Tree Tunnel

tree tunnel


The old Volvo bounces along the dirt roads. To anyone other than Kat it would seem like Stephen is simply careening wildly into the brush. Lush pine trees and bare oak trees whip by. Kat lies across the back, her boots propped up in the window of the door behind the driver. She chain smokes, flicking the butt over the fold out tray behind the armrest. Her long wool cap flutters in the wind. Her purple cardigan is open. Some ash is sprinkled over her black Ziggy Stardust tee shirt. Alice Cooper is playing on the stereo.

Stephen scratches at his pointed beard and squints through his thick glasses until he spots a break in the brush along the road. He brakes, slowing so a dip in the dirt won’t bounce the car too violently, and comes nearly to a stop before turning. The branches of the brush scratch at the doors. Kat feels them whip against the soles of her boots. She snuffs out her smoke and tries to shake off the sleepiness of the drive.

“So, did you, like,” Kat bobs her head side to side as she chooses her words, “did you, like, do stuff with her?”

“Yeah. We, uh…we did some stuff.”

“Like, what kind of stuff?”

Stephen shrugs. “The usual stuff, I guess.”

“Like…” Kat chuckles, “like, what kind of stuff is a middle-aged Greek woman into?”

He snatches the cap off his head and throws it at her without looking. She reaches up to catch it but it smacks her in the face anyway. She laughs, her tongue ring clicking against her teeth.

“She seemed to like saying Greek stuff when she came,” he calls back. He’s driving on bare ground, parallel to a splashing creek. The Volvo bounces a little, and Kat lurches to catapult herself into the passenger seat, her ass smacking the side of Stephen’s face as she whirls around. She nearly kicks him as she pivots in place, but she’s just barely able to pull her legs in close enough to avoid clocking him.

“Ohhhh,” Alice Cooper groans, “Burning inside this…”

Kat grabs Stephen’s fingers, and they squeeze hands.


They scream-sing in unison.


They turn to face each other, leaning in so close their noses touch.


They turn away now, still holding hands, rocking their fists and their bodies to the force of the words.


Facing each other again now, leaning so close they’re a lost equilibrium away from falling into a kiss.


Stephen keeps driving, the Volvo shoving aside a bush that’s grown so thick it hangs over the water. The leaves rustle over the steel frame as the car slithers past. Another bush. Another. And then a path opens up, and they are gliding beneath a tunnel of tree branches. Ahead the space widens, not much but enough to park and turn around in the morning. He sets the brake and kills the engine. Kat squeezes his hand again at the refrain.


The song plays out while Stephen reaches into the cooler behind his seat. He brings out a six-pack and drops it into the floorboard in front of Kat, then opens a bottle of Woodland Reserve and takes a drink. “To Kat,” Stephen says, tipping the bottle her way. She grabs it and drinks as he talks: “Single woman today. Married woman tomorrow.”

“Aw, Christ, don’t remind me,” she mutters, but she’s grinning and drinks again, then hands the bottle back. “Dude, we turned into fuckin’ grownups.”

“I know. Why didn’t anyone stop us?”

Kat laughs, then leans over and shouts out the window. “I thought you assholes had our back!” She drops back into her seat, giggling, and takes out another smoke. She looks over at Stephen as she lights up. “Goddammit, you even grew a beard to make it official!”

He scratches at his chin. “The Van Dyke: the official beard of dead childhood.”

“The dyke part is right. Your face is hairier than my snatch.” She reaches over and tugs on the end of it. “They don’t give you any grief for it at work?”

“No one cares how a librarian looks.” He drinks again. “Besides, I’m the youth program director. I think the grownups think it helps me connect to” and here he forms air quotes, still holding the bottle, “the kids today.

“Fuck man, I thought we were supposed to be the kids today.” She grabs for the bottle. “Jesus shit-eating Christ. I’m gonna be married tomorrow and graduated next Friday. I start my job in a month.” She grabs Stephen’s arm and shakes it. “A month, Stephen! How could you let this happen to meeeeee?

She throws her head back in mock despair, or maybe a small degree of genuine despair. He looks at her pale neck, and without meaning to he remembers how much he enjoyed kissing it when they were both teenagers.

He takes the bottle back and drinks. He offers it back, but she shakes her head and he corks it. He reaches back behind the seat, fumbles in the cooler, and brings up a gram and a ceramic pipe.

“Hot damn,” she murmurs. “The library ain’t gonna find out when they piss test you?”

“No one ever actually gets piss tested except when they start workin’,” he says, packing the bowl. “So with that in mind, you might as well smoke up now, before the piss fetishists at your own gig get a hold of ya.”

He gives her the pipe and lighter, and she takes a long, slow hit. The glass is a swirling pink and sea-green. The waves match the contour of her lips so well it almost seems like an extension of her.

She hands the pipe back. He’s feeling the bourbon, and when he grabs for the weed his fingers run over hers. His fingers have always been kind of rough. He’s always doing something with his hands in his free time, always making something or taking something apart. When he used to run his hands down her sides she’d gasp at the roughness.

It’s only four but it’s already getting dark. When they burn through the bowl she turns in her seat and leans against him, moving the armrest back and resting her head on his thigh. She props her feet up in the window and squirms until she’s able to kick off her boots. It’s gotten so cold that a little steam puffs from her blue and orange striped socks.

“That’s very generous of you,” he tells her. “Donating your shoes to homeless woodland critters an’ all.”

She stays still for a moment, then mutters “dammit” and sits up. She opens the car door and drags her shoes inside. “You got me fuckin’ paranoid now,” she tells him, throwing her boots in back and slamming the door shut. She throws her cap back with her boots, and her dark blond hair shakes out loose and long before she lies back down. She sniffs against the chill and rubs her thumb against her nose stud. She smells like berry shampoo.

Her smokes are tucked into the breast pocket of her cardigan, and he opens the box and works a cigarette free.

“Thief,” she mutters, then grabs the lighter tucked beside the pack and hands it up to him. In the flash of the lighter he looks both old and newborn, grizzled but impossibly baby-faced. His hair is nearly shaven along his temples, but it is long and slicked back at the top. He makes her think of a baby, with it’s only tuft of hair sticking wild from the crown of its scalp. She reaches up and runs her fingers through his whiskers.

