Tag: fiction (Page 1 of 7)

Book Review: Parakeet

by Ioannis Argiris

The opening of Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino starts off as a wild dream state for Luna, a young bride-to-be. Her dead grandmother manifests as a parakeet in a hallucinogenic vision and urges Luna to reconcile with her brother before her wedding day. We meet Luna at a dilapidated hotel on Long Island, trying on her wedding dress, as her grandmother inquires about family and traditions. But when Luna brushes off her grandmother’s request that she make amends with her brother, her grandmother—the parakeet—defacates on the wedding dress, forcing Luna to plunge into an unusual journey. The novel delivers an honest connection to family, through the lens of the theater, that makes for a great read.

Parakeet is Marie-Helene Bertino’s third novel and it dives into a bride’s search for identity. Luna is anxious—as one might be leading up to such an event—but also conflicted, vulnerable, and dismissive both to herself and others. She’s getting married to feel something new inside, but what ensues is a chaotic, strange, sometimes dark exploration into the self. Luna, referred to as “the Bride” throughout the novel, must ultimately acknowledge her traumatic past life to discover growth. With her grandmother’s manifestation as a parakeet, Luna’s stable life rattles with unresolved questions from her past. Why must she reconcile with her brother? Can she really accept her mother’s control? Why has her grandmother appeared the week of her wedding, and as a parakeet, no less?

Acceptance and acknowledgment of one’s identity through maternal legacy strongly surfaces as the core of the novel. From her grandmother’s appearance, to a strained relationship with her mother, to whether or not Luna wants to become a mother, she must look back in order to move forward. Her grandmother questions Luna’s independence and freedom. “Those of us with able bodies have a responsibility to use them as much as we can. Given another chance, you wouldn’t believe how I’d use it. Threesomes. Foursomes. Moresomes. Smoking is a joy of life. Good lord, why did I ever give it up? My teachers called me disruptive.” This contradicts the conservative and traditional approach to life her mother instilled in her. Luna must accept not only that her formative years were shaped by these women, but that they continue to guide her today .

Identity through trauma appears in various forms throughout the novel. At one point, we meet “other mother,” a future vision of Luna. “I become aware of a third sentience inside me, blinking behind my mother and me—what I can only call ‘other.’” This out of body moment is raw and experimental. It enables Luna, the Bride, to really get at some core questions about her life. It is a catalyst that forces Luna back to what she must accomplish—who is she? And in order to determine that, she must meet with her brother prior to her wedding day.

The bizarre expedition includes various moments that exude an offbeat tone. Managing the various wedding vendors and tying up loose ends at work enables Luna to wander from the inevitable wedding day. For example, she brushes off the florist multiple times and says she’s not getting married. And when she must close out her last case as a case worker for a law firm, she realizes how her client’s brain injury and subsequent memory loss has stifled his life. This finally nudges Luna to confront her own trauma by visiting her brother’s play, one that is based on her life. Seeing the various versions of herself acted out on stage is traumatizing for Luna. She becomes entranced by the beautiful feathered costumes that dive into her emotional wounds, which allows her to observe her flaws and growth along with the audience.

The concept of performance is an integral part of the novel—from her brother’s play to the wedding day itself. Luna must create a façade with a dress, makeup, and an attitude that emanates joy. The stage is the renovated inn that contains traps for her to confront and spaces for her to reflect in. She is a character in a play that then gets tested within a cage made up of her family, friends, and future self. Luna’s path to realization is both wonderful and dissociative. Bertino weaves the concept of identity through trauma into a raw and emotional prose that delivers.

In addition to Parakeet, Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas and the story collection Safe as Houses. Her fourth book, the novel Beautyland, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Spring 2022.


Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel. You can find him online on both Twitter and Instagram.

Already Dead Things

by Stacy Bierlein

Outdoor education was a thing the parents liked. Kids should know how things grow, they said. Children want to take care of things, we agreed, to be individually responsible. If the cabbage actually survived we took it to a local food bank. This time, though, the rabbits got in.

Was something wrong with the soil? a little girl wanted to know.

No, I said, the rabbits were hungry.

I didn’t explain that they probably came down from the cemetery at the top of the hill, displaced by a digging of graves. In our perfectly constructed greenhouse everything that should have been green was dead. The Lahiris had endowed the new greenhouse. Two of their sons were alums and five of their grandchildren were here. It all should have been very nice but I had forty kids in there with me, my second graders and Ms. Frothmeyer’s first graders, staring into empty planters, scattered soil, absence. It was pathetic.

To make it worse, that semester the turtles died. They had been science room pets for years. Sometimes Ms. Frothmeyer held the turtles so close to her waist that a visiting parent would mistake one for her handbag. The turtles checked out because the water was contaminated. The kids seemed sad but not surprised. It was on the news every night about the water. Parents too smart to believe the city council when they said everything was fine—and that was most of them—had kids brushing their teeth with bottled water from the Central Coast.

They actually expected the tropical fish to die. The art teacher put a giant painting of orange and blue fish on the wall where the aquarium used to be.

Soon the invading rabbits were dead too, some of their carcasses found in front of children’s screams in the field adjacent to their playground. That’s when we heard from the funeral director that it hadn’t been graves alone displacing the rabbits—they’d been moving away from coyotes migrating from Bonita Canyon. Birds and voles had vanished too. None of us could remember the last time we heard a bird song.

The director said we had to remind the coyotes to be scared of humans. We needed to throw rocks at them. Several kindergarten parents were known to bring small dogs to afternoon dismissal. It occurred to me that a teacup Chihuahua named Paul could be the perfect amuse-bouche for an average coyote.

We didn’t have worms and frogs delivered as planned. Mr. Walter insisted we cancel the already dead things. The kids dissected digital creatures on their iPads with an ambition that might have been relief.

We had experience speaking to students about losses of grandparents and pets in previous years but never in such extraordinary numbers. We were alerted to heart attacks, strokes, and a suicide. Canine leukemia, feline lymphoma, dehydration. Three grandfathers, four grandmothers, and a Great Nana. A golden, a labradoodle, a Yorkie, and a spaniel. Two ragamuffins, a munchkin, a Burmese, and a Russian blue.  It didn’t help our collective anxiety that everyone’s middle school siblings were addicted to an unsettling X-Envio game where humans and animals died en masse.

Something is wrong with this place, one of the mothers, Ms. Flynn, kept saying. She sent her specialist in at night when all of us had left, someone who chanted and burned sage. When that didn’t help she said her specialist was distracted; coyotes are so loud at night.

It wasn’t the school, I told her, it was the world.

Soon teachers were dying too. Mr. Slaussen’s chemo stopped working and our woodshop closed. A skiing accident took Ms. Chloe, the new assistant coach. Beloved Ms. Bromowitz left a faculty meeting with a stomachache, went home, dropped dead in her kitchen.

After the holiday break it was the twins, Mara Lopez’s stepsisters, activists, fatally gunned down in their high school parking lot. One of them was wearing a March for Our Lives t-shirt. Her friends said she had a crush on the Parkland kid who was on MSNBC all the time. You can be aware as hell and it still doesn’t save you.

We promised to postpone active shooter drills. In a faculty meeting I glared at the administrator who instructed us to call the decision a wellness initiative; only Mr. Walter noticed.

It is a difficult time, teachers kept saying, to parents, amongst ourselves. We all turned greenish-grey in my mind’s eye, our eyes deep red. Even the most positive-minded among us started to look like zombies. Des morts-vivants. It was a hideous year.

Maybe we should have known better, given everything, than to let Mr. Gabriel rent the van. He felt so proud of the five sixth-graders who made it to the state history bee that he volunteered to drive them to Sacramento himself. A tire blew on the freeway, there was no visibility with the rain, there was a cement wall. What happened exactly remains the subject of some debate. The unspeakable result is the same. The heartbreak was like nothing we had ever seen.

This was all before the virus came.

The learning specialist’s ringtone was “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger-stronger-stronger,” and I told her please let’s stop with that song. For the love of God, they’re strong enough.

I hope so, she said. The mayor might direct us to close the school early this year. There are rumors of community spread.

Most of my kids were already wearing face masks. I wasn’t wearing one because little Zoie Thornton was hearing-impaired and read my lips.

When the grief counselors left the children finally wanted to talk.

Where did they all go really, they wanted to know. Our cabbage, the rabbits, the birds, our turtles, the fish, our pets, the nanas and papas, the twins, the teachers, our friends?

I don’t know, I said, there are various ideas about this. I’m so sorry—I just don’t know.

So who does know, they demanded.

I said, Maybe nobody knows.

They said, Is it true that we are going to grow up in existential crisis?

Maybe, I said.

We don’t like this, they said.

I tried not to fix my vision on the empty desk in the middle of the room, the reminder of a classmate at home with a fever.

This totally sucks, they said, all of it.

It totally does, I agreed.

We hate it, they kept saying.

I understand, I said.

Then one of the boys said, Will you at least make out with Mr. Walter so that we can see something new? We think you like him, one of the girls added. We think he likes you, another clarified quickly.

He’s nice enough, I said, laughing, but I will not.

He’s virus free, one of the boys told me. We had him for technology today. He took a test right in front of us and he’s fine.

It is important to be safe, I agreed.

We know he dated you in college, they said. You used to like a band called Counting Crows.

I opened the classroom windows wider. He told you that, did he? I said.

His homeroom kids are in the library, one of the girls said. He is all alone this period.

They had put some thought into this. I admit I was never so proud of them, my sweet, masked, grief-stricken kids.

Why did you break up in college? one of the girls wanted to know. He wasn’t mean to you, was he?

Not at all, I assured her. Our relationship was not … defined. I left California to study in France. Neither of us was sure I was going to move back.

So will you do it? They weren’t giving up. Will you make out?

Still a no, I told them. It would not be appropriate. We could be fired. Making out is not something one does as a demonstration. Not usually anyway.

Please, they said. Please-please-please make out with Mr. Walter. We need to see something new and weird. Something in-person. Something good so that we won’t be as scared.

It’s good that you are trying not to be scared, I said.

I told them that sometimes I am scared too. That’s when Jakob Walter walked into my classroom, unmasked. Jake, as I used to call him when we were the students. He had a forehead scanner in his right hand. He stood between the long blank whiteboard and the children’s desks and showed me his 98.60 reading on the tiny square screen.

Whatever, fine, okay, I said. He stepped closer to me, pointed the scanner to my head, took my reading. He smelled like a Mr. Sketch grape marker.

98.65. Close enough, he said, smiling.

He kissed my forehead. He ignored the stares of nineteen curious children and embraced me as if a hundred thousand terrible things hadn’t happened since the last time we touched. We held each other. He kissed my forehead again. The children were excited. The bell rang but they didn’t leave their seats which made us laugh a little. D’accord, I said, okay, nodding with consent.

Briefly we made out. The kids cheered. Some even whooped, some made a standing ovation. Suddenly a yellow-rumped warbler flew in through the window, circled the room. Even with the cheering I could hear the flutter of its wings as it circled again.

The kids cheered harder, jumped up and down, laughing, alive.


Stacy Bierlein is the author of the story collection A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, editor of the anthology A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, and co-editor of the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. She was a founding editor of Other Voices Books.

Book Review: Rodham

by Amy Reardon

Today in America 2020, it is four months until the next presidential election and nothing is certain except our ever-growing regret that we did not elect the most qualified person for the job when we had the chance. But why not? And would it have made a difference if Hillary Clinton were not attached to Bill?

Enter Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth and boldest novel yet, a fictional story of Hillary’s life trajectory had she followed her own bright star instead of her husband’s. Delicious in its fantastical rewriting of history, the book’s most irresistible pull lies in the promise of the parallel life. For don’t we all secretly fear a better life might have been just around the corner, if only we had been brave enough? But the novel’s true brilliance lies deeper, in Sittenfeld’s examination of one key question: why didn’t we elect our first woman president in 2016? Was it her … or was it us?

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It Was N, in the Closet, With Her Coping Mechanisms

BY: MARISA CRANE

N comes into school late, spinning like the Tasmanian Devil because J told her to and J knows best and honestly she thinks J could use a shave, but she won’t tell him that because he’s sensitive, plus last time J borrowed her weird uncle’s razor he didn’t put it back and she got a spanking for touching things that aren’t hers because of course she knew better than to blame it on the man no one else can see.

