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Fragile - Emma Krutulis

One-Time Rate - Jackie Krogmeier

Imitations of Adam - Sean Murley

A Tight Thing - Toyosi Begbaaji

Fragile by Emma Krutulis

An uncanny familiarity greeted Claire as she entered the house for the first time since the funeral. The smell was exactly as she always remembered: a mix of old carpet and the lingering musk of the auburn candle her mother used to burn. The colors were all the same too – warm teals and soft beiges – but they had worn over time as if they were falling away.

Stains now lived on the wall where family pictures once did. Dents were pressed into the front living room carpet, ghosts of the family furniture. Claire looked at the spot in the middle of the room and remembered the mouthful she got from Mom when she spilled the paint 25 years ago. Dad said it wasn’t a big deal, and he purchased a coffee table with the primary purpose of hiding the paint and secondary purpose of providing a place for their morning coffee and magazines. Now, the paint stain was exposed to the world. The new owners would soon rip it up and replace it with wood flooring. Claire’s mark on the house would be gone, and the footprints left in every room replaced with those of a new family. The new mom would burn a vanilla candle, or maybe lemon.

“Oh, we plan on tearing out that wall,” the new owner had said when Claire mentioned the potential for the den to be a sitting room. Claire’s mom was in the hospital at that point, so Claire and her sister were already getting things in order.

“Sounds like a great idea,” Claire had said, having difficulty picturing the den being used in any way other than how her family had.

“While my husband gets his master’s degree, I’ll be renovating the whole house.”

Claire had to plaster a smile on her face.

“It’ll open up the house and connect with the kitchen for when we entertain.” The woman’s smile beamed with the potential for a new start, but Claire only noticed the undertone of what that new start meant for her.

Now the den was mostly furnished with cardboard boxes against the wall that would soon no longer be. The only pieces of furniture remaining were a wooden bureau where Mom once kept her trinkets and wedding china, and the couch covered in plastic that was ready to be donated.

Seeing the couch reminded her of late night movies with her parents, of coming home from school to read in place of doing homework, of Mom yelling at their old dog Lottie for always trying to jump up, and the night of her father’s death when Claire and Mom held each other and cried together for hours.

But the difference was there. When her father died, Claire had a home to return to. She could fall into her mother’s arms the years after, every time the pain became too much. It wasn’t the same this time.

“Thank God you’re finally here.” Meg appeared from the stairs carrying one of the many dreaded boxes. She had bleached her hair since the funeral and gotten far more tan. “I’ve been here for three hours.”

“Hi to you too,” Claire responded. Meg had clearly forgotten the detail that Claire lived three hours away.

Meg dropped the box by the front door with a pile of others. “This one is Mom’s old papers and journals.”

“Did you look through them?” Claire asked, eyeing the box.

“I’m just taking it to recycling.”

Claire’s heart dropped instantly. “Why didn’t you look through them?”

“Claire, she never amounted to anything. It’s a bunch of random papers. If you want to look through them have at it. It’s just not worth my time.” She emphasized the word as if to imply Claire had all the time in the world. Claire had to fight the urge to snap back, to tell her that she didn’t know anything about her time and what she was going through, but she restrained herself. Meg didn’t have any right to know, and anyhow, they weren’t teenagers anymore.

The scream of several children sounded from the backyard and Claire knew Meg had brought her zoo with her.

“I couldn’t get a babysitter.” Meg shrugged and began stacking boxes. “Oh, and I left the books in Mom’s office like you asked. I’m going to take these boxes out to the car. Austin, come help your mother!” Meg kicked at the door to keep it open as she struggled, arms full, toward her car.

Claire clenched her jaw and tried to tune out the screams from her nephews. She began up the steep stairs, remembering her old fear of walking down them. Especially prom night, hanging onto the railing for dear life as to not let her date with Alicia start with her witnessing a tumble in three-inch heels. She got to the last step before twisting her ankle. Her prom night was spent in the ER instead of under the sea, and she hadn’t worn heels since.

The second door on the left was Claire’s bedroom. It actually hadn’t been hers since she left for college fifteen years ago and Mom turned it into her writing den. Mom had always dreamed of having her own space, and when both of her daughters were grown and gone, she finally had the time to focus on her writing. This was the room Claire always dreamed of leaving. She’d picture decorating her dorm, an apartment, her own home. She couldn’t wait for the day she’d come home and not have to see her parents every time. In retrospect, she couldn’t wait to leave then because she knew her home would still be there, ready to catch her when she fell.

Mom’s writing desk still faced the window where she’d watch the woods behind the house to inspire her poetry. Mom never let Claire or Meg read her poems, but occasionally she’d forget and leave her notebook in the living room. Curious and in love, young Claire would flip through the poems and learn something new about her mother every time.

Bookcases lined the walls. Mom couldn’t stand to get rid of books, even if she didn’t particularly enjoy them. But now that responsibility fell on Claire, and she wasn’t sure she could do it.

Things just kept crumbling, and she didn’t have anyone to turn to.

Claire summoned whatever courage she still had left for this moment and removed the first handful of books from the shelf. Wallace Stevens, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, all poets her mother would walk around the house reciting. The poetry of earth is never dead. Tears formed at the corners of Claire’s eyes ready to fall like a storm at any second. Her heart became tighter with every beat.

“Are you wanting any of Mom’s old trinkets too?” Meg appeared in the doorway, her arms crossed. Claire was jolted out of her daze.

“I want to look through them,” she said.

Meg rolled her eyes and sighed. “Look, I know you want to keep sentimental stuff, but this is seriously going to take forever if you look through everything. I’m not trying to be a bitch. I’m just trying to be honest.”

Claire gripped her mother’s Poe collection firmly and glared at her older sister. She wanted once again to snap at her for being so self-centered in this moment. Meg was never trying to be a bitch, but she always managed it pretty well anyway.

Claire decided it was best to just ignore, so she returned to the people in the world who would always be there for her. She didn’t know how she could get rid of all of these books, but she didn’t have any place to keep them now.

“I’ll help,” Meg said, and began pulling the books off the shelf along with her sister. Claire would have preferred if she didn’t, but the faster the books were packed away, maybe the faster the pain could subside.

“How’s life?” Meg asked.