He has a scar beneath one eye that looks deep and dark in the firelight. He got it when they were sixteen, shortly after they found this spot. She’d just got her license then. They’d had sex, then he’d chased her when she wouldn’t give him back his cigarettes. They’d run naked on a hot summer day, and when he caught her they wrestled each other to the ground until they were kissing and her hips were pinning his. After he came he held her close and kissed her body, listening intently to every murmur she made at the touch of his lips. Then an hour later she still refused to give him his cigarettes. On the chase back to her car he slipped and hit his cheek on a root. She’d laughed at him, amused but also sympathetic, and when they wiped the blood off she kissed his sore face and lit his smoke for him.

She takes back her lighter. “I wonder how fast your beard would go up if I lit it on fire.”

He shrugs. “It’s sparse but the hair is coarse. It might just melt. Like when people burn their dredlocks in place.”

“Duuuude! You could have beardlocks!”

“You wave that lighter anywhere near my face, and I’ll dump your body in the river.”

“You would kill for your beard?”

He flicks his smoke. “Well, you know. I’m a man on the edge, Kat.”

She laughs, stretches, and lays a hand against his face. I’m going to miss this with you.

He lays an arm across her and rubs his thumb along her shoulder.

“I know they’re mailing your diploma and all, but you think you’ll come back?” Stephen blows a stream of smoke out the window. “To walk the stage in the spring, I mean.”

She sits up, turns in her seat, and lets the back down, twisting her hips so her legs stick out the window. Her knees hook against the door. “I dunno. Maybe. I guess we could smoke it up a little if I do. I’ll already be piss tested and all.”

“You’re gonna be working in a recording studio.” He grabs the Woodland Reserve and uncorks it to drink. “Isn’t everyone gonna be high?”

“I think you have to be stone sober right before you work, ya see. Trial by fire an’ all.”

“Oh, yeah. That sounds completely legitimate. Now I feel stupid.”

She reaches over and thumps his ciggie, so a clump of ash drops into his lap. “Aw, goddammit!” he groans, then laughs as he swipes at his crotch. In his efforts he splashes whiskey onto his jeans.

“Oh, no!” she yells in mock alarm, and wipes at the liquor before too much of it can soak into the denim. “Dammit, Stephen! How are you failing this hard?!”

“I’m not failing, I was sabotaged!” And then he splashes the whiskey, not much, but she still feels it spatter in her face. A few wet hairs are now stuck to her neck.

“Hey!” She snatches the bottle back and drinks, then holds it out of reach and corks it. “No!” she scolds, slapping at his hands. “You clearly cannot be entrusted with custody of the booze.”

He leans against her and they reach through the window. He can’t quite get to the bottle. They’re laughing and his whiskey breath makes her think of brown sugar and molasses. She thinks of kissing the scar on his cheekbone but ignores the impulse.

“Alright, fine!” He falls back into his seat and grabs a beer instead.

“You splash that on me,” she tells him, “and I will kick you right in the face.”

He yawns. “Alright, truce.” He sips his PBR. “You and him oughtta get married out here.”

“Nooo!” She’s honestly almost horrified at the suggestion. She smacks him and he almost drops his tallboy. “This is our place! There’s even trees overhead! Even spy satellites don’t know we come out here!”

She loves him, more than she can say but not more than he’s aware of. He loves her too, and she knows it. They were the only two people they had sex with from ages thirteen to nineteen. They could’ve probably been called a couple when they were kids but they never felt like they were. It just all came down to trust. Against the rabid animal that is puberty, who else would you want with you but your best friend?

They keep drinking but they slow down as the night gets colder. They both hate and appreciate the fact that such foresight requires years behind it. The bottle empties, the cans disappear. The moon is a bright white eye. Hawks screech at each other in the trees.

Eventually Stephen stumbles to the trunk and takes out two sleeping bags. He unzips each all the way, lying one down as a pad, and using the other as a blanket while he and Kat watch the stars. Squirrels leap through pine needles and bare branches overhead.

“You make damn sure he doesn’t give you any shit,” he tells her.

“Aw, shit, what’s he gonna do? He’s even smaller than you are.”


“Yeah, I know.”

Neither of them will remember when they fell asleep. The night gets colder as the hours pass. There is splashing from the creek behind the trees. At one point, without waking, she turns to him and drapes her arm across his chest. An hour later he’s wrapped both arms around her. Neither are aware of holding the other. They keep each other warm until dawn.

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Pig Farm

Click the pic below for a story I posted to NoSleep on Reddit, called “The Pig Farm.”

I feel like there’s more meaning here than the photographer realizes. We’re an awfully…predatory species, aren’t we?

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Miscellaneous

Old House

old house pic 3


The tall grass rustles like the wings of a cricket as the wind whips through it. In the far corner of the north field a huge blackberry bush shakes in the breeze. I briefly imagine I can hear the ticks hiding along the stalks whisper to one another, then grab my bag and head inside.

Everything creaks inside the house. The screen door groans, the floorboards squeak, the mattresses whine. In every room I’m watched by old lithographs of relatives who died decades before I was born.

Without my uncle here there is a pervading sense of isolation that is not altogether uncomfortable. My parents are too old to hoof it all the way out here, so with my new power of attorney it’s up to me to sign everything that needs to be signed. I have a handful of checks to cover the taxes and upkeep costs. I feel like a toddler in his dad’s clothes.

I go back to my car and hear growling. I look to the north field and see a coydog. Just one. Unafraid. It’s looking dead at me, it’s teeth huge even from this far away. It stands still as I grab the case of beer from the back seat and head inside. I bolt the door behind me, and before settling in I find the old hunting shotgun my uncle kept, tucked in a back closet. There’s a box of shells beside a pair of boots.


I’m six years old. Cicadas are singing in the trees, and the summer heat is made somewhat bearable by a billowing wind. The laughter from the grownups fades as I turn the corner behind the house. I have to pee but someone’s using the one toilet inside.

I do my business, watching little grasshoppers abandon the weeds as I water them. I look up at the clouds hanging against the deep blue sky. The hue makes me think of the ocean, even though at this time in my life, I’ve never actually seen it. Back here the world has ended. There is only me, and the weeds, the scrambling grasshoppers, and the singing cicadas.

