Category Archives: Issue 5.

Far from Okay

By Benjamin Stevenson

Rubbing it raw, I gulped the load
and slithered away from him.
I thought the boys in the videos
made it look so much easier.
Crawling up the ladder of pelvic
bones I wish I had broken, I stumbled
disappointingly into a familiar feeling.

Sometimes bad men ask me,
Did you have fun down
on all fours like the bitch you
are? You actually looked like
you wanted to die this time.

Stripped of the flesh,
I plugged the wounds
and soaked the husk
I call a body in warm water,
because I know
it is best for blood
and in that moment
he could have emptied
a boiling pot onto my back, and
scrubbed me like a kitchen table
far from clean and certainly
far from okay.

I still wouldn’t have felt a thing.

Notes for My Underpaid Therapist

By Benjamin Stevenson

Heather,
I have been thinking a lot about death
about sensations
how my chest would feel
while falling through dusty
air in a desert city___
slipping off
the balcony. But the image no longer
seems poetic, when I imagine what
bones might sound like crashing
against stale concrete. Stiff
as a board, & white as a candle.
I have been thinking about the
darkness that would certainly
follow me to this lonely place.
how metaphorical doors would wax &
wane far too quickly to respond
timely, nor fashionably
& how goddamn depressing this reads
on the unbroken screen of a MacBook I can
not afford, but that all my pretty white friends have.

Heather,
I have been thinking a lot about
my childhood, and all the things
I cannot and do not want to remember-
selective memory loss
Do you ever wonder if some children
need a slice of darkness to develop
into the tragic adults which our excuse
for a god determines them to become?
I do & this glimmering idea,
makes life almost fathomable,
or at least this is what I tell
myself at the end of every blurry night.

Heather,
Do you still think we’re making progress?

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.

Good Girl, Pretty Girl

By Nicholas Tecosky

I.

The dog wakes from a dream. She was running through a dark wood, chasing. Shadows ran alongside her, and she knew that she was safe, that these were the shadows of brethren in the midst of a furious primal hunt.

Dust motes float in the beams of sunlight pouring through the window of the cluttered apartment. She listens through the sounds of the city outside, and she hears the sound of the man breathing in the next room. He is alone in bed, the woman having left for work early. He will be awhile waking up, and so she stretches her joints, aching and stiff from sleep.

The dog winds her way through the furniture and into the kitchen. The woman has filled her bowls. She sniffs at the kibble. It smells only vaguely of game, something that she would chase down in the forest. She takes a bite, and the illusion is shattered.

She goes to the door of the bedroom and peeks in. The man is snoring operatically in the tousled sheets. His legs curved just so and and his arm draped over his face. She sighs and flops down in the doorway. She waits for him to wake. She drifts.

She does not get up when he wakes. She is familiar with his morning routine. He pulls himself from the great cast-iron bed. When he walks, he takes slow, heavy steps that cause the wooden floor to shake beneath him. He steps over her and into the bathroom, and the sound of his urination hitting the porcelain bowl and the salty smell of it fill her senses. He, this beast, he is hers, and she loves him and fears his shifts in mood but when he exits the bathroom, he pauses to run his bare foot over her back before continuing on to the kitchen, where he furthers his ritual by pouring the dark, pungent beans into the grinder and boiling water and opening the refrigerator to inspect its contents.

The coffee done, he sits down on the couch and places the steaming mug beside him. He will not drink more than a sip before he lies back and closes his eyes once again.

The man does not move for a great length of time. She cannot tell how long. She does not know minutes or hours. She tracks the sunlight as it shifts across the room and after it has moved from the rug to the coffee table, he sits up and looks to her. They make eye contact.

It is time to go outside.

II.

The dog wakes to the sound of sirens in the distance, and for a moment, she mistakes them for the call of her wild sisters. Before she can stop herself, she raises her head and returns the forlorn howl. It was not something that she was taught and she does not know why she howls, only that she must howl, and a memory that is not hers passes through her mind. She realizes in a moment that these are not the sounds of the Others. She knows that they are only mechanical. This does not stop her from howling. She howls until they are out of earshot, and she stops and listens. Only the sounds of the city, muffled through the thick walls.

To pass the time, she tries to think the saddest thing that she can think. But the only thing that she can think of is being alone, and she is alone right now, she does not know when or if they will return, and it is dreadfully quiet. She tries to think of something else. She cannot. She sighs heavily.

III.

