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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 with: “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 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 stumble 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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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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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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Filed under Fiction, Horror

Links

links

 

Ben and Heath are sitting so close together their elbows are almost touching. On TV Alan Rickman quietly breaks Emma Thompson’s heart, and sad music by Joni Mitchell makes Heath think of Ben.

“So you talk to Gene any?” he says, and Ben shifts in place at the question.

“Not…not since Saturday,” Ben says, because not since the breakup scratches too deep inside.

“So it’s final ya think?”

“I kinda don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Fair enough.” Heath’s phone buzzes in his pocket but he ignores it. Texting Ari in front of Ben might be a little too hurtful. If his best friend was suffering, he’d suffer with him. All gays together, as he liked to say. Ben always fucking hated it when he said that, but that didn’t deter him.

Then Ben’s face breaks a little. He doesn’t cry, but with the pout comes a whimper, and he leans against Heath. Heath puts an arm around him and squeezes his hand.

“Hey, man, don’t hold back on my account,” Heath tells him. “You let it out if ya wanna. I know it hurts.”

The phone buzzes again. It could be Ari, and if that’s the case Heath doesn’t have to text him back. Ari’s The One; he never gets jealous or suspicious, and when he and Heath are together Heath forgets that there used to be a time that existed before they met. When they’re alone the image of leaves gently billowing in the wind frequently comes to mind.

His phone buzzes again. Ari isn’t the type to machine gun texts to people, so Heath thinks it might be Harrison, looking to go out and wanting a wing man. Heath isn’t good at the wing man thing because he has no idea what cues to look for to see if a woman is into Harrison, but Harry is convinced Heath ups his success rate. Possible delusions aside, a night out with Harrison is usually an entertaining one.

Heath feels a little guilty for letting his mind wander, but there isn’t much else to do besides sit and be here for Ben. Ben doesn’t usually talk his feelings out. Rather, he tends to opt for the approach of quietly letting himself stew until the boiling hurt cools to a simmer. But in these quiet hurting moments he does like company, and so Heath is here, for as long as his best friend needs him.

“I was hoping it was just a patch,” Ben says then. Mumbles, really. Half his mouth is pressed against the shoulder of Heath’s sweater.

Things had been rough between Ben and Gene for a while, a long while, actually, but Heath keeps this to himself. Ben just needs to feel as sad as he feels. No more, no less. It wouldn’t help anyone for Heath to pile on. Ben’s the kind of guy who needs to believe that even bad relationships are worth fighting for. He hasn’t yet figured out that couples are usually still in love when they call it quits. Love is vital, but it isn’t everything.

Heath scratches at his beard, which he hates but Ari loves. The whiskers get in Heath’s nose when he turns over in his sleep. “I know you were, man,” he tells Ben, squeezing his shoulder. Ben’s bigger than Heath and outweighs him by about forty pounds of packed muscle. For such a brawny guy Ben’s always been a bit emotional. Heath has soft feathery hair and a higher voice, but he’s so stoic and even-tempered that sometimes his calm unnerves people. When Heath broke up with Richard, Ben had asked why they’d been together as long as they had, since Heath didn’t seem broken up about it. Heath couldn’t make Ben understand that he was just able to tell that things had run their course between them. When endings that should come finally do, it’s best to let them pass without incident. Heath compares it to trying to waft away a storm wind with a hand fan.

They’re both good-looking men. They lean against each other and hold hands, Heath hugging Ben tight, Ben pressing his face against Heath’s shoulder as his eyes water. Heath’s sweater smells of burning leaves and Ari’s dog. Ben is warm, and Heath can feel it even through his layers. Heath squeezes Ben’s shoulder and murmurs: “I’m here for you. You’ll be okay.”

And Ben looks up then, and their noses are almost touching. Heath wipes at the wetness under one eye. The moment is still.

“I mean it,” he tells him. “I really do get how much it hurts.”

And Ben puts his wet face back against Heath’s shoulder, and soon Emma Thompson is crying again. The two men who probably should be in love but aren’t sit against one another, because the love that is there is not just good enough, it is in fact more than they need. It’s the kind of perfect love we often overlook, because it is not perfect along the lines we would like it to be. But it is no less perfect for it’s alternative definition.

