False impression

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959Ghazi Aslam had a face like a pterodactyl, or so the guys at school told him. He compensated for his bad looks by taking good care of his teeth, covering as much of his face as he could with a beard, and working out until his chest took on the rough density and dimensions of a Gothic breastplate.

Ghazi looked in the mirror only once a week while he trimmed his beard, and he was okay with what he saw. He tried to be nice, plus he had a voice like an angel. His friend Keisha talked him into singing with her choir, and she assured him that the other members would be cool with a hawk-nose Muzzie ‘slong as he brought his perfect tenor. He never let them down.

Aside from choir, Ghazi preferred it behind the scenes. He worked as a prep cook at a fusion joint downtown, 3 to 5:30 every day but Monday. That left him free for classes in the mornings and choir rehearsal Thursday evenings, and that worked for him. Ghazi was meticulous when it came to his job. He had his tasks broken down to a science, and arranged his time into five-minute-long segments. Spices were combined, onions chopped, lemons squeezed, shrimp peeled all by 3:20. About to set to work julienning carrots, Ghazi felt his phone buzz and the familiar opening chords of Danzig’s Mother escaped from his front-left pocket. He chuckled and set down his knife.

Ghazi and his mom were close and he took her calls no matter the time. He slid his hand underneath his apron and reached into his left-front pocket. “Hi, mom,” he said as he cradled the phone on his shoulder so he could continue to slice the carrots. He lifted the knife with his right hand and went to work on a carrot while he chatted with his mom. He was more attentive to the chopping than he was to the conversation. Later, the details of what his mom said would escape him.

At 3:27, Ghazi slid the julienned carrots into a bowl, cut off his mom, and said goodbye. Later, he clearly recalled that he had been bothered by the slip in his schedule. He stashed the phone back in his pocket and went to retrieve some herbs from the fridge. When he returned with the rosemary and thyme he was annoyed to find his best knife missing from its usual spot, parallel to the right-hand edge of his cutting board.

Ghazi spent two minutes searching unsuccessfully before he gave up and resorted to his paring knife to chop the herbs. He had time to make up. He moved to the stove and set about caramelizing onions and melting butter for a roux. He sang gospel songs while he worked, warming up his voice for rehearsal. Luckily, Ghazi was alone in the restaurant, so no one was there to jive him about his rendition of Amazing Grace. By the time Lisa rolled in at five to set up the dining room, Ghazi was back on schedule and had the stovetop laid out with bubbling saucepans.

He scoured for the lost knife one last time at ten after five, while he was cleaning his work station. It bothered him but there wasn’t anything more he could do. He went over the menu with Yang, the chef, and hung up his apron. By 5:35, Ghazi was hopping onto the crowded rush hour train uptown to rehearsal. He chalked up the stares to his humongous schnozz and tried to smile whenever he met someone’s eyes.

At 5:55 he met Keisha with a hug outside the church. They went inside for rehearsal. Seconds later, old Mrs. Foster let out a shriek to wake the dead, and Sam Smith, ex-college linebacker and one of the choir’s two baritones, tackled Ghazi to the worn red carpet of the chapel, yanking the butcher’s knife from the back waistband of his jeans. Buff as he was, Ghazi didn’t stand a chance against Sam, nor was he expecting to be attacked in church.

The cops tried to frame him as a misfit momma’s boy with a prophesy to fulfill and made him out to be an obsessive-compulsive.Whatever, Ghazi figured. He was just relieved to have located his misplaced knife.



It’s not magic

“A lady’s gotta carry a pistol,” my grandmomma used to say. Grandmomma used to say lots of yimmer-yammer ‘fore she passed on, God bless her. After she died, daddy got her all set up real nice over on the hill there up behind the house. I got her a real marble, inlaid headstone so everybody knows it’s her they’re kneeling on, just like grandmomma wanted.

When she was livin’, grandmomma used to share lots of her gems up there in her kitchen. She’d have me sittin at her table, a glass of sweet tea or lemonade on a doily by my wrist faster than I could say gotchya, and she’d be fixin’ a sandwich more like than not. Sandwiches were her specialty.

I always brought grandmomma presents whenever I came up to visit. Nice vase of flowers, lilies like her name. Grandmomma always liked those even when she was livin’. I’d bring her those cookies she liked with the chocolate icing inside, and we’d have a talk. Really, grandmomma would be givin’ me the third degree ‘bout when I was gonna go on and finally get married, but at least her mouth’d be movin’ like it was a real conversation.

Course the first time I brought it by, she noticed my brand-new, cherry red Corvette outside. “Woo-ee! Where you gettin’ the money for that spitfire, girlie?” Grandmomma demanded, juttin’ out one hip under her apron with the little blue hearts, and clampin’ her hand down on it like she was sixteen. “You ain’t got a husband I don’t know about, do ya, darlin’?”

“Nah, Grandmomma,” I told her, gulping down my lemonade so I didn’t have to fill her in on my private business.

“I want an invitation to the weddin’, ya hear,” she laughed, sitting down across from me. “Now ya know I just want ya to be happy, darlin’. Ya know that, right?”

“Of course, Grandmomma.”

“So who’s makin’ the payment on that shiny red apple out there, girlie?”

“Me, Grandmomma.” I didn’t bother telling her I paid cash for the car. “Have some cookies, Grandmomma,” I opened the tin and pushed it over near her. She couldn’t resist.

Nobody wants a crook for a grandbaby, ‘specially if that grandbaby’s a girl. Still, round here, people prefer mayhem to the cold, hard truth. Ain’t no way I was gonna break my dear, sweet grandmomma’s heart with the news that her favorite grandbaby’s grown up and can take care of herself. I made more money in a month than daddy ever saw in one place.