“How obligatory of you,” Claire said, beginning to place the pile of books on the ground into boxes.

“Come on, Claire, I’m just trying to connect.” Meg was able to infuriate her sister with almost everything she said.

“Since when have you cared about connecting with me?” Claire took a black Sharpie and firmly wrote ‘BOOKS’ on each side of the box. Her heart beat a little faster for letting those words slip.

“I’m your sister,” Meg said with a hint of indignation.

“That’s funny. Because you’ve been my sister for 34 years and that’s never been reason enough for you to ‘connect’ with me.” Claire made air quotes but didn’t make eye contact.

Meg had stopped piling books. Claire could feel the eyes burning into the side of her head. “We are not going to do this right now.” Whenever Meg’s voice became a growl, that’s when what Mom and Dad called the real Meg would appear. The family met Real Meg when she 6 was an early teenager and began to learn how to manipulate and lie. As she grew older, her voice got louder, and Mom and Dad grew more exhausted. Claire had too many memories of screaming matches echoing around these walls. Every door had been slammed by her sister at some point or another. Meg got what she wanted when she wanted it, and she still managed to blame every bad thing in her life on Mom.

Claire knew her sister was actually right and didn’t say another thing. She nodded, tightened her lips, and kept packing away the objects to become memories.

But Meg did want to do this now, apparently. “I care about you! How dare you say I don’t.”

Claire finally looked over and saw her sister’s face was red, tightened with that fury that always seemed to hide just beneath the surface.

“If you care, why do you never talk to me? Why have you never asked about my life, my job, my wife? Why was every get-together with Mom all about your kids and your fancy house and your rich husband? Why did you purposely sit away from me and Annie at Mom’s funeral?” Everything was slipping out so easily from that tucked away place.

“It’s not like you ask me those things! And Jesus, Claire, why does it matter where I sat?” Her voice was raised now, the words still vibrating through a growl.

“Because our mother just died,” Claire said, giving every last ounce she had to keep from yelling back.

“Oh my god, Claire, this is ridiculous.” Meg rolled her eyes and scoffed the same as she did as a teenager. “Fine, okay! How’s the wife? How’s the desk job?”

“It really doesn’t show you care when you use demeaning language to ask me,” Claire said, tightening her grip on another book.

“How about stop focusing on how I say things and be happy with the fact that I asked.” Claire groaned and tugged at her hair, feeling the anger rile up inside her. Insults ran through her head, but she bit her tongue. “I can’t believe you,” was all she ended up saying.

“You’re not the only one with shit going on,” Meg said.

Claire dropped her hands to her side. “I actually love my job, it’s going great. Oh, and I’m getting a divorce.”

Meg stopped, her eyes wide, and she dropped her hand from her hip. “Jesus.”

“So, what with Mom’s death, having to pack this entire house up, and Annie, I can’t really deal with this right now.” Claire finally let the tears fall and a sob radiated through her entire body. The constant tightening at her heart had now completely crushed her chest, and Claire pushed past her sister to run down the steps. Her nephews were playing guns in the living room. They stopped when they saw their sobbing aunt, but Claire ignored them.


She also ignored Meg’s call and grabbed the box of her mother’s writing. When in the bathroom, she dropped the box and locked the door. Letting her body crumple beneath her, she slipped down the side of the wall and buried her face in her arms. A hole was opening that Claire desperately needed to patch with those books, the trinkets, these walls, but it was turning into a chasm. Meg tried pounding at the door at first, and just repeated her sister’s name over and over until finally giving up and leaving Claire alone.

Suddenly Claire stopped. It was as if instantly all the stinging pain of her Mother, of Annie, of her Dad, her sister, her home had escaped through tears and now she was dry. A deep breath helped settle her body. Eyes became even puffier than they had the last few months of her 8 life. Pieces shattered all around. With each passing day things didn’t get easier, she just became more fragile.

Claire fingered the flap of the cardboard box, pulling it back just to release it and let it bounce – her way of avoiding reading what lay inside. Whenever she would discover a left-out journal she’d read it without hesitation, but this time hesitancy kept her curious fingers back. She peered over the box and noticed a stack of legal pad paper at the top with her mother’s cursive scribbled across it. Claire felt the tears start to swell again, but she wasn’t going to let them come this time. Taking another unsteady breath, she grabbed the loose-leaf paper.

The scribbled lines would have been illegible to anyone other than her family. Mom was capable of writing clearly, but when she was in a rush or filled with the excitement of a new idea, her writing would simply slip into swirls and lines that almost seemed like another language.

This paper had writing that didn’t form any particular poem, they were just ideas and concepts, random thoughts. Mom had even drawn a garden at the bottom of the page. This is what it must have looked like in her head while she stared out the window and planned a poem. Claire grabbed another notebook and flipped through it, this time finding full poems. Some were entirely crossed out, some had more flowers in the margins, others were new drafts of the previous one.

Her heart ached with the thought that no one had ever read these beautiful words. Mom hadn’t even tried to submit them to literary journals. Claire was positive that if she would have, she could have gotten published.

Sitting for a while longer, Claire hugged a legal pad to her chest and thought about how badly it all hurt. The simple thought of knowing she’d never hear her mother’s voice again was enough to rip at her. The thought of her mother never writing another line of poetry was enough to invite the tears back.

She put all the papers in the box, folded down the cardboard flaps, and lifted it into her arms. When she opened the door, Meg was sitting outside in the hallway, waiting.

“Hey,” Meg said, unaware of how to talk to Claire’s red eyes.

Claire didn’t have the energy, so she took the box to the den and sat on the plastic covered couch. Meg followed her but stayed at a distance and leaned against the wall. Claire picked up one of the many random Sharpies on the floor and wrote ‘FRAGILE’ on each side of the box.

“Can you pass me that packing tape?” Claire asked, nodding toward the one by Meg’s feet. Meg handed it to her, and Claire quickly packed up her mother’s writings. “You’re right, if I go through everything to decide what to keep it will take forever. I’m just going to keep this box. The movers can take the rest tomorrow.”

Meg stood silent for a moment. “Can we talk?”

Claire sighed and rubbed at her temple. “I don’t know, Meg.”

“I want to talk.”