The woman returns before the man. She drops her bag in the chair and she greets the dog in a high tone, and the dog gets up and shakes off and wags her tail to return the greeting. The woman walks back to the door and retrieves the leash hanging on the hook and the dog runs to her and sits on the kitchen floor and she is so excited that she cannot help but shake. The woman hooks the leash to her collar and opens the door. The dog tries to wait, because the woman will be cross if she bounds out the door before being told to do so. But she wants to go through the door so badly. She can smell the outside. She can smell the rain from before and how it intensifies the scents of the world. She waits. The woman gives her the signal, and she rushes toward the world, feeling the pull of the woman on the other end of her tether but not caring for a moment.

She squats to relieve herself, shivering with pleasure at the feeling. She sniffs the air around her. They walk. There are so many smells. They are a history of the world.

All too soon they are reentering the apartment and she does not want to return but takes consolation in knowing that the rest of her pack will be with her inside the small space, that they will eat and sit and stare at the television and if she lies next to the man, he will scratch her behind her ears and when he stops he will lay his foot upon her side and leave it there and they will both find comfort in the contact.

IV.

The man and woman take turns being the alpha, depending on who has energy after the long day. She knows her place in the chain, she is Omega, sometimes she wishes otherwise and tries half-heartedly to assert dominance, but they are not fooled and they lay hands on her and press her to the ground until she stills herself. It does not matter. It is a passing fancy. They are not an ideal pack, but they are hers and she theirs, they are all together, for now, in the cavern that they call home, and the smell of the dishes in the sink and the dust that surrounds them in the air and the socks on the floor, those that she has hidden beneath the furniture, and their bodies, their simian bodies, it is all there as it has always been. As it will ever be.

She smells where they have been. The Woman smells of coffee and stale sweat and the Man smells of cigarette smoke but beneath these masks she can smell what they feel. The subtle air of sadness, the sharp tang of anxiety or desperation. She comes to them and tastes them, and they smile and accept her tongue for a moment before calming her with hands on her skull, her neck, her back. She knows she only has so much time to taste, that they will rebuke her sharply if she persists, but she tastes for as long as they will let her.

She feels a kinship with them when they are sad. When they cannot get up off of the couch. They are alone but together. She fears the morning. The morning is when they leave her. She never knows for sure if they will return.

V.

When they are all together, they make voices that they know are supposed to be hers. They speak for her. She knows the tone of it and listens intently, her ears perking up. She understands very little of the language, but it does not matter. They are communing with her. That is all that matters.

VI.

When the man lies on the couch in the afternoon, she knows that something is wrong, but can only gauge the severity of the situation when she creeps close and sits beside him, face to face. He does not usually respond well to her face in such close proximity to his. If he snaps at her to go, he is merely tired. If he places his hand gently atop her head and looks into her eyes and whispers to her, something is very wrong. She does not know what it is, except that she feels it too, deeply, without understanding. They are alone, together.

VII.

The dog does not entirely understand pack politics. She knows her place in the order, of course, but cannot understand the subtle back-and-forth between the two people. She senses when things are tense, and also the lack of tension when things are easy. The feelings wash like a great tide over her, swelling and receding. She cannot imagine the future. She has never tried. Life is one endless expanse, interrupted by periods of dark and sleep and an occasional meal and a walk through the vast park.

The dog does not know if she is happy and doesn’t ponder it. There is an emotion in her, deep down, that she does not quite comprehend, that came from before her great great great grandmother was born. Sometimes it swells in her chest so much that she can feel it in her throat, and she tenses, barely controlling herself, half-expecting it to burst forth into the small apartment, tear through the walls, escape into the hazy afternoon sunlight outside. She shakes her entire body as if trying to dry herself. She barks into the empty apartment and listens to the echo. Something stirs just outside, in the hallway.

The dog waits.

Something will happen. It always has before.

This story first appeared in Nicholas’ website, Love & Consequences.

Cover Image: “Nightcrawler” by Basheer Tome via Flickr.

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.

Manic Depressive Pictures Presents

By E.M. Yeagley

On a good day, you and your mother wait on Cora’s doormat while the cast recording of South Pacific seeps through her wall. She answers the door looking radiant, with the front of her hair done up in tight pin curls, a bright red smear of lipstick on her dentures.

She’s still young–young for a grandmother, certainly, and she looks good. She dyes her hair red or black, depending on drugstore sale prices. Cora has tiny tits and a huge ass, but taken all together, it works.

