A Lisa Frank Unicorn Gives Poor Regional Food Advice

The light was industrial yellow, reflecting off the painted cement blocks and wall of gray mailboxes across the hall. Remodeling had driven the residential desk office to a former janitor’s closet tucked into a corner of the commons hall. The small room still smelled of drilled concrete and floor wax. The dutch door, top half open, was the newest fixture the building had seen since the 70s.

I worked the midnight to eight shift on weekends, a descriptor of both the setting and my social life during my sophomore year of college. Armed with fifty pounds of books, I’d descend into the basement every weekend, intent of finishing my papers early, and spend the hours reading true crime stories on the internet or playing a pixelated bowling game on the black and gray screen of my Nokia phone. I taught myself to write backward with my left hand. I helped manage social crises of my high school friends via email.

Other than my manager stopping by for fifteen minutes once a night to make sure no one had killed me, I was alone. One red button buzzer was affixed to the bottom of the desk, linked directly to campus police if someone tried to steal the fifty dollars we kept in the register. I rarely had real work to do. Every other night or so, a drunk student would show up after having lost her purse and borrow a spare key. Occasionally, a night owl would want to pick up a package at 3am. The janitor would hang out with me some mornings around 5am, eating yogurt and telling me about how taking coke didn’t help her weight loss, but aided in house work. Most of the time, though, I was alone.

Except when the unicorn visited.

I’ll admit my confusion the first time he stopped by, clopping down the hallway and leaning his chin over the top of the dutch door to stare at me. My brief childhood obsession with horses ended abruptly when my father told me I could ride cows instead, plopping me on the back of one of our herd as she walked to the holding pen. She had a retained placenta, a few days old and fetid, wrapped around her tail, and slapped me in the face with it as though I was a sixty pound fly on her back. You learn to stop asking about horses after that. Though my first best friend, a cow named Marlene, only had one horn, I was never a unicorn girl, which was why it was hard to fathom a white unicorn with a rainbow mane staring at me. A braid, inexplicably tied with a rainbow ribbon, hung limply over the door. Large black eyes blinked at me. A twisted multicolored horn poked into my personal bubble of safety.

“Hey,” he said. Little flecks of glitter shifted in the yellow light as he spoke.

“Hey,” I said. “How can I help you? I thought he might need a key to his dorm room or want to buy some ping pong balls (for playing ping pong, of course).

Bits of bright grass cling to his prehensile lips as he spoke. It was late December. “What you reading?”

I looked at the yellow book open next to the tablet where I’d been practicing my backwards writing. “Um. It’s a compilation of manifestos. I’m taking a class on them.”

He nickered at me. “You an English major?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded, as though this was the piece of information for which he’d arrived. As though this was his 3am package pick up. His spare room key. He backed up (as it was a narrow hallway and most equine couldn’t turn around in it) and clopped towards the stairs. I rolled my chair over to the door to watch him go, rainbow tail swishing with each hip movement. Oddly, a few rainbow leopard prints spotted his rear quarters. Upon reaching the stairwell, he looked back over his flank, as though he knew I’d be looking back. He cocked one front foot in acknowledgment. An impossibly bright reflection caught his hoof. Then, he was gone and I was alone.

I expected this interaction to be a singular experience, as though he was testing for some credential and found me lacking. I wasn’t a maiden fair or a desperate virgin. Rather, I was a fat feminist with a boyfriend back home, trying to mind her own business. I didn’t understand why he came by the next weekend and stuck his head over the door once more.

“Can I help you?” I asked, then paused. “You have a bagel on your horn.”

He nodded, the bagel bouncing up and down as he did. Snowflakes clung to his mane and fur where they had hardened, turning into little plastic decorations. “You know, you can’t get good bagels around here.”

“You have a bagel,” I said.

“It’s not a good one.” A rainbow butterfly landed on his shoulder. He jerked his head at it, annoyed. “It’s impossible to make good bagels if you don’t know how. Most people don’t know how.”

“I thought Lender’s frozen bagels were the only type of bagel that existed until I was in high school.
I said.

If a unicorn with impossibly long eyelashes could blink with malice, he managed it.

“I grew up on a farm,” I explained. My heart ached to say it. I enjoyed learning, lusted for it, but hated living in a town.

People. Sidewalks. Concrete.

No streams. No snakes. No hours spent alone without unicorns talking to me or drunk girls crying about their lost keys.

“So you didn’t have good bagels.” He scratched the side of his face on the door frame, leaving behind glittering pieces of fur.

“I guess not.”

He stepped back and dropped his head to the ground, pointing his horn at the waxed tile floor. With a little bit of shaking, he managed to free the bagel, which slid to the ground. He clopped back a few paces, stared at it, then stomped on the bagel. The butterfly, bothered by his movements, began to flit away. He tried to snap at it and failed.

It occurred to me that the unicorn was just like me, a college kid missing home.

“I’m sorry there aren’t good bagels here,” I said.

“I’m sorry, too.”

After winter break, he started coming by every weekend. He never mentioned his major or his residence hall. He did have very strong opinions about regional food. I was lectured on New England versus Maryland chowders, New York versus Chicago pizzas, different types of barbecue. Often, I suspected he was a little drunk, coming back from some dormitory celebration and making me his obligatory stop. I found myself looking forward to his scheduled appearances, but also disliking them. He was so charming, slick. I tumbled over my words. As much as I enjoyed socialization, I found my engagement in it to be awkwardly distasteful.

Sometime in March, he came to visit. A swarm of little rainbow bunnies followed him, but hopped away when he stopped to speak with me.

“Sup,” the unicorn said.

I closed my anthology of Milton. “Not much. Working on my term paper.

A long black peacoat hung over his back like a blanket saddle. “What’s it about?”

“Areopagitia and the virtue of temptation.”

“Why do you have that, then?” He jerked his head at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which was suffering beneath my hardbound Milton. “You like comics?”

“I’m writing another paper on graphic novels as literature and, yes, I like comics.”

I was afraid I’d frightened him when he took a few paces back, but before I could react, he lept over the open door, coming to a clean landing in the small open space between the desk and the trashcans full of assorted game supplies.

“Have you read The Dark Knight Returns?”

I glanced around nervously. I should have been frightened that a unicorn I didn’t know very well had just jumped into a small, isolated room with me, but I was more concerned that my manager would stop by and I’d get censured for allowing another student into the residential desk.

“Some of my friends have,” I said.

He fell back onto his legs, sort of sitting. His long, redgreenblueyellowpurple tail curled around his rump. The peacoat slipped off his back, onto the floor. “You gotta read it,” he said. “It’s so good. The best. So amazing.”

I listened for my manager, but the hallway was silent. The unicorn leaned against the door, head tilted back.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable… not on the floor?” I was really hoping to get him out of the office.