“I’ve got a lot going on right now.” Dealing with Meg was low on her list of priorities. “Maybe we can try again sometime in the future, but I just have to get through this part of my life. I’m not ready to talk.”

So, for the rest of the day, they packed their childhood into boxes and sealed it with a strip of tape to take for others to make memories out of. They finished packing up the den and moved to the kitchen, then the living room, the basement. The only words they said to each other were to ask for the tape or apologize for stealing the Sharpie. One time, though, while in the basement, Meg grabbed a porcelain ballerina off yet another one of Mom’s old trinket shelves.

“Do you remember this?” Claire laughed and reached out to grab it. It was heavier than she remembered and felt cold against her palm. It hadn’t been dusted in months. When she looked closely, she saw the terrible job the two girls had done gluing it back together.

“We were so terrified she’d notice,” Meg said.

“We could never find her foot.” Claire pointed to the ballerina’s pointed, footless leg. The two laughed for a single moment of harmony.

“Is it okay if I keep this one?” Meg asked. “That’s one memory I’d really like to have.”

Claire handed the ballerina back to her sister.

And then the house was entirely packed up. The movers would come the next day to take the boxes, and everything would be gone.

“I’ll text you,” Meg said as Claire slipped into her coat. Claire couldn’t tell if Meg was being genuine this time. Every time they saw each other they’d tell the other that they’d call, or ask the other to keep in touch, or some compulsory sister comment as one of them was leaving.

“Sure,” Claire said with a nod and wrapped her arms tightly around the box. She took a long look around the house, once again taking in the colors of the walls, the old familiar musk, the memories of her existing in this home for so much of her life. She pictured what it had looked like with the furniture, the pictures, the lamps, the life, and she knew it was something she could never return to. Now, she would drive three hours to get to her new apartment where cardboard boxes waited to be unpacked. She would finish signing the papers and change her last name back to the one so tightly connected to this house.

Armed with her memories, her mother’s writings, and so much uncertainty, Claire stepped out of the door for the last time. She hoped the new family would make as many stains and memories on the place as they did. She hoped that, even if it wasn’t hers, they would keep the house a home.

One-Time Rate by Jackie Krogmeier

Sasha received his notice on a Tuesday evening.

He recognized the envelope immediately. Thank God. It’s over.

He closed the mailbox, made sure the automatic lock whirred shut, and stood waiting on the other side of his street, drenched in the sweat of an 80-degree Autumn, as cars roared past with no regard for the speed limit. It was not required for them to obey the limit, but it would have been considerate. Of course, consideration was not something that could be reasonably expected anymore.

After a five minute onslaught of neighbors returning from work (Sasha worked from home, and thank goodness, he only ever had to leave to visit his mother– he had groceries and all that delivered) he was finally able to cross the street and get inside. Like all units in this block, and on all blocks, Sasha’s apartment was small and military in style. Unless one had serious wealth, this kind of living arrangement was the best around these days. Sasha had been lucky to land a sports editor job, allowing him to move out of his mother’s apartment when he was only 28. Sports, the disgustingly gluttonous source of government revenue they had become, were eternally popular.

Sasha put the kettle on and decided on soup for dinner. It was soup or salad most nights, and he tried not to combine them, because then he tended to overeat and his groceries would run out before the next delivery. The envelope with its infamous red eagle seal now sat seal up on his kitchen island. Sasha tugged it open with a butter knife and retrieved the green-tinted ledger paper.

Sasha M. Stepanov,

As legalized by Prop. 3285 “Population Maintenance” you have been approved for termination. You are required to vacate your residence of 27890128 Square Hill Place within 10 business days. You have been approved because you have met (7) or more items on the list of termination critera:

      -You are (35) years or older
      -You are single, unmarried and without children or dependents
      -You are genetically predisposed to heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, and dementia
      -You are employed in an uncritical field
      -You have cost the taxpayers’ more than (100) thousand dollars in health insurance
              • car accident, December 2026, age 12, abdominal skin graft
              • accidental injury, May 2040, age 26, surgical pins in ulna and radius
       -Your projected life span is less than 70 years
       -You have received psychiatric counseling for depression
              • Dr. Jessica Conroy, 3 sessions, no prescribed medication, April 2043
      -You are not a well-known entity (see U.S. Population Maintenance webpage sub-tab Celebrity Exceptions
        for criteria)
      -More than (1) of your immediate family members have preceded you in death
      -Your apartment is within the work zone of a critical field employee in need of housing

Your termination consultation is scheduled for 9am Wednesday, June 5th, 2050 at your local Population Maintenance building on the second floor. Please withhold contacting us at the number below until after your consultation. Please be prepared to provide ID and insurance card. The consultation should take no more than (3) hours. If you wish to apply for a deferral of termination, please declare your intent to the proctor at the beginning of your consultation as the application process must not be delayed.

More information will be provided at the time of your consultation. Please refer to the U.S. Population Maintenance webpage for details.

Best regards,

The Department of Population Maintenance

Sasha read the letter only once; he had a good eye, as an editor. He had read a friend’s notice a few years ago so he remembered some of the terms, although all of them as well as a stock letter could be found on the government website. “More than (1) immediate family members have preceded you in death,” had always puzzled Sasha, as it seemed counter-intuitive; shouldn’t a family that had already lost someone be a case against termination? But then again, maybe the government saw that as less people still alive to complain.

But of all the criteria Sasha fulfilled, he knew none were as important as, “Apartment within the work zone of a critical field employee in need of housing.” This was the tipping point; this was why the notice had been sent at this time. Someone important needed somewhere to live. In a world overcrowded to the brink of starvation and disease, Sasha’s modest standard-grade apartment was highly desirable.

He called his mother.

“Oh God.” She was crying. “Tell them you’ll move back home with me.”

Offering to move in with his mother might have truly fixed the problem. A deferral could be granted under the stipulation that Sasha never take up space somewhere else again – confined eternally to his mother’s cramped one-bedroom. Sleeping on the couch. Sharing the mini fridge. Inevitably, obeying whatever curfew his mother imposed. Stuck. Stuck worse than here.

Sasha did not want to defer.

He wanted to be done.

It was difficult, getting to the consultation in the morning. He didn’t have to call off work – working from home allowed him leeway in his schedule, and if the termination went through quickly enough, he wouldn’t have to worry about his workload anyways. Sasha wondered how soon he could call Sports Federated and tell them the news. Sweet, sweet news. The thought of that phone call, saying, “I’m done,” was like sinking into a warm bath.

