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For Sale — Anna Shura
Little White — Lauren MacKenzie
Seven Bells — Nate DeChambeau
The Stain — Oscar Wong

For Sale

By Anna Shura

CW: Death

    The taxi driver incorrectly predicted the traffic behavior and crumpled the Taxi de la Marne into the heart of the intersection. The driver’s body snapped over the steering wheel upon impact. The second man, the father bearing the last name Epps, fared no better in the back bench. Only his thick hair was salvaged from the smashed window beneath his head. The crushed body next to the child was the mother. Her fingers laced disjointedly between the door frame and her son’s hand. Only Thomson Epps, the child shielded between parents in the back seat, was identified as breathing.
    His breath raggedly burst from his chest. Sirens pounded Thomson’s head, and he squeezed his dark blue eyes shut. The accident had only been a matter of minutes. That was all the time needed to snap Thomson’s life into pieces. If his family had been a neatly constructed puzzle before, too many pieces were now plucked away. All that was left of the Epps family portrait were gaping holes in a cardboard carved picture. Soggy puzzle squares burned behind Thomson’s eyelids as the tears steadily fell.
    “Come on,” a plump policeman gripped Thomson’s shoulders as though he were a figurine and plucked him from the rubble. Thomson’s knees scraped over the cement as the policeman lifted him upright. The child staggered forward, growth spurt lengthened legs unsteady at their new height. The policeman walked Thomson too quickly to a boxy police car.
    Thomson slid onto the leather seat bench in the back of the car as the plump policeman climbed into the driver’s seat. There was already another policeman settled in the front bench. He flicked his thin cigarette out the window adding to the stench of the street. As the window 2was rolled shut, Thomson could still make out the unmistakable smell of burnt rubber, smoked hair, and spilled gasoline. The two policemen twisted around from the front of the car to stare at the child alone in the backseat.
    “You ‘ave any other family?” The smoker grunted.
    Thomson shook his head.
    “All dead in America? And now polluting our soil…” The smoker wrinkled his nose at Thomson’s California sun-brushed hair.
    “Then you’ll go to St. Nicholas.” The plump policeman started up the shuttering engine. Thomson leaned back into the seat bench as the car bumped down the street. The taxi cab still smoked a dwindling gray trail after the police car.
    The policemen sneered about Americans over the drive to the international orphanage in the 18th District of Paris. The Epps had hoped for a new start on French ground. Perhaps a use for his mother’s language degree would finally present itself. His father lost his last job in the clutches of the United States’ recession, and he saw the cut strings as a chance to jump at his lifelong dream to live across seas. They pooled their earnings and landed in Montmartre. They had arrived in Paris just two short weeks ago. Now, the unfamiliar city blurred across the orphan’s eyes. The ten-year-old frantically tried to rub away the salty distress welling into his vision as the police car came to a halt in front of a serious facade. A matron answered the policemen’s knocking and energetically signed the ruffled papers to enroll Thomson at St. Nicolas Orphanage.
    “Now why don’t we meet the Madame of the maison, hmm?” The matron’s hand guided Thomson to a tall door. “She’ll like you.”
    “How do you know?” Thomson’s hush wafted through the now open study.
    “Because of course she likes pretty little boys.”
    The Madame unfurled from her desk as the child was ushered toward her. She looked down her beak to meet the tall ten-year-old nose to nose and clasped her hands around his face. Cold finger pads gripped Thomson’s cheek bones. She touched the two dark freckles in line with Thomson’s left eye. His mother had always felt the two freckles with a kiss. The Madame traced their shape with a claw.
    She smiled.
    Thomson felt small in her shadowing presence. Her vulture posture made his stomach jolt in discomfort. The Madame’s hands fell to Thomson’s shoulders and spun him around to the matron who pointed a small camera at the boy. Thomson squinted into the prolonged flashes as the polaroids printed.
    The matron quietly handed the images to the Madame. The heat of her breath on the developing photos sent chills down Thomson’s spine.
    “You’ll do nicely here, mon garçon.” Madame glided to her chair with the photos in hand as the matron pulled Thomson to a short coat rack. The matron selected the freshest coat and held it open for Thomson. He tumbled inside as Madame watched from the shadows. Her snakelike eyes gleamed.
    Thomson balled his hands in the pockets of the coat as he followed the matron up the black iron steps. St. Nicolas’ interior design appropriately matched the slumming half of the country. The stiff door frames glared at the new child, and Thomson couldn’t see a single smudge on the practical stone floor.
    Reaching the top of the stairs, the young matron paused in front of centered double doors. Thomson halted behind her on the top step.
    “You will sleep in the boys’ main room.” She twisted the handle to a room with a short ceiling and a rough hundred slim beds each with a shared table and two chairs. The matron led Thomson to the bed in the back left of the room. Across from him, a boy hastily made up the covers as the matron wrinkled her nose.
    “Jacques will be your tablemate,” the matron introduced the short boy. Jacques stiffened at his name and eyed Thomson. “He’ll help you adjust to St. Nicolas. Dinner will be in a short while.”
    Her hand lingered over Thomson’s shoulder although the boy did not stir beneath her touch. No emotion leapt from the fingertips. They were almost plastic.
    Jacques collapsed into a chair at the boys’ shared table when the woman had gone. He waved his hand loosely at the second chair. Thomson slid into the opposite chair as the second boy eyed him.
    “Jacques Malcher.” Jacques held out a hand.
    “Thomson Epps.” Thomson shook blandly.
    “You’ve been tagged.” Jacques stared with interest at the small paper hanging from Thomson’s coat sleeve. Thomson twisted up his arm to look. The short paper was blank and hung from the cuff link.
    “I don’t understand.” Thomson nervously looked back at Jacques. “What does being ‘tagged’ mean?”
    “They think the Toymaker will like you.” Jacques tugged at his own coat sleeves jealously. “He comes in just a week, but enjoy the favoritism while it lasts.”
    “The Toymaker?” Thomson wouldn’t have thought St. Nicolas knew what toys were. There were no personal possessions on any of the other children’s beds. Cupboards were stocked with erasers and mops. Drawers were not dwellings for colorful blocks or plush animals.
    “He comes to pick the beautiful children.” Jacques leaned across the small desk. “I’ve heard they’re treated like the rich. Puddings, new clothes, and beds in Rich France…I’ll never be picked though. No one likes imperfection.” Jacques smiled with his tongue pressing at the gap in his front teeth. Thomson rubbed at his thickly lashed eyes uncomfortably.
    “S’alright. As long as you share your special meals, I might be able to stand it.” Jacques jumped up from his chair as the dinner chime began to clang. “Come on, I want to see what you get.”
    Thomson shuffled behind the shorter boy into the stony dinner hall. The line of children frayed into two at the front. A gruff matron seized Jacques by his collar and ripped him into the left line. Thomson’s tag permitted him to the right.
    Following a girl with natural ringlets, he held out his plate to a dinner matron wielding a large ladle. Wine wafted from the stew’s broth, and Thomson’s stomach gave a hardy growl as he watched the plate fill. Careful to balance the heavy plate in one hand, Thomson took an apple from the large fruit basket at the end of the line before heading back to the dinner benches.
    Jacques laughed at Thomson’s steaming plate as he sat down earning the two of them additional glares from the neighboring children. A meager portion of rice and a smattering of peas was clearly the average dinner. Embarrassed at the gift of the tag, Thomson tipped half of his own serving onto Jacques’ plate.
    “Cheers to the Toymaker.” Jacques dug in.


