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The Flight of the Yellowjacket

I

Cass’s violin strings resonated. Tasting the anticipation building thick on her tongue like honey, she cleared her throat and checked her posture. With gentleness, she wielded her bow up and across her body. Her touch lighter than a breeze buzzed across the strings. She tilted her head as she adjusted her grip on the bow. The knobs creaked as she adjusted the tuning. Sound shook her shoulder and discharged a thrill into the pit of her stomach. 

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra sat behind her, and she looked out across the crowd. Her squinting eyes searched past the stage lights. Her eyes settled on an empty seat. A small white reservation sign sat there, undisturbed. She frowned and cleared her throat again, ripping her eyes away. Cass felt a slight lift in her stomach.

The second violin smiled at her, politely waiting for Cass to take the lead. Her fingers perfectly positioned over the strings to begin their plucking.

The crowd was now completely silent and leaned forward, waiting for the spell to begin. The public trained all their attention on the conductor. The conductor was still lower than the orchestra, dressed in all black and standing on a podium. He held his wand up.

Cass drew her bow with the first dip of the conductor’s wand. The silence shattered. “The Flight of the Bumblebee” broke over the silent crowd. 

As she played, her heart beat fast, and with every pump through her veins, she felt more completely herself. In the intense lights of the stage, she was more authentic, more perfect than she ever felt off of the stage. Every second of this song was all her. The tempo barely tamed the music. It extended past the smooth fabric of her skin and lifted above everyone’s heads, every darkness and every light contained within her visible. Her soul undulated under the power of the tight turns of note and measure.

When the song subsided, and the rest of the orchestra shifted in their seat, all of them leafed through their music to the next song. Cass looked again at the empty seat in the crowd, and after a minor deflation, she looked at the second violin. Cass couldn’t help but share her smile with the second violin beamed at her.

After the performance, Cass put away her violin in its soft velvet bed in her case. Loud shouting echoed in the hallways, now empty of the attendees. She was just buttoning up her coat as her orchestra-mates shouted to her. ”Cass!” They poured into the room, surrounding her.

“Hey, guys.” Cass stifled a yawn and forced a small smile.

The second violin bounced toward her, “Fantastic job tonight. Miss Cass Touchstone, I think that was the best you’ve ever played! Why don’t you join us for a drink? Let’s celebrate the last concert of the year!”

Cass smiled and put on her pedestrian shoes, white new balances. “Oh, not tonight. You all go ahead and have a drink for me.”

“Why not?” the second violin probed.

“I’ve got an early start tomorrow. See you at practice on Monday.” Cass took a step toward the door, skirting around the edges of her orchestra mates.

“Well, alright. We’ll miss you. Drinks some other time, though, right?” The second violin peered into her face, searching for something. 

“Yeah. See you.” Cass waved and exited. The cold winter air hit her face as she braved the winter Milwaukee air. 

As she walked, her stomach churned. Her mind was obsessing, as usual, why hadn’t he come? He had said he would come to see her last performance of the year. He had promised her would come. Cass bit and picked at the sides of her nails. She stopped picking to take out her car keys and light up the ignition. The freezing steering wheel burned her palms, and she winced. Shivers racked her body as she frantically smacked the heater, willing her engine to warm.

As she turned the wheel onto 7th street, she felt something in her palm snag in the wheel’s groves. She squinted through the deep dark. The red stoplight illuminated her palm. There was a hard bump below her ring finger on her palm. She furrowed her brow and pressed on it. There was a sharp sting, and she winced. Pursing her lips into a frown, she sighed, thinking about the last time she had her previous check-up, almost more than a year ago. Her day job as a line cook at a small diner didn’t give her healthcare benefits, not that the COVID-19 Pandemic was any help getting her foot into the door as an uninsured person.

II

When she got home, Jasper was already asleep in bed. He was breathing softly. 

Cass pushed down the urge to flip on the light and flip out on him. The words built in her chest. She counted in common time. As quietly as she could, she put her things away, got ready for bed, and then crawled in. She breathed in his scent.

He groaned and pulled her closer. He kissed her on the forehead. “Hey, Cass.”

“Hey.” Cass’s lips pulled to the side. 

“How did it go?”

“Good.” She felt the pillow lining. “I missed you.” She whispered.

He pulled her closer. “I missed you too.”

“I love you.” Then why didn’t you come? I bought your ticket. I left it for you. I texted you twice about the time and the address. You promised you would come. It was the last day in over a year I would play again.

“I love you too.” He sighed into her hair. After a slow 60 seconds, he began snoring softly.

She pushed down her irritation. She wouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t say anything. She couldn’t say anything that would make him upset with her. How could she ever stay mad at him? He had his own life, and of course, she had to respect that.

She woke up before him. Her body protested when she stood, cracking at her knees and her neck. She smoothed her hair into a ponytail and began making breakfast for the two of them. When he walked out, he pushed his hair out of his brown eyes and smiled, his two dimples showing off. 

She stirred the eggs in the pan as he pressed himself into her and kissed her neck. She stiffened at first but then melted into him, lifting a hand and rubbing the stubble on his cheek. She giggled, feeling slack. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. It smells good.”

“Thanks, baby.” She looked at the empty Mr. Coffee in the corner of the room. If he didn’t come to my show, what was he doing? The question was on the tip of her tongue. 

He sat down, watching her in an almost predatory way, that intense look in his eyes. God, how she loved that look. 

She swallowed the question with a smile and then left the bacon on low heat to start the coffee. She grabbed two mismatched plates and two mismatched coffee mugs. “Would you like some water, baby?”

“Yes, please.”

She smiled at him and set the table, grabbing silverware and getting a water glass for Jasper. The light from the window bent inside of the glass. A small vortex, a hurricane, spun in her hands. She placed the glass in front of him and moved to get to the bacon.

“Could I have some ice?” He smiled at her, grabbing her hand.

“Of course, baby.” She grabbed his water glass and put a couple of ice cubes in it. She placed it in front of him.

“Thank you.” He retook her hands and gave her a gentle kiss on the back of her hand. 

She smiled. She felt the same tiny pinch in her skin as last night. The tight twist set her on edge. A soft buzzing sound began, so she rubbed the front of her ear as if she was trying to get rid of trapped water, waiting for the hot melting of release that didn’t come.

She placed his breakfast in front of him, filled his coffee cup and then filled her plate, and finally sat down. 

“Thanks for breakfast, baby.” He smiled at her and then stood up.

“Where are you going?” Cass stared over her full plate at his empty one, which had nothing left but crumbs on it.

“I’ve got a game with the guys.” He gestured into the other room, where a blue light emanated from his desktop computer.

“Oh.”

“I’m already late. Catch you later?”

“Sure.” She smiled. “I’ll just clean up.”

He brightened. “You’re the best.” He kissed her forehead.

She watched him leave. Then, she was alone in the kitchen. Her breakfast was still half-eaten. She finished it and downed the rest of her coffee. 

The sound of his computer booted up in the other room as she reran the faucet, this time, she watched the water churn and disappear down the drain. The buzzing sound in her ears drowned out anything from Jasper’s room.

Plugging the drain, she put the dishes in the sink and squeezed the blue dishwashing liquid. It made streaks until the churning water obscured the bottom of the sink with suds. She knocked Jasper’s water glass over as she was washing the dishes. With a heart-stopping crash, it broke. She picked up the shattered pieces and then cut herself accidentally.

“Shit.” She sighed and washed the tiny wound.

She looked over at the empty doorway. Jasper had his giant headset on. He hadn’t even noticed the disturbance.

 She rubbed her hands and saw another small bump crest her muscle and then disappear in her left wrist. She furrowed her brow and felt along the veins and bone and sinew of her wrist. Wincing, she felt a sharp pain again, just like last night. Her fingers searching over her skin, she tried to find it again, feeling over where the bump had appeared. It had already gone. She shook her head as if it would make her forget her phantom pains and then bandaged her cut finger. She took care of the broken glass, placing it carefully into a paper bag. She took her coat off of its hook and threw a hat on and a pair of brown boots. She took the paper bag filled with glass outside to the recycling with a careful heft.

III

When the sun touched her face, her brain became the fizz in a freshly opened soda bottle. The shadows had just begun to shorten, it being close to noon. She started walking despite the cold, sliding slightly on the ice on the sidewalks and sidestepping the puddles that trickled from the slush on this unseasonably warm winter day. She placed one foot in front of the other and didn’t stop until she got to a park. 

The sun was in the center of the sky by then. The trees around her waved, and she heard the chirping of birds. The sound of traffic echoed in the background. The wind as always in Milwaukee cut through the fabric of her coat she had hurriedly tossed on. But away from the shadows and in the sun.

There was a homeless man, covered in blankets, to her left, despite it being warm for the season. His blankets bunched up around him and had quarter-sized holes in the fabric. Beside him was a ripped backpack. An empty water bottle sat at his feet. He coughed, and Cass maintained a wide berth.

After taking a couple of steps, she heard a buzzing sound. She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked up. This time, it wasn’t in her head.

