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Notes From a Development Expat – Misha Mintz-Roth

Notes From a Development Expat

Fiction by Misha Mintz-Roth

The first thing you should know about me is that I am very distinguished. I am a world spirit. My name is known in cities like Dakar and Tbilisi. In Aman, there is a preschool with my photo on the wall. I speak eight different languages, most of them fluently. I have two Master’s degrees, both from very prestigious institutions. Beyond this, I am well read. Those who follow me online know that I am finishing a six-volume study about corruption in Africa. I imbibe nothing but the finest scholarship. These are important pieces of information to remember when I introduce myself to colleagues and notables. They are all thoughts I must repeat to myself when being overcharged by my plumber, who I know, like so many people in this town, look at me like a total idiot. 

There’s no question I was brought to East Africa to do God’s work. Presently I serve as Executive Director of the Financial Leadership Action Group—or FLAG. It’s not exactly clear what we do, but we occupy a full-story Nairobi office park to get it done. I lead a team of eight. In my capacity, I give out money for solar batteries, charcoal ovens, and those devices that turn feces into electricity. (Not to be repeated, but I still don’t really get how they work.) Many of us are highly credentialed. Julietta, my Deputy, has a PhD. She is from Belgium. Franklin, my driver, who is from here, is certified by the country’s Mechanics Board. And so on and so forth. On top of that, we have a very large team of field organizers. These are local people we pay minimum rates to, but who help us find “clients.” These organizers translate jargon and form relationships. They can finesse difficult situations and do that thing where they lean over and shake hands ceremonially and stare off in the other direction. I have tried myself to master this technique. Sadly, I have not succeeded in this regard.

It’s not often that I interact with the field staff. Most of them live in areas of town that I generally don’t visit, unless accompanied by a good guide and solid pair of boots. But on the rare occasion when I do interact with them, I gladly receive them in my office. Oftentimes they bring me gifts, like a bracelet. They sit outside on the patio furniture—all of which is nice and new—and have tea with Franklin. 

This is what I expected to happen the day Makena came into our compound. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. She came up to my desk and sat opposite me and looked at me with her cedar eyes and appeared as if she had an important matter to settle. 

“I need a raise,” she said. 

“Well, well,” I said. “Don’t we all.” 

Of course, this was not my most sympathetic response. But I did not want to give in too easily. I am the director of a very important operation, after all. 

“This is my problem,” she said. “My rent is going up, and I can’t keep inviting my landlord over for tea and biscuits. Plus, I need to repair my phone.”

“Your phone?” I said, pretending to be concerned. In fact, I had read many recent pieces by famous anthropologists about wealth and savings in these parts. They told me not to be too gullible when people say they don’t have enough money. “Well, we do have a process,” I added. 

“Mr.—?’ 

“Ben,” I said. “Please call me Ben.” 

“Ben, you’re not getting me.”

“How is that?”

She drew a folder from her bag with the word “expenses,” and opened it up before the both of us. Slowly, she read out every payment we had made to her over the last several months. “Does this ring true to you?” 

“Yes,” I said. 

Then she thought for a moment. 

“See, you don’t understand. This place owes me.” 

She started to name every shilling and penny she paid: her bus fare, her lunches, her sister’s school fees. I can’t say I could relate or that I knew anything about what she meant. I mean, I’m given the full package out here. My mind is generally free of these concerns. But it was getting late, and I figured why not simply do another good deed. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time I could feel like Simon Peter for the day. I took out my wallet and gave her what she wanted. Then she looked at me coldly, no more gracious than before, put her phone inside her bag and said, “I appreciate your kindness.”

***

These are not moments I like to remember. As I’ve said, I generally have much bigger fish to fry. It’s been nearly six months since I’ve been in this town, and I know several dozen businessmen and local leaders. I am a regular fixture at the Club for Commerce, where heads turn and smile when I walk in—generally twenty-five minutes late—to my seat. Still, the most important person in my orbit is our Chairman. This is Dr. Arthur Krieger—or “AK” as his secretary refers to him in emails. He does not live here. Instead, he prefers to retain his title as Class of ’42 Professorship at a famous university in the U.S. But for those who don’t know him, he is a very big deal. His op-eds appear regularly in major papers; his research is cited in well-known academic journals; he has fourteen honorary degrees and, twice, has been Secretary to the Council of Developing Nations. As his man on the ground, I have direct access to him, and nothing pleases me more than our two-minute phone conversation we have at the end of every month. Sometimes I feel like he treats me like a long-lost son. “Keep up the good work,” he always says, and then tells me his wife is calling him for dinner. 

Do I feel privileged in my position? I mean, of course I do. Who wouldn’t? An old high school buddy of mine scoffs at me every time I fly business class. “What happened?” He says. “Did they take away your private jet?” Then he likens me to a modern colonial bureaucrat. “Maybe you need your own pre-checked TSA line.” But in all seriousness, this buddy of mine, he is back home in New Jersey, staring at a spreadsheet. At best, he will leave his office by ten and make it home to kiss his wife and tuck his kid into bed. Maybe he will plan a day off to clean the garage. Know where I am while he does all this? Visiting mud-brick schools in the Rift Valley or driving a Defender across pastoralist country. Organizing toothpaste drives or taking photos with red-clad nomads. This is not a judgement. It’s just what I choose. We all have priorities, and these are mine: discovering the new and unknown. Doing something good for the world, and celebrating it with, say, a hot air balloon ride across the Serengeti, preferably during the wildebeest migration. 

Speaking of grand plans, our big conference is coming up. It’s a three-day ordeal, and I will have to play host to a bunch of overdemanding types—board members mostly. I will need to put my best foot forward and coordinate schedules, which is, frankly, something I am very bad at. I will have to engage in small talk, which I am even more bad at. I will need to feign excitement for people like Christa Hamm, our Conference Honoree, who will be receiving our annual award for building an orphanage for Hyraxes. Dr. Krieger, will be there, as our keynote, of course. It is upon me to make sure that he gets all the care he needs, which, if I am in charge, will be no less than that of a royal heir. I am often chided by local activists for spending half of our annual budget on this conference. I am also known to go overboard when I feel nervous. But this is the thing: I have to make sure people come. If they don’t come, I look like an imbecile. One of my greatest fears is that I will be written off as unreliable. For this reason, I have rented all eight ballrooms at the Shangri Spa Resort. It’s cynical, but it helps me get to sleep at night. Now I know, at least, I’ll still have my job. 

***

It has been nearly a month since Makena came into my office, and I have to say she works pretty damn hard. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by her output. She coordinated our meetings with a pair of church pastors. Then she volunteered herself to visit dairy farmers in Nyanza. Her knowledge of butter purification was not unappreciated. The only real hiccup I had was on the day we went down to the Industrial Workers Collective. This was a pilot we designed last year. In fact, it was based on my Master’s thesis. (This is a point I must play up now and then.) All we needed was to get some signatures and hit the road. But as we got out of the jeep, Makena looked at me with a troubled expression. She glanced at the men in blue overalls working in the hot sun and then returned her attention to me. 

“None of these people should be signing anything,” she said. 

 “What do you mean?”

She waved the legal documents in front of me. 

“You’re trying to sneak a loan on them,” she said. “Don’t you know they don’t understand what they have to pay back? That’s not right.” 

Now, most bosses might have been alarmed by a comment like this. It was clear Makena did not fully support our organization’s mission. But I saw it as encouragement. Perhaps I should mention that at this time I had begun to develop a little crush on her. I thought we could at least explore this connection further. So, when she glared at me in disapproval, I suggested we talk about it over lunch. It was only noon and, if I am to be completely honest, I had nothing better to do that day. 

Franklin dropped us off at the Parkgate Mall. It was one of those enormous outdoor sprawls a quarter mile from our office, with a view of the city skyline and arboretum in the distance. We walked up the steps and found one of my favorite little cafes, a European bistro called Arthouse. On most days I would have expected to see a number of familiar faces. There would be Christian from the International Council, who always came in around 9:00 and started to refresh his emails and order Baileys Coffees. Or there would be Anthony, from the Children’s Fund. Some years later he would gain a reputation for hosting raucous parties for closeted diplomats. Last was Erica, from Save the Zebras. I didn’t have anything against her, but I always tried to keep my distance from her for fear that she might get to know me and have the opportunity to form a full and complete judgment of me—which, I must say, would not have been good. But on that day, it was just Makena and I, sitting alone, a breeze blowing from the window, looking out onto a green garden with swift kites making their descent from the trees. 

“So you were saying?” 

“It isn’t right,” she said. 

I stared at her vacantly.

“You are telling people you’re giving them money when, in fact, they have to pay back a bank.” 

“Well,” I said. “Our philosophy is accountability.” Another unsympathetic response from me. But have it be known that ‘accountability’ was the buzzword at that time. “We are not a charity,” I added. “We are a public-private partnership.” 

 “You know what will happen,” she said. “These people are going to lose their jobs and they won’t be able to get married. They will need to move towns, and after a while people will give up on them. Don’t be surprised when one of them shows up at your office. People around here like to handle things face to face.” 

“We are fully prepared. I have just hired an additional security guard,” I said. 

She wasn’t amused. 

“Okay, let’s change the subject.” Rather brazenly, I threw the wine menu toward her, which fell awkwardly on her lap. 

It was still the afternoon—albeit a cloudy one—which meant it was still happy hour. (I refrained from doing my dance.) “How about a Merlot?” I suggested. “Or Chardonnay?” Then, obnoxiously, I read each brand name aloud with my best pronunciation and made up some story about whatever region I believed they were from. All of this was fabrication. 

“Should we share a bottle?” 

Her face became puzzled. 

“Makena,” I said. “How do you like to spend your time after work? Do you like to unwind?” I switched the conversation smoothly, not wanting too lunge, less she read my intentions all too easily. “Do you like to play?” 

Play. I love that word. It can mean wild sex parties or simply taking out some watercolors. 

She studied me very bizarrely. 

As I continued to feed her more questions, she started to ignore me altogether. In the moment in which she caught my drift, she looked at me so accusingly that I pretended to mumble something to myself about a friend from out of town who wanted to meet a nice girl. Then at some point, after the waitress returned, Makena raised her forehead and looked at me straight in the eye.

“I have a favor,” she said. 

“You do?” My eyes perked up. I nearly lost the strand of Spaghetti pesto curled around my fork. 

“I want to meet Krieger.” 

“Krieger!” I exclaimed. 

My heart raced and I could feel my palms start to sweat. I’m not sure what she wanted out of a meeting with Krieger, but I couldn’t imagine that it would reflect well upon me. I began to backpedal. “Well, there is a conference coming up—”

“No,” she said. “You’re not getting me. I would like a private meeting with him, alone.”

“One-on-one?” 

She straightened her posture. 

