CRISP EDGES by Helena Pantsis

Bud reached into the chip bag. It crinkled, loud and coarse by the cheap, jagged foil. He dug his hand around the salt-covered potatoes, angling for the perfect one. You never want to start too big. You have to aim for those mid-range chips, the ones the size of a beer bottle’s bottom. He pulled one out, smacked his lips around it, and sucked on the tips of his fingers before going in for another. He couldn’t stop. That’s how they get you, the chip companies, the corporate potato pigs, by drowning their spuds in moreish delicacies that rot your teeth and erode your stomach lining. Bud was a sucker for anything with vinegar on it, anything that made his teeth vibrate, thin and on the verge of shattering. Pulling out another chip, he paused to look at it. It was familiar. He spun it around, tilted it forward, and Jesus Christ, there he was.

Martin Short.

“Jesus Christ, look at this,” Bud spat the crumbs of the half-chewed potato chip from his mouth.

Sitting across the sofa, Denise leaned towards Bud with her eyes half-lidded. She’d had enough of his bullshit.

“What?” she said.

Bud flung the chip closer to her, tilting it upwards so she could see it in better light.

“It’s a potato chip,” she said. “And?”

“That’s Martin Fucking Short.”


Sometimes the age gap between Bud and Denise wasn’t so bad. As long as you didn’t think about the fact that when she was born, he was graduating high school, and when she was applying to universities, he was in the middle of his first divorce. And as long as you didn’t think about the fact she didn’t know who Martin Fucking Short was.

“Martin Short!” he spoke louder, as if the volume would awaken something in her.

Three Amigos? Father of the Bride? Legend of Saturday Night Live?”

Her face remained blank, unfazed by his manic spiraling into filmography recitation. Bud scoffed, gently placed his chip on the coffee table, and pulled up a photo on his phone.

“Oh!” Denise chimed with recognition. “He was Jack Frost! In the third Santa Clause.”

Bud didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

“Okay,” he picked up the chip again, holding it alongside his phone. “See?”

Denise stopped for a moment to consider. The salt built up triangular in the middle, emulating what could be a nose, and the chip had burn lines resembling what could be eyes along its top. She supposed it could be him.

“I guess,” she said. “It just looks like a random face.”

Bud was flabbergasted.

“You’re kidding!” he said. “It’s a spitting image.”

“I don’t really see what the big deal is,” Denise went to grab for it, intent on eating it.

“Woah! No way,” Bud placed the chip on the far side of the table, away from her.

“What are you gonna do with it?” she asked, confounded.

“This has gotta be worth something,” Bud spoke confidently, picking the chip up and waving it in the air as he made to leave the room. “Just you see.”

Bud set his chip up in the study. Laying down a crisp, white page of A4 paper where the sun shone. He placed his chip in the middle, positioning it to the ideal angle, and opened the camera on his phone. Bud took a series of photos, all those which best captured the Martin Short of the chip. Bud uploaded the pictures to eBay, setting a starting price for auction at $50.

“You’re fucking kidding,” Denise said upon finding the stagnant bidding war on Bud’s computer. “No one’s gonna pay fifty bucks for a chip.”

“Not just a chip,” Bud said. “An exact fried potato replica of beloved actor Martin Short.” He pointed to the description he’d keyed into the item information.

“I think those are baked,” Denise said.

Bud kept the chip in a ziplock bag tucked in the back of the ice cube drawer in the freezer. They never went in there. The pair of them were accustomed to the summer heat and dealt with it better by removing layers. He’d looked up the best way to preserve a chip—he didn’t want Martin to go stale.

When Marl and Sue came over for drinks and a chat Bud told them about Martin the chip. About how he had put the chip on eBay, and about how you wouldn’t believe the likeness! And here’s the photos to prove it.

“I guess I see it,” Marl said, even though they couldn’t really. “So people actually buy that type of thing?”

“All the time!” Bud’s voice rose in excitement. “It’s practically memorabilia!”

Bud had spent hours staring at the glowing screen of his phone in their bed at night, his back turned to Denise. People were inclined to buy all kinds of things if they were attached to a celebrity. A piece of lint from Lindsay Lohan’s sweater from the 2005 Teen Choice Awards. A leaf in the shape of Javier Bardem’s head. Hair from David Schwimmer found on the set of ER circa 1996. A tile in the shape of an airborne Christina Applegate, if you squinted your eyes hard enough. And here he had Martin Fucking Short. A legend. A comedic genius. A star of stage and screen. Of course it was going to sell.

“Enough about that stupid chip,” Denise groaned, standing up abruptly to refill her guests’ coffee cups.

Sue sat awkwardly between them, gazing back and forth between the pair and then to Marl with her eyebrows raised.

“It’s really okay,” She said. “Um, maybe we could see it.”

“Oh no,” Bud shook his head, ignoring Denise, “I don’t want anything to happen to it.”

“Oh my God, Bud. Give it a rest, it’s a potato.” Denise rolled her eyes, dropping back down into her seat. “You haven’t even got a single bid on it.”

In the weeks after, Bud joined multiple online forums and Facebook groups, and signed up for innumerable newsletters on celebrities and Martin Short and selling memorabilia. He watched auctions on eBay, noting the number of watchers and bidders and starting and selling prices. Bud also stopped making love to Denise entirely.

When his auction ended, unsold, Bud re-uploaded his chip with the tips and tricks he’d learned from his research. He shared the link to his auction across Martin Short fan blogs and Facebook pages on celebrity collectables and subreddits on potatoes with faces. Slowly, starting his Martin chip at a price of $10, severely below retail value, Bud began to get some interest. One bid, then two, then the two going back and forth, then a third, and a forth, and suddenly, over twenty bids. With four days still left on the chip’s sale, the bidding price had skyrocketed to over $400.

Bud considered all the things he’d do with the money. He’d get a full back tattoo. He’d take all his friends out for a meal. He’d drink ’til his skin turned yellow. He’d fix the radio in his car. No, he thought, he’d save it, put it towards moving out of this dump.

Bud approached Denise returning home from work, ecstatic by the new interest in his Martin chip and his newfound wealth. She looked tired, moody, unapproachable. Bud considered for a moment not telling her. She’d probably use it to fix the heater or retile the bathroom. Besides, she’d never believed in him to begin with.

“What?” she spoke roughly in response to his vague stare, dropping her bag onto the counter.

“Four-hundred dollars,” he blurted out.

“You’re not buying any more blow right now, we can’t afford it.”

Bud hadn’t thought about that in weeks. He shook his head.

“No, I don’t need it. That’s how much the chip’s at. The auction.”

Denise furrowed her brows, sliding her jacket off and removing her shoes.

“What?” she asked, half paying attention.

Bud took his phone out, opening eBay and seeing the bid had risen to $530. He thrust the phone towards Denise. Her mouth fell open and she dropped her shoes so she could hold the phone closer.

“What the fuck?” she gasped, then began laughing. She stomped her feet like a child and threw her arms around Bud. “Five hundred fucking dollars!”

Things were really looking up. Denise let Bud choose the movie at night, and the pair of them would sit laughing at whatever crazy antic Martin Short got himself into. Bud dyed his hair a dusty brown, fixed his front teeth, and began putting on a wonky American accent at times to rise a laugh from Denise. The pair of them had never gotten along so well. Denise kept an eye on Bud’s eBay like it was the stock market, and boy were her shares climbing.

