Issues /  / Fiction

The chair entered their home in the color dark horseradish. It came with the splayed legs detached, but they were easy to screw in. The husband and the wife took turns sitting in the West Elm chair and agreed that it was very comfortable: not comfy like an armchair that you could curl up in to read for hours, but a nice chair to sit up straight in. The upholstery had a heathered texture, and it had the elegant curves of a concert hall famous for its acoustics. There was a keyhole in the back like a cutaway in a cocktail dress. The chair was meant for a dining table, but they could not afford a whole set of them, and anyway, there was no dining room. After they had tried out the chair, the little blond dog hopped onto it, turned once, and lay down, curled like a croissant with her paws and nose hanging off the edge.

The little blond dog was a rescue, part dachshund, part who knows what, but the wife noticed a subtle change in her dog sitting on the West Elm chair: she looked well-bred. She looked cohesive and familiar, like a dog that you could look at and say, “Oh, there’s a French bulldog,” or “there’s a Shiba Inu,” instead of “there’s a little blond dog.” The little blond dog avoided the West Elm chair after that.

She came home from running errands and placed her tote bag, which was from a literary magazine, on the West Elm chair. It’s so funny, she thought, looking at the vignette she had created. It looks like a catalog, but it’s a corner of my apartment. It’s my life, but well-staged. The same thing happened with a stack of library books waiting to be returned; they looked so appealing and well-lit, it was a shame to return them. She did return them, of course, and replaced the books with a draped throw blanket, which made the room look cozy, like the heat had just clicked on. Then she took her husband’s acoustic guitar off its hook and leaned it against the chair. Her husband put the guitar back later without mentioning the stylish composition.

The mail came: bills, mostly, but there were also several holiday cards, and a package from Amazon. Rather than opening them, she assembled them on the chair. Oh, don’t move them yet, she said to the husband. I’m still enjoying them.

You’re enjoying the unopened mail?


The little blond dog spoiled her fun, too: the wife had placed the newest and most attractive dog toy on the chair and hung her leash over the back, but the dog removed the toy and buried it between the couch cushions. Fortunately, there were other objects to place on the chair, like a framed print that was waiting to be hung on the wall and the Settlers of Catan box before their friends came over. You don’t have to stage our game night, her husband told her.

I just got it out to have it ready, she said. They both knew that was not true, but they left the box there. It did look nice.

A good set of headphones appeared on the chair one afternoon. She had only turned her head away for a moment, and there they were: black, new, laid down carefully-casually. When she put them on, they played Vexations by Erik Satie for her.

On Sunday, several sections of the New York Times appeared – the magazine, the book review, and the travel section – with a pair of reading glasses unfurled on top of the stack. She tried them on. They looked great on her, but even better on the Sunday Times. The lenses seemed not to be prescription. The crossword puzzle was impossible to complete.

Are you buying things to put on the chair? the husband asked. I don’t know where they came from, she said. Things don’t just appear, he said. Maybe they do, she said.

Who would balance a chess set on a chair like that?

One morning, there was another newspaper, folded on the chair, free from any dirt, as though it had never been outside. On top of the paper was a scone on a bone-white salad plate with a gilded rim. The newspaper was for a town they had never heard of; neither the state it was from, nor the date of the paper were clear. There was a surprising amount of decor-related news, but something about the paper repelled reading, and neither of them could bear to do anything more than skim the headlines. The scone, however, was seductive. It had a crisp topping of demerara sugar, and smelled buttery and fresh. They argued about eating the scone, and in the end decided to split it, so that if it was poisoned or cursed, they would suffer the consequences together. Of course, they did not give any to the little blond dog. It was cranberry orange and was delicious. It could be delicious and poisoned, said the husband, still eating it.

What if it’s too delicious?

I think we would taste the poison.

And who said a curse can’t be a good thing, she thought.

An iPad appeared, the newest model, propped up on its neat stand. It had no battery life, and disappeared when she turned away. She couldn’t find that pretty salad plate either, which she had washed and stacked with their other dishes.

One sunny-white day, a set of binoculars arrived on the chair. She looked through them out the window, but couldn’t get them to focus for a long time. Finally, she saw a bird she thought was a dark-eyed junco. Then the chair caught her eye: it now held a guide to birds of her region. She sat in the chair to flip through the book. Things became quiet around her, and there seemed to be no temperature. She sat in the peaceful neutrality. Maybe it was a slate-colored junco. She felt soothed and began to drowse.

She woke seated in the chair, next to a table covered in stacks of art books, like a bookstore display. This was not her apartment. She heard soft Gregorian chants. There was an excellent stereo system behind her, and a record collection, but she couldn’t see where the speakers were hidden. She had never wanted a record collection, but had often thought she and her husband were the type of people who would have one. She stood. This was how she had always dreamed her home would look once they achieved all the objects they wanted. The bird book and binoculars were gone. She called the little blond dog, and she did not come. She called her husband, and he did not answer.

From the windows, she could see lawns, trees, and distant houses across several acres. It was the kind of country you’d put boots on to tramp through. There was a neat shed in the yard, rose bushes, and a gnarled apple tree. The back door would not open. This was the thing that alarmed her, and she ran through the rooms, looking for a front door. There was no front door. There were no hallways either, no connective tissue, only swift transitions between living and dining and bath and bed, a glossiness and brightness, but such a stillness she couldn’t breathe. It was so stylish, this place, and she wanted all the things here, all the blankets, and mirrors, and window treatments, but she couldn’t have nice things. Everything she had always got stained or chipped. She tried opening windows but they did not open. It wasn’t really a house.


There was one thing here that did belong to her: the dark horseradish mid-century modern style chair. She collapsed in it.

She found herself back in her apartment, and her husband was there.

How can you have appeared in the chair? he asked.

I came from somewhere else. I moved through it to get back here.

Where were you?

It wasn’t like anywhere. It was almost like being in a house, but it was more like being in a furniture store. It looked like a catalog.

We have to get rid of that chair, he said.

But they did not.

She began letting the chair transport her while her husband was at work. To begin with, she would go about her day as if he were there, watching. She would walk the little blond dog, do a HIIT workout, shower, make lunch, peruse job sites, and then … what? She would be tired from exercising, and there she was, always in the apartment. A listlessness would descend, and looking for jobs was so exhausting. Better to disappear for a little while. Rather than the couch or the bed, she sat in the West Elm chair for an afternoon nap. A doze, a giving in, a waking, and then there she was with the Gregorian chants and the overlapping carpets and the bright sunlight. To return home, she simply had to sit down in her chair. Then she would go for another walk and maybe read a book or bake some scones.

On each trip, she sat on a different piece of furniture, just for the pure experience. She would close her eyes and run her hands over the upholstery, wood, and leather, contacting each sensation one at a time. She also liked to run her hands along the spines of the books on the shelves, the percussion of her hand hitting each book sounded like a prayer wheel, she thought. When you sit in a swivel recliner, only sit in a swivel recliner.

She went to the library and checked out a stack of art books. She flipped through them in the evening, while drinking a glass of whiskey. Once, she did that. The rest of the time, she kept them stacked next to the West Elm chair. Are those books overdue yet? Her husband asked. I’ve been renewing them once a week, she said.

In the bathroom, she took off her shoes, but was worried about putting them down. They were scuffed and unstylish, and they did not belong in wherever this was, this catalog. They might vanish. She held them, dangling the heels from her fingers like she was wading in the surf, but instead of the ocean, she waded onto the bathroom floor tiles, which were a watery blue and cool. Starting with the left foot, first the heel, and then the toes, letting her foot sink into the floor walking calmly and steadily, with, she thought, poise and dignity. She concentrated on her breath and her feet on the tiles. If only she had a bathroom like this. She would be so grounded.

From the kitchen drawers, she pulled botanical salad servers made of stainless steel with an antique brass finish. She would make salad every day if she had these and this solid wood salad bowl. She carefully folded minimalist linen napkins with a canyon red stripe, and for the plates, she chose white organic shaped porcelain. There were candleholders and tapers, and those elegant long matches in a slim jar.

At home, she did her best with mismatched cloth napkins, some inherited Fiestaware, and their Chemex. Are we having people over? he asked when he got home. Then why are you setting the table so nicely? I’m just trying to appreciate the things we have. We do have some nice things. We do.

All she had to add to the waffle mix was milk and eggs. She found both in the baby blue refrigerator. The milk was in a glass bottle, the kind brought by a milkman. The eggs were large and brown, and she cracked them into a red mixing bowl, beat them with a sturdy metal whisk, and poured in the milk and mix. There was butter and real maple syrup for the waffles, and she ate them off a large dinner plate with a reactive green glaze. A waffle, she thought, is like a mall, with all the stores connected by corridors, if all the stores of a mall were flooded with sugary tree sap. It’s like Vermont and a mall and it’s always Sunday morning.

Have you been looking for a job? he asked. I have, she said. But there isn’t much to find, unfortunately.

Across the overgrown field, there was a stately house with peeling paint and ivy creeping up the walls. She peered at it through the binoculars that she had found hanging on the coat rack, and oh she wanted to go there. The West Elm chair brought her to a practical and stylish catalog world of luxurious and useful things with a mid-century modern meets Scandinavian design, but that house was different. There was a decorative ladder hung with drying bundles of flowers and herbs, Liberty of London wallpaper, candles on every surface, a gallery wall of mirrors, masks from Bali, and a map of the moon. The loveseat didn’t look exactly comfortable, but it looked like a designer dress, like sitting on it would make you look great. There was a careful, riotous stack of pillows on the floor, a distressed bureau with rose-quartz knobs topped with a reed fragrance diffuser, and a spinning wheel. Filled with longing, she unconsciously moved toward the house, bumping the binoculars against the window pane. That is where she would live if she lived alone, if she were single and an artist and didn’t have to work. She wanted to invite people back to that house; even more, she wanted to wear that house and its old-world shabby-chic bricolage contents like jewelry, so that whoever she met would know. It wasn’t fair that she couldn’t.

She needed to fall asleep in the chair at home in order to wake up in the catalog, but all she had to do to return home was to sit down and close her eyes. She opened them and saw her husband standing across the room looking at her. She felt like he had caught her masturbating and he could see the scenario in her head projected onto the wall, like he was on a walk through her search history. She took a breath and tried to tell herself not to be ashamed: everyone masturbates, everyone imagines having things they don’t have, everyone has a fantasy life inside a physical manifestation of a West Elm catalog.

I just saw you appear in an empty chair like the blink of an eye, he said, standing in the doorway. She remained seated, the cushion becoming more real beneath her. I thought you weren’t going to go into the catalog anymore.

I tried to stop, she said, but I couldn’t. It makes me feel warm and calm. I want to keep going back.

How often do you go into it?

Every day you go to work.

What if you can’t come back? What if you get stuck? It’s not a real house. What if the doors break and you can’t open them? What if someone throws the catalog away? What will happen when West Elm changes their inventory for the season?

I think then the house would transform, but I would be ok.

How could you possibly know that? He walked to the chair, took her by the shoulders, and pulled her from her seat into him. I want you to feel warm and calm here with me. I want you to be happy with our life, and proud of us.

She looked up at him. Do you still love me even though I’m weird and I like to hang out in a catalog? He nodded and pulled her close.

Maybe the catalog wants you because you’re beautiful. You make the chair and all the other stuff look so much better.

She didn’t have her laptop here, so she couldn’t work on her resume, but she could think about it and then work on it later. She wanted her resume to look like this desk, she realized, running her index finger along the felt of the wooden box that contained creamy blank envelopes. A resume should look minimal, inviting, and useful. She went into the kitchen, which was flooded with light, brewed coffee in a glass French press, and then carried it back to the desk on a little tray. That looked nice. She had forgotten to bring a mug, but didn’t notice. She just enjoyed the aroma, the sunlight it seemed to have brought with it, and the way the coffee’s brown complimented the desk’s leather writing surface. She enjoyed it all and thought about her desk-like resume. Then she grew sleepy.

Her cover letter, she thought, would be like all the pillows on this bed. There should be two large, fluffy bed pillows, and then two more small ones propped up against those, and then a round one, and a long thin one. Some were fluffy, some were supportive, some were just for decoration but they really added to the entire effect. That is what her cover letter would be like. She sat cross-legged on the bed, and enjoyed the headboard. Their bed at home was on one of those metal bedframes that you can add on for $35 when you buy a mattress and box spring set. She took the smallest pillow and tossed it in the air. Then she tossed the circular pillow, and it spun. She tossed the two smaller pillows together, and then she sank into the crevice between the down-stuffed bed pillows.

Dear [Hiring Manager],

After four years in the publishing industry, I am switching sectors and seeking employment at a mission-driven nonprofit. My experience working with subsidiary rights contracts…

That was the first little pillow, the introduction. Then the middle paragraphs, the bed pillows, were the heart of it: she would describe her experience in publishing. She thought about what it would be like to be dual-income again. Their bed needed upgrading, but she wanted a bar cart first. She would put the bar cart next to the horseradish chair, and stock it with Aperol and bitters and those expensive cherries, and long twisting spoons. The living room first, because that’s what guests see. Then the circular pillow is the part when I say why I’m right for this job but I can’t work on that section yet, because I haven’t found the job yet.

She woke when she could no longer feel the goose down enveloping her head. She woke into a bright white light, seated upright in the West Elm chair. The bed was gone, the pillows were gone. She was comfortable in the chair, but this was the wrong part of the catalog, white as new sheets. Light cascaded from nowhere onto the chair as if the light loved the yellow chair. Its splayed legs cast just a dash of darkness across the paper-white floor like eyeshadow.

She stood. The floor wasn’t really floor. It was covered in paper that stretched forever, it seemed. Was she taken here by accident or on purpose? Did the chair want her to be here? She did not want to be. She did not belong here: it was meant only for the chair, and the light wasn’t trained on her perfectly or at all. A catalog is composed of lies, artfully arranged, and she was in a solitary lie about only this chair. After pages of cozy living rooms and laden dining rooms, there are pages of purchase-able things against white in a grid. This is where you learn the price. She was in a grid, and perhaps there were other stylish chairs above and beside her, each in their own blank infinities.

The photo backdrop paper rolled along the floor and up the wall to banish corners, but it couldn’t really go on forever; it was an illusion. She walked straight ahead away from the chair into the silence. She walked and walked, finding nothing but white emptiness that glowed like a Word document. Finding no opening or crevice, she turned to look behind her and saw the chair, only a few yards away, following but unmoving.

OK. Now she tried a different direction, faster this time, so her escape would be more deserved, but she was just moving clockwise around the chair like a second hand. Falling asleep had been a mistake.

She should be able to sit in the chair again and return, first to the catalog, and then home. There was a silence like a sustained note from a piano. The chair’s shadow looked as though it had been partly erased, and the chair looked as though it were an open palm, asking her to put something in it: herself. She had been playing a video game she didn’t know how to play. She had been mashing the buttons and winning so far, but had not understood the controls, and now was on a level she couldn’t beat. She wanted to go home to be with her husband and the little blond dog. All she had to do was sit in the chair, but what if the chair brought her somewhere else instead? She could end up in the wrong house, in a store, or a warehouse. She did not know how to steer the chair, especially through such a nullity. The chair did not look appealing, but menaced with its rich yellowness, like the glow of bacteria.

How cozy her homely, uncoordinated life seemed now, with blond fur gathering below all the furniture and her husband’s half-full seltzer cans left everywhere. She might starve, or maybe she would never be hungry again, sustained and needing nothing as if she were a chair.

Her heart was racing and she decided to catch up with it. She ran as fast as she could away from the chair, toward the nothingness that the chair’s back was facing, back where she had come from, she unreasoningly reasoned. She tumbled through the white seamless backdrop paper and into the West Elm house. The chair and the whiteness behind her, the back door of the catalog house was open, and she kept running, through the frosted field that crunched beneath her moccasined feet, straight into the welcoming front door of the Anthropologie catalog. It smelled like lavender and armoise oil balanced against rosemary, eucalyptus, and verdant fir. She let the door slam behind her, wrapped herself in a throw blanket, and threw herself onto chaise longue. She felt safe here, as in the most peaceful meadow on some estate, belonging to a certainly benevolent earl.

When the husband returned home to find his wife gone but her purse and the little blond dog still there, he knew she was in the catalog. He took the dog for a walk, and was angry when she was still not there when he returned. He made dinner for the two of them, and even set the table nicely with cloth napkins and candles. He served out her portion of pasta and kale, and hoped at first that she would come home while the food was still warm, and when she didn’t, hoped she wouldn’t come home until it was cold.

Is our life not good enough for her? he asked the little blond dog.

All evening, he performed gestures and actions to be viewed by her when she returned. He did the dishes with a balletic calm and control. He sat on the couch looking at the West Elm chair with expressions of anger and concern. He poured himself a whisky and read a book. He invited the little blond dog onto his lap and comforted her. His wife would see his concern, see his judgement, see his abandonment. But she did not see any of those things.

He stayed up late waiting, and then went to bed. He did not sleep well, and she did not return. From his side of the bed, looking at the blond dog sleeping on his wife’s pillow, he considered that she had left him.

The next morning, a letter arrived, but not in the mailbox, nor on the West Elm chair; it was in the kitchen cabinet, resting on a dessert plate that he had bought for her for her birthday, purple with an abstract dot pattern, and a little snail drawn in gold. The letter was written on fine Italian paper with a textured cream finish and deckle-edges, and had a coordinating envelope. It was addressed to him in his wife’s handwriting, with a calligraphy pen, the letters shaped with an uncertain elegance. The letter itself was composed on a vintage typewriter, the kind she had always wanted, and the ink faded in and out in places.

I had a bad scare, but I think I’m safe now. There are a lot of dried flowers here, and I have been arranging them in vases. I think I need to stay here for a while. I miss you a lot, but I am afraid of something else weird happening. I’ve gone beyond West Elm, and I think it’s better for me here, but I want to come home and I’ll get a job and I’ll be happy with what we have. For now, I’m going to water the houseplants and make scenes on trays with vintage objects. I am afraid to leave but I also like it here. I’m going to try to enjoy it. I love you.

He sat in the West Elm chair several times but nothing happened. He couldn’t quiet his mind or succumb to sleep. He felt as though he were in car or a boat that he needed to pilot. Finally, he smoked a bowl, buzzed, faded, and slept.

