There Is Something Worse

Lillian Barfield

If LeeAnn works at the Dollar General for much longer, she thinks she will become a shrivelled prune on the shelf, identical to the one sitting front and center between the coffee mugs and plastic bowls. Her body will become a dried out piece of fruit and will stench up the whole place just out of spite. Her hands are cracked. They look like they belong to someone who has spent the past three years underwater. Her nails are cracked and the nail polish she put on two days ago has mostly scratched off. Tonight she will put more on, she is not a prune yet, she will still have beautiful hands, but god, she is so tired of putting nail polish over layers of wiry nails every two days. She thinks that tonight she’ll choose the maroon polish and she’ll add sparkles over the top. The light blue sparkles that make everything look a little more like a disco ball. If anyone tells her to take it off, she’ll leave the middle finger alone and tell them where to stick it.

She bends over at the cash register, shirt halfway tucked in, and decides that the amount of cash is correct without actually counting it. Her head thumps on from the migraine threatening to return. She remembers the night before, the swirling of two dirty margs in a Red Bull can that had been cut in half. The smell of it gave her reflux before the swallowing did. She remembers the smell of tequila being poured into dixie cups turned shot glasses and how after five minutes the paper melted. She remembers being alive for the four hours she was drunk and wishing she felt less alive five hours later when she woke up. She grabs the water bottle under the desk and throws back the golden liquid while she swallows her ibuprofen. One of them will help, probably. She wishes they would catch her. She thinks about leaving. She grabs the cash again and shuffles through it mindlessly, before the knocking starts.

She quits fumbling through sweaty bills to unlock the doors and let Cal in, who storms past her and immediately begins taking inventory in the back. He wears burgundy Nike’s to work everyday, tells the manager to take it up with his wife when they tell him it’s not up to dress code because what are they even going to do, its a fucking Dollar General. He walks around the storage room in the back for a full ten minutes just running through his laundry list of tasks for the day before finally settling in on one, deciding that there is nothing as important in that moment than focusing on what he’ll get from Dina’s next door for lunch.

LeeAnn walks in to find him sitting criss crossed on the ground, fumbling through an unlabelled cardboard box. She learned months ago that Cal would rather take twice as long to do one simple thing than rush through a shift and that includes rummaging through a molded and soaking wet box that had been left in the corner of a stock room for weeks on end. She thinks about that dried out piece of fruit again and wonders if he’s a prune too. But he’s not even a fruit. He’s just hollow. LeeAnn wants to know what his life looks like. She wants to know someone else is hollow.

Cal works with his hands everyday and he loses his wedding ring every two weeks. Maybe it’s unintentional. LeeAnn thinks so. She pretends that his hands get too sweaty and greasy from what he does in a day, that his fingers are becoming wrinkled like the prune too, and the ring just slips right off. Some days, she catches him studying his ring, like it’s become a weight that makes slicing through the packaging tape impossible. Some days she sits in the parking lot, right before he pulls in, shifting gears in a thirty year old toyota, and she sees him wipe sweat off of his cheeks; it’s probably sweat. It’s probably just sweat.

***

            Last night, LeeAnn sat on a velvet couch covered in piss stains and faded paint stripes, waiting for her mother to set down her keys and grab the Coors Light on the counter. Monica left it there overnight, so the minute she walks over to take a gulp, she flinches and pours it down the drain. She works at the diner on Main Street, pulls 24 hour shifts. LeeAnn was sure it’s illegal.

            Her mother’s boyfriend, Joe, sits down beside her and asks if she wants a drink. She usually doesn’t, but Joe is already handing her half of a jagged Red Bull can. She takes it gladly and sips on the yellowish liquid for the next hour. She thinks about how Joe probably made this for himself, but Monica gave him a glance across the kitchen and he knew that she wanted the two of them to talk about something, even if it was about tequila in a metal can.

            “Take the rent to Bobby before you go to work tomorrow.” Monica is rummaging through her purse to try and find the crumbled envelope with cash stuffed inside. LeeAnne looks at her through the entryway and grimaces.

“Rent was due two weeks ago, mom.” Monica doesn’t even look up.

“He gets it when he gets it. He owes me.”

LeeAnn knows that. She remembers a year ago when her mom ran into Bobby’s house to write him a check, only to find him tangled in the sheets with the gas station clerk. When Bobby’s wife came by the house later asking if she knew anything, Monica said Bobby wasn’t home and she left the check on the front porch by the ferns.

“It’s been awhile, mom,” LeeAnn tells her. “Eventually, that excuse is going to run out.” By the time she’s finished her sentence, the envelope is sitting on the table by the door and Monica has dragged Joe into the back room for a smoke.

Once she finishes her first drink, she makes two more and soon she’s alone in her own home, watching I Dream of Jeannie and festering over her next day off work. She thinks she’ll call out sick tomorrow, maybe grab Taco Bell before looking at job ads. She’s not sure how much notice she’ll give Cal before she quits. She knows that she cannot dumpster dive through any more cardboard boxes or fling back layers of plastic looking for treasure in disposable bins.

***

She’s in her car now, in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s, three parking spaces from the end, dreaming about the cheesy gordita crunch that she could have had if only they had kept the lettuce off or if she had the gall to take it back to the front. She shifts in her seat, focused on a video of a mother’s testimonial about her child swallowing Drano. She thinks maybe he thought it was liquid licorice, or maybe he just wanted to see what it would do, or maybe there was no other way around it and he needed to know something that no one else knew. But then his mother smelled him burning, literally burning, and she thinks that somehow she is also a Drano swallower. She can’t take the floppy cheesy taco back into the restaurant but she could swallow a gallon of Drano in one quick chug.