I shake off. The humming air conditioner sagging in the frame of the bedroom window drips steadily. Sheets waft behind me, strung up on old steel wire hanging taut between two gray, rotting posts. When the floral print cloth wafts overhead I see the dog, standing in the tall grass. Its bark is an angry scream. It’s teeth are wet and white.

I run screaming back to my parents, crying so hard I’m hyperventilating. It’s ten in the morning. I don’t stop crying until afternoon.


I keep an eye out for the coydog as I clean. There isn’t really that much to sort through. Uncle Roy didn’t leave much behind, and he kept this place spotless as a shrine to his mother. I brush away cobwebs in the living room. Above the couch hang portraits of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather died before Roy was born, when Grandma was small. His portrait is so degraded it looks almost melted. Great-Grandma stands stern, a woman her time would’ve referred to as “handsome.” The blue dress she wears is as bright as I ever remember it looking.

Beside the television is a small photograph of her as an old woman in the seventies. She’s hunched, deeply wrinkled, smiling broadly. She’s the essence of matronly affection. The picture was taken the day the house and land had finally been paid off. In the photo she is a woman triumphant. A octogenarian conquistador.

Grandma used to sit here and sing when she visited in the summer. On the night before her returning drive to Georgia, she would sit in this room until midnight, singing to this photo.


I am sixteen years old. Uncle Alvie is pulling his old Ford up the gravel driveway, expertly shifting gears as the ancient suspension throws him about. He makes me think of a stern bobble head, lips pressed tight, eyes focused behind his thick-framed glasses.

Uncle Mike and Uncle Roy wait with me by the smoke shack. When I was little it felt like a privilege to watch the old men butcher the meat for the reunion. Now at sixteen I think of it as little more than work. A hundred yards away my cousin Haley sits and leans against a post on the front porch. She kicks her legs out into a spot of sun that peeks through the clouds. I do my best to ignore the unsavory fact that she’s grown up, and that I’ve noticed.

Alvie spins the truck around and backs it up to where we stand. I drop the tailgate and the three of us grab handfuls of thick, cheap canvas. When Alvie joins us I stretch my arms so that I’m carrying most of the weight in the pig’s ass.

“Watch yourself, boy,” Alvie warns, more out of habit than worry. When I was little I’d pretend to help the men haul the animal inside. One loose grip and the four hundred pound beast could have seriously ruined my day. Now at sixteen, it’s obvious I’m doing most of the heavy lifting. We pallbearers heft the creature inside. I kick the door closed behind me, leaving Haley’s blond hair to shine in the brightening sun.

The pig was killed and bled on-site at the ranch Alvie bought it from, but even in the dim light of the smoke shack I can see a smear of red on the inside of the wrap when we roll the hog loose. Alvie bundles the canvas and stuffs it in the fire with a pry bar. The smoke takes on the smell of hot copper.

The work is long and tedious. We take off the head, and Alvie cleans it inside and out, placing the brain and flesh into a bowl that he’ll stuff inside the ice box. They still say ice box out here, even though the room was long ago converted into an electric fridge. We sets the skull in the wheelbarrow, to be buried beneath the animal’s offal and hooves. The ham is hung and the ribs are racked. When we’re done we are bloody, sooty, and smell of smoke. The old men go into the house for ice water and air conditioning. I take the wheelbarrow and head through the tall grass.

A blackberry bush has started growing out here. I dig beside until I reach last year’s skull. Roots have worked their way through it sockets. I dump the remains into the pit and cover them. We used to sell the skull to a Pentecostal preacher, and as weird as Pentecostals are I can’t imagine he was using the skulls for any kind of Christian service. I wonder what he did with them. We’re too far north for Hoodoo or Santeria.

Later, while I’m cleaning the wheelbarrow, I look and see Haley watching me. The hot wind makes her tank top ripple. I am sixteen, so I indulge the look before I remember I shouldn’t. I dry the wheelbarrow with a towel, and go inside to shower.


The next day I call the county about the coydog, and a little while later a guy from Fish & Wildlife comes by. He asks me a few questions, and I show him where I saw it. He drives around a while on an ATV, a rifle slung across his back. While he’s doing his thing Haley comes by with her boyfriend and their kids.

Her kids keep running into the tall grass, even though I warn them about ticks. Her boyfriend’s a handsome guy, though on the cusp of premature aging. He’s generally thin except for an impressive gut, which he nurtures by helping himself to my beer. Haley chain smokes. She’s a year younger than I am but she looks a decade older. I’m twenty-six.

We sit on the porch and Haley tells me all about the remaining old folks in the county. Alvie’s wife Ruth is in hospice in Jackson. Mike died last year near Mobile. She tells me she’s still working at the Piggly Wiggly in town. Her skin looks rough. I feel like if I touched it it’d feel dry. This part of the country chews you up pretty hard.

Haley has to work that night, and after they leave the Fish & Wildlife guy comes up to the porch. By this point I’m drinking whiskey, and he nods to the glass in my hand.

“I could sure go for a shot a’that!”

The property’s in a dry county, so unless you’re willing to hoof it twenty miles out of your way, you take your booze where you can find it. I pour him a couple fingers in an old jam jar and drop some ice inside. He takes a sip and makes a face. “Oof! You’re drinking the cheap stuff.”

“Well yeah,” I tell him. “I’m drinking with company. You want the good stuff you shoulda gone to high school with me.”

Or found that fucking coydog, I add to myself.

“I found some coy tracks, but I couldn’t locate the animal you described.” He takes of his hat and wipes at his face with his arm. “I can go to a few of these houses and let ’em know what you’ve seen, but we can’t do much far as a search goes. Practically all this around here is private land.” He gulps his whiskey and makes a face.

“So what do I do?”

“Well, call us if you see it again, that’s for sure. I’d stay inside after dark if I were you. You have a firearm in the house?”

“A couple.”

“You know how to use ’em?”

“Sure do.”

“Alright then. I’d still advise against killing it yourself, but from what you tell me there’s a chance this one’s rogue. They’re bolder than most coys, and we found one earlier in the summer that was rabid. You’re gonna want to be careful.”

