“What.” Ben said. It was more a statement than a question. Gavin’s girlfriend did it all the time. His ex-girlfriend, anyway; he supposed there was a difference. It was Gavin’s chance to take back what he said, to think of something more intelligent to say, or to drop to his knees in front of her, flowers in hand, and beg not to be evicted from the bed for a week. Well, not this time. This time, Gavin was keeping his words and his bed. So to speak.
“I said I found a zombie—a true blue ‘I’ll-eat-your-face’ zombie.”
“I thought that was what you said. Did you kill it?”
“Zombies are dead, man, you can’t kill the dead.”
“Sounds like your work is cut out for you then,” Ben said. His glazed over eyes finally found the time to look up from the television and meet Gavin’s. “On another topic, did someone slip something in your drink? You look annoyingly serious.”
“Only because I am.”
“About the zombie?”
“About the zombie,” Gavin confirmed with all the confidence of a man keeping a dead person in his shed. So to speak.
“Fine, I’ll bite,” Ben said, anxious for Gavin to catch the pun. “Where is this zombie?”
“In the shed.”
“In the—” Ben started. He looked out the window at their backyard. Beyond the grass that was beginning to resemble a jungle, past the novelty birdbath his mother had given him, and just before the edge of the woods was the small rustic shed Gavin spoke of. Ben counted his prayers and pinched himself to make sure he was not dreaming. To his chagrin he wasn’t and now also had the makings of a bruise.
“Gavin, is there a dead body in my shed?”
“Our shed—I pay rent.”
“You didn’t say no, Gavin.”
“It’s both dead and a body, but if it still moves then it’s a zombie, right?”
“Your logic is infallible; or it would be if this was an AMC show. It isn’t. So tell me, did you kidnap someone? Are you keeping a dead body in my shed? Or are you pulling my chain? Be warned, my reaction to any of these may be equally violent.”
“You’re an angry man,” Gavin said. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
“Show me? Dear god, you are serious.”
“I thought we covered that.”
Regret weighed every step that tore Ben further from the comfort of his couch, his television, and the undoubtedly now lukewarm pizza that he left behind. Once out the backdoor, it was weeds and dips in the ground that slowed every step thereafter. Some of the grass came halfway up his pants leg, leaving them both entirely unsure of where their feet were going. Ben wondered briefly how the yard work had fallen so far behind. Then he remembered that he really did not care. There was apparently a dead thing ahead.
Gavin gripped the knob and gave the door a tug to pull it open. Ben noted the lack of keys or lock that entered the equation. As the door a foot lower than their heads pulled open and sunlight filled the mostly empty room, Ben also noted it was less empty than he remembered it being. There was, in fact, a person standing inside. This person was unusually pale of skin even in the dark, wore what probably used to be a suit once upon a time, and had misplaced some of its torso. It seemed rather undistracted by any of these things, and focused in on the two young men as soon as it saw them. Its eyes were glossy and murky, blank in stare as if vacant emotion. Its mouth hung open and saliva dripped out onto the concrete below. Claw marks some manner of wildlife had ripped suit and skin alike. The smell was reminiscent of road kill after a week on its own.
Finding his own mouth hanging open just as the person’s was, Ben shut it and stuttered for words. He failed. Gavin smiled. Victory.
“I’ll be damned if that isn’t a textbook definition of a zombie right there,” he said.
Ben tried again for words. Still a no go.
“Come on; speak so I can rub it in your face.”
“Probably more unholy.”
“Where did you find this?” Ben asked, his voice having regressed to puberty.
“It came stumbling in out of the woods this morning. I tied its hands and stuck it in here.”
Ben looked at Gavin and his stupid, smug face. He looked at him hard.
“You’re skipping something,” Ben said.
“Like all of it! How did you tie up a zombie, how is it a zombie, and what the freaking hell?!”
“You’ve got to breathe, man. It’s cool; it didn’t bite me or anything. I just hit it with a stick and tied its hands. Turns out dead guys are really slow moving.”
“You don’t say,” Ben said.
“I think it still wanted to eat me. It was stumbling in my general direction.”
“It probably just wanted a hug, Gavin. Dying’s some rough business. Go give him one.”
The zombie looked at Gavin, drooling.
“You give him one.”
Ben stopped. His mind wasn’t ready for this. His eyes continuously looked between the zombie to make sure it was still there, Gavin to make sure this wasn’t an elaborate joke, and their small house to make sure he was still in the real world. As scientific as his process wasn’t, he couldn’t deny that he appeared to be in real life. The comfort zone of a dream was itself a dream. Ben put his face in his hands.
“So,” Ben started with a long breath, “glossing over the fact that your first instinct at seeing a zombie was to hit it with a stick and tie it up. Moving past the fact that you only tied its hands and put it in a shed which you then failed to lock, and looking beyond the fact that I’m staring at a real-life zombie that’s eyeing me right-freaking-now, why isn’t it dead?”
“It is dead, Ben. It’s a zombie.”
“Why haven’t you brained it with a log or something?”
“I was going to, but then, I got to thinking,” Gavin said.
“I haven’t heard any news of attacks or sightings. Aside from our boy here, everything’s been quiet all over town. I think he’s the first one.”
“The first zombie?”
“Yeah man. Think back to the movies. There’s always a horde of them tearing up the place, but they had to start with one, right? Well, what if we happened to run across the very first one before he had a chance to infect him up some friends?”
“That’s great,” Ben said. “It still doesn’t explain why you haven’t killed it.”
“I could, but one zombie doesn’t seem very…zombie apocalypse-y.”
“What.” Ben’s tone didn’t even make a question. He didn’t want to hear it again, his brain just failed to come up with any better a response.
“If this is supposed to be the zombie apocalypse, we can’t end it with just him. An apocalypse that hasn’t killed a single person is a sad excuse for one,” Gavin said.
The zombie looked at Ben, its saliva dripping down onto its jacket.
“So, it’s either kill this thing right here, right now…”
“Or let it loose and live out all of our wildest zombie apocalypse fantasies,” Gavin finished. “We’ll fortify the house, drive a hummer, date Emma Stone, I’ll get a crossbow….”
“That’s stupid. You’re stupid.”
“Don’t insult me in front of our would-be killer.”
Ben felt the urge for a drink—a strong one. Wordlessly he turned away and waded through the grass back for the house. Gavin closed the door and hurried after him. Though he knew his friend was distracted, Gavin prattled on with stars in his eyes.
“We’ll lay low the first few months, killing any that near, but then we’ll find other hardened survivors and invite them into our fold,” Gavin said.
Ben looked back at him as he walked and started to say something. It was cut off abruptly by a birdbath to the crotch. Ben went down. Curled up in a ball in the tall grass, Ben kicked about amid curses and language not even reminiscent of English. Gavin kneeled down next to him and laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.
“This yard is a freaking minefield, man. Oh! Landmines. We’ll have to line the yard with landmines.”
Gavin helped him inside, supporting him around the sadistic birdbath and through the sliding glass door and to the kitchen table. They sat in silence, each in their own world. One world was filled to the brim with dead men, headshots, and beautiful, gracious survivor women. The other represented a crotch in agony and what Ben believed to be an ulcer growing. He was going to name it Gavin, he decided. His introspection shattered and his head throbbed at the clinking of glass on the table. It was a bowl, it was full of cereal, and it was set upon by a far too excited Gavin. Ben stared at him hard and unblinking for a moment.
“You are way too okay with this.”
“It is a little out of date, but the marshmallows are still just so damn good,” Gavin said.
Gavin watched Ben’s face fall into his hands again. His friend was really stressed out. He needed some kind of relief something fierce.