A small papery wasp nest hung directly above her. The wiggling, thin-waisted bodies of the wasps flew in and out of the brown nest—what a strange way of moving they had. Every jerk of their legs and wings was unapologetic in their carnivorous movements. She felt a pinch on the back of her left hand so extreme she gasped a little. She looked down at her hand.

A series of bumps surfaced and disappeared like tiny whales cresting an ocean wave. Loud shouting disrupted Cass’s focus on her shifting skin. 

A group of small boys ran by. “Hey, look at that!” One of the taller ones shouted and stopped short. He bent down and picked up a rock. The taller boy pitched the rock at the wasp’s nest and missed it, narrowly. The rest of the boys laughed and began pelting the nest with rocks.

The homeless man coughed again. He glared at the boys. “What do you think you are doing? Stop!” 

“Shut up, you stupid old man!” The boys pointed their rocks toward him. As the rocks hit him, he stumbled back. He threw up his hands to protect his face. 

Cass opened her mouth to say something, anything. She couldn’t hear anything over the loud buzzing. Her skin pinched in more and more places, moving away from her hands and wrists into her soft belly and thighs. Cass said nothing but balled her fists up. The wasps buzzed more and more angrily.

They threw rock after rock. The gray, salt-stained missiles sailed above the tree branches. As the rocks rocketed, she heard a soft papery rustle.

The wasp nest floated to the ground by the homeless man’s feet. The wasps, now angrily buzzing, left their destroyed home. They stormed out in a cloud and surrounded the homeless man. They stabbed their sharp stings into his face and hands. He cried out in pain and sat up like a shot. He popped up from his position and limped away from the nest. Pained groans were released from him. He tripped over one of the rocks scattered around the sidewalk. With a sharp crunch, his groans turned into screams of pain.

All the breath had left Cass’s lungs. Cass watched this all happen, her hand coving her mouth. 

She barely registered it when the wasps went after the boys. They screeched and tore away from the park, leaving the limping man in the cloud of wasps.

The homeless man began wheezing. His face became red and his eyes puffy. With difficulty, he looked up at Cass. “Call 911.” The buzzing sound became a high-pitched whining.

She immediately shoved her hand in her pocket and drew out her phone, her fingers shaking as she dialed the emergency number. By the time the ambulance had come, the homeless man’s face was unrecognizable. They wheeled him into the ambulance, and the cold came back. She stayed until the shadows were long again, the police taking her statement. 

“Can you hear that?” She stared at the empty wasp nest on the ground.

The cop looked at her strangely. “Hear what?’

“Oh, nothing. I think it’s just the traffic.”

“I see.”

“Will he be okay?”

“I can’t say for sure.”

It was as if her skin wasn’t her skin anymore. Her body pinched and plucked and stung with every new thought. She could’ve prevented this. The words were right there on the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t do anything. She couldn’t even stop boys from destroying that wasp nest. She did nothing to stop them from hurting the homeless man. All she did was call 911, and by then, it was too late.

She walked home. She looked behind her shoulder as if the wasps would still be after her. The door clicked behind her as Cass got home. The sun had set, and something had shifted inside of Cass.

She picked up her phone and found the second violin’s contact. She pressed the button, and the harsh ringing sounded. 

“Cass?”

“Hey Marsha, are you free tonight?”

“Yeah! I mean, yes, I am free tonight. What were you thinking?”

“Let’s get that drink.”

IV

“Have you ever been here before? Marsha asked.

“No, never.” Cass forced a smile.

“Let’s get a table first.”

“No, let’s start with drinks.”

Marsha looked up in surprise. “Really?”

“What? Do you not want me to come with you?”

“I can get them.”

“I’ll come too.”

Marsha laughed and beamed at Cass, “No, of course, it’s just that I’ve never pegged you as the drinking type.”

The music was deafening in the bar, but at least she didn’t hear the buzzing anymore.

“What would you like?” The bartender asked

“I’d like anything with honey and tequila.”

“The honey bee it is.”

Cass smiled tightly, “Thanks.”

“So, what did you do today?” Marsha asked. 

“I-” Her voice caught in her throat. “It was a tough day today.”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“No, not today.” Cass felt the buzzing begin again. “Actually, could we get a couple of shots.”

“Oooh, that bad, huh?” Marsha shrugged. “Fair enough.” She turned her attention to the bartender. “Two-shots, please.”

Cass cleared her throat. “Each.” Her voice was clear above the buzzing noise.

Marsha laughed and nodded. “We’re ubering home tonight!” She cheered as the bartender poured their shots.

Cass cheered with Marsha and took the two shots one after the other, hot bile rising in her throat as she pushed down the cheap liquor. She forced it down. After that, she felt warmer. The bar was crowded and loud with conversation, and Kendrick Lamar’s Humble blasted. It was as if she had been placed there by someone else.

V

Jasper was still playing video games. He didn’t look up when she walked in and sat on the couch. She stared at the takeout boxes next to him.

“You know how it’s funny. I’ve noticed that you never eat any food in the fridge unless it’s served to you. Or delivered or served at a restaurant.”

“What?” He looked at her. 

“You never eat unless someone gives it to you already prepared.”

“What are you talking about?” He wrinkles his nose and pops one massive headphone to the side.

“You’ve never noticed that?”

“No,” He said and turned off his game.

“If there are ever any leftovers, you don’t eat them unless I heat them for you. You never cook any food for yourself. If food is your responsibility for the day, we always eat out.”

“Yeah, so? I’m not a good cook.”

“That’s just an excuse.”

He laughed. “I think you’re overthinking this.”

Cass laughed too, but her voice was high-pitch, nearly hysterical. Her face felt hot from the tequila. “Yeah, you are probably right.” Another bump raised on her thigh this time. She cleared her throat and pulled the blanket over her legs. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That buzzing sound.”

“You’re probably just practicing too much.”

“I have to practice, Jasper.”

“I know that.”

“Do you, Jasper?” She stood now, and she flinched as she heard her voice come out in a yell. “We’ve been dating almost two years now, and you’ve never been to a single one of my concerts.”

“I-”

“And you never, never try to meet my needs. I deserve more. I deserve better.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“No, I’m not. You’re being a total jerk right now.”

“Listen, your drunk. Let me get you a glass of water, and hopefully, that will help you to not be such a bitch.”

Cass’s jaw dropped. “I know you didn’t just say that to me.” She felt her skin pinch.

He held up his hands and shrugged. 

Her eyes stopped working. She wasn’t sure if they were open or closed. All she could hear was the rushing of blood in her ears and that buzzing. That BUZZING. The next she could see was the tile on the bathroom floor. The door rattled behind her. She had locked it and slid to the floor.

“Cass, get a hold of yourself and come out of the bathroom.”

Cass didn’t answer and cowered on the floor. There was something inside of her. Somethings. Cass had bumps underneath her skin. She scratched and picked at her skin. Her throat was sore, and she realized she had been screaming.

She tried to shrug the bumps off, but they had collected upon her like flowers in the spring. Every time she bent over, she felt the hard penny-sized things underneath her flesh. As we age, when you feel those sorts of things become your body as your frail, you will live until after tomorrow (how arrogant we are sometimes) that something like god will ever exist in our lives. 

You ever wonder, and that then you think, you, end up wondering too much, and that if you had wondered enough yet to cover every question regarding everything. You would like nothing more than a dry blanket and maybe a cool one on your forehead as you think too much and then get overstimulated and down on yourself. There is nothing wrong with experiencing everything. It’s just that. You know. That thing. What’s wrong with me and everyone else I am thinking of? It’s that we are always the good guys, the person who is setting out the rights like it’s a table, and we are all ready for dinner. It’s insane sometimes (And I wonder if I am not just simply delirious too I had never known doubt and then relief and anxiety and then death and that BUZZING.

“No,” Cass heard her voice pitch into a screech. Oh god, now I really sound like a psycho, she thought. “I told you to leave me alone. Leave me alone.”

Cass looked closer at her fingernail. Where she had ripped off a strip of skin beside her fingernail. Blood collected at its surface, and she saw, to her horror. A pair of tiny shimmering wings flutter up from it. All sounds were gone except for a high-pitched buzzing sound close to her ears. Actually, in her ears. The wings flapped once, and a leg appeared and then another, and then a slim-waisted wasp removed itself from her flesh. 

One after another, they rushed out from her blood. They formed a cloud above her but did not sting her. All fear left her.

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Quarterlife Crisis

INT. APARTMENT KITCHEN – 9AM

Alexis grabs her purse from the chair and puts it on. Alexis adjusts her hair in the mirror on the fridge. She grabs a diet coke, cracking it open and kicking it back with great satisfaction. We see her college diploma, framed on the wall reading 2019 graduation date. She grabs her keys. Her mismatched socked feet match themselves with a couple of patent black slip-on. As she grabs the door handle, she notices a pair of bright red high heels in the corner of the room. 

EXT. APARTMENT PAVILLION – 9AM

You hear her feet more than you see them. The click and open of the door and the slam as it closes are much louder than the blackbirds loitering. The pavilion is beautiful with tall overhands and short and tall but always skinny vines leading up to the sky. A small water fountain bubbled in the center.

