The Misfit Pioneers

Posted on: February 25, 2016

Ming hauled the door open, her lips pressed together against the chill. Rubbing her hands, she dusted the white flakes off her coat and hurried inside.

She rarely came to this side of campus. Though it was a small university, the engineering students kept to their quarters and the art students to theirs. A quiet thrill shot through her at this minor act of defiance.

The art studio exhibited a curious architecture. Filmy drapes hung on black bars, almost like shower curtains. Bulging pipes peered from the ceiling. A string of lights crisscrossed overhead with no real symmetry. Concrete walls splattered with ash and paint. At least the low-rise tables and chairs appeared orderly and clean, gathered in blocks across the tiled, gray hardwood.

It was a very American studio, at least in Ming’s mind. Back home they would not tolerate such a design, even for a creative workshop. Ventilation pipes belonged behind walls and makeshift lights would be tossed in favor of unobtrusive ceiling fixtures.

Naked. That is how she would describe the room.

“Escaping the cold?”

She jumped at the voice. Turning, she found a lanky, raven-haired boy watching her with an amused expression. His hands were dark with charcoal dust.

“I wanted to wait for the snow to stop. I parked in the main lot.”

“You’ll be waiting awhile, then.”

Ming shrugged. She did not want to dwell on what prevented her from going home earlier, much less explain it to a stranger.

“Are you a student?” she asked instead.

He nodded. “Just transferred from art history to art. Drop a word from my major’s name and gain another year’s worth of work.” He grinned. “I’m Jonah.”

“I’m Ming, electrical engineering,” she said, knowing that was sufficient explanation for why they were not acquainted.

“Ming,” he repeated. “Cool name.” Jonah glanced at the dirty window, the edges frosted over with snow and ice. “It doesn’t look like the storm is letting up. I make a mean hot chocolate, if you want me to fix some up.”

She hesitated for a moment but agreed. The roads were dangerous, and the hot and humid weather of her hometown had not prepared her for the bitter winters here. Besides, Jesse would not call anymore and Ming did not want to be home alone with her thoughts.

Jonah had an easy, unaffected manner. He filled the silence with small talk about his life as he bustled around the kitchen area. Ming sat at a table nearby and listened. She learned that he switched majors late, so he spent frequent nights in the studio playing catch-up. Unlike most college students, he disliked coffee, but had an unhealthy addiction to hot chocolate.

“It’s my grandma’s recipe. No sugar,” he boasted, as he set two steaming mugs before her.

The warm, rich scent filled her nostrils. “Thank you,” she said.

He pulled out the chair opposite to her. “So, Ming. Does your name mean anything?”

“It’s the same word for ‘bright’ in Chinese. It’s quite common.” She paused. “What about Jonah?”

“The prophet, in the Bible.” He grinned at Ming’s blank look. “God sent him to preach to a wicked city, he disobeyed, and was swallowed by a fish for three days.”

She considered it for a moment. “It seems like bad luck,” she said finally.

Jonah laughed. “He made it out alive. It’s a great story, actually.”

Ming flushed and fell silent. Her family burned incense, prayed for health and prosperity, and tried to live good lives for karma’s sake. In her last two years in America, her circle of engineering friends rarely discussed religion, philosophy or literature. If Jesse worshiped anything, it was Bruce Willis movies, which he insisted were a sufficient lens into western culture and ideals.

“Do you plan to go back to China after school?”

“I wasn’t, but—” Ming stopped abruptly, a painful twinge in her chest. She met Jonah’s eyes, steady and kind. “My boyfriend is from here. He broke up with me today.” The words fell out in a rush.

Jonah’s eyes crinkled. “I’m sorry.” Then he added, “He’s a jerk.”

Surprised, Ming glanced at him. “You don’t know him.”

“Of course not. But he probably is.” He held up a hand to stop her interruption. “Here’s a rule for breakups. Get rid of that urge to defend him.” A crooked smile slid up his face. “I don’t know him. I know you. I’m on your side, alright?”

Ming suppressed the urge to tell him that his logic was convoluted and nonsensical. She had to admit it felt good to have someone on her side.

She and Jesse shared the same circle of friends. Or, more accurately, Jesse formed their circle of friends and drew her in when they began dating. Ming knew this was nonsensical too, that the loss of one relationship could make her feel so unanchored and lonely on a campus teeming with students.

“Thanks,” she said. “My friends were all Jesse’s friends, so…” she trailed off.

Jonah nodded in understanding. “Jesse is from the Bible too. Father of a king,” he murmured. “I’m guessing your ex isn’t that great.”

Ming couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t think so. And how are you living up to your name?”

“I’m all for seeing the inside of a fish.” Jonah grinned. “I like a good adventure. I’m forming a campus club for explorers, actually. The Misfit Pioneers. Have you heard the rumors about this place?”

