Category Archives: Fiction

Julia Grunes

Secondhand

I. Somewhat Nadia

I am Nadia today. Well, mostly Nadia. She is beginning to wear off. The smell of her citrus perfume is already fading, and I breathe it in while I still can. I wish that I could always be Nadia. Nadia doesn’t hesitate when someone asks her a question; Nadia laughs so so easily, and smiles at people she doesn’t even know. Nadia is a faded name written in black pen on the tag inside a colorblocked denim jacket. The jacket is pink, white, and gray, and there’s a red stain on the inside against the white that I think must be wine. Maybe that’s why she got rid of it. If it was blood, she probably would have thrown it away.

But Nadia is beginning to wear off. I wore her for picture day and everyone noticed me. They said that I should wear her more often. They like who I am when I’m Nadia. I like who I am when I’m Nadia, too. I’m wearing her today while I’m at work. I work at Pale Moon Vintage on the weekends, and that’s how I got the jacket. Nadia dropped it off, alone. She’s come in before, but it had always been with one or two of her friends. College friends. She’s a college student.

The bell on the door rings and I straighten up. Mrs. L. doesn’t like when her employees have bad posture while customers are in the store, so I always make sure to pull my shoulders back when the bell rings. I’m behind the register, so whoever walks in will see me immediately. The girl who walks in smiles at me, as she comes through the doorway. I smile back. I begin to idly sketch the outline of a face on a rejected receipt. It isn’t a drawing of her. This girl is the type of person that you forget as soon as you look away from her; her brown hair is straight and somewhat greasy, and her clothes envelop her with their slouching hugeness.

She’s probably a college student. Most people who come in here are. Mrs. L. always says  the only reason she’s still in business is because of the students. Her shop is fifteen minutes away from the liberal arts college and when they’re on break, barely anyone comes to the store.

“Hi, welcome to Pale Moon! Is there anything that I can help you with?”

“No thanks, I’m—I guess I’m just looking,” the girl says, giving me a small smile before quickly walking over to the cluttered racks of clothes to the left of me. She’s definitely a college student. From what I’ve seen, liberal arts students always seem to be “just looking” for something. Or at least they want me to think that. And this girl is no different. She has that same faraway look in her eyes that they all have; it looks as if she’s thinking about something that she thinks is important like the weight of existence or the possibility that life is a simulation, or maybe just her GPA.

I would never wear anything that used to be hers. I tried a few times with people like her when I first started working at Pale Moon, but when I put on their clothes they were far too heavy and spiraling and desperate. After that I became more careful about who I wore. I never want to be them.

Nadia is a college student too, but she’s different from the other ones who come in here. Everything is easy for her: her laugh, her movements, her voice. She isn’t trapped in her own mind. I’d hoped for ages that she would sell something instead of just buying. Every time she came in, she bought something—some piece of clothing that she would caress, her fingers examining the fabric for imperfections. Even if it wasn’t in perfect condition, she would usually still get it. I do the same thing.

If it wasn’t clothes, she would still look through the assorted sunglasses, rusted necklaces, and other worthless trinkets that Mrs. L. has amassed. When Nadia sold us her jacket, she bought a tiny bronze heart that opens and closes with a matching tiny key for three dollars and ninety-five cents.

I saw it happen. She was in a hurry, I think. But something about the bronze heart caught her eye and she stopped and picked it up, smiling slightly as she opened and closed it a couple of times. She grinned when she noticed me watching, then laughed quietly, and placed the heart on the counter. I don’t think that even she knew quite why she wanted it. Maybe its smallness attracted her to it; maybe it was the fact that it had been lying, dejected, next to a somewhat cross-eyed plastic bust of a woman with ivory skin, cropped black hair, and red lips, topped off with blue sunglasses shaped like triangles. Maybe Nadia couldn’t bear to see it left there all by itself.

“Excuse me?”

I look up and a forgettable face is floating directly in front of me. I need to stop getting distracted. Mrs. L. has already caught me twice, and she doesn’t like having to catch people.

“I just wanted to buy this,” she says, shyly sliding a nondescript blue sweater onto the counter. The sweater looks almost exactly like the one she is wearing. I wonder if her closet is just a dark mass of fabric, each item congealing to the next so that you can’t tell where one ends and another begins. I smile at her, taking the sweater in one hand and shoving the receipt I was drawing on into my jacket pocket with the other.

“That’ll be $11.95.” She pays with cash. “Also, if you’re interested, we have a raffle for a $25 gift card.” I gesture toward the mason jar with raffle tickets next to the register and drop her change into her hand.

“Oh, uh…yeah! I guess I’ll do that.”