She wonders if Cal would do the same thing. She wonders if his throat tastes like ash like hers does. His hands are stained with oil and grime, though she watches him wash them three times a day. His finger is never stained where the ring sits. Her hands are stained with paper cuts and calluses and blisters that pop over and over until they begin to bleed. Maybe she’s projecting, but she thinks that his throat feels coated in plaster, that he never talks to her because he can’t, because someone threw an entire Ace Hardware’s worth of putty into his mouth and forced him to swallow it. She wonders if it was his wife, if that’s why he feels suffocated at work with the ring on, if it squeezes his hand throughout the day, if he leaves it in his car for the twelve hour shift, searching for a moment of peace. She wonders if there is something worse than being shriveled, if there is something worse than being alone.

***

            There is a seven year old boy sorting through the candy at the register while his mom plans out their next meal. She picks out minute rice and a can of beans and looks around the freezer section for a bag of cheese that’s maybe less than three dollars, and when she finds none, she walks back to the beans and decides what else she can grab in a hurry. The kid is wide eyed at the chocolate bars and rainbows in front of him, and his mother is putting back the can of beans for a smaller one.

LeeAnn cannot help herself, so she runs to the back before going to the register to check out the woman and asks Cal, “Why do you take the wedding ring off at Dollar General but leave it on while you’re layering yourself in grease like a beefy five layer burrito?”He throws the box cutter on the floor and walks away, but turns once to tell her she needs to mind her business. She thinks about his hands again, like the world revolves around the oil that has stained its way into the deepest grooves of each finger. She thinks he has to love his wife. She wonders if his wife has found her way into those same grooves. She thinks that maybe he only has enough room for one thing to know him well, she thinks maybe his wife didn’t make the cut.

            The next day, he tells her, “I bought the ring too small after I lost my first one at the beach. I can’t cut the boxes with the ring on or it feels like my finger’s gonna fall off.”They both chuckle and walk in the opposite direction of one another. They both know they’re lying. She doesn’t ask any more questions, though. She stares at the wedding ring, now shining on his hand where the stains used to linger. He cuts open the next box and dives into work and LeeAnn walks back to the front, out the door, takes a five minute break to chug something she had leftover in her car, and comes back in to find the boy has thrown skittles all across the floor.

***

The next day Cal quits, and LeeAnn puts in her two week notice. She can feel herself begin to shrivel and she commits to a job at the thrift store a few blocks away, deciding that sorting through sweaty underwear and used shoes is better than living on the shelf, unused. She wants to remember what it is like to have your breath catch in your throat. The thrift store is not that, but it maybe can be closer than where she is right now.

The first day she walks through the doors, a news story plays over the retro television sitting on the counter about a meth lab exploding, somewhere local. They make it seem like it’s a huge thing, like it was a statewide procedure. It was a small town – her mom would call it backroad bullcrap. It wasn’t high quality meth. But there was a fourteen year old boy there. He walked to his friend’s place. The parents were cooking meth in the back room, poorly, and someone lit the house up, burned the trailer to the ground; no one made it out. The trailer park shook. The trees started to burn. Both of the neighboring trailers started to burn too, the rubber roofs melted into the ground. But the 14-year-old boy was the only person LeeAnn could pay attention to. They didn’t even show his picture on the television, just said something about him being there in the first place.

She imagines what he looks like. He’s such a small boy. He’s probably 5’2” and didn’t get a haircut when he was supposed to. LeeAnn thinks that if he would have known how to drive and how to shift the gears he would have left in time. She doesn’t know the kid’s name and so she pretends it’s Tommy. She thinks if there is a peace in the universe it is burnt orange and smells like marshmallows when you first open the thin bag. She hopes that Tommy smells like marshmallows now. She thinks his hands would have been shaking and he would have fumbled the keys. She thinks his breath would have smelled like menthol, but not like tequila. She doesn’t know if he even smoked, but he was at a meth lab in a trailer park, so he probably did. She thinks his last cigarette would have been dangling from his lips when he jumped the car off by the side of the road.

She thinks he would have driven himself to Trader Joe’s. He would have ran inside and asked the cashier for her number. She thinks she would have laughed and told him no, but secretly wrote it down on a receipt. And maybe Tommy would have thrown the receipt away on accident. She knows that when you are fourteen you have nothing much to live for. That when you are fourteen, living is the worst part. And so she thinks that one year is enough to make a difference and she pretends that Tommy is alive right now and that he is out on a date with the beautiful cashier with the red cheeks and colorful hair clips and that he will go on more dates and become a tall young man and his legs will outgro the rest of him first and maybe that was the only thing he needed. Just one more year.

She throws everything she needs into a locker in the back of the store. They tell her to sort through blankets and clothing for holes and if the holes are small enough to put them on the floor anyways. She does, and she thinks back to the boy again. She wonders if his shoes had holes in them. If he shopped here. If his hands ever held the same door handle hers are holding now. If he ever ran out of the store like she’s doing now. If the cigarettes he probably smoked were Camels or Marlboro or if he tried to roll them himself. So she smokes. She smokes and she thinks of him and she stuffs the rest of her pack into the cement block sitting by the glass doors, and she doesn’t think she’ll touch them again.

***

LeeAnn wonders if being a prune is the worst thing that can happen to someone, after all. Her hands have quickly softened from folding laundry and hanging artwork in the corners of each section of the store. She doesn’t miss the metal shards from broken cans or the splinters she would get from cleaning the loading dock. The nail beds of her thumbs no longer crack and bleed with each flip of a twenty dollar bill. She handles so little money, but her hands are whole again. She remembers the last time she felt warm, the last time her hands didn’t scare her when they brushed against her own skin. She thinks that being warm is more than most people feel and so she decides to no longer shrivel.

