The empty hour—the glorious hour—was six-oh-five to seven-oh-nine. Foon would sink into the velvet wingback, his stiff suit removed and blown open on the floor, as he raised his damp feet to air out atop the coffee table. Faint whiffs of Windex cooled the hairs inside his nose, from where the housecleaner had clarified the glass. He called Mah. He parked his car. Outside the garage door was sealed and—like Foon—finished for the night. Nothing more was required of him.
To this idea Foon filled a teacup of whiskey. He swiveled his head toward the sunset and saluted the dozing eyes of the garage. “Aye aye,” he said, and then, pondering, “Is that what they say? Eye? Yaye? Aye-aye-aye?” Foon watched the silk curtains, imagining the fat coils of his brain bunching up in concentration, and then gave up the thought entirely. Giving up the thought entirely: that was the pleasure of six-oh-five.
Through the doorway leaned his wife leaned in the doorway, a dishtowel hanging from her shoulder. Nine years later and still so pretty, Foon thought, admiring her strong arms, flexed and dotted with freckles.
“These fucking potatoes,” said Marcy said. “I can’t chop them anymore. That’s all I ever do. Chop, chop, chop.” She pointed her chef’s knife at Foon, beckoning him to join her in the kitchen. “Your turn. I’m begging you.”
“Cupcake, I would love to,” he said, his hand falling to his chest. “But I’m afraid I’m much too high.”
“Are you crazy?” she said, eyes wide. “Have you actually gone insane?”
“Don’t talk about insane people like that,” said Foon, gesturing toward the window.” He imagined himself a character in Masterpiece Theater, a show his boss had told him to download. Foon chuckled into this chin. On the coffee table he crossed one ankle of his pajama pants over the other.
“Don’t tell me you smoked in the car,” said Marcy, squinting. “Please.”
“I did,” said Foon. “I enjoy a head start these days.” He wagged an assured finger in front of his face, as if instructing a child on the ways of the world. “Same with Mah. Call on the drive home? Done. Say hello, I love you, gotta go? Done.”
“What if you have to pick up a client or something? Or if I go have lunch with Flora?” Red, blotchy territories were traveling up her face. “The smell, Foon. You never think about the smell.”
Foon shook his head and closed his eyes, leaning deeper into the wingback. From here Marcy’s voice sounded far away and light. Like delicate Styrofoam, he thought. Yes. Like a sprinkling of bright white packing peanuts.
“Look at you,” she said. “You are always, always high.”
Foon pondered this statement with a finger to his lip. “That’s true.”
Her high voice rattled, like an alarm straining to sound. “We said that we would alternate, but here you are,” said Marcy. “We have to eat, you know. Come chop for just five minutes.”
But five minutes lost in the empty hour were five minutes lost to hell.
“If they’re potatoes,” he said, “they why not use the food professor?” He paused, listening to his voice, and giggled. “The food…the food….” In his stomach an air bubble of laughter rose uncontrollably through his chest. Foon grinned, trying to hold his breath, but then gave up and bent forward, giggling into his knees. He couldn’t help himself. It was funny.
“Food pro-cessor,” said Foon. “Pro-cessor. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
“I can’t believe I’m watching this.”
“Food professor. Oh my god.”
“You’re an asshole,” said Marcy.
Foon rested his face in his fleecy pajama pants, listening to the quiet made by his own not speaking. His wife was breathing angrily through her nose, and the sound of it crawled into this ears. His father, in moments like this with Mah, would have bowed his head in patience. He would have closed his eyes, composed himself, and waited for the cloud to pass. It was, theoretically, the correct thing to do. But Foon had always known that he was not quite his father. He was powered by a different battery—newer, more American. Foon had come farther, had reached higher, and he would go farther still. And when his wife called him an asshole he almost relished the moment that followed. To hurt her back, exactly the way he knew; it was a target revealed for which he alone had the arrow.
“But I’m your asshole, Cupcake,” he said. “I’m all you’ve got.”
Marcy fumed into the kitchen. Foon heaved up and stumbled after her around the large leather couch set. Only recently he’d encountered this sensation of being both angry and baked. Marcy threw her dishrag on the tiled floor, then lifted a pot from the stove and poured its brothy contents down the sink. She took the metal lid and let it clatter in there too. Steam rose up from the drain and collected toward the ceiling in a flat, expanding cloud.
Foon kept his gaze sighted on her swinging yellow ponytail, which thrashed like a caught fish as she pointed at each accusation.
“The dishwasher,” she said, staring him down like a bull. “You said you’d fix it. It’s not fixed.”
Foon crossed his arms. “Did I say that? I don’t remember saying that.”
“The washing machine, the leak upstairs. Why live in a house like this if you let it fall apart?” She picked the rag off the floor and started wiping the splashes of broth on the counter.
“What do you imagine I do all day?” said Foon. “Go to the office and twiddle my thumbs?”
“It’s been three months, Foon. Three months, and no dishwasher.”
“And what, you can’t call them yourself?” he said, talking to her back. “Are you physically handicapped? Do you not speak English? Do you have a clinical phobia of phones?”
“Don’t you talk to me that way,” she said, yelling now, but he’d learned long ago to yell over her yelling. Reliably his voice was larger, full of force, and it would cancel hers neatly like a soprano leading a choir.
Foon said Marcy was uptight. Marcy said Foon was an addict. Foon said that she had no spine. Marcy said that he would die alone.
“Die alone?” said Foon. “Me? So I’m the one who will die alone.” He lifted his arms and swung them around the wide expanse of their marble kitchen. “Where do you think all this came from, Marcy? This is what you get when you have a thing called a job.”
“Thanks for that,” said Marcy. “Here’s what I think of your huge, important job.” And with that she grabbed hold of her wedding band. She twisted and pulled it over the thick of her finger, as if working the cork from a bottle of wine. Foon watched the slow concentration of her hands, unsure if what he was seeing was confused by the haze of his high. Marcy yanked at the ring until it finally popped over her knuckle, and for a moment she watched the ring glint in the palm of her hand, almost smiling at the feat of it. Then she pried open the sliding door of the kitchen, a cold gust fogging her glasses, and pitched the ring out over the railing of the deck, where it disappeared into the waters of their twenty-foot, saltwater pool.
“Are you crazy?” said Foon, but Marcy slid the door shut in triumph. She marched past him and into the foyer, where he heard her heaving the straps of her purse over her shoulder and messing with her keys. With one more door slam the house went silent, as the cell of cold air from the front door made its way to Foon’s unmoving face.
He wandered back to the wingback chair. Foon adjusted the drawstrings of his pajama pants, which has loosened as he’d chased after Marcy. He settled back into the reliable chair, lifting his legs back onto the glass coffee table. Already it was smudged white from his heels and his toes, which the housecleaner would have to get next time.
“My wife,” he said, lifting his teacup to his lips. “What a riot.” Foon grinned and shook his head, but the pupils of his eyes spread and faded, as they wandered over his softly ticking watch, out into darkness of the yard, gnats swarming the porchlight.
He tried watching television, but the blinking colors made him tired. He tried reading his book, a journalistic bit about some teenagers climbing Everest. But his eyes kept wandering to the blankness of the margins, as he replayed scraps of Marcy’s words: Just five minutes, Foon. Look at you. The smell.
He stood up. Quietly he rinsed out this cup, placing it into the sink with the wayward pot and pan, and went upstairs to bed.
Morning came. From the weight of the mattress beneath him, Foon knew that his wife had not come home. He pulled the phone across the pillow and called her best friend, Flora, listening to the rings echo through Flora’s house. Perhaps nobody was home. Or perhaps everybody was home—Flora immobile under a homemade banana face mask, her husband weighing portions of granola, and somewhere, somehow, Marcy, who seemed at ease with these people in a way that Foon despised and envied. Perhaps they were now pausing from their teacups, circling the buzzing phone, waiting for Foon to record his desperation. But he would never give them the pleasure, those vultures.
From the drawer of the nightstand Foon fetched his pipe. No matter what else Marcy threw in there—half-read novels, jars of cocoa butter, her retainer rattling in its plastic case— the glass pipe was always waiting, tucked in the front-right corner and wrapped in a navy wool sock. He didn’t even have to look anymore, and in fact that was part of the pleasure. Rolling out the drawer on its smooth steel gliders. Detecting the warm scent of yesterday’s puffs. Reaching for the soft wool, along with the plastic bag of goodness, which Foon pressed to his nose to breath in its layered qualities. As a boy he had owned a hundred of those navy socks—they were part of his school uniform, worn six days a week in Taiwan. When his family left Foon kept just one sock of one pair, and hid the matching one in bedroom he might never see again. Cheesy? Totally. But no one had to know about that.
He leaned against the pillows, enjoying his morning puff. It warmed his fingers and coated with velvet the hollows of his throat, his lungs. Foon thumbed a single notch in the pipe from when he had dropped it in the middle of the Apple store. Marcy had screamed at him, everybody turning to watch. After that he only smoked in his home, and lately, by extension, his car.
Sunlight inched around the curtain and cast little stars into the full-length mirror. See? There was beauty in this quiet; Marcy never understood that. Foon stood up, stretched, and went about his day.
Lately Foon had been talking to himself, which troubled him. His father had done it in Taiwan, usually when he was anxious, and it irritated the whole family. “We’ll be fine,” his father would say. “First the visas, then selling the furniture, then selling the clothes. Just one step after another. No big deal—is that what they say? No. Big. Deal.” Foon, a skinny nine-year-old, couldn’t stand his father talking to thin air. “Say it to Mah, say it in the telephone,” Foon told him. “Just say it to anybody.” But his father would only smile, mess up Foon’s thick head of hair, and continue the self-mumbling no matter the room or street corner.
That was thirty years ago, and Foon had worked so hard to be better than that. He had moved out of Indianapolis. He had earned two degrees. Yet here he was, in the bright yellow morning, speaking to the dining table.
“I picked you out,” said Foon. “I purchased you. You’re mahogany. Well done.”
He circled the table, hands clasped behind him as if inspecting a war memorial. “Such a fine table,” he said. “And from a single tree, too.” The grain made a ghoulish, genderless face that repeated itself across the surface and down the legs.
Only once did he glance down to the surface of the pool. It looked just as it did yesterday: a smooth stone rectangle, the water deep and still as cement, with some nicely varied shrubbery curving around the edges.
“I’m in my house, I’m an engineer,” he said. “I’ve got a beautiful house. I made all of this happen. I did it myself.” He spoke the truth. It was—in the words of his colleagues and even Flora—quite a house. The driveway out front was curved in an elegant horseshoe. At parties Foon would crank up the heated tiles of the bathroom, each guest emerging with glee and beckoning others to take off their shoes to try it. Foon and Marcy would watch them and grin, him squeezing proudly her by the waist.
An accomplishment: that’s what he was. “You’re the proudest thing I’ve done,” Mah would say. “You are simply the reason I don’t leave your father. So lazy, and yet look at you! It’s if you’ve looked to him to learn how not to be.” She would pat his shoulder warmly, adjust the straps of his apron. “You love to work—you never stop working. Even now, your hands are twitching! It’s like your fingers long for more to do. Your grandfather would be so proud. ” Foon’s chest would swell with meek pride, but blink confusedly at his shoes.
Foon’s father seemed lazy. But to Foon’s mind his father didn’t hate work—he feared it. He wanted desperately to be esteemed, respected, accomplished, “like a man.” But small failures depressed him. “The other drivers get more business,” he’d sigh, after not even bothering to move his taxi from the garage. “I’ll never be the best at it. Or at music. Or even at fathering.” And he’d press his mouth into his hands, to hold back a cry or even a burst of anger, scaring Foon into the kitchen, where he’d start cooking dinner to forget all about it.
Foon had even had a found a beautiful girl and married her, which his Taiwanese friends knew was next to impossible. “So you say American girls don’t like Asian men?” he’d written to them. “Well, look what your Foon has done,” and enclosed a photo of them kissing on a lifeguard stand, her long blond hair snaking prominently down her front.
Shouldn’t that have been enough? Enough for everyone to be satisfied?
Didn’t he have a right to relax? After all he had been through? The life he had led?
In Taiwan, crawling children would infest Foon’s home. Three chubby cousins from Taipei, his sticky-fingered sisters and his ever-wailing brother, whose favorite activity was to open Foon’s toy chest and throw its contents around the room with the glee of haggard gravediggers. On these dreaded weekends Foon was forced to sleep with Yu, his baby brother, as the aunts—“dear guests” that they were—laid claim to Foon’s bed. Yu’s bony elbows jabbed through the blankets. The boy snored loosely, ferociously. Once Foon woke up amid damp sheets, thinking that he’d been sweating despite the cold of the night. But no: Yu had wet the bed. Foon couldn’t stop himself from beating his pillow on the boy until he came awake.
When he couldn’t bear the crowdedness any longer, Foon would go to the wicker couch in the living room. He pulled the couch from the wall—one foot was all that he needed—and lowered his body into the space behind it. Clumps of dust and tangled hair would startle under his breath, but he happily swatted them away.
Foon would drift asleep, in the quiet valley of his own creation. Let me accomplish myself away from here, he’d pray. Let me accomplish my way to a fat bed, dry sheets, and a marriage that needs no tending at all.
Around lunchtime Foon began to worry about the pool. Somewhere down there the saltwater might be tarnishing the ring, or eroding it into something brittle, thin, easily snapped. Sure, he was no chemist, but isn’t that why Marcy removed her rings before a swim? Or did that have to do somehow with the filtration system? Why didn’t he know these things? Was this not his pool, the one he had saved for for months?
Once again he called Flora. It rang and rang, without even a simple automated message to greet him. He wondered if her phone was broken, or if she was conspiring against him. Foon spun the phone on the countertop and watched it slow to a halt. Then he held his breath and looked up the outgoing calls.
Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy.
Only The Office had answered his calls, as they did every time, his colleagues chuckling over his tales of being sick. It occurred to Foon that no woman all day had picked up her phone for him. He stood by the refrigerator and ate leftover macaroni and cheese, fingering each cold noodle around the tines of his fork. He stood for a long time. Finally he pulled a thick sweater over his body, dug his feet into sheepskin slippers, and descended the stairs of the deck.
Autumn was starting to infringe upon the pool. Dry leaves ambled down to the surface. Matted tufts from cottonwood trees amassed into a blanket, floating in one corner. He chastised himself for not having the housecleaner deal with this, but then again he didn’t know the Portuguese word for “filtration,” and at any rate he could barely communicate with her as it was.
Foon circled the tile edging as if it contained a dozing shark. The water— usually so clear and regularly filtered—glinted back no sign of the ring. He knew it was down there somewhere—they had both heard the splash of it, the little plop.
“Were you really that bad?” he said out loud. “No, no. You couldn’t have been. She’s ridiculous. She’s always been angry. Look at all you’ve done for her. Look at this pool. Eight months it took to construct this thing. Doesn’t she notice it anymore?”
He removed one foot from its sheepskin slipper and stood it on ground. The concrete was cold and embedded with smooth, colder pebbles. Angling forward his foot, Foon dipped his large toe into the pool, a single ripple disturbing the surface. “Good god,” he said. The water almost seemed to bite him.
He looked around the yard, ridiculously, since the wooden fence was eight feet all around. He unfastened his belt, working quickly. He bent to remove his corduroy pants, and pulled off his sweater, the neck catching on his fattening chin.
“You sick thing,” he said. “You rat.” He sat on the concrete, lowering his legs into water. He let them go numb.
It would be a thin glint of gold. And a small square emerald, for Ireland, for her.
“Why a pool?” he said, ignoring the breath crystalizing in front of his mouth. “Nobody even swims in it. Why not a cocker spaniel? She always wanted a cocker spaniel. Just a cute, little, fucking cocker spaniel.”
Foon braced himself, counted to three, and plunged himself into the water. The salt stung his eyes and he should have put on goggles. Ice water slipped into the deep crevice of one ear, then the other. He’d have a headache later.
Down, down, down he pushed, moving the water away in frantic, heavy motions, as if pushing himself through Jell-O. He kicked his legs to keep himself propelled along the bottom of the pool, the tiles coated thinly in a layer of slime. One time, two times, three times he came up kicking for air.
On the seventh plunge he spotted it, clinging to the mesh of the center drain. The ring’s gold was muted in the murky water, wrapped in a bird’s nest of hair and tiny bubbles.
He kicked himself to the surface and didn’t even hurry himself into a towel. His skin was numb and oddly refreshed. “Well done,” he said, proudly, eyeing the ring in the sun. Water dripped from his elbows, and down the hairs of his legs to the concrete. “Never again. I’ll get her a cocker spaniel.” He went upstairs to sleep.
Everyone had their means of fighting, he knew. Everyone had their expansions and contractions. When Mah would kick his father out of the house, he would come pleading his way back. Even in Indianapolis, even in the dead of winter—there he would be, lowered at the doorstep, not like a man but like a beggar. Around him the layers of snow absorbed the incessant calling of Mah’s name. How could his father kneel on the ice like that? His panicked heart was what kept him warm.
When Foon woke up, the sky was turning pink, and the shadowed of trees had darkened his bedroom. For a moment he didn’t know what time it was, or if hours had passed, or days. He moved to the living room as if checking for burglars.
Evening dimmed the house. Reluctantly Foon switched on the lamps, as if each lighted one reminded him that his wife was still not there. It was nearly six-fifteen, time again for the empty hour, except that today didn’t need one: the empty hour was the whole day.
Foon removed the ring from his pocket and watched its glassiness in the setting sun. He pushed it onto his pinky, holding out his hand to admire it.
He lowered stiffly into the dark wingback chair. Until she returned, he would wait, as unmoving as a dog. “Whatever you want, just name it,” said Foon, his head leveled to the driveway, watching hazy curtains of the window, talking to himself.
There is a photograph my mother is fond of showing people whenever she explains how far I have fallen. I am insolent now, uncharacteristically so, and she is unused to seeing my anger so unhidden. “See how happy we were?” she laments, phone in hand, zooming in on the expertly cropped image. In it, we are standing soldier-like behind a table overflowing with food. The corners of our mouths are upturned in the same way. “10th grade, Thanksgiving break,” she explains. “She had just gotten back from boarding school.” And then, invariably, she turns to me and asks, “Do you remember that? What a nice girl you were? Do you remember?”
I do, no matter what I try. I do.
As my parents stared me down for refusing my aunt’s casserole, my sister quietly finished her second helping of Thanksgiving turkey. She was fearless where I faltered.
Hard-boiled eggs, hollowed and rinsed of any remaining yolk, were not dangerous. Neither were watercress leaves in sealed plastic bags. I carried these things in tin lunch boxes, like a child. My mother often scolded me for wasting food. She had watched girls thinner than I was wrestle over cups of flour, knobbed fingers caught in the spaces between ribs. My sister always took the rejected gray yolks into her mouth without complaint. Later, she would remark on their smoothness.
I pushed a plate of sautéed collard greens across the table. I didn’t like the way the oil glinted at me.
Of my own volition I had been hungry for almost three months. There were certain dietary staples I did not stray from, romaine lettuce and steamed broccoli chief among them. I had a fear of growth and a fear of death simultaneously. Faced with fats and starches I felt lust and disgust in equal measure. Sometimes it was hard to differentiate learned from innate revulsion. I never liked bacon before and when I began to comprehend the meaning of the grease it left on the griddle, I grew to hate it. The same went for cream cheese and bagels, whose rich blandness was best complemented by the brininess of stomach acid and the hot relief of mistakes forgiven. My tongue forgot flavor—my mind invented it in plates of naked green things.
Being home scared me but not for the reasons it should have. I had succeeded, and hating decline as much as I did made success a paranoid place. The tomatoes were too sweet to be trusted. The measuring spoons were warped from the heat of the dishwasher. I imagined my body growing withered. I imagined my body growing swollen. No salad bar safety. No dorm room hiding place. There would be lunches —matinées—and dinners and dinners and dinners.
“Audrey,” I found myself whispering, “Aren’t you afraid?” I imagined biting into the turkey’s thick roasted flesh, the gravy coating my lips with a slimy layer of fat.
“Afraid of what? Them?” She glanced toward my mother and father. “No, not right now.”
I opened my lunch box in my lap and extracted one half of an egg white. I couldn’t bear to chew it. My tongue ran involuntarily along the concave surface, picking up forgotten flakes of yolk, whose quasi-creaminess I held in my mouth for several minutes.
“Mommy, can I have some more?” Audrey gestured to the mashed potatoes. My mother gazed past her, unhearing as usual.
I stood, faced the wall, and emptied my cholesterol-contaminated mouthful into a napkin. When I turned back, I felt my mother’s arm curl around my body, watched her face contort into a red carpet smile. Before I could brace myself, I saw the flash of my uncle’s camera from across the table.
I tell Audrey a story on the way home, the usual one, about when we were little. Back then, she’d cry over the silliest things: smushed flies, roadkill, belly-up carnival goldfish. One day, I recount, she found a mangled feather boa on the sidewalk and mourned it too. My mother thought it was awfully white of her, inventing tragedy where none existed. Her dumb little gweilo daughter, pampered and hungry for problems.