“I have something to show him—something important.”

“Something important to show him,” I repeated quietly. 

I ran the scenario through my head, trying to think of all the ways to shoot this request down without being rude. I wanted to impress Makena. But I was reminded by my inability to think outside the box. Plus, I revere hierarchies. I reached across the table and grabbed her hand and started to caress it slowly. I was met with a sharp, unconvinced stare, and a swift rebuke of my hand. It reinforced a peculiar feeling in me that there was some murky business behind her request. I was only her pawn. 

***

For days, I stared at my computer pondering Makena’s words. Something to show him. Why did she want to meet Krieger? And why did she want to meet him alone? I decided to ask Julietta. Julietta, I should mention, had been in this office for years. Many times she had been offered my job only to turn it down for “personal reasons,” which evidently had something to do with Dr. Krieger himself. Speaking to her, I figured, might help me get to the bottom of things, whatever they might be. I found her one afternoon in the main conference room, trudging back and forth in her heavy Doc Martin’s. She had been drawing Venn Diagrams on the board and put question marks next to the words “contingencies” and “mistakes.” She regarded me with pleasant surprise and stomped toward me with a ready smile. But when I put the question to her about Makena she seemed taken aback. It was like I had brought up a bad memory she wanted to forget. 

“Makena?” she said, putting her pen down. “Can’t you tell that she’s exactly Krieger’s type?” 

This comment was lost on me. 

“You mean for our Entrepreneurs’ Program?”

Julietta roller her eyes.

She went over to make herself a cup of tea. I could tell from the number of tea bags she put in that pot she was not enjoying the work that day. 

“You really don’t know who you work for, do you?” She said. “You’ve never wondered why Krieger always takes the female staff to Lake Naivasha each year?”

“For the flamingos?” 

“Just never mind,” she said. 

Her response displeased me.

By evening, I still hadn’t figured much out. I mentioned so much to Franklin, while he drove me home through the evening traffic. Rather than nod politely and listen without comment, which he usually did, he pulled the car over and told me he had something to share. Much to my surprise, he actually knew quite a lot. It turned out that Franklin came from the same county as Makena, just a few hours north of the city. His uncle used to live near her homestead, and, evidently, knew Makena’s family quite well. They were farmers. Her father passed away soon after she was born, leaving her mother to grow tomatoes and corn and bring the produce down to the market in town. When Makena was sixteen, her mother became ill—cancer evidently—and Makena had to support herself and her sister. She didn’t want to be a “vegetable lady”—Franklin’s words—so Makena moved to the city and enrolled at the university. She worked during the day at a hardware store and later for a soap company, selling to kiosks to make a commission on each package of bars she sold.

She managed to pull off this schedule for a few months. But she was still not earning enough money. She started to go the bars in Westlands to try to meet an older man—an mdozi—someone to help pay her expenses. That’s where she met Krieger. It’s not really clear who approached whom, but it was on the evening after Krieger returned from one of our banking sites upcountry. They exchanged numbers, and he invited her to his hotel room. He told her he would give her money. All he needed was a couple of signatures and, voila, the money was hers. A few signatures and something else, of course. What he neglected to tell her was that he had registered her for a loan. It was shrouded in details, fine talk, and assurances from Krieger.

Franklin didn’t say much after that. He got back on the road and drove the rest of the way home and remained reticent as I stepped out before my compound gate. Then he pulled the car out and slowly glided toward the road. I tried not to imagine what I must have appeared like to a man like Franklin. Most likely, another superfluous fraud. A stranger, at best. I watched him as he drove off into the evening, and a felt an insipid emptiness as I walked up to my door.

***

With the conference coming up shortly, I did my best to simply keep my head down and work. Julietta stayed late into the evenings, editing programs and our video montage. Routinely, I made visits to the hotel to check on last-minute preparations. I counted the number of chairs and even inspected the microphones. On Wednesday, just before the conference, Franklin and I went down to the airport to pick up Dr. Krieger. It was a bright, clear day. Clouds hovered overhead. Trees glistened with a light green hue and the storks stood watchfully over the traffic lights. 

Down in the business district the roads were packed. Purple buses chugged along and white vans breathed out thick dark puffs of gray exhaust. Vendors roamed between vehicles holding newspapers and second-hand jeans. Others sat below tented shades on the side of the road. We got to the terminal at around three. Dr. Krieger was standing near the arrivals in a well-fitted suit—no belt, no tie. He looked comfortable, breezy, and fresh. His eyes jumped up when he saw us, and he trotted toward our car. “Ben, good to see you. Now, get the hell in the back.” This, of course, I did.

For those of you who don’t know him from the website, Dr. Krieger is a man in his late fifties. He has straight brown hair and a finely chiseled nose. His face bears some traces of his age, particularly around his eyes and ears, where he has a few light wrinkles. But I am not being overly friendly by saying that he could pass for someone in his forties. Energy-wise, he is like a college kid. As we made our way toward the highway, he opened the window and breathed in a big gulp of air. He got on his phone and started making calls to people, repeating a newfound phrase of his, that he was “back in town to re-live the dream.” Once we got to the hotel, he went up to his suite and threw his suitcase on the bed and strolled up to the window and looked out. He looked at the view as if he were surveying his personal kingdom. He put his fingers in his belt buckles and took a deep breath. His eyes had that unusual twinkle. His smile wouldn’t leave his face. 

He spent an hour at the gym, and then we met by the swimming pool that evening. We needed to talk over conference details—his schedule, roundtable, Q&A, those kinds of things. I had gone the extra steps to do exactly what his secretary asked: we procured the right brand of trail mix; his coffee was light roast; his water was cucumber-flavored; we were all stocked up on Splenda packets. Despite all this, Krieger seemed distracted and unamused. As we spoke, his attention kept veering off toward the pool, where there were two women lying down on sun chairs with towels folded over their breasts.

“You know what I love about this place?” Krieger held his glass in his hand and swirled the whiskey inside. “I get to live by own freewill. Know what I mean? Nobody cares about a goddamn thing.” 

Frankly, I didn’t quite know what he meant. I had heard of people coming out here to find themselves—people like the Austrian woman who started the opera school; or the Italian who created the nudist colony. But everyone had their own way of finding what it was they wanted.

“Jesus, for all my sins,” Krieger said. “We need someone like you to protect our image.” 

He cleared his throat in a very authoritative way. 

“But let me ask you something. Are you having a good time?” 

“Am I what?” 

I gathered he wanted to know if I was going out, meeting women, having fun. But I wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear. After all, he was my boss. This made me uneasy.

“Sorry, but I—” 

“Oh, c’mon,” he interrupted. “You know what I mean.”

“I do?”

His held his glass up. 

“I—”

“For Christ’s sake, Ben. Are you getting any—?”

Slam! The glass hit the table. He started to laugh. 

“Now I remember why I hired you. Holy shit, I remember.” He chuckled some more. “But listen, Ben, you can’t be a damn saint all the time. It’s not good for you.” 

He moved closer to me and I could see his puffy eyelids. 

“Tell me something,” he said. “Do you have plans tonight?” 

“Well, I—” 

“Good. When do the bars open up?”

At 10:00 Franklin came around with the car and collected the two of us. Krieger told me we were going to the Archimedes Lounge, “one of his favorites.” It was full of lava lamps and meandering lights. Behind the counter were blue shelves and bottles of wine and glasses arranged upside-down in neat rows. Waiters hurried around in white-button shirts. Security guards were dressed in fresh laundered suits. Dr. Krieger quickly made himself at home. He passed the white-color couches and found a table for us near the back. It was beside the checkered dance floor. A silver disco ball sparkled overhead. 

To one side was a service counter, on which bottles and glasses appeared every few moments. To the other side was a table full of young women, all made up in revealing, bright-colored skirts and their hair done in braids. Before long, Krieger called one of the women over to sit with him. Judging by the way he immediately engaged her, it was clear to me that I was supposed to do the same. I scanned the row of pleasant faces. As I tried to signal to one of them, she wagged her finger at me and laughed. Then she glanced at me again, this time more condescendingly. “No, no,” she mouthed. “I don’t like the little boys.”

I must have been on my third beer, hoping to drink my night away, by the time I had the sudden urge to pee. Krieger and his companion had moved on to taking lime shots off each other’s necks. On the way to the restroom, I passed a window, and looked out below toward the parking lot, where I had a clear view of the lounge entrance. Taxi drivers gesticulated to each other and a security guard stood solemnly. Then I was shocked to see someone I knew. Makena. She was standing by the entrance, her eyes determined and alight. She muttered something to the security guard and then walked swiftly by him. 

Perhaps I should have put the pieces together. I should have figured out that she was here to see Krieger. But in that moment I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but the pressure between my legs. Once I relieved myself, I began to ascertain what was going on. I hurried out of the stall and ran back pat the service counter and the blue-colored bar and rushed toward our table. I was too late. Makena was there, directly across from Krieger, her eyes aflame. 

“You lied to me,” she said. “You told me that money was mine.”

Krieger held his hands up and tried to calm her down. “Now, now, now,” he said, and then he offered to buy her wine. Any wine on the menu.

“Now we have nothing,” Makena said. “The bank took it all.” 

Krieger was unmoved. 

Makena reached into her bag and pulled out her phone. She opened a video app and played a recording she had made that night in Krieger’s hotel room. 

“You’re going to pay me back now,” she said. “Otherwise, the video goes online.”  

She paused the video on his face. 

A look of terror crossed Krieger’s eyes.

“Open your phone,” she said.

Krieger took his thumb and tapped the screen with it. 

“Now, transfer the money back to me. You know how much it was.”

“It’s not that simple—”

“From your personal account will be fine. I want my money back. Now.”

Krieger tapped the phone for a few moments, until Makena was sure the money had been transferred. I imagine Makena could have simply left right then. But something still nagged at her, something beyond the point of their business. Makena removed her shoes. 

“Know what you’re going to do, Dr. Krieger?”

Makena replayed the video again and showed him the last part where she knelt near the foot of the bed.Krieger seemed to understand exactly what Makena meant, because he nodded in abeyance and lowered himself to the floor. He got down on his knees and rested on the palm of his hands. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. One-by-one, his lips brushed over Makena’s toes,  kissing them gently, from one knuckle to the next. He made his way to the ball and the bridge. Slowly he embraced her cuticles, her nails, and then the big toe.

People around us stared. A waiter stopped to watch. The security guard scratched his head, and a couple across from us gasped. Makena eventually told Krieger to get back on his feet. I never felt so helpless as when I watched Makena head out the door. It was the sharpest feeling of irrelevance and confusion I had known in my life. A new disenchantment had settled in.

