Category Archives: Fiction.

the only monster here is me

By Jeremy Maxwell

Audio recorded live during gutwrench. issue 7 release event.

The monster is laid out on the front steps like the end of the world, like the party was yesterday and here he is, Mephistopheles, askew against the bricks and forcing everyone to go around. It smells like sulfur and piss on the stoop, puke on his shirt and spilled beer soaking into his hair. He won’t know how he got here, but this is where he’ll find himself, if he ever wakes up. The morning is soggy and hot and the monster smells worse by the minute.

The little girl stands there looking down at him for a long time. The other kids are coming, she’s going to have to make a decision soon. She looks over her shoulder, hoping they’re still out of sight and knowing they won’t be for long. She bends down and wrinkles her nose.

She pokes the monster on the shoulder, one, two, three times, poke, poke, poke. “Mister,” she says. “Mister, wake up.” He doesn’t move or twitch but the dark spot on his pants becomes a patch, grows darker, starts to spread. The smell gets worse and she scrunches up her nose till it hurts. “Ah, jeez,” she says, and leans in all the way. She takes him by the shoulder and shakes, saying mister and shaking and shaking until he stirs.

His mouth falls open and he begins to groan. It is deep and low and wide, the sound of gravel kicked up on the road.

,” he says. The sound starts small and swells to fill the stoop, fighting the smell for the space. One eye pops open wide but the other is crusted over with sweat or sleep or beer and doesn’t budge. He lays there making the sound, staring out at her through one half-blind busted eye.

,” he says, and the eye swivels up to look her in the face.

“You,” the monster says.

“Mister, you got to get up,” the little girl says and lets go of his arm. “You got to get up right now.” She looks over her shoulder again and there they are, Tommy and Tina and the rest of them, trying to cross the street. “Mister, please get up,” she pleads, and behind his broken, leaking eye, the monster begins to move.

* * *

There used to be a bathroom here but all that’s left is a piece of shattered mirror on the wall and a hole in the floor where the toilet used to sit. The monster pisses into the hole with his pants pooled around his ankles while the little girl stands in the other room. Somewhere down there are flies and a few of them swarm up to investigate his pants, his feet, the puddles on the floor. He makes the sound again and kicks at the flies as he pulls up his pants.

“Mister, you got to learn some more words,” the little girl says as he stumbles through the doorway and staggers past. The counter is lined with liquor bottles in varying stages of emptiness and he turns them up one by one until he finds one several fingers deep and collapses into the only chair in the room. It is plastic and weak in the legs and flops over sideways, spilling the monster into the floor.

,” the monster roars, and the little girl shakes her head and glances back toward the door. She shouldn’t be here, she’ll catch a beating for sure if anyone finds out, from Tommy or Tina or maybe even her mom, it just depends who finds out first. You never go into the monster’s lair, they’ll say. It’s where he keeps his power. Even if she knows better, she knows it won’t do no good to argue. They’ll beat her up for sure if she does that. His other eye is open now and he watches her watch the exit. “Good,” he says, flopping over onto his back and clutching the bottle to his chest. “GTFO.”

“That doesn’t spell anything, mister,” the little girl says, “but at least you’re trying now.” She looks down at him and wrinkles her nose. “Don’t you got anymore pants?” He stares up at her through both bleary eyes and then scrunches up his face and laughs. It starts small and slow and like all else the monster does, swells to fill the room. She’s not sure why but she’s just a little girl so she laughs with him, the two of them roaring there together in the empty house.

They’re still laughing when the knock comes at the door.

* * *

The sound is tiny and she knows it’s Tina even if she can’t say how. She quits laughing and then he hears it too and the silence that follows is as loud as the laughter ever was. It presses in around them and the knock comes at the door again. The monster sits up and drinks from the bottle, throat working against nothing even after whatever he’s drinking is gone. The tiny knock returns and the monster throws the empty bottle at the door. He’s making the sound again and she wants to cower there in the room, she wants to run for the door but the bottle bursts against it and she backs toward the bathroom as glass sprays at them both.

