How To Be A Fool

by Joseph Harmon

Dmitry was already on stage, and the initial shock had worn off. Now he was numb, and his face kept the anxiety airtight. When asked for a location, the crowd shouted over themselves to provide it. They were excited tonight, so Dmitry bounced in place to match their energy. He leaped into the scene.
Airport! Therapist’s office! Submarine! The audience chose therapy. Anders became the therapist, making himself wise. Dmitri was the patient, laying down on stage as if on a couch, then realizing that he must look like a corpse. Right away, Anders declared a breakthrough.
“Are you sure?” Dmitry asked, looking to the crowd for confirmation.
“I’m positive!” said Anders. “Congratulations! And would you look at that, we’re just out of time.”
The point was to transform impulse into action, laughter if possible. To look into the crowd and feel the thrill of something unexpected.
After handing Anders his imaginary check, he met Roxana. The audience called for love, so she wilted into a calculated shyness.
“Now, what are you in for?” he inquired, his voice turning baritone and suave.
“Oh, I shot my husband,” she admitted, embarrassed.
“I can’t remember. Hopefully, Doctor…”
“Smith…ers,” he offered.
“Hopefully, Doctor Smithers can remind me,” she finished.
They tumbled out to center stage, escalating the romantic comedy as they went. Anders skirted around them and reemerged when the crowd called “robber.” The themes had already been decided.
Anders lunged for them, invisible gun outstretched. But he was a coward, afraid of his own power, and he shook with it to great effect.
“G-gimme all your money!” he stuttered.
Dmitry dropped the machismo and raised his hands, but not Roxana. She was the expert, and she took charge. She dashed to Anders and somehow redirected the gun at his head. She gritted her teeth, lovely and deranged on purpose.
“I’ve killed before and I’ll do it again!” she yelled in a stage whisper. Her tone was just right.
“She will,” Dmitry said. “Watch out, I’m warning you.”
The audience demanded a twist.
“Oh, who am I kidding?” Roxana said, shaking Anders in her grip. “I’ll admit it. I hired him.”
“You what?” Dmitry said.
“He’s my next door neighbor,” she said, indicating Anders.
“But why?” Dmitry asked.
“After I got rid of my husband, I got so bored,” Roxana said. “I wanted some excitement, an, uh, enemy to defeat. Come on, we’ve all been there.”
She shrugged and Dmitry witnessed the shuddery rise and fall of her shoulder blades under her tank top. He wondered if it was the show’s fault, these strangers siphoning away her energy each Saturday night, or else if the improv was her remedy.
“Missus Jones, can I go home now?” Anders asked, squeaky and adolescent. “My mom is expecting me for dinner.”
“Yes, Joey,” Roxana sighed. She released him, and he scampered offstage.
“I forgot to ask,” she said, turning back to Dmitry. “What did Dr. Smithers tell you today?”
Dmitry thought for a moment.
“He told me that I need to stop seeing dangerous women,” he said. His deadpan was enough to seal off the experience, and they called scene.
A light cascade of applause rained down on them. Dmitry stood there, serious in the glare, and then slipped backstage. The American impulse to smile still seemed foreign; in his mind, they had to be earned.
“Nice work,” said Roxana backstage. Now she was wearing a men’s suit jacket with boxy shoulders, her hair loose around her neck.
“Thank you.”
“I’ve been watching gangster movies from the fifties,” she told him. “That’s why I went violent.”
“I watch so many movies,” he said. It was true. In the spare moments between his work, he would fixate on any film that he could find, finding character when he felt he had none left.
Roxana appeared to be thinking. Her eyes were more alive than most, Dmitry had noticed. They darted around as she spoke as if examining all the ways things might be. She looked most comfortable on stage. Elsewhere, she played an unconvincing version of herself. She spoke with an irony that was almost an accent, making it impossible to tell what she believed. If her words landed wrong, she did not have to own them.
“There’s something about you,” Roxana said.
“If I knew, I’d tell you,” she said. She took a swig from her water bottle.
After a long pause, she said, “I know. You remind me of a train.”
“A train?”
“The sound of a train. The horn, maybe? Even right up next to you, it sounds far away.”
“Ah,” he said without understanding.
“Where are you from, again?”
“Michigan,” he said. “East Lansing.” He conjured up the pictures he had seen, the demographics, the weather, in case he had to field any questions.
“That explains it,” Roxana said doubtfully.
Some laughter swept through the curtains, and through them too.
“I’ll see you around,” she told him.
“See you around,” he echoed, but it was already time to enter the next sketch. The curtain rippled in her wake and he followed, ready to reveal himself as someone new.

