Sarp Sozdinler

Erasmus Park

Erasmus Park, where I found you reading that thick black book in the canopy of an oak tree—the oak tree, the one that looked like Mr. Dunleavy, our hunchbacked English teacher, as you’d so often say to make me laugh. You claimed it was a guidebook for troubled children like you but then it turned out to be a Turkish translation of the Bible, which you said you were reading for practice, and I said, practice for what? and that was when you launched into this monologue about life and death and fourth-dimensional deities for god knows why, and I admit I felt really sleepy at one point but just continued nodding along to make a good first impression, me a target practice, you the gun. As you went on, I thought I saw a shadow lurking behind you at one point, watching us with its big red eyes from behind the bushes of yews, but maybe I was just having another daydream in which you and I actually lent an ear to each other.

Erasmus Park, where we came across this wedding on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, you overdressed in your father’s beige turtleneck, me in a perv-repellent flat white t-shirt. The groom was wearing this funny-looking red tweed jacket and later on we found out that he owed his fashion choice to some obscure Kazakh tradition, and that his profession had something to do with singing ballads of his homeland to wild birds, so those birds could teach it to other birds, and so on and on, until the Kazakh language is spoken among all the birds of the Caspian Sea. We nodded along the whole time to feign interest and then drank and laughed ourselves senseless until it was midnight, which was about when we started blaring our lungs out to some Kazakh songs together, though we didn’t understand a word of it. Adele was crying about being in an ex’s arms on the stereo on our way back home, and I remember glancing out the window at some point and meeting eyes with this big black bird perched on top of the traffic lights, cawing and perhaps mocking us, in its own way, in some faraway language.

Erasmus Park, where you and I had a few beers on a bench the day after my Nana died. We were watching this family of swans fighting each other with their wing slaps and squawks. There was a fine mist over the pond that morning, obscuring the sky and stilling the waters underneath with absolutely zero room for reflection. After downing your first bottle, you flicked the cap into the pond, which skipped along the surface of the water like a stone. It almost hit one of the smaller swans, and that was when the mother swan started squawking really loudly, which sounded like Nana scolding me and you and my cousins when we were kids, teaching her younglings what winning looks like even when it feels the other way around. A teardrop crept lazily along my cheeks that day and found its way onto the muddy ground below my feet. With each passing second, my tears turned more and more into a pond of their own, the parts of which the ants started ferrying back home as if the seeds of my agony could help them make new memories for others come wintertime.

Erasmus Park, where we went ice skating on what was decidedly the coldest day of the decade. We hadn’t been able to leave our apartments for a while by then, and no one was really having fun or traveling anywhere anymore. The snow was above ankle-length that day, which made our little foray into this thick white cover of oblivion a little more difficult than it had to be, as was usually the case with you and me and everything we did. The pond was frozen at that time of year, and this kid at the next table asked his mother what would happen to the swans when the pond was covered with ice, me a microphone, she a footlong loudspeaker. The mother replied: They go to sleep. I, too, chose to believe her. From across the table, I looked at you in the same way the kid did his mother, but you were too busy separating the fries that didn’t touch the mustard from the ones that did without asking me first, though probably because of the weather and your poor allocation of resources the whole plate had already turned into mush.

Erasmus Park, where you flirted with that Filipino boy at Kiki’s farewell party the day before we visited your mother for our little spring break. He was wearing a collarless Free Britney tee and you my favorite red flannel shirt that you’d swiped on the grounds it didn’t look as good on me as it did on you. You didn’t realize I was flushed with something close to jealousy the whole time—but also, curiously, relief. Relief that we’d finally found a way to enjoy life even without having to move on from one another, like two domesticated animals tied to each other with an ever-shortening leash. Your face looked strangely animated as you two laughed at each other’s inaudible jokes, and I kept wondering what could be so funny to make you not turn to look at me even for just a second. That was the day you whistled the tunes to Hit Me Baby One More Time on our ride back home, over and over, while the pond of my tears had frozen sitting next to you, in front of the AC, only for entirely different reasons.

Erasmus Park, where you told me we should meet for lunch just three days before my finals started and three weeks after I’d last heard from you. Your voice sounded like an obituary of something long lost on the phone, and I didn’t even know how to say no to you, as usual. We met at this newly-opened cafeteria by the pond you picked for reasons that still escaped me. Maybe the diehard romantic in you was trying to rekindle our flame for one more round or just pull off one last symbolic gesture by steering us through the park where we’d first met each other. We ordered Aperols upfront, though I’d lost my appetite by that point. You looked gorgeous as always and more confident than usual in that electric-blue blazer of yours, but also strangely broken as if the blood of everything that made you you had clotted from around the edges and choked you inside out. We threw furtive glances at each other the entire afternoon and pretended none of them was intentional as if silence were a language none of us yet knew how to speak. That was when I decided to reach over the table and hold your hand, not to convince you otherwise or anything—on the contrary, to tell you in a way that I know, that I understand what time can do to people, even those who love each other most, that we are not too different from ants after all, that we try and try until we can’t, until there are no more parts to carry back home, that despite all the evidence to the contrary it’s all going to be fine in the end.

Erasmus Park, where I saw you years later under the shade of the same oak tree I’d first met you, the pond having left its place to a playground and Mr. Dunleavy to ashes and dust. Despite the uproar of the kids in your vicinity, your head was yet again buried in a book, this time a considerably thinner paperback, most likely as an outcome of your worsened eyesight or your changed habits in all the years we’d been together. Maybe it was also why you didn’t take notice of that man who looked painfully younger than you but obviously couldn’t help checking you out from the neighboring bench in the same way I’d once checked you, so I stood there and waited for him to make his move as if I were watching a documentary of two animals finding and losing each other in the wild. After enough time had passed, he probably got bored of your indifference and decided to leave you in your own dark—you clueless as ever, me gazing about to spot a pair of red eyes in the bushes, or a family of swans that had long made peace with each other, but all I could find was this pigeon that was perched on one of the higher branches of the oak tree overhead, watching over our past and present, wishing the best for you, for me, for swans, my Nana, my sagging body, my lonesome being. Maybe because of the heat, I thought for a second the bird warbled in what resembled the Kazakh language from all those years ago, then flew away to join its friends over the Caspian Sea and tell them, in its obscure symmetry, all about you and me.


Sarp Sozdinler is a writer of Turkish descent, and has been published in Electric Literature, Kenyon Review, Masters Review, DIAGRAM, Normal School, Vestal Review, Hobart, Maudlin House, and American Literary Review, among other places. His stories have been selected or nominated for anthologies (Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, Wigleaf Top 50) and awarded a finalist status at various literary contests, including the 2022 Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction Award. He’s currently at work on his first novel in Philadelphia and Amsterdam:




Daria Rose


June, 2022
Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Allah, if you exist, don’t let them see the trunk. (A box of kitchen utensils, another with sheets and pillows, a duffel full of clothes.) You don’t exactly lug your pots and pans on a business trip. They won’t let me cross. My father asked a former colleague in Tashkent to state in writing that I was the only lawyer qualified to mediate his property dispute. (During my four years as a labor attorney in Kazan I only defended injured contract workers.) The border agent points his flashlight at the letter. His glasses reflect the glare like needles of lightning.

The guard squints, “So, you’re driving for four days, from Kazan to Samarkand, to settle an argument about some guy’s car?” 

I see myself reflected in his lenses: a man in his late twenties with two-day stubble, who drove his Toyota Yaris to Yaysan, the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, three weeks after the conscription call. I know that he knows, and I don’t want to make him feel like a fool for implying that I know more than him. Neither can name the truth hanging around us. It would violate the conventions of this theater: his life as a Russian military guard, my life as an able-bodied young man fleeing the country waging a war. I look at him and implore, with my eyes only. He’s a border agent for the Russian state, the last guy in the world to feel empathy for me. What I’m asking of him, he either couldn’t accomplish himself or believes should result in imprisonment. My only possible gambit is to play the meek man with a smaller dick. Look, I’m so weak that you wouldn’t trust me with an AK-47 anyway. The name on his badge is Sergeant Rostov, and my name (he reads it on my external passport) is Rustam Naibetov. That alone gives him power—he is Russian, and I am Tatar. To him I’m a piece of grub rotting in the corner, too repulsive to touch, too small to bother to clean. 

“Naibetov, do you have a family?”

I unlock my phone to show him my screensaver photo, “Yes, Sergeant, my wife and I have a six-month-old. That’s why I want to settle this case quickly and return to Kazan.” 

The lieutenant flips my internal passport to the marriage page, and reads out loud, “Married to Gulnara Ruslan-kyzym on June 29, 2020. Drive fast, Naibetov, don’t miss your anniversary.” 

I nod until my stiff neck aches, “I certainly won’t, Sergeant, thank you so much.” 

He grips my documents for a moment too long before letting me take them from his hand, and I’m out of there.