The tiny knock goes away and the monster climbs to his feet. She does cower then, in the doorway of the decrepit toilet, the monster’s lair, the monster’s lair, where have you gone, oh what have you done you stupid little girl. She cowers there still when he snatches open the front door and lurches out onto the stoop. She can see past him and across the road where Tommy and Tina and the rest of them are gathered, but they aren’t all kids, there are policemen there too, looking and pointing at them from the other side of the road, the other side of the world.

“Tommy’s gonna kill me,” she wails and there in the dilapidated doorway the little girl begins to cry. The sound starts small and slow and swells like the monster’s to fill the room, bigger and bigger till there is nothing else. The monster turns on the stoop and leans hard back into the house as the policemen rush across the road.

“Look here, little girl,” the monster says, holding the doorframe with one hand and pointing at his crotch with the other. She knows better than to look but her eyes are wide with terror and there is nothing else to see. “Look,” he roars again, and she does, and there’s nothing there to see, he’s just pointing at his pants. He turns away from her and heaves himself off the stoop, pitches himself toward the crowd. He’s making the sound again but she can barely hear it for her own sound bouncing off the broken walls.

He throws himself at the first policeman and then ducks as the group of them tries to grab his arms, his hair, his soggy pants or puke-stained shirt. The monster dodges and jukes and his clumsiness might as well have belonged to somebody else because his eyes burn with a clarity the little girl has never seen, not in her own eyes or her mom’s or even Tommy’s or Tina’s when they are working her over. He stops there at the bottom of the steps and looks back at her, across the stoop and the empty room and the upturned plastic chair. She is still cowering and wailing in the doorway of the bathroom and the dark spot on her pants becomes a patch, grows darker, starts to spread.

The monster turns back to the nearest policeman and kicks him square in the nuts. It is full and strong and has the weight of a full-grown man behind it. The policeman crumples to the ground and the monster doesn’t dodge or juke, just lets the rest of them reach in and grasp, his pants, his hands, his throat. He just stares and laughs at the little girl as she cowers deep inside the doorway of the abandoned house. She stops crying then, runs forward to the stoop where the smell of sulfur fills the space. She wrinkles up her nose and laughs.

Facedown in the street the monster laughs with her, he laughs until they pick him up and throw him in the back of a car, cuffed at the hands and the waist and the feet. The little girl leans out onto the stoop as Tommy and Tina and the rest of them come running up the steps. She stops laughing and grabs onto the doorframe with both hands.

“What the fuck is wrong with you,” Tommy yells as he reaches for her arms, her throat, for anything. Her leg is already swinging back before he has time to stop, and when she connects with his nuts he goes flying, off the stoop, off the steps, into the street facedown and the sound he makes is so familiar, so full of outrage and despair, it’s not just the monster laughing, not even just the two of them, the monster and the little girl. It’s the policemen, it’s Tina and the rest of them, the whole world laughing at Tommy, laughing as he makes the sound.

any kind of home

By Jeremy Maxwell

They’ll tell you the Panhandle is part of Florida, any map or GPS will say the same, but anybody that lives around here knows it’s just more Alabama, and it’ll stay that way for the next fifty or sixty miles. It stretches out in either direction and it doesn’t much matter if you’re headed east or west, it’s all just loblolly pines and the slow creep of kudzu tearing everything down. Two-lane roads that lead god knows where and tattered billboards that haven’t been legible for years.

I drain the last of the beer from the can and toss it out the window, watch in the mirror as it sails neatly into the bed of the truck. You would think I’ve been doing this forever, because I have. I crack open another and take a long pull.

Pantera gives way to Behemoth and I hear the tires move across the paint, feel the truck begin to shake as it starts whipping through the grass. I snatch it back onto the asphalt and take another pull from the beer. By the time Behemoth is giving way to Hank III, I’m flicking my half-smoked cigarette into the wind and tossing the empty can behind it.