“Noted.” I nod to his glass. “Pour ya another?”

“Oh, nah. I take another I’m gonna feel it. Shouldn’t a’had this one as it was.” He sets the jelly jar down atop the AC unit by the door. “You see him again, you let us know fast as you can, alright?”

“Will do, trust me.”

“Alright then. You have a good night, sir.”

He rolls the ATV back into his truck and drives away. After a minute I get too nervous to sit outside by myself. I take the whiskey inside and drink in Roy’s old easy chair. I watch a televangelist preach against the evil of not hating yourself. The photo of my great-grandmother looks like it’s frowning at me in the waning light. She never did approve of liquor, from what I hear.


I’m sixteen, and when the Thanksgiving dishes are cleaned and the old folks have gone to the porch, Haley and I sneak off to smoke cigarettes and drink the scotch she sneaked away from her folks. It’s cool, but cool by southern standards. Haley wears denim shorts and cowgirl boots. I’ve thrown off my sweater and sit in my undershirt, my knees red through the worn holes in my jeans. As we get drunker we lean against each other for support. She’s playing with a little penknife.

“You sure your dad won’t see you took this?” I ask her.

“Oh, fuck that old man.” The venom in her words almost startles me. She lights another cigarette and takes a drink from the bottle. “Coydogs!” she yells, pointing at the treeline.

A pack of coyotes runs by, putting on an extra burst of speed once they hear her voice. It always strikes me as funny, how skittish they are, even when they outnumber us twenty to one. Occasionally one will pass with markings like a German shepherd. Coydogs are smaller than full-blooded coyotes, but they’re every bit as untamed.

I feel her put the tip of the penknife against my bare knee, not enough to cut but enough to feel. Haley hunkers down against the wall, wraps one leg around mine, and takes another swig. I grab the bottle and take a couple drinks, and when I hand it back to her it dawns on me how close her face is to mine. My vision’s getting blurry but I think she’s looking at me.

She reaches over, and pricks my other knee with the knife. I feel the the tip drag across my goose bumped skin. She’s leaning so close now her nose is touching my cheek. I can feel her heavy breathing against my face.

I sit like that, too nervous to move, before taking the bottle back and drinking three long slugs. I drop my cigarette when the embers reach my fingers. I feel her move her nose against my ear. My stomach lurches, rejecting the alcohol, and I run off to throw up in the grass. I sit there by my sick, spitting and smoking another cigarette, and when I finally turn around she’s gone. She left the bottle behind.


When I wake up the clothes I’ve boxed up are scattered, the boxes ripped into curling ribbons. I feel cold panic as it occurs to me the coydog could still be inside, and quietly I make my way to the back bedroom to grab the shotgun. I keep an eye on the door as I load it, pulling the bolt to cycle a shell into the breach. I load a sixth shell in the stock in its place.

The shotgun’s an automatic, so if the coy’s inside I can pump six rounds into it as fast as I can pull the trigger. I click off the safety and step into the hall.

The side door is still bolted shut, and I make my way to each window. None of them are open. I don’t find any broken glass of shredded screens. The front door is still latched. After checking every room and closet I walk around, yelling and banging on the walls. Nothing stirs. The coydog didn’t get in.

So who or what did?

I’m not the only one with keys to the place, but the chains are still set on both doors. It isn’t until I’ve laid the clothes out on the bed and swept away the remains of the boxes that it occurs to me to check the attic.

There are footsteps above me.


I am seventeen years old. The summertime reunion brings heavy southern accents and swarms of insects. I sit by myself as much as possible, hating the heat and wishing I could smoke. The smoke house chokes us with the scent of slow-cooked pork. The flies swarmed me two days ago as I buried the offal. The blackberry bush is huge now, and bends under the weight of its fruit.

Haley sits on the outskirts with her boyfriend. The two of them stay close, holding hands. They’re thinking about marrying, from what I hear. She’s in a tank top. Her mother told my folks and I that her stomach won’t show for another few months. Whenever we make eye contact she immediately looks away, embarrassed.

Later, I take a six-pack I lifted from a gas station the next county over, and brave the tall grass to sit behind the blackberry bush. While the voices of relatives die on the wind, I pick ticks from my ankles and get drunk. Coyotes run by at some point, putting haste in their step when they catch wind of me. Among them I count more coydogs than the year before.


I put the safety on and carry the shotgun with me to the attic. There’s nowhere really to hide up here, and it quickly becomes obvious that I’m alone. There’re only a few sheets of plywood and a couple rotting cardboard boxes. Despite the oppressive heat I make my way over and go through the contents. Old photos inside stick together, glued by decades of slow-simmer humidity. In one photo I see my grandma with her mother, in the last few months Great-Grandma was alive. Grandma smiles beside her mother, the older woman too weak to do anything but grin. Oxygen tubes run from her nose.

Great-Grandma could have had any of her children still living in the county look after her, but still she pouted and insisted Grandma come from a state away and be with her. Grandma was gone from Dad and Grandpa for eight months. When her mother died, she left her the house and the land it sits on. Made her work for her bounty. Roy continued living here, though, a guest in his family’s home.

I hear footsteps again, and turn to see a white lace lady’s hat disappear down the ladder. The attic door creaks, and the stairs fold on their own as it slams shut.

I’m not trapped. I can easily open the hatch and lower the ladder back down. But I sit like a man at gunpoint, holding a portrait of Great-Grandma in her youth. In the old back and white, she stands in a splendid white dress, shaded from the sun by a white lace hat.


The drive to town is boring and somehow exhausting. I pay the taxes and sign forms for transference of ownership, and when I get back I now co-own the property with my parents. I can make the drives to maintain the property easier than they can.

Haley comes by to visit, knowing I’m heading out tomorrow. Her boyfriend has taken their kids to see his folks in Birmingham, so she’s brought the same cheap scotch we got shitfaced to as kids. She wears a white tank top. Seeing it makes me think of how time passes, even when everything stands still.

We chain smoke and laugh over raunchy stories. We drink too much. She drinks a lot more than me. By ten she’s asleep on the couch. I open the windows to clear the air and step outside. The bottle she brought is empty, and now I drink the same cheap brand I always enjoy.

