Category Archives: Fiction

Julia Grunes

Sunny Days

Edgar had become accustomed to the idea that he would be miserable here. In fact, he had assured himself of his own misery as soon as he walked (or more appropriately shuffled) through the glass doors of the blue-walled building. It was too bright in here, and the nurses always smiled for a little bit too long, and the halls had an overpowering smell of ammonia. One of the overly chipper nurses had checked him in; he didn’t remember which one. They all had the same cooing voices, the same style of colored scrubs, and the same highlighted hair that was cut right above the shoulder.

Part of him understood why he was here. He had to admit that he wasn’t walking as well as he used to. But another part of him thought that even if he had to lean on every object and person that he walked past, he was still walking, right? And fine, maybe his driving skills weren’t as good as they had been, but the accidents weren’t so bad. He wouldn’t even really categorize them as accidents. No one was dead; everything had worked out fine in the end. No problem.

His family, however, disagreed. First, they came for his keys, and the process of wrestling them out of his grip had taken over a year. It had involved the smiling eyes of his grandchildren, the desperate mouths of his children, the flaring nose of his wife, and some help from the growing confusion of his mind. Then, a doctor had mandated the use of a wheelchair. Edgar had refused, but whenever they went anywhere after that, the wheelchair was brought, and he ended up in it halfway through the excursion. He told himself that it was just to placate them, but he knew somewhere inside him (likely in his shaking knees) that he needed it.

Then, his car accidents had turned into just plain accidents; his legs were the consistency of unkneaded dough from lack of use, and his diet consisted solely of chocolate milkshakes and spaghetti. His wife was forced to turn into his caretaker, a job that she endured gracelessly.  It certainly wasn’t what she signed up for, and Edgar didn’t make it any easier due to his unassailable hatred of being looked after. Edgar had noticed his family having countless hushed conversations while he watched TV, but he didn’t think much of it. Everything had seemed hushed to him lately because he had been refusing to put in his hearing aids. When they finally told Edgar what they had been talking about, Edgar felt that he had been sent away to die.

This is a thought that was quite frequent in his mind during the first few weeks: I have been sent here to die. As he watched people being wheeled around, he couldn’t comprehend the idea that he was one of them. The other residents talked or they didn’t talk; they sang or they didn’t sing; they sat and they watched the TV in the Big Room after dinner until they fell asleep or yelled for one of the nurses to take them out.

It was in the Big Room that he had met Helen for the first time. Their wheelchairs had been set up next to each other after dinner while the TV was playing, and Helen had noticed him looking at one of the nurses in confusion. He had forgotten her name again. He still couldn’t figure out how to distinguish any one of them from the other.

“Her name is Blue Scrubs,” Helen had said with a knowing grin, “But only for today. Tomorrow she’ll be named something new.” Then, she had nodded wisely and turned away, seemingly entranced with the program on TV, a soapy kind of drama that Edgar could sometimes bring himself to enjoy. He had merely given a grunt in response, but from then on, he always thought of them as Green Scrubs or Flower Scrubs or Pink Scrubs, and it was somehow easier. The days began to pass in a sort of haze after that, punctuated only by calls from his family and the occasional Fun Activity.  Edgar felt certain that the person who had created that name had never been forced to experience one of them.

Today’s Fun Activity came in the form of a tiny, smiling woman with an uncontrollable mane of faded brown hair and skin so grotesquely tanned that it looked as if her freckles were tiny scars running up and down her arms. Edgar didn’t pay much attention as one of the nurses explained what she was there to do. Instead, he thought of the newspaper in his room wistfully, squinting his eyes as he attempted to remember how it had said the Mets were doing. But he supposed that it didn’t really matter. For a long time now, no matter the season, the one constant was their abysmal performance. He sighed and turned his head towards the tiny woman who was now gesticulating wildly in the front of the room, her hair bouncing up and down as she spoke.

“This is some bullshit, isn’t it?”

Edgar started and turned towards the low, nasally voice that had just spoken right next to him. “Are you talking to me?” he asked, his eyes resting on the overly rouged woman sitting next to him. Helen.

“Well, I’m not talking to Paul,” she said with a quiet laugh, giving a nod at the man sitting across from them who was staring blankly through Edgar as though he wasn’t even there. “He’s not really…here anymore. And, I would know. I can get anyone to talk, and he won’t even say one word to me. But yeah, I’m talking to you.”

“Oh, I–”

“And I was saying that this is some bullshit, isn’t it? The amount of money I saved for this place, and this is what they bring in? I mean, look at what she’s doing now!” Edgar focused his attention back on the tiny woman who was now slowly moving her hands close to another resident’s head, her brow furrowed in concentration.

“What–”

“It’s some hippie crap about channeling energy. Ree-kee? I don’t know. Just bullshit.”

“Yeah,” Edgar echoed, “Bullshit.”

“I bet Maureen isn’t going to be standing for it much longer though,” Helen said with a wry grin, pointing surreptitiously at the resident who had the tiny woman’s hands an inch away from her face. And she was right. A second later, Maureen began to shudder so violently that she seemed about to jump out of her own skin. She began to move her mouth, saying something that Edgar couldn’t hear from across the room. Green Scrubs cheerfully guided the Reiki practitioner to another table while she apologized profusely, and two other nurses began the process of removing Maureen from the room.

This proved to be a difficult task as Maureen had begun to wail, and her hands were now flailing wildly in all directions. Some of the other residents looked up briefly at the commotion, but seeing that it was Maureen, they returned to what they were doing before with little more than a second glance. Pink Scrubs, the nurse who was standing next to them, ran over to help, and then Helen turned her body back to Edgar, her wheelchair rattling with the rapidity of her movement.

“So, this seems as good a time to talk as any, doesn’t it?”

“Sure,” Edgar said. He attempted to shift himself farther away from her.

“You’ve been here for a few weeks now, haven’t you? And, to be honest, it really doesn’t get much better than this,” she said, gesturing at the three nurses who were still trying to subdue Maureen without much success. “But I’ve got something that’s a helluva lot more interesting, if you’re…interested.” She batted her eyes and Edgar again attempted to shift himself as far away from her as possible.

“Wha–I’m not interested in–”

“What? Honey, no!” Helen gave a cackling laugh that pierced through Maureen’s sobs. “You haven’t heard about me from anyone else yet? Huh, that’s surprising. I thought I told them to–well, nevermind.”

“What do you mean, then?” Edgar said gruffly, feeling his ears turn a bright red. He looked down at the table, feigning interest in the napkin that had been left there. A small smiling sun was printed in the corner of it, along with the words SUNNY DAYS SENIOR LIVING, which were half covered in some brown substance that Edgar was not eager to find out the source of.

“Well, I supply this–this pill to people here. I call it,” and here she paused for dramatic effect, “Reminall. It really gives you something to look forward to. This place gets bland real quickly. Don’t you think?” Edgar agreed, but he didn’t want to give Helen the idea that she knew anything about him, so he merely gave a shrug in response. Helen, however, took that as a sign that he was still interested and powered on, her mouth gaping wide open with each word she spoke. “Ask anyone! They’ll all vouch for me! Well, not Paul. But, ya know, he can’t vouch for anyone.”

“I’ve even got a couple of different choices,” she said, opening her mouth even wider as she continued her pitch. Edgar noticed that half her red lipstick was on her teeth. He wondered absently if she put it on herself every morning or if one of the Scrubs had to do it for her. “Package Number One is cheaper, and you get the same sort of, well, the same incredible experience! However,” she paused here, her eyes wide, “when those Scrubs are looking at you, they’re gonna be just seeing a pure vegetative state, you know? And some of them do get concerned about that, especially for you since you’ve been so talkative here.”

“I don’t talk that much,” muttered Edgar, still distracted by the lipstick mixing with the yellow of her teeth. He could imagine his wife and her friends laughing about it over their sewing needles and unread books. Edgar suddenly felt a rush of pity for Helen, but not enough to fully listen to what she was saying.

“You talk enough. So, that’s why I got Package Number Two. More expensive, but they see you talkin’ and there’s even a bit of singing thrown in, huh? So they have no idea that anything’s different and they don’t go getting anybody worried, you know? And I got the delivery service down pat so you wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. You know what? I’ll even give you the first one for free, just so you can try it out.”

“I don’t want–”

“But you think about it all and let me know. We can’t be talking about this when she gets back.” She gestured at Pink Scrubs, who was coming towards them with an enormous smile on her face and a broken fingernail. Helen smiled back, her eyes still on Edgar. “So, Edgar, what’s your necklace about?”

“Huh?” Helen pointed at the golden חי on his chest, widening her eyes and tilting her head towards Pink Scrubs. “Oh! Oh, it means–well, it means ‘life’ in Hebrew. It was my father’s.”

“Well, the more you know.” She laughed quietly, and then turned to Pink Scrubs, holding her stomach. “You think you can take me back to my room, hun? I’m not feeling so great.”

“Of course! Nothing too horrible, I hope? And, oh, isn’t it nice that you’re making friends, Edgar!” Pink Scrubs trilled, her eyebrows disappearing into her uneven bangs. Edgar gave a small nod and turned his head to face Paul, still watching Helen out of the corner of his eye. She

gave him a painful blink that he assumed was some sort of attempt at a wink, and then began jabbering to the nurse about nothing as she was wheeled out of sight. Edgar wondered how she was able to get out of a Fun Activity so easily; if he had said that he wasn’t feeling well, they would probably give him a cheery suggestion about doing some arm stretches and tell him that it would be his turn with the Reiki woman soon. Well, at least Paul wouldn’t bother him.

He hummed quietly to himself, thinking again of the newspaper sitting in his room. He had barely had the chance to read it before he had been dragged out of bed. Maybe next time he could bring it, and then he wouldn’t have to be bothered by Helen or whatever horrible idea of an activity that this place came up with. What had she even been talking about? Some sort of pill. And he couldn’t seem to remember what she said it did. Whatever it was, he reasoned with himself, it didn’t matter. He was fundamentally opposed to the idea of it, both because of his sixty-year avoidance of drugs based on one unfortunate instance with a brownie in college, and his immense dislike of Helen and her lipstick-stained teeth.

When he finally returned to his room, he certainly did not feel as if he had been imbued with any sort of healing energy. In fact, the activity had only reminded him that he was miserable, and he would continue to be miserable until the day that he died. Pink Scrubs had helped him out of his wheelchair and into his bed, and he reached for the newspaper that he had left on his nightstand. But it wasn’t there. He scanned the small room with confusion, looking for any other place where he could’ve left it.

Then he spotted the newspaper on the chair that was sitting next to his TV, a mere five feet away. But Edgar was already in bed, and the sheer impossibility of getting out of it suddenly dawned on him. He could have called one of the Scrubs to help him, but the idea of talking to one of their too-bright faces right then filled him with a dread that he couldn’t quite explain. He would just be watching TV tonight. Maybe the game was on.

He grabbed the remote from his nightstand and pressed the on button, sighing as he stared at the newspaper that seemed to be mocking him with its closeness. He looked back up at the TV and realized that it hadn’t turned on. He was sure that he had pressed the on button…he pressed it again, and again, and again, shaking the remote as if it would signal to some electronic god the aching need he felt for it to work. For something to work. But it didn’t. And then, Edgar realized that the remote was making a sort of clacking sound. Was it broken? His remote had never broken at home, but, of course, this place would ruin it.

He held it up to his ear and shook it once  more; again, he heard that same noise. He opened up the part of the remote where the batteries were and immediately realized the problem. In place of any batteries, there was one small, nondescript white pill. Edgar picked it up and stared at it for a moment, struggling to understand how this atrocity had occurred. And then it clicked: Helen. Of course. Because of her, he now had one pill and no TV. He was sure that she was somehow the reason why his newspaper was now sitting in a chair. He looked at the nurse call button and sighed, his frustration building. This button, unlike the ones on the remote, worked almost too well. Only a few minutes after he pressed it, Purple Scrubs appeared in the doorway with a smile as big as Edgar had feared it would be.

“Is everything alright?”

Edgar grimaced at the cheery voice. “The TV won’t turn on, and the remote it’s…ah…well, Helen…” He couldn’t find the right words to describe his current situation, and Purple Scrubs’ widening grin certainly wasn’t helping. It was moments like these that made him think it would be easier if he was just dead. He smiled wryly as he thought of how his daughter would react if she knew that he was thinking that. She would probably yell at him. Edgar wondered if she would visit soon.

“Yes, you were talking to Helen today, weren’t you? I’m so glad that you made a new friend here! Oh, why did you put your batteries here?” Purple Scrubs asked kindly, gesturing towards the nightstand and carefully pulling the remote out of his hand. Edgar turned his head. The two batteries were sitting next to his watch on the nightstand between his necklace and a cup of water. Had they been there the whole time?

“No, I–” But maybe they had been. He couldn’t seem to remember. Purple Scrubs just smiled again and placed the batteries back into the remote.

“There, it should work now!” She turned on the TV with a flourish. An infomercial for  Wearable Towels began to blast throughout the tiny room. “Perfect!”

“Thanks.” Edgar knew he could’ve done that if he had seen the batteries, so he didn’t feel the need to say anything else.

“And what do you have there?” Purple Scrubs asked as she continued to smile. Edgar looked down and unfurled his fingers. He had almost forgotten; resting in his palm was the white pill that had been in the remote.

“Oh, you. You know you have to take everything we give you to make you feel strong! That’s your Donepezil from dinner, isn’t it? You really are a tricky one!” She laughed and then narrowed her eyes at Edgar as if he was a child who was trying to get out of eating his vegetables.

“No, I’m not. I–”

“Don’t worry about it, honey. I’m just teasing you. Here’s some water.” She picked up the cup that was sitting on the nightstand. Edgar bristled, but he still took the cup from her. He was pretty sure that he had taken all of his pills with dinner. But Purple Scrubs was still standing there watching. Waiting. She raised her eyebrows at him, and he gave her an unhappy smile as he placed the pill in his mouth, taking a sip of water to swallow it. She took the cup out of his hand, and Edgar closed his eyes. He could still hear the woman on TV raving about the Wearable Towel, but it sounded fainter. Maybe Purple Scrubs had turned down the volume.

But when he opened his eyes again, he was blinded by light and had to shield his face with his hand. He could feel sweat on his forehead, and all over him. But his muscles weren’t aching, and he could feel the balls of his feet and all the way up his leg. And he was standing! Edgar was standing without any sort of support or struggle, as casually as he had when he was young. He looked down at his arms and almost screamed. The arms he saw were tan and muscled and strong. They were young arms, ones that had deteriorated a long time ago into the pale ribbony ones he now possessed. Could this be a dream? He’d never had a dream like this.

His mind felt awake, pulsing with thoughts and half-washed away feelings that were becoming clearer the longer he stood there in the baking sun. He had just asked Penny to prom. She had said yes. He’d never thought that she would say yes to him. Everyone had said that she was still in love with Jack, but maybe she wasn’t really because she had said yes. Jack was an asshole anyways, and he didn’t deserve her. But some of Edgar’s friends had said that she had only said yes to make Jack jealous. He tried to ignore the idea. It couldn’t be. She wouldn’t have said yes if she wasn’t into him, right?

He looked down at his watch and realized that he had just been standing in the middle of the sidewalk for five minutes. Damn it, why did he stop? He was supposed to be practicing every day, and he couldn’t afford to lose a second of time if he wanted to beat Jack in the next meet. He began to run again, his feet hitting the pavement hard, each step bringing him closer to Penny, to the irrational hope that she would love him if only he could get three seconds faster for the 800. That’s all he needed. Three measly seconds. He couldn’t get distracted, couldn’t just stop in the middle of his workout.

He kept thinking of her. Of Penny. How he had smudged her red lipstick and how she had rubbed it off his face, laughing. How her eyes had lingered and how she had smiled at him before she walked back to her friends. Maybe at prom they could get somewhere far away from everyone else and they could–No. He couldn’t get distracted now. He had already wasted too much time. Stay focused stay focused stay focused stay focused…he could feel the sweat pouring down his face, and he blinked it out of his eyes. As he did, the light began to change and refract around him, becoming somehow artificial, cooler. The heat felt like it was sliding off his body, melting into nothing.

When Edgar opened his eyes again, he felt the weight of his body sag back into his bones, his mind slowing from the breakneck speed that it had been going a second before. He blinked again and found himself sitting in the Big Room with the other residents, facing the TV. He looked down at his arms, at his hands, and they were almost translucent again, the blue veins looking almost as if they were above the skin rather than beneath it. “You tried it, didn’t you?” Helen was next to him again, and her wide eyes and stretched out smile made her face look like that of a bullfrog. “I knew you would. You said you didn’t want it, but I knew you would in the end. And you enjoyed it, didn’t you? Huh?”

“Yes,” Edgar whispered, his hands shaking. “Yes.” He didn’t care anymore about her lipstick and odd comments, how she pretended to know everything. He had been young again. If only for a short while, he had been young again. And the aching of his body and the slowness of his mind had never felt more prominent to him than in that very instant.

“We can talk about prices for more soon,” Helen whispered. Edgar had to strain to hear her. “I think Maureen’s gonna lose it in a few, and then we can talk.” Edgar nodded, trying to stop himself from shaking. He hadn’t thought about Penny in years. And he kept going over in his head–the sure beating of his heart, and the way his legs had worked like machines, pumping in succession with his arms as he ran. He laughed under his breath and felt tears coming to his eyes. He had been young again. He looked back at Helen, but her smile was gone, replaced with a somewhat glazed look.

Then Maureen began to moan, and Helen shook her head, her eyes clearing. She straightened in her chair, becoming a businesswoman again. “I gave you Package Number Two for your first experience, and none of the Scrubs knew anything was up. You’ll be wanting that again, I assume?” Edgar nodded more vigorously than he intended to.