I give her a raffle ticket, showing her where to write her address and phone number. Her handwriting is small and neat. Nadia entered the raffle too. She seemed so excited about it and about the little bronze heart, even though she was in a hurry. I could still smell the bright lemon of her perfume for a few moments after she left.

I wish I knew why that heart caught Nadia’s eye. Even now, when I am her, I don’t know what she was thinking at that exact moment. If I knew that, maybe I could be completely Nadia and not just somewhat Nadia or almost Nadia. I wouldn’t need her clothes or her perfume to make me her. She wouldn’t wear off in a week or so. I don’t want her to wear off. But for now, I am mostly Nadia, and for now that is mostly enough. The smell of her citrus perfume is fading, but I breathe it in while I still can.

II. Real Nadia

Real Nadia is running down the stairs. She is going to be late for something; she can’t find her perfume, and she is sure that her housemate Kaylie was using it the day before. Kaylie says that she wasn’t though, and now Nadia will have to leave without it. She hates doing that, because I don’t think she really feels like herself when she doesn’t have it on. But she’s leaving anyway, deciding not to push it any further with Kaylie. There’s a very small possibility that she’ll make it on time if she leaves now.

She has gathered all of her things and is rushing out the door, pausing only to yell a quick goodbye. I don’t know how long it will be until Kaylie and Zoe–Nadia’s other housemate–will be gone too. Kaylie is still in pajamas in the living room. I can’t see Zoe, but I assume that she’s still sleeping. Nadia is starting her car now, and she backs out of the driveway, her tires bouncing slightly as she runs over the curb in her hurry to leave the white and red paint-chipped house behind.

The walls of the red and white house are thin, and I wonder if it stays warm in the winter. But that doesn’t matter so much now; today it’s hot so they have all their windows cracked open. Hopefully Kaylie and Zoe have somewhere to be soon. I have work at 2:00 p.m. and even though it’s only 9:24 a.m., I’d rather not be sitting here all day. There’s also the possibility that they don’t have anywhere to be and that would mean waiting here again all for nothing.

I move slightly in my seat, gripping more tightly onto the branch in front of me. The sun is beating down on my skin through the foliage, and I’m suddenly glad that my mom forced me to put sunscreen on this morning. I told her that I was hanging out with Lily today; she was happy since I haven’t hung out with Lily for a really long time. To be fair, I haven’t hung out with anyone for a really long time.

I told her that I was meeting Lily at the strip mall that has Pale Moon and a few other stores. It’s only a fifteen minute walk from my house and I always walk there for work, so my mom wasn’t nervous about me getting there. Nadia’s house is a thirty minute walk, so it isn’t that much further. My mom won’t ask any questions or check up on me because she’s just so glad that I’m supposedly talking to Lily again.

Lily was my best friend in elementary school and she stayed my best friend until eighth grade. I don’t think that she purposely stopped talking to me, but it just seemed like she was busy all the time. I asked her to hang out a couple of times in the beginning of eighth grade, but she was always either at tennis practice or had a lot of work to do. And she never asked me to do anything, so I stopped asking. Lily wouldn’t have stopped being friends with Nadia. No one would ever want to stop being friends with Nadia.

Now, Lily and I smile at each other in the hallway, but that’s about the extent of it. And my mom doesn’t understand that just because we were best friends it doesn’t mean that we even talk in high school. Things have changed, obviously. It isn’t like before when Lily and I were united against everyone else and made fun of the girls who dyed their hair blond and wore clothes from Hollister. We had always talked about working at Pale Moon together, but by the time we were both old enough, only I applied.

I applied in the summer before ninth grade, and I’ve been working there for a little over a year now. A few other employees have quit while I’ve been there, since they say that Mrs. L. is hard to work with. She does expect a lot, but I think that she just wants people to care about the clothes that she sells. She always says that I understand the clothes just like she does; she’s the one who told me about how clothing retains a part of the person who once wore it, that it holds onto a piece of their soul.

Other people say that Mrs. L. is crazy and old, that she never stops talking. I think that I’m the only one who listens. Mrs. L. likes when clothes become hers when they used to be someone else’s. I never want the clothes to become mine. So, I don’t really feel the exact same way about that. And I think—

I jolt forward as I hear a quick rustling, and then a white and gray bird lands on a branch directly next to me. I slowly turn my head toward it, and its beady eyes fix on mine, unmoving. Its eyes are black with a ring of yellow around them. I take a shaky breath and try my best not to move. If I shoo it away, someone might see a sudden movement from this tree and check if there’s anything strange in it. I take another breath. The bird is small, but up close, its beak looks sharp, and I hope that it isn’t thinking of poking my eyes out. Is that a thing that birds do? It opens its mouth and my heart almost beats out of my chest, but it just lets out a strange, grating cry and then becomes silent again.