I’ve taken two swigs on the dark porch before the coydog’s growling registers with me. I look over and it’s teeth seem to glow. Moonlight catches in its eyes and something small and instinctive tells me that monsters are real.

It’s tense, ready to spring. I haven’t yet closed the door. The shotgun still rests by the frame, and slowly I close my hand around the barrel. The coy lets me know it doesn’t like me moving with sharp barks, but it doesn’t attack. Smoothly I bring the gun up, clicking off the safety.

I wonder what I’ll do if these six shells don’t drop it. I wonder if it’ll get me before the injuries get it. What might happen to Haley, passed out on the couch.

The coydog snarls and barks, thick ropes of drool spattering the floorboards of the porch. Then its eyes widen in terror and it yelps. Before I know what’s happening, I see it turn to run.

I trace it before I pull the trigger. The slug hits it in the neck, its head turning in such a way that it’s clear I’ve severed the spine. The coy falls so suddenly it flips before lying still.

I stand there a moment, icy from adrenaline. A woman’s hand grabs my shoulder, and I see a patent leather boot work its way between my ankles. Whoever has me gives me a shove. I fall, the gun landing in the grass and going off, taking out an anthill. I turn over in time to see the figure of a woman in a white dress disappear around the side of the house.

If I’d held onto the shotgun, I would’ve blown my head off. There are no guests here, only predators fighting for territory.


Haley takes a handful of Advil and drinks some coffee before heading home. I bag up my trash and set it beside the road before loading up my car to leave. In a month I’ll have someone come by to change the locks. Till then, I will leave the old woman to enjoy her house.

I spent all night burning the coydog’s carcass in the smokehouse. By morning all that’s left are charred, brittle bones, glowing red like coals. When they cool I take them and bury them by the blackberry bush. When I shower I pick four ticks from my legs.

Before I climb into my car to leave, I take a moment to take in the quiet. I see a figure shuffle past the curtains inside. The wind whips through the tall grass. I feel small grasshoppers thump against my jeans. In the distance, the blackberry bush sags heavy with fruit.

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Do What You Do 

Going to a funeral today. Sad but the loss didn’t catch us entirely by surprise. Still, it occurs to me that for all the efforts by others at telling us how to best lead our lives, all we can do is just what feels right in the moment in which we do it.

And because I believe in fighting grief with gaiety, I’ll leave you with this:

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Something’s bothering Greg but he won’t tell me what it is. I keep asking but all he does is mumble “Nothing.” I’m still in bed when he steps out of the shower, and I watch him shave through the open bathroom door. A towel hangs loose around his waist.

I’m getting a crick in my back but I can’t bring myself to change position. I breathe deeply to keep myself calm. If I turn over the usual gauntlet will run through my mind. I bite the inside of my lip to keep from examining the headboard ten times, once for each fingertip. I need to bring this up when I see the doc tomorrow.

I reach out to touch his arm when he walks by but he moves it out of reach. It’s subtle but deliberate. He’s pouting, which seems to contrast sharply with the gray at his temples.

The hold on me snaps and I’m able to sit up. “Oh, come on. Just tell me what’s bothering you.”

He grabs a set of clothes with a huffy sigh. “I really shouldn’t have to.”

He heads back into the bathroom to get dressed. This is a pretty new thing he’s done the past couple weeks. He bitches that I don’t touch him, but goes out of his way to keep me from seeing him. I get out of bed, tighten the drawstring of my pants, and go to follow. He shuts the door and I knock.

“Christ, babe, how is this supposed to work? Is it supposed to go away if we don’t talk about it? You know, whatever it is?”

I knocked three times, and I’ve noticed. I tap the door with my fingertips, too lightly to make any sound, and that’s barely enough to keep myself under control. I don’t know that the Anafranil is working anymore.

“Just don’t worry about it,” I hear him snap.

“Jesus, something’s been bugging you for weeks now. We’re practically just pissy roommates at this point.”

“Yeah, we are.”

I have to swallow, and my eyes get that heavy feeling like I’m about to cry. I don’t usually cry, actually, but I almost always feel like I’m about to. Maybe I should bring that up tomorrow.


“Jesus Christ!” He whips open the door and nearly shoves me as he moves past. “Do you really have to fucking whine about it so much?”

I shower a little longer than usual, because the need for a systemic pattern rears its head. Goddammit. Is this because I’m upset?

I decide to skip shaving, and when I’m dressed he’s having coffee by the carport door. He doesn’t look at me.

“I’m probably going to be working late,” he tells me.

“That’s fine.” Now he looks at me, like he’s ready for a fight. “I’m going to be out late with Chanda anyway.”

“Of course you are.”

“Wait. Does Chanda have something to do with why you’re such an asshole lately?”

“What do you mean ‘lately?'”

“You fuckin’ well know what I mean.”

He sighs but doesn’t answer.

“What the fuck’s your deal? Do you have some beef with her?”

“Well, I don’t know, Nate. Should I? Is there anything I should be worried about?”

I catch what he means. “Oh, Jesus Christ. You can’t be serious.”

“You’re always around her!”

“She’s been my best friend for fifteen years. What the hell? You’ve been a huffy little princess for weeks because you’re, what…jealous of my beard?”

“I’m sure Chanda would love to hear you call her that.”

Now you’re worried about insulting her.”

“Nate.” He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “It’s not like, you know…it’s not like you’re not attracted to women.”

“Are you seriously playing that card now? Are you telling me I’m inherently unsatisfied if I’m not cheating?”

He puts his mug down and grabs his keys. “Forget it.”

“How can I?” He shuts the door when I catch up to him, but I open it again and call out: “You’ve been making such a fucking point of reminding me!

He ignores me and gets into his car.


The bookstore kills me today. It’s buyback time, and when I’m not helping with the register I help lug the massive volume of textbooks into the back for inventory. We’re going to be working all weekend just to get everything cataloged. More fuel for Greg’s fire.

I prefer it busy. When I’m busy, scrambling to meet the demands of others, I don’t have time to slow down and wait for the same thoughts to force my attention inward. They’re still there, mind you. They don’t call it obsessive for no reason. But they’re in the back of my mind, not the forefront, and there is no time to act on the compulsions they inspire.

