We, the Dead

Fiction, 2021

Don’t overthink it.

       That is the first and only rule. Let your arms go limp, drop your head, and stumble forward absentmindedly. Moaning helps. Be aimless but vicious. Remember that once you smell the scent of human brains, there can be no turning back. There can be no rest until that brain is in your mouth.

       I, personally, have not eaten human brains. My wife did. She never told me how they tasted. Maybe I don’t want to know. I want to be clear, we’re not zombies. We just pretend to be. Anyway, this all began about a year ago.

       Back then we lived on the fifth floor overlooking Division Street. When we listed our place on AirB&B that one time, we were quick to point out its proximity to the Red Line, the Jewel grocery store, the lake, and less quick to point out our very loud Swedish neighbors (since killed off (RIP)).

       I was a graphic designer for General Mills. Mostly my work focused on puzzles and mazes for the backs of cereal boxes like Cocoa Puffs and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The trick was to make the mazes fun but not too complicated. A kid should start the day with a sense of accomplishment, I felt. Anyway, I lost that job when kids started being eaten. No kids equals no cereal and no cereal equals no demand for cereal puzzles.

       My wife Kacie was working as a Meeting Planner for the American Dental Association. It paid fairly well and she seemed to like some of the people she worked with, but it wasn’t her dream job. Every third day, the door would close with a slam followed by a, “That’s it. That. Is. It.”

       Then the keys would rattle across the counter and a diatribe about work would commence. “Are you listening to me?” she would ask so loud I could hear her through my noise-cancelling headphones.

       But the keys and Kacie would always be gone the next morning.

       Anyway, the outbreak.

       Theories differ on how it started. Some people say it started with contaminated water. Some say it was a mass terrorist attack gone-awry (or gone exactly according to plan). I should have followed the news more closely. Conflicting reports gave me a headache.

       If there were to be zombies, I thought they would come all at once and probably at night, which would have been more dramatic I suppose. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been definite drama. Everyone that I know, even the most bleeding-heart pacifists, bought at least one gun, some even managed to get a hold of flamethrowers. But as the living population plummeted and every day echoed cries of, “Okay, this is not normal,” it became normal. You just learned to live with the fact that we were in the zombie apocalypse wasteland we used to joke and make movies about.

       When everything started really going down the tubes, most of the city fled to the country, out to where there were more chainsaws per capita. I don’t blame them. The country was the quickest to fortify and eventually it was hard to make it out there without the country firing back at you.

       After the city emptied, Kacie and I really started to feel isolated. Kacie’s parents lived near Rockville, not too far away, but Kacie wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with her mom after some pretty uncool political comments and, apparently, the zombie apocalypse wasn’t going to change that. Meanwhile my entire family were early goners. I’m sure they made it quick and polite. Somewhere out there was my undead Dad, still in his socks and crocs. I tried not to imagine it.

       Long story short, we were holed up in our apartment, biding time, looting the local Jewel, flicking through old Instagram photos and pretending they were new, and just trying to live our lives.

       On the day they came for us, I heard a scream from the street below. Outside, a woman was trying to beat back a zombie with her free hand while digging into her purse with the other. From the purse she managed to pull a small handgun and shoot the zombie in the face. She missed every subsequent shot until her ammo was spent. I couldn’t bear to watch the rest. The flimsy venetian blinds creaked as I twisted them closed.

       After about a minute, despite myself, I peaked through the plastic.

       As one might expect, the woman was being devoured. I sighed, not wanting to look anymore.

       But there was another problem.

       Rarely, if ever, was a zombie alone. Sometimes zombies came in small groups that Kacie jokingly referred to as “book clubs”. Book clubs were lethal, but a manageable kind of lethal. I had seen a few book clubs on looting runs and evaded them with only a few nightmares and mild recurring panic attacks. But what I had never seen before was what Kacie called “sororities”. Sororities, which could number thirty zombies or more, meant certain death/undeath.

       Below, stumbling around the corner from Wells and onto Division, was a sorority.

       My wife was in the shower singing “Spice Up Your Life”.

       “Kacie!”

       “Uh-uh?”

       I banged on the door.

       “Kacie!”

       “I just got in here!”

       The door was unlocked and I walked in. I saw my wife’s silhouette through the opaque shower curtain, steam pluming above like the chimney of an old coal train. My wife always took insanely hot showers. So hot in fact that there was rarely any hot water left for me. We had had this discussion many times before. She always ignored me. But whatever. Now was not the time.