It turns its head away from mine and just continues to sit, shifting its feet every so often. Looking at it again, the bird’s body is all soft lines and feathers, completely opposite to its beak, but I avoid thinking about that. I almost wish that I had brought my sketchbook, or even just a piece of paper. I reach into my pocket where I still have the receipt half-filled with the featureless face, but I don’t have a pencil. I tear my eyes away from the bird and realize that the two cars in front aren’t there anymore. Kaylie and Zoe must have left while I was distracted. I start to let go of the branch in front of me, but the bird cries out again as soon as I do. It sounds kind of familiar now that I hear it again.

I look at it and it gazes back at me for the second time; I have the distinct feeling that I am being reproved. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care about  what a bird thinks of me. I begin again with the process of carefully climbing down the tree, and as I swing my leg to the side, the bird unfurls its wings. After some more quick rustling, it’s gone. Good. I make it to the bottom of the tree safely, but not without cutting my left hand on the trunk. My hand is all scraped up now and there’s blood, but I was careful not to make any noise.

I got blood on the sleeve of Nadia’s jacket and I hope that it’ll wash out. It doesn’t matter so much to me now though. The jacket is barely her anymore, and I’ll have something new of hers soon. Then I’ll be able to figure her out. I won’t need her clothes anymore to stop her from wearing off. It’ll probably be some old shirt that she won’t even miss. I open the gate at the side of the house, making sure that no one is around.

It is 10:47 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the streets are empty. The only place where that makes sense is a college town. There is a window on the side of the house which has a busted screen. They need to get it replaced; bugs must keep getting in. Since the window is open, it’s easy to pull away the screen and to push myself through, head first.

I’m in the house again. I cringe slightly at the smell of vanilla air fresheners and beer that hits me as soon as I walk in. I doubt that Nadia chose vanilla. It seems far too heavy for her. I walk up the stairs, and the smell grows a bit more bearable as I get closer to Nadia’s room. I stop in front of her door. She has her name written in colorful, bouncing letters on a white sheet of paper that is held up with scotch tape. I smile at the simple loudness of it.

I open the door.

III. Two Nadias

On her desk, there is a framed picture of Nadia in the jacket with a few other friends. In it, she is laughing at something, and her curly brown hair is falling over half of her face. The jacket  complements her olive skin perfectly. It will never look as good on me as it did on her. I look down at my own ghost white skin and frown. Maybe that’s part of the problem. My skin will never look like hers, just a pale imitation. And my hair looks so washed out and dead; I tried to curl it, but after an hour it just fell back into its usual dull straightness.

The walls in her room are covered with pictures strung up with fairy lights and her blanket is blue and white tie dye. One of her pillows is on the floor. She didn’t have time to make the bed this morning. I consider making it for her, but I think she would probably notice that. I walk over to the nightstand next to her bed and sitting on it is a silver domed alarm clock, pink heart sunglasses, tangled bracelets, a little bronze heart with a key, and a tiny silver ring with a glossy green serpent on it. I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have something other than clothing too.

I pick up the ring with my unhurt hand and hold it closer to my face, examining the way that the silver meshes with the snake, trapping it in a pretty cage. Its mouth is open and I’m not able to tell if it is screaming for help or merely showing off its formidable fangs and tongue. It doesn’t look helpless though; it looks as if it’s incapable of fear. I wonder how the serpent came to be caught in the silver. It almost looks as if it has–

“Umm…hello?”

My heart drops into my stomach, and I shove the hand with Nadia’s ring into my pocket. There’s a crinkling noise as my fingers make contact with the crumpled receipt. I can feel my heart crawling up my throat as I slowly turn around, already knowing who must be behind me. Nadia. Her eyebrows are stitched upwards in a look of confusion, and she is holding three textbooks. She doesn’t seem angry that I’m here.

“Did Kaylie or Zoe let you in? This is my room, not one of theirs. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” She smiles at me and walks into the room, dropping the three textbooks onto her bed. I look down. The book on the top of the pile is blue and green and says Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. I know that I should say yes, but instead I just look back up at her, my hands beginning to shake. She is wearing black bike shorts with an oversized orange and yellow T-shirt that has a bleary-eyed sun on it. Her smile begins to fade.

“I”– My mind is blank and I have forgotten her question and my left hand is really starting to hurt.

“Are you…did they let you in?” This time her voice is less sure and she backs away from me slightly. “Wait, that’s my jacket! Well, not my jacket anymore, I guess, I sold it to”– She looks intently at my face and her eyes narrow in suspicion. “Wait, you–you’re that girl who works at–what are you doing here? How do you know I live here?” I open my mouth but no words come out. “What are you doing here?” she repeats, slowing her voice down as if she thinks that I don’t understand what she’s saying.

