Harvest by Millie Guille

It was the first morning without cockerels. The sun fell into the kitchen and hit the geraniums above the sink. Their petals were almost dead, but Tasha had kept them. They brightened up the yellow walls. According to her mother, who had been in charge of buying the paint, the colour was meant to create warmth. Instead, it reminded Tasha of her Aunt Amina’s jaundice. She watched the dust drift into the pantry. It fell over the beetroot and settled on the skin of four, roughly plucked roosters. Their thin bodies might make a stew. She would tell Seb that a dog had eaten them. Tasha covered them with a newspaper and skimmed over the headlines. Nothing jumped out at her. Her mother refused to read them, refused even the radio. She smoked her pipe, trimmed the window boxes and spoke to her husband. He never had much to say on the matter.

A beetle clicked by the sink and Tasha watched it clamber into a bowl of grapes. It sat heavily within the bunch. She looked at her watch; Seb would be up soon. Her feet inched into a pair of worn leather sandals and she made her way into the garden. The hen house stood at the end of their property, and she noticed how the paint was peeling. She had only decorated it three months ago. The chickens were already outside and didn’t move when she entered the pen. Tasha felt as if she were interrupting a wake; after the incident with the cockerels, she didn’t blame them. They were young women, wondering where their men had gone. “You and me both,” she muttered as she closed the latch. Tasha recalled the date on the newspaper. It read April 7th 1996, but was a few days old. It was now the 10th. She noticed how the eggs were smaller. Her mother told her that during the war they had stopped laying altogether. She slipped them in her pocket and a warm nose brushed the backs of her legs. The culprit was Sergio, an elderly Tornjak who belonged to Mr Hadzic across the road. She had laughed when he told her that Sergio used to be a guard dog.

“Guard dogs are meant to be fierce” she had attested, stroking Sergio’s head.

“He was quite something in his youth.” Mr Hadzic smiled, as he walked back to his porch. “But then, we all were.”

As she brushed the white fur off her leg, she tried to imagine what Mr Hadzic had looked like as a younger man. Her mother told her that he was in his thirties, but he carried decades on his back. Brown hairs had become threaded with grey. He would have been a desirable man. She had learnt not to stare, but her son lacked that discretion.

“Where’s your eye?” Seb had asked him, when he came over to introduce himself. It was the day that they moved in with her mother.

Tasha turned away from the chickens, and remembered the answer her seven-year-old had received.

“The soldiers cut it out.”

Seb had nightmares for a week. She had slipped off her sandals at the kitchen door when she heard Mr Hadzic calling for Sergio. Tasha crossed the track barefoot and saw him in his garden. A bowl of gravy sat on the grass in front of him. In the light, she could see the gouges that stretched up his cheek. They were the colour of a fresh burn.

“He was watching the chickens again,” Tasha said when she reached him, keeping her feet away from the gravy. Sergio had a large splash zone.

Unsurprised, he nodded and patted the dog’s head. His face was pinched in the sun. “What was all that noise last night?” he asked. “It sounded like a goose being mugged.” He didn’t laugh, but raised his eye to hers. It was dark blue.

She moved closer, and avoided the gravy on the lawn. “Mum got pissed off with the cockerels. Apparently they were disturbing my father.” Tasha looked back at the house. Her mother’s curtains were still closed.

Mr Hadzic raised an eyebrow. “But your father—”

“I know,” Tasha interrupted. “But you’ve seen what she’s like.”

It was gone nine by the time she had cooked breakfast, and she scolded Seb for licking the plate. “Even Sergio has better manners than you,” she chastised, and ruffled his black hair. It was the same colour as hers, but that was all he had inherited. His round eyes were almond, and there was a gentle hook to his nose. He was the mirror image of his father.

“Some days, it is hard to look at him,” she had once told Mr Hadzic.

Tasha placed her mother’s breakfast in the fridge and looked at the kitchen. The wooden floor had been worn smooth by generations of children. She had moved in several months ago, after the siege ended. The air in the mountains was cleaner than in the city. Dull thuds came from the ceiling, and she knew her mother was straightening the bedsheets. Her father’s side was always pristine. Tasha had grabbed the car keys and put on a jacket by the time her mother came into the kitchen. Her hair had been scraped into a bun to hide the stained, yellow ends.

“Where are you off to?” her mother asked. Her white shirt was crisp, but her voice was darkened by tobacco. She sat at the table and put a hand on Tasha’s father. “And where’s breakfast?”

Tasha removed the plate from the fridge and carried it over. “We’re out of bread,” she replied, as she wiped a fork clean and handed it to her mother. The closest shop was three miles away, but the drive was pleasant. On a clear day, you could even make out the city. The sun had migrated further into the sky and cast shadows. She noticed the road sign. It was yellow and slightly bent, with thick, black letters. She knew what was on it without looking.

SARAJEVO – 60 Miles.

At the store, she paid for the loaf and bought an orange to eat in the car. She didn’t have enough change to buy her mother’s tobacco, but she bought a carnation for her father. Its pink head reminded Tasha of a clenched fist. Driving back, she didn’t stop to look at the view. There isn’t much left to look at anyway, she thought, remembering the bombardment. Her wedding ring caught the sun and threw cubes of light across the dashboard. It was on a chain around her neck. She reached for it and thumbed the plain, gold band. Tasha opened the window and could smell the fir trees which lined the track as she neared her house. She had always loved the mountains, but moved with Jakob to the city when they got married. One day she had asked him to get bread. He was swallowed by a bomb.

She pulled into her drive and saw Mr Hadzic cutting his hedge. Sergio was lying at his feet, covered in leaves. The kitchen door was unlocked and she walked inside, placing the bag on the worktop. Her mother was still at the table; a brown pipe twitched between her teeth. Half of her breakfast was untouched. With a grunt, she lifted herself from the chair.

“You and Mr Hadzic have spent a lot of time together recently,” her mother said, fixing her eyes upon her daughter. “You talked until gone eight the other night.” She paused. “Is there something going on between you two?”

Tasha’s hand tightened on the mug she had cleared off the table. “Jakob only died eight months ago.” She tried to control her voice. “How could you think I’m moving on?”

“I just thought—” her mother started, but her sentence was drowned out by the radio firing up, words spitting from its grill.

“Turn that off!” she shouted, and snatched at the radio in her daughter’s hands. Headlines flew distortedly through the house. Seb poked his head around the kitchen door.

“Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed in the capital…Refugee centres cannot cope with the demand for aid…The estimated death toll has risen to twenty thousand…”

The sound of broken china made Tasha turn off the news. Her mother went rigid and stared at the floor. A large pile of ash was clumped near the table. A small, black urn lay cracked upon its side. In the commotion, Seb had knocked over his grandfather’s ashes. He was too shocked to move. The silence felt heavier after the radio. It was a minute before anyone spoke.

“Everyone out,” her mother said quietly, her hand on her chest. “Now.”

Tasha walked out into the garden and sat on the old swing. She held her head in her hands. Her father had pushed her on it when she was a child. Before the war came. It had harvested everything, and she was left scratching for seeds.

A Light in the Window by David Klose

A week before I signed a 12-month lease with my fiancée on our soon-to-be-new old home with its small yard and its big deposit, my mother began to fall apart. She had called me and asked me how I was doing (How’s the dog? How’s Nicole?) but before I could answer, she asked me if I could come over and help her move some of her things out of storage. She asked me as if she were asking a waiter for another glass of water; without the slightest worry that I would say no.

