Category Archives: Prose

“Signals Of Fear And Uncertainty” by Eric Shattuck

Image by Jia Sung.

There is a fist-sized hole in the concrete floor and another in the ceiling. The hole in the floor is bearded with sunblack shit, and at night the beetles climb out of it and crawl across my toes. The smell is worse in the daytime.

Sometimes I stand under the hole in the ceiling and let the sun cook my scalp until I can’t stand it anymore, until I can feel the edges of my mind singe and curl back like paper held to a candle flame.

I do pushups, sit-ups, handstands. I hum songs, recite half-remembered lines of poetry. I think about my wife: the freckles on her bottom lip, and the way only one cheek dimples when she laughs. Around noon the men bring me food – a paper plate with rice and chunks of flavorless gray meat. I eat with my fingers and stuff the plate down into the hole when I am finished.

There has been no interrogation, no talk of ransom.

I awake to find the President of the United States looking down at me. He is very tall; even hunched over, his shoulders scrape against the ceiling.

“You’re taller than you look on TV.”

He offers a paternal smile. “That’s the first thing everyone says.”

I ask the President how he got in here with me, but he is evasive. He asks me if I knew that an octopus can squeeze through a hole no larger than its beak.

The President doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He fiddles with his American flag lapel pin, cracks his knuckles, holds them stiffly at his sides.

I ask him if rescue is imminent.

“If I could, I would have help on the way as we speak. A whole fleet of black helicopters, chock full of rough men. Real doorkickers.”

“Why can’t you?”

“The truth is, I don’t know where here is. I have the key, as it were. Now all I need to find is the lock.” The President pauses. “You know, I was a prisoner of war once, myself.”

“I know. I remember the campaign ads.”

“They pulled my fingernails out with pliers.” He holds up his left hand, taps the tip of his middle finger. “This one didn’t grow back. The nail is fake. Acrylic.”

I chew my fingernails down to nubs. The President writes his full name and phone number on a scrap of paper.

“My personal line,” he says. “In case you remember any details about the men who took you.” He offers me an after-dinner mint from his breast pocket.

The President comes and goes in the night. Increasingly, I find myself unable to recall what he has said to me. When he finishes speaking, I am left with only the vague impression of having heard his voice. I am starting to resent his presence in my cell. Because of his height, he is closer to the hole in the ceiling, closer to the fresh air. He tilts his head back and inhales deep, greedy lungfuls.

He has roped me into playing tic-tac-toe. We take turns scratching X’s and O’s into the wall with the point of his lapel pin. The President wins twenty games in a row. I have suspicions that an aide is whispering strategies into the earpiece he has taken to wearing of late, but he assures me that this is not the case, and I am in no position to make accusations.

He begins the twenty-first game by placing an X on an edge square, and I see my opening. I box him in and take the win. The President leans against the wall and slides down into a seated position. His face clouds over.

“It’s this heat,” he says. “I’m not thinking straight.” He produces an embroidered handkerchief and dabs at his forehead, his wrists, the back of his neck. He hangs his head.

The President is weeping. Tears are coursing down his cheeks. Despite his height, he seems shrunken down, a boy in his father’s suit.

“Mister President.”

He ignores me.

“Mister President, really–”

The wailing intensifies. I am gripped by sudden predatory urges, like a wolf watching a wounded sheep fall out of the herd. The first kick is weak, but I put my weight into the second. I hurl myself onto him and we roll across the floor together, punching and biting. I put my knee into his stomach while he crushes my knuckles against the concrete.

The lapel pin bounces into the hole in the ground, and just like that, the struggle is over. We lay side by side for a moment, wheezing and probing our faces for injuries. When we get up, we stand in opposite corners with our backs to one another, like two people pretending not to notice each other at a party.

The President has forsaken me. Days go by without so much as a word; I believe he is still upset about the tic-tac-toe.  Any hope of a rescue mission is remote, and morale is low.

I find myself staring at the X’s and O’s scratched into every wall of my cell, wondering if they will blend together, coalesce into something meaningful.

At night, I walk in circles. I listen to the crickets sawing outside. I sit beneath the hole in the ceiling and look up at the stars, searching for the gleam of satellites that orbit overhead. I imagine an antenna sprouting from my head, projecting signals of fear and uncertainty into the dark, as if one of those satellites might pick up on them, might look down into the hole and see my face looking back, and the person watching the feed will say, This man is in trouble. This man needs our help.

*

Eric Shattuck is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. He studied at South Carolina State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and served as an editor for the Inkwell student literary journal. His work has been published in The Nottingham Review, 99 Pine Street, The Molotov Cocktail, Gone Lawn, and the Kentucky Review, among others.

Back To Issue Forty-Four

“The November We Are Fifteen” By Lydia Armstrong

Image by Toby Penney

Previously published in Crack The Spine.

The November we are fifteen we run away and the boys around the block put us up in a motel room on the turnpike that has a hole in the door so we can see everyone’s sneakers shuffling past.

We write poetry and eat potato chips all week and one night I sit on the chipped-tile bathroom floor and feel my mind break apart and the pieces get sucked up into the air vent.

On Thanksgiving the Arab at the front desk calls and says in broken English no one’s paid the bill for the night but we understand clearly when he says, I’m calling police.

We hide our bags in the woods and use the last of our change to call the boys from the pay phone at Waffle House and the ringing just trills through the ear piece like a jungle bird.

We tell the waiter behind the counter we don’t have money and he watches us the way my father looks at sick dogs.

After an hour he gives us coffee and after two hours he goes over to the gas station and buys us cigarettes and after three hours he puts sopping plates of smothered hash browns in front of us that we can’t eat.

Two boys with slick white smiles and a car say we can go with them and the waiter behind the counter keeps wiping the same spot and watches us go out into the dawn, where everything is soft and blue at the edges and we are glad the night has passed.

The slick boys have keys to an uncle’s barber shop and say, here sit on our laps, and we look at each other like maybe this is exciting, maybe something is happening.

Something must be happening because the lights are off but the room is still glowing and the only thing holding us onto these bony knees are the arms slung over our hips.

But it’s hard to tell because we are weak from hunger and sleeplessness and the blunt passing through our hands and all we want is home.

The problem with a strange boy’s lap at dawn is that it shrinks your hearts, like how eating potato chips for a week shrinks your stomach, and when someone tries to give you something real, there isn’t anywhere to put it.

*

Lydia Armstrong lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is active in the spoken word community and helps facilitate Slam Richmond. She collects bugs, drinks copious amounts of white tea, and has a cat named Birdie. She is working on her first novel. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @cr0ssmyfingers.

Back To Issue Forty-Three

“98 Ianthe” By Robert N Lee

"98 Ianthe" by Robert N Lee

Previously published in Shimmer.

You used to be in the band; now you work on the asteroid. People you have to work with, they ask about it all the time when they find out. And they always find out – somebody always tells them. They all want to know what that’s like. “You used to be in the band? And now you work on the asteroid?”

They always think they’re the first ones to ask. You can tell because they always start with “You must get asked this a lot…” and nobody really ever means what they say – they always mean the opposite.