Grandmomma had a lotta gems up there in her attic, but she never knew squat ‘bout makin’ rain, how a lady can make the bigwigs at a conference table blush just by shifting her thighs, how she can make the big shots fill her purse if she plays her cards right. Grandmomma would’ve wrung my neck if I’d opened up, so she died not knowin’. It’s too bad, ‘cause she woulda laughed, too. And she probably woulda liked knowin’ how right she was ‘bout the pistol thing.

Un certain âge

I lowered my sunglasses and double-checked the street outside the bank before going in. “Pas des mechants, mes poulettes,” I whispered to the girls as I held the door open with the heel of my boot, wedged my orange BOB Revolution through the door, and made my way to the teller. She was très jolie, I had to admit, with her long brown hair and perfect lipstick, but I didn’t return her smile.

“May I help you, miss?” she asked, still smiling, giving me the benefit of the doubt, making nice.

“Bonjour,” I called over the counter, flaunting my accent. I still didn’t smile. “I need to close my account.” I showed her my license.

The teller furrowed her perfect brow. “Is there a problem?” she murmured confidentially.

“A problem? No.” Mais oui. Agathe and Édith were waking up now; their little chirps emerged from the stroller, which I jostled a bit while I debated how to tell the teller what she wanted to hear. I stooped down and pulled the leather satchel from underneath the Revolution and calmly passed it over the counter. “Here, take this. Give me all cash. Nothing smaller than hundreds, please.”

She nodded. I watched the second hand make a slow round of the clock above her pretty face. Mais oui, une problème, I thought as I recalled the past six months in the apartment with only the staff and the bébés. It wasn’t natural. “You can’t go outside alone,” David insisted. “It isn’t safe out there,” he’d coo to the girls as he’d part the blinds to peek at the street below.

Not long ago, I thought as I watched the teller’s manicured fingernails match the rhythm of the second hand, I used to enjoy David’s protectiveness. He loved me and didn’t want to share, I used to think. Merveilleux, I used to think when he had a museum shut down for the afternoon so we could wander through uninterrupted, or when he emptied out the restaurants first so we could dine privately. Oui, I used to love it.

“Just a moment while I go downstairs, miss,” the teller smiled.

The girls’ chirps turned to screeches. I clucked and jostled, jostled and clucked, but they wouldn’t settle. This was new to them, I realized, reaching into my handbag for their bottles. I shoved the plastic nipples into the girls’ open mouths and thank God, they shut up. I pulled out their twin bowls of organic crackers and plunked them on their matching trays. We were getting looks by then. I could feel the prying eyes on the back of my head and the skin on my bare hands began to crawl. I wished I’d worn gloves.

The teller returned, my bag hanging empty in her hand. “Please come with me, miss.”

“Just call me ma’am, why don’t you?” I screamed, slipping into my native drawl. My heart was pounding. The teller blinked but didn’t lose her composure. She pressed the bag into my hand and ushered me and the baby stroller through a door into a small room.

It turned out that my asshole husband had rolled my whole $50 million savings into one of his private accounts. It turned out to be a teensy clause in our fucking pre-nup. The teller smiled and handed me a tissue.

It wasn’t the bitch’s fault, so I backed the BOB out of the bank, turned on my heel, and headed for the park. At least that was free. “Ladies, don’t ever go and get married,” I called to the girls, who cooed back.

Chapter Four

It was 10:35 when I reached the station, according to the clock above the desk.

“What brings you in at this hour?” croaked a detective in a rumpled three-piece suit and a nametag from behind the desk. He held a large coffee cup. He shared some of his perfect teeth and I tried not to cringe.

“Detective O’Neill?” I leaned over the desk and read from his nametag. “My camera was just stolen.”

He sighed. “Alright, kid.” He rifled through a drawer and pulled out a crumpled form. “Fill this out, be specific. Sign here, and here, and here,” he pointed all over the form, as if I were buying a fucking car. I did as he said and put everything I knew on the form, which wasn’t much.

He looked it over and snickered.

“What’s so funny?” I snipped.

He wiped the smile off his face. “I don’t want to get your hopes up, kid. These small items like your Nikon, they’re usually long gone before my guys get a shot. Fucking E-bay,” he said ominously. “You got the serial number?”

Shit. It was probably buried in some filing cabinet in the studio. “Not with me,” I spat out.

“Look, kid, why don’t you head home and find it, then stop by when you have a chance tomorrow? My  guys’ll be in, and we’ll get you squared away,” he shoved my forms in an inbox in the corner of the desk and sat back down. “Take it easy,” he said brightly.

I didn’t return his smile. “Asshole,” I mumbled under my breath as I stormed out. Outside, my hands automatically went to my hip where my camera bag usually hung. Fuck, I literally never stepped outside without my camera. My heart turned out a metal riff. It was going to be a long night.

I hit it and walked a few blocks to chill out. A few blocks turned into a mile and I just kept going. I ducked into a bar and ordered a double malt no ice. This was serious.

“Rough night?” the bartender wiped the counter across from me.

“Yeah,” I said after I’d downed my whiskey. I pushed the glass across the counter.

The tattoo on his wrist caught my eye as he unscrewed the whiskey jug. “Girl trouble?”

“Say that again,” I mumbled as I patted my hip. Fuck, no camera. The light in there was spectacular too. I drummed my fingers on the bar as I drank the second whiskey.

“Gotta keep your strength up,” the barkeep said as he offered me a bowl of peanuts. I ate them steadily one at a time, glad for the distraction, not that it worked, really. The light in there was irrestistible.

“She dump you or what?” Barkeep asked over his shoulder as he washed glasses in the sink.

“Nah, bitch stole my camera.”

“Stole your camera? Damn. What was it?”

“Nikon, D500. Worst part is, I need it for work.”

“Yeah? You’re a photographer?”