       I threw back the curtain. Kacie turned around, slightly surprised. Water cascaded down her face and she couldn’t see my terrified expression through her matted hair. A small mischievous smile curled the side of her mouth.

       “Oooh, welcome to the shower babe.”

       She pushed back her hair and wiped her eyes free of soap. I turned off the water.

       “What?” she said with the force of a Naomi Osaka forehand. Her expression soured. “Is this about the water temp? I literally just got in here.”

       “No. It’s not about that.”

       There was a chorus of moaning undead from the street level. I stepped into the shower and closed the curtain, my bare feet immediately scorched by the pool of scalding water.

       “Ow! How can anyone shower in water this hot?”

       Kacie grunted, locked and loaded for an argument.

       “It relaxes me.”

       “Do you have like mutant skin?”

       “Mutant skin?”

       “This has got to be unhealthy on some level.”

       “I didn’t ask you to come in here! I would never just barge in on my naked wife showering!”

       Her logic confused me.

       “Your naked wife?”

       Kacie snorted out a laugh. Sometimes our marriage was like the bomb squad; cut one comment and the tension would defuse, cut another and everything would blow up.

       Luckily, I’d cut the right chord.

       Kacie put her hands on my shoulders and made her sexy face which involved both a pout and a single eyebrow raise.

       “We can share the hot water you know?”

       For a second I forgot what I came into the shower for. Was it for this?

       A loud screeching came from somewhere near the front of the apartment complex.

       Oh, that’s what it was.

       The thought of approaching zombies cooled off our otherwise steamy encounter. I stepped out of the shower and ran to the front door, checking the bolt locks and sliding over our makeshift barricade. In the process, I scratched the floor terribly.

       Sudden guilt and embarrassment rushed through my veins. Our landlord would fine us, guests would see the scratch and judge us, Kacie would complain with every entrance, especially when she came home from work unhappy. These were the lingering thoughts of an old life. I was surprised I still felt them, especially now that no one cared anymore.

       Kacie darted out of the shower with a towel on and ran for the bedroom.

       “I think they—” I yelled back to her, then realizing my volume, softened to a yell-whisper. “I think they broke through the downstairs barricade.”

       Kacie leaned out of the bedroom as she fumbled with the top button of her jeans. A red light flashed over the room. The alarm I had wired over the apartment foyer must have been tripped. I was no electrician and I felt a sudden flash of pride. ‘It actually worked!’ I thought.

       There was moaning from the stairwell.

       Kacie had thrown a shirt over her head but didn’t have time to get both arms successfully through her sleeves. She was frantic, rummaging through drawers, looking for something. In all my years knowing her, Kacie was never frantic.

       Suddenly, I was terrified.

       There was banging at our door.

       Kacie threw up her arms and let them fall limp against her thighs. She shook her head and tousled her hair. The twisted wad of wet curls made her look deranged.

       “I can’t believe this.”

       Kacie walked into the bedroom and sat on the mattress.

       “I can’t believe we’re going to die.”

       “Shouldn’t we…”

       The beginning of my sentence just hung there awkwardly.

       It was a sorority. We didn’t have a gun. Or a flamethrower. Or an escape. But we were smarter than this! How could it end so pathetically? So painfully?

       Kacie knew what I knew. She knew it as she looked out of our fifth story window.

       “I don’t want to jump. I don’t want to die that way. I’ll see how bad it is once they start trying to eat me and then I’ll make a decision.”

       The barricade shook with force.

       Kacie kicked at the loose clothes she had pulled from the drawers in her frantic state. She picked up two masks from the ground and snorted out a laugh.

       Both were zombie masks I bought as a joke, a prank I was going to pull after my friend Imran invited us over for a dinner party. I thought we should show up at his front door wearing the masks and give him a good spook. But I chickened out. The outbreak was still pretty fresh at that point and the prank was ultimately too dark for me.

       But I kept the masks. After Imran’s dinner party, Kacie and I went home and got into bed. It had been a fun bottomless party and Kacie crawled up to me with one of the zombie masks on.

       “If a horde of zombies come, we should just bend in,” she slurred.

       “Bend?” I said laughing.

       “B-lend. Blend in. Like they did in that scene from Shaun of the Dead. You remember that?”

       I agreed it was a good idea. We practiced our best zombie moans that night.

       Now, a sober Kacie was throwing me one of the masks.