She learned that the hard way one summer afternoon while drawing J’s home planet on the sidewalk in front of her mom’s apartment with the chalk she’d stolen from the corner store where the man with the strange accent hums songs she’s never heard before and follows her around while pretending to rearrange the shelves. Anyway, J told her all about the place he was born and the bad ideas that grew from the ground like towering trees and N drew them all, every single one, because J said she was the most wonderful artist on both her planet and his and she believed him just like she believed her daddy when he said he’d Be Right Back. Her mother said  daddy ran up a tab he couldn’t pay at the Red Fox Motel and now N doesn’t know where he is but he certainly isn’t Back. J told her that on his planet back was a synonym for alive and she cried for four hours straight while her mother made Steak-umms and talked on the phone in a voice softer and silkier than her own.

 

The man on the phone was not her good-for-nothing husband, the man who, despite failing to commit to anything longer than a bar tab, repeatedly assured her he didn’t have the up-and-leaving gene, yeah right, as if any man had ever kissed a woman without also imagining how tired that very same kiss would become in just two years’ time. 

When N’s mother hung up she knelt down on the gray carpet next to N and hugged her but didn’t ask what was wrong—she could hardly manage her own shit. There was a reason the flight attendants always urged you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, even if that someone else was your daughter, even if that someone else looked sad and spooked around the eyes, and anyway, her oxygen mask must have been defective, ill-fitting, perhaps it had been designed to fail—her husband (or is he now an ex?) would call this victimization, he filed everything she did under victimization, it was the new hip term husbands passed around sacred husband spaces to justify their husband tempers. She, too, wanted a word for this thing, this fucked-up thing that happened to her and then kept on happening to her. She needed to lie down for a while.

 

The next day N was working on her intergalactic drawings when her mother found her and smacked her in the back of the head: Where did you learn these things? her mother asked. J told me about them, said N, cowering, still clutching a blue piece of chalk which had been reduced to a nub. Who the hell is J? her mother asked. N looked to her right, to the space where J sat pretzel style on the sidewalk, his straight black hair sticking out through the hole in his backwards hat, wearing a smile that looked nothing like her mom’s when she watched her grown-up shows or even her dad’s back when he still played airplane with her, balancing her body on his feet while she stuck her arms out to the side and pretended to fly. But she knew it was a smile nonetheless, just barely meeting the qualifications, because his teeth were showing and the corners of his mouth were turned upward, but don’t get it twisted, there was nothing pleasant about his expression.   

An imaginary friend taught you about dildos? her mother asked, trying to mask her own smile, one that absolutely meets the qualifications, failing to hide it, mixed signals for N who’s rubbing the back of her head. He’s not imaginary, said N. Look, he has dark brown eyes, black hair, ripped jeans, a black t-shirt. He’s a teenager. Teenagers can’t be imaginary, said N, convinced that her mom could see the boy-man with the bad ideas plopped down on the sidewalk with nowhere to go but wherever N goes. You’re a bit old for this, don’t you think? asked her mother, smearing one of the flying dildos with the toe of her sneaker. No, I’m not too old for a friend, said N, standing up and wiping off her pants but only succeeding in adding to the mess of chalk on her pants, a rookie move, she knew better but was frazzled and disturbed by what she could only interpret as her mom’s cruel and unoriginal prank.

It’s half-way through first period when N shows up, spinning spinning spinning while J laughs laughs laughs, and the teacher immediately calls her Therapeutic Support Staff, Z, to come deal with this child because Z knows how N gets, knows that if she comes into school like a tornado, she’ll leave having destroyed anything in her path. J tells her she can stop spinning and she collapses onto the carpet where the teacher reads stupid books almost none of the kids care about, except for maybe the asshole boy that’s always picking fights with N, according to N, but a lot of kids are always picking fights with N according to N. 

I don’t know why you make me do this silly stuff, she says laughing, high-fiving J, J who is now donning a black cloak and fangs, the real kind. Help, please come down and deal with her immediately, the teacher says into the phone. What’s that, J? N asks, recovered enough to stand up. Oh okay, okay, I will, she says, running to the back of the room where she crawls inside the coat closet. Look, N is crazy! yells someone who may or may not pick fights with N, we’ll never know. 

 

Shut up, a muffled yell comes from the closet, and some of the kids giggle, some cover their mouths with their hands, a few stomp their feet, and the teacher wants to leave, wants to know if she can call in sick when she’s already at school, wants to travel back to the exact moment she accepted this job and set her decision on fire, no, wants to travel back to the exact moment she decided she wanted to become a teacher and slap the word out of her mouth like the worst cuss word imaginable.

Ignore her, she just wants attention, the teacher says, and the kids seem temporarily satisfied by this assessment, they pull out their sloppy paper-stuffed folders, pass in their addition and subtraction homework, for the most part try to pretend a girl isn’t hiding in the closet talking to herself about about about about …. What is she saying now? Oh, that motels may or may not be separate planets inhabited by dreams that have died and floated out of children’s heads. Dream graveyards, she says. She keeps saying a person’s name. A man’s. She says it like he’s there, sitting in the closet, making it all make sense.

 

Z arrives and the teacher exhales so sharply Z’s worried the teacher may huff and puff and blow the whole room down, which she supposes wouldn’t be so bad, then she wouldn’t have to hike up her pants and crawl into the closet made for tiny coats and tiny backpacks and look absence in its carved-out eyes, then she wouldn’t have to pretend to know what to do with all that despair, how to spread it out so it doesn’t smother its owner, too smart for her age, observant, overexposed. 

What are you doing in here? Z asks once she manages to get down on the floor and peel through the hanging coats like layers of skin the little humans left behind. Hi, Miss Z! I don’t know. J told me to come in here so I did. I like it in here, says N, patting the ground and looking around as if she’s already decided the closet will make a nice home. Oh no, not J. He’s back? says Z. He never left, Miss. What else is he telling you to do? she asks, well aware of what N is capable of when she’s under the influence of J. Oh, all kinds of bad things, N grins, her eyes widening. Like what? Z presses. Today he says I should punch that asshole boy. He said some shit about my daddy the other day and J says we can’t let him get away with that, says N. You know what I’m gonna say to that, says Z, already tired, already depressed about N’s circumstances. I don’t wanna hear it, Miss. That boy needs to pay up, she says, punching her open palm with her fist in what Z assumes is supposed to be an intimidating gesture but looks more like she’s ready to flatten some Play Dough, and Z considers the idea that the body is smarter than the mind, that it knows when it’s being deceived and acts accordingly.

Oh what’s that, J? You think N should come out of the closet and go upstairs with Miss Z to talk about feelings and other crazyyyyyyyyyy things, says Z, holding her hand behind her ear and leaning toward the space to N’s right, hoping that she chose correctly so N won’t know she’s a fraud incapable of seeing J. What, he didn’t say that! No way, says N, shoving the space to her right, yes Z guessed correctly, yes Z does a mental fist pump, will take whatever success she can get, and then N stops, listens closely, and says, Oh my god, you did say that. You’re nuts! You know this lady’s a ghost right? she says as she begins to crawl out of the closet. I’m gonna let that one go, says Z, poking herself in the arm, reaffirming her reality or something like it. J says you look like a packing peanut, says N, laughing. Awesome, thank you, J, says Z, who gives the teacher a nod and points toward the ceiling to communicate that she’s taking N to her office and the teacher smiles like she just got the word that children were cancelled forever.

 

Upstairs N plops down in a chair and begins rolling backwards around the room and saying, Wheeeeeeeeeeeee, and asking J to speak up. J who still smiles that unsmiley smile, J who clears his throat and mutters, J who doesn’t actually have a home planet, J who until now hasn’t unleashed the worst of the worst, J who until now has been earning her trust, J who prepares to become a real boy by telling her a new truth, quickly pounces on Z, wrestling her to the floor, then ties her hands behind her back, gives her a quick kick, and sticks a gag in her mouth. J grabs N’s chair, spins her around so she’s facing him, and before she can say a thing, he tells her that the only way her daddy will love her again is if she jumps off the 5th Street bridge and learns to fly. 


Marisa Crane is a queer, non-binary writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, F(r)iction, Hobart, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Our Debatable Bodies (Animal Heart Press, 2019), and she serves as a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she currently lives in San Diego, California, with her wife.

No Good Place to Die

BY: SHELLIE RICHARDS

Lester Suggs’s brows sank lower and lower with each passing second, as if the full weight of what he was about to do was resting right on top of his temple. One eye twitched as he slumped against the truck window. He methodically stroked his cheekbone with his index finger and bounced one leg so that the cab of the truck shook in time with his movements. He took the plastic bottle from the glove box and emptied several chalky disks into his hand. He tossed his head back and swallowed two Tums—whole.  

“You’re supposed to chew ’em, Lester. Damn.”

“I know that, you crazy bitch. And you know how I hate them fruity-flavored ones. I told you to get me the minty ones. You don’t listen. Never did.”

“Uh-huh. You the one that don’t listen, Lester. Ever since your daddy died, you been nothing but a little horse’s ass. You don’t respect nobody and you don’t listen to nobody neither. You need a good ass-kickin’. Boy, I wish your dad—”

“Shut up. You hear me? Shut your mouth. Maybe if you’d been more than fifteen years old when you had me, you’d have had the sense not to have me. So shut up.” 

Lester tucked the nine-millimeter into the back of his Levi’s and shot her a final look that said: Don’t screw this up. Jackie Suggs did what she was told and kept both hands on the wheel of the old Ford truck. She’d wait for his signal and pull up to the front door. “If that damn Mercedes ever moves,” she muttered.

 

But Sharon Waters was planted at the curb, watching the beads of rain that formed on her windshield gather into larger droplets that slid down the path of least resistance until they disappeared into the abyss beneath her car hood. Occasional shards of sun broke through the rainclouds, and a beautiful rainbow settled somewhere on the east side of the town, near where she and Bernard had lived in their 1920s bungalow for twenty-five years. Glorious years, she thought, and at the same time: Rainbow be damned…sun-shower be damned… oleanders, damn, damn, damn! The surge of bitterness jerked her back into reality. At that moment she didn’t care about the sun-shower or the oleanders…she didn’t care about anything anymore. She wished, in fact, that she might simply hold her breath until she suffocated and died. Then, she thought, then she might have peace.

So she sat in the shiny, black Mercedes sedan at the curb of Trustmark Bank, trying hard not to breathe. She pressed her lips to conceal the quiver and focused on the lush blanket of pink rose blooms that lined the sidewalk. She blinked to keep any tears from escaping when she heard Bernard sigh. He reached over and squeezed her hand, as he’d done so many times during their twenty-five years. She knew Bernard was too weak to walk very far, and so she had pulled up as close to the door as she could.  

“I can do this,” he told her. “It’s thirty feet to the door. I’ll be right back, okay?”

Sharon nodded. She couldn’t speak. She watched him tremble while he opened the door, but he stood up strong and straight, gave her a wink, and walked into the bank. 

Bernard was dying. Her sweetheart. Her true north. The other half of her soul. Her best friend in the world. Who else did she have? She and Bernard shared everything and had shared everything. The fact that they didn’t have children magnified this point. They’d wanted kids, but when they found out Sharon was unable, Bernard stood by her, resolute in his love. They were a family of two, he’d said. Through all of their trials, Bernard had been the glue that held everything together. When her mother died, Bernard made all of the arrangements so she could mourn quietly. On their tenth anniversary he’d taken her to Africa on safari, a dream she’d had all of her life. And when her dog, Jet, was bitten by a poisonous snake, Bernard rushed him to the all-night vet and was right there with her, and when they had to put him down, he’d held her up. Always, he’d held her up. Her favorite music on the radio, her favorite dinners, her favorite vacation places.  He’d spoiled her all of these years, and now bone cancer threatened to take him away. Sharon had cried for a week. She didn’t eat and slept only from exhaustion. Bernard assured her he was a fighter. He’d beat this one way or another. “I’m not leaving you, Sharon. Not for a second. Not for God, not for the devil, not for anything or anyone. I’m here. I’m staying. You’re stuck with me.”  

Now their time was running out. She thought again of his words: “You’re stuck with me.”

