Stride

old slide

 

There’s a park in my hometown that I frequented a lot as a child. It’s old but well-maintained. Most of the play sets are constructed out of heavy wood and steel, and the metal bridge spanning the ditch from the parking lot to the play area has a little heart scratched inside the green paint. Inside the heart it reads “J.K. & H.A. 1967.”

This place seemed gigantic when I was little. Journeying from the play sets to the baseball field by the road felt like an honest hike. Splashes from the pool carried like noise from some distant highway. The ditch beside the parking lot required careful climbing if one wanted to collect the tadpoles that always swam in the green puddles after a rain.

I could cross the entire thing in less than two minutes now, without the slightest effort. I’m taller than the jungle gym that used to feel so dangerous to climb. I used to sit at the top and daydream that I was King Kong.

There’s a “nature trail” that leads through some trees in back. In this small town, “nature trail” means that you can just barely see the houses through the bushes on either side. Here I remember the thrill of autumn games of flashlight tag, and noticing with excitement as the sky turned dark and the moon began to shine. On those nights, when you had an hour of night before the park would close, the dark figures behind the flashlights could be anyone you wanted them to be.

I walk along that trail now, and there’s nothing here beyond my ability to control. Rustles in the leaves are simply scared chipmunks. The trail is now paved, and comfortable to follow. Children no longer issue cryptic warnings about things seen in the brush. They see me for what I am: a grownup, separate from whatever threats lurk in their imaginations.

This expansive land shrinks beneath my footsteps as I walk it. I can’t pretend I don’t hear the sounds of sprinklers and power tools behind the foliage. Once limitless days are shortened and frittered away. Sweet crushes have become lost loves, or, worse, just forgotten.

I walk to my car. It used to be a hero’s journey to enter and leave this sandy, leaf-strewn land. I climb into the driver’s seat. I am in the street and headed home within ten seconds. Later, it will take me longer to do the dishes than it did to stroll the length of my childhood continent.

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

Boto

lone car

She was out of my league, that was for sure. Not just that I had no chance with her. I mean I don’t even think I was allowed to look at her, really. Not short, pudgy me, coming out of the Quick Mart, gas station hot dog in one hand, Slush Puppy in the other.

She was cursing, in a southern twang that went with her husky voice. What made me notice her then, and not before when my fat ass was too distracted by the promise of sugar and tubes of meat, was the way her tank top jumped when she kicked the flat tire. It leapt as her flip flop slapped ineffectively against the rim. The sight was near-religious for me.

I looked away before she could catch me scoping her out, heard her yell into her phone. “Babe, c’mon! It’s not like I ran over that nail on purpose! Don’t be that way…I don’t know, I’ll call a cab or…”

I’d already tuned out by then, not eager to imagine the hunky, likely depressingly superior male specimen she was talking to. I’d set my junk food on the roof of my Acura and was fishing for my keys when I heard her say “Hey, excuse me? Excuse me!”

I wasn’t trying to be rude. There was just absolutely no reason for her to be talking to me. I didn’t realize what was happening until her voice, jarringly close, said “Hey, hold up!”

I turned, chili dog in one hand, jumbo Slush Puppy in the other, the breeze emphasizing how desperately baggy my shorts and tee shirt were.

“Hi,” she said, giving me a small smile. Auburn hair. Tan skin. Freckles on her nose, almost invisible under the halogens of the gas station. Every part of her lean, soft. I was almost hot enough for someone like her, once upon a time.

“Hey.” I dropped into the driver’s seat, still under the impression that there was nothing this Homecoming goddess was going to need me to stick around for.

“Where you headed?”

“Uh…just, just home.”

“Where’s home?”

I searched her eyes. They flickered down the road.

“That way,” I told her, pointing down the highway. She lit up.

“Oh, awesome! Can I get a ride?” She was beaming, already assuming she had her answer.

“Well, I’m kind of low on gas…” You’d probably want to call me an idiot, but really, what chance would I honestly have had with her? Do you really think I was blowing anything?

“Oh, I’ll pay you! I’ll totally pay you!” She swiped her hand like it was a done deal. “But my boyfriend has the money, so…”

“I dunno…” I said. Look, sex was not going to happen, okay? No matter what heroics I performed. Why go through the trouble when I already knew the outcome?

“Please?” She made a pouty face, reached through my open window and grabbed my arm. The way she was bent over, I could immediately tell she was a B-Cup.

“Okay,” I agreed immediately.

***

She told me her name was Britty. I thought that sounded fucking stupid for anyone else who wasn’t hot enough to instantly render men retarded. On her, however, it was perfect. She ran back to her car, reached inside, grabbed her bag. She banged her head on the door frame, and in her anger she kicked the car again.

“OW!” she screamed, immediately falling and grabbing her foot. Her face was scrunched in a look of pure agony.

I climbed out, jiggled over to her. I felt like a big strong man, despite my gut bouncing even more than my knees were. She was sitting almost Indian-style. The toe beside the big one on her right foot was swelling up.

“Looks like ya cracked it,” I said, hating how high-pitched my voice always was.

“Can you help me up?” She sounded so small and hurt I felt bad about the constant sexual thoughts I was having about her. She reached out her arms, wrapped them around my neck as I scooped an arm under her knees and shoulders and hoisted her up. I’ve carried heavier bags of groceries.

I got her into the passenger seat of my car. “Thank you,” she said sheepishly, smiling an embarrassed but grateful smile at me. It made me feel like a hero, despite my complete lack of definition.

She curled forward, cupping her injured foot as I closed the door. I jingled my keys as I walked to the driver’s side, using the sound to distract myself from my jiggling gut.

***

She called her boyfriend, told him she’d caught a ride with “some guy.” Apparently he wasn’t pleased with that. “Don’t get that way. Jesus, you know that’s not gonna happen. Ugh!”

Guess he was the jealous type. Whatever.

“So how far to your boyfriend’s place?” I asked when she hung up.

“About twenty miles.” She’d taken some pills she had in her purse, and her foot seemed to be bothering her less now. She was leaning back, looking out the window, when suddenly she sprung forward in her seat. “Shit! You have gas for this, right?”

I hadn’t thought about that. Honestly I’d just popped in because I have zero regard for what I put into my body. I checked my fuel gauge. “Uh, yeah…probably.”

“Damn, I’m sorry! I didn’t even think…” She fished around her purse. “Let me get you gas, okay? At least a gallon for the drive? Would that be enough?”

“This is a Prius. A gallon would get me to the next state.”

“Cool. Pull in here.” She waved me into a Citgo, handed me a credit card. “I trust you,” she smiled, looking me in the eye, clamping the collar down hard on my sense of ethics. Ugly boys can do no wrong to pretty girls, and she knew it.

I took the card, got out, ran it through the slot on the pump. She told me her zip code, and as soon as I punched it in, the computer read “DENIED.”