“Didn’t you save any money?” That’s the next question asked by approximately two-thirds of those who want to know what it’s like, being in the band and then working on the asteroid. They don’t really want to know that, though. They already know you didn’t save any money, or you wouldn’t be working on the asteroid, even if you weren’t still in the band. It’s not really a question, so much.

What they’re really saying is, I would have saved some money. It’s all over their faces, although they probably think it looks like concern. Or pity.

It just looks like reverie and scorn.

Whatever, they bought the record. They spend their money on one hit wonders because the song was in the surprise hit feel good groovie of the year and everybody everywhere played it all year long and there were kisses and fucks, and it was the last year of college.

But sure, they all would have saved some money, some of the leftover-after-I-go-buy-the-same-record-as-everybody-in-the-known-universe-this-summer money.

That money.

Things move so fast, here in the future. As humans age, so also goes humanity and as the peak of a race’s existence is hit and passed – time seems to speed up on the downhill slope. It’s inevitable.

“It takes a thousand years to go from one to twenty-one, the rest is a rocket slide,” you saw in a burst yesterday. Attributed to Einstein. It had a date and everything.

Everything is attributed to Einstein, especially online. Einstein said we only use ten percent of our brains and if we’d use the other ninety, we’d all discover Jesus through science, plus cleanliness is next to godliness.

Einstein never said that. It doesn’t matter. Somebody said it, and somebody else copied it and used it to tag a burst, a unique quote to express their common individuality with 876,453,667,981 other humans throughout the galaxy using that quote to tag their bursts.

The human race is well past drinking age. Humanity has already sobered up and is settling in for a soft descent into fading quietly into a good or bad night. Everybody knows it, like an old dog knows it: time to go. Past time, maybe.

“Great minds think alike,” Einstein said that, too. Or he didn’t. It doesn’t matter, no one ever says what they mean or means what they say.

The shifting slopes of language, the treadmills that render words blasphemous one day, innocuous half a generation later – they go faster, too. Here in the future. The name of the band was the name of the asteroid, and back then, all those months, mere days ago, that was a risk.

The name of the band was the name of the asteroid was the name of the massacre. The massacre reigned in young hearts and minds, supreme and bright and loud. You didn’t know that would happen. It was just dumb luck. The band played that kind of music, dark and driving and angry about things to be angry about, and the singer was a wannabe Altairan and a poly sci major, so he heard about 98 Ianthe way before anybody else. He wasn’t that smart, he wasn’t a songwriting or music playing kind of lead singer, his boyfriends did all his homework for him – but he came up with a dilly of a band name. You had to hand him that.

It worked. People asked about the name, found out about the massacre. The band started bursting at shows, infodumps with images of the asteroid branding them. The band raised consciousness. The band got on some politically-oriented festival lineups. The band got signed. The groovie happened, the same time another groovie about the massacre became very big for ten minutes or ten days or ten months.

That was two weeks ago, or two years, or two decades.

Now it’s just an asteroid again.

Wars are like bands. They come and go throughout your life, large and small. It’s impossible to remember them as they pile up, dragging behind you as you march toward the bright future when no bands play for no wars.

Some very few bands and wars stick around, become legend. There are so many songs and so many groovies about them, people start making songs and groovies about how there are too many songs and groovies about that band or war.

Most bands and wars do not stick around. 98 Ianthe was that kind of band, and that kind of war. You used to sing harmony on songs about the massacre, you co-wrote one of them, and now when you go out to the craters and look at the signs on the monuments, the basic details of the story seem new. Then you remember, oh yeah, and a piece of once-dear lyric, a shocking, bloody image emerges from the past and you smile or wince.

I remember that. I remember dancing to that right before John or Jane got killed in that.

Or I remember drinking to that a year or a hundred years before John or Jane came back from that and it was another thousand years before John or Jane ever danced to anything again.
No wonder we forget so much, no wonder we speed the time along the longer it goes on.

You would kill yourself, sometimes, under the crushing weight of all the dancing and wars and John and Jane you’re speeding away from. You have a weapon that would work. You could go out to one of the craters you first saw one day the last year of college, when another twenty-two year old with richer parents and surgically sculpted ears and eyes that almost looked Altairan passed you the pictures. You could use the weapon. It would work.

It would be appropriate. So appropriate you can’t, you can’t face the thought of 98 IANTHE MEMBER ENDS IT ALL ON 98 IANTHE. You didn’t even tell your friends and family you were working here for a year or maybe seventeen months or seventeen years, it’s the last thing you want in your obituburst.

The last thing you want to do is die here.

The third question that isn’t a question is: “You must hate it when you hear the song.” This one comes up close to one hundred percent of the time when the song plays at work or in a vehicle going to work. The song comes on, and you catch your breath and hope somebody who knows won’t say anything, but somebody does.

No, you don’t hate it when you hear the song.

You hate the question.

You don’t usually add the second part of that. When you do, they look at you like you were in a war, not a band.

Out on the edge of one of the craters is a bench for sitting and reflecting. You are supposed to reflect on what happened in that crater four centuries or four millennia ago. Or four months. When you do that, you start seeing a giant bloody bowl full of baby Altairans who look like seals who’ve just become angels.

The baby seal head pointy-eared angels, in your mind, are at first glance Altairans, and then they’re not really, they’re Altairan-shaped bits of breakfast cereal, soaking in blood instead of milk. Around the bowl are grinning human children faces, going YUM YUM! in what was at the time a very kitschy, retro typeface from a different war and band logo, eight hundred years or eight hundred days before.

The drummer drew that picture, his girlfriend made it a poster, it became the first t-shirt, the first EP cover, the first thing that got the band yelled at in papers and extra-frisked and busses torn apart at border crossings.

It was compared, famously, to toddler wall scribbles in poop and Warhol and Scooby-Doo and Guernica. Everybody burstargued about it all the bursting day long for ten minutes or ten weeks.

The sprint to a groovie soundtrack was pretty much on the first time the band was compared to Hitler and Che in the same minute by 5,639,593,842 people.

There are some Altairans working here. Not many, and they work on the other side of the asteroid. You have no idea what they do over there. They come sometimes and stand on the edges of the craters, their silky seal-angel heads bobbing. They don’t talk to each other, but they are talking anyway, you know this. They may be pointing with those tentacles, they may not be. You can’t remember, and you used to know so much about them.

The band had to meet some Altairans, once. The lead singer grilled all of you for weeks on what this or that meant. Or his boyfriends did while he freaked out and primped.

The pictures burst everywhere, with the manager-planted headline 98 IANTHE OFFERS AID AND COMFORT. It was the end of the very short, short ride, and the government and the uber-nationalists you hoped would react didn’t have time to take the bait.

The pictures were faked, the band’s PR summit with the Altairans never happened. The Altairans heard the song about the massacre, apparently, or… did something like hearing the song, and pulled out at the last minute. They didn’t like it. The label or the manager or the band decided that the meeting would happen, anyway. In manufactured burst pictures, at least.

It came out.