He heard the Gregorian chants and saw the leather and teak and the nice lines of the furniture. Everything felt cold, but a preserving cold, like the furniture would survive for millennia beneath the tundra. He called for his wife but she did not respond. With a shudder, he saw the originals of what she had attempted to mimic: the stacks of art books that echoed into their living room, the bud vase that she had approximated with a vintage bottle, the odd collection of candles. He rose and walked through the catalog, calling for her in each room, hearing nothing, and touching everything. Like a cake that asks to be eaten, all the purchasable things asked to be handled, lifted, and carried. He could understand why his wife liked it here, though he felt a desire so strong it made him ill. In the kitchen, he looked across the window above the sink, and saw out to the Anthropologie catalog house. Something moved in the house. He rushed to the nearest door. It would not open.

After trying all the doors, he found the binoculars and searched. His wife was peering at him through enameled opera glasses. She waved. He waved back. She did the writing with a pen motion in the air, and pointed at him. He nodded, and shrugged like, I’ll be here in the West Elm catalog, waiting until we can be together again. He pulled himself away from the image of his wife in the window, and looked through the record collection, selecting some Coltrane. The Gregorian chants faded as he switched on the record player and put on the record. He sat down on the leather couch across from the dark horseradish chair.

On the chaise longue, the wife picked up her knitting.

Corina Bardoff


Corina Bardoff is a writer and librarian currently living in New Jersey. Her fiction has appeared in Exacting Clam, Storm Cellar, Menacing Hedge, and elsewhere.

paper texture

The baby was sick again but in a new way. Justine had never seen him like this before. Every morning she peeked over the edge of the crib, as if expecting to find something new there, like an egg or a kitten. But it was the same wailing knot that she didn’t know what to do with. He had an elderly wheeze, little black lumps on his tongue. She wondered if it was catching and picked him up anyway. There was nobody around to scold her for it.

Gabriel, her husband, was away on business. He was a doctor for poor children. “Like you,” he’d said when they first met. She never asked about the details of his work. It was not a wife’s place.

Before the baby came it had been lonely for Justine, sitting in rooms her husband filled with things she hadn’t bought, electronics she didn’t know how to use, photos of family members she still hadn’t met. To comfort herself she dreamed about the way the sun carved diamonds out of Gabriel’s eyes, how she daisied out beneath him that first time they lay together, how he was named for God’s messenger and every day with him brought the possibility of divinity.

Now the baby was refusing to latch, and she still hadn’t named it. Bad luck, Mama Shiv would chide her, if she were here. She’d died just a few days before Gabriel proposed.

The baby’s mouth wormed silently about, asking an unending question. Justine would have to think of something to say to him. It was getting too quiet in the house.


When Justine was a “wee thing” Mama Shiv liked to make up stories for her. Her favorite was the one about the piper, and so it was Justine’s favorite too. A long time ago, Mama Shiv claimed, in a far-off land, there was a town called Hamelin. Justine didn’t know where she came up with that name, but she also knew better than to ask. The people of Hamelin were very happy there, except for one problem: the rats. Here Mama Shiv would bare her teeth, pinch at Justine’s skin, leaving rice-sized marks behind.

“This was the time of the plague,” she said. That word meant nothing to Justine, but she could tell from the way Mama Shiv said it, voice low and down-weighted, that it was important. “Rats carry disease in their blood,” she claimed, but that didn’t mean a whole lot to Justine either. She just pictured their hairy little bodies roiling like storm clouds in the streets.

The townspeople didn’t know what to do until one day a man showed up that nobody had seen before. But the majestic, multi-colored clothes he wore dazzled them. A piper, he called himself, because he could play the instrument so well. He had a solution to propose. He could enchant the rats with his music, draw them out of their hiding places, and lure them to the river where the water would take over from his song and carry them to their deaths. They wouldn’t even notice the difference. It would be the same to them as breathing.

Justine always thought Mama Shiv meant for that bit to scare her, but it didn’t sound so bad: dying and thinking it was something else. There were worse ways to go than being willing.


The first time she saw the new doctor was an accident. She hadn’t planned to walk by the office at all. It wasn’t on the way home from the grocery store, where she’d gone to pick up a gallon of milk. The plastic jug was sweating in her hands, cutting red divots into her fingers. She had to set it down just for a minute.

The doctor had set up shop in an empty storefront rental. There was no sign announcing the business, just a piece of paper taped to the window with open hours. The plate beside the door said Aisling Elgin, which wasn’t any sort of name Justine had ever heard. The blinds were raised and she could just make out a stiff white-coated body origamied over a desk. He seemed to be writing something; there was nobody else in the room. She gave him a young face, wire-frame glasses, maybe the velvety tremors of a beard. She gave him a wedding ring; she liked him better that way. Maybe he was a widower. That made her like him even more. She’d often found that people who’d lost something dear were more understanding of what others couldn’t give up.

When she stood back up he wasn’t at the desk anymore but poking his head out the front door. He also wasn’t a he. Instead it was an old woman looking at her, older even than Mama Shiv, with bobbed white hair and deep seams in her skin. The only thing Justine had gotten right were the glasses, which were wire-framed and glinted in the sunlight.

“You need any help?” the woman asked. Her voice was creaky, like a chair that hadn’t been sat on for a while. Like she hadn’t talked to anyone else in weeks. Her face gave that impression too. There was a desperation to it that scared Justine a little.

“Nah, I’m okay, ma’am. I ain’t got far to go,” she said, which was a lie but she didn’t think the woman would know that. Still, her eyes narrowed a bit and Justine stood where she was, the milk on the ground between them. The cicadas sang their heated harmonies in the trees. A group of boys passed by on their bikes, a rickety tornado.

“May I ask your name?” the woman said.

“Justine Byrd.” Immediately after it was out of her mouth, she wanted to take it back without quite knowing why. Then she remembered it was supposed to be different now that she was married. “You’re the doctor?” she asked. She didn’t know that was something a woman could be.

The woman ignored this. “That’s a very pretty name, Justine. You should know, though, that it’s not a good idea to give new babies cow’s milk.”

Shameful red blooms sprouted on her body, which there suddenly seemed to be more of. She was wearing too many clothes for the weather but still in moments like this it wasn’t enough. She wanted to burrow into herself and come out the other side in a new place.

“I’ve seen you around town,” the woman added, as if that explained everything. “With the baby. Boy or girl?”

“Boy,” she said, then wondered if that was right or if she was thinking of someone else.

“Has he been looked at yet?”

Yes, she’d had a boy. She remembered because Gabriel seemed a little sad when he found out. After the baby was born, he took one picture of it with that thing he called his “cell,” holding the black rectangle up just high enough to get the child’s face but not hers. He told her he used it to send things, but all she ever saw him do was peck at it with his fingers like a hungry bird. He always kept it close by. He had it with him wherever he was now, sending things somewhere else.

“What do you mean looked at?” Justine asked.

The woman’s eyes crinkled slightly, the kind of consoling look you give when you’ve seen something you wish you hadn’t. “Bring him in sometime,” she said. “I’ll do the first consultation on the house.”

Even though Justine wasn’t sure what that meant she nodded and picked up the milk from the sidewalk. It was slick as the baby when it came out of her but she held on, like she had then. All that week she hovered over him, looking for the least sign of hunger, a need that she could fill. He had Gabriel’s eyes, she noticed, the diamond gleam. Little shards that could cut her if she wasn’t careful.


The mayor of Hamelin was a man who didn’t like to owe favors. He was proud, like many are, and it pained him greatly that he’d been unable to come up with a solution to his town’s problem himself. But the piper was not a braggart, which appealed to the mayor, as did his impressive manner of dress. He promised the man a thousand guilders if he succeeded.

The piper instructed the townspeople to stop up their ears with cotton the following day. “Especially the children,” he advised. They were skeptical, but also wary. Nobody wanted to be the one to discover what would happen if they didn’t obey.

The next day the piper appeared in the village square, his instrument in hand. The streets were completely empty, the townspeople watching him from behind glass. When he lifted the pipe to his lips, his cheeks puffing with the promise of sound, they couldn’t hear a thing. But the rats could.

For a long time there was nothing. “He’s a bust,” the mayor whispered to nobody in particular. And then, suddenly, they swarmed. Instead of the ground there was a pulsing mass of black pelts, tumbling down the dirt paths like a demon sea. If the piper was frightened by what he saw he didn’t betray it. He continued to play, leading his animal bramble out of the town and into the countryside, right to the river that would swallow them.

Weren’t they scared, when they saw what was ahead of them? Every time Mama Shiv told the story this question lived on the tip of Justine’s tongue. But she never spoke it aloud and so never got an answer.


The baby was still sick a couple days later when Ruthie May called the house in tears, asking for Gabriel. Ruthie May was a couple years younger than Justine but she already had a two-year-old son, Micah. He was the one that Ruthie May was crying over. It seemed he might be coming down with something.

“How long?” Justine asked, glancing over at her own child slumped in his highchair, eyes listing about like someone seasick. The bottle of milk sat untouched in front of him.

“A few days, I guess,” Ruthie May sputtered. “I thought it was just a fever at first but then the spots started showing up.” Justine gripped the receiver tighter to her ear, as if to prevent the baby from overhearing. “I’m going through about twenty diapers a day,” Ruthie May whispered. “Chazzie says we should start asking the neighbors for donations. I thought maybe Gabriel could help.”

Sometimes Justine hated how the town relied on her husband. Before he came along the only other doctor here was Mr. Obie, the pediatrician whose hair looked like a child’s sketch and retired soon after Gabriel moved in. Justine knew she was the object of envy for some, marrying an outsider who’d somehow made himself indispensable, slipping seamlessly into Mama Shiv’s place. But every phone call like this took him even further away from her than he already was. “He ain’t here,” she said.

“I didn’t mean with money,” Ruthie May said, her voice going icicle sharp. “I just thought he could take a look at Micah. Make a medicine again like last time.”

Justine’s eyes darted over to the locked door of the basement, where Gabriel kept his laboratory. Sometimes he spent whole days down there, emerging with a single test tube of cloudy liquid. Phages, he called them. He never told her what that meant. When she looked the word up in the dictionary, all it said was “one that eats.”

“Well, he still ain’t here,” she said. “He’s been traveling a couple weeks now.”

“Damn,” Ruthie May said, then gasped at her own audacity. Justine imagined her clapping a hand over her mouth, barely managing to contain the smile underneath.

“What if we ask the other one?” Justine said. The moment she did she wondered why she brought it up. It was asking for trouble in some ways, to suggest someone else could do Gabriel’s job. But there was something more she was feeling. Mama Shiv might call it trying to fill a shape too big for you.

“The other one what?” Ruthie May asked.

“Dr. Elgin. The woman.”

There was a long silence on the line. She pictured Ruthie May standing in her kitchen on the other side of town, her tears gone but their crystal tracings remaining on her skin. “I ain’t seeing someone I don’t know,” she said.

“But how can you know her if you don’t see her first?”

“Chazzie wouldn’t like it,” she said, and that was the end of that.

That night Justine dreamed herself into a new body, sleek and fur-fitted. Pressed against other bodies like hers. Shuddering in the darkness but they were not afraid. They knew that they were powerful. They knew that they were legion. But now something new filled their ears, swelled in their hearts. A sound like hands lifting them into the light where they belonged. Their tails twitched with anticipation. Would they follow it? She woke with itchy feet.


Justine didn’t have an appointment, but she knew Dr. Elgin would see her anyway. She brought the baby with her. It was only her second time at the office but she could already tell the changes the doctor made. There were a couple plastic chairs set up near the front door, a potted plant, empty magazine rack, like little promises she was keeping to herself. Black and white pictures hung up on the walls, mostly bridges and towers and other hard things against the sky.

Dr. Elgin came out of the back room, hands gloved in blue, and for a moment Justine’s heart went rabbity, thinking she had a patient in there, and who was it, and was it worse for them to see her or her to see them. But no, she was just cleaning off the examining table, she said. Justine switched the baby over to her other hip and followed her inside.

“So, what is it I can help you with today?” she asked and before Justine could stop herself she said, “I had grocery milk as a baby and I’m just fine,” even though it wasn’t what she wanted to come out.

They stood there looking at each other, a string of drool running down the baby’s chin like it was timing them. Then something flickered, lizard-like, across the doctor’s eyes and she said, “Well, you do things differently here, I understand. I’m not trying to impose, merely offer my own suggestions. Do you want to take a seat?”

The light was too bright in there; the surroundings had all the charm of a bug zapper. Ducks in sailor hats walked a wallpaper plank around the room. They both lowered themselves into the chairs at the same time. “Where’d you say you come from again?” Justine asked. It seemed like a grown-up thing to say and Gabriel always said she needed to start behaving like one, now that she had the baby.

“I don’t know that I ever did,” Dr. Elgin said. “I’m from Akron.”

Justine knew the name. Mama Shiv had told her it was where all the tires in the world were made. “Big city,” she said.

“I’m not sure they’d see it that way there. But I suppose you’re right.”

“I ain’t been anywhere,” she said. “You probably guessed that though.”

“I don’t make assumptions. Just diagnoses.”

She smiled though Justine wasn’t sure she caught what was funny.

“Was there something specific you wanted to ask about, Justine?”

“Why’d you leave?”

The doctor folded her hands and crossed her legs in a ladylike, scolding way. “Is that really what you wanted to ask about?”

But Justine never could ask about what she really wanted to know. Not out loud anyway. Mama Shiv always said to keep those things between herself and God, to talk to Him like a personal friend. But how was Justine supposed to know how to do that? She never had any personal friends, not really. They were all too scared of Mama Shiv to come over and play when she was little. Gabriel didn’t count; husbands were different from friends. It was what made them special.

“I think my baby made someone else’s kid sick,” was what she said.

“What do you mean? Sick with what?”

“I don’t know how. They weren’t even around each other. But what she said on the phone, it was the same thing.”

“You’ll have to enlighten me, Justine,” Dr. Elgin said, her voice patient but with a dangerous shine. “I can’t help you if you don’t explain what’s wrong.”

“I think it’s the phages,” she said, glancing quickly up at the doctor whose face had gone dark. The baby gurgled in her lap, gumming its own hand.

“Phages?” the doctor repeated. “Justine, who’s been giving you phages?”

She knew then that what she was telling the doctor was wrong, but she wasn’t sure why.

It wasn’t something she’d ever heard of before until Gabriel came into her life, almost a year ago now. She and Mama Shiv had both come down with something that old Mr. Obie couldn’t identify. Gabriel had been passing through and stopped by to take a look. He sat them both down in the kitchen and asked to see their throats. Mama Shiv stretched hers out first. Justine watched as his fingers danced along the surface of her skin as if checking for gills. When he touched her the same way, Justine blushed a deep crimson. Nobody had ever done that before. Mama Shiv smirked in the corner of her eye. He injected their lymph nodes with the same murky medicine, gray as leftover dishwater. Mama Shiv didn’t survive, but she told Justine not to hold that against Gabriel. It was her time sooner or later. Things like this aren’t meant to be easy, she said. But it was hard to trust a cure that took away more than it saved.

After Gabriel moved into the house, he set up the laboratory in the basement. He seemed happy to settle someplace more “permanent-like.” Justine usually only caught glimpses of the patients as they passed through the front door and down the stairs: the hot braille of a rash, fat babies that sat like quivering blobs of tapioca pudding in their mother’s arms, children tussling and clawing and throwing up things they didn’t remember eating, faces feverish and eyes red-rimmed, snot ropy-thick. Her husband’s expression always the same smear of concern.

He told her once what he did down there. How he mixed the fetid water with the meat bouillon she bought him at the grocery store every week, waiting for the bacteria to multiply in the little dish. How he passed the mixture through a filter and captured it in vials he labeled and stored in the freezer right next to the ice cream. How every once in a while, just as a little test, he thawed one out and dribbled it into the stewpot or the pasta sauce or jar of baby food. How some nights she went to bed clutching her stomach, feeling like a tennis ball in a dog’s hot mouth. How those were the nights Gabriel seemed happiest of all.

“Why you telling me this?” she asked him.

“Because it don’t mean anything to you,” he said.

And maybe he was right, though not in the way he thought. The baby was wriggling about in Justine’s arms now. She waited for the doctor to say something.


Whenever Mama Shiv got to the point in the story when the piper succeeded in leading the rats to the river, she always paused, turned to Justine, and said, “What does it mean to be a person of your word?”

And even though she knew there was an answer Mama Shiv wanted, she always pretended she didn’t understand. It was easier that way.

The mayor of Hamelin was not a person of his word. When the piper returned to the town ready to collect his earnings, he was given only fifty guilders. “How many less is that, Justine?” Mama would ask. “Nine hundred fifty,” she’d say. “A lot less,” Mama Shiv corrected.

When the piper protested, the mayor gave him a dark look, accused him of bringing the rats himself as a means of elaborate extortion. “You bundled them up in your smart little coat, didn’t you?” he sneered. “Guided them into our gutters while we weren’t looking. You knew they would follow you. You had them well-trained. And was it worth it, sir? Are you proud of what you’ve done?”

The piper didn’t answer the man, simply took the tiny bag of coins, turned on his heel, and began to walk away, back to wherever he’d come from.

“Next time we won’t be taken in,” the mayor shouted after him. “Next time we won’t be so willing.”

The piper just laughed. It was a sound sweet enough to be mistaken for music.


The whole walk back to the house the word tick tocked in Justine’s head like God’s wagging finger: In. Knock. You. Late. Inknockyoulate. Inoculate, which was how Dr. Elgin spelled it for her on the little writing pad, but she didn’t like the sinister look of it. Better the strange jumble she could sound out, which might make it easier to say to Gabriel. If she should say anything. She wasn’t sure yet.

The doctor sat stony silent after Justine finished telling her the story. She took it all in without a word, or anything in the way of advice. Her eyes, which had been dark pits of concern, now glistened with something closer to glee. That was when she leaned close and said the word: “You don’t inoculate anyone here?”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll be damned,” she said, but Justine didn’t think she really meant it. “I had no idea places like this still existed. That people still did things like this.”

“What things you mean?” she asked.

“Leaving children vulnerable like that.”

“I ain’t vulnerable,” Justine sniffed.

“You know, despite what’s going on here, this illness you speak of, it’s been eradicated. Mostly, anyway. Hardly anyone gets it these days.”

“I don’t know what eradicated means either,” she said.

“Eradicate means that it’s been beat.”

“Beat by who?”

“Us. Science,” she said.

“You beat sickness?” Justine said, not bothering to smooth over the doubt in her voice.

The doctor leaned even closer then, her voice dimming to a whisper, even though they were the only ones who could possibly hear anything. “Are you married, Ms. Byrd?”

Justine stiffened. “Yes,” she said.

“And does your husband know anything about you being here?”

“No,” she said. “Are you going to tell him?”