***

The conference turned out to be a great success. Hundreds attended and listened to our accomplished panelists. There were speakers, dancers, photo exhibits, and an art installation. Dr. Krieger delivered his keynote to a crowded ballroom. It was one of his best speeches to date. It was ‘liked’ and shared on social media for days. It even found its way onto his university homepage. He received several awards and applauses. The board members offered thanks. 

Krieger never so much as uttered a single word to me about what happened that night at the lounge. It was if it was all just an accident, something to be quickly forgotten. Like everything that happened out here, it was just an exploration and an adventure—an experiment gone wrong. On the day I took him to the airport, he got out of the car and paused to look at me. He was dressed in the same casual wear he wore on the day he arrived. “Ben,” he said, his face clean and fresh. “Be careful out here. It’s a hell of a place. The wildlife can really bite.”

It was clear to me now why Julietta hated him so much. It was also quite obvious why Franklin said to me, when I got back in the car, “I can’t stand that fucking guy.” 

About two weeks later, I received news from his office that I was being promoted to Regional Director. Congratulatory emails poured in, most of which from people I only vaguely knew. I should have been happy about it. I should have updated my resume and our website, and my LinkedIn. But I didn’t. The moment seemed to impress on me the fact that I had done absolutely nothing meaningful. Nothing at all. No good had come out of my being here. 

That night I went home and called my high school buddy. It was 9:00 in the morning his time. “I’m coming home,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” I told him I wanted something new—something simple and honest. Maybe there was an opening in his office? I was going to pay him a visit, so we could walk around the old town and catch up. Maybe he could take a day off and I would see his wife and kid. We could go out to the back of his house, put on some work clothes, and clean his garage.


Misha Mintz-Roth has been a contributor to The Economist’s online magazine Intelligent Life/1843 and was a recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 48th New Millennium Writing Awards. Prior to writing Fiction, he completed a Ph.D. in African History and was a Fulbright Fellow in India. This fall he will begin as an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Photo credit: “Flamingo” by Coconut-Cove

Revenge of the Nerds – Sara Hosey

Revenge of the Nerds

Fiction by Sara Hosey

Because my mom is a psycho-bitch, my grandparents took her to court in order to be able to see me. And because my father is, legit, I am not exaggerating, a convicted rapist who also still has parental rights, my mother has to stay in Wisconsin so that if he ever chooses to exercise his privileges he may do so. 

Obviously, it’s all totally fucked. 

And so every July my mother drives me to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where her sister meets us at a diner, or a McDonald’s, so that I can be transported (at no extra cost to my mother), over several bridges to Queens, to the house where my aunt and grandparents live. After two weeks, my aunt drives me back to Wisconsin. She doesn’t mind paying all those tolls, I guess.

This year, we meet at a Starbucks in Fort Lee, which is an upgrade. The glass door makes a sucking sound when my mother pulls it open and we are blasted with clean, cool air. It feels good after getting out of the sticky car and walking through the steamy parking lot, the sun so bright that I could only manage to keep one eye open. 

When my aunt sees us she puts down her phone and stands up. 

“Do you guys want to get a coffee or something?” my aunt asks.

“Sure,” my mom says. “You buying?”

She is so cheap. Why is she so cheap?

My aunt smiles tightly and looks at me. “What do you want, Dig?” 

“I’ll have a low-fat white chocolate mocha Frappuccino,” I say. 

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to remember that,” my aunt replies while my mother rolls her eyes at me. “Come with me to order.” She touches me on the shoulder with cold fingers. She must have been waiting a long time.

“I like your new glasses,” my aunt says brightly, as we wait in the line.

“Thanks,” I say. I wanted to get the black, chunky frames everyone started wearing last year. But I had to buy mine at Walmart, so instead of being cute and ironic, mine are just ugly. I look like a senior citizen. God, my life is so stupid. 

“My mother calls me Revenge of the Nerds,” I tell my aunt. “I don’t even know what that means.”

She laughs through her nose. “It’s a gross movie from the ‘80s,” she says. “But your glasses are cool.”

We order our drinks and my aunt goes back to the table and talks to my mother while I wait at the counter. Although I’d like to, I can’t hear them over the Starbucks indie rock and chatter. I feel like a ghost who can’t quite break through, can’t quite make out the conversations of the living.

“One tall coffee and one Grande low-fat white chocolate mocha Frappuccino for Dignity?” the coffee guy calls into my face. 

“Cute name,” he says as I take the drinks.

When I sit back down, my mother nods at my Frappuccino and says, “That’s supposed to be a coffee?,” as though people haven’t been making that remark about fancy coffee drinks since basically the dawn of time. I give her a disdainful look from under my eyebrows.

“Put your headphones on and have a walk around,” my mother commands. “I want to talk to your aunt.”

I get on the Starbucks wifi and start watching my show, a hospital drama about hot, skinny doctors who hook up with each other. It’s so dumb. I love it.

I know what those two are talking about anyway. Each year, they review the events of my last meeting with my father, which was three years ago now. He had just gotten out of prison for kidnapping and raping his ex-girlfriend. 

My mother says the fact that it was his ex-girlfriend made it not so bad. What she actually said was: “Your dad is more of a JV rapist. You know? It’s not like he’s one of those guys who jumps out of the bushes.” She sighed. “He’s not even a varsity rapist.”

I didn’t bother to point out that he did, in fact, quite literally jump out of the bushes in front of his ex-girlfriend’s apartment complex. And he was holding an axe. An axe! What the fuck? 

And the worst part of the whole thing is that this wasn’t even the first time he had done this. It was the second time.

Same woman, both times. No axe the first time, though. It was really the axe that got him locked up in the end, it seemed.

My mother, in an inexplicable mercy, never made me visit my father in prison. But when he got out, my mother announced, after some sort of extended negotiation with a social worker, that we would be meeting up with him at—where else?—a McDonalds.

Because my father was living in a halfway house in Illinois and because my mom sure hates paying a toll, this particular McDonald’s was in the Belvidere Oasis: one of those rest stops in a bridge over the highway, which of course maybe could work as some sort of metaphor. I don’t know. 

What I do know is that I was wearing my brand-new powder-blue pleather jacket on that dark October afternoon. It wasn’t really warm enough to wear outside, but I wanted to wear it anyway because I thought I looked so fucking cool. I thought I looked so good in that stupid plastic jacket that I wouldn’t take it off once we were inside, even though I began to sweat immediately after walking in to the dim, warm, French-fry smelling Belvidere Oasis.  

Back in the Starbucks, I get a text from David. 

u here?

In his pictures, David looks like Pete Davidson, the cute skinny guy from Saturday Night Live, the guy who dated Ariana Grande. Pete Davidson has a famously big dick. From the pictures David sent me, I think he probably does too. I guess I’ll find out for sure soon enough. 

***

When I look up again I see that my mother is crying, rubbing viciously at her red eyes. My aunt and grandparents say that my mother is the way she is because she is the baby of the family. I say she is the way that she is because she’s a fucking psycho. But what do I know? I’m an only child. As far as I’ve been told.

I sit back down with them and take my headphones off. “It’s just two weeks,” my aunt is telling her. “Try to enjoy it. Try to do things for yourself.”

My mother looks at me and hides her face in her hands. “I’m sorry,” she says. She peeks out and gives me a pathetic little smile. “I’m just gonna miss you, Dignity.”
I get up and put my arms around her and sit on her lap. This makes her laugh. I kiss her on her smelly head.

“I’m going to miss you too,” I say. 

She holds me tightly around the waist and sobs into my neck. “My baby,” she says, and I feel like crying too, but only for a minute. 

***

In the car, my aunt is talking about some cousin who finished high school in three years and blah blah blah. I text David back, yea

He texts, see u 2nite?

I lay my phone face down on my knee.

I hate when he uses abbreviations like “2nite.” I feel like he’s just doing it to seem younger. It makes me worry he’s a pedophile or something. 

The car is quiet and I wonder how long ago my aunt stopped talking. I look out the window at the skyline. It was in front of us; now it’s beside us. We will continue to glide right past it. 

how do you know im not a cop? I text David, just to be a jerk.

He doesn’t respond right away. Then he writes, wtf?

lollolololol, I write.

He sends back the emoji that’s laughing so hard it is crying. I lay my phone face down again.

After we saw my dad at the Belvidere Oasis that time, we walked back to the parking lot on our side of the expressway. The cold air was a relief. I’d felt like I was dying inside the jacket, like I was a kitten some up-and-coming serial killer had stuffed in a garbage bag. 

“I don’t feel good,” I said to my mom and then I threw up, so suddenly I didn’t even have time to lean forward properly. It was a slurry of chicken nuggets and vanilla shake and ketchup all down the front of my new blue jacket.

“Fuck,” my mother had said. She stood behind me and used her palms to pull the hair out of my face. “Oh, baby,” she’d said. “Get it all out.”

Later, she said it had been a mistake to meet up with my father. 

“It’s fine,” I kept insisting. “He wasn’t why I got sick.”

***

David wants me to take the subway to meet him in a place called “Flushing” which obviously sounds super-fucking romantic. I don’t want to tell him that I’ve never actually taken the subway by myself before. I don’t even know how you pay to get on it. My aunt or grandmother always just handles that part. I guess I could Google it. But I also think he should come pick me up. I’ve traveled all this way and now he’s being cheap or something. 

whatever im tired from the car. ill text you tmw

wtf?

I don’t text back.

He keeps them coming.

what’s going on? I thought you wanted to see me? 

im serious I just cant wait any longer

I have champagne for us

u still there/? is it cause i want you to meet me? it would just be fater if you came halfway. I’m coming from li but fine if you want me to come get you in rego park i will. i just need to see u

I look up from my phone. “I think I’m gonna go out tonight,” I say to my grandparents and aunt, each of whom sits in their dedicated recliner in the TV room. I am sitting on the two-seater couch behind them. They turn their alarmed looks at me.

“What?” my aunt asks. “Where?”

“A friend of mine is here, staying at the beach. Her parents will pick me up. I’ll sleep over and they’ll bring me back tomorrow.”

“But you just got here,” my grandmother says. 

“She’s from Wisconsin?” my aunt asks. “Who is this person?”

“My friend Ariel,” I say. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
My grandmother looks at my grandfather and my grandfather looks at my aunt. She’s the spokesperson. She never had any kids, but they act like she’s the expert on family stuff. Maybe they figure they didn’t do such a hot job themselves, so they should just leave everything to her. 

“It’s not a big deal,” I say. 

They all look around at each other again. 

“We could take you to the beach,” my grandfather croaks, pathetically. My grandmother nods.

They don’t want to go to the beach. They want me to eat dinner with them and then have a bowl of pistachio ice cream while we watch Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune and some sort of true crime show, maybe about a troubled teenager from Wisconsin who meets a guy online who lures her out to Long Island. After she is raped and dismembered, my grandmother will make some sort of devastatingly callous remark about how people get what they deserve and I will have a fleeting but acute understanding of how my mother came to be the way she is. 

