Book Review: Streaming Now by Laurie Stone

By Stephanie Gemmell


Postcards fulfill an impulse to share our experiences, concisely capturing moments in time and carrying brief messages to people in distant places. Now, postcards also tend to represent a sense of nostalgia, conveying some appreciation for an apparently simpler time.

In Streaming Now: Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, Laurie Stone’s writing reflects both a motivation to share her ideas and an appreciation for the past. Stone documents her experiences, thoughts, and seemingly random musings from the pandemic, along with some particular memories of her life before its descent.

The “postcards” that make up the book sound and feel like fleeting thoughts grasped just long enough to be put on paper. Many of Stone’s dispatches come from a place she calls “Pandemica,” viewed unsympathetically from her vantage point in Hudson, New York. She addresses a wide variety of topics, in no particular order, realistically capturing a steady stream of thoughts and ideas.

Stone recounts in detail the films and shows she watched throughout the worst of the pandemic. She unabashedly expresses her views on the value and necessity of feminism in frank personal terms. She candidly addresses loss: the death of her sister, the experience of caring for her dying dog. She questions the role of abstract language in the pursuit of social change. She describes her impressions of her early writing career and recounts the details of some gigs she worked as a caterer.

Some of Stone’s paragraphs flow seamlessly through intertwined topics. Others abruptly traverse chasms between disparate subjects. This unpredictability in structure conveys a pervasive sense of movement that evolves throughout the book. While this organizational element of Stone’s approach to the book can prompt confusion or unease in some places, even these reactions seem to support Stone’s intent. Stone shifts topics from sentence to sentence in some places, resulting in a stream of consciousness narration that feels authentic and artfully unedited.

The strength of Laurie Stone’s writing lies in her capacity to integrate evocative description with striking frankness and concision. Even the shortest paragraphs in this book embody Stone’s literary vitality and her palpable resistance to the weight of the pandemic. Her specific yet relatable narratives about mundane activities—buying plants for her garden, partaking in Zoom events, accidentally eating too much of a marijuana gummy—become increasingly engaging based on their apparent randomness and sheer number.

Stone’s writing in Streaming Now bluntly captures the complexity of life, as she details events ranging from the unremarkable to the life-altering. Based on what she includes, Stone’s forthrightness in this book serves less as a literary device than an effort to build real trust with the reader. 

Stone’s writing reflects the value of taking the time to freely capture thoughts as they come, honestly and without inhibition. As a whole, Streaming Now implicitly challenges readers to draw up vivid mental postcards of their own experiences and memories.


STEPHANIE GEMMELL is a writer and composer currently living in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been featured in Just Place ChapbookCapitol LettersThe Ekphrastic ReviewThe Rival GW, and in the poetry anthology Falling Leaves published by Day Eight. She also attended the 2021 Glen Workshop as a poetry and songwriting fellow. She recently graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Journalism and Psychology. Her work is motivated by the unique power of art to ask meaningful questions and inspire authenticity.

Numbers

We had run out of milk. I hurried to the store before it closed. It was a Friday and people had all realized in collective alarm that they had run out of vegetable oil, or Parle-G, or washing soap. I stood behind the row at the counter, a little inconspicuous, waiting patiently. It reminded me of a younger version of me playing football in school. All the other boys would crowd around the ball, kicking furiously and blindly, while I waited near my team’s goalkeeper, praying that the ball remained in the other half. Someone tried to sneak in from beside me. Perhaps a shopping emergency, a packet of salt that could not wait. I shouted, or rather murmured something about maintaining a safe distance. It was lost in the greater cacophony. On my way back I paid thirty rupees to the vegetable vendor sitting by the side of the road. She had only leafy greens. I didn’t need any, but I bought a bunch of spinach all the same. I untied the string around it and fed it to the lone white cow loitering by the garbage bin. She had a moment of vacillation but decided to go with the spinach I held out in my hand. I stood there watching as her jaws made circular crunching motions. She looked almost as bored as I was. When she tried to smell my hands after, I decided to move away, back towards my house.

