Ally Ang

Collective Invention

My daughter was born in a flood of saltwater, her body still and tangled in kelp. As the midwife pulled my baby out from between my legs, she gasped, her stern pockmarked face turning as pale as the moon. 

“Oh god, what’s wrong?” I asked, still delirious with pain. A final agonizing contraction shook my body as I delivered the placenta: a thick, slimy mass of algae and brine. My husband’s hand, which had been steadfastly gripping my own as I labored through the night, grew slack as the midwife whisked my baby away to cut the umbilical cord. She did not cry. She did not make a sound. The room was stiflingly silent, my question hanging in the air unanswered.

There are stories, ones my mother used to tell me as I drifted off to sleep, of women who loved the sea so much that they became it. Women who would go to the shore every morning as though it were their church and offer pieces of their soul in exchange for some kind of rapture. If the ocean deemed them worthy, it would transform them, webbing their toes together, turning their blood brackish, ripping gills into their necks and peeling away their human skin to reveal iridescent scales beneath. Once the sea had claimed them, they were never seen again. Some said that they drowned, others said that their transformations were simply an excuse to begin new lives with secret lovers, but I knew the truth: they were free. 

When I was a girl, I used to pray to be transformed like these women. I went to the beach whenever I could, skipping school and sneaking out in the middle of the night just so I could touch the shore and feverishly beg the ocean to possess me. I longed to shed my body, already laden with shame. By eleven years old, I had started filling out into what my mother called a “womanly figure,” unfamiliar curves reshaping my body seemingly overnight. Though I had once been invisible to the world, suddenly I found myself subject to whispers, stares, rumors, and the lingering syrupy glances from men that I didn’t fully understand, but that left me feeling shaken and bare. 

I wasn’t sure what it meant to give up a part of my soul, but I would have sacrificed anything and everything to rid myself of my lungs and limbs and legs and hips and become one with the sea. My efforts seemed futile: occasionally, I would cough up saltwater into the sink or find a clump of algae growing in my armpits, but the transformation I so desperately longed for never came. As the years passed and I settled into my new identity as a wife, I stopped my daily pilgrimages to the sea. The time I once spent dreaming was now occupied with housework, cooking, preparing for motherhood. I tucked my desire into my apron pocket, out of sight. 

When I found out I was pregnant, I waited almost two weeks before I told my husband. This tiny, strange creature growing inside me felt too precious to share with anyone. As I took my evening bath—the only time I was left alone with my thoughts—I would run my hands along the slight, nearly imperceptible curve of my belly in wonder. For the first time, my body felt miraculous.

The moment the midwife put my daughter in my arms, I knew my childhood prayers had finally been answered. Her black fisheyes stared blankly at me, mouth agape, gills opening and closing uselessly as they searched for water. Instinctively, I unbuttoned my sweat- and blood-stained nightgown and gave her my breast. While she suckled, her tiny teeth gently grazing my nipple, I touched her chubby human leg and counted: five perfect little toes on each perfect little foot. I closed my eyes, content.

When I woke the next day, my husband was already gone. He had taken all of his belongings with him, leaving no note, no trace of his presence. I did not weep: already, his face had begun to fade from my mind into a cloudy memory. I filled the bathtub with warm water and sea salt and climbed in, clutching my baby to my chest. Together, we sank into the water, and I closed my eyes as my daughter kicked her tiny legs and swam around the tub. Soon, it would be like he had never existed at all.

I loved my daughter so fiercely I began to fear that all that love might break me. It welled up inside me until my ribs ached and my stomach swelled. Every night I would fall asleep in the bathtub holding her tight, and every morning I would awaken with my fingers and toes wrinkled like shriveled-up raisins. Occasionally, I did find myself wishing that I could brush my daughter’s hair or buy her pretty dresses, or that she had a hand for me to hold. But I cherished every part of her: her velvety soft fins, her knobby knees, the way her shining grey scales seemed to melt into her smooth flesh.

Though she could not speak, we learned to communicate in other ways. When she stamped her feet or splashed her fins, I knew that she needed to be fed or cradled or put to sleep. Fearful of the neighbors’ loose lips and judgmental stares, I did not dare bring my daughter into town or enroll her in school, but we were more than content to have just each other. I spent hours telling her stories, the same ones my mother told me and new ones that I made up just for her. I told her of the ocean, which I had begun to think of as her other parent. Like me, she enjoyed those stories the best, listening to them in enraptured silence. Unlike me, the ocean had already chosen her. It was already running through her veins. 

On her eleventh birthday, I finally took her to the sea for the first time. In truth, I do not know why I waited so long—perhaps I was afraid the ocean would try to reclaim its gift from me, or my daughter would choose the freedom of the sea over the confines of a porcelain bathtub and her mother’s suffocating love—but something in my gut told me it was time. She toddled beside me on the sand, still clumsy on her human legs, as we made our way to the water. The other beachgoers made no effort to hide their whispers and stares as they gawked at her, but we paid them no mind. Our world had long ago shrank to just the two of us; everything else was white noise.

At the shoreline, I anxiously watched my daughter, unsure of what would happen when she finally touched the ocean for the first time. Though she had never seen the beach before, I could tell immediately she knew she was home. With an air of solemnity, she lay down at the edge of the water, digging her toes into the sand. I wanted to reach for her, to pull her back into the safety of my arms before it was too late, but I stopped myself. As I held my breath and waited for the tide to come in, I looked into her eyes, as still and black as a saucer filled with ink. Her mouth opened and closed as though she were trying to speak, but she did not make a sound. At that moment, a wave crashed onto the shore and engulfed her body, pulling her out to the sea. 

The wave receded, leaving only seafoam where my daughter had been.


Ally Ang is a gaysian poet and editor based in Seattle. Their work has been published in The Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Find them @TheOceanIsGay or at





Maxwell Suzuki

How a Gecko Grew its Tail Back

His voice, a crashing of tormented cymbals over the phone, was what I imagined a waterfall stuck in winter would sound like. The rush of falling water below its thick, icicle shell. And, in part, it reminded me of a nature documentary I had seen once in my college dorm. The stiff rattling of David Attenborough’s voice combing through the past. A narration that had haunted me then and didn’t ease my anxiety as he spoke. I focused on the irregularities of his tone because I had known of his glacial voice before—afraid to become a sanded erratic.

The man, of course, was a neighbor lost, at first, to the collapse of the housing market, and then to the calving of his decade’s long marriage. He must have called me when he found my number buried deep within his phone’s dusty contacts, now begging for forgiveness.

I first met him at a church potluck the summer before 6th grade, where he bent down to meet my eyeline and extended his hairy arm for me to shake. He introduced himself as Anthony to my single mother—and Tony to me. When I began to question why, he plucked a Deviled Egg from his platter of a dozen and placed it on my paper plate—already soggy from watermelon rinds.

The fear in my eyes, an animal stilted in an empty plain, prompted him to explain that Deviled Eggs don’t actually mean they’re from the Devil—just that the Devil had been beaten out of them. It worried me that eggs were evil in the first place.

That Sunday afternoon, my mother had learned of his wife Sherri, their two sons (I forgot their names years ago), and that they lived at the end of our cul-de-sac in a house the size of two blue whales. After, he invited us to weekly barbeques with Sherri and the kids. My mother, being unceremoniously kind, agreed.


I learned during our cookouts that his sons were eerily quiet. They ate their cedar-smoked ribs in silence, their bluffs of potato salad without a word—even kept their conversations below a strained whisper. I confronted them about this once in the shade of their Willow tree. The older one, freckles the size of pregnant ticks, had said that if they were super quiet and still, no one would think they existed. The younger one only nodded while picking at the tree’s sappy bark, some of it collecting at the nubs of his fingertips. And when I asked them why, their answers faded into the hiss of the patio grill.

My mother thought Tony was a great orator. He told stories about his prickly sweat in the Middle East, the emptiness of Dubai before the oil boom, his failed farm venture afterward. First with peas, then radishes, and finally two sons. I understood why she found him to be captivating—the golden rings in his eyes, the brandish of a genuine smirk, the way Sherri was never home.


One summer, my mother, rich from nail salon tips, brought me to Disney World. I could only remember the blazing concrete after, the way I could trace Mickey on the burn of my forearm—a white outline against dying skin.

As we were headed back to our hotel, my mother’s cheeks pinched between my knees, we paused to watch a flock of ducks. Their bodies hovering on glass, their bills all pointing south—to somewhere we wished we could see but couldn’t. My mother saw the shadow first—a tinge of brown among so much green. Then its eye, a yellow band encasing a black diamond, trained its gaze on the flock.

She made me close my eyes. My warming Dole Whip splattered on asphalt. Then a pulse of a dozen birds took off at once, finally a silent shudder. When my mother said I could open my eyes, we had walked too far to see if there were any ducks left. I asked her where they had gone, though she never answered.


I first learned I was a reptile the summer I met Tony. The thieving chill of a rainstorm forced us into their house—the sound of a leopard in chase on the roof. When he suggested we should play Hide-and-Seek, his sons had slithered into the confines of their room. And my mother, drunk off box wine and his charisma, encouraged me to play. How do you play Hide-and-Seek if you’re the only one meant to be found?

I hadn’t known the expanse of his labyrinthian home until he began counting. Doorways led to innocuous bedrooms and dressers—where I was always on the lookout for a cartoon alligator pit.


If given the opportunity, most animals would prefer to hide if they were aware danger was nearby. Conserving energy—beyond being eaten—would be a reptile’s main concern. Best to be still and beg to be blended into the surroundings than to be spied on from the guts of a swamp.


With only a few seconds left, I found the master bedroom, and within it, his closet. It’s able to hide a reptilian body behind shale and shackle. And as I snuck into its bowels, the doors hinged jaws bit the tip of my index finger. I could feel the rising pitch of a distressed scream bleed from my mouth. When I was silent again, a stream riding the cliff of my cheek, I had forgotten about the hesitance of Tony’s sons.

Naturally, he found me. The closet door opened, then slowly shut behind him. The darkness holding me stiff.

When I talk about Tony, what I really mean to talk about is the hunt. I felt his lips on my finger—the rotting iron of a muskeg. This was what it must’ve been like to be that duck in an Epcot swamp. How hard the duck must’ve tried to flap its wings and fly; how easy it was for those jaws to clamp down.