The words rang in her head, and she played them over and over again. They had sustained her then as they did now. But the chemo and radiation had been rough, and each time they thought they had it, it cropped up somewhere else: lungs, liver…and now Bernard’s heart was surrounded by cancerous tissue—his big, beautiful, super-sized heart. They’d promised to be together until the end whenand if, he always threw in—it came. But Sharon knew. And so did Bernard.

 

Lester Suggs couldn’t stand it any longer.  

“That bullshit Mercedes ain’t movin’! Fuck this crap. I’m going in.” Before Jackie Suggs could utter a single word of disapproval, he was halfway to the door.

“Damn fool,” she mumbled. “Damn fool.”

Lester entered the bank and took one look around. He ran his hand back and forth over his bald head and fingered the tattooed base of his neck. He could feel where Jeanette, his ex-girlfriend’s name, appeared in large, military-green, gothic letters. Maybe he’d take some cash from today’s job and have it removed. He shifted the red bandana over his face and fired a single shot toward the ceiling.  

“Everybody down! Get the fuck down now!”

They did as they were told. All except one. 

Bernard. Still standing, he turned, shaking and pale.

“What’s-a matter with you, pal? Can’t you hear? I said, get the fuck down!” 

Lester’s voice bellowed, filling the tiny bank branch in a way that scared the patrons breathless. 

All but Bernard. He was breathless already.

“I heard you.” Bernard’s voice sounded confident. 

Lester pointed his gun toward Bernard’s face, hoping a little intimidation might do the trick. He needed to get this guy on the floor and fast. He didn’t want the rest of the customers thinking he was some kind of pushover pansy. He waited for Bernard to lie down like everyone else. On the floor to his right, a young mother and her boy, maybe five or six, wrapped their arms around each other. Across the lobby an old lady, pasty white, passed out, a young college student spilled her coffee when she went down. There were two female tellers, and the bank manager—this should be an easy job. Easy-peasy.

Lester waited.  

 

Bernard stood tall and still. He glanced around the bank at everyone lying in the floor and then through the tinted doors at Sharon.  

This could be it. This could be the end. This could be the place he’d die. Not in some hospital room where your light goes out while you’re staring at the institutional, aqua-colored tiles, or at home where the last thing you see is your favorite chair from the bed you shared with your spouse of twenty-five years—breathing lavender and vanilla pillowcases—and you curse your situation while waiting to die. There was no good place to die. Not really. This was as good as any. A bullet traveling two thousand miles per hour straight to the heart wouldn’t take long.  

Ironically, he’d come in to collect his will from the lockbox. Now he had some nut job shaking a gun at him. He and Sharon were on their way to plan his funeral, literally, and here he stood, looking down the barrel of a beautiful, shiny Glock. Go ahead. Do it. Kill me. Shoot me. Shoot me in the heart. Shoot me in the cancer. Make it quick. Save me the trip to my attorney’s office. 

The thought of it all was so incredulous, so ridiculous, that Bernard began to laugh hysterically, and the only sound filling the tiny bank branch was not that of Lester Suggs’s deep, gravelly voice, but that of Bernard’s high-pitched, maniacal laughter. He laughed so hard that he had to grab the counter to steady himself. It was invigorating. In fact, Bernard couldn’t recall a time in the last few months he’d felt so alive as he did, looking down the barrel of the nine-millimeter and laughing at the obscenities of the crazed redneck wielding it.

“Hey, pal! What the hell’s your problem? I said, get down!”

Bernard laughed even harder, choking until he finally spat at Lester’s feet. A perfectly round, scarlet-red ball of sputum hung from the edge of Lester’s alligator-skin boot.

 

Lester stared, simultaneously mystified by the ruby-red pearl on his boot and his nemesis, who continued to laugh even harder and crazier than before.  

What was this bullshit? And what was this red goo crap hanging from his brand new, alligator-skin boots? C’mon, Lester. Man up. Stand up to this. Do something! Lester looked from one bank customer to the next, grinding his teeth to conceal his nerves. What was this a-hole doing? Damn! He’d just wanted to rob a bank. Should have been an easy job—a small bank on a slow day with hardly any people around, and now here he was and it was all on the line ’cause some freak decided he wants a fight. He could walk away and risk getting caught, or he could smack down this crazy fuck ruining his day. He tried to think it through but his thoughts were tangled. He wasn’t even sure of his own name. How could he pull off this bank robbery if he couldn’t even remember his own name?  

He looked at Bernard more closely. He was a small guy, and his clothes hung off him like maybe they belonged to his big, fat brother. His skin was yellow and he looked sickly. Lester’s grip on his gun softened at the thought. Suddenly, though, he was jerked back into reality.

“You came here to take something that’s not yours, right? Am I right? Take me, asshole! Take me. Shoot me. C’mon! Kill me right here. You want to take something that’s not yours? That how you get off? Go ahead, take my life!”

Bernard bellowed like a madman, and Lester was suddenly more than a little nervous. He felt fear creeping in like a distant thunderhead building strength. But he was also transfixed. Who was this crazy? Lester wanted to check on the other customers, but he couldn’t—his gaze was locked. Bernard’s fury and rage sucked Lester in with such force that he felt like a rubbernecker at a freak show. What began as a robbery was now a carnival.

“You hear me? You’re nothing but a thug. A common thief. Someone who thinks he’s somehow entitled to other people’s things—their money, their livelihood, their stuff that they earned!” Bernard’s rant was a crescendo of insults.

“That how you got those fancy boots, huh? You steal those? You’re a loser. A nobody. Nothing. A big, fat zero!”  

Bernard screamed so hard his face went purple, and his body lurched forward as if the sheer power of his voice required the strength of his entire person. Instinctively, Lester swung at Bernard, knocking him to the floor.  

Lester turned to confirm that the other bank patrons were still down. He’d been so mystified by Bernard’s rant and ruby-red sputum, he’d failed to make sure everyone else was behaving like normal people behave. Everyone was down, still. Good. Check. Check. He didn’t need this freak giving them any hope of pushing any alarms or making any phone calls. Who was this crazy? Lester’d had girlfriends who weren’t this messed up. And this guy was a runt. He’d had hunting dogs—beagles—that were bigger.

Lester turned back toward Bernard, who’d gathered himself, and was headed toward him full bore. Before he knew it, Lester went down, busting his head on the travertine floor as a single shot went off into the ceiling.

 

“C’mon, tough guy! C’mon! What happened to ‘get the fuck down,’ huh? Now who’s the big guy? Now who’s down? C’mon! Kill me! Get up and kill me! Right here, big guy!” Bernard beat his fist to his chest. Right here. Right here in the cancer. Do it, Bernard thought. Bernard thought he heard Lester mumble “crazy fuck,” just before he passed out amidst the applause and screams of the other bank patrons.

Later that afternoon, still dizzy, still shaken by the onslaught of first responders, followed by the din of sirens and breaking glass, Sharon sat by Bernard’s bed at St. Catherine’s Hospital, as she had so many times before. She watched carefully as the physician flipped through the ER chart…waiting.

Bernard furrowed his brow and Sharon’s heart sank.

“That was quite a show, Bernard. I’m impressed.” Then, checking the IV drip one last time, he looked at Bernard and patted his shoulder. “You’re gonna be okay, Bernard.”


Shellie Richards is a research editor and teaches science writing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN where she lives with her family. Her work has been published in The Chaffey Review, The Cream City Review, Bending Genres, Oatmeal Magazine and Bartleby Snopes (winner, story of the month) among others, and she has a forthcoming essay in BioStories. She is a member of AWP, the Porch Writer’s Collective, holds an MA in English (writing emphasis) and is currently working towards an MFA.

Big in Japan

By: Billy Minshall

You should never tell a lie. Except when you should. 

“How could this have happened in the school parking lot? No one heard glass smashing?” my mother asked.

She surveyed my VW parked beneath our carport; the driver’s side window demolished. My mom, the spitting image of Sally Field in the film Norma Rae.

“I don’t know. I told you. I walked out to the car after school and there was glass everywhere. I left some loose change in the console so someone must have seen it and decided to break in. I mean, I don’t know what else to say.” 

Her brow buckled. “But why would someone smash the driver’s side window of the car in broad daylight? If they were going to break in, why didn’t they use a coat hanger or something?”

“I don’t know, Mother. I’ve never broken into a car before. Maybe it’s because Volkswagens are airtight, and you can’t jimmy the lock with a hanger or a slim jim” 

She considered me carefully, then the car, then me once more.

 “Well, I’ll report it to the insurance company.” 

My mom went inside to get ready for her part-time job at a local health food store. The door to our rented ramshackle house slammed behind her. We’d been through a lot in the past year and a half. My stepdad, Russ, was a truck driver who filed for divorce after meeting the “love of his life” in Tennessee. My mother picked up a second job to make ends meet, and now she was rarely home and hardly ever slept. She was exhausted.

 

Mrs. Seagull was my high school drama teacher. She smelled like incense and frequently reminded us that she and her husband, Bob, met at Woodstock. He was a theatre professor at the university. He also hosted Kaleidoscope, a local talk show that was televised live every weekday morning from the Towne East Shopping Mall.

One day Mrs. Seagull invited Bob to our class. He told us that a Japanese company was coming to town to film a commercial and they needed extras, all-American types. The producers were holding a “look-see” at the university on Wednesday at one o’clock. Since I believed myself to be the epitome of all-American, there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. Mrs. Seagull said it would be excellent experience.

“You’ll need permission to get out of school for the audition. Do you think your mom will be okay with that? I’m happy to talk to her if she has any questions,” she said.

 “I’m sure my mom will say yes,” I said.  

Another giant lie. My mother couldn’t stand Mr. and Mrs. Seagull. When I told her that they met at Woodstock, she rolled her eyes. “So, what? Half a million people were at Woodstock. Who cares?”

Obviously, my mom had no clue how awesome this was. 

“Well, I think it’s amazing,” I said.

“Honey, do you even know what Woodstock was?”

“Um, yeah, I’ve seen the album cover. It was about peace and love.”

“It was about doing drugs in the mud. Mrs. Seagull’s probably still on drugs.”

My mom had other issues with Mrs. Seagull, like her East Coast dialect (“It sounds fake”) and her vegan lifestyle (“What does that mean?”). It didn’t help when my mom discovered that Seagull was not their real last name. 

Months earlier we’d studied Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Near the end of the play, the character Nina blurts out, “I’m a seagull.” While reading this aloud, my sandalwood-soaked drama teacher burst into tears. 

“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Seagull said in her faint, East Coast accent. “I think it’s best if I just share with you why I’m crying, rather than pretend I’m not upset.” 

She confessed that decades earlier while honeymooning in Cape Cod, she and her husband accidentally hit a seagull with their Dodge Dart. The bird got tangled beneath the car and was mutilated. The newlyweds were devastated, so shaken that they legally changed their last name to Seagull. It was their attempt at reparation for taking a life from the Universe. I thought this was the most beautiful gesture ever. When I shared the story with my mother, her irritation turned to rage. She spoke in tongues. She levitated. 

There was no way I would be allowed to leave school to attend an audition sanctioned by the Seagulls, so I decided to leave my mother out of it. I wrote a fake note with a forged signature and excused myself from class. 

 

My handsome friend, Hector, and I left school around lunchtime and went to the audition together. I drove my 1973 white Volkswagen beetle out of the school parking lot to the nearby university campus. We could see the road through the rusted floorboards of my dilapidated car, which had belonged to my mom before she bought her Buick. Since it was just the two of us after my stepdad left, it was a pretty big deal that my mom could afford both cars. In fact, she’d saved up for months to make that happen. And I couldn’t have been more grateful—I loved that car. The seat fabric in the VW was a product of its time, with brilliant psychedelic blue-green waves that appeared to be hand painted within the confines of their black leather borders. I didn’t care that the driver’s side seat was torn to bits and chunks of yellow foam puked from the seat’s guts, littering the floorboard, falling through the cracks

 Hector and I stopped for a hamburger across the street from the university. We sat in a sun-soaked booth that looked out at the university lawn, bathing in our freedom and talking about the audition, speculating if appearing in an international commercial might make us famous. When we returned to the car, I reached into my front right pocket for the keys, but they were not there. I searched my back pockets. Nothing. Through the shut driver’s side window, I saw my shiny keys glistening. They dangled from the ignition and smiled in the noontime sun shower.

