Tami Bell at College

Love, she’d heard about—talks late into the night, with a feverish exchange beyond body and habit that could not wait. This was college. This was why Tami had studied and sweat and done all those churchy service projects: to arrive here, at the juncture of knowledge and experience. Out the back-seat window frisbees flew, footbags jounced on bare knees. Her life was about to begin.

Cars spilled belongings. Parents blocked stairwells and siblings cartwheeled down halls where doors opened onto mandala prints, to Lennon posters, and starry nights. Her roommate sat in bed with a tin of popcorn, licking orange dust from her fingers. Want some?

Tami wanted. There was no end to her wanting. They plugged in desk lamps, listened to the ambient hum. Her dorm smelled like burrito. Lonely hooks awaited coat season. They sized each other up from their respective beds, bouncing. No one could agree on the music.

There was hair everywhere.

Orientation week found her against a denuded cherry tree with a boy she used to know. At college, you ran into people. Bill was dropping someone off, the sister of a friend. After that, on to New York City. Real estate was booming, and college had done him well. My god, Tami Bell. When did you grow up?

She stood taller. In the mirror, chin to shoulder, she practiced saying: Hadn’t noticed and You don’t say.

Tami took Biology, Art History. She dog-eared the course catalog—Hard Choices, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, What’s Love Got to Do With It? She filled up her basket with the contents of her syllabi—Clarissa, Beloved, The Well of Loneliness.

Early on she received letters, though they sounded like threats. Connor wrote I hope you’re happy now.

She couldn’t be bothered with him. Parties had themes! At thrift stores she bought polyester then stood around salvaged couches smoking French cigarettes, pretending to be someone from another era. Tami had the look—approximate, close enough—where she was often mistaken. There were honest mistakes. From behind, she could be anyone’s girlfriend.

One night, Tami rode a bus out to a mansion by the sea. Guests felt like Gatsby. On the dance floor her dress swished like a car wash until her heel broke off her shoe. Afterward, an oil tycoon flopped on her like a dead whale. She tried telling her roommate about it, but her thoughts were all jumbled in feelings. Maybe later. Her roommate had to study.

There was so much to learn:

  1. How to blow campus credit on meat sticks
  2. Aerate instead of wash
  3. Read by osmosis
  4. Give herself over without risk. This dude from boarding school, that Namibian diplomat’s son, the semiotics major with a switchblade comb he’d rake along her thigh—activating any old itch
  5. Masturbate like a mouse
  6. Cry in the bathroom
  7. Nap in the library
  8. “Hair of the dog”
  9. Cross the quad without eye contact
  10. Layer soundly for the cold

In class, she took notes. Love is a construct. Patriarchal, sentimental. They deconstructed everything. The things we do. Throughout history. Conquer, claim, pine for every figment.

Connor, in mawkish, juvenile print: I don’t get you.

What’s to get? Connor pumped gas. Tami was in college. An upperclassman took her for oysters, for tuna in a sesame crust. They watched the Kama Sutra at an art house theater with red velvet seats. He offered her something—for the mood. Tami Bell would take anything. Everything was cool, easy, easy. Afterward, she puked in the sink.

Her wants could be categorized by texture and temper—a soft sweater, an athletic hand, a well-worn Madame Bovary, to camp in Big Sur, eat squid in Corfu, to sleep and sleep and never leave her room.

A cookie care package prompted a call home. Sure enough, her parents were divorcing.

Remember how we had it so good?

When she wanted to forget, Tami tried groups but that was exhausting.

As a sophomore, she discovered she could go days without speaking. Eating was unavoidable. In the dining hall, people shook Tabasco like loons. Tami pulled cereal into a bowl and sat by the fake ferns. The talking, no one noticed at all.

The wanting, it shifted, too. Still tactile (plush towel, fresh piercings) and temperature-controlled (iced coffee, hot compress) (to love and be loved, to crack this thing called love)—but less. Her senses merged into one. After a while, feeling dwindled.

A black cut-out on Valentine’s Day: Who stole your heart, Tami Bell?

Spring break junior year, she answered a ride board for Miami. She woke up in beds she didn’t remember, plucked burrs from her hair. No one asked where she was headed, whom she’d left behind. She walked in and out of lectures, of frat houses, midnight raves, poetry dens. Every jelly jar became an ashtray. She bought glasses without prescription. She got bong acne, got Chlamydia, got carded. She got a cat.

Eventually, the letters stopped.

Her grades were fine—only idiots flunked college—but she was not about to impress any career fairs, either.

The morning of graduation was boiling. Tami lined up, tassel swinging, melting in the sun. A sour funk seeped from her that she hardly recognized as her own. Who were all these people? Somewhere in the crowd, her parents sat separately. She thought she could almost picture the bright brim of Connor’s cap jutting like an overbite—but that was another unrealized life. She went in one gate and out the other. Desire metamorphosed.

Everywhere, a suffocating heat, but the whole world lay in wait. All she could think was, get me out of this gown.

Three Poems

It never rains inside the hospital,
but the families of patients are like snow geese
in a flooded field. In one forest,
a kingfisher dying. Do ravens still guard
our kingdom? I don’t remember
much except how the nurse was a mockingbird
and the doctor kept trying to rebuild
the nest. Where did I fly to
when the doctor said, Your father
has an unrecognizable word, morphine,
unrecognizable word, his blood pressure
is a flooded field, his blood pressure is sinking.
Yes, it is raining, unrecognizable word,
unrecognizable word. He won’t be coming home
.

The man working on my back says,
I’m concerned with your relationship to pain,
he’s joking, his elbow baring
down on some back bedroom in the house
of my spine. He asks how it feels.
I say, It’s a good hurt. But harder.
Deeper. He presses a star in an upper
galaxy and the heat of an astronomical object
dies in my shoulder blade. He tells me
he can trace the curve of what I’m made of,
I ask him to get under my wingspan,
press deep into the part of me that aches.
Classical music plays in the background,
I remember the violinist who left me
in high school after a friend slid his hands
inside me though I said no.
How can we repair another lifetime?
How can we break away from what we hold?
There are certain times in my life
I can see the threads in the fabric that hold me
together. I want the scissors out
of the equation, but when I cut myself
from the garment, I love the sound
of slice, the release. The man working on
my back moves his thumb slowly down
the edge of my vertebrae, says,
We can heal this. It doesn’t have to hurt
to be good.

I don’t have to remind you
of my sorrow, my father’s pocketwatch
found in a mist of dust,
still working the graveyard
shift. Now there’s time to tend the orchids
in the morning until death enters
the greenhouse to say if
she had lived, I wouldn’t be
here—one life leaves and
another arrives to replace it.
I don’t have to remind you,
my father’s diary was made of seeds
and suicides, postage stamps and wheat
pennies, time disguised as blossoms,
an open wound, blinkworthy, how quick
the watering can become a riptide.
Sometimes I remind you to choose
a card as if we’re cutting heartache
in half and putting it back together,
we’re here, dovelike and uncaged,
a ghost holding the door open
to the disappearing box and yet,
the ticking of the pocketwatch
without being wound, in these days
any magic will do.

Matchstick 66

You’re on historic Route 66 heading east toward Las Vegas. You come up the backside of Barstow. This is the dead side.

Part of you is excited by driving the lost highways that connect San Diego to Las Vegas. A mock-gonzo pilgrimage to the capital of Fear and Loathing, to the land where the American Dream died.

You have no plans of dropping acid or mescaline pellets or ether. But Barstow is still significant. It was around these parts when the drugs took hold. And though you don’t do drugs anymore, will never see the bats out in the desert, the idea of driving mostly the same route to Vegas is its own drug.

You get up to 120 mph on Route 66, bouncing along the highway that’s all wavy like microwave bacon. 80 mph up the backside of Barstow. Just before sunset.

The first thing you notice is how it isn’t a town at all. It’s a collection of buildings in various stages of decay. Ideas almost forgotten.

The same can be said for people wandering the streets. You can’t help but think of them as burnt matchsticks—spent, useless. And you wonder if their lives have ever burned with a purpose or if they are just a pyromaniac’s trash—a match lighting nothing but itself for a short time.

You’ve seen people like this everywhere you’ve lived. You see them and then you don’t because they move. You’re realizing their movement always leads them here. To Barstow.

They sleep in broken baby strollers and on curbside couches, all their belongings stuffed into Mickey Mouse backpacks. And you know these people have been cast aside by life. As if they exist only for those passing through to look at and think, Thank God I’m not like those people. A way to feel happier about life.

There’s a bottle of tequila in your trunk and you wish you could be some kind of trash-can Christ, feed shots to these matchstick people from a never-ending bottle. Pair the booze with whatever drug they’re on and tint their life the right shade of patient as death eases closer.

You wish you could pull over and take a sip yourself, do something to honor the pilgrimage, to not be such a lame thirty-three-year-old. Because that’s what being thirty-three is starting to seem like for you—lame, quiet. No drugs. No booze. No danger—even though part of you knew the life you were living, in service of the drugs, would eventually turn you into a matchstick person.

Instead of pulling over to drink some tequila, you pull over at a place that seems like an oasis in this deserted desert town: a fucking Starbucks. Which makes you realize how deep caffeine addiction bleeds into the veins of America. Even in a town so thoroughly dead, people still crave Venti lattes and free Wi-Fi.

The coffee shop is populated by two types: the matchsticks and the passer-throughs—who all look about as nervous as a hippie in a barbershop. Or a junkie whose dealer won’t answer their calls. The desire for coffee is worth the fear of being attacked or accosted by one of the lesser-thans.

You walk up to the counter, stepping around a guy who’s doing the circular wobble that junkies do right after they’ve plunged a fresh shot of black pearl. The people at the counter don’t look at him. It’s a practiced effort, which tells you that it isn’t his first time standing at the counter like this.

You order a Grande coffee in a Venti cup, add two shots, and tell them to throw in some sugar and half-and-half. A sweet and legal methamphetamine.

As you pay, there’s a tap on your arm.

You look and Mr. Heroin Wobble has his index finger against your arm. He’s looking at you. And you’re struck hard with a sadness you won’t be able to shake.

He’s younger than you. Bearded. Shabby hair. Destroyed. You see this guy’s right arm is all swollen and red. You can almost feel the heat coming off of it. And he looks like a childhood friend. Steven.

The guy taps your arm again. Then he does a little dance when he realizes he has your attention.

You and Steven went to the same elementary school, middle school, high school. You both had a passion for creating art and music. He wrote stories and you copied him. You’re realizing now that he’s actually the one who introduced you to Hunter S. Thompson. He’s also the one who introduced you to most of the drugs you ever did.

At some point you stopped bonding over drugs, the two of you taking separate paths, each becoming two halves of a gonzo mind: you, the forward-moving desperation to succeed; him, the doped-up anarchy. One match to light something, the other destined to burn out. Ego and Id. He stood on street corners trading tightly-wrapped baggies for crumpled twenties—despite making straight As in school—and you went to college, paid time and collected debt to find a way out, to not fall into the pit with him.

You stopped talking to Steven when he started doing heroin. Deep down, you believe that if he’d never done drugs—if he’d instead gone to school or had the same desperation to prove himself as you did—he would be in a better place than you. A real artist.

He called you often and you never answered. You didn’t feel bad for him—you just didn’t want him to pull you into the same space he shared. But one night you did answer. He slurred through some plan to meet up with you, and you agreed. In the middle of the conversation he said, I’ll call you back in five minutes. He never did, and you never saw him again. Five years later you went to his funeral.

You should have called him. Maybe if you had, you would’ve heard how much he needed someone, how much he needed to be reminded of who he really was. You had a chance to bring him out of that dark place, to help rebuild what the drugs had broken. But you didn’t have time to help someone who would never help himself. You were too busy trying to make your own way. You didn’t need any more weight. Instead, you let the calls go to voicemail. You didn’t even listen to the messages. You pressed seven and deleted him.

He died from an infection in his arm. A dirty needle. The girl he was living with at the time said he woke up in the middle of the night and said his arm was hot. Then he called his mom and said, Mom, I don’t feel good. He died an hour later in the hospital.

You wait for your coffee. And as you wait, this guy tries to talk to you about the food behind the counter. He does a little dance while he talks. He wants to know where the unused food goes at the end of the night. He wants something to eat. In the middle of talking, he forgets he’s talking and just stares at you. As if he recognizes you. He goes to tap your arm again. You dodge his touch.

You’d buy him food but you know if you offer to buy him something, you’re offering to buy the whole place something. These matchstick people operate on a hive mind.

The barista calls your name. You grab your coffee and fuck off—out of Starbucks, out of Barstow, out of the desert.

In Vegas, you win $145 playing video blackjack. You spill an entire tequila and Sprite on your crotch and walk around the casino like you’ve pissed yourself—no one seems to notice you. Almost in the same way that you don’t notice all the matchstick people in this town. They’re too well-lit by the neon. But you know they’re there. Playing the penny slots. Tired. Looking for the exit. Only finding the ATM.

Soon, you look for the exit too. This place is not yet your home, but it will be.

On the way back to San Diego, you take 15 all the way. You have no interest in taking the lost highways. This time you want to stay found.

As you pass through Barstow on this more populated stretch of highway, there’s an impossible-to-miss sign that reads: Welcome to Barstow…The Crossroad of Opportunity.

On this side of town, with all the fast-food signs culling drivers to stop for something familiar, you might believe there’s opportunity. But on the dead side, you know there’s nothing.

Again you think of all the people stuck at the crossroad, unable to choose. You think of Steven. How you were at a crossroad the night he called and you chose the path that led away. You think of the guy in the coffee shop and all you want is to find him and buy him food or give him a chance to leave this crossroad. Because the only way out of Barstow is death.

You drive back to the Starbucks, passing a new set of matchstick people.

You get another coffee and take it back to your car. You sit in the parking lot until they close.

But you never see him again.

the ghosts we are and the ghosts we will become

The Art of Planet Building

You are assigned your Purpose before leaving the Mother Womb. Void of conscious thought and concept of self, your entire life is planned out on your behalf.

A Technician does what they are designated to do: scans your essence and your flesh, feeds the results into the Cosmic Mind. An on-duty Designator does what they are designated to do: assigns you your one true Purpose.

All the possible paths you are capable of taking, all the hardships you are capable of overcoming, every disaster that would leave you in wreckage—all of it is scrutinized in detail, until only the brightest road is lit. The gods will not leave your life to chance when your success can be guaranteed.

