Category Archives: Literature

“Homecoming,” by Jamie Elmer

“Home is not where you were born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.” – Naguib Mahfouz

***

I took a seat on the worn couch, right on the edge, leaning my body tightly against the arm so as not to graze my leg against the guy passed out next to me. He had a penis with wings drawn on his cheek in permanent marker, his punishment for falling asleep before midnight with his shoes on. The party raged around me. I watched as my best friend, Lily, and a group of others cheered and squealed at the beer pong game going on not far from the couches. The hardwood floor around the table was sticky from spilled beer and overturned cups, similar to the coffee table in front of me, littered with every alcoholic beverage I could think of. I took a sip of my drink, rum and coke, hold the rum, and looked up at the sound of a crash. Alicia was pulled up from the floor she had fallen on and helped over to a lounge chair across from the couch where she collapsed and grinned widely over at me.

“Reina!” she yelled exuberantly. Her friend detached herself from her with a small apologetic smile at me and disappeared back outside, pulling a cigarette from behind her ear as she walked away. Behind the glass doors I could see more of the party: another beer pong table surrounded by players and friends; friends gathered around lounge chairs, smoking; a group of guys near a small fire pit passed a joint around. I looked back at Alicia, who waved at me to gain my attention.

“Reina! I love you, you’re great, ya know?” she said, smiling, her eyes unfocused.

“Had a little to drink?” I asked her, slightly amused, mostly tired.

“That and then some!” she giggled herself into silence, which took a solid minute and a half. She rummaged in the pockets of her incredibly short jean shorts and pulled out a small baggie. She shook it around like a treat for a puppy and the little white pills jumped around.

She pulled the shirt sleeve of one of the guys at the beer pong table nearest us. “Take a break?” she asked him, alluringly. He looked down at her and smiled, shrugged.

“Why not?” he said, and then looked back at the rest. “Time out!”

A couple of the others moved around the table toward Alicia and her pills, the same expressions of why not etched on their faces. I watched as Lily, a friend I’d known since grade school, and a number of friends from high school all encircled her.

Alicia looked up, back into my eyes after popping her pill. Before offering it to Derek’s outstretched hand, she moved to offer the baggie to me. I stared back at her and then up to see that most of the eyes of my friends were on me.

For the rest of the story, purchase a copy of Issue #2 of Negative Assets: Punk Lit Zine.

“About a Grrrl,” by Taylor Farner

Canon used to sell cameras with boxes that would hold 4×6 photographs. Each box would hold a couple hundred photos, maybe more if you crammed them in there. On one end of the lid, there was the Canon logo, and on the sides was a clear film that peeled up that you could slide photos under. Monica decorated the box three different times in her life: once when she was 12 and her parents bought the camera for her birthday, again when she was 15 and got her driver’s license, and again at her best friend’s wedding. Dani’s wedding. And Dani was in 26 out of 30 photos Monica had cut up to decorate the sides of the box over the years. She’d been Monica’s best friend since kindergarten. And looking at the box now made everything that much harder.

Monica swiped at her face and cleared a bunch of the mucus away, but she was crying too hard, and kept coughing in deep rough whoops. She set the photo box down and went for the napkins. Wiping away the snot from her hands and dabbing at her nose, she went back to the box of photographs. She was looking for a picture from the hiking trip she took with Dani last year. Both of them had really liked the photo; Monica made a copy for Dani, but her parents weren’t sure where she’d have it. It was probably still boxed away. If it was going in the paper, Monica wanted the photo to be one Dani really liked.

First, Monica found a photo from her senior year of high school.

“MONICA CRUZ IS A DUMB CUNT” The text glowed across the brownish-white aisle of lockers in bright red spray-paint. Standing on either side of the graffiti stood Monica and Dani. Dani was sticking her tongue out, and Monica stood there with her hand over her mouth, seemingly astounded.

Ramon Darren was the one who wrote it, she knew. She’d dumped him the day before. He denied sleeping around with Jackie Hildebrandt, but Monica knew he was lying. When you’re a cheating dumb-fuck, throwing tantrums or writing a bunch of ignorant shit in public places are the only ways you know how to react to being dumped. Ramon chose the latter.

At first it only made Monica more pissed off, and she wanted to die in a pile. But thankfully Dani was there.

“Oh… oh my god, no, this is too good!” Dani said between each harsh gasp she tried pulling in through the laughing fit. “Ramon is such a baby!” she said, struggling to get the words out. Monica pulled out the camera. It was her safety net, and what she hoped would be her future. She wanted to be a photographer for Flipside. Photography was her thing. But life has a way of taking the things you like and putting them in the ground.

malice_vector_portrait

“Oh good, yeah, take a picture of it! We can put it up on the wall,” Dani said.

The wall was a scrap-book, on a wall. It was in Monica’s room. The wall started as three bulletin boards the girls had mashed together after their first concert, in 8th grade. They made a pact that by the end of high school they’d have the wall filled with ticket stubs. They’d made great strides in between the on and off fights, the highs and lows of teenage friendships. The girls had their share of ups and downs, but each time they fought at Alberta High, they knew that it would pass, and they’d be together again.

That day, Monica learned that no matter how enlightened you think you are, and no matter how much you tell yourself that it doesn’t matter what people think of you, when someone feels the need to tell the whole world you’re a dumb cunt, it’s going to eat away at you, a little.

For the rest of the story, purchase a copy of Issue #2 of Negative Assets: Punk Lit Zine.

“Give ‘Im Enough Rope” by Gordon Robertson

Three days on the rope and Jonathan already had a fat milky blister on his left hand. It was in the groove between thumb and forefinger, and it hurt like fuck. He wanted to burst it himself, but he didn’t have the nails. He winced. Every left hand-hold stole a gasp of air from his mouth and sent a sharp scissor-stab of pain down through his left side. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take.