She had. The administration tried to check wild gossip, but students still whispered about secret passageways and treasure troves buried beneath the grounds. Ming could never decide if it was the typical American obsession with conspiracy, or if there was some truth wrapped in the stories.

Jonah was on the ground, wrestling with something in the tiles. “This is what happens when you spend too much time here,” he called up to her. She heard a crack and an entire tile came loose. A plume of dust rose as he heaved it aside.

Ming yelped and joined him, peering into the darkness.

“What’s—in there?” she asked.

“Not sure. I was going to check it out sometime, hopefully with a buddy.” He met her gaze. “So, interested in joining my club?”

“How many people are in it?” she asked, still distracted by the gaping hole in the floor.

“Well, now there are two of us.”

Written by: Dana Li
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

Over the Top

Posted on: February 23, 2016

“See you later,” Martha whispered over her shoulder as she skipped off to the park. Her mother was busy cleaning the cabin. Her aunt was doing dishes. Her brothers and cousins were playing cards. Her dad and uncle were at the fire pit talking about the annual horseshoe tournament next week. Martha wasn’t supposed to wander off on her own, but she figured no one would miss her for a while and they would know where to find her.

Today was Martha’s ninth birthday, so she didn’t have to do any chores, other than making her bed. She wished she could disappear and come back tomorrow. Every summer her family was on vacation during her birthday. They tried to make it special, but it was always the same. There would be a cake from the bakery in town, everyone would sing Happy Birthday around the campfire and she would have to make a wish with everyone teasing her about being the baby in the group. Martha dreamed of someday having a birthday party with her friends. No boys or adults allowed.

At least this year the family was staying in a cabin on a lake. There was a large park with swings, slides and a merry-go-round next to the beach. Swinging was just about Martha’s favorite thing to do in summer. She would pick a seat high enough so her toes just touched the ground. The swing closest to the lake was the best one. You could see the whole resort when sitting still and nothing but sky when flying through the air. Please be empty today, she thought, fingers crossed.

A few early risers were on the beach but no one was on the swings. Martha ran the last few yards and sat in her preferred spot. She always liked to start by winding the swing in one direction and letting it unwind, feet in the air, leaning back as far as she could. When the swing stopped spinning, Martha closed her eyes and imagined herself swinging high enough to go over the top and make a complete circle. That would be the best birthday present of all.

Martha’s brother Dale told her it wasn’t possible. She was too small to get enough momentum to go all the way around. “Have you ever done it?” she asked.

“Almost, but dad saw me get as high as the top and made me stop before I made it around,” Dale answered.

“What did it feel like?” Martha asked, eyes wide.

Dale leaned in close to Martha to say, “It was wonderful and scary at the same time.”

“Have you tried it again?” Martha asked.

“I’m too old to be playing on the swings,” Dale said before he turned and walked away.

Martha opened her eyes and began to pump her legs back and forth. The cool morning mist brushed across her face as she propelled forward, disturbing the still air. Gravity pulled her back down. Martha pumped her legs faster and faster, gaining speed, slicing the air, higher and higher until she was almost upside down. Blue sky and green earth become a blur as Martha’s legs pushed and pulled, taking her to new heights.

I’m almost over the top, Martha thought. Her heart was racing with exhilaration, her hands grasping tight to the chains holding the swing. Suddenly the swingset posts began to move up and down with a thump, thump, thump. She wasn’t scared at all. Freedom, she thought. This must be what it feels like to fly.

Martha caught a glimpse of her mother walking toward her. Martha stopped pumping and let the swing slow down. She was in enough trouble for wandering off; she didn’t want to hear what her mother had to say about how high she was going.

“Can I join you?” her mother asked.

“I guess so,” Martha said, expecting to get an earful about taking off and not telling anyone.

Martha’s mother sat in the swing next to her, twirling from side to side. "I always liked to swing," she said.

"When you were little?"

"Even now."

"When? I've never seen you swing."

“Sometimes I like to sneak out at night and swing. I don't know which I like better, swinging under blue skies or under the moon and stars. Maybe we can come back after dark and you can tell me which you like better. But right now we need to go to town--you're old enough to pick out your own cake this year. What do you say?"

“Wind me up and let me twirl once more,” Martha pleaded.

“Alright, but then we have to scoot. Your brothers and cousins have planned a special day for you.” Martha’s mother wound the swing as tight as she could before letting go. As she walked back to the cabin, she turned and said, “No dawdling, Martha.”

Martha let the swing unwind and come to stillness. She heard her daughter-in-law calling her, “Martha, Martha, where were you? You looked like you were a million miles away.”

“Not so very far away. Just...remembering swinging under the stars with my mother.”

“Come inside Martha. After all, it is your party.”

The house was filled with her children and grandchildren plus all of her brothers, their wives, cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends who could make it. Martha was over the top with love, soaring with gratitude as she looked out at family and friends gathered around.

