Fiction

devil-shadowThe Enemy of the Devil is My Friend

By Alexandra Serova

I am the secretary of Hell and I’ve been punished for doing my job too well. Now my nose hairs are being singed by the coarse smell of burning rancidness. Today I am charged with conjuring the fiery Hell’s incarnate, little Susie.

I turned away for a fourth of a second to fax a document, and she managed to get something in the company microwave. I wasn’t quick enough to stop her, but I was faster than the fire alarm. After corralling her back into a spare office, I plopped down into my chair.

“I am not your goddam babysitting service,” I grumbled . . . to myself of course.

I couldn’t risk someone sneaking up on me and blackmailing me with my words. The Devil has imps everywhere. Luckily, all of them are off on family vacation right now. I of course had to work anyway, because not having kids means I just have all the time in the world. They’re just a bunch of people pissed off that I don’t wanna join their club, so they single me out for it.

All I’ve been trying to do is my best. But the Walmart suit I wear to work accurately reflects how much they appreciate that I keep their professional lives organized. Their personal lives however, hah, no wonder they’re all complaining about one thing or another. Mostly it’s their kids, and spouses, ironically.

Remember how I said I was the secretary of Hell? Yeah well it goes by other names like “Durkeman Law: Los Angeles Office”. I hate how much emotional labor goes into this damn job. At least in other countries you’re not expected to pretend to be happy as you do your menial nine to five. I wish I could just be honest about my day. When someone asks you “How are you?” they don’t expect honesty, they expect “Great, how about you?” to which they reply “Great” and then tell you what they come to you for.

The sad part is, I can’t just tell the spawn how I feel, no matter how politely I word it. She’ll just tattle tail on me and her dad would retaliate. She doesn’t look a day over eight. She’s probably got the emotional maturity of my six month old husky.

I paused, sighing quietly. I just adopted him and I wanted to spend a few days getting him adjusted to my apartment. Of course, he’s not considered as important as someone else’s poor planning. I ruminated, feeling like a monster for leaving Vincent in a doggie corral all alone. I just couldn’t give him free reign of the apartment. I spent the entirety of the previous month puppy proofing the place, but you can never be too careful.

Suddenly the spare office door became the subject of violent kicking. My blood pressure rose. So help me if I have to put with this little shit a minute longer I am going to go inferno and blow my top. The only reason I put up with the big turd is because he signs my paycheck. I slowly breathed in and exhaled. She’s just having a tantrum, kids do that. Alright, what’s the next order of business? Let’s see, I have to order more office supplies, organize the Devil’s calendar, make a few calls, and hopefully then I’ll get off at five. That is of course if he gets here before five so I’ll be relieved of baby sitting duties.

My stomach rumbled and I fetched my styrofoam to-go container from the otherwise empty office fridge. A late lunch was better than nothing. As I got comfortable, getting read to munch, I heard scuffling approaching me. I turned to see her looking over my newly opened meal. I glanced from the food and back to her, the quiet tension in the room broken by her request.

“I want to try sushi,” she gestured incessantly to the ebi and tuna rolls that made up my lunch.

“You should have already eaten lunch, plus you’re dad said he packed you a PB and J.”

“I packed my own sandwich.” She pointed more fervently, “But I want to try that.”

“It’s raw fish you’re not gonna like it, I’m hungry and you’ll put it to waste,” I replied dryly. I was not about to be bossed around by a bratty grub.

Suddenly, she threw her iphone on the ground in a fit. “I hope you trip on this,” she huffed and stomped out into the hall and back into the spare office.

No wonder daddy dearest got her the expensive case. The thing’s screen could probably survive a Kaiju attack. Not two minutes later, out of the corner of my eye I saw her slink back into my space, and out. When I glanced back at the floor, the phone was gone. Figures.

Several minutes had passed. As I eased my way back into the monotony that is my job, my blood chilled. Quiet. It was far too quiet. As if on cue, something got thrown against a wall. I begrudgingly got up and went to investigate.

Poking my head out in the hallway, I spotted it. It was a stapler lying on its side, thrown hard enough that loose staples littered the floor next to it. I reluctantly picked up the pieces, lest it be a “kid hazard”. I then had the dawning realization; I had been set up.

Rushing back to my desk, my sushi was gone. I took off at a dead sprint, heels and all. The only thing missing was a T-rex. I barged into the spare office, culprit identified. We made eye contact and she started forking down my tuna rolls at an alarming rate. I quietly prayed that he was nowhere near the vicinity and then I proceeded to lose my shit.

“Give it back!” I yelled, wrestling it out of her hands, red in the face.

“Dad won’t let me eat tuna cause he said the mercury is bad for me, but it tastes great, so screw dad!”

“Why do you have to keep acting out like this? Huh? Do you like to make people’s jobs a living hell?!” I regretted it as soon as I said it.

She paused, “You’re the first person who hasn’t tried to baby talk me this week.”

Wait, what?

“Mom signed divorce papers last month and I don’t even know why he insisted on having partial custody. No one seemed to care what I wanted. The babysitter is the one to take care of me anyway, and today she had to drive her mom to the hospital.”

I was floored. “Kid, how old are you?”

“I’m eleven.”

“You’re eleven?” I squawked incredulously, almost dropping the take-out. I set it aside.

“I know, I know, I’m small and my voice is squeaky . . . and none of the kids in school would quit reminding me . . .” she said, voice progressively getting quieter.

“Kids kinda . . . suck,” she said as though saying the last word was drawing a line.

I tried to contain my laughter.

“Yeah, Susie, let me tell ya, it doesn’t get any easier as you age. Grown ups aren’t always that great either. Only difference is that I’d get in even bigger trouble if I described them that way.”

Susie smiled a bit. “Hey could you call me Susan? I’ve never really liked the nickname . . . I always liked my name cause it’s like the girl in Narnia.”

“Oh I loved those books growing up!” I gleamed, squatting to her level. “You read all seven?”

Her eyes widened, “Seven?”

“Yes, seven!” I gushed. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you borrow my set!” I paused, frowning a little. “Juuusssst need to let your dad know first.” I gave a wave of the hand to her, “You know how grown ups are, all about censoring what their kids read.”

Susan gave a self satisfied grin, “Yeah, dad still doesn’t know I read Harry Potter at the library.”

The sound of foot steps echoed down the hall, progressively approaching. I stood up. The door opened. If you speak of him he shall appear. The Devil walked into the room as if he’d just won the best dad award.

