Her own parents never married – an intentional thumbing of the nose to Victorian-era London – and she wondered, as she watched her husband padding off toward the pool, leaving his statuette on the piano, if she hadn’t best done the same. She loved Charles, and she was relatively certain he loved her – at the very least he adored her – but after four years as Mrs. Charles Laughton, Elsa was well aware of her husband’s preferences and proclivities and while on the surface it didn’t bother her to the degree a wife should be bothered, things changed that morning.

Kate approached, clutching her own golden statue (clutching it, thought Elsa, as though it were made of solid gold as opposed to merely plated). She was not overly fond of Kate, but she tried to smile as though she were.

“Elsa, why the long face?” asked Kate. “I should think you’d be very pleased on Charles’ behalf. It’s a marvelous little trophy, don’t you think?” Elsa lifted her husband’s statuette from the piano. It was only then that she noticed it was not yet engraved, and something about that felt empty, and that triggered a sudden and dizzying fear of what the rest of her life might very well be like.

She excused herself without comment (causing Kate’s face to draw) and walked in the direction she’d seen her husband make his exit. He was there, by the pool, smoking with Walter and George (whose gorgeous house this was, high above Sunset Strip). Elsa walked to the edge of the blue lawn to where three evenly spaced palms swayed in the cool mid-March breeze. And as she went to adjust her stole to cover her bare shoulders, a sudden and violent wave of nausea swept from her toes to her throat and nearly without warning, she vomited into the ivy that covered the raised beds, and in doing so, she unwittingly encouraged a rat to come out of hiding. Elsa screamed. And just like in the movies, the low hum of party conversation came to a screeching halt. Looking up, she saw Charles charging toward her, calling: “Elsa. Are you all right? Are you all right, my darling?” In that moment, despite it all, she was certain they would be together for many years to come (it would be, in fact, until his death, almost thirty years hence). At her side now, Charles lifted her stole to cover her shoulders and then took both of her hands in his. “Elsa?” he asked.

“I’m fine, Charles. Just tired.”

“But my dear, you screamed.”

“Oh yes,” she said, having already forgotten. “There was a rat.”

“How hideous,” he said, moving her away from the ivy.

“I hate to ruin your night, Charles,” began Elsa.

“Don’t be silly, my dear,” said Charles. “I shall take you home at once. I’ve tired of the crowds at any rate. It will be nice to be just the two of us again.”

“Yes,” agreed Elsa. “Just the two of us.”

She had made up her mind.

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ROBOT MOTHER by Brittany Weeks

How is Raptor.  Who is Raptor. I forgot your boyfriend’s name. Raptor sent me an article about the water temple in Ocarina of Time. The article is from 2007. 

Everly’s warmth is calculated. In her eyes I might be God too. Everly is asking for help strategically, she is earning love. My throat is tight and small and my arms weigh into the ground, Everly is amused by my amusement. When her voice becomes sticky sweet and high and she innocently dances on doe legs that look shaky but move quickly around Raptor, her eyes light up as he struts directly into her trap, Everly’s eyes meet mine, I taste metallic and then I taste sweet, I have bit my own tongue.

Raptor needs: small frequent rewards; task completion; he needs challenges that are flattering but not impossible. Everly knows how to monitor his brain chemistry. She keeps his serotonin fluctuation at the perfect rate to induce addiction. Everly is not a psychologist.

After pressing SPF 50 into my skin Everly balances club masters over my face and I swat her away when she attempts to fix the brim of my hat. Everly told me once that she dove head first into icy water and that immersion in cold shocked and stopped her from having her period forever. I heard Raptor once on the phone telling someone about an article he read about techno-fundamentalism. He said Everly has a metal screw in her left knee from an accident when she was a child and I am certain that is not true and I can’t shake the image of Everly with mechanical valves in her heart medical metal arteries and veins and I imagine that Everly watches me from the ceiling while I sleep and reads my mind and somehow instead of making me feel guilty this fantasy makes me feel safe and warm and calm like being wrapped in an electric blanket. I point to the oranges packed in the Tupperware that Everly and I had prepared earlier that day when Raptor was doing work in the yard and she removes the peel and passes over an innocuous slice. As my hands shake and messages are fired from my brain and lost in a fog that grows suspended between my mind and my body she watches without judgment, and when I look at her forehead and look out to other parts of the beach she reaches over and takes the orange slice and effortlessly feeds it to me, relieving my hands, who still make the motion as though the orange slice is still there, as though they might still accomplish the job. I taste metallic and then sweet, Everly wets a paper towel and dabs my mouth, her lips have pruned and a faint line appears between her brows, she is concerned, I have bit my own tongue.  