I left the closet, a kiss branding my fingernail, wanting only to feel the pinch of that door again, and not his hot breath.


That week, my fingernail bloomed into a lavender field. My mother never asked why, instead she offered to paint the rest of my nails a similar shade of purple. She didn’t want my teachers to question the single welt brewing within me. What did it mean for a mother to know of the alligator’s sins and not how to save the meat it relied on to live?

I laid out my fingers on our kitchen counter as she gave me camouflage. Maybe somewhere in her brushstrokes there was love. Or guilt. Or shame. I couldn’t tell because her hands were as steady as they had always been. If I told you my hands weren’t also shaking—the grip of fake granite below my fingers—I would be lying. I would also be lying if I told you I liked the color.

Purple is ugly; alligators are ugly; the crooked doorframe of a master bedroom is ugly. Gazing into my bruised finger that day, I believed that I was ugly. And I thought a thin layer of nail polish could make me pretty again.

In a month, my fingernail fell off, which left a bed of puss and the birth of a new nail. In a month, everyone asked me why I only had nine fields of chipped lavender. I didn’t have the words then to say that Crested Geckos could lose their tails if they felt they had become threatened. I couldn’t tell myself then that they could continue living with parts of their souls ripped from their bodies.


The episode where David Attenborough explained the escape of a Crested Gecko was the same one where I waited in my college dorm for the pills to explode within me. The tail had been removed, so why hadn’t the body also left?

I remember watching how the crack of an alligator jaw nearly ate the whole body of a Crested Gecko. Luckily, in its instinctual desire for life, the gecko sprinted from the majority of the danger. After the gecko was safe on the branch of a Cypress, the movie showed the slow regrowth of its tail in a panning time lapse. The molt of its body at first unsettling—and then beautiful. How still it had stood before reclaiming the parts of itself taken without consent.

As the pills began to smudge my vision, the panic of my finger made me vomit across my coffee table. And when my roommate cleaned up the mess, he didn’t ask why. Instead, he held me as if I were a child that had never grown out of his trauma. He apologized as if he were Tony—as if he knew what it meant to take away from something that had nothing left to give. Afterward, I struggled with bulimia. But I was still alive.


When Tony explained himself over the phone, there was nothing left for me to do but keep silent. There was no forgiveness to give. I didn’t have a revelation—didn’t want to hold my head up high and give him the space to apologize. Often when we talk about trauma, we forget to search for what was lost. We want tangible things: explanations, regret, pain removed from the bodies we were grown in. All things that cannot be given back.

I kept silent when I heard his sobs over the crackle of the reception. And after a minute of his blubbering, I ended the call. He would call again and again, hoping I would answer and forgive, but I didn’t.


Alligators, like all predators, beyond the safety of their mosquito-infested waters, become fragile. They are both slow and easy to capture. Then tamed, killed, and finally eaten. Boiled or stir-fried or grilled or baked or stewed or mashed into something completely unrecognizable. Then, they will become tasty. I heard once, from a friend who lived on the precipice of the Santa Fe Swamp, that alligator meat tasted just like chicken. I suppose then, that chicken must also taste like survival.


Maxwell Suzuki is a queer writer who lives in Los Angeles. Maxwell’s work has appeared in trampset, Anti-Heroin Chic, Kissing Dynamite Poetry, and The Hellebore. He is writing a novel on the generational disconnect between Japanese American immigrants and their children. You can find him on Twitter @papasuzuki or on his website





D.K. Lawhorn

Tu me manques

Some nights I wake up because I have forgotten how to breathe. Panic overtakes me. Sweat covers my body. Lungs aflame in their need for air. Every neuron is convinced I’m being suffocated by the blanket of nothing covering my face. But it’s not nothing. It’s a lack of something that smothers me. I never mention this idea, of course, because that would mean the shell shock is winning. According to my handlers, what I experience on these nights is too deep of sleep. My mind drifts so far from consciousness, it shirks its new responsibility of drawing my each and every breath. This explanation is more actionable than mine, so I go with it. Solution: I do not allow myself to sleep soundly anymore.

God, I miss you.

Eating is the easiest thing to overlook. A year after you, when my handlers finally feel comfortable enough to let me try handling myself, I fail to eat for over a month. This isn’t done out of any direct choice. I never had to be bothered by something as pedantic as feeding myself when I was with you. I don’t notice my unintentional hunger strike until I wake up back in a sterile bed, surrounded by hospital and military uniforms. The lead doctor sticks the long needle of an IV in my arm. I was apparently mere hours from starving to death. A nurse tells me I’m lucky my main handler arrived three days early for our monthly chess game.

Truth be told, I haven’t felt lucky in a very long time.

Other bodily functions are even more troublesome. It’s not that I don’t feel them coming. I just don’t want to break away from whatever it is I’m doing, and my decades with you made me lose the ability to hold it. I’m learning, though. Not fast enough. My handlers put me in diapers to reduce the mess. What’s more embarrassing than a grown man in a diaper because he can’t bring himself to go to the bathroom when he needs to? Me, the star Pilot of the Foreign Legion’s 221st Mechborne, reduced to a diaper-wearing simpleton.

Life was so simple with you.

Basic motor functions are basically gone. I’ve recently graduated to holding cups without assistance. The paper cone ones, mind you, just to be safe. Regular cups are still too dangerous, because now that I’m without you, broken glass can hurt me. Plus, the sound of their shattering pulls the trigger of something deep inside me that doesn’t stop firing for hours. I can’t hold a pencil or strike the keys of a typewriter with any accuracy. I must dictate all my correspondences to this beautiful orderly who has the loveliest handwriting I’ve ever seen. He types twice as fast as I can speak, but I ask him to write as often as he feels up to it, so I can watch my words sprawl out from the tips of his fingers. I make him to bring such beauty into this world.

The artistry we used to make together: my commands; your hands.

My short-term memory is fried. I lose myself in the middle of sentences, the topic of conversation completely forgotten. I ask for a gramophone and some of the Moroccan records I remember from my boyhood days before France conscripted me into the 221st Mechborne. I get a fancy radio set instead, along with the promise that all of the music I could ever want is on the various Parisian stations. I can’t remember any of the dial numbers. My main handler tapes a note to the side of the radio. On it are the numbers for the more popular stations and what plays on them. None of them are labeled ‘marocaine’. She says she penned the list because music has proven beneficial in severe cases of shell shock. It’s a pretty lie. One I let her get away with. In truth, she is tired of walking into my apartment to the chattering gunfire of radio static and me whining on the floor, in the throes of another episode. I forget about the note immediately and start ignoring the radio set. When I want music, I sing to myself. Snatches of songs I recall floating from a gramophone’s horn and filling a house time has nearly erased from my mind. These half-remembered lyrics tremble from my lips as I sit in the wooden rocking chair by the big window overlooking the Pont Neuf and the lazy Seine flowing beneath. I pretend I’m performing a concert for the men, women, and children who are enjoying a stroll across my bridge.

You would sing to me in the most vibrant vibrato every time I wanted a song.

My long-term memory, however, is fine. Too fine, apparently. My main handler loves talking about the War. She’s convinced having me relive my good times with you will help lessen the severity of my bad times with myself. It doesn’t, but I try to humor her. She always avoids Verdun, though. I get curious about her eschewal of the topic, so I sneak a look at my file while she is in the bathroom. It is difficult, but I manage to turn the pages. My first feat of close-to-normal dexterity since you. The 221st is convinced I have no memory of my last deployment. I’m the only Pilot who made it back, so they have no other cases to compare me to. I’ve been willing to talk about anything asked of me. But not once have I come close to mentioning Verdun. I thought my reasons were obvious. My main handler’s working theory is that the trauma I sustained during my extraction was enough to wipe those ten long months from my mind.

How I wish this were true.

At some point in each of our weekly meetings, my handlers ask if I suffer from nightmares. I don’t. As I said, I no longer allow myself the type of sleep needed to get them. Breathing’s more important than dreaming. They should be asking about daytime terrors, which I do have. All the time. A Bentley trundling over cobblestones becomes a German sturmpanzermecha crunching over a collapsed wall. A session of skeet shooting with strangers wearing friendly faces turns into a hail of anti-Mech rounds. A simple trip and fall due to the atrophy still plaguing my legs sends me plummeting down to the fields of Verdun—all turned to mud and muck by the blood soaking them—my body cradled inside an inoperable you. If my handlers won’t ask about these events, then they don’t need to know about them.

But I never kept any secrets from you.

I never ask anything. This isn’t a new development. The 221st Mechborne instills an extreme independence in its Pilots-in-training immediately after conscription. This is meant to make Pilots superior. Put us above all other conscripts who, according to our handlers, whine all the time and ask for everything under the sun. I ask for the first time in my life while sinking in that Verdun ocean of blood. They slice through your body to get at mine. Peel back your hard metal to pry out my soft meat. When I realize they mean to remove me from you, I plead to be left to drown in the steam spraying out of the fatal injuries covering your body. The poilu don’t listen to me. I can’t blame them, though. The medics who pull me away from you are trained to turn off their ears when saving Pilots from their dying Mechs. My breaking of the 221st’s golden rule of no asking is forgiven due to my suffering from ‘severe and acute psychosis brought on by shell shock’. This is how my handlers rationalize my preference of death over being separated from you. Even though they know you and I have spent nearly thirty uninterrupted years together, shell shock is their precious logic they assign to me begging to die alongside you. Because it is curable. Because I will eventually get over it.

They don’t know I still silently beg for the same thing every single day.

My heart stops beating quite often now. This is the most painful of all the changes. It occurs in moments of high concentration: reading a gripping book, playing a particularly tricky match of chess with my main handler, working through the physical fitness examinations the army likes to spring on me. Thinking of you. The doctors call it an arrhythmia. Say I will have it for the rest of my life, or at least until I pair with a new Mech who can bio-regulate me again. Every Pilot who has ever retired from the 221st has developed a similar heart condition. The doctors say it’s natural. And it is. But not in the way they think. They believe our hearts are used to being guided by complex machines and can forget themselves without the aid they have grown accustomed to. That’s too clinical for matters of the heart. I know what’s really happening. A heart can’t beat correctly when a large piece of it has been torn away.