While she’s stocking the last shelf of folded towels and fitted sheets, she watches an older woman fumble through the door, her walker hitting the glass door no matter how hard she shoves. She’s trying to carry a box of Old Navy flip flops on top of the walker, so LeeAnn rushes over to hold the door open. The woman’s name is Cheryl. She comes in every weekend with another box. Small things like shoes and clothes, once a lamp, once an old John Deere collectible helicopter, once an old pair of wooden clogs that are still sitting on the floor of the showroom beside the old coat hangers. Her husband died three months ago, and she doesn’t like his stuff to stay in her house. She says it’s all haunted anyways, and James would have wanted it gone. She leaves a box on the front desk every weekend and walks out, without saying a word to anyone. She goes through his belongings one box at a time and brings it all in when she can handle it. It’s been three months. LeeAnn couldn’t expect more from someone after only three months.

Today, she comes in and walks straight toward the section of mismatched cups and bowls. Her eyes are tinted yellow and she is so small, smaller than she was last weekend, already the stature of a gargoyle. She tells LeeAnn that while she was sorting through the cabinets she dropped an old cup. She’d had it since her honeymoon kind of old. She wants to find something else that’s old to replace it. LeeAnn thinks that the old woman is insane, she could drive 30 minutes to get to a Target and buy three cups for half a dollar. But Cheryl sifts through the junk for a few minutes, finds something small and blue that she likes, and pays the dollar for it. She smiles at LeeAnn when she leaves, and LeeAnn wonders if she’ll ever see her again. If there will be any more weekends. If maybe she is going to be the next 14 year old boy on the news, if something unfortunate will happen again. She will make up scenarios for this old woman in a few days and pretend that she won the lottery and took a paid vacation to the Bahamas or went to Las Vegas.

And so LeeAnn decides that being alone is the worst thing you can be. There is something worse than being shrivelled on a shelf and she knows this when Cheryl does not come in the store again, and she does not see Cal again, and the 14-year-old boy did die, and she is slowly curling in on herself, and she did drink the drain-o and nothing even happened.


LILLIAN BARFIELD is a graduate student and writer from Honea Path, South Carolina. She often writes about the people she feels are most forgotten in an effort to never forget them. Her work is published or forthcoming in Sink Hollow, Firewords, and Holyflea.

The Couple on the cliff, or, The Last Story

William Kitcher and

Nick ran along the windy trail, looking behind him. “Come on! Come on!”

Unsure of hearing any response, he continued down the trail to the cliff. Thunder roared, and he thought he heard a gunshot. He reached the cliff and turned around again. “Come on! Come on!”

Staggering down the trail came Caroline, her coat torn and flapping in the wind, blood running down her face.

Nick waved and she saw him. They ran along the edge of the cliff until they found a bite taken out of it, and they began to descend the cliff face. Grabbing hold of rocks as well as they could, they went down, finally reaching a small ledge. Looking about them, there seemed to be no escape.

“Are you kidding me?” said Nick.

There was no response except for the howling wind and the crashing surf below.

“Are you kidding me?!!!” he cried again.

There was no human response.

Nick looked up. “Hey you, the guy writing this!”

“Me?” I said.

“Yes, you, you idiot. How do you plan to get us out of this? We’re going down a cliff face. And there’s no way out. What happens now?”

I felt slightly embarrassed. “I hadn’t really thought that far ahead, to be honest.”

Nick looked at Caroline and then back at me. “You mean you don’t know what happens next?”

“No, sorry.”

Caroline sighed with frustration. “Jeez, man, my head’s bleeding, and it’s damn cold out here, especially with a torn coat. Why is my head bleeding anyway?”

“I don’t know. I thought I’d come back to that.”

“And the gunshot?” asked Nick. “What was that about?”

“I thought I’d come back to that too…” I trailed off.

“Wow, you’re so disorganized.”

“I figured that if I couldn’t use it, I’d just go back and take it out.”

“You’re hopeless.”

I was offended now. “It’s called spontaneity.”

“It’s called logorrhea,” said Caroline, unkindly.

I had no response to that, not knowing what “logorrhea” meant. The wind whipped around their bodies as they huddled together.

“Would you please cut out the sound effects?”

The wind subsided.

“‘Subsided’, really? You couldn’t have just said ‘stopped’. Did you even have to say anything?”

“Well, I…,” and that’s as far as I could get, having no more to say.

“Is this how you always write, just start to write something with no idea what’s going to happen next?”

“Well,” I stammered. “I’m sure by the time I get to the end of this, it’ll look like I knew what I was doing all along. Sometimes I write like this. Sometimes I first know what happens in the middle. Sometimes I know the ending first. Have you read my story ‘The Dawn’? In that one, I knew how it ended and I—”

“No, I haven’t read any of your stories! We’re fictional characters! And by the way, what’s with our names? Why did you name us after your niece and her husband?”

“Well, I needed to call you something— hey, wait a minute. How do you know I named you after my niece and her husband?”

That stumped them, as I didn’t know how they would know that. They said nothing and, because of that, I had nothing to say back to them.

We were stuck in a loop and I was unsure what was happening. Was I writing them? Were they writing themselves? Perhaps even only occasionally? Were they writing me? No, that seemed unlikely. And yet…

The three of us looked at each other for quite some time, perhaps weeks, I don’t remember.

No, it was only a couple of minutes. Which has now stretched into several minutes. And I made myself a cup of tea. And went outside for a smoke. And had a nap.

And I had my answer.

“Well, what are you going to do? Hmmm? What’s going on now?”

I remained silent, just to piss them off.

“Oh really. You’re just going to leave it up to us. You prick. OK. What happens if we go back up?”

“Guys with guns.”

“OK. Can we fly?”

“No.”

“What’s at the bottom of the cliff?”

“What do you want there to be at the bottom of the cliff?”

“A nice comfy airbag?”

“No.”

“How about just water and no rocks?”

“OK.”

Nick and Caroline launched themselves into the ocean, and began swimming.

* * *

The tea had become cold in the half-empty cup on the desk. The three people looked at the man slumped over his typewriter. The grandfather clock ticked morosely.

“No, officer, he was dead when we got here.”

The cop looked at the young couple. “Why are you two wet?”


