The Undecided by Darren Whitehouse

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The suicide bomber stood next to me on the tube. My day got worse from there.

Maybe my tuxedo represented the worst excesses of Western civilisation and I was therefore a symbolic person to die first. Perhaps he thought I was a rich banker creaming in millions in commissions from the derivatives market. In truth, the tuxedo was hired because I couldn’t afford to buy one and rather than being a coke-snorting London banker, I am (was) an underperforming bed salesman from Crewe.

I would have told him this, had he asked. I would have explained that I was on the way to the Bedlam! annual sales awards, where I planned to down as much free booze as possible whilst ogling Melissa’s (from Accounts Payable) cleavage, before watching Dave, from the Swindon branch, take Salesman of the Year for the fourth year running.

I didn´t tell him because he detonated his bomb fifteen inches from my nuts. I was atomised instantly, along with any chance of getting my gums around Melissa’s boobs. My DNA was smeared across two carriages, several tube maps and, ironically, a poster advertising male wellbeing vitamins.

It doesn’t hurt when you die, at least not in the ´stubbing your toe´ sense. In comparison, being blown up is like a paper cut, at worst.

The best way I can describe it is this: imagine you are a helium balloon, being held by a child. That child is life, always anchoring you but you are always trying to fly away, curious and ever pulling upward. Now, imagine the child lets go and you are no longer tethered. That feeling of acceleration is immense as a new sense of freedom courses through your body. You can see more than you’ve ever seen before, the sheer scale of the universe.

Then you realise that you quite liked the security of being tethered and the wave of exhilaration is replaced by fear as you watch the child getting smaller. You realise you have no control over your direction.  Then, you just pop.

The afterlife is, I’ll admit, a little fucking underwhelming. Whilst I never really went for cherubic angels and pearly gates, I did harbour a faint hope of something better than where I now find myself.

I’m sat in some sort of hospital waiting room but without the coughing and the tired, murderous looking junior doctors.  The walls are covered with wood chip wallpaper and posters of a bearded man with blinding white veneers, complete with photo-shopped sparkles, grinning and pointing toward the camera.

The text underneath reads, “Jesus wants You!” Horrific lift music is being piped in through a speaker that I can’t see.

The room is busy, but no one seems to be in any pain, including myself. I’m still wearing my tuxedo and seem to be in one piece with no obvious bits of metal sticking out of me or blobs of other people stuck to me. A quick fondler in the trouser pocket of the tuxedo tells me my nuts are still in place.

There are a couple of familiar faces from the tube. I recall a young Chinese couple who were watching something on his phone and giggling at each other when the bomb went off. I only see him now, and he looks lost without his phone.

I consider for a moment that I might not be dead and miraculously survived the blast. Then I see a man walk toward me wearing jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt. Actually, walk is the wrong word. He glides and as I look at his feet I see why.

He doesn’t have any.

Instead he has a couple of stumps – but these are not like Viet-fuckin’-nam stumps as if there were once feet there suddenly removed by a landmine. No, these stumps look like the feet were never there. He has feet like an upside-down skittle. 

That’s not even the strangest thing about him; he has a four-inch hole in his forehead and as he glides over to me I see right through his head to a smiling Jesus poster on the other side. He sees me looking at his hole.

“Gunshot. Self-inflicted. I was having a bad day.”

“I know what you mean,” I say, unable to take my eyes from where his frontal lobe should be.

“Where am I?” I ask.

He makes a note on his clipboard and smiles. “Well, the good news is, not in Hell.”

“Well that’s a relief.”

“But you aren’t in Heaven either.”

The muzak pipes over the tannoy and I´m actually relived. “So…where am I?”

“You’re in purgatory,” he says, before picking at the fringes of a loose flap of skin on the hole in his head.  “God, it’s so itchy.

Suddenly, a majestic and celestial voice booms over the tannoy, filling not just the room but my head. “It’s your own fault for pulling the trigger. And don’t blaspheme me.”

Iron Maiden boy looks up to the polystyrene tiled and strip-lighted ceiling and mouths Sorry before turning back to me and offers his hand. “I’m Alan. I’ll be your case worker.”

Now, I’ve never been dead before but I remember well as a twelve year old, stood at my Grandmother’s open casket and not being able to resist the temptation to prod her face gently. I think I wanted to check she was dead, or whether she would simply turn her head toward me, give me a toothless smile and say, “Hello love, gis your Nanna a nithe kith.” Instead she just lays there whilst I gently prodded at her cheek. Her clammy and doughy skin felt very much like Alan’s hand.

A naked, middle-aged man with damp hair stands at the reception desk and is directed to one of the plastic chairs. He shuffles over, dripping water on to the faded lino and sits down. I watch him as he starts scratching at his saggy balls, which appear to be sticking to the plastic. He looks confused.

Alan sees me looking at him and checks his clipboard. “Shower. Heart attack. Always confuses them. They take a long time to adjust. It’s the sudden change, you see? Five minutes ago he was cracking one off in the shower. He’s a straightforward case though.”

“Straightforward?”

“He’ll be going down.” Alan flips through his clipboard. “Let’s see. Oh yeah, he worked for a charity that helped child victims of war and removed land mines from Angola. I mean, he was guaranteed a place in Heaven, until he started stealing the donations to fund his prostitution habit. Such a shame. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.”

“Or the head!” The majestic voice laughs over the tannoy.

Alan ignores the quip.

“If it’s so straightforward, why is he here?” I ask, not unreasonably, and now starting to wonder what Alan might have on me.

Alan smiles. “It’s just my opinion, having read the file. Sorry, I should have explained. The people here are what we call The Undecided.”

“The Undecided?”

“Yeah. See most people, when they die, there’s a fairly obvious destination.” Alan signals to the ceiling and then the floor with his pencil.

“So I’m Undecided?” I ask, naively as it turns out.

“No,” Alan laughs, before pointing at one of the Jesus posters, but He is. Everyone gets a case worker here. I’m yours.”

Suddenly, Melissa from accounts’ cleavage feels a long way away. “I’m dead though, right?”

“As a doornail.”

“No going ba-“

“I’m not a time machine. You should have gotten a different tube. By the way, I thought you might like to know that Dave did win Salesman of the Year and shagged Melissa in the cloakroom to celebrate.”

“You aren’t making me feel any better.”

“Sorry. I’m new to this.”

“New?”

“Yep. Died yesterday. You’re my first case.”

It’s then that I notice the small badge pinned to his Iron Maiden 1990 No Prayer on the Road Tour t-shirt. It resembles the badge a McDonald’s worker wears but instead of stars it has space for five Dove badges. Alan has none. Great, I´ve got the new boy. I slump into the chair behind me.

Saggy Balls man is approached by a smiling nubile brunette dressed in a short cocktail dress. She’s stunning, other than the rope-mark around her neck.

“Is that his case worker?” I ask

“Yeah. She’s been here a while now. Killed herself over a boyfriend in the nineties. She’s pretty isn’t she?”

I nod and decide that God doesn’t like me very much.

“Alan,” I say. “This is all a bit overwhelming. Why do I need a caseworker?”

He sits next to me. “All of the Undecided are appointed one. It is what it says on the tin really. God hasn’t decided if you’ve been good enough to share eternity with Him.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “I’m a bed salesman from Crewe. I’ve got a mortgage and I drive a Fiat. I’ve never murdered anyone.”

“Yes, we know that.”

“Bloody hell,” I continue, “the last fight I had was at thirteen!”

Alan checks his clipboard. “Neil Sanders. Yep, we made a note of that one at the time. You punched him first.”

“He stole my Gary Lineker sticker for his Panini album.”

“He did, and he got marked down for it, but he’ll be okay, he donates blood platelets every month.”

“How is that fair for Christ’s sake? I only needed Lineker and Terry Butcher for the entire album!”

The celestial voice booms out from the tannoy directly into my head. “Do not blaspheme me. It won’t help your case. Besides, our records show you were also missing Bryan Robson and Steve Hodge.”

I suddenly wish I’d kicked Neil Sanders hard in the bollocks, screaming Donate this, you Lineker-stealing shit head.

“I pray though,” I shout out at the invisible tannoy.

The tannoy responds. “Praying for a Millenium Falcon or a blow job from Samantha Lewis are not what I want filling my inbox.”

Saggy Ball man and his nubile case worker look over with disapproval. I ignore them. “Yeah, well, me and every other kid in that school would have sent the same prayer but whatever. What about my donations? I give to Cancer Research. Check it, it should be there.”

Alan doesn’t look at his clipboard but instead takes a plastic seat next to me. “Look mate. Don’t waste your energy trying to argue the point.”

“But I have a standing order.”

“Yes,” Alan says. “You donate two quid a month.” He scrolls down his clipboard. “And in the last six months of your life you told thirty nine different charity street collectors that you already had a standing order set up for their specific charity.”

I slump a little lower. “It’s been a slow year in bed sale-“

Alan holds a finger up to silence me. “In the last year alone you also walked past three hundred and eleven homeless people, contributing a grand total of fourteen pence to one beggar’s cup because you were drunk and it was snowing. However, you faked being on the phone an impressive two hundred and thirty eight times.”

My mouth moves but no words come out and Alan continues.

“In 1989, you told Alison Ramage that your Nan had died so that she would sleep with you.”

“She had died,” I protest.

“1n 1986,” Alan says.

“Factually correct though,”

“There’s a statute of limitations on these things,” Alan says, offering me a glimpse of a Jesus poster through the portal of his gunshot wound.

She was a crap shag anyway I think.

“We know,” booms the tannoy. “We were watching.”

“Christ, you can read my thoughts now?”

“Yes. And I’m listening sunshine,” booms the tannoy

“This isn’t good Alan, is it?”

He puts a friendly arm around my shoulder. “You’ve been undone by the little things,” he says. “But don’t feel bad. Look around you. This is how busy it is every day. Most people think it’s the big ticket items that make the most difference but it’s the small stuff He sweats about. He likes consistency rather than grand gestures and the thing is, you’ve been consistently underperforming.”

“A bit like your sales figures,” The celestial voice laughs over the tannoy.

I try to ignore it but end up shouting at the speaker, “It’d be nice if someone was on my side!”

“I’m on your side, Alan says. What you’ve got to realise is that for every billionaire philanthropist that suddenly decides to give a shit ton of money to Africa when they get diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer there’s a beggar sharing his Pret soup with another. Who would you rather spend eternity with?”

“So I’m stuck here?”

“No. It’s not all bad. In fact, if it was all bad, you wouldn’t be here, you’d be down there with the nail bomber that took you out, having your nuts roasted like marshmallows on a stick. I’m not even joking man, they do that. You’re teetering on the edge though.”

“And what about you?” I ask, “I mean, why are you here?”

Alan looks genuinely surprised by this. “Me? I…I’m on a trial.”

“What sort of trial?”

“Suicides are a special case,” he says. “We automatically come here, regardless of what we’ve done on Earth. I could have been the Pope but as soon as I pulled the trigger on myself, the score was reset to zero. Basically, I have to earn my way back into His good books by processing the Undecided. He really has a thing for people who waste of a life.”

“I thought you said the bomber was in Hell. Surely he should be here?”

“Murder trumps suicide. Says it on page six fifty-three of the handbook”

My shoulders sag a little. “How long are you here for?” I ask.

He taps his badge on his chest. “Until I get my Doves.”

“So you’re an Undecided as well?”

“Yep.”

A deep sob pierces the room and I realise it’s coming from Saggy Balls man who has his face buried in Cocktail Dress girls shoulder. She looks across at Alan with a sad face and draws an imaginary knife across her throat.

“Oh dear,” Alan says. “She’s just told him the bad news.”

I watch Cocktail dress girl take hold of Saggy Ball man’s hand and lead him to a door on the far side of the room. He drips shower water on to the floor behind him and leaves footprints on the floor that fade quickly.

It’s a dark green wooden door with a silver knob, shaped like a crow’s head. She knocks twice on it and it swings in-wards, revealing a burning pool of lava and a cacophony of screams, male and female. Cocktail Dress pats him on the shoulder just as a large veiny hand, bubbling under the skin with fire, reaches through the door and skewers his balls with sharp talons before yanking him through to the underworld. There is a bone-snapping scream, cut off as the door slams.

I turn to Alan and say, “We should work on my case.”

At that moment, there is a pling-plong on the tannoy and a soft, mesmerising female voice calls Alan to the blue door.

I can’t see a blue door but then realise the green door has now changed colour.

“Come on,” says Alan. “It’s your turn.”

“Fuck off,” I say, my balls retracting. “Heaven or not, there’s no way I’m going in there.”

“Don’t worry.” Alan glides over to the door. I find myself gliding right behind him, pulled by an invisible force, and it occurs to me that if I could have moved this smoothly on a dance floor in my teens, I might not have had to tell Alison Ramage my Nan had died just to get laid.

We reach the, now blue, door and Alan gives a gentle knock. Again it swings inward but rather than eternal fire and ball-grabbing talons, the door opens to a public park. We glide through.

It’s a hot summer’s day and joggers pound the pavement. Kids are stripped to their waist and splash in the stream. In the distance I can hear the retreating siren of an ice cream van and the air is filled with the smell of hot dogs.

Alan points to a wooden bench underneath the burnt orange of a Japanese maple tree. A woman is sat there. Even from thirty feet away I can see that she’s achingly beautiful.  She’s looking at me and I find her gaze the most excruciatingly painful yet exhilarating thing that’s ever happened to me. She smiles and beckons me over.

“Come on,” says Alan. “I’ll introduce you.”

We glide over the grass. Either the rest of the world can’t see me, or they think it’s perfectly normal for a man in a tuxedo to glide two feet in the air with skittles for feet.

As we approach the woman, I become utterly transfixed. She has short blond hair and high cheek bones that just encourage you to look at her eyes which change colour, flitting between pools of deep green and grey. She is wearing a halter-neck top that plunges to the valley of her breasts, which glisten in the sun with damp. My mouth is dry.

She smiles at me, and for the briefest of moments I think I am in Heaven. I think that God recognises the anguish and torment of a thirteen year old boy having his Gary Lineker sticker stolen, has let me in to Heaven and that this beautiful woman is my reward for a career dedicated to helping people sleep in top of the range orthopaedic mattresses with in-built memory gel.

Then Alan speaks with a shaky voice. “Miss Fer. You look…different.”

“Hello Alan,” she says. “You’re still on my list, in case you were wondering.”

She turns to me and says, “You can call me Lucy.”

When she speaks to me, it’s like a nest of ants have burrowed inside my head and are eating away at my brain. I keel over in agony but my gaze is drawn to her as her eyes turn to fire and visions of most unimaginable suffering and torment. Her lips part and her tongue is forked like a snake and covered in pustules which ooze yellow fluid onto the grass.

She kneels next to me. I can feel her snake tongue lapping at my ear, as she hisses “I’ve got a special place just for you.”

“Lucy. He’s not yours yet,” Alan says.

She snaps her attention to him but he stands firm, hole in his head and all. “Boss’s orders. It says so right here.” He taps his clipboard.

Lucy smiles and her tongue retracts and the deep fire in her eyes returns to a more placid green. She shrugs and retakes her seat on the bench, and she becomes again a beautiful young woman.

I vomit on the grass.

“Who are you?” I croak, wiping away sick with my tuxedo, relieved that although I might face an eternity in hell, I won’t face a dry-cleaning bill.

“Not someone you want to spend an eternity with,” says Alan.

“Alan, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” Lucy says

Alan smiles nervously at me. “This is…well…you know who this is don’t you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I think I do.”