“I don’t have money in here with me. I don’t know how I would pay.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I don’t have anyone pay with money. It’s more of a bart–”

“Get away from me!” Maureen screamed, drowning out Helen’s words. “I want my babies! Helen gave me my babies and then she took them away.” She began to sob, her frail body bending as she hugged herself tightly with her arms. Helen watched the spectacle as if it was nothing more than a program on the TV, and then continued to speak when Maureen had decreased to an acceptable volume.

“As I was saying, it’s more of a barter system. I get what I want, and you get what you want. Much easier than money. Money’s exhausting; when I worked in sales all I got was money, and all that got me was this.” She gestured mindlessly at their surroundings. “I’m sick of it.”

“So, what do you want?”

Helen smiled again, and for the first time since Edgar had met her, she looked almost bashful. “I want your necklace,” she said, pointing a wizened finger at his chest. Edgar looked down at the gold חי and his stomach began to churn.

“My–”

“Yes.” Her eyes were clear, calculating. Edgar dropped his gaze to his legs, to his unmoving feet. If he had one of those pills, he would be able to walk again. He would have control. But he couldn’t give her his necklace. It meant–well, really, what did it even mean to him anymore? His wife would be angry if she found out that it was gone, but she hadn’t visited once since he got here. She probably wouldn’t even notice. And he had been planning on giving it to his son, but he seemed wholly disinterested in anything Jewish or anything related to Edgar, so there wasn’t really any point in that.

He couldn’t seem to find any reason in his mind for keeping it; all he could think about was breathing fresh air through his lungs and walking on his own two legs and kissing Penny in his car, fucking Penny in his car. It had been that old green chevy that had stopped working after a year. He grinned. And why had they broken up? Maybe she had gotten back together with Jack. He couldn’t remember.

“Are you gonna give me an answer? Come on. I’ll make it–I’ll make it two pills for the necklace. You’re killing me here.”

Edgar nodded. He lifted the necklace over his head and dropped it into Helen’s outstretched hand. Her claws quickly retracted, and the tiny חי, along with its chain, disappeared from view.

“I’ll switch one of your pills at dinner with Reminall for the next two days,” she whispered, and then turned her head back to the TV, smiling about her latest acquisition.

The thought of the Reminall waiting for him made the always-smiling Scrubs and their enthusiasm easier to bear, and he even managed to give a respectful nod at Maureen while she was wheeled by. He made it through the rest of the day in a sort of daze, muttering to himself about Penny and sweat and lipstick and running faster, faster, faster. When Blue Scrubs finally handed him his usual seven pills, Helen nodded at him from across the room, and he gave her a short nod back. Almost mechanically, he reached for the water and quickly swallowed everything that was given to him. The room began to blur around him, and he could feel his heart beating faster and faster with every second.

He blinked his eyes rapidly and was then immediately attuned to the fact that this was quite different from last time. He was sitting alone in a classroom, his classroom from when he taught ninth-grade math at Lindham High School, his back aching slightly from the rigid chair that he was sitting in. Edgar felt a pulse of disappointment when he realized that this memory would not have Penny in it. This quickly faded, however, when he looked at his familiar cluttered desk covered with ungraded papers and the lopsided wooden π that his students had given to him the year before with all their names signed clumsily on it, and the picture of his family that rested on top of three textbooks. He, his wife, and his daughter were all grinning from ear to ear. His son’s face, however, was distorted and red and he looked as if he was attempting to squirm out of his mother’s arms. Edgar smiled softly.

He didn’t even mind the heat of the stifling classroom. Anything was better than the unbearable chill of SUNNY DAYS SENIOR LIVING. He looked down, and in front of him sat the lesson plan for the day and multiple unfinished seating charts. He was switching up the seating again as some of the students had grown too comfortable with each other, and it had become impossible for them to focus in his class.

“Mr. Applebaum?”

Edgar looked up and saw one of the boys from his fifth-period class standing, timid, in the doorway. “Aaron! How can I help you?”

Aaron inched into the room and looked at Mr. Applebaum while tapping his fingers anxiously against his leg.”I–umm–well, I was just–I got really confused on the homework, and I know that you said that it’s really important for the Regents, but I didn’t really understand it in class and then I got really confused at home and now I don’t have it done and I don’t want to not know how to do it for next unit because you said that we would need to know this to do well with that and I really don’t want to fail the Regents and Iwaswonderingifmaybeyoucouldhelpme.” By the time that Aaron had reached the end of this statement, he was quite out of breath and his entire body was shaking.

Edgar gave him a reassuring smile and covered the seating charts with a textbook that was lying next to him. “I’d be happy to help. And as long as you study and keep doing what you’re doing, you should do fine on the Regents. I know you’re a hard worker, and this unit is really difficult. We’re going to be going over it in class, but come sit here. You’ll know it as well as I do by the end of this.”

Aaron gave him a disbelieving look but nodded, walking up to the chair next to Edgar’s desk with less trepidation than he had had originally.

Edgar smiled at him again and began to take out the worksheet that had been assigned for last night’s homework. “Alright. Let’s get to it.” Edgar began to sketch out a parabola to explain the first problem, and Aaron’s hurried questions started to become more relaxed as he understood the concept. After five minutes, he had stopped shaking, and by the time they had been working for twenty, he was almost smiling. Edgar picked up his pen to write one more note on his paper, but as soon as his pen touched something solid, he saw Aaron’s body begin to melt into the desk, the blue of his shirt and the pink of his skin slowly solidifying into the wood. Edgar grabbed at him desperately and cried out, but when his arm touched Aaron it began dissolving into the wood and he closed his eyes in horror.

When he opened them again, he was seated at the table the next day for dinner, and his breath was coming out in quick, shuddering gasps. Helen grabbed his arm and whispered, “Calm down! It was just a bit of a reaction. You’re fine. You’re fine!” Edgar nodded and looked down at his hands. He grasped for his necklace before remembering that it wasn’t his anymore. “Quick, relax! Or a Scrub will notice. What did you see?”

Edgar didn’t answer for a few seconds, smiling slightly despite himself, despite the horror of the memory’s final moments. His voice had been so sure, so confident, so capable. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt certain of anything. “I was–I was a teacher again.”

“Alright, you’re good. You’re good.” Helen said, relaxing, her face breaking out into a smile again.

“Where are my pills?” Edgar said in an urgent whisper. “I want to take it now. I need to–I can’t be here.” He hated the desperation in his voice, but he was too shaken to have the ability to mask it.

“Just–just wait a few minutes, okay? Catch your breath again.” Edgar nodded, and started to take deeper breaths. He looked at the food on his plate and saw that it was half eaten. Strange. He took a sip of water and then reached up his hand to call someone over to get his usual–

“Edgar! Edgar, honey, you have a phone call!” Pink Scrubs came rushing over to his table, a cellphone in hand.

“Who is it?”

“It’s your daughter! Isn’t that nice?” she cooed.

“Yes, it’s very nice,” Edgar said. He took the phone. “Hello?”

“Hey, Dad!”

“Hey, kid. What’s going on?”

“ I–I just wanted to see how you were doing. I just–I was setting up my classroom today and I was thinking about you.” In that moment, Edgar hated her. He hated his daughter more than he had ever hated anyone. He hated her for being able to live memories rather than merely reliving them and dangling that knowledge in front of him as he sat here, useless. “And–I don’t know why, but I was thinking about that time when you took me sledding the first time it snowed that winter when I was like seven because I wanted to go so badly. Remember how pissed Mom was? She was yelling at you about how you could still see the grass on the ground so there was no way that we could go sledding. But you took me anyway.”

“Yeah, I think I remember.” And then Edgar felt so guilty for his hatred that he couldn’t stand it.

“When we got to that big hill close to the house, we really couldn’t sled because there was only the thinnest coating of snow and the grass was still poking through.” She laughed, and Edgar laughed too, a quiet laugh, but a laugh all the same. “And you said that it didn’t matter, that we could still have a good time. And we stuck out our tongues and caught the falling snow on them and–I don’t know why I was thinking of it but–” and then her voice broke, and Edgar could hear her trying to stifle a sob. “I miss you, Dad.”

“I miss you too.”

“I’m gonna come and visit you really soon, ok? And we can all go out to dinner. But–shit, look, I–I’ve gotta go. I’ve got to make dinner for the kids. But I love you so much, and–”

“I love you too, kid. Talk to you soon.” Edgar handed the phone back to Pink Scrubs and stared straight ahead, his face blank. The nurse handed him his pills with a smile. Edgar took them from her and stared at them for a moment, his hands shaking as he held them up over his half-eaten meal of dry chicken and spaghetti. He wondered vaguely when his daughter would visit. And then he placed one of his pills in his mouth, wincing slightly at the bitter taste as he let it sit for a few seconds, and then swallowed it. And he did the same with the next one and the next one and the next.

“What are you doing?” Helen whispered, her eyes wide. But Edgar didn’t answer. When he finished, Edgar closed his eyes, leaving a certain white pill to dissolve, slowly, on his tongue. When he opened his eyes, he could almost see his daughter standing next to him, her face red with cold, the two of them catching snowflakes with smiles and frozen tongues.

 


Julia Grunes is a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo. She is majoring in psychology and English (creative writing). When she isn’t writing or doing schoolwork, she’s likely doing something music-related.

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DongWon Oh

 

Under the aEgis

 

There is a certain calm in the barracks at this hour, in the half hour after dinner and before evening roll call. The unspoken agreement here is that even amidst the wide expanse of the barracks, this half hour belongs to each man, and is his alone. Private Yun Ji-sung watches his unit leader, Corporal Kim Jae-hyun, lounge in the corner and go about his evening routine. He has flipped his beret into a makeshift bowl full for chips. The latest music video from BLACKPINK is stuck on repeat on the screen in front of him, its repetitive chorus ringing off the metal cots.

Corporal Kim powers through a third bag of chips. What a fucking pig, Ji-sung thinks. With an overhead announcement that it is twenty-one-fifty, the TV turns automatically to the evening news. Before the screen’s static has a chance to settle, the corporal grunts and reaches over with his toe, pushing the off button. Ji-sung wonders if he could follow this man into war. The men turn to each other and talk about the day, their girlfriends, dinner.

The metal cots ring with the grunts of bored men doing push ups. Ji-sung watches one man across the hall grunt between sets of twelve pushups. “If I make ninety-two pushups in under a minute, “ he says, “I can get three extra days off next month.” He flips over onto his back, huffing as he comes up for air.

Ji-sung winces as Corporal Kim tunes the barracks’ decade old guitar for the thousandth time, all the while insisting that “Wonderwall” by Oasis is worth playing daily. Since the workday has ended, Corporal Kim wears his uniform unzipped, exposing a burgeoning belly filled with ramen and snacks from the on-base convenience store. Ji-sung watches him strum away, making the guitar strings shinier with each pass of his fingers. Within a few chords Ji-sung is entranced. Corporal Kim might be a pig but he sure sounds like an angel.

In the cot adjacent to the corporal’s, Ji-sung sits at his cot with a journal in his lap. Day 5, he scrawls. First night on patrol. I should call Mom. I miss JiYeon… He stops, not sure what else to say. He looks up at the wall-mounted clock, watching the second hand tick away. It’s 9:50 PM — no, it’s twenty-one-fifty. He has to remind himself he’s a soldier now, and that’s how soldiers speak. A wad of paper enters his peripheral vision and lands near his chest.

“Shit, sorry Private. I was aiming for that broken record to your left.”

Ji-sung looks up to see Corporal Lee Min-ho grinning down at him. The corporal’s body shines bright and tan after five hundred days of labor under the sun. His lean and mean workout routine is visible beneath his undershirt, fatigues, and loosened boots.

“Ji-sung, was it?”

Private Yun nods.

“I think we’re paired up for patrol tonight.”

Private Yun shrugs.

“Your unit leader didn’t tell you? At twenty-two hundred, two men from the barracks go up into the mountains to check the Super aEgis II turrets in our sector. In ten minutes, kid.”

I said maaaybe, you’re gonna be the one that saaaves me, Corporal Kim sings.

Corporal Lee retrieves the wad of paper and hurls it at Corporal Kim.

“Yeah, yeah,” Corporal Kim says, tucking the guitar away beneath his cot.

Corporal Lee reaches over and ruffles the little hair that Ji-sung has. “I’ll see you soon, Private Yun.”

Ji-sung runs his hands through the remnants of his hair, feeling where he had longer locks just seven weeks before, six weeks in boot camp and a week at his assigned base. His fingers settle on the red grooves created by the interior netting of the helmets, created to provide support. He rubs the almost bloody welts, hoping to massage some circulation back into his skull. Ji-sung slips his journal underneath his pillow, hoping he will have more to write about when he wakes up. He hopes he will sleep better. Lately, his dreams are of rolling around in dirt. In uniform, crawling through barbed wire. A canteen, shovel, extra magazines, radio are all clipped to his waist and with every wriggle, they get snagged on the barbed wire just inches from his face. The world is on fire and the war is real. Other nights, he dreams he is a small turtle, and the helmet is his shell,  its rough canvas interior netting chafing his whole body. Either way, he wakes feeling itchy and trapped. Ji-sung wonders if the others have similar nights. He hopes they do. He hopes all these men have had similar nights and that their dreams faded with time.  600 more days, he tells himself. Ji-sung clips his tactical vest at his sternum, secures the helmet at his chin with a wince and pulls his bootstraps up.

Corporal Lee whirls by Ji-sung, with boots polished darker than the war-paint Ji-sung used at boot-camp. ”Up and at ‘em,” he says to Private Yun; then back at the barracks in general, he shouts, “The war hasn’t ended yet!”

After yanking up his boots, Ji-sung catches up to his corporal. Corporal Lee’s knuckles ring dully on the wrought iron doors of the armory. They duck in as rain begins to fall, trekking in size eleven and nine boot prints. Corporal Lee salutes the draftee on duty, Sergeant Park Kyu-jin, who has his feet up, bootlaces undone & a copy of Die Another Day in his hand. After dismissing the salute with a flick of his eye, the sergeant waves his hand toward the racks of K2 rifles. Ji-sung stands still. He looks at Sergeant Park, then at Corporal Lee.

“Did Corporal Kim teach you nothing? The lower ranking soldier signs the paperwork and then I retrieve the rifles.”

“Sir.”

Ji-sung reaches down to the desk, hurriedly scrawling Yun Ji-sung / Private / 17-5401254 / 20:50. Below that, he writes Lee Min-ho / Corporal / 16-76045990 / 20:50.

Above them, the rain picks up; the slats that make up the roof are thundering across the armory, shaking the iron cage that holds the rifles. Corporal Lee reaches inside the cage to collect both his and Ji-sung’s rifle, pausing just for a moment to listen to the gathering storm.

“Sarge, are you sure it’s safe for us to go out there?”

Sergeant Park doesn’t look up from  his book.

“What do you mean, Corporal?” Ji-sung asks, looking from his accompanying corporal to the sergeant on duty. In the ensuing ten seconds of silence, the rain fills all of their ears.

“It’s raining, Sergeant Park.”

The sergeant puts the book down and looks directly at Corporal Lee. “Good, you can place a tarp over the aEgis II turret on your way. The damn thing has been reporting heat signatures just past the steel fence, go check it out.”

Corporal Lee sighs and motions for Ji-sung to bring along two rain ponchos from the desk. They throw them over themselves and are enveloped by a mass of camouflage print. The corporal retrieves a radio off the shelf, and they head out into the mountain. Ji-sung sees Corporal Lee swing his rifle to his back, breaking protocol. They are taught to always be alert on patrol, to heed regulation. But it’s wet and late. They are tired; so they break protocol. After a while, the rain slows to a trickle and they march side by side, trekking up the usual path lined by dirt-filled tires.

“Chin up, Private Yun. This shouldn’t take long.”

“Sir.”

They continue along the path, grunting as they go uphill.

“I tried my best back there, you know.”

“Sir?”

“To get us out of this bullshit duty. Whether we do this or not” —Corporal Lee gestures around them, catching drops of rain in his palm— “doesn’t change much. ” That thing up there? The Super aEgis II has night vision and can shoot accurately up to four kilometers. It’s basically a stationary Terminator.”

“If you say so, sir.”

Ji-sung and Corporal Lee keep on moving, looking just ahead. Left boot, right boot. The butt of his rifle slaps into Ji-sung’s left shoulder, just into his wing-bone. He reaches up and adjusts his flashlight so that it points downward. Out in the dark and wild, he only concerns himself with what he can immediately see. There is the wetness of the leaves and dirt all around him, and he finds himself thinking how easy it would be to just lie down in the softness and rest. Just for a minute. He feels the rain seep through the poncho onto his fatigues. He’ll feel the cold in his bones soon.

“Do you smoke, Private Yun?” It is less a question and more a statement.

“Sir?”

Corporal Lee points to a stone shelter just ahead. Maybe twenty steps. It looks like it’s barely big enough for two men, if that. Ji-sung remembers that in his initial training he was told to take cover there during active conflict and fire north; really, it has turned into a pit stop for soldiers on their nightly patrol. The corporal drags Ji-sung inside and the poncho and fatigues settle onto their skin. Ji-sung imagines himself a snake in the barracks, shedding all these green layers. In the comfort of the stone shelter, Corporal Lee slips out a pack of Marlboro Ice Blasts from a pocket inside his fatigues and taps one out.

“You’re Delta Unit?”
“Yes, sir.”

Corporal Lee exhales with a laugh. The cold air and the mint of the cigarette clash in the few inches they share. “I’m sorry about your unit leader, Kim Jae-hyun. He was born in the year of the pig and he thinks he can use that excuse to the absolute fullest.”

Ji-sung isn’t sure how to answer, especially when he isn’t addressed by his rank. “So what’s out there, Corporal Lee?”

Min-ho continues to smoke his cigarette, looking into the leaves that sway in the wind.