At that moment my apartment was boxes upon boxes. It was a small one-bedroom that I had occupied for three years. I never knew how much stuff I owned until I dragged everything out of its drawers and closet space. There were old DVDs (when was the last time I even watched a DVD?) filed randomly in small purple shoe-like boxes I had bought from Ikea. There were books and shoes (a pair so old that they sported a brownish stain on the toes where I puked whiskey after my first night getting drunk as a teenager). Nicole, my fiancée, helped by taking a white trash bag and throwing away things she knew I didn’t want and I made it worse by going through those bags and taking some things out. I had a wooden box, about the size of two gallons of water, full of notebooks. The red notebooks were for screenplay ideas, green notebooks were for novel ideas, blue notebooks were for poems and the yellow notebooks were stories I had been told about my mother (either by her, or by my father). I hadn’t written in any of the notebooks (nor even bothered to read from any of them) since I first moved out on my own.

My car was just as messy as everything else in my life. I had boxes of Girl Scout cookies in the front passenger seat and the back seat was stuffed with white trash bags full of clothes I was going to donate to the thrift store. When I got to my mother’s, I realized something was wrong. On her left hand she only had her thumb and three fingers. Her index finger was missing. She said it had fallen off like a coat-button and she showed me where it had fallen; it was still on the kitchen floor. I looked at it and went to pick it up, but then it dissolved into something like sand. I grabbed a sandwich bag from the pantry and scooped the sand up with a loose letter from her pile of mail. Then I rolled my weight on the bag to get the air out.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said “I’ve never been healthier. I am eating a macrobiotic diet, have you heard of that? You only eat what’s naturally in season. I highly recommend it.”

She sat down at the kitchen table and crossed her legs and put her hands in her lap. She examined her left hand as if there was some huge wound or gash and blood was pouring out, but there was no blood at all. There wasn’t as much as a blemish.

“You need to call Benjamin at the Eastern Order. His number is on the fridge. You would love to talk to him, but he needs to know about this. Something isn’t right.”

“Who is he?” I asked, and put the Ziploc bag of her sand on the counter, next to a roll of paper towels.

“He is this great spiritual leader I met last year on a retreat into Flagstaff. He has been helping me with some issues and I think this is related. He wanted me to get rid of all my old spiritual teachings, especially anything I worked on with my therapist when I was still with your father,” she said and went to stand up, “that’s why I called you over. I need help getting boxes out of the shed.”

Before my parents divorced, back when I was still just their kid, there was always Christmas lights up on the house by the first of December. The trash was taken to the curb every Monday and Wednesday and the mail box was never overstuffed with magazines, unpaid bills and Value Coupon Books. We never ran out of toilet paper and there were always frozen meats in the freezer to be thawed out and grilled.

That’s when we went to the three-tiered church down the street and my father fell asleep during the sermons and my mother started to speak in tongues and flop up and down the stage like a fish out of water. When the pastor Richard Luth had said, in church-sponsored marriage counseling, that my father had not yet made peace with having to grow up in an orphanage (at least, that’s how my mother told it), my father started to stay home on Sundays. We’d go to church, my mother and I, and he’d be back home mowing down the grass and trimming the edges and when we’d come back he’d be sunburnt and smiling with little cuts where rocks had flown back and hit him across his legs and he’d smell of sweat.

Then she called him names and he’d only come home after drinks and he taught me songs that other kids my age had never heard. It was then that she changed the locks. The mail started to gather up, the yard became overgrown and wild, dinner was takeout or delivered, we skipped Christmas two years in a row and when I got sick my mother put oil bought from the church gift shop on my forehead. When that didn’t work and I became pale and dark-eyed, my mother dragged me up to the stage and I held my hands out while the pastor pounded the Holy Spirit into me and told me if I believed I’d be saved.

I walked out to the shed with my mother. There was just enough light left in the day to see.

“You see,” she said “everything has an energy. Everything is alive. If you beat a kid with a bat, that bat gets stained with a bit of that crime. It sticks around. Over time, as you hold that bat again and again, you’ll feel the urge to hit a kid again.”

I turned the light on in the shed and looked upon all the storage boxes, most of them translucent but shaded brown with dust.

“We go through life hanging to all these old things, these things we keep close out of habit, and these items can either be helping us up or bringing us down.”

“What do you want me to do? Take out all these boxes?” I asked, trying to count, without it being obvious, how many boxes there were. I figured close to fifteen.

“I want to bring out most of them. And I want to throw them in the fire.”

She went to start a fire in the backyard fire pit and I went inside to hide in the bathroom and called the local Urgent Care and spoke to a medical intern and told her everything that was happening. She took down my notes, said “hmm” and “interesting” and then asked me to hold. When she came back, she said the on-call doctor advises fresh liquids and plenty of rest. Have her only eat meals like soup or stew, nothing too difficult to chew. She can take ibuprofen if she starts to ache. If she hasn’t improved by Monday, call her regular attending physician and schedule an appointment.

“What about her finger?” I ask.

“Her finger?”

“Yes. The finger that fell off. It’s sand. Can we fix that?”

The woman on the line was quiet for a few moments, and I imagined she was either searching her head for something to say or looking at her nails. Then she said, “No, I don’t think so. I think the way she is now is the way she will be from now on.”

I flushed the toilet, turned on the faucet for a few seconds and then went back outside. She had started a fire and it was now officially late evening; the stars were showing and the neighbors all had lights in their windows.

My father was an orphan and never liked talking about it.

My mother grew up in an abusive home and was always telling me about it as I grew up. My father said she told me too much. She had run away when she was 15 and a half. She had worked at a hot dog stand where they specialized in double chili dogs (two hot dogs stacked on one another in one bun) and when she saved enough money, or saved what she thought would be enough money, she left home and slept outside in parks, in the back of trucks, at cheap hotels and with various people she met on the road until she found a steady job selling cleaning products door to door.

When I was growing up, after we stopped going to church and when I only saw my father on the weekend, my mother told me her parents worked for the Devil and they abused her and her brothers. She told me one memory she had of being woken up and carried down to the basement where men and women stood cloaked and hooded, with nothing but candlelight and an ominous “ohm” reverberating between their bodies. She said they would hold her down and use her in rituals, her and her brothers. She said they did rituals of pure evil, rituals that promised her and her offspring to the Devil for the next ten generations.

When I went up to my mother, I saw that her entire hand had fallen off and beneath her was another pile of sand. “Let’s go,” I said, motioning for us to go back inside.

“No,” she said, ” I want to stay by this fire.”

“Mother,” I said looking towards the pile of the sand, “you aren’t doing well.”

“I know how I am doing. I didn’t call you over here to baby me, I called you because I need your help with those boxes.”

I sighed and then brought her a chair. Then I got a mason jar and picked up as much of the sand as I could.

When she thought I had felt Christ enough as a child, she told me to stop trying. “No point in making a phone call,” she said “if you know the person on the other line isn’t going to pick up.” That’s when she began talking about the Universe, and told me not to answer the phone if it were Pastor Luth calling.

She told me about people’s energy, of currents of love and hate, and how we feed them with our emotions. “There is no sick,” she said “but only those who are feeding the wrong energy.”

That winter when I got pneumonia a modern-day shaman put his hand on my chest and pushed and mumbled something I couldn’t understand.