Getting there was difficult because it was always difficult, going anywhere outside. It was hot, muggy, oppressively so: like a fat, wet hand pressing down on the top of your head. The streets were locked with cars. Fortunately, manufacturers had stopped putting horns in for the last 10 or 15 years. Pickpockets were on the hunt; Sasha couldn’t tell them apart from the average pedestrian, but they constituted about 9 out of 10 people you passed anyways – everybody had gotten pretty good at lifting wallets, and pretty used to being pickpocketed. Sasha kept everything on a thick metal chain around his neck. In extreme cases, at night, in alleys, people who used chains had been strangled to death. But in the daylight it was a sufficient deterrent.

Sasha hadn’t gone more than a few yards from his apartment in two months, but he hadn’t forgotten the sweat and smell of hundreds of people pressing against you; touching you from all sides, all angles, pushing you, rubbing you, doing who knows what to you. Sasha had been groped so many times it wasn’t exactly traumatic anymore – it was over quickly enough anyways, and it was worse for women. He didn’t typically see the perpetrators, but it was likely as not teenage delinquents or prostitutes hoping to be followed.

His nostrils burned by the time he entered the air lock of the government building, the entrance sealed for freshness. A woman with a dark bun pulled so tightly on top of her head Sasha could see veins bursting in her forehead under the pressure greeted him on the second floor. She shook his hand, smiled broadly with large clean teeth, and guided him to her office through a winding maze of offices full of smartly dressed, white-teethed people with pressed clothes and uncomfortable haircuts. She gestured for him to sit in the armchair across the desk. Sasha sank into the lavender upholstery deeply; this was no business-meeting chair. This was the cancer-diagnosis, psychiatric patient chair. The thick padded chair that is at once comforting and constricting – like a baby swaddled.

“My name’s Erin,” said the woman, looking at her computer. “Let me get these details in…get you ready to go…” She looked up warmly. “And we can get started. Okay, Mr. Stepanov. As luck would have it you have been selected for termination. Will you be planning to defer?”

Sasha said immediately, “No.” Voice firm. He’d been ready.

Erin gave an exaggerated sigh of relief. “I’m very glad to hear that. We understand how frightening the prospect can be, but our selection process is calibrated for individuals who can only benefit from termination. You wouldn’t have been chosen if this wasn’t the right decision for you. Annnnd I’m pleased to tell you that you qualify for our premium package!”

She rotated her screen for him to see. Sasha’s heart did a flip-flop even before he glimpsed the first sandy beach. Oh, Heaven. Open space. Premium package – a month alone. A month on an island. No one in sight, no people, no cars, no stink. Nothing to hear but waves and wind through palm branches. The pictures Erin scrolled through burned his retinas. He had never seen such emptiness. Imagine what that air must taste like!

“So…” Sasha swallowed; his mouth was dry. “How does this work?”

“You qualify to purchase the package at a steep discount. You make the purchase today and we can arrange your travel before you leave the building. You board a plane, first-class, a personal assistant here to get you through security, a personal assistant when you land to get you onto a ferry to the island. Soledad is off the coast of South America; unfortunately, we can’t disclose the location, but you won’t need to know. It’s one of the last remaining places in the world with clean air and water and we have to keep it that way. You won’t take anything with you – the assistant will shop for a month’s supply of food, clothes and comfort items after you’ve arrived. They’ll stay out of your way, don’t worry. They’re only there to serve you.”

His fists had clenched without him knowing. He wanted it so badly. “What happens after?”

“After the month is up? Your assistant is specially trained to handle your termination. Your dignity is our priority. You won’t ever have to leave the island. The assistant will make you a drink – mimosa, Dr. Pepper, a glass of cold milk; take your pick. They will make sure you understand what is happening. You get comfortable, you drink, you pass peacefully in minutes.”

“No pain?”

Erin leaned forward. “Mr. Stepanov, you are a valued citizen of the United States. This is a unique opportunity for you, a noble service you can provide your fellow Americans. This earth is suffering under the weight of too many people. We need you to do this – we chose you because you need to do this. We would never cause you pain.” He trusted her.

Of course he’d known people who were terminated, but once they had picked their package and boarded that plane, they were off the grid. No one ever heard from them; no confirmations, no texts or calls, “Sipping mojitos on my private island losers!”

They were done with the world – they had been of the world, the grid-locked, shriveled, shrunk, stanking world that had bared its teeth at them since they could walk on the sizzling concrete under the heat of the smog-hidden sun, and now they were not; they were out. of. reach. And Sasha wanted that more than he had ever wanted to live.

Sasha closed his eyes. “How much?”

“Your discount brings you to an all-inclusive one-time rate of five thousand dollars.”

He paid. The arrangements were made. He had nothing left to leave his mother, the poor widow four blocks down from his miserable little apartment; four blocks down and he had not visited her in nearly four months. It was generally too hot, or too crowded, or too dangerous a walk. Or he simply hated going. But he went that night, one last time.

His mother’s cat, a raggedy creature that had been grandfathered in after the state-wide small mammals culling, greeted him at the door with a plaintive meow. Its hips stood out like coat hangers. How old must that thing have been? Sasha tipped the sad doorman with a half-hearted head scratch and called out, “Mom?”

“Sasha!” his mother responded from the bedroom. She emerged carrying two magazines, needle and thread, a ream of coupons, scissors, and a lighter. As always, it was impossible to guess what number of minor activities she’d been doing. They sat on the couch, the same couch Sasha had slept on for most of his life. He resented its scratchiness; had he visited more often, he would have thrown it out and bought her a new one. But the money for that was gone now. Even that, in a way, was relieving. All of his choices were over and made. He had nothing left to do but call work and board a plane.

“I wish you wouldn’t go,” his mother said tearfully after he explained. “Dina and her kids, what will they do without their uncle?”

“Mama. I haven’t even met those kids.”

“Just a two hour bus ride! We can go tomorrow!”

“Mom. Three people got stabbed on that bus last week.” And Dina hasn’t visited you since she got married, he wanted to say. She was as good as terminated, too.