I can’t believe it. I text Gulnara, “passed the border.” I won’t express in writing the fucking relief of driving through the empty steppes of Kazakhstan. Too risky. It’s midnight in Kazan, so I don’t expect her to respond. My phone lights up in ten seconds. “Allahu Akbar,” says my wife who never believed in anything.

The last three months will make you believe anything. Crisp moonlight licks the tongue of the road. No other lights, no cars. Telegram groups warned of multi-hour lines at the border. For four weeks I refused to leave Gulnara and baby Kareem, so I must have missed the mass male migration. And it’s three on a Wednesday morning in a tiny border town. I started driving before dawn. I should stop at a hostel soon. My hands jitter like I just drank three cups of coffee. Crossing the border turned from a scare into a thrill. I’ll keep driving while I can.

I turn on airplane mode so they can’t track my location. Fuck, how will I navigate? Google Maps still instructs me to turn right at 146 kilometers. Gulnara. My wife must have downloaded offline Google Maps on my phone. I cry while Broken Social Club chimes on my Spotify downloads. Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me


On Friday I pull up to Hotel Ruhina in Gagarin, five kilometers away from the Kazakh-Uzbek border. Crossing into Uzbekistan was uneventful. The guard stamped my passport without lifting his eyes at me. Once you exit Russia, they don’t care what brings you to the steppes. 

The first thing I see is dust. The streets are clad with dust, the building stones are hardened dust, the dusted-up signs are unintelligible. Dust blankets the inside of my eyes so I can barely keep them open. Four other cars with Russian plates are parked on the same block. I check in and pay for a night. The room is three times more expensive than the price quoted in Telegram groups three weeks ago but still dirt cheap. Russian men in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, and Turkey stick out like a dollop of sour cream in borscht. Migrants must make easy targets: they lack a support network, carry loads of cash, and cram their life’s belongings into their car trunk—pots and pans, clothes and sheets. At least as a Tatar man I blend in on the streets. It’s about time we have some advantage over the Russians.

I carry my duffel bag to the room. I turn the key five times until I realize the room is unlocked. The boxes should remain in the trunk until I reach Samarkand. I rinse my face in the metal sink. I come back downstairs to find a table at the restaurant. The PVC tablecloth is stamped with squares of pink roses. The old owner notices me, nods, and yells something in Uzbek. I smile stupidly, and she limps back to the kitchen. I don’t see a menu, at least not one I could read. The Telegram groups claimed that everyone in Uzbekistan speaks Russian, but that must exclude tiny villages. I’ve been subsisting on fried ochpochmaks and cigarettes for the past four days. I’ll eat anything. A young guy with a bushy beard brings black tea in a porcelain cup missing a handle, along with three cubes of brown sugar on a saucer. A sparrow swims in the sunny patch of dust outside the open window. 

I light up a Winston. Holy shit. I’m in Uzbekistan. Alone. I don’t know a single person in this country. Or in any of the five -stans around me. Gulnara and Kareem are asleep on our bed three thousand kilometers away. Akhmet, who sent me the legal invitation, made plain to my father that he won’t help me, can’t hide me, don’t show up at his house. He lives five hours across the steppe anyway. How the fuck did I end up here? I told my clients I left to tend to family matters in K. and referred them to my biggest competitor. Our parents will support Gulnara while I’m away. My mother is probably still in tears. I hope it doesn’t stall her cancer recovery. I have to survive for all of them. All I want is to watch Breaking Bad while Gulnara nods off in my arms on our yellow couch peppered with purple hortensias. I’d let Kareem cry all he wants, I’d even soothe him myself, let Gulnara say she’s too tired to make love. I would rather that, a thousand times over, than this table with a red checkered linoleum cover and a white plastic chair burned with cigarette butts.

The woman limps over with two plates of food. A bowl of golden plov with minced lamb steams like a battleship. Carrots and raisins bathe in yogurt. Looks exactly like my mother’s cooking before the cancer. The saucer overflows with kurt and sliced tomatoes. I gesture to my room key to request, “Put it on my bill.” The woman waves me off. Unclear if we understood each other. After I finish three plates of food, I retreat to the room and sleep for fourteen hours straight.


I check into Bibikhanum Hotel in Samarkand on Saturday. The receptionist asks about the duration of my stay. The stye in her eye twitches. I shrug. She doesn’t press further, must be used to it. Maybe the draft will end in two weeks, and I’ll really make it back for our anniversary. It’s the hope that kills you.

What am I supposed to do in Samarkand? I can’t defend injured workers remotely. It would be silly to search for local work. Uzbeks are all poor. The hotel costs less than my lunch at home, and the savings I brought must make me the richest man on the block. I walk two blocks south to exchange some rubles for a million sums at some guy’s office. Taxidermied hawks perch on his desk. I found him through the Telegram group Russian Exodus. Strolling around feels like walking on the surface of the sun. Street vendors sell dark watermelons with wavy stretch marks and honeydews larger than my six-month-old. A sharp pang stabs my chest. I miss my family.

How don’t women melt under their head-to-toe garbs in this heat? Men slurp tea at low tables, eyeing passersby. Women sell obi non on side streets. Lanky Russian guys scan their surroundings like schizophrenics, just as bleary-eyed and restless as me. I point to a baby honeydew and slice the air with my palm to ask the woman to cut it. She tells me the price in flawless Russian. Maybe I don’t blend in as well as I think. The yellow half-moon tastes like sunlight. I buy a new SIM card at a rusty kiosk and text my wife “I miss you so much.” Gulnara and I agreed that I shouldn’t use my Russian number, so the organy can’t track my location.

I return home. (I mean the hotel.) I had left the windows open to lure in the breeze, but the afternoon sun turned the room into a hot cage. I open WhatsApp, tap on my wife’s face, and she picks up in an instant. She is breastfeeding Kareem on our bed. When my face loads she bursts into tears. A lump in my throat almost blocks my breath. I must stay strong.

Gulnara fights to keep her eyes open, “How was the drive? Did you encounter any issues?” 

I briefly recap the past four days but skip the miniature disasters. Gulnara wipes the tears and forces cheerfulness into her voice. Allah, if I were there I’d hug my wife so tightly that neither of us could move. Kareem would crawl around us, tug my hair, yell, or cry. Instead, all I have is their sluggish thumb-sized image, animating every other second. 

Since Gulnara’s pregnancy we’ve had trouble making love. They say men are attracted to expectant women, but my pendulum swung in the opposite direction. I couldn’t do it. I feared that once my son arrived she would relegate me to a secondary character. The concern left me preemptively hurt. As her belly grew, less space remained for me. We’re a progressive couple, don’t get me wrong. She worked as an office manager and had her own friends. Still, when we started dating in our first year at Kazan State, I knew that if we married she would dedicate herself to our family.

With other girls I always competed for attention: with another guy, their scholarly ambitions, career aspirations, neuroses, family dramas. There was always something. When Diana ran off to America I waited for years like an idiot. With Gulnara I kept bracing for obstacles, and none appeared. She boasted no tradeoffs, just a blank canvas to fill. We spent nights together when my schedule allowed. She joined me and my friends every weekend. When I established my law practice in Kazan after school, she supported the idea. I wanted to visit K. every August, and she traveled with me for the full month. She even hung out with Nina and Kirill without me. When I expressed my desire for a child, she happily obliged.

In Samarkand not a single soul cares about me. Kareem’s cries pull me back to the phone call. I catch the last bit of Gulnara’s words, “…cries a lot more. He misses you. Or knows that I’m missing you. But he keeps me busy. I wish you were here. I know it’s best that you’re away. I just hope you can return quickly.” 

I can’t crumble now. I mumble, “Me too, baby.” Can’t let myself whine like a six-year-old without his mommy. We talk about nothing for twenty more minutes before I let both of them fall asleep. 

After we hang up it hits me: I’m on a trip without my wife and child. Wonder if I could hook up with someone. What a stupid thought. The only Russian women here must be wives of runaway husbands. Zero prospects, any one of them could be the FSB. I haven’t slept with anyone else since we got married, and it took the war and a cross-border escape to consider the possibility. How similar is Uzbek to Tatar, could I charm someone if I learned a phrase or two? Though speaking Uzbek in Samarkand marks you an illiterate boor. It is Russian only. Gulnara and I only use Tatar with our parents. Tatar feels old-fashioned, silly. Kareem will learn our language, of course; my parents already speak to him in Tatar. But he’ll grow up in a different world, and by the looks of it, his world will reign more Russian than ever. 

Could I pay for sex? I look up “escort Samarkand” in an incognito window. The ads blur their photos. Discreet and clean. Never mind, don’t want to sleep with a possibly-trafficked Muslim woman.

What the fuck am I doing? I just told Gulnara how much I missed her. What I want the most in the world is to lie asleep beside her and Kareem. But if I’m stuck in a yellow-walled hotel room in Uzbekistan, why not make the best of the cards we’ve been dealt? Seven weeks have passed since we last had sex. Before that, ten more weeks. A man wants his desires met, right? Maybe I’ll distract myself. I watch some YouTube clips, sort through my starred porn videos. Don’t have the energy to search for anything new. I jerk off and fall asleep.

