache from keeping them crossed. Her mother had encouraged her to fling them wide open, to be generous with who she is and what she has. That other girls would like her and would surely want what she has to offer. For several minutes she thinks of this and she suffers through more names: Snake Dog Peppers, Valerie Middlebury, Romero Bogero, Kitsch Bowers, Vip Hershey.

Jenny Oliver comes last with a binder and stares right into her insides, it feels like. Jenny asks if she has any autographs, and she says yes but doesn’t proceed to share. Jenny opens her binder and displays pieces of people protected in plastic sheets: a puss-colored fingernail clipping once belonging to the late zoologist Icky Picky and a lock of blue hair from water-dune explorer Bill Pickles. Shriveled blister skin Jenny swears is from the big toe of city psychic Lucity McLaughlin. Three impossibly large teeth, supposedly from the mouth of Os Penny, Highland monk, bulge out the plastic on one page.

Jenny Oliver presses her for what she has and advances. Arms crossed, she backs away and retreats into a small room where there’s a small bed with a floral duvet. The other girls follow and demand to know what’s happening. Even Beth Beachie’s mom with her bell comes, her pumpkin head floating above them, craning, leaning, leering in.

Fine, she thinks. She pushes up each sleeve, turns out each wrist. All the girls look at what’s scrawled from the crease of her elbows all the way to the crease of her wrists. They read each name, some fluttering on their small lips, others said aloud, and others asked as questions because the names are impossible to pronounce. After they take in the names, Venessa Bermuda says, I haven’t heard of any of those people. Janus Cooper asks, How do we even know those are their real autographs?

Do you want any? She asks.

The girls tilt their postures, and Beth Beachie’s mom shifts. Everyone looks uncomfortable. They back out slowly, not wanting any of her autographs.

She stays in the room for the rest of the night. She stays through ice cream and popcorn. She stays and watches the darkness descend upon the house. Watches for cars to come. Watches for her mother. When her mother comes, she doesn’t wait for a knock at the door. Before she slips out of the window and enters the warmth of the car and drinks it all in - the dashboard lights, the sticky pale leather, her mother’s cigarette fingers - she sloughs off her skin, leaving the inscrutable cursive of names no one wants shriveled and coiled in the folds of the comforter for someone else to find. Someone else to bear.

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There were bears there too, and tigers and wolves, and all manner of carnivorous things.

She walked around all her life, not knowing why she hurt so much. Always wondering why she was so hungry and so thirsty; always leaping at passing flames without a thought for her skin, which was worn and scarred from so many lost opportunities. And she would roar, sometimes, in the night, without knowing why. Or her mouth would suddenly be full of fangs and the taste of blood. And she would weep for the death she felt in her stomach, and kneel upon the floor. Not knowing why she hurt so much.

After many years of suffering, for no reason at all, she decided to find out what was wrong with her.

The first doctor she saw was a tired GP who looked at her strangely and said: Lady, you are fine. There is nothing wrong with you. Go home, please. There are people dying out there.

The second doctor was a little better. He at least smiled, and said she wasn’t alone. And would she like some pills?

The third doctor tried to rape her. He pressed his robber-glove hands into her crotch and whispered that he could take the pain away if only she would put his cock in her mouth.

After that, she gave up on doctors.

Instead, she went east. And in an ashram overlooking the filthy, sacred body of the Ganges, she met a guru who claimed he could levitate using only the power of his mind. She never saw this for herself, but all the other lady yogis swore it to be true, so she thought it could be possible.

The guru agreed that yes, her chakras were out of sync, and perhaps her bandhas were a little bent, or even broken. But these things can be fixed, he said, smiling like a car salesman.


She left India unsatisfied, and considerably poorer than when she arrived.

On the way home she found herself stranded in Amsterdam. Flight cancelled, wallet empty, heart pounding and spiting with all the rage of all the wild creatures. So, having no destination, she walked the midnight streets, trying to warm herself and silence the roaring in her veins. It was then that she thought that perhaps the third doctor had been right, after all. Perhaps flesh was the answer.

It was winter, and the snow fell with a deadly silence in the red-lit streets, looking like blood as it congealed around the lampposts. The ladies were out in force that night. With their shining faces and false designer handbags, heavy with the scent of plastic sweetness. They grinned at her and opened their arms, and for once in her life she felt like she wasn’t being lied to. Felt close to something honest. Something not yet violated by the pathetic corruption of human pretension.

So she did the only thing she could do, in the circumstances. She wedded those streets; became a bride of dark rooms and cheap perfume. Short skirt, hair bleached and wilting, lips ever smiling or snarling at those she called her prey.

She rather enjoyed it, the fucking. She had men and women of every race and class. Over and over. For years and years as the fat fell away, and her cheeks hollowed and her eyes grew sharp. And it almost, almost, worked. She could sense it, close. Something like purity. But still her toes itched to be claws and her bare breasts yearned to be smothered in fur. Still she hurt.