Raptor watches her every move and moves a beach bag so that she can have a seat and he stands to go and grill a vegan patty on top of a blood-stained meat rack, gently browning each side, her faithful servant. He tells the audience about an article he read about transhumanism and gauges her reaction expertly. Raptor, a meteorologist. He adjusts his take on the article carefully, micro correcting his course according to the reading of her brow. It was an interesting article, and as a slight ruffle appears it was a far reaching article, and as the ruffle melts into amusement it was well written and insightful, Raptor reaches blindly in every direction to explore this new assertion and we watch him generate a beautiful bespoke narrative custom tailored on the spot with slight frayed edges but seams tight and the functionality that is still sound, still there, it is a dependable textile and he surveys it with pride and slight bewilderment at his own skill or luck, he holds it up like a trophy, there is a drop of sweat on his lip, it is sunny, Raptor is athletic and sharp and he is tan and he looks like a God he is naive and boyish and powerful.

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ARMILUSTRIUM by Rebecca Otter

My dad plays chess like a mathematician. Each of his turns stretch on while he contemplates the board from every angle and I forget my grand strategy. To entertain myself in these gaps, I look where his gaze falls. When he mutters to himself, is he frustrated with my playing? Or is that another tactic meant to confuse me further?

When he finally chooses one lucky piece with a heavy sigh, how that piece gleams in the TV light as he lifts it—slowly, as he does most things. My dad is okay at defense. But he’s ruthless at offense, felling knights who once had no reason to doubt their security, distracting me with someone expendable, all without warning from his cold eyes. After years of losing, I still can’t learn to sacrifice a strong soldier for the good of the army.

After I lose, we sit on the couches for a bit, then the move I always see coming—he packs his computer, laces his shoes, and plants a kiss on my hair. He leaves me with a box of polished wood and returns home to his new queen, unapproachable Venus, the one he readily sacrificed his entire army for. I’ve been watching his strategy for a long time, and so much learning to sacrifice makes it hard to remember when our war should end.

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THE SWANS WHO SAY MOM by Amanda Claire Buckley

The mother punches a mouth in the wall, and we climb through it. The mother punches a throat in the wall and the father puts a picture of daisies over it. We walk along the linings of the lungs and whisper we love our mother quietly to ourselves. We walk along the wall until it becomes the bottom of a lake. We walk along the bottom of the lake in the wall and we murmur to each other about our situation: our murmurs rise up like captions to cartoons. The bubbles fall out of the mouths of swans—we love our mother they say on the surface.

The mother bakes a soufflé with the father. The mother bakes a scuffle with the father. The soufflé sits on the windowsill until we love our mother too loud from within the walls and it breaks. The mother punches the pore of a sponge in the wall and we absorb the shock of it. The scum from the pan where the soufflé sat cooking in butter is caked on the edges of the holes in the sponge. We stare at the grime and ask innocent is what we’re supposed to suck on? The mother punches a fried egg in the wall and the father puts a hand over it, breaks it like the soufflé. He spackles we love our mother inside and we read it out loud as punishment. We suckle the sun yellow paste dry.

We crab walk with our noses scrapping against the inside of wallpaper towards the kitchen every morning. We crabs, with our translucent baby shells, move within the walls towards the kitchen as if from sand to water. We can’t make it to the table, to the sea, even though the father pulled out the chairs as far as he could—the mother’s lungs get in our way. Even from within the lungs we smell it: burnt toast, oh boy (eyes exploring the underside of our hairline) we love our mother. The house is the mother. We live inside her.

The timer goes off. The mother soufflés and we will be scalped. The wall’s lips purse and ours shut. We’ve learned how to choke from the asbestos. The mother soufflés and her throat runs like yolk and she tosses the sponge into her bag and puts her mouth to the ignition of the SUV don’t tell her, father we dropped her wallet and keys into the batter on accident we swear father and baked it at 375 degrees. She put it on the windowsill herself, though. That wasn’t us. It wasn’t our fault, but now we are hot boxed in the walls. 375 degrees. We are baked within her. We attempt to walk the circumference off. Around and around the bottom of the lake with the creamy water on top of us and the captions to the cartoons are written on the beaks of the swans following us.

We step on a packet of ketchup on the floor in the walls of the lake and it explodes we love our mother and the bubbles of red sugar float up to the top. The swans swim over the innards. Tomato blood trails their belly feathers and when other families visit the lake, they wonder what went wrong with the red belly beauties. The swans respond, mom. The swans honk, mom. Mom. Mom.