            I remembered that my last grocery run had been more than two weeks ago. Seemed like a lifetime. I had this feeling that different events in life happened on different time scales. You had this monotony of chores like a continuous low drone of the Tanpura, while other events, births, deaths, bankruptcies, marriages, heartbreaks, played out on some parallel scale, far removed from the daily drudgery. I loved the chores. It was strangely comforting to think that I would be going out to buy a packet of cigarettes or taking out the garbage or washing up last night’s dishes until the end of my time. They were apathetic to everything else but themselves, chores. Almost transcendental. So, it was reassuring to return to it.

            Dad fell ill almost 3 weeks ago. His symptoms were typical. A persistent cough, fever, loss of smell and taste. His O2 hadn’t slipped too much yet, but I had him admitted after a positive test result. I was the one who brought it home, though I was more or less asymptomatic myself. Dad hardly went out since the start of the pandemic. He was happy at home, watching reruns of movies on TV, as long as he had his packet of cigarettes replenished every few days.

            I kept my eyes down, partly to avoid sympathetic looks, real or imaginary, and partly to avoid stepping on shit of every kind on the road. The sun was beating down mercilessly even though it wasn’t yet 10. I felt cool beads of sweat running down my back. Soon, the heat will overtake the day, bake the streets to a crisp, drive stray dogs to slumber in shades and slow down life in this suburban town. Most people will retreat indoors, and all sentient activity will continue in small concrete containers suspended in a sort of universal limbo. There was a sense of waiting everywhere. As if we were children shifting noiselessly on our benches in the final hour of the school day. A woman in a tattered green sari approached me along with her child who was in equally ragged clothing. He must have been 5 or 6. They raised their arms in synchronous appeal, a tired and practiced look of misery on their faces. I searched for change in my wallet and handed over 10 rupees. As their figures receded, I had this strange sinking feeling. Without cause it would seem. It wasn’t new, this sensation. I would from time to time feel like this. Like an unprocessed thought had lodged itself firmly in my head. As if a thought had arrived before its time, before its causes could fully materialize. And then not knowing where to go, it would stay, almost embarrassed of its own existence.

            I must have tried a hundred phone numbers, scrolled through countless WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts. All in search of a bed. Things seemed dire. My whole organizational skills were called upon to demonstrate their ability. I had none. I fumbled through phone numbers, calling hospitals, isolation wards, help lines. I called up the same numbers repeatedly, handed over the same numbers repeatedly – the SRN, the URN, the Aadhar number, the Pin code, the age, the date of onset of symptoms. A profusion of numbers that obfuscated the anxiety. Behind every emergency handling there must be at least 30 digits passed on from one person to another. It was symbolic of a tragedy that had been playing out in numbers too.

            The golden shower trees by the side of the road were in full bloom. Bright yellow flowers hung out in bunches and their dead cousins lay on the ground beneath. They stood as reminder of short-lived springs that gave in to summer’s cruel days. I thought of using this bright yellow palette as background for the current project I was working on. It was a print advertisement for a cosmetics brand that was trying hard to jump on to the pandemic bandwagon. It also appeared that there was a need to justify your presence during a pandemic, that you were socially and ethically conscious as a brand. Especially if you were trying to sell lipsticks, eyeliners, and anti-aging creams to a country trying to locate the next cylinder of Oxygen. I found nothing wrong in it, by the way. Businesses had to survive; people had to look good. At any point there are always some people dying. Our client couldn’t come up with anything better than ‘If you buy our product, we will give a portion of the proceeds to pandemic relief’. I suppose there wasn’t much room to grow in the already saturated hand sanitizer segment anymore.

            The first night after I finally managed to get him admitted to a hospital, he complained of not getting basic amenities, like hot water to drink, a mosquito repellant. The food was apparently unpalatable and the toilets atrociously smelly. He said he was feeling almost as good as new now and was ready to come back home. Maybe it was simply that he did not have access to his cigarettes anymore.

            I ran into Nagesh uncle at the turning into my lane. There wasn’t enough time to react and plan an avoidance maneuver. So, I decided to jump right in.

“How are you, uncle?”

He smiled and nodded. I took it he was doing fine.

“Out for groceries?” he asked pointing towards the bag. This time it was my turn to nod.

“Did you receive the electricity bill yet? We got ours yesterday. It’s a 20,000-rupee bill.”