“Look at it this way,” Gavin said. “We set that sucker out there on the streets, we’ll have ourselves a survival scenario in a month. Your boss: zombified in two weeks. That professor that failed your exam? A brain-muncher in a week tops. My cheating ex? A Monster Mash reject by the end of the night. That’s what these zombie apocalypses are all about, man. Because it’s not murder if they’re trying to eat your flesh!”
“There’s something not quite right about you.”
“Because I plan to loose our snazzy-dressed zombie friend on an unsuspecting world, which will result in the deaths of millions, if not more, for sport?”
“Actually…yeah, hit the nail right on the head there.”
“I’m not a complete idiot, my friend,” Gavin said.
A loud thwack came from their backyard. Ben started to look, but decided he really just didn’t want to know. He instead kept his forehead firmly and comfortably on the table where he liked it, eyes fixated on the floor. Gavin glanced out the window at the end of the kitchen, a few feet from the table. Scanning the yard for noise makers when absolutely none are desired, Gavin’s find made his stomach drop—figuratively. The shed door was blowing about merrily in the wind. It shifted back and forth, taunting Gavin with how poorly it was doing its job of keeping a barrier between him and a guts-hungry zombie.
“Gavin?” Ben asked, his face still adorning the tabletop.
“Did you lock the shed door this time?”
“I sure didn’t, Ben.”
Chairs fell over in unison as the two bolted in opposite directions. Ben was in his room, locking the door and suiting up. In his man-cave of sports memorabilia, Nascar posters and anything not pink, Ben pieced together his game plan. First, armor. He didn’t have any. Cursing his lack of foresight for such a scenario, he grabbed the closest thing he had: an umpire’s chest padding and helmet. Rummaging through a closet chocked full of dirty clothing, he withdrew and donned his gloves and baseball bat. A pair of soccer shin guards and a mouthpiece later, Ben reemerged from his room a different man. He was ready to face the dead.
At the same time, Gavin was beside the shed, closing the flapping door and retrieving from beside it a slightly bloodied branch. It was the same piece of wood he had gripped earlier upon seeing a real-life zombie, so to speak, and thus far had served him unfailingly. In his hands, the branch was a club that had battered more zombies than any other weapon in the world. That is to say, one.
Setting aside the fact that Gavin had left the sliding glass door open on his exit, Ben set foot into the backyard, baseball bat raised high and ready for blood. One footstep after another, he waded out into the nearly two feet high plant life. He knew the zombie wouldn’t be crouched and waiting, oh no. They weren’t strategic beasts so much as savage. This monster would have gone directly for blood. Either it ran back into the woods where its hunting grounds had proven fruitful, or…it had somehow slipped past them back into the house. Ben turned around and stared back inside through the door he too had left open.
His blood was pumping, his heart racing. In that moment, Ben had never felt so alive. It was mano-a-mano, every man for himself. A life was on the line today—his life. This was a true animal; a vicious, single track minded killer. It would stop at nothing to feast upon his flesh and pick its teeth with his bones. If zombies were into the whole dental thing, anyway. It could be anywhere, behind any corner. Ben could have mere seconds left before—
“Found him,” Gavin said.
Ben spun around to face his friend, bat raised. Gavin stood beside the birdbath, branch in hand, poking down into the tall grass. Upon closer inspection, Ben found the victim of Gavin’s prodding to be none other than their dead…er captive. Face down and bound hands facing the sky, the zombie lay still on the ground, a new red smear across its head. The stone birdbath, the only monument above the flora tossing about in the wind, also had a new red smudge on its side right about where Ben had run into it earlier.
“I guess he tripped,” Gavin said.
Ben poked the dead body with the baseball bat. It was surprisingly therapeutic. They stood in silence for a long, long time.
“Well, this was anticlimactic,” Ben said.
“Poor dead cannibals just have it so rough in this world of obstacles and uneven surfaces.”
Ben looked up at the sky. A few clouds drifted lazily in the nearly clear, blue horizon. Around him, birds chirped their songs from the trees and the occasional car whisked down the road in front of their home. The breeze even had the audacity to feel good. All in all, aside from the smell of a dead guy at their feet, it felt very unapocalypse-y.
“So, there was a zombie, and now—“
“Yep,” Gavin said.
“What was the point, then?”
“We learned important life lessons along the way.”
Ben looked at his friend, wondering if he should expect much of his point.
“That the fixation on zombie epidemics is a reflection of ever increasing aggression, fear, and dread in a dividing community that craves societal downfall? That we need to look past the simple, mindless pleasure of killing dead people and embrace the value of human life and dignity?”
Ben turned back to the re-dead man. Tallied up, the man had been killed by who knows what, been zombified, been hit with a large stick, been tied up, and finally brained by a birdbath that not even the birds would touch. Ben also noted that Gavin was still poking it.
“No, definitely not that.”
““Then how about: ‘don’t mow the yard. It might stave off dead people.’”
Wishing to be
It was a manufactured cave. Footsteps echoed like the pounding of an angry father on a locked door heard through a pillow. The lights through the water became fractured and torn–like my favorite t-shirt. The windows were thick. So thick I wanted to pound on them until my hands gave in and my arms became stumps. Then I would be the creature on display. I wonder if the creature within feels the same way I feel; when they point their fingers and accuse, when they point and laugh.
I can see the attraction to being you instead of me. You are so white; white, and pure and soft to the eyes. To be the soul behind the coal eyes that glitter when the imitation sun touches them….to be a savage yet loved, accepted…that’s the dream.
I remember a story my teacher told the class once. An old Eskimo woman took a walk one day and spotted a baby polar bear. Having no children of her own, and recognizing the signs of an abandoned cub, she decided to take this one in. She named the bear Kunik. The whole village adopted him as a fellow tribe member. As he grew older, and larger, the men of the village noticed how well he fished, better than any of them, and how sharp his teeth and claws would become. Soon they raised a campaign against him, and the old woman grew fearful for her child. One day, when things became very tense, she told him to leave and not to come back. Many days passed, and she couldn’t take it anymore, she went to find him. After walking for hours and hours she succeeded and he took care of his weary mother. Every two days she would travel to him and express her love to him. Their bond could not be broken.
Your story didn’t end the same way, did it? Mine didn’t either Kunik, at least you are protected in your cage of white, where is your mother now? Will you take me in? Teach me your wild growls, how to bare teeth, how to look harmless as I bath and swim, eat and play. Teach me, love me, make me new. Make me white and pure, not brown and different. Or at least tear me into pieces, your teeth hard and piercing like blades to my soft yielding flesh. Devour me and feed your soul, remember our now shared history in my blood as it tells you my woes and the stories of ancestors. Take me in and let us combine, let them be tricked into accepting me in you. They will kill you then, but your body will be mounted, or made into a rug. A trophy, a beloved thing, yet still loved. I just wish to be loved.
The Beautiful, The Unfortunate, and The Awesome
Max lays in his bed staring at the ceiling. He has an hour to get ready. Only an hour and he still has not showered. The phone on the bedside table vibrates. Still vibrating. He will not answer it. It vibrates off the table. Papers with formulas and anatomically compensating love poems are strewn across the beer-stained carpet. He needs to get up, but he turns on his left side to stare at the wall instead of the ceiling. Ten minutes have passed. Fifty minutes left…Forty-five minutes…
Max jerks up in his bed and looks around, confused. He slowly gets up…moving towards his television. Sitting down on the small recliner he picks up a game controller…
Max rigorously rubs his forehead, and slaps his face twice. He looks around. He hesitates for a second, but then slowly sets the controller back on the floor and stands. Max notices a light purple paper crumbled amongst his sad attempts of his proclaimed love in poetry form. It was from Anna. He reaches down and picks it up. He unfolds its wrinkles, and wastes more time feeling sorry for himself. But, for once, he makes the right decision, and throws it in the bin next to his door.