Alan checks his clipboard. “When I said you were teetering on the edge I meant it. You really were a selfish arse as an adult and it’s only your time in the Boy Scouts and the few charity runs that you did in your twenties that’s saved you. The fact is that JC and Lucy here can’t decide which way you should go. So you get a choice.”

My heart soars. “Then I choose Heaven.”

Lucy throws back her head in laughter and the veins on her neck bulge and pulse. I realise they aren’t veins, they are worms and they are moving around inside her throat. Then the sky darkens, the children playing in the water disappear and the music from the ice cream van stops. She roars, but her voice is male and full of menace “That’s not the choice boy.”

“She’s right,” says Alan as the sky lightens and the children return to splashing in the water. Fear comes at me from all sides, like a pack of wild dogs circling a limping gazelle.

“The choice is this,” Alan says. “Either, we can flip a coin. Heads you go up. Tails you go with Lucy here. Fifty-fifty.”

“What do you say,” Lucy whispers into my ear. “Wanna take a chance on me?”

I read somewhere that a mathematician from some university had proved that a coin toss is not actually a fifty-fifty chance. That due to the embossed head there is a greater probability of landing on heads, per one thousand throws. I’m mildly encouraged by this, until I recall the image of the hand appearing from behind the green door and grabbing Saggy Balls by his saggy balls and my faith in science and probability retracts along with my testicles.

“Or you can go back for another chance,” Alan interrupts my thoughts.

“I thought you said I couldn’t go back?”

“You can’t. Not as yourself. There’s CCTV footage of you on the tube just before you blow up. Would be a bit of a tricky one to explain away.” Alan says.

I wonder if I could go back as Gary Lineker in his eighties prime.

The celestial voice booms, this time from the trunk of the maple tree. “No. You can’t.”

Alan says, “We originally had you slated for a brain tumour at fifty-three so technically, you’re twelve years early.”

“Great” I say, “I’m really glad I saved extra for my pension.”

Alan just shrugs. “It’s an aggressive brain tumour though. It’ll get you within a few weeks. If you go back, you’ll have twelve years before we see you again but you’ll have to tread carefully. Now you know what’s in store, the bar has been raised for you, so you’ll have to be extraordinarily good.”

“I can do that,” I say. “Make me a priest or something and I’ll pray every day, or maybe I could be a missionary in Africa. I’ve always wanted to travel a bit.”

“Over to you Lucy,” booms the maple tree.

Lucy smiles at me. “I choose. Call it a perk of the job. I’ll see you soon.” Suddenly I am floating upward, like a helium balloon that has been detached from its child owner. I watch Alan and Lucy get smaller before a searing pain stabs my abdomen and darkness takes me.

When I come to, my bones ache with cold and my skin itches with sores. I put my hands to my face and feel a full beard. The fire of hunger burns from within me, but I smile because I’m alive. I feel something running down my cheek and I realise it’s a tear. The only tear ever produced with equal parts happiness and fear.

I pull back the cardboard blanket that covers me and look at my feet. To my relief, they are both there again, and I wiggle the toes that stick out through my battered trainers.

Across the road is the entrance to the park and through the gates I can see Lucy and Alan sat on the park bench, watching me. Lucy waves and blows me a kiss. I give her the finger and Alan laughs. Then they are gone.

The city comes alive with commuters and for a while, I sit in awe at humanity and ignore the hunger and cold that consumes me. A few passers-by throw a few coins into my coffee cup and I mutter a few thank you’s but mostly I just people watch.

I see a face I recognise walking down the street. It’s Dave, Salesman of the Year, from the Swindon branch. He’s dressed in a good suit and looks like he’s had his greying hair dyed but it’s definitely him. He walks with the smugness of someone who nailed Melissa from Accounts in the cloakroom.

As he approaches I see him look at his phone to avoid eye contact, the same move I’d pulled hundreds of times.

He’s a few feet away when I look up and say, “Spare any loose change, Sir?”

He sneers at me and then gobs at my feet. “Get a fucking life, loser.”

He walks off and I smile but say, “Have a great day anyway. And remember, it’s the little things.”

He glances back at me with a look of confusion before smirking and walking away.

He can’t see her, but walking next to him is Lucy.

She looks back at me and winks. I smile back, shaking my head and then go back to watching strangers.

Darren Whitehouse writes short stories as a coping mechanism for the guilt he feels about the novel he is still yet to finish.  He is interested in stories that tap into the darker and less understood areas of human life but tries to do so with a pinch of humour. Most of his ideas come from browsing the news although sometimes they appear in bowls of cereal or jars of peanut butter – usually when he doesn’t have a pen handy.  He lives in Buxton, Derbyshire.

2019 Writing Competition Winning Stories

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Me First Magazine would like to present the winning stories of the 2019 annual writing competition. They were all judged on technical skills, originality, characterization, world building, and plot. All have undergone editing since being entered and so have been improved upon their previously judged submissions.

FIRST PLACE:

Revenge is a Dish Best Served with Pizza by Ronald C. Milburn

“What’s playing at the drive-in theater tonight?” Butch asked.

Though Butch was fifteen and two years older than me, I was the de facto leader of our five-member troop. Inside I was nervous and anxious, but they didn’t know it. My friends looked up to me, so I played the part.

Like me, the other three boys were thirteen. We’d been neighbors for as long as I could remember. But the summer of 1967, the start of my teenage years, would be the most memorable.

Einstein answered Butch’s question, “Cool Hand Luke is the film tonight.”

Einstein was Butch’s younger brother. Though Butch wasn’t the brightest bulb in the room, his sibling offered even lower wattage. It made no matter; he was one of us. Proximity, not intellect, was the sole condition for membership in our neighborhood gang.

“It’s playing again?” Marshall, my twin brother, complained.

Our father, a World War II veteran, named us after two famous generals. Dad named me after George Patton, and my twin after George Marshall. Since we both had the same first name, George, everyone called us by our middle names. But when our parents shouted for George, it meant they wanted either or both of us.

We’d enjoyed the show the six previous nights. The scantily clad girl washing her car on the big screen grabbed our attention as it did for the ogling convicts. But even good things grow tiresome. We’d memorized many of the lines and repeated them in the afternoons while awaiting the next viewing.

For my entire life, there had been a verbal pact to allow the neighborhood children free admission into the drive-in. It was a concession, so our parents wouldn’t complain of the parade of honking cars and squealing tires leaving the drive-in

.

Two years before, the outdoor theater hired a new manager. He was unaware of the agreement and erupted when we entered without paying. When he told us to leave, we returned home upset.

A sympathetic neighbor aimed a spotlight at the screen and erased John Wayne from the movie Eldorado. Within a few minutes, as the horns blared, the negotiations concluded, and, he welcomed us back. The converted manager even provided free popcorn for his new friends. 

So almost every summer evening, we tom cats wandered toward the projected images. As we lounged on my porch and awaited dusk, I tore a cola cup into a single strip and twisted it.

“These make long fuses,” I said.

I’d ripped it like peeling an apple and made one piece of wax-coated paper. The cup came from our lawn where exiting moviegoers had tossed it.

“So, what?” Angel asked.

“Well, I figure it’ll take about twenty minutes for this to burn. So, if we tie it to a firecracker, we’ll have plenty of time to leave before it explodes.”

Four interested boys watched me twist the wax strip to a whole pack.

“Come to the drive-in, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

As I stuffed the mini bomb in my pocket, the other guys rose to follow.

Angel whined, “I don’t like this. Remember what happened last year?”

He was referring to the incident the previous summer when I threw a firecracker into the women’s restroom. The security officer saw our failed escape after the explosion. Even though it was our first offense, the unforgiving guard suspended us a whole month.

Worse, he made us sit in his office for three hours uncertain of our fate. My anxiety during the silent wait was nerve racking as he stared at us through those mirrored sunglasses. Then after midnight, he instructed us to call home. Our disheveled fathers arose from comfortable beds to retrieve their wayward sons. I know my punishment was worse because of the late hour. I decided the watchman was a sadist who enjoyed maximizing my sorrow.

When we got home, Mom was furious and grounded us. She would have been more upset, but we had co-conspirators. Since she suffered the humiliation along with the other mothers in the neighborhood, she survived the embarrassment.

The thirty days of punishment was the longest sentence of my young life. A prisoner awaiting release, I checked the days off the calendar on our kitchen wall. Evenings during our house arrest, my brother and I sat on our front porch and stared at the distant, soundless movie. My disdain for the bellicose guard intensified each time he drove along the back row of cars with his want-to-be-a-cop, blinking light. As we plotted ways to retaliate, I exclaimed his triumph was a temporary setback, and I’d make him pay.

“But,” I explained to Angel, “We’ll have twenty minutes to get away.”

“They’ll know it’s us because we did it before,” Angel said.

 “Relax, I won’t throw it in the ladies’ room. I’ve got a better idea—we’ll get the blasted guard.”

The watchman was a towering, sturdy man with dry-roasted skin and a distinct limp. His lazy eye wandered without his control, so he almost always wore mirrored sunglasses. He carried a police flashlight in the leg-pocket of his cargo pants which he shined in my face often.

The guard’s primary job was to prevent people from entering the exit, but he patrolled the entire perimeter in his former police car. Since the firecracker incident, we were his prime suspects for any misdeed he couldn’t attribute to anyone else. His suspicions were most often correct, but to his frustration, he couldn’t prove them.

It was my second summer as his public enemy number one, and my friends were, in his opinion, my accomplices. My opponent always tried to keep me in his sight, but his hovering didn’t prevent me from misbehaving. Instead, he made me more feline cautious. The unwitting sentry honed my cunning skills the way a coach might condition an athlete. As I hoofed toward the drive-in, everyone followed, and Angel whimpered.

He said, “It’s nuts. You’re crazy.”

We called him Angel because he was always the first to confess if caught in one of our offenses. 

We ambled along the asphalt road, which was the last street in our town. Our homes were on one side, and a farmer’s field and the drive-in movie were on the other. We slipped into the cornfield to enter the rear of the outdoor theater.

Once inside, we bought candy at the snack bar then settled on a park bench out front. My clique watched Luke eat hard-boiled eggs as other inmates in the penal farm shouted encouragement. My mind wandered from the film to my detestable foe.

For a while, I struggled between my dislike for the sentry and my fear of being caught. In elementary school, I’d been the model student who got the citizenship award most years. But the summer before junior high, something changed. My yearning to satisfy myself conflicted with my wish to please others. The internal, moral quandary tipped as I watched the security officer light a cigarette. The flickering flame reflecting from his sunglasses stirred my anger—a reminder of the long wait in his office last summer.

I exclaimed, “It’s revenge time.”

“You’re still doing this?” Angel whined.

“Yes, sir.”

“Not me!”

“Who cares,” I replied.

I stood, and everyone but Angel rose to follow. Then, Einstein dropped back onto the bench. “Lose your nerve?”

He shrugged.

“Fine.”

With one less coconspirator to cumber me, I left the cowering behind and strolled toward the despised guard. Marshall and Butch joined me as I crouched beside a ’57 Chevy.

“He’s over there,” I whispered.

A rustling came from inside the Chevrolet, and Butch bolted. The stranger removed the speaker from his window glass and placed it on the pole. I put my finger across my lips and made a shhhh sound but was too late.

The door flew open, and the man hovered over us while shining a flashlight in my eyes.

“What are you doing?”

Startled, I fell backward and knocked Marshall onto the gravel. Blinded by the light, I couldn’t see him.

“Ah, hah! Hubcap thieves.”

His baritone accusation terrified me. I suspected rather than call my parents, he’d deliver his painful punishment himself, so I held my arms up to protect myself.

“No, sir. We’re not touching your car.”

He said, “Wait, a minute. I know you. You’re Perky’s little brother.”

Perky was my older brother, a former center on the high school football team. Then, he shined the beam on Marshall.

He cried, “My Gosh, there’s two of you.”

As he scanned Marshall, I could see his face and rust-colored hair. It was Red, the high school quarterback.

“Twins,” I replied.

“Hey, we’re not bothering you, Red. We’re playing a trick on him.”

He followed my pointing finger, and his mannerisms relaxed.

Wow, you two are just alike. I didn’t know Perky had twin brothers.”

Red lowered his head into the driver’s window.

“Look, guys. It’s Perky’s little brother, and there’s two of him.”

Accustomed to the ritual, Marshall and I raised so his friends could marvel at our similarity. Red laughed and slapped my back.

“I’ll never be able to tell you apart.”

“You can call us both, George.”

Red grinned. Marshall nodded his agreement as he forced a smile.

Then Red asked, “So, what’s your prank against Boss Sam?”

“Who?”

Red nodded toward the watchman’s car.

“His name is Sam, but he reminds me of one of the chain gang bosses in the movie.”

Red aimed his finger at the thirty-foot tall image.

“See.”

“So, he does,” Marshal replied.

 “Look at this.” I lifted the firecracker with the eighteen-inch fuse.

 “I’ll put this into the ole buzzard’s exhaust, and it’ll take twenty minutes to detonate.”

Red bent to get a closer look.

“Neat.”

“Perfect, huh?”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea. You two Georges wait here while I use the payphone.”

We waited with angst for Red to return. On the screen, prisoner Luke was digging a ditch. As Red returned, Luke was filling it.

Red said, “I called the Frosty Mug and talked to Wendy. She’s a carhop. I told her to spread the word so everyone could get in for free, but they’d have to enter the exit when they heard the firecrackers explode.”

Red pointed to Marshall.

 “As he’s putting the fireworks in the tailpipe, you let the air out of a tire.”

“Why?” Marshall asked.

“So he can’t chase you, man.”

Red grinned as he reached into his back pocket and removed a handkerchief.

 “Stuff this inside the exhaust, so it’ll explode louder. This will be great, and I’ve got a front-row seat. Now get going, Bubs.”

“Wish us luck.”

“Good luck.”

I turned to my brother and held out my hand.

 “Give me the matches.”

 “Matches? I didn’t bring any.”

 “Uh, oh. Me either.”

 Red unrolled his T-shirt sleeve to remove a pack of cigarettes and matches.

 “Don’t worry, George,” Red said as he pitched the matchbook.

Then Marshall and I crawled toward Sheriff Sam. While crouching, I slipped the firecrackers into the tailpipe. Then I pushed on the fuse to slide the explosives further into the exhaust. I left an inch hanging out. As I pulled a match from the book, I looked back at Red’s auto and saw the boys laughing so much, the car rocked.

My cowardly buddies watched from the safety of the bench. I waved at Butch, Einstein, and Angel with limited motion, but they didn’t respond.

“Chickens,” I whispered.

Marshall nodded.

Then he said, “Wait until I get back before you light the fuse.”

He sneaked to the passenger’s side and removed the cap from the valve. With a sharp stone, he released air until the rear tire was flat then shuffled back to me.

“Okay. Light it.”

I struck the safety match and held it steady, but a passing breeze blew it out.

“Shoot.”

I glanced back at Red who eyeballed me, then I removed another match and lit it. This time, I shielded the flame and touched it to the wax fuse. Just as planned, the shredded cup caught fire and burned slow but steady. Then, I inserted the handkerchief. As we turned to escape, I noticed other amused moviegoers laughing too.

We intended for our prank to be discreet, but we had several dozen giggling witnesses. As subtle as possible, we duck-walked back to Red’s Chevy.

“Great job, George,” Red proclaimed. “Now, you’d better scat. Don’t worry; we won’t tell.”

Marshall and I slipped behind Red’s car then walked toward our friends. As we passed the entertained occupants, we got lots of thumbs-up and waves. When we entered the snack bar, we greeted our neighbors who had worried expressions.

Angel whined. “We’re gonna be in so much trouble.”