But instead of answering, Dr. Elgin reached out and palmed the baby’s right arm, running her thumb over the skin, Xing it like a treasure map. “You don’t have to suffer like this,” she whispered, like she wasn’t talking to Justine anymore but the child. “What I’m saying is, there’s another way.”

Justine didn’t much like her touching the baby like that, but she also didn’t want to move away and spook them both. They seemed to be looking at each other, a flicker of promise passing between them that she resented being left out of. She cleared her throat and the doctor’s gaze snapped upward.

She told Justine what the other way was. Just a little pinprick, she said. Just a tiny break in the skin. The baby wouldn’t even notice it; it would be a matter of seconds. The mark wouldn’t last. He wouldn’t carry it around for life.

“Doesn’t that sound much better?” Dr. Elgin asked.

“You have this right now?” Justine asked.

“I can get it easily,” she said. “Just a couple days if you’re willing to wait.”

She looked the doctor over, wondered if she knew what she was asking. So much of motherhood was made of waiting. Justine hadn’t expected that. Nine months was such a long time to keep something safe. And then you had to do it for the rest of your life. You’d think there would be a better way, but nobody had come up with one yet.

“Do you have kids, Dr. Elgin?”

Mama Shiv had always taught Justine not to trust women who didn’t. They weren’t fulfilling their pact with God. They made a mockery of their purpose.

But she surprised Justine by saying yes.

“Then where are they?”

“They’re grown up,” Dr. Elgin said gently. “Starting families of their own.”

“Without you?” Justine asked. She didn’t know anyone raising a child without their mother’s help. That too was a pact you made with God. Someone had to show the way. Didn’t they?

But Dr. Elgin just laughed. “They don’t need me anymore,” she said.

Justine was very tired when she left the office. It was a tiredness she never felt until she became a mama herself, and it weighed down on her as much as that word ( It was the tiredness that came when every choice was electric. When your baby’s body seemed too soft for all the edges in the world. When you feared the big things, but it was the small one that killed you. The skate by the stairs. The driver that didn’t brake. Something invisible in the air. She was beginning to understand where Mama Shiv’s hardness came from and it scared her.

She could feel something waiting for her in the house, a presence as heavy as her hand on the door. Before Justine pushed it open, she wondered when she’d become an uppercase Mama. Maybe when the baby started talking. She hoped his first words were good ones.


The piper bided his time, returning to the town of Hamelin on Saint John and Paul’s Day. It was a fine June morning; no cloud troubled the sky. Dressed all in hunter green he stole into the main square while the adults were in church, pulled out his flute, and began to play. A sinuous melody wound its way down the streets and into open windows where the children had been left at home, drawing them outside and dropping a path of tuneful breadcrumbs for them to follow. They pushed their way forward, tumbled down along the streets, eager to devour this sweetest of songs. Meanwhile the adults heard nothing beyond their own prayers. One hundred and thirty children gathered in the square, panting with anticipation. The piper didn’t say a word, just continued to play his instrument as he turned and led them all away, out of the town and into the country, just as he had with the rats. None of them were ever seen again.

When the adults began streaming out of the church and into the square, they were met with a silence unlike any they’d known before. A joyless hush that settled over them like a garment they could never take off, heavy in the summer and threadbare in the winter. A quiet broken only by the soft sobs of the three children left behind: one lame, who couldn’t run fast enough to keep up; one blind, who couldn’t find his way; and one deaf, who couldn’t hear the melody at all.

The river was dredged but no bodies were found. For years afterward the townspeople speculated. Perhaps he’d led them into a cave to suffocate them. Perhaps he’d taken them to a distant, beautiful land where they would live on happily together. Perhaps he’d return them if the mayor offered him the rest of his payment. Eventually some of them had other children. The three left behind grew older. There was no music allowed on the street where the others were last seen anymore. Nobody would dance to it anyway. They moved on. There was nothing else they could do.


Gabriel was at the kitchen table, the only light in the room the glow from his cell. “Where you been?” he asked, not looking up. Justine lingered on the porch a moment, the baby’s head slumped against her shoulder as he slept, the setting sun anointing him with a perfect golden halo. His breath harmonized with the crickets in the nearby fields. She wished he could stay like this forever. She could already feel the ways his body would grow too big for her to hold. He was already slipping away from her.

“You’re letting the mosquitos in,” Gabriel grumbled, and she stepped into the house.

“Where you been?” he repeated, his voice lowering as he set the cell aside and nodded for her to take a seat. Justine kept the baby with her. It was reassuring to feel the little puffs of his life on her skin.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“You ever feel like one of those rats?”

“Rats?” he said, squinting at her. His eyes didn’t look so much like diamonds anymore. More like something you’d find at the back of a drawer, like a thimble or packet of ketchup.

“Like in the story, you know? Or no, I guess you wouldn’t. Mama Shiv made it up.”

She began reciting the story of Hamelin just as Mama Shiv used to but only got as far as the piper showing up when Gabriel waved his hand to quiet her.

“Your mama didn’t make that up,” he said. “Everyone knows that story. It’s like a, whaddya call it? Fairy tale.”

Justine was too tired to argue with him. Besides, it didn’t matter anyway. Mama Shiv was gone now, and so were her stories, true or otherwise. There would be new tunes to follow if Justine was willing to hear them. She turned and looked out the window, where she saw the same thing she always did: rows of corn, gossiping to each other as they grew. Little unions of birds. Everything together, like it was meant to be. God’s great impression, as Mama Shiv used to say. She meant it in the way of those smudgy paintings in the picture books. She said they hung on far off walls, though she never said where. Maybe there were some in Akron.

“I been with Dr. Elgin,” she said, seeing no point in lying anymore. Let him decide what would hurt him.

But he didn’t respond and so she said it again.

“I heard you,” Gabriel said, but he sounded tired, wrung dry. It frightened Justine more than his anger would.

“You ain’t mad?” she said.

“Shit, Justine, I really could’ve used your help today. Ruthie May’s worked herself up into such a state.”

Mama Shiv believed swears to be a finite resource. She only used them sparingly. Justine wondered how many Gabriel had left.

“What kinda state is that?” she said, though of course she knew. Wasn’t she in a similar state herself? She just wanted to hear Gabriel name it. She didn’t know what to name it herself.

Instead he sighed, leaning back in his chair, pinching his nose clothespin tight. The darker the house grew the smaller he shrank. She could barely see him now.

“I’m not going to let you fix him, Gabriel,” she said, even though she wasn’t sure that’s really what he was talking about.

“No?” he said, sounding genuinely curious. “What are you gonna do instead, Justine?”

“Well, the doctor said she could inknockyoulate the baby,” she said, stumbling over the word despite herself. “You know what that means? Inknockyoulate?”

“Course I know what it means. I do it all the time. You see this, on my arm?” It was too dark in the room but she knew what he was pointing to. The freckle that was a little more ragged than the others.

“So it’s a good thing?” she said.

“It ain’t for everybody,” Gabriel shrugged.

“What about what you do?”

She could feel the baby stirring. Soon he would be raw with want. Her little vampire.

“People wanting to stick things in you,” Gabriel said, as if he’d read her mind. “You know how they used to fix people who weren’t right in the head? Hammer a pick into their eye sockets. That’s no way to live. That’s something else. But what do you know? You ain’t been tested yet.”

“Tested for what?”

“Not for. By. You ain’t been tested by anything yet.”

The baby was awake now, and hungry, his mouth forming little o’s of craving. Justine slipped her left breast out of her tee shirt and brought him to her.

“Jesus, Justine, cover that up,” Gabriel said, skidding his chair back from the table. She didn’t call after him as he stalked out of the room. There was a faintly sweet smell coming off the baby, like milk that cereal’s been soaking in. She breathed deeply but it wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t ever be enough. The baby latched easily, a seamless articulating.

Sara Batkie


Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is available from University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2010. Her stories have been published in various journals, received Notable Story citations in the 2011 and 2019 Best American Short Stories anthologies, and honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Even though you’d never think they needed saving. Even in a place as hot and miserable as this, where you can watch them strut around like front-yard-roosters, all chests and shoulders and flashing teeth. All slicked-back hair and tattoos of ex-girlfriends, etched fathoms-deep in their forearms. All raised-chins and contemptuous silence when the police do their weekly roll-through. You’d never know our heroic, loving, unconquerable older brothers were all going to die. Not soon. Not ever.

All us little brothers could forgive you for getting fooled. If you’ve only heard about us on the news, or if you’re ancient enough to remember when the factory on the hill bled venom into our groundwater. At night, some of us hear our older brothers coughing so hard it rocks the joints of the bunkbed. Some of us get pulled out of sleep into the pre-dawn darkness by the roar of a toilet flushing, and getting up to go ourselves, find the bowl streaked red. And all our hearts drop when we notice the breathless exhaustion when our brothers clash across the basketball court—even if it’s for a moment. An old man’s tremble in a young man’s body. But it passes. It always does.

They’d be going to college soon, courtesy of a special scholarship set up by the company that killed them. If you look up old newspapers (like us little brothers have), you’ll find pictures of White men in suits, looking just the right kind of regretful over other people’s mistakes. Like the overworked people who let the accident happen. Like our parents, for having had children in the first place. But there’s pride in their faces too—in the picture of them handing off the coffin-sized check. The expressions of people confident that wrongs have been so neatly and unimpeachably righted.

All that money’s in a bank somewhere, in something called a “trust,” which is a bitterly-funny word, and one that means no one can touch it until our brothers turn eighteen. Which will happen. Even in spite of the annihilation that flowed through the water fountains in our older brothers’ grade schools. Even with them shivering in 100-degree weather. It’s inevitable. It’s the universe trying to make up for everything we’ve been through.

In about two years our older brothers will be leaving here, headed to frozen, snow-bound, eternally-White places. We’ll get to see them during family days. We’ll follow along behind them in the cafeteria, nodding solemnly while they explain the clever tricks and tactics to loading up on mac-and-cheese and chicken-fried steaks and the art of getting three drinks on your tray without spilling. They’ll introduce us to their friends who will grant us nicknames and allow us deep sips out of plastic vodka bottles hidden in the depths of the common-room couches. We’ll be intercepted on late-night escapades by professors, who reveal they’re not stopping us to bust us for whatever rules we’re breaking, only wanting to tell us how impressed they are with our older brothers. Behind our stony faces we’ll be smiling. Laughing. Singing. Because we knew it all along. They’ve got great things ahead of them—obligations to destiny that take precedence and priority over something so trifling as death.

We try to convince our brothers of it. Lately, more and more often. When they’re down in the arroyo, for example, working their way through packs of cheap cigarettes, lighting one with the embers of another. When they’re letting us keep lookout as they liberate six-packs of beer from the minimart. When one of them is in their underwear, standing waist-deep in a koi pond in the backyard of a house we shouldn’t be at, puking his guts out. Stuff like that used to only happen to an older brother once a summer. Now it seems like it’s all of them every week.

Us little brothers do things to look out for them. Lying, mostly. Saying they were with us when they weren’t. Not talking too much about our own problems. Biting back bad dreams and dreadful thoughts that creep up on us like windowless vans, like ships carrying alien invaders. We keep watch over them while they sleep through hangovers and bouts of fatigue, listening to the crickets that live behind the drywall, behind the posters our brothers will one day take with them to college. Naked women and Che Guevaras. Tupacs and Free Tibets and flags of countries that don’t exist. Little brown kids with their arms coiled back, eternally-preparing to hurl a rock at an oncoming tank beneath the caption: resistance is never futile.

They owe us for that, we tell ourselves. And they won’t skip out on their debts. They’ll pay us back by finishing everything they’d started teaching us. How you can make a flamethrower with a lighter and an aerosol can. How to catch an insult and fling it back. How to convince someone you can read their future. How to actually read the future. How to find the sniper rifle on that one map in Modern Warfare. How to tell when our mothers really mean it when they say they’ve had enough. The important things. The essentials.

Which is why we never leave their sides. Not in the bad times or the truly bad times. Or the times where we wait in the dark, watching our big brother’s chests rise and fall. The times where we tell ourselves that this isn’t practice for what we’d be doing eventually, sitting in bewildered silence, in hospital rooms with faceless nurses and vending machines that don’t work. Because our big brothers aren’t dying. Not for an impossibly long while or maybe not ever. Because there’s still so much we have to learn, but more than that. Because nothing we love so much can die.

Gordon Brown


Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since arriving in the New World his work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, Nightscript, and elsewhere. He spends his time writing feverishly and looking after his cats, of which he has none.

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Mr. ___, I’m writing you this letter hoping you understand why I did what I did, and that I didn’t mean anything hurtful to you, and not just because the judge says I have to.

My name is Kenny Westman but everybody calls me T-Couyon or T-Cou. You maybe don’t know couyon because it’s Cajun and it means a stupid person, except stupid is in your brain and couyon is in your blood, and I’m T- because my daddy is the original couyon and he is currently up North.

Maybe you’re the kind of person that says “don’t say that” when someone tells you they’re dumb, but it’s true. When I was a kid and we ran into Maw-Maw’s church friend Miss Ardoin at Super Foods, no matter if they was talking about how bad the weather was or Easter plans or whatever, Maw-Maw would drop in, “Oh well you know T-Cou leaves food out for the neighborhood cats and now we got possums coming around and they won’t keep out of the garbage,” or “T-Cou wanted to go camping in the living room and he made a campfire and burned a hole in the damn floor.” Miss Ardoin would stand there trying not to look at me, trying to give Maw-Maw her receipt, and Maw-Maw would say, also not looking at me even though she was really talking to me and not Miss Ardoin, “Now your kids don’t do that, do they? You got smart kids.”

I understand though, because Maw-Maw tried to make me smart. When I was six she started driving me an hour to the Memory Bank because she didn’t want me to turn out like my parents. Daddy was up North even back then only for something different, and I only ever heard from my Momma when she would call to tell Maw-Maw she ruined her life and to ask for money. My family is white trash if that was not obvious to you so far.

The Bank was new and smelled like paint. Maw-Maw would hook me up to memories like Becoming a Father at 16 or Evicted for Failure to Pay Rent and she’d sit and thumb through Ladies Home Journal while I was in the booth, and after it was over, I’d come out bawling and she’d say, “You’re gonna be a good smart boy, right?” and I’d say back, “I promise, I promise!” And she’d tell anyone we passed that I had learned a valuable lesson.

I didn’t learn valuable lessons. When I was eight, I stole a golden retriever puppy called Poncho out of our neighbor Miss Danda’s yard because I told myself she was abusing him (she wasn’t, she came looking for him about ten minutes later while I was still leading him away by his tie-rope). I stole a bike out from in front of the Hando shop for not as good of reasons. Every time I did something like that Maw-Maw would drag me back to the library and show me something else that was bigger and worse like First Night in Prison or Losing Custody of One’s Children and she’d shout at me, “You want to end up like that?” And I’d cry and cry and then I’d steal glue from school and hide in the crawlspace under the house and sniff it.

You’d think I’d hate the library, but one time they got the file mixed up and instead of Credit Card Declined at Convenience Store they gave me Hang Gliding in Dillingham Airfield, Honolulu, Hawaii, and just like that I was done. I was in love, me. The memory bank was where I wanted to be, always.

The thing was, they won’t hire you at the library unless you got a master’s degree, and back then I wasn’t doing so good at college and had dropped out again. But I wanted to be a part of it somehow. The library’s got the big stack, which is mostly what’s copied from the public library, and then it’s got the local stacks from people around town remembering things that happened to them that seem special or historical, so I thought maybe I could donate. But the library wasn’t interested in what was already knocking around in my brain, not even stealing Poncho, or that time I tried to show going “through” the chair in Spanish class in the seventh grade and got stuck and they had to call the fire department.

So I quit at Super Foods and started working at the Chevron on Pine Street because I thought maybe if I got robbed I could donate that memory, but no luck there. I did some roofing, and then worked at KFC for a while, and one of the girls did drop her retainer into the hot oil and without thinking she snatched in to grab it and the skin of her whole hand just come off like a rubber glove, but I wasn’t there to see it. Once I even stood out on the train tracks over by Romero Street expecting that the train would come and last minute I could jump out the way, but the train in Lagniappe only runs once a day so I had to sit there and wait about five hours for it, and then I had forgot that it only goes about ten miles an hour because most the crossings don’t have lights and too many folks got killed when it went fast. Jumping out in front of a ten mile an hour train isn’t so exciting because you jump and it takes twenty minutes for the train to get where you jumped from, it feels like.You can’t just go out and expect to just create a memorable memory. Not unless you got money, I guess.

But I kept trying. Eventually it got so the Black lady who works the front desk, that’s Miss Bernice, knew my name because I was coming in all the time asking: Hey Miss Bernice, what you need? What kinna memories you looking for? She wouldn’t tell me at first and then some switch flipped and she’d talk to me, but only making fun: “T-Cou, we looking for memories of someone who fell out a plane and survived,” or “T-Cou, we got to have a memory from someone who’s been stuck in the head by a meteorite.” But then eventually I think she felt sorry for me and started being serious with me: “T-Cou, someone stole the memory of catching a record-setting fish at Beauregard Lake and so we need to replace that.” Or, “T-Cou, the library in Decatur has a memory of going backstage at Disneyworld and it’s very popular and we’d like to get something like that, too. It’s better if it’s from a local. It’s not as good when it’s someone that’s been in a hundred different times.”

I didn’t have any of those. I kept trying, though, because someday they’d need something I’d done, I figured.

It was Miss Bernice who told me they was looking for a new “procurement specialist-slash-archivist.” She said I had to be a student enrolled at least 9 hours, and there was travel and they don’t pay nothing for gas, and I could only work 20 hours a week and wouldn’t get any benefits and it only paid minimum wage. I said that I was doing that at KFC and yes I would please like to do this instead, and got myself re-enrolled, which was nice because my loans got re-deffered and I’m never going to pay those off anyways.


At the library we only have four booths, so you’re supposed to call ahead and reserve an hour block to meet a memory—that’s what we call it, and I like it. It’s nice. Like you’re having a rendezvous with a friend. We don’t have that many people coming in, to be honest, so we take walk-ins even if we’re not supposed to. Once in a while someone comes in looking for something really out there, and around finals we got students in for accounting or physics tests, like they don’t get that remembering and knowing is different things, that if you sit through a memory of studying mostly what you’re going to come away with is feeling bored and all tied up without learning anything. I learned that the hard way, me.