Finally in the shower, his rancid smell fills his entire apartment. Disgusting. While he’s in the shower, his phone vibrates in circles as if it were dancing for attention. It’s a call from a girl he was set up with on a blind date. Somehow his friend Jack had convinced this woman named Shana, who was astoundingly out of his league by the way, to go out with Max last Tuesday. The Tuesday night dinner at a taco bar was his idea; it’s a wonder she’s going out with him again, not to mention that he had the balls to ask. If he doesn’t hurry he’s not going to make it in time. Oh, what a shame that would be!
Max is done. He stands in front of the foggy mirror, parting his hair to one side. It makes him look like a douche.
LOOKIN’ GOOD THERE SLICK.
Max looks around, under the sink, in the medicine cabinet, and is thoroughly shocked when he does not find one of Jack’s small cameras used in some of his most elaborate pranks. He decides to dry swallow two pills, looks in the mirror, and seems to agree that he looks good. Idiot.
Max sits on the bar stool, looking pathetic, waiting for Shana. Time to have some fun…
NOW REMEMBER, DON’T COMPLIMENT HER INTELLIGENCE OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT. WOMEN DON’T LIKE THAT.
Max hangs his head in defeat of solving the voice over mystery. He thinks for a moment, and realizes the truth in the statement. His face is serious. He nods. Ha, he has no chance. Max needs a bit of competition, don’t you think? Tall, not dark or extremely handsome, but definitely rivaling, if not shaming. Max meets Edward, Shana’s ex. He’s just here for drinks, but Max has seen him on occasion at a few bars working the crowd and the women with his ridiculously charming smile and hair reminiscent of a comically sparkly character whom he shares a name with. Max sweats.
OKAY, DON’T LOOK NOW BUT SHANA’S EX IS HERE. PRETTY GOOD LOOKING GUY, MAYBE THEY HAVE AN ON AGAIN, OFF AGAIN THING.
“Her profile says she’s single.” Max assures himself, checking on his smart phone to make sure. Edward, oblivious to who Max is, sits five bar seats down from Max’s right. Shana enters the bar, her long red hair flowing as the wind in the doorway catches it. She glides over to Max, and sits down on the stool next to him.
Shana turns toward Max, she leans over and quickly hugs him, catching him off-guard and he awkwardly waddles on the bar stool a bit.
“Well, this is an…interesting bar. Why’d you choose this place?” Shana smiles, showing slightly crooked white teeth. Aw, perfect…
“Um…” Max hesitates.
BE STRAIGHT FORWARD AND BLUNT. SHE DOESN’T NEED TO KNOW EVERYTHING.
“It doesn’t matter.” Max shakes his head, and flags down the bartender.
MAX, DRINK THE HARD STUFF. SHE’LL LOVE IT. HELL, ORDER A DOUBLE AND SLAM IT BACK. NO CHASER. DON’T BE A BITCH.
“Good point.” Max mumbles under his breath.
“What?” Shana starts to ask, but is cut off as the bartender approaches.
“What can I get you tonight?” He asks.
ANOTHER GOOD LOOKING GUY WITH A GREAT SMILE. MORE COMPETITION, DON’T LET HIM LOOK AT YOUR WOMAN THAT WAY!
Max shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Best of all is the way the bartender glances at Shana, and does a double take. If Max isn’t sweating yet, he will be. Oh yes, he will.
“A double shot of vod–”
“Oh, uh, whiskey. And whatever she wants.”
Shana smiles at the bartender. See that? A smile. Max’s heart is skipping like a hippie in a grassy field.
LOOK AT HER, HITTING ON OTHER GUYS WHILE SHE’S HERE WITH YOU. INDECENT, THAT’S WHAT THAT IS.
“I’ll have a Vodka Tonic.” She says.
“Coming right up.” The bartender says, tapping the counter.
NOW THAT THAT DOUCHE IS GONE. WHERE DID THAT PERFECT HAIR GUY GO? YOU NEED TO NIP THAT IN THE BUD BEFORE IT BLOOMS INTO HOT MAKE UP SEX WITH YOUR HARLOT.
“Who is that?” Max asks impatiently, nodding his head in Edward’s direction.
“Who’s who—oh, Edward!” Shana calls.
Edward looks up, dreamy eyes full of confidence and manliness — two things Max obviously lacks — and sees them. He raises his drink.
“Hey, didn’t see you there.” He greets, making his way over. “Friend of yours?”
WHO DOES THIS GUY THINK HE IS, COMING NEAR YOUR WOMAN? OR HIS WOMAN? HMMM, THAT’S A LITTLE CONFUSING.
Max looks around again. “Does anyone else hear that?”
“Yeah, Max this is my ex, Edward.” Shana turns to Edward. “Max and I met last week and thought we’d get together again.”
Edward extends a hand. “Good to meet you, Max.”
THIS GUY IS CLEARLY TRYING TO PROVE HE’S THE BETTER MAN, WHICH HE MAY BE, BUT ARE YOU REALLY JUST GOING TO TAKE THIS?
“I don’t–” Max starts.
KICK HIS ASS!
“I’m not going to–”
Shana and Edward stare at Max incredulously.
“Oh, uh, same here.” Max says to Edward, who had long since retracted his hand.
“Drinks are up.” Comes a voice from the bar behind Max, making him jump. The suave, smoother-than-Max bartender set the drinks down, and then dares to make eye contact with Shana again. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Will do.” Shana says with another perfect smile.
HEAR THAT? IF SHE NEEDS ANYTHING! HE’S PROPOSITIONING YOUR WOMAN. ARE YOU JUST GOING TO LET THAT GO?
Shana takes a sip of her drink before turning back to Edward. Max sees the spark of love still obviously there. That hussy.
DON’T YOU IGNORE ME.
Max waves over the bartender for another double.
“Hey, listen, my friend’s throwing this huge party at his place later, you two want to go?” Edward asks, again one upping the poor, unfortunate embodiment of shame that was Max.
“No, it’s ok we’re having a drink. But, maybe next time, Eddy. I’ll talk to you later.” Shana smiles her skanky smile at Edward who now looks a little too disappointed, and walks back to his seat. The bartender sets Max’s second double down in front of him. Max notices the wink he shoots Shana’s way. She rolls her eyes. Like she doesn’t enjoy that.
YOU’RE LOSING HER, MAN. TIME’S COME TO PROVE YOURSELF; DOWN BOTH THOSE SHOTS. ONE AFTER ANOTHER. GO, GO!
Max clearly heard reason—sheer, logical, indisputable reason—as he reaches for the shots. Like a real man, or at the very least a little boy who certainly wishes that were the case; he takes the first one in one swig. And then the second. The bartender looks impressed, then a little concerned as Max bends over coughing.
WOW, ALL AT ONCE? YOU REALLY SHOULD KNOW YOUR LIMITS.
“But you said–” Max says between coughs.
ENOUGH ABOUT THE PAST, WE CARE ABOUT THE NOW. THE SWEET, SWEET NOW, LACED WITH THAT STRAWBERRY SCENTED LIP GLOSS SHE’S WEARING Mmmmm
“So, Max, tell me about yourself,” Shana takes another sip of her Vodka Tonic.
HE PLAYS A LOT OF VIDEO GAMES
Shana looks up and around. “Did you hear that?”
ORDER ANOTHER DOUBLE MAN. IT’LL GIVE YOU CONFIDENCE
Max raises his hand at the bartender. He slams back another double.
“Yes, it’s been happening all day. He spleek the tru-” Max hiccups. “I do play a lot of videogames.”
“It’s been happening all day? That voice thing? What the hell was that?” Shana looks around again.