Butch smacked his ear and growled, “Shut up and stop worrying, and if you confess, I’ll kill you. Got it? Dead!”

I said, “Here’s part two of my plan. We need an alibi, so we’ll order food and wait for it.”

We approached the counter and waited in a short line.

I said, “Hi, Betty.”

Betty had graduated from high school and worked at the drive-in and at the downtown theater too. We were on a first-name basis. As a result, she was one of the few who could distinguish Marshall from me.

“Hi, Patton,” Betty replied. “I see the whole gang is here tonight.”

“Yep, five of us,” I responded. “We want a pepperoni pizza.”

“You know it takes twenty minutes.”

“It’s okay. We’ll each have a cola, too,”

She handed us our drinks, and we paid which required contributions from everyone. A not-so-patient patron waited while we emptied our pockets and aggregated our money.

“We’ll just wait at this table.”

I wanted to be in her constant view. The next twenty minutes were endless, as we watched the film through the large plate-glass window.

Luke had escaped from the prison farm, again, and was hiding in a shadowy church. As I contemplated our similarities, I had doubts about my prank. Could Angel be right, and the joke be a mistake? Would we be suspects? I imagined myself running through rows of corn with howling dogs on my heels.

The fragrance of sizzling toppings distracted me from my misgivings, so I glanced at the clock on the wall. The pizza had been baking for fifteen minutes, and the excitement may soon start. I shouted to Betty because I wanted to document our continued presence.

“Is it done?”

Betty examined the timer as she wiped her hands.

“Five more minutes.”

As the agonizing time ticked past, I slipped back into my apprehensive state of mind. I considered removing the mini bomb from the smoldering tailpipe.

Too late now, I thought.

I tried to suppress my anxiety while watching the scene unfold on the white screen. The police arrived and trapped Luke inside the shadowy church. The cold-hearted prison guard who always wore sunglasses raised a rifle. Captivated, I stared at the officer as he took aim. Luke smirked and mocked the warden from a window.

Bang! Ding!

The oven alarm sounded at the same moment the rifle fired. I jumped as Luke slumped. Betty removed the pizza from the oven, put it in a box, and slid it across the counter.

“Order up, come and get it.”

As I waited for my heart to slow, Marshall rushed to the counter then returned.

I whispered, “The fuse must have gone out. It should have gone off by now.”

Angel replied, “Good.”

It was strange, but I felt relieved too. We relaxed and enjoyed our refreshments until the movie ended. The hot dog and popcorn box danced across the screen to announce intermission as we munched and sipped.

By the time the next show began, my adrenaline rush had faded. The second feature was a British spy thriller. The playboy agent operated amazing gadgets which fascinated me.

 Absorbed in the action plot, I forgot about my dud explosive device.

Pop! Pop! Pop! The rapid-fire blasts weren’t coming from the speaker.

“What the…” Betty shouted.

“A backfire,” someone replied.

“No, too many.”

Everyone ran to the door to investigate except for five boys who didn’t move. Outside, a frantic Boss Sam jumped from his car and looked for the source of the blasts. Smoke was still rising from his tailpipe when the first carload of intruders entered the exit.

A stream of interlopers followed and darted down different lanes. Quick to react, Boss Sam hopped back into his vehicle and flipped on his spotlight.

Thump, thump, thump, his flat tire protested as he began his chase.

To add to the confusion, the parked patrons turned on their lights and honked as the freeloaders hid among them. Blinded by the headlights, the watchman spun in frantic circles unsure what to do next.

Ignoring the commotion, we five stoics pretended to watch the movie. In a while, Betty and her customers returned to the counter, so I mustered the courage to look around the room.  Everything had calmed, and we’d gotten away with our prank.

“It worked just as planned,” I whispered.

“Perfect!” Butch replied.

The others nodded as Angel giggled, but the chuckling stopped when the accursed guard exploded through the door.

“Has anyone seen those twins?”

The furious old man removed his sunglasses and scanned the room. In a flash, he spotted us.  Enraged, he hobbled our direction and wagged his bent, arthritic finger.

“I know you did it.”

We were wide-eyed and motionless.

“You did it,” he repeated.

 From the smell of the brown spittle peppered on my face, he chewed tobacco.

Terrified, I asked, “Did what?”

“You know what you did. You put firecrackers in my tailpipe.”

All the patrons awaited my response. The silence stretched. I removed the smelly splatter with a napkin and regained my composure. Sam’s complexion grew redder as he boiled and waited.

“We’ve been here eating. We couldn’t have done it.”

He resembled my mother’s vibrating pressure cooker, ready to blow off steam. His eyes widened, one eyeball stared at me, and the other scanned my pals. He parted his dry lips and ground his yellow teeth. He appeared to be searching for the proper words to respond.

“Don’t lie to me.” Boss Sam snapped.

He seemed unable to produce a better retort as he swung his crooked finger back and forth.

“You twins are incorrigible.” he frothed.

He growled as he widened the arc of his wagging digit.

“I bet you’re all in on it.”

The manager, a short man with wire spectacles, rushed from his office. He had black hair, greased and combed straight back.

“What’s the commotion?”

Sam answered, “Someone flattened my tire and put a firecracker in my tailpipe. I know these boys did it. Remember the restroom last summer? Now people are entering the exit, and I can’t stop them.”

The manager’s face flushed with immediate anger. We were the splinter under his skin, festering again. Unable to excise us, he had to deal with the occasional flare-ups. The manager glared at Angel, who he knew to be the most probable to confess. Terrified, Angel stared back, wide-eyed.  His wimpy nature benefited us for a change.

Butch, the oldest, appeared as calm as the secret agent on the screen behind him. Under the manager’s intense stare, he casually pointed to the few remaining cheesy slices. But under the table, Butch squeezed Angel’s knee. When the manager looked back to the weakling, Angel made a squeaky sound as he clenched his lips.

“What’s wrong with you, gotta pee?” the manager asked.

Angel nodded.

“Well, go.”

Angel bolted.

Einstein received the next intense stare and responded with droopy eyes and a chin-sagging, open mouth. For a moment, I wondered if he’d drool. The manager assessed Einstein’s lack of mental ability and must have decided it was futile to interrogate him. Then he examined the almost-empty pizza box.

“Betty, how long have these boys been here?”

She looked at the clock.

“Well, they ordered and waited on it. Then they ate it, so it’s been half an hour or longer.”

“They didn’t leave?”

“Nope, they’ve been here, I’m certain.”

The suspicious manager stared at me while still speaking to Betty.

“No one left?”

“No, Sir.”

The boss turned to the seething guard.

“You must be mistaken. Go see if there’s any damage to your vehicle then stop the cars from entering without paying.”

Sheriff Sam’s eyes shot darts at me.

“I’m sure they did it.”

Boss Sam retreated toward his car, but he glared back as he departed through the screen door.  The manager pulled a roll of antacid from his pocket.

“Boys, I better not learn you did this. I’ll call your parents.”

An intemperate stare and uncomfortable silence followed his warning. Five pairs of puppy-dog eyes declared our innocence. Betty’s boss popped a stomach pill in his mouth, turned, and headed to his office.

He muttered, “This job will give me an ulcer.”

When he slammed the door, the wall shuddered, and the clock tilted. Betty straightened it with a broomstick. She had done so many other times. She walked to our table and picked up the box then set our five empty cups on top.

I said, “Thanks, Betty. For vouching for us.”

After she removed the trash, she returned to wipe the table with a damp cloth.

Betty whispered, “I’m sure you boys did this. If he finds out how, he’ll call your parents.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied.

I glanced at my friends, who were smirking.

“He won’t find out.”

We erupted in laughter which confirmed her suspicion. She could no longer restrain herself, so she giggled too.

After a while, Angel grew tired of hiding in the restroom, so he returned. Once he joined us, we headed toward home. The gravel crunched under Boss Sam’s rolling tires as he followed us.

After my cohorts entered the cornfield, I looked back at the stoical officer who had stepped out of his vehicle. He was still wearing those mirrored glasses. I was emboldened because I figured his seething anger couldn’t exceed my satisfaction. Now by myself, I shook a corn stalk.

“Shaking the bushes, Boss.”

 Boss Sam pulled his flashlight like a weapon and aimed it at me. I returned his silent threat with a Luke smile.

Then I said, “Now what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

His only movement was a curled upper lip. I winced and knew it wasn’t over. After an uncomfortable pause, I turned and left. As I hurried down the rows of six-foot-tall corn, I had misgivings about my momentary victory. But I’d never let my friends know my fear. It’s the burden one carries when he’s cool. 

Second Place:

Inventing the Artist by Adam Scharf

David’s making love to Lana, and I’m not doing anything wrong. Swear to God. There’s nothing wrong about sitting in your apartment, trying to look unalarmed as your roommate makes love in his bedroom.

I’m persuading myself the sounds are platonic and easily forgotten. I move to the kitchen to feel removed. To feel reasonable. I’ve put on Mozart, so they don’t think I’m a warm-blooded pervert lapping it up.

By the sounds of it, she’s spanking the hell out of him. They play rough. You wouldn’t believe it. I find the perfect I heard nothing face for afterward. I’m at the table appearing like a guy who’s deaf and doesn’t lick his lips hearing his roommate do it.

I’m twenty years old. I’ve been here three months and heard David choking the living hell out of his girlfriend at least a hundred times, no kidding. I’m frightened with how far they take it. How routine that’s become. They go to a farmer’s market afterward like nothing happened and pet everyone’s dog. No one detects the consensual flogging or horsewhipping that’s taken place. The dogs know and carry that burden the rest of their lives.

I don’t know what to do with myself. This is when I call Chelsea, but that’s over. I told her I went on a date with someone. The thing is, Chelsea and I’ve been broken up for a year, but we sleep with each other. She’s become something hollow. An ex with benefits. She told me, “Andrew, you’ve made me a shell of a person.”

We came close a few times to really being animals in the bedroom. We got great at sex. That’s why we’ve kept doing it this past year. I wasn’t dishonest either. I told her what this was for me.

She accepted but created this narrative in her head that we’d get back together if we did it long enough. A part of me thought that would happen too, but mostly I wanted to be an animal. This past year I dated a handful of women but always went back to her without the headache of dating.

The date I went on recently, the one that officially ended Chelsea and I, wasn’t even worth the shellacking. Her name was Allison, and she called me, “Dude,” 57 times. She left earrings on my nightstand, and I can’t even look at them.

We’re in this summer acting program, and I haven’t told anyone I dropped out yet. I was told to finish the run of Macbeth then leave.

I play one of the witches. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s sort of humiliating.My favorite line is, “A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap.”

This show could have made my career. It’s this hoity toity program rich kids do to impress their untalented friends working as lifeguards for the summer. The program’s run by Michael. Swear to God, he might not have a last name. He wears clothes that no longer fit after a publicized weight loss campaign on social media. He gets a real charge when he wears his fat clothes for everyone. A few of us had dinner with him once. Everyone hit the ceiling when he heroically gave the ole, “I’ll just have the soup, thank you.” He made a girl cry after he told her, “This isn’t community theater, darling.” Christ, he just loves to eat fucking soup.

My family doesn’t like that I’m an actor. The only person who gives a damn is my older brother, Peter. He’s a writer—a tall writer. He plays the bassoon and knows French philosophy. Peter smokes cloves and brings flowers for me when he’s at my shows. He’s that kind of brother.

Chelsea sensed something romantic between Allison and I, who plays, Lady Macbeth. The first thing I noticed about Allison was her height, and I sort of love the way she says, “Line,” when forgetting a line in the script. She says it like she’s saying, “Happy birthday,” to a little kid. I love that. After two of her “Lines” I promised myself to take her on a date.

We went for drinks and got dressed up. She wore this long teal dress that seemed to flicker over her. I loved her in that dress. Any light looks good on that dress: candle light off the walls, or even light in doctors’ offices.

I know how that dress was born: After God coughed up stars to read Adam’s facial expressions at night, he sewed the dress, inspired by light where you can never tell when, or where, it came from. I have no idea what I’m saying. The dress really got to me is what I’m saying.

Allison’s movements were tender in that dress. She never sat down at the bar in that dress. She stood and leaned like she was always receiving a secret that everyone’s dying to know. The room watched her. She gave angles leaning god knows where—into noise, and men’s forgetfulness as to what the hell their date was even talking about. When I hugged her it felt like kissing. I wasn’t met with lips but perfume and everything she put in her hair. Every mirror or polished surface tried to keep her dress’s reflection. It’s a small grief when that kind of beauty walks away. I’ve seen it a hundred times. I don’t know, sometimes you get lucky.

That night she leaned toward me, interested in the stupid things I was saying. Laughing at me. I know it never lasts. Everyone in my family has twelve divorces between them and every time it started with, “Real love.”

I may be only twenty, but I’ve been in “real love” before. I have the landscape all figured out. Beauty gradually leans towards someone else. There’s beauty in brevity and ugly in permeance. It’s the way things has to be.

I’m trying to keep things together here. The noises from David’s bedroom have grown warlike. He sounds like he’s excavating something out of her.

Gods painted on old ruins and their custom to fall apart.

One of the women I dated this year I fell head over heels for, even though we dated for three weeks. She was a singer named Franny. We did a musical together a few months ago before the program.

I played a train conductor. My only line was, “All aboard!”

Jesus, did I yell that line. I got note after note from the director (Pipe down) as if I was being too loud in the family room as my dad tried to read the online menu for P.F. Chang’s.

Is that too much to ask for?

Obstinate, I bellowed louder every performance. I swear people came again just for the line. This wasn’t a good show. It was just the perfect line to say unreasonably loud right after the protagonist had a valorous kiss.

I made the review.

I’m not kidding. 

I never told Chelsea about my love affair with Franny. I loved Franny. I mean, I loved her guts. I wanted to marry her.

Her dad’s name is Abraham. That always had me rolling. I mean, what were they thinking?

Every day he has to be Abraham.

There were a million great things like that about her. She had long blonde hair, and all her dreams take place in London for no reason. We were doing pretty good, then, out of nowhere, she was talking to her “finally more mature” ex-boyfriend again and we haven’t spoken since.

Not to get dramatic, but I thought about becoming a monk after that. Don’t ask what kind of monk. Just the celibate kind with a penchant for woodwork and sneaky liquor bottles under the ole straw mattress. I had to see a therapist to convince myself that Franny’s not the only perfect person in the world. Apparently, there’s no such thing as a soulmate. It’s biology’s way of getting you to reproduce like a rabbit. I’ll tell you right now, Franny doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care about me at all. 

Both David and Lana are moaning water buffalos in bed. Sequestered from human decency. Cooped in a paradise of prophylactics.

I’ll give Allison a call.

She was a fine date. Curly red hair and a non-visible tattoo that she’ll occasionally bring up, so that you think about it (and I love thinking about it). I like thinking about her. I love thinking about her teal dress and how the dress had movement even when she wasn’t moving. The dress is like when you stare at the moon hoping that it changes you─when you get caught in how still the moon appears. The moon’s not motionless though. The truth is the moon’s spinning. You intuitively know these kinds of things, and that her teal dress is propelling, even when the dress doesn’t look like it. 

Believe it or not: what made me quit the theater program happened on that date with Allison. She was drunk and loved talking to anyone. She gave bedroom eyes to the bartender, who looked like he’d make a great merman. He had this long, dark hair. He was Asian and loved to talk about me when I was in the bathroom.

“You know, Andrew, the bartender was talking about you just now.”

“What was he saying?”

“What kind of guy he thought you were.”

“Great.”

“You want to know what kind of guy?”