I didn’t remember if we had received the bill yet. I told myself I would have remembered if it were such a high number. I also made a mental note of setting up online payment for electricity, like I had done countless times in the past. Since the start of the pandemic, I would just send the watchman to pay the amount and give him a 20 for the effort. Before the pandemic it was always dad who handled it.

“I don’t think so, uncle. That is mighty high. Did you check why?”

“Something to do with arrears and correction amounts. Lot of folks are getting similar bills. It’s plain extortion, you know. Government trying to make revenue one way or another.”

I accepted the simplistic reasoning with a smile, said goodbye and moved on.

            He texted me instead of receiving my call, “Difficult to speak”. I think dad hated typing more than he hated talking. His texts would always be succinct. Not a letter wasted, not a comma misplaced. “Reached the tharavadu, thanks”, he would text when he used to travel to his hometown and did not want to bother me during work. I scrolled through some of the old texts where I had blabbered on for an entire screen and he had replied ‘Okay’ or ‘Goodnight’. I called up the doctor after several unsuccessful attempts. His O2 was a bit low, but nothing to worry, he said. I felt like an audience watching events unfolding behind the curtain. I flicked through channels pointlessly. Some claimed the government was doing all it could but that it was the system that was to blame. Others claimed it was the ineptitude of the PM and his sycophants, that they were too busy with their premature self-congratulations and unhinged election campaigns. Over the last year we had watched as our leader’s wisdom, like his beard, grew to saintly proportions. He was the undeniable patriarch now, the father of the new nation. At the moment though he was difficult to locate.

            The old lady whose name I do not remember stood at her gate, mask on, watching passersby. She wore a neck brace. She held her head straight but followed people with her eye. She reminded me of one of those ceramic cat clocks with eyeballs that move back and forth at the hour. Her husband paced behind her, across their small front yard. He was wearing white pajamas and a threadbare vest full of holes in it. They lived a few houses down from ours. I thought she smiled as her eyes followed me. I thought of waving but decided against it. A few days ago, she was out walking in the morning (I want to say on Rajaji street, but I could be wrong). Someone came up on a bike behind her and pulled on her lovely gold chain and sped away. She fell from the sudden jerk, tried to cry out after the assailant, but was left there gasping for words. Police had been informed. A request made to have additional patrolling in the area and dismissed. They did not have enough people on the force for managing the pandemic, they said. I of course got all this news from our local reporter, Nagesh uncle. ‘Basically, they meant, you are on your own’, he had said. I heard him say the word anarchy more than once. He had a penchant for hyperboles. I always felt he would do a good job as a reporter on one of our many newstainment channels.

            When I received the call that day at 7 AM, I was in the shower. I saw through the steam and spray that my phone was buzzing with an unknown number. I let it go on. The few minutes with my head under the shower were always therapeutic. I’d feel a strange tickle momentarily that made me want to both step out as well as stay in. As I was patting myself dry the phone buzzed again. It was the same number. I picked up, naked, my towel on my shoulder. They called me to the hospital as soon as I could make it. I did not probe further. Drops of water from the shower head fell on the faucet below erupting into tiny droplets, some of which settled on my arm. I wrapped the towel around me, cleared the fog on the mirror with the back of my hand and combed my hair. I picked out something to wear and got dressed hurriedly. All the actions I took were exactly the same as any other day. I slipped my right leg into the trouser leg followed by my left leg. I buttoned up before I zipped up. I slipped my head into the neck of the t-shirt before I thrust my hands through the sleeves. All the actions I had rehearsed over decades neatly executed themselves, far removed from the act of knowing or not knowing something.

            The gate creaked as I pushed it open. A reminder for the thousandth time that I had to oil the hinges. I noticed again that the flowerpots lined up against the wall were in disarray. Some were toppled over. I made a note to get it done on the weekend. My cell phone rang. It was Rashmi. I watched the screen come alive with her photo. An old one from our trip to Wayanad. She had put on weight since then. I pressed down on the volume button and let it flicker in silence. I wouldn’t know what to speak to her. We hadn’t spoken in the last 8 or 9 months. We never really had a breakup, only a slow withdrawal. Our relationship was like a terminally ill patient who can’t recall the onset of his symptoms. When pandemic started and we moved back to our homes I think we both knew it was the end of the road.  There were a few obligatory calls in the beginning. Then we called each other less and less often and then not at all. I would still check out her Instagram posts now and then. I hardly ever posted anything myself. I made a mental note to call her back on the weekend.

