All posts by Benjamin

Co-founder of gutwrench.

For Sale: One Uterus, Never Used

By Rykie Belles

FOR SALE: ONE UTERUS, NEVER USED

Well, wait, how are we defining the use of a uterus? To clarify, it has never been occupied by a sentient being that Seller is aware of. There was some question a year or so ago, but that turned out to be nothing. Probably. Most pregnancies end before the individual in question even knows they’re pregnant, though, so who can really say?

Anyway!

It’s a newish model. Roughly 35 years old taking into account gestational time and fetal development. Fertility declines after 35, or so they say, but honestly that’s all the ovaries, so don’t worry about it. If you’re looking to gestate a human being, this beauty will do it for you. Probably. Seller has never tried, cannot confirm–

–Wait, sorry, no. Seller would like to make it clear that she has engaged in sexual intercourse to completion with a human male, both parties being presumed fertile. More than once. Many times, even! Seller was a late bloomer but bloomed PRETTY WELL, thank you very much. It’s just that there has never been an attempt to, ya know, create a child.

Still under limited warranty, which is to say the Affordable Care Act. Thanks, Obama!

(Seller cannot guarantee said warranty will continue to exist; see also: the Voting Rights Act, civil and human rights in general, the U.S. Constitution, and a habitable planet. Buyer assumes all responsibility for costs of care and repair post-warranty or post-apocalypse.)

As an added bonus, this uterus is currently playing host to a small object of plastic and hormones known as an intrauterine device, approximately two years old. Seller was told by doctor to expect that to function approximately seven years total due to declining fertility mentioned previously. Do you want a new uterus but not a baby? Then this bad boy is just the ticket! Skip the hellishly painful insertion process and get all the benefits of nearly infallible birth control with few side effects! Do be aware that you’re gonna have to get it taken out at some point, and that’s probably gonna hurt a lot. Seller does not know, cannot confirm.

Price….? Well, now, before we talk money, let’s look at the facts. Surrogacies can run up to $45,000. And remember, this bad boy is in mint condition. Never taken out of the box, never unwrapped, raised in a smoke-free environment. Cleans itself every 28 days like clockwork for the last two decades. No history of STDs. This is an A+ uterus.

On the other hand, Seller is hella motivated. She just wants to fuck without worrying about getting pregnant, right? Honestly, she thought that an IUD would help with that fear, but anxiety is a bitch. And speaking of a bitch…

Look, I like you. I feel like we’ve got a good rapport—like I can trust you. So let me just tell you a secret: Seller is real, real tired of having a menstrual cycle. Some people find that a hormonal IUD will eventually taper off their bleeding, but that hasn’t been the case here.

So I think if you’re willing to talk to the seller, you can probably strike a deal. You take on the twice-monthly aches. Now, that’s during menstruation and during ovulation, mind, and that’s not just cramps. It’s also excruciating hip pain, and headaches, and pain in the lower back and the actual pelvic bone that makes moving around difficult and keep Seller awake at night. You also take the monthly depression spike. It’s a big one! PMS is not a joke—and speaking of which, you take the lifetime of being a punchline for dudes who say they’re “comedians” or “artists” but secretly just hate women, and the way that some of them still giggle when a tampon falls out of your purse even though they’re in their goddamned 40s

You take all that, give Seller $10, and I think you can walk away with this bad boy tonight.

A Love Letter from My Dead Name

By Jordyn King

Dear Jordyn,
It is June 29th.
My 23rd birthday, and your first.
And though you know who I am
I have no idea who you are just yet;
That’s okay, though. Part of the beauty of shedding an identity
is the ability to craft a new one, and
I have a guess about the beautiful
person you’ll become.
Now, I have some things to ask you,
but first and foremost,
I want to congratulate us or…
you.
You searched for your name for a full year,
and I think you found the one tailor made for you.
It is strange to think we are the same person, but this point,
our birthday, marks a completely new chapter in your life
So Congratulations, Jordyn. Truly.

I want to make a couple requests of you,
if you’ll allow me.
You don’t need to heed them all,
but I think it’s gonna help.

1: I ask that you remember me.
It’s hard for me to accept that I’ll be gone forever,
and I know you’ll do great things without me holding you back, but still,
I ask that you keep a part of me in the most secret chambers of your heart
So that when the road seems hardest, you might remember who we once were
and celebrate how far you’ve come, and how much further you can still go.

2: I ask you to forgive me my shortcomings:
I know they’ll probably follow you,
but I want it stated that my sins are not yours. Let your first breaths be pure
and free of guilt about my past.
I will carry those to my grave for you

3: I ask that you keep on fighting.
I know you will; it’s part of who I became and, therefore, part of who you’ve always been. But for the sake of the people
we both love, I want you to hold your fist high,
and fight like you have nothing left to lose.

4: Love everyone. Love them fiercely, and without hesitation or remorse.
I was never really known for regret, except once…remember that one,
to remind you of the consequences, and then love everyone anyways.
Love them through heartbreak and through bad times and falling outs.
Love them always, and love them the way I love being you.

5: Finally, I ask that you love yourself.
You are the future we didn’t think would be possible,
the person that we never thought we’d live to be when we were younger.
Remember to love yourself,
and be kind to yourself.
And remember that you made it
for all of us.
So happy birthday Jordyn.

Forever in your heart,
[REDACTED] Your Dead Name

What R U Made Of?

Gutwrench Journal conducted this interview with artist and letterpress printmaker Lennie Gray Mowris in December 2018. Mowris’ work is available at lenspeace, and she is also the designer of the Gutwrench logo.

GW:  Hey Lennie, what would you say the highlight of your year has been?

LM: The highlight of 2018 is that it totally took me by surprise. I started this year with a whole plan, and then had every intention except for one derailed. This year the AIGA National Design For Good Task Force, which I have served for the last three years, published The Path to Impact. It is a social impact framework that guides the creative process from 0 to sustainable & socially responsible design. Our team won a $30,000 grant to continue developing the work, and it took off in ways I never expected. I started traveling to chapters to talk about Design for Good and combating social bias. I found myself on a platform for every philosophy I’d ever built my studio or artwork around, and I was leading dialogue, facilitating strategy, inspiring creativity. I fell in love with my strategy design career all over again, but it came with some sacrifices to my print studio for the sake of time.

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GW: Tell me what keeps you passionate about your art.

LM: Art for me isn’t about passion, it’s about process. I never considered myself an artist until I found printmaking, which is the foundational craft for graphic design. It’s an intentional communication to an unknown person in an unknown environment, in order to motivate an outcome or change human perspective and behavior. The print studio was always a way to do that by my own hand. I want to facilitate the communications that resonate with diverse groups of people and physically hold on paper the intention I put into the ideas. So for me, it’s problem solving— an exploration in how words, pictures, and colors bring us closer together or drive us further apart. How sensitivity to the nuances of each culture can strip communication of inherent violence and foster inclusive peace.

If passion comes into it, I’m passionate about the people who help me understand humanity better by way of their vulnerability with me. I care. Deeply. About all the humans. I feel honored to have been trusted with so many people’s grief, pain, trauma, relationship woes, and also their hope, love, resilience. Humans are complicated but amazing nonetheless. I cherish my community and my relationships that live from their heart.

GW: What I love about your work is that it is creative, beautiful, political, hand-crafted and timeless, and that seems like an incredibly difficult balance to maintain.

How do you start something new?

LM: It’s funny you ask this because right now everything is new – but also old. Since my work is about process, it’s always in a state of becoming, just as I am. It’s organic and alive. It informs me as much as I inform it. At first I was a sustainable graphic designer, I made logos and flyers, but that was the surface. Then, I built the print studio, and I was a letterpress printer… and graphic designer then came second. The public persona built ended my identity there. But those things were just the steps I needed to take first in order to build the studio into what it was always meant to be. Path to Impact is the strategic process I’ve been using and refining with other industry leaders in impact design, I’ve bet my entire career on the strategy work, my presses were always a tool for that goal.

Reconciliation is my favorite word, my whole life is about finding that sweet spot in complicated problems & systems so they flow better with less violence in the process. I’ve learned a lot along the way, I’m about to let some of the ways lenspeace has been before go. My print work is going to become more fine art and mixed media, and less production art. I’m about to disrupt my whole process as I bring in new people to help. Everything is new to me right now, and I’m learning every day, but I’m terrified. That’s the long answer.

The short answer is, time. I start something new when what is old isn’t working anymore, or when opportunity defines my path forward for me. I commit, but I’m not afraid to cut ties and pivot into something new if it isn’t working.

GW: When we last spoke, you were asking ‘What are you made of?’ In what ways are you still addressing that? Are any other questions on your mind now?

LM: Well, I never addressed it in the art I intended to create this year. I hope to correct that next year. I was hoping to have a discussion about what it means to be human through art, instead this year was literally about what I’m Made Of.

I’ve been pushed to every emotional extreme and had to not to lose my chill. I’ve had to heal- unpack the social problems we’re complicit in during one of the most troubling political periods of my life. I’ve had to find flow I never knew I had. Master the 24 to 48-hour trip to new cities. I crawled out of the collective depression that has befallen society the last three years. Being an empath doing empathy work is a lot of emotional labor, and staying in touch with joy is an interesting exercise. Whatever I’m made of, it’s a beautiful blend of rage & love, and I’m OK with that.

I’m still exploring this question, but I want to make a switch in the language as I focus more on the idea of WE.

“What Are We Made Of?” I want to explore what happens when people come together to achieve common goals. Because life isn’t about any single one of us, it’s about making it work for all of us.