Dmitry missed the train stations. They had the flavor of old Moscow, embellished with arches and barrel vaults, ornate carvings and the occasional stained glass window. The waiting passengers had their heads bowed, worshiping the moments between destinations. The trains were also a respite from the traffic he would never miss.
Although he had not spoken to his fellow passengers, he felt a connection with them simply from executing the same task together. It was a mundane experience, not fit for the stage, but important without applause.
Once, all the lights had gone off in the middle of the trip, and the whole contraption ground to a halt. People filled the silence with unsettled sounds. Dmitry had wondered if he had gone blind—his surroundings looked the same with eyes shut. But no, the lights flashed on again, and the crowd examined each other with fresh interest. An official explanation was provided later, over newsprint and radio, but nobody embraced it completely. There was no pure belief here, only forward movement.
The same was true online. Officially, Dmitry was Paul Campbell of East Lansing. He oversaw an army of bot accounts across social media. They had profile pictures pulled from stock photos. They swarmed around issues of contention: gun violence, Black Lives Matter, and so forth, until the Americans tore their society down these fissures. Dmitry did this because he was ordered to; he had no stake in this country. Even if he did, the system operated above him. Whether the lights flickered on or off, the safe option was to look straight ahead.
He went to the coffee shop with pastries that reminded him of home. It seemed to be only populated by people under thirty-five, all with laptops in front of them, typing furiously.
“You again,” said the barista, Sam. He had recently shaved his head, and now looked too young to be operating a cash register. The gauges in his ears were the only reminder of his age, holes the size of dimes. He reminded Dmitry of Ilya.
“Yes,” Dmitry said. Sam had recommended that he try improv, the first to tell Dmitry that his seriousness could be entertaining.
“Usual?” Sam asked, his finger already poised above the screen.
“Yes,” Dmitry said, and soon enough Sam flipped it back to him to pay.
“You’re talkative today,” Sam observed.
“What is there to talk about?”
Dmitry could sense that Sam disagreed, had evidence that his cafe contained more than the sound of typing, but before long his order was ready and Sam had lost interest. Dmitry retreated to the corner farthest from windows and onlookers. Although his equipment was encrypted, he wouldn’t risk performing any real work here. He could at least monitor his progress. He went through his tabs, one after the next, chaos on every screen. He tipped his head back against the wall, against the posters where he had discovered the improv troupe.
Their advertising had been effective, the photos crisp in quality and the people full of joy. It had seemed like the farthest possible occupation from his current one. He had spent all of his days indoors in front of a screen, leaving only to make meals from corner stores or have brief, impersonal sex with women from dating apps.
“You’re so red,” one of the women had said afterwards. He knew little more than her name and her sense of humor, quick and canny as a Reddit user.
“Oh,” Dmitry had said, glancing at himself, “Yes.”
“Are you embarrassed?” She had been kidding with him, attempting to pry open his personality. Irrelevant—it was an act, and it was not—he shifted by the moment.
“No,” he had said. He did not redden on stage, even full of shame and contempt. Redness came to him after any exercise, rising to the surface of his skin.
“You had more to say over text,” she had told him, half-serious. “You called me ‘baby’.”
He had pulled on his clothes and left.
When Dmitry auditioned, he had discovered that his work had prepared him well. His reaction times were sharp from firing back responses, from egging on the character assassinations. He could invent information to prove himself. He could be thousands of imaginary people at once. All this, and the words came out uniform and strange, his tone pressed flat as if by machinery. Sometimes they laughed because they did not understand him.
It was this disconnect that was so real for Dmitry. Up there, bathed in harsh light, he acted ridiculous and faced no consequences. He could be in battle or not, switching sides by the moment. The audience could all belong to the same body, perhaps Dmitry’s body, and his inherited trauma, residual Soviet paranoia in his veins. They could forget about the change they craved, hallucinate new realities with different rules.

