Hannah Cajandig-Taylor resides in the Upper Peninsula, where she is an MFA Candidate at Northern Michigan University and an Associate Editor for Passages North. Her prose and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Gordon Square Review, Drunk Monkeys, Third Point Press, Coffin Bell, and Sidereal Magazine, among others. She has a bike named Stella and enjoys murder documentaries.
On your eighth birthday, long before you were in love with weather, your dad took you to Big Surf Waterpark because your parents had just gotten a divorce, and you found out on the third of July, which you used to recognize as an anti-holiday, but now you just don’t recognize at all. You slouched in a bloated inner-tube, floating down a lukewarm lazy river, clouds popcorning in the humid sky. You were afraid of the tallest flume, the yellow painted tunnel in which your body would twist and turn before being dropped into a deep pool, and only took the ride to prove yourself wrong—that your fear would not pull you under with it.
When you parents sold the house you grew up in, you cried about the real estate agent’s insistence on painting over the abstractly ugly bathroom wall. One evening, you scratched out a four page essay with poorly drawn graphics that defended said bathroom wall. Said you saw other worlds in it. Saw the head of a wolf. A dancing voodoo doll. A boat with paper sails.
Nobody else saw your worlds.
You were anxious. Had trouble adjusting. Couldn’t keep track of homework assignments. Cried for three hours in the fifth grade because you forgot your backpack at home and had a meltdown in the bathroom. Moved into a sun-colored house. Called your mom when she was at work because the landscapers across the street looked like bad people, and you were sure they were going to break into your house, and nobody else saw that world either, because they weren’t bad people and your brain was in overdrive and it was sad and you were doing the best that you could.
Tornado sirens gave you panic attacks. Panic attacks gave you panic attacks. Your sister’s boyfriend hung himself. A boy touched you and it was okay. You were a storm warning, breaking however you could. During freshman year of college, you almost failed out halfway through spring semester because you were scared of touching doorknobs because what if you got ebola and died and what if that spot on your upper leg was cancer and what if you have head lice and what if there is no world after this one is over. That year, you saw a psychiatrist. Started taking medication. Finally lost your virginity. Wanted to spill your soul to somebody. Your parents were married to different people.
You wrote a poem about stratus clouds and didn’t hate the thunder of your own voice. Began jotting down birthdays in your planner. Broke up with your high school boyfriend. Adopted a dog. Got sick after pounding a red solo cup of cheap vodka in your best friend’s living room. Studied the names of your favorite constellations. Saw lions and planets in the unclaimed stars.
The falling sky loved you back. Watched you write letters to your eight year old self. Wept when you wept. You were alive for another birthday, and when you finally got an actual night’s sleep for the first time in weeks, you nightmared over water slides and wind storms and fireflies and airplanes and dark wine and a girl who might have been you, but you still can’t remember her face.
Marisa Crane is a queer writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Wigleaf Top 50, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, Our Debatable Bodies (Animal Heart Press, 2019). Originally from Allentown, PA, she currently lives in San Diego with her wife.
Outside The Joint, I bent down to pet a stray cat that looked like a moldy loaf of bread, which is what I told the cat right before it hissed in my face. Rank said hurry, we’ve got to keep moving and did I know that the feline had herpes? When we made it a few blocks away he pulled a bottle of Cholula out of his jacket pocket and smiled this cheesy smile. I hated him not because he stole hot sauce from restaurants but because he didn’t trust me enough to tell me in advance. I wanted to be in on the plotting and execution. Stealing was a family tradition. My dad stole my other dad from a woman and my brother stole years from my sister’s life, only he didn’t call it stealing, he called it brotherly love. I once spent an entire year shoplifting tiny spoons from antique stores to remind myself that I could follow through on something—I wasn’t a goldfish like my ex-girlfriend, Caroline, had suggested when I quit my fifth job in three months.
How many parent’s lives have been disrupted by a child winning a goldfish at a school festival? My dads accidentally killed Mr. Fishy Fish when they replaced the murky brown tank water with clean water. Mr. Fishy Fish wasn’t the first being to ever die from shock but he was the first that I knew of, which made my suffering feel unique. My brother destroyed the cardboard tombstone I arranged in the front yard then we smoked Black & Milds in the basement and found different household products to huff. He said sorry in the same silky voice that he usually reserved for my sister.
Back at the apartment I opened the refrigerator and changed my clothes behind it while Rank stuck his thin, squirrelly tongue in the peanut butter jar. Someone had planted cameras in my apartment while I was at work. I knew this because I began receiving strange texts from an unknown number. They didn’t exactly come out and say they’d planted cameras, but the texts were way too specific to be a coincidence. How did this person know I had run out of blue cheese? What gave them the right to comment on my numerous blackhead extraction tools? How did they know where to find my missing vibrator? Why did they find joy in making fun of my nighttime retainer?