“Legend has it, the souls of boys who were virgins when they were drafted. They roam the DMZ, doomed to roam no-man’s land until every draftee gets laid.”

Ji-sung looks quickly away. A spurt of smoke escapes his nostrils as he hides a laugh.

“Really though, I hear conservationists have discovered species of tigers and birds native to our country, thought to be extinct, in the DMZ,” Corporal Lee says.

“How did they get there?” Ji-sung looks into the darkness, as if expecting to see the moonlight glint off a tiger’s claws.

“I’m sure those nature nerds got permission to venture into some DMZ areas with some fancy binoculars.” The corporal shrugs, tapping the cigarette with his index finger.

“So, the Super aEgis II turret, “ Ji-sung says, “is it true it can fire in the dark?”

“Yes, and it’s so accurate, it can blow that zit off your forehead.”

“Huh.”

“What, Private?”

Ji-sung takes a long drag off his cigarette. He embraces the nicotine entering his blood stream, imagining that it is actually entering through the space between his index and middle finger. He feels the tension that has built up his neck and elbow joints.by  “Sir, won’t it still be wet in the morning? And if it’s so efficient, why are we even here?”

“Yeah, kid.” Corporal Lee taps the end of his cigarette with his index finger. His eyes follow the clump of ash down and watch it disintegrate into a puddle by his boot. “How was boot camp? You arrived here last week, which means you graduated boot camp just over a week ago.”

“Sir. It was all flowers and sunshine. You know how it goes.”

Corporal Lee spurts out a mentholated laugh. “I suppose. It’s been so long, I can’t even remember how my boot camp was.”

Ji-sung notes the hints of aging on his young corporal and wonders what that is like. He looks up, lighting up the inside of the hut with his flashlight. Some of the smooth patches of stone are inked in marker by the soldiers who have passed through: LYS 3.14.2012 and in another corner, KHY 5.16.2015.  Corporal Lee catches Ji-sung’s eye.

“Here.”

The private looks down, sees a hand holding a faded marker.

“Go on.”

Ji-sung accepts the marker and uncaps it. He reaches up to a small patch of smooth stone and scribbles. Yun Ji-sung 11.31.2020 and next to it, Lee Min-ho 5.21.2019. Maybe in two years he’ll take a fresh faced private up here and scribble proof that he’s done his 600 days of soldiering. Who knows, maybe the war will have ended before then.

Their cigarettes start to flicker out. Ji-sung mimics his corporal as he drops the butt, stomps it out, and scoots it into a corner of the shelter. The rain falling from their rifle tips makes a clicking sound on the stone floor. The canvas rifle strap, the metal clutches on their tactical vests, the unwelcoming wet cloth of their fatigues; all seem to weigh more now.

“Just a few more minutes, then we’ll reach the turret. Let’s cover it up and go home,” Corporal Lee says.

Ji-sung wonders how it would be to use his rifle as a walking stick. After all, it is just the right length. “Do you have a girlfriend, sir?”

Corporal Lee almost stops; surprised a private would speak first. “No, kid. I don’t. Too much of a headache while you’re here.”

“Oh.”

“Do you?”

“Yessir. We started dating right before I went to boot camp.”

“Unf. Sorry kid.”

“Sir?”

“Good luck.”

The rain has picked up again, and the two men can feel it more and more, almost piercing their vests and their uniform shirts, onto their bare backs. They trudge along in silence, the air between them heavy with Corporal Lee’s relationship advice. To Ji-sung’s right, Corporal Lee steps and waves again to just ahead of them.

Ji-sung sees it: the Super aEgis II, with its dull green plates, two-meter barrel, and fifty-caliber bullets that snake around the machine. The automated turret is on a raised platform made of stone. It turns, scanning the northern mountain skyline for threats. What threats, Ji-sung isn’t sure. All it sees are the birds and tigers, once thought extinct, now free to roam this patch of the Korean mountains while the war continues.

Ji-sung is wet, miserable; the barrel of the rifle digs into his leg with each swing. He notes the tarp at the bottom of the stone platform, folded into a neat square. From underneath the tarp, ropes snake out in clumps.

“That thing can stop a tank in its tracks — and it’s still not waterproof,” Corporal Lee says and strolls over. He begins to climb the side of the turret, pulling himself up with his right arm. He has a length of rope wrapped around his left arm and begins pulling the tarp up with him.

Ji-sung takes the hint. He jogs over, starts to tie the other end down to the hooks at the bottom of the platform. All he wants is to be dry, back in the relative comfort of the barracks, where he can warm up. So he yanks on the rope, reaching for more of it. His right hand brings the rope over the hook, securing the rope to a piece of curved steel.

His fingers slip and his palm smashes against the protruding hook. Flesh meets steel and draws blood from his right hand. Ji-sung swears into the rain, stepping back to see his work and clutching his hand to his chest. He takes a careful step back, avoiding the steep drop behind him.

“Corporal Lee?”

There’s no answer. The tarp comes loose, the wind whipping it toward Ji-sung. The other rope flaps by him.  The flashlight on his helmet carves swathes of light through the night as Ji-sung swings his head around, looking around for Corporal Lee. He calls out again before seeing a light halfway down the mountain, fainter than those from the barracks. Just strong enough to be a helmet-mounted flashlight. “Corporal!” he yells, but his voice gets caught in the wind.

Ji-sung looks down at the pristine knot he made, then to the rest of the tarp waving in the wind. The rain flowing down the back of his neck meets his bloody hand, leaving streaks of blood on his uniform. In his hand, Ji-sung feels the rope that sent Corporal Lee Min-ho down the mountain.

Beside him, the Super aEgis II machine gun whirs in the night, scanning left and right for threats. It blows sparks into the wet night.

 


DongWon Oh is an international student at SUNY Geneseo from South Korea. He is graduating from SUNY Geneseo in May 2020, and in the Fall, will enter a graduate program in screenwriting, where he plans to produce his short stories and see them on the big screen.

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Filed under Fiction

Misty Yarnall

Outside

Lisa Marie hadn’t smelled a flower in four months.

The pink petals kissed her lips the way her mother was too afraid to. She thought it smelled sweet like cherry blossom or honeysuckle. She didn’t remember exactly what those smelled like, but they were often the scents of the bubble baths and body lotions her mother bought.

Lisa Marie couldn’t remember the name of these flowers, but they bloomed every year on a bush out in the backyard. Back when they were allowed outside, her brother Nicholas used to kick soccer balls into the bush on accident and the petals would drop. Mom always got mad.

The plant’s leaves felt leathery. Lisa Marie pulled one off the stem and put it in her pocket. She would have to remember to take it out before Mom did laundry.

“I thought you weren’t allowed to be outside.”

Lisa Marie looked up, noticing Gavin, one of Nick’s friends. He leaned his bike against the house and unbuckled a helmet from under his chin.

“I thought my mom said you couldn’t come over,” Lisa Marie said.

“I’m only not allowed to come over because you’re sick.” Gavin balanced his helmet on the handlebars.

“No, you’re not allowed to come over because of the virus.”

“No. My mom let me go over to Tim’s house yesterday,” Gavin said. “What’s wrong with you anyway?”

Lisa Marie traced the leaf in her pocket. Her secret. “I was born too small. I get sick a lot. My mom says that I will get more sick than other people if I get the virus. So, no one can come over, and none of us can leave.”

“How’d your mom let you come outside?”

“She’s asleep.” Lisa Marie picked at the grass below her. She liked the sharp tickle against her fingertips. “She sleeps a lot now. She usually just makes breakfast for Nick and me and then doesn’t come out of her room until dinner.”

“That’s weird. What do you think she does in there?”

“I think she’s sad.” Lisa Marie plucked a flower and put it behind her ear. “One day I think I heard her crying through the door.”

“My mom’s sad, too,” Gavin said. He took a seat in the grass beside her. He began to pick at the grass too. “She said my brothers and I are driving her crazy and told us to go outside and ride bikes.”

“She won’t let you back inside?”

Gavin shook his head.

“Must be nice. I wish I could spend all day outside. I’m outside now, and I’m not sick.”

“Lisa Marie!” Nick ran down the porch steps. “You’re not allowed to be outside!”

“Neither are you!”

“I’m out here to come get you.”

“No, you’re not,” Lisa Marie said. “You’re here because Gavin’s here.

“You’re the reason Mom won’t let me go outside. It’s not fair that you’re out here and I’m not.”

“You are out here.” Lisa Marie threw a handful of grass at her brother. The blades rained down and settled in the green.

“It’s your fault Mom’s always sad. It’s your fault Dad can’t come home anymore. It’s your fault we couldn’t go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for an Easter egg hunt this year. You ruin everything!”

Tears budded in Lisa Marie’s eyes. She ran back to the house, up the porch steps, and inside, slamming the screen door shut behind her.

Lisa Marie’s mother ran down the steps. Her hair was wispy and messy, unlike the way she used to wear it when she drove Lisa Marie to school or went to one of Nick’s soccer games.

“What’s that in your hair?” her mother asked.  She walked up to Lisa Marie and plucked the flower from behind her ear. She studied the bright pink petals in her palm before clasping them into a fist. Lisa Marie figured this wasn’t the best time to ask her mother what the flower was called.

“Lisa Marie, go to your room.”

Lisa Marie ran up the steps and into her bedroom. The same floral wallpaper lined the walls. It still peeled at the edges. Her bed still creaked when she sat on it. There was still a stain on her carpet from when Nick spilled grape juice last week. Nothing had changed.

She took the leaf out of her pocket. It was bent, and no matter how many times she flattened it, the creases would not come out.


Misty Yarnall wrote a five page story in third grade, and never stopped writing. Growing up in northern New York, she obtained sixteen awards for her short fiction and poetry, along with a publication in Thousand Islands Life. She is currently a Creative Writing major at Monroe Community College and is working on a novel.

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Filed under Fiction, Remote Voices

Carly Sorenson

The Biggest Drill

During high school, Missy worked part-time at Gino’s Pizzeria. The summer after she graduated, the manager promoted her to a full-time position. She got a new red T-shirt with GINOS stamped across the chest in white letters, and most days she wore a red bandana over her dark hair to match.

The guys from Connolly Carpentry showed up in July. That first time, Missy watched them emerge from the Catholic church across the street and point to Gino’s. One man shoved open the door with his shoulder and the shop filled instantly with their laughter and complaints.

“Christ, it’s hot in here.”

“You’re telling me,” said Missy. “What can I get you?”

“A cold beer, for the love of God.” The voice that answered was husky but high-pitched, with a thick Jersey accent. Missy looked for its owner and was surprised to see a woman on the crew. Or something like a woman, anyhow. Her hair was dark and curly, like Missy’s, but she kept it tucked under a Yankees cap instead of a bandana. She was short and broad, and the outline of a sports bra showed through her company T-shirt. She spoke like she was throwing something.

“Drill Bit, you better hope the foreman doesn’t catch you with a beer,” said one of the carpenters, bumping her with his elbow. He was a doughy blond guy with translucent eyelashes.

Drill Bit’s face split with a conspiratorial smile. “He won’t know if you don’t tell him.”

“He’s tired of your shit,” mumbled another carpenter. He looked the oldest, perhaps due to his bald pink head.

The crew sat on stools at the plastic counter and called for five beers and two pepperoni pies, then ripped into one another until their pizzas arrived. The guys were so big and the stools were so small that they looked like top-heavy beige flamingos suspended on one leg.

As Missy set their pizzas on the counter, redolent of hot oil and oregano, she said, “I haven’t seen you all before. Are you new in town?”

“We’re here on a job, refinishing the pews in that church,” said the blond carpenter.

“That one across the street?” Missy pointed.

He nodded.

“What’s wrong with them?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” the blond carpenter replied. “They just need a new coat of stain.”

“I’m glad we’re refinishing, not replacing them,” Drill Bit added. “Under all that wear, they’re beautiful old pews. Solid maple.”

“You won’t be so glad after a full day of scrubbing seats,” said the bald carpenter. He looked at Missy and winked. “She’s an apprentice, so she gets the shit jobs.”

“Thanks for that,” said Drill Bit, looking straight ahead into the kitchen.

To change the subject, Missy asked, “Is Drill Bit a nickname?”

Drill Bit lifted a slice off the pan, stretching ropes of mozzarella until they snapped. “Of course it is.” Having separated her slice from the pie, Drill Bit squinted at Missy’s name tag. “Is Missy a nickname?”

“No, that’s actually my name. Why do they call you Drill Bit?”

The bald carpenter threw an arm around Drill Bit’s shoulders and grinned. “It’s ‘cause she’s little, but she’s got the biggest drill on the crew!”

Drill Bit ducked out of his grasp and rested her elbow on the counter. Missy caught her eye, and Drill Bit shrugged.

The crew teased Missy, describing the potency of the enormous drill. With a tool like that, they assured her, Drill Bit could screw anything. Missy played innocent, asking them if it was difficult to refinish furniture and how long it took. They said they didn’t expect this job to take longer than a week.

For a while Drill Bit said nothing, she just smiled as Missy danced around their innuendos with practiced expertise. Under her eyes, Missy felt elegant and in the know. If there was any danger here, it came from her and not the five large men she worked with.

They finished eating within twenty minutes and left a big tip. Drill Bit was the last one out the door, and as she left, she said, “My real name is Casey. In case you wanted to know.”

Casey’s crew returned on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday. On Thursday, during a story about a beehive in the wall of a client’s house, Casey caught Missy staring from behind the register. “She knows what I mean,” said Casey. “I bet bees follow her everywhere thinking she’s a flower. Right, sweetheart?”

There was a beat of silence as Casey, her crew, and Missy’s coworkers waited for Missy to deflect. But she didn’t. She stood with a stupid smile on her face and color in her cheeks. Behind her, a cook chuckled. “I don’t think so,” she said at last.

Casey raised her eyebrows.

Missy cringed through the rest of her shift. She worried that Casey’s crew would stop coming in, but the next day they were back and more boisterous than ever. At first, she was relieved, but then she noticed a sharpness to the crews’ jokes, an edge directed at Casey. They shoved her and grinned at Missy and returned to the subject of Casey’s drill. They grew more insistent as their lunch hour waned. Before they left, Casey wrote her number on the back of the receipt and returned it to Missy.

“Let me take you out,” she said.

The crew snickered, ready for Missy to lay their doubts to rest.

Missy heard herself say, “Okay.”

As soon as the door slammed behind Casey, the cook whooped. “All right, Missy!”

“That’s enough,” said her manager. Missy didn’t dare turn her head. She didn’t want to catch his eye or see his tight, knowing smile. It was unprofessional to accept the phone numbers of cocky dykes on company time.

The other waitress, Kendall, sidled up and nudged her. “Look at you,” she said. She smiled but not at Missy. She grinned with her eyes on the door.

“I don’t know why I did that.”

“I think I do.”

“That’s enough, Kendall,” said the manager.

Kendall lowered her voice. “All this time I’ve been dishing about my boyfriend, and you never had anything to say. Now I know why.”

“It’s not like that,” said Missy, slapping her palm on the counter over Casey’s receipt. She dragged her palm to the edge of the counter and let the receipt drop into the trash can below.

Behind them, the cook laughed. “So, what? You said yes to not hurt her feelings?”

“You’re too sweet, Missy,” said Kendall. “You better learn to say no or people will take advantage.”

 

Missy pocketed the receipt when she took it out of the trash. After work, as she walked home along the highway, she pinched and worried the paper, wondering what to do. Kendall had offered to drive her, but Missy refused because she didn’t want to be interrogated.

It took her forty-five minutes to reach the narrow clapboard house where she’d grown up. She sat on the steps out front, peeled off her sweaty jacket, and fished out the receipt to take a closer look. To her horror, she saw that the ink had smeared, obscuring Casey’s phone number. The fives resembled sixes and the ones could have been sevens or vice versa.

Once she realized some smudged ink might prevent her from calling Casey, she stopped wondering what to do with Casey’s number. Missy knew she wanted to call her, she just needed to figure out how. On the same receipt, below the smudged number, she wrote out as many possible combinations as she could think of. She swapped fives for sixes and ones for sevens, keeping the legible numbers constant. Then she dialed each possibility on her smartphone, one by one, until she heard Casey’s voice on a voicemail recording. Missy hadn’t expected Casey to pick up anyway—she didn’t know anyone her age who picked up calls from random numbers, and Casey didn’t look more than a few years older.

Casey here. You know what to do.

“Hey,” Missy said after the beep. “It’s Missy. From the pizza shop. I just thought I would call.” She hung up because she didn’t know what else to say, and fretted until she felt her phone vibrate in her back pocket during dinner.

She bolted up from the table.

“You okay?” asked her dad, pausing with a can of beer halfway to his lips.

“Sit down,” her mom demanded. “We’re saying grace.”

“It’s my friend,” said Missy, improvising. “She needs homework help.”

“Didn’t you graduate?” quipped her older sister Bree.

“Yeah, but she didn’t,” Missy snapped.

“Sit down,” her mom said again. “We’ll say grace and then you can go.”

Missy bowed her head, heart pounding, and listened to her dad recite a prayer in Polish.

Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.

The prayer was short, so Missy had time to get to her bedroom before she answered the phone.

“Hey, Missy. Sorry I missed you before.”

“It’s okay! No problem at all.”

“Is this a good time to talk? You seem out of breath.”

Missy made an effort to slow her breathing. “No, no. Now’s a good time. What’s up?”

Casey laughed. “I guess—I want to know if you want to see me. When we’re both off the clock.”

“Yes.”

When Missy didn’t elaborate, Casey asked, “So…are you free tomorrow night?”

“You mean Saturday? Saturday I’m free.” She paused, then forced herself to continue. “Let’s drive somewhere new. I’m sick of Bayonne.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll think of someplace,” said Casey. “Is that where you live, Bayonne? Can I pick you up?”