TITLE QUARTER-LIFE CRISIS text follows Alexis as she crosses from the left side of the screen to the right. The bubbling of the main fountain and birds in the background.

EXT. OUTSIDE OF APARTMENT BUILDING – 9AM

Alexis’s phone rings and Alexis moves around her diet coke to get to the ringing and glowing thing in her purse, but as she has her entire left forearm bandaged, her movement is limited. She drops her keys in her left pocket and fishes out her phone. 

Hey what’s up… yep, yep, I’m driving, 5 min away. .. No, yeah I am not still at my apartment.. Is there parking at this thing? Oh Okay. I said OH OKAY. See yah.

Hearing a soft tinkle she looks down and sees that a quarter from her purse had landed perfectly on its side at her feet. 

She leans down to inspect closer.

It wobbles a bit, setting Alexis’s teeth forward, but it doesn’t lose its delicate one/sixteenth of a balance. Still, on its side, the quarter begins to roll away. 

Without hesitation. Alexis walks forward and follows it into the neighborhood, her friend she had just hung up on and the destination that she was going to be late to, completely forgotten. 

Dogs barking, a biker swerves to avoid hitting Alexis on the intersection of Park Street and Indiana Street. 

Alexis walks out into the traffic on Dunlavy Street and Indiana street, where a car stops short of hitting her. Just beyond the road and a little past the bend, The quarter rolls over the hill and into the gutter. 

Having caught up with it, she picks the quarter up, brushing off the dirt. She looks up from her quarter and sees a mural of a quarter on the wall of the convenience store.

She looks at her quarter, and then she looks at the mural, and the story has come full circle, she smiles.

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Crucifix

I

A young receptionist yawned as the phone rang behind her. The receiver sat black and blocky. She released it and put it up to her ear with a soft click. Its wire tangle of tight spirals clacked on the desk. 

“This is the Milwaukee Art Museum. My name is Natalie Beck. How can I help you?” 

“***9**wnk…” 

“I’m sorry, one second, I can’t understand you.” Natalie fiddled with the wires.

“Hello? When do you close?”

“Hello?”

“Hello, when do you close?” The voice repeated.

“9 PM.” 

“What time is it now?”

“8:30 PM.”

“Thank you.”

The receiver sent out the dial tone. She gazed at it and shrugged. “They hung up.” She replaced it and turned to her computer. 

Her cell phone buzzed. Her fingers flew to its off button, but she couldn’t resist a glance at her phone screen.

It was her dad sending her photos of their boat outing last week. She stashed it in her purse. As she plopped it on the desk, a handle broke. She wrinkled her nose at the shabby thing and wondered what time H&M opened the next day—twirling and untwirling the now detached strap of her purse around her fingers.

An icon popped up on her computer. Tossing the strap in the garbage, she scrolled the mouse wheel up and down and pressed print. She looked over the document, a dialog box appeared. Refill PrintCartiage2. 

The door opened. 

A man with a medical facemask, hat, and sunglasses stepped over the threshold. He took long strides. He placed his hands on the desk and cleared his throat.

 Natalie looked up at him and flashed him a smile. “Hello sir, how are you doing today?”

“One ticket, please.”

“Sure. I would like to inform you. The museum is closing in about nine minutes.” Natalie smiled. 

“I am aware.”

“The security guards will give you the heads up and will close up after you.”

“Thank you.”

 With a satisfying rip, she released it from the black printer. “Here you are,” She drew back a bit. A Clorox wipe canister sat next to her. 

He nodded and took his ticket. Saying nothing, he bent the cardstock. Then he turned to stalk off into the museum. 

She threw on her cardigan to guard against the early spring air. It was the nicest one her mother had given her last Christmas, a soft pink cashmere. Humming a melody by the Supremes and with a small spring, she stood from her chair. Double-checking over her workstation, she threw on her beanie and gripped her purse to her chest. 

The stars sparkled above the lake as she walked away. Admiring the wings which stretched out before Lake Michigan like the building was a bird ready to take flight. A fierce wind blew her hair into her face. Shaking her eyes free, she dove into her car. 

II

Natalie rolled up to her house. Turning out the headlights, she gathered her things. She made quick work of her walkway and unlocked her apartment door. Sighing in relief, she pried her shoes off, throwing them into a random corner of the room with a satisfactory clatter. Going right to the kitchen, she washed her hands and opened a La Croix with a swift crack. Kicking back the drink, she closed her eyes. 

She flicked the lights onto their dim setting and sat down, tucking her legs underneath her. The Tv turned onto a local news program detailing the rise of small-scale boaters in Milwaukee county. Her eyes drooped.

Her phone rattled and lit on the table. She sat up.

 Caller ID: John Walter. She rolled her eyes but accepted the call. Her hair kept falling in the way and she pushed it back as she brought the phone up to her ear.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Natalie?”

“Mr. Walter, What can I do for you?” She pushed back another stubborn strand of hair.

“Have you left work yet?

“I just got home.”

“Oh, I see. I hate to ask you this. I know it’s already 9:00. I left my ID at the art museum. I’m already at the airport. Would you go back and get it for me?”

“Sir, forgive me for the asking, but could I pick them up on Monday? It’s really out of my way.”

“That’s a No-go. I need to have them, and right now. I’m counting on you,”

“Alright, I’ll pick them up for you.” Natalie rubbed her eyes.

“Get them from the safe. The code is 900845. I owe you big time for this.”

Natalie rolled her eyes and tapped her foot. “Don’t worry about it,” what an asshole.

“Okay, so the plan is, go back to the Art Museum, get my ID from the safe, and then drop it off at my front door, then my wife will take my ID and do the last leg.”

“Why can’t your wife get the ID?” unbelievable.

“I’ll give you overtime?”

“Time and a half?”

“And I’ll buy you lunches for a month when I get back.”

“Yeah, I’m leaving now, no problem,” Natalie checked the clock. It was half-past nine. It was also dark out.

“You are a-maz-ing, Natalie! I owe you big time.”

“Yep, I’ll text you when I’ve finished,”

“Bye,” She hung up. A gust of air blew out from her mouth, a tortured sigh. Ignoring her work shoes, she pulls on a pair of ratty sneakers. Her keys cooled her hand as she shut and locked the door behind her.

III

 Richard Graham cleaned a crucifix with a small brush. The crucifix glittered under the fluorescent lights of the museum’s archives. It was made of solid gold and brass. There were three semi-precious stones on each of the four ends. Or at least there was. Out of the 12, there were only five stones left. The rest of them were missing.

Richard had steady hands trained by almost a decade of working with fine antiquities. His name tag at his chest read Historian.

The ceiling soared high and clear above him. Its magnificent arches were cradled like he was sitting as the yolk in an egg. Sheets of paper stacked neat and color-coordinated surrounded him like small skyscrapers.

Richard looked at the empty inlays where rubies and sapphires had once lived. He imagined where the stones were now. Perhaps they were in the hands of thieves or buried under the debris of a disaster. 

What rivers it might have crossed since 119AD. What tragedy must affect a human’s mind to commit to ignorance and defile a priceless work of art.

He pushed up the glasses on his face. Despite the long hours, his research notes were almost complete. His Ph.D. candidacy paper was perfected, save for a few gems. Chuckling to himself, he hefted the cross up to eye level. A dark figure reflected in the shiny surface of the cross and blocked the light from the hallway. Richard turned his head, the corners of vision registering a person.

“Put your hands up.” A voice said behind him.

“Don’t look at me. Look at the floor,” The voice said.

  “I’m putting my hands up now,” Richard pushed down a blast of fear. There was the door. Get to it now. It’s just right there. Not far at all. 

“Don’t look at me. Look at the ground.” The man said, and Richard’s blood went cold. A steel click devoured all other sounds in the room. A drip of cold sweat descended his back.

“Listen, if you want my wallet. You don’t have to do this.”

“Give me the crucifix,”

“The crucifix? What?”

Both of them turned toward a short slam of a door, a gasp, and the sound of objects clattering.

IV

Natalie pulled into the parking lot, leaving her car directly in front as she ran inside, now in sneakers. The light switches had small led lights which reacted to her movement. The lights turned on automatically as she walked through the tall building, past the galleries. She was using the pads of her fingers to trace around the walls. Adjusting her air pods, she took one out. The wind whistled across into the lake and went up the walkway to the art museum. 

“It’s not supposed to be this dark inside of the museum yet,” Natalie said to herself. Her iPhone buzzed as she lit her flashlight app and checked the time. 9:48 PM. 

Ducking to John’s office, she removed a painting from the wall with great care. There was the safe, which revealed itself, just as he had said. Natalie rechecked the time, 9:50 PM. She opened the safe.

A manilla folder sat with John’s ID underneath a handgun and a stack of cash. The handgun was sleek and deadly-looking.

Clearing her throat, she took out her AirPods and placed them on the desk behind her. The cash rustled against Natalie’s hands as she flipped through them. She cleared her throat and put them back down where she found them. Nudging the gun off of the folder with her knuckle, with agonizing slowness, she released the folder from its trapped state. 

The manilla folder yawned open in her hands, and Natalie accepted the offering of ID. Working around the damaged strap, and almost dropping its sleek faux leather, she opened the mouth of her purse. 