When it was time to make a wish and blow out the nine candles, one for each decade, Martha noticed the cake top. It looked like a starry night sky, her favorite time of day to fly.

Written by: Mary Sue Barry
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll   


Posted on: February 18, 2016

“Shot of Patron, gorgeous.” The man cups the back of her thigh with his hand and offers his best high roller smile.

She takes the crisp twenty, leaning in to reach it. He moves his hand up, almost a caress, and inquires when her shift ends. He smells like greasy hair and the sum of the bad decisions that led him to this Blackjack table — up, but not for long. She can see in his wide, gray eyes that he doesn’t have the spine or stomach or soul for this town. Vegas’ll take from him. Whatever he came to find, he won’t.

“Shift just started. Sorry, handsome,” she slides away from his hand, which has now hit the stretchy fabric of her miniskirt. Dangerous territory: that’s what the other women call these microminis, they’re so short.

She knows the man will stare at her ass, barely concealed in black, as she glides to the bar for his shot.

The bartender turns away from her as she walks up.

“Hey,” she says to him, looking at the mirror. Their eyes meet, frigid blue on warm brown. Hers say I’m sorry and his I don’t care.

“Go away,” he says.

It isn’t the response she expects, and he turns to her with rage in his eyes. Still frigid blue, still beautiful, still not enough.

“There are a dozen bars in this building. Go to one of the other eleven.”

“But this is closest — ”

“Figure it out.”

By the time she returns with the shot, the greasy man has multiplied into three more, a hydra of middle-aged douchebaggery.

Her shift lasts another eight hours. There is nothing special about it.

She narrowly avoids all three of the customers who got so shit-faced they puked on the slot machines.

A group of bachelorettes in silk rompers and pink sashes, red-rimmed lips gnawing at the air in search of their plastic phallus straws, call her a slut when she slips into the restroom to readjust her bra straps.

She loses count at the number of hands on her ass, the number of arms that just graze some part of her breasts.

Consent is keeping that goddamned coquettish smile plastered on her face.

She is grateful for the genuine moments, when her eyes grow bright and kind and her smile slips from flirty to friendly. It doesn’t take much.

The other bartender who makes her drinks before everyone else’s, knowing she’s got to hoof it back to her section. The men who say “please” instead of “gorgeous,” “honey,” or “darlin’.” The woman who warned her her shirt was caught on the Roulette table, sparing her a loud, painful rip of separation. When anyone says “thank you” and looks her in the eyes without judgment.

When her shift ends, she walks outside, the cold bite of wind wrapping her in an icy hug. She thinks of the frigid blue eyes, the permafrost that was once her best friend.

This isn’t the life they wanted. Or maybe it is for him. Maybe he wants her away from everyone else, dependent and sullen and broken.

He said he wanted to be a Blackjack dealer, but he was too handsome, too distracting. She didn’t understand, wouldn’t that be better? He had sighed, said she didn’t get it. She shrugged her shoulders and didn’t push. He liked being a bartender. Better hours, better tips. She could try being a cocktail waitress. Wouldn’t it be fun? Wouldn’t it? She refused to sink to that, kept pursuing a dream onstage, illuminated by the house lights.

Dance auditions were brutal, harder than she anticipated. No callbacks. At the last one, her bank account nearly depleted, her teeth clenched so hard her jaw ached, her feet bleeding in her own shoes, she pulled no punches.

“Why not me?”

The men looked at her.

“I know I’m not getting this. You’ll call in a day or week or not at all and I won’t get the job. I just want to know why not.”

“You want it too much. There’s nothing effortless about you. You are weighed down by hopes and dreams and expectations. It shows, and it is distracting.”

After that last audition, one of them approached her with a time and an address. A job that might help her. A strip club. Come in for an audition, you might be good at it. You might be great.

She got as far as the club’s front door, tried to justify it. On stage. House lights. Dancing. A sliver of her dream, just the inedible rind. She turned away. She swore the bouncer out front had given her a nod, permission to say no.

Back in their tiny shared apartment, she looked her best friend in the eye and asked if he thought the cocktail waitress thing could still work out for her, because the dancer thing never would.

She shivers but doesn’t head to the bus stop. The bright gold glimmer beckons her like so many others.

When she walks the Strip, she is not a failed performer, an almost exotic dancer, a cocktail waitress. She is like all of them, seeking something and out to take it. She can be a tourist, living in a vacation from her own life.

But tonight, the illusion doesn’t take. The last part of her is gone, her best friend cleaved from her after he pulled her to him despite the rigid protest of her hands against his chest. His breath, hot and heavy against her shoulder, her neck, her ear. His words, alcohol drowsy but sharp: I want you. Let’s do this, it will be fun.

She shoved him, a hard push. Her eyes, furious. Her words, unforgivable to him: Never. You are not enough for me.