       “I can’t think of anything else,” she said as she wiped tears out of her eyes. Then she put hers on. It was grotesque and awful and I wondered if I’d ever see her real face again.

       I followed suit, breathing in the mildewy rubber.

       “So what’s the plan?” I asked.

       “Be dead.”

       The door to the apartment broke. The bureau barricade fell over. The horde climbed over the wreckage and my wife and I just stood there wearing zombie masks. We just stood there.

       Kacie moaned and pretended to be after something. For a second I was frightened by just how much she had committed to her performance in the face of such horror.

       Zombies entered the bedroom. And I just stood there, resigning myself to what was once an absurd but now completely normal death.

       I moaned.

       And the horde nudged into me and stumbled aimlessly and I just stood there not caring anymore about anything.

 

 

The next twenty-four hours unfolded in a surreal non-state. I moaned and doddered along with the sorority as we scavenged through the empty streets for humans. If there was screaming or eating or decaying, I didn’t pay attention to it. I just followed.

       There wasn’t much time to think about Kacie. I was aware of her there next to me and tried to stay close. But every time there was a flicker of worry, or the desire to ask her a question or see her face, I felt as though the scent of my brain was showing. I don’t know. I couldn’t think. We both couldn’t.

       More time passed. How much I don’t know. The sorority joined another sorority and then another. We drifted from place to place. Without escape, our diets became pretty gross. Don’t think. Don’t think.

       The only corner of my mind I allowed for thought was just trying to stagger close enough to Kacie, the only zombie in the obviously fake zombie mask. Despite the mask, Kacie was a brilliant zombie. She showed no signs of thought, her moaning was guttural, her stumbling uncanny. I couldn’t wonder about how she did these things, or what she was thinking of our situation in general.

       But at some point I couldn’t resist a single small thought. As much as I tried to bat it away, the thought gnawed at me:

       Was Kacie still… Kacie?

       But it was impossible to ask her anything. We were stuck. If I started to think any more about it, the other zombies would pounce. Don’t think. Don’t think.

       Anyway, a year has passed.

       Of all the places we saw, of all the things we did, I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember any of them. We must have left the city and made it deep into the rural countryside, past smoldering strip-malls and vacant houses. More and more commonly, humans were scarce.

       But today, as we hobbled outside of an abandoned donut shop, a man in black cowboy hat came flying at us on a white motorcycle. Around the tires were large chains, used for riding on snow I assumed. But it wasn’t winter, dummy, so it must have been for some other reason. As soon as he started riding over the bodies of the zombies in front of us did I put two-and-two together. Here was a human jazzing for some zombie whoop-ass.

       Soon enough, with a loud “Yee-haw!” the man on the motorcycle turned to reveal a small sidecar in which rode a skinny little girl in a trucker’s hat, spraying the horde with shotgun blast after shotgun blast.

       I had gotten used to seeing this kind of thing. Especially the implications it brought with it. To be afraid of dying was to think. And I couldn’t care less about myself anymore.

       But as they rode away, the girl delivered a final random shot.  Next to me, I sensed a woman zombie fall.

       That is when I heard a noise that had not registered in my brain for a long time: a scream of life.

       I turned to see that on the ground next to me lay a woman wearing a zombie mask over her face. She was grabbing her stomach where the shotgun blast had taken a piece of her with it.

       “Take it off! Please take it off!” she cried.

       Pain and instinct took over and I stopped my staggering and bent down and touched the face, touched the rubbery fake blood, and I moaned as I pulled it off.

       Underneath was Kacie.

       “Not mine. Yours dummy. I want to see your face.”

       I trembled as I lifted my mask. As soon as I did, a look came over her. A look of recognition maybe, or regret, or love. She looked like she wanted to say to something. But the words never came and the rosiness left her cheeks and she was gone.

       I never thought I’d have it in me to know someone as well as I knew Kacie. My memory isn’t very good, I jumble up stories most of the time, forget who I was with, how much time I put in the parking meter. But with Kacie, it was like I had a whole other brain.

       And I remember meeting her. I had mentioned to my cousin Frances that I needed to get rid of a couch. She told me that her friend from college needed one.

       “Do you mind if I ask her? She lives not too far, in Lincoln Park.”

       So my cousin’s friend from college and her roommate Kacie came over. Without introducing herself, Kacie looked at the couch and said, “Sweet couch dude.”

       Sweet couch dude.