Then one night she met the psychopath in a coffee shop. She knew he was a psychopath, because he said so. I feel nothing, he said. I am like the pale canvass drawn upon with white chalk. My emotions are like rain falling in the ocean. My self swallows all to the point where nothing survives.

She agreed that yes, this was very interesting, and decided to take him to bed.

Later, exhausted and lying beside his naked body, she told him about her predicament. About her lifelong problem.

Oh, he said. This probably won’t work, but… May I? With that he took a ball point pen from his bag and drew upon her ruined skin, following the pattern weaved by a thousand tiny scars. From ankle to elbow. From wrist to navel. From philtrum to anus. They looked like constellations, at first. But no, it soon became clear that what he was drawing was a zip, running all around her body. And as he traced it with the touch of the ink she felt herself unraveling, unfurling. Coming apart.

Oh fuck, she groaned, as all the wild, starving things abruptly spilled form her body, pouncing and diving and gripping the naked psychopath, who laughed as he was consumed; his last, gargled words being: I feel… I feel... And then there was nothing but a few scattered bones and a large pool of blood, gently seeping into the carpet.

The lady lay back, then, empty on the soiled bed, and experienced a happiness so perfect it could only be called sublime. For endless minutes she drifted through a landscape of thoughtless satisfaction. A place that fitted together absolutely. And all her walls were gone, and all her hunger filled. And her eyes shone with cleanliness and joy.

But then, suddenly, she mourned.

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REFILL by Fernando Schekaiban (translated by Toshiya Kamei)

Here I am again, in this café that has transformed into a shelter of excuses. I don't know why I come back here every week. But I know myself and my pretexts. Some say I'm patient – those who value me the most – while others call me nuts. I'd say I'm in love with the sound my favorite chair makes – the one in the only corner available to customers – when you drag its wooden legs. OK, the chair is not the recipient of my love, nor is my visit to an "overcrowded" place, which allows me to listen to every sip of my coffee. The truth is, this place is becoming increasingly sadder: without people – like our relationship – with worn tablecloths and uneven coffee stains – like the echoes of my affectionate words – and with such a bad service – like her – that forced me to choose another flavor of my own resonant coffee today.

I waited for her here every week. She never showed up at the hour I expected, always a cup or two late. Did she have excuses? The first time she came, the refill of my café Americano cost me extra. She took the seat in front of me, and without offering an excuse, she asked for a menu to cover those eyes I had fallen in love with. But I was so annoyed – for having to pay for the extra coffee – that I paid my bill and left. The word "nuts" rumbled through my head. But I shouldn't let it get to me. I know we'll see each other again.

On the second date, I was dragging the chair that wasn't really mine – Forgive us, but we can't ask the other customers to avoid sitting where they want – because they would talk about the curses that the use of my things would bring upon them. She looked into my eyes from the entrance, with that strange grimace that forces her to knit her eyebrows and press her lips together, and took three steps... toward the exit. I thought about following her, asking her forgiveness for my behavior, but I heard the sound of the chair getting out of hand. There will be a third time, I told myself.

After the third, fourth, and fifth occasions, I jokingly told myself that our dates were my refills. Even today – patient – I know I'll find a new excuse – nuts – while I hear you sip your coffee. Sometimes in front of me, one or three tables away; at other times at the entrance when you first look at the place and notice that it's not to your liking; at some other times, when I still believe in love at first sight, but I can't bring myself talk to you.

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ACHE by Josh Denslow

I fell in love at age seven. Twice.

The first time was with the exquisite pang I felt when I pushed my loose upper right lateral incisor with my tongue. I'd withhold that sweet ache for hours, as if I was the drug dealer and my best customer at the same time. I'd wait as long as I could, yearning for a fix, and finally another push and the engulfing ecstasy. I never wanted to lose that power. But the damn tooth ditched me while I was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and it didn't even have the courtesy to give me one last jolt. It wasn't until I crunched into it that I realized it had come out. I washed it off and stared at that pathetic deserter, angry that our time together had come to a close. Then I put it under my pillow that night as I was told to do.

After that, at the risk of stating the obvious, I fell in love with the tooth fairy.

Claire knew, of course. In our tumultuous beginnings, I'd always tried to remain honest. It was during our longest break-up that I'd decided to buy the ring and tell her about my first love.

"I'll make you forget her," she'd said that night as I extended the engagement ring.

"I guess you can try," I said.

She lowered her bright trusting eyes to me. "Otherwise, if you bring her up again, I'll punch you directly in the face."

That certainly seemed fair to me.

She took the ring, so I figured we were all good. We got married, separated for a time, bought a house, another short separation, and then we had a son who slowly grew a mouthful of teeth and got taller and started school and played sports and then finally, after poking it with his tongue for a week, lost his first tooth.

I took a shower and changed into my favorite blue and pink striped shirt.

"Do you have a job interview, Dad?" my son said as I tucked him in after his bath.

"It's nighttime buddy," I said.

"That's the shirt you wore to that job interview."