“Assistant. Plus I have this blog.” I don’t know why I mentioned the blog, I don’t usually talk about it. But right then it made me feel more important. I ate a few more peanuts and debated another whiskey. Something about the light in there got to me, and before long even the empty glass looked photo worthy. The second whiskey got me thinking that my camera phone might do and I tried it.

“Hold on, man, I haven’t done my hair,” the barkeep rubbed his bald head, smirking.

I shook my head. “Don’t worry, it’s shit.” I shoved the camera back in my pocket and went for the third whiskey. “Hit me,” I said, signaling to my glass with one finger.

He opened the whiskey bottle again, setting off a new wave of craving. I could feel the absent camera bag on my hip. “Tell me about that blog,” he said.

“Not much to tell. It’s just a bunch of photos. Gotta keep em somewhere, right?”

“What’s it called?” he asked. I eyed up the empty bar before I told him. The slat-backed barstools were all lined up but one.

“Aperture Priori,” I blinked and the shot disappeared.

“Aperture Priori,” he considered it for a second. “Ooh, I get it, I get it.” He probably didn’t get it. I ate the last few peanuts in the bowl as a couple of girls made their way into the bar. I’d had more than enough of womenfolk, so I stood up to leave, tossing some money on the bar. “Thanks, man,” I called to the barkeep.

“You’re not staying?” He nodded towards the ladies.

“Nope,” I called as I walked to the door.

“Good luck finding the camera,” he said as the door shut.

Untethered and drunk on the street, it didn’t take long for trouble to find me. Couple of guys, couldn’t’ve been out of high school, jumped me near the mouth of this alley. I was a gimme. I didn’t resist, but they still threw me up against the wall, punched me in the face. Fucking gratuitous violence. I hit the pavement like I was falling into bed. Thanks to the third whiskey I wasn’t scared. Thanks to Eden, I didn’t lose my camera to two thugs. I knew I was in bad when, lying on the sidewalk, I could picture the perfect shot of their retreat.

I didn’t pass out. I sat up and leaned against the bricks. Guys took my wallet, phone, even my watch, so I was on my own. The night was surprisingly busy but it still took awhile to get noticed. If I’d had my camera, I’d’ve had a whole set before the barkeep found me sitting there, black ring forming around my shutter eye.

He did a double-take as he walked by, “Hey, what happened to you, man?”

I shrugged. The whiskey was wearing off, and I was suddenly wiped out. I tried to curl up on the sidewalk, but the barkeep stopped me.

“No, come on,” he pulled me up and wrapped one arm around my waist. “You manage to walk like this?” he asked and I put one foot in front of the other. My mind was empty. Nothing like three whiskeys and a punch in the face to bring you closer to Zen.

“My place is right around the corner, K?” the barkeep announced. I didn’t talk.

He led me to an unmarked green door and up a set of nondescript steps. Nothing mattered. Barkeep opened the door at the top of the steps and pushed me inside. The carpeted floor came up fast and I lay still, feeling oddly like this made perfect sense.

“Hey smart boy, can I get you a drink?” Barkeep opened his fridge and pulled out a beer. He bit off the cap and flicked it at my head. I blinked. He came over by me and kicked me in the gut. I didn’t speak, but a sound emerged from my depths. I blinked again, taking in the dirty toes of his boots. He kicked me again. “This is gonna be fun, man,” he said cheerfully. “Sure I can’t get you a beer?” he asked as he took a gulp and spit it all over me.

He bent down and felt me up, shoving his hands in my pockets. “Shit, somebody robbed you blind, smart boy. Shouldn’ta drunk so much.” I’m not blind, I thought, focusing on the wall behind him. His hands stopped searching and started exploring. I didn’t care. I just lay there, staring at the cityscape over the plaid sofa. Too obvious, I thought, even as I got lost in it.

I woke up naked, reeking of beer. I couldn’t have told you what happened, but I figured the shoot would have been killer if I’d had my camera, and you know, not been passed out cold on the floor. Fuck the pretty girl on the side of the bus. I looked at my torn and smeary body. This was what people needed to see. It hurt to move but I forced myself up, my head spinning, my gut hurting. I didn’t see the guy anywhere, so I pulled my clothes on over my sticky skin, moving slow and keeping quiet. I tiptoed out, leaving the door open behind me.

My reflection met me in the plate glass next to that unmarked green door. Even in the half-light of sunrise I could tell I looked like shit. I touched the swelling around my eye, ran my fingers through my hair, and debated heading home to clean up. But my keys were long gone, and truth is, all I cared about was my camera. I dragged myself down the sidewalk, heading back to the police station. Half a block down the street I patted my hip where my camera shoulda been.

No comments, just questions, please.

Chapter Three

In the dim light of a hallway, the girl stands in front of an elevator admiring her own reflection in the mirrored doors. Her skintight black running suit makes her nearly invisible in the dark hallway, yet she still turns from side to side and nods her approval at her faint reflection. A small ding fills the hall as the elevator comes to a stop. Its doors slowly slide open and light from inside the elevator casts an eerie glow down the dim hallway. Cast into silhouette, the girl’s body breaks down into a series of curves. She freezes, her silver eyes locked on the elevator’s interior.

Inside the elevator stands a tall figure draped in a cloak the color of midnight. From underneath the hood a dark and heavy-lined face emerges, and the girl lets out a shriek.

“Christ, Lazarus,” she chides him with a sharp edge to her voice. “What are you doing in there, anyway?”

“Get on, Elix,” his voice emerges from within the elevator.

She steps inside without complaint and the doors slide shut with a gentle hum. “Thank you,” Lazarus says quietly, his green eyes flashing with a hint of surprise under his hood. “Now we can start.” He sweeps his arm towards the girl in a fluid arc, as if aiming to strike her. The movement is captured in the infinity between the mirrored walls as his finger comes to rest on the button pad behind the girl’s head.