       As she lay there bleeding, I bent down and sensed the other zombies coming towards me. They knew the dead was living, that the woman on the ground beneath me was human.

       What if I hadn’t said anything about the couch to my cousin? It wasn’t an important detail in the conversation. I remember I didn’t even know why I mentioned it. I was just going to get my neighbor to help me move it to the curb. And what if my cousin hadn’t remembered to let her friend know? And what if my cousin’s friend’s roommate didn’t decide to come with her? How was it that the love of my life needed a couch right when I was giving one away? How and why and how?

       They were closing in.

       I had watched Kacie. Watched her become so many things. Listened as she untangled life, both hers and my own.

       So I bent down and bit my wife. I bit into her face to let the others know she was not dead. She could never be.

 

 

Tonight, when the time is right, I will bury my wife. And in the morning, I will walk on, my arms limp and my head hung, as I begin again my search for the living.

Sticker.jpg
 
 

The Button

Fiction, 2021

THE DEPOSITION OF MRS. KAREN WENDELL:

The button has been a part of this town for as long as I can remember. Everyone around here knows about it.

 

The button itself is not unusual. It is round, as you would expect, and red, as you might also expect. It rests on top of a simple well-appointed pedestal in the middle of the town square. No one here knows what the button does exactly, but it has always been agreed to that no one should ever press the button.

 

Now I am not a gossip. I don’t go poking my nose into other people’s business. I am an upstanding citizen, God fearing, and the proud mother of three fine children (all former high honor roll students).

 

Still. I knew Buddy Benson was trouble.

 

My first concerns about the button arose a few weeks ago when I witnessed a man I had never seen before wandering around the town square. He was a nice looking man, dressed in a grey sports coat with a white collared shirt. He walked around the pedestal and eyed our button with mild curiosity.

 

The sight of this man didn’t bother me so much. The button has always been an object of fascination for visitors and the man in question looked very well-to-do, very business-like, with his white hair combed back neatly around his white face. I’m sure he was merely intrigued. But as I watched him, it crossed my mind that maybe someone else's curiosity might get the best of them. Any average unassuming person should know that we do not press the button around here.

 

Now, when a concern like this arises in our small town, it is only proper for us citizens to bring it to the attention of the council. After all, they were the ones who agreed to implement the hinged glass enclosure that keeps the button clean and presentable.

 

So I suggested the addition of a friendly sign, “DO NOT PUSH THE BUTTON.” They said they would see to it.

The night the sign went up, Dolores Juut of Spruce Street passed away. She was elderly and in failing health but I had overheard from a neighbor, Mrs. Bells, that Mrs. Juut was on the mend. Furthermore, Mrs. Tomlinson of Pine Way told me that her son had told her that a friend at school told him that a group of teens, from a certain side of town, had been around the square that night, saw the sign and pressed the button!

 

I didn’t want to believe it, but it was more than a little eerie that Dolores Juut would die the very same night the sign went up and such teens were spotted running devilishly around town. ‘Maybe the sign had served as a temptation?’ I thought. Better to be safe.

 

So, out of caution, I informed the council of this predicament and requested that the sign be amended to say, “DO NOT PUSH THE BUTTON UNDER PENALTY OF LAW,” to provide a definitive deterrent. With my deep family roots in this community, I was able to speed along the process and make pushing the button a criminal offense. A new sign was made and promptly affixed to button’s pedestal.

 

That evening, the elder Thomas Mercer died in his home on Juniper Street. Mr. Mercer died of cardiac arrest and, though he was a sizable man with a cheerful fondness for drinking, he had no prior health concerns whatsoever. He was very well liked around here and his annual deep fat fry-offs will be dearly missed.

 

The incident of a new sign being affixed and Mr. Mercer’s death was now beyond coincidence. Perhaps the legal deterrent had made pushing the button even more of a dare to criminals. I will never understand the brutish nature of some people, why they are born dark and disordered. I have always had an aversion to such things.

 

Now this was becoming an alarming situation. It was clear that a twenty-four-hour guard needed to be installed to monitor the button at all times.

 

Three shifts would be established daily, with three guards. Siblings Will and Eunice Brandies were hired first, and while they weren’t exactly scholars, they were locals who lived over on Orchard Street. The third hire, Eddy “Buddy” Benson, on the other hand, was not from around here and, according to rumor, had seen the inside of a jail cell more than once.