I stay until six, when Chanda calls me. “Look up,” she says, and when I do she’s waving at me from the window by the doors. Her bracelets glitter in the yellow light of the student union.

“Heyo! I’ll be out in a second. Coffee upstairs?”

“Sounds good. I’ll head up! See ya in a bit!”

Ten minutes later I’m sitting by the Starbucks kiosk, sipping lemonade while Chanda blows on her tea. She reads me like a billboard and immediately asks what’s wrong.

“Greg. He’s…still Greg, I guess.”

“And that’s a bad thing now?”


“You think New Greg is Permanent Greg?”

“I think it’s safe to say he’s shades of permanent.”

“So what’s his deal?”

I sidestep the direct issue. “He thinks I’m stepping out, I guess. He gets in these moods if he sees me talking to women. The bisexual thing doesn’t sit well with him.”

“Well you are kinda flirty.”

“Wait, what?”

“Not…not like, consciously. Okay, I mean,” she straightens up, concentrating. Her words here need to be precise. “Okay, so, you come off as flirty, is what I mean, even if you’re not actually flirting. And…and you act differently around women than you do around men.”

The faint Indian accent she got from her parents makes her sound almost English.

“Like…” She pauses, looking up and to the right. She sets her tea down, and raises both hands, palms up. She sits cross-legged in her chair. For some reason the pose makes me think of the Bharatanatyam she danced when we went to her cousin’s wedding. Even now she slides her neck while she considers what she wants to say. The image of her writhing jade choli starts playing in my head. It’s preferable to the day-long replay of Greg shutting the bathroom door in my face.

“Like, when you talk with women, you’re very masculine, but then you practically bat your eyes around men.” She leans her head to the side. “You’re all ‘come hither.’ And with chicks you’re like…”

She lurches forward, creep-staring me, and cocks an eyebrow. She drops her voice an octave or two and grunts “DTF?”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?”

She shrugs. “S’what I’ve noticed, anyway.”

“Well.” I lean back in my chair. “Son of a bitch.”


Greg’s asleep when I get home. I decide to crash on the couch after my shower, and in the spring heat my mind goes back to Chanda dancing at her cousin’s wedding. Her date…I can’t remember his name now…he’d been affectionate all night, and I remember being a bit surprised at the naked desire in his eyes. When he looked at her, they almost seemed to sparkle in the light of the silver jari in her skirt. He didn’t seem to mind that she danced so much with me. I was already with Greg by then. She and I could’ve fucked in front of her date and the guy probably still would’ve assumed I was just “the gay friend.”

I remember wondering what it was that he wanted so badly from her, from this woman I’d known since I was ten. When I thought of Chanda it was with memories of middle school acne and baby weight that hung on through high school. But when she danced then I saw the fine-tuning ballet had finally worked on her body. She coiled her arms above her head and slid her neck from side to side. Her curling lips were dark like plums, and her stomach twisted like a python.

When I finally go to sleep, my mind is stuck on the image of her lehenga. I see its delicate hem billowing against her ankles, like a sail caught on a river wind.


Dr. Hale is a very fatherly guy. Soft voice, direct speech, always encouraging. Ideally fatherly, I guess I should say.

“So how are ya, Nathan?”

“Ahhhh.” I twist my hand from side to side.

“What’s up?”

“My thoughts are turning more obsessive lately. Repeated imagery, mostly. Some anxiety.”

“Any compulsive behavior?”

“Not that I can’t control.”

“Is it getting harder to control?”

“A…a little, yeah.”

“How’s the Anafranil working?”

I shrug. “I mean, I’ve been pretty stressed lately, and you know how bad it used to be if I was stressed.”

He knits his brows together. “What’s been bothering you?”

“I think Greg and I are gonna break up.”

“Why do you think that?”

“He’s mad all the time. He won’t talk about it. He’s been getting real jealous of Chanda lately.”

“Of you spending time with her?”

“Of just being around her at all, really.”

“Now, Greg knew you weren’t exclusively attracted to men when you two got together, right?”

“Oh, yeah. I made a big point of making sure he knew that.”

“Okay. Now, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but have you given him any reason to think you haven’t been faithful?”

“Not that I can think of.”

Dr. Hale is quiet for a minute. “Is there any possibility you’re attracted to Chanda?”

“Hold on. Why are we getting into this?”

“Trust me, there’s a point to it.”

I’m quiet for a long while. The silver jari in Chanda’s skirt sparkles behind my eyes, over and over. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.”

He nods. “Yeah, I think you are too. And I think this is a recent thing. Dollars to doughnuts, Greg is picking up on that.”

“Well, fuck.”

“Now remember how obsessive thought patterns can artificially inflate feelings of attachment and attraction? Now, that inflation can become compounded when you take into account existing feelings of platonic affection. You with me so far?”

“Yeah. Her being my friend complicates things. Makes ’em…like, bigger than they are.”

“Substantially. Now, I think you’re surprisingly adept at appraising your own perception. So, bearing all that in mind, would you describe yourself as possibly being in love with Chanda?”

I honestly consider it. Jangling bracelets. The Bharatanatyam.

“I think…I think I might be on the edge of that, yeah. Not yet, but…close.”

He gives me a comforting smile. “Well, there you go, kid. Your symptoms are flaring up because you’re stressed. Love, breakups…that stuff hits all of us pretty hard. And you work in a college bookstore. April is a shit storm for you guys.”

“So what do I do?”

“I couldn’t say, professionally or personally. Those are things you just have to manage on your own. Your boyfriend…I think you already have a course of action in mind in that regard, so I won’t add any input.”

“What about Chanda?”

“What about her?”

“What do I do?”

“There’s nothing to do.”

“Should I tell her?”

“I’m a clinician, Nate, not a life coach. That’s a question you gotta figure out by yourself. I…”

He pauses, then puts his pen and pad down and leans forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped.

“My wife and I were close friends for a decade before we began dating, and there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that she’s the love of my life. But…I’ve seen plenty of beautiful, loving friendships fall apart because of the presumption that attraction has to be consummated. Some friends can date, fall in love, fall out of love, and be friends again. Some can’t.”