 

The following summer I stayed with my father and my mother travelled up North and lived in a small community of like-minded people in small cabins that I only ever saw through photos, but once she told me how she heard the one true voice of Mother Earth at night when she was wrapped up in something like linen and placed on the soil while everyone made a circle around her and beat on drums. That was long ago, I couldn’t tell you how long, but it was before my first kiss with Nicole Leisman, my now-fiancée, and right around the time when my mother wouldn’t let me see my father anymore.

I took out three boxes and placed them at her feet. She would open them with her only hand, sift through them and either tell me to put them back or to throw them into the fire. The first two, full of books and vials, were into the fire. The third, which was full of nothing but pine cones wrapped in newspaper, she told me to keep.

She had let me use a headlamp my father had bought her, back when they were married and went camping together. She said I was conceived on one of those trips, outside of the tent and under the stars.

I was in the shed, getting ready to bring out another box when Nicole called.

“Hey,” I said picking up.

“Hey, are you still with your Mom?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m sorry it’s taking so long.” I said and looked back at my mother, who was sitting close to the fire, which was now quite large, with her back towards the night. “She wants me to clean out her shed, I guess there is an exterminator coming in the morning.”

“The exterminator needs you to clean out the shed?”

“I guess so. I don’t know how much longer it will take. A few more hours.”

“Do you want me to come over?”

“Maybe later. She isn’t feeling well.”

“Have you told her I am pregnant yet?”

“It hasn’t come up. No.”

“I don’t think it will be as bad as you think. She seems less intense than she was when you were growing up. You know, like when she told me I was the cause of your asthma.”

I laughed, and then said “I am going to go. But I will call you later.”

I brought out another six boxes (four to burn, two to keep) and then said, “Mother, have you had dinner yet? You should make something.”

“There’s no food in there,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I threw it all out yesterday. It was tainted. I am getting new food next week through the Eastern Order.”

I looked in her cupboards and in the fridge, all of them empty except for stored pouches of her blood.

When I was older, I started working at S&F Grocery as a bagger and then was promoted to a grocery clerk, where I was responsible for stocking the canned food shelves and keeping the milk cooler full. I still lived with my Mother, but saw her intermittently. I spoke to my father on the phone and would, when I saved up enough money and bought my first car, drive up to see him. He lived up North, further than I’ve ever been before. He would ask after my mother, and I’d tell him of the new things she was doing: eating only raw meat, doing fire ceremonies in the living room (setting off the smoke alarm once), and storing her own blood in the freezer.

“Storing her own blood? Why on earth?”

“She says who we are is in our blood. If you get a blood transfusion, you are getting someone’s else essence.”

He laughed and then smiled. “I am not going to lie. I miss some of her. She was never boring.”

“I wish she was normal,” I said, “I can’t bring people over.”

He shook his head, “I am not sure you can be normal, when you start out like she did. I can imagine a lot of things but I can’t imagine her life before I knew her.”

“I know, Dad.”

“No, you don’t. Neither do I. Don’t you see? I met her brother once, before you were born. She found him through the internet in Oregon and we went to see him. He killed himself shortly after.”

“I never knew this,” I said.

“She tells you almost everything, but not everything.”

“What happened when you met him?”

“Not much. He was a nice guy, honestly. A real nice guy. I never would have thought he was as troubled as he was. He smoked a lot—I mean a lot—and he was super skinny, but that could mean anything. At this point in our marriage, things were getting rough and I asked her brother how he dealt with the past. I didn’t want to get into details. I just wanted to see how I could help.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he had it pretty bad, but she had it worse. For some reason, she had it worse growing up. The things they would do. You see, a lot of people, me and your mom included, think maybe she just imagined a lot of these things, you know? A lot of the really crazy things, like the rituals and the sacrifices. Maybe she just had really abusive parents and she created these things to make sense of it. That’s what one of the doctors said. The doctor said it was common and that there were all these famous court cases about it. But talking to her brother—he didn’t confirm any details and I didn’t want him to—well, it made me feel alone and like I couldn’t do anything, no matter how hard I tried.”

He stopped and then said, “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

 

All of the food stores were closed, so I went into my car and brought in a few boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

“It’s better than nothing,” I said and gave her a box.

She laughed and as she laughed, her bangs dissolved and trickled down her face.

We went inside and I took some tape and black Sharpie marker and wrote “left index finger” over the Ziploc bag and then “rest of left hand” on the mason jar.

“Thank you for helping me,” she said as she sat down on the couch. “Want to watch some TV?”

“I need to get going, Mother.”

“Before you go, I want you to take down Simon’s number.”

“Simon?”

“The man helping me. He is really amazing. He reads you.”

I sat down across from her and asked, “What’s that mean?”

Her eyes lit up, “Well, I sat across from him in his office. In this basic wooden chair and he asks you. ‘Do I have permission to access your past life?’ and you say yes and he looks back into your life and says ‘There is a box inside your soul that is locked. Can I unlock it?’ I said yes, and he said he saw my past life as a woman in Salem during the witch trials. Isn’t that something? I was convicted for sexually molesting little kids in the name of the Devil but I was innocent. He said he saw clearly that I was innocent.” She opened the Girl Scout cookie box and took a bit of a cookie and then said “ow” and put her fingers in her mouth.

“What else did he see?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, her fingers still in her mouth “I guess they tied me up and were burning me at the stake and they said if I confessed they would save me…” but before she could continue, she took her tooth out of her mouth and it instantly turned to sand. Then all of her teeth fell out and she coughed up the sand, like dry cereal. I rushed over and helped her.

“It was important to me,” she said, mumbling. Then she looked at me and said, “It’s important to me, that I was innocent. That I was innocent.”

“Mother,” I said, taking my phone out, “I am going to call Dad. He needs to know about this. He can help. I’ll be right back, okay? I’ll be right back.” Then I stood up, turned towards the kitchen and called him. It rang and rang but he didn’t answer. When it went to his voicemail, I hung up and called again. I held the phone in my hand, letting it ring and ring, as I walked back to the couch but she wasn’t talking anymore.

Her eyes were the next to go. They went like tears of sand dripping out of her sockets, down her high cheekbones and dribbling over the sides of her face. After that, she lost her tongue and could only moan. Then her throat went and her head was detached from her body. It was her chest that was the last to go. It went slowly, like sand castles being weathered away by the wind.

Afterwards, I gathered up all the sand. It took a dozen or so cups and two pans, which I sorted on the kitchen counter. I sat on a stool and poured out a little bit of sand. I made her into a pile, then pressed and molded her into a mound. Then I leveled it and made her into a line and cut into her diagonally. I used a credit card from my wallet to push her off the side and into my hand.

I took a tablespoon of sand and dropped her into a coffee mug and filled the mug up with water. I swirled the sand and water around until it became thick. Then I drank it, or tried to, but couldn’t help but gag and I spat her up into the sink and coughed and choked as I turned on the faucet and washed that part of her down the drain.

I packaged all the sand up and carried it outside. It was long into night now and I scattered her in her little patch of a garden. Then I went inside the garage, took out her blood and poured it over the sand. As I was pouring, I tripped and fell into the wet pile. I got blood all over my face and I wiped it on my sleeve. I had never been so out of breath, it was like I had run two miles in the time it takes to run one. My mother had, at one time, wanted to have been buried at the top of Machu Picchu, scattered into an ocean (preferably the Pacific), buried at the base of some great mountain, or in the Catholic cemetery her older brother had been buried in. I wiped my face again and finished pouring the rest of the blood over the garden.