Missy struggled to think of a suitably anonymous meeting place. Her house was out of the question, as was Gino’s Pizzeria. In the end, she gave the name of a local Korean grocery because none of her parents’ friends shopped there.

As soon as she hung up, Missy felt overwhelmed by the task of dressing for their date. In high school, she’d dressed in whatever clothes her peers wore, noting the most popular styles of blue jeans and ballet flats. She saved her paychecks and bought the right brand of backpack. She gravitated toward shirts with brand names splashed across the front. Now that she worked full time she wore her Gino’s T-shirt almost every day.

But with Casey, she couldn’t rely on context to dress. She didn’t know Casey from high school, and she certainly couldn’t wear her employee uniform on their date. The thought of dressing like Casey, in Carhartts and flannel, crossed her mind. But she couldn’t imagine wearing Casey’s clothes any more than she could imagine Casey in a dress. The image embarrassed her and brought to mind how appalled she had been by Casey’s appearance that first day in the pizza shop. Or maybe she wasn’t appalled—maybe that was just the name she gave to feelings of another kind.

After dinner, Missy decided to wear sandals, shorts, and her church cardigan, buttoned up to hide the little gold cross she wore around her neck.

The following evening, Casey picked her up and drove north along the Hudson River, stopping at Liberty State Park. From there they could see the backside of the Statue of Liberty,  as well as some of lower Manhattan across the water. Casey parked the car and bought two ice cream cones from a truck. Then they crawled under a railing and found a place to sit on the rocks, with the river just a foot away. The sun set behind them, leaving the cityscape to glitter against a dim eastern sky.

“Have you always lived in Bayonne?” asked Casey, licking a drop off the side of her ice cream cone. Tonight she wore a clean shirt and jeans in addition to her usual Yankees cap.

“Pretty much.” Missy smiled. “You know the church you’re working on? I grew up going to that church.”

Casey grinned and said, “No way!”

Missy remembered her first communion, standing at the altar in a frothy gown. She remembered her first bittersweet sip from the communal goblet, and the ham hocks her mom brought to the potluck after the service. That night, her parents gave her the little gold cross she wore every day, more out of habit more than devotion.

“The windows are beautiful,” Casey continued. “And so are the pews, with the new stain and all. Do you like going there?”

“I go because I’ve always gone. My mom likes it.”

“And you like going to church with her? Living with her?”

This question struck Missy as condescending. “What do you mean?” she asked

“I just meant, how is that like for you? Tell me about your family.”

“My family,” said Missy, running a curl between her fingers. “Well, my parents are Polish immigrants. My dad is an electrician and my mom is very Catholic.”

Casey raised her eyebrows.

Missy braced herself for more questions about her beliefs, about her mother, but none came. Relieved, she added, “My mom and my sister always butt heads.”

“Why?”

Missy rolled her eyes. “A million reasons. Stupid reasons. I think Bree will be happy once she has kids of her own to boss around.”

“Oh, she wants to be the boss. I get it, I’m like that too.”

Missy felt a little thrill. Then she felt embarrassed and exposed. What was she doing on a dark riverbank with a woman who dressed like a man? Her mother thought she was at Kendall’s house. She should be at Kendall’s house. If Casey had picked Missy up from her house rather than the Korean grocery, would her mom have shaken Casey’s hand?

To distract herself from hypotheticals, Missy said, “Let me tell you about my sister. When I was little, we would play house and she would make me be the dog.”

“That’s mean.”

“It was! Bree would be the mom, our friend would be the dad, and she’d get a doll to be the baby.”

“She couldn’t let you be the baby?”

“No! I had to be the dog. She made me drink from a cup on the floor—”

Casey laughed so hard Missy had to stop the story.

“You shouldn’t laugh so hard at my sad story,” she teased, once Casey had recovered.

“It’s not the story that’s so funny. It’s your delivery.”

“My delivery?”

“Yeah,” said Casey, looking from her to Manhattan. “Like at the pizza shop, when my crew was making dick jokes. You went along with it, all sweet and simple until you looked at me. Then the joke was on them. You know what I’m saying?”

“Not really.”

“It’s not a bad thing. When I first saw you, I thought you were pretty and mysterious. But I didn’t know you were funny until later.”

Missy looked down at the Hudson River. She was flattered and flustered, but at the same time she felt criticized. Like she’d been caught in a lie. Missy changed the subject. “Where did you grow up?”

“I live in Newark,” said Casey, pulling down the brim of her Yankees cap. “I have an apartment and a couple roommates.”

Missy waited for elaboration, then asked, “But where are you from?”

“Trenton. I haven’t been back in a while, though”

A drop of sweat slid down Missy’s spine. Had Casey’s family rejected her? She decided not to press any further and instead pointed across the water. “Do you ever work there?”

“In Manhattan?” Casey laughed bitterly. “ No. I’m not ready for a Manhattan job, and if my crew keeps giving me grunt work, I never will be.”

“So you’ve never been?”

“I go to Manhattan every chance I get. Mostly weekends,” said Casey, resting her hand on the rock beneath them, behind Missy’s back, barely touching her. “You should join me sometime.” The phrase was heavy with bravado, so different from the gesture, which was cautious and shy.

Tenderness welled in Missy’s chest, and longing. She leaned back, and Casey’s arm stiffened to support her weight. Casey’s fingers curled around her hip and Missy put her hand on Casey’s thigh. She felt muscles tense beneath her hand as she stared across the water, picking out blinking pearls of light, square panels of light, rhinestone strips of light, white-hot balls of light. Rows of windows glistened like scales. She felt the rough cotton of Casey’s jeans and the promise of soft skin underneath. She turned away from the lights and toward Casey, tried to kiss her but missed her mouth in the dark, getting her cheek instead and clicking teeth. Casey’s hands smelled like some kind of wood, maybe maple, and water rushed past them toward the sea.

“I can tell you more if you want,” Casey mumbled.

Missy giggled.

“I can tell you everything I know about Manhattan—the communist bookstore in the Bowery, the lesbian bar that doesn’t card, the best cannoli you ever—”

Missy’s giggles turned to snorts as she collapsed into Casey’s arms.

“Stop laughing, I’m serious. The best cannoli you ever had.”

“Shut up, shut up,” said Missy, pulling Casey’s face to hers.

But as soon as Casey shut up, Missy heard footsteps on the path above. She looked up and saw a figure hurry by, growing smaller already in the distance.

“What’s wrong?” asked Casey.

Missy sat up and adjusted her cardigan. “I heard someone.”

“Yeah?”

“I know a lot of people in this area. I’m just nervous.”

“I thought you lived in Bayonne.”

“I do, but some people from my church live here.” She paused. “And I’m not gay, you know.”

Casey adjusted her cap, ran a hand over her ponytail, and gave a short laugh. “No?”

“No.”

“So you kissed me, what? For the hell of it?”

“No,” Missy blurted. She paused, searching for the words that would manage Casey’s reaction. “I just—I wanted to try it.”

“You were nicer at the pizza shop.”

Missy felt her throat close.

“At least you smell good. You smell like pizza crust.”

“Stop it.” Her voice wobbled.

“Aw, sweetheart.” Casey squeezed her knee. “Can I drive you home?”

Missy sniffled and nodded.

They scrambled off the rocks and back onto the path, where street lamps and a few pedestrians made Missy’s palms sweat and eyes burn. Casey unlocked the car as they approached and opened the door on the passenger side.

As Casey walked around the front of the car to the driver’s seat, Missy blurted, “That wasn’t right, what I said. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Casey paused to kick the front tire of her car. With her eyes on her work boots, she said, “I did think this would make a cute story, though.”

Missy gripped the edge of the car door. “What do you mean?”

“Like, if it worked out between us, if you were the waitress that I met on my lunch break. That would be a cute story.”

On Sunday morning, Missy walked into church and gasped.

“You okay?” her dad asked.

Her mother pulled on her arm. “Missy, you can’t stop in the middle of the aisle.”

“Look at the pews,” said Missy.

“What about them?” said Bree.

“Oh! They’ve been refinished,” said her dad, nodding. “I think Father Kaminski mentioned that was gonna happen last week. Looks nice.”

Missy followed her family to the front of the church. They sat in their usual pew, three rows from the pulpit on the left-hand side. The organ music tapered off and the priest began to speak, but Missy wasn’t listening. She stared down at the pew itself, at the wood beneath her fingertips, wood she would have called ‘yellow’ just last week. Now she saw tiger stripes in its glossy surface, flashes of bronze and gold, glistening scales, luminous as pearls. Solid maple, Casey had said. Beautiful.

Missy felt her mom’s nails bite into her shoulder. She winced and looked up at the priest.

 


Carly Sorenson is managing editor of Italics Mine​, a student literary magazine at SUNY Purchase College. She has interned for Melville House Books, Langtons International Agency, and Montez Press Radio. She works part-time as a bookseller and writes frustrated love stories. 

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Simmons

Featuring: The Calamity

I thought they were going to blow the whole fuckin’ roof off the place. Seriously, I thought we were going to die. I hoped we would too, man, because if I’m gonna go, that’s the way to do it…Rocked straight into a fuckin’ casket and thrown off a bridge.

-Ameer Said, College Senior.

Amity

Irony is dead, and you need to get the fuck over it. Authenticity is in. Being real is in. Irony had its time. You ever see all those pictures, you know, of those bands in the nineties? Angsty musicians all wearing shirts with Madonna or Michael Jackson in a very “look at me, I’m wearing a Madonna shirt” kind of way, to mock her; to abjectly reject popular media as if that’s what makes you cool. Those days were when irony was in, maybe because the times called for it or some other intelligent sounding reason, but I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t there and I don’t really give a fuck. All I know is that I wear my Madonna shirt on stage because I actually really like Madonna. She was sexy and didn’t care what you thought of her sexiness. I also don’t wear it three sizes too large ironically; I think it’s a good look and the airflow is unreal. The last thing I would ever do is wear an image of Queen Goddess Madonna in an ironic way.

This is what I think about as I stand on the yet unfurnished basement floor—an empty pool waiting to be filled with ripping dissonance, sweaty concert goers, and bottom-shelf dollar beer. The idle chatter of the house proprietors and their friends registers as an anticipatory murmur. A calm before a storm. Soon, the floor will be filled to capacity and then some: a palette of tattooed young men with lip-rings, bohemian lesbians wearing dreadlocks, goths, gays, and hipsters—all joining together as one gelatinous new clique. I call these people Authenticists because despite their vast differences, they all represent a core truth about identity and what it means to wear yourself on your sleeve. In front of all these like-minded people, I will make our big announcement. Introduce the grand finale.

I notice Garrett appears by my side, though he may have been there all along. I look up to see his eyes are already on me.

“Shouldn’t we do a soundcheck or something?” he asks.

I laugh, not because of what he said, but because his hair is draped around the neck of the bass on his back, suspended three inches above his head. He looks like a goon. This is the longest I’ve ever seen his hair. “I already told them everything we need. Levels, mic placements, and everything else,” I say.

“That’s like, not what bands do…I mean, it’s a part of the whole thing to do a soundcheck. Every other band—”

“We aren’t every other band, Garrett,” I say. He’s getting annoyed with me, I can tell. I can always tell. I’d like to think it keeps our relationship human and sincere, almost like siblings. Except Garrett isn’t in rehab for cocaine abuse like my real brother.

“I’m going to do a soundcheck for us,” he says.

“Look at you, Mister Decision Man. Go ahead, but it’ll be useless. I already told them everything they need to know.”

Garrett grumbles something before turning his attention back to me.

“Do you know where Ezra is? They’ll help me,” he says.

“What am I, their babysitter?”

Garrett rolls his eyes and, I admit, this constant back and forth sarcasm could get annoying. “You know Ezra. They probably got lost upstairs talking to everyone, then they probably got offered weed or a beer or something, then they took it, and now they’re probably telling the story of the time they got your hair stuck in a blender and—”

“I get it, Amity. Are you still Amity?”

“I am. I’m offended you can’t tell the difference at this point.”

This exchange needs some context. I am as authentically Amity, twenty-year-old psychology major, as I am Casey Couture, one-woman revolution and front person of The Calamity—the greatest band that’s ever existed. Amity is opinionated, never keeps her mouth shut, and has a hard time making friends or keeping roommates. Casey Couture is opinionated, never keeps her mouth shut, and doesn’t need any friends or roommates. The qualities of Amity that Casey Couture has are much more refined, realized, and utilized with purpose, meaning, poise, and clarity. Casey Couture is everything Amity wishes she was.

I’m not gonna lie, though, she came to me one day during an acid trip. That’s like, not cool or revelatory at all, right? Casey Couture was the result of a long mirror stare where I got so scared of myself I had to become someone different. I know it makes me sound lame, like those white dudes who take too many shrooms and talk to God and change their names to Shaheed or something. But, as part of the practice of being authentic—no matter the time, place, or setting—I lay myself bare to you.

Besides, she’s more than just a souvenir from a psychedelic trip. For one, she’s the greatest fucking rockstar who has ever fucking lived. Casey Couture isn’t just a stage name. She isn’t a mask I put on. Sure, our faces have similar bone structures, but when I become Casey Couture, I am no longer Amity. I have no memories of who Amity is. Casey Couture, though, she’s a badass. She’s a firework. As Amity, I get in fights a lot, but there’s nothing badass about screaming at the man who gave you a hard time at work then leaving in tears. Casey Couture would never do that. She’s a ball of grace covered in “fuck you” wrapping paper. Her lyrics are blunt without sacrificing poignancy. Her riffs can shred paper and massage the soul. She’s so cool and talented.

“Hey, what if instead of playing drums tonight, I play the kazoo? And we can change the band name to Blue Kazoo and the Crew,” I hear Ezra say behind me.  I brace for their impact, as all at once I bear the full weight of Ezra. We’ve got it down to a science at this point; I position my arms in the same place every time, and Ezra fits their legs into the crevice I create. Their face comes so close to mine that I smell the weed and beer on their breath. I notice I haven’t really moved since Garrett talked to me. Tonight is huge. It’s worthy of a lengthy spell of dissociative reflection as Amity before I transform into Casey.

“Yeah, I love it. It’ll be our most packed show yet, why not shake things up?”

“Let these bitches know what we’re all about,” they say, hopping down next to me, leaning on my shoulder. “What were you doing just standing here? Are you lost?”

“I’m just taking everything in. Letting my body soak up the energy, man. You know? This place is legendary. Fuckin’ Banana Peel Yellow played here. Here! Right where we stand! And they just played South By!”

“Okay, hippy. I’m just excited to hit some shit.”

“I’m excited to see you hit some shit,” I say. “Tonight’s gonna be perfect. It’s gonna be lightning.”

“It’s gonna be a Calamity!”

The Calamity is, of course, the greatest fucking rock band that ever lived, and we’ve already proved it. We’ve slogged tirelessly through the basement circuit and even got to play a few dirty little dives, which was, like, a dream come true. We’ve released a single EP, hailed by the CampusColumnist as “really solid.” I got recognized once as Casey Couture by a bouncer and had my fake ID taken from me. We are basically bigger than the Beatles at this point. And tonight we’re playing The Slaughterhouse, the most exclusive basement in town, where acts like Fish in a Barrel and Quarantine have taken the stage and absolutely decimated. It’s a big deal. A perfect night to complete our story.

Why sully a perfect thing by keeping it around forever? Every band, every TV show, every movie franchise ruins years of legacy by trying to hold our attention for longer than we have the capacity for. God, do you remember when Cut the Crap came out? I mean, I don’t, I’m twenty, but I’ve read enough to know that The Clash went from being “the only band that mattered” to “the only band that mattered—with an asterisk.” I can’t live with an asterisk next to our name. We are an asterisk-less band. The Calamity released one perfect, compact, revolutionary EP, tactfully titled Featuring: The Calamity. We called it this because we want the songs to take on lives bigger than the people who played them. Song is king, and we are merely here to serve His Highness.

Our EP comprises seven songs, all fueled by youthful angst, ice coffee, and a cold embrace of our mortality. Its penultimate track, “Rotted Dick,” was the subject of Sue Kelling’s junior thesis, “Navigating Young Adult Anxiety Through Music.” We have said everything we came here to say, and we need to die to preserve our unadulterated authenticity.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the road for Casey Couture. She’s a star, and she knows it. Everyone knows it. I think of Björk, you know, who started as some random Icelandic girl in a punk band propelled to superstardom because she was weird as hell and didn’t give a fuck what you thought about it. In the age of irony, there existed no ego, and I think that’s bullshit. People go to see Björk, so Björk gives them something to see. Casey Couture may join another band, but it’s more likely she will travel the world alone—untethered, unchained, authentic. A one-woman revolution. Tonight is the night to prove it. Tonight is the stepping stone to superstardom, and sometimes to birth things you have to let other things die, I guess. I don’t know, that’s probably stupid.

I want Casey Couture to call me a bitch and kick me in the face.

-Angel McMullin, College Senior

Garrett

I love Amity; I love Casey. I do. She’s my best friend in the whole world. She’s just wrong about the soundcheck, that’s all. And that’s fine, I can do it myself. I can hit a drum, strum a guitar, and obviously I can chug at a bass. It would be hard to be a bass player for this band otherwise, right? I might be the worst musician in this group, and I mean that, but it doesn’t bother me. I think I have the most sense—maybe—the most understanding of the norms of these things: a solid grounding for promoters, producers, labelheads, or whoever, to come to when they need something more ordinary after meeting Amity and Ezra. The most technical sense, as well.

Of course, nothing Amity told the sound guy resembled anything accurate, but she doesn’t need to know that.