The Great Moonbuggy Race

By Sarah Beth Nelson

My father called to tell me and my sister that we had a new baby brother on the day I was leaving for the Great Moonbuggy Race. I was a senior in high school. My sister was a freshman. I went off to school that morning thinking how strange it was to suddenly get a new sibling when I was almost 18 years old.

img_3867After my last class, I went to the parking lot to meet up with the rest of the moonbuggy team and our physics teachers. We piled into two rental vans, one of which was hauling a trailer with the moonbuggy inside. Then we set out on the four-hour drive from Suwanee, Georgia, where our high school was located, to Huntsville, Alabama, where the Space Center was hosting the moonbuggy race.

On the drive, I kept thinking about my new baby brother. And the more I thought about him, the worse I felt. I had had a good relationship with my father when I was young. I especially appreciated that he supported my dream of becoming an astronaut. When I was four years old I decided to become an astronaut after learning about Mars: The Red Planet. Red is my favorite color. I had to get there, and being an astronaut was the way to do it. Maybe it seems silly to choose a career based on a favorite color, but think about it. If I could go to a whole planet that is red, what else could I see as a space traveler? A lot of kids want to be astronauts when they’re four. But I was different. I was really going to do it. Even then, I had a sense that you can’t always count on adults. I knew that if something is important, you have to make it happen for yourself. So, I promised myself that I would visit another world someday.

I started planning right away. In elementary school I worked hard at math and science. I entered science fair competitions and Invent America. I was that kid who’s projects always looked a little too good and people would wonder, “Did she do that herself?” The answer is, “No. No, I did not.” It wasn’t that my dad did the projects for me. They were my projects. But he would get excited about helping, and maybe ended up helping too much.

My mother also encouraged me in my love of space. She signed me up as a member of the Planetary Society. A few times a year I got their publication, The Planetary Report, full of color images of stars and planets, and articles about things like what elements scientists believe must be present for life to be possible.

Both of my parents saved up to send me to Space Camp, at the Space Center in Huntsville, as soon as I was old enough to go. That was the summer after fourth grade. The next summer, after I graduated from elementary school, my parents got divorced and my father moved out. He was remarried before the end of the year.

My sister and I went to see him and our stepmother every other weekend. He no longer helped me with my experiments and inventions. And after a couple of years, he called one week to say that, from then on, when it was our weekend with him, he would pick us up on Saturday morning, instead of Friday night. He and our stepmother were tired at the end of the work week. Everyone would have a better weekend if we came on Saturday. But I didn’t have a better weekend that way. I missed my father terribly after he moved out. I was incredibly hurt that he could so easily give up even more of the small amount of time we had together.

In high school, I joined the marching band. The first time I had a competition on one of my father’s weekends, he said, “I’m not taking you to that. Just don’t come this weekend.” I had more competitions. I joined more activities. By my senior year, I hardly saw my father at all.

I was jealous of my brother. My father couldn’t tell him not to be there on Friday nights, or when he had activities my dad didn’t feel like driving him to. He would have my father in his life in a way I hadn’t for half my childhood. But at the same time, I desperately wanted this for my brother. Even though I hadn’t met him yet, I loved him. I wanted my dad to be better for him than he had been for me. Late that evening, we arrived at a motel in Huntsville. I shared a room with the only other girl on the moonbuggy team.

In the morning, we drove to a parking lot outside the Space Center and took the moonbuggy out of the trailer. It didn’t fit in the trailer fully assembled, so we had made the wheels detachable. We screwed the wheels onto the axles and a couple of the guys started test driving the moonbuggy around the lot.

Our moonbuggy was a feat of engineering. It had a rectangular metal frame that was pinched in the middle. There were four bicycle wheels – one at each corner. It was pedal powered, by both the front and back driver. We had levers to steer. There were two things about the moonbuggy that we were particularly proud of. The first was the universal joint in the middle. From that joint, the moonbuggy could bend up and down, something it would need to do while going up hills and into craters. It could bend side to side while going around corners. And it could twist, if diagonal wheels were both going over boulders at the same time. The other thing we were really proud of was the limited-slip differential we had put on each axle. An axle and the two wheels attached to the ends can be a solid unit, all moving together. But, if the two wheels need to rotate at different speeds, like while going around a turn, that can put strain on the axle. The limited slip differential allowed the axle and wheels to act as a solid unit most of the time, but also permitted a little give under pressure. Our moonbuggy was truly a masterpiece.

I should have been mentally preparing myself for the race. When it was our turn to do a timed run of the course the Space Center had created to resemble the surface of the moon, I would be one of the drivers. But I wasn’t preparing myself. I was thinking about my brother.

My father had become so disappointing in recent years that I had been considering writing him off – just not going to see him anymore. That seemed less painful than trying to keep him in my life and being constantly reminded that he didn’t care if I was in his. I couldn’t do that anymore, though. Writing him off would mean not seeing my brother. I wanted to be there for him. I thought he might need another adult in his life that he could count on.

I looked up just in time to see the guys run the moonbuggy into the curb. The front wheels moved on their axle as they hit. “Stop!” I yelled. “You’re breaking the moonbuggy!” They didn’t listen to me. They backed it up and got it going even faster. This time the moonbuggy jumped over the curb and came to rest in the grass. The front wheels were spinning freely now, the threading completely stripped where they were screwed onto the axle. I was right: they had broken the moonbuggy. But it was important to know about that weakness before the race. They took it to the repair tent and welded all the wheels onto the axles. It was much stronger that way. We would have to well and truly break it to get it back into the trailer, but that would be after the race.

My physics teacher had seen me yelling at the guys. She led me behind the trailer. “Sarah, you are showing signs of panic. You don’t have to do this.” She thought I was panicking about the race, and was offering to replace me as a driver with someone else from the team. I had spent the past fourteen years preparing to drive a moonbuggy. I could drive a moonbuggy. I wasn’t ready to have a new baby brother.

My opportunity to drive the moonbuggy was slipping away from me, though, and it meant so much more to me than my teacher realized. I started my senior year still on the trajectory of becoming an astronaut. I was in advanced placement (college level) physics and calculus, even though I had already met my high school’s science requirement and could have taken an easier math. I wrote a research paper for my physics class on how scientists search for extrasolar planets (planets outside our solar system). And, I signed up for the moonbuggy team.

At the same time that I was using all the math and science I had learned over the years to help design and build the moonbuggy, at the same time that I was researching conditions on the surface of the moon to anticipate what the race course would be like, I was applying to colleges. And it was a moment of truth. Was this really the path the rest of my life was going to take? I was also in my fourth year of marching band and my third year of Latin. I was in advanced placement English. I had been taking piano lessons for almost as long as I had been an aspiring astronaut. I loved all of these things. And I knew that I wanted to have kids someday. I had no doubt I could find a way to both have children and be an astronaut. But I figured that a round trip mission to Mars would take at least two years, probably longer. I knew what it was like to have a parent who wasn’t around as much as I would have liked. I didn’t think it could be part of my plan to have kids and then leave them behind. In the spring semester, I committed to starting at the University of Georgia the next fall, as an English major.

After that, the moonbuggy project became bittersweet for me. It was the culmination of a lifetime of astronaut training. Driving in the race would be my big send off to my childhood dreams. But only if I actually got to drive.

I needed to stop panicking. I told myself I could figure out how to be a big sister to my new sibling later. Right then, I had another child to think about: myself. I had promised my four-year-old self that I would visit another world some day. It was time for me to drive across the moon.

N64

By Mauree Culberson

Dear Daddy,

I hope you are enjoying Thanksgiving. I bet you can have all the dairy you want in the afterlife and the salt crystals fall from the sky like snow on your dinner plate, and no one tells you that’s too much.

I was sitting watching some awful film in the living room with our relatives, and I overheard mom and sister asking Andrew if he’d ever carved a turkey before. It was a stupid question or, at bare minimum, rhetorical. Of course he’s never done it. You have always carved the turkey.

It’s just another example of a hole left in the family without you in it. The gunmen stole you from us. They left holes in you that ripped through the seal of our family, leaving us ragged, like a scorched kitchen towel from some long-forgotten mishap.

This Thanksgiving lacked what you provided. No one was there to egg on rivalries or differences of opinions between relatives for the amusement of the rest of us. No one was called out for their exaggerated claims to shame the unreliable narrators who tell you parts of their dramatic life stories. No one complained too loudly that my sister only made fourteen desserts. No one challenged the decades-old tradition of me doing almost no cooking whatsoever. (I ‘stir up’ cornbread from scratch and then crumble that and other breads for the dressing. Then I go back to doing nothing. Little sisterhood has its privileges.)

There was no one to command all the males to do all the heavy lifting. There was no one to pack the car with our luggage the night before we left or to insist we don’t bring it in ourselves. No one handled trash and recycling without being asked. No one conducted the ‘now what are we watching’ TV council. No one was there to hear my aunts yell, ‘Shut up, Maurice,’ when they’d had enough of being teased. No one rolled their eyes when discussing who was invited to drop by and who was told to …. ‘Have a blessed holiday.’ No one lamented all my mother’s good deeds that go unthanked.

I slept next to mommy in your spot. Mom still sleeps neatly on her side of the bed. Your reading glasses are still there. There’s an opened pack of gum which I bet was yours still sitting on your dresser. Some of your mail is there, next to your Sunday school book. I laid there and cried. I whispered to my sleeping mother, while looking down at your slippers which are still on the floor on your side of the bed, “Mommy, I want my daddy back.” That was dumb, I know. I just long for the days when my mother could fix anything. She could fix a toy, break a fever, make broccoli taste good somehow, and soothe me to sleep. She can’t fix this broken heart, though.

In the morning, I looked in your closet that you share with mommy. All your suits are pressed. Your best suits remain in plastic … minus one, the one you’re wearing right now. Your ties are in color order and displayed for easy selection. I put my feet in your shoes, like I did when I was smaller, and flopped around a bit. I remember putting my feet on top of yours as we danced around once.

