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Sore Must Be the Storm

Sunday, July 12th, 2020

by Malda Marlys

Nettie was almost asleep when the condor crashed.

She spent every rainy night in the greenhouse. The friendly rattling of the ceiling panels was worth leaden midnight fatigue. She was old, and she’d earned the rest she cared to take. 

But not so old she couldn’t roll out of the way of falling glass. Gravity was too familiar a foe to catch her unawares. 

The oily black shimmer of condor armor froze her where she lay for a heartbeat, but denial was a luxury an algae farmer couldn’t afford. She leaped directly to the only useful question. Was there anything left alive inside? 

By the time she had her feet under her, the sheer, seeping volume of red and black put paid to any hope she had for the condor. Armor withstood a lot of abuse, but weight restrictions meant no secondary defenses for the meters upon meters of wing. The long, thin bones of a perfectly engineered fledgling only fared a little better than greenhouse glass at those speeds. 

Nettie’d briefly dared to hope that the condor had been slapped out of the sky by wind and not makeshift artillery. The half her torso burned away reminded her that hope was an indulgence, too. 

Security would send someone to investigate. Several someones with very big guns if they knew what they’d hit. Nettie took another moment the condor didn’t have to spare and sent the roof a repair order. The modified diatoms in her patch program were fast and inelegant. The hole would be one ugly smudge among many by the time the jackboots on duty made it to the farms.

The condor’s face emerged as her bots began to disintegrate and ooze away. Young. Enormous eyes. Ashy with blood loss, but uncannily flawless from a life spent inside her armor. She wheezed pathetically as she took back her own breathing functions. The bots couldn’t hold. Cascading failure.

Nettie guiltily hoped to see her still, have this over with, but the short battle ended with the fledgling’s eyes open.

“Hey, little sister.” Nettie needed a steadying breath before she pulled up her sleeve to reveal the telltale coils of ink she’d kept out of sight for sixty years. “Back to stardust soon. I’ll wait with you, okay?” She remembered the more formal words, but they felt wrong on her tongue, a lie after a lifetime on the ground. 

What was her pride to a hard dying? She’d be ashamed of herself later, when there was time to spare.

The fine mesh of carbon microtubles were beginning to show through as bots died in clusters. The armor was fighting for its condor and losing. “Who…” Such a small voice. All the kid had left in her lungs. 

“Me?” Tiresome old Nettie, ornery matriarch of Spillway Farm. Another deep breath and she put away her dignity for good. “Netwreck Shoal. Never made my wings.” Which was not precisely true, but she held judicious dishonesty a bit dearer than dignity. “I had cousins who did.” In a society of sisters engineered for perfection, you needed a way to distinguish closer blood relations. “You know any Shoals?”

Nettie didn’t expect an answer nor especially want one. What would she do with the knowledge? She was only filling the air with soothing noise. But the condor managed to speak again. “A-access?”

“Sure.” Which was easy to say. Nettie frowned in concentration and nerves long left fallow stuttered to life. The whirls on her arms crept down her fingers, halting here and there as they stumbled over scarred and wrinkled paths, shining too faintly to see.

If the world swam a bit with the effort, that was Nettie’s problem. Between gruesome burns and a syrupy current of failing nanobots, finding a place to connect to the armor wasted a few more of the breaths the condor had in her.

The condor’s name was Troubling Drey, and that much Nettie had expected. Dying unknown was all she’d hoped to spare the fledgling; she’d gladly have named her and held her hand if it slipped out of the armor in time. 

But far more data than that surged between them. The few nanobots hidden in her tattoos were all Nettie had to draw on. She couldn’t store Drey’s intel long before it would decay, unshielded and starved. A surface scan was all she dared. 

Nettie didn’t need details to recognize troop movements and transports. Ship specs. The locations of armories and refueling stations. 