And thus, before your first breath, before your first thought, you are given your Purpose, and you are given your name.

Peritak. Builder of Planets.

Despite what the gods will have you believe, even the clearest journeys can be difficult to travel.

You are only a fledgling when you ask the question.

“Why am I here?”

The class of Builders turns to look at you.

You meet their stares with confusion. You do not understand how your peers trust with such conviction. Do they not wonder, the way you do? Of all the Purposes, why were you designated this Purpose—to build planets? What was it about your body, your essence, that set you on this path?

“We are here to learn how to build planets, Peritak,” the Guide says. “Is there something in the lesson you do not understand?”

You understand the lesson. You understand all you’ve been told. How to manufacture a planet’s core. What tools are required for the assembly of foundations. The density recommended for a planet’s surface. Landscape and lifeform production. Then, once proficient, you’ll join your peers in building planets.

Is there something in the lesson you do not understand?

“No.” You bow your head. “I understand.”

Class continues as though you never interrupted.

The first time you visit the Museum of Flourishing Life is the first time you learn of The Ether.

Having wandered from your peers’ tour of the Archives, you follow the sign reading ATELIER, through the winding corridors, through the Universe, until you reach it. You have only learned of the Atelier through teachings. You never expected to see it.

After all, this is a place for Creators.

You hover between the end of the Museum and the beginning of the Atelier. Though the floor is dull and gray, each station is blossoming with color.

Opaque glass domes of alternating sizes spread unevenly across the hall—a constellation of ideas. Creators enter and exit their domes with thoughts floating behind them, sketches printing on endless scrolls, prototypes manifesting in the space around them. This is nothing like the Archives, filled with boxes of documentation, tools, and prototypes. Nothing like the Factory, where skeletons are built and filled.

This is where life is imagined, where planets are truly born.

Every project a Builder assists is imagined and designed by one of the Creators before you. Absorbed with their tasks, they pay you no mind. You are careful to stay out of their way, lest you hinder their process and be asked to leave.

“Little one,” a Creator asks. “What are you doing here?”

You startle, realizing the question is directed at you. It takes a moment, but you recognize the Creator as Kinapon, famed for the meticulous detail involved in their planets. Their last creation, the planet Vortumnus, required twice the average Builders and took three times as long to complete. It is rumored amongst your peers that Kinapon assisted the Cleaners in transporting the project scrolls to the Archives—something unheard of for any Creator. Why, you wonder, would a Creator undertake a task outside of their Purpose?

“Are you, perhaps, on a tour with your peers?” Kinapon asks. “Have you come to see where you’ll be working?”

Kinapon assumes you are a Creator, not a Builder—after all, Builders do not visit the Atelier.

“What is your name?” Kinapon asks.

“Peribon,” you lie.

“What sort of world do you hope to create, Peribon?” Kinapon gestures towards a dome blooming with flora. “A world of growth?” They turn to another, vibrating with mist and cold flurry. “A world of beauty?” Near the end, a smear of color flickers. “Or would you set your mind on something new?”

“I am not yet sure.” You watch a Creator you don’t recognize exit an empty dome, the scrolls above them blank. “Do you always know what you want to create before you create it?”

“I do,” Kinapon says. “However, the planet I create and the world it becomes are never the same.”

You do not understand, and by Kinapon’s expression of amusement, it shows. They walk you from the edge of the Atelier, back into the Universe.

“Do you know, little one, the difference between a planet and a world?”

They stop in front of the gods’ most recent marvel, on display at the center of the hall. Even from behind glass, it looks beautiful—swirls of mauve and indigo and cream, orbited by speckled moons. You read the award printed on the screen.

The Planet Bellona • Epipon • This budding planet represents the clashing of differing sentiments found in various lifeforms. Boasting over 100 sentient lifeforms, its self-destruction is imminent. The fleeting existence of this world is a tribute to the planets lost to The Ether.

“What is The Ether?”

Kinapon examines you closely. Perhaps you have given yourself away.

“No, I don’t suppose you’ve come to that particular lesson yet,” Kinapon finally says.

At the entrance of the hall one of your peers waves you over. “Peritak! The Guide is searching for you!”

“Pe-ri-tak.” Kinapon hums, walking you to the entrance. “It would seem you are a Builder of Planets.”

You remain silent. It is one thing to cause trouble to your Guide, whose Purpose is to teach you; it is another to offend a Creator, who could choose to reject you from future projects you wished to be assigned to.

“It was good to meet you, little one,” Kinapon says. “Next time you visit, come find me. I will show you The Ether.”

The offer is too good to believe. Your voice is feather-soft when you ask, “Am I allowed?”

“Ah!” Kinapon says, smiling widely. “Who will stop you?”

You follow your peer back to the Archives, where the Guide reminds you to remain with the group at all times. Do not run off. Do not wander.

Only as you’re leaving the Museum do you realize Kinapon never explained the difference between a planet and a world.

Your curiosity grows and spreads, until you are consumed with an urgency you don’t understand. You hurry back to the Atelier; this time, you do not hesitate on the edges, searching eagerly for Kinapon.

“We meet once more, little one,” Kinapon says. “Have you escaped the clutches of your Guide?”

“You said you would show me The Ether.” You hurry to follow as Kinapon leads you through the hall. “And you never explained the difference between a planet and a world. I asked the Guide, and they said there is none.”

You’re led through a dimly lit tunnel, the floor glistening as though coated with water. “Where are we going?”

“You truly are a Builder.” What Kinapon means by that, you’re unsure, but they seem amused. “This is the way to the Dome of Light.”

You stop in your step. The Dome of Light. This is where the judgment is made, where Creators bring their planets for appraisal by the gods. If worthy, the planet will be displayed in the Universe, where it will be permitted to exist until its natural end. Some will turn on their axes for eternity.

“Did you never wonder, little one,” Kinapon asks, “what happens to the planets deemed unworthy?”

Longing to study it, you step closer but Kinapon yanks you back.

“Careful, little one,” they whisper. “Or The Ether will take you too.”

Where? You want to ask, but Kinapon is already leading you towards the outer rim of the Dome.

At first you think you are being moved to make space for an arrival—perhaps other Creators, or Cleaners. You wait, as Kinapon does, but no one comes.

Then—

You feel it. The floor rumbles beneath and the circle of pillars dims further. A black light shoots from each of them into the central pillar, filling it with a piercing darkness, until the light and planet are clouded in gloom.

It is over in an instant.

The streaming shadows vanish, and the central pillar is once again filled with light.

“Kinapon,” you call out, though they are beside you. “What is the difference between a planet and a world?”

You return to the Atelier so many times you know enough Creators by name to have your pick of projects.

While your fellow Builders are sending scrolls, you are walking from dome to dome, learning things only Creators are taught.

When the Creator Taripon asks if you would like to be assigned to their project, your curiosity feels unquenchable. How did they come to imagine it? How long do they expect construction to take? When will it be ready for the Dome of Light?

While Taripon answers what they can, there are some questions they, too, desire answers to.

“What do the gods want in a planet?” you finally ask Kinapon. The both of you are at the mouth of the tunnel between the Atelier and the Dome, having just witnessed another planet taken to The Ether. “Why is it Creators were not taught?”

“That is for the gods to know,” Kinapon replies. “Our Purpose does not require the knowledge.”

Preposterous, you think but do not say. “How are Creators to build a worthy planet if they do not know what the gods consider worthy?”

“There is an entire collection of worthy planets for us to study, little one.”
Though true, you think, there is an infinitely larger collection lost to the Ether.

The first project you are assigned to build is deemed worthy by the gods. The second project meets the same fate. Then, the third. It is only after the fourth that your peers confront you.

“All the planets you helped build—they are all displayed in the Universe. How did you know they would be so revered?”

“It is luck,” you reply, going back to your work. You are assisting construction for the Creator Momopon. You had smelled the sweetness while passing their dome, seen the softness from across the Atelier. When they began requesting Builders, you gave them your scroll in person.

“Luck,” another peer says, amused. “Do not let the gods hear you speak of such things.”

“Perhaps Peritak is but a great Builder,” says another. “Perhaps every planet they touch turns to pure light.”

Thinking they exaggerate at your expense, you laugh, but you are the only one who does. When your peers look to you, it is as though they are looking towards the stars.

You find yourself longing to be in the dimly lit tunnel between the Atelier and the Dome of Light.

“I have been thinking,” you say to Kinapon, “of searching for my Designator.”

The scrolls circling Kinapon drop, cluttering against the gray floor of the Atelier.

The both of you had been discussing the latest gift sent to The Ether. A voluptuous planet filled with vicious oceans and thirsting lifeforms. Had it been deemed worthy, it would have met a swift death, though its blueprints would have been immortalized in the Cosmic Mind, accessible should the gods wish the planet be recreated once more.

“Do you know where I would find them?”

Kinapon replies, “I have been waiting a long while for you to ask.”

Designators mostly frequent the Grand Genesis, amongst Birthers and Technicians. The corridors are uncurved, their walls white. The doors are identical, with labels you cannot read.

Unlike the Museum of Flourishing Life, you have no place here and you feel it. The air is musky and pungent, and every step meets resistance.

A Designator approaches you, voice clipped, “Can I assist you with a matter?”

“I am searching for Yeleom.” You hold out the scroll, covered in symbols you cannot decipher.

The Designator looks it over. “Where did you get this?”

“It was given to me by Kinapon,” you answer. “What does it say?”

The Designator does not reply. They usher you through corridor after corridor. Occasionally, they pause to look down to the scroll.

Finally, when they have stopped at a door, you ask, “The scroll, is it a map? A series of directions?”

“No,” the Designator replies, returning it. “It is a letter from your mentor to Yeleom, requesting your Purpose be transferred.”

You stare at the scroll. Kinapon knew your reason in wanting to find your Designator.

“But you looked to it often.”

“In disbelief,” the Designator says. They knock on the door, before leaving the way you came.

As Yeleom examines the scroll, you wonder if there is a specific emotion you are expected to feel. This is, after all, the Designator who assigned you your Purpose, who wrote your path for you. Are you supposed to feel excitement? Or joy? Resentment?

Yeleom’s cube contains nothing more than a wide screen in the center of the room. You hover behind them as they search through the Cosmic Mind. The screen they stop at is covered in graphs and symbols almost similar to the ones on the scroll.

“Pe-ri-tak,” Yeleom says, finally lowering the scroll. “You were birthed after the Dreaming Drought.”

You do not know what this means. You want to ask, but there is a question you want to ask more. “Why was I assigned to be a Builder of Worlds?”

Yeleom is muttering too softly for you to comprehend the words, examining the enlarged graphs on the screen, one by one, until finally turning their head to study you.

“You wish to change your Purpose.”

“It has been done before,” you say quickly. “In the past, there have been Birthers who became Technicians. Cleaners who became Builders—”

“Do you know how many Builders have tried to be Creators?” Yeleom asks.
You nod.

The screen changes. It is a red circle on a gray background. Nothing more.

“Three,” Yeleom says.

You know this. You know their names, the planets they built. The first designed seven planets in total. The second returned to building before their first planet was even completed. The third designed over two hundred planets; the final design garnered no Builders.

“All three failed,” Yeleom says. “They have returned to their assigned Purposes.”

You know this too. The first one assisted on the completion of Forctis, a planet with six blue moons, designed by Tinipon. The second has yet to assist building a planet deemed worthy by the gods. The third, contrary to Yeleom’s claim, you know has never been heard from again.

Should you fail, you will be the fourth. A statistic on Yeleom’s graph.

And here you are.

By the time you learn all there is to learn about being a Creator, Kinapon has designed eight more planets. Seven of them are displayed in the Universe.

“My most prized planet was a gift to The Ether,” Kinapon jokes. “You would have loved it, little one.”

You wish you could have seen it, just once, before it was destroyed. Though Kinapon shows you the scrolls and prototypes before the Cleaners box them up to be taken to Archives, it is not the same as seeing a completed planet, as seeing an entire world.

“We will be seeing planets designed by you, soon enough,” Kinapon says. “I have no doubt you have an abundance of ideas ready to be given life.”

But your first planet takes twice as long as the average Creator, even with Kinapon’s help.

“You are trying to merge all the planets you long to create into one,” Kinapon says. “There is time, little one. You can create them all in time.”

You think of the three Builders—of the red circle on a gray background.

They had time too.

It occurs to you, slowly, then all at once.

You have an entire solar system inside you, the stars burning incandescent in their fervor.

Supernovas, waiting.

When, at last, you finish the design for your first planet, there is not a single Builder who agrees to join your project.

The planet you’ve tentatively named Pales, full of luscious landscapes and violent lifeforms. A smudged burnt umber color, smelling richly of damp dirt, orbited by a single moon. With a team of thirty or so Builders, its construction would be timely, straightforward. There’s little reason for the average Builder to refuse.

You approach Builders who were once your peers, who were once by your side constructing planets. Their eyes don’t quite meet yours when they speak.

“Perhaps another time,” some of them say, as though the alignment of the stars affects the ability to build.

“Perhaps the next planet,” you suggest. The words might as well be tossed into a box, brought to the Dome of Light, and gifted to The Ether.

“Perhaps,” they reply, their voice faltering in a way you can’t afford.

When the next six planets you design meet the same fate as the first, you begin to wonder if the gods have ever faltered. If the gods ever hurt. If they ever struggle to be, the way lesser beings do.

“You knew this path would be difficult, little one.”

You walk through the tunnel with Kinapon, into the Dome of Light. Nunobon’s planet Novensiles is at the center of the Dome, illuminated within the pillar.

Earlier, it was deemed worthy by the gods. Now, it awaits transportation to the Universe.

“I am going to build it myself,” you say.

Kinapon, watching Novensiles rotate, was scarcely moving at all. You sense them still nonetheless. “Build what, Peritak?”

“The next planet I design.” You relish in the look they give you. It is rare to surprise Kinapon. “I will design it and build it myself.”

They step away from the central pillar, the look of surprise dimming into one of consternation. “Peritak,” Kinapon says, “a project built by a single Builder is unheard of.”

“So are the planets we design,” you remind them. “They are unheard of until we create them and give them names.”

Creators lose track of time, and Builders lose track of space.

It is not until a cloud of your scrolls collide with a fellow Creator, crashing into the side of your station, knocking a disorganized tower of prototypes to the floor, that you realize you have lost track of both.