“Nah, I’m good,” the unicorn said. I could smell stale booze emanating from the coat. He fluttered his lips a few times. “You really should read it. Miller is amazing.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said.

There was some thumping in the hall. I leaned forward past the unicorn, stomach in my throat, to see one of the rabbits returning. It twitched a lavender ear at me.

“One of your bunnies is back,” I said.

“Little fucker can wait.”

“I think it’s waiting for you.”

He glare at me with large, moist eyes. “I said it can wait.”

We were very close. Close enough to make me uncomfortable. I sat down in the office chair and tried to casually roll it backwards.

“You ever have a good cheesesteak?” he asked me suddenly.

“Yeah, of course. There’s this place back home that makes great cheesesteaks.”

He nodded, knowingly. “Tell me about it.”

I leaned back, bathing in my childhood memories. “Well, they have hard or soft rolls, which are baked locally. Then, there’s this pickled hot pepper relish. And the steak comes mixed with tomato sauce and onions. Oh, and provolone.”

His hide twitched beneath silken fur as though I was a horsefly. “Provolone. And onions.”

“Yeah. It’s great,” I said. “They’re like two bucks.”

“And tomato sauce.” It was as though he hadn’t even heard me. “Tomato sauce.”

He was on his hooves in a moment. His head pushed against me knees, sending the chair rolling backwards. “Tomato sauce?!??”

I tried to grip the side of the desk, pulling myself closer to the hidden alarm button, but he blocked it. “You ever been to Philly?” The unicorn asked.

“We went to see the Liberty Bell when I was in 5th grade,” I said.

“You listen to me,” he said, snorting in my face. His unicorn breath smelled like funfetti cupcakes and scented pantyliners, the ones you accidentally buy not noticing the Now Scented text on the side. “You’re going to go to Philly.”

“I mean, I guess I am,” I said.

“And when you go, you’re going to go to Pat’s, not Geno’s.” Steam from his nostrils fogged my glasses. I pulled them off.

“Pat’s?”

“Yeah, Pat’s?” he spat back. “You’re going to go to Pat’s and when you get there, you’re going to say wizwitout, you got that?”

“What’s that mean?” I asked, trying to walk my chair out of his way.

“Wizwitout,” he repeated. “Say it to me.”

“What do you–”

“Say it to me.”

“Wizitout,” I said.

“And where are you going to go?”

“To Pat’s. In Philly.”

“Right. Wizwitout.”

The unicorn backed up as I was cleaning my glasses on my shirt. By the time I had them back on, he was standing against the door again, looking away. “Wizwitout,” he said, a little meeker this time.

“You should probably get to bed,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

I reached past, pushing on the door’s latch. His rainbow tail hung limply as he walked out.

“I’ll, uh, see you later,” the unicorn said. The swarm of rabbits waited for him at the bottom of the stairwell, glaring.

“We’ll see,” I said.

He lipped at the side of the door frame before clopping slowly away.

It was the last time I saw him that year. I put the peacoat into the lost and found box and tried to get back to my term papers.

Right before graduation, my boyfriend and I were eating ice cream outside of the local used bookshop when the unicorn saw us and came over to say hello. He wanted to lend me his copy of The Dark Knight, but we were moving soon and didn’t need to be trying to find a unicorn and return his graphic novel.

“Who was that?” my boyfriend asked after the unicorn walked away.

“That’s the unicorn that used to bother me in the residential desk before they opened the new one.”

“He seems nice,” my boyfriend said.

“He’s also kind of an asshole,” I said.

The unicorn was right that I eventually did go to Philly, but I was a vegetarian by then. I never ordered a cheese steak from either Pat’s or Geno’s, though I did find that wizwitout meant Cheese-Whiz without Onions, that last part proving that unicorns know very little about good, regional food. You always get the onions.

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Paper Cuts Make Good Bait

He broke the clear sticker stealing the envelope containing Fredrick’s Complete Divorce Packet with Bonus Instructional CD and Free Internet Access to Digital Forms. Sure, he hated paperwork, but only slightly less than he hated Karen. He studied the CD, marked Instructions For Use: Open First, across the kitchen. It bounced off the wallpaper, ricocheted against the rim of the trashcan and hit the floor, rolling back towards Wally. A spoon specked with dried-on food hung from his mouth. A pint of off-brand Moosetracks melted on the table leaving an expanding ring of condensation on Karen’s mother’s oak table. Fatty Joe stalked the ice cream, rubbing against Wally’s socks and meowing.

The three ply non-carbon copy paper was covered in boxes with tiny print. Boxes like the ones he’d filled out on their Application for/Report of Marriage form thirteen years ago. Boxes that made him feel trapped in a maze of bad choices when all he wanted to do was get free. Go all Thelma and Louise with Fatty Joe in his GMC Sierra. The black Bic shook in his fingers as he held it over the box reading Husband’s Last Name. He flipped through the packet, hoping to find an easier question. It wasn’t until he noticed a bloody thumbprint atop Wife’s SSN that he realized he’d gotten a paper cut.

Getting a band-aid was as good an excuse as any to avoid the form for a few minutes longer. After jamming the spoon into the ice cream, he put down his pen, padded across the linoleum to their grumbling old Whirlpool refrigerator, and felt around its top for their first-aid kit. He was peeling the wrapper off an ancient fabric band-aid when Fatty Joe started hissing like he did when the neighbor’s tom walked past the porch’s sliding door. Wally turned around to see his black-and-white fur-covered-ball-of-lard perched on his chair, front paws on the table, growling at the melting ice cream.

Wally chucked the box of band-aids at the cat. “No table, F.J. No table! Down! Down!”

Fatty Joe managed a plaintive, angry yowl while jumping down.

“Freaking cat.” The words got stuck in the back of his mouth as a tiny pinkish-orange man peered out from behind the ice cream. Steam curled around his feet as the condensation evaporated.

“Freaking cat, indeed,” the man replied, brushing off his shoulders as though there was invisible dust on an invisible shirt. He was bald and naked, except for a black belt with a shining gold buckle digging into his pudgy middle. His eyes were like black sesame seeds nestled into a wrinkled brow, above a bulbous nose and fat lips. He walked bow-legged as though he spent his days riding a toy horse. “More of my colleagues get killed by cats than dogs, you know. Hazardous monsters.”

Wally nodded dumbly as the little man kicked over the pepper shaker and sat down on it. “You ready to talk business, Walter?”

He fell into his seat as he watched the little man scrape his toes against a little spot of char his foot left in the tabletop. “Business?” Wally asked.

“Yeah, business. The skinny. The down-low. The dirty. The deal.” He frowned at the black spot burnt into the wood. “Sorry about that. You should really use a table cloth if you don’t want your furniture ruined.”