“Uh…it didn’t work.”

“Weird. Try it again.”

I did. “Nothing.”

“Shit!” She opened up her purse and climbed out. She winced as she balanced herself on her injured foot, shifted her weight, and hobbled over to the ATM. She swiped her card, punched numbers, yelled: “What the FUCK?!”

She jammed in her PIN again, stabbing the keys like they’d insulted her, apparently got the same response. “AHHH, GODDAMNIT!”

“Everything okay?”

“No everything’s not fucking okay? GODDAMNIT! GODDAMNIIIIIIT!” She balled her fist like she was preparing to punch the machine, but probably remembered her injured foot and dropped her arm. “My money’s gone! MY FUCKING MONEY’S GONE!”

“Fuck,” I said, as sympathetically as I could.

“I had two-thousand dollars in there! Oh no! Oh no!” Her voice had that whine that told me she was about to panic-cry.

“Hey, it’ll be fine. Just call the bank. Most of ‘em have fraud protection. They’ll put your money back.”

She didn’t seem convinced, but it seemed to comfort her somewhat. “You think so?”

“Totally. Same thing happened to me once. Got my money back the same day.”

She pouted, scrunched her eyebrows. “I’m sorry I can’t get you gas.”

“Shit, don’t worry about it.”

She hobbled back to her car, her foot clearly hurting her more than it was a second ago.

“You sure you don’t want me to take you to an emergency room?” I asked her.

“No, I’m fine. I’ll just…I’ll have my boyfriend take me to the doctor tomorrow.” She made a small, sick sound as she pushed herself into her seat with her foot.

I filled up my tank, and we were back on the road.

***

Her foot was really bothering her. She was moaning in discomfort two minutes in.

“Maybe you should take a couple more, um…pills.”

She looked at me then, unsure if I was judging her or not. “I’m not an addict.” She didn’t say it defensively. It sounded more like she was trying to convince herself.

Well, I thought, that was unprompted.

“Oh, no, I just…I mean, if you’re not going to the doctor about your foot until tomorrow, I just figured you’d want it to hurt less. I’m pretty sure you broke something.”

“Yeah, maybe…” She was staring through the floorboard, trying to convince herself that she wasn’t trying to convince herself. Finally she dug through her purse.

“I’m only gonna take a few.” She was telling herself, trying to make it sound like she was telling me. She spilled a small handful out of the bottle, rolled a few back inside, then tossed back the rest. She took out a bottle of water and took a deep swallow. When she put the cap back on, I smelled that it wasn’t actually water she’d just swigged.

She was completely out before I could ask her which road to turn off on. Shit.

***

It was completely dark when she started awake, taking a rushed breath and blinking her eyes. I’d pulled into a paved lot for a hair salon that hadn’t been built yet, waiting for her to rouse and tell me where to go. She’d been out for a couple hours

“Shit! What time is it?”

“About eleven.”

“Fuck. Fuck!” She dug out her phone, swiped her finger over the screen. She shook the knee of her good leg as she waited for an answer.

“Hey Brian? Jesus, babe, I’m sorry. I’m on my…don’t be that way! Jesus! I hurt my foot and took something for it. See for yourself when we…the fuck are talking about?! You fucking ashsole, you know I wouldn’t…what do you…?”

She had a look of disbelief.

“What? You can’t be serious! Babe, I would never do that! How could you think that? I told you! I hurt my foot! I took some pills and…Brian, please listen!” She was crying, sobbing actually. The kind of sob that hits you by surprise, so you don’t have time to mask the panic. “No! No! Babe, I moved all the way down here for you, why would I…babe, no, listen! Why would I…babe, please. No! No, Brian, I…!” She looked at the phone, fear rising, swiped her finger over it, held it back to her ear. I heard what sounded like voicemail. She dialed again. Voicemail. Again. Answer this time. Couldn’t make out the words clearly, but it sounded like Brian didn’t want her coming home.

She started sobbing, bawling, and smacked her phone into the dashboard as hard as she could. I heard the screen spider web, and she hurled the little box through the window. She curled up, eyes against her knees, her tears making dark streaks across her jeans.

I sat in uncomfortable silence, not sure what would be the right thing to say. Obviously the plans had changed.

“Wrong guys. I was pick the fucking wrong guys…”

Abruptly she opened the car door. I assumed she was going after her phone at first, then I noticed she was dragging her bags with her.

“Hey! Where you going?”

She sniffled, wiped her eyes, then in a disgusted voice she said “Well, obviously you don’t have to take me anywhere now. But I appreciate your help.”

“What?”

“I’m gonna go. I gotta…I gotta go catch a bus or something…”

“The bus station is miles away! I can’t let you out here this late! We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“It’s alright. I can make it.”

“Bullshit. Your toe is broken. No way you can walk this highway like that.”

“I’ll be fine…” She sounded less sure, and glanced over her shoulder down the dark road.

“Look, let me take you to the emergency room.”

She shook her head. “I can’t pay for it. I don’t have any insurance or…” She started crying again. Holy fuck, was she having a shit night.

“Come on,” I pleaded, figuring I was being more genteel than creepy. I wanted so much to help her out, to be enough of a hero for her that maybe, maybe, in some fucking way, she would overlook the fact that I looked like a pimply bag of shit. “We have to get that foot looked at. You won’t make it far off the bus if it isn’t treated.”

She seemed to be considering this.

“I can’t leave you out here,” I told her. “I just…can’t, man.”

She smiled. Her eyes had that sad light girls get when something touches them.

“You’re so sweet!” She said it to me like I was her fat-assed little brother. But I would take that over abandoning her any day.

She gave the highway another glance, then climbed back in. In another moment we were moving.

“You’re just the sweetest thing ever,” she told me, her voice thick with her melted heart. In her tenderness, I had become simultaneously heroic and, consequently, devoid of sexual intrigue.

I could live with that.

***

The hospital was another ten miles. It was a sleepy, spread-out Georgia town. Nothing was a close drive away.

She’d taken some more pills for her foot. Fewer than before, but enough to put a dopey smile on her face. “You’re so amazing,” she said, almost with a slur. “You’re like, my fucking hero.”

I smiled. She scooched up, leaned over, gave me a clumsy kiss on the cheek. “Fuckin’ knight in armor,” she told me, and started giggling. She fell back into her seat, punched me playfully in the shoulder. My arm rippled where she hit me. Everything on me was so loose nowadays.

She moaned, contented, wrapped her arms behind her head. “I feel so fucking safe around you.”

“I’m glad, Britty.”

She gave me a smile of instant friendship. “Hey, what’s your name?”

I shook my head. “You probably couldn’t pronounce it.”

“Try me!”

I shook my head. “It’s an old name. They don’t really make the letters for it anymore.”