You vision is blurred, as are your thoughts. How long has it been since you last rested? One more moon, you told yourself. One more moon, and then a break.

But the way the moons illuminated the planet’s surface hadn’t been quite right, and you weren’t sure if it was the structure of the moons, or the paths of their orbits, or the distance of the planet from the sun—and, somehow, now you find yourself collapsed on the floor, staring up at Epipon, disorientated and distantly wondering if your planet needs moons at all.

“Your ideas are growing too big for your station, Peritak,” Epipon says. They look to your station, where the contents spill forth across the gray floors.

“Be mindful of encroaching.”

“The gods want new and the gods want the same,” you say, exhausted. “It is hard to decide which path to take.”

“Yes, I suppose that is true. Although…” Epipon’s head tilts back, thoughts sloshing, before dropping forward. Epipon peers down at you. “The two do not have to be separate.”

The words splash onto your skin, cold and jarring. You wake from a haze you have no memory of slipping into.

It is not the first time you witness a judgment, but it is your last.

The gods flicker before they shine. Then all is dim again, the only light in the Dome from the central pillar, the planet you created in the center.

You can imagine it on display at the center of the Universe, rotating behind glass. The deep violet crust is barely visible under the glittering whorls of grand forests colored sunshine-amber. The milky oceans are modest, but given enough time and tectonic activity, they will shift and spread, become their own everchanging shapes. A blazing bright planet, contrasted against the gaping black of the universe.

The Planet Poena • Peritak • With a luminescent core, the lifeforms of this planet can be sustained with no need for a sun or moon for light. As the first planet designed and built by a Builder, this world is a beacon for those who find themselves lost in the Universe.

And it would have been—a world—had it been given the chance to grow.

“You have my condolences, Peritak,” Kinapon says, approaching the central pillar. “Truly, it is a beautiful planet. Its destruction will be a shame.”

You do not reply.

In all your lessons, as a Builder, as a Creator, none of the Guides warned you of this. You have given all you have to Poena. You built its structure with your bones. Its craters and valleys are filled with your blood. Your life and your light are in its soil and its atmosphere.

And the gods have deemed it unworthy.

Where does that leave you?

If there is no place for your world in the Universe, where, in all the cosmos, do you belong?

Perhaps, you were wrong to deviate from the path you were set. Perhaps, if you turn back now, you can still find your way back to the start. The fourth Builder to fail as a Creator—you will have lost nothing but time and pride.

Perhaps, all you have gained as a Creator will make you a better Builder.

“Your next planet will be worthy of their praise,” Kinapon insists. “From this very moment, you may call yourself an experienced Creator.”

Kinapon speaks with a certainty you have never felt—not with your assigned Purpose, nor with your chosen one. To know they have such faith in you is both harrowing and moving.

You offer a small smile. “Kinapon, do you know the difference between a Builder and a Creator?”

Kinapon laughs. “Oh! How the tides have turned. I remember a time it was I who asked you such questions.”

“You never did tell me, you know,” you say, stepping up to the central pillar. This close, you are bathed in its brilliance. “The difference between a planet and a world.”

“You know the answer now, little one,” Kinapon says fondly, as though speaking to an old friend. You suppose they are no longer your mentor. Now, you would be considered peers.

It is strange that you should feel so tired, so worn and old, and yet so small, so little, all at once.

You wonder if, when The Ether takes Poena, the budding organisms you’ve created, given life to, will feel it—the way the floor of the Dome quakes, the sting of black light. You wonder if they will hear the reverberating silence, if they will feel the horror of loss. You wonder if you will.

“What of you?” you ask Kinapon. “Do you already know the answer to mine?”

“Alas, I do not,” Kinapon smiles. “Tell me, Peritak—Builder and Creator of worlds—what is the difference between a Builder and a Creator?”

Kinapon, like you, will learn the answer with time.

Alone in the Dome, surrounded by its dimmed pillars and silence, you hope to find peace. Poena is in its final moments, but instead of pride, you feel the gravity of death.

This close you can see the glow from its core penetrating the planet’s crust, pure radiance streaking out of every pore. It seems all the more cruel that Poena has no understanding of its fate.

But the gods, you suppose, consider this a kindness.

There is a space inside you that once housed an ache—one you would have built galaxies to ease. In its place is a grief too great to stomach. It is a physical mass—your grief—devouring your organs and your flesh.

If only you could trade Poena for your unease. Pull the planet and its moons from the central pillar, and fill it with this black hole inside you.

You wonder if the gods have ever felt loss like this—if the paths they travelled have ever been as tumultuous. The floor rumbles beneath and the circle of pillars dim, and you are left wondering if there are places even the gods have not been.

It occurs to you, slowly, then all at once.

Supernovas are neither worlds nor stars. They are suns, burning out. They are stripped of nebula, skin and flesh. They are white dwarfs, losing their breath. They are flashes of illumination, in the space and time between life and death.

They are brilliant, in their creation of light and destruction of self.

They are, to your disappointment and relief, short-lived.

“Searching for a spark?”

Kinapon turns away from the scroll to face their peer. Epipon gestures to the dome, lifeless save for the scrolls and prototypes bursting from the boxes haphazardly stacked outside. “Another planet to The Ether?”

“A world, I should think,” Kinapon says. “Another world to The Ether.”

Epipon makes a non-committal noise. “For what it’s worth, I thought it had promise.”

“As did I,” Kinapon replies.

“But we are not gods.”

“No. That we are not.”

They both watch as a team of Cleaners enter the hall, sealing the boxes and taking the lot off to the Archives.

“Perhaps the next planet,” Epipon says, “will be more to their liking.”

A Cleaner sticks their head out of the dome. “There’s more draftwork in here.”

“That’s odd,” Epipon says, going over to take a look. “Peritak is usually quite thorough.”

“All that cannot be packed, move to my dome,” Kinapon says. “Peritak will send it to the Archives upon their return.”

The Cleaner relays the information, and the two Creators watch as all is packed into boxes, the excess transferred to Kinapon’s dome.

Kinapon picks up a prototype of a lifeform. It wiggles in their hand.

Anything the Cleaners do not send to the Archives will be destroyed. All Creators know this.

“There would be no shame in it, you know,” Epipon says. “If Peritak returned to building planets. It is, after all, their true Purpose.”

With the dome now empty, Epipon’s words reverberate—but Kinapon does not appear to be listening. They step out from vacant space and stare towards the tunnel leading to the Dome of Light, as though expecting you to return.

The Little Prince

Elijah had curly hair that was slumber-pressed flat in the back but loose in the front. He would often absentmindedly squeeze between his fingers the fat, sandy-brown curls that hung over his moonstone eyes. He knew from Grandma Nell, his mother’s mother, that he was mulatto. He’d heard her say so when she introduced him to acquaintances in the frozen foods aisle at SuperValu, the Laundromat, or church whenever he visited his grandparents in Faribault, Minnesota. To most of the people in his world—like his friends Red and Boogy—he was simply “mixed.” That, to him, seemed more to the point.

It was the last day of spring break. Elijah was holding court with Red, who bounced a basketball between his legs, and Boogy. The thonk-thonk-thonk of the ball metered their silence, and the graffitied high-rise that was Elijah’s home hulked behind them. The only signs of nature were the wooden light poles. A girl in a striped miniskirt and immaculately-finger-waved hair pushed a squalling baby in a stroller. Some old-timers parked in aluminum chairs on the sidewalk near the corner bodega gawked as she passed. Elijah caught the reflection of the midday sun in the limo-tint window of a tricked-out Mercedes pumping past them down the wide avenue. A heavy bass line thumped from enormous speakers in the car’s open trunk.

Leaning back on ashy elbows, Elijah heaved a sigh and dropped his head back. “Dang, man. I wish I still had my bike.” It had been a gift—a consolation prize, really—from Elijah’s mother the last time they’d gone to the mall.

His real, deep-down wish was that his mom would reappear that day. His deep-deep-down wish was that she’d come back her old laughing, Wonder Woman self. She hadn’t been home in days. His across-the-hall neighbor, Mrs. Haskins, had been shooting him sidelong glances and pressing him about her whereabouts as he nibbled on the freshly-baked cookie she’d given him. If his mom wasn’t back by dinner, he’d have to call Grandma Nell again.

“Dog,” interjected Red. “You need to forget you ever even owned a bike. Know what I’m sayin’?” Boogy looked up from his X-Men comic book and bobbed his head like a novelty Chihuahua perched on a dashboard. A few cars grumbled past.

“And you, dog—X-Men is played! Ain’t nobody tryin’ to read that madness no more,” Red said.

“You’re just mad ’cause alls you got is those old Green Hornets your gramma gave you in kindygartin,” laughed Boogy.

Red seemed unfazed. “Y’all just don’t know nothin ’bout classics, man. Classics. I’m gonna cash mine in for some real bank one day, while y’all tryin’ to trade yours in for some Archies.”

“I gotta buncha Supermans—now tell me you got jack that can top that at the bank!”

“Boogy, ain’t nobody tryin’ to hear ’bout your Saturday morning bullshit. Why don’t you shut your ninety-nine-cent-Whopper-eatin’ ass up?” snapped Red. “Whatta y’all know anyway—buncha fourth graders…”

Red was short for Redmond but was additionally fitting because of his hot temper, rust-colored Afro, and freckles. Elijah knew some of the other kids called him Dirty Red behind his back. The fact that he was a second-time fifth grader made no matter. As the oldest, Elijah accepted him as the self-anointed ringleader. Boogy dwarfed Elijah and Red, having outgrown the Husky Boy’s department a couple of years back. He had dark, velvety skin. His nickname came from a nurse in the hospital where he was born who had remarked that he looked like that character in To Kill a Mockingbird—Boogy Radley. And somehow, it stuck.

Elijah finally lifted his gaze from his unlaced high-tops and stared off down the street. “Red, man, he was just jokin’. Why you always gotta cap on people like that?” he asked meekly.

“I’m just sayin’…And forget about your bike. For reals,” Red said. He formed a fist over the basketball, stuttering its bouncing to a stop.

“It’s just…” Elijah’s voice squeaked. “Never mind.”

5 bicycles: purple, black, yellow, purple and green

His mom had bought the bike the day that he’d found himself waiting on her for hours in the food court. She had said she’d only be gone a minute. A salesclerk on her break had taken notice of him. Soon, he was moored in the mall security office while uniformed, walkie-talkie-toting security officers filed in and out with Styrofoam cups of coffee and soda cans and snacks from the vending machine in the hall by the restroom. Most of the mall cops had ignored the hefty woman in a fake fur coat handcuffed to the bench across from Elijah. She cracked her chewing gum nonstop and answered questions solely by rolling her eyes sharply in one direction or the other. Occasionally, the head of security rose to peep over his desk at Elijah. He would say, “Hang in there, now—I bet your mama’s more scared than you.” Then he’d force a smile. Eventually, the smile became a mere twitch of the mouth before he’d duck his head back down. Three-and-a-half hours had passed before his mother appeared—fifteen minutes before the mall closed. Her hair was pasted to her head with sweat, eyes wild as if she had been chased there at gunpoint. When she saw Elijah, she flew to him. She knelt before him and kissed him all over his face and hugged him so tightly he couldn’t move.

“You all right? You okay, baby?” his mother had asked. Elijah had just nodded. Her clammy arms had clenched him tighter. “Okay…okay,” she heaved. He felt her heart hammering in her chest. All eyes were upon them as she wiped her damp, dishwater blonde hair from her face. She took Elijah’s hand as they stood, squeezing it so hard he had to pry himself loose. The head security officer rose from his desk as they turned to leave.
“Thank you, officers,” his mother said with exaggerated formality as they left.

A lanky guard had stood stiffly in the doorway and regarded them with slight disdain. The handcuffed woman in the fake fur had let out a loud snort. Elijah turned to glance at her and caught the gaze of the security officer behind the counter, who looked upon him with a resigned softness.
“Take care now, son—I told you it’d be all right,” he’d said, nodding reassuringly at Elijah just before they slipped away.
His mother dragged him through the mall toward the parking lot, walking as if she were on hot coals. Then she stopped, pale-faced and panting, just inside the exit between two aisles of bicycles in Sears’s sporting goods department.

“Go on, baby,” she’d told him, pushing him forth by the shoulders. “Pick out any one you want. Absolutely any one. Any one at all.”

He chose a sparkly blue one with a banana seat and high handlebars.
That had been a year and a half ago.

a set of headphones, not connected to anything

A weathered man layered in tattered clothes, with a sleeping bag draped over his shoulders, rolled a rusted Weber grill past Elijah, Boogy, and Red. The man stopped in the center of the intersection and began cursing in disgust. A wheel had been hobbled. The boys watched the man circle the grill, surveying it from all sides as if he’d been in a car crash.

Boogy was the first to notice the sight pedaling towards them. “Damn, man—here comes your bike.”

A teenage boy, way too big for the sparkly bike, called out as he rode up to the trio. “What up, Superfriends?” The boy, Lollipop, began riding in tight circles in front of them, wagging his tongue in mockery.

“Nothin’ up ’round here,” said Red. “What’s up with you?”

“Awww, you know man, same ol’ same ol’—I’m ’bout to go to work though.”
Elijah hugged his shins tight to his chest and rested his chin on his knees, letting stray curls fall forward to hide his face.

“Go to work?” scoffed Red. “Since when you got a job?”

“Man, what you know? I got me a jobby-job down at SuperValu bagging shit up. So, there.”

“Then why you gotta go ’round taking folks’ spokes if you got a job?”

“Maaaan, I ain’t taken shit. I’m owed, and I’m just making sure I get paid,” Lollipop added, steadily riding in circles. “Ain’t that right, ’Lijah?”

Elijah stole a timid glance at Lollipop out of the corner of one eye. The teenager was right. Elijah had borrowed ten dollars from him a couple of days earlier to buy comic books. He thought he’d get the money later from his mom when she got home. Except she never did.

Lollipop backpedaled to a stop in front of the curb. He lifted the baseball cap off his hooded head and set it back with the brim twisted to the opposite side. “What’s up wit’ your moms, anyway, man?” he asked Elijah. “I just seened her over there by Hunan Palace, and she was trippin’, man. Triii–ppin’. Anyway, man, you need to straighten out your boys here ’bout callin’ people stealers.” The older boy pedaled off lopingly, knees jutting out in wide arcs. He called back as he went, “Nobody wants your stank-ass Huffy no how!”