They assign me another Mech today. 

German sturmpanzermecha tear up idyllic fields all throughout the Low Countries. 

The 221st demands the return of its best Pilot. 

This Mech is new, top of the line. 

And not you.

Some days I drop what I’m doing and force myself to stop breathing. I stay in this suspended state for as long as I can. It’s surprising how well my body does with no air. Minutes pass. I make it all the way to ten. My lungs grow annoyed, then angry, then desperate. Black spots intrude on my vision. My head swims as if I’ve just swallowed a bottle of fine champagne. An old drinking song gets stuck in my ear. My mind is so set on this task, my heart stops beating. I get so close, but I suck in a ragged breath right before I reach my goal. I want to be smothered by the lack of you, but I am nothing if not a coward without you.

God, I miss you.


D.K. Lawhorn (he/him) has stories that have appeared in Pyre Magazine and Haven Spec, with upcoming pieces in khōréō magazine and a Flame Tree Press’ First Peoples Shared Stories Anthology. He is a citizen of the Monacan Indian Nation and lives on his ancestral land in Virginia with his legion of rescue cats. He is studying Native Speculative Literature at Randolph College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Follow him on Twitter @d_k_lawhorn or visit his website at




Sarah Williams

A Study of Emotional Mathematics

In this next section, you will be presented with three theoretical situations. Each situation requires the precise application of advanced emotional mathematics to reach an acceptable conclusion. Be aware that in some situations no non-lethal conclusions are possible and only less-lethal conclusions can be achieved. Be prepared to consult Quimby’s Algebra of the Affections, the Bible, and page six of today’s Mirror. Try to avoid projection-based empathy with the fictional constructs in these situations. They are not real and should not be regarded as such. If you experience difficulty in this area, raise your hand and an Equivocator will come to assist you. You have two hours to complete this section. 

1. A young woman meets another young woman and falls in love. They work at the same department store on different floors. The first young woman is named Adela and the second young woman is named June. June has short dark hair which she cuts herself and which smells like jasmine; she works in a cosmetics store which is aimed towards young countercultural people. Adela, who has dark hair also, likes to watch June’s quick clever hands arranging the rows of lipsticks, like many-colored flowers in beds, each with its own precise click and release. Adela begins to think about June more and more. She wonders what sort of movies June likes, and if she is simultaneously afraid and fascinated by splatter movies like Adela is. One night, somewhat drunk, Adela masturbates while thinking about June. She climaxes and is immediately overwhelmed by shame. She feels that by using June’s image as a sexual stimulant without June’s knowledge or consent, she has involved June, consciously or not, in a sexual situation in which June had no say. Due to various events in her earlier life, this thought is unbearable to her. She is disgusted by herself, and wishes she was dead. She does not go to work the next day. Even when she does return to the department store, it is a week before she can look June in the eye. 

A month later, June asks Adela to a movie. Adela, ecstatic, says yes. They begin a relationship, and for a time it is wonderful. Adela cannot remember ever being happier. June is funny and kind and spontaneous and strange in exactly the sort of way that Adela hoped the first person she fell in love with would be. It is as though a second sun has opened onto the world, bathing everything in clean new light. Adela tries to ignore the guilt about her previous behavior, which still lingers in her gut, chewing and chewing away at her like a starving rat trapped between her ribs. It doesn’t matter, she tells herself. It happened only once. It will never happen again. She does not feel that she can tell June about it. 

June sometimes goes to parties and uses cocaine. Adela accepts this, because of the stereotype of a beautiful, fascinating, self-destructive woman, which has been sold to her by her mass media. One night, June comes home very late, while high on cocaine, and gets into an argument with Adela. During the course of the argument, June strikes Adela across the face and then leaves the apartment. When she returns she is immensely apologetic and says that she will never strike Adela again. Adela says okay, although she does not believe her. She is right to not believe her, as the next time June uses cocaine, she pulls Adela’s hair so hard that clumps of it come out. They aren’t arguing this time, they’re just lying next to each other in bed, and June reaches over and grabs Adela’s hair and pulls and a white blade of agony stabs down into Adela’s skull. She screams, and June covers her mouth with her other hand. 

A few weeks after this, June comes home while Adela is asleep and climbs into bed next to her. She puts her hand in Adela’s pajama pants, waking her up. Adela, tired and afraid, says no, I don’t want to, come on. June says just want to mess around. Adela says no, June, I’m tired. I don’t want to. Get off. June says you want to, I can feel it. She begins to kiss Adela’s face and the side of her neck and puts her hand inside Adela’s underwear. Adela says no one more time and then gives up and lies there still as June touches her. She is aware, vaguely, that this is wrong, but a familiar still cold feeling has closed over her body and she cannot move. She doesn’t want June to be angry at her, not simply because she is afraid of the pain that June can inflict upon her but also because she loves June and does not want June to be upset in any way. So she says to herself, you did this to her before she even knew your name, what you did is just as bad as what she’s doing now, and lets the guilt climb up into her throat until she can feel nothing beyond it, not even June’s fingers inside her. 

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a thunderstorm lasting less than two hours
                  b) a billboard slogan containing the letters a, b, o, e, g, s, h, w, j, l, v, and q
                  c) a public interaction between a short-haired tabby cat and its owner?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

2. An eighty-year-old man named Jason has a fight with his granddaughter Sylvia. Sylvia is Jason’s only surviving relative and wants money to go to graduate school. Jason does not feel that Sylvia needs to go to graduate school, and also he has very little money of his own. Sylvia tells Jason over the phone that she never wants to speak to him again, and then puts the phone down with a resounding crash that makes white static leap through Jason’s head. Jason decides that she is a frivolous bitch like her mother. He knows that he will feel bad about thinking this later, but he thinks it anyway. 

Later that day, Jason hears from one of his neighbors about a break-in which took place in the vicinity of his neighborhood. Supposedly the victim was an old man living alone, which is rather unpleasant for Jason to hear. To change the subject, he complains to the neighbor he is talking to about his granddaughter, and she commiserates about her own granddaughter, June, whom she recently saw in a picture on Facebook with her arm around another girl, wearing a t-shirt that said BOYS OPTIONAL. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, the neighbor tells him, it’s just that I want her to be happy, and that seems like such an irresponsible way to live your life, you know? Jason nods and reflects on how deeply he dislikes most of his neighbors. He thinks about his wife, Tricia, who died fifteen years ago. He remembers how they met in 1965, and even then she had told him that she sometimes slept with girls. He had been surprised, then fascinated; it was the first time the idea of female homosexuality had ever occurred to him as a possibility. After they were married, they were faithful to each other, but they would still sometimes confuse waitresses at restaurants by flirting with them simultaneously. He had loved Tricia very much. Sometimes he looks back at her and is astonished by how much he loved her. It seems almost impossible, from his vantage point, that he had ever loved someone so much, even though he was there and it really happened. 

In a daze, Jason goes to a nearby gun store and buys a handgun and some rounds. After purchasing them, he is rather baffled by himself—he’s never really been a gun person—but resolves that safe is always better than sorry and having a gun in the house will certainly be helpful if he is burgled. That night, as he sleeps, he is awakened by a sound and filled with fear. He goes around the house looking for the source of the sound but finds nothing at all. The next morning, he decides that he needs a smaller weapon, something that he can have immediate access to, so he goes online to buy some knives. He can’t settle on which knife is best for him, so he buys all of the ones that have good reviews. It costs about a thousand dollars. 

The next night the sounds are there again, and again there is no one in the house but Jason. Jason realizes that knives are still fairly deadly, and he doesn’t want to deal with the legal hassle of killing someone, so he gets a baseball bat. On his way home, it occurs to him that the burglars may come in a group, and if so none of his weapons will suffice to protect him. He goes to the gun store again and gets himself a shotgun and some shells. After a moment’s hesitation, he also buys another small firearm, so that he can put it in the bathroom and be prepared if someone attacks while he’s taking one of his long, stiff, trips to the toilet. 

It rains for the next few nights. Jason doesn’t sleep much. He considers the possibility of death and resolves that he will do anything necessary to prevent it from coming in violence and pain. Tricia’s death was agony; liver cancer, fifteen months in a hospital bed, screaming and vomiting. Jason doesn’t want to die like that. He doesn’t want to die at all. He almost calls Sylvia, and then remembers that she doesn’t want to talk to him. It doesn’t matter, he decides. He doesn’t want to talk to her either. He has more important things to do. 

A week later, he contacts a company that installs home security systems. He wants the works, he tells them; cameras, motion detectors, a keypad for every room. It will take about the same amount of money as Sylvia asked him for to help her go to grad school. He is aware of this. He says sure, I can pay that with a feeling in his stomach that is something like sickness and something like exultation. He has all these guns and no one to shoot. He has nowhere to be but his house, so his house will be the safest place on earth, the only place where death cannot trespass. There will be no death in his house. There will only be Jason, sitting in the corner with his guns and his knives and his baseball bat, always awake and ready for anything. 

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a phone call in which no words are spoken
                  b) the sound of a child crying outside a window
                  c) a poorly-marked patch of slippery ground?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

3. Linnea has gotten the lead role in her college’s production of Tosca. She loves opera and is very happy to have gotten the role; she knows that it will be difficult, and is prepared to work harder than she ever has before. The director is a music professor, Professor Mulhaven. The night after the roles are posted, Linnea calls her dad and tells him she got the part. She is so excited she almost cries. 

Later that week Linnea realizes she has a paper due Friday and has forgotten to work on it. She spends the rest of the week furiously researching and writing, and by the time the first rehearsal rolls around, she has not had time to memorize or practice any of her songs. She arrives in the classroom completely unprepared. Professor Mulhaven, who encourages his students to call him Billy, is deeply unimpressed. Jesus, maybe we should have given the role to someone else, he says. Linnea promises to be ready next week. I’ll believe it when I see it, Billy replies. 