“Absolutely not. Every time he walks by, I can smell him. It’s not good. He smells like car air-conditioning.”

There was this melted candle on top of melted candle with a lit candle on top. I remember she looked great in that light. I kissed her. She was drunk by now and bit my lip. The funny thing is I wanted to be eaten alive. She brought up Franny. “You guys used to date, right?”

“Yeah, briefly.”

“That’s so funny.”

“It’s so funny.”

“You know, she’s moving to the city. She wants to do Off-Broadway in the worst way.”

The dumbest thing started happening. I feel stupid even telling you this. My eyes started tearing. I wasn’t crying. I just suddenly had tears in my eyes. I kept finding anything but her to look at.

The drinks were hitting fast. What the hell. Maybe I’ll cry in the candlelight to really wow her, I thought. I sunk in my stool. She bit my lip again. I acted like I was getting a phone call. “Sorry, it’s important that I take this quickly,” and headed outside.

I called Peter. He would calm me down. The call went straight to voicemail. That part of town was under construction. I could hear a million hammers and machines fastening steel. If you didn’t know anything about construction and you were standing outside of this bar in early evening, you’d think there were a hundred people knocking on doors just to say hello. That made me feel better. Everyone had company.

I waited long enough to charade a phone conversation with an uncle who just has to say goodnight to his favorite nephew every night. I collected myself and went inside.

When I was away, Allison told the bartender that we were actors. As soon as I sat down, he goes, “You’re an actor, huh?”

I nearly told him to drop dead, but he had more to say.

“Actors, actors, actors. There’s something wonderful in acting. I’ve been in quite a few shows myself. I quit, though.”

Allison leans in. “I’m sure you were great!”

“I was decent. Thing is, I found out what was happening. What I really wanted to do was kill someone.”

He let that linger for dramatic effect. I didn’t want to take the bait. He’s one of those guys who looks at his phone and gives a loud fake laugh so that you’ll ask him what’s so fucking funny and can I see?

Allison is tuna-like. She can’t not take the bait. “Kill someone?” she asked.

Now he had her. He leaned his arms on the bar. “There’re two types of people. Entertainers and artists. I was mostly doing dinner theater. A few theme park shows. Occasionally a commercial. Maybe some Shakespeare.”

On that line, he started looking toward the far corner of the room. He kept pontificating toward absence. I glanced toward whatever the hell he was looking at. Kind of like when a cat sees something you don’t, and can’t, and pray you never will.

He goes, “I knew something had to happen. I had to kill someone. I set out to become an artist but became an entertainer. Most don’t know the difference.”

She goes, “Oh? What’s the difference?” The night was a real slaughter. A real victory for people who can’t just tell you what they want to tell you, but also have to make a show. 

“An entertainer performs for the crowd. Most behave as though the meaning of life is the approval of others. Just look at social media. Entertainers aim to please. They want your approval. That’s why most get in the game. That becomes obvious after you’ve had a few birthdays. After witnessing a thousand posts about wanting good vibes for their audition. They’re seeking approval for getting into a scenario where they’re seeking approval, so insane.”

I had to roll my eyes at the way he said, “insane.”

“Now, the artist,” he starts looking at us again. “The artist isn’t in art for approval. The process of being God is all she needs. Her work is neither reliant nor composed from approval. There are no applause breaks. There are no curtain calls. Most never know how to become an artist.”

I know she’d just have to ask so, I bit the bullet for her. “Wow, how?”

“You have to kill the entertainer. You have to slit his throat. Don’t get me wrong. When you have to be the entertainer to pay your bills, be the entertainer to pay your bills. Welcome him in with a gracious attitude. Give him a blanket. Give him a drink, then kill him anyway. Cut his fucking head off. People don’t need you to make them feel good. Don’t do this for people. Only shits do this for people. Don’t make the world peaceful. Start a war. Collect unemployment. Eat eggs and coffee for years. Lure the wolves closer. Strangle life out of the actor doing crowd work, yelling, ‘How we doing? Oh, you can do better than that.’ No one remembers the entertainer. Shoot the motivational speaker. Rape Walt Disney. Fire him out of a cannon. Do you get what I mean?”

He stopped talking and went down the bar collecting glasses. He didn’t wait for my answer.

I turned to Allison for her reaction. She was on her phone. I felt so sad in that moment. I wasn’t sure what to do. I paid the bill. I got us the hell out of there. All I had was this hatred for something inside of myself.

I hated that bartender.

My lip was in pain.

Both drunk, we made it to my apartment. On the bed, she buried her face in my neck and undid my pants. Never looking, not even once, she touched me. She never looked where I was pointed. I finished all over her teal dress. She never wiped off. She drove home like that.

I stared at her earrings on the nightstand. I knew I was going to quit then. I knew it was crazy. I quit. I told Chelsea about the date with Allison. Everything crumbled. She told me what an awful person I was, and that killed me. Chelsea killed me. Thank God.

I’m scared. I need out. I don’t want to be here. I hate that bartender. I hate these mediocre shows. I hate myself.

I’m going to get out of this apartment. I have a month left, but I’ll leave early, when no one’s around, like a racoon. Look at this place: the old stove; the deer head on the wall, an old birthday card, wilting flowers in a vase from Peter; the jungle track sound from David’s bedroom. I won’t be here. I’ll head home before college. I’ll eat three meals, then expect starvation. I’ll meet a girl who will give me hardship, love, and bridges to understanding the loneliness of others. That’s what seems to happen to artists.

I call Peter. He’s one of those guys who will bring you flowers without feeling weird about bringing you flowers. I love that. “Andrew?”

“Hey, can we talk?”

“Oh boy, what happened?” asks Peter.

“God, I don’t know. I just want to talk to someone decent.”

“All right, how are you? Are you good on money?”

“I have a million gold bricks. What I’m saying is, I want to talk to just talk.”

“You sound upset.”

“You think you’re so good. I quit the program. I’m coming home next week.”

“You idiot.”

“I just needed to tell someone.”

“Why’d you do it? I don’t care what anyone says, Andrew. You’re a real actor. Did Chelsea say something again?”

“No, no, it was a bartender. He went on and on about being an artist and how you have to kill the entertainer. That got to me. I feel shaky.”

There’s a long pause, long enough for me to hear Lana screaming, “Yeah! Yeah!”

After a weighted exhale, he tells me, “Andrew, were you on a date?”

“Yes.”

“He was just trying to impress your date. I wouldn’t listen to him.”

“I already quit.”

“You idiot.”

“It’s fine. The program was almost over anyway.”

“You won’t get the credits if you quit. The casting directors come the last week. You’re blowing your chance.”

There’s a loud spanking sound followed by David yelling a single question dramatically over and over. “You like that? You like that? You like that?” I hear another slap, the loudest slap I ever heard, followed by Lana yelling, “Ow,” They fight, then, “Shit!”

“You son of a bitch, David!”

“Lana. It’s fine. Come back to bed.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, David?”

The night’s a real circus. Lana comes out of the bedroom in a towel covering her left eye with her hand. She’s crying. “Peter, I’ll have to call you back,” I tell him.

“I’m coming over.”

“That’s crazy. The clock says nearly midnight. You’re an hour away.”

“I’ll let you go. I’m getting in the car. I’ll see you soon.”

He hangs up. Lana’s putting an ice pack on her eye. David runs out. “Lana, I’m sorry!”

“You hit me in the fucking face.”

“I got caught up. I didn’t want to.”

“Caught up? You punched me in the face!” She turns to me at the table.

I whip out the ole deaf boy who hasn’t heard a goddamn thing, look. I add in a blind boy look for good measure. They just have to take everything too far.

Lana goes, “Andrew, look at what he did to my eye. Is it black yet?”

I act like I’m an expert in this sort of thing and give her the once over. They’re both trying to catch their breath. “It’s a little red. You might see a shiner in the morning. I’d know. I was once punched over a guy audibly reading good news on his email, and I never took the bait to ask him what happened. He got so upset over that. He shoved me. I shoved him back. Then he punches me in—”

“Andrew, not the time. Jesus, Lana. It was an accident.”

Lana huffs. “Let’s ask Andrew about getting caught up?”

“Don’t ask him. It was an accident.”

Now she’s really going to get me involved. She sits at the table holding the ice pack on her eye. “Andrew?”

“Oh god.”

“Andrew?”

“Yes?”

 “Have you ever been fucking a girl and suddenly had the urge to punch her in the fucking face?”

“Don’t drag him into this,” says David.

I look her in the eyes. “Only myself.”

“You’re both crazy!”

She’s in tears. David sits next to her and holds her. I’m sitting across from a scene. Lana moves to his lap, and they cry. He’s making promises, rocking her back and forth. “I’ll never do it again, never, ever, ever. Never again. Never, ever.”

I’m just sitting. I’m not breaking any laws. There’s nothing wrong with pretending I’ve turned into the placemat before me. Unaware, dormant, unable to comprehend the violence in love.

He follows her back into the bedroom. They’re going to make up the only way they know how. Passion will be softer. There will be eye contact. I head to my room. It’s like there isn’t a wall between us. I’m in there playing the violin for them.

Peter will be here in an hour. I feel like such a mess. My head’s spinning. There are a million thoughts in my head. Peter will stare at me with his, What are you doing with your life, eyes.

We’ll make coffee and stay up talking. He’ll listen to me making like I’m okay, but he’ll know I’m not. He’ll go with me in the morning to beg for my place in the program back. That will be our little secret. I’ll tell them I made a terrible mistake. I’ll look like a new man, peaceful, but I’ll only look that way.

Peter’s at my front door and yapping on the phone─everyone’s favorite yapper. He always has to, “let you go,” even if you’re the one wrapping up the conversation. He’ll go, “Okay, sure, sure. I’m right in the middle of yard work. I’ll have to let you go,” after you told him that it’s been nice talking to him.

I open the door. Peter holds up a finger and shows off his yapping. He knows what the people want. The man yaps with anyone. When exiting a party, he’ll address the room with, “Goodbye lovers.” He’s pure gold.

When we used to share a room as kids—I never slept. For a month he only spoke German. I never understood a damn thing he said. Peter spoke about nothing and everything. Telling me the answers: when to kiss, what to drink, how to yap, and what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo.

I love him so much I could die.

I pour Peter coffee like a little house husband who just made his man a decent plate of eggs over a roaring fire. I over hear his conversation.

“Good, good. I’m looking forward to it. Hey, I’m at my brother’s place. I’ll have to let you go.” What a slaughter. He’s letting him have it. “Right, yes, talk soon. Okay, I’ll let you go. Goodbye.”

We get cozy on the couch. He’s out of breath all of a sudden. “Man, I got here fast. I rushed to get here.” It doesn’t explain why he’s out of breath, he drove here. I love that, the man drives here and loves to be out of breath.

Peter stares, thinking of exactly what he needs to be said. “Andrew, you need to understand something. I’m not here to persuade you to stay in the program. I want what’s best for you. You need to—what’s happening in there?” He points to the David’s bedroom.

“Lovers being lovers,” I tell him.

“Dear god. Are they all right?”

Jesus Christ, they just can’t help themselves. Nothing is sacred with David and Lana. They hear a nice yapper walk in; they unhesitatingly break out the whips. You should hear David whimpering. The lashing he’s taking─a god smiting the non-believer into, bien pensant, discipleship.

He picks up where he was. “Andrew, I want you to know that I support you entirely. Whatever the bartender told you, he’s wrong.”

“The bartender might not be wrong. I should be doing better things. Better roles. I’m letting everyone down here. I can’t find any purpose.”

Peter pauses and sips his coffee. We’re forced to listen to David squealing into submission. The entire night’s making me sad. The violent love-making. How Peter cares about me, and how fast he had to drive.

 “I know you’re not performing the best role Andrew. I know you aren’t a star on Broadway. You’re the first male to play a female witch in Macbeth history.”

“It’s silly,” I tell him.

“Did you know that Shakespeare’s wife couldn’t read? Isn’t that silly? There’s no purpose to life, Andrew. You should feel good that you know this already.”

“I have to quit the program.”

“You’re not going to find purpose. Good news is, there can be meaning. You see what I mean? You have to make meaning. It isn’t just there like a little flower. Novels, pageants, a broken sculpture, and what have you—they made the meaning. You’re free to make anything meaningful.”

“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”

“You’re going to be fine. You’re not going to die if you stay here. I rely on you too much for you to hide. I know that’s crazy. I do though. I don’t give a damn if you perform a big role. I only care what you bring meaning to. You bring meaning to insignificant places, and people. Success is bringing meaning to things you never thought were meaningful. The hot shots with all the lines don’t get success because their roles already have meaning. The thrill’s gone. They’re not heroes. I saw you as a train conductor—you made that moment the pinnacle of the entire musical. Honestly Andrew, I talked about that with my friends for weeks. Such beauty. That line got to me! You animated the dead. You brought color to the pail. You threw leaves on your wedding day in the dead of summer. You taught Shakespeare’s wife to read Moby Dick. I’m writing another novel because of you. The mundane, sweet people of life. Fall in love with every one of them. Don’t let yourself be found as an embassy of underdevelopment. You get to bring meaning to things no one else brings meaning to. I don’t know what else to tell you, Andrew. Jesus Christ, I need you.”

It sinks in. I go find the bartender and invite him over. I offer him a blanket, a cup of coffee. I sing Danny Boy in a dulcet tone. I wash his dirty feet like Mary Magdalene. I don’t know why, but I shave his face for him—for the hell of it—for the sheer hell of it. He doesn’t know why. Nobody knows why. Not a single goddamn person knows why.

I slice off his head, throwing it in the cauldron. Can you hear that cackle? A lit match unaware that it’s going to burn out. A funny feeling in my chest. The sound of David and Lana coming together. The brutal worship. Peter and I have closed our eyes, pretending we’re not a pirouetting moon—what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo

THIRD PLACE:

Larry Came to Lunch by Shauna McGuiness

When the doorbell rang I was scrubbing the downstairs toilet.

“Jerry,” I called “Jer! Could you get that?”

My husband didn’t hear me. He was one floor up watching “Mythbusters” with the subwoofer pounding. Almost sounded like someone was stomping the ground above my head. Beyonce was singing upstairs, too.

The music was so loud that there was no way Maya had heard the bell. Not that my sixteen year-old daughter would have come running, even if she had. Alexander was still at softball practice, and the Durneys weren’t dropping him off until after four.

“Damn,” I said pulling blue rubber gloves off of my hands.

The neighbors were always stopping by, unannounced. When we moved into our Santa Clara townhouse a year ago, I didn’t think we would ever see the people living around us. Everyone entered their homes through the garage, pressing the close button on the remote before they even got out of their cars. However, Jeannie and Richard thought sharing a wall gave them license to stop by whenever they felt like it.

My hair was wrapped in a purple scarf, but at least I wasn’t wearing my husband’s faded blue sweatpants like I was last time they appeared. Smoothing my khakis, I took a quick glance in the mirror Not bad for a forty-something, toilet-scrubbing, purple scarf-wrapped old lady.

Ding Dong!

“Coming!” I ran down the short flight of stairs to the front door, and as an afterthought pulled off the scarf and dropped it on our little cherry wood table.

Lawrence St. Paul was wearing navy plaid shorts and a baby blue, short sleeve button-up. I remember him wearing both before. His skin was lighter than mine. If his was coffee with three creams, then mine was coffee with only one. My mother is white and I inherited her blue eyes – the only one of her features that nature had chosen to duplicate in me. My father’s eyes were the coffee without any cream, at all.

He looked exactly the same as the last time I saw him, and it had been five years since I had looked into those eyes. Five years.