"Which you didn't get," Claire reminded me from the doorway.

"It's my lucky shirt," I said.

Claire snorted.

"Let's move on," I said. I turned to glare at Claire and she curled her upper lip like a feral dog. She had no idea it was the same face she made when in the "throes of passion" as they said in the romance novels she voraciously read. But if I told her, she might want me to prove it, and then I'd miss out on seeing the tooth fairy. And I couldn't wait for her to see me all grown up. Other than being a lousy husband and father, I'd turned out pretty great.

"Where's your tooth?" I said to my son.

He looked really confused. "The one I lost?"


"I don't know." My son yawned, exposing the place where his lower right cuspid used to be.

"Come on, man. I told you to hang on to it."

"It's just a tooth, Dad."

"I told you it was important."

Claire clenched her jaw.

"It's probably on my desk or something," my son said.

"Go get it," I said.

"Can't I do it tomorrow?"

"No." I gave him my hardest look, eyes narrowed.

"Give him a break," Claire said. "He can look for it in the morning."

I looked at my son and talked in that quiet voice I used when I was angry. "You find that tooth and you put it under your pillow. Now."

He sniffled as he got out of bed, but as I suspected, he knew exactly where it was on his desk. A tear ran down his cheek as I gingerly tucked him back into bed.

"Don't you want a present?" I said.

"I guess." Another whimper.

"Of course you do. Now close your eyes and I'll be right back."

There was no way I was wearing my job interview shirt when the tooth fairy arrived. I pushed past Claire without looking at her.

By the time she followed me into our bathroom, I'd already switched my shirt three times and stacked the discarded contenders on the sink.

"What's with all the shirts?" she said.

"I was figuring out which looked better."

"They all look good. It's the rest of you that's a pile of shit."

"I'm not doing anything wrong. I just want to talk to her." "In your best shirt."

"Sure. Like a business meeting."

Claire rubbed her temples. "A business meeting with a person who doesn't exist. The tooth fairy isn't real."

I laughed. "Since when?"

"Since forever. It's a story we tell kids to make them feel better about their teeth falling out of their head."

"You have no idea what you're talking about," I said and decided on the maroon shirt because it would pop more in the glow from my son's nightlight.

"I know I've been distant lately," Claire said.

"Distant?" I said and looked up at her for the first time since tucking in our son. She looked hunched and defeated. In my excitement, I'd forgotten that Claire had feelings. And a lot of them had to do with me.

"See, you didn't even notice. I was ignoring you."

"You should have told me," I said.

"That I was ignoring you?"


Claire sighed. "It's a pattern with you. You push me away, and then, just before I'm completely cut loose, you let me fall back into place. It's wearing me out. I can't hold on much longer."

I almost said it wasn't true, but I knew it was.

"What we have here, in this house, that's what's real. Not some childhood masturbation fairy tale. And now your son is upset. Really upset."

Claire never looked more beautiful than in that dim light above the sink. A radiance that could only be credited to something internal. She crossed to me. For a moment, I was ready to forget everything and follow her anywhere. Maybe tell her about the face she made during sex and how I liked to read all of her romance novels before she boxed them each month and took them to Goodwill. Then she punched me in my cheek, her knuckle smashing into my upper right lateral incisor.

"I guess we had a deal," I said and rubbed my chin.

Claire shook her hand in front of her, her fingers slapping together. "God that hurts."

"Well my entire head is made of bone. There's hardly anything else there. Can I get you an ice pack?"

"Did you ever love me?" she asked.

I hesitated, even though the answer was yes. An unquestionable yes. Couldn't she see that I had? But she was gone before I opened my mouth.

Her absence felt final in the same way a tooth can never be reconnected to the gum. I'd always believed she'd never go away, no matter hard I pushed. Now I could never tell her how she'd made me forget about that night when I was seven-years-old, but I'd been too much of a fool to notice. I shut off the bathroom light and stepped into the hallway.

My son was sitting up in bed, eyes red from crying. Hair flattened from where Claire had been rubbing it. "I put the tooth under my pillow," he said as I sat at the foot of his bed.

"Good boy. That's a good boy. Dad's not mad at you." I poked at my incisor with my tongue and felt a dull throb.

My son peered at me to see if I was telling the truth. "For real?"

"For real," I said.

"What's the tooth fairy like?" He asked, and then it all came back and I was in my childhood bedroom, jerking awake as a shape moved under my pillow.

"She takes your tooth," I said. "And she leaves you a present."

My son put his head on his pillow and smiled. "I can't wait to meet her."

"Go to sleep," I said and he closed his dewy eyes. "It's better if you're asleep."

I watched his eyeballs twist under his eyelids until they finally stilled. Then I pushed harder at my incisor, my jaw aching with the effort. The pain ballooned, radiating through my gums until it was impossible to feel where it had begun. I pushed again. I looked down at my maroon shirt and a sliver of blood ran from my lip and splashed onto the front. I pushed harder. Again. And again.