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BLOOD! by Oliver Zarandi

The elderly lady bleeds every day in my favourite cafe. The owner accommodates this and surrounds her with buckets. He mops it up. Sometimes he puts her in a bathtub, right there in the centre of the café, and she fills it up, laughing and bleeding. People applaud and remark on her unique nature.

I hate her, I tell my husband, I hate her with all my heart.

He says nothing because he’s a coward. He carries on reading his newspaper and ignores me. He has beady eyes and untrustworthy hands. He has the bony toes of a medieval Jesus.

I tell him don’t you ignore me. Don’t you remember my life?

I remember, he says. Your life is one filled with tragedies. I may order another soup.

My parents were two torso-less lugs who beat me silly with rolled up newspapers. They made me eat sharp foods and made me sleep in difficult spaces, cramming me in suitcases, washing machines, dog houses. Of course, my parents were taller than me, so I only remembered their feet. Mother and her painted toenails, father and his cracked ones.

But I grew up. I grew taller, taller than my parents and I came to know them only by the tops of their heads, two dumb scalps that got smaller with time until they both died of a cancer I didn’t care to know more about.

I demanded to know why this old lady was allowed to bleed so freely in the café.

I click my fingers at the owner. Why, I ask, why can she bleed everywhere?

I’m sorry, but she’s a regular.

Everybody was afraid of the old lady, I thought. Today, for example, she bled so hard that it came out of her ears, her mouth and eyes and made several toddlers vomit over their eggs.

I turn to my husband and pity him. He’s smaller than I am. His hair is a badly formed birds nest on his head, a whirl of thin twigs. To carry on the bird comparisons, may I add that he has a pigeon chest?

We do not get along much anymore. He’s a pint sized intellectual and like most men, he doesn’t say he knows more than me, but his eyes do the talking. I sit there and look at him and he can feel me seething at this bleeding old lady and he glances up and blinks twice, slowly, and his lips purse as if to say shush shush my darling wife of mine, don’t cause a scene.

Don’t cause a scene, I say to him. Don’t you know what I’ve been through in my life?

He says he does, but the old lady is old and she’s rich, richer than us, and there are certain times when we have to allow certain things, times when we must concede and just let it happen.

We go home that evening and I look at our house with scorn. Everything in that house was his decision. The bookshelves, the carpets, the sofas, the ottoman and the paintings, the spice racks and kitchen island, everything. Maybe because my wonderful husband is so small, so miniature, the house is an extension of his body. We go to bed inside his body and I sleep thinking of the bleeding lady and how she is celebrated.

The next morning, I decide to see what my own blood looks like, so I take a butter knife and drive it into my arm and twist it this way and that. I’m screaming, but the scream seems so dramatic, so utterly ridiculous that even my husband laughs.

Ha ha! What a terribly witch-like sound, my darling wife, he says as he take the knife and butters a croissant. I realise how ridiculous I’m being and sit down with him at the breakfast table and read the morning news.

A terrorist attack has killed thirteen people at a metro station in Paris.

My bleeding stops but my anger doesn’t. I sit there at the table as my tiny husband wears tiny Trotsky glasses, as he reads and his brain gets fat with facts and there I am, ignored, thinking of those people dead at the metro station, all their blood pooling into some huge jar somewhere in my mind. I feel an agitation in my body and I start shaking. The breakfast table starts to rattle with my convulsions and the toast rack falls down, the eggs on my husband’s plate wobble and jump, the tea pot jerks and the croissants shed their skin entirely.

My husband laughs and shakes his head and says thirteen dead! Trust the French to moan about such a low number! Try a hundred! Try two hundred! Now that’s really dead.

We return to the café for lunch. We order sausages and hash browns, coffee and tea and we sit there and glut ourselves on everything in an attempt, I believe, to fill the void that is our lives.

The waiter today looks like a rat with good clothing.

I’m unhappy with our marriage and I’ve been masturbating next to your face for thirteen years, I say over the sausage to my husband.

That’s just great, he says. I’m happy for you. But he’s engrossed in the bleeding lady. Everybody is. Chairs are positioned to look at her and people even start to touch her.

The more the merrier, she says in a bathtub of blood. She slams her chubby gout hand on the side of the tub. Bring me a mug, friends! The waiter brings her one and she scoops out a mug full of blood and passes it to my husband.

Drink up little leathery man, she says and he does. She repeats this for everybody in the café and there they all are, drinking this fat wenches blood, the centre of attention, finally validated.

I stand up and leave the café.  