The first two days after finding the rope–stiff and upright between two empty warehouses on the abandoned industrial estate he used to walk the dogs through, back when they were still alive–had been relatively easy. The thick knots placed at regular intervals for the hands and feet to hold on to obviously helped. He couldn’t imagine attempting the climb without them. It’d be like trying to negotiate rapids without a paddle. But this morning he’d woken to a dull throbbing in his hand and had recognized it for what it was. He’d briefly tried some single-hand climbing but it just made things worse. He was using up energy and fluids he badly needed. Who knew how long he was going to be up here for? He was in no way an experienced climber, but he at least had some amount of common sense.

Jonathan grunted. Common sense. Really? How sensible was it for a grown man to climb a suspicious, unattended rope in the middle of nowhere, with no clear indication as to where that rope led? How sensible was it to think everything would be okay once he reached the top? Was he even convinced there was a top? He glanced up, but the clouds that had hung over him these past three days hadn’t moved, and he couldn’t see a fucking thing. He was climbing blind.

Climbing the rope at least gave Jonathan a chance to think. And he had a lot to think about. Gloria, for one. He’d never known anyone who could keep an argument going longer than Gloria. It didn’t even have to be about anything in particular. It could be something as ordinary and mundane as which restaurant to go to for dinner, or what TV program to watch, or whether or not to have sex. It didn’t matter. If it had two sides to it, Gloria would argue one of them, sometimes both.

She certainly hadn’t listed her ability to argue on her profile. Nor had she been entirely truthful in other areas. Jonathan had been new to online dating and had assumed she would look exactly like her profile picture. That wasn’t the case. She was at least ten years older than she’d claimed, and over two stone heavier than she’d been in her photo. She’d clearly lived, and not well. But they’d spent two pleasant enough weeks in each other’s company before he’d murdered her. In the end, it was more the arguing than the looks that pushed Jonathan over the edge. He slit her throat while out driving one night, and tossed her naked body into a quarry.

Resting a moment on the rope, Jonathan realized the reason he was still thinking about Gloria wasn’t because of some child-like sense of guilt or remorse, it was because of her glasses case. He couldn’t recall what he’d done with it, or if he’d done anything with it at all. He’d burned all her clothes and wiped down the surfaces of the car, inside and out, but he had no idea what had happened to her glasses case. It worried him because he remembered handing it to her before she got in the car. If it wasn’t on her, or in or near the car, she must have lost it, which meant if the police happened to find it, they’d also find a couple of fat thumb-prints on it. And only one of those would be Gloria’s.

He’d been more careful the second time. Janice had reminded him of a girl he’d went out with when he worked on the bins, not long after leaving school. Helen? Hannah? Something like that. He’d taken Helen/Hannah out for a meal–somewhere fancy to impress her–and she’d asked him what he did for a living. Jonathan had just sat there, squirming, and too terrified to answer. But she’d wormed it out of him and had been totally fine with it. Janice had been a bit like that. Easy to talk to. Tolerant. But only up to a point. When he said he’d killed before and was worried he might be tempted to do so again, she’d freaked and ran for the door. Jonathan had felled her from behind with a golf trophy he’d won as a teenager and she’d dropped to the floor with a scream and a thud. He’d hit her twice more in the face with the jagged-edged trophy and then, satisfied she’d stopped breathing, had dragged her into the bathroom to clean her up.

For the rest of the story, purchase a copy of Issue #2 of Negative Assets: Punk Lit Zine.

“Plane of Thought,” By Zachary Valladon

I died eating honey roasted peanuts.

“Ramjish.”

“Hm?”

“Will my father be okay?”

“I do not think so.”

“My guru has begun his healing process. I know he will be okay.”

Karesh was an old friend, or something like that, and I had long since grown disgusted with his perpetual positivity. When I was young, I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, I wanted to be a doctor. I did both of those things on my own terms. I practiced law first, in India. When I grew tired of the lawlessness in the endless slums I grew up in, I wound up on a one- way plane to America with my twin brothers. In life, I’d always had a natural (some might say god-given) tenacity. My ambition was unmatched in my family, and I didn’t need to worry about success. I knew, inherently, that I was destined for greatness. So, when America’s shores beckoned me to the fruits of my ambitious nature, I sought the respectable future of a doctor. Twenty long years studying and practicing medicine came and went before the call came.

Unlike me, Karesh was lazy — life seemed to hand him great things. He was good at fiddling with any of the primitive technology we could get our hands on and eating bland Indian sweets. We grew up and attended the make-shift excuse for a school in our neighborhood together. I excelled academically, but my instructors never gave me accolades for my intellect. Instead, they scolded me for believing myself to be superior to my classmates. I believed then, and continued to believe until my death that success warranted an appropriate level of arrogance. In order to be the best, I needed everyone else to understand that they were not.

Karesh believed deeply in the idea that the world could unite as a peaceful family. He followed the teachings of a renowned spiritual man, a guru, in India. Karesh meditated regularly, ate without regard for his health and had somehow managed to earn himself a career with computers in India that was equivalent to a six figure salary in America. I think that I hated him even as a boy, but he was always drawn to me. As a child, he was the only one who associated with me at school, as a teen, the only one who broke bread with me and as an adult, the only person to ever reach out to me from India. He disgusted me.

Of course, when he called me to tell me that his father was sick, possibly dying, and that he would pay as much money as he needed to assure that he could be transported from India to America to be in my care, I could not refuse. Being on life support, his father would need to have a doctor on the airplane with him in case of an emergency. Karesh insisted that I was the doctor to fly with him, so he also paid for my ticket to India and back and the labor. When it came time for the actual flight, I was so busy planning my European vacation that I almost missed it.

When I first saw Karesh again, he was the same as I remembered…bubbly, fat and smiling. All that changed was that he now wore a mustache and that his hair had begun to gray on top.

“Ramjish, I am thankful beyond words that you’re here,” he said.