“Funny how I’m the one who ended up vegetarian,” I say, but Audrey doesn’t laugh, just unlocks the front door and then closes it behind us, her expression inscrutable. I wonder if it’s because I’m leaving tomorrow, for the first time since the last time. If I had a sister like me, I wouldn’t miss her much. But Audrey is kinder than I am, more forgiving.
“Did you pack your concealer?” she asks. We’ve reached my room now, and she is searching through my makeup bag. “You should have one for blemishes and one for under-eye circles.” She is 14 but already beautiful, a double-edged quality in a girl so young. She colors herself in perfectly every morning. It was she who taught me to draw shadows on my face to distract from its increasing sphericity. My mother never comments on Audrey’s handiwork except when the powders smudge. You look dirty, she says. Like a cheap whore.
I nod. “Yep, the Almay and the Neutrogena.”
“And primer, too,” Audrey adds. “Don’t forget that.”
At the peak of my success, I was cruel to her. I was desperate, then, for reassurance. I sought safety in myself, in the protrusion of vertebrae, in the growth of fine pigmentless fur that spread over my skin—any palpable proof of purity. But I needed more, I needed a frame of reference, and there she was, silent and pliant as always.
“Close your eyes,” she says, and takes to curling my lashes, which resist beauty, which even now are sparse and fragile. A few casualties land atop my cheeks. She brushes them off and murmurs an apology.
It was so easy, even at that stage, to push her into the bathroom, force her onto the scale, measure the inches of her pre-adolescent body. It was my favorite game: Are You Smaller Than a Sixth Grader?
And somehow, when I met my ineluctable fate a few months later, she had found it in herself to dust my resentful intubated face with blush. How clownish I’d looked, thick paint on sallow canvas. She hadn’t been so skilled back then, it was guesswork, reverse engineering. Now she is like a doctor with those brushes, those palettes, her expert hands exacting and incapable of failure. The girl she presents to me in a hand mirror betrays no trace of her nasogastric past.
“You’ll call me every day, right?”
“Every week,” I say.
She holds the mirror at arm’s length so that we both can fit inside it. “We look like we have different parents,” she says, and she presses her tanned, dimpled cheek to my pale one. “We look like different races.” I turn and blink against her face, tickling her forehead with my matted lashes. True to form, our laughs look nothing alike.
As a final touch, she takes a tweezer to my brows, pulling the skin taut to minimize pain.
Many years earlier, when still I was indifferent to my roundness, I had made a game of dropping my possessions from our bedroom window and listening for the sound of small objects hitting concrete—the light affirmative clatter that marked the turn from cause to effect.
I wish she’d hurt me just a little.
I wish she’d show some sign.
My mother learned English from her grandfather. He gave her a very tattered Oxford English Dictionary, a relic of his time spent studying biology in Britain, and designed an ambitious plan of study: every morning, she had to copy a page of definitions letter by letter, and every evening, he would check her transcriptions by reading them aloud. The day he killed himself, she didn’t finish her writing practice, and she dreaded his return from work until she found out it was never coming. A few weeks later, his dictionary was confiscated and burned by Red Guards.
She would repeat this story to us every time we were disobedient. You’re going to kill me, she’d say. Just do the dishes. Come out of your room. Finish your food. Finish your food. Finish your food.
Now she is telling this story again, but for a different reason. “Can’t you see what a good project this is?” Her voice crackles in my earbuds. “A young girl teaching herself English. A small act of insurgency against insurgency. It’s just like what I tried to do as a girl. And imagine how it’ll look on her résumé!”
“But think of how much school she’ll miss.”
My mother scoffs. “One good role can launch a career.”
“I just don’t think it’s right,” I say, and I hang up so abruptly that she’ll believe me later, when I tell her it was inclement weather that interrupted our connection.
Once I get back, the first thing Audrey and I do is walk to the grocery store. Though it’s hardly the most exciting activity to kick off the winter breaks of our respective freshman years, we’ll take any opportunity to get out of the house.
I’m craving macaroni today, and Audrey suggests that we make some together. “I need your help,” she tells me, holding up two boxes of pasta. “Which is healthier?”
“Whole wheat, I guess.”
She moves down the aisle, scrutinizing the rows of tomato sauce. “This one has more sodium but not as many calories.” She analyzes the nutrition labels with such intense concentration that she nearly collides with a shopper in a Barry’s Bootcamp t-shirt. I tell myself I shouldn’t be surprised. There is something about this age that seems to infect everyone with these preoccupations, albeit to varying degrees.
But I want to tell her what it felt like.
“Since when do you care about this stuff, Audrey?” I want to tell her about the hunger beyond hunger, when it is no longer the stomach begging but the entire body. I want to tell her about the wanting, and the punishment for wanting, and the endlessness of each day.
“I have to. For the part.” She lowers her voice. “For the movie.”
Audrey places a can of fat-free low-sodium tomato sauce in our shopping cart.
“Are you sure you want to do it? If you don’t eat enough you’ll be short for the rest of your life.” It’s too hard to tell her about the other reasons, the other consequences.
“I’m not gonna do anything crazy. Just eat better and run longer distances, that’s all.” She takes a jar of peanut butter from its shelf, then puts it back down. I think of the night before my fourteenth birthday: me and my dorm-mate in the common room swishing peanut butter in our mouths and spitting the brown globs into a plastic bag. We can’t tell anyone about this, I’d said. People are gonna think we’re pre-bulimic or some shit.
“Can you at least think about taking a different role instead?” I ask.
“I’ve already thought about it. I don’t want a minor part. I don’t want to be an extra.” She walks to the next aisle and I watch her sprinter’s legs flex in ways mine can’t. I imagine her leggings growing loose; I imagine her rifling through the sick clothes I should have donated; I imagine her trying on the jeans I wore when the infirmary nurses asked me why my heart rate was so low.
“Whatever then. If you’re so sure.”
I know that there is no way to stop this, that my mother would laugh if I told her my fears, laugh and do worse than laugh. No pain my sister and I have faced or will face could ever compare to hers. Losing twenty-five pounds to play a starving communist child is one thing; growing up a starving communist child is another.
I began, in my sophomore year of high school, to devise a repertoire of meticulous tricks in preparation for every one of my trips home. I fancied myself an illusionist, pouring soy sauce on a white plate, tracing the outlines of my imaginary meal with a chopstick—it was a private comedy, a thrilling act of forgery, and I was both excited and offended that no one ever discovered my acts of deception. Perhaps, I thought, they were too distracted by my mother, who ate with a ferocity unmatched even by feral animals. She possessed an intimate understanding of hunger, told stories of catching and skinning frogs to feed her brothers. It used to embarrass me, how she would swallow her food as if someone were trying to steal it. Now I was glad her habits would cover mine.
At school it was easy to stay unnoticed. I did as I pleased, lived in a room no one else entered, and recorded my progress in dry-erase marker on the surface of a full-length mirror. Occasionally, a dorm-mate would remark on my continued absence from the dining hall. For the most part I was left in peace.
In my mind it was purely logical, the natural consequence of knowing how to count. I grew to love it, in time, the beauty of the balanced equation, the quantity subtracted, the triglyceride transformed into carbon and water. But first the simplicity of it seduced me. How easily the body could be revised, how quickly the flesh surrendered to the whims of its inhabitant. A bloodless coup, quiet as a child drowning.
I observed it sometimes in other girls, small details, the litany of mental measurements audible only to fellow zealots. No, not you too, I’d think, a sharp pang of jealousy rising in my chest as though we hadn’t all learned it together, as though the root of this special power hadn’t been offered to every one of us. Recall the sixth grade outings to Moscone Playground; recall the way we repurposed the seesaw into a scale, clever girls, always inventing. In these moments perhaps our destinies were manifest.
And still I thought my sister would be immune.
When I think I see the signs, the first real signs, I tell no one. I wonder about the cause of the sick feeling inside of me: Am I protective of my sister or possessive of my disease?
“Audrey,” I ask her finally, “what are you doing?”
She is tightening the laces of her running shoes. The window is open. It is mid-January. There are no seasons here. “I’ll be back before dark,” she says.
When she’s gone, I find the script on the dining room table. The writing is ugly. The dialogue is the kind that must be delivered with a strained third-world accent.
Mother! Mother! Why doesn’t she see me? Where does she go?
Is only us two now.
I wonder what the process is for a film like this. The famine begins in the second act. Will they shoot the scenes in sequence, my sister’s body shrinking alongside her character’s? Or will she be healthy one day and half-starved the next?
Please, Uncle. One egg. I won’t ask you tomorrow.
Some rice? Uncle, I beg you, my sister is hungry.
She returns in an hour, sweating and flushed. I offer her bread, string cheese, a granola bar. And in her face I see that awful turning, the fluctuating resolve. I almost hear the calculations, before finally she shakes her head and walks away—a fast learner, like me.
An earlier version of this story was published in The Harvard Crimson as "My Sister Will Be Hungry."
Talia’s in her booth at the con, bugging the bunny phone, but her father doesn’t pick up. She cradles her own phone close to her cheekbones, sweating on the metal in one hand and using the other to click refresh on the taskbar on the browser on her laptop. He’s on a list, she wants to tell him. He’s on one of those copypasta lists goose-steppers grow on Stormfront and /POL/ until the thorny burs are ready to fruit and spread to the undersides of YouTube videos and Facebook groups. The laptop fan whines inside the plastic casing as Talia tries to balance the machine on her jeans. She’s sure the screen is going to fritz out from the heat if she doesn’t first.
The answering machine clicks for the fifth time, and for the fifth time the 2nd movement of Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse plays in the tinny speakers of Talia’s phone. “Eh, Doc’s not here right now,” says a pre-recorded cartoon rabbit over the bum bum bum of the orchestra, “but you can leave a message.” The machine beeps. This time Talia does leave a message, but only asking her father to call her back. She doesn’t tell him his name is on DeviantArt, under some PG-13 fan art of her Middle Ghoul characters, sandwiched between Rubins and Rosens and Weinsteins and Cohens.
Talia clicks X on a fic and two wiki tabs, shutters a subreddit, and sidebars a blog. She closes a page of balloon fetish fan art where Ghost Principal Lamar is hypnotizing the nameless mummy English teacher into sucking down a canister of helium. She leaves up only the window with her father’s name. In the drawing above, Coach Scotts, the werewolf gym teacher, lifts the shirt off of Mr. Stanley, the werebear math substitute. In the comments below, users praise the quality but mock the pairing as unrealistic. The comment with the list sits unconnected to any other string of conversation.
Beyond Talia’s laptop, unsold books stack into a makeshift embankment, steering rivers of costumed traffic away from the booth so she can hide in the valley below. She doesn’t see the woman with ice blue fingernails fingering her “Commissions Welcome” sandwich board until the woman is already peering over the terrain at Talia’s crouched body. She is dressed like Wendy Wiggins from Wiggins and Things, in a striped ascot and a hoop skirt. She smells like a non-real smell, like what the Yankee Candle store might unhelpfully label “Seasons Greetings,” or “Yuletide Cheer.” She brushes against the chalkboard and Talia worries the outfit will wipe away the price list.
“It’s a hundred for a headshot,” says Talia, pulling up from the laptop screen. “One fifty for full body, three hundred if you want more than one character in a scene.”
“Hey, I know who you are!” the woman says.
“Neat,” says Talia.
“I love your comic.”
“Much appreciated,” says Talia.
The woman pauses for a moment. She looks back at the board.
“So, did you get screwed out of royalties or something?” she asks.
“What do you mean?” asks Talia. She digs her elbows into her knees, tenting her fingers under her chin.
“I mean, there’s a Middle*Ghoul! marathon on Nickelodeon twice a week, at minimum. Why are you busking in upstate New York?”
Talia tilts her head. She holds her eyes closed for longer than a blink and pokes a thumb out to scratch the right corner of her lips. Middle Ghoul is a webcomic. Middle*Ghoul! (based on characters by Talia Roth) is an Annie Award-winning series under the control of SaberThoughts Animation. Talia has nothing to do with the direction of the show nor the production team, which adapted a three-year archive of her plotlines and finished all of them by the end of the first season. They’re on season four now. When people at the con ask her for spoilers on the show, she half-jokes she’s become a fan artist for her own creation. If they persist, she repeats it without joking at all.
“You know, some people like taking commissions.” she says. “Some artists, even financially secure ones, enjoy the process of taking requests and getting paid for it.”
“So they didn’t screw you.”
“No, they screwed me completely,” she says.
“Sucks,” says Wendy Wiggins.
“Quite,” says Talia.
Light covers the woman from two directions: above are the frost-white industrial halogens of the T.U. Arena — lights more attuned to scouring shadows from college basketball tournaments and local hockey games than creating a comfortable color temperature for a digital artists’ convention — and behind her blinks a string of unseasonal Christmas LEDs draped across the booth across from Talia’s. The combined impression of the lights and the perfume in a sweltering mid-July afternoon in Albany leaves Talia’s stomach feeling a click displaced, temporally.
She checks the clock on her laptop, then the display on her phone, then the schedule leaflet on the floor. It’s two hours until her panel for DRAW-LEC-TRICITY 2014. Her name sits on a list with five others under the heading Canon or Fanon: Who’s The Boss? Talia knows she is not the boss. Sales are the boss, which is why she’s going on the panel. Up until twenty minutes ago, she was collecting fandom field samples with the zeal of an academic and dumping them into a .doc file on her hard drive. Distractions are amassing.
Talia waits for the woman to say something else, but she doesn’t. Talia waits for her to leave, but she sticks in place, like a dead pixel on a television screen. Her nails look dangerously close to scratching the book covers.
“So, do you want to help me up above the poverty line this month?” asks Talia, “Or is
there something else I can do for you?”
“Do you do special pricing for adult content?” Talia grimaces.
“I usually don’t take requests like that at conventions,” she says.
“I’m all for sex-positive art, this just isn’t the right environment for me.”
“Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Sure. I can get that.” She bobs her head. “I’ll give you three thousand
“That’s...” Talia closes her eyes. She exhales. “That’s a lot,” she says.
“Can you maybe give me a sense of what you had in mind?”
“I have a few notes,” the woman says.
Wendy Wiggins holds up a three-ring binder. Talia is sure the woman didn’t have it before. The frontside plastic shines unmarked and unlabeled. Translucent dividers stick out from the side in a repeating tri-color pattern: red, yellow, blue, red, yellow, blue. Sheaves of paper fatten the spine and force the front and back covers out at an obtuse angle.
Wiggins zips through the pages, stopping three-quarters in. She reaches over Talia’s book fort and dangles the open binder by a thumb and a middle finger meeting in an ‘okay’ sign through the upper ring. Talia scans the swaying text. Everything is handwritten. Some terms are highlighted. ‘Deep throat,’ ‘strap-on,’ ‘fully engorged,’ ‘coital synthesis,’ and ‘unblinking portrait of the death of the American dream in a macro-economic context.’ On the next page, there are rough diagrams.
“This is all a bit intricate,” says Talia.
“I’d like to see it with Ghost Principal Lamar and the hypnotherapist, if possible.”
“The guidance counselor? Debbie Dee?”
“That’s the one.”
“I’ll have to think about it,”
The woman pulls out a checkbook and swoops a sparkling pen across the “amount” line. Her knuckles form a series of sharp peaks across the back of her hand. She rips the paper off and hands it to Talia.
“I’ll be back in an hour and a half,” says Wendy Wiggins, “Whether or not I sign the check is up to you.
The woman slips into the crowd before Talia can object to the payment plan. Talia looks at the check. She folds it and buries it in a drawstring bag on her chair. She takes a pillar of books off the desk to make room for her laptop and lifts the lid, opening Facebook in a new window, searching for her father in the chat sidebar. He’s not online. She sends him a message anyway, again asking for a phone call, and copy-pastes the message to his work email.
The other tab still sits at the top of her browser. Talia flicks back over to the list and hovers over the report button. She doesn’t press it. She taps the casing with the flat tips of her fingers, and toggles the brightness buttons on her keyboard, dimming and illuminating the display quick enough to make the screen shimmer. She clicks the username, which brings her to the account’s profile. It’s blank: no drawings, no favorites, no preferences. The page says the account is two years old, but the list appears to be its only post.
Copy-pasting the list into Google leads Talia to a wiki page with a grinning Shylock in the upper right corner. Talia’s seen the smaller lists, twenty names, maybe thirty. CEOs, Presidents, Producers, and other major figures. Moonves. Spielberg. Sometimes Barbara Walters. Sometimes Mike Wallace, even though he’s been dead for years. This crowdsourced version bursts with less famous names, names of talent agents, associate producers, assignment editors, casting directors, book sales associates, accountants, marketing directors, bank tellers, make-up artists.
It calls Isaac Roth a ‘Hollywood Agent.’ That’s not accurate. Talia’s dad lives in Schenectady and writes public relation copy for a lobbying firm focused on tax credits for New York State film productions. There’s no vast entertainment conspiracy to that. The closest Talia ever got to meeting a Hollywood celebrity was seeing Steve Buscemi for thirty seconds at a D.P. Dough when she was sixteen.
Sometimes Isaac’s name shows up in the contact info of press releases. Sometimes press releases get pasted on the firm’s website. Sometimes having your name show up in the wrong place is all it takes to become the subject of someone else’s conspiracy theories.
Talia jumps to the edit page of the wiki and erases her father from the list. Then she shrinks the window, unsheathes a drawing tablet from her bag, plugs in the USB, and begins sketching.
[GLOBAL] [REMINDER: DARWINIRC GOING DOWN FOR MAINTENANCE 12 JUL - 14 JUL 2014]
TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY has entered #DRAMABOMB
I_AM_NOT_DIANE_KEATON has entered #DRAMABOMB
12:55 <DOOT_OF_EARL> My friends, can’t we, just once, grant OP a break from the ridicule?
12:55 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> No.
12:56 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> NO
12:56 <SUPER_KEITH> We’re not your friends.
12:56 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> No. Also I just logged on, who are we mocking?
12:57 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> We’re not mocking, we’re helping. We’re immortalizing.
12:57 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Our community offers transcendence to petty online fights.
12:57 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> OP is a recurring myth we pass down. A folk legend. An hero.
12:58 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Like tales of an archetypal trickster god, but not as smart.
12:58 <DOOT_OF_EARL> I thought it was just an acronym for Original Poster.
12:58 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Who’s the OP this time?
12:58 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> This genius: reddit.com/r/DreamThe90s/comments/5l1vd9/
12:59 <DOOT_OF_EARL> Guy claims to know the voice actors for the original Magic School Bus.
12:59 <DOOT_OF_EARL> Someone asks for proof and he posts a pic of an autographed script.
12:59 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Then one of the actual voice actors appears out of nowhere,
12:59 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Says he’s never met the guy, and that’s not his signature.
13:00 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Oh! Fun.
13:00 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> OP insists it’s real. They’re fighting it out in the comments.
FEZZWICK has kicked ELEVATOROPERATOR from #DRAMABOMB
13:01 <FEZZWICK> I know what “an heroing” is code for. None of that here.
13:01 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> I doubt he was actually suggesting we goad someone into suicide.
13:01 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Nobody says “an hero” anymore. That meme is a decade old.
13:02 <FEZZWICK> I don’t care. Not even as a joke.
13:03 <DOOT_OF_EARL> Could have been a typo.
13:04 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Oh my god. That entire Magic School Bus thread is great.
13:04 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> OP: “Prove you’re really Danny Tamberelli.”
13:04 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Danny Tamberelli: “Okay, here’s a picture of me.”
13:05 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> OP: “That proves nothing.”
ELEVATOROPERATOR has entered #DRAMABOMB
13:05 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Why was I kicked out of the room?
13:06 <DOOT_OF_EARL> “an hero.”
13:04 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> FEZZWICK thinks you want us to troll someone into an early grave.
13:05 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> It was a typo.
13:05 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> WatWarSoc still tells people the guy from last year was our fault.
13:06 <DOOT_OF_EARL> My guess is FEZZWICK doesn’t want to give them more ammo.
13:07 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> That was a fake suicide.
13:07 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Also, WatWarSoc’s userbase got way more involved than us.
13:07 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> They’re just better at spinning the narrative.
13:08 <FEZZWICK> You weren’t supposed to be involved at all. We don’t touch the drama.
13:08 <FEZZWICK> We observe from a safe distance so as not to influence it.
13:09 <SUPER_KEITH> Observing drama makes you part of the drama. There’s no safe distance.
13:09 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> How are you sure it was a fake suicide?
13:10 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> The guy deleted his account afterwards.
13:10 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> How does a dead person delete their own account?
13:10 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> It could have been the admins. Or a family member.
13:11 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> OP is alive.
13:11 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> OP is alive.
13:11 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> OP is alive. I’m not debating again.
13:12 <SUPER_KEITH> Hey, whatever narrative makes you feel like you’re not a bad person.
13:12 <SUPER_KEITH> That’s the one you get to decide is true.