She scrunched her brows, shook her head. Tried to make sense of what I just told her.

“Wait…what?”

“How’s your foot?”

She sighed. “Still fuckin’ hurts.”

“You should take some more pills,” I told her.”I mean, what harm could they do now?”

“Yeah,” she said, slick and lazy. “What harm could they do now?”

She tapped a few into her palm, swallowed them.

“Sure that’s enough?” I asked.

She smiled. “Fuckin’ right.” She poured more, a small handful. She chased them with the rest of her vodka.

“Sure that’s enough?” she slurred back at me.

I smiled. “You would know, wouldn’t ya?”

She nodded. “Shit yes, I would.” She drained the rest of the bottle.

“You good?”

She leaned back, got comfy. “Mm-hmm,” she murmured. “Hey, where we goin’ anyway?”

“To my place.”

“Hey – but what…”

“Don’t worry…I’m a gentleman.”

She laughed, barking and uncomprehending. “Ha! Yeah…fuckin’ knight an’ armor…”

“Yeah,” I said. “Night.”

***

She was still warm when I stopped the car behind my house. Her breath hissed out of her when I picked her up and carried her inside. Rotten floorboards threatened to give under my weight and hers. Light from the half moon peppered in through holes in the roof.

She’d died before her gag reflex could kick in. Thank Christ. I hated having to scrub out my car.

I hear my brothers smacking in the night. They’re hungry, but she’s mine.

“No, you handsome devils,” I tell them. “Sate your lusting bellies elsewhere.”

They growl, irritated, but any of them would say the same to me. They would have no trouble finding prey. They’re so beautiful, all of them. Some could even slip into dreams.

But seduction is such a misunderstood art. There are other ways to break down the walls between prey and their trust. And it’s the trust we need. To feed. To fuck. It’s the trust we take, so that we may live. The infinitely harmless can be as inviting as the sensuous nighttime lover. We all have our guile.

I kick aside the loose boards in the floor, step into the dark, flowing water. Country plumbing, in days before daylight could travel through wires.

I step into the rushing water, my bulk consumed by its chilly froth. I sink with her, down to the dark place others only see in dreams. My gorgeous brothers spread into the night. They only have so long before daylight robs their looks.

Demon lovers. Nightmare beasts. Forceful and potent. Lean and beautiful. Fat and hungry.

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Filed under Fiction, Horror

Cool Hearts

staples

 

Running again. When I’m not running I’m shambling. I hear gunshots, feel chunks flying out of my back. At least they miss my head.

The head. My mind’s the only thing that feels like it’s still a part of me. Everything else always feels numb.

I miss my heartbeat.

***

Stupid to go so far, I know, but food is scarce. Our bodies still process meat, somehow, still use it to repair the normal wear and tear. Human meat works best, but we’ll eat animals if we find ‘em already dead. Or if they don’t mind us putting our hands on ‘em.

A deer runs by. Deer. So good, so hard to catch. And strong; one of those things can take five of us, no problem. We have tools, weapons. A lot of us even remember how guns work. I don’t think the living know about that. They’d probably double their efforts if they did.

Pretty sure I lost them. I found a river and let myself fall in. Hit a bunch of rocks when I reached the rapids, stayed under for a while. The water was cold. Really cold. Perfect. I don’t think it got over fifty all day. Too damn hot.

The water kept me safe. After about an hour I bobbed to the surface. Clouds were covering the sky. They told me it was safe to climb ashore. Their rain and thunder would drive the living back.

I feel the raindrops pooling in the pockets where my skin has worn away. It drowns the awful bugs that try to lay their eggs in my flesh.

I make my way to camp.

***

I see camp, far away. No fire; never fire. Just the others, shambling around, most of them probably unaware they’re moving. That happens sometimes. I’ll sit down, stare into space. Next thing I know, I’m walking, no idea how I got on my feet. I guess we sleepwalk. Maybe we daydream.

Our camp is small. Didn’t use to be. A lot of us once, enough to keep everyone away. Then the living burst through, stealing guns from a store we don’t use, bombing us to cover their escape even though we’d all fed that day. The little girl with the torn teddy burned real fast. The teddy turned to ashes before her groans died away. The staples I’d used to keep her bear together had melted from the heat. I still don’t know what they used when they firebombed us in our sleep.

I keep the staples, stuffed in a chamber my heart doesn’t use anymore. I take them out when the moon is full enough to make them glint. She had very bright eyes. I miss her.

***

The fat one grunts at me. He’s sitting down, like he usually is. Sitting bowlegged. Shotgun blast took out an ankle, now it’s too much trouble for him to wander around. He spends a lot of time throwing cards in a pile, then shoveling them back in his hands to throw them again. Pictures on the cards show his wife and daughter. They’re still alive. His wife’s the one who shot the ankle.

The new one still doesn’t like us. She hasn’t gotten used to what happened. We bit her…can’t remember who did exactly. It’s not a disease that makes us walk, like a lot of the living think. TV said something about radiation before there wasn’t TV anymore. But we’re dead; there’s a lot of nasty things swimming inside us. One of us bit her. She got real sick. I think the living pushed her away. She came to us, kept waving her arms around our mouths. A dead bear had kept us pretty well fed, and we weren’t interested. She cried a lot, until she got real cold and still. Now she just sits by herself. I don’t like her very much.

I like Rosa. Rosa’s mine. She likes me too. I’m hers. We like to stand around and put our hands on each other’s waists. We both remember music. We growl, but we can’t remember the tunes Rosa used to dance too. She wears a tight red dress that her body has stained. She wears underwear, too, I think. I know she still has dollar bills stuck in a frilly band around her leg. They weren’t always there, but one day we found the money fluttering along the ground. Rosa picked them up and stuck them in her garter. She made a sound like she couldn’t quite remember how to laugh. I like Rosa. Rosa likes me. We dance, even if we’re not actually moving much.

I stand next to Rosa. I took a chunk out of the big one in the blue uniform, the one always giving the other living people orders. He shot me. Always shooting me. Sometimes I wonder if he hates me. Doesn’t even know me. I let Rosa take the meat out of my mouth. She doesn’t have cheeks, so she eats it all in one bite. Rosa’s lucky. She doesn’t have a face that gets in her way when she’s eating.

Rosa keeps biting at me, and wails a little when she remembers she needs lips to kiss. I bite back. It’s okay, Rosa. It’s okay.

That seems to calm her down. The rain comes down harder. Rosa tilts her head back, looks at the clouds like she’s surprised. The rain pours off her face, and she closes what’s left of her eyelids to enjoy it. The rain washes Rosa. She smells like ginger. And me.

***

The big blue one shoots at us. He’s got the arm that he swung at me wrapped up real tight. He’s yelling, angry. I’m pretty sure he hates me. He doesn’t see me, though.

