THEY – by Chris Calcara

THEY changed everything that was important to us and to make us forget what THEY had done, THEY put something mysterious in the public water supply. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, people and places and objects that we’d lived with forever were given new names so that we’d no longer have connections to the old ones. By simply eliminating a letter or two and assigning a whole new meaning in Ikipedia, there was to be no association with the ast, only the future, no such sensation anymore as déjà vu (THEY’re just getting to the foreign vocabularies), no reason for emories because they were esterday and all that mattered was tomorrow. We came to know that when something changed, we were about to lose it.

We now occupied a planet called Eart. And not just Eart, but Eart Minor, THEY called it, because THEY’d found another livable planet that THEY named Eart Major. That was to be the next home for all of us once wed completely destroyed Eart Minor. And that day wasn’t far off, THEY told us. We were to blame for everything bad, they said, but THEY would fix it, no hard feelings.

We knew. Those of us for whom the water wasn’t enough knew all of us would not be going. There were at least two people in my building who knew. Me and Barbara. I met her in the basement laundry room, fortuitously alone together. THEY didn’t like any of us alone together but THEY had only so many spies to go around.

It was when she mentioned the color of the water filling the washing machines that I suspected. “Looks like the sea,” she reflected as I slid my trade paper into the pay slot and the cold cryptic liquid began to fill the tub. She emembered that water hadn’t always been this color, that it used to be clear, innocuous, not this Adriatic misty blue, how the ocea looked when the hot sun in the cool sky beat down on it, before it turned brown and became something else. Such a pristine, peaceful shade of blue that made you want to drink it by the gallons, bathe in it twice a day.

I didn’t dare let on that I thought she was different, like me. “Hi, I’m Peter,” I said, extending a hand which she studied warily but didn’t shake. “I’ve not seen you before.”

Her hazel eyes met mine. “I just moved here…” she claimed, eerily evenly. She tossed her load in the dryer and inserted her currency to start the noisy thing tumbling. “From Hiladelphia,” she said louder, to be heard over the rumble. Her hesitation between statements gave her away. She had to stop and think about the newfangled name of the place she came from before she could say it.

“Welcome,” I said, spotting a cute pair of her underpants that had fallen to the floor during the transfer from the washer to the dryer. They were lacy and red. She stooped to pick them up.

She was pretty, didn’t have that empty, emotionless expression so many of us wore when the water had done its erasure job. We got very good at lying, playing dumb, those of us who emembered how to. I imagined her age around my own, but age didn’t apply to people anymore. THEY said chronology didn’t matter since we’d all feel young and peppy again after a while on Eart Major.

She wasn’t wearing a edding ing so I wished she was single like me. People weren’t allowed to arry anymore, arriage being an outdated institution. If you had one, you could stay with a pouse until one of you died, in which case there was no re-arriage, and so symbolic jewelry became obsolete. Pairs of people were frowned upon, any hint of collaboration strongly but tactfully discouraged. Hence, THEIR need for spies. Everywhere.

“Is there anything I can do to help you get settled?” I asked her. “Cuppa sugar? Secret admirer?” I ventured that by displaying a genuine sense of humor, in short supply, she’d know I wasn’t just anybody.

She put it on thick. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then she strolled out of the room with her empty yellow plastic basket and onto the elevator.

“If you’ll give me your apartment number,” I called after her, but the doors slid shut before she could hear me mutter, “I’d be glad to let you know when your laundry’s ready.” Bye.

Our landlady was one of THEIR spies and so it would have done me no good asking her about the recent tenant. There was only one uninhabited mailbox tag: 202. I didn’t want to seem like a total creeper so I let her go for a while, but that number orbited my brain like space debris for days.

#

You didn’t want to venture outside any more than you had to. The air was so glutinous with pollution and the constant odor of factory gases from the smelters and the plants that produced the chemicals for the water, the parts for the ships that soared to Eart Major, and all the provisions that were taken there in preparation for our arrival. Or so THEY told us.

These were the only industries on Eart Minor and if you worked, it was for one of them. Everything else was provided from storehouses of junk, cast-offs and recycles from those who’d already gone (or passed). Nothing was free because THEY didn’t want to strip the workers of self-esteem but everything was cheap. As for food and other commodities, there were places for those, too. Synthetic substitutes took the place of fresh vegetables and fruits, the soil so contaminated with toxic waste from the factories that nothing worth eating would grow in it. Consequently, no one was particularly healthy although workers usually got proper treatment and lived the longest.

I worked for the provision producers so I ate fairly well but had my sights set on space, specifically space travel. Being of somewhat sound mind still, I knew the only way I was going to get to Eart Major was if I were in the space program. An only child, my parents long dead, thank od, because I’d hate for them to see what’s become of this planet, I had no one to care about but myself. That’s how THEY wanted all of us, eventually, alone. And I wasn’t lucky enough to be rich. THOSE folks didn’t have a orry in the orld.

Speaking of od, whomever or whatever od was, it became a lesser being and wasn’t even capitalized when the name appeared in subversive print. No one was more important than THEY. All houses of worship were bulldozed, but despite THEIR vigorous attempts, it was very difficult for THEM to completely jettison od from the collective consciousness. Still, THEY never stopped trying.

I peered through the peephole of 202 and I heard a rustling through the gap at the floor, as if whatever was there was padding around in slippers. Tap t’ tap tap.

“Who’s there?” came the voice of the girl from the laundry room. I recognized it immediately because I still had emory. Memory.

“It’s me,” I whispered, “the laundry guy.”

She left me standing there.

“Are you going to let me in?” I asked.

“No. Go away,” she barked, the curiosity palpable in her voice. “I’m calling the landlord.”

Silence. Then I heard the chain slide on its track as a sliver of light spread between us. “What do you want?” she said, bracing the door tightly with her hands. I noticed her fingernails were polished. Nobody did that anymore. And they, too, were red.

I wedged my sturdy work boot into the fissure and flashed my flirty grin.

She slammed the door on my foot. “Cut the crap.” She had fire, this one, another red flag. With the ecosphere in its present mutant shape, nobody had much fire in their belly anymore, just jelly.

Suddenly, we heard landlady McCaskey downstairs. “Everything all right up there?” she brayed in that sickeningly saccharine tone of hers.

“Everything’s fine,” I said, calmly. “Just bringing mail that was delivered to my box by mistake.” Then I made heavy footfalls toward the elevator and pushed the up button. As the doors closed, I heard the hag retreat into her apartment.

“Please let me in. I won’t hurt you.”