13:12 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Oh fuck off
FEZZWICK has kicked ELEVATOROPERATOR from #DRAMABOMB
/LAST LOGIN: 9 JAN 2006/
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From: US Patriots Coalition ListServ
Date: DEC 31 2009 05:01:41 EST
Subject: FD: STOP THE THUG SOCIALIST TAKEOVER OF MEDIA FD: Fundraising for the Family Television Conservatory
CC: Abbey, Celia-Anne; Abbey, Diana; Abbott, Orson M.; Abdow, Elmira; [...] (95,644 MORE)
Our case against the media’s agenda of sin has never been stronger, but it has also never needed you more.
Not since the Clinton administration have we seen such a campaign of disinformation and moral degradation waged through televisions, radios, movie theater screens, bookstores, libraries, universities, and public school classrooms. There is no escape from the homosexual indoctrination.
But with your vigilant support, the Family Television Conservatory has been fighting for family values since 1989:
- - We were there to boycott the media’s promotion of occult rituals and imagery in programs such as Pokemon, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Invader Zim, Ahh! Real Monsters, Filmore!, Yu Gi Oh, Gargoyles, Darkwing Duck, and The Wild Thornberrys.
- - We were there to petition against the subversion of traditional family roles in programs such as Rugrats, Pepper Ann, Rocket Power, Dexter’s Laboratory, Recess, Boondocks, The Powerpuff Girls, Ren & Stimpy, Digimon, Angry Beavers, and The Wild Thornberrys.
- -We were there to decipher the media’s coded endorsements of debauchery and vice in programs such as Samurai Jack, Cousin Skeeter, Swat Kats, Cow & Chicken, Arthur, Street Sharks, Daria, Jimmy Neutron, Code Lyoko, Max & Ruby, Yo Yogi!, Hey Arnold!, Maggie and The Ferocious Beast, Bobby’s World, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and The Wild Thornberrys.
Take action now to maintain media integrity.
Do what you can to ensure there is never another show to poison the minds of our children
as The Wild Thornberrys has.
As we stand on the precipice of a new decade, we enter the next phase of America’s culture war. Please visit our secure donation site here.
Donations as low as $20 earn you “Recognized” status within the Family Research Conservatory. Donors who give more than $500 earn a “Friend of the FRC” designation, as well as our signature FRC pin, refrigerator magnet, mousepad, two-year subscription to our quarterly magazine, and signed first edition copy of Randy in the Rhineland, the true history of how an unchecked culture of perversion in European art led to the rise of the Third Reich.
James Kelly Robertson, Executive Director
Family Television Conservatory
The booths of DRAW-LEC-TRICITY lay longways across the stadium’s central ellipse. They run in eight parallel rows, with every two rows paired back-to-back against shared, curtained dividers. At various points, smaller dividers branch off the main curtains at ninety-degree angles, separating some, but not all, of the artists’ individual displays. From above, on the cracked concrete steps of the arena, amid the ring of 17,115 empty plastic chairs, the crowd below looks as if it’s flooding around four stubby millipedes with missing legs.
Talia’s booth sits on an inward facing row in one of the outer millipedes. Artists and attendees are coming back from lunch, so the aisle in front of her is jammed with plucky superheroes, custom t-shirts, horse masks, orange horned trolls in grey face paint, and more custom t-shirts. The grand return follows an hour of near solitude. Minutes ago, she had had a clear line of sight across the entire aisle, from the used Nissan ad on one end of the rink wall to the local TV news promo on the other. Now she has to hide.
Eager channels of people split from the stream of attendees and sediment themselves in pockets against the front edges of the booths. Talia smiles weakly at the guests lingering in front of hers and sinks further into her chair, aiming for an expression that combines ‘now isn’t a good time’ with ‘please donate to my Patreon.’ Her laptop screen is at an acute angle with her keyboard and she’s slouched back into privacy mode. A dull ache alternates between her neck, her shoulders, and her wrist as she tries to find a better view and maintain it. At the most comfortable drawing position the reflection of her laptop’s black E-R-T-Y-U-I-O keys cuts across the tangled naked bodies onscreen like a censorship bar misplaced by a drunk standards and practices department.
She slams the laptop shut, nearly cracks the plastic on the outside of her monitor, when a man in a Rat Stick t-shirt stops by with a costumed 5-year-old. The girl dangles over her father’s shoulders, hugging his forehead. She’s dressed like Marza Ghoul, the youngest daughter of Ghost Principal Lamar. She’s dressed like the version from the webcomic, though, with the barrettes and the purple skull wristbands. They pick up a book. Talia offers to sign it and the girl says nothing but begins grinning and kicking her father's chest. The father smiles in pain and Talia doesn’t charge them for the copy and then they’re gone. Talia cycles back through her phone-Facebook-email carousel for any notifications from her own father. Nothing’s changed. Except, no, one thing has changed. Now, when she calls, the answering machine doesn’t pick up. The phone just keeps ringing. She checks his Twitter, not that he’s ever tweeted. She hacks his Fitbit account, not that it’s really hacking since his password is the same as his wi-fi password, and not that it helps anything since his last run was a year ago, two months after she got him the band for his birthday. She texts her mother, but knows her mother won’t have any more idea where her father is than Talia. Mom’s lived in Rochester since 1998.
When Talia revisits the Shylock wiki, her father’s name is back. She returns to the edit page and re-erases him. Forty seconds of rapid-click refreshing and he’s back again. She slides over to the page history and sees her two revisions alternating with an account called GrundyStormer. The account’s second edit has a memo attached to it, telling her to “back the fuck off fag. I see you.” She’s been barred from editing the site.
Her browser has a bookmark list of proxies she can use, but half of them are blocked on building’s wifi, and she finds the half that aren’t are already banned from the wiki. The page won’t load on her phone.
Two silhouettes dart onto Talia’s table. She snatches the laptop off and looks up to see a scruffy twig in a cargo vest and a tall woman with britpunk red hair and a baby bump— Grant Eggert (who draws Jurassic Pterodactyl Weekend Brunch) and Kira Eggart (who used to draw Depressing Image Parade, and now draws College Students with Troubled Personal Lives), respectively.
“Don’t you have a booth to watch?” asks Talia, hugging the laptop.
“Oh my god,” says Grant, lowering his glasses. “Do we? Do we have a booth?”
“I’m pretty sure we do,” says Kira. “I know I’ve been there.”
“And I know I’ve been there,” says Grant.
They glare at Talia. Kira folds her arms. Grant rests an elbow on a column of books. He slides off, pushing it to the floor. All three of them turn their necks to follow the merchandise as it scatters and wobbles and settles on the ground, thwacking and sliding to the interior corners of Talia’s booth. They turn back to each other. Talia blinks. “I am sorry for not visiting you,” says Talia. “I figured we were going to see each other at the thing later.”
“And I am sorry for not RSVPing to the baby shower.”
“For that alone we’re making you the godmother,” says Kira.
“And what are you hiding?” asks Grant.
“Nothing. I’m... fighting an internet Nazi, but my phone won’t work with his website.” Talia holds it up. “Can I borrow yours?”
“That is a stupendous reason to borrow a phone,” says Kira. “But I haven’t updated my hardware since 2006. No web access.”
“I’m over my data cap,” says Grant. He shrugs.
“Can’t you still get on the wifi though?”
“Honestly, I just don’t want to give you my phone.”
Talia shifts in her chair, still hugging the laptop. Kira glances at the cord attached to the USB port and follows it to the drawing tablet on the table. She reaches over Talia’s remaining fortification and picks up the stylus.
“What are you drawing?” asks Kira.
Grant and Kira glance at each other.
“What are you drawing?” asks Grant “Is it porn?”
“No,” says Talia.
“Oh my god, it’s porn!” says Kira.
“Smut-peddler!” says Grant.
“Floozy!” says Kira.
“Can we see it?”
“We’re going to go tell people.”
“Too late, we’re already running.”
At five minutes before the deadline, Talia finishes the final linework on the commission. At ten minutes past the deadline, Talia erases and redraws the linework she just completed. At twenty-five minutes past the deadline, Wendy Wiggins returns and Talia holds up a finger asking her to wait just a moment, she swears, she’s almost got it. At thirty-five minutes, she drops the stylus, asks for the woman’s email, has her sign the check, and sends the image.
“I’m not paying for this,” says Wendy Wiggins, checking her phone. She doesn’t look at Talia. Her fingers pinch and zoom the image on the touchscreen, examining the piece in detail.
“Excuse me?” Talia says.
“You can do better work than this.”
“Not in the time limit you gave me.”
“Which you were late for.”
“I’m not a Papa John’s. You don’t get the drawing free just because I was a little behind schedule with the delivery. Also you signed the check. Are you planning on canceling it?”
“I mean I could,” she says. “Online, in like, two seconds. Faster than you could try and cash it at a bank, at least.”
Wendy Wiggins lowers her phone. She shrugs and grins and bears her teeth and floats back toward the crowd, wedging herself between a row of Power Rangers and a zombie Deadpool, riding the momentum upstream.
Talia springs from the chair. She dumps her laptop into her bag, throws it around her shoulder, hooks her hands at the edge of her table and swings through the space underneath. A Stormtrooper nearly crushes her ankles as she comes out the other side. Her elbows slam onto the ground and she pushes herself up.
Too many books remain on Talia’s desk and she shouts at the guy in the booth with the Christmas lights to watch her stuff while she’s gone. His face pulls back like he’s going to say no. She doesn’t wait around to let him. Instead, she jams herself into the crowd and rides through the tidal openings and closings of person-sized spaces. She catches up with the Power Rangers at the edge of the stadium floor as they push out onto the lower wraparound corridor. The green ranger gives way as Talia cuts through, but Wendy Wiggins is no longer between them.
Talia’s scanning the exits when her phone buzzes. She reaches for her pocket fast enough to miss on the first attempt and slide her fingers across her jeans before stuffing her them into the hole and snagging the sides of the phone in her hand. When she pulls it out, it’s not her father on the caller ID, it’s a number she doesn’t recognize
“Hello?” she says. “You’re late for the thing.”
She’s late for the thing.
14:02 <TRENCH_FRIES> So what is WatWarSoc?
14:02 <DOOT_OF_EARL> The W.W.S.
14:02 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> The Watch and Wards.
14:02 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> The big W.
14:02 <TRENCH_FRIES> Right, but who are they?
14:03 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> “I buried it all under a big W”
SCOOTERPIE has left #DRAMABOMB
14:03 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> They’re a flock of oversensitive gits who can’t take a joke.
14:03 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> They sort of roam websites looking for things they don’t like.
14:03 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> And then they try to get the people involved in trouble.
14:04 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> Mad Mad World reference? Anyone?
14:04 <SUPER_KEITH> “Things they don’t like” being, I dunno, sexual harassment? Bigotry?
14:04 <SUPER_KEITH> The people who complain about WWS
14:04 <SUPER_KEITH> are more annoying and omnipresent than the group itself.
14:04 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Says you.
14:05 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> 1963? Milton Berle? remade as Rat Race?
14:05 <SUPER_KEITH> Oh, forgive me. I’m sorry people call you racist when you say racist shit.
14:05 <SUPER_KEITH> It must be real traumatizing having to consider people’s feelings.
14:05 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> please. My jokes aren’t racist, they’re hilarious. Oh. no.
14:05 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Wait. did I? Have I TRIGGERED you? IS IT HAPPENING?
14:06 <SUPER_KEITH> Yeah, because PTSD is so godfucking lulz worthy.
14:06 <SUPER_KEITH> “Waaah. WatWarSoc called me out for being utter human garbage.”
14:06 <SUPER_KEITH> “But they’re the oversensitive ones!” -ELEVATOROPERATOR, 2014
14:06 <SUPER_KEITH> That’s you. That’s a direct quote from you. From like two seconds ago.
14:06 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> FEZZWICK, are you going to let him get away with that?
14:06 <FEZZWICK> Yes?
14:06 <SUPER_KEITH> I’m writing it in my quote book of direct quotes you have said.
14:06 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> There was also a Simpsons episode about it.
14:07 <DOOT_OF_EARL> WatWarSoc isn’t as bad as some people say they are,
14:07 <DOOT_OF_EARL> but they’re not as good as they like to pretend to be.
14:07 <SUPER_KEITH> It is not a long book, but I turn to it time after time for enlightenment.
14:07 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> So when I start flaming people, I get kicked,
14:07 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> but when other people flame me, it’s fine.
14:07 <FEZZWICK> Yes?
FEZZWICK has kicked ELEVATOROPERATOR from #DRAMABOMB
14:07 <FEZZWICK> I never said I was a great mod.
14:07 <TRENCH_FRIES> DOOT_OF_EARL, what do you mean?
14:07 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> I depend on a shared reference base
14:07 <SUPER_KEITH> Why not just ban him rather than kicking him for five minute gaps?
14:07 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> to hold even the most basic of conversations
14:07 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> and you all are making me reeaal insecure. 14:08 <DOOT_OF_EARL> Like, some of the stuff they call out absolutely needs to be called out.
14:08 <DOOT_OF_EARL> A lot of the problems are as real as they point out.
14:08 <DOOT_OF_EARL> But some of their actions cross the line into harassment.
14:08 <FEZZWICK> I would be bored otherwise.
14:08 <DOOT_OF_EARL> And some of their targets really don’t deserve it.
14:09 <DOOT_OF_EARL> They got Drainbow cancelled.
14:09 <FEZZWICK> Also, he’s responsible for finding, like, a third of our content.
14:09 <TRENCH_FRIES> Drainbow was them? Shit. I loved that show.
14:09 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> They’ll go after other people for making the same sort of jokes they make on their own site.
14:09 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> “My ironic bigotry is witty and subversive commentary.”
14:09 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> “Your ironic bigotry is a mask for the fact you’re an actual bigot.” 14:10 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERTHING_TWICE> It’s such a self-serving high school clique.
14:10 <SUPER_KEITH> And we aren’t?
14:10 <SUPER_KEITH> “WatWarSoc is so lame and invasive you guyz!”
14:10 <SUPER_KEITH> “Now let’s go back to judging people from our own perch!”
14:11 <SUPER_KEITH> “Which is politically neutral and therefore much more morally pious.”
14:11 <SUPER_KEITH> You’re traumatized a bad TV show got cancelled
14:11 <TRENCH_FRIES> I think you are underestimating
14:11 <SUPER_KEITH> but mocking vulnerable people who need a space to feel safe. Priorities.
14:11 <DOOT_OF_EARL> I don’t believe I was doing that?
14:11 <SUPER_KEITH> k.
14:12 <TRENCH_FRIES> how good of a show it was.
14:12 <DOOT_OF_EARL> I’m not against the concept of safe spaces.
14:12 <SUPER_KEITH> My sense is yes you are, or you wouldn’t be arguing with me.
14:12 <DOOT_OF_EARL> No, I don’t buy the “millenials = coddled” crap. That’s not my issue.
14:12 <DOOT_OF_EARL> It’s uncomfortably easy for a “safe space” to not actually be safe
14:12 <DOOT_OF_EARL> is my point.
14:13<TRENCH_FRIES> It was probably the best show I’ve ever seen.
14:13 <DOOT_OF_EARL> You can have the right opinions and still be an abusive person.
14:13 <DOOT_OF_EARL> You can build a space criticizing people for entirely legitimate reasons
14:13 <DOOT_OF_EARL> and still have toxic stuff bubbling under your own surface.
14:13 <DOOT_OF_EARL> is all I’m saying.
14:14 <SUPER_KEITH> And the good they do to help people being harassed by monsters
14:14 <SUPER_KEITH> outweighs whatever false equivalence, “be nicer to bigots,” standard
ELEVATOROPERATOR has entered #DRAMABOMB
14:14 <SUPER_KEITH> you seem to have for them. Is all I’m saying.
14:14 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Guess who’s euphoric?
14:14 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> It’s me. I am the euphoric one. In this moment. Me.
14:14 <SUPER_KEITH> Give me mod powers. Let me kick him this time. Please.
14:15 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Our conversation inspired me to visit our friends at WWS
14:15 <FEZZWICK> If you’re trying to organize a raid, I really will ban you this time.
14:15 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> I’m not. I swear I’m not.
14:15 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Just go to the website. Read the whole post they have up.
14:16 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Comments too. They’re imploding.
14:16 <TRENCH_FRIES> Can someone link me the site?
14:18 <TRENCH_FRIES> Hello?
14:23 <SUPER_KEITH> 0_0
WE ALREADY KNOW WHAT YOU THINK OF US
The straw P.C. boogeyman people tell you to fear?
The internet’s scumbag hotline?
The fun police?
The unholy thing that sends Swasti-cocks quivering in their digitized jackboots?
Right here. And proud of it.
(We “lay it on a bit thick”, so to speak, but if you need us,) (If someone’s giving you trouble,)
(If you see something that makes you go “fuck no!”) (Don’t be afraid to reach out.)
(Reputation aside, we’re actually really nice people.)
(And we support you.)
(As long as you’re not terrible.)
HOME - ABOUT - ARCHIVES - BIOS - CONTACT
APRIL 8 2013
Your Sonic The Hedgehog/Goebbels Slash Fic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad
#GottaSlowDown #OnThoseGenocideChuckles #SubmittedBySonicDangerSafetyZone #AndKnuckles
IT’S COOL FELLOW DUDEBROS, MY SISTER’S A QUEER, SO 2013 I CAN CALL PEOPLE FAGGOTS IN MY PODCAST ALL I WANT.
#TwinkleTwinkleGoldStarAllies #InTheSkySoBright #DoWeHaveToAddressThisBullshitThinking #EverySingleNight #SubmittedByViewersLikeNu
She’s Harassing Black Women Ironically. You Just Don’t Get Her Post-Modern Humor. /S
#YouAreNotTigNotaro #YourComedySkillsLack #ExcusingAllYourRacistJokesWith #BUTMYPRESIDENTISBL #Silence #SubmittedByLumpy
GAMING FORUM MOD OUTED FOR SENDING DICK PICS TO WOMEN. FORUM BANDS TOGETHER TO RALLY AROUND...THE MOD. YIKES. EDIT: We’ve been featured on Slate! Hi Slate!!
#ThreatenUsAllYouWantYouKnobs #NoWeWillNotBend #LetsGetThisFucker #EnoughAlready #ThisShitNeedsToEnd #SubmittedByPondoCombo
Boy I Sure Do Love Posting Rape Fantasy Comics to Reddit! Oh No WatWarSoc! Please Don’t Tell My Mom! (SPOILER ALERT: We Told His Mom.)
APRIL 9 2013
Community Cosplay Tuesday! Newbies Post Your Best Efforts!
#ShareAdvice #GiveTips #ThemeThisWeekIsRandom #SupportAllStyles #CommunityBuilding #WeAcceptAllFandoms #AdminPost
NOTE FOR NEW MEMBERS: We’re happy to have you, but your concern troll, tone argument, freeze peaches bullshit WILL get you banned.
#NoSympathyForCrapdragons #NotHavingThisDebate #BUTYOURERUININGLIVESSSS
#OfTerriblePeople #ToWhichWeSay #Great #NothingWeHaventHeardBefore #AdminPost
APRIL 10 2013
Top Ten Reasons Not To Mock People With Eating Disorders: 1. We Don’t Need Ten Reasons. Just Don’t Do it, Ya Dicknoggin.
#EndOfList #YourStandUpBlows #PleaseAvoidBookingForFutureShows #SubmittedByPublicRadioDemon
PONDO WILL FOR REAL SEND A MARZA PLUSH FROM HER COLLECTION TO WHOEVER DOXXES THIS “JEWS DID 9-11” DOUCHE!
#MiddleGhoulFansGetHyped #ItsTheCarnivalOne #FromTheEpisode
APRIL 11 2013
BECAUSE WE’RE STILL GETTING PM’D ON THIS: Yes Of Course We Care
“Rape Comics” Guy Is In High School. It Means There’s Still Time To Help Him.
#HeWillBeFine #WeCanDropTheDramatics #ThatBoyNeedsTherapy #PurelyPsychosomatic #AdminPost
“ASIANS, AM I RIGHT?” I Don’t Know. Let’s See What Your Boss Says.
#GettingRacistsFired #NotLosingAnySleep #SubmittedByPleaseBringBackQuantumLeap
Oh So This Fuckparade Is Back Again.