I wasn't going to stop until the tooth was gone.

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I was told to meet the driver at 300 King Lear Street, which was in this subdivision full of these corny ‘medieval’ names. Court Jester and Shakespeare and shit like that. It was like the developer was stealing street names from a book of word-search puzzles. There was a sign that said “REAL HOMES”. At the end of the street a bunch of the houses were still wrapped in plastic. Later the driver told me they brought the townhomes in in pieces and then assembled them on the spot Ikea-style. I said that was weird but couldn’t explain why.

I parked my car in the parking lot of the pool, which was closed for the winter, and walked around, wishing there was a bathroom somewhere where I could pee, waiting for the driver.  One of the first things I learned about working in a delivery truck was that you didn’t get to pee much.

Finally, a big brown and gold truck showed up, and I waved at the driver so he’d know I was his helper. I was on winter break, and wanted to make money, so I’d signed up to be a “driver helper,” which was pretty much exactly what the job title implied. I put on a reflective vest with a brown and gold logo and got in the jump seat, which folded up onto the wall like the seats in a movie theater. The driver’s name was Irvin. He looked like he could be a member of Weezer, or maybe a band that was trying too hard to be Weezer.

Morrisville, it turned out, was full of this type of subdivision. All of them were brand new, with these stone facades that were supposed to look rustic and homey, but looked cold and plastic and fake. Of course, I, too, lived in a suburb, but at least my suburb had trees. There were no trees here. “They’re gonna run out of air if they keep developing like this,” Irvin said at one point. “And the road structure isn’t thought out well at all.” I supposed you became an expert at Morrisville road structures if your job was to drive through Morrisville all day.

“They call this job the golden handcuffs,” he told me. “Everyone hates it, but the benefits are too good to leave.” We made small talk about the job market, and about how expensive and stupid it was to go to college. So I felt silly saying I was studying English literature on my family’s dime, but at least I was up front about my job prospects, which were zilch.

“I was listening to a segment on NPR about student debt,” Irvin said. “And they were talking to this guy who went thousands of dollars into debt to go to Oberlin, and you know what he studied? Trombone.” As if out of everything you could study at Oberlin, trombone was the most ridiculous.

 As it happened, I knew someone who was studying trombone at Oberlin—a friend from high school. But his parents were plastic surgeons, so he could study whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted. I didn’t tell Irvin this.

A lot of the job involved speed walking up to people’s doors and up apartment building stairs, but a lot of it was just driving, too. I’d been driving a lot the past couple of days because I’d come back from college and then gone back the next day to get stuff I’d forgotten and then I’d come home again, and in between that I’d driven to pick my sister up from school but she goes to high school somewhere farther away than where I used to go, so I took two wrong turns and ended up in a different county driving over one of those nuclear power plant lakes that stay warm year round. Even driving from Apex to the distribution center in Durham was a hike. I wondered how I’d cope with a job on the road, if I were to do this full time.

The subdivisions were treeless, but once you got on the main road, the woods swallowed you up. As December afternoons are prone to do, it got dark pretty quickly. And with the trees being all empty, you could see really far through the forest. It would all be gone soon, probably, what with the developers stripping chunks of land and putting more houses down, but when you were driving through it, it looked endless. The whole time I was thinking about the Blair Witch Project, which I’d recently seen for the first time. It scared me shitless. But the scariest part of that movie was how they were trapped in the woods, and how they couldn’t get out, walking in endless circles, screaming with nobody around to hear them.

The woods looked like they could have been in the Blair Witch Project. And if it weren’t for all of these highways, you could get lost in them. I was thinking about how roads and cars made everything smaller. Like if you were a dumbass, like I was, and forgot your hiring paperwork at school, like I had, you could drive back to Greensboro to go get it, and still be home in Apex in time for dinner. And that was a couple hours’ drive, but walking that distance would take days. You could probably have five separate Blair Witch Projects in the space between Greensboro and Apex. There were enough woods for countless dumb college kids to get lost in over and over and over, going in circles for days. But we didn’t. We just cut straight through and used GPS.

We ended up near the airport, where Irvin did a lot of airport deliveries. We went past the main terminals, which I’d been to before, and then we drove around all these back parts I’d never been in, other hangars and smaller airfields for private jets. “That’s where the Carolina Hurricanes’ plane is,” Irvin told me. “I saw them boarding once. One of the rookies on the team had this massive bottle of vodka sticking out of his bag.” There wasn’t a lot for me to do near the airport, because all the deliveries there were business deliveries, which needed signatures.

We made a lot of warehouse stops. Irvin knew all the warehouse workers by name, and they greeted him when he pulled up. He’d back the truck up to the big sliding door of the warehouse and we’d load package after package from the warehouse to the truck.

At the end of the night we took all the packages we’d picked up back to the distribution facility, and put those onto a massive conveyor belt. Irvin told me about the place in West Virginia where he grew up. “It used to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in America,” he told me. “Because so many people owned small businesses. Auto shops and groceries. And everyone in town would spend money there, because you could make a decent living working in a factory. Then all the factory jobs went overseas. Now the place is a total dump.”