BILL‘s stories have been published in America, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Eire, Great Britain, Holland, and India. He hopes to be published in Denmark and France, so that he has the first part of the alphabet covered.

Cross-Country

“…hello?”

          “Yeah, can I talk to, uh, Ben?”

            “Hi, yeah—this is Ben.”

            “Okay, it’s just… I kind of thought you’d be here tonight. You know, celebrating a little.”

            “Sorry, who is this?

            “Uh, Theo? We’re in homeroom together? Or, I guess, we WERE in homeroom together.”

            “Okay…”

            “Oh, you know; tall guy, devastatingly handsome, has a purple streak—”

            “Okay, right!”

            “—in his hair? Okay, cool; I knew you knew me. I’m a memorable guy.”

            “Sure, but…”

“Anyway, I’m just calling because I was surprised. You know, that you skipped out. That you’re not here. Like, isn’t it kind of mandatory? You graduate, you sit around in your backyard with Grandpa Joe and Grandma Gert, eating sheet cake off those crappy little paper plates, everybody asking you, hey, what’s next, kid? Like you’re supposed to have everything figured out. And when they’ve all shuffled off to the old folks’ home and the bingo parlor and the cemetery, you head right back to the place you’ve just gotten finished with and they load EVERYBODY onto a bus and next thing you know, you’re on a boat, just circling the lake all night. And everybody’s loud and nostalgic and talking about how they can’t wait to leave and how much they’re going to miss everybody. And all the couples that never quite got around to being couples, well, they take their shot.”            

            “…”

            “Then they make everybody eat breakfast at four in the morning and watch a magician—because what do high school graduates love more than a fucking magician? And your parents pick you up and you sit there in the passenger seat all the way home, your head all bleary. Thinking, wow. It’s time for the rest of my life.”

            “Hold on. You’re on a boat?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Wait, really? They have a phone there?”

            “I mean, I’m practically on a boat. We’re at the dock and they’re taking forever to actually let anybody on. And there’s a payphone next to the bathrooms, so I decided I’d call you up, find out what was so fucking thrilling that you skipped all this.”

            “I mean, I’m watching TV.”

            “What? What are you watching?

            “Profiler.”

            “You skipped Project Graduation because you just couldn’t miss an episode of Profiler? Seriously?”

            “What? No! It’s just on!”

            “Damn. I didn’t even know Profiler HAD superfans.”

            “No, I skipped because who wants to be stuck on a boat for six hours with all your old high school classmates?”

            “Uh, well, all your old high school classmates, for starters.”

            “…”

            “Oh, I’m pulling your chain. I just thought, I don’t know, that you’d be here. That we’d get to talk a little. Figure out what each other’s deals were, right? And maybe…”

            “Yeah?”

            “…take our shot, you know? Find some hidden-away spot on the top deck or down where they keep the bus, sit next to each other. Talk. Tell each other about our childhoods and shit. And if things get quiet—but like the good kind of quiet—I thought maybe I’d tell you that you could touch the streak in my hair, find out how soft it is.”

            “Is it really soft?”

            “Dude, it’s just hair. It feels like hair. But you have to lean in nice and close to see it well, and once you were right in there, running your hand through my hair, it’d be no big thing to kiss you.”

            “Oh.”

            “Is that all you’re going to say? ‘Oh?’ Like I told you I just bought a dirtbike?”

            “I—”

            “Oh. Ben?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Are you touching yourself?”

            “…maybe.”

            “That’s so hot.”

            “Are… you?”

            “I’m on a payphone in the middle of the marina: of course I’m not touching myself!”

            “Sorry, that’s a stupid—”

            “But if I weren’t in the middle of the marina, you know I would be.”

            “Really?”

“Yeah, really. Jesus. You know how many quarters I’ve put in this fucking phone? It’s killing me that you’re not here.”

“Well…”

“Well what?”

“…what are you doing tomorrow?”

“Sleeping until like ten at night! I told you—they’re making us go see a fucking magician at 6 a.m.!”

“Okay, but after that. When you get up?”

“…I don’t know. What are you doing?”

###

            “Hello?”

            “I miss you.”

            “Oh, you just miss my cock.”

            “Well, sure—that, too.”

            “Knew it! But seriously: what’s up, kid? You all moved in?”

            “Yeah, pretty much. My folks are out trying to find a minifridge that’ll actually fit under this tiny desk, and I keep changing my mind about what poster gets the place of honor over my bed—”

            “Got to be the Bowie, right?”

            “I am leaning that way, yes.”

            “What about the roommate? Have you met him yet?”

            “Yes.”

            “…is he cute?”

“Yes. But it’s not like I’m looking.”

“Oh, when he’s changing in front of you, I bet you’ll be looking.”

“Theo! This isn’t a sorority movie, okay? He’s just some guy from Iowa. I’ve got you, he’s got some girl from his hometown who sewed him a quilt that’s all monogrammed with their initials and they’re planning to get married and have like 70 babies the moment he graduates. So whether or not I look at his dick, there’s nothing to worry about, okay?”

“…okay.”

“Come on, I’ve got everything I need with you.”

“I know.”

“What about you? What are you up to?”

“Up to? It’s like midnight here—I’m just about to brush up.”

“Right. Sorry, I keep forgetting about the time difference. But things are good at the sandwich shop?”

“They’re all right. My boss is still kind of being a bitch, though. Like, who knew that two-dollar bills were a real thing? It was an honest mistake!”

“…”

“Anyway, sorry to vent.”

“It’s fine! I asked!”

“Okay.”

“But the thing is, I kind of need to head out. They’re having, like, a welcome mixer for all the freshman and I feel like I should probably go.”

“…”

“But I’ll call you tomorrow!”

“Okay. Have fun.”

“Thanks, I’ll try! Sleep well, babe.”

“Well, I’ll try…”

###

“…yeah?”

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? You haven’t called me in, like, eight days. Are you still coming?”

“Well…”

“Theo.”