A legend can survive martyrdom, even in these last days. Fake martyrdom and get caught, though, and the whole universe unbursts you.

That’s true, anyway.

A cluster of Altairans at the craters approached you, sitting on your bench, exactly once. They didn’t want to know if you’d saved any money or did you hate the song when you heard it – they wanted to know why you’d lied about them.

They waved tentacles around and you didn’t know if they were pointing at you or not, and you didn’t know what to say, either. So you just stared and they waved tentacles and bobbed angel-seal heads with pointy elf ears and finally they went away sad.

You thought they were sad.

You were sad.

They probably don’t say what they mean or mean what they say with those tentacles, either.

A couple years ago, or maybe it was twenty, there was a tribute record and the current clump of college twerps named after some newer war on a bigger asteroid with even more pathetic and adorable alien victims wanted to cover the song. They flew out to the asteroid, the lead singer and guitarist, and they were not at all like you eighty thousand years ago. They were earnest and passionate and they were totally down with that old school vibe, but they wanted to take the old and mix it with the new, yeah?

It was darker, it was harder, like all the new music you didn’t like anymore, and they changed the lyrics so they were about the new war and the new massacre and the new asteroid, and what a bunch of sellout assholes you were. They would never be like you, the song promised, their hearts were truly woven to thousands of babies who looked like talking Christmas trees with clown shoes, freshly dead in fresh craters.

In their ironic, anti-retro t-shirt design, though, they were that band from twenty million wars and bands ago, they were dressed as you, force feeding bloody baby Christmas-tree-clown-shoes cereal to weeping children going YUM YUM? in the same typeface, which was now so un-retro it was retro.

Again.

Last week or last year, you exchanged private bursts with the bass player, and he said something you’d been thinking, but not saying. You said oh my god, I’ve been thinking exactly that.

He said maybe ten million years ago, for the ten seconds the band and war lasted, you were, the band was, on the wrong side of that fight. Look at how things are now, they’re everywhere. They’re taking over. Did you think it would be like this?

You never thought it would be like this.

That’s what it’s like when you were in the band named after the war named after the massacre, and now you work on the asteroid.

*

Robert N Lee was born in New Jersey and has lived all over the place since, including Vietnam, Hawaii, and Florida. He now lives in the Columbia River Gorge with his dog, Otis. He writes and designs and draws things, and can be found online at www.awesomedome.com.

Back To Issue Forty-Three

“Empty Frames” By Juliet Kinder

"Empty Frames" by Juliet Kinder

They are in a field in one of the two town parks. This is the larger, nicer park, and so this is the park they like to take their children to on the weekends so that they may soak up the things that magazines say they should be soaking up. Children like jumping in colorful leaves, throwing Frisbees, and eating a perfectly arranged picnic off a blanket, the magazines also say. The photographer crouches in front of them. The knees of his pants are stained by the grass.

They have a boy and a girl. Boy has Husband’s eyes. Girl has Wife’s. The children look like them and they look like each other and it is such a brisk, yet sunny, day. Perfect for light, pastel sweaters.

On days that are not weekend days, one of them works and one of them stays at home. You can guess which one does which. There is no tension. They are exactly where they want to be in life. They wear khakis and reading glasses. Much of their life is furnished with Pottery Barn. Sometimes it is hard to see because the stock photo logo obscures their vision, but they manage.

You can use their image. They are for use.

Boy and Husband will play catch after this photo. Or maybe soccer. Whatever is more fashionable for boys and dads to play. Girl will read a book with Wife, flipping the pages with doughy toddler fingers. She will never smear her hand against the ground and bring dirt to her puckered lips. Boy never did that either. Neither of them ever cried. They were spooned mashed up fruit from mason jars on the white couch and never spilled. They were star students at their baby Mommy and Me swing dancing classes. They have the photos to prove it.

Husband majored in finance and found a career just out of college that allows him to be home at five o’clock each day, brown suitcase briefcase swinging from his hand. Sometimes he hums on the way home. Sometimes he listens to the radio. He is an informed man. He reads the newspaper while sipping coffee from a white mug in the mornings. For breakfast he eats an English muffin with jam and a banana. He packs himself a lunch. Hums. Kisses Girl and Boy on the forehead. Kisses Wife on the lips. In his free time, he putters around the house. He does projects with wood. He is not good at projects. Wife has had to replace most of the things he fixed. He has never noticed.

He only fucks his male boss when the stock photo camera is focused on Wife reclining on the white sofa with Boy and Girl reading, reading, reading. Sometimes she feeds them. Sometimes she does yoga with them. Sometimes her smile strains against the sides of her cheeks and she makes fingernail indentations on her palm in the out-of-focus edges of the frame.

Motherhood is a beautiful commodity. She sits with her children coloring beside her while she bakes brownies for the PTA meeting. Her hair is twisted above her head, some strands slipping out for effect. Her children dutifully complete their artwork, never once kicking one another or growing bored. They will color until told to do something else. Boy draws a fire truck. Girl draws a flower. They have only ever seen other white people because that’s just how it is. It’s never occurred to them to think about that.

Yesterday, Wife started her affair with the cameraman just to get him to put down the camera. Still, sometimes he has to do his job. He alternates. Every time he picks it back up, her ribs grind together and she imagines killing him by pressing the camera against his eye until it crushes through.

The cameraman has never been a stock image.

Yesterday she did a do-it-yourself activity with the kids. It was so simple and fun. It took time, yes, but she has time because Husband is at work and the house is always immaculate. Anyone who doesn’t make the time is a bad mother.

Husband is at work fucking his boss in a supply closet. He wrinkles the other man’s suit and leaves splotchy bruises on his neck. He bites. Wife has a magazine open to an article. It is on the benefits of juicing. Maybe her family should start only drinking juice. Maybe they would be healthier and more whole. They can start making arrangements out of the leftover orange peels.

The cameraman touches her softly. He moves hair behind her ear and then lets it fall back. He kisses her temple like a whisper. He would be very surprised if he knew she wanted to scratch down his back until she drew blood. She is so lovely. The sun dances against her face. She has never been in a poorly lit room. He gingerly moves against her. Slowly. She is too delicate to be careless with.

Husband tightens his tie around his neck. His boss is panting against the shelves and Husband turns on his heel. The cameraman is going to visit him at work for his promotion. He is going to shake his boss’s hand with two hands, one on top, to connote intimacy. He and his boss have a positive working relationship. He gets days off for holidays without any interruptions so he can sit by the fireplace with his kids and smile at his lovely Wife.

The cameraman has set up a tripod in front of them in the park that he crouches behind.  They all stand in a field, Wife, Husband, Boy, Girl, and camera. The cameraman wants to be where Husband is. He believes that he is in love with Wife. He says smile. The whole family smiles. Boy and Girl are on their parents’ backs and they are not too heavy. Husband and Wife press their cheeks together. Cameraman doesn’t just want to make love to her anymore. He wants to be Husband and press his cheek into her and play catch with Boy and have a pastel picnic on the grass. He wants to Photoshop his face onto Husband’s body, but already knows without trying that he wouldn’t fit the image.