    Thomson found his mind wandering out the window as the Paris smog battered his view. The dull lights of taxi swarmed across the city with wheels lapping up street puddles. The jostling clop of the last car ride with his parents rushed back. They had been on their way back from furniture shopping. The cramped apartment hadn’t even come with a table. His father had nestled the wooden legs across the family’s laps in the back seat of the taxi. Thomson’s hand searched for his mother’s fingers but only found water rippled papers. His long abandoned French workbook lay damply on the sill beside his bed. Jacques hunched asleep over his own workbook. The smaller boy’s teeth poked out from his bruised mouth. Jacques lack of interest in desk washing was plainly apparent in his doodling, and common punishment from the head matron was a short sucker punch. The head matron would never dare to touch the children in the right-hand line. Thomson’s face could have been glass. Not a single hand swiped across for fear of a blemish.
    “Thomson Epps?” A matron appeared in the central doorway. Jacques jerked awake at her voice. All of the boys in the room turned to stare. Thomson swallowed hard and wove his way between the cold stares and bedframes.
    “Yes?” He waited away from the matron in the darkened door frame. She reached forward greedily to pull Thomson into the hallway. The matron latched the boys’ room closed on the prying eyes and began down the staircase. Not at all grateful for the isolation, Thomson distanced himself from her turned back.
    “You will be seeing a special guest at the end of this week, and the Madame would like you to have a nice suit for the occasion.” The matron strutted to the Madame’s office.
    Thomson’s stomach felt like a handshake held too long. Jacques had not received a new article of clothing for the last five years. Thomson had only arrived two days ago. His new coat fell harder on his shoulders at each step. The white tag flickered in a nasty grin at his sleeve. Thomson shoved his hands into his pockets, but the tag bit into his palms.
    “We are expecting a visit from a very accomplished man. He’s excited to meet you,” the matron continued unperturbed by the boy’s silence.
    “Why is he excited?” His childish question met the matron’s stare.
    “He’s seen your photos of course.”
    Thomson slowly stepped into the office that felt increasingly like a lion’s den. The Madame readily guided Thomson from the doorway. Her fingers rested atop his head and slid match perfectly against the two freckles imprinted by his left eye. Together they halted in the center of the room, and Thomson nervously looked about the office.
    The rack of coats had transformed into bright walls of fabric. Pressed pants, colorful ties, and fresh shoes were displayed in plenty. The Madame and matron shared Cheshire grins alike. Little girls ready to play dress up, they began to pull outfits together.
    “I-” Thomson edged backwards into the desk. Madame held a red suit against his chest. “I don’t want to wear that.”
    The women laughed. A refusal from a child only comes from a lack of understanding.
“It is a compliment to be chosen for such spoils, mon garçon.” Madame forced the first outfit into his hand. “Go ahead into the wardrobe now and change.”
    Frozen with the velvet fabric in hand, Thomson simply stared in response. Madame’s face began to contort in impatience.
    “Go now, boy,” Madame repeated forcefully. She roughly grabbed his coat collar and shoved him towards the large wardrobe.
    Thomson tripped forward as his body reacted, and his thoughts dragged behind in confusion. His breath caught up with his heart as he turned the knob and stepped inside.
    After struggling into the suit, head to toe in crimson velvet, Thomson stood in martyrdom for the women. He repeated the dance from the center of the office to wardrobe to the center of the office at least ten times through. The women never wore tired of their game.
    Every hat and tie constricted Thomson’s thoughts and breath. He couldn’t process why he was offered such clothes. Swaddled in expensively colored silk and velvet, he should have felt like a prince. Under the flashing camera that appeared with each outfit, he felt like a porcelain doll. It was a game of human dress up. The women were little girls again, and he only their toy.
    When the dreary spotlight faded into darkness, the fun ceased. Thomson stumbled quickly away from the women. His neck prickled under the gaze of the matron from the doorway of the boys’ room. Jacques propped himself awake on raw fist to watch Thomson’s return. When Thomson finally reached his bed, he turned around to watch the woman at the door and only saw the latch flickering shut.
    “Where were you?” Jacques pushed his still unfinished workbook aside.
    “Madame’s office.” Thomson still stared at the doors. Jacques’ eyes brightened.
    “Toymaker’s son duties?”
    “I tried on suits.” Thomson’s thoughts felt as though they dripped with cloudy milk. The cold beads of white sunk fear down his spine like the time the cat knocked the milk carton across Thomson’s head. His mother had laughed. Thomson wished to hear her round giggles, but he could only hear the Madame’s pointed laughter cutting sharply from ear to ear.
    “Suits?” Jacques dragged Thomson back into the room. The smaller boy searched his friend’s blank eyes.
    “Ones of all different colors, fabrics, patterns…” Thomson squinted at the ceiling. “No average person would wear them.”
    “Were they costumes?”
    “They were like doll’s clothes.”


    At the last dawn before the Toymaker’s arrival, Thomson awoke to a blue velvet suit spread across his bed. Jacques should have been jealous, but the obnoxious blue couldn’t convince either boy to want to wear the suit. The few other “Toymaker children” had changed into their new outfits immediately. They pranced around the unlucky majority, and the shocks of color crushed the mundane grey Jacques had known for years. Thomson wanted nothing more but to blend into the grey throngs.
    Between the plush food and the tight warmth of the suit at dinner, bubbles frothed in Thomson’s stomach. Each fork lifted a doubt. Every button a worry. Even Jacques couldn’t scarf down Thomson’s last supper. All words seemed to be left painted on each other’s tongues in uneasy silence.
    The gruesome eternity of waiting for the Toymaker’s arrival anchored the boys to their table. The boys eyed each other through distracted glances over work books. Thomson’s round eyes bled a brighter blue to mirror the suit. Jacques’ smudged nose, gritty hair, and strange freckles on his cheek reflected back in Thomson’s polished face.
    “Jacques?” The smaller boy blinked as though he had not expected Thomson to be able to talk. “Do the children the Toymaker takes ever come back?”
    “Why would they?” Jacques dully picked at his worn sleeves. Thomson tried again to feel grateful to be chosen.
    “Although,” Jacques grunted over a bitten fingernail. “I guess there was one kid who almost didn’t go at all.”
    Thomson leaned forward. His layered coat and suit sleeves felt too thick. The padding sweatily rumpled across the table.
    “Yeah, Duncan Vanson. Blonde, Swede. They liked his hair best. Prepped him all month,” Jacques quietly remembered.
    “What happened to him?” Thomson’s voice felt sticky in his mouth.
    “Well, he went down and met the Toymaker and everything. The Toymaker toasted them with a special soda, but Duncan wouldn’t drink. I’ve always thought I would have made myself thirsty. The sugar that must be in anything the Toymaker gifts?” Jacques gratefully lapsed into daydreams of Croquembouches wrapped in glistening sugar, flouncing chocolate soufflés, and sweet hopscotch marked in colorful petit fours.
    “The Toymaker brings food?” This was a new detail to Thomson. Jacques looked surprised.
    “I didn’t tell you that?” The fact that Jacques could forget to tell anyone about food was incredibly unsettling. “It’s the Toymaker’s tradition. A send off. Sometimes a cake, sometimes a soda. Duncan took one smell and refused.”
    “Why?” The blank tag stared back at Thomson from the sleeve on the table.
    “No one knows. I don’t know what he thought it was. They wrapped up early when he started screaming.” Jacques frowned. “The Toymaker drives the smallest car, just two rows,but I guess they all piled in with the toys.”
    “How many went with him?” Thomson couldn’t think of a car that would fit more than four children.
    “There were seven of them.” Jacques’ voice trailed away. The impossibility of the car dropped heavily on the table.
    “What type of toys were in the car, Jacques?” Thomson whispered.
    Jacques looked at the boy’s playful clothing. Thomson’s large eyes were thickly adorned with lashes. His skin was as smooth as porcelain.
    “Dolls.” Jacques breathed.


    The Toymaker smiled at the sight of St. Nicolas as his little car rounded the corner. A small box of rose glass bottles rattled over the cobblestone street. The man’s sharp eyes squinted up at the windows but couldn’t see the shadowed faces peering out of them.
    To be safe, the car chugged to a halt at the side door. Shadowed from the looming orphanage, the Toymaker shuffled through the glove compartment. A neatly pinned stack of photographs emerged. Ten blinking youths stared out from the Toymaker’s hands. He paused at the last square image. A thick haired boy peeked around pointed fingertips as the man traced the two freckles adorning the child’s face.
    “The Madame’s garçon.” The Toymaker whispered gleefully and slipped the photos into his coat pocket. He pushed against car door to drop his long legs onto the cobblestones and stepped into the scuffed curb.
    The Toymaker pulled open the cold handle to the back seat and counted the tissue stuffed boxes stacked across the leather bench. He grasped the topmost box in spidery hands and peered through the sheer front to the plush bedding inside. Turning the box to the side, golden print trailed across the stiff cardboard. The Toymaker smirked at the doll’s description:
    “Complete with California sunned hair, dark blue eyes edged in dark lashes, and his two unique freckles, enjoy this American boy.”

