036. Flight into Darkness. Howie Good

I seem to have discovered my shadow side – a wardrobe with mystery contents, blue and purple and full of leprous spots. Which isn’t to say I feel sad or lonely. Rather, I’m noticing different details. The world right now, mostly it’s news of the virus. We first heard the rumors from travelers. Men: quiet, faces drawn; women: often sobbing. We didn’t believe them. The weather was just too beautiful. We lazed around, eating cherries, one basket after another, and ignored the shrill, jangly bird cries and the elderly stumbling down the road from time to time, buckling under their loads.

&

I had never done drugs before. It’s many things. And it’s the sum of the many things, and it’s also not the many things combined. I tried telling my friend, but she ignored me. I was shocked at her rudeness and stepped outside. The street was covered with those old plague masks that look like bird beaks. I kept repeating to myself, “Why didn’t I go home early?” When I came back in, my friend had moved the body somewhere. She berated me for being a coward. There was no point in my replying ironically to a person who doesn’t understand irony.

&

A usually bustling city is eerily vacant. Essential supplies now include liquor, guns, and toilet paper. Who isn’t secretly embarrassed? Around midnight I take a puzzle apart just for the hell of it. The next morning my department holds a Zoom session on how to prevent cheating in online classes. Other professors mention they also have been having strange dreams. In mine, I’m eating Crown Fried Chicken on a bench while eyeballs the size of boulders roll across the grass and dirt and a woman I recognize from TV weeps into her hands.

&

If it wasn’t for lack of encouragement growing up, I might have become an avant-garde artist, someone famous for his stick figures drawn on toilet paper. Instead, I’m an empty egg. I keep my face blank, even when a self-driving Mercedes sacrifices pedestrians to save the driver. In quite a few of these stories I’m telling you, I didn’t get their point until years later. The passage of time has normalized unnatural acts, unspeakable practices. A bug-eyed gas mask hangs on a hook on the back of the door. Sometimes I actually forget it’s there.

035. Why the River? Zach Murphy

Shannon sat in her tattered recliner chair and scowled at the cheesy infomercials on the television. It’d been exactly four years since the Mississippi River took her son Gus away. 

Gus was a freshman at the state university where he became a victim of toxic substances, barbaric rituals, and a desperate will to fit In.

Shannon’s fight for justice fell into the cracks of despair until her cries went completely unheard. She cursed the Kappa Sigma fraternity for continuing to exist. She cursed the university for its disgusting negligence and its audacity to ask people for money. And she cursed the river for carrying on as if nothing had happened.

When the clock hit 2:00 AM, Shannon decided to take her pickup truck for a drive to the university campus. Her passengers were a bucket of black paint, a dirt-covered brick, and a ladder. 

As Shannon slowly pulled up to the fraternity house where Gus began his final night on earth, her heart sank and her blood boiled simultaneously. But she wasn’t going to turn back. 

She grabbed the bucket of paint, quietly closed the truck door, and fetched the ladder from the back. She ran toward the house and hoisted the ladder against the front of the balcony. She took the paint and drenched the Kappa Sigma symbol in black. Then she wrote “Leave before it’s too late” boldly across the house’s siding. 

Her next visit was to the Dean’s office. She pulled up outside, attached a note to the brick that said “I’m gonna haunt you until your world knows no happiness” and tossed it into the office window. The glass shattered like Shannon’s life when she first heard the news about her son, and she sped off with an ear-piercing screech. 

After picking a shard of glass out of her boot, Shannon parked the truck under a shadow and walked across the road toward the river’s edge. The street lights flickered as if they had a secret to tell. She always wondered if Gus was alone when he wandered off. She wondered why he decided to walk toward the river, or if he even decided at all. She wondered if he slipped and stumbled into the river, or if he was just trying to soak his pain into oblivion.

Shannon looked out at the river. The moon reflected upon its rolling ripples. She tossed the paint bucket into the water, along with any notion of a shred of remorse for what she’d just done. She closed her eyes as the early morning breeze whipped around and the cold water splashed onto her weathered face. And for the first time since Gus’ death, a tiny sliver of her soul felt alive.

034. Premonitory Signs of Decay. Howie Good

So far today it’s been the usual – derailments, riots, floods, domestic murders – and now the gods of death and destruction are clustered around the microwave in the break room, smirking at something one of them, the really fat one, has just said.

*

In 1911 Duncan MacDougall, a physician from Haverhill, Massachusetts, attempted to photograph the soul leaving the body. But, after a series of highly publicized experiments involving some dozen terminally ill patients, Dr. MacDougall was forced to concede that “soul substance” might become too agitated at the moment of death to be photographed. I don’t like having my picture taken either.

*

It’s a scientific fact, a lot of people get depressed on Sundays, usually starting about 4 o’clock. They feel a kind of inexplicable grief as the afternoon is infiltrated by premonitions of the week to come. “Aren’t you scared?” you ask. I’m not entirely immune, if that’s what you mean. I crack open a fortune cookie and there’s no fortune inside.