 

Concerned as I was about Buddy Benson, it behooved me to observe him once he started his night shift. This exercise only deepened my previous concerns. For most of the night, he was observably unfocused and bored. When certain people came out of the tavern and passed the square, Buddy would chat them up, at one point even standing and turning away from the button for a full three minutes solid.

 

Now I am not a paranoid person. But when I say I saw Buddy Benson’s behavior that night, I felt the safety of our community was in serious jeopardy. So I brought my concerns back to the council.

 

Buddy Benson was called in the next day. He downplayed my allegations, complaining that he only stood up because the metal folding chair (so graciously donated by the Good Heart Baptist Church) was “uncomfortable” and “made my ass go numb.” At one point he mentioned something about union rules.

 

Eager to keep order and stability, the council decided that they would expeditiously build a small guard house with a padded seat. Unfortunately, and counter to my recommendation, all the construction workers they hired were clearly not from around here and spoke a foreign language. I watched them closely as they worked. They seemed sloppy to me, slow, and often sneered.

 

Once the guard house was completed and the construction workers left, the town started to relax a bit. I, however, was still on edge. I knew the root of the problem wasn’t solved with the station alone. Buddy Benson was still on guard, now with newfound comfort and seclusion. When the council wouldn't dismiss him, I stayed vigilant. When it comes to protecting this town, there is nothing that I wouldn’t stop at.

 

I watched him every night I could. This was taxing to me both mentally and physically and, due to my daughter’s flute recital, there was one night I couldn’t. That night, the very night I couldn’t watch, Quintin Wallace of Magnolia Street died.

 

The Big “Q.W.” as he was known. Not elderly. Not overweight. Not suffering from anything. Successful businessman. Beautiful car. Very popular with the women of this town, myself included. Very charming, charismatic. More than happy marriage. Shot by someone in his very home.

 

And it happened during Buddy Benson’s shift.

I knew Buddy Benson was trouble. Now it had cost another person their life.

 

The council had failed to take the proper steps to safeguard its people. That infuriated me. And I was not alone. It was clear that I and likeminded citizens would have to take matters into our own hands.

 

So we got together and decided to march to Buddy Benson’s trailer. He lived in the not-so-good part of town, mind you, so it was quite the courageous thing to do.

 

When we got there, he opened the door, profane rap music blasting from speakers inside. We told him he was fired from his guard position and that he should pack up and get out of town. He had such a guilty face. I’m glad those boys bashed in those speakers so he could really get the message. From the very beginning, Buddy’s attitude had been one of entitlement. I suppose some people are just lazy by nature.

 

Due to the public outcry, Buddy was formally fired. Will and Eunice graciously agreed to temporarily double their shifts and were paid accordingly. When the council got back into session the following week, we demanded video and audio recording be installed to surveil the button twenty-four-seven. And once that had been completed, we hired Reggie O’Ryan of Willow Street, back from the military, to cover the night shift.

 

And as you know, last night, Buddy Benson came back. He went right past the guard station, right up to the button and he stood in front of it. He stood there as though he was going to press it.

 

Reggie did what he was supposed to do. You can see that in the surveillance video. He got out of the guard house, drew his weapon and told Buddy Benson to back away. But Buddy just stood there. And then, as you can see, Buddy opened the glass enclosure and, of course, Reggie did what he had to do.

 

We must keep watch over our people, for the sake of our town, for the sake of our children. We do not let the troubled touch what is ours.

 

Go to a city, to an urban place, and those things happen I suppose. But not here. We are good people here.

 

Love, At a Trump Rally

Fiction, 2016

After giving my Mexican-American Uber driver a sympathetic shake of the head, I make my way towards a sea of Red, White and Blue from all white walks of life. My credentials swing in front of me and I adjust my glasses. The atmosphere is festive. Motorcycles roar, footballs spiral through the sky, somewhere effigies of Hillary Clinton burn and a troop of Boy Scouts get fresh tattoos of eagles shooting machine guns. It’s a sweaty afternoon in muggy Tucson and I’m here to cover the Trump rally.

As I make my way through the uneducated masses to the reporter’s area, I scowl. Not one of these people have read Flaubert, or have had tea with Margaret Atwood, or have any idea that heteronormative shows like The Walking Dead corrupt our culture. *Article idea: “10 Reasons Why Americans Have Become the Walking Dead.” Yet here I am, spending the day in this blistering Arizona heat before flying out of Tucson early tomorrow morning. As I edge my way past a bulbous woman on a scooter eating a churro, I think about how this article could easily write itself. Everything is exactly as disturbing as I knew it would be.