When I took a shower, many of your toiletries were missing. It’s sensible, I reminded myself. Yet I felt sad until I went looking for toothpaste and found it all neatly put under the sink. When I stood up, I saw your bathrobe still hanging on your hook on the back of the bathroom door.

I stepped out to the vanity to do my hair. I wondered and couldn’t resist opening the drawers on your side. The bottom drawers contained clean, perfectly folded white underwear, undershirts, socks paired and separated in white black and then all other colors. The top drawer hid an item I’d never thought I’d see again. I saw your phone.

Your phone is way outdated but bright red because black phones are hard to find in the dark, you’d said. Sometimes you’d forget to take it with you. I used to think this was rebellion against  technology in general but I later came to realize that a built-in GPS and calculator was an intellectual affront to an accountant who lived in the same city for 60 years. Nestled next to it was the car charger. That’s where the gunmen found you, in the car. The car is now back in the garage. No one drives it, it just takes up its usual space.

For a few glorious moments, I imagined you were just out of town and traveling light. I smelled your deodorant and your cologne. I fake yelled back at you complaining that my showers are so long they take up all the hot water. I danced around the room a bit putting my mother’s many brooches to my chest, as if I’m trying them on at a store. I get carried away and bump the dresser holding one of the brooches in my hair, when a card slips out that’s tucked next to a jewelry box. I open my mouth to fake sassy reply ‘Nothing is broken, geez!’ to your usual grumble when there’s an unexpected noise … but I’m deflated by the piercing words on the pointy white index card.

You’re not here.

That realization coats me thickly like giblet gravy. My relaxed shoulders tense. I close the drawers and put your slippers away back where I found them. I take off your robe and pull the plastic covers back down on your suits. I put back the piece of gum I took out of the pack on your nightstand. My mom left or put all these things this way. I better put them back before one of y’all catches me and … before mom catches me. It could get weird, or she could get angry. Discussing our innermost feelings is prohibited per the roaring lion standing firmly atop a box securely locked, marked ‘Feelings, etc.” on our family crest. Plus, if she cries, I’ll cry too, but I won’t be able to stop.

The white index card asked for an opinion on the care of your gravestone and burial plot.

You’re not out of town. You’re not complaining about my shower time, or the bumping noise, nor are you carving the turkey. I’m not a little girl who snuck into her parents room to play dress-up.

You’re not here.

You’re at plot N64 in a hole in the ground. All that is displaced in the soil is nothing to what has been displaced in me. I cannot patch these holes. We will not be whole again, this family, not like we were.

I spotted a pair of your socks on the floor. I’d let them escape the drawers, but, when I went to put them back, I opened the wrong drawer first. I opened the undershirt drawer a bit wider than before, and I found bags and bags of them. I lost it. My mouth covered on my knees, and I heaved, letting gigantic tears bombard the plastic bags.

You seemed … we seemed like we didn’t love each other sometimes. We fought so much. You could be harsh and angry, and so could I towards you. You were stubborn and gave me that stubborn quality that has served me well.

In those plastic bags were decades’ worth of Father’s Day and birthday cards. Some were on decaying newsprint with dashed lines clearly made by tiny hands. In the bottom, the bags had collected confetti, glitter, ribbons, macaroni pieces and other bits from the temporary medium of cards. Bunches of paper scrawled on in purple ink, pencil, drawn on hearts, scriptures and glued-on cotton balls kept tucked away but kept in preservation and reverence.

Encased plainly and put in the drawer, buried memories lie yet unmarked. That drawer has no holes. It is full.

Your BabyGirl (still),

Mo

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The Undead Have No Dignity

By Jessica Nettles

Lily stood at the weathered wooden door of what had been Marvis-Dorna funeral parlor back in the day. She smoothed the skirt of her black dress and adjusted her hat and veil with her gloved hands. The dress was uncomfortable and hot, not one you’d wear on a late spring afternoon in Alabama, but it was the only one she owned. Had Mary Kat, her daughter, still been with her, she’d have teased Lily about clinging to traditions that no longer mattered to anyone else in town. She wore the dress, hat, and veil to assure herself that she was respecting Edwin like a good Southern wife would. Rules may have changed when folks started going off, but that didn’t mean she had to.

A tear rolled down one cheek, and she reached into her small black purse and pulled out one of Edwin’s handkerchiefs she’d nabbed before she left to make this final step in the ritual of the dead. Her family had always said she was a bit cold, but that wasn’t true. After people started going off, grief was something that just held her back from helping others, so she shut it away altogether. Can’t be strong if you’re a blubbering mess. Loving Edwin meant being strong once again. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and knocked. The door opened.

“Ah, Miss Lily, come right on in, we’ve been expecting you,” said The Coroner. He was wearing an immaculate black suit with a matching black tie, as was the custom. His hair was slicked back like an old-time Baptist preacher’s.

The Coroner took her arm and led her to an office, which was fine by her since her arthritis was acting up something fierce since Edwin’s fall in the kitchen only an hour or so before. Even though she’d taken one of her pills, her hips and feet were aching. She sat down in a floral wing chair while he moved behind his polished teak desk.

“Would you care for some coffee or tea?” he asked with a gentle smile.

“Iced tea? Oh, I’d sure like some,” she answered.

The Coroner rang a tiny silver bell. A girl in a clean apron and a black dress brought in a tray holding a sweating tea pitcher decorated with blue and purple mophead hydrangeas like the ones in full bloom by Lily’s porch and two tall glasses filled with ice cubes. She smelled of gardenia and walked with a small shuffle. Lily studied the girl’s pockmarked face. The last of the children went off last year after a wicked wave of chicken pox, a disease once eradicated. Was that the Dickerson girl? Maybe not.

The ice clinked in the glasses as The Coroner stood, took the tray from the girl, and nodded for her to leave. She hissed softly through her bared teeth as she stood, hands still extended. The Coroner snapped his fingers right at her nose, and her hiss stopped short.

“You may leave now, Rose,” he said.

Rose Dickerson. I was right, thought Lily. She remembered when the family had Rose in lockdown before the little thing had gone off. The girl was the last of the chicken pox group. Folk were chattering for weeks after, saying that maybe whatever caused the going off was moving on. Lily had almost believed this was a possibility, and then a whole cluster of folk who lived by the depot at the edge of The Community, went off on Saturday afternoon for no good reason.

The girl’s pox-scarred arms dropped to her sides. She walked right into the doorframe, backed up and did it again. The Coroner set the tray on a serving table next to Lily’s seat. He approached the girl from behind and set her in front of the door, patting her back as she exited.

“Rose is still … in training,” he said, approaching Lily, who fidgeted with her hat, trying not to stare. “Shall I pour?”

“Please,” Lily replied, charmed that she could hear music in the background. It was a song from back in the day, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. Canned music was a luxury these days.

She took the cool glass of tea and sipped it, pleased that The Coroner took his duties seriously. She considered what she’d written in his job description after his role was deemed necessary in the changing environment.

Civility is a skill The Coroner must have since he will deal with the citizens of The Community daily.”

Not only had this particular Coroner been civil, but he’d also proved to be proactive in ways they’d not dreamed of three years ago. He brought changes that, at least in her observations, had made The Community a better place for everyone, including the Gone-Off. As she sipped iced tea, which was perfect in the teeth-cracking way tea was at Homecoming dinners when preachers were still sent here and church was still a thing, The Coroner sat back down, folded his hands, and smiled at her.

“My Edwin. He passed earlier, but he ain’t gone off yet,” Lily said. “I’m sure you know that.” She knew what he was going to say but felt like she needed to speak the words anyway.

Edwin hadn’t ever liked the way this was done, but she’d told him it was the best they could manage considering the way things had gone, and it was better than folks doing things that would worsen their predicament. He’d voted against the changes suggested by The Coroner after he was hired, but she’d stood with The Council, especially since she was the head at the time.  That one thing had become the one bone of contention between her and Edwin till an hour or so ago. As much as she knew that what The Coroner did was the best thing for all involved, for some reason losing Edwin was harder than she’d dreamed it would be.

The Coroner frowned and said, “We can’t take him if … “

She hung her head and said in a whisper, “If he ain’t gone off.” She took a sip of the iced tea, letting it run down her throat. Then she asked, “What if he didn’t want you takin’ him?” She knew she’d gone off script now but didn’t much care what The Coroner thought about that. She knew what he’d say. It was law.

“Mrs. Smith, you of all people should understand how this works.”

She nodded, and said, “But he never wanted all this.”

“None of us did, Lily,” responded The Coroner. In another time, folk might think he was one of those Baptist evangelists who did tent revivals in August.

He moved from behind the large, shiny desk and pulled a chair up next to her. Then he took her hand in his own. Even through her gloves, his hands were like ice and made her own hands ache the way the cold from Edwin’s body had when she’d moved him earlier.

“You and The Council wrote the rules for a reason. Making exceptions wouldn’t serve The Community,” he said.

She pulled her hands away, rubbing them.

“Can’t I keep him at the house? I need the help. We got no kin left to help. He won’t be any trouble, I promise,” she asked.

“The entire community needs him. Keeping him home is selfish, Miss Lily,” he said.

The grief she’d packed away over the last three years, flushed over her and took her off guard. This wasn’t the first going off she’d attended to, but of all of them, this was the worst. She started gasping and tears flowed down her cheeks. She was losing Edwin twice. She’d been able to manage herself better when Mary Kat went off by pretending her girl had gone off to Auburn for school again. This time, pretending wasn’t an option and besides, Edwin deserved to have his wishes respected after all he’d had to accept the last few years. She dabbed her wet cheeks with Edwin’s monogrammed handkerchief as she fought to regain some self-control.