A list for me in the morning would look something like this:

10:00 a.m. Booth 2, Memory ID AD3558: Getting Root Canal on Back Left Molar

11:30 a.m. Booth 1, Memory ID SF789: Nighttime Alien Abduction Experience

1:00 p.m. Booth 3, Memory ID HE200: Getting Lost in Strange Neighborhood

2:00 p.m. Booth 4, Memory ID HEWV558: RESTRICTED CONTENT/OVER 18 ONLY: Battle of Khe Sanh

Aside from that, I was supposed to trash the old memories that haven’t been checked out in a while. Miss Bernice left me a list and I’d go through the stacks and find the SD cards and wipe them and put them in a shoebox we keep under the counter so they can be reused. Sometimes I’d go through and look at the memories in danger of being deleted and I’ll check them out myself just because I think they should still be around. Like, Eating Blackberry Pie For the First Time or Completing a 10,000 Piece Puzzle. It’s nice, you know? That kinna stuff should be around.

That’s why I noticed everything with you, Mr. ___.

Well, first I noticed your guy in the suit. He was standing around the front desk looking like he was going to ask me if he could rely on my vote in November. Miss Bernice was in the ladies room so I asked him if I could help him, and he said he had an appointment with the library director.

“Did you know that to copy a human brain, you would need an exabyte of storage,” he said to me, and waved to all the stacks. “Even with all of these memories from so many people and so many places, this place does not yet contain the vastness and complexity of a single human life.”

I thought he wanted to make a complaint and got a complaint form for him. He just laughed and sat down till Miss Bernice got back, and then she took him into the library director’s office, and by the time he left I was off for the day. But the next morning my pull list had thirty memories on it at least, and no booths and no times, only a note that I was supposed to give them to Miss Bernice. Some of them were okay, like Playing in a Bayou and Seeing a Snake (Age 5) but a lot wasn’t even memories we had they was so specific, like:

Reading Chapter 3 of Dracula Aloud in Mrs. Shelley’s English Classroom (Age 14)

Seeing Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ for the First Time (Age 16)

I told Miss Bernice we didn’t have any of these memories and she said, “You’re a smart boy T-Cou, just get close.” But I told her that I needed more information, like what was the feeling? Because reading aloud in Mrs. Shelley’s class could be anything, embarrassment or feeling good or feeling stupid. She tsked at me but went and talked on the phone for a while and printed me out a new list:

Reading Chapter 3 of Dracula Aloud in Mrs. Shelley’s English Classroom (Age 14) (subject mastery, confidence)

Seeing Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ for the First Time (Age 16) (artistic wonder)

So I went back to the stacks and thumped through some stuff and figured on Getting a Car to Start After Repairing the Engine and Going to the Houston Museum of Modern Art as pretty close.

After, I had to sign some piece of paper and Miss Bernice signed another piece of paper then she put everything, the papers and the SD cards in their plastic cases, into a big manilla envelope and taped it closed.

And then I forgot about it, because Maw-Maw called me and told me I had to go over to Celest’s to do koala duty, but to stop by the house first because she had some money to go over, so I had to leave work early and didn’t get to see your presidential candidate-looking guy come and pick the memories up.


“Come see. You use all that fourteen dollars?” Maw-Maw asked me when I got home. We live near the high school, in a house that Maw-Maw’s parents left her when they died. It’s all wood paneling and dark inside all day without ever being cool, and whenever you move a box out the way there’s always a pile of little roach turds behind it. I’ve lived here since I was four.

I told her yes, I’d used it all for gas, but she got a ugly look on her face and stomped out to my car and come back with what I knew she would - a can of Starbucks coffeemilk. I’d got it at the gas station and forgot to chuck it in the trash before I got home.

“Wasteful,” she said, and that ugly look got sad and teary as she threw the can away, and I felt ashamed. “What I’m ’on do with you? I give you money and you spend it on this.” She went back to the kitchen counter, which had all kinna crumpled bills and change on it, which she slid across the counter and into a ziplock baggie. “Make sure it all gets there,” she said to me as she pressed the zipper part closed. “No coffee drinks.”

“No ma’am,” I said, but I was bitter as anything, because I got fussed at for a four dollar coffee drink while Celest got what looked like maybe fifty dollars in fives and tens and dimes. Plus I give Maw-Maw pretty much all my paycheck for rent even though the house is paid off and she lets other people come and stay for free but not me, I guess because my parents left me behind for her to raise while none of her other kids did.

“Her life hasn’t turned out the way anybody wanted it to but she’s taking responsibility,” Maw-Maw said, reading my mind like she always could. “So get that hatefulness off your face.”


Celest is my cousin. She lives in a trailer about a mile from Maw-Maw’s with who knows who—she’s always got a boyfriend and a roommate or two and every time I go back everybody’s different from who was there before, including her kids, who get sent to live with her Maw-Maw on her daddy’s side more often than not.

The trailer windows is all foiled up because the air conditioner is broken and Maw-Maw doesn’t have the money to get it fixed. The heat isn’t ever too bad because around the trailer is swamp oaks that keep it pretty shady, but Maw-Maw also doesn’t have the money to get the lawn sprayed, so Celest’s kids is also always coming in covered in bug bites, scratching and complaining.

When she was growing up we used to call Celest the Angel Baby because her feet didn’t never touch the floor from everybody carrying her around and doting on her. And even though she got two or three kids now she still acts that way, this big eternal baby. She’s still dying her hair purple in the sink once a week so it’s all stained up, and she doesn’t move the dishes first, so they’re all stained up too. When I drove up her hair was wet from a dye and she was standing on the porch, towel around her neck and sucking on the dollar store version of a rocket pop, I forget the name of them. Her kids were all running around, all of them with popsicle blue mouths hollering and squealing and trying to push each other in and out of the plastic kiddie pool and the arc sprinkler was on and they were picking it up and chasing each other like it was a snake. I can’t ever remember how many kids she has. At least two, but there were five or so of them running around, probably some from the neighbors, or one of her new roommates’ kids.

There was a new batch of puppies. Celest had got a pit bitch I don’t know how many years ago and was gonna breed it and sell the puppies for cash but they don’t have a fence, so the pit runs around getting into every kinna thing so she’s always pregnant, every couple of months having litters that look part rottweiler or part chihuahua. This batch didn’t look like part-anything, just gray and fat with big baby bellies dragging in the grass when they was running after the kids, scarfing down the pieces of rocket pop that fell off their sticks. One of the girls was laying in the grass and one of the puppies stole her pop right from her hand and she started hollering “No!” and slapping at the puppy as it ran away. “No, stop it! Give it back!”

Celest looked at me when I pulled up and shouted before I was even close, “The koala’s round the front by the truck.” And then, “Did Maw-Maw give you any money?”

She came across the yard to get the money bag and put it in her pocket.

All the yard equipment and pesticide and antifreeze is shoved up under the trailer because a hurricane pushed down the shed that used to be in the back. A puppy had got into some chemicals, and it was lying in a sticky pool of the stuff and its own mess, all bloated, its arms and legs stuck out stiff like a plastic baby doll. I got some oil I keep in a squeeze bottle out of my glove compartment and blessed it. I’m not really Catholic, but maybe it helps. I dug a hole near the road culvert and used the shovel to pick the little baby up and put it in the hole. It makes me sick as hell to bury those little things.

The kids kept playing in the back.

“She dotes on them kids!” Maw-Maw always says whenever Celest texts her pictures or asks if she can have money to take them to the movies or to get new clothes at Goodwill. Depending on the day Maw-Maw says it like she’s proud of Celest, or, when she’s scraping change off the countertop into a ziplock baggie, all full up on despair.


I thought it was over with that first list, Mr.___. I didn’t know anything about you yet, and I figured because we didn’t have exactly the right thing then whoever was asking for these would stop. But the next Monday here was another list, twice as long as the first one with the same kinna strange super specific memories:

First Publication in The Lagniappe Ledger (Age 9) (Clumsy artistic effort that will later be looked upon with fondness and embarrassment)

Secretly converting to Mormonism (Age 11) (Parental defiance, self-doubt tinged with religious fervor and desperation to belong to something greater than oneself)

Winning the Edward S. Hebert Memorial Golf Teen Championship (Age 15) (Pride tempered with self-loathing, contempt towards competitors and the concept of competition)

Trying cocaine for the first time (Age 17) (Mania, secondary artistic awakening)

It took me a while to do because I had to look at some of the old memories to make sure they was the right thing. I got written up because while I was doing that, I wasn’t paying attention to the regular walk-ins and some girl got mad that her SAT memory wasn’t ready to go and then a whole family come in wanting to all hook into a skiing in Europe thing and wouldn’t listen when I told them that wasn’t how it worked.

But eventually I got that list done. And then a couple days later we got another list, this one even longer and more rambling with things like

Waking up in a bed with a strange girl after multi-day binge (Age 22) (self-hatred, debasement, hatred for this woman who is at the same time a Madonna of romantic corruption).

I finally went to Miss Bernice and I said, “Miss Bernice, what I’m doing this for?”

I like Miss Bernice. She got this sneaky kind of look on her face and said, “T-Cou, you know we signed those NDAs,” but in a tone that meant she was gonna tell me. I had to wait till our lunch break. She took me to the McDonalds across the street and bought me a number 2.

She started with, “You can’t tell anybody this,” eating my fries because I don’t like fries, “You know that guy Mr. ___? The one that wrote that apocalypse book they made into a movie?” I didn’t then, and I didn’t look you up till later, but she told me about you being a big time writer with all these prizes and stuff.

“Well, so he got that early-onset Alzheimer’s disease,” she said, “you know, the one that turns your brain all to cheese when you’re only fifty or so? Well this guy thinks he’s smarter than his doctors because he’s a genius and goes on some kooky diet—”

(Mr. ___ please don’t take this the wrong way, Miss Bernice is a nice lady, she don’t mean to offend you or anything)

“—and by the time he realizes it ain’t workin’ his brain is full-on Gouda. So T-Cou, I am not kidding you, they gave this man a damn brain transplant.”

“No,” I said. “They can do that?”

“Mmhmm,” she said. “But the problem is, it’s like if your house burns down and they rebuild it, it ain’t got any of the furniture in it, none of the pictures or anything. And this man’s a genius, right, but right now he’s like a baby. He hasn’t got any memories of anything, and while his brain works like a genius brain it’s got nothing in it. So they’re trying to rebuild his brain the way it’s supposed to be.”

And I said that didn’t make sense, because someone like you should be getting memories from Harvard or LSU or something. Someplace important.

“He grew up here,” she said. “I don’t know, I guess they’re trying to keep it as authentic as they can.”

Which made me think of the list in a whole new way. I felt so bad for you Mr. ___, because after you meet a memory there’s that crazy feeling of not knowing who you are and, while that makes me feel good, it makes a lot of people feel real bad. I seen grown men come out the booths cryin their whole hearts out. I figure with no memories that’s probably what you felt like all the time, and so I tried to be quick, so you wouldn’t feel that way anymore. Every time one of those long lists showed up, I pulled from the local section as much as I could and met all of the memories myself to make sure they was right. I started thinking real hard about what I was substituting when I had to, because this wasn’t just warning someone off of bad behavior or helping a lazy couyon like my daddy cut corners. I was helping rebuild a person. I got your books from the regular library, too, but they were hard to read and it seemed like every time I would start Maw-Maw was calling me again for koala duty and I had to go right away because them kids might see.

One time it was because one of the kids had stepped on one of the puppies and broke its back and Celest threw it in the trash. When the kids saw me, they started shouting “Koala man! Koala man!” and one of the kids followed me into the house and said to me seriously, “They don’t really turn from puppies into koalas, do they?” while the puppy was cryin and cryin from the trash.

“Go dodo,” I said to her, and she went away.

I had to take the puppy out by the road and smash its head with a shovel because what else could I do?

Celest yelled at me to stop burying them near the culvert. “When it floods, the bodies wash back up. It makes the kids upset!”


I feel like I’m not doing my Maw-Maw right in this letter, Mr. ___. She grew up poor and she married my Paw-Paw when she was 16. He was a trucker nearly ten years older than her. I don’t know if she loved him, but I think she thought he had a good job and was going to take her out of this place. But Paw-Paw got in a bad accident—not on his job, just going to Denny’s one day—and he couldn’t work, and because Maw-Maw didn’t have a high school degree she was stuck working at the Super Foods as a cashier till Paw-Paw died and Maw-Maw could get social security. But by then she had four kids including my Momma, and none of them was worth anything but one, and he moved to California and doesn’t talk to us anymore. All of her kids had three or four kids themselves, and none of us turned out to be worth shit, me included.

She is a good person, though. Like she don’t let us have any animals not because she hates them but because she ends up taking care of them most of all. Like Cousin Rusty, when he was living here, had the bright idea that he was going to raise show chickens and so got a dozen of them from someone through the mail and he put them up in the den because he didn’t have a coop and when he tried to keep them loose outside the raccoons started eating them. When the chickens was grown he did a couple shows but didn’t win nothing and he couldn’t afford the gas to keep driving all across the state so he ended up just letting them out in the woods behind the house. But when they was still chicks, though, one of them broke its leg, and Maw-Maw spent a whole night putting him together a little splint made out of rubber bands and matchsticks. It died anyways, but she tried.

Maw-Maw’s sixty-something now and she’s still working, will probably keep working till she’s dead. I think she knows that, that she’s never going to get out of here, that’s she’s never going to have any room to breathe. Every time she gets a foot, she got twelve people all coming to her asking for an inch and a half. I think knowing that has turned something inside of her, made her hard and frustrated and snappy all the time. She did get some Xanax though, once she got on Medicare, so that has helped some.

I had just finished at the Bank and I got home from work and she was sitting with Celest at the kitchen table. There was a guy I guess was probably Celest’s new boyfriend. Maw-Maw had a yellow notepad she was working on.

“And your rent is how much?”

“Six hundred,” Celest said. “But we’re two months behind on that.”

“And how much is your internet?”

“That’s one-fifty.”

“And you can’t get it no cheaper than that?”

“Well that’s internet and cable,” said new boyfriend. He had a look on his face like he’d wandered in off the street and didn’t know to get back out again.

“You don’t need no cable.”

“Well Jack uses it to watch wrestling,” Celest said. “But also we’re a hundred behind on that and they won’t cancel it till we’re paid up.”

“Okay,” Maw-Maw said, writing down all these numbers. “And y’all said that Heather is moving out? What did Heather pay?”

“Well she paid four hundred I think.”

“So how much is your actual rent?” Maw-Maw said.

“I don’t know,” Celest said. And then, putting her face on the table, she said, “This is stressing me out.”

“Heather said she was gonna call the sheriff on us because we don’t have any air conditioning and it gets hot with the kids,” new boyfriend Jack added. “I don’t think she’s really going to, though.”

“So y’all got enough to cover the month? What does Jack make in unemployment?”

“He gets $180 a week and then we get $200 in food stamps.”

“Did you put in for unemployment?”

“I tried but the application got refreshed somehow and I don’t want to do it again,” Celest said.

“Well you have to do it again.”

“All they’re going to do is make me go back to work at Subway and I don’t want to do that.”

“You have to contact jobs, you don’t necessarily have to go and work there. Celest!” She would get that tone right before she smacked us with a wood spoon when we was kids. “If you get unemployment too, do you have enough to cover the month?”

“No,” Celest said back. “Because we got the kids and Ben hasn’t sent me any child support in two months even though I called the sheriff on him and we got to feed all these dogs, and I’ve got two hundred in savings but I don’t want to touch that in case of an emergency.”

“Well you got to get rid of the dogs then,” Maw-Maw said, scribbling down new numbers, trying to get the math to work. And she looked over at me, Koala Man. “T-Cou, you take care of it,” she said. “I don’t care how.”

She’s not a bad woman, my Maw-Maw. She’s hard, but she loves us. She wouldn’t give so much if she didn’t.


I guess it was around then I started thinking about you a lot, Mr. ___. I read about you when I was trying to match your memories, and spent a lot of time finding interviews online and all that. I admired you, I guess, because you come from here and now you’re this big successful guy with all this money and how you won all these prizes. There’s a lot of people who seem important that say a lot of nice things about you and your books. I read some interview with you where you talked about writing about suffering, and like, how you use your genius to write about the underworld, you called it.

And I guess that’s when I first started to feel . . . I don’t know how to explain it. You got all these characters who do drugs and live in trailers, but it’s all kind of romantic, if you get me? And here’s me, and I’m thinking about that time after a storm one of our big tree’s branches fell and hit the neighbor’s roof and, even though it didn’t do nothing, they said they was gonna sue Maw-Maw and she was cryin for two weeks because we don’t have house insurance. There’s nothing like that in your books. There was always some guy named Desmond drunk on a mattress on the floor next to some random beautiful meth head and he’s crying about not knowing who he is and it feels like you wrote the whole thing with your dick in your hand.

Sorry. I can’t describe it any better than that.

And I was sitting here meeting all these memories for you, and the more I saw the world through your eyes it started me thinking that you’re from here but you’re not really from here. I mean, you say you grew up in a small southern town, but . . . come on. All those memories are good things, travel things. Nice schools. You come from the part of Lagniappe that’s not even the doctor and lawyer McMansions, it’s real mansions. Your daddy worked for oil, and he didn’t wear no hard hat. Hell, with the highway right there, you probably didn’t ever even drive through my part of town. None of the memories I was getting for you were anything like my growing up. I was putting you back together, but to you, I don’t even exist.

So I started thinking that maybe if you did see us, you couldn’t help but do something. Because that’s what I would do, if I were you. If I was a genius and I had all that money and all that fame, you know? I’d be Batman. Or Bruce Wayne, I guess.

So when I saw Received Used Car for 16th Birthday (disappointment, embarrassment) I put in Riding to School on the Back of Father’s Bicycle Because Car Broke Down and changed the label.

I wasn’t proud of it. I was shaky and sick from the whole rest of the day. I was sure I’d get caught.

But I guess when that list showed up on Monday as regular as ever, I started feeling like maybe not only was I not going to get caught, but maybe this was something I was supposed to do. That this job had come to me for a reason.

At first it was only a memory here and there, swapping out Camping in a Cabin at Sam Houston State Park (Age 9) for Panhandling by Highway Entrance Ramp, and Organizing College Debate Team’s Annual Fundraiser (Age 21) for Going to Church for Hot Food. If I hadn’t started doing so many of those kinna memories they wouldn’t have caught me, I guess, but I was desperate by then. All the flyers I put up for all the puppies wasn’t getting no answers, and no one was writing me back on Facebook saying they would take them, and the two different pounds I went to said they was all full up. Maw-Maw didn’t care how I got rid of them dogs but she was on me about getting rid of them, like that was going to fix everything, like that was going to fix Celest’s whole fucked up life, and I guess I thought maybe I could fix it this way, somehow.

And then I picked up your one book. Miss Bernice said it was your easiest. The apocalypse one.

Mr. ____, that book broke my heart.