I hadn’t the faintest idea as to who was watching me. They gave me a different name every time I asked. All I knew was that there were cameras and that I’d much prefer that there weren’t any cameras. I considered moving, but I feared that if I did then I’d be forced to face the fact that it wasn’t the cameras that were holding me back.
“You think it was the delivery man?” asked Rank, staring at a spot on the kitchen ceiling where there was most definitely not a camera.
It was clear that he didn’t believe me but instead of telling me that he was concerned about my mental health, he’d decided to play along with my alleged delusion. He didn’t even trust me with my own brain. No doubt he thought the text messages were a part of some elaborate scheme I was pulling, despite the fact that I was famously lazy; putting a fitted sheet on the bed required enough exertion that it met my work quota for the entire week.
The problem was that now that I’d let Rank in, I didn’t know how to get rid of him. Getting rid of people I loved was easy—I did that all the time—but people I hated? I stuck to them like chewed-up gum on the bottom of a middle school desk.
“Leave Benji out of this,” I said and he laughed a graceless laugh.
“You would have frozen if I’d told you, you know you would have,” said Rank, running his hands through his blonde locks, probably proud as all hell that he picked up on my irritation about the hot sauce. I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a humble empath. There is only a person who has read a few self-help articles they found on their Facebook feed and decided to abuse you with them.
Benji was the one who delivered my deep fryer every other week. My three friends and I shared custody of a deep fryer and Benji was decent enough to get it where it needed to go every Monday. I usually rewarded him with deep-fried crickets, only I told him they were carrots.
“I can do so many courageous things with this hot sauce,” said Rank.
“I wish you’d use that courage to describe me in five words,” I said.
He huffed and placed his prize in line with all the other hot sauces he’d stolen when I wasn’t looking. He was quiet for a while then raised his fist and counted the words on his fingers as he spoke.
“Needs a pair of stilts,” he said, triumphantly.
“What the hell. I’m taller than Mugsy Bogues,” I said, reciting what I knew from my childhood spent watching Space Jam on repeat.
“Alexa, how tall is Mugsy Bogues?” Rank shouted at the robot living in our house.
“How many packs of Huggies would you like?” Alexa responded. I thought I detected a hint of sass in her voice. I gave her an air high-five then quickly shielded my face from the camera in the cabinet. Two seconds later I received a text that said, “Dump his ass.” Then another: “Do me a favor and ask Alexa if she’d like to be my date to a work party.”
I’d initially been attracted to Rank because of his sideburns. Actually, that’s a lie—the reason we fucked in his car outside Alibi that Sunday afternoon was because he’d told me he had a statue of himself in his backyard. I’d thought, great, nothing to worry about here, while his black leather seats burned my ass cheeks. When he was about to come he begged me to call him an emperor and instead I gripped his butt and told him he was about to have a successor, clenching my vagina muscles to slurp the sperm up.
“That’s not funny,” he said, pulling out after a brief struggle.
That was when I noticed the tattoo across his collarbone that said: “Done With Everyone.”
On my walk home I called my dads and told them I finally met someone I deserved. They had me on speakerphone so everyone at their dinner party learned that I thought I deserved someone who was considering switching his major to Meme Studies. “A lucrative business” was what Rank had called it. My brother was back in prison so I thankfully didn’t have to pretend to care about his nonexistent pro tennis career. Dad said he was happy for me and Papa told me we would discuss this later, which meant he’d make the two-hour drive just to sit in my parking lot and forget about the getting out of the car and seeing me part.
Rank disappeared into the bedroom and returned with Braxton, his stuffed koala. He held Braxton next to his cheek and took a selfie with as many of the hot sauces as he could squeeze into the frame. This is what I was living with. I swallowed hard, my stomach threatening to rebel. He looked at me with this peculiar hopeful look. It took me a second, but I knew that look. That was the look that said, In spite of everything, do you still love me?
A text from the unknown number: “Call me basic, but Frank’s Red Hot is my shit.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I leaned over and vomited in the sink all over my collection of tiny spoons. Hovering there for a while, I wondered if that was it or if more parts of me wanted to move from the inside to the outside. My sister’s save-the-date glared at me from atop a pile of bills and circulars. She was smiling an easy, J.C. Penny smile at her fiancé, a vanilla dud with disturbingly good posture. I was dizzy and terrified. To categorize this terror: I wondered, why does no one look at each other in real life the way they do in engagement photos? What exactly are they looking at anyway? Promise? Security? Attachment? If I didn’t do something and fast, I would wind up in one of those photos—me, Rank, and Braxton.