She unshackled the door and opened it little by little. I saw her eyes first, more green than hazel, as if dealing with a madman turned them a shade different from what doing laundry did. And her hair, it was brown, like mine, but a dark, rich coffee color, shiny and clean. Hardly anything was clean and shiny these days. I started into her apartment and she stopped me with an outstretched arm. I smelled what used to be called perfume.

“I didn’t say you could come in,” she protested. “Tell me what you want and then promise me you’ll leave.” A promise was still a promise.

“I want to be your friend.”

Staring at me a moment, her pupils grew beneath flaring lids. Then her gaze darted to the empty hallway around me. “Come in,” she whispered. Her voice was different than it had been in the basement, almost riendly.

We sat across from each other at a little table in the kitchenette, far away from any windows. The blinds were drawn; there wasn’t much to look at on the street, no birds or trees or grass. We hadn’t seen a live flower for years. She asked if I wanted something to drink. I said I could do with a hiskey but she said THEY took her iquor away when she crossed the state line. Iquor wasn’t prohibited since they’d gotten rid of the real thing, closed all the iquor stores. But now it was associated only with iquorice, which didn’t mean much given that if anybody grew it or made it, it went to Eart Major. Besides, candy and sweets were being phased out.

“How did you know?” she asked me.

I didn’t have to answer. She tripped up by talking so openly to a stranger in the first place. “The problem with having memory is remembering what you miss,” I pined, like I was talking to a sychiatrist, “a sympathetic listener” (Ikipedia). “I miss books, history books. What do you miss?”

“I try not to think about those things. It just gets you into trouble, thinking.”

“But you must think about them. How could you not?”

“I miss not having to watch every word I say, of not being afraid of people, THEM,” she said, a look of disdain on her face.

“But we’re all working together to create a better place for ourselves,” I said sarcastically.

“So you don’t believe THEM either,” she accused, not as a question.

“Old lady McCaskey is one of THEM, you know.”

“I wonder if her usband knows.” At that we laughed. It felt good to laugh, especially after having been robotic for so long, pretending we hung on everything THEY said and accepted everything THEY did was for our own good.

“It scares me,” I began, “that we’ve forgotten so much. I haven’t used the water for years but there’s so much I can’t emember, remember.”

“I think I know what you mean,” she said gloomily, her head bowing toward the table, her elegant hands trembling there. I wanted to reach out and caress them but I didn’t, couldn’t, was accustomed to keeping a distance. I just nodded and smiled as warmly as I could, without counterfeiting it. She smiled back. She had a lovely mouth.

We talked quite a bit, and except for a few erstwhile words, comprehended each other. Then she said she had homework to do for her job, designing parts for the spaceship group, the one I wanted to work for. THEY recruited her.

#

My job for the provisioners involved fulfilling purchase orders in the warehouse. Virtually everything there ultimately made its way to the ships for transport to Eart Major. There were factories like Barbara’s and mine all over the country, and probably the orld, if the rest of it was still out there. THEY didn’t want us to be concerned with anything but ourselves and our jobs so we weren’t sure. Those of us who’d been converted didn’t care.

I longed to see Barbara again, but I worked nights and had to wait until the weekend. THEY were yet in the process of altering time perception and so it seemed like an eternity. I’d gone to her apartment and the laundry room but she wasn’t in either place so I sat outside on the steps and waited for her. Through the smog I saw her walking home carrying a bulging bag. Only those executives with the producers and the ship builders had cars. THEY told us cars were dangerous death traps and that we were lucky not to have to use them. There was safer public transportation for us. In truth, none of us could afford a car even if THEY let us have one.

Barbara and I said hello to each other, everybody was courteous, another side effect of the water. Happy-go-lucky Mr. McCaskey was in the lobby, replacing bulbs in the light fixtures. (They were the same brand as the ones my employer manufactured. By now, there was generally only one brand of every necessary thing.)  From atop the ladder he waved at us with his free hand and shot us a lecherous wink that seemed to hypothesize that Barbara and I were lovers. Nobody, not even THEM, had a problem with sex between consenting adults. It was the only selfish pleasure we had left, and THEY wanted to keep us contented, albeit not barefoot and regnant. Women couldn’t have babies anymore so regnation (i.e., overcrowding of Eart Major) wasn’t an issue.

She invited me into her apartment and offered me a hiskey. I wasn’t surprised that she had contraband. I had a refrigerator full of meat meant for space. But I wondered why she didn’t share it with me on my first visit.

“I didn’t trust you then,” she confided.

“And now you do?” I watched her take the staples from the sack and there wasn’t one decent edible among them. “You know what would go great with this hiskey?” I said. “Two choice T-bones.” Barbara’s eyes went green again and she licked her luscious lips.

That night we had dinner by candlelight. It wasn’t meant to be romantic, THEY imposed a universal curfew and an energy embargo – all lamps out after nine pm. Afterwards, we sat close together on the couch and talked quietly. At one point, Barbara began to cry. I put my arm around her and drew her cheek to my chest. Her hair smelled better than anything. I wanted to kiss her. It was months since I’d been with a woman and that was a girl from work, so daft with the water which she drank by the buckets that I didn’t enjoy her at all.

“What do you think’s going to happen to us?” Barbara said softly, wiping away her tears with the collar of my shirt. I didn’t want to tell her, yet, what I believed. “Who do you think’s behind it?”

“You can bet the one percent have their hands in it. Who else can afford it?” They were the only ones allowed to vote and come and go as they pleased. They couldn’t own cars either but they always got where they needed to go and not by subway, bus or beat-up bike.

I thought a regular date might cheer her up so I suggested we go to a movie. THEY didn’t take away the multiplexes (though they’d fallen into disrepair) and these only played apocalyptic films so we’d be entertained by the horrific destruction of other civilizations and not think we had it so bad. Everyone, it seemed, was in on the gag. They didn’t know what Barbara and I knew. And we wondered how many others like us there were and where would we find them. In the dark of the theater, we speculated about the people seated around us. The man across the aisle jumped out of his seat every time something blew up on the screen. We guessed he must be one of us because people just didn’t react strongly to things nowadays. In the dark, he was safe. I spotted a skinny woman not eating her popcorn. If you paid for it, you ate it. Food was something you didn’t waste. “Maybe she’s going to take it home to her kids,” Barbara conjectured. “Maybe,” I said, though true generosity and thoughtfulness had gone-by-the-wayside here on Eart Minor.

Love still existed. THEY didn’t seem to have a problem with love. But you loved THEM for what THEY did for you. And you had a feeling akin to love for other people, that came with the water, unless you found a person who displayed dubious traits, like the man and the woman in the theatre. You turned in people like them, like Barbara and me.