“I just”–My voice cracks, and I pause as I hear how weak I sound. I squeeze her ring and then desperately hope that she doesn’t notice.

“Just what? Did you follow me home one day or something?”

The words are slow-acting venom. My whole body begins to shake. “No, I didn’t follow you,” I say. “You wrote your address down for–for the Pale Moon raffle.”

“What? Like that’s so much be–why are you here?” Her voice shakes on her final word.

“I just want to be y–like you. And, if I have your clothes”–

“You want my clothes?”

“Yes!” I almost shout it. She understands.

“You’re trying to steal my stuff?”

“No! Well, I just need”–

“You know, you could have just asked me where I got something from. I would’ve happily told you. But you can’t just steal” —

“No, please, you don’t understand. I need your–I have your jacket but–but it’s wearing off, and if I could have one more thing I would”–

“What?”

What can I say to help her understand? “I thought that I could change my skin but I know”–

“Your skin? What–what’s wrong with you? Are you high?”

“No, I–”

“You need help,” she says, shaking her head slightly. “Get out of my house.”

I curl my fingers even more tightly around Nadia’s ring, my bleeding hand beginning to drip onto her floor. Her mouth is open, and she stares at the blood on the ground, her eyes wide. I don’t think that she noticed my hand before.

“Nadia, I”–

“If you don’t leave right now, I’m going to–I’m going to call the police.”

“Okay, I’ll leave. I’m sorry. I’ll leave.” I can feel my throat tighten and I look down. I want so badly for her to understand, but I can’t get arrested. My parents would kill me. I look back up at Nadia. She doesn’t look angry. Not that she looks happy, either. Her eyebrows are furrowed, her jaw tense. I try to make eye contact with her but she avoids it, turning her head away. I can’t tell what she’s thinking. I turn my head away too. I walk out of the room as she gestures toward the door. She follows behind me as I walk down the stairs, keeping at least a five feet between us. I reach the front door of the house, and I hear her footsteps stop.

“Don’t come back,” she says. The finality in her voice makes me wince. “Or I will get the police involved.”

I turn around, my heart trailing at my feet, and look back at her. She averts her eyes again. For a second, I think that maybe she feels guilty. But as I wrap my bleeding hand around the cuff of her jacket, I think I understand. Nadia’s eyes aren’t guilty. They aren’t apologetic. They aren’t beginning to understand. Nadia just pities me.

“You should fix the screens on the windows,” I say.

“What?” I can tell that she heard me.

“That’s how I got in,” I explain. The jacket feels rough and itchy now, and I have a sudden urge to rip it off, to throw it to the ground. As I put my hand on the doorknob and open the door, the serpent ring falls out of my hand and hits the ground with a tinny scream. I don’t look back at the red and white house. I don’t look back at her. A squeaky gate mimics a gray and white bird. I leave.

IV. Not Nadia

I’m lying on the floor in my room, the sun streaming from the window onto my ghost skin. My dad calls from downstairs that dinner is ready. I don’t answer. I burrow myself deeper into her jacket. My jacket. My dad calls again, louder this time, “Sophie, dinner’s ready!” I don’t answer. I’m repulsed by my very being, by that look on her face, by bronze hearts, by birdsong. I’m not at all Nadia anymore. I sprayed her citrus perfume all over my body but it sits, heavy, on my skin as if it knows that it doesn’t belong there. I can’t be her. I can never be her. I will go to work tomorrow and maybe someone else will come into the store and they will be even better than her. Maybe they won’t wear off. No. I won’t let them wear off.

 


Julia Grunes  is a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo, studying English (creative writing) and psychology. When she isn’t writing, she’s likely enjoying the fresh air, singing with friends, or falling off her longboard!

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Nick Pattilio

A Perfect Day for Caiman Hunting

The sun was blistering by midafternoon. It was the kind of day you would beg us to drive down to Galveston to play on the beach, then stop for ice cream at Bob’s on the way home. I haven’t been to Galveston in almost fifteen years now. I parked the truck on the muddy path right beside the lake. I got my catch pole and ice chest out of the bed of the pickup and started walking down to the lake. I passed the patch of bright pink lotus flowers that you used to run to as we were walking to the lake; the same ones you would cut and bring home to your mom after our day was through. My cap started to slip off the back of my head and my Ray-Bans down my nose; my neck was already drenched in sweat, my skin already beginning to turn red. I made it to the edge of the lake and readied my catcher.

The caiman were all strolling along the pebble and sand deposits where the water met land, unsuspecting and unquestioning. I snuck up behind one, slipped the loop around his neck, and snagged him. He started to squirm; he was definitely a fighter. I wrangled with him to get him in the ice chest, and finally I was successful.