Little White

By Lauren MacKenzie

    On my way to my very first shift at the Neptune, Mississippi post office, I think, as I always do, about what I will tell people about Daddy. Neptune folk always stop me in the market or on the sidewalk, telling me how much I’m getting to be lookin’ like my mother, which always turns into prying about my Daddy. There’s two different types of askin’ when it comes to Daddy: there’s the kind that comes from the folks raised in Neptune who only come back for a short while, folks who have no idea what he’s been up to in recent years. Those folk wanna shoot the shit as Daddy says, rehashing that famed touchdown back in ’31 that won Neptune High the state cup, calling him Chucky boy and all that.
    He’s doin’ mighty fine, I usually start out. And then I attach one of the white lies I’ve made up about Daddy over the years—he’s coaching ball for the high school now or he’s still playing semi-professional. I’m not even quite certain what semi-professional football is or if it even exists, but people always grin and nod when they hear it so I keep it in my vocabulary. Sometimes I tell them, he’s gotten into business—a statement I keep nice and vague so they feel impressed without asking me what kind of business, since the answer to that question changes frequently and is not all that impressive I reckon. Then they usually ask about some woman named June Crenshaw, who I reply is not my mama even though I know she very well is. They laugh a little and the conversation ends, and as they walk away I make a silent pitch to Mother Mary—or whoever’s up there—that I will sell my whole entire marble collection to the angels in heaven if the holy spirits don’t let Daddy be the one to sell them their cigarettes at the convenience store.
    It’s really not the Neptune visitors that give my white lies a run for their money. It’s the townies, the Neptune lifers, askin’ me about Charles Covington, and I swear they got something in their eyes when they ask it. What job he’s holding down, if he’s even got one. They sometimes ask if I need anything or if Mama’s doing any better, although I don’t know quite what they mean when they ask me that. Sometimes my white lies run dry and I look like a fool in these conversations. And so, on my way to my very first shift, I make up the scenarios in my head of what I will tell the Neptune post office folk depending on whether it’s Chucky boy or Charles they’re asking after.
    I can see the post office at the end of the lane now, with its garish-looking mail-delivering automobile parked out front of it, and I decide that today my Daddy has business up in Jackson and that I have a boyfriend off fighting in the Korean War. I find that people seldom ask about what kind of business Daddy’s doing as long as I tell ‘em he’s off doin’ it somewhere. The Korean War boyfriend white lie just kind of rolls off my tongue in an abrupt fashion as I speak with my new boss—
    “They have boys that young serving in the war?” She seems a bit simple-minded to me, Dorothy’s her name. She tells me I can call her Dot but I think that’s a stupid nickname, so I pretend to forget she says that and keep on calling her Dorothy. There’s a gap between her two front teeth and another gap I can see between two teeth on the bottom row when she talks. Or maybe that tooth fell out, I wonder. I reckon I shouldn’t ask. I am so caught up on her invisible bottom-row tooth that I have a momentary lapse in my responses.
    “Y-yes, he’s eighteen. Had his birthday last November,” I tell her, and I hope she won’t catch onto the quiver in my voice.
    Dorothy leads me to a small, dark room in the back of the post office, and I swear it looks just like a hoarder’s living room, or at least what I’d imagine a hoarder’s living room to look like. I can’t even describe the color of the floor tile—and that’s no white lie. Sacks spilling over with white envelopes border the four walls, and worn cardboard boxes labelled with chicken-scratch handwriting sit, near-empty, on top of mounds of letters and sheets of postage stamps. I’m to fulfill the role of mail sorting and organizing, Dorothy tells me. I tell her to shove her invisible tooth up her ass. Not actually, but I think it really hard.
    As I stand in the middle of this downright claustrophobic room in the back of the post office, I think to myself that this is what hell must look like. Jesus—or someone at least—says that heaven is the one that’s pure white, but I have to disagree. Hell is the color of white envelopes and the feeling of a cardstock papercut. I dwell on this until—
    “Beverly?” Dorothy calls out my name again, in her nasal-like high pitch, and I decide that I hate speaking with her. I respond in a pleasant tone nonetheless.
    “Yes?” I ask her, peering up at her gap toothed-smile from where I’m kneeling on the ground. She steps into the room a little and I notice that the silhouette of a person appears behind her.
    “This is who’ll be training you today,” She tells me, and as the boy steps under the lightbulb suspended above the doorframe, I forget for a moment that I am in white envelope hell.
    Dick is his first name, and I can’t even recall his last—I’m too caught up on the way his lips move around the word Dick for any of the other sounds to make any sense. He shakes my hand firmly, and veins that look like plump earthworms come bulging out of his skin.
    “You in college?” He asks me. He is tall, taller than Daddy even, with ringlets of hair that look like—
“I’ll be in 12th after the summer,” Caramel drizzle on a sundae. I can’t stop looking at his—
    “I see,” Pupils, big and round, like the UFOs kids swear they can see at night over the west side of the river. And I think—“I go t’Ole Miss. Second year. Pre-med.”
    “Ole Miss?” Maybe I am in love with him. “My daddy played for Ole Miss.” The lie rolls off my tongue like a steadfast truth, but my cheeks feel like they’re boiling nonetheless. I normally have no reservations about telling my fibs to strangers, but Dick doesn’t feel like a stranger. I can hear Daddy chastisin’ me in my head—don’t tell me no white lies, and I feel a bit of remorse for fibbin’ to the first pretty boy that’s ever held a conversation with me.
    “Football?” Dick’s low rasp pulls my mind out of its wandering.
    “He played football I’m guessing?” All the while that he speaks, I begin to grow conscious of how I’m standing, slouchin’ over him while he sorts through the bins of letters on the ground. And I think to myself, as I look at this great big monstrosity of dead trees and wasted paper, that I truly can’t fathom a single person in Neptune, Mississippi who would be receiving mail.
    “Yes, football,” I reply. “wide receiver.” And Dick nods. I kneel down beside him, my legs impulsively criss-crossing over one another before I become conscious of how childish I likely look. I quickly fix them, sitting instead on my knees, and begin following along with whatever Dick is doing. I had not quite paid attention when he was showing me how to sort, so I watch him for a short while, his hands turning over each letter all gentle-like while he swiftly organizes them into their proper plastic white bin. He’s experienced in all this I think, where I am experienced in nothing. For the first time I feel a bit strange living in my own skin with this knowledge. I find myself lost in watching him, the way his hands move with experience, while my fingers dent the edges of the letter I am holding. He arches his back to reach for a bin situated farther from him, the bottom of his shirt coming up a bit and exposing some skin in the process of it, skin with a deep tan, the kind of deep tan you get from swimming at the river all day long, the type of tan that—
    “And what was your name again?” Dick is looking at me suddenly, and I become conscious all at once that I had climbed into a daydream of sorts.
    “B-Beverly,” I reply, and I sound stupid because I choke on the B. Dick gets caught on the sound of my name I think, he nods his head slightly when I say it.
    “That’s pretty,” He tells me. He’s not looking at me when he says it, for which I am thankful for. My cheeks hurt from all the blood in them, and I decide then that I will break things off with my imaginary Korean War boyfriend.
    On my way home from my first shift at the Neptune, Mississippi post office, I think, as I have been the whole entirety of the afternoon, about how I can make that tall, earthworm-handed, UFO-eyeballed boy fall in love with me. I throw my bicycle against the gate extra hard so I can wake up Mama from her afternoon nap. I can see the back of her neck straighten up from the bay window.
    When I was in 6th I had Suzanne Jacobs over, the first and last girl from school who has ever come to my house, and she told me that my Mama was a vegetable on account of her silence. Later that evening when I asked Daddy if Mama was a vegetable, he got real cross with me, and I never again brought up the subject. Over the course of the years I have forgotten what she sounds like. She is a quiet person, very quiet, so quiet that I very often catch myself in the realization that I don’t remember what her voice sounds like. It’s sort of low for a woman, I think. That’s likely all I can tell you.
    I seat myself on the far end of the green couch with the yellow flowers so I don’t have to make direct eye contact with the Mother Mary painting on the back wall when I tell my Mama about the first boy I hope to date outside of my imagination.
    I had a very good day at work today, Mama.
    I reckon I’ll like working at the post office. Some interesting stuff sorting mail is.
    And…Mama?—I start to get a bit shy here—I like my coworkers a lot.
    I swear I see her ears perk up a bit when I say it. And yes, I can see that little movement in her ears all the way across the room from the green couch with the yellow flowers even if it sounds a bit far-fetched. I have been told I tend to exaggerate the truth of things, but I promise I would never lie about my observations and I would definitely, most absolutely never lie about my mama.
    Daddy’s ears don’t perk up the way that Mama’s did when I tell him that evening at the dinner table about my first day at the post office. “I’m glad you had a good first day,” He tells me, although I don’t reckon he means it, speaking in a flat tone in between chews of the hodge-podge dinner I’ve prepared: mashed potatoes and tuna from a can with saltine crackers on the side. It was all we had in the cupboard.
    “Did you have an alright day, Daddy?” I ask him, rubbing the neck of my fork between my pointer finger and thumb.
    “I have a job still,” Daddy replies, not looking me right in the eyes. “pretty good day, I’d say.”
    When I go to sleep that night, I think about how asking boys for favors in a sweet voice with a high pitch is the way you plant the seed with them. It’s a fact I learned from eavesdropping on Patty Francis in homeroom whenever she talked about her Korean War boyfriend—which was always. I hardly knew anything about Dick, let alone his last name, but if I knew anything about teenage boys, it’s that they all have a thing for cars.
    “You don’t know how to drive?” Dick asks me the following evening as we load the mail truck with tomorrow’s deliveries. Those pretty eyeballs of his reach a size I couldn’t fathom them reaching. It 6was a risk I was taking, letting it slip that my Daddy had to drop me off at work. That in itself is a white lie, seeing that Daddy has never once dropped me off at the post office. I’m trying mighty hard not to get into the habit of telling Dick my white lies, but I figure telling him one truth and one lie will cancel things out. I shake my head.
    “My daddy says there ain’t no point in it, ‘cause he bought me a bicycle a few years back and I don’t go nowhere.” Dick makes a muffled hum in reply and I start to panic, hoping I haven’t done anything wrong. “Would you teach me maybe?” The question slips out in my normal tone, and I quickly tack on—“To drive, I mean.” in a much higher pitch. Dick regards me for a long while, and I think that this is likely the end of anything that would have unfolded between us. I feel my cheeks grow hot as I curse out Patty Francis for lying about asking boys for favors. I am a child in his eyes now, I must be. For a moment, neither of us move. My neck cranes upward to look at Dick as he straddles two mail bins from where I stand in the dirt. He drops the bin in his hands suddenly, shoves his fist into his pocket, and retrieves a ring of silver keys—the ring of post office keys that Dorothy has trusted him with.