I extended my hand out with a slight smile; to me, this was nothing more than a business transaction, but Karesh did not need to know that.

For the rest of the story, purchase a copy of Issue #2 of Negative Assets: Punk Lit Zine.

“The Lights,” by Harmony Hertzog

I see lights. Do you see them? They’re out there in the field. Look to your right. Do you see the lights? I see them, driving home on the long, dark farm roads. They’re where no roads go, and the flat darkness makes them seem to move. Or do they move? Do you see them? They look much closer tonight. The lights. If I wasn’t so tired I would try to find the source of the lights. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps.

I see lights again. Can you see them? Thick, yellow lights entwine with the fog that layers the fields in a sickening yellow-gray. They still look close tonight. Can you see the lights? But there is no road to the lights. The curiosity is really getting to me. Can you see them? Jaundice-colored lights in the right field. They look even closer. But there is no road. Where are those lights coming from?

The lights are closer. Do you see them? I can gauge their distance between the road and the mountains. The lights are moving closer to the road. Do you see the lights? There has to be a road. The lights have to be coming from something. Are the lights coming from the fog? No, the lights are above the fog. But the fog is so dense where the lights are. And the lights are getting closer.

There are no lights during the day. The fields to the right are normal, flat spans from the road to the mountain. I can’t tell where the lights are at night. Can you tell? I think the fields look different in some spots. Are they sick? Is it from the lights? There is a dirt path. Do you see it? It leads into the fields. Will you go with me? I wonder if the lights will be even closer tonight.

I see the lights. The sickly, sticky fog is yellow with the lights. The path is dark. The lights do not illuminate the path. You can’t tell, because you didn’t come. The lights are not normal lights. They do not illuminate the path, or the fields, only the fog. The lights are ill. The fog is infected with the lights. The fields under the lights are sparse. I’m almost inside the lights. I’m scared. They’re pulsing. The lights are a contamination.

I’m in the lights. They are bright, but they don’t shed light on anything. There is an electrical taste in the air. The lights are like an illness. They are not coming from any visible source. The sick, yellow lights mingle with the gray fog and that somehow sustains them. The lights are ill. I’m not so scared now, but I think there is something wrong. The lights are a contamination.

The lights are still out there. Have you seen them? I don’t go down that road anymore. I have not seen them. But I can feel them. The lights are a contamination. I can feel their sickly, yellow glow inside of me. Can you see the lights? The lights are not ill, they are an infection. I can feel them inside of me. I’m scared. Do you see the lights? I don’t see them, but I feel them, spreading. The lights. The lights are a contamination.

“I Found Love in a Dental Place,” by Jamie Elmer

The location is the dental waiting room. The occasion is my companion’s root canal.

I did not plan accordingly for my stint in the dentist’s waiting room. I can hear the faint sound of the suction as I swallow my hunger. She has left me with her water bottle, but I can see its impending emptiness. I am hopeful that she will take no notice.

I have forgotten all forms of entertainment, from laptop to tablet, and am not even sufficiently prepared on my phone. A mere 35% battery life is left. This could only mean imminent death.

The magazine offerings here are a pittance. A disgrace. I could learn thirty-eight new sex tricks, or how to find my sparkle, but I think I’d rather jump into their fish tank and eat their goldfish.

The hunger has gotten so bad that the thought of grilled gold fish is not entirely as disgusting as I know it should be. This is worrisome.

My eyes roam for a sweet release and come upon a dream–my only form of foreseen sustenance is the peanut m&ms upon the front desk. I long for their chocolately, nutty flavors meeting my tongue in an explosion of yes. I must have them.

I face multiple dilemmas in acquiring said chocolatey lifesavers. The first includes the eyes of the prying waiting room occupants and dental assistants. Long has someone been present at the desk, but I fear for the moment when I make my attempt and they appear at the scene of my guilt.

There is also the contraption in which my delectable saviors are contained. Upon further inspection, I have noted that this is no simple turn of the dial candy machine, but a high-tech monstrosity placed here likely for the reason of thwarting the fulfillment of my desires. I could rescue these pleasures of my stomach from their oppressor and send them directly to the safe haven of my stomach, where they will return to their former selves, completing their mission on this Earth.

I have discovered a knob on the back that could be the button that will deliver me from this hunger. And the delusions. But I am at an impasse, still impeded by my former struggles.

Look at them there, with their bright, enthralling colors, wide bodies promising a smooth chocolate coating surrounded by a pleasant, crunchy inside. Pure lust.

What temptation the dentist has left me. Do the caretakers of teeth find it amusing to leave treats that can only harm their patients? Do they think they are witty, attempting to ruin my chompers so that I may return to them, punished for my hunger? What a cruel world. Their attempts do not terminate my longing.

If someone would return, I could go about the task respectfully by asking for a small trifle, the least of what they could give me for this torture. Instead, the desk remains empty and the drill continues on, drilling away both her teeth and my hopes.

I fear this is the end for me. The darkness is coming; I feel it with every shallow, starving breath. I will think of you, my dear peanut m&ms, with my last dying breath.

Sweet relief! Just as the darkness threatened to overcome me, the ruler of the desk returned and I resorted to my last attempt at life.

“How do you get these?” I asked, pleadingly.

“Oh, like this,” she said, effortlessly demonstrating the placement of her hand under the shoot, performing magic so that the sweet symphony of love fell upon her hand.

My eyes lit up, my hand outstretched – finally. We are united. A true love story has occurred in this place. Pure bliss.

“Journey by Train,” by Jamie Elmer

Arrival: I am a half hour early due to my father’s excitability. He called me 8 times from the grocery store before my alarm even went off to wake up. 15 minutes before the train is scheduled to arrive, an announcement goes off but, after “train fourteen,” it’s cut off from the screeching of the freight train on the opposing track. Bastards. A lovely conductor (is that what she would be called?) on a tram asks me where I’m going and tells me to jump on, as the train arrives farther down the track. I board.