“Jeez,” the girl cries as she jumps back and presses her sleek figure against the mirror behind her. She rolls her eyes as the doors slide closed.  A muffled whoosh accompanies the silence and a moment later the doors open again. The hallway has been replaced by a workroom of sorts, very large and lined with tall windows. Tools and weapons hang on hooks and a large wooden table stands in the center of the room. Artwork is stacked on easels and clipped to the windows. Dust and wood shavings carpet the floor.

Lazarus takes the girl by the wrist and leads her off the elevator. “Surprised?” he asks, a glimmer of humor in his voice. “This is my workroom.” He sweeps his arm out of his cape once again, making a violent arc to display his lair. “Look around, Elix. My things could help you.”

Elix laughs and snatches her hand out of his grasp. “Fat chance,” she mouths under her breath, but she begins to look around, occasionally taking a tool off its hook.

“Familiarize yourself with my things. You’re going to want to remember them,” Lazarus continues, flashing the girl a disapproving glare. “Your journey is simple yet deceiving. Any one of the things you find here in my workroom could save you later. Don’t underestimate anything,” he closes the gap between them and meets her eyes.

She pretends to shiver and moves past him, running her hand along a row of knives. She removes one, tests the blade, then tries to pocket it. Lazarus restrains her wrist once more. “Put the knife back, Elixer.” His voice is deep and calm. She sneers but returns the blade to its hook. “You’ll find your own weapons,” he continues, “if you need them.” He leads the girl to one of the windows. From their vantage point, the city spreads out like a map before them.

“Look,” he says, indicating the city below. Elix stands beside him by the large window and cocks her head in his direction. “It’s simple. You’ll start from here, make your way through the city,” he draws his finger through the air as if tracing the streets on a map. “You choose your path. You deal with what comes.”

“By myself?” Elix asks.

He nods. “You’ll find what you need down there,” he sweeps his hand across the city. “Take cover if you need to, but don’t hide. You have to keep moving,” he warns. “Remember, nothing is as it seems.”

“Then how the hell am I supposed to know what to do?” Elix snaps.

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Lazarus says. “Don’t worry, I won’t be far. And you’ll be able to hear me as well.” He turns back to the window while Elix snakes one hand across the counter behind her and clutches a small blade, which she slips inside her sleeve. A second passes and Lazarus takes her hand and pins it to the window behind her. He’s angry but he barely shows it. “What do you think you’re doing?” he growls as he pulls the blade out of her sleeve and puts it back on the counter. “You can’t keep secrets from me. And,” he lowers his voice, “I told you. You’ll find what you need down there.” He turns her face toward the street below.

Elix nods nervously. “Sorry,” she squeaks.

Lazarus gives her a few more warnings then cranks open the large window. A breeze catches the edges of his cape as he steps close behind her.

“I’m going to push you now,” Lazarus mouths into her ear, his hands gripping her shoulders.

Elix looks down at the busy street some thirty stories below and pushes back against his hands. She thrashes with terror, but her scream comes out silent. “Use your voice,” Lazarus demands. “It’s your best weapon.” Then, as he pushes her through the open window, “Take a deep breath.”

As she falls, the air rushes up to meet her face, pulling her hair every which way and displacing her body parts. Watching her drop is a delight.

The ground comes fast and she stiffens, bracing herself for the inevitable smash. A bright yellow string of taxis blurs past, revealing the gray asphalt of the street. Pedestrians hurry by on the sidewalk, so engrossed in their thoughts that most of them don’t notice the girl hit the ground and disappear.

The asphalt gives way and swallows her. She drops until the friction of the cold, dark water slows her fall. She blinks in the darkness and panic takes hold. Spinning and thrashing, she fights the water.

“Swim,” comes Lazarus’ voice from within the water. Elix blinks again. Bubbles escape her mouth but she reaches up and pushes herself up through the dark water. Only seconds pass before she breaks the surface, gulping for air. Buildings rise up around her, most pedestrians don’t notice the pool that’s formed in the asphalt, they don’t see the girl swimming in the street. They don’t see, and just like that the water vanishes and Elix is lying in the middle of the street, wet and panting. A black sedan pulls to a slow stop next to her and a door opens for her.

On the sidewalk, a girl stops dead in her tracks. Pedestrians flood past, jostling her, but her eyes stay locked on the street. She watches Elix emerge from the water, watches the phase transition in the street, watches Elix disappear into the car.

“Did you see that?” she asks no one in particular when the sedan continues down the street. No one answers.

Chapter Two

The first time I saw her, I noticed her but she barely registered. It was a morning somewhere between Monday and Friday, and she was sitting at a table inside a neighborhood café with her books spread out all over the table. Buried in her reading like that, she looked lost. There was no chance of her seeing me. I watched her read through the glass, admiring the near perfect shot. Her wild blonde curls spilled over her shoulders, and her face looked like porcelain. She flipped a page and jotted something down in her notebook with a Sharpie. No way would she notice. I pulled my Nikon out of my bag and set up the shot. I clicked, and she must have sensed something because right then she looked up. Terror morphed into surprise and then into joy as a large smile spread across her face, all in the span of seconds. She smiled like she recognized me, but we’d never met before.

I returned her smile, slipped my Nikon back into my bag, and rejoined the throng of pedestrians on the sidewalk. She sure was beautiful, but beauty was the norm in this part of town. I never expected to see her again. The shot turned out, though. It was good enough that it made the cut into my gallery. My followers thought so too and pretty soon that shot was all over the place. Of course Vivi noticed. “She’s pretty,” she announced, glaring at my laptop with one eyebrow raised. “Who is she?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Just some girl on the street,” I pointed at the filename and wrapped my arms around Vivi. “Are you jealous?” I joked.