“I just want to give him some dignity,” she whispered.

“And he will be treated with the utmost in dignity just like your Mary Kat and all the rest. He’ll be of service to The Community, just like he’s always been.”

“So if something … like a tooth or somethin’ falls off while you’re workin’ on my Edwin, could you save it for me?” she asked.

He shook his head but snickered. “No, ma’am. Unfortunately, you know we cannot allow keepsakes.”

Lily nodded and took one last sip of tea, which soothed her. Business concluded, The Coroner stood. As he guided her to the door, he picked up the tablet off his desk. Lily could see the screen, which was filled small photographs of members of The Community. Lily could see Edwin’s photo flashing red.

The Coroner tapped his tablet and said, “I can see that you locked Edwin down. That’s excellent. Now, you just go on home. You wouldn’t want to miss the grand event.”

She looked up at him and said, “Edwin won’t be hurt?”

“I promise.”

Lily saw little comfort in this promise. The Coroner guided her by the elbow to the front door and bid his goodbye as she stepped out. The sky faded from fuchsia to deep azure dotted with pale clouds as she walked down the as-of-yet unlit street back to her house. By this time, she and Edwin would have had supper and been sitting outside on the porch, watching the sunset. It was one of her favorite times of the day because they would sip the last of the tea from supper, have dessert, and talk about the day. Or they would reminisce about the days before the wall when they could go to the movies or go to the famous fish fries at Screamer Church nearby. Sometimes Edwin would sing hymns with her, and the neighbors would come and sing too. After the wall, the hymn singing happened less and less, as they seemed pointless to most of their friends. Edwin would still sing them once in a while, especially at sunset. Now Lily wasn’t sure she could handle a sunset without his growly voice.

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As she passed her neighbors’ houses, she could see some of them eating supper at picnic tables in their back yards. It was cooler to eat outside this time of year, especially for those without air conditioning. A few sat out on the porch and waved as she got closer to her own home. Now that they’d seen her in the black dress, it wouldn’t be long till everyone knew one of the elders had passed. She imagined that some of the men would be taking bets on when Edwin would go off even before she began eating her own supper.

The house was quiet and shadowy when she unlocked the door. She was used to Edwin listening to the local radio reports in the evenings before supper, so the silence emphasized the emptiness of the house, which echoed through her. As she walked by the radio, she turned it on. The warm light of the console chased away the darkness spreading through the living room, and the voice of Chuck Landers from down by Screamer filled the air as he reported the safest parts of the lake to fish. At least she could pretend that Edwin was with her for now.

Lavender-scented Pine Sol made the entire house smell like Friday cleaning day even though it was only Tuesday and she’d only scrubbed the kitchen floor and counter where Edwin had fallen hours before. She touched the yellowing page touting the rules of The Community posted on the pantry door and thanked the Great Whosit that she’d done her best to follow the law. She also gave thanks that Edwin hadn’t gone off and tried to take a hunk out of her arm – something The Coroner would fix – while she bathed his body to prep him for the lockdown room.

The law was for the best, but right now she hated every part of it. Edwin was right when he voted against this new order, and she knew, if he could, he’d be shaking his head and saying he told her so. He’d also tell her she’d done her best and that he couldn’t criticize that.

She remembered how deaths were handled before the wall was put up and The Coroner came to town. Sometimes caskets would be open so that everyone could take a last look at the deceased, all made up, dressed up, serene in his or her repose. They’d be surrounded by family, friends, onlookers, and a mountain of flowers in all shapes and forms. People would bring food to the family of the deceased, sit around and tell stories after gathering at the church to tell everyone how wonderful the person who passed had been in life. She tried to remember the last one of these affairs she’d attended. Jo-Jo Walsh. It had been a quiet affair at the funeral home where The Coroner now lived. Quiet until Jo-Jo sat up and bit Reverend Jackson as he stood for the benediction.

After that, funerals weren’t considered exactly practical by The Community. Death could no longer be a sentimental moment. As she ate her supper and listened to Mimi Landers, Chuck’s wife and co-owner of WSCR, talk about the latest murder at the Screamer Hardees, she mourned those days as much as Edwin’s passing. After she joined The Committee, she had to be strong. No more weeping. The Coroner was right. Her request to keep any part of her husband from The Community was selfish and so was any sentimentality she may feel about Edwin’s death.

She had no time or option to go to pieces or sit with friends and remember Edwin’s kindness and the happy moments they’d shared over the last fifty years. Instead, her memories of his last moments would include how she grumbled as she dragged his death-weighted body from the tub to the lock down room, knowing that if he went off, she’d be gone too.

When people started going off after they died, the living had to take steps to take care of them before the town suffered the fate of other nearby towns. At first, Lily remembered voting to turn people out on the far side of the lake in what used to be Comer. The Council figured that they could keep them out of town with one of those invisible electric fences till they could figure out how to control things better.

That didn’t work. Electric fences worked for dogs and horses, but not for those gone off.

The dead returned home. Once that happened, there was an emergency vote. The Council got all the men together and they first built the wall around town The Community. Then they required lock-down rooms in every home. There were gatherings to help build the lock-down rooms each weekend all that first year or so. The ladies would put out a spread of food at the community center and the menfolk would work till they connected the room to the grid at what was the funeral home.

She could see part of the high metal wall from her light green porch glider, where she sipped on a glass of sweet tea and watched the moon begin to rise and cast a silver glint on the pines on the other side of the fence. A slight breeze blew, and she heard the rustling of her pink and blue hydrangea, which was in full bloom. The delicate scent of sweet olive wafted past, and Lily breathed it in. At least some things were evergreen, she thought to herself.

In the gloaming, Lily could see her oldest friend, Mary-Walton, wearing her cat-eye glasses, which glinted silver-purple in the brightening moonlight. Her curly silver hair made her look like she had a halo around her head.

“I brought y’all a pie,” she called to Lily.

“Mary-Walton, he’s passed,” Lily said.

Her friend paused halfway up the walk. “Oh my Lord, Lily! You shoulda called me! Has he Gone-Off yet?”

“Not yet,” Lily said.

Setting the pie down on the porch rail, Mary-Walton joined Lily on the glider. She pushed her foot forward to start a little rocking movement. Lily smiled at the comfort it brought her but said nothing because there was nothing to be said. Her friend understood, and they sat together for a spell. One street light fluttered at the corner down by Mary-Walton’s house, and the radio had gone fuzzy in the background. A white truck marked with a large blue C rolled by. The back of the truck was filled with hoes and baskets of ripe tomatoes. Fred Whitmore, one of the Community farmers, waved from the driver’s seat. There was groaning coming from the trailer it pulled behind it. Both women waved at Fred because that was part of porch sitting and it was just plain polite.

“Edwin’s going to a better place, Lil’,” Mary-Walton said.

“I want to believe that,” Lily said. A tear rolled down her cheek. Her friend looked surprised but pulled out a tissue from her flour-powdered apron.

“It’s better than turning him loose,” she said.

Lily patted Mary-Walton’s hand and said, “You mean turning him out.”

“You wouldn’t want him comin’ back after you.”

“He said to me that he didn’t want to go this way. Ain’t his wants important?” said Lily.

Mary-Walton frowned and said, “You wrote the laws, you know.”

Lily nodded. She’d wrote the rules with The Council. They’d all thought this would be over after a spell. The laws were meant to take care of everyone, even those who’d gone off.

“If there weren’t laws, we’d have to shoot ‘em all. You coulda shot him instead.”

“Yes. I could have,” said Lily.

When the Coroner offered to upcycle the gone-over, The Council immediately voted and approved the motion. No one discussed how he would do this because the idea would serve The Community in a positive way and keep people from having to shoot their kin.

The green light next to the kitchen door began to flash. Lily looked over at Mary-Walton.

“Well, I guess it’s time.”

“Well, I guess it is.”

After just a few minutes, a white panel van bearing the familiar blue C arrived. Two men got out. One had a noose stick, and the other wore a shoulder holster.

Both said, “Evenin’, Mrs. Smith.”

“Mighty fine evening, Phillip,” she said.

“Mighty fine, Mrs. Smith,” the brawny man replied.

“You okay, Mrs. Smith?” asked his partner Darrell Grover, who was younger and blond. Lily remembered dragging the boy to his mama after Sunday school the day he said a word she wouldn’t repeat to Angie Daniels. Any other time, she’d ask how his mama was.

She nodded. Mary-Walton put her arm around Lily’s shoulders. The men entered the house. Lily could hear one of them unlock the metal door. All Pallbearers had master keys for Lock Downs. She heard loud snarling and she heard someone say, “Whoa there!” Then there was a scuffle. Soon the young man led Edwin out onto the porch. Gone-Off Edwin turned his head and snarled at Lily, reaching toward her. His face was gray.

“Oh God…”

Mary-Walton snatched her away quickly.

The second man came out of the house, and quickly put a snub-nosed shooter at Edwin’s back. There was a thwip followed by a grooooan.

“Dammit, Darrell! You weren’t supposed to bring him out here without the hood!” he yelled.

“Sorry, Phillip,” said Darrell.

Lily couldn’t stop staring. That…thing…wasn’t…couldn’t be…no…not Edwin…not…

“Mrs. Smith…” said Phillip.

“I’m…I’m fine. What—” said Lily. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen someone gone off, but this was different. It was her Edwin.

“He’s going to a better place, Lil’,” said Mary-Walton.

“There is no better place than The Farm,” said Phillip.

Edwin had become placid, his snarl replaced with a blank stare that went right through Lily.

Philip looked at Lily, tipped his hat, and stepped off the porch. Young Darrell led the slow-moving Edwin to the van, where he was loaded in the back. Phillip drove the van into the gloaming as Lily stood and watched silently. Mary stood with her.