It was nice at first, then she began to speak about it as if the chip was theirs, as if Martin was their inside joke, their little secret. Denise was so happy about it, it made Bud’s skin crawl. She hadn’t even heard of Martin Short, yet now she was beyond ecstatic that this man’s face was making them money in leaps and bounds. She started to shop with less regard for home brand and sale items and began leaving late for work and arriving home before her shift ended. She was the breadwinner of the pair, or at least she was before Martin chip started pitching in.

The price rose: $900, $1000, $1100, $2000. It gave Bud goosebumps mainly, before anything else, because he was right. He knew it and Denise knew it, but the anticipation in her eyes was delight not reluctant resignation. God, why did he want it so bad?

The chip bag crinkled as Bud's hand swan dove to the bottom, him slouching on the living room sofa and gorging on salt as he did routinely. He filled his mouth with palmful after palmful of chips while glued to eBay on his phone. He emitted an auction-and-potato-chip-induced sweat. He stank of salt and chin fat. The price soared beyond anything the pair of them had ever imagined: $3000, $3500, $3900, $4300. He put the phone down, his heartbeat quickening. Denise came rushing in, her own phone glowing.

“Four fucking thousand!” she yelled.

Martin Short was his celebrity, his chip, but the reward was theirs together. He considered the money. It’d be nice to have. He could settle debts. He could pay for the veneers and hair job he’d gotten. He could get that back tat. Sure, the money would be nice. Bud put his phone down and watched the price rise and the countdown drop. He drifted backward towards the refrigerator. Denise called from the other room, relaying information he could see for himself.

Bud bent down, opened the freezer drawer, and pulled the little ice tray drawer where Martin chip lay. He grabbed the ziplock bag, slid the chip out, and stared at it. Martin’s eyes were screaming.

“Five-thousand dollars!” Denise yelled.

Bud held the chip gently. It was cold and crisp as the day he’d found it. Then he laid the chip on his tongue. He felt a chill run through him. The countdown on the auction ended. The price read $5200. Denise came rushing in, eyes wide and smile cracking. Bud closed his mouth and swallowed the chip swiftly without chewing. He felt the potato’s edges scratch the inside of his throat. Denise looked confused, then horrified.

“What the fuck did you do?” she said.

And Bud didn’t know. But he wanted to say, “I told you so.”

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My first and only job during a disastrous year in New York was at the DVD Funhouse. Little storefront on 6th avenue between 21st and 22nd street. Flatiron District. 

The place sold bootleg DVDs, Canadian imports mostly, with the ISBN barcodes scratched off. The first floor was for walk-in customers, people coming off the street to peruse the racks.

I worked in the basement. The place stretched on forever. Pallets and pallets of junk. Crates of old Blockbuster rentals. Books on tape. Useless novelties galore.

I was in charge of online sales. I turned the place around. When Victor hired me, there were two sales a week. By the time I finished, we were selling hundreds of units daily. 

Every day I took the J train from Bed-Stuy into Manhattan. I’d buy a coffee at a corner stall for a dollar. I’d get to the Funhouse, print packing slips, pull the orders, stuff them into envelopes, and cart everything to the post office around the corner.

I got pretty friendly with the old guy who worked the dock at the post office. Thirty years with USPS, he told me. A few more years and he could retire. Wonder if he made good on his word.

I had a few guys working for me. Eli was a wannabe stand-up comedian. He’d practice his routine. “My buddy’s wife had a miscarriage after they baby-proofed the house. It worked. A baby didn’t get in.” I started wearing headphones.

Then there was Eric. He had a beard. He was a die hard Giants fan. All I remember.

A kid named Jose ran the register upstairs. “New York City is the greatest place on earth,” he’d say. “Cleanest tap water in America.”

Victor’s older brother Mike was the manager. He never did much besides sit in the bathroom playing games on his BlackBerry.

I worked with another guy named Mark Kamins. His apartment had been leveled during 9/11. He got a big settlement check from the government. The money ran out. So he worked for me at the DVD Funhouse.

Victor told me Mark used to be a bigshot in the music industry. I didn’t buy it until I googled his name. Turned out Mark produced Madonna’s first single, “Everybody.” Launched her to fame. The two even used to be a couple.

I asked Mark about Madonna while we were shelving DVDs one day. I wanted to know what she was like in bed. He thought about it for a minute. “Her pussy hairs were like a brillo pad.”

Mark was a terrible employee. Couldn’t do anything right. Didn’t know how to work a computer. He kept fucking up so much I demanded Victor fire him or I’d quit.

I got what I wanted.

I never knew what happened to Mark until I started writing this. He moved to Guadalajara, Mexico. Started teaching. Died 2013. Heart attack. Fifty-seven years old.

In Mark’s obituary, Madonna says, “If it weren't for him, I might not have had a singing career. He was the first DJ to play my demos before I had a record deal. He believed in me before anyone else did. I owe him a lot.”

The Funhouse was full of rats and roaches. Biggest roaches I’ve ever seen. We’d set glue traps and sprinkle green poison pellets along holes in the walls. It got to be like a game, killing roaches. We’d fling discs that were too scratched for sale trying to slice the pests in two. I got pretty good after a while. Joey was the best.

Joey was the only guy I worked with who I had any respect for. He used to make fun of my shoes, a pair of boots that clacked when I walked. He’d laugh and say, “You sound like a chick.”

Joey and I were the same age, about twenty. That’s where the similarities ended. He was an ex-con who’d served time for dealing coke. Nearly died after some punks he’d robbed decided to get even. They jumped him, bashed Joey’s head in with an aluminum baseball bat. He showed me the dent in his shaved head.

He lived in Queens with his father, who was a bus driver. Joey had to share a room with his sister. I always thought that was weird, but Joey didn’t mind. When he wasn’t at the Funhouse, Joey was at the gym. He was always giving me tips about weight lifting. I never listened.

Joey’s dream was to join the Navy. We both knew with his criminal record there was no chance in hell of Joey becoming a sailor. The dream kept him going.

On our lunch break, Joey and I would go to McDonald’s across the street. He loved putting BBQ sauce on his McChicken. “I’m a fast food connoisseur,” he’d say, lips smeared deep red.

Joey was so strong. He’d move whole pallets single-handedly, carry hundred-pound boxes on his shoulders like it was nothing. Sometimes we’d take our rolly chairs from the desks and send each other rocketing down the endless concrete floor. If Joey was the one pushing, you’d always win the race.

I remember his biceps bulging with veins. I remember him chugging protein shakes and energy drinks. I remember him encouraging me to quit smoking. I remember him breaking wooden boards with his bare hands.

I don’t remember Joey’s last name. I can’t look him up, see what he’s done with himself this past decade. I like to imagine he’s on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Pacific, off the coast of Polynesia maybe, or the Port of Siam. He’s got a chest full of medals and a girl waiting for him back home. He’s asleep in his bunk, dreaming about a ten-story funhouse mirror. He smashes the massive glass monolith with his fist. He laughs, cracks his knuckles, and says, “Punk ass bitch.”