When things are calm, her apartment smells of coffee and lemon Pledge, and she gamely pretends to be offended when your mother screams in mock terror at the velvet Jesus above her toilet. Cora has a sixth sense about kids–she’s hidden shoe boxes painted to look like treasure chests throughout the apartment. You make a beeline for one, parsing through the costume jewelry, the telescopic cigarette holder, the homemade Play-Doh, the seahorse-shaped cocktail stirrers.

She and your mother play Gin Rummy at the kitchen table. After a couple of hands, Cora starts with the funny stories. The punch lines often involve her lobbing a real zinger at an unsuspecting stranger:

“—in the checkout line! I said, ‘Lady, if you ram me in the ass with that cart one more time—’”

“And I told him, ‘Phil—it is Phil, right? Try wishing in one hand and shitting in the other, and let me know which Phils up first. Ha!”

Stories are her specialty. Visiting, she calls it, although conversations with Cora are generally one-sided. The stories are funny, and you’ll laugh, but uneasily. You were there the time she chased down a guy for braking too quickly. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” she yelled against his rolled-up window, squeezing your hand hard enough to bruise. “I had my granddaughter in the car! I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest!”

When Cora finally comes up for air, your mother asks about her Lithium, and she demurs. When pressed, she tells your mother to back off, that she feels great.

In Cora’s bathroom, your mother finds a mostly-full prescription bottle at the bottom of the wastebasket, beneath a wad of lipstick-blotted toilet paper. Post-its line the wall next to the mirror–project ideas, song lyrics, Bible verse, grocery lists.

There are telltale signs of hypersexuality, too: a cologne-reeking, pit-stained undershirt slumps over the toilet tank, beneath the velvet Jesus. Your mother imagines its anonymous owner taking a leak eye-to-eye with our savior. She remembers the time she overheard one of Cora’s boyfriends saying that crazy chicks make better lays, and prays that, whoever he was, he brought condoms and was kind.

In the kitchen, there’s a confrontation. Cora doesn’t need the pills anymore. Her own daughter doesn’t trust her. Everyone’s full of shit. Everyone’s a piece of shit. It’s time to go home. Your mother takes a deep breath as the door closes behind you.

Once upon a time, Cora was married to her high school sweetheart, your grandfather. He was a police officer and, later, a TV weatherman. When you were still an infant, your mother took you to the television station to meet him. “Just let me hold her once,” he pleaded. “Just five minutes.”

Even in front of all those cameras and people, she handed you over reluctantly, stood close enough to snatch you back and run. You peed down his shirt; he covered it up with a jacket and delivered the weather like everything was normal. You never saw him again.

Because it seems so unreal, you sometimes have to remind yourself that long before you were born, when your mother and aunt and uncles were still children, your grandfather exploited Cora’s mental illness in order to conceal his own.

Late one night, Cora woke up and walked out to the yard. Your grandfather stood in the dark next to his cruiser, eyes wide and wild. In the back seat lay a bicycle and two small sets of clothing, two small sets of underwear.

“I was teaching them how to swim,” he told her. “If anyone asks, that’s what you say.”

And that is how she found out what he was. What he’d done. That’s how she figured out that he’d been doing the same to their children, his sister’s children, and now neighborhood children. When Cora tried to leave with your mother and her siblings, he called his buddies at the police station, and then the hospital.

“My wife is having another episode,” he said. “We’ve been through this before. She a needs a few months of rest and quiet; she responds well to electroconvulsive treatments.”

At the house, they looked at her–howling, spitting, throwing punches–and then at him–calm, concerned, controlled. A fellow officer. A man. Your mother and her siblings were too terrified to speak. Cora didn’t stand a chance.

He signed the forms; they pried her lips apart and shoved a bit between her teeth, ignored her when she swore to them that she saw this thing and knew it to be true, and worse, and worse, and please, I need to save my children, please. Strapped to that table, with 460 volts rattling her skull, she alone knew the real reason he sent her there, and if she wasn’t crazy before, well.

From time to time, you think about this, and your stomach will twist up and go sour. When Cora is being especially combative, you try to put things in perspective:

If she wants to talk nonstop and listen to show tunes and eat junk food all day without getting shit from anyone, why not? If she gets satisfaction from causing scenes in the supermarket checkout line, can you really blame her? So what if she passes out and burns the house down. Has she not earned it?

Later, you learn that it continued for years. That your grandfather’s second wife was complicit. His own mother was complicit. You learn that his mother did the same to him and his sister. You collect pieces of the story, each more abhorrent than the last, and file them away. You feel powerless, as Cora must have.