Hours passed. I waited for more to come out of the lake, ready to snatch them. After my tenth catch, I decided to pack up and head back up to the truck. Right about then, is when you would start to whine and complain of boredom, ready to let your imagination run rampant elsewhere. I chuckled as I thought of you lighting up when I said it was time to go home; running up the hill, back passed the flowers, jumping up and down on the narrow dirt path, eager to get back in the truck. I gathered my pole, the ice chest, and our lawn chairs. I still put yours out. The drive home was always my favorite part. You sat beside me in the truck, wiped out from a day in the sun, slouching peacefully against your seatbelt as we cruised along the long stretch of highway that would take us back to our front door. The sun would start to sink, leaving behind  brilliant tangerine and lavender hues in the sky while a staticky Glen Campbell sang to us through the radio. The drive feels long, now. They don’t play too much Glen Campbell anymore. Next to me, the passenger seat is empty.

I stopped along the causeway in my usual spot. I broke out the old cardboard sign that you helped me write out years ago. This was your favorite part of the day, if I remember correctly. We were just about to be home, but we first had to say farewell to all of our catches and send them off on their way to their new homes. Afterwards, you would beg for pizza, just about every night, and I would be able to hold you off until right before we got home, when we passed Pizza Palace in the shopping center on the corner before our street. I was able to get rid of all but one of the reptiles today. I was packing up, when a gentleman pulled next to me and offered me $80 for the caiman. I couldn’t believe it. Before I could tell him I only charged $45, he stabbed four holes into the lid of his own ice chest and sped back down the road. I tossed the sign in the back of the truck and started home. When I walked in the door, I could smell garlic coming from the kitchen.

“Hello, dear,” your mother called out to me from the kitchen. “Dinner will be on the table in just a minute.”

“I‘ll be right in,” I called back. “Just going to wash up.”

We sat down at the table, three settings out.

“How was it today?” she asked. “It sure was a hot one.”

“It was nice. Perfect day. Caught ten of ‘em.” I could only offer punctuated answers in between the huge bites of the pasta: I was starved.

“Ten? That’s gotta be at least $400.”

“Almost five. Some guy stopped to buy the very last one—gave me eighty for it. He didn’t stick around long enough for me to tell him I only charge forty-five.”

“Well, he must have been in some hurry then. Almost five, you said?”

“Mhm,” I responded, in between my chomping.

“That’s lovely,” she told me.

She smiled, but I could still see the hurt in her eyes. It never gets easier.

After cake and coffee, your mother heads to bed. I step into the office and sit down at the desk. I write out my weekly check to Dr. Roberts and Clearwater Medical Group. You loved Dr. Roberts. Every time we left his office, you said how much he made you feel better. He always offered you a lollipop on our way out. I remember you always went for the red ones. Dr. Roberts is moving along in his research now. “Any day now,” he says. Fifteen hundred for this week. I place the check in an envelope, seal it, and turn out the lamp.

As I walk up the hallway, past your room, I listen for the creaks in the floorboards, the same creaks I would hear on Christmas morning or when you would sneak out to the kitchen for a midnight snack. I miss waking up in the night to the sound of the creaks in the hallway. It never gets easier.

 


Nick Pattilio  is a junior choral music education student at SUNY Fredonia. He is also the President of the Teacher Education Club and a campus tour guide. When he is not studying music or writing, Nick enjoys going on walks around campus and is on a quest this year to listen to a new album every week.

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9.2 | Fiction

Secondhand
Julia Grunes


A Perfect Day for Caiman Hunting
Nick Pattilio

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Misty Yarnall

Looking for Home

The carpet is gone.

The realtor’s heels click against the cherry-finished hardwood. “And this is the master bedroom.”

“Beautiful floor.” My toes budge at the tips of my sneakers. Once Ben and I buy the house, I’ll slip across this room as if ice skating, gliding in sock feet with a wicker laundry basket on my hip. He’ll kiss me, folding work pants in thirds and adding them to a pile towering at the foot of the bed.

“It’s just hardwood, Nelly.” Ben crosses his arms.

My parents had an orange carpet in the bedroom. I vomited on it once when I was four. Paper towels soaked up the raunchy mess. A stringy washcloth placed on the stain became a bridge to my mother. My feet squished against the damp spot, and I awaited her invitation. She lifted her arm and the covers rose. Once nestled beside her in the big bed, she pressed me into her chest. The sheets always smelled like a woman.

The bedroom is bigger than I remember. Maybe it’s because of the missing carpet. There’s space to walk around now that the dresser and vanity are no longer squished against the wall. It’s enough space for Ben and me to share comfortably—something malleable to recreate and make our own.

