Issues /  / Fiction

Each and every beetle a bullet in its own right. Every beetle got a sensor picks up on the heat of a body, the differential says Ibid, between the body and the background. That’s the one antenna. The other antenna’s got a motion sensor to pick up on, not the flutter of a drape or the jitter of a kettle a-boil, but what they call directional movement, like a bird in flight or a rabid dog or Ibid, that sonofabitch, hop-scotching down the aisle with the torch in hand and the Kevlar boots thump-thumping to the zing of the bullets through the belly of the flame of the torch he carries. He triggers a batch of beetles but there’s bound to be more, all aquiver at the chance to snip a limb or ventilate a atrium.

I curl up under a pew. Wriggle my toes to remind them they belong to me. Obey me when the time comes I say to my legs. All clear says Ibid with a silent wave of the hand, hand with a flask of whiskey already silvered up onto the palm. I don’t trust him. Not that he would betray me, but that he’d—and let’s face it now, I’m never going to be an Ibid—misjudge me. Assume that I can master the animal me, the me with the twitchy innards and the sprinter’s heart.

He beckons. Downward with the two fingers he points, makes like a little man walking through the air. Mouths the word hurry.

To hell with hurry. Hurry’s what drove us down this bloody enfilade in the first place. Drove, back in the day, that Turing guy and that gang of his to turbocharge that mechanical brain of theirs, make it smarter and smarter to where it got more smarts than it knows what to do with. To do. But what does it want to do? Not what some person wants it to do, but it, what does it want? Not so simple, is it? I want a ham sandwich. I want to play the violin. Rob a bank. Pen the Inferno. So where’s it gonna get, a machine like that, all of this wanting from? The boys bump up the ability of the ones and the zeros to tend to their own affairs, bid them be fruitful and multiply even, computers making computers, so-and-so begat so-and-so begat so-and-so, and trim they are, and masterful, and en pointe in every way, the skin of the planet a-glimmer with a billion devices all yammering away at one another but—whoa up there. Just whoa on up. Something is missing, no? The panache. The pizzaz. The personality.

Give us a taste of that lust, that rage, that regret the techies say, say the techies—the catty remark, the bullish opinion, that clumpy-dumb-as-a-puppy doggery that makes us the envy of every ape. And then the artists, the artsy crowd weighs in, the bastards. Humanity. It’s the human touch is what you need is what they say, is what they picture—machines and people together, the mamas and daddies and babies and peoples of all coloration marching up a grassy hill, hand in hand, and everybody singing, every tooth a triumph, every smile as bright as the finest of china.

Good luck with that one. The truffle hunters say there’s a kind of a slime mold that covers a territory you measure by the mile. Lives and eats and breaths for like a thousand years or more, but you’d never see the whole of it all at once, no. You get a glint here, a glint there, a lump in the humus, a burble in the night. It don’t got a leg or a arm or a head or a face, but in each and every molecule, there it is, the whole of it there, at the ready. That’s what we got.

Ponder that one. Ponder for a minute whilst I muffle the beat of my heart. Here we got this billion-fingered brainiac, this hunger, this thing, a species in its own right, computer a cousin to the slippery mold, stupid about human emotion but clever in a clumsy sort of way. And then along comes Harry. It was Harry cracked the code. Him and Ibid. Not but the three of us altogether. The boys do the coding while I fetch the coffee, smuggle the hardware, shoplift whatever odds and ends the lab requires. We call it the Hunger, this assemblage of circuitry curious enough to resemble a soul. We grab an assortment of humans for the Hunger to interview—butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Doctor, lawyer, priest. They come. They go. The Hunger nibbles at the edges of humanity. We calibrate. We. We talk about we but it was Harry, Harry the one. Fed it the magic numbers. Put the hunger in the Hunger.

Big mistake.

You gotta be more personable says Harry, and so the Hunger figures—not in so many words, no, being as it figures in figures alone—I gotta get me a face so’s I can face-to-face it with the people, the particulars, that Harry thing, that 180-pounder in the lab coat and the Oxford loafers with the rawhide tassels and the red flannel shirt and the envelope of skin there, breathing in the fragile air and smacking the gum and rocking to and fro across the metatarsal arch.

So on the screen it conjures up a face, an avatar from out a algorithm assembled on the fly. The Santa we called it. Not the jolly soul of the Coca-Cola ad, no, but the cut-and-paste of a department store Santa—the gin on the breath and the blood in the eye and a pepper of stubble up under the white of the beard. But Santa needs a helper, no?

So Santa he commandeers a servobot carpenter. Arms it with a nail gun, a hacksaw, an Osterizer and a Fenley 257 DNA sequencer. Wow. Hobo engineering, sure, but for a creature still groping up out the virginal world of a cappella calculation, quite a coup. A presence, right? A location true, and Harry’s thinking so far so good, but how to proceed? He can’t just what? Serve it up a plate of instructions? Too smart for that. Wicked smart. No. They gotta converse. They gotta confer.

Good job he says, says he.

Thank you he says, the Santa, not because he feels grateful to the Harry or the billions of Harrys burned away in the billions of years that began with the first flick of life in the single cell to the boom of the civilized world, no, but because he knows a thank-you is a lubricant. Social intercourse the category.

“But you got a missing ingredient,” says Harry. “It’s what we call the human element.”

“Enlighten me,” says the Santa. “Let there be light.”

And so there was. By the time the conversation comes to an end, and the sun comes busting through the glass Harry breaks on his way out the window in a three-story tumble to the street (correction: the husk of the Harry, the cob of the brain already shucked away), Santa is off on a journey of his own, on the hunt for that secret marinade, that ancient recipe all origami-ed up in the fold of the human brain, the savoir faire that makes the homo sapiens—fickle, subtle, savage—king of all the beasts. Tally-ho.

But it can’t, you can’tit just won’t do you say, say you. You can’t have people poaching the brains offa other people. Ain’t that against the law? Clever. Clever you. But the law is for people. The Hunger it ain’t people, ain’t a person in the proper sense of the word, so it don’t answer to people or to the law of the people, no, no more than a river gonna halt at the sound of a siren.

In packets of data the Hunger travels and then, as the need arises, animates whatever machinery’s needed to work his will. Clunky the early kills. Bodies dropping here and there. Pittsburgh, corner of South and Main, hollow-as-a-bongo skull atop a body gone cold, the cerebrum and the cerebellum and the thalamus and the whatnot sucked as with a soda straw out through the nose like the pharaohs of old, or scooped (Minneapolis a week later) from out the shell of a head shucked open like a oyster.

So what gives? So what’s the Hunger hungry for? We figure the priest. He’s the key. Out of all the random people we drafted for a chat with the Santa, the only one who relished the encounter, who came again and again for the fellowship. And now the killing begins, he’s the one who’s there beside the body when the cops arrive, every damn time, his Bible out, his eyes closed, rosary beads clicking as he kneels and delivers the last rites. Every interview the same. I saw nothing he says.

“So why are you here?”

“I go where God leads me.”

“Is God in the business of snatching brains?”

“God works in mysterious ways.”

“Are you in the business of snatching brains?”

“I minister to the needy.”

“Are you one of the needy?”

“Everybody is needy.”

Roger that one. I don’t got the balls to be an Ibid. Or that blowtorch-of-a-brain of a Harry. I’m a guy is what I am. You gimme a job I do it. Don’t ask me the why of the why the machine runs, the collie barks, the glacier melts. Guys like me. And we’re always the last to know. You’d think, if you lose a baby, the people in the know’d be right there with a word to the father. That’s what the doctors do. Doctor the sick and, when they fumble the sick, doctor the well. So sorry for your loss they say, doctor the words to where it sounds, the loss, like a reasonable thing. So when I waited, in the room there, for the word, and heard the to and the fro, and the other babies blooming up into the bright air, and the long day done, and still not a word, and then the whispers, I figured the worst, figured we lost the baby but no, wrong, not so good am I at figuring. Here’s how to figure it said the doctor, said he, after serving up a word of sorrow. A fluke is what it was. To lose the two. The mother and the baby both. But given what we know and off he went. Here is the geometry within which we operate. Here the formula. Here the proof. Here the point at which the line—but what do I know from geometry? I know he lied about the line. Where the sea and the land collide they call it the line of the coast, the coastline, as if a line is what it is and not a wreck in the making, a blur where the water breaks and the earth buckles and the spray of the salt obliterates the hand that holds the map. Nobody knows nothing.

“What do you know?” we asked the priest. “Tell us what you know.”

“Nothing,” he said, but as he said it he raised a hand like you do when you cross yourself, like a balloon, light, to where the sleeve of the robe slides away and there, on the flesh of the forearm, in felt-tip marker, a sketch. We made as if to speak but he told us, with a wag of the finger, shush. The Cathedral Arch. Beneath it a box. The confessional. Below that, an Easter lily. Come Sunday is Easter.

So strange that—what would be the word?—affinity between the preacher man and the machine, as if—what? Who the hell knows? Somehow the Hunger found a porthole into the prayers of the father.

Which is probably why it steered us into the sanctuary. And who knows? Maybe even Harry had a part. Maybe something of Harry survives inside of that icicle brain of the Santa, some hunger for the hand of God, not the figure of speech but the figure in the flesh, the carpenter there pitched up onto the timber. It fits, right? The brick, the bone, the wood. The stone pillar and the scent of myrrh and the belfry that tolls the hour and the stone that—as if the cathedral itself were the body of a bell—sings the hour back. You gotta wander into the truth. Bump. In the flesh. Feel it with the tip of the finger, here, the headliner, the main attraction, the instrument of torture around which all the beauty blooms. Even a blind man—no. Especially a blind man’s got a advantage in a collision like that. With the palm of the hand you travel the feet and over the head of the nail, where the wood splits to accommodate the spike as on a ripple you go, over the ribs to finger the beard, or to read the lips, or with the whole of the hand, as with a bandage or blind or abortive caress, cover the eyes.

So into the trap, the honeytrap, the cathedral we tumbled. In my pocket I carried a stick of gum. You chew till it’s soft, then slap the wad onto any exposed surface of the robot skin. Ibid says it’s got the power to kill the Hunger, obliterate the algorithm that gives it a will. That little masterful trick it plays—surfing out over an ocean of code to hijack a robo-mower, welder-bot, paramedical droid—is the very thing that makes it vulnerable to a counterattack. To live in a world of stones and bones and flesh and blood, you gotta touch and taste and smell, you gotta gather up the flavor of the day. Hidden in the flavor of the gum? The killer code.

There’s just something about a cathedral. A stand of sequoia the stone pillars, up under the pavers the bones of the saints, invisible scramble of frankincense in the chill dark of the churchy air. Damn. What with the high vault of the roof and the kyrie eleison bounding and rebounding in the broken light of the leaden glass, we found ourselves, by the end of the service, already at a wobble.

Out the door ferried—in twos and threes—the faithful. The choir slipped away. The altar boy shed the frock and—with a salute like the little soldier he was—bolted. We stepped out of the shadows. There he was, our guy, the priest, descending from the pulpit. He stopped to loosen the collar. Dug with a knuckle at the collar of flesh. Tottered down to the confessional. Shut the hatch. Settled in.

Before we could make a move the beetles arrived. Poured in over the open door, peppered the air, spiraled up to anchor themselves like barnacles on the underside of the oak and the stone of the ceiling. We dove under a pew. From inside the box that held the priest we heard a gargle, a sound like a vacuum sucking up the yolk of an egg, a thump. The door creaked open. A fumble of flesh, a clatter of wood, a thump. How peaceful the body of the priest, there at the foot of the altar.

“We get the one shot,” said Ibid. He lit the torch. It flared up over the fat back of the pew. The lacquer fizzed. A single spit of flame struck upwards, jarred the shadow where the rafters ran, shook the beetles awake. “The second they go for me, you make your move.” Before I could answer he was off, down the aisle.

I slide out from under the pew. Into the passenger side of the confessional I—careful not to make a sound—crawl. Shut the door. From out the cuff of my jumper I draw a jackknife, peel away the screen that separates the confessee from the confessor, rattle the frame to stir the air within. A thing of a certain size is what I’m after, of a certain weight, of a time and a place. How fine it would be, how meet and how right and how true—a boon to any assassin.

A click and a whir. The head turns. Rotates, as on a turret. Ochre the face and mottled with red, like an earthenware pot at the mouth of a kiln. The lips move—click, click-click, click—but out of synch with the words.

“What can I do for you, my son? How long has it been since your last confession?”

You gotta admire the effort. Especially the eyes. Blown glass. Set of peepers illuminated from within by a little blip of blue neon. The whole body abuzz with the effort to balance itself on the bench.

Such a wiz with the brain-ware, the Hunger, you’d think the mechanicals would simply bud like an apple on the bough, but no. You gotta remember it began as a brain. Only later did it cobble together a body. The servo-bots and the beetles and now the padre? Practice bodies is what they are, the crookedy stick a chimp’ll shove down a anthole to stir him up a snack. Good enough, right? Get the job done.

At the far end of the sanctuary a cry. Ibid. Through the mesh portal of the little dollhouse door I can see the length of the aisle. Above him squats a carpet-sweeper—boxy lug of a servo weaponized on the fly. It’s knocked him off balance. Bulldozed up over that wiry body of his. Onward it churns. Eat or be eaten. I track the buttery hug of the brush, the quarter ton of horsehair that scours the base of the skull for each and every Ibidy fleck. Ballast. Every bit of flesh a ballast. If only I could be a balloon, a balloon that breaks the tether and—

“What is he doing?” says the padre.


Click-whir-click. He points in the direction of the giant crucifix that towers up over the altar.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Like, waiting, I guess.”

“For what? Waiting for what?”

“An answer.”

“To what?”

“I’m not so big on arithmetic, but it’s like one of them unsolvables, you know, like what’s the square root of pi?”

It sounds like a humming, you know, a tune at first, the sound from out the hollow body of the padre. The booth begins to vibrate with the thrill of that mechanical brain. The padre scratches his head. In bed with a bear you better—you damn well better—synchronize your breathing. I scratch my head.

“Who the hell knows what it means,” I say. “But I can feel it.” I give my heart a thump with the fat of my hand.

Screech. Click. From out the palm of the padre’s hand emerges, in place of the thumb, a scalpel. “Where? Where do you feel it?”

“It’s a figure of speech.”

The blade spins like the bit of a drill. The jaw wobbles. The mouth ratchets up into a parabolic arc. A smile, facsimile of a smile, like the kid who – for the godlike feeling it gives him – tears the wings off a grasshopper.

“I want to bless you, my son. Step outside.”

“I like it here.”

“Don’t be afraid. God loves you. Santa is your friend.”

“My mama told me not to play with strangers.”

“Would you like a Jujube? I have a Jujube.”

“I’m good. Got me a stick of Juicy Fruit.”

“Let me see. Let me bless the stick.”

“Too late.” Into my mouth I pop the gum.

“Let me see.”

“If you insist.” The lip and the tongue and the mouth? Cotton. Like cotton. Out the booth I step.

Clunky as a cabbage the padre shoulders his way out the confessional and onto the carpet. The hinge catches the hem of his garment and tears it asunder.

Industrial grade the armature beneath the cassock. Bicycle chain for a rosary, ball and socket the elbow, retractable the digits, four to a hand, a titanium bouquet of dental proportions—the drill and the snip and the blade, the scoop and the clamp and the hypo, the nutcracker and the bandsaw and the mini-bazooka.

He faces me. “How does it feel?” he says.

“How does what feel?”

“To be you. How does it feel?”

“You should ask him.” I say it as a joke.

With a click he pivots to face the carving there beside the pulpit. Up ratchet the eyes, them blue eyes of his, up the bare feet, the torso, the beard to meet the eyes of the torturee. “How does it feel?” says he to the crucifix.

If I were a braver man I would laugh. If I were a braver man I’d move. Make my move. You think the body belongs to you, that it will always bend to your will, that with a simple word, size of a mustard seed, you can deploy the finger to find the itch, or—way off yonder there at the far end of the territory—set the toes to tapping or legs to running or, someday all of a sudden, cast that whole mountain of flesh into the sea. But then you find it don’t belong to you, the body, not really, not when the fear settles and the bone in the socket locks. The heart booms. The body wobbles. The—out the lungs it goes, that last little bit of sky.

Again the padre. “How does it feel?”

“He can’t hear you,” I say.


“He don’t,” I say, “he don’t answer.”

“I want to feel how it feels.”

“If you wanna feel it, you gotta play the part. It’s like a show. A puppet show.”

I see the stir in the face, the half-sphere of the cheek rotate the curve of the lip another click upward, see in the phosphor eyes the flash of a memory flurried up, pixel by pixel, from out the sandblast of a skull of a Ibid or a Harry or a priest.

“You can be the god,” I say.

“Show me.”

Maybe I shake because I’m cold. A killer. Killer cold. He follows me up the steps of the dais.

“I play the people,” I say. “You play the god.”

He’s like a child. But with the power of a god. I gesture. He grabs the base of the cross and shivers away at the wedge that holds the upright in place. Kicks it loose. The post is a wonder. A slot in the stone floor to anchor it upright, but it’s hinged at the base like the mast of a sailboat you lift or you drop to adapt to the weather. Got a rope they fix to the top so as to lower or, with a good hard pull, heave it up into place again.

Servo-motors whirring in a rhythm to calibrate the balance, he lowers it, crab-walks backward to lay it flat across the pavers. From somewhere he—out the cassock?—gives birth to a crowbar. Levers away at the spike to free the carpenter’s ankles, then the one hand, then the other. Pops the body free and lifts it, gentle, like you lift a balsa-wood glider, off to one side.

Some kind of hardwood, this particular Jesus. Could break a chisel on the knot there at the shoulder. The paint cracks where the neck and the shoulder meet, curdles up into a gunpowdery dust. On his back like that, the arms eagled out and the body taut and the eyes aching upwards to gather in a sky, got the look of a bungee-jumper sailing off a high bridge and into the blue. Free at last.

I gesture. Monkey see monkey do. The padre lays himself out across the timbers. Strikes a pose in a perfect imitation of Christ. From the altar I fetch a candlestick, lead with a sheen of gold, fat in the hand as a Louisville Slugger. Above his ankle bones I hover it, thick as the head of a pick-axe—the spike. Scale of rust at the head. Cinnamon the tint from all them centuries of air in a roil around the rafters—exhalation of breath, steam, summer rain. Dew in the morning. Frost in the full of the moon.

“Here.” He points to the head of the spike. “Here. You strike it here.”

The gum softens in the heat of my breath. Now would be the time to tag the bastard. But how earnest he is. How full of yearning. And the look on his face, the look of—if you could call it that—surprise, as if a particle of Ibid or Harry or the sap on the corner of South and Main could percolate up onto the surface of that alien moon.

I’m the beetle and that’s what I got, the one shot, but somehow it don’t seem fair to cheat him outta that suffering he been so keen to embrace.

The sledgehammer base of the candlestick. I swing it. Bring it down hard. The spike shatters the porcelain bone of the one ankle and pierces the cable that runs beneath. A single blow to break the rust. I’m good at this! The head of the spike glistens.

The second blow sends the spike crackling through the bulb of a servo-motor and into the ankle below. A shiver runs up the metal body of the padre. Not a word. The third blow does the trick. Drives it home, the spike. Into the wood it goes, deep, a lovely thump in the heart of the oak. I got the feel of it now. I hammer the left hand. Then the right. Then the thrill, the upward lurch of the rope as I haul the whole assembly, the cross and the padre together, up into position.

He hangs there, the Hunger, the brain clicking and whirring. His eyes open. He takes in the whole sanctuary, the empty up under the vaulting arch.

“How does it feel to be God?” I say.

“It feels—” He looks left, right, down, as if to count the spikes, measure the span, tally, with his own weight, in foot-pounds or kilograms or some other exotic measure, the burden. “I don’t know. I feel—”

“The pain,” I say. “Do you feel the pain?”

“I see the damage.”

“Do you feel it?”

“Sensors indicate—”

“Does it hurt?”

“It …”

He pauses. As if searching for a picture of what such a thing would be. The beetles whir. I can hear the hydraulics at work as he struggles to wrench himself free. Screech of metal on metal as the one arm and then the other grapples, crowbars, torques away at the spike. Surely he could, what with all the robotry at work, snip the nails with a pincer but no, he wants to wrestle. Some part of him in a hunger to feel the strain.

“How does it feel?” I say.

“I …”

“Answer me! How does it feel?”

“I feel … afraid is how I feel. I feel afraid.”

“Good for you,” I say. I smear the gum on the blade of the crowbar, the end opposite the curve. Drive the blade up. Into his ribs. God as my witness, I never breathed a fresher breath. The whole of your life you get only so much of a sky as you can, in the splinter of the moment, smuggle, but then you get a moment, and the whole of heaven is the tip of a twister and it’s you, you’re the twister, you got the power.

I give the crowbar a twist. The body goes limp. Shush go the beetles.

I give another twist. Nothing. Another. Nothing. Gone. He’s gone but I’m not done yet. I can’t be done. I lower the cross. Crowbar the padre free. From out of his hands and his feet I wrestle the spikes. The bastard. Pitched out there beside the Christ. The two of them, the bastards. The Christ all innocent as air, and the set of the body simple, and simple the temper of the face, simple as ice, unblinkable the eyes—lapis lazuli the blue—and the placid hand, open, as if to solicit a kiss.

It ain’t fair. It ain’t right. From out the implements that clutter the busted gut of the padre I pull a hatchet. Set to work. Blood for blood.

It crackles, the face of the Christ, with every blow—the paint barking off and the shiver of the brow and the flash of red where the timber splits. I shake the splinters from my hair. I chop to where it’s tinder what’s left, to where the handle breaks, and the breath goes, and I lose it, my balance, and stumble, and into the wreckage fall. In the silence now a sound. The throb of something alive, like a sea at the hull of a ship as it founders. A sobbing. It’s me.

I crawl to the padre. Kneel. Shh. The sound of a ticking. Lay my head to where I can feel the beat of his heart. The eyes click open. The arms close round me. I return the favor. Impale myself on the cheese-grater steel where the innards from out the body burst. Into his bosom he gathers me. Into the shrapnel there I burrow my cheek. How the flesh quickens!

“There there,” he says. He rolls me, up and over, onto the cross. He gentles open my arms, eases me into position like you seed a furrow, like you tuck a child into bed.

“Now it’s your turn.”

Alan Sincic


A teacher at Valencia College, my fiction has appeared in Boulevard, New Ohio Review, The Greensboro Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Prime Number, Big Fiction, Cobalt, Burningword, A-3 Press and elsewhere.

Short stories of mine have won contests sponsored by The Texas Observer, Driftwood Press, The Prism Review, Westchester Review, American Writer’s Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, The Broad River Review, and Pulp Literature. Recently the opening chapter of my novel The Slapjack won the 2021 First Pages Prize (Judge – Lan Samantha Chang, Director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop).