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YOUR HOUSE ON ZILLOW by Stephanie King

You died on a Wednesday. In the years since, when the anniversary falls on a different day of the week, everything feels off somehow. That dreamy, floaty feeling of a day, like trying to describe what it is to have loved – but not like that – a man who is gone. They say men and women can’t be friends, but it was never a problem.

Now your wife has put the house up for sale. I guess the mortgage was too much to handle on her own. I scroll through the real estate listing like playing the world’s worst first-person shooter game. Click. There’s the accent wall I helped you paint, back before accent walls were passé, the rich maroon color reminds me of your mother’s homemade cranberry sauce on all those Thanksgivings, or Manischewitz at the seders I spent with your family after mine moved away. Click. The nursery I helped fill with absurd baby gifts, retro toys that you already had tattoos of. Click. The rose trellis in the backyard where we snuck out to smoke weed and your wife pretended not to notice, because she didn’t allow smoking in the house, but when we came back in, she had put out a cheese tray or just-microwaved popcorn.

We’d been a pair since you moved down the street from me in the summer of our twelfth year. Our hijinks progressed from slipping salami through the locker slats of our enemies in middle school to the fall break when we were both home from college and took your grandma’s mobility scooter “mountain biking” up on the trails up behind your house. We took nips from a ­­­­­­­­­­pint of Wild Turkey you’d stolen because we weren’t old enough to buy one. We had to push the scooter home after the battery died, laughing so hard we almost pissed our pants. Your grown-up house is all the way on the other side of town. Someday, whoever buys it might discover the Halloween plastic severed foot we hid between studs when we replaced the drywall after a leak in the upstairs bathroom.

The house pictures don’t capture the sound of your laughter, bouncing off the walls. The living room looks staged, not like the place where I spent the night on the sofa whenever I got too drunk or it snowed too much to go home. The guest room doesn’t mention that it’s the room you died in, downstairs because you got too weak to make it up to your own room, the hospice nurses discussing your care in hushed voices in the hallway while we sat around the kitchen table poking at sandwich trays we were too disheartened to eat. I see you everywhere in the house, looking for your shadow lurking behind the ornate standing lamp in the living room or in ceiling corners like a spirit in a horror movie. Now I am your haunted house, everywhere I go.

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DIVORCED by Amy Barnes

A car the size of a house rams our house that’s the size of a house. Thunder from a 1986 Thunderbird shakes me out of my canopy bed to the window to the street. It’s the moment I know my mother is a liar, a big one. She lays there lazy for too long or maybe not long enough, in her satin-sheeted bed and satin-matching lingerie with a man who isn’t her husband or my father. Her lipstick is smeared and our house is too, a brick mouth opened up on one side. When the red lights encircle our house with the car-shaped hole in it, Mama staggers out wearing this not-father-man as a blanket. It’s not enough to hide him or her. The neighborhood sees extra glimpses that should have been kept secret -- breast tops, upper thigh thunder, rumpled bedroom hair. My brother and sister and I all stand in the cul-de-sac all in our night clothes, clothed by midnight, staring at the full moon-shaped hole that has appeared in our house galaxy, stars guiding insurance adjusters and curious neighbors who watch papers float out, folded blowing into the sky. My mother and father’s signatures land in front of our house when the papers settle. We argue over who gets what name or what parent but it’s late and we have school and cold feet so everyone goes back to sleep, except me. I follow the policemen until they find my father a sidewalk away drunk on moon and moonshine next to the battering ram car that we used to take together to the beach and back. The muscle car isn’t parked next to oceanside muscle men anymore, just idling on the curb by a curbed man sobbing into his I went to Virginia Beach and all I got was this t-shirt t-shirt. There are hangers full of my father piled in the back seat next to fast food robe wrappers and receipt pillows and balled-up Kleenex and lawyer lists of divisions of property and parents. I stand by him in bare feet and bare anger, pat his bent shoulders and ask if he needs directions home.

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THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991) by Anthony Sabourin

1.There’s Navy SEAL training where they put a bag over your head and you are on the floor and when they take the bag off you need to react to whatever situation is in front of you, like the bag comes off and it’s 4 people kicking the shit out of you, or the bag comes off and it’s one guy kicking the shit out of you then you have to go into some room and find a gun and shoot at things. Or the bag comes off and you are shoved into a tank of water. If you don’t drown you get to keep on being a Navy SEAL.I think it’s supposed to be the culmination of all of your previous training. Complete improvisation under duress. Free-flowing and jazz-like violence.I can run 50 metres before I’m out of breath. I can take a shower without crying. I can wake up with the sun creeping through the slats in the blinds, tired of being alive, and I can slump down the stairs after three hours to eat microwaved oats and look at the grey and sunless sky floating past dead tree branches, and despite this I can still go on with the act of being alive.It’s night and I am lying down on a couch in a room where a box of pizza is pressing grease into the coffee table and I eat another slice not bothering to get up and I watch the TV as Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans do…something…and consciousness escapes me. 2.I’m straining against the inevitable. I’m going to great lengths to lose an argument. I have a bad haircut. I’m shirking responsibility. I am looking to find a one armed man.I’m a fugitive. 3.I’m on a garbage island with all these billionaires. They have white hair and unbothered faces. An auctioneer is calling out a number that only goes up.A worker from a sweatshop is combing the beach for rubber bullets.I’m here by accident. I’m just a millionaire. I yearn for the Tuscan countryside, where I can lay about striking poses with this really cool sword I bought. I miss getting drunk and playing the piano beautifully.I hear one billionaire asking another “How much would you pay for a pill that turned you into a dog?”“Like 12 dollars.”I interrupt their conversation to say,“How sweet to think that Nature is solvency,that something empirically truelies just under the dead leavesthat will make us anchorites in the dark.”Which is something I stole from a poem.They turn back to each other.“What if when you changed back from being a dog there was a 10% chance you were different?”“10 dollars.”I see the worker pluck a bullet from the sand and put it in his pocket. 4.There is no longer darkness. Harsh light off the snow outside makes the room look bright and cold. I see the same room as before. There are three foot-long cylinders of aluminum foil that I know to be deli submarines. One is on the floor, one is on the coffee table, one is in the hallway that leads to the door. I react fast. I unwrap the sandwich on the floor and start eating. Loose bits of lettuce fall to the floor. I’m done with the first sandwich. I unwrap the sandwich on the coffee table and I eat that one, chewing chewing chewing, swallowing in big gulps, etc. I have not moved from the couch. I am doing great at eating the sandwiches. I have been training my whole life for this. A good deli meat sandwich should have a cross section where you can see like three types of deli meat, and ideally one of those meats is cured, and you need some good mustard and mayonnaise, and shredded lettuce and tomato, and you want a bun that is soft sure, but with a good crust too, but also not too crusty. My brain is a fog of black plastic bags being picked at by gulls. I leap off the couch (I stand up fast and feel a rush of blood to my head and see spots) and I pounce on the hallway sandwich (walk over to it too quickly and almost stumble), and I eat the last sandwich (slowly I am not hungry anymore).I stand up in the hallway, still in my sleep clothes, and see the door to the outside. I open it and feel the invigorating shock of cold air, and I run outside in my slippers, and I keep running.I’m the best Navy SEAL there ever was. 