Music echoed in her AirPods in her ears as she replaced the painting. Pushing on the unlocked door, she shrugs it forward. It clicks into place. Secure, finally, now she could go home. She texted Mrs. Walters. She was on her way.

Taking a shortcut back to her car, Natalie goes back in and heads to the archives. A muffled noise echoed up the hallway. She took out her AirPods. There was the sound of voices from beyond. The words were still indistinguishable. 

“Hello?” Natalie whispers, her heart pounding. Her eyes were glued to the door handle, which was slightly ajar. She looks into the archives. The door slammed open with more force than she had intended. 

A handgun. Two men. The man she had sold a ticket to pointed a gun at Richard, the resident Ph.D. candidate. They looked at her. Their eyebrows drew up.

Natalie gasped and dropped her purse onto the ground, her phone and the contents of her purse spilled out of it toward the man with the gun. She trembled. 

The man glared at her for a split second and then turned his hand toward her.

Richard took his chance. Leaping at the man, he wrestled with him for the gun. Their limbs tangled, and the nose of the weapon. Her tilted up. Richard bared his teeth, and a wild look illuminated his eyes. 

Natalie looked on in horror, fear coursing through her veins. What do I do? She dove for her phone. Her palms ached as she gathered her purse. Getting back on her feet, she looked up. 

He kicked out and shoved a cloth-covered box toward her. It glided across the floor like a ballerina in the Nutcracker. Natalie stopped its trajectory.

“Take the crucifix!” Richard shouted at her.

“Get- upfh,” The shooter mumbled, clawing at Richard.

“What?” Natalie asked.

“Take the crucifix!” Richard shouted again. Natalie paled and clumsily grabbed it and the soft bed of cotton padding surrounding it. She clutched it and her purse like a newborn infant in her arms and ran for the exit. 

The gun popped. Natalie’s blood curdled as Richard’s scream tore the air. Her breath caught in her throat.

V

She stumbled and kept running. Navigating the tight stairwells of the parking garage, Natalie spots her car. It’s the only one in the lot. Digging through her purse, she clicks her keys, and the car snorts in response. 

The door slammed shut, and Natalie had to use two hands to put the key in the ignition, the way her hands trembled. The parking garage opened out into an empty intersection. There are five different ways,  and she drives south. Her hands fumble her phone—moonlight streams in through the windows.

“This is 911. What’s your emergency?”

The road lifted from the ground. Orange steel beams framed her eyes and over the Hoan bridge. Behind her, a sleek car tailed her closely. Pressing on the gas, she glanced at the car behind her and her dash. 

“Hello, my name is Natalie Beck, and there is someone following me in my car. I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum,”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on the Hoan bridge,” Natalie said. The car behind her bumped her, and her phone dropped from her hand. They were the only cars in the middle of the bridge.

On Natalie’s left, there was the open lake water. To her right, there were covered mounds of some industrial facility. She rubbed her neck, a sharp pain shot through her back. 

She screamed in frustration. “I just want to go back home!” Her foot pressed the gas pedal against the floor. Slowing down, she turned out from the bridge. Her eyebrows knit together as she turned and felt the left side of the car lift. The wheels bounced as they met earth again. With a drift and a screech, the car answered her sudden stomp on the brake. Before her, a gravel parking lot bordered a pier. A yellow sign and locked chain-link fence separated her from a marina of boats which shimmered in the light of the full moon.

The sleek black car pulled up. Pulling on the handle, she got out of her car. She gathered the gold cross, tied it into her purse, and climbed the fence. Dropping down onto the other side, she ran down the pier, her steps echoing on the tin material below her. The pier pitched and moved. But, her feet were sure, and she jumped onto the familiar-looking small boat. 

She searched for the keys in the boot of the first boat. No luck. She jumped out and tried another boat for its keys. No luck. The man was getting closer to her. She could hear his footsteps crunch on the gravel before the pier. She dove into the last boat and felt for the keys. Success. 

She entered the key into the lock and started the roaring engine. It spluttered, angry at being woken up and forced to work so late in the night. She untied the boat from its spot and angled the fast-moving speedboat into the lake. He stared at her, shouting obscenities. The full moon above revealed the fervor of his anger in the form of clouds of spittle and eyes bulging and nearly white. She sailed into dark lake Michigan. The wind pushed her hair around her face. She tucked the stray strands behind her ear. The echoing sound of her assailant grew softer and softer as she grew further from the shore.

VI

She goes out past the lighthouse. Standing, she shouts at another boat sailing by. It’s a bright spotlight trained on her.

“Are you Natalie Beck?”

“Yes,”

“We are the coast guard. Please allow us to invite you onto our ship for a chat.”

“Okay,” Natalie Beck said. A ladder bounced against the side of the Coast Guard’s boat. She sat on the ship wrapped in a blanket, and between sips of chamomile, she recounted the story.

“While we found tire tracks at the marina, we did not find any men around with that description.”

“Oh. So he’s still out there?”

“Yes.”

“Ma’am, I hope you understand, but you’ll have to come down to the station with us.”

“I’ll come with you.”

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3186

“It was said the Pause had swallowed the earth. So we followed the Green Light. Humanity became safe for the first time in all history,” Gwen recited with her classmates. 

Placed in the front of the classroom above the blackboard was a large picture of a stern-looking man. The gold plaque underneath read, “Great Leader Andrew Brewam” The fluorescent lights flickered above Gwen and the other 15 of her classmates.

“Praise to Andrew Brewam,” The teacher said.

“May our Great Leader never die. We will serve him. Thank him for our home in Green Light, in Onica.” Their chairs scrapped back in a cacophony in the windowless underground room.

Gwen carefully unfolded her only sheet of paper for the day and rolled the last nub of a pencil across her desk, which settled neatly. History class first.

After the blinding light had receded, the country that used to be called the United States was now a dead zone. They all lived on the underside of that mirror, the horizon. Gwen had only seen paintings of it, where the water was big enough to imitate the sky. The sky she had never seen, her mother and sister, Abby had been one of the lucky ones. All of them had been born in Onica.

“Thousands of miles around Ground Zero were flattened by the change in pressure and force that resulted from a nuclear detonation, the nuclear detonation. That area is called what, class?” The teacher pointed at the worn books in front of them depicting a mushroom fireball.

“a Dead Zone,” the students replied in unison. Gwen tried not to roll her eyes.

 A note scribbled on a napkin from lunch sat on her desk, which read, “Study hard, sweetie! Dad would be proud of you! Love, Mom” 

“My grandma said that she could feel even the basement of Onica shake when Pause happened.” 

“No way!”

But, the teacher was gently tapping his ruler against the plastic grain of his desk. The purple-hued smoke caught most of the screams, the body disintegrating faster than sound could leave the bodies. They had been paused. 

“It was the foresight of your ancestors that has led to you being alive today. They, led by our great leader, were the only humans left after the world turned into a war to end the life that your grandparents once knew.” The bell rang, and in unison, Gwen and her classmates stood and recited the Onica anthem

“We rebuild united under one roof. We pledge our allegiance to Onica, devote ourselves to growing stronger as a people every day, dedicating our lives to our leader’s mission; to restart the world baptized in green light.”

Gwen went home for the day. She walked through the crowded hallways of Onica and left the spotless Green Light section where all public rooms were. She walked until the hallways became more and more cluttered, the paint on the walls showed their peeling.

Their home was small, only consisting of about three rooms. A bathroom, the main room, and their bedroom. They all shared it together.

Gwen squinted as the LED light shone in her face as she reached across the table in the kitchen.. Thin rubber covered the wires. 

“Gwen, would you be able to look for Dad’s wine opener in his room?” Gwen’s mother asked. “I can’t get this dang can open and the can opener has been missing for days.”

“Alright,” Gwen said and turned. The cardboard was smooth under her hands as she opened the boxes. She went under his desk, and a letter was addressed to a Doctor Ulrich fell out. Gwen, her brow furrowed and her lips pushed out opened the letter until it was out of the envelope by only an inch. 

Dear,

Gwen closed her eyes and pushed the letter back in. Better to not know, whatever it was.

Gwen put the letter back exactly as she had found it and took the wine opener to her mom. As she ate the canned beans and rice, and her sister chatted gaily at the table. Gwen couldn’t stop thinking about the letter. What did it say? She wished she had opened it. But as she feel asleep, her mother’s and sister’s soft breathing close by her she turned over on her side and squeezed her eyes shut. No. It was better not to know.

Before going home after her lesson, Gwen stopped to get dinner for the day. She got the silver Freezo packages and recycled water for them to drink from the ration station. She started toward the paint chipped hallways to her home.

“Excuse me, miss, but you can’t go past here.”

“What? What’s happened?”

“We’ve closed off all of the roads leading to North Onica.”

“But my mom-“

“You have another family you can stay with?”

Gwen shook her head in response. The man gestured to a group of her neighbors who were stuck waiting outside the blockade.

“You’ll stay with them for now until we lift the quarantine.”

“Where is your sister?”

“She got detention, she stayed behind after lessons.”

Her neighbor nodded. “We’ll wait for her.”

