“The Boy” by Matt Weatherbee

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Men don’t cry, boy. Stop that, a gruff deep voice said. I’m going to tell you a story. Two boys were left in the desert with nothing but themselves. One boy survived, made it out and became a man and the boss of the Pandilla cartel like his daddy. One boy died. He stayed a boy forever.

Someone in the passenger’s seat got out and opened the back doors. The boy’s heart pounded. A hand grabbed his swimming trunks and yanked him out of the van. He flopped onto cool sand.

Get up, a smooth deep voice said.

The boy got up. A hand shoved him forward.

Walk.

The boy walked.

Cut him loose, the gruff deep voice said.

The duct tape ripped off, stinging the boy’s mouth. The zip-tie around his wrists snapped off. The blindfold whisked away. The boy looked at where he was. Too bright. He clenched his eyes shut and pressed his face into the crook of his arm.

What’d I do? he asked.

Carlos, the smooth deep voice said and clicked its tongue three times.

What’d I do?

You were born, boy, the gruff deep voice said.

Three doors slammed. Then the van drove away and the brightness turned off.

The boy lowered his arm and opened his eyes. Night. The dim red brake lights of the van disappeared over a dune. He crawled up the dune, digging his fingers and toes into the sand. There were two boys in the gruff deep voice’s story. But what about him, the third boy? He figured his story would end with his mom rescuing him.

At the top of the dune he shivered and cried. The van was gone, lost to a moonless black night and a desert. Dune after dune after dune. So much sand.

It reminded him of San Clemente State Beach. He and his mom had had a fun day there and she was buckling him into his car seat to leave when two men came up behind her. One choked her out and one kidnapped him.

Thirsty and hungry and tired, he started down the dune. Something told him to head the way he thought the van had gone and to do it now instead of later. He walked to the next dune and climbed up it.

You were born, boy. Yeah he was born all right. Happy fucking birthday. Everyone was born. He didn’t deserve this. He was six and homeschooled. He watched MMA with his mom and took classes. He talked about it a ton but that wasn’t bad. He hung around La Siesta Mexican Restaurant where his mom worked, played games on her phone and laughed at stupid memes. What did he do?

The sky lightened. The sun rose in a cloudless blue sky and heated up the sand. Soon the sun was burning his back. Then the sand was burning his hands and feet. The glare of the sun reflected off the sand. He squinted and put more dunes behind him.

His head aching, his mouth dry, his limbs heavy, he slowed. Where was his mom? She should hurry and rescue him. He wanted to sit on a towel in the shade under an umbrella with her. Drink a cold Hi-C and eat a tuna sandwich and some Pringles while she applied enough sunblock for three boys. He wanted to lie down next to her and relax. He fell.

Supine and sunburnt, he lay in the sand, a third of the way up a dune. Dust powdered his stomach. An invisible wool sock gagged him. The heat kept up and the boy didn’t cry.

 

 

Matt Weatherbee writes things.

 

“A Seat In The Circle” by Sean Thor Conroe

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Wasn’t till I heard Desiigner’s “Panda” play for a third consecutive time, at apartment wall-shaking decibels, that I gave up: closed my laptop, removed Winnie from my lap, and went out for a smoke.

Milo was kicking it with the crew.

Milo lived next door, in the bando-looking apartment adjacent. He rocked a grill when not eating, meticulously maintained his waves, and, though about my age, was a father.

 

I shuffled street-ward, along the unlit back walkway separated from Milo’s by chest-high fence, patting myself down for my lighter. Narrowly avoided eating it on a balloon I last-minute sidestepped that must have squirmed over from Milo’s son Tayshawn’s party last week.

A black four-door with tinted windows was idling on Ashby, at the entrance of Milo’s driveway. Passenger open, streetlight glinting off its hood. Maybe six dudes not including Milo congregated inside and around it. Of the maybe six, maybe three had phones out. Were by the looks of it Snapping.

“Bruh what’s good,” said Milo, emerging from one of apartments at the back of their lot, behind me.

“You know,” I said, removing my right earbud, which wasn’t playing anything. “Same ole.”

He typed into his phone.

“Y’all turning up tonight?”

“You know me,” he said, going in for the dap up, over the fence. “Always.”

“For sure.”

He put his head down. Continued texting.

“Welcome to come through and kick it,” he added. “We’ll just be. You know. Kicking it.” He tapped a button on his phone. Spoke into it from a distance: “Bruh these hoes tryna do what?”

I eyed the six-some at the end of the driveway. Recognized one of the bulkier dudes in a white tee and low-hanging gold chain from my first encounter with Milo. Didn’t see the fool who tried to step to me though…

The wifey and I had just moved in, I was smoking out back one weekend afternoon, adjacent to our backdoor, on the bottom step of our upstairs neighbor’s staircase, directly facing Milo’s: grill going, picnic tablecloths spread out on fold-out tables, kids running haywire. I’d just woken up, so needed thirty at least of solitary calibration before even considering speaking to anyone. Preemptively avoiding this possibility, I paced Ashby-ward, along the walkway on which I was presently idling.

But midday weekend traffic on Ashby can be on one. As the foremost thoroughfare leading onto 580 South, which led onto the Bay Bridge, it funneled just about all SF-bound South Berkeleyites and North Oaklanders—where it intersected San Pablo, a couple houses over from Milo’s, literally the neck of the bottle.