“Hello Ms. Robertson, how has Susie been?”

“Uh, you could ask her,” I said, gesturing to Susan.

He raised an eyebrow, and with a brief pause he asked, “How have you been Susie?”

“Good,” she replied, a neutral expression on her face.

Satisfied by the answer, he turned his attention back to me.

“Even practice SATs cost money, but I let you practice care for a kid for free,” he grinned, figuratively patting himself on the back. “So, you’ll better know what to expect when you have some.”

When? I tilted my head, my smile saccharine, but I said nothing aloud.

Susan looked up at her dad, “But what if she doesn’t want to do that?” she asked.

Susan, bless you. You are the future.

“Nonsense sweetie,” he looked down at her. “You will too, eventually,” he smiled widely. “Women love to have children of their own.”

Hmmm, ignorant and condescending, what a potent mix. I maintained eye contact with him. Someone had to be sick for nine months with that miserable twerp.

He turned to me. As if to reaffirm his statement, he asked, “Don’t they, Ms. Robertson?”

I nodded placidly.

“See I told you Susie,” he replied smugly.

Susan and I shared eye contact. I shook my head lightly, out of his view.

She smiled and nodded.

Well, she learns fast. If I know anything, raising kids in such a restrictive and controlling environment paves the way for them to become expert liars. So at least he’ll have a job lined up for her at the company.

The Devil had talked down to me as if he did me a favor. Call me biased, but based off what Susan said, I don’t think he’s going to survive her teenage years. Well I mean realistically speaking, he will do just fine. Rich people can put some distance between themselves and impending disasters, be it by ways of doomsday bunkers, or baby sitters. He’ll pay for his actions eventually; it’ll be slow burn revenge. I just hope she works her way through his parenting and is well adjusted after however many therapy sessions it takes. She’s bright; I’d hate to see that enthusiasm snuffed out.

He exchanged your typical parting protocol words like “Good bye” and none of it even mentioned a word of thanks. He turned around, Susan in tow.

I crinkled my nose in disgust, maintaining eye contact with the back of his head. I got my tubes removed, fuckface.

I flipped him the bird, and let it take flight. Susan looked behind, beaming at me as she gave a wicked, shit eating grin. Give him hell kid.

Baseball DadMy Brother’s Keeper 

By Cuautemoc Sandoval 

The family station wagon limped into one of the seemingly endless empty spaces lining the front of the diner. Save for a sprinkling of big rigs, a handful of clunkers that must’ve belonged to the wait staff, and now this pale puke green suburban-mobile, the diner parking lot was as desolate as you’d expect on a Wednesday at 3 in the morning. Peter sat in the idling station wagon, both hands gripping the wheel with his head hanging down between his arms. A weary sigh escapes from between his lips as he prepares to take the keys out of the ignition and head into the diner to face a certain fiasco.

That quintessential chime dings as Peter enters the diner and is greeted by a coffee and lipstick stained grin.

“Hey there sugar, could I get you a booth, my shifts done in thirty”, the waitress purrs cheekily with a voice like gravel in a drying machine.

“I’m good. I’m meeting someone here”, Peter says in a hushed tone, dismissing the waitress while turning his attention to the few patrons and other employees populating the roadside beacon.

Looking past the couple of trucker caps pointed downward with intense focus on their coffee and the few hairnets that bobbed up and down the aisles like the ghosts from Pac-Man on Ambien, dutifully refilling barely sipped coffee mugs, Peter spotted a familiar mop of bleached blonde hair at the back of the diner. Scott sat in the last booth at the farthest end of the diner facing away from the front entrance. Another sigh slips from Peter’s mouth, only this time it is not out of weariness but reluctant determination; his fist clenches then relaxes before he walks to the end of the diner. The 40 some odd feet between the door and the back of the diner felt like 40 miles to Peter. The occasional cough or nose blow from a trucker, as Peter approached closer, like heckles from fellow inmates as a convict takes his last walk down death row.  Peter reaches the back of the diner, he stood there for a moment staring at the back of his little brother’s head; it stared right through him

“Scotty.”, Peter blurts out finally.

“Oh shit. How did *burp* you know I was going to be here”, Scott inquires as he turns around and meets Peter’s tired eyes with his own bloodshot gaze.

“This was dad’s favorite spot. Stack of flapjacks. Coffee. Black. Always said it was the best fuel before those early morning fishing trips”, Peter said this more to himself but loud enough for Scott to hear, as he took a seat across from his little brother on the vinyl upholstered booth.

“Oh, so you can remember all that shit but it’s too much for you to treat me like a god damn adult? You know how much I hate that ‘Scotty’ little kid bullshit!”, Scott was a notch below irate and his obvious stench of alcohol was clearly not doing him or Peter any favors.

Peter closes his eyes for a moment and rubs his temples with his left thumb and index finger. He lets out a deep sigh and heads back into the fray.

“You’ll always be my little brother Scott. Especially now”, Peter said in his quiet yet commanding way.

“Just because dad croaked doesn’t mean I need you meddling in my fucking life now just because he can’t. Shit, I’m surprised the old bastard isn’t chewing me out from the spirit world right now”, Scott huffed, his angst communicated through agitated fidgeting and his drunkenness illustrated by that glazed look and inability to keep eye contact with Peter for more than 7 seconds.

“He never wanted to hurt you. He just wanted the best for you. For both of us. Everything he did was for the family”, it still felt strange for Peter to talk about his father this way.

“Bull-fucking-shit! Dad was a control freak, and you’re starting to sound like him too”, Scott said with a roll of his eyes then directed his attention to the salt and pepper packets on the table.

“I don’t expect you to understand. Dad’s from a different time so I don’t think I can even fully understand all the shit he did. But I can accept that good or bad, everything he did was for us in one way or another.”

“Oh yeah, dad making me do 8 years of baseball even after I told him I hated it at the end of the first season was totally for my own good. Not like he got some power trip from being my coach those first couple years, so he could tell me what to do even more often. I mean I’m not bringing home MLB bucks and I still can’t fucking stand baseball, but yeah way to look out for your boy dad!”, Scott gestures towards the floor.

“He just wanted to spend more time with you. What’d you expect? All that baseball shit started around the time I was leaving for college and you know how things were between me and the old man then. He didn’t want to lose two sons.”

“He didn’t even lose one son! He pushed you away. Besides, we could’ve spent time together doing shit I actually like. He didn’t have to force his bullshit high school dream on me.”