When Dmitry was in the last year of senior school, a boy named Ilya had tried to befriend him. With wide eyes and the traces of a speech impediment, Ilya seemed wounded by his own existence, and it was not surprising that he was picked on. The two of them had played together as children, but Dmitry remembered no strong attachment.
Suddenly, Ilya crashed into Dmitry’s shoulder in search of a reaction. He spoke about books. He said that the other boys in their class were destined for bitter ends. They would follow rules mindlessly, drink to oblivion every evening, cheat on their wives. Dmitry took offense, as he considered some of the boys his friends. They could be harsh, but they were not irredeemable. One day Ilya had been too much, and when he made the familiar swerve into Dmitry’s collarbone, Dmitry had shoved him.
“Would you get off me?” he had yelled.
Ilya had tripped over his own feet, fallen back, more vulnerable than ever. Without warning, the other boys came to Dmitry’s side. They taunted Ilya, cursing, invoking slurs.
“Dmitry won’t be your fag,” they said. Their faces took on a kind of hardened cruelty beyond their years. They set on him like animals, Ilya too frail to resist, vanishing under their mass and movement. Dmitry stood still, unsure what to do, and even the schoolmaster hesitated before putting a stop to it. He extracted Ilya, who was clutching a broken nose, had blood dripping from his chin, and would not look at Dmitry. This was the first fight that he had started.
On stage now, events were progressing. There had been a bubble bath salesman, the victim of a botched plastic surgery, and an Australian game hunter who gave up on the accent halfway through. Dmitry and Roxana were paired up again. She surveyed the crowd, hands on hips, as they chose a relationship.
“Spies,” somebody called through the noise. That was the selection. Dmitry stood still, in danger of turning red. They began.
“FBI,” Roxana barked, holding up an imaginary badge. “Drop the act. I know you’re a Russian spy.”
She looked at him, her eyes impenetrable. She looked certain. She seemed to be speaking only to him.
“Ah…” he started. “Nyet. I mean, no.” He grinned at the audience when they gave him a laugh.
“I’ve got a five hundred page document here that says otherwise,” Roxana said. “We used up all of our printer ink making it.”
And what if she was an undercover agent, confronting him like this? Did it matter?
“Then what is my name?” he asked her. If she said Dmitry, he would know.
She hesitated, lips puckering. “Uh, it’s…”
She did not know.
“Oh, don’t butcher it. My name is Ilya,” he said. “Ilya Rostovtsev.”
After the fight, Dmitry had entertained the idea of bringing Ilya a chocolate bar. He could have set it down on the sink basin while Ilya cleaned his wounds, making amends without speaking a word. But what good would that have done? The other boys might have turned on Dmitry, and Ilya had been testing his patience anyway. It was time that he learned to behave appropriately. In the end, Dmitry had done nothing. Ilya had not returned to school the next day, and none of the days after that.
He looked at Roxana while she described his crimes, not far from his actual work and probably taken from news reports she had read. He spoke in his native accent, which sounded as natural as it felt. He made a simple joke about how Russians loved vodka so much that Russian babies drank it instead of breast milk. Was that negligent? Well, Americans love guns more than their own children.
Roxana took him into pretend handcuffs, nails raking his wrists.
“Any last words?” she asked.
“You’re a fool,” Dmitry said to her, squinting in the light. He was facing the audience but could not see their faces. “You are all fools. I am a fool too.”
This was close to what his supervisor Mikhail would later bellow at him over the phone. The clip was posted online, and he was vulnerable even though it was theater. Both of them could be killed, Mikhail said, and he should not have approved such an inexperienced man to travel overseas. Dmitry should hope that he would only be returned to Moscow. Anyone that brushed past him in the streets could be carrying a nerve agent.
“Listen to me,” Dmitry said to the crowd. “Please listen. Keep your head down in the train stations. Trust nobody.”
Roxana squeezed his arm, trying to end the scene.
“There is no winner in this fight,” he said, and the room was silent except for one person, unsure what else to do but laugh.