Quickly realizing I wouldn’t be able to handle the energy of the street, I stopped, one-eightied, and started back towards the staircase. Figured I’d hide out on the cinder block I’d found, while moving in the week before, behind the dumpster abutting our back window.

Ninety degrees into my one-eighty, I caught the eye of one of Milo’s homies who, the moment I noticed him, I could tell had been eyeing me since I’d stepped outside.

“That’s right dog. Keep walking.”

I heard this only vaguely, amidst the chatter of the barbeque.

I stopped, turned, to ensure whoever spoke was in fact addressing me.

Homie—light-skinned, durag just visible beneath a beanie—was blatantly mean-mugging, his fingers massaging the blunt he was rolling.

“What was that?” I said.

“Said ain’t nothing to see here, dog.“ He stood up. Looked left, right, left again. Licked the paper, lit it to dry it, and lit up.

“I mean, I live here. Who the fuck are you?” I said, dragging hard.

He approached aggressively. Stopped about ten feet away.

“Bruh who am I? I been here. Born and raised. I know everyone here. Who the fuck is you?” his voice going an octave higher at the end.

None of those gathered took notice, save for this bigger, bulky dude with a gold grill and gold chain and crisp white tee who stood by, avoiding eye contact but whose expression conveyed, Not getting involved yet, but you see me and I see you; I’m right here.

“Well shoot,” I said. “My name is Sho. And I live here.” I indicated our back door. “Recently moved here, that is. Ever moved before?”

“Nah.”

“Huh,” I said, considering this. Flicked my butt, spat, and proceeded to the back.

“Bruh,” he said, following me. “I been here since I was born. Where the fuck you from?”

“Shit dude. All over! Moved every two years damn near since I was born. Fuck outta my face.”

Here Milo stepped in, “holding him back.”

I sat down on the cinder block. Someone had moved it to the side of the laundry shed, against the back fence, facing Milo’s lot but also partially obscured from it by the back row of apartments. Opened my book, Parzival (ca. 1200), and began going through the motions of reading.

 “What are you then, dog? Like, what are you?” He paced side to side behind Milo’s outstretched arms, doing that thing fools do when flexing where they lick their lips and rub their palms together, as if their hands are cold.

Thinking I’d flexed enough for the day, I almost ignored this. Until I was piqued by the question. By what he meant.

“What do you mean?” I said, laughing lightheartedly enough to diffuse the conflict somewhat, derisively enough to convey “it’s still beef.”

“I mean what you rep? Norteño? Sureño?”

“Ha,” I said. “I don’t rep shit. Just out here.”

“You Mexican?”

“Nah bruh. Japonés.”

He would later come over, ask what I was reading, comment “Reading’s mad important yo, gotta keep your mind right,” here tapping his temple.

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Reading’s where it’s at.”

Milo, too, would introduce himself. As did White Tee homie who’d stood by and surveyed; he saluted impassively from back of Milo, without coming forward. And he was whom I recognized on this night—out by the idling four-door blasting “Panda.”

 

Milo had invited me to come over and kick it a number of times in the nine-or-so months since that first encounter. But I never had, not least since his invitations seemed like, and likely somewhat were, tacit requests that I don’t hit him with a noise complaint: his music, lately Dirty Sprite 2 (2015) on loop, really was apartment-wall-shaking. Plus weekend nights—when the invitations tended to come—I generally spent out with co-workers or cuddled up with the wifey and our cat, Winnie. The wifey, however, was on this night out of town.

“Ay!” I called out to Milo, who’d meandered over to the idling car, was showing White Tee something on his phone. He looked up. “Y’all gonna be out here in like ten?”

“For sure bro,” he called back, lifting his thumb aloft.

I went inside, rolled a more ambitious spliff than I would have were I smoking alone, grabbed a 40 oz. sparkling water from the fridge door, replaced it with another from the pack of six stashed atop the fridge, and returned outside.

Vaulting over the fence, I found them congregated in the semblance of a circle, on fold out chairs out front the two-story back row of apartments, illuminated by a motion activated light. They were passing around a bottle of something pink and bubbly.

After conducting intros, Milo pulled up a chair.

“Anyone tryna smoke?” I said, procuring the spliff.

“I’m straight,” said Milo. “Don’t smoke.”

I surveyed the circle, gesturing Anyone?

All except homie directly to my left, whom I didn’t recognize from a previous shindig, declined.

“Word,” I said, for some reason thrown.

Homie to my left passed me the bubbly, which I traded him for the spliff I’d gotten going. Swigged. Sweeter than expected. Passed it along.

White Tee was going on about someone who was fronting like he wasn’t into dudes but was pretty clearly into dudes.

“Nah, I don’t even understand that though,” said Milo, pouring codeine out of a wrinkled paper bag into a two liter of Sprite, the outdoor light glinting off his grill. “Like, how you a dude, with a dick, and not be fucking hoes? Like how?”

“Nah for real though,” someone else added. “Not even gonna lie, if my kid was gay I wouldn’t even fuck with him.”

“Damn,” someone else said.

“Even if it was a girl?” I said.

“Huh?”

“If you had a daughter, who was gay, would you fuck with her?”

“Oh, I mean, yeah. That’s different.”

“Word,” I said, taking back the spliff homie to my left handed me. Toked. Exhaled. “My sister…” I began, as if about to rail off additional details, before trailing off, feeling the weed all at once, mid-clause. A hyper-pixilation of my surroundings, like HD television to the unaccustomed eye. Needed a sec was all.