We made our way home through the dense murk and at her apartment door, Barbara let me kiss her. Both of us felt something we liked and understood and we wanted to take it further. I spent the night and she made breakfast for us in the morning. I’d brought her a half dozen eggs from my stash. The yolks were green but they still tasted like eggs. We took for granted THEY put stuff in our food, too, but we had to eat to stay alive. I’m positive THEY were working on a cut-rate replacement for food. I heard things on my job.

I know sex with Barbara was good but the emory of it didn’t linger, probably because of the eggs, which did linger in the form of indigestion. Sex was just something you savored in the moment. Thank od, there were still such moments to be had. You never knew what THEY were going to take away next. Through it all, however, was THEIR constant crowing, plastered on billboards, on all the transportation vehicles, everywhere: “Eart Major – SOON,” three words superimposed over spectacular terrestrial vistas such as we’d never seen. Nobody could wait to get there: “Eaven on Eart.”

And like I said, I didn’t think THEY were taking everybody. Even with all THEIR reduction methods, there probably were millions of us left. It just wasn’t logical. Barbara said her plant completed only two or three ships a year and they accommodated on average 30 or 40 people at best. Multiply those numbers by all the largest cities that fabricated spacecraft and only a fraction of us were covered. No, the ships were meant for THEM and what became of us was of no consequence. My theory made sense to Barbara but to her way of increasingly deluded thinking, there was nothing we could do about it and as long as THEY met our basic needs, why should we try? I became deeply concerned that Barbara was falling victim to THEIR conspiracy. She was a little more docile and dopey every day. I don’t know how she functioned at work but at home, she scared me.

“Eat only what I give you,” I warned her, “and stay away from the water.”

“But I’ve got to bathe,” she insisted.

Stop it,” I ordered.

She smiled, which really scared me. Usually, people, normal people, are taken aback when you yell at them. I took her by the shoulders and shook her, which caused her to be sick to her stomach. After vomiting, she was almost Barbara again.

“Don’t you want to be yourself?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure I know who that is anymore,” she said, welling up, which gave me hope. Where there’s doubt, there’s hope.

It took a few weeks but Barbara became more affectionate with me, even admitted she was falling in love. And it wasn’t THEIR kind of love. This delighted me because I’d already fallen for her that night at the movies. Finally, I felt completely at ease, enough to share my plan with her.

It was during dinner at my place. I’d scored a couple pork chops from the meat division. (We had no idea pigs were processed anywhere until we unloaded a ton of pork on the dock.) “Do you think you could get me on at the ship works?” I asked nonchalantly. I must have sounded like the sleepwalkers because everyone had that blasé way of speaking, even while life as we knew it was going to ell in a handbasket.

“What?” she twisted her head and mouth like a dog trying to cognize its master. (Pets were extinct but I had one as a child – The name Spot comes to mind, or it could have been Sport.) “Why on Eart would you want to do that?”

“If I worked there, I could observe how THEY do things, see if there’s a way we could get passage on one of the ships, before it’s too late.”

“Peter, you can’t be serious.” She stared intently at me for a second. “You are serious, aren’t you?”

“I’ve heard that people, people like us, have gotten themselves on the list. I’ve even heard of runaways.”

“I’ve heard those stories too, and that’s all they are, Peter, stories to frighten us, keep us in our place…There’s never a happy ending.”

I took her in my arms. “I’ve finally found someone I want to spend the rest of my life with. Don’t you feel that way about me, Barbara?”

She started to pull away but I held her tighter.

“Tell me you don’t feel that way too, and I’ll give up the idea.”

She was quiet, turned toward the window, to the sinister stillness outside, the building across the street obscured by the ever-present gritty haze, the dull gray sky exhausted of clouds. Where were THEY getting the water? “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

#

My boss wasn’t keen to let me go but THEY wanted you to contribute where you were most useful to THEIR cause and he concurred I was wasted filling orders. Before THEY transferred me, I had to complete a written assessment of my intelligence, undergo a test of my motor skills, and sit through a lengthy interview that manipulated me into saying a heap of words and names that had been changed to determine the degree to which I’d been converted. One question asked me to clarify my relationship to Barbara, since she referred me, and another, why do you want to work here? If I were anybody else, I could not lie. (Whatever they put in the water, it included a truth serum.) “Barbara’s a neighbor of mine.” That wasn’t a lie, but it told only an element of truth. “I want to get to Eart Major.” That wasn’t a lie either. Everybody wanted that.

I also underwent a complete physical during which THEY analyzed my body fluids and circulatory system to make sure I’d ingested enough chemical blue water to be immobilized emotionally. I drank liters of the tasteless crap before the examination and then voided through every orifice afterwards. It took several days of fasting and consuming only those allegedly “pure” foods I’d stockpiled for the effects to wear off.

I was put on the night shift and the plan was that during a 45-minute break, I’d join Barbara at the empty front office. She had unlimited access to the building but, once inside, only to her work area. We decided to tackle finding “the list” first. We knew there was one because she had overheard her bosses discussing how outraged THEY were that an underling had made the list and was scheduled on an earlier flight to Eart Major than THEY were. And we thought if there were people we knew on the list, they could help us to get our names there.

As only part of the operation functioned at night, there were fewer supervisors on duty and THEY stuck close to THEIR operatives. Entry into the office was with fingerprint authorization through a biometric scanner. It was an antiquated system but less expensive than the more advanced alternatives. THEY assumed that we drones were frankly not capable of sabotaging THEIR methods, what with all the pre-screening and of course, the water. Even so, it wasn’t an easy scheme to fool. Fingerprints couldn’t be faked, guessed, misplaced or most importantly, forgotten.

And, of course, there was a security camera trained on the scanner which required a password to be keyed in conjunction with the fingerprint. The camera was less of a problem than the fingerprint, password and scanner so we began with the fingerprint. Barbara often worked with warm wax to create prototypes that her superiors handled to study. We took a clear print and coated it with silicon gel to get a textured impression that we could place over one of our own fingers.

Securing the password was a piece of ake for a woman of Barbara’s charms. And instead of disabling the camera, she distracted the security guard long enough to freeze its crude monitor image of the scanner when no one was around it.

Once in the office, we commandeered the mainframe. Barbara keyed her boss’s password that not only got us into the ship parts design and inventory systems (which Barbara had access to with her own credentials) but also into other components of the operation like budgeting, tabulations, provisioning and scheduling. We learned the next ship from our region was set to launch in a matter of weeks but had no clue as to who was chosen to be aboard. At this point, Barbara and I were we and everyone else was THEY.