Time and Time Again

By: S.J. Swoap

No one has more time and less use of it than a living man with a dead wife.

He sat in the movie theater, not looking at the empty seat beside him, the only empty seat in the theater. He stared instead at his watch, a fiftieth anniversary gift.

Four minutes from that theater was the high school where they’d met, and he’d asked if she had an evening free to see a movie with him.

He’d bought her a ticket to that showing and this one too.

Three more minutes down the road was the church where he’d worn a black suit and she a white dress, and they’d both said, “I do.”

The lights dimmed.

Two minutes’ walk around the corner was the house where’d they’d spent their minutes together.

It was a reshowing of that same movie they’d watched on their first date in high school.

One minute farther was the hospital where she’d lain in bed, he’d held her hand, and the nurse had said, “push,” and he’d cradled their baby boy; next to it was the train station where the boy, grown now, had gone off to war never to return; and there’s the hospital again, her in the bed again, he’d held her hand again, but somber then; and the church again, in a black suit again, tears then, and roses laid on a grave.

He looked up from his watch as the show started. He had all the time in the world now.

The Caricature

By: Joseph Harmon

If he were anything at all, he thought he might be a homing pigeon. That night, he tripped over a crack in the pavement, split his knee, and tracked a trail of blood spots through the halls of their building. Maribel had to go back and clean it up so it didn’t look like a murder. While she took care of business, he sat on the kitchen floor and buried his head in his hands. It was half a joke.

She came back through the door with her hair coming loose from her ponytail, falling apart in little ways but surging toward him, somehow in control. He felt the familiar warmth spread from his stomach as he watched her. It was sunny and dumb, sort of like liquor. It was also a reminder: he was magnetic through all of his mess, and that was why he was a pigeon. The magnetism was in their brains, it told them where to fly. He could screw it all up but find his way home.

He kissed Maribel on the neck and breathed in her laundry smell.

“Shouldn’t have happened,” he mumbled into her ear.


“The knee.”

“Oh, the knee,” she said, remembering, and fetched the first aid kit. “You’re no superhero.”

“What?” he said, even though he heard her.

“You bleed like everyone else,” she said.

He wanted to argue. No, no bleeding. Ty had tried to call him a cab, but he had walked all the way home. He needed nothing, no one. He was invincible.

Then he started to crack himself up. Invincible, who was he kidding? His head was just hollow, filled with the same old echoes. Work the next morning was an alarm in the background.

“My earbuds are broken,” Maribel told him. “You want to be a superhero, you can fix those.”

“What happened?” he asked, barely moving his lips.

“They went through the wash.”


“Sometimes I get little shocks when I listen.”

“Like that thing to start your heart. Defrill…”

“Defibrillator.” Maribel knew what she was talking about. She rubbed her hands together to mimic the paddles, and he imagined how that jolt of electricity would feel when it tore through his body. She would know how to make it painless.

“Hey, you saved me,” he said, before she could touch him.

She fixed him with a complicated look that his mind couldn’t untangle.

“Clear,” she said. “They say that right before, so everyone knows about the electricity. So they can get out of the way.”

He nodded, that was all he was good for, and she settled her hands over his heart.