Afterwards he drove me back to 300 King Lear Street, and I said goodbye and gave the vest back and unlocked my car and sat in the driver’s seat, exhausted. I was so tired that I considered just lying there and taking a nap. After running packages for hours and hours, my little car felt like home. I would total it the following summer, while driving home from a high-ranking, full-time, paid government internship. I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was that my phone was about to die and I had to remember how to get out of the neighborhood before it ran out of battery and left me horrifically stranded in Morrisville.

The route home took me through the Research Triangle Park, a place that a lot of people liked to compare to Silicon Valley. All the roads and signs looked so smooth and new. It always calmed me, driving at night. When I finally made it home, my mom was still up, doing crosswords on her phone, waiting for me.

I never saw Irvin again. The second day I had a new driver, named Jenny. She was also my driver the day after that, and the day after that, all the way up to Christmas Eve.  I was told to meet her in the parking lot of this tiny grocery store on the corner of a busy intersection two minutes from my house. It was in what my friends in high school had liked to refer to as “the ghetto part of Apex,” and I had shushed them for being insensitive. But as I sat there in the parking lot, surrounded by construction workers on their lunch breaks, I realized that when it came down to it I was no better than my friends. I was just as uncomfortable as they would have been: a skinny nineteen-year-old blonde lady with my slicked-back soccer-mom ponytail in an expensive fuchsia athletic jacket with a high school honor roll magnet stuck on the bumper of her car. And I didn’t know how to stop being uncomfortable. It felt bad. People were loitering around in the parking lot, ordering from a taco truck, and giving me weird looks for taking up one of the five parking spaces and just sitting there in my car. When Jenny drove up in her big brown and gold truck, I rushed out to greet her, and she said they’d tow me if I parked there, and let me drive to a nearby bar that wouldn’t tow me.

Jenny had only been driving for three weeks. I asked her how it was so far. “It’s hard,” she said. She had four daughters. They were in her phone background, all dressed up in their Sunday best and smiling for the camera. As it turned out, her route went through three neighborhoods: mine, and two that I drove through to avoid traffic at rush hour. So I knew the street names better than she did: she was still relying on her phone’s GPS to guide her.

The whole time that we were making deliveries, I kept wondering why there were so many houses. What were they all for? Who lived here? It was my own neighborhood, but I realized that for all the nearly two decades I’d lived there, I still didn’t know the majority of the people in the neighborhood. For every house whose residents I knew, there were ten full of strangers. Neighbors and strangers alike, I delivered their boxes and boxes of things, big rugs and doormats and bags of clothing and Omaha Steaks and computers and Christmas wreaths and Bluetooth speakers.

When I was a kid one night—and maybe this was a dream and maybe it was real—I’d been hit with a bout of restless insomnia, and my dad had taken me on a drive around the neighborhood in his car to lull me to sleep. I remembered it so strangely, the way the houses and the trees were so still at night. It was calming, too, sitting in the back of my dad’s car, the same car I’d later drive around in and ultimately total. The neighborhood became a recurring location in my dreams, until the dreams became so vivid that they’d bleed over into the waking world, and I’d wander the sidewalks gazing up at the trees, struck by uncanniness. Now, in the dark, I traveled up and down the streets again and again, jumping out to run packages, running back in, wondering if I could do this for the rest of my life. Every bike ride, every school bus stop, every sugar-fueled Halloween romp was painted over the neighborhood; the sidewalks lined my strongest and most persistent memories. And I painted on more layers with repetition, package numbers, the bitterness of the wind and the aching of my knees as I stormed up and down the stairs of every house, deposited the package (sometimes gently, sometimes not), turned heel, leapt down deftly, and clambered back into the truck. Hundreds of times I repeated this, until the houses blended into each other, a long string of memories as dark as the winter sky at 6PM.

One Thursday, Jenny was sick. She looked like she had the flu. "I'm so weak," she kept telling me. But her supervisor didn’t care, so long as there were packages to be delivered. I didn't think we were going to make it through the route. We had so many packages—the truck was full, past capacity, at twice the capacity, stuffed to the brim with cardboard. The hardest part of the job was to get the right package at the right house at the right time: all of the logistics. And she usually took care of that, mostly. You had to look for the numbers on the box, and then for the house number, and her board—the handheld device that stored all the information—kept freezing and acting up, and we were fighting her brain fog. I had the mornings off, and only helped her with the residential part of the route. She was working twelve-hour days. She was fatigued and over-worked and surviving off of packaged junk foods. While we were re-arranging packages on the shelves, her oldest daughter texted her to say she’d gotten accepted into one of her top choice colleges.

I realized it then: why she’d taken the job. She had to put her daughters through school. I felt like my heart was breaking. There in the back of the truck, Jenny started to cry. I felt like I was watching a tragedy occur. This wasn't where I liked to watch tragedies occur. I preferred them from a distance, with a screen between us, so I could turn it off or click to a different tab if I didn't like what was happening.