I’m in the car and I pass other cars, beeping my horn the entire way. Out of way you bastards, I say and my voice is swallowed in the sound of traffic, the sounds of screaming and talking.

I arrive at the top of the mountain that surrounds the city and I think of that fat bleeding bitch and scream loud and hard, hard enough that I feel my chest go raw and for the first time in a while I feel like I’m being heard, even if it is just the wind listening.

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HOLD YOUR BREATH by Spencer Litman

Meet your wife in the hallway. Do not make the door handle click by turning it with too much force. Avoid kicking the toys scattered like landmines on the carpet. You do not want to wake your daughter, but you need to see her breathing. Walk to the crib rail like a procession of two. Place your hands on your wife’s shoulders in case she melts like she did when she found your son cold-dead in the middle of the night. Repeat this ritual while your daughter sleeps every forty minutes for the first six months of her life. 

Try not to blame yourself even though you heard him crying much earlier and rolled over thinking, he’ll go back to sleep. He always does this. Babies are resilient, and I am so tired.  

No matter how many times you have gone back and forth reassuring each other that there is no blame to be had, there is a chasm of rumpled sheets on the bed. In this forty-minute reprieve you feel close to her. Maybe if you do this enough, it will be a habit, this closeness, something you both do without thinking.

Your little daughter sleeps on her stomach, face pressed into chevron patterned sheets, butt sticking up into the air, snoring just loud enough to hear it over the soft ocean roar from a white noise machine. Your wife rests her head on your shoulder. Feel her exhalation, her relief when she sees the shallow rise and fall of your daughter’s back, unlabored and steady. 

Breathe to this fragile rhythm that only you and your wife know is fleeting, capable of slipping off while no one’s looking to somewhere implacable and permanent.

Leave the room. Close the door, still careful not to catch the mechanism in the handle. Lay in bed. Make your leg a bridge over the chasm and feel your wife’s cold toes against your shin. Hold your breath for thirty-four minutes.

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“Good morning,” she says, coffee buzzing in her grip.

“How’s it going,” Mike states, doesn’t ask.

“Living the dream,” Dave quips. Sarcastic? Who can tell.

“Do anything interesting over the weekend?” she tries.

Mike staggers to the bathroom. Door thud her only reply. Dave surveys the break room awkwardly: ceiling panes, Nestea packets, trashcan—anything but her eyes. She sighs and walks away.


Meeting Agenda:

  • First item: The jokes.
“Happy to gather for another meeting that could have been an email,” Stan chuckles.

“Ope, looks like Greg’s got the Monday face,” Andrew pokes.

“Did I have a hard weekend, or hardly any weekend at all is what I always say,” Jerry says, like always.

Peanut brittle laughter snaps between their jaws, staccato starts finish with chewy, contented murmurs. She never liked such sugar.

  • Second item: CEO Carl walks in late. Begins meeting with a greedy clap.
“So the numbers, the numbers are looking good. Up 12.4 percent over last March, but that’s counting NB3s like they’re NB1s…” Pinging jargon ricochets round floating clichés. She waits for one to hit. Hopes that it kills. Unreferenced numbers provide the backdrop, a gray curtain of statistical rain. The assault continues for 28 straight minutes.

“Look, our top priority is the bottom line, so trust the metrics, guys. We need to follow the actuaries’ roadmap if we want to land this plane with a boatload of goodies. Questions?”

  • Third item: Argument.
Jason pipes up, all folded arms and knitted brow, “I need the UWs to lower premiums if I’m going to be able to compete on top level firms.”

“We can’t go lower than our state approved rates,” Chester shrugs.

“That’s true,” she says, “but we can use the new metrics to apply to the state for a transition flex to bring down premiums on business that we really want.”

“What about the flex rate? I know Barry’s used a flex rate before!” Mark yells.

“We need to reapply for the transition rates,” she helps.

“We don’t have a flex rate.” Reggie objects.

“We can get this—we just need to apply!” No matter how she says it, no one seems to hear. She spins around in her chair, but no one seems to notice. She coughs and speaks again, but no one seems to care.

CEO Carl interjects, slaps his hands on the table. “Ah, I love this dynamism! This is what it’s all about! A back and forth, to and fro battle that’s going to paddle us forward. Good work, everyone, let’s make this work great!”

  • Final notes: No solution reached. Circle back on it next week.
(Remember donuts for Jerry’s birthday.)


Taylor from accounting saunters into the cubi-pod. “What-what, you turds—bonuses have arrived! Who’s ready for a li’l Shots Roulette? Bonus picked out of the hat pays the bill! Mike, Dave, Stan, Greg, Andrew, Jerry, Jason, Chester, Mark, Reggie: I know you bronanas are in!”