“That’s what Karen says.” He said it automatically, like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes or “go fuck yourself” when Jehovah Witnesses knock on the door.

The little man squinted at the form, his eyes almost disappearing into his head as he read the top of it upside down. “Oh, divorce. Right. So, you want her dead?”

“Do I want her–?” Wally trailed off. He’d thought about her dying so many times. Not killing her, but simple, sweet death. The kind of death that would make his in-laws not hate him, her friends not bad mouth him. Something with a pay out from her employer-provided life insurance policy.

Of course, he’d thought of himself dying even more frequently. Cancer with lots of morphine at the end. A heart attack while stuffing fries in his face in a fast food parking lot. A patch of black ice late at night, a friendly electric pole, a swift end.

Sadly, the two of them just kept on living and hating each other.

The chair across the table groaned as Fatty Joe clawed his way onto its seat, the tips of his black ears barely clearing the table top. The orange man took a step closer to Wally.

“I don’t want her dead,” he said defensively, as though someone other than a four inch tall imp sitting at his kitchen table had suggested it.

“It’s okay,” the little man said. He’d begun to sink down into the pepper shaker as his butt melted the plastic. “No need to act all righteous in front of me. Even people who love each other want to kill one another sometimes. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I don’t want her dead,” Wally said. “I just want her gone.”

The imp rubbed the furrow in the middle of his brow. “Look, it’s a lot easier to kill someone than to make them not exist.”

Wally tapped the packet of forms. “I want this to be over with. I want to be a year from now when everything is resolved. I don’t want to have to deal with it.”

“Look, I can’t alter time. I can’t make people disappear. I just kill them, okay?” The imp stood up and pushed the pepper shaker away, a little line of pepper spilling out from a hole he’d melted into it.

“Well, I don’t want her killed.”

“You hate her?”

Wally looked across the room to the picture of them standing at the Grand Canyon on their honeymoon, slipped into a magnetic frame. “I think I do.”

“Then what’s the problem?” The imp clapped his hands together. “Bang! Pow! Dead!”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to kill your wife.” Wally picked up the pen and pressed the nib hard into the divorce form, writing out his name.

“Aw, jeez. You’re going to fill out the fucking form?” The imp wandered over, watching him work. “One word from you and I can make her dead.” He snapped his fingers.

Wally kept working until he got to the bloody block for Karen’s Social Security Number. He couldn’t remember it.

“Dead,” the imp whispered.

Wally tapped his pen against his chin, thinking. “I don’t want her dead. I want her to go make some other loser miserable and leave me alone.”

The little man sighed. “I’m going to be honest with you, Walter. I’m not trained for this job. I usually work road rage cases. Jump out of the glove box and give my offer, buy Kyanthia asked me to cover her shift for the evening so she could go see her kid’s ball game. She gets the night off. I get next Friday off. It seemed like a good trade, but this whole divorce thing isn’t really in my wheelhouse. Heavy emotional shit and all that. You’re going to have to cut me a little slack.”

The corner of the form began to blacken and smoke under the imp’s foot. Wally licked his thumb and snuffed it out. “Not interested. Go kill someone else’s wife.”

“You were the one who called me, buddy.”

“Did not.”

“Did so.” The imp wandered over to the bloody thumbprint over the Wife’s SSN box and tapped it with his pointer finger, no thicker than a toothpick.

“I cut myself,” Wally said.

“You summoned me,” the imp said, tapping his foot. “It’s in the instructions on the CD.”

“I didn’t load the CD,” Wally said while filling out their address.

“It says Instructions For Use: Open First.”

Wally shrugged.

“I think I know why you’re wife hates you.”

He shrugged again.

Growling, the imp launched himself towards Wally’s pen, grabbing onto it and kicking at Wally’s hand with his scorching feet. “Lemme kill your wife!”

“Hey!” Wally shook his hand, scribbling across the page while trying to free it.

“Lemme kill your wife! Just say the word!”

“No! Let go!” He grabbed the imp with his free hand, pinching his shoulder between his thumb and forefinger, and tossed him. “Get off!”

The little man skidded across the table, grabbing for purchase on the oak’s grain. He finally slowed near the edge. “Asshole! Lemme kill your–”

Fatty Joe’s paw swiped over the tabletop, batting the imp to the ground.

Wally jumped up in time to see the cat grab the imp in both his front paws and bite down on his head, gnawing on it gingerly like the time he’d tried to eat a jalapeno popper. The imps screams were soon replaced with the sound of crunching bones.

Wally sat back down with a sigh and returned to his paperwork.

Austerity of the Gods

I led my last goat up the hillside, dry scrub grasses scratching my bare calves. She was a good goat, bouncing behind me despite her years, empty udder flapping between her legs. Didn’t pull at the hempen rope clutched in my hand. Ears twitching with the expectation I was taking her to greener pastures.

The flat rock stained rust red found by my father’s father’s father was surrounded by sandy loam. From the hilltop, the valley of my ancestors spread out like shattered pottery beneath a cloudless blue sky. All was brown. Furrows from my spring plowing remained empty, seeds unsprouted or withered. The grapevines twisted into dead fists aimed at the sky. My two youngest children kicked up clouds of dust playing while my wife and eldest daughter had gone to fetch water. They wouldn’t return until dark.

Which was lucky for me. My wife would have objected to what I was about to do.

My nanny goat hopped onto the rock and bleated, demon eyes blinking as she surveyed the valley. I picked up a hefty rock and slammed it into her skull so she would not thrash when I slit her throat and sliced open her belly, pulling her gray rumen and entrails out onto the rock.

Her back legs were still kicking when the god of agriculture appeared in a puff of lush leaves, which wilted as they floated to the ground.

He was a broad fellow, shorter than me by a hand and a half. Wearing nothing but underclothes, his corded muscles pressed against his work tanned skin. Despite the physique of a working man, his white beard was pristine, his skin free of dust, his meaty hands soft. He leaned on his scythe, his storm-cloud eyes calm. “You summoned me?”

Bowing my head, I said, “Forgive me, Great One. But, I must inquire as to why my crops won’t grow. Two years ago, the locusts ate everything I planted. Last year, the blight came and my fruits withered on the vine. This year, we have no rain. Why is this happening to me?”

The god licked his thumb and rubbed at his scythe blade as he spoke. “Look, Pete. It’s nothing against you personally, but the deities held a congress and we decided that we’ve been giving too much to man. You’ve grown soft since your creation. You lack initiative and innovation. We spend all our days up in the clouds, watching over you. And for what?”

“I killed my last goat for you,” I said.

“And look how pathetically skinny she is.” He bent down, hefting the dead goat over his shoulder. Her innards left no blood upon his skin. “This is the best you have to offer us?”