At age eleven, I opened every jewelry box on my mother’s vanity. While I sat on the ottoman, her studs blinked in my ears in the mirror’s reflection. Lines of pearls bridged between my fingers. Her bra cups draped to my ribs. A stick of cherry-red lipstick sometimes found its way into my backpack in the morning, marking my face in the girl’s bathroom before class.

I open Dad’s closet, the biggest one in the house. It always served as the perfect hiding place.

My father would count down from thirty in the kitchen. I lost myself in his dress shirts and buried myself in a mountain of neckties.

His cologne still stings the space. I want to step inside, to sit in the corner again, and hide.

I pull the light string. Empty.

“Ben, look at all this closet space.”

“Might be big enough for your shoe collection.”

“We’ll have to tear down this wallpaper though.” The rose petal wallpaper is coarse under my fingertips. “I hate wallpaper.”

The realtor leads us back into the hallway. The previous owners hung new drywall and painted it red. My mother hated red. It made the house feel dark. This red was clean. There was no red on the molding—no red on the floor.

When I was seven, my mother brought home long rolls of striped wallpaper marked with a yellow clearance sticker. She sprawled out on the living room floor with a straightedge and a pair of scissors. The paper hissed as the blade dragged across. She bent around windows and outlets, cutting the perfect fit. There wasn’t enough to cover the whole room. It looked stupid, having one side of the room with the old paper and the rest new, but I didn’t want to paste over all the work I had done. I scraped bubbles out of the walls. My fingers got oily. It looked terrible.

“Down here we have a second bedroom.” The realtor opens the door and I’m taken back.

My childhood bedroom wallpaper is still there. Light green. I can still smell the vanilla bean candles on the walls.

I tug on Ben’s arm. “This room is gorgeous.”

“You hate wallpaper.”

“This is subtle. It’s nice.”

Ben shrugs.

There are still swirls in the plaster ceiling. I used to imagine they were galaxies. The tan carpet hadn’t aged in ten years.

I hid on the far side of my bed when he told me, clawing at carpet fibers. My father’s heavy feet hit each step. A steady hand on the comforter, he eased himself onto the floor beside me and told me we were moving. By we, he meant him and me. My room had to be clean so the buyers wouldn’t see my clothes scattered across the floor. The books had to be shelved. Anything I couldn’t find a spot for could be tucked into a dresser drawer. The house had to sell.

My father spent that afternoon in the garage painting slabs of white wooden molding. He carried the long beams up the stairs, the wood smacking the steps behind him. A cup of nails clattered against my homework desk. I held the molding against the wall, and he hammered it into place.

My bedroom was the first room in the house my mother renovated. She wanted me to have a nice space for myself to grow up in. While pregnant, she and my father patched the ceiling with plaster, wallpapered the walls, and stapled down new carpet. I was born before the molding went up. No room in the house was ever finished.

Kneeling against the wall, my father threw down the hammer. It crashed against the carpet. The section of molding was too long for the wall. He’d have to pry it off, re-measure, and cut again.

“Your mother ruined this house.”

I sat beside him, tracing his calloused knuckles under my fingertip. It was the first time I saw my father cry. When I hugged him, his shoulders drooped, like my mother had destroyed him. By then, he had already asked her to leave.

“Why don’t we head back downstairs now?” The realtor gestures back to the door.

The brass knob lingers in my hand. I remember Mom lying in bed with me, playing the alphabet game. Apple. Blueberry. Cotton candy. Doritos. She’d ask if I wanted to play another round, this time coming up with different animals. I smelled lavender body soap on her skin. It was almost as if she didn’t want to sleep in her own bed. Sometimes I woke up next to her.

I pull the door shut behind us.

“Only one bathroom?” Ben traces the porcelain tile under his fingers.

Brown water stains speckle the ceiling as if there had been a leak. I wonder if that was here before. Inside the medicine cabinet, I see faint dust marks from where pill bottles had sat for years.

Before the move, I tossed old prescription syrups from childhood ear infections in the trash. I packed my father’s blood pressure medication in my shower bag. My mother left things behind—things my father and I would have to clean out of the house. Lipstick tubes. Allergy pills. Makeup remover wipes. I swiped her things into the trash. They were dirty. The new family shouldn’t have to dispose of them.

“Yes, this is the only bathroom, but it has a shower and a bathtub, as well as plenty of storage and fans.” The relator gestures to the vents on the ceiling.

A single hair dangles from the fan.

My mother’s hair marked its territory. Hair ties with her brown curls tangled in them. Hair snaked out of the bathroom drains. Hair tucked in the heat vents. I vacuumed what I could.

Maybe her hair is still here.

“One bathroom will be an issue if we ever have a family.” Ben peeks in a towel cupboard.

“Let’s see the kitchen next.” I take his hand. The realtor is quick to take the lead.