Today I’ll make the most of it. I wake up at dawn and smoke a Winston by the open window. The apricot sun melts into rooftop tiles. Colorful chicks trail behind their mother across the street. The cock sits atop the fence and monitors the scene. I walk downstairs and chug a glass of black coffee, viscous like honey blended with dirt.

At the vegetable stand, only the seller’s belly rivals the size of the gourds. I turn a corner, and a mosque, perfect like a Ramadan postcard, springs from the dust. The clouds hover low in the heat. Didn’t Samarkand lie on the Silk Road? This is what remains of the centuries when Muslims ruled the world. Crumbled walls streaked with dirt.

Walking down the red-hot street I remember: Alexander the Great. Didn’t he conquer Samarkand and assimilate Greek culture? Our history class barely covered Alexander or the Greeks, but I once watched a documentary on the History Channel with a horrible voiceover. Maybe I could visit some Greek artifacts while I’m here. As a kid, I loved pitting my toy Roman soldiers with their shiny plastic-steel shields against one another. Where is all that crap now? What kind of toys will Kareem play with? A set of Wagner mercenaries?

Google Maps informs me that the ruins of the ancient city Afrasiyab are fifteen minutes away. I buy a half-melted plastic bottle of water. I haven’t felt hunger (or much else in my body) since leaving home, but I should eat at some point. At the entrance to the city-museum, a half-disintegrated rock resembles a fat electricity pole with angry Swiss-knife incisions. It could be the scars inscribed by two thousand years in the sun, dust, and the wind, or simply the lack of budget to keep ancient relics alive. Especially those predating Islam.

The Afrasiyab Museum stands at the edge of the settlement. The beige tile building is etched with marble imams who look more Soviet than ancient. I enter and point my index finger in the air for one ticket. The old cashier nods but doesn’t say the price, so I tentatively hand her one banknote. She returns a stamped piece of paper. Either I paid the exact fare, or she doesn’t care. 

I’m the only person inside. It’s not a gallery, just a single room with glass displays along every wall, covered with thick black curtains. The window opens into a courtyard where a man brushes a goat. No AC, but a slight breeze whispers through the room. Maybe the silver and gold absorb the heat. Greek coins with Alexander, Mongol coins with Genghis Khan, Sogdian coins with Turgar, Karakhanid coins with Ibrahim Tamgach Khan. Empires are so fickle. The information poster in Uzbek, Russian, and English paints Samarkand as the main transit hub of the world. 

Behind me a woman says in Russian, “Care to buy some badges?” When nobody responds, I realize the voice is addressing me. Except for Skyping with Gulnara I haven’t spoken to anyone since the border guard five days ago. I turn around to a shelf stocked with postcards and plastic-wrapped paraphernalia. A small young woman sits next to the shelf. “I thought you must be one of the newly arrived.”

“Yeah, I just drove in from Kazan yesterday. How did you know?” 

Her voice rises ever higher, “You’re joking!” She addresses me in Tatar, “You’re Tatar? My mother is too, from Almetyevsk, a few hours away from Kazan. My father is Uzbek, from here.” 

What are the chances, the first person I meet is Tatar? Geographically it seems reasonable, Tatars relate closer to Uzbeks than Russians. Right? I take four steps in to make out her face. She wears a green cotton dress that barely touches her knees. A long black braid snakes down her back. In Kazan she could pass for a Tatar girl. But so can any Uzbek. She can’t be older than twenty-four. Her high-pitched voice reminds me of my high school girlfriend Sveta.

I smile slightly, “We have cousins in Almetyevsk. I’m from a small town nearby, K.” 

Her already large eyes widen, “I’ve been to K. as a kid. Our great-grandmother lived there. The main boulevard is so pretty. Where are you staying?”

I couldn’t recall the hotel’s name, “It’s by the small red-brick mosque, not far from here. With the fruit stand and a restaurant downstairs?” 

She catches a buzzing fly with her hands and laughs, “That’s every block in Samarkand. By the way, I’m Zulfia.” 


Is she still laughing at me? “Let me know if you want to buy something. Badges with Alexander the Great are fifty percent off.” 

I mumble a thanks and wait thirty more seconds. When she looks up again and chuckles I turn on my heels and shuffle back to the coin stand. After enough time passes to have read all the labels, I stroll to the shelf with the merch again. Zulfia scrolls through TikTok, where girls her age dance in crop tops. Are they Russian? American? Uzbek? On the Internet everybody looks the same. I pretend to be interested in the coin-shaped fridge magnets. She looks up and vaguely smiles. I stroke the beard of the stuffed Genghis Khan and ask in Russian, “Do you know any food spots around here?” Tatar is too familiar, the language you speak to your parents as a child. I don’t want to look like a child in front of her.

She thinks for a few seconds as her thumb still scrolls, “There’s a good guzlama stand nearby. My shift ends in ten minutes. I could take you.” 

Bingo. I wave off another fly, “That sounds good,” and step outside before she changes her mind. I light up a Winston by the kiosk that sells entry tickets. How can this place employ two full-time workers—a ticket vendor and a souvenir cashier—when the only customer in the last hour (myself) paid less than the cost of a cup of tea? Hope they sell a lot of those badges with Timur. A ruffled black dog sleeps on a gray rock. A fat white dog approaches from behind and licks the sleeping dog’s ass.


Zulfia usually comes by the hotel after her shift at the museum. We talk, smoke, or she watches TikToks while I scroll through the news on the TV. I think she hangs out with me because the hotel is quieter than her home. Her three younger siblings, two dogs, a cat, six chickens, and her mother never leave the house. The museum is a temporary job before she starts her massage training in August. If she passes the tests, Sabrina Premium Luxury Hotel will hire her as a masseuse. Her parents wouldn’t approve of the courses if they knew. They want her help around the house. I ask where her parents think she is now.

She combs her curls with her fingers, “At Amina’s house. They don’t check on me. I can go wherever I want.” 

I don’t want to spook her by doing something stupid. I just like having another human to talk to. I started calling my wife in the mornings because I “walk around the city in the afternoons.” I tip the waiter to put my manty into a plastic container so we don’t have to eat at the restaurant downstairs. The owner lady knows I checked in alone. I don’t want Zulfia to get in trouble.

She told me of her childhood in Almetyevsk. When they packed up their house, her father painted Samarkand as a magical place with genies, flying carpets, and infinite pakhlava. She missed her friend Olya and all the Russian snow. Most of the time she lies across the bed, and I sit in the chair by the TV or smoke out the window. Our hangouts are slow and aimless, like in college when you still have a few years to kill before real life starts. 


Tuesday morning I walk to the mosque outside the hotel. I need something to do while Zulfia is at work. Otherwise I’d lie prostrate on the twin starch-sheeted bed and squeeze lotion and tissues in my left hand. I can’t remember much about Uzbekistan from my history classes, only that the Mongols occupied the area until the Russians liberated it some centuries later. Our history teacher adored me, but the diameter of knowledge imparted by my school didn’t extend beyond Moscow. After five years of coursework in Eurasian geopolitics at Kazan State, I can’t recall how Uzbeks relate to Mongols or Tatars, if at all. 

An old man fiddles his misbaha by the entrance. I place my shoes on the rack and peel open the black linen curtain. The stillness soaks me like a gulp of cold water in the desert. The last time I attended a service was to introduce our newborn to the imam at Qolsharif at our parents’ request. Four gray-bearded men crouch on the carpet in the corner. Kazan’s mosques are steel blue, so the red and white tiles make for a temple of a different religion. Three boys perch on the sajjada in the front. The imam drones on like a faulty refrigerator, probably something about providing for the family, observing sharia, respecting the elders. My dad forced me to attend our mosque’s madrasa as a kid, and I hated every second of it. I didn’t believe in and don’t remember a single line they taught us, but I fulfilled the teachings, right? A wife, a law practice, a son who will speak Tatar. What else could they demand from me? Now I’m saving my ass from running with a rifle across a country that isn’t ours. We used to think of Ukraine as a place where they speak with a funny accent, not where our dictator tries to murder the entire population—both theirs and ours. They already took Ruslan. They took Bashir. They took Nurlat. How many more will they take?


I lug the groceries up to the room. Chips, apricots, peanuts, and a six-pack of Sarbast. Zulfia has already returned from her shift. She sprawls on the bed and scrolls on her phone. The mini fridge only fits the beer. I pop a can open to quiet my thoughts. Too much news about new rounds of conscription back home. Zulfia sets her phone down, “Can I have one too?” 

“Yeah, sure.” At twenty-two, she’s allowed to drink, but I’m still surprised she’d choose to have beer at two on a Wednesday. She flicks the can open and catches my bewildered gaze.

She laughs, “I’ve never tried beer. Wanted to see what it tastes like. But come on, we have soda here. There’s probably no place in the world that doesn’t have Coca Cola.” She’s right, why am I so scandalized by a girl who can open a can? My wife complains that beer tastes like urine. She used to drink wine at family holidays, but after we started trying for a child she had to cut out alcohol. Gulnara. Wish I lay on her bed right now. On our bed. It feels like months ago, lifetimes.

