Real Time by Katie Nickas — literally stories

Fiction published originally in Literally Stories, 3/14/2019

It occurred to me during our second date that Mike didn’t exist in real time.

When we first met, he was friendly—cruelty-free, like a human-sized rabbit. We ate at a sub shop, but first, he drove us backwards through the drive-thru of a shuttered restaurant. Big, white truck built for long hauls and first impressions. The perfect way to convey unspecified wants.

Waiting in line, I told him I used to work there—was once a struggling sandwich artist. Now I was good—better than good.

Couldn’t he tell?

“Order like you used to work here,” he said. Requested. Demanded.

I was too polite. He asked me to cover him at the register, promising to pay the next one forward.

In the booth, he took neat bites of his sandwich to make me jealous. I unwrapped mine, promising myself to savor it.

“You were pretty easy on that guy behind the counter,” he said.

“Working here wasn’t that bad.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Post-meal, I offered him a wet wipe, which he accepted, running it over his hands.

“This is pretty moist,” he said, tossing it onto the wrapper.

I stared at the table.

“It is a wet wipe,” I said.

This was flirting. Flirting with a mean edge. It couldn’t go any farther. Not since we were co-workers.

The Saturday we spent in the park brought out his inconsistent character.

Ambling along the sidewalk where people fed the pigeons, we stopped beneath a grove of trees. I studied him in the crew-cut sweater, hands tucked neatly into his pockets, face sewn into a blissful expression.

Moments later, voices rose across the quad. I turned my head and when I looked back, he was gone. Poof. Vanished.

I watched and waited as birds pilfered hunks of bread. They cast me wistful looks, dropping bits that bounced across the concrete.

Maybe Mike was a time traveler. Time travel didn’t seem like distant technology anymore. Flying cars would come soon, I sensed. That he could teleport wasn’t that difficult to fathom. Or perhaps he was a simulation or hologram. He did work in software development.

I began perusing the whole area, expecting to find him hiding behind a tree or somewhere obvious. But he was still missing a half-hour later. Finally, he reappeared over my shoulder, wearing a grin like he’d been there the whole time.

“Where were you?” I asked. “I looked everywhere.”

“The sidewalk winds into a trail leading up to the road,” he said, tracing the route with his finger, not averting his eyes. “I was over there.”

Seeing him around the office, it was difficult to concentrate on anything else. Before, he seemed cute and innocent. Now, I noticed his muscles flexing beneath his shirts. I pictured him blown up to the size of a highway sign—a swaggering cowboy outlined in neon.

At his desk, his eyes stayed glued to the computer. I studied his fine, blond locks while he wasn’t looking. Admired how he always seemed to know what he was doing. When I glanced away and back, his cubicle was empty, headphones lying in the chair. It was as if he’d vaporized.

Maybe Mike was telling the truth and he was quick on his feet. Still, it didn’t quite seem to add up. No one was that quick.

It happened multiple times. The office wasn’t that big. I always ran into him on the way to the bathroom or parking lot. I wanted to tell him he was good at disappearing, but that would have been too obvious, so I just smiled and kept walking.

We wouldn’t have sex, I decided. I’d known guys like him, where coming on too strong spelled sudden death. I had to pace myself—to refrain—if I were going to hold his interest.

Besides, he still needed to pay it forward.

So I lost myself in diversions—flickering light bulbs, tears of wine on tablecloth, and water drops suspended on faucets. Light-induced distractions.

In bed, I stared up at the ceiling and remembered how when I first opened my eyes, the world had only wind-blown features. Later came form and feeling: a boy’s lips pressed against mine as we sprawled in the grass, the sensation of deer watching from the woods, their eyes glinting in the moonlit dusk.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. My most innocent daydreams became tinged with desire, slip-sliding into fantasies of us making out in the break room when no one was around.

More than that, I was getting kind of peeved he hadn’t repaid me. What was taking so long? Though I found him attractive, our relationship was platonic. We were two co-workers who ate lunch together. One owed the other money. It was that simple.

I weighed whether to ask him about it, deciding to hold off a little longer.

One day, I heard him laughing with a male co-worker about the money he owed me. My temper flared and I went to his desk to confront him.

“I couldn’t help overhearing your discussion,” I said. “When do you plan to pay it forward?”

Mike eyed me up and down, looking unfazed.

“It’ll be a little while longer,” he said unctuously.

“Why?”

“I want to make sure you’re as good as you let on.”

Steam began rising out of my ears. The nerve. The arrogance. Now I wanted him more than ever, though I couldn’t reveal that he’d gotten to me, let a six-dollar sandwich go to my head. I thought of a smart-assed remark.

“Enjoy your bro-mance,” I huffed before stalking off.

The more time that passed, the more it occurred to me that Mike was not going to pay me back. I began asking other co-workers out to lunch instead. A year later, I’d almost forgotten about the incident.

Then one night, I awakened to find something between my legs.

Looking past my belly and breasts, I saw Mike’s head poke up from my thighs.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi, there,” he replied nonchalantly. I blinked several times to confirm he was actually down there eating me out.

“Don’t be nervous,” he murmured into the curve where my leg joined my hip.

“You have a very nice body.”

How did he get there?

My mind spiraled back to several hours earlier.

We went to the park again, where I was very anxious. Not about us, but random things, like the sight of heavy machinery and forklifts and XXX signs and belching factories cresting over the hill. The same panic I’d experienced since I was little and random things made me upset. I knew what triggered it: The fear that my body would never be good enough because it was female.

In the park, birds were profuse—dirty white and black things that flapped their wings in my face. I brushed them off. One couldn’t be afraid to get dirty in parks. Plus I had to remain alert, knowing that he slipped away before while I was distracted.

Maybe that was why I so enjoyed having his face buried in my lap later: I knew he wasn’t going anywhere at that moment.

Turning my head to the side, I glimpsed the ribbon of highway, smelled the acrid-sweet mix of exhaust and tobacco and something like maple syrup, thinking I might puke.

But while the highway was austere, the room was intimate. Mike was good, caught up in the moment. He knew how to work his tongue.

My head arched back as I came, picturing us scaling mountains, exploring starry canyons, staying in a tipi, a flying saucer, or an Airstream out in the desert.

My orgasm was the size of the West.

Once finished, I fell back against the mattress and lay there for several seconds, lifting my head to find the space between the V of my legs was empty.

I wasn’t surprised.

Not until I saw the six dollars tucked into the sheet’s peaks and valleys.

While most of the events surrounding Mike left me mystified, there was one thing I was certain about: I’d be paying it forward from now on.

“Pay it Forward” by Katie Nickas

Fiction published originally in Soft Cartel, 1/2/2019

Friday afternoon and I won’t fuck him just yet. Instead I’ll share my mutual love of early Snoop Dogg and Outkast via Instant Message and tell him how I like to dance in my living room to Ace of Base circa The Bridge when the mood hits, but that it’s just a coincidence and I’m no slut.