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BABY ON BOARD by Natalie Warther

It’s not a lie. It’s just a sticker. A sticker that says there’s a baby on board, when technically there is not. Can you blame me? You’ve seen how careful people are around a new mother. Otherwise, they are reckless. Besides, people lie about much worse. And there is no sticker that says “Be careful, please, I have a lot of student debt.”

Plus, it’s not like there aren’t important things in my backseat. The screenplay I’m writing about a boy who wants to play major league baseball, for example, and a pile of towels from my mother’s garage.

Why should I want a baby anyway? My sister and her husband had a baby. They sent me a picture in the mail. Everyone looked scared.

Last week there was a whole list of specials at Vons because the 4th of July was coming and people needed beef and various dips. I grabbed my coupons and my grocery bags. On the 1, an SUV to my left matched my speed. We traveled together for too many seconds. I accelerated, but so did the SUV. The driver was looking at me, I could feel it, he was burning holes into my profile. I wanted to tell him to keep his eyes on the road, but our windows were up, and I was trying to keep my eyes on the road.

I sneaked a glance. It was a woman. She was motioning at me to roll down my window, so I did. What else can one do? The freeway blew into our cars. She was shouting at me, we were both pushing 80, she was shouting, “WHERE’S YOUR CAR SEAT?” I got a better look at her. 40s. Three kids in the back. “YOU NEED A CARSEAT FOR YOUR BABY!” The kids were staring at me: their first criminal. This woman is crazy, I thought, and then I remembered the sticker.

“I DON’T HAVE A BABY!” I yelled, but she didn’t hear me over the traffic.

“I’VE GOT YOUR PLATES. I’M CALLING 911.” She passed her purse back to one of the children to get her phone. All of them looked in horror at the pile of towels in the back.

I panicked and shouted louder, “THERE’S NO BABY ON BOARD! I DON’T HAVE A BABY! I DON’T HAVE ANYONE!” She heard me this time.

The SUV accelerated and I switched lanes, tetrising myself deeper into the system of cars who handled me with care. I am a fake mother, and a bad writer, and a common liar, and maybe a fraud, but the freeway forgave me. They made room for me. They indicated before turning and allowed me to merge. The Volvos, the Mazdas, they flanked me, escorting me, and before I knew it, I was where I needed to be, parked in a good spot right by the doors.

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We all started out in boxes because we don’t actually count as people.

They’re clones so, yes, they are technically people.

Though it was more like a vat, suspended animation sort of. It’s really weird if he lets you see a new one. Anyway. He moved us into the warehouse not long after we could crawl.

Not at the same time. They weren’t all born together. Also, I’ve never prohibited any of them from seeing where they came from. They exaggerate a lot.

Yeah, but he doesn’t let us leave the compound.

For your safety.

Whatever. Anyway. We’re based off this guy Winston Moore.

My dad.

And we live out in the desert, in this warehouse here, tucked into the side of a mountain above a ghost town called Rhyolite. There’s an old mining shaft that we use to come to the surface, but only on special occasions.

Mostly at night and on days when I can get the county sheriff to grant me a No Access permit so tourists can’t come through.

Yeah, Leroy!

He’s been very gracious about the whole thing.

This may not surprise you, but we’ve never actually met Leroy. He comes by in his cruiser and we crowd up around the mine entrance trying to listen to whatever the hell it is they talk about.

Which could get us in serious trouble one day, mind.

The thing that’s so annoying about all this is that he still hasn’t explained to us why there are us. Why more than one. I mean, we’re not stupid. OG Winston died, like, thirty years ago now. If you’re gonna break off a piece of your old man…

Guys, please one at a time.

I’ll go. Hi, I’m Grinston, I’m turning 15 next month. I think he just misses his dad, but he felt weird about not being able to clone his dad into an adult because then he’d lose him all over again.

Not neces-

Okay, hi, Jinston here. 18. No one believes me, but I actually think he’s been cloning his mom too and he’s going to try to make us have sex with her clones so we make another one of him!

But if I can clone you, why wouldn’t I just-

Blinston, 27. As far as I know, I’m the oldest. At least, the oldest one still alive. I understand there were some abortive trials where defects were noted ahead of time.

No actual abortions.

I mean, I didn’t escape unscathed because I was born without a toe. The left one, and I’m pretty sure Winston had all ten of his. 

Oh my god.

But, based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s unlikely that he even knows why he’s doing all this. Winston died in a construction accident back in the city when his son was still fairly young. All this technology was nascent then, but I don’t think he had a clear idea as to why he’d use it. Two or three years passed before the first trials. The government was selling off a bunch of land, even some of the historic monuments, which is why we’re in Rhyolite.

Used to be a gold rush town, now it’s a ghost town. Decent tourist interest, which is why they wouldn’t let me own the whole area outright.

He had no idea what he was doing. He brought his mom, his dad’s widow, technically our wife, to come and help set up the educational unit and babysit while he was getting the rest of the facility set up.

She was understanding, all things considered.

She used to tell me stories about Winston. Sometimes, she’d say “you” instead of “he”, but they were mostly harmless, probably on purpose.

She didn’t want to get too attached to you guys.

Didn’t matter. You’re our dad now. Sometimes, when we come out from the mining shaft and the sun is just setting, I look around at this tiny place that’s been claimed by the wind and the dry air, where thousands of people used to live, with all these semi-demolished buildings and rusted tin cans everywhere, and the mountains where they form this natural cul-de-sac, and all of us, different ages and sizes but all basically the same person. And we wander around, some of us split off into little groups to go and sneak some liquor, and some of us stay by your side checking the power lines and the septic tank and the heli-pod, and some of us take your car over to the next town and have dinner at the taco truck wearing wigs or fake tattoos so no one recognizes them. I look around and sometimes the moon shines down on us and for a brief moment, we all look up, dozens of us, this colony of lost boys just staring at the sky, pairs and pairs of the exact same eyes. Then we look at you standing there and we all wonder the same, wonder if this is actually a dream, and if so, why do we keep waking up in the same place.

Sometimes, it feels like I dreamt you all.

And then we remember that, apart from the occasional scold, there’s nothing keeping us from leaving. There’s too many of us now. We’re keeping the lights on. We have nothing but each other because you made sure of it. And more than anything, we feel sorry for you because you still haven’t figured us out. Before long, you’ll be alone again.

I know, I know.

But we do love you. Don’t we, guys?

I love you too.

Anyway. What was the question, again?