We performed this same procedure on three non-consecutive nights and got nowhere. There were no paper files or trails to follow; THEY were too shrewd for that. And though we presumed there were others like us on the inside, we trusted no one enough to solicit their in- or output. Disheartened, we gave up our search for the list as a means of resolving our dilemma and focused on the ships themselves since between the two of us, we had entrée to every technical detail.

Meanwhile, our shared storehouse of unadulterated food was depleting. Water for industrial use wasn’t treated and I’d been draining the apartment building boilers for years. If caught, it would not be long before we’d be forced to swallow THEIR poison. Barbara had been cheating all along and it was showing in her behavior.

“I’m not so sure this isn’t a waste of time,” she said to me in a disturbingly lackadaisical timbre. “Even if they can’t take everybody, why would they not want us? We’re essential to the program.”

“We’re essential now,” I explained, “but think ahead, Barbara, when that last ship takes off with that last passenger. How essential are we then?”

“But THEY’ll need us in the new orld for their next journey.”

I was losing her again, could feel her slipping away. “There isn’t going to be another journey, Barbara. Without children, what would be the point?”

As the atmosphere and conditions grew more intolerable, THEY maintained THEIR cheerful attitude while people remained oblivious, grew even more self-assured and satisfied with the status quo. In place of her usual unctuous greeting whenever we crossed her path, our landlady began to sing to us, “It won’t be long now.” I wanted to grenade that perpetual smirk off her fat, ugly face.

With my ast experience in provisioning, and my excellent scores on THEIR math and geometry quizzes, I quickly advanced to a job in which I diagrammed the configurations of ship holds to contain whatever a particular rocket was built to carry without an inch of wasted storage space. It became my private plot to include an area for Barbara and me on a “perishables” ship slated for liftoff. It would carry foodstuffs and anything else that required a constant temperature, air and real water to survive the long trip.

Though we continued to have the occasional meal and agreeable sex together, Barbara and I saw less of each other during this time because I didn’t insinuate her into the latest intrigue. When the ship was completed and trucked off to its launching pad, she and I would disappear, along with a couple pressurized spacesuits. Beyond this strategy, my thinking was muddy. (I’d begun to eat the food Barbara bought, though we both continued to drink and wash only with the boiler water.)

I started itemizing all the other things we might need up there: a book or two would be nice when we grew bored with floating inter-galactically; music to lull us if the gravitational laws of physics made us ill; writing instruments and paper on which to journal our notable reflections (for whom and why I had no clue)…Until later, in more lucid moments, when the concept of cooperation dawned on me during shards of brainwaves, that the crew and passengers would not necessarily be riendly towards us, being stowaways and all. I suppose I never committed the word to emory because I didn’t see how it was possible. And with the current state of affairs, the urgency, you didn’t waste time or thought or ink on the impossible. So it faded, like other things began to fade. I no longer emembered my mother and father, if I had sisters or brothers. I lost the image of Pot (or Port) and didn’t ecall what it was that had the name (or other name).

Then the boiler water turned blue. I guessed that Mr. McCaskey was in on it after all.

# # #

face

Having lived in inspirational states with slogans like “Where America Goes to Die” and “Hook up for Free at One of Our Lovely Trailer Parks,” Chris Calcara currently writes from “Missouri: Loves Company!” To date, his short stories have been published by the Sandlapper Society, Ash & Bones and The Good Men Project. He’s authored full-length plays and novels, the latest of which tells the story of an impressionable Midwestern Catholic Italian choirboy who grows into a mob-worthy assassin in order to avenge two ‘70s high school nemeses ─ a bullying classmate and their abusive educator cleric ─ 30 years later. Squealer is a comedic YA/adult thriller seeking its antagonist (and a publisher).

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This is Not for You – by Haley Z. Boston

This place might remind you of a newly deceased doe, pregnant, on the side of the road, bleeding out, neck snapped. Steaming. Dead eyes. Baby still alive inside, waiting to be muscle-contracted out into the hellscape, oozing, oozing with terror and inherited trauma. Trauma of headlights and wandering uncovered, dark, lonely, tufted, spawned, thrust. Baby’s still alive, little giblets racing. Fawn? A fawn? Doe, a deer, a female deer. Hum it. Now you’re humming it. That’s what this party is like.

What would you do if you witnessed a murder?

That’s a good opening line.

A guy comes up to Duke at the bar and asks her that.

It’s two forty-seven. In the morning. This warehouse is empty but full. Horny and pulsating. Spindly-armed and tone-deaf. A cavernous space, all beams and cement and windows painted white, painted shut, things that used to be doors now gluey in all their crevasses, history removed by sludgy toxins.

Duke’s ordering water. It’s four dollars. The guy who said the opening line looks like a cherry tree. But sweaty. Tall. Knotty. Not naughty. Knotty. He’s wearing a mesh shirt. He’s very thirsty. He stares at Duke’s water, sweating. Who’s sweating? Him, or the water? They’re both sweating. He wants to lick the plastic, oh, he wants to bite it, clear through, imbibe the water through puncture wounds.

He’s not really thinking this.

Duke is.

Duke is imagining Cherry Tree pricking her bottle with his teeth and scaling his tongue along the paper and desperately licking the condensation until it bursts into his mouth. Duke’s thirsty, too. She’s looking for someone to suck dry. She can tell by his eclipse eyes that he’s on something dangerous.

She stares at him. He blinks one time too many.

“So, uh, what would you do if you overheard a murder?”

“Join in.”

Duke walks away, out of the crowd, toward more crowd.

She notices a girl. The girl’s name is Grxce. It’s pronounced “Grace.” I’m sorry. That’s just how it is. Duke knows Grxce, but thinks her name is Lauren. She remembers her as Lauren. A fair-haired Lauren. A Lauren who was Good and Wholesome, who grew up in an adjacent suburb, whose family had more money, more worth, more kids, more sanctity, less inclination toward raves, less smudgy eye-shadow, fewer thoughts of stolen street signs, fewer C’s in Calculus, fewer flasks snuck into school dances. She didn’t look Good or Wholesome now. She looked stringy and lopsided. She looked like a black hole, but Duke was the black hole, prepared to entangle someone in her vortex, prepared to lick teeth, prepared to be all-consuming. Lauren is wearing a plastic crop-top and a clairvoyant expression. She looks like a painting.

Duke gets a text.

Oh. But. Not. Just. Any. Text!!!!

She has a burner phone because she’s lazy. And a drug dealer.

She gets a text. And because she has a burner phone because she’s lazy and a drug dealer, it’s like a stick of dynamite vibrating in between her pants and her hipbone. She gets a text and it shakes the whole goddamn building.

Oh, but not just any text.

A text from The One.