“Mary, I think I’d like some pie about now,” said Lily.

From the Backroads of Rural Mississippi

By Sarah Shields

In the seat of my bike, racing down a backroad, skin blistering in the sunshine, my aunt hollered at me from her porch swing,

“You got a rat’s nest in the back of that head of yours, Sarah.”

But brushing my hair was the least of my worries. I was in constant motion—had too much to do, to see, to explore.

The heat was waiting on me.

The days were so hot it felt as if the heat enveloped your whole body as soon as you stepped outside, and when you breathed deep, the humid air turned to liquid in your lungs.

Cars rambled slowly down the distant highway. The table saw hummed and wood whined as my Papaw created a masterpiece with his hands, bending it to his will. A roar echoed from the garden down the road. I knew if I waited long enough, I would see my father proudly posted atop his red 1986 Massey Ferguson tractor.

Smells mixed together in the air. Sawdust, old leather, honeysuckle, freshly turned dirt.

And heat.

If you’re from the Deep South, you understand the way heat smells.

After moving to what my family termed the “big city,” a man once told me,

“You smell different, not like soap or perfume, but something else.”

Maybe a mixture of the sawdust, honeysuckle, worn leather and heat has seeped into my pores, clinging to me, branding me, reminding me and anyone else who comes close enough of my Mississippi roots.

I can remember walking down that backroad named after my family, thinking how idyllic it was, but not knowing that word at the time. The tree limbs hung loosely over the road, almost as if they were longing to touch the gravel as much as I was. It looked like a scene so many Southern novels describe.

Old, shaded, beautiful. Touched by time, yet untouched by the world.

If you caught it at the right moment, the sun would make its way through the leaves onto the blue gravel pavement, creating something almost magical. Like you had been transported back in time to a place that wasn’t as affected by life and circumstance. That’s the world I grew up in. Riding horses and bikes along the old pavement, never fully understanding how special and tragic it was.

Now, as an adult, the veil that covered my eyes as a child has faded.

I understand that Mississippi isn’t fondly regarded by the rest of the world. It’s the home of racism, homophobia, sexism and obesity. I can attest to all of these things being a part of Mississippi. They are the reasons I moved to a larger, more tolerant Southern city.

But what people don’t understand are the summer days on a Southern backroad. The ones with sawdust, honeysuckle, heat and just a hint of magic.

Boots Sarah

Salt Life

By Julian Cage

Peter slowed as he approached the house on his recon run. Fuck. This was going to be even worse than advertised. Grant Park, he figured it would be like the other one of these he’d been to, a couple of balloons and a bunch of hipster parents and their “childfree” friends looking for an excuse to drink beer at noon. But this house’s front yard had about a hundred balloons, in colors that matched the tablecloths on the two long trestle tables, each one with two silver urns on it. This was an event. Which meant it was going to be ruled by females.

He took the next right and went around the block for another pass. At least this was one of the few neighborhoods in Atlanta with real blocks, instead of the roads just going off in random directions or dead-ending. Second pass proved him right: the urns were fancy ice buckets, and there was a pudgy chick in full makeup and heels jamming bottles of wine into the ice. All the wine was white, too, of course. Sorority life, fifteen years later. What a nightmare.

Fuck it, Ellen could wait, drink Chardonnay with the Tri-Delts for a while. He went around the block again, pulled out onto Boulevard, drove to the park itself, found a place in the parking lot where the lines of sight were clear, packed the little vaporizer, hot-boxed the Jag while listening to some bullshit on NPR. He cracked the windows and dreamed of an empty calendar and a clean open ocean.

He dozed off a little, got jolted awake by the top of the hour news. Now Ellen was going to be all aggro with him, but she owed him, and he didn’t have the other phone on him, anyway. He hit the vape again, fired up the car, went back to the party.

The pudgy chick was the first to greet him. “You’re just in time,” she said. “If you head out right now, you can catch them before they tee off.”

“Excuse me?”

“The hubbies are all playing golf. After all, their part in this is done.” She put a hand to her mouth. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” She wiggled her bottle of seltzer water. “I’m Carol. It’s my party, and I won’t drink cause I can’t.”

“Okay. Is Ellen Smith here?”

“Oh, you belong to her. Not yet. But come on in and have a drink. Are you, like, the new man in her life?”

She wasn’t pudgy; she was pregnant. Right.

“No. We work together. Hi; I’m Peter Sandler.” He slipped on the Sales Mask. “Sorry: I’m real late, so I was just a little surprised she wasn’t here yet. Congratulations. Is there beer?”

“Sure. My husband insisted.”

And soon he found himself just where he didn’t want to be, surrounded by women pushing forty, expensive outfits, ridiculous shoes, full makeup on a muggy Georgia day, nice and tight for their age except for a couple of fatties and another few who were still fighting it off. No smokers at all until one of them whipped out a pack and then half the rest did, fogged up the back porch, teased Carol the pregnant girl.

Later, Carol edged up to him. “Feel like a zebra in a pride of lionesses?”

“I was thinking pool full of sharks. At first. But nobody’s really biting. Which is just fine.”

“That’s because they’re all married. Five years ago you would have been chewed up. But nobody wants to act out in front the rest. Gossip.”

“I didn’t even know what this party was all about.”

“And you probably wish you never did. Oh, look; here’s Jennifer. She’s not married.”

Jennifer was hot, too, and this plus all the fancy matching jewelry was a giant blinking red light if she was single. She was way above the crazy/hot axis, or there was something else real wrong with her. But naturally they got paired off, and she was funny and smart and down-to-earth, so maybe there was a tragic death or breakup or whatever. And the fancy jewelry was marketing: she made it in her house.

“It’s pretty profitable,” she said, in the low, throaty voice that attracted Peter in spite of himself. “If I wanted to live like a nun, I could just live off it. But I have expensive tastes.”

That’s it, thought Peter. But before he could say anything, she went on.

“So I work a boring job, mostly for the health insurance. Hey, Laura said she thought you were Ellen’s boyfriend, but Carol said you work together? Which one is it?”

“Work together, sometimes. I sell and lease commercial real estate? Your company needs new offices, I’m your guy. Been doing it since college. Sometimes Ellen helps me out, showing places, that kind of thing.”

“Is that market, like, working again? All I see are signs that say Space Available.”

“That’s retail, which is way overbuilt and I don’t touch. You want to open a jewelry store, I can put you in touch with–”

“My stuff is all Internet. Just me and the FedEx chick.”

“Exactly. But the office market is doing great. I pushed a show until tomorrow so I could meet Ellen here. Though there was about a year and a half where we never leased anything. Lot of people I know went under; I did okay, because I have really, really cheap tastes.”

He switched the conversation back to her, which was easy with a woman, but she was a surprisingly no-nonsense one. He could see himself dating her, he wanted to get involved; just so long as she could get used to Buford Highway noodle places instead of whatever chi-chi shit she clearly preferred. She only had two glasses of wine, and never finished the second, which was a point in her favor, especially given that the rest of the sorority was three or four times over the limit, except for the pregnant chick and one other who it turned out was also a couple of months in.

Jennifer just shook her head.

“Makes you wonder. Me, I have to keep my fine motor control if I want to spend the evening finishing this custom necklace I’m working on.”

Finally, while some of the girls—he couldn’t make himself think of them as women—were chanting “Boot and Rally!” at one who had evidently done the first and clearly couldn’t handle the second, Ellen showed up.

“Where the fuck have you been?” Peter said. “This is my worst nightmare.”

“I texted you twice.”

She passed him an envelope.

“You’re welcome.”

He slipped it into his jacket pocket.

“I didn’t have that phone with me.”

“Well, then. Besides, looks like you’re having fun.”

“That Jennifer girl? What’s her deal?”

“Always a bridesmaid. I don’t know her that well; she’s not a client. From the grapevine? Men get interested, she finds a reason to dump them. She’s picky.” She poked him in the belly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you interested.”

“Curious, is more like it. I was going with dark secret.”

“Well, you would. I can find out more if–”

And then there was a crash behind them, and the sound of breaking glass.

They whirled to see Carol trying in vain to hold onto a tray of champagne flutes as Boot and Rally stumbled past her, lost her balance, went headfirst down the stairs, arms stretched out reflexively to break her fall. She landed in a crunch of broken glass that sounded louder than it should have in the sudden shocked silence, then got back up, one side of her white blouse soaked in blood that glistened in the summer sunshine.

She raised her arm and her eyes went wide as she saw the stem of the champagne flute sticking out of the center of her forearm, a gobbet of flesh impaled on the jagged tip, the base of the glass flush against the other side of her arm. Before anyone else could react, she reached up with her other hand and started to pull the glass out.

And then there was Jennifer, vaulting the railing and crunching broken glasses as she landed. She peeled Boot and Rally’s hand off the base of the glass, then held her wrists far apart. Peter noticed that Jennifer was the only woman there who wasn’t wearing four-inch heels.

“No, no, no, baby,” she said, looking straight into the injured girl’s eyes.

“You only pull it out in the movies. In real life, it might be the only thing keeping you from bleeding to death.”

She looked up at Carol. “Call 911. And get me something I can use as a tourniquet.” Carol dropped the empty tray and vomited into the bushes. Half a dozen of the others started throwing up, as well.

Peter grabbed a linen napkin and a fork, tied the napkin around the girl’s upper arm and used the stem of the fork to twist it tighter as Jennifer held the girl’s hands and soothed her. Ellen called 911.

***

Nine days later, Peter stashed the car in the parking garage, walked across the street, sat on a bench in front of the High Museum and texted Ellen a message that would make sense only to the two of them. It was too early for lunch, so he leaned back to peoplewatch for a while.