There is no destination; there’s nowhere out here anyone would want to go.

I’m standing beside the truck staring at my phone, smoking a joint and trying to figure out if I still have service. I haven’t decided one way or the other when it rings in my hand.

“Hello, wife,” I say.

“Hello, husband,” she says, and I hit the joint and wait. “Are you at the show?” she asks.

“You know, I don’t think I’m gonna go.”

“Scared they won’t let you in?” she says, and I stand there, stupid. I flick the roach into the weeds and watch it burn; unbuckle my pants and piss on it, stagger back against the truck.

“Why the fuck wouldn’t they let me in,” I say, putting my pants back together and reaching through the window for another beer.

They’ve all rolled into the floorboard and I have to climb in up to my waist to get ahold of one. I pull myself out and walk around the back of the truck, open the tailgate and sit down.

“It hasn’t been two weeks since you blacked out and started doing snow angels on the floor in front of the merch table,” she says.

“I don’t remember doing that.”

“Well, they do,” she says, and I know she’s right.

I’m staring at the woods listening to her tell me it’s fine, to be careful and come on home when I see the cut. You could drive by a million times and never notice it there, even if you were looking for it. I tell my wife I love her and end the call and climb back in the truck, start it up and turn toward the ruts between the trees.

The road goes on forever, it even forks a couple of times and I’ve got no idea where I’m going, just picking left or right and hoping I don’t get stuck in the mud out here in the middle of fucking nowhere in the middle of the fucking woods. The truck is bouncing back and forth and the daylight’s fading and there’s only one more beer rolling around in the floorboard. I’ve just about decided to turn the whole thing around if I can find someplace to do that when the trees open up into a giant clearing of freshly mown grass. It happens fast and I hit the brakes at the treeline and sit there staring straight ahead and wondering what in the hell I’m doing out here. The Kills are singing loud and I turn them down and down and down until the sound is gone.

Out in front of me, seven single-wide trailers are set in a wide semicircle. They’re pushed back almost against the far edge of the trees with very little space between one and the next, enough for a clothesline and a couple of plastic chairs between each one. Some of the chairs have been turned over and there are no clothes hanging on the lines. A pair of jeans and what could be a sundress are strewn across the ground like everything was snatched down in a massive hurry and I get the feeling there were people out here moments ago.

“What the fuck is this, then,” I say, and I want to turn around and get the fuck out of here but there’s not enough room to do that without leaving the trees. Large vegetable gardens line both sides of the clearing. I’m getting visions of meth cooks and cartel weed trimmers and I reach under the seat for the pistol, set it on the center console.

I pull forward and I can see that all the windows are covered and the doors are closed and I know I should just go but now I can’t help myself and I keep moving toward the trailers. I stop a few yards short of the middle one and before I can get it in park the door snatches open and a woman comes storming down the steps with a shotgun. I’m out of the truck before I know what I’m doing and she’s got the thing leveled at my chest and I didn’t even pick up the pistol so I just stand there in the grass and put my hands above my head.

“Put your goddamn hands down,” she says. “Who did you come out here for?” I lower my arms and glance around and now there are bends in all the blinds but I still can’t see inside.

“I didn’t come out here for nobody,” I say, and she doesn’t say shit so I tell her I’m just trying to turn around. I’m drunk and stoned and I should’ve just gone to the goddamn show where the bouncers and bartenders all hate my fucking guts but nobody wants to shoot me.

She asks if I have a gun and I tell her in the truck and she asks what I’m really doing out here and I tell her, really, nothing. A young girl comes out of the trailer behind her with a walkie talkie in one hand and puts the other on the woman’s back. “Nobody knows who he is,” she says, “nobody’s ever seen him.”

“Jesus Christ, you stupid bastard,” the woman says and points the shotgun at the ground. “Well come on in and at least get some tomatoes.” She backs toward the steps without turning around and the girl disappears through the door and I don’t even like tomatoes but here I go inside.