I wanted so badly to quit. The delivery route was in the neighborhood where I lived: I could've jumped off and ran home. Selfishly, I considered it. I’d done that before—not as an employee of the delivery company, but in equally uncomfortable situations. I liked running away from things. But I made myself stay through the entire wretched evening. I knew she'd be worse off if I left, and that I wouldn’t be able to face her ever again if I ran off, so I kept running packages and trying to make up for our lack of brainpower, correcting her when she made mistakes and matched the wrong package number to the wrong house. I let myself feel like I was making some kind of grand sacrifice, like there was something noble about me sticking through with it, even though she was the one in pain.

At one point I started to cry, but in the darkness of the truck, nobody had to know. I just did the only thing I could do: when we got the right package, I took it and ran. My calves had been sore that morning, and my knees were getting torn to shreds, but it was like I didn't feel them. Jog up the lawn, place the package on the porch, jog back. Run up the lawn, put the package on the porch, run back. Sprint up, toss package, sprint back. The faster I ran, the faster it would be over. I don’t know why, but I didn’t get winded. I used to not be able to run in winter air at all—my chest would get all tight and I’d start wheezing like an asthmatic.  But that night, I ran faster and harder than I’d ever run before, and I barely felt it.

Finally we delivered the last wretched package and Jenny drove off, and I came home just as my family was getting ready for dinner. My mom had cooked the Omaha Steaks my grandparents had sent us, and the Bluetooth speaker was playing Christmas music from some a capella pop group I couldn’t stand. The Christmas tree was lit with electric lights, and the cat snuggled up to my ankles. My mom was in an unusually good mood. “I thought we could use some red meat,” she told us. “Some iron.” I showered the grime of the truck off of me, and came downstairs in pajamas, clean and dry. We all sat around the table to eat—something that didn't happen much anymore—and as I looked around the dining room, chewing my Omaha Steak, I stopped seeing home. All I saw was the inside of a house that was one of hundreds in a sprawling suburb with streets named after nothing.

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The problem with my friend Johnny was the goiter on his neck, because not only was he self-conscious of his own conspicuousness, but I also found it terribly distracting—it reminded me of the plums on the plum tree in my backyard, which my parents cared for as if it were another child, i.e. a sibling of mine, which is a depressing story in its own right.

When I looked at the goiter I wanted to bite into it and my eyes reflected this and sometimes Johnny saw, and the look Johnny always gave showed a combination of reproach and general futility that reminded me uncannily of a specific, somewhat recent incident in which Gwen caught me staring at her cleavage—Gwen was a friend of mine who had recently cleared the air of any delusion on my part on the prospect of romance.

You know when someone stares straight through you and it is frightening, because you’ve died somewhat inside them or whatever, but also because you’ve just never seen it before, like somehow your everyday POV has been replaced by a film screen and there’s a touch of some horror there and you want to look away but you can’t and like, this is just your life now?

Anyway the thing with Gwen isn’t something I need to recount or spell out—it was just like some recursive nightmare of social erring: offending Johnny in real time and then immediately reliving the incident with Gwen, and in my mind they were each angrier every successive time Johnny caught me staring at his big goiter.

I thought I was gay, it seems stupid now, but something in the chronological overlap of my discovery of my parents’ liquor cabinet and his brother’s pot stash and the development of the goiter, which went from unnoticeable to quite noticeable in only several months, caused an earthquake in me which opened up this big horrible cloying maw of empathy unlike anything I had experienced before.  When I went to bed at night I would shiver thinking about him, maybe cry a bit; I would listen to sad music and feel so overwhelmed, like my head would explode and my body would evaporate into the confined space of my bedroom—my sheets still had Pokémon on them.

We were playing video games when I leaned over and pecked him on the cheek.  I returned to my position facing the TV screen—a pixelated Stone Cold Steve Austin was celebrating his victory in an endless and silent looping animation—and we just sat there in the whole strange miasma of it until he stood up and threw the controller at my head and said,

“Get the fuck out of my house, dude.”

Walking home was lonely.  I sat under the plum tree in my yard and saw one plum on the ground that was rotting a bit and flies were buzzing over it and I thought of Johnny’s disquieting look and then Gwen’s and obviously I thought about what had just happened even though it was difficult.

When I laid in bed that night I was sad but it was fine—I’d been so long with such tapered feelings—and I wondered if things were still all right between me and Gwen.  And I thought about Johnny’s goiter.

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You were Mia Wallace for Halloween and I was sexy Harper Lee. 'How to fake blow' was stained on your phone's search history under the spiderweb cracks that cut up my fingers where I typed in my name. In all honesty, I wasn't even going to leave the house, but stoned in bed with headphones digging into the pillow is not where new friends are made. Dancing at the church party, we saw four other Mia Wallace's, each with blood running from their nostrils to the bleached spores of their mustaches. I thought we'd reek of fog machine juice forever, but it leapt from our clothes the second we stepped outside into hurricane season South Carolina. Into pie crust cooked with yams that were already purple at the edges.