“He was trying his be–”

“I can’t even believe mom stayed with him all these years. How dumb do you have to fucki–”

“You can talk all the shit about me and dad you want, but you do not bring her into this. She did nothing but good by us all our lives. This is not her fault. Do you understand?”, Peter said with a thunderous slap to the booth table rattling the cutlery and startling some of the sleeping truckers awake.

Scott grumbles to himself, “Whatever”, he scans the diner then looks back at Peter, “I just don’t understand why you’re such a big fan of *hiccup* dad suddenly. The Peter I knew when you left for college would join me in calling dad an asshole.”

“That was then. Shit changes.”

“He must’ve left you everything in the will because I never thought I’d see the day we were all together again, let alone at dad’s funeral.”

“We both know he didn’t have much shit to leave behind. Whatever he did have is mom’s, like it should be.”

“Well if it’s not money he gave you, I can’t think of anything more valuable you could receive that would change your stubborn ass mind.”

“I’m the reason why I’m here. Well that and mom wouldn’t relax after you stormed out in the middle of his service. We both just want to make sure you’re okay. That rum on your breath ain’t making anything any better.”

“Fuck you I’m grown *suppressed burp* I can drink if I want. You sound exactly like dad with that straight edge sobriety shit. It’s not like it matters, drunk or not, nothing you can say about the old geezer now is gonna undo the shit he did when he was here.”

Peter released another soft sigh. He stared out into the farthest end of the parking lot where two big rigs sat next to the gas station. Then the flood of light from the roof of the diner reflecting off the family car’s windshield caught his attention. The glaring windshield had Peter entranced, and for a moment he remembered the few good family drives, the times their father had (in his own strange way) imparted some sort of life wisdom onto them, and perhaps what had him most distracted was his memory of their mother’s smile.

“So what, you just gonna ignore me now Pete? What happened to Mr. Big Brother, Mr. Responsibility, Mr. Dad’s Dead So I Love Him No–”

“Can’t you just shut the fuck up for 30 seconds. *sigh* God damn it Scotty you just have to be a stubborn little shithead all the time don’t you. I thought tonight would be as simple as paying for the puke stain you left wherever I found you and tossing you in the back of the car, so mom could rest easy the one night she needs it most. But no! Nothing is ever so simple with Scott, he’s the baby boy, always has to get his way! Just remember that you did this shit.”

“What are you even talking abo–”

“You know you’re right, that baseball shit was his stupid high school dream. But do you even know why it was just a dream? Why he had to give all that up after making it All American and getting looks from all those scouts?”

“Do I know why he didn’t go pro? More like did I ever hear the end of it, all he talked about when I used to play was how close he was to the majors and how important it was that I didn’t get injured so that I could get drafted.”

“But do you know how he got injured?”

“I mean we both do. He took a stray pitch to his left shoulder after he had already fractured it and he could never hit the same again. What’s the big deal?”

“No, that’s just what dad told us when we were kids. Dad broke his arm in a DUI driving home from a kegger the night he won the winter baseball tournament. He slammed into the car of an elderly couple and both of their cars ended up wrapped around a tree. If it weren’t for the fact that cars were hunks of metal shit back then, we never even would have made it out of dad’s nuts.”

“What the fuck are you talking about Pete?!”

“Mom sent me a letter a couple of months back, when dad first got sick, dad wanted me to know before he was gone. There’re newspaper clippings, letters, legal documents, it’s all true. If it weren’t for dad being a hometown hero, he wouldn’t have gotten the slap on the wrist that was losing his scholarship offers and ability to play at school. The cops were able to play it off as the dangers of elderly driving and the press played up the tragedy of dad’s potential being stolen by his broken arm.”

“I…I… I just can’t even begin–”

“Yeah it gets worse. Now imagine you’re in dads’ shoes. All this opportunity in the palm of your hands. Poof. Gone. All because you fucked up. Now why don’t you take a guess as to whether this situation helped with his drinking. Even better, add him knocking up his high school sweetheart at the end of senior year and all the complications that came with my ass arriving 9 months later. See, you hated dad during his decline, I hated him during his prime. The son of a bitch spent half his time drunk and the other half beating mom senseless across the house. Imagine the terror I felt when mom told me to hide under the bed because dad was coming home from a bad day at work. The amount of times I fell asleep to mom’s crying only by drowning it out with own. I hated the fucker…”

“Pete, I… I don’t know what to say. I knew dad was an asshole but, not like this. I had no idea.”

“Exactly, you have no fucking idea! But you have to be a stubborn shit either way don’t you.”

“…”, Scott slouched in his seat awkwardly, sobered by these revelations, his attention again drawn to the salt and pepper packets.

Peter lets out a deep exhale and regains his composure, “You know I’m not saying all this shit to hurt you; I just want you to know the whole story. Do you know why dad quit drinking?”

“Apparently, I have no idea about anything he did, so no.”

“He quit drinking the day mom found out she was pregnant with you. Cold turkey.”

“What are you talking about, from the sound of it he probably loved the booze more than he ever loved me.”

“God damn it. Don’t you get it Scott? It was all for you. After mom told him there was another baby coming he couldn’t bring himself to put his hands on her again. He didn’t want to spend every night gin soaked in some dive bar while his two sons grew up without a dad. He didn’t want to bring terror upon another life and that made him see his error in doing what he did. There’s only so much goodwill not reeking of alcohol could buy him from me after I had seen him do what he did. But you were a fresh slate, a chance for him to do right by mom and I.”

“If he really cared about me how do you explain him always being on my ass and making me do shit I didn’t want to do. He never showed affection, I can count the amount of times he hugged me on one hand and the only time he ever said he was proud of me was during my games.”

“Like I said, dad wasn’t perfect. But him constantly watching over your every move was because he cared about you so much and he worried constantly. I know you think he was controlling but that was the only way he could think of to keep us from ending up doing the same bullshit as him. Him being a helicopter dad was the only way he knew to show affection because he lacked that growing up and was only around half of the time when I was younger.”

“I honestly don’t know what to say. I mean you got me pretty fucked up dumping all this information on me now. I’m not sure what to do.”

“Me either. I just wanted to share what he gave me with you. The most valuable thing he had.”

“What is it?”

“Closure… C’mon let’s go home.”