Reviewing my answers to the Secret Santa gift exchange, he sees I like the show Twin Peaks but misreads the questionnaire, thinking I mean the restaurant. I’m horrified, but also sort of encouraged since I’m bawdy.

After the Veterans Day ceremony in the conference room, I ask him out on the way back to my desk when I overhear him say he hasn’t had lunch yet.

“Where are you eating?” I ask.

“Sub shop. Lenny’s. Want to go?”

I know the one. It’s a couple blocks from the office.

“Sure.”

“Let’s do this,” he says, throwing his jacket against the chair.

On the way, he tells me he’s been with the company for six years. Today marks a month and two weeks for me, which I round to two.

“You’ll be all right,” he states laconically while gazing up at the sky through the sparkly dashboard, where the sun’s a burning hunk of cinnabar. I agree that I’m all right in general.

Before we turn the corner, he wheels his big, white Texas truck the wrong way through the drive-thru of a shuttered business, the outside of which is stripped to a tattered skeleton. This seems like no accident.

In the sub shop, I stand up proudly—at least five inches above him. Without heels on, I’m five foot-ten. Today I’m wearing black wedges that put me over six feet tall.

“I used to work here,” I say.

He likes that.

“Order like you used to work here,” he says.

I choose the veggie sub, six-inch on wheat, making sure to request the bread first, like I would have done, anyway. We watch together in silence as the man behind the counter cuts open the bun, laying cheese across the top.

“Which veggies?” he asks, wearing an urgent expression, like he’s in on this.

“A little of everything,” I reply. He looks at me quizzically, like he didn’t understand.

“All the veggies,” I repeat.

When we get to the dressing, which is always so important, I ask for southwest. He ladles it on, waiting for my approval before wrapping it up and handing the bundle to the cashier. I pay for our lunch—not because I intended to, but since he asks me, promising he’ll get the next one—play it forward are his actual words.

We sit in a booth near the front. He unwraps his sandwich and opens it so I see the mayonnaise lacing the inside. Out of the blue, he asks if I’m clean.

“I’m pretty clean,” I say, removing my blazer to reveal a green t-shirt that draws his attention.

“I’m probably not as clean as you,” he says. I don’t ask him what that means, assuming it means he smokes weed, but it takes all kinds.

I watch him start to eat the meat-loaded sub, taking neat bites that make me jealous. Afterward, I offer him a moist towel from my purse. He accepts it and wipes his hands, eyeing me distrustfully.

“This is pretty moist,” he says, tossing it onto the empty wrapper.

I stare at the table.

“Well, it is a wet wipe.”

Beneath the pleasantries I know we’re flirting and that this is the farthest it will or can go given our respective circumstances.

Suddenly a black lady with butterfly eyelashes approaches us from across the shop, turning a pair of hazel eyes onto me.

“Pardon me, but I want you to know that God loves you,” she says.

“Thanks,” I reply in earnest.

She appears to move away as we resume our conversation, but then she’s back, tarrying by the side of the table.

“He told me something else.”

I smile, filled with increasing dread.

“What’s that?”

“He wants you to do more.”

“Needs or wants?” I ask.

“Wants.”

If wishes were pennies, I recall the old saying.

She walks away again. I’m disgusted, resenting that she doled out advice for me while sparing him. Against my better judgment, I call her back.

“What about him?” I ask.

She sends a quick look across the table.

“Be mindful of your surroundings.”

I study his thin-lipped, satisfied expression. Now, the woman seems to want to neutralize the conversation, worried she’s gone too far and been intrusive.

“A young couple eating lunch together,” she says. “How nice.”

“We’re just co-workers,” he interjects. After she’s walked away again, he offers his advice.

“Don’t engage. Just nod and act polite.”

I feel myself sinking into the seat cushion, torn between being courteous and acting like I know better.

Seeing him around the office afterward, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. In person, he seemed friendly and harmless, like a large rabbit. Now he cuts the figure of a strutting cowboy. I picture him standing on the side of the highway next to a whirling bucket of chicken, body girded in neon. He has really nice muscles, flexing them whenever he walks around the office. When I peer over again, he’s reclining motionlessly, staring toward the screen at the cartonizer—the web development team’s next big launch.

I send him a message, teasing him about his ten-gallon hat. He turns serious, which makes me think he might actually own one. Something about his demeanor strikes me as funny—the way the act of sex sometimes looks funny, though it makes no sense why.

“How do you know I have a ten-gallon hat?” he writes back.

“I don’t, but you seem like you might keep one in secret, hidden away in your closet. Like you’re the Sheriff of Secret town.”

“At least I’m not the Sheriff of Secretions,” he replies.

I wonder what that means but don’t ask.

As time passes, I can’t make much sense of where this is leading or foresee a denouement. I’ve known guys like him before, where I had to set the pace of conversations myself. It was always a gamble with the cool, calm, silent Longmire types who preferred distance, and for whom coming on too strong could spell sudden death.

So I wait and wait for him to play it forward. I let the music pipe through my headphones and guide me around like a soundtrack to my life. In public places I exchange nervous glances with strangers, our expressions strained by exposed wires and light bulbs, wanting the truth to be tonic, like music.

The truth often leaves me disappointed, while music never does.

When I get home, I drop my keys on the rug and open a bottle of red wine, sipping while I watch the sun send citrusy light across the sky like a fresh-squeezed orange, wishing I were younger, smarter, brighter and that I had a man—but more than that, someone to lay on the couch and fool around with, allowing one thing to lead to another.

I know this is lust and I’ll let it pass me by like so many times before, slide like news across a ticker or phone screen, the constant ephemera of our days.

Alone in my apartment, I finger the silver chain around my neck, staring at my figure bleeding onto the bathroom mirror. Stevie Nicks is playing on the stereo. The record is Bella Donna. The song is “Leather and Lace.”

I need to listen to less rap, metal, and Led Zeppelin and more of her, I decide. I need to stick a feather in my cap and play a tambourine and wear white capes and feathery bangs and count the men I’ve slept with on my little jellied fingertips. I need a man who gives to me his leather and takes from me my lace.

But more than that, I need to stop chasing down men who boast about playing it forward when they mean throw down. Stop feeling like what they have to offer is better than what I can do for myself—that I’m somehow flawed or in need of repair, like a miraculous tree honed down to a flat tabletop that sprouts anguished blossoms in its wake.

This will be how I play it forward from now on.

COME ON, NOW – Katie Nickas — formercactus

Fiction originally published in Former Cactus, 12/1/2018

I do not balk at the potted plants you place on my doorstep—succulents with fat whorls of leaves—and the bittersweet you hang on the hook left over from the last tenant.

Or the cherub you stick in the gravel bed, wings opened like an umbrella, as if frozen in the seconds before flight.

When you complain my apartment has a dank smell, sneering at the moldering floorboards and crumbled plaster that you somehow attribute to my “melancholia.”The moss and lichen you try to scrape off the railroad ties—creosote jungle that ferments whenever it rains.