High fives are exchanged. Coats are grabbed. The digital clock strikes four and the room empties. She is alone. Her bonus envelope lies abandoned on the floor. But when she picks it up, she finds another underneath. Clean of footprints. Uncrumpled. Her coworker Barry’s name printed on the front. He didn’t make it in today. He doesn’t make it in on a lot of Mondays.

It isn’t right; she slices open the bonus letters.

She knows it isn’t right; she looks at her check amount, sees an extra digit in his.

She’s always known; she was right.

She doesn’t even bother resealing the envelopes. Her face falls Zen. A smile flickers at her lips. And sparks alight in the irises of her eyes.


There were lots of stories as to how 623 Lamplighter Square burned down. Electrical fire. That coffee pot was always sketch. Insurance arson. Apparently the business wasn’t doing well; they’d fallen behind the market’s current premiums and rates. Teenagers. Because.

But no one blamed the ghost. How could they blame someone whom they refused to notice?

She’s moved on to a better place now. Some think it’s Canada. Some think it’s the future. She calls it a place her own. Either way, she lives in limbo no more.

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HOME by Madeline Anthes

You say you’d follow him anywhere, so when he asks you to move across the country, you do. You say you’d do anything for love, and you love him.

He wants you to love your life with him.

You try.

Your rented house has plain beige walls. It’s in a suburb and has a fenced-in yard. You don’t have dogs or children to use it.

The kitchen is tiny. You bump into each other every night as you fix your lunches for the next day. You’re watching infants at a childcare center. You change diapers and clean spills all day. You hate it, but there aren’t any teaching jobs in October.

You say you’ll keep looking for another job. He has his new dream job, after all.

A career. He’s managing a plant, staying late, getting tipsy at corporate dinners. He comes home rosy cheeked and full of stories about men with names like Bill and Frank. You are never invited.

The point is he’s happy. You tell him you’ll keep trying.

He’s heard you tossing at night, seen you staring at the beige walls, watched you bite the inside of your cheek until your mouth fills with the taste of rust.

He asks you over and over what he can do.

You tell him you miss the sound of the ocean, and the feel of salt air through a cracked window. How the ceiling fan would press the air down and make you feel heavy when you were falling asleep.

He buys a machine that plays the sound of crashing waves and plugs in a fan next to your bed.

You tell him you miss how sand piled in the corners of the kitchen. You miss how the wind carried bits of shell and coral, and how you’d find flecks of it stuck to your scalp when you showered. You miss how you could scratch and scratch all day and still find bits of grit under your nails.  

You find a bag of potting sand in the hall closet and perfectly-formed piles near the fridge. One night you wake to him sprinkling sand in your hair; it pools on your pillow and sticks to the sheets. It makes your skin itch.

You tell him it’s the air and the smell and the way people dress. You tell him it’s the way you could close your eyes and feel present, alive, like a current connected you to the walls of the house. You miss belonging.

He brings in jars of sea air and wears flip flops around the house. He wears Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts to the grocery store. He looks like a parody of your old life together.

What more could you want, he asks you. What else can he do?

You tell him you don’t want anything else. There’s nothing else he can do.

You can’t replicate the heartbeat of a town, or the rhythm of a household, or the texture of a life. Even if you went back now, it’d all be different.

So you listen to your sound machine and step over the piles of sand. You tell him it’s time to start a new life.

At night, you run your fingers along your scalp and look under your nails for traces of sand.

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Phoebe was practicing being blind. She was nine years old and alone in her hotel room. It was supposed to be fun, but it wasn’t. There was no under-the-bed in which to hide, in case of a knife-wielding intruder. The closet, too obvious. She squeezed her eyes closed and reached her arms in front of her, sweeping them to either side. If the lights blinked off, she’d remember this slope of chair-ridge, the whisper of the bedspread against her thigh. Here was the sharp edge of the wall where the room narrowed to what her mom would call a foyer, her dad a hall.

She wished her brother were there so he could tell her they wouldn’t be invaded. Mason couldn’t come with her and their dad to New York because of work, he said. Or maybe because of his friends with dark makeup and chains hanging from their pockets. Because of the thin fairy scratches of poetry he wrote for a girl named Emmy. Maybe he hadn’t come because he had better places to be.