She tilts her head up, an act eclipsing prayer. She will meet her god’s gaze in the heavens and demand an answer.

The casino lights flicker and it is there: bright neon lights that say “Go.”

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Jen Stevens

Blue Hearts

Posted on: February 16, 2016

I wouldn’t ask her to name one after me, even though it was all I wanted. One of two things I wanted, and the second was her lips – anywhere on my skin.

Kisses heal the hurt; isn’t that what they taught us?

“These are my favorites,” Amber said, but she didn’t have to say it. They were the only rocks swaddled in wrapping paper, and she held one out to me, the sparkling flat of it resting in the careful platform of her two palms.

Geodes, not rocks. They were geodes. The difference, Amber claimed, was the crystals crackling from the hollows of volcanic stone. They were the product of fire and water. Warring elements, she said, while I sat against the side of her dorm room bed, the wood of one leg smooth against each pebble of my spine.

Water impregnated with chemicals, rich in minerals, she continued, and I wondered why she was talking about water, but mostly I wondered if she knew I had known her name since elementary school, watched her since middle school, and to find her in college felt more miraculous that any crystal formation.

I had started taking my miracles small, scrounging for them, an addict eager for the pop of his next pill.

“You can hold it.” The rock – geode – was offered to me, but I did not want to take it. She held the flat slice of chemical blue crystal more carefully than I had ever held anything.

Watching her hold out these rocks to me, I wished that I had talked to Amber before. Before today. Before the summer. Before the speeding car and my little sister, running. I wished I had talked to Amber the first time I noticed her, back in third grade show-and-tell when she’d smiled wide at the bright crystals in her hands even though some of the kids laughed at her for collecting rocks. I wished I could have asked her how to hold something so gently, so that I’d have known how to reach out, so that I’d have known how to take my sister’s hand when I had the chance.
But I didn’t talk to Amber before today, so I didn’t know, last summer, how to take my sister’s hand. Her IV had protruded like the brightest star – Sirius, wasn’t it? – in a midnight black sky, and to touch it meant to acknowledge the solidity of the hospital room posed around us. My hands under my thighs meant I could be dreaming, a blink and the pale pink walls would crumble like ash to reveal our front yard, where my sister ran, ran, ran.

She had always liked to run. “What are you running from?” I’d asked her, that day last summer, while I’d stretched my legs across the weeds that I was meant to be pulling.

My sister had giggled like she knew I was asking the wrong question. Where are you running to? I should have asked, and then I could have run after her, faster than that speeding car.

“Does it have a name?” I asked Amber. The other rocks did. The less special ones. Clunky, misshapen lumps that only revealed the side worth anything if turned over. Not the rock in Amber’s palm, nor the three left on the wrapping paper. It was Christmas wrapping paper. Red with pearl snowflakes, even though it was the thick of August. I could feel the crisp shadow of expiring sun on my outstretched legs until a peal of laughter from outside the room reminded me that I was sitting against the dorm room bed of the girl I’d always wished would notice me, back when I could spare my wishes on such simple things.

“No, I haven’t named it yet,” Amber said. The hair she had been tucking behind her ears – black and inky like the deepest parts of the sea – fell over her face again. She could not move it, as both hands still held the unnamed rock.

I searched in Amber’s eyes for the sympathy I’d collected from everyone back home, but instead I saw only wonder at this rock she held, like it was something precious, something alive, something to be kept safe in the flimsy swaddle of Christmas wrapping paper.

Her eyes were brown. Like dirt, the kind that packed together into sedimentary rocks, which sometimes hoarded air bubbles in the empty spaces of their chests so that something beautiful could grow.

If I asked her to name this rock after me, she would. She had texted me to come over, after all, and from what I knew, we weren’t friends. To me, she was just the girl who smiled at rocks, who left me wondering how it would feel, to be smiled at like that. And to her, I was just the boy from grade school who happened to go to the same college.

I was more than that now. No longer “the boy who,” but “the boy with.” My sister defined me, and I didn’t fight. Let her take the place in my chest where only air was whirring, the hollow I ached to fill.

“Go on,” Amber said, hands moving an inch towards me. “It will help.”

Help what? It was a goddamn rock. I lifted my palms to match hers, lifelines-up like we were showing off how much time we had. The rock slipped against the sweat of my skin.

It was smooth, warm from her heat, a kiss falling along the creases of my palms.

“I know they’re just rocks,” she said, but at first I thought I had said it.

My fingers flinched, and the rock trembled against my fingerprints.

“But pretending they’re something more helps.”

Helps what, I thought again. I wanted to say it, but my voice had lost itself in the gaping expanse of my chest, and I looked away from her dirt brown eyes to this rock in my hands.

I pretended it was a heart. Small, warmth cooling, turning blue from lack of oxygen. Did hearts do that? I didn’t know. In my head, it didn’t matter. I watched the heart harden, so tiny it could fit into a rabbit’s chest, like the ones that ran, quick, quick, across our front lawn, sometimes darting into the road without warning, without any time to stop them.