They never saw her mother again. Not one of her neighbors who were home at the time of the quarantine were ever seen again. But even then, life went on, and only a few tears were shed among those lucky enough to be left. Her mother had always been tucked away in her study and never had time for Gwen. Her being was solely in napkins and little notes she had once tucked into Gwen’s backpack.

It was hard to say when exactly it became real for Gwen. At first, it was almost fun—a game of codes and secrets. People gathered in the streets of Onica and sat for hours, holding signs that appealed for help to be reunited with their loved ones. There were rumors that they were still alive and only just in the past year the walls that had been erected. But the crackdown in response was violent. Andrew Brewam authorized live bullets to be fired into the crowds of children and older people. 

She remembered the last time she saw Augustus in the middle of Center Square. There were two different ropes; he hung by and the one holding the sign on his chest with the hastily drawn word “Traitor.” She turned around on her hard bed, the springs squeaking, causing the closest bunkmate to shift and groan. Gwen’s stomach was in knots with remembering his last words to her.

“My parents believe that they were led to justice by a green light leading us into the earth. But-“ Augustus had produced a faded letter, the creases were worn down from being opened and shut so many times. “even though not all were able to escape into the earth, not everyone was taken to the Pause. They tell us that there’s nothing else up there. This letter says otherwise. There are survivors.” His voice had pitched passionately, “Our ‘Great leader’ isn’t doing anything but killing us. There are other ways that we can handle the virus. We can’t even go to the ration station anymore. We have to get out of here,” He had pointed to a word in the letter that read, Petesville. “There. It was the only place that escaped the dead zone from ground zero. There are people who live there, and they have three meals every day, they get to feel the grass in between their toes and the sun shining down on them and everything that we have ever read about the outside before the explosion.”

“The sun?” Gwen had tried to imagine, instead of having a roof, having a vast emptiness above her. The feeling had made her fingers twitch.

Augustus had nodded, “there’s no green light down here. The only real light.” He had pointed upward, “is up there.”

All those words made her feel as if her body had grown bigger with her emotions. The person who gave her that hope was gone, just like her mother was gone. All that remained was the hope and the mission. To learn the truth about her mother’s disappearance, about her and her sister’s exile from the only home she had ever known. To find a new home, one where they didn’t have to look over their soldier and memorize the right answers not questioning, walking around with their eyes closed.

Gwen’s heartbeat was as fast as a hummingbird’s, feeling her face get warm in the bright yellow full-body FILER Suit. She adjusted the mask to stop the protective glass from fogging. Lifting a gloved hand, she gestured for Abby to move ahead. The markings left by the plague littered the street—rotting corpses piled in the ditches that once held the water supply.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“No,” They heard boots behind them and saw the red pinpoints of the guards’ Yursh T089 semiautomatics trailing the ground yards behind them. Abby whimpered.

“Let’s go.”

Gwen passed the Brewan temple and noticed two vertical lines with a longer horizontal line, linking them with a whirlpool symbol, linking it all together had been spray-painted on the wooden door.

“Gwen, in here,” Abby hissed. 

Gwen responded, immediately following Abby. Their footsteps crinkled the suit quietly in the large empty building. Rows and rows of pews filled the hall, “It’s supposed to be here.”

Abby stood guard at the door as Gwen rifled through the wooden boxes next to the altar, muttering to herself quietly. “Blueprints… blueprints..” 

Gwen took out her lockpick and jimmied the lock of a small unremarkable desk that sat in the back office. “Aha! Thank you, Auggie.” She carefully took out the blueprints, read them, and placed them in the small case she had been carrying.

She went out into the temple hall and gave Abby the thumbs up. Abby nodded and peeked through the door. With a loud bang, the doors burst open the opposite way, knocking Abby to the ground. “Go! Go! Go!” Gwen didn’t even have time to breathe when the guards flooded in, their Yursh’s trained on her. 

“Don’t Move!”

Gwen put her arms up immediately, and her muscles froze.

They twisted Abby’s arms as they pinned her to the ground. The groans that Abby let out were permeated with pain.  The echoing marching of feet slapped the concrete floor. Gwen’s eyes darted toward the back door, her legs shaking.

“Put down the case.” The guards barked

Gwen started to lower the case to the ground slowly.

“I have a bomb!” Abby screamed. 

Gwen held a gasp of surprise. She hadn’t told her about this danger. They were just supposed to get in, get the blueprints for the town hall and then leave. Abby was just as crazy as Augustus warned. Too late now.

The guards looked at each other. 

“Let us go, and I won’t press pause on all of you!” Abby lifted her hand, holding her handmade walkie. “I’ll give you three seconds, and within that time, you will let me and my friend go.”

“She’s bluffing.” The guard on top of her shifted, causing Abby to cry out in pain. He tried unsuccessfully to pry the walkie from her hand.

“T-try me”

“Unsuit her”

“One” The guards hesitated. “Two”

“Okay! Okay.” 

“Th-“ Abby started and recoiled her head, ready to slam her face into the ground. Was that supposed to ignite the bomb?

Either way, the guards got off of her in a shot, allowing her to scramble to her feet. 

Gwen held the door open for Abby, that crazy woman. Everyone sprinted towards the back. She slammed it shut in the guards’ faces as they got out to safety. A stray metal rod scrapped in a high pitch squeal as Gwen barred the door, preventing them from following them.

The tunnel’s walls glistened in the light. The drips of water landed on Abby and Gwen’s FILER suits as they edged through, careful not to fall into the waste processing facility below on their way out. Close to Gwen’s heart was Auggie’s letter.

“Ugh, it smells.” Abby shifted her backpack of stolen provisions and STABLE anti-radiation pills from the pharmacy. There was a bright light up ahead. They inched closer and closer.

“How can you smell anything through the FILER?”

“Well… I can’t smell anything, but can you imagine?”

“Yeah.”

“What is this place?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’ve never been here before? But you’ve been everywhere in Green Light.” Abby’s tone was accusatory.

“I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never seen this hallway in my life.”

“That looks like a way out!” Abby shouted and pointed to the ceiling.

Gwen craned her neck and squinted through the fog collecting on her FILER visor.

A ladder leading up the side of the wall led to a hatch with a circular handle. Abby stared at the ladder. Her feet were stuck in place as if glued.

Gwen tested the first rung of the ladder. It was solid. She shook the ladder. It didn’t move. She climbed up the ladder, with Abby close behind. She wrapped one of her forearms around the last rung of the ladder, and with her other hand, she turned the hatch. Dust rained down on them, forming a fine mist that settled on the creases of their FILER suits. Gwen pushed open the hatch. 

The sun was blinding. For a little while, they couldn’t see a thing. Their eyes were used to the darkness of being underground for their entire lives. After a while, their blindness left them. The sun reflected off the barren cracked rock that surrounded the slightly damp waste pool. 

“We’re outside.” Gwen stared out into the desert. Where there was nothing, no walls, only floor, and everything seemed possible.

“There’s no green….” Abby trailed off. “Just all bright light.”

Gwen ignored her beating heart and immediately set off toward the rising sun. It was one of the directions listed in the letter. 

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The Maker

Sweat dripped onto the sidewalk placed on the model’s cardboard. With precision, William’s nimble fingers crafted a tree no bigger than a quarter in the dark basement of a house in downtown Milwaukee. It was meant to fit in perfectly with the rest of his creations. A train track carved out its place in the green turf that made up the grass and over the Menomonee River. Even the smallest buildings were meticulously organized, painted, proportioned. They fit into the invisible blueprints that were mapped out in his mind, a replica of his hometown.

Building things calmed him. But then, the phone rang. His eyes flicked up for a moment and returned to his work. Silence and then again, the phone rang. Sighing and placing the deciduous tree carefully down he stood, his knees cracking. He wiped his gluey hands on his pants.

“Hello.”

“Is William Yaohua there?”

“Speaking.” He reached with a dirty finger into his mouth and swabbed out some spaghetti noodle hiding behind his molars. He grimaced as the familiar taste of paste lingered on his tongue.

“My name is Doctor Virginia Mary. I’m calling to tell you that your sister, Rebecca has been admitted to Columbia Saint Mary’s”

“The Hospital? Is she alright?” William’s mouth went dry and he glanced at the clock. 8:25 pm.

“She is in the hospital. She’s been hit by a car on Prospect Avenue and suffered blunt trauma to the face and chest. She is currently in the ICU undergoing surgery. You were her emergency contact.”

“Alright, I’ll be there soon.” He slammed the landline onto the receiver. The thunderous sound of his footsteps echoed his heartbeat. Barely registering the crack of the car door and the revving of the engine was the last thing that he heard on his property, besides the buzzing in his head.

Will sat in the waiting room for what seemed like hours. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from every movement of the short hand of the clock. It was as if his eyes were tied to it with rope. His hope was the only thing strong enough to be pulling his attention away every time the doors of surgery swung open, but every time his eyes met a different very busy nurse.

“Yaohua?” He stood up, the magazine he had been holding went sprawling onto the ground. The pages showed the best way to trim belly fat to the ceiling. The doctor gripped his shoulder.