She wants to fuck him into the picnic blanket. She wants to murder him so graphically it will have to be blurred out in the resulting photos. She wants to crush the stock photo logo between her teeth.

Husband smiles. Wife smiles. Boy and Girl smile. There is a special on families. Buy now.

*

Juliet Kinder grew up in a small town in New Jersey and recently graduated from Washington University in St Louis with a double major in Psychology and Spanish. She is currently teaching in Spain. Her work has appeared in Duende.

Back To Issue Forty-Three

“The Keepers” by Luke Silver

"Keepers" by Luke Silver

Carla and I draw our blood in the auditorium. They collect our specimens in Dixie cups and send them to a laboratory. Do it! Do it! they urge us. We disrobe and I masturbate onto their microscope slides. My performance improves when I look at Carla’s breasts. My performance diminishes when I look at Carla’s helmet. Carla’s helmet is always turning black. I do not know what face is under Carla’s helmet. It is supposed to be from Nicaragua. Carla does not know what face is under my helmet. It is from the United States.

At night we sleep in separate dormitories and, sometimes, I hear her whimpering through the walls. Hector. Hector. I wish Carla would stop. I wish Carla would let me sleep. I wish Carla would take our responsibilities more seriously.

Sometimes, she communicates to me that her heart is broken. When she does this, I communicate to her that Hector is dead. Still, when they demand we lie together, her breasts feel cold like there is no organ beating beneath them. When they demand we lie together, her helmet is always turning black.

Most weeks I give Carla a rating of fair on the peer evaluation form. Under additional comments, I often write “lacking energy and enthusiasm.” I do not know what grade Carla gives me. It does not matter. They have no replacements for us.

On Tuesdays, Carla self-administers a pregnancy test. So far all the tests have come back negative. Carla communicates that she feels lucky this is the case. I communicate that she must soon adopt a positive outlook. We have an important function in the preservation of the human race. Still, every time Carla squats and pees on the thermometer, her helmet turns black. Carla’s helmet is always turning black.

I sometimes share Carla’s morbid sentiments. Their tests on our bodily fluids have not produced any tangible results. I know this because we stay in their compound. I know this because they continue to ask for samples. I know this because they stock my dormitory with Lemon-Ice flavored Gatorade, and say, Drink up! We need you to replenish your electrolytes.

I do not communicate my unease with Carla. I do not express my belief that medical breakthroughs will never be reached. Doing so will disturb her and likely turn her helmet black. It seems impolite to expose her to more worry. Her helmet is already always turning black.

Recently they have begun examining Carla’s hormones. They fear that she is unable to reproduce because she is deteriorating from stress. I am not deteriorating from stress. I am drinking all of my Gatorade. My teeth are deteriorating from sugar, but I am not deteriorating from stress.

Whenever Carla leaves to get doctored, I draw on the walls with a Sharpie marker. Sometimes I draw out my name in block letters. Sometimes I draw Jean Luc-Godard in Breathless with a fedora and a gun. Sometimes I draw two stick figures having sex doggy-style or holding a stick figure baby. The stick figures are Carla and myself.
I recently sent in a request form for a queen-sized bed. Under additional comments, I suggested moving Carla and myself into the same dormitory. Snuggling together nightly should help expedite Carla’s familiarity with our coital routine.

I have not decided whether I want to see the face under Carla’s helmet. In my mind, she is attractive, but I am aware that this might not be so. I have decided Carla does not want to see the face under my helmet. I am not Hector, and she continues to cry for him at night. But still, we are the only ones with natural antibodies that can withstand what they brought. But still, time changes everything.

They reassure us that our helmets are for our own safety. From what I do not know. They did not tell me. Nor did they accept my request for monochromatic helmets. They did accept my request for a queen-sized bed. I have not told Carla. I am afraid she will cry. I am afraid her helmet will turn black. For one-hundred-and-eighty-five days, we have lived in this compound. At least once every day, her helmet has turned black.

Yesterday, they brought Carla a dog to help fight her depression. Like us, he is supposedly immune. He is nine months old and a chocolate lab. He makes Carla happy. Today her helmet has stayed a neutral blue. He does not make me happy, however. I detect competition, and I do not know their long-term intentions with him. I do not know his long-term intentions with Carla. If it comes to it, I plan to kill and eat him. But I do not share this with Carla. It would only make her upset. I am afraid it would turn her helmet black. Carla’s helmet is always turning black.

*

Luke Silver is pursuing his MFA candidacy at Sarah Lawrence College. His work has been accepted by Dogzplot, Literary Juice, BOAAT Journal, and elsewhere. He occasionally tweets @LUKEABRASSI.

Back To Issue Forty-Two

“Red Feathers” by Tara White

"Red Feathers" by Tara White

Seventeen-year-old JD DeMondo is positively flapping with excitement, straining against the straps on his seat. He is inside a giant metal bird. This bird is way up high in the sky. The sky is the best colour. This is JD’s first time on a plane. He got the window seat. He is on his way to New York City, but he doesn’t know that. He scans non-stop for clouds and other birds and pinches at the bracelet on his right wrist, makes it go SnapSnapSnapSnapSnap. He doesn’t know speech but he’s learning about rhythm, fast. One of his aides gave him an iPod for the journey, midway through his rehab, when he’d finally stepped away from the walls and into the room. It’s loaded with Beastie Boys and Ghostface. He clucks along and bobs his head. Occasional squawks escape him.

The stylist this morning had smelled wonderful. JD wanted to touch her, really, really badly. He tried. He tried to touch her breast. Same but different. He didn’t know why or how or what it was for or what it would be like. He wanted to know. The rest of his haircut was done in handcuffs. She smelled sweet and fresh and lovely, like outside. She gave him a mohawk. The producers wanted a comb. Now he skims his newly trimmed nails through it. Soft spikes now. All different.

Chicken Boy hatches! Keep up to the minute with Chicken Boy on your hand-held device! Download the CB app now!

The viral campaign featured eggs being catapulted out of special spring-loaded guns on the back of a truck, driving around towns and splattering people, all in good fun.

Will Chicken Boy rule the roost or cock it all up? Install the livecam now!

People will pose for photographs with him on the street. He will never know why, but he very much likes to examine each one afterwards, and takes great pride in pointing out who he is in the picture.

Subscribe to the RSS feed from the CB fanpage! Premium subscription gets a free CB welcome pack including tracker device!

Street vendors will give him free hot dogs, corn dogs, pretzels and sodas. It will all taste like heaven.

Will chicken boy be cock of the walk or a feathered failure? Install the real-time ticker now!

His name will be spoken at water coolers in real life and spread in virtual life like a virus, filtering past the usual talk of the NFL, the humidity, the Middle East. “How ‘bout that Chicken Boy?” It’s not his real name, though he answers to it now. Even his real name is not his real name.

“Did you hear? Somebody tried to mug Chicken Boy at knifepoint. Got shot twice by a DeMondo sniper! One in the head, one in the chest!”