“You okay, babe?” said Rank, coming up behind me and rubbing my upper back.
His touch felt slimy, like that of a costumed character at Disney World.
The second time we fucked he came in my belly button and said, “Sometimes I’m too in love with you to speak.”
His mouth tasted like the Eucharist.
I started to cry because I loved him too and it wasn’t fair, having to love someone.
The next day the cameras appeared and I was too embarrassed to find out what happens in the final season of Vampire Diaries. The last thing I needed was this stranger’s input.
That was three years ago. Sometimes it feels like it all happened to someone else.
I wiped my mouth with a marinara-stained kitchen towel. The numbness in my face crept down my spine and into my arms. I took one last look at Rank’s wood-chipped face, grabbed a six-pack of hard cider, and ran out of the house. If he said anything, I didn’t hear it. I plopped down in the grass and opened a cider, spilling all over my lap. Then I opened another. Then another. The unknown number texted me asking me where I’d run off to. “Your man is building a fort,” the stranger said. “Why didn’t you ever think of that?” I sent them the emoji of a levitating man then chucked my phone in the bushes.
A woman in overalls was walking her black and tan wiener dog around the courtyard and cheering every time he stopped walking to point at something with his front paw.
“We’re so evolved,” she cooed, taking a video.
“What’s he pointing at?” I asked from my position in the grass. Legs spread wide, welcoming the world in.
“Dachshunds point when they’re hunting. It means they’ve found something,” she explained.
Her eyes looked spooked.
“Yeah but like, what did he find?” I said.
“Hell if I know, lady,” she said, tugging on the dog's leash so he’d follow her to safety.
I jumped to my feet and caught up with them. I didn’t like being called lady, and I found it rather rude that she didn’t care what I liked. “It just doesn’t occur to people,” Rank had once said, defending an antique store employee who’d called me “girl,” as in “Hey, girl,” when I’d entered the store. That was the first place I ever stole a tiny spoon from.
“Do you mind?” I said, ripping the leash from her hand. She opened her mouth as if she might scream but she didn’t.
The dog and I took off running down the street and into the woods. Soon we could no longer hear the highway traffic. The night fell. The moon spilled into my hair. I followed him wherever he wanted to go. I trusted that he knew what was best for us.
The third time Rank and I fucked, I said, “Let’s run away somewhere,” and he said, “What would we do that for? Europe has even more McDonald’s than here.”
The dog and I walked for years and years, his nose pressed to the ground and long brown tail curled in a U. My feet bled. My knees gave out. My spine folded in on itself. And still, the fearlessness of this new world stuck to my clothes like burs.
He stopped to point at trees and squirrels and holes and owls and blue jays and condoms, both used and unused, and beer bottles and wine labels and cigarette butts and diary entries and raw chicken and cardboard boxes and scrap metal and cut-up credit cards and old sneakers but no tiny spoons. He pointed to everything he could. The world was full of things no one wanted anymore.
I had a birthday every day. And every day I asked the dog, “Did you remember to look up today?”
He did, was his answer every time. Then he’d point in the direction of my family and whimper. I wondered what they were stealing now. If it counted as stealing when they were still unhappy.
The last time Rank and I fucked, I didn’t make a single sound. I tried to pretend that I was the statue in his backyard. Eventually, I said, “Call me emperor, bitch.”
He raised his fist like he was going to hit me but at the last second, he punched the pillow beside my head. That type of disappointment excited me.
He said, “You didn’t invent depression, you know. Your parents and your parents’ parents had it too, only they called it laziness or like, the flu.”
Today I turn 10,000 years old.
I lean on a burnt tree, brushing its white flaky bark.
“Why are dead trees so beautiful?” I ask the dog, who is busy digging a hole at its base.
I kiss the dead tree until my lips bleed. Then I kiss it some more. It’s the only thing I can think to do.
The dog follows the trail of something, sniffing loudly and aggressively as he zigzags. He disappears into a thicket of trees then returns with a red wig covered in spider webs. He drops it in front of me and grins a stupid grin that reminds me of Rank. I put it on and sing myself a song that has neither the word “happy” nor the word “birthday” in it.
I feel so alive I am almost certain I must be dead.
After I blow out my candles, the dog lifts his stumpy little leg and for the first time in 10,000 years, points directly at me.
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Bruce Owens Grimm- Inventory of a Haunted House, No. 3
Jordan E. McNeil- What i Mean When i Say Empath
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