Ezra’s off upstairs again, and Amity’s off in the corner changing into Casey. Over time, Casey’s makeup and clothing became wilder, and their application takes up a substantial portion of her pre-show ritual. Tonight she’s wearing a tie-dye tapestry she’s cut into a top, which would drag across the floor if it wasn’t for her silver platform shoes. Her eye makeup is done in wings and her lipstick is golden, sparkling. It’s a pretty far cry from my Sonic Youth T-shirt, jeans, and Converse. It’s just about the same thing every other dude in a band wears. If I’m being honest, I wish I had the confidence to wear something a little more flashy, but I think I’d just get laughed at.

I will say that Ezra and I wouldn’t be here—as in The Slaughterhouse—without her, regardless of how good I am at bass or Ezra is at drumming. Amity’s got a spark, but she definitely gets on my nerves sometimes. Sometimes her Casey Couture persona takes over so much that I barely know where Amity stops and Casey begins. I think, though, our occasional bickering is just a result of constant proximity and extreme comfort with each other. The three of us playing music together has been the best time of my life, and I hope it never ends. Sure, it would be nice to write a song—or even a few notes every now and again—but I have to trust Amity on that front. Her songs are killer. I can handle all the technical stuff, but I don’t really know if I can write a song. I’m slightly jealous but mainly I’m thrilled to be a part of these songs, because I’m not even sure she needs me. She once played me an acoustic rendition of “Rotted Dick” and it was so beautiful that I cried.

I’m comfortable with the sound but I still have to move all our gear out of the way to make room for the openers. Doing a soundcheck before taking the stage is a luxury only afforded to the headliners, meaning that this is the first time I get to do this. Slowly, people are starting to file downstairs into The Slaughterhouse, but it’s still too early for anyone to be anything but a wall hugger. From an outsider’s point of view, it’s just a basement, all gray everything, dusty, with open laundry machines in the corner. To an insider, though, however ordinary the basement may seem, it is completely elevated by its legacy. Everyone from Jaded Summer to the Gangrene Grandmas have played this room. It’s the only house venue in the county that regularly reaches capacity. A good show here can be the springboard to a band’s successful future career, which, obviously, is my hope. I’m sure it’s all of ours. The Calamity is my life; I never want it to end.

I don’t usually get nervous, at least, not like this. Our soundcheck sounded great and we are, I dare say, over rehearsed. But this feeling—like the future of the band rests in the hands of tonight—is pretty unshakeable.

Ezra trots back down the stairs, and I’m sure they’ll go back up soon. They can’t really stay in one place for too long, especially with so much social stimulation. They’re not nervous, as per usual. Instead, smiling and laughing, they’re now chatting away with Sybil Connor, a current renter of the house—and one of the many secret loves of my life. One that will probably stay that way: a secret. I think I just wish I was her, to be honest. I wish I could do something so bold and brash like dying my hair green and cutting half of it off, like Sybil does. Although my heart keeps beating like a Glenn Branca movement, I join them, hoping that casual conversation might alleviate my anxiety.

“Garrett, my man!’’ Sybil says, punching me in the arm, “It’s a big night tonight! Isn’t it?”

“Yeah, seems that way,” I wince and rub the spot she punched, although, retrospectively, I wish I hadn’t.

“Don’t fuck it up,” she says, laughing.

“We actually call Garrett “Father Fuck Up” because of how shitty of a bass player he is,” Ezra jokes. These kinds of insults are normal from them; it’s how you know they like you. And you want them to like you. Tonight, though, that burn hits a little different.

“I’m just messing, you guys are always great. We’ve had some pretty major catastrophes happen over there,” Sybil says, motioning toward the stage slightly obscured by the heads downstairs. “But, I mean, it’s just a house full of drunk people. Not hard to make an impression. Speaking of drunk, you guys need anything?”

“Uhh, yeah, obviously,” says Ezra, following Sybil back upstairs. “Garrett, Amity, you guys need anything? Beer? Shots?”

I shake my head no, but Amity gives Ezra a nod. I envy those two and their willingness to enjoy themselves. The future of our band, the way I see it right now, is at stake tonight. This is where we have a true chance to separate ourselves from the many generic sounding, same shit, whiny bands around here. I’ve heard rumors that artists have landed record deals or booked some major opening gigs after playing a single night here. I hope that will happen to us, but I also couldn’t bear knowing that a label head was here.

The speakers turn on, kicking off the party. Good. Something to distract me from my thoughts. Of course, it’s stuff I know and like. Why wouldn’t it be? Bikini Kill, Crass, Sleater Kinney. The Slaughterhouse is the coolest place in town. Ezra comes back downstairs, now on Sybil’s back. Ezra is tiny, about four feet and eleven inches, and super skinny. Their skin is darker than Amity’s and mine and they make fun of our whiteness constantly, but I never mind. It’s funny shit, and painfully accurate. I am the whitest guy I know. But Ezra is just an adorable human being, in a pour-water-on-them-and-they-become-a-gremlin kind of way. Other people of this particular body type might be offended by others wanting to pick them up, hold them, and coddle them. Not Ezra. I rarely see them actually walk anywhere. They hop right off Sybil’s back and jump back onto Amity’s, only knocking her slightly off balance. They reach around Amity’s head and hold the beer to her mouth.

Amity laughs and isn’t pissed. I never have the wherewithal to break her concentration like that, but I guess all Ezra and Amity have all the wherewithal in the world. Sometimes I do feel strung along with the two of them, until Amity has one of her midnight crises. Then I’m the one who gets the phone call. I have to remind myself that I’m her first choice in times of desperation, and that makes up for being the third wheel during times of fun, I guess.

Amity closes the mirror, and she is now Casey Couture. She likes us to loudly use that name before a show to “add to the overall experience that is The Calamity.” She says we aren’t just here to put on a concert but to “commit an act of domestic terrorism and convince everyone that’s what they want.” Because that makes sense. She doesn’t always think too hard about what she’s saying or doing, but it’s impossible not to listen to her. I’m hoping her confidence will rub off on me.

Ezra comes over to me and grabs my arm.

“Are you hyped yet, Garrett? This is the hugest fucking night of our young lives!” they yell in my ear.

I smirk, but I don’t really have a response. I know it’s the hugest night of our lives, and I really can’t handle any more emphasis on that fact.

The opener is doing their soundcheck. They’re called Hello Heart; I’ve seen them a few times. They’re young, and I’m pretty sure they’re still in high school, but they’re good kids. And they’re a good band. It would be so much easier if they weren’t.

Casey Couture is my feminist idol

-Lisette Claymore, Senior

Ezra

Absolute dream come true. I mean, I can barely believe it. The Slaughterhouse, man! I’m not going to say we don’t deserve this—we absolutely deserve this! Have you heard Casey Couture play before? She’s the fucking white girl Jimmy Hendrix, except way better and way less dead. I would listen to us even if I weren’t in this band, you know? We totally capture everything I’ve been dying to hear my whole life. We’re real. We’re so real. Raw, powerful, an absolute massacre of rage and…and emotion and fire and anguish and happiness. Nothing can tether us! No chains can hold us back, man! It’s total anarchy with The Calamity!

I wish I had given myself a stage name like Amity did with Casey Couture when I had the chance. I probably would have named myself something dope, too, like “Hound Dog” or “Thrasher.” Just kidding, those are really stupid names. But, The Calamity is more than just a band, we have a legacy to preserve. Now that we’ve started to gain some serious steam, I can’t go from being known as Ezra on stage to “Clint Warlock” or something, even if Clint Warlock is the objective best name ever. We aren’t just a punk band, we’re a full-fucking-fledged experience, reliant on eons of ethos building.

Hello Heart is up there killing it right now, of course. They’re still innocent, hardly out of the womb, but good goddamn can they play some music. They kind of remind me of the Ramones if the Ramones were good. Plus, there’s only three of them, like us. They’re tasked with the ever important job of warming up the audience, and the crowd is absolutely loving them. Barely more than three drinks in, I imagine, and everyone’s already slamming into each other. This audience is a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode.

Hello Heart is playing this one song I like called “Ready Set” or “Ready Set Go” or maybe it’s just called “Go.” I don’t know, but I really vibe with the message. I can’t really hear what they’re singing, but whatever message the music communicates is a message I can get behind. Even though they’re younger than us, they’re angrier to a pretty shocking degree, which I think really says something profound about society. I don’t really know what, though.

Look at Garrett over there, back against the wall like he’s reliving his high school dance years. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen his hair longer, it’s just below his shoulders. This Halloween, I pitched Cousin Itt as his obvious costume. I don’t really know what the fuck his problem was, but he didn’t even come out with us at all, let alone put on anything outside of the single outfit he owns.

“Garrett! Hey, Garrett! It’s me, Ezra!” I wave obnoxiously at him, jumping over the few heads between us. One side of his face curls upwards, like it’s trying to smile but doesn’t know what a smile is.

I smell his nervousness; he’s a nervous little baby, and all I want to do is go give him a hug. Amity is nowhere to be seen at this point. We’re on in fifteen or so, so of course she’s ghosting. Probably in front of a mirror somewhere, making sure she looks perfect. I don’t blame her. She always looks perfect, but when she tries extra hard to look perfect she looks even more perfect. Like an angel, or, better yet, a sexy demon. Either that, or she’s up there alienating someone new. I should go ease Garrett’s nerves.

“You look like you’re reliving your highschool dance years!” I say over the music. That was a good joke. I couldn’t bear to waste it by keeping it in.

“You look like…you look like a goth…or something,” he says, clearly believing that black eye makeup is the sole indicator of a goth.

“You really got me!” I yell back. Garrett shoves his hands in his pockets. He’s doing that thing to me right now where he’s not facing me directly or making any eye contact, like a dad at a barbeque discussing the Saints versus the Dolphins.

“Do you know where Amity is? Or Casey, or whatever?” he says, looking around to make sure nobody heard him call her Amity. Dammit, look at me when you talk to me, I want to say. It’s like we haven’t spent the last year joined at the hip.

“Oh, you know her…she’s probably looking in a fucking mirror making sure her top reaches the perfect spot on her legs just above the knee. Or she got sucked into a conversation where she was able to bring up her Karen O obsession, or her Yoko Ono obsession. She’s fine.”

“Yeah, but we’re on in fifteen minutes…”

“She knows, dude. Take a chill pill—seriously, I have some Xanax in my bag if you want. Wash it down with vodka! You always say you wish you were more like a rockstar,” I say, laughing. I’m a little annoyed, though, that he’s not laughing back. Whatever, we’ll play the show and be fine. Conversations aren’t supposed to be some fucking competetion where you try to win over the other person. I can’t vibe with this negative energy, so I’m going upstairs for one last pre-game beer. I get to the living room and there’s a huddle of people near the door, and I hear some yelling. Whatever’s happening seems like a good adrenaline boost, and I’m pretty short so I usually get front-and-center privileges to these kinds of events.

I shove my way through the cattle, and who do I see but Amity, finger firmly planted in the divot of some lanky saltine’s chest. He keeps backing up toward the door.

“Who even are you? Do you think I give a single shit about your opinion? You wanna say it again, huh? Get the fuck out of here!” she’s screaming at this guy.

I have no idea what the situation is, but I gotta bounce in and start screaming at this motherfucker alongside her. “Too busy in highschool popping all your pimples to learn some goddamn manners, you slug? Trying to get smacked?” I yell, literally jumping to get in this guy’s face. He’s definitely nervous but still smirking, only giving our rage longer legs.

“Chill out! It was nothing! I didn’t mean anything by it!” he yells back, looking proud of his piss-poor, sorry-shit defense. I would never call anyone a cocksucker in a derogatory way—who doesn’t love the occasional dick in the mouth?—but, holy fuck, this guy is a cocksucker.

“Oh, you didn’t mean anything by it? Then why’d you say it, huh? Why’d you say it? Wanna say it to me outside? Let’s go!” Amity says.

“I’ll break my streak of pacifism for you,” I pile on. “You motherfucker. Come on!” If nothing else, I am a shit talk maestro. We are gonna play such a great show after this. A great anecdote for The Calamity Memoirs.

We keep yelling at this dildo until some huge, bearded dude intervenes and expends zero effort forcing this guy out of the house. We thank him because he seems cool and offer him a beer because we don’t have much else to offer. He declines but in a super chill way. Like, he said “no,” but he had this, like, really saucy inflection in his voice. I kind of want to be his friend but I think he’s thirty. He bids us adieu and I give Amity a wild hug.

“Dude, Amity…” I say, after the fervor has died down a touch. “What a hoot! Let’s find some other fucker to kick out!”

“Amity?” She responds, and I know what she means. I wish she knew that, as baller as Casey Couture is, she’s still just Amity the whole time. I mean, isn’t it better that Amity take credit for this rather than some stage name?

“What did he say to you anyway, huh? The nerve of some people, man…”

Amity gives me a sideways smile, “He told me that The Calamity wasn’t his kind of music. Why’s he here then, you know?”

“That’s it? Are you fucking serious?” Jesus, now I have to feel guilty. And I should never have to feel guilty for such a biting verbal smackdown.

“I mean, he was kind of a dick about it.”

“You’re being a bit of a dick about it yourself!” I say, backing off. “Kicking a guy out for that. I was ready to kill him for you! Seriously!”

She laughs, like maybe she doesn’t think I’m serious. That’s what I get for being so side-splittingly hilarious all the time.

“I could just tell there was nothing authentic about him. It’s an energy that you can pick up from a face like his,” she says.

I won’t lie, sometimes she’s super fucking annoying.“You’re fucking insane. Did you know that?”

“Of course!” She says, and now I laugh.

Eh, you know what, fuck that guy.

I hear Hello Heart finish on my favorite song which means it’s time for us to take the stage, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt we are going to blow the whole fuckin’ roof off this joint.

It was way too sweaty and smelly down there…do people actually enjoy this?

  -Derrick Dobmeier, Freshman

Casey Couture

It was a flash of heat, a bucket of water in a deep fryer. It could have been two minutes, it could have been two hours. It was profoundly violent and bloody, yet serenely peaceful. It was, after all, the death of The Calamity—the greatest rock band that’s ever been kind enough to treat this Earth with their presence. And now The Calamity will forever be buried in The Slaughterhouse, or perhaps cremated, or perhaps so decimated that all that remains is a photograph for the memorial.

We not only played our songs tonight, we ripped through them with a ferocity hardly seen since the days of Iggy and the Stooges or a young Karen O with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (the second greatest band on Earth). Of course, I opened with my signature move: a true crowd pleaser, raucous and wild, where I chug an entire beer and spray the last mouthful up like a geyser while Ez and Garrett vamp on something new each time. Sometimes people ask us, “are they really making it up on the spot?” They are. Each time. The reaction is incredible.

Garrett, Ezra, and myself were locked into each other, bound by invisible chains, whipped by an invisible BDSM dominatrix until we were welted and crying with pleasure. We opened the night with a cover, an unprecedented yet carefully considered move, as we wanted everyone to start the show singing with us. A bonding strategy, a personal connection from artist to audience.

And no, it wasn’t an ironic cover. Garrett, Ezra, Amity, and I genuinely love Carly Rae Jepsen’s discography, which is why we chose to cover the canonical “Call Me Maybe.” Pop music doesn’t get enough credit at these kinds of events. I would even argue that, in spirit, pop is the same as punk: simple, three chord music more focused on feeling and physicality than some kind of mental trip. Music that makes your body want to explode in flurries of expression, to dance.

The crowd moved all at once, swaying back and forth, mouthing the words. We played it faster, naturally, and more hardcore, naturally, than the original. It was the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, it moved everyone to practice their authentic expressionism. Garrett chugged through the opening notes, introducing a flash of “I know this, but from where?” into the room’s consciousness. As soon as I threw the wish in the well, the cheers nearly drowned out the monitors. We couldn’t hear a note we were playing for a few seconds. Everything was going perfectly.

Of course, following this we played a few non-EP cuts to build the tension and get the crowd hungry for the hits: “Hopelandia” to “Grounded Forever” to “Death is Funny.” At the end of “Death,” Ezra dropped their drumstick, so I took it and hit Garrett’s low E string five or six times in an effort to be spontaneous, but mostly to make him smile (which he did). He was nervous, and I could tell. I wanted him to loosen up. I like him more when he’s loose. Pure musicality can manifest itself in infinite ways. Rigidity is not one of those ways.

Then, of course, we hit the opening power chord of “Can’t Knock It,” our EP opener, with such precision and force that I thought the gates to Hell were going to open up from beneath and swallow us right then and there. Of course, then we blazed through the rest: “Lustful Existence” to “Global Warming” to “Rotted Dick” to “Please the Police” to “Rock Hard,” finishing with, of course, our EP closer, “I Hate Myself.” Between “Dick” and “Police,” we included an improvised flourish, a jam so tight that it felt as if the three of us were melting together into a giant robotic musical being. I will miss that about being in this band, of course, that sense of complete and unconfused musical communication.

I would never say I’m moving on to bigger or better things. After all, The Calamity is the greatest band that’s ever existed. It’s time for me to move on to different things. Forever is an egregiously boring thing. Now the concept of temporary, of endings, of death, that’s beautiful. Death is beautiful. It provides a whole new significance to life. That’s how we stay the greatest band that’s ever existed. That’s why Nirvana never sucked, and why Weezer sucks hardcore now. I can’t stay in one place for too long when I have a whole world at my disposal. New people to meet and, more importantly, new people to wow and amaze and influence. The Calamity will be known for beginning the revolution. Casey Couture will be known for finishing it.

Ezra and Garrett will forgive me, I know they will. They’re mad now, but they just need time. They’ll get it. They’re smart.

If The Calamity ends then life has no meaning.

-Greta Hartwick, Senior

Ezra

This bitch.

“What do you mean, end of The Calamity? Is this some kind of joke or something? Why did you tell them that this was our last show after we just played the best show of our entire fucking lives?” We’re outside, in front of the house. Amity is sitting on the curb, her face in her hands. Garrett is behind me, not saying much as usual. He’ll tell me all about how he’s on my side later, but right now he can’t even work up the nerve to say anything. Whatever, man. Whatthefuckever.