            When I reached the hospital, the scene was chaotic. There were relatives of other patients, some sobbing, others howling, and yet others throwing abuses at the hospital workers. I made my way through the crowd. At the reception the phones rang continuously. It was insufficiently manned by 2 ladies in white uniform and PPEs on top of it. I told one of them I was called. She asked me to hold on for a minute while she answered another phone call.

“I was told it is an emergency. Can you get off the phone for 2 minutes?”

She looked desperate.

“I’ll call the doctor, give me a minute please.”

I wondered if I should be rushing upstairs instead. But I did not know where dad’s room was. It would have been pointless. I waited, trying to block out the commotion behind me.

“Sir. Sir, please go to second floor. 202. Dr. Garve will talk to you,” the lady called out, phone receiver in her hand.

There were too many people waiting for the elevator. I decided to take the stairs. When the double door to the stairs shut behind me, the noise had disappeared suddenly and I could hear my own breathing, elevated. The smell had gone too, a strange mix of disinfectant and sweat. I took the stairs two at a time.

“Please take a seat, Mr. Rajiv.” He was bald, save a few tufts of hair at the side. A short and stocky fellow. I sat down.

“We are really sorry, but your father’s oxygen level dipped very low, early this morning – around 5 AM. We tried to revive him but could not. I’m really sorry for your loss.”

I must have responded in some socially acceptable way because I remember being in his room for a few minutes. I also remember questioning him why dad was not put on the ventilator. How could the situation get so critical so suddenly. I raised my voice but without the rage to back it up. All I felt was emptiness welling up inside me. It would take some time to claim the body, I was told. There were some formalities still. Someone would help me out as soon as they could. I waited with a group of people downstairs. Some of them asked me if I had lost someone too. I nodded vaguely. I realized I had become part of an angry mob of grievers. There were a dozen or so deaths that morning. Things unraveled fast from there. It appeared there was a shortage of oxygen, or a break in supply for a few hours. The hospital authorities would not reveal all the details fully. Police had arrived by now. They were trying to bring the commotion under control. Some of them were talking to the ward boys, nurses and doctors, taking notes. A few Hindi news reporters had also made their way, cameramen in tow. They thrust their mikes up against my face among others. Someone asked when I had last spoken with my father and if he had been doing well then. I said it was a couple of days back and that he was ok. In fact, when I had called him up he had said, quite plainly, that he hadn’t taken a shit in two days. Partly because the medicines were causing him constipation and partly because the toilets were in such a state that he’d rather hold it in. Then he’d said he’d call or text the next day and hung up. I did not think the reporter would be interested in that sort of thing. It must have been past afternoon by the time I received the wrapped-up body. They suggested I head straight to the crematorium.

             I made myself some filter coffee and came and sat down on the porch with the newspaper. A stray dog lay curled up outside the gate in the shadow of the house. I thought of feeding it some biscuits but couldn’t be bothered to get up and go to the kitchen. I flipped through the pages. There were the numbers as usual, and the graphs. I gave it a cursory glance. An opinion piece by a union minister claimed that we were a resilient nation and that we would overcome this temporary setback. I couldn’t make out if he was talking about the economy or the vaccination numbers or the oxygen shortfall. In any case we were just rounding the turn. It was only a minor blip in the otherwise unrestrained march of a forgetful nation.


Ajay Pisharody is a writer masquerading as a Project Manager in an IT firm and is based out of Pune. He writes fiction, primarily short stories, while toying with an idea for a novel. His book of short stories, titled The Weight of Days, has been published by Rupa Publications. Through his writings he attempts to reveal the literary in the ordinary. Themes of identity, memory and nostalgia recur in many of his works. He has been heavily influenced by writers like Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Milan Kundera and Indian writers like O V Vijayan and Jeet Thayil.

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.

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.

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.