His mother cried off and on for an hour. She fiddled with the thread and lit some candles, spread out her magazines. Showed him an article on modern small-space farming. She turned the TV on for five minutes and then off again. Nothing but government commercials.

“Is it a good package?” she finally asked.

“Premium. It’s amazing. A South American island, all to myself.”

She smiled a little. “Are you happy?”

“Yes, Mama. I’m so happy.”

He spent the night; she begged him to. They watched a movie and ate ABC soup out of the can like when he was a little boy. He tucked her into bed and slept eight last hours on that God-awful couch, shivering. In the morning she held him tightly and he kissed her on the forehead. When he left, he thought she had accepted. She was okay. She’d be all right.

The phone call to work was as delicious as he had expected. Ernie in HR answered after the second ring and Sasha could hear palpable jealousy in his voice when he said, after a pause, “We’ll be sorry to see you go. Enjoy your termination.” Sasha hadn’t spared the details. He described the island in hateful vibrancy.

The personal assistant arrived before dawn the next morning in a sleek government car. Sasha loved how it felt to hop in with nothing to carry, nothing to his name but the clothes on his back. Not even his phone. His apartment would be cleared and auctioned off that afternoon. Quick work. Probably the “critical field employee” would be moved in by nightfall.

The car was stocked with beer, soda, and pretzels. Sasha helped himself as they drove to the airport, enjoying the view from the windows that he knew would be his last of the choking city – of any city, anywhere. The traffic grudgingly parted for the government vehicle when possible.

“Excited for your trip?” asked the assistant.

“You have no idea.”

“I’ve heard the island is lovely,” the younger man purred. “You are one lucky guy.”

The assistant drove straight through arrivals and around the bend to GOVERNMENT CLEARANCE parking. Sasha tingled with excitement. It was quiet here, none of the bustle and stress of the common people flying cross-country for work.

They went through large glass doors. There was a handful of important-looking people waiting with the civility and luxury of government employees for private flights, but it was mostly cleared. The assistant took Sasha past the check-in counters into a side room marked TERMINATION CHECKPOINT.

Nothing but a camera planted on some plastic sheeting.

“You’ll need a special passport to get through security,” said the assistant. “Please look straight ahead and smile.”

Sasha saw him in the reflection of the lens. The only detail they should have perfected; the only moment in which he could have felt afraid or swindled. The moment he saw the assistant pull the gun from his waistband. I paid five thousand dollars for this – is what Sasha was thinking, and then he was terminated, and it was over. And what a service he had done his country.

Imitations of Adam by Sean Murley

Solomon, glancing at his watch, hurried down the crowded sidewalk. His meeting with Greg, his therapist, had gone longer than normal, and he was now five minutes late for an important marketing meeting at ABM, a major drug manufacturer. They had just gotten FDA approval for a new drug to go to the market, one which made people feel extremely elated for fifteen minutes at a time. It was intended for depressed people, but it was his job to turn this drug into a phenomenon. Something that teens would share at parties, something that non-depressed adults with three kids and a nearly empty house in a new suburb would think they needed. The drug wasn’t addictive, but he had to make it seem so. All he had to do was sell the idea of being happy, even for the shortest bit, to get people to buy it. Weaving through the crowd on the sidewalk, his shoulder accidentally glanced another person’s. The man turned toward Solomon, and the two locked eyes. The man glared at him for this terrible social infringement. Solomon’s heart starting beating faster, as he stared into the face of his brother.

Adam ran down the field, the ball jumping off each dirt patch. He got closer and closer to the goal. The ball popped up off his foot, and Solomon jumped with extended hands out of the goal toward the soccer ball. Adam jumped as well, headfirst into the edge of Solomon’s elbow, as he grabbed the ball. Adam fell to the ground, staying motionless for a moment. Solomon, knelt beside him on the ground, shaking him, asking, “Are you okay?” Solomon walked through the glass doors to an empty waiting room. He sank in one of the plush chairs and put his feet up on a coffee table littered with self-help books. The door to Greg’s office suddenly opened and a middle-aged man with thick round glasses and a woman with a small dog shoved in her black purse walked out. Solomon headed into the office that was filled with old books that Solomon didn’t recognize. Greg sat at his desk, which was cluttered with wooden puzzles and copies of the New York Times.

“How are you,” he asked, looking up from the most recent copy of TIME magazine on his desk. The cover showed the face of Mr. Evergreen, the head of ABM.

“Good,” Solomon said, not looking at Greg, but at a cardinal outside his window.

“I know we had to end our session rather abruptly last time,” Greg said, “so I want you to continue telling me about your brother Adam. What was he like?”

Solomon looked down at the floor, and began speaking in a soft voice, “Adam was always the more athletic one, and that concussion had been the final blow to his athletic career, since he’d had five before that. No more football, soccer. Nothing.” Solomon paused for a moment. He had a blank look on his face. His eyes avoided Greg’s, as he gazed outside. “From then on all he did was sit inside watching terrible Godzilla movies on our family’s old square television. He always sat with his legs up in the recliner, as if it were his legs that had been injured. He skipped college, and went straight to work in a factory that made airplane parts for Boeing. News of airplane crashes always upset him. He got a distant look in his eye, each time.” Solomon stopped, and looked out the window. Greg turned to see what he was staring at. The cardinal had disappeared.

“Watch it,” the stranger said, disappearing into the mass of the crowd.

“Sorry,” Solomon said in a soft voice, his words fading into the wind, nearly as soon as he said them. Solomon stood there several moments in the midst of a current of people. It seemed that even with all the noise he could still hear the sound of his watch ticking as each second passed. His eyes followed the supposed stranger. Solomon took out his small orange pill bottle that held his two remaining anti-anxiety meds, which rattled in the plastic container. “I’ll be fine tomorrow,” he thought, swallowing the last two tablets. He carried on walking. A vagabond was huddled in a large overcoat, resting against the glass panes of ABM’s headquarters with a cup in his hand. As Solomon passed, the beggar lifted his head. “Change, sir,” the beggar said. Solomon stopped in his tracks. This misplaced soul looked eerily similar to Adam, same long, messy hair, same piercing brown eyes. He couldn’t stand it. Reaching for his faded, almost empty leather wallet from his back pocket, he took out a five-dollar bill and handed it to the man on the sidewalk. “Thank you, sir,” he said. Solomon, now fifteen minutes late, nodded, starting to walk again. He should have driven to the meeting, but he had his license temporarily revoked after driving through a park late one night. The officer who had stopped him found the little orange bottle in the backseat, along with a half-empty bottle of gin. Solomon glanced back at the homeless man, whose head hung down once again, staring at his cup.