You know The One. The One whose cologne sometimes sneaks into your brain cavities, stabbing you in the insides, some French name, some lower-case cursive, a lick on your wrist from that Friday when you finally stole a spritz on your way out, that you’ll somehow never be able to wash off, so intrusive it only takes a stranger to walk past, and you’re in a grocery store aisle staring at the ground beef, the raw chicken, and suddenly it’s over, French-name, long hair, knife twist in the ribs. The One who left a holey tube sock in your bed one December and never came back for it. The One who once nose-bled on your white bathmat, and you didn’t even try to get the blood out, in fact, you rubbed it in deeper, and now you have this iron splotch on your bathmat and it reminds you of the time you saw your first dead body on a train track from your youth, it reminds you of the time your lover made you nectar margaritas and you sipped them on a pool deck in the dead of winter, and you think about getting a new bathmat, maybe this time not a white one, but you’ll keep finding reasons not to do that. You know The One. The One who reappears in dreams to undress, or say hello, but always ends up curb-stomping you outside your childhood home, splitting your jaw, cracking your teeth open.

You know The Ones that earth-shatter. The earth-shatter-ers.

The name buzzes four times on Duke’s phone.

DO NOT TEXT (4).

Duke has a burner phone, so it looks like this, unfortunately.

([Redacted] has an iPhone, so it’s also unfortunate for [Redacted] because her convo with Duke is vomit-inducing, status-rejecting, holy isolation green)

 

heard u were in la. 

i need T. 

800 Mercy. 

pay u bigtime

 

Duke doesn’t make house calls.

Well, she does.

Well.

She used to.

But not normally like this. Normally, in Bel Aire, normally in the Hollywoodland Hills, normally to those uppity bitchy witches with loose septums, model boys with bulimia, Beverley Hills houses with murdery histories, with things-we-don’t-ask, with boyfriends and girlfriends and sleazy happy rich dicks with sleazy happy trigger fingers.

Duke’s fucked up, also. That’s why she can’t think straight.

Her phone buzzes.

 

DO NOT TEXT (2).

do u still have a burner? hey.

FaceTime me dukey!!!!

 

Duke wants to puke.

Her heart also wants to tie a noose around itself. Her organs twitch. Her fingers jitter. Love says, isn’t this exciting! Isn’t this dope! Aren’t you addicted! Yes. Say it with me. YES. YES YES. You could quit anytime, though. So, for now, just this once, let love cum all over you. Sorry, come I meant come. Let the tar cum into your lungs. Tar is fun. Fun fun tar tar. It sucks you in and it traps you in the funhouse. The laugh palace. The madness.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. bUzZ. BuZz.

BUZZ.

 

you do still have a burner

loser

sorry i didn’t mean that

ur not a loser

just a drug dealer

am I allowed to say that

duke

i’m dying

ur in la tho right?

 

Oh, god, Duke thinks. This is the end of the world, actually.

Well, if she were other people maybe it wouldn’t be.

If she were people who listened to other people maybe it wouldn’t be.

But she’s not those people. She doesn’t listen and her thoughts are never end-stopped, and she’s blurry-eyed and just dying to slice a jugular open right out on the dance floor. Neck-snapped, oh, to be neck-snapped, twitching. Doe, a deer, a female deer.

She calls her ride-or-die, a girl named Trixie. Trixie is awake and says, hey, there’s a high-speed chase on channel seven. Duke says, do you remember Lauren? Lauren LeRoy. Lauren Loftus. Lauren Whats-Her-Face. I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. I saw her earlier, wearing a clear crop-top and blowing a yellow lollipop.

Trixie says, no. She doesn’t remember a girl named Lauren LeRoy or Loftus or LeCroix or Whatever. She doesn’t remember a girl with self-cut bangs and boney wrists standing zombified in a corner with other translucent-skinned artsaints.

“Well, Lauren’s from Wisconsin and now she’s here, chewing Trident or Orbit or, hopefully, a piece of someone’s tendon.”

“Oh, I remember her.” Trixie remembers her now. Slutty and grotesque. She used to chase cherubic boys around the soccerfield at dawn.

Duke leaves one crowd of messy, sloppy, slackening people. People glistening. People shouldn’t glisten, Duke thinks. It makes them seem like they’re slathered in butter. Like they should be rolled in a dinner roll. They shouldn’t be hyped up on amphetamines. They should be licked until their skin is raw. Salty. She goes to another crowd of messy, sloppy, slackening people. It looks like the same crowd. Feels like the same crowd. You could keep doing that, Duke thinks. You could spend your whole life walking into new rooms that feel like old rooms.

Duke zeroes in on Lauren, all bones and legs, rattling around, looking like a human bodybag, dancing in a circle. Duke cocks her head to the side, sizes up Lauren’s muscles, counts her ribs, notes the rosy spots, the places where her skin thins, the beat of her pulse, superfast. She says, “but, I don’t think she’s slutty or grotesque.”

Trixie says, I said bloody. B-L-O-O-D-Y Bloody. Remember she used to get nosebleeds – Duke is thrown off, by the way, at the mere mention of nosebleeds, as if nosebleeds were not universal, as if only [Redacted] got them, sitting up in bed smoking something, bleeding and being apathetic, letting it come so close to falling on the white bedspread, and Duke would think, how how how could you not care, how could you sit like that and beg to be touched but then shift away, how could you wait until the last second, wait until the blood has pooled above your upper lip, wait until I lean in to lick it off, and then you reach your wrist up and wipe it, and you get up and you say, what? Why are you looking at me like that? – Coke habit? Diet coke? Coca Cola? Sniff sniff. Don’t tell me it’s dehydration. And, by the way, you do think she’s grotesque. You started that.

Duke’s like, oh, yeah. Hey, where are you?

Trixie’s sick of holding her phone and wants to hang up. “I told you. A Toyota Camry’s fucking some cruisers in the ass. Channel seven.”

Then she adds, “By the way. Lauren’s right-side-of-the-tracks, Dukie. She took her pills and crossed her eyes and dotted her ttttttttttt’s. She sucks dick and eats pizza like all those other frauds.”

Okay, Duke says. She’s hyperventilating now. She says, “Look. [Redacted] just texted me.”

Trixie says, J E S U S C H R I S T DUKE. Fuck me with a meatball sub, Duke!

Then, she says, send me a screenshot.

But Duke can’t. She has a flip phone.

Fine, Trixie says. Then verbalize me a screenshot.

Duke tells Trixie what [Redacted] texted.

“Don’t text back,” Trixie says. “Then you’ll fall down the spiral staircase again.”

But Duke needs T, and she needs to find a way to get T, and she needs much more than that, a hug, for instance, the lingering touch of manicured nails against her wrist, a ninety-nine cent Slurpee, a kiss from just-the-right-person, at just-the-right-time, in just-the-right-driveway, but mostly T, mostly that, and she’s going to have to get it the hard way.