“Will,” Amber said suddenly – sudden as the flash of metal on sun-kissed skin, but not nearly as loud – and I didn’t know if she was finally naming the rock I held, or just saying my name to fill the hollow of our silence.

Written by: Danielle Dyal
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart

A Change of Plans

Posted on: February 11, 2016

Japan is her idea. A way to reconnect. A second honeymoon, even though we never really had a first. Only eighteen when we married, it wasn’t in the budget. Besides, in our situation, we had more pressing matters. A couple of kids having a kid. But then we didn’t. In a way I don’t think we really fell in love until we were comforting each other over the loss.

We didn’t try again for a couple of years. Happy years, the way I remember them. But the next time it happened the sorrow seemed to push us apart instead of bringing us closer together.

She joined the Church after miscarriage number three. She did her best to get me to go with her, but my attendance was spotty, my devotion even more so. It wasn’t the people, they seemed nice enough. I just didn’t find any answers there. Maybe I was asking the wrong questions, but the building felt as hollow and empty as her womb.

I sought solace in a different way. Long hours, weeks spent living out of a suitcase. The punishing grind of sales, rewarded with quarterly bonuses and awards banquets held in smoky barrooms that tend to turn ugly as the liquor flows into the night. My willingness to forfeit a personal life for a professional life does not go unnoticed. The youngest regional director of sales of in company history, I try to placate her, and maybe myself, that it will all be worth it in the end.

And then she proposes Japan.

The trip is organized by a group at her Church. Each year they go somewhere new. Italy. Greece. Israel. And each year her friends return and we listen to their stories and admire their pictures and purchases and she pretends to be so happy for them. They ask us to join them, but we tell them of the plan, our plan, that more hard work now means an earlier and better retirement later. Free and unencumbered, young enough to still enjoy it, we will have it all. But it eats at her. I know it does. So I relent.

We spend our first night in Tokyo. To me, the city is beautiful, a futuristic forest of metal and glass and neon. I understand its tempo, its pulse, the hurried existence of its citizens. I love how the city straddles the edge, teetering between ragged chaos and an ordered, almost military-like structure. I feel safe in its frenzied cocoon.

She does not.

She wants tradition, history. She wants cherry blossoms and wooden temples, tea ceremonies and tranquil gardens. She wants to feel the past. She doesn’t understand that the past is littered with pain and death.

Or maybe she understands it better than me.

The sun is barely up when we drive south and leave Tokyo behind. The trees glisten in the early morning light. When we arrive in Kamakura, the air is already hot and thick. Swarms of mosquitos buzz about, as do the crowds of people at the great Shinto shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. I find a place to sit in the shade as the rest of our group scales the stairs to the Senior Shrine. I long for the central air conditioning of our room. When they descend, I look at our itinerary. One more stop. The Daibutsu at Kotoku-in.

We round the corner and I see him. He sits nestled in the hills. Humble, yet profound. Open and ready for whatever the universe brings. He is not afraid. He is not happy, or sad, or angry. He just is. And in his shadow, just for a moment, I too, catch of glimmer of what lies beyond the mysteries. It changes everything.

The truth, in all of its simplicity, is laid bare before me. Everything I know is an illusion, the life I have created is nothing but a series of calculated distractions. The fancy clothes, the newest gadgets, the Best in Sales plaques that dot my walls, all are mere band-aids, failed attempts to cover the gaping wounds in my soul. The overtime I put in at work is not a sacrifice to get ahead, rather it is me trying to avoid the unavoidable. I know that now.

I cannot run from suffering, I cannot escape it. It is inevitable.

I see her standing a few feet away, studying the great statue with reverence. It hits me that someday I will lose her, and she will lose me. Instead of terrifying me, I realize that I am okay with this, that I have to be okay with this. That if you are not willing to let your heart be broken, you cannot love. And a life without love is worse than death.

I walk up behind her and put my arms around her. She’s startled by my sudden affection.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

I smile at her.

“Yes,” I say. I pull her closer to me and kiss her. I kiss her like I used to when we were eighteen. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t been this good, in a long, long time.”

“Wow,” she says, and she means it.

Together we stare up at the giant bronze Buddha. I feel an electricity between us that has been long absent.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s hard to believe that it’s been here for over seven hundred and fifty years.”

I look at his face, calm and serene. I wonder how many others have stood in just this spot, how many others he has shown the truth to, how many others he has saved.

“It’s… It’s magical. I can’t really describe it.”

The tour guide announces our departure. Our group starts to shuffle away, back to the bus, back to the city that suddenly holds no appeal. We turn to go.

“Thank you,” I say, mostly to her, but also to him.

She looks at me.

“For what?”

“For everything. For not giving up on me, on us. For bringing me here.”