When I got back to her house, I went inside, as if I had lived there all my life, and locked the door behind me. The Girl Scout cookies were still stacked on the dining room table and the neighborhood cat sat outside the back porch door, meowing. It would be a week later when, with my Dad, I began to package up all of her items and sort her things into two piles, that which we would keep and that which we would throw away, that I found a small vial, just slightly bigger than my palm, full of what looked like sand.

Unholy Mess by Parker Desautell

“What we’ve created,” the wife says, “is a kind of mirage, like the illusion of an oasis in a desert. That’s why people keep slowing down. They drive by and see we have a shitload of junk, and they assume there’s a yard sale going on.”

“Tough luck,” the husband says, blowing the dust off his old plastic print tray. “They’ll just have to wait.”

Tomorrow the husband and wife will be having a yard sale. Today they are cleaning out the garage. The garage extends into a back room of bookshelves and various toolkits and other odds and ends that leads to the basement. Old vacuum cleaners, clocks, record players, hoses, turf builders and fertilizers, typewriters, plastic print trays, old Waitt & Bond matchbox containers, Bakelite radios from the ’30s—the slow, imperceptible evolution of 60 years of buildup, smothered in cobwebs and mildew and God only knows what else has been making a living down here.

The wife reaches for a lampshade on a shelf to the husband’s side.

“We already established this,” he sighs. “You take care of that side, I’ll take care of this one.”

“It’s just a lampshade, hun. God, I don’t know why you’re so edgy about me taking one thing off your side. You’d think you’d want me to make things easier for you.”

“We’ll work faster this way.”

A rusty Toyota slows to a crawl out by the curb. It stops just before the driveway. The husband sighs. An old woman in a blue-and-white checkered housedress about two sizes too big for her steps out. She has a flat, boyish face with short coal-grey hair, a face whose femininity isn’t helped by the size of her dress.

She walks up to the clutter lying in the driveway, without even looking up at the husband and wife. “Oh, my son would love this,” she says, lifting a brown Bakelite radio off a wooden table. “He collects old radios. Old Bakelites and—”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” the husband says, in a voice that is all business, cold and impersonal. “This is not a yard sale. Please come by tomorrow.”

She looks up at him, squinting. The way she fidgets with the radio in her small, skeleton-like hands, turning it over constantly, brushing it off, she looks to have some sort of nervous tic. Her hands seem to move faster than she wants them to, like she doesn’t have control of some sensory motor nerve. “Oh—tomorrow? Tomorrow,” she says, pausing and tapping her bottom lip frantically as if trying to remember what significance ‘tomorrow’ has—”Tomorrow—that’s when I see my son, up in Merrimack, New Hampshire.”

“I’m sorry, but we’re not selling today.”

“Hun,” his wife says, rolling her hazel brown eyes at him. “Let her have a look. We can make exceptions.”

“We can’t make exceptions.”

“I have almost everything on this side catalogued. The hardcovers are a buck each, the paperbacks 25 cents, and all the garden supplies are—”

“If we allow one person to roam around here, you know what’s gonna happen. Pretty soon everyone will be roaming around here asking if they can buy stuff.”

“She won’t even get to be here tomorrow! Relax.”

The woman is still absentmindedly fidgeting with the radio, letting the black cord drag on the pavement, mumbling something to herself about her son up in Merrimack again.

“There’s more old radios back here,” the wife says, pointing to a junk-filled corner of the garage. “Some more Bakelite ones, in good condition.”

The woman walks over.

“I’m sorry but we still need to sort through that stuff,” the husband says, rushing over like this is the site of some treasured archaeological discovery and one small touch will tarnish the whole thing.

“Let her look,” his wife says, teeth gritted.

“It’ll collapse.”

The woman continues to mutter to herself and, like the husband isn’t even there, reaches back for two more old Bakelite radios stacked on a heap of cardboard boxes. She pulls them out and sure enough, a rat’s nest of clutter comes caving down at her feet. She lurches back.

For a moment all is still. The husband, wife and the old woman stand there.

At the husband’s feet lies his old saxophone case. The lid is off, and out of it spills a stash of letters in unfamiliar handwriting and four small, clear, cup-like rubber sheaths.

The husband sneezes from the musty smell of the garage. The old woman steps back. She keeps repeating “sorry—Oh, I’m s-sorry!” in this jittery giggle, but the husband and wife don’t pay attention. They both stare at the ground. They both stare at the rubber sheaths.

The wife looks up at the husband. The husband doesn’t look at her. He just stares, unblinkingly, down into this unholy mess, like he’s too startled to move.

The wife slowly and cautiously bends down and begins sorting through the papers, one by one. They are letters. They are all addressed to the husband, and signed by various names, in various years. “Maria, April 1979. Maggie Travis, June 1988. Maria, February 1983. Lucy L., April 1992. Lucy L., October 1992. Iana, January 1989.”

The wife crinkles her eyebrows together, looking at the husband like some explanation is needed—then looks back down at the stash of letters, no explanation needed, no further confirmation. The slow, imperceptible evolution of 60 years of buildup, smothered in rubber sheaths and letters and God only knows what other secrets have been making a living down here.

Presence by Timothy Day

I showed up at their door with nothing but myself. All I had back at the dorm was ramen and all of the beer stuffed into the mini-fridge was Kenny’s, my assigned athlete roommate. Last summer they had mailed out a personality survey to those who didn’t have a roommate and my guess was that the master matcher had been having a bad day when they arrived at my quiz, marked up by what they recognized as an eager and naïve hand. And this bitter veteran of people pairing, they had wanted someone to experience what they had felt that morning, finding a birthday cupcake on their desk in place of the surprise party they had been expecting.

Their names were Rachel and Amber. We were not friends, not really, it was just that they were both in the student committee and had welcomed the new kids on my floor with a mass invite to have dinner with them. Kenny was out at the time, likely having classic college experiences that he would one day describe to his kids with a nostalgic grin while tinkering away at some old project in the garage.

For a moment it was almost as if I had forgotten what I was doing there, standing at the door to their apartment, which stood before me with all the regality of being not a dorm. When Rachel answered, her greeting was laced with a similar dose of question, as if my uncertainty was contagious.

I’m here for the dinner party, I said, hoping that was right.

Our number was smaller than I’d expected, with only the three of us there at the table. They asked me the usual questions that you ask a first-year and I gave detailed answers in hopes that they would bleed into more personal conversation. Their attention drifted in and out and in between they would look at each other and say something scarcely audible in a tone I wanted desperately to be directed towards me.

How are things going with your roommate? Amber asked.

He’s an athlete, I said. Kenny.

Is that Josh’s brother?

I don’t know.

What sport does he play?

Baseball, I said. Football.

I think that’s Josh’s brother.

Oh.

After dinner they brought out rum and Coke and we moved into the living room, where they taught me a drinking game I didn’t really understand. I asked them how long they’d known one another, which led to the story of how they first met, at a bonfire party in high school, sharing a hammock in a friend’s backyard since all the chairs had been taken. They laughed and kneeled into each other at the memory, sitting there cross-legged on the carpet. I was jealous of them, of their friendship, of their story about meeting on a hammock. An adolescence chopped up by moving had left me without stories that were relevant to my current existence, and to think about them did not feel so different than to think about something completely made up. I wanted badly to write a new life, but beginnings are difficult to foster when living in a world of middles.