I feel a tinge of longing for this scene. Staying home with them is fine. Maybe I should just do it, at least on this first night. 

I am about to text him to forget it, say maybe tomorrow, when my aunt says, “I guess that would be okay.”

“Great,” I say, putting my phone down and looking at their moon faces. “Cool.”

***

Waiting for David on Queens Boulevard—the road my grandparents call the “Boulevard of Death”—I look inside my backpack to check on my stupid contraption. I wrapped a kitchen knife in a dish towel and then secured it with masking tape. It’s just in case, or whatever. I’m not planning to murder David. 

I suppose my stupid father thought he would bring his axe along just in case too. But if anyone is being kidnapped and raped here, it’s me, not David. And I’m not going to be kidnapped and raped. David is my boyfriend. 

Whatever, I know how it seems, him being older than me. But honestly, I am probably the more mature one in the relationship. We agree that that’s the main reason I have such a hard time with people my own age. Sure, it doesn’t help that I have to buy my clothes at either Walmart or Savers and that everyone in my town knows that my father is a convicted rapist. But all that aside, the idiots at my school are legitimately the worst. All the girls think they are going to be famous for doing makeup tutorials on YouTube and all the guys are busy perfecting their date-rape techniques for college. Once, I was walking behind these two bros and one of them said, “Well, Morgan will only let me do it in her butt because she’s saving herself for marriage.” I texted that to David verbatim. I wrote, That, right there, might be why I don’t have any friends my own age.

A black Corolla pulls up in front of me. David cranes his neck down so I can see his face from where I stand, so I know it is him and not a stranger. I zip up my backpack and get in.

He leans over and kisses me right away. He is chewing gum and his breath is minty. I can’t help but be a little bit shocked by his appearance. He looks different than I expected. Older.

“Dignity!” he cries, as though he can’t believe it’s really me. 

When we stop at a light he takes my hand and smiles at me. He does look a little like Pete Davidson. He is thin and he has lots of earrings and even while he’s sitting down I can tell he is tall. But in person he’s almost too tall, like, has to hunch over the steering wheel tall. And he has wrinkles around his eyes. 

“We’re finally together,” he says. 

“Yeah!” I say. I don’t want him to see that I’m disappointed or to hurt his feelings. We had Facetimed or whatever. So it’s not like he was lying about his looks. Although he definitely isn’t twenty-six. 

He kisses me again. I kiss him back, vigorously, convincingly.

A car honks and he starts driving again.

I look out the window. Because of the one-way streets, we are going to go back past my grandparent’s block. For a flicker of a moment I imagine telling him to pull over, to let me out. It’s like those final seconds on the rollercoaster when the attendant comes around to make sure your restraint is working and you want to say, “Wait, let me off,” but you don’t because that would be so fucking embarrassing. 

He tells me he is taking me to a cool, vintage motel right near the beach. He explains that it’s not the most luxurious, but its proximity to the beach makes it worth it. He’s about to say more when my phone starts buzzing and I look down. My mother is texting.

what the fuck dignity where are you going who is ariana

I text back, its fine. you dont know her 

I didn’t just drive 16 hours so u could hang out with some girl from wisco get ur ass home

i cant, I write back. her parents already drove all the way to queens to pick me up

My phone starts to ring. I silence it.

“Who’s that?” David asks.

“My mother,” I say. “It’s nothing.”

“The psycho-bitch?” 

“Yeah,” I say. I shake my head and pretend to laugh. “She’s probably just lonely without me.”

He smiles and glances over at me. “She needs to give it a rest,” he says. “She gets you all the time. It’s my turn. Right, babe?”

The traffic has thinned out and he drives with one hand on my knee. He keeps saying things like, “I just can’t believe you’re really here,” like I’m a celebrity or a ghost or something. 

I put my hand on top of his. His fingers are long and warm. I bring his hand to my mouth and I kiss each of his fingers. He leans his head back against the headrest and groans, like I’m giving him a blow job or something. I suck on his fingers—they’re salty, but clean—and I’m afraid he’s literally going to come in his pants, he’s making such a fuss. After a while it gets kind of gross and I don’t want to do it anymore, but I’m not sure how to stop, either. Finally, I kiss his palm and then place his hand down on his thigh. I lean across and kiss his face. He turns his head to kiss me on the mouth and we do that for a second and then I sink back into my seat. 

He puts one hand on his dick, which I can see is pressing hard against his jeans. “You are so fucking hot,” he says. 

We are suddenly not in the city anymore and the trees on either side of the expressway are dense and lushly green. It’s not like our part of Wisconsin, where you can see for miles and miles in every direction, the fields empty except for the sprawling skeletons of sprinklers. 

“Dignity,” he exhales. He adjusts in his seat and clutches the steering wheel with both hands. “Your name is so perfect for you.”

“My mother says she named me Dignity so I could never become a stripper,” I tell him, rolling my eyes. 

“Don’t strippers usually change their names anyway?” he asks.

“I guess,” I say. “I mean, I think she was making a bigger point or whatever.”

“Psycho,” he concludes, nodding. 

I want to correct him, but before I can say anything, we pull into the hotel parking lot.

“I know it doesn’t look like much,” he assures me. “But it’s so close to the beach.”

“It’s cool,” I say, weakly. 

“Let me run in and get the room stuff figured out. You wait here.”

“Okay,” I say.

He takes my face in his hands. “Just, one thing though.” He seems serious. “I just want to make sure that you’re eighteen,” he says.

“What?” I ask. I laugh. “You know I’m fifteen.” 

He nods, like I am an adorable child. “I just need you to tell me that you’re eighteen.”

“You mean, like how you told me that you’re twenty-six?”

“I never told you that I was twenty-six.”

“Yes, you did.” 

David lets go of my face and leans back. He’s smiling at me like I’m crazy.

“Um, there is no way that I told you that because it’s not true,” he says. “You know I’m twenty-nine, right? I wouldn’t lie to you about that.”

Twenty-nine. I’m not even sure that’s his real age. I mean, I guess he could be twenty-nine. But I know he told me he was twenty-six. I bet I could find where he said it, too, if I had a minute.

“But whatever. I need you to tell me you’re eighteen,” he says. “Just so that if anyone ever asks, I wouldn’t be lying. I would say, you know, she told me she was eighteen.”

“I don’t actually think that’s how it works,” I say, shaking my head, annoyed. “But fine. I’m eighteen. Okay?”

“Great,” he says, smiling. “You know you’re my fucking soulmate?” he asks, serious now. He leans in to kiss me again. 

“Me too,” I say. 

When he gets out of the car, I see that my mother has blown up my phone. My voicemail is full—my aunt has called a bunch of times too—and there are thirty-seven texts. I scroll through them quickly, some are just

wtf

pick the fuck up

pick up the phone

And some are longer: 

you are the best thing in my life. 

Maybe I should have driven you all the 

way to queens but jen said it was fine 

and you know what happens

when I see my parents

it just puts me into a tailspin 

so I have to protect myself too

please call me back sweet girl

I’m sorry for yelling at you before

about the slushie

just such a long fucking ride 

my nerves are def shot 

by hour 9 

lol 

just call me back

clal me back

right now you fucking pain in the ass

 your grandparents are having a heart attack

i am hysterically crying 

im gonna have an accident 

I am turning the fucking car 

around

I will come abck an get you

I see David under the halo of the street light, returning. I text my mom back quickly.

Do not come back 

you are acting like a psycho 

stop texting me

I am turning my phone off 

you can yell at me tmw 

when I am back at gmas

I put the phone in my backpack.

***

I wasn’t really hungry, but when David said we should get a pizza I thought maybe he’d go out for it so I said Yes, I wanted some, but then I realized he was just having it delivered anyway.

We are lying on the bed. “After the pizza,” he says, kissing my bare shoulder, “We are going to go again.” 

I feel a little sore. He was working hard before and I pretended to like it, but I wasn’t really into it. It was fine or whatever. I’m not an expert, but it’s not the first time I’ve had sex either. There was this guy Drew from a church group my mother forced me to go to and also my ex-boyfriend Kevin who is disgusting and who goes to my school. So sex with David wasn’t the worst. But it wasn’t really the best, either.

Anyway, the idea of going again with David is not thrilling. I smile at him and he smiles back. He leans in close to my ear. I can’t see it, but I can tell he is grabbing his dick. “I took a pill,” he says, lifting his eyebrows and smirking.

I wonder, just for a second, what kind of pill he is talking about, and then I suddenly understand and I make a disgusted face. 

“What?” he asks.

“I mean, how old are you really?” I blurt out.

He looks injured. 

“It’s just for fun,” he says. “It’s not ‘cause I need it. I wanted it to be special for you. I wanted to give it to you all night long,” he says. He leans in again. He nibbles on my ear lobe.

I do my best to smile back. “I gotta go to the bathroom,” I say.

When I come back he is still sitting there, naked. He has a pretty good body, considering he is definitely, like, an old person. You can tell because it’s as though his muscles aren’t firmly attached to him, like, his muscles are kind of just floating there under his skin. And some of the hairs on his body are gray. So that’s fucking weird. 

“Isn’t the pizza gonna be here soon?” I say. “Do you want to put some clothes on?”

While he’s dressing, I fish my glasses out of my backpack. I quickly touch the towel with the knife, to make sure it hasn’t come loose. Then I put my glasses on.

“Look at those!” he declares. “You look so fucking cute in those!”

I smile. 

He pulls me close to him on the bed. “Those glasses are so hot on you. It’s like sexy Revenge of the Nerds,” he says.

I guess he sees me cringe. 

“What?” he asks. “What’s the matter?”

***

The night goes on forever. He wants us to take a bath together. Nothing sounds less appealing to me. I’m not sure how much longer I can go on pretending to enjoy his squeezing and poking and pinching and slapping various parts of my body. 

I make a joke, just to myself, that I might have to stab him just to get him to stop humping me.

“So, should I fill the tub?” he asks.

“There is no way I am getting in there,” I snap. 

I stopped smiling about an hour ago. I expected David to be upset or to wonder why I am not having fun, but he seems not to have noticed. 

“Well, I’m going to take a bath,” he says. “And you’re welcome to join me if you change your mind.” As though I will be just too tempted by the idea of him in there and jump in.

I don’t respond and he slumps off to the bathroom. 

I get under the sheets and turn my phone on. It’s 2:41. As expected, there are numerous new texts from my mother. I don’t read them. 

I must fall asleep because the next thing I know he is on top of me again. 

I use my forearm to push him away. 

“What?” he asks. 

“I’m sleeping,” I say, squeezing my eyes tight, as though that will convince him.

“But I want you so bad,” he says. He rubs himself against me.