*  * *


Lately, on the way to work, he had noticed people looking at him in the street. Their eyes looked as vacant as the goldfish Mom had got him as a kid. So blank, but they were searching somehow. As if they might know him, as if they expected to find answers in his face. What the hell? He was no answer.

He emerged from the subway and tried to savor the movement. He worked as a security guard and had to stand still for hours on end. When he got antsy, he tried to convince himself that it was better than, say, coding. Up in those shiny glass towers, tapping out numbers for no good reason.

He felt best during his smoke break. He breathed out, he could see it in the air, and it was that easy to create something.

Back in the day, he and Ty used to smoke together in the tunnels. There was a creek that ran under the nice neighborhoods, but it was just a trickle, so they stood on the edges and their sneakers got a little soggy but that was it. They’d spray paint the walls with all kinds of wild shapes, and they’d talk about—not about the future, exactly, but about how things might be. The little feelings that melted in and out, when he couldn’t be sure whether they would come back or if that was just the paint fumes talking.

That didn’t matter with Maribel, because they were both funny people. Everyone got the same boring normal things delivered to them each day, but funny people knew how to scramble them up into something electric. They couldn’t leave it stale and flat, no sir. Most people won’t tell you that because they don’t want to let you in on the trade secret, but he’ll tell you. He’s honest that way.

They had been introduced at a party. Her friend, Melissa, shoved them together. She had been a little tipsy, a wild gleam in her eye that reminded him of a racehorse straining for speed.

“Maribel,” she had said, pointing at her like an Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster. “You have to meet him. I know you two will get along.”

They had said hi, and he had bugged his eyes out a little bit in Melissa’s direction. Saying, look at this, but also making fun of the idea that anyone would point out a thing like that. He operated on a different script and he could show her the way out.

Maribel had looked at him and it was clear that she understood, but she flicked her eyes to the party. The way out was all around them, pouring drinks and laughing. As they continued to talk, he had known that someone real was standing in front of him. So many people just repeat what they hear, too locked in to follow him down interesting paths.

“You ever hear about racehorses?” he had asked her.

“Yeah,” Maribel had said, quick to the sarcasm. “I get that all the time.”

“Oh, well, never mind then.” He pretended to be deflated, but she kept a straight face.

“No, tell me. When you start off so bold, you’ve got to finish it.”

“Your mom tell you that?”

“No, I told myself. Why would you assume that?”

“Seems like mom advice.”

“Well, thanks.”

“So, racehorses,” he said, acting like she was really holding up his story here, interrupting his wisdom. The conversation was beside the point. She started to laugh but not quite, folding into herself and forward. She reached out to touch his shoulder, as if to say, you’re too much, as if they had known each other for years.

He had told Maribel how he had done debate back in high school and one of the topics had been that. They mistreated the horses, some people covered it up, and there were lots of ethical concerns. He was the second-best debater, and that came as a shock to everyone. They expected him to only be good at football.

“I just tell ‘em, well, I’m a battering ram with a brain,” he remembered saying.

He hadn’t finished high school after all, but got his GED. He had tried community college, but that just felt like more of the same, wasting his time in those cramped styrofoam cubes doing work they told him was important, when he knew it wasn’t important, when he was busting his ass trying to make rent during the day. Maribel was in school then, playing their game. She wanted to be a nurse practitioner.

She had driven for different rideshare companies on the side, and had even lived nocturnal for a while to get by. She had said that her favorite time to drive was four in the morning. The streets were empty, she had said, all yours, and any passengers that you picked up were too lost to care how fast you went.

“Did you book it?” he had said. “I would’ve. All the way up to 100, past 100, and then I’d go anywhere, I’d go to…” He had tried to think of a destination, somewhere far away, but he couldn’t name one.

“Where should I go?” he had asked her.

“Nowhere,” she had said. “Stay right here.”

Melissa stayed by them for a while, struggling to keep up with their conversation.

“He’s such…such a caricature, isn’t he?” she had said to Maribel.