At the next rehearsal, Linnea is ready. She has her lines memorized and has practiced for several hours in a rehearsal room. She feels confident and sure right up until she gets up in front of her castmates and sees Billy looking at her with an expression on his face that can only be described as a sneer. She opens her mouth and nothing comes out. Her voice, the only part of her she has always been sure is beautiful, the part of her that her father described as a gift from God, hides in her chest like a wounded animal. Oh, come on, Billy says loudly, and a few of the other cast members snicker. Panic moves through Linnea like a surge of electricity and she squeezes her voice until it leaps out of her throat, but it sounds thin and whining, like a child’s. Billy wrinkles his nose. I have to tell you, that was terrible, he says, when she’s finished. Here’s some advice: learn how to fucking sing before you come back here. 

Later on, Linnea will think that this is the pivotal moment. This is the first moment he says something truly, deeply, inappropriate, the moment when one of the other cast members could have said this is wrong and reported him and made it all stop. But no one says anything. Everyone is smiling. All their smiles look like the same smile, and it is not a nice expression. 

At the next rehearsal, Billy invites all the others to say one thing they don’t like about Linnea’s performance. When one of the boys says that she’s afraid of high notes, and then adds also she’s gained weight, Billy nods and says good point, to another round of snickering. Linnea starts to feel very tired all the time. Her best friend Sylvia, who is going to another college, tries to Skype with her and Linnea avoids her; she doesn’t want Sylvia to see her face. She doesn’t know why she isn’t saying anything. She’s played the lead in other performances. She could just leave. She could tell someone. But she imagines saying to some faceless implacable figure beyond a desk, they said I was ugly, they said I was stupid and I couldn’t sing, and that thought is somehow more unbearable than any future cruelty she can picture. 

At the next rehearsal Billy sniffs at her face and tells her she’s drunk. She’s not, and she replies to that effect, at which he declares drunk and a liar, too. And then that’s a thing, another weapon to be used against her. Someone pours a beer into her bag during class and she loses most of her written class notes and has to get her computer fixed. Billy pinches her stomach and says you know, I’m pretty sure that Tosca isn’t supposed to look like a pregnant cow. She gets a D on one of her midterm projects and stops going out to meals. At rehearsals her voice starts to sound like glass scraping. It’s ugly. She knows it’s ugly. It’s the only thing she’s ever been truly good at, better than anyone else, and now it’s ugly, and she’s ugly, and the world is ugly. Her life dwindles to going to rehearsals. The thought that she could tell someone occurs to her less and less. Billy grabs her face, forces her mouth open, has the other cast members smell her breath and say that she’s drunk. He stands right in front of her, his face almost touching hers, and tells her to sing and she can’t. She stands there with her mouth open and nothing coming out of it but a sort of wheezing moan. She can’t sing, she can’t make a sound, and she stands there for what feels like hours and everyone laughs and laughs and laughs. 

She wakes up in the night, but it’s actually the daytime and she’s slept through all of her classes. She thinks, I hate him. She thinks, I wish he was dead. She thinks that she’s a bad person already and nothing she does is going to make her a worse person. Almost without meaning to, she does some research and finds out Billy’s home address. He has a wife, three children. She finds herself standing in the kitchen of her dorm, holding a kitchen knife, and for a moment she considers cutting her throat before realizing that she can’t. She doesn’t have the courage to kill herself. What she has is an endless rotation of dreams where she’s stabbing someone and the blood is bright and sweet and it opens her throat up and she can sing again. She can sing into the darkness.

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a throwaway line in a pornographic movie
                  b) a glass of spoiled milk
                  c) a tube of film falling off an end table in the middle of the night?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

Bonus questions: Is love always good? Have you ever truly been in love? Are there things worse than death? Do people ever deserve to die? What do you owe to the world? Is it possible to entirely divorce your relationship with your parents from your basic anger at having been born? Are you actually a part of your body? Can you ever truly know anyone? 

If you finish this section of the test before the time is up, turn it in to the instructor at the front of the room. Sit in your chair. Put your right hand on the right side of the chair and your left hand on the left side of the chair. Wait for the instructor to announce the time, and then leave the room without speaking to anyone.


Sarah Williams is pursuing a graduate degree in religious studies at the University of Chicago. Her work has been previously published in Room Magazine. She lives in Indiana with her partner.





Guy Melvin

The Prototype


The underground strip mall was used by high schoolers, some of them old students of mine, as a destination for kissing, jerking, smoking, sucking, graffitiing, loitering and other displays of fleeting fun. Many of the same kids who came for lust and destruction also frequented Kedar’s video game rental/VCR/VHS player repair shop. He’d sold new games but the thefts became too much. They all but ceased when only scratched, outdated rentals remained. Save for a billboard on an abandoned building downtown, and the transient gentlemen who danced in a googly eyed VHS-tape costume at street level holding a sign that advertised our weekly specials, you wouldn’t have known we existed. 

For the past few months Kedar had extended his Friday lunch breaks to two hours so he could amble the narrow linoleum-lined corridor to Toya’s and get his nails done. 

“This could be the weekend?” 

“Will it?” I asked, inflecting a tinge of optimism to the word “it.”  

“You don’t think so?” 

“It’s been how many years since y’all got together?” 

“Well…” Kedar thought. “At least three…of us living together.” 

Kedar had seen a psychic located across from Toya’s who’d told him a ring was in his future. The psychic could not elaborate, and so he interpreted it to mean marriage. For the first few days he was relaxed, complimentary of my work, buoyant. Soon this turned to concern over his inability to afford a grand marriage. I reminded him that the ceremony wouldn’t be big, because neither his nor Farhad’s family would likely come. He agreed and for a brief time his general buoyancy continued. This didn’t last, and as his mood became bluer, I noticed him looking at his hands more and more. So often that he was unable to do the simplest of VCR or VHS player repairs. He, in turn, noticed my concern and told me that if he wasn’t to have a spectacle, his announcement photo would need to be “memorable as hell.” His hands, after years of being shoved into tight, small, sharp places, had paid the price with hundreds of tiny cuts. Richly brown hands told the story of his profession in loosely connected scars, a lightly colored patchwork of shiny skin, raised above the non-marked skin like islands from the sea. An archipelago; I thought it sort of beautiful. 

But he wanted to record the moment Farhad put the ring on his finger. He wanted this moment, “the start of their forever,” to look as grand as he knew it to be. He didn’t think his hard-working hands would read as “grand” when played back via VHS. The scars were there to stay, but he figured that his nails could at least be pretty, pretty enough to pull attention from his hand and back towards the ring being placed on it. The psychic had neglected to provide him with any date or series of lucky numbers, so he chose to be prepared. Making sure that his nails were done to perfection weekly, just in time for the weekend, a time we both agreed it seemed most proposals occurred. 

“Are you leaving him hints?” 

Kedar frowned. “I don’t think I can.” 

“Why not?” 

“That’s messing with destiny, or something.” 

I considered this for a few moments. “Can you just go back to the psychic?” 

“She’s usually wrong, and I’m already spending too much on these damn nails, I can’t afford her incorrections too.”  

I was happy for Kedar, even a bit jealous of his single-mindedness. Farhad was a good man, handsome, had a job. One didn’t need to commune with the other realm to know that marriage, if not in the immediate future, would serve both well whenever it occurred. For the sake of his worry and wallet, I wanted the marriage proposal to arrive. Conversely (selfishly) I didn’t want to jeopardize the recurrence of my boss’s two-hour sojourns, because they gave me, in the midst of a twelve-hour shift, opportunities to indulge my own personal life. At first this had meant scrawling “be back soon” across a piece of paper, taping it to the door, locking up, and quickly walking a mile to one of the adult theaters downtown. Construction workers in neon vests and paint-splattered jeans, along with bank clerks in ill-fitting Men’s Warehouse suits, made their ways down the sticky aisles for the matinee rush. Some watched, others participated. When the scene grew stale I’d find myself considering my future. My hand down some dude’s Lee’s, his hand down my swishy trackpants, I’d catch myself thinking about my age, weight, or bank account. A series of numbers that were always either too high or low. I’d come enough, so I began using the time to rearrange my future. Heading downtown to the main library branch, going through job listings. Old book musk sat heavily beneath high marble ceilings. The sounds of heels clicking, the hush of lowered voices, and strained creaking of old chairs were as familiar and welcoming to me as the spitting, stroking, and groaning of the theaters.  

This particular Friday I was headed in the opposite direction, uptown for a lunch meeting with my brother. He was around for a conference, and wanted to discuss something which could benefit my working future. Ada, a graduate of my freshmen computer class, arrived exactly five minutes after Kedar left. She’d once, like the other teens, used this space as her vice den away from home. Now a senior, she too had her eyes on the future. I began paying her a little to watch over the store while I was away on Fridays. At the end of the school year I would write her a letter of recommendation and act as a reference for whatever cashier, sales associate, clerk, or stockroom assistant job she hoped to get come summer. This would be her internship. 

She entered with the informally alert air of a fellow conspirator. “He left?” she asked in a hoarse tone barely above a whisper. 

“He has. I’ll be back in…” I looked at my watch “Ninety minutes.”  

“Cool.” She took the keys. “Can my friend come through?” 


“No reason, I think they want to see that expansion of the mindset game.” 

I was already heading out the door with my bag. “Just them, and put everything back as it was.” 

“Thank you!” 

“Okay,” I responded over my shoulder with a firm smile that I hoped conveyed the trust I was placing in her.   



The uptown 77 bus was already at its stop when the escalator rolled me above ground and onto the mid-afternoon street. Somehow, the daylight always managed to surprise me. For an instant I allowed myself to enjoy its warmth before jogging to the 77’s open doors. From my seat, I watched Casper doing a two-step into a box-step so elaborate for such a bulky suit that he nearly dropped the sign reading, “You break it we fix it! 30% Off!”  

More of a bar than a restaurant, the place my brother had chosen served great nachos. The kind containing the right amount of both real and canned cheese which blended into an even spread across all the chips. I was licking salsa from my fingers and finishing a second beer when he began explaining the plan that he and his business partner Jerome had fit me into. 

“You’ve got experience in education, working with kids…” 

“Mostly teens.” 

“Exactly, and we’re going to pitch our idea to North Ridge Hospital using an actual kid as a part of the demo.” 

“Okay, the robot idea?” Not wanting to seem rude, I glanced as briefly as possible at my watch. I had about forty-five minutes to finish up and get back to Ada.   