Elijah’s head drooped, but his stomach fluttered as he gazed hypnotically again at the tops of his Converses. Red rolled the basketball back and forth on the ground between his feet for a while. Boogy strummed his thumbs on his knees. When the silence had gone on long enough, Red tapped Elijah on the arm. “Dog, forget this madness, let’s go shoot some hoops or somethin’.”

“I’m sayin’,” added Boogy. “Let’s check it.”

They climbed to their feet. Red dribbled the ball ahead of them as they ambled toward the basketball court on the next block. To avoid being asked if he was going to find his mom, Elijah let himself fall farther and farther behind. When the other two boys were a safe shouting distance ahead, he called out to them.

“Hey! I’m gonna catch up with you guys later, awright?” He began his trek to Hunan Palace. If he had wings like his favorite X-Men character, Angel, he could fly there. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to get there any faster.

A walkman with headphones wire but no headphones

The overhead sky was bright and sharp. A dejected Elijah wound his way through dust-gray tenement apartment buildings, roll-gate-shuttered and boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots. He strode in an irregular gait, careful to avoid the sidewalk’s cracks. Then, the glint from a plate-glass window broke the spell. Snapping his head forward, he saw that he’d reached Hunan Palace. It was overly-lit, like a laboratory. Elijah didn’t want to see her here, but there she was—seated alone at a table in the middle of the half-empty restaurant. Her mussy head was resting on the Formica table. His heart sank.

Pulling open the stiff metal-framed door took all of his strength. Its weight hastily ushered him inside, and nearly caught his arm in the jamb. He wove his way toward her, his legs feeling weak. Still some tables away, he saw that the blue dress she had on was a hospital gown. A stuffed plastic bag was in the aisle by her seat. Elijah spotted a small, broom-wielding man approaching her from the other direction. The man reached her first and whacked the broom’s handle sharply against the leg of her chair. His mother jumped in her seat. She righted herself, awake but disoriented. A smattering of rice grains stuck to her forehead.

“No sleeping in the restaurant thank you!” barked the man. Elijah was cemented in place, gape-mouthed until the man retreated behind the counter. Then, he went to his mother. Her head lolled slightly to one side, and she rubbed spittle from the corner of her mouth with the palm of her hand. Elijah patted her softly on the arm. When he finally came into focus for her, a smile wavered across her face.

“Hey, baby,” she sighed with longing and relief. She scrubbed her hand through his hair adoringly, and the end of her plastic hospital ID bracelet lightly scratched his cheek. “Look who’s here. My little man. My little prince…”

She was babbling, pulling Elijah closer when the man emerged with the broom from behind the counter and intoned, “You done, you go on now. Okay, bye-bye.” He caught Elijah’s wide-eyed gaze, and added, “You must go—I keep the door open for you, okay?” And he went to do just that. Elijah tried to rally his gangly mother to her feet, but she was dazed, and faltered. He picked up her bag of belongings.

“C’mon, Mom. We gotta go,” he said, brushing the rice grains from her face with his fingers.

“All right, baby, where you want to go?” she murmured as she clambered to stand. “Hmmm, baby?”

“Let’s just go, Mom. C’mon,” Elijah coaxed. The owner had posted himself at the entrance, leaning his back against the door to keep it open wide. Elijah raised a bent arm, like a gentleman escorting his date. His mother held on to it to keep herself steady as they wended their way through diners paused over their chop suey and fried rice and chicken chow fun.

The owner snarled, “Go. Go quickly! QUICKLY!

Reaching the door, Elijah’s mother hesitated and gave the steely-faced owner a wobbly grin. The man grimaced. With a few quick snaps of his head, he signaled for them to move on. As she stepped over the threshold, his mother quickly leaned in and licked the man from chin to cheek.

As Elijah unlocked the last deadbolt to their apartment, he could hear Mrs. Haskins turning the locks to her door. Not wanting to deal with her prying, he hurried his mother inside. Slats of hazy afternoon light sliced through beat-up aluminum blinds and across the thrift-store furniture in their tumbledown apartment. Elijah watched as she settled herself, and his stomach grumbled. He wondered if he’d missed his chance for some food from Mrs. Haskins. His mother sank onto the sofa and fumbled to pull the hospital gown’s string ties loose.

“Be a prince and turn the television on for me, won’t you, baby?” she asked. Elijah ran to snap on the old floor-cabinet set as his mother shook her way out of the gown. He rooted through empty soda and beer cans, dirty dishes, and other clutter for the clicker, then patiently held it out to her as she sat bare-breasted, pawing through a heap of dirty clothes on the floor by her feet.

“Thanks, little man,” she said, taking the remote. “See if you can find Mama’s cigarettes, will you, baby?” She pulled on a faded T-shirt with “World’s Best Grandma” silk-screened on the front. Elijah found some Newports in the garbage on the scorch-mark-riddled walnut coffee table and handed them to her. She thanked him, flicked a cigarette from the crumpled, near-empty pack, and stuck it in her mouth.

Elijah studied his mother as she fished through the junk next to the sofa for a lighter.

“I sure missed you, baby,” she mumbled, cigarette quivering between her chapped, pursed lips. “I tried to tell them damn people I needed to get home, but they kept hassling me. Assholes. A bunch of assholes.” Her eyebrows creased in emphatic disbelief. “I can’t stand those hospital people,” she continued, bringing the Bic’s flame up to the cigarette with an unsteady hand. “You know, if it was up to me, I’d been home. But, you know, they had me all hooked up to this stuff—tubes and stuff. I could barely figure out how to get loose.” Drawing deeply on the Newport, she stretched out her bruise-splotched legs on the sofa, rested her head on the threadbare arm, then let smoke drift like a rolling fog out of her slightly parted mouth. Elijah shuffled past without looking at her. She reached out a skinny, needle-pocked arm to grab him, but barely caught the hem of his shirt. Instead of breaking loose, Elijah let her stop him.

“Where you think you rushing off to? Huh?” she asked him.

“Nowhere,” he huffed, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Rhythmically kicking the sofa leg, he cast her a timid glance.

“You can’t go nowhere with your shoes untied like that—come here.” She pulled him closer by his shirt.

“Mom, they’re not supposed to be tied.”

“What do you mean? They’re shoelaces. Laces are supposed to get tied.”

“But that’s not how you wear ’em.”

She leaned forward, and wrapped an arm around him, pulling him down to sit on the edge of the sofa. “You’ll trip and bust your lip,” his mother said. She took a long drag off the cigarette, which was already burned halfway to the filter. Elijah took the cigarette from her and tapped the colossal ash off into a dirty saucer on the floor. She was leaned back with her eyes closed when he stuck it back in her hand.

Elijah said, “You shouldn’t smoke. You promised. When Grandma was here, you said you were gonna quit.”

She let a small, choked laugh escape before her eyes opened to see the disappointment clouding Elijah’s face. “You’re right, baby. Mama’s gonna quit. Mama’s gonna quit, and you’re gonna tie your shoes.”

“That’s not even,” Elijah objected. “Besides, you already promised. So there.”

Her eyes closed again as she spoke. “You know what? I’m gonna promise you right now we’re gonna have fun tonight. Okay? What do you want to do?”

Elijah thought about it, giving the decision the kind of care usually reserved for Christmas lists and birthday wishes. At last, he said, “I want to order pizza and read comics.” Then he anxiously added, “And wait! After, I wanna go down to the arcade where we went that one time, remember? That time I got my hair cut and you got yours cut at the same time and after we played video games in the mall? Remember, Mom? Remember?”

“If that’s what you want, my darling little prince, that’s what we’ll do,” his mother said, eyes still closed. “I’m gonna take my little prince out on the town.”

He watched her lying there for a moment, trying to determine if she was asleep. He decided to wake her if she was. “Mom? Can I go down to Shinder’s and get the new X-Factor?”

She let her head flop toward him. “Course you can, baby.”

His mouth contorted a bit as he tried to form his next words. He wasn’t sure he wanted to mention that he’d hocked his bike to Lollipop. So, he just said, “Do you have some money so I can go?”

Her eyes opened just a slit. “Uh huh. I got some with my stuff. Where’s my stuff?”

Elijah leaped to his feet when she began to point randomly about, and he bolted for the plastic bag of belongings he’d carried home earlier.

“Here you go,” he said, holding the bag out for her.

She gave him a limp wave of the hand. “You go in it. I know I got money in there somewheres.”

Elijah knelt on the ground and pried loose the bag handles. He dumped the contents out onto the floor and sifted through them: red shoes so worn in the heel the chipboard stacking was exposed, a satiny green leopard print bra, two dollars and eighty-four cents in coins, a pink velour halter dress, a smashed pack of Newports—and five twenty-dollar bills wadded into a clump. He peeled the twenties apart. Elijah pondered taking them all for a moment. But, the thought of pizza and the video arcade guided his hand to release all but one. He’d save ten of it to get his bike back from Lollipop.

“I’m leaving. Don’t let anybody in while I’m gone,” he said. But his mother’s mouth had dropped open, signaling her submission to sleep. She had no friends or acquaintances that he liked coming around. When they did—always the same shady few—Elijah would shut himself in his room, put on his Walkman, and read comics.

Shooting a quick glance at Mrs. Haskins’ door, he wondered if she was watching for him through her peephole. With no sign of her, he slipped freely and purposefully out of the apartment, the door locking itself behind him. He had places to go and people to see.

Elijah’s head was buried deep in his brand-new X-Men spinoff—X-Factor: Issue #14, in which Warren Worthington, aka Angel, is hospitalized and trying to avoid federal fraud charges. No more than three steps out of the store, he bumped into an elderly man in a yellow seersucker suit and leather house slippers. He was pushing an oxygen tank—air trickling through plastic cannulas tucked into his nostrils. Elijah issued a wide-eyed apology. The old man smiled at him with watery eyes and gave him a labored, shaky pat on the head. Elijah waited for the man to shuffle on, but snapped to at the sight of Lollipop riding his bike on the sidewalk across the street, a McDonald’s bag dangling in one hand by his side. The whole way to Shinder’s he’d been scoping the streets for the older boy.

“Hey,” Elijah shouted. “Lollipop!” Car horns honked and brakes squealed as he darted through the sparse traffic across the street.

“What’s goin’ on, li’l dad?” asked Lollipop, as he wound the bike to a stop.

“Hey. I got your ten dollars,” Elijah offered. “Can I get my bike back now?”

“You mean can you buy your bike back,” he smirked. “Man, that was yesterday’s price—yesterday.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? I mean, there’s interest involved, man. Don’t you know nothin’ ’bout business? Man, I loaned you that ten spot two days ago. It’d be bad business not to incorporate the, you know, appropriate financial additives…”

Elijah stared at Lollipop, the back of his neck heating, unable to speak.

“You know what I mean, things have, you know, compounded since then,” Lollipop continued.

“So, what does that mean?” Elijah said, his mind reeling at this turn of events.

“It means, you wants your Huffy back, you need to, you know, come up offa ten more bones is what it means, man.”

Elijah screwed his face in defeat. The phantom tingling of the other crumpled twenties he’d held earlier prickled his palm.

“Come on, man, I ain’t got all day to play wit’ you. I’m on my break. That’s the deal, man. Take it—or take the bus!” Lollipop threw his head back laughing at his own joke, and his baseball cap tumbled to the ground. He scooped it up and perched it back on top of his cornrowed noggin. Leaning back on the bike seat, he addressed Elijah with newfound seriousness.

“Look, li’l dad, I gots to get back to my jobby-job, know what I’m sayin’. You wants your bike, come by SuperValu with twenty bones when I get off, like at six, and we’ll call it even. I’ll give you your bike.”

“Yeah,” he conceded, knowing the offer would get no better. “Deal. I’ll catch you later.”

“Cool.”

They scattered. Those other crumpled twenty-dollar bills flashed through Elijah’s mind. He realized he could get his bike back and broke into a skip.

Elijah pounced on the landing to his apartment’s floor and thrust his arms above his head like Rocky Balboa. A gaunt, oily-haired man in a nylon running suit with a flimsy black leather jacket slung over one shoulder floated past him in a cloud of menthol smoke and sweet cologne. Elijah looked up at the man, who flashed the boy a snaggletoothed smile so sneering it punched him in the stomach. Walking toward his door, he turned to get another glimpse of the man. But his toe caught on a gash in the hallway’s stained, scarred linoleum, and he stumbled. When he found his footing and looked back, the man was vapor.

In front of his apartment, he searched around his neck for his beaded keychain, staring back down the hall at nothing, no one. He was about to unlock the door when he heard the slide of a security bolt and the brassy creak of door hinges.

“Elijah,” a craggy, hushed voice called to him from the open sliver of door across the hall.

He turned and gave the woman a meek smile. “Hey, Mrs. Haskins.” As he started to turn back, the woman cracked the door wide enough to come fully into view.

“Come here, chil’, I got somethin’ for ya,” she summoned him with a crooked, wrinkly finger. “Come on over here.”

Elijah took two reluctant steps closer, then stopped. The older lady had grandchildren who she never saw, so she spilled her grandmotherly love on him. Cookies, homemade fudge on holidays, small gifts on his birthday, a couple of dollars here and there to buy himself a comic or play at the arcade. She even gave him a goldfish once—where she got it he did not know—but it died within a week. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her. Subsequently, he received a neon-colored ceramic stalagmite for the fishbowl and the occasional canister of flaked fish food. He was warily fond of her. But now, Elijah stood before her as if she were a complete stranger.

“Come here, I got some supper for ya,” she said, opening the door wide enough for him to pass her. Elijah remained unmoved.

“That’s awright, Mrs. Haskins. My mom’s gonna hook us up with dinner. But thanks…” His lips were moving, but he spoke so softly that even he wasn’t sure words were coming out.

“What ya say, chil’? Come on over here quick. You know I don’t like playin’ with my door wide open,” Mrs. Haskins said impatiently. Elijah finally went to her. She closed the door behind him, securing the locks and sliding the bolt before she doddered past him.

“Come on in.” She wiped her hands on her apron as she made her way to the kitchen. Elijah followed her, just far enough to hover in the doorway next to the stove. “Myself, I done ate already. Y’know I eat early. But, I’ll fix a plate for ya…How ’bout I fix two plates. One for you, one for your mama. Ya say she home?”

Elijah nodded.

Mrs. Haskins said, “Well, I guess that’s something. I was beginning to wonder…” She grimaced.

“You don’t have to, you know, fix us dinner. My mom is gonna take us out. She promised. She promised me.”