“I would suggest…” and he points right at me, “…that you consider exactly what Chanda means to you. Not how much. That’s a meaningless measurement. Consider what she means to you. The what is important. What space is her best fit, and yours?”

He looks at the clock. “Alright, kid. I wanna see you in a month. I’ll forward my notes, but I still want you to tell your psychiatrist everything you told me. Off the record, I don’t think there’s anything clinically significant to the increase in your symptoms, but see her anyway, alright? From what I understand, side-effects from Anafranil can be sneaky bastards. They like to play the long game. She might wanna do some blood work.”

I have a weird urge to hug him when I leave, but of course I don’t. Still, though, the image of us hugging replays over and over in my head until I get a text from Chanda, asking if I wanna meet up when she gets off work. After that, the only thing I can picture are the white jeans she wore when we met last night for tea.


Greg stays out all weekend, fuming. While he’s gone I ask Chanda if she knows anyone who can help me move. She comes over in mom jeans and a baggy tee shirt, her friend Rebekah in tow. Rebekah has a sharp, curving nose that almost seems to pin down her extra-wide grin. She has frizzy blond hair that she keeps tied back.

Abhay swings by once everything’s boxed up, and he packs the U-Haul trailer like he does it for a living. He’s tall and athletic and I try not to feel too competitive. He’s a nice guy, eager to heft the heaviest items and joking around while he works. He never seems to sweat or lose his breath. I can see why Chanda likes him so much.

They’re clearly in love. They’re not engaged but obviously they will be one day. Their families would love it if they wound up together. She pretends otherwise, but tradition is important to Chanda. Both are first-generation kids, both have family hailing from the same province. He gets her in a way I couldn’t.

When we take a lunch break Abhay rides with Chanda to pick up food. Rebekah and I sit on the porch, drinking light beer and arm wrestling. She beats me every time. I want to keep going, long after the break is over and we’ve all eaten. I’d like to focus on anything other than the private jokes Abhay and Chanda share.


The apartment looks a lot more spacious now that everything’s arranged. Chanda had to do most of it. Greg was always the housekeeper when we were together.

I get an excited text from her before I head out: “TELL. ME. EVERYTHING.”

Rebekah’s already ordered a round when I find her at a back table. Her hair’s down. It’s less frizzy than I remember it. She has glasses on, thick black-framed jobs. Her huge grin gets wider as we drink. Hours later, while we’re playing darts, I think over and over about us drinking light beer, and her beating me at arm wrestling. I’m still thinking about it that night, when I go to sleep.

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Tupperware Lids



He was arranging the fish on the cutting board when his phone rang. He washed his hands as fast as he could, but his thumb was too wet to slide the answer button. He whipped it across with the tip of his nose just as it was about to go to voicemail.



“Hey, Ashe! What’s up?”

“Alright, so: if I make you swear not to breathe a word of what I’m about to tell you, can I trust you to keep your word?”

“My word is my bond. Or, I think that’s how that goes, anyway.”

“Like, for real. You swear this stays just between us?”

“Cross my heart, an’ all that. What’s up?”

“Alright, so.” There was a long dramatic pause. Jason put the phone on speaker and started chopping mushrooms. “You swear this stays between us?”

“I swear! Now spill!”

“Okay…seriously, you can’t tell anyone I told you this.”


“Alright, alright! So: what’re your feelings for Jenn?”

The rhythm in Jason’s chopping hand slowed a bit before he answered. “Well, I mean, I got…you know, I have a crush on her, but you know that. But she’s my friend and I don’t want her to feel self-conscious because of it.”

“Ha! I knew it! Weeeeell Jenn’s got a crush on you too.”

“Aw, fuck!”


“I’m making dinner and I just knocked over my mushrooms. She’s got a crush on me?”

“That’s what she just said.”

“And did she, by any chance, swear you to the level of secrecy you just swore me to?”

“You’re diverting, and I’m not gonna fall for it. Duuuuude, you need to make some kinda move!”

“Well, I mean, we tried to go out before…”

“Oh, Jesus, that was two years ago. Try again!”

“I dunno. It seems like it’d be awkward.”

“That’s just cuz you’re so spazzy! Look, y’all get on great! Just do something you both like. Like, something y’all already do when you hang. Then just, you know…get romantic about it! It’s literally that easy.”

“Ugh. That could make things really awkward between us.”

“Oh, put on your big boy pants and get over it. You’re both grownups. If it doesn’t work out, just don’t go for the smoochies anymore whenever y’all get coffee. You move on. It’s what we do now that we’re all adult-y.”

“Whoever entrusted us with adulthood has made a terrible, terrible error in judgment.”

“Dude, I just got off the phone with her! She’s home right now. All she’s doing is reading. Ask her if she wants to hang and then bring whatever you’re making for dinner with you! Why am I having to talk you through this?”

Jason stirred the mint sauce. Ugh, talk about date-y cuisine. If he went over now he might as well buy flowers. “Look, I’ll…I’ll call her this weekend or something.”

“Call her now! Forget it, I’ll call her. I’m putting you on three-way.”

“Ashe, no.”

“I’m dialing.”

“Woman, I will take this boning knife and I will hunt you down.”

“Haha! Boning’s the whole point, Jason!”


“Oooh, it’s ringing. Hold on, Imma put you on hold.”


She put him on hold, alright.

The bass sizzled with the mushrooms in the sauce. He heard a woman’s voice: “Hello?”


“It’s Jenn. I think Ashe hung up.”

“Because she’s awesome like that, of course.”

“Ha! So what’s up? Ashe said you wanted to talk?”

“She called you to say I wanted to talk?”

“I…guess. So what’s up?”

Jason made a mental note to, if not go through with his threat involving the boning knife, then to at least make Ashe think he would.

“Well, nothing. Cooking dinner. What’re you up to?”

“Like, the same. Doing nothing, I mean. Reading.”

“Cool.” The sizzling fish popped in the sauce. “Uh, hey, you maybe wanna hang out tonight?”

“Sure. I’m not exactly dressed for going out though. Like, I think I just barely meet the dress code for my own house.”

He had an image of her then, sitting on the couch in stained pajamas, her bare feet tucked under her. Dark blond hair tied back, but still messy. Her face greasy and shining. Sitting there, looking perfect.