“It’s all I have to offer you.”

“Which is our point. You have the entire world in which to thrive and fail. Now, if you excuse me, there’s a nubile nymph waiting to feed me grapes I grew this morning.”

He disappeared in a puff of leaves, taking my dead goat with him.

Evening came and my wife returned. She boiled dry roots and worm-eaten grain. The children and I ate while she sipped the broth made by our only meal. Only once did she ask me about our last goat.

I chewed for a long time before answering. “Bandits. From over the hill. I stopped them before they got to our home, but they stole the goat. I praise the gods you were gone when it happened. Do not frown, love. We are lucky to have each other. Bring me my flute and I will play the children a song so they’ll sleep better on their half-full bellies.”

A week later, I marched back up the hill, a white dove struggling in a net. Had my wife seen it, she’d have claimed it for supper, but she and the children had gone over the southern hill to search for snakes. I put my flute down on the flat rock when I reached the top and beside it cut the dove’s belly open, pulling out its entrails.

Music, as beautiful and painful as my first son’s wail when he emerged from my wife, shrieked in my ears. I clapped my hands to my head and crumbled, but the goddess of music caught me and pulled me to my feet. She was clad in sheer silks, black hair twisted up in a structure of gold combs and cherry blossoms.

“Oh, a dead dove. How lovely,” she sang. She picked up the bleeding pile of feathers and tilted her head back. A serpentine tongue shot out as her jaw unhinged, coiled around the dead bird, and sucked it into her mouth. She produced a silk cloth from the air and patted her lips. “You summoned me, Pete?”

“Yes. Um.” I swallowed back some bile, disgust and attraction warring in my gut. “Forgive me, but my flute…”
It appeared in her hand a moment later. “Ugly little thing, isn’t it?” She pressed her wine stained lips against it and played a mournful dirge.

“I suppose it is,” I said. “But it’s the only flute I ever owned. My mother gave it to me when I was just a boy.”

“You should make her apologize.” The goddess again lifted my flute and an airy tune fluttered out.

“She’s dead, but that’s not the problem.” I held out my hand. “May I?”

The goddess returned my flute and I blew against it. Air whistled out. “I can’t play anymore.”

“Oh, of course you can play it. It just won’t make noise.” She grabbed it from me.

I ran a hand over my beard. “But why won’t it make noise?”

She smiled, teeth the color of moonlight. “Well, you see. The other deities and I decided that perhaps man would fare better if he had less distractions from his work. Every night, you play your flute while your fields lay fallow.”

“But that’s only because nothing will grow. We’ve had no rain–”

“Now, now. That’s not the type of attitude that gets things done. Blaming others. Making excuses. It’s a poor example to set for your children, playing music instead of growing crops.”

“But, my music is the only way they’ll sleep at night.”

She played a sad little tune on my flute and shook her head. “They’ll have to learn to survive without it. Poor dears have been spoiled by your laziness. The next generation must be stronger than the previous.”

“But–”

She pressed a finger to my lips. “But. But. But. That’s all I hear from you. Work harder if you want music back again.”

The same ethereal sound echoed in my ears and I fell to my knees. When I blinked the blackness from my eyes, she was gone, as was my flute.

My wife and children returned with a snake no longer than my hand. My children and I shared its roasted flesh while she sucked at the bones. When the meat was gone, the children began to whine because they were still hungry.

“Maybe you should play them a song,” my wife said. “Help them sleep.”

“I would, love, but while you were gone the bandits came and took my flute. I’m so glad you and the children were away. They’ll just have to learn to sleep without it.”

A month later, I stomped up the hill, a mouse pup I caught in our last grain basket writhing in my fist. My oldest child had taken the younger ones to fetch water while my wife lay sick in bed. I threw the mouse down on the flat rock and stomped on it, grinding my bare heel against its bones.

Lightning blinded me and the god king appeared in his golden robes, sitting in a chariot drawn by two winged elephants. Bark-skinned maidens sat on either side of him, one holding a chalice of wine, the other a leg of roasted lamb.

“What do you want, Pete?”

“You had sex with my wife!”

The maidens gasped, then giggled.

The god king rolled his eyes at me. “You men are so uncouth. I didn’t have sex with your wife. I appeared to her in a dream state as a river filled with spawning tadpoles, one of which wriggled it way into her–”

“I don’t want to hear it. You got her pregnant!”

This time, the maidens giggled, then gasped.

“So vulgar. This is why man fails,” the god king told me. “I didn’t impregnate your wife. I planted a divine seed within the fertile blood of her womb.”

“The end result is going to be the same.”

“I’ll give you that.” He gestured to the meat maiden, who pulled a strip of goat off the leg of lamb and fed it to him.

“But… but, why?”

“Wow, you do say ‘but’ a lot, don’t you?” He took a drink of his wine and leaned back. “One day, I was walking the world in the form of a flea and heard your wife crying. She was kind of pretty, so I turned into a river and copulated with her in a dream, which manifested as a pregnancy when she woke.”

“You seduced my wife,” I said.

“Please, river can’t seduce people.” He sighed. “It’s not as if you appreciate her, Pete. You don’t feed her enough. You don’t play your flute for her anymore. Besides, didn’t I tell you people to multiply? And you haven’t had a child with her in three years.”

“That was a conscious decision.” I gestured to the dry soil surrounding our shack. “I can’t feed the three children I have. We can’t have another one.”

The god king squeezed out of his chariot, over one giggling maiden, and stepped by my side. “Of course you can. I see how much you’re struggling. I see how hard you’re trying. Consider this pregnancy my gift to you. You get to raise one of the next great heroes of the world. My son…” He paused, scratching his lip. “Or daughter. I haven’t really decided yet. Do you have an opinion?”

I shook my head.

“One of each, then. I hate making decisions. You’re going to get to raise the children who save the world, Pete.”

“I really just need rain,” I said.

“Sorry, rain isn’t my department,” the god king said. “Besides, you’re working hard. You should feel good about that. Hard work keeps a man honest.”

“We’re starving.”

“You’re doing it honestly. That’s what matters.”

“But you’ve taken my rain, my music.”

The god king held up his hands. “That was the other gods’ idea. I stay out of the affairs of mortal men… mortal women, though? That’s another matter.” He elbowed me and winked.

I began to cry as he climbed back on his chariot.

“Hey, calm down there, buddy.” He took up the reins and smiled at me. “If there’s anything I can do for you–”

“Could I have one of your winged elephants so we can eat?”

He snapped in reins. “I’d love to. Really, but they’re my wife’s. Tell you what. I’ll leave the mouse.” He snapped the reins a second time and disappeared in a flash of lightning.

My wife lay sick on our pallet when I returned home, sipping on the little water we had left from the previous day.