“The good news is that she is stable and you can see her now. However, she’s in a comatose state and has sustained extreme injuries. There’s no other way to put this. She may never be the same again.” Will’s eyes clouded over.

“Hey, sis.” He sat down next to Rebecca and gripped her hand tightly. Her face was completely covered with bandages. “I love you.” His voice cracked, and the Electrocardiogram beeped steadily in response. “I’m sorry that this happened to you. But I’m here for you. I’ll be here if you need anything. I know you probably can’t hear me, but do you remember when mom got sick that first time? Injuries are no match for us. We always pull through.”

The only answer was the soft beeping of the machine and the squeak of sneakers out in the hall. The clock ticked on the bedside table.

Rebecca died two hours after she had left the surgery table. Her funeral was scheduled for the day after next.

Rain-engorged clouds filled the sky. Everyone was wearing black and shivering in the autumn bluster. The casket was a deep brown color. Rebecca’s friends and families surrounded the priest, listening quietly.

“…For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands but with faith in God’s love, eternal in heaven. The word of the Lord.” The Priest closed the bible had read from and caught the eyes of William. An empathy filled them which made the corners of William’s mouth stretch toward his ears and his heart ache.

“The word of the Lord,” The crowd echoed back.

William stood at the back of the crowd. He remembered the days of sunshine of their youth and how much hope and intelligence she always carried with her. He dried his tears and forced a smile as hand after hand pat him on the shoulder.

After the funeral, the boxes of Rebecca’s things flooded into his house. He was the only surviving member of their family since neither he or Rebecca had ever married. He sifted through clothes, keeping photographs, old papers written by his sister, and an antique pocket watch then donating the rest.

He often turned the antique pocket watch over and over in his hands. Tracing his fingers over the smooth metal and glass, it was solid in his hands. Where had Rebecca gotten this watch? It wasn’t like her to keep old things around. She had always shown off the latest and greatest technology, making sure to always have the newest thing.

But now, he was late for his routine doctor’s appointment.

He drove his car carefully on the icy roads. The snow plummeted from the sky and the windshield wipers squawked against the glass. He stopped at a railroad crossing as the lights were signaling a train. Handling the timepiece in his jacket pocket he pressed the button, making the gears click and shift. It hadn’t worked before. He must’ve finally loosened the screws or something.

He stared at the graffiti on the sides of the train as it blew past. One car, two cars, three, dark caps of coal topped each car. As his car idled the hot air circulated, blowing straight into his red cheeks. Sighing, he fidgeted for a couple more minutes before he turned on the radio.

“…’an’t believe this. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s the 28th of January and an oak tree is growing straight out of the concrete on the corner of 16th Street and Vernon next to the Menomonee river. Locals state that there was no sign of any plants before 5 pm yesterday. The patrons of the local Third Space Brewery…”

William blinked and looked at the street signs. It read 16th Street. He looked to his right, a crowd peppered with the flashes of cameras gathered outside of the brewery despite the chill. He pulled out his smartphone and looked up his location. He had just passed the 16th street bridge going north. The Menomonee river had chunks of ice drift past below him.

“Other changes have been noted by city officials as the very landscape changes beneath our feet causing extreme structural damage. There is no other way to describe it as other than a supernatural natural event,” The radio continued.

A rhythmic ticking reverberated in his hand. He looked at his sister’s pocket watch and flicked the stopwatch function off. He forgot that he had turned it on.

“The changes in the landscape have shifted as policemen answer calls regarding what witnesses describe as a freak earthquake and spontaneous arboreal germination…”

The train rumbled past, the last car finally leaving William’s vision.

He spotted the tree. Its roots muscled through the deep concrete, a dark brown in the endless gray of winter. In the distance its flat broad leaves waving at him in the freezing wind. The green was as vivid as emeralds in the vast whiteness of snowbanks stacked on the sides of the street.

He approached the tree, his turn slow and thoughtful. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from its branches. He squinted. There were clumps of acorns peeking from the green leaves. Squirrels would at least be happy. He drove carefully and stared at the tree which had not been there before the train had come. How could it be? He blinked his eyes, hard. It was still there. He shook his head. It was still there. He slapped his cheeks and blinked and shook his head. It was still there. But the clock on his car dashboard still said he would be late to his appointment.

On his way home. He made a point to drive past it again. When he got home, he went straight to his basement and worked on his model. The darkness of the basement was comforting. Here, there was nothing strange. All was familiar and his eyes grew heavy with contentment. The soft sound of Miles Davis echoed softly in the corner emanating from an antique record player. The small amount of light reflected off the flat black grooved vinyl disk.

He was measuring proportions for a model of the local news tower, K48. He referenced his blueprint and then visited his model. He stopped and stared. He had left the miniature oak tree in the center of an intersection. The small street signs that he had erected read, 16th and Vernon.

An idea came to him. He pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. Heshook his head. No, that was stupid. He walked away, opened up a la coix, took a deep sip and then put the can on the counter and went back to the model. He uprooted the K48 tower and then placed it directly in the center of the American Family Park, formerly known as Miller Park parking lot.

William sat on his chair. The remote slid a bit before he turned on the tv’s new channel. In his left hand, he held the stopwatch. He licked his lips.

He clicked the button and the watch ticked and then reset.

The news channel blurred. He knit his eyebrows together and flipped to the other channels, they were just fine. Clicking his watch again. He went to the news channel. It was still fuzzy. He flipped to the local news.

Footage of the K48 news tower played. He gasped. The tower grew like a flower out of the concrete of the parking lot in the center of Milwaukee. He stopped the watch. The tower stopped growing. He started it again. The tower resumed its rise from the bowels of the earth.

His chest grew tight. The remote slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. He clapped his hand against his mouth. The button on the antique watch clicked as he stopped it. So too, did the growth of the K48 news tower. His eyes were wide and they flicked from the watch in his hand to the model of Milwaukee on the table to the TV, where a breathless newsperson tried to explain the unexplainable.

William looked at his model of Milwaukee and the antique watch in his hand. It was impossible… Was the model, the watch, and real-life connected?

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A Job from Hell

I was born with the name, Calvin. Although it was the name that my mother gave me when I was born, it wasn’t the name people at the office called me. They usually called me Cal.I never knew what name to call any of them. I had worked at the office for years, but I had not gotten the name of any of my co-workers or even my boss. 

Yellow United Company was an insurance company. It was the only place that I have ever worked. Whenever I told people that I worked there, a glaze would come over their eyes and they would say, “hmm, very interesting,” 

It didn’t seem like the people who worked there thought that the work was interesting either. They always seemed to be training someone new when I was finally around the office. So many different faces, all without names. It was alright for me. Once every couple weeks I would get on a plane and travel around the country. When I would often come back I would see new people in the office.

 I never recognized anyone. I preferred it that way. But it was after my 37th birthday party that I began to feel an uneasiness that never left as long as I was at Yellow United. The people I had worked with were always a bit strange. Never in any way that I could explain to people without them saying that I was being sensitive or that I was the strange one.

I went back to my desk. Brushing off the dust I sat, and reorganized my desk. I looked to my left. There was a strange scent wafting from the cubicle there.

“What is that? Tuna?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

“Hey Cal, happy to see you. Welcome back to the office. It’s not tuna.”

“Yeah nice to see you again… remind your name? I’m sorry,” I said putting my hand behind my head and giving a grin.

“My name is Joseph.” He said. I stared at him. 

“Okay,” I looked to my left just in time to see my other co-worker clipping her toenails at her desk. 

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked as a shard of toenail flew into my mouth. I turned green and spat out the offending projectile. Slamming my hands against the table, I stood. “Would you stop that? Do you have to do this now?”

“Oh, Cal. I didn’t see you there. Do you want to borrow my toe clippers after me?” She asked. My stomach turned over and my face twisted in revulsion. Her toes were yellowed and thick. I could see the fungus overgrowing and flaking off of her foot onto her desk.

“No thanks, uh what was your name?”

“Dorothy,” She said, even her smile was yellow.

“Right,” I said and nodded. It wasn’t long before 5 o’clock blissfully came around. 

“Goodbye,” I said. 

“Goodbye Cal,” The whole office said in unison. I shivered. 

The next morning I had to sit in my car for a few minutes before going in. 

“Hey Cal,” There was a young blonde sitting across from me.

“Oh, hello, do I know you?” I asked. I pushed back my receding hairline. The young blonde laughed as if I had told a hilarious joke. My laugh was hollow as I joined her. 

“What department do you work in,”

“I work in HR,”

“Oh, I thought Joseph did,” I said, earning myself a blank stare. Something squirmed underneath my feet. I looked down. The whole floor below me was covered in slugs. Brown slugs, with their mucus trailing behind them, staining the carpet with black streaks. Shining in the fluorescent lights like precious stones. Gasping, I stood on my chair. I looked around. The slugs were coming from the cubicle to my right. Where Joseph had been.

But, instead of the well-groomed if a bit fish-smelling man from yesterday, there was a boy, who couldn’t be older than 20 sitting there. 

“Do you have any salt?” He asked me. I shook my head. 

“No, I don’t”

“Pity, it’s the only way to get rid of slugs, is to throw salt on them,” He reached for his briefcase and opened it. It was filled to the brim with slugs. My stomach turned over again, looking around. Was anyone seeing this? This had to be against the rules.