She squeezes my arm.

“You’re welcome.”

Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Rob Gregory

The Otherlife

Posted on: February 9, 2016

The day after he crashed his car through the guardrail of Route 1, rolled twice, and came to a stop against Fairfax County’s oldest oak tree, Brennan Davis got up to go to work.

He put on his gray pants with the barely-noticeable hole beneath the back pocket. He tied the maroon and green striped tie that Becca bought him, the one he thought made him look fat, but that she seemed to like so much.

“Skinny ties are for tall, skinny dudes,” he’d told her. He was neither.

“That’s ridiculous,” she’d said.

As Brennan brushed his teeth, he remembered the impact of his head on the windshield and opened his mouth. Huh. No chips or gaps.

Brennan was dead, but he didn’t know it yet.

When he stepped out into the driveway, his car was gone. He rubbed his temple. For a moment, the image of his VW Golf becoming one with a tree flashed before his eyes, but then it faded. Did Becca say she needed the car today? That must be it. He walked to the bus stop.

When the bus arrived, he boarded, hesitating as he tapped his transit card to pay. The bus driver looked familiar, like the man who drove the school bus when Brennan was in middle school.

Weird, Brennan thought, and took a seat by the window.

He took out his phone to text Becca about the car, but something was haywire with his contacts. Most of them were deleted. He tried to recall Becca’s number, but realized the only numbers he could remember were his parents’ landline and his own cell.

This is what being technology-dependent gets me.

He dialed his parents, hoping they were at the house. It was roundabout thinking, he knew, but his mother would have Becca’s number. He meant to call her anyway, to tell her about something that had happened. What had happened? Yesterday. Something big? With a tree?

The phone rang.

“Hello?” a scratchy voice said.

“Uh...Mom? Are you sick?” Brennan said.

“Who is this?”

“Wait, who is this? Have I reached the Davises?”

“You’ve reached Millie Davis.”

“Aunt Millie?”

“Oh, shit,” the scratchy voice said.

A wave of adrenaline spread through Brennan’s bloodstream. His hand shook as he pressed the cell phone closer to his ear. Aunt Millie had lived with his family until her death, when Brennan was eight.

“Which one of of you is it? Your poor parents. Holy hell,” the scratchy voice said.

“It’s Brennan?” Brennan answered.

“Where are you? How did it happen? Well, you’re here now. Come to the house.”

“I don’t understand--” Brennan said, before his phone beeped and died.

“Fucking battery!”

There was something wrong with his ears, maybe that was it. Or maybe his parents got a new number. Right? He hit his head yesterday! That’s what he wanted to tell his mother. No wonder nothing made sense.

The bus pulled up a block away from work, and Brennan got off. He popped into the Starbucks that was right next to his office.

“What can I get you?” the barista asked.

“Let me do a tall--no, make it a grande Latte Macchiato.”

“Ooh. I’m sorry. We don’t have that.”

“I’ve been ordering it all week! Did you guys discontinue the new menu items already?”

“Wait--are you new? Jolie--Jolie, we got a fresh one!” the barista called to her manager, who turned off the milk steamer to answer.

“Awww, man! So there’s a new drink out?” Jolie said. “Can you describe it for me? We like to stay current, so if it’s something I can just mix together from what we have, that’d be great. Otherwise, we gotta wait for someone from corporate to kick it, and who knows how long that’ll take.”

Brennan loosened his tie and took three cleansing breaths, like Becca always did when she was trying not to flip her shit.

“Pardon my language,” Brennan said to Jolie, “But what on God’s green fucking earth is going on here?”

Jolie cackled as she scooped ice into the Frappuccino pitcher.

“Oh, honey,” she said. “You’re not on God’s green earth any longer.”

Brennan left the Starbucks without his latte. The whole world was losing its mind. He swiped his badge to get into his office building and took the elevator to the fifth floor. Before going to his own desk, he stopped at Matt’s cube to bitch about his phone and the incompetent Starbucks employees.

“Dude, you won’t believe--” Brennan started.

But when Matt turned around, it wasn’t Matt. In Matt’s desk chair sat a fat, middle-aged guy with 1980s aviator-style glasses.

“Hey,” Aviators said, extending his hand. “You must be new.”

“I’ve worked here for five years!” Brennan said, before passing out.

  When he came to, an elderly woman with pink lipstick was leaning over him, fanning his face. Aviators stood behind her.

“Arlene?” Brennan said.

“Yes, baby. Didn’t expect to see you around here so soon.”

Brennan used his elbow to shade his eyes from the fluorescent lights. Arlene, the director’s secretary, had died last month of a heart attack one week shy of her retirement date. Brennan had given $10 towards flowers for her family.

“Where are we, Arlene?”

“This is the Otherlife,” Arlene said. “Boy, is the accounting office going to be glad to see you.”