I never realized how much of a resemblance could be found in Alexander. My fourteen year-old son had the same ears and the same easy smile. He definitely had my husband’s chin, though. Everyone has a square chin in Jerry’s family. Daddy’s hair was pure white and cut close to his head. It looked like wool, and I ached to touch it, as I had when I was a girl.

“Daddy? ”was all I could manage.

“Are you ready? You’re gonna to have to drive.”

What? I thought.

My father’s departure had been so sudden that my mother sat in the big antique rocking chair at her house staring at the front door for hours waiting for him to return. Weeks had crawled away, but he never came back. Mama would sit on the flowered cushion, leaning forward and back. Forward and back. The rhythm maddeningly even.

Holding my finger up and ran to the second floor.

“Honey, I’ve got to step out for a while. I’ll be back.” I always said that, “I’ll be back.”

Because sometimes people don’t come back.

Jerry sat on the big, green L-shape sofa, his big tube-socked feet resting on the matching ottoman. “Don’t forget that you have to bring Maya to that party at five,” he said, not looking away from the TV.

“Right. I’ll be back by then.”

I returned to the front door. My father was still there.

My little Brighton purse sat on the table. It was worn around the edges, and the magnetic clasp barely worked, but I couldn’t bear to replace it because the kids had given it to me on a long ago Mother’s day. Little red hearts covered black leather front of it─Maya had said that it was “covered in love.”

“Uhm. I’m down in the parking lot. We bought Maya a car a few weeks ago and I’ve been letting her park in my spot in the garage.” Pointing in the direction of my grey Highlander, I unlocked it with the key fob.

Climbing in, he placed his knobby hands flat on his thighs. A familiar gold wedding band hugged the appropriate finger. How many times had I rolled that ring in my palms, mesmerized by how well it fit my thumb? Wiry gray hairs covered his legs, along with the scars from when he had knee surgery on both legs.

Where have you been?

“The usual?” he asked.

“Sure. The usual.”

Dad loved Carl’s Jr. and used to eat there almost every day. Personally, I would have chosen a nicer place for our reunion, but if he was looking for a Western Bacon Burger I wasn’t going to try and talk him out of it.

Although there was probably a restaurant closer to home, I drove the ten miles to the one by the house that he had left, five years ago. I didn’t recognize anyone that worked there. There was a time when I had known most of them by name, due to our weekly lunches.

Because I already knew what he wanted, I ordered both meals. Salad and a Coke for me. He would want iced tea. I filled our cups and found him at our booth all the way at the back in the far right corner. Dropping the little plastic order card down on the table, I handed him his drink and some sweetener.

“Did I ever tell you about the guy who was in his tent, asleep in a sleeping bag?” He gestured at me to continue.

We had been doing this routine for as long as I could remember. Picking up a yellow packet of Splenda, I ripped off the top with a flourish, saying, “The bear ripped his head clean off.” The tiny crystals tumbled into his cup.

As he chuckled softly I realized how much I had to say to him. Things that I had always been meaning to say. Things that I needed to say.

“Have you been to visit Mom?”

Shaking his head, he looked down into his iced tea.

“Where have you been?”

“So many questions. Am I an encyclopedia, all of a sudden?” He grinned.

“What’s the meaning of life?” I asked, only half playing.

“Family. Love. That is the meaning of life. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way.”

He looked so forlorn that I believed him with all of my heart.

The damn kids had changed the ringtone on my phone again, and Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda trilled from my jacket pocket. It was my brother, Darren, and if I didn’t answer he would assume the worst. He always did. I had to find a way to speak to him without blowing his mind with the news of Dad’s visit.

“Hey, Darren,” My voice sounded a little too bright.

“Hey, Sis. What’s up?”

“I dunno, you called me.” I said.

“I was wondering what time you want us over on Tuesday? Gillian thought it was five thirty, but I’m pretty sure you said six.”

“Five thirty, six – either works for me, as long as you bring an appetizer. Tell Gill to bring the little meatballs. We all love them.” I looked at our father. A small curve sat comfortably on his lips.

“Got it. Where are you?”

“I’m…having lunch with a friend.”

“Late lunch.” He grunted.

“Yes. Can I get back to it, now?” I didn’t want to waste any more time talking to someone that I would see on Tuesday. Probably.

“I can catch a hint. See you.” After hearing the click on his end, I hung up and put the phone back in my pocket.

“Look…” I didn’t know where to start. I took a deep breath. “Do you remember when I was thirteen and I told you to shut up?” It was the only time I had ever directed those words toward my Dad. I had been so ashamed after yelling at him. His tolerance and forgiveness had been more painful than if he had slapped me.

“I do.”

“I told you I was tired of hearing about your Army days. I said your stories were retarded.” He slowly nodded his head.

“I am so sorry.” I choked.

So warm was the laugh that boomed across the table, that I could almost feel it on my face. I looked up at him, shocked that he thought the memory was funny. It was one that had come back to torture me countless times since he had been away.

“I imagine you are getting it back, in spades.”

He was right. Raising two teenagers was no barrel of monkeys. I thought about how Maya had expressly forbidden me to volunteer as chaperone for the formal dance at her school. She said I was embarrassing, which had hurt a lot more than I let on.

“You’re right.” I used a napkin to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. “I just… I always meant to tell you.”

“I know.”

Our family had never been the hugging kind. Right now I wished we had been because I really needed one.

“Will you go to Mom?” I asked, “She always wondered why…”

I should have added that he shouldn’t visit his wife unless he intended to stay. Leaving again would probably kill her.

“Time to go.” He sighed, standing.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Maya has a party to go to, and I’m supposed to pick up all of her friends on the way.”

The burger remained untouched. I hadn’t eaten my salad, either. I piled everything back onto the orange tray, dumping our wasted food in the trash on the way out the door.

God how I wanted to stop him.

Maybe I should have said something like, “I’ll make Jerry take her to the party, let’s just stay for a little longer,” But he was already standing next to my car.

No words were exchanged on the ride back to my house, and we arrived much too soon. There were too many things that I wanted to ask. So many that I couldn’t remember even one.

I sat in the driver’s seat, trying not to cry, and by the time I opened my door he was already outside. Enjoying the feel of the sun on his barrel-shape body, his eyes fluttered closed. It was something he had always done, worshipping the sun. The skin across his cheeks was taught, and in the orange afternoon light appeared to be made of caramel.

“I’ll see you when I see you.” he said, as was his way.

“Okay.” I dumbly stared at his face, unable to move. “Wait, where are you parked?”

What a stupid, stupid question. I was just trying to delay his departure.

“I’m just down the street.”

His eyes were kind. I hadn’t fooled him, at all.

“Will I see you again?” I tried hard to stop the sneaky things, but the tears came anyway.

“Don’t worry. You’ll see me again.” He gave me a sharp Army salute.

Sturdy legs carried him across the parking lot. I turned to glance at my front door for just a second, and when I looked back he was already gone.

The next morning, I told my family that we had to go to the city. The kids tried to argue their way out of it, but I think they sensed that it was important to me so they folded pretty quickly. Especially once I promised I would take them to Scoma’s for Sunday brunch. Those kids would probably do just about anything for calamari.

Maya texted her friends, and posted selfies to Instagram, the whole way there. Alexander nodded his square chin to something on Spotify. Jerry enjoyed the fifty minutes of rare quiet.

When we arrived at the Presidio in San Francisco, I knew exactly where to go. The sun was tucked away, making everything grey – even countless eucalyptus trees, which filled the air with their strange smell. Nearly invisible mist hung in the air, landing on our faces and shoulders. Settled deep into the grass was a small rectangular grave marker. We all stood around it in silence, and I was thankful that Jerry had convinced the kids to leave all technology in the car.

Lawrence St. Paul

Col. U.S. Army Retired

B. December 20, 1921

D. June 15, 2001

When he had gone to the Library to return borrowed videos, it would have seemed inconceivable that he would never again come home for dinner. The Doctor said a heart attack killed him. An apologetic stranger reported that he’d seen Daddy clutch his chest, while standing near the James Patterson section. A librarian called for an ambulance, but by the time Mom made it to the hospital he had already passed away.

Kissing my two longest fingers, I kneeled to touch them to the stone. I didn’t cry. I had done that enough, already. Uncomfortable in this setting, the kids shuffled their feet. When I stood, Jerry put a strong arm around my waist and pulled me close.

As a passenger on my way to Scoma’s I could see the ocean. Why had he come back to visit me?

I didn’t have an answer, but I decided that it didn’t matter. Through the dark clouds, beams of light touched the flat surface of the water, making it sparkle like fine crystal. The beauty of it spoke to me, bringing peace to my troubled mind.

“You know how much he loved you, right?” my husband asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I know.”

Folding my hands in my lap, I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the emerging sun.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Doll’s Eyes by Jennifer Dickinson

My mother always told me that families should have secrets. Secrets are the glue, she said. They are healthy and bond the family. We had silly secrets like how Mom stole tiny maple syrup jugs from the Cracker Barrel gift shop and dipped wiener dogs into them as a midnight snack.

My little sister Lauren had a few years where she got diarrhea all the time and Mom let her stay out of school, telling the nurse that she had migraines because Lauren said diarrhea was too embarrassing.

As for me, I have two big secrets. One: I have this weird mole at the top of my boob and one day my mom said I need to have it removed. Gross. But my biggest secret, Lauren’s too, was Mom and how we lived.

You know how on TV shows the living rooms are always palaces? No piles of mail or shoes? No clean clothes that never made the journey from the basket up the stairs? The walls are covered in family pictures at Epcot or posters of Monet gardens? Our living room’s not a palace. It’s kind of the opposite.

Mom took the idea of a living room very seriously. She lived in it all the time. She slept on the sofa. She ate most of her meals there, too. The laundry never made it up the stairs because she changed clothes in the living room. The coffee table was covered in bills and nail polish and a box of Tampons and coupons she never used and magazines.

Sassy magazine, which was very popular in the 90s because the models looked like real teenaged girls and the articles were about bands Mom loved—Lauren and I called them the “screaming ladies.”

Mom was a teenager between 1995 and 1999. She said those years were the best of her life.

She’d get very sad talking about how she and her friends went to a club called Einstein’s that’s now been turned into a Ziggy Doo’s Ice Cream Shack. She spent every Friday and Saturday nights dancing to those screaming ladies. Mom had pink-streaked hair and lived in Doc Martens and striped tights and dresses from thrift stores.

Instead of family photos on the mantle, the mantle was covered in framed pictures of her and her old friends: four girls with pink-streaked hair and nose rings. They smoked cigarettes and drank rum-spiked cans of Orange Crush. They wore purple lipstick and purple nail polish and Mom said now they are all married to doctors and tending to broods of children. The walls were covered in posters of the screaming lady bands. And I mean covered. Like you couldn’t see any paint. In between the posters were pictures Mom cut out from Vogue and Elle magazines. Women with shellacked hair walking poodles, dripping in fur coats and pearls, Mom painted words like “slut” and “kill the system” and “anarchy now” across those women’s mouths.

Only one wall was different. And that’s the wall Mom dedicated to her Dad and it was covered in needlepointed pictures of owls, her dad’s hobby. She never got to know him very well because he died of leukemia when she was six and her mother never remarried and kept trying to fix my mom like Aunt Charlotte did.

Even though Mom never said how we lived was a secret, I’d been to other kid’s houses before. I knew that most people’s moms didn’t have a tape deck in the living room and watch Dirty Dancing at least three times a month. I knew they left the house to play tennis and garden or they had regular jobs where they put on heels and lipstick every day.

My mom only left the house to do three things: buy food, go to the bank to deposit my Dad’s checks, and go to the library to pick up old issues of Elle and Vogue and Rolling Stone off the free table, which she used for her wall collages, which was what she worked on at home.

I never had a problem with the way Mom lived because my whole life it was the three of us and it was fun. Slumber parties on the pull-out sofa bed, piled with pillows for our Oreo-eating and Dirty Dancing-watching. Lauren and I knew all the lines and for Halloween, we both got dressed up in white tank tops and short jeans shorts as the star of the movie, Baby. We both wanted to marry Patrick Swayze in heaven.

Mom never made us clean because she said Grandma made her clean too much. Once a month Dad hired Aunt Charlotte’s cleaning lady, Esmeralda to come over, and Mom used the time to give herself a mini-facial and wax her legs.

Really, it’s Aunt Charlotte’s fault that everything fell apart because she made us go to St. Andrew’s Academy. Mom wanted us to attend High Falls High, but Aunt Charlotte said she would foot the bill for private school and didn’t our parents want to give us the chances they never had?

Carmela nicknamed me Moldy the first day of school because she said my hair smelled like mildew and a few weeks in triple dared me to eat a chocolate-covered spider her aunt had brought her from Tijuana and when I said no, she pushed me into the lap pool, ruining the shiny penny loafers Aunt Charlotte had gifted me. In our Human Experience class, she glued my face over the green-faced lady corpse in the back of the magazine about drug overdoses and then tweeted the photo to my entire class. This got her into a little bit of trouble, but Dean Walters has always been too busy with the real cocaine problems than worry about my face on a paper corpse.

Mom wondered why I never stood up to such a worthless human being. She’d never let anyone put her down, she said. And sometimes thinking about that made me feel like crap. How did my mom end up with a loser daughter like me?

I’d put with three years of Carmela Fox before Lauren showed up for seventh grade. On Lauren’s first day, she came home crying because Carmela’s cousin, Jessie, a tiny brunette with chopstick legs and a nasty overbite, told Lauren she had the ugliest, moldiest sister ever to walk the face of the earth. And then Carmela and Jessie made up a song about us called “The Ugly Sisters,” a very uncreative name, and one that I wouldn’t have cared about if it hadn’t devastated my sister so much. Even back then, Lauren wanted people to like her.

By the end of the year, Lauren and I were the closest we’d ever been. There are tons of candidates in the yearbook─huddled on the settee in the library─sharing a bowl of chocolate truffle mousse in the student center, walking arm and arm toward the river. We got closer because of Carmela, who took aim at Lauren hard, especially at her locker. Shredded textbooks, spider babies covering her backpack, squished grape jelly in the sleeves of her raincoat.

Lauren saw the school guidance counselor who told her that some girls are just mean and the best thing Lauren could do was not cry or show any emotion. That witch gave Lauren a pin that said: Be brave.

St. Andrew’s was a bad place.

Lauren cried at home. In the shower, in her bedroom. Not in front of our Mom, because part of what Carmela teased us about was our Mom. Carmela thought it was weird that our aunt’s Hispanic maid drove us to and from school and that Mom never came to meetings or all-school dinners.

Is she covered with scales? Warts? Maybe she has two vaginas. Or fucks goats for fun. She has to be a freak to produce daughters like you. Questions like that sound crazy, but they can really wear you down. Especially if they’re asked so much that they become like a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t go away, even when you sleep.

I turned sixteen two weeks before the end of the year. May 15th.

Mom took me to get my driver’s license and then she let me stay home from school. We went to Donovan’s for coconut pie and afterwards I climbed into the hammock while Mom went on her every-Monday trip to the grocery store.

I yelled “More Cheerios please!” and she shut the back door and I shut my eyes. I wasn’t out very long because I could hear the chorus of “One More Day Please” coming out of Mrs. Blair’s upstairs window. Help us love, help us live, let us stay together, just give us one more day please!

I realized I was home in the middle of the day and maybe I should watch “One More Day Please” right then rather than wait until later. I’d pretend to Lauren I hadn’t seen it.

I stopped in the kitchen for a Coke and then I shoved the swinging door. I didn’t notice anyone was there at first. I love Coke and I love “One More Day Please” and that was enough to keep me focused. But then I heard a giggle.