When I ask what they’re doing out here, the woman glares at me as the girl piles vegetables into a paper sack. “Growing tomatoes,” she says, and takes the bag and shoves it against my chest. The place looks more like an office than any kind of home, and again I ask what’s going on.

“Look, I’ve got a dozen ladies out here hiding from assholes just like you,” she says, “and you’ve got them all scared half to death. Couple of bad decisions and you end up married to some prick with shitstains halfway up his back from twenty years of wiping his ass in the wrong direction. Creeping through the woods that way,” she says, shaking her head. “Got them all scared to death. Now please,” she says, “take these and go.”

She follows me out and watches as I climb in the truck and stow the pistol, open the last beer and set out for home. When my wife asks what I’m doing with tomatoes, I set the sack on the counter and pull her close, saying, I love you, I’m right here. I love you. I’m here.

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.

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.

The Temp

By Jack Walsh

The nervous one called Aaron couldn’t dance for shit. It was like watching a giraffe with a broken knee and an inflamed nutsack trying to do burpees. Not that the calf had ever seen that before. Or that burpees had even been developed as an exercise yet. One day, men who would come into work from the gymnasium and bend their knees and say to coworkers, “Oof. Leg day,” would also mention burpees a lot. Somehow, the calf just knew this. Knew it all. How the sunrise looked from the top of any and every mountain. Knew the truth about Stonehenge. Knew the decimal places of Pi. All of them. He knew everything all at once.

Which made pinning things down to a specific time kind of tricky. Just a little earlier (Was it today? Yesterday? A thousand years ago?) the calf had known nothing. To say he existed in a void implies awareness of it. He wasn’t aware. He wasn’t anything. But then, just like that, here he was. Golden. Gleaming in the firelight. The people cavorting around him. Naked. Chanting. Dancing. Worshipping. He wished he could offer an appreciative moo. The people seemed to maybe expect it.

The calf breathed in deeply. Smoky. Some sort of seasoning. Was that sage? He thought about it for a second. It was sage. It smelled delicious. Not that he could eat it. He couldn’t open his mouth. Didn’t even have a stomach, let alone the four of most cows. But somehow he was sated. Slaughtering a bull. Presenting burnt offerings. This pleased him. The smoke. The beef. And, sure, that part did seem a little contradictory and wrong, given his bovine form. But, what were wrong and right to the divine? Heh. Divine. Bovine. He suppressed a chuckle. He hoped Aaron had shaped his face to look stern. Amusement wouldn’t really inspire awe or reverence in his people.

“Up,” they had said to Aaron. “Make us gods, which shall go before us.”

Aaron had sighed. His brother had a mountain god, a god of plenty and protection and nature-warping miracles. But also of fire, and locusts, and vengeance. On balance, Moses’ god didn’t seem like one you would want to forsake. But, faith and reason and loyalty and patience weren’t an easy mix for the people. They’d said, “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.”

Aaron’s brother had led the people through seas, deserts and mountains. He’d faced down the Pharaoh. The whole kingdom, really. He’d stood stoic in the face of plague. Of blood-soaked horror. But, Aaron’s backbone was not as stiff.

“Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters,” he’d said, improvising as he went. “Bring them unto me.” The calf knew Aaron had felt uneasy about the whole thing. The melting of the gold. The shaping of his body. The making of a god. But then the wine started to flow. Given how Aaron was dancing now, he had gotten over it, at least for the rest of the night.

The drippings from the meat sizzled on the fire and gave off a savory smell. Umami? Was that what you called umami? The calf knew that one day, insufferable know-it-all foodies would use this to describe some flavor, but he couldn’t figure out what they would mean by it. Umami. He said it to himself again. It sounded funny. Heh. Ooo-mah-mi.

The calf took another deep breath. Not so much for the smell this time, but as a savoring of the moment. Just look at them all. They were ecstatic. Blissful.