“Well, I could come over there.”

“Cool! You on your way now?”

“Uhhh…” The timer went off for the fish. “In a couple minutes.”

“Sweet! See ya in a bit!”

“See ya!”

Ashe texted him about a dozen times that night. “Try to kiss her!” “Try to kiss her!” Hold her hand or something!” “Grab her ass! (Actually no, don’t do that. RESIST, JASON, RESIST.)”

He didn’t see any of them till near morning. The fish that had been still sizzling when he got there grew cold in its Tupperware, the steam wafting from where the lid had never quite sealed. Jenn marked her place in her book, but the marker was knocked loose when the paperback fell to the floor. There were awkward pauses, and hesitant kisses, then held hands and hooked arms. The nerve wasn’t in him to go far, so she pulled him close until courage was a moot point. They would wait until sunrise to see if anything had been accidentally shoved away.

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“I think we should break up.”

“Seconded,” he told her, juggling three pomegranates. Nimbly he stuck two back into their crate and set the other in their cart.


“I agree. We should break up. That’s, uh…” he swept his hand across the cart. “That’s what this was for. Although I guess now we don’t have to go through the hassle of checkout. You feel like Arby’s?”

“Wait. You wanted to break up too?”

“Well, we’ve been over for awhile now. It’s only just recently become clear to me this isn’t a hump we’re going to get over.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean…wait, what do you mean what do I mean? You just said you wanted to break up with me too. I was there, remember?”

What hump?”

“The fact that we don’t love each other anymore. Or rather that you don’t love me. I think I might still love you, though. I mean, I could just be fixated, but I think I still love you.”

“And you want to break up anyway?”

“Well yeah. Did you miss the part where I said you don’t love me?”

She was quiet at that part. Almost seemed ashamed. “I’m sorry.”

He just shrugged. “That’s how these things end. One of us stops loving the other. I mean, we weren’t in love when we started out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you told me, the year we became exclusive, that you realized you were in love with me right after New Year. I didn’t have that thought about you till the summer.”

“So we were together almost half a year, and you didn’t love me?”

“Sometimes love just grows. I figured it would with me. Guess I figured right.”

“That’s awfully cynical.”

“Nope. I said love, remember?”

“Stop saying that! Stop saying remember like you’re mocking me!”

“I’m sorry. That was pretty shitty of me just now.” He looked her in the eye. “I’m sincerely sorry. My…feelings are hurt, and I was sublimating it by being a douche bag, I guess. I really am sorry.”

“But you said you wanted to break up.”

“I agreed we should break up.”

“You were planning to break up with me tonight.”

“And pack my things in the morning. I know. It doesn’t mean I’m not so petty that being dumped first doesn’t hurt.”

He had a small fantasy of just tilting the cart over and dumping everything on her sparkling ballet flats. He was somewhat comforted by the surge of guilt he felt when the imagery passed. She reciprocated with a fantasy of her own, a simple one where she beat her fists against the back of his head, until the smugness was replaced with a pitiful beg for her to please stop hurting him.

But was that what he was saying already?

“Plus, I’m still in love with you, like I said.”

How much were they not saying to each other? How much had gone unsaid in the three years they’d been together?

They were still standing by the fucking pomegranates. Those things always took so much work to peel and eat.

“So,” and she had to stop to swallow a lump in her throat, “so what do we…Ben, I don’t wanna hurt you like this.”

“Then don’t. Dump me. Or I can dump you. Either way I should be fine, so long as we end it by tonight.”

Ben turned the cart around and nodded for Callie to follow. “I think I need some wine. We’ll feel better about this once one or both of us is drunk.”

He grabbed two bottles of the dirt cheap Merlot he always drank, then grabbed a mid-grade Moscato he knew she favored. “I’m not being a hog, I swear,” he told her, nodding to his own bottles. “The pomegranate glaze I wanna make needs to be boiled in a red.”

“Are you sure you’re still in love with me?”

“Pretty sure. But after awhile I’ll be running around somewhere, and it’ll hit me that I’m not in love with you anymore. It’s okay. That’s how it works. You fall in, you fall out.”

“Not always, though.”

“Oh, God no, not always. Only chumps get that pessimistic. Love can be forever, it just usually isn’t.”

She chewed her pinkie nail. “I should’ve ended this sooner. It wasn’t fair to you.”

“What do you mean? You been out of love with me for awhile now?”

She couldn’t think of any other way to phrase it other than: “I think so.”

“How long now? If you don’t mind me asking, I mean.”

“Like,” and she bit her lips. “Like…a long time now. I haven’t had that fluttery feeling for…years, I think.”

“Ooooh.” He paused, like he was considering something. “So not New Year, then.”


“You weren’t in love with me on New Year’s. You had a crush on me.” He waved his hand like he was clearing smoke. “Love’s the other thing. The…the steady part that comes after. The quiet thing.”

“You don’t think I loved you?”

“No, I think you did. Longer than you think you did, anyway. You just…didn’t know which part the love was.”

There came a cold edge of certainty in her. “You’re a fucking patronizing bastard.”

“Oh, fuck you.” He sounded tired when he said it. “Do you realize how much restraint I’m showing by not climbing in the car and leaving your ass to walk?”

He imagined her walking, and again there came the guilt over how much pleasure the idea of her discomfort gave him. She imagined not talking to him as he moved his things into the U-Haul trailer. Thing was, between the two of them, her fantasy was more likely to come true.

They checked out without a word, and they were halfway home before Ben broke the silence. “Hey, look, I’m sorry for what I said.”

“I started it.”

“No, no. I had that coming. You were completely right. I was baiting you and I didn’t like that you’d caught on.” He bopped her knee. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

She glanced down at where he’d touched her. Once it would have made her breath catch, for his hand to have been so close to the hem of her skirt. Now the December night only felt cooler.

“Hey,” he said then. “Let’s just stuff our faces and get drunk. I’ll sleep on the couch. This’ll all be over by tomorrow.” He reached over and squeezed her arm above the wrist. “It’s like a band-aid, see? We just gotta do it all at once. It’ll be alright.”

They drove home, together, each heading further and further away.

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