When the movie ends they smoke cigarettes in the backyard. Ben drinks beer and Heath drinks from an old flask his father used before he died. Heath subtly brings up that their friend Rob is single again, and they smoke more cigarettes, and it is in hours such as these, on frosty winter nights filled with cigarette smoke, that bonds such as theirs are tempered. When their smoke intermingles Heath sometimes imagines chain links.

And when Heath goes home, he and Ari eat and watch a movie. Love Actually, again, because Heath could watch this movie on loop forever. Ari asks about Ben, and feels sorry for him, because Ben matters to Heath, and thus he matters to Ari.

And the night gets late, and becomes early morning, and because getting up for work is already going to suck for both of them, they go to bed before they make tomorrow worse. The two of them fall asleep, back to back, piled deep under comforters and pajamas. Almost friends, always lovers.

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Between Lines

pen

 

Hannah had read bits and pieces of Bryan’s book when he’d been writing it, but it wasn’t until the book had been revised, agented, revised again, and published that she’d been able to sit down and read it cover to cover. The story was good, competent but not too impressive. Not to diminish what he’d done. He’d sold work. But still, it was only good. Not great, not amazing. Decent.

What stuck with Hannah, aside from her best friend having written it, was the woman in it, Leila. The love interest to the protagonist, who Bryan admitted in his first outlines was essentially him. In the novel, Nick, the hero, is in love with Leila. The romance is played up in the typical fashion for popular fiction. They once dated. It didn’t work out. They both developed feelings later, deep into their friendship. Both waited for the other to say or do something. Neither was willing to make that first trespass. Then the plot occurs, and lessons are learned, and held hands indicate a consummation will occur after the book is closed.

The romance wasn’t particularly moving. It was sweet, cutesy, but mainstream and generic. But it hit Hannah like a gust of wind. She got goosebumps that stayed even after she was done. Because Leila was clearly her.

***

“You wanna meet up at Wendy’s?” Bryan asked her on the phone. He worked half days at the bank on Saturday, and the Wendy’s was right next door. Tellers had to stand through their shifts. He needed to sit and eat before they did anything else that afternoon.

“Yeah man. I may be a little late. Dr. Tanner had an emergency this morning he needed help on.” Hannah was Tanner’s most reliable assistant. He chalked it up to work ethic, but Hannah simply couldn’t stand the idea of letting the animals down. A crying teenage girl had brought her screaming dog in after calling Tanner’s emergency line. The dog had swallowed a jagged piece of bark, and by the time the vet had gotten it out, it had nearly worked its way into the hound’s lungs. Hannah wouldn’t tell Bryan this, but after the girl and her dog had left, and Dr. Tanner and locked the office, Hannah had chain smoked in her car and cried for half an hour.

She fixed her eyeliner and said: “Say…half an hour?”

Her eyes wouldn’t be so puffy and red then.

“Sure. See ya see ya.”

By the time she got there, fresh faced and feeling both relieved and silly, and annoyed at feeling silly, Bryan had already eaten. He was on his laptop, exploiting the franchise’s wifi. He looked studious and he was typing quickly. Too anyone other than Hannah he looked like a dedicated young professional. To her, he looked like a man busily organizing his iTunes playlist.

“Mr.Bestseller,” she lied as she dropped in beside him, cramming chicken nuggets whole into her mouth. His book had sold but it was of the kind that seemed to be mostly background decoration for the bookshelves.

“She teases me,” he said, looking up to God. “Her best friend accomplishes his dream, and here she is to cut it down.”

“Someone’s gotta keep ya grounded,” she shrugged. She stretched her legs out and draped them across his lap. She’d tossed her scrubs into her back seat, and without her professional attire she seemed ten years younger, all skinny jeans and facial piercings. Studs in her nose and lip and ears, glinting in the fluorescent light and noonday sun. Hair so short and so dark and so smooth it almost seemed painted on. She still scribbled the names of bands she liked on the toes of her Converses when she got bored. They were both twenty-five.

He’d loosened his tie and ruffed his hair, so he looked a little like his usual, non-bank self. “The insane amount of money Nicolas Sparks makes does that effectively enough. Still,” he rapped her shins with his fingers, “that advance was pretty sweet.”