No way.

Hector jerked at the passenger door, “What, dude? We’re gonna be late!”

“Look,” I said. 

Hector peered into the car. “You’re kidding.”

Tears flooded my eyes. I was embarrassed that I’d made this mistake in front of my handsome friend.

“Well call your mom. I think I have a quarter for the pay phone,” Hector said, digging into his front pockets for change.

“I can’t call her. I’m not even supposed to be here,” I said.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“I guess we have to break in. The thing is though, Volkswagen Bugs are airtight,” I said.

“Is that really true?”

“I think so.” I was flustered. “Don’t you remember The Love Bug? When Stefanie Powers drives Herbie into the Bay and they float? It’s because Bugs are airtight.”

“Why do you remember that? Plus, your floor is so rusted out there’s no way that thing is airtight anymore.” Hector laughed. I didn’t find any of this funny.

“Don’t you know how to break into a car?” I was desperate. 

“What, because I’m Mexican?”

“Because you work at a garage.”

“Let me go see if they have anything I can use to jimmy the door open.” Hector returned to the restaurant. 

I waited in the parking lot, pacing and plotting. I pressed my face against the smudged glass and saw Hector at the counter talking to the cashier. He looked at me from the other side of the glass, another dimension, and shrugged, defeated. This couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t call my mom. What would I tell her? I wasn’t allowed to leave school for any reason without her permission, not even for lunch. The audition was in ten minutes and I was not about to forfeit my chances at international recognition. I scanned the parking lot and spotted a rugged-looking middle aged guy in flannel heading to nearby Bronco.

“Excuse me, sir? Do you have a hammer?”

 

We arrived on time and were instructed to have a seat in a very fancy waiting room. They called me in and the door opened. Three Japanese men sat behind a mahogany desk.

“You like Hard Rock Café in Orlando?” one of them asked. He had a Polaroid camera.

I glanced down at my T-shirt. I hadn’t known what to wear, what “all-American” looked like. Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts were all the rage at the time and made me seem well traveled. Orlando, though not New York City or Los Angeles, still revealed I’d been to Disney World. I bought the shirt when we had driven to Orlando on a whim the previous summer. Our drive was long and hot and my mom tried to make me laugh, singing along to Johnny Cash in her new used Buick, while I read a magazine article about ex-porn star Traci Lords. 

“Austin, what are you reading?” my mom asked. She was irritated that I wasn’t singing with her, so she snatched the magazine out of my hands.

“Mother! What are you doing?”

“Oh, whatever,” she looked down at the magazine and read the title of the article aloud: ‘Nobody Loved Me.’ Oh, brother. That’s why she became a porn star? Because nobody loved her? Give me a break.” My mother rolled her eyes, then laughed, then tossed the magazine out the window.

“Hey!”

“Honey, lighten up. We’re going to Florida.” 

“You’re going to get a ticket for littering.” 

I stared out of the passenger window for the rest of the drive.

 “I just have the shirt,” I told the man behind the table.

“Smile.” A Polaroid camera flashed. I said goodbye, left the room, and Hector went in. He emerged minutes later, his head held high. We got into the VW and went to a gas station, where the two of us tried desperately to vacuum the broken glass from the car seats before I took him home.

 

A week later, my mom received a phone call while I was at school. She told me that I had been selected as an extra in a commercial. Wiped out as usual, she scanned our freezer for something to eat. Finding nothing, she grabbed a Hostess apple pie off the top of the stove.

“When did you audition for a commercial?” She devoured the pie.

 Think fast

“They came to our drama class.” 

“Why did they choose your drama class?” 

“They wanted all-American types and Mr. Seagull is an acting teacher at the university” 

“Of course this involves your hippie-dippy drama teacher.” 

“You know what, never mind. Can’t you be excited for me that I was actually cast? This is a big deal.”

“All right, fine Austin. I don’t have time to argue with you. I will drive you there. They said they’re filming this weekend and they’re going to pay you seventy-five dollars for the day. I have to go now or I’m gonna be late for work.” 

My mom threw the pie wrapper in the garbage and put on a green and tan apron that read Health Nutz.

“You don’t have to come with me,” I said. 

“I’m going with you or you’re not going.”

“Why?” 

“Because I don’t know who these people are and because you are sixteen and I am your mother. And because I said so.”

“I hate you sometimes.”  

“Well I hate you too. What do you think about that? I guess we’ll just hate each other in the car.” 

 

That Saturday we drove to a nearby farm to film the commercial. Wardrobe provided an ill-fitted Wrangler shirt and a cowboy hat that was too small for my head, and the director paired me with a young woman in a pink gingham dress. We linked arms because we were told to and hung out by a picnic table, then spent the rest of the day walking back and forth behind the star of the commercial, take after take. We were told that this guy was a big star in Japan. He stood five feet from me, holding the product: a yellow snack that was shaped like a tornado. The star was handsome and he smiled a lot. The director encouraged him to make silly faces because, apparently, he was funny.

After walking behind the Japanese heartthrob for eight hours, I was sunburned. I lined up with the other extras to collect my pay for the day. Ten minutes later, I reached the front of the line where a man in the back of a U-Haul truck handed out the day’s wages. He gave me three twenties, a ten and a five, stapled together. I grabbed it from him and that was that. My sun-scorched face ached from a day of incessant smiling and nodding. I spotted my mother’s Buick in the parking lot nearby.

“Well, how was it?” my mother asked.

“You know it sucked.”

“Why would I know that? I’m just asking a question.” 

“It was fine, Mom. Okay?”

“Okay,” she looked at me and touched my cheek. “Wow, honey, you’re really burned. We’ll get you some aloe when we get home.” 

I jerked away from her. “I’m fine. That stuff doesn’t work anyway.”

“Ok. Would you like to drive?”

“Um, no.”

“Fine Austin. Just sit there and be miserable.”

We drove home in silence.

 

The summer before, after Russ left and before we went to Florida, my mother made time to give me driving lessons. Our house was adjacent to a swath of vacated warehouses that were surrounded by empty streets. With no traffic to disturb us, Mom repeatedly demonstrated how to drive a standard transmission.

“You have to release the clutch like this.” She raised her left foot.

I zoned out, stifled by the summer heat and annoyed by the sound of her voice.

“Are you watching, Austin? Come on, pay attention.”

“I am. God.”

“Look bud, this is no picnic for me either. You have to learn to drive. Now come on, you try it.”

I tried to drive that stupid car, but I couldn’t. It stalled every time I released the clutch. Laughter was my mother’s default response to stress. When she laughed at me that day, I jumped out of the car and stormed up to the passenger side.

“You know, I understand why Russ left you.” 

There it was.

Her eyes flickered. My mom stepped out of the car; a gust of wind cut through the suffocating morning.

“And why is that, Austin?” 

“Never mind.” I turned and walked away.

“No,” she grabbed my left shoulder and jerked me back toward her. “If you’re so smart then say what you need to say. Right now.”    

“You scoff at everything. You think you’re better than everyone.”

“Don’t talk like that to me. I am your mother.”

“Yes, and I am your son. That is my job isn’t it? You have two jobs to keep us fed and my job is to keep you entertained,” I said.

“Oh, give me a break. You know how many kids your age wish that they had a car? We can’t afford anything and you have your own car. Yeah, I’m just a horrible mother.”

“You can’t talk about anything without tearing it down.” I couldn’t stop. “Jesus, not everything in the world is stupid and not every person who is different from you is bad. You’re so judgmental.”   

She laughed again. “Go run around the block and get rid of your frustration. Blood-pressure head.”  

I stormed off. I could hear her calling after me. My ears were hot. I wanted to run, I wanted to leave, I wanted to burn everything to the ground, I wanted to leave my body. I wanted to die, but really, I wanted my mother dead. She got us into mess after mess. Three marriages and we always ended up broke and exhausted, searching for a way out, for a solution. The tears came, but there was no way I’d let her see me cry. I wiped my face and looked back toward the car. There she was—Sally Field smoking a Kool—standing next to the driver’s side of my car with the door open, blowing her cigarette smoke over the roof of the dilapidated VW. 

Not long after that, I finally learned to drive.

 

Monday in Mrs. Seagull’s class everyone wanted to know how the commercial shoot went.

 “What was it like filming the commercial?” Hector asked. He hadn’t been cast. 

“You didn’t miss anything. It was actually kind of boring,” I said. 

Mrs. Seagull nodded in agreement. “Yes, it’s true. Film work can be so tedious. Very different from the stage. Are they going to send you a tape of the commercial?”

“I didn’t ask.” It hadn’t occurred to me.

“Who knows? You could be big in Japan.” Hector laughed. 

 

My mom and I lived in an area known as Planeview, a so-called “instant city” that had been constructed during World War II. Planeview was meant to be temporary housing for workers at the aircraft plant. It was designed to be demolished. Now, half a century later, the sun descended on rows of blue-green shacks that were never meant to last.

I pulled the VW into our gravel driveway, got out, and shut my door. I looked at my driver’s side window, which my mom had repaired just two days after I had smashed it. Good as new, like it had never happened. I walked in and my mother was watching Designing Women. I sat down next to her on the couch. After a moment, Delta Burke delivered a zinger and we both laughed out loud.

“Hey, thanks for getting the car window fixed.” I meant it.

My mom was quiet. She reached for a Kool and lit it. “You’re welcome. Insurance paid for it so that’s good.”

Another silence. Dixie Carter ranted on the television.

“You know I can get a job too,” I said. 

Then she smiled. No one smiled the way my mother did, not ever in the history of time. Inextinguishable light. 

“It’s okay sweetheart. We’re gonna be all right. You focus on school. I got us into this mess and I’ll get us out. Okay?” She took hold of my hand.

“Okay.” I smiled back. Then I said, “I don’t hate you.”

 “I don’t hate you either.” 

My mom put out her cigarette, went into the kitchen, took a pair of scissors out of the junk drawer then snipped a leaf from the aloe plant on the windowsill. She knelt down in front of me and extracted the clear and cool salve from the leaf and onto the tip of her right index finger. 

“Look up sweetheart,” she said. 

My mother applied the elixir carefully, cradling my face with her left hand and dabbing my blistered ears and sunburnt cheeks. She coaxed the leaf once more.  

“Close your eyes.”

Cool relief beneath my eyes and gentle pressure on my eyelids. 

Now the healing could begin. 


Billy Minshall is a writer and actor whose weekly column “Hunt & Peck” appeared in Gay Chicago Magazine. His essay “Chrysalis” chronicled his work as a health educator in Chicago’s Cook County Jail and was published in Positively Aware Magazine. Billy earned his undergraduate degree in English from Northwestern University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from UCR Palm Desert. He lives in Long Beach, California, and is working on a novel.

 

Bugspeak

BY: JESSICA LOVE

Julie likes to collect butterfly wings. Davie is a fan of legs, mostly crickets, but sometimes, if he’s lucky, a Granddaddy or two. Nadia pops the eyes off of flies; she insists ‘pops,’ even though, really, it’s more of a carve. Carolyn dissects caterpillars for their hearts, because, obviously, caterpillars have the strongest hearts especially if they can become something altogether new. This is important. Mark grabs ants by the handful and stashes their thoraxes in piles. Christopher cradles praying mantis heads. Rosanne loves the lungs of cicadas. Melissa steals the exoskeletons of spiders. Lee is an admirer of cockroach brains. Who wouldn’t be? 

Mark, Julie, Davie, Nadia, Carolyn, Lee, Melissa, Christopher, Rosanne.

They call me Mrs. C. I’m not married, but that never stops them. No matter the year, it’s “Mrs.,” crawling out of their mouths with extra syllabic legs. Our classroom is in a trailer, annexed to the backyard while improvements are being made to our hallway, repairs necessary after the storm during winter break. It’s March and our old classroom is still plastic-tarped. Here, in the trailer, the siding sealant deteriorates in the wind and leaks moisture on dew-dripped mornings.  

Reading, Science, Math, Social Studies. 

My mother’s funeral will be a disaster. 