Darkness obscured the road ahead. Adam was driving down an empty road, and trees were all that could be seen for miles. The radio was turned to some old rock station, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” started playing through one of the speakers, while the other emitted a faint buzzing noise. He turned it up way too loud. Solomon laid his head back, trying in vain to fall asleep. Outside the window was a blur. He faded in and out of consciousness, from pure exhaustion. He awoke to a red and blue collage assaulting his weary eyes, which hadn’t adjusted to such intense sudden light. His ears were more attuned and could clearly hear the sirens ring. Adam pulled over, and the cop approached the window. It was a brief interaction, that ended with Adam in the back of the police car. A highly unflattering mugshot of him appeared in the newspaper the next day. That was the last time Solomon saw his brother.

He had seen Greg twice already that week, and Solomon sat in the waiting room once more. Another person was with him this time. She sat across from him, staring down at her phone. He stared straight at her, and the longer he looked the more her face seemed like Adam’s. The features slowly appeared the longer he looked at her. Her narrow face, her short brown hair, looked exactly like Adam’s. He tried convincing himself that this wasn’t true, that they didn’t look similar in the slightest. After a while she looked up to see him making eye contact. Suddenly the door opened, and both of them turned to look into the office. It was Solomon’s turn.

Greg looked the same as the other two visits, just with a different colored shirt. “How are you?” he asked in typical fashion. Solomon answered as he always did, “Good.”

“So where did Adam go after he got out,” Greg asked, picking up the conversation from their last meeting, yesterday.

“I’m not sure,” Solomon said. “When he got out, I never heard from him again, but then I moved here and started seeing him all around. Complete strangers, appearing exactly like him.”

“Has your prescription not been helping assuage these, delusions?” Greg said.

Solomon said nothing for a short while, simply staring outside at the tree where he saw the cardinal, only it wasn’t there. Greg was talking, but Solomon had given up listening. He wasn’t going to show up to the next appointment, and Greg would find some other poor soul to ask how they were. His orange pill bottle hadn’t had any of his meds for a week now. In place of his anxiety medicine, Solomon had snuck a bottle of the new drug he was trying to market.

“Solomon,” Greg said, “Have you talked to these ‘Adams’?” He shook his head no, and sat through a few more minutes of Greg’s benign questions. As Solomon left the office, he took one of the new pills, experiencing one of the happiest moments he had ever experienced. Fifteen minutes later he was lying in a dumpster a block from his apartment.

Solomon walked in the ABM building, which resembled a glass pillar. Light flooded in from the glass windows, and dim lamps hung overhead. Several people were sitting in the smooth, pristine marble lobby. As Solomon headed to the elevator, he caught a glimpse of one of them. Solomon knew it wasn’t Adam, that it couldn’t be. Nevertheless, the man who looked like Adam got out of his chair and began walking towards him. The circular button lit up as he touched it. The doors opened into an elevator lined with mirrors. Thousands of Solomons could be seen in that dark box. Which one was the real one, he wondered. The doors started closing, as the man who looked like Adam approached. He reached toward the elevator as the doors shut, leaving Solomon alone in his ascent. He took the last of his stolen drugs, just as the doors opened to a room filled with business men and women. All discussion ended when they saw him grinning like a maniac. “You’re late,” Mr. Evergreen said. Solomon, having little excuse, simply apologized. “Alright, well. Show us what you’ve got.” With a sordid smile on his face, Solomon took out his empty bottle, threw it on the black glass table, and walked through the elevator doors as they closed.

It was raining when Solomon walked out of the ABM building. Though he only had his coat to protect him from the rain, he didn’t mind. He was chemically as happy as could be. He sat down on an uncomfortable metal bench, under the shade of a large oak tree in the middle of a park. A ray of light broke through from the clouds. Someone that looked like Adam came and sat next to him. Neither said anything. They both looked forward at the rain falling upon the trees, as sunlight glared in their eyes.

A Tight Thing by Toyosi Begbaaji

When I wake up this morning, my voice is still missing.

The sunlight through my blinds had been what roused me from my sleep. I’d been dreaming, a pleasant dream, the kind where you feel affronted if woken up from, when the world in front of me had gone red, stinging even through my eyelids.

My eyes open slowly, blinking to let my eyelashes break up the offending sunlight, and I sit up carefully, back protesting mildly while I try out my voice, as has become habit.

My name…

My name is…

Silence again. I’m not as surprised I think I should be. As I’m testing my voice, I realize: It’s Tuesday, my early day, and it’s with sudden panic that I notice it’s an hour past when I was supposed to be at work.

The motions that follow are familiar—heave self: out of bed, make way: to bathroom, brush: teeth, regard: appearance, ultimately: return to room—if rushed. I don’t dress as slowly as I’d woken up, instead opting to pull on clothes hurriedly, tipping over at one point as I attempt to quickly slip into a pair of trousers. When I’m dressed, I stand in front of my mirror, staring at myself as everything around me eases down on the brake.

Morning Me always feels loose. She feels unsecured, like every part of her is barely hanging onto each other, clinging with the barest amount of strength. Like the aftermath of an explosion, caught in a jello stasis. As I stare at my reflection, Morning Me looks back. She has dark circles that seem to float somewhere between us, like I could reach out and pluck them from the air to hold in my palm. She has sagging shoulders, the width of them seeming to spread 2 farther and farther, even when I cup my hands around them, gritting my teeth as I push them back close together. Everything about her is wide, seeming to drift apart unless I actively tell it not to.

I should call in sick again.

She and I are both still far too loose for the day.

The subway is crammed full of people at this time: college students, technicolor tourists, the occasional child-toting mother. This late in the morning, later than my regular subway, I don’t see very many others like me—dressed in dark clothes, carrying a simple briefcase, wearing pinched high heels that always capture stray rocks just under the arch of the foot. Today I ride this unfamiliar subway near the center, sat poised in my seat with my briefcase on my lap, my phone clutched hard in my hand. After emailing my boss—Regret to inform you that I’ll be very late today. My bad—I scroll through every app, looking for nothing, eyes downcast. I’m hoping that if I don’t meet anyone’s eyes, that if I let myself melt and try to blend into the seat beneath me, no one will try to talk to me.