“I liked it.”

“Well of course you did. You’re obligated to.”

“Noooo, you asshole! I mean I actually liked it. It was sweet.” Through the last of her chicken nuggets she mumbled: “You know, despite it being indulgent wish-fulfillment.”

“Oh, please. If it’d been that I would’ve had the guy fistfight terrorists on a roof somewhere.”

“Funny you had the girl like the same bands I like.”

“All of which I exposed you to.”

“Fair point. Hey!” She drew a leg back and shoved his knees with her shoe. “What are we doing tonight?”

Bryan closed his computer, leaned back, and rubbed his eyes. “Well I’m gonna crash for a couple hours. Then…I dunno. You wanna get drunk and listen to music?”

“We do that almost every night.”

“You wanna do something else?”

“No. It just occurred to me that that’s our ritual.”

“Well, rituals are important.” He stood up and slung his bag over his shoulder. He used to be so much slimmer. Used to be he’d waver from the weight of the bag. Now he was so…solid. Or was she just imagining that?

He shoved her feet with his knee. “See ya…six-ish?”

“Okey dokey, artichokey.”

***

When she swung by his place he answered the door with puffy eyes and the pout of someone who slept too long. He told her to grab a beer while he showered, then shuffled back down the hall. He was barefoot and tie-less but otherwise still in his work clothes.

While the shower ran Hannah plopped down at his desk and opened his laptop. She did that all the time. Bryan knew about it. He didn’t care if she found his porn and he didn’t keep any personal info on his machine. She opened the folder he kept his writing in and scrolled through thumbnails until she found a title that interested her.

“Transcription.”

The file was a series of single sentences, followed by small paragraphs of transliterate rephrasing.

If I’m asleep just come on in. I trust you not to murder me.

Then the following: She could come and go without him knowing, and despite his ignorance he’d be in bliss. Because around her there was comfort, and in that comfort he found also safety. Her friendship and his trust were fair substitutes for arms locked around one another.

The next line: If you think you can stand my company. It’s PMS ahoy time.

Followed with: There came between them moments when warning was needed. Don’t do this; keep away when I need you to. The ignorant say that love is in knowing everything about the other, but the truly in love know better. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to accept it. There are moments when love means putting up a fence, or at the very least, caution tape.

She recognized the line that had come before. She’d texted it to Bryan once.

Sister’s wedding wasn’t too bad. Only the super fucking old relatives asked me when I was growing my hair out again.

Her hair had spilled to the middle of her back, and once he’d put his hand on the oaken curls and the glossy smoothness had caught his breath. And he winced inside when she’d cut it off, but it was not for him to mourn or complain. She attended to her temple, as he attended to his. She was not here for his acceptance. That was his to choose to give. The attraction was to her being, all of it, and after a moment he found his breath catching again, because the new hair was still, of course, her.

“You feel like Chinese?” Bryan asked from behind her, and she screamed and spun in his chair.

“Jesus fucking Christ! How do you fucking move so fucking quietly?”

His wet blond hair ringed his forehead in little curling spikes. Small wet drops sprinkled the shoulders of his blue tee shirt. He’d pulled on a pair of jeans that weren’t so much slashed as they were worn. He shrugged. “My house, woman.” He grinned and tapped his fingertips together. “Your life is in my hands!”

She leaned back and swigged her beer. “Where ya thinking of ordering from?”

“I dunno. I like Stir King but they take forever to get here.” He looked up from his handful of takeout menus and noticed the screen. A small but clear look of alarm crossed his face, but to his credit it passed like a flash of heat lightning. “If I put in a carryout order would you be down to ride with?”

“Sure, so long as you’re cool with me smoking in your car.”

“I’m not, but you’re gonna do it anyway, so it’s moot.” He stepped into a pair of loafers, grabbed his keys and wallet, and pocketed his phone. Before they left he closed the word file and shut the laptop’s lid.

***

They gorged on sweet and sour pork and cinder block sized boxes of fried rice, then passed a bottle of Canadian Club between them and listened to scratchy GG Allin tracks.