The old woman tsked. “If she want it, fine. Otherwise, both plates for you.”

He fell against the doorframe with his hands jammed in his pockets, sack of comic books tucked under his arm. He frowned at the way she seemed to disapprove of his mom. She asked him how school was going. He shrugged. She said that she knew he’d do fine, just fine, and began humming strains of gospel as she piled two chipped dinner plates full of baked beans, boiled hot dogs, and hunks of cornbread. Elijah watched his neighbor shuffle around her kitchen in gold wedge slippers and thick hose. Her thin hair was pulled back at the nape into a tiny, dusty, periwinkle bun. She pulled two swathes of tin foil from a roll and covered the heaping plates.

He sometimes wished she were his father’s mother, whom he’d never met. Never so much as seen a picture. But she’d be kin.

“Here ya go,” Mrs. Haskins said, presenting the plates to a reluctant Elijah.

“And, ya know you can always come back for some more. I got plenty. Don’t forget, you can always come back…”

Elijah leaned back against the apartment door, shutting it with a dense sigh. The only real light was coming from the television, the volume up so loud it was at odds with the dimness. The dusty, early afternoon sunlight had been edged out, and the living room was shrouded with the swift coming of night.

She was there.

The only sign that his mother had moved since he left was that her head was now at the other end of the sofa. And a couple of empty fifths he hadn’t noticed earlier were lying beside her. Whiskey fumes hung sourly in the air, along with the same cologne of the man he’d seen in the hallway. Elijah balanced the stacked plates unsteadily with one hand and removed the bag of comics from beneath his arm with the other. As he bent to rest the plates on the floor, the top one slid off and teetered to a stop.

“Mom?” he called to his mother as he set the other dish down. He was unable to see her face, but he could tell she didn’t stir. He shouted loudly, clearly, over the sound of the television. “Mom!” When she still made no move, he bit his lip, let out a grunt, and dismissed himself to the kitchen.
Returning with a fork, he sat down with his comics in front of the television. With a mouthful of pasty lukewarm beans, he peeped around for the remote control. He didn’t see it. Setting the plate aside, he leaned closer to the television and lowered the volume. Elijah stretched for the heap of items from his mother’s hospital bag and rummaged through it, looking for the wadded twenties.

They were gone.

He bent his head down, squashed a curl near his forehead in his fist, then settled back with his dinner.

“Mom!” Contempt invaded the pitch of his voice. “Mrs. Haskins sent food over.” He glimpsed over his shoulder, trying to detect any motion on the sofa. Seeing there was none, he retrained his gaze upon the television. “You better hurry up and get up if you want to eat it, ’cause I might eat it myself.”

He sulked, then shoved a mound of cornbread into his mouth. His eyebrows furrowed as he chewed. Pulling X-Factor #14 out of its sleeve, he began to reread it. Even the saturated frames of Angel having his wings clipped were unable to keep his attention, and Elijah found himself peeking over his shoulder again. His mother’s dirty feet were dangling over the edge of the sofa. The remnants of candy-apple-red nail polish blotched her toenails. Elijah turned back to his comic book and stretched out on his stomach, lifting himself up on his elbows to eat the remaining cornbread and hot dog with his fingers.

Elijah blinked his eyes open. Crumbs clung to the moist corners of his mouth. A few absentmindedly twisted tendrils decorated his forehead. He was surprised that he had fallen asleep lying on the floor. The sun had completely set, leaving the uneven flickering from the television the sole light in the apartment. He sat up and rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, a huge sigh echoing from his small, lanky body in the darkness. He walked on his knees to the edge of the sofa. His mother was still lying there, unmoved, and he leaned closer to her face. Sitting back on his heels, the boy grasped the edge of the sofa cushion in his hands. He studied his mother. Fringes of hair clumped limply over her face, covering her eyes.

“Mom?” Elijah squeaked, kneeling over her now. He pushed the hair from his mother’s face behind her ears. The cold moistness of her skin startled him. His hand hovered just above her face for a heartbeat before he touched her again, smoothing the stray hairs clinging to her forehead. He bit his lower lip and gestured with his fingers as if to touch her cheek, but stopped short.

Instead, Elijah pulled himself slowly to his feet and quivered down the dark hallway to his bedroom. The walls were plastered with posters of comic book characters, the ceiling dotted with plastic decals of the solar system that had once glowed in the dark. He went to his bed and slunk backward to sit with his eyes shut while hugging his shins. A minute later, he was dragging an electric blue comforter emblazoned with X-Men characters back down the hall and into the living room. He paused at the edge of the sofa, then looked down at his mother.

Elijah draped the comforter over her, taking care to tuck it behind her shoulders and cover her feet, gently patting it smooth in places. He backed away from the sofa, enveloped in the television’s emanations before eventually bumping into it. Unable to look away from her, he reached behind himself and blindly felt around. He didn’t know what he was doing—increasing the volume, changing the station, then finally finding the power button and shutting off the TV. The room fell slowly into a deep shadow.

He crawled nearer to his mother through the dimness. Laying himself down across the jumble on the floor, he pressed his back against the sofa and pulled the dangling edge of the comforter over himself just enough to cover his narrow shoulders. Elijah drew his knees tight to his chest. He tucked his hands under his head with the new X-Factor sandwiched between them.

How would Angel survive without wings?

The blue ghost of the television finally evaporated into nothingness. He couldn’t hear the sound of the blood thrumming in his head, feel the scratchiness of the nylon carpet beneath him, or smell the liquor, cologne, and smoke that scented the room—odors so unlike the powder and mothballs of Grandma Nell’s, where he was bound to be sent. For good this time.

All Elijah could do was squeeze his eyes ever tighter to the sharp, deep silence and pray for a miracle.

The Fairytale My Favorite Editor Rejected

I wanted to write a fairy tale about fracking. The tale would include special creatures, frack-fairies, with seven-syllable chemical superpowers and tiny parcels of invisible frack-dust said to cover the meadows at midnight. There would be magical events, Frackfests, that occur when stars shoot up from cracks in the earth’s crust and the ground dances in happy, ragged waves. Small furry mammals and friendly reptiles would frack-a-long. The whole thing was idyllic.

Not true, said the editor. Little girls wouldn’t connect with the frack-fairies’ green teeth and gangrenous eyelids. She told me that marketing concluded little girls prefer traditional fairy guises in light pastels without oozing vessels and undefined orifices.

There was anger in my voice when I responded to the editor. I said we can’t expect the world to look unfracked in a fracking fairytale. I said you are a damned good editor and well ahead of your game. I said the time has come to embrace a world with chemical fairies and covertly-active baby cancer cells minnowing through placid streams.

The editor reminded me she had, in fact, dressed as Sexy Rapunzel last Halloween. The market for fairy tale costumes was very hot. She went to the best party, and people said she looked young for her age. The editor hoped we could strike an empowering chord with young readers, especially if that chord stayed in their hearts long enough to inspire Halloween costumes.

Z28

There’s a car you fall in love with. It’s the first car you see after your friends tell you you should love cars. The car is an Iroc Z28. You know this because the name Iroc and letter Z and number 28 are printed on the rocker panel. You love everything about the lettering because the letter Z is the most badass letter in the alphabet and the word Iroc flashes like a blade. You’re told a roc is a bird, like a phoenix, and then you believe this car is not only badass. It is mythical.

Your friends love Lamborghini Countachs, Ferrari Testarossas, and Porsche 911s, but they say the Iroc’s respectable even if their cars are much faster. Your best friend suggests in private that you should love Mustangs if you’re going to love a car like the Iroc. So you look for Mustangs and when you see one you don’t like the shape as much. Nor do you like the shades like window blinds over the rearview window. You tell your best friend Mustangs can fuck off. Your best friend’s favorite car is a Lamborghini Diablo and you tell him the Diablo can fuck off too. Normally your best friend is more aggressive, but he pretends not to hear you say fuck off about the cars, and when your best friend pretends not to hear you, you feel bad.

Your friends have posters of the cars they love on their walls, but you can’t find a poster for the Z28. When you look for posters you see many Countachs and Testarossas, but no Z28s. Some of the posters have girls in swimsuits with the cars. If the car is red the girl’s swimsuit is red. If the car is red, white, and blue then the girl’s bikini is covered in stars. The girls’ hairdos are like hairdos French aristocrats wore before the French Revolution. Curling and poofed, hanging down to the V of their swimsuit backs. You can’t find a poster of your car so you buy a poster of a girl. The girl in your poster has broad pouting lips and an imprint of a nipple can be made out in the ribbing of her tank top. When your best friend sees the poster he says, “I’d fuck her, but blondes are better in bed.” You and your best friend have never fucked anybody. You imagine if the Iroc was a woman it would be a curly-haired brunette. That’s actually why you bought the poster. The girl in the poster is a girl, but if she was a car she’d be a Z28. You try to tell your best friend this. You want him to know the poster is a statement about who you are. That you aren’t just some poser fuck like your other friends—liking the same cars and girls everybody else likes. You are you. But he doesn’t understand. He tells you, “Okay.”

You and your best friend go to a car show. A Lamborghini’s on display as well as a Ferrari. The cars look tiny in person, like toys. There isn’t a Z28 at the show, but that doesn’t matter because you see Z28s driving on the street all the time. You know the Z28 isn’t small. You tease your best friend for liking such a small car like the Lamborghini. “Can’t even have sex in those cars,” you say.

He concedes without argument.

There’s something wrong with your best friend, but you don’t know what it is. You would ask, but whatever it is he might cry about, and you don’t want to deal with a crying best friend. “Hey,” you say. “You want ice cream?”

Your best friend’s dad picks you and your best friend up from the car show. He drives a Ford Taurus. The Ford Taurus looks lumpy compared to the cars from the show. You don’t know why anyone would drive a Ford Taurus. Your best friend’s shown you the calendar in his dad’s garage, of girls in swimsuits posing with toolboxes, and you don’t get how your best friend’s dad can have a calendar like that and drive a car like the Ford Taurus. You decide at that moment you will never own a car that doesn’t remind you of a sexy girl.

You mostly only see the back of your best friend’s dad’s head. This is normal. You’ve looked him in the face maybe five times in the years your best friend’s been your best friend. From the look of your best friend’s dad’s neck, hair sprouting like an untrimmed lawn, everything is fine with your best friend’s dad, even if there’s something wrong with your best friend. But then your best friend’s dad does something weird. He asks, “You guys want to rent movies?” This is weird because your best friend’s dad never takes you and your best friend to rent movies. Your best friend’s mom always does. Your best friend’s dad hates both you and your best friend’s taste in movies and everything else. “Sure,” your best friend says.

Your best friend’s mom wouldn’t let you watch scary movies, but your best friend’s dad doesn’t care. You rent Son of Warlock and Terrorvision.

As one of the movies starts, your best friend’s dad asks if you and your best friend want him to make sundaes. Your best friend says, “Yes.” But you are silent. You think your best friend’s dad is making sundaes for the same reason you suggested ice cream earlier, so your best friend won’t talk about what’s bothering him and won’t cry. You gaze at the tanned backs of your best friend’s dad’s ears and wonder what is going on. It’s then you realize your best friend’s mom is not home. You’re about to ask where she is, but you catch yourself and talk about the cars from the car show instead. “The Lamborghini’s small,” you say, “But I guess it’s probably really fast. And the doors are kinda cool.”

“When I grow up I’m going to have a Lamborghini and a Ferrari. And my girlfriend’s going to be the supermodel in the Diablo poster because I’m going to be rich,” your best friend says.

You would normally tell your best friend he’s a fucking idiot, that when he grows up he’ll be poor and live in a junkyard and have an old ugly dog he has sex with, or you would tell him about your future with your Z28s and multiple supermodel girlfriends and your helicopters, but instead you try to capture the hopefulness. “You never know,” you say.

After sundaes, your best friend’s dad asks if you want to play video games. He doesn’t want to play. He just wants to know if you and your best friend want to play. Normally you can’t play video games in the living room when he’s in the living room with you, but tonight is different. You and your best friend play baseball. Your best friend’s dad watches. He reacts to what’s happening on screen like he honestly cares. When you hit a home run he boos, but when your best friend hits a home run he says, “Get’m, kiddo.” You’ve never heard your best friend’s dad call your best friend kiddo, and the name sounds off-key when it passes his lips.

Your best friend’s dad sits in his chair by the lamp in the back of the room and drinks beer after beer with the cat in his lap. The cat is the one thing you’ve seen your best friend’s dad treat nicely before tonight. The cat purrs and kneads.

When you and your friend finish the game—you lose—you put on Son of Warlock and get into your sleeping bags on the living room floor. Pretty early on you realize this is not a film you should be watching. Your best friend looks spiritless and keeps saying, “Oh my god.” If your best friend’s mom were here she wouldn’t allow this to continue, but your best friend’s dad doesn’t say anything. The blue light from the television flashes his face like the lights from a police car. A demon flies into a woman’s apartment window and has sex with the woman. Still, he says nothing.

You’re thirsty, but you know your best friend’s dad doesn’t like you drinking their milk.

At your house you can drink whenever and whatever you want, but not here. Still, tonight seems different, so you try to coax your best friend into asking. “Do you think I could have some milk?” You whisper.

Your best friend looks at you like you’re crazy. “You know what happened last time.”

Last time your best friend was yelled at and slapped. You don’t normally get slapped at your house. “I’m really thirsty.”

“You’re thirsty?” Your best friend’s dad says. “Help yourself.”

You and your best friend go to the fridge. There is a bottle of Pepsi, milk, and juice. There are also your best friend’s dad’s beers, but you know he wasn’t talking about the beer. “Here,” your best friend hands you a beer. “For later. Hide it.” Your best friend’s never done something so crazy. You don’t know what to do with it, so you put the beer in your underwear. The cold from the aluminum bites. Your best friend does the same thing and pours you each a glass of milk.

You slide into your sleeping bag and hide the beer near your feet. You think if your best friend’s dad finds you with a beer he might slap your best friend and you. The night your best friend was slapped for the milk he cried. You’re scared of this happening again, but also excited to drink the beer with your friend after his dad goes to bed.

When you move around you worry the shifting beer may be noticed. You look behind you to see your best friend’s dad staring into the television. It doesn’t look like he’s actually watching the movie. The movie ends and you’re so scared by what you just watched that you can feel the fear in your stomach, but you put the next movie on anyway. Your best friend’s dad gets up. He says, “Don’t stay up too late.” Usually, he forces you and your best friend to bed when he goes to bed, but not tonight.