She rose onto her elbows, lips pulled tight in discomfort. “Did you confront the bandit that did this to me?”

I sat by her side, patting her hand. “They said they appreciate how hard we’re working.”

“Not Tonight, Honey.”

“Not Tonight, Honey”

He pulled his hand away, their rough polyester sheets scraping together as he rolled over to face the wall. The one sigh he permitted himself to exhale held more communication than the six insurance covered hours they’d spent sitting beside each other on a therapist’s sofa last spring. She stayed silent after those three words, counting his breaths until they slowed. Waiting for the familiar pattern of his snoring, a distant freight train followed by barely audible moan. She pulled her phone from the bedside table, thumbing the brightness down to a gray glow, noted the time, and waited. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Waiting until he was sleeping like a dead baby.

She tucked the covers around his back so he couldn’t feel the draft as she slipped out of bed and out the door. She padded down the dark hall, fingers dragging along the smooth dry wall of their poorly insulated one-story rancher. The swamp cooler hummed, driving back the scorching Texas night. One LED nightlight illuminated their kitchen. His flak vest slung over a dining room chair, yellow lettering turned a dull green in the light. Rinsed dishes from their supper waited for their turn in the dishwasher.

Five empty beer bottles leaned upside down beside them in the sink.

She grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down, scanning over her evening’s plans, notes she made while he talked over his day with his partner while she pretended to fuss over the tamales and fiddle with her phone. She committed the addresses, the names to memory as she licked the last dribbles of foam from the bottle’s mouth, then headed to the garage to place it quietly in the recycling can. She pulled a long tan canvas bag from the shelf, which once contained a pop-up tent she trashed months ago. Casting the cover off his old Honda bike, she walked it out the garage’s side door and to the end of their road before straddling the seat, turning the key, and hearing the engine roar to life.

She’d changed in the bathroom of Santa Margarita de Escocia, swapping out her sweats and tank for black leather pants and a long-sleeved matching mesh shirt. The petroleum jelly she used to slide said pants over her narrow legs still slicked her hands, left a coating on the inside of her gloves. Still, she didn’t need to be asked twice not to leave Vaseline smears inside the bathroom of a Catholic church., The pins in her twin buns scratched against her scalp, pressing hard against the pressure from the black helmet. Street lights of Laredo flashed by as she drove, reflecting against her matte black face place.

She’d long since ceased lamenting her chosen costume. The first weeks she wore it, wearing a second skin shades darker than her own light brown felt empowering. She was a shadow of salvation, invisible justice, unending grace. The poetry of appearance only lasted a month until she had to confront the impracticality of her attire, accompanied by the realization that those she served had already begun to recognize her description. She was damned to keep the uniform she’d chosen and accepted it long ago.

Her phone vibrated against her thigh, bluetooth ringing inside her helmet.

“J. P. Where am I delivering?”

Juan Pablo sucked on his cigarette and exhaled against his phone, hissing in her hear. “I dunno if you can. Things are crazy here, G. Ingredients, you know?”
His voice had all the grease their imaginary pizza lacked. “We’re good on toppings, but the price of flour is going up, up, up.”

“I’m not bringing you ingredients. I got things to do.”

“Chill on the spice, G. We just want to know if the other franchise is experiencing the same price adjustments. Think you could ask around…”

She cut him off. “They aren’t yet, but there’s a possibility of a shipment going down. Forecasts for rough weather.”

“Not a yes or a no, sweetie.”

“It’s what I know. You want me to lie, J.P.?”

His exhale crackled in her ear. “You don’t know how to lie yet, G. You work the same business as the rest of us, but you don’t know.”

“Fuck you.”

He chuckled. “You’re going outside of town. North, northeast along the white house. Up 59. Killiam. That match up with your directions?”

“Their dog with them?”

“Dog ran away. They’re on their own. It’s a red two door. X-95-A-7775. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“You’re a good girl,” he said. “I can’t wait until you quit this night job and start working for us.”

The line went dead before she could curse him again.

Vibrations from the bike numbed her thighs as she merged onto 59. She wasn’t like Juan Pablo. Not like him or his boss or his boss’s boss. Still, if you scraped away the shit, there was a glimmer of gold to his words. They were lawbreakers. Both of them.

The headlight of the Honda brushed against the rust red shipping container, handles of the two locking bars hanging loose from their brackets. She skidded to a stop at the opposite end of the container, toeing the kickbar into place, and dismounting by the small vent and listening. The attempt at silence was loud, shuffling and shushing a sobbing baby.

She knocked a gloved knuckle against the corrugated metal.

A female voice was a feverish chant. “I.C.E. I.C.E.”

The hinges of the shipping container screamed open as four people rushed out, trying to run. One adult. Two half-grown girls, one with a baby on her hip. Their soiled clothing, thin frames, dirty hair were illuminated by the headlight.

She called out to them in her family’s language. The language in which her father laughed and her mother sang. Language her husband only used when he was on duty.

One of the young girls turned around and skidded to a stop, staring. “La Gracia de la Noche. I told you she was coming. I told you.”

Her family turned. Stopped. Stared.

“We thought you were I.C.E.” The woman approached her, taking the baby from her daughter. “We thought we were done.”

“Not tonight,” she answered.

It took her three trips to get them safely to Santa Margarita de Escocia. Just as her husband’s partner had said, they were from El Salvador. Dawn was close when she wheeled the Honda back into their garage and recovered it, wearing her sweats and tank once again. She made a cup of coffee for herself and poured one for him, placing it next to his I.C.E. flak vest as the alarm clock went off in their bedroom.

An Act of the Tyrone Power Pound Cake Society in the Sky

Loath as she was to admit it—and, indeed, wouldn’t admit it until some seven weeks and only then to an interrogator named Milo who’d been kind enough to bring coffee to her dark site cell rather than bashing her in the face with his flat knuckles as his colleagues had done—she hadn’t actually anticipated on levitating the White House. However, on that fair April morning, her seven hundred followers leaning their backs against the black metal fence, feet resting on folded knees in the lotus position, channeling chants of peace from zenned out minds through open mouths, she hadn’t the same perspective. Indeed, what sane woman wouldn’t take credit for organizing a cosmic vibration of universal proportions that lifted 55,000 square feet of painted Aquia Creek sandstone thirty-five feet into the air?

Her seven hundred supporters hadn’t seemed like much of a threat given the recent protests. The 82nd Airborne took the day off and the U.S. Marshals were out to lunch. A screaming Marine, hat askew, clung to one of the columns floating high in the air, chunks of dirt and stone raining down into the basement below. A half dozen stunned secret service agents paused in the yard, heads swiveling between the levitated White House and Skye (not Susan—her domesticated title). Guns drawn, they rushed across the lush turf in their shiny black Rockports.