“Well, no, but sort of. At this point in development, the robot isn’t as much of a robot as it is a very expensive doll.”  

I nodded with the polite inquisitiveness of a unbiased TV news anchor speaking with an alien abductee. “Would you like me to help with it?” 

He told me that the technology wasn’t quite where they needed it to be—not yet, at least. He wasn’t sure it would be, but it certainly wouldn’t be any time before his Saturday morning demonstration to hospital investors. It was too late for him to delay the meeting, and far too late for them to return any of the seed money which had already been, as he put it, “invested into other avenues.” Using a sports metaphor about a final quarter audible that I barely understood, he told me that I was being brought on as “sort of distraction.” 

“You’ll lead them left so that they go right.” 

Once again, I nodded. 

“You’ll discuss your own experience as a computer science instructor to teens or kids and your knowledge of machine learning. Give a long drawn-out speech about the potential of this new technology, but highlight the limitations and how expensive making the vision a reality could be for them.” 

“Okay, so once I’ve done that they’ll want to pull out from this whole venture?” 

“Maybe. Well, hopefully. That’s when Jerome will introduce them to the other prototype…” 

I interrupted, beginning to see where this was going. “The actual prototype?” 

“Right, this is the one that we can produce. The only one we’ve been able to.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a purple teddy bear with large green eyes. “I want this to be the future of pediatric care.” 

I looked at the “future of pediatric care,” sat there between my empty pint glasses and our dwindling basket of nachos, looking more like a psychedelic Teddy Ruxpin than a savior of sick children. “At what point do I tell them I work in a video game rental/VCR player repair shop?” 

He laughed and gestured for me to pick the bear up. I did and, feeling the heft of it, asked, “What’s it supposed to do?” 

“Improve their moods with pleasant conversation, study their emotional responses, vitals, and learn when they’ll need a nurse or doctor before the doctors or nurses have to figure it out. At this point it’s early on, but it’s got so much potential.” He reached for the nachos. 

“What does it do?” 

Apparently, not much. Reality had yet to catch up with my brother’s vision. This was not uncommon. Still, I always felt obligated to help family when possible. I’d sadly found myself with less and less opportunities or means to do so. Plus, he’d pay me for my time. During the demonstration, I would alert the investors to the “subtle movements” of the doll’s body and what this meant in relation to its reading of the child’s health. We had another drink each, this third cold beer feeling as surprisingly refreshing as the sun had, only an hour earlier upon my skin. 

As we hugged goodbye, I inhaled deeply to take in the smell of him, my smell, one I hadn’t noticed in far too long. He asked if I could take the prototype with me back to work and have a look at it with Kedar. I picked it up with some care, uncertain of its structural integrity. Surprised by its mass, I let out a playful groan. He chuckled, adding that he was “a little confused” by some of its recent behavior and wanted to make sure that it would follow a prepared script he’d uploaded into it the previous day. I said, “Of course,” and he gave me the same weighted smile I hadn’t much long ago given Ada. 



About a mile from work, somewhere outside the Jefferson House projects, the 77 broke down. According to my watch, I had thirteen minutes to reach Ada. When I asked the driver what his plan was, he looked at me and smiled. “Papi, really?” I considered everything about the day and laughed as well. This wasn’t anything new, this was reality. Things were conveniently inexpensive, serving the masses, until they didn’t. Faint clicks of reality could be perceived, even if just barely, in these moments. Somewhere in the distance was a signal reminding me of my own eventual end. I laughed with the driver until I felt the formation of a new smile line forming around my left nostril.   

Filled with cheese and beer, fighting back coughs, trying to look like a black guy casually jogging, not a black guy running from a crime, I briskly jogged back to work. Even if a taxi were to pull over for me, I wouldn’t have had the money to pay. My chest burned, my feet ached, and yet somehow my thighs felt strong. To distract myself, I wondered over the inconsistent nature of my glorious body. Genetics, maybe.   

Sweaty, panting like an abused dog, I arrived to relieve Ada of her duties with three minutes to spare. 

“You alright?” A slice of pizza on a paper towel in her hands.  

I smiled, composed myself. “Bus troubles, what’s new?” 

“Horace never showed anyway.” She sounded disappointed.  

“Anyone else come in?” 

“What?” She was already gathering her things. 

“Any customers?” 

“Barely, no rentals or repairs requested.”  

Ada had not been a student I’d known particularly well, though it’s fair to say that I knew none of my students particularly well, anyone really, during that period of my life. So, I guess when considering that we were currently a part of this thing together, I now knew her far better. Her ambitions, and her ability to keep a secret. She’d eaten her twin in the womb, “absorbed them,” is how she put it. A half-eaten box of pizza sat next to her. I thought of Horace, the no-show lunch date.

“Are you around tonight?” 

“What for?” 

“My brother wants me to check out this doll for sick kids, maybe just a spec test. I guess to make sure it’s working alright. I need another opinion.” 

“When does Kedar leave?” She gestured towards my bag. 

I pulled the thing out and handed it to her. “I’m doing a presentation with it tomorrow, we’ll need to make sure it behaves as planned.” 

“Weird,” she said to herself, inspecting it the way one would a two-headed fish. 

“I think he’s outta here around seven, but you can come in before that, like you’re passing through.” 

“Just passing through.” 

“That’s right, that sort of thing.” 

“Cool, I’ll check it out if nothing comes up.” 

Sometimes I thought of a life with kids to raise and worry about. Often, I wondered if heteronormativity would’ve been a stabilizing force in my life. Some college classmates had kids now, teens even. It only took my time as a teacher, and knowledge of the other men in my family, to understand that child rearing, in my lifetime, was a fate best avoided. Since my brother had gotten the food and drinks, I gave her the five-dollar bill floating in my pocket. I’d be doing more drinking than eating tonight anyway. “Get dinner later, then tell Horace to fuck himself, then come here.” 

She smiled. “You don’t have to.” 

“It’s fine, hon, look at me.” I gestured to the shelves of empty game boxes, the cartridges were kept in a safe in the back. “I’m doing fine.” 

Again, she smiled. “Thanks, mister.” 

Kedar arrived a minute, maybe less, after she’d left. He was greeted by me and my brother’s prototype. Both of us behind the counter looking, presumably, equally out of place.

“I feel beautiful,” he announced with faux exasperation. Then, “What the fuck is that?”  



Analog watches made me nervous. I kept mine, a gift from a guy deserving of sentiment, in the back of a sock drawer in the company of various sex toys and rolls of coins to avoid the sound of ticking. In my apartment, time was displayed digitally. My microwave, oven, microwave oven, answering machine, and VCR/VHS player. Having synced them all to the same minute was a feat of engineering for which I’m still proud. Around my wrist I wore a handsome gold Casio DBC-610 Databank calculator watch. I enjoyed the eerily green kryptonite glow its back light emitted.  

There I stood, back in the store, leaning behind the counter, toying with this feature and thinking about the women who’d contracted radiation poisoning as a result of their work licking the brush tips to more effectively apply self-luminescent paint to 1920s watch dials. A soft whirring sound, the sound of something turning, attempting to turn, caused me to notice the time rather than only the light. An hour had passed since Kedar left for the night, and only a couple customers had come in. I decided to take a look at the prototype. Turning it over, I found the on/off switch and a few Velcro tabs that, when undone, revealed a parallel port beneath the bear’s fuzzy backside. I plugged in an accompanying cable my brother provided me at lunch and inserted the other end to the tower of the store’s computer. 

After waiting a few minutes for the machine to whir itself on, I was able to review Jerome’s code. My knowledge or whatever I still remembered from my time teaching did not appear to meet his. The lines were unfamiliar to me in their sheer complexity. I wasn’t quite sure if I was observing gibberish or genius. As I read through the lines, I again noticed a mechanical whirring, barely perceptible beneath the loudness of my thoughts. My neck tightened at my potentially glaring inadequacies, then relaxed as I thought of how hieroglyphs must have first appeared to those viewing them millennia beyond their intended time.  

Deciphering what fragments I could, line after line left me significantly more intrigued with the product than I’d been at lunch. The mechanical whirring sound continued and I bent down, stooping below the counter to where the dusty computer tower was located. The sound stopped. A few gentle taps along the warm tower’s side with the back of my hand, nothing. The sound began again as soon as I stood up. Baffled, I walked around the counter and paced the store looking from floor, to shelves, to ceiling. The further I moved from the counter, the louder the noise became until I heard a crash. The sound stopped. Approaching the counter, I saw, with a healthy amount of confusion and fear, the prototype on the floor. Hoping to find some answer other than the obvious, I looked around for some phantom perpetrator. None was found. 



Though I hadn’t gotten my usual Friday night booze, I woke on Saturday with a 6/10 hangover. Stumbling off the couch and towards the kitchen for water, I felt the microwave display’s blue digital glow. 8:23 A.M. I checked my voicemails. 8:25 A.M. 

“Today shouldn’t take too long. In by 1:00 and out by 2:00.” There was some noise in the background, likely Jerome, and my brother paused to respond. “Anything up with the prototype,” he continued, “any issues of note for us to be concerned?” Another interruption, then, “Okay, you’re asleep, give me a call when you’re up. Alright. Okay.” The message ended with a click of the cassette.   

Standing there, a wine glass of water in hand, I rewound the tape and replayed it a half-dozen times, hoping to find some clue in my brother’s voice and to better hear what was happening in the background. Neither happened. 8:36. I drank the water, trying to understand why my head was pounding, and my stomach sour. As I put the glass next to the answering machine, I noticed my hands were trembling.  

When people had found out I was a teacher, they’d give me an extra pat on the back. I remembered that well, hating it, needing it. I was happy to remember little of those nervous days. Maybe that’s what this was, the headache, the stomach and hands, a healthy reaction to fear. Less than twelve hours earlier the prototype had nearly broken. Why had it broken? I was barely able to admit this to myself. My brother had never mentioned anything about the doll being able to track movements, but surely it had been tracking mine. Looking for me, searching until it spun itself off the counter. 