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Usually, when my week was shitty, I liked to order Thai food... I was the only one in the family who liked Thai food, which meant I didn’t get to order it much... But since I was getting divorced and living alone in a shitty apartment, I got to order it as much as I wanted... I was getting into it in a big way, basically... Since most weeks were shitty, I ordered Thai food most weekends... And I never got sick of it... Thai food is varied and complex... It can be very exciting, but also comforting... A perfect cuisine... I like Thai basil, which is a special kind of basil... I like the other flavors, too, but you know what I mean... Thai basil is especially good... So basically, in most ways, Thai food is perfect, is how I feel... And most of my weeks were shitty... So I wanted something perfect to level things out... I ordered Thai food to celebrate my shitty week, basically... I called it “celebrating” my shitty week because I thought that if I called it “celebrating” my shitty week, it’d feel good, like my week wasn’t actually shitty for shitty reasons, but just that I had accomplished something by getting through it—whatever it was—that made the week shitty... And the “celebration” thing usually worked... It made me feel like I had accomplished something by having a shitty week... Plus my cat came back... That was actually good... I liked my cat... That deserved an actual celebration, I thought, looking at the online menu system... And Thai food is good for a celebration... And that milk tea with the little tapioca balls is good for a celebration... Most people call it bubble tea and I liked it a lot... I liked the bubbles... I liked the tea... The whole fuckin’ she-bang, you know... The whole tea-ball game... Heh... So I ordered some bubble tea to go with my celebratory noodles and soup and those fried tofu things... I went all out, basically... I even ordered it for delivery instead of takeout... Oh yeah... Since I was really celebrating, I was really celebrating, you know... I was kicking back in a big fucking way... I told my cat to hold onto his ass, you know, because we were about to go nuts... And then it arrived and I laid out the food on my table... A little of this, a little of that... I put on some music... I gave my cat one of the triangle tofu things and he was like oh yeah, daddy... But I was most looking forward to the bubble tea to get things going... The fireworks that signified the start of the celebration... The bubble tea from that Thai place comes in a plastic cup with a plastic film/lid on top... You have to jab this special, thick straw that comes with it into the film/lid on top... And you suck up the bubbles and milk tea through the big fat straw... It’s, like, the best part of the celebration... The pop of the straw through the film/lid, I mean... It’s like a starting pistol or some shit... Like, ready, set, go motherfucker...  So when I heard that pop, I was pretty excited... Like, basically, peak excitement... I was ready...  I was set... I was going...  To suck up those little bubbles... That first suck was the cherry on top of the firework sundae to celebrate another shitty week crossed off the calendar or whatever... I opened up the paper bag that everything had come in, you know, looking to get that special, fat straw... Rifling around, you know, getting good and excited... But I’m sure by now you’ve guessed that this is where we find out there was no straw... And you’re guessing right... (There was no straw)... So I thought, Shit... Basically, I was like, My celebration is ruined... I had the bubble tea... But no way to drink it... It’s like... Shit, man... I was so fucking down about it... I’m sure you can think of something to compare it to... It was like a Twilight Zone kind of twist... I had all this bubble tea but no way to drink it... It sucked (heh)... Everything was starting to suck... But I didn’t want it to suck... And I didn’t want my food to get cold... And time was running out... The suck was starting to creep in... That creep-suck... So I started eating, just to get the party going... I figured I could come up with something... I figured I could get the bubble tea popping off just right if I was calm and patient... I wanted it to be a good night in spite of the flaws and challenges, you know... I wanted to drink and enjoy my bubble tea, of course, but there was the food, too... I ate some, you know... But I was distracted... I mean, I was actually pretty pissed off... I was getting stressed out... Chewing and slurping and feeling real upset, basically... I thought about calling back the Thai place but that was stupid... They weren’t gonna send a guy back out to my shitty apartment just to give me a straw... And I didn’t want that to happen... The delivery driver would feel like shit... And I’d feel like shit... I ate my tofu triangle things, but instead of thinking about how good they tasted, I was still thinking about the missing straw... Like, instead of thinking, Yummy yummy, I just thought, Fuck this, fuck this... Just that, over and over... Or sometimes I thought, Fucking straw... All the triangles were gone and I hadn’t even enjoyed them... I still didn’t have a plan... But I wanted to persevere... I wanted to win... That felt good, thinking about it in terms of winning... Because at that moment, I was losing... And I’ll admit that I considered giving up... But then I decided, No, you know what, fuck that, I’m gonna win... I had to figure out how to drink the bubble tea without the thick straw... It was simply a have to kind of situation... I thought about how stupid I had been...  I had been too dependent on the random whims and mistakes of other people... I was never really in control, basically... Maybe even my entire life, just pissing my pants and hoping for someone to come and change me... (I’m not sure that makes any sense, but, whatever)... So I thought about it while I started eating my pad see ewe, you know, those fat noodles with the Thai basil in it... I was in planning mode... I needed some ideas... So my first thought was that I could use a normal (skinny) straw and a spoon... Root beer float style... The old suck and scoop, you know... Yeah, that seemed good... I walked over to the Takeout Condiments and Other Bullshit drawer... There were a couple (skinny) straws in there because you never know... And there I was, in search of a straw... So, it’s like, maybe I did know, you know... I felt good about my Takeout Condiments and Other Bullshit drawer, basically... My friend Big Bruiser Dope Boy turned me onto this kind of drawer, but that’s not really relevant to the story... Then I opened my normal silverware drawer and got a good spoon... One of the small spoons that fit nicely in my mouth... You know the kind... Like a teaspoon, I guess... A good spoon for the old suck and scoop lifestyle... I went back and ripped off the plastic film/lid of the bubble tea all the way off... It felt like I was about to do some real raw dog shit to this bubble tea... I didn’t like seeing the tea that way, you know...  But I had to persevere... I stuck the straw in and readied the spoon... I sucked up some tea... The old suck part of the suck and scoop... And it tasted great... I was like, Oh yeah, good tea, just missing one thing: some motherfucking bubbles... So I scooped up some of the motherfuckers (bubbles)... Moving onto the scoop part of the old suck and scoop, now... But there was ice in the cup... I hadn’t really planned on that...  The ice was small, but still large, kind of... They crowded out the bubbles... So I had a spoonful of bubbles and ice cubes... Not ideal... Not good to be honest... I tried to slurp up a bubble with my lips with the tea still in my mouth... You know, trying to get the balance right... But I accidentally slurped up some of the ice, too... And like, oh man, the ice just ruined it all... Tea, bubbles, and ice?... No thank you... It sucked... Like, I didn’t want to crunch the cubes while trying to enjoy those little squishy motherfuckers and milky tea... So I tried spitting out the ice but it was hard to do... Try to imagine it, you know, juggling all that shit in your mouth... So the tea dribbled out of my mouth... And there was still some ice in there... Total opposite of the goal... Just full-on failure... But I figured I just had to power through, crunch up the ice in my mouth... I crunched away, man... And it was a bad experience overall... I didn’t like it very much at all... So I had to try something else... I ate some pad see ewe noodles and thought about it again... I figured I could suck up some tea with the skinny straw, but then use the straw to latch onto one of the bubbles, like, use the suction to pick up one bubble at a time... I remembered doing that shit with, like, uh... No idea, actually... But I knew I could do it... And then somehow leverage the bubble into my mouth... I thought, Alright, yeah... That seemed possible... So I sucked up some tea... I cornered one of the bubbles with my straw... I sucked on the straw... The suction worked... I was like, nice, hell yeah... I took the straw out of my mouth and put my finger over the hole... I lifted the straw... I was getting somewhere... But all the bubbles, like, it was weird... They all stuck together... It was insane... Like as soon as one bubble left the tea, it turned into a bubble magnet... All these other bubbles were along for the ride... And, all together like that, the bubble frenzy got too heavy, I guess... And the suction through the straw couldn’t hold them all up... They all plopped back into the tea... I was like, What the fuck... Maybe it was a fluke... So I tried it again... You know, suck, slurp, suck, grab, lift... Come on, man... But then... Plop... And I thought, God fucking dammit... It just wasn’t working... I ate some more pad see ewe... I just chewed it all up without thinking about the Thai basil, the skinny little caramelized onions, the little bits of egg... I was just thinking about the tea and the bubbles and the way that physics kept fucking me over... I was just chewing and scheming, basically... I had to get the bubbles individually... That was clear to me... The root beer float approach seemed good for that, but then there was the ice problem... So, yeah, there it is, I had to get rid of the ice... So I went and got a bowl... I poured the tea and bubbles and ice into the bowl, soup style... Fuck the straw, you know... Just go at it with the spoon... Bubble tea soup, basically... But that fucking ice was still causing problems... I scooped out a cube with my teaspoon... And it was pretty difficult... Surprisingly difficult, actually... But I got one out, you know, because I was persevering... I had removed one, but it was only one of many... One of, like, thirty little ice cubes... I went for some more but they danced away from my spoon... I thought, Little piece of shit ice cubes... It was obvious that it was gonna take forever... One cube at a time was just, ugh... I needed a better approach... So I decided to get the ice out with my fingers... Yeah, I know, but I figured I could corral all the cubes together and then scoop them out with my hand... A man’s hands, you know, they can do a lot of things... Beautiful instruments, basically... My hands could do almost anything... I put my fingers into the tea soup... And, you know, it didn’t feel great... Like, my dirty fingers just sloshing around in my tea... But I got most of the ice cubes out... Which was progress... It was what I wanted, you know... And then I figured I could finally go back to eating it like soup... No more straw, just full-on spoon time... But the fucking bubbles... I don’t know what it was about them, but every time I tried to scoop a few out, every bubble would stick into the bubble mass again... It was that fucking magnet shit all over again... I couldn’t separate them at all... And the tea was getting warmer because all the ice was gone... And it wasn’t really appetizing anymore, like, knowing I had fingered it all up... Thinking back on my beautiful man hands and all the dumb shit we had done together before eating... Thinking back on when the last time I washed them was... So I was feeling really defeated, basically... And the more I thought about it, I was getting more and more grossed out by the room-temperature, dirty-ass bubble tea soup I had made... So you know what... And it hurts to say this... But I just gave up... I dumped the whole fucking mess into sink... And like, you know, frosting on the cake kinda shit, the bubble mass clogged the sink hole... And I was, like, ugh, just, so fucking, ugh... So, you know, I stuck my fingers in and plucked out the gooey mass... I was feeling pretty grossed out and sad... I put the gooey mass into the garbage... I washed my hands... I sat down at the table... I looked at the rest of my pad see ewe... And this hurts to say, too, but I didn’t feel like eating it anymore... It didn’t look like food anymore... It just looked like garbage... Like, I mean, I had this epiphany, I guess... In less than a minute, probably, all this food would just be sitting in the trashcan along with the gooey ball mess and the egg shells and coffee grounds and broken glass and whatever else was in there from earlier in the week... And I was stuck with this thought about how food turns into garbage, just really ruminating on it... Thinking, like, Man, there’s almost no difference... I reasoned that maybe there was no difference... Food, garbage, food, garbage... I was looking at my food, but also looking at garbage... That’s all it was... And I thought about what a celebration was supposed to be... I thought about how maybe celebrations are a time when we distract ourselves from recognizing that everything around us is either made of garbage or slowly turning into garbage... And this celebration had failed... I saw everything for what it was: garbage, garbage, garbage... And I even felt myself decomposing... My skin flaking off... My blood turning cold and gooey... My bones buckling under the weight... I was garbage, too... What are people but walking corpses, I thought... What are corpses but special garbage, I thought... I looked at all the garbage on the table... I looked at my place in the world, my place as human, as corpse, as garbage... My place in the giant landfill... And then I realized that everything was normal... This was just how everything always is... I just hadn’t been paying attention... So I cleaned it all up... I put the garbage into the garbage... I rinsed the dishes... I took a long, sad shit... I washed my hands... I fed my cat... I went to bed... I was so fucking depressed... And I had to prepare for the next week... I thought about the week coming up... All the shit I’d have to get through just to make it to the next celebration... I thought maybe I’d try pizza... Or maybe just some Arby’s or something... I didn’t fucking know... I just wanted it all to end.