“I’m not too sthure, I’ve gibben up on trying to figure it out.” Max’s head is spinning.
“Hmmm…But, did you say you play video games? I love video games!” Shana perks up in her seat, excited. Too excited.
SURE YOU DO.
“What is that?!” Shana jerks her head toward the ceiling, looks around at the people around her “Does anyone else hear that?”. The woman next to her scoots her stool a few inches away.
I’M SURE A GIRL LIKE YOU, WITH HER BOOBS FLAYLING ABOUT AND TEN INCH HIGH HEELS ON, SITS AT HOME AND PLAYS VIDEO GAMES.
“Hey!” Shana stands abruptly, boobs bouncing. She looks pissed. It’s entertaining.
“What the fuck?” Max says offended. The nerve. He needs to be saved from this harlot.
MAX, TELL HER ABOUT YOUR DOCTORS APPOINTMENT LAST WEEK. YOU KNOW A LOOSE GIRL LIKE YOU SHOULD BE CAREFUL, WHO SHE GOES OUT WITH. ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER AND BAM! YOU HAVE HERPES.
Shana looks at Max with a scared, inquisitive gaze.
“What?! No! Ith not true,” Max stands up, teetering over a little as the alcohol takes over. He loses his balance and catches himself with Shana’s breasts.
THIS IS YOUR CHANCE, MAX, REDEEM YOURSELF FOR ALL THE WRONG THINGS YOU HAVE DONE TONIGHT.
NOW, YOU LOOK HER IN THE EYE, AND YOU COMPLIMENT HER BREASTS.
“Are these reeaal?” Max asks with wide, glazed eyes. His inner thoughts slipped out before he could stop himself with what little control the alcohol had left him with.
Mortified, Shana grabs her purse, and runs out of the bar. Max almost falls to the sticky, wooden floor. Edward chases after her, drink in hand. What a bitch! Max sits on his stool.
AWW, CHEER UP, BUD, YOU STILL HAVE SOMETHING EDWARD DOESN’T.
Past the point of caring about a disembodied voice, Max indulges.
“What’s that?” He asks aloud, drawing more concerned glances from the bartender and a nearby patron.
YOU HAVE ME, MAX. YOU’LL ALWAYS HAVE ME. AND YOU HAVE HER DRINK, WHICH SHE FORGOT TO PAY FOR, AND I’M PRETTY SURE THOSE THINGS COST TEN BUCKS HERE. DRINK UP, CHAMP.
We were all headed to Vegas the day you left us at the rest stop off Highway 95. Vance got the idea to go from watching poker on TV. “Any lucky fuck can play cards,” he’d say. You guys got high that morning, packed some clothes and threw me and Sam in the backseat of his rust-pocked Buick.
You’d met Vance the same way you met most men, down at the bar or getting high. Vance was skinny and shirtless most of the time, with a dark patch of hair blooming from his Levis up to his navel. His jeans always sagged, whether he wore a belt or not. He’d make biker coffee at the breakfast table, pouring meth the color of stale urine into a chipped IHOP mug, stirring it with his pinky while Sammy and I ate our Toasty Os.
“You’re going to love Vegas, baby,” you said, looking at us in the rearview mirror. Sam drove his Matchbox car along the window, making buzzing engine noises. “Jules, would you get Sam to shut up?”
“Sammy, can you put the car away?”
Before Sam had a chance, Vance reached back and smacked the car out of his hand. “That’ll shut ‘im up,” he said. But instead of shutting up, Sam wailed. “Fuckin’ shut it Sam.”
A few miles down the road you pulled into the rest stop and unloaded me and Sam by the bathrooms.
“I’ve gotta take a piss, wait here with Sam.” A packet of meth poked out the back pocket of your second hand jeans. You were beautiful, in a broken way. Dad told me once that I looked just like you, that you used to be a rodeo queen. I imagined you with auburn hair teased to perfection in a leather fringe coat, pageant-waving to the crowds. In my dreams you rode a pale quarter horse in bare feet because you always hated wearing shoes. Toes curled around the stirrups, you bounced along the ring of the arena, blowing kisses at farmers in feed caps. Before Dad died, before the meth, I wanted to be you. The you before the rotten teeth and receding gums.
Sam danced, holding his crotch, so I took him to the bathroom. Used diapers and rotting banana peels topped the garbage can, making me gag. It must have been days since anyone had taken it out. At five, Sam insisted he was old enough to use the men’s bathroom. I held the stall shut for him while he peed, staring at the graffiti on the door to avoid the urinals.
We stepped outside, the Buick was gone.
“Where’s Mom?” Sam’s voice cracked with hurt and worry.
I hoped you’d just forgotten, for a minute, like the time you accidentally left me at the Target in Carson City, and I’d waited by the popcorn stand twenty minutes before you came for me. Sam and I waited at a wooden picnic table. It was carved with initials of past loves and someone named Seymour Dick who was there in ‘89. I took the last piece of gum from my pocket, it was warm and soft and I gave half to Sam. A woman with a rat-tail and a creaking fake leg came by. She looked heavy in denim shorts and a faded Kenny Rogers t-shirt, asked if we needed help and handed me her cell phone. I dialed your number, but got a generic message saying the number was no longer in service. Guess the money you got from selling the microwave wasn’t for the phone bill. I told the lady you were getting gas and that you’d be back soon. After looking us over, she got in her mustard-yellow Chevy and drove away.
I took Sam into the shade behind the bathrooms. Somewhere we wouldn’t be seen, and no one would ask questions or call the cops. I knew that calling the cops would mean we probably wouldn’t see you again. They’d figure out where you were and what you did, and they’d lock you up. Sam and I would get sent to some group home, like that one outside of Carson City, Lockewood. At fourteen, I could’ve handled it, but Sammy, he was too young. So we waited.
A couple hours passed with no one at the rest stop. I rummaged through the garbage cans by the parking area and found a sandwich bag of crushed vanilla cookies and a half-eaten Subway sandwich. The cookies tasted like sawdust, but Sammy inhaled them. We split the sandwich, which was on Italian bread, my favorite. It was soggy, but it felt good in my stomach after not eating all day. When we finished, Sam laid his head in my lap, and went to sleep in the shade of the bathrooms. A breeze picked up, making the desert brush lean and hush. Dust stung my eyes. I nudged Sammy awake, made him go to the bathroom with me so I could wash the dirt off. He sat on the counter, feet dangling.
In the mirror, I saw you for a moment. Dirt coated the edges of my mouth and I splashed water on my face. Dad was right, I did look like you, though I mostly wished I didn’t. We had the same smile, close-mouthed and turned down at the corners. Dad said you’d mastered the frowning smile. You were skinnier than me, and when I wore your jeans they always cut into my hips and squeezed my thighs. Sam and I both had your hazel eyes, but he must have got his dad’s nose and mouth. I never remembered Sam’s dad. I always hoped it was the guy who left Captain Crunch for us in the cupboard. It beat the store-bought crap you’d buy at Pick ‘N’ Save. People who bought Captain Crunch had money, and maybe someday he’d come back with a big wad of cash for Sam, who’d split it with me.
It started getting dark, and even though it was summer, it got cold. Sammy started to shiver, so we went into the handicapped bathroom for the night. I locked the door. Toilet paper stuck to the cement floor, and the smell of sour disinfectant coated the walls. I laid some of those toilet seat covers down so we wouldn’t have to sleep on the bare concrete. Sammy curled on top of me and we slept against the wall. In the night, I heard the handle jiggle once. I didn’t say a word, and eventually, the person left to use another bathroom, or drove away. The walls were thin, and from the other side I heard a trucker talking on his phone, grunting while he went to the bathroom. The toilet finally flushed and I heard him start up the clattering engine of his semi before driving away.