She passed in the night, that’s what the nurse said. Sudden, not sudden passing in the night. She’d been sick. A handful of strokes. Cancer. It was only a matter of time. She wants a Catholic funeral even though she hasn’t been to Mass since she was in elementary school. One last shot at being holy. I’ll need to find a priest who’ll preside over a funeral for a woman he never knew, because, right there in her will, second line after leaving the property to Anne was “funeral Mass required.” Of course, she’d leave the property to Anne, the first-born. Anne, who’s in Ireland working on a peat farm with her husband and their kids, researching the effects of burning peat on the ozone.

The bits and pieces of insects line the desktops of my students. They are spelling and respelling this week’s vocabulary list, kingdom to class: Animalia, Euarthropoda, Pancrustacea, Hexapoda, Insecta. My own desk usually holds the answers hidden in folders. But today, I worry about the alphabetical arrangement in the scientific classification of insects. I before E except after C and always I before U. Think of yourself first. If you want a Catholic funeral make sure you put it in your will, legally bind your kids to submit, even though it’s ridiculous. We’re not even Catholic.

Math lesson after lunch: multiplication and finding points on a grid. Take three butterfly wings and multiply them by four cricket legs and you get? Julie will more than likely raise her hand, powdery with wing-dust, begging me to call on her. She’s smart. She’ll know the answer: an amalgamation of twelve butterfly winged-cricket legs. Next question: what is the distance between two caterpillar hearts on a grid? Caterpillar Heart One is at (6, 2) and Caterpillar Heart Two is at (-4, -7). Maybe Carolyn will call out the heart-mapped answer, her voice bouncing in all directions of our tiny trailer.  

Science will be tricky. The praying mantis revolves around the earth. No. Reversed. The earth revolves around the praying mantis. A geocentric universe seems more plausible, especially for first graders. The center of everything is their everything. The cycle of the insect: egg, larva, pupa, adult. The metamorphosis.

Mom was fit until the strokes, up until the cancer, healthy all through my childhood. I don’t ever remember her getting even the sniffles. Even when Anne and I—she, ten; me, eight—had the flu at the same time, Mom nursed us without getting sick herself. We both had fever dreams nearly every night for a week. Anne would wake every few hours, crying, and retell her nightmare, something with dark shapes and nonsense terror, and beg Mom to sleep with her, who without pause, would carry her own pillow from her master bedroom to Anne’s twin bed and curl up tight against her daughter’s fevered frame. I suffered in jealous silence across the room twisted up in my own blankets, cold wash cloth on forehead. 

Can bugs get cancer? Do the cells of Mark’s ants suddenly multiply uncontrollably until everything that was once alive is destroyed? Maybe the hearts of Carolyn’s caterpillars can become clogged by too much photosynthesis. Is that how that works? Is this how anything works? My mom’s body, this very moment, is being embalmed. Is she in the early or late stage of her metamorphosis?  

Nadia stands in front of my desk and says, “Mrs. C, I can’t find my mayfly eyes.” Her own eyes are red. She’s been crying, the free-flowing child tears, summoned on cue. I haven’t cried yet. I know that I should cry and that it should be organic, not something forced. Anne cried when I called and told her about Mom. It was tomorrow in Ireland and she cried something awful when I told her, like she’d been bottling up all her tears for that moment. 

“Where did you last see them?” I ask. Nadia isn’t one to misplace her things. She’s very particular. 

“They were right next to my housefly ones, in my desk. I didn’t move them. It was Davie,” and she points to Davie, who shouts: 

“Stop lying,” from his seat, third row back. He’s making letters with his cricket legs—Ls and Ts and curvy, crinkly Ss. “I didn’t touch them.”  

“Davie, please don’t yell,” I say and stand. My right leg is asleep, and I am wearing mismatched shoes. One flat is dark blue, the other, black. “Everyone, please be on the lookout for Nadia’s mayfly eyes. They seem to have wandered off.”

A tiny hand rises, sticky with the life-goo of cockroaches. 

“What is it, Lee?”

“This cockroach doesn’t have a brain.”

“Did you lose it?” 

“It’s not where it usually is.”

Next to Lee’s desk, I see he’s almost spelled ‘hexapoda’ correctly. Everything’s in order but one letter. “You’re just missing the ‘x.’” His hair is almost the same color as mine, a light reddish-brown. I didn’t shower today. I could never shower again and I doubt the kids would notice; for them, the bodies of adults must seem so far away. 

“That’s why I need my cockroach brain,” he says, annoyed with my obliviousness of the importance of his plea.

Mom was easy on Anne. Anne who got married and had two kids. Anne who’s done her duty. I am unmarried and un-kidded, except for my students. I wouldn’t be a good mother. Not even an adequate mother. I don’t have the patience. I want to tell Lee to just use a moth brain instead, or move on to the next word. I am taking too long to instruct him and he is restless. Picking the answer out of my silence, he squishes the brainless cavity of the cockroach head and pulls it apart at the seams. “X marks the spot.” Problem solving. 

I’ve never felt the need to commiserate with the other teachers. All kids have their quirks. Mrs. Kay’s sixth grade class has a museum of moldy things. Mr. Jonah’s fourth grade collects hair—all kinds, from humans and animals alike. Mr. Isiah and his kindergartners make art of fingernails and toenails with Elmer’s glue and construction paper. They’ve made a gallery in our hallways, walls exhibiting curiosities. Breakroom talk is always about how great their students are, how much fun they have conducting science experiments on the moldy bread they’ve been growing for weeks in the back of their classroom. Mom never gave in to our childish fantasies. Not even macaroni art because the thought of foodstuffs and glue mixed together, she couldn’t stand. There were no galleries of elbow-noodled faces in our house. Instead, family portraits from every year lined the living room wall, bodies in the same position, smiling. Now that I’m annexed, at least I hardly find myself in the breakroom.

Julie has finished her spelling and has started designing shapes with butterfly feelers. “Triangle. Circle. Triangle,” she says when I stand beside her desk. Her tiny fingers work with dexterous precision. 

I tried once. To get to know her. This woman who brought me into the world. I wanted to leave my hometown for good. Move to another state where phone lines were sometimes fuzzy. Mom called me, a month or so after college graduation, and told me Dad was dying. “He needs you,” she said. I returned home and it was the three of us. Anne had already settled into marriage across the country where the windchill was worse than the temperature. I started working here, at a school one town over from my hometown. A thirty-minute drive to my parent’s house. Mom and I nursed Dad together. Every quiet moment, when we were alone—the two of us busy at our own tasks—I’d probe her with small talk. The kinds of questions you know about your parents without asking: a list of favorites, hobbies, “Do you drink coffee?” I thought I’d build a relationship from the topical up. She answered, but never returned the question. When he died, I watched to see how hard she’d weep. Not even a voice crack. Two days after the funeral, I asked her if she’d cry if I died. “Don’t let your life go by unfulfilled,” she said. 

“Let’s wrap up our spelling and get ready for recess,” I say and clap my hands. I’ve never clapped my hands before, but it feels like the moment deserves a final note, an end. Chair legs scrape the floor and everything shuffles. Insect pieces go back into their homes. Legs tucked into pockets, thoraxes nestled into Ziplock baggies. Kids line up at the door, giggling, shifting, shivering with the excitement of a thirty-minute non-stop run in the sun. 

One of the benefits of our trailer is that our door opens right onto the playground. The jungle gym greets us and welcomes us, rising castle-like out of the woodchip ground. To keep up with the practices of the main building, we walk our graveled sidewalk for nine feet in a straight line, then I tell the students to have fun, be careful. Nadia and Davie and Christopher run to the grassy patch to pick apart clovers for fallen flies and crickets and mantises. Lee combs the saplings that sprout along the property line for hidden roaches while Julie follows butterflies down the slide. My first kiss was on a jungle gym during recess in third grade. Jimmy Goodman—or Goodwin—pecked me on the lips after I chased him with a cattail I’d found growing by the ditch. Our teacher saw us, put us in time-out, and called our parents. Mom took me out of school for the rest of the day and made me clean out the refrigerator while she berated me with my failings thus far: Anne was in sixth grade with a tenth grade reading level; you’re kissing boys during recess. 

Lee gets a headache after ten minutes of sun and sits by me on the bench for the remainder of the break. We have the playground to ourselves until the second graders march one by one from the main building and we return to our trailer. 

Back inside, dirt-hemmed and sweaty, the students line up at the sink to wash their hands. Melissa, first in line, turns on the water to let it run until it gets hot. It takes a few minutes since our trailer is so far from the main building. 

Lunch boxes sit on desktops, filled with peanut butter and jelly and ham/turkey/chicken and cheese sandwiches, sometimes a cookie or two, juice in lidded-cups, carrot sticks. Most of the students eat the same thing every day. I wonder if their parents even realize it. Anne played volleyball in high school. Mom fixed a special diet for her during the season. Lunches packed with energy-fuel: ripe blueberries and boiled eggs carefully peeled of shell. I ate over-greased cafeteria food provided by the school. 

Carolyn sits at her desk, forehead touching the tabletop. I ask her what’s wrong. 

She rolls her head to the side and says in a breathy whimper, “My chest hurts.” 

“Sit up and let me see.” I touch her shoulder lightly, three fingers—a subtle, I’m here. Her body shakes slightly.

She straightens in her seat and lay her hands left over right above her heart. “Something’s itchy in my skin,” she cries, then crouches over once more.

“Take slow deep breaths,” I say, and she does. “You’re just tired from playing during recess.” The tears stop, but she’s sick. I’ll call her mom during naptime. I should call the funeral home during naptime, too. We’ll have to put off the funeral at least for a couple days. Anne and her family need time to fly across the ocean. She knew Mom was sick when she moved two years ago. Of course, she wasn’t as sick as she was in the end. But, still, sick enough that Anne should’ve stayed state-side. 

I have a strict rule. No insects during lunch. But, today, I catch Mark and Christopher exchanging ant bodies and mantis heads. They are having fun squishing the parts together and I don’t stop them. Today is not the day for rebuke and punishment. Lunch is thirty minutes, then it’s a thirty-minute nap, and after nap time, Social Studies: categorizing the relationships within the families of bugs. What is the hierarchy within the colony? The Species? Do silverfish follow a matrilineal descent? My own lunch is left-over pasta from two days ago. It’s one of the first recipes I learned from watching Mom cook. I left my silverware at home. But I might have a spare fork somewhere in my desk drawers. The drawer screeches when I pull it open.

“Mrs. C, Rosanne threw up,” Julie says and she’s right. Rosanne’s desk is right in front of mine. Carrots mix with half-eaten carrots. 

There are not enough paper towels by our sink, and I have to rummage through our supply closet to find more, but I get Rosanne cleaned up enough, and lay her down on her mat. Two parents to call during naptime. That’s almost a record. Everyone finishes their lunches while I clear Rosanne’s desk. I disinfect the whole thing, use up almost a whole bottle. The sick smell still lingers, but now it’s lemon-scented. I’m not going to have time to eat my own lunch today. That’s nothing new. I’m not hungry. 

“Mrs. C, I can’t feel my leg,” Davie says. He leans on Melissa’s desk, his hands sticky with dirt. He didn’t wash after recess. 

“It’s probably just asleep, Davie,” I say.

“But I can’t move it. See.” Davie stands straight and his right leg buckles under him. I catch him and promise him that his leg is just asleep. 

“Lay down and the rest of your body will catch up.” I walk him to his mat on the carpet behind the desks and tuck his blanket around him. The placement of blue mats and sloppily-folded blankets span the alphabet. Davie sleeps between the letter ‘A’ and ‘Z.’ 

Mellissa asks me if she can nap with her spider skeletons and Mark and Christopher overhear. So, I say that today, and today only, everyone can sleep with their insects. I turn on the music. Always forest sounds: nature’s symphony, string quartet and all. I tried once to play acoustic covers of classics and no one slept a wink. I have a night-light at my desk, a lamp I never used from the guest room in my house. We have no windows in our cramped trailer and other than the lamp, our room is dark and filled with the calls of insects. 