Hour one: I am seated next to a friendly older man who shakes my hand and tells me his name, which I quickly forget because my memory is abysmal. He’s sticking with me almost to the end and has the window seat. Curses. To my dismay, I find that the free WiFi I was promised is nonexistent at the moment. Curse them as well. I settle with reading a chapter in The Hobbit while sustaining myself with a chocolate chip muffin.

Hour two: I’m already tired of being on the train; that’s got to be a bad sign. I’ve finished my chapter and have pulled out my computer to attempt work that is useless until WiFi becomes available again. Which I hope is soon. After learning from his phone calls that he has been to jail, is on probation, had a great talk about God at AA, and is moving to Texas with his daughter, my neighbor ventures off to find the lunch compartment and has not returned.

Hour two & a half: The older lady beside me tells me I have great concentration. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m in high school when she asks if I’m doing school work, but I do have a giant elephant on my sweater so I concede. My neighbor comes back once, mentions a hotspot on his phone, and then disappears again and has still not returned. Hopes for WiFi dashed again. Curses. I begin eating my turkey sandwich just as the train comes to a halt. Now the pitiful air conditioning has turned off. I will soon be dead.

Hour three: We were stopped for almost 20 minutes and the air was painfully turned off for most of it. I fear they have an agenda against me. My neighbor shuffled by with new friends he made, and wandered off with my hopes of a hotspot in tow. We finally move, and I wish I could sleep away the coming hours of travel.

Hour four: Train bathrooms are almost worse than airplane bathrooms. I didn’t know that this was possible. I am both impressed and disgusted. I tire of reading and riding trains and hope that my finally-returned neighbor requires Internet.

Hour five: Signal is intermittent. WiFi still nonexistent. Being cut off from the outside world while being surrounded by mountains is only made worse by the fact that we haven’t been to a station stop in so long. I overhear the man in front of me say, “I asked and they said that we’re 25 minutes behind.” Nothing can dash my hopes more.

Hour six: And we’ve stopped again. I am most displeased with this situation. I long for my off-key singing ringing in my ear and the hum of my vehicle scooting on its way. I would be not long for my destination if I had driven. I must think positively for I have many hours to go and additional precious minutes that could be spent doing productive things, like sucking face. I have completed my first draft of a cover letter, so there’s at least that to show for my suffering. Why must it be so hot?

Hour six and more than a half: I’m pretty sure I saw an Amish child pass three times now. Are there special train exceptions nowadays, because I don’t blame them for not wanting to take a carriage across California.

Hour seven: Nausea has kicked in. I’ve never felt a greater need for fresh air than I do in this very moment, pitifully sucking the salt from my pretzels. They never mention feeling queasy on the Hogwarts Express. I bet wizards don’t get queasy. Bastards.

Hour eight on the dot: The sky is fading around me and I feel like I am fading with it. I was told by my neighbor that we’re running an hour and a half behind. I pray to all the Gods that this news is incorrect. Never again. No trains. Death would be a sweet release.

Hour eight, continued: Upon checking the status on my phone, I will arrive only 29 minutes late. Although dreadful, it is no hour and a half. If this status is lying, I may punch a baby in the throat. I dream of the moment when I can twirl in the fresh night air like a woodland nymph frolicking in the forest. In the meantime, I will hide my possessions and use the disgusting facilities and hope that I can read once I have splashed water upon my saddened face.

Hour nine: In a perfect world I would soon be departing, but in reality I will be hitting hour ten with an unhappy stomach and a heart full of regret. A woman nearby took a picture with her phone of the train. I was blinded by the flash. This is my existence. Half blind, hungry. I feel as Bilbo Baggins does on his own journey, the old people are the trolls in the mountains and the train is the dragon I must overcome. Let us hope that during my remaining time in seat 50 this granola bar sustains me as the Elvish bread sustained Bilbo.

Hour ten: Alas, I have finally come to a countdown that brings me hope! One hour until I am free from this wretched mechanical beast! I can hear my new neighbors whispering about my work and am glad that my font is tiny enough to avoid the prying eyes of the elderly. I can at least count my blessings that I am not the old woman who got on with me, who still has more than twelve hours to go! I shudder at the thought.

Hour ten and a little past half: It is almost time to depart, and I put my book down in my excitement. Awaiting me is freedom, a boy, and a burger, so I say adieu to this train journey and repress the knowledge that I will be back for another in four days time.

“Fired,” by Andrea Harsma

It’s raining. It doesn’t always rain, contrary to what some people think, but it is common. The clouds hang low in the sky. The Space Needle’s light isn’t visible, but neither is much else. Traffic crawls by on the 405. It has been said that every freeway called the 405 is at a standstill all the time, and that is probably true.

Umbrellas are everywhere. Some malls have public-use umbrellas at their entrances and exits. They aren’t generally stolen; people are too nice for that. Really, other than the snobbery, most people in Washington – state, not D.C. – are very nice. Granted, there are some ghettos in the state, but it just doesn’t seem as bad as places on the news. It’s almost as if the Pacific Northwest is isolated from the rest of the country.

The building, like most in the city, is nondescript. It’s tall, concrete, with many stories. Two people, a man and a woman, exit the front doors and walk down the stone steps. Both hold umbrellas, extended, that cover their faces and shield them from the rain. Their walk is nearly synchronized as they reach the bottom of the stairs and turn right. As they continue down the street, a third umbrella-toting figure comes out of an alley alongside the building and walks the opposite direction, posture slouched as he trudges along. The pair in tailored suits walks with a purpose, not talking, not caring to avoid the puddles. When they are a block away, the seventh floor windows of the building they left explode outward in a fiery shower of glass shards.

***

Bellevue was for rich kids. No, really. He was pretty sure if he tried to come downtown for anything but work, he’d be “asked” to leave. He couldn’t count the number of Lincolns or 5- and 7- series BMWs that rolled by pedestrians in perfectly tailored suits that cost almost his whole month’s pay.