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Sunday morning my phone warns me that the air quality in Carrollton is low. I step outside and take a few deep breaths. I can see what my phone means. Not great. Most things leave something to be desired. Let me put it this way. There seems to be some room for improvement. Recently J showed me a graph and the line was going straight down.

"Well," I say. "I can't say I'm surprised."

"Actually," she says. "In this case, down is a good thing."


Lately I've been drinking this low ABV cider from the Stella Artois beer company. It's called Cidre. That's French for cider. 4.5% ABV. Basically apple juice. 

I can drink four or five of them before I start to feel a buzz. Then I can drink another four or five before I start to feel kind of sick. Then I can drink another three or four before I've made a huge mistake. Then maybe another one or two after that. Then maybe just one more. 

Life, I think, is all about finding your limits.

Or, I don't know, maybe it's about something else. I'm usually wrong about what things are about. When I first read Animal Farm I thought it was about an animal farm. I thought Gone with the Wind was going to be a weather movie, like Twister.


To be safe, J and I and the animals spend Sunday inside. We breathe the inside air. It's triple filtered. Passed through brick, drywall, and that pink insulation stuff that looks like cotton candy.

Funny story. My grandpa used to work in a cotton candy factory. I mean an insulation factory. They say that breathing in that pink crap all day is probably what killed him. One of the things. A contributing factor.

Outside, the air looks OK to me. It looks like air.

"It's more of an invisible threat," J says. 

She shows me a graph and the line is going straight down.

"Oh good," I say.

"Actually," she says. "In this case, down is bad again."


Sometimes when I can't sleep I watch these YouTube videos of this guy who picks bike locks. The videos are like twelve seconds long. That's how long it takes to pick a bike lock. Bike safety is mostly an illusion. 

Other types of safety too.

At night, when the wind blows, I can hear air getting into the duplex. Between the dried-out window seals. Underneath the doors. I've read that the air inside our homes is two to one hundred times more polluted than the air outside. And the air outside wasn't great to begin with. There's no such thing as a breath of fresh air. I think you have to go to Antarctica for something like that.


Last night while the wind was blowing and the air was getting in I was in the bathroom throwing up apple cider into the sink. I prefer throwing up into sinks. I don't know why so many people throw up into toilets. 

"Better out than in I always say," my grandpa always used to say, the one who died of cotton candy poisoning at age seventy (at his funeral my brothers and I were shocked to learn that he had “died young”). He really did use to say that too. But even all these years later, twenty-some or whatever it is, I can't for the life of me figure out what that’s supposed to mean.

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OPEN MOUTHED by Kwan Ann Tan

I knew I was in trouble the moment my co-worker caught me humming the female part to the last duet in La Boheme.

‘That sounds familiar,’ Lucy said as we stacked rows and rows of fragrant soap. ‘My grandmother loves that opera. She’s never seen it in person though, which is a shame. Maybe I should bring her one of these days.’

We laughed and continued restocking the shelves. It was a job that made a pair of opera tickets near impossible. The sound system crackled to life, and my faint memories of the song were drowned out by saccharine pop, making the store artificially cheery.

‘You know what happens in the end of that opera, right?’ Lucy asked, putting a final soap in place.