“I am here on the authority of the Universe, explosion of gasses that birthed us all. On the authority of the Collective Consciousness that binds mind to mind, makes peace from war, love from hate, legislative debate from fascist executive orders. On the authority of the sun, which will burn this world one day, consuming us and the atoms of our decayed corpses. On the authority of human rights, John Locke giving a hummer to James Madison, on freedom, on equality, on freedom again, because that’s really important,” is what she intended to say.

What she actually said was, “I have a permit,” shoving the document between the fence for inspection. The paper trembled with her hand.

The Marine kicked at the air, shouting for salvation. A flag pole, Old Glory still attached, appeared from one of the open glass doors, aimed for the Marine’s location.

A Secret Service agent with a jaw molded out of splotchy granite sporting a five-o’clock shadow leaned forward. “The Tyrone Power Pound Cake Society in the Sky,” he read aloud. “Says you’re going to levitate the White House 3.5 feet in the air, ma’am.”

“It’s a decimal point error,” she said, refraining from admitting which side was responsible for said error.

A second Secret Service agent in a smart black skirt jogged up behind her colleague, gun pointed at the ground. “You’re going to have to put it down, ma’am. The president and his first ladies are hosting the Faberge Egg Roll in an hour.”

Skye shook the paper, wooden bangles knocking. “The permit says we’re allowed access to the free speech zone until 2pm.”

Other members of The Tyrone Powers Pound Cake Society in the Sky heard their brave guru speaking. Maizy Alcatraz and The Beard, Skye’s closest advisers and apprentices, slowed their chanting. Maizy-A cracked one eye open, turning her head slightly to the left and peered through the fence.

“Holy fossilized feces.” She jumped up, gauzy mini dress jumping, too, and grabbed Skye’s arm with her long, turquoise-tipped fingers. “We really did it.”
The beard unfolded himself and took his place on Skye’s other side. He pulled aside the curtain of red fur that covered his left eye and stared, grunting through his thick beard.

The flagpole, too short to reach the Marine, was pulled back inside the White House. A longer pole sporting the Red Banner emerged next. He strained to reach it, flat hat falling off his head as he did. They watched it puff up in the breeze, slowly floating down into the basement.

“Fine,” the female secret service agent said. “Good for you. You’ve levitated the presidential residence, whatever good that will do you.”

“An empty act of rebellion,” another agent said. “The new media won’t carry the story. The Senior Spinner will discredit any who speak of it. It means nothing.”

Skye’s initial shock was wearing off, her rage rising. “Of course it means something,” she shouted. “It means seven hundred people acting in union can rebel against one fascist fuck.”

“Fascist fuck,” Maizy-A repeated.

“Please don’t use the f-word,” one of the agents said.

“He’s still a fuck, regardless of what adjective you put before his name.” Skye gripped her skirt with sweaty palms.

Maizy-A, undeterred by their admonishment, screamed. “FASCIST fuck. FASCIST FUCK.”

Her screams were enough to rouse the chanters on her side of the fence from their blissed-out state. Gasps of surprise, squeals of excitement, echoed down the line as they stopped chanting and turned around.

The Marine was scrambling through the open door, into the relative safety of the levitated White House, when it tipped sideways, sagging towards the people who’d stopped chanting. Furniture could be seen sliding past the large windows on the first floor. The muffled screams of those within became more shrill.

The Secret Service Agents turned to face the building. “Lift it back up! Lift it back up!”

“I thought I was supposed to put it back down,” Skye said.

“FASCIST FUCK,” Maisy-A shouted again.

“We did it! We did it!” Her followers began to dance, shaking hips, jingling bells on their ankles and wrists.

A portrait of Andrew Jackson crashed out of a window on the sagging side.

The female agent’s voice was cold and smooth like a dry martini lacking an olive. “Fix it.” Skye stared down the gun’s barrel, aimed at her face.

“I have until–”

“FIX IT.”

She backed up hands held in the air. “Everyone. Everyone.”

Faces turned towards her, away from the White House. Eyes from ice blue to night black. Skin from pasty pale to richly dark.

“Everyone. You need to listen to me.” She cleared her throat, calming her shaking voice, bringing the low tones she used when talking to her mother’s horses back when people called Skye Susan. “The White House is aloft! You may feel as though we’ve won. We’ve accomplished what we came here to do. But, I need you to know that one action is not a victory, one day is not an eternity. We are but a single flower in need of a garden. Rejoice at what you’ve done, but do not stop.”

A gangling teenager wearing a kilt and little else raised his hand. “What does that mean?”

“Don’t stop!” Skye shouted. “Butts back on the concrete. Backs against the fence. Our work isn’t done yet.”

They exchanged looks, sat back down, closed their eyes, and began chanting once more. The White House continued to sag. “You two, too,” Skye said to Maizy-A and The Beard.

The White House quivered, but didn’t move.

Skye shook her head at agent holding the gun. “I need to join them.”

“Like hell you do. Andersen, get out there and start chanting with them. This woman needs to be taken in.”

One of the male agents unlocked the gate and squeezed out. “How do I do this, ma’am?”

“Just close your eyes and be one with the movement. Be one with the universe. Know that your soul united with 700 other souls has the power to change the world. An individual’s desire. A collective’s will.”

His eyebrow rose skeptically above the frames of his sunglasses. Still, he sat down, in a modified lotus position, and began to chant.

The sagging side of the White House began to rise.

“Now,” the female agent said. “You’re going to tell us how to put it down.”

 

 

Skye finished her coffee. It was the best worst coffee she’d ever had, one-note, black, bitter, and wonderful. Acidity stung her cracked lips as she shook the last drops into her mouth. She handed the Styrofoam cup to Milo. “How long did it take them to figure out how to get it down?”

He rubbed at the black scruff on his chin. “Well, the first problem was that the scientists wouldn’t help them.” He formed the words slowly so she could understand his thick eastern European accent.

“The first problem?”

He nodded. “The second? Other people started to notice. Started to join your Sweet Bread Society.”

“Pound Cake,” she said, though it didn’t really matter. “How long did it take to get it down?”

He chuckled, clearly amused. “Oh, sweetie. Last report, it was somewhere in the mesosphere.”

Hate & Hope

This week’s flash fiction challenge was to tell a story about hope. Hope isn’t really where my creative mind flourishes, though. So, I decided to tell a real story about change, transformation, and hope for a better future. Enjoy.

 

It was Lord of the Flies for high school conservationists. Our agricultural studies wing was tucked at the back of the school, manicured student garden occupying space between our classrooms and the school’s administration. Shop classrooms lined the hall leading to our department, depositories in which the ne’er-do-well students of our school were held between core curriculum classes. They emptied out with the last bell, leaving our little haven isolated from the rest of the school.