He has three snipers on staff, two full-time bodyguards and a private detective in his entourage. He’s never met them. Chicken Boy is always intercepted with chloroform so as not to witness aggression incidents. Standard DeMondo damage limitation policy.

“Why did the chicken cross the road? Because DeMondo Corp paid him a million bucks” – #DeMondo #CB #chickenboyfail

JD enjoys percussion and wind instruments, his express favorite being the didgeridoo; riding the Subway; a great variety of foodstuffs, in particular Vietnamese and Cantonese cuisine; the New York Knicks and nudity when permissible. He also exhibits a confident preference for redheads.

“CB’s ideal woman? Lauren Bacawk” – #CB #KentuckyFriedKid #chickenfucker

John Doe “Chicken Boy” DeMondo has no family, not to his knowledge, to this day. He had birds. He was good with them. Some of them kept him warm at night, all curled up like cats. He was fed maize meal – rolled oats on good days – and he learned to fight for grubs, meal worms and crickets. He could use his hands to scoop the hens out of his way, but it was a struggle. There were lots of them. His hands and feet were always, inevitably, covered in open sores. Beaks are sharp. You have to be quick, in and out. On bad days he felt like something was missing, something big. Something else told him maybe the missing part was the most important one.

Chicken Boy has hair like straw and a scraggle-feathered scruff beard the colour of maize meal. He is fine-boned and small in stature with an exaggerated C-curve in his spine. In the coop, he defecated in only one corner: the top left. He didn’t know how he knew to do this; birds go everywhere. But he felt increasingly strongly with time that he was rather a different entity. The cleaners, mechanics and collectors never spoke, never touched him and always wore the full regulation garb, a shapeless full-body shroud obscuring all features. His earliest memory is of a hand reaching in from outside. If he knew the first thing about age he might attribute this memory to five. The hand came up the chute. JD watched from a safe distance. Groping, feeling, five fingers in an industrial rubber glove. Five orange, bloated fingers. The wrist caught on a barb of rusted wire. The glove peeled off. JD was momentarily horrified. He squawked and crowed and stomped his feet to sound the alarm. Something was very wrong with this. As the call went up, the hand pawed about to retrieve the glove. It wore a ring on its baby finger. A fat, gold, insignia ring. The nails were ridged and bitten way back. And. And. It had pink skin, this hand, just like JD. The call went up and kept up, a cacophony of squawking, flapping, clucking, madness. And then they left, and left the glove behind. He examined it closely, after a time, when he’d begun to believe they weren’t coming back. Its smell was overwhelming. He put it on immediately. Over the years, as he grew into it, in contact with pecking, scrapping poultry and various splintered edges, it shredded away to almost nothing, leaving him only a scraggy orange band, which he was particularly mindful of.

He was utterly repulsed by the thought of egg-eating. He tasted it once, the yolk, because he was too, too hungry. It was awful, the newness and the texture and NO. Sometimes an egg broke. Sometimes he stepped on one and there was chaos. He would be severely reprimanded and felt terrible, although he dimly felt a sense of ascendancy in this, obscured like some speckled perfection of shell winking out from a dusting of straw. He felt – he thought – no, he knew he could make this if he wanted to. That he could cause pain, social reshuffling, something else. He didn’t understand where the eggs came from, he tried and tried but he just couldn’t, although he knew they were special. He knew some birds tried to hide them, as if they knew they were special too. He wondered why he couldn’t produce anything like that. He wondered if that part of him was broken or dead, if his insides didn’t work. But he could make something else, and it made him feel good. He occasionally retreated into a compulsive suspension in this bliss and would emerge pained, underweight and inexplicably apologetic. He enjoyed the smell, distinctive and saline, which he would smear on himself freely. He liked it because it didn’t smell like them. It smelled like something else. That was vital.

The deep yellow of a yolk was his next favourite colour to see, after blue. He neither suspected nor proved a connection between the delicate semi-precious objects the hens expelled and the batches of fluffy pastel chicks he saw further down the line. He saw the eggs siphoned out by gravity and simple mechanics. The floor would be levered up by four of his fingers at ten, two of his fingers at fourteen, then came the thook, thook of dropping eggs, from all around like rain as they rolled into the lined rubber chutes underneath. As a young adult this process went from terrifying him to entertaining him to nothing, nothing at all of note. He saw the chicks arrive in crates once a month. He watched them grow and develop, all at a unanimously accelerated rate. He felt slow and somehow unworthy by comparison, inchoate.

In his teenage years he entered phases of an awful chronic blackness, an endless internal starless night. In these times he refused to eat. In these times, after some weeks, when his skin was a mere film over his bones and its usual translucence had dulled and soured, they took him out. They took him to the medicine room. The hands there were white. The coats blue. Fascinated by blue. He knows the silver of the surgical table from the automatic feeders, the freshly replaced sheets of metal on the roof. He knows white from lots of places. From the lights, from reflections. From the rarer birds. But blue! Blue is sky, in through the vents and the pinholes. Sky was on these creatures, these other hims. He moaned as they wiped and injected his noodly upper arm. Wept freely and delightedly as they inserted the feeding tube. And then an incredible thing. Somebody spoke. And somebody else answered. He grabbed for it, for either the noise or the place that sweet hum came from, for whatever was contained behind the mask, under the visor. He wailed and cupped his own throat, bleated a sound and felt the tremor of it shudder through his vocal chords out on to his waiting fingertips like the reverberation of a strummed guitar. Me too, he was saying. Me too! You too! You, me, us! Music! The room soon blurred, the chemicals diffused quickly and his focus left him. He went heavily under like a dropped stone.

He had figured out, after feeling, tracing, pushing, tweaking, pulling, scraping, two places where nails come loose from the galvanized iron, easily and simply. One was above the top roost, three decks up (Chicken Boy was an avid climber). He could fit neatly as a boy, but it was a tight squeeze now. Flakes of rust got in his eyes. That was the day something changed. They came in to activate the grain silos and freshen the bedding. He had spent the night on the top roost, angled poorly and quite squashed, watching the light change and the sky sift through all the different colours, in the space behind the loose nail. With the kindling dawn, he felt something bubble up inside him, some foul urge belch up as in a cesspool. His finger and thumb grasped the nail, pressing, pressing until he had milked a bead of blood from the sinews of his forearm. He let it trickle a moment, the slow red teardrop, his head, his heart, his head, everything swirling, expanding and contracting, out-in went his chest, too quickly. Out-in. He bruised the wound and drank from it, spreading the blood around his mouth and savouring the unusualness, the novelty and the dark thrill he felt deep in his churning belly, knifing through his watery insides predatory and threatening, the fin of a shark above an opaque pool. Power. Power was what he felt. The incomparable exhilaration of making something happen. He felt he had discovered and understood and was about to prove a universal truth: that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

When the hands came to turn on the lights, they heard it all before they saw it. Before they saw headless birds still flapping, turning perfect circles as if on little red tracks. Before the blood darkening the walls as if seeping in from outside. Down softly raining from the ceiling in beams of starched sunlight. Raw pink ripped flesh, cartilage, intestines and blue veins knotted like electric cabling. Before they saw JD DeMondo, almost a grown man, naked and crimson and coated in feathers, his eyes burning like charcoal, dark and too bright both at the same time, burning with something ferocious and new, the panic reached them on the wind like a bad smell. Squawks, screeches – and over the din, the low, curdling wail of a territorial lion. Change. Change was what they heard, and what awaited them in the worst way.