A familiar giggle.

Evil, tiny, cold. Carmela stared at me, in my living room, by the front door.

Why was she there?

Lauren was behind her, eyes wide. She didn’t expect me to be home.

“Carmela, you were supposed to wait in the car,” Lauren said.

“Oh fuck off,” she said. “You invited me here.” Carmela zeroed in on me. “I offered her immunity if she would just let me see what the fuck is going on in this house.”

I started across the room. I wanted to stop Carmela from seeing everything, but by the time I reached her, Carmela’s eyes were all bugged out and she was grinning. She fixed her attention on the lime thrift store dress with the holes in the armpits hanging up over the television to dry. It’s got these sequined peacocks sewn into the skirt and Mom used to wear it around the house like it was a robe.

“Wow,” Carmela sighed. She pulled out her phone and started to snap a picture and I grabbed her phone and threw it hard on the ground, shattering the screen.

“You’re fucking dead, Moldy,” she said then turned to Lauren. “And if you want to have one good day of high school to remember, you will pick up the shards of my phone and take it to Dean Walters and tell her what a piece-of-shit sister you have.”

It didn’t matter what happened next. Mom would be home soon. I had to get Carmela out. I’m not a physical person. Before that day I’d never touched another person in a mean way, but I had no choice. I grabbed Carmela by the arm hard and yanked her to the door.

“What the fuck, Moldy!” she howled.

I yanked harder.

Lauren got out of our way.

After I’d thrown Carmela out of the house, I turned to find Lauren staring at the pieces of Carmela’s phone. I looked around at all the places in the room where the good memories lived: eating Oreos and watching movies and giggling, and in a flash, all those memories disintegrated.  Our living room didn’t feel like a living room anymore. It felt like a place you went to die.

Aunt Charlotte gave me the money to replace Carmela’s phone after I promised to become a “lady,” which meant manners lessons at the Club and $500 worth of pearl-buttoned cardigans and khaki pants from Talbot’s. (Aunt Charlotte swore “sand” was a better shade on me than “stone.”)

The phone cost twelve hundred dollars. Of course Carmela had the lavender glitter one with a Siri you could program to sound like Taylor Swift. I heard they only have that model in Japan.

Mom wondered all the time about Lauren. Why she stayed late at school instead of watching movies with us. Why she started wearing business suits instead of regular clothes. Swim practice was a pretty good excuse. And a boyfriend, Jasper, from my class. They got voted John F and Jackie O, which guaranteed her a free pass from Carmela. Every girl wanted to wear Jasper’s ascot on weekends.

Dating him meant instant immunity.

Mom said Lauren was growing up and we had to accept there would be changes. Mom told me we were always more alike, anyway. Which was sort of weird since Mom had a bunch of friends in high school and loved it so much. Oh, and she danced in public.

I’ll never do that. Even if I could bring Mom back from the dead if I did it. Well, maybe then. But then only.

I didn’t know before that day I should be ashamed of how we lived. We lived on our own lovely island and then it got fucking blasted to bits and I was never truly able to pick up the pieces. I won’t ever trust Lauren again. No matter what anyone else says. I’m very lucky Mom never found out what Lauren did.

I think she would’ve killed herself a long time ago if she had.

"The Last Cat," He Said by Peter Toeg

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Jacob would die in November. His pain would be controlled and he could stay at home, the doctor assured us.

First, he would experience neuropathy in his extremities and skin changes. As biological systems failed, he would endure surges in emotions and restlessness, some disorientation. Mobility would not be lost until nearly the end. Joints would swell. He would sleep more and probably experience hallucinations. Finally, the insidious disease would take his heart.

“Better to know in advance when you are going to die, right Hon?” Jacob said to me in June, on hearing the news.

I couldn’t argue. He’d lived a full life and wanted to go on his terms.

My husband chose to die without advanced treatment and extreme measures. The alternative the doctor explained was “ghastly” (my word). “It might buy you another six or eight months,” he’d said. With intense treatment, the side effects could be “devastating” (Jacob’s word). The “with treatment” timeline, however, was indeterminate.

“Can you be that precise in a diagnosis, doctor?” Jacob asked, sounding ever upbeat.

“Medicine is a science. There is a natural and predictable progression of this disease. We will be monitoring you for any changes,” he assured us.

Death seemed so orderly at the time.

***

Two years before Jacob’s diagnosis, we adopted Ellie. It had been a few months since we’d lost our previous cat, one in a string of two-dozen dogs and cats.

Ellie was Jacob’s cat.

I took the spot as the first cat person in the family, dating to our college days in Pennsylvania. I’d been raised with cats and dogs—a houseful of pets coming and leaving us.

Jacob took to our first cat, albeit with some caution that, only now, I found curious. Gus slept with us. I sometimes awoke in the night to find both Jacob and the cat awake facing each other. I never gave it much thought at the time.

We had maybe a dozen cats over our forty years together, sometimes three cats at a time. All were indoor, and many found a lap or the bed to be a resting place.

Jacob once instructed our son Tommy to, “never to stare at a cat.”

“Why?” Tommy said. He’d been rough-housing with one of our males.

“Cats see you a threat when you look into their eyes, Tommy,” replied Jacob with a little more intensity than required. “They can attack.”

Tommy said nothing.

“That’s not quite right, Hon,” I said to Jacob. “Cats in the house are not predators.”

“What’s pred-a-tor?” asked Tommy.

Regardless, we all survived and no cats cornered us when play got out of hand. OK, I recall a few swats.

Surprisingly, Jacob spent more time with our cats than I did. I’d find him in discussion with one, both on the floor in relaxed positions. Not unusual. I called it a genuine love for cats. He even selected a couple from the pound—all rescues—and took the ever-hopeful approach to train them.

“Dogs have masters. Cats have staff,” I reminded Jacob on more than one occasion.

As we aged, the burden of keeping cats took a toll: the bending and cleaning, care, and vet visits. Feline deaths were the hardest and Jacob, a man once wary of cats, became a best friend to many. A loss of any of those friends made him unable to function for a bit. Most importantly, neither of us wanted a cat to outlive us.

We ended up catless by attrition. A few months afterward, the vet called asking us to consider taking an abandoned, middle-aged Calico.  Jacob jumped at the prospect like a man desperate for a friend.

I didn’t agree with his plan. We would be sacrificing our freedom to travel. We’d worry, as in the past, about a cat in someone else’s care. I yielded, reluctantly.

Jacob lit up at the opportunity to work his charms on his furball friend. “The last cat,” he said, before we ever took Ellie home. His appeasement of me. “I promise.”

I dismissed the statement. The man was smitten by anything with four legs.

But, Jacob knew. The “last cat” would be his last cat.

***

That final summer into Fall, Jacob and I spent time reminiscing and reflecting on life’s lessons. Old memories revived, questions never asked now answered, mysteries unraveled. Animals, a topic of conversation, as always.

I knew Jacob had a dog as a youth.

“Oh, yeah. I was seven or so when Pudgie arrived as a pup. We had a lot of years together. We bonded. He slept with me and followed me as I rode my bike around town, even to school.”

“He stayed at school?” That didn’t make sense.

“By my bike. Outside. The entire day.” Jacob looked so lost in the telling. An old friend in memory. “Winter challenged my mom to keep him inside. He’d break free and find the school on his own and sleep in the snow.”

“Wow. The quintessential dog story.”

“He was the only dog in town allowed in the public library,” said Jacob proudly. “He made a fuss at the door the first time I started doing homework there. The librarians relented. They knew Pudgie.”

“But no cats in your life.”

“Nope. As a kid, I kept my distance” he said. A soft hesitation in his voice.

What an odd remark. “Kept my distance?”

Jacob looked like he’d been waiting to tell me something. That “can’t-keep-it-in” look on his face.

“Pudgie didn’t do well with cats?” I asked.

“No.” Long pause. “Actually my mother decided we would not have cats. Never, at least until my brother got older.”

Hmm? “Tell me why?” I asked.

“I was six and Mom had just given birth to my brother. I’d been begging for a cat for weeks. Something to do with a cute cat commercial. Before the ubiquitous cat videos.”

“Ah, so getting a cat at that time would be a trouble for Mom. Underfoot, breaking it in…”

Uh oh. I sensed a confession coming. All of Jacob’s facial muscles sprung into action.

“Not exactly. Cats, my mother told me, can suck the breath from a baby when he sleeps.” He didn’t smile. “Well, not all cats—and not all babies.”

“That would have set off a few alarms, I guess. For Mom. Maybe the authorities would have to reduce the domestic cat population.”

Jacob didn’t laugh. In the spinning of his story he became lost in thought—or a medication haze.

No response, followed by no basis for this fact. “My mother said I needed to know. At some point, I would have children. You know.”

I nodded. Jacob and I had Tommy. He survived. “But clearly you never took her advice?”

He looked at me as if to lighten this up, a little eye roll.  He probably saw me relax a little and smile. “But, I believed her…at first.”

“Are you telling me you know of a cat that sucked a baby’s breath?”

“Oh, no,” Jacob said quickly. “I wouldn’t accept that theory until I could prove it. Or rather, disprove it.”

I checked the clock. This discussion might end up a marathon. “And how did you prove it, or disprove it?”

He looked at me as if I had the answer. “Experimentation.”

“I see.” I didn’t.

He said nothing.

Until I could prove it No! It dawned. I stood involuntarily. “You watched Tommy while he slept? And the cat? Our child? That was the experiment?” Anger as a strange emotion in our relationship burned inside me. “Why didn’t this come up when Tommy came along? Why not tell me?

Jacob looked as though he were in physical pain. “I’m sorry, Hon. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

“You didn’t think to—“ I shook my head to maybe clear it. His disease would excuse only so much.

“This was the third year of our marriage. I plead stupidity.”

Any anger vented and I relaxed. I did not want to argue with my husband as he approached death. Tommy turned out okay. The idea of the cat behavior made no sense.

“Plea accepted.” And that ended it.

***

The waning weeks of Jacob’s life raced by. Lots of talk. Good food. Visitors. Even a few short outings.

Tommy came often.

“If only all our days could go so well,” Jacob admitted.

I agreed.

He seemed to have a firm grasp on his situation.

“I envy you, Jacob,” I said to him one rainy September day. “You’ve not given up control of your life. Others clutch wildly any means to prolong the inevitable.”

Jacob looked directly at Ellie by his side on the loveseat, one paw extended with a sonorous purr action. “We have choices and means. And with age and illness comes wisdom. Some revelation comes late in life.”

“What are talking about? Means? Wisdom? Are you keeping something from me, Hon?”

He smiled, almost playful. “No, you’ll find out in your time. That’s the way life works.”

I did a double take I felt in my neck.

I’m almost certain the cat said,“Yep,” to that.

Jacob looked so placid. Still talking to the cat. Or sitting quietly in breathing in synchrony with the beast. It had to be the meds.

Yet, the disease advanced with more symptoms, all as described by the doctor. When Jacob slept, as he did more often, I tended to affairs of the house. Jacob made many arrangements and sometimes I found myself duplicating his actions. The man never told me everything.

I loved cats. Always have. This last cat acted as aloof as any cat, but I could not bridge the gap.

When I entered the room where she slept, she invariably fled. When with Jacob, she stayed under his protective arm, but with one eye peeled. Ellie did not take to my touch. That was mildly annoying since I was the one who initiated Jacob to cats.

Sometimes she watched me. Those moments when you know you’re being watched.

***

Jacob had maybe six weeks to live according to the schedule. In October, he had lost much of his mobility as muscles weakened. We managed pain. I experienced growing weariness. Waiting for—an end.

On a sunny day late in mid-October, Jacob lay dead. He reclined on the loveseat in the sunroom. As if frozen in place. Reminiscent of a painting of a lord by some Old Master only this was my husband.

The sunlight artistically framed Jacob against a backdrop of brushes of green and fading colors through the windows. Flowers losing bloom, hanging on. Season’s end. Life’s sunset.

Only the pillow lay askew on the floor below him. Next to the cat who glared at me.

I knelt at the loveseat and took the mirror my husband used to comb his hair. When I held it at his open mouth for half a minute, no fog formed. His eyes were wide, empty.

Unbeknownst to me, Jacob had willed his body to medical science—a grandiose beneficiary—and pathologists descended on his remains in the two days after his death. Arrangements were made, and his body was transported.

They made their examinations and cuts and recorded their conclusions.

They had not expressly been looking for it, but cause of death was determined.

Afterward, a few questions remained. For some people, the cause mattered a great deal.

Asphyxiation. Not expected. His lungs and airway were clear. Other people took an interest. One, a lawyer. Technically, an inquiry was conducted, but not an investigation.

One day in early December, with snow covering leaves that Jacob would have raked, the inquiry ended.  Officially.

My son had left for Madison after a visit. Ellie and I occupied a chilled house. The noisy furnace needed attention.

This is the last cat.

I awoke that night in the light of the Long Night Moon filtering through my bedroom window. I lay flat on my back, hearing breathing, my dream blending into life. I had been running free. An animal, leaping with eyes wild. I slowed my breathing, but it was not mine I heard. The rhythmic trill continued.

I opened my lids at that instant and looked up. Just over the top of my pillow. The green eyes. Wild.

Wisdom. Ah, Jacob. The cat got it, at last.

Movie Night by Marie McCloskey

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I eased myself onto the oversized seat. My back popped and my knees locked up, but I clutched my goodies tight. A few kernels of popcorn sprinkled the floor and I nodded to my assist dog, Sally. “All yours, girl.”

The stiff chair didn’t offer as much comfort as my old recliner, but I hadn’t been to a movie in years. I was determined to enjoy it. At fifteen dollars a ticket I’d have to. I knew prices had gone up, but the concession was so high there should have been gold in the popcorn.

I got extra butter to stick it to them. Piled on the salt and took enough napkins to wipe my mouth for the next year too.

The ex would have glared at me at me. Not that she would have dared to leave her couch. Her precious Netflix shows widened her ass as fast as my injury grew my gut. I shook my head at the thought. I missed being able to walk without pain. Found myself hating the joggers I drove past on the way here.

At least the divorce is almost done. I shook my head and jammed a handful of popcorn in my mouth. The salt danced on my tongue. I gulped my drink letting the cherry coke dissolve the popcorn and fizz before swallowing.

Now I can at least enjoy some of my life again. I patted Sally on the head. She rested her face on my lap and I sat back thinking of all I’d missed out on since I got married.

“No bacon on the pizza if you want me to eat it.” The first time she said that, it was cute. After twenty years of marriage it felt like prison.

I grinned to think of how I handled her walking out on me. “You’re not the same anymore, Chuck!” she shouted.

I can’t believe I was so mad at the time. “Of course I’m not.” I slapped my leg. “I can’t do the shit I love anymore.”

“I can’t do this anymore. All we ever do is fight.”

“Only because you won’t accept me as I am. Sickness and health were just ideas to you, huh?” I’d growled.

She stormed out and I ordered and extra-large pizza with triple bacon.

At least now I can die happy, I told myself, shoved more popcorn in my mouth and belched loud enough to make the kids behind me giggle.

I turned to wave at them. “I haven’t been to a movie in years.”

A little five year old girl waved back, but her mom ignored me.

Just like Jillian.

When not arguing, she had pretended I didn’t exist. The pain in my leg stabbed all the way up my spine and she just ignored my groans. I should’ve known not to trust her. She didn’t even like dogs. I can barely trust people who don’t like dogs or at least cats, and she didn’t like any animals.

“We can’t have a dog destroying our nice home,” her fighting words came right after the wedding.