“I’m sleeping,” I say. “Like, I’m legit exhausted.”

“Put those glasses back on,” he says. “I like it when you wear those glasses when I’m fucking you.”
“Please,” I say, trying to use a sweet voice. “I’m so tired.”

“You can just lie there,” he says. “You don’t have to do anything.”

“Get the fuck off me,” I say, angry now, and I push him with my arm again. 

“But I need you,” he says, flipping me over and pinning my arms down and breathing into my face. His breath is hot and no longer minty.

“Get off,” I say, my voice shaking and squeaky. “You’re hurting me.”

He’s not stopping, though, and I actually think, this is how it happens sometimes and I am freaked out by his weird eyes and his skinny-lipped smile. 

“Get the fuck off me,” I shout. “I will fucking kill you!” I am screaming in his face now. I feel the spit flying from my lips and my face glowing hot and red. “Get off!”

He lets me go and sits up on the bed. “What is wrong with you?” he whisper-shouts. “What the fuck?”

I get up and grab my backpack, fumbling to unzip it and to find the towel.

“You’re acting like a crazy bitch,” he hisses. 

I take out the dish towel and I rip at the masking tape with my teeth. 

“What are you doing?” He begins to move around the bed, over to my side. “I didn’t hurt you,” he says, shaking his head. “I never hurt you or made you do anything.” 

I finally drop the dish towel on the dirty hotel floor and I hold the knife out in front of me in shaking hands.

“What the? What are you doing, Dignity? Baby, what are you doing?” He takes a step back and bumps into the dresser.

“You fucking pedophile,” I spit.

“Hey, you told me you were eighteen,” he says right away.

He is so fucking stupid that I laugh a little and, even though he totally wasn’t joking, he tries to laugh too.

“I want to go home,” I say.

He nods. “Okay. Fine. Whatever you want.”

***

I hold the knife in my lap all the way back, just in case. He probably shouldn’t be driving and I worry that he will fall asleep at the wheel, so I watch him, carefully, my eyeballs hot and angry behind my nerd glasses, I watch him so hard.

When we get back to Queens Boulevard, he says something high-pitched and apologetic, which I snap off by slamming the car door. He doesn’t need to worry so much. I am not going to call the police. I don’t ever want to even think about him again. 

I am so relieved to be back here, on Queens Boulevard, the Boulevard of Death, at dawn, that I start to cry. Everything feels so different in the morning, empty save for the pigeons and the few cars that drive by, going either too fast or too slow, as though the absence of other traffic has confused them. 

As soon as his car is out of sight I dash toward the McDonald’s down the street, but when I get there I see that it’s not even open yet and so I sit on the curb and I cry, thinking how much I wish my mother was there.

Feeling how much I want her makes me even sadder, almost like guilty and ashamed, because most of the time she sucks so much but she is still her, my mom, and I want her more than anything. And if she could see me right now, if she knew what I had done, she would lose her fucking mind. She would probably actually try to kill David.  

Which, I don’t even care. I hate him so much now. It’s already hard to remember a time before, when I didn’t hate him.

I scroll through our snapchats, our dms, our texts. I find it. Back in March. 

Im 26, he had written. I don’t care about the age difference if you dont

Fucking lying piece of shit.

On the way to the Belvidere Oasis that day when I was twelve, my mom had tried to explain herself to me. She told me that when she met my father, she thought he was a “good loser.” 

“Like, there are good losers and loser-losers,” she said. “Good losers are nice guys who maybe just haven’t found themselves yet. Like, Lloyd Dobler.”

“I don’t know who that is,” I said.

“It’s from a movie,” she said. “A good-loser’s like, not successful, but he’s cool. Maybe he’s ahead of his time. Maybe he’s misunderstood.”

“So, you thought my dad was a good loser.”

“I did. But it turns out he was just a loser-loser.” She made a face. “Sorry,” she added. 

“It’s all right,” I told her. But, later, right before I threw up all over my new jacket outside of the Belvidere Oasis, the jacket that my mother then gingerly unzipped and took off of me, and balled up and put in a trash bin, right before that, I had wondered to myself if maybe she was a loser-loser too. And it made me feel so bad that I had to stop wondering it immediately. 

I was thinking about all of that again as I sat in the parking lot of the McDonald’s on Queens Boulevard, missing my mom. And I was hoping that I wasn’t a loser-loser too. I was hoping that really hard. 


Sara Hosey’s books include the novel Iphigenia Murphy (Blackstone Publishing) and the non-fiction study, Home is Where the Hurt Is: Media Depictions of Wives and Mothers (McFarland). Her novella “Great Expectations” is forthcoming in the Running Wild Press Novella Anthology. She is an associate professor at Nassau Community College in New York.

Featured image courtesy of Alan Levine.

Olivium – Ace Boggess

Olivium

Fiction by Ace Boggess

She stood outside in the smoking area, puffing on a Camel Light and shivering beneath her beige cardigan and picturing one of those desperate junkie boys grunting and sweating above her, his clumsy hands mauling her breasts or tugging at her long, purple hair. All the other drunks and dope fiends were out there. Some sat in clusters around picnic tables. Others shot flat basketballs at hoops with no nets. This would be the last smoke break for two hours—two hours of classes and bullshit pop psychology—so everyone made the most of it.

Olivia McGuire. Olivia M., as she’d learned to say during twelve-step meetings. If she said it fast, she kind of liked the way it sounded. It made her think of a drug’s name (Olivium. Relieves irritation and minor vaginal discomfort if used as directed. Side effects include runny nose, itchy eyes, increased libido, hostility, and the urge to stab someone in the tits with a really big knife), or else the word oblivion, which was where she wanted to be. It’s where she had been for almost two years before she OD’d on Thanksgiving night. Then again, most folks would’ve sniffed a few extra Oxys if they had to deal with her stepmother, she thought. Olivia considered it a saintly gesture that she’d tried to stay calm and keep the peace.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. The new Mrs. McGuire (Olivia still thought of her as the new Mrs. McGuire even after fifteen years of wicked-stepmothering) found her blue and cold on the bathroom floor. Olivia died that night—not for good, but long enough to count—and she would’ve stayed dead if a quick-thinking paramedic hadn’t shot her up with Narcan.

Jessica, her stepmother, had been furious, although Olivia didn’t know if it were because she died or because she ruined Thanksgiving dinner while all those fat uncles and cousins were lounging around. How she would’ve loved to have seen the look on that woman’s face, she thought, if only she weren’t clinically dead at the time.

The two of them never got along, and Olivia knew they were both to blame. For her part, she’d been bratty and acid-tongued, always quick to throw out a jab about Jessica’s emaciated look. Olivia once heard it referred to as heroin chic. “Careful with those hip bones,” she’d say. “You could put an eye out.”  Or, “If I tied hooks on your tits, I could use you for a fishing pole.”  That was when she was ten. Twenty-three now, she looked back and understood that she just missed her real mother who—short, plump, and gentle—was nothing at all like Jessica.

As for the new Mrs. McGuire, she handled most of the discipline in the house. For Olivia, that meant a lot of time with no TV, video games, iPhone, or late-night chats with her boyfriend du jour. There were worse things, too. Jessica never struck her, but she often chided Olivia about eating too much pizza and ice cream, saying how just five pounds could make the difference between dating the quarterback and dating the third-chair clarinetist. 

As Olivia grew up, she felt more and more self-conscious about her weight. At fifteen, she was bulimic. At sixteen?  Jittery from diet pills she swiped out from under the lacy panties in her stepmother’s bottom drawer. She never liked that feeling, but she liked taking the pills. Just getting them down made it seem like she was trying, like she might get her life under control. After that, it wasn’t much of a stretch before she moved on to Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet, and eventually OxyContin. 

Olivia stomped her foot on the concrete. During freshman year, when she finally moved away from home, as her first act of rebellion she got “Jessica” tattooed on the heel of her foot. It hurt like hell and had her drinking Smirnov and popping handfuls of Vicodin for a week, but it was worth the pain. Best investment she ever made, Olivia thought. Now she could walk on Jessica wherever she went. She could scrape it, drag it, or smack it on whatever she wanted, barefoot or wearing shoes. Her foot was like a voodoo doll. She imagined her every step causing Jessica pain. Just to be sure, she slapped her sneaker on the concrete two more times.

“You okay, Liv?”

Startled, she blinked and glanced up to see Carlos—tall, muscular, tattooed in blue jailhouse ink—not three feet away, staring at her. She took a quick drag off her cigarette to buy a moment and clear her head. When that didn’t work, she said, “I’m sorry, Carlos. What?”

“I asked if you’re okay. You look like your mama just died.”

That pulled her back to reality. Wrong thing to say, she thought, then changed her mind and decided he didn’t know any better. “Fine. Just a space cadet today.”

She thought of Carlos as one of her johns. Not in the hooker sense. He was one of the two guys whose laundry she washed every couple of days. Sort of a tradition developed in rehab that women helped the men with their dirty clothes. It wasn’t a rule, and some women chose not to participate, whereas the guys, unless they’d been here before, knew nothing about it until one of the girls, out of the blue, said, “I’m stuck in the laundry room later. Want me to do your wash?”  Rarely did anyone say No. Even Jacko M., the old married man, had a freckle-faced flirt running his BVDs through the machine. It didn’t mean anything and rarely went further. Harmless house play, most of the staff considered it, so even the strictest counselors looked the other way. 

Olivia took on a pair of johns: Carlos S., and that boy Justin T., who was a bit of a flamer. She’d never get Justin to sneak into her room at night, she thought, but Carlos….

“Yeah, I get it,” he said, his voice dragging and twanging in that southern West Virginia way so it sounded as if he were sucking on a pebble. “Listening to this Big Book shit all day turns me into a zombie.”

Carlos, she thought. Fucking Carlos. It might work. She knew what she’d have to do. Her first night in the main unit, she kept watch while her new roommate Lisa slipped down the hall and into some guy’s room. Olivia didn’t know if they were fucking or if he’d somehow smuggled in dope. Either way, the principle was the same.

“And we can’t have coffee. Makes it worse.”

Olivia planned it while Carlos talked. She’d wait until evening when the number of staffers would be halved, but not so late that she’d get caught when the bed checks started. Or, maybe she’d wait until after the first bed check at midnight and go for a rush job. 

“I mean … shee-it. What’s wrong with a little coffee?”

She’d make sure no one was looking. Then she’d hurry down the hall and through the door to his room, closing it behind her as fast as she could.

“I need coffee.”

She’d probably have to shush his roommate. 

“Even the outside A.A. meetings have coffee.”

She’d take Carlos into the bathroom, close that door, run water in the sink for noise, and….

“I just don’t know about this place. It’s messed up. If I hear somebody say Dr. Bob one more time, I’m not sure what I’ll do.”