“Yo, play back that Stick Talk,” said Milo to whomever was closest to the speaker, a sizeable subwoofer bungeed onto a dolly-type cart.

Took a shot o’ Henny I been goin’ brazy brazy!

Milo held the two liter to the light. Watched the lean and soda mix.

“Activis?” I said, once Future got a few bars in.

“Shoot,” said Milo. “Is it?” He removed the paper bag. Examined the label. The bottle looked pharmaceutical grade. “Yeah. It is.”

“Damn,” I said.

“Yo, you fuck with lean?” said Milo, his fist over his mouth as if about to bust into a laugh. Everyone not on their phone looked up—homie to my left holding in his inhale, as if until I responded.

“I mean,” I said, smiling. “Nah.”

Everyone laughed.

“But—,” I said, holding up my pointer. “By no means saying I wouldn’t. Just haven’t ever.”

“Aha, this nigga said ‘by no means saying I wouldn’t’,” said White Tee, the part repeating what I’d said in a ho-hum Square White Dude voice, before swigging the bubbly.

Everyone went silent.

Of the moths circling the motion detector light at the base of the upper level balcony, one, the largest, kept banging into the bulb, bouncing off, banging back into the bulb.

“Hold on. So all you fools do lean? But don’t smoke weed?” I said, addressing everyone but for some reason looking directly at White Tee.

“Shoot,” he said. “I don’t even fuck with that no more.”

Others in the circle nodded.

“That’s only ’cause this nigga wife-d up,” said Milo, snickering like kee-kee-kee.

White Tee pssshhh-ed. Looked down at his phone.

Next the bubbly came around I said I was good, opting instead for my forty of sparkling water. Grabbed the bottle by its neck, swigged it like one might a Mickeys.

I imagined myself as a gaucho-type wino, face dirtied and lounging trackside, glugging a forty of malt liquor. Only it wasn’t malt liquor. It was sparkling water. This image, the clarity of it, filled me with silent laughter. The feeling came over me like a wave, warming my insides.

Then the wave passed.

I dragged. Got only crutch.

Panicking, not wanting to forget the feeling, I jotted into my phone:

Sipping 40 oz. of sparkling water like it’s booze.

Before last minute adding:

“The Hydrationists.” 

I asked Milo whether he made music, whether he rapped; and, when he said ’Course, suggested he play something, but in a sec—to Think of a good one need to grab something be right back—before vaulting back over the fence and into my apartment, which I’d left unlocked since I could see the backdoor from where I’d been sitting. Refilled my grinder with dispensary-bought Gorilla Scout, re-exited, vaulted back over the fence, and returned to my seat in the circle.

Things had shifted slightly in my absence. There was commotion from inside the main apartment, around the corner but in earshot. White Tee was where he’d been when I left, except now he was standing: on his phone, stance active as if organizing a relocation. I recognized the central voice of the commotion as the grandmother or guardian of Milo’s son Tayshawn. In her mid-forties, she at times conducted herself in a matriarchal, domineering way, at others could be seen mildly made up, getting lit with the younger folks.

Undeterred by the Changes, feeling “I was onto something,” I rolled up another.

Two tokes in, an old, beat up, raised pickup barged up the driveway. Skrt-ed abruptly, as if about to occupy one of the slanted spots in the back corner of the paved yard. We all stood and in unison yelled versions of “Woah woah woah!” indicating we didn’t want to get run over. The driver, a girl I hadn’t seen before, looked not only lit but untrustworthy the way she sat awkwardly upright, craning her neck over the steering wheel. She lurched to a stop at an oblique angle to the property-separating fence and promptly killed the engine.

Five tokes in, two older dudes in tank tops, basketball shorts, and slides emerged from upper-level apartments. Began disputing something with the pickup driver.

Milo had his head down, was focused intently on his phone. Whether scrolling for a suitable song to play or for something else entirely I wasn’t sure. Homie to my left was debating with homie across the way about whether the group of women they were about to meet up with were “tryna get it” or not. The consensus-held hope was that they were.

The arrival of this tertiary force to compete for auditory supremacy in this shared outdoor space stressed me out, but evidently didn’t anyone else present. Milo seemed a bit withdrawn, like he might be irked by the trio arguing. Or maybe by my presence, which seemed to take on a different significance with the arrival of the pickup. Couldn’t tell.

“This some shit right here,” said Milo. “Where that aux at?”

He turned off “Panda,” which had somehow made its way back onto the speakers. Threw on his song.

It sounded like some early-aughts, Bay Area Hyphy shit, except with the influence of all the current, Atlanta-based rap I knew Milo listened to evident. Although only obliquely: I felt, like I did with most amateur rap, that the flow could vary more from bar to bar. Same time, the barometer for bar-quality in that Hyphy sound was more the consistency and oomph applied to each enunciation, rather than the complexity of the syllabic patterning.

So yeah, I fucks with this, I was about to say, before the truck’s engine, on its third attempt, screeched back on.

The truck lurched back, scraping the fence. Three or more bodies yelled and strolled briskly to strategic, mirrored points around it. The driver swiveled frantically, apparently unaware of how to employ side-mirrors. Homie stationed behind the truck, on the exhaust-side, began coughing and stepped back, enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke.

By the time the driver backed out to the road and successfully entered the gauntlet of westbound Ashby traffic, the gathering seemed shot.

I dapped up Milo, my sole co-smoker, and White Tee, before vaulting back over the fence and into my apartment, where I was greeted by an especially vocal and frenetic Winnie.