“It’s just, the country’s so big. And you know I hate buses.”

“You were the one who wanted to take the bus! I offered to help pay for a flight!”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. High-roller throwing around his work-study money. Thank god he’s there to help out his no-account boyfriend, who can’t even keep a job making fucking sandwiches! It’s a BLT; it’s not hard. Like, who can’t make a BLT? And it turns out the answer is: this guy.”

“Theo.”

“I’m sorry—I’m just a fucking mess right now, you know? Even if I could afford it, I’d be terrible company.”

“I don’t care; I really want to see you. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too, kid.”

###

“Hello?”

“…”

“Theo?”

“Look, this was never going to work, and I should have known it from the fucking start. We sit next to each other for a whole year, never say a goddamn word, and then, after one phone call, I suddenly think that I’m in love, that this is some swing-for-the-fences, long-haul kind of thing; like you can be a fuck-up for nineteen straight years and then just fall ass-backwards into something perfect—”

“Listen, Theo…”

“—but life’s not like that, not really. Looking back, I don’t even know how I ignored the central obvious problem here: you leaving. I mean, you were leaving from day one, moment one; you were leaving before we ever fucked or kissed or even spoke, and there was never anything I could have done about it, right? You had California in your eyes and that was all you could fucking see.”

“Theo, are you… high?”

“I’m fucking sick of it. You don’t love me—if you did, you never would have been able to leave. And if I really loved you, I never would have LET you leave. So this is really for the best, for both of us, whatever you might think. And I don’t know why I’m so concerned about your delicate fucking feelings, like it’s more important for me to be quiet and polite and thoughtful than to be real with you, like it’s not fucking suffocating to hold things in and in and in, until you feel like you’re going to goddamn explode, until there’s nothing left inside of you EXCEPT for all that stuff!”

“I never—”

“Yeah, that’s right! You NEVER let me be me, okay? You snuck me into your house like a secret, like somebody you were ashamed to be seen with—sure, you’re happy to take my cock in your ass, but god forbid you treat me like an actual boyfriend.”

“Theo, are you serious? I brought you to my mom’s birthday.”

“And look, I’ve got to go. My hands are, like, shaking, and my heart is beating and beating, and I think I’ve pretty much said everything that I had to say. So, goodbye.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Goodbye? Just like that?”

“Just like that. Goodbye.”

###

            “Uh, hello? Who is this?

            “Hey there, stranger.”

            “…Theo?”

            “You got it, kid. Look, I know it’s been kind of a long time—”

            “It’s been a year.”

            “—but I don’t know, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately. And I was thinking, you know, what’s that crazy kid up to these days? So I thought I’d call, just to check in. Like, I know you’re probably still doing the college thing, living that California life. Acing tests and shit, the way you always used to, hanging poolside—”

            “You know I don’t know how to swim.”

            “Still? Man, you should get on that. Anyway, if I know you, you’re all amped up about studying abroad, trying to pick between Germany, because you got that family over there, and some place that’s new and exotic like Colombia or Thailand or some shit. And you’ve been thinking about me and how it all went down because you’re worrying about leaving your new guy back in Cali for six whole months—and you do have a new guy, right?”

            “Yes.”

            “And he’s that super-Christian guy who was going to have all those babies, right?”

            “…yes.”

            “And you’re kind of worried that while you’re off living it up in Bogota, he’s going to be babymaking with a bunch of other guys…”

            “Farley loves me; he wouldn’t do that.”

            “Farley? Dude, of course that’s his fucking name. You two probably spend your school breaks at his family’s rustic goddamn cabin in Idaho—”

            “Iowa.”

            “—just riding around on sailboats and making cocktails on the porch and, like, foxhunting, or whatever guys named Farley do in their spare fucking time.”

            “Why are you even calling?”

            “What, I can’t call? You’re too busy with Farley and his starched-collar family to talk to me for a few minutes?”

            “I was fucking worried about you, asshole! Your parents called me, said they couldn’t find you, didn’t know where you were. They thought you were dead! I thought you were dead! And now you just ring me up like nothing happened, like it’s no big deal, and you start giving me shit about my new boyfriend—who is a TOTAL sweetheart, by the way—like I’m the one who broke up with you. Like I’m the one who fucked somebody else when we were together…”

            “Kid, if you’d seen the ass on that guy, you would have done exactly the same thing.”

            “That’s bullshit, and you know—”

            “Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t have, but you would have fucking WANTED to.”

            “…Theo, where are you?”

            “Where do you think? Still back home. Chilling. You know, it’s pretty crazy to think that we’re talking right now like we’re sitting across from each other at that booth at Lucky’s, but really there’s, like, thousands of miles betwen us, all those cities and highways and mountains, the Mississippi, the Continental Divide, the Grand fucking Canyon, and the only thing tying all this together is a wire the size of, like, a shoelace that’s stretched the whole fucking way.”

            “Seriously, where are you? I can hear people shouting and… do your parents know that you’re okay?”

            “They know, all right? Don’t go pretending that you’re, like, some family friend who’s just concerned for my parents’ wellbeing. You’ve never even met them, all right? You’re not their son-in-law or something; you’re just somebody I used to fuck. And don’t forget that YOU were the one who used to beg for more, who used to cry because it was so good.”

            “…I loved you. You don’t need to piss all over that, okay?”

            “…”

            “…”

            “Hey, I’m sorry, kid. I was just pulling your chain a little. Talking about the past gets me all keyed up sometimes, but I didn’t mean to take it out on you. Anyway, I got to bounce. I’m almost out of phone time and they get real cranky here if you go over.”

            “They? Who’s ‘they,’ Theo? Where are you really?”

            “We’ll talk soon, kid. Promise.”

###

            “…hello?”

            “I know it’s been a while, and I haven’t been the most together, or the most open about what’s going on with me—”

            “Theo? Is that you?”