Drey was painfully young. Too young to be away from the clifftop nests. Too young to know her own power or how to evade wild potshots in a stormy sky. Not much point in knowing if her priceless intelligence was a fluke, a last resort, or a clever ruse. It’d soon be a little more sludge around the algae tanks. 

Nettie patted the joint where Drey’s mostly-human hand curled under the bots. The answering twitch of her wing could have been a random spasm, but Nettie chose hope this time. An old woman’s indulgence. “Won’t hurt so much if you keep the armor to the end, but there might not be enough of it left by the time you’re gone. It’s up to you.” 

You was hardly out of her mouth when the bots began to crawl up Nettie’s fingers. Drey’s choice was made, and it wasn’t to buy herself a second longer. 

Nettie could have lost herself in mourning a fledgling who’d have grown to be the best of them, but she’d known too much of weeping not to look to the living first. 

The armor transition phase lagged and stammered. She had time enough to carry what was left of Drey to the incinerator. Nettie had to trust that no one in the house was awake to see their grandmother disposing of a body and glowing like a signal flare. Her tattoos burned wherever they met the newest burst of nanobots, magnesium bright against the night and not much dimmed by a jumpsuit and boots. 

The process nearly stalled entirely when the armor reached the imperfect ink she’d added herself. A condor chick hatched a bit too early, slow in the air, a liability to her sisters. A crash of her own, armor that devoured itself rather than let her die, hiding its remnants in the coils of her tattoos. Years of limping among moonbound algae farmers kind enough to take her in, kinder still to forget she’d ever been other than one of them despite a few peculiarities of her anatomy. A son and two daughters. Seven assorted grandchildren. A farming tunnel too close to a hydroelectric plant and cheaper for it. 

Nettie’s new armor haltingly folded her stories into itself, speeding as it grew, and it wrote Troubling Drey back on her skin. With nanobot reinforcements, her ink would just hold both their stories. She wasn’t entirely Netwreck anymore, a welcome side effect of traumatic transfer. The girl who shouldn’t have been in the sky that night would be returned to her sisters in all the ways that mattered, her more mundane remains fading to ash in the farm’s fertilizer plant. Condors flew light.

Nettie rolled her shoulders experimentally. Sinews and tendons that had rusted tight with age were loose now. Pain was all over for as long as she’d last. There was only so much of her left to give. Her armor slicked into place over the silver of her hair and the age spots on her hands. It promised to get her as far as Drey’s nest. They’d read the data there, Drey’s intelligence and Drey’s too-short story and Netwreck’s, entirely too long. 

They wouldn’t be overrun when the time came. 

And they’d read of a wingless granddaughter with a condor’s heart, one who knew how to operate the clandestine communications that kept resistance alive in tunnel farms and factory hives. Escape routes under a dam that led deep into the moon. How to hide counteragents to biochemical weapons in among algae tanks. Sisterhood that reached deep into the stone as easily as the stars. 

The half-repaired hole in the greenhouse roof was just wide enough. Netwreck Shoal spared one last look for the house, spread her wings, and flew home.


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Burning Monkfish

Sunday, July 5th, 2020

by Sage Kalmus

The crazy monkfish really went and did it. Not even he thought he would, but the proof is everywhere: the layers of gauze cocooning whatever he’s got left of a body; the trancelike pick-POCK pick-POCK of the machine breathing on his behalf; the tubes and wires protruding from every part of him like his viscera seeking mad escape; the pain, piercing the dense fog of sedation like white lightning; and then, of course, there’s his absolute incapacity to move. All proof that not only had he really gone and done it, but he had failed.

“Oh Thelonious,” the monkfish hears, though whether from inside the room or his head he’s unsure. In any case it’s right. It hurts too much to be himself right now. Better to just be the monkfish.

“Drew?” comes the voice comes again. This time in the room for sure. “Is that really you in there?”

And the monkfish thinks, Good question. How did they identify him anyway? Who could tell what anything was in all that smoke and flame? That couldn’t be a person in there. Certainly not little Andy Ballard. 