I arrive at the media’s designated platform and witness a reporter with a large Adam’s apple from the San Francisco Chronicle having a hard time with a group of teenagers playing keep-away with his lanyard. Next to him, supporters of all shapes and sizes hurl insults towards me and the other members of the press. The negative sentiments were expected (their benevolent leader called us the “worst of the worst” or “dirt” or something creative like that) but the fervor of this horde is surprising. I pull out my phone (my refuge) and live tweet away - careful not to offend any of these bigoted racist neanderthals.

As I glance up from my phone at the crowd, I notice something. In this singular moment, a point fixed on the infinite plane of time and space, the world seems to stop spinning and the sea of angry Trumpheads part. A bolt of lightning hits me from under the bright red brim of a Make America Great Again hat.

Love.

The red hat pinches the skin behind a round bald head. It sits atop a body that resembles the shape of a bowling pin. The man stands erect, his hands circumnavigating the sides of a hefty paunch, thumbs thrust inside a tweed belt that divides his belly into two hemispheres (his natural equator) above a pair of camouflage crocs. The man oozes sex.

“The media are pigs!” he squeals. Then, for a split-second, the bowling pin makes direct eye- contact with me.

I forget how to breathe. The shock of having just been hit with love-at-first-sight is so disorienting that I feel as though I’m going to throw up. I steady myself on the lanyard next to me. The journalist on the other end starts choking and gasping for air but I don’t notice. I can only think of the bowling pin shaped man that hath struck my heart.

Just as I start to get my bearings back, an especially rabid motorcycle gang obscures my vision. My eyes scan the swirling mass of people. Have I lost him? My heart is beating so hard it feels like the Black Eyes Peas decided to remix it. I look back at the place where I saw the man. But he’s gone, he’s slipped away into another part of the crowd.

“Pam!” my fellow reporters shout as they watch me dive off the reporter’s platform. I’ve lost concern for my own safety. “Grab hold we’ll pull you back!” a reporter from BuzzFeed calls out from the deck as a lifebuoy lands somewhere in the crowd next to me. But I refuse to turn back, fighting my way past the stars and bars bandanas, past the Lock Her Up buttons...

 

A loud croaking bird with a New York accent squawks overhead. I duck, hoping that the bird won't hit me. The bird squawks again with a “Thank you Tucson!” The crowd swells with a cacophony of hooting and hollering. I’m lost and drowning in all this noise. Then suddenly, an arm reaches down and grabs my elbow. I’m pulled up from below, only to look up and see the bowling pin man staring back at me.

That spark, that Nicholas Sparks spark, sparks between us. I breathe in the intoxicating smell of Irish Spring deodorant and old Dunkin Donuts coffee grinds. I stare through the large rectangular wire-rimmed glasses at my other-half.

“Hey.”

 

“Hey.”

In my head, I know that the two of us could go through the whole give-and-take, the whole “we’re not right for each other” story-line. But I want to skip that part.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say to him. “I want to have one of those millennial romances. Let me be your Zooey Deschanel.”

The man gives me a puzzled look, as if I had just told him that Macklemore had a new album out. And I’m thinking, let’s just run-away together, escape to some island that’s just off the coast of everywhere. A place where you can get solid wifi but it doesn’t seem like it. A place where there’s no politics, no pain, no men, no women, no prefer not to answer, just bodies.

The exhilaration of it all gets to him. He unclips an inhaler from his belt holster and takes in a deep seductive drag. Then he coughs, a gruff cough, the kind I imagine George Clooney would cough. The man reaches down and picks up my lanyard, which had fallen off in the chaos. His eyes linger over my initials.

“Are you PC?”

“Pamela Christobaldi, yes.”

He hesitates, fighting his impulse to call me an evil media pig. But he doesn’t.

“I’m Ronald Nougat,” he says as he hands me the lanyard.

The teenagers who were tormenting the reporter from the Chronicle, spot my media lanyard and disheveled appearance think I Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ or something.

“Dirty rotten media whore!” a young man in a bro-tank says with vigor. He smiles and high- fives a dude next to him. There’s a ripple effect to his name-calling and in no time at all it seems as though I really am startin’ somethin’ as everyone’s attention has turned towards me. I feel so outraged and violated that I’m about to scowl at all of them and tweet something really biting and apropo. Before I can though, the angry bird on stage starts cawing, “Get her out! That’s right, get her out!”