“He really is,” Maribel said, leading her to the couch for some water. She meant to say ‘character,’ but it felt better that way, more real. Over her shoulder, Maribel threw him a smile.


*  * *


Usually, he and Maribel texted each other during his smoke break. They pretended to need each other desperately, and part of them meant it. They acted like they hated each other when the other didn’t respond. There were exclamation points and emoji and memes that neither of them understood. Today, radio silence. Her appointment was at 5:30, and that was all he could think about.

He thought about her plans up ahead, and what she would look like running gurneys down halls, saving lives. He thought about his own mom and how her plans were derailed by having him. When his dad stepped out, she stepped up to the challenge. She had been a real superhero, providing for them and giving him a real childhood, somehow, as best as she could. Nothing like Ty went through. He thought about what kind of father he would be, letting the old movies and cartoons echo through. He could almost smell the Cheerios ground into the carpet.

He left work early and didn’t let the kids in the street bother him. Soft hair, wide open eyes. They’d get along because they were both open to anything.

He passed a ghost bike on his way to the touristy section. It was painted white, flowers in the front basket but no photograph to break his heart. That had almost been him. He had crashed as a kid, cracked some ribs, and Mom had feared the worst. He thought about the randomness of endings.

He had wanted to do this for weeks. There was a guy drawing caricatures at the end of the street. He stopped him before he could close up for the day and asked for just one more. The guy agreed, maybe seeing some desperation in his face, maybe just out of human kindness. It only took ten minutes.

He met Maribel at the bus stop and hugged her close, the caricature folded up in his back pocket. On the way to the clinic, she told him stories about her childhood best friend, who was acting ridiculous as usual and dragging herself out of another disaster. He let her take the lead, but they were both laughing and both meant it. When she imitated her anatomy professor’s voice, that got him every time. He knew that she was hurting in a way that he couldn’t access.

When they arrived, he settled onto the sofa in the waiting room and helped her fill out the paperwork. He squeezed her hand when they called her name, when she stood up to go. He had the rest planned out. When she came back, he would take her hand and they would leave that tiny room behind forever. He would pull the caricature from his pocket and show her. She’d laugh. Anyone would. It was funny and it was accurate, his features pinched and swollen, jaw comically square, all adding up to something extra-real. That’s how I want it to be, he would tell her. That’s how I am with you. Together they would find their way home.

Great Expectations

By: Jared Rosen

Well it’s been a few years now and I can’t say I know shit from shat or a fresh-on-the-horizon rainbow, but everybody’s been asking their place in this space. The ‘when should I?’ and the ‘where should I?’ ; the ‘how should I?’ and the ‘why would I?’ ; So I recorded what it is I’ve never known and will never know: a time and place.


When the wishing well’s run dry and there’s no water to fill it because the drought’s gone five summers now and spring was a few months back.


When your Uncle Harold is drivin you up state to get your root canal done and your Aunt Ellie can’t drive you now because she’s curlin her hair;

And she’s dyin it like Rose in the room down hall;

And Harold’s a-scratchin his head a-wonderin a-how’d I get to doin this?


should I have taken that left turn earlier? but he don’t know and how could he because the exit was five years ago.


When the wind’s howled its throat dry in the empty night sky. You see it’s a hustling and a bustling world out there and not even wolves can howl at the moon without the crowds chirpin in on em. Not cause they’re too loud or their songs ain’t right but because their throat’s too scratchy and momma said you can’t scream;
yell like that you’ll get your voice all dry and you’ll drink water before bed and you know you can’t do that.  

And who would disrespect their momma? She’s gotten older now and gave you all her limbs, all her trunk, all her voice, and all her stories and all she got now is all her love and you can’t cash that in for a lottery ticket.


When light’s poured in from the window and you can’t see nothin except your dust floatin by and the colors of wood in a lightning storm, but no smell; when you’re blinded by the colors of a cruel cruel rainbow that bound mankind and brought His excellence, but ‘dint feel too excellent getting blinded by that light from across the bed.