Panicked, I’d closed up two hours early, gone home and slept. Where was it now? I leaned against the wall opposite the answering machine, beneath a portrait of my father which my sister had painted at sixteen. I kept a mirror over the phone, to practice appropriate expressions while having conversations, to look more empathetic when in person. Looking into the mirror while making eye contact with the resemblance of my father at middle age was not unlike looking into a parallel timeline. I’d left it at the shop. 

In no rush to return, I walked the two miles from my place to the underground strip mall. A large group of pigeons were posted up (roosting maybe) along one side of the pedestrian footbridge I crossed. Beneath us, cars passed quickly and loudly. The silly birds seemed unworried and continued pecking. I looked up. The clouds looked exactly like how clouds were supposed to look on Saturday. My pits were wet, so I removed my shirt; hard to tell if I was scared or tired.  

Casper greeted me with a one-finger salute into a finger gun sort of thing. I smiled and nodded. The escalator had yet to be turned on by the site supervisor, so I walked down the grooved steps, clumsily. The hallway was dark, which made me grateful to see that the psychic’s lights were on. I unlocked the security grating, lifted it up, made my way in. Just as I flipped the light switch, the phone rang. 

My brother was more understanding than disappointed. “Thanks for dropping it off, I’m sorry you won’t be able to make it. Tell me if you change your mind. There’s still a few hours!” A pause. “Anyway, how have you been, really?”     

Ada knocked on the window. “Sorry about the no-show last night. Still need any help today?” 

I smiled and nodded. “Sure, I think. There’s always something, isn’t there?” 

She smiled too, mostly to herself. 

I looked up, certain I could see the clouds, the pigeons, the cars. Everything right where it was. At the other end of the hall was the psychic. What would she tell me that I didn’t already know? I could see my future clearly. The adult theater for some fun, then the library for a bit of job research. I could see it all clearly, read like palm lines outstretched before me.  


Guy Melvin was born in North Philadelphia, and lives in Brooklyn. He has work in Sundog Lit, Fahmidan Journal, All My Relations Vol. 2, Cypress Press’ Red House Anthology, and Cerasus Magazine. His most recently published story can be found in A Long House. He can be reached at guymelvin82[at]yahoo[dot]com.




Lisa Gordon

By Free, I Meant Silent

I tried to switch into Ms. Senson’s art class, and when they asked why, I said it was because I heard one of her children was killed in a car accident. The look on the principal’s face was that of disgust. I should have known better than to tell the truth. I should have known what I’d be up against.

But I’d been drawing a lot—more than usual. It was taking up my time as well as my headspace, and I wanted to experience it fully. It was Winona Ryder I could not stop drawing. It was like she consumed me, and I wanted to consume her back. I pored over videos of her on YouTube and scoured Netflix for anything she was in pre-Stranger Things, which, it turns out, was a lot. I brought my sketchbook to dinner, to gym class, on the bus. Pages and pages and pages of her face.

My mother sent me to the school therapist, whom I could have danced circles around without ever having read a child psychology book in my life (by now, I’ve read nine; The Developing Mind is my favorite, but I paid particular attention to Odd Girl Out because I was certain it would be used against me, and I was right).

His name was Mark and he had a completely blank and fine-looking face, the kind you forget as soon as you see it. I noticed he was married and I wondered, when his wife closed her eyes, how she pictured him. Did she look at him while they had sex? I wondered who was more intent on pleasing who. I was thinking about this  when he placed both of his hands, palms down on his desk, and said my name: Clara. It felt weird coming from his mouth, like a ball he was molding with his tongue. I did not like it. I looked into his eyes and decided it was a mistake for the school to have hired a man for this role. 

“Yes,” I said.

“I think you probably know what all of this is about, right?”

I winced. It bothered me when adults were not direct, when they tried to soften the blow of what they were saying by adding words that had no meaning.

“Yes,” I said.

“What do you think it is about?” he asked. On the wall behind him a round Schoolhouse brand clock ticked audibly. I listened to it for some time, trying to pick out a cadence I could speak alongside. Sometimes I used my dad’s metronome when I was sketching. Drawing was the only time when I felt my mind was really free, and by free, I meant silent. 

“It is about the fact that I asked to switch art classes because the teacher had experienced tragedy. I felt that a tragic event would surely have rendered itself in her own art, and that that was the kind of art I felt worthy of learning about, and thus concluded that the teacher would be better than the current teacher. It is also about the fact that I draw Winona Ryder constantly, and all of my teachers have noticed it, and so have the students, and that I am probably going to be the target of bullying soon, as I’m sure I’m the target of back chatter and gossip as it is. I have determined that I do not care what my peers think of me, and that in a few years, none of this will matter.”

Mark stared at me. The clock ticked. I smiled. I wanted to show him that I recognized that he was just beginning to acknowledge me as a more mature mind than he’d expected for an eighth grader, but that I was also complacent. It was a combination I’d perfected with my parents. One of his eyebrows furrowed as he wondered what to say next. I crossed my right leg over my left and waited.

“So you’ve discussed this with your mother,” he said.

I couldn’t help but let a little smirk cross my mouth, quickly covering it up with a twisting of my lips to suggest I was deep in thought. That was the best he could do?

“She told me she was going to ask that I see you. But she knows that I know why. Nothing gets past me, she says.”

“And by that you mean, nothing gets past you.”


“And what about your father?”

“He does everything my mother tells him to do. It’s like the man has no life of his own.”

Mark’s eyes slid behind me to the door and then slowly back. “Right.”

I could sense he wanted more but didn’t know what to ask. “He’s a nice man. He tries. He loves me. They both do.” I wanted desperately to add: Can we be finished now? But I knew we were only at the beginning.

Mark opened a notebook, then closed it. “So where shall we begin?” he asked. “With the art teacher? Or the drawings?”

“Isn’t that up to you?” 


Winona was born in Minnesota, in a town called Winona, her namesake. Oh, to be named after a town, I thought! She grew up on a commune in Northern California. While drawing, I fantasized about her upbringing, the freedom she had to roam through the fields, stray grasses clinging to her skirts, slicing her bare feet. I imagined the meals she’d have, maybe raw eggs in straw or turnips pulled right from the ground—surely no meatloaf and greasy potatoes, as my mother was keen on making, generally on Mondays, the alliteration of which killed me (Taco Tuesdays followed, but she’d yet to come up with something good for Wednesdays). I thought about her lying under a blanket of blinking stars, her lips dry from the wind, a knitted blanket around her shoulders for warmth she’d dragged from her bed, homemade by a family friend. And how she probably didn’t have to go to school once the kids started bullying her. Thin, androgynous, and wise beyond her years, the others couldn’t place her, didn’t know how to talk to her, didn’t appreciate the difference between “other” and “normal” and the beautiful spaces that exist in between, and how her father, a rare book historian and good friend of Timothy Leary (who I had to look up, subsequently devolving into a fascinating black hole of LSD research), probably stroked her hair and gave her a tumbler of whiskey and said something like: “the only schooling you’ll ever need is exactly what you’ll find right here.”


The incident came swift and quick. I was expecting it, and yet, it’s hard to be prepared. I got up for only a moment to buy a Coke—how cliché, right?—and left my sketchbook behind. I should have known. Lacie Peters and her gaggle of friends had been giggling about me all class, but I’d built up such a wall around them that it was like I forgot the wall was there. Rookie mistake. When I came back, there it was: “die bitch,” smeared in what had to be period blood from a used tampon.

Later, Mark asked me how I’d known what it was. And even though I’d not had mine yet, this substance, as I’d come to know over and over again when I got older, however varied in its color and texture, was among the things a woman could always recognize. 


When my father came to see me in my room, I knew he was trying his best. He always did. With another child, I often believed, he would have succeeded. He hugged me frequently (meaning he draped his arm around my shoulders and left it there for a few seconds), made my eggs the way I liked them, and played the things I used to want to play, when I was still agreeable enough to play with him. He went to work dutifully, kissed my mother dutifully, accepted his nightly scotch dutifully, asked me dutifully how my day was. Today was no different when he approached my bed, where I sat drawing, always drawing, Winona, in the exact same notebook.

He sat down slowly, tenderly, so as not to shift the mattress too much. The charcoal in my hand maintained its smooth lines, unaltered. (I’ll think of this later, much later, after he was long gone—how thoughtful that was, how few people, perhaps none other at all, would have been so considerate.) I was working on shading around her nose.

“I know that one,” he said. “Beetlejuice?” 

I nodded. 

“Did your mother let you watch that?”

I looked up at him with extreme curiosity mixed with exasperation. “It’s PG, Dad. How old, exactly, do you think I am?”

He was silent for a while, watching my drawing. 

“I know what you really want to talk about. I’ll just show it to you,” I said. 

Showing it to my mother had been easier—she’d wrestled the notebook from my hands somewhat rudely, though I knew it stemmed from her anger at what had happened more than her frustration at what kind of daughter I was, how different I’d turned out to be than what she’d hoped. She turned the pages with a ginger aggression, sighing each time a turn of the page yielded no results, and when she finally saw it, the smeared blood, some of it bleeding onto the next page in Rorschach clumps, she closed her eyes into tight buttons and pursed her lips out like a duck. She looked funny, and I could have laughed, but it was all just too serious, so serious it was absurd. “And to think that Lacie girl used to be in Brownies with you,” she said. 

“Oh, please,” I’d told her. Actually, Lacie had always seemed kind of cool in my mind, like, I thought she might be fun to hang out with if it weren’t for her friends who followed her around like princess puppies. 

I wiped the outside of my pinkie joint on the charcoal, blending ever so slightly, focusing as hard as I could on replicating the primness of Winona’s nose. I wanted nothing to be more important than that: than her tiny, perfect, feminine slope. I thought of it pushed up against a pillow, of how water might drip off of it after a shower, if men had kissed her there. And then I turned the pages, six back, until I reached it.

My father stared. He shook his head, back and forth, a slow, rhythmic movement. Then he looked up and sighed, in dialogue with someone—something—else, though not God, whom I knew he did not believe in. I could not figure out what it was he was thinking, and that was the part that bothered me the most. I was aware of my precociousness and prided myself on interpreting adult thoughts, actions, implied movements, of understanding their impulses better than they could themselves. This confounded me. I watched him curiously, this suddenly new and unknown father of mine.