After a few sips, Zulfia’s eyes sparkle with a sly twinkle. The cherry in her cheeks flushes her face with gentleness. In the last three weeks she’s never gone to visit her friend Amina. She hasn’t mentioned other friends. She told me of her brothers who can’t find jobs, their father who is never home, and when he is, it’s only to look for reasons to yell while rubbing his round belly at the first person who enters the room, and then to leave as quickly as he came. He delivers mutton and venison carcasses to local businesses in a Hino tractor. I saw a truck like that pull up to the restaurant downstairs this morning, but I don’t know what her father looks like.

Zulfia rises from the couch and walks toward the window. I pull out a cigarette and stretch my hand, anticipating her next request. Instead of grabbing the cigarette she pauses and pulls on my hand to push herself close to me.

She kisses me on the lips. It’s the fresh water spring in Zaitovo, the one I used to drive to with my mother to fill the canisters with liquid gold that cured any disease. It tastes like apples, malt, honey, seawater. It hurts like electricity. I’m too—anything—to respond. I sit there and don’t move, like an idiot, and hope she doesn’t stop. Hope it’s not me but definitely her who wanted it. Sweet pride fills my body. I didn’t act first. That feels redemptive enough. I don’t want to question it. I want it to pour its saccharine nectar down my throat.


The next time I look up, the moonlight beams into the open window. Zulfia sighs in peaceful slumber, like an adolescent bird. Her breath spreads across the sheets, deep and slow, like subterranean plates in motion. I was worried, but she said her parents think she’s spending the night at Amina’s. “Premeditated,” I exhale the cigarette. 

The moon is round and warm, a gold coin, ripe for the taking by the emperor of the day. It could be 11 p.m. or 3 a.m. or 4:27 a.m., all at once. How long will I stay in Samarkand? Will I move again? Can Gulnara and Kareem join me? Would my parents live long enough for me to see them? Surely, the war will cease next week, and I’ll end this involuntary vacation. I’m just making the best of a terrible situation. It might help us in the long run; I won’t have to ask so much from Gulnara, who can’t give me what I need. This is our best available option. She wouldn’t want me to hide in a dugout with grenades exploding a few feet away. Or to die. It really happens. It’s really happening right now. When you wake up, Gulnara, and read my message, and cry, just remember, it will be daytime there, guys like me, late twenties, with young kids, dying. When you read this, someone your age, your gender, is out there, dying. When time is of no point, death is of no point, life is of no point, is there space for petty dramas of our lives?


Daria Rose is a writer based in Brooklyn and a refugee.




Skylar Ruprecht

Heaven is a Bore

A man wakes up in the infernal city of Tartarus at the foot of a steep hill. Before him stands a massive, misshapen boulder. Upon it is a note: “Once you roll this boulder to the top of this hill, you will be free.” Today, he thinks, today is the day I reach the top.


It is 2023. The year we attempted a tentative return to normalcy. The year society poked its collective head out of the bunker, surveyed the damage, and asked, “Is it safe to come up now?” The year a guy in Saginaw, Michigan bought a new Chevy right off the lot, drove it to and from the Rally’s on Bay Road, and sold it back to the dealer for double the sticker price. The year a relief pitcher won the “Comeback Player of the Year” award for surviving Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, making five subpar appearances, and promptly tearing his UCL. The year four people with too much money (and one unfortunate child) crammed themselves into a ramshackle submarine and disappeared 12,500 feet under the sea, and we all sat glued to our televisions, counting down how much oxygen they had left, until one day, when someone from the Coast Guard got on the air and announced they’d all exploded several days ago. The year of fucked up internal clocks. The year a woman said, “Remember? At Nina’s birthday party last month?” and someone else replied, “Nina died two years ago.” The year I moved from Milwaukee to Philadelphia to work a job in D.C., and everyone agreed that made perfect sense. 


It is 2023, and we are all in two places at once. We are at work. We are also in our bedrooms. We used to separate our bedroom and professional lives. Now they are blended. We run the internal audit for a Fortune 500 company in pajama bottoms. We work on the same beds we sleep in. Not all of us. Homelessness is up 12%. But the President has a chart that proves this is fine. The chart says, “You are happy. This is the best you’ve ever felt.” I printed this chart out and gave it to a beggar on my block. He did not look happy. He did not look the best he’d ever felt. 


Dear Mr. Ruprecht,

Thank you for sending us “Heaven is a Bore.” It is unflinching in its brilliance and wit. It pulls no punches and lands every one. It transcends the physical, synthesizes the mental, and illuminates the seldom-explored, shadowy recesses of the human spirit. It is everything we’ve ever wanted in a short story. Unfortunately, it is not a good fit for us at this time. 


Gomer Codswallop 
The Paris Review 


I eat the same salad every day. One bag pre-washed Butter Lettuce. One bag pre-washed Spring Mix. 100 grams of pulled rotisserie chicken. 130 grams of baked sweet potatoes. One hardboiled egg, diced. Fifteen grape tomatoes. 20 slices of julienned red onion. Ground salt and pepper. 75 grams of Bolthouse Farms honey mustard yogurt dressing. Lettuce goes in first. Then egg. Then sweet potatoes. Then tomatoes. Then onions. Then chicken. Then salt and pepper. Then dressing. Once, someone saw me make it and asked if I had an eating disorder. “No,” I said. “It’s not just for eating.” 


The doorman in my apartment complex is reading Finnegan’s Wake and has been for the last eight months. This is his fourth time through. He hates it. But he won’t stop reading until he understands why. 

“It’s driving me insane, this book,” he tells me one night. He looks all around and then whispers, “Have you ever had the urge to kill the President?” 

“Every day,” I say.  


Rivers of sweat course down the man’s face and run off his chin. He’s nearly at the top. He pauses, braced against the boulder, and ponders all the wonders that await him on the other side of this hill. Once he gets there, his life truly begins. He’ll have time to learn foreign languages and fuck women of repute and sample every flavor of wine and write that novel he’s been meaning to start. He grins, and as he does, the boulder slips out of his grasp and rolls all the way back down the hill. 


An Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim meet each other in Heaven, which resembles Philadelphia in all relevant respects, except there are fewer Eagles jerseys and, inconceivably, twice as many Dunkin’ Donuts. Both arrived about three months ago, and since then, neither has wanted for anything. The Jew’s achy knee hasn’t bothered him once. The Muslim’s peanut allergy has abated. Each man is having a perfect hair day, as usual. 

“So,” the Jew clears his throat and sticks his hands in his pockets. “Is this everything you hoped for?”  

The Muslim scratches the nape of his neck. “No,” he says at length. “It’s…wrong. There’s supposed to be luscious gardens and scores of houris and four rivers of water, milk, honey, and wine that stretch over and beyond the reaches of the Earth. Choirs of angels are supposed to be singing. There should be garments of silk and brocade. I mean, I hate to complain. It’s a wonderful place. But it’s not what I was promised.” He takes a deep breath and forces a smile. “Sorry. I really shouldn’t… It is wonderful.” He looks around, as if trying to convince himself. “What about you? Is it all you hoped?” 

“No,” the Jew agrees. “I didn’t want you to be here.” 


I meet a pretty girl in the elevator. I’ve forgotten how to talk to them. I Google: “How do you talk to a pretty girl?” The top result is a sponsored link for penile enlargement pills. The second result is a Reddit thread. User u/Number1WomanRespecter writes: “What I struggle with is that I don’t want to creep this person out. I don’t want to approach her, try to flirt, and then have her go home and wonder, ‘Why can’t I just have one night where men leave me alone?’ I don’t want her to remember me and think, ‘Pfft, men.’ I don’t want to be the subject of an inside joke she and her friends tell when there’s nothing on TV and they can’t think of anything else to talk about. But I have to say something, don’t I? Would it be weird to compliment her hair? Would she laugh at me as soon as I turned away?” User u/Condoms_r_4_Pussies responds: “Fag.” The girl gets off on the 15th floor. We don’t speak. 


In fifth grade, we took a field trip to the Heinz Ketchup Factory. Our ten-year-old brains imagined one continuous food fight, an office like a paintball park, splattered in crimson red. When we got there, it looked like Dachau. Everything traveled along a single conveyor, with employees stationed at regular intervals like stone sentries, gazes fixed on the belt. “They’re watching for abnormalities,” the floor managed explained. “A tomato squeezed at 10:01 A.M. today must look identical to one squeezed at 10:01 tomorrow. Otherwise, it ruins the whole batch.” 


On the way home, everyone sat in silence, except for the kids in the back of the bus, who sang with muted glee “This is the Song That Never, Ever Ends.” It went like this: 

This is the song that never, ever ends 
Yes, it just goes on and on, my friends
Some people started singing it not knowing what it was 
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because … 

Sometimes I wonder if they’re still singing it. 