It was winter but it was a muggy southern winter, and when the music ended they just migrated to the back deck to polish off the bottle. They collapsed into a cushioned swing and dragged an afghan across themselves.

“Man, fuck,” Bryan yawned. “Fuckin’ late twenties gotta remind me I can’t stay up this late when I hit thirty.”

“Gotta wake up, old man,” Hannah told him, swigging the whiskey. “I ain’t dragging your ass into bed.”

“Oh, but for the grace of God,” he said, taking the bottle back.

“Hey Bryan?”

“Hey Hannah.”

“You keep all our texts?”

He seemed confused at first, then his eyes widened and he bobbed his head as he remembered. “Yeah, yeah I do. I keep a lot of stuff people tell me. Use it in a lot of stuff I write. Old fuckin’ habit.” He took another drink.

“Gotcha.” She grinned, obnoxious and twisted drunk. “You fuckin’ creeper.”

“Well, stop textin’ and I’ll stop creepin’.” He was slurring, and blinking a lot to keep awake.

“So how much of me did you use, then?”

“Huh?”

“In…in your book.” And now she was slurring too. “You said you use people’s texts in your stuff. How much of me is in there?”

“Uh…” He tilted his head back and thought about. “Well, book’s about 240 pages long. Leila’s in about 120 of those pages. So…yeah, 120 pages.”

It was quiet for a beat, and then Hannah slurred. “Wait, did you just say I’m Leila?”

“Huh?” He squinted as he thought, then it dawned on him what he’d said. “Oh, well, you know what I mean. Maybe, like, 80 pages of her is you. Different…you know, different hair.”

He yawned.

“And how much of you is in it?”

“Oh, well…all of it.” He grinned, then stretched. “Heart and soul. I gotta crash.”

He leaned forward, hanging his head in drunken exhaustion, then looked over at her. They held eye contact until she smiled, and then until he also smiled.

It’d be a trespass to cross that line. Regardless of how it’d be done, it’d always be a trespass. The trick would be in figuring out when that boundary could be broken. And neither could figure out that puzzle, even when they were sober.

So he stood up, wavering but remaining upright, and squeezed her shoulder. “Lock the doors when ya come in,” he told her, and shuffled inside.

Hannah capped the bottle and leaned back in the swing. Where Bryan had sat, the polyester cushion was warm. Tree frogs, emboldened by the mild winter, croaked all around her. After an hour, she made her way in, latching the deck doors behind herself. While they slept, beneath the same ceiling, inside different rooms, the whiskey bottle sat on its side in the swing. It stretched across the cool gap between where they’d sat.

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Resolution

 

Tommy shows up at Lee’s apartment a little after ten in the morning. Because it’s New Year’s Eve and he doesn’t have to be anywhere outside of walking distance, he helps himself to a beer. He doesn’t have any plans tonight but he assumes he will by the time it gets dark. He’ll clean up by then, but right now he isn’t showered, standing in the kitchen in torn, stained jeans and a ratty long tee he really should get out of the habit of wearing. None of this would have mattered, though, if Selena wasn’t also here.

She’d parked in the service alley behind the street, so he hadn’t seen her little blue Mazda when he walked up the drive. Lee’s cousin has eyes puffy from sleep, and her hair is tousled in a way that suggests both sleep and a staged photo shoot. Tommy remembers her skin as being almost toasted when he met her in the summer, but now in the first couple weeks of winter it has mellowed to the color of light tea.

“Oh, hey!” Tommy tries for a note of casual, pleasant surprise, but his hand runs quickly across his beard to check for any loose whiskers. He has a zit where hair meets cheek, and though it had looked generally out of sight when he caught it in the mirror this morning, now it feels slightly more prominent than a third arm. “I forgot you were coming into town!”

Dammit dammit dammit.

“How was the drive?”

She rolls her eyes and puffs at a thick lock of hair. “Garbage. You know, I thought the traffic was bad in Queens, but how do you people fucking get anywhere around here?”

“We vent our anger through gang-related violence, for the most part. That or a Falcons game. Depends on how well they’re doing that season.”

Selena sleeps in a contrasting mash-up of tank tops and heavy fleece pajama pants. The bottoms she has on now are blue with huge white snowflakes along each leg. Her purple toenails are nearly lost to the folding avalanche. They’re almost the same shade of purple as her top. If he wasn’t so nervous Tommy might find the coincidence funny.