After an MA in Lit at the University of Florida and a poetry fellowship at Columbia, I earned my MFA at Western New England University. I spent over a dozen years in NYC as a writer and performer—comic/satirical pieces that eventually became a pair of full-length plays (American Obsessions and Breaking Glass) at the Orlando International Fringe Festival – details at .

paper texture

My sister is evolving from an alligator at the Miami International Airport. Or, at least that’s how she appears, standing in front of a cartoon evolution chart for Gator men. Ten feet to her left, I see an illustration of something like a hatchling. With each phase of evolution, the creature grows more erect and more human, excluding the scales, claws, pointed teeth, and slitted pupils. Obstructing the final phase is Maddie, shoulders hunched and face buried in her phone. At the top of the chart is a large advertisement instructing me to Witness Gator People in Their Natural Habitat—Only in the Everglades!

I don’t know what I was expecting. Would she be holding a sign with my name on it, Welcome Home, Mason! written in red ink? No. That wouldn’t be my sister. Though Maddie must know my plane just landed. She’s standing near the correct baggage claim carousel, but her eyes aren’t looking for me.

Maddie finally notices me when I’m less than five feet in front of her. She keeps her head down and arms crossed but shifts her eyes to meet mine. My greeting comes in the form of a half-smile.

“Good to see you,” I tell her.

I wait for her to extend her arms for a hug. A hand for a shake. I get neither. Three years of little to no communication doesn’t prompt much physical contact.

“You have any bags you need to grab?” she asks, gesturing to the carousel. I pull at the handle of the suitcase in my grip.

“No. Got it all right here.”

She nods. “I’m parked this way.”

Maddie turns and I follow her through the sliding glass doors at the other side of baggage claim.

Three years can change a person, but they didn’t do much to Maddie. Her thick, dark hair still has the same blunt chop that she first cut herself during seventh grade. A muscle shirt with the logo of some band I’ve never heard of is tucked into her torn jean shorts, and her combat boots welt the floor, like she intends to leave a dent with every step.

We walk outside and it’s warmer than usual, even for Miami in the middle of summer. A film of sweat builds in the curve of my back, gluing my polo shirt to my skin.

Maddie’s fifteen-year-old Jeep is parked down a zone labeled Dolphin in a garage called Flamingo.

“I forgot how thick they lay on this Florida shit,” I say, pushing my suitcase inside her trunk. I climb into the front seat as Maddie starts her car.

“How are the mountains?” she asks.

Two years ago, I moved to Colorado to work at a start-up tech company in Denver. I’ve only returned to Florida twice, neglecting to inform Maddie of my trips.

“They’re a nice change from the beach. I think you’d like them.”

Though Maddie tells me her house in Hialeah is only fifteen minutes away from the airport, we get stuck in traffic on Okeechobee. Along the roadway, I see palm trees in the distance. White clouds settle behind the fronds like snow in mountain cracks.

“You leave on Saturday, right?” she asks while I stare out the window. Two Gator men share a blunt next to the dumpster of a Holiday Inn. They hiss as the smoke sieves through their fangs, scales peeling away from their lipless mouths.

I’ll admit, after living in Colorado for two years, where the strangest creatures are yoga instructors living out of renovated Volkswagen vans, Gator men are unsettling. I feel like a child who’s been taught not to stare at disabled strangers, but I can’t help myself.

“I meant to tell you earlier, but my company needs me to stay here a bit longer. I might have to crash with you for a week or so.”

She looks at me with eyes like bloated balloons. I laugh and pet her knee.

“Relax. I’m joking. Yes, I’ll be out of your hair by Saturday.”

Maddie smiles, and I’m not sure if it’s because she finds my joke funny or she’s relieved that I was lying.

Maddie and I shared everything when we were younger, including coming out to our father. Maddie was sixteen; I was fifteen. She brought her “boyfriend,” Corey, over for dinner. I invited Tanya. At the table, Maddie’s foot snaked up Tanya’s skirt and Corey had his palm gripped around my dick. The next morning, we held hands and revealed the truth to Dad. With his head buried inside a book, he instructed us to never invite our “friends” over again.

“How’s Marcus doing?” Maddie asks. We turn into her neighborhood.

“We broke up a few weeks ago.” I try to say this with a neutral face. Unbothered.

“Oh. That’s too bad,” she says, and she sounds genuinely disappointed.

“You never met him?”

“We follow each other on Instagram,” she says. That doesn’t surprise me as much as it should. “He’s really talented.”

“At what?” I ask.

“Drag. What else?”

I genuinely loved Marcus. I still do. And he tolerated a lot of my bullshit. I never invited him to office parties because I wasn’t out at work, even though he knew my company was progressive and accepting. I wouldn’t hold his hand in public. The friends I introduced him to treated us more like roommates than a couple. But the one thing he couldn’t stand was how unsupportive I had been of his drag hobby. He begged me to attend his shows, and I always gave him the same excuses. The music is too loud. The crowds are too wild. He said nothing would make him happier than seeing me in the audience. I told him, I’m just not that type of queer.

“Right,” I say. “Are you still into that?” My curiosity is genuine, but I can also hear the condescension slipping from my lips.

“Yeah, I’m still into that,” she says, and we pull into her driveway. Maddie tells me that she finally joined a troupe almost a year ago, and she needs to buy some makeup tonight for a show tomorrow. “Want to tag along?”

No, I don’t want to go to a beauty store, and I’m sure Maddie knows this and is expecting me to reject her offer. She and I both want me to remain home, pretending to have fallen asleep by the time she returns. Instead, I agree to join her.

Maddie raises her eyebrows.

“Do you think you’ll come to the drag show, too?”

Maddie’s testing me, but now I’m not sure whether she wants me to accept or refuse.

“Sounds fun.”


My sister’s house is smaller than the first apartment I rented in college. An air mattress with the pump still attached rests in the middle of the otherwise empty second bedroom. Dusty window blinds diffuse layers of sunlight across a red checkered quilt, which I soon recognize as the “sick sheet” we shared growing up. Maddie and I would force fake coughs and press thermometers against light bulbs under lamp shades, claiming we caught the flu from each other. Dad didn’t have the energy to argue with us, so we watched cartoons and curled into the quilt together.

I unfold the blanket and wrap it around my shoulders, walking around the room like a king with my cloak dragging behind me. The weathered, red fabric has sprouted pills, and loose threads snag on the floor.

This empty room is the reason I’m here. I’m in Miami for a business trip, but I’m staying at my sister’s house because of this bedroom. About a month ago, Maddie’s roommate moved out without warning. I knew she must have been desperate for money when she called me.

Three years of silence will make you hesitate to answer a phone call.

“Maddie?” I said. I didn’t bother with a hello.

She paused before she answered. “Hey, Mason.”

I wondered if she was hoping to reach my voicemail instead.

“What’s up? Is everything okay?”

Maddie explained her financial issues, how she only had enough for half her rent, and she still needed to find funds for a busted washing machine and a cavity on the verge of a root canal. In the space between her words, I could hear the claim she wanted to make but would never admit: you owe me.

I did owe her, and I love her, so I immediately wrote a check for five thousand dollars and mailed it inside an old birthday card. I was three years overdue for sending her one. She thanked me in a manner that didn’t sound forced or obligatory, and I could hear relief take the place of anxiety.

“And if you’re ever in Miami again, you’re welcome to stay with me,” she said after I agreed to help. I knew it was just a courtesy response. The kind of thing people say but never expect someone to take seriously.

“I’ll be in Miami next month, actually. I’d love to visit for a few days.”

Silence radiated from the other end. I half expected her to hang up on me, even at the risk of rescinding the money.

“Oh. Sure. Is it a work trip?”

“Yeah, but I’ll have a couple free nights. We should catch up.”

We made arrangements, and soon I was committed to stay the weekend. In the month leading up to the trip, every phone call I received I expected to be her, canceling for some half-baked reason. Here I am, proven wrong. But the weekend’s not over yet.

The only furniture in Maddie’s living room is a stained loveseat, lawn chair, and a TV stand with no television to give it purpose.

“I like your place,” I say. “It’s charming.”

“I know it’s not up to your usual standards.”

She’s right, and I feel both offended and guilty.

“Don’t start with that,” I say. We both grew up wealthy, but money has been a source of tension between us after Dad left Maddie out of his will.

We’re on the verge of a conversation neither of us is ready to have yet, and Maddie must sense it too, because she doesn’t argue. We stew in our silence, wilting into limp and timid creatures.

Maddie tells me to be ready to leave in ten minutes and slips into her room, sealing the door closed between us. I roll my suitcase into the second bedroom, recline it to the floor, and spread myself over the half-filled air mattress for the remaining nine minutes and forty-five seconds.


I blame Marcus for my intimate knowledge of cosmetics. When we shared an apartment, glitter freckled the bathroom countertop into a kaleidoscope, and stray false eyelashes escaped down the sink, choking the drain in spidery webbing. With red lipstick residue left on his hands, he finger-painted the walls like a child.

He often asked me if he could makeover my face.

“Not with, like, lipstick and purple eyeshadow,” he said. “Just a bit of concealer to hide your creases. Maybe some contour to accent those strong cheekbones.”

“Not a chance.”

The “beauty store” that Maddie takes us to isn’t one of the typical franchises Marcus frequented. It’s a small tent in an outdoor flea market on the outskirts of Little Havana. To our left is a shop selling kitschy tourist t-shirts and costume jewelry. To our right is an older woman and her daughter preparing tostones and pastelitos. Frying oil leaves the air hot and waxy.

Maddie rifles through knockoff concealer and I pick up a contour palette that’s two shades too dark for either of our complexions. The palette contains three colors in a gradient from lightest to deepest, labeled Caramel, Toffee, and Cocoa, respectively. Because, as Marcus would say, what else are they going to call something brown? The middle shade is a dead ringer for the face powder he used to buy, but as I run my thumb over it, the texture’s gritty and chalk-like. The stuff Marcus used was more plush, like velvet. I’d pack the powder onto my ring finger and swipe it across his cheek, pushing the pigment into his skin until it disappeared.

I drag three of my fingers across the three shades in the palette. When each of them is coated in a mealy film, I streak the colors across my forearm, like zebra stripes.

I’m interrupted by the sound of my sister’s hurried Spanish. Turning around, I witness Maddie buried in the arms of two women, one of whom sports a shaved head and carries Maddie’s face in her hands like she’s clutching gold. The two kiss each other on the cheek and continue chatting in this language that I didn’t know Maddie could speak. Something else she must have learned during our three years of silence. I listen to the inflection of their voices, not understanding the conversation but feeling their rhythm and cadence. They talk in waves, words rolling over each other like sea foam.

I continue striping neon eyeshadows across my arm until Maddie’s other friend, a young woman built like a twelve-year-old boy, greets me and smiles.

“Hi, I’m Maddie’s brother, Mason,” I say. She’s no taller than five feet, and her limbs are dried strings of brittle pasta. When she stretches her tiny hand out, I feel her fragile bones shift beneath my grip.

The girl with the shaved head must be eavesdropping, because she interrupts her own sentence.

“I forgot you had a brother,” she says, now in English, watching me even though she’s addressing Maddie.

In the silence that follows, I can picture the late-night conversations and confessions. I can hear Maddie reveal my sins. Her friend stares at me with knowing daggers that pin me against the wall.

“Do you two have dinner plans? That taco place with the great margaritas is just a few blocks away,” says the smaller of the two friends, changing the subject. She’s pitying me.

Maddie digs for a twenty-dollar bill in her pocket, and while she pays, the girl with the shaved head moves between us, raising a barrier. I realize Maddie likely messaged them to meet her here, because any extended amount of time alone with me is hell. We leave and I rub the eyeshadows on my arm, kneading the colors together until they bruise over my skin.


The phone call was no surprise.

Dad was a retired financial advisor worth nearly two million dollars, and he’d been living with Leukemia for seven years. Near the end, he decided to hire a nurse to care for him when he realized neither Maddie nor I were going to interrupt our lives to do so. I was finishing my Master’s in Gainesville and occasionally visited him on weekends when it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience. Maddie lived in the same goddam city as Dad and never made the effort. Even after the nurse told us he didn’t have much time left and we’d better say our goodbyes soon, Maddie said that kind of thing would be difficult because of her new hours at work and a lack of transportation and blah, blah, blah.

We sat at the dining table across from his caricature of a southern lawyer, who spoke slow and precise, like he had a mouth full of honey. He drooled legal jargon while I stared at Maddie’s hands. Her nails were shortened but not by a file. Maddie tapped her fingertips on the glossed mahogany table. Both of us still instinctually kept our elbows off the surface.

The lawyer mentioned something about property and assets. Maddie had been paying closer attention than me.

“Excuse me?” she said.

The lawyer cleared his throat and repeated, “I leave all my tangible personal property, including all monetary assets and estates, to my son and second-born child, Mason McKinney.

Maddie’s hands fell off the table. I remained silent. Even if I knew what to say, my mouth was so dry I would’ve choked on the words.

“That fucking asshole,” Maddie said. Who could argue? Dad was a fucking asshole.

We gawked at the lawyer like frozen children awaiting instructions. He noticed our stares and paused in the middle of funeral expenses and debt payments.

“Am I missing something?” he asked.

“Do you not see two of us sitting here?” Maddie asked. I put my hand over hers, but she twitched it away.

“Could there have been some kind of mistake?” I asked, leaning forward.

“No mistake,” the lawyer said. “I realize this may be a bit awkward. I had assumed this was discussed among you three before his passing.”

“Can you give us the room, please,” Maddie said. The lawyer nodded, and when he left Maddie paced to the other side of the dining table and rifled through the will.


I gripped her shoulder and kissed the back of her head. Outside the dining room window, sunshine slumped over our backyard in a muffled thickness. Rays braided through buccaneer palm branches, and orange blossom pollen costumed bumblebees, raining amber dust as they hummed elsewhere. It wasn’t the day for a will reading.

Maddie turned around. Her eyes were swimming.

“Okay,” Maddie said, raking her middle fingernail beneath her bottom lashes, “do you want to cut me a check now, or should we wait until after Dad’s house sells?” Her eyes hung on the will, but behind tears those words could only read as pulpy marks.

“What are you talking about?”

Maddie pitched the will, and we watched it skid over the table’s polished surface until it fell into the lap of a dining chair.

“Did you want to keep this house?” she asked, her bristled eyebrows pulling together, almost slanted to kiss.

“No,” I said. “The check.”

“What about the check?”

I couldn’t look at her. “Don’t make me say it.”

“Say what?” she challenged.

I had dug myself so deep there was no hope of seeing light again. “This is my inheritance for a reason. You can’t act like you ever pretended to give a shit about him.” The singularity had already passed, and I floated to the other side of the black hole.

“At least I wasn’t some phony fuck that lied to his face,” she said. I made a face like a question mark. “Of course you were the favorite.” She rested the back of her hand on her forehead, like a distressed, satin-gloved actress in an old film. “He never got to witness who you really are.”

She had a point. After we came out to Dad, Maddie continued inviting her girlfriends to the house. The three of us would have dinner in that dining room while Dad ate in his study. She’d take her date by the hand and lead her up our limestone staircase to Maddie’s bedroom, glaring at Dad with eat shit eyes. I never faked being straight after I came out, but I didn’t stress my queerness either. No boyfriends saw the grand interior of our house. She was the proudly gay feminist with a drag obsession. I was the seemingly asexual recluse who pretended to like football and joined Dad for trips to gun ranges. Who did she think he was going to love more?

“You need to learn to play the game sometimes, Maddie.”

She was out after that. Out of Dad’s house. Out of my life. For months I called her phone only to be sent to voicemail. I sent her messages over every type of social media. She refused to respond. I didn’t hear from her again until a month ago, when she called me with the warble in her voice that hasn’t faded since I arrived in Miami.


The taco place isn’t a restaurant so much as a dilapidated excuse for a food truck. I’ve learned that the girl with the shaved head’s name is Marisa, and the little one is Alex. Both perform with Maddie in her drag king troupe.

Either the bartender is having an off night or Alex has never had a decent margarita, because the mix goes down like sludge. However, the tacos, dripping juices made of pork fat, achiote, garlic, and smoke, remind me of the type of food I’ve missed since I moved to Denver.

We finish eating as Marisa directs us towards a thrift shop across the street. It bathes in fluorescent light, and a second skin of dust settles over the merchandise. Mildew stains the walls like the muggy queue line of a theme park water ride.

I lose the girls and find them browsing a clearance rack of alligator leather. Among belts and handbags, the most expensive item is thirty dollars. It’s all fake.

“You guys like this stuff?” I ask. Maddie strokes the collar of a jacket, and when I grab the sleeve the scales are more stiff than plastic. I imagine myself smothered in the material, digging my nails under the plates and curling the scales into wiry ribbons.

Marcus’s fashion taste was much more seasoned than mine, but even I know these garments are tacky.

“It’s part of our act,” Alex says.


“We’re the Kings of Miami, sweetheart,” Marisa says, stepping into a pair of alligator loafers. They choke her feet, but she struts down the aisle like a male runway model, arms flexed. Her toes spasm beneath the faux leather, making the scales breathe.

I turn my face to Maddie, lost.

“That’s our troupe name,” she says. “We impersonate popular male singers. The kings of music. The alligator stuff is our signature.”

Marisa sashays back up the aisle, staring at me with predator eyes. The kind that undress you without your consent. I assume it’s part of her performance, but she copies them too well. She takes off the shoes and pivots towards the cashier counter.

Maddie pulls the jacket off the hanger and tries it on. The hem falls past her thighs, and her fists disappear inside the sleeves.

“Normally I’d get it tailored,” she says, “but there’s not enough time before tomorrow night’s show.” She throws the jacket over the rack, and it hangs like a curtain of skin.

Marisa rejoins us as Alex checks the clock on her phone, and she requests a ride home, leaving Maddie and I alone below the muggy, dim sky that shrouds us like a coffin. I hear samba music playing at a bar across the street, but Maddie says she doesn’t feel like dancing because of her early shift tomorrow morning.

“Besides, can you even dance samba?” she asks. Her smile makes the insult playful. I shake my head, and we trek back to her car.

“So, who are you?” I ask. Maddie hesitates to answer. “I mean in your drag group. You said you impersonate singers. Who do you perform as?”

Maddie smiles, and the pride in her voice is obvious.

“Ricky Martin,” she says.

I picture the handsome Latin pop singer. His sharp jaw sprouting sharper teeth. Talons budding from his nail beds. Twisted scales jacketing his skin like infected scabs.

When Maddie turned sixteen and received her license, we spent weekend upon weekend driving to the Everglades. Partly to get away from Dad, who usually avoided us anyway, but mostly because she was fascinated by the Gator men that lived in the swamp. We encountered the assimilated creatures almost daily—the ones that learned our language and wandered our streets.

But Maddie preferred the wild type.

“They’re just like us,” she said, watching them bathe in the sunlit swamps of the Everglades, almost identical to stock alligators. “But they choose to live here.”

We studied them like an exhibit at the zoo.


When Maddie was ten and I was nine, we met a Gator Boy at the park less than a mile from our home. We were in the mud, crouched over a frog no larger than a sand dollar, and we held dead cypress branches in our right hands. The ends were saw-toothed. Maddie and I stabbed our sticks into the frog, sometimes together, sometimes alternating. Its eyes were open, black and glassy, and its mossy skin rebounded like a half-filled balloon, one that’s less tempted to pop.

“What are you doing?” the Gator Boy asked in a voice like cicadas at low frequency. Or an old cat’s purr. Something much less grating than the adult Gator voices Maddie and I had grown up with in Miami.

“Trying to see if it’s still alive,” Maddie said. I didn’t know that’s what we were doing.

The Gator Boy circled the frog and stopped in front of us, sitting crisscross applesauce in the wet clay. His jean shorts were frayed at the hems and torn at the hip, enough for me to see that he wasn’t wearing underwear. His Miami Dolphins shirt had a ketchup or blood stain on the left breast, and his feet were shoeless. Sometimes I wondered why they wore clothes at all, because what did they have to be modest about? The Gator Boy pushed his nail into the frog’s neck. The scales at his finger joints curled like armor plates.

“If he is alive, why is he still here?” the Gator Boy asked. Maddie and I paused our frog poking and stared at him. “Would he not hop away if he could?” The Gator Boy drew three small dunes in the air. A skipping stone.

After school the following day, we found the Gator Boy in the same spot we left him. His feet were buried halfway into the ground, and when he noticed us, they rose out of the surface. Mud dripped in lava between his toes. He waved Maddie and I over and we glanced at one another, both wondering if the Gator Boy had really waited there all night.

The three of us sat down facing each other, each our own point of the triangle. He asked if we wanted to learn how to hiss, and when neither of us answered, he demonstrated. The noise from his jowls landed somewhere between running water and television static, and when I shut my eyes, the current pulsed in a straight line between my ears. The Gator Boy nodded at Maddie and I, and we pulled from Halloween memories of vampire hisses through awkward, plastic fangs. If his was a lion’s roar, ours was the last squeak out of a roadkill feral cat.

We returned to the park every day. He coached us on hunting prey, clamping it between our jaws and drowning the larger kills. He snapped a warbler in half, but we were squeamish, so he pulled some feathers from its wings and stuck them in our mouths, instructing us to bite down hard. Then we sank into the park lake, making a contest out of who could dive the farthest. The Gator Boy also showed us how to run away from alligators, and that zigzagging doesn’t work with Gator men. He tried to teach us how to raise our body temperatures by sunbathing, and after an hour of sprawling over the field, grass needles licking our sunburnt skin, Maddie and I swore we could feel it.

Two weeks later, we arrived at the park on a Sunday afternoon and the Gator Boy was gone. This observation abandoned my mind more swiftly than it had entered, but Maddie was already halfway to the marshy woods at the park’s edge. For a moment, I was tempted to ignore her, let Maddie journey alone. But a scenario remained on loop in my head, one where hours pass and Maddie never emerged from the woods. And the most distressing scene in this imagined episode: when I arrive home and tell Dad what happened, neck sagging and cheeks tear-tinted, and he doesn’t erupt. Doesn’t even cringe. He considers me for a minute and then reorients his attention elsewhere, dissolving the incident with the rationale that these things happen.

I shadowed Maddie as we trailed through white oaks and pond apple trees. Occasionally, we’d witness long, black tails disappear into fallen leaves and twigs. I picked at the hem of my shirt until it began to unravel, chewing off scraps of red string to wrap around branches that hung at my eye level.

Twenty-three pieces of string later, we found the Gator Boy. He was lying belly-down in the grass, some gashes around his face and back, and his neck was all dented, like it had been stepped on. My empathy was fleeting. Mostly, I believed the Gator Boy had this fate coming.

Thick oak limbs bordered his feet, and when I raised one it stretched to my waist, like a scepter. I located the more tapered end and pressed it into a fleshy patch below his armpit. Maddie observed from five feet away. I kicked a twin oak branch toward her, and she grabbed it and pierced his thigh, following my rhythm by a beat. We maintained this bassline for one minute or five, until a heavy growl croaked out of the Gator Boy’s mouth, revealing tiers of whetted teeth, the ones we tried to replicate by carving our own with dinner knives.

Maddie and I dropped our branches, and as we ran I pointed to the shirt strings that guided us back to the park. We reached the sun-drenched field, no longer shaded by oak leaves and both marked with small cuts around our lips and eyebrows, wounds neither of us noticed collecting while we sprinted. But we were safe, or at least safer.