When you lost sight of the light you were chasin for five years because you saw another one to the right. Except it was a mirror and you’ve gone too far left to know straight.   


When you get back on the trail again and your leg’s all shackled from what you did last night last year last week;

When your head’s on crooked but your heart’s on straight

Or when your head’s on straight but your heart’s all crooked

Or when you‘re walkin down the line in the flashlight’s bright but the officer says that ain’t straight, boy, but the line was crooked the whole time


When your curbside hits your wayside and your left side turns itself over to your right side, sighs, Honey, I been doing this too long now, and rolls back to its other side with its tightening lips, slips on out the door. He don’t turn on the light but you can smell his smoke before he walks out of sight.


When you wake up and there’s nothing to do so you lie back down with an everything to do but when you get back up there was nothing at all. When you melt back into a mattress for a new day where red hair might set fires and the clocks don’t turn half as fast.


When the paper’s too stale and the ink’s too wet and the books have all gone because you couldn’t say anything that was new; mildew’s grew and the hall’s all astrew ‘cause we left home last night and our phones are all hung up to dry; Aunt Sue was on the line sayin things weren’t like this in my day but this is her day and you don’t know when your day is (or was).  


When you’re at your wits end at the road’s end and there’s nowhere left to travel to except the bitter end and she says leave a message after the— but you don’t hear the end cause you’ve got no message left to send.


When your head’s all noisy with thoughts you can’t focus on

Or when you get a whatchu thinkin about and starry eyes but you can’t really say you were thinkin on anything at all

In Case

By: Casey Chiang


I heard him storming up the stairs in a clamor, the shrill clap of the bathroom door thundering through the walls. The sound resonated throughout my body and came to rest in the center of my constricting chest, suddenly heavy with the weight of worry and wariness. The urge to follow him was there, but the trail he left in his wake was charged with rage that threatened to shock any who came near.

But it wasn’t as if I had a choice. Blood tied me to obligations I couldn’t bring myself to abandon.

Anticipation and anxiousness mingled frantically in the pit of my stomach as I ascended the stairs, my steps light and limbs shaking. It must have been another fight with our mom. Probably about an assignment, a test, or something to that extent; it made no difference. Their bouts always ended catastrophicallymy brother too ashamed to admit his handicap, my mother unknowing of how to help him, and fury sparking between them.

And me. Always caught in the middle. Pulled into a fight that had nothing and everything to do with me. Always thrown in abruptly without a strategy, or even a side to call my own. Instead I flitted between the two, but my lack of commitment only meant my relevancy remained subjective, and today, in my brother’s eyes, I didn’t know where I stood.

Moments later I found myself staring at a closed door, the frustrated weeps that poured out from the room only slightly muffled by the wooden barrier.

“Leave me alone!” his strangled shout ordered, and I found myself absently surprised that he even knew I was there. But instead of complying I pushed forward, opening the door to reveal his distraught face; his features scrunched up in an ugly scowl and his eyes leaking tears that coaxed my own, though I fought to keep them contained.

His misery seemed so misplaced in that bathroom – a place that to me had always represented bubbles and baths, childhood and glee. At surface level, everything appeared the same. There were the same high ceilings, the same bright lights, the same peeling wallpaper and the same ceramic tub. The large mirrors that lined the walls reflected back the playfulness of the past, but in that moment, the tempestuous aura my brother emitted seemed to draw the walls in closer and bullied innocence into the corner.

I tried to argue my mother’s point in a softer way, recounting loaded words that turned hollow with repetition.

“She’s just worried about you,” I said.

“She’s trying to help, but doesn’t know how,” I said.

“Just tell her if you’re struggling. Don’t hide it.”

Even to my own ears the arguments sounded weak in comparison to his earnest wails that beseeched me to leave him in the comfort of isolation.

But ultimately it made no difference what he wanted. Only that I selfishly needed to stay by his side, fear cementing my feet where they stood. He was hysterical; unstable. I needed to be there. Just in case.