The man chases the boulder down the hill. He screams profanities at it. He tells the boulder it is ruining his life. He punches the boulder until his fists are bloody. This is the 785,610th time he has failed to reach the top. He has searched for a pattern in his failures, but after 785,610 attempts, he concludes that he is not the problem. The game is rigged, he thinks. It’s not me. The game is rigged. 


Work drags on. I am paid $65,000 a year to watch a live feed of the Sea of Tranquility and let my superiors know if anything happens. I get one hour for lunch, during which someone else watches the Sea of Tranquility. I worry every day that something will happen on my lunch break, and I will miss it. But nothing ever happens. 


“Every night, in my dreams, I burn this building to the ground,” the doorman confesses to me. “And every morning, I show up and someone’s rebuilt it.” 

“Do you know the name of the pretty girl who lives on the 15th floor?” I ask him. 

“You’ll have to be more specific. All of the pretty girls live on the 15th floor.” 

“Which floor do the handsome men live on?” 

“Not yours.” 


Mahatma Gandhi and the mythical hero Achilles sit upon a park bench in Rittenhouse Square and watch pigeons manifest their own bread. 

“Goddamn, this sucks,” Gandhi says. “When was the last time anything fucking happened?” 

“The resurrection was interesting.”  

“I wasn’t here for that.” 

“Well, it actually wasn’t all that interesting.” 


Brian calls. He hopes to visit when work slows down. He’d have me over to his place, but his Wi-Fi isn’t good enough to livestream the Sea of Tranquility. He’s voting for RFK Jr. He thinks he’s found a loophole in the stock market. His girlfriend wants him to clean the litterbox. God, she really knows how to ruin his day. 

“Who was that?” the doorman asks. 

“My best friend.”

“How come I’ve never met him?” 

“I haven’t seen him in six years.” 

The doorman buries his face in his book. He bumps into an impossible portmanteau and raises his eyes. “Why aren’t I your best friend? You see me every day.” 

“Okay,” I tell him. “From now on you’re my best friend.” What I don’t tell him is that I don’t know his name. 


The man wakes up, still in Tartarus. He glares at the boulder. Upon it, he finds the same note: “Once you roll this boulder to the top of this hill, you will be free.” Not today. He wanders off southward into the adjacent dandelion meadow he’s never before explored. 


Sometimes I work on a dual monitor. On the left, the Sea of Tranquility. On the right, cable news. On the left, nothing. On the right, they’ve discovered cocaine in the White House (again), and everyone is acting all precious about it, as though no one in the upper tax brackets has ever snorted coke. On the left, quiet, and in that quiet, something mysterious, hopeful. On the right, we all have superhero fatigue. We are all emotionally invested in a relationship between a notoriously mercurial pop star and a tight end. We are all afraid that artificial intelligence might replace us. We are even more afraid that we might discover we need not be replaced. We have all become our grandparents, reminding one another that a McChicken, small fries, and two hot apple pies used to cost $3. 


For dinner, I have 100 grams of pulled rotisserie chicken smashed between six lightly toasted slices of Keto-friendly bread, smothered in spicy brown mustard and G Hughes Sweet and Spicy barbeque sauce, topped with chopped scallions. Then I have four Egglife Original Eggwhite Wraps. All four are heated on a single, regular-sized dinner plate for one minute and forty-six seconds. Then, the top two wraps are placed on a smaller dinner plate and heated for an additional twenty-nine seconds. When they are done, I spread refried beans on each wrap and add Yellowbird Jalapeño Condiment, nutritional yeast, salt, and pepper. Next, I have eight cups of sugar free Jell-O, two strawberry flavored, six lime, unless it’s a Saturday, in which case all eight cups are lime flavored. I top each cup with a dash of Original Reddi-Wip. I then eat a banana, wait half an hour, take 200 mg of Zoloft, and eat an apple, careful not to swallow any seeds.   


Gandhi travels to God’s palatial estate in Center City. He queues with a crop of new arrivals waiting to be judged. 

“I’m a little worried,” says a man who, by the looks of it, died cycling. 

“What for?” Gandhi asks. 

“I was mostly good, but…I did some things I regret.” 

“Like what?” 

“Well, I had sex outside of marriage,” the man says.  

“Pssh,” Gandhi laughs. “I fucked my great-granddaughter.” 

“And I didn’t help my wife around the house.” 

“So what? I denied my wife life-saving medication.” 

“I said the N-word more than once.” 

“I helped facilitate South African apartheid.” 

“Oh. And I voted for Donald Trump in 2016.” 

“Ew,” Gandhi recoils. “Get the hell away from me.” 

“Have you seen my wallet?” The (now former) CEO of Amazon accosts Gandhi and tugs at his dhoti. “Has anybody seen my wallet?” He continues down the line. 

“Why the hell do you need a wallet? You’re dead,” somebody says. 

“What if God locks all the good stuff behind a paywall?” the ex-CEO asks. “What if you can’t get to the good shit without a series of microtransactions?” 

The line moves quickly. Within the hour, the cyclist is before Justice Antonin Scalia to plead his case. 

“All right, let’s hear it,” Scalia grunts. “Why should you get in?” 

The cyclist, perhaps expecting St. Peter, stammers. “Well…uh…I went to church my whole life. …I mean, I guess I missed a few services in college and during the playoffs and…you know… But! But! I always tipped at least 20%. …Well, except for that one time in Corvallis. …But I donated blood. …And…um…oh, and I bet you don’t have too much Kenyan-Taiwanese representation around these parts.” 

“Don’t give a rat’s ass. We don’t do racial entitlements up here, buddy.” 

“Oh. …Well, I guess…”

“Just answer me this,” Scalia cuts in. “Does Congress have the authority to delegate its legislative power to another branch?” 

“Um… Yes?” 

“Wrong answer, pal.” Scalia cranks a lever, and the cyclist drops through a hole in the ground. “Next,” he hollers. 

Gandhi steps up. 

“Oh, what the fuck do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy?” 

“I need to meet with the big guy,” Gandhi says. 

“Big guy’s not seeing visitors right now.” 

“Why the hell not? What the hell’s he doing?” 

“He’s trying to bring democracy to the Middle East.” 

“Well, how long’s that gonna take?” 

“If you liberals keep electing terrorist sympathizers as presidents, probably the rest of eternity.” 

“I never voted in an American election,” Gandhi says. 

“Hey, neither did I,” adds an older Black gentleman a few heads back. 

Scalia points both thumbs at himself. “You can thank me for that one.” 


I ride the elevator up and down, waiting for the pretty girl to get on. People begin to mistake me for a liftman. I play along. “What floor?” I ask. 

“Fourteen,” says a grad student lugging a scooter.  

“You got it,” I say. And then when we get to his floor, “Have a nice day, son.” 

“You’re not my dad,” he shoots back.  

“Well, I brought you up, didn’t I?”  

The pretty girl never arrives. 


Nothing continues to happen on my left monitor. On the right, a panel discusses a blend of fast food lemonade that has killed three people. Fast food chains, themselves, have killed millions. There is no panel discussing this. 


The doorman no longer opens the door. 

“What’s the point?” He asks. “People leave, people return. It’s a commodius vicus of recirculation.” 

“Well, yeah,” I say. “But it’s your job.” 

“Oh, a job’s a job’s a job. Ice it rye tear daypos’day. It’s supramore to earn my pay.” 

“Are you okay?” 

“I thought I was your best friend,” he says. 

“You are.” 

“Then why didn’t you do anything for my birthday?” 


The man plucks a dandelion and sniffs it. When he squints, he can barely make out a beach, approximately as far from him as he now is from the boulder. He’s about to head that way when God materializes, eyes bloodshot, facial hair scraggly and unkempt, reeking of alcohol and the kind of sweat you can only produce after devouring Taco Bell past midnight. He carries a staff, the top of which is whittled to resemble James Dean. 

He plants the staff in the dirt. “The fuck do you think you’re doing?” 

The man gestures to the offing. “Going to the beach.” 

“Going to the beach?” God blushes angrily. “What beach?” He half-turns and points. “That beach?” 


“That’s not a beach. That’s a fucking mirage.” 

“Okay, then. Going to the mirage.” The man slides past and continues through the meadow. 

God lifts his flowing, white robe and hobbles after him. “You can’t do that!” He holds the billowy folds above his knees where he sports two orthopedic braces. “Hey! I said you can’t do that!” 

“Why not?” The man doesn’t stop. 

“It’s against the rules.” 

“What rules?” 

God catches up. He reaches out and spins the man around by his shoulder. “The goddamn rules I put on that goddamn boulder over there!” 

The man wrinkles his brow and snorts. “Nuh-uh. That just says I’ll be free once I get the boulder up the hill. It doesn’t say that’s the only way.” 

“It’s implicit.” 

“Yeah, right.” The man laughs. “A God who speaks in subtext? Who’s gonna believe that?”  