CigaretteThe Weight of Sin

By Camille Sullivan

It was a suburbia wonderland with rolling, dipping hills that were filled with an expanse of water-colored trees and bramble that snapped and crackled like a symphony in the wind. Sitting just beneath these wondrous scoops of earth like blown out of proportion bird houses were rows upon rows of cookie cutter houses. The houses that were all similar in their appearance and also all similar in the normalcy of the Joe or Bob who lived there, twirled in overlapping spirals of blue, pink, and gold cotton candy around the various pod malls and grocery stores that made up the city. Sitting in the parking lot of one of these such grocery stores was a faded gray Volvo station wagon, and sitting just behind the tinted glass of the windshield was a man with a face as pale as flour and gaze as heavy as a leaden corpse.

The man, Karl Krieger, sat in his car, his fingers curled around a half smoked cigarette that was dripping ashes onto the leather of his seat. Particles of dust weaved their way through the early morning rays and crumpled receipts and an expired parking ticket stared back at him from the dashboard like little scraps of lost cash and forgotten responsibilities. Everything in the air was charged with a kind of silent electricity as he waited for his shift to start, his fingers strumming on the wheel and his attention glued to the radio like it was his second religion. Over the past few days he had developed the habit of tuning in. He listened obsessively and the whole thing, well, it was becoming something he just couldn’t kick. A few more seconds cataloged themselves away in the ever growing storage space of the past before the daily news came to a grinding halt and transitioned into a commercial jingle. Karl took a deep drag from his cigarette before snuffing it out. He ran a hand through his hair in exasperation, how was it possible that he hadn’t heard a single story about it? Maybe the news stations weren’t repeatedly broadcasting it because it wasn’t that bad? He scoffed slightly at the notion, that explanation was impossible. Karl knew what he had seen, and he knew that there was no way it could be anything, but bad.

After a few more minutes of ruminating the situation over and over in his mind he finally came to the realization that enough was enough and clambered out of the car. As he slammed the door of the vehicle and slid the keys into the socket of the lock a flash of charred ruby caught his attention from the corner of his eye. Just on the side of the car, staring at him like a festering wound against the faded gray paint was a smudge of blood. Seized with a terrible grip of panic he immediately dropped down onto to all fours. The gravel met his knees harshly as he moved around like an animal in the dirt and the sun beat angrily on his back. His face glistened and curled with coils of pain from the heat as he desperately ran the cuff of his shirt again and again over the stain. Despite his best efforts, however nothing seemed to cleanse it. The stain where before it had resembled the brittle leftovers of a bygone crime, now shined with a freshness. A forceful huff escaped Karl’s lips in frustration at the little to no effect he was having and with another rather displeased grunt he pushed himself to rest on his haunches. Grimacing in annoyance at seemingly everything around him, his hand twitched instinctively for the box of Malibu’s in his pocket. His fingers probed with a kind of necessity for a kind of relief within the inner crevice, and deep frown lines proceeded to etch themselves onto Karl’s features as his digits settled around nothing, but the crunchy air of the hollowed out package. Upon realizing that his last earthly comfort was gone he took instead to sucking in his lip and gnawing on it in agitation as he stared doggedly at the root of his worry. Oddly enough even though the mark was the most immediate stem of his stress, his mind was focused on something weeks, hours, and miles away.

As his mind continued to latch onto things of the past, his vision drifted from his car and over to the convenience store where he worked. As he stared at the building, took in the electronic swish of the doors, the snaking black belts conveying endless streams of food, the lines already piling up by the checkout counters, a deep feeling of detachment began to settle into the marrow of his bones. The whole image just seemed so out of focus now, blurry and distorted. He, Karl Krieger, much like a broken piece of the puzzle that no longer fit into its spot. He no longer belonged with the any of the events unfolding in front of him anymore. With this conclusion firmly lodged in his mind, the man proceeded to drag himself far away from the encircled parking lot, past the mini gas station and pod malls, until eventually he came upon the agape mouth of a park. The park itself was large in its expanse and filled with flat slabs of twirling blades of grass and glorious maple trees with branches that were peppered with iridescent leafs that seemed to shake hands and interlock with the streams of sun. Sitting to the side of the park and somewhat detached from primary clump of maples was what looked to be the largest, and oldest tree of all. It’s branches and trunk were a crackling coal in color as well as texture and it hung as a looming backdrop to a wooden bench that lay just in front of it. While his original intention upon departing the parking lot was to travel much further, Karl simply could not ignore the continuous aching thump in the soles of his feet and so without much of any kind of inner dispute found himself readily gravitating towards the worn bench. Upon getting closer to the spot Karl Krieger became keenly aware that the bench was in fact not empty as he had previously thought, but in fact was currently being occupied by an elderly man. As soon as he reached his destination Karl made it a point to position himself on the far corner of the bench with his gaze averted from any kind of contact. A great while passed with only the warble of birds, and the crackle of the trees traveling between the pair. Until finally, during a particularly long spell of silence the old man with his white bush of a beard and upturned nose decided to initiate a conversation with his neighbor.

“I can tell you have somethin’ weighing on your mind, son. If it’ll make you feel better you can tell me. I won’t tell no one,” said the older man, shooting a meaningful stare at his hunched over companion.

A flicker of annoyance worked its way over Karl’s features and his upper lip curled into a sneer at the implication, “How about you just fuck off and mind your own damn business, yeah?”

“Okay, okay, fair enough. Sorry, for intrudin’. All I really wanted to let you know was I’d be your ear if you needed it” said the old man, raising his hands in a kind of taken aback, defensive gesture.

“Be my ear? I don’t even know you, man. How do you expect you me to trust you when I don’t even know you?”

“True. You don’t know me, but I guess if on tha flip side sayin’ you do tell me somethin’ I really have no interest in tellin’ anyone else and as a bonus it’d prolly be pretty hard for me to tell anyone ‘bout what you’ve done. After all, I’m just an old man who doesn’t know who you are neither,” responded the elderly man.

Despite wanting to appear indifferent to this unexpected companion, Karl found himself gradually beginning to involuntarily lean into the creep a long way in which each syllable lagged their way off the old man’s tongue. Found himself getting lost into the dry, earnest crackle of his sentences which held to them a kind of uncommon honesty. Maybe, just maybe it would be okay to tell him after all, to tell someone.

“I must be absolutely fucking insane at this point,” said Karl, mopping a hand over the new sheen of sweat that had gathered on his face, “You really promise to tell no one?”