My drinking game incompetence meant that I was drinking a lot, and it wasn’t long before I became drunk for the first time. They grinned and whispered to each other and asked me much too loudly how I was doing, as if they were speaking through a slate of windowpane.

I’m okay, I shouted, because maybe our voices really should resemble the amount of distance we feel around others. I imagined Kenny and I talking to each other in our tiny dorm room, hands cupped around our mouths, bellowing with all of the air that our lungs could harness. Amber’s phone buzzed aggressively, and she announced that someone named Mike was coming over. Our game was winding down and I wandered to the kitchen, where I examined a whiteboard on the fridge with RACHEL, AMBER, and L written on the top in three columns, details of chore duty listed below.

Who’s L? I asked, but they were both occupied, composing a message back to Mike. I took the marker from its slot on the side of the whiteboard and drew a happy face next to L.

She’s at her parent’s for the night, someone said back. I studied the letter, thin and worn on the board. I took the marker again and went over the L to make it bold and new. I bordered it with streaks of lightning to indicate its energy. I examined L’s chores and put a check mark next to the first one after washing the dishes. The doorbell rang, somewhere. Rachel came over to me while Amber hurried to the door.

Look, I said, pointing to the empty sink. L did the dishes.

Rachel took my arm, but only because I was swaying a bit.

You can stay in her room, she said. If you’re sleepy.

I nodded.

Okay.

L’s bedroom was in the basement, at the end of a short hallway. Rachel left after leading me in, closing the door as she went. I could hear the pluck in Amber’s voice upstairs, powering its way through the floor. A deeper voice burbling back in response. L’s table lamp had been left on and her bed was unmade and vulnerable, not prepared in any way. I wondered if L would later notice my presence in the small shifting of the blanket’s location, the slightly different shape pressed into the pillow. There were photos taped to the ceiling, faces scattered around each other like a pictorial village, smiling because they’d been selected as bookends to L’s life, chosen to be with her in the most honest spaces of time. I grabbed the flashlight on the nightstand and made my way through the faces, speculating who L was to each of them. I decided that L was for Liz because this made for a handy way of categorizing L’s people by closeness – she was Elizabeth to the grey-haired couple on the top right, and sometimes to the middle-aged faces beaming prideful below, on occasions of accomplishment and discipline. She was Liz to the people cluttered together in the pictures at the bottom, smushed against several others with plastic cups and birthday hats. I spotted Amber and Rachel in four of them, arms around a girl who could have been L and could have been someone else. These were the people that L shared living rooms with, the people who separated before alcohol wore off. They called her Liz because Liz sounded like a part of the group, an addition. My gaze rose to the middle of the picture village, the natural place for the eyes to rest.

Lizzie, I said, to the faces. Two of them were girls and two of them were boys, all of them alone with smiles that didn’t show teeth. They looked warm and wistful, as if they were aware of how much time had passed. These were the pictures that most suited their setting, the people who could say L’s name with the tenderness and intimacy that Lizzie entailed, with eyes that ached in their missing of her. I fell asleep and dreamed of giant paintings, walking around on legs of paintbrushes. The world around them kept still, like always. I woke up early in the morning, light peeking in through the little windows nudged above the earth. I looked at the faces on the ceiling, everyone in the same moment as they’d been the night before. It suddenly felt wrong, to be there with them. I got up and stood for a minute, looking out the window, watching the sky from underneath the ground. Then I went to the bathroom and walked upstairs and left the quiet apartment, leaving the door unlocked in case L forgot her key.

Mr. Biggs by Timothy Day

A pitcher was in my hand when I spotted the flyer, old and wrinkled on a backwoods telephone pole. Last week I had planted seeds around the perimeter of the neighborhood and this was my first round of watering them.

LOST, read the flyer, accompanied by a picture of a cat on a lap. MR. BIGGS was handwritten underneath it, with a phone number in blue pen. The fingers petting Mr. Biggs were pale and long-fingered, with tiny streaks of lightning painted on the nails. I entered the number into my contact list under the name BIGGS.

I went home and did not think about Mr. Biggs again until that night, when I saw a commercial for cat litter. It was long and I was trying to be more spontaneously social, so I picked up my phone and dialed BIGGS and after four rings a woman’s voice came through the other end.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi.”

“I saw your poster,” I said. “Mr. Biggs.”

“Oh,” she said. “You saw Mr. Biggs?”

“No,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Oh.”

“Just the flyer.”

“Oh.”

“I looked for him though.”

“Thanks.”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s a little bastard.”

“Mhm.”

“But I miss him.”

There was a pause. I pictured Mr. Biggs knocking over food and scratching at people and I thought to myself: what a little bastard. And then I said,

“Lightning terrifies me.”

There was another, longer pause, and I almost hung up because I thought that she’d hung up. And then she said,

“I promise to never point at you.”

And I hung up because it felt like the farthest we could go, like when you’re swimming across a pool and you hit the other side, or when you have to leave wherever because the parking meter’s up.

On Monday, I devoted the whole of my morning to the search for Mr. Biggs. I didn’t call his name because if a stranger called my name I would probably think that I had broken a law. I saw other animals that nobody was looking for and chased after them for a moment to make them feel wanted; a chance to reject is the worst source of pride but at least it is something. Around noon, I came across a woman walking through the fields in back of the supermarket. She wore a sequined blue dress and high heels, fingernails bright pink.

“Mr. Biggs!” she called. “Where are you, Mr. Biggs?”

I approached and asked if she was the owner, telling her before she answered that it was me; the caller from last night.

“I’m not the owner,” she said. “I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” I said. “Me too.”

The woman nodded.

“We’re gonna find that little bastard.”

We looked for Mr. Biggs together through the afternoon. Next to the old high school soccer field, we came upon a middle-aged man pacing slow through the grass, eyes scanning the horizon. When we saw each other, there was something distantly understood between the three of us, as if we had robbed a bank together in a previous life. Without words, we continued the search as a party of three, ascending the hill that marked the edge of the neighborhood and reaching the top by nightfall, where we gathered up twigs and made a bonfire and sat around the perimeter warming our hands, eyes resting on the gleaming lights of the next town over. The air was thick with defeat and my head sunk into my knees. I thought about my plants and how they, at least, were getting somewhere. When I looked up, the middle-aged man had fallen asleep. The woman and I stood and agreed to try again tomorrow.

The next day, there was a crowd with the woman when she met me in the back of the supermarket.

“Who are all these people?” I asked.

The woman shrugged, still wrapped tight in her dirtied blue dress.

“Guess word got out,” she said.

The two of us led the way, the crowd following. I had never had a crowd follow me before and it made the haunting sensation that I was somehow supposed to know where I was going very real. We explored back alleys, peeked inside dumpsters, and tried to think like a cat. The consensus was milk and mice and yarn stores. There weren’t many of the last two around and the first wasn’t readily available to animals. One of the new searchers was a boy with a toy airplane and he attached the Mr. Biggs flyer to it and flew it across town until the airplane ran out of batteries and crashed on top of a Chinese restaurant.

By the end of the week, we were knocking on doors and handing out flyers on the street. New people were joining us every day and we had someone on every corner, in every neighborhood. The city itself seemed to be growing with us; it was as if more people lived there than ever before.