When your grandfather enters into hospice, half of Cora’s children go to watch him die. Once he’s dead, she refuses to collect his social security money.

***

Now she takes you to Chuck E. Cheese and shows you how to spot the tables with abandoned pizza.

Now she has a new boyfriend who used to be in the Black Panthers. She’s permed her red hair into an embarrassing White Lady Afro and wears a dashiki out in public.

Now she’s up all night with you building pillow forts, distracting you from an ear infection. She lets you eat two full rows of Oreos.

Now she insists on handing out condoms from a plastic Jack-O-Lantern outside the 7-Eleven.

***

You’re almost grown now; your life has been better than you realize. Cora lives with you, and today she’s talking an awful lot. If she in any way notices the tightening at your jawline or the apprehension in your eyes, she won’t let on. You run through the mental checklist of warning signs, ultimately concluding that this is just Cora being extra Cora-like. It isn’t always so easy to tell—she’s enthusiastic by nature. She speaks loudly and irreverently regardless of her mental state. Life has taught her that the most important thing is to be heard.

Not for the first time, you’ll marvel at how much smarter and funnier and weirder she is than other people’s grandmothers. You once found among her stuff a high school report card that sums things up nicely: Cora is unusually bright, it said, but prone to outbursts and difficult to control.

On a manic day, Cora begins early, long before the sun rises. She hasn’t slept in a while and has more energy than she knows what to do with. She wants action, excitement, noise, people—above all else, she craves conversation, but no one is awake. She takes a shower to pass the time. The night air filtering through the open window feels incredible against her skin. She throws open the shades and decides against getting dressed, although she will put on one, two, three coats of lipstick. Sometimes she’ll stay naked all day; you learn not to bring friends home after school when she’s high.

She makes a pot of coffee, drops a Danny Kaye record on the ancient Zenith, and scrubs down the kitchen.

Manic-Depressive Pictures presents:

Hello, Fresno, Goodbye!

Produced by R. U. Manic

And directed by Depressive…

By the time the record ends, she cannot wait any longer and heads for the phone. If they don’t answer, she calls back. If they do answer, she calls back.

On a manic day, Cora serves you a box cake buried beneath three inches of icing–Happy Birthday in her vining cursive, three months early. Egg salad straight out of a mixing bowl. On the first bite, you crunch down on shell. No time to peel the eggs.

Perhaps she’s bought nothing but bananas for weeks. There are green ones piled on the counter tops. Dense, bruised bunches in brown paper bags abandoned just inside the door. Bananas fill the freezer, blackening against the scummy drifts of frozen condensation. The house reeks. Fruit flies congest the air in ashy clumps; layers of their tiny, dried out husks collect in the windowsills, in the stove’s drip pans, behind the sofa. Walking through the kitchen is much like witnessing the final hours of Pompeii.

Your mother reaches her limit, finally chucking them all in the dumpster. Cora is livid. “How dare you.”

The years pass. The rest of Cora’s body catches up with her big ass. She gets meaner, as old people often do. Her highs aren’t as high–she’s irritable and obsessive more often than euphoric–but the lows, the lows are abyssal.

On a bad day, you find Cora sitting on the sofa in the dark, smoking pack after pack of Marlboro Lights. Her speech slurs; she may scream or sob or press the heel of her hand against her temple when you ask if she’s okay.

On a bad day, Cora might tell you that she’s ashamed of you, that you make her sick, that your mother is useless, that you are the reason your mother never finished college. She finds the chinks in your armor and digs in. Once you are exposed, she becomes glass shards and serrated edges.

***

Now she’s taken too many downers, tripped and busted her forehead open; you hold her hand as the surgeon sews her back up. “You should have left me there,” she says. “You should have left me.”

Now she’s sitting on the floor with a pair of scissors, cutting your mother’s work uniforms into tiny pieces.

Now she thinks she’s psychic; the Virgin Mary talks to her, tells her that all of her children forgive her.

Now she’s in the hospital again, and although it’s the right thing to do, your mother hates herself for sending her there.

***

Once that well of dopamine has run dry, foul memories take Cora hostage. On a terrible day, she won’t open the door, no matter how long or loud you knock. If you are especially brave or especially unnerved, you might force your way in.

It could be that she’s in bed, stretched into a shapeless old sack from too many days without rest. Or perhaps she’s so overwhelmed by the aggregate of her life’s tragedies that her legs cannot bear her weight. Or she’s finally given up, the unthinkable, the unspeakable. That time may come, but for now, Cora presses ever on.