The day is half over, and I want nothing more than to take a nap myself. I want to shed my clothes, slip into my bed, and sleep as long as I can. At my desk, I lay my head down. Two parents and the funeral home to call. After naptime, I’ll let the kids color the afternoon away. After today, they deserve it. They can trace their insects and create stories in crayon. Green cricket legs for grass. A million yellow fly eyes for the sun. Tree bark of cicada skin. Petals of butterfly wings on flowers made of caterpillars. Amalgams of beauty. I’ll hang them on the wall of our new hallway once the renovations are done. Give the kids something of theirs to revel in, pieces of themselves galleried, so they can stop on the way to and from with parents and offer dialogue on the importance of insect-hood. 

  I call the funeral home first and whisper questions about the timeline of everything. Mom’ll be ready for the casket in three days. The headstone is already there above Dad; her name will be added. There’s a chance of rain so they’ll put up a tent. The funeral director gives me a number for a priest, who answers prayerfully. I introduce myself. He says, “Everything’s taken care of. Nothing’s changed since we last spoke.”

At first, I think it’s a mistake, but then, I realize. Anne. I want to be mad. It is infuriating to think that after all I’ve been worrying, Anne would go and do this. Fix everything. But, I let myself think, this is her helping. This is the least she could do. I thank the Father and say goodbye.

The next track of forest sounds begins: xylophone rain ascending and descending. It’s six hours ahead in Ireland, dinnertime in Dublin. Anne and her family will be cozied up around their table. I make the other phone calls. Rosanne’s mother doesn’t answer, but I reach her dad. He’ll be here as soon as he can. Carolyn’s grandmother will be here in two hours which is basically the end of the day. I’ll let Carolyn sleep the rest of the afternoon. 

Then, I dial Anne’s number. She answers on the first ring.

“Ruthie,” she says.

“Annie,” I answer. It is loud on her end. The line is half static. “Where are you?”

“At the Dublin airport. Heading your way. Flight leaves in two hours.”

I hear a tiny voice ask for water, “Mama,” and then her sister adds “M&M, please.” I wait for Gary’s voice to intervene, but instead Anne hushes her daughters. Before I can say anything about the Father, Anne speaks.

“Mom loved you,” Anne takes a breath that spans the Atlantic, “Mom loved you best.”

I don’t know how to respond. It’s absurd. Something that should be said at the passing of your parents, sentiment-filled, but empty, and yet, I can hear the unexpected weight in Anne’s voice. I see Mom’s oak vanity, doily topped and lined with Anne’s and my school pictures. I was dressed in whatever I found that morning. Anne is pinned curls and stiff, starched dresses. Anne’s smile screams.  

“I’ll see you in eleven hours,” she says.

I manage a quiet, “You, too,” and the line is silent. 

The music has ended. My watch tells me that naptime is over, but in the darkness, no one stirs on their mats. For a moment, there is stasis. 

When the lights come up, the mats are full of crawling things. Tiny, small things. A butterfly flutters circles where Julie slept; a cricket scratches its legs in Davie’s place; a fly twitches on Nadia’s blanket; a caterpillar slinks where Carolyn dreamed; a red ant hisses where Mark drooled; a praying mantis poses atop Christopher’s shoes; a cicada sings where Rosanne tossed and turned; a spider spins a web over Melissa’s mat; and, where Lee lay, now a cockroach scurries. They cry out, but their bugspeak is indiscernible. I can’t understand anything they say. Loud chirps and screeches drone and buzz all around me. I imagine this is how Mom must’ve felt after her stroke. Maybe this was the problem all along: Mom and I spoke to each other on different frequencies, in different sounds, unable to translate each other to each other.

I make a hammock out of the bottom of my shirt, pick the bugs up one by one, and nestle all my little insects against myself. I cradle them in my lap until their parents come to hear their cries, swelling inescapable. This, this is Social Studies. 


Jessica Love is a graduate of the Fiction MFA program from Columbia College Chicago. She’s bartended, adjunct instructed, wrestled pigs, and, currently, teaches high school English. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband, their dachshund, and her many, many dying houseplants. Her work has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Your Impossible Voice, Psychopomp Magazine, and elsewhere. 

Angels Don’t Play This HAARP

BY: JON DOYLE

The drive’ll be seventy hours, north by northwest. From Coffee County, Georgia, through Tennessee and Kentucky and Illinois. Through Wisconsin and Minnesota and North Dakota and across the border into Saskatchewan. Across Alberta and British Columbia and the Yukon, through British Columbia again and the Yukon again and then finally Alaska, back in the old US of A, crossing the Alcan Border and looping around the Wrangell St. Elias National Park until Gakona pulls into view.

We’re going for The Machine.

Michael writes a list of the equipment. I call out the items and he scribbles on a page torn from the back of a book. Lists are important to us. They have been all along. A place to start, to help eke out a future from the banality of things. A future where this shit actually goes down.

I can see the mirror-written print of the book through the page as Michael writes. His mother reads novels, Russian stories where the characters all have like ten names and you’ve got to figure out who’s who. Michael’s handwriting is like baby-level bad and maybe it’s his hands shaking from the nerves or the drugs or a kind of staggered disbelief that we’ve actually got this stuff. Maybe he always writes like this.

I call out the items in a voice so serious you could cut yourself on the consonants.

Four AR-15 assault rifles, four Glock 40 handguns, two Glock 22 handguns, one Glock 27 handgun, a Remington model 700 .308 caliber rifle. We’ve got bullets, plenty of bullets, including three drum magazines and twenty-two loaded AR-15 mags. We’ve got maybe 5,000 rounds. We’ve got hunting knives and field glasses. We’ve got bulletproof vests. We’ve got satellite phones and cans of gas and food and water and tourniquets and sutures. We’ve got the Lord Jesus Christ and roughly $5,500 cash.

As Michael says, It’s not no spontaneous thing. The plan’s been stewing for some time. He got to watching videos online, deep stuff, exposés on the weapons program and the military-industrial complex. Turns out there’s this place, HAARP, right up there in Alaska, a joint thing between the Air Force and Navy and DARPA. It’s a research facility, 180 antennae in a forty-acre grid, beaming radio waves into the atmosphere.

They can control the weather, trigger earthquakes and tidal waves.

They can control the spin of the earth.

“They’re controlling our minds, man,” Michael explains. “They’re storing people’s souls.”

 

This didn’t all come from YouTube. God himself showed up in Coffee County. He appeared at the foot of Michael’s bed and He told him all about HAARP. God was pissed off, on all accounts. When you die your soul drifts upwards, he explained, and The Machine fucks with the atmosphere to block this passage then intercepts the spirits before they can go all the way. They’re kept in a big tank, was how God put it, writhing over one another like farmed fish. Someone needs to crack the glass, God said. Someone needs to sort this shit out.

Michael said he was awed and kind of nervous because his room was a fucking mess. Michael said God glowed like a low moon.

He said, Remember Michael, the mind has no firewalls. He said, Michael, I recommend the book, Angels Don’t Play this HAARP, by Dr. Nick Begich, Ph.D.

At some point in the conversation Jesus popped his head around the door, like he’d been waiting out there all along. The funny thing was, Michael said, was that he really did wear a white robe and shoulder length hair. He really did have a perfect beard and bright blue eyes. He introduced himself and shook Michael’s hand. The funny thing was, Michael told me, was that Jesus was a white guy after all.

 

There’s a can of Pepsi on the counter and Michael reaches for it. He shakes it up and sets it down then grabs the Bowie knife and stabs it. Michael holds the blade like a ninja and he stabs the Pepsi with one killer blow. The can spazzes out, spinning and falling and spraying gold foam up the wall. The house is fucked but Michael doesn’t care. He’s going to Jerusalem after this.

The Jerusalem thing is something else God suggested. He said, Michael, go to Jerusalem.

God hasn’t said fuck all to me but I’m focusing my energy on the present. The plan. We’ll drive through Tennessee and Kentucky and Illinois and in the trunk will be Glocks and Remmingtons and those dry army rations.

We’ll find a scientist and steal his car, steal his ID badge, cut off his hands if they have those finger-print scanners. We’ve got army issue backpacks and balaclavas and we’ve been in training for months. If they have those eye scanners, we’ll cut off his head.

The checklist complete, we start loading the car. Michael’s telling me about The Machine again, how it excites the particles of the ionosphere and changes it to the consistency of stainless steel. “Like someone’s put a lid on the world,” he says.

When I step from the house I look to the sky. There’s no cloud as such but still it’s grey, a bright metallic sheen as though the sky has lost its blue. I think about the weight dropping from my body and rising up toward the great leaden wall. I imagine bumping up against it like a pinball, drawn north by northwest.

I pop the trunk and swing in the bag and for a moment I feel incredibly small. I feel like calling it off.

Michael says The Machine can implant thoughts into your head. Negative thoughts, reckless thoughts. Thoughts of a self-defeating nature. It broadcasts waves that are really low frequency or really high frequency and it messes with your cerebral cortex. He says if you stop and listen closely, you might just be able to hear it.

“Hey, Mike,” I say as we go in for the next round of gear. “Did God say anything about me?”

Michael tilts his head and thinks a moment. He’s holding tubs of methamphetamine, Tupperware boxes filled to the lid that we’re going to bag and sell on the drive to fund the operation. Michael sets down the meth and wipes his face and gives me a big toothy grin.

“He said, Michael, get yourself a bullet magnet.”

I must look confused because Michael leans over and grabs a bunch of my skin between his thumb and forefinger.

“It’s a joke,” he says, waving me off. “A stupid joke.”

I grab a few of the backpacks and make for the car. Michael always lets me go out first. First out of the front door, first out of the car at the gun store. First to face the dealers and sellers. It’s the sort of shit Michael pulls but it’s cool because I’m careful. In school they called me Spidey because I had this tingle for trouble and I guess I still do. Maybe Michael understands that. Maybe he’s just utilizing my talents.

Outside there’s no one on the street but this one kid and I swear to God he’s holding a walkie-talkie. The tingle is going but I act casual and help Michael lift his case into the trunk and on the way back into the house I nudge him with my elbow. I indicate with my eyes. Check out the kid, my eyes say, swishing back and forth.

Inside, Michael hoists a gym bag onto his shoulder and picks up an AR-15 in each hand. He mouths words at me, afraid the kid is eavesdropping. He mouths that I should get some guns too, and I mouth, What about the kid? Michael nods as if to say, yeah, about the kid, and turns to the door. He’s going out first into a possible situation. I think about calling after him but I’m afraid the place is bugged.

The kid looks up and Michael’s coming, rifles raised like fucking Rambo. I’m just behind with a pair of Glocks and the kid just stands there. I mean, he doesn’t blink. He’s holding this thing to his ear but it’s not a walkie-talkie, it’s a rock. This kid is out on the street talking to a rock.

“Hey kid,” Michael says, lowering the guns into the trunk then swinging the bag in too. “Wanna see something cool?”

He’s already on his way over. Of course he wants to see something cool.

“Take a look at this,” Michael says, producing what looks like an oversized Go-Gurt. The packaging is white and booger green and reads Cyalume Safety Snaplight Lightstick. The first thing I think is, Why the fuck is he wasting a goddamn lightstick? And the second is that I have no idea why we’d need a lightstick in the first place. The kid is clearly interested, dropping his rock and getting closer. Michael tears the corner with his teeth and pulls out the green tube. The kid is standing on our toes now and I’m not sure about this but Michael’s right into it.

“See this?” he says, holding up the stick with the practised gravity of a magician. “Watch very closely.”

With a flick of the wrists the tube lights up, a ghostly green, and the kid’s eyes light up too.

“It’s that thing that bounces into Homer’s clothes,” he says, snatching for it.

“That’s right,” Michael agrees, getting down on his haunches to eyeball the kid.

And I want you to have it. Your very own uranium rod.”

It’s a nice scene and all but the trunk is wide open and full of guns. I’m still holding the pistols and it occurs to me that all I have to do is level them at the kid’s face and he’ll be off crying to his rock.

“Mike,” I say. “Can we get the rest of the shit?”

“The rest of the shit,” Michael says, standing up again. “Sure.” He heads toward the house but stops and faces the kid again. “Say, can you keep a secret?”

The kid holds the Snaplight in his cupped palms. “I guess?”

“We’re doing something very important,” Michael whispers. “It’s Top Secret.”

“Top Secret?” the kid asks, eyes snapping from the stick to Michael. “Like what?”

“Top Secret like we can’t tell nobody nothing,” I say, gesturing with the Glocks.