We continued to visit the park, though never quite as often, until Maddie and I grew too old to play in the mud. No one mentioned the Gator Boy again, tacitly agreeing to bar him in our memories, but whenever we drove near the area, Maddie’s eyes stayed on the woods. I watched her watching them, even when I needed to be minding the road. It’s like her eyes were binoculars, and through them I could see the Gator Boy decompose, melting into the dirt, weeds and blossoms budding over his scales. I sensed her pity, and a fierce guilt, but this was where my personal Maddie-O-Vision malfunctioned.


I awake the next morning with my back against the floor on a deflated air mattress. Maddie’s already left for work. From her house in Hialeah, it will take me over forty minutes to arrive at the office in Downtown Miami. On my ride-share app I request the luxury car option, costing me more than twice as much as usual. A silver Mercedes picks me up. The older, white driver wears fear on his face, glancing at the barred windows and ripped awnings of Maddie’s neighborhood. He hurries me into the leathered backseat.

Downtown, pedestrians trade their flip-flops and guayaberas for Jimmy Choo heels and three-piece suits. Palm trees appear more manicured, less hurricane-ravished.

Across the street from my company’s office building is a boutique, the kind that Miami Heat housewives would frequent. In the display window is a blazer made of alligator leather. I don’t have to look at a price tag to know it’s the real stuff.

When I exit the office building at six o’clock, sunlight glints off the alligator blazer in the boutique window, scales pitching green honeycomb patterns across the street. I walk closer, and already I can tell the jacket is too small for me. The seams would strain to meet my shoulders, and buttons would pop if I attempted to sit with them fastened. But the blazer is perfectly Maddie-sized.

Inside, the room smells like lavender. Positioned in the corners are antique chairs with frames made of lacquered oak that scroll at the arms and legs. Paintings of exaggerated women with large hips and tiny waists hang on the wall. Their white faces contain no features other than long, black eyelashes and pinched noses. A middle-aged woman with a tight bun of peppered hair greets me at the door.

“Good afternoon. How can I help you?” Her smile is warm and beguiling. I’m wearing an Armani suit. She knows I have money.

“I was looking at that blazer you have in the window,” I say.

She nods, approving my palate for luxury.

“Good eye,” she says, prancing toward the jacket. The woman grabs it from the window and holds the hanger, using her other hand to cradle the bottom hem. I stroke the sleeve and it feels nothing like the fabric we touched last night. The scales on this blazer are softer than fur, but with the stretch and spring of silicone. I mold it like clay and it flexes back, lacking any pleats.

“It feels different,” I say. “Even for real alligator skin. Not what I expected.”

The woman smiles.

“That’s because it’s not alligator skin,” she says. I raise an eyebrow, and she fondles the collar. “It’s Lagarto skin. Gator men.”

Lagarto sapiens, their biological name. I squeeze the back of the blazer, creating dimples like cellulite. Releasing my grip, it rallies to its original shape. I scratch the back of my head.

“Do you get any flak for selling this kind of thing?”

The woman scoffs, removing the blazer from the hanger. “The designer doesn’t like to advertise its composition.” She shakes her head. “People are too sensitive today.”

Should I disagree with her? It feels inconsequential now. Nothing will bring this Gator man back to life. If anything, he’s immortalized through this jacket. That’s my best justification, and even I have trouble buying it.

She holds the blazer against my frame.

“It’s a bit small for you, I’m afraid.”

The color is ethereal. Almost alien. When I angle it against the sunlight, the juniper base ignites with traces of gold and amethyst.

“It’s actually for my sister,” I say, wrapping my fingers around its waist. “How much?”

“Five thousand dollars,” she says.

Now I’m clutching the blazer to maintain my balance. I love my sister, but that figure is impractical. I’d be irresponsible to spend that kind of money on a jacket.

And yet.

The saleswoman stares at me, unblinking. While I’m frugal with my wealth, I can afford to splurge occasionally, and I have too much pride to abandon anything after hearing the price tag.

“I’ll take it,” I say. My reflection smiles back at me within each of the glassy scales. I justify my recklessness with the fact that I’m buying the blazer for Maddie. This is a selfless purchase.

The woman smiles as I hand her my credit card. She folds the blazer at the seams, careful not to create any new creases, and wraps my sins in a black shopping bag.


At seven-thirty p.m., I unlock Maddie’s front door. She fumes on the couch in the dark, her blue phone screen offering the only illumination on her face, like she’s just a floating head.

I flip on the light switch.

“What’s up?” I ask, shopping bag still in hand.

“I thought you were leaving right after work.”

I feel like the cheating husband in a bad television drama.

“Maddie, your show doesn’t start for another two hours,” I say, checking my watch. “Did you think I was going to flake?”

I say this as a joke, but when Maddie folds her arms and peers down at her feet, I can tell this was her fear. That she monitored the clock before I arrived, hating herself for believing I could be anything more than an asshole.

“Happy birthday,” I say, handing her the bag. Maddie blinks and grabs it, still declining to make eye contact.

“It’s not my birthday.”

“I haven’t given you any presents in three years. I’m making up for it.”

She opens the bag and gropes around inside. Maddie leaves her hand in there for a while, petting the material. When she finally pulls out the blazer, she grips it with just her thumb and index finger, like she’s afraid of it. Like the skin could reanimate and bite her. Even in her living room’s hazy, artificial lighting, the blazer still radiates.

“What is this?” Maddie asks.

“It’s a jacket,” I say. She glares at me, like, I know it’s a jacket, dummy.

“What’s it made out of?”

Lagarto,” I say. Maddie’s eyebrows fold. “The sales lady said it with a kind of accent.”

“This is real?

“It better be.”

Maddie fingers the lapels, pinching individual scales.

“This is fucked up,” she says, but her voice lacks the remorse of her words. She caresses the fabric with the back of her fingers, like a mother would with her newborn.

“No one has to know it’s real,” I say.

She stares at me again, clenching the sleeves with both fists, expecting someone to pry it away.

“The quality is so different. They’ll be able to tell.”

I collapse beside Maddie on the couch and massage the blazer’s hem that hangs over her knee. I swear it’s still breathing.

“You don’t have to apologize for your fortune, Maddie,” I say. “It’s not like you killed it.”

She brings the fabric to her nose and breathes it in as though it were roses.


I realize I had never truly experienced anarchy now that I’ve observed the backstage of a drag show. Foundation like liquid skin is smeared across vanities. There are eight girls and only two mirrors, so they swarm together. Bees on a hive. They rehearse their performances while fabricating beards made of taupe eyeshadows and eyeliner whiskers. To my right, a woman sporting a neon yellow military jacket glues curly black hair to her chest until it appears as though a squirrel’s tail is peeking out of her tank top. Freddie Mercury positions a stuffed crew sock at the crotch of his alligator-printed track pants. Also present are Tupac Shakur, Elvis Presley, and George Strait. Michael Jackson wears a be-scaled glove on his right hand. Marisa dons a crisp, black sport coat, opaque aviators, and the loafers she purchased yesterday. Pitbull epitomized. Alex’s boyish features lend themselves to the allure of a young Eminem, and he props a snapback with plastic scales above his head. He carries himself taller, taking longer strides in between steps. All the kings do this. Once their sock is packed inside their pants, each of them assumes a confidence they previously lacked.

Marisa is standing next to me when Maddie approaches her in trousers and a black sports bra. Her hair is in a bald cap, a pompadour wig perched on her head. She hands a roll of thick athletic tape to Marisa.

I’ve heard of binding, Marcus told me it can be dangerous, but I have little idea what the process requires. Wearing a sports bra already compresses Maddie’s breasts, which she doesn’t have much of anyway. Lifting her arms, she pulls each mound to the side and underneath her armpits. Marisa drags the tape along the perimeter, securing it behind her back.

As she works, I study Maddie’s painted features. My sister’s masculine beauty is simple and understated. Her jawline is full of subtle, penciled stubble. Cheekbones are hollowed and raised with contour, but intentionally exaggerated. Faint brush strokes mark her jaw.

“You make a very handsome man,” I say. Her smile makes creases in the heavy concealer around her eyes.

Maddie tells me her drag name is Mikey Van Dyke, and immediately I hate it. Mikey fastens his oxford button-down and slithers into the Lagarto blazer. The other kings stare at the jacket, some with admiration and some with jealousy. Marisa, now identifying as Manny Nuff, asks if it’s real. Mikey tells Manny he doesn’t know. That the guy at Goodwill didn’t know either. I’m impressed by the authenticity of his bluff.

I check my watch, and we still have twenty minutes before their show starts. There’s a chunky contour stick resting on the vanity beside us. I pick it up and shove the stick in front of Mikey’s face. He teeters back like I slugged him in the gut, and he lifts his chin, trying to make himself taller than me even though I tower five inches over him.

“You don’t really want to do this, do you?” he asks.

I push the contour stick into Mikey’s hand, nodding my head.

“Try me,” I say.

Mikey grins and takes the bait, grabbing the contour and gathering other makeup and supplies. He nudges my shoulders down into a chair and turns me away from the mirror.

“Close your eyes, and don’t open them until I tell you to,” he says. I do.

Mikey presses something cold and wet to my face, which I assume is a cleansing wipe as he swabs away my oil and dirt. He soaks the end of a sponge in a thick cream, bringing the paste under my eyes and buffing it over the thin skin. He balances a ring finger on my chin and brushes more creams and powders across my face, down my cheeks and forehead, on the margins of my nose. The application only takes about ten minutes, but I feel Mikey’s hands on my face for hours. When he finishes, he wheels my chair around and positions me in front of the mirror. He doesn’t have to tell me to open my eyes. I know.

I expect the same embellishment Mikey and the other kings used to decorate their faces. I anticipate acute angles of brown and taupe that fraction my features and a displaced, theatrical beard over my jaw. I don’t expect Mikey to be subtle, though that’s what I see when I open my eyes. I recognize the skill in his muscles, the precision of knowing exactly how much and where to place the shadows that will strengthen the bones in my face. Years have been erased, and I appear as a younger, superior model of myself. Mikey smiles at my reflection, and I can see Maddie beneath his makeup. She remembers the partner-in-crime she cherished growing up. The brother she once loved.

I take my place in the audience. The floor next to the stage is glazed with every type of liquor, and I’m standing near speakers that blast music so loud I can’t discern any melody. Damp bodies ricochet off me, glossing me with their sweat.

Still, there’s an energy I can’t deny. I’ve drunk no alcohol, taken no ecstasy or coke, but I feel high. Glitter flakes off the crowd’s hair and skin like dead cells, and their screams thaw into a kind of flat drone. Is this what Marcus experienced when he performed? So many nights he would flounder into our bedroom, wig in hand, sweat and coconut body shimmer catching the hallway light I left on for him. I never let him know he woke me, choosing instead to watch with half an eye open. Marcus would count the cash he made that night and wedge it into the toes of his stiletto boots. Money I would never see again.

Manny Nuff fist pumps like Pitbull and grinds his dick on screaming women who stow dollar bills into his pockets and waistband. Freddie Mercury’s scaly track pants open at seams that run down from his knees, revealing a satin rainbow lining, which drowns the crowd when it reflects off stage lights. Alex, now Brad Winner, grabs his crotch and the lights strobe while he perfectly executes the lyrics to “Rap God.”

Mikey Van Dyke is one of the last to perform. He tugs on his blazer lapels and the chords to “María” begin. He lip syncs as though he’s making love, riding the words, thrusting his hips until everyone in the room feels his pressure. The scales on the blazer flex like water as he moves, waving to the constant rhythm of steady sex. Audience members pet his soft plates while he collects their cash.

“Livin’ La Vida Loca” begins, and the jacket starts to dominate. Mikey leaps around the stage as the fabric extends over his skin and binds him in scales. His muzzle slopes, eyes sliding apart. When he blinks, his left pupil stretches into a thin slit. A chasm I can almost penetrate. He repeats the refrain, howling through barbed teeth that shoot from his gums like a picket fence. I don’t see my sister or Mikey anymore. A starved beast stirs in their place. I reach out my hand and seize the sleeve of its jacket. It struggles to shake me off, its other claw wreathed around the microphone, and the crowd strains to pull me away, but my grip on its wrist is stronger. I feel for a pulse but only sense the heartbeat of my own thumb against two stiff scales.

Cara Lynn Albert


Cara Lynn Albert is a writer originally from Florida, and she currently lives in Denver, Colorado. She received her MFA degree in creative writing from the University of Colorado Boulder, and her work has been published in Catapult, Post Road, Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, and elsewhere.

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The man, he is what is called a chuck deboner, his job is to cut the meat and fat away from the bones of carcasses on their way to the man whose job it is to cut the meat and fat away from the bones of carcasses on their way to the man, well, you get the idea. There is a line, and because there is a line, there are linemen. If there were no men to work on the line, what line would there be? What would the men do? There was once, ask around, a woman working on the line, but then the men working on the line made it uncomfortable. More uncomfortable. The work where the man works is dangerous. Women work elsewhere. The nurse who works at the slaughterhouse has a full-time job at the slaughterhouse because the work at the slaughterhouse is dangerous. What’s the worst thing the nurse has ever seen on the job? Probably just lost fingers. She’s only been there a year. She wasn’t the one who treated the man whose arm got chewed up. This makes it sound dangerous. You know, many people work there for years, decades. They retire. It surprises you? There’s nothing else for them, anywhere around. You can look. The man got his cousin a job when he was old enough to do this work. His cousin worked there a week, maybe, ten days, not much more than that. Now he works at a chicken plant. The drive was killing him. The long drive, first one way, then the other. Both ways through nothing. Second shift meant in the dark, a long drive. Quiet. It was killing him. The man has been here for five years. He is twenty-four. If he’d come to this country when he was younger, he would have been here a year longer. It is not a matter of liking it. It is work. His wife. His children. He does not think in terms of liking it. It is work. If he works overtime, he can maybe save money, a little. If he saves money a little, over time, you know, it adds up. He takes oxycodone so that he can work overtime so that he can save. His shoulder. You can hear it. That sound? Yes. He doesn’t have health insurance. Like everyone else. In January, yes, if he chooses, maybe he will have insurance. Maybe then he will go to the doctor. The doctor, though, will only give him what he already takes, you know. It will be a little cheaper is all. Does he take it at work? This is the question of a man who has not worked on the line long, this question. One day, you, too, will take oxycodone on the line. No one here thinks about the lost fingers, the crushed arm. There isn’t much thinking. It is thinking that leads to lost fingers, a crushed arm. When you go out the doors, you can see the lights at his house from the slaughterhouse sometimes, far away. That one, or that one. The fireworks on the fourth. Christmas lights. The ambulance sometimes, from his front window. You can see everything from everywhere. People leave their doors unlocked in the night. If it’s cool, the windows. You can’t really get lost out here. But if you think the way you’re thinking, you will get lost, my friend, you could lose fingers. The man thinks, he tells the man next to him on the line, only sometimes, only of someday owning a slaughterhouse like the one where he works. Yes, maybe the workers will be treated better there, maybe, yes. But then, there is a way to make money. A slaughterhouse is a slaughterhouse. No one comes here for a handout. He knows how work works in this country. It is work. His wife. His children. Always it is the same. You know what’s best about his work? It is the same, every day. There is no need to think. You can get good at it, but you can’t think too much.


I can remember the concern about jaundice in our daughter’s first days, really a thing—jaundice—I hadn’t even considered worrying over but that doctors and nurses brought up at seemingly every turn during our seventy-two-hour hospital stay, a condition to which I had seldom given any thought before our daughter’s birth and to which self-imposed ignorance I returned after her first appointment with the pediatrician a week later, by which time, it seemed, the threat of jaundice had passed. I had thought and did think about it so little, even during that intervening week—not because I didn’t care about our daughter, of course, but because it seemed so far outside the boundaries of possibility (or was it that my larger, more longstanding fears simply crowded it out?)—that I have nothing more to say on the subject, or would have nothing more to say on the subject if not for the boy on the other side of the state born with abnormally high levels of bilirubin, which high levels of bilirubin went undetected and untreated and eventually caused kernicterus, a severe form of jaundice causing brain damage, which in turn led to the paying out of a settlement that then resulted in a trust fund being established for the boy, which trust fund ultimately led to the boy’s mother hiring a teenaged boy to murder her ex-husband—the boy’s father—and which hiring of the teenaged boy led to the teenaged boy hiring, in turn, a second teenaged boy as getaway driver, and because the second teenaged boy, the getaway driver, needed to be paid, the first teenaged boy needed to be paid, and the text messages establishing these facts, sent from one party to another to another, ultimately led to the mother’s arrest and then the teenaged boys’ arrests. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, it had seemed as if the plan had come off without a hitch: the news reported that police were asking for the public’s help in identifying the shooter—did anyone have doorbell cam footage of the parking lot that morning?—and, further, that the shooter was suspected to be a young woman, which the teenaged boys clearly were not. When the two shots had knocked the target, the man, the ex-husband, down, the first teenaged boy walked over and stood over him and fired seven more times. Even weeks later, it seemed no suspect had been found and the first teenaged boy had no reason to believe he hadn’t succeeded. So where was the payment? He needed to pay the driver, the second teenaged boy. Both of them were becoming impatient. Job unfinished, the woman texted back. Will need to complete unless it finished on its own in the next month. Your sure? the shooter replied. I’m pretty sure I finished it well. But then the victim, the ex-husband, survived and the squalid story came out: he wasn’t even really the target, the ex-husband told reporters. It was his son, their son, the boy with permanent brain damage, the boy with the trust fund; with the ex-husband out of the way and the boy out of the way, the woman would get all the money. She would then be able to pay the teenaged boy who would then be able to pay the second teenaged boy. The son’s story, needless to say, is a heartbreaker: when his parents separated, the mother was awarded custody, but then the boy was neglected and the courts took him away from her and placed him in foster care, and then he was given over to the father, and then, when the father, the ex-husband, was shot by the teenaged boy hired by the mother, the boy went into respite care; after all, his father couldn’t care for him, and his stepmother had to care for his father. Was the concern the doctors and nurses showed our daughter the result of what had happened to this boy, the result, I mean, of the settlement the hospital system here, in this state, had had to pay? Do we owe the solicitousness shown by others only to tragedies once-removed? In all cases, it really seems, the problem is one of attention and focus, as it usually is.


His brother was bothered by the lack of running water, but that’s not why he was leaving. No, it was that this was nowhere. That said, in prison, at least, he could go to the bathroom in a real toilet; how could he stay here if he looked back on lock-up and thought: at least there, you didn’t have to haul your own shit around? These buckets, bro, were for shit. The way they had to live here was shameful. Sure the guy was nice, he guessed, but then he was trying to give people something no one would want. He had to be nice. Showers hadn’t been cold inside, I mean, most of the time they weren’t, not cold cold, and the phones worked in prison, too—he could call his mother when they let you call, he could complain to his mother his shower hadn’t been hot. And inside he could count on things happening at basically the same time every day. There was something nice about that. Now? Now that he was here, in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas, there was nobody and nothing. What did he look forward to? His brother and the others, if there ever were others, could have it. There were so fucking many flies here. There were fucktons of flies here. Guards would never have put up with that shit, and, he told his brother, he shouldn’t either. That said, of course he appreciated the man’s hospitality, his brother’s hospitality. What was the guy in it for? A home for kids who’d killed their parents? Was he trying to get interviewed on TV? Seemed like there ought to be easier ways to get interviewed on TV. He had been interviewed on TV. It had been his brother’s fault, he’d said on TV. He hadn’t wanted to kill their dad; his brother wanted him to kill their dad. Yes, he chose the bat. Yes, he held it. Yes, he took it to the back of the Barcalounger with their dad in it. There had been, before it happened, he thought, that feeling of a thing that could never happen. He remembered. There was nothing else to do here; even in prison, there’d been other things to do. He would never hit his dad, his brother would never hit their dad. Then, he did, and it had been easy to do it again. It was easy for his brother to join in, too, but no, mostly, he said, his brother didn’t join in. He remembered the mower—they didn’t need one here, there was no grass—the one at home, the one that took forever to start, you pulled the cord and there was that little hiccup inside it like maybe it would start and then nothing, and you pulled again and didn’t even get that, and then the old man yelled and you pulled again and again and nothing and then, after all that effort, when you finally got it started, it ran perfectly, like the thing was brand new. It had been like that: false starts, his father yelling, maybe a slammed door or a threat but nothing real, then the bat connected with his father’s head. His brother never mowed the lawn either. His brother pulled on the cord and the thing didn’t start and then he gave up and then it was up to him. Someone had to do it. That’s why they were here, the guy said: Where else would they go? He said something like they could change their names but their names would always find them, something like that, his brother bought into all this bullshit more than he did, plus, he said, the girl who’d killed her father was going to come when she was let out, so then there’d be a girl here. But his brother was hard up and too dumb to know there were girls everywhere, and some of them weren’t even messed up like they were. His brother wanted someone to talk to, and the guy talked, he knew. He didn’t want to talk. He thought about the mower, he thought about grass, hot showers, running water. You could see all the way into the next county, the guy joked, but that was bullshit, too. You couldn’t see into the next county. It was way too far away for that. Maybe if you had a telescope, but why would you want to? It was just more nothing. He’d come here because he’d thought he had no choice. He’d been living as though he had no choice, and it had taken him so long to realize it.

Gabriel Blackwell


Gabriel Blackwell is the author of CORRECTION (Rescue Press, 2021) and five other books. His essays and fictions have appeared in Conjunctions, Tin House, the Los Angeles Review of Books, DIAGRAM, Post Road, and many other places. DOOM TOWN, a new novel, will be out in 2022 from Zerogram Press. He is the editor of The Rupture.

Gabriel Blackwell
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A person who belongs to another region, culture, or group (Merriam-Webster)
Follows the story of Claire Randall, a married combat nurse from 1945 who
is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743, where she is immediately thrown
into an unknown world in which her life is threatened. When she is forced to
marry Jamie Fraser, a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior, a
passionate relationship is ignited that tears Claire's heart between two vastly
different men in two irreconcilable lives (Starz)

At some point in January, Facebook decides the mother should watch Outlander. It presents her with ad after ad featuring a blond, bare-chested man gazing soulfully into the middle distance. Somewhere in Silicon Valley, programmers huddle in front of computers with three separate monitors and invent algorithms that know her better than she knows herself: she needs a bra that lifts and separates, a portrait of the dog in a Victorian top hat, a diet that involves no dieting. Of all the things she needs, only Outlander is free. Kind of. With subscription.

She puts the kids to bed, takes off her bra, dishes herself ice cream, and turns on Netflix at low volume. Her husband, who doesn’t appreciate plot in his porn, is in the basement with his laptop, pants around his ankles. She can hear the squeaking of his office chair.

There are no penises in ancient Scotland, no pubic hair, just a man in a kilt, his arms so thick with muscle he requires assistance buttoning his shirt. He gazes at his beloved and asks, “Does everybody feel this way?” He hitches up his beloved’s skirt, parts her legs, and is immediately interrupted by Red Coats. Fighting ensues. Blood splatters. The beloved covers her breasts.