JD has finished his grape soda, there are no more peanuts left and both his ears have popped. His clucking is soft and worried. They are descending, wheeling, at twelve thousand, at ten thousand feet. The slow pour of a New York twilight is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. Insects on water, on fire. He knows he can’t touch them. He thinks if he touches them they might burn him and he would stub them all out. The plexiglass is cool and firm against his fingertips.

*

Tara White is an Irish writer with an MA and MFA in Creative Writing from UCD. She teaches Creative Writing at the Limerick Writers’ Centre.

Back To Issue Forty-Two

“Infestation Miracles” by Daniel Uncapher

Image by Caron Wiedrick

Miracles swarm in the Mississippi delta in summertime.

The blooms overwhelm me, reminders of what lives between the lived-in spaces at the limits of my vision. Where do they come from? Who created them? Are they a blessing from above, or a curse from below?

Most importantly, should I call an exterminator?

A miracle of bees infests the grocery.

She never sees them alive. They congregate under the windows and doors to die, a thin film of dust settling softly on their fragile wings. She sweeps them up in the evening and puts them in a shoebox, unsure of what to do with them but unwilling to unceremoniously throw them away.

Honey runs down the walls in long amber beads, flowing slowly from cracks in the bricks. She places mason jars along the floor to collect the honey; it glows golden as the setting sun sends one last ray through the glass.

She adds a spoonful to her coffee, like an archaeologist upon opening King Tutankhamen’s tomb and discovering his personal honeypot, but she finds it a little too sweet for her tastes and pours it out.

A miracle of ladybugs infests the old schoolhouse.

The red-coated creatures fan out across the ceiling and bathe in the lampshades. When the lights go out they drawl in waves across the walls in search of new brightness. They creep across the television screen late at night; I have no choice but to stare at them.

When I sleep they land on my naked shoulders and crawl down my chest. I pick at them like little scabs, pinching their wings between my fingernails and throwing them into the fireplace, where they go up in a sparkle of smoke.

I feel guilty for such a petty holocaust, but the important thing to remember is that ladybugs are just beetles, after all, and normal people don’t waste time in sympathy with beetles. Why should I?

A miracle of roaches infests the mansion by the riverbed.

They come in from the rain like a buffalo herd, stampeding into the dry foyer and scattering in every direction. They congregate in the shower at sunrise; they fall from the faucet head following water and get stuck in the drain. They make mischief in the cupboards with the cereals and crackers and they sleep in the cool electronic light of the household appliances.

When I pull up a floorboard they parade past me in lanes of glistening brown and crawl up the walls. An unlucky one gets caught in the open; I snatch him up and throw him out the window into the rain.

The delta swells with life. Loneliness is a delusion for people who do not believe in miracles; we can never really be alone again. Knock on the walls; they are there. Pull down the ceilings and rip up the floors; they are alive and they are waiting to see you. The furniture shakes, the clothes move, our eyebrows quiver; all of the pieces of life harbor life, and all life is miraculous.

Yet still I’m deluded by loneliness. I must not believe in miracles, after all.

A miracle of earthworms dies on the sidewalks.

They get lost in their desperate crossing of the concrete and burn to death under the noon sun, writhing on the white-hot surface until their brains boil and their skin cooks into crispy wrinkles of blackened flesh.

It isn’t reasonable to save them. Even when they flip and twist in agony, half-dead, needing only one gentle push into the cool, damp grass to save their lives, it doesn’t make sense to go around saving worms. Reasonable people don’t even realize what’s happening.

The miracle of fire ants waits until sunset and then marches across the sidewalks to feed on burnt worm. They crawl over the still-cooking corpses and tear the meat out with their mandibles, carrying the bodies in pieces back to the colony to furnish the queen with nutritious protein. That is the miracle of ants.

I crush the ant-infested worms under my heels as I walk.

*

Daniel Uncapher lives and writes in Water Valley, Mississippi, where he operates a private printing press out of his antebellum home. His work has appeared in both Neon and The Baltimore Review.

Back To Issue Forty-One

“The Train Journey” by Annalise Spurr

Image by Csaba J Szabo.

The journey was peaceful. I closed my eyes most of the way, sat back and thought of all the wonderful things I had done that day. When I opened my eyes the frost was settling on the fields and trees, and the other passengers were either asleep, reading, or eating. When I got to the station I couldn’t see him. He always seemed to be late. I opened the door and jumped on to the platform. It was so dark and the smoke stood still as it hit the bitter air. The station was empty. I closed the door. I slipped on the icy ground and fell between the gap and the train. The train went on to Plymouth and I ended up in bits across the rails. My head got thrown into the tall tree – the one by the lamppost. I hung on a branch. I always liked that tree, as it had a love heart carved into the wood. He finally arrived. The birds sat around my head and sang. They should have been asleep. He glanced up and recognised my features. For the first time he really looked at me. It’s a shame I have to be decapitated to make him take any notice.

*

Annalise Spurr is a writer and singer from the magic lands of Somerset. She is currently in a band called Strange Folk and writes lyrics and melodies for their gothic style of music. Annalise also works for the RSPCA and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Hertfordshire University.

Back To Issue Forty-One

“Best Of Drive-Thru” by Mack Gelber

Image by Andrew Martin

—Welcome to Large Burger. Where the burgers are large and the smiles are on the house. Can I take your order?
—Do you have a chicken?
—We offer a range of chicken options including our signature Ranch Wagon and Ultimate Chicken five-piece dinner. Chicken sandwiches are also available in nugget form, with a variety of dipping sauces including our popular Asian-Glazin’.
—I’m looking for a chicken. He’s not coming home.
—Our chicken is guaranteed one-hundred percent free-range and sustainably harvested. Patties are locally sourced from Guatemala and assembled by machines.
—He’s healthy, good-natured. I take excellent care of him.
—Perhaps I can interest you in our Large Chicken Smokehouse Grinder, now available for a limited time only.
—He might be in the closet. Sometimes I wake up and he isn’t here, and I look and I look, and then I remember to check the closet. Please. I’m trying to keep it together. I swear to God. I am really, really trying.

*

—Also, I’ll have a vanilla swirly.

*

—Welcome to Large Burger. Your one-stop shop for all your burger needs. Can I take your order?
—What?
—Can I take your order, sir?
—What? Speak up. This is America, little girl.
—Better now, sir? Can I help you with anything today?
—You think it’s funny, torturing an old man? Someday you’ll look like me. They’ll laugh at you, hurl sprockets at your head. I hope you remember my face.
—I apologize, sir. There must be some issue with the microphone. Maybe you’d like to come inside?
—Do you know what happens when a man catches fire? What happens to his insides? Or his dermis?
—With valid identification we offer a senior discount on qualifying items, including our Large Chicken Smokehouse Grinder, now available for a limited time only.
—I’ll tell you. Listen to me, little girl. I’ll tell you what it is to burn.