“You loved, Willis.” I gaped at her. “He was the best. Slept at the foot of the bed to keep my toes warm. And I never had to clean up spilled food. He made a perfect vacuum.”

Jillian rolled her eyes.

My loyal buddy was laid to rest in the backyard just before our wedding. He was there now, rotting under the manicured lawn I worked so hard to keep up to my wife’s standards.

“He was nice.” She had scoffed at me. “But named after a terrible actor.”

I could accept pizza without bacon and didn’t really want to replace my awesome dog, but there was no compromising with a woman who insulted Bruce Willis, no matter how type-cast he is sometimes.

Out of duty and the nature of societal pressure, I somehow got through it. Two decades I endured that…that woman. I shoved another handful of popcorn in my mouth. Kernels littered my belly. I tried to grab the ones that fell into the cracks of my seat but they escaped my clutches.

I bent forward to try and contain the mess. A fart squeezed out of me. I sat up and looked around.

No one said anything, but the couple a few seats down got up and moved further away.

More room for me, I guess. I fanned my nose.

Sally lay down and rested on my foot.  

“No woman was ever as good to me as you.” I carefully leaned forward clenching my butt to keep kamikaze gas at bay. “Go ahead.” I waved at the popcorn on the floor and she munched it.

The lights went down and the screen filled with sweaty bodies. They morphed to a woman buttoning her jeans over gaunt hips, then cut forward to a car racing along a sea-side road. I squinted and scratched my head. A single line whispered at the end. The breathy voice confirmed that I had survived yet another unbearable perfume commercial.

And people wonder why no one pays attention to this junk. I laughed to myself. They’re more useless than ever. Anything that’s gonna sell doesn’t need commercials. I marveled at the shiny smiles plastered on the people onscreen.

Jillian hated commercials almost as much as I did, at least. Netflix got that right, but they’ll probably be running ads soon too. Just like cable. The whole point of buying that was originally to avoid ads in the middle of a show, but then the providers wanted more money and killed that dream.

I rubbed my pocket, glad to have a thicker wallet without Jillian. What had started out as seven or eight dollars a month became added packages, more streaming services. Hulu. HBO. All the networks wanted to suck me dry. They left little to help with the doctor bills after the accident.

I had grown so indifferent to new shows: Amazon originals, Netflix series. They lacked something, but I couldn’t describe what. My inability to articulate the emptiness of flat storylines and mass media consumption annoyed Jillian to the point that she wouldn’t watch anything with me.

I guess I had grown a little cynical. But who wouldn’t?

I happily turned to books for entertainment. The classics were still there full of intelligible ideas and characters so real they became trusted friends. This movie was it, the one I had been waiting for, for half a decade. Hollywood finally got off the remake/nostalgia-porn train and put stock into new stories again.

Based on the book of all books, it couldn’t fail me. The story felt so real I empathized with the characters more than the woman I had married.

Thinking of all the attempts I made to get her to read the book still made me shake his head. “Just try the first page and if it doesn’t hook you, I’ll leave you alone.”

A callous cloud darkened the hue of her hazel eyes. She shrugged me off. How could something that meant so much to me not even interest her a little?

I despised how easy it was to imagine her─leaning against the arm of the couch─controller in hand. Her finger hovered over the play button to resume binge-watching her favorite garbage.

I froze in my seat. For a moment, I feared I would reawaken to the nuptial nightmare. But the theater screen plastered a PG-13 rating before us all. My breathing steadied, and the previews began.

I zoned out during scenes for the next big comedy flick. It looked like something from Idiocracy. Poop jokes, and stupid faces were all the comedic world had to offer? I couldn’t accept that. I cracked my knuckles and rubbed my knee.

The other trailers were a circus of explosions, women crying, men screaming, and a one giant eyed alien. None of them impressed me. I checked my phone to see how long we’ve been waiting. Twenty-minutes. I paid to watch twenty minutes of ads trying to get me to watch or buy something else.

I forgot why I even decided to go to a movie.

A hum of hushed voices surrounded me. I scanned the shadowed heads, wondering what they would think of the film. At least this movie will be different.

Sally smacked her lips and rested her chin against my ankles.

I shoved more popcorn in my mouth and gulped some soda. I sloshed the cold liquid around my teeth like mouthwash.

Mouthwash. My old morning routine came to mind like a movie on the screen. Jillian rolling away from me before I could kiss her.

“Morning breath.” She moaned.

She never kissed me unless my teeth were perfectly polished and my mouth was minty fresh. I grew to resent peppermint. I despised fluoride.

I grabbed the mouthwash and stared at its alcohol content. I couldn’t decide if drinking the entire bottle would get me drunk or kill me but either seemed like a nice solution. Anything to stop Jillian from complaining again.

I wondered if any cases of death-by-mouthwash existed. I contemplated experimenting. If it would have gotten her to admit she was wrong, I would have died a perfect martyr.

Now glad to be a survivor, I wore the recollection like a badge of honor. I fought and endured. And now, I have won.

I scratched my receding hairline, glad to be rid of her constant suggestions for fixing that too. I didn’t want to be fixed. Nothing would stop time. Nothing could fix my age or what life had done to me.

I blinked hard. A video filled with cute disabled kids played, asking the audience to turn off their phones. I silenced mine and pushed it back in my pocket but all around, the glow of cell phones flashed like lightning bugs on steroids.

I couldn’t understand it. The theatre had been completely devoid of the damn things until the commercial mentioned them. Now everyone seemed to be checking texts and emails.

I leaned over my seat and squinted at what was so important to the lady adjacent to me. Bad idea. Bile rose in my throat. My ass twitched.  My spit turned sour as the image of a veiny dick implanted itself in my brain.

God strike me blind! I rubbed his eyes. My hands shook, but I managed to grip my soda and suck more down.

“Oh, yeah. It’s finally out,” a nasal voice sounded from behind me.

Everyone sat still, busy wearing out their thumbs typing. Maybe they’ll be done when the movie starts, I hoped, but not even the up-tempo song, or the comical opening credits deterred them.

My mouth went dry. My heart beat slowed to a hard angry thump. No one said anything.

No one was going to stop them.

I grabbed my cane and forced myself up. “I’ve waited too long for this.”

The brilliant illumination of angry faces sat framed with the glow of the screen.

“If you’re not going to watch the damn movie, then go home. I paid too much to sit here while you all ruin the show.”

A couple of people clapped, some turned off their phones and slumped in their seats.

It worked. I jerked my head from side to side. I’d never felt so good.  I was a hero. I had stood up for myself, my rights, and the rights of all mankind.

I stuck out my chest, stretched my chin forward, and drew an enormous breath. They were listening to me. I needed to take the opportunity and further educate them, since no one else would.

“And you know what? I wonder how many of you even read the book. You do know how to read, don’t you? Or are you too busy binge-watching your precious Netflix shows?”

Sally pawed at my leg and let out a low woof. She nipped at my elbow. I know I should have stopped and watched my movie, but I was trying to confront injustice. I couldn’t help myself.

“Excuse me sir.”

My heart froze and I turned toward the voice. A flashlight blinded my eyes and I held my hand up to deflect the glare.

“I’m going to have to ask you to sit down and be quiet, or you’ll have to leave.”

My body went cold. A couple of people clapped and I found it difficult to swallow. “Maybe I should go.” I grabbed my cane. But the little girl behind me, the very one who laughed when I burped stood and grabbed my hand.

“No Mr. Guy. You should watch this. It will be fun.”

Her mom grimaced. “Jilly baby, sit down.” She pulled her back.

“Jilly?” I asked.

The little girl nodded.

I apologized to everyone and sat back down. “You have a beautiful name,” I whispered over my shoulder.

I loved bacon. Loved my dog. I had loved my wife for a time. I contemplated that as the movie played.

The acting fell flat. All the best lines never came. My eyelids grew heavy and I nearly fell asleep in public like some kind of retirement home escapee.

I yawned and glanced around when the movie was over.

“Did you like it?” The lights went up and little Jilly smiled with curls tickling her chubby cheeks. “It was so fun.”

“It was perfect.” I waved to her and her mom forced out a smile.

“Okay honey, it’s time to go.” She ushered her away, but I stretched and scratched my knees.

Sally prompted me to rise. My stomach rumbled.

I stood and gasped at the shooting pain that hit my left arm. It burned a bit too, worse than my knee ever plagued me. “Come on girl. Let’s get some quadruple bacon pizza on the way home.”

We got the pizza on the way home. I sat in my chair and licked the grease from my fingers before the pain in my arm climbed to my chest and knocked me to the floor.

And that’s how I got laid up in this hospital. My ex didn’t deserve me or Sally, but maybe I can cut back on the bacon. Just a little.

Marie likes to let her work speak for itself.

Risking Delight by Chitra Gopalakrishnan

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I listen idly to the deep, resonant whoop of a solitary coucal and then to the throaty chorus of coucal calls that follow─each bird call starting when one ends. I sit on warmish grass dampened by freak autumn rains in September and try to discern their feathered presences among trees in the pale ribbon of the evening light. I look for their glossy bluish-black plumages, their chestnut wings and their black, loose, long, tails but they are so perfectly blended within the dense tree recesses that they remain hidden.

I am sitting in my rectangular garden. It that takes over the front of my cottage on the outskirts of New Delhi, with a line of heavenward-shooting trees running along each side and a copse of varied smaller shrubs on the inside. I get the feeling that it is the greenery around that is summoning me with its full tones.

As the leaves of the trees and the shrubs shimmer with the moisture of rain, I wonder what their heightened calls give notice of, what secrets they divulge. A part of the double-dealing cuckoo family, I believe ornithologists when they say, “these coucal calls are more about what they hide than what they say.”

I understand their theatrical masquerades as I understand myself. Dissembling has been among my early survival skills. The first marker of my oddness. The other being my lonely pursuit of choices that lie outside the norm.

Let me start with the smoke screen and the peculiarities of my current profession in the here-and-now of my life. In my early thirties, I work in an intimate market, in the business of buying and selling secrets. I was and still am hired by shocked, betrayed wives who find their husband straying. As a ‘mistress dispeller’, which is my official designation, I befriend the mistress, woman to woman, invade her life, uncover her weakness or her many damaging weaknesses to the wife so as to break up the liaison.

As I see it, I excel in my outlandish job, in the ‘private intel space.’ No one knows better than me of the unbridled excitement of forbidden attachments. If I know how to nurture such connections then I know as much about how to undo them with nonchalance. But more of my own earlier life of sensuality when I unwind the tale of my past from my tale of my today, the life of my yesterday from the life of my today: To a charming gossip columnist, Vidya Jain, who I gave an ’in’ to my world.

 I confessed, “I, unwittingly and to my bemusement, also break up a medley of martial peculiar orders and family arrangements that have come to be in our city’s contemporaneity.”

Vidya, in her column, spoke of my innate sensibilities of a spy that aids me in my job. She said, “She has a keen sense of observation, a knack of idly engaging and finding common ground with anybody, the plusses of a natural liar (you really can’t learn to lie as you will trip up sooner than later), a clandestine, street-wise ability to press the limits of rules and regulations to test how much she can get away with, an artist’s (some would murmur a con artist) ability to talk her way out of trouble and a preparedness to be adaptive toward changing situations.”

To this, she added, “She even uses technology with élan, her spy pen being her most useful aide memoir and infected phones her best spyware, a giveaway of all secrets on her cloned screens.” She also put in what I reiterated in my talk with her. “I know with certainty that every application on the phone has a backdoor and that hacking tools are as easy to access as an Uber cab.”

I, understandably, did not give her permission to use my name. But I must admit she is as much of a deadeye as I am and as able to extract information.

Samir Kaul, a freelance entertainment journalist, was not so charitable about my work. My client foolishly gave him my details, as she was riding on the wave of petulance and peevishness about her husband’s infidelity. His piece said, “Her dishonourable undercover work is conducted using a footloose, freewheeling team─an assorted, deviant, group of hackers, fact-checkers, small-time sleuths, bush-league citizens with a kinship to the underworld, among many other such outliers─ who roam Delhi’s socio-economic borderline.”

I had the piece, which identified me by name, squashed. An editor I knew tipped me of its scheduled date of appearance. I put my rag a tag gang to work. They came up with lurid details of his life that I used to silence him and his piece. “Sweet revenge!” my team exulted.

In an odd-sort of togetherness with my team, I have managed many a coup d’état. For the past four years, I have been carrying my burden of deception lightly, and, as a few who think they know what I do, say, with animation.

Only my psychiatrist has a whiff of my uneasiness, of how, “I get divided within as I enter the troubled spaces of others and become part of the storm within their world,” and how, “the bizarre untruths and dubious acts make me unsure of the condition of my being, my inner core.”

What dragged me to her couch a month ago with this baneful job were the beginnings of small fidgets of anxiety in my mind that worked itself up into a lather of fretfulness. I now suffer from a permanent sense of inner discomfort and unease, impulses that are new to me. My old avatar being one of infinite self-assuredness. But, as I said earlier, more of that when I tell you of my past cocksureness.

Inclined, as a rule, towards guardedness, a dislike of having to share my private predicaments and given the nature of my job that calls for me not to be loose-lipped, it took me long to reveal bits of myself to her.

As I was advised full disclosure if I wanted to heal, I coerced myself to admit more than I wished. “Until now, I have had no qualms about the shape and order of my inner being,” I said, “as manipulating situations and people gets me what I want. As it is the nature of fire to burn, it is my nature to hide what I am.”

I suspect knowing who I am as opposed to who I appear to be disconcerted her. I also suspect that she, who was to render no judgement, did not have kind words for me in her copious assessment notes. As it was only her medicines, not she, who could soothe me somewhat, I discontinued my visits very soon.

Take my last assignment for Leela Sahani as a test case of what I do for a living and as a kind of explanation for my being in this lady’s lair. Leela came to my office on a cold, foggy morning, in ire, determined “to chargrill her husband’s lover into juicy smokiness”. “Stop at nothing to uncover the truth of my husband’s carousals,” she instructed me. “Spy, catfish, break security codes, procure bank records under false claims, read personal correspondences, keep tabs on gifts, install spy cameras and eavesdrop in all manner of speaking. Do what it takes,” she ordered.

In my world that is lived a lot off screens and technology, I did most of what she asked for and some more on the ground with the help of my unholy team. My most invasive technique was to intimately befriend the young, radiantly voluptuous, Ria Mathur, the ‘other’ woman, feigning similar passions and reciprocal altruism.

I went about it with the thoroughness of a method actor, by ‘accidentally’ bumping into her and starting an animated conversation that continued as banter for months on our cell phones where we glittered on thus. I, in my contrarian puckishly charismatic way, and, she, in her typical, abrasive, unrestrained, lippy, narcissistic Delhi way, coating her tongue with an unbearably coarse accent each time she spoke to me.

She believed I found her immoderately charming.

She bargained her way into my affections and onto what she called my “classy way of life” buying sweaters for our iPhone (her iPhone was gifted by Leela’s husband), Guci bags (as she could not afford the missing c in the name) and oily edibles, all of which found its way into my bin. I threw some baubles in her direction.

Our relationship almost took on the contours of an all-absorbing romance. She was hyper-verbal about everything in her life. “I love gol gappas (round, hollow, deep-fried crisp crepes filled with a mixture of flavoured water) and could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” (Yikes!) “My Pomeranian Pinky is my soul mate.” (A breed that is an apology for a dog, if you ask me) “My boss loves my button nose and to peek at my cleavage.” “My family is very strict and I am terrified of my brothers and father but otherwise, I never dodge fights, hold my tongue or mind the rules with anyone.”

She mistook my attentive listening for empathy.