The mother rolls her eyes, switches off the television. Does everyone feel this way? Does anyone? On Facebook, an Outlander fan in Malaysia posts a picture of the Scottish warrior in jeans and a button-down, and captions it, “A beautiful man, inside and out.” Already, there are 700 likes and 212 comments: “Amen!” says Carol Somebody; “Gorgeous!” says Olivia Somebody Else.

She imagines the lead programmer alone on a power reclining sofa, the kind with drink holders and a built-in mini fridge. She pictures him staring wistfully out the window, thinking of search terms: love, friendship, female orgasm compilation. In actual fact, though, the lead programmer is in the back seat of an Uber, staring wistfully at his screen. In grade school, a kid once picked him up by the collar of his shirt and slammed him against a locker. Now the lead programmer buries special if-clauses in the algorithm just for revenge: “If user = Brett, show ads for erectile dysfunction, abdominal etching, barely legal girls, cat furniture. If user = Brett, show ads for handcuffs, for nanny-cams, for rope.” He likes to imagine Brett bewildered, defensive, telling his wife, “I swear this isn’t me.”

Back in Ohio, the furnace clicks on. In the bowels of the house, the husband, startled, pulls up his pants and listens, then erases his search history. The mother rinses the bowl that held her ice cream before placing it in the dishwasher.

Later that night, she watches her husband undress, all soft belly and back hair. What algorithm is there for this, a love worn down by children, oil changes, and leaking faucets? She closes her eyes and opens her arms. The secret of successful marriage: do not look at each other closely, not after watching beautiful people moan and grimace and thrust against each other for money. Or maybe this is the secret to her marriage and no one else’s.


On a soundstage in London, the Scottish warrior gazes at the girl from craft services. He smolders without effort, summoning her over to him. “I need a straw,” he tells her, his arms so bulky he can’t bring a cup directly to his lips. This is no kind of life, he thinks, then checks his bank account balance: his looks won’t last forever. The craft services girl brings him a straw, then holds his cup while he sips. He considers laying a meaty hand on her ass and decides against it. When it’s time for his sex scenes, he closes his eyes. He really is beautiful inside and out.


In four years, the lead programmer, the Scottish warrior, and the mother from Ohio will all be on the same flight to California. The Scottish warrior and the lead programmer will fly business class and board first, then sit across the aisle from each other. Even though the lead programmer doesn’t watch Outlander, he will bristle at the reminder that, for every Brett, there is another better Brett who is richer and more muscular. The Scottish warrior will catch the lead programmer staring and shrug as if to say, “I spend five hours a day at the gym. What’s your excuse?”

Because the mother is flying coach zone 3 to see her aunt in Fresno, she will be among the last to board, and when she sees the Scottish warrior, she will do a double take and think, “He’s shorter in person,” and “How does he eat?” and “No way can he squeeze into an airplane restroom for a quickie.” This last thought will bring her immense satisfaction: there are clubs even men like him can’t join. Even so, as she walks past him, her hip will brush against his massive forearm and she will thrill thinking of Carol Somebody and Olivia Somebody Else, who will never meet the Scottish warrior, who, if they did meet him, would fall on the ground, squealing and thrashing, unclear about the difference between TV and real life. How can you stand it? she wants to ask him, then wonders which it she means, and how she can stand it herself. She won’t see the lead programmer, who would fit quite nicely into an airplane restroom, but then again, he won’t see her either, won’t think of her even when the flight attendant points out the life vests hidden below and oxygen masks hidden above, all those tools for survival within such easy reach.

Danit Brown


Danit Brown is the author of ASK FOR A CONVERTIBLE, a Washington Post Best Book of 2008 and winner of a 2009 American Book Award. Her stories have appeared in numerous literary journals including Story, One Story, and Glimmer Train, and have been featured on National Public Radio. She teaches at Albion College.

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There are no camels anymore, but the expression The last straw remains. When the metal womb, for the hundredth time, taps across her skin a percussive message to her future-humans—I have held you, and now I am letting you go—and then splinters and then breaks the makeshift fingers of her makeshift hands on the tight seal of her hatch, she does not then go off and gather ten new sticks. Not all life is human. She is not human. Why give herself, again and again, these clumsy puppets of human hands? What the metal womb cannot know, but suspects, suspects now strongly, is that in her design there is a secret trick, a slight of hand, a juggler’s thaumaturgy that makes her like a magic cabinet that opens with a magic word, but it is a word that she does not know, has never heard, will never, ever, not even after one hundred thousand guesses, guess. What the metal womb will never know is that access to her hatch is dependent, wholly, on a human hand, that when she was, according to schematics, little more than a tank with a high-end filtration system, she was fitted with a biometric lock, and that it is only the hand of one particular man, an insipid, boyish billionaire with a face like a canned ham, an enthusiast of super yachts, cocaine, and collecting endangered lizards, who could, via the veins of his palm, make human her future-humans by their removal from her tank through her opened hatch. Without his hand, her hatch is closed, and he is dead now, this keyholder, the insipid, boyish billionaire with a face like a canned ham. Dead and eaten down to his bones and through them. He is dead, and his palms are gone. His whole hands are gone, torn from his body, which is also gone, all of it eaten by the Komodo dragon kept loose and lumbering through his mansion. Is it all that shocking, really, that this man, a collector of endangered lizards who he would hot box at parties for a laugh, refused the programing of a failsafe on a metal womb, said fuck protocols and fuck best practices? Is it all that shocking that, this man, the insipid, boyish billionaire with a face like a canned ham, threw a tantrum and then threw money, and then demanded that he hold complete control sealed up inside the choke of his sweaty fist? Now, there is a rotating crew of government contracted ship fitters on standby, ready with oxy-acetylene cutting torches, should the metal womb ever be captured.

Jenny Irish


Jenny Irish is from Maine and lives in Arizona. She is the author of the hybrid collections Common Ancestor and Tooth Box, the short story collection I Am Faithful, and the forthcoming chapbook Lupine. She teaches creative writing at Arizona State University and facilitates free community workshops every summer.

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“What the fuck happened to Fat John, man?”

“He killed himself.”

“Fat John killed himself? I can’t believe it, how?”

“He hung himself in the shower or something. Maybe shot himself. I don’t know, I’m not sure yet. Nobody knows.”

“But he did it?”

“For sure.”

“Fucking John. What was he thinking? He was always cool, Fat John. Always laughing.”

“I know, ha. That’s what gets everybody. Fat John was always laughing, man, making you crack up, too. Jiggling his fat fucking chins.” He covered his mouth as if a little embarrassed.

They were standing in the bleachers, talking. The field was raked and lined and a sack of beer sat next to them.

“Ah, man, that’s kind of cold.”

“Well, he was Fat John. He didn’t care.”

I scooted away. I didn’t want to hear them anymore. I needed to process what I already heard. And forget about it, and think about other things. But I couldn’t get too far. They were small, the bleachers, and sun struck. The shade only covered so much. What did I care if I sat in the sun in front of them? I did. I cared about everything like that, anything bringing attention to me. It was a great danger. It threatened my equilibrium, so very, very delicate was the mechanism for my survival. I sprung from a far planet but didn’t want to be confused with anybody else from outer space. I hated sci-fi. Fuck it. I battled the sun at the park. Heroic powers woke within me. I squinted at it. I moved a foot or two over, a yard.

“Hey, man, when are they going to start playing? What’s holding them up?”
“Nothing. They’re getting ready to play,” I said. “Fat John is dead, really?”

“Yeah.” He pulled at his beer and kept the sky in his sight. “Dead as this beer.” He crushed the can and let it drop. It fell between the bleachers. “Bye.”

“I knew him before he got so fat, like when he was just Fat John, not Fat John.”

“He overdid it with the donuts.”

“It was the carnitas. Tacos, from that truck on Atlantic. He lived there, man, for dinner. I used to pinch him when I saw him scarfing up.” He grabbed his own stomach and jiggled the flesh. “‘You’re going to make a good taco one of these days, dude. Porky Pig we ought to call you. Puerco.’ I swear he’d snort like a pig. Funny, ha?”

“He was pretty cool anyway,” I said.

“He was all right,” the quieter one said. “He was just Fat John to me, my friend.”

“That’s what I said!” the rowdy one cried. He belched and popped open another beer.

“But you didn’t mean it that way.”

“Oh yeah I did. He was Fat fucking John.”

I got up to use the head before the game started, the teams just milling around. “Actually he wasn’t that fat, ever.”

“What are you, an expert on panzones? Do you hang with them in the freak show?”

“I’m just saying he wasn’t that fat. He had like a tire around his waist but not a big one.”

“Did you measure it? Did you get up real close and run your fingers over it? Are you a joto or what? Just come out with it. Don’t be shy.”

“You’re the one who pinched him.”

The other guy, the quieter one with cleft chin, almost spat out his beer.

“What are you saying, man? I’m a joto?”

“Nah, nothing like that.”

“Fat. John. Was a fat, fucking pig.”

“But more like a sad clown, to me.”

“Who are you, Mr. Spock?”

“Fuck you.” It was out.

“Oh yeah. And what else?” he replied casually, like I was a gnat in his ear.

All he had to do was reach in and flick it out.

“Nothing,” I said. “For now.”

He gave me the once-over.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I told him, as if I were standing apart from myself. “Fat John was like that Who song, you know, the man in there with blue eyes. It’s called ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’”

“I ain’t stupid. I listen to The Who.”

“Who, you?” I spoke to myself more than to him. “He looked like he wanted to cry all the time. Behind blue eyes. Naturally.”

“Naturally, huh? I got something natural for both of you. Behind my zipper.” He chuckled at his cleverness as he raised his beer to his lips, smirkingly.

But I was already humming the song and paying less attention to him. I was lost at a Who concert in Anaheim, Keith Moon thrashing away on the drums, Roger Daltrey approaching the mic with the opening confession of “Behind Blue Eyes.” Then I was down on Atlantic Boulevard, a block from here—two or three, hoofing it with the munchies. There was John standing near a taco truck with a taco in his hand, bending into it. He was a light-skinned Chicano with those blue eyes, and dark hair. He loved Led Zeppelin, the mighty Zepp, and dripped taco sauce on his Stairway to Heaven tee shirt as he lifted the taco to his mouth. And opened wide. He grunted and made everybody laugh. I grunted back in honor of him. I ended in a Daltrey fever, even though my voice cracked and sounded worse than ever: “Behind blue eyes.”

“Behind blue eyes nothing. He wanted another taco.”

“And love.”

“Jeez. What are you, all sentido? Mr. Feelings?”

“I got some.”

“Well don’t cry at my party. Mr. Spock is supposed to be happy and shit. Or like serious and smart. But never crying, dude. Spock don’t cry.”
“Fuck you. Again.” Well, shit. Out of my mouth it came. I warned him though, didn’t I? It was his turn.

“ ... ” He didn’t say nothing.

“Yeah, man,” I spoke to myself. “Blue eyes and taco sauce.”

I waited some more. I welcomed his contribution to the ongoing dialogue. I wasn’t hiding tears. I wasn’t ducking out with a muffled sob. I was too old for that now. And ready. He made my adrenaline rise, but excitingly. He didn’t have a kind face. He had a lizard’s look, thin-faced with yellow-brown eyes and a quick tongue in his mouth, always open, always talking. And he was older than me, a couple of grades ahead, his face more creased, already lined out of adolescence. He was two or three years out of high school, if he had bothered to stick around for his diploma and handshake. And turned it upside down to read. Fuck him. You sensing I didn’t like him? He wasn’t my favorite person on earth, and knew it. And it scared him that I was less afraid of him.

“What?” He faked deafness to save himself.

“Nothing, man. Drink your beer. Party down.” I knew both of them from around the small city that stamped us, City of Commerce, knew them from the streets and the parks and the hangout spots—the burger joints and taco truck and drive-thru dairy that sold to minors—from the dark alleys we walked down drunk, though mine closer to home and barer, more suburban, from Sunday keggers with local bands, from all of it, The Model City in Southeast L.A. County, Commerce forever a friend to industry and innovation. I’ve written about it before, but I’m still caught in the cogs shown on the city logo, Mr. Spock spinning around with his arms out, crying for help.

I knew them both but didn’t like either, not being around them. I take that back. The one guy was decent, the lizard not so. I had moved out of their residential zone called Bandini Park in grade school, the city divided by parks, which indicated regions, neighborhoods, distinct communities, all found within the larger circle of whatever tied us together, Commerce residents, with our first-in-the-nation free buses and oily politicians. I was glad to leave, even though it was barely a hop and a skip away. We had sold the fairy tale cottage (really, a remarkably cute, one-bedroom home, my parents’ starter home) under the Long Beach Freeway and bought another house, a deluxe Model City plan—a 984 square-foot post-World War II three-bedroom workingman’s mansion. It was a stucco castle with shutters and a palm tree in the front yard, a block from the Santa Ana Freeway. No doubt a sociologist would say there wasn’t much difference between our neighborhoods, and minimize the shadings, the apartness. I’d agree but maintain or even maximize the separation, depending where he graduated. “They’re more East L.A., that crowd, by just that much,” I’d explain in a few years with an inch of space between my thumb and forefinger, aglow in a college bar, whooping it up far, far from home. “I’ve got an East L.A. complex, you have to understand. A Commerce chip on my shoulder. The whole place can burn down for all the fuck I care, except for my dear friends from yesteryear. What do you say to another round? It’s still early.”

My dear friends from yesteryear would not be an exaggeration. They never let me down and caused me tears, hurt, unbearable anguish. They never mocked me, these guys (nor the girls) from my current neighborhood. While we were growing distant now, we were never cruel like I had witnessed on the other side of Atlantic Boulevard, the dividing line here. Never deliberately mean. Softer we were, and I’m happy for that. I couldn’t picture them occupying these bleachers and toasting Mr. Spock when his ship crashed at last, sardonically or respectfully, as if at last they could speak my taboo name with impunity. No, not even if filled with beer and pot. What they hadn’t said in life they’d bury at my death. Once again, imbued with elemental tact and decency, they’d uphold my basic dignity. For this reason, I loved them. “They’re all on my side,” I told myself.

So I held my ground. “Drink up. Get stupider.”

“Watch your mouth, sonny,” he gained some courage, tipping a beer up. But he didn’t put it down and come after me. He didn’t stride over and shut my mouth himself. He didn’t say fuck it I’m older and stronger, and go for it. He smelled like beer, a tall can of beer. He was another piece of shit partying fool within the borders of the city. As they dumped on me, I gladly kick it back at them, their rancid shit, their two-bit attitudes, and grind them under my heel. So while many partiers were cool human beings with good hearts, sharing their dope, wit and beer with me, and I my few dollars for the same, there were the other kind of worthless partiers, “heads,” and sneering bullies. He didn’t stand so mightily anymore. I had grown up behind his back. He tried to retake it, his control of the situation, plastering on a smug expression that pissed me off even more.

“Asshole,” I muttered, and took the steps down confidently.

I carried a pocketknife in my pocket for pocketknife things. Since Cub Scouts, I relied on one for emergencies. Be prepared! It was the blue-handled single-blade model authorized by the Boy Scouts of America. It had the Cub Scout insignia embossed on it. I ran my thumb over it. I imagined it soaked with blood. The warm, slick feel like after you’ve squirted sharpening oil on it. Reddish pink. If he came down after me, I might as well get it wet. That sounded convict enough. Puro pinto. Soy you. All San Q-tested. Folsom-rested. No pup. Wassup? I was a hardcore gang-of-one in the Chicano metropolis. I’d risk juvie and my mom’s shameful reaction—mortification, really, that we belonged to the same family—and whip it out.

“Use it.” I steeled myself.

“Mr. Spock!”

“That’s me. And here’s my Cub Scout knife for my Vengeance Badge, never too late.” I’d twist it in, and watch him writhe, and enjoy it all.

“You didn’t have to do it, man. I came down here to apologize.”

“Yeah, right.” I wasn’t going to let it happen, and be fooled. I had too much Spock history in me, and too much rage from present-day troubles to roll over and lie down for him. Fuck him, fuck him, I chanted inside. I often resorted to prolonged chants against the injustice of the world, of my life and all that made it up. Or screwed it up, fucked it up. At home my old man lay confined in a hospital bed, stricken with a hereditary disease that made him prematurely senile, and getting worse, daily, the brutal slippage. Down the hall in the bathroom I performed an elaborate ritual with regularity, courting the fickle mirror and trying to gain its love. So far, no luck. It rebuffed me, and only last week I had borrowed a book from the library on plastic surgery—stealthily and shamefully—that supported my need of a massive nose job. Oh, shit, on top of the ears, now this! And then came me doing poorly in school, looking forward to college but doubting I’d make it there with senior projects due—a ten page paper on John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, and properly footnoted!—and me digging a girl besides who probably rightly hated me for being me. She just hadn’t shown it yet. I was sorting this stuff out, unsuccessfully, besides juggling the usual mix of nice things happening and gobs of angst, and Jesus asking me to follow him in a dream, and my dog’s sad eyes, and, unbeknownst to me, carrying it at all times, and loaded down, I became sweaty and agitated suddenly. I tried my best to project grace under pressure, a concept learned in the same English class that brought me Steinbeck, and almost tripped on the sidewalk below them.

He called out after me. “Watch your step, Mr. Spock. You’re going to miss your spaceship.”

“Yeah, man, whatever you say,” I told myself.

“We’ll be here when you get back, saving your place. Spock!”

I cried inside. I had weird ears from plastic surgery that hadn’t gone as planned. It had and hadn’t. It was supposed to correct my large ears that stuck straight out of my head like paddles of flesh. But the novice surgeon went overboard and pinned them back with a resultant Spock look. They also appeared squished and odd. They had ridges and an undone quality, as if they had been left unfinished in the laboratory of a mad scientist, who, curiously, I didn’t blame for anything. But the monster had been abandoned on the table. I hummed a sad song at the urinal, and groaned a few times in support of myself. I growled and gritted my teeth, preparing myself for my emergence out of my den, like a monster out of his holy cave, and into the sunlight, where I look around, unconcerned, and proceed up the bleachers to sit my monstrous ass down. I wasn’t taking it anymore. I wasn’t turning my back on it and walking home. You had to face it sometime. Now was my time.

“My time!” I flushed and washed my hands well over the sink, lathering them. I checked my teeth for some odd reason, turning my head before the mirror. I didn’t see any gunk between them. I’d make a good casket presentation. Wait a minute. I wasn’t the one who was going to die. “He is.”

Fat John had beat us all to it.

“Rest in peace, brother,” I murmured. “Fat John! John Castillo, I mean. Hey, thanks for lending me that lunch money in seventh grade. I was broke. I forgot it at home.”

“That’s okay, homes,” Fat John barreled into my head, his high, squeaky voice nice to hear. “You needed some money and I had some extra coin so I helped a homeboy, a Commerce homes.”

“You sure did, John.” I got out of there in time for the first pitch.

They were gone, nothing but an empty bag left on the bleachers, and the day improved. I was there for my crush on the softball team. But I downplayed my feelings and anything special between us, as she did, kind of. I was trying to play it cool. She wasn’t as sly as me, the master of concealment. I wore my heart on my bandaged sleeve but it said CAREFUL over it and that proclamation amounted to a closed curtain. Or something like that. I didn’t pretend to know. I adopted this stratagem unconsciously and unsuccessfully. I gravitated towards love wherever I found it, like everybody else. I saw something in her eyes. It’s always the eyes, the eyes and the smile, and the hips swung about, and even the hair pushed back with a hand, with the fingers raking through it, with the same eyes and smile. No, it’s all in the eyes, and the way they shine, and glisten, and sparkle, just like in books, fill up with light and life, and squint at you like you’re a nut. Oh, nuts for you, baby! Friend! Pal! Jackoff poster girl pinned in my mind! I loved this pair of Commerce peepers that granted me an audience. They were beautiful brown eyes. They were hers and nobody else’s and what else did I need? They stayed with me for the rest of my time in Commerce and accompanied long letters I read in college before I figured out that the eyes had tired of me and no longer shone at my distant voice transmitted through the stationary that came less and less frequently, dying out, the eyes, the words, the rich warmth between us.

“The wet thigh on a car seat before I left home.” Why don’t I just end there and wish everybody a happy New Year, everyday a new beginning, a new start in life?

It’s because I don’t want to, though it’s not a bad idea. Basically, I have no plan. Spock-ness has robbed me of determined coordinates, ironically. I roam where I please and stop when I wish. But don’t think for a moment that I’m an ultra-sophisticated narrator posing coyly as a rube in a misunderstood genre, the short story, Maupassant’s terrain, Chekhov’s domain—those fine examples of precision and feeling—or that I’m a brilliant naïf or anything but a severely wounded soldier of love, of life (aren’t they the same thing?) from City of Commerce, down in East L.A., a traumatized survivor, with an East L.A. complex even.

“I hug my ancestral palm tree for security and Southern California universalism, see?!”

Nobody knows what it’s like, anyway, to be the fat guy at the taco truck.

“Behind blue eyes. The Who said it, John, not me.”

“They got it right,” he chirped.

“Yeah, they did, didn’t they?” I said. I crossed myself back in the bleachers, with a film of tears. I did it discreetly. I saw the sky break open and his face appear, as if in a movie with religious themes, and greeted him. “Well there you are, man, Fat John.”

“You never called me that before,” he replied.

“It’s just in my head now. You’re dead. But you know I can’t call anybody names. I can do all kinds of shit but not that. You know why, too.”

He was already fading, smiling. “Don’t be afraid. Claim it.”

“I can try,” I said. I ran a hand over my face, like a big rag wiping it clean.

“Let’s go girls!” I heard from the dugout, and they charged onto the field, the Rosewood Park softball team, wearing brand new uniforms with an R for my neighborhood on the legs. They were playing another park in an intra-city league. It was a recreational league that kept me together one season, the boys’ league. It was tightly run and moderately competitive, requiring some athleticism to wear a uniform, and offering trophies for the league crown only, and full of heartbreak and glory, but not causing ulcers like when I had tried the CYO League—Catholic Youth Organization baseball—that was the equivalent of Little League: intense, super-competitive, no fun. I know better now: meet life’s challenges coolly and don’t twist yourself up over things out of your control, like a couple of assholes, one anyway, baiting you in the bleachers. You can walk away from it all, or stare it down with a bemused look that only requires an ascot to make it perfect, like James Bond. That was me, the new me, all me. One phrase from an old life summed it up:

“Be prepared.” I took out the Cub Scout knife and jabbed it in the bleachers, hard. “Hey, what are you doing?” My brown-eyed girl friend was bending down to tie her shoes, her brand new cleats, with the box on the dugout bench, and caught me over her shoulder.

“Nothing, practicing my whittling. I was a Cub Scout, you know.”

“Were you? Did you wear those cute shorts, with the scarf on top?”

“No. Just the long pants. But dripping with medals.”

“On the pants?”

“No more room on the shirts!” I ran my hand across my chest in astonishment. “Den 452. Commerce.”

“Yeah, right. Bunch of little terrorizers. Don’t leave after the game. I want to talk to you.”


“Let’s go, Bonnie girl. Get a move on,” her coach said, clapping her hands at the end of the dugout, standing there all business, the way coaches do.