How you gaze with renewed interest at the entrance to the hookah bar when I tell you what a shithole it is, your eyes shrinking to stars at all the neon lights weaving like red licorice through the electric black, the hot-blooded denizens sloughing off their scales in the parking lot, drowning in puddles of grease, and robbing the night blind.

Or how when my ex was afraid I was kidnapping the cat when I went to fetch my belongings from our old apartment—said she was all he had—you encouraged me to get a cardboard box and prove him right.

Your not-too-subtle comments about my blonde hair, poufy lips, broad, flat face, and narrow hips. Any eye contact always seems to last too long between us.

More succulents arrive in your arms. Tiny barrels and blue stars, artichoke hearts and saguaros. You carry them in plastic containers up the walk.

I’ll build you a patio, you say, with lawn chairs, lanterns, and lights. You do it in one afternoon. Afterward, we sit in the turquoise ones you bought and unfolded beneath the jasmine shrub. The mosquitos bite you but not me. You swat at them and spray fogger along the doorframe.It frosts the space surrounding you, revealing your hidden angel wings, elegant as carved ice. Your eyes turn downcast when you know I’ve seen them. They always appear at times like this.

I’m not mad, I say. Just sad a little.

Come on, now, are your only words. I hear the low, guttural moan of my conscience. Motherrrrr, I suppress. You kill a mosquito and mutter fucker under your breath.

Not mad at all.

Instead, I anticipate when you’ll arrive next. The puppet show you and dad put on the dashboard as you wave. The car tilting along the curb, like a gypsy caravan. Your bodies like acrobats, swinging on invisible trapezes over the sidewalk. How your headlights glow cherry-red at dusk.

While I admit we don’t have much in common, at the end of the day, I’m still your daughter—your blood and kin.

I stare at the gifts, at the blank expressions of flowers. Your butterfly kisses turn into live specimens. Rain slowly patters the greening step.

I miss you more than any of this.

“The Harlequin” in The Oddville Press

mask in black red first

Fiction published originally The Oddville Press, Fall 2018 Edition

Another carnival almost came and went before I discovered a loophole in the Harlequin’s game.

It all began one autumn morning when I visited him at the carriage house for the first time. The house sat in a quaint, historic village on a meandering street next to an old drug store, stable, and turnverein. A brick walkway led up to the entrance, surrounded by an oak grove covered in ball moss and tangled vines. Its stately facade stood in great contrast to the wonders occupying the usually recumbent grounds.

The Harlequin worked in the building year-round. As a staunch patron of the courtesan arts, he was known to linger there during carnival season, gazing out the window at the tents and rides dotting the midway.

To the west lay acres of woods where I often ventured as a child. I would have spent the hours wandering the trails and admiring the sunlight glittering through the leaves if not for my duty as a correspondent to keep up on all the latest fair events.

After entering the property, I climbed the wooden stairs to the spacious office on the second floor to find him sprawled across a red velvet chaise longue. With the festivities in swing, I expected he’d be dressed in full attire. Instead, he wore a plain, white shirt and black pants.

Still, there was an unmistakable air of mischief about him, and our eyes met in faint recognition, though I wasn’t sure why. He studied me with a look askance before rising off the seat and crossing the room with a nimble hop.

“You look very fresh-faced this morning,” the Harlequin said in a tone that made me unable to decide whether it was a compliment or accusation. “Are you prepared for a riveting exposé about grits and corn on the cob?”

“Of course.”

I offered my hand, which he shook vigorously.

“Your career is improving, I take it?”

“Every day. You must be excited it’s that time of year again.”

“I’m ebullient! Please have a seat and let’s talk.”

The furniture seemed garish in the business office, but I didn’t question why it was there, knowing the Harlequin likely lugged it up the stairs himself. I sank into the cushion beside him, noticing his cheeks redden and lips part in a friendly smile.

“So, you’re a—correspondent?” he asked.

“I’m the correspondent. Company’s made me chief dispatcher this year.”

“Well, then, you should ask questions. Be inquisitive.”

Just as soon as he sat down, he leapt up again, capering toward the window. I watched his calves and thighs flex beneath the pants. His body appeared to be molded from a ball of clay—something sculpted on a whim, but with no less skill.

The Harlequin peered over the veranda as he added water and several scoops of coffee to the machine on the ledge, replacing the decanter.

“How do you like it?” he cocked his head over his shoulder.

“Black.”

“Good for you.”

He stood with his back turned, humming under his breath until it finished brewing.

Then, he poured some in a paper cup for each of us—topping his off with cream and sugar— and carried them over. Returning to the seat, he crossed his legs and spread his arms across the back to occupy as much space as possible.

“So, you said you were excited,” I said. “Ebullient, I think, was the word.”

“Yes,” he grinned.

“Why don’t you tell me what all the excitement’s about?”

He took a sip and gulped loudly.

“We have the best lineup in years—a grand championship drive, horses and acrobatic riders, impresarios and world-famous performers…” his voice grew livelier as he read down the roster, “…with the newly-renovated hippodrome, it’s sure to be a phenomenal season.”

I tapped my pen thoughtfully against my lower lip.

“Nothing terribly new, though,” I said.

The comment seemed to catch him unaware, and he pursed his lips in response.

“Pardon?”

“It’s a wonderful carnival, but as the saying goes: Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, don’t you think?”

That was a cheap shot since everyone knew carnivals were meant to offer old-fashioned thrills. In the past, I’d been more than content to partake of the usual amusements, recalling a particularly bawdy rendition of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe whistling out of the midway calliope.

Knowing I misspoke, I straightened up to apologize. The Harlequin accepted, looking chagrined.

“I forget that not everyone appreciates a good ballyhoo as much as I,” he said. “Please be sure to inform your readers that it’s a fresh, new season that will delight newcomers and regulars alike.”

I nodded and wrote down what he said, pen flicking back and forth in my hand. He waited patiently until I finished before speaking again, though I felt him monitoring my nervous habits the whole time.

“I took the time to read some of your previous articles,” he said. “I think you’re a very good writer, and I’d love to have someone cover our commission on a more permanent basis if that’s something that would interest you.”

I stared into my coffee cup. The notion of my working for him seemed ludicrous—even dangerous. But when my mouth opened, I spoke without thinking.

“Would it be per diem?” I asked.

“We could begin per diem to see how it went, and then hire you full-time. Think of it as an apprenticeship. What do you say?”

He waited with bated breath, face plastered into a tight grin. It was strange: The Harlequin seemed to have no identifiable age. There were the usual signs of advanced years: skin that clung looser to his face, hair greying at the temples, crow’s feet marking the corners of his eyes, deep voice belonging to a full-grown man. Otherwise, he had all the characteristics of someone much younger—a small child, even.

I drank the rest of the coffee, swirling the sediment in the bottom.

“I’m not sure I’d be suited to an apprenticeship,” I said.

“Oh? Why’s that?”

He rocked his heels back and forth on the table as his gaze hovered over my breasts, flirting ostentatiously.

“Because I’m thinking of leaving work,” I said. “I’d like to get married, have children, and settle down.”