“This seat taken?”

I flinch, but keep my gaze down.

“Hi? Sorry, um, I—” The train surges forward suddenly, and the new voice swears under their breath. “Sorry, I just—I need to sit down. Is this seat taken?”

The new voice is soft, but insistent. Enough that I dare chance a glance up. The new voice belongs to a man—no, a boy, can’t be older than twenty. His body seems tense where he 3 stands, rocking back and forth with the subway’s lurching. My glance becomes a full turn of the head, which becomes a dropping of my phone into my lap, which becomes a small shake of my head.

The new voice’s face washes with relief as he plops down beside me. When he does, I try to stifle the way my body flinches again, leaning away and tightening in on itself. Closer now, I inspect him further.

Red hair. Black roots. Brown eyes. Freckled skin. Student at the nearby college, going by the hoodie he wears. Exhausted, going by the bags beneath his eyes.

“God, you’re a lifesaver, you have no idea,” the new voice says, sighing heavily. “Whole cart was packed when I came in the front set of doors.”

I’m still examining him. Distressed jeans. Scuffed sneakers. Heavy backpack that sits in his lap, his body curled around it as his cheek rests smushed on top in a way that’s distressingly endearing. One piercing—no, three in his left ear.

If I could speak, I’d ask him to turn his head so I can see the other.

Ah, fuck,” the new voice mutters. His cheek is off the backpack now, its pattern imprinted into his skin as he checks the time on his phone. “I’m gonna be late for lab.” He looks up then, and I’m caught.

My face flushes so suddenly that my eyes water as I look away. I pretend to be busied by looking out the window, watching the fast darkness pass us by. When I was young, I used to believe that the subways actually stood still. That when we needed to go, it was the city moving around us, spinning and twisting and running to get us to the next location. A sun, orbited by a concrete galaxy.

I want to tell the new voice this. I want to ask him to say it back to me. I wonder what it would sound like—a child’s imagination on such a lovely voice.

The new voice clears his throat. I don’t want to look.

“You’re really quiet.”

On the tip of my tongue—I’ve lost my voice.

“Did I say something wrong?” the new voice asks. He sounds nervous. Worried. “Oh, was it ‘cause I swore?” More worried. Almost panicked. I continue watching the darkness. “My bad, I didn’t mean to…offend you or anything.”

My warbling reflection copies the way I grit my teeth. She presses her lips into a tight line. She flicks her eyes over to see the new voice’s reflection just beside her face.

Worried. Nervous. Panicked.

He’s waiting for me to say something back.

It feels like I’m trying to breathe through the pinhole opening of a clenched fist.

“I totally get if you’re one of those, you know, old-fashioned types. Or whatever,” he mumbles. He scratches the back of his neck.

I finally look back. The new voice jumps, startled by my sudden movement. Brown eyes wide, freckled face pale.

I raise my hands between us and slowly pantomime.

Me. Talking. No.

The new voice seems to understand. He nods, color returning to his face, almost the color of his hair. The new voice moves to set his backpack down, on top of his feet. He raises his own hands then, and I watch, marveled, as he speaks.

I know ASL, if that helps?

I stare at him like he’s sprouted a second head.

You… I say back, hands trembling.

The new voice smiles, cheeks bunched up under his eyes. His hands move quickly—practiced ease, sureness. When he tells me his name, I desperately wish I could speak, if only to hear how it would sound on my tongue.

J. I. N. S. O. O.

Korean? I ask.

Jinsoo frowns, then says back, Unfortunately.

The feeling of a laugh bubbles up in my chest. Warms me all over.

Your name?

K. A. T. H. R. Y. N, I say, chucking noiselessly when Jinsoo’s eyebrows furrow at the spelling.

American? he asks.


Jinsoo laughs, a laugh like windchimes. Like tinkling bells. My chest constricts.

How do you know sign? I ask, remnants of the embarrassed flush from earlier still tickling my cheeks.

Jinsoo settles back in his seat. He’s comfortable now, hands moving deftly. Deaf sister. Mom wanted us all to learn, he says. Helpful for times like these. He nods towards me. You?

Learned in high school, I say. On a whim.

Jinsoo rolls his eyes. No one learns ASL on “a whim.”

If we were closer—if we weren’t utter strangers—I would playfully swat at his shoulder. Or push it, laughing as he falls over into the aisle beside him. As it is, I instead shrug, attempting to seem casually smug. I did.

Jinsoo snorts amusedly, hands prepped to speak again when the subway screeches to a sudden halt, pitching both of us forward into the back of the seats in front of us.

Yah,” Jinsoo hisses, pushing himself back. He mutters something in a different language—Korean, I eventually place—then sits back as the announcer warns of the closing doors.

I touch Jinsoo’s arm. You alright?

Jinsoo smiles again, and my chest feels tight, like something in it might snap. Or explode.

Been better. Don’t appreciate the sore chest. He rubs with one hand at the spot where the bar of the seat in front of him had hit, face twisted up in pain. Like he’s signing “sorry” to himself.

My eyes become fixated on the ring he wears. Silver band. Black vertical line bisecting the center. Hangul stamped into the metal.

I want to ask about the ring.

I want to ask what the words mean.

I want to ask him to say them out loud.

Jinsoo tilts his head, red hair cascading to one side, drawing my attention back up.

You know you don’t have to use sign, I say instead, suddenly panicked that he’d caught me staring again. I can hear just fine.

Yeah, but I like it, he says. The ring on his finger catches the lights above us as the subway starts back up. I wonder if that light is strong enough to reflect back into the darkness just through the window behind me. I haven’t been back to California in almost two years, so I rarely get to use it. Jinsoo shrugs. And besides, you’re mute, right? It’d be rude and weird if I was the only one speaking out loud.

I freeze. I’m not mute, I rush to say.

The expression on Jinsoo’s face drops, spackled over with alarm and regret. “Shit,” he says, hands raised. “Oh, shit. Wait, sorry—” He switches back to sign. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to assume—

I just have a sore throat, I say. Lie. I’m lying.