His crusted fishlike eye, the one not sealed shut, seeks the voice’s source, settling instead on a television hanging in a corner, angled down at him. And there it is: Times Square—which he honestly never expected to see again (nor anywhere else for that matter.) And there he is—or at least one would have to assume—no more than a flailing column of orange flare billowing black smoke across the sidewalk. COLLEGE STUDENT SETS SELF ON FIRE, the caption reads. Of course they wouldn’t use the proper term; not enough viewers know what “self-immolate” means.

It doesn’t bother the monkfish, watching it—and watching it over and again in replay. More than anything he’s shocked the doctors would even allow a patient’s t.v. to be on in circumstances like these. Did they let crash victims relive their trauma in endless loop on the cable news while they lay there helpless? Besides, he had expected all this coverage. Hoped for it, even. He just hadn’t expected to be around to see it.

“Well, welcome back you stupid bastard,” the voice mutters, closer now. And with an effort that ignites a whole new conflagration in his skull the monkfish swivels his head the slightest bit to the side—all he can muster and all too much—to set blurred sights on a silhouette that slowly sprouts features like night sprouts trees: a broken nose that never healed right, Vulcan ears too big for the head they flank, a permanent dusting of shadow over chin and cheeks and what’s visible of scalp beneath the brimless woven white cap with royal blue stripes resting atop it all like a halo. Only it’s no silhouette, the monkfish realizes in the next machine-assisted breath, and he tries to form his attending angel’s name but feels only the surviving nerves in his lips quiver, while what’s left of his tongue lays slack. 

“It’s me, man. Yusef,” his visitor says, sparing him the effort. “You recognize me, don’t you?” Leaning in over the monkfish he fusses with his kufi cap, finger brushing the blue stripe like it has texture. With great pains the monkfish slowly lowers his lone exposed eyelid, then tremblingly reopens it.

Yusef gives a small jerk of realization. “Wait, that was a blink, right? You blinked?”

The monkfish repeats the feat, this time with greater effort.

Yusef exhales loudly, stepping back and taking several deep breaths. “Oh thank God.” Then he chuckles, as though despite himself. “I’m sorry. It’s just…one blink for Yes, two for No. It’s all so Star Trek, you know?”

The monkfish lets the first hint of a laugh escape, fully despite himself, and a spasm of pain stills and silences him.

Yusef pulls a chair up close to the monkfish’s sarcophagus and sits. “So do you know where you are? Why you’re here? Do you remember…anything?”

No, thinks the monkfish. He remembers everything. Sitting down in the middle of Times Square. Pulling the gas can from his backpack and pouring it out over himself. Lighting a Bic. The flames and smoke subsuming him—reaching in through every pore, tearing through his clothes and skin like they aren’t even there…and then they aren’t. He blinks once again.

Yusef winces, hugging himself tight, and takes in a quavering breath. “Are you in a lot of pain?”

The monkfish slowly blinks once again…and after a pause, a second time. No point in them both feeling any worse than they did already.

Truth is his skin even feels like burnt fish: dry, shriveled, and scaly. Truth is the pain is the cruelest trick of this whole situation, thinks the monkfish. Long before Drew Ballard ever wondered if he’d have the courage of his convictions, he wondered what it would be like to burn alive. What he’s found is when you’re on fire, pain vanishes the instant it appears, as though in one moment the nerves fire on all cylinders and burn out entirely, like a surge through a breaker: the pain and relief almost canceling each other out, leaving only sensation. Whatever asphyxiation and shock don’t block out is fear, not pain. It’s panic, though when you’re ready for it, resigned to it, it isn’t so great. In any case, a dead nerve feels no pain; it’s when the fried fibers start stitching themselves back together, when a nerve is healing, that’s torture.