“Oh, I see. Yup, slugs, got you,” I said, wiping sweat from my forehead. 

“Is something wrong Cal?” He asked. I shook my head and didn’t answer. I rushed to the men’s bathroom. But a sound stopped me just as I began to push on the door. 

There was a soft chanting noise coming from the woman’s bathroom. It took a bloodcurdling scream for me to rush in. 

“Is everyone okay?” I said, bursting through the door. I looked to see a roomful of strangers holding a chicken without a head. It’s blood splattered across the walls and a pentagram was drawn on the ground. 

“I see that you are all busy, and I’ll leave you to it,” I said, turning white. “Goodbye,” I said and I ran out of the women’s bathroom. I loosened my necktie, took everything of value from my desk and shoved it into a white box. 

“Cal, where are you going? It’s not even lunch yet,” A stout woman blocked my way through the door.

“I’m leaving, I’m quitting, I have no idea who you are and I would appreciate it if you would step aside,”

“Oh that’s too bad, we’ve had a change of management recently and I would really like to introduce you to your new president,”

“No thanks, really I have to go,” I said. I pushed her aside with force and ripped off my nametag, throwing it into the garbage. I kicked open the door and went to my car. Driving away I looked behind me to see that the ground surrounding the Yellow United Company building was cracking and descending into hell. Literal hell. I laughed incredulously and wondered what I would say when I had to tell people why I had left my last job.

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The Treasure Notebook

It was dark inside the trash compactor. Hippocrates’s Green Bay packer Jersey hung off of him. Small bits of slime shone in the green light. He gritted his teeth as the light blinked. It blinked again. He cursed his late grandfather for ever leaving him that small black moleskin notebook and its dumb map leading it to his Grandfather’s fortune. 20-thousand-dollar treasure be damned. Why did his Grandfather have to be so damn cryptic all the time. Hippocrates’s screwed up his face, his eye blinking from the sweat dripping into and stinging his eyes.

                “We’ll let you go if you give us the notebook,” a voice blared from speakers just outside the small sliver of light from the outside. Hippocrates retched at the vile smell around him and he raised his hands defensively.

                “Brandon, I cannot give you the notebook on account that I do not have it on my person at the moment,” Hippocrates said. He noticed a smudge on his wristwatch and rubbed the smudge, only making it spread more. The light turned red. The walls wailed as they moved closer together, leaving less room for Hippocrates

“Is that so? It’s not like you haven’t come up short before in our business dealings. Even in high school, you always were a gram or two short of weed when I picked up. Always trying to screw other people over for a quick buck. Now that the stakes are higher, your idiocy is finally being paid back,” Brandon said. Hippocrates winced and cursed himself for not cutting the weed with other drugs so that Brandon wouldn’t have had noticed his past deceptions.

“Wait, wait. I have a counter offer. My grandmother, she knows about the notebook. She knows about the money and the map, so why don’t we take a break from the trash compactor and the crushing and I can lead you to her. No one gets hurt and you get your money. 20,000 dollars, and it’s all yours, all my debts, paid in full,” Hippocrates said. The walls stopped moving and the light turned back to green. Hippocrates breathed out.

                “I’m listening,” The speaker said. Hippocrates bared his teeth, lifting himself on the tip of his toes. Stench filled his nostrils. His eyes widened.

                “My grandmother. She’s the only one who knows what it is. She’s still at the football game at Lambeau, she’ll lead us to the little black notebook,” Hippocrates says.

                “How do I know you won’t just go to the cops?”

“Because I just told you where my grandmother is,”

“I don’t know Hipp,”

“How long have we known each other? You know I’m good for it, I’ll get you your money, no harm, no foul. Grandma and I will retire to Florida and ride out the rest of her retirement money. You get to keep the notebook and the 20 thousand, and you never hear from me again,” Hippocrates said.

“Alright, lead us to your grandma and out of respect for the time that we have known each other, I won’t kill you,” Brandon said.

“Thank you, Brandon, thank you,” Hippocrates said as the walls began to open. The floor beneath him began angling down and Hippocrates was dumped unceremoniously onto a pile of trash below. The wind blew across the dump as Hippocrates stretched his legs and shivered in the fall air.

“Let’s go,” A tall muscled man lifted Hippocrates to his feet.

“Oh hello!” Hippocrates said and removed himself from his grasp. “Brandon, who is this handsome man?” Hippocrates asked as he wiped his hands on his clothes, not much good that it did. The tall man frowned at him pushed Hippocrates towards Brandon, as diminutive as always even compared to Hippocrates’s modest 5’7.

“I’m glad you decided to help us Hipp, it really makes finding your grandfather’s black moleskin all the easier. Your grandfather was a tough guy and smart too. He’s hidden his money well, but as soon as I found out about the map in that black book, I knew I had to have it. It’s too bad you didn’t get any brains from him or any of his Irish mafia buddies. Now are you ready to go to the playoffs?” Brandon asked, his neck dripping with herringbone gold jewelry.

Hippocrates ran his fingers through his hair in the car’s reverse mirrors, trying to restore some ounce of tidiness. He smoothed down his eyebrows and fixed his collar.

“Yeah, I’m ready, you don’t happen to have any deodorant or cologne, do you?” Hippocrates said and cleared his throat. He adjusted his jersey and pants. The car rumbled and he shifted uncomfortably in his own stench. Brandon nodded to the tall man who sat in the passenger seat. The tall man threw the deodorant at him.

“Thanks,” Hippocrates said. They rounded a hill and over the horizon was Lambeau field. Hippocrates smiled.

“That isn’t the first time he’s heard that,” Brandon said. They pulled up to the parking lot and navigated the tailgaters and stray cans of Miller High Life that populated the lot. Brandon pulled to the entrance. The Tall man got out of the car and slammed the door shut.

“Keep an eye on this one and bring grandma back in one piece,” Brandon said to the tall man. The Tall man nodded.

“I understand. Let’s go,” The tall man said.

“Is that your catchphrase or something? It’s always ‘let’s go,’ but never how are you,” Hippocrates said. The tall man bared his teeth and the hardness of his expression made Hippocrates quiet. The tall man opened the door for Hippocrates and jerked his chin. Hippocrates got out of the car, his head down.

“Be back in an hour and a half, there’s a sale on at the grocery store and I need to pick up asparagus before its over,” Brandon said. The tall man nodded and pushed Hippocrates forward.

“Don’t think of trying anything,” The tall man lifted his shirt and reveal a very shiny black revolver.

“They aren’t going to let you in with that,” Hippocrates said. The tall man glowered and took out the gun and gave it to Brandon.

“Don’t think I can’t crush your skull even without a gun,” The tall man said.

“Understood,” Hippocrates said. He flashed a smile, “Let’s go,’ Brandon took the gun and rolled his eyes.

“See you in an hour and a half, and don’t be late. If anything goes wrong, well, I think I remember where you live, and grandma has got to come home sometime. Hippocrates swallowed back his retort and nodded.

Lambeau was packed. Every seat was filled and the sun shone. As the two made their way to the ticket booth, a group of women wrinkled their noses at Hippocrates’s stench. Hippocrates grinned, his face going red and winked at the ladies. One of them gasped and averted her eyes. He caught his reflection in the mirror and ran his hands through his hair again, wiping off some of the more obvious slime patches and with a couple of disgusted looks the cashiers waved them through.

“Is it something I said?” Hippocrates said smiling to the tall man. The tall man grunted and pushed him forward.

“Where is she?” The tall man asked. Hippocrates rifled around in his pockets drawing out his stained ticket stub again

“She’s… she’s in section 1A5. Pretty good seats I have to admit. Grandpa may have led a life of crime but he had good taste,” Hippocrates said.

“Whatever,” The tall man said, dragging Hippocrates behind him. They walked down the steep flights of stairs as they saw the football players in green and gold warming up on the field below them.

“There she is, my grandma. Isn’t she beautiful?” Hippocrates said and pointed as he caught sight of an old woman decked out in cheesehead gear. He quickened his step and the tall man checked his watch.

“Grandma!” Hippocrates shouted. The old woman turned and smiled but her face froze as she saw the state that Hippocrates was in.

“Hipp, my goodness what happened to you? Did you slip in dog poop again?” Grandma asked.

“Grandma, don’t embarrass me in front of my friend,” Hippocrates whined and hugged his grandma.

“What’s wrong dear?” Grandma asked the tall man, “Here,” Grandma drew out a small plastic wrapped pouch of tissues and handed them to Hippocrates.

“Listen I’ve gotten into a bit of trouble and now I need to get that black notebook that Grandpa gave me right before he died,” Hippocrates said.

“Have you been gambling again?” Grandma asked. “Your grandfather wasn’t a perfect person but I hate to see you making the same mistakes that he did,”

“I’m sorry Grandma, but my friend here really needs the notebook. Well I need the notebook too, We’ve got to go now,”

“What do you mean, the game hasn’t even started yet and you’ve been looking forward,” Grandma said and the tall man, after glancing at his watch again took Grandma under the arm and helped her up. “Get your hands off me young man, I’m talking to my grandson. Have a little respect for your elders,”

“Grandma, please just listen to him,”

“No, your grandfather gave you that money Hippocrates, I am not giving you the black notebook now,”

“Well, I’ve already sort of lost it,” Hippocrates said.