And then when I was done being heart broke, it made me mad as hell.

You did see us. You saw us this whole time. The houses where the roofs are blue tarp and half caved in, where the kids swim in a lake with signs about brain eating bacterias instead of a swimming pool with an iron fence, and all your Desmonds was still lying around crying about all the things we lost When Everything Fell Apart like swimming pools and trips to Paris and college experiences. You even told about the Hando shop, how it was supposed to be Honda but they got the letters all flipped around.

You came to my part of town to write that book. And then you left.

I lost my head a little bit after that. I put in Looking Through a Bag of Donated Clothes for Whatever Fits and Having No Christmas and I took those dogs out of my head and I put that in there too – the sound of those little things scrabbling around in the cardboard box as I drove them out into the swamp, how they all licked up on my hands and gave me little puppy bites when I put some oil on their little faces. I don’t believe in God. How when I left that box out there in the middle of nowhere and one of them struggled out and was so white in the headlights and ran up to the car and started scratching at the door, wanting to come with me, and I covered up my eyes with my hands and cried and cried because what else could I do? I told myself that maybe out here they would have a chance, that maybe somebody would find them and let them in with love. And even though I told myself that I knew it wasn’t true, that the gators would get them or the snakes, or they would get bit by something that would fill their hearts up with worms. But I wasn’t brave enough to drown them in a bag and give them mercy.

Mr. ___, I thought if someone could be us and how we live, then that person couldn’t help but help us. Maybe if you could remember like us, things would change. Maybe if you wasn’t someone shouting and making fun of us from the porch but was here on the road then maybe—because I’m here, I’m here picking up koalas with a shovel, I’ll always be Koala Man because Celest ain’t gonna change and Maw-Maw ain’t gonna change and I can’t escape. Maw-Maw used to say we was rich because we wasn’t hungry and we wasn’t cold, but I’m starvin, Mr.___. I don’t want to eat the world but I want more than just this tiny miserable crumb.

But like I said I’m not smart smart because it was all bad things that made me, and I didn’t think if I put all these bad things into you, you wouldn’t be you, either. You would be like me, and you would have never gotten to that rich and famous place. You’d be my T-Cou.

I never meant to ruin you, Mr. ___. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to fix it, if fixing it means they'll give you a new brain. I guess if they do you won’t remember any of this at all. I guess maybe you’ll never read this, either.

But I am sorry. I wrote this letter to tell you that. Not just because the judge told me so.

Respectfully your friend,


Ashlee Lhamon


Ashlee Lhamon has an impressive lunchbox collection and a tuxedo cat named Gumshoe. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from McNeese State University and is the former Fiction Editor of the McNeese Review. She's not on social media, but you can find her other work at 7x7, Cotton Xenomorph, and Grist.

paper texture

because everywhere has a history…

Grey siding. Red door.

My first family is a black couple from Tennessee. The sun is shining as they pull their 57’ Ford into the drive, with worn but hopeful faces. They’re faces carved out of Colonialism.

They unpack the truck with Aretha blasting, and when that’s done, they make dinner listening to Chuck Berry. They eat to Louis Armstrong. They clean to Marvin Gaye, and when it’s time to go to bed, they turn the volume down as low as it can go—without turning the radio off—and settle into one another for a peaceful night’s sleep to the sounds of Otis Redding.

Three days later, Darrell and Shonda are fast asleep when a brick flies through their bedroom window. Attached to the brick is a note.

“Get out,” the note says.

The guilty party, a pack of white men in white sheets, hoots and hollers from the street.

Darrell jumps out of bed, practically leaping into the closet, and grabs his father’s revolver from an old shoebox. He checks the chambers for bullets. When he finds what he’s looking for, he gives the cylinder a spin. When the cylinder locks in place, he goes to the window.

“Spooks!” the men yell. “We’ll take real good care of you! Ha! Ha! Yes, sir! Treat you real nice. Welcome to the neighborhood!”

Darrell’s stomach drops. His palms sweat.

“Real nice,” the men yell. “Real real nice!”

One of the robed assailants steps forward from the group, onto the lawn, and bends down at the base of what looks like a giant straw man. There’s a flash of light and the man-looking thing ignites into a massive blaze.

“We’ll be seeing you around!” the men shout. They adjust their hoods and roar with laughter as the human effigy burns to nothing but ashes.

The smoldering fire throws cinders into the night.

Tan siding. Brown shutters.

The next family arrives a day late. Their car putters into the driveway until the engine coughs out. There’s a harsh wind blowing like a wild banshee against the windows and doors of their idling car. Thunder rumbles in the distance.

The kids get told this is temporary; that they need a place to stay until they can figure things out and find better jobs—Carter can’t be president forever. They idle in the driveway, listening to ABBA and Donna Summer on the radio, until the parents instruct the troops to move out, but no one gets out of the car.

They moan and they groan as they unpack their belongings and pick rooms with belabored expressions. They eat their first meal in silence and do their dishes with looks of regret. They eventually force themselves to lie awake, in the dark, listening to the banshee wind, until exhaustion forces them into light, fitful sleep.

A week later, Molly is finishing her second martini, when she hears a strange hissing noise coming from one of the bedrooms and goes upstairs to investigate. Her hand traces the wooden bannister cautiously as she rises step after step after step. She’s standing outside her teen son’s room when she hears the strange noise again and opens the door just in time to watch…

“Johnny!” she screams, “What are you doing?”

“It was an accident,” Johnny says. He drops the bat and backs away. “She came at me.”

Molly rushes over to where Johnny is standing, picks up the blood-stained bat, and sobs in disbelief.

“Johnny!” she cries, “You killed my cat!”

“I-I didn’t mean to,” he says. “Honest.”

There’s blood on his hands, and it drips—one two three—onto the grey Berber carpet. Molly follows the blood with her eyes and finds Speckles.

“Johnny!” she wails. “You killed the dog!”

“Gimme the bat,” Johnny says. “Gimme the bat.”

Grey siding. Grey walls.

They pack their hopes and stow their dreams of a cheaper way of life into the giant, gaping mouth of an aging U-Haul and travel the country until they find me: their new home. Brown leaves fall to the ground and scratch at the earth as they pull into the drive. The sun is low, the wind is cold, and the shadows are weak and long.

They tell each other I’m the perfect place to raise a kid and glance down in an expectant way. This could be the start of something permanent, they say. The start of something good.

They drink water and talk passionately about the other checkpoints they want to reach in life. They want to own a microwave. They’d kill for a color TV. But the black-and-white one will have to suffice for now, and it does, as they watch Johnny Carson, until they can barely keep their eyes open, and pass out, in a heap, on the living room couch.

Nine months later, Sarah is reading a book in the kitchen by the sink when a sharp pain in her lower abdomen catches her by surprise and drops her to her knees.

“Jerry!” she calls out. “I think it’s happening.”

Sarah breathes deep, inhaling slow and through her nose, pausing at the height of her breath, and exhales, even and steady. When she finds her center again, she labors to her feet, extraordinarily winded, and shouts, “Jerry!” but, Jerry doesn’t answer.

Disappointed but not detoured, Sarah grabs a cup from the cupboard and pours herself a glass of water. She begins to drink but feels something funny strike her lip, so she lowers her glass and finds an earwig floating in her beverage like a dead fish in a pond.

“Jerry!” she shrieks, and slams the cup down on the counter. The cup tips over and the earwig flips onto its stomach and scurries into the sink.

Watching the insect move, Sarah begins thinking about pain and the future and things that wriggle and writhe. She feels the stabbing pain again and feels a wet warmth spread throughout her lower extremities and crotch. She looks down to find a puddle collecting about her feet.

A puddle of water, she expects.

This is a puddle of blood.


The people keep coming.

They see me as a good deal in a tough market.

They see me as a good neighborhood with good schools.

They see my big backyard and screened-in patio, my picket fence and tire swing, my three-car garage.

They live in me and love on me and isn’t life grand until something terrible happens and they leave.

They leave and it’s quiet for the next three weeks, fifteen months, seven years.

I tell myself it’s not my fault; shudder my windows, rattle my doors. But, that only makes things worse.

I tell myself it’s the place, not me.

I tell myself it’s the place.

But the people keep coming.

Red shutters. White siding.

There’s heavy fog when the couple from Kent pulls in the driveway. The smell of flowers lingers on the air, and it’s the first thing either of them notices as they step out of the car, but their full attention, their real attention, is on their infant son crying in his cradle.

They tell him this is where he’ll learn to drive (a 1980 Ford Fairmont) and where he’ll graduate from high school (a bulldog) and college (a golden flash [at that school those students were shot]). They tell him that this is where he’ll grow from a mere boy into a millennial man, the epitome of this new digital generation, but, for the time being, their baby won’t stop crying.

He cries as they unpack. He cries during dinner. He cries as they try to unwind with a little Archie Bunker. By bedtime, the child is wailing so hard he’s red in the face. Eventually, thankfully, he cries himself into oblivion, like a napkin in the wind, and floats away.

Two months later, Greg is the only one home and goes downstairs to look for a ratchet set. He’s in the basement when he clearly hears footsteps in the kitchen.

“Cassie, is that you?” he hollers.

A voice responds, but it doesn’t come from upstairs. It comes from behind him, and Greg whirls around to find nothing but useless junk.

He goes to the bottom of the staircase and looks up at the partially open door. The footsteps continue without answer.

“Cassie!” he now shouts. “What gives?”

The footsteps get louder, faster; they race from the living room to the dining room and up the stairs to all the bedrooms and back down again.

“Enough!” Greg cries, “Enough!”

And, suddenly, as if on cue, the footsteps stop.

Greg sits in the ensuing silence long enough to wonder whether he is or isn’t going mad. “She has headphones in,” he tells himself, and ascends the stairs with renewed confidence.

“Greg!” Cassie squeals, as she bursts through the side door leading to the garage.

He gets to the top step and stares, dumbfounded, as Cassie walks in holding several shopping bags and the baby carriage. There’s color in her face and snow on her shoulders.

“The stores were packed,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been gone for hours.”

Yellow siding. White door.

My most recent family, ha. They beep the horn three times as they pull in the driveway. The car stops, the engine winds down; but, they’re singing about something, and when the doors finally fling open, a hoorah like a thunderclap echoes across the cul-de-sac.

They tell their daughter to get ready and, on their secret mark, they all jump out of the car. They do so laughing hysterically, like they’ve just heard the world’s funniest joke. The laughter eventually peters out and the four of them come together in a small huddle in the middle of the lawn, with a bright April sun basking down on them.

They trade anecdotes—LeBron James, the BP Oil Spill, the price of gas, and unemployment—as they unpack their boxes and eat their first meals with smirks on their faces. When they’re so full they can’t eat anymore, they do their first sets of dishes to the sounds of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, and then amble upstairs to brush their teeth with looks of increasing excitement. When they’re finally ready to sleep, they climb into bed with the sense of well-deserved relief and ever so sweetly drift.

Sometime around three-thirty in the morning, Jasmine hears a noise and rolls over to find her four-year-old daughter standing next to her bed. Her wife, Karen, asleep and snoring, doesn’t notice.

“Kacy,” she whispers. “What are you doing?”

When the girl doesn’t respond, Jasmine sits up, rubs her eyes, looks at the clock on her nightstand, and blinks three times.

She says, “Honey? Is everything alright?”

Kacy says nothing; just stands there.

Removing the covers, Jasmine yawns, stretches, and gathers herself as she kneels in front of her daughter.

“It’s OK, honey,” she says, quietly, and pulls her close for a hug.

“I have a secret,” Kacy whispers, as her mother holds her close.

“What’s the secret?”

They release one another, the little girl swallows hard, clears her throat, and says, “There’s a monster in my closet.”

Feeling a little foolish for getting so…worked up, Jasmine takes her daughter gently by the shoulder and leads her out of the room and down the hall to her bedroom.

“We’ll see about this monster,” she says, with a smile.

Kacy smiles, too.

Jasmine opens the door to find exactly what she expects to find: an empty room. And, when she checks under the bed, she finds the same thing: empty space.

“I saw a monster!” the little girl insists. She stamps her foot and makes a small scene, but Jasmine soothes her daughter.

She says, “Crawl back in bed, honey, and we’ll talk about it more in the morning.” She gives her a kiss on the forehead. “If you’re good we’ll get ice cream tomorrow.”

Jasmine heads back to her room, shaking her head, and wonders where children get such wild ideas. She’s about halfway back when he hears the sound of a window breaking coming from Kacy’s room. She races back down the hall and pulls open the door to find Kacy cowering in bed.

“There, Mommy,” she says, as she points to the closet, where a large, dark shadow moves. “Get it!”

Jasmine finds the light switch on the wall, but tears her hand away. Something wriggles across her knuckles. She turns the light on to find an earwig racing down her left middle finger. Jasmine flings the bug to the floor in a panic, where it lands with a soft ptt sound, amid millions of shards of broken glass.

“Mommy!” Kacy screams. “The monster.”

Jasmine returns her attention to the closet to find a fluffy orange cat, licking its paws. The closet is empty and the room is empty. The room is empty except for Kacy and Jasmine and this cat.

“Where did you get a cat, Kacy?”

From deeper in the closet comes another voice.

“Gimme the bat,” this voice says. “Gimme the bat.”


I don’t want to call it evil, because what is evil? Is evil something that happens? Is it a feeling? Is it a darkened staircase? Is it power of suggestion?

I keep telling the people this place is not to be inhabited but the people keep coming and the bad things keep happening…

Maybe evil is something all its own.

Regardless of what evil is, there is something marked about this place, something terribly terribly wrong, and while it does no good to dwell on why a place is marked, it’s important to know that it is.

Make no mistake; this is a haunt.

Chad W. Lutz


Chad W. Lutz is a speedy, bipolar writer born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986, and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. They graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California, with their MFA in creative writing in 2018. Their first book, For the Time Being (2020), is currently available through J.New Books. Other recent works appear in Haunted Waters Press, Drunk Monkeys, The Journal of Short Fiction and Poetry, and Sierra Nevada Review.

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APRIL 2020

She only had the night to herself.

Days belonged to caring for her mother, and to fear. Julia’s fear had its own particular flavor; a coronavirus experience colored by cancer. Every random breath was a threat to her mother’s unique IV cocktail. Chemo took all kinds of chemicals. There were chemicals that stung fingers like frostbite, chemicals that made eyelashes fall out, chemicals that turned sweet flavors bitter. Before the pandemic, they’d made themselves a Grey Gardens game out of everything. They wore turbans and kohl eyeliner and muumuus, and they smoked pot out of long, rococo cigarette holders, and they called each other “Darling.” But the same chemicals that alleged to cure her mother made her very vulnerable to disease, and now their days were dominated by the gaping vectors where plague could slither in. They watched the Cuomo press conference every afternoon, and then the BBC, where satellite photos showed mountains of body bags, where they taught you to clean your produce with watered bleach, where they taught you to wash your hands to “Ode to Joy.” They had their groceries delivered to their stoop. They never left the house, except to see the oncologist at Montefiore. Julia would wait in the car outside while a nurse in a hazmat suit like a beekeeper’s costume wheeled her mother to the cancer ward.

In secret, Julia went for runs between two and three a.m. She tiptoed past her mother and her blipping oxygen tank to slip on leggings and a turtleneck that tunneled over her mouth, to lace her Nike Frees and play Deftones records on repeat.

Her friends from The City would never know it, but the Bronx was actually overstuffed with flora. Julia and her mother lived in Kingsbridge, in a khaki multi-family row house on Corlear Avenue, right by Van Cortlandt Park, a vortex of sports fields and pondlife and stables and forest trails. She ran there at first, and it was mostly empty in the dead of quarantine anyway, as lonely as a rural farm by the time it got so late, but there was just enough pedestrian traffic that she was always on the edge of a panic attack; not because she thought she would get murdered or assaulted like jogging women are supposed to in the darkest of New York nature, but because the slightest splash of germs could be fatal for her mother. So Julia took to other pockets up the hill.

Fieldston unbuckled a maze of tudor mansions past Horace Mann, so deep and private that sidewalks disappeared a few blocks in. Koi ponds and Ducatis sat by the driveways collecting dust, and Amazon packages piled on the stoops unmolested. Cherry blossoms wept on the roads like alien fungi, clotted and shiny.

Henry Hudson Parkway lounged through the woods, vacant in the dark save a few out-of-town delivery trucks. Julia ran past the synagogues and the stone churches, the nursing homes, Engine 52 and its modest 9/11 memorial, dead onramps. She crossed the highway by Lou Gherig’s home and its purple shutters on Delafield Avenue and 253rd. Hackett Park wove between the stoplights, all the damp evergreen bushes just starting to flower. Yellow tape roped off the playground at Vintmont Park around the corner.

Then she headed west towards the Metro North. She stopped at the Promenade to rest and gaze at the horizon. Ducks swam in motley crews along the riverbanks, ignorant and enjoying the silence. The further north the train ran, the more the ride got like Spirited Away, like gliding across seas in The Bible, like splitting open the Hudson. Robins could build their nests on the tracks now, they were all so untouched. Black spines of railings glowered on the trails along the edge of Riverdale Park, a small forest on the waterfront. The gardens at Wave Hill were locked, but Victorian arbors and the glass caps of the greenhouse tempted from the parking lot.

She turned south and passed the public schools and the baseball diamonds. Here, all the shuttered small businesses began to hint back at the apocalypse, some of their windows boarded for the uneasy likelihood of riots. She sometimes threaded through Raoul Wallenberg if she wasn’t sick of dirt roads just yet. Then she coasted the decline down Palisades Avenue. There was the din of stranded television sets booming off the tall towers of the surrounding condos, but mostly, the only echo was the murmur of her own cardio. She slowed passing the Charlotte Bronte villa, busted and barely plumped up by patches of dry ivy.

Julia concluded her cool-down at Half-Moon Overlook. It was only symbolically a park, more like a pruned-open clearing. There was a crescent wooden bench and a wrought iron fence patterned with little wrought iron sailboats and a sweeping vista of the water and the Spuyten-Duyvil Bridge. Spuyten Duyvil meant “spitting devil,” like if Satan spat from the tip of Manhattan, his saliva would stick it right there. She would sit on the bench and pant at the river and Deftones would moan about feeling alive.

“You shouldn’t be here by yourself so late,” a deep voice scolded one night, suddenly intruding on her routine reverie. She only heard him because of an overlong pause as “White Pony” rewound to its first track. She froze without looking back at him.

“Neither should you,” she finally replied.

“Maybe you’re right,” she thought she heard him smile, “But you really shouldn’t.”

He stayed six feet away. The air between them was on fire. It was the closest she’d been to someone she wasn’t related to in weeks.