“Jealous?” Vivi asked, like she’d never heard the word before. “Why on earth would I be jealous?”

“I have no idea,” I answered, kissing her neck.

“She has fantastic hair, that’s all,” she nodded towards my laptop, oblivious to the nuances in my photo, as usual. She touched her own short dark hair, perfectly arranged and sprayed in place, as if to reassure herself that it was still there. “And people sure like her. Look how much attention she’s getting,” she whined, pointing at my stats. “Don’t forget, we’re meeting Emma and Greg for drinks after class,” Vivi squeezed out of my arms and buzzed around my kitchen, helping herself to a wooden spoon and a small skillet, which she tossed into her large purse.

“Hey, what are you doing? Don’t take my stuff,” I tried to grab her halfheartedly as she breezed past.

“Props for rehearsal,” she called on her way toward the door, as if that explained everything. “See you later, Jason darling,” she grinned from the door, then tossed her leopard-print jacket over her arm and opened the door. “Emma and Greg tonight, around nine,” she said as the door closed behind her.

“Whatever,” I said under my breath. I looked at mystery girl on my screen and sighed.


Weeks went by, then months, and I kept up my pace. Hundreds of new photographs made their way into my gallery, mostly gritty street scenes, and I’d be lying if I said I thought about coffee shop girl. No, I’d forgotten all about her.

Vivi started a fashion design class and I took up a new hobby: hanging with her study group at the library. Libraries weren’t my thing, but Vivi liked to show me off. Happy Vivi meant horny Vivi, and I liked horny Vivi. She’d usually be hanging with her group in one of the study rooms near the back, planning out the week’s designs, but one night she was nowhere to be found. When I didn’t see her crew, I wandered around the stacks. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the blonde girl sitting alone at a table in the corner, deep into her reading. Six months disappeared and for a second it was like I was back there on the sidewalk looking into the café. She didn’t look up when I came closer, and for a second I thought I might be mistaken, that she was someone else. I set my camera bag down on the edge of her table.

“Mind if I sit here?” I asked. She shrugged and nudged her books closer to her as I sat down. The table was small and I kicked her shin as I took my seat. She gave me a sharp look, which turned into surprise when she saw my camera bag on the table. “Hey,” she said with a smile. “It’s you.”

If I’d known then how much trouble a smile like that can cause, I’d’ve grabbed my camera bag and moved on. I’d’ve combed the library for Vivi, stupid Vivi, who only cared about fashion and fuck-me heels. I should’ve known better. Since I didn’t, I sat there and got drunk on her smile. “Jason,” I said stupidly, offering my hand over her pile of books.

“Thanks for introducing yourself this time,” she said. “Eden,” she said her name like an afterthought.

“Big exam?” I asked as I turned one of her books so I could get a look at the spine.

“Actually, yes,” she grinned. “Psych.”

If there was ever a sign that I should hit it, it was that. But I loved her smile so I sat there. “Go ahead,” I grinned, “Try to diagnose me,” I said, leaning back and crossing my arms over my chest. “You’ll probably be disappointed. I’m not very complicated.”

“Everyone is complicated,” she answered. She sounded pretty damn sure. A minute passed as she jotted more notes. “So, how did my photograph turn out?” she flashed me a quick, knowing smile.

I told her the truth. “It was the best photo I’ve taken all year. And I take a lot of photos.”

That made her smile again, bigger this time. Hell, this girl was really getting to me. Too bad that just then I heard Vivi’s voice coming from the lobby. I sank down in my chair.

“Are you okay?” Eden murmured.


She glanced in the direction of the Vivi’s shrill laughter. “That’s your girlfriend, isn’t it?”

I looked. I could see Vivi standing in the lobby, surrounded by her group. Even from where I sat, her animal-print jacket was unmistakable. “Yeah,” I admitted.

“You should go.” Eden dismissed me with her hand and returned her eyes to her work. Of course she was right, my girlfriend was expecting me. But damn, I wanted more of Eden’s smile. Her smile did something to me, and getting more of it suddenly seemed very important.

Still, when a girl tells me to get lost, I take the hint. I stood up and slung my camera bag over my shoulder. I noticed a pen lodged under one of Eden’s books, and I used it to scrawl my number in the margin of her notebook. “You can write upside-down,” she squealed with surprise, her smile returning. “Cool.”

I shrugged off the compliment. “I’ll take you to dinner to celebrate acing your exam,” I hedged.

“Only if you break up with your girlfriend first,” she turned toward the lobby and then met my eyes. “Thanks, though.” She returned to her books without another smile, and I made my way up to the front and put my arms around Vivi.

“Hey, Jase,” she sang. “Where have you been? We’ve all been waiting on you,” she rambled. “Did you get lost in here, or what?”

I was looking back towards the study rooms, trying to see Eden. She was hidden behind the books. Vivi held me by the shoulder.

“Are you alright?” her eyes were brimming with fake concern.

“Let’s go, Vivi,” called a girl with dyed green hair.

“Come on, Jason. Drinks with the girls,” she took my arm and tugged it but I did not move. “Jason, what’s wrong?” she whined, tugging harder.

My feet were suddenly rooted to the spot, so I leaned over. “You go on,” I said into her ear, then I kissed her cheek. “Call me later,” I said and gave her a small wave.

“Are you sure, baby?”She pressed her wrist to my forehead. “You sure are kooky tonight,” she glared at me, a mask of concern hiding her anger. She turned and skipped over to the door. “Hold on, girls,” she called, then blew me a kiss. “Feel better,” she called.

When she was finally gone, I sank down in a chair in the lobby to wait. I set my camera bag on the floor by my feet and watched the students come and go at the circulation desk while I waited for Eden. I thought about what I would say to her and I considered taking her advice and actually breaking up with Vivi. We’d had a good run, Vivi and I, almost a year now. Saturday nights were never boring with her, that much was true. She knew how to have a good time, but her hair never moved. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me.