Reuben hated suits – he’d hated them as a child, when he’d had to dress up for church, and he hated them now. The tie was like a noose around his neck, ever tightening. He leaned back in his chair, surveying the view before him. It really wasn’t bad; his seventh story office had huge picture windows that overlooked half of downtown Bellevue. Well, it did from an angle, if you leaned back far enough, as he was. Older buildings like the one that housed his office were closer to the outskirts of downtown; central Bellevue had been undergoing a facelift for the past decade and now boasted a variety of newer office buildings with modern designs. The rent in them was astronomical, though, even for downtown. The rain pelted against the glass, again, like most days. Reuben had learned to accept the rain, even though he didn’t care for it. It was as inevitable as the traffic that accompanied it all the way back across the I-90 bridge to his dingy apartment in Tukwila.

God, even the name was awful.

He glanced at the clock. Another hour, and this would all change. Maybe not the traffic that even now inched by on the streets below, but the rest of it.

He moved his hand to check his watch, then stopped. It wouldn’t do to look anxious. Instead, he slowly turned his seat to face his desk again and pretended to be very focused on cross-referencing something in the database with a client file. They hadn’t gone paperless yet, and this would work to their advantage.

He’d miss his desk most: a lovely, L-shaped mahogany wood, made to look handcrafted, that probably weighed more than a baby elephant. It was his favourite thing in the office, and the only thing that he’d ever really felt was his.

***

“Sam” got her interviews where “Samantha” did not. She knew – she’d applied as both, staggering application and resume submissions. As a child, she’d wanted to grow up to rule the world – or at least a multinational corporation with underlings to do her bidding. She’d found school easy, but boring. The boys hadn’t been particularly impressed by her dreams to have it all, and her teachers had given her a condescending smile and suggested she devise back up plans.

It took her years, most of her life to date, to discover that no one wanted her to be in charge because she was a girl. Over time, she’d learned to adjust her habits and word choices accordingly. She learned to cater to their egos, letting them think her suggestions were their ideas, and dressing more feminine on occasion to downplay the effects of her authoritative tendencies. She still wore pantsuits, but had invested in some skirt suits as well at her mother’s insistence. Her mother had long ago advised her to “play the game,” and it had taken Sam several years to understand what that really meant.

She blended in now: short trendy haircut with highlights, tailored suits, trim figure from spending her nights working off the frustration of dealing with them. Ugh. Men. Reuben was the same as everyone else. She let him think he was in charge – just like those before him. If they thought they were in charge and that everything was their idea, they became incredibly easy to manipulate. Reuben had been easy pickings; his power trip tendencies were easily exploited by mention of an overheard plan to replace him. Whether that conversation had ever actually happened wasn’t important; it gave her the out she needed to start over. Maybe the next company would be smart enough to see her potential and give her the position she deserved.

***

Edgar was nervous. He couldn’t help it. He was always nervous. His palms would get sweaty at the first mention of deadlines or crunch times. That was why he’d dropped out. He never told his parents; they’d have been devastated. Better to let them think it was the economy’s fault that he wasn’t doing anything with his degree…the degree he never got. Thankfully, he’d had Reuben.

Edgar and Reuben had met in college; they’d been in several of the same classes, and both sat in the back of the room, though for different reasons. Edgar sat in the back to keep his stress levels lower because no one would call on him in the back. Reuben wanted to screw off all the time, sleeping in class or trying to hit on the girls that sat too close. He’d thought himself one of the “cool kids” as though that didn’t die out in high school.

They’d kept in contact, though Edgar never knew why. It had saved him though when he’d found himself jobless and quickly running out of options to pay for a roof over his head. DSHS didn’t care for single, childless men like it did single mothers. Reuben had put in a good word for Edgar with the building manager, which was how he’d gotten the job in the first place. “Facilities Manager,” like it wasn’t the messy, god-awful job it’d always been when people called it “janitor.” At least there had been some honesty once.

Now, it was all layers. Layers of political correctness and fluffing covered everything. Reuben and Sam were right; he was underpaid. If he quit, he would be ineligible for unemployment. It would be so much easier if work just didn’t exist anymore.

***

The worst they’d be hit with would be negligence, but he had a feeling it’d really only be Edgar. Reuben wouldn’t be quite so willing to go through with it otherwise. Thankfully the building was the sort to have the anti-suicide windows, ones that didn’t open and were just there for decoration and to see the outside world but never touch it, which only served to add to the feeling of being trapped. Those windows would factor in nicely.

They’d planned carefully, allowing for even those that might be in the office late to have left. The one rule had been no deaths. They didn’t need that on their hands, didn’t want anyone looking too hard because they had a death to investigate.

Reuben had been very angry when he’d first caught wind of the home office’s plans to remove him from his post as boss of their local franchise. They didn’t know he knew, of course. He’d put so much of his own time and livelihood into this crappy job, to little end. He hated the politics of these rich people determined to cut everyone off at the knees in order to save themselves a few bucks. Selfish bastards. He’d show them, and they’d never know.

***

Edgar tapped his fingers on his janitor uniform’s khaki pants as he leaned against the wall in the supply room. It was a bit bigger than a standard janitor’s closet, but that was because the building had so much space to clean that they needed tons more space to hold all the stuff for it. He glanced at the clock on the wall, then at his watch, trying to gauge how accurate the wall clock was. He waited impatiently, expecting someone to walk through the door and ask him why he wasn’t working. Couldn’t waste even a few minutes of their time, after all. Time is money, and all that.

A minute later – he knew, he’d been watching the clocks – the door did open, but it wasn’t his supervisor. Sam poked her head in and eyed him expectantly.

“What’s wrong?” Edgar tensed immediately, heart pounding, eyes flicking over her shoulder to see if he could spot anything out of place.