“I run here every night,” said Julia, “and the only issue I’ve ever encountered is you.”

“Same here,” he said.

The Stranger was very tall and dressed in an expensive black tracksuit. He wore thin black gloves with touchscreen fingertips and the hood of his shell was zipped. His paper mask was black. He looked like sinister origami. His eye contact was very intense.

“If I ran with you, would you slow me down?” he asked.

“You would slow me down,” she answered.

He turned, as if to canvas for witnesses. She wanted him to look back at her. His eyes drank at hers. His gaze was addicting.

“We’ll meet here at two tomorrow,” he said, finally.



He nodded and took off towards Kappock Street without waiting for her consent.

The next night, Julia hiked to Half-Moon Overlook by 2:06 am. She could guarantee that he would point out how tardy she was upon her arrival if he hadn’t already started running without her. She could tell he was the kind of man who felt his time was more precious than other people’s.

“You’re late,” he announced, in lieu of good evening.

“Does that make you feel good? Telling me I’m late?”

“I get my kicks where I can these days. Can you blame me?”

She shook her head and stretched her hamstrings.

They went north. They fell into lockstep too easily. Julia couldn’t tell if The Stranger was slowing down for her, or if she was running faster to keep his pace, or if their strides were naturally, perfectly matched. She’d only ever run alone before—she wasn’t an athlete, she only took it up as a hobby after she was laid-off—but she assumed that it wasn’t always this familiar, running alongside a stranger. Like just deciding to be in sync was enough to make it so. Their footfalls sounded like an even pulse.

And every night, they went further and further. Wordlessly, they pushed beyond city limits, into Ludlow. They cradled the Hudson, running along the vacant maintenance routes lacing the train tracks. They passed the compact campus of The College of Mount Saint Vincent, the Westchester Wastewater Treatment Plant, the distant silhouette of the Yonkers station, the Domino Sugar factory. And then they would silently agree that they might’ve gone too far and turn back, always socially distanced, always immaculately in-step.

Sometimes he would pry on the return treks:

“What do you do?” he asked her.

“I’m unemployed,” she said.

“Obviously. But what about before this?”

“I worked in fragrance at luxury department stores.”

“That sounds incredibly important.”

“Of course it was. It was incredible because it was unimportant. Wouldn’t you get a kick out of things becoming a little less important right now?”


“I know too much about perfume. About notes and accords and what is rare and what is masculine… But scents are a lot like wine. Most clients know absolutely nothing about the nuances. So you have to tell a story. Describe an imaginary vibe. It’s like selling timeshares to outer space.”

“I bet you would be good at that.”

“I was the best. But Barney’s closed way before things completely shut down. So now I’m the best at being unemployed.”

“You’re a talented young woman,” he said.

And then they had running to bridge the broad pauses that followed these moments, and so nothing was ever awkward.

They sat together on the bench at the park where they met after they wrapped up. They listened to frogs croak and all the other new, unbelievable New York sounds.

The Stranger didn’t tell her not to try any prying herself, but she knew intuitively to avoid the topic of his own identity. Meanwhile, she went from gradually dropping details about the extremities of her life to actively unburdening her sorrows every night. He was a good listener. He would stop her from re-explaining sidebars, because he remembered them all. He never made her feel like she was too much. She told him how angry she was at her mother for derailing her life, and he never guilt tripped her about the shitty morals of that shitty feeling. He told her she was doing such a good job which, somehow, no one else in her family had remembered to do.

She liked looking at The Stranger when neither of them were speaking. She wondered if the spaces between their sentences would sound stilted if someone random overheard. Personally, she relished these long, telepathic pauses, in which the answer to everything was yes, in which nobody talked just to hear themselves make noise. He only asked what she was thinking when he truly meant it, never for the sake of filling a silence.

“What are you thinking?” he asked her as she toyed with a two-foot branch between her ankles, like she was kindling her calves.

“My grandpa tells all these epic stories about getting disciplined in the South growing up,” she began. “And some of those stories are just slightly whimsical abuse. Not worth remembering. But the one he tells the most is about looking for switches. When he fucked up, his mother would send him out back behind their house to find a switch for himself. Which is incredible. It’s like another act of torture on top of the whipping itself. Like picking between the electric chair and a firing squad… A decision that only compounds the punishment…”

“And what makes a good switch?”

“Well for starters… This one wouldn’t work at all. It’s too thin. If you picked yourself a switch like this, and it broke, you had to go find yourself another one.”

“And if you chose something too thick…”

“The beatings would just last forever, yeah.” She kicked her thin stick under the bench.

The Stranger stood up and walked to the edge of the overlook by the railings. He wrestled his hands in the brush and yanked out a smooth, pale branch with a broom of twigs like a petrified root. He twirled it in a baton grip.

“Would this make a good switch?” he asked her.

“I… imagine the ends would hurt a lot.”

“I imagine they would.” His branch twisted and blurred.

“What would you want me to do with this switch?” The Stranger said.

When did his voice become so… Hypnotic? When did his tone get so syrupy and obvious?

She bent over the bench, peeled back her leggings, and exposed her ass.

She waited there, face down, ass up, long enough to wonder if she misheard him. That would be very embarrassing.

But then the switch began to make wheezing, weak whistles as it mapped the cool air. Hissing into the night. Drawing louder and closer.

He connected. The pain of the stick was so sharp that it sucked all the sound out of the City. The brisk of the breeze burned where he hit her. He trailed the twigs across her raw cheeks and they blistered and stung.

He hit her again. And again. She couldn’t tell if she was beginning to bleed, or if her cunt was soaking wet. She couldn’t think. She was the opposite of dissociated. And the instrument of her back stretched so graceful and aquiline, and her forearms sat so poised on the bench slats. She could’ve been deeply relaxed into a saucy asana, or preening as a cat.

The Stranger stopped striking her when the switch splintered out. He stroked her buttocks. His gloves made him feel like an astronaut.

He pushed his thumb and forefinger inside of her and stretched open her cunt. She was so wet. She gushed on her thighs. She felt the fibers of her athleisure ripple, damp. He bent his fingers and massaged her pubic bone. Her pussy made humiliating, sopping sounds as he brought her closer and closer. When her muscles squeezed around him, he used his free hand to smother her face. She belched and moaned into his palm, her damp mask crushed inside her mouth, her orgasm ebbing forever. Then he rolled on a condom and shoved his cock inside her. His dick was so much heavier and harder than his fingers. She felt like he was ripping her open. She sucked the touch-screen tips of his gloves and came again. He pulled out and spilled semen all down her back and her butt and the bunch of her leggings. Then he stood back and brushed himself off.

He didn’t remove his cunt stunk glove. He kept it on while she righted herself, restored her breathing. He handed her a useless, six-inch antiseptic wipe, the kind that comes with a seafood tower. She mopped off a white stain crusting the inside of her thigh. She couldn’t tell how well she’d cleaned it off in the dark. He watched her and waited for her. But once she stood up to stretch, he said:

“That was too close.”

And The Stranger left, just like that. And she didn’t know where he lived, or if Kappock Street was even headed in the correct direction.

And he never returned to Half-Moon Overlook to run late and far with Julia. She would know. Even though she didn’t want to be that girl, she couldn’t help getting there at 1:58 and waiting for at least a few minutes every night.


It was a relief once the chemo stopped working. The oncologist barely sounded like he was pretending to try anymore.

“There are clinical trials…” he began.

“Fuck that,” said her mother, “they can mess with my organs after I’m dead.”

On the car ride home, she beamed and beamed.

“It’ll be nice. I’ll finally feel better once I’m not poisoning myself twice a goddamned week.”

“For a while,” said Julia.

“For a while,” said her mother. “How wonderful.”

This new liminal space felt as if they sat on a swirling game show wheel that could stop on the worst prize wedge any minute. An indefinite good day that couldn’t last forever. While the vibes were still decent, they packed up a few suitcases and hit the road, headed for the desert.

They wore black velvet at White Sands and took double-exposure polaroids of their shadows twisting in the wind.

They collected milagros and turquoise rings and gaucho hats in Santa Fe, ate polenta and pancakes for lunch at Cafe Pasqual’s, and fed fires all night at their adobe apartment rental. They prayed at Loretto Chapel below the miracle staircase and left pastel plastic rosaries winding the tree outside. They commandeered a folded wheelchair at the O’Keeffe museum and forced open the crowd in front of every painting for fun.

In Sedona, they had their auras photographed. Julia’s was red and pink and impenetrable, because she was horny and distracted. Her mother’s was clear, with indigo and citrine spirals framing her crown chakra, because she was probably holy and definitively dying.

The week before Halloween, they returned to Riverdale. They decided to be genies to camouflage their N-95s in satin and chiffon. They put tin lamps with tealights on their stoop instead of jack-o-lanterns, filled candy bowls with chocolate gelt and plastic jewelry, lined the front door with dry ice so it leaked genie smoke, and screwed purple acrylic bulbs into the foyer fixtures so their windows glowed like a wish. They bumped Constance Demby too loud on the stereo.

Julia and her mother got super stoned and sat on the front steps awaiting trick-or-treaters. The streets teemed with children who barely remembered a world before the pandemic. Julia wondered if crowds made them anxious, or if kids just naturally adapted to radical changes. Parents stood at the edge of the sidewalk watching their children bask the neighbors in sloppy, outer-borough costumes and sloppy, outer-borough manners. Occasionally, a fourteen year old would sneak up the steps with an empty pillowcase and a pathetic Jason mask, and her mother would slip them a dollar after clucking with pretend genie disapproval.

At six, The Stranger showed up, with his wife and his daughters. He looked so familiar, even without a mask or a costume. Julia would’ve recognized that stare anywhere. His dull platinum band shone on his bare left hand. He chortled and shooed his kids towards the front door.

Julia pulled her veil over her mouth and whispered that they’d run out of candy again already. She shimmied back inside the house, her anklets singing, her breathing queasy. She wanted more weed, or a bar of Xanax.

Her mother greeted The Stranger’s littlest girl through the muffled screen door.

“So you’re a ballerina? Twirl for me!”

His daughter giggled, twirled.

Julia wished she could tell him how happy he’d made her. The Stranger had made her so, so happy. But telling him so would be selfish of her. And she needed to believe she wasn’t selfish now more than ever.

Liana Mack


Liana Mack was born and raised in The Bronx, New York. Her work has been featured in The Cut (New York Magazine), SARKA, and Dream Boy Book Club, among others. She lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for now. +

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Say you and your wife wanted to have a baby, but it didn’t work out. Say: long story. Say you tried for years. Say you both saw specialists to determine your fertility and the results were opaque. Say a plethora of further tests indicated that you were, for all functional purposes, sterile. Say you didn’t tell your wife. Say you felt shame. Say you never said it, but proceeded as though it was she, and not you, who was sterile. Say lie of omission. Say she received treatment to improve her chances at conception.

Say: still no child.

Say she returned to a specialist, who ran tests and determined the treatment was a success, and if conception was still a struggle, her husband likely had sterility issues.

Say it all blew up.

Say she had quick eyes and a sharp bob and was good at laughing. Say she was smart and funny, but was shocked you could do something so selfish and shitty. Say she used the phrase “were even capable of that.” Say shouting, tears. Say pleading.

Say she left.

Say you can still remember the smell of lavender in the doorway right before she closed the door for the final time.

Say you work at Radio Shack, stocking shelves with shitty Sony earbuds and oversized tablets. Say you are a decade older than your coworkers Jared, Michael, and Jenny, who are barely out of high school, who possess tight pants and middle-parted hair and perfect teeth.

Say you’re at least five years older than your boss Terrance, who has fuzzy blond hair and a way of hunching, and carries with him the faint odour of celery. Say you stand there, staring at your shadowy reflection in the TVs until someone lays a phone charger on the check-out desk and you ring it up. Say, in your loose polo and scuffed dress shoes and perpetually slack expression, you’re like a ghost haunting the store, but you haven’t died yet.

Say you’re wiping greasy fingerprints off a display tablet with a black microfibre cloth and Jenny turns her crisp, blue eyes to you and your eyes meet for a second. Say what she sees is enough for her to mutter “Jesus” from the till.

Say you go home extra desperate to contrive even a mote of meaning in your ashen life. Say you walk into your small, windowless office and pull up the lid on your scratched, Acer laptop, and open a new document. Say you don’t write anything that night. Say you only title it. Say you title it “Baby.”

Say you think about that blank page as you eat oatmeal mixed with peanut butter, ring up a boxy, Nokia phone for an elderly woman with sapphire earrings and floury makeup, and eat chicken strips in the McDonald’s parking lot. Say it doesn’t feel like a portal into another world, but more like an opportunity to revise this one, to set the story straight. Say, when you get home, you write your first sentence.

Today, my baby was born.

Say the next day at Radio Shack you don’t mind staring at the black Panasonic flatscreen all day, and say you catch Jared and Michael gesturing at your unkempt hair. Say three separate customers demand refunds without receipts, and say one of them isn’t even sure he bought his headphones at Radio Shack. Say all three size you up and make borderline comments about you. Say they say, “What could you know?” and ask for your manager.

Say you don’t mind. Say you are thinking of sentences to write in the document at home.

Say as soon as you get home, you write, I name my baby Todd. Todd has wide green eyes and a face shaped like a frog’s. Todd the Frog cries a lot and smells like summer and salt and milk and his skin is so soft and squishy. I run my hand over his head and he squints a little, the way you might squint at an insect before you remember its name.

Say you keep writing in the document called “Baby,” and each day you spend a little longer in front of it, describing his movements in a brown crib, or the strings of brown hair sprouting from his head, or the rich smell of his poops, or the way he flings his legs around when you try to change him.

Say you wake up needing to pee, but instead walk to your computer and open the document to describe Todd the Frog crying in the crib. Say you write, I pick up Todd the Frog as he screams and rock him back and forth, his tiny football body, and his eyes are wide and angry, but I keep rocking him, back and forth, my lovely little son, and soon enough they are inching shut, and then are closed and he is softly wheezing in my arms, my little Todd the Frog.

Say you spend most of a year in front of your laptop, writing in that document. Say you write sentences like, Todd the Frog’s brown hair is getting longer and Todd the Frog has hands that reach for things and a body that wants to wiggle and Todd the Frog is making more expressions, like crumpling his eyebrows and frowning and I have begun feeding Todd the Frog pumpkin baby food and he squirms and coos like a little baby bird boy.

Say after a year, Todd the Frog is a year old. Say you wake up in the middle of the night and walk to your computer. Say you describe feeding him and changing him and picking him up just to feel his soft skin against yours. Say after work you tap at the laptop’s keyboard to describe how he looks during naps, the soft exhalation of his breath when he sleeps, how he tosses legos during playtime, how you had to hide the legos because he kept trying to put the blue two-banger in his mouth. Say that was your fault.

Say you’re vacant at work. Say you don’t notice Terrance’s celery smell. Say you don’t notice when Jared, Michael, and Jenny quit. Say Terrance scolds you sometimes, about not being friendly enough, about not taking enough initiative, but you can barely hear him. Say your new, young coworkers with stringy hair and chains around their necks and gleaming teeth snicker at you, but you don’t care. Say your pride doesn’t mean anything to you. Say Todd the Frog is the only thing that does, and say you need to keep him safe, fed, warm.

Say you say, “Okay, will do,” to Terrance, and get back to work, dusting shelves and screens and staring into space, and say, as soon as you return home, you write, I lift Todd the Frog from his crib and he smiles big and his eyes go wide because he’s so happy to see me and I twirl him around the room and he laughs his huge, squeaky laugh.

Say five years pass. Say you’ve written, Todd the Frog takes his first shaky steps on the laminate kitchen floor before leaning forward too far and falling and I catch his plunging body and I think he looks like a two-legged deer with a frog’s cute face and Todd the Frog opens his little lips and mumbles “Dada” and Todd the Frog has taken an almost unnatural interest in cheddar cheese.

Say today you write, I walk Todd the Frog to the door, his little body weighed down by his bulky green backpack. He stamps his feet into his Velcro Batman shoes and they light up. He turns to me. He looks just as he looked when I told him about bees—how they are harmless but will sting if threatened. I lean down to Todd the Frog and say, “You’ll do great son. You have nothing to worry about,” and wrap him up in a big hug. He smells like waffles and apple juice.

He looks up to me and says, “Thanks dad,” and I walk him to the bus. He presses his face to the window. He’s wearing a wobbly smile. The bus drives away.

Say you drive to work and the world looks like you’re seeing it from a moving train. Say you run a red and hear honking horns and wobble your head. Say work is a blur of time and image and person. Say Terrance’s face looks like putty. Say his words sound underwater. Say you nod at him. Say you dispense with most social interactions with nodding. Say you’re not speaking so much anymore. Say you’re nodding and shelving indeterminate rectangular objects and wiping screens and tapping buttons on the till computer’s keyboard. Say life is sort of happening behind a scrim.

Say your shift ends and you drive home and your real life begins.

Say the document is twelve years old. Say Todd the Frog is also twelve years old. Say you write, Todd the Frog brings a friend over after school. His friend is named Micah and he has blond hair and black vans and slim blue jeans he’s rolled up to his ankles. The boy says, “Sup?” and extends his fist to me. I realize I have to bump it, so I do.

“Come in, come in you two. Welcome here, Micah,” I say. “I usually feed Todd the Frog a snack after school.”

“Dad,” he says.

“Sorry: Todd,” I say. “He likes apples with cheddar cheese and orange juice to drink.”

Todd looks at Micah, who’s inspecting his jeans. “Not hungry myself, but whatever you want, T.”


Todd is handsome, but I could never tell him that: he’s inherited his mother’s green eyes, and his brown hair waterfalls everywhere, in front of his eyes and over his ears, but even so, it looks good.

“Not hungry today, dad,” he tells me, and the two retreat to his bedroom, where I hear them laughing as they play something on his PlayStation.

When they emerge from his room hours later, Todd’s eyes are rimmed with red. He asks, “Can I go to Micah’s for a sleepover? Micah’s dad has a new computer that projects to their TV and Micah wants to show me.”

I try to smile. I say, “Okay son,” and watch him gather some clothes, stamp on his shoes, and walk out the door.

Say you close the computer and look around your small, dark office.

Say you wish you saw Todd the Frog more. Say the fact that you don’t is a testament to how well you raised him. Say you were never popular, but Todd is.

Say you write, Todd returns from school and closes the door behind him, steps out of his shoes, drops his athletic sidebag and his backpack. He looks almost like a man. His limbs are long and wiry. His face is soft and I can almost see his features stretching.

“Hi son,” I say.