Of course, if they were caught, they’d both be kicked out. That didn’t matter so much to Olivia. She came as a voluntary admission. It was the only way her dad and Jessica would drop the mental-health petition that got her committed up north for a couple weeks. For Carlos though, it meant he’d leave the building in handcuffs. The Circuit Judge from Boone County sent him there as a condition of his probation after Carlos copped a plea on a drug charge. If Carlos got the boot, he violated without ever having made it back out on the street.

“What about you?  You buy any of this crap?”

A lot of risk, she thought, for a quickie. I guess we’ll see how much he wants it. She squinted and grinned, then took another drag. Smoke thickened the December air. The whole smoking-and-recreation area looked as if it were filled with ghosts. After a long, sultry exhale, Olivia told him, “Not sure yet. I haven’t made up my mind.”

***

Olivia sat next to her roommate, Carol K., during the three-o’clock class. An OD like Olivia, but not at all like her otherwise, Carol was a forty-one-year-old housewife and mother of three. Carol kept her dark hair long and straight, though it curled into a natural frizz on the ends. Her face still looked round and pretty except for the shadows of bruises from where she hit the floor. She wore black or white turtlenecks under solid-colored sweaters that she obsessively picked clean of every fleck of fuzz or lint. She seemed normal enough. Yet she’d taken the pills—a whole bottle of them—and she’d told Olivia in confidence that she found it easier to say she had a drug problem than admit she tried to kill herself. “You know,” Carol whispered, leaning over toward Olivia, “I can barely keep my eyes open. This guy’s boring the holy Jesus out of me. I wonder if I’d get kicked out if I laid my head on my arms and slept.”

The two hid in the back row of a makeshift classroom filled with old high school one-piece chair-desks, some of which still had initials, dates, hearts, and swear words carved into or drawn on them. There were twenty-eight of those desks, the same as the number of beds in the facility. 

Standing up front, Counselor Carson—no one really knew if that was his first name or last—droned on about the fourth step and the importance of the word ‘fearless’ when making a moral inventory. “If you find something too uncomfortable or embarrassing to admit even to yourself,” he said, “then that’s the most valuable thing to dig out of you and share.”  He looked like a surfer with his brick-like body and bleach-blond hair tied back in a ponytail, but he sounded more like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with his tired, dragging monotone. 

Olivia closed her eyes and imagined she could smell a fresh pot of coffee, then opened them quickly when she realized that she, too, had nearly dozed off. The scent came from her brain playing a trick on her as it had last night when she dreamt someone gave her a candy dish filled to the brim with little cyan tablets she knew to be thirty-milligram doses of Roxicet—her favorite. She must have snorted a hundred of them last night. It made her high and felt so real. The twelve-step folks called that a freebie, because she experienced the pleasure as if it were genuine and didn’t have to suffer the consequences when she woke.

“Did you rob somebody?” Counselor Carson continued. “Did you steal a twenty from the till at work or sneak pills from your sick grandmother’s bottle?  Did you sell your body or put your kids in danger?  Don’t hide it. Write it, so when you do the fifth step you can share it with one other person and God. This stuff haunts you. If you want to survive, if you want to get healthy, you have to let go of it. You have to give it to someone else.”

“I have something I’d like to give him,” Carol whispered.

Olivia wasn’t sure what she meant. She replied, “I’d like to stab him in the eye with a spork. At least then he’d be more animated.”

Carol K. giggled like a child—a bit too loud. She covered her mouth, but not before Counselor Carson glared at her. 

“As I was saying,” he continued, “we’ve all done things that make us feel ashamed….”

Ashamed, Olivia thought. She understood shame, just as she knew regret, resentment, doubt, fear, and all the other stuff the counselors talked about. These were the things she kept with her always, like insurance cards.

“You spoke cruel words to your mother, perhaps,” Carson said.

Yes, thought Olivia.

“Or did something to her that you wish you could take back.”

Yes, yes, yes. Olivia closed her eyes a second time.


Grape soda, she thought. Was she six or maybe seven?  She must have been six—not quite the age of reason. She was a chubby kid. She’d seen the pictures. She had blond hair and poppies that blossomed on her cheeks whenever she moved too quickly.

Olivia went into the kitchen, where she found her mother, one hand holding open the refrigerator door, the other reaching for a two-liter bottle of grape soda—some generic dollar-store brand, the bottle almost empty. 

“Last little bit,” her mom said.

Olivia had gone in there to look for a bag of Doritos, a few Oreos, or whatever snack she could find in one of the cabinets or drawers. She hadn’t been thinking about grape soda. Now, hearing her mother’s words, she said, “I’ll drink it.”

“You want it?” her mom said.

“Yes, please.”  Looking back, she was glad at least to have been polite.

“Okay.”  Her mom grabbed a plastic cup from the nearest cabinet. The cup had a red-haired Disney princess pictured on one side. 

I drank the last of the grape soda, Olivia thought, remembering. But that wasn’t true. She went into the living room and left the cup on a Myrtle Beach coaster on the coffee table, then headed for her room to find something fun to do. She picked up a book she’d been reading for extra credit in school, found her place, lay on her bed atop the frilly yellow comforter, and read.

It wasn’t until later that Olivia’s mother found the cup, still almost full. “Liv,” she called, her voice stern but crackling. “Come in here.”  Her mom pointed toward the cup. “I was going to drink that,” she said. No scolding, no chiding. She didn’t need cruelty to get her message across. You’re greedy and selfish, her eyes swore, and that was enough.

“I’m sorry,” Olivia said.

Her mother shrugged as if nothing mattered anymore. “Take your cup into the kitchen and dump that out.”

Olivia did as she’d been told. Her hands trembled as the flat, purple fluid flooded the drain. She regretted what she’d done. Not because it was the last of the pop and not because she’d left her cup on the coffee table—she regretted it because her mother wanted that grape soda, and Olivia had robbed her of that for no good reason at all.


Olivia tuned out the counselor and thought about that grape soda. She’d done enough awful stuff in her life, but the only thing she wished she could take back was one uncaring act. She still pictured the look of sadness on her mom’s face, still felt selfish and small whenever she relived the scene. She’d acted horribly, taking that bit of pleasure away from her mom. A few months later, her mother was gone.

She held up her arm, surprising herself.

“Yes, Olivia?” said Counselor Carson.

“Does it have to be stuff from our drug years?”

“Good question. No, it doesn’t. You’re taking your moral inventory, not the drug’s. You want to be brutally honest about what you’ve done, regardless of when you did it. That way, when you share it later on, you’re releasing all your burdens and lightening the load. Does that make sense?”

Olivia nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I think so.”  Or, at least, she hoped….

***


Olivia had two hours free between the last class and the start of the night’s AA/NA meeting. As she stood in the chow line, Carlos slipped in behind her. “That’s a great question you asked in class today. The one about things we did before we were addicts.”

She turned and feigned a smile. Flirting with a Junkie 101, she thought. Compliment her on something in her recovery program. The old-timers in AA called that thirteenth-stepping, and it was strictly forbidden, except when it wasn’t.

“I’ve been dealing with this … this stuff.”  He hesitated. “From before. You know, when I was a teenager?” 

What? she thought. Last year?  Carlos looked almost that young with his wild hair, tight skin, and smooth, tiny hands that didn’t seem to match his bulky muscles. Plus, he still wore a mustache that she couldn’t help thinking of as peach fuzz. Olivia figured him for twenty-two or twenty-three, but he could pass for fifteen in the right light.

“I feel awkward telling you this,” he said.

“Telling me what?”

“I used to steal money out of my grandmother’s purse.”

She nodded, understanding how that could happen.

“Not even for drugs,” he said. He shook his head. “It was…. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it.”  He stepped forward with her as the line moved. Leaning in, he whispered, “It was for comic books.”

She put a hand to her mouth to stifle a sudden giggle. “Comic…”

He shushed her. Still whispering, Carlos said, “You know, Batman, Spider-man, Ghost Rider, Moon Knight, Dr. Strange. I loved that stuff, at least until I picked up the straw. Before pills, I was into that.”  His head bobbed as if he were answering a question. “Keep that to yourself, if you don’t mind.”

Olivia saw him in a different way now. He wasn’t just a well-built junkie with jailhouse blue tattoos and the post-withdrawal tingles of lust she knew he felt, having experienced them herself. No, he was some mama’s little nerdy boy who took a wrong turn. If she snuck into his room tonight and slipped into the bathroom with him, and if they both were caught, it’d be like she wasted the last of the grape soda all over again. She didn’t want to waste that pop. She didn’t want to disappoint any other mamas. “Our little secret,” she told him. “Pinky swear.”  Then she moved to the window, collecting her tray that held a rectangle of pizza, a half-dozen greasy French fries, and some corn.

***

Carol sat beside her again during the in-house AA/NA meeting. The staff set it up in the same classroom as before, but this time it was led by four white-bearded old-timers from one of the weekly outside meetings. The four wore flannels and blue jeans that looked baggy and loose around their pear-shaped bodies. They seemed so similar that they could’ve been headed together to an after-hours party at a Santa Claus convention. 

Carol said, “I saw you chatting it up with Carlos again. You going for it?”

“Thought about it.”

“And?”

“I think I’ll play with myself instead,” Olivia told her.

“Please watch the cross-talk,” one of the old men said, pausing from his reading of the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous

Carol waited until the man’s reading resumed, then leaned over and whispered, “Aren’t you a randy little minx.” 

Olivia plucked a purple hair from her sweater and stretched it out on the desk in front of her. It looked like a thread of Chinese silk. “Well,” she said, “if I have to find a sponsor and tell her all the sins on my moral inventory, it’s probably best if I don’t add anything to the list.”

“Good point.”

“I mean, sure, I’m pent up and all that, but it’s not worth it. I’d feel like a real shit if he went back to jail over a quickie.”

“Right, yeah, sure.”

“Best to just, you know, keep my nose clean.”

“Uh huh.”

“Keep my butt in bed.”

“So to speak,” said Carol.

“What?”  It took Olivia a second to catch her new friend’s meaning. Then she couldn’t help but laugh. “So to speak,” she agreed.

“Watch the daggone cross-talk,” said one of the old-timers. Whether it was the same one as before, Olivia couldn’t tell. They all looked alike to her. “If you’re disrespectful, you will be asked to leave.”

“Sorry,” Olivia said. Then, leaning in toward Carol, she whispered, “I hope he gets hit by an ice-cream truck, so he dies slowly and has to listen to those goddamned bells.”

***


After the twelve-step meeting, Olivia called home from one of the payphones in the hall. (The residents weren’t allowed cellphones.) Before rehab, she’d forgotten payphones ever existed.