#TootTootForTheFuckparade #UpAndDownTheStreet #TheBandWillPlayAMerryTune #TheFlutesAndFifesWillTweet #BrassAndGoldAndSilverSongOnThisMostJoyousDay #TootTootForTheFuckparade #NowPleaseGoAway #SubmittedBySpleenSleeves
APRIL 12 2013
INBOX LOCKED FOR NOW
APRIL 13 2013
APRIL 15 2013
What We Know So Far
#ThereAreLikelyOtherFactorsAtPlay #WeCantClaimHisStrife #MentalHealthIsLayered #MaybeSomethingInHisHomeLife #AdminPost
APRIL 16 2013
A Message From The WatWarSoc Team to the Community
#YouMatter #AndThisWillPass #WeNeedYou #YouNeedUs #Loyalty #Love #Togetherness #NoDivision #OnlyTrust #AdminPost
APRIL 17 2013
Stop Perpetuating A False Narrative Where We’re At Fault
#YouUngratefulFucks #TheyreLyingToYou #YouAllComplainAboutHowMuchGarbageThereIsOnTheInternet #ButYouCantStomachAnyoneActuallyTryingToPutUpAFight #WeDoSoMuchForYou
#BUTYOUCATCHMOREFLIESWITHSUGARRRR #FuckingLeave #BUTDONTSTOOPTOTHEIRLEVELLLL #GoodLord #IfWatWarSocBothersYouMoreThanThePeopleWeAreCallingOut #YouWillBeTheOnesToBlameWhenTheyTakeOver #TheseFuckersWantPower #TheyWantToTurnBackTheClock #TheyreComing #AndTheyDontGiveAShitAboutPlayingNice #AdminPost
Can We Stop Writing Fics Trying To “Redeem” Draco Malfoy’s Father?
#PullADifferentNameFromTheGoblet #ForYourAntiHeroCraving #SubmittedByRuffAndTumble
< PRV PAGE ——— NXT PAGE >
After leaping up two escalators, shuttling down an elevator, and pushing through a set of swinging doors, accidentally crashing a board meeting, asking for directions, then crawling up one more escalator and falling onto a carpeted landing, Talia finds the auxiliary conference room. The panel started twenty-one minutes ago. She stands in the hallway, watching them through a narrow glass window in the door. The air conditioning works in this part of the building, and the sweat Talia wipes from her head makes the back of her hand shiver.
The inside of the room is well lit. Nancy Zwell (who draws Woah! Geography Lass) is fully visible behind a lectern, speaking words Talia can’t hear over her own straw-shaped breaths. The other artists, Grant and Kira included, sit at a table against the back wall, with the audience stacked in front of them, six rows of eight on tootsie roll colored folding chairs, facing away from Talia. An aisle bisects the audience from the door to the panel, but there’s no way for her to sneak inside without drawing attention.
Talia leans into the wall and pulls her phone back out, looking for her dad while she searches for her lungs. It’s a round of radio silence on the regular frequencies. Nothing on social media. Nothing in texts. Nothing in call history. Sans father, she slides back to the Fatherland. This time the Shylock wiki manages to load. She jumps up to the edit page and blanks out the whole list, adding ‘U IRATE BRAH??’ in the memo section. She hits save. Sixteen taps to refresh and the list is back again. Grundystormer’s returned to the log with a memo of his own. ‘Been working on something for you.’ The word “something” is underlined and Talia clicks the link with her thumb. The phone goes white and a JPEG loads from the top down at the speed of a dial-up modem. Talia rolls her chin around her collar bone until the image is halfway finished. Her neck muscles constrict when she realizes what she’s looking at — a photograph of her father’s face, pasted behind the door of a cartoon gas chamber.
A pounding at the door in front of Talia jars her attention off the phone. Nancy Zwell’s face is pressed up against the glass, nose flat, arm waving. Zwell only takes up the bottom third of the window, and over her head Talia can see the heads of every audience member, craning from their chairs to stare back through the translucent crack framing Talia.
A muffled panel beckons her inside, lifting their arms in exaggerated pantomime of a person opening a door. She opens the door.
Zwell turns, lifts a hand, and snaps her fingers, signaling for Talia to follow. Her pace is brisk. As the two trudge forward, she proclaims Talia’s identity with a drill sergeant’s intensity. A theatre of lax expressions turns eager at the mention of Middle*Ghoul! (Based on characters by Talia Roth). Talia winces and clutches her phone to her chest.
“Sorry, I’m late,” she says.
“No need for apologies,” says Nancy Zwell as she steps up to a step-stool behind the podium. “I’ve been told you were attending to urgent matters.”
“Quite urgent,” says Kira.
“The most urgent,” says Grant.
Talia leers at them, then back at Zwell, who looks puzzled, then back at Grant and Kira, who look away, approximating the straight posture and stoic expressions of school children from a nineteenth century pastoral. She takes the seat between them and buries her phone in her pocket.
The panel is small and academic. Talia’s eyes still sting from her promotional appearances with SaberThoughts, sitting in comic-con banquet halls lit like rock concerts. This is not that. This is the kind where enthusiastic fans cram themselves into annexes, side rooms, or any place wide enough to fit a folding table, the kind where hiding is noticed.
“I mean, even ‘Death of the Author’ has its extremes,” says Grant, responding to a question Zwell asked and Talia didn’t hear. “I’d say JK Rowling gets to decide Order of the Phoenix is a canonical Harry Potter book and Hermione Meets Goku at Teen Titans Tower isn’t one.”
“Does she though?” asks Kira. “Look at Wicked, look at the sixth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Shakespeare wasn’t alive to green light Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, but the story holds court for a lot of Shakespeare fans.”
“Fan fiction with high production values doesn’t stop being fan fiction,” says Grant.
“How about DC or Marvel’s canons, then?” asks Kira. “Authors building on authors building on authors for the same characters over decades. Who gets to decide what’s canon and what isn’t?”
“When they’re not completely obliterating previous canon, you mean,” says a voice at the end of the panel. Talia thinks it’s the guy who draws Quinoa Kid, but she’s too busy rubbing a temple to check.
“Reboots aside,” says Kira, “I’m asking, if two artists produce their own one-off Batman story, and both stories are equally compelling, equally well drawn, but one is released under the DC label and the other one is published independently on a message board, who gets to decide which is canon?”
“DC,” says Grant.
“Why not the audience? asks Kira.
“Because DC owns the copyright?” Talia suggests.
“So a group of people in a board room, who might not even have been involved in the direct production of the comic, get authority on what’s real and what isn’t in a fictional artistic universe, with the only justification being a capitalist legal framework. And I’m the one who’s too extreme with ‘death of the author.’”
“Yeah,” says Grant.
“Ignoring legality,” Talia starts, “Can’t the fan artist can just keep going with their Batman comic and create their own universe with its own canon? There can be more than one ‘canon’.”
“Look, if we’re really going to talk about Death of the Author, let’s consider what Barthes was actually trying to say when he proposed the concept,” says Grant.
“Why?” asks Kira.
Talia fakes attention as she holds her phone through her jeans. She makes eye contact with audience members and smiles — smiles with wide teeth then smiles without teeth — and nods her head and says things just often enough that it seems like the panel has her full focus. Some audience members are on their phones, and when Talia’s phone buzzes she reaches for the lip of her pocket again. She doesn’t reach inside.
Zwell opens for crowd questions, snapping and pointing to anyone with their hand up.
“Do you ever object to how fans use your ideas?”
“Does online speculation ever change the direction you’re planning to take with a story?”
“Aren’t comics an audience active medium already? The gutters prompt readers to fill the gaps.”
14:53 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> We’re sure this is real?
14:53 <SUPER_KEITH> They seem to think so.
14:54 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> Right, but do we think that too?
14:54 <TRENCH_FRIES> I’m still confused why they’re melting down over a kids show.
“Would you consider bringing back the characters from Depressing Image Parade?”
“We have a theory Ghost Principal Lamar’s eldest daughter, the supervisor, is also a ghost. Is that a--”
14:54 <FEZZWICK> We should be careful not to contribute to a witch hunt, is what I think. 14:54 <DOOT_OF_EARL> Thank you, FEZZWICK.
14:55 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Yes, thank you, FEZZWICK. You truly are our moral compass. 14:55 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> But more like a broken compass that only ever points to “Meh.”
14:55 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Where did they even get this from?
“Do you ever really own the worlds you create?”
“On that note, is it really that big a deal if I remove your watermark and--”
“--replace the words in your speech bubbles with politics I find more appealing?”
14:55 <FEZZWICK> If I pointed in more than one direction, I’d be a pretty terrible compass. TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY has entered #DRAMABOMB
14:55 <SUPER_KEITH> They’re not naming the source. The post says it’s a regular contributor.
14:56 <DOOT_OF_EARL> It would have to be someone that’s built up a lot of trust with them.
14:56 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> At this point, I feel a little bad for WWS.
“Sometimes the author is completely wrong though. Ray Bradbury says Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about censorship, which is nuts.”
“We have to have some conception of an author, right?”
14:56 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> You feel bad for them, but you don’t feel bad for her?
14:56 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Who are we talking about?
“If you’re suggesting an author has no say over which of their books is canon in a series, why even let them decide all pages are part of the same text?
14:57 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> I mean, I feel bad for everyone I guess.
All sentences part of the same paragraph?”
“All words part of”
12:57 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Over what? What’s going on?
“the same sentence?”
“Why did you draw a 12-year-old having sex with an adult?”
A frizzy-haired young man with thick round glasses asks the question from the inside of the third row. He’s got his phone out, arm extended, recording. His eyes peek out from behind the plastic, fixated on Talia.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“You’re responsible for creating the characters in the most popular children’s cartoon on television right now. Do you condone drawing child porn?”
“I have no...I genuinely don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Talia. She whips her head to a bug-eyed Kira, who holds her hands up defensively, with her own head tilted. Grant’s mouth hangs open, his shoulders flexed in a shrug.
“Let’s... maybe move on to someone else,” says Nancy Zwell.
“You didn’t draw this?” The man pulls a tablet from his chair and turns the screen towards the panel. Talia squints, but even three rows up, she can see it’s the same piece she’d been bilked out of payment for. She puts her a finger to her forehead.
“Okay, I did make that. I’m not sure where you got it, but-”
“You admit to drawing it.”
“You drew Debbie Dee having sex with Ghost Principal Lamar.”
There is murmuring.
“I’m sorry, what is the issue here? Both of those characters are adults.”
“Debbie Dee is a 12-year-old student at the school from Middle*Ghoul!”
“She’s best friends with Marza,” shouts someone else in the audience. “She’s best friends with your main character.”
“Marza’s not my main character. Her sister is.”
“No, her other sister. Do you mean on the show?” asks Talia. “I stopped watching long before they introduced their version of Debbie Dee. In my comic, she’s like, 32.”
#SpreadItFar #SpreadItWide #MakeYourVoicesLast
“I don’t read your webcomic,” says the man.
“Okay?” says Talia. “So? If this is some kind of weird puritanical fear tactic, I’m not ashamed of drawing people having sex. She’s clearly an adult in that drawing.” “Yeah, okay.”
14:59 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Why feel bad for anyone?
“They’re both adults. I’m not sure how you could read it any other way. Hell, I have seen people draw Rule 34 fan art of pretty much the entire cast of Middle Ghoul. None of this is new.”
“We know that part of the fandom exists,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking you would endorse it.”
14:59 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> We’re just watching the wreck, not causing it.
“I haven’t endorsed anything. These are fictional characters.”
“You don’t think you have a higher responsibility? Your name is on the show.” Buzz
The Family Television Conservatory has had to make cutbacks in recent years, but we have never wavered our mission to expose the Hollywood underbelly of vice. Just today
“It’s not my show, and I can do whatever I want with characters I created.”
The volume from the crowd rises. More people in the audience pull out their phones. Talia can see the other panelists whispering to each other. Zwell tries to get to another question. She snaps and snaps and points to people who are slowly putting their hands down.
Nobody asks anyone anything else.
15:00 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> At the risk of making us sound like hypocrites
They and an emergency fundraising appeal. A small donation of only $750 will get
so that these wretched gnats of Satan will slither back to the fires from which
15:00 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> the wrong kind of attention can be hell.
And Talia’s phone keeps buzzing.
AVAILABLE NOW IN THE MIDDLE GHOUL ONLINE STORE
Middle Ghoul, Collection 1: Getting the BOOOt - When budget cuts force Sophia Ghoul out of a substitute gig in the greater Utica school district, she takes a position back at her father’s private Academy for Unusual Children Who Are Also in Some Way Strange. With one sister as a student, and the other as her supervisor, Sophia feels a bit caught in the middle.
Perber House Publishing; 110 pages, Full Color, $24.95
Middle Ghoul, Collection 2: Don’t CAULDRON Us, We’ll CAULDRON You - Dr. Abraham’s mad computer science scrambles the school’s timekeeping software, discombobulating all the paychecks. Wacky! Sophia lapses on rent, and her father pressures her to move back into her childhood bedroom. None of the districts she’s sent her resume to have responded. The job market is crumbling. Marza is distant in class.
Perber House Publishing; 140 pages, Full Color, $24.95
Middle Ghoul, Collection 3: A Visit From the State InSPECTER - After the Academy for Unusual Children Who Are Also in Some Way Strange falls below state testing guidelines, the school board cracks down on teachers deviating from the approved lesson plans. OH NO! The nameless mummy English teacher is fired. Sophia’s older sister asks her to smooth things over with the staff, but it backfires. Sophia feels alienated from her colleagues. She eats lunch in her car.
Swoon-Derdorf; 100 pages, Full Color, $19.95
Middle Ghoul, Collection 4: I Am a SKELETON of My Former Self - An old girlfriend is getting married, but Sophia has not been invited to the wedding. Meanwhile, her father’s ectoplasmic health is declining and important decisions need to be made about long term care. Sophia accidentally sees Marza crying, alone, in the 2nd floor girls bathroom, and doesn’t know what to do. She leaves and doesn’t ever mention it again.
Swoon-Derdorf; 80 pages, B&W, $14.95
Headless Dolley Madison Tee - It’s everyone’s favorite history teacher, headless Dolley Madison! But now she’s on a t-shirt!
UNISEX, Sizes available: S/M/L/XL SOLD OUT
Here Is The Standard Order To Check
What Strangers Are Saying About You
In The Comment Sections Of Other People’s Thinkpieces
An Instructional Poem
Slate Salon Atlantic
Atlantic Slate Salon
Salon Slate Atlantic
Salon Atlantic Slate
Slate Atlantic Salon
Atlantic Salon Slate
PolicyMic Gawker Breitbart Drudge Report TheMarySue DailyDot Den Of Geek VICE Slashdot Boing Boing ComicsAlliance
Bleeding Cool The Huffington Post Mother Jones Medium Uproxx
Vocitiv GQ Quartz Collider BuzzFeed Bustle Cracked Comics Beat Daily Beast PopCrush POPSUGAR IndieWire Mediaite Mashable TheBlaze Hot Air Paste Mag Variety Vulture Business Insider The Hollywood Reporter A.V. Club Nerdist Polygon Yahoo Fox News New York Magazine The New York Times The New Yorker New York Post NBC News NPR The Los Angeles Times The Washington Post USA Today Entertainment Weekly Chicago Tribune Wall Street Journal Metroland AOA Esquire CNN Reddit Post Reddit Post Reddit Post Reddit Post Reddit Post
Tumblr Post Tumblr Post Tumblr Post Tumblr Post Tumblr Post
Facebook Group Facebook Group Facebook Group Facebook Group Facebook Group Facebook Group Facebook Group
Your College Newspaper’s Website
And then you do it again.
FEZZWICK has kicked ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE
FEZZWICK has kicked GUEST_2123
FEZZWICK has banned DOOT_OF_EARL
15:50 <FEZZWICK> Did I not just finish saying no getting involved in the drama?
15:50 <TRENCH_FRIES> Middle*Ghoul!’s official message board is completely offline.
15:50 <FEZZWICK> Have I not repeatedly warned all of you to stop?
15:50 <TRENCH_FRIES> I can’t tell if it’s because they’re flooded with traffic or what.
15:50 <SUPER_KEITH> They took it down for the same reason their subreddit’s gone private. 15:50 <SUPER_KEITH> Every new thread was just about this.
15:50 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> How is talking about it on another meta drama site
15:50 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> any different than talking about it here?
15:51 <FEZZWICK> WatWarSoc broke the story. They’re not meta drama, they *are* the drama.
15:51 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> It’s everywhere now.
15:51 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Avoiding the drama means avoiding the entire rest of the internet.
15:51 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Some of WatWarSoc is already brigading us.
15:51 <FEZZWICK> I haven’t seen any evidence of that.
15:51 <CLEARLY_FROM_WWS> Sup?
FEZZWICK has banned CLEARLY_FROM_WWS from #DRAMABOMB
15:51 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Why did you not do that earlier?!
15:52 <FEZZWICK> I’m not kidding here. No more warnings.
15:52 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> The website for the webcomic is still online. The comment section is open.
15:52 <FEZZWICK> If you post there I will ban you.
15:52 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Wait, why is WWS here to begin with?
15:52 <TRENCH_FRIES> I don’t think they’re the only ones brigading.
15:52 <SUPER_KEITH> If we were posting there, there’d be no way for you to know it was us.
15:52 <SUPER_KEITH> Unless we were to use these screennames.
15:53 <SUPER_KEITH> Which some of us actually ARE dumb enough to do
15:53 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> They’re here because she’s here, and vice versa.
15:53 <SUPER_KEITH> because we’re that invested in our ‘internet identities’ as consistent entities with personal arcs reflective of our own real life personas
15:53 <SUPER_KEITH> and not just a collection of words with different handles attached to them.
15:54 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Brava, Serial Experiments Lain. Welcome to late 90s cyberpunk.
15:54 <SUPER_KEITH> Well, we ARE in IRC...
15:54 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Who’s here? Talia Roth?
15:54 <SUPER_KEITH> By the way, no one start talking in L337. That’s been hack since 2004. 15:54 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Yes! Have you not been reading the forum thread about this?
15:54 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> I barely ever do.
15:55 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> I think she tried to respond on WatWarSoc and got banned.
15:55 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> She’s all over our stuff now.
TALIAROTH has entered #DRAMABOMB
15:55 <TALIAROTH> Call off your attack dogs fuckos.
15:55 <TALIAROTH> I swear to god, this is not the day to come after me.
15:55 <TRENCH_FRIES> Holy crap.
15:56 <SPLEENSLEEVES> Oh hey look, it’s a pedophile.
15:56 <PONDOCOMBO> Everybody say hi to the pedophile!
15:56 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Who the hell are either of you?
15:56 <TALIAROTH> She’s 32. For fuck’s sakes. Debbie Dee is 32 in my drawing.
15:56 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> I have literally never seen SPLEENSLEEVES or PONDOCOMBO in this IRC before.
15:57 <PONDOCOMBO> Cool, I just drew a character with a head like an eight year old, but don’t worry she’s really a million.
15:57 <PONDOCOMBO> Anyway here’s a pic of her fucking dudes! Ceci n'est pas une child! 15:57 <TALIAROTH> You all honestly think she looks 12 in my drawing?
15:57 <PONDOCOMBO> Yes.
15:57 <SPLEENSLEEVES> Yes
15:57 <TRENCH_FRIES> No.
15:57 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Not even slightly.
15:57 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Sort of, actually.
15:57 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> I genuinely don’t care either way.
15:58 <SUPER_KEITH> I doubt you’re the real Talia Roth.
15:58 <TALIAROTH> Yes I’m the real me?
15:58 <TALIAROTH> What do you even want from me at this point?
15:58 <PONDOCOMBO> Quit the show?
15:58 <SPLEENSLEEVES> Quit your job!
15:58 <BOOPBOOP_DOODLES> You could always resign from your place of employment.
15:58 <DONALDPSYDUCK> Throw yourself into a fucking blender pedo bitch!
15:58 <WALK_THE_SPLANK> Quit! Save my favorite show! Be a hero!
15:58 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> WHO ARE ANY OF YOU PEOPLE?!
15:59 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> FEZZWICK this is becoming a problem.
FEZZWICK has banned DONALDPSYDUCK from #DRAMABOMB
15:59 <BOOPBOOP_DOODLES> Yes please. Kick us from your child porn apologist fan club. 15:59 <TALIAROTH> I don’t work for the show
15:59 <PONDOCOMBO> I don’t think that guy was with us.
TALIA_ROTH has entered #DRAMABOMB
15:59 <SPLEENSLEEVES> Then maybe give control of your shitty comic to the people that do?
15:59 <TALIA_ROTH> Hey, excuse me, is this the right IRC for the Dramabomb community? 15:59 <TALIAROTH> Really?
15:59 <SUPER_KEITH> Told you.
15:59 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> FEZZWICK, seriously. Do your job.
16:00 <TALIA_ROTH> What the hell is this? Who are you?
16:00 <TALIAROTH> Oh god.
16:00 <TALIAROTH> I genuinely don’t have time.
16:00 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> This might be my favorite thing ever.
16:00 <TALIA_ROTH> I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but I’m Talia Roth.
ACTUAL_TALIAROTH has entered #DRAMABOMB
16:00 <PONDOCOMBO> This is fun. Is this you guys or us?
16:01 <ACTUAL_TALIAROTH> Hello, yes I am the actual Talia Roth.
16:01 <ACTUAL_TALIAROTH> I am real and not fake and very much the real one.
16:01 <TALIAROTH> Can you please all just move onto someone else to harass?
16:01 <TALIA_ROTH> This is ridiculous.
16:01 <TALIAROTH> I have done nothing to any of you.