“Hi dad,” he says. His voice is lower each day. Its current register reminds me of a muffler.

“How was school?”


“And practice?”


He walks by me. His face is red and his forehead is crusted with sweat. His brown hair swoops across his face and he smells savoury. It is 7pm and I am cutting up some sausages to boil to go with the macaroni I’m baking. “Supper?”

“Not really hungry,” he says and walks past me, goes to his room, closes the door.

I slide the sausage into the boiling pot, walk to his room, knock.

“What?” he calls out.

“Open up for a sec?”

He sighs loudly, takes some thundering steps, opens it. His green eyes are squinted and his mouth is pressed into a tight frown.

“I’m always here for you,” I say. “That’s all I wanted to say.”

As I’m walking back to the kitchen, he mutters something.

“What?” I say.

“Coach put me with the backups in basketball,” he says. “I have this wicked jumpshot and this nasty handle and my basketball IQ dad, my IQ.” He taps his temple. “And here I am running with the backups so Trevor Galloway can shoot airballs and flop around the court.”

I supress a smile.

“But can you work?” I say. “Can you handle adversity? A coach needs to know those things.”

He almost rolls his eyes.

“Look at me,” I say. “You know my jumpshot. You’ve seen me dribble. How much did I play?” I shape my fingers into a zero and hold it up to him. “Because I took deep threes and threw passes off the backboard in practice and when coach didn’t play me, I whined until I quit.”

He looks up, his eyes wide. “You quit?”

I lower my voice. “I quit. It’s a regret, but I quit. So don’t make the same mistakes. Learn from me. Show him you can persevere, show him you can work.”

He brightens a little, eyebrows go up a bit.

I turn and am about to close the door when I hear him whisper, “Thanks dad,” and then, “I’ll be out to eat in a minute.”

Say time is moving too quick. Say you wish you could go back to when Todd was Todd the Frog with skin that smelled like milk and sugar and summer, when wonder lived in his eyes and he hugged you whenever he came home from school. Say he is seventeen years old and a senior at high school. Say the document is seventeen years old, too. Say you save it to a thumb drive and the cloud.

Say you still work at Radio Shack, but don’t really notice. Say you return from work and open your laptop and write, Todd has been talking about college, his future.

I am cleaning his room, straightening his hoops-and-basketballs covers, folding them loosely over his bed, dusting the black desk he never uses anymore. I draw his curtains, feel the light rushing in.

I open his drawer and find love letters signed by someone named Marianne. They say things like “lovebug” and “sugarplum.” I put them back where I found them and just as I leave his room the front door opens, slams shut. “Hi dad,” Todd calls out.

“Hi son,” I say and walk to the entrance. He’s standing there in his backpack, his slim navy jeans, his crisp parted hair, his long face and strong chin and smart eyes. He smells like melons and pine, and I can’t help myself: I hug him. I wrap him in my arms and whisper, “I’m so proud of you,” and he lets me hug him.

“Thank you,” he says and pats my shoulders.

“I just love you so much.”

He smiles and squints and looks like he might want to walk away but he doesn’t. “Dad?” he says.


“I love you too.” He half turns, but then stops and says, “Dad?”


He folds his arms, closes his eyes, faces the ground. “What was mom like?”

My heart sinks and I inhale deeply and he was always going to ask this. “She was funny,” I say. “She was so funny and so kind. She was smart, too, like you. Not like me.” He smiles a bit and I wonder if that would suffice for now, but his eyes are open again, and he’s looking at me carefully. His body is titled forward a little.

“You know, this one time, right around when we first met, I asked her if she wanted to stargaze with me—it was October and already cold and we brought all these blankets to a field just outside of town. After we’d nestled ourselves into them, we stared into the sky for a while, not saying anything, and I closed my eyes for a second. Right then, out of nowhere, I felt something against my face, and there she is, with a stalk of wheat in her hand, poking my face, smiling so big. Stick acupuncture, she said. I said, excuse me, I was enjoying these stars, all the constellations, and she turned to look up at them. She said, You know, isn’t it beautiful how they only connect in our eyes? And I said, What? And she said, The stars are just stars, but for whatever reason, people can’t help but make constellations out of them—to create something that isn’t really there.

“For a while we sat, staring at the stars.

“Then we kissed.”

I think he might laugh, but he doesn’t. His eyebrows aren’t sure what to do. He isn’t smiling or frowning. “That’s a beautiful story, dad.”

I think he might ask where she is now, what happened to her, why it didn’t work between us, but he doesn’t. He just says, “I love you dad,” and walks off.

What if time just keeps moving. What if you sometimes ironically call Todd Todd the Frog and he doesn’t mind because he is a man now. What if you write about Todd tossing his cap in the air and graduating with a 4.0. What if that helped earn him a full ride athletic scholarship to Queens, out east. What if you are happy for him, but sad too.

What if you write, Todd is standing at our doorway, soon to be my doorway, wearing the silly mustache he’s trying to grow, surrounded by his hulking, black backpack and vintage tan suitcase and athletic sidebag.

I say, “Well.”

And he says, “Well.”

And I say, “I love you I love you I love you I love you.”

And he says, “I love you, too, dad,” and buries his chin into my shoulder and gives me the longest hug.

We drag his stuff to the Uber he has insisted on taking to the airport and toss it into the trunk, slam it down. “Call me when you get there,” I say. I hug him again, one last time, and kiss his cheek.

“Of course,” he says. “Thanks for everything, dad.”

I nod as he stoops and slides into the car, closes the Uber’s door, and I watch him, his handsome face pressed to the window as the Uber carries him off.

What if you stare at the document, the words, the blinking cursor. What if you think about writing more about Todd the Frog, but you know he needs some space, some independence. What if, what now?

What if you and Todd the Frog can still talk on the phone. What if you write, I call my son, Todd.

“Hi dad,” Todd says.

“Hi son,” I say. “It’s good to hear your voice.” And it is: Todd’s has reached a resonance and confidence mine never has, never will. It’s a voice that reminds me of coffee, or whiskey, or sunsets. I can melt right into it. “How’ve you been?”

“Yours too,” he says. “I’ve been—” He covers the phone, but I can still hear him murmuring, “No, no, it’s my dad. I’ll be there in a bit, but yeah, just start it without me and I’ll catch up.” He directs his voice into the phone. “What’s up?”

“Who was that?” I say.

“Who was who?”

“Oh come on.”

He laughs. “I’m kidding. That was Annabelle.”

“Annabelle,” I say. “So Annabelle is how you’ve been.”

“I guess you could say that.” I can tell he’s smiling. “We’ve been seeing each other for a few months now.”

“A few months,” I say. “My Todd the Frog has a girlfriend and he doesn’t tell his old man.”

“I’m twenty-two, dad,” he says. “I’ve had many girlfriends, so many, too many to report back on.” I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, and I wonder if he’s saying it so Annabelle can laugh at him.

“But Annabelle?”

“I mean it’s early,” he says, “but I really like her. She’s…well she’s really funny, dad, and very smart and very kind. She’s a nurse.”

“She’s out of school then?”

“Has been a couple years,” he says.

“That’s great,” I say. “And school for you?”

“Just this semester and the next,” he says. “And then I’m done. I’ve already been looking for jobs. City planning, immigration, family services. I’ve been looking at it all.”

“Those sound like great jobs son,” I say. I know he’s nodding on the other end, contemplative, modest. “I’m so proud of you. Sounds like you’ll land on your feet.”

“I think so.”

Before he can ask me how I am, what’s new with me, I say, “Well I don’t want to keep you from Annabelle, so I’ll let you go, but always good to hear your voice.”

“Yours, too, dad,” he says. “We’ll catch up more soon.”

“Sure,” I say. “Love you son.”

“Love you too.”

What if you write, Todd calls me. He says, “I’m coming home, dad, with Annabelle.”

“You are?”

“I was offered a job,” he says. “And I want to be near to you.”

What if you write, Todd is back today, or he should be. I’m looking out the window, at the orioles flying past it, the elms sprouting across the street, the clouds passing overhead, the blueness of the sky.

He said he’d be here by the afternoon at the latest.

And there he is: his blue Subaru turning onto my street, and then, as it approaches, his face and body inside the car, next to a beautiful woman, and his arms, they’re waving at me, and his smile is huge and he looks so happy, and he is home.

“Hi dad,” he says when I meet him outside. I wrap my arms around his full-grown body, sinewy and slim and strong. His face has aged, but gracefully. His hair is light brown and alive in the sun and he has a thick, neat beard. He smells like pears and dusk.

“I’ve missed you so much,” I say.

He nods as we hug, his chin planted in my shoulder, and we stay like that for a lifetime. Finally, he lets me go and I turn to Annabelle, who has silky hair and a sharp nose and a blue and white t-shirt. She is grinning. “Annabelle,” she says. Her eyes are light, but exacting. “So good to finally meet you. Todd talks about you all the time—how great a father you are.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you, too,” I say.

What if Todd is an adult man who still loves to see his father every day. What if he finds a house down the block from you and your door is always open to him and his is to you.

What if Annabelle is great. What if she is funny and smart and so caring. What if you tell them they are great together, and what if you respectfully add that one day they would make great parents. What if they take that encouragement the right way. What if their eyes go a bit big and then very small with serious consideration.

What if you describe Todd’s life, his success as a city planner, his wedding with Annabelle in the Okanogan, where amidst his friends you describe Micah wearing a slim tie and a thick mustache, and what if the wedding is so full of laughter and love, and the photographer says he’s never heard a father’s speech as beautiful as yours—that he’s heard others that were funnier or smarter, but none as beautiful. What if you write about golfing with Todd and counselling him when he needs advice with Annabelle, and cook steaks out back, where the smoke rises into the cool night air and the steaks are so thick and when you cut into them, they spill red juice. What if some nights you do not even need to speak. What if it is enough to share space.

What if the document is thirty-two years old. What if Todd is thirty-two years old.

What if you write, “I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Todd says. Grey hair has begun to infiltrate his head, but it somehow makes him look younger, even more handsome. We are drinking beers in his backyard. His house is a green character home with brown trim. The sun has just set and the sky is melting into purple and pink. “About having kids,” he adds. “About being parents.”

“You are?” I say. I try to look surprised. “And?”

He cracks a smile, takes another sip.

“Maybe you’ve been doing more than think about it.”

“God, dad,” he says and puts his head in his hands and laughs.

“Am I wrong?”

“How’d you know?”

“How could I not?” I say. “I’m your dad.”

“She’s three months,” he says. “I wanted to tell you, but you’re not supposed to tell anyone in case—”

“I understand,” I say, my voice light as air.

He smiles a bit, looks my way.

“Congratulations,” I say. “Congratulations son. I’m so proud of you. My Todd the Frog is going to be a father.”

The first stars start to poke through the evening ether. We watch them, father and son, and wait for what’s to come.

“They only connect in our eyes,” he says. “But they’re still so beautiful.”

What if the months pass as a blur. What if you write about your life with Todd and pregnant Annabelle. What if Todd is excited and nervous. What if he doesn’t say this, but you can tell because his eyebrows have remained furrowed for the past six months.

What if you think Todd is the greatest but look at Annabelle drinking a lemon spritzer with this coy look in her eyes and think, He is so lucky. What if you are tempted to write that she looks like your wife once did, or at least as you remember her looking, but what if—

What if: no.

What if: it hurts too much.

What if you write, Today is the day. Todd is at my place with Annabelle, who is wearing grey sweatpants and a loose t-shirt.

“Are you sure you want to have the baby here?” I ask.

Todd scoffs and is about to speak, but Annabelle cuts him off. “You’ve just been such a big part of our lives and it’s like…this baby will be yours as much as ours and Todd and I have always wanted a home birth and your house, if I can say, is like a home to us.”

A rush of warmth settles all around me. I think I might cry. “But we could still do it at your house,” I say.

“Dad,” Todd the Frog says. “We’ve decided. We want to do it here.”

“Okay,” I say. “Okay.”

And they smile, these children of mine, my family.

What if you write, Annabelle is beginning to have contractions and I don’t feel right being there, watching the birth. The doula has come over and entered the bathroom and I’ve stepped out.

“You can stay, please stay if you want,” Todd says but I hug him big and say that some things should remain between husband and wife.

“And doula,” he adds.

I pat Todd on the shoulder and walk to my office, sit in my chair, put my head in my hands. I say, “Please please please” as I hear Annabelle breathing hard and then raising her voice. The doula is saying, “That’s it, that it,” and “Let the waves pass over you.”

I murmur, “Please please please,” and then Annabelle is fully screaming.

She is screaming, “Ahh!” and grunting and Todd says, “You’re doing so good,” and the doula is saying, “Push! Push! Push!” and I scream, “Push push push!” through the wall.

Annabelle unleashes a howling screech.

“Ahhhh!” she screeches. “Ahhh!” and the doula is yelling, “That’s it! Push! Push! Push!” and Todd is screaming, “Keep pushing Annabelle!” and Annabelle screams, “Ahhh!” as loud as she can and it hurts my ears through the thin walls and Todd is also screaming, “Ahhh!” and so is the doula and so am I. We are all screaming, “Ahhh!” and then, just as suddenly, only I am screaming, so I stop.

It is quiet, calm.

I can hear someone say, “Come in here, dad. Come in here right now. Meet your grand—

What if you want to keep writing, but the screen is blurry behind a sheet of your tears.

What if you close your laptop and let all these tears fall, one after another. What if you sit in your office, your head in your hands, tears in your eyes, but what if, in the middle of heaving sobs: what is that?

What if you stand up, close your eyes to concentrate. What if you step out of your office and walk toward your bathroom. What if you press your ear to the white, bathroom door, and close your eyes again.

What if, for a moment, there is the purest silence you’ve ever known, and what if you lift your ear from the door and are about to return to your office, but what if you think you hear something. What if you press your ear to the door again, listen.

What if: of course.

What if, right then, with your ear pressed to the bathroom door, you know what the sound is. What if it is the sweetest, most hopeful sound the world has ever known.

What if it is a baby crying.

Josiah Nelson


Josiah Nelson is an MFA in writing student at the University of Saskatchewan. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Existere, Vast Chasm, Queen's Quarterly, and Fractured Lit, among others. He is currently working on a collection of fabulist short stories. He lives in Saskatoon.

paper texture

My uncle Toby is an asshole, but only because he died how he did. I’d be an asshole too if I got clipped by a truck while I was on my bike.

Currently, he’s in my backseat. It’s winter break now, and I’m driving home from college to spend the holidays with my parents.

“Must be nice,” Toby says. “All I’m saying, bro.”

Must be nice, must be nice. It’s his favorite phrase. I wonder if it’s nice to have gone spectral. If unlimited access to the universe and its secrets is nice.

“The least you could do is keep it clean,” he chides, for this SUV I’m driving was his before they rescinded his license and threw him in jail. I was 16 then. He was 41.

“I’m busy,” I remind him.

“Must be nice,” he says, “to be busy.”

I did suppose I was crazy. To wake up to him in my dorm room, sitting on the desk of the roommate I did have before he grew tired of our arrangement and requested a transfer.

I asked Jorie, my therapist on BetterHelp, if this was it. There’s a history of schizophrenia in my family, and I’m aware it often presents once men have hit their 20s.

“You’re probably tired,” she thought. “Overexerted. It’s almost finals, right?”

Right. And yes, probably. Maybe it’s that I’m autistic. Maybe it’s the stress of not having a major picked out yet. Maybe dogs can hear sounds humans can’t, and my neurology grants me audience with ghosts.

Like me, my uncle attended the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He graduated magna cum laude and got into graduate school in Nebraska, which he hated and almost immediately left.

“Your Uncle Toby, if I recall,” Jorie had concluded, “lived a complicated life. And sometimes the complications of the past push their way into the present. If your brain’s telling you something, certainly listen. But brains don’t generally deal in truths, Evan, and you of all people know that.”

Well said, Jorie. You lovely person.

At home, Toby glares at his brother, my dad, who’s grinning because the Packers are losing. He’s less a Bears fan than a hater of Green Bay. Mom is on Facebook on her iPad, to pass the time until whatever’s in the oven is done.

Over dinner, we have beers and chat. Toby is scowling. Mom asks about my grades, while Dad inquires about the shape of the coming offseason.

“Must be nice,” suggests Toby, when the night’s through and at last I’m in my room. “A few beers with the folks, when you don’t even like alcohol.”

“I am listening but not believing,” I repeat to myself.

“How good can your therapist be if your day-to-day is full of lies?”

“Very,” I assure him. “I love Jorie.”

“Must be nice,” he drones, “to love the psych.”

He’s not wrong about this. I am very lucky. Toby is undoubtedly autistic too, but when it counted nobody recognized it. He was schizophrenic, then bipolar, then borderline, then bipolar again. Up to his ears in pills unsuited to his brain chemistry and prescribed to him by experts.

“No, it’s fine,” he’s saying. “Go ahead and sleep. You’ve had a long day, haven’t you? I’ll just sit here in the dark and do nothing until morning.”

When I dream, it’s of fishing with him as a kid. He was masterful at it. He was the one who taught me that fish can see colors humans can’t. On the river, he said, we must hide in plain sight.

The auties call this masking. Asshole or not, he’s right about me hating alcohol.

The next day, Mom and Dad want to throw axes at that new place downtown. A significant portion of my current life is built around throwing stuff, so I’m not opposed.

On the second floor is a rage room, which catches Toby’s eye.

“Go in there,” he says.

“No thanks.”

“Go in there with me and break my bones with the hammer.”

“But I have no rage,” I point out, thereby triggering the old record. Must be nice, must be nice.

I get it, but it’s not like I’m immune to stress. My universe is not without its angry secrets.

“Pussy,” he calls me. “All I wanted was to feel alive again, bro.”

I haven’t told my friend Nate about him yet, but tonight I do. I have to frame it carefully and ultimately settle on: I’m not crazy or anything, but I am seeing my uncle wherever I go.

“The conservative?” he writes back.

“The alcoholic.”

We are all more than any single word can capture, but at some point you just have to keep the conversation moving.

“What do you think his unfinished business is?” Nate asks me.

“To torment me?”

“Have you tried asking him about it? Does he talk or just appear to you?”

God, Nate is smart. He’s sort of an interning trainer for the UW football team, which is how we met originally. A kinesiology major on scholarship to, of all things, play triangle in the orchestra.

“Well,” I say back, and give it a shot. Toby looks at me like I’ve played right into his scheming hands, then waxes poetic on business.

It’s not that I forgot he owned a small farm briefly. It’s that a lot of the memories I have of him don’t seem real anymore. He was always moving and quitting whatever he’d recently begun. Here he was in Wyoming, then Nebraska, then Wyoming again, then Kansas, then New Mexico, then Wyoming, then New Mexico, then Wyoming.