            “Listen, I’ve been going through a lot of shit, which we can talk about another time, but going through that shit made me realize some things. Like, I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to the way I can talk to you. And also that I was an ass to you—like, repeatedly. Constantly. And that you would have been well within your rights to just hang up on me, or refuse to take my calls…”

            “You always call from a blocked number!”

            “Just, just let me finish, all right? I’m trying to say that it means a lot. You’ve been real decent with me, and you didn’t have to do that. Any of that. You’re a good person, a kind person—I wish I knew how to be as good to me as you are. It used to kill me to sit in my shitty little room in my parents’ basement, thinking about you off in California, living it up in some beautiful fucking dorm with Spanish fucking tiles on the roof, but now it feels right. Like we’ve each gotten what we deserved. And maybe that’s okay. I don’t need the things you have, the life you live, and if anybody should be living it, it’s you.”

            “Theo…”

“Don’t think I ever stopped loving you, okay? Because I haven’t.”

“Theo, where are you?”

“Still with that guy?”

“No. Not for a while.”

“I’m downstairs. At the payphone by the front door.”

“…I’ll be right there.”

###


T.B. GRENNAN was born in Vermont, lives in Brooklyn, and once read the entirety of Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus while stuck on a delayed plane. His writing has appeared in The Indiana Review, The Seventh Wave, TIMBER, and Spaces We Have Known, an anthology of LGBT+ fiction. The initial drafts of Grennan’s piece, ‘Cross-Country,’ were written during his participation in New York’s Hypergraphic Writers Workshop.

Lonely Laundry Boy

Open the door. Halfway in, always halfway in. A full cup right? Right. Normal. No, not warm. Cold will be too cold. Cool it is then. Extra Rinse? Extra Rinse. Close door. Locked. Fill. Perfect. The lock clicked and the machine turned. I quickly opened the round black lid and put my bum in first, then shoved the rest of my body in. My neck creaked as it adjusted to the embossed cylinder. I held my breath as though it would make my body smaller. Even with my knees touching the tip of my nose, the door just barely closed. It had been a while since my last wash, the ick had become heavy on my skin. The drum twisted once, then twice trying to gauge the weight of the load— of me. My toes screamed in pain as they tried to anchor me through the intervaled spins. I sighed as the heaviness of the ick began to settle into the ridges of the drum. It had been a while since the ick had been this bad. With overeager people being overly friendly and constantly being called upon in class, the ick had managed to infiltrate my clothes and lodged itself in the small fibres around my joints. I hadn’t tried getting rid of it with this washer yet so we were really living life on the edge.

The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention as the water poured into the drum. Please work, fuck, please work this time. I had rigged the lock of the washer when I moved in. It would lock, unlock and instead of lock again, it would stay unlocked for a minute so that I could get inside, and then lock again. I didn’t expect facilities management to fix said lock because no one would use the washer but me, I made sure of that. Now that I think about it though, the Out of Order sign that took me a few minutes on Word and a handy dandy inkjet printer nearby might be something that could lead them on if they cared enough. The entire point of it was to figure out whether or not the rig had worked. I don’t really want to think about what would happen if it didn’t. The water wooshed into the drum and stopped right under my neck. The machine stopped for a moment, both drums stilled, and my heart dropped in my chest. My softening nails dug into my palm and my shoulders slumped. Great. I’d have to reposition the magnet, try a new rig or maybe a new machine even.

Just as I was about to push the door open, the soapy liquid flowed into the drum. The strong gush of water made the Mrs. Meyers Basil laundry detergent bubble on the surface. A heavy sigh left my clogged lungs. It used to make me gag, the foamy liquid, I mean. It’s like when you get shampoo in your eye and it stings. This wouldn’t sting though. Instead, it would sink into every crevice and scrub out the ick. The washer kept getting more and more cramped as my limbs grew longer but nothing worked as well. My eyes shut and my breath eased as the knots in my shoulder unwound.  Mam had been on my case a lot more this week, Da hadn’t been home for a few days. Things had got better between them once I’d left, but they still fought enough. The tension in her voice floated through the sound waves and settled in my bones. It’s not that she was a bad mother, it was more so that her tough love coupled with the unexpressed feelings was a little too tough at times. People around me didn’t get why I’d get angry. Matt didn’t get it either even though he tried to offer countless ways to talk about feelings. Boxes of Camels lay in my bin and my lungs hurt. I hated tobacco but it helped when my brain knotted together and fought with everything and everyone who cared.

The pressure of the water squeezed my lungs and the tobacco dripped out of them in globs. The ability to breathe without feeling any pain was magical. The back and forth of the washer made the thoughts in my head hit against my skull aggressively. They were trying to escape, they always did that. The small bump in my head had been a favourite spot of theirs but today they were hitting every surface they could. It was slightly abrasive and it felt like they were trying to achieve a goal— ridding themselves of sin and dirt by hitting against my skull again and again. It had been hot today, maybe I should’ve cared more about paying attention in class and being better but it didn’t matter when the sweat kept pooling under my clothes and clung onto each thread of my red shirt. Mam had also said something about being a good child, maybe even a better child, right before hanging up. But I wasn’t a good child, there was all this ick on me. After a few whiskeys, she always slurred at me about God, and sin, and the reward at the end of spiritualism that was only granted to the good souls. What the hell did good even mean? It was frustrating trying to figure it out but I trust the cycle knew the answer, it always did. I squeezed my eyes shut as this week’s ick eroded against my skull.