“Lost it?”

“I had a couple bad hands at the Dragon Turtle,”

“What are you doing spending time at that dingy place? Alright, since it seems like you really need it, I’ll come with you and miss the game,” Grandma took out the black notebook from her bag and handed it to Hippocrates. Hippocrates cradled the key to 20 thousand dollars to his chest. He flipped through the notebook and saw the map.

“Really Grandma?” Hippocrates said, putting the notebook behind his back.

“Really,” Grandma said and stood, Hippocrates helped her gather her things and they slowly made their way to the exit. Just as they were about to pass the ticket booths.

“I’ve got to visit the bathroom before I go, you know these old bones and age. Emergencies become very dire,” Grandma said and squeezed Hippocrates’s arm with a knowing look. Hippocrates knitted his brow together.

“Oh course Grandma,”

She leaned in, “I’m going to call some of your grandfather’s friends. They are here in Lambeau right now, I knew something was up this morning and so I made some preparations. This isn’t the first time someone has tried to put a squeeze on your grandmother, trust grandma, I know what to do,” Grandma said and they walked her to the front of the ladies’ room. The tall man crossed his arms and surveyed the area.

“Women and their bladders amirite?” Hippocrates joked, smiling. The tall man frowned at him and ignored him. After about twenty minutes the tall man checked his watch again.

“What’s taking her so long? Go in and check,”

                “But, it’s the ladies’ room, do I look like a lady to you,”

                “you don’t want me to answer that,”

                “Right, right, I’ll be right back,” But before Hippocrates could so much as take a step forward Grandma tottered out. In her liver spotted and wrinkled hands shone a menacing revolver. She pressed it against the tall man’s back. A stream of people passed unaware of the danger that they had just been placed in.

                “Don’t you move young man, now. You are going to leave Lambeau and tell your boss that he should give up any ideas he might have to harming either my Hippy or me. I’ve got the whole irish mafia waiting at my house. If there are any questions, he’s going to get his answer in bullets you understand me?” Grandma said. The tall man paled.

                “I understand,”

                “Now go and let me enjoy this wonderful fall day with my grandson,”

                “Okay,” The tall man, visibly shaking beelined it for the exit.

                “Wow, now that was bad ass,” Hippocrates said.

                “Language, Hipp and don’t you go getting yourself into trouble again. Let’s go watch the game. Seems like we’ll be able to enjoy our money from grandpa for a little longer,” Grandma said.

                “Thanks grandma!” Hippocrates said and they gathered up their green and gold gear and went back to their seats to enjoy the game.

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Roller-Coaster in Space

Mark only looked up from his game console when the docking space coaster rumbled through his tipped chair. The blast of air blew his dock Jockey ID into his face. Lights flashed on the spaceship as Mark sighed and took his feet off of the display toggle dash. He heaved himself out of his seat. Pulling out a crinkling bag of snacks from his pocket he popped one into his mouth and let the salt melt on his tongue as he jockeyed the docking mechanism.

“Alright, let’s see if you work this time,” he said to himself, his mouth full. He pulled on the lever to the right of the screen and with a hiss and a reverberation that made his chair tremble loudly, it’s straight tooth legs scraping against the metal ground. He heard a snap. Mark winced. The lights turned red. His bag of snacks fell to the ground and blew away.

“Mark!” A voice boomed out over the intercom. “Goddamn it Mark, what in the sam hell do you think are you doing?”

“Listen boss, I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.”

“No more excuses! You! you son of a bitch! you’re fired! This is the third time this week you’ve broken the docking jockey”

“Boss, please listen to me. I need this job,” Mark pleaded as the tourists on the spacecoaster stared from the inside of the space coaster. “I can do better I know it.”

“No way. You are outta here. Turn in your badge and if i ever see you around space hold again-”

“I’ll do anything!” The boss’s speakerphone was quiet for a moment.

“Meet me in my office,” The speakerphone blared out. Mark winced again.  Walking out of the large bay and into the suffocating hallways of the office section; he was acutely aware of the tourists still trapped in the coastership, staring at him and hearing everything. Mark’s cheek worked and his heart pumped as he opened the 

“This is your last chance. Listen, the only reason I’m asking you is that you’re the only one who knows how to spacewalk.”

“Spacewalk?” Mark asked, the color drained from his face.

“Yes, you got a problem with that?”

“N-no sir,” 

“Do you have your certification on you?” Mark nodded and handed his boss the laminated paper that had dated it’s expiration back two years. The boss looked it over, his brow furrowed.

“Looks good to me Mark,” he said gruffly. Mark nodded, his mouth suddenly dry and without feeling took back his expired certification and tucked it into his pocket. “Now get prepped, time is money and profits are flying faster out the window than your job will be if you don’t make up for it.

Mark put on his space gear and sealed it up. The formerly familiar components blinked as Mark traced his fingers across the smooth material. He sat down for a moment, letting his body get used to the highly oxygenated environment of spacewalk suits. 

The edges of his handheld stuck into his hip, as he contemplated the next level of the game that he had yet to beat. He took a deep breath, knowing that this would be the last job that he would be able to be eligible for. It took him months just to book this gig. 

All sound disappeared as he walked out into space. The space coaster tracks jutted out from the body of the main ship which he called home. He went out into empty space and used the grips along the hull of the ship to make the repairs on the faded advertisement saying SPACE FUN CENTER. The paint dripped down his forearms in brilliant streaks of yellow and red and he applied the pigment. After finishing, he packed up his paints and pressed the enter button.

“Congratulations. You get to keep your job,” The boss’s words greeted the panting Mark as he unsealed his suit.

“Thank you sir, I’ll do better sir.” It was the last time that Mark would play video games on the job.

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Accepting Madness

We are all submersed! The dueting one-liners peering down at us with a clown-like grin. Assuring us of our unity of the new empire of. (pause) people (look out at the crowd.) where many a memory will be made. A tower of dust in the storm of the interwebs That is we. The legion. Internet, constant connectivity, almost everyone’s engaged. The single most important invention of our age. 

They call some of us zoomers, and we, (ahem) the millennials. We have learned more about the world in a shorter time span Than every person before. Progress has never come without a cost. People are winding up, this tension is breaking like twigs and I just want to be on the right side when the storm hits. Us, All of us, all we have ever wanted was to be good. Paint ourselves in gold stars please put away the stormy clouds, dear. Don’t let yourself drown in fear. We fear fear fear fear for no reason. Just brush off the sinking feelings of fatigue. Acid seems to be wasting away, dripping out of my cochlea and pooling beneath my ear. Maintaining coherent thoughts is difficult when there is so much to process. Saggy mattress blues makes it hard to really get comfortable.

It’s a real trainwreck let me tell you. Makes me feel sleepy but I’m too sleepy to care that I’m not comfortable. I have motivation for nothing but poetry. And I only write poetry when I am sad and that thought makes me depressed.

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Urban Cliffhanger

I hung with my hands against the wall, mere inches of myself keeping me hanging of the side of the building. The window edges were poking from the flat expanse of wall. The earth was a ghastly 200 miles from the ground. The asphalt was simmering in the hot sun. The people mill about with their hands in the pockets, or sides swinging like great mills that are lacking the wind to propel themselves forward. The feet of many a suffering man (and by man I mean all humanity) shuffling along sidewalks. Wearing down the concrete slabs until nubs remained from the fingers of earth.

My body hung like wet laundry from the silver sheet of glass. The gravity pulls strongly on my shoes, weighing down the black bricks, the asphalt calling them down in order to give them a maternal kiss. My fingers, white with the tension, bone hooking onto the red surface.  I inched to the side, slipping just a little bit lower every raise of my hand. My heart fails to send more blood to my hands, the blood slipped down into and around my neck, each beat brought new heat surging. Cold hands, dangling limbs, throbbing heart, burning lungs. All slipped across the building.

The sun plastered the light on to only half of the building. The building; half-eaten and still, was predominating out of the earth, jagged teeth against the smoky dark. The fingers of the right hand slipping down below the sill, tilting my body violently to the side, I swung back, a pendulum against the flat surface. I managed to wedge my foot onto a close-by metal ledge. I stepped to relieve my sweaty cold fingers from the crumbly earth for a moment. But my legs, failing me, I slumped down again. I took a deep breath and re-administered the pressure; I managed to straighten myself that way, pulling with more effort this time from my arms. I took the next step bringing myself about 3 feet from freedom. My arms and lungs were burning with the exertion. I managed to haul my body to the gray dented fire escape, reaching relief.

My head bursting with blood now, I rolled myself over the handrail and landed with a shivering thump on the cool surface. I lay there and breathed for thirty seconds, laughing out my relief, and my head felt clear again I sat up slowly, my body aching and shaking  I hoisted myself to my feet using the handrail as my support. I tittered down the stairs slowly and with effort down towards the dark empty street, my arms swinging like great mills that were lacking the wind.