We woke to a rapping on the door. It was a man from the county, come to clean the bathrooms. I got up and peeled off the toilet seat covers that clung to my skin. One still hung from my elbow when I opened the door.
“Have you been here all night?” He wore a bright orange vest that had an Esmerelda County Highway District patch on the pocket. Middle-aged with a paunch and greasy hair. He’d already started radioing the police before I could answer.
“She’s coming back for us. She said she’d be right back.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“The police are on their way. Don’t worry, sweetie, they’ll find your parents.” He went back to cleaning the bathrooms.
I didn’t want Sam to end up in Lockewood, where I was sure people told you what was wrong with you, but never what was right. A friend from school had lived there for three months once. Her parents sent her there for stealing nail polish from Walgreens. I grabbed Sam and we snuck behind the bathrooms. Through the wall I could hear the man from the county singing some old ballad out of tune. I dragged Sam across the cracked earth, through the sagebrush. The sharp turpentine smell mingled in our burning lungs. We ran until our calves ached. My muscles trembled with fatigue. When Sam couldn’t run anymore, I carried him piggy-back.
We crouched behind a small ridge to rest, the sun scorched the back of my neck. I wondered if your car broke down as you were coming back for us. I hoped you missed us, and maybe you were in Vegas, scoring big at craps, and you’d have snowglobes and t-shirts from the Bellagio for me and Sam. And I wondered if in every hit and every high, you were just trying to see my father again. In the fractured landscape, sitting among the ticks and mesquite, I wondered if you thought of us while the crystal traveled through your veins and you drifted away.
Matthew David Perez
They left behind packs of chewing gum of different flavors, empty plastic bottles of Sunny Delight, a jelly bean succulent they named Harold, dried makeup casings with just the last possible bits scraped out with a fingernail, two toothbrushes, a couple of tampons still in wrappers, a picture of their mother and father on their wedding day—her mother’s belly swollen and ready to pop—a polka dot umbrella, some dolls, two diaries, and endless mountains of clothes and shoes.
And then there were the things they hid from each other.
Delia loved taking pictures with a Polaroid she stole from a neighbor’s yard sale. The stacks of instant photographs, many blurry or with a thumb in the corner, weren’t found until many years after their deaths, and even then they were stored and forgotten. Behind the blurs and thumbs were the things Delia wanted to remember: blooming flowers, rain rivulets streaking down a windowpane, heavy vanilla-colored cream pouring from a glass bottle into a big bowl of flour, sugar, and egg yolks. No two photographs contained the same subject, Delia made sure.
Ophelia, meanwhile, loved green things. She collected anything green: a pencil the teacher left on her desk, a ring from a twenty-five cent dispenser at the grocery store, a rock with moss all over. Once, she found the shiny green feather from the neck of a pigeon in the park, and she wore it in her hair for days until the teacher made her throw it in the garbage. Later, when no one was looking, she nabbed it from the trash and snuck it home where she stowed it in a secret box of green bric-à-brac, lost for years like Delia’s photographs.
Ophelia was born ten minutes before Delia, and considered herself the wiser for it.
“Which dress should I wear?” Delia would ask.
“Let me see.” Ophelia said. She held one up to her neck, smoothing it over her shoulders and knees, and then repeated with the other. “The first one.”
“It’s also yours.”
“I know. Why do you think I picked it?”
Next would come the shoes.
“It’s not like we can really tell what’s mine and what’s yours anymore.”
“I know,” Delia said, clicking her heels together. “What about these? They have bows on them.”
“I like them. They say, ‘Look at me,’ but not, ‘Look at me.’”
A photo: looking down, at a pair of shiny, black dress shoes, with crisp, white bows across the throat line.
They lived in large house in the old part of town, where everyone had a nice lawn and a dog but no one tried to outdo anyone else. Their dog was a white Husky named Fido, and their mother claimed she invented the name. Regardless of the nomenclature, they loved that dog. They felt safe living with him. He kept watch of the neighborhood from the windows on both levels of the house, but he never barked. His eyes and ears followed the birds into their nests in a magnolia across the street, and he cocked his head at their willow-willows.
They watched him watching the birds, and summer afternoons drifted endlessly this way. At the funeral he lay by their matching closed caskets, his gaze fixed on a pair of identical cartoon birds, drawn into the elaborate memorial of colorful lilies. Child-things, meant to disarm those in attendance and hammer home the tragedy of these lost young lives. As mourners filed past the front row to give their condolences, Fido stayed in the aisle next to their wailing mother, watching the still birds.
A photo: a sleeping albino Husky, the sun filtering through a window and checkering across his clean, white fur.
A week earlier, the girls left church with their parents on a dry, warm morning. They wore matching sun dresses—Delia’s was blue, Ophelia’s green—and while the parents from all the different families talked about this and that. Larkin Mumpsin found the twins in a corner of the church courtyard, by themselves except for a statue of Saint Matthew reading down to them from an open book. Ophelia held out her finger for a green caterpillar crawling on the saint’s big toe while Delia framed the scene through her viewfinder of fingers and thumbs. Larkin ran over to them, almost knocking over the Lord’s birdbath in the courtyard sanctuary.
“What are you up to?” Larkin demanded, speaking to both of them as one.
“Nothing,” replied Delia.
“Looking at bugs,” Ophelia added.
“Bugs? Gross. I hate bugs.”
“This one’s cute,” said Ophelia, the caterpillar inching along her finger.
“Bugs aren’t cute. Maybe when we were five.”
“Well I like them. Look, it has little hairs all over.”
“Blegh! Come on,” Larkin said, “Let’s do something fun.”
“I don’t know, something fun.”
They looked at her, Delia still framing, Ophelia letting the caterpillar crawl farther up her wrist, both waiting for Larkin to speak. A few chickadees splashed in the clear, shallow water of the Lord’s birdbath, picking at the inside of their wings with their little beaks.
“We could go to the pond?”
The two sets of identical eyes met one another before Delia spoke for her sister.
“We’re not supposed to go there without our parents.”
“They don’t have to know.”
“Would it be long?” Ophelia asked.
“No. We’d be back before dark.”
“We’re not supposed to,” Delia repeated.
“‘Supposed to.’ What are we, five?”
“No. I’m not five. Delia is maybe.”
“I have to go home,” Delia finally said.
“She has to get her cam-er-ah.”
“Fine. Meet me at the tracks. Okay?”
A photo: a mother, standing at her doorway, leaning on the frame, her legs hugging each other. She appears to be waving.
The twins arrived later, Delia with her Polaroid hanging by a thin leather strap around her neck. They walked side by side from their house to the tracks, about twenty minutes at a quick pace. At home, they changed into cowboy boots but left their church dresses on, and they told their parents they were meeting a friend for a couple of hours, a harmless thing to say.
The road to the tracks went through a part of town even older than their own neighborhood, but no one lived there. It used to be the site of a limestone quarry, but the limestone was gone and so were the quarrymen who lived around there in one or two bedroom shacks and wheel-less trailers.
The quarry and the tracks running to it were abandoned, but the ghost town of shacks and trailers remained, and so when the kids in town said, “Meet me at the tracks,” everyone knew what that meant. This is where they found Larkin, on her hands and knees, looking into the darkness under a dilapidated trailer raised on cinderblocks.
“What are you doing?” they asked. Larkin jumped and hit her head on the bottom of the trailer.
“Nothing,” she said, rubbing her head.
“What’s under there?”
The three of them knelt and peered under the trailer at the scrawny, muddy thing staring back at them with big, round eyes.
“So? It’s a cat,” said Ophelia. Larkin reached to the cat, and it hissed. “What are you trying to do?”
“Play with it some more. We were playing before you got here.”