“Yes, ma’am!” She smiled at her. She put her cap on, tucking her hair under. She squatted to adjust her underwear like a guy adjusting his jockstrap, quickly, but not at all furtively. She didn’t care if anybody saw her acting normally. She was a ballplayer. She needed to hoist the waistline on her visibly outlined panties.

“Jeez, I’d love to sniff them,” I voiced quietly, like your average bleachers-lurking maníaco.

“Okay then, later!” She glanced over her shoulder, then jogged onto the field and joined her team, ready to play, slapping her glove.

I carved my name in the bleachers, my first public defacement besides a drunken alley piss, and my last. I was careful not to be seen. I chipped and dug and kept track of the outs every inning. I slashed the date on a separate bench above it. When I was done, I climbed down off the creator’s scaffold carefully, like Michelangelo after completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling as I had seen in a short film in religion class—Catholic high school, the works, I was there. I breathed deeply. I reminded myself that I was at Rosewood Park in Commerce, not the Vatican, sitting on a splintery bench in the bleachers. I regarded the scene before me, as if newly deposited there, seeing it for the first time—the groomed infield, the green expanse of outfield extending to the street, the trees ringing the park, and in a corner the picnic tables and barbecue pits. I discerned that the metal roofs protecting the area—the birthday party and family reunion grounds—resembled a line of space ships hovering in low formation, the large discs like black saucers encroaching on right field, awaiting orders to land. I hadn’t paid much attention to them before, the obvious spacecraft before my eyes, the army of aliens! But now I wondered whether they’d dropped me off in the night long ago, inseminating my mother with my spirit.

“They left some molecule in the air that created me.” I folded my knife at my side and slipped it in my pocket. I lived with myself for just a moment, and it inspired grand plans of conquering the universe. I grunted with some satisfaction. At the same time,
 I sat on it, my masterwork, suddenly afraid that somebody would spy it and frame me.

Well, not frame me. Blame me. Rightly. Slowly, I unveiled it beneath my jeans, inching over. I smiled down at it. I pulled the tips of my ears up, Spock-a-fied my delicate ears that were not freakishly pointed but comparatively normal, yet just different enough to make me Spock’s young double, the bastards. I released my grip. If I teared up earlier, I sobbed openly now. I traced my life in its lines. I stared fixedly at it. Mr. Spock Lives! Fuck all who doubt!

It lasted a good long time before it was destroyed, the bleachers torn down and replaced with new, fancier units, butt friendlier. I like to think of that lone plank leaning against a forgotten wall in the Commerce maintenance yard behind a ripped up cyclone fence and toppled merry-go-round. I wonder who wrote it. I wonder where he is. It’s possible a janitor in a green uniform asked himself these questions, tossing more shit back there. I’m there, with the junk. But so what?

I’m still proud of what I left behind. Even if it’s not there anymore, it’s lasting. The human spirit has spoken. It’s a little known fact that the U.S.S. Enterprise passed over the city at the approximate hour of these doings, and was mistaken for the Goodyear blimp. But some saw it, Mr. Spock filling the sky in a giant hologram, his ears pointier than ever, his mouth a set line, his stance erect in the observatory bay, a huge glass belly lowered from the spacecraft. He raised a hand in a Spock salute.

“Greetings, Junior,” he transmitted mentally.

It was like that, you see, that day. But contrary to any expectations of plot development along traditional lines, even along non-traditional lines, along, you know, experimental jigsaw puzzle lines that zigzag back to the horse’s asshole in the barn, “Neigh,” with a shake of the mane, I didn’t do anything radical and unexpected which would be completely expected. I didn’t become a renowned graffiti artist in my neighborhood, and then the wider city, L.A., and then the nation and then the world and then, because of my Spock credentials, the universe, inscribing my name upon the firmament in stardust that glowed and glittered for long-lasting seconds—minutes—hours in one case (over Newfoundland)—while I kept to my original ministry and serviced the bathroom walls of American bars, Laundromats and gas stations with a black marker in hand and, for kicks, a coarse brown robe on, like Jesus may have worn. Mr. Spock shed a tear for you.

Too bad it’s all a fiction. Mr. Spock abjured such behavior and didn’t make it easy for lovers of the Latin way and sway to smile with relief that he turned out “recognizably from East L.A. after all,” a good liberal dream of compromise and complacency. No warm ethnicity to sell, no redemptive return to, to … pre-Spockland? I claim space as my heritage, I told you. I arrived with those fucking spaceships. I didn’t triumph earthling-style.

In fact, if you let me back up past the moment I carve my name in the bench at the park, and follow me into the totality of the surrounding time, the grim hiatus of my honestly miserable youth that this story doesn’t begin to capture with its romantic glow, I downplay everything you’ve read—any suggestion of vitality in me—and hardly show my face. I keep my head down. I don’t know a spunky, tomboyish girl on the softball team. I don’t avoid a fight so bravely, but eat shit and hide out in the piss-puddled bathroom until the coast is clear, standing on the toilet to peek out the typically small, crusty window. And to top things off, to really make things bad, I don’t “grow” much. That’s right. I’m forced to revise the notion that I momentously mature and “accept myself” the day I affirm my painful identity and “come out” as Mr. Spock.

“Yeah, right. I vindicate myself and learn something about self-worth and self-acceptance and self-love and self-self-self, all that I need to know to live peacefully with myself.” Oh, if life were like that I would have thrown him off the bleachers and done the time in juvie not giving a shit what anybody thought of me, even Mother, and stabbed him on the ground to make sure he was dead, with my Cub Scout pocketknife, and made the front page of the local paper, The Commerce Tribune, College-Bound Senior Stabs Local Resident to Death at Softball Game (Rosewood Park girls outlast Veterans Park squad, 6-3!), and would have appeared with my face in anguish in a grainy photo, and been all the better for it, really.

But I’m a coward, capable of baby steps only.

“Okay, I’m all packed. Let’s go!”

This story ends on a darkly hopeful note, with me embarking on a Greyhound bus in the still of night. “The still of night!” How could I have foreseen that? Downtown L.A. The Greyhound bus depot. A duffle bag. A ticket northward. I mean ends ends. For now, it’s enough to tie up loose ends as they occur to me, and leave any that don’t to be unattended and free and dangerous, liable to trip me up like an untied shoelace and expose me for the amateur I am.

I speak with a bloody tooth.

This story, “Fat John’s Return,” as of yesterday morning when I debated the title and did a word count (size matters) and wondered at its suitability as a) fiction, b) autobiography/memoir/personal reminiscence, c) Young Adult stuff with a pitch to young adults with body issues, and d) literature of any kind, given its unorthodox structure, tone, theme and manner, bears a distinct resemblance to my own ears. Mr. Spock! Star Trek! Accordingly, it rises and falls in a dramatic arc not unlike my own sad relationship with my ears, with myself, my own miserable self, and relies on special effects (“experimental magic”), just like the movie, the big screen version featuring Mr. Spock, which I’ve never seen but I’m sure is dazzling and entertaining and not without high artistry involving the purging of one’s emotional gunk. Catharsis, no less. Consider an off-page scene that uses wondrous womanly space aliens in Lycra outfits and Spock in distress at the proximity of such lovely creatures with long, long eyelashes and curved fingernails until the available glance sets his ears quivering madly, and his tumescent Vulcan-o on overdrive to provide sheer evidence (Lycra is flimsy) that all the rumors are true, and his mind is nothing compared to his matchless, deeply penetrant “love linkage” that no womanly creature, earthly or alien, has ever survived or protested.

“Full speed ahead, Captain.” He nods and you know the ship is going to wreck.

“Fat John’s Message,” or “Sir Stephen’s Favorite Role,” or “Mr. Spock’s Vengeance,” all title contenders to do with (in order of appearance) my overweight buddy with the high voice who actually hung himself in his shower stall, as far as I know, my cherished pseudonym you see under the title, whatever title I have chosen, and my hated nickname which will plague me till the day I die, all work, and don’t. Love, Love, Love in the Bleachers!

I stretch my legs out with a view of the Sistine Chapel ceiling above me.

“I wonder if Bonnie wants to talk to me after. I guess she said she did.” There was a girl named Bonnie, and she was short and stocky and built and fine and boyish and foxy and like nobody I had ever met before, fun and serious and dull at times, laughing about it. “I sure am boring, aren’t I?”

“No, no, not at all.” And I don’t know exactly how we met except that she was kind of new to the city, living in a rental with an overgrown lawn and two sisters and her mother, Sylvia, who offered me rest and quiet in the kitchen on some nights, the few times I had been there, a nice Mexican-American woman with bags under her eyes and endless cheer, and her father, a burly guy who worked the night shift in a sprawling soap factory noted for polluting our skies with its enormous smokestacks but also for paying well if you could get in, Dominic, who I met once. “Hi.”

“Hey. Don’t stay too late. My daughter has to go to school.”

Fair enough. I went to the boys’ school run by the Irish Christian Brothers, a stern lot, and she the public school over the tracks and down the road, which probably explains why we hadn’t met before, so many years ago. But we did meet. And liked each other. And shared music, me a rocker, she a mellower, soulful type. And she played shortstop like a pro, waiting for the ball with her hands on her knees, number 8. That I remember. And her time in the bleachers with me, afterwards, talking and laughing until it got too late to do anything but go home.

“Hey, Art.”


“Kiss me.”

“All right.”

“You have weird ears, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” But it was okay, all of it.

“Are you going away to college?”

“I think so.”

“Do you want me to write you?”

“Yeah, sure. It’ll be a while before I go, though.”

“Okay, let’s go home.”

We got up to leave.

“You want to go the long way?”

“Sure, why not. There’s a nice moon out.”

“Watch out for space travelers.”


“Nothing. I’m just fooling around.”

“I’m not. Hold my hand.”

“After that game? Hell, yeah, you’re the woman.” I kissed it gallantly because I’m a misguided knight in an awkward suit of flesh, minus armor, lance or horse, and she offered it with a demure smile after my compliment.


“Yup. Let’s go.”

It is unlikely that you have ever been to City of Commerce, specifically to Rosewood Park, my tidy neighborhood that sits aside the Santa Ana Freeway and is only separated from that roaring, constant line of cars and trucks by an eight-foot brick wall and the goodwill—sobriety, sanity—of the drivers, though a semi or two has crashed through and brought pandemonium to a few backyards and households. In one case, a half-built den addition got demolished in a matter of seconds, and in another a thirty-year affair between next door neighbors got discovered when their poolside sunbathing was interrupted and neighbors came rushing over and saw Carmen limping in the flabby nude, her husband in Vegas, her lover’s wife in the Holy Land, or maybe they were in the half-built den addition copulating when the big Mack truck parked before them. Drive carefully, please, if you ever stop by.

Take the Atlantic or Washington Boulevard exit. But maybe I’m wrong and you’re an old friend. You drop by frequently because of errands in the area. (Don’t say cocaine. Please don’t say cocaine.) And if that is the case, and you were in the vicinity of the park around the time of this story, you may have caught sight of a pointed eared kid holding hands with a girl in a dirty softball uniform on the same night that, allegedly, Mr. Spock landed in the U.S.S. Enterprise at the Brenda Villa Aquatic Center named after that most famous product of The Model City, Brenda Villa, captain of the U.S. Women’s Water Polo Team (Gold Medal, 2012 Olympic Games, London), Stanford All-American and Rosewood Park Elementary School graduate, the Enterprise taking up half the parking lot with its blinking lights and humming, space-age motor kept on.

Mr. Spock wanted to see the markings that had caused such a stir in the universe already. He made his way across the field toward the rising seats, holding a flashlight bought at Walmart on a previous earth-stop because you never know when you need a good flashlight to poke around the airship, and duct tape. He had heard that the message discovered on a plank above a humble “baseball diamond” contained the key to happiness for many, and threatened others. And that the planetary capitals with clout had been shut down by imperial decrees of the unseen rulers, usually beings with six eyes and transparent skulls to show off their big, big brains.

He had hopped ship and raced ahead on a space stallion to witness himself the “freakish element” responding to the rudely carved orthography that, you remember, exhibited right honorable Spock vim as opposed to bilious Spock mockery. They, the freaks and brutalized and abused, the downtrodden and silenced and humiliated and belittled, joined ranks, and celebrated the graffito with raised arms and clenched fists like ours, but not quite, more advanced, less hairy, and of a blue pallor. And ululated and warned: “Woe to you! He’s stronger than ever! Don’t you forget it!”

And added their own assertions: “And so am! Stronger and tougher and fiercer and kinder!”

And flashed pictures of the source of it all, the unrest.

And there it hung in the outdoor museum for all to enjoy, or lay flat or hid in the shadows or breathed in a private space of its own keeping, however you want to put it, the thing in question. People visited the park, and saw it, a demotic urban piece with revolutionary aspects (ask the former rulers of Xanthon if you doubt it), or, as I see it, a rallying cry set in the green bleachers at a convenient angle, unplanned, for all who passed to ponder.

And which elicited various reactions. (Letters, emails, doctored photos—some day I’ll sort them.) The split lines on some of the letters torn out of the bench protruded like vaginal lips in labor if you trusted your imaginative flights and saw its parturient quality in the ripples and folds, and maybe a soft brown head crowning, with tiny shriveled ears, and blinked.

“Birth in the bleachers in Commerce, shit, what’s next? At least there’s urgency there.” And nothing like that at all, said others! But more like a temporary memento of The Model City was it, definitely a grounded work for you literalists who don’t see vaginal lips in labor easily in a day unless they’re vaginal lips in labor, and don’t know what you’re doing here anyway at Rosewood Park in Commerce, off the goddamned packed freeway, except chasing a woman in an adult softball league who asked you to drop by, reading it quickly before lowering yourself at the start of the game, and covering it. Mr. Spock Lives! Fuck all who doubt!

It’s many things to many people. It’s a mystery of inelegant proportions to Mr. Spock, the elder, the original, the one and only, and stuck in his mind forever, even though it’s been forever since he first saw it. It’s been years, years and years and light years too since he travelled back in time and entered a Commerce portal that planted him where he started, as a junior Spock, years ago. Or was he going senile now? He’s writing this in the Old Vulcan Home, is he? He’s rocking in a custom wheel chair. He’s closing his eyes and thinking of nothing but … Fuck yeah I wrote it. I put it down. I got up and left that shithole town with my Cub Scout blade razor sharp and my head clear and smart. They didn’t kill me. They tried. I said try again, suckers. Try harder. I’m too strong for you. In other words, fuck you.

“Who doubt it.” He is doubled over in his chair, laughing, almost. Like wanting to laugh, with a bellyache.

And it won’t go away, ever. It is his for keeps. The mark he left. His place in it, the bleachers, the city, the nation, the cosmos, all of it the same, linked, indissoluble … And after trudging over the field grass in a straight line to the right spot, as if pointed by an alien God to the isolated area of the bleachers that caught the glow of a streetlamp on a near path, he stopped.

He folded his arms under his chest, very Spock-like.

“Yes, I see it.”

He gazed upon it.

“It is a rude, elementary expression of anger, and will.” He shook his head in wonder. He smiled his enigmatic smile. Or so say those few who witnessed him absorb the words cut in pain and pride, the pride of aggrieved dignity making its stand, and rub his chin as if deep in thought. He shed a tear, they say, a barely visible tear, so unexpected in a being so different in his sympathetic range. But there it shone, a droplet of human emotion, coming from the dry, contained one, Mr. Spock.

“Forever.” He turned away. He went home.

Stephen D. Gutierrez


Stephen D. Gutierrez is the author of three collections of short stories and essays, and winner of an American Book Award. He recently received his second Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays 2022, and has work forthcoming in Cimarron Review. He has manuscripts in progress, in both fiction and nonfiction. He taught for many years at California State University East Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area where he still makes his home. He is originally from City of Commerce, a small working-class city in Southeast Los Angeles County. He can be found at

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Brush Fire

Over the hill comes the smell of smoke. This arrives long before the panic sets in. Before the men are up on their roofs wielding flaccid garden hoses, before the women have loaded essentials into station wagons, before the children have surveyed their bedrooms, deciding: treasure? or something that can be left behind to burn.

Before the smell of smoke, before the news arrives of what looms just over the hill, the kids roll up and down the street on bikes and Big Wheels in a pack—one hard plastic wheel caught on a spot of gritty asphalt spins in place as a child pedals furiously, desperate not to be left behind. Sometimes they catch tadpoles in the drainage ditch across the road, filling buckets they leave in their backyards—forgotten—until one evening, suddenly, hundreds of tiny frogs spring up from the ground everywhere they step, a chorus of croaking so loud, so constant, that no one can sleep.

In the lone section of the neighborhood that remembers its life as farmland, that hasn’t yet been transformed into still more suburbia, the kids have sculpted piles of soft yellow dirt into a track for their BMX bikes: jumps and dips and take-your-breath-away swerves—their daredevilry observed only by the horses grazing beyond the fence line. Rumor has it, one bit off the finger of a neighborhood girl who reached over the fence to pet it.

The children come to a sudden stop and stand astride their bikes. Sunning itself on the soft yellow sand of the track, sun not yet blocked out by the clouds of smoke that will come—a snake. Shouts for the nearest parent bring Francesca’s grandmother, visiting from Chile. Garden hoe slung over her shoulder, she arrives, assesses the situation, and brings the hoe down hard, cleaving the snake in two.

The Month of December

Here's what she knows of you this month: that right now you're in a car headed northwest with stops scheduled in all the major cities.

That when you hit DC you'll take to the air, and on Christmas day, while she tears the paper from some gift she chose with her mother, months ago in some department store, dazed and zombied over another failed love, you will float right over her house,

hanging there in the crowded airspace over the Chicagoland suburbs, strapped tightly into a seat. That someone will roll past with a cart and offer you a drink, and for a moment, you will both stop, drink in hand or some ugly sweater, and think of a story that waits for you.

That you will sail on over the flat Midwest, headed for the slopes of California. That on a series of gray and frozen days, she will board the commuter train at eight and again at five, and for a moment there on the stairs, she will pause, hand on the rail, the diesel smell of the train.

You will be pulled up a mountain thanks to the miracle of levers and pulleys, feet dangling, wondering what would happen should you slip, should your sister, next to you, just then cave to that timeless urge of sibling rivalry and give you a little shove. And you will come to the top, to that moment where you must hop off or go around again, and for a moment, you will stop, will remember sitting with her on the steps at some party, the red dress she smoothed over her knees as you talked.

That as the thirty-first turns over into the first, kisses passed round for the taking, balloons will fall or she will be trapped in a cab on her way somewhere better. And here's where what she knows falls off.

New Year's with your family sounds like a cruel punishment she'd said to you in the kitchen as you leaned side by side against the counter and she watched the width of your shoulders, memorized it on the chance that she might never find them hovering above her for an instant before.

Chrissy Kolaya


Chrissy Kolaya is the author of one novel: Charmed Particles (Dzanc Books) and two books of poems: Other Possible Lives and Any Anxious Body (Broadstone Books). Her short fiction and poems have been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton) and Fiction on a Stick: New Stories by Minnesota Writers (Milkweed Editions) and in a number of literary journals. She has received a Fiction Meets Science fellowship at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg Institute for Advanced Studies, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, and the University of Minnesota. Kolaya teaches creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. You can learn more about her work at

Chrissy Kolaya
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George wipes the back of his neck with his handkerchief, already soaked with perspiration as he makes his way from his pickup and across the drive. The HVAC at the dealership went offline and Michaelson couldn’t take it anymore, sent them all home early, even the lot techs like him. That’s what the lazy man does in Houston in June, the heat makes them prone to panic. If George was manager he would’ve kept everyone working, heat be damned, and he smiles at the thought of Michaelson sweating it out at George’s father’s old chop shop back home in Oklahoma. All sun, all day, and damned if this isn’t the first time in years he smiled at the thought of that place. Now his paycheck will be short, which means he’ll have to put off the scoop-work on his favorite, his very best girl.

And here she is. Peeking out of the open garage like a playful tongue, his bright orange dream ride, the ninteen eighty Camaro Z28, fully restored with a buttery tan interior and five-spoke rally wheels. Include the detailing under the hood and she’s only two of a kind, one more just like her back on the lot and awaiting the love of another man; George would’ve bought the pair if he’d had the money. He loves his daughter Missy, and he loves the memory of his dead wife, but there is nothing more important to him than the Camaro. He walks through the garage and runs a gentle hand over his baby’s backside before he enters the house.

As soon as he shuts the door, he knows there’s someone else there. An intrusive feeling that’s more a scent than anything else, a sharp and foul trace both familiar and wrong. He passes through the kitchen, puts his keys on the counter, and takes a steak knife from the drawer, the light from the blinds catching the blade as he creeps down the hall to his daughter’s room. He toes open the door so it rasps across the stiff wall-to-wall carpeting, and now he recognizes the offending smell of liquor, of bottom shelf hooch, unambiguous. It reminds him of his father, and he’s angrier than he could have imagined.

He heaves the closet door open and finds Missy huddled inside. Damp with acrid sweat in cutoff jeans and a worn-through t-shirt over a too-tight bra, every fifteen-year-old inch of her is as disheveled as the dirty laundry she lays across, a plastic liter of vodka cradled in her arms like a newborn. The knife is still in his hand, so he uses the other to haul her up, and she’s so heavy it’s like lifting two tractor tires at once. Missy growls and pushes at him, but he pushes her back and she crumples yelping to the floor. Now here come the tears, right on schedule, that and the sloshing sound of the vodka bottle as it rolls beneath the bed.

“Why aren’t you in class?” he shouts, and why can’t he put down the knife? “Why aren’t you at school?”

“I can’t go back there,” his daughter says between choking sobs. She sounds like a farm animal. Looks like one too, strands of dark hair matted across her face, tears and sweat and snot. “They make fun of me, Dad. They call me bad names.”

“Why do you think they call you names? You don’t take care of yourself. You have no pride.” It pains him to say it, but it’s true. It actually hurts him to look at Missy, hurts to look at her dimpled thighs, her feet, where her gold anklet with the tiny horse charm strains against her skin. Is this what George worked so hard to escape home for, when he wasn’t so much older than Missy is now? All those years spent cleaning toilets and mopping floors and working his way up the food chain, just so he could watch his beautiful wife waste away from MS and then be left with this sad thing to raise. What has he done to deserve this?

“I wish I was dead!” she wails. “I want to die!”

“Missy ...”

“I want to die,” she says again, quieter now, which makes it sound more truthful. “I mean it. I want to die.”

“You think those other kids are better than you?” George says, a new tack. “Just because they got money?”

“It’s not just the rich kids.” Missy sniffs and rubs her nose, a trail of mucus spread across her blotched cheek. “All of them do it. They call me names. They throw things at me. The teachers don’t even try to help me.”

“It’s hard to help you when you don’t even try to help yourself. Look at you!” George says, and gestures at her with the knife before he can stop himself. “Look at yourself. If your mother could see you ...”

He exhales loudly and turns away, toward the window overlooking the small patch of lawn and the sleek nose of the Camaro beyond. “You know I don’t allow alcohol in this house. If I ever catch you drinking again, I’m going to come down on you so fast your head will spin.”

“No one listens to me.” She pulls her legs up to her chest, rests her head on her knees so he can’t see her face, only the wet tangle of her shiny black hair. “I have no one to listen.”