And then he erased it all. He’d come so close—so close to something I did not know I wanted. He put his hand over mine, gave it a small squeeze, and said, “Sorry, kiddo. What a bummer.” He got up, closed the door behind him, and left, leaving me stunned, my hand rendered useless in a swift kick of shock, the artist in me abruptly withdrawn, focused on nothing more than how filthy the charcoal left my hands.


Winona was bullied and beat up at school—an early form of what we now call gay-bashing. Some of my favorite photographs of her are at her youngest. In one photo, a school photo, her hair is short and spiked. If you really try, you can probably tell her gender, but it’s tricky, and I liked that her face was a contradiction, two things at once. I liked it because, how can a face be a mystery? Nothing is more mysterious world than a face, nothing more deliberate and unmasked. And yet hers—I stared for hours, drew for hours. I kept thinking: how much of how she looked was intentional? Did she want to stand out? Did she not think she would? Did she not think about it at all? Answering these questions led to more contradictions: that she was either a precocious and progressive pre-teen, or incredibly naïve to the social norms of her peers. And again, the space between fascinated me. 


Her parents let her drop out. Her education, they said, could be whatever she made of it. 


In the morning, I lay in bed long past when I should have risen for school. My father had checked in on me, then my mother; I heard them whispering outside my door, with hushed urgency, debating the importance of letting me stay home while I pretended to still be asleep, my head turned toward the wall. They both knew they would, but arriving at that decision was the thing that made them feel like parents. I knew that I would, too, and overhearing this exercise in parenting made me feel doted upon, as well as lonely.

At last, I heard my father say, “all right, all right,” his faint footsteps descending the carpeted stairs. In that moment, I never felt more like an only child, and this awareness was profound, for being an only child was something I bore like a scar. And yet I wondered if I’d enjoy having siblings, and decided, never having been given the chance to know, that I wouldn’t.

The door creaked open, and my mother emerged, her face flushed with anxiety. “Clara, sweetie?” she started. Sometimes I felt like my mother loved her perceived impression of me more than the actual me—it was like, when she entered my room, some amount of love and affection disseminated when she saw the bareness of my room, my black jeans and t-shirts littered across the floor, the charcoal spread across my desk, probably smeared on my face. She sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed my ankle absentmindedly.

“We’ve decided to let you stay home today,” she said.

“I’m fine,” I said. It felt like my duty to protest. If I was going to be the outcast, surely I should own it. But I felt as defeated as I sounded, and my mother sighed, tipping her head toward the floor.

“Those kids will be punished,” she said.

“I don’t care about that,” I said, and that was true. That was very true.

My mother appeared aghast, and just as quickly, resumed exhaustion. “What do you mean?”

“Their punishment doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care.”

“Of course we do,” she said. There was that inclusive we, the one that made me feel at once loved and excluded. “Mark will want to talk to you again,” she said. “He might call.”

I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly. “He’s a quack,” I said, sitting up and banging my head against the wall behind me. “His help is useless.”

“Clara.” She sat up straight, tucked her hair behind her ears. It was the way she got when she didn’t know how to deal with me, when I assumed she was ticking back all the memories of where she may have gone wrong as a parent. “I just wish you had some friends. Even just one…”

I began to cry. I couldn’t help it, not at all. It surprised me just as much as it did my mother, and as she reached out to wipe the tears away from my face, I felt like I was watching a movie, a terrible movie, far too sentimental, the kind that makes you cringe and yearn for reality. But I allowed this maternal gesture, closed my eyes, and felt the print of her thumb on my skin, and tried to feel it for what it was: a unique combination of pureness and responsibility, the percentages of which I’d never understand.


If I’m being honest, I know this much is true: I wasn’t necessarily as ostracized from the other students as I ostracized myself.


Mark called at 10:00 a.m. on the dot, as if he was trying to give me space as a teenager, believing I had just wrangled my depressed self out of bed, wolfed down some cereal, and used the minimal energy I had just to answer the phone. In fact, I’d taken that morning to teach myself about coffee. The magical, unduly wonder of coffee: that I’d never experimented with it before alarmed me. But once my mother had left, leaving me in the house all alone (a rare treat), it occurred to me like an epiphany. A simple Google search rendered the coffee maker nothing more than an easy game to play, and within minutes, I was toying with the harsh black liquid in my mouth, waiting patiently for something to change, to pop, to announce itself. It took some time. I took my mug, plastered with a cracking WARRIORS 1ST YEAR CHAMPS, harkening back to days of yore when I played recreational sports like every other child in America, to my father’s easy chair, positioned carefully in between the bay windows, with the piano to the left, and the front door to the right, and I sipped, and I waited. In due time—how much time, I’m not sure—I felt a thin, low buzzing in my temples and behind my eyes, forcing my eyelids to be more open than usual, my hearing more sensitive, and my involuntary gestures—blinking, twitches—to feel profound.

So when the phone rang, I was ready.

“Clara,” he said. “I’m so glad you answered.”

“Instinct more than anything else,” I said. “Being home alone, and all.”

“…Right. I want you to know that we’re taking this seriously. That’s first and foremost.”

“And I want you to know that I don’t care.”

“That can’t be true.”

I rolled by eyes. “And yet, here I am, speaking for myself, using agency, telling you my own truth.”



I had befuddled him. I was enjoying myself immensely. The coffee was making my heart race. 

“You don’t care that we’re taking it seriously? Or you don’t care that it happened?”

Ah! A question I hadn’t expected. One point for Mark. “I’m glad you’re taking it seriously. It would be way worse if you weren’t. But I don’t care that it happened. And I don’t care if they’re punished.”

“That can’t be—okay, listen. What they did was wrong, very wrong, and they will absolutely be punished, as they should be. Why wouldn’t you care about that?”

“Think about it. If they’re not punished, what message does that send?”

“That they can commit a heinous act of bullying and get away with it.”

“But they expect to be punished. I agree that, within the standard societal expectations, they should be. But if they’re not, it actually might make them think that you don’t care about them. And that would really kick them off their own pedestal.”


“Thanks. I’m thinking of writing a book.” I sipped from my coffee mug like I was being interviewed for a national newspaper on what a well-rounded yet misguided childhood looks like. The coffee was really working! I felt like I could attack the game of life and win!

“Clara,” he said again. His voice got soft. “Let me…switch tactics here. Can I ask you something? And can you answer honestly?”

“Try me,” I said, still feeling strong.

“How are you?”

This surprised me. No one had actually asked how I was. I felt a strange and sudden affection for him. Two points for Mark. I thought about telling him that I had cried earlier, that I hadn’t slept at all, but then quickly barricaded myself against his sympathy. 

“Better than ever,” I replied.


In truth, the pain of it was dull and unrelenting, but not unfamiliar to the way I’d felt for years now.


I passed a few hours sprawled in front of the TV, skipping through reality shows, bad talk shows, and cooking shows, which mesmerized me. Food was a pleasure I felt too young to appreciate, but believed that maybe some day I would. At home, we ate to satiate ourselves, a means to an end. My parents seemed to savor few things: my father, his scotch, my mother, a cup of earl gray with honey—these were things they paid careful attention to, the rituals around them as important as the liquid, and the feeling it delivered. I watched a woman with large hands spin sugar into frosting. I watched a man with spiked hair slather corned beef with mustard that fell apart, glistening, into his hands. There were only so many hours I could kill doing this, though, and the entire time, I felt my notebook calling to me, as if it was haunting me. 

I tried to ignore it, but the impulse to draw was so strong, I finally decided I’d try it without the notebook. I gathered scraps of paper from around the house, somehow believing that if I used scraps, it would render my drawings less meaningful. I pilfered bits of pencils from my father’s desk drawer, a runny pen from my mother’s old purse, sat down at the kitchen table, and closed my eyes. One of my favorites came to mind first: Winona, head cupped in her hand, a strand of hair falling across her eye, a subtle smirk that was unintentionally sexy, because she was too young to be intentionally sexy. I sketched the eyes first, my usual go-to, but I could not get the pencil to be dark enough, not enough to be worthy of her deeply dark eyes. I tried again with the hair, but the pencil was too wispy, it came out looking like frayed ends. And the pen, of course, was worse: why I thought I’d even try drawing with a pen made me laugh at myself and chuck it across the room, where it sputtered and rolled under a counter.

I wondered, if I’d ever actually made it to Ms. Senson’s class, what she might have taught me.

It was 1:06 p.m.. There was still so much time left in the day. I did not know how I would make it. I could not imagine how people did it, people who did not have jobs or could not work or did not have children or an otherwise more or less daily responsibility to keep them from going absolutely mad. For I felt mad—it was maddening, living with the desire to erase what had happened to me and what would happen, listening to the seconds tick away on the clock in the kitchen, feeling like there was nothing to look forward to. More than a friend, I yearned for a pet. Something to talk to, who wouldn’t talk back, but could offer some affection, or at least look me in the eye, so I would know I was seen.

Without knowing what else to do with myself, I decided to take a nap. I woke to the sound of the garage door opening.

“Clara?” he ventured when he came in. “I came home to check on you.” He approached me slowly, like he was afraid of me. He perched himself on the edge of the couch, rubbing a finger absentmindedly on a fraying strand of fabric. We’d had this couch my whole life, and it was only occurring to me now how old it was, and how truly ugly.

“Did Mom tell you to?”

“No. Do you think I only do what she tells me to do?”


The look on his face was that of recognition. “Well, you’re right. And you should know that we’re probably getting divorced.”

I sat up quickly. “Wait. Really?”

He nodded. “Don’t tell her I told you.” He slammed his hand against his forehead. “Shit. I shouldn’t have told you that. Not now, with what you’re doing through. Shit. What is wrong with me?”

My thoughts scrambled. I had to focus on the piano.

“I’ve never known how to be a parent.”

I stayed silent, realizing that interrupting now would mean sacrificing learning something significant. 

“It’s hard, every day. It’s like it’s all you are: just a parent, nothing else. Or a husband.”

“Want me to just run away then? It would solve all of our problems, apparently.”

He laughed. “No, Clara, don’t you see? If you left, we’d have nothing. You’re everything to us. Everything.” Then he added: “Do we stifle you?”

“Yes. No.” I said. 