“You were playing with the cat?”
“It doesn’t look like it wants to play.”
“Well, I was having fun.”
“Nothing. Come on. Let’s go to the pond.”
Larkin hit her head again shimmying out, and when all three started in the direction of the pond, a flash of burnt-orange streaked from under the trailer and into some bushes on the other side of the road.
“What are we going to do at the pond?” Delia asked.
“My friends are there.”
“Who are your friends?”
“They go to Cathedral.”
“They’re in high school?”
“Yeah, they’re really cool.”
A photo: a burnt-orange nub, tied with wire to a railroad track. Next to it: a large piece of glass and a rag, maybe torn from a shirt. Everything caked in blood.
The pond was a small spot of water collected from the runoff of a few nearby canals that the rural areas on the edge of town used to irrigate crops. Although every parent in town knew about the pond, only the kids used it. They returned home smelling of the thin film of green that covered the entire surface of the water, and the girls picked out leaves and little sticks out of their hair for days.
A steep slope of dirt, trees, and boulders surrounded the banks. Only one flat rock came close the edge of the water, and it served as the pond’s diving board. There, three tall, firm teenage boys, naked except for white underwear, waited for Larkin and the twins. They rested their hands on their barn door backs and dared the others to jump. Larkin stumbled toward them through the overgrowth, Delia and Ophelia behind them.
“Hey,” the blonde one called, when he spotted them.
“Hi,” Larkin said.
“Hi there, girls,” said another one, with brown hair.
The twins nodded and smiled.
“What’s going on? Why aren’t you swimming?” Larkin asked.
“Chris is too scared.”
“No way, Ian’s the one who’s scared.”
“Actually, we were just waiting for you all to get here.”
“Well we’re here.”
“So, who’s first?”
“I’ll do it,” Larkin said. She was tall for her age, tall for a girl. She looked at the boys at their eye level, and her legs seemed to go for miles. Her clumsiness, and her perpetually tangled blonde hair, were not attractive in the conventional sense. But the fact that she was the first to pull her dress over her head, her pink panties down her curvy rear, and dive into the pond was what first drew the boys to her. It helped that she had already developed round, healthy breasts far beyond the limits of a training bra. While theirs were beige or pastel and wide under the arms, Larkin’s was neon green, held together with thin straps, drawing attention to her chest. When she flopped in the water, the boys jumped in after her.
“Come on,” they called out to Delia and Ophelia. “It’s nice and warm!”
They stayed on the flat rock. Ophelia took off her shoes and dipped her bare feet in the water.
A photo: teenagers, boys and a girl, swimming in a pond. Another girl sits alone on a rock, looking at the boys.
All day the boys tried to get them in the pond, and all day they refused. Larkin, too, tried to show them how much fun she was having. The boys picked her up from behind and tossed her screaming into the deeper water, where she would surface, adjusting her bra and gasping for air through deep laughs.
When the sun lowered behind the tops of the trees and sieved through in long rays, the boys exclaimed, “Hey, we almost forgot!”
The three exited the pond, and the girls could not keep their eyes off what the water revealed in their white underwear. They walked a ways into the trees and returned with six cans of cheap beer.
“No way,” Delia said.
“Come on, a little won’t hurt.”
Larkin pulled herself out of the water and skipped to the boy’s outstretched arm holding the beer. Delia stood between them.
“We have to go.”
Then she heard the crisp sound of a beer tab opening, and looked to see Ophelia sipping from the can. She remembered her sister opening toys on Christmas, while their parents filmed every smile, every tear of wrapping paper, with an oversized camera. She remembered Ophelia’s first baby tooth falling out days before her own. Everything since the beginning of time, she remembered.
She smacked the beer out of her hand, and the boys tried to calm them down. Eventually Delia dragged her sister by the arm back down the path leading to the pond, and the boys went back to drinking in the thicket of trees. While the sisters argued and pushed at one another, they heard Larkin call from the pond, “Help me! Oh, somebody help me! I think I am drowning!”
“What is she doing?” Ophelia asked.
“She’s just playing around.” Delia said
“What if she isn’t?” They heard it again. “Why aren’t the boys helping her?”
“Because she’s messing with us.”
“She could be in real trouble. We should do something.”
“You’ve done enough today already.”
The billowing of trees.
When they arrived at the pond again, Larkin’s head bobbed in the water while her arms waved.
“Oh, please, help me!”
Ophelia lay belly-down on the flat rock and reached out to Larkin. They held hands but Larkin stayed in the water.
“What are you doing?” Ophelia said.
“Getting you in the water! It took drastic measures!”
She pulled, but Ophelia clutched onto the rock.
“Come on, get in!”
Overpowered by the length of her body and the strength of the young girl, Ophelia fell. On the way down, her forehead collided with Larkin’s nose, and the water around them was tinted red.
Delia screamed and ran to her sister. Ophelia clawed wildly, her eyes breaking the surface, and her mouth gulping down water. As the twins held hands one last time, Ophelia pulled her sister into the pond with her, and the twins who never learned how to swim drifted into the darkness.
A photo: two sleeping babies, newborns, wearing matching pink hats. One wrapped in a green blanket, the other in white.
For Export Only
Build yourself an American soldier. Here are the pieces. We’ll start with the heart. Take a lump of clay – blow on it – make it squirm. It flickers like a kitten’s whiskers. The pulsating lump of cherry flavored Jell-O grows warm and wet and real in the hand. Add connective tissue, lines and hoses, and you’re becoming quite the plumber, quite the electrician. We’ll make a network of blood and bone to carry all this dead weight. Organs, wholesale, cheap black market stuff, fingers and toes and soft spongy hair. Peach fuzz, bald head, swirling skull-faced ink up the arms, over the chest, the body an edifice, marked by tools, by sweat, built brick by fleshy brick.
See your soldier. Make up a story for him. A story for those empty blackboard eyes. Poor background, low class, kinda guy hunts possum and guffaws, a monophonic stereotype, an education of falsehood. Now we clothe him in a camouflaged tuxedo. Stuff him full of MRE’s, tell him where to go, how fast to run, how heavy to ruck, how many things to carry. Let him go, go far, far away, all the way.
Give him a gun. Teach him that it’s ok to kill. It’s in his blood and in his bones and in the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Next we take his family away, his new wife, a stripper who worked across the main gate, daughter on the way – send those belongings back to some place called America, return to sender and cash on delivery. Send them in flag draped coffins, the ones they should make the President count out loud every night before he goes to bed in his presidential pajamas and prays beneath the banner that reads, in bright and gleaming English, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
Keep him here, safe, solid, breathing, blood-filled fingers trembling, step by step, breath by breath, down the spider’s hole. Good job. He’s a fine piece of work. Look at his combat boots scraping the dusty concrete, the filth and grime that bury him in layers of Earthen ash. Look at the leather fingertips scraping along the etched steel that reads, in bright and gleaming English, COLTS MFG CO HARTFORD CT. He takes another step. His CamelBak hose dangles like an elephant’s trunk searching for invisible peanuts. The elephant is starving and dying of heat exhaustion. Our soldier’s name is covered by a plate of ceramic armor – honestly, I think we forgot to give him a name. My bad. We’ll get it right next time, won’t we? Just think of one, quick, to tell the newspaper men so they have something to forget, and to the headstone makers at Arlington so they can make their minimum wage.
Add memories. Make his lips cracked and dry, his skin burnt hymen red from the demon heat. A world of sweat. His skin is soggy and peels like wet toilet paper underneath the weight of armor, of a combat load, minimum six magazines of thirty rounds each, hand grenades, eye protection, water, compass, strobe light, subdued American flag, maximum possible pornography to be used as currency, gas mask (what for?), tourniquet, bandages and nasopharyngeal, knives, flashlight, earplugs, Nomex gloves, 40 millimeter flares and high explosive dual-purpose bulbs, batteries, bootlaces, belt buckle, pogey bait and miscellaneous bullshit, stripped down MRE – peeled off in layers the way he peeled off his first pair of panties.