    “An eighteen-year-old girl should know how to drive,” He tells me as he jingles the keys with his free hand.
    “I’m seventeen, actually,” I reply. “won’t be eighteen until—” Dick jumps down from the bed of the truck, his shoes meeting the gravel and sending a cloud of dirt into my tube socks. I hardly mind. Even when we are both on the ground, I am still looking up at him.
    “A girl should know how to drive,” He tells me again, and presses a shiny key into my hand bearing the name Ford.
    And so, I learn how to drive on the Neptune, Mississippi mail truck. If Daddy had it his way, I reckon I wouldn’t have learned how to drive in the whole entirety of my life. He says there’s nothing meaningful out beyond Neptune, that every other town in every other state is just the same as Neptune, only less familiar. I reckon I’d like to test that theory one day. This is what I think about as I try my damnedest to dry my sweaty palms by rubbing them against the steering wheel. I can barely get my feet to reach the pedals and the brake pedal—I think it’s the brake pedal—won’t quit sticking. Dick tells me not to use both feet but I do it anyways, not to spite him, but just because I can’t imagine why someone would only use one foot to drive when you’re born with two. I also kick my shoes off at one point, which I don’t tell Dick either. Driving at night is a bitch I think—that’s what Dick would have said about it.
    “Working ‘til 7’s a bitch,” He tells me, and I nod absently, trying to keep my focus on driving slow and straight. Dick’s got his work boots up on the dash and won’t stop fiddling with the radio, but I hardly mind. “This radio’s fucked,” Dick says, smashing his thumbs between AM and FM, and it sounds like the reporter talking about the kid that drowned in the Mississippi River today is trying to have a conversation with some Ella Fitzgerald song I can’t place. The sky is starting to get ashy looking as it always seems to after dinnertime. The sunset hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not day anymore. It’s something different. Today’s death war death toll prevails through the radio static, and Dick promises me next driving lesson he’ll teach me about something called stick.
    “And you shift it into park like this,” Dick puts his left hand on top of my right one, which has been tightly gripping the gear shift ever since I narrowly avoided colliding with a mailbox. I feel his fingers kind of slip into mine as he puts the truck into park on my behalf.
    I think about that feeling all night as I roll around in my sheets, all but sleeping, interlocking my own fingers in a sorry attempt to recreate it. As I slip into rem, I think about how I will run away from Neptune, Mississippi, about how Dick and I will take the mail truck and drive it west, west of the river until there is no more river, keep going west until we hit the Atlantic or the Pacific or the Indian, whatever’s out there.
    I start to come home late from work on account of the driving lessons, and I reckon that Daddy is beginning to get short with me for not having his supper fixed when he gets back from the convenience store.On the day that it all unravels I am seated on the green couch with the yellow flowers when the flare of his headlights infiltrate the front curtain and begin swing dancing across the carpet, all haphazard-like. I couldn’t possibly go into kitchen right when I got home at six-thirty. I sealed the front door behind me and leaned up against it, my head dizzied from all the swooning I’d been doing ever since Dick’s hand brushed up against my wrist—likely on accident, but my heart burned a hole through itself when I felt the touch of his earthworm veins against my protruding wrist bone. I had to tell her about it.When we hear the engine of his pickup come roaring into the mud patch we call our driveway, Mama and I exchange a glance—one of those wide-eyed ones. One gloomy September evening years ago, I recall my daddy hitting an elk in the road when we were driving home from Mama’s special doctor. I was half asleep in the back seat when it happened, but I swear to you that my daddy meant it when he hit the thing, and I will never forget the way the headlights caught hold of its wide-eyed blood shot pupils, a numbed face reconciling with the knowledge that it’s good as dead. That’s what Mama looks like right now, that elk.
    “How did today go, Daddy?” I omit the word work from my sentence. That’s a strategy I’ve learned. Daddy stares at me for a long while, his crimson-like cheeks more flushed than regular. I steal a glance at his fist, which has the convenience store employee apron all balled up in it. I think I can reassure him maybe. “You had a good run with that one. You must’ve been at that place for something like—” I count the months up in my head and display the total on my fingers as I do in order to keep track.
    “Three,” Daddy says, huffing the reply through the slits between his teeth. I am surprised he knows the exact amount of time—that’s why Daddy loses his jobs often, on account of his forgetfulness. He says his brain isn’t any good because of all the football he played when he was my age, but I often think it’s because he has to make up for Mama’s brain being no good at all.
    “It’s alright, Daddy,” I tell him. “I’m working extra-long hours at the post office so you shouldn’t worry about the money right now.” Daddy snaps at me the instant the words leave my mouth—We wouldn’t be worrying about money if you weren’t born! I think that’s what he says, but I start to do this thing where I slip away from it all. It’s this skill I’ve developed over the years when Daddy gets irritable and the noise gets to be too much. I am able to make the sounds less loud and the sights less sharp and just exist in this haze in between everything. Daddy is still yelling I think but I feel that I can stand it. When I go to bed, I can hear him with Mama in the next room over and I can hear the sound of her voice—quick blips of low-pitched sound in between Daddy’s yellings. I want desperately to come back up, to hear what she sounds like for even just a few minutes.
    There’s a shoebox I keep under my bed that I fetch when Daddy and Mama get to arguing. I keep two photographs in the shoebox that I found while rifling through Mama’s dresser once—one of Mama and Daddy when they were young, smiling in the woods together somewhere, and they look happy to me. There’s another, one of Mama by her lonesome, standing by the river. She looks caught off-guard as if she wasn’t expecting to get her picture taken, and I like to think that it was Daddy taking her photo, reveling in her beauty. Then I think about the times when I have known for certain that my Mama is not a vegetable, in particular a faint memory I have from when I was young. There was a lullaby she used to sing me, at least I like to think she would sing it to me. It’s gotten hard to distinguish my imagination from my memory. If the yelling gets too loud, I like to hum it. The words are long gone but I can still recall the edges of it, like having the shell of a river beetle without having the guts inside. It’s an old song I think.
    Hmmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm….in my….hmmm hmm hmmm hmmm….going….
    When Daddy is done with Mama, I can faintly hear the sound of his belt jingling as he undoes it in the doorframe of my bedroom, but I pretend I am sleeping. As it happens, I begin to think to myself all of the white lies I can tell Dorothy at the post office about why I will be late to work tomorrow, and why I will be bruised.
    I fell off my bicycle on the way here. I am learning to drive and I hit a mailbox. Daddy came home from Jackson.
    As it turned out, no one was sending letters during the summer of ‘51, so to pass the time Dick and I go for daily drives in the mail truck when the sorting gets slow. I stop coming home promptly after my shifts end.
    “You’re getting kind of good at driving for a girl,” Dick tells me, and I smile even though it doesn’t feel like a compliment.
    After a driving lesson one night Dick lays me down all gentle-like on the bed of the truck because he says it will be easiest there even though the seats would be more comfortable, and I trust him even though I imagine—or maybe just hope—that all this is new to him too, but I think at least I am the very first girl he has ever kissed on top of a mail pile. It’s black as pitch outside, and all I can think about is how I can smell the stamps all around me—they have a very distinct smell that I can’t quite describe but have come to know very well and usually this scent does not get a rise out of me but right now it is all I can think about. The dark, too, I am thinking about the dark and the sounds of the crickets because I am always at home when I see the dark and hear the crickets, and it is much past my bedtime and I know Daddy is angry and Mama probably worried. Maybe Mama even got out of her chair, maybe she is pacing the room and speaking—maybe Mama is speaking! Maybe Mama is yelling to defend herself against Daddy’s yelling because he always blames the misfortunes on Mama and then takes them out on me, but maybe Mama is finally fighting back, speaking in that voice of hers, that voice I can’t quite remember the sound of but that I think is sort of low for a woman. I am thinking about all of these things as my bare skin sticks to the metal floor of the mail truck, as the balmy air of mid-July nighttime gets my sweat all over the letters I’m supposed to be delivering tomorrow and Dick does things to me that I don’t think constitute kissing anymore.
    I am unable to ride my bike home despite how much I try, so I wheel it beside me, pushing it down the street that will become the gravel that will become the dirt that will become my driveway. I take small steps so that I feel the hurt less and fixate my attention on the sounds of my shoes scuffing against the pavement and the drawn-out chirping from the crickets. And as I listen to these invisible noises, wafting out from somewhere under the brush, I decide that Mama is like a cricket, but maybe a reverse cricket. Something I can see but cannot hear.
    I half expect Daddy to be waiting at the gate to club me, but not even the dim porch light is on when I return home. As I lay my bicycle against the fence and make my way up the path, I can see Mama’s silhouette from where she sits in her chair.
    I whisper when I come in the front door in case Daddy is sleeping. I am surprised to see her seated there, much past her bedtime, hands bracing the rests of the chair and eyes fixated on me.
    Why are you awake, Mama?
    Is it because of me?
    I swallow all the saliva that has been forming on my tongue in one gulp and take a seat across from her on the green couch with the yellow flowers. Both Mama and the Mother Mary portrait are making direct eye contact with me. Their pupils are obscured by floral shadows cast by the curtains, but the whites of their eyes look bright like bleached tablecloths on the day after Thanksgiving. I stare at my Mama, as I often do, but I think there is something different in her eyes. I think that she is listening.
    “Mama?” I ask her, speaking in a firm voice I never use with Mama. I think in my mind I have always viewed her as a fragile thing, a being that could not withstand the garishness of normal human voice. I wonder, in this moment, how I drew that unspoken conclusion. I look at her now and I see a tired woman, a worn woman, one who has not spent her existence being coddled by gentle voices. I decide to ask her a question I have been turning over in my mind for a long while because I need to know if men start out good and then become bad or if they are always that way. Mama is looking at me different, I think because I am using this firm voice, and I swear I can see her part her lips a little.
    “What was Daddy like when he was young?”