“Maybe if you’d stayed put more,” I start, but quickly stop.

“Please, bro,” Toby squints, “do go on.”

“Maybe if you’d learned to sit with yourself, you wouldn’t have literally crashed and burned.”

“Maybe no one in my generation was talking about sitting with themselves.”

“Maybe no one in my generation is either.”

“We can’t all have it easy, Evan. Little punk.”

Who’s got it easy? Dad, who’s never, ever liked his job? Mom, who struggled her whole life with every anxiety there is? When my ex-roommate, who shall remain nameless, abandoned our room, he did so in stealth-mode, packing up his shit and fleeing when I was in Intro to Astronomy.

Secret of My Universe Number One is that I’ve been considering dropping out recently, for despite all of the accommodations and patience I receive on account of my diagnosis, I still mostly can’t connect with my peers.

“What,” Toby’s saying. “No retort?”

All this acrimony, but more than anything what I feel for him is empathy. Imagine being on Highway 287 that time when the patrolman pulled me over, and I was stimming and laughing out of fear, and to him this meant I was uncooperative and guilty of much more than speeding. Imagine lacking the magic word to cut through the bullshit and avoid the cuffs: “Officer, no, I’m disabled.”

“I’m sorry, Toby,” I find myself sighing. “Goodnight.”

In the morning, I’m once again honest with myself. Yes, the officer let me off with a warning, but not because I’m atypical. In fact, he figured I shouldn’t be driving alone.

No, he called my parents, who told him I’m on the football team.

“No kidding?” he’d said, and leaned forward to inspect me. “What, like a wideout?”


“Go Pokes, champ,” he nodded, before clacking back to his vehicle.

I have got to get my Christmas shopping done today. It is my unfinished business. Mom would like slippers or a white noise machine for their bedroom. On Dad’s list is either an NFL Game Pass subscription, which is too pricey, or the new CJ Box novel, which likely has sold out. I have no idea what to get for Nate, who claims to want nothing, but whom I treasure and so he’ll at least get a card.

“I miss my car,” Toby whines, as we take Outer Drive to the mall. “I miss my motorcycle. I miss McDonald’s. I miss Razor.”

Razor, the white mutt who traipsed around his farm and sniffed the dirt so hard that he bled one time.

“I miss Razor too,” I tell him.

“I miss Target.”

I want to ask Toby if he also misses alcohol, in the way bad things call out to us, but I’m unsure how to phrase it.

“I miss Pepsi.”

We enter through Best Buy because I’m wondering now if Nate would like some credits for the Nintendo eShop. Gift cards aren’t gifts, exactly, but we do game together. We sit in his tiny apartment on 5th Street and play our separate Switches. We’re into Subnautica at the moment and compare the bases we’re constructing in the ocean, his in the Jellyshroom Cave and mine much deeper near the Giant Cove Tree.

“You love this kid, right?” Toby asks me.

“What does that mean?”

“It’s a simple question, Evan.”

“Not how you’re asking it, it isn’t.”

I do love Nate, but the love only feels romantic or sexually motivated when I’m suffering a particular loneliness, or perhaps when I’m panicked about what my future might hold.

“Want to know what a real gift idea is?” Toby says.



I’m thrown only until I realize he’s not talking gifts anymore. Across from the Best Buy is a pet shop, which my uncle has suddenly glimpsed.

We go and have a gander. Dachshunds and terriers, mostly, with a couple of black labs sleeping on one another’s throats. Pet shops make me sad, so to protect myself I text Nate. Eyes on phone, hands engaged in repetitive activity.

“Want a turtle?” I type out.

“Fucking love turtles,” he replies immediately, which tells me two things. One, he’s eating pot gummies in Denver with his family. Two, he’s not actually interested in turtles.

“My nephew,” announces Toby then, to a shop empty of customers, “is too afraid to own up to his burgeoning gay desire.”

“I’m not gay,” I tell him.

“You need help or something?” says the clerk, cautiously.


“I didn’t say you were gay,” Toby argues. “I said you have gay desire.”

“Okay, then I guess that’s true.”

“And you are trapped by it.”

I’m not, but his dead fingers are drumming along a tarantula’s glass.

“Trapped behind the partition, in your own shit, waiting for your day to come.”

“Please don’t scare me in public.”

He claims he’s only saying, but he’s not. He knows full-well that prison is my greatest of all fears. He drops details of his six months in Rawlins whenever, I don’t know, the rancor in him gets to be too much.

At 3am, I’m still not asleep. I am plagued by intrusive thoughts of exposure and abuse. Trembling, I play out conversations between me and the large men who don’t hear what I’m saying.

“So, you want to know my unfinished business,” Toby states, while framing himself by my one window, as though in a dark, dark movie.

“I’ll help you,” I plead. “Just tell me what it is.”

“I never got to play quarterback in the Super Bowl.”

“Is it something with my dad? Should I tell him I think you’re autistic?”

Were,” he corrects me. “And I wasn’t. I was an addict, remember?”

“Only because you were misdiagnosed.”

To this, he snorts: “Youth of the nation, people. So forgiving and insightful. So goodly woke.”

“Do you want me to find Ana?” I ask him.

“Fuck you, kid,” he says.

“I can probably find her.”

“I said fuck you.”

The next morning, out of spite and little else, I ask Dad how often he thinks of his younger brother. Next to us, Toby’s rage is simmering.

“I mean,” Dad stutters, “sometimes? Here and there, sort of unexpectedly.”

“He was autistic, Dad. Not whatever those doctors said.”

“Yeah, possibly.”

“I’m saying definitely,” I insist, as the simmer becomes a boil. “I remember how his eyes looked. How he talked and moved. He got screwed, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, we live with our choices regardless,” he decides abruptly. “You know? Whatever their driving force happens to be.”

Or die with them, I don’t say. Later, I find my phone’s screen mysteriously cracked.

Ana was my uncle’s fiancée at one point, for a brief period after he dropped out of Creighton. I always liked her. She had textured skin and could speak Spanish. She always smiled at me even though I was far too nervous to ever talk to her.

She was at the funeral too, though by then they’d long been broken up. Silently, she hugged me in her black dress. I’m sure Mom is friends with her on Facebook still.

“I swear to God,” Toby says to me. “If you dare.”

Oh, come on, friend, I don’t dare. Jorie says the things we most wish to avoid are usually the things we most need to confront, but who am I to force the hand of a wraith? I am a pleasant nobody.

Christmas comes, Christmas goes, and everyone likes their presents. Mom and Dad gave me snowshoes, and up Casper Mountain we go to try them. The day is beautiful. Toby pisses and moans.

Dad wants to talk football again. Plans. Camps. He’s heard about viral YouTube videos attracting scouts and agents and wants me to showcase my snapping skills, which are not insignificant. Long-snappers are vital underpinnings to the game, no question, and therefore can earn a great living off a single, spiraling motion. Yes, I am proud of this work I do.

All the same, my second Secret of My Universe is that I’m on the fence about pursuing a professional career. It is a violent and demanding sport, although that’s not really the reason. I don’t like wearing helmets. And if I ever did join the NFL, I’d have to live somewhere outside of Wyoming.

Sometimes, when I’m at the bottom of the scrum, beneath a defense intent on blocking our punt, I am reminded of the world’s heaviness. And that I don’t much like being touched.

And yet, who am I, if not the average student who snaps the ball with unparalleled grace and accuracy to the student who boots it? The 15 yards through which the ball sails into his hands are my domain and nobody else’s.

“A failure?” hazards Toby. “A dipshit?”

We are in my room again, aching from the hike.

“A loser?” he says.

Every young person is entitled to their existential crises, I’d say to him, but what would be the use? He’d still not let me have mine.

Once more, I have incensed him. The moon shines through the blinds into his black hair.

“Don’t you fucking see, you fucking dummy,” he’s saying, “that I have no unfinished business? That you’ve stolen me from the Incredible and Unifying Sleep and now I’m stuck here playing lead in your narrative of self-sabotage? If anyone has unfinished business, it’s you, bro. You are balking at love and throwing away a prosperous future, built on an innate gift few will have the fortune of possessing, all in the name of checking your privilege. Let me go, bro. Do not follow in the footsteps of the dropout. Me lacking real opportunity does not mean you should sacrifice yours.”

Nah. But nice try, Toby.


“Why did you hate Nebraska so much?” I finally ask him.

“The smell, mostly.”

I did wonder before if he was here to lead me astray. If I conjured him to trick myself into replicating his patterns of destruction. For what, though? To ensure he did not perish without being seen fully and known to his utter core?

But I am no fool. I am a kid who’s living on his own for the first time and questioning whether this brand of independence is the one I want to pursue long-term.

“All I’m saying,” he goes, “is you could be a rich athlete retired at 35. You feel me?”

“What I could be,” I tell him, “is a cog in the capitalist machine, worked to absolute death for the sake of profit.”

“Are you kidding me with that shit?”


I’m not so naïve that I believe I can escape what America’s institutions are. Even if, somehow, the dream I have of Nate and me building a massively successful, Nintendo-themed YouTube channel came to fruition, we’d still be at the mercy of social media. Our minds destroyed by screens and algorithms and viewer engagement. Still, regarding all facets of life, I am very human and very tired.

It’s at lunch on New Year’s Eve that I confess my secrets to Mom and Dad, who are supportive just like I knew they’d be. We’re eating pho because warm bellies, warm year. Dad’s saying the most important thing is that I do what feels meaningful to me.

“But what would you prefer instead, do you think?” Mom says. “If not this?”

“I’m not sure, honestly.”

“Well,” they say, “of course that’s fine. All we ask is that you don’t be rash about it. Everyone has doubts when they try something new. Just do us a favor and give it another semester at least?”

That seems fair. Must be nice, must be nice, to have folks who are fair.

Say I have a mean streak in me. Say whatever, that I’m obsessive, or desperate for privacy, or that when a thought enters my brain it batters my skull like a woodpecker until it’s released back to the wild. Say I’m unbearably overstimulated from shopping for seltzer and underwear at Wal-Mart and standing in line at Starbucks with Mom, who got flustered at the counter, which only muddled me more. On the drive home, I bring up Ana.

“Sure,” she’s telling me. “Ana. She lives on Indian Paintbrush.”

“What, in Paradise Valley?”

“She walks by our house with her dogs.”

No way. All this time, right here in their neighborhood. I daresay it is a piece of the puzzle locking with gravity into place. Hit the cosmic road, Toby.

“Why?” Mom asks me. “You know she spends most of the winter in New Mexico.”

I did not know that, but nevertheless I have obtained a description of her house. The purple one in the same cul-de-sac the Richards used to live in. Remember? The one house they had on the river, and the boys convinced you to jump off their deck? You pooped your pants, Evan.

Mom and Dad are having wine with dinner tonight. Cheeks rosy, they giggle.

“A big old turd,” they add.

I remember it lacking form, actually, but who am I to poison their fond memory. “That’s right,” I tell them with confidence, “a turd,” then swig my milk.

I remember everything. I remember when Toby balled up a label from a beer bottle and pulled it like a coin from behind my ear. I was seven or eight at the time and scared for weeks that I had a silvery kind of cancer.

I remember catching my first fish with him. A brook trout. I remember us eating it. I remember riding passenger one time and never again on his swaying, screaming motorcycle.

I will remember this expression on his face too, I imagine, as I pedal Dad’s bike to Indian Paintbrush and he sort of ghost-floats beside me.

“Fine,” he’s saying, puckered, “but here’s the plan.”

“Whatever it is, I’m not doing it.”

“You have to break in there and get back my things,” he says. “She stole my things.”

“What things? Your whiskey?” A low blow, that, but I see him stifling the laugh.

I’m breaking in nowhere because I am neither a failure nor a dipshit. I only want to see the house intact and thriving. I must witness the hope that house built. And spiral through the cul-de-sac.

It was sometime after they split, sometime before his second DUI, after maybe his second diagnosis, or whenever it was—he shattered the windows of the duplex she was in back then and ransacked the place while she was working. When they found him, he was passed out in the bathroom, swearing only later that she’d taken his books and now he couldn’t learn anymore. Hence these actions.

What books, no books. The only ones in her house were from the library. A few historical novels and a Sci-Fi epic.

“Listen to me,” my uncle’s saying, “the universe is most expansive and secretive in the hearts of the people you don’t know how to love.”

“Uh huh,” I reply, and begin my third loop past the house.

I return the next day and the one after that. I am invigorated at first, then frustrated, for he is not dissolving or anchoring himself to her driveway. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting from this. Some relief, bare minimum, yet here he is becoming more and more indignant about his things.

“Please,” I beg him. “I’m tired.”

“More tired than an inmate? Try resting in the disgusting, shrieking penitentiary.”

“Please, Toby.”

“With its wandering hands and rotten food.”

Another sleepless night. To my purple heart emoji, Nate sends green. I spend some time in the kelp fields of Subnautica, until I’m eaten alive by a reaper leviathan.

The fourth time I visit Indian Paintbrush, I give in and ask him about the bomb. The bomb. One and only bomb. It’s my last-ditch effort, I guess, as soon I will leave Casper and am not sure I can start another semester with him attached to me.

The day he died, he was cycling as fast as he could away from my grandma’s house in Green River. Somebody, he’d told her, had placed a bomb under his bed. The criminals were very clever about it, however, and thus he could not find it. He fled and turned sharply east, into oncoming traffic.

“Did you hear ticking?” I ask him.

“I always hear ticking. Don’t you always hear ticking?”

Well. In a manner of speaking.

“I shoved her before I left,” he says. “That’s the worst part.”

Needless to say, there was no bomb. The driver of the truck that hit him was determined not to be responsible. That he was heading east means he was pointed somewhat towards Rawlins and somewhat towards Casper, where our house is, his SUV dumped there and stuffed with my shit.

“Does it help to speak about it, though?” I say, hopeful.

“That’s ice, idiot.”

Sure enough. I crash hard into the street. In the middle of the cul-de-sac, I rise embarrassed.

“Does it help to talk about it?” Toby asks me. “The bone bruise you have forming?”

“Shut up, nightmare.”

“Yes,” he says. “I am the nightmare. My trauma is unresolved.”

“Goddamn it.”

But it is not God who damns me. It is flailing like this in public. It is trying to get back home, but my uncle’s juking like he’s going to toss an ice-chunk into the spokes of my wheel. Distracted, I charge forward through an intersection and ram into the front fender of a sedan easing into a left turn.

My face bears the brunt of this impact, as I roll over the hood and crumple onto the ground.

Would you look at that, it’s a cop standing over me.

“You that shifty character stalking the cul-de-sac on IP?” he asks me. “We’ve been getting calls about you.”

“Officer, no, I’m disabled.”

“And that answers my question, how?”

He’s right, it doesn’t. And such a shame too, for direct questions are my favorite.

This man is not patient, it turns out, but nor is he rigid or demeaning, and before long he’s being served coffee in our living room. Mom is detailing the nature of my curious mind, while Dad goes the football route. “I’m a hockey fan,” notes the cop, not without a hint of humor.

“Tell me about it,” Dad says, inexplicably. “The Avalanche?”

In the silence following his useless comment, I am filled with the knowledge that Toby is departed. This is what it takes, perhaps, a blow to the head. I am free and the universe is soundless, I am warmed by the righteous justice, until he emerges from the kitchen with a Pepsi in his hand.

He pops the tab on the soda, an explosion, and like a fan in the nosebleed section I witness the totality of what will happen. A year from now, I will drop out of school. I will work odd-jobs before moving to Colorado with Nate, who will do grad-level work at the University of Denver. I will walk on with the Broncos, where I will earn myself a spot on their practice squad. Then I’ll become a starter. We’ll lose big in the Super Bowl, and I won’t care. I’ll be godfather to Nate’s kids, and it will be beautiful. My life will burst apart with love. I won’t be in Wyoming anymore, but I’ll be close by.

And it’s there that Toby will depart, in the way that a cold shower eventually loses its edge, provided you stand there long enough. In Subnautica, the water is darkest in the middle, and if you have the courage to reach the sea floor, you discover a whole other kind of light. The light of creature and monster.

My uncle will flow monstrously through me, to dissipate into my every tissue, cleansing me of who I thought I was. I will wear number 65 for the sole reason that that’s the year he was born.

The poetry of the future is a distressing tangle that mostly I hate, yet for now at least I don’t mind the ruminating. The cop is gone, and the game is starting. The air is rich with chili, and Mom and Dad are fussing over my chipped teeth and obvious bad sense. There’s a bit of poop in my pants as well, a juicy secret we’re all keeping. His face is stone-blank when I promise I’m okay, but that there’s the wild truth of it.

Tim Raymond


Tim Raymond's work has appeared recently or will appear in Chicago Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Southeast Review, and others. Originally from Wyoming, he now serves coffee in South Korea and posts comics on Instagram at @iamsitting.

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Sun makes flannel of the air so that I struggle towards the backyard like someone caught in a nightmare.

Mother has hidden a teaspoon of Father’s ashes in one of the Easter eggs she’s planted in the grass, and whoever finds the egg will sit at her kitchen table and eat from her banana pudding and look at the pictures of him she keeps locked in her hutch.

Every Easter, we’ve hunted the egg, all seven of my siblings and I, and every Easter I’ve determined to collapse every plastic egg in my fist until I find the ashes which I’ll lose to the soil.

But every year, I’m subdued by my brothers who bind me with old jumping rope to the pear tree until one of them finds the famed egg which I’ve never seen up close but have only heard is lavender with a Luciferian rune painted on the face.

We wait at the fence for Mother to open the gate and let us loose.

My plan hasn’t changed, but every day out of the past 366 (this year was a leap year), I’ve been practicing suicides in this very backyard, getting used to the grass and the soft spots in the soil so I might outrun all of my siblings and snatch up the eggs and carry them in the pocket of my hoodie to the next street over where I can open every single one of them until I find the ashes.

Father knows we play a game with him. His body knows we divide and hunt him, that his diminished flesh tosses within plastic. His body wants to hit the sun then grass and scatter where Mother won’t pick at his flakes anymore.

Mother swings open the metal gate which screeches a wide gesture into the yard, and my toes cramp and my toenails pack with mud as I dig into the wet Earth before lifting the first foot and sprinting into the field of eggs.

Who thought that whatever didn’t contain death could be considered empty?

Courtney Wilber


Courtney Wilber received her MFA in fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2020. Her work can be found in journals such as 3Elements Review, Prairie Margins, Coffin Bell, and others. She resides in North Carolina with her boyfriend and pets.

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