Billy and Mary just stand there. They never really got that the living don’t like us. They forget we’re not like them. Billy actually waves. He’s hugging Mary close, still hugging her when the blue man makes her head explode with his shotgun.

Billy just stands there a minute, ignoring the slug that goes through his chest. He kind of just ends up on his knees, holding Mary. But she’s not moving. She’s gone, gone forever now. Billy doesn’t have Mary anymore.

It takes a while for him to get it. He has to see Pops go down, his tie fluttering on the ground, before he understands. Mary’s gone. He doesn’t have Mary anymore. Billy doesn’t understand why the big man did that to him. He closes his eyes and rasps, trying to cry. He makes one sad sound that maybe could have been a wail, and then the back of Billy’s head shatters. The mud is flecked in light gray. Bits of skull are still stuck to Billy’s skin. Billy has Mary again now. They’re both on the ground. They’re both not moving.

The big man shoots at us a little more, then runs away. We’re sad Billy’s gone. He used to run. Still remembered how to run. He’d run, and those of us who could remember would laugh. Or try to.

***

Some of us can survive without our brains. I don’t know how, or why, but some of us can. Not many. Probably not me. My brain is the only part of me I have.

I think about that while some birds are eating Billy and Mary. Some of them let Rosa pet them. She likes birds. One time we went back into the city to find Rosa’s bird. It was on the bottom of the cage, not moving. Rosa picked it up in both hands, bounced it up and down. She looked sad. It didn’t move. She tried to remember its name and grunted a little. Then she got so mad she tore pieces of her face off. Now she can’t kiss so well, but I bet Rosa’s happier without the skin getting in her way. She gets to see real Rosa when she looks into the water.

Sometimes I think about peeling off the rest of my face. It’s mostly burnt up. It feels tight when I try to eat. I tried it once but Rosa stopped me. She likes me like I am. I like Rosa.

One bird seems sick. It walks slower than the others, has to take a rest. It walks over to Rosa, pecks at her leg. Rosa picks it up, looks it in the eye for a while. It doesn’t move, just rests and breathes. Then she hands it to me. I eat its head in one bite. It kicks for a while. The meat stays warm while I eat, all that kicking pumping the blood. I like it. I rasp while I eat. I see little cords in Rosa’s face twitch as she smiles. Rosa likes me.

***

The blue man doesn’t look well, but he shoots at us anyway. He holds his arm close like it hurts. He shoots Rosa, hits her knee. I bet Rosa can still dance though, just not very well. Probably.

He shoots the fat man. The fat man’s cards scatter everywhere. His daughter’s face blows away in the breeze. He smooshes his wife into the mud when he falls over. His brains are all torn up. They bounce in his blown up head when he falls over.

The big blue man almost falls down. Almost. Then he stands up again and shoots one more time. Shoots me.

Shoots me in the head.

I fall down. I don’t get back up.

***

Rosa’s fingers in my heart. I like Rosa. Like her in my heart.

She takes out the staples. Rosa liked the little girl too. She left pictures of the little girl hanging by the birdcage. Rosa with her face still on, standing next to the little girl. The little girl standing on a ball, holding a big shiny cup. Before they were both what we are now.

The staples glitter in the moonlight. Almost as bright as Rosa’s eyes.

I only see things, little things, but they’re going away. Going away. I’m going away. My brains are leaking out. All of me is going away.

Funny. Light on the staples. Rosa’s eyes. Living people don’t have any light in their eyes. Always blink it away.

All of me.

***

I like Rosa. Rosa likes me.

***

One day I get up. Rosa walks up to me, sits down and looks at me. I just sit there for a second before I start to crawl. Rosa crawls behind me.

After a little while I reach a puddle. Most of my head’s gone above my eyes. Big chunks of brain hang on my skull.

My brain. Big pieces of me. Don’t feel like mine anymore.

I shake my head, hard. Clear it out. I sling bits of brain on Rosa. She rasps, because she can’t remember how to laugh anymore.

Clear my head. Feel like me.

I get up, but it takes a while. I have to stop and think about it.

Think. Don’t know how to do that right now, but I guess I’ll learn.

I get up. I start walking into the woods.

***

The big blue guy is on his hands and knees. He’s looking into the river. Won’t see anything but foam. It’s the rapids we’re at now. I walk up to him. Rosa follows, though her heels get stuck in the mud.

The blue guy gets up, turns around. His mouth is open and he’s tilting his head. He’s gray. Veins around his eyes aren’t throbbing anymore, like they always did before.

He looks sad. He makes a little moan, reaches out to me. I push him in the water.

He just looks confused, but I don’t care. I don’t like him. I don’t want him in our camp. I don’t want him near Rosa.

He just keeps looking at me, even when the rocks break his ribs and flip him in the water. He just looks at me, and gets washed away. Maybe he’ll fall off a waterfall.

I turn around. Rosa gets her heels out of the mud, and walks with me until she’s ahead.

I follow Rosa. I’ll always follow Rosa. We have time now. We don’t have to run right now, like we always have to.

I like Rosa. Rosa likes me.

We shamble on. It’s gonna be dark, but not yet. The living won’t come right now. We have time to walk in the cool air, in our cool skin. We have time.

I touch the staples in my heart. I’m lucky. The living don’t have any in theirs.

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Filed under Fiction, Horror

Abort

abort

 

Karen and I are drinking dirt-cheap beer and laughing through a season of “It’s Always Sunny” when the connection in my TV goes out.

“No worries,” I say, standing and facetiously beating my chest. “I shall fix this! Come citizens! Follow me!”

We’ve pounded our way through a twelve pack, so we both kinda stumble down the hall to my room, where my laptop sits charging on my desk. I open it and bring up Netflix, and soon the Paddy’s Gang start their antics right where they left off. She and I drop down on my mattress and watch through a beery haze.

I’m drunk enough I actually don’t notice her hand start to move between the snaps on my shirt. Honest to God, I don’t actually catch on to what’s happening until one snap pops, and when I look down her cool palm is running its way across my ribs.

“Whoa,” I say, sitting up and moving back a bit. Karen’s fine and all but, uh, this isn’t us. We aren’t…

“Oh, what?” she says. She’s smiling, her lips a darker red than I can remember ever seeing them before. She scoots closer as I scoot farther.

“I..we aren’t…”

“Oh, fuckin’ come on,” she says, rolling her eyes, and now she’s working down the strap of her purple tank top. “It ain’t like it was never leading to this.”

She’s pressed against me now and in the warmth I become so much more aware of her than I ever have been before. The crotch of her jeans scrape against my fly, and my heart rockets when I realize that soon, very freakishly soon, my skin will be pressed against the skin wrapped so tightly in those jeans.

She looms over me, wolfish grin and locks of distressed brown hair. The curl of her right eyebrow mimes the curl in her sneer. Porcelain white teeth threaten to eat me alive in the most comforting way imaginable. She pulses then, in a deep red light.