Months passed. The woman in the stained and torn blue dress went with me to make a presentation to the mayor, who declared the search for Mr. Biggs a citywide priority. Homeowners were instructed to leave bowls of milk on their porches at night and volunteers took shifts watching from their cars to see if Mr. Biggs came to drink. The sense of comradery in the streets was wonderful. Strangers stopped each other to ask if they had heard of any sightings and heads shook in unison at the bad news. We were like Christmas elves, all working together in pursuit of a single day: the day we would find Mr. Biggs. There was an unspoken feeling between all of us that when this happened, other things would follow. Things like love; world peace; the end of all sorrow. Or at least maybe an orgy.

When the boy with the toy airplane had his bar mitzvah, the streets outside the synagogue were packed with humanity, everyone doing the wave. The woman in the blue dress and I sat in the front row as honored guests, clapping until our hands got red. During his speech, the boy attached a piece of paper reading thank you to his new airplane and flew it above our heads. The paper dropped somewhere in the middle of the synagogue and a young girl caught it and blushed. Before landing the plane, the boy said,

“We’re gonna find that little bastard.”

And the crowd erupted in applause.

Nobody ever asked the woman in the blue dress about her wardrobe, but it got so you could smell her coming three streets down. I thought that it was probably something she planned to keep up until we found Mr. Biggs, like some sort of religious vow, and I admired the dedication. Sundays were my favorite, when the two of us would meet in my apartment and plan the week’s actions. Out there we had become celebrities, but in here we were just two people again. Even though all we ever talked about was the Mr. Biggs movement, I felt closer to the woman in the blue dress than anyone. And there were moments together; moments when we agreed on a new tactic in shared jubilance and smiled across the planning-board; moments when we walked out of my apartment and she said goodbye as the paparazzi swarmed us; moments in which I began to feel slightly less concerned with Mr. Biggs.

After a few years, the movement began to die down. People lost hope and moved away to cities less preoccupied with the finding of a cat. I still gave my regular Thursday night pep talk at the diner, but there were fewer and fewer people in attendance. Our weekly search parties dwindled until we were back to double digits.

The boy with the toy airplane got married at 21 to the girl who caught his thank you message at the synagogue. All of the Biggs searchers and former Biggs searchers were in attendance, the mood between us like that of a college reunion, our glory days firmly behind us. There was a fear creeping up in the back of my mind that all our movement had ever been was a bunch of people pretending to be not-lonely. It was an outdoor wedding and a toy airplane flew through the air, carrying a paper that read: Harry and Cindy together forever! Most of us didn’t know who Harry or Cindy were but we could assume out of context and we smiled with parental affection as the boy-with-the-airplane/Harry kissed his bride at the altar. During the reception, the woman in the downright filthy blue dress asked Harry for a dance, sulking away after he gently suggested she take a shower already.

At the final search party, I was alone. After ten minutes of retracing my steps for the thousandth time, I felt around in my pocket and removed the original Mr. Biggs flyer. I stared at the fingernails, I stared at the lightning, I stared at that little bastard in the lap. And I turned the flyer over, eyes widening when I saw the address, printed on the back the whole time. I found a telephone book and looked it up immediately, landing on the name: Deborah Evans.

I felt nervous when I knocked on her door, as if I was showing up for a date nine years late. The woman who answered had lightning-bolt fingernails and wore a tank top with applesauce smeared on it in several locations. I held up the flyer in place of a hello and she looked at me long before inviting me in.

Deborah gave me a cup of coffee and we sat at her kitchen table. Behind us kids ran around and shouted and disobeyed her in a variety of ways.

“I found Mr. Biggs in the backyard a few days after we talked on the phone,” she said. “He was old, but I got three more years with that little bastard.”

I sank back in the chair; it seemed impossible.

“Mr. Biggs is dead?”

Deborah nodded.

“He’s in kitty heaven.”

Outside, Deborah told me where Mr. Biggs was buried and pointed towards the gravesite. Her directions led me to the top of the hill that marked the edge of town, where the middle-aged man was still sleeping, his belly swollen with a gentle rise and fall. I stood next to the mound of dirt that poked up with the presence of a dead cat and closed my eyes, waiting for lightning to strike me. Before this happened, I heard a rustling noise to my right and looked over to see the middle-aged man waking. He shifted up to a sitting position and looked around, as drowsy as nine straight years of sleep will make you.

“What’d I miss?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Nothing important.”

I thought about all the dreams that the middle-aged man must have had over the years, all the love and world peace and ending of sorrows he must have seen. There was probably an orgy in there too. And I thought that perhaps it was not him who’d been sleeping his life away, but the rest of us who’d been living our lives away. I looked at him and said,

“Do you ever think that life is a bunch of people pretending to be not-lonely?”

The middle-aged man put his hand on my shoulder and sighed, then began to walk slowly down the hill.

Five minutes after our meeting was supposed to start that weekend, I got a phone call from the woman in the blue dress.

“I can’t make it today,” she said. “Can we reschedule?”

I took a deep breath.

“Sure,” I said.

I knew that this rescheduling was never going to happen; our meetings had come to an end; there wasn’t even a reason for them anymore, and the woman in the blue dress was just trying to make it less dramatic.

“Great,” she said. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

I sat over our planning board, with the notecards and Post-its and thumbtacks. The hopes and dreams of our time.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

There was a pause and I knew that we had reached it; the end of the pool, the limit of the parking meter. Still, I held the phone tight.

“Amy,” she said.

“Hi Amy.”

“Hi.”

My plants would be grazing the sky by now.

This is a reprint of work originally published in Rose Red Review.

Jane Untitled by Timothy Day

When Jane visited her parents on her 26th birthday, she was surprised to find them stricken with perpetual wetness. The three of them sat down on the towel-covered couch and Jane listened as they told her about work and the cats and holiday vacation plans. They asked how she was doing and Jane did her best to inflate the recent small victories. Jason was starting yoga. The car was running fine. That nail that had been sticking out of the wall when she moved in? Gone. When this was done, Jane casually brought up the subject of her parent’s sodden state. Her father looked down, meek, and her mother sighed and placed a hand on Jane’s knee. It looked as if she was about to say something, but her hand retracted and she rose and announced that it was time for cake. When she returned, hair dripping onto the cake and putting out the candles, she asked if Jane had any birthday wishes. Her mother had been a reporter in her time, and she still asked every question with the severity of a war plan query. Jane shrank into the soggy couch cushion and shook her head no. Her parents wiped their eyes in near synchronicity.

Back at her apartment, Jason was jumping rope in the living room.

Hey grams, he said.

Gramps, Jane said.

The greeting had nothing to do with Jane’s birthday; in fact it had been her idea. Her theory was that it would better prepare her to love the old-man version of Jason, and vice versa. Like studying for the SATs of affection forty years in advance. They sat on their dry couch and Jane asked how yoga was going. Jason said it was amazing. Like philosophy for the body. He pulled her birthday present out of his pocket: chopsticks with a single J etched into the middle of each. Jane considered that it didn’t really work, since it wasn’t as if they could just use one a piece, but she smiled and kissed him and suggested Chinese.