But it was only about a minute before he noticed that the hot chick walking down the sidewalk was Jennifer, minus the fancy jewelry. He stood up and called to her; she looked, then did a double-take.

“Holy shit,” she said. “I almost didn’t recognize you. That’s a beautiful suit.”

“Just a costume. I had two showings and a closing this morning. I was about to take the train home, hang this beast up, blow up a bunch of spaceships online, go for a bike ride once the sun goes down a little. You work around here?”

“Yeah.” She pointed up and behind him. “Sixteenth floor.”

“Sure. Promenade’s an expensive building, but what do you expect? It’s owned by the architects. You want to get some lunch?”

Over indifferent salads in the skylit food court of Colony Square, he asked her, “So how’s that girl, anyway? Can she use her hand?”

“They don’t know yet. The glass cut a nerve, and a tendon. So they’ve got her in a cast for now, and I think next week they’re going to take it off and see if it healed right. At least she’s a lefty, so it’s not like it’s her main hand. I had a couple nightmares about it. I need both hands to make jewelry.”

“Sure. Hey, you know with all the excitement it kind of upstaged that Carol girl. Did they ever end up showing the ultrasound?”

“Hmm? Oh, the kid thing: it was a boy.” She rolled her eyes. “Never wanted kids: I have enough grubby hands on my time.”

A month later, he was spiraling a finger inward toward her navel in the semen he had shot all over her belly, when she said, “How come we never go to your place?”

“You’ve got a king-sized bed. Mine’s only a full. And it’s a futon, on the floor.”

She sat up on her elbows. “No, seriously: I have rules, and I just figured out I broke one of them. I don’t even know where you live.”

He kept up the swirl. “West End. I rent a room from this woman Amy who owns a loft in a junky old warehouse. Don’t worry; she’s totally gay. You can come over if you want, but it’s a dump.”

“But you make bank.” She sat all the way up, moved his hand away.

“Fuck me. You don’t even have a job, do you? You got laid off back in the crash, and have just been pretending ever since. Hanging out on benches in a suit: I should’ve known.”

He laughed. “I work for myself. And I do make bank. Like I told you, cheap tastes.”

“You drive a Jaguar.”

“It’s what the clients expect. I paid cash for it, off a guy who did get laid off in the crash. It mostly stays in Midtown where it belongs; otherwise, I use my bike, or a bus pass.” He rolled over, grabbed his phone, brought up a picture. “Let me show you why.”

She peered. “It’s a boat.”

“It’s a Sundiver 450. Only the sleekest and most beautiful thing ever created.”

“So you live cheap because you own a boat, and everything goes into that?”

“I live cheap because I want to buy a Sundiver 450. I have a long-term plan: I need eight million dollars.”

“You and me both. That’s what the boat costs? Shit.”

“No, the boat costs about six hundred thousand. I need enough capital so the investment income pays for gas, depreciation, my living expenses. And then I’m gone. No more city, no more clients, no more people. Just me and the Gulf of Mexico.”

“No shit? Total dropout?” She handed him back the phone. “You know, live the dream, but you strike me as a little too focused for that kind of Jimmy Buffet thing. I mean, you’ve got two cell phones.”

“Not Buffet. I don’t even like alcohol. Just empty space, water and sun.”

“But eight million? That’s… a shitload.”

“Why I live in a dump. I’m just about halfway there. When the crash came? I had to live off my savings for nine or ten months. It was like cutting out pieces of my own flesh. Put me more than two years off my schedule.”

He took the phone, put it on the nightstand, slipped a hand under her thighs, lifted her so he could slip a pillow under her hips, rolled back on top, got the angle right and slid back in. “My turn for a question.”

She dug her neatly-trimmed fingernails into his shoulders. “Just so long as it—oh!—doesn’t require high-level reasoning.”

“Why don’t you have any hair at all except on your head? I mean, lots of women shave, but you don’t even have any hair on your arms. Is that like a medical thing?”

She laughed, then gasped at the end of it. “It’s an Italian thing. Don’t stop. I shave, I get five o’clock shadow. Mmm. I went to Mexico a long time ago. Full-body electrolysis. Oh, god. No more mustache, no more stubble. Best three thousand dollars I ever spent. Don’t be so fucking gentle.”

***

The minute they popped out of the crowd, Peter bolted for the nearest empty space he could find, put his hands on his knees, hyperventilated for a minute or so.

Jennifer walked up to him, slapped him on the back. “If I had known something as simple as the Inman Park festival was going to freak you out–”

“Too many things, too many people, not enough space. Give me the open ocean. I’m cool. Could use a drive in the country.” In the car, he said, “All those little stalls selling jewelry? Yours is nicer, I can tell that. But how?”

“Different materials, different market. Mine is a lot higher-end; the precious stones are real.”

“You ever think about doing that, opening a booth, traveling around?”

“Shit, no. That’s hard work: after expenses, those people make minimum wage. Besides, I’d be worried my truck was going to get broken into.” She settled back into the seat. “Peter? I want to change up our relationship a little bit.”

A long silence. “Aw, man. Everyone told me you weren’t into relationships. Why I like you.”

“No, no; not like that. Make it more of a professional partnership.”

His voice darkened. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“See, you shouldn’t have been so up-front about your yacht plan. Not so specific, I mean. If you think you can be on your boat in eight years, that means you’re banking half a mil per year. And you make good money, but not that much. So where’s the rest come from?”

“Investments.”

“Bullshit. I asked around. It took a while to get people to talk to me, but what Ellen does for you is unload huge quantities of high-quality coke on all those sorority chicks. Keeps them thin, right? You got that guy Kevin and at least three other people you send coded texts to–”

“We’re old friends. It’s a bunch of inside jokes.”

“Believe me: I’m not judging you. Those bitches have to get their diet powder from someone; it might as well put you on your boat. The only reason it matters to me is because, remember how I once told you I had some legal problems? Well that’s the thing: they’re not really legal. You get your connections to help me out, not only do I immediately and permanently forget everything I’ve figured out, but I can put you on that boat three, maybe four years quicker. No fooling.”

***

Bobby drank his coffee, poured another. “And you were out in the country? Why didn’t you just shoot the bitch, let the animals have her body?”

“That’s your job. I just make phone calls. People saw us together, at the festival. Cops can track phones. Plus she wouldn’t have been stupid enough to get out of the car. What I thought about was hitting a bridge abutment; but I didn’t trust myself to do it just right. And who knows what she’s got hidden somewhere? I told her she had it all wrong; she said I had until Monday to take care of her problem or she would dime me out.”

“How much does she know?”

“Maybe twenty percent. Enough to make me a fuckload of trouble.”

“Why you thinking with your dick, man?”

“As if you have any right to talk.” Peter opened his briefcase, took out a folder. “She’s smart, and she’s fucking evil, as it turns out. That’s what’s wrong with her. And no, I did not research these articles on my own computer.” Peter made phone calls about office space while Bobby read.

Finally, Bobby said, “Damn. And here I thought I was a criminal mastermind.” He steepled his fingers, sat in silence for ten minutes. Then, “Okay. Tell her you’ll take care of her.”

“I will?”

Bobby rolled his eyes. “No; I will.”

Peter marked them down for cops even before they got out of the car: something about the way they parked. Big swarthy guy, little blonde: Mustapha and Diana. After the introductions, the guy said, “You know, you don’t look Colombian.”

“I’m an American citizen. Came here when I was eight; changed my name when I was eighteen. And my family is old-school Spanish. You wouldn’t believe the racial shit they got going back over there. Please tell me you guys found out who killed poor Ellen.”

“We wish. Your usual carjacker is not the sharpest knife, but looks like these guys got away clean.” He sighed. “Man. She was my friend for years. And all for a stupid car.”

“You guys had just got back from vacation, right?”

“Yeah. And then like four hours later some gangbangers shoot her. It’ll be six months pretty soon; I’m still upset about it. You know, I talked to another detective about this, back then. Two or three times. Black, tall, really nice suit?”

“Sure. We’ve got Detective Peterson’s notes. But it helps to hear the story again.”

“Whatever it takes. Okay, I’m a little down because this woman I’m seeing decides she wants to change her life and move across the country. So I do what I do every time I need a break, which is to go to the Caribbean. This time, it was the Caymans: I got a deal on plane tickets. Ellen hears about it, decides to come. We have a great week, very chill. Ellen meets this English guy, I do a lot of scuba diving. Wish we’d stayed an extra day or two. We get back, I drive her to her place, then go back to mine and start returning phone calls. Couple of hours into that, I get a call from the other detective. I guess he pulled her phone records, figured I was the only one she talked to for a week or so?”

He took a moment to compose himself.

“I don’t know why she went to East Atlanta, but she had friends who live down there. But, you know how you get after you go on vacation with someone? Even if they’re your old pal, you don’t want to talk to them for a day or two. I wish I had something interesting or useful to tell you. Why do people keep getting carjacked there? I mean, can’t you just put a couple of cops on the corner? I read all about that poor guy getting shot a week or so ago, and it was like half a block away. I had one of those flashbacks. There I am trying to convince these folks that this is the office for them, and I have to run to the can and sit there and cry. And here I am talking about myself; while her poor family–”

The guy nodded. “Believe me, we want to get these guys. Tell us about Jennifer Molinaro.”

“Jen? Well, she was the woman I was seeing. I liked her, that she was up front about not being the marrying kind. So, I mean it’s not like I was heartbroken, but it was all kind of abrupt. She said if she downsized everything, she could live off of what she made making jewelry. She was going out West to live with an aunt, or a cousin.”

“Did you believe that?”