He shook his head. “I hope you don’t think me too solicitous, but it seems like a terrible waste of talent. Really,” he said.

“I’ve been doing this for a while. Traveling back and forth across the state, getting lost in the countryside without knowing where I am…always finding my destination eventually, of course.”

“You never miss a thing.”

“Ten years have passed since I began a career as a correspondent. It’s been very fulfilling—so much that it feels natural to leave it behind.”

“You’re young yet, though.”

He turned his head, glancing out the window at the midway, where neon lights pulsed and rides spun. A handful of people ambled around the bare patches of grass, their voices echoing off the racetrack’s lower wall, creating shock waves that punctuated the air with a sonic boom.

A funhouse sat between two of the rides, a clown’s cherry-red tongue unfurling from the clapboard walls leading up to the entryway. From a distance, it looked worn and sad.

My attention returned to the room, noticing the cloisonné jars and art lining the shelves. I half-expected to see Arab servants standing there keeping everything in order, but there appeared to be no one in the building beside us.

Glancing over, I noticed the Harlequin’s mouth was now slack—a smudge of strawberry jam on his pale face. I sensed he was trying to throw me off by acting aloof, though my real concern was the cold cunning that seemed to lurk beneath his bonhomie, along with the nagging sensation that we’d met before.

Closing my eyes, I tried to remember sliding my hand up the elegant balustrade to the room at the top of the stairs. Was there a previous meeting that slipped my mind?

Meanwhile, he’d resumed talking about the fair—or rather, his ideas for it.

“One day, this will be much more than a carnival,” he said. “It will be a full-fledged odyssey…host to elaborate floral parades… fountains of jewels with performers gliding down waterfalls…a most interesting tableaux. You might even become a star here yourself.”

I noticed his body started leaning to the side so it touched mine. I pictured the world inside his head—a realm where chaos and upheaval were the norm, and the carnival never ended. Then I desired nothing more than to get out of there.

“Something to think about,” I said, offering him a quick smile as I grabbed my notepad and pen and rose off the seat.

“Going so soon?” the Harlequin asked. I hesitated in the doorway and turned to see him now fully reclined, shirt clinging to his concave chest. “There’s still some coffee left.”

“I’ve got to get a start on this.”

“Of course.” He winked. “We wouldn’t want anyone to be deprived of the latest scoop, would we?”

“Time waits for no man.”

“Words for the wise. “Salut, mon ami. Bonne soirée. Until next time.”

“Salut.”

My footsteps echoed along the hall as I scurried down the stairs and out of the house. Heading toward the bridge spanning the main road, I sensed a presence behind my shoulder and turned to find the Harlequin standing in the second-story window, watching me walk away.


The nightmares began shortly afterward, growing more terrifying with each recurrence.

A long hallway leading to a dark room appeared in my mind. The walls were covered in mirrors that cast my body in infinitely smaller reflections until it became a kaleidoscope of fractured images. I saw the past, present, and future merge into a timeless, eternal profusion.

All of a sudden, a hand appeared in a narrow opening high up on the far wall. An elegant hand wrapped in a silk-white glove slipped through the enclosure and descended into the room, writhing toward me.

Seconds passed as the hand came closer. I felt its icy grip on my hair and shoulders, fingers running up and down my spine before it ever touched.

My screams awakened me just in time. The memory of the nightmare pulsed at my temples as I stood at the sink and knocked back an ice-cold glass of water. The night was black as onyx outside the kitchen window, staring back at me.

At dawn, I stepped beneath a sky of tempestuous clouds. A chaotic wind threw me into a café, where I sat drinking in one of the corners, thinking I’d find solace.

But the Harlequin followed me there—his face appearing on the opposite side of the glass, cheeks flexing into a grin that filled the entire pane. I watched the white glove lift and wave back and forth.

He entered the café pretending to be a stranger, sitting in the corner to cast sinister glances in my direction.

The nightmare became a casualty of sleep, haunting me for years. Each time, the gloved hand entered the pitch-black room in a sleek, effortless motion and reached forward, shifting across the mirrored plexus. As time passed, I began to think its possessor was involved in a secret legerdemain. Always, I woke up just before it touched.

Lying awake, I wondered if it would ever go away. Spring cycled through summer, fall, and winter on an incessant loop, and the Harlequin’s game seemed like it would continue without end.

That was, until one night not so long ago. It was early autumn, and the carnival was in town again. A storm blew through one night, bringing a strong wind that shook the walls of the room. When the hand entered, pausing in mid-air, I noticed a tremor in the fingertips.

Sweat began to collect on my forehead, neck, and lower back as I gathered the nerve to finally confront it.

“Who’s there?” I called out, my voice reverberating off the walls of the chamber. A cool mist began curling into the enclosure. The room turned cold quickly, condensing to ice crystals on my skin. I shivered feverishly but remained undeterred.

“You can’t hide forever!” I exclaimed. “Come out and reveal yourself!”

The air prickled with suspense. Finally, the Harlequin spoke, though in a much higher pitch. I didn’t recognize his voice until the timbre returned.

“I do not plan to come out,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

Silence.

“I don’t believe you really want me to do that.”

“But I do,” I lied. “What if I joined you?”

While I had no desire to join the Harlequin, I knew it was the only way to learn the truth.

“Don’t you find your reflection alluring in all those mirrors?” he asked. “A woman of enchantment and mystery. Why would you ever desire to come out of there?”

The loophole. That was it, I realized. The Harlequin would try to entice me in any way he could.

“Enchantment?” I remarked. “What is— you encroaching on my sleep night after night? I find it ludicrous. Where is this place?”

“It is the room of dreams. A place that people struggle their whole lives to reach. Look— I’ve even given you a luxurious place to rest.”

He pointed a finger toward the corner, where I was shocked to see the red velvet chaise longue nested in shadows.

“Why don’t you lie down and rest while I entertain you with some of my latest exploits?” he suggested.

“I don’t want to rest,” I said. “I want to know where I am.”

My heartbeat resounded in the thin silence. I was sure the Harlequin could hear it.

“Very well,” he said. “Come a little closer, and I’ll let you have a glimpse.”

As the hand retreated, I left my spot and walked up to the wall, pressing my eye against the narrow, vertical slit. But there was nothing but more dark empty space within.

“I don’t see anything.”

Silence.

“Try again.”

I looked. Nothing. The Harlequin heaved a weary sigh.

“Do you really want to see?” he asked.

“Yes. Very much.”

“Alright, then. Close your eyes, and I’ll tell you when to open them.”

I did as he asked. Mist continued to gather on my forehead in a thin rime. I was perspiring heavily, despite the cold. Seconds passed slowly as I waited, faint breaths punctuating the silence. The hand hovered above the enclosure. I pictured the skin clammy beneath the silk. Then the smooth softness of the glove met my palm, filling the contours. As our fingers interlaced, the hand pulled me forward through the dark. My footsteps quickened. Suddenly, it was lifting me off the ground and carrying me upward. The voice resonated through the chamber, ascending to a higher and higher pitch. I felt a change in energy as my body rose into the air.