I must have fallen asleep. I opened my eyes and found Eden kneeling in front of me, her hands on my thighs. I straightened up and rubbed my eyes. “Hi,” I said.

She didn’t say anything so I continued. “I was waiting for you,” I told her.

“I know,” she murmured, giving me a small smile. “I’m glad.” She tilted her head back and raised her eyes to meet mine in a way that made my ribcage close in around my lungs. I tried pressing back into the chair to put a little more space between us, but she had me trapped.  I couldn’t move without kicking her in the chest, so I sat still and looked into her silver eyes. My air intake slowed to a trickle.

Some time passed like that, neither of us talking. I looked away first, when I noticed the stares we were getting. I wondered how long Eden intended to kneel like that. Just then she bent down, and then she was holding my camera to her eye, trying to take my picture.

“Hey, don’t,” I said, suddenly angry. She clicked the shutter as I tore my camera out of her hands, revealing a large, gorgeous, show-stopping grin. I saw it and forgot my anger. I dropped my camera into my lap and reached for her, grabbing a handful of hair and pulling her head back gently, just to get a better look at that smile.

The security guard shook me awake. I sat up, shocked. He and I were alone. I rubbed my eyes and looked around, but Eden was long gone.

“Library’s closed, sir,” the security guard said. “Time for you to go.” He busied himself setting the locks on the front doors, then stood there holding the last door for me, waiting for me to leave.

I stood up and stretched, then bent down to grab my camera bag. Sure enough it was long gone. Shit. “Someone took my camera,” I said to the guard.

“Musta been your girl,” he said knowingly.

“My girl?” I asked, thinking of Vivi while I walked around the chair once more to make sure I hadn’t overlooked it. Nothing.

“Blonde, about this high?” he held his hand out palm down, in the vicinity of his sternum. “She told me to look out for ya. Nice girl,” he shook his head in approval.

“No,” I started to correct him, but then I remembered pulling Eden’s hair. “Wait, did you see her with me?” I lowered my voice even though we were alone. I moved closer. “Was she kneeling?” I whispered.

He shook his head and boomed, “You musta been dreaming, man.” His laugh filled the library.

“You sure she didn’t leave with my camera on her shoulder?” I snipped.

“I don’t know, man. Take it easy,” he held up both hands. “Just ask her, she’s probably got it safe.”

I started to say that I would if I could, but it dawned on me how ridiculous that sounded. I pushed past him out onto the quiet sidewalk and started walking toward the train. I checked my phone for messages on the way. Only a text from Vivi: Missed you tonight. I hit delete and shoved my phone back in my pocket as I headed down the steps into the station. I was home and crawling into bed before I realized that I ought to file a police report if I ever expected to see my camera again.

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Chapter One

The darkness bears weight. A girl makes her way steadily down a deserted sidewalk in the wrong part of town as a black sedan affixed with a set of interlocking circles oozes by under a streetlight. The girl’s footsteps make a quiet rhythm against the dirty pavement.

It’s a hot night and the girl is clad only in thick-gauge wire, her armor. She is wound tightly ankles to thighs, wrists to shoulders, joints exposed, limbs encased. The wires crisscross between her thighs and continue up over her torso, tightening around her heart and finishing off at her throat.

Her armor looks painful.

Her footsteps grow louder in the odd quiet, as she passes city block after city block. The sedan slows almost to a stop beneath the streetlight and a shrill siren breaks out in the distance. The girl turns her head sharply toward the shrieking siren, then looks down and continues walking.

Several minutes pass and the sedan drives off, the siren fades. As it disappears, another set of footsteps interrupt the girl’s steady footfalls. The second set is louder, faster.

A bottomless voice emerges from everywhere at once. “Do you want to run?” It asks. The girl shakes her head and continues her steady pace. The only sign of her fear is the tiny turn of her head to the right, over her shoulder, as she tries to get a glimpse of whatever is coming.

Her wires glow pale orange the streetlight, their recursive, metal tracks holding her together. The approaching footsteps grow louder, and she quickens her pace but does not run. The footsteps match hers.

The man is tall, his knife long. He breaks into the frame and just like that the footsteps stop, just like that he is on her. Sound returns like a slap, a truck rumbles by in the distance and up above, a dog yaps in comic relief.

The girl freezes, then yields to his touch. The angle shifts as she slumps against him, as up ahead a traffic light turns yellow. Another and then another follow in quick succession. This angle reveals the smooth texture of the dirty cement, the deep grooves on the brick buildings.

The villain holds the girl, one arm pinning her elbows to her sides, the other holding the knife to her throat.  She folds into him easily. The streetlight catches the silver gleam of hatred in her eyes. The traffic light ahead turns red and her wires shoot red sparks to match. The sparks fall to the pavement and disappear.

He releases her arms and tangles his fingers in her blonde hair. She yelps when he yanks. That first pain stands out. More sparks fly from her wires, down her arms and legs. She cries with the electrical storm, but she doesn’t call for help.

Traces of the villian’s dark smile appear in his profile. He is enjoying this. The traffic lights go green one by one and he begins to move: His fingers in her hair become fingers on her throat. They dig into her skin as if molding clay. Her head, suddenly loosed of its restraint, thrashes and flies forward. Her gasps come loud as cars cross slowly in the distance. From underneath her armor comes the muffled sound of her heart racing, breaths escape her mouth in smoky drabs that hang in the orange glow. The dog’s yaps come again from above.

The two figures eclipse each other.

The girl’s gasps turn into chokes as the lights pass into their second cycle. Yellow lasts for hours. The wires around her throat come unclasped. Tears burn tracks down her face and lips, and her silver eyes go blank with pain.