Closed and this time locked the door.

 

 

Sean Thor Conroe was born 香村 翔宇 (Kamura Sho) in Tokyo. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, on sidewalks and in fields. He hosts the podcast ‘1storypod,’ tweets @stconroe, and edits http://1storyhaus.com 

“K” by SR Gorski

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K ran mental diagnostics before sneaking into the UCB library. Getting in early morning was easy, she just couldn’t leave. She had her ancient but functioning macbook, her Blue Yeti microphone, and a relatively cheap webcam. All the important assets, aside from the Yeti, are digital. For 55 minutes she’d don a digitally rendered Deepfake veil—whispering at just-the-right volume for her audience to identify feminine intonations. Her gig rakes in about $800 on Patreon every video. Intermittent livestreams—which are harder to pull off while hiding away in a library study room—are another $300-500 in Superchats. K dropped out of school over a year ago. It coincided with her dope dependency—however H is not the reason she dropped out. An abusive boyfriend, shitty Korean parental pressure about finances, and an inescapable sense of Ragnarok that ebbed at her ankles like a ghost tide—all that, and some. She isn’t a dope fiend—she just likes getting high—and would NEVER I.V.

K hocks a loogie before entering the library’s side door, the spit is laced with starchy and bitter mucus. She almost swallows to preserve some of her high, but spits, disgusted. K thinks back to Ted, her needy manchild ex. He didn’t get her into dope, that was on her, but he didn’t help make her life any easier. She recalled a time she was giving him head; his cock was already sad looking but he was also having trouble staying hard, most likely a result of her cottonmouth. So she mustered her spit and hocked a loogie to aid in lubrication. It had been full of dope just like this one. He never did find out about her habit.

At a high paying patron’s request K could transform her image digitally and—with a little coaching from the requester (“Higher pitched, no now with a little more vocal fry”)—she could become any individual purring sensual, sometimes sexual, murmurations in the form of emotional reassurances and affirmations. Most videos consisted of platonic conversations or finger tippy-tappy onomatopoeia “experiences.” Scar Joh… Emily Blunt… a guy’s 8th grade science teacher—anyone could be lulling the masses into hypnagogic euphoria. K is unaffected by ASMR’s siren song and she doesn’t question its legitimacy; she imagines it feels like getting high.

>Today’s session will be simulcast live

>Top donor: Koriolis, has a special role request

>This one is personal… here’s his preference:

>”Asian/American, very pretty with high cheekbones and full lips, around 23 years old” attached is a picture (always appreciated for better accuracy)

>Picture of K appears as K scrolls down the request feed

>Voice request description: “soft, kind, and monotone with a bored sort of intonation—not emotionless though—more like mono-emotional… with an emphasis on caring. She always sounded caring. Like a silk-sewn death knell or the wet, nurturing embrace of a womb.”

K’s heart skips beats or changes to syncopated meter, the stream cannot be cut off, she needs the donations to score for the week. A voice in her head says this will save time: no digital interfacing necessary. No private chat for voice corrections, it is her voice after all. She rasps in air as a war drum deploys cortisol throughout her nervous system.

>Shallow breath begets panic—paresthesia

>K can’t handle. This is too much

>The too much will devour her

>K needs to get High

>The High will be good for her

>And she can be herself

5 minutes until the stream starts or donations will begin being refunded. K busts out her stash—knowing that doing bags here is not smart. UCB library has security. They don’t roam the building, but someone could see and say something. She stations the Yeti to block out the lines of H: strategic pew rows in which she will quickly kneel then get back to acting her part in this strange, uncomfortable, painful play. “Should I do 2?” She wonders rhetorically. “No 3, that is perfect.” But she will make them heavy—it isn’t like the viewers can tell. Someone is coming… fuck, no—wait, ok. Just a nerdy-looking blonde chick with an armful of books. Please fucking get the fuck out K prays as she aggressively side-eyes the girl. Three earthworm sized lines awaiting frothing cerebellum and…

>Showtime

>A pretty, 23 year old Asian/American girl with black hair looks dreamily into the camera

>Her head lilts and sways as if to a slow and silent song

>Eyelids at a quarter, half, then fully closed

>K falls flat faced on the desk with thud and her mouth aimed at the mic

>Not a sound

>Viewer count: 1200

>Viewer count: 1205

>Viewer count: 1208

>Viewer count: 1227…

 

SR Gorski is the pen name of a person obsessed with thought. SR graduated with an english/creative writing degree and attends writing workshops regularly. SR is interested in speculative fiction, specifically the effects our era of access has on social interaction and cognition

“Wolves are Here” by William Falo

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Time ticked away on Alex’s research without him finding a single wolf. The island was once filled with howls at night, but after a month of listening he heard nothing while his food supply dwindled down to a few granola bars.

There was only one day left until the boat arrived. A year of research and he found nothing. The day he left home, his wife said she might not be there when he got back because a life of solitude was not her idea of a happy marriage. She accused him of loving wolves more than her. The rare time he got a cell signal, she didn’t answer his calls or text messages.

The cabin became colder and ice crystals even formed on the inside walls. The wolves needed him. If he found any proof of their existence, they would reintroduce more of them, if

there was no sign of them the project would be terminated along with his research. They needed

evidence that wolves could survive here before they reintroduced more of them. Without the proof, wolves would never howl here again.