Phoebe sat on the bed and folded her legs under her. She flipped through the channels and glanced at the alarm clock. Her dad was getting a drink in the lobby while she got ready for bed, and then he’d come tuck her in. He’d left an hour ago though. She had brushed her teeth and changed into her nightgown, the one with the scalloped hem and little brown flowers. In fifteen minutes, she would go check on her dad. While New York  was actually a very safe city (or so he’d told her) it was still possible he had been abducted.

Phoebe climbed under the covers. She hated the sound of the polyester rubbing against itself, that swish swish with an under-sound like nails on a chalkboard. One week earlier, back home in Memphis, Phoebe’s family had gathered in their kitchen, seated at their regular spots around the table. Her dad stared over her head and out the window. Mason looked down at his folded hands, his nails black-tinged at the edges from the polish that their dad had made him remove the night before.

We’re getting a divorce, their mom said. It’s nothing to do with you two.

Their mom looked at Phoebe like it was Phoebe’s turn to talk. Instead she curled in her chair and watched her brother through the fringe of her hair. Mason didn’t look up from his hands. His fingernails pressed into his palms and Phoebe could see the red around them, the little crescent moons they’d leave behind.

Later, in her bedroom, Phoebe opened her closet and pushed all the stupid clothes to the side, hangers screeching across the metal pole. She hid in the corner where she’d stuck glittery stickers of horses and sharpied a rhyme she found on a bathroom wall. If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie, wipe the seatie.

Her dad called her name.

The click of the doorknob, footsteps, brown loafers and the cuffs of khaki pants approaching her.  

Phoebe, come on out, he said. I found an apartment. I want you to come with me to look at it. We can get ice cream.

The khaki legs shifted back and forth.

You’ll have your own room, and you can get bunk beds, he said.

I don’t even care about bunk beds. Phoebe rolled to face the wall. What’s Mason get? she asked.

Phoebe, her dad said. Come on. Don’t make things harder than they already are.

In the hotel elevator Phoebe realized she’d forgotten shoes. She hit L for lobby, but it stopped on the second floor, and a man came in and smiled at her. She stared at the snaking pattern in the rug and felt naked under her nightgown. She worried about foot fungus.

Hello, dear, the strange man said. How are you tonight?

She looked up. She’d been told the gaze of her wide grey eyes was unsettling. I’m fine, she said. Just going down for a night cap. She covered one naked foot with the other. I’m in town on business.

He laughed and nodded—pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and punched the buttons.

The doors parted, and the light from the lobby filled the elevator. Blue and purple bulbs shone from tracks on the ceiling, bounced off the smooth stone floors. There were glass coffee tables and chairs shaped like hands that held you. Phoebe stepped out and tugged at the hem of her nightgown. She looked around for her dad.

The bar area was in the corner, defined by a red carpet that deepened the light. A swath of shining wood and one man hustling around behind it, smiling. The bartender held a bottle high and tipped it toward a glass, let loose a glowing stream. And there was her dad, seated at a small low table rather than at the bar itself, smoking a cigarette with a woman Phoebe did not know. He cupped a glass that sparkled and prismed light across the table. He leaned back in his chair and talked to the woman, waving his hand, trailing smoke. Phoebe had never seen him say so much, not in her whole life. Tomorrow, when they got back to Memphis, her dad wouldn’t live with them anymore. No one said that, but it was true.

The elevator man touched her shoulder to move her out of his way, and the doors dinged shut behind her.

She turned and pushed the up button, because her dad didn’t smoke and she shouldn’t make things harder than they were.

On the elevator Phoebe said her room number to herself. Three-oh-four, like a song, like if you were counting and exciting about it, three-oooooh!-four. That’s how she didn’t forget. It hit her as she walked down the hall toward her room, but she pushed the thought away, hoping it would resolve itself. Standing in front of the little slitted mouth of the lock, however, she had to admit it. No key. Her nightgown, no pockets.

Shit, Phoebe said under her breath. Shit shit shit. This felt good though. Grown up. She had forgotten her keys. She was in a real situation.

Back down the hall, down the elevator, into the murky light of the lobby. Smelled like smoke and musk and Phoebe breathed it in deep. She wasn’t scared. The table where her dad had been, empty now. The woman gone too.

Phoebe made her way to their now empty table, glancing around to see if anyone was watching her. Her dad’s cigarette was crunched out in the ashtray. The last sips of his drink melting like sunlight around fancy cubes. Phoebe lifted the glass from the table, maneuvered the little black stir straw into her mouth and slurped up the last burning sips of the drink. She felt the feeling of eyes on her and set the glass down, hurried away across the lobby. A real situation.

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On December 7th, 1953, Adelbert W. “Dutch” Sherman, an unassuming man, did something to shock the whole of America. He died.