The villain lifts her to her tiptoes. Her feet dangle; she doesn’t resist but her eyes are empty; she is elsewhere. Amid the struggle, the wires around her thighs have loosened. His large gloved hands make their way from her throat to her small shoulders. Yellow cycles to red, and red sparks travel down her arms. She drinks the air, then tenses as he throws her back against the bricks. Her armor, still tight around her abdomen, absorbs the smash and her eyes fly open, flashing silver in the darkness. She’s back.

The brick wall knocks loose more of her wiring, revealing pale skin against dark brick.

The green cycle reflects in the villian’s dark eyes. His fingers work again at her throat and she gives way. He pounces, yanking away the already loosened wires, removing her armor. He clears the way of the extraneous. His eyes glint yellow, crazed, hers, silver and angry. His teeth bared, a half-smile on his face, he forces her legs apart with his knee.

A pile of discarded wires lies on the dirty sidewalk. Her pale flesh grates across the jagged bricks making a quiet sound. Green comes around again and his eyes glow hunter. Somewhere this is happening. His fierce grunt and her whimpers merge into a song.

Each thrust snaps her head back. Her face is painted with pain. He quickens his pace while she fades into the bricks behind her.

Her sudden pleasure surprises her as an unexpected orgasm rushes down her ravaged nerve endings and sends another flurry of sparks over her exposed, flushed skin. Her eyes shoot open in surprise, reflecting green now. She smiles and her villain ceases his movements, grabs her by the throat, and throws her, naked and bleeding, to the sidewalk before he darts off down the grimy street toward the traffic light. The dog resumes its barking. The bottomless voice requests help, and in the distance the sirens come again.

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Everything hurt, just as I recalled. She lay abandoned on the sidewalk, slumped beside a vestibule and beneath a defunct neon sign that read FREE AIR like a cruel joke. I laughed when I heard the terrier barking. The faint morning sun lit the bruises on her throat and caught in her hair. It dried her tear streaks and reflected the depth of her eyes.  That heavy gauge wire, once invisibly wrapped around her limbs, now lay discarded underneath her on the grimy pavement. It was thicker than I’d imagined.

As I recalled, she lay split open, gaping, undone. From my seat I watched Mark deconstruct her. He laid her out piece by piece, beginning with the delicate fabric of her ripped dress and her long-forgotten bag, a trove of its own, continuing with her deceptively thin limbs, her bloody fingernails, her recursive scratches, her oddly unharmed breasts, until she shrank to a mere collection of items, no longer a person at all. He gently arranged her parts on the sidewalk beneath the unlit neon sign.

As I took stock of her hurts my own body ached.

Mark laid aside her dress, baring her still swollen and dripping vagina, and shot me a sidelong look. “You okay?” he offered by way of condolence. I nodded, once, silently making an inventory of her pain.

He sipped his beer thoughtfully and broke the tension by splicing in an unsuspecting dog walker, that yapping terrier in tow. I couldn’t help giggling when the dog licked her face. Without so much as a look at the gore in front of him, the dog walker gave one last yank on the terrier’s leash and fled the scene, oblivious.

“Nice,” I mouthed.

Mark looked over, gave me a half smile, and kept going. Her body lay skeletal on the sidewalk, its pretenses strewn across the pavement, and for a moment I finally understood her. Gradually Mark began piecing her back together with the combination of a surgeon’s skill and an artist’s eye. He consulted my art book lying open on the table between us and replaced her bruises and scrapes artfully now. He wrapped the wires to accentuate her curves; he draped her dress from her jutting left hip and left just a trace of her wounded vagina showing at the edge of the hem. He arranged her tendrils around her unblinking eyes.

I watched as he brought up the sunlight, streaming it from the narrow gaps of sky above, drawing beams of it down to her, and I sucked in my breath when I saw what it did to her parts. Her hair, her silver eyes, her exposed skin all shone, yet her fingernails turned dirty, each scrape sank deeper, and the newly arranged wires cast dark shadows on her skin. The sun made sense of her pain. It brought her to life.

“Easy there,” he warned, sensing my tension. I watched, silent, and realized what I already knew. She was me. I filed that thought away for later and chugged some beer. Mark lit the neon sign and FREE AIR flashed fluorescent red above the beautifully gruesome scene.

“Perfect,” I grinned. On the screen, she lifted her head and smiled as if of her own free will.

Imagine this piece near the end of a complicated and surreal story. Soon it will be there.


cancer-cells_15Around here, they called him fucked up. He was real bad, Sam was. One look’id tell ya that: Cross-eyed, spike-haired, that freakin penguin tattoo on his shoulder. Ain’t nothin right bout Sam, only he was always smilin. He acted real nice so ya didn’t know how bad’e was til he gotcha.

When they got’im cuffed to their table, guards called him genetically damaged.

Sam always said what he got started in a cell. More like it started in his momma’s belly. One minute, sweet little baby growin all nice and then – wham! – ya know? Things get outta control in a hurry. That Sam, he bad news.

Sam used ta tell us bout his momma and him, and ya know, I’m gonna spare ya the story. His momma did him real bad, that’s all ya gotta know. Genetically damaged, remember that. I’ll spare ya the nightmares.

So, ya know, from time he was a kid, that Sam was real fucked up. That crazy momma of his never teach him nothing but crazy, and ‘fore long Sam was in deep shit. Killin little animals, settin fires, and worse. Makin a rabble, ya know.

That Sam liked to tell us bout his trouble-makin. It started real young and it ain’t stopped, even now. He love to talk, that Sam. Can’t ya just see’im up in’is cell, up ona top bunk holdin court like a king a fuckin England? Tough shit, he thought he was, Sam. Only’is penuin tattoo didn’t add up. He’d be loud a nuf so ya’d hear him down the block. His cell couldn’t even hold’im. He’d be spreadin around, for sure. Seepin out.