You and your best friend watch the movie and wait a long time before opening the beers. You hold your breath when you open yours. The air hisses like a siren. Your best friend holds his breath too. His beer fizzes out. You each take a sip then belch dramatically, the way you do every time you get the chance to drink beer. “That last movie was freaky,” you say. You avoid the word scary. Because you don’t want your best friend to think you’re scared. Your best friend takes a drink and answers like he’s seen his dad answer after taking a swallow. “Yeah.”

You take a drink. “This beer’s warm.”

“It’s still really good though.”

“Yeah.”

Your best friend leans back with his beer and watches the movie. This one is just as scary as the first, but with the beer you don’t feel so scared. Not because you’re drinking beer. Because just holding the beer makes you feel older. You tell yourself what you’re watching is just an image inside the TV, inside this house.

You look over and your best friend looks like his dad. Watching but not actually watching. You know the easiest thing to ask would be where’s your mom? You wouldn’t even need to ask what’s wrong? But something says you shouldn’t. Maybe it’s that watching but not watching look on your best friend’s face. Maybe it’s from seeing him cry the last time. You aren’t sure, but you don’t want to ask.

Then your best friend wakes up from staring into the screen. “Almost forgot. Check this out.” Your best friend pulls out a cassette case. In the case is a cigarette. “Let’s go smoke it on the porch,” your best friend says.

“OK,” you say. You don’t really want to smoke the cigarette on the porch, but figure you have to for your friend.

The lock clicks and the bottom of the door sweeps against the entryway berber. “C’mon,” your best friend whispers. Your best friend clicks open the latch on the screen door and the door pops. The spring extends and you hold your breath and listen for movement from your best friend’s dad’s room. Nothing then nothing then nothing. Then the cat fires out from the house.

“No.” Your best friend whimpers. The cat’s already across the street and running into darkness.

You follow your friend onto the porch. “We have to get the cat,” he says.
You picture the cat kneading your best friend’s dad’s lap, and you know he’s right.

You cross the street together. There is no traffic. Your best friend lives on a busy street, but it’s late. The stoplights are blinking yellow on the corner.

You are in only your socks, and the asphalt gravel near the curb feels sharp against your feet. You are worried about your feet, but your best friend’s already followed the cat into the darkness behind the house. The house is alongside a small apartment building that blocks the streetlight. Your best friend calls for the cat, Missy. You have cats at home, and you’re pretty sure you can catch this cat if you get the chance. You’re good at catching cats and like to impress people. The trick with cats is you can’t run at the cat. You need to approach the cat slow. Then when you are close—you grab the cat.
But you don’t get the chance. The cat isn’t in the yard. You cut through the yard behind the house to the side street. You walk down the side street whispering Missy at the shadows. You look up at the moon. The moon isn’t all the way full, but almost there. You’re a little cold, but it’s not that bad.

A few blocks down is a playground. This is about as far as your best friend thinks the cat would go. You climb up the monkey bars into the fort tower. Your best friend sits below the window opening and takes his cigarette from the cassette case. Your best friend fires up a match he took from the kitchen, better than you ever could, and lights his cigarette like a cigar. Puffing the flame off the match. He shakes the match and tosses it into the wood chips. Your best friend takes the first few drags then hands you the cigarette. The filter’s hot and mushy from your best friend’s saliva. He’s smoking too hard, and you wonder if it’s because he’s worried you and him won’t be able to find the cat and that his dad will lose his shit.

You take a couple drags then hand the cigarette back. Your body tingles like you are covered in static electricity. You pass the cigarette back and forth until it burns down to the ring by the filter. Your best friend tells you not to smoke past the ring. When you are finished you flick the cigarette into the wood chips.

“We should get back,” your best friend says.

“What about the cat?”

“The cat will be fine.”

You nod and realize your friend is not just smoking hard because of the missing cat. Maybe it’s the cigarette buzz that gives you courage enough to ask your best friend where his mom is. You aren’t scared of him crying.
Your best friend walks in front of you. The back of his ears and neck do not react.

“Gone,” your best friend says.

You don’t want to ask this question, but you feel like you have to. “Why?”

Now his neck turns down and his ears drop to a slant. “My dad.”

“Sorry,” you say. “That sucks.”

Your best friend nods. “I don’t know if she’s coming back.”

You think you might try touching your best friend, and you reach out towards him walking in front of you. You feel like a zombie with your arm outstretched, hobbling back and forth in socked feet. You brush his shoulder for a moment before the rocking in your pace separates your best friend from you.

You are coming around the corner and can just begin to see your best friend’s house when you hear a car racing down the street. The car comes fast. The pitch of acceleration on an upward incline, roaring into the moonlight. You watch the street and like a shot, the car’s in and out of the frame you see between houses. “Holy shit,” you say. “That was a Z28.”

“No. That was a Mustang,” your best friend says.

You honestly don’t know if the car was a Z28, but you’re pretty sure it wasn’t a Mustang, and if you don’t know what the car was then your best friend doesn’t know either.

Your best friend continues, “My uncle has a Mustang. So I know what they look like.” He says this sullen like granite. He sounds like he’s trying to fight you. You want to tell him he’s wrong, but you know he doesn’t want to fight you, he wants to fight his shitty life. And knowing that makes you want to reach out again. But the stoniness of his voice keeps you away. “Maybe it was.”

Your best friend pauses and exhales. “It totally was. I know it was.”

“It could’ve been.”

“You know I know what they look like. I had that poster that got ripped.”

Now you’re annoyed because you know your best friend is wrong. “It might not’ve been a Z28, but it wasn’t a fucking Mustang.” You don’t stop there. You really wanted to make him feel better but he wouldn’t let you. And now he’s acting like a bitch. You’re sick of holding back. He doesn’t get why this matters. What the Z28 says about who you are. You know what he wants and loves. And how to hurt him. “You’re never going to fuck any girls from any posters or own any cool cars.”

You feel like you’ve said enough to really crush him. And for a moment he’s quiet. Which makes you think you’ve won. But then he says, “You sound just like my dad.”

His words make you sick with fear. Sicker than the scary movies did. They make you feel like you’ve lost your best friend. You could say sorry, but you know sorry won’t be good enough. Whatever you do needs to be better than sorry.

The closer you get to your best friend’s house the more clear the front door becomes—as well as the figure standing in the opening. It’s your best friend’s father, watching you two get closer. His expression’s unreadable and he’s motionless against the black of the entryway. You get closer and closer. Approaching slow. Treating your best friend’s father like a cat hiding in a bush.

You and your best friend cross the street with yellow flashing stoplights, and again the sharp gravel bites into the pads of your feet. When you are at the foot of the stairs your best friend says, “We went after the cat.”

“The cat’s inside,” your best friend’s dad says.

Your best friend climbs the stairs and walks past his dad. Your best friend’s dad does nothing. You walk up the stairs and pass your best friend’s dad too. Passing your best friend’s dad through the doorway feels like stealing.

You think this is bad. You think he will call your parents. You think he will hit your best friend. You think you will not see your best friend again because your best friend will be grounded, and you will be grounded. Then you are inside, and your best friend’s dad goes into the kitchen.

You hear a thud. Then another. You look at your best friend, and your best friend knows you are worried about the thuds.

“He’s punching the refrigerator,” your best friend says.

The thuds continue with short rattles of glass after each one. You hope he’ll keep punching the fridge because you don’t know what your best friend’s dad could punch next.

“We should go to sleep,” he says.

Your best friend slips into his sleeping bag. You slip into yours. You lie in your bag, looking at the back of your best friend’s head and listen to the punches.

Fairgrounds: A Feature with Lambda Literary

Founded in 1991, Lambda Literary believes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer literature is fundamental to the preservation of our culture, and that LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published, and read.

A kind of purring, outside the sill
in a bright morning, so bright
it’s as though something in the sky tore apart.

Still, the mourning doves. Always erroneous
birds of the Sonoran Desert.
As a child, I believed my grandmother
placed them in mesquite, bougainvillea,
acacia, for me. Outside my guest sill,

in the white lie, the bright morning of childhood.
Somebody loved me enough to plant
birds that rumpled the air into murmurs,
a constant there, there. She is gone,
and they are otherwise known

as rain doves. This morning, I woke in her
old neighborhood, the birds in their proper
places. A super bloom year, from so much
rain—the saguaros alight in grief flowers
so large they erase themselves.

we (are) cross. we nevernorms. we wear senses immense. we move in our own service. we’re


curious. we’re an inconvenience. we (are) cross. we accuse our wiser incisors. remove scum. we


amuse our own inner oceans. we croon coarse verses. we scissor arm in arm scream cream romance


in our asses. come as screw are. no-nouns. we are one. we are unwon. we are we. co-nouns. sew-


nouns. riven seams. remove names. uncover us as our coarse resonance courses an enormous ease


swoons us. we curve ever nearer. warm unman on warm unman.emissions raw viscera. no sires.


no mares. we reconceive sex. so we can move across a ruinous universe.

When the Pope resigned they sent black smoke up chimneys,
into the pixels of my Grandmother’s big screen TV.
I came home to her weeping, to: The world is ending,
the devil is coming, and it’s because of gay marriage.

I would have laughed, but it was my birthday.
I said: Some of my best friends are gay.

I didn’t say: I hold hands with girls in side-street Boston
restaurants with my head on a 360 degree swivel.
I didn’t say: I like the way their shampoo tastes,
holding doors, splitting checks, sharing jackets.
I did climb the stairs to strip the red dress I’d worn to impress a boy
with long eyelashes, soft hands, pink polo shirts.

I did return to eat my birthday soup. No cake,
because she knew I was starving myself for him.
I wanted to become so light that he could lift me,
become ribs that could fit in a sample size dress
for a wedding that wouldn’t start a little apocalypse,
for a marriage that wouldn’t make her weep.

She died the next year and he never loved me.
I wish I’d stayed at the table, asked for cake,
understood my shrinking was the hell. I wish I showed her
just how shampoo and hands and jackets created worlds.
I should have filled myself up and let her see me
when the smoke cleared, when the ash fell, when I sparked.

I study the brown water on the screen as it merges onto Waugh. Tan slicks drain from Woodlands driveways where my father ensconces himself, as mezcal into waters the color of Pastry War margarita mix. But the loblollies’ unnatural green, the yards exploding with weeds: this is what Houston was made for, mosquitoes exponentiating atop mailboxes, alligators squatting in cul-de-sacs. White houses differentially flooded from above are the rise and fall of an EKG. My city’s unzoned heart, beating. My own four hundred leagues away.

The inches the water climbs the driveway, the Menil Collection’s post anticipating destruction, classmates fording the Rice University rapids on Bissonnet, blood pumping into the bodies of ten million new mosquitoes: I hover up here with the news helicopters watching it all. Buffalo Bayou wriggles itself into new banks. The bayou’s fresh brown paint seeps through the dented walls of warehouse where those I love drink and make art— Barbee Manshun, the Jenner House, She Works Flexible, El Rincón
Social, Beta Theater, Dykon Fagatron, Super Happy Fun Land
— I name them all, a dirge of protection for the city I love and can’t save, for my own fascia still stuck in the Ashby High Rise’s unbuilt windows, the building’s teeth on the NIMBY’s yard signs in my old neighborhood, the water creeping up the turn-of-the-century redbrick. Friends tie down psych-ward inpatients and bear them upstairs on cross-beam stretchers; Braes Bayou reclaims three floors of the hospital. I call loved ones and whisper reassurances like calm waves, useless, while the rain fuzzes through the speakers. I wish my city would come together like a Rothko, but it’s more of a Close, two million dissonant shades that only seem from afar to blend into a single image. Those I love smear into the places we made until all I can see is the water’s bruise, Houston’s blood still rising. I am not drowning.

Part of me still believes each word a gem-
stone a glyph a rune

home from another eight hours this life
a dumpster

who am I to pretend I was reborn
from the moon kingdom

that I lived in an argent palace & deserve
more than minimum wage

okay it’s 6 p.m. I will disco-nap for six more
let my tired bones bramble

in asterisms until I wake from a past
life where my tears briolette

from a sailor’s dream but it’s midnight the lewk
procured from a sample sale

the torso refracting the creature clothed
in sequins myself in a hybrid

in the backseat alone headed off to nightlife
popping a Klonopin

kat’s eye kubic zirkonia karat the bitter weight
of gold beneath my tongue

this calm like a weatherless green screen
on the raptured nightly news

like some days I think is it enough to pretend there
is a silver crystal

behind my ribs when I order vodka tonic someone
says cute top I know

this world is safe with queer misfits in yellow
lipstick and creepers

my joints are crystalline my shoes uncomfortable
but when the bodies

fill I join them in an unlit room a mirror on each wall
this thing I treasure

is neighborhooding in the hobnob to minimal beats
leaving my apartment in secret

masquerading solo w/ benzos & ethanol & a little water
in my morganite gut

I impersonate a goddess from a book I don’t remember
pulling cumulus

down my arms waving in rhythm the cold sweat of A/C
this jewel this dark stroll

me dancing in the company of acquaintances who say hi
kiss cheek call me my name

I know what it’s like to drag yourself out of bed what it’s like
to try to become someone whole.

Breaking Ground: A Debut Author Feature with Kate Weinberg

F (r)iction is elated to introduce our readers to Kate Weinberg and her debut novel, The Truants.

Released in late January from Putnam, The Truants is being hailed as “One of the best thriller debuts in recent years…” (Kirkus Reviews) and “a remarkably assured debut, deftly plotted…with vivid, compelling characters that leap off the page.” (Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You).

In this literary mystery, we follow Jess and her eclectic group of friends when a tragedy strikes, revealing a terrible secret, shattering their interpersonal dynamics. Seductive, unsettling, with unforgettable prose, The Truants unflinchingly explores duality and obsession with truly lovable characters that will linger in your mind long after the final page.

In our interview, Kate discusses Agatha Christie, responsibility in storytelling, and the promise of sex in narrative. Stick around after the interview and check out the first chapter. Warning: You won’t be able to stop there.

An Interview with Kate Weinberg

By Dani Hedlund

I read The Truants over the course of just two days, pretty much without sleeping! It’s such an absorbing novel. Where did your love of storytelling come from?