I wrote a short story about the afterlife called “Heaven is a Bore.” I did this with one eye on the Sea of Tranquility. All the characters in the story are based on people from my real life. I’m terrified that someone will read it and realize they’re in it and sue me. Or worse yet, think I’m weird for having written them into a story. 

The news says most men think of Ancient Rome twice a week. The news says most men think they could land an airplane in an emergency. The news says most men think that vaginal elasticity directly correlates with number of sexual encounters. None of this is weird because most men do it. What most men don’t do is write people they know into short stories about the afterlife called “Heaven is a Bore.”  


Brian phones to say he’ll be in Philadelphia tomorrow, but he won’t have time to hang. 

“Maybe I can be busy in your hometown later this year,” I say. 

“They discovered an alien aircraft in Odessa, Texas,” he tells me. “The alien had COVID.” 


Achilles and Marilyn Monroe arrive, unannounced, at Gandhi’s penthouse suite. He eyes them through the peephole and shouts, “Go away! I’m busy!” 

Marilyn presses her bosom against the peephole. “You haven’t come to the park in ages, darling.”  

“Nothing happens at the park.” 

“Nothing happens everywhere. The park is where it looks the best.” 

“I’m sick of it.” 

Glass shatters in the penthouse. 

“What was that?” Marilyn asks. “Who else is in there with you?”  

“Nobody,” Gandhi says. “It’s just me and Steve Dedianko.” 

Marilyn looks to Achilles who shrugs. “Who’s Steve Dedianko?” 

“He was almost an engineer.” 


“Well, he had to drop out after the 8th grade. Times were tough. Anyhow, leave us the hell alone. We’re busy.” 


Yesterday, it finally happened. The elevator doors slid open, and the pretty girl got on. Without thinking, I pressed the button for the 15th floor. 

“Um… How do you know where I live?” She rifled through her bag for, probably, a can of mace. 

“Oh,” I said. “All the pretty girls live on the 15th floor.” I thought that was smooth as hell, but the girl didn’t react well. Her eyes narrowed and her hand met her hip and her jaw hung askew. 

“My sister lives in this building on floor 12,” she said. 

“Well.” I prayed for cardiac arrest. “Looks aren’t everything.” 

We didn’t speak again. 

Today, I’ve instituted a new rule. I only take the stairs. 


The Golden Globes are cancelled to address a lack of diversity within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Around the same time, 10 billion snow crabs vanish from the Bering Sea. Brian thinks the two events are connected. 

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “10 billion snow crabs have never disappeared during a year we awarded Golden Globes.”


My grandfather, Steve Dedianko, died the summer I turned fourteen. He was ninety-two and fulfilled most of the stereotypes associated with that age (irrelevant prostate cancer, general immobility, occasional bouts of confusion). He couldn’t do much near the end, but what he could do was watch the stock ticker scroll across the bottom of CNBC and monitor the one stock he had a small investment in, the name of which I can’t recall. Sometimes it was a little over $4 a share, sometimes a little under. But it never budged beyond that. I wonder what he would’ve done if it had. He never would’ve sold, I know that much. Because for him, it wasn’t about the investment itself; it was about having some skin in the game. It was about the thrill of knowing, alphabetically, his stock was up next. It was about the little spark of life that flashed in his eyes in the almost imperceptible instant just before the ticker symbol crept on screen. The anxious mystery. The unlimited possibility. Will the arrow be red or green? Up or down? 

Every now and then, I’ll pull up CNBC on my right monitor and watch the ticker for a while. But it’s not the same when you don’t have a rooting interest. The scrolling stocks and the Sea of Tranquility—nothing happening on either side. 


The man reaches the location where the beach should have been and confirms that it was, in fact, a mirage. But he’s not especially bothered because in the distance, past a single, slanted Joshua Tree, he sees another, better beach, waves shimmering a resplendent blue. 

“Seriously!” God calls out, a full fifty yards behind. “You’re not allowed to do this.”


I receive an email from the doorman informing me that I have a package waiting in the lobby. I shuffle down nineteen flights of stairs, only to learn the email was a hoax. 

“Comesabunda, HSR!” the doorman squeals. “Stand up tallstraight and chinnit as a shamladmate.” 

“How ‘bout the Phillies?” I slack against the wall and ask. 

“Ay yai yai, how ‘bout the Colts? How ‘bout the skitterskattersnickersplatter da-na-na-na-na-ing on meín kopf?” 

“Look,” I say. “Don’t email me anymore unless there’s actually a package. It’s a really long walk down here, and I don’t even know your na—er—I don’t wanna play this game.”

“Ohyay! Sigmun on a nannerpeel.” 

Brian texts on my way upstairs. 

“Ur never gonna believe it,” he writes. “That guy who attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer? Yeah, it wasn’t an attack at all. It was a love affair. They’re gay lovers, Paul Pelosi and that hammer guy.” 

“All the greatest artists, they were amateurs,” I write back. “Unembarrassed dressed in only bandages.” I always quote Titus Andronicus (the band, not the play) at him when I’ve run out of things to say. 


Steve Dedianko rides the SEPTA up to Fishtown. On board, he converses with a former schizo (cured upon his ascent to Heaven). 

“I used to just sit on this train and rant,” the guy says. “I thought I was talking to God. But the God I was talking to agreed with me on everything. You know? Which sports teams to root for. Under what circumstances it was moral to steal. What words were and weren’t appropriate.” The guy slaps his knee and laughs. “I should’ve known I was crazy. I mean, you gotta be pretty crazy to think God just happens to take your side on everything you care about.”

“Do you have any gumbands you’d be willing to part with?” Steve asks. 

The guy unzips a backpack and digs out two fat, purple rubber bands. He hands them over. “You know, I’m kinda surprised they let me in here.” 


“I guess the thing was, I never meant to hurt anybody. If you look around the world, there’s a whole lotta people hurting other people on purpose. That’s the real fucked up shit.” 

Steve disembarks at the Girard stop. He grabs an order of fried brussels at Other Half Brewing. Then he goes door to door, asking everyone he meets if they’ve got a gumband or two to spare. 


I set my alarm for 7 A.M. every morning, even though I always wake up at 6:57. I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to wake up at 6:57. I walk 20,000 steps every day. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to go a day without taking 20,000 steps. 

Sometimes someone will ask me to do something, and I’ll say, “I can’t because I have to eat a very particular salad at 1 P.M., and I have to eat a very particular dinner at 8, and I have to wake up at 6:57 A.M., and I have to take 20,000 steps, and if I do this thing you’ve asked me to do, I won’t be able to eat a very particular salad at 1 P.M., or eat a very particular dinner at 8, or wake up at 6:57 A.M., or take 20,000 steps.” 

“And what will happen then?” they’ll ask. 

“I don’t know,” I’ll say. “It’s unprecedented. It’s against the rules.” 


I create and deactivate the same dating profile over and over. The only thing I change is the bio, where I try to write something clever like: “Ever wanted to meet one of those people who pours milk before cereal in real life?” I swipe left and swipe right, with my attention mainly traced on the Sea of Tranquility. I peruse the same profiles across three different apps. All of us engaged in this recreational exercise designed to quiet our feelings of loneliness. Even if we never talk to anyone on the apps, at least it’s a possibility. At least we might. I come upon a profile belonging to the pretty girl on the 15th floor and immediately delete my account. 


The man reaches the second, better beach, but it, too, is a mirage. If he squints, he can see a third, more lavish than the last. He heads that way, God lagging out of earshot. 


The doorman slips notes under everyone’s doors, written ransom-style using letters excised from various magazines. The notes read: 


                                                                                 THIS IS YOUR KNOCKARAPPAHOMOKNOCK. HAVE YOU READ THE TRAGICOMIKITTY OF HUMPELKEN PUMPELKEN? 

                                                                                 HUMPLEKEN PUMPELKEN (NO OVUM WAS HE) LAY ON A MESA 

                                                                                 WITH LIGAMINOS AND TENDONITOS WRAPPED ‘ROUND HIS CABEZA 

                                                                                 A BRRRRRRRRR CHICKACHICKACHICKA BRRRRRRRRR OF NAYQUINES TRIED BUT COULD NOT RESTORE 

                                                                                 SPLATSINEWSHARDSOUP TO HUMPELKEN PUMPELKEN ONCE MORE 



An elderly woman disobeys the letter. They rush her to the hospital in an ambulance. 


I am staring intently at the Sea of Tranquility when a knock comes at my door. I ignore it and watch as nothing continues to happen. Another knock comes. I ignore it. Another knock. 

“Go away,” I shout. “I’m extremely busy!” 

“Come outside!” Mahatma Gandhi shouts back. 

“No,” I say. “I’m working. I’m very busy.” 

“Come outside!” Gandhi repeats. “And look at what we’ve done.” 

“Did you know all the handsome men live on a different floor?” I ask. 

“Come outside! Me and Steve Dedianko have really fucking done it this time.” 