REAL_TALIA_ROTH has entered #DRAMABOMB
16:02 <WALK_THE_SPLANK> Hey, if anyone wants it, I found her home address.
16:02 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> FEZZWICK for fuck’s sake.
FEZZWICK has left #DRAMABOMB
16:02 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Wow...
16:02 <PONDOCOMBO> Nothing aside from tainting a fandom people care about.
16:02 <TALIA_ROTH> I can’t deal with this right now.
16:02 <SPLEENSLEEVES> Do artists not get the power they have over their fans?
16:02 <PONDOCOMBO> We need to stop rewarding shitty people with fame.
16:03 <REAL_TALIA_ROTH> Now that I’ve gathered you all here
16:03 <PONDOCOMBO> Shitty people shouldn’t get to be “artists.”
16:03 <SPLEENSLEEVES> You’re normalizing this. You’re telling people it’s okay.
16:03 <REAL_TALIA_ROTH> I have announcement to make.
16:03 <TALIA_ROTH> Please. I am begging you all to stop.
16:03 <REAL_TALIA_ROTH> I am the real actual Talia Roth.
16:03 <ACTUAL_TALIAROTH> I KNEW IT!
16:03 <WALK_THE_SPLANK> I hope you kill yourself.
HITLER_DID_NOTHING_ROTH has entered #DRAMABOMB
16:04 <REAL_TALIA_ROTH> All others are faking.
16:04 <TALIAROTH> This is helping nothing.
16:04 <TALIA_ROTH> This isn’t helping anything.
TALIAROTH has left #DRAMABOMB
TALIA_ROTH has left #DRAMABOMB
And then you do it again.
Talia’s tucked inside a lower level recess outside the main arena, snug between a concrete wall and a water fountain. She crooks one leg beneath the other, laptop squeezed back into a V shape between her left thigh and her stomach. Her shoulder chafes against the pores of the bricks as she types out tweets. Attendees only notice her when they’re close enough to use the fountain, and her frame is too curled over the screen, too much like a clamshell guarding a pearl, for anyone to see her face. The fountain shakes at intermittent moments, taking the place of her phone, which had been shaking at every moment until she turned it off.
Executions, exaltations, edicts, and excoriations slide down Talia’s screen in 140 character boxes. The Family Television Conservatory is calling for the cancellation of Middle*Ghoul! (based on characters by Talia Roth), denouncing Talia’s work as an
example of the heretic filth being peddled to America’s impressionable youth by the Satanists at Nickelodeon at a level not seen since the secular brainwashing of Nigel, Marianne, Donnie, Debbie, Darwin, and Eliza Thornberry. @TCYLABP, the account attached to the blog “The Celebrities You Like Are Bad People,” is taking an X-Acto knife to the Middle Ghoul comics archive, tweeting out Talia’s old strips, one-by-one with red MSPaint arrows pointing to the socially problematic elements. Another account, run by a middle aged man called “VagWatch,” is accusing Talia of using her “female privilege” to escape true criticism, while simultaneously tweeting out her Instagram photos with red MSPaint arrows pointing to the parts of her he finds unattractive. He has 41,000 followers.
A NAMBLA parody account retweets everything Talia is saying with a message of endorsement, which makes her want to burn her computer. “She’s over here,” Talia hears in a shout above her head.
Kira presses a hand on the rim of the fountain and hunches her back over Talia, taking a red-faced breath that lands in her knees. Her elbow wobbles holding her weight as Grant clatters to where she’s standing and puts his arms out to keep her from losing her balance. Kira pushes him back.
“You have no right to make us... run around looking... for you like this, you self-absorbed ass.”
“I didn’t ask you to come find me.”
“We’ve spent the last hour... defending you... online... why are you.. hiding here?” asks Kira.
“You know why.”
“Look, people are going to take whatever interpretation they take,” says Grant. “You can ride it out until they move onto something else, but you can’t control that.”
“No, don’t do that with me. ‘Death of the Author’ is great when you’re arguing with your English professor over the meaning of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow.’ It’s not supposed to be a weapon for audiences to punish artists.”
“Criticism isn’t punishment... you 2-year-old,” says Kira. “it’s part of... the process.” “Telling me to commit suicide because you don’t like a drawing I made isn’t criticism.
Organizing a hate clique to ruin my life and destroy my career isn’t a form of peer review. Maybe I am ‘dead,’ maybe my intent is irrelevant to my art, but then what’s the point in digging me back up to make me beg for forgiveness? Why should I respect the integrity
of a reader who’ll ignore me when I try to explain my work, but’ll also make me grovel when they feel wronged by it?”
“Oh...fuck your... monologue,” says Kira. “None of this... is about you.
Talia turns to her laptop screen.
“It...isn’t?” she asks.
Kira swallows an epiglottal gulp of air. She exhales for a half minute, easing her heartbeat into normal range, sticking a second hand on the fountain and leaning down to take a drink. She wipes her lips. She breathes again.
“None of these human hate vortexes are ever about the people at the center,” says Kira. “The people are just — Christsakes I need a Motrin — the people are a flashpoint for them to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about to begin with and some of it is awful and disgusting and unfair, fine. But some of it is real structural shit that actually matters, abuse and discrimination and inequality that nobody would talk about without a kernel to get the conversation started, — is there a Duane Reade nearby or is that not a thing up here? — The people involved in the original incident come to represent something more than themselves, deserved or undeserved, and they get torn apart as it happens. The process sucks, but you’re not going to solve it by trying to fight it because nobody cares about your neurotic navel-gazing reflections on what’s a fair way to treat artists, not while people are getting shot and choked to death and trampled on. You’re the sacrificial lamb, love. You, the actual you, does not matter.”
Talia runs her tongue along her teeth. “I don’t think I like your monologue much either.”
“You two were defending me on Twitter and you stopped.”
“All your posts are gone.”
“Most of them.”
Kira looks down.
“...you got a series offer,” says Talia, straightening. “Someone wants to adapt College Students with Troubled Personal Lives.” Kira doesn’t say anything.
“Signing up for the mouseketeers?” Talia asks. “Warner?” Kira shakes her head.
“Nothing that big,” she says. “Not yet, at least.”
“Please tell me it’s not with SaberThoughts.”
“No. God no,” says Kira. “It’s a small studio. They’re being real decent, but the deal’s not final, and the bad press could kill it. I can’t risk it. We need the stability.”
“Hey,” says Grant.
“I get that,” says Talia. "Do you think what I drew counts as...”
“No. But, my opinion doesn’t matter here,” says Kira.
“I’d say it does,” says Talia.
“You guys?” says Grant
“I appreciate that.”
“Talia,” he says.
Grant eyes lock on his phone. He’s turned the touchscreen sideways. A smattering of streaming sound comes shredded through the speakers. He bites his lip and squints his eyes then widens them completely.
“Shit. You’re going to want to get back to your booth, like, now.”
The fire alarm goes off. Talia springs from the nook with her laptop under her arm and the lip of her bag clutched in her hand. She spins for the door to the arena as a crushing wave of costumed bodies begins to pour from the inside. Her shoulder cuts into the crowd and she dives forward. Grant and Kira follow.
Twelve steps into the room, Talia’s buffeted by a Captain America shield and twisted off-course into a deep pocket of Homestar Runner cosplayers. She struggles to break through only to find crowd density increasing. The contact sweat of panicked con attendees covers her in moments. The push and pull of the total stampede sucks all three of them further in, even as others are leaving. Below Talia’s feet lays a trampled cardboard sign with the DOs and DON’Ts of convention etiquette printed in Impact font.
Talia can smell smoke and sees a trail of it above the outline of a couple in rubber Cthulhu masks. She turns her neck, only catching glimpses of Grant and Kira behind her. Erosion is pulling them apart as momentum pushes Talia into the edge of one of the millipedes. She digs into the floor for leverage using the heel of a sneaker and tries to shift her weight toward her aisle, but the force of the crowd won’t budge.
The booth closest to Talia is abandoned. She squeezes over the table and into a bubble of personless space, knocking over a tray of 3-D printed figures from ZXCVB: ULTRIX. Her stomach unclenches as she’s able to take in a full breath. People push across her field of vision, but she can’t see any further down the aisle. A curtain for the next booth over blocks her field of view. She pulls it up and crawls beneath, and does the same for the next booth, and the next, empty all the way down, until she sees the familiar glow of Christmas LEDs, and stands up.
The guy she asked to watch her merchandise stands alone in the center of the aisle, expelling the contents of a fire extinguisher onto her table and into her booth. Embers sprout and burn and die under a blanket of monoammonium phosphate. Residual heat from the smoldering refuse radiates to Talia.
“You’re uh...you’re welcome. I guess,” says the guy with the extinguisher. “Yeah,” says Talia.
Nothing is salvageable.
CANON 1: WHERE TALIA CHASES DOWN WENDY WIGGINS
The 30 concrete staircases of the T.U. Arena’s arena area are splayed like tentacles off the mouth of a cephalopod. They begin at openings along the floor and rise through the seats to identical sets of doubles doors out to the main level concourse. On arches adjacent to each of the doors, in placements describable as mezuzah-esque, are parallel sets of red plastic FIRE signals with sporadically twinkling lights. Talia watches them blink out of sequence. Though the fire is out, alarms still buzz. People are still evacuating, as instructed by the four-screen jumbotron hanging from the ceiling.
The exceptions to this evacuation are Talia, the man with the extinguisher, and a small bubble of cell phone camera operators who stayed behind to document the fire, and now Talia’s reaction to the fire, and whose apparent dedication to citizen journalism heartens Talia’s outlook on life. Truly, it does. She is about to shout something to that effect when she notices a set of ice blue fingernails wrapped around a NyanCat phone case among the bubble’s borders.
Wendy Wiggins notices Talia noticing her and lowers her phone. Her other hand clamps a copy of Middle Ghoul Collection 2 in her armpit. Soot sprinkles the finished edges of the paper, clumping in uneven shapes, marbling the top side of the book into an overcrowded Rorschach test. Talia makes eye contact with Wiggins, nudges her head in the direction of the book. Wiggins glances at it, pulling it out from under her arm as if making a discovery.
“Oh. I’m just holding this because of...to protect it from...the flames. There were...it was a lot of fire just now. But I managed to save this book for...from...the...” And then she turns and runs.
The crowd’s thinned to the point Wiggins is able to escape the aisle, less slipping between the remaining evacuees so much as navigating them like buoys. She climbs the nearest staircase. Talia untangles herself from the stragglers and tries to follow. Wiggins is already through the double doors and onto the upper concourse before Talia can reach the first landing. When she does reach the top, the doors open with a click. Talia squints, eyes adjusting to the natural light. She exits the arena.
The hall is devoid of people but filled with dim signs for concession stands. Wiggins sits silhouetted against a bright, overcast sky through a grid of plate glass windows.
“Please stop chasing me,” she says. She drops the book to the floor and shuffleboard shoves it to Talia’s side of the hall. Talia doesn’t look at it.
“Why are you trying to ruin my life?” she shouts, hands on her knees. Her voice bounces through the hallway. The alarm is still audible coming from inside the arena, but muffled.
“I didn’t start the fire.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I didn’t leak your drawing.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t have your money.”
“I do believe you but why would telling me that help your situation?”
“It’s why I ran.”
Wendy Wiggins leans forward, forearms flat on her costume.
“And the book you were trying to steal?” Talia asks.
“I came back to come clean, saw the fire, saw it on the edge, and pulled it out. I know everyone hates you right now, but I really am a fan your work, even if I can’t afford it.”
“You’re not a fan, you’re a con artist.” Talia takes out her phone.
Wiggins groans. She rotates and wraps her hands around a metal window frame overhead, pulling herself into a chin-up until she’s on stable footing. The windows behind her shine blank and white. Even the tallest of Albany’s buildings disappear in this weather if you’re not looking directly at them.
“And what, you’re going to make me part of the narrative now?” asks Wiggins. “Make this the top Google hit for my name for the rest of my life?”
“I mean I could,” she says. “Online, in like, two seconds.”
The phone buzzes the instant Talia boots it. She uses a button on the side to switch to silent, but has to swipe through a wall of push notifications to get to a functional space on the screen. Her thumb leaves streaks on the glass, uneven trails in the condensation, as she moves messages out of the way.
“You don’t even have my real name.”
“Guess again, Rumplestiltskin.” says Talia.
“My name’s not Rumplestiltskin.”
“Yeah, no, I know that.”
Talia arches a shoulder and hooks a hand to fish in her drawstring bag, pulling the check from underneath her laptop.
“Please don’t slot me into some kind of ‘crazed stalker’ stereotype. That’s not who I am.”
“I don’t care who you are.”
She pulls up her Twitter feed, unfolds the check and holds it between her ring finger and her pinkie, freeing both thumbs for typing. Wiggins stands watching but stays in place, letting her hands hang at her side. Sirens sound outside the building, as fire trucks approach the arena.
“I understand resenting the people that hate your work, but if you resent the people who love it, who are you making art for?”
“You don’t own me just because you enjoy something I made,” says Talia.
“Yeah,” says Wiggins. “But you don’t get to decide what the right way is to enjoy something, just because you made it.”
Talia looks up. She sees Wiggins walking toward her and backs toward the door, bumping against it and rattling it in the frame. Wiggins stops. She sits back down and looks at the ceiling.
“I know what I did was wrong, but even if I hadn't taken anything from you, you still wouldn’t have liked me.”
“That’s an assumption,” says Talia.
She finishes putting the name into her phone and crumples the check, then types out the rest of the message. The sirens are louder now but the alarm inside is fading. She reaches the character limit.
“Please don’t do this,” the woman says. “If you know how bad it is, why would you make me go through it too?”
Talia closes her eyes for longer than a blink and pokes a thumb out to scratch the right corner of her lips. She doesn't speak.
The cursor on her screen flashes in and out of existence.
CANON 2: WHERE TALIA FINDS THE NEO-NAZI
FEZZWICK has entered #DRAMABOMB
23:44 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> it’s supposed to be like Doc and Marty’s relationship,
23:44 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> but way less family friendly. You can torrent season 1 already. 23:44 <TRENCH_FRIES> It’s probably the second best show I’ve ever seen.
23:44 <TRENCH_FRIES> He returns!
23:44 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Oh hey.
23:44 <SUPER_KEITH> Look who’s back.
23:44 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Finally.
23:44 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> You left just when things were getting spectacular.
23:45 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> DOOT_OF_EARL keeps PMing me,
23:45 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> asking me to ask you to let him back in.
23:45 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Absconding from the room where you’re needed isn’t great modship.
23:45 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> I gotta say.
23:45 <FEZZWICK> DOOT shouldn’t be doing that. He knows I’m just going to extend his ban.
23:45 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Really, you didn’t miss too much. It petered out after the Talias left.
23:46 <SUPER_KEITH> Astoundingly, EO’s on point this time. You did leave us pretty abruptly.
23:46 <SUPER_KEITH> And your presence would have been helpful.
23:46 <FEZZWICK> Real life circumstances got in the way.
23:46 <FEZZWICK> Or else I would have stayed.
23:46 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> That or you were scared off by a mundane “is loli CP?” debate.
23:47 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> I’m pretty sure spine-having is a prereq for not sucking as a mod.
23:47 <SUPER_KEITH> Okay, regardless of your stance, if you are hanging out places
23:47 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> That’s kinda harsh.
23:47 <SUPER_KEITH> where the “is lolicon child porn?” debate happens so regularly
23:47 <SUPER_KEITH> as to be mundane
TALIAROTH has entered #DRAMABOMB
23:47 <SUPER_KEITH> I would maybe rethink the places you are hanging out.
23:48 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Oh shit, look who else is back.
23:48 <TRENCH_FRIES> You missed the parade, friend. The other Talias have cleared out.
23:48 <TALIAROTH> It was you.
23:48 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> Well, most of them have cleared out.
23:48 <BRICKKILLEDAGUY> The others have been idling for nearly eight hours.
23:48 <TALIAROTH> I followed your edit history through the rest of your gonzo wiki.
23:48 <TALIAROTH> Found you making a LOT of edits to the page about EncyclopediaDramatica.
23:48 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> What is happening right now?
23:48 <TALIAROTH> Went to ED and saw you careless enough to use the same name there. 23:49 <TALIAROTH> Went through your history on *that* wiki.
23:49 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Which of us are you talking to?
23:49 <SUPER_KEITH> She’s not talking to any of us. It’s just more trolling.
23:49 <TALIAROTH> It didn’t help. But then I went through the edit history of your user page.
23:49 <SUPER_KEITH> Like when you just post Fresh Prince of Bel Air lyrics as a nonsense reply.
23:50 <TALIAROTH> and saw some edits that came from another account.
23:50 <TALIAROTH> That you apparently forgot you were using when you made those edits.
23:49 <SUPER_KEITH> FEZZWICK, can you take care of this please?23:50 <TALIAROTH> And I remembered the name from here.
23:50 <SUPER_KEITH> I keep telling you to give me mod powers. I could help in these situations.
23:50 <TALIAROTH> You’re Grundystormer.
23:50 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Who?
23:51 <FEZZWICK> Clap. Clap. Clap.
23:51 <TRENCH_FRIES> Um...
23:51 <FEZZWICK> Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.
23:51 <SUPER_KEITH> This is...an interesting way of...
23:51 <FEZZWICK> Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.
Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.
23:51 <SUPER_KEITH> Okay, I’m as lost as everyone now. I admit it.
23:52 <FEZZWICK> Did having your social justice warrior friends turn on you
23:52 <FEZZWICK> hurt your poor widdle fee feeeeeeeees?
23:52 <SUPER_KEITH> The fuck?
23:52 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Ha, yes! FEZZWICK. Finally we’re speaking the same language.
23:52 <FEZZWICK> What a pitiful kike.
23:53 <TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY> Jesus.
23:53 <ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE> What?!
23:53 <BRICKKILLLEDAGUY> Holy fuck.
23:53 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> Woah. Okay. Not the same language. Not the same language. 23:53 <ELEVATOROPERATOR> I take it back. Reality is broken.
23:54 <FEZZWICK> Aw, don’t worry EO, you’ll see things my way soon.
23:54 <FEZZWICK> You’ve got so much potential.
FEZZWICK has kicked ELEVATOROPERATOR from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned SUPER_KEITH from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned TRENCH_FRIES from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned ANN_WHO_SAW_EVERYTHING_TWICE from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned TRALFAMADORIAN_GRAY from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned BRICKKILLEDAGUY from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned ROTHTALIAROTH from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned REAL_TALIA_ROTH from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned NEED-JORBS from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned SNOWCRASH_NEUROMANCER from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned CAT_PADIGAN from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned GOCART_GOKU from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned ZELDAFITZANDTHETANTRUMS #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned SAMURAIPIZZACATS from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned I-MEASURE-IN-HAMTARO-TIME from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned CATERDAY_INTHEPARK from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned RUFFANDTUMBLE from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned STATIC-SHOCK-STATIC-SHOCK-STATIC #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned DRKATZISUNDERAPPRECIATED from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned CROOOOOOOOOW from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned SCOOTERPIE from #DRAMABOMB
FEZZWICK has banned I_AM_NOT_DIANE_KEATON from #DRAMABOMB
23:56 <FEZZWICK> So many lurkers. In a community like this? It’s redundant.
23:56 <FEZZWICK> Who watches the watchers who watch the watchers watching the watchmen?
23:56 <TALIAROTH> You’re a literal nazi.
23:56 <FEZZWICK> Not the first time I’ve heard that as a moderator.
23:57 <TALIAROTH> Right, but you actually are one.
23:57 <FEZZWICK> I’m a nazi who groks the social dynamics of the internet.
23:57 <FEZZWICK> I recognize the value in spaces like this.
23:57 <FEZZWICK> You want to know why this generation loves “meta-everything” so much?
23:57 <TALIAROTH> Not really.
23:57 <FEZZWICK> It gives them the illusion of a way out.
23:58 <FEZZWICK> They look through the microscope to avoid being the thing examined.
23:58 <TALIAROTH> Okay.
23:58 <FEZZWICK> They think they can be safe by reaching a higher level of “selfawareness” 23:58 <FEZZWICK> than the people around them.
23:58 <TALIAROTH> That’s nice.
23:58 <FEZZWICK> “Don’t be on the wrong side of history!” as if history isn’t constantly rewritten.
23:59 <FEZZWICK> “20 Dumbest Things Characters do in Horror Movies!”
23:59 <FEZZWICK> “15 Cringeworthy OKCupid Pick-up Attempts”
23:59 <FEZZWICK> Whole communities built around “thank god we’re not *those* assholes.”
23:59 <FEZZWICK> around actively studying, breaking down, and classifying *those* assholes.
23:59 <FEZZWICK> and bonding over how much you’re better than them.
23:59 <FEZZWICK> But if your level of meta gets too crowded, it attracts its own watchers. 24:00 <FEZZWICK> then you have to escape by going a level further. And on and on. It’s a race.