I can’t really explain that without telling you the story of losing my mother. My father was a busy entrepreneur, and he was left with three bereaved girls. I was three, my sister was six, and my oldest sister was twelve. He didn’t know what to do with us, so the one thing he did was spent a lot of time sitting with each of us individually and reading books to us. So right from the beginning of my life, I’ve always associated books with a type of love and special connection. In fact, all three of us girls have turned into writers.

The fact you have been saturated with literature and writing for most of your life really comes through in the novel. Talk me about what the path was like for you with this book. How did it come about?

It took a very long time. I did an undergraduate degree in English literature at Oxford, and then I left Oxford thinking, I’m going to write a novel!, and I planted around a bit looking for a story but couldn’t really find one. And even while I was getting my Master’s degree at UEA, I still hadn’t really found my voice as a writer. But I did meet this very exceptional teacher—Lorna Sage. She inspired the Lorna in my novel. It took several years and several false starts, but I finally got to a place in my life where I was settled enough to write this book. Interestingly, bits of failed books have ended up being kind of wrapped up into The Truants, so this book feels like a real layer cake of my life.

I was so impressed with how beautifully you captured the experience of becoming an adult, that stage when the world is full of mistakes and excitement and debilitating angst. How did you tap into that late teens and early twenties stage of life?

It was such an intense writing experience and it left a very big mark on me! My undergraduate days were not particularly remarkable; I yearned for these sorts of intense experiences. There was a part of me that wasn’t realized at university and was frustrated that, by the time I graduated, I hadn’t had that sort of experience. So it was quite cathartic for me to open that box again and rummage through it, with this set of characters I never met but would have wanted to meet.

When you think about the genesis of the ideas behind this book—the intellectual look at Agatha Christie, the idea of people going missing when they most want to be seen, the question of how to figure out and become the person you want to be—what made you want to commit The Truants to paper?

The reason it has so many layers is because it took me so long to write and there’s so much of my experience in it. And I’m not very good at choosing! I’d read The Secret History, and I wanted to explore what would happen if you created a a female version, which is not just to say that you change the gender of the characters, but if you explored all of the different kinds of psychological impact surrounding female friendships and female mentorships. So I tried to make it as interlocking and tangled as I could because that’s the experience of being young. You’re tangled up in different versions of yourself.

One thing that I found very moving about the book was its yearning and longing. What was it like to pace it out that way?

I wanted the plot to reflect Jess’s confusion, so I kept creating more twists and delaying the gratification. I also wanted to upend the idea that if you put a female and a male character in there, they both had to stay until the end. So I blew that up in the middle of the book and made the women very much the focus of the second half.

I was impressed with where your characters’ powers come from. They do it through storytelling, and I’m so fascinated by that. It’s amazing to see that as a power element, instead of what we’re used to: money, attraction, all of stereotypical things. Was that your intention?

It’s very much at the heart of what I find attractive in people. I’m married to a journalist. My sisters are writers. My friends are all writers. But what I also wanted to get to in this book was the dangers of storytelling. Storytelling is not just powerful; it’s dangerous. You can be caught in the spell of it. It messes with your perspective and it blinds you, or it twists your vision. So storytelling is the magic in the book, but it’s also dark magic.

Discussing the dangerous elements of storytelling, do you feel that sort of responsibility as an author toward your readers?

I feel a responsibility to be true to my own emotional understanding of how I’ve lived. Beyond that, the book then becomes the readers, and their interactions with it will be wildly different depending upon where they are in their lives. I can’t control that. The only thing I can control is writing it as vividly and honestly as I can.

I loved how no one in the narrative wears the white hat or black hat. Everyone just pops around in the world of gray. What was it like to explore this dual element of humanity in literally every single one of your characters?

I find that everything interesting about people happens somewhere along that boundary between right and wrong, good and evil. It’s certainly the area that I find most exciting.

I think those elements certainly added to the palpable tension in the book. How did you balance the more mundane notion of this is an experience we can all tap into with the palpable sense of possible destruction in every turn?

I think there’s a notion that if you go heavy on plot, it’s to the exclusion of character and vice versa. So I did my best to put in enough signposts, to foreshadow through the early bits because the books that really thrilled me as a teenager were the ones that did both. Whether it was John Fowles or Patricia Highsmith or Donna Tartt, I was really interested by writers that could make you care about the detail of characters’ lives while still providing this ticking clock, this sense that something’s coming.

Going back to the longing elements, this was an incredibly sexy book with very little sex in it. How did you pull that off?

I think that the promise of sex is, certainly when you’re writing, the sexiest part. It’s the same tension that you feel when you lean in for a first kiss and there’s a moment before you kiss that person. I wanted to capture that, the moment of impending possibility. That’s where real desire lives in fiction for me.

Jess’s narrative is so beautifully formed. I loved the parts where she randomly starts listing things, all nonchalant. Like, Here’s my entire sexual history! Did her voice come naturally to you?

Some parts of her voice were just me and the way I think. But she was also a little tricky because I wanted to get that balance between a character who is an observer and someone who has something more going on internally.

Tell me why you decided to base this in undergrad if your experience with this Lorna character was in grad school? Why was this time period the right place to put your characters?

I think that a part of me was longing to revisit that time and actually have a more remarkable experience. That coming of age time came quite late for me. I was twenty-five when I did my Masters. I think that undergrad is the time when lots of people are coming into their own, where they’re having a relationship with themselves as an individual for the first time outside of school. And the other thing that I needed was for Jess to feel trapped, where she had this very stifling and claustrophobic time. She’s desperate for an extraordinary experience, which of course means that you’re then very susceptible to not seeing things straight.

You told me very early on that this book took you a long time. Walk me through the whole process, from first having the idea to finally holding the galley proof.

The first three years, I was busy popping out babies. During that time, a friend of mine said to me that I had to stop writing in cafes. I used to sit in cafes with my ear plugs in and sort of write wildly for an hour, and then I’d start getting looks from the waiters and my concentration would be broken. My friend told me to come and rent a small space in her office. Once I had a room of my own, I really started getting down to it. That’s when I put the big pieces of paper on the wall and started scribbling, because it’s a really layered plot. I had diagrams all over with what was happening versus what seemed to be happening. I got that room about two years before I got my publishing deal.

Then there was this remarkable period where the book was bought by Bloomsbury in the UK and then by Penguin in the US. I had two different editors who had two different views on the editing process. So that was another year of rethinking, and reimagining, and balancing it all out. It was a long time, but when I went to the printing factory and saw my book, that was a really emotional moment. It was like having a child. It was a big moment.

How did you go about getting a literary agent? Did you have one for your other writing? Did you specifically query?

Both my sisters are writers, so I had a little bit of a leg up in that I knew of people that I could send my work to. I won a writing competition when I was about twenty-five-years old, and I was initially given an agent with that. I stopped writing for a while, and I eventually moved on to a different agent, but the competition really helped, looking back. Once you’re in the hands of a really smart agent, someone you trust, you do exactly what they tell you to do. You need people around you that you trust, and then you need to be prepared to keep climbing the mountain. Again and again.

When you look at the first finished draft in comparison to what the book is now, what’s the largest change you see?

There were five chapters set in Jess’s home at the beginning, which I chopped off. From the notes I received about its pacing, I had a light bulb moment and was able to take four chapters and turn them into a couple of tiny paragraphs and flashbacks.

What was the one thing that you really wanted to say with this book?

I wanted to get at that duality in every person, or certainly in myself. That need to both run away from the world and have your own sort of secret place—which, for me, has always been the world of books. I’ve always had my own kind of secret private world and that need to be seen and loved by other people, and all my characters have that dichotomy in them.

But, on reflection, I don’t think that’s what the book is about. I think it’s about a very precise feeling that I can remember from the age my narrator is: the fear of being no one. And the longing to live an extraordinary life. Longing always comes with its perils. And that’s where I found my story.

What are you working on now?

I have one other idea that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time now, and in some ways that idea could have come before The Truants. It draws more heavily from my own life. It’s about a young woman who goes in search of the identity of her mother, which has been erased for various reasons. She’s older than Jess. She’s in her early 30s, and the book is mainly set in South Africa. I’m knee-deep in research on South African social history, and I’m about to go off on a research trip to Johannesburg.

 
Kate Weinberg is a graduate of the UEA Creative Writing MA. Having worked as a journalist, a ghost writer, an editor, and slush pile reader, her debut novel The Truants was published in the UK in August 2019 by Bloomsbury, and will be published in January 2020 with Putnam Penguin in the United States, as well as in Germany and Czechslovakia. Kate is contracted to write a second novel for Bloomsbury.

An Excerpt from The Truants

by Kate Weinberg

Prologue

It’s hard to say who I fell in love with first. Because it was love, I think you’ll agree, when I’ve finished telling you.

It was Alec I longed to kiss; Alec whose face I studied when no one was looking. As if there was a clue there, in the sharp dip of his upper lip, or the loose comma of hair he tucked behind one ear. Those stories he told us, while driving somewhere in his preposterous car; Georgie in the passenger seat, bare feet propped up on the dashboard, one hand chasing shapes out the open window; Nick and me in the back, sharing a bottle of beer, his shoulder warm against mine as we leaned forward to catch every word. Then, later, the four of us lying stretched out under a killing blue sky, far from some lecture hall where we were supposed to be. The scent of damp earth and pine strong in my nostrils. My fingers itching to touch Alec’s, a few forbidden inches from mine.

But there was longing, too, in the way I looked at Lorna. An obsessional interest, not just in her mind, which I would readily have swapped for my own, or her voice, low and vibrating at the edges with laughter. But in the form of her, the clothes she wore: long skirts over scuffed cowboy boots, and the crumpled blouses that looked like they had been pulled out of the tumble-dryer last moment, so that along with her bare, freckled face she presented the rarest type of beauty, the kind that isn’t strained for.

Yes, I coveted her too, right down to the old-fashioned bicycle she rode about campus, whose basket always held some oddity: a bag of quinces, a staple gun or part of garden hose—objects that always led you, in some obscure way, to want to protect her.

I have virtually all her lectures recorded on my phone. The one I listen to most is the talk she gave before the puppet show. As though buried in those twelve minutes of that gravelly voice is the answer to all the questions that, six years later, still hang over me. If I had listened and watched more carefully, if I had picked up the signs that lay scattered all around, could I have changed the ending?

I can tell you the exact moment in the recording when Lorna walks on stage. There was no heat, I remember—or perhaps it was broken—so everyone was wearing hats and gloves inside and grouching about the cold. I can hear Nick offering me his coat, Georgie noisily opening a bag of sweets. Then, about twenty seconds in, the rustling ceases, the silence becomes deeper, more intent. And I know why. We are all watching the figure walk into the spotlight, run a hand through her hair, smile down at us as if she’s surprised to find it’s a full house.

“We’re all here today because of one woman.” A pause. She must have raised a copy of the book above her head to show us. “If you haven’t read her then I’d strongly recommend you bugger off now and get warm somewhere else.”

An amused hum from us, her audience, a little release of tension, a settling back into seats, into the palm of her hand. This is the campus star, we’re going to get our money’s worth. And then she’s off—and this time she strikes a different note. Brisk and purposeful: if you can’t keep up with me, then it’s not you I’m talking to.

“Who,” Lorna asks, her voice suddenly a challenge, “should we call the criminal? The person who commits a crime, or the one who tricks another into doing so? Is it ever valid to take justice into one’s own hands in order to prevent other, more dreadful crimes from happening? Could you, if the right sort of pressure was exerted, kill someone?”

At this point, if I whack up the volume, to the point just before the sound quality begins to break, I think I can hear it: Alec’s steady breathing beside me. In, out. In, out. If I close my eyes, I can feel the pressure of his thigh as he shifts forward in his seat, drawn as we all are to the figure on the stage. Then he leans into my side, his face a few inches from mine, and whispers something.

“Can’t hear you,” I whisper back. He leans even closer, his warm breath chasing down my back. “I said…” And then he must have put his lips right up to my ear because the speaker doesn’t pick up anything at all.

Lorna’s voice continues—I know the words by rote—and yet I don’t hear them anymore. Because although I don’t remember what it was he said, I am back there—back on those unforgiving seats, amidst the strong smell of eucalyptus as someone nearby sucks a cough drop, with Alec’s smile in the dark and my heart banging with one repeated question: “Do you feel it, do you feel it?” And I stay there, well after the applause dies and there is just the scratchy sound of my phone as I fumble to switch it off in my pocket.
Back there, back then—a place I want to be, dancing along a line of heady, taboo possibilities. Rather than here, now, sitting amidst the rubble and debris of the whole awful thing.

I press rewind on the file and start listening again.

1

Dear Dr Clay,

Having been ill for most of Freshmans’ Week, I have only just made it down to the English faculty to open my mail. I was due to start your course “The Devil Has the Best Lines” next Tuesday, but a note from the administration office informs me that due to “oversubscription” my place has been deferred to “a future date as yet unknown.”

I am writing to tell you just how crushed I am by this news. Since I first read your master-piece
The Truants I have considered your scorching and irreverent commentary something of a manifesto for life. I applied to this university purely so that I could be taught by you, and on receiving a place immediately requested to study in either of the modules that you offer this term. Since my place on “The Devil Has the Best Lines” was confirmed at the beginning of the summer I have completed the reading list, including a full immersion in the gin-soaked minds of Hunter S. Thompson, Zelda Fitzgerald, and John Cheever.

I did this mainly in the back room of a pet shop in Reigate where I took a job this summer, cleaning shit out of budgerigar and hamster cages so that I could finance my studies. All of which was made bearable by the idea of being taught by you.


So this news is a blow indeed. Considering we have not yet met I can’t understand what I have done…

Someone knocked on the door. I ignored it and carried on typing furiously.

…that makes me suddenly less desirable or eligible than another student…

More knocking.

It feels, to paraphrase a famous poem, like someone is treading all over my dreams. I am writing this letter as a last-ditch attempt, an appeal to your humanity…

The door banged open. A blond guy with lazy, knowing eyes in a handsome face. Mark, or maybe Max. Second year. Historian. Let’s say, Max.
For a moment he stared at me in confusion. Then his gaze moved from where I was sitting cross-legged on the bed and roved suspiciously over the contents of the room: bare, Blu-Tack-scarred walls, narrow single bed, small hanging wardrobe, my half-unpacked suitcase.

“Sorry, wrong room.” He had already turned to go when he twisted round, hand on the doorframe. “Hey . . . didn’t we meet in the bar last night?”