He won’t stop knocking, so I relent. “But I have to be back at 1 P.M.,” I say. “To eat a very particular salad.” I stroke my left monitor and beg the Sea of Tranquility not to do anything while I’m away. I put on an old pair of sneakers and no deodorant. I take the nineteen-floor walk down to the ground level. And there, just outside my building, I see a crowd of eager faces, all clustered around a rubber band ball the size of a small planet. 

“We’re going to roll it up Chestnut Hill,” Gandhi explains. “It’ll be the first thing that’s fucking happened in 2,000 years.” 

“What happens after we reach the top?” I ask. 

“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” 


The man is halfway to the third beach when inspiration strikes. He’s used to ignoring it. Inspiration is a honeymoon he’s been saving up for. A hope he’s borrowed against. But standing there, amidst miles of nothing, he decides to let it in. He bathes in it, lets it tickle his feet and warm his stomach. Today, he thinks, today is the day I reach the top. He sits and begins writing his novel in the dirt. It opens like this: “A man wakes up in the infernal city of Tartarus at the foot of a steep hill.” 


Skylar Ruprecht is a public interest attorney in Philadelphia, PA. His short fiction has previously appeared in or is forthcoming from Clockhouse Journal; Piker Press; and Children, Churches & Daddies Magazine. He can be reached on the app formerly known as Twitter @SkylarLit.




J. P. J. Potts


And the house said, Come. I hadn’t thought of it. The whole bashed mess was half-renovated, but then so was I; bits of me hung on loose nails and failed extensions, trickled from gutters stuffed with Instagram art and pizza deals. So I left the hostel. Easy. Kissed the bunk bye. A pair of joggers had slithered off in the night. The stairs were a fantastic way to hate yourself. On the five-flight helix with my case, I said goodbye to an Australian. “Ohhhh, naur! You’re gonna miss the crawl! The crawl, though!” But I told him no worries, there was road gin. Maybe we’d meet again as juniper berries. Then I hugged his ridiculous skin. He wore my joggers. We fought about it. A cab came. Lights dribbled like sucked sweets on the window, and my head was black, so the driver couldn’t find much there. 

At the coach station I hunkered from the usual screams as lunatics saw the toilet fee. I sat beside a lady with a scarf and raincoat, one of those boil-in-a-bag bodies. “Is gonna come soon,” she said. 

“What is?” 

“The last one,” she said, sneezing and dabbing her nose. I looked at the departure board but there were only firsts. “Is very near,” she said, “the end.” When I turned back, she was trudging to the rain. She left half a pack of tissues and I tore one up. 

The doors opened. I uttered the name of my grandma’s city. The coach growled. Air frosted my knees. How can you sleep with a part cold? People must do it. Leeds left me like a trick, a stumble from a waltzer. We entered the motorway’s somnolent surf of cars and rain. I thought of an early memory, clipped in a circling car, fighting to stay awake even though Dad was aiming for knockout because in the dark he was mine.  

We fled from rest stops and flirted with cats’ eyes while Lucozade dried on the next seat. A man went, “Oh no no,” on the glass, and then, “Keith,” and stopped. Sore rubbish hit benches. We went with loose heads into thinner country. Muted. And light. Fields. Sheep like old teeth. We woke silently to thumped clouds.

And then stretching from the dark, we were there, over Grangetown, by the sea, and I knew where to go again. I found the close, the square with the tall wall and crying gulls. An open van stood with hired men for another house, not hers, a front door lashed to the van. The sky blotted blue like test paper. The men shifted planks and saws wordlessly. A salt breeze swept us closer. 

Her house wasn’t finished. It still held some of Grandma. I almost asked Dad if she’d mind, barely two months gone, about me staying there. Was she rested? Would the air fryer offend her? He said he’d thought about it, then installed precautions. You’ll see her if she comes about. There are lights in the hall, they follow feet. Opening the door, I expected her with a yellow wink and a silver palm. But the passage was blank. LEDs blinked on the skirting board. The electric bell whined and died. Rolls of carpet lay bunched against the wall like cheap cake displays. The floor had been stripped, sanded, gashed. I dropped my case and smoked in the yard. The new kitchen was almost there; along with the living room, the nearest to personhood. I sat on the sofa she’d never have put up with, testing the cushions and fingering the lamp. Throttled by decades. On my phone, reminders: Turn gas off. Set the timer. I’m back in nine days so leave early or I can take u x 

I wanted joggers but only had swim shorts, which angered my balls. Never mind. You itch, don’t you. Grandma’s bed was smaller than I remembered; it took a while to curl comfortably on the sheets. I searched for her mist on the pillow, rooted, and found a tissue beneath—used, crumpled, sweet-smelling. I woke up with it. Lay a while stroking her. Even felt absently on the bedside table for the china hippo she’d let me hold in the morning, leaving it there while I slept because I’d like to squeeze the sharp parts and get stronger. Where was that hippo? The sun was weak, nothing like the Saturday haze that would pin me there like a thumb twenty years ago. I hugged the sheets, staring at the poke of the neighbour’s chimney and listening for gulls, who tapped roof code. 

And the city, well, it was something. I suppose you had to be there. People dragged themselves to whatever was open and when it wasn’t they moved on, tottered towards slot machines and saveloys, bakeries and clinics, wearing fleeces the colours of kelp; they pushed and wiggled and reversed things that might be babies. Their faces wore maps of hard lives: red rivers, bruised hills, craters from Pluto. But they smiled so much. Smiled like they meant it. Grabbed your words and whirled them in a soapy iris. “Y’alreet?” with a look that said yes. “Eeee, turning nippy, isn’t it? Gonna have to hoy me coat on for the match, rip me scarf off the bairn.” 

“I don’t know who’s playing,” I’d say. 

“Ohhh, whey, we’ve been battered and shat on, truthfully, this season, but Clarke had a crackin’ header last week. There’s still hope for carnage.” 

“You were up, weren’t you, then down. Now it’s all sticking to the middle.” 

“Ayyye, speakin’ of which, don’t let that fish finger drop oot. The mayo’s mental.” 

“It’s great, ya knar. Thanks. Some heat.” And I wondered how delicious it was to find my accent again, rustling under a pile of tote bags and Hilary Mantels. Through the first day I tried it on, stretching my e’s, smothering my consonants like old relatives. The air still fumed with the Nissan factory. I learned someone had knocked the cinema down, that the sports centre held job fairs, and the All Saints had closed and reopened and closed. Weird after five cities with glass that kept climbing. Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing when they looked up, pausing suddenly on the street. Whey, it’s small. Smaller than yesterday. 

When I’d taken acid here once, with Abby, we’d almost made sense of it. She’d handed over tabs in a park and hung from a tree laughing so sharp I thought she’d crack the branch, peering with me at the moon like a scoop of cream, clapping her mittens. And we’d followed the hunched night people who were sucked up by doors and gates we couldn’t see. She kept asking who they were. Really. “Just toys, man, looking for patches and their springs fixed.” A firework had leapt into the sky, scorching stars. “See, there they go!” But we hadn’t stayed out for long, and ended up watching Aliens, and the same cat from the movie—well, no—turned up on her doorstep, a stray tired of space. We’d loved that. The cat knew us. Abby took it with her when she left and lifted the cat on her lap on Skype when we still knew our usernames.

I returned to the house, made the air fryer submit. Last night’s gin, nice, with a cigarette, noticing Dad had bought Grandma’s favourite cheap lemonade. “This is my body,” I said mixing. “This is my blood.” One of the LEDs winked off for good. I had a little hash left over from Leeds, and went to the lounge, hooking my laptop to the T.V.—priority of fathers—as my brain flamed. And it felt like she was there. Not there. Sitting in the armchair behind me. A toe nuzzling the hole in her slipper, flowered skirt bouncing on her knees. Smelling of time. I spun. The nape of my neck grew warm, not unlike the touch of a hand. 

Back in the yard, breathing, I clung to the shed. We’d never said goodbye. It was over too fast, and I’d been sick, whatever you’d call it. I hoped she’d understand. There was no moon that night, but I searched for one. Craned my head and whispered. 

Something clattered by the bins and made me jump. A tin rolled out, resting at the drain. Something scurried. I shone my phone that way, and saw a black leg. Brown. Almost too quick to catch. 

“Hey, fucker!”

I edged round the bins, tilting the light. A couple of cans and packets lay scattered and mauled. Shaking, I trailed the torch to the garage, the slip of wall between us and the neighbour. Nothing stared out. But from the end of the close came a hoot, a soft wordless question, like a call from a forest. More answered it. Hoo, they went. Hoo hoo hoo. 

They came back the next night, after town, when I was scrolling ads, invoices, writing half an article on the best practices in field service management with keywords in lime, running past shattered warehouses and old shipyards in the afternoon. I felt good, ruined, elastic. Then—on the window; from the floor no-one. While I checked the right corner, a second tap struck the left, a plink moth hard. Through the cold bunker of house I heard the hooting, lower than before, almost a secret. 

I called Dad despite myself. “Are there animals out here or what? Something I might as well know?” 

“What do you mean? Animals, son?” Wherever he was—Malaga, maybe—it was fuzzy. 