Good ones- first blowjob, first mortar attack, first roadside bomb, first kiss, his friend’s face exploding in spaghetti chunks, watching the plane land and knowing it won’t take him home, first time his daddy spanked him, first cheeseburger, first road march, first job, first jump, first joke, first time he pulled a trigger and saw a silhouette drop, first orgasm inside a freshly cleaned port-a-shitter.
He stands in the spider’s hole. He’s staring at a stockpile, the acronymic mother lode. WMD. Shaking. Canisters. Nerve gas. Jackpot. So why is he trembling, why the stuttering fear creeping up his back, clawing its way into his shoulders the way only a sixty pound rucksack can?
He flips his selector lever from SAFE to SEMI. The bullet gets excited.
Written on every shell, in bright and gleaming English, it reads, FOR EXPORT ONLY.
Perks of Being Deceased
Ryan W. Haskell
It’s just gas, I tell myself. Stumbling into the bathroom, pressure crushes my chest. My left side tingles and pricks with pain. Breathing labored. Coming out quick and harsh. In and out. In and out. My sphincter tries to crawl its way back inside. Gas and shit. Legs wobble beneath me. My hand clutches my chest. The other a roll of toilet paper. Someone once told me everyone shits themselves. I can’t remember why. My pants drop to my ankles. I just need to let this out. I’ll be fine. The pressure suddenly jumps, my heart desperately racing to keep up, pumping and stalling over and over again. I double over on the toilet. Try to speak. It only comes out as gurgles. Drool drips down my mouth. I slide off the toilet, unraveling the toilet paper as I go. The whole world reduced to a pinprick of light. Breathing slowed, heart slowed, everything slowed.
I lie there for nearly a week. The stench of my rotting corpse fills my nose. I can’t move, can’t even blink, can’t look away. If I could, I’d look away from the stack of pornography and unfinished manuscripts. 55 year old man dies with shit in toilet and Asian Ass Freaks for company. Someone must have gotten tired of the stench. I find myself picked up and zipped into a black bag. It’s a unique experience to lie on a table while other people handle your organs. Pulling them out to comment on their aesthetic qualities. It’s only then I wished I’d smoked less. No one claims me, no funeral, just a small hole in a field of thousands.
It’s difficult to tell how much time has passed when you’re in a coffin, but after what must have been at least a few weeks of staring into darkness, I begin to hear earth moving above me. A hand reaches into the coffin, touches mine, and for the first time since death my eyes close.
I see nothing, at first. Not from absence of light, but excess. Eyes blink shut. Again and again. I scream out in joy and scream out again. Jumping up and down. My body feels light, free. I jump again and knock my head against a hard surface, sending me to the ground, but I feel no pain. Perks of being deceased?
The room is lavishly decorated, the King size bed covered in purple and red pillows and drapes, a seven-foot tall mirror, bordered with gold leafing. On the far end of the room are mahogany bookshelves filled with leather bound books. The lettering—of course—made of gold. Best of all, is the 52-inch flat screen television hanging on the wall across from the giant luxurious bed. I look down at myself dressed in a purple robe and pajamas. My arms are thin and free of stretch marks, chest flat and solid, and I can see my feet clean and relatively hairless. I touch the bed, the TV, the mirror. They all feel so real. So solid. I trace the contours of the bed posts. My fingers feel every bump and dip.
I descend the stairs, slowly. Taking every step cautiously. Holding the rail tight the whole way. My eyes dart about to drink in everything. The red and purple weaved carpets. The large bay window showing fields of puffy white snow. I shove my hand down my pants and feel my testes hanging only a few short inches below my penis.
“I know right,” a voice from the top of the stairs says. In response, I shriek and tumble down the winding staircase.
When I land I see a familiar glowing hand offering to help me up. The man is dressed in all white his hair golden blonde, a strange smile on his face. It stretched thin across his face, but was blank with no hint of real joy or emotion.
“What’s going on here?” I ask. At the bottom of the stairs appears to be a large open room with several doors.
“I should think that would be obvious. I know you weren’t a particularly devout man—our admittance policies have grown quite lax—but even you should be able to piece one and two together.” Every time the figure spoke a different voice came out. First a commanding young man’s voice and now the voice of an older woman.
“This—this, is Heaven?”
“The one and only. Pleased to make your acquaintance, they call me Raguel.” I shake Raguel’s hand. It’s cold and firm. “I’m here to help you through some of your transitional issues. We’re going to be here an eternity after all.” A small chuckle escaped his mouth, but neither his body nor face moved at all. “Just some angelic humor. You’ll have to get used to it.” The voice now that of a child’s.
“So, you’re an angel and this is all real? It’s all true? All that Sunday school bullsh-I’m sorry.”
“No need.” Raguel waves his hand, swatting the apology away. “I don’t think I prefer your choice of words, but yes. It’s true. No need to dwell on that though. I think there’s something you’d like to see.” Raguel extends one of his abnormally long and thin arms and points to a door across the room.
After hesitating for a moment, my hand lingering on the knob, I open the door where I am greeted by dozens of faces. They stand there, all with smiles on their faces, stretched too thin, looking just at me.
“So good to see you again,” they all say in unison before breaking off as if they had waited for me to begin their lives. Their eyes still unmoving. Smiles on all the faces. I could see a bar now, a gigantic bar. I recognize the familiar furnishings and layout from countless hours spent in just such a place in my youth, in my middle ages, in my final years. Decades of my life, all told, drinking cheap beer, always talking of the past and never realized futures. Always the same.
I step into the bar and look through the crowd. I can pick out faces of many high school buddies, some college friends, and a work colleague or two. None of the people I hate, or hated. No bosses who demand re-writes to punch-up the language, make it flashier, make it ring, make it never leave their minds. Through the crowd I see a stage where a band is setting up. At the left wall is the longest bar and tap I’ve ever seen. It must be over 30 taps and a wall filled with every imaginable liquor.
“I am in Heaven.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Raguel sits at a stool to my right. One end of a straw in mouth, the other in coconut. I tell him I believe him now and laugh at myself. He has another unflinching laugh himself and his smile stays the same. No teeth, slight creases, minimal effort for maximum effect.
“So you’re all good with alcohol then?” I ask.
“Like I said policies have gone lax. You can drink now, sort of.”
“This is better than I could have imagined.”
“What exactly did you imagine?” Raguel cocks his head to the side.
“Lying in a hole for eternity. It almost felt like an eternity when I was stuck in that coffin.”
“That wasn’t very long at all.” Raguel laughs, his little motionless laugh. “Look you should get settled in, the show is about to begin. I think you’ll enjoy it, and you’re taking this all quite well so, I don’t think you need me that much.”
I grab a beer, a Pilsner Urquell, and take a seat at the table. I remember drinking this when I was twenty, traveling Europe as a student, gathering experiences so I’d be prepared to write, one day. A few college friends join me at the table. All drinking Pilsner’s. I see Stan and Rachel, my writing major friends. They’re both young again. Stan has jet black dyed hair and is almost anorexic, skinny with a nose piercing. Rachel is prim and proper brunette with black-rim glasses and with more pronounced curves in all the right places from what I remember. We begin swapping stories of the past, the good times we all agree, before the band strikes their first chord. I can tell right away. It’s my favorite band The Talking Heads, singing my favorite song “Once in a Lifetime.”