Arlene and Aviators sat with Brennan as he cried. They explained what was going on, that it was perfectly natural to be upset. That some people, like them, felt it was best to pick up where they left off--it added some stability. Lots of people kept their old jobs for awhile until they saved up enough to move on, making room at the office for the new dead. 

“Some people choose to relocate right away--back near their family who have passed too, or to another country they always wanted to see, but others stay forever. There’s a guy on the third floor who’s been here since the 1930s,” Arlene said.

“I--I need to borrow a phone charger. I need to call Becca,” Brennan said.

“That your fiancee? She’s not here. She’s still living.”

“I guess I need to call my Aunt Millie, then.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Arlene.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

Forget It

Posted on: February 4, 2016

Seventeen uneven stairs lead up to my apartment. It's hazardous to try and hit them all, one stretching for miles and the next as narrow as a tightrope. I've learned there are also a precise number of steps to reach my heart. Neglect one and I can't forgive the misstep, no matter how hard I try. I blame my mother for that. She taught me to never, ever forget.

Except these days it's literally the only thing she can do.

"Don't move back in with your mother. Your life is spiraling in the wrong direction." Tabby rejects her apartment most nights in favor of mine because the man across the alley from her has started vacuuming in the nude. To salsa music, from what she can make out, and his hip gyrations turn her stomach.

She arrives just as I'm getting off of work, and she helps clean the newspaper ink from under my nails with a utilitarian brush. It's like scrubbing away dinosaur blood, because the print medium is dying and soon no one will recall what it's like to have a story inadvertently transferred to their elbow.

Right now 1950's Lonely Hearts Killer chases a girl across my wrist, but the story races off the edge of a bone, unfinished. Tabby reads the imprint, points to the faded date, and shakes her head.

"You're an archivist. These stories expired. No one cares anymore." Tabby's world view starts and ends with the moment she's living in. She's more akin to the naked cleaner than she'll ever admit.

"Not true. Cold cases, sometimes. Or classifieds that never sell." I won't admit to her that I have been lost in a maze of memories after our break-up, and I've called a few of those numbers, decades later. One man told me his father had placed an ad to sell coins but then swallowed them because it was the last thing he had left to remember his dead wife. Tabby is immune to nostalgia; she is a time capsule hurtling forward. When she takes a moment to match up our fingerprints, I swallow my sigh. It holds no value for her.

"Does your mom have an extra room?" she asks, whipping her hair into a sloppy knot on one side.

"Just the one I'm taking. Her apartment is tiny, but it's rent controlled. And there are other reasons to stay." She's etched hieroglyphics into the walls and irreparably splintered window frames. Let's see them charge my corpse, she tells me when I worry about the way she's marked her height in Sharpie on the kitchen wall because she's convinced herself she's shrinking. No apartment could ever recover from her presence.

"We could share, if you want company. I've slept on a floor before. At camp." Tabby doesn't understand that she's exhaling painful memories like cigar smoke and the rings are settling around my throat.

"I'm getting a new job, too. I can't walk all the way from Forrester Street. It's practically out in the wild," I say.

"If my neighbor weren't a perv, I'd say take my spare room. My brother doesn't stay over anymore. He and Shelly want to move now that she's pregnant. The city's bad for children."

"The city's bad for everyone...except you and my mother," I joke. Tabby and I push our shoulders together and watch the condensation on the window evaporate from the heat of our breath. It's how she snared me the first time, promising that our combined chemistry changed the atmosphere. Never once did she hint at the possibility of us being a failed experiment.

"Can I visit you at your new place?" she asks.

"You said it was a bad move. A backwards move," I taunt, pretending the words on my lips are somehow connected to hers.

"Did I?" She turns and kisses the perimeter of my cheek, and a whisper of my nostalgia infects her because when she withdraws, her face is redder than before. And we're both on the floor, a compromise, because I want her and she wants the steady wooden boards rocking against her back with me on top of her.

"I told you I was good with the floor," she says minutes later, pulling her sweater across her shoulders, returning to my left hand to scrub ink that refuses to dislodge. I feel like a relic of hers. An ancient artifact sewn into the apartment.

"This," I jar myself free of her and stamp the floor where we’ve just been. "This is the backwards move."

Tabby refuses to look at me. I envy my mother because her sickness is prying the painful memories out of the folds in her brain. And I envy Tabby, because her nature allows her to do the same. I am the only one bound to yesterday. I'll remember every word my mother forgets, and I'll remember every inch Tabby kissed.

"I'm packing tonight, if you want to help." I wave a Sharpie in the air. One I picked up from my mother's apartment last night after we finished the ritual where I reintroduced her to the faces on the wall. She still knows my name, and it's as tangible a thing as the marker to hang onto.

"I'd really stay with you at your mom’s," she offers. "I'll sleep on the floor and we can hold hands."