The dull gurgle of the valve opening made all the gunk drain out in a long whoosh. Instantly, the extra rinse kicked in. The water gushed out the valves and flowed through another, sloshing against me aggressively. With each flood of water, the sweat, not nice feelings, and anxiety kept being pulled out of the atoms. Clothes always came out looking happy after a wash, maybe this time I would too. It was almost time to leave the ridges that supported me and soaked up all the ick through the cleanse. Some gushes came in tidal waves, and despite me holding my breath, they made me splutter like a fish, before draining out. I had learned to hold my breath for those three minutes back in middle school. I was on the swim team and a few of us used to faff about and see who could be underwater the longest. Whoever won got a fiver at the end. The spinning kicked in the compressed drum and squeezed the broken bones and sore tendons together. They were crushing into each other, molding into one another wherever they fit with the magic that ran through the washer. The little jingle of the washing machine rang in my ears. Guess I was done for this week. I pushed the door open and dangled whatever bit of my body I could out the front, like a fortune cookie fold.

“You should wear running shorts,” came a voice from the far end of the room. I didn’t expect anyone to be here.

“Excuse me?” I craned my neck towards the voice holding onto the cold comfort of the steel.

“You’re wearing jeans, jeans get really heavy in the wash. Aren’t you uncomfortable?” She turned back towards her basket and kept putting things into the drum.

 It was almost three in the morning, why was this girl in polka dot pajamas doing laundry right now? The only reason I came down at this time was because no one used the machines at this time so it was easy to carry out my compulsions. Ah, I see, she’s here because it is three in the morning and no one would be using the machines. She had a point though, why had I been wearing jeans for so long? It made sense to wear something that was lighter and wouldn’t absorb as much water. Truth be told, wet and rough denim had always been a little bit of a pain.

“I never thought of that before.” I picked at a loose thread on the denim.

“Exactly. So wear running shorts next time.” She hummed to herself and threw in the Tide pods.

“You’re right, running shorts would dry quicker.”

“And they wouldn’t chafe either.” I couldn’t help but agree with that. The chafing was always bad after a particularly rough spin.

I nodded at her and made my way out of the washer. My spine cracked in relief once my feet were firmly on the white tiled floor. If it weren’t for the humming of the radiator, she would have been able to hear just how old I felt. I attempted to say goodbye, I wanted to know her name but her back was still to me. So I just left. My legs felt heavier now that I was actually paying attention to the denim. I was surprisingly not dripping all over the place but I guess that’s why washers spin at the end for a while. I got back to my dorm and lay on the floor. The stale smell of the heating overpowered the gentleness of the Basil that, moments ago, flooded my senses. I had mopped that morning so the floor wasn’t as disgusting as usual. The beige linoleum was cold though. The wet clothes pressed against my cool, damp skin and made me feel cold. Maybe the temperature would help keep the other shit away. I could feel my eyelids struggling to stay open. Just a few more minutes, I didn’t want to go to sleep just yet because then I’d have to wake up and do tomorrow. The denim remained moist and all I could think was yeah, running shorts next time.


JUSTINE ANTHONY is a simple human trying to get by in the universe concentrating in classics and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Some day she hopes to find the perfect laundry detergent and fabric softener combination and spread the word far and wide. Until then, she is content learning dead languages and cooking tofu.

211.971° F

In the driveway off the road, look at that little car, soft rust creeping over its chipped paint. See the rotting wood stairs, how they’d creak with age if anyone was left to climb them. The bones of a cat lying by a long empty bowl, coated in the thick gristle of decaying flesh. The dishes piled in the sink, with rich swirls of mold the only life left here. Let your gaze finally rest upon the overturned tea kettle, cheery bright blue.

Once, the kettle poured liquid love for its owners. Once, it was chosen for its color, favored. Blue shades are splashed throughout the house. Those accents only owned by the comfortably unaware. The dish towel, the welcome mat, the blanket tossed over the couch. The boiling water still pouring from the kettle has made its way there, hissing faintly under the sounds of the still running television. The channel flickers, news of a bombing in the deep South turning to a cheerful salesperson selling the latest microwave technology.

The woman seems distant, unaware of the boiling water making contact with her hand as it drapes over the side of the couch, unaware that the water is slowly swallowing her home. You would think her body vacant were it not for those eyes. Those terrible, terrible, open eyes, a scream felt in their frantic movements. She must feel it all, you realize. She must see how the kettle was wrong, all wrong.

Oh, that pretty blue. How it deceived her in the shop, lured her in. Somehow it was the shade she’d looked for her whole life, perfect for her. Ten dollars, the woman in the shop said, and she was so friendly, so kind. Of course the woman bought that perfect kettle, with its shining spout like an anglerfish.

She drove to her home in the countryside and thought only briefly of the heat creeping over her. A strange spike for October, she thought, but still, she took out her mug, measured out the leaves so carefully. A connoisseur, this woman of ours. Her tea comes from China, you know. She has it shipped over specially.

If only she were so careful with her other purchases. If only she hadn’t sat there while the water boiled, watching the news. She practically tempted it. The poor kettle can’t resist an easy target, and oh how enticing her skin was. Water loves to move, and fire loves to burn, and the woman loved her little things.

How long she’ll sit there, undying, not alive, with the water slowly taking more of her, one mustn’t guess. Speculation only distracts you from what’s important.


FIO CUMMINS GARBER is a teenage writer and poet in the Colorado area. Their work has previously appeared in student magazines and on Tumblr under the username honeysweetdisaster, where you can find their thoughts on love, soulmates, personal growth, and small acts of witchcraft.

Our Favorite Writing Prompts

It’s that time of year when the weather is changing, the world is being quarantined and folks are looking for new sources of inspiration and solace. Check out some of Inklette’s favorite writing prompts below to spark your creativity!



PROMPT 1

You’re sitting across the table from a character from your current work in progress. How do you start the conversation? What do you talk about? Are they talkative or reticent, joyous or subdued? Do they answer questions freely? What do they ask you? What do they notice about the world?


PROMPT 2
(Best done in a walkable place)

Pick a number between 1 and 10. Start walking, and when you reach an intersection, flip a coin. Heads, you go right; tails, you go left. Do this for as many times as the number you picked in the beginning. Write a short story set in the location that you end up in.