I did, having read the Wikipedia summary on the bus this morning. But I said nothing.

‘She dies.’ 


That morning, I awoke before the music started, and lay in the dark, waiting.

I had never been an early riser, but every morning I now shook myself awake in restless anticipation for the performance to start. I arose with scales in my ears, which quickly mellowed out to softer voice exercises then, as I down a cold, half-hearted breakfast, the songs. It was no secret there was an opera singer living in my building, even my letting agent muttered that she hoped I liked music when I signed the contracts. I had already heard multiple curses and shouts from other neighbours in a futile attempt to stop her from practicing so early.

I knew some of the more famous songs. Arias from Carmen, The Magic Flute, and Madame Butterfly, my father played for me on a CD when I was younger. To him, opera was the highest mark of civilization. He lived in fear that one day someone might catch him unfamiliar with some aspect of Western culture, exposing him for the farmer’s son that he was. In turn, he fed me a diet of strange facts and fancies, until I picked up the habit. My phone was filled with tabs from Wikipedia, online dictionary entries for opera terminology, and YouTube video compilations with titles like ‘top ten best opera singers in history.’

Sometimes on my way to work, I caught sight of the opera singer’s harried personal assistant, balancing coffees on a drink carrier and nearly spilling them in a rush to open the front door. She barely had time to nod before disappearing into the mysterious depths of the opera singer’s ground floor flat.

When I left that morning, I couldn’t resist the urge to look at the singer’s window. She stood in the dark lit by faint sunrise glow, mouth trilling wildly in a perfect O. She stopped when our eyes met, mouth still open, daring me to complain about the noise. Even in the dim light, I could see that she was beautiful.

As I walked away, she resumed her song, like a concert performance suddenly unmuted.


My neighbour on the 2nd floor, a single mother with an always inexplicably sticky daughter, moved out on Saturday. I helped—she was lovely. She often dropped by with food as if her motherly spirit couldn’t help but overflow onto anyone younger than her. I was sad to see her go but I would miss her casserole more. Knowing she would never accept a gift from me, I hid a care package of soaps and lotions in one of her unsealed moving boxes by the door.

‘I don’t want to leave but I have to,’ she said wistfully, looking at the mess strewn around the small flat. I had tripped over a mobile and was trying to free myself without destroying it. ‘My little girl’s nursery teacher advised me to stop speaking French at home but that’s exactly the problem—I don’t speak a word of French.’

She leaned down to give an affectionate peck on her daughter’s cheek. As if to illustrate her point, the girl burst into a sweet rendition of Carmen’s Habanera. Although the tune was right, it replicated none of the words’ meaning.

She sighed in resignation. ‘I don’t think she understands what it all means, but she sings in reply to everything now.’

I wondered what the opera-singer would make of this. If they ever met they could sing in reply to each other, making new meaning from the old songs.

‘Between you and me,’ my neighbour lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, ‘I’m hoping the new place doesn’t come with a built-in alarm clock—god knows a child is loud enough in the mornings.’ 


The first time the opera-singer spoke to me, she mistook me for her personal assistant.

To be honest, we looked nothing alike. Her assistant was a willowy blonde nearly a head taller than me and a graceful heap of angles and bones hidden under a carefully draped cardigan. Meanwhile, I inherited my father’s farmer son stockiness and, because I refused to listen to my mother’s advice to stay out of the sun, had a noticeably darker skin tone. Still: the hallway was dark, and the clock had just ticked past six. Still: like a siren, the sound of her voice lured me into her cave. I never stood a chance.

‘There you are,’ she said in a low voice as I entered the building. It had been a long day at work, and I was looking forward to having the evening to myself. I stopped short in the doorway, face cloaked by shadow. I glanced over my shoulder, wondering if she was really talking to me. The opera-singer wore a dark veil and a black dress with beads that glinted faintly.

She tapped her doorframe impatiently. ‘Well? You’re letting the cold in, which you know is bad for my throat. Close the door and come in quickly, I need you.’

Like a shrouded wraith, she passed through the door and left me to run after her so the flat door wouldn’t shut in my face.

Before I migrated to the gloomy British Isles, I had never lived in a flat before. My family was proud of the fact that we were 三世同堂: three generations living under the same roof. My grandparents and parents still lived in the same concrete and corrugated metal roofed house, and I had grown up close to the sun, moving easily in and out of the outdoors like it was a second home.

Here, things were different. A house was something that hid you from the elements. Somewhere you could pretend that the outside didn’t exist.

Standing there at the opening of the opera-singer’s flat, for a brief moment, I imagined I had stepped into the backstage of a theatre. I didn’t know where to look first. The walls were covered in poster-sized theatre bills, many of which in she was the star, her face in posed expressions of emotion, her name in large capitals at the bottom. I learned her name when a piece of fan mail was delivered to my mailbox by accident. Vases of luxurious hothouse flowers battled to stay alive, stuck in that heady, perfumed stage of half-rot. A costume rack stood to attention in the corner, where the opera-singer had tried on and discarded a few outfits already—the white and gold cotton of an Egyptian queen, the heavy petticoat and bustle of a 16th century noblewoman, the flattering cut of a tongue-in-cheek suit clearly made for a woman.

‘You smell different,’ she noted, not bothering to look at me. I didn’t move, unsure if she would catch me the next moment. ‘A bit like a soap store.’

She had already collapsed into a red velvet upholstered chaise longue and had an eye mask on. There was no chance I would be found out. Just as I was about to reply, she gestured to a neat pyramid of clementines on an ornately carved table beside her.

I stepped forward gingerly, trying to leave as little of my presence on the carpet as possible. In that moment I didn’t think of how it looked, the upstairs neighbour who had lied her way in and now was preparing to, well, I could have done anything to her. A series of dramatic scenes flashed through my mind: my hand holding a dagger, like a horror film, where the opera-singer was the beautiful victim; my hand carefully touching her face, as if she were a fairytale princess cursed to sleep forever; my hand reaching out to tenderly stroke her hair, the eye-mask falling off as she looked at me properly for the first time. Our eyes would meet, and instead of terror, I would see understanding, a mutual accord that we had fallen in love.

‘Sometime this year,’ she said, leaving her mouth slack so there was no room for me to mistake her order. Whether out of sheer habit or not, her mouth was curved in a perfect O.

I moved faster, squatted next to the table and peeled the clementine, not caring that the pith and peel lodged themselves in my nail beds and would stain my fingernails orange until I next had a shower. Out of habit, I peeled them the same way my mother did: in a single unbroken strip that curled into a spiral.

When the clementine sat naked in my palm, I split it into its segments and rocked back on my heels, sitting as close to her as I dared, lifting a single fragrant slice to her mouth. Her tongue darted out to taste the juice beading on the edges of the clementine. Then, so my fingers would be safe, she took the piece between her front teeth and retreated to chew her prize. I trembled when her lips brushed my fingers. Even her chewing was measured, and I could see her throat shifting in a smooth ripple as the juice and pulp moved down into the cavity of her body.

I sat there for what could have been seconds or hours, like a supplicant endlessly twisting the rosary around their fingers. If I had continued the motions of peeling and lifting any longer, I’m sure I would have forgotten my own name, where I had come from, what I was doing there.