As the words were spoken a silent understanding that nothing about this was going to get out traversed between the two individuals which caused Karl to bob his head in a sort of nervous, head nodding approval.

“Well, a few weeks ago I did something, something that can’t be undone and now I’m just, I’m just not sure what the fuck I should do,” said Karl, leaning over and resting his forehead in his palms as he spoke, his throat bobbed up and down as the words threatened to strangle themselves in his throat before they even met the light of day.

Moisture pooled in Karl’s eyes as he struggled to get out the words. He proceeded to tilt himself forward even more so that his pale, folded over form now looked as though it were practically being bent over by the weight of the sky above itself. After what felt like a great while of looping, twisting fragments of thoughts he was finally able to formulate the words that so had been lodged in his throat and conscience.

“I-I fucking killed someone,” a deep sob raked itself through his body, causing Karl’s shoulders to convulse in a series of violent rattles, “I was driving home from a friend’s and I wasn’t looking, not like I should have been, and before I know it this guy is just in front of my car and I fucking hit him. And after I do I stop to see if he’s okay, an-and he’s not fucking okay. He’s not okay and he’s just laying there and he’s not moving and what the fuck do you think I do?” He paused momentarily before continuing, “I just leave him there. I drive away.”

As soon as he was done speaking the old man turned to the Karl, the wrinkles and lines on his face bending at twisting as they portrayed a myriad of emotions that ranged from shocks of curiosity, and then into other emotions that weren’t as easily discernible.

“So what are you going to do now?” questioned the old man.

“There’s only one thing that’s left for me. I’m going to turn myself in.”

The sentence struck through the man like a bolt of lightning and where he had previously been rather stationary he now became blessed with an uncharacteristic animation.

“Wait, are you sure you wanna do that? I mean are you really sure?” as he spoke he placed a specific emphasis on the last question.

One of his hands reached out to clasp around younger man’s shoulders and the man’s eyes burned into Karl’s with an odd desperation as if he were begging him, no, demanding that he reconsider. Feeling a deep seed of discomfort at the sudden intrusion of his personal space Karl proceeded to shake himself free from the other man’s hold.

“I’m sure. I just can’t live like this anymore. This guilt, it’s making me crazy, burning me out from the inside, it’s killing me. I just want to be free from it.”

In response to the statements, the older man’s mouth promptly lurched open and he began to lease squeals of uncharacteristically high pitched laughter. The skin around his eyes scrunched and his upturned nose appeared to stretch and become even more exaggerated as he laughed, slapped his hands against his legs.

“Turn yourself in? Why turn yourself in when ya got away with it? Hasn’t anyone ever told ya the only person ya got to worry about is yerself? Jus’ forget about it and stay here way me, son. I’ll show ya how to forget all about it. Yeah, I will. You won’t have to worry about it no more,” said the man, lunging at Karl in one final attempt at catching hold of him.

Narrowly avoiding the lunge, Karl shot to his feet and feverishly backpedaled away from the man, all the while uttering a string of hysterical curses as he did so. Then without so much as a look over his shoulder at the park bench he proceeded to run as fast as his feet would carry him away from the deranged elderly figure. As he fled the long blades of grass licked from all sides against his legs and the peals of laughter emitting from the old man that were once loud, and booming began to fade into the rustle of the grass and maple leaves. Once outside the park, Karl took a fleeting look back at the old man only to find that his presence, much like a passing nightmare, had disappeared from all forms of sight and he was no longer anywhere to be found.

starlightFull Moon Mama

By Rachel Garcia

The gold fell from her eyes like the sun glimmering on the oceans waves. She sparkled when she danced and sang around the bonfires daddy would have on the beach with his friends. That’s the way he always talked about her to other people. She was the fuzzy Sunday morning haze and the amber leaves in the fall. Momma wasn’t around for very long though.

Momma stood in her long ivory robe, stirring a small pot that smelled like apples and cinnamon. Daddy was brushing his teeth, shaving his chin, and fixing his tie all at the same time.

“argh…where? Umm…Honey, where’s my keys?” his hands shuffled inside his pockets and coats.

“On the counter baby, jeeze baby relax a minute and have some coffee” her hands set down a hot mug just the way he liked it, black with two sugar cubes on the side. Their lips met and moved like silk. The corners of his mouth curled up into a smile along with hers. They let out a sigh as if they hadn’t kissed in ages even if they’d been trying for a baby for the last two years five times out of the week. They were hopeful people, very hopeful. He picked up the brown bag that mom packed fresh strawberries and a hummus and cucumber sandwich in, and shuffled his way to the door. He yelled I love you to Momma while he backed out of the drive way.

Five months’ later Momma’s belly shown bright like a full moon at midnight. Now when dad wanted to kiss her he would place his hands on the protruding roundness of my soon to be sibling. One morning she took me to the book store to pick out nursery rhymes and poems. The shelves were white with letter labels and in the center of the room there was a big fluffy couch with a gold table of chrysanthemums in a pink vase. I held onto her dress and sucked on my thumb while her swollen feet pattered across the wood floor.

“Morning lovely lady! Good to see ya around these parts, it’s been awhile. How’s that belly of yours doin’?”

“It’s good thanks Martha! Doc says the baby should be coming soon enough.” They hugged each other tightly, Martha’s hand rubbing Momma’s full moon belly.

“Thought of any names yet?”

“Well…” Momma shook her head and her long brown curls swayed along at her sides. “Maybe you can help me think of a few names?”

“I’d be delighted to honey.” Names. They’re pretty important things but Momma never rushed anything. She was always taking things slow, that’s who she was. She liked feeling comfortable and paced. They made three lists of names. The first was girl names, the second boy names, and the third names that could go for both boy and girl. We agreed to show Daddy when he got home from work.

We spent the afternoon with Martha talking about girl things and how mommies feel when they’re pregnant. Martha gave Momma tea and cookies on a fancy porcelain tower. Her tea pot was decorated with pink flowers around the bottom and gold lining on the top. She had so many cookies, all the cookies in the world! After tea, they said their goodbyes and headed home. It was starting to get chilly out since it was almost November. We watched leaves falling from the trees and our shoes got muddy but Momma said it was okay to get muddy every once in a while. She looked down the tunnel of warmly colored red, orange, and yellow leaves as if it were the tunnel to heaven. She held my hand and when we got to our house we wiped our boots on the door mat.