Obedient Trumpheads start to descend in on me from all sides. Their hands reaching towards me are like thousands of angry talons.

“I’ll take her out!” Ron shouts at them. He quickly intercepts my hand and guides me past the talons. From a distance, I notice the reporter’s platform rescue searchlight scanning the crowds for me but they should know by now that it is too late, that I will not resurface at this rally. And though the insults crash down on me from all sides, all I can sense is Ron’s hand in mine.

Outside the arena, Ron asks if I’m diabetic and I blush. It’s his cute little way of asking me on a date I guess. Ron’s not from Tucson so we don’t know where we should go for food. I pull out my phone, ask Siri and scroll through the options to find a place called Spoon with $$ and three stars on Yelp (based on seventeen reviews).

We take the SunLink bus, and go up the stairs to the open-air second floor. As the romantic Tucson skyline passes by overhead, my hand drifts down beside my chair. So does Ron’s. Our hands slip into each other’s and interlock. I think about how crazy the two of us are. Wordsworth was right. There is such a thing as the sublime—and it really is more feeling than logic.

We get to Spoon and discover that the restaurant is actually a store for custom made spoons. We laugh and laugh. And then we laugh again.

And then it starts to rain.

The SunLink doesn’t come for another fifteen minutes and the rain is soaking through Ron’s Police Lives Matter shirt. Not that I mind (the wet shirt that is, I still mind the shirt itself). I giggle as we run across the street and under the shelter of a Chick-fil-a overhang.

It’s raining hard now as we stand next to a large sign for Chick-fil-a’s Spicy Chicken Deluxe (pressure cooked in 100% refined peanut oil). I’m allergic to peanuts and the sign is disconcerting and so is Chick-fil-a. But Ron puts his hands on my shoulders and tries to warm me up by rubbing his palms quickly against them and in this moment I couldn’t care less that I’m allergic to peanuts (but I still do have some reservations regarding Chick-fil-a’s homophobia).

We’re breathing heavy. I forget that I’m hungry and cold and my eyes drift over to the Best Western sign down the block. Ron follows my gaze and our thoughts becomes one, once more. Ron pulls out his inhaler, anticipating our jog down the street. I’m giggling and Ron’s giggling (and coughing) all the way to the lobby and even as we check into a room...

We’re in the hotel room. Everything is happening so fast. Ron fumbles with his phone before managing to play his love-making selection: Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”.

We stand in front of each other, fully clothed still, just looking. I suggest that we trade-off removing items of clothing (like an I go, you go, kind of thing). He takes off his glasses. I take off my glasses. He takes off his nasal strip. I take off my shell necklace. He removes his gun—

 

I watch as he sets the rifle he’s been carrying in his pants on the table.

There’s something about that gun. For some reason I wasn’t expecting it and, to be honest, it frightens me a little. Ron waits for me to take my turn and remove an item of clothing but I can’t. I slump down onto the Best Western bed.

“I should have realized you were one of those gun people.”


Ronald sits on the other end of the bed.


“I love to shoot things. I like knowing I can shoot things at any time and in any place.”

There’s a quiet moment where Ron’s eyes linger over the gun on the hotel table. It rests next to a promotional pamphlet with a picture of man and a woman riding an inner tube on the front. I wonder if the man and the woman in the photo are in love like we are and if the man also has a gun somewhere in those neon trunks.

“What is this?” I ask him, letting the question hang in the air. After an ample dramatic pause, I rephrase the question. “We don’t share any of the same views Ron. How could we fall in love at first sight like this?”

“All I know is that when I saw you, it was like I was a kid and you were a kid and I wasn’t worried about anything other than getting home before the street lamps came on.”

“We’re not kids though Ron. We can vote.”

“I feel like a kid.”

“Maybe all this being scared of other people is really because we’re scared of ourselves. We’re just scared because we really are just kids that can vote.”

“Maybe. Except I’m scared of Mooslims—”

 

“Shhhh,” I say as I press my finger up to his lips. “I think we’re both lonely. That’s what I think.”

I curl up on the bed, my clothes still on. Ron hesitates for a moment and then lies down behind me. He slowly scoots his body closer to mine until eventually we spoon (only this spoon would have gotten five stars on Yelp).

And I realize we can’t be together, at least for now. My article is due by the end of the night and the street lamps come on for me tomorrow at 8:30am on a United flight to DC. Still, it feels so warm in this spoon.