The new Mrs. McGuire answered. “Olivia!” she said with a brightness to her tone as if hearing from an old friend. She then ran through a series of questions, all with the same cheeriness. “You doing okay?  Are you getting enough to eat?  Do you need more cigarettes?  Does the program seem to be helping?”

“I don’t know, maybe,” Olivia told her, adding in her mind, Earth people, before concluding that the program must have had some effect for her to think of a term like that.

“Do you want me to put your dad on the phone?”

Olivia surprised herself by hesitating. She usually would’ve said Yes and, while waiting for the sound of her dad’s voice, used the opportunity to stomp on her Jessica tattoo a couple of times. Instead, she said, “Listen, Jessica, I wanted to apologize about messing up your holiday.” 

“It’s okay, darling,” said Jessica—darling was her usual affectation for everyone. “What’s important is that you’re all right.”  She sounded as if she either meant it or she’d been drinking heavily, and Olivia wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. “You scared the bejesus out of us. I thought your dad was having a heart attack and needed a trip to the hospital, too.”

“He’s all right, isn’t he?”

“Yes. He had a few crying jags, though. Not very manly, but it seemed to help.”

Great, thought Olivia. I’ve made Dad less of a man in his wife’s eyes. I guess that’s another side effect of Olivium: may cause emasculation in some men

Jessica went on. “Darling, I know you and I haven’t been close. Still, I want you to realize I’m here for you. Whatever you’re going through, you can come to me. You’re my daughter.”

“Jessica,” Olivia said. This was it. This was where she’d spit venom and hiss. She could tell her stepmother to rot in hell, to take a long walk off a short pier, to go stick her head in an oven. She could say, You’re not my mother, as she had so many times before. She could throw out Whore! Bitch! Cunt! and any other mean words that popped into her head. She could laugh, and oh how cruel her laughter was. But she held it back. “Do you ever drink grape soda?”

Jessica cleared her throat. Olivia knew her stepmother thought this was some kind of a trick with no right answer. “Sometimes,” she said. “Not very often. Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” said Olivia. She’d shown Jessica enough kindness for one day.

***

At midnight, one of the female employees opened the door and peeked into the room Olivia and Carol shared. She counted out loud—“Twenty-one, twenty-two”—as if she had no internal monologue. The light from the hallway shone brilliantly like something holy, or like something damned. 

Olivia squeezed her eyelids and tugged the brown poly-fiber blanket above her head.

“Sorry,” the woman whispered, even that small sound a coyote’s howl in the moonlight.

When the door closed again, Olivia pulled the blanket away from her face. She rolled onto her back and stared up at fresh green splotches flaming on her retinas. 

This was it, she thought. If she meant to go, there’d be no better time.

She listened for Carol’s breathing and could tell the older woman slept well. She snored a bit with a sound like a horse’s neighing.

You’re no help, Olivia thought. 

She was glad she hadn’t mentioned her plan to Carlos. If she had, she wouldn’t back out now, no matter the risks. Oh, Carlos, she thought, as she rolled back onto her side. This is either the luckiest or unluckiest night of your life, and you’ll never even know about it. She’d made up her mind. Tonight wasn’t the night. She felt too distracted, too uncertain of the world and her place in it. She saw visions of a little boy reading Spider-man and a little girl demanding a cup of purple pop. How was she supposed to get in the mood with crap like that in her head? 

She wondered if she’d been doing her moral inventory without realizing it. Placing a man’s freedom at risk for a fuck?  That wasn’t Olivia. It was Olivium, the drug—addictive and bringing as much suffering as pleasure. Euphoric Olivium and sweet oblivion. A mainlined hotshot could be fatal. 

Did she want that?  She wasn’t sure. 

Maybe tomorrow, she thought, trying to picture the O face of Carlos behind her in the bathroom mirror. Yes, maybe tomorrow. Or not. 

She knew that tomorrow she might relapse in her mind. She might walk down the hall after midnight bed check. Then again, she might transform and become a comic-book heroine with better-person powers as if she’d been bitten by a radioactive niceness bug. Hell, she thought, perhaps she wouldn’t do any of that. She might just wake up in the morning, get dressed, go down the hall to the lunchroom, and buy a grape soda out of the vending machine. It wouldn’t matter what brand. She could open it up and dump it down the sink as a sacrifice to her mom’s spirit in whatever strange state it rested. Perhaps that’s what she’d do. Maybe yes, maybe no. Her mom wouldn’t mind either way.


Ace Boggess is author of five books of poetry—Misadventure, I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, Ultra Deep Field, The Prisoners, and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled—and the novels States of Mercy and A Song Without a Melody. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, River Styx, and many other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. His sixth collection, Escape Envy, is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2021. 

Home and Bunker Network – Christine Schott

Home and Bunker Network

Fiction by Christine Schott

Cheery Female Narrator: Today we’re on sunny Hilton Head Island, where Tammy and Scott have just received their papers allowing them to move out of the refugee camp and into a place of their own.

Scott (wearing a Hawaiian shirt to match the sea, visible through thick glass in the background, lounging on a concrete bench with his arm around Tammy): We are so excited to be shopping for our dream home. We’ve been on the waiting list for three years, and now it’s finally our turn.

Tammy (clapping her hands): I can’t wait to see what Andy and Martin have to show us!

Andy (entering with Martin and extending a well-manicured hand to each in turn): Scott, Tammy, good to see you. So, as you know,  you have a budget of 350,000 bits, and with that budget in mind, we’re going to show you three houses I’ve picked out for you, and Martin’s going to walk you through the renovations he would make on each one.

Martin: Shall we get started?

Tammy and Scott: Yes!

Scott (driving, speaking to Tammy): So you told Andy that you want something really modern. All this time I thought you were a traditionalist.

Tammy: Maybe, but do we really want to do a lot of work on this house?  I want something a little more turnkey. I’m ready to have my own bathroom again. Watch that pothole!

Scott: That was a big one, wasn’t it?  I wouldn’t mind a fixer-upper. I’m a handy guy.

Tammy: You say that, hon’, but you know you’ll never actually do anything. I think if we could get something that was constructed in the last couple of years, that would be ideal.

Scott: Honey, we can’t afford Post-War.

Scott (back on the concrete bench by the water, nudging Tammy affectionately with his knee): Tammy and I met about fifteen years ago at a barbeque, and then we just happened to end up at the same refugee camp when we were heading downwind of the fallout. We started seeing each other again, and when I found out we could get a bigger tent if we were together …

Tammy (laughing): He’s such a romantic.

Scott: We’ve been together ever since.

Tammy (back in the car): You gave Andy a long list, Scott. What would you say is your biggest priority in a house?

Scott: I think…a bunker.

Tammy: Why a bunker?

Scott: It’s like a man cave on steroids. Wouldn’t you feel safe if we had a bunker?

Tammy: Not if you turned it into a man cave.

Scott laughs.

Tammy (leaning forward to peer up through the windshield): I don’t know about this neighborhood, Scott. It looks like nobody lives here. Watch that pothole!

Scott: After three years, I’m fine with not having neighbors for a change.

Tammy: Is this it?

Scott (checking a slip of paper on the dash): That’s the address.

Tammy: Oh, my.

***

Authoritative Male Narrator:  Is your family safe?  Do your windows lock?  Do you have a bolt on your door?

Doe-Eyed Mother (holding a solemn toddler, both labeled in small print reading “Paid Spokespersons”): I thought we had everything covered. I never knew what a risk 

we were taking until the looters broke in.

Authoritative Male Narrator: Don’t trust your family’s safety to locks and bolts. Trust SafeGuard Theft Deterrent System.

Doe-Eyed Mother: The next time the looters came, we were ready.

Masked Reenactor grabs a windowsill and triggers a cascade of blue sparks. He makes inarticulate gurgling and shrieking sounds as he falls to the ground, electrocuted.

Doe-Eyed Mother: Nobody’s going to hurt my babies. Not now that I have SafeGuard.

***

Andy (walking down the barren lawn with Martin): So…whaddya think?

Tammy (stepping gingerly out of the car): I don’t know.

Scott: It looks kind of…shabby.

Tammy: This from the guy who wants a fixer-upper.

Andy: So, this is a 1987 two-story Colonial Modern. I have to admit, it’s a little scorched on the outside—

Martin (cheerily): Nothing some paint won’t cover!

Andy: —and I think you’re really going to like the price: 170,000 bits.

Martin: That would leave you 180,000 for renovations.

Tammy: It’s going to need it. Is that a hole in the roof?

Martin: That, Tammy, is a skylight in the making.

Tammy: I don’t want a skylight. Skylights aren’t safe—you know, drones dropping who knows what.

Martin: Even better. We can patch that up and save on installation costs.

Andy: As you’ve noticed, this is a pretty unpopulated neighborhood, so the place isn’t a high-priority target, but all the same, let’s not stand around asking for trouble. Let’s head inside.

Tammy (following close on Andy’s heels): Would we be able to afford an armed guard?  Once we moved in, I mean?

Martin: Probably not with the scope of work that’s going to be necessary. But we can do you one better: we can put in SafeGuard.

Tammy (breathing a sigh of relief): Okay, I can live with that.

Scott (leading the way through the front door): Oh! This looks like your parents’ house, Tammy.

Tammy (laughing): It’s that bad?

Martin: Now, don’t judge it based on what it looks like now. It’s been unoccupied for years, except for a few random transients who couldn’t get into camps. But underneath, this is actually the best house in the neighborhood. You can see for yourself that the infrastructure is completely intact: the brick exterior protected the insides during the fire.

Tammy: We can see the infrastructure because there’s no extra-structure. There’s no drywall or anything.

Martin: We think that was most likely burned for fuel. But don’t worry: with your budget, you could drywall the whole place, and pay for expediting the materials so you won’t have to wait at the back of the ration line.

Scott: How many bedrooms?

Andy: Three bedrooms, two full baths.

Tammy sucks her teeth.

Scott: We won’t be able to afford the water for two baths, not with what we make at the plant.

Martin: Don’t worry, we plan to gut one of the bathrooms and turn it into a panic room.

Tammy: Oh! I’d love to have a panic room!

Andy: It would definitely be a good investment in terms of resale value. Now, if you walk through here you can see the kitchen.

Martin: We’d put all-new appliances in, of course. You wouldn’t be able to afford a gas stove, of course; nobody can anymore. But we think we could salvage the cabinets, so you wouldn’t have to pay the fee for imported wood.

Scott: What about native wood?

Martin: Since the Upstate burned, we’ve had to import the wood for our projects from Brazilaguay!

Tammy: I always think rain forest wood gives things an exotic feel, but if we can save these cabinets, they’re fine too, I guess.

An alarm sounds three blasts, interrupting the dialogue while the group continues to tour the house. 