Tabby's heart is in the right place even though weeks ago she told me she'd taken another girl home and that only for a few moments had been in love with her the way she often said she loved me.

"I'll remind you of better days," she repeats, pretending that she’s capable of expanding out of the moment to be generous to me.

"Just help me load the boxes," I surrender, promising myself I will study the way my mother forgets. I will study, and as long as she knows my name, I will embrace each day with her, fresh.

Written by: Sarah Clayville
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

The Guest

Posted on: February 2, 2016

He’s an unofficial sort of guest; a guest because the only guest on the list is him. He’s alone, separated from the bounding noise vibrating on the highway; separated from the people who apparently wouldn’t understand. We call him Uncle J. Well, he calls himself that. He’s been here awhile. Five months, actually, though he says he used to live here; in childhood. “I was glad to see my old place; the room’s the same, but the clothes have changed thank God!” We laugh as if we’re in on the joke. He changes the subject, his gloved hands motioning calmly as his mint leaf breath wafts towards our chilled nostrils. His breath was always minty. Toothpaste? Gum? “My father was pretty famous…” his eyes search a thick fog for the word he needs. “He taught me how to do it. Everything.” Do what? Who knows. He continues, and a slight smile cracks his fragile lips. “The money, well, the money is good. Whoa good.” He sizes the air with his hands and smiles again, and this time we can see the sense of humor buried in his mixed-up thoughts, like a shining piece of silver in a pile of ashes.

We try to hand him money; he refuses, like always, making mention of the “whoa good” money once again. We smile, letting the whispers of the passersby on the well-traveled trail seep through the halfway woods, sliding across the door of his tent. Uncle J doesn’t care.

“My father was pretty famous,” he says again, “and because of that the famous people knew me.” That part’s true, we find out later. Uncle J isn’t totally unaware. What does he really know? “So, when I talked to the famous people I could tell them how to do it, because he taught me how to do it.” What is it? We laugh again, working to decipher his twisted truth. “I was the only doctor in Hawaii, er, California, and that’s a lot of people.” The doctor part is true, too, apparently. Though that was before he forgot who he was. Or before they forgot who he was. His face softens, his bright eyes conveying either sadness or nostalgia, though over what is not clear. Nothing is with him, but that’s why we talk. He knows something. Maybe not everything, but something.

“I knew when I met you yesterday - that you were right on.” The same smile creeps across his wrinkled face. “I knew, because you just know.” I get the eerie feeling he does, and even if we don’t, we smile too. He breathes a sigh of relief or congestion, and moves on; quickly, like always, though with the impression of having stayed with the exact same thought as before.

That’s when the cops come.

They show their shiny badges as per the usual and ask Uncle J if he’s aware the property is “restricted.”

He nods, asking them if they know how long his father lived there and whether or not they know who he is, all the while keeping his hands to himself and his breath minty fresh. He offers them a piece of gum. Gum. How? Uncle J keeps talking. “It really is great to be back here.” He carries on; he thinks they’re visitors. Just like we are. Like everyone is. They show their shiny badges again and repeat the “restricted area” comment. Uncle J laughs. Not out of scorn. Over something he’s said. He chuckles, sizing the air with his hands “I knew. I knew when I met you guys the other day that you were right on. I knew you’d show.” His eyes are hopeful, staring at something invisible behind the cops as his cracked lips bleed all for the sake of his widening smile. The cops make another pretend effort at their misunderstood jargon, using words like “sir” and mumbling something about property rights. Uncle J dismisses them again.

“I thought I had seen the worst of this place – that was when my father was pretty famous. He was. And I knew the people he knew. They’d say ‘J!’ if they saw me. But that was before. He passed, bless his soul, but I kept in touch with the people. A lot of pe-“

They take out their handcuffs. The game is up. Uncle J’s smile fades, a confused fog seeps over his face. The uniformed homewreckers repeat their words with newfound authority and reach to take his arms. We try to intervene, claiming Uncle J is our relative, our friend; anything to keep this from happening again. They decline less than politely, pulling Uncle J’s arms away from his lower back. He apologizes as tears form in his eyes, coating them in a crystal layer of clarity.

He knows. He knows he’s not home. He knows he’s not supposed to be here. He knows we only pretended to understand. A tear slides down his wrinkled cheek as his serene brown eyes clamor for the truth of his circumstance.

And then he smiles.

He chuckles, revitalized by his fall back into his hazy reality. “Take a picture. Please. Take a picture. I need to show them that I found where my father was. He was pretty famous. He was.” I nod, noting Uncle J’s still minty breath and the sudden change in his eyes. He’s staring past his nylon home into the thin woods as if looking for something. Something he’d lost, or found. Who knows.

The cops shuffle him away. We stand, incredulous. I reach for my phone, snapping a picture just before he yells:

“I knew you were right on. I knew you were.”

Written by: Tyler Wilborn
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll

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