The previous owners tore all the shelf paper out of the kitchen cabinets, but the border my mother stenciled around the room is still here.

“We’ll have to paint over that.” I point at the border. I want all traces of her erased. Paint over everything. Tear it all down.

“Small kitchen.” Ben’s hand skims my hip.

Mom elbowed the coffee maker when she rolled pie dough. Flour trailed behind the microwave. The clunky, wooden cutting board stuck off the edge of the counter. I sliced apples at the dining room table. Mom pulled out a folded apron from the buffet drawer. She looped the strings around my neck like threading a needle and knotted it at my waist like she was tying a corset. Mirroring the same motions, she secured an apron to her body.

“What made you choose this house?” the realtor asks.

“We haven’t chosen this house.” Ben squeezes my hip.

“Just looking for home.” I place my hand over his, finding the gaps between his fingers.

“It’s a great option. There’s a small grocery store just down the road. Great schools, friendly neighborhood.”

A real-estate sign pierced our front lawn where my mother and I used to have picnic lunches on a checkered blanket. Tuna sandwiches on white bread. Potato chips. Watermelon squares. I mowed the grass for Dad. The smell of gasoline and spring suffocated the air. The grass grew so long it masked the name of the realtor tasked with selling the property.

Stepping off the mower, I tugged at the sign.

I have to mow here.

“I hear her mom kisses girls.” Two girls stood on the sidewalk.

Teachers pulled kids aside at school and told them to take it easy on me. That I was from a broken home. Dad told me to ignore it. We’d be moving soon. I knew he heard the same whispers at work. It made me feel like I finally had something in common with him.

I ask the realtor, “Mind if we take a few minutes to talk?”

I pull Ben into the living room. We stand under the ceiling fan like it’s mistletoe. I remember my mother standing on the back of the couch to change the lightbulbs. My father scooped her off her feet and kissed her cheeks until she blushed. My mother had the prettiest smile.

I wonder who will change the lightbulbs—me or Ben? Unless we pull down the ceiling tiles and scrap the fan.

“What do you think?” I bounce on the tips of my toes.

“Serious?”

“It needs a little work, but I can see us making this a home.”

“A little work? Nelly, this house is ancient. The kitchen needs a whole remodel, there’s wallpaper everywhere, and the master bedroom is tiny.”

I wonder how we can arrange the bedroom to make it different from my parents. We can put the dresser next to the door, and the bed on the opposite wall. I can’t imagine having an orgasm in the same space my mother did.

“What about the house in Hannibal? That one was beautiful—modern and well-kept.” Ben leans into me, kissing my hairline. “I don’t think we’re going to be happy in this house.”

I wasn’t happy. I pushed everything off the kitchen counter. The floor was littered with bruised apples and dusty flour. I took a bite out of an apple and spit it at her.

“Nasty dyke.” I pulled my apron strings and tossed that at her, too.

My mother wiped the chewed piece of apple off the front of her apron. “Nelly…”

I rub Ben’s forearms, pinching the sleeves of his shirt. “It just needs some extra love. We have that. We can fix this.”

“It’s going to skew our budget. I’m sorry.”

Tears prickle my eyes. My parents and I sprawled across the living room floor, a Monopoly board between us. Bills of all colors tucked under the cardboard. My mother and father went back and forth; Dad pleading for Park Place, Mom eyeing Marvin Gardens. I bought the railroads and charged them every lap around the board.

“Sweetie?” Ben closes me in a hug. I look out the back door, where her garden used to be. She had watchful gnomes scattered in the dirt. They’re gone now.

“It reminds me of home.” I sniffle.

“You hated home.”

“I hated my mother. I never hated home.”

Ben traces my arms, rubbing my shoulders. “Ever since your mom passed, you’ve been obsessed with finding the perfect house, and you settle on this?”

“It’s cozy.”

“It’s falling apart.” Ben holds my hand. “We need a fresh start. Leave our pasts behind. We can create something new that’s all ours.”

“I’m not good with change.”

“We can be ourselves, but in a new place. We’re looking for a forever home. We’ll never have to move again.”

“Yeah.” I nod. “You’re right.”

Ben wipes a tear from my eye. He studies the black smudge on his fingertip. “You wearing mascara today?”

I nod.

“It’s pretty.” Ben cups my cheek and kisses me. “I’ll let the realtor know.”

I sigh. “Okay.”

Ben walks into the kitchen. I go the other way, into the dining room. I sit on the floor against the wall staring at the empty paneling.

My mother always left a tin tray lined with a paper towel and a tower of Oreos on the table when I got home from school. Some classes I only had every other day, and rather than watching a kid toss paper wads at a proctor for forty minutes in study hall, I came home early some days.