“Uh… well, I didn’t have any reason not to. I did ask her if she thought she could handle it; Jen likes the finer things in life. She said she’d figured out that was what was holding her back.”

He shrugged. “People change. Well, they try to.”

“They sure do,” said the blonde. “When did you last talk to her, Mr. Sandler?”

“Well, that was it. Maybe three or four days before me and Ellen went to the islands. So, like, six months ago right now.”

“You never got sentimental, tried to call her?”

“What’s the point? Besides, my friend had just been killed.”

She took out a tablet computer. “That’s why we’re here.” She showed him the screen.

“Jesus fuck!” Peter made himself almost retch. “Man, I can’t handle blood. What the hell is that?”

“Jennifer Molinaro. Dumped behind an abandoned house in Adair Park, a mile or so from where you live.”

“Seriously? Oh, my god.” He took the tablet from her, then put a fist to his mouth.

“Holy shit. But how do you know it’s her? She doesn’t have a head. Or hands. Or… or feet. Jesus, what happened to her? So… now two of my friends are—what the fuck?”

“DNA,” said the big guy.

“Her car is gone, and her apartment was bleached out. But she left a hairbrush in her locker at the gym. It’s her, all right. Zoom in on her legs, will you?”

“Do I have to?” But he spread his fingers on the screen.

“They… shot her? Up and down the legs?”

He held the tablet out to the woman. “I can’t deal with this.”

She wouldn’t take it. “Those aren’t bullet wounds, Mr. Sandler.”

“Half-inch drill bits,” said the guy.

“Someone drilled all the way through her leg bones. Fourteen times. While she was alive. Medical examiner thinks she was alive for a couple of days, afterward.”

“This is real gangster stuff,” said the blonde.

Her partner said, “And not dumbass teenage gangbangers who jack cars in East Atlanta. This is no-foolin’ organized crime. You know, Russian Mafia. Or, maybe, South American–”

“Hey! Don’t stereotype me. I’ve only ever been back there once. The closest I get to drugs is Starbucks. And what would a bunch of gangsters want with Jennifer? Oh, right, gold and jewels.”

“Nope,” said the guy. “That would be chicken feed. They wanted to know something.” The blonde asked,

“How much do you know about her past?”

“She’s from here. She went to UGA. She… oh, right: she used to work in some kind of big-time banking thing—no, it was computers. Banking for computers? Something like that. It was the tail end of the dot-com thing. Said it was too stressful. But all that was years and years ago. Fuck, man: I’m just… now I’m paranoid somebody’s going to come and shoot me, and all I do is sell office space. Or drill me. Jesus, somebody really did that? I’m not—this is a world away from me, man. I’m seriously spooked here. Oh, and of course I was seeing her, so I’m automatically a suspect, right? Do I need, like, an alibi?”

“That’s the problem,” said the guy.

The woman said, “She’d been frozen.”

At Peter’s bugged-out eyes, she nodded. “For how long? We don’t know. She wasn’t even fully thawed when those crackheads found her.”

“Last anyone saw her,” said the guy, “was around the time she told you she was moving to Texas. Guess she never made it outside the Perimeter.”

His partner said, “Did she ever mention a woman named Lucy, or Lucille?” “Um… I don’t think so.”

“Because this Lucy caused Ms. Molinaro a lot of problems.” “What, she’s some kind of gangster?”

“No,” said the big guy. “She teaches art to little kids.”

***

Lucy Newman’s DMV photo in Diana’s computer gave her age as forty-four, but she probably got carded every time she bought a drink. So unfair. Very close up, Diana could see the quality makeup job hiding crows’ feet, which made her feel somehow vindicated.

“You understand that this was years ago, right?” Lucy said.

She bustled around the classroom as she spoke, placing two pieces of cheap drawing paper and a crayon in front of each place at the table.

“Sorry; class starts in five. I gave a deposition to those Feds, way back when. Two thousand, oh-one? I forget. We’re talking about a two-minute encounter here; just a couple of weird coincidences.”

“We read the FBI report. But walk us through it.”

“No problem. I’m in the airport: there was this guy lived in Mexico, I thought he was the one. As it turned out, I was the two, or maybe the three. Anyway, I bumped into Jennifer coming out of one of the gates. She’s all done up, but I recognize her right away.”

“Describe all done up, if you can.”

“All done down, really. Jennifer is good-looking, and she always dresses professionally. Here, she was dressed like normal, but she was the ‘before’ picture in a makeover ad. Ugly hair, bad glasses, bad makeup. And none of the clothes were the right colors or fit her right. She looked like—well, she looked like hell, because if you didn’t know her you think she was just a yuppie lady who could have used that makeover. But the real Jennifer would have been the woman who did the makeover. Always great clothes, accessories, makeup, hair. But this was like an Ugly Betty costume. More like Medium Betty. If you didn’t know Jennifer pretty well, you’d never have thought it was her. Even if you did, you might get fooled.”

Mustapha asked, “How come you didn’t?”

“Years of practice honing my skills.” She squatted down by the table, picked up a crayon, began scribbling.

About thirty seconds later, she handed him a pretty close version of what he saw in the mirror every morning.

“Life drawing.”

He took the paper. “Hey, that’s neat.”

“Anyone can learn: it just takes talent. Which is just another word for making yourself sit still long enough to practice.”

She squatted again: soon, she had a drawing of two women, one a younger version of the dead girl’s face and the other a grumpier woman with a bad haircut.

“Look carefully: it’s the same bone structure. You do this for long enough, people can’t really fool you.”

Diana paged through her tablet. “Whoa, you are good.”

She showed Mustapha a photo of the screen. “Wanda Carlson, our missing thief.”

“Yeah,” said Lucy.

“That’s what she told me her name was. I’m like, you can’t fool me. But she just denied it up and down, said I was mistaken, she didn’t know this Jennifer person. I was just baffled: I mean, it’s not like we were close friends, but we partied together back in college. She totally knew I had clocked her, too, but she just stonewalled me and flounced off. Awkward. I’m like whatever, maybe she’s having an affair, and forgot about it while I went to Mexico and got my heart stomped on.”

Mustapha said, “How did the FBI get in touch with you?”

“They didn’t; I did. I’m back, I’m depressed, I’m self-medicating with trash TV. Saw the local news, something I would never normally watch, and there she was, wanted for embezzling a shit-ton of money. Oh, now I get it. She had been, I don’t know, doing some married guy, I’d have kept shut, but that was other people’s money, you know? Like, real people, not bankers.”

She replaced the crayon. “The FBI was like, we got her. But the DA, the federal DA, was like, no. They didn’t have any evidence. Well, they had all kinds of evidence that Wanda Carlson stole millions of dollars, but I was the only one who could say that she was really Jennifer Molinaro. They said she had been super careful and not left any DNA or fingerprints behind?”

“It was over a dozen years ago. Today, they might find something.”

Diana said, “And in all those years, did you and Ms. Molinaro ever talk about it?”

“Sure. Just once, though. She walked straight up to me: she must have figured out I was the one who narked on her. This was maybe three years later? She was like do you have any idea how many problems you caused? As in, having the Feds think she was this big thief. Only later, I figured it was as in, she had all this money but couldn’t spend it. I bet she’s been on the Feds’ radar ever since; if she goes and buys a boat or something, they’re going to come down on her. Honestly, I’d be pissed, too: that’s gotta hurt, having it all just sit there.”

Lucy cocked her head. “Is that why y’all are here? Did she buy a boat?”

“Yeah,” said Mustapha. “Something like that.”

***

They waited until Peter Sandler shook the clients’ hands, helped them into their car, waved at them as they drove off. He walked back to Diana and Mustapha, smiling, rolling his eyes.

“Those people need to realize it’s not 2009 anymore. How can I help you? Is this about Ellen? Or Jen?”

He looked pensive, blew out a long puff of air. “Man. I’ve got two murdered friends. And yet I’ve got to give a shit about office space. Never mind. Want to get a coffee?”

“Already had some,” said Mustapha. “You and your friend Ellen: why did you go to the Cayman Islands and not someplace else?”

His smile died a little, then reasserted itself. “You know, I’m going to have my attorney help answer that question.”

“Yeah? Makes me think you’ve got something to hide.” “Pretty sure you already think that. Where to?”

Two hours later, Mustapha watched from the viewing room as Sandler and his lawyer exchanged whispers behind cupped hands in the interview room. Having Richard O’Hara as a lawyer ought to tag Sandler with multiple felonies all by itself: O’Hara had made more millions than Wanda Carlson stole, convincing juries that nobody could prove his drug-lord clients were really drug lords.

Sandler had gone for someone who specialized in violent felonies, that would be one thing; but Mustapha could tell he was going to have to make Diana extra tea, get her to do a real background check on him. Or maybe just go ahead and call the FBI—he was surprised they hadn’t already figured out Jane Doe #26 was Jennifer Molinaro. But where was the fun in that?

He saw Diana come into the room, Sandler greet her with a friendly smile. Mustapha walked around the corner and into the room, to hear Diana say, “The real question we have is, why the Cayman Islands?”

“Why not?” said Sandler. “One of the few places in the Caribbean I’d never been.” “

You told us the other day you’d got a deal on plane tickets.”

“Sure.”

“You walked up to the ticket counter, paid full fare for the next flight out.”

“Hey, it was vacation. I didn’t want Ellen to feel bad.”

O’Hara said, “Why do you care about his vacation choices?”

Diana smiled. “We don’t like coincidences. Let me tell you a story. Back in 1999, some people founded a kind of Internet bank. At first, it was like PayPal for porn: anonymous, you know?”

She shrugged and sipped from her water bottle.