*

—Welcome to Large Burger. Voted Favourite Burger Restaurant in Best Of The Plains Region, 2007. Can I take your order?
—I know what you did.
—Say again, sir? Please speak directly into the clown nose.
—I’ve been looking for you a long, long time.
—In that case, you must be very hungry! For future reference, all Large Burger franchise locations are available on our website, with directions by car and train.
—You pulled out all the stops, didn’t you, Nightingale? The uniform. The little fucked up car. What is that, a Subaru? Jesus.
—Sir, this is the drive-thru window. If you’d rather purchase a meal inside, we offer the same quality fare and service for which Large Burger is internationally renowned.
—I know who you are.

*

—Welcome to Large Burger. Chew it! Can I take your order?
—I’m looking for a chicken. He’s close now. I can feel it.
—Your order, please, ma’am?
—Listen. I know he’s inside the establishment. I know all about what’s going on in there, so could you please stop acting like nothing’s happening? Please. I don’t want to have to beg.
—I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m afraid there’s no chicken here. Just the kind that comes on a kaiser roll.
—You hurt people when you pretend actions don’t have consequences. Do you know what a consequence is? Huh? Do you?
—Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to pull around.
—You’re keeping my baby in there, and you’re acting like nothing’s happening. There’s a consequence for that, lady, and it’s not a fucking kaiser roll.
—Our manager will be right out, and he’d be happy to speak to you about any complaints you may wish to lodge against Large Burger or our affiliates at 连雀.
—Baby. Baby, it’s me. I know you’re scared, but right now I need you to hold on. Can you do that for me? I’m going to be with you very soon. Don’t take any strange medicine. You hear me? Don’t listen to this bitch.

*

—Welcome to Large Burger. Where the burgers are large and the smiles are on the house. I am legally obligated to inform you that our Smileburger Original sandwich is not on the house. It is three ninety-nine.
—Nightingale. Guess who.
—I’ll take your order when you’re ready, sir.
—You have a beautiful home. Love what you’ve done with the grounds. What’s that called? Cobblestone?
—Sir, I need you to order or move to make room for other customers.
—And the kitchen: wow. I bet you make some mean Ranch Wagons in there. Who knew flipping burgers could be so lucrative? Do you get tips?
—I’m afraid I’m going to have to flag you on, sir. This is one of our busiest times. I’m flagging you on now. Please advance your vehicle.
—I’ve seen the cones. They’re beautiful. No, I’m moving. See? I’m moving.

*

—By the way, my kid sister’s in town. What the hell do you people do for fun around here? Stare at corn? Christ.

*

—Welcome to Large Burger. For the discriminating burgervore.
—Yeah, hi. I want one Large Burger, all the toppings, double cheese. Hold the tomato.
—One Large Burger, no tomato, double cheese. Anything else, sir?
—Yeah, let me get a Large Chicken Sandwich with Asian-Glazin’, pickles on the side. Order of Large Fries – large, please. Rings if you’ve got ’em. Throw a couple of ketchups in there, mustard, mayo. Two orders of the cornbread, with the little diced-up little chillies. You still make those? Yeah? Two orders of the cornbread. A riblet. Actually let’s make it two Large Burgers, double cheese, no tomato. You can go ahead and put those together. Kind of fold them into each other. Keep the riblet separate. Uh, I’ll also get an Ultimate five-piece dinner, a fifteen-piece nuggets, a Ranch Wagon, a Whack Stack. A black-and-white shake. A slice of apple pie. You got Mello Yello?
—Yes, sir, we have Mello Yello.
—Well, Tom Terrific! Okay. You wanna read that back to me?
—Two Large Burgers, no tomato, double cheese. Asian-Glazin’, side pickles. Mustard sachet. Mayonnaise sachet. Ten-piece nuggets.
—Fifteen.
—Fifteen-piece nuggets. Whack Stack. A Ranch Wagon folded into a riblet.
—No. Wrong! Separate, I said, I want the riblet separate! Can we be a little more engaged here, please? Fuck!
—Riblet separate. Cornbread. Two orders cornbread, with the little diced-up chillies. Fries and rings, large – large fries. Ketchup sachet. A slice of apple pie. A slice of apple pie. A slice of apple pie.
—Sorry. Ma’am?
—A slice of apple pie.
—Hello? Ma’am?
—…Yes, sir?
—Are you all right?

*

—Welcome to Large Burger. Please be patient while we calibrate your smile.
—Baby?
—Large Burger. Order please.
—Mommy misses her baby. She misses him so very, very much.
—Order please. I will not hesitate to call the manager.
—I see you, you know. I see you inside your microphone, counting your money, drinking the blood of innocents!
—Ma’am. I will not hesitate. Large Burger is a money-making establishment. It is not a chicken coop. It is not ominous. It is a fast service subsidiary of 连雀 Heavy Industries with over two-hundred franchise locations in the United States and across the globe. Large Burger does not kidnap.
—Sometimes we like to sing a song: Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy–
—What do you want, lady? Do you want a burger? Here, have a burger. Have all the burgers. Have a chicken sandwich! What does it take?
and I feel like loving you. Yes I feel like loving you. Yes I do. Yes I do.

*

—Large Burger.
—Hello, I’d like a double chocolate shake and a – just kidding. Howdy, Nightingale. Some weather, huh? I don’t know why, rain always makes me hungry.
—No. Service denied. Please pull around.
—Did you know over one hundred people are killed each year due to faulty gas lines? You’re just standing around, fixing up a Whack Stack, and then…
—I’m within my rights to contact the authorities if this threatening behaviour continues. I can do that if I need to. I have a button.
—Authorities – is that what you call those goons in the minivan, “authorities”? Two six-foot guys with the nine-irons and the haircuts, came knocking around my motel room last night? I’ve never met cops who liked golf so much. Good swing, too.
—Sir, this is not the time to be pushing me.
—It’s a shame; I really liked that TV. Thanks for scaring my sister, by the way. Class act. She’s seven.
—Sir. Sir? Just whip it out already. I know you’re going to do it, so can we just get it over with? Please? Let’s settle this like adults. I think we’re both very tired.
—I’ve seen the cones. I know how you’re moving them. I know everything about your little operation, Nightingale, and all you can do is sit in your booth and watch while I burn your world to ashes. You can send in the brigade, have them slash my tires, leave messages on the mirror in shaving cream. I don’t care, and do you want to know why? Do you? Because you’ll still be in there, and I’ll still be out here.