PROMPT 3

Choose an object near you or in front of you. Do each of these for five minutes: Ask questions to the object. Describe the object in as much detail as possible. Write the origin story of the object. Write a first-person narrative from the point of view of the object. Draw associations with the object– what else does it look like, what does it remind you of, what does it make you think– and talk about it without naming the object, using metaphors or similes. 


PROMPT 4 

Make a list of topics you would never write about, followed by a list of words you would never use. Then, write a poem on one of those topics and use as many of those words as you can.


PROMPT 5

Choose any letter from A-Z. Write the first stanza without using the letter you chose. Now choose a second letter. Write the second stanza without using the second letter as well as the first letter you chose. Keep going for 5-6 stanzas in the same way.



An Insider’s Guide to Viewing the Night Sky

           If you’re going to count the stars you can’t stop without counting them all. The trouble is in losing track of what’s been counted and what still needs counting. The obvious solution is to section off parts of the sky, string boundary lines between the memorable standouts, clusters to divide, kingdoms to create, without repeating a single one.

# # #

          It took my landlord 23 weeks to evict me. She showed up at the door with an actual cop, wringing her hands and speaking slowly. I could tell she had rehearsed. For her benefit I pretended to be surprised. In a way, maybe I was. When you’ve gotten away with something for 23 weeks — avoiding windows, burning letters — you begin to think it will last forever.

# # #

          I paid the cab with money I borrowed from my dad’s wallet. I’ve never tipped anyone in my life. I took a dump and read an article ranking fifty of the season’s best hunting knives, then made a sandwich and opened a diet Pepsi before turning down the TV and greeting my father.

“Food in the fridge,” he shouted, his voice unused to a quiet TV. I never felt he was anything but happy to see me. Sometimes that thought made me cry.

“What’s on?” I nodded towards the TV.

“You need money?”

“Sure,” I said, and handed him his wallet.

          We ordered pizza and watched Death Race 2, The Shawshank Redemption, and several episodes of Lodge 49. My dad fell asleep in the recliner, his wallet empty. I took my sleeping bag into his bedroom. Memories and dreams are hard to separate, moments morphed like personal fables, but the dark particle board suffocating that room always reminded me of being a baby in a crib, running my fingers down the rough slots where the boards intersected. I imagined the walls were darker now, the carpet denser with whatever it was that age retched into the places of our past. In my mind it was all the same. I hardly looked at the undusted photographs fading in my mother’s frames. I didn’t need to.

# # #

          My father told me that rent would be chores. He seemed happy to say something like that to his full-grown son, like he’d been waiting all his life for it. I couldn’t imagine why. I had never known him to care about work.

         I rummaged through the garage and brought out the mower and a tool I assumed was for pruning, but before I could get going it started to rain. I clipped a couple branches and returned to the couch, my father’s snores reverberating from his armchair. The rain outside tapped like a beggar on the glass. I turned up the TV. 

         That afternoon I helped my dad into his jacket and drove him to the doctor. He didn’t mention the mower by the driveway, the pools of rainwater collecting in its curves.

“Nice weather,” the receptionist said. My father smiled.

        In the waiting room I thumbed through candids of actors and rock stars, lamenting how normal they looked in bathing suits or at restaurants, pushing strollers and arguing with their wives. I liked them better on the screen where they looked perfect and beautiful, impossibly smooth. To think of their success as unachievable because of their perfection, it made it easier to live a life like mine. A life like my father’s and, I guessed, his father’s before him. “One day at a time,” my father would say. “That’s all you can ask for.” Ambition, purpose, direction: they meant nothing to people like us.

         A nurse came into the waiting room and said my name. I followed her through a hallway that smelled like piss and bleach. “You can have a seat here,” she said, then left. My dad smiled at me. He was propped at the end of the exam table, naked beneath his smock. His ankles were stark white with purple and red splotches and his arms mostly matched. I noticed that someone had folded his clothes on one of the extra chairs. I took out my phone then put it away.

When the doctor arrived she shook my hand.

          “Your father’s condition is not improving,” she said. I couldn’t decide how to react. My dad and I rarely talked and when we did it was definitely not about our health. “Heart failure and stroke are now very serious concerns. Inevitable, it seems to me.”

           She proceeded to lecture about lifestyle and diet, about options for in-home care. Doctors always made me feel guilty. 

“How bad are we talking?” I asked. 

She made a sad little smile and handed me a sheet titled “End of Life Solutions.” 

“I suggest you start taking this seriously,” she said.

# # #

          We went for ice cream on the ride home. We ordered from the same window my father used to lift me up to see into, but the menu held no splendor. It was chipped and peeling. Mildew stained the sill. The server wouldn’t look us in the eye as she listed off the flavors she was out of.

          “Sorry,” my dad said. “About all this.” He waved his arm weakly. “I should have told you. Or left you out of it.”

           I tried putting myself in his place, his colorless tongue scooping rivulets off his cone. Maybe you reach an age and you stop caring. Maybe you care more and more as the reality of life sets in. Or maybe age and caring have nothing to do with it. I handed him a napkin to wipe his face.

# # #

           I made sandwiches for dinner and we watched The Fugitive, Independence Day, and MASH until my dad fell asleep in his recliner. With the TV still flickering I took my sleeping bag onto the uncut grass, feeling its wetness creep through the down and into my clothes and skin. The sky was a million miles away.

           You have to pick a place to begin. Pick a point and know that no matter what, you won’t return to it. You have to draw lines. Cut it all apart and string it together in a way you won’t forget. A way that moves you forward, only forward, so you’ll never go back and count it twice. Because if you did you’d risk every piece of progress, risk losing it all as the sky twists past, twisting so to start again would be a new task entirely. 

An entirely new sky with entirely new stars to count.

 

END


LUCAS LEERY is an educator at a maritime history museum in Maine. He likes noisy guitars, unhinged sentimentalities, and falling asleep on the beach. Some of his stories have appeared in Mad Scientist Journal and Sorrow: A Horror Anthology.