'Don't worry, I'm easy to forget about. You won't even notice I'm gone, I promise,' was what you said but it was all glitter sleeting from the band of my bowl cut. It was all wet palms.

The next year you were 'Frankenstein Mia Wallace.' Same wig, white buttoned-down and blood, but with olive skin that made you look seasick, finished by a surgical scar you drew from one corner of your forehead to the other in the visor mirror of a Taurus. An expert on pretending with baking soda. On glued-in bolts. Here it was agreed upon that we were the kinds of people who bail and eventually there would come a time when we probably wouldn't talk anymore. Realistically, most people who are friends now won't still know each other in five or so years, right? It's just how things work. Two Halloweens is a good run, let's just appreciate that. But then the make-up became real.

We found out you were allergic to cheap face paint that night and for some reason I obliged when you asked me to take an Instagram of you in the hospital bed. True devotion to the character. Method acting in a wing of Scorpio babies born under another tropical storm.

By the fourth annual Monster Smash we got more specific. This was getting a little ridiculous. I asked you not to watch over me if your dream ever came true. That recurring one about a poisonous grasshopper biting you in the field behind your parent's house. It was narcissistic to think you'd want to follow me around when you had the galaxy to explore, but we still shook on it. We would not hang out as the drafts that make curtains look like they are breathing. I wouldn't haunt you and under no circumstances would you ever, in a million years, haunt me.


There were no more costume parties. There were gaps. There was returning with a sketchy tattoo of some non-existent planet, which was really a logo the city branded to you. You drew re-imagined Disney princesses in Photoshop while I stayed at home, making fun of you to my friends in our father's armchairs. 'Miriam used to be normal. She was cool. Remember that?' Before you were seized by tall buildings and drooled back out an entirely different person. Jeggings to high-waisted jeans. Dust to dust.

I heard it happened driving home from your parent's house in the Pennsylvanian woods. You swerved to avoid hitting a deer and your Taurus ended up upside down in the empty river, blood rushing to your head to rush out of it. They tested you for chemicals to see if that was a factor, but only found shrimp scampi in your stomach because that's what you always asked your mom to make. Your dad began to feel something again from the Classics of Rock Pandora station. He will spend the rest of his days hunting for deer. Avenging your death with bottle upon bottle of Buck urine.

It had been over a few years since we had talked and the person you were to me was made from different parts. Frankenstein, not Uma Thurman. Only the traits I chose to recall, branded cattle iron style on the rosy sirloin of my brain. You said 'it's all about authenticity. I know that incision mark is there, even though it's covered by the bangs of the wig.' I thought a lot about the scorpion kids born when we met and how they were all old enough to run away from home or hide up in trees now.

I didn't go to your stupid wake. I heard they played an acoustic cover of Van Halen's 'Dance the Night Away' like it was a g.d. trailer for an erotic thriller. My eulogy would've involved the shrimps trapped in your belly, that you decided to take with you. They were going down with the ship, into the barren tributary of the Susquehanna. Miriam would do that. No one would've gotten it except us.

But these were not things that were said. These were not things that happened at all. Rather, I stayed at home to watch a movie on my laptop and during a quiet part I think I heard your sneeze. We didn't make it weird, though I knew it was you. The actual you. The kind of person who, no matter how much they spit in your hand, will break a pact.

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CHILDISH THINGS by Barrett Bowlin

Hours after I first hear her voice in line at the bank, I make peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for the both of us with tall glasses of cold milk, edible memories from decades ago, and then she and I move to the daybed, together, her voice as cozy and warm as a mother's breasts.

“Point to something pink," she says, my fingers on her chest.

Her voice is bright and clear, a sparkling peal of sound, a live version of the recording made for the Little Reader for Girls I remember having in second grade, the one that took four 'C' batteries. And she's with me here, right now, warm and next to me in the nighttime.

"You found it!" she says, laughing.

You found it, the Little Reader would say, its rainbow push-button keypad worn down where I pressed my fingers.

She arches her back in my bed, cocks an eyebrow at me, says, "Point to something red." In the corner of her mouth is a breadcrumb. I leave it where I find it and move my hand away from her lips.

“Super job!" she whispers, the crow's feet at the edges of her eyes contracting. "That's great!"

She's tanned everywhere I can see, with the lines on her forehead stilled by clinic-grade botulinum, and she lives here in Santa Monica, I've learned, neighborhoods of stucco and adobe away from me, stringing a late retirement together off royalties from the recording sessions for toy companies like Hasbro and Fisher Price, from the studio work done for Mattel and Tyco and Disney. She drives a pink Mercedes she's parked in my complex's handicapped spot.