“Are you ready?” Sam brushed a speck of lint off the shoulder of her tailored blazer as though the speck was his question.

“Yeah. Yes. We have thirteen minutes by my watch, but it’s more like twelve by the wall clock. Twelve and a half, maybe.” He glanced at his watch again, then at the clock on the wall. Sam blew out a breath, ruffling her bangs.

“Great. Don’t screw it up.” She turned, began to pull the door shut behind her.

“Sam?”

“What?” Her voice, like her movements, was impatient, clipped. Edgar recoiled slightly, took a breath.

“Are you…sure?”

She hesitated for just a moment before her face twisted into a smirk, eyes raking over his janitor’s cart.

“Oh, yes.” She shut the door behind her, leaving him alone in the room once more. He glanced down at the cart, at all of the bottles of fluids with warnings plastered on the labels.

“In Defense of the English Language,” by Andrea Harsma

What did English ever do to you?

Poor, broken English

battered, lying in the corner

lonely, asking why you hate it so

What did English ever do to you?

It just wanted to help you sound pretty

But no

You had to run it down, beat it with sticks

“dead horse” you say, laughing

What did English ever do to you?

You don’t even try

To sort your yours and you’res

Let alone those theirs, they’res, and theres

Smugly lazy

Do you even capitalize?

What did English ever do to you?

You can’t even manage a full word? ru and ur and u and r

Even worse, these new bastardizations

With the swag and the YOLO

Don’t you know swag’s for curtains and skirting?

You

Obviously
Lack
Originality

“The Pipes are Always Wailing,” by Doug Peyton

Gregg pounds on Mary Walter’s front door. The brittle wood rattles on the hinges, a few paint chips float down to the porch. He glances at his watch. Twenty minutes he’s been waiting. Goddammit. His wife is going to kill him if he’s late for dinner.

He bangs on the door again.

“Mary, you in there?” he says. “It’s Gregg Sharpe.”

Gregg leans over the porch railing, tries to look in the window. It’s impossible to see inside. Like all the others around the house, the front window is entirely blocked off by piles of useless shit. Empty boxes. Busted furniture. Mountains of moldy clothes.

Couple years back, during the last court mandated cleanup of Mary’s house, some city shrinks had tried explaining this behavior to Gregg. They went on and on about how Mary barricades her windows because she’s afraid. She’s been trying to isolate herself, avoiding the outside world for nearly thirty years. She’s suffered some great losses, they’d told him. Her husband had killed himself in the woods out behind their house. Took a shotgun out back with him and just ended it. Mary’d been living alone in that house ever since.

Gregg remembers thinking that Mary’s story was sad and all, but he never came around to believing what those stuffy psychologists had told him. In his mind, the fact remained that losing people didn’t make you go crazy—giving up did. On his second tour in Iraq, Gregg lost two of his best friends in Fallujah. Didn’t turn him into no compulsive hoarder. Their sacrifice only made him stronger, more committed to the job.

He never bothered defending himself to those stuffy psych department bitches. Didn’t have to. Gregg knew why Mary covered her windows—to hide from city officials like him. All their hippie bullshit did was give Mary every excuse she needed to keep on breaking the law.

Gregg bangs on the door again.

“C’mon, Mary! Enough is enough. Open up now, you hear me?”

Now she’s making him late.

This hide and seek game is nothing new to him. Happens every time he comes for a scheduled visit. That’s why he didn’t make an appointment today, why he’d shown up after scheduled hours. Gregg had hoped that by coming unannounced, he’d be able to avoid the charade, but this had been the longest she’d made him wait. Gregg hopes that it’s because she’s got some kind of hoarder ESP and she saw him coming—living up to the local witch-lady reputation everyone in town had pinned on her. Otherwise, the reason she’s taking so long could turn out to be something serious, something known to happen in severe hoarder cases like Mary’s.

A thought enters Gregg’s mind, a momentary picture: Mary lying dead in a pile of slimy garbage, thrift store clutter piled up on top of her crumpled, stiff body.

Leaning over, his ear almost touching the crusty door, he listens for signs of life. The house is silent for a moment, but then Gregg hears some mumbling, followed by a long muffled groan. Adrenaline grabs him and he reaches up to pound on the door. This time though, instead of slamming on the wood, his fist comes straight down on a rusted nail sticking out of the door. The crooked spike slips effortlessly into the side of his hand, poking out of the front of his palm. He snatches his hand away, as if recoiling from an open flame.

Looking down, Gregg sees the puncture wound, deep, already turning blue around the edges of the tiny hole. There’s no blood for a moment, just a cold sensation, like he’s squeezing an ice cube in his fist. Then the blood comes, thick, like syrup. Dark red, almost black. The pain starts up too, the icy numbness in his palm replaced by a hot poker, glowing angry red.

Words explode from his mouth without consent.

“MOTHERFUCKINGSONOFABITCHCOCKSU—!”

“Well,” a voice says from behind the door. “That’s no way to say hello.”

Gregg looks up, sees Mary’s wrinkled face behind the partially opened door. The chain on the sliding lock dangles in front of her eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she says. “You’re not supposed to come for another week.”

“Mary, please. I stuck myself on this nail.” Gregg, pressing his hands together in a bloody prayer, gestures at the nail sticking out of the door. “Can you let me in?”

“You didn’t answer my question. You said I had another week to clean up.”

“I just came to check in—goddammit—please, Mary, help me out?”

“Long as you don’t use His name in my house.”

“Godda—okay. Gosh, Mary. I’m real sorry about that.”

Mary slams the door in Gregg’s face. For a moment he thinks that she’s leaving him out there, pissed off by his poorly veiled sarcasm. He hears her slide off the chain lock. She yanks the door, but can’t get it all the way open on account of all the crap piled up in the entryway behind it. Last time Gregg had been there, she’d told him she’d be sure to clean out the foyer.