The exploratory walks became shorter, but more dangerous. Recent snow made the ground treacherous. He went farther than usual since he was scheduled to pull out the next day. On the top of a hill, his foot slid on the frozen ground and he tumbled downward until he landed on a ledge. The pain in his leg seared, but he almost yelled out in joy when he turned around.

Wolf tracks led to a den. He pulled out his flashlight and shinned it into the darkness.

“A wolf.” He stepped backwards. The wolf stayed on its side and didn’t move. He picked up a stone and threw it. It hit the wolf’s side with a thud, but it remained motionless.

The wolf was dead.

He stayed there a long time thinking how much time he wasted here. He could be home with his wife, maybe starting a family. Darkness was coming and it brought bitter cold, but he didn’t feel it when an idea hit him. A deceptive, bad idea that could save his research.

He dragged the wolf’s body out of the den. It was stiff, but not that heavy since it looked so thin. Sickness and starvation probably caused its death.

He found sticks and with all his strength he hammered them into the snow. With a painful leg and weak arms, he propped the wolf up. The wind increased making him fear it would collapse along with his plan.

He moved farther away and snapped pictures of it. In the pictures, the wolf lived. He pulled out the radio collar he always carried with him and activated it. He emailed the people involved with the wolf research. He sent just three words along with the pictures. Wolves are here. It was a lie. Back at the cabin, a program on his computer came to life and started tracking the collar on a map.

Alex walked in different directions, he made the collar travel on the map. He walked farther then he normally would and with darkness closing in on him, he took a wrong step on the

a frozen creek and the collar slipped out of his hand and fell into the crack in the ice. It sank.

He grasped, but missed and he watched as the light on the collar turned from green to red. Red meant a dead wolf.

“Damn it.” He stayed there trying to retrieve it with a stick until the red light on the collar went out. It was dead.

♦♦♦

The boat bobbled in the water when he got aboard.

“How did it go?” The captain helped him load up his gear.

“No wolves.”

“I thought I heard howls a few days ago, but maybe it was the wind.” The captain steered the boat away from the island.

Alex took out his cell phone and got a signal. He called his wife. She answered.

That night, on the ledge of a hill, a propped up dead wolf fell over. Next to it, two wolves sniffed the ground. They looked around then raised their eyes to the stars and howled into the night.

 

William Falo writes flash fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Ginger Collect, Newfound, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Fictive Dreams, and others.
Twitter  @williamfalo

“Stockholm Sweater” by Ben Niespodziany

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There was something about the Stockholm sweater Dave wore to dinner that none of the remaining eight guests understood. “Get it?” Dave asked, laughing like a chalkboard. “No,” the eight said at once, two of them sneezing. One needed Parmesan cheese but was afraid to speak. One’s husband fell to the ground, sick to his stomach. One walked out to the kitchen. “You really don’t get it?” Dave asked again, pushing mashed potatoes through the gaps in his teeth. Quietly, one cried. “It’s a sweater,” Dave said. “From Stockholm.” One fell over. “In Sweden.” One hurled. “It’s a Stockholm sweater.” One’s wife sprinted out of the front door. One passed out. When the room was silent, some unresponsive, others dead, others dry heaving, Dave, still wearing his Stockholm sweater, laughed a bit uncomfortably and said, “Nice one guys, but I don’t get it.”

 

Ben Niespodziany is a night librarian at the University of Chicago. He runs the multimedia art blog [neonpajamas] and has had work published in Paper Darts, Cheap Pop, Pitheal Chapel, and various others.

http://neonpajamas.com/

 

“Fantastic Something” by Mike Lee

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Albeit slower than before due to age, Calvin, the tortoise gray cat gracefully traverses the whitewashed concrete, leaping off to eat from his dish set on the terrace. While he quietly ate, Mike gives him a gentle stroke behind his ears. Calvin shakes it off to continue eating.

The sunburst mid-century clock hanging on the wall behind the half-opened terrace door chimes another August morning. August: sun-drenched skies and the breeze from the shore spread seemingly endlessly below the mountainside house Mike has leased for a year.

Mike did not need to be reminded of the time, having finally achieved the temporary luxury to waste it; perhaps a week, maybe a month more, yet no further. Then, it was time to get a job, or at least substantial online gig work.

He leans back in this metal chair, hands clasped behind his head, in his mind recounting the money he earned. This small fortune was not at all easy to come by—nothing in his life ever did—but he realized this cash was only good for two years unless he found work, which he imagined would be problematic until his working papers were approved.

But he had Calvin, his books, a laptop, clothes and his sanity. Freedom was another matter. To paraphrase the Velvet Underground, one is set free to face a new illusion. Mike was a realist to cut through the illusory fogginess of his perceived surroundings. He had severance pay and opportunities, but the former will not last and the latter could be a mirage. But he certainly had will and charm that aged well.

Calvin finishes the half can of sliced chicken, and pads off to use the box in the far corner of the terrace.

That afternoon, Mike went into town. He spent two years planning to live on this island. Wanted someplace different for a change, so off to the Mediterranean he went.

He almost fell off the scooter taking the second downward curve on the road to town. He righted himself just in time, but the experience left him breathless.

Maybe he was too old at 55 for a scooter, but then again, he thought, how old is young? He wasted no time in getting a battered two-tone blue and white Lambretta TV200 from a bike shop he discovered online before arriving on the island. The sideboards were dented and scratched, and there was some rust on the floorboards, but the wiring was redone and it ran. Still, it is cheaper to maintain than a leased car.