“In four years, if the United States is still around at that time, will you promise to meet me here?” I ask.

Ronald brushes my cheek.


And somewhere, far away, Richard Linklater sighs.

 
 

Asheville

Fiction, 2020, Part One of a Seven Part Novella

I.

Four small hands had been swatted today and Melody would likely swat another three before dinner. Those tiny fumbling fingers, they wandered across the whites and blacks of the piano keys like drunken little piglets. If only more of these children could be like that sweet Asian boy Norman, she thought as she slapped Benjamin’s hand away from the B flat. At least he practiced.

 

There was a harsh clattering sound in the hall. 

“Missy! Phone!” Melody yelled through the wall as young Benjamin massaged his hand. He had finally placed the smell of the piano room. It was caramel, old caramel, the kind that you turn down. He wanted to go home, to get out of this stuffy piano room, away from the posters of snarling Elvis and constipated Bach, off of this uncomfortable bench that Mrs. O’Dell’s rump always forced him to the edge of.

“Missy!” 

The phone was still ringing.

Melody breathed a heavy breath vibrating her burgundy lips together. She lowered her glasses and rubbed out her eyes.

 

“It’s a sharp.” She took Benjamin’s finger and pushed it on the correct key. “Play it again,” she said before rising from the bench, which creaked a sigh of immense relief. 

After squeezing out of the room, Melody lifted the phone off of the receiver.

“This is she.” 

From the hall, Melody could see that her daughter Missy was asleep on the family room couch, her pale face alighted by the shifting blues and whites of the TV in front of her. On the screen, a young Mongolian boy and his brother lugged across a vast tundra, heading towards the nearest gas station to buy batteries for their family’s radio.

“You’re son Walter O’Dell has been reported missing.”

“What state did you say you were calling from? North—”

“North Carolina, that’s right Ma’am. He was last seen just outside the city of Asheville. We thought…”

On the TV, the two Mongolian brothers had stopped their great pilgrimage and were now patting the hide of their weeping camels. Melody bought the DVD a while ago, always strongly encouraging her children to learn more about their late father’s Mongolian heritage. After Phil’s heart decided to give out, Melody was determined to head to Mongolia in his memory. Plans were made, hats and traditional deels were bought, and Melody had even ordered a few books on Genghis Khan. Fully packed bags sat ready and at the wait by the front door. They had been sitting there for the past seven months. Maybe Melody thought of how sad she would be once the planning was over. All those skinny mothers loved to ask about her planning. That, and how funny the name Melody was for a piano teacher.

“Hello?” the voice said on the other end of the line.

Melody stumbled through the rest of the conversation about her missing schizophrenic son. She hung up the phone before either her or the officer could say goodbye.

At the other end of the small hallway, Melody saw her eldest daughter Cedille cradling the kitchen phone. She was a perpetual eves-dropper, that one. Melody watched her place the landline back on the receiver like she was placing a sleeping baby in its cradle.

Missy rose from the couch and yawned. She stood less than five feet by a few inches and she looked much younger than she was, now nearing thirty-six but with the distinct look of a fifteen year old girl, the pouty slightly misshapen face most people thought was just a product of puberty. It amazed Melody that her cheeks still kept their rosy color despite all the blood that had to be drawn from her over the years. 

Cedille had always been the opposite. God’s truth was that she was forty-one but not a soul could guess she was less than sixty-four. Because of this Cedille was often thought to be Melody’s sister, a remark that Melody always took as a compliment. Not that Cedille minded it either. Rather, Cedille embraced her older appearance, even emphasizing it by wearing old sweaters and large boxy glasses that were shaped like the outer-glass of two old television screens. She wore pearls, fake of course, and she seemed to find a downright joy in it when she corrected people who thought they might be real.

“Girls, grab your bags. We’re going to North Carolina.”

Melody lumbered up to her room, opened the closet and pulled out a small bag stitched with piano keys and lettering that read ‘Music Makes the Heart Fly.’ Inside were a few hundred dollars, some hair curlers, a piano tuner, Phil’s handgun and a pack of Trident chewing sticks.

Missy and Cedille were quick to move, so quick they surprised even themselves. They grabbed their suitcases by the door, scurried out of the house and soon found themselves sitting in the old ’97 Cutlass Supreme.

 

Melody O’Dell started the engine of the cutlass and shot down the rows of squat Chicago bungalows. They had no maps to guide them towards their lost son and brother. They only knew he had to be out there, somewhere beyond the skyway.