“Alright,” the voice said. Open.”

My eyelids fluttered to meet the night, but it was gone. I’d crossed some sort of threshold into morning. The ground was real and marshy beneath my feet with fresh-fallen rain, and the warm air stirred. Far-off voices of children and band organs flitted above the treetops.

Surrounding me was a floral and faunal menagerie like something out of a storybook. That was when I knew I was standing in a clearing in the woods near the fairgrounds.


Thick beech and maple trees cast the undergrowth in patchy shadows that scattered across the mesophytic earth. Except for the transient flutter of a bird’s wings, the woods were beautiful, ethereal, and still.

But as I peered around the wilderness, a disquieting feeling began to creep in from somewhere unfathomable. I sensed I wasn’t alone.

A voice stirred beyond the trees. I walked to the edge of the moraine, standing knee-deep in spicebush and sage to try and see past the brush.

My eyes picked up a bright square of red fabric, and seconds later, the Harlequin emerged dressed in a checkered costume, diamond tights, and a motley cap with bells on its pronged ends. He held a scepter proudly upright. The soft tinkle of bells filled the air as he stepped into the clearing.

Looking closer, I noticed something else had changed besides his clothing: He appeared much younger—the signs of age erased from his face and his skin fresh and glowing.

The Harlequin had turned into a little boy.

He lowered his chin in a debonair manner and winked, which—due to his puerile appearance—struck me as deeply unsettling.

“Hello, troubadour,” he said in a much higher tone of voice. “Remember me?”

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t recall him from anywhere. Standing together in that ancient wood, he seemed stranger than ever.

When I shook my head, his mouth turned down in dismay.

“You don’t,” he lamented.

“I’m sorry.”

He took a step closer, feet crunching over dry leaves.

“I’m your childhood playmate, Daniel.”

Daniel.

Pain needled my head like a tiny lightning bolt. Slowly, the memory returned.

Daniel! Of course! We used to play in the woods together all the time, though I wouldn’t have recognized him after all these years.

“Daniel?” I said in disbelief. “You’re—the Harlequin?”

“Yes. Well, I am now.”

“Why are you so young?”

“As a humble servant, I have no age. Though my chronology likely falls somewhere near yours, I’m wont to travel back and forth through great expanses of time. Sometimes I even forget where I am, though I’m fortunate to make it back to my office each morning on schedule,” he chuckled.

“You mean you’re—a time traveler?” I asked.

“You might say that. However, most of what I do is too eccentric for people to appreciate. I must endear myself to my fellow man by doing what I do best.”

He noticed my dumbfounded gaze.

“I’m sure it’s confusing,” he said. “And I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. Many years have passed since we were kids, and much has happened since then.”

“Why do you come while I’m asleep?” I stuttered, fighting back fitful tears. “Why do you reach for me with your white glove?”

“Reaching is what I do. I may excel at parlor tricks, but at heart, I’m an entertainer. Even my charms have their limits. Soon, the carnival will be over and I will have to go back to being my ordinary self.”

Somewhere between the sound of his voice and the woods’ elegiac whispers, the past came into being. It now felt as alive as the old trees, centuries passing in their sere and withered figures.

But Daniel’s story seemed odd. Though I now knew his identity, his absence all those years made it hard to believe. Aside from the cheery mood, he seemed a figment of the man I visited at the old carriage house. It was difficult to believe they were the same person.

“With my office so nearby, I often come out here to think,” he said. “My job can be very demanding, and I like to take every opportunity to get some fresh air. It’s such a magnificent place.”

He drew in a gustatory breath and marveled as he peered around. Eventually, his eyes landed on me. I noticed the pupils were teeming with light.

“Look at you. You always were lovely and intelligent. Still, I can’t help noticing how serious you’ve become. Have you forgotten the games we used to play together?”

I cleared my throat and spoke guardedly.

“Of course not. But I had to grow up eventually.”

“We all must grow up, but I haven’t seen you smile or heard you laugh since you came to visit me that morning,” he frowned. “You’ve gotten very grave.”

I closed my eyes and tried to picture Daniel amidst the lighthearted ephemera of my youth, but all I could think of was the white glove. Even now, I shuddered at the thought of it returning.

“It’s important to stay focused so I can keep growing and moving forward,” I said.

“You could grow with me.”

“How?”

“By becoming my apprentice as we discussed.”

I furrowed my brow and stared at him. “If you’re so light and carefree, why are you always hiding up in that house?”

The Harlequin looked downcast, and the scepter slipped through his loosened grip.

“Every year, when the carnival visits town, I come alive,” he said. “But the rest of the time, I’m like the others, waiting in the shadows. So much time passes between life’s pleasures, and then they’re over and it’s back to dutiful propriety.”

He reached up to touch my cheek.

“It would be nice to have a companion. I get so lonely up in that old domicile. Think of what fun we’d have reliving earlier times. Good, innocent fun, laughing and rejoicing like children.”

All of a sudden, a beam of light punctured the crowns of the tree canopy, illuminating his scarlet-flushed skin and the pulse of veins beneath. I studied the inlets of blood running through like tiny, red spiders. Again, I sensed coldness beneath the corporeal warmth— coldness of unknown origins.

“We make our lives magical,” he said, eyes narrowing to tiny points. “This moment exists for us. It wouldn’t be otherwise.”

Now, the Harlequin stood close enough that we touched. The plants around us radiated the heat of our bodies—plants with giant hearts that beat at an immeasurable pace. For a few seconds, the woods existed in a more vivid shade of green and brimmed with energy.

I thought of the fingers weaving through the dark chasm. How at first, the dream was nothing more than a splintered image that insinuated itself slowly on my subconscious— the Harlequin’s deception gone through countless permutations to become convincing reality.

As the seconds elapsed, my brain steeped in such intense concentration that I forgot we were both standing there. When I looked up, he was watching me expectantly.

“Come with me, and every day will be an adventure,” he importuned, face stretching into a balloon-like grin.

The woods breathed deeper, enveloping us. I heard the far-off crunch of leaves, life mushrooming in the cloistered dark, fetal ball unwrapping itself…

“So serious,” he said again. “How very serious you’ve become.”

My eyes hung heavy and would have fallen shut if I weren’t suddenly alarmed by his changing appearance. His head was no longer still and composed, but bulged beneath the motley cap with numerous odd-shaped protuberances. For a protracted second, one of the buds unleashed a long tentacle that whipped free of the cap, flexing through the air in wavelike patterns before retracting beneath.

Then, there were more. I watched as two thin strands of flesh shot out and rippled around at wildly opposite angles. The strands fused with his cap and transformed into three, writhing snakes, which quickly multiplied to six and then nine, until the whole thing was an undulating mass of swollen, white bellies and flickering tongues.

One of the snakes lashed out at me, the forked appendage tapping my ear.