They couldn’t know that a little later, Aaron’s brother would come down off the mountain and see all this and throw a shit-fit. He would scream and smash stone.

And the calf knew what would come next. Moses would pull him down. Grind him to dust. Mix the dust with water and make the people drink it. Godhood reduced to Ovaltine. Not as any sort of drink-your-vitamins-and-minerals gesture, but as penance. And even then, Moses would still have a few thousand of them killed. His god would demand it.

It would happen. Tonight? Years later? Sometime. But, for now, the calf just wanted to watch the moron dance some more.

Blind in Love

By Cory D. Byrom

I fell in love with Ben the second time I saw him. He was a tour guide for Classic New York, one of those double-decker bus tours that takes you all over Manhattan, pointing out locations both historically and culturally notable. I thought it was a quirky job to have in this day and age, but Ben was wonderful at it. He welcomed every guest as they climbed onto the bus, asking my parents where they were visiting from and insisting that what a coincidence he had an aunt who lived in Marietta, Georgia, too! When I stepped up as they moved to their seats, he shook my hand and looked so deeply into my eyes that my ears started ringing. Had I been alone, or with friends, I would’ve sat right by him and made it my mission to have his number before the tour ended. But some things you just don’t do with your parents around, and for me, flirting is one of them, no matter how hot the tour-bus guide is.

The tour itself was fine, about what you’d expect. Ben pointed out all of the major monuments and delivered tidbits of trivia for the tourists to chew on as the bus lumbered through traffic. He pointed out the Egg Building at the Empire State Plaza. He showed us streets corners and storefronts seen in Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Big, and When Harry Met Sally. All the great tourist stuff.

As the tour ended and we departed, I had a sudden urge to press my phone number into his palm, but I didn’t have a pen or anything to write my number on, and before I had time to consider my options, my parents and I were standing on the street, my father wondering if we should take a cab back to Tom’s Restaurant to sit in a booth where Seinfeld ate. He was disappointed when I told him they only used the exterior.

The smart thing to do would’ve been to forget about Ben, but of course that’s not what I did. Instead, a week later I called Classic New York.

“I went on one of your tours just the other day, and I tell you, our guide, Ben I think his name was? Boy, he was really great. There was one bit of info he mentioned about the Chrysler Building that I found so interesting at the time, and danged if I can remember what it was now. I was wondering if I could get his contact info so I could pick his brain a little.” They told me that if I stopped by their office I could get a pamphlet that featured the information from the tour, and that they couldn’t give out the guides’ personal info anyway. Of course they couldn’t. So I went ahead and bought a ticket for another tour.

And it was during this second time ascending the stairs, shaking Ben’s hand, and having him once again look not at me but into me, that I fell in love with him. I told him I’d taken the tour a week earlier with my parents. “No shit?” I liked that he cursed on the job. “Who’s with you this time?”

“Oh, no one,” I admitted, feeling a little silly and obvious. “It’s just me this time.”

I pulled myself together and turned on the charm, flirting casually at first, then sneaking in more personal conversation during the down times of the tour. And I came prepared, with my number already written on a card. When I tried to give it to him towards the end of the tour, he said, “Thank you, but I’m really not interested in that sort of thing right now.”

I feigned offense and asked what “that sort of thing” was and what kind of guy did he take me for anyway.

He smiled. “You’re sweet, but trust me. It’s too complicated. I just can’t.”

I told him I understood but maybe we could grab coffee, very low-commitment, and we could each explain ourselves and then decide once and for all which of us was in fact the most complicated. It was a very playful pitch. By now the tour was ending and people were shuffling to their feet. He took the card, wrote his number on the back, and handed it back to me.

“Take my number instead. It’s easier for me,” he said. I worried that he was brushing me off with a fake number, but when I called the next day, he answered and we agreed to meet for coffee. He told me where to find him. Low-commitment. I was already in love.