“Everything is right, and everything is wrong. We can’t guide you at all. Neither can that guidance counselor you’ve got, nor the stupid kids you call classmates.”

“What’s left, then?” 


“Well, that sucks. I don’t like myself very much,” I grumbled. 

“Oh, but Clara, let me tell you a secret. You do! You like yourself very much. And that’s what makes you so great. You are you. You do what you want. You say what you want. You’re probably smarter than your mother and I both, already. You’ve never cared about perception. You’ve never given in. It’s like you’re impervious to scrutiny other than you own.”

My face turned in on itself. This comment was like a hit of dopamine, a sugar rush, the way I felt when I finished a Winona drawing perfectly without revisions. 

“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty cool.”

“And I can’t believe you’re ours. Your mother, who wants to be perfect in everyone’s eyes. And me, who’s never known how to please anyone. And we made you. You’re the best thing we did.”

For once I didn’t have a witty reply. But I did know what I wanted to do. 

“Can you drive me to school?”

He looked at me with a blank face. “I can.” Then he narrowed his eyes at me. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing. I just want to go to school,” I said. 

“But what about…”

I shrugged. “I can’t stay home forever.”

“Well, that’s true. Look at you, parenting yourself.” He picked up his briefcase. “Well, hop to it, then. Get your things. I’ll drop you off, then go back to work, I guess.”

“Or don’t. They’re not expecting me to go back to school, and that’s why I want to go. They’re expecting you to go back to work. So don’t.”

Then my dad laughed. I saw all the teeth in his mouth and the way his Adam’s apple bobbed when he threw his head back.  

“Can you write me a note?” he asked. 

“Sure. Should it say, ‘die, bitch’”?

He laughed harder, and then we both did. 

“Let the record state that it’s not funny,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. 

“That’s what makes it funny,” I said. 

I tore a page from my notebook and wrote a note. My dad won’t be coming back to work today. Let him be.

“Thanks,” he said, holding it in his hands, admiring it as if it were a work of art. Then he folded it up and opened his briefcase, and that was when I saw it: a drawing I had done, tacked into the underside of the case. A colored pencil drawing of myself. I remember doing it, it was early on when I started learning to draw, and I was coloring everything: the kitchen, my sneakers, the air conditioning unit. In this drawing, though, I was just looking out our bay window, and I’d colored in a pair of sweatpants I used to love, purple with green dragons on them. 

I don’t know whether he saw me see it, but he closed it shut with a loud snap. 

“Off you go, now,” he said.  


Lisa’s short fiction has been published in Paper Darts, the Rumpus, Hypertext, StoryChord, Eleven Eleven, Litro, Five:2:One, and others. She is at work on two novels—wish her luck.





Zach Powers

What We Gave the Galaxy

It was Halloween when the aliens came, so we mistook them for kids in great costumes. There were the big-eyed grays of Roswell. Ones with tentacles instead of arms. Some were basically just translucent blobs, a mess of organs in see-through sacks. The insectoid and the spider-like. Hairy aliens that could inspire werewolf stories and feline aliens that had the comical tic of pawing their own faces.

It really was the best Halloween ever.

Joni first noticed something amiss when a group of aliens dropped into her bookshop on November 2nd. They browsed politely, but a particularly sticky alien left slime-prints on all the books it touched. Another, with a tiny blue baby face centered on a massive head, hovered a book open in front of itself using only the powers of its mind.

These were clearly not costumes. These were clearly not kids.

The aliens picked up English pretty quickly. They spoke human languages in a way that sounded more like math, as if every sentence was an equation in need of balancing. For example, the first words they spoke to Joni:

“We wish to read your books,” they said, “and your books wish to be read by us.”

Anyway, this situation went on for a few weeks. All these aliens in town, wandering the streets, still expecting to receive candy whenever they knocked on doors.

We had such a hard time explaining holidays.

They, in turn, could never make us grasp how they saw all days as one. Or how they marked time from a perspective outside it. Our minds were too limited, too grounded in the now.

The aliens loved scones. We had to get to the coffee shops as soon as they opened if we ever wanted a scone for ourselves.

Scones aside, the aliens never adjusted to human meals. They were snackers. They adored appetizers. Tandy, who waited tables at Outback, explained how groups of aliens would order one sirloin and cut it into bites to share. They attended art show openings but ignored the art in favor of catered canapés.

There were probably ten thousand aliens in all, and even in this tourist town, where we’re used to comers and goers, their presence was hard not to notice. The aliens traveled in mismatched packs from site to site, but rarely the sites other tourists visited. Not the fountain in the park. Not the railroad museum where you can climb inside old cars. Not the statue of the Revolutionary War soldier, lofting a battle flag in one hand, staunching his mortal wound with the other. Not the restaurant run by the TV chef with a history of racism.

The aliens were generous with their time. They answered as many of our questions as we asked. Even insensitive or annoying ones. Of course, we mostly asked about alien sex. Spores were a shockingly popular option.

We learned that galactic civilization was thriving and advanced, a million sentient species coexisting among the stars. Few planets besides Earth knew anything but peace.

We tried to share our grandest accomplishments. We made sure they read the books by our greatest thinkers: Crichton and Clancy and Franzen. We coerced them to the art museum for an exhibition of impressionist landscapes. We showed them documentaries featuring Saturn Vs and baseball and nuclear explosions.

This is where dealing with the aliens became a bummer.

Nothing we’d produced, nothing we’d done, nothing we deemed original, none of it impressed them in the least. In a sprawling galaxy filled with very smart aliens, literally everything we’d ever thought of had been thought of before.

Even scones, which the aliens so relished, they only relished because they recalled a similar food from another world.

Thanksgiving that year turned disastrous. We’d invited the aliens to share our meals. We set up folding tables and rolled extra desk chairs up to place settings. The shorter aliens sat with the kids. It was homey and warm, at least until we presented the food.

The aliens balked at our spreads. Those with cilia set them aquiver. Those with color-changing skin chameleoned to a threatening hue. Some secreted foul-smelling pheromones. Others made shrill calls of warning. We learned ten thousand new ways to express displeasure. 

After all, no beings who prefer their sustenance bite-sized could possibly be prepared for such human gluttony. Our sheer excess. They were polite about it but excused themselves from our tables before a single platter was passed.

We ate our meals with vacant seats for company.

The next day was awkward. The aliens couldn’t bring themselves to speak to us. Their eyes, those of them who had eyes, wouldn’t meet ours. And for us, how could we possibly relate? How could we ever know—really, truly know—someone who’d never tasted cranberry sauce from a can?

As we browsed the bookshop’s Black Friday sale, Joni worried the aliens would leave, and we’d be alone forever in the universe. Now, when we imagined Earth floating through space, we imagined it smaller than before. A bluish BB, and then a dot, and then a speck, and then an invisible point in proximity to the pinprick of our sun.

The aliens bought all the city’s scones to go. They carried tote bags full of tchotchkes and novelty t-shirts to their awaiting spaceships. They posed for holographic selfies, though always in the strangest of places. It was never clear what background they were trying to capture. The dumpster in the lane? The snarl of power lines? The hungover human couple taking brunch?

The aliens lingered, like at a party when you’re ready to go but too shy to initiate a goodbye.

We didn’t know what to say to them, either.

Or we knew, but how do you ask someone to stay without sounding desperate?

We were about to be dumped by the whole galaxy.

It was Duncan who saved us from this fate, surprising everybody, uppity prick that Duncan was. Cantankerous, rich, opposed to everything in the city that wasn’t exactly as it had been when he was a kid, approximately a hundred years ago.

But Duncan was good for one thing: Christmas decorations.

Seven a.m. Saturday morning, he was out spewing orders at Marguerite, the local handyperson, as she balanced on a tall aluminum ladder, adorning Duncan’s Victorian townhouse with wreaths and garlands and, most importantly as it turned out, twinkle lights.

A few aliens gathered in the square. Then more and more of them. Soon, all the thousands of aliens packed together as one.

The decorating was complete, the twinkle lights barely bright enough to be seen against the sun. But the aliens stared and waited and waited and stared. Dusk came, and when the equation of darkness to twinkle balanced just right, the whole mass of aliens cheered in all their native tongues at once.

A sound raw and pure and lovely.

Tandy asked the aliens what was up.

“In all the galaxy, this is something we have never seen before,” they said, “and we have seen before all other things in the galaxy.”

The aliens stayed there through the night and the next day, and they might still be there if we hadn’t told them that other houses, too, had been decorated. The aliens wandered our streets, oblivious to the cold, touring our decorations, preferring the tackiest, munching scones, and we like to think they finally understood the concept of a holiday, a single day distinct from all the rest.

At the post-Christmas sales, the aliens claimed every discounted strand of lights. Through their spaceships’ windows we could see the strands crisscrossing everywhere. At night, the ships twinkled from within, and somebody who didn’t know better would assume a different technology. The source of their hyperspace speeds, perhaps. But us, we knew the truth.

The New Year arrived, and soon the aliens left us. But it wasn’t like we’d worried it would be. This was a see-you-later. A temporary parting of friends. They even took a human representative with them.

So, this is the story of how humanity joined galactic civilization.

The aliens invited along the one who introduced them to twinkly lights. No, not Duncan, thank the heavens, but Marguerite. Our envoy. The face of the whole human race.

What was she thinking as she boarded the spaceship? What did her Mona Lisa smile imply?

We’re still waiting for her return. We spend our conversations guessing what she’ll tell us she’s seen. We’ll have imagined the whole cosmos before she ever makes it home.

Until then, we gather outside on clear nights and wonder aloud how of all the species among the Milky Way, only us—small, backward, hate-filled, war-torn, spiteful us—thought to recreate the stars.

At Duncan’s house, the lights are still up. The wreaths and garlands wilt. Marguerite left before Duncan could hire her to take them down. And he’s too old and too frail and too human to do the deed himself.


Zach Powers is the author of the novel First Cosmic Velocity (Putnam, 2019) and the story collection Gravity Changes (BOA Editions, 2017). His writing has been featured by American Short Fiction, Lit Hub, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He serves as Artistic Director for The Writer’s Center and Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry magazine. From Savannah, Georgia, he lives in Arlington, Virginia. Get to know him at