“It is great,” I say, blushing and happy after years spent away from the toy box. Somewhere over in Riverside, somewhere in my mother's attic, next to the luggage my father didn't take with him, the Little Reader for Girls' batteries corrode in their slots, acidic and dusty.

We kiss. We touch. We stretch and pull toward each other like figurines. On the nightstand next to my bed, the glasses of chocolate milk are empty, just gray rings at the bottom and lip prints on the rims. "Do you remember any other lines from the Little Reader for Girls?" I ask.

"Did you know Mattel sold millions of that unit?" she says, finding the breadcrumb on her lips and flicking it onto my floor. She's taken me up on an invitation, one stranger asking a favor of another while in line at the bank. Due for an appointment with her nephrologist first thing in the morning, she's explained, this is a one-time thing, and we'll have to be quick, so I wedge my hands under her skin.

“Can you find the letter 'C'?" she says. The words come out like music through a warm speaker.

I breathe her in close and mumble out, “Thank you so much for this,” remembering Saturday afternoons spent in an oversized papazon, pushing letters and numbers and seeing LCD cells flash on and off while the voice behind the plastic belts out, That's right! This will be over soon, this happy memory in the making, so I say, "Thank you for everything.”

She sighs after a sweet minute, rolls and turns away, and we stare at the flecks of white paint on my bedroom walls.

When she lifts up to fasten the clasp of her brassiere, she shoots a glance at her chain watch. It's late. The cloth rises up her legs like sea foam from the Pacific.

“Sorry to bother you,” I ask, “but could you say, 'It's matching time!' for me?”

The light from the neon outside glints on her fingernail polish as she clasps the front of her bra. She smirks at me before letting her lips curve down into a flat smile that says it's time to go. I smirk back, abashed, somewhere years away from here, and I watch as a stray hair from her head wheedles up into the air, dances in a blizzard of dust motes only I can see from this angle.

"Please stay," I ask. "I need this."

"You all do," she says as she clips her earrings back on, her voice turning and leaving away from me. "Every single one of you does."

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BOREDOMS by Grant Maierhofer

I’m a better tabloid than citizen. A friend of mine once wound up on the cover of their city’s something having passed out near the lawnmower he worked. He’d fixed up nearby within a building for soil and various landscaping tools and nodded off on a hillside holding his penis. I met him in treatment. He’d left one day for court and returned with pornography flat against his belly, tucked and sweated within jeans. He’d exhumed it and hatched a plot to scoop away the ceiling’s makeup and tunnel into the female rooms. I hid that night seated on the shower’s curtain while it ran, my foot wedged beneath the door so as to stop intruders. We weren’t allowed locks. This method sometimes left massive red scrapes on feet and some hid, compulsive, on the floor—their backs against the door—to compensate. I’m always compensating. I grin often and phonily. I’m not in treatment any longer.

On leaving I discovered circles of likeminded tabloids not comfortable in therapy and we’d formed groups who’d caused eruptions of boring discord. First I’d gone to the university and spraypainted NEVER WORK repeatedly down its walls. Then a friend and I we’d freed a slew of kept animals. My friend spent the night drinking and howling as was his wont, I followed the animals I kept pace with ensuring they were not hit by cars, ambling furry masses of potential yipping and sprinting at lights. I woke up sunburnt in weeds near a highway and spent the morning trying to fashion materials with which to write.

I did work, and it didn’t suit me. When I met Ivan and his cronies, then, my mind was exhausted with possibility. Ivan had worked for radio stations mostly, deejaying a bit or cleaning up, holding fundraisers or conducting yearly festivals. Through this he'd managed to start a minor label primarily made up of Japanese noise acts and solitary rural black metalish recording artists who'd likely have taken to terrorism were it not for whatever this was. I'd attended regional shows where androgynous blondes might punch guitars to spray their blood and hooded art students might conduct some throb on ancient drum machines. Ivan recorded these sets meticulously and shared them online for interested droolymouthed depressives. He sold albums, either on tape or seveninch vinyl he'd pay to have pressed when money existed. Mostly this meant nothing was released but when it was you'd hear it whispered at and slowly cults might build.

This was the nature of the thing: youths without desire for parents hunched over in rooms while longheld droning notes pushed them and they pushed back. Some were older, I was older. My friends and I we’d get in fights and get called immature by cops who’d break them up. They were right but we were searching. We’d fight each other by various rivers and fall in laughing while night slouched its dullard way to day. I don’t care for bands but experiences. I have long teeth and people look at me quick to turn and change their mind. We fed our heads on slews of chemicals and having eradicated one possibility moved on to tempered, acceptable rebellions. Bands worked. People were desperate to make these bands perform. People bought generators and stole generators and found fields far enough away where bands would play in cold. We’d circle up what cars we had to bob and hobble into one another swelling and contracting with the music. It wasn’t about longevity or rejection, it was about the sense of fabric against your skin and knowing it might rip but pushing and quieting the language in your head. It wasn’t about relating but still existed this primal scream to dress and stitch clothes together while dying down in alltoohuman smelling basements in the day.  

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