Seven Bells

 By Nate DeChambeau

    The Man in Grey had worn the wrong boots that morning and thought that this mattered. His steps felt too light on the dusty ground, the steady clink of spurs noticeably absent. He cursed himself, wishing he could go grab the correct pair. But the sun was halfway across the horizon now, burning colors into the sky. The chance for that had passed.
    The thought had crossed his mind that slipping on the wrong pair of boots could be an omen, a forewarning of failure. He dismissed the notion. The Man had always held a small disdain for those who believed in such things. But still, the thought remained.
    The Boy in Black had worn the correct boots, but he did not want to be there all the same. A steady pulse beat like a Native’s drum behind his eye. The bandage around his hand had long since fallen off. He did not notice the other man’s footwear, but he would have gained a glimmer of hope if he had.
    The Man walked alone through the crowd, slowly taking his place on the packed dirt road. It should have been busy with people at this time, but the street was empty, the people gathered along either side.
    The Boy and his companions moved through the crowd, who parted around them. He could hear the whispers, see the nervous staring. His group surrounded him: a thin, abrasive barrier between him and the townsfolk. He felt a rough hand push his shoulder as they laughed and joked. But they stayed with the crowd on the side of the street, and he walked out into the open alone.
    The Mayor began to speak, a long drawl that he thought imbued significance to his words. The Man in Grey did not listen, instead surveying The Boy, lit by the sunlight to his back. His youth was a little unexpected. The many drawings and descriptions The Man had heard all made him out to be older. He took careful note of his clothes, the black hat too large for his head, and the leather holster at his waist.
    The Boy listened to The Mayor, to the lengthy instructions and ramblings. He forced himself to listen, making sure he would not miss anything. It could be important, and The Boy grasped at any chance to gain an edge. But his mind kept trying to stray, to the house on the hill, and the cabin in Shady Creek.
    The Man in Grey kept his eyes focused on The Boy as the Mayor finished his speech and moved back into the crowd. There was always a crowd. The Man let his eyes quickly slide over the faces, letting their excitement steel his resolve. He knew the gasps they would make after the first shot. The Man enjoyed those gasps.
    “It’s not too late, boy,” said The Man. “We don’t need to do this.”
    The Boy in Black did not respond. He knew, and The Man knew, that it was indeed too late, and had been for a long time. He could almost hear Railroad laughing in the crowd. Railroad knew better than anyone. He squared his shoulders, letting the silence grow. The onlookers murmured, admiring his stoicism. The Boy’s hand trembled on his belt buckle.
    “Alright then, boy. On the seventh bell.”
    The Man’s eyes squinted as he focused on his opponent. The dusty wind picked up, swirling down the street, running its fingers through windchimes. Discordant notes rang through the air, quieting the crowd. The Man’s long cloak flapped and billowed behind him, and he almost smiled at the dramatic timing of it all.
    The Boy in Black pushed his coattails away from his holster, out of the way. He kept his hand at the ready as he looked toward the clock face on the church steeple. It had always reminded him of the grandfather clock in the house on the hill, the broken one that he kept promising to fix. But this one worked, its great hands ticking irrevocably on, swinging down like an executioner’s ax.
    The sky behind The Man glowed orange and red. The sun cast a long shadow from behind the church, making the edges shine and blur, the bell glimmering like a great bronze diamond as it finally began to move, ringing out its first chime.
    The throbbing in The Boy’s head had moved to his hand now. The long, thick cut flared in a steady rhythm, a souvenir from the game he had played the night before. The Boy wondered why they couldn’t have stopped earlier, but he knew why. Railroad had wanted one last round. He remembered his mocking smile, taunting him to pick up the dagger and play again. Railroad always got what he wanted. Just like the cabin in Shady Creek.
    The Boy in Black blew out a heavy breath, trying to expel the memory along with it. His hand wavered by his holster as he prepared to move. The wind had died down now, the chimes fading into a deadly silence, broken only by the second ring of the church bell.
    The Man in Grey adjusted his footing, kicking little footholds into the dirt. His feet felt too light, too unstable. These boots pushed his toes together, making his feet cramp if he put too much weight on them.
    For the briefest of moments, he wondered what would happen if he simply left. He could ride home, find the right boots, make sure the child was asleep, and be back before the sun was fully across the horizon. But the thought was dismissed as soon as it arrived. The Man told himself it did not matter, they were boots. If it were his holster or his gun, that could make a difference. But his boots were unrelated, irrelevant. The church bell rang a third time as he tried to banish this thought from his mind.
    The Boy in Black listened to the chime and thought again to the grandfather clock in the house on the hill. He could almost hear the little blond girl asking him for the hundredth time why it never sang anymore. The Boy didn’t know how to tell her that the man who made it wasn’t coming back.
    If he made it back to that house, he decided, he would fix it. His Da’s old drawings had to be around somewhere. If he found those, he might be able to figure out what was wrong with the clock. That would make the girl happy, he knew.
    The fourth chime of the church bell rang out as a tumbleweed rolled onto the street between them, scuffing against the dust. It had been thrown by one of the local boys, who thought he was far funnier than he actually was.
    The Man in Grey thought about the child running around the small bedroom, shrieking and laughing, throwing toys at him. He had laughed and tossed them back for a short while, but the time had grown late, and he had left for the town. The child had pouted and cried, demanding he stay. He had ignored it.
    The Man thought to himself that he should play with the child more. Perhaps after this, he supposed. But no, he would have work to do, and this sort of work left a sour feeling in his heart.Tomorrow, after he had the reward money, he decided. The church bell chimed once more, as somewhere in the crowd, Old Nelson began to feel an itch grow in his nose.
    The Boy in Black felt the blood pulsing in his head, a steady beat, like footsteps. He could still hear Railroad’s footsteps slowly moving around the cabin in Shady Creek. They had tapped a steady cadence into the wood, until, at last, they came up behind him just as he opened the closet door.
    He still didn’t know what drew him to it in the first place. Some imperceptible noise, perhaps, or a hint of movement. The Boy’s jaw tightened at the thought. He closed his eyes for a moment, focusing on how he would move his hand on the seventh bell, like he had a thousand times before. But he could still hear those footsteps pounding in time with his heart.
    As the penultimate church bell rang, The Man in Grey felt his eyes flicking over to the crowd, drawn to their pale faces and dark clothes. They were like funeral mourners, waiting for the casket to drop into the ground. He hated mourners, with their fake tears and condolences. He remembered how they had looked at him as the child cried in his arms, too young to understand what was happening then but knowing something was wrong. His hand flexed by his holster, steady, and Old Nelson felt the itch in his nose get worse.
    The Boy in Black did not want to move his hand today, just as he had not wanted to when he found the young couple hiding in the closet of the cabin in Shady Creek. If he had acted faster, maybe it would have ended differently. It was almost funny; Railroad said that he was faster than anyone he had ever seen. But in that moment, The Boy had just stared at them blankly as the footsteps came up behind him and told him what to do. Railroad always got what he wanted.
The seventh bell rang out from the tall church spire. It hung in the air, as though at the end of a noose, slowly swinging, fading, until the only sound was the dry wind rustling the nearby shutters.
    The Man in Grey and The Boy in Black waited, neither daring to make the first move. The silence grew and stretched, warping like some monstrous creature. Their eyes locked onto their opponents, ready for any sign of movement. Hands cocked at their hips, they waited, hearts beating madly. The sun glowed from behind the church, the duelists tensed, and Old Nelson finally sneezed.
    There was a flash of movement and the crowd gasped.
    In the end, picking the wrong pair of boots did not kill The Man in Grey. They were not an omen, for he was right in that those do not exist. This thought did not comfort him as he fell back into the dust and dirt, revolver dropping unfired to the ground. His eyes looked into the sky, colored like a beautiful, blazing canvas, and thought of the woman in the casket, being lowered into the ground by unfeeling mourners. He knew the same would happen to him.
    The Boy in Black slowly lowered his hand as the crowd dissolved into chatter and chaos. He could hear Railroad and the others laughing and hollering as they ran up behind him. They pulled him along to his horse and he followed numbly. His hand, so steady in its movements a moment ago, shook as he tried to grab the reins.
    The Boy looked back, trying to catch a glimpse of the fallen man’s face.His eyes searched desperately, but the crowd blocked his view. Hooves pounding into the dirt, his horse fell into a steady rhythm, kicking up dust. As he turned back around, he felt it stinging his eyes, forcing them to water. At least, that is what he would tell the others.