My instinct was to recoil and run away from that horrifying sight, leaving the Harlequin in the woods. But I could only stand and watch, mesmerized, considering that as much as I resented his cruel charade, I now pitied him, for it didn’t seem like he could help becoming this: a man with a head full of snakes.

Behind the mask maintained all those years was a close companion harkening back to childhood. Like the carnival’s giant zoetrope, I wondered if he were the same—trapped in the never-ending gyre of phantasy rides, and doomed to loll around in oblivion long after it ended.

“Curses!” a voice called from within the circlet of snakes. “This might have happened today.”

Feeling the overwhelming urge to intervene, I searched around the forest—eyes landing on the trees with missing limbs—for a sharp object that could be used to kill them. When a limb fell, a thousand tiny branches often grew in its place as it regenerated.

But then I worried that slashing off one of the heads meant two more would grow back in its place like I’d heard about in myths.

The Harlequin remained on that same patch of ground as the serpents writhed, showing no signs of torpor. He was talking and being expressive as usual, though his voice was now stifled—a Lilliputian scream trying to wriggle free of the uvula.

“I hadn’t intended this,” I made out from the garbled speech, with a complex of voices now speaking together—the childish voice overlapping with the adult one to create a bizarre mesh of frequencies. 

Reaching out, he began to feel his way around the vast clearing like a blind man, the snakes having subsumed all his cephalic senses. At one point, he stumbled precariously close to a sinkhole brimming with stagnant water.

Somehow, he knew to maneuver in the other direction. Sensing I was nearby, he used the low-hanging tree branches and vines to grope his way over. The silk-white glove reached out in a fluid motion, close enough to brush my arm.

I knew the only recourse was to do what I must. After being the Harlequin’s antagonist for ten years, it was time for me to embrace him.

But that was very risky. What if the snakes released their venom, or suffocated me? What if they had poisonous breath that could stun me in a moment? Through the snakes, the Harlequin’s evil nature had finally revealed itself. I imagined being strapped like Mazeppa to a horse and galloped to death around the clearing, or reared up onto the back of a rampant stag and pitched headlong into the grass to be trampled unconscious. Joining him would likely seal a similar fate.

Somehow still—perhaps due to my appetite for adventure often bordering on delusion—I curried the guts to reach beneath the harem and wrap him in my arms.

He startled at my touch, and I knew it had been a long time since anyone held him. The sensation must have felt so foreign and his psyche so deprived that it overwhelmed him in no time at all.

The silken hands dropped to my waist, indenting the flesh.

It frightened me to be held by him, and I shrank away myself. But the longer we embraced, the less awful it seemed—the initial panic transmuted into an edifying calm—and I made a silent wish that nothing bad would happen to either of us.

“What can I do?” I asked, pulling closer.

“Just hold me,” he said, swaying gently back and forth to the faraway carnival music. “Until tomorrow, Don Giovannis and Champagne Arias, for today belongs to my love, and our hearts to each other.”

Through his parted lips flowed a soliloquy about how his long, lost companion had finally returned. He held me gentle and close, and though the snakes hissed and rattled in my ear, their tongues lacerating the din, I sensed he was enjoying a rare moment of happiness and serenity, though the savvier part of me knew I’d yet to meet the worst if I remained there.

He stood with his feet planted on the forest floor as the aria played, the snakes leaving ghostly wreaths in their wake. He may have still been a little boy, though it was hard to tell. The carnival’s dissonant melody seemed to have carried us to the same page of our journey.

“Won’t you stay?” he repeated softly.

Stepping back, I pivoted on my foot to turn away. A tear formed in my right eye and rolled down my cheek. It felt wrong to leave him, but foolish to do otherwise. I might have remained had I not known how evil he was.

I looked down to find my feet thumping across the lowland, pants shredding unconsciously through sassafras and Dutchman’s breeches to carry me out of the clearing. The Harlequin’s voice trailed behind as I thought of what a story I’d have to write, and on what disbelieving ears it would land. His voice grew fainter the longer I ran, until it was gone.

At the edge of the woods, I paused to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my forehead. When I turned back to search for a hint of red fabric through the trees, my eyes met nothing but depthless green. Across the field, I made out the distant shapes of the fair—funhouse arching up to the clouds, Ferris wheel milling through the haze.

It was raining, and the attendants were pulling down their canopies and tarps, creating an array of lollipop-shaped domes. The rides ground to a halt, sending the passengers scurrying across the slick ramps.

A little boy clutched a colorful umbrella as he and his mother ducked beneath the water spilling down the awnings. I noticed something about him that would have been easy to overlook if I weren’t watching.

The boy stopped beneath a chute of water and peered over his shoulder as if sensing someone nearby. Spotting me standing by the woods, he offered a mischievous wink as he let the rainwater splash on top of the umbrella, laughing fiendishly before his mother pulled him forward.

For a second, I thought I detected a faint sparkle in his eye suggesting the two of us might have been privy to something more than a lighthearted joke. Then I remembered that as many carnivals came and went, it was easy to mistake a stranger for an acquaintance, and a chance encounter for an essential one.



New Work – “Elegy for the Wood” featured in Red Queen Literary Magazine’s November Issue Five

 

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Our voices ooze from rooms like this, the rough-hewn slabs of oak still weeping sap from their fire-orange flesh. Knots in the walls and floor peer back–black irises expanding to the size of universes, divulging stars and planets, cosmic desiderata distilled to linear objects.

We twinge at the slightest creak of wood, the skittering of cockroaches behind the walls, the heartbeats of all who enter, low and sonorous in their chests.

The cuts were clean and sharp, followed by the shock of loss–fallen limbs slamming to the forest floor. It happened so long ago, but the memory of the saw shrieks through our hollowed ears.

Autumn comes, crisp and sere. Girls bring gifts and flowers–ofrendas for the dead. Blazing marigolds, sugar skulls, and paintings of Matisse and Chagall line their altars.

Our eyes stare harder as they pass, pupils contracting to brilliant white stars that disperse to a wide-open field–tangled strands of blue studded with crystals and diadems, a cosmos of insect wings flecking yellow amber. The candles scatter embers like birds, snuffed out by the eggshell sky.

We are not dead.

Our bodies remain locked in the coarse-grained panels. We might have been ghosts, if not for our souls still dripping oily and dark as licorice, spreading in wide, soft instants beneath the feet of the visitors.

WEIRD FICTION: ‘Within a Glance,’ featured in Asymmetry Fiction

AsymmetryFiction published originally in Asymmetry, 7/24/2018

Emily watched the strobe-like pulse of the ceiling fan as she lay on the mattress—the only motion in the room.

An image of a needle appeared on the back of her eyelids while she slept, as if to remind her of the inevitable: every day she traveled up and down the concrete floors would culminate in a single point that plunged into her flesh.

Another night of evading death, she thought, turning her head to look out the window at the sea. Even now, she wasn’t sure if it were folly, fortune, or something else.

Up on the wall, the hands of the clock pointed at five minutes to noon. She stood and found the energy to clamber down to the cafeteria, where her cohort was seated at one of the tables with a plate of institutional food.