I look up and see the big red button, flashing bright. It reads: ABORT For some reason, I slap it.

And I wake up.

It’s Thursday morning. Practically the start of the weekend for me. Landscaping work is tight this time of year, so I wake without the usual strained aches of hard labor. Four crushed cans of Old Milwaukee litter my nightstand, and my laptop hums by my feet. Netflix tells me it has timed out due to inactivity.

I sit, still in the jeans and white tee shirt I fell asleep in. I rub my eyes and mutter “Aw, shit” over and over to myself.

***

Karen and I are drinking cheap drafts at a little hot dog place we tend to favor. Shamefully, I’m in the same wrinkled clothes I woke up in, because when you landscape for a living your perception of clean and dirty is fundamentally altered. She’s got on a brown sweater and tight jeans, the tightness of which I don’t think I would’ve noticed before last night’s dream. I drink a little faster when the memory comes to me.

“Ugh,” she groans, nudging a loose plastic stool on the eating station beside us. “Fucking seventy degrees in the middle of goddamn January. Someone needs to tell fall it’s time to give it a rest.”

She pulls off her sweater then, and underneath she’s wearing a deep purple tank. I almost spit my beer back into my plastic cup.

“You okay?” she asks me, loose hair cascading over her brown eyes as she looks at me.

Oh, goddamn it. God. Damn it.

***

Later we make our way back to my house, and Karen helps me swap out my engine mounts, which means that we actually have to lift the motor up and out. Before heading over we’d loaded her engine net into the bed of her pickup, and now with it set up in my driveway she and I curse and hiss and finally have the block loose enough to haul into the air. While she locks it in place I slide an engine stand underneath, then grab the mounts from the trunk.

When we get everything swapped out, we lower the engine and hook it back up, Karen complaining the whole time. “Goddamn motherfuck,” she groans, “why’d you ever buy this fuckin’ bitch, anyway?”

“Bitchiness is an appealing quality to me,” I answer back, pretending not to notice her shaking cleavage as she wrestles hoses into place.

When we’re done it’s dark. We’re sweaty and scratched up, and our skin and our clothes are smeared in grease. “I need a fuckin’ shower,” she says, grabbing a beer from my cooler and wiping grease from her wrist on the ass of her jeans.

“Go for it,” I tell her, lugging the cooler inside behind her. “Least I owe ya is some hot water.”

“Yer goddamn right you do.” She shotguns her beer and tosses it in the cardboard box I use for recycling. “Won’t take me fifteen.” And she disappears down the hall.

I sit in my threadbare recliner and keep drinking, and I guess I fall asleep ’cause I feel someone running their hand against my face. I have to blink for almost a minute because I can’t make out who’s standing in front of me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I finally see it’s Karen, ’cause really who the fuck else would it be?

What does surprise me, though, is how comfortable she is standing around naked.

Her hair is dripping wet, and without thinking I reach out and put my hand to her hip. Her skin is soft from scrubbing and cool from drying, and she sets her hand against my wrist and moves it lower. Her leg is so smooth I have the weird impression she’s melting from the heat of my hand, like cream. Her skin is deep brown and sun-kissed.

She leans down, her mouth open, and her lips are so close to mine I honestly don’t know if they’re touching or not. My mouth is open too, more out of shock than anything, and I can feel her breath coming and going across my tongue.

There’s a shimmer of light from behind her, and I look over her shoulder and see a massive insect’s wing wafting behind her. There are two of them, one on either side, and I look to her side to see a second, smaller pair below them. They shimmer with pulses of what seems like sunlight, and as they flutter the sunlight drips through the air like rain against a window. The liquid light spatters across my carpet, soaking deep into the fibers, and after a moment little hands reach into the air. Smaller Karens stand, emerging from where the light splashes. These Karens also have wings, pulsing, dripping, sunlit wings. It occurs to me that, if I keep watching, even smaller Karens than the ones I see will begin to appear. She is flooding my home, soaking it in shimmers.

There’s a different light now, a flashing red standing out against the pulsing white and yellow rays of sunlight. Across the front, the red glowing button reads ABORT. Without wanting to, moving mechanically, I move my foot to it and press it with the toe of my boot.

Fairy Karen’s fingers disappear from my cheek. I’m alone in my dark living room. When I check the time I see a text on my phone. “Didn’t wanna wake ya. I’ll be back tomorrow to grab my motor caddie. Sleep easy. Thanks for the beer. You need more conditioner. – Karen”

***

When Karen comes to get her motor caddie, she’s in canvas cargo pants and a thick flannel shirt that almost makes me think she knows what I was dreaming about. We laugh and drink beer at her place, slugging each other’s arms when we need to shut up or we’ll miss a good part of whatever show we marathon on Netflix. This morning, I dreamed we were lying on our sides in my bed, just looking at each other. The warmth under the sheets told me neither of us were wearing anything. We didn’t touch, didn’t kiss, just lied there with it feeling like we should. Her brown eyes held mine. The side of her mouth curled in a smile. Her right eyebrow was cocked, mimicking the curl of her lip. If I’d moved my head an inch, our noses would’ve touched.

But for the flashing button between us, I could’ve.

It’s Sunday, and we drink a lot. It starts to get dark, and it dawns on me I’ll have to head back soon.

“I need to cool it,” I tell her, waving away the offer of another beer. “Gotta drive back eventually.”

“Oh, fuck that.” She waves her hand. “Just sleep in back. Bobby ain’t due back in town for another couple days.”

Bobby. The boyfriend. I know him. He’s a good dude. A good dude who never makes an appearance in my dreams. In my dreams it’s just me and her.

But I persist, and when my buzz wears off we hug and I make my way back home. When I go to bed the space across my bedspread where I dreamed her is cool and smooth. Eventually, some undetermined time after I finally fall asleep, she’s there again, smiling, eyebrow cocked.

Her expression seems to say the same thing it seemed to say this morning. What happens now?  And this morning, what happened was a slow, regretful push of a button.

Now again we lie and look at one another, the ABORT button flashing between us. Now I drag a pillow across it, and lay my head closer to hers. Now, here in my dream, our noses touch.

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Smile

Shitty day today, so in case you’re having a shitty day too, here’s a lion who’s just over the moon about this butterfly. It seems pretty good to be this lion. Let’s all try to be like this lion.

  

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Buggy

scary bug 2

So I’ve had a problem with bugs ever since I moved into my apartment. The super insisted nothing was wrong, but of course he would, right? But the maintenance guy said the same thing, and Tony’s a pretty straight-up fella. I still saw bugs even after he looked around, but I thought, hey, he’s maintenance, not an exterminator. Can’t fault him when I ask him questions outside his field.