She laid herself up on our couch in front of the fire Daddy made after he’d gotten home. Her legs were on top of Daddy’s lap, his big tough hands rubbed her belly.

“How’s our little munchkin doin?”

“Moving around a lot, that’s for sure”

“I cannot wait to see this little drop of sunshine come out of this gorgeous woman of mine!” He leaned his head up to reach her lips and she laughed. She told him about the names, and how Martha has helped her think of them. She dozed off and he helped her get to bed. Everything felt right. He was happy, She was happy, I was happy. As you can tell by what I’ve told so far we never had too many problems besides when Daddy was running late for work. She did though, in her head I mean.

October 31st, 1969. A thunderous pound that sounded as if the Hoover Dam burst out. A blood curdling scream came from the upstairs bathroom. Daddy let his coffee mug hit the floor and it shattered into a million tiny pieces. His footsteps almost shook the stairs as he rushed up to see what was wrong.

“Oh my God,” his whole body trembled. I could hear Momma wailing like a cow that lost her calf. I heard him drag her into the hallway.

“HOW DO I MAKE IT STOP?” she yelled. “HOW DO I MAKE IT STOP?” she kept repeating it over and over. Her heaving was echoing through the house. Daddy came down the stairs dripping in tears and sweat. His white work shirt had wet red and pink splotches all over it like a strawberry milk cow. He didn’t look as nice though. He ran over to the phone and dialed three numbers, 911. After he hung up he went to help Momma again.

There was a long white car that pulled up in the front of our house, some men in white uniforms stepped out and rushed in. Rushed up the stairs, not as fast as daddy did. I couldn’t hear Momma crying anymore. I think she was tired though because when they brought her down her eyes were all red and she wasn’t moving much. She kept talking under her breath and they took her away in the white car. In those long 20 seconds, I was sad because she had ruined her favorite ivory robe. I felt wet drops falling from my eyes and I felt like I had a mountain sitting on my chest.

A couple days passed, I thought they’d never come back. The big red front door opened, Momma shuffled her way into the living room and up the stairs with Daddy’s help. She wore a big green sweater; her eyes were baggy and she had let her insides come out in the toilet. Daddy didn’t go to work for a while. She never got up from bed, and if she did it was only to go use the bathroom or when daddy forced her to take a bath. I’d go up to lay in bed with her when Daddy would watch T.V. downstairs. I’d lay with her for hours and stroke her hair and curl up into a ball by her belly. Her belly was empty now, it wasn’t like the moon anymore. It looked like a deflated balloon, but I still loved her very much.

“Momma”

“Yes baby?” she opened up her empty grey eyes.

“Where’s the baby?” she turned away. “Why isn’t the baby here?” still nothing came out of her pale lips. “Why can’t you ever have a baby? You know we all want one. Daddy does real bad. What if he leaves us Momma? What if-“

“ENOUGH” she yelled. “Enough.” She started scratching at her sides, leaving red streaks on her soft tender skin.

“You gotta try again Momma, maybe three will be your lucky number this time.” I got up and went to the window. The sun went to sleep below to horizon and Momma did too. I did that almost every day and Daddy started to worry cause Momma was starting to lose it. He came into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed.

“I can’t do this anymore,” whispered Momma.

“What do you mean baby? You just need some time is all. We can try again and if it doesn’t work we’ll keep trying and if it never happens I’ll still take care of you baby, I’ll still love you.”

“I’m not good enough for you, and you know it. If I can’t give you a baby, then what am I good for? You’ve wasted your time on me, you know it.”

“You have never been a waste of time. I don’t regret a single second spent with you. Not a single day where I don’t think you’re the woman I want to spend forever with, even if we don’t have kids.”

“Why are you lying…”

“What?”

“Why are you lying?” Her eyes turned red again, her nails dragging across her sides.

“Baby why would I be lying to you? I want to make you better, I want to help you.” She started shaking and crying. “WHY ARE YOU LYING? YOU’RE LYING, YOU’RE LYING” her legs kicked around the bed. Daddy tried to hold her down.

“I’m not lying I want to help, you’ll get better,” He hugged her as she stopped kicking and sobbed on his shoulder. She sobbed all night, wailing for the baby she’d never have. Wailing for the family she needed to feel whole, to have a purpose, to fulfill her home and her womb with children. She sobbed and sobbed crying herself to sleep.

The next morning, she did what she always did.  Laid in bed waiting for Daddy to bring up her breakfast. Daddy opened up the fridge, took out the box of eggs but this time the box was empty. The milk was empty, and so was everything else. He slowly went up to the bedroom and kissed Momma on the forehead.

“I’ll be back, we’re out of everything.” She nodded her head and kissed his cheek.

“I’ll miss you.” He paused and raised his eyebrow.

“Yeah, I’ll miss you too baby.” He took his coat and marched down the stairs. She was doing better today, or so he thought. He backed the car out of the driveway and headed towards the market.

“Momma, are you gonna do it now?” she glanced at the top shelf inside the closet. She started breathing heavy and took out a piece of paper.

“give me that pen over there.” I picked up a cold blue ink pen from the night stand and handed it to her. She wrote a few sentences and signed it with her name. “Why should I listen to you? You’re not even real.”

“Well, you’re the one who made me up in the first place. I’m just here to help. You’re the crazy one, not me. Nobody can see me. I don’t have to worry about being a failure to my husband.”

“Shut your mouth.”

“Why? You’re using me as a pathetic reason to leave. You’re pathetic. You didn’t even make one stinkin’ baby. Why are you even here? All you do is cry about how you’re not good enough. You shouldn’t even be here in the first place. If you can’t make a baby just leave. Don’t use me as an excuse for your dumb problems. I’m just telling you the truth.”

“I’m tired. I need rest.”

“You can rest when you’re dead. Here, I’ll help you.” I reached up to the top self and brought out a shoe box. I set it down in her lap right in front of her. “See? I’m so helpful. I’m good to you. I’m not a liar like he is. Here come on, take it out.” She got up. “There we go, see you’re doing great Momma.” Her cold hands lifted open the top of the box slowly. “Come on Momma, Daddy’s not coming home anyways. He just said he was going to the store so he could leave you here to starve. He doesn’t love you. I love you.” Her eyes started to water. She couldn’t hold in her heart ache. Daddy’s car pulled up, his footsteps entered the house as she loaded the bullet.