“I thought you guys would get it,” Amity says, through her hands.

I have no idea if she’s herself or keeping up that Casey Couture façade bullshit, but I also don’t care.

“Get what? How our friend is tossing us in the dirt for…no fucking reason? Because she’s selfish and wants to be in the spotlight? We give you the fucking spotlight, Amity.” She doesn’t correct me, which is good. Casey Couture would be much more insufferable in this situation.

“But now the life of The Calamity means so much more and—”

“Cut that faux philosophical intellectual bullshit. It makes you sound way more stupid than you are.”

She’s silent for a moment after this, sinking deeper into her slump. Still dressed with all the makeup, she doesn’t look like a star.

“Sorry. I should have talked to you guys,” she says finally.

“Uh, yeah. No shit. We’re called The Calamity because we’re, you know, a band. Not a glorified solo act. What the fuck were you thinking?”

“It’s for the future. Casey Couture is—”

“Casey Couture is YOU, Amity. A stage name. An alter ego. Say “I am,” don’t act like this was out of your control. I’m sick of this shit. Childish.” I knew I had delivered a blow, but I wasn’t proud of it like I was when we kicked that cock blister to the curb earlier. As hard as that was to say, that’s one of the only ways you can get to her. Cut deep or else it won’t cut at all. She starts to cry; a teardrop at first, and then all at once. She can’t stop. I want to sit down next to her and punch her in the arm and give her a hug and then punch her again, but I can’t.

“I just thought it would be the perfect end and we could focus on the future,” she says between gasps, “and you guys are the most important thing in the world to me, and I feel like I lost you guys and—”

“It’s not too late, Amity,” Garrett finally chimes in, “there’s no reason the band has to end…could have just been a stunt, or whatever. Part of the experience.”

“No,” she immediately replies, wiping away a tear, “it has to end like this. It’s organic. Authentic. The fitting end.” The sadness leaves her face and her eyes regain their intensity.

“Authentic how? Seriously, Amity, authentic how? Is Casey Couture authentic? Announcing the end of a whole band without letting the fucking band know is authentic? Do you even know what that word means? Because I don’t think you do.” I am going for the jugular. I have to. She has proved that for the two years we’ve been friends—best friends, I thought—I was just being strung along in the name of some greater vision that only exists in one person’s brain.

She stands up. Wetness stains her cheekbones but other than that there’s nothing about her to suggest she’s ever cried. I think she might hit me. Do it.

“Casey Couture has more authenticity in one finger than either of you two have experienced in your entire lives,” she says, pointedly.

“Can’t you just be real for once, Amity?” Garrett asks, stepping forward. “We aren’t fucking talking about Casey Couture. We’re talking about you. You talk about being authentic, but neither of us feel like we even know who you are anymore. Did we ever?”

Amity steps back, and the tenseness in her muscles softens. I don’t know if she’ll cry again, hurl another insult, fight us, or what, but I don’t care. I don’t know why I ever cared. We obviously mean nothing to her. We stand in silence together, shifting slightly, mostly motionless. I’m sure, in all our brains, we’re exploring options of what to say next, but nothing is landing quite right. I’m glad Garrett stepped forward to say something. I think he needed that, and I think she needed to hear it. Amity starts to tear up again but doesn’t sob like before.

“Are you guys still gonna be my friends?” she asks, looking at the ground.

“I don’t know. Are you gonna be ours?” I ask.

Garrett

This open mic is going to be the first time I’ve played music publicly in a while. Some little coffee shop in town that only serves vegetarian food. It’s only been a month or so since that show at The Slaughterhouse, but when my weeks used to be packed with a show or two—plus rehearsals—three weeks not performing is like an eternity. Ezra and I have a thing, I guess, just a bongos and acoustic guitar kind of thing. Neutral Milk-ish. They’re singing, something I never even realized they could do, especially so well. As raw as the essence of Ezra is, their voice is, dare I say, pretty. A far cry from Amity’s Kathleen Hanna howls. I’m still the moody background, but unlike before, I’m not sure I want to be anything else. I’m very nervous.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t hope every day that I’ll get a text message saying something along the lines of, “band practice, now.” That’s usually how we were beckoned. We never did have a set time each week or whatever. That kind of annoyed me at the time, but, of course, now I miss it. It’s like a breakup, or a death in the family. As much as I try to carry on, there’s this dark cloud looming over me, only reminding me of its presence when things start to feel okay again.

I haven’t seen Amity since that night, either. Obviously, Ezra and I are still trying to hold onto our relationship, but I’d be lying if I said that the majority of our conversation wasn’t caked with shit talk. Shit talking Amity, the band, how annoying it was being in a band with Amity—anything we can say to convince ourselves that we don’t miss the everloving fuck out of it. There’s still something missing in Ezra and my dynamic now, some kind of awkwardness, almost like we’re playing music with each other out of obligation. We’re good, but we’re not “gaseous,” or “grotesquely nauseating,” or any of the other weird things Amity would say when talking about how great we were. How great she was.

Everyone sounds the same at this open mic. A lot of dudes who look similar to me singing about some girl they saw across a room somewhere, once. I noticed your shirt, it was covered in dirt. Those kinds of lyrics. Apparently, creepy obsessiveness is okay when you sing about it. Some dude thinks it’s a comedy open mic. He’s funny like how shoving a thumbtack between your toe and toenail is funny. Ezra and I aren’t going to make any waves, but at least we might be somewhat unique, I hope. There’s one artist between this guy and us, then we’ll go up to play a solid but forgettable set, then I’ll go home and make pizza rolls and think about all the other things I could be doing. Oh Christ, he’s singing about his ex-girlfriend. She’s a bitch, she’s a witch, she never did scratch this itch. He actually sang that.

When he finishes, there’s some polite clapping, and Ezra looks at me and snickers. Neither of us are clapping. Now there’s only a few minutes before we go up, so I grab my acoustic to tune it up real quick. The host of the event, some awkward fraternity dude in letters and glasses, steps up to the mic.

“Thanks Owen, that was great,” he says, looking at his ripped sheet of notebook paper. “We only have a couple more artists up. Thanks guys, for coming in. We still have a lot of coffee left, so please drink it—it cost us like twenty dollars. Anyway coming to the stage is…Casey Culture?” To our mutual surprise, Amity steps to the stage, in full Casey Couture get up: gay pride flag as cape, winged eyeliner, platform shoes, the whole nine, with an acoustic guitar strapped to her back. We hadn’t even seen her here. Probably because she spent the whole Open Mic dressing up.

“Oh God,” Ezra says, with a sigh, “here she is.”

“Couture,” Amity says into the mic, “Casey Couture.” She starts tuning up her guitar, even though we were explicitly told to tune before we hit the stage. Of course nobody is telling her no. Nobody knows how, apparently.

“Hey, Owen,” she says, back into the mic, looking at the last performer from across the room, “your ex sounds really cool. You seem like a dick, though.”

Ezra snickers, though I know they don’t want to. I look over at Owen, expecting some kind of outburst but his face just reddens as he tries to laugh it off. Casey Couture finishes tuning.

“This one’s called “Endings.” I hope you enjoy it.”

She strums the first chord, an open G. Very basic chord, maybe THE basic chord, but somehow she hits every string so perfectly that they bounce off the walls with a golden timbre. Her eyes shut tight as she plays, her upper half swaying back and forth in rhythm with the song. When she sings, it’s more melodic than I’m used to and yet, somehow, with an acoustic guitar by herself on a stage in a coffee shop, she still carries the same energy she did when we were playing loud punk in dirty basements.

I look at Ezra, expecting a scowl, or disinterest, but they’re just as invested as I am. Throughout the song they don’t turn to me and joke or say anything nasty, and I don’t either. She’s in full Casey Couture mode, and she’s never seemed more like Amity. She is laying every inch of her selves bare for us right now. The room seems like we may all collectively burst into tears. I don’t know if Amity even knows Ezra and I are here but I don’t think I even want her to. I forget we’re playing next, like how could we possibly follow her?

I don’t know if we’ll ever forgive Amity. I don’t know if we should, and I don’t know if she deserves it. I don’t know if The Calamity will ever come back, or if we’ll have any more of those late nights playing Mario Party and drinking way too much beer and smoking way too much weed. And that hurts, it really does. Knowing that what I’ve always considered to be the best nights of my life are over and never coming back. But I do know one thing for certain, and it’s maybe the only thing I’ve ever known: Casey Couture is a star.

 


Alex Simmons is graduating with a video production degree from SUNY Fredonia. He’s been writing and creating his whole life just to make himself laugh. When he isn’t writing, he can be found telling people about something he would like to write but probably never will. This will be his first ever published story, hopefully beginning a long-lasting trend. If not, look for his name in the credits of some Hollywood blockbuster.

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dany keagan

splitting

she sits in her spot in the classroom, same as always. instead of her notebook, she takes out her laptop. in this particular class, she could get away with dicking around and not doing anything of actual substance, both in the sense of her professor not actually caring and it not hurting her grade. there hadn’t been anything major that happened that particular morning or the night before, but the hole above her hip felt bigger than usual. nothing she could do about it for now. had to go to class. maybe if she hadn’t skipped that one time before she could have skipped today. but she did skip that one time before. everyone says that health comes first, but that’s hard to put into practice when thousands upon thousands of dollars are being put into your education.

sometimes she feels like it isn’t as bad. like it’s scabbing over and starting to heal like it is supposed to. she’d answer questions, smile at her classmates, check in with those who weren’t there to make sure everything was okay. send them the notes and tell them that she’s there if they need anything. no one really seemed to notice anything unusual, except for one of her professors who commented that she was mumbling more than usual. she went to her club and held her shit together; she smiled some more, tried to make jokes, and suggestions. then, there were moments where it felt like even her slightest movements were making her side split further open, and the wound was consuming her. like there was blood running from her breast down to her side. when it hurt, she’d kind of hold her breath to avoid crying out in pain. no one noticed that either. she kind of hoped someone would notice. maybe see her  discomfort, see her eyes squeeze shut, and face twitch. maybe they’d pull her to the side and help stop the bleeding. tell her to take a break and  that it was okay to be vulnerable. nobody did that.

she pulls herself onto the bed and lays on her back. pulling the hoodie up, she decides it’s time to finally see if it was all in her head or not. her skin was tinted red, her jeans stained from the blood. had no one seen that? the fact that no one actually said anything made her think that it wasn’t real. her finger traces the inside of the wound, following it from its start on her hip bone, up to just beneath her breast, just slightly out onto her back, and then back again to where she began. she had forgotten how her bones felt. how hot her flesh was. the pulsating of her intestines was a new sensation. had it been this big before or had she just repressed the thought of bloody fingertips reaching out from bruising, beating, oozing flesh?

for a while she just lies there, thinking. curious as to what started the splitting again. was it because of him? despite how hard she’s tried to remember him when she last saw him happy at the movies with his hair dyed a pale blue color, misery crept into the memory. suddenly she could see him lying there, wrists split down the center. and then he was hanging from the shower or the rafters, the chair tipped over beneath him. and then he was foaming from the mouth, eyes glossed with a pill bottle or a needle in hand. how miserable the unknown was. if she knew how he’d done it, her mind could only wander so far. but, she didn’t know. they never release the details of a suicide. maybe that’s why the memory came back. because she would never know.

after some time, she gets up, closes her door, shuts her blinds, and turns on her music really loud. she puts on a playlist called “happy hits!” that way if her roommates come by they won’t be able to tell what she is actually doing. she pulls the flat sheet from her bed and goes to sit at her desk. she’d already stained its soft, off-white pattern from the bleeding, and never really slept under it anyway. her phone dings. it is one of her friends asking if she’s okay. she responds that she is, but she was “just going through it atm.” not entirely false. she was going through it at the moment. she strips down to her panties so that there wouldn’t be more blood dripped onto her clothes.

taking one of her dry erase markers (she didn’t have any regular markers), she holds the linen to her side, traces her wound, and cuts out a piece to size. she tears another strip to gag herself with; ready for the agony. first, she takes a bottle of rubbing alcohol from her drawer and pours it down the side. her teeth feel like they’re going to shatter from how tightly she’s biting down. she doubles over in pain, gasping for breath. she’s forgotten how much that hurts. then she grabs a miniature sewing kit, meant for little tears in sweaters or leggings or whatever. not for stitches through flesh, that was for sure. she takes a lighter to the needle. heat cleans tools to an extent, right? or maybe she was confusing that with cauterizing a wound. doesn’t matter. it’s probably going to get infected regardless. she picks a spool of thread with a soft pink color; it will blend with her bruised and bloodied flesh and with the roses from the bed sheet.

quietly, carefully, she stitches the fabric into her flesh. most of the playlist she had put on had been absolute shit, but she likes this song. it reminds her of when she would do talent shows and things of the sort. she sings along breathy and tense to take her mind off  the pain. that way, she could vocalize her pain without raising concern. “and i never wanted anything from you.” the fabric was sticking to her insides. she’d probably have to add a second layer of fabric if she wanted it to last. “except everything you had, and what was left after that too.” her hands are shaking wildly. the needle struggles through her rotting flesh and eases through the sheet. “happiness hit her, like a bullet in the back.” the second layer of fabric hurts more than the first. she had hoped it would be the opposite. she puts the remnants of the sheet into a lump in the back of her closet in case she needs it again, shoves the bloodied clothes into her laundry bag.

down in the laundry room, she scrubs the blood out of her hoodie and jeans in the sink. hopefully a good wash and some of that prewash stain removal shit will get most of it out so she won’t have to toss the clothes. another girl comes in with a basket of laundry. she looks at the girl, then the jeans, then back again. she gives an empathetic smile.

“that time of the month, huh?

“yeah,” she lets out a forced laugh. “always comes when you least expect it. but what are you going to do?”

“cute jeans. hope you get the stains out.”

“thanks.”


Dany Keagan is a non-binary student at SUNY Oneonta. They are majoring in adolescent education with a concentration in English. This is their first fiction piece to be published, an exciting start to a life of writing.

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8.2 | Fiction

splitting

dany keagan


Under the aEgis

DongWon Oh


Featuring: The Calamity

Alex Simmons


The Biggest Drill

Carly Sorenson

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DongWon Oh

Troubles of Ants

Lee watches an ant climb his combat boot. It pauses at the toe, looks up, and says to itself not today. It turns back, climbs off the boot, and wanders back to its hill. Lee watches the ant for a while and then turns his head skyward. Birds are flying by, so far away they look more like origami than flesh and feathers. He remembers that his sister’s favorite birds are the ones native to this region. She started high school recently and checks with in with him less and less. The world is passing him by, it seems. These birds are too far away to be sure they’re the ones she likes. The July sun casts shadows across his face. He hears rifles fire in the distance. Lee reaches for the radio as it crackles.

“Command, this is Charlie Six, inquiring about which unit just got hit. Over.” Lee takes his finger off the radio, ears alert in case his unit is next.

“Charlie Six, this is Command. Stay off the radios.”

“Understood. Charlie Six will stand by.”

“Did I fucking stutter? Stay off the radio.”

Lee turns to his superior, Tae, who shrugs. Lee doesn’t understand yet, but he will. At worst, they will get chewed out for not keeping watch; at best, there might be a slight nod from an officer. When there isn’t much in between punishment and incentive, the more experienced draftees find there isn’t much to strive for.

“Sergeant Tae?”

“Yeah, Lee?”

“Do you think these would work if it came down to it?”

Tae, only half visible and standing guard by the mounted gun, turns to Lee slightly. “I doubt it will matter, Corporal Lee. Keep your eyes fixed ahead, and we go back to our fluffy cots tomorrow.”

Private Lim, the youngest, just a few months into his service, snickers at fluffy.

“Do you have a problem, Lim?”

“No, Sergeant.”

Tae lights a cigarette.

Lee cringes as the smoke drifts towards him. He grabs a latch on the side of the tank, climbs on, and slides into the pilot seat. He drums a steady rhythm onto the worn wheel.

“It’s too hot for this shit, Sergeant.” Lim says, tilting his helmet back to scratch his forehead.

“Fix your helmet, kid.”

Lee casts his eyes over to the right, where the rest of the war machines are lined up in formation. The officers never explain the reasons for these tactics; it’s do this, do that. Wake up at this hour, park the tank here, clean your rifle this way. Yes, it’s different from what you were taught at boot camp. Keep watch over an armory that hasn’t been opened in half a century.

Lee glances around. Every breeze could reveal an enemy—but that isn’t quite true. Their rifles are loaded with blanks and if hit, the sensors on their combat vests will ring, signaling injury. It feels childish, like a game, paintball minus the paint. It is, after all, just another training exercise.

The radio crackles. Tae scrambles to the radio, trying to make sense of the static nonsense.

“This is Charlie Six. Say again, Command? We lost you.”

“Guerrilla en route to your position. Watch out.”

Suddenly alert, the three soldiers wield their rifles against the encroaching enemy. The discombobulated voice has conveyed nothing helpful. All they can do is scan the foliage for lurking enemies.

Then the shots come, a steady putputput of rifles. A cylinder falls on the hood of the tank, just out of Lee’s reach and starts to sputter smoke. Lee, Tae and Lim all killed, technically. It’s over in a second.

The guerilla rises out of the dirt and mountainside like a time-lapse video of flora come to life, dressed in fatigues and silhouetted in plants. He approaches the tank, shaking his head. He slings his rifle so that it hangs diagonal on his back.

“Sergeant Tae, I expected more from your unit.”

Tae snaps to attention, his right arm already forming a crisp forty-five-degree angle. He fumbles with his rifle, nearly tripping over a jutting rock to greet the captain. The short, stocky Captain Cho steps forward, inspecting the empty shell of the smoking cylinder on the hood of the tank. Lee squints rapidly to blink away his tears from the smoke, aware that the training exercise is still on, and in this scenario, his unit has been killed. He can’t wipe his eyes until the captain calls off the exercise. Lee is, after all, dead—and supposed to act like it.