Her candour about her boozy, seductive liaisons with Neel─Leela’s husband─was equally cloying in its details. “I was so open and mast (flamboyant) while his responses were dara hua (scared and tentative). I love the way I melt in my insides like a maum (candle) in the heat of his mohhabat (passion)and the nasha (intoxication)of his tone when he callsme his jaan (life).”

I began to dread her phone calls, their clichéd dreariness and the sheer triteness of her conversations.

It took me no time with my dark art to know her vulnerability. It was as banal as money. I turned in her details and the jigsaw of my team’s findings to Leela who instantly bartered money in lieu of her soiled husband.

Of course, my tidbits on Ria’s family life helped. Leela told me, “I fisted Ria and my husband’s romance in the stomach, once for all, by threatening to tell of the affair to her family of three giant looking brothers and I-can-give-complex-to-a-rhino kind offather. I said to her this is my one-time payment to you and I want you to never contact my husband.”

The outing of infidelity is rarely simple or dignified. The exposed are utterly unshelled which is what happened to Ria and Neel. While I, in my perfect disguise, got to keep my camouflage as armour. They never knew the leak came from me, a fact that holds for all the cases I have handled so far.

I was, however, not completely exempt from downsides. I had to continue to hear Ria’s inane chatter and despairing wails of being discovered for some more time to keep my work’s tell-tale features hidden. For ‘plausible deniability of involvement’, as we call it in our professional parlance. And, two, I had face up to the fact that my head was no longer as steady, no longer as inured to the risks and the insanity of my profession, its masterful puppetry of plying and pulling of others’ life strings. Just to be clear, I was not bothered with my subterfuges being uncovered.

My insecurity arose from my hair-trigger paranoia of my psychological stability. I was assailed by a sense of losing myself, of having gone too far down the void of a rabbit hole, of not being in control of my life and my person, something very unfamiliar and frightening for me. I would never have believed such a thing probable in my life when in my twenties and would have laughed in anyone’s face if they said I would be seeing a shrink in my life.

I have always found camouflage to be a wonderful thing as I am sure you have inferred by now. My seeming to be someone else while concealing who I really am has been a captivating game for me from childhood. I have lived in my shadows of subterfuge for so long that my disguises are now a part of me. They have never felt wrong or dysfunctional but fun like play-acting.

In my early years, my father often worried about me growing up without a mother, the lack of her influences and anchoring. He would point me to a picture of the wheel in our drawing room, say that it should remind me of living my life from the centre. “When we live our life from the rim of the wheel, we focus on externals, what you can see with your eye or hear with your ear. Externals will never make you strong in your inner core,” was something he repeated to me often.

Did he sense my secrecy and cover-ups even then? My little manipulations and the small contradictions in my stories? Was he worried that what he permitted could turn into what he promoted? A number of times, I felt in my bones that he seriously disapproved my lack of a blood bond to him and my tenuous attachments to friends. His constant urging me to “grow more affection and altruism” confirmed his dim view of my lack of filial and fraternal fidelity.

Conflicts of my amoral outlook did register in my furrowed brows at a young age. At fourteen, to the confession priest in my school’s church, I said, “Father, I worry about why moral perfection is not burrowed into my sense of the world. I do try time and again to lean towards goodness, but I fail.”

All he said was, “Mend your ways, child. Find your path towards God.”

The holy water he gave me was supposed to help. It didn’t.

 Such urges simply died when I reached my twenties. The subterranean hum of my true nature became voluble by then and I began to accept the freefall of my basic tendency. One that was to maximise my utility at the expense of others, sometimes even at the risk of bringing about negative outcomes in other’s lives. At this point in my life, I came to a clear understanding that I have been involuntarily following my innate instincts all through my life and that I will continue to do so as this is the only way I know how to be.

My elite life in New Delhi, ten years past the turn of the millennium, was, hence, an indulgence, unbound by any ideological mooring, one persuasion or another. I overheard one girl say of me, “She is simply interested in getting as much as she can for herself, her personal interest acting as her sharpest spur to action. She sees inventive dissembling in the guise of simple naiveté as a good way of getting by as being strategic in choosing when to cooperate.”

She was not wrong.

While at the campus in the northern part of the city, doing a post-graduate course in economics, I never bought into the argument that my economics professor would tout, “that it is in understanding the interests of others that we are able to fulfil our own.”

My counter was, “attempting idealised perfectibility and equality in personal, political, economic and social spheres will always fail. The dark mirror of utopias, dystopias, will show up in fallen social experiments, stringent political regimes and controlling economic systems.”

These beliefs may sound Machiavellian to some but I had yet to read him at length at that point. My beliefs sprung from my own interpretations of the world around me. It surprised me then as it does now that my old professor held on to human goodness while I ingested the meaning of utopia to be ‘no place’ both literally and metaphorically. And that I have always believed that disinterest in gathering personal resources is ideologically unhealthy.

So as I was saying, life in my twenties was a time of riotous springtime joy. My diary noting for this period says, “My life now is a seemingly eternal season of silk cotton fluff fluttering in a breath of wind. A time when ‘adventure’ is the ticket. A time when it feels beautiful to be in my body when a golden heat flows skin-deep, vital and shining. A time to allow passion to take up space within my body’s clear effusive warmth, changing the balance, making ripples in the air that it passes through. A time to throw away the cultural scripts written for women.”

It was easy for me with my erotic loveliness and with my umbrella shadow of luck and privilege to flit fast from liaison to liaison within New Delhi’s gilt-edged, closed-in community. I went on thus compulsively and in secret for eight long years. As I sought transitory physical attachments and never emotional closeness that tended to feelings, my many past lovers were put one by one where they belonged, out of my life and in the past. As I saw that the simplicity and security of one partner was not for me, I cleared each of my lover’s residual impact quickly to reclaim my sexual sovereignty. For me, the idea of taking on inner pain in the name of love was needless torture.

It never happened.

I don’t think it was my attractiveness that particularly drew men to me. There were women with far more beauty and feminine mystique. I think what one of the men in my life said to me explains why men were drawn to me. “You send out subconscious scent signals that urge a sexual response.” So I will go with my all-scented wanton, womanly body as the reason for my appeal and as the reason for why I unwound men.

It was one connection in particular that held me for very long. I note in my diary that it was “pulse-pounding, ardent, dangerous and disruptive.” Dangerous and disruptive as, in our case, we were both married. It was no impediment though, despite the watched and guarded nature of personal and social lives.

My diary entries for this period are uninhibited. “Our lust is on the loose. We taste the excitement of each other’s lives and yearn for another thousand faraway possibilities. It is so exciting to carry on our furtive trysts with note messages tucked into bicycles, furtive calls through the day, midnight meetings and through the courting each other through poetry in well-modulated cadences.”

“The folds of our sheets could tell stories of just how truly bad we are,” we would often joke. Our affair was freighted with lies, secrets and ongoing deceptions that uncontained relationships like this need. We risked our delight as there was no license in my marriage or his to open up our experiences and connections to others. Or to reshape it in any way to our needs.

Thinking back, I realize I must have had holes in my conscience through all my many relationships post-marriage as it remained oddly innocent through all the illicit dangerousness. And my middle-class Indian background, that should have tethered me with moral chastity belts, not even allowing my fantasies to roam freely, failed in its reign-in.

The backlash to our lustful dare devilries arrived swiftly, once we got found out. His wife called me up. “You rubbishy creature, how could you do this to me and my child? I can’t think of another person in the whole world that I despise more than you. You have the morals of an alley cat and I will pray that you rot in hell in a sludge of substances.”

Her succession of emails were far more vitriolic and delivered a tirade of expletives. She threatened to inform my husband and ruin my life.

She did. My marriage and my double life folded.

My life’s deceptions were witnessed by all and my personal stories made public. I was made to map the extent of my misdemeanours. People, especially women, saw me as a “labyrinth of many unknown paths” and I let them live with their belief. I guess because it was true in many ways.

I had to use indifference as a defence mechanism to counter my powerlessness. It is not as if I did not hurt from the inside but the recognition of who I really am insulated me, made me understand that my adventuresome actions and decisions were in many ways ineludible.

In defence of my husband, I think he would have been able to handle “minor palterings” but he could not cope with my “many flat out deceptions’, as he termed them. Once my lover’s wife outed our deception, many other women were emboldened to whisper to him about how I “turned my affections towards him to others.”

And it is also not as if my husband did not try to understand me or my indiscretions. He did. But we were toppled over by another awkward trio that came to be─him, the counsellor and me.

We made efforts to cut through the complications and permanent barriers created but failed. The counsellor felt my reasons for straying and staying were “delusive” and noted that I “felt no guilt that most others would feel when engaging in stuff like this, something hurtful to others.”

Finally, my husband gave up, saying, “I think there is nothing left to save. Now my entire idea of what the world is, and the truth of what is and isn’t, feels like it is on a chopping board and that trust between us is a thing of the past. In fact, I am not certain we had trust to begin with.”

I begged and I pleaded. It was ignominious. “Let’s start afresh. I promise to be true to you. I will make up for the times I let you down,” I beseeched. My moment of complete abasement came when I cried, “Where will I go if you leave me? I have nothing to fall back on, what will I do?”

He remained unmoved. Our marriage came to an end when I reached the age of thirty with two court hearings and a signature. It purged me of all my relationships and friendships.

Looking back, I see that I mostly observed my husband from under closed eyelids through our eight-year connection. All I can say is the mild warmth of my marriage at twenty-two years of age and his unrelenting gravity bored me and I, “could not be demure and domestic,” as my mother-in-law curtly said in her first assessment of me when my father and she met to, “marry me off,” as they call the curious social engineering of arranged marriages.

I know all of this sounds an easy summation of the situation or of why I was not as safe or knowable as other women around. My arguments do lack introspection and show up my inability to face up to the crucial actions in my life as also my casual, cruel displacement of an individual. But that is all I have as that is how I am.

Maybe I should have taken my dead aunt Renuka’s notion of singlehood as a desired way of life seriously and fought with more intensity against being ambushed into marriage. She did, in her sickness, warn me, when my father was pushing me into marriage. “Don’t allow boldness of your aspirations to be bleached into a pastel of family expectations. I know you well and this is what will happen if you marry.”

No one knows how a thing like a divorce will strike you before it comes to you. But one thing was certain; it brought on a dreadful reckoning over which I had no control.

I reeled for months under an unfamiliar sense of insecurity and the harsh realization that I had no particular skills to make a living. The sniggers of those around who said, “She will probably allure a whole organization now,” cut to the bone. But at least I had a place to stay. My father who passed on two years ago, erasing all records of my childhood, left behind a cottage on the outlying part of the city from where I could make a new beginning.

In my thwarted life, I chose to be a mistress dispeller as it fell within my catchment area. I had never known it to be a thing until my marriage was spluttering and I heard whispers that my lover’s wife had employed one to peel away my secrets.

I don’t know if she did.

I do know a woman sought to befriend me around the time of my last affair and that I did reciprocate, meeting her for an odd coffee or drink. I am not sure how much I said or whether she was why I got found out but the idea of the job description stuck in my head. Talk of life’s ironies. It was my lover’s wife in a way who set me up in this covert career.

So I live my life now with a job in the game of seduction, one that is heart-in-the mouth, immediate and fierce in its gaze of the hidden, almost delivered from my societal shame. Or maybe not.

Today, is my new life, four years of age, with its changed balance in my role as a mistress dispeller, a liberation of sorts? A validation and affirmation of self-perceived abilities and a balm for injured self-esteem, as I see it? I earn well, act as a relief worker for many distressed women, mask my own sexuality and keep my own life and its engagements denuded to a minimum, almost solitary, to erase my past waywardness. Or it is really a doppelganger of an earlier existence, a double walk as it were, on the path of stealth and strategy? One with ethically, morally and socially questionable attitudes and behaviours, as many say?

After all, I do freely admit to the buzz I feel when codebreaking and the power I feel when I play God and wreak judgement on others’ lives. This even though I myself have indulged in such a lifestyle with abandon.

If pressed to find language about my current situation, I would say it is uncomfortable. My idea that the ground beneath me is solid, dependable, that I can build on it, that I can trust it to support me, is gone. The gaping hole in my mind, in my life, seems to mock the very idea of solid ground, of trustworthy geology.

I live off-course, in a state of doubtful uneasiness in my mind, rolling over peaks and troughs, splayed by them, and struggle to enter into a stable ground of belief about myself, my life. I look for the easygoing self-assurances of my life in my twenties but they are nowhere to be found.

Is my strife within the beginning of consciousness?

I sit vertiginously atop of a Ferris Wheel, the world beneath me, wondering if the wheel wisdom of my father will work out answers for me.

Will it help me find my way back to things I can trust? Will it help me find my own floor? Should I adopt the wisdom wheel, its love and kindness, as my compass, as a way of coming to terms with myself, as my catharsis? Should I finally now accept my hubris in thinking I can control my life from its rim?

I need to find out fast before I lose myself. Before I don’t fit in my head at all.

Chitra Gopalakrishnan is a New Delhi-based journalist by training, a social development consultant by profession and a creative writer by choice. With decades of experience in writing books on social development, she willfully exploits several creative genres to bring out the exertions of living in modern-day Delhi, caught as people are in its uneven, messy and riotous surges. She understands that finding one’s balance in the city’s whirlwinds is not easy and considers herself fortunate to be living on a farm with her family, a little away from the city, keeping company with her dog, her many feathered friends and fishes.

Babycakes by Dash Crowley

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A few years back all the animals disappeared. We woke up one morning and they just weren’t there anymore. They didn’t even leave us a note or say good-bye. We never quite figured out where they went.

We missed them.

Some of us thought the world had ended, but it hadn’t. There just weren’t any more animals. No cats or rabbits. No dogs or whales. No fish in the seas or birds in the sky.

We were all alone.

I didn’t know what to do. Everyone wandered around, lost for a while. Then, the prime minister addressed us stating, “Our scientists are baffled. But there is no cause for alarm. Just because the animals are gone does not mean that we must abandon our way of life.”

From there we learned. There were plenty of us. We had no reason to change our diets or cease testing products that might cause us harm.

After all, there were still babies.

Babies couldn’t talk, and barely moved. They were not rational thinking creatures. Without intelligent thought they weren’t really people. Why not utilize them properly?

So we made more. The bearers were drugged so they wouldn’t feel any connection or the pain of unnecessary self-sacrifice. Once cut from the womb we took the young creatures.

Baby flesh proved to be tender and succulent. We delighted in consuming it, flayed the skin and decorated ourselves with the silky hide.

Never wasteful, I went into the baby leather industry. The soft and comfy wear made me feel rich and youthful. Sharing that joy with others became my life’s greatest accomplishment.

But not all “babies” were eaten. Some were used for testing.

Companies taped open their eyes, dripped detergents and shampoos in one drop at a time. They scarred and scalded them─burned their sensitive little bodies to protect us from harm─lest we should suffer. They clamped their tiny appendages down and stuck electrodes in their brains. They grafted, froze, and irradiated.

The infants breathed in smoke. Their veins pumped new medicines and drugs until they stopped circulating.

It was hard at first, but necessary. No one could deny that. With the animals gone, what else could we do?

Some religious people complained, but then, they always do.

Everything eventually went back to normal. After a time, the underdeveloped creatures didn’t seem like living beings anymore. That made it easier.

But yesterday, all the babies were gone.

We didn’t even see them go. We don’t know what we’re going to do, but we will think of something. Humans are smart. It’s what makes us superior…

We’ll figure something out.

Dash Crowley is a private man, artist, writer, magician. You might witness him from afar on twitter, @dashercrow, or on instagram @dackcrowley.