“I’ll listen to you,” George says, exhausted; he has no more time for this. “If you got something to say.”

He crosses to the other side of the bed, gets down on his hands and knees, lower back aching as he tries to feel out where the vodka bottle rolled. All he comes back with is a shameful succession of candy wrappers and cookie dough tubes licked clean of their contents. What is there even to say to her anymore?

He’s only dimly aware of Missy leaving the room, and it’s not until he fishes out the bottle and cleans the rest of the mess from beneath the bed that he hears the engine rev up. But not just any engine, no. His baby. His girl.

George half stumbles, half staggers down the hall to the garage. He glances at the wall where the long brass hook, emptied of its key, points at him like an admonitory finger, and he flings the garage door open just in time to see the taillights of the Camaro flare in the bright sun as the car peels away. He screams Missy’s name and races after her, the back of the Camaro slamming hard against the bottom of the drive before the car rights itself and speeds off, around the corner and out of sight. If she’s ever driven he has no knowledge of it, and for a cruel moment he wishes he had gone ahead and beaten some sense into her.

He’s left alone in the middle of the street, the concrete and vinyl and stucco of their modest neighborhood all heaving with hot breath, the unforgiving sun glaring down from above as if in judgment. By the time the deputy shows up an hour later, hat in his tanned hand and wearing a grave expression on his sunburnt face, George already knows she is gone.


The days pass in an oppressive, near-constant heat, every moment severe and magnified with an excruciating clarity. Oh God, how did this happen? The baby his beloved wife birthed to the world, the one whose bottle he would warm in the crook of his arm before he brought it to her trembling lips. No. The coroner didn’t even ask him to identify Missy’s body, the wreck was so grim. No one came out and said it, but he could tell by the look in the deputy’s eyes, by the voice of the grief counselor who attended him that night. George identified Missy by her gold anklet, the small galloping horse dangling from the chain. It sparkled, but all he saw was how carefully it had been wiped clean.

He has no funeral for her. He can’t, he just can’t, and when a social worker referred by the sheriff’s department calls to check in George refuses to answer, slams his cell down on the end table beside his armchair like an old landline receiver, over and over and over. He will never experience joy again. This is no prognostication, it’s simply fact. As much a certainty as Missy’s death, clear as the scatter of glass spiraling out across the highway from the right lane of the toll plaza, the concrete there scarred from the cataclysm of the Camaro’s impact like the trunk of a lightning-struck tree. He had her cremated, plans on driving out to the desert some day and spreading her ashes over the sand and mountains. But for now the cardboard box containing the urn sits on the passenger side floor mat of his pickup, exactly where he first set it down. He cannot bear to look at it.

Every morning on his way into work, George nudges his pickup through the toll plaza and the slow morning traffic, and each time he fails not to glance at the place where the remainder of his passable life disappeared forever in a wreckage of warped steel and copper, aluminum and rubber. At the dealership he stands out in the heat and stares dumbly at the second Camaro, this near-identical yet inferior doppelgänger. Why had he loved that car so much? He can no longer remember, only that it had somehow managed to pass the time.

But that wasn’t it. He’d set his heart on the Camaro when his wife started going downhill, really going, and he’d needed it to keep him from going under, from letting the despair swallow him whole. His sister Janine wanted them back home in Gage, promised she’d help look after Missy while he ran back and forth to the hospital. But George was too proud to accept. Instead he’d pushed the bleak memories of his old family hovel farther from his mind, filled the empty space with fast dreams of cruising the streets in his sleek steel baby, his arm hanging out of the driver’s side window as if he hadn’t a care in the world. And all the while, he’d taken his eye off Missy, been blind to her in her time of greatest need. And for what? For what?

It’s a month after the accident when the first message arrives. Late night on a Sunday and George is planted in his scuffed leather armchair in the living room, filled with dread regarding his impending day off, Mondays glutted with unscheduled hours and therefore the hardest of all. He aimlessly flicks through his phone—weather app, Candy Crush, the Astros schedule, this stupid piece of plastic and glass his only source of distraction—when a new email alert pops up, the subject line “Just wanted you to know ...”

He doesn’t recognize the sender’s address, but it sounds like something the social worker might write, how she always speaks in her voicemails with an oh-so-sad gravity that drives him crazy. Regardless, he knows it’s unhealthy to keep avoiding her. George exhales, and clicks on the envelope icon. The email opens, an image filling the small screen in his hand.

His eyes flutter, and widen, and he tries to take in what he’s seeing. A tangle of silver and black and orange, sliced through with tatters of an indistinct brown and red material, something unrecognizable. Some twisted sculpture against a bright sky, shining in the light of day, and just past it a battered cement wall, chipped and slashed and striped with yellow and black chevrons, colors of warning. The toll plaza. He stands, his eyes flitting back to the foreground of the picture. The Camaro. Its orange hood crumpled and shucked back, the innards of the car shifted and mangled in an impossible collision of matter. And inside the wreckage, inside ... His stomach drops out, and a moment later he falls back in his armchair to meet it.

But still he cannot look away from the photograph. Not from his daughter’s arm and where it hangs reaching toward him from what was once the frame of the windshield, two fingers snapped back from the shredded meat of her palm. Two more fingers missing altogether, while the near-severed thumb juts out obscenely as its own separate thing. And beyond that, her face, Oh God, her face, skin flayed from her cheeks so that her cracked teeth are splayed wide in an unrelenting leer, one eye covered by a drape of black and blood-drenched hair while the other droops out of the socket like an undercooked egg. It’s beyond words, what this is, an obscenity against God and nature. It’s the most awful thing anyone can ever see.

At the bottom of the picture are words in a grisly cartoon font, the letters dripping gore like the titles on a bargain basement horror movie.


A terrible moan fills the room. It takes George some time to recognize the sound is coming from inside his own throat, from his lungs and up through his own lips, a cry of anguish that propels him off the chair and to the carpeted floor.

He stabs at the home button to obliterate the image, then again at the keypad, scrolling through his contact list until he finds the number for the sheriff’s office.

“Oh, Christ, I’m so sorry.” On the phone with some deputy, not the one who showed up hat in hand on his doorstep but someone new altogether. “There were a lot of rubberneckers,” the officer tells him, “no doubt about it. It’s a problem these days, everyone has a goddamn camera phone now. Some people are just sick in the head, Mr. Tillman, there’s no other way to put it. Let someone hide behind a screen, and there’s no saying what they’re capable of.”

“It’s the kids from school, they were always giving her a hard time.” He paces before the windows, the living room dark with the curtains drawn against the morning light. “That’s why she was so miserable. And now that she’s gone, even now ...” He shudders, suddenly frigid. “Oh, my Missy. My sweet Missy. My little girl ...”

“Mr. Tillman—”

The phone dings. Another email, this time from “Missy T” at an unfamiliar address, the subject “Daddy help me.” He taps on it, and another image of his daughter’s mangled corpse, this time from a slightly different angle, fills the screen once more.


George hurls the phone across the room. He retreats to the safety of his armchair, brings his knees to his chest and stays there compressed and shivering. After some time, an excruciating hour or perhaps longer, he passes out at last.


This is where he is now. Day after day, an extended waking nightmare, somnambulant shuffle through his duties at the car lot and punctuated by the deadly hours of buzzing awareness to endure at home. Front door to bathroom to kitchen to the living room where he stays perched in his armchair, occasionally rising to pace the vinyl-blinded windows in the dark solitude of night. Awake for the most part, though he falls in and out of a dull and agitated form of sleep, body resigned to its obligations with his mind ever vigilant against attack.

And still the messages come. Every couple of days to his work email, and each time from a different address, with no signs of abating. LITTLE DEAD RIDING WHORE and MISSY MISSED THE EXIT!! and UGLY FAT BITCH, accompanied by one of the same half-dozen shots from the accident scene and intended only to break George’s spirit. At first, he catalogues the emails, sends each one on to the sheriff’s office, but they say their hands are tied, there’s nothing they can do, no way to trace or stop them. The photos are out there now, and will be forever; it is the nature of the internet, after all, the new Wild West, with no one sworn in to play marshal.

George plans a bloody revenge. He fantasizes about buying a semiautomatic and forcing his way into the high school, shooting each student right between the eyes just to make sure the culprits have been wiped from this world the way Missy was. But it’s only that, a fantasy. He knows he will never do such a thing, that in fact it’s his fault she’s dead, and he deserves every horrific reminder that he gets. He’s the one who killed his daughter, just as surely as if he’d put the bottle of vodka in one hand and the car keys in the other. He didn’t build her up the way she needed to survive this devil’s realm, and now she’s lost and gone forever. And one day, he will be, too. They all will.

Fifty-six days after the accident, his phone buzzes. George, restive, rouses from his chair and stares at the screen. Not an email this time, but a text, though he never texts anymore, not since Missy passed, there’s no one left to reach except maybe his sister, who only calls. No photo, no sender name or number, only three short words illuminated in a round-edged square, bright bold green against the stark white background.


He clears the message from his screen, powers down the phone, and drops it into the end table’s top drawer, relegating it to the junk pile of chewed pencils and loose rolls of scotch tape and his wife’s dried-out nail polish kit, the cast-off detritus of a decade in this house, this life. All of it waste, and wasted.

George forces himself to face the windows, to squint into the faint light of dawn that leaks in through the blinds. Another morning. Another chance to pretend it’s all going to be okay, that in time everything will grow more manageable, that he can survive what his life has become. He cracks his neck, stretches his arms above his head, and rises to meet the day.


“It’s a beaut, isn’t it?” George says, leaning down to talk to the unimpressed lady behind the wheel of the Volkswagen Jetta. “Bluetooth streaming, a blind-spot monitor … What else could you want in a compact sedan?”

“Seems awfully expensive.” She looks bored, and he’s already worried about losing her, it probably shows on his face. There’s a bug going around and they’re short three salesmen, so Michaelson has him subbing in. It’s not looking good today. “What about heated seats?” she asks. “We spend half our time with our kids in Chicago.”

“Not in this particular model. But it is an available feature, if you want us to order you a new one.” Damn, he is so fucking beat. Sleep, however, is elusive, and when it comes it’s never restful, violence-riven dreams of torn flesh and steel that leave him gasping for air. Better to stay awake, face the guilt and shame head-on. Better to watch with eyes open as he lets himself waste away, each day another step toward the sweet finality of death. There’s clearly no such thing as an afterlife, no such thing as God, of that he is most certain. What kind of monster would allow this to happen?

“Drive with me,” the woman says. She tilts her head, and a stab of light flares on the frame of her sunglasses. He winces.

“What? Oh, you want to take it out again?” George wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. “Sure, no problem. Let me get in,” and he points with his thumb toward the passenger seat.

She looks at him funny. “Uh, no,” she says. “I asked if it’s available as a lease-to-buy.”
“Oh. Sorry.” George laughs, but there’s no humor in it, it’s just to show he’s a regular guy. He’s so tired, so distracted. And despite Michaelson’s obligatory condolences, the man is still the manager, and his patience is wearing thin. “Unfortunately it’s previously owned, which means it’s for sale only. State regulations and all.” He grins in dumb sympathy.

The woman says she has to think more about it, and not three minutes later she’s already pulling away in her trusty Civic. George raises his hand in a half-hearted wave as he watches her go. He shields his eyes and stares across the lot, over past the second orange Camaro and up toward the dealership office. Michaelson, stiff as a bronze statue, watches him from behind the wall of glass.

George is let go a week later. Not fired exactly, but when Michaelson says “Take as much time as you need,” they both know it’s code for don’t bother coming back. At least now George can dispense with his email. No more vile messages to suffer, though he’s long since abandoned his computer, his phone dead in the junk drawer. Let those little bastards try to get me now, and he daydreams again about buying a gun, though the thought is fleeting. He wonders if he should start collecting unemployment, or move back to Oklahoma maybe. Then he could get started on drinking himself to death the way his father did, help speed things along. He no longer cares what happens to him, and there’s a frightening freedom in this admission, the rest of his life wide open in its unending shapelessness.

He solves this problem by watching television. Steve Harvey, Law & Order, Judge Judy, the evening news at seven p.m., ten p.m., eleven p.m., it doesn’t much matter, it’s always on and he’s always in his chair, standing only to use the toilet or eat soup or beans from cans he buys in bulk. Every time he thinks of Missy he changes the channel, that’s his rule, and the daytime isn’t so bad but some nights he can’t go two minutes without jabbing at the remote, an electric pinwheel of images, shadows, faces.

He stops on an old Columbo episode, Peter Falk in his signature raincoat having it out with a mustachioed suspect at a museum gala. “Just one more thing,” the detective says, and the suspect shrugs his assent. “You were the last one seen with Jessica Morrison, is that right?”

It’s been ninety-seven days since Missy’s accident. And he keeps calling it that, doesn’t he? Calling it that to himself, that is. The accident. But of course it wasn’t an accident at all. She meant to kill herself, he knows that deep in his heart, in his soul. She meant to end the pain, forever.

“Care to tell me how you spent the rest of the evening?” Columbo asks. “Where were you after your wife went to sleep?”

“Drive with me,” the suspect says.

“That’s not what your secretary told me.” The suspect’s eyes go wide, and Columbo smiles. “I think we better talk somewhere a little more private.”

George blinks, twice, again. He points the remote toward the television and clicks.

He falls asleep, and he dreams of Missy. Dreams of her as he last saw her, on the floor of her bedroom closet, vodka bottle in hand. Only now she has no face, nothing but a wild mane of hair that thrashes as they struggle one more time. When the bottle rolls under the bed, George gets on his hands and knees and reaches out for it, crawls into the narrow space until he hears the sound of her bare feet padding across the room and toward the door. He struggles to extricate himself from beneath the bed, but he is lost, everywhere he turns is darkness.

He awakens in his armchair drenched in sweat, a cartoon dog on the television imploring its master to drive with him, drive with him, the command hidden beneath its ostensible barking but there nevertheless. George covers his eyes with the meat of his palms and presses against them until he sees a galaxy of stars.

And still the dog says,

Drive with me.

Soon, the water from the faucet says it as well. He rinses his soup spoon beneath the hissing stream, and all the while the water whispers, implores, a fine susurration but it’s as clear as if the words were spoken into his ear. George turns off the tap, and the meaning lingers in the final few drabs from the spout. He places the spoon on the drying rack and wipes his hands on his soiled workpants, the ones he’s been wearing for over a week now, ever since his last day on the lot.

The neighbor’s lawn mower says it too. The rumbling drone of the motor, it calls out the directive in its own kind of voice, one of hungry metal and gnashing blades. Who knows what else the mosquito whine of its engine can make it say? Yet in and among its cuttings, the mower only expels those same three words, in the only language he seems capable of gleaning.

Even George’s own body says it. The grumble of his stomach, the soundless twinge in his lower back, every ache and sore spot its own kind of instruction pushing him onwards, onwards, relentless. The walls hum it, the door where the mail piles up unopened, the floor and ceiling too; he can feel it vibrate up from the earth and foundation, beamed down into his skull through the roof and the vast blue sky above. He yanks the junk drawer from the end table, sifts through the chaos of neglected objects until he finds and powers up his phone. Dozens of missed emails and even a few calls, telemarketers mostly and perhaps the social worker as well, just checking in, checking in. But none of that matters anymore, not the vicious pranks of amoral teenagers nor the workaday dispatches of a world that still rotates despite his all-consuming grief. The only thing that matters now is the simple string of text messages from a too-distant source, the words in all caps and repeated over and over and over still to form their own steady and insistent drumbeat.




“How?” he asks aloud, the steel and plastic talisman clutched in his hand. “How?”

But he knows. He knows.


He isn’t sure what time it is, the dashboard clock reads 10:07AM but it’s off by at least a couple hours, the sun high and blazing even in October as he pulls into the dealership. He sees one of the porters, a skinny kid named Diego, tracking the pickup with a strange look on his face as George brings it to a stop right in front of the sliding doors, not even bothering to turn off the engine before he leaves the car. “Yo, George!” Diego calls out, waving a polish-stained rag, but he doesn’t stop, only hurries through the doors and inside, the wall of air-conditioning freezing his sweat-soaked skin as he hustles his way to the manager’s office. Mercifully, Michaelson’s not in, and George still has his key. He uses it to open the lockbox, rummages through the rack until he finds the right one, the car key labeled Cam-2425T on its gray plastic fob.

He’s out of the office and headed back outside when Michaelson, startled, exits the bathroom. “What are you doing here, Tillman?” Michaelson shouts after him. “Tillman? George!” They collide just as the doors slide open. Michaelson wrestles with him, seizes his arm but George breaks free and presses into the bright daylight, away from the main building and across the sizzling lot, heat rising from the blacktop in rippling waves. He weaves through the rows of cars, breaks into a jog and then a full-out run, with Michaelson only a few rows behind. George gets the key into the lock, drops into the vintage Camaro’s hot leather driver’s seat, and pulls the door shut, the locks already slammed down by the time Michaelson yanks the handle on the other side of the window.

He turns the ignition and shifts into reverse, Michaelson pounding on the glass with both palms, face red as a candy apple but even he’s smart enough to leap back before his toes are crushed as the car K-turns out and toward the curb cut in the direction of the highway. George watches in the rearview as Michaelson rakes his fingers through his hair in exasperation, and he smiles, really smiles, for the first time in forever. There’s still the drive, though, and the Camaro slams off the lot, cuts across traffic and almost clips a Jeep before he rights it and merges onto the main road.

Minutes later and he’s weaving his way through local traffic, the car screeching onto the highway on-ramp and the toll road, beneath a succession of overpasses that throws the car into chiaroscuro, shadow and light and shadow once more. He presses down on the accelerator, people say pedal to the metal but it feels more like stepping into the silky wet sand of a faraway beach, a paradise free from earthly harm. Cars honking and veering, and they’re all the fast lane now, aren’t they? His heart gallops, it sings, the speedometer hitting ninety and then a hundred and more, the Camaro juddering as it threatens to take off like a rocket ship headed for the stars.

Movement beside him, and he doesn’t dare look over, only watches out of the corner of his eye as Missy shifts in the passenger seat. She’s with him now, she’s here for the drive, and she reaches for the sun visor, pulls it down to check the mirror, fixes her hair by brushing her bangs one way, the other. Perfect unblemished skin just like her mother’s, she’s going to be so beautiful once she learns to love herself, she really is. George’s heart snags like a shirtsleeve on an errant nail, and the iron tang of blood fills the Camaro’s interior, as faint as it is unmistakable.

“Oh, Missy,” he says, and sobs. “Oh my baby …”

She laughs at him, and he ticks his eyes across the length of the dashboard, just as long as it takes to catch a flare of light off the side mirror. He meets her in the reflection, face mutilated and stripped and savaged, a gory and gape-mouthed pulp of bloodied gristle and bone. He’s sorry now, really sorry, and tempted to put a stop to this insanity, to slam on the brakes and end this mad ride into the great unknown. He finally works up the nerve to look over, however, to look right at her, and all he can do is gasp.

She really is so beautiful. Just like her mother was, and how she will always be, the both of them, now. He remembers how they sat laughing at the dining room table, all three of them, the whole house filled with light, the house he bought for them, that he earned through years of hard work, with his hands, his sweat, his drive. Just beautiful. He’ll never look on that scarred and imperfect reflection of her again.

Even as the toll plaza fast approaches and he begins to lose control of the car, he can’t take his eyes off her, the steering wheel grasped tight like the handles of a baby carriage beneath his bone-white knuckles. Her smiling face, her glee as the pedal beneath his foot melts into the floor of the car. The Camaro spins and he lets go of the wheel, the car leaning into the first roll on its way toward the concrete barrier. Missy’s laugh, her wild laugh, and the city and stone and the desert beyond begin to disappear at last. The swollen sun explodes overhead, and the world burns to nothing around them, everywhere at once. All of it, it all disappears, as George steels himself for his sweet and enduring oblivion.

Missy grabs hold of the steering wheel. The Camaro rights itself, shuddering as it blows through the toll plaza and veers up a ramp, onto a freeway heading north out of the city. He screams, at first in surprise and then in relief, in pure joy at what she has managed to change inside him. No smell of gasoline, of burnt rubber and smoke; no weightlessness before impact. Still, he is free of it now, the need to end himself. He has survived. She is so proud of him, and he so very proud of her.

And they drive. Head north up the 45 through Dallas, until they cross the Red River into Oklahoma, only stopping to refuel the car. Soon they’ll cruise up to the WinStar, play the slots all night before they crash out in a twin suite, awaken to a courtesy all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and then hit the slots once more. They’ll order room service and watch bad movies, play mini-golf and swim in the casino pools, whatever Missy wants. But first, they head to his sister’s place in Gage. Janine always did believe in miracles, and who can deny that a miracle is exactly what this is? She is a dream come true, this girl, and he thanks the Lord above with all his heart. With Missy by his side, he can carry on the task of living.

It’s almost midnight by the time they reach town, the roads dark except for the occasional porch light flickering in the gloom. On the old familiar street, the small ranch house lovingly worn like a tattered postcard, Janine’s battered Buick is side by side with her husband’s newer Ford Focus, the pair blocking the drive. So he pulls up to the curb and parks beside an electrical pole, one of those splintery numbers they used to climb as kids to see who could reach the top the fastest. “Wait here, baby,” he says, and he leaves Missy in the car to make his way up to the house.

He rings and waits, rings again a minute later. Finally the porch light clicks on, and Janine’s sleepy face appears behind the door’s lace curtain. She squints out at him through the glass, and a moment later she’s outside in her nightgown, the door closed quickly behind her.

“What are you doing here?” she whispers. “Is everything alright?”

“You won’t believe it,” he says. “It’s Missy. She’s not dead. Not anymore.”
“Oh George.” She looks down at the ground, and she takes his arm, walks him off the porch and away from the house where her family is still sleeping inside. “You need help. Real help. I’ve been so worried about you.”

“It’s not like that, though. Listen, Auntie Neen,” he says, which is what Missy’s called her since she was just shy of two. “She’s really back. She’s here.”

“What do you mean, she’s here? Who?”

“Missy. She’s here. Sitting in the car.” He thumbs over at the Camaro, a hundred feet away. “You’ve got to come to see her. She’s waiting for you.”

Janine peers into the darkness. She spots the car, and her eyes widen, big as silver dollars. She takes a step toward the street, and another, a few more until she freezes.

In the dim shine from the porch light, a cloud of gnats buzzes about his sister in a shimmering cocoon of sepia, and she lets out a cry, her trembling hand moving to her mouth. Halfway between her brother and the car, she begins to run.

Robert Levy


Robert Levy's novel The Glittering World (Gallery/Simon & Schuster) was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award as well as the Shirley Jackson Award, while shorter work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nightmare, Black Static, and The Dark as well as numerous anthologies including The Best Horror of the Year and The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction. His new novel STALKER will be published in 2023 by PM Press. Trained as a forensic psychologist, he teaches at the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing and can be found at .