*

—You want something?
—Large Burger, medium fries. Medium diet cola.
—Drive up to the window. Your shitty meal will be ready momentarily.
—Excuse me?
—I said to please sit tight while we coagulate your burger.
—Excuse me. Miss. Do you know who you’re talking to?
—You sound kind of like Lee Majors. Lee Majors?
—This is quality control. Corporate. Normally I’d reserve my comments for the Quality Evaluation Thumbnail, but I don’t let anybody talk to me that way.
—My apologies, Mr Majors. I wasn’t aware that you’d renounced the glamour of show business for the life of a mid-level beef spook. Next time I’ll be sure to treat you with the kind of conduct befitting a man of your stature.
—I’d like to have a word with your manager.
—I am the manager.
—Your manager, please.
—I am the manager of this fine establishment. I run it from top to bottom, and I run a tight ship. Go ahead, file a complaint. Be a hero. Did you know that over one hundred people are killed each year in explosions resulting from faulty gas lines? You’re just standing around, picking your ass, and then–
—You’ll be receiving word from corporate.

*

—Yeah.
—Hi there! Can I place an order with you?
—Clown nose.
—Too cute. Give me one second here… Honey? Do you know what you want?
—We’re out of Smileburgers.
—You want to talk to the lady? You want to talk to the nice lady? That’s a big boy. Miss, I’m going to put my son on?
—Too cute.
—…Hiya. I wanna Smileburger.
—We’re out of Smileburgers.
—I wanna Smileburger. I wanna hundred Smileburgers.
—We’re out of Smileburgers.
—Hi, miss? Sorry. You’re sure you can’t rustle up a Smileburger for him?
—We don’t have any Smileburgers.
—Would you mind checking quickly for me? I’m sorry. It’s just that he really wants a Smileburger.
—Okay. Let me check. We’re out of Smileburgers.
—Hey, I’m just trying to feed my son. We made a special trip out here. We drove all the way from Pine Acres. Do you know how many hours I’ve been listening to Kidz Bop?
—Ma’am, this is our busiest time. If you don’t place an order I’m going to have to ask you to pull around to make room for other customers.
—There’s no one behind me.
—Please pull around now. Do not force me to contact the authorities.
—Mom, why won’t she give me a Smileburger?
—Do you know who I am? Do you? This is my domain, lady, my little petty fiefdom, and around here I’m fuckin’ God. I am the arbiter of the Smileburgers – and no, you can’t have one. That’s right: I’ll take away everything you have, lady, everything you love, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Fine, drive away. Drive far away! Large Burger values your patronage! Someday your children will replace you!

*

—Nightingale.

—Why’d you have to hurt her?

—She didn’t know anything. She was just a little girl.

—What, you want me to place an order? Large fries and a Whack Stack? Extra ketchup, please! You monster.

—You know, I used to work in a place like this. I flipped the burgers. For the first week I had to wear this hat that said “I’M A ROOKIE – PLEASE BE PATIENT”. That was what they called you, “rookie”, like it was ice hockey or something. Bunch of asshats.

—The fryolators always put me in a trance. I would stare at the fry oil for hours, space out. They said if you spilled pop in there the whole apparatus would detonate on impact, sending death and raining oil everywhere. That was how they phrased it in the training video, “raining oil”. It’s funny what sticks with you.

—You were in my dream last night.

—I was nineteen, back in my burger-flipping uniform, wearing the rookie hat. I never worked the drive-thru in real life, didn’t have what they called the necessary people skills, but in the dream I guess it was my lucky day, right? I was standing in that booth, actually, pretty much where you’re standing now. Anyway, a car pulls up, the only car we’ve had all day, and I can’t see you but I know you’re in there. You park in front of the speaker, but instead of ordering you get out and walk up to me. You stand right in front of the booth. And it’s weird: you’re hovering right on the other side of the glass, kind of watching me, maybe, or half-watching me. Like you’re seeing straight through to the rear wall and the long row of freezers, just past my shoulder, to something I can’t quite see. Meanwhile I can hear the grill grilling, the fryer frying. And I look out the window and I think: raining oil.

—Raining oil.

—Then I wake up.

*

—Have you seen my baby?

—Hello?
—Oh. It’s you.
—He’s not coming home. I’ve looked everywhere, I’ve spent days sitting by the phone. I’ve washed my hands a hundred times but it doesn’t ring, it still doesn’t ring.
—Ma’am.
—I just want to see him again.
—Ma’am, I think something bad is going to happen here. This isn’t a good place for you.
—Have you seen him? Is he here? Please, just tell me: is he here?
—He’s… Oh, Christ. He’s here.
—He’s here?
—The chicken is here. The chicken – your chicken – is here, and he’s doing great. Better than ever, actually. Yes. Your chicken, he loves you, he misses you, and he’s grateful, so very, very grateful. But now it’s time for him to go. He hopes you can understand that. It’s time for him to leave.
—Baby, can you hear me? Are they treating you well? Are you getting everything you need?
—I’m sorry, ma’am, but now it’s time for you to go, too. Please do this for me. Please. I need you to drive.
—My darling. My sweet, sweet bean. Everyone here’s been so nice to me.

*

—Welcome to Large Burger! Where the burgers are large, and the smiles are on the house. My name is Mavis and I’ll be your meal facilitator today. Can I take your order, sir?
—What?
—Can I take your order please, sir?
—What? Speak up. This is America, little girl.
—Sir, I am so sorry. This is my first day. Can you hear me now?
—You think it’s funny, tormenting an old man? Someday you’ll look like me. They’ll laugh at you, hurl sprockets at your head. I hope you remember my face.
—I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with this thing. Hey, Gerry? Sorry, Gerry? Can you help me with this customer?
—Do you know what happens when a man catches fire? What happens to his insides? Or his dermis?
—I’ll be right back, sir. I just need to check something with the manager.
—I’ll tell you. Listen to me, little girl. I’ll tell you what it is to burn.

*

Mack Gelber works as a writer and editor. His fiction has appeared in Joyland Magazine and the Bushwick Review, with work forthcoming in Juked. Find him on Twitter at @mackgelber.

Back To Issue Forty

“After The Parade” by Gerard McKeown

Image by Simon Kingsnorth

Glass crunched under my mum’s car tyres as her Corsa crawled up the road, which had been clean when we drove down it a few hours earlier, before the parades passed through. As the wheels rotated I felt each chip of glass dig into the hard rubber, tearing at the air inside. The tyres fought back, powdering the glass, but it was a losing fight; the glass only needed one good hit to win.

Parade-goers still lined the roads, drinking carry-outs.

“If those hoors bastards have to have their fucking parades, they should be made to clean up the fucking roads afterwards,” Mum shouted, eyeballing the nearest group.

They stepped out onto the road in front of us. Another group a bit further up, who’d heard her too, walked out to join them. A couple of the lads held empty bottles like weapons. There was no room to drive around them.

“Drive through them,” I said.

My mum looked at me like she couldn’t believe I’d said it. I could see the fear in her face. The group closed in, compacting themselves within spitting distance of the car. The seat below me felt unsteady, like one of the wheels had punctured.

“They’re not going to hurt an old woman,” I said. “Drive.”

*

Gerard McKeown is an Irish writer living in London. His work has been published in 3:AM, Litro, Neon and Fuselit, among others. He has performed as support for acts as diverse as John Cooper Clarke, Stewart Home, and Frank Sidebottom. More of his work can be viewed at www.gerardmckeown.co.uk.

Back To Issue #39