Gregg steps into Mary’s house.

The smell, goddammit. Almost sends him right back out the door.

The reek of Mary’s house somehow always surprises him, chokes him. The smell reminds Gregg of pulling shit burning detail back in Iraq, the acrid fumes burning their way up his nostrils. Somehow though, the stench of Mary’s house is even worse than those burning buckets of crap. A lingering mildew sours the air, like clothes left in the washer overnight. Gregg sucks in a breath and holds it— fucking tasting the air—takes a few more steps into the house. Mary spins around with a scowl, as if she’d heard him gasp. The look on her face is twisted between embarrassment and disdain.

“You all right, Mary?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Seemed like it took you a long time to answer the door, is all. And I thought I heard you moaning, thought maybe you’d hurt yourself or something.”

“I’m fine,” she says, glancing away.

Mary always looks away when she’s lying. That’s her tell.

“Okay. If you say so.” Gregg waits a beat. “You sure?”

“Just stay there,” she says. “I’ll go find something to put on that. Then you can leave.”

“All right,” he says, grinning. “And thank you.”

“Don’t you try to be sweet with me, you snake. And don’t go touching nothin neither.”

Mary turns around, shuffles down the narrow path she’s constructed between the walls of trash and debris. The way her body cranes over as she walks reminds Gregg of a diseased bird, hollow and brittle, like a vulture destined to become its own prey. Her delicate frame bounces off the crap piled up on either side of her. A cascade of shoes tumbles to the floor. She kicks them to the side of the path and continues shoving her way towards the kitchen.

Looking around Mary’s living room—though it’s hard to imagine much living going on there—Gregg wonders why he’d thought coming in would help. He suddenly realizes that anything Mary plans on wrapping his wound with will most likely cause infection.

On a nearby table he sees a bundle of tomatoes growing grey hair. Next to them, some bread loaves lay squished beneath a pile of swollen canned goods, the bread all speckled green and white. There’s a bunch of splintered end tables stacked up like a work of modern art in front of the fireplace. Coat hangers are hooked to anything that can support the weight of a thousand thrift store sweaters, every color of the spectrum, many with cartoon cats airbrushed on the front.

Over the fireplace he spots the crowning jewel of the room, the centerpiece of Mary’s dysfunction. A giant cross, the symbol of her forgotten faith, hangs upside-down by a solitary nail. Looks like it’s been that way for years. Above the dangling cross, there’s a faint black outline on the wall, traced in soot on the wallpaper. A ghostly imprint, like a carbon copy revealing a time when the cross had been hung correctly.

Gregg feels a stab of pain in the center of his palm. He grips his injury with both hands. Glancing down, he sees blood spilling out between his fingers, streaming down both forearms.

“Unbelievable,” he mutters. “Fucking redneck bullshit. Rusted ass nail, just sticking—“

Gregg hears the moaning noise again, the one he’d heard outside the front door.

To his left there’s a blue tarp laid out in the middle of the living room, big concrete cinderblocks lining the edge. The tarp is smoothed out, stretched, cinderblocks carefully placed along the edges. Gregg notices that the hoard has been cleared away from the tarp, giving the space a look of importance amidst all the surrounding clutter.

The moaning again, this time blending into a high-pitched wail.

As he gets closer, Gregg realizes the sound is coming from beneath the tarp.

The wailing reminds him of the sound cats make right before they launch into a fight. Approaching the plastic sheet, Gregg recalls the time that the city had seized over twenty cats from Mary’s home. Fear starts playing with his head again—implanting the image of a hundred feral cats all huddled up beneath the tarp, ready to pounce on him, ripping him to pieces as soon as he lifts the corner.

The wail grows louder as he nears, now a choir of alley cats reaching crescendo.

Gregg swallows the terror in his throat, tries to steady his heartbeat by telling himself he’s being ridiculous. It’s a fucking cat, man, or at worst, a litter. All the more reason to condemn this fucking hellhole. Semper fi, you pussy.

He glances down the pathway, hears Mary shuffling around in the kitchen, clanging pots and pans, still looking for whatever Ebola rag she’s going to try and wrap around his hand.

Another wail, still louder this time, brings his attention back to the tarp.

Gregg squats down, slides one of the cinderblocks off with his good hand. The concrete grinds across the floor, leaving deep gouges in the hardwood. Momentarily seized by guilt, Gregg reminds himself that there’s no way Mary will ever notice the damage to the floorboards. Hell, he remembers, the demolition crew is coming next week.

Pinching the corner of the tarp, he pulls on the plastic. It doesn’t budge. The tarp is glued to the floor. Gregg prays that this happened intentionally somehow, shuttering at the thought of what kind of slime could bond with the water-resistant tarp. He grabs the corner again, getting a good grip this time, and tugs hard. The plastic makes a tearing sound, like ripping off a strip of duct tape. He stumbles back from the sudden release, falling against a pile of damp clothes.

The wailing suddenly stops.

Gregg drops the plastic sheet, pushes himself up to see what’s under the tarp.

There is a massive circular hole cut through the hardwood of Mary’s living room floor, straight down to the basement below. A hot wave of putrid stench billows up in Gregg’s face.

“Mother of God,” he says, lifting his forearm up to cover his mouth and nose.

“What are you doing!”

Gregg stumbles forward, almost falling in the hole. He hadn’t noticed Mary sneaking back from the kitchen, his mind too busy trying to reconcile with the insanely dangerous hole Mary had cut into the floor. Spinning around, he sees that her little body is shaking with anger. She’s clutching a bottle of rubbing alcohol and an old mechanic’s rag.

“What the hell is this?” Gregg says, pointing at the hole.

At least six or eight feet across, the lining of the hole is masked off with glued down newspaper, like some paper mâché project from Hell. The smell of warm shit wafting up from the hole overwhelms the moldiness that normally possesses her house, making it seem as though the walls had been bathed in black water. The light of the living room shines down on a mess of brown sludge stirring in the basement.