He felt his strongest survival skill was attaching himself to the Mod ethos of clean living under difficult circumstances. This became was his guiding concept. He learned the concept as a teenager. While the punk rockers and longhairs at high school either grew up or stayed stupid, Mike maintained a stylish individuality, with occasional compromising nods to career advancement.

But one afternoon listening to stupid during a managers meeting was enough. Within weeks Mike applied for a buyout, received severance and moved on.

It took a year to be approved for the long stay work residence visa, and though the process of getting little slips of paper and all the approvals, but he had an efficient gestor, a local official who walked Mike through the process. Also, Mike had a freelance gig at the time, thus fulfilling his work requirement.

Even so, that job ran out yesterday. He had to hustle for another.

But he wanted a superlative coffee at the café he discovered on his first day on the island. The exhaust sputtered on the Lambretta; Mike missed nothing he left behind.

Her name is Romi. She sits, reading a book. It is In Love by Arthur Hayes. Mike recognized the cover was a photograph by Saul Leiter.

Romi left her job, too. Floating in the realm of early retirement brought on by office burnout and unchangeable transitions. Drinking coffee on the slate table outside the café. The red flower sundress is in season, and the white straw hat shields Irish skin in light shadows. She teases Mike over the beat-up Lambretta. She should talk: Romi drives an old Sunbeam convertible that is worth more in parts than in the sum total of her sentimental attachments.

Every morning since they met on Monday they sit in conversation.

It was Thursday. Tourist season starts in another month, so they hold the café to themselves.

The music was an avalanche of shimmering guitars.

Interesting music the café is playing.

I asked them to play it. Called The Thousand Guitars of St. Dominques. I have it burned on a CD.

I vaguely remember. Haven’t heard in 35 years.

The band was Fantastic Brilliance, Romi says.

Oh yeah. I had that Cherry Red compilation. Whatever happened to them?

They were overwhelmed by the future.

Faintly living on in the fragmented memories of our respective early 20s. Youth ages quickly, and we don’t notice until forced into denial. Then–

We have to accept the truth. We discovered there is no meaning in our lives, and so here we are.

Yes, here we are, Mike says.

It is not bad. The sun is out most of the season, and when it rains, the sounds of the drops comfort me to sleep.

We just do enough to stay busy with dreams.

Romi stares ahead: Like a pair of blue stars, trembling.

Then, we have stuff to do and magnificence to overcome.

Ya, we outgrew that notion of achieving that, now, didn’t we?

Let’s walk to the docks and watch the ferry come in.

Or sit and talk.

We will age with words, sentences structured into paragraphs.

Roni smiles. Declarations and oaths, spinning yarns.

Mike motions the waiter for more coffee.

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.

“One day in Mykines” by Judy Wang

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Maia stumbled as she stepped off the boat. She caught an old wooden post just in time and pulled herself up onto the concrete dock.

“You OK?” Josh asked.

He was standing a few feet away on the dock and scrolling through his iPhone.

“Yeah,” Maia said, wiping dirt off her gloves. “That was a close one.”

“Mmm,” Josh said, his eyes still glued to his phone.

How did he even have service out here? Stupidly, Maia had assumed that for once he would be forced to leave Instagram alone. But Josh, of course, found a way, even as far away as the Faroe Islands.

The dozen other tourists who had traveled with them in the tour boat were gathering on a patch of gravel further up the beach. Maia nudged Josh and they made their way over.

“Welcome to Mykines island,” their young tour guide said to the group in her strange half-German-half-Irish-sounding Faroese accent. “We will have about four hours to explore and see all the birds before the boat goes back to Sørvágur.”

As the guide pointed to the direction they would hike to see the puffins, Maia noticed Josh was scrolling through pictures of his friends from Vassar. Mostly women. Mostly attractive. She forced herself to look away and focus on what the guide was saying.

“Before we go up, I want to remind everyone again to please stick together, follow the markers, and stay away from the gannet, swallow, and skua nests—especially the skuas because they’re hard to spot and those birds can be vicious,” she said before waving them up the stone steps and into the grassy hills above.

Maia started following them up before Josh tapped her shoulder.

“Hey, want to grab some selfies first?” he asked eagerly. “Everyone’s gone, so it’ll look like we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“But the tour’s leaving,” Maia said. “And we are in the middle of nowhere.”

It had taken them two flights, a long drive, and a once-a-day ferry to get to the remotest of these remote islands. Maia didn’t want to miss any part of this trip.

“It’ll only take a few minutes,” Josh said before flipping around his phone and grinning into the camera lens.

“How else are people going to know we were here?” he added as he whipped around and took a photo of them together with their backs against the green hills.

♦♦♦

Áki woke up to the sound of his chicks clucking softly. He opened his eyes and saw them and their mother bundled up in the nest below.

He got up and slowly turned his head from side to side. That damn crick in his neck was acting up again. It had started a few days ago when his ass of a brother Áron challenged him to a diving competition.

Áki never should have accepted. Áron was a far better flyer and had won easily, dropping like a boulder and then gracefully skimming the ocean waves before lifting up in a perfect arc. When it was his turn, Áki hesitated and then dove awkwardly, nearly gashing himself on jagged rocks by the bay.

Áron had cawed mockingly and somersaulted in the air before flying away. That cocky jerk liked to stage little competitions like this every now and then to prove that Billa should have chosen him instead. Áki was too proud to admit it, but deep down, he knew that his brother was right. Billa should have chosen Áron.