The sound of the building door opening broke the spell. I cast around wildly and tried to gather my bearings. I dropped the orange half on the carpet and crushed it underfoot in my haste to run from the room. If this was a comic opera, I would have dived somewhere ridiculous to hide—underneath the chaise langue the opera-singer sat on as I watched the action on the main stage. But self-preservation kicked in, and I pushed past the door just as the assistant entered, my head doggedly lowered, so all I saw was a flash of shoes and a small cry coming from her mouth. It was too late for her to do anything. I had already taken the stairs three at a time, sprinted into my flat, and slammed the door shut.

I laid like a dying starfish on my cold floor. My heart struggled to escape my chest.


Over the next few weeks, I did everything I could to avoid the opera-singer and her assistant short of scaling the wall to my flat. I left the house a half hour before the assistant turned up. When I walked past her window, if the opera-singer had started already, I resolutely did not turn around. I stopped humming opera at work, I tried to move past the obsession, I even bought earplugs to distract myself from the morning concerts.

I kept dreaming of her voice. Sometimes I was plunged into complete darkness, with only her music coaxing me to relax and become absorbed by the dark space. Other times she sang without words. Just an endless wave of noise that spilled into her real-life vocal warm-ups.

On a Saturday, weeks after I entered the opera-singer’s house, I left the house around 1 when I would usually avoid leaving or entering. Saturdays were matinee days and there was too much of a chance of meeting her. In the past, her leaving for the theatre was a spectacle that I watched from my bedroom window. When I heard the slowly chugging engine of a taxi waiting on the road, I waited too, to see what the opera-singer would be wearing. From what I understood (the occasional manager did come to shout through her windows), the opera-singer lived her life perpetually late to her next appointment. She dressed and rehearsed at home as much as possible, hardly ever leaving her flat except to travel to the theatre or go on stupendous shopping trips and expensive dinners with men that kissed her cheek as they parted ways on the doorstep. When she did make it to the theatre, it was very often down to the wire—literally flinging herself onstage the moment she arrived.

So that Saturday, as I descended the stairs, she spoke to me.

When I recall it now, she must have been waiting there for me in silence, half-shadowed by evening light. I was on the last flight of stairs before the ground floor, distracted by digging through my bag to make sure that I had my wallet.

‘Can you help me with this?’ She asked. ‘I would ask my assistant, but she’s not in today. She’s sick again. People really need to take better care of themselves.’

I froze at the sound of her voice and looked up.

She was facing away from me, the curve of her spine exposed in a lace dress with a silk slip inside. The help she needed was clear. There was a row of many, many tiny pearl buttons that needed to be done up at the back. Each step I took towards her brought a new detail to my eyes: the angular planes of her shoulder blades, the smooth, unblemished surface of her skin.

The opera-singer stood perfectly still, like a hunter waiting for its prey to slip into a trap.

I fell right into it. It was as if I had dissociated and was watching the scene from outside my body, staring at our two figures as if we were set onstage.

My fingers were sure and steady as they made their way up the dress. When they were done up, they looked like an iridescent spinal cord, one I could pluck like an instrument’s string. My fingers were practically on her skin. The gentle heat emanating from her hypnotised me. She was silent the whole way through until the second-to-last button.

‘Do you want to watch me sing this afternoon?’ she asked.

The final button slid into place, as did the rest of my life. 


The opera-singer’s manager shut me away in a box that no one else seemed to be in, rolling his eyes and complaining about my attire the whole way through. The crowds we squeezed through were a mixed bag. There were young and old audiences rippling with excitement, murmuring the opera-singer’s name. Glancing at the programme, I smiled when I saw the performance was going to be La Boheme.

I quickly realised why no one else was in the box once the opera started. It was set behind the stage rather than in front. You couldn’t help but be in the spotlight, part of another dimension, onstage being watched by an audience with eyes like tadpoles. The crowd hadn’t realised there was a courtship unfolding outside the opera they watched.

I watched the glossy back of the opera-singer’s head as she twirled across the stage. My favourite part of La Boheme—when Musetta sings a waltz to try and win over Marcello—was riveting. She was singing to an overweight Marcello clearly past his prime, but it didn’t matter. The lilting tones drew me in and tied me down. My father had played it for me as a child. The waltz was transformed before me, a song sung for my ears alone. The only living thing onstage was my opera-singer. As she hit her triumphant high note, she flicked her eyes to my box, a grin on her lips.

I left the box. After the song was over and the lovers had fallen irresistibly into one another’s arms, I fled to the bathroom to compose myself. Trembling in front of the endless rows of mirrors in the black-marbled bathroom, I stood weakly at a sink, trying to banish the red from my cheeks with cold water.

Her manager tracked me down just as the curtains drew over the final act. ‘She wants to see you,’ he said with a slight sneer.

In the dressing room, she had miraculously returned into the high necked, pearl buttoned dress, as if she had never taken it off in the first place.

‘I’m starving,’ she said. ‘We should get dinner.’

We were whisked out the side doors, avoiding anyone who wanted a picture or autograph, to a quiet all-night breakfast cafe down a deserted alley.

We drank wine with our English breakfast. She fed me a scone dripping in clotted cream and jam. She talked—more than I did—about her life and her art. It took her some time to shed the skin of her performance, she said, and talking about it helped her feel like herself. She told me her real name, apparently a different one from her stage name, and offered I should call her a pet name instead. The only type of jam she liked was strawberry, never raspberry, because the seeds in the latter got stuck in her teeth. The sweater I wore reminded her of an old schoolteacher she had a crush on. She loved travelling but hated flying. She’d been to Malaysia once on a layover to Australia. Her favourite novels were mysteries, and a close second was space opera. ‘It’s impossible for us to be alone,’ she said, smiling. ‘I just don’t believe that’s how the universe works.’ 

We spent another hour before sliding, tipsy, into the taxi waiting for her outside. When we finally drew up, I saw people walking to the train station to begin their daily commutes. The sound of the key unlocking the door seemed as if it might wake up the whole building. We passed by her flat, and I said goodnight as she opened the door.

‘Aren’t you going to come in?’ She asked.

Without waiting for an answer she disappeared into the yellow glow of her flat. The door remained open.

I followed. 


 I slept that first night deeply and without dreams.

The sunlight woke me, not song. From the angle of the sun entering her window, I knew that it was well past my usual waking time. I had missed my shift at the soap store. The opera-singer was curled up by my side, one arm thrown over my ribcage.

I wondered if I should leave, awkwardly shuffling out the flat, praying no one in the building saw me. Before I could decide, the opera-singer’s assistant flung the door open and stared at us in the bed. The opera-singer awoke and stood by the bed.

‘Eileen?’ She said as the assistant relayed the singer’s plans for the day. ‘You’re fired. Leave the schedule outside.’

The assistant let out a small cry, sunk to the ground and clung to the opera-singer’s knees. Throughout the exchange I feigned sleep but I felt my face slowly turning red.

Only when I heard the door close, and the front door slam did I open an eye to peek at the scene. The opera-singer stood by the window, peeling the skin of an apple with a sharp knife, letting it dangle down in a curl. When she saw I was awake she smiled gently.

‘I seem to have lost an assistant,’ she said. ‘Would you mind taking over until I find a new one?’

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