00:00 <TALIAROTH> Your point?
00:00 <FEZZWICK> It’s so easy to get you cultural marxists to devour each other.
00:00 <FEZZWICK> Hack an email (not hard), find something “problematic” (also not hard) 24:01 <FEZZWICK> and get it into the hands of comrades who will flay them for it.
00:01 <TALIAROTH> You leaked the drawing.
00:01 <FEZZWICK> because admit it or not, all of you are doing *something* problematic
00:01 <TALIAROTH> You figured out who I was and you ruined my life.
00:01 <FEZZWICK> An opinion you hold, or a joke you made, or something in your past.
00:02 <FEZZWICK> There’s no such thing as a non-problematic person.
00:02 <FEZZWICK> Just people not currently under the microscope.
00:02 <TALIAROTH> Why?
00:02 <FEZZWICK> If I go after you directly, they’ll turn you into a martyr, right?
00:02 <TALIAROTH> People like you go after people like me directly all the time.
00:03 <FEZZWICK> The smart ones are learning.
00:03 <FEZZWICK> if we taint you for the people who would otherwise support you
00:03 <FEZZWICK> we get what we want without leaving fingerprints.
00:03 <TALIAROTH> *You* were going after me directly. And my father.
00:04 <FEZZWICK> That was just me having fun before destroying you.
00:04 <TALIAROTH> Well I outed you, so good luck with your little social club.
00:04 <FEZZWICK> You outed me here. I’m embedded in a lot more places than this.
00:04 <FEZZWICK> Your friends are right about something.
00:04 <FEZZWICK> They tell you all the time we’re coming back.
00:05 <FEZZWICK> And we are.
00:05 <FEZZWICK> Don’t mess with my list, jew bitch.
ELEVATOROPERATOR has entered #DRAMABOMB
ALL USERS HAVE BEEN DISCONNECTED
[GLOBAL] [DARWINIRC IS NOW DOWN FOR MAINTENANCE 12 JUL - 14 JUL 2014]
CANON 3: WHERE TALIA DIES
CANON 4: WHERE TALIA FINDS HER FATHER
Isaac’s in a booth at the coffee house, sitting by a floor fan, running his thumb along the border of his storage box. He feels bumps along the corrugated edges of the cardboard, touches the smooth faux-woodgrain on recycled wood fiber, sticks a fingernail in the crack where the bottom of the box rests inside its upturned lid and finds just enough room to leave the tip of the nail in place. Pockets of old air puff out of the box with every movement and the leftover scent of the papers it used to contain mixes with the smell of the cappuccino machine and eight different kinds of cream cheese and ciabatta rolls and the dust of exposed bricks along the wall.
Talia comes down the steps into the coffee house. She doesn’t see him at first. He’s around a corner and hidden behind the Sesame Street snow globe she gave him when she was ten. The snow globe is stacked on top of five picture frames and rises over the top of the box. It’s flanked on one side by a sideways office nameplate, and on the other side by a behemoth plastic telephone in the shape of Bugs Bunny, with a carrot receiver resting in his four-fingered paw. Talia walks to her father.
“Fiddling with your desk supplies?”
“A fiddler in the booth, sounds crazy, no?”
Talia grimaces at the reference and slides onto the cushion across from Isaac. She grabs the snow globe and sets it to the side of the box, staring at her father through the gap.
“It wasn’t...it didn’t happen because of me, right?” she asked.
“Yes, it was all your fault.”
“Planned lay-offs. Fifteen percent of the staff. Bad timing, but you had nothing to do with it.”
Isaac smiles at Talia through the memorabilia. She doesn’t smile back. He runs his right hand halfway up the side of a tangle of his hair and leaves his fingers buried in the grey-black curls.
“You had something you wanted to show me?” he asks, twirling a tuft. “Something you didn’t want to just send me a link to?”
Talia loosens the string on her bag and pulls out her laptop. The sides are scuffed from a day of swinging on her shoulder. She wiggles her index finger on the trackpad to take it out of sleep mode. The screen boots from black to where she had it last, the Shylock wiki. She pushes the storage box out of the way and turns the screen to show her father. He takes his fingers out of his hair and curls one against his lip, scrolling up and down the screen with his other hand. He takes long breaths in through his nose, and whistles them out through his lips. Talia watches. She crosses her ankles under the table and stares at her father’s face and looks at where his eyes move and how his forehead furrows and watches the pattern of the pores on his nose and his cheeks curl and relax and curl and relax.
He bobs his head and the bob turns into a nod and the nod turns from the screen to Talia’s face and Talia is waiting for him to say something.
“Alright,” he says.
“Alright what?” she asks.
“I’ll send them an updated resume.”
“Talia, I’m not going to be afraid of other people’s ghost stories.”
“These people are not a ghost story.”
“I’m their ghost story is my point. And if that’s what they choose to make me, fine. I don’t have to live in their version of the world.”
“So the solution is to ignore them?”
“No, I have no solution.” he says. “I can’t solve my problems and I can’t solve yours. They’ll build their narrative no matter what you do.” He turns the laptop back to Talia.
“You want something to eat,” he asks.
“God yes,” she says.
He gets up from the table. And while he’s gone, she stares at the caricature in the upper right corner, at the shoddy linework, at the deformed cross-hatching, and the garish, slapdash proportions. At how the eyes don’t match and the nose and ears aren’t lined up properly in the face, and the fingers are barely attempted, and the curls are scribbled on like an afterthought. Then she finds a working proxy, goes back to the edit page, and adds her name to the list.
Layla-tul-Qadr—that’s what the Qur’an calls it. The Night of Power. On the twenty-seventh of Ramadan each year, Muslims mark its beginning with a vigil. After breaking their fasts at sunset, they retreat into deep and solemn worship until sunrise the next morning, imploring Allah to forgive all their past and future sins. It is the only night when those who pray five times a day, or three times, or no times, all congregate. On this night, Allah revealed the first verse of the Qur’an—the injunction “Read!”—to the Prophet Muhammed. On this night, He writes in His Book of Decrees every event to occur in the next twelve months, from natural disasters to the falling of a leaf. On this night, the gates of heaven swing open and the gates of hell swing shut. Angels descend.
On this particular Night of Power, when the ceiling fans inside Makki Masjid have stopped working and the smell of sweat has become overwhelming, everyone on Coney Island Avenue raises their hands in prayer. The beautician prays that her daughter stop fooling around with gora boys; the cab driver that his ex-wife return from Pakistan; the pharmacist that his only son remarry. Gora or sand-colored, another wife of any kind will do.
Some people pray like this, choosing to fixate on one request, while others recite from long wish lists they’ve prepared specifically for the occasion. They pray quietly, under their breath, in a mix of Arabic and Urdu and English. Though each prayer is a private affair, a conversation between the supplicant and Allah, neighbors know enough about one another’s lives that they can guess at what is being asked. Tomorrow, as he always does, the imam will insist that Allah leaves no prayer unanswered despite what it sometimes seems. If not in this world, He will deliver in the next.Still, as they always do, neighbors will look among themselves in the coming year for signs of His blessings and favor: a college acceptance, a childbirth, a pay raise.
Many claim to dissociate from their bodies during the vigil, and tonight the congregation is so engrossed that nobody notices the two teenage girls walking out of the mosque and down its cement stoop arm-in-arm, their khameezes clinging to their skin because the June air is humid and flat. Their brisk walk soon turns into a jog and then, just as quickly, a sprint. Both bite on their tongues to keep from laughing out loud.
Leyla, the taller and more bashful of the pair, the one who proposed the exit plan as a joke but is growing nervous now that the joke has become real, keeps looking over her shoulder as if they are being followed or watched, although she knows this is impossible given the night. She cannot shake the feeling that they are fucking up, and that this fuck-up will later have grand and cosmic consequences.
“If my dad finds out,” she says to Maryam, the other girl, stopping to catch her breath in front of the Gyro King, their destination for the night. She hates how she sounds—so small and unsure. “I’ll be skewered like a literal kabob.”
“The only kabobs being skewered tonight are the ones we’re going to make,” Maryam says, rolling her eyes. “Now let’s get inside.”
Leyla reaches inside the pocket of her shalwar, hesitating a moment before dropping the key to her father’s restaurant into Maryam’s outstretched palm. It is just past midnight, two hours after the Gyro King’s regular closing time and four hours after its holiday closing time, which is tonight’s closing time because it is The Night of Power, the most holy night in the Islamic calendar.
Illegal is the word that pops into Leyla’s head. What they are doing, she thinks, is illegal. She tries to grab the key back, but Maryam is already bending down. With a quick turn of her wrist, Maryam opens the door so effortlessly you’d think that this was her millionth time.
“The lights—” Leyla says. Because of course Maryam has found the switch in the lobby and turned on the lights. Because of course Maryam has completely ignored the fact that Leyla said they should use the flashlights on their phones instead. Because of course Maryam either does not care or realize that the last thing they need is someone from the mosque looking out the window, seeing the lit-up Gyro King storefront, and walking over to investigate—or, even worse, calling the police.
“Doesn’t it feel surreal?” Maryam says, walking over to the beverage cooler. She gets herself a can of Dr. Pepper—her favorite—and pops the tab. Bubbles spray forth, soaking the sleeves of Maryam’s khameez. “Like, everything is a little off.”
She is not incorrect. Without customers, the Gyro King looks foreign to Leyla—bigger and brighter—as if the girls have shrunk in size and been dropped into a dollhouse version of the restaurant. The green booths spacious enough for only four people, at most five, now appear in their empty state capable of fitting ten. Maryam walks towards one of these booths and sits atop the table, lounging like she’s on a mattress and not a hard metal surface.
“The place is ours tonight. No one’s watching.” She inches her body close to the table’s edge and starts swinging her legs. “Unless you count Allah, but He’s always watching, so it really doesn’t count.”
It always stuns Leyla—how at ease Maryam is. With herself; with her body; with this space, currently, that is not hers. Leyla thinks, Did her ass really just sit down there, where they put food? And then: She’d better wipe the table afterwards. Which of course will not happen. Leyla will be the one, later, who grabs a dishcloth and a spray bottle of sanitizer and laboriously scrubs while Maryam looks on. It is just the way that things are. Leyla has long ago accepted this.
Though they are both fifteen, Leyla is younger by three months, and sometimes she thinks these months make all the difference. Sometimes she thinks Maryam is more like an older sister than an on-and-off-again best friend, which is what she has been to Leyla for the past year, since she moved to Brooklyn from the Jersey Shore. The minute Maryam arrived, all the Pakistani girls at Midwood High tried to get close to her, and for obvious reasons: She lives in one of the nicer apartments, with air-conditioning and a balcony and a basement, on the border of Coney Island Avenue and Foster Avenue. At her old school, she had one boyfriend and several almost-boyfriends. Dyed auburn streaks run through her hair. In the right lighting, her eyes appear hazel rather than brown. Her parents are doctors at the new clinic next to Kabir’s Bakery, and they immigrated from Pakistan as teenagers, so though they still go to the mosque and wear shalwar khameez, they speak English so effortlessly that a blind person might mistake them for goras. Maryam herself is fluent in Urdu and has memorized half the Qur’an in Arabic, and because of this—and despite everything else—other parents approve of her.
Unlike the other girls, Leyla avoided Maryam like she was a jinni incarnate. Leyla didn’t loiter by her locker, didn’t ask for her phone number, didn’t invite her to the movies. She didn’t because she didn’t think that there was any point. She didn’t think that a girl like Maryam would ever bother with a girl like her. But—and Allah only knows why—one day Maryam sat down next to Leyla at lunch and just never stopped coming back. From buying mangos at Punjab Grocery to riding Deno’s Wonder Wheel, they soon started doing every last thing together. Now, Leyla cannot remember a time when her schedule has not revolved around Maryam.
Leyla for her part has pretended not to hear the other girls talking loudly about her and Maryam’s unexpected friendship. She has pretended that the amount of time they spend together is nothing special; though privately, on some days, she becomes overwhelmingly and uncontrollably giddy thinking that there must be something inside of her worthy enough for Maryam’s attention. On other days, she wonders if Maryam chose her by mistake or, even worse, as part of some cruel, elaborate joke. It is this mix of gratitude and fear and doubt that causes Leyla to overlook those moments (and there are many) when Maryam makes some offhand comment—about Leyla’s unkempt brows, say, or her severely juvenile taste in music—that in turn makes Leyla feel lonely and lacking.
As consolation, Leyla tells herself that Maryam has helped make her life fuller. It is because of Maryam that Leyla tasted her first drops of alcohol—cheap vodka poured from a Poland Springs bottle and diluted with water; and because of Maryam that she went to her first party—in a closet-sized dorm room in Brooklyn College, with lots of gora kids in barely any clothing, all showing off their gora skin; and because of Maryam that she had her first kiss—with Maryam herself of all people, who took her hand at another dorm party, their third or fourth, and leaned close to her mouth and said, “All the gora girls do it—don’t worry.”
Now, tonight, it is because of Maryam that Leyla is finally using her father’s spare key to the Gyro King, which he gave her many years ago and which, until now, she has never had the occasion—or audacity—to use. Maryam is the one who is hungry, the one who believes the Gyro King to be haunted, the one who has always wanted to sneak in after-hours.
“I can’t believe this was once an actual ass crime scene. Is this from the caution tape?” Maryam asks, running her fingers over a long, discolored mark that stretches across the wall, where white paint has peeled.
Leyla has never noticed it before. Above the mark hangs a portrait of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and framed postcards of landmarks in Karachi—close-ups of Clifton Beach and Zamzama Mall—that Leyla’s father brought from the Mohsin Brothers’ 99-cent shop next door. In a couple of months, to commemorate Pakistan’s Independence Day, Leyla will hang green and white streamers from the restaurant’s ceiling and tape crescent-shaped stickers onto the wall. All the businesses on Coney Island Avenue will do the same. It is a tradition that occurs every year and one that Maryam has been asking about non-stop because she has yet to witness it.
“I don’t know.” Leyla sighs. Maryam never tires of discussing the Gyro King’s infamous history. “I wasn’t alive.”
Leyla had not yet been born at the time of the scandal: the summer of 2002, when the Gyro King—then known as Kabob King—was in every headline. She has never heard the story of what happened, not in its entirety, because all the aunties and uncles in the neighborhood pretend to be deaf if the subject is broached. Even Raheela Aunty, who is a walking history book and who doesn’t believe in secrets, furrows her brows each time Leyla and Maryam probe for information during their parlor visits.
“It’s like he’s Voldemort,” Maryam said during her first week in the neighborhood, after she made the mistake of asking everyone she met about him.
All the girls know is this: His name was Ibby Sheikh, and the summer that the Kabob King’s owner hired him to work at the restaurant is the summer that the owner and his family were deported from Coney Island Avenue. Betrayal, Leyla’s father told her. It was a matter of betrayal.
“Tonight’s the night,” Maryam says, tossing her can of Dr. Pepper into a wastebasket by the cash register. The clink of the metal echoes in Leyla’s ear like a ringing telephone. “The night we find out more about what happened.I can feel it. Maybe we’ll find a newspaper clipping from 2001, or something. I mean, there’s gotta be something here.”
Leyla laughs. It is what draws her to Maryam. Her resolve. Her ability to make a story out of anything, even an empty restaurant. “There’s nothing here but frozen kabobs.”
The Open sign outside Raheela’s Beauty Parlor flickers on and off, though through the front window he can see that it is pitch black inside. She must have forgotten to turn it off before leaving, he thinks, pausing outside the parlor and peering in. Almost two decades later and still Raheela Aunty’s habit endures. In high school and even in college, despite knowing her absent-mindedness was the cause, he and his friends invented alternative—and often outlandish—reasons to explain why the parlor refused to fully close. Maybe it was possessed, they said to one another, and after-hours a group of jinn entered the building, partying until the morning. Whenever they walked by the parlor during a night out, often drunk or high themselves, they would stop in front of its blinking sign and yell, “Got any gin, jinn?” pleased with themselves for the pun. He wonders now whether he would even recognize Raheela Aunty or she him: thirty-four and bearded; slightly, if not unappealingly, overweight. He almost wishes he would run into her or someone else familiar—what would such a reunion look like? —but continues walking along Coney Island Avenue before the thought can persist. He reminds himself that he is not supposed to be here. He is only passing by.
Ibby Sheikh did not intend to get off at Newkirk Plaza, but when the conductor announced that everyone must exit the train and board another due to technical difficulties, he found his feet moving away from the other passengers and towards the stairwell. He walked straight out of the station and into the streets of his former neighborhood for the first time in fifteen years.He blamed it on muscle memory, but of course it was just the right combination of opportunity and time’s passage, buzzwords that his therapist had imprinted onto his brain and that sometimes slipped from his own mouth unbidden. When enough time has passed and you get the opportunity, you’ll go back home. Also emptiness, he thinks of telling his therapist when he shares the events of tonight at his next appointment. Opportunity and time’s passage and emptiness. It is the emptiness, the lack of any activity, that causes Ibby to stay.He would have promptly retraced his steps back to the station had he sensed the risk of identification, but Coney Island Avenue was conveniently devoid of people and cars alike.
A vigil was his first thought. Everyone was likely inside Makki Masjid praying for some reason or another. While vigils weren’t everyday occurrences here, they also weren’t unusual. The imam often called them when a community member or their relative was ill or in danger. Ibby remembers the few vigils he attended as a teenager: one for an uncle who was diagnosed with lung cancer, another for an aunty who’d gone missing.
He wonders what misfortune has brought Coney Island together tonight, and though he feels guilty, he is grateful that it has coincided with his return. While there are four more subway stops to his actual destination, he views the chance to roam unnoticed a sign that it is alright, even necessary, to prolong his journey.
“Train’s delayed,” Ibby now texts his mother. He types and erases and re-types the message five times before pressing send and hurrying along. He tells himself that he is only going to walk through the neighborhood once, quickly and quietly, before returning to the station. He is tempted to take pictures of the places he passes, places he and his parents used to frequent, but knows that this is impossible: Jaffar’s Jewelers, Punjab Pharmacy, and the Gyro King—his former employer, the reason for his departure from the neighborhood and the reason, tonight, that he wants to linger. As a teenager, he would buy several packs of Camels throughout the day from the pharmacy, during breaks from his restaurant shift, in order to flirt with the cashier, a petite girl with dimples high on her cheeks and a mess of dyed auburn curls that she loosely covered with a thin shawl. The memory first brings him pleasure—he misses this brazen version of himself—and then embarrassment because he cannot remember the girl’s name. “Will be at the hospital ASAP. Let me know when Dad’s out of the operating room.”
Ibby was alone in a bar when his mother phoned earlier that evening. “Ma, I’m with friends right now—can I call you later?” He had just started his second gin and tonic and did not want to leave it unfinished. No, she said. Not this time. As she began speaking, he thought, I’ll remember this call for the rest of my life, and he is right, though he’ll remember not so much the news his mother delivered as much as the sensation he felt after hearing it: relief followed, in quick succession, by guilt.
His father has had a heart attack. Four arteries clogged and then some. Quadruple bypass surgery is a hazardous endeavor but even more so given his father’s preexisting heart murmurs. “Seventeen percent,” his mother wept on the phone. “That’s what the doctor said. A seventeen percent chance of survival.” There was no need for his mother to ask; he knew what needed to be done. Ibby packed his best black suit and got on an Amtrak express train from Philadelphia, his home for the past fifteen years, to New York.
He called his boss at Vanguard and said that his father had died, that he would need five days off from sorting through 501k plans and taxes. (Five days: that’s how long he figured it would take for the funeral—Islamic tradition mandated that the body be buried within twenty-four hours—and for his mother to begin adjusting to life as a widow.) Would that be alright? Ibby asked. Of course, his boss said. He offered his condolences, asked Ibby if he was doing alright, all things considered. I’m holding up, Ibby said, privately allowing the thought—My father is dead—to settle as if it were reality. Best to accept and deliver the news now, he told himself, when it had not yet happened, rather than later. Best to prepare.
In many ways, of course, Ibby has long been prepared. Though he calls his parents, he does so infrequently. He communicates with his mother one-on-one, and with his father only when his mother is near enough to take the phone and mediate a conversation that inevitably evokes his youth and, as a result, inevitably sours. This has been their tacit deal, the way the three of them have managed to exist without terminating all contact. His parents never ask when they will get grandchildren (answer: no time soon, since he cannot manage to stay in a relationship for longer than two years), and Ibby never asks about his parents’ neighbors. When they speak, it is usually for five minutes at most and only to exchange pleasantries, mild and innocuous remarks about the changing weather or recently eaten meals. The one time Ibby broke his own rule was this past November, after the election, when he spoke to them—or, more accurately, at them—for half an hour.
“Stop wearing a scarf,” he told his mother. “Shave off your beard,” he told his father. “Do you want to have a target on your back?” He was frightened by how impassioned he felt and then frightened in turn by how quickly that passion subsided. The next time he’d called—which was the last time he’d called—was for the New Year and neither he nor his parents spoke of the advice he’d offered but returned to their neutral mode of speech.
