Farah wipes the dust from her hands onto her jeans, and the worn white hills turn fuzzy gray. Like mountains after the sun melts the snow, and the smog pours in. She stares down for a moment, the pattern more interesting than the topology of yet another dying town. This is the fifth anonymous town they’ve stuck her in, or is it the sixth? The witness protection program is more exhausting than glamorous.

Squinting back the tears, she stares blankly out the windows at the sad little trees and the brown yard. Birds are chirping, but instead of bright it feels monotonous. Walking back out to the rental truck, she suddenly notices a neighbor on the porch across the street. Farah waves, and turns intentionally to watch the birds bicker in the branches before he can respond.

Abe waves, but she doesn’t see it. New neighbors are fascinating, in this quiet place. The best entertainment he gets outside of NCIS and football on the TV. He watches, trying to guess why she moved here. Her hair is a black cloud that lags behind her, bouncing in opposition.

The jackdaws, sparrows, and finches from all around seem to have set up choirs in her trees, trying to impress the new resident. Abe watches her bent over the fence watching all their dancing, and feels a prickle on his skin like she can read his mind through the back of her head, using her hair as a satellite dish.

He gets up, painfully, and walks inside. “We finally get to meet the gal who bought Jolene and Paul’s house. Looks like a single woman, hon.”

“Well there goes the neighborhood,” his wife jokes. “Now with your knees how they are, don’t you dare go offer to help move. What kind of sandwich do you want for lunch?”

He doesn’t answer at first, thinking of songbirds singing in the impossible dark nests of the new neighbor’s hair.

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The woman sits on the bus, like the rest of us. In strained silence, watching the sun leak out of the clouds and rehydrate our shadows as they flicker on the dirty rubber floor.

Then her phone rings. We all get to hear some terrible Billy Joel song I didn’t know existed, and will be very thankful to forget. Everyone like me who doesn’t have headphones blocking their vision scuffles their feet and looks around. Nasty looks. Nobody knows whose phone it is.

It keeps going. Jesus. It’s still going.

But it’s her phone. She answers it.

“You are a bad baby,” she says. No hello. Then, “You are a very bad baby.”

We’re wondering if this is just a warped term of endearment. I giggle a little, imagining a guilty baby calling his mom. “It happened again. The death brown, Ma. It happened. I’m sorry.” But we don’t get to hear the other side. She sits and listens for a while, and we sink into the mystery of it. A bad baby. Or a bad man.

“I’m very upset with you all right now,” she suddenly yells. And she does sound upset. Now we all think something the baby said made her very angry. Maybe the baby and his baby friends are all in trouble, now.

But she yells that so loud that the bus driver turns around and hollers, “Hey. No yellin’ on my bus this mornin’, alright?” And the alright manages to encapsulate the sound of a man working split shifts and eating cheap pre-packaged food to support his family. Maybe he has a bunch of bad babies, too, we think.

So she puts a hand over the phone, and very theatrically mouths a big “SORRY” to the people around her. Nobody looks her in the eye. We’re all still puzzling it out, and it’s about to get worse.

Before the woman puts the phone back to her ear, we hear a loud squawk from it. It sounds remarkably like a baby crying. But her voice goes into a parody of stern, like she’s heard on daytime TV maybe, and she tries to talk over what I still imagine is a crying baby, but can’t be. “Does your husband know about this? I said, does your HUSBAND KNOW ABOUT THIS?” And by the time she gets to the end of saying it the second time, she’s shrieking, holding the phone at arms length like it’s going to bite her, and her face is turning red.

We’re starting to get legitimately worried for her and the baby or whoever’s on the other end of the line, but the bus driver just doesn’t give a shit and pulls over to the side of the road. “Candy. Get out,” he orders. That must be her name, we realize. Even though it sounds like a curse when he says it.

Candy ignores him and the rest of us, fuming at the phone in her hand. “You are still a very bad baby.” Somehow it becomes clear to us that she’s somehow indicting the driver when she says it.

He stands up out of his seat, and sighs as he walks into view of the camera that’s recording all this for some poor person to have to watch back later. “I’m sick up to here with you riding on my bus trying to start shit. If you don’t hang up or get out the bus, I’ll have dispatch call the cops and have them at the transfer point.” The rest of us don’t have to watch it later. We’re all watching it now, missing our damn transfers because of Candy’s very bad baby.

So finally, Candy stands up. She looks me straight in the eye, and says, “I’m very upset with you all, you know.”

Then she walks past me and looks at some old woman across the way. “Does your husband know about this?”

As she steps off the bus, the driver lowers himself back into his seat gingerly, shaking his head. She turns around as the door closes, and points the phone at him, violently flipping him off with the other hand. “You are a very bad baby!”

“Sorry folks,” the driver says over the intercom. “I don’t know how Ma found out what route I drive. We’re gonna be late to the transfer point.”