It’s all so damn silly. Lee is going nearly blind from all the war paint dripping into his eyes, every drop sharp and stinging. That, coupled with the tear gas sneaking its way into his lungs, hurts like hell.

“What do you have to say for yourself, Sergeant? Were you not on guard?”

Tae steps forward, bumbling his words.

“We were, Sir!”

The captain sucks his teeth, scanning the tank for faults. Finding none, he turns and walks away. The radio crackles and the training exercise is over. Tents are pitched, tanks are parked, and fires are lit. The afternoon sun folds into itself and fades out.

The barracks are not an architectural marvel. If it wasn’t for the rifles and men in fatigues, they might pass for a jail, and a drab one at that. The sun is high in the sky and lights up a windless day. The clouds hang as still as each hour feels to Lee’s mind. Some draftees sit around by the assembly area, others run laps on the field or crowd the singular pull up bar. Lee is high above the men, at the top of the foot of the mountain, with the never-ending expanse of mountain all around him, the monotony of the gray barracks to his back. To him, the men resemble ants on this Sunday morning, keeping themselves busy, never questioning, always efficient.

Snow starts to fall, soft like ash at first, but it quickly turns to blanketing waves. Lee knows the drill, and so do the men. Softly cursing their luck, they pick up brooms and start to sweep. Just in case war breaks out on this Sunday morning, all the roads need to be clear of snow.

The damn snow always falls on the weekend, Lee thinks. He knows there is no divine providence ruining the draftees’ weekend. But it is more comforting to find fault in weather, than to acknowledge the fact that they lack control, even over their weekends.

War doesn’t break out this Sunday, as it hasn’t for five decades.

Lee snaps awake, the alarm hitting his mind like a hammer of a pistol slamming into place. This isn’t a natural transition; there’s no soft alarm that gets progressively louder as he hits snooze over and over. It’s a new sound he hasn’t heard before. Is it a fault in the system? A speaker malfunctioning? It’s early August; the next set of training exercises aren’t scheduled for another week. They are men of routine, ants in an anthill, following the rising and setting of the sun, the gradual browning of leaves. All this occurs to Lee as he sheds his gray tracksuit and slides into his fatigues, the pieces coming together and blending into each other like a camouflage kaleidoscope. Lim zips off to retrieve their rifles from the armory.

As Lee zips up his combat vest and pats himself down for extra cartridges, he realizes this is a real situation.

“Move faster! We’re moving out!” Tae shouts.

With an efficiency that is ingrained past his muscle and deep into his bones, Lee neatly fills his pack. Two blankets, two uniforms, a flashlight, an extra pair of combat boots, toiletries. He snaps around. Lim has placed his rifle by his feet, ever the quick private. Lee runs to his post, scrambles up and down the tank, roping down the shovels, pickaxe, mortar rounds, checking the oil levels, and securing the extra fuel.

In a matter of minutes the mounted gun is set, and they are ready to move out. The engine roars life into the night, and the sirens blare. Tae steps aside for a forbidden smoke, and Lee inhales. He wishes he were brave enough to smoke too.

The radio crackles, almost quiet against the engine: “All companies of the 369th Field Artillery Battalion, this is Command. This is not a drill. I repeat we are at DEFCON two. Check in when you are ready to move out.”

One by one, all dozen units send in affirmative answers. All these men complain daily about being dragged here. They miss their girlfriends and their families; they want to be in school, but when it comes down to it, they are good at the jobs their country has assigned them. Tae is an excellent unit leader; Lim an efficient first gunner, and Lee pilots his machine as if it is an extension of his limbs.

War machines mar the tranquility of the Korean mountainside. Lee notes somewhere in his mind that DEFCON two meant there is only one threat level left—DEFCON one—or nuclear war.

The radio crackles with Captain Cho’s voice, hard-edged, as usual: “All units be advised, at oh-two-hundred, seismographs picked up a 6.5 earthquake off the east coast of North Korea, near a known underground testing facility. I repeat, this is not a drill. Be ready to move out. Stand by until further notice.”

Tae shrugs and lights another cigarette. If Tae is caught smoking in this situation, he will be court-martialed for breaking protocol and potentially revealing his position to the enemy. He’d get up to fourteen days in jail, which is fourteen more days in the army. A ridiculous punishment for an equally ridiculous crime, considering everybody knows that North Korean troops are nowhere near. Tae speaks and Lee snaps to attention; he is still second in command, after all.

“The North Koreans couldn’t test the missile during the day? Honestly rude, if you ask me.”

Lee and Lim chuckle. They are all thinking the same thing.

The next few hours are a blur of struggling to stay awake and alert. Lee imagines the rest of the Korean army, groggily scanning the northern skyline for a threat. Lee’s body has calmed down from the adrenaline rush, and his sweat freezes under his fatigues in the early autumn morning. As dawn approaches, Lee looks at the men around him, all of them serving a country that demands two years of their lives, no questions asked, with no exceptions.

Lee looks at Lim. His chin is still soft; the army hasn’t hardened him yet. Even Sergeant Tae is only tough because he needs to be. He’s still a boy with only a tiny patch of peach fuzz that he attempts to tease into a beard, only to shave off once an officer reprimands him for not following regulations. Just a year older or younger than Lee, these boys are made into the same shape. They are no longer individuals.

“Hey, Sarge?” Lim asks.

Tae is leaning on his rifle and turns to Lim. He doesn’t say anything.

“Do you think we’re really going to war, Sergeant Tae?”

“I know as much you do, kid.”

“This is Command. All units turn off your engines and maintain radio silence.”

The night drags on. Without the underlying growl of the engines, the mountainside is eerily silent. The bush rustles. Lee spins around, aiming down his rifle to see a deer trot out of the edge of the trees. The deer continues toward Lee, aiming for a patch of grass by the tank tread. Tae sleeps inside the tank, his snores reverberating off the steel walls. Lee wonders if he is the only one aware of all this, the only soldier who sees their service more as war games than war and is frustrated by the enforced patriotism of the Korean army. Lee thinks about all the times his fellow draftees have complained about being dragged away from everything and everyone they care about.

When Sergeant Tae discharges in a few weeks, Lee will be in charge of the unit, the first line of armored defense in case of the Korean War: The Sequel. Lee reaches out for the deer, wishing with the tips of his fingers that it would approach him. He knows that North Korea has the capabilities to evaporate this deer, him, and anything south of the 38th Parallel into radioactive ash. But his sergeant is sleeping and so is the rest of Korea. The deer cares only about this patch of grass.

The radio crackles; the deer bounds off.

“Threat level down.”

Lee stares at the radio. His unit is asleep, and he still has a year left of his draft sentence.

“We are back down to DEFCON four. Let’s pack up and go home. Command out.”

In the humidity of a Seoul summer, Tae, Lim, and Lee sit at a street side bar, slinging back soju. At first all their sentences begin, “Do you remember,” but eventually they move on to the future. On the bar’s T.V. screen, silenced by the ruckus of the street, Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands. With the shake of their meaty palms, the two presidents have signaled the end of a war. It has been nine months since Tae has discharged, two months for Lee, and Lim is in his last stretch. Tae has gone back to university; Lee will do the same soon.


Born in Korea, raised in India, DongWon Oh is currently a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He writes about his experiences as an international student and a drafted soldier in the South Korean Armed Forces. Currently he is interested in science writing and speculative nonfiction. He hopes to be a screenwriter in the future.

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Jamie Henshaw

Mud

That day I had my back turned trying to get an ottoman through the front door, so I didn’t see the flower-patterned sofa slip and knock Mark, my dad, to the ground. Probably everyone’s grandma had that same couch: hard cushions, oversized arms, and a petal-and-leaf print that looked more like potpourri than spring foliage. It had pinned Mark right on top of a stinging nettle which was, until that moment, two feet tall and about the only green thing on the lawn.

The sound of snapping was what pulled my attention to the front yard. Mark had gone down hard not twenty paces from his blue-and-rust pickup. Air hissed through his partial dentures as the red of blood-filled capillaries bloomed in his unshaven cheeks, trying hard not to yell or scream obscenities, which wasn’t like him at all. Every time he visited home, he hoped that Molly would be visiting her folks across the street in that sun-bleached green house and he hated the thought of being unimpressive around her. He had said she was a lawyer on the East Coast or something sophisticated like that. I figured she was something laughable like an actor because he’s always falling short of his dreams and face-planting instead. Or landing on a stinging nettle.

Mark only had enough leverage to keep the weight of the sofa off his leg. His brother, my Uncle Steven, grunted under the weight of his end of the couch while sweat dripped down his face like melting ice. They used to run a moving company out of Pine Bluff, about fifty miles south of Little Rock, back when they wore sleeveless shirts to show off tanned and bulging muscles. This was back when they had tans. And muscles. And a truck worthy of a moving job.

Steven turned to me, glaring against the sunlight, and jerked his head toward the couch, “Seriously?!”

Years later, the three of us did a lot of talking, passing around a shot glass that said, ‘IF FOUND, PLEASE REFILL,’ and a bottle of something that Jack Daniel’s red-headed stepson made. Through the evening, a yellow sun became red as it sank lower in the sky, the bottle became lighter as the whiskey level dropped, and expressions became solemn. We all talked a lot that night. And again, another night. We’ve talked about the day with the sofa more times than I can recall. Putting it all together. They revealed to me that their volunteering was about more than clearing their dead mother’s house and saving money by not hiring movers. It was mostly because it had been so damn long since they had moved somebody.

Scrawny, lanky, twenty-seven, and built-for-the-AV-club me left the ottoman in the doorway and ran over to help. My eyes avoided theirs as I looked for a place to put my hands, but I wasn’t nearly fast enough.

Steven, having absolutely no patience, yelled again, “Just get under it, boy!”

The tiny nettles were digging into Mark’s leg. Every time he tried to gain more leverage his calf pressed harder into the green leaves. Flecks of spit glistened in the air, propelled by the sharper hiss of his breathing. Everybody in my family always wore the wrong clothes for an occasion. While I had come to help after work and still wore my uniform, which included jeans, Mark wore cargo shorts even though he knew better. He had put them on that morning knowing how ridiculous his mother thought that many pockets looked. As a kid he used to collect things in his pockets: shoestrings, crayon stubs, an occasional dangly earring. When he got older, he collected souvenirs from every move, a small stolen token of remembrance. The first day that we drank and talked he told me that he wore his shorts that day because he hoped to collect something at Grandma’s house.

Luckily for Mark, the only broken leg was on the couch. Unluckily for me, the decorative front skirt made it impossible for me to see where my hands were grabbing and as I lifted, my right-hand forefinger caught on a broken nail. Steven and Mark used the momentum from my mediocre lift to flip the couch over onto its back. Without realizing it, Steven had dropped his end over a burrow in which a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, number two on America’s list of most deadly snakes, had taken refuge from the midday sun. Steven ran over to the pickup’s tailgate and retrieved a small remainder of duct tape, the same stuff that held his muffler and door handle in place. He pulled a length of tape free, knelt down by Mark and laid it along the back of his left calf. Steven pinched a corner of the heavy tape, squeezed so that it stuck to his thumb for better grip.

Mark looked at him, glared at the flat plant, and said, “Do it.”

It wasn’t the first time they had performed some sort of back-alley triage; there had been several cuts, gashes, sprains, and even a concussion. Mark had once made a splint for Steven’s forearm out of the broken chair that had caused the injury and the jagged splint pushed four splinters into his flesh.

When Steven yanked what turned out to be Gorilla tape, it removed as much skin as nettles. Mark punched at the earth, as dry and hard as he ever was. Tiny beads of toxin had been seeping through the needles into his calf, the swelling had begun to form large lumps. He squeezed his eyes closed, hit the ground a second time, and pushed the spent air from his lungs.

Mark held out his hand for help getting up. Steven dropped the tape on the couch and grabbed onto one of Mark’s hands. They turned to me as though two heads of the same creature, glaring because I wasn’t keeping up. I held up my hand, bloodied from the couch. One of them shook his head, the other looked at the ground, and up went Mark without my help.

“Get me a cup of water or something,” Mark said to either of us. Steven went to his truck a second time and retrieved a bottle of water. Mark crouched down and poured water onto the dirt. “Right. Of course. Friggin’ hot as hell out here.” He clawed at the ground with fingernails to loosen dirt which he put into the bottle to make mud. Mark squeezed out a handful, dropped the bottle, and spread the wet earth around his calf as thick as he could.

The pair of them strode past me looking straight ahead toward the front door. I’m not as strong as they were at my age and it disappointed both of them. I wanted to think that they were just being hard on me. Mark had tried to toughen me up like his dad had done to him. When I was nine, I fell off my bike and a red line of blood dripped from my knee to my white sock. I asked for a band-aid, and that’s when Mark told me that Mom was leaving. I knew those things weren’t related; they fought all the time. But it meant that she wasn’t there to comfort me and my bleeding knee. It meant she wouldn’t be there the next time I fell. It meant that I hadn’t done enough good things to keep her around. It meant that I would never ride my stupid Schwinn again.

The front door slammed shut and I heard Steven yell something about useless waste. The ottoman lay to the side of the door, leaning up against the house. I wrapped the bottom of my shirt around my finger, my blood creating a Rorschach blot on the dark blue fabric. I had to stop the bleeding—keep it all in.

The sun and heat outside Grandma’s house were too oppressive to willingly stand around. The small breeze I heard rattling in the leaves of the tree across the street didn’t provide any reprieve. At least that’s where I thought the rattling came from.

Inside the house portraits hung crooked on Grandma’s yellow papered walls and down the cramped hall. When I was six or seven, I counted all of them. I never cared much about who was in the frames, because most of them were complete strangers to me. Probably second cousins once removed, great step-uncles, and so on. Grandma’s collection, Mark said once.

The living room smelled of musty furniture, and dust motes glinted in sunbeams. The worn cushion of a love seat made almost a U shape. A rocker missing three spindles eyed me suspiciously, threatening to break if I stood too near. After fifteen years of being away, that room held no more memory for me than a sepia photo, browning at the edges from overexposure, chemical bonds breaking down, and everything wilting.

The piano bench waited patiently as though longing for company. Small lines of light bled in through the blinds and laid across the smooth surface of the bench’s wood and on the piano’s top and front boards, mimicking the white and black of the keys beneath the felt cloth. “Keys need to breathe,” Grandma had said. “Never close the fallboard, that’s the keyboard cover.”

I felt myself moving slowly, as though wading through water toward the bench. A board creaked beneath my left foot. It squeaked when my weight shifted back to my right. The small wheels curved and smooth legs were nestled into the carpet’s beige, green, and red of a flower motif—burrowed, as my toes might have done when the carpet was new.

I heard Mark grunt from the bathroom. They had used hydrogen peroxide which bubbled on his leg where Steven’s tape trick had left raw flesh. I know now that Mark blamed me for it being so bad. I know that at that moment he held as much contempt for my many failures as he did for the nettles.

The bench groaned lightly under my weight. With age, everything creaks and groans and all we can hope for is that nothing cracks or breaks. Things that break generally become two broken things, neither of which is of any use. Like the leg that broke off of the potpourri couch which covered an angry snake in the front yard. Like Steven’s arm for the seven months after a doctor finally pulled the slivers out of the infected forearm. Like my parents, and Mark and me, and the display board I kicked down when I stapled my finger because all I wanted to do was fix something and it was the only reason I had taken a job at Home Depot in the first place. Things break—I had grown to understand this well. That is simply their nature; that’s just what happens. As I let my weight settle, the bench did not break.

That corner of the room smelled faintly of perfume and mints diffused into the wood. I’ll never be convinced that grandmothers don’t all smell of mints and floral perfume. We would sit at the piano bench when I was only up to her elbow. She would show me the inside of the piano, and we would watch the action of the hammers as I leaned on a dozen keys at once; a ruckus of disharmonic tones spilled from the soundboard every time. She would poke my ribs as though they were the keys and take tremendous joy in, as she said, “The sweet notes of laughter resounding from your soundboard.”

I knew the keys were clean and shiny beneath the felt. Grandma always wiped them down on Sundays. My right hand still holding the reddened hem of my shirt, I took the corner of the keyboard cover between the fingers of my left hand and held it, peeling back the cloth so that I could touch the keys, hear their sound, and play something other than the disharmonic tones I used to create.

“Don’t get too attached to that thing!” Steven spat, scaring the hell out of me. I spun around toward the hall, gasping. If I had one of Grandma’s mints in my mouth, I would have choked on it. Mark stared at me. Steven stared past me. “That damn piano isn’t going anywhere. I’m not moving it. Probably weighs a goddamn ton and is worth a hundred dollars at best.”

Mark opened his jaw wide like an anxious mutt; a silent yawn, or maybe a stretch to ease tension brought on by clenching. He took a deep breath and put a placid smile on his face. He stared right at me, the way he did when I was a kid, when I had done something wrong. My finger had slipped from the hem of my shirt and threatened to bleed again. The felt cloth in my left hand hung to the floor.

That look he always gave me forced guilt or shame whether or not I had really done anything wrong. I always thought there was something mean about it when I was a child, or if not mean, maybe evil. Age changes everything, and I saw something honest instead. His eyes didn’t provoke guilt or shame, but truth. The discomfort of being stared at made my eyes do what they always did in these moments—avoid his gaze. Instead, I looked past him to the wall and a few of Grandma’s pictures.

A young girl whose eyes were the same color as Mark’s stared back at me. Her eyes were kinder and framed in red-rimmed glasses. She wore a knitted sweater of unfortunate pastels; her hair was curled and defying gravity. It came out of me before I knew the question was forming, “Who is she?”