The restaurant had been the setting of their first date. When Jason had first asked, Jane had said okay, but nothing too fancy. The problem with this was that Jason made everything fancy; he was a fancy person. Not fancy in the traditional sense; he owned loungewear and ate fast food. But he wore the sweatpants like Dockers and ate the fries like he was the farmer who grew the potato that made the fry and it was like he was having this special moment with the earth and the soil and the cycle of life. At the end of the meal he had opened his fortune cookie and made a big deal out of how it said your future is bright. He admitted that it was half-assed and general even for a fortune, but still, he could have gotten it on a different night. Jane’s had said something about the value of alone time, and she’d decided then that importance existed where you put it. Jason had looked at her expectantly and she had stuffed it in her pocket and made up something about rainbows.

This was now their seventh trip to the restaurant. They ordered their usual and talked about the movie last night. Jason realized the chopstick problem and apologized, but they laughed a good bit while attempting to eat with one each, stabbing the food and bringing it to the other’s mouth. It was an enjoyable dinner and Jane was feeling contently 26, but when her fortune cookie came, she opened it to find that the thin white paper inside was blank. Jason read his aloud: consider that you are already at the end of the rainbow. Jane gestured to the waiter.

Excuse me, she said. I think there’s been a mistake.

She held up the non-fortune and the waiter apologized and took it back to the kitchen. Upon his return, he kneeled down next to them and rested his elbows on the table, solemn.

It seems we have run out of fortunes, he said.

How? Jane asked.

The waiter shook his head.

It was bound to happen.

He left and Jane decided not to eat the cookie because it didn’t feel right. Jason threw his fortune out, to show solidarity.

When they got home, Jason attempted a striptease and they had sex and watched people buy houses on the home design network. They shared a blanket and put on snobby voices, commenting on the drabness of the color scheme, the uninspired sink faucets. Throughout it all the blank fortune hovered in the back of Jane’s mind like a gun at the end of the room. It was silly, she knew, but it somehow made her existence feel invalid.

The next day, Jane watched Ryan stick another piece of gum under the counter and announce 37 on the bowling alley microphone. Jane was the only person who knew what he was talking about. After handing out a pair of shoes, she approached him and asked nearly in a whisper if he had ever received a blank fortune.

Never, he said. Did you check both sides?

Jane nodded and Ryan hmphed.

How ominous, he said.

A crowd was beginning to form at the far left lane; it seemed a regular was attempting to set the record for the slowest roll in history. Jane left the counter and joined the others and watched as the ball made its way towards the pins. If you only looked for a few seconds, it would have appeared that the ball was unmoving, resting stagnant at the beginning of the lane. But as Jane stared at it, she could see that it was in fact progressing, shifting away from them inch by inch. The bowler had brought a pillow and blanket with him and was now lying down across the seats, breathing deep.

After work, Jane went to the university and visited her father, soaked head to toe in his brown jacket. It had been bright and sunny all day. Jane sat and listened to the squishing and squashing of his shoes as he paced the foreground of the classroom, stepping back and forth through a series of foot-sized puddles.

And you checked both sides?

Jane nodded.

Her father went to his desk and collected his briefcase, motioning for her to follow him out.

I wouldn’t worry about it, he said. These things happen.

What things? Jane asked.

Her father stopped in the hallway and turned to her. Jane thought he looked oddly at peace for being so unexplainably dank.

Things we don’t see coming, he said.

When Jane got home, Jason wasn’t there. This was strange because 1. Jason had no job and 2. Jason’s friends were her friends. She didn’t want to seem needy but she had a bad feeling in her stomach and after ten minutes of resisting she took out her phone and called Jason.

Hello?

Hey gramps, Jane said. Where are you?

There was a peculiar sound then, as if the air was stretching into static, then compressing back.

I’m not sure, Jason said.

Have you been abducted?

I don’t think so.

There was a vacancy in his voice, as if he was heavily distracted or very high. Jane’s smile faded and her voice grew low.

What’s going on?

Jason said something but it was obscured by another influx of static and the call cut out. Jane tried him again but the phone didn’t ring. She waited through most of the night before finally falling asleep early morning. Jason never came home.

When Jane got to the bowling alley, there was an even larger crowd surrounding lane number 12. She approached the outskirts of the circle and peeked over shoulders. The ball had reached the middle of the lane. Next to the seats, she spotted Ryan posing for the local paper, kneeled down alongside the sleeping bowler. He was wearing a newsboy hat, with the usual pencil tucked in his ear. It looked as if he had confused the bowling alley for a horseracing track. When he saw her, he held a finger up to the photographer and waved for Jane to come over. She sifted through the crowd and stopped before entering the frame of the shot. The photographer told her to kneel down on the other side of the bowler, next to his feet. Jane looked at the ball, putting tortoises to shame with its fantastically gradual advancement.

That’s okay, she said. I don’t want to distract from his shoelaces.

C’mon! Ryan said. Be a part of history!

Jane twisted her lip.

I’m not ready.

The photographer mounted the camera on a tripod and fiddled with the buttons.

It’s inescapable you know, she said.

What?

Everyone’s reduced to a moment now and then.

And Jane turned and waded back through the crowd and the camera clicked and snapped and Ryan was shot into future museums of bowling history.

Work was easy for the rest of the day; nobody was coming to actually bowl. Jane read her book and drank some of the beer Ryan kept under the counter. She tried Jason again and the call leapt into space and died, like a magnet without a fridge in sight, a lasso falling sadly to the ground. She didn’t tell Ryan about Jason’s disappearance because to speak of it would seem to endorse its significance in a way she was hoping to avoid.

That night, Jane drank tea and tried to work on another poem for her unpublished collection. Her focus wandered, and at nine o’clock, she remembered that it was Thursday and Jason’s comedy act was on at the local bar. When she got there, those in attendance were sitting quietly in front of an empty stage, looking around in confusion. It was all very awkward. On her way home, she stopped at the Chinese restaurant and walked past the tables and into the kitchen. A solitary chef was hanging over a pot in the corner and didn’t notice as she crept by and entered the back room. The only piece of furniture inside was a vending machine sitting in the middle of the room. Jane recognized the waiter from two nights ago, standing in front of it and slapping the sides. She approached slow and cautious, though she doubted it mattered; the waiter seemed to be in a state of transfixion. She peered inside the empty machine, then shifted her gaze to the buttons on the side. All of them had been taped over, save for one: a kiwi soda option, three up from the bottom. Upon noticing her presence, the waiter moved to the side and indicated the button.

See for yourself, he said.

The vending machine buzzed with life, plugged into nothing. Jane reached down and pressed the button, holding it for a few seconds to ensure her touch registered. The machine made strange noises of internal shifting, not unlike the sound of air stretching into static and then compressing back. After a short period of silence, a heavy thunk came from the bottom slot. The waiter nodded at her, and Jane reached into the machine and felt around for whatever had dropped. After moving her hand multiple times through the space, the only thing she came into contact with was a tiny slit of paper. She curled her fingers around it and brought it out for them to see. The waiter shook his head and sighed as Jane stared into her second blank fortune. Just to test it, she pressed the button above kiwi soda, but all it produced was a can of cherry cola.

Jane considered that the fortune-telling vending machine had stolen Jason’s soul, but this seemed to surpass vending machine capabilities, even when they were mystically powered unplugged ones. In any case it was all very confusing, and Jane decided to take the next few days off from work. She put her first blank fortune in one pocket and her second in the other. Neither side of her had any destination, and she took herself to places where blank seemed appropriate. Empty stretches of beach, restaurants without another patron, a bookstore without a title, literally located in a hole in the wall. The only book inside with blank pages was a diary, and Jane bought it because it had more space than a fortune.