I did find him. He was sitting at a table, coffee already in front of him, looking around sheepishly as if he wasn’t sure who to expect. He seemed to barely notice me approaching, but once I re-introduced myself, he was all nervous charm. As we got to know each other, it turned out that he was right about that complicated thing. He was more complicated than I could’ve imagined.

Ben explained that he suffered from prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness. He could sit and study my face all day long (and believe me, I would’ve let him) and still not be able to recognize me if I walked up to him on the street. Picking someone out of a crowd was impossible. You know the phrase “He couldn’t see the forest for the trees?” Well, Ben couldn’t see the trees for the forest. People were one big forest to him. Simply put, he couldn’t recognize a person, regardless of how well he knew them.

“So, you see, having a relationship is just too complicated for me. I’m not ready for it right now,” he said, and I thought I could sense disappointment in his voice, like maybe he wanted to give it a try anyway. But maybe not.

“Who said anything about a relationship,” I said. “We’re just playing.”

“Just playing,” he echoed. Later that evening he kissed me for the first time. Even later still I gave him a blowjob in the back of a cab. It definitely had the structure of “just playing.”

We tried to come up with creative ways to make it easier for him to recognize me. I wore the same pair of blue Adidas every time we met. I offered to get a unique haircut, but there are only so many options for guys, and I couldn’t pull off suddenly going punk just so he could recognize me by my mohawk. I told him maybe I could get a tattoo in a recognizable location, but he pointed out that that wasn’t exactly a move someone “just playing” would do, and anyway, he thought tattoos were kind of trashy. So mostly we stuck to identifying clothing, like the blue Adidas.

Our just playing continued for a couple of weeks. It was a whirlwind of public makeouts, semi-public blowjobs, and late night hook-ups. It was during the third week that I finally saw him completely undressed and discovered the 3 tattoos on his chest and back. “I thought you said tattoos were trashy,” I said. He hesitated before explaining that he thought it was crazy that I would’ve offered to get a tattoo for him when we were supposed to be “just playing”. It freaked him out a little, so he’d added the trashy part to make sure I didn’t go too far. I think we both knew I’d already gone way too far.

“Are we still just playing?” I asked him. A smirk faded into a look of slight annoyance and he said, “I am,” and it stung.

Things started falling apart after that. I was finding it harder to hide my real feelings, and he was getting more and more selfish and careless in his treatment of what I perceived to be our relationship. There were times when he seemed disappointed to see me once I made it clear that it was, in fact, me. He finally told me he was tired of just playing with me. I was tired of just playing too, but we didn’t mean it in the same way. He told me I should stop calling him. He told me I could stop wearing my blue Adidas. I left them in his apartment and walked home barefoot.

It’s been two months since I fell in love with Ben. I don’t know how many times I’ve taken the Classic New York bus tour. I don’t shake his hand when I get on the bus, and I avoid eye contact. Before I went back to the tour, I got a new haircut. I grew out a goatee, too, and sometimes I even wear fake glasses. I know it doesn’t matter, because he won’t recognize me anyway- he can’t recognize me- but as long as it’s a game of dress-up, it’s easier to convince myself that I’m “just playing.”

Starlight Peppermint

By Grant Jerkins

I remember the first time I saw you. I was in my car—drive-thru banking—to get a check cashed. And even though I was on the far outside lane, you looked across all five traffic aisles and made eye contact with me. Yes, the security camera captured my image, and I’m sure it was on a monitor right there next to you, but you crossed time and space, to meet my eyes with yours. And when my money arrived through the pneumatic tube, I found you’d slipped a piece of candy into the envelope.

Starlight peppermint.

I wondered if you did that on purpose. If you were sending me a message.

I remember, too, later that August, it was hot and humid. The air conditioner in my car didn’t work—and I’ll never forget this—I was making a withdrawal. You greeted me by name. And when the clear plastic canister came through the tube, I grabbed it and held it in my lap while I twisted open the top. It was the oddest sensation. Icy vapor from inside the air-conditioned bank, flowed out of the canister and pooled into my lap. I lifted the container to my face, and the cold dry air spilled from it, brushing my lips and nose. I could smell you. Your perfume. It was like standing next to you. It was like you sent the essence of yourself through time and space, just to get to me. I was so affected that I couldn’t even speak. I replaced the canister and sped away. I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.