Five students composed the Envirothon team: a soil specialist, a forestry specialist, a wildlife specialist, an aquatics specialist, and one student committed to the rotating subject each year. Each of the core team members had one understudy, meaning that there were ten of us altogether. We had run of the wet lab, dry lab, animal lab, classroom, library, greenhouse, and offices. If you thought a teacher supervised our evening activities, you’d be mistaken.

I was co-chair during my junior and senior years of high school, sharing the title with a freckled red headed boy who I’d met at a county fair the summer before 6th grade. I was showing my Ayrshire cow, Fourleaf. He was showing Holsteins. As is natural for preteens, a late night of playing PG strip poker with some Mennonite kids left us bashful in the morning. He remedied those emotions by trying to throw me in a water trough while I was filling a bucket. I twisted out of his grip, ripped off his ball cap, and trashed him with it, leaving an angry red welt across his pale face. What followed was an acquaintanceship of mutual respect and, I suspect, the suspicion that now matter how tall he grew, I’d still be able to kick his ass.

Not enough lip service is given to rural conservationists, people dedicated to the protection of air, water, soil, and green spaces. Partisan narrative would have you believe that the environment is a liberal cause. While I will concede this in the realm of climate change, conservation activists span the political spectrum. I’ve been in a rod and gun club filled to the rafters with plaid-wearing, big buckle-sporting old white men, clapping and applauding decreased runoff into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, funding biodiversity initiatives, giving out scholarships to students of color who want to study environmental science. There are many who know conservation of and advocating for our natural world must transcend party lines in order to flourish.

As such, the first year I was co-chair, a pair of freshman friends joined our team, bosom buddies from either end of the political spectrum. They maintained a healthy respect for their ideological differences, focusing instead on hunting, fishing, and poultry enthusiasm, avoiding political conversations at all costs.

At the tender age of seventeen, I was a ball-busting, tie-dye and knock-off Birkenstock wearing motherfucker with a pair of John Lennon wire frame glasses and hair past my hips. I read Abbie Hoffman books, scrawled, “Freedom is the right to yell fire in a crowded theater,” on my hand in Sharpie, handed out Richard Brautigan novels to anyone I thought interesting, memorized Phil Ochs lyrics, which still sing in my heart today. I was an out bi-chick in my high school, wrote treatises on premarital sex to share with curious students, and lacked the grace to back down from a verbal altercation. No one believed I didn’t smoke pot.

I didn’t. Still don’t.

I was also den-mother-in-chief, managing a gaggle of teenagers, bringing hot suppers to every meeting, arranging rides, and doling out stern lectures for office chair rides down the ramp leading to the ag wing. I also had an innocent edge to me, raised by college educated parents on an isolated farm, socializing with other moderate liberals on the weekends. Case in point, I thought ‘spic was another term for ‘sped until I was seventeen. It was in that very classroom, listening to two of my team members complain about kids on their bus, that spark finally met bulb. It took me a few years after that to realize wetback and wet-behind-the-ears didn’t mean the same thing. As I said, innocent.

One one end of the political spectrum you had me, a near-anarchist peacenick convinced she was born in the wrong century. The conservative freshman was on the other end of the spectrum, had about 100 lbs on my not-thin frame, and stood a good foot and a half over my head. He wore cammo everything, sported a sunburned neck like it was a political statement, and was violently, unabashedly homophobic.

We’d get into it over everything. Often, his liberal friend would lay the groundwork, then slip out of the room, leaving me to the battles he wanted to fight. Like two goddamn cats ready to rip each others throats out, we’d pose and posture, hiss and spit, ripping into each other over everything from the death penalty to racial equality to abortion. I’m pretty sure the only thing that stopped me from getting a back eye on more than one occasion was my gender.

The homophobia was the worst, though. I remember late one evening, we were pouring over animal track identification. No fighting. No yelling. Just studying. Out of nowhere, he said, “My pastor thinks I need to learn to love a little more. Need to be more forgiving.” He looked down, flipping a page. “But, you can’t tell me, if Jesus was around today, he wouldn’t be out there, beating some fags.”

I dissented with this assertion in no uncertain terms, though I’m pretty sure every third word was FUCK and every second word was just exasperated sputtering. I was told that, as someone who didn’t attend church, my opinion didn’t matter. “So, you’d just fucking go out fucking there and fucking beat the fuck out of every fucking gay guy and girl–”

He held up his hands. “Now, I didn’t say girls. That’s something else.” His rosy face was bright red. All jolliness gone.

“Oh, so fucking porn is fucking fine if it’s two fucking girls.”

“Cause that’s for me. It doesn’t count.”

If memes or table flipping would have been a thing fifteen years ago, I’d probably have done it.

Now, here’s the worst part. Despite his racism, despite his violent homophobia, despite his assertion that Andrea Yates “should fry,” I liked the kid. Not in a crushing sort of way, but I had a soft spot in my heart for him. An enduring fondness. Take off his cammo, throw on a DBZ shirt, and he’d be like the kids I played D&D with on the weekends. He shared our affects, that geeky uncertainty, air of social awkwardness proving he’d never be accepted anywhere fully. He’d wander around the margins of teenage society, as I did. As my friends did.

My senior year, we were at the Envirothon state competition. As the only girl, I had my own room with an adjoining door between my room and those two friends. On the second night, while the racist guy was sleeping, his friend invited me in to make fun of him. He was sleeping on his stomach in a pair of black briefs, black shirt, curled up with his thumb near his mouth. He looked like 300 lbs of sleeping innocence. I felt maternal, attached, affectionate.

I go to college the next year. Operation Iraqi Freedom began during my second semester. I went to marches. I participated in protests. I had my life threatened on numerous occasions, saw my comrades punched, a future roommate almost lit on fire. I had shit thrown at me. Got spit on. I saw a deeper, more violent racism at the beginning of the war. Drunk kids out in a college down, shouting, “I CAN’T WAIT TO GO KILL SOME BROWN FUCKERS,” as they ran past.

I got involved with women’s rights. Equal rights. The LGBTQ community. Beneath my ribs grew a hot bubble of guilt for tolerating hate in my high school. I fought, but I didn’t fight hard enough. I argued, but I allowed it to be a conversation rather than ultimatum. I really hated myself for it. Wondered what sort of monster I had been. Swore I wouldn’t do it again.

I kept my prickly liberal back up when I returned to farming at the age of 25. I got into a screaming match with a bearded white dude in a Sonoco station who was calling President Obama a Muslim and a radical. In doing so, I lost my favorite place to grab a breakfast sandwich made with a fresh egg, fried in front of me, made to my vegetarian preferences by an old guy working the morning counter.