Someone up front derisively yells, “You a bad baby!” We all laugh a little. Not a lot… just enough to try to forget that it all happened. But I can’t get that god damn Billy Joel song out of my head.


Boundary Condition

A woman whose hair looked to be trying to escape her orbit pushed her way out of the night, into the gas station. Glancing around the garish walls, she shook her head, sending her black curls vibrating. “Hey, kid. You mind if I plug in somewhere?”

The bored kid behind the counter set down his phone. “Wazzat? Oh, yeah, whatever lady. There’s an outlet behind the Twinkies and shit.”

Kristin muttered to herself as she raced to where he pointed, floundering in her purse. Out came the cord, and she bent down behind the display shelf, not even caring if the kid stared at her ass. But he was back to scrolling, past heavy lids, scrolling like his life depended on it.

She hunched down in a squat because the cord wouldn’t reach far enough to stand, and muttered nervously as her phone danced through its stupid waltz of powering on. “Don’t do something stupid, Chuck. Just don’t ruin our boy. Just don’t ruin his life, Chuck.”

Flipping through the pending texts, Kristin swore and then put the phone to her ear. “Come on come on…” She really wanted to pace around, but the short leash kept her staring at the sunflower seeds as she ground her teeth. “Hey, honey. Now what the heck is going on? What did you mean, you found something?”

As he began to talk, she sighed and looked at the dirty tiled floor with clear distaste. Shaking her head, she put a hand on the floor to lower herself down to sit against the Ding Dongs and Nutty Bars.

“We promised we wouldn’t snoop on his… No, Chuck. We promised him his messages were…” Running a hand through her hair as his voice grew louder, a wave of anger rolled through her, and her forehead flushed. “Don’t you dare. Do not shame him. Do not shame our son.”

Kristen pushed herself back on her haunches, and then suddenly stood up. The phone flew out of her hand and hit the floor with a clunk. “Dang it,” she muttered, picking it back up. “So now you’re the judge? How dare you?”

Her face reddening, she glanced up to see if the kid at the counter was paying attention. He appeared to be ignoring her, so she let some of the rage into her voice. “No, wait. What do you mean? Why would I care that much if our son is gay? Why do YOU care?”

Pulling the phone off of the wire, she stood up and began to pace, her shoes clacking on the tiles in an uneven beat. “Charles, do not even THINK about it. What do you mean? It’s not our place. Are you really going to love him less, now?”

An angry buzz came from the phone, and she held it away from her ear. “Calm down, Charles. Not until we talk. No, damn it. NO. Yes, I’m fucking swearing at you now. I’ll be home in ten.” Grimacing, she slung her purse over her shoulder and stomped to the doors.

“Wait. He’s pulling in NOW?” She slammed into the door handle, but it didn’t budge. “Don’t you even. No, Charles. God no…”

“Pull,” said the sleepy kid at the cash register.

Howling like an angry dog, Kristin yanked at the handle and stalked off.

The dude working there blinked, with a look on his face like he just woke up and was preferring the dream. He yelled, “Hey lady, you forgot…” but trailed off. She was already getting in her car. “Your charger. Whatever.” He looked over at the cable snaking out from under the Twinkies, took a step around, and then stopped. Then he leaned over the counter with a groan and put his face in his hands. Trying not to think about his dead dad, how he hadn’t talked to his mom in months, or the disaster that he still hadn’t dealt with in the men’s restroom. The muzak helpfully started up a horrifically bland cover of Here Comes the Sun. “And I say, it’s all right.”



I could write it like a horror story, the way the world ends, or I could write it like a beautiful dream. You could describe the awful shock of suddenly waking up to a world colored in radioactive glowing pinks and purples, sitting up to exclaim some profanity, and instead vomiting tiny colorful candies all over the bed. Or you could tell the truth about the end of the world, because I have to be honest here. It feels amazing when the candy pours out of my mouth unbidden. Even that first time, when my shock and horror gave way to supreme bliss, I knew that this was what my life was leading up to.

I know that sounds stupid when I write it down, like that. But it brings me great joy. It is a pleasure greater than orgasm, a wholesome gift of giving. It is what I am meant to do.

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World Grudge Holding Championships

Annnnd welcome back, folks, to ESPN3 for this years final event of the GHL. I’m Steve Inlezzen. With me is Bob McHestle. We’re happy to bring you the exciting action of this years playoff event. These competitors have clinched their path to these championships, and, well now, Bob… it’s time to see if they have what it takes.

That’s right, Steve. It’s finally time. The stage has been set. Let’s introduce our competitorrrrrs, in the… World Grudge Holding Championships!

Two giant CGI robots grimace at each other with glowing red laser eyes while bombastic theme music plays, and then they stand back to back with their arms crossed as the camera flies between their stoic spines towards a branching graphic.

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