*

People kept coming into the apartment to collect stuff. One carried off some sort of boat. No one seemed to care. A neighbor from down the hall started stroking my face. Her boyfriend was standing right next to her, but didn’t say anything, just watched. Barely a week had passed since the man who had lived there shot himself in the head. Anyone can get a gun. It takes a person with a special grudge to use it.

033. A Shanghai Elevator. Joseph Corey

I closed the old door to my cube on the eighteenth floor – late for work. A shuffle echoed down the otherwise empty hall while I paced to the elevator. A kuài dì stumbled onto the floor by the lift waiting area, landing on his face. His blue helmet clanked on the floor. But the kuài dì, or express delivery man, managed to hold his arms straight forward, careful not to spill the warm contents of the plastic bag he held.

I pressed the down button. He stood up, then paced around in circles while we waited for the slow machine to heave itself up 18 stories. “Nǐ zài nǎli?” he yelled, not to me, but into his earpiece. Where are you?

“Eh?” The kuài dì turned to me. “Zhè shì sān hào lóu ma?”

“Bùshì. Zhè shì èr hào lóu.” This is tower two, not three.

“Ah!” He spoke into the phone, too fast for me to grasp, then stood silent. 12.

14. I asked what was in the bag. He glanced at me, then muttered, “jī ròu hàn bǎo.” Chicken hamburger. I made some sort of sound of interest, then stared at the elevator doors. 17. 18. Ding.

In the elevator, he stood on the left side by the LED ad screen that ran a loop of commercials. The smeared floor reeked of metallic mud and sweat, but the stink blended with the chicken hamburger, which by now was probably a bit soggy in its paper box, yet my empty stomach ravened for it anyway. No time to eat breakfast.

The lift stopped at 13. The kuài dì checked the time on his phone, leg jittering, sending vibrations into the elevator floor and up my feet. A humming lady came in holding her white, puffy poodle which had dark red stains around the eyes. I always wondered where the rusty stains came from.

Another pause at eight, but no one there. The kuài dì jammed the close button about seven times. The poodle lady glanced at him, then at the advert on the screen in front of him – some pretty Chinese actress eating a yogurt on a rooftop.

“Wéi?” He spoke again in his earpiece. He talked rapidly, too much for my rather low Mandarin level. But I knew. His voice raised. He pleaded, he begged, but he was too late with the chicken hamburger. He cried and smacked a hand on the LED screen, right in the smiling face of some basketball player promoting an English school. My English school.

The man let out a single sob down toward his feet. The poodle growled. The man then faced the elevator doors, quiet, like nothing happened. We must all save face.

I almost gave the man a hug. I wanted to, I half-lifted an arm up toward him, but the doors opened, and he stepped into the lobby.

I did the same; I was late for work.

032. Cannot Touch. Julia Gerhardt

The sheets have to be bleached, that’s for certain. 

I watch him from the end of my bed staring at his fingernails, knuckles at his nose. “Need a manicure?” I joke, naked. I pull the sheet to my chest.

He shrugs and lets his arms hang in surrender to my impending inspection.

I slide toward him on my stomach like a seal.

* * *

I swam every day at the Santa Monica pool, lap after lap after lap, attempting to get to know my body better.  My friends told me the best whole-body work outs were yoga, pole dancing, and swimming, so I chose the least sexual of the three. I started swimming after college and continued for two years until the incident.

Like usual, when I had tired, I stopped in the center of my lane and curled myself into a fetal position, floating in the water. The residual energy of my butterfly strokes carried me with a lull and bob of kinetic motion.

* * *

Under his nails are thick lines of brown and red. I feel an instant ball of guilt. I place his hand down and stare up at the ceiling and it makes me feel worse, gazing at something so unaffected. I look back to his nails, ashamed for having marked him with streaks of something so earthy and hidden. I thought it was my lighter day, but the evidence is damning. 

* * *

Under the water, I pretended the heartbeat in my ears was a rhythm, pitter-pattering across the surface.  In my stomach, I felt a small eddy of nausea expanding and tugs from cramps.  I squeezed my legs to my chest, tighter.

* * *

I put my hand down over his and close my eyes. It’s not just the desire for sex that weighs on me, but the longing for it during a time where I feel my body is operating without me. A leaking faucet with no handles. How often do I exist with so little control? 

* * *

I exhaled what little breath I had left from my nose. Through blurry vision, the obscured bubbles rose to the surface as I sunk, my knees gently hitting the bottom of the pool. I longed for my body to stay there, but from the corner of my eye, I saw it: a thin, red rivulet, rising.  My feet kicked the floor and I burst up out of the water, my mouth and nostrils wipe and open, inhaling.   

* * *

He moves his hand out from under mine and brushes my hair back.

I curl my knees to my ribs and slide back until my head rests against his chest. “I’m okay,” I whisper to the hairs around his nipple.

“You are,” he says.

 I place my head over his heart and listen to the pumping of blood I cannot touch.