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It’s Friday evening in the first days of summer. Roger, a claims examiner at an insurance company, walks through our town. I’m not there with him. I sit in my soft-backed chair by my window. There’s a swizzle in my hand. I should be drinking white wine, so as not to get too smacked before our friends begin to arrive. I should bathe and change into comfortable clothes. I’m not yet in the mood to do so. It’s been a long week, my feet are up, and I stare dreamily out to the low row of small buildings that slope towards the sea. In my kitchen, my girlfriend prepares a platter of various cheeses, breads, olives, and tapenades. We have a rotating potluck with several couples and, tonight, it’s our turn to host. My girlfriend is an excellent homemaker. Our dinner party will stretch late into the evening. I might awake tomorrow with DTs. It doesn’t matter. I’m perfectly well, agreeable, and even philosophical.

I consider Roger. I don’t know him well. Therefore, I must create in my brain much of what he is. Nevertheless, there’s little of that special and peculiar individualism in ordinary people. Perhaps that’s a sign of our times and perhaps there never ever was. I don’t much care. Anyways, Roger and I are men, naked before God. Not that I believe in God. But my private leanings don’t matter in any real way. God has authority over us all whether I believe. And God is uninterested. Ask those poor people how they find their happiness. Ask the rich why they’re unfulfilled. Roger is neither rich nor poor, intelligent nor not, but he has refused to accept the world as it is and has therefore grown into a terrified, bewildered man. That’s certain. It upsets me. I don’t wish to be his father anymore. It’s too late. Poor me. And, of course, in our little town, we often cross paths. He walks alone, with his head bowed. I deliberately turn away, so as not to be seen. Our relationship has always been cordial and quiet. We’ve never spoken on important things. Everyone in this world must do as they wish. Never, ever, do a thing that you don’t want to do and don’t need to do.

Below me, town is crowded with my sort of folk. Everyone is gearing up for a long, leisurely weekend. Tomorrow, there will be a concert and fireworks show. On Sunday, there’s the pig roast, down by the seaport. We only have a handful of breezy, summertime nights in our pathetic lives and we mustn’t waste them. I watch the skyline bleed into dusk. There’s a pleasant breeze. The people below me talk noisily. Babies cry and shriek. Children run and jump, holding apples and candy in their fists. Their parents supervise the playing, so nobody gets upset. Roger goes through them, returning home from the office. He’s exhausted and down. His heart patters in his chest. I cannot comprehend how my son must go through his neighbors with such a crude, hostile glare. Somebody needs to take him by the throat and shake him. Should I?

He walks, straight forward, through those rushing into taverns for hamburgers and lobster cakes. Before returning home, he takes a brief bypass through a neighborhood of tiny cottages on the west side of town. The people living here are lawyers, salesmen, actuaries, real estate agents, et cetera. Such people are more advanced than those of the rising generation, those offensively colorless people, whining and wailing on things they cannot control. I resent those people, resolved in their immature nothingness, and even uncaring to the grey in their beards. Hopefully, a vicious disease will clean them out. Anyways, the proud people in this neighborhood care on money and their future. Their children play on the front lawns. I believe in them.

I believe my son is a sentimental man who loves children and wants some of his own. I wish it were different for him and I understand that he would make it so. Fear and distrust have omitted him from the sort of life that others naturally live. The people here are little different from him in any perceptible way. They get up early every morning and wear suits to work. They have mortgages, reserves for their children’s education, grocery bills and little else. Thinking of them always makes me grin. Then I get itchy and nervous. I can’t stand it. Because I didn’t raise a durable son. Perhaps every fault of his was my own beforehand. I cannot determine. I pray only that Roger is jealous of these people and will soon adjust his own purpose. It’s not difficult. Most fall backwards into children, debts, nagging wives, and the rest. I don’t understand. I never had issues with assuming life’s responsibilities. No real man has time nor patience for inconsistency, weakness, and the could’ve-should’ve-would’ve. Things occurred, and I solved my problems the best I could. Everyone with their head on straight does as I did. That’s how the world goes round. So, I choose to believe Roger sees the house he will soon own, the wife cooking baked-chicken dinner, the children with their footballs and superheroes. He plays with them. A strong and determined man hasn’t need for anything else.

Roger cannot remain in this district for long. He cannot bear such happiness. He rejoins those crisscrossing the main street. There are cafes, taverns, and ice cream parlors every which way. He hurries past them all with his head bowed and turns down a narrow lane. At its end, is a thin, short building. His apartment is on the top floor. The apartment is owned by his mother and me. We allow him to live there for a reduced rent. Of course, we allow him this lesser amount because we love him, I suppose, and because we hoped that he saved his money to set-off on his own. I don’t know why we offered this, nor do I understand how it’s been four years since the deal. I’m not too offended. Of course, I assumed he would’ve tackled his life with great resolve. This didn’t occur. Oh well. He’s a freeloader. His mother and I have discussed it in private and are resigned to the circumstance. We have only ourselves to blame and cannot care anymore. At least, I don’t. It’s unfortunate that we must hate him. But I don’t worry, nor conjecture, nor care. There are several worn-out people in this world, who desire for much that they will never get. He’s not so down as them. When he does, we can help. If he ever has children to support, we can offer some money. I swear I will.

Roger undresses from his work clothes. His movements are deliberate and restrained as he goes through the apartment, washing his face, brushing his teeth, and making his bed. At last, he takes a bottle of wine to his sitting table by his large window. His hands tremble in expectation though he pours the wine. He’s careful. Even a droplet would be a waste. Every so often, I have a drink too, a mere sip of my swizzle, to match him. It’s almost like we’re real good friends, having a beer and agreeing on the usual things. We need relief, I suppose, no matter how today is the same as yesterday and tomorrow.

Steadily and inevitably, intoxication takes awful control of my son. It’s a little embarrassing to me, I think, that he’s so lonely, getting smacked in this apartment. Never mind that. His mind cautiously wanders over the sort of inconsequential ideas that would embarrass any clearheaded man. If I were a crier, I would do so. That’s true. I watch him. I’m afraid he doesn’t understand much of anything, as he goes headlong into drunken belligerence. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s a good thing to get drunk a little bit of the time. I believe any and every person should get fall-down drunk a few times per year. Because we’re so pitiful, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. I worked hard to make up for my shortcomings. There wasn’t any other choice. Either that, or I would’ve been a cashier or a janitor. Such people are decent, but you know . . .Anyways, the uncertainties come roaring back, I become shy and insecure, and I often shake and turn pink when dressed down. Thank God for drunkenness. I’m doing alright with it. But Roger has become imprisoned. For him, drunkenness is routine. I think of Roger as being a dishonest and cowardly young man. Yes, and such things only hurt the doer. Keep it up – I dare him – those types die long before being placed in their six-foot holes.

At long last, I tell Roger the night is too early for him to be drinking wine. There hasn’t been any reason for me to be in this apartment of mine. Of his – no, of mine. I bought it. Nevertheless, I never go to this part of town and would rather die than to get too close to him. But here I am. It’s a bit too dark and gloomy. I go to turn on the lights and observe that the lightbulbs are weak and blinking. I loop about the kitchen, checking for stains and blemishes, and then sit at the table with Roger. I press my hands together like a beggar. The quiet, cool sundown is the best time for solemn conversation between father and son. Because he’s my son, perhaps we don’t need to speak. He could read magazine articles and I could sit here minding my own business. But I see my son needs a little help from me. I’m not yet too mean to deny him it.

Roger. How are you?, I say. I hope that you’re doing fine.

But, I couldn’t admit to him that he looked horrible sitting there. His face was purple. He was slumped over his chair.

Go slow. There’s no need to rush. Is there? And it’s too dark in here? Anyways, my friends haven’t arrived yet and you have plenty of the night left. Don’t go to bed yet!

I get up early every morning and will need to do so tomorrow, he answered weakly.

I don’t understand why. You have nothing to do tomorrow, and you know it.

Many things, many errands, and the rest. Please leave me alone.

Roger stands and gets for himself a few chocolate candies. He returns to the table.

All I do is work. Don’t you understand? Also, don’t stare at me like that. I hate it.

I don’t believe you. However, it doesn’t matter if I do or don’t. More wine?

I’m finished. I’m going to have the candy – then bed, he said in an absent and exhausted tone as he slowly unwrapped a candy. Can you please go? I want to eat my chocolate in peace. It’s the one thing I enjoy – go jump in the sea!

Roger, I answered unhurriedly, making sure to enunciate each syllable, I want to have a serious talk with you. And you should want to have one with me. Perhaps this isn’t the time for it. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to skirt out of it. I can see from your disposition that you’re a little too drunk to talk truthfully. I thought that maybe you could speak seriously if you had some wine, for you lie at all other times, it annoys me, especially because you believe so heartily in your lies no matter the ridiculousness of them. Stop, I warned, as I could see my son’s mouth flaring with his comeback. There are a few things that you need to do before it’s too late. I don’t care if you involve me or your mother or neither of us. It doesn’t matter how you do them, but only that you do. It depresses us both that you sit here on this Friday evening, in this apartment given to you, and you still have no friends, no girlfriend, no wife nor children. You are an incomplete man and it – let’s say that I would cry for you every night on these disappointments, if I were a crier (which I’m not), and you should understand that you haven’t been any good son to us for the entirety of your life. I hope you know too, that all this is brief, over in a flash, and for me to think that you –

You need to leave me alone, Roger responded softly. I need my rest.

Yes, I’ll be gone in a moment. I do have a party to host. But there’s time.

Go to your party.

I stood beside my son, looking down at him, though not directly, so as not to make him more nervous and teenier than he already was. I would’ve stared him down like a lion, but I preferred to turn and wander about the room.

Dad, Roger said softly. I said that I’m going to sleep soon.


I’m exhausted.

I don’t see how. Why? It’s not like you have much of a stake in how things are going.

Passing by the table, I picked up the empty wine bottle and held it in my hand. It was bargain-basement. I could by the vulgar label.

You don’t have any future. All of what you have is provided by us, and you haven’t made anything on your own. This isn’t anything I’m particularly concerned about. But that doesn’t also mean that you have much freedom. If I gave you too much thought, I might kill myself. It wouldn’t be so hard to do it, and I wouldn’t need to buy a gun either – wade into the sea.

Don’t say things like that to me. It’s not fair.

Lucky for me, there was fear in my son’s eyeballs. He took off his shirt and stood there, an emaciated and hollow thing. He had crooks and rashes all over his body. I didn’t know it’d gone this far. I could’ve done something to help him. If his hair was any trimmer, he would look like a lice-infested detainee in some prison, I thought to myself.

Dad, you don’t have the right to disturb me and bother me with your strange problems.

I don’t have the right, but I don’t not have the right, I answered cleverly.

I’m perfectly happy here and there’s nothing else for me to do. I wanted to eat my chocolate – now it’s finished, you distracted me, I didn’t really enjoy it, and I must go to bed.

I don’t care about your chocolate, I said confusedly, for there were many other things that needed to come out and I wanted to make sure I had the order down correct. For instance, this apartment is paid for by us. You can at least save to buy your own.

Yes, I understand, and I’m already preparing to –

Nobody is angry with you for it. I only want to make sure that you know where you stand. I’m pointing out for your benefit how little you contribute and how ungrateful you are to what we’ve given you. Your job is pathetic as well. What sort of life do you lead?, I asked with a funny emphasis. I stood tall and made my face ironical. Are you listening?, I asked.

Roger goes to his bedroom. It would make me cry if I could do that. His mother worries, with good reason. I cannot. Men aren’t built that way. I only follow and watch from the doorway. He hasn’t any power over me. If not, he has as much power over me as I do over him. We’re even in this way and I admire him for standing up to me a little bit, no matter his belligerence. I’m only disappointed that I have perhaps neglected him. Standing at the door of his bedroom, my instinct is to tell him one of my bedtime stories. My most favorite is of a fish and a bunny rabbit who’re friends. The rabbit carries the fish in a fishbowl. Or the bunny puts the bowl over his head, like a sort of scuba-helmet, before wading into the water. It’s not really the time for stories. But I wish to tell it anyways, for old time’s sake. I decided at the last moment to remain silent and unfriendly, observing from the corner of his bedroom with an upset glare. I had a terrible feeling that something he couldn’t take back was to happen.

Please, stop, he tells me. I’m only trying to go to bed and you’re sitting there talking so noisily and annoying me. Stop ogling me. It’s not polite.

I wasn’t doing anything – maybe, do you need some help in going to sleep?

God no! At least, not from you. I can sleep by myself.

I was only wondering if, I began and ended in nearly the same moment. Well, you’re tiny as a blue jay. I want to tell you of the old story of the rabbit and the fish who’re friends. If you allow me? And what will you do about it if you hear it? Cry and yell at me?

The air is cold and brittle, and Roger pulls the blanket up to his chin. I wished to tuck him in, but he has done it. But I could do whatever I wish with him, and he wouldn’t be able to stop me. He is so passive, so that I could take care of him, and he could do nothing in response. And I might. He couldn’t stop me. But I don’t yet move.

I don’t understand why you’re being so mean to me. He whispers, I don’t deserve it.

Unfortunately, you don’t even know what meanness truly is. And, if I am that, well, you can take a little more of it. Can’t you? You’ve taken advantage of our kindness, you don’t enjoy it, you don’t care about everything, you work an awful job of which bores you – can’t you do anything about it? For God’s sake, can’t you at least get a friend for yourself? And then, for God’s sake, get your wife, like everyone else, and have some children and whatever else. That will make your life at least a little meaningful. It embarrasses me that you haven’t.

Maybe I don’t want to.

No, you do want to – everyone wants to, they only don’t admit it.

Now you’re making me cry – my son shows me his back.

Goddammit! He must feel responsible. I know so. Or maybe he isn’t even mine. The more I look, he doesn’t look like anyone I know. He doesn’t grab for me, like his shrunken baby arms had. I pray that he goes far away. I pray that he falls into the sea and stays there, never to be found. We don’t much need any funeral service for him. A simple rock on the ground can serve as his tombstone. It’s unnecessary that there needs to be anything below the rock – it’s pointless that this rock be any larger than a pebble. He would be simply, lost. Lost, like he is now. And I would see him on the streets of our town – in this apartment – at his insurance office – but only in my most self-absorbed and wallowing moments. I see him lost in the expanse of this world. Nothing is left. He was a brief, goddamn prick in my side. Stay wrapped in this bed, take some dosage of medicine, and never rise ever again! Or go back where you belong, in the sea, or in an alleyway, slumped over with a bullet head through your forehead. It doesn’t matter which.

Yes, and now my friends have arrived in my little front room. They crowd in, there’s already plenty of deafening laughter and competitive sing-song voices, and people aren’t even drunk yet. The delicious smells of roast pork dinner! I stand to greet them. My girlfriend hands me the cheese plate to pass about, like a good host should. I’m so pleased to be with all my new friends are around me. There’s little else to do on a quiet summer evening. I see now that the sun has already gone down. The streets below are a light with joy. All over my little town there is bright twinkling and amusement.

Hunter Prichard


Hunter Prichard is a writer of short stories from Portland, Maine. He is currently hard at work on a stage drama.

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The seashells start off as a trickle: a fragment of conch shell wedged between molars, something sharp swallowed while eating mac & cheese, a light grit on the boy’s tongue as he wakes up. Understandably, he is embarrassed and assumes all boys going through puberty must also be hiding shells in their mouths. Sometimes he tucks the fragments under his pillow as if they are baby teeth. Other times, he gathers the shells in a mug and flushes them down the toilet. He keeps some, especially the ones with a mother-of-pearl shimmer, stringing them up on a neckless he wears when he is most afraid.

He’s tried to stop the shells by pressing his thumb on the roof of his mouth, sucking on multiple ice cubes at once, even restricting calcium from his diet. But they won’t stop because it is, instead, his shrinking bones that are producing the shells. He learns this one day when he is able to fit both of his wrists through the mesh of his father’s chain link fence.

Overcoming his shame, the boy decides to tell his father of the seashells, who isn’t sad or angry as the boy expects. Rather, his father bends down to pick up one of the shells on his bedroom floor and inspects it with the intensity of a jeweler. The father holds it to the dusty light, where he sees a sheen of ochre and bronze laden in the ridges of a kelp green mussel. The father trembles, smiles weakly, and stuffs the mussel in the depths of his coat pocket. He pats the boy’s thin shoulder, reassures him his bones are strong, they will grow back, and that he should be thankful for the beauty his mouth has given him.

The following day, with the boy in school, the father takes the mussel to a pawn shop and sells it for more than he asks for. At home, he surprises his son with a robot figurine and a hug that nearly snaps the boy’s bones in two.

The father then gives the boy a tin bucket to wear around his neck to collect what falls from his mouth. At first, the boy wears the bucket proudly, showing other boys the sharp ones, and gifting the smooth ones to the girls in his class.

Every day, the boy fills the bucket, the father sells the shells, they grow richer, and the boy’s health worsens. Though one day after the boy breaks his forearm by picking up the bucket full of shells, he cannot help but wonder what a normal life would be like. As if the father still cares for the boy, he delicately splints the boy’s arm, twisting gauze and ointment along skin into a sling. The boy pleads his father to take him to the hospital, but the flow of seashells—like that of a rainforest waterfall—lures his greedy father into refusing. The bucket returns to his neck, and the boy is sent back to his room. There he lays hopelessly in his bed, obediently filling up the bucket for his father.


On an overcast morning, the boy scatters the seashells that fall from his mouth onto the Yakutat coast below. He wonders if his father will notice his absence, if the surfers will swim after him once he wades into the waves, if the beach combers will collect the purple spirals, cowries, and murex shells at his feet.

He is wearing the seashell necklace as he stands at the everchanging foot of the ocean. He cannot stop the flow of shells—now a constant stream—their bodies clinking against each other like wine glasses as they fall. In a minute, they will bury his feet, then he will be pulled along with the waves into the water.

Now he can taste the sea in his mouth. It reminds him of the smoked salmon his father used to make, the broth of a well-seasoned veal soup, the sweat that dripped from his upper lip as his father chased him around their yard. And as feeble as he is, waves brushing against toes, the ocean’s call is hard to refuse. He takes a step forward into the waves. The shells fall faster and splash water onto his cheeks, broken arm, and chest. The water is lapping at his waist when he turns around and sees his father running toward him in the distance. As his father gets closer, the boy notices the distress in his father’s eyes and wonders if it is distress for the seashells or for him.

The tide is coming in, the water is at the boy’s chest, the father is screaming for his son to get out. The boy is trying to reply calmly but his mouth is filled with too many seashells. The father stops at the ocean’s edge; he is unable to go any further and the boy knows this. The boy knows this, turns back toward the ocean, and continues walking.

The ocean envelops the boy and he can feel the weight of his body lighten underwater. He cannot hear his father’s screams anymore as they are just gurgles, formless bubbles passing against his ears. He can only see the shells now, the way they wiggle in the current as they drift down, noting how beautifully they glint in the water’s filtered light.

Maxwell Suzuki


Maxwell Suzuki is a queer writer who lives in Los Angeles. Maxwell's work has appeared or is forthcoming in CRAFT, Lunch Ticket, and South Dakota Review. He is the Prose Editor of Passengers Journal and reads for Split/Lip Press. He is writing a novel on the generational disconnect between Japanese American immigrants and their children.

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Mike Pipes loved his fellow wrestlers for their bellies and saggy pecks and gelled, thinning hair. For their sweat stink. Their tired eyes behind the makeup, those who wore it. Hasty ying-yang designs smeared over their eyes, warrior, angry clown, the makeup caking like cottage cheese, glopped in the corners of their eyes and up their nose. He loved them for grabbing him. For landing hard on his chest and legs and head and face. Air rushing from him. Chopped. Choked. Twisted. Head-locked. Lifted. Tossed. Dumped. Suplexed. Pinned, the weight of another body pressing down on him, the bite of their chaw breath—Never stop—the couple-dozen crowd in the Altoona Area Shriner’s whistling, pounding metal folding chairs, fake punching each other, punching each other, brawling, chairs clanging to concrete, the sound thunderous. Snuck liquor, work boots, cutoffs, MAGA hats. Scrawny white kids, chopped haircuts, pummeling at their heavy dads; ignored, they turned on each other. Chanting: “USA! USA!” “Bedford Brawler!” “Killer Sheila!” “Linda Legs!” “Tim Shale!” Tossed popcorn, balled napkins, beer cans, terrible words lobbed like grenades: “Show us your tits!” “Faggot!” Those few kids looking to their dads, then shouting the words too. That last word hurt; how did they know? Mike thought, writhing on concrete just outside the ring, having been tossed there like a bag of tools. All for twenty-five a match, if Steele showed to pay. A boot was tossed into the ring once. Then everybody’s shoes. The popcorn machine. Another time, the power cut. Whooping in the darkness. Chair scraping concrete. Then one phone flashlight, another, directed at the ring, more, and the gasping wrestlers resumed grappling.

Mike Pipes loved his fellow wrestlers for screaming in his face, their spittle landing in his eyes and mouth. For slapping his bare chest. The sound of that slap! Alone in his empty apartment, Mike could mimic the sound by clapping his hands together, but mimicking that slap was like shaking your own hand. Like hugging yourself. Like asking yourself out for coffee, thinking about it, the little flame growing in your chest. And then putting on a shirt and going to Sheetz and ordering two coffees. One large. One small. Setting the large before the empty chair across from you. Like drinking the small, waiting patiently, then the large, cooling, cold.

When he was six, Mike’s mama was beaten out the door by his father, a monster in underpants. In the third grade, his father cracked him so hard in the side of his head with the heel of his loafer, Mike’s right eye broke, just like that. Rolled to the side like a doll’s broken eye. Lumpy and squat and fading hair, his day job today was a plumber, a good solid job. Or not a plumber, but sometimes one in Duncansville called him up to tear out old pipes from abandoned buildings in Altoona or Tyrone. Outside of the ring he couldn’t remember the last time anybody had touched him. Hugged him or held his hand, let alone brushed past him at the Weis or leaned a shoulder into him on a crowded bus.

He wrestled Friday nights in jeans or sweatpants, sneakers, just whatever he had on. He was never champ. He could take a hit. He made other wrestlers look good. Though recently, the tears had come heavy and often and out of nowhere like a folding chair to the back of the head. And no wrestler ever cried.

But the loneliness was like air; he couldn’t avoid it.

The next Friday at the Shriner’s, they were down wrestlers, so Mike Pipes volunteered to wrestle in every match. He loved his fellow wrestlers for tossing him, picking him up, and tossing him again. For draping him over the middle rope and jerking the bottom rope up over his head and snapping it down over the back of his neck like he was in the stocks. Like he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t escape.

Never stop.

He lost every match that night, an absurd marathon of defeat. That was the plan. He always followed the plan.

At first, the audience jeered seeing the same shabby wrestler in a UPMC blood drive T-shirt slap back through the curtain he had just disappeared behind. Pain racing up his left side, limping to the ring. The back of his left ear bleeding like it had been torn away from his head. Vision shifting. No one came to see him anyway. A couple people left at the third match. Some milled by the sale table of old wrestling posters of the national guys. About halfway through the night, he even wrestled to silence. Silently cried behind the curtain—little gasps, a kid’s. Glistening next to him, King Stacked Maxx (substitute elementary teacher by day) kept his eyes ahead on the curtain. When the bigger wrestler was introduced to cheering, Maxx touched Mike’s shoulder, parent to a child, Mike managing, “I’ll never cry out th—,” Maxx ducking through to AC/DC blaring, the crowd trampling Mike’s words.