The Stain

By Oscar Wong

It was supposed to be a typical morning: the father’s whistles being drowned by the shower; the mother reaching a new personal record on the amount of foundation under her eyes; the grandmother adding too much salt to the eggs yet again; the grandfather twisting the dial on the radio to RTHK as his grandson gazed at the wall behind him. But then the whistling stopped and the father came out with a towel around his waist and suds around his chest.
    “There’s no water.”
    “What do you mean there’s no water?” The mother rebuked. “There’s water on my floor right now!”
    The grandmother did not let herself reply before going back into the kitchen. She twisted the faucet expecting a little waterfall but was disappointed when nothing happened.
    “We did pay the water bill this month, right?” Asked the grandmother.
    The mother pointed at the son and said. “He must have forgotten to go to their office or something.”
    “Are you blaming this on my grandson?”
    The father went into the bedroom to find more dry towels before the conversation went any further. And just as the women were about to lecture everyone about their past gratitudes and grudges, the Cheungs from the end of the hall came banging on the door.
    “Hey! Mr. Wong! Mrs. Wong! Are you there? The water’s cut off for everyone! Hello?”
    The mother opened the door as the other residents came out with grievances of their own. Murmurs about half-washed clothes and half-cooked meals echoed down the dilapidated hallway, and it wasn’t until a few more waves of grunts and gasps that washed over the family before they would send the son down to the security office.
    The 15-year old was fidgeting his fingers in the elevator surrounded by half-rusted walls. Three floors down, five people entered on the 15thFloor. Soon, four other people came in on the 12th, five more entered on the 9thfloor, and then the passengers metastasized enough in the elevator and the alarm screeched in agony. The passengers were mushed against each other for what seemed like an eternity until the LED display flashed a big red G and the doors rumbled open to a stuffy concourse filled with the screams and shouts of even more residents demanding a meeting with the supervisor. The security guard was backed up in a corner and channeled his frustrations into his raspy voice in an attempt to calmly and respectfully warn the rest of the residents to think twice before doing anything regrettable, but unfortunately his cadence was inopportune, and his squealing was drowned out by the roars Mr. Cheung, the Chairman of the Owner’s Committee.
    “You poor-fucking-guy! Don’t tell me your supervisors told you to do this?”
    “Do what?” The guard recoiled: “I only get paid 30 dollars an hour here. You’re mistaking me for someone important.”
    “What’s going on?” The son forced himself between the two men. “Mr. Cheung.” He addressed the Chairman: “What’s going on here? Why is the water gone? And why are you yelling at him?”
    “You there! The boy from the Wongs!” The Chairman pointed a fat finger towards the son. “Help me get through to this vaginal piece of shit that he needs to man up and fix this issue as soon as possible.”
    “No! Mr. Cheung!” The guard raised his hand to protect his head. “I don’t know anything! Don’t do anything you’ll regret! Please! I just started my shift!”
    The son looked at the guard.
    “Mr. Cheung, are you sure? I don’t think he knows anything. He seems confused like everybody else…”
    “Should’ve fucking expected it from you family of cowards.” The Chairman leered at the son and spat on the ground before he resumed ripping into his prey.
    In the midst of the tumult, the security guard shouted at the child: “Call the shift manager for me! His card is at my Desk! He’ll know who to call! Help!”
    The son forced himself behind the counter and rummaged through the notices, visitor forms, bikini magazines, before unearthing a crooked name card, He dialed the number on the courtesy phone; it did not go through.