Eventually, the words I was spouting died in my throat, but I didn’t move a muscle.  His eyes told me that he knew what I was thinking, and that he resented me for it. The longer I stood there, the hotter his anger became.

Silence is a language rarely mastered, but in that moment, the translation was written all over my face.

“I’m not going to kill myself,” he spat when I failed to speak, his voice congested with disgust and his dark eyes flashing. “Even I’m not that fucked up.”

I flinched. I’d never heard that word pass his lips, and its presence lingered in the air between us. That image I had of him in my head, the one of him as my annoying little brother who liked to pull on my ponytail and had the loudest screeching laugh that I’d ever heard, fractured just a little bit more.

“I know,” I lied, speaking slowly, and when his head bowed down, his messy black bangs falling over his face, a tear escaped the confines of my eye. It traced down my cheek in mock comfort and I wiped it away furiously, swallowing around the swell in my throat before speaking again. “If you just tried taking your medicine, maybe—”

“I don’t want to take the medicine!” he erupted past chapped and trembling lips. His sobs grew hitched as he looked up to lock my gaze with his. I watched as his expression broke and when he spoke again his voice was raw with naked emotion. “It makes me feel tired all the time,” he confessed.

Those words finally cracked my stubborn façade of composure as I allowed the tears to spill, the salty taste of them slipping into the corners of my mouth.

His voice came again. Quieter this time. “I never feel truly awake anymore.”

His admission was my final silencer, my mouth opening and closing helplessly, trying to grasp something, anything, to say. But the words refused to come. With my tongue effectively tied, I clamped my mouth shut and the door soon followed. As soon as the small click that marked my retreat sounded, my brother’s weeps resumed and I joined him on the other side. My legs gave out as I slid down the wall and onto the floor, my face crumbling into my shaking hands.

There was more to do, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it, and I don’t think I ever will. In that moment, all I could do was sit there with my eyes closed and ears open. For however much the sound of his misery grated at my heart and mind, I needed to be there.

Just in case.

I’ll Always Do the Small Things, For You

By: Madison Reid

This week I began to fill out my taxes for the first time and had to check a box to affirm that I am, in fact, not dead. That I am me, not a loved one tying up loose ends.

Unfinished business, it seems, isn’t reserved for superheroes and wronged lovers; I know the same hands that knead the bread I eat and pass me Christmas gifts would close my coffin and fold my clothes for the donation pile. And I theirs.

Lately, the closest I’ve been to death was a glimpse of a man, covered in cloth, carried through a Chinese village. They lit fireworks to frighten spirits and fed the living with a vengeance, so set on satiety that they scraped food from the sides of huge woks with shovels and boiled rice by the kilo.

Or in Romania last October, where the bereaved wife grieved with six lungs and everyone spent half their paycheck on the flowers. The grandmothers traded their floral kerchiefs for black ones and the mourning passed out wine and bread. To thank us for sharing their sorrow.

I am far too young to make any predictions. If I turn my head too quickly I feel my hair, soft and messy, tickle my collarbones. I watch my grandfather doubled over like the women pulling weeds along the river, pinch the fat beneath my bicep to ground myself. My aunt is doing pushups for her bone density, my mother’s hair is just starting to surrender.

But parked cars are still warm and prove something, like where you are and were and how long ago you left,

And my new friends have taught me to keep windows open and tables full,

And we pick flowers for my brother’s birthday every year, the same way my grandmother mails another a card,

And the mundane follows us, right from home to heaven. Stir the soup. Sign the forms. Buy the milk. Lend you money. Kiss you on your way out the door,

And when my grandparents die, I’ll be there to dig through their broken tapes and mourn slowly, peel photos from the bottoms of boxes,

And when my aunts and uncles die, I’ll collect their children’s children in my living room and feed them jam and honey,

And when my parents die, I’ll clean the house and sell the car, leave deeper footprints than before,

And I’m going to have to file their taxes.