“Well, at least you didn’t immolate your brain,” says Yusef with his typical wry smile, disarming as ever, damn him. (Put that with his vow of celibacy and he had all the girls in the palm of his hand.) The monkfish blinks once, then shifts his gaze to the window, peering out at the visible stripe of city beneath the curtain, grotesque and distant, making the pale, sterile room feel all the more like some anemic limbo.

Following his gaze, Yusef says, “Yeah, it’s the next day, by the way,” adding with an ominous wiggle of the fingers, “The day after,” and caps it with a self-conscious snort. “In case you’re wondering.”

The monkfish hadn’t been, though now that Yusef mentions it, the passage of time does bear some measure of interest. It’s a new day, when he’d been sure all of them were behind him.

“You’ve been in surgery all night,” Yusef continues. “You only came out of critical this morning, which is also when they finally identified you…or I identified you, is more like it.” He stands up and starts pacing the narrow moat between the monkfish and the life support equipment surrounding him, keeping him tethered here. “Do you know what it’s like to tell the police you think you know the guy who just burned himself alive in Times Square? They tell you to bring down one of his personal items, like his comb or toothbrush. You ever collect a DNA sample for someone to identify your friend? Something tells me not.”

And the monkfish thinks, So that’s how they did it.

“You realize the entire ride over I was convinced that by the time I got here I’d be identifying a dead man?”

Not far off, thinks the monkfish. Why isn’t he dead? Not enough gas is his first answer. Damn do-gooders, his second. That’s the part the news reports keep focusing on now: all the Good Samaritans rushing to his aid, the hordes converging to smother the blaze with their coats, dial 9-1-1, clear a path for the rescuers—the anchors at the studio intermittently thanking the “Citizen Reporters” at home who sent in footage of the incident shot with their phones. Now those folks had the right idea, thinks the monkfish. They should’ve let him burn.  

“Well, I know it seems bad now, but you hang in there, man. You’ll pull through this. The doctors say they’ve done all they can now. From here on out it’s all up to you, you know. At this point, the power to beat this is all within you.”

He hadn’t, but that explains why he’s still here, swimming in the in-between: to make a decision. One he could’ve sworn he’d made already. 

“You just have to want it bad enough.” Just then the monkfish feels a strange pressure against his shoulder, sending a searing pain radiating in every direction throughout him. He trembles and Yusef withdraws like from an open flame. “Sorry.” He backs up, glances to the door. “Well, your family’s on their way. They should be here in a few hou–”

The monkfish flounders out two blinks. 

“Excuse me?”

Two. Blinks.

No? What do you mean, no? You think you can pull a stunt like this and they’re not going to come running?”

But they can’t! thinks the monkfish. They can’t come here, they have lives. Blink blink. They can’t see him like this. He can’t see them like this. Blink blink. What are they thinking? Mom can’t get off work, Ty’s got practice, and their dad would have to fly in from wherever the hell he is right now. Blink blink. Besides they can’t even stand to be in the same room together! How do they all expect to cram in here around him? Blink blink. It’s not supposed to be like this. This is all wrong. Blink blink. There’s no reason for it. Nothing to come of it. Blink blink. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep back, everybody keep back til they get this fire extinguished! Blinkblinkblinkblinkblinkblinkblink…

An alarm wails and the door is flung open and a blizzard of people in scrubs rush in and Yusef reels, receding behind them, as the monkfish flops and flails on his slab, as unsure as anyone whether it’s life he’s fighting for or its opposite.


The monkfish is greeted by three visitors.

The first is a strange spindly woman leaning over him with clasped hands and a sympathetic frown. She says she’s a grief counselor and wants him to know that what he’s going through is normal. She says death isn’t the only kind of loss we grieve. She thinks the monkfish is just another burn survivor. She says the symptoms of grief are: disbelief, sadness, sorrow, fear, vulnerability, anger, rage, guilt, impaired concentration, diminished self-concern, search for meaning, social withdrawal, sleep or appetite disturbance, decreased motivation, and spiritual confusion. By that reasoning, thinks the monkfish, Drew Ballard’s been grieving his whole life; but for what? The counselor leaves behind some literature.