Lee calls from his room. “Is that Tommy?”

“Yeah, it’s your boy!” Selena yells back.

“I’ll be out in a minute, brother!”

“Take your time.” And before he can let it sink in how predatory that accidentally sounded, Tommy asks Selena “So how long ya in town?”

“Just the weekend.” The kettle she’d put on when she came in is steaming, and just as it starts to whistle she picks it up and fills a nearby mug. She unscrews a jar of instant and carelessly shakes four or five spoonfuls worth into the water. “I don’t think Lee could handle me crashing here much longer than that.”

“Any plans tonight?”

She shrugs. “I’ll probably just third-wheel it with Lee and his girlfriend tomorrow.” Lee comes shuffling in then, dressed to the nines as he always is. Thick black hair placed perfectly with a sweep of the hand. Smile that’s just a little too easy. Jesus, Tommy thinks, is everyone from Guatemala this beautiful?

“Sup, brother.” Lee claps Tommy on the shoulder and follows his lead on the morning brewski.

“Breakfast of champions,” Selena tells them.

Lee ignores her and thumps Tommy’s arm. “You goin’ out tonight, man?”

“Nah. It’s lookin’ to be a quiet New Year’s.”

“Man, shit.” Lee swigs his beer. “Wish I wasn’t fuckin’ workin’ tonight.”

“I feel like paramedics get the real party anyway,” Tommy tells him. “Making sure all the drunks really do have a Happy New Year and all.”

“Oh, yeah. Big fuckin’ party. So what the hell? No plans?”

“No kiss at midnight?” Selena smiles above her coffee.

“The only kiss will be the one I give to the cheek of my sainted mother,” Tommy tells the room.

“Careful. Your Irish is showing.” Lee checks his watch. He’s been up all night. “If we’re gonna do this we should head out in a sec, man. I gotta crash by one.”

“Alright.” Tommy swigs his beer, then drops the bottle and its last swallow in the trash. “You goin’ out tonight?” he asks Selena, trying to sound casual.

She just shrugs and turns back to the guest bedroom. “We’ll see.”

***

“You know she’s into you, right?”

Tommy and Lee are at a ratty VFW bar, the place reeking of smoke and shaking to Twisted Sister. They’re the youngest two in there by a good ten years, but Lee served with the bartender and everyone here likes him. Everyone everywhere seems to like Lee. And because they all know they’re best friends, Tommy could come here too if he wanted. But of course he doesn’t. He’s a man who’s acutely aware of being out of place, even when he’s not.

“Who? Laura?” Tommy’s ex has been texting him most of the morning, wondering if he wants to buddy up for a party the next county over. He’s taken the bait before, assumed innocence when all she wanted was a histrionic “talk.” His responses have been very pshaw-pshaw.

“Psh, no, that bitch is crazy. My cousin, man. She’s into you.”

“Sure coulda fooled me. I tried to ask her out back in June.”

“Aw, man up. Ask her again.”

“Why do you think she’s into me?”

“She’s asked about ya a couple times since she got back.”

“She was just being polite.”

“Y’all hung out a lot when she was here. You made an impression, man. Besides,” he shrugs and downs a shot of whiskey. “I got a feeling. Usually it’s a pretty reliable feeling.”

Usually it’s pretty reliable?”

“Usually.”

Lee downs another shot. “And anyway I already gave her your number.”

“Oh, what the fuck, man?”

“I told her you might text later.” Lee types something into his phone, and Tommy’s own phone buzzes a second later. Lee has texted him Selena’s number. “There, now you don’t have to make a liar out of me.”

“Goddammit, Lee!”

“Ohhh, poor baby!” Lee swigs his beer. “Just remember she’s family, and I can kick your ass from one end of Broadway to the next if I have to.”

“You’re the fuckin’ spirit of romance.”

Spirit being the operative word. Get yourself good and lubricated before you try to talk to her. Watching you at the house was like seeing ice freeze.”

“Ice is already frozen. That’s why it’s ice.”

“Oh, fuck you, I’ve been drinking.” Lee slips a few twenties out of his back pocket and slaps them on the bar. “Alright, Newt, I’m outta here.”