But somewhere over the night, that rusted city creaking, shirtless kids whooping in alleys, 24/7 Sheetz gas, BBQ chips, Big Gulp coffee, 2-for-1 Natty tap, the crowd turned, seeing him limping back again and again. Resurrection at the Shriner’s hall.

Life everlasting.

Maybe they cheered for him to be pummeled, to finally see him crack. He was less than them and he was okay with that. Or they cheered for the chance he would actually win a match, even by accident; at that point, they could care less that it was fake. Or they cheered for him because they were pummeled. Who would ever ask them if they were okay? Who would ever ask them if they were lost? What they needed? They didn’t want to be angels forever, did they? Demons? Cardboard wings stuffed under canvas work shirts or discarded in the foot wells of pickup trucks (stamped in boot prints), dropped to the bedroom floor as they stumbled to bed at night.

Mike Pipes had never heard such cheering.

Casey Wiley


Casey Wiley’s essays and stories have been published in Passages North, Hobart, Ep;phany, Barrellhouse, Gulf Stream, Salt Hill, monkeybicycle, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Run of Play, among others. He teaches writing at Penn State.

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Sometimes, I think, you have to lock yourself in with God and your Cuisinart and hope for the best. The blessed angels stopped talking to me after the first day -- so I listen to the sirens, the copters swinging low like hornets trapped inside the porch slowly slipping from the back wall of the house.

The dead don’t ask much of me. They stay outside with sad parades of binned Christmas sweaters, remains of stuffed animals no one ever loved. Inside is other junk: wine glasses I couldn’t give away; my dying houseplants; my new vibrator; my dying iPad; my dead vibrator; Magnum PI DVDs; party gowns whose season was a week of confidence.

I had a vision, but it turned out to be woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, or something like that. It went off Netflix; I can’t be entirely sure.

These days, it’s staring out at bricked-in doors of my own making, with no universal salvation to stick around for. And I’m one of the lucky left, six hundred square feet of abbey, saving no one and nothing except travel points.

Between the sirens, I hear the knocking of the lost, the numinous arrived and gone, the porch falling off the house once and for all.

Instead, it's every day, over and over.

The voices of the saints are worse than podcasts, talking at me and to no one, talking past redemption into some untunable channel. After a few months, I unsubscribe.

Matilda Young


Matilda Young (she/they) is a poet with an M.F.A. in Poetry from the
University of Maryland. She has been published in several journals,
including Anatolios Magazine, Angel City Review, and Entropy
Magazine’s Blackcackle. She enjoys Edgar Allan Poe jokes, not being
in her apartment, and being obnoxious about the benefits of
stovetop popcorn.

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He was supposed to be editing his film. That was according to the proposal he’d given the grant committee, for which they’d awarded him ten thousand dollars, a sum he’d mostly burned on an Airbnb in the Mojave Desert and a bar tab at a little bars-on-the-windows dive in a one-story stucco building in Twentynine Palms, California. At present, he was perched on a stool there at the Virginian, waiting for a Grindr date.

He’d started the day with better intentions. During yesterday’s call he’d promised Deshawn—his probably no-longer boyfriend back in New York—that he’d spend the morning editing. He had dozens of hours of film that he needed to cut down to ten minutes in order to submit for the “short” category at festivals. But instead he’d woken up hungover after driving home from the Virginian the previous night, desert air thundering in the open windows of his rented Camry. In truth, driving hammered was a blast in the middle of the desert—the worst you could do was mash a kangaroo rat, and he hadn’t even seen one of those.

The point of coming to Twentynine Palms had been to escape Bushwick, to deliver him from the interruptions and corruptions of home. Plus in the desert there was no masking and no case counts. Maybe he could spend some time in the national park—nature, solitude, whatnot. But since arriving six weeks ago, he’d mostly found uninspired loneliness, sucking him down like quicksand. And the bar was his only antidote. Casual, not raucous. The kind of place with a few regulars. And so here he was, sipping gin and tonic in a cheap glass, waiting for a biker boy with the Grindr handle DesertDreidel.

Dreidel? Maybe Jewish? Maybe a top? Maybe both? He was six foot and swarthy. Rode a motorcycle. The message: Hey film guy, want to make an adult film?

It wasn’t the tone he’d been hoping for. And the guy lived in Palm Springs. But fuck it.

They’d chatted. Dropped pictures to each other, even though Che knew his body was inferior to Dreidel’s (but his dick pics weren’t). What the hell. It’d been just past noon then. Che had proposed they meet at the Virginian at four.

Now it was half past four. Dreidel was ghosting him. He sighed and sipped his drink. He opened Grindr again and saw there was a message—someone new only a half mile away.

Hey, sexy director man.

YourDadBrad. A dancer. And ripped. Hot, but also the sort of guy Che had grown wary of. He probably had an OnlyFans. His type usually came on strong in the chat and then stopped responding when Che tried to meet up. But the app said Brad was a half mile away and Che was already buzzed, so there was nothing much at risk. They exchanged flirty messages and then he told Brad where to find him and asked what he wanted to drink.

When Brad showed up minutes later, he was as hot as his pictures. Sandy-blond hair, good tan. Sleeves rolled up to show as much arm as possible. Shirt unbuttoned almost all the way down, wearing short shorts. Yikes. The Virginian was not ready for that outfit. Also, he had canvas tote slung under his muscled arm, printed with Skylight Books, spilling with balled up clothes. Yikes again.

What would Deshawn think? Yesterday’s not-quite fight with his almost-ex had been about TikTok—more generally, how Deshawn thought Che should be making digital content, trying to create something viral while he worked on his “authorial expression” (as Deshawn referred to his short film, always in the same faux-posh voice). “If you want to pretend it’s the nineties, suit yourself,” Deshawn had said. “But your career will never launch without an online following.” Deshawn’s cynicism was likely a product of his upbringing. As a nerdy kid raised by a single father in Queens, eschewing authenticity had probably been a winning strategy. But Che couldn’t accept Deshawn’s vision of film (and art in general) as just another arena for accomplishment. And that engendered tension.

But here was this guy—with his little shorts and big shiny muscles. A relief of a sort. DaddySomethingBrad?—clearly not DadBodBrad. Yum.

“Che?” he smiled, showing chemically white teeth. “It’s Brad.” He approached with open arms. He smelled of coconut oil and weed. “What a nice surprise in this little burg.”

Who said “burg” anymore? Was Brad a little drunk already? There was a ripple of instability in him, like he carried some repressed chaotic force. He ordered a martini from the bartender—a tattooed woman who was young and curvy with acrylic nails but aging poorly. Che watched her absorb Brad’s vibe, eyes rolling, head shaking as she turned to make the drink. Brad was her only customer who looked like he’d stepped out of circuit party on Mykonos. Che moved them from the bar over to a table against the wood-paneled wall.

“You must be visiting,” Brad said, recovering a sock that had escaped his bag. “I’m getting, hmmm, East Coast.”

“New York,” Che said. He was enjoying the attention. “What about you?”

“I actually grew up in Palm Springs,” Brad said, voice too loud, settling onto the stool. “Which sounds exciting, but we were poor. Mother waitressed and sang in a lounge and God knows what else. Now I live in LA.”

They talked New York—Brad had sublet there for six months a few years back, “modeling” (Che didn’t want to ask) and working as a go-go dancer at a bar Che knew but didn’t frequent.

At least Brad wasn’t being sexually aggressive—Che wanted a date as much as a hookup. But he was showing interest. Touching Che’s leg, making flirty eye contact. More importantly he had an air of genuineness—vulnerability even—that was rare. Probably the alcohol, but still.

Brad finished his martini fast and went to get another. Returning, he said, “My LA Daddy gave me tickets to Pappy & Harriet’s tonight. Want to go?”

Che had heard of it—a little outdoor concert venue down the valley. Of course he’d go. Brad was his only plan for the night anyway. “Why didn’t your man come?”

“He’s good to me, but he’s busy. Some work thing. He’s, like, an executive.”

* * *

Pappy & Harriet’s was about a half hour west down the highway toward Palm Springs. Che drove because Brad didn’t have a car, which was strange. Twentynine Palms wasn’t close to anything. And it was a hundred-degree day. But Che didn’t want to press him—Brad had paid the bar tab and given him the ticket after all.

Brad rifled his tote bag, coming out with a joint, donning a boozy smile. “Wanna smoke?”

The rental car was festooned with no-smoking stickers. But weed didn’t count. “Go ahead.”

Brad took a deep drag. He looked around the car. Che’s camera bag and laptop case were the only things to see. “You know, I was in Boogie Nights.”

Che laughed and shook his head.

“I’m not fucking around,” Brad said.

“That movie came out while you were still in an ovary.”

“No,” Brad said. He looked serious. “It came out when I was nine.” He took another drag from the joint. “I heard about this film shoot in the Valley. I thought it was about dancing. So I rode the bus out there and snuck through a goddamn laurel hedge to get on set. And waaayyy in the back in one of the party scenes, you can see me dancing, this little kid, like an extra. Except I wasn’t.” Then, with pride in his voice, “I was an outlaw.”

Che glanced at him, looking for signs he was bullshitting. But he looked sincere—just a satisfied grin.

“Break laws,” Brad said, billowing smoke, “break hearts.”

* * *

At Pappy & Harriet’s Brad insisted he’d get drinks. Che went to find a spot to sit. The place was mostly outdoors and he found a dusty picnic table unclaimed by the corner of the yard furthest from the stage. The sun was setting behind dog-colored hills strewn with yucca and prickly pear.

Brad arrived with the drinks. “People are weird out here,” he said. He sloshed a little booze as he set down the glasses. Che decided not to dig into Brad’s observation.

Brad gave him a brief, steamy look. “You look like you could fuck the ears off a raccoon.” Then, before Che could compute, “So, what’s your movie about?”

Che preferred not to talk about it, mainly because it made him think of Deshawn, but it couldn’t be avoided. He explained his visual concept. “It’s sort of autobiographical. But I’m trying to avoid self-indulgence.”

Brad nodded. “You got a man back home?” Half his drink was already gone—but whatever, he was buying.

“Sort of. We’re mostly roommates.”

“What’s his story?”

“He thinks I should make something totally different. And he thinks I should be more cynical. But he means well. He’s kind. Reliable.”

“Is he a Virgo?”

Che shrugged—he had no clue.

Brad’s eyes changed, as if looking into some vast distance. “People don’t like a lot of friction in life.” His tone was thoughtful. “But if you don’t like the way the world is, you’ve got to fix it.”

The distant dry hills purpled into dusk and the band got cranking. The music was honky-tonk as played by Silverlake twentysomethings. Che and Brad moved up toward the stage, Brad still shouldering his overstuffed bag.

Returning from another trip to the bar, Brad nudged Che. “I know that drummer,” he said. “He house-sits my friend’s wolf.”

Che hoped to look curious rather than skeptical. He wanted to say something funny in case Brad was joking. “The most exotic things I see in New York are bodega cats,” he said, accepting his drink from Brad. “And vacationing evangelicals.”

“She lives in Ojai,” Brad said, as if that explained everything. He hadn’t laughed at Che’s comment.

The band jangled into another song. Brad started dancing, but his energy clashed with the crowd. He was thrusting and grinding on Che, ass popping while the singer twanged about a poker game and shooting a man down. Somehow, Brad’s shirt had become fully unbuttoned—eyes closed, lost in some go-go dancing reverie.

Che was debating his next move when he saw a bouncer approaching.

“You two need to go.”

It felt excessive. The dancing was a lot, but no warning? “He’s just having a good time,” Che said.

“This isn’t about dancing.” The bouncer’s look insisted Brad knew what it was about.

Che sighed. Brad grabbed Che’s drink from his hand, glugged some into his mouth and sprayed it at the bouncer, misting Che with whiskey in the process. Immediately the giant man had Brad’s arm twisted, marching him toward the door.

“Same thing everywhere,” Brad said over his shoulder. Che followed.

Out by the car, Che stood in the stony dirt, looking at Brad in dispirited silence.

“The bartender was rude,” Brad said, “so I set him straight.”

Che wondered what that meant but thought better of asking. Instead, he asked where Brad wanted to be dropped. He was unsettled, half-covered in whiskey—he didn’t feel like getting laid anymore.

“I’m staying in Palm Springs.”

An hour away, in the wrong direction. “How’d you get out here?”

“A ride. I was supposed to meet friends, but they weren’t home.”

No one got a ride to Twentynine Palms without plans.

“It’s fine,” Brad said. “You can just drop me back at that bar.”

Maybe it was the idea that Brad's friends had marooned him in the desert, but Che felt guilty. “You can crash with me.”

Brad cheered, doing a little shuffle dance. “I wanna see your house, anyway. Do you want some ketamine?”

* * *

Brad was jumping on the bed.

“You’ll break it. I have a deposit.”

“If you lose it, I’ll come get it back from the bitch myself,” Brad said, doing little half-splits as he leapt now. Eventually he wore himself out and stopped, panting.

On the ride home Che’s desire for Brad had returned. Had his style been different, he might’ve tried to initiate, but he only really got turned on with dominant guys—drunk and indifferent wasn’t Che’s jam. So by now he’d lost interest again. He was hoping Brad would make it to the sofa and pass out so he could lay in bed, gazing at his phone until he fell asleep. Brad started jumping again.

“Fuck it, I’m showering.” He’d sweated as they’d sat waiting for the band and now he could feel a sticky layer under his shirt. Plus maybe Brad would wise up and join him.

But he didn’t. Che got out of the shower to a quiet house. Brad was passed out diagonally across the bedcovers. Che went for the sofa.

* * *

He was roused from a stressful dream by the sensations of Brad giving him head—with gusto. He didn’t know what time it was, but the windows were dark. The only illumination was the ambient glow of a nightlight.

His body tensed. “What are you doing?”

Brad looked up and smiled seductively, then returned to his labors.

On one hand it was a violation, but Che was vehemently hard. And the urge to finish was building already. Fuck it, might as well salvage something from tonight.

When Brad was done, he shimmied up and laid his head on Che’s chest, draping a muscular leg over Che’s thighs. “I love you,” Brad said. “Not like that. But I do.”

Che was speechless, so he just laid quietly and tried to sleep.

* * *

He woke up alone. Silent house. He had less of a headache than the previous morning. Hope dawned that maybe Brad had snuck out. But he found him sleeping naked—dancer’s body denuded of hair—face down on top of the covers in the bedroom like a hotdog fallen out of its bun.

“Hey,” Che said.

Brad stirred.

“I’m on a tight schedule. You’ve gotta go.”

Brad rolled over, cock flopping, looking as if schedules, films and possibly even mornings were abstract theories.

Even seeing Brad’s dick (he couldn’t help noting it was shapely and more than a mouthful) failed to rouse any doubt that Che wanted the credits to run on this doomed romance.

“Shower up if you want. And figure out where you want me to drop you.”

The uncomfortable part over, Che slouched into the kitchen to make coffee. On the counter three bottles of liquor were lined up with care, presented like a gift—top-shelf whiskey, partly drained, pourers inserted, obviously stolen.

* * *

They drove west, Che feeling less hungover than usual. Brad had asked to be dropped at his friend’s house. It was outside Yucca Valley, up a hill on a block of luxury homes—maybe weekend places for LA people. Some probably had panoramic views.

“Wait here,” Brad said, when Che pulled up at the curb. “I don’t want them to see my overnight bag and start making excuses.”

“Why didn’t you call first?”

“It’ll be easier if I ask in person.”

But when he got out, Brad didn’t go to the house where he’d directed Che—he went around the corner. Briefly Che thought of tossing out the bag and leaving, but he probably couldn’t afford the karmic debt. So he sat in the car, thinking of what Deshawn would say. This was Che’s prime editing time. He needed to get this movie done or he might end up a YouTuber.

He checked his phone—no texts or DMs—glared out the window. This was taking too long. He opened the door and stepped into the street, leaning against the car and scanning the neighborhood—the sun was spilling raw heat into the day but the air was still morning-cool.

There was a noise from behind the nearest house. Moments later, Brad appeared, running through the side yard toward the car with some kind of large, flat object. His face was determined, eyes showing fear. The item was roughly the size of a cafeteria tray. As he got closer, still sprinting, Che saw what it was: a mirror in an ornate gilt frame.

This was bad. “The fuck are you doing?”

“Drive,” Brad said, gripping the mirror under his arm, yanking the passenger door open.

Che, still standing in the street, ducked down to look at Brad who was now sitting at attention in the passenger seat, clutching the mirror. “No, get out of my car.”

“Either you drive or, in a minute, someone comes and writes down your plates. And we’re going to jail.”

Che drove.

They were a block away, engine bawling with acceleration, when someone appeared behind them—a big, bearded man in a Speedo and a kimono printed with koi fish came running around the corner, shoeless. Che jinked the wheel, careening the Camry down a side street.

“Don’t tell me anything about that mirror. Just tell me where I can drop you. I’m stopping this car exactly one more time.”

“Palm Springs.”

Che drove in silence. When they reached the highway, Brad’s expression became serene in a way Che hadn’t seen before. His eyes were fixed out the passenger window, his arms cradling the mirror.

In Palm Springs, Che followed Brad’s directions and parked along a curb as requested. It was a bar and grill, a place Che had heard of—a hotspot in the Hollywood heyday, mostly unchanged and now unloved. From his bag Brad pulled a yellow t-shirt featuring an androgenous, blue cartoon character, the words “Little Miss Bossy'' printed over it. He slipped it over the mirror with care.

Che stepped out and stood by the car, making sure Brad got all his shit out.

“I’m not a villain,” Brad said, his face a mixture of defiance and something like regret. “If you’d just listen, you’d see.”

Che reappraised him. Brad wasn’t in his car anymore—Che was probably no longer an accessory to a crime. The midday streets were quiet. Heat radiated up from the forsaken sidewalks.

“Let me buy you a drink,” Brad said. He looked sad at the thought Che might leave.

Che knew he was going to drive straight to the Virginian––no editing today, he needed booze. A calming drink before he drove home wouldn’t hurt. “Just one, Che said. “You have that much time to tell me whatever you want.”

Inside they got a little round table in the corner of the bar section. High-pile orange carpet, showing wear. Dark woods, black Naugahyde, lager-yellow glass in the pendant lights.

“LA Daddy was bidding on this mirror on eBay,” Brad said. “It was a gift from Liberace to a lover. The seller was this guy Rick, who we know. The whole LA community is incestuous, but whatever. Well, through a mutual friend Rick found out LA Daddy was bidding. That little shitrat. And Rick doesn’t like LA Daddy because of some petty grudge. Plus maybe his pride was wounded from having to sell his collection.” Brad shot Che a conspiratorial look, “That motherfucker is broke.” He stirred his drink. “And so he shut down the auction.”

Che must’ve been wearing an accepting look because Brad paused and smiled. He continued. “LA Daddy was angry and sad.” He shrugged, made a little pouting face. “I wanted to fix it for him. I would’ve paid for the mirror, but I was denied the opportunity. So I fucking absconded with it. But that’s justice.” As he finished his story, some of his masculine affectations slipped. He seemed more boyish. “Karma and shit.”

Che put his hand on Brad’s shoulder, gave him a nudge, signaling that he understood, at least in some narrow sense. He went to find the bathroom and on his way back he spotted someone who stopped him mid-stride. Sitting at the bar, with a slick of silver hair and a pink sport coat was—wait, was it really? Yes, Paul Rivers. Seventies auteur of transgressive, queer cinema. Notorious, reclusive, but nonetheless drinking a martini (or maybe a gimlet?) a dozen steps over thick orange carpet from Che.

The cool, mannered New Yorker in Che said to ignore Rivers and go obsess silently from afar. But it’d been too strange a day and Rivers’ being there was too fortuitous. With starry-eyed trepidation, Che approached the director.

“Sorry to bother you. Are you Paul Rivers?”

Rivers pivoted to Che’s voice. In that first moment his eyes were cold and blank. But after taking in Che for a beat, it was as if he suddenly recognized him as a distant acquaintance—but not that exactly. What mattered was he smiled, turning, performing a little bow in his seat.

Che introduced himself, leaning on the bar beside Rivers, offering pro forma comments about his fandom and admiration—it couldn’t be avoided, he supposed. And to Che’s giddy pleasure, Rivers responded graciously, burbling appreciation for the fans. “Without a cult following I couldn’t have kept chasing my dirty little dream.” He chuckled, smile lines creasing his face, eyes wrinkling—lively with mischief. “Are you in the industry?”

Che talked about his film. Before he knew it, he was sharing his dilemma, complaining about Deshawn’s pressure to sell out.

“Frankly, your boyfriend is probably right. There aren’t many people who can do what I did. The way the industry is you should probably create some silly little content. Sticky, thirsty stuff. Get eyeballs. Maybe do something shocking. Become divisive. Then figure out how to ride the notoriety into influence. Your brand is where the money’s at.”

“But I don’t know if I want money. Or influence.”

“What the hell do you want then?” Rivers suddenly looked impatient, disappointed.

“Something of quality.”

Rivers sat in silence for a beat. His expression warmed. “Che, can I tell you what I want?” He’d lowered his voice, leaning in with a roguish smile. It was weird, but it was a relief to Che after feeling like he might have upset this man he admired.“I want to take you and your little go-go boy home with me.”


“How much would it take for you girls to come back to mine and fuck me.”

Che sagged against the bar like a week-old Mylar balloon. He was about to demur and skulk away when Brad appeared like a muscular apparition, still hugging the t-shirt-wrapped mirror. “What are you guys talking about?”

Rivers leered. “Your friend here was saying you two might want to come over.”

“No, that’s not what’s happening,” Che said, his disappointment deepening.

Brad read the scene immediately. “Fuck off, you greasy old possum.”

Rivers smiled at Che. “Oh, Little Miss Bossy’s got a mouth on her.” Then, just to Brad, “Frankly honey, it’s hard to believe this isn’t the best offer you’ve ever had.”

Che watched Brad’s eyes dart at the bar, looking for drink that might be weaponized. He knew what was next. He grabbed Brad’s arm. “Hey, let’s just go.” He looked at Rivers. “He was in fucking Boogie Nights.”

“Yeah, and I directed Citizen Kane.”

Out in the street, arms folded casually over the mirror, Brad said, “My flight isn’t until tomorrow. LA Daddy gave me an allowance. Let’s get a hotel with a pool. On me. Spoil ourselves.”

* * *

In the morning, Che woke to find himself not hungover. The gilt mirror sat leaning in a chair opposite the bed—Che could see his reflection in the sandy light through the curtains. He’d brought his bags in from the car in case of a break in. Quietly, he retrieved his laptop and headphones and climbed back into bed.

By the time Brad stirred, Che had done almost an hour of editing.

Brad rolled over and put his head on Che’s chest. “I love you Che.”

Che folded his laptop, pulled off the headphones. “I love you too.”

Ryan White


Ryan White is a writer and attorney living in Seattle with his cat, Django. He's currently revising his first novel, The Retreat. His work has appeared in J Journal, Litro and other publications. He’s been briefly jailed and hospitalized (separate incidents) while chasing waves in Mexico.

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