I nodded, biting back a sarcastic comment. I have lots of very curly, long dark hair, a wide mouth, and quite a slight figure: boys notice me briefly, I think, then look elsewhere. Max had patently introduced himself—walking towards me, smiling straight into my eyes—in the hope of chatting up Georgie. A moment of deference towards the friend of the target . . . I knew the score. It had already happened a couple of times last night, enough to make me suspect that my new friend was one of those girls that men find irresistible. Something about her almost too-curvy body, her boyishly cropped blonde hair, her sloping, sleepy eyes, made everyone—even me—think about sex.

“So, Georgie’s a good friend of yours?” Max said, sitting down on the end of my bed and pushing back a fringe of newly washed hair.

“Kind of.” If it hadn’t been for the letter I’d just been writing I might have been amused by being used so transparently. Tapping out the end of my sentence, I signed off with a digital flourish: Yours, ever-hopeful, Jessica Walker.

“You weren’t at school together or anything?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering. Girls are so tight with girls they’ve met at school. You seemed kind of into each other.” He was one of those guys who was a lot less handsome when he smiled. More of a smirk really, showing too many teeth cluttered in his jaw.

“We met last week.”

“But you’re best friends already.” He nodded knowingly. “Do you know where she is? She said she’d come for a coffee with me but I’m sure she said she was in room 16-B. This is 16-B, isn’t it?”

I nearly laughed. Thanks for that, Georgie. “She’s gone home for a few days.”

“Oh?” He hesitated for a moment. “To see her boyfriend?”

I shrugged. “I haven’t checked her diary.”

He raised his hands defensively. “Right.” He looked at me again, as if being forced to read instructions on a manual that he’d hoped he could bypass. “Remind me your name?”

I looked at the weak, handsome face, his shirt belted into pressed jeans. Minor public school, I hazarded. Father’s a chauvinist. Lazy world-view.

“The answer is, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what?

“I don’t know whether Georgie has a boyfriend.”

The lobes of his ears went pink but he managed to pull himself together in time to laugh it off. “I’m sure she has. Just tell her Max stopped by, will you?”

After he left, I reread the email a couple of times, the cursor hovering over the send button. It was a stupid letter, a childish, petulant letter, written on the back of four days of stomach flu and a wobbly trip to the bar that Georgie had talked me into, “because there’s only so much Ava Gardner you can get away with before you become Howard Hughes.” I had written it for myself really, not actually to send. It was only because it was a Sunday and the administration office was closed, leaving me no place to vent my disappointment, that I had even thought of hunting through the university website to get Dr. Lorna Clay’s email address. Then I looked over at my copy of The Truants alone on the shelf above the built-in desk—its pages so well-thumbed that it wouldn’t close properly—and thought, Fuck it, what have I got to lose? And with a sudden rush of adrenalin, clicked the mouse.

As soon as I snapped shut my laptop, regret settled over me like an itchy blanket.

And then the itch sank deeper into my bones as I felt myself being dragged backward in time. Back to Boxing Day at home nine months before, with my sister scowling on the sofa as my father made bad jokes about her boyfriend (Dan Pike: plenty more fish in the sea) not understanding that being dumped over Christmas when you’re twenty-one doesn’t call for a punchline, much less a pun—my dad who painted fantastical figures in the shed at the end of our garden but left his imagination locked up there; and my older brother smirking as he stroked the knobby spine of our chocolate Labrador by the fire, and the twins not giving a shit, and my mother not really listening, much less caring, so that in the end I had stood up and walked out.

And the thing I happened to have in my hand as I walked into the kitchen, a book we had been given at Christmas by Uncle Toto, of all people. That feeling when I read the first few pages of The Truants, my bum warm against the AGA cooker and the smell of mince pies, like hot tar, in the air—a book that should have been cleverly irrelevant at best, a book about some drunk, dead writers. Literary criticism—when the hell did that change anyone’s life, for God’s sake? Except it did mine. And I knew it would, almost from the first paragraph, because Lorna’s voice pulled me in and down, like a riptide carrying you underwater and far out to sea so that when, about page five, I flipped to the author picture on the back and saw her clever, beautiful face and read the sentence about where she taught, I thought: Here she is at last. The person who will take me out of this small, airless world before the banality chokes me.

The rooms in Halls all had narrow floor-to-ceiling windows. I stood up to open mine, then remembered you couldn’t. To discourage suicides, I thought, looking at the grey paving slabs below.

Under a flat morning sky, a stream of people was walking away from the zig-zag- shaped residence halls, across the scrubby grass towards the grey breezeblocks that made up the back of the canteen. Without the glowing prospect of Lorna’s teaching, I was confronted by the drab reality of where I would be living for the next three years: a concrete shithole in the middle of flat, windswept Norfolk on what—if you looked at a map—actually was the bulging arse of the UK.

Worse, I would now be shoved into some other, unknown module, most likely with Dr. Porter, who wore skinny black jeans and one earring and had pegged me as a Lorna groupie when I’d come for my interview. No doubt he would be teaching something pretentious and incomprehensible, like “The Phonetics of Postmodernism” or one of those other courses that made me sympathize for a moment with my mother’s views on studying English Lit.

Spots appeared on the window, multiplying rapidly. It had started to rain.

I waited until I saw Max and his carefully coiffed hair emerge down below and strike off towards the canteen in search of a consolatory bacon and egg roll. Then I pulled on some clothes and walked two doors down the corridor. Checking my watch, I knocked loudly and stepped in.

It was dark and slightly stuffy in Georgie’s room. She, jack-knifed up in the bed, one hand pushing her eye mask into her blonde hair, and the other pulling out one of her earplugs and scrabbling for the bedside lamp. When she saw it was me, she sagged back against her pillow with a groan.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Sorry. But it is midday. And I’m having a crisis.”

Georgie pulled out the other earplug. The mask sat across her forehead at a drunken angle, one puffy eye squinting at me. “Oh, hon. Not sick again?”

“Worse,” I said. “Heartsick. Been dumped by Lorna.”

My first week at college had been a catastrophe in social terms. Barely an hour after my mother had dropped me off with my suitcases, a peck on the cheek, and a brisk look around the room—“Seems clean at least!”—the cramping had begun. Followed by three days of shivering and sweating out the stomach flu in my room, looking glumly through my window at the clump of students that formed and reformed around the bar; scribbling self-pitying notes in my journal whenever I could summon the energy.

On the third day, temperature still raging, a fuzz at the edges of my vision, I dragged myself down to the introductory-English-faculty drinks. Which was when Georgie, wearing tight, faded jeans and silver trainers, her bleached hair cropped high to the hairline on her long, fine neck, had sidled over to me. “Ugly bunch, aren’t they, English students?” she muttered, talking out of the side of her mouth like a gangster as the white-haired Dean of Studies gave a turgid welcome speech. “Can you believe Lorna didn’t show at her own party? A living legend, that woman. Rumor has it she’s seeing my supervisor, Professor Steadman.” She pointed to a tall, bespectacled man with grey hair. “But that can’t be right, surely…“ Georgie paused, looking at me more closely. “Hey, do you know your teeth are chattering?”

Next day, to my delight, she turned up at my door with armfuls of chocolates and sweets that she announced, loudly, were munchies (“There’s a rumor going around that you’ve been smoking weed in your room all week, this will fan the flames nicely”); two different kinds of prescription painkiller (“Tuck in, plenty more where they came from”); and a magazine jammed full of photos of horsey-looking aristocrats at parties (“Don’t knock it. I’m related to half of them and have kissed most of the rest. Look at this guy, Tristan Burton-Hill. He’s so posh he can’t actually close his mouth…“).
For the next couple of days, to my surprise, she kept popping by: one day sitting at the end of my bed with a wheel of hard cheese, which she hacked at with a teaspoon until it bent; the next bringing a handful of wildflowers that looked like dirty daisies, which she had picked by the lake on campus. “They’re called Sneezewort, for your dribbly nose. I went through a stage of pressing wildflowers as a kid. I learned the whole wild-flower encyclopedia, which is kind of weird, looking back at it. Amazing what an only child will do to pass the time. Then I got into pottery and made endless shit bowls. I mean, endless. Got away with about five years of never buying a single Christmas present. Shall I put them in your tooth-mug? How are you feeling today? Still got the shits both ends?”

That was the thing about Georgie. She changed tone so fast that your head whirled. Mostly she was like a slot machine, flashing all its lights in constant jackpot, but there was kindness there and, in amidst the glib, smart chatter, beguiling glimpses of something more tender.

“Ask to be put in the Christie module with me?” she suggested now, from beneath her crooked eye mask. “Wouldn’t that be a laugh?”

Georgie was doing joint honors in Philosophy and English. She claimed the Philosophy part was just to make her “sound more attractive,” but I already had a strong sense that, despite her air of careless hedonism, she was also whip-smart, secretly studious, and heavily invested in showing her parents—”neglectful narcissists, the pair of them”—just how fucking clever she was.

I nodded. “I did wonder. But it’s bound to be full, too.”

The other thing that Lorna was renowned for, apart from the cult status of The Truants, was “rescuing” female authors who had been lost or dismissed from the canon as irrelevant. One of these “personal revisionism” courses was on Agatha Christie, about whom, rumor had it, she was now writing a book. When I’d signed up for the modules online I’d looked at Lorna’s Christie course, “Murdered by the Campus,” with a flicker of longing.
In my early teens, thanks to an old lady I’d visit in Reigate, Stella, I’d read a lot of Agatha Christie out loud. In my later teens, I started reading them for myself—a bit of fun, in between more serious books. But although I loved the cat’s cradle of the plot, the way the clues and red herrings were stitched together, I knew the characters were thin at best and the themes scant: I couldn’t see how even Lorna would make this into an actual undergrad course. So I hadn’t hesitated long before clicking on her other module, “The Devil Has the Best Lines.”

Georgie was getting out of bed now, pulling off her nightie without embarrassment, fixing the clasp of a bra under her heavy breasts.

“Situation clearly calls for a drink,” she said, spinning the bra round and flicking up the arm straps with a practiced movement.

“But the bar isn’t open for another four hours.”

She glanced out the window. “It’s only spitting, really. We could take a bottle down to one of those benches by the lake.”

She picked up the tall, thin bottle of Russian vodka from her desk. The label was in Cyrillic, which impressed me.

“Shall we?”

I looked into the bottle’s thick, wavy glass. “Got a much better idea actually.”

Untitled Poem

First a speckled white and brown foal
was born out the side of the snowmelt
with an old autumn knife tucked into its coat

Next Samantha had a dream
in which a person not exactly me inhabited
my body and wrapped the newborn lamb in a blanket

And though the foal grew as the last of the packed
snow-blanket receded and the secret life disguised
as death churned inside the apple trees

In the end my love vanished into the millions of tiny openings
become of spring and left the difference
exact and mathematical when the dream is subtracted from life

Three Poems

It’s okay, you’ll be wound sometimes.
be gaping, be cry,
be rock, be shiver, be rumble,
be ramshackle,
be shaking ancestors in your sleep.

To be part dead.
to razor, to lash, to hang, to be
thing that flails, to be cathedral,
to be gravestone. to speak cobweb.

Let me tell you:
to die every day is to pulse
music. to be kid who leans against book
more than people. to be book as it opens,
closes, folds in on itself, on same
paragraph. to be underlined stanza
whose body bursts syntax scars naked.

Love body when it emblazons
family curse, when you are bad joke
at table, when you are shuffled scrapes of forks,
weirdo told shut up, forsaken.

Let lonely make lens so clear you become intergalactic.
Let residue be blanket you shed every season.
Let you be blessing no one understands.
Let your gaze be salve, sign of cross.
Let you be words stranger waits for.
Let love be bunker you crawl into.
Let you guffaw, let you cackle.
Let you be last one left.
Let you be last one.
Let you be last.
Let you be.
Let you.
Let.

When you’re well into your 30s and you have no heat in the entire
building and you loath that actually you’re used to this, that poverty
had been a training, poverty was a practice imposed on you since
childhood. So somehow, small-you knows how to keep warm
when it’s 5 °F outside with blankets towering a fort on your bed.
Yes, you’ve called & reported & notified sources to get the heat
back on. That’s not the point. What you remember as a child
is reading at candlelight or small space heaters you pretended
were robots or re-starting the electrical fuse when a space heater
took too much juice. You remember your mom crying a couple
times, looking over at your freezing grandparents, all of them
cloaked in the same formula: a hoodie, scarves, bubble jacket,
defeat. She continued to boil water for steam on all the stove
burners and with shivering hands ma would mumble, “we left
home for this? We left home for this?” She would cup her
hands blowing breath and each exhale felt like a wish to return.
And your grandparents just sighed & rocked each other in the
basement. All of us wearing starter jackets, the same kind ma
would sell along with phone cards to her kababayan as yet another
side hustle. You, a curious child who knew there was another
home but had never been there yet—would walk over and ask
your mama, hug her tightly, would nudge your grandparents
and hold their worn hands, to tell them about their home,
and so they did. The waiting hours became tides of the beach,
sunglow sweat, harmony of palm tree leaves catching wind,
endless fishing boats dragging nets that appeared to be its
own kind of cursive in sand. There we were, everyone huddled
in the smallest circle in a Chicago northwest apartment, waiting
for it to get warmer, waiting for our bodies to feel home again.

diaspora love is to say, meet me on mott st., turn on doyers st., and wait in line for half an hour. okay. maybe an hour. not touch each other, but plan what dumplings to eat. not say a thing, but talk about hand pulled noodles, order two steamed pork buns, one for now, and another for later after we build a real appetite. watch one another pull apart soft dough made by women’s hands right at sunrise. before that, i’m in a meeting where a white lady tells me how i don’t even sound filipino. before that, you are not thanked for the ways you do all the work among men. we read the headlines and see bodies like ours but never hear our names pronounced correctly, if ever. all our people clean the houses or build the buildings or bake the bread, and we should be so grateful for this immaculate booth, upholstered in red, so grateful for the diplomas, and the crying between airport gates, see how we’ve made it. i send money back home without envelopes now, it’s done all online via cellphone. you go back to harlem, translate papers to parents. my mouth waters over chive parcels as you reach for the greens, chopsticks pick apart piles of leaves from stems as they sit in the salt of oyster sauce. we talk shop. we claim our worth. together, we order more chili oil and think, this chili oil is hot?—we rub our bellies under the table, still hungry, and smile as if to mean, y’all ain’t tasted anything yet.