Rumorg watched her move through the line, piling her tray with napkins, ketchup, and mustard packets (though she never used them, it gave her comfort to see the dispenser always stocked with the condiments) and carrying it to the table, where she dropped it on the mica-flecked surface.

“Bloody chicken,” he said, staring at the contents of his plate in disgust after taking several, quick bites of breast. His eyes darted between her and it, as if trying to draw a connection. Beneath the cafeteria’s fluorescent lighting, his fair hair, transparent skin, and pink-rimmed eyes stood out: Rumorg was an albino.

“It’s really something,” Emily said as she chewed on a leg, which was also riddled with purple-red veins. Why was the food here like this? Didn’t the people who ran the place know how to prepare it properly?

“What is?”

She paused, taking another bite and chewing thoroughly. “That you could be joking when you look entirely serious.”

His cheeks reddened, adding a tinge of color to his complexion.

It had taken her a while to get Rumorg’s deadpan sense of humor. After meeting some of the other residents who knew him, Emily learned how easily his mock horror could be mistaken for the real thing.

At first, she was sure their personalities would clash. But as the days blurred into months and they kept meeting in the commons, she noticed subtle changes in his behavior. Gone were his days of carrying loose papers and skulking down halls and sidewalks, throwing covert glances every which way.

His life had direction now. He was going somewhere, even if he had to get out of here first. It helped when she brought him some of her folders to keep his assignments.

Glancing across the table at each other, they exchanged unspoken hope that the soul of the chicken they ate was squawking mirthfully in the avian afterlife with wings that enabled it to fly. She’d always wondered if Rumorg were someone whose insides and outsides never fully matched, making him destined to life in a shell.

“How’s the paper going?” he asked.

“I’m worried about the endnotes.”

How many hours had they pored over their rough drafts just to get the author’s name, book title, copyright, and page numbers in the correct order and typeface at the bottom of each page and in the bibliography? Who knew what curveballs the master would throw at them in the meantime, or if the deadlines would be moved to an earlier date?

“We should be good for Monday, as long as we get them done this weekend,” he said. “Want to meet later at the library?”

“Sure.”

A familiar routine unfolded as they left the cafeteria and headed back to their blocks. Rumorg stopped at the benches and removed a pack of imaginary cigarettes from his pocket. He took one out, pretending to light it and take a pull, his eyes narrowing to slits as he glanced around. Then, he offered Emily the fake cigarette.

“Take a hit off this.”

She held it to her lips with two fingers and inhaled, simulating a cough. Rumorg flashed her a split-second grin as she handed it back, watching him finish it in a few puffs before tossing it into the grass.

“See you tonight,” he said.

“What time?”

He checked his watch. “How about six?”

“Alright. Six it is.”

***

Her figure cast a shadow on the endless slatted walls as she made the long walk back to her room, stopping outside the door at the end of the hall. She paused for a moment, studying the rivets bolted to the exterior, before opening and closing it behind her. She wished there were a lock to secure it shut. There were no locks. Nor were there cigarettes, or anything that wasn’t approved by the masters.

They were on their own, using every means to survive.

She’d seen and heard others die behind these walls—not the gory deaths of slain animals that left the steel-gray floors and walls splattered with blood, but violently soft ones that seemed to hang in the air like a ghost.

By staying, residents accepted food, water, and shelter in exchange for knowledge that the injection might come at any time—more likely during peaceful slumber.

She’d smiled through that awareness, learning to embrace it like a surrogate child. In time, Emily adjusted to the alternate course her life took upon evading death.

Once inside the room, she sat in the desk chair, turned on a reading lamp, and pulled out her notes.

She tried to concentrate, but her mind began to drift, eyes wandering out the window to the downs that lay by the sea.

Emily imagined their chalky outcrops rising above the shore as she walked in the sand. Finding a gleaming shell in a shallow embayment. Watching it grow to the size of a house, its spire whirling into a staircase and outer lip widening to windows that gave a great view beyond the front steps.

This was the sort of house where she and Rumorg would someday live and raise children, taking them for walks in the salty, sea air to watch the gulls and terns dive into the surf.

While examining the spongy organism fastened to the inside, she saw a pair of beady eyes peering back with an alertness that reminded her of him.

Suddenly, he emerged, slinking out of the whelk’s smooth, hard contours and rising up on two legs.

Reaching forward, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close so their skin touched.

They stood on the beach and kissed, their tongues slipping over the foreign landscape of each other’s mouths. Rumorg reached up and undid her bra.

Sprawling in the sand next to him, she threw her head back, pitching the landscape upside-down. The tide curled in, pulling them deeper into the sand. Moisture rose off her arms and mixed with the seaweed smell as his body molded to her belly and breasts.

Now, he was thrusting into her, and it was sweet and good and everything she’d learned to forget. She gazed up at the shifting clouds. Sea merged with sky, tossing them into a vertiginous state of bliss as Rumorg held her close and whispered in her ear, his words floating above the sound of the surf:

“I don’t know if this can save us, but it’s worth a shot…”

***

Emily returned from the reverie, staring down at the array of notes on her desk. The clock on the wall read ten minutes to six. Time to meet Rumorg.

She gathered up the papers, stuffing them into her bag and scurrying out the door.

He waited outside the library with a cigarette dangling from his fingers as she cut a rough path across the grass. They entered the building’s lobby and found a computer in one of the smooth, glass corridors.

Half an hour into their work, she glanced up to see him watching her with eyes like slits. She’d been searching for a loophole to skirt death in this mad continuum since she got here. Was this it—the look that simmered between them?

She returned his gaze, enjoying the fleeting moment. Soon, they’d be finished and hand in their papers. They’d continue to be wary of the future, acutely aware that each day spent in this world of flat, geometrical lines hoisted up on the green-brown world seemed to narrow their chances of ever getting out.

But it also meant their survival, and that was something.

FICTION: ‘Ticket Taker,’ featured in STORGY Magazine

Fiction published originally in Storgy, 7/18/2018

Will returns my bright-eyed stare. The printers ran out of paper a half hour ago, and we’re standing beside each other, wondering what’s going to happen next.

This is exactly how the world will end, I think—not with a bang or a whimper, but when the machines suddenly can’t print any more tickets.

Stars will come out again. They won’t be tiny holes poked into the black, paper sky that people glimpse on the way to buy popcorn and candy. Instead, they’ll roll over in silver sheets, blinking awake after thousands of years of human-induced sleep. Folks will come outside and brave the cold and mosquito bites to see them. Meanwhile, a cyclone-like vortex will form and drop to earth. It will suck all the office equipment into outer space and shatter it into infinitely small pieces.

I wait for the countdown to usher in this new reality as I stand there, my legs throbbing at the end of the ten-hour shift. My co-workers are torpid by now, fantasizing about the cold beer that’s waiting for them back home in the fridge—a drink that will lace their brains with pleasant memories as they enter oblivion. They’re not concerned about what will happen tomorrow when the next shift arrives to discover there’s no paper left to feed the throngs. They are picking up programs that fell to the floor and fetching their belongings from under the table runners. When the hand strikes twelve, they will be gone.