Driving home, I wondered if you did that on purpose. If you sent that little bit of you, to me, on purpose.

Two days later, I was back with a deposit. I drove around the bank first, scouting it out, so I would know which lane was yours. This time I had a plan. I was so nervous, I couldn’t bring myself to speak or look at you. I wanted to appear distracted, so I turned up the radio and snapped my fingers and bobbed my head and waited for you to send me the receipt for my deposit. And when the transport canister slid down the tube and landed, I grabbed it and drove off. I kept the canister and drove away.

I had your air. Your perfumed essence, trapped in the plastic cylinder. Like a genie in a bottle. I had you.

I figured this must be a common-enough occurrence in drive-thru banking. People accidentally taking the tube container. I even searched online for the words bank drove off with canister, and there were over twelve million results. It happens all the time. Most likely by distracted people listening to the radio.

That night, I put you in my bed. The canister you. I laid you in the clean sheets while I took a shower. I wanted to be fresh. And then I fixed us two glasses of wine, to reduce anxiety, so we could be ourselves with each other.

I opened you. Consumed you. It was heaven. I know you felt it too.

The next day, I went inside the bank, and I asked for you by name—for Laurie. Because of course I’ve seen your gold-plastic name tag. The inside-teller (Roberta) told me you were busy and that she would be happy to help me, but I stood off to the side and waited for you. When you finally came out and saw me, you had this funny look on your face, almost like you didn’t recognize me. I smiled at you—sheepish, embarrassed, guilty. And I held up the canister. I said I was sorry. Understanding broke across your face, and you grinned and cocked your head to the side and asked me if I did it on purpose. Ha-ha. Then you laughed some more and said don’t worry, it happens all the time. It felt like you were reading my mind. Like you were sending me a message. Then I watched you open the canister. It was just a reflex on your part. Like maybe you were a little bit nervous and didn’t know what to do with your hands. I watched your fingers slip inside, and I thought about the residue from last night that was in there, coating the circular walls, and how my essence was on your fingers now, and how later, you might put your fingers to your lips and part of me would be inside of you.

In a rushing breath, I told you how good of a job you were doing at the bank, and how courteous and professional you always were to me, and how you made me feel like my business was truly appreciated, and that I wanted to tell your manager what an asset you are to the bank, but I was late for an appointment and if you would just give me your business card, I could call the manager later and tell him exactly who I was complimenting.

So you gave me your card.

Laurie Ciresi.
Customer Service Specialist.

Ciresi is not a common name. Not common at all. You were easy to track down. But you knew that would be the case, didn’t you?

Many nights, I watch from the stand of weeping willows behind your house. Sometimes with binoculars, and sometimes I just go right up and look in. You should really cut those hedges. They are a security risk. Or get your husband to do it. I don’t think he’s right for you. You two almost never sleep together. That says a lot.

Now that the weather is getting crisp, sometimes you open your windows to let in the evening air. When I get up close, I can smell your essence seeping out. It reminds me of how we first met, at your work, and how you sent me the air you breathe through the pneumatic tube. How I wondered if you did that on purpose. Ha-ha. It makes me smile now. How I brought the canister home, and then brought it back to you with a little bit of me left inside. Molecules of me. And now here I am, waiting for you, out under the stars. Starlight, remember? I wonder how many billions of years our atoms have swirled around the universe, only to arrive here, tonight, to be at this moment, bathed in starlight.

Time and space converge like the cards of a shuffled deck, and here we are.

What happens next?

I notice that you forgot to close your bedroom window all the way tonight. I can’t help but wonder if you did that on purpose.

If you are sending me a message.

I surely do wonder.