He liked ta tell this one story bout what he’d done ta get in prison ta begin with. He’d tell that goddamn story all the fuckin time, so’s it got ta the point I memorized it. I used ta tell’im ta write it down.

“That shit oughta be a movie, Sam,” I’d yell. We were neighbors.

Thing is, he used ta work at the Y. Lived there too, after’is momma got carted off. He was a fuckin janitor but he ain’t never clean nothin, ya know what I’m sayin. He liked ta spy on the ladies, that Sam. The time he got caught and thrown in here, he was hidin in a locker watchin the girls get dressed after Zumba, and lo and behold, some lady opened his locker.

That Sam, don’t ya know he got caught with’is dick in’is hand in front of a dozen half-naked girls in the locker room? Damn. It’s so funny I laugh every time.

Thing is, way Sam tell it, it was funny the first time, too. Those ladies didn’t scream none, nah, they busted out laughing at crazy Sam. And those ladies real strong, don’t ya know. They yanked’im outta the locker n tied him up with their bras.

Sam always liked ta say that when he got out he’d go back and get those ladies. He wanted a have’is way with them, and he had a special fuckin plan for each one a them. He’d always be talkin about it, spreadin hate from’is cell, gettin the new guys ta laugh, gettin us angry, getting us horny. Damn you, Sam.

Thing is, Sam talked a good deal, but he ain’t do nothin but spread hate like a disease, from one cell to another. Boys in there for real hard crime had more remorse than crazy Sam. And don’t ya know, Sam just talked all that remorse outta them boys. By the enda the day, Sam’d be sure all them boys be hatin those half-naked girls. Even me.

That Sam real fucked up. I don’t know why, but gettin laughed at by a buncha ladies really did’im in. Every day in prison he tried to laugh it off, but damn, that Sam was never the same again.


He be alright

mw05-600x400“He taught me how to read people’s eyes, ya know what I mean?” I lifted one a my tools, a heavy-ass poker, and moved toward the roarin fire. Flames curlin outta the fireplace. Damn, shit was hot.

“Nah, you don’t know nuthin, do ya, kid?” Kid cowered where I tossed him on the floor, shaking his skinny little white-boy ass off. He was scared. Real scared.

“Lemme tell ya, kid. My Pop, he a man, kid. A real MAN, ya know?” The tip of the poker got red-hot but I didn’t take it outta the fire yet. Kid whimpered.

“Pop, he work real hard, ya know? He did whatever he hada to keep the groceries comin in. He a MAN.” Kid eyed up the fire and trieda scoot back a little. Welts was comin up on his little ass, his butt-ugly face. Good.

“Pop was real nice mosta the time. He’da laugh at anythin, mosta the time. Momma n him’d be laughin upa God-damn storm mosta the time.” That gave me a laugh, rememberin dat. Poker was headin near orange already. Nice.

“But every once ina while, kid, Pop’d get angry. Somethin’d piss him off and he’d go off drinkin, stay away hours, days, once even weeks. Shit. Momma was half-dead time he took two weeks a come home. Shit.” Tipa the poker was blue. Kid cryin then, sad little screechy sound kinda gotta me. Didn’t stop me, though.

“So, times when Pop’d get angry, he got MEAN. Real mean. You ain’t never seen nuthin like it, kid.” Kid’s face was bleedin where I wooped him.

“Pop’d come bargin in, all drunk n shit, dirty, smellin like a barrel. Thing is, kid, Pop always dressed nice, clean, n he was always laughin, never mad. Till the drink got’m.” Memory kinda got me. Poker was hot n heavy.

“He’d come bargin in and first thing, he’d get Momma. She’d be screamin upa storm, putting upa fight like she did, and there was nuthin nobody could do, ya know?” Kid squirmed and whimpered. Underneath’m, a river a piss. Damn.

“Not nobody could stop him, kid,” I took a step closer to’m, makin a few slashes ina air wid the hot poker. Like Pop useda do.

“Big bro useta try’n protect me and all, ya know. Ya gotta big bro, kid?” Kid too far goneta talk. “He’d tell me go hide n all, but it ain’t never help. Pop always find me.” Swish, swish, closer to the kid.

“This one time, he gotta poker from the fire, like this one I got here,” I waved it right up in his pasty little face. Kid cryin real bad.

“Pop, he angry, he drunk, and he come lookin for me. He find me under the bed all crammed up in the corner. He drag me out, toss me around. Like you, kid,” I shot him a smile but kid don’t get it.

“He standin dere, holding the blue-hot poker, and he smilin. But his eyes ain’t smilin, ya know what I mean, kid? His eyes just dark and angry and fulla the Devil. Shit.” Kid tries to scootch sideways along the wall but it ain’t work. He too scared.

“Why’m I tellin ya this, kid? Ya don’t givea shit.” I gave’m a poke on’is ugly face and he yelped real loud. Another. Another. I went someplace else. I was stabbin him n runnin the poker down his skinny chest and his bony back. The lines showed up real nice on his white skin. I played around with’m, havin fun, laughin like Pop usedta, and I starteda wonder what my eyes were sayin.

northrupWhat are my eyes, sayin, kid? I didn’t ask it, though.  Just kept havin my way with him, makin him sing his sad wails, makin him piss again, makin him cry, over and over, everythin the same.

“Don’tya worry, kid,” I boomed in Pop’s voice. I laughed Pop’s laugh. “I ain’t gonna kill ya, kid.” Nah. Pop never killed me, did’e? Nah. Once a kid all marked up real nice, red lines criss-crossin and repeatin like mine, I all done wida torment. I cleaned off the poker like Pop useda, n put it away so kid don’t see it.

I cleaned’m up real nice, like Pop useda. I even sang’m those old spirituals, like Pop did. Everythin the same. I put the fire out n took’m back where I found’m.