Billa was now looking up at him sleepily through the blue haze of the early morning. Áki flew down and landed at her side. He grazed his wing along her neck and felt that her feathers were cold. Billa had been weak since the birth.

“They are hungry,” Billa clucked gently to Áki, motioning to their chicks, Tóti and Týrur.

They were just ten days old. It would be another 30 before they were ready to fly and hunt for themselves. And Billa was too frail to share the burden right now, which was a shame because she was the better hunter. Áki nodded and gave Billa what he hoped was a reassuring look before lifting off.

It was a cool, damp morning and the clouds were hanging low in the sky. Sometimes, Áki wished he could glide into them and disappear. He cared deeply for his family, but more and more these days, he felt that it was all too much. As he flew past the east end of the island, he wondered where he would end up if he just kept flying.

But today was not the day to find out. Áki turned around and began flying up the southern ridge. Hunting was his least favorite thing to do. He was also terrible at it. He hated getting wet, and he hated competing with the swallows, gannets, and other skuas. Most of all, he hated the days when the fish seemed to disappear from the waters and he was forced to attack kittiwakes and gulls instead. Not surprisingly, Áron loved those days and went after the other birds with gusto. But Áki found it barbaric. The only ones Áki didn’t mind hunting as much were the puffins. The puffins were the biggest idiots he had ever seen, the way they gadded about in the western cliffs in big clumps, just waiting for someone to snatch them up. You’d think they’d learn.

Áki swooped down and scanned the icy blue waves. His heart leapt as he thought he spied glimmers of silver under a rising crest. He looked around and saw that Áron and the others were still circling around the western end of the island and hadn’t seen what he had seen. Maybe today was not going to be such a bad day after all.

♦♦♦

Maia had wanted to visit the Faroe Islands ever since she was a little girl. Her parents used to drop her off at the Teaneck library when they fought, which was all the time, so Maia blew through the entire children’s section in less than a month. A few weeks after her eleventh birthday, she wandered over to the geography section, where she found a book about a tiny string of islands halfway between Iceland and Norway. It was a travel book from the 1970s, the kind with glossy, cream-colored pages and more writing than pictures. Maia read it four times.

The Faroes drifted around the back of her mind for the next two decades. After a spate of disappointing dates in her twenties, she finally found a travel companion in Josh, a 32-year-old video game designer who shared her love of musical theater, international travel, and Ethiopian food, but disagreed with her on most everything else. Given the household she had grown up in, Maia had never expected a fairy tale romance. Instead, she took a more practical approach to love: all she wanted was someone to do interesting things with.

Maia and Josh’s one-and-a-half-year partnership had been rocky, but the sex was good and they had some interesting debates about religion (her family was agnostic and he had grown up conservative Jewish). Maia found that their relationship worked fine if they stayed out of each other’s way and drank a lot of whiskey in the evenings. In truth, if not for her fixation on this trip, they might have broken up months ago.

But now, while staring down at the crags breaking through the lush green coastline as a cool breeze gently blew up the edges of her jacket, Maia felt disappointed. But not because the vista wasn’t stunning, for it was. The problem was that while she should’ve been listening to the waves crashing into rocks below, the wind whistling through the lime-green weeds, or the gentle clucking of birds whizzing past, all she could hear was the sound of someone fidgeting with his phone.

“Hey, are we going the right way?” Josh asked again from somewhere behind her.

Maia turned around. He was standing on a pile of mossy rocks and holding his phone up over his head, looking for the signal he lost a few minutes ago. With growing regret, Maia wondered if she had made the fatal mistake of letting an intruder inside her Never-never land.

It was only when Josh’s eyes widened in surprise that Maia realized she was glaring at him.

“I don’t know,” she said, facing the water again. “I thought we would’ve caught up with the group by now.”

She heard Josh jumping off the rocks and walking up behind her.

“Does this mean we’re in worse shape than those old Danish people?” he asked while wrapping his arms around her.

She shimmied away and walked up to the edge of the bluff. She wondered vaguely if she wasn’t being fair to him. This whole thing was, after all, her idea.

She held up her hand to block the dipping sun and squinted at the western tip of the island.

“Shit,” she said. “We were supposed to go the other way.”

She could barely make out tiny figures walking in single file through a narrow pass far on the other side of the island. They seemed to be heading back to the dock.

“We need to start going back,” she said. “We’ve gone too far.”

“Fuck, are we going to make it?” Josh asked, starting to panic. “That’s the only ferry.”

“I think so,” Maia said, looking down. “But we’ll have to cut through that valley. And we need to go now.”

When she turned around, Josh was frantically waving his phone over his head again, desperate to find a signal, as if he could as if he could summon a flying Uber if he did.  

♦♦♦

 Áki was feeling pleased with himself. The sun was hanging low in the sky and he was heading back to the nest with his third beak-full of herring. The chicks were happy and fed, and this last batch would be just for him and Billa.

It was days like this that made all the others seem less mundane. He had never wanted to become a father, but what was he supposed to do? There weren’t any other options, and Billa was so graceful, kind, and brave when he met her that he felt everything was going to be alright. He was lucky, really. It was all he could do to puff himself up and do his best not to let anyone down. And today he hadn’t.

He did a little twirl in the air as he glided back to the south end of the island. But as he approached the nesting field, he saw something that nearly made his heart stop. There were two dark figures darting through the valley below. They were moving fast and getting terrifyingly close to the nesting field.