That day there were no Oreos on the table. With no sign of my mother, I took the whole package of cookies upstairs to watch TV while I finished my biology homework. The plastic crinkled. A cookie crunched between my teeth. Noises bubbled from my parents’ bedroom.

Poking the bedroom door, I found Mom pinned to the sheets by a woman. The woman’s hair masked my mother’s hips. Mom’s mouth opened and released little cries.

As a child, I watched my mother lather creamy lotion across her olive skin, careful attention to the creases: her armpits, the space between her toes, the folds of her neck. She’d pump more into the palm of her hand and share with me. I wanted her figure to mold the shape I would grow into.

But I didn’t want to become her—to become this.

Mom latched onto my eyes. She squirmed under the woman, masking their bodies behind the sheets.

I ran down the steps and sat on the dining room floor, under the table. This was another one of my common hiding spots. I’d hug the center support with my legs wrapped around it so my mother and father wouldn’t notice me at a walk-by glance. I wonder what happened to our dining room table after the move.

“Ready to go?” Ben caresses my arm, pulling me from the memory.

“No.”

“Sweetie…”

“We have to fix this house.”

On that old paneling, Mom pounded nails into the board and displayed our family portraits. A photographer followed our family around a field behind Mendon Ponds in muck boots and a hoodie. My mother burned curls into my hair. She twisted her own hair into rings too. The photos were perfect. We were the perfect family.

“I’m sure another family will buy this house. It’ll be a terrific home, but it’s not for us.”

Ben holds out his hand, towering over me.

I push myself off the floor, disappearing through the house. Up the stairs. They still creak. Into my mother’s bedroom. The master bedroom. It’s not theirs anymore. None of this is hers.

I open the closet door and crawl inside. The carpet burns my knees again. Mom used to crawl in here, too. I haven’t outgrown it.

Maybe I didn’t hate Mom. Maybe Dad taught me to hate Mom.

I didn’t pray beside my mother’s open casket. Old men shook my hand and squeezed too tight. Sorry for your loss. They were a few years too late.

It was my mother’s girlfriend, Suzanne, who told me the house was on the market again. She wore black, plucking cubes of cheese off the end of a toothpick, red lips staining the wood. I wondered if she called herself a widow now, but I didn’t ask. She and my mother wanted to buy it back, she said, before Mom got sick. I wanted to know what Mom left behind in this house.

“Nelly? What are you doing in here?”

“Hiding.” I hug my legs to my chest, the sharp scent of cologne stabbing my nose. “Come in.”

“You can’t be serious.”

I pat the space beside me.

“But what about the realtor?”

I rub the carpet, as the heat sparks from the friction. She can’t stop us. This is my house.

Ben rolls his eyes and climbs into the closet beside me. His hip pokes against mine. His legs can just barely lay straight, toes tapping against the opposite wall.  His arm crams beside mine, and as if by instinct, he places his arm over my shoulders scrunching us more into one another, as if the closet was closing in on us. I swing the door shut.

“Nelly, why are we—”

“Shh!” My finger presses against my lips.

His voice shifts to a whisper. “Why are we in here?”

“Can’t you imagine it? Playing hide and seek with our kids someday. Scrunching together into this closet…”

“Most houses have closets.”

“But not like this one.”

“It’s not even that big, Nel. We barely fit.” He scooches back against the wall of the closet, his hip crashing into mine. “And it smells like old man.”

“It’s cologne, Ben. Try it sometime.”

“Why are you being so stubborn?”

“I’m not stubborn.” I bite my lip, inhaling Dad’s scent. “My parents and I used to play hide and seek all the time when I was growing up. I want to have those kinds of memories with our kids someday.”

“We barely fit in here as it is.” Ben squeezes my shoulder. “I would hide beside the washing machine instead. More leg room.”

“Maybe they’d find me first and pull me around the house to look for you.”

“You better not tell them my best hiding spot.”

I pinch my fingers together, and drag them across my lips like a zipper.

“We can play hide and seek in a newer house,” Ben says. “One where the floorboards don’t creak. Creaky floorboards give away hiding spots.”

“So do peeking children.”

“What?”

“I’m ready to look at other houses.”

Ben smiles, squeezing my thigh. He grips the molding along the door and propels himself out of the closet. He’s too much of an adult to crawl out like I do. He offers me a hand, and I stand.

“Why the sudden change of heart?” he asks.

“Don’t you know me at all?” I kiss his cheek. “I hate wallpaper.”

 


Misty Yarnall is a creative writing major at Purchase College. She has an AA in creative writing and an AA in English from Monroe Community College. Her publications can be found in The Roadrunner Review, KAIROS Literary Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Merrimack Review, The Finger, and Gandy Dancer. Misty is working on a novel.

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Filed under 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 toward 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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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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Filed under Fiction

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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