But then I called, like, three professionals, and they all said the same thing. No bugs here, man. Place is clean as a whistle. Not even a freakin’ mite, they told me, and they ran UV lights and shit over everything.

So, right, the exterminators tell me there’s no bugs here either. And admittedly, it’s not like they’re everywhere. They don’t pour out of my cabinets of clog the drain. They’re just always there, out of the corner of my eye, scurrying into some crack I can’t see before I turn around. But I always see them. They’ve gotta be stacked a foot deep behind these walls.

Anyway, I guess it’s not all bad. They don’t get into my food or anything, so that’s a plus. Still, I sleep better at night knowing there’s a can of Raid by the bed.

***

So it’s been three months, right? And every time I bring friends over, I always have to look around, feel through the couch cushions, because I’m afraid one of my cuter female friends is gonna reach for her drink and get a handful of bug.

I still can’t prove anything, but I know they’re here. Fuckin’ scurrying out of sight whenever I try to get a look at ‘em. Sometimes I get lucky, see one in retreat before it vanishes. Jesus, they’re ugly things.

They aren’t roaches. I…I really don’t know what the hell they are. They almost look like spiders, but I’m sure they have six legs, and spiders have more than that, right?

I know they have six legs ‘cause the fucking things are huge. Like pipe cleaners covered in rose thorns. Just big, gnarly, awful things, bright yellow with spots of…I dunno, green I think.

And sometimes I see antennas. I definitely see the antennas. Sometimes I’ll just look up and see ‘em wiggling over the edge of the cabinets, long, orange, just waving around like how you’d hang your arms if you were laying in a hammock.

But as soon as I get a magazine or something, they’re gone. I don’t know where. Seriously, I don’t even think there’s any cracked paint in here.

It pisses me off, but what am I going to do? Can’t knock a hole in the wall, not without voiding my lease anyway. Can’t ask the other neighbors if they have bugs ‘cause, well, I don’t know. Fuck the neighbors, really.

They still don’t seem to bother me much, but it’s hard to go about my day knowing they’re there. I hear them when I sit down to watch TV, and I have to turn the sound up sometimes just to drown them out.

***

Shit, it’s a real problem now. I woke up thirsty last night and thought I’d get a drink of water. Then I hit the light and there it is, on the foot of my bed, just walking around like it’s scoping out property.

I screamed like I was ten and kicked the sheets. That thing dropped to the carpet with a thud heavy enough to make me wonder what else I’d kicked off.

Then I grabbed a magazine even though now I wonder what I was thinking I’d do with it. Piss it off, I guess. But it was gone, like they always are.

I need all of these fucking things gone. Soon.

***

So they mostly stay out of sight, which is good, since me and this one girl are kinda getting serious now.

I like her. She’s got black hair and black eyes and she fucks me like a demon. Sometimes her legs wrap around me so hard I wonder if she’ll dislocate my thighs from my hip.

It’s good right now. It’s real good. She’s naked all the time when she’s over, and I love that.

I’m always looking over my shoulder, watching for those fucking things, but they stay hid out when we’re together.

Which is good for now, but I might want her to move in with me, and if I do that I’m gonna need to know these damn bugs aren’t going to be a problem.

***

So I was plucking my hairline, ‘cause I got some weird patchy widow’s peak that’s not sharp enough to be cool, and if you tell anyone I pluck I swear I’ll eat your mother. And I guess I haven’t been getting enough sleep because while I was yanking out one really thick and gnarly hair I passed out. Just…BOOM. Right to the floor.

But that’s not the important part, even though, yeah, I know, it should be, but look: when I came to, I didn’t see too clearly at first. Just a lot of blurry spots, wavering around like I had a bad drunk on. But then I finally blinked my vision clear, and when I did I saw them.

Just…fucking saw them. So many of them, just standing there, those gross legs bouncing up and down as they skittered around, waving those freaky orange antennas. They were everywhere.

And one really big one had a stinger.

I freaked the fuck out and kicked at that one, and it squealed and smacked the shower wall, and I grabbed my sneaker and swung at the others. I was knocking them everywhere, and they were making these weird squeals and ducking for cover. They hid really fast, just vanished into God knows where the fuck.

Anyway, they’re all gone now, even the one with the stinger, and that pisses me off because I kinda wanted to super-kill that one, but whatever.

What worries me now is this spot that looks like something stung me, right on the side of my neck. It’s not swollen, not like most stings are, but it’s red and there’s a hole in the center, and it’s got me worried. Real worried.

***

So I’m still alive, thank Christ. Place where it stung me didn’t even start to itch, though I’m pretty sure it’s what made me pass out, so I definitely don’t wanna get stung again.

Yeah, so I need to get these fuckers gone. My girl still hasn’t seen ‘em, so that’s good, but we’re talking about her moving in, and I kind of want to make it soon ‘cause her crazy-ass ex is starting to leave her threatening phone calls. I know I can’t take the fucker in a fight, but at least she’ll be somewhere where we can both lock the doors.

She doesn’t seem to hear them either, whenever she stays the night. I ask her sometimes if the noise at night ever bothers her, and she usually just gives me a weird look and goes “What noise?”

***

Nobody fucking hears them, which, I’m not gonna lie, has me a little worried.

I know crazy people say they see and hear bugs all the time. And my mom…my mom kinda had a little of that. She was able to keep it under control pretty well, but I remember her yelling about bugs whenever she forgot to take her meds.

So it’s got me a little worried that no one else seems to know they’re here. They never hear ‘em, and actually they always ask me why I have the TV so loud.

But I can’t help but gag when I see them shoveling handfuls of cereal in their mouths. I sometimes wonder if it’s right that I don’t tell them. Still, I can’t see how they don’t know already. I hear those things all the time. They’re so damn loud.

***

Her ex-boyfriend comes over. It’s her first night in, and already he’s freaking the fuck out. I don’t know how he found out our address, but he’s kicking on the door so hard I feel like he’s gonna dent the aluminum.

She’s curled up against me, scared and shaking and I wanna go out there and punch the guy, but we both know I’m not gonna hurt him like he can hurt me. The guy’s huge, bigger than both of us combined.

So we sit here, and she seems to like me holding her tight in my arms ‘cause soon she’s kissing the side of my neck, close to where I got stung, and I feel her tongue on my ear and she’s whispering these little sexy things and soon we’re fucking.

And I mean fucking hard. Her on top, holding her tits and yelling, him outside hearing everything and losing his fucking mind. I’m pretty sure it turns her on and I’m not gonna lie, I liked it more than a little bit.

Finally a neighbor says he’s gonna call the police, and the guy yells back at him, and the neighbor says he ain’t afraid of some punk ass, and they yell a little at each other before the boyfriend finally leaves. And through it all she’s whining and grinding and I’m moaning, and everybody’s making all kinds of noise.