I’ve gotten into it with the racist teenage subordinates at work, down right-red faced, fist shaking, telling them their language and views are abhorrent. Telling them they’re ignorant little slugs who will never survive in the real world if they insist on hate. I’ve felt righteous. I’ve also felt like an asshole.

A few years ago, I’m slinging cheese sales at the convention center in Philly, hand over fist pulling in bills and doling out dairy products, wearing a low cut maroon shirt and proper long denium skirt, hair tied back with a handkerchief. Someone shouts my last name and I look up to see those two fucking friends from envirothon waving at me from one table down. I bolt out from behind the table, and hug the shit out of them, give them some free chocolate milk, meet the big one’s wife. They went to college together, same college I went to, though I never saw them. They roomed together, moved back to our little rural county, and hangout on the weekends.

Backslapping ensues, reminiscing, and an invitation to catch up with them on social media. I’m glowing by the time I get back to the table, heart light, head happy.

A few days later, my fingers are hovering my laptop as I try to decide if I really, really, want to look up the homophobic racist on Facebook. Distance from our meeting has me reconsidering if I want to invite that kind of hate back into my life.

I do it anyway.

Next morning, my request is accepted. I’m scanning down his wall and I see it. Post after post after post in support of gay rights, spaced between pictures of bass fishing and guns. Support for gay rights. Support for equal rights. Support for free speech. I’m blown the fuck away, wheel of my mouse turning and turning as I read his political life.

He’s a separation of church and state, Bill of Rights touting, libertarian. The election rolls around and he’s a Never Trump supporter, telling his family they’re free to cease associating if they continue harassing him. We don’t agree on governmental theory, that’s for sure, but to see the transition from a violent homophobic teenager to an adult in support of gay marriage is my bubble of hope in this world. I don’t know how much influence I had during those seminal teenage years. I have no idea if the arguments we had planted a seed in his mind. But, I’d like to think that fondness, that respect, that communication we shared at least tilled the land in which a seed of tolerance could grow.

Since then, I’ve stopped trying to shout as much. I’ve started talking more (though, I’m still saying fuck every third word). When a fifteen-year-old coworker asks me why black people are more violent in protests than white people, when a high school junior tells me she thinks gay people shouldn’t adopt because their children will be teased, when a boy tells me transgender people are just confused because a dick is what makes a man… I tell them to clock out and we start to talk about it. It’s my hope, my belief, that opening up channels of dialogue will lay the foundation for future change.

Half

She buttons her shirt neck to navel, tugging on the hem to straighten faint wrinkles. Beneath the plaid covering bra and breasts, no stranger would suspect she is one body containing half a person.

With strangers she finds her solace. Teens bagging wine bottles at the grocery store and dour civil servants at the post office do not see the empty space inside her. They stare past her, giving her pain anonymity. It is their lack of knowledge that sustains her when she drives far out of her way to strange supermarkets and bank branches never visited before. The familiar aches, memory’s light reminding her she has no shadow.

She folds the comforter, spreading it across the back of the couch. Fluffs the throw pillows and places them in the corners, arranging them as though she were a real person who sleeps in a bed and not in front of a muted television, covered in a quartet of cats she can’t believe are hers alone. They mewl, purr, knead, and hiss, vying for the little spaces beside and atop her. She can’t decide if their behavior has changed or if they always acted this way. The past is an uncertain blur of things forgotten, uncertainties, unknowns. The angles of the bygone slump sideways and she is unable to right them, to remember how life had been, how life should be. Each memory raises a question, not of what she remembers, but what she didn’t see.

She scoops litter, feeds the cats, washes her hands, and grinds coffee. Aside from the patter of padded feet, the sound of kibble clinking in metal bowls, the quiet whirl of her refrigerator, the house is silent. Every sound she makes, socks slipping across linoleum, coffee mug meeting counter, spoon measuring grounds, seems a blasphemous cacophony. Filling up so much space with herself.

Milk for her coffee. An orange for breakfast. She hates all the foods she once cherished. Pleasing to her palate, the presence of them alone in her fridge reminds her there is no more negotiating over grocery lists, no more conversations over her preference in apple varieties or colors of corn. She makes these choices independent of outside influence, buying tofu to scramble instead of eggs, blue cheese instead of chevre, oatmeal instead of boxed cereals. A lone box of Honey O’s gathers dust in the pantry, waiting for someone who wants to eat it.

She’s making adjustments slowly. Her clothes in the top drawers. His in the bottom. She puts their books back on the shelves in any order she pleases. She tells herself this is progress, one moved item, one pair of torn boxers thrown away. She swept his beard trimmings off of the sink and into a Dungeon Master’s Guide that rests atop a pile of his unfinished reading material next to the couch. She runs her fingers over its smooth cover at night, feeling the dips and dents from years of use. Wondering if his deep laugh echoed in his heart, wondering if the joy she felt with him belonged to her alone, hoping he found spaces within his darkness to experience joy.

She leaves the bedroom to him. His phone still plugged in. His computer closed. His tablet’s black screen gathering dust. She doesn’t respond to rings or dings. Intruders from outside get the same silence she receives. Glowing cords and charging lights form a shrine to technology, to connectivity, to lifelessness. A tumbler is ringed with lime scale from slow evaporation. His thick glasses are still folded by the bed. She doesn’t like how the sunlight filters through the curtains, casting the room in a reddish glow.

The loneliness is hard. Grief is harder. But, guilt is what lies between her past and her future. Her perception of what was is saturated with smiles, happiness, laughter. Hard times only heralded good times that were to come. Their life together was a structure built by two pairs of hands, each laying bricks from blueprints upon which they both agreed. It rose through their years together, foundation to floors, walls to roof. She never stopped to check if his foundation was solid, if his mortar was strong, if his walls had wide windows to allow in enough light.

She tries to see their life through his eyes. She tries to see the hopelessness. And can’t. The house always seemed strong to her, an edifice of which they both could be proud. She saw sagging lintels and thought they secured them. She smoothed plaster over the cracks. She painted over leaks in the ceiling. Difficulties arise, she told herself. Breaks can be fixed, holes plugged, floors sanded. What she saw as process, he saw as decay. What she saw as fixed always remained broken.

There comes a point at which something is broken beyond repair. Ruined beyond resurrection. She couldn’t understand how he saw himself as one of those things. She didn’t understand until she was a broken thing herself, dragging her feet through a home that belonged to them.

Them.

She spins her empty coffee mug on the kitchen table, hearing it scrape against the finished wood.

He took himself and half of her. He died. They died. And she alone is left to ache over cracks she tried to fix, signs she might have missed. Memories agonize over what could have been done differently, but she has only half the brain with which to wonder. Half a heart, which beats without reason.