“I’m back!” His arms set down the heavy brown bags. “Honey I’m home now.” Momma let out more crying. He jogged up the stairs. “Baby are you okay?” The cold gun pressed up to her skull; tears running down her face. “I’m so sorry.”

Pop.

Lunch with Fred

By Julio Marcial

“Hello, thank you for calling California Lunchroom! This is James, how may I help you?” James waited for a response; there was no answer.

“…musta’ dialed the wrong number.” He muttered to himself as he hung up the phone. Next to the phone there was a photograph of him and a group of customers standing in front of his home, also known as the California Lunchroom; a self-permitted vendor restaurant. The sign itself was literally painted onto the front of the house, in bold snow-white flaking letters, outlined in black. James stared into the photo deeply; falling into nostalgia, vividly remembering the smell of fresh paint dripping from the wood panels that his bristled brush touched.

One of the men in the photo; Fred, James’ longtime friend was eating lunch with him in the dining room before the phone rang. James sat back down to join him.

“So Fred how was England? How did Karen like it?” James eagerly said as he poured himself a cup of coffee. Fred leaned back in his chair, twirling his glass of wine.
“Well, Nottingham has that vibe of New York City, you know? Tons of people jammed up in the middle of everything, really crowed, it had that fast pace motion, not like here in Cali, nice and slow, but it was beautiful… and Karen, she loved it. She’s actually still there…”

“…still there, really?!” James intervened.

“Really…” Fred put his wine glass down on the table.
“She kept talking about this place, almost redundantly. Every night before she’d go to bed, she’d look out the window tentatively, as if all her dreams where there, there in that city, not the home we were going to come back to. And, when she asked me if she could stay for a few months more or so, I said yes.” James had a hard time buying what Fred was saying, he knew that Karen was his wife and to just leave her there, made him worried.

“When are you going to go back for her?” He asked.
“This winter, and you know what James? You should come with me.”

Before James could respond to the offer, he realized that the wine in Fred’s glass appeared to be at a slant, unparallel with the table. Confused, he looked at his own cup of coffee, and it was fine, absolutely nothing abnormal about it. His eyes began to show his bewilderment.

“You okay?” Fred asked.
“You don’t have to go if you don’t have want too.” He said as he picked up his wine glass.
“Your wine!” James shouted.
“What? It’s delicious.” Fred exclaimed as he took a huge swig of what was left of the wine. James wanted to tell him, but suddenly the phone began to ring, again.

“Ex-Excuse me.” James stuttered over his perplexed thoughts, as he went into the kitchen to answer the phone.

“Hello, this is James…”
A disoriented voice diluted by static; interrupted him.

“…Ja-James”

“…Hello?! Who is this?! Stop calling here!”

Then shortly after, dial-tone echoed through his ear. He put the phone on the counter.

“Who was it?” Fred asked.

“I don’t know, probably some kids tryna’ prank me.” James said uneasily as he looked down at his watch to see what time it was, and then he noticed the minute hand moved counter-clockwise instead of forward. He took off his watch, and placed it on the counter, and tried to put the phone back on the hanger, but spotted in the photograph of his customers that Fred had completely vanished from it. In disbelief, his thoughts on the peculiar subtle events were now collectively racing together, turning his confusion into a deepening scare.

“F-f-fred…” James whispered fearfully.
“I’m right here!” Fred was no longer in the dining room, but directly behind James. Freighted, James turned around quickly, and tried to speak to him.

“How did…you…” But that same familiar disturbing voice began to call his name;

James…” whispering a thousand times, reverberating across the walls of the kitchen, into the dining room, down and out of the hallways, and back again, over and over and over.

“Do you hear that?!” James shouted. Fred leaned in closer;

“England is a beautiful place in the winter James, and Karen, made the right choice. And you should come back with us… I insist. ” He said with a grave tone.  Walking backward away from Fred, James kept hearing his name repeat to a constant.

“Stop! Make it stop!” He cried.

Then almost as if his cries had been granted, there was absolute silence. Not a sound could be heard. James accidentally dropped the phone, and knocked over some pans that were on the counter, as he stumbled backward, but still there was silence. Fred began to speak, however there was no volume escaping from his lips. James lost balance and fell onto the floor, and lied there, as his vision became a grainy, pixilated white blur. The tiles on the kitchen floor, stretched into an infinite horizon, the cabinets drifted away, all that was, became nothing. James tried to see into the distance, and he couldn’t, his sight had become just as disoriented as the voices that called him. In the further places of this white nothingness, the only shadow visible, was that of Fred’s, gesturing James to take his hand.

An erupting calling came from the whitening sky, it was the ringing of the phone, it grew louder and louder.

“No…” James cried to himself.

The ringing became a painful screeching sting in his ears,

“No! I will not answer!” He shouted in agony.

“This isn’t real, this isn’t real! It can’t… be…”

A faint object appeared in his hand, it was the phone, now ringing gently. He gripped it tightly, as warm tears trailed down his cheekbones.

James closed his eyes;

“Hello…” he whispered.

“James? Can you hear me?” Answered the same mysterious voice, except there was no distortion.

“Yes, I can.” He opened his eyes; he was no longer at his home, but in a hospital.

“I’m Doctor Thomas, you’ve just awaken from a five year coma.”
“No… your name’s Fred.”

James was so certain, but the familiar man shook his head no.

Truck Stop Blues

By Robin Habil

The clock strikes midnight. Alan Rockwell is only at his fourth beer, which is not acceptable for the man sitting across from him, Bill Holland. They order another round. As they wait for their drinks, Bill stares outside the window and admires the non-scenery. Nothing but impenetrable darkness that surrounds all corners of the dinky twenty-four hour truck stop diner they’re lodging in. It’s existentialism personified, as the night sky is decorated with glimmers of shinning light but so far away that not even they can break the blackness. Even the indifferent barren wasteland of nowhere cries out silence when faced with terrifying horror, but what Bill admires most about the thousand acre of empty space was the accessibility for an unmarked grave.

“Here are your guy’s drinks,” blunted out the waitress, breaking Bill’s gaze. “Thanks toots,” smiled Alan, flirting with the worn out blonde. She crunches her face for a smile and winks with her already half-opened eye. “No problem big guy,” expecting a nice tip at the end of the night. Alan watches her walk away with his trademark chip tooth grin on his face.