“Top Secret like if we told you we’d have to….” I raise the gun in my right hand and mimic shooting the kid square in the head.

The kid watches this and then slides his eyes across to Michael.

“We’re going to Alaska,” Michael smiles. “God came to me and said, Michael, you have to go to Gakona, Alaska and save the souls of the world. He said, Michael, you have to blow up The Machine.”

The kid listens and then slides his eyes back to me. “Are you gonna kill me now?”

 

There’s this sermon online, some pastor near Houston who’s a friendly-looking lady really gets into it. HAARP, weather control, weather warfare, she doesn’t take a breath. New World Order, Marshal law, all that stuff too. She’d watched videos, she says, ISIS beheading folk. She says that things would be more efficient when that started over here. There’d be orderly lines for the guillotines and if you didn’t accept the number of the Beast you’d better believe you’re in that line. She says something about Los Alamos and Anubis and the Denver International Airport. I found myself writing this shit down. She’s nice-seeming but she speaks about grey aliens and Dulce Base and she says, Aliens are demons, for the new folk here today. I guess God came to her too, had something to say. Soul scalping, soul removal, captured souls. I don’t know what any of this shit means but I write it down anyway.

At the beginning of the video, her daughter sings a hymn. This skinny white ginger kid in a multi-coloured pinafore, holding a plastic horse, singing “Thy Word Have I Hid in My Heart” like the entire world was watching. “Thy Word is a lamp to my feet,” she sings, “a light to my path always.” There’s another girl in the video, but she’s too shy to sing. The wall behind them is dappled and white. “To guide and to save me from sin, and show me the heavenly way.”

I gather another armful of equipment. We’ve got laser scopes and head torches and tactical gloves. We’ve got shooting rests and hours of practice. I think about the souls in the tank up there in Alaska. A glass structure, huge and square, fogged with the sheer amount of spirits bundled in.

“Mike,” I ask. “Who’s Nephilim?” 

“How the fuck should I know?” Michael says, stacking banana clips.

“God didn’t mention him? Or Jesus?”

He turns to face me. “Why’re you being weird all of a sudden?”

I think of the swirling soul mass, the faces within its weight. The eyes, the moaning mouths. The liquid spin of perpetual unease. The undying will to rise, to float above, to head skyward.

“Weird?” I say. “Me? What about the letter of intent you just gave that kid? Signed with your full fucking name?”

Michael walks straight past me and out the door so I pick up the Remington and follow but then movement is all around us.

Movement and shouts.

 —movement and shouts and—

—and I drop the gun and movement and yelling—

—and shouts and yelling and—

—and I take a step—

—and shouts and a shot and—

—shouts and yelling and a shot—

—and I take a step and another and Michael falls and the magazines scatter over the road and I think Jesus that was loud.

And then they are all around me.

They say Drop the Weapon and Hands Up and Don’t Move and I don’t have a weapon and I can’t move because even as they yell the men get closer, shuffling sidelong and crab-like and cautious with red dots swarming my chest.

Michael’s on the road face down and it looks like he’s trying to raise himself but his arms aren’t working. Michael’s bleeding and the blood’s pooling like molasses in the grit of the road and his arms aren’t working like some cable’s been cut.

There’s a fuck-off black truck on the road and men are pouring from it. Khaki fatigues and bulletproof vests. Kneepads and shin guards and thigh-strapped secondary weapons. Men wearing skateboarder helmets and polarised polycarbonate goggles. Men coming from the back of a truck sprayed black as hell itself. They just keep on coming.

Movement and shouts and yelling.

They say Drop the Weapon and Hands Up and Don’t Move but I don’t have a weapon and I can’t move.

Michael’s arms aren’t working.

They put my hands behind me and slam me onto the hood of the car and on the rebound, that inch of upward motion, I arch my back to get one last look, riding that small ascension to see the heavens above, the sky high and gunmetal and dented. 


Jon Doyle’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Barren Magazine, 3:AM Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Full Stop, and other places, and he runs the website Various Small Flames. He lives in the UK.

The Age of Reason

BY: WILL CHRISTOPHER BAER

Dispatch told us not to bother with the siren. The cops were already on the scene and they were confident the guy was dead. They just wanted us to cart the body, something we were strictly not meant to do. But this was a backwoods ambulance outfit run by the sheriff’s twitchy nephew, who had a side hustle arrangement with the coroner. The last medic who made static about it promptly failed his next piss test. I dumped my coffee out the window and grabbed the handrail and before I could say boo we were ripping through the streets silent but for our tires burning around corners. Josephine was at the wheel and she always drove like she had the secret formula for cold fusion in her hip pocket. The siren was irrelevant. She swore it fucked up her concentration. I closed my eyes, took a slow wander through my skull. My imagination had withered and there was little to see. I might have once spooled up a skinny runaway OD’d in a basement or a partially burned body in someone’s backyard, but somewhere along the way I had eased that shit right out of my diet. I gave it up the way a fat man says no to a bear claw after seeing a few graphic color photos of an exploded heart.

      The house was ordinary.

Call it, said Josephine.

      Twenty says three and two, I said, Possible breakfast nook.  

      Two and a half, she said. No breakfast nook.

Hah. Make it forty, I said. 

      I crouched to touch the grass, patchy and tinder dry. Josephine stood beside me. Her thigh brushed my shoulder and I could feel her vibrating slightly, as if her bones were humming.   

      She exhaled the words fuck me slowly, like a plume of smoke.

      I knew what had her spooked. The house was too dark. One window glowing, soft yellow. A kid’s pink BMX bike was stashed next to the front steps. A house with new dead is always lit up like a carnival, especially a house with kids running around. Nobody wants their daughter to get the idea grandma’s soul is adrift in the sitting room.

Why do you always touch the grass, Josephine growled.

The grass tells me what to expect inside.

I opened the back of the rig and unloaded the board, the crash gear.

The guy is dead, said Josephine.

I shrugged. You never know. 

Josephine had been my partner for exactly three months and a day. She just passed her ninety-day new hire probation period. I had been trying not to contemplate getting into her pants for roughly ninety-one days. And I was failing. I couldn’t stop thinking about her body and her pale possibly humming skin for two minutes in a row, but I wasn’t sure I trusted her. I wasn’t even positive I liked her. The thought of getting into bed with her was like staring at a cup of cool clear water that might or might not be tainted with anthrax. Josephine tended to burn too bright and I reckoned she had a pure destruction jones that ran deep. She was talented, no question, with zen-sharp reflexes and firewalker focus that was freakish. Josephine knew how to save people but was pathologically detached about it. The job was just another video game with seemingly endless but finite sandbox variables, maddening glitches, decoy Easter eggs. Josephine was a gamer geek and she regularly pointed out parallel metaphors between the two worlds. She popped more Adderall than maybe seemed healthy but that wasn’t so unusual. Josephine was thin as a shadow and she bruised too easy, like a peach.

As for me, well. I had my own demons under the skin.

The screen door slammed behind us like a thousand others. A blur of smoky fur. Ever watchful for the undead, I glanced to the right and saw the yellow eyes of a cat peering back at me. Sullen and gray as a ghost, crouched under a crooked porch swing. A cop stood by the front door, smoking. Josephine cruised past him to examine the scene, but I had a feeling the man wanted to talk.

What’s the story? I said.

Fucking freak show in there. He blew a gash of smoke between us.

I stared at him and the air around us got thick in a hurry. I loved a good silence.

Family of four, the cop said. Dad’s DOA in the TV room, stinking up the place.

How long? I said.

Fuck if I know, he said.

Hard thing to walk in on.

You don’t know the half, said the cop. Dad is a bag of bones strapped into a hospital bed. Mom says he had cancer. But he’s all cut up, man. There’s like a thousand little knife cuts on his body, and the boy was found in the room with him. Twelve years old and naked as a bird and he’s got a knife in his hand. I ask him what he’s doing in there, he tells me his mom locked him in.

I stared at the porch swing and spooled up a stinking bag of dad bones slouched on that swing with a cold one watching his wife water the flowers and throw rainbows across the yard and hollering hey at the neighbors as they drifted by. He likely saw time, space and death yawning fuzzy on the horizon like a faraway black hole. Tomorrow after tomorrow after tomorrow flapping in the breeze. Not one among us is innocent of such misapprehension. Mutter and sigh and tell ourselves not to worry, we can deal with  problem X or pain in the ass Z tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. The cat had disappeared, I noticed. 

Pets are always creepy when death is on the wind.

The cop stared at me and I wondered if I’d said any of that out loud.  

He pitched his butt into a potted plant. You going in, or what?

May as well, I said.

It was a big kitchen with high ceilings and tall windows and too many people adrift, moving slow and laborious through the blue haze of despair spliced by unspoken thoughts of what if, what now. The second cop was at the breakfast table with two kids. He was much fatter than his partner. He gave me a wheezy eye roll but did not speak. The boy was small for twelve and I gave him a nod of solidarity. I was always small for my age. He wore a pair of blue jeans and no shirt. His arms and chest were smudged and greasy and his eyes were laced with red, like he hadn’t slept in days. He stared through a glass of milk and slowly pulled apart a tuna sandwich on white bread. The girl beside him was the little sister, maybe eight years old. She wore a yellow and white gingham dress and a Redbirds cap. She held onto her brother’s hand and gazed up at a silent TV wedged precariously on the counter on top of a stack of books between a fishbowl and microwave, where a pale handsome thin man with white hair was apparently making toast. He was lurking near the toaster, at any rate. I tagged him the kindly neighbor. He was too invisible and detached to be family. No one paid him the least bit of mind. He smiled at me, a brief shadowy flash of light. 

The mother was at the kitchen sink in a black slip, gauzy as breath on cold air. Her bikini pants and bra were just too visible. I could see her shoulder blades, the knots of her spine. The water ran cold in the sink, drumming the steel bowl as she stood there, repeatedly wetting a comb and dragging it through her bleached yellow hair. I took her by the elbow as if she were a shattered bird twitching on my stoop.

Maybe you should sit down, I said.

She stared through me, chewing her lip. I shot her with fifty mgs of Benadryl off the books and she clapped her hands.

What’s your name? she said.

` Jack, I said.

Your full name, she said. Please.

Jack Fell.

Her eyes glittered as the drug took hold.

Your name is a complete sentence, she said. 

And a nursery rhyme.

She blinked and smiled and began naming random objects along her periphery. Coffee mug. Fish bowl. Corkscrew. Dead plant. Daughter.

Josephine was in the TV room. She had turned on the light and pulled a sheet over the body. She moved slowly around the room, opening windows. The raw choking smell of gangrene, sepsis. The father was light years past dying. He was decomposing. I flipped the sheet down and back. His yellowed skin was loose around the edges. His blood was the texture of mud, his skull was perfectly bald, and his arms and legs shrunken. The man looked to have been in bed for months. He was naked except for a pair of cordovan wingtips, the laces tied into incredible knots. And the cop had not been shitting me. The man’s arms and chest and belly were cut to shallow ribbons in a manic, nonsensical pattern. Josephine’s shirt was open at the throat and I felt a tug in my belly, a quickening. 

My blood rushed hot, I could almost hear it. 

I became a medic thinking I might be able to help people, maybe save them now and again. Maybe not. I stuck with it because the blood rush made me see things with slow-motion clarity. The wings of a fly glinting on a knife’s edge. I stuck with it for the strobe-lit vanishing moments of feeling more alive, false or not. But here all I felt was a strange faraway echoing that I reckoned was fury.

Jesus, I said.

The mother needs a seventy-two hour hold, said Josephine.

No, shit.

Maybe we should sedate her.

I already did. 

Josephine nodded. You’re nice.

I looked at her. Nice?

Nice, she said. You’re nicer than me.

I thought about that for a minute, staring at the body between us.

I wasn’t so nice, I said.

What?

I stabbed her a little harder than I had to.

Josephine gave me a dark look, blew a strand of hair out of her mouth. She stared down at the body once more, then gently covered his face again.

      I sat in the armchair by the window.

      Think he hated him? she said.

      I shook my head. 

Then why cut him up like that? 

That boy hates anybody he hates the mother.

Josephine growled. We’re not social workers.

Nothing we can do here, I said. 