An Experiment

By Junior Knox

The inside of an atom is mostly just empty space, and now you know how this story ends.

I wore a gray knit dress to the Roxy to protect myself from the empty space; from the cold in the dead of a Buffalo winter. In simpler times, the Roxy was unpretentious games of pool and ten 19-year-olds squeezing together around a karaoke mic for Bon Jovi. Now, it is more cocaine than camaraderie, more salaciousness than celebration, but some stories just require the glory of a dive bar and my tongue in a stranger’s mouth.

I ordered gin and tonics.

In certain corners where unpretentious pool was still played, Kelly was the wild-haired brunette that paused to make eye-contact before flicking her wrist and connecting the cue with the ball. She set her cue down and approached, flipping her curly hair back with both hands.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey,” I replied, sipping my gin and tonic.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“I already have one,” I said, shaking it so the ice sloshed around, cube against cube, atoms hitting atoms.

“When you’re finished?”

It seemed a direct relationship, then, that the less gin and tonic I had in my glass, the closer we moved to each other, her arm first around my waist, then my hands in her hair, and finally, her lips to my earlobe.

“What was your name again?” She murmured.

She leaned over the bar, and after a minute, held another drink out to me with hands that were fragrant with the scent of her hair. My own hands took away the warm earth scent; natural and clean.

I drank, and told her my story. I drank, and tipped the strippers on top of the bar as she tipped her head back for free tequila. I drank, and danced with her, white arms outstretched in a dark room, floating and trailing brightness like an acid trip. I drank, and when I kissed her I tasted whisky and garlic.

“You’re pretty like an alien,” she said, and I went home with her.

***

It was a Sunday later that week, and I’d had two glasses of wine.

I watched Kelly as she settled back on her bed. I had already noticed how often she would throw her head downward in that exaggerated motion, grab her hair with both hands, and toss her great mass of brunette curls back behind her head. It seemed, then, that movement was her neutral state, and I was there learning how to dance.

In her room, an open suitcase was on the floor, overflowing with clothing. She was visiting from New York City for the holidays, she explained, and hadn’t bothered to unpack or separate dirty laundry from clean. It was her old room in her childhood home, and that would have been obvious even if she hadn’t told me. Family photos and old trophies lined the walls and the shelves.

She bounced up from the bed to show me her softball pictures.

“I used to be a blonde!”

I could barely spot her as she pointed to the photo before she tossed it aside and picked up a worn Stephen King paperback.

“Do you read?”

She sat back down next to me on the bed and began to flip through the pages. I watched her hands, bone beneath flesh, as they flexed and curled in such a way that the tiny creases in her skin seemed to disappear. I watched her thumb let loose one page at a time, until I looked up and realized she wasn’t looking at the book at all.

My nose inches from her nose, I felt like I should have something to say. Instead I waited, breathing, taking in the scent of childhood homes and softball trophies mixed with earth and ozone and New York City.

She laughed, so I laughed, too.

“I’m really reaching here,” she said, and only then did it dawn on me that she was waiting to be kissed.

I kissed her slightly open lips. It was imperfect, and our teeth connected. She laughed, so I laughed, too.

***

For the next several days, it was bars and coffee shops and ski-jacketed passersby breathing moist clouds into the cold Buffalo air outside the windows. I tried to count the seconds just to slow the minutes down, but the sunlight faded anyway.

I can see us as if we had been caught on a time-lapse camera. The sun zooms over us as blurs enter and exit around us, chattering nonsensically and gesturing wildly and spilling coffee that dries at once in sticky puddles.

Kelly jerks her head to look at me and bats her eyelashes rapidly and her hands move on my arms and pull on my clothing and caper with the disposable coffee cups until she has broken them down into their fundamental components of paper and plastic and cardboard.

Eventually, the film slows as my memory catches up.

“Let’s go to my place,” she said, because her bedroom was our reward for burning daytime. I drove, and she messed with the knobs on my radio, and we found a song to remind us of each other.

I sang to her as we pulled up into the driveway. I sang as the stairs to her room spun under my feet.

“Just put your hands on me and hold me,” she replied. “Just put your fingers in me and hold me just like that.”

I did as she asked, blood moving from my core to fill my capillaries and light my extremities like a forest fire. If I failed, that night, to rescue limbs and hair and fragrant hands and gray knit dresses, it’s only because the compound molecules in volatile gases were bursting apart, and there was not enough whisky or wine or flesh or tongue to absorb the energy that resulted.