“I’ll tell you Bill,” his grin slowly disappears “sometimes, when all said is done like work, bills, cars, sports, politics—it just goes back to our love ones. They are what makes it worth while.” He pauses and takes a swig from his bottle. Bill smirks. “You see, I can’t stand this young generation—who—especially the young guys who go from girl to girl. It doesn’t make sense to me. They’re so ungrateful, they have someone who cares for them, loves them and they just fuck it all up.”

Bill watches his co-worker finish his beer. He was still not convinced, not of the amount of alcohol in his bloodstream and not of his hypocritical speech. In return, he manufactures a counterfeit smile and sympathetic nod while his leather-gloved hand grips the cold piece of metal in his coat pocket. The leather caressing the rough steel patch that was once the serial number that he filed the night before. Picking up his second beer, Bill drinks it slowly and methodically. “That’s a crying shame. I’m guessing you don’t have anyone special in your life?” asked Bill, after drinking only a teaspoon of his beer.

“No, not really,” slurred a buzzed Alan. Opening another bottle, “you see, I had a wife once—Casey. I met her in high school and she was practically the only girl who would talk to me. She was no cheerleader or anything but she gave me a chance y’know.” While Alan rambles on about his ex-wife Casey, Bill tunes out and contemplates about his own harlot.

Her name was Sonia Hesher before they married after graduating from the same university. He studied architecture while she studied drama and like all young professions who came fresh out of college in the middle of an economic downturn, they fell on hard times. Bill was layoff from the company he worked for and couldn’t find another, while Sonia learned the harsh realities of becoming an actress. Both crushed and desperate, Bill took up a job as a truck-driver while Sonia worked as a department store clerk. As the trucker grew weary of driving cross-country, he despised working long hours and like a chain gang prisoner, carried the burden of a large haul. Since the last time he saw Sonia was a week ago and during those caffeine-filled days and nights, his wife grew tired of the asshole costumers and perverted superiors who owned her. But her worst catharsis was that she had none, nothing to confine her but a cold empty room.

The blonde waitress who served them their drinks goes outside for a cigarette break. Bill’s eyes follow her jaded but elegant steps.  She smokes under the neon lights of the diner; the low-key lighting reminded him of an old black-and-white film he saw as a kid. He only remembers one thing about the film, the femme fatale. His hand clenches the loaded piece of metal. He squeezes it so hard; he imagines it going off like a hand grenade, taking out both him and his wasted adversary. There is only one thing on his mind, a burning question he keeps asking himself over and over. Why? Looking at Alan’s worn-out clothes that he had been wearing three days straight, his oily slick hair and chipped tooth. Why him? He notices Alan starting to tear up.

“I’m sorry Bill,” slurs out Alan, snot dripping from his left nostril. “I’m really—really—really sorry. Will you ever forgive me?”

“Forgive you for what,” asked Bill, raising an eyebrow.

“I fucked her…I fucked your wife.”  Alan sobs louder drawing attention from the diner staff. Bill takes a deep breath and sits back. It feels like he took a left hook to the gut, the revealed truth hurt him as much as the secret truth.

Alan grabs him by the collar and begs. “Please forgive me Bill! She called me a week ago and asked me to come over—she was upset.” Still in his coat pocket, Bill points the concealed firearm at his wife’s dirty secret’s stomach. He removes the safety and cocks it as Alan continues—

“I went over, she needed company—she needed someone to talk to. She got in trouble at work when she snapped at her supervisor who keeps taking pictures of her while she’s not looking. She tried reporting him but she couldn’t prove anything. So she told me this and wanted you so bad but she had to resort to me. You see—we’re both lonely Bill! Just lonely and desperate! She still loves you and she feels like shit for doing it—I feel like shit for doing it. Just forgive me Bill please!” Bill pushes the cold steel deeper into his belly. Alan’s eyes is so dead set on his judge’s mercy that he doesn’t feel his executioner’s wrath.

Bill’s finger shakes on the trigger. He takes heavy breaths; the alcohol of adrenaline starts to kick in. His lower lip shivers and eyes become watery. Gritting his teeth, he glares at Alan like a defenseless fetus and he the abortionist. A clothesline away and he will no longer exist. No one in the diner tried to stop the two, enjoying the dramatic scene, which gave them a temporary ticket of escape from their mundane routine. Alan bows his head to him like a king, “please Bill, I’ll do anything to make it up to you.”

Bill gives him a hard look. He studies his face when he looks up at him. What he saw were puffy blood-shot eyes, tears and mucus running down his cheek. The smell of alcohol in his breath and that was when Bill knew it was time. He searches for that condescending tooth grin smile as signal to pull the trigger but all that came out was a scowl of bulletproof humanity.

“You’re gonna make it up to me?” asked the abortionist to the fetus. “How?”

“I don’t know…whatever fits the crime,” the fetus mutters.

Bill takes a moment and finally steadies his shaking trigger finger.

“All right, fair enough,” proclaimed the surgeon of death.

His hands so sure and precise, he takes the loaded firearm and retracts it.

“You can pay for these drinks”, he ordered.

While driving Alan to his place, he sees him passed out in the passenger’s seat. Gripping the wheel even tighter, he examines his surroundings. It was perfectly dark and ironically dead, his 14-wheeler was the only vehicle on the road. The piece of metal has never been heavier still waiting in his coat pocket. The driver shakes his head franticly and pulls over to the side of the road. He turns off the engine, his passenger still asleep. An intense glare is plastered on the emotionless stare of the driver. He slowly puts his hand into his coat pocket. They were alone surrounded by nothingness; it was a surreal dream turn into a nightmare. Suddenly, Bill’s peripherals catches something on the dashboard, he turns and spots the picture of his wife. He looks into the picture: her hazel-brown eyes, her shiny brown hair that flows down her shoulders and small dimples attached to a chastise smile. He smiles back. Without a blink he takes his hand out of his coat pocket and turns on the engine.

Bill drops the deadweight he called Alan at his place. He gives him one last look, how his body was laid out on the doorstep resembled a human outline of a crime scene. He chuckles at the idea and drives off.

He quietly sneaks into the bedroom of his small apartment home where Sonia slumbers under white sheets. She doesn’t hear him come in. She doesn’t feel his presence on the opposite side of the bed.  Bill watches her sleep, pondering the content look on her face as he waits for her to awake.

3 responses to “Fiction

  1. Angel Marie

    Lot of great stories. I really like, Ghost Jelly. Will have to come back a.d read some more.

  2. Melissa

    Love Rachel Garcia’s “Full Mother Moon” = Beautiful and chilling!

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