That night, Jane’s mother called and asked if she had thought of any birthday wishes yet. She’d recorded these since Jane was little, and she needed to know.

You must have one, she demanded.

Jane sat up in bed and listened to the rain drum against the window.

Yes.

Yes?

I would really like you to dry off.

There was an unnatural quality to the resulting pause, as if her mother’s breath was looking in both directions.

Well, she said. I’ll ask again later dear.

And her mother said goodnight and hung up the phone.

When Jane returned to work, it was her day to open up the doors. Inside, the crowd was now enormous, taking up nearly every square inch of the space. It seemed that all of them had fallen asleep, snores from here and there filling the silence. Jane stepped through the sea of dormant bodies, hopping over the counter and taking her place before the shoes. Her eyes wandered over to the far left, where the bowler was now standing at the edge of the bowling line, eyes locked on the end of the lane. Jane watched as the ball rolled its final rolls, moving through the pins with the stealth and gentility of an ice-skating 007. The pins leaned this way and that, then fell back in place as the ball nudged past. A little while later, the ball dropped into the abyss of post-lane underworld, and the bowler smiled and traversed the sleeping crowd to the counter, handing Jane his bowling shoes.

Just returning these, he said.

And Jane nodded and put the shoes right back where they came from because she knew they were important and that seemed enough.

People woke throughout the day and walked out in a disoriented fashion, as if they’d been hypnotized and couldn’t remember why they’d been there. Ryan arrived around noon and stuck another piece of gum under the counter. 38, he announced.

When Jane got home, Jason was jumping rope in the living room.

Hey grams, he said.

And Jane dropped her bag and got under the loop of the rope. They managed to jump it together three times before it got stuck beneath her feet and they brought the rope up and wore it like an oversized belt.

Now, Jane said.

This, Jane said.

This is a reprint of work originally published in Petrichor Machine.

Numb by Parker Desautell

She plays around with it for about a minute or so, until she gets it just—no wait—right there, yes, there, that's where she likes it best. The light switch in the bathroom is one of those annoying adjustable kinds, the kind that moves up and down so you can never be sure you have it in the exact same place you had it last, but she knows it's somewhere towards the middle that it starts to dim into a kind of orange, buttery light, a light that reminds her of an old, candle-lit church building with no windows, like the one she used to go to as a girl, a light she likes her face best in. Her skin is dry and if the light is too bright it showcases the dryness too much, making her dry spots look like bad rashes, or worse—blotches of acne.

But she likes her face. She likes it in a certain light.

She scrubs the glass hard to erase all the froth from the shower water. Her body feels like a mix of water and steam and perspiration, but she feels no hurry; he is not home now, won't be for the next hour or so, so she can spend as much time as she wants here and doesn't have to worry about him being concerned or pestering her about what's taking so long.

She positions her head at a tilted angle, the light just catching her hair and the tip of her nose. She likes her nose, not too big, not too perky, but the problem is that it has a small nasal fracture, so that from one side it has a nice downward slope but from the other it has a jagged upturn at the bottom which makes it look too pointed, too protruding.

It occurs to her how silly this all is—so acutely dissecting every facial feature every time she walks in here, like something is actually going to change one of these days, or she is actually going to 'officially' confirm how she feels about her face. But the truth is, she doesn't know how to feel about her face. Sure, she knows how she feels about her face, but she doesn't know if she feels the right way, if the confidence she has in herself—which certainly varies from day to day—always matches the kind of face she has.

This is the funny thing about returning to the mirror each day; she knows what her face looks like, there's nothing new to see, but each time she views it from a different angle, she feels a different way. She looks at it from the bad side, and goes about the rest of her day feeling inferior. She looks at it from the other—and has a messiah complex. This is why it's always important to make sure the last look is a good one; how you see your face the last time before leaving is always the deal breaker.

She is married now. She has been married eight months. She always imagined that, after marriage, with no one left on her radar to impress, she would naturally outgrow this problem, that it was merely some leftover residue sticking around from her days of teenage insecurity, that it would eventually wash over like all teenage whims do. But now that she is married, 24 years old, and the feeling still lingers—what is she to make of it? Is this desire, which for so many years she simply shrugged aside as just an ordinary desire to impress others, really a desire to impress others at all? Might it just be that, all along, subconsciously, she just wanted to impress herself with her face, so that by impressing herself she could acquire the right feeling—the feeling of being beautiful—even if she wasn't, so that she could feel good about herself around others?

She has always wanted to believe she never modeled her personality after her face, that no one does that, that that's some kind of physiological absurdity. She has always wanted to believe everyone is simply born into life with a certain amount of confidence, and that that doesn't change based on something as trivial as one's physical appearance. But even in junior high, she still remembers feeling disturbed—an actual mental disturbance, yes, even at that stage of life—at the fact that all the confident girls, all the really defiant ones, all the social butterflies—they were all the prettiest girls in the school. She often wondered if there was some genetic correlation between a pretty face and lots of confidence, if the girls were just born into a natural predisposition like that. She assumed that either this were true, or the better option: that it was simply coincidence that all confident girls she knew were pretty. That the third option was correct—that the pretty girls gradually assumed their confidence because of their prettiness—this she felt deeply disturbed by. This thought she made sure to never entertain.

But a thought is always bound to resurface at some point in time, if repressed long enough. And now she finds herself having repressed the third option too long. Has she herself, by drudgingly returning to the mirror every day for so many years, by zeroing in on the same imperfections, the same blemishes, the same moles and zits, no matter how minute, and throwing everything else into peripheral vision, actually molded her personality after her face?

She supposes she will never know. She supposes the only way she'd ever know would be if she could see her face for the first time again. Then she would have a clear perception of what it looked like—and what it didn't look like—and the right amount of confidence would just flow, involuntarily, without having to think about it. She wouldn't have to summon any image in her mind to feel it. She wouldn't be obsessing over minute details in her facial structure. She'd see her face as a whole rather than in its individual parts. She'd live unobstructed by artificial observations. She'd live how she's always wanted to: naturally.

But, alas, such a thing is not possible anymore. Such is the cost of time on all of us. You get so stuck in a routine, so stuck in it you don't even think about whether it's affecting you or not, the thought doesn't even occur to you, even though it is affecting you, slowly and imperceptibly, one day at a time, with each glance in the mirror. It becomes like a religious sacrament, done for its own sake and nothing more. One day you might come to your senses and realize that it's affecting you, somehow, but you can never know exactly how. You've become too numb to it. Yes, numb, that's the word—you become so numb to the appearance of your own face, so numb to it you can't accurately compare it with other faces anymore. It's like saying a word so many times over it no longer sounds like a real word anymore.

Oh well. All of us are guilty of this to some degree, she figures. Most people probably adapt their personalities to their faces while they're still very young, based on a whim, a compulsory reaction, subconsciously. Then they go about the rest of their lives completely unaware of it, unaware of the fact that this is how their personalities are decided. Others, like herself, she imagines, constantly update their personalities based on their faces, doing it over and over again till they have no real personality at all, no sense of self-continuity. They, at least, don't live under the delusion of thinking their personality isn't affected by their face.

A door slams shut.

God, he's home already? She glances at the clock: 5 PM. It was 3:30 when she first got in here. She swears it couldn't have been that long. She only took a 20-minute shower and she feels like she just got out.

"I'm home," comes a muffled voice from beyond the bathroom walls.