Before you do that, Trixie says, turn around.

Trixie’s standing there.

Great.

Duke goes up to her and points at Lauren.

“I left my high speed chase for this?”

Duke responds to [Redacted]. She texts back, “hi.” Then, she throws her phone across the room. Down the spiral staircase, Trixie says. Off you go.

“You’re bad at this,” Trixie says as she snaps black surgical gloves over her ring-laden hands, “What drug dealer runs out of T? You know, everyone could avoid everything if they didn’t fuck that one person they shouldn’t have fucked. Look, you’re head-first in a garbage disposal with shards of glass at the bottom. The world would be butterflies. You know. Less of a trash-fire. Oh, look at your fingernails. They’re gross and long. Duke. Use protection.”

Well, yeah, trash-fires, Duke says, preferring not to wear surgical gloves. The rubber takes away from the feeling.

Of.

Manual strangulation.

But, Trixie points out, increases the chance of disease. So, what. Take me, disease me, I’m dying at an unimaginable rate anyway, okay, we all are. Jesus, don’t be so morbid.

#

It’s three-thirty-ish in the morning when Duke and Trixie drag Lauren’s body back to Trixie’s friend’s apartment. Trixie’s friend is named 425. That’s an area-code. Trixie doesn’t remember his name and he never says it outloud but that’s his phone number. 425 something something something. Duke prefers to call him Just Outside of Seattle. Jos. People who are from just outside of cities say they’re from the city. They’re not.

Lauren’s alive but not conscious.

Jos lets them in. He’s pale and skinny and, of all the people Duke knows, he tried the hardest to take his Gov-regulated pills during puberty. He’d spent a lot of time vomiting little blue tablets in boys’ bathrooms and forcing rare hamburger patties down his throat, and he tried to crave female lips and hips and pelvic bones. He still has the pills. He still sometimes takes them, when he’s too drunk to see straight. They make him nauseous, make him shutter, make him hot, then cold, then hot again. And, he used to rule the suburban Illinois underground scene. He was kingpin. Used to farm farm boys for parts. Used to manufacture the best T, sell the freshest heroin-laced blood, the best weed, extracted straight from stoner piss, and even milked a few sick LSD strains from teenaged spinal fluid.

He’s dating a junkie named Needle. Needle will assure you his name is because of Space, not hypodermic. He doesn’t go by Space because that’s dumb.

Jos and Needle drink homemade cocktails. He apologizes, he can’t offer any to the ladies. You know, three drunk guys died tonight in a high-speed chase. Lot of spilled blood. Wish we’d been there. Oh! Trixie says, hey. I watched that. Damn. She tuned out just before the concrete-smashing, skull-breaking part. But, that unconscious girl, uh, let’s crack her open. Duke has a special talent.

They lay Lauren down on the couch. Duke uses a safety-pin to puncture a hole in Lauren’s neck. Just a little. A tiny stream of blood spits out of the hole. Duke licks it, and then sucks out more. She feels Lauren’s slow pulse against her tongue. 0.25 BAC, she says. Give or take. Then, it hits her. Bitter, sour. Something else.

She checks Lauren’s arms. Track marks. Fresh. On both arms. Trixie dies laughing. Oh, Duke, you said you quit. Oh, Duke. Relapse in five, four, three, two.

One.

The earth shakes. Five tremors in rapid succession.

 

DO NOT TEXT (5).

Hey

How u?

T???????

i’ll do ANYTHING

😉

 

Duke backs off, stumbles a little. Her whole head hot, trapped, swampy. Trixie makes larger incisions in Lauren’s track marks and takes a greedy mouthful. Watch it, Duke says. You’ll kill her. Trixie flashes a smile, teeth stained red. Baby, she says, it’s like really nice. Top shelf. A hug for your poor poor heart. More, take more.

I just want the T, Duke says.

Trixie pouts. What a waste of a whole, beating-heart human. We thought she was Wholesome. Turns out, she’s a druggie. But isn’t that how it always goes, huh, Duke?

I wanted Wholesome, Duke says.

OH WHY DUKE?? Because [Redacted] prefers un-tainted T? Cavity-free? Calcium rich? Good-girl T. Baby T. Milky Milky. Duke. Promise me you.

Won’t.

Fall. Into.

The. Trap.

T O O

L A T E.

 

DO NOT TEXT (4).

I didn’t mean it like that

i meant I’ll TAKE anything

not DO

??? duke answer me srsly

 

Jos says he might have female T. Somewhere. But it’s old. He disappears to look for it. Needle eyes Lauren.

“You can’t even get good T that fresh. Needs to be dehydrated.”

“We know,” Duke fires back.

This is good, Trixie says. Give [Redacted] old T. Sell it for, uh, a lot. We can keep this girl to ourselves.

I think fresh T is still good, Duke says, and tenderly pushes Lauren’s lower lip down, running her finger along Lauren’s bottom teeth, silky, well-brushed, might not even bleed if you tried to floss them.

Needle shakes his head. Nah, that’s like a green banana.

Yeah, Duke, Trixie adds. Green banana. Hard and plant-like. Slimy. Gag. Not even good in a smoothie.

When’s the last time you had a banana.

Who cares, Duke. It was before.

Duke feels ill. Ill and shaky and jittery. Must be from the blood. Must be from the texts. Must be from the impending doom and ecstasy of seeing [Redacted] again after months of bone-souring nothingness. Sometimes she imagines how slippery, shiny, magical the taste of [Redacted]’s intraocular fluid would be – you could just stick a needle at the surface of the eye, don’t touch the baby blues, don’t blind her, just taste it, cross my heart and hope to die.

Jos has pliers. Trixie prefers to use a hammer. Duke doesn’t let her.

Duke moves Lauren so her head is hanging off the bed. She has a bump forming on the side of her skull, from where Trixie slammed her against the bathroom sink. Jesus. Duke had stood back, hands shaking, but not from the violence, no, from the hangnail-tearing feeling of being sucked back into [Redacted]’s all-consuming orbit. Trixie had let Lauren fall to the ground with a thump. Lauren blinked once before slipping away. Duke felt a rush, something almost orgasmic, from watching Lauren lose consciousness. There’s something tingly about it. You could get high off that alone. And Duke has been starving lately. She cramps herself between the foot of the couch and the coffee table, opens Lauren’s mouth and gets a good grip on her jaw.

Wait, Jos says. He disappears.

Duke doesn’t wait.