Calm Female Answering Machine Voice: Homeland has issued an instability warning for the following counties: Brickstone, Callaway, Egerton, and Flag Landing. Residents should be on the alert for unusual activity between 4:00 p.m. and curfew. Incidents should be reported to the local Homeland field office immediately.

The three-blast alarm sounds again, then dialog resumes.

Andy: As you can see, this house has something else really good going for it. The previous owners didn’t knock down any of the interior walls during the early 2000s when open-concept was all the rage. They kept the smaller ‘80s-style windows too, and we can take out this sliding glass door and put in a nice metal one for you.

Scott (looking out the glass door): Is that a pool?

Andy: It is, unfortunately.

Tammy: What on earth would we do with a pool?  We couldn’t possibly fill it.

Scott: Does it ever fill with rainwater?

Andy: Not really, no. At least, not in the months when it’s warm enough out to swim in it.

Martin: We thought we might cover over it and turn it into…wait for it…a bunker!

Tammy: Oh, yes! Scott!

Scott: I think it would be kind of a shame to change it. Think about being the only folks we know with a pool. It’s like a…whaddya call it…a status symbol. Like when there used to be different makes of cars and everyone wanted BMWs.

Tammy: Don’t be sentimental, Scott. You said a bunker is at the top of your list! (To Martin) I’d feel so much better about starting a family if I knew we had a bunker.

Scott rubs his chin, still looking at the empty pool.

Andy: Shall we move on to House Number Two?

Tammy: Yes. Maybe one that’s not quite so rickety?

Martin: I told you, it’s not rickety! The issues are all cosmetic.

Tammy (laughing and patting his arm): Okay, okay. Show us House Number Two.

***

Frenetic Male Narrator: Are you tired of cooking over an unreliable camp stove?  Are you sick of paying more for your fuel than you pay for your food?  Then it’s time for you to try Microwave Solar!

Well-Dressed Young Woman: I used to be such a snob about microwaves. I thought they were only for college students. Then I saw a microwave cooking show with Amadeus Pan. And I thought, if Pan can do it, why can’t I?

Amadeus Pan (in a bright white chef’s costume): I’m Amadeus Pan, and I never cook a meal without my Microwave Solar. It has more power than a camp stove, costs less to run, and it works even when the electricity is out! (Holding up a laden microwave tray with a devilish smile.) Dinner by candlelight anyone?

Frenetic Male Narrator: Don’t wait to try Microwave Solar! Get on your secure line and order yours now. But wait, there’s more! Order your Microwave Solar in the next ten minutes and you’ll get this exclusive microwave cookbook by famed chef Amadeus Pan.

Well-Dressed Young Woman: I just love it!

Amadeus Pan (rakishly, to the camera): I knew you would.

***

Cheery Female Narrator (speaking over a shot of Scott and Tammy driving down a wide, tree-lined road): We’re following Scott and Tammy as they make the long-awaited transition from refugeeism to home ownership. With a budget of 350,000 bits, Andy and Martin have their hands full trying to find this couple’s perfect home.

Scott (looking out the side window beyond Tammy):  This is more like it!

Tammy: I don’t know.

Scott: What do you mean you don’t know?  It’s beautiful! (Hopping out of the car) Andy, Tammy says she doesn’t know.

Andy (opening Tammy’s door): What are your thoughts, Tammy?

Tammy: I mean, it’s beautiful, but it’s so Pre-War. I mean, look at those enormous windows!

Andy: You’re right. This is a mid-2000s Modern, four bedroom, two-and-a-half bath.

Tammy: Andy! That’s extravagant!

Martin: But don’t worry: we’ve got a plan.

Andy: We sure do. This home is priced at 250,000, which leaves you only 100,000 for renovations. Now, we’d definitely take up every single bit of that budget, but I think it would be a great investment for you.

Martin: Let’s go inside. I just got the “all clear” from security on the corner.

Scott (leading the way again): It’s so bright and airy!

Tammy: Not safe. Not safe.

Martin: I know what you mean, Tammy, but like I said, we have a plan.

Andy: So, you see this place has the open-concept design that all the most recent Pre-War constructions have, but don’t let that scare you.

Martin: The first thing we’d do is brick up those front windows. We’d install a smaller window way up on that wall there for light and ventilation, one that wouldn’t say, “Loot me” like these do.

Tammy: Don’t stand in full view like that, Scott. Come over here.

Andy: Fortunately, the folks who built this place were old-fashioned tree-huggers, so all the original appliances are energy efficient and wouldn’t break the bank to run.

Scott: That’s good.

Martin: And we would also like to throw up a nice, solid wall between the living room and kitchen, and close off the side of the staircase so you have kind of a stairwell. That would be so much more blast resistant.

Tammy: I like that idea. That’d certainly feel a lot safer. Don’t you feel like a sitting duck in this big old space, Scott?

Scott: Not really. I mean, I used to live in a house like this.

Tammy (rubbing his shoulder affectionately): Don’t be sentimental, honey. You’ve gotta think practical now.

Scott (to Andy): But we don’t need four bedrooms—even if we have kids. What on earth would we do with them?

Martin (rubbing his hands): This is the best part of the plan! Since we’re saving on the appliances and such, we can put up another wall between the living room and den and run that wall upstairs. Then you could put a separate entrance on the back and rent out the east side of the house as a separate living facility.

Tammy (clapping): Oh, that would be great! We could get the list of approved families from Homeland and have somebody in here within a couple of weeks. Imagine the boost that’d be, Scott!

Scott: Is there a bunker?

Andy: Unfortunately not. But there is an unfinished basement down those stairs, and with the additional income from the renters, you could probably save up enough bits to convert it to a bunker within a year or so.

Tammy (breathless): What do you think, Scott?

Scott (looking around):  Seems such a shame to lose all that light.

Tammy (scoffing with affection): Oh, Scott, you really are a romantic.

Andy: If this doesn’t float your boat, we do have one more house to show you.

Tammy: Yes, let’s go!

***

Southern Housewife (opening a door and stepping inside): Oh, Lord, this is perfect!

Southern Husband: I like that a lot.

Cheery British Female Narrator: Dreaming of an island getaway?

Southern Housewife: Look, Nelson—the tap water’s so clear!

Cheery British Female Narrator: Want to find some seclusion that’s safe from intrusion?

Southern Husband: Yep, there’s plenty of  barbed wire between us and the locals. Feel good about that.

Cheery British Female Narrator: Then trust Island Fortress Travel for all your vacation needs.

Southern Housewife: You want to go catch us some fish to fry, Nelson?  They got a fryer and everything. Just like home, only better.

Cheery British Female Narrator: Island Fortress Travel. Just like home, only better. (Abruptly doubling her speaking pace.)  Island Fortress Travel guarantees the reasonable safety of all destinations as of the date of booking. Any vacations to destinations added to the Homeland travel ban after the date of booking will be rebooked for a small convenience fee. Fortress Island Travel is a subsidiary of Live Where You Want Resettlement Corporation, Ltd.

***

Scott (rolling up his tinted window and putting his hologram ID tags back down his shirt): Well, I have to say I appreciate the security in this neighborhood. Let’s see. Here it is: number Seve—(address bleeped out).

Tammy: Wow.

Andy (coming to meet them, his hands opened expansively): Tammy, we thought this one might appeal to you, but we hope you’re going to like it too, Scott.

Scott: It sure looks solid.

Andy (leading them up the gravel yard): This is a brand-new construction, only two years old, two bedrooms, one bath.

Tammy: Only two years old! Andy, don’t mess with me. Can we afford this?

Andy: It’s priced at 349,900.

Scott (whistling): Right at the top, huh?

Martin: It’s right at the top of your budget, yes, but it’s also right at the top of the list in terms of features and resale value.

Andy: All gravel yard—nothing to attract Zika mosquitos or ticks, drains fast when the floods come through. Cinderblock and concrete construction, as you can see. (Gesturing at features as they step inside.)  Reinforced doors, shatter-proof windows, low-flow plumbing and energy-efficient appliances, of course.

Scott (arching an eyebrow at Andy): Bunker?

Andy (holding his breath and making them wait): There is a bunker. Yes!

Scott:  Nice! Still, it’s a little soulless, maybe?

Tammy: We’ll put up posters or something, honey. Think about having kids running around in here, snug as little bugs in a rug.

Martin: Basically, this is completely move-in ready. And if, in a few years, you want a bigger place, you would have no trouble reselling it.

Tammy: Whatchya think, Scott?

Scott: What would you do with that extra hundred bits from our budget, Martin?

Martin (laughing): With a hundred bits, I’d buy you a six-pack and a synthe-cheese pizza and then I’d kick up my feet and consider it a job well done!

Andy: Okay, so you’ve seen the houses, you know the reno’ budgets, and you have our number. Give us a call when you’re ready to make an offer.

Scott and Tammy (shaking hands as Andy and Martin leave): We will! Thank you!

Cheery Female Narrator:  Which house will Scott and Tammy choose?  The 1980s Colonial lone ranger?  The Pre-War open-concept badly in need of updates?  Or the smaller, New Construction at the very top of their budget?  Find out, coming up.

***

Authoritative Male Narrator: Are your phone lines secure?  Do you know who’s listening to your private conversations?  Did you know that someone falls victim to identity theft every four seconds?  OneLine Secure Phone Services is here to protect you.

Older Gentleman (labeled “Not an actor”): Ever since the web went down, I’ve had to do all my business over the phone lines. One day, I got a call from my bank. Everything was just gone. I never knew they were listening in. 

Authoritative Male Narrator: OneLine Secure Phone Services can save you from that call. A OneLine phone line is affordable, quick to install. And most importantly, it’s safe.

Older Gentleman (smiling and chuckling): I’m not really tech savvy, but OneLine walked me through everything and showed me what buttons to push. And I haven’t had any problems since.

Authoritative Male Narrator: Put an end to worrying about unsecured phone lines. Make one final call on your old line, and make it to OneLine Secure Phone Services. Call 1-800-ONE-LINE That’s 1-800-O-N-E-L-I-N-E.

***

Cheery Female Narrator: Tammy and Scott have seen three places they might call home. But which one will they decide is just right?  Will they pick—

Calm Female Answering Machine Voice: We’re sorry. The service on this station has been interrupted. Please do not panic. The interruption was most likely caused by a power failure, and will be corrected shortly. If you suspect an act of terrorism, please call Homeland immediately. If you suspect an imminent natural disaster, please shelter in place. If you hear sirens, explosions, or gunfire, please head to your family bunker. If you do not have a bunker in your dwelling, please go to the innermost room of your house and close the door. If you do not have a house, please shelter under a mattress or heavy-weight sleeping bag. Do not panic. Help is on the way.


Christine Schott teaches literature and creative writing at Erskine College.  She holds a PhD in Medieval Literature from the University of Virginia and will graduate from Converse College with her MFA in creative writing in August 2020.