A septic leak, Gregg assumes.

“That’s it, I’ve seen enough. We’re through here. I’m calling APS right now and getting you the hell out of this place. Your house is finished.”

“Finished?” The red drains from her face in an instant, her eyes become glossy.

“There’s no way to fix this, Mary. Just look at it down there!”

The wailing starts up again, sounds more like a cartoon train whistle this time. Without the tarp muffling the noise, the screeching becomes clearer, piercing his skull.

“How long has that been going on?” Gregg asked. “How can you stand that sound?”

“What sound?” Mary wiped the tears from her eyes, looking away from Gregg.

“Don’t lie to me, I know you can hear that.” Gregg takes a step towards the hole, the smell keeping him from getting too close. “Your pipes must’ve burst down there. You really can’t hear that?”

“Oh, the pipes,” Mary says, looking away again. “The pipes are always wailing.”

Mary stares at the hole, her eyes vacant, the blackness of her pupils expanding.

“Whatever, Mary. I’m done with all of your bullshit. It’s over. You can’t live like this anymore. I can’t let you. I came here tonight to tell you that the city has decided to tear down your house. You missed the hearing, so I came here on my own accord, off the record. I wanted to tell you myself. The demolition crew is coming out next week, Mary. I’m sorry.”

Mary’s eyes stay fixed on the hole. Her hands tremble, her grip tightening around the bottle and rag. Redness starts filling her face again.

“You’re going to do what?” she says. “You’re going to tear down my house!”

She takes a step towards him.

Gregg holds up his hand out of instinct, wincing against the pain.

“Stop right there, Mary. Stop.”

“You can’t do that. You don’t understand!”

“What are you talking about? What don’t I understand?”

She takes another step forward. Her eyes become even more distant, black and empty.

“This is my purpose,” she says. “My terrible burden. I made a deal—”

“A deal? Mary, what the fuck’re you—hey, now—stop right there!”

“—in exchange for his soul. He can never really come back, not fully—”

“Don’t make me hurt you.” Gregg makes a fist with his good hand.

“—but if I keep feeding the filth, keep serving his sorrow—I get to keep his soul.”

Mary lifts the bottle of rubbing alcohol at Gregg, squeezes with both hands. Liquid shoots out of a hole notched in the cap, the geyser spraying him right in the face.

Gregg stumbles. His eyes feel like they’re on fire. The puncture in his hand stings from the alcohol, as if a knife has driven into his palm.

He steps back, trips on one of the cinderblocks and falls.

The anticipation of slamming down on the hardwood is replaced by a few seconds of weightlessness, sending his stomach lurching into his chest. He lands with a soft squish, halfway submerged in what feels like thick mud. Acrid fumes of sewage fill his lungs, the noxious air of human waste. He coughs, gets sick on himself. Tears stream down his cheeks. Blinking the alcohol from his eyes, Gregg can see the faint outline of the living room hole above him. He hears the crinkle of the plastic tarp overhead. 

The light begins to fade.

“Mary! What the fuck are you doing! Get me out of here!”

The crinkling continues. He can barely see the light through his burning tears.

“You crazy bitch! I’m gonna have your ass for this!”

Gregg digs his good hand beneath the sludge, roots around in search of his pocket. He slips his hand in, grabs his phone. There’s a wet sucking sound when he pulls his hand back out of the muck. Gregg presses the button, but the screen doesn’t light up. He presses again. Using the clean part of his sleeve, he wipes away the shit caked up on the front of his cell, pressing the button frantically. Nothing. The slime must’ve killed his phone.

Wiping his eyes against his shoulder, he tries looking up again. The hole is completely covered now, the light gone. Gregg hears Mary sliding the cinderblocks back in place.

Then he hears the wailing again—this time, just behind his left ear.

“What the fuck!”

Gregg throws his weight forward, but his body is stuck. Struggling against the suction, he feels himself sinking deeper. He claws at the cesspool with both hands, fully aware of the fact that he’s most likely just contracted some kind of Hepatitis. He starts imagining the bacteria seeping into the hole in his hand, infecting him. Luckily, desperation drowns out those thoughts.

The wailing cry lifts up over his head, as if floating, shadowing his frantic movements.

“Mary!” he screams. “What the fuck is going on!”

Mary doesn’t respond, just keeps sliding the concrete blocks on the tarp.

The screaming moves closer, descending on him, nearing his face.

“For the love of God–help me!”

The sound stops.

There’s no more noise upstairs, either. Mary’s done securing the tarp.

Mustering up his most sympathetic voice, Gregg pleads for his life. He aims for her heart.

“Mary, please. I have a family. Please, don’t leave me in here. Don’t put my wife through the same pain you’ve held inside you all these years. She needs me.”

“And I need him,” Mary says. Gregg hears her footsteps across the hardwood above him, slowly moving away from the hole, leaving him in the silence of the basement.

The alcohol now cleared from his eyes, he sees a dim light coming from the corner of the room. There’s a plywood table across from him, built into the concrete wall. Rows and rows of candles are lined up on top, burnt down to their dying glow, streams of hardened wax covering the entire surface of the wood. On the wall, Gregg can see crudely drawn symbols etched in charcoal—stars and circles, elaborate figures he doesn’t recognize. Squinting his eyes, he makes out some words written in shit across the wall:

With weeping and with wailing, accursed spirit, do thou remain, for I know thee although thou art all filthy.

“What the fu—” Gregg’s last words are never heard. Something rises up in front of him, blocking the dim glow of the candles. The wailing begins again, the creature’s hot breath blowing right into his face. What seemed to Gregg like bony fingers wrap around the collar of his shirt, squeezing, pulling him beneath the surface of the murky river of shit. Gregg struggles to pull off the phantom hands, the black water filling his mouth, forcing itself up his nostrils.