She grips a back molar, the richer kind, pulpier, better for swallowing, better for injecting. She slams her fist against the steady plier and the tooth tears from its socket. Careful, Needle says. You won’t get the root that way.

Fuck off, Trixie says. She knows what she’s doing. Trixie beats the head of her hammer against her palm. Duke, she says, I want to take a swing.

Duke keeps ripping teeth out, dropping them into a clean ashtray. “No,” she says. “You’ll smash them.”

Oh, precious. Precious T. Trixie drops the hammer, and she sidles up next to Lauren, swallowing more heroin-infused blood, listening to Lauren’s pulse and tapping the rhythm gently against her exposed ribcage. You know, Duke says, you can get sick from that.

Tell me about it, baby. Trixie keeps drinking.

Jos returns with safety goggles. Duke’s hand slips and the force knocks Lauren’s jaw sideways, a satisfying crunch, a snap of the tendons. Oh. Duke and Trixie both salivate. Fuck, Trixie says. Can’t we just kill her. I’m starving.

Duke drops the pliers, sets her hands firmly on either side of the hanging, floppy jaw. She snaps it back into place. There. She keeps going. Needle winces, massages his own jaw out of sympathy or something similar.

Okay, Jos says.

Okay, Needle says and slips down the hall, into the depths of the apartment, presumably toward a bedroom. Jos follows.

Bleach is under the sink. Don’t scuff my floors, Trix. Goodnight, morning, whatever.

Duke finishes extracting the teeth, sweating, nauseous, suddenly head-pulsing high. Aren’t you forgetting something? Trixie drops Lauren’s arm and re-positions her. She straddles the girl. Uh, scalpel.

What?

Scalpel. Trixie motions behind Duke. Duke hands her a Swiss Army knife. Trixie slices into Lauren’s gums.

Duke’s phone seizes on the coffee table, quaking the whole apartment, shaking Duke’s insides, all of them.

DO NOT TEXT 

is calling.

Duke gets up and stumble-sprints to what she thinks is a bathroom but really is a nursery. She vomits watery blood, but not her blood, Lauren’s blood, into the child’s room and Trixie laughs and Duke clutches the doorframe and tries not to make eye-contact with the toddler staring back at her.

“What the fuck. Your dealers have a baby?”

“What’s wrong with that, Duke?”

“Nothing, it’s just–”

She pukes again and Trixie rolls her eyes, appearing behind Duke, somehow always appearing behind Duke. She pokes Duke’s ribs. Duke, look. Duke. Duke heaves and Trixie shoves three sparkling, slick-with-spit, speckled with gum-bits wisdom teeth in Duke’s face. Take one, Dukie Duke. Take one.

Duke swallows a wisdom tooth and so does Trixie and she presses the third one into Duke’s palm and whispers, for [Redacted], even though I don’t support it, and Duke wipes her mouth with her shirt, and the baby just maintains a cold-faced stare, unfazed by the two strange women in its doorway.

“Cute,” Trixie says, motioning to the baby. “Duke, look at the baby. Hi, sweetie. Hi cutie.” Trixie waves at the thing.

Duke can’t look and she also can’t move. “You’re not supposed to look them in the eye.”

“That’s big dogs. Not babies.”

“I’m afraid of both.”

“Apologize to the baby, Duke.”

“I’m sorry.”

She closes the door and stumbles into the living room. Lauren’s heavily bleeding from the mouth, bloody spit pooling on the white leather couch. Duke’s phone continues to vibrate on the coffee table. DO NOT TEXT. DO NOT TEXT. DO NOT TEXT. If you don’t answer it, I will.

Duke answers it and hangs up. It stops buzzing. A second of silence. Then, she texts, “I’m coming.”

DO NOT TEXT (1).

cool.

Lauren starts choking on her own blood. Gurgles. Toothless mouth agape. Duke pulls Lauren onto her side, and a river of blood and saliva snakes down Lauren’s cheek, her perfectly-aligned jaw, her neck, some of it falling down her chest, her cleavage.

Duke washes and dries the teeth, then organizes them by kind – incisor, canine, premolar, molar. She separates them into their own baggies. They’ll have to be taken like pills. They’re not dry enough to crush and snort. You know, children’s teeth are the purest, most potent, least affected by caffeine and night-grinding and lockjaw.

Trixie scoots Lauren’s feet over and slides onto the couch, rocking the baby on her lap, looking for car chases on local news, petting the baby’s golden hair. Duke avoids eye-contact.

“I’m not gonna kill a baby, Duke. Besides. This baby hardly has teeth. It’s a joke, Duke. It’s a joke.”

“Ok, ok, I’m leaving.”

#

Duke somehow survives a winding drive through the Hollywoodland Hills and ends up stationed a few turns up the canyon from [Redacted]’s house. She’s been there for twenty-three minutes. She’s had fifteen and a half imaginary conversations with [Redacted] and most of them go like this:

 

DUKE: I think. There are worlds of people who wouldn’t notice you or care that you exist.

[REDACTED]: Okay.

DUKE: Anyway here are your drugs.

 

But this next one Duke thinks is the most poetic option:

 

DUKE: I’m running. And I’m running. And running. And you turn off the treadmill. And I slam into the little flashing numbers. And I don’t think it’s fair.

[REDACTED]: The numbers wouldn’t be flashing if it was turned off. Also when’s the last time you went running.

In this version [Redacted] takes a drag from her cigarette, which is hand-rolled, and it’s made from the cremated ashes of a girl who jumped off a cliff near Mullholland.

 

The next one Duke thinks is the most favorable option, the most romantic:

 

[REDACTED]: It’s not my fault that my mere existence hurdles you into an endless time-space continuum of pain and suffering, feelings of being lost in an unknown forest, feelings of organs ballroom dancing inside of you. You know. I’ve felt that way, too. But not about you.

DUKE: It would be so like you to say something like that.

In this version [Redacted] shrugs after Duke says that, and looks ugly.

DUKE: It would be so like you to do something like that.

 

The next one Duke doesn’t even imagine because it would be too bone-breaking, stomach-churning, hydrochloric-acid-in-the-eyes burning to even think about, but it’s necessary to include:

 

[REDACTED]: You yanked teeth out for me.

DUKE: Yes.

[REDACTED]: I love you.

 

Duke walks out of the car feeling like a newly born deer on jello legs. She rounds the bend feeling like a juggling stilt-walker with vertigo, and she goes up to [Redacted]’s front door feeling like a sixteen-year-old girl who just pierced her own bellybutton and now can’t really see or hear, some kind of darkness enclosing like marshmallow fluff, some kind of existential heatstroke. She forgot to check what she looked like in the rearview. Her mascara might be smudged, her eyes might be spidery, she might have dried blood on her chin, and she doesn’t know if that would turn [Redacted] on or disgust her.