Mark knew without looking which photograph was behind him, and he could read my expression. His face turned stone for just a second and flashed back to the smile. “Your Aunt. Joan.”

On weekends when I stayed with Grandma and counted those photos, I somehow never really looked at the faces. On holidays, when the whole family gathered, Aunt Joan wasn’t in attendance. On projects with a family tree, she was never mentioned.

Steven cut in before I could pursue, “Went missing on the night of her senior prom. Her and her boyfriend.” He shrugged. “Long time ago. We’ve got a couch to move, you and me. Get a box and move.” I glanced back down at my finger, the clot still intact, and nodded my head. He wasn’t going to give me anything more about Joan. Not yet.

I turned back around on the seat. Several of the piano keys had sunk in like bad teeth. Others were missing pieces of white or black, exposing wooden rectangles where I had imagined real ivory. The piano wasn’t something I could ever hope to fix. It was junk. And hiding under that cloth, it was a lie. Just like everything else in the house.

I replaced the cloth and stood up. I chose a large box by the hall to prove I was capable of helping. They waited for me to go first; probably worried that I would stay back for fear of hurting another finger, but they also needed me to open the door because they were already holding boxes. I set my box on the banister and pulled the door open, catching the corner of the box. It spun and tumbled to the floor, dumping Grandma’s trinkets along with a small container of remains of a past family pet. The tin fell onto the hard tiling and dented a corner badly, spilling its gray-and-black powdery remnants along with two small chunks of white.

“Christ! That was Miser!” Mark yelled.

Steven leaned his head toward his brother, “It died ‘Miser;’ it was born ‘Mister.’ Dad changed its name when it was ten and officially became grumpier than his own damn self.” Steven’s eyes dropped to the dark powder on the floor, “Course the cat was orange back then.”

“Clean it. I need a cigarette.”

They walked out, and for the first time I was glad there wasn’t a breeze.

Grandma’s bathroom was as dark and dusty as the rest of the house. The tub was covered with flecks of damp dirt. And invisible nettles. It was the room in which her body was found. I imagined her lying there in an old night gown, white or maybe pink, one hand up near her face, the other on her stomach. I couldn’t decide if her eyes would have been open or shut. For some reason I dwelled on that. They said she had a heart attack.

I found blue, green, and yellow cleansers under the sink before the unexpected sound of a garage door opening across the street pulled my attention to the window. A black car slowly backed out, making several corrections to stay straight. Mark stared across the street. Steven leaned against the exposed bottom of the couch, smoking. I wished he would get snagged on one of the nails. He flicked the butt too close to Mark, who glared at him, and then returned his gaze to the house. The garage door groaned its way shut, and the black car drove away. Staring vacantly at the yard, Steven lit another cigarette. Mark tapped his foot on the ground, waiting for Steven to pass him one.

I didn’t want to move boxes. I didn’t want to spend my day trying to prove something to them. I didn’t want to clean up their damn pet. I wanted things that weren’t. I had a strange desire to take that piano apart because it wasn’t worth restoring. I left the cleansers in the bathroom because, seriously, to hell with that, and I stepped back into the hallway.

When somebody says not to go in a room, the first thing I want to do is get a good look. A door nobody ever talks about, like a photo of a young girl, can become part of the wall. Until now I never needed to go to that room. Nothing else was down there, as far as I knew, but apparently there were coiled things waiting to strike and clots waiting to break free.

The hinges squeaked and moaned. Colors, brilliant even with the shades drawn, covered the walls. Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Prince, Queen, The Bangles; they all looked across the room at one another, striking poses, vying for attention in the quiet. A dresser, a bed, a stool. Everything else was too dark to see. I flicked on the light for a better look.

A record player sat on the desk just inside the door. I hadn’t seen one in years and couldn’t help but wonder how many years it had been since anybody had seen this one. My ears ached for compensation for the death of the piano. I flipped the switch on. The needle, already set in the grooves, began to feel its way across the vinyl, reading the small divots and bumps. Queen’s song, “The Show Must Go On”, began to play.

A turquoise Care Bear sat on the comforter of pink triangles, blue circles, and purple squiggles. A stuffed E.T. had fallen off one side of her bed. Hers, because I knew whose room this was. It felt like I gained and lost an aunt in a day. I could still, perhaps, learn about her. On a dresser rested arm sleeves, a couple of bows, a can of hair spray, a clock that had died sometime in the past at 11:58. Everything was doubled in the mirror. The dull complexion and appearance of my own reflected face was emphasized, being surrounded by the images of the rock star immortals posing in posters all over the room.

I felt the complete absence of time. The room was stuck between two frames of film and Joan might walk through the door if somebody could only fix the projector. I crossed to the window and debated opening the blinds. Maybe the sun’s light would somehow get the picture started again. Maybe it would reveal too much. After all, a room preserved for thirty years must have its secrets.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many times Grandma stood in the room. I imagined she would hug that bear a long while, probably smell the lingering perfume within it until one day she had breathed it all in. Or maybe, I thought, she avoided the room and never came down the hall past the bathroom after she made that bed one final time.

The music stopped suddenly, followed by quiet. Mark and Steven stood just inside the doorway trying at first to stare me down but getting distracted by the history around them. Their feet were as rooted as if they had also been in that exact place for thirty years.

Mark’s hand moved away from the record player, his arms crossed, hands turning into fists and nestling themselves under the opposite arms. “And just what the hell,” he asked, “are you doing in this room?” His eyes narrowed and his head tilted. I felt like he could hear my quickening pulse and wanted to hear it better. “Getting pretty curious today.”

“Yeah, like a cat,” Steven chimed. “Like Miser.” The bottom of his left shoe left a faint gray mark on the carpet as he shifted his weight back and forth. “Coincidentally, where our curiosity started. Remember that? ‘Course, stupid us, just left him there. Mom thought he’d been hit by a car.” He flashed a smile, or what he called a smile.

“You killed your own cat?” I asked, more shocked than disgusted. His lingering grin was his only response.

“Well, shit,” Steven shouted, slapping his hands together. “If he thinks a cat dying is bad, we better not say anything about the casualties involved in our side job. The kid might freak out.” The lilt in his voice revealed he thought he was funny.

Mark’s slow sigh was one of gathering patience. “Let’s mind our context, huh? The last thing we need is a panicked call to the cops.” Mark took another step into the room, nodding his head. He pulled a stool from beneath the desk and sat down. His elbows went to his knees. “Sit,” he said.

I lowered myself onto the floor in front of him. The fresh smell of cigarettes came at me from everywhere. Steven sat on the bed behind me, the turquoise bear tumbling to the floor from his movements. Instinctively, I picked it up. I wished that the music was still playing, that the clock was still ticking. Everything hung in the room.

“Would it make it easier,” Mark started slowly, “if I told you that it’s—it’s for good reasons?”

He had managed sincerity in his voice. Good reasons? For casualties?

“Just tell him. I’m gonna just tell him,” Steven said. “See, jackass there, what’s his name, Eric, right? Eric got to being a little frisky with Joan. Joan, she comes to us and asks if we can help her teach him a lesson. As in, stay the fuck away from Joan.”

Mark ran his tongue between his teeth and lips. “We offered to take care of it ourselves, you know. Rough him up is all, we told her. Nonviolent, she says. Ok. I told her, you get a chair and some rope, tie him up, scare him, see how he likes somebody getting too personal.”

I shifted uncomfortably, excitedly. They both regretted and relished the story.

“Obviously we followed. What kind of big brothers would we be to miss out on seeing Joan scare the shit out of that bastard? So, night of prom, sure as hell he tries to lead her away from the bonfire at a friend’s house.” Steven was visibly proud of her, even at this moment. “She lets him, guides him toward a clearing. Not far from the drop off.”

A lone cloud must have passed in front of the sun because what little light came in the window dimmed, casting a moment of cool.

“She lured him easily enough. He was all about that chair and rope, thought it was his dream come true. She tied him up without a problem; he didn’t struggle one bit, until she pulled out a hammer.” Mark’s eyes left this world and entered his own dreamscape. “The fear in his eyes was heavy, palpable. But uh, prom night drinks, you know. He fought back pretty hard and slipped the ropes. Joan didn’t tie it too tight, because she wasn’t too serious.”

“Yeah well,” Steven cut in, “Was her boyfriend who broke my arm with that chair when we seen what he done to her. Fast as fuckin’ lightning. We couldn’t stop him. You know who was there to help me? Made a splint out of the chair?”

“Family takes care of family,” Mark said.

“Too bad nobody was ‘round to help him. You know how it is…these teens, they drink, they wander too close to the drop-off. They hit every single goddamned rock on the way down. It’s terrible.” Steven shook his head.

Mark breathed in sharply. “I still have his class ring. Something to remember him by. I don’t know, I just couldn’t help myself. They never found Joan, though, for obvious reasons. I told Ma that she had talked about running away. That we didn’t think she was serious. Even suggested that Eric threw himself over when he found out she was gone. I think Ma always hoped Joan would come back. And I don’t think she ever really forgave me for keeping such a thing as my sister planning to run away a secret. I’d rather be hated than for her to have known the truth.”

“Most people would. Hence—our other employment.”

Mark rocked forward on the stool, lifting one of its legs off the floor, leaving him to balance on it’s other two as he held his breath for a moment before slowly exhaling. His eyes finally met mine. Like he was considering me rather than accusing me. “It’s a family thing, you see. Family takes care of family. We protect each other at all costs.” He was choosing his words carefully. “You, uh. You family?”

Behind me, Steven sniffed to remind me that he was there. Coiled, he waited for my answer.

“But. You were movers,” I said.

“We certainly moved a lot of people.” He sniffed again. Rubbed his nose. “You gotta just learn to go with the flow, kid. Like me. I don’t give a damn. I just do what feels right.”

A car door slammed shut. Mark rose from his seat and walked across the floor. He cracked the blinds open with two fingers. Peered out. His face dropped, eyes widened, and he whispered beneath his breath. He spun around and made for the front door. Steven, wary of unannounced visitors slamming car doors, called after him asking what it was, and ran out of the room.

My hands trembled. There could be danger. I thought it must be out of fear that I rose from the floor, stepped out into the hallway, and closed my aunt’s bedroom door behind me. Quickly, quietly, I made my way back to the living room, to the entrance, and peered out through the window in the door.

A red SUV sat in the driveway across the street, the back hatch still open. A woman was in Grandma’s yard talking to Mark; her bare arms waved in conversation, and long legs extended from a knee length skirt. It was Molly, visiting home on a long weekend. I could just barely hear their conversation. Business was good, she was so sorry to hear about what happened, and hoped everybody was alright. She stepped forward and hugged Mark like an old friend. I saw her make the move to let go of the embrace before him. She gave Steven a brief one-armed hug.

Mark nodded his head back to me and I heard him say that I was inside, cleaning something up. Then he gestured to the couch, and I lost his words again. He looked so happy to see her. Genuinely happy.

I pushed open the door and heard Molly clearly, “Well, now, I can help you. Got two arms as good as anybody else’s, haven’t I?” Her voice was both sweet and heavy, like a dripping honeycomb.

Mark raised his hands, ready to say that wasn’t necessary. Her eyes moved to his calf, pink and swollen, and she insisted. She put down her purse. Steven took the side with the stinging nettles. They wedged their fingers under the edge of the couch and counted together. “One, two, three. Lift.” A step toward the truck. The leaves rattled in the tree across the street, I thought. Another step toward the truck. Then, her face fell. We all heard the rattle. She dropped her end and jumped back, and I instinctively jumped too. The snake lunged after her in a long defensive strike. The edge of the couch hit the ground and caught the snake’s tail, silencing the rattle, holding back the bite. The hard movement of Molly’s drop pulled a nail across Steven’s hand, which sliced clear across his palm. His end dropped to the ground, freeing the snake which leapt again.

A snake of that size can open its mouth wide enough to wrap around the muzzle of a small mammal. Drops of venom are known to leak out even before contact with its prey. This snake’s bite landed high on Molly’s inner thigh. As the hollow-tipped fangs sank into her flesh, it squeezed a gland in its head and injected its venom. One fang hit the femoral artery. The spurt of blood spat back at the snake and caused it to release and slither away. Molly crumpled on the ground, life seeping out and death seeping in.

Molly’s high shriek tore at her vocal cords. Her face contorted like a reddening gargoyle. Blood pulsed out of her, harder and faster as panic and adrenaline flooded every inch of her shaking body. Mark was already at her side. He dropped to the ground and put his mouth to the wound to suck the venom out. Her agony rattled the window in front of me, echoed down the vacant street, and shattered a chunk of Mark’s heart.

I clenched my hand too hard. My heart raced inside my chest. While Mark sprinted across the yard for the rest of the bottle he had applied to his leg, blood seeped through the clot on my finger. As Mark dashed back to the convulsing and foaming-at-the-mouth woman, my own blood beaded at the tip of my finger and dripped onto the remains of Miser.

The contents oozed from the bottle onto Molly’s leg, while Mark’s finger pressed into the arterial gap to stop the flow of blood. Drawn out like a sailor to a call of the siren, I approached. It was rare for a reaction to the venom to be so intense. It could have been that the other fang hit a vein sending tainted blood straight to her heart. Mark didn’t seem aware of anybody but the two of them as Molly continued to shake and foam. Mark touched her leg where the reds and browns had not.

I realized how much I liked that shade of red. How well it mixed with the browns of earth. How good the tightness in my stomach felt—panicked, anxious, adrenaline-fueled. I approached Steven, turned, and leaned slightly in. “Is it always this—this exciting?”

Steven turned his head toward me. The right corner of his lips curled upward, and his eyes gleamed. We both looked back to the slouched man. Mark shouted for somebody to call 9-1-1. I reached for my pocket and started to pull out my phone.

Steven held his hand out and shook his head. “The last thing we need is a panicked call to the cops.”

Mark took her left trembling hand in his, held it comfortingly, and whispered to her, sshhhhh. He held her hand, looked at her hair which now covered in dirt and saliva. Slowly, as though at war with himself, he grasped the diamond ring on her finger. I could see the fight happening behind his eyes as they shifted from her face to her leg and to her finger. I could feel the energy. As I pushed my phone back into its pocket, Mark slowly and gently slid the ring off of her finger. That was the drive. Looking into the whites of her rolling eyes he whispered one more time. Sshhhhh. He slid the ring into one of the small pockets of his cargo pants. There was the compulsion.

I knew who I was then. Who I am. I am my dad—strong and hard like the earth. And I am my uncle—calm and flowing like the water. “Yes. I’m family,” I said. “I think we need to move her.”


Jamie Henshaw is a returning student, currently studying English (Creative Writing) and Adolescent Education at SUNY Geneseo. His aspiration is to teach students, including his own children, how to apply their creativity to their written work, and to instill the belief that reading and writing are quintessential to success.

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Colin Sharp-O’Connor

Deerslayer

The doe is coiled up in the snow and still breathing. Fallen here in the hollow of an elm uprooted is the deer, with a fine steam rising from her flank, tawny and slick with wetness.

The boy is twelve years old today, and he carries on through the woods to where the doe has fallen behind his father and his older brother, a soft whine resonating deep in his temples. He has the stock of the shotgun in the crook of his arm and he cradles it tight to his chest. The gun is not made to be carried this way. The sling nips at his ankles, the weight sends him off kilter. He goes slowly and he measures each step. Lifting one boot out of a drift, pausing, plunging it ahead. Passing a bare right hand across his face to wipe the fluid from his eyes.

The boy’s brother has stopped at the base of the elm. There is the deer, lying crescent-shaped in a cove of tangled roots, ears twitching, dark dorsal fur pulled tight on the ridges of her spine, the swept grooves of her ribcage. The brother is seventeen and knows with a man’s surety of the absolutes of nature and life’s passage into death. He waves to the father, who has slowed to let the boy catch up, and sinks to his haunches, clicks his tongue, regards the doe where it lies. Boy if you ain’t unlucky, he says.

The father watches the boy’s back as he passes and eyes the narrowed shoulders under the overlarge coat. He is nearing fifty and with the clarity of age he recognizes the beauty immanent in life’s natural cycles. As such he sees in his sons the amelioration of his own self, like the widening rings of an elm tree, and understands the doe to exist under no different principle and for no different purpose. When he reaches the doe he whistles low under his breath and motions for the boy to come close. See the way she breathes shallow and quick like that, he says. Looks like a lung shot but not quite both. The boy stares mutely, still clutching the shotgun. He has circled around to the doe’s head to watch the weak flaring of her nostrils but finds himself looking into the eyes of the animal. Black eyes from rim to pupil, reflecting back his own face undistorted. He breathes in the sharp winter air and with it the rank, wild smell of her fur, cloying and sticky. How long’s it take to die? he says.

Turn her over and we’ll take a look, says the father. Take a look here, he says. This is the most important part.

The boy thinks to sit but will not set down the shotgun to do it. He looks again into the doe’s eyes as if to find some difference from before, but the brother steps in front and seizes her by the forelegs. The doe writhes listlessly, head lolling, neck dragging in the snow like a thing already dead.

Easy. Easy, the father says. Hold her still now, watch she don’t kick you. Now flip her on over.

Oh ain’t that a sucker, the brother says. Boy if that ain’t an ugly one.

Well don’t let go of her. Where’s your knife at.

Uh. Here.

Hey, look close now. Do it this way she won’t feel any pain.

The doe seizes once and sags into the snow, neck gouting. The blood stomped into the snow from its killing is bright and steaming hot. The boy’s brother carefully wipes his knife off on the carcass then folds it away. The father sits on the elm stump next to the doe’s head and lifts it by an ear to examine it. The boy watches the doe’s eyes as the head lists gently.

See that, the old man says. Don’t it put things into perspective?


Colin Sharp-O’Connor is a student at SUNY Purchase.

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