His second visitor is a nurse there to change his dressings. She cleanses his burns with antiseptics, then scrapes off dead skin cells, old ointment residue, and a rancid pinkish pus with some archaic cheese grater device. It’s the most pain he’s ever felt; burning alive didn’t come close. She tells him someone will be coming in to do this every 6 hours.

His third visitor is a cop, staring down at him accusingly. He has some questions he’d like to ask.

Did someone put him up to this?

Did he have accomplices?

Any terrorist affiliations?

And for the first time the monkfish wonders if he could be in trouble for this. And the cop, as though reading the expression beneath the bandages, says he’s just gathering information…for now.


“I remember the first time I first saw that guy,” the monkfish hears beside him, and he opens his eyes—the covered and the bare—blinking once…twice. Three times. How long was he out? He looks to the window to see the dark sky edging through the curtain like so much smoke and ash.

“Day one of college and I open the door to my freshman dorm to find him–” Yusef is saying from the chair at the monkfish’s bedside, his gaze fixed on the t.v. where filling the screen is Drew Ballard—or ANDREW BALLARD JR., to go by the caption. His high school yearbook photo. Gold-flecked curls, piercing glare, cocksure grin. A young god.

A stranger.

“You,” Yusef continues, a bit defiant, senses the monkfish, “with your boxes stacked around you, practically to the ceiling. Wearing that same letterman jacket, despite how they kept it a furnace in those dorms. For a while I think you even slept in the blessed thing. And there I am with my one suitcase. You asked where I was from and when I said Jersey City I thought I saw your brain short-circuit.”

The monkfish remembers, the flush of embarrassment turning the heat up even higher inside his cocoon. How many photos like that had he seen before on the t.v. news in his lifetime? Did he ever think about the people behind those snapshots, even once? Were they any more real to him than the characters in the series’ he followed? How real was that kid on the screen now? The one with the perfect pearly whites and unblemished skin. How real had he ever been?

“And now look at you,” Yusef adds, as though feigning playfulness, though coming off only bitter.  

In the ensuing silence the monkfish believes he can hear the beeping of all the EKGs in all the rooms on his hall and the floors above and below. And he notices how they all seem to be communicating, as though seeking a consensus but never quite reaching it. 

“They didn’t find a note,” Yusef eventually continues. “What, did you leave it in your pocket?” He allows himself a half-hearted chuckle for that. “What kind of protest is that anyway? People don’t even know what you’re protesting.”

This shocks the monkfish almost more than the fact of his survival, especially coming from Yusef. Of all people. Why, in Yusef’s mother’s own native country women light themselves up through to this day in order to escape domestic abuse. While in India over the years thousands of young folks have been doing it to protest the class system. Across Eastern Europe people have been doing it to protest political oppression. While the “original” burning monk, and all those throughout China and Tibet who came after, have been doing it to protest religious oppression. Why does it have to be one thing, the monkfish wonders. How much can one body endure?

“The cops even asked me if you’re Buddhist,” Yusef says with a snort. “Don’t worry. I told them you’re about as spiritual as a peanut.”

The monkfish spasms with the effort to squelch another laugh.

“Of course as far as I’m concerned it’s all that damn poster’s fault.” Yusef’s face bears that same muddled distress the monkfish remembers from that day he stood there in the open doorway to their room gaping, not unlike that first time, at what his unlikely pairing from the Office of Housing was thrusting upon him now. A poster Drew was in the midst of tacking onto the wall over his bed—which meant directly across from Yusef’s—that showed a man in saffron robes sitting crosslegged in the center of an urban intersection with a moat of flames enveloping him around the waist, more flames shooting from him in sheets into the wind. “What is that?” Yusef had asked with disgust. 