As I’m convincing myself to do the same, I realize I don’t want to enter oblivion: I want to gallop into the orange sunset. I want to hang by my fingertips from the flared nostrils of gargoyles over a pit of hellfire. What’s more, I can’t seem to convince myself I’m about to actually leave this place. Once I’m here, I’m really here, and after eleven hours of glorified servitude, it’s hard to walk away. I secretly hope something spectacular happens at the end, right before I cross the floor of the lobby and exit through the row of glass doors.

“I’m starring in a play tonight,” Will says suddenly. A smile lights up the hollows of his face. “It’s the lead role. I’m the king. I’m really kind of excited about it.”

His co-workers all nod and smile with the reassurance of hearing a young, upwardly mobile individual talk about how his life entails more than coordinating events and handing out tickets.

Will Low is his full name, and it’s a fitting one: There’s not a tinge of fat on him—only a slender neck and long limbs with joints so flexible, his knees look like they might bend backward when he walks. It’s alarming to watch this ectomorph in motion: The parts seem to flow too gracefully to be human.

There’s something familiar about Will that I can’t place. The two of us seem to have a lot in common—so much that I feel like we’re the same person.

“That’s thrilling,” I say.

Yes, he agrees, but it’s also scary. I’m sure. Never did like being on stage, myself. Will says he’s worried, because his part includes a nude scene.

“It’s not the nakedness I’m dreading. It’s that I have to undress right at the end of the act, so I know there’s going to be an awkward moment before the scene fades to black. Also, some of my friends are going to be in the audience.”

I agree it could be embarrassing—but wasn’t a big part of being on stage to relish the limelight without caring who was watching?

I’m wondering why the hell someone who didn’t want to be naked on stage would audition for a part with a nude scene, when Will tells me he didn’t find out he’d have to get naked until after landing the role.

“You didn’t have to do the scene in the audition?”

“No. The director is saving it for the stage—to keep it spontaneous and organic, he says. They don’t even want me rehearsing it, though who would know—and really, what good would it do?”

As he goes on, he describes his fear in a strange way. It’s not just the sheer fright of being naked while strangers stare at his balls. It’s like he’s preparing himself for a tornado, or flood. It’s the same dread he faced at the start of the shift, right before the guests began pouring through the lobby’s main doors—all three-hundred thousand of them whizzing by to pick up their tickets. Though there were many more people then, he didn’t have to get naked in front of them. I could see how this would be worse.

There’s a long, heady pause as we contemplate it, and I realize I’m salivating.

“It’s the dread that it might be bad,” he says with an air of finality.

He keeps using the word dread, and it gives me an inkling of it myself, because I know the root cause: that the worst possible thing will happen. An audience member will shout something, or he’ll fart, or a prop will fall on his head, or some other thing that would cause the effortlessly simple act of undressing to go horribly awry in a way that a person could never live down.

“I think it’s one of those things where you can’t really worry too much ahead of time—you just have to do it,” I say.

That’s brilliant, Diane. Really, fucking insightful. Like he hadn’t thought of that.

“Yes,” he replies. “That’s it, exactly.”

“It’s not so much the act of being naked, as knowing that you’re being put on the spot—that you might be embarrassed or ashamed,” I continue.

He mulls it over. “Yes. Right again.”

Soon, one of the event managers comes up to us and confirms there’s no paper left, there won’t be any tomorrow (Sunday), or likely until late Monday, when the order that was placed today is delivered. When that happens, paper will materialize quickly, but there is nothing anyone can do about it until then. What’s more, none of us is coming back. Today’s our last day to cover the event.

The hand strikes twelve.

“They’re cutting down trees in the forest as we speak,” one of our co-workers says suddenly as she exits the gate and treads gladly across the floor. “Paper will be here before we know it.”

I try to decide whether her words are a joke, or a form of protest. I know she can’t be serious: None of this is. I want that unspoken truth to console me, remind me I should be glad to go home. I am, but I’m also thinking about her parting words. I resent that she put the image of trees having their limbs sawed off into our heads just as we’re all about to leave.

On the drive home, I imagine doing something heroic in place of saving trees, like rescuing someone from a ditch. As I’m thinking that, I realize it’s because my day lacks closure. Despite the sheer, repetitive exhaustion of labor, there’s no way to really forget about it.

Instead of performing a heroic act in the trenches, I climb the stairs to the apartment and strip, leaving my clothes in a wild heap on the carpet. I sprawl naked on the bed, letting my arms and legs flail across the mattress as I stare up at the ceiling.

I’ve never been afraid to be naked, could have been one of those horses that pulled the buggies through downtown if I were born equine. I close my eyes, picturing my muscles rippling beneath my lustrous, brown fur as I shake my pom-poms and clop through the street.

My mind wanders as I begin to relax. Climbing through a chaparral-choked canyon, I see the emerald eyes of a lynx flash from the dark mouth of a cave. Scenes like this appear on the backs of my eyelids: visions of roaming through the desert beneath a blue-blooded moon.

The smell of sweat fills my nostrils, vinegary and acidic. Traces of it were on my clothes when I undressed earlier: a scent I’d masked with countless dabs of Jamaican jasmine. But all the flowers of Egypt couldn’t hide the smell of my inborn energy.

Soon, the visions progress into something else. I picture a woodsman climbing a steep hill, grunting and swinging an axe until he finds the one. He draws the axe back and swings, plunging the blade into its side. It’s a clean slice: A thin line appears in the severed flesh, and it begins to topple.

Suddenly, sunlight shines through the trees enrobing the forest. It’s as bright as a bulb that casts them in spotlight. The light intensifies as the trunk falls to the ground. The woodsman thinks only he hears the sound, but all the birds and creatures rustling in the forest fall silent. Now, the light is shining on the exposed trunk, illuminating the fresh sap that oozes like blood. Something or someone is screaming—voices in a crowd that join in a whisper.

I awake from the nightmare and jolt up in bed, my eyes panning like cameras through the darkness, seeking to give lines and form to the room’s blunt objects—a dresser, a lampshade, the outline of the closet door. I blink once, twice, trying to get my bearings.

Then, it’s all changing. The room’s not dark and quiet anymore. Light is streaming through the window, and figures are popping up on all sides, rising to their feet and clapping. The crowd is applauding. Cries of elation fill the room as the cast members return to the stage, holding hands to form a long chain that stretches from wing to wing. The actors take turns going down the row and bowing. The cheering and clapping grows louder as the star steps gracefully forward.

Once awakefed, and groomed, I sort through the hangers in the closet, pulling out a clean, white shirt and a pair of black pants. I dress in the full-length mirror, grab my jacket, keys, and purse and open the door.

Was it a dream or a nightmare, I wonder? It doesn’t seem to matter: only that the person in it succeeded and pleased the crowd.

I smile softly as I pull the door closed behind me, stepping outside. Another day of work is beginning.