    The manager was standing on the counter addressing the crowd. “We are only serving water to customers today! Please leave if you are not buying anything. I repeat: We are only serving water to customers at this McDonald’s! I don’t care if there’s apparently a water shortage someplace else. Either go to another branch of McDonald’s or leave.”
    “So what you’re saying,” The grandfather pointed towards the commotion in the restaurant, “is that Mr. Cheung was acting like that?”
    “Yeah.” The son fidgeted with his fingers under the table. “He called me a coward when I didn’t do what he told me to do.”
    “That Gwong Sui piece of… I mean what happened to the men in this community.Where’s the fucking decency?”
    “What’s decency?”
    “It means acting with restraint. Listen. I don’t care what happens outside of the house, I want you to stay firm and take control of things if you need to. Just do what you think is right.”
    “So anyways,” the father slid into the sea right beside the grandfather and emptied out the contents of his paper bag, handing each person at the table a cup of water and a wrapped bun. “I found some newspapers lying around the table.”
    “And?” The grandfather took a sip.
    “Daddy” asked the son. “Can I use your phone?”
    He went through his pockets and handed the phone to the son. “Anyways,” he continued. “I was thinking they could probably have some job openings printed up there. Maybe.”
    The grandfather choked on the water. “Can’t you focus on something more concrete? I mean why couldn’t you find a job right here? Just go ask the manager after he’s done yelling at people.”
    “And you spend your time at home doing nothing.”
    “I’m helping my son with his homework for the summer.”
    “So, boy, tell me” The grandfather looked at his grandson. “Was your father helpful?”
    “Huh?” He looked up from the cracked monitor that printed FREE McDONALD’S WIFI and saw the two men looking at him across the table. He saw that his father’s lips were trembling and replied “I guess it was okay?” before he looked back down.
    “See?” The father chimed in. “He said it was okay.”
    “You better step up quick while you’re not the man of the house yet. One of these days I’m going to be gone and you’re going to have to-”
    “It’s fine, Dad. I think I’m fine.”
    Beneath the cracked screen the loading wheel kept spinning.

    After reading that a decommissioned anti-riot water cannon truck will be sent by the Hong Kong Housing Agency to the estate at 3 p.m. sharp, the family scattered throughout the neighbourhood in the hopes of grabbing buckets that are within an affordable price range. Regardless of their efforts, it was too late. The neighbours had already crashed through the doors of every local storefront and devoured the laid out wares: from buckets for washing clothes, sand pails, Teflon pots, to boxes of Garden’s assorted family biscuits. By the time the son and the grandparents reached the store at the market, the shelves were stripped bare.
    The parents, on the other hand, dashed from the housing estate, through the walkway bridge, and rammed their way through the crowd that gathered at the supermarket. The entrance was barricaded by the mob, but the occasional customer wrestled their way through the mass of bodies, hugging a clear crystal of Bonaqua or Watsons Water as they went down the street, away from the carnage. The mother stood looking at the pile of people grappling one another and her eyes began to sweat. The father embraced her in his arms, shielding her from the crowd.
    They had no choice but to search their own household. The five, cramped in the 300 sq ft apartment that the government was gracious enough to bless them with, began emptying drawers, closets, shelves, disemboweling its contents on the floor to find something, anything, that has a larger dent in the middle without any holes. They pillaged the bunk beds, the drawers beneath the sofa, the kitchen cabinets, but to no avail. In the end, they dismantled their underwear and socks drawer and took out three Sterilite plastic pull out drawers.
    “There has to be a better way.” The grandfather sighed. “There just has to be a better way.”
    “I-” The mother bit down on her quivering lips. “I don’t buy this one bit. There has to be another way. I need to store my clothes properly. They can’t be wrinkled.”
    The grandfather pointed to the bunk beds. “We’ll hang it on that frame then.”
    “Clothes. Clothes. Clothes. It’s always about you and your clothes.” said the grandmother, “Our family can’t drink for fuck’s sake and you’re worried about your clothes.”
    “Oh? Okay! Maybe if you people stopped leeching off my salary, you could actually afford one of those buckets those bullshit scalpers are selling down there. I have my work uniform to worry about! You grifters.”
    The father didn’t say anything.
    The Grandmother pointed at the mother: “You work at Café de Coral!”
    “At least I work! Unlike you!”
    “Alright! Enough!” The Grandfather interjected. “This isn’t helping anything. This isn’t helping at all! Quit it! Unless we find something else, we’ll just have to hang the clothes in the living room.” The room responded with silence.
    The men of the household each proceeded to grab a drawer under their arms and went into the elevator. As they stepped into the sunlight, they shielded their eyes and began to sweat profusely. Rows of people lined up across the red-bricked pavement. The men wore worn out polo shirts or counterfeit English football jerseys with plastic slippers;the women had unkempt hair and wore oversized T-shirts or second-hand dresses. Patrolling between the crowd were a group of policemen. Some were yelling phrases through the megaphone to avoid any lawsuits should a commotion occur; some were trying to form queues by segregating the crowd with police tape; the rest guided the newcomers where they should go, pointing at a specific direction with a police baton.
    It could have been a nice day at the beach, the son thought. Rolling around in the hot white sand or taking a deep dive in the peacock green ocean. Or maybe they all could have just slept under a tree while they basked in the afterglow. The son looked up at the blue sky just to make a mental comparison. It was blue enough alright, but there weren’t any trees around to sleep under and there were only concrete and bricks to roll in. Perhaps the sewer could be cooler than the pavement but it’s not something one should find out for himself.
    “Hey!” A voice rang out on the other side of the crowd “That Gentleman over there!”
    “Watch it. Watch it!”
    “No No No No No No No!”
    A scream rang out followed by a blur. Two men fighting over their water rations knocked a bucket over. Everyone else watched as the latticework of crevasses drank up the clear, sparkling water.

    The family only had two drawers of water until tomorrow. The elevators were consistently occupied and much of the water was spilt somewhere on the 36 flights of stairs they climbed. When dinner was over and the family had to take a shower, the remaining liquid was poured into a single drawer. The rest had to be recycled after each family member finished their bath. There was only one drawer left. No one except the son felt clean.
    The son tucked himself on the sofa but failed to fall asleep. The parents snored audibly in the upper bunk as the grandparents slept soundlessly down below. The room was dark. The stars might have been visible if the son was in the countryside, but the headlights from the nearby highway kept flashing into the flat as the shadows ebbed and flowed. They came and they went. It was a blue shade, then it was a yellow shade. It was both at the same time, a nameless third colour was formed in between. It was bright. It was dim. It was a thing.
    He counted the shadows half deliriously when he heard a drip in the distance. The parents were still snoring; the grandparents were still dead asleep, so the son had a spasm and jerked himself awake. He gently moved towards the entrance and tried not to screech open the metal gate. The lights in the hallway blasted into his retina. He recoiled for a bit before he turned left and walked towards the elevator. The checker tiles were dilapidated. The ceiling was splattered in brown blotches. The broken sign on the elevator screen had a few missing bulbs. Everything seemed normal.
    Just when was about to make it back to the flat he bumped into his grandfather.
    “Why did you leave the door open at two in the morning?” The grandfather was picking his eye for eye boogers.
    “I think I heard something.”
    “What the fuck are you talking about?”
    “I don’t know. Something. I heard something. And maybe something happened.”
    There was a faint drip.
    “That! Can’t you hear it? It’s that.”
    “I’m old.”
    The grandfather and the son headed to the other end of the hallway. The drip morphed into a splat. The two stood at a dead end, right in front of the Cheungs’ apartment door. Directly above it was one of those brown splotches. It was uneven in its colouration and the shape was irregular: there was a small nub on the top with two horns jutting out and two flaps on each side that spread outwards. It appeared to be symmetrical as if it were an inkblot.
    “That, kinda looks like a bat right?” Asked the grandfather.
    “I guess.”
    On the bat’s head, two droplets began to form, slowly transforming into the creature’s eyes. It was as if it suddenly glared back at them warning them not to come any closer. The son’s fingers trembled while the grandfather stepped forward for a closer look. The stain began weeping, forming into full droplets before it fell into the puddle in front of the Cheungs’ door.
    They ran back to their house to steal a glass from the kitchen and returned to the corner to harvest the tears. The shades in the flat faded away as the apartment brightened.