“What, were you asleep this morning in Poli-Sci?” Drew shot over his shoulder. “It’s the Burning Monk.”

The class had been discussing citizen action, namely how a single individual could make a difference in this world. To help spur the conversation the professor had pulled up this image, explaining the Pulitzer prize winning photo was taken in 1963 in downtown Saigon of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolating in protest of persecution by the Chinese government. The professor had meant for it both to demonstrate how far one person could go to make a statement without hurting anyone but themselves (or at least ostensibly, as the subsequent student debate revealed) and to raise the question of whether even such extreme and terminal action was effective in producing any proactive results whatsoever.

“I know what it is,” said Yusef, grimacing. “What I want to know is what it’s doing in our room.” Then with a furtive glance up and down the hall, he stepped into the room and shut the door behind him, lowering his voice to add, “Please take it down. I don’t want to look at that every morning and night.”

“You mean you don’t like it?”

“It’s a man burning alive! What’s to like?”

At that, Drew paused to lean back and stare at the poster, squinting as though to check that he’d hung it straight, before replying, “You know, the first time I saw this was in high school. My friend Jason was a big metalhead and when he brought home the first Rage Against the Machine album the day it came out this was the cover art.” Stepping back off the bed without breaking his gaze he continued, “How do they put it? If I’ve looked at this picture once I must’ve looked at it a thousand times? That’s a fact. Yet in all that time I never really noticed it, you know? I mean, I’m not blind or stupid. It’s not like I couldn’t see it showed a man burning. I just thought it was sick, which was cool then. Beyond that I never gave it much thought.”

“So why now? What changed?”

Finally Drew’s gaze diverted from the poster to Yusef, across the room gawking at him. Drew returned the look, wanting to say, Hello? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Instead all he said was, “Forget it. The poster stays.”

“Even your idol left a note,” Yusef voice accuses from the monkfish’s bedside.

The Letter of Heart’s Blood, thinks the monkfish. That’s what Duc’s fellow monks called it, because after they cremated what was left of his body his heart wouldn’t burn. Drew Ballard’s heart had been first to burn, long before striking the match. So if any flames actually reached it, they would no doubt have found it already charred beyond any further burning. 

“You know why?” Yusef rails on. “Because he gave a damn about the people he left behind!”

And the monkfish thinks, How could he say that? Did Yusef really think he would’ve gone to all that trouble if he didn’t care?

“You realize they’re all calling you crazy.”

And this calls the monkfish’s mind the Indian man who self-immolated to protest the screening of a movie starring an objectionable actor. And the middle-aged Swedish actor—with Hitchcock in his credits, no less—who did it to protest taxes. The Bulgarian man who did it to protest the broadcast of Turkish news on his national t.v.. The German teacher who did it to protest nuclear policy. The young gay Iranian refugee who did it after the U.K. rejected his claim for asylum. The Chinese family who did it on the roof of their home the day of its scheduled demolition. And the monkfish wonders if crazy isn’t cause but effect. Not disease but symptom. 

“It’s the only way people can explain to themselves why someone like you would do this.”

Someone like him, thinks the monkfish. That’s precisely why someone like him had to do it.

Around campus his peers marked him a zealot, everyone calling him the Monkfish. And later, when his rabid grip on this nebulous proxy crusade refused to slacken, someone or other expanded it to Thelonious Monkfish, fancying him or herself witty. (It got to where some students—and one teacher, even—believed it to be his real name.) Like any of those brainiacs even understood their own reference, figuring it was probably just some random actor in some obscure movie. Never mind Drew’s only exposure to the jazz musician was through his father. What difference did it make now anyway? Did musician Monk even know about the burning monk? They shared the same era, but so do a lot of folks. And more importantly, why was the monkfish even bothering with this now? 