Some several hours after typing that line, I got tired of staring at a blinking cursor, and shut off my computer. “This book,” I announced to the empty room, “is putting me through Hell.”

I had thought of scrapping it more times than I could count. But, Hobbs was releasing his book on the Sherman case in a year, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t one-up him.

The problem was, Hobbs and I were starting from exactly the same place: there was a man named Adelbert Sherman, and for the better part of his story, he followed the steps laid out by the Rosenbergs before him: live an ordinary life, more or less. Be accused of treason. Be tried. Become a spectacle, for good capitalist Americans to watch during their morning oatmeal. Be convicted. Spectacle continues. Die…only, he skipped straight from Step 3 to Step 7, and left no note.

The problem with writing The Truth About “the Last Atom Spy”: there were too many truths. A warden. An informant. A niece. A soldier. A spy.

Bennie Lennox remembered Adelbert Sherman as a model prisoner. He never raised a ruckus, never cursed the guards or shouted to the heavens that he was innocent. He didn’t have much interest in socializing with his fellow prisoners, which was just fine, since they didn’t have much interest in socializing with him. He spent most of his time in the prison library, or reading something that girl of his had brought him. The Bible, the Times, The Postman Always Rings Twice, it didn’t matter, so long as it took him away from where he was. He stalked the streets with Cain’s fallen-angel heroines, played at solving crimes to make up for the ones he committed in reality.

From where he sat alone in the mess, or the yard, or the corner of his cell, he’d call “Hey, warden!” when Lennox passed by. If the warden afforded him an answer, he’d strike up a conversation about whatever volume he was currently buried in. On the day before he died, it was Myths of Greece and Rome, Guerber.

“You know the story of Prometheus?” he asked.

“Maybe I do,” Lennox answered, “maybe I don’t. The name isn’t familiar. It sounds Greek.”

“It is. Prometheus was a Titan — you know what that is? It’s kind of like an angel, or a demon, but not really either. The Greeks didn’t have the same good-evil dichotomy in their stories that we do. Anyway, this particular Titan, he stole something from Zeus. I’m sure you know who Zeus is.”

“Sure, I know who he is. The capo di tutti capi of the gods.”

“That’s the one. Anyway, Zeus didn’t much like being stolen from. He chained Prometheus to the side of mountain, and sent a great bird to eat him alive.”

“Jesus.” Lennox’s stomach twisted. “What a horrible way to die.”

“Oh, but that’s the thing: he didn’t die. His flesh knitted itself together during the night, and in the morning it started all over, the ripping-apart and stitching-back-together. Rinse and repeat. For thirty thousand years, according to this book, until Heracles came along and cut him loose.”

His stomach twisted harder. “Jesus.”

Sherman nodded. “The Greeks were fond of blood and guts.”

“What did he steal,” Lennox asked, too curious to abandon the conversation, no matter how he wanted to, “to make Zeus so angry with him?”

“Fire. He took the fire of the sun, smuggled it down to Earth in a bundle of leaves, and gave it to humanity.”

Lennox remembered taking the book, flipping through it, though he didn’t know what he expected to see; perhaps the story was in fact as Sherman had told it, perhaps it wasn’t, and he wouldn’t know either way. He’d never read the Classics. He’d never read anything, even in school. His wife read him the newspaper every morning. His mind couldn’t make sense of words in ink; it translated them mixed-up. They hurt his head. He practically threw the book back at Sherman.

Sherman caught it with ease.

Lennox bragged, later on in life, that he’d predicted it. That his conversation with Adelbert Sherman served as a kind of suicide note. He became notorious for it. He gave interviews until the day of his death.

His boast, of course, was a lie.

Mina Michaelson (Mikhailov) remembered Dutch Sherman, first, as a photograph in Agent Mayer’s hands. “This is our man. The one that got away. You’re going to get close to him, you’re going to find some dirt on him, and you’re going to bring it back to us.”

“And if I can’t?”

“You’re a pretty girl and he’s a man. You’ll get close to him, somehow, I have no doubt.”

“I mean, what if I can’t find any dirt on him? What then?”

“Make some up.”

“I thought you were supposed to stand for truth.”

Agent Mayer chuckled. He blew smoke in her face; it brought tears to her eyes, and she blinked them away, knowing he would laugh if he saw them. “You won’t have to make something up wholesale,” he assured her. “You’ll find something that could pass as dirt, if nothing else. I have no doubt.”

“Do you doubt anything?”

“Nope. Can’t afford it.”

“And what if,” she repeated, “I can’t find anything? I simply can’t?”