The lights are on.

Duke texts [Redacted] and says, “I’m here,” and she waits four and a half minutes, but there’s no response. She presses on the door handle, feeling its grooves, like a language forgotten, a door handle that is foreign now, that could be any door handle on any door, in any home furnishing store, and not one that has a certain nick on the base, not one unseasonably warm, not one that makes Duke feel like hot lava is dripping down her back, her thighs, not one that brings with it a mad tingling behind the eyes. She turns the knob and goes inside.

Oh, god, this foyer. Duke takes a light step, her heart pounding, expecting [Redacted]’s blind dog to come lumbering, barking, narrowing its cataract eyes at Duke, the loved-one, Duke, the intruder. Duke, where have you been? You used to come here. But, the dog doesn’t lumber.

She starts up the spiral staircase, touches the icy metal, each step feeling further from the last, and yet, after one complete rotation, she can’t remember how she got there. When she looks back, it’s like a blackout. When she looks back, all she sees are more steps up, snaking around blind turns, curved like an isolated hipbone, a ribcage bulging, two fingers pressed together, motioning, come here, come here.

Duke reaches the top of the stairs. And then, there’s a laugh. A laugh that melts Duke’s skin off, cinches her veins, pulverizes her esophagus, jams an icepick through her neck, rips her nails right off her fingers. Heart seizes. Brain freezes. Everything goes dark and airy and she passes out violently, falling backward, head slamming against the metal stairs, body spiraling like a corpse down a water slide, crumpling to the ground with a depressing lack of grace.

A girl with well-conditioned hair appears at the base of the stairs. She stares at Duke. Duke’s nose bleeds. The girl is tall and skinny and would describe herself as “very L.A.” if anyone ever asked her. She calls out to [Redacted]. She says, “it’s for you.” Then she drifts off, weightless.

[Redacted] comes. She’s not what you’d expect.

Although unconscious, Duke can sense her presence, and her insides are vibrating, and she’s trying to get herself to wake up, wake up, wake up, smell the haunting perfume, let it ruin her enough to snap her out of this.

Duke’s mouth bleeds. [Redacted] crouches down. She slips her hands into Duke’s pockets. Duke’s unconscious self is giddy. She’s touching me. At least she’s touching me. Oh, but, it’s not like it was. She feels suddenly very isolated, very lonely, very molecular, as if experiencing the opposite of life-flashing-before-ones-eyes. She didn’t think she’d feel this way. [Redacted] keeps running her hands through Duke’s clothes, like a tourist on a roadmap, and of course its foreign, of course it’s hard to take, and not revitalizing, not hydrating, the opposite of what she’d thought, the opposite of how it should be, just the opposite, the opposite. [Redacted] doesn’t find anything, except old movie ticket stubs, a dollar bill, lint, a receipt, a ring, a cheap and busted ring, one that Duke used to wear on her thumb, that she once accidentally left on [Redacted]’s nightstand, and it lived there for a whole day, and Duke felt empty and [Redacted] felt powerful, and [Redacted] remembers it now but can’t access any sort of emotion to accompany it. But, you know, whatever.

Duke accidentally left the T in the car.

[Redacted] opens Duke’s mouth. One of her front teeth is gone. The other, cracked down the middle. Nothing but a jagged nub left. [Redacted] feels for more loose teeth. Duke’s right canine wiggles between [Redacted]’s fingers. She plucks it out. It comes, easily, like a ripe blackberry, careful, no thorns, just round and bursting. [Redacted] stands up, finds the missing front tooth on the third stair, shining like a full moon. She picks it up, rolls it around in her hand, rubs it clean on her shirt, and swallows it. Oh. It tastes like something familiar. I just don’t know what.

[Redacted] looks down at Duke.

[Redacted] thinks nothing more of it, and disappears back into the dark folds of the house, waiting for the high to hit, maybe fucking that girl with the soft hair, maybe eating her, digging into her skin, or doing whatever else she does that’s so magical, so world-stopping, so, godlike, so.

But, certainly – and you can be certain – what she’s not doing is

Thinking about you.

#

Lauren, the girl with the most unfortunate evening – depending on your definition of tragedy – she’s not dead. She woke up on a white leather couch, throat slick with blood, next to a sleeping girl with jet black hair, holding a soulless baby, knowing not to look it in the eyes, and now she’s stumbling the streets of LA, just wondering how someone could misplace all their teeth. You lose your keys, sure, you drop your ID, the coke falls in the toilet, okay, but, these bones were once stuck in my head. She’s not dead. She’s wondering what happened. She’s numb and toothless, wondering how things got to be this way, wondering if she’d moved to New York, would she have woken up with no teeth? If she’d stayed in Wisconsin, would she be less of a casualty? If she just hadn’t slept with that one boy she shouldn’t have slept with, if she’d just gone home that weekend? And she’s wondering if you’re aware of how painful it could be.

She decides that you have no idea how painful it could be.

#

Duke snaps back into consciousness while speeding through the valley. These turns, they feel warm, like they’d been pressed between someone’s thighs, a human-radiator. Some people are like that, they radiate things. Some people are cold always. Duke is cold always. She’d found herself a human-radiator. Then it broke.

Duke is running her tongue over the spongey holes where her teeth used to be. She can’t believe [Redacted] swallowed them. There. Now there’s something of mine dissolving inside of you. That means I either got what I wanted, or was forgotten. Duke can’t think about this too much. No one can. So she focuses on the warm curves, the tires gliding lightly, the feeling of soft touch, the feeling of I-am-never-coming-back-here, not in real life, not in my mind, and the sharpness of these turns will smooth, until this road no longer haunts, until eventually things don’t need to be crossed out. Instead they would be butterflies.

Duke’s car nearly slams into something. A deer. A belly-swollen, pregnant deer. She swerves to avoid it. She swerves off a cliff. Losing control. Spiraling, spiraling, spiraling down. Rock destroying metal. Metal crushing bone. Shards protruding through skin. Blood pouring from the nose. Isn’t that how it always goes.

Smooth, then, the opposite of smooth.

Now’s the time, Duke. Now’s the time for life-flashing.

I’m sorry it had to end this way, but aren’t you kind of glad? And, of course, the deer thinks nothing of it, and walks off, leaving you, leaving you to wonder.

# # #

hzboston

Haley Z. Boston is a writer from Portland, Oregon who begrudgingly resides in Los Angeles. In 2016, her short story Number 36 was published in Helicon Literary Magazine. This is her second publication. She is a big fan of fake gore, but is afraid of real needles. She can be found on twitter at @swampmonstr.