Especially them. I hear them loudest of all, their squeals needling their way in my brain. Those hairs I plucked the other day are back, and at every squeak I feel them tingle.

***

I walk around at night, too keyed up to really sleep. She’s sound asleep, too spent to be bothered, I guess. But I’m up and looking in every nook and cranny I can find, spraying bug spray that I’m not entirely sure is legal for me to own.

I don’t see how they can get in or get out. There’s not a loose board in the place. But I hear them. I hear them everywhere I go in here. I can’t sleep, and I feel this weird pressure in my head. Like I’m going to pop.

That low squealing. It’s like I hear them whistling inside my skull.

***

A few days pass. Good days for us. Constructive days, ya know?

But soon he’s back, banging on the door and shit. It sounds like he gives up after a while, but later when I open the door to go get the mail he’s there. He throws his weight against the door and barges in. I’m almost thrown off my feet, but I stumble around till I’m steady.

He comes up to me, yelling and waving his arms and I get real tired of it, real fast. That weird, cross-eyed look he’s always got is getting to me. I’m already having a shitty day. My head’s been killing me all day, and my mood was already shot before this ass wipe dropped by.

He doesn’t care, of course, just pushes me so I stumble a little more and keeps yelling. “Where is she, you little shit?” And without even giving me any time to answer he rears back and comes at me.

Then he looks over my shoulder and screams.

I don’t really get why he’s screaming so much. She’s pretty safe, and it’s not like she can hurt him or anything. That cocoon’s, like, four inches thick, easy. She’s gonna sleep clear through the molting.

But he won’t stop screaming, and I can’t have him going ape shit all night, so I come up to him to ask him to keep it down. And he jumps back like I’m poisonous, which is silly but he does it anyway. And I have a feeling he wants to escape but he stumbles into the door and it closes against his weight, and he doesn’t seem to be in the right frame of mind for figuring out how to open it back up, especially after my jaw comes off.

Jesus, I can’t tell you how much better that feels. They’ve hollowed me out pretty good, but it’s still pretty crowded in here. With my jaw gone they can pour out a lot easier, and that cramped feeling in my head disappears. My antennas have grown pretty impressively, now that I’ve stopped plucking them. They twitch as the hive tells me they’ll take things from here.

They come spilling out, two, sometimes three at a time. And he covers his face with those heavy tattooed arms of his but really, what does he expect that to do? Not get him cocooned? Please.

He’ll be a good one. Lots of meat on this guy’s bones. I’m pretty sure we can eat around the tattooed parts if we have to.

Most of the hive is busy wrapping her ex, so I sit down to watch some TV. They’ll call me when they need help hoisting him to the ceiling. I’m pretty sure I can catch Weeds before I gotta do any heavy lifting, though.

I turn up the TV, and the hive does its best to keep it down while I watch, but I don’t mind the noise. I don’t really have that much of a problem with bugs.

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Roll-Away

roll-away

 

Krista and I smoke cigarettes by the door to the employee garage. She’s just off work and I’ve just rolled in. It’s February and it’s freezing. The garage can park forty cars but there’s only five here now. It’s just her and me, smoking and complaining about work. Occasionally she curses our managers in bubbly Greek.

“Christ,” she says, rubbing at her eyes. “I gotta be up in five hours for my shift at Hilton.”

It’s a quarter past eleven now. “Shit,” I say. “And you live all the way in Clarksville. That’s two hours coming and going.”

“Yeah.” She takes another drag on her smoke. “Fuck it. I’ll just sleep here in my car. I’ve done it before.” She shrugs and says something in Greek that sounds dismissive.

It really is cold in here. “Oh, fuck that!” I say, digging my houseman keys out of my pocket. “Here. Stub your smoke and follow me.”

We take the service elevator to the housekeeping floor, and I grab a bundle of roll-away linen from the racks in back.

“Front desk to houseman,” my walkie squawks. I unclip it from my belt and answer. “Go ahead.”

“Guest in room 307 needs a roll-away.”

“10-4.”

Krista and I ride the lift to storage. Storage is a little warmer than the garage, just because heat rises. It’s just as much a concrete box as downstairs, but here every available space is filled with items guests may request during their stay. A single window looks out over the alley. Red neon spills in through the glass, and the occasional hoot from drunks outside works its way in like whinnies from a field.

I pull one roll-away to take with me to the guests, and make space to set another down. “Here ya go,” I tell her, dropping one bundle onto the bed. “This has gott abe better than sleeping in your car.”

“Oh, no!” she says, almost alarmed. “I can’t put you to this much trouble!”

In the neon light, with her brow creased, I’m reminded she’s 41. She looks younger than she is, but here I faintly notice indicators of her age. Small creases by her eye. The sheen of her skin. Not old. Not even weathered. Tempered.

Under fluorescent light her bouncing, kinky hair is light brown, but in the glow of neon it is a deep rose red.

I wave a hand. “It’s no trouble. You’ll be up and out before anyone else clocks in. No one’s gonna know. It’s just me on hall duty tonight.”

“But the extra laundry!” Her eyes bulge from worry or guilt or maybe just the general shame of the working poor. “I don’t wanna make extra work for anyone!” And she bites her nails and mutters something Greek.

“They’ll never notice. It’ll literally just be an extra armload. They’ll clock out the same time they always do.” I slap the thin mattress. “Sleep here. I’ll wake ya in five hours”

She hesitates, then gives a shy grin, hugs me, and kisses my cheek. She says something I don’t understand, then follows it: “You’re sweet, little baby.”

I’m twenty-six, but in that moment I feel like an eight-year-old being reminded of my childishness by a pretty high schooler.

“I try.” I grab the other bundle and roll the other bed behind me. “G’night.”

Something in Greek, just as the door closes behind me.

***

“Krista’s sleeping in storage,” I tell Clint at the front desk. “Can you believe Dan scheduled her for dinner shift? Knowing her morning schedule?”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Assholes.” Then: “You sure she’s comfortable? I could look for a spare room.”

“Nah, she’s good. Just wanted ya to know in case it was too cold for you to take your smoke break downstairs.”

“Word.” He’s typing a mile a minute, closing guest accounts and settling invoices. In half an hour he’ll print three-hundred receipts, some stapled together for longer stays, and I’ll spend a busy hour sliding them under doors. It’s a little after one in the morning.

“You and Krista talk a lot.” He gives me a coy, stubbly smile. “Always smoking together when I come in.” He looks over and winks. “And then she’s always making you a coffee before you clock out.”

“Oh, dude, Jesus Christ. She’s, like, my mom’s age.” Which is nearly true. My mother married very young. But Krista…Krista does not look like my mother. Not even a little bit.

Clint shrugs. “Hey man, I’m just sayin’. My man’s older than she is.” Clint’s my age. “Besides, after a certain point, do age differences even exist anymore? This ain’t fuckin’ high school.”