Agent Mayer looked at his watch, like he hadn’t a care in the world. “Do you know how easy it was to send your grandmother away? How easy it would be to do again? Slap the word Communist or anarchist on you, show off those oh-so-incriminating diaries of yours, and it’s off to Russia with you, Miss Mikhailov. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”

She remembered him, too, as the teaching assistant sitting alone in Professor James Ashley’s classroom, reading the New York Times. President Denies Clemency to Rosenbergs in Spy Case. Still dressed in his dark brown coat and hat, wet from the sudden rainstorm. He didn't look up from the paper when she sat in her desk.

“Did you know him?”



“It was a big place. Hundreds of people, what with scientists, dirty-work personnel, wives and children. Maybe I tipped my hat to him one day, talked about the weather, but no, I didn’t know a David Greenglass existed until this whole spying mess began.” He looked over his glasses at her, all severe brown eyes and ink-stained fingers as he folded the paper in his lap. “You aren’t the first person to ask me that, and I’m sure you won’t be the last, Miss…Michaelson, isn’t it?”

“Call me Mina. Mina Michaelson.”

“Adelbert Sherman, but I guess you knew that already. You can call me Dutch. Everyone does.”

Mina Mikhailov lived in America until the day she died, and if anyone called requesting a comment about Adelbert Sherman — a journalist, the makers of a TV documentary, Jonah Hobbs in the middle of writing his book — she hung up on them without a word.

Adelbert Sherman had a sister, Gabrielle, and she had a daughter, Jetta, and Jetta barely remembered her uncle — in flesh and blood — at all. He was the specter that haunted her mother, a series of dead-eyed photographs on the wall. He was her first lesson in the ways of Death.

He looked like a wax figure in his casket, too white and too still to be human. Jetta’s mother called him a kind man, but his face didn’t look kind at all. It looked eerie.

Jetta only half-remembered her mother gripping her hand so tightly she whimpered, pointing out a black-veiled woman in the front row. “That woman,” Gabrielle said, “is the reason your uncle is dead now. She set him up, and he couldn’t take it. She’s as good as a murderer.” Sometimes she remembered it clearly, sometimes she didn’t at all, sometimes it felt like a dream.

Years later, she would watch with a kind of detached curiosity whenever her uncle’s face popped up on the TV screen, or in the pages of National Geographic or suchlike. The word “trial” was always present, and “Trinity,” and “thallium.” The word “atom” and the word “spy,” usually in close succession. And a name: Wilhelmina Michaelson. “Key witness.”

Murderous bitch, she thought. She had no idea where the thought came from.

U.S. Army Captain Adelbert W. Sherman — “Dutch” to his soldier friends, for the unusual first name his parents imported from the Netherlands — was twenty-four years old and far from home, and he barely knew who he was.

He didn’t set out to become a thief. He stole the secrets he did (and they were petty secrets, worth almost nothing on the black market, even if he’d wished to sell them) to prove to himself that he could. He stole them because he was angry, in the deepest pits of his soul, about the secrecy and the lies and the destruction he could feel in my stomach that America was about to wreak. He stole them to show his middle finger. He held onto them so someone else could share his anger one day.

He held on too long.

Dutch Sherman, his friends confirmed, turned to the study of religion after Los Alamos; something about Jainism, in particular, captured his mind. While he made no effort to follow its every rule, he became obsessed with its core motif: live well, harming no one, and death will not be the end.

This is why, I reason, he wasn’t afraid to die.

Thallium poisoning isn’t quite as gory a death as being eaten alive by vultures, but it was hardly pleasant. It starts with a fever, sweating buckets. Then vomiting. Then the fits started, and by the end he was seeing things, raving and screaming. (Hallucinations be damned, Sherman kept his eyes open until the very end. If he wanted to die blindfolded, he’d have accepted the chair.)

Being dead sounds much more peaceful.

Here’s what I think, though I have no way of confirming it. His soul stayed close to his California home: it settled in a great redwood tree. The forest, unlike us meddling writers, wasn’t concerned with secrets. The forest wouldn’t care if he was a Soviet, and it didn’t care that he wasn’t. It didn’t attempt to dissect his motivation, and he was grateful for it. Perhaps no one could truly understand that he was whatever the American people needed to be, that some needed a martyr and some needed a monster and he was willing to be both. History would ask and answer who Adelbert Sherman really was until Kingdom Come, and he? He would listen to the birdsong and the whispers of his fellow redwoods, without a care in the world. Soon enough, he’d even forget who he’d once been.

There are worse fates, I think.

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