I know that. Do you?

I sank back into the armchair like it was going to swallow me.

Jack, she said. Let’s load this guy and roll.

Terrible thing, I said. When a boy hates his mother.

Josephine flinched. Do you want to tell me what this is about?

No, I said.

I will not act like a girl, she said. 

What, I said.

I will not ask are you okay, are you mad, do you want a hug every five minutes.

I don’t want a fucking hug.

Okay, what do you want?

I want to talk to that kid, I said.

Uh uh, she said. Doesn’t sound like a good idea at all.

Then stay off camera, I said. 

Fuck you, she said.

Josephine tried to stare me down for a few hammer heartbeats. Off camera was code for dirty work, plausible deniability.

Fuck you, Jack. 

Two minutes. 

Next week, she said. You’re gonna piss hot like what’s his name. 

I will fucking not. I need two minutes grace. Unconditional. 

She sighed, stepped aside. 

The father’s body could rot. 

I was going to talk to that kid because I knew him. I didn’t know him, I recognized him. 

I knew myself. 

Josephine fell in close as a shadow behind me and I could hear her muttering: I was burning time. I wasn’t being professional. I was being soft. I was going to bring us beef with dispatch, I was fucking up a good thing. I wheeled around and she stumbled, nearly crashed into me. I pulled her close for a long breath. My voice was dry and pale as sun on metal and I asked her to give me two minutes. I needed her to love me for two minutes. I wanted her to give me a piece of herself. I could feel her breath against my lips.

There’s no breakfast nook, she said. 

I nodded. I owe you breakfast. 

She nodded. Two minutes, then we’re ghosts.

Ghosts, I said.

Back in the kitchen the scene was stuck in amber. 

Mind if I pull up a chair? 

The boy stared. 

The girl blinked. I have the hiccups, she said. 

Boo, I said.

She squeaked and covered her mouth. 

Fat cop gave me a what the fuck look. 

Little cop started to say something, but Josephine shooed and chased them outside like a couple of boys and I shook my head. It would not have gone over well, had I tried that. She went out on the porch with them and I couldn’t hear what she was saying but they were history. They would be happy to quit this scene and go down to Denny’s for breakfast. 

I glanced around and saw the pale thin guy standing like a statue by the pantry door, eyes serene and watchful. The mother turned her attention to the fish bowl, tapping the glass with her nails and making guttural cooing noises. She reached for the fish food. The thin man raised his eyebrows. I nodded in agreement. Surely those fish were already dead. Mother gurgled nonsense to them and swirled away, hips thrusting to her own music. The kids stared up at the television, watching the original Planet of the Apes with no sound. 

The boy was filthy. His hair hung down in dank blonde strings. Big dark eyes. Dried blood on his face. He sat next to his sister, holding her hand like it was a piece of rope. Together they looked at me and suddenly I didn’t know what I had meant to say. I took out a pack of gum and looked at it.

Burplebery, I said. Is that a real fruit?

The girl giggled and hiccupped. I took a piece of burple gum for myself and slid the pack across the table. The boy looked at me like he didn’t recognize the stuff. The girl shook her head and told me in a soft apologetic voice that they weren’t supposed to get candy from strangers except on Halloween.

That’s right, I said. Only weirdos carry gum.

I put the gum away and smiled at the girl and she smiled back, forgiving me for being stupid. The screen door banged when Josephine returned. She gave me a fast no worries look and went to ride herd on the mother.

The boy eyed me, unblinking. Are you a doctor? he said.

No, I said. I’m a paramedic.

You fix people. When they’re hurt and stuff?

That’s right.

He looked at me without speaking. He was not about to ask if I had fixed his father. He had been in the room with him. He had been in there for days, and he knew his Dad wasn’t getting fixed.

What’s your name? I said.

The boy took a breath but said nothing.

That’s Kyle, the girl said. He can’t talk right now. My name is Caroline.  

Nice to meet you guys, I said. My name is Jack.

The girl smiled. She looked back to the TV.

Do you play soccer? I said.

The boy flashed bright. Yeah. I play midfield.

I was a goalie, I said.

That’s cool, the boy said.

When I was about your age, I went to soccer camp in Austin.

The boy looked at me. I never went to soccer camp, he said.

I laid my hands flat on the table, fingers apart like I was waiting for my buddy to lean over with a knife. My heart was beating fast. I was sweating and there was just the slightest taste of metal in my mouth.

I’m sorry, I said. I’m sorry as hell.

What are you sorry for? the mother said.

Josephine took her by the elbow. Ma’am, she said. Why don’t you come along to the bathroom with me and get cleaned up before we go to the hospital?

The mother leered at her. You just want to get rid of me, she said.

I want to help you, said Josephine.

The mother eyed Josephine up and down, then looked at me. Then back at Josephine and slow as sunrise a leering smile came across her face. You fucking him? she whispered. Low and nasty.

What? said Josephine.

The mother spat. Nah. Not yet, she said

Ma’am. I think you should sit down.

But you will soon, the mother said. 

Josephine shot me a look, pale and irritable. Faith and patience down to fumes.

Ever been married? 

No, said Josephine.

Don’t do it, the mother said. You get so tired. You get tired of the sight of him. You get tired of the smell. The smell is the worst thing. The smell of a house waiting for death. I was waiting and waiting and waiting for him to die and I hated him.

Josephine whispered, hush. Please hush.

I hated the smell of him, she said. Then he was dying and I was torn in half because it was like we shared a body and only half of it was dying and now I can’t remember anything. I can’t remember how to dress myself or how to fall asleep.

I don’t want to hear this shit, Josephine whispered.

What happened, the boy said. What happened at soccer camp?

I looked at him. My father got cancer, I said. He was okay when I went away but when I got home he was like a mummy. Skinny and bald and turning gray.

Then what, said the boy.

I closed my eyes, breathed. 

The cancer was inside him, I said. Nobody told me what cancer was, or what it looked like. I thought it must be turning his blood black underneath the surface.

The boy nodded. The girl clenched at his hand so hard it might have hurt, but he kept his eyes steady on mine.

I thought I could cut it out, I said. The black blood.

The thin man had long ago stopped making toast. He stared at me, sorrow in the lines of his face.

I thought that if I had a really good knife, I said. A sharp knife. Then I could cut out the black blood and save my dad.

Did you? said the boy.

No, I said. I couldn’t do it.

The boy closed his eyes then, as if he couldn’t stand to keep them open.

I wasn’t as brave as you, I said.

For god’s sake, said Josephine to the mother. Why did you put him in that room?

Because he looks like him, said the mother. He looks just like his daddy.

I leaned over to whisper something for the boy’s ears only. He smelled like dandelions and baseball practice and it killed me softly to realize that such a filthy, shattered child could smell like summer. 

The boy stood on the far edge of his own childhood. 

He was shoved there, cast out by his mother’s grief. He was woefully unprepared for the big bad but it was too late. He had stepped past the edge already. He had darted into the age of reason and there was no coming back bloody. The black stains beneath his fingernails was proof enough he had gone too far. He was still a child, but he was gone. I recognized him.

The flash of headlights. A car swung into the driveway.

Your mother does not hate you, I said. She does not.

The boy never opened his eyes, but he was listening. He was listening. And then a noisy woman with red hair and sharp elbows who was apparently the mother’s sister entered with a husband close on her heels, carrying a giant casserole dish. Josephine touched my arm, gentle as a wing brushing past.

I stood up.

Come on, said Josephine. There’s work to do.

Josephine went back down the hall. I watched the mother’s sister snatch up the little girl and carry her to another room, the mother trailing after them. The husband grunted as he put the casserole on the table and opened the fridge. He pinched a beer and twisted off the cap and drained it in one greedy swallow. He sighed and burped, then reached out slowly with a very large hand and tousled the boy’s hair. The boy opened his eyes and regarded the casserole before him with eyes blue and peaceful. The pale thin man was gone and I was sorry not to have said goodbye to him. I watched the husband reach for another beer. I wanted to say something to the kid or touch him, but it seemed grotesque to do so after the hair tousling. I went to help Josephine with the body.

The road before us was a black river with no bottom and puddled with red and orange light. The road mirrored the sky. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out. The air tasted like rain. Josephine drove slowly for once, her hands long and pale at ten and two o’clock.

I could see her thoughts churning.

Did you see what happened to the thin man? I said.

What thin man?

Thin man in the kitchen. Neighbor, I think.

Jack, she said. Was it true, what you told that boy?

I looked at her as long as I could stand it.

Don’t change the subject, I said. 

There was no thin man in the kitchen, she said.

He had a Buddhist monk sort of face, I said. Totally at peace, but like he’d seen some shit over the years.

Was it true? she said.

No, I said. I spun up a story to make the kid feel better.

Josephine came home with me that night and stayed more than two years. I don’t think we discussed it beforehand. I don’t remember how we got home, even. I remember sitting on the bed naked, not quite looking at each other. The air was humming, sparkling. She was thin and silent and staring. I was almost afraid to touch her. But there was no sex that night. At one point, I reached mutely for the box of condoms beneath the bed and she stopped my hand. She pushed me onto my back like I was one of those bit players, the crucified thieves. Josephine didn’t want to fuck me. She wanted to love me, if only for the night. If only for two minutes. She kissed my eyes. She kissed me long and deep, as if she would take me apart or bring me to life with her mouth. I was opiate calm, my arms and legs heavy as sand. No one had ever kissed me like that. I remember eating a cantaloupe sometime later, sitting with our backs to the wall. Our arms threw shadows across the room as we lifted hands to mouth.

She made me pray with her before I ate.

She wrapped her hand in mine as she fell asleep. I watched her eyelids flash and jump as she dreamed. I remember the sound of her breathing, the smell of her hair. She slept in the center of my bed, fragile as a brown and black bug and she looked as if she had been sleeping there every night for weeks and I remember thinking this is the way relationships begin. They come out of thin air and uneasy silence, out of ripples of dark matter. They come on the heels of the unexpected, the unforeseen. I walked into a dead man’s house eight hours prior and got my head twisted half off by a childhood echo of myself and now for good or ill it seemed I had a girlfriend. Josephine looked as if she belonged in my bed. She looked as if she had always been there and maybe she was too thin and burning too brightly and I had yet to see most of her demons, but they were there, I could almost hear them whispering and buzzing beneath the surface. I knew it was unwise to get romantic with my partner, and I had no reason to believe it would last but still I wanted her exactly where she was. I wanted her in my bed. 

I couldn’t sleep so I went to perch like a crow on the windowsill. I smoked a cigarette and watched Josephine sleep as the sun came up pink and muted and only then did I allow myself to scroll through the locked boxes and expunged files in my skull to pull up an image of my father on his deathbed, and my past selves rushed up from below with glittering teeth and nails to push me under and drown me and not long after that I was in the bathroom throwing up, crouched naked and sick beside the bathtub at dawn, thinking hard about relationships and how they begin.


Will Christopher Baer is author of the existential noir trilogy, Phineas Poe. His first novel, Kiss Me, Judas, has appeared in nine languages. Baer earned his MFA at the Jack Kerouac School, Naropa University. His short stories have appeared in Nerve, Bomb, Story, and the SF Noir anthology series. He lives in Memphis, TN. Instagram @will7christopher.

Book Review: Don’t Read the Comments

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Don’t Read the Comments is Eric Smith’s fifth young adult novel. Smith heavily integrates popular culture into his fiction, and this novel is no exception. The protagonist, Divya Sharma, is an eighteen-year old celebrity gamer known as “D1V” who supports herself and her mother through corporate sponsorships, free merchandise, and subscribers to her “Glitch” channel (a live game streaming platform). Divya’s current live-stream game of choice is Reclaim the Sun, a universe exploration game the likes of which does not yet exist outside of fiction, but which is vividly described by Smith and in such detail that my kids and grandkids are ready to pre-order it.

The book’s title derives from Divya’s admonition when her mother expresses her concern about the comments posted to Divya’s Glitch channel. “‘Don’t read the comments,’” Divya tells her mother, because as a “girl gamer,” Divya is exposed to trolls who threaten, harass, and objectify her and to commenters who sexualize her and tell her to wear less clothing. Divya’s mother is understandably concerned, but eighteen-year-old Divya thinks she has it under control.

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