In this way, for the past fifteen years, Ibby has managed to avoid physically seeing both his mother and father. Occasionally, he texts them photos of himself so they know that he is alive and well, and they send him photos of themselves in response, blurry selfies in which they are smiling hesitantly. It baffles him each time—their increasing frailty and wrinkles—and he promptly deletes the photos to prevent himself from obsessively analyzing them or becoming overwhelmed by shame. Initially, he created excuses for his reluctance to see them, saying that he hadn’t settled on an address or that he was too busy with work, and eventually his parents stopped proposing that they visit him or he visit them. “Self-protection turns a person into an extremist,” his therapist said of this behavior. “Pardon the word choice.”
The last time Ibby was with his parents they were all in a police station and he was nineteen. This was August of 2002—just before he ran away to Philadelphia with his then-girlfriend, a Puerto-Rican folk singer who got herself a job singing in some church and him a job sweeping the church’s floors; and just before his parents took their belongings south of Midwood, to a cockroach-infested apartment in Brighton Beach. Both moves were necessary. There was no way that he or his parents could remain living on Coney Island Avenue after Kabob King Gate, which is how the local newspapers described what happened. At Brooklyn College, where he was enrolled at the time, the other students nicknamed him “The KKG.”
“KKG almost got wifed up, can you believe it?” they said to one another. They were not exaggerating.
The summer that Ibby began working at Kabob King, his father arranged his engagement to the owner’s daughter, a girl four years his junior; a girl whom he eventually came to befriend and confide in about his romantic troubles; a girl with a sweet tooth and a shy smile who, like him, had no clue of the arrangement until much later. The owner and his family were in the States illegally; Ibby and his family legally. The owner wanted Mira to get a green card; Ibby’s father wanted Ibby to part with his gora ways—sex, booze, and drugs—for good. A hasty wedding seemed the obvious solution. They might have married, they might have divorced, Mira and her family might have been able to stay legally, had she not turned herself into ICE. Both families thought that Ibby had put her up to it, that she had sacrificed herself for his sake, but this wasn’t the case at all. He found out the way everyone else did, through a note explaining her decision. By the time Ibby and his parents were called into the police station for questioning, Mira and her family were already being deported. He didn’t get to say goodbye.
“Betrayed,” Ibby’s therapist said, once Ibby finally told the story after months of silent sessions. “You felt betrayed. You still do.” And maybe that was it, if betrayed meant exhausted and fatigued, tired beyond belief. Because those were the emotions Ibby experienced when he learned his father had been scheming behind his back all that time. Sure, his mother was complicit, as was Mira’s dad. But his mother couldn’t possibly disagree with his father—he had a bad temper and a mean fist when threatened, of which she was often on the receiving end—and the owner was simply going to the extreme length any parent would to protect his child. What excuse did Ibby’s father have?
“What did you expect, leaving there and coming here?” Ibby asked whenever he and his father got into heated arguments—about the rap music he listened to or the condoms he kept in his wallet, the bottles of Smirnoff that clanked in his backpack. “You wanted America? Well here it is,” Ibby would say, pointing his finger at his own chest. He used to have the stamina to stand his ground, the willpower to raise a hand in response to a slap. But after the aborted engagement, Ibby became silent and withdrawn, treating his father as though he didn’t exist because that is what Ibby wished were true.
The Kabob King was converted into a Gyro King shortly afterwards. Ibby’s mother had informed him of this on the phone nearly a decade ago, back when they spoke more regularly, once a month instead of once every six. She apologized for relaying the fact—she was no fool, she realized he might still be grieving that episode of their lives—but there was no one else around her who would appreciate it. “You understand?”
He did in some ways and he didn’t in others. He understood the overwhelming desire to share important details from one’s life with another—what human with a beating heart didn’t? —but what he didn’t understand was why his mother thought any information about the Kabob King still important enough to share at all. Over the years, he has come to view his parents’ fixation on the past with a combination of pity and frustration and, increasingly, resentment. “Then why did you leave?” he thought each time his father slipped into stories about riding a motorcycle along Clifton Beach and eating fresh mango ice cream made from the cream of his family’s cows. “If it was so good, why did you leave?” After the Kabob King scandal, when their neighbors began to view them with disdain and suspicion, Ibby recommended that his parents move out of Brooklyn entirely—to Jackson Heights in Queens or Edison in New Jersey, both communities with sizable South Asian populations—so that they might experience the same familiarity that they’d had for so long in Little Pakistan. But they wouldn’t even entertain the idea. It was as if they used up all their ambition on the first migration, as if they had been sapped of their energy and resolve, turned into shadows of the selves they left behind in Karachi’s airport.They settled on Brighton Beach, only twenty minutes from Coney Island Avenue by subway. Just far enough.
Ten years ago, when she mentioned to him the restaurant’s new name, Ibby’s mother had added that the new owner had changed the outside of the storefront as well. “As if there never was a Kabob King.” He had removed the green and white mounted menu display, exchanged the neon sign for a regular printed one, painted over the crown logo on the door.
“How do you know?” Ibby asked. “Did you go back?”
“I overheard at the meat shop in Brighton,” she said. “People talk.”
But Ibby can see now, standing in front of the empty and pitch black Gyro King, that the storefront is exactly as it once was. The menus and neon sign and crown logo have all remained, along with the dull brick façade. There is still the same ‘B’ Sanitary Inspection Grade poster plastered to the window, which the new owner apparently has not tried very hard to improve.
Ibby examines the restaurant’s menu board display, reading the familiar descriptions of meals and ingredients: mango lassi, doodh soda, gannay ka juice. He thinks that he could use one of these drinks right now, to offset the taste of gin still lingering in his mouth. Hethinks of the summer he spent here, when he was still a boy wearing a loose apron and a tight hairnet, preparing buttered naan and chicken biryani for seven, sometimes ten, hours a day. He thinks of smoking behind the restaurant while Mira, her hands trembling, held his lighter. He thinks that he will not tell his mother about the unchanged storefront, that he will let her believe the neighborhood has moved on in the hopes that she might do so herself as well. He thinks that he himself should move on from Coney Island Avenue and onwards to Brighton Beach. He thinks that he is ready, finally, to face his mother and bury his father. He thinks all this until he sees a sudden flash of fluorescence through the restaurant’s window and the two faces staring back at him—one frightened, the other wary; both undeniably young.
“Illness in the family, my ass” Maryam says to Leyla. Her voice is higher-pitched, like it gets when she’s excited or confused or, as she is now, both. “He’s an ICE agent, Leyla, I know it. And he’s gonna start interrogating us soon and we won’t even know it’s happening. Next thing you know he’ll go to the mosque and start rounding up aunties and uncles, flying them back to Pakistan. Tomorrow’s headline? ‘Delinquents Cause Mass Deportation.’
She grabs Leyla by the shoulders and slightly shakes her. “I’m sure Allah’s gonna be real happy with that. Real happy. Let me tell you.”
The girls are in the kitchen, preparing one medium-sized iced chai—fat-free milk and Splenda in place of whole milk and sugar—for the customer in the lobby. He is from out of town, passing through the neighborhood, on his way to the Victory Memorial Hospital in Brighton Beach because his father is ill. Or so he says. They were in the restaurant for hardly ten minutes when he appeared outside the front window, a silhouette peering in. Leyla is the one who heard the knock, the one who went to welcome him. Behind her, as she walked towards the door, Maryam was repeating like a refrain, “Are you pagal? Are you crazy?”
“We have to,” Leyla said. “You know the verse.” And they both do. On the Night of Power, the Qur’an decrees, hospitality is required. Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers. “We’ve already pissed off Allah more than enough.” she said. “We can’t just ignore him.”
Usually Leyla is the more cautious of the two—more hesitant and observant of rules—but tonight, she realizes in the kitchen, her deference to a higher authority has inverted their usual roles, and this thought unsettles her.
“Why do you have to look for ulterior motivations in everything?,” Leyla now says. The lack of sleep must be getting to her. She feels dizzy, possessed. “He’s thirsty, Maryam! Thirsty. Nothing more, nothing less.”
She opens the fridge and finds a carton of two-percent milk—close enough to skim—but notices that the expiration date has passed a couple of days before. She sniffs the inside and, satisfied, pours some into a mug. “He’s practically a literal refugee. And practically speaking, Allah would not be happy if we closed the door on a refugee.”
Leyla’s own speech exhausts her. She worries that the man has heard her yelling through the kitchen doors. Chastened by the shock on Maryam’s face and frightened by her own outburst, she hesitates and, lowering her voice, gives a soft laugh. “I mean, come on, Maryam. He’s brown—he can’t be an ICE agent. That’s like, betraying your own kind.”
“Well obviously he’s brown,” Maryam says, shaking her head. “It’s called being undercover. If he were gora, it would be too obvious. The whole point is that he looks like one of us so he can blend in.”
Leyla considers the possibility. It’s true that ICE agents have been knocking on their neighbors’ doors lately, and men have been disappearing. Already, Farah’s Fabrics has been shut down because her husband, a cab driver, was taken in the middle of the night. The same happened to Khalid Uncle, one of the grocers at Punjab Pharmacy. Gone just like that. Left a pregnant wife and a toddler behind. But Leyla doesn’t think the man outside capable of breaking apart families in this way.
“I mean, just look at him,” she says to Maryam, rising on her tip toes to examine him through the window in the kitchen’s door, sitting at one of the booths.
His head is bent down towards his lap—likely because he is scrolling through his phone—and Leyla can see the beginnings of a bald patch forming. His hair is thinning in the front. There’s some silver in his beard and the button-down he’s wearing is a size too small, tight near his waist. He is not unattractive, Leyla thinks, just a decade past his prime. He looks to be no younger than thirty and no older than forty. At first Leyla assumed he wasa cousin, a nephew, a relative of someone from Coney Island. She could have sworn that Raheela Aunty mentioned her sister’s son-in-law would soon be visiting when Leyla went to her parlor for a trim last week.
“He looks entirely ordinary,” Maryam says. She rips three packets of a generic artificial sweetener and pours them into the mug, one after another. Tiny white grains spill onto the counter. “And ordinary is suspicious.”
“We’re both nineteen,” one of the girls—Leyla—says to Ibby.
“Except I’m three months older,” says her friend, who speaks in the same vocal fry as all the girls he ever dated as a teenager. Maryam is her name, and Ibby can tell from the way she is twirling a curl around her finger and leaning over the booth table that, of the two, she is the one used to getting attention, the one used to being seen. He can also tell that the girls are lying. Not about the three months—that much Ibby figures is true because of how Leyla grimaced at Maryam’s interjection—but about their age. They look to be about the fourteen, fifteen at most. That they are not telling the truth, or at least the full truth, relieves him. It makes him feel less guilty about his own dishonesty. It is like they have all mutually agreed to deceive.
They have told him that they are about to begin their second year at Brooklyn College, where they study psychology with a focus, for Laila, in child development and a focus, for Maryam, in addiction.He has told them that his name is Moe—short for Muhammed, a generic enough name for a Pakistani-American man and thus a safe alias—and that he is passing through Coney Island Avenue on his way to a hospital in Brighton. He used to have a cousin who lived in the neighborhood, he explained, and because of this has been to the Gyro King once or twice before; it is why he thought to stop here tonight, for a refreshment, before resuming his journey.
“You’ve probably met my dad then,” Laila says.
“He’s the owner.”
Ibby puts down his chai. He looks closely at Leyla, considering her blunt bangs and long, thoughtful face. She does not resemble Mira in the slightest, not physically, but there is something in the way her shoulders slope forward that reminds Ibby of the former owner’s daughter, his former fiancé. He wants to tell Leyla this—he wants her to sense the relation because it is not insignificant, he thinks—but he instead shrugs.
“Maybe,” he says. “It’s been a long time.” And then, because he cannot help himself, because he is paranoid, suddenly, that this new owner will appear and reveal him for who he is, he asks, “Where’s your dad now?”
“At the mosque,” Maryam answers.
“With everyone else,” Leyla adds. “Because of the night.”
Maryam shoots Leyla a look of pure malice, and Ibby understands that Leyla has said too much and that later, in the private ways of girls, Maryam will punish her for this mistake. It was like that for Mira, too, Ibby thinks. She would often complain to Ibby about a friend she had, a cocksure girl who said mean things one day and nice things the next, the kind of girl a teenage boy wants to date until, one day, he doesn’t.
“The night—?” Ibby asks.
“The Night of Power.”
Of course, Ibby thinks after a moment, shaking his head because it is now obvious to him. That’s why no one is in the streets. Not because of just any vigil but because of the vigil.
Ibby hasn’t fasted or observed the Night of Power in fifteen years now—even more if you count the fact that those vigils he did attend as a teenager he spent praying for a girlfriend or, after he got a girlfriend, daydreaming about her. He knows that it is Ramadan only because a Muslim co-worker inexplicably stopped eating earlier in the month. He remembers memorizing verses from the Qur’an about the night during Islamic Sunday School as a boy: “What will explain to you the Night of Power? It is the night better than a thousand months.” He remembers calculating that a thousand months was the equivalent of 30, 439 nights and, in awe and disbelief, repeating this fact to his parents.He remembers the night as a giant sleepover, when the whole community crammed into the mosque for up to ten hours. No one left the building—they didn’t want to and they didn’t need to. Some people like Ibby’s father literally brought sleeping bags to rest in during the brief breaks between prayer services. Other people like Ibby’s mother brought folding chairs to sit on when their legs grew tired from standing and bending. Mohsin Uncle brought cases of water bottles from his dollar store for everyone to drink. Kabir Uncle brought bags full of pastries from his bakery for everyone to eat.
What Ibby found curious was how kind neighbors were to one another during this period. You wouldn’t hear a bad word from a single mouth. Anyone would have cut off their arm in charity if asked. But then, as if on Allah’s command, as soon as the sun rose the next morning, his father would say, “Did you see Rafeeq wearing a stained khameez?” And his mother would nod. “His wife, too.” And when Ibby walked along Coney Island Avenue the next day, buying cigarettes from the pharmacy or mangos from the grocery shop, he would overhear similar sentiments. “Sarah fell asleep halfway through prayers. Allah have mercy. What a waste.” It was as if a spell had been cast on the neighborhood and then, just as quickly, lifted.
“And you’re spending the night here?” he asks the girls. He means the question as a joke, but again Maryam gives Leyla that look. He feels guilty. “I’m glad that you’re here. I mean—” He blushes. “For the chai.”
“We’re here to pick up sweets to bring back to the mosque,” Leyla says. “You came just in time.”
After he first moved to Philadelphia, Ibby’s mother used to call and tell him that “the big night” had arrived and that he should conduct himself accordingly. “Pray for yourself, and me, and your baba.” He didn’t know when exactly she stopped calling, but she had, likely realizing that he persisted in whatever he was doing at the time of her call: watching television, drinking gin, playing pool. Though they now pray in the privacy of their living room rather than in the mosque, his parents have steadfastly continued to observe the holiday. And tonight, he thinks, is likely no exception. He can picture perfectly what is happening inside the hospital: his mother pulling a prayer rug out of her tote bag, laying it down beside her father’s empty bed, prostrating and pressing her forehead on the cloth in worship, until he returns. She has always carried multiple rugs, should she or those around her feel compelled at any moment to commune with Allah. When Ibby moved to Philadelphia, he brought with him a gold and crimson-colored one—intricately woven by a Pakistani tailor and decorated with the imprint of a minaret—which he then affixed to the wall. “A man with style,” women often said, raising their brows in mild amusement whenever he invited them back to his apartment, barren of any décor save for the rug. He learned early on to find the aesthetic use in his religion. The prayer beads his mother gifted him one Eid he wore as a chain during his clubbing phase; the fez hat as part of an Aladdin costume during Halloween season.
The gin and tonics from earlier in the evening have fully settled in his body. How is it that just four hours ago he was watching a Manchester United game in a bar? His head is beginning to throb—the sensation is a dull and not unpleasant one—and his stomach is beginning to grumble. He realizes that he hasn’t eaten since lunchtime. The girls have moved on from talking about The Night of Power to some psychology course they’re taking, but Ibby has stopped listening, getting by with a nod every so often and a “huh, you don’t say.” When he does register their words—bits about an adulterous professor and Freudian slips—he experiences a shock like an electric jolt that pulses through his brain, reminding him that he has a body and it is here and it will soon be at a hospital and then, eventually, a cemetery. He wonders where his father would want to be buried—close by Brighton Beach, or Coney Island? Perhaps Karachi? He thinks of the cost of caskets, of casket sizes, of casket material—mahogany? steel?—and makes a mental note to google all this information later, on his phone, in the subway, after he leaves the restaurant.
“Listen,” he says. Ibby only realizes that he’s spoken aloud once Maryam pauses in her speech and Laila looks at him expectantly. His own voice seems to him distant and unrecognizable. He feels stoned though the last time he smoked weed was more than a decade ago, as a twenty-something-year-old on a frat rooftop celebrating Obama’s first election. For a moment, he pictures himself as that young man with these girls—passing a bong, blowing rings in each other’s eyes, chanting Yes We Can!, secure with their place in the world. But the image quickly fades and he becomes embarrassed by the pleasure—however fleeting—that he derived from it. “Can I have some food?”
“The key is to dip the kabobs in lemon juice beforehand,” Moe says. “Doesn’t matter what the directions on the box say.” He wipes his hands on the apron he’s put on, the one that Leyla’s father usually wears. “It makes them extra savory.”
The three of them are in the kitchen, in front of the long center counter. Moe is chopping onions, Leyla is mixing a salad, and Maryam is observing from afar since the onions are making her cry. Seeing the tears shocks Leyla and then pleases her. Even if they are technically fake, it is the only thing she has that Maryam doesn’t, this resistance.
“Good dressing choice,” Moe tells Leyla, reaching over to pick out a cucumber from the bowl in front of her. There are tufts of black hair on his knuckles and Leyla can feel that they are stiff and prickly when his hand grazes her arm.
They are here because Moe wanted kabobs. When Leyla admitted to him that she and Maryam didn’t actually know how to cook, he shrugged. “I can make them myself.”
He seems to know where everything is—the cutting board, the blender, the special chef’s knife. “I used to work at a restaurant,” he explains. “In Philly.”
Leyla has never been inside the Gyro King’s kitchen, has never stood this close to a man, has never told this many lies. The lies thrill her. She did not think herself capable. It frightens her, how easily she can blend fiction and fact, and she wonders if others find it as easy too. She and Maryam have been creating whole personalities for themselves all night, alter-egos that are clever and college-aged. Her head is dizzy with possibility. Is there a difference, she thinks, between seeming and being? Does there have to be?
“Are these for the Pakistan Day Parade?” Moe asks, nodding his chin towards a plastic container—filled with green and white utensils, cloth napkins, and dishes—that is in front of one of the cabinet doors. He directs the question towards Maryam, who blushes.
“I think so,” she says, looking down at her sandals and then sideways at Leyla.
Leyla has seen how Maryam acts in front of boys, both gora and brown. She tosses her hair, thrusts her hips, modulates her voice between high and low. These tricks work—very well, in fact—and Leyla is usually left wondering how best to emulate them. But tonight, they seem to her clumsy and awkward, inelegant.
“They are,” Leyla says. “My dad’s gonna start using them next week, when it’s closer to the day.” The parade takes place every August 14th, on Pakistani’s Independence Day.
“Does Bashir Uncle still spray-paint his cab green for a week?”
Leyla laughs. The temporarily green cab is a sight on Coney Island Avenue. “The color lasts for longer, sometimes two weeks.”
Moe shakes his head and smiles. “I remember. I’ve been to a few parades because of my cousin. And Raheela Aunty, does she still give people tattoos of the Pakistani flag at the stand?”
“Raheela Aunty gives tattoos?” Maryam asks. “That sounds fake.”
“Not actual ones,” Leyla says, not even irritated that Maryam has interrupted her conversation with Moe. When she was little, she would ask Raheela Aunty to tattoo the flag all up and down her arms and legs. “Just with a special henna cone.”
Moe smiles. “I remember.”
Leyla wants to ask him what else he remembers, but his phone vibrates and, after he looks down at the screen, his face turns blank.
“I have to go,” he says.
He feels the emptiness in his pocket only after he has left the Gyro King and passed Raheela’s parlor. Did he even remove the wallet from his pocket at all in the restaurant? For a second, he wonders if the girls might have stolen it, but then becomes ashamed at the thought. He knows this isn’t possible, but he is desperate for the night to unfold differently, and a trip to the police to file a theft would provide a welcome divergence from what awaits him. When he does return to the Gyro King, after Leyla has given him his wallet, he considers ordering another chai, re-reading then deleting the text message from his mother, pretending that the night will not end or that it never began. But Leyla does not give him this option and for that he is grateful.
“We’ll be off soon ourselves,” she says. “Enjoy the rest of the night—or what’s left of it.”
“Definitely an agent,” Maryam says. “No doubt about it. That dramatic ass exit? And then his dramatic ass return? I could have written the script myself.”