“Pests, man. Or kids doing bullshit.”

“Don’t think there are many about, at least giving you grief. Never see them outside nae more. Shame. We’d mess with the laundrette lass and nick her copper wires.” 

“I didn’t ask for the Beano,” I said, seeing him as a child on the mantle, a freckled terrorist with a cowlick. “And copper’s a bad word now. Nah. There’s a thing with proper legs coming around. I saw it and one’s just knocked.” 

He sighed and faded into crowd sound. When he returned, he was slower, serious. “You need to lay off the spliffs, like.”

“They’re fine. They’re good for me. How’s your beer?” 

“If it’s kids,” he said, “ask them the time. That works.” 

But he was right, there were no children in Hendon. You had to go up Villette Road for the North Facers, the raw spitting crews on bikes by the chippy. I walked around searching for shadows, looping the estate, its spikes and wild lawns, playing podcasts dimly in my coat pocket because to walk without voices was unbearable. Some of them were funny. I couldn’t recall my last proper conversation. When I walked and listened, I could rehearse interjections, what I’d say around interesting people once everything reassembled. They might like this: A young guy evading his bollock rash. The wind became bitter. I circled towards Grandma’s house, and stopped at the door. Something shimmered on the step. A plate. I picked it up. A metal dish grainy with sand. I took it inside. Held it wonderingly in the bathroom. 

For a few nights, they knocked for me. Scampered in both yards. Scratched the bins. Rattled the letterbox. At first I heard three distinctly, but others joined, always when the sun fell behind the church. I waited for them. And saw them at last—usually by flicking the security light when they made a chorus of swelling excited hoos, running their fingers on the windowpane in the kitchen, tiny brown fingers with nails like splinters, tapping, testing—and I’d blast them with the light and throw open the back passage at the same time to find ten or eleven of them on all fours crouching over an empty tin of chopped pork, hopping off the step, the washing, lithe and long-armed, a halogen blade in their huge eyes as they opened their mouths and ran.  

I considered poison, traps, rat stuff, but couldn’t stomach it. They had hands and feet; that’s murder. I called the police another night and two officers arrived, flushed and polite. They trudged around to shine. “No, no one,” they said, holding their belts. “Just a few shopping bags. Did you get a look at their faces?” 

“Stay,” I said, fetching biscuits. “Just a while. You don’t wanna miss this.”

“We can’t. Sorry. Could be all night.” 

“Well, that’s just not good enough! I’m a taxpayer, in theory.” 

“We can’t caution the air, can we, and I’m sure you’re shaken, but we’re not allowed to hang around for Knocky Nine Doors, either.” 

“You don’t understand,” I told them, rocking and gripping the table. “This is intense. I’m barely sleeping. I have to work somewhere.” 

“So do we,” they said, brushing their trousers as if they were dirty. “Call us again if it’s worse. You might want evidence, too. Record something. Get a good look.” As they left, and I stood fretfully in the hallway, a shape slunk from under a car, ambling to the street through a cone of lamplight. 

I’d already taken a video, sent it to some friends who cried fake or sent a string of OMGs. You couldn’t make much out, to be fair—digits and knuckles, mostly noise. 

Congrats! You’re a cryptid keeper. 

You streaming this, bro? 

Jesus hun wtf!!! 

Monkeys in Sunderland – with Tim Spall. 

Nobody helped. I understood. We’d seen it all somewhere. I thought about leaving, even packed before going, no, I’m a dude.

Then on a grey morning, in a shop for deadline wine, I ran into Abby’s sister Clara. She was buying a scratch card, cracking on with the seller, red hair hanging in a ponytail now. Smiled at me. “Eeeee, look who’s kickin’ around. What’s new, eh?” 

“Came to find me tricycle,” I said, hugging her after a moment’s toeing. She crushed me back. 

“Bloody hell, ye’ve lost weight. And that brown jacket—the one that was stapled to ye shoulders!”

“It fell apart.” 

“Happens to the best of us.” 

I bought the wine and carried some of her shopping. She still lived on the corner of Barnstead Ave where trees hung like mangroves and the pavement was burned. Invited me in for a cuppa. “The lock’s stiff, hang on,” she huffed, revealing a diamond rug, a cat’s tail grazing figurines from East Asia. I stared at the cat on my ankle. 

“Is that . . .” 

“A little blighter, whey aye. Should learn what trouble is. Picked her up from me pal Val last month.” 

“Ohhhh ayeee, uh-huh.” 

We sat with our mugs and blew on them. Clara laughed as I told her about strange travel companions, the American men with guts like orchestras, the receptionist who’d brought me to a sauna for midsummer. She offered a smoke and our puffs mingled. I’ve never been used to cigarettes in rooms; they make me gangly and uncertain, whereas she found her ashtray constantly as she eulogised the club, the bar where grandma had worked until she couldn’t change a tenner. 

“We’d see her plenty, ya knar, suppin’ a Bell’s. Grabbin’ the mic for a song and tellin’ the pool lads to mind their cues.” 

“She was lightning in several bottles,” I said. “Could’ve killed Vegas.” 

“Ayyee. Was sorry to hear. Lovely lass.”

“Yeah. S’fine. She was comfy, I think.” I glanced at the wet neck of my Pinot. 

“When’s the last you heard from Abs?” 

“God, five years?”

“She misses ya.” Clara stubbed her tab, rested her hands on her jeans. “Won’t say it to me, but there are moments . . . She left a lot behind, too. Can’t stop. Worth a message.”

I nodded and grew quiet. A brass clock ticked. “Can I ask you,” I said, “about whether—I mean—” sitting forward, “have you seen summat round here?”

Clara crossed her legs. “Like what, like?” 

“They’re, um. They’re small. Loud. Brownish.” I concentrated on the fireplace. “They come around at night.”   

She looked at me hard. Stroked the cat when it went to her, then sighed, “They’re no harm.” 

“What are they?” 

“Fuck knas.” 

“And you’ve met them?” 

“Everyone has, recently.” She scanned the window. “One time or another.”  

I slid off the sofa and neared the fire. “They’ve been after me for something. I scare them off but it’s no use, they’re getting closer and it’s doing me in.” 

“Your nana fed them,” she said. “She told a few of us, when we got together about it.” 

“She what?” 

“She invited them in. They’re good for us.” The heavy trees in the street flinched at the rev of a strimmer. “They like us. They pay attention. Better than most, these days.” 

She waved on her stoop as I took the bend home, folding and refolding her arms. Clouds were breaking up. A dog wandered over cracked glass. I watched my shows and cooked curly fries and tried to type on a stool in the cupboard office that used to be a spare room. Unscrewed the wine at six. Searched vainly for Abby’s number, and fell asleep to distant barking. 

The bangs roused me—late, frantic, like they knew I’d booked a train. I blundered downstairs and wiped my eyes and pulled the blinds to even more of them rolling and playing on the gutters and leaping off the garage in pairs. 

More fries on the sideboard. I’d made two trays. Slowly, I opened the yard door. No lights but the kitchen. 

They gathered and sniffed the tray. One of them came forward to pluck a piece and darted back to the group, which cooed as it stuffed the fry into its mouth. A few others looked me dead on, gleaming. I put the tray on the floor as calmly as I could. 

Several of them grabbed the food, scraping it over the concrete. Dove silently. Tossed some to share. Their teeth clacked and they hummed in gratitude or satisfaction. I threw some bread too. Everything I had.  

When they were done, we sat down. A couple peeped over me to see what the rest of the house looked like. I moved aside. They sort of tssssked. “You won’t like halves, I bet. We’ll be decent though. He’ll make good work of it.” They cocked their heads and grinned like chimps do with a fang flash. “What else are you after? What did she do? Wasn’t like her to leave without sharing . . . But I wish she’d told me more.” 

The thing that took the first fry offered its palm. Hesitated. Lost faith. And thrust it again, higher. 

We left together, a black jumble. They stayed at my side until we reached the main road where they vanished and emerged at the edges, racing through hedges, swinging on phone poles, beckoning me with their hoos. 

Through the tunnel.

Down the hill to the bay.

Past stars of steel and wire. 

To the exploding beach, the bursting hissing waves. 

And they were harder to follow there. In the dark, I felt a tug. We crossed the slimed rocks. The sands of my earliest memory, when the sky wheeled above a blanket.

 To a dune and a furrow in the earth. They stood all around me. Gasped. Smacked the sand when I asked what next. 

One of them pulled my sleeve, guided my hand to the hole. 

With other sounds that I don’t know. 

But I shut my eyes, let the beach in, hunkered in the crash, and as my fingers dug coldly, pressed upon a familiar sting. Found the body. Clasped it. And squeezed.


J. P. J. Potts is a copywriter and freelance arts journalist in London. He prefers stories that kick you in the head and run away laughing. So far, you can find his published work in the pages—digital or imagined—of Orton, Bandit Fiction, and the Eunoia Review. He enjoys boxing and sensitive walks in yards with no sunlight.