    The family sat at the dining table staring at the small, white particles as they gracefully danced in the water,flaunting its flamboyance before sinking and depositing. The table was silent. The grandfather dipped his finger into the cup and tasted it.
    “It’s not salty so it’s definitely not toilet water.”
    “But is it safe to drink?” Asked the grandmother.
    “Is it safe for children to drink?” added the mother.
    “I don’t get it.” The father scratched his head. “What is this? You said it came from the ceiling down the hall?”
    “That’s where we found it.” The son played with his fingers.
    The father began to be flustered “This doesn’t make sense though! None of this makes any sense.”
    “It doesn’t have to make sense.” the grandmother jabbed him in the arm. “It was leaking water, now there’s water. Let’s accept the fact that we have water now.”
    “What we need to know is if it’s safe to drink or not.” The mother butted in, “I don’t want anyone to get sick in the middle of a water shortage.”
    “We can’t continue living on two drawers everyday. We don’t have a choice.”
    “Stop thinking about the present at the moment. What if our boy ends up suffering from some developmental disease when he goes back to school after summer? He’s gonna end up being a beggar on the streets! This is serious business.”
    “Right, and somehow you think he can subsist on this lifestyle? With the water rationing and everything? He needs the water.”
    “I don’t get it.” The father talked to himself out loud. “There was a bat there?”
    “No, the stain looked like a bat.” said the grandfather.
    “That has to mean something right?”
    “Yeah, that’s a bad sign. Bats are bad signs.” the mother proposed.
    “Bats are good signs. Bats have always been good signs back in the day.” the grandmother rebutted.
    “Seriously? Blood sucking bats?”
    “It’s good Feng Shui. It’ll bring prosperity.”
    “Stop being old fashioned.”
    “Stop believing in Western superstitions.”
    The father flailed his hands around the table. “I don’t… Can you give me some time to… This is kind of… um… I need…”
    The grandfather picked up the glass and gulped the entire glass down before slamming it on the foldable table again.
    “OK. No doubts. No arguments. Now we just wait and see what happens.”
    The father, mother and grandmother looked at him in silence as he picked up a drawer and headed out the door. He was later followed by the son.

    The grandmother was busy scrubbing the food off the plates while the mother changed into her uniform. A screeching soared into the apartment that distracted the father’s daily routine of scanning the classified page for job openings.
    The mother looked left outside the door, said “Honey, I need to go to work. See if your mother wants to deal with this.” before slamming it shut. The grandmother stopped scraping the faux porcelain with the washcloth, left the cutlery in the drawer, and went outside. She elbowed her way through the small crowd of people crowded outside the Cheung’s house only to be slapped in the wrist by the Chairman, who was wielding a plastic broom.
    “I’m warning you! Don’t come any closer! This is my home and I have the right to defend it.”
“Defend what?” A man in a tenor voice shrieked. “You don’t own the ceiling outside your home.”
    “Doesn’t matter, you people are suspicious. You wanna rob our house for supplies.”
    A middle aged woman stepped forward. “Mr. Cheung, How many times have we told you, we don’t want your supplies. We have enough. Just let us see the leak. Is it true?”
    Mrs. Cheung was in her apartment with her hands cupped. “Don’t try us! We know what you people are! If you do anything stupid we’re gonna send call management and have this leak fixed. Seriously! Don’t try anything stupid.”
    The grandmother tightened her already firm fist. “My husband and grandson discovered it yesterday. Who’s to say you own it?”
    The chairman roared out. “I say it so it’s true. You don’t have proof. It’s all lies! Anyone wanna try me? My wife goes out to lunch with the security manager. She’ll actually call them.”
    “You don’t know jack shit about them.” The grandmother began to laugh. “Keep bluffing and see if we’ll believe it.”
    “Okay! Listen up!” The chairman pointed the stick at the grandmother. “Whoever gets rid of this old hag, I’ll give him 15 minutes under the leak.”
    She froze for three seconds before she pounced on the chairman,grabbing his shirt collar with all her might as she yanked it back and forth before being forcefully removed by a few bystanders. They launched her to the back of the crowd where she crashed into her husband and her grandson. Both drawers tumbled backwards. Water sloshed through the cracks into the nearby apartments. It did not soften the impact.
    “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, I tell you. Anyone with a surname like Wong are all dogs.”

    The three empty drawers sat in the corner of the kitchen. The
grandfather curled like a cooked shrimp with his hands on his abdomen frantically moaning on the bed while the grandmother laid next to him trying to discover ways to breathe without the need for muscle movement.
    When the mother returned she removed her uniform and hung it on the bunk bed. “What’s up with her again?”
“Watch it.” The father warned. “I’ve lost two days of productivity already… So don’t try me.”
    Then it was night. The son laid on the sofa with a makeshift towel-brace on his shoulder as he counted the shadows. The pain didn’t pulsate when he still. It only flared up when he moved into a different position, forcing the boy to count from scratch again. Sooner or later he decided it would be more productive to count the number of times he had to recount instead, and just when he finally managed to doze off the grandfather coughed. He rubbed his eyes, gave the knot on his chest a tighter grip before he lurched over to the bed.
    “Hey, grandpa. Are you okay?”
    “Grandson? Is that you?”
    “Yes, it’s me.”
    “I need something to drink.”
    The son stretched a smile on his lips. “Just, give me a second.”
    The puddles from earlier stretched throughout the entire hallway. The ripened tiles were held together by the concrete in a nice autumnal brown. The son swallowed his own spit before continuing onward, carrying an empty glass as he sloshed through the water, staining his pants. A makeshift barricade made from closets, sofas, and tables was created at the cul-de-sac. Brooms, mops, damaged red packets littered around the premises, likely the remnant of an earlier celebration.
    The bat was still there. It grew to twice its size as it drooled and shed lime into a purple washbasin that was set up below. The son took a sip and chewed through the water before swallowing. He filled his glass afterwards but it was completely empty.
    Somewhere in the distance the metallic screeching of a gate seemed to have bounced off every wall, every surface, every tile of the housing estate. He steadied his trembling hands before picking up a mop and began poking at the bat. Stained lime sploshed on the floor as scratches turned into wedges. Water began to pour faster but it wasn’t enough. He poked at it even further until the wedges turned into cracks. The bat began bleeding as the leakage crescendoed, discharging a steady flow of yellowish-brownish liquid, splashing everything in its vicinity like a waterfall.
    The son cupped his hand over the glass and snuck his way back home. He changed into a different T-shirt before he counted the shadows again.

    The banging came through the door.
    “Mr. and Mrs. Wong! You need to pay what you’ve done!”
    “Is that the Chairman?” The grandmother slowly let herself on the floor without waking her husband up.
    “Mr. Cheung.” The father tried to yell through the door. “I know you’re the chairman and… stuff, but don’t… don’t bother my family again.”
    “Tell your fucking son to stay away from my business. Someone messed with the bat yesterday.”
    “How is that our fault?”
    “You’re the only one who would do such a thing. We’re going to alert the authorities if you deal with this delinquency.”
    “Okay. That’s it.” The grandmother opened the door but kept the inter gate locked. “I’ll have you know, mister. Don’t think just because you bullied and beat an old woman up yesterday I’m this fragile hag.”
    “Come at me!”
    “Dickface!” She unlatched the gate and opened it. “Are you going to get real? Are you going to get real? Let’s go then! Don’t you fucking blame my grandson when your wife didn’t call the repair hotline!”
    The two got heated and the crowd cheered on, both parties staggering towards the stain to make their own case. Amidst the rancour, the son got up from the sofa.
    “What’s happening right now?”
    “Don’t worry, just go back to sleep. Grandma’s out there reasoning with that poor guy out there.” She picked up the blankets on the floor and tucked him in. “Does your shoulder hurt any longer? Do you need mommy to massage it before I go to work?”
    “I think I’m good.”
    A large thud appeared from outside of the hallway. Screams and gasps rang out as footsteps splattered along the hallway.
    The father immediately dashed through the door frame and turned the corner. Where there used to be a bat was a large gaping hole with rust-coloured water gushing on a pile of stained, white rubble that laid on top of the two bodies as well as some damaged furniture. Red began oozing outward, staining the father’s sweatpants as it flowed down the corridor.
    The mother and the son hugged each other tightly “Honey! What’s going on?”
    “Yeah… Uh… Don’t come out here…” The father suppressed the trembling in his throat. “Go… Go call the.. the police. Grandma and Mr. Cheung’s hurt.”
    The grandfather groaned in agony. He pressed down on his belly as if his guts were about to burst while screaming out his wife’s name for help.
    The mother grabbed her cell phone and dialed for 999.
    “It’s the water…” The son bit down hard on his lips as his cheeks became wet. “It’s the water…”

    The grandmother died at the hospital. The grandfather, despite being fine for now, has been awarded a three week stay at the Union Hospital courtesy of the Hong Kong Government.
    The son will be alive as long as he takes his antibiotics. When here turned home that night, he finally got to sleep in a bed for the first time in his life. He couldn’t wait to tell his grandfather tomorrow.
    Months later, after the pipes were fixed, the son turned on the kitchen tap. The water was colder than he remembered.