Half an hour has passed since he left for a second time but the girls are still sitting in the booth, as if awaiting his arrival once more. The sky is changing color like a healing bruise, from black to purple to light blue. Soon, the sun and the angels will rise, and the vigil will end. Before then, Leyla and Maryam will have to clean the dishes, replace the dirty napkins, rearrange the tables, return to the mosque. But, Leyla thinks, staring out the window, there is still time. There always is. Outside, the moon hangs like a smirk in the sky and she has the sense that Allah has placed it there just for her.
“Definitely,” she tells Maryam, nodding. “No doubt.”
Leyla can hear the falseness heavy in her words, but she knows that she needs to say them. She knows that her affirmation is required for tonight’s events to turn into a story—which, she knows as well, is what it will soon become. She knows that in the coming days and weeks she and Maryam will go over the details of their night in the Gyro King and will together form a version of what happened, though the details will vary, ever so slightly, each time they relay it: how tall he is, the color of his eyes, where his wrinkles imprint themselves on his face. Once the school year begins, they will whisper this story to their friends in the locker room in hushed voices, warning that it best not be repeated, though they fully expect—and hope—that it is. Enough time will have passed that, should the story reach their ears, their parents will be too preoccupied with other anxieties, more urgent and present ones, to reprimand them as they might have formerly done. The girls will laugh at their good fortune, and then, eventually, they will stop repeating the memory in favor of other ones because there will be many more fleeting encounters with older men, many more nights spent praying, or neglecting to. The story of tonight—the one spread far and wide—will become, in Laila’s mind, indistinguishable from these. She knows this. She knows, also, that there is an alternate story of the evening, separate from the one articulated aloud, that she will privately form in the coming days and weeks, and that she will remember with astonishing clarity.
“Imagine if you had opened his wallet,” Maryam says. “Maybe you’d have seen a badge or something.”
“Maybe,” Leyla says.
He had left his wallet on a counter in the kitchen, which Laila realized while cleaning, and which he realized too, shortly after leaving. When he returned, it was sheepishly; and when he departed a second time, it was as abruptly as the first. (Later, when Leyla revisits this night, which she periodically will from time to time—long after she and Maryam have stopped speaking because of a minor disagreement that turned into a major one—she will locate in these double exits a timeline of the entire night: prolonged and stretched out, reluctant to end.)
Imagine if you had opened his wallet.
She felt her fingers tingle as she picked out the card—small and rectangular-shaped—and the tingling did not stop even after she closed the wallet’s tattered folds.
“Ibrahim Sheikh,” it read. “Vanguard Investment Analyst.”
His name was Ibby Sheikh.
When she returned the wallet to Ibby, the business card resting in the pocket of her khameez, she expected him to feel that it had become lighter and to accuse her of making it so; and when this didn’t happen, when instead he simply put it in his pocket and left, she expected him to enter the Gyro King for a third time, to retrieve yet another one of his misplaced items. But this didn’t happen either.
Since Ibby’s final departure, Leyla has been searching for a way to explain to Maryam the truth—that the stranger they encountered was no stranger at all. But she doesn’t know that the words exist, and this thought exhausts her. She feels weary and irritated, alone with the knowledge of Ibby’s identity, and even more weary and irritated that Maryam does not recognize what has happened, gradually, over the course of the night: that she has become the sort of girl who opens wallets and possesses secrets. She thinks, We’re strangers, the two of us, and Maryam doesn’t know it yet but I do.
“ICE agents probably don’t have badges anyway.” Through the window Leyla can see that the smirking moon has disappeared. “Hurry,” she says to Maryam, rising from the booth. “The night’s ending.”
Although he has never once stepped foot in it, the hospital room appears familiar because of how frequently, throughout the night, he has been imagining the scene: his mother kneeling on the prayer rug placed by his father’s bed; the nurses looking on, sharing a sad smile between themselves. He feels the way he used to after returning home late from a party, passing by Raheela’s parlor. Groggy but conscious, his body aching from whatever toxins he ingested. He tries to recall the faces of the girls he left behind at the Gyro but they are already beginning to blur.
“Baba,” he says, but his father cannot hear him. Not yet, because it will take another four hours until he awakes from the anesthesia.
“Seventeen percent,” his mother cries from the prayer rug. She has gained weight in the middle and her hair is more gray than chestnut, which is how he has been remembering it. When Ibby entered the room, she rose at once from the rug to embrace him but returned to prostrating just as quickly. “Seventeen percent, they said, but Allah make it one-hundred.”
Ibby stands at the edge of the bed. Tears form in his eyes but don’t fall. They will come later—the tears, along with the words. There is much that he has said and much that he has left unsaid; and now, watching his father’s chest rise and fall in sync with the lines on the heart monitor, he knows there is much that he will have to say. But there is still time, he thinks, until then. There always is. For the moment, he goes to kneel beside his mother on the rug, praying into the silence before the night comes to pass.
My mother can only fall asleep with a hitachi wand tucked between her legs. It is big and white—the thick handle alone is the size of an adult humerus bone, and atop it rests a large bulb the size of an adult’s fist. The bulb is made of a material that is probably plastic but feels like leather, and has myriads of small indentations that collect dirt, fluid—i.e. color, yellow-brown dots that, when the hitachi is turned on to the low setting, make the whole head appear yellow, like a crude pointillism; but on the high setting the opposite effect occurs, somehow the vigorous high speed vibrations, which are so rapid as to be insensible, like strobe lights which give you the impression that a rotating object is actually perfectly still, cause the discolorations to vanish completely, and the bulb is all white, pure white all over, the same color as the handle. My mother, I know, prefers the low setting—but even so I worry that overuse will make her completely numb, which would be a disaster, since it is the only way that she can fall asleep.
Usually when I come home from school, I can hear the rumbles of the hitachi from the corridor outside our apartment door, and I know my mother has fallen asleep. She does not like to use the hitachi at night, I am not entirely sure why, but as a result she sleeps only fitfully, restlessly, for an hour or so at a time, and it is good for her to take a nap in the early afternoon while I am at school. I suspect that she feels safer using it then in the belief that, given the context of the time of day, early afternoon when nothing exciting happens, our neighbors will assume that the electric growl that vibrates the walls adjacent to our apartment is just the sound of vacuuming. When I unlock the door, for a brief moment the whine of the hitachi trapped between my mother’s legs gains voice, as if imbued with newfound hope of escaping out the door, fleeing in echo down the corridor outside, but as soon as I shut the door behind me again, closing off the avenue of the sound’s reverberant escape, it becomes choked and flat again, though still petulantly loud. I lock the door behind me and twist the handle once to check. The kitchen is right next to the door; first I go there and check that the stove is off and no faucets have been left running; then I walk back to the door and take my shoes off and hang up my keys; then I walk past the kitchen again to the dining table and set down my backpack and jacket on my chair, the one closest to the kitchen; then I go the bathroom and wash my hands; then I go to the bedroom where my mother is lying on her side, legs tangled up in a blanket that is half on the floor, and I carefully reach over her body to unplug the hitachi from the socket in the wall next to the bed.
After that I close the bedroom door softly and go to the kitchen to make some food—my favorites are udon noodles with beef and chicken stock, or waffles. If I make udon noodles, I make twice as much as I want to eat, and leave one clean bowl with two clean spoons and two clean sets of chopsticks in it next to the stove; if I make waffles, I plug in the toaster, make two waffles, which is exactly as much as I want to eat, and unplug the toaster. Then I sit down with my food at the dining table and either read, or start my homework. Usually I have time to finish all my homework and get through at least a few chapters before my mother wakes up.
Sometimes the doorbell rings, which is okay. Usually it is either the mailman coming to deliver a check or a package for my mother from her agent, or it is the Watchtower pamphlet man who comes around on Tuesdays for Bible study. But today is not a Tuesday and my mother did not shower this morning; usually my mother is happy and lively on the days she is expecting something from the mailman, on those mornings she wakes up even earlier than me and I hear her showering as I get ready for school, and when I come to the dining table she is dressed in a lovely flowery gown that is so loose and formless that it insistently suggests the nakedness of her thin frame underneath, the places where bone makes its shape known and the places where it does not, and she shows me a painting or a print from a book of art she has written, and chatters on about the people she was with when she saw the piece of art first, and what thoughts it made her think, and which bits of those thoughts she shared with the people she was with and which bits she decided not to share with those people at that time but which she ended up sharing with the whole world by including it in her writing, and which bits she had not shared with anyone for all this time and which I must be absolutely careful not to divulge to anyone because they were such naughty, important secrets. But this morning, as usual, I did not hear the sound of the shower when I got out of bed, and so I knew she would never get out of bed for the rest of the day except to go to the kitchen and eat udon noodles standing up and naked, her bones so starkly visible in their unlovely angles that they obscure the general form of her body, and she appears all over merely a quaint collection of kindling, naked because she refuses to put on clothes when she feels she is dirty, the clothes are too clean and thus too good for her sweaty, bed-sticky body.
So today the doorbell rings, and it is not necessarily okay, because today is not a Tuesday, I am sure, and today, my mother did not shower, and she is asleep. Today is not as usual, there is something wrong with today.
Today when the doorbell rang I sat very still and straight in my chair for a minute. It was five pm and the light that came through the window was very yellow and made striations in my eye, in which dust particles slid like so many Irises down the rainbow lines. Instead of answering, I watched a squirrel outside the window nibble insistently on the trunk of an oak tree, as if it would find a treasure trove at the center. The doorbell rang again, and only a second later, again. I stood up and walked through the kitchen on the way to the door and picked up a small knife in my right hand.
I walked carefully, but not too carefully; I don’t have to walk too carefully, because I know how to place my feet so they never make any sound against the floor; once I arrived at the door, I saw and subsequently remembered that the peephole was about a foot and a half above my head, and required a small lever to be pressed down on the side to open it up, so that even if I stood back to compensate for my lack of height, which I would not have been able to do anyways due to the wall of shoes and shoeboxes stacked up behind me as barrier between threshold and home, I would not be able to see anything through the small oval hole at all, not even a bit of light. Realizing this, I put down the knife on the floor next to the door and walked back to the dining table, and carefully carried my chair back through the kitchen to the door, taking extra effort this time, since the chair gave me extra weight, to ensure my heavier steps made no sound against the floor, and I carefully set down the chair between the door and the wall of shoeboxes behind it, and climbed up onto the seat of the chair on my knees, then my feet so that I could face the door, press down the lever with my right hand and steady myself against the door with my left hand as I looked through. To my disappointment, there was nothing there to be seen, only darkness that straining did not alter in the slightest, as if my eyes were closed. I could not tell if this was my error, if there was another latch somewhere which I was meant to depress, or if the peephole had been covered up from the outside. Or perhaps the peephole never worked at all; although I had seen my mother use it and she had always seemed satisfied, so perhaps it was the kind of thing that only worked when you knew what you were expecting to see.
There was nothing to be done. I had to open the door now, there was no way to delay it.
Once when I was much younger my mother gave me a book of Japanese prints by an artist named Hokusai, and she told me, “This is Hokusai, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, he was one of those people who lived in two centuries, and not just a few years in one and mostly the other, either, but nearly half in each, like me.” Then she added, kneeling down to see my face better, since I was very short on account of being so young, though even then I looked exactly like her, and even more so by now, as I have grown to nearly her height, and especially so today, on account of the flowery gown I am wearing, “You will never live in two centuries, you’ll be lucky to see the second half of this one,” which just sounded like gloating. There were many interesting prints in the book, and many pictures of naked women who looked very different from my mother, and sometimes both pleasing categories overlapped in a single, extremely pleasing, print. My favorite print was one called “Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife,” in which two octopi, one big and one small, with dark sideways-lidded eyes and bulbous heads like my mother’s hitachi, wrapped their tentacles around a reclining woman as if to make a soft bed for her with their own strong limbs so that she might have sweet dreams. It was my favorite print from the book because my mother said it was her favorite print, and she often closed her eyes and shuddered a little all over when staring at it, as if shaking off a dream or memory. Because she stared at it deeply, as if there was much meaning to be gleaned, I often stared at it too, and started to notice small details I hadn’t noticed before—for example, it took me a while before I even noticed the second, smaller octopus, which was at the reclining woman’s head and wrapped its tentacles around her neck as if to hold it up, but did so ineffectually, since the woman’s head was nonetheless tilted far back at an angle that must have been uncomfortable, and even after I noticed that detail it was a while before I realized that what the octopus was doing with the tentacle between its eyes was meant to be kissing her, and then it took me even longer after that to notice that the little octopus had the tiny end of one tentacle curled around an erect nipple. When I noticed that final detail, I became suddenly disgusted with the print, and tore out the page so I would not have to look at it again, because there was something about the insidiousness of that single thin talon curled possessively around the woman’s nipple that made me want to tear off the entire limb with my bare hands and eat it, chew it to string, as it wriggled against my teeth. As a result, it had been several years since I had looked at or even thought of the print, but I suddenly recalled it in exact detail as I stood at the door which I had just now opened and compared my perfect memory of the print to the figure I saw before me, in shocked amazement that the comparison did not fail or outshine the reality, as at the door now stood the exact embodiment of the smaller octopus from the print, in a suit, which nonetheless did not disguise his long, beaked nose and circular eyes wide open with shock, in which his pupils stood out like dark crescents, and his enormous, mushroom-shaped head, where wrinkly folds stood out on a glassy, nearly gelatinous forehead.
The little octopus cleared his throat nervously. “Excuse me, you’re not… you wouldn’t happen to be,” he whispered, so softly I could barely hear. “Not… Tamako?”
“No, of course not,” I informed the octopus. “That’s my mother.”
The octopus sighed deeply and drew his hand over his shiny, wet forehead, then held it out to me at the end of an improbably long arm. “Little girl,” he said, and hesitated when I made no motion to shake his slimy, insidious hand. “What a nice little girl,” he started again, and he lifted his long tentacle to my cheek, and licked me with it from temple to collarbone before retracting it, leaving a sweat-trail down the right side of my face. I shuddered in anger and wanted to slap the tentacle away but it was gone already, and the octopus was much taller than me and stood far enough away that to reach out and strike him, I would have had to let go of the door I was holding open and step through it, which was unacceptable.
The octopus seemed to be emboldened by my inaction and became suddenly businesslike, straightening himself up and crossing his long arms across his chest with many tortuous twists. He began to speak again, without hesitation, and, in a slow drawl that managed to convey that there could be no more surprises for him, that every word he spoke was coupled to all those preceding and succeeding by gluey strands of salivary jelly, he explained to me that he was here to see my mother, to investigate complaints lodged by the neighbors that I was too often seen unsupervised, and that if I did not want the wrath of the august governing body of the Child Protective Services to fall down upon our household, I must absolutely allow him to enter into our home and look around wherever he liked and wait for my mother to come home, so that he might inspect her to his discretion.
I told the octopus, in the same supercilious tone with which he had spoken, that he must go away immediately, that my mother was home and only asleep in bed, and that he should be more concerned for his own wellbeing as my mother and I liked to eat seafood very much and very well might eat him if he wasn’t careful.
The octopus did not take this remark very well; the color in his massive face darkened and his iris-less pupils seemed to grow larger in his wide, lidless eyes. In a sudden, violent show of strength, he shoved open the door, tearing it completely out of my hand, and it knocked over the chair that I had placed behind the door, which in turn toppled the stack of shoes and shoeboxes behind it.
For a moment we both looked inwards, past the overturned heels and half-open boxes strewn across the floor, waiting in anxious anticipation to see if the commotion had awakened my mother. When, after a moment, the door to her bedroom did not open, we turned our attention back to each other with renewed intensity. The fear that had momentarily struck me, when the octopus drove the door open with far greater strength than I contained in my entire body, disappeared in the next moment as I contemplated what disaster he might wreak on my mother if I allowed him to pass through the threshold. That was the octopus’ mistake—he might have handled me alone, a weak young girl without illusions of invincibility, if he had not reminded me what was at stake. But in the moment after his transgression I knew instantly, and the knowledge thrummed through my whole body, that at no cost could I allow the octopus to wriggle his way into our home and our lives, for my mother’s sake. I pulled the door in sharply, so that it was only open a small crack wide enough to be completely blocked by my body, and braced it with my foot, prepared to have it broken rather than give way. “You must leave,” I hissed at the octopus fiercely, letting all my anger show in my face. “Leave now, before you get hurt.”
The octopus uncrossed his arms, and the hard superciliousness vanished from his body. He became fluid, boneless, seemed to expand to twice his original girth, so that the suit nearly burst off of his body, as if he no longer cared to uphold the disguise. I gathered that he had decided to treat me as a worthy adversary, rather than a lowly gatekeeper. In a persuasive, almost sycophantic tone, he conceded that I was clearly capable of taking care of myself, and had an admirable fierceness of spirit that would serve me well in the world, but that “a woman like your mother has needs, you know, needs that a young girl cannot possibly understand yet… A woman has dreams, which she can never share with an innocent young girl, and all the same she cannot help having such desires… Would you hold her back from that? Would you be so selfish as to prevent her from ecstasies you could never be a part of? I know you care for her more than that…”
“Let her go,” he whispered, his tentacles caressing my ears. “Let her go, let her go, you are not enough, let her go…”
I was afraid to move my arms from the door in case he took the opportunity to burst it open again, but his tentacles were moving over my whole face now, blocking up my nose and eyes and lips, and I shook my head madly to free myself, to breathe, but it was relentless.
“She doesn’t need you!” I gasped out, as a tentacle wormed its way next to my tongue. I could taste the salty sweat that covered it, and gagged. “I help her with everything, anything she needs,” I told him, still gagging.
“You don’t know everything,” he hissed, and swaddled my entire head as if to wrench it off of my spine in the next second. I pulled back, but he was much stronger than me, and had so many more limbs, while I had none free as long as I maintained my hold on the door. I began to see darkness, as if my eyes were closed even though I was straining to open them, and was suddenly afraid that I would die like this, a swollen head without a body, stuffed up and tossed around like a toy, and a sudden strength surged through me, borne not of my will but my body’s simple desire to remain attached to itself, to remain one whole inviolable object even if it no longer carried my life. With the sudden, nerveless strength that pulsed through me, I pulled the door open and slammed it as hard as I could against my own head, which loosened the tentacle hold on me just enough so that I could wrench my head free and slam the door closed.
But a few tentacles were still wedged in the crack, wriggling around the door to lash my hand and lick the door handle. And a voice from a head I could not see intoned, “I have owned her long before you were even born,” but it was so loud that I could not tell if it came from within, from behind the bedroom door where my mother surely lay asleep, or if it echoed through the crack in the door. I knew it must be a trick, the octopus meant to distract me, make me look behind myself rather than focus on the danger in front of me, so I did not respond, only inched the door closer and closer shut. The tentacles retreated one by one, until there was only one tiny finger left, curled in on itself as if trying to withdraw, and I realized the only reason it could not withdraw was because there was no room to. With no tentacles left for leverage, the octopus could only rely on my mercy, on my decision to open the door again and potentially sacrifice my victory.
There was nothing left to do. I braced the door with my whole body, picked up the knife that I had left on the floor next to the door, and in one swift move sliced the writhing talon off. The door clicked shut, and I swiftly locked it, twisting the handle to check. The bloody member spasmed on the floor, wriggling as if it could be reunited with its genitor if it was only brave enough to struggle a little longer.
I left it—it was a mess I would prefer to clean up later, when all the struggle was gone.
I went to the bathroom to wash my hands; then I went to the bedroom, where my mother lay still sleeping on her side facing the wall, her black hair splayed out all over the pillow, a few sticky strands glued to her pale cheek. I stood by the door watching her for a moment, a possessive urge to do something rising in my gorge, but I did not know exactly what it was I was supposed to do, so I breathed deeply to release the emotion from my chest.
I approached the bed where my mother lay and carefully set my body down next to my mother, arranging my limbs so that I was embracing her from the back. As soon as I touched her, she startled for a moment, a panicked look in her eyes, but then she realized her hitachi was still tucked between her legs and hidden away out of sight within the tangled blankets, and she relaxed. As usual, she lies to herself that she must have managed to turn the hitachi off on her own before falling completely asleep, rather than allow herself to consider the possibility that I might be willing to help her with her needs. It’s a silly instinct, but a tender one.
My mother snuggled into me with a sigh of pleasure. “My, you’ve gotten strong,” she purred, her voice husky with sleep. “Your body is so hard, like a man’s—you should not play so much with the boys, it’s not becoming for a girl.”
My mother says things like this often, but she does not mean it, not really. After all, she is bony herself, not all soft curves like the naked women in the book of Hokusai prints. And we both know she is very pretty.
I moved her hair gently off of her cheek and behind her ear.
“I think my father came to the door, today,” I whispered.
“Did he really? Did you slay him as I taught you to do?” she murmured back, half-asleep.
“I did… I did,” I told her.
“Good girl, that’s my girl,” she said, not even knowing what she was saying, and rolled over into me to sleep some more.