Áron suddenly appeared on his wing and cawed loudly at him. It was only then that Áki realized he had dropped all the fish. Down they fluttered like silvery leaves.

Áron was gaping at him in disbelief. Áki motioned with his wing to the valley. Áron took one look and understood immediately. The two looming figures were now getting closer and closer to where Billa and the chicks were nestled. Áki had seen these large, gangly creatures before. But they usually stayed on the other side of the island with the puffins. For the few that ventured this far east, well, there was only one thing to do.

With a sick feeling in his belly, Áki girded his torso and dove straight down. As he dropped faster and faster, he kept his eyes trained on the two moving figures. But all around him he could hear whistling sounds, which meant Áron and a few others must be alongside him.

Good. At least he wasn’t alone.

♦♦♦

Every muscle in Maia’s body was screaming out in pain. They had been running for nearly an hour. She called out to Josh, who was about 15 feet down the slope, and motioned at him to stop. Maia had been a track star in high school, but that was more than ten years ago, and she was in no such shape now. She bent over and gripped her knees, panting. She watched as Josh stopped, glanced up at the sky above her, and then started waving at her frantically.

Wham.

Something heavy whacked her across the top of her head. Maia fell to the ground, more out of surprise than pain. She crouched in the grass with her hands over her head, not daring to look up. She saw Josh’s hiking boots running toward her.

“Holy shit!” Josh said as he dropped his backpack and hunkered down next to her. “That huge bird just dive-bombed you.”

“That was a bird?”

“That was a fucking bird!”

Maia slowly turned her head skyward. About half a dozen huge, eagle-like birds with white-tipped wings were circling directly above her. They were flying low in the sky and squawking loudly.

“What the fuck is going on?” Josh said. “Why are they attacking us?”

Maia looked around and realized, with a sinking feeling, that the small patches of land surrounding them that she assumed were dried grass were actually birds’ nests. She pointed them out to Josh, who gaped and then shook his head

“I didn’t think they’d be in the ground,” he said.

“It’s because there aren’t any trees here,” Maia said.

She hadn’t realized it until she said it out loud. Feeling like an idiot, she looked up at the sky again and wondered who was more scared.

“I wish there were some way we could tell them we’re not here to hurt their babies,” she said.

“But what should we do?” Josh asked anxiously. “Should we lay low until they leave?”

Maia raised her eyebrows at him.

“They’re not going anywhere, so we don’t have a choice,” she said. “We’ll miss the ferry unless we run for it.”

“Right,” Josh said.

He got very quiet and stared at the ground for several seconds before looking up at Maia again.  

“You go first,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?”

“I mean, well, I dunno, they already got you once, so you sort of know what you’re in for,” he said. “And I just want to see what the birds are going to do before I…”

He trailed off.

Maia got off her hands and knees and slowly stood up. She could hear the birds above her squawking louder but she didn’t care. Her fear was subsiding. She suddenly felt like she’d rather take on a whole battalion of birds than spend another second with this whimpering idiot lying in the weeds. She wished she could think of a perfect Hollywood line to spit at him, but when nothing came to mind, she just glared at him one more time before lifting her parka hood up over her head, securing her backpack, and starting to run.

“Come at me, you fucking birds,” she muttered as she picked up speed.

She could hear them flying after her and see their shadows criss-crossing the sun-dappled ground. But she was feeling fast and powerful, a force of nature just like they were. They had the aerial advantage, but she was bigger, stronger, and incensed. Her reflexes hadn’t felt this sharp since she ran the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race at the New Jersey state finals. She had been so focused that she could almost see the girl running the third leg coming up behind her and knew the exact moment to stick out her arm to grasp the sweaty baton.

That was how she felt the bird tearing through the air behind her long before it arrived. At just the right moment, she used her momentum to swing her right arm backward as hard as she could. She felt the bird crash straight into the outer edge of her arm and flutter away. She kept running and didn’t look back to see. Only much later would she find out that the split-second encounter had given her a hairline fracture in her arm.

Ten minutes later, Maia reached the top of the stone steps leading down to the beach. Through the rivulets of sweat streaming down her face, she saw the ferry lowering its little drawbridge and the other tourists, looking calm and refreshed, forming a line to board.

She looked behind her. The hills were blocking her view and she couldn’t see what, if anything, was happening in the valley that lay beyond. She wondered if Josh had followed her and then realized, as callous as it was, that she didn’t really care.

Realizing how tired she was, Maia dropped her backpack into her left hand and gripped the iron handrail with her right. She descended the stairs slowly, gazing out onto the water all the while and thinking vaguely about how the islands in the emerald green archipelago looked like giant sea beasts frozen in time.

♦♦♦

Áki fell to the ground softly. He landed in a clump of weeds and lay there without moving. It was surprisingly comfortable. He lay for what seemed like hours and watched as the sky turned from dusty blue to a shimmering violet.

His left wing was hurt. The gangly creature had struck him so fiercely. The wing was likely broken, and he could very well never fly again. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem to matter. Not now, anyway. It would when he woke up. If he woke up. Only then would he worry about what would happen to Billa and the chicks, and whether he could count on Áron and the others to care for them. But he wouldn’t think about that now. Now, he just wanted to rest.

Áki watched the horizon and waited for the darkening skies and tide to merge into one before finally closing his eyes.

Judy Wang writes fiction while nourishing her inconvenient love for exploring some of the strangest and remotest regions of the world. Find more of her stories plus her musings about travel, art, food, and literature at www.judy-wang.com.