“It was the twentieth century: people still cared. They had hired this woman Wanda Carlson to run the business. The COO. She had spectacular references, all of whom confirmed her talents via email. But like a lot of Internet companies, it took them a while to figure out what they could do that was actually profitable. And that turned out to be offshore banking. In the… wait for it–”

O’Hara groaned. “Save it for improv night.”

“–Cayman Islands.”

Peter nodded. “Sure. There’s lots of banks there. Secrecy laws.”

“Right. Offshore banking for the little guy, not the sort who can walk up and pay full fare for first-class.”

“It was vacation.”

“People who wanted to hide fifty thousand, or even twenty. Mostly from divorce lawyers or creditors, not so much the Feds. Nice business. But then one day, all the money’s gone, and so is Wanda Carlson. Twenty-one million, and it’s all hers.”

Diana held up the crayon drawing.

“And Wanda Carlson was your girlfriend Jennifer. Well, really, Jennifer was Wanda Carlson. Supposedly the real Jennifer was living in a cabin making jewelry. Which looked true on paper, anyway. Jennifer was smart. By the way, the jewelry? She shipped almost all of it to the Cayman Islands, some kind of shell buyer. Not seashells, I mean. We’re pretty sure it was her only way of getting at any of that money.”

Mustapha leaned forward. “But she had some bad luck.” Then he leaned a little more into Peter’s space.

“Even before she met you.”

Diana said, “All that money, just sitting there. But,” she pointed to one face on the drawing.

“Someone recognized her,” then pointed to the other, “as her. Couldn’t touch the rest of the money.”

Mustapha said, “And you figured it all out, didn’t you? Pillow talk? Man, she didn’t know who she was dealing with. You tortured her with a drill, my man. Fourteen times. And then she gave up the password or whatever it was. And then you packed your little pal Ellen off to the islands, and you dress her up like Jennifer, and you have her use Jennifer’s passport and the secret code, and she got all the money.”

Diana said, “Thirty-seven million, now: compound interest.”

Mustapha said, “And you took it from her and put it in some other bank, made it disappear, then when you got back to Atlanta, you turned around and shot poor Ellen, too. The chick who knew too much. Cold.”

O’Hara held up a finger. “Mr. Sandler provided a positive alibi for the shooting.”

Mustapha said, “We’re not stupid, champ. Your client didn’t do it all himself. Someone else tortured Jennifer Molinaro while he and Ellen were already in the air. Kept her alive to make sure they had the right password. They raped her a lot, you know. Not that you care. Someone else shot Ellen, too.”

“I’m horrified,” said Peter, “but all we did was snorkel and jet-ski.”

“I really don’t care,” said Mustapha. “You give up your pals and tell the Feds everything you know about Jennifer Molinaro’s crimes, and you can get state time. Clam up and we send you to the Feds. You can bet they’ll find whoever it is you do whatever it is you do it with. Then you’ll get Federal time.”

“No parole,” said Diana.

“No chance,” said Peter.

“No proof,” said O’Hara. “Cops. You’re a bunch of liars. You don’t know what goes on in island banks. That’s the whole point. So you’re bluffing.”

Diana smiled. “No.” She showed them her tablet. “Here she is, on video, taking Jennifer Molinaro’s money in the form of a cashier’s check. She’s wearing Jennifer Molinaro’s jewelry, and one of Jennifer’s dresses. But the woman who recognized Wanda as Jennifer doesn’t recognize Ellen here. Too angular a face, not curvy enough in the hips.”

“That bank?” said Mustapha. “Once we could show them death certificates, they were real helpful, especially when we told them we were trying to find the last time anyone saw her. And that was it; but that ain’t her.”

O’Hara said, “What the girl did? Not our problem. Ask her. Oh, yes; never mind. Anyway, you haven’t given any proof of my client’s involvement. You decide you’re going to arrest him, call me first. And don’t waste my time.”

Within minutes, they were gone.

“I hope he figures it out,” said Diana quietly.

***

Peter almost made it to the Perimeter before he found himself pulling off the highway. Around and back until he slid the rental Honda into the warehouse parking lot, where he had a clear view of the front gate. Maybe two hours to wait in the gathering gloom; he packed the vaporizer, then ended up just holding it in his hand for a long time before tossing it in the cupholder. He heard the pitch of the motorcycle long before he saw the off-kilter headlight.

He bolted from the car, grabbed Amy by the arm. “You have to come with me. Right now.”

She flipped up the helmet’s visor with her other hand, arched a bushy eyebrow. “Hi, Peter. What the fuck?”

“This is not drama; this is real. Come: into the car.” At her planted feet, “I have to disappear, because psychotic Colombian gangsters are coming to kill me. When I’m gone, they’ll come here. And they won’t believe you when you say you don’t know where I went.”

A long stare. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“There’s two hundred grand in the car in a bag for you. Move cross-country and live it up. You’ll meet a new girlfriend.”

Clear eyes. “I… I can’t leave Scarlett. You know how she has issues.”

“Nothing in that place is worth your life. For all I know, there’s a goon in there right now. They might even be watching us here. Let’s go. A week or so, I’ll get someone to go in there and get your stuff.”

“But…” She looked toward the entry gate. “She’s a cat, dude. She’ll be fine. This is your life.”

“I owe her my life. She’s been through it all with me. Do you know how they treated her before I rescued her?”

“This is fucking stupid,” he said under his breath as they ran through the concrete halls. He said a half- remembered prayer to María as he opened the door, but there was nobody in the loft save a purring Scarlett. He gave Amy five minutes to pack while he waited nervously in the doorframe, then they were off, back through the halls and out the gate, in such a hurry that Peter didn’t even see the man standing by the motorcycle.

“What the–” began Amy, and then there was a cough and a flash, and a warm spray on Peter’s face and chest, and she was sinking, and then she jerked as she went down in another flash, and Scarlett was off like a streak under the car.

Peter put a hand to his mouth and tasted seawater as the hand came away covered in Amy’s blood. He tried to imagine himself on the deck of the Sundiver 450, and to imagine the damp cold of late winter as the ocean’s warmth, and the orange security light as the tropical sun, but the dream wasn’t that strong. He looked into the barrel of the silencer: just a tiny circle, really.

The kid with the gun spoke. “Bobby say tell you he sorry.” And then darkness.

And then, darkness.

Dungeon Bait

By Dani Herd

I started performing at the Renaissance Festival when I was 16 years old. At one of my first rehearsals, I was presented with a little blue badge that read:

Dungeon Bait.

Get it? ‘Cause it was illegal to have sex with me, and also ye olde time things! Huzzah!

I loved working at the Renaissance Festival, but the Dungeon Bait aspect was weird on a lot of levels. During my second season, I was 17 going on 18, and the subject of my impending legality was one of the talks of the towne. Like a lot of counterculture performing arts communities, RenFest can be pretty touchy-feely and lovey-dovey. Therefore, there was a lot of well-meaning, but confusing discussion of who was going to kiss me first when I turned 18.

There was someone whom I wanted to kiss very much, and whom I was starting to become confident wanted to kiss me back. He was much older than I was. My protective female friends didn’t want me to kiss him. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, but I also didn’t really want to kiss anyone else. And I also didn’t want to lose my place in this community that felt like the first place I’d ever really belonged. I was gonna have to kiss someone.

To be very fair, I also really liked the attention. Boy oh boy, no one in high school thought I was this worthy of kissing! I’ve still never felt as attractive as I did when I was 17 years old at the Renaissance Festival. I didn’t want to turn 18, because then I wouldn’t be attractive or exciting anymore. Once that Dungeon Bait pin was removed from my chest, what would the point of me be?

My first RenFest kiss ended up not being a) on my terms, or b) when I was 18. The afternoon joust was going on, so things were relatively quiet on the rest of the site. I had wandered up toward the front gates, aimless but probably happy. That’s when the Guy From the Drum Booth approached.

I flirted with the Guy From the Drum Booth almost every morning. He wore a vest without a shirt underneath, and he made me feel pretty and special. I did all of my opening morning bits up on a hill near the Drum Booth, and maybe that’s why he thought it was okay to walk up to me and kiss me when I was alone, at work and 17.

It happened, and I pulled away awkwardly. With concern on his face, he asked me, “What’s wrong? Do you have a boyfriend?”

I hated that he said “boyfriend.” We were still on site for crying out loud. Patrons could walk by at any time! Ask me if I have a sweetheart or an intended or something! Preserve the illusion while you’re kissing me without my consent, please!

My 18th birthday was indeed a festival day. And I couldn’t kiss the person I wanted, so I made a big public show out of kissing the notoriously sexiest guy at RenFest. He wore a teal kilt, and a lot of people wanted to kiss his face. And I did. In front of everybody. And everyone cheered and laughed and clapped and everyone was looking at me and I was thrilled and I was tired.

I was proud of myself, because I had solved the problem. I had kissed someone, fulfilling my sexy, sexy prophecy, but I had done it on my terms, hadn’t I? Today I’m not sure that I did. Because my original terms probably wouldn’t have involved kissing anyone on my eighteenth birthday. Because my original terms wouldn’t have included feeling like I had to kiss someone.

When you turn 18, you’re supposed to hand down the Dungeon Bait badge to the next underage girl who works at the Festival. I never did.

A few months went by, and Dragon Con came. After midnight, wearing my beloved maroon muffin hat, I shuffled onto the elevator. I was still freshly 18 and not ready for all of the wonders/horrors of Dragon Con After Dark, and so it was past my bedtime.

Before I could push any buttons, three drunk young men stumbled into my elevator of solitude. It was decidedly not bedtime for these geek-bros. One of the guys looked me up and down in all of my newly legal, trembly, muffin-hat-clad glory, and declared:

“Look at you! You must get all the nerd dick you want!”

And you know what? Sure, gross. But at least he assumed that all the nerd dick-getting was on my terms.

And so it is.