The music begins to vibrate. The bar hums in rhythm. No speakers, no amplification, no microphone, but I can hear everything, every chord, every rise, every drop, all the perfection in the sound. Not a single missed chord or cracked line, not a single unintentional wobble. The music is flawless.
I drink eleven beers, but feel nothing. I take Rachel back to my room. Stan asks me on the way out whatever happened to my writing. I tell him things got in the way back on Earth, but I have all the time in the world now.
No hangovers, another perk of being departed. I used to wake up, the whole morning wasted to aspirin and moaning in bed. Here, no hangovers. No sleep either. The next day I do the same thing, I spend the whole day in the bar drinking beer and whiskey. No cheap stuff, only Maker’s Mark. The Talking Heads keep playing. Again and again. All my favorite songs again. “Letting the days go by,” swimming in my head. I do just that, another day and another day spent drinking with friends, their faces never frowning, almost never not smiling, eyes unmoving, always staring.
Whole weeks go by, whole months. Years. Decades.
I’ve had sex with Rachel 394 times. She has yet to give any sort of reaction or turn me down. I had always thought of her as virginesque. I’m not sure if her behavior confirms or denies this. Afterwords I just lay there and she returns to the bar as if nothing has happened. Her glasses never askew.
After the first two years, I grew somewhat bored. Two more years, and I’m slightly agitated. Another two, and I’m nauseated at their sight and sound. A few more years, I’d rather die again than listen to another word.
I can see Stan and Rachel smiling as always. As if for them everything is new again. Their stupid fucking smirks.
“Hey look it’s the Talking Heads, again.” Stan says. His voice somehow filled with what sounds like genuine excitement.
“Uh-huh, that’s great.” My face buried in the palms of my hands. I take another long swig of whiskey, my twelfth of the hour, never more than just buzzed. Always the same. Their perfectly nasal music drones out, pounding in my skull.
“Letting the fucking days go by,” Byrne sings again, his nail-like voice scratching at my brain. Pretentious garbage. Meaningless, all of it meaningless.
“Is there anything else to do here?” I scream out loud and am ignored. I finish the half-gallon of Whiskey in one long gulp. It spills down my chin, but never makes me sticky. No one disapproves.
“I hear you’re having troubles? Paradise not perfect enough?” Raguel, always Raguel. “Perhaps an amusement park? Perhaps Cedar Point?” he says and next thing I know I’m outside the bar, outside the Mansion. I’ve been outside before, the fields of snow actually warm puffy clouds, but nothing in any direction. I once walked in a single direction for an hour and 27 minutes before I found myself back at the Mansion. Now just outside of the Mansion was a perfect replica of Cedar Point. “If you need anything, just ask.” His perfect smile, perfectly still, on his fucking perfect face.
I spend about 30 years, 10950 days, 35478000 minutes at Cedar Point. All my friends now there, but also at the bar whenever I go there, they’re everywhere, only in my bedroom can I escape them. My TV now consumes the entire wall. The bar carries over 100 beers on tap. It’s bigger, but has no more people. Just the same people. They eat the food, that I don’t need to eat, with me. I can only piss by thinking about it and only stop by doing the same. That can be quite fun, but after approximately 273.6 hours, it begins to lose the appeal. I can never accidentally piss or shit myself. I miss not having to think about my shits, not having to want to shit, to enjoy some bathroom time alone.
I decide I need a goal. I decide to watch all the movies. All the movies ever made. Heaven has a very large selection and it’s never checked out. I begin with Horse in Motion and move forward chronologically. It’s quite a dull film and frankly, overrated. It takes me 69—14 longer than I lived—continuous years, 828 months, 3588 weeks, 25116 days, 602784 hours, 36167040 minutes, and 2170022400 seconds to catch up to my death. A clock on the wall reminds me how time is supposedly passing. I smash it and it reforms. I don’t sleep—I don’t need to—don’t eat, don’t use the bathroom. I only sit in the couch, its layers enveloping me. My dedication is unwavering. My will indomitable. No one checks on me.
I soon realize I can get movies released since my death. This takes another 32 years during which another 15 years worth of cinema is released and so on. For a total of 116 years—two lifetimes—1392 months, 6032 weeks, 42224 days, 1013376 hours, 60802560 minutes, and 3648153600 seconds, the screen flashing over me for a century day and night, 24/7, 365, eyes unblinking.
I don’t need to blink.
I have yet to even begin an eternity.
“I go nowhere clothed. None of my friends seem to notice or care. Daily I break all the bottles in the heavenly bar. Glass cannot cut me. I have punched everyone in the face at least 30 or 40 times. They don’t mind. They never mind. I decide to nap for a millennium. When I wake, nothing has changed. My friends are still waiting for me. The Talking Heads are still playing their nasal fucking voice haunting me wherever I go. I’ve tried to stab them. Nothing happens. They hardly notice and always apologize to me. To me!
I can hear the numbers tick off in my head every second of every day, nothing changing always the same. I’ve played every video game, read every book, been to countless amusement parks—at one my dick flapping in the wind, hitting Rachel in the face—her glasses crack and makeup smears before fixing itself—she smiles and apologizes profusely. I cover myself in red paint. I throw Molotov cocktails at friends, imaginary enemies I conjure. The enemies scream before vanishing in a poof. They literally make the sound “poof,” I once found this funny. Friends just smile while the flames die away. I will start my own book one day, I do have all the time in the world, I make myself laugh. One must know how to amuse oneself.
My hair is the same length it has always been, same with my nails, same everything. I’ve taken an ax to my neck, and I can’t cut my skin, can’t remove my head. Fire doesn’t burn. I cover the Mansion in alcohol, the spirits filling my nose, but they don’t burn. Nothing burns unless I want it to burn. I set fire to the mansion while I am inside. The flames eat away the wood, only the largest beams remain when I leave the flames. My friends are trapped where the bar stood, still waiting for me to enter. The beams collapse, and the fire begins to dwindle. I dance. I can change something. Something fills my heart that I haven’t felt it in years. Excitement?
When I turn around I see the mansion begin to rebuild itself. The ash flying away, beams reconnecting, color drained by the fire returning, wood growing out of wood to make more wood, exactly as it was before, as it has always been. I collapse. I can’t stop laughing. I lay on the clouds laughing for two weeks.
“I hear you don’t appreciate the décor.” Raguel, fucking Raguel.
I snap at him, foaming at the mouth. I haven’t spoken in over three centuries. I try to tell him this, and it comes out “Fucjkjfoj argh gyuop.” I don’t think he understands.
“Not again. Here let me help you with that.” He touches my throat.
“Why? Why are you doing this? What have I done?”
“Nothing. You’ve done nothing.”
“This is Hell. I don’t deserve to be here. This isn’t what I want.”
“You’re right you don’t deserve this, but this isn’t Hell. Far from it. I’m not sure you know what you want.”
“I want something real God dammit. I’d rather be in Hell. This is no Heaven to me. I want to piss in the face of this God.” I grab Raguel by his robes. He seems unperturbed as my spit hits his face.
“You shouldn’t say such things.”
“Fuck you and fuck God. I want what was promised. I want reality. I want to go back. Send me back.”
“If you’re so insistent to go through this all again. I shall help you. Let no one say I’m not merciful.” He says as he caresses my face.
I let go, and I feel an intense pressure in my chest, a build up of gasses, a need to shit. My left side goes numb, my breathing labored. My heart pumps faster and faster, falters more and more, until it stops completely. And I slip off the toilet ground covered in spinning toilet paper.
I wake up blinded by light. My eyes adjust, and I see a bed covered in red pillows and drapes, a golden-leafed mirror on one wall. Purple, red, and gold everywhere. My arms are thin, belly stretch mark free. On another wall is a 54-inch TV. I could easily spend an eternity here.