“You gonna swing by tonight?” Newt calls from the glass washer.

“I might, depending on how much you over-pour.” Lee grabs the cash, leans over, and drops it beside the register. “Don’t let it get too crazy!”

“Are you kiddin’?” Newt hollers as they leave. He’s pouring boilermakers for two old ‘Nam vets. “These motherfuckers come here to quiet down!”

***

Around 11:30 Tommy gets a text from Selena’s number. “You ever end up going out? :)”

Tommy sits at the dinner table with his parents. His sister sips wine and reads a paperback while the folks watch the Times Square special on ABC.

“It’s just a shame your cousin Danny didn’t want to come by earlier,” Tommy’s mom says.

“Danny doesn’t like me,” Tommy reminds her, not that he needs to.

“I wonder why you guys can’t get along.”

Tommy can’t find a polite way to mention that Danny’s an alcoholic, pill-popping white supremacist, so instead he just shrugs and says “Some folks just can’t get along, Ma.”

Beth chuckles at that, but their parents don’t seem to notice.

“But you two are family!”

“Well, some families don’t get along either.”

“Tell me about it!” his dad pipes up, still looking at the screen. He turns then and points at Tommy. “I still haven’t forgiven your uncle Wade for fucking me over on that land deal.”

Uncle Wade had put about ten acres of forest land up for sale over twenty years ago. Tommy’s dad had wanted to buy it, but another buyer came along and was able to pay the entire price up-front. Tommy’s dad has never gotten over losing land he’d never owned in the first place.

“Well, me.” Tommy’s mom shakes her head. “Beth, how’s school?”

“Oh, pretty good. Thesis is coming along alright.”

Tommy texts back. “I did, actually. But I’m playing the good son so I’m visiting my parents, hahaha.”

“Oh, Beth, honey, careful you don’t drink too much.”

“This is the same glass I poured two hours ago, Ma. I should be fine.”

Another text, this one from Laura. “I kinda really miss you right now.”

The TV shows cities across the world celebrating New Year. Young Japanese scream and drink straight from the bottle. Tokyo was fourteen hours ahead. They’d been drinking in the New Year the same time he and Lee had.

“I could go for some sake right now,” his dad mutters through the blur of pain meds. He’s healing pretty well from surgery, but back operations are slow to recover from no matter what. Tommy keeps it too himself that the Japanese people on TV were chugging champagne.

“So no kisses for you at midnight? :)” Selena texts.

In Singapore, fireworks illuminated the entire skyline, and confetti exploded from air cannons along rooftops. Hours ago, London was a shimmering flicker of flashing billboards and decorated buses.

Beth talks about her thesis some more. A year or two ago their dad would have been right in the thick of the talk. She’s majoring in Ed. Psych., same as he did. But oxy is dulling his conversation lately. He hates it, but hopefully it won’t be too much longer that he has to take it.

The Eiffel Tower glows from tip to base. Berlin is a whirlpool of spinning lights and shaking amps. Lee speeds a drunk driver to the emergency room. The talk in this quiet dining room overflows with technical terminology. This world is such a busy place, in every corner, in every moment. And once a year, we seek to remake it. We complicate with a desire to simplify.

The countdown is on. “I told you,” Tommy texts back, “I’ll be kissing my mother’s cheek, like the good Catholic son I am.” He sends it, then in a rush, before he can change his mind, follows it with: “Guess you and I will have to rain check it?”

4, 3, 2, 1…

Once an hour, on the hour, twenty-four times through the day, whole cities shake to their foundations. The new year is a heavy wheel, steamrolling its way across the globe. In the sparkle of booze and the white noise of our cheers, it flattens the tangle weeds that weigh heavy on our minds. If we keep cheering until bed, we can ignore the fact that the brush will just spring back up tomorrow.

12:01 AM. Text from Selena. “Guess so. ;)” Then another: “¡Feliz año nuevo!”

Fireworks erupt and there is the occasional rapport from pistols fired into the ground. People scream from house parties down the block. In the home of Tommy’s parents, in this little room, there are hugs and kisses to the cheek, and sincerely held wishes for a happy new year.

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