If we weren’t strangers, I’d tell him that I’ve been like this for days now. That I’d spent the last five days in bed and unable to get up, terrified of seeing Morning Me in the mirror, of having to face her and her slowly drifting frame. That five days ago, I’d gotten so wound up so quickly that I’d blown to pieces, shooting my shrapnel in every direction. That this is my first time heading into work in three days, and even now, I’m still not entirely sure how to explain to other people that even though I’d managed to put myself back together, I still haven’t been able to put back my voice.

But we’re strangers. So I lie, and sign back, I just have a sore throat.

Jinsoo’s face doesn’t change, but he does visibly relax. Cold season? he asks. Before I can respond, Jinsoo’s hauling his backpack into his lap, unzipping the centermost pocket. He fishes around inside, then makes a noise of delight as he slips out his arm, holding out his closed 8 fist. I have a couple Halls lozenges? His face has finally returned to something more normal, a lopsided smile with apologetic eyes.

The tight something in my chest tugs, gently.

I take the offered lozenges—a little warm from being cupped in his palm—and nod in thanks. I slowly unwrap one, fighting the waxy paper that’s a little stuck to it, then slip it into my mouth, humming at the sudden burst of cherry on my tongue.

Jinsoo coughs, startling me. He sets his bag back down on his feet, then smiles, albeit awkwardly. Hopefully those help. Your sore throat.

When he tilts his head this time, I finally catch sight of his other ear. No earrings, but there are piercings, long healed and stretched a little wide. I feel compelled to reach out and tug on the lobe of his ear.

You’re a student at the university? I ask instead, nodding towards his hoodie. Changing the subject is a preemptive measure. Or a protective one. Anything to keep the tight thing in my chest from pulling too hard and suffocating me where I sit.

Jinsoo beams. Third year.

So you’re twenty?

Twenty-one. Who’s a junior at twenty?

I snort. I was.

Jinsoo’s eyes bug out. You’re not in college? The slow movement of his hands combined with his stunned face is enough for me to imagine how incredulous he would sound out loud. His face is so expressive when he speaks that I allow myself to imagine his lovely voice carrying the words instead of his hands. You look nineteen!

I silently laugh again, covering my face with a hand as I pass the lozenge with my tongue to nestle in the pocket of my cheek. People say that a lot.

That explains the briefcase, Jinsoo says. He shakes his head, tsking exaggeratedly. You know they make stylish backpacks these days? You couldn’t get by with one of those?

I pout. Excuse you. I like my briefcase.

Jinsoo scoffs, but his eyes are bright with amusement, practically gleaming.

The tight thing in my chest pulls, tugging hard enough to skew my smile.

So you’re what, thirty then? Jinsoo asks. Forty? Then he narrows his eyes. Fifty?

I roll my eyes. Twenty-four, thank you very much.

Twenty-four, and already toting a briefcase. When Jinsoo smiles this time, I catch the brief flash of something in his eyes. Something vulnerable. Something sad.

Without the need for speaking over the loudness of the subway, it’s like we’re surrounded by a bubble, isolated from the rest of the noise on the train. The sounds of the other patrons are muffled, like cotton’s been shoved in my ears. When Jinsoo looks down, something in the air between us grows colder.

My smile dethreads.

My ears start ringing.

I feel compelled to ask about the sad thing that dimmed the light in his eyes.

I should change the subject again.

I wave my hand in front of Jinsoo’s face to catch his attention. You’re the first stranger I’ve ever had a pleasant conversation with while on the subway, I say. Then I smile. And we’re not even speaking out loud.

Jinsoo’s eyes widen. Then he sputters out a laugh.

Tinkling bells. Bunched up cheeks. Sparkling eyes.

The sad thing in him goes away.

The tight thing in me grows tauter still.

Well, you’re the nicest person I’ve talked to…ever, Jinsoo says, reaching out. His hand falters for a moment, and drops down to lightly tap the edge of my briefcase. His face flushes red, like his hair again, and it’s only then that I realize he’d been going to grab my hand.

The bubble around us grows warmer and I feel ten seconds away from catching on fire. We’re in the sun—we are the sun, the rest of the world spinning around us, moving around us while we remain still.

Does he feel it? I wonder to myself. I clench my hands in my lap. The tight thing is reeling itself so fast my entire body feels dizzy. Buzzing. Trembling. Ticking. Does he feel his own tight thing for me, too?

The subway screeches to another halt as the stop is announced.

Shit.” Jinsoo stands up from his seat, and just like that, the bubble of isolation around us bursts. Explodes. “Shit, this—this is my stop.”

The cotton in my ears is suddenly too much and I feel deaf. My head is spinning. My chest is crying, the tight thing having pulled too hard, too fast. My arms feel heavy and numb, too numb to even talk now. The cherry taste in my mouth is suddenly bitter.

Jinsoo’s standing up, he’s leaving

It’s greedy of me to grab his hand, but I do anyway. I tug him to a sudden stop, my briefcase tumbling out of my lap and crashing onto my toes. I don’t notice the pain, so I don’t 11 wince. I watch Jinsoo’s face, watch it cycle through a range of emotions before finally settling on something that looks worrying like the sad thing I’d seen earlier.

“Kathryn, I gotta go,” he says. He tugs once. I hold fast. “Kathryn.” Pleads. I don’t know what’s come over me.

Something must be wrong with me. I think I’m close to detonating again.

We hold eye contact. Agonizing eye contact. His face is still drenched with the sad thing.

I hang onto his arm for a beat, then let my grip slacken until I’m holding onto just his wrist. Then his hand. Then the tips of his fingers. As the bells for the announcing the closing doors start, I finally let go, scrambling back until my body hits the window with a thud. My mouth opens as if to speak—I’ll see you again, right?—and the lozenge drops out, falling into my lap, spit sticking it to the fabric of my shirt. I try to raise my arms to ask, but the tight thing has spread throughout my body, holding me still like a doll.

I watch Jinsoo leave, swept up in the rush of last-minute exiting people. I watch him briefly turn back, hand closed into a fist where it rubs a fast circle against his chest.

I’m sorry.

I feel his skin-warmed ring band where it rests in my palm.