“I don’t know what to do,” Kelly said, and I wondered what could cause such concern, if I’d somehow spilt my emotions around us, crimson and sticky and staining, or if it was my arms tangled in hers like roots gone wild.

It didn’t matter anyway, because the women just came to her.

“The women,” she said. “They just come to me.”

It was a warning, and I knew this, even as I bloomed like poppies out of place on white linen.

“This isn’t what I do,” I said, but I didn’t mean it.

What else could be said? She had the best intentions.

“I have the best intentions,” she said. “There’s not a mean bone in my body. Ask my family,” she said. “Ask my friends.”

Will you think of me when you’re in Atlanta?” She asked.

“Does it matter?” I said, but I didn’t mean it. I’d already given her what she wanted and the rest was just my undignified heart pumping undignified blood and neural patterns firing away, confusing pleasure and love and sex and infatuation.

It was the small hours of New Year’s Day when the affair came to an end. I had spent the night fighting sleep, alternating between accidental slips into slumber and inhaling the earth; the sweat and the sweetness and the sex implied by the scent of the curly mane spread out on the pillow next to me.

She had hinted the night before that I should be gone before her parents woke up, so at six a.m. I reached over the side of the bed to find my pants. I looked over at Kelly, her eyes closed, bare back flawless in the dim light. I pushed myself off to lift myself off the bed, and she reached over and grabbed my arm. Pulled me back to her, her mouth next to my ear.

“No,” she said. “Stay. Never leave, never leave.”

Did I leave? I must have. I awoke sometime later in the day, in the guest bedroom at my mother’s house. I put my hands up to my face and breathed deep.

***

I came back to Atlanta a scientist.

I tried to replicate the experiment. I tried to duplicate the chain of code, to unlock the combination that would yield the eccentric whose hair I could wrap around my fingers in a curly knot.

I came back to Atlanta an artist.

I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with bare white walls and beige carpet. I tried to paint the walls a crimson grid to match the brick of Brooklyn, white-outlined and stained with graffiti and bird shit.

I came back to Atlanta a storyteller.

I saw every picture of her girlfriends, those she rode through Manhattan on the back of her scooter, those she took to Europe, those she sunned herself bronze with on the beach. I planted her in every corner of my apartment, and when she grew, we traveled, too, from one room to the next. My ceiling was decorated with our slide-show when I would lie on my back and project us from my skin.

I came back to Atlanta an asshole.

The women, they were pretty like aliens, like grasshoppers, they tasted of seawater and cigarettes and some of cherry Chap Stick. I don’t remember their last names, but I remember the patterns their fingers traced on my back as I fell asleep.

Emma had curly hair and wide eyes and a Jersey accent. We pillow-talked about women and heartbreak and the city. I told her I didn’t want a relationship. Donna was big, pretty, and Jewish. Dark-haired and dark-complected. We slept together a handful of times until I made a joke in poor taste. We stopped seeing each other. Amy was African-American. Her nipples were pierced and she had a tattoo on the small of her back. She could have been a model but she was short. She told me she didn’t believe in love. Marilyn was three years younger than me and had just come out to her parents. We had very little in common but she fell in love with me anyway. She told me this via email after I broke her heart. Hannah was a skinny blonde who wore too much makeup. I took her out with my friends and she drank until she couldn’t stand up anymore. When I told her she couldn’t come home with me again, she spat in my face. Natalie was tall, taller than any girl I’d ever been with. I called her “girlfriend” for a little while. Together, we counted out how many we’d had, and I felt ashamed. We tried to stay friends but it didn’t work out. I never slept with Michelle but I may have teased at it. Eventually, I started breaking our plans. She emailed and called and sent me texts, and then she stopped.

Some had freckles. Some had moles. Some had birthmarks. Some didn’t shave. Some had terra-cotta-colored nipples and invisible areola and coral hair between their legs. Some wanted more than one night; some didn’t want anything more at all. They were teachers and nurses. They were accountants and account managers. They worked retail and government jobs. Some were artists, some were writers. Maybe they wrote about chemistry and oxygen and compound molecules bursting apart.

I cut my hair off, then I let it grow some more. I bought a scooter so I could feel the wind rush by my face as I zipped through traffic in the city. I met girls in bars and introduced myself as “Junior,” and when they put their hands in my hair, I put my lips to their ears and told them about the light and the noise and the pavement that radiates warmth even at night in New York.