“Funny ya say that. She woulda been in high school when I was born.”

“It’s like that Wanda Sykes bit,” he says, typing through his duties. “If you can’t find a good man, raise one.”

***

Two guests come back from bar hopping around three. Two women, one blond and sort of heavyset, but no less pretty for it. The other, deep brunette, slim and having a little trouble balancing on her high heels. Halfway across the marble lobby she stops, leans on her friend for support, and slips them off. The two of them make for a side hallway, where the overnight coffee station is.

Ten minutes later, I’m bringing a fresh carafe out when I see them go into the room they share. I swap out a few condiments, and in my haste to get the chore done I trip over something hidden by the table skirt. When I crouch down to see what it is, I find a pair of black heels. The same the guest kicked off in the lobby.

I grab them, feeling awkward as I carry them to the guests’ door, and knock rapidly. You’d be amazed how fast someone can pass out. I steel myself for an irritable string of swears when the guest, the slim one, opens the door. She’s still in her dress, her eyes a little red, her makeup wiped off of her cheeks.

“…yeah?” she asks. She seems nervous, and I guess if I was alone and pretty I’d be uncomfortable if a strange guy knocked on my hotel door too. Actually I’d be nervous if that happened regardless of who I was, come to think of it.

“Uh…I think these are yours?” I motion to the table. “I found ’em near the coffee?”

Her eyes light up with understanding. “OH! Oh, thank you so much!” Her voice is quickly layered with emotion. “Aw! That was so sweet of you!”

I’m tempted to tell her I’m just paid to do this, but lately it’s been occuring to me how much of an asshole that makes me sound when I say that. “Well, they looked nice on ya. It’d be a shame for you to lose ’em.”

The night’s libations seem to make her melt when she hears that. “Aw! You’re so sweet!” And she leans into me then, steadying herself with one hand against my crossed arms. When she touches me I quickly wonder how she’s able to keep herself from blowing away in the wind. She pecks my cheek, and I pretend to run a hand over my beard to hide what I suspect is a blush.

“Thank you!” she says again, with more sincerity than I would’ve expected.

“Y-yeah,” I say, then smooth the stammer down. “Yeah, no problem.”

She smiles and holds eye contact as she closes the door, and fifteen minutes later my heart is still pounding in my ears. I take a quick smoke break with Clint in the garage.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, shaking his head. “You gotta stop working so hard, man. You’re beet red.”

***

By three I’m hurriedly stuffing guest receipts under doors. On the seventh floor a middle aged man with expensive clothes but an alcoholic’s physique grins and holds out his hand before opening his door. I give him his receipt and ask him: “So how much ya owe us?”

He looks over the printout and says: “Probably not as much as y’all deserve.” Then he looks up at me: “How much they pay ya, anyway, kid?”

“Ten and change an hour.”

“Yeah. Not nearly enough.”

“True,” I agree, since it seems safe to. “But better than a lot of others get.”

He holds eye contact for a second. “But you’re not looking to keep this job forever, are ya?”

I cross my fingers. “Well, ya know. God willing, an’ all.”

“You from around here?” Here being Louisville.

“Nah, nah. I grew up around Atlanta. A little to the south. Poor part, ya know,” and he laughs with me, and I wonder how much of being poor he can actually identify with.

He opens his door but he doesn’t go inside, just leans against the cheap aluminum frame. For as much as we charge you’d think we’d be built less like a Days Inn, but our location is primo so we get away with it. “Ya lived here long?” he asks, in a nasally accent I place somewhere in Ohio. He undoes a top button. His chest hair is as salt-and-pepper as the hair on his head.

“Couple years.” And I’m not stupid, I know what’s happening. I straighten the receipts in my hand, evidence I need to get back to work.

“Moved here for school?” he asks. In my head I translate: Could ya use some extra cash?

And like always, when a man gets aggressively flirtatious, I feel guilty for every woman I’ve ever gotten handsy with. “Sure did. Wrapping the degree next semester.”

“You can’t possibly afford that with what they pay!” He scratches at his chest. His stare is like the scope of a sniper’s rifle.

“Well, if I can keep my poverty a secret long enough, it won’t matter.” I move away, long, strong strides. “You have a good night, sir!”

He stays in the door frame a moment, unsure of what to do, then quietly says, “Yeah, you too,” goes inside, and closes the door.

When I’m done, I head down to storage to wake Krista.

***

Krista’s already up when I get there, sitting on the edge of her bed, smoking a morning ciggie and rubbing at her eyes. Her hair is still relentlessly buoyant, but even it seems to be taking time to awaken. It seems to hang with less spring than it does when she’s fully loaded on caffeine and nicotine.

“You’re up a little early,” I tell her, stealing a smoke and lighting up. Outside the tinkling of empty bottles becomes an outraged ringing as garbage trucks empty Dumpsters behind alleyway bars.

Krista shrugs. “Slept like the dead, though,” she tells me. Her blouse hangs loose on her, a few top buttons undone. I notice her server’s smock is bunched up beside her boots, resting on her folded slacks.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” I say then, stubbing out the smoke.

“Sorry for what, baby?” she asks, honestly confused.

“I…I didn’t know you still needed to get dressed. My bad.” And I’m backing away before she waves me back.

“No, no! I don’t care!” And she gives this bursting laugh that rings like hollow glass. “Ohhh,” she purrs, comforting but not condescending. “I embarrassed you! I’m sorry!”

“No! No!” I laugh then and relight my smoke. “You wouldn’t be the first naked woman I’ve seen, believe it or not.”

“Oh, really?” And she gives a tired grin. “And how many naked women have you seen?”

“Uhhh,” I take a deep drag. Can she see me go red in the wash of neon? “I don’t know. Never really counted.”

“Oh ho! So that many, huh?”

“You make it sound like I’m bragging.”

“Well,” she tosses her hair over her shoulder, “no harm in that. It’s something to brag about, after all.” She looks down, rubs at her eyes again, mutters something in Greek, then asks: “Anyone down in the staff showers right now?”

“Oh, hell no. No one from first shift is gonna roll in for another hour.”

“An hour.” She just says it, like a confirmation, staring at her burning smoke.

“I can get a kit ready,” I tell her, and start to turn again. She grabs my arm.

“Hey,” she says, and when I turn she pulls me a step closer. Another tug, and I’m nearly sitting on the cot with her.

“It’s chilly,” she tells me, and pulls me closer, throwing the blanket aside. I wasn’t aware of how cold it was until I feel the heat billowing from her bare legs.

“Damn, it’s chilly!” she giggles, throwing the blanket back over us. Soon her mouth is clamped against my ear. Her hands, strong from a lifetime of working to survive, anchor me to her like vices. Every few seconds she murmurs “Oh, my baby,” and then something, the same thing, over and over, in Greek. I never ask her what it means.

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