A few weeks after Drew put up his contentious poster, several of Yusef’s friends tore it down in a rage while Drew was out, and he came home to find it ripped to shreds all over his bed. Yusef, feeling responsible—despite wishing he’d had the nerve to tear it down himself—replaced it. As Drew was tacking up the new burning monk in its predecessor’s place, Yusef grumbled, “I still don’t see what the big deal is. Why you care about it so much.”

“And I can’t fathom why you don’t. Why no one seems to.”

“What makes you think no one else besides you cares about injustice? Because everyone’s not running around pouring gas on their heads and lighting a match?”

“It would make a lot more sense than what everyone is doing.”

“Which is?”


“And this is your alternative?” Yusef stabbed a finger at the restored horror scene on their wall. “What does this accomplish? Will you tell me that? What have those wasted deaths ever accomplished?”

Drew had no answer in the moment and only stewed, feeling misunderstood. But later that winter they both got their answer—or the seeds of it—when a Tunisian fruit merchant named Mohamed Bouazizi, fed up with the harassment and humiliation heaped on him by local officials, set himself ablaze in a public square, which several months later, and well into the current spring semester at Columbia, ignited a revolution!

If he could speak right now, the monkfish would tell his roommate (if the term even still applied to them) of the 17th century sect of Russian Christians called the Old Believers who practiced fire baptism to purify the soul from worldly sins. He’d say Drew Ballard simply became the fire that had been consuming him for so long that by the time he even became aware of it the blaze had razed him from the inside out and he had no choice left but to snuff it out. 

“Were you trying to kill yourself?” Yusef asks reeling beside him. “That’s what gets me the most about this. That in all the months I lived with you I never once dreamed you actually wanted to die.”

That’s where he has it all wrong, thinks the monkfish. Drew Ballard didn’t want to die. He just didn’t want to live in a world like this more.

“Do you still?”

And there’s the real question, isn’t it? thinks the monkfish. How would surviving this change the meaning of what he’s done? Hasn’t it already?

In the poster the strong backwind leaves half  the Burning Monk’s face exposed, half his chest, one arm, making him seem almost untouched. Pure. His body finally at rest as it receives its ultimate release. Deliverance. It seems so out of place, his sublime serenity as he submits to the elemental forces consuming him. Of course, deliverance is absolute. It’s final or it doesn’t count. 

“Well, now you get the chance to set everyone straight.” says Yusef. “You can’t tell me no one will listen to you now.”

The monkfish stares unblinking into Yusef’s hopeful expression, which drops before his fisheye in response. Yusef straightens and steps to the window. “Well, anyway, your family should be here any minute. Your mom and Ty texted from the bridge and said your dad just landed, so…” He turns with hesitation back toward the monkfish, as though reluctant to see the reaction. 

The monkfish blinks twice.

“That’s it!” Yusef pushes back from the window ledge and strides to the center of the room where he whirls in circles, staggering, and gesticulates wildly at the man-sized lump on the mattress. “I’ve had it with you! You’re a selfish prick, you know that? And I’d throttle you myself if you weren’t so helpless and pathetic right now.” The monkfish stares back unblinking at Yusef’s pupils bulging and temples pulsing. “I’m sorry but it’s true. I didn’t ask to be here, none of us did. You did this. You put this on us. And what have you got to show for it, huh?” The veins on Yusef’s neck tense like marine ropes and he seems about to cry. “What were you thinking?!” Then in afterthought his hands shoot up between them. “Actually, scratch that. I’m glad you can’t speak right now, because I don’t even want to hear it. You don’t get it. You…you…” He’s scratching so hard beneath his kufi cap now he seems sure to draw blood. “You used me!”

The monkfish blinks twice. 

“Don’t give me that crap! You made me complicit in this, without my knowledge or consent.”

Blink blink.

“You realize they’re going to find a way to hold me accountable for this, don’t you?”

Blink blink.

“Oh yeah? You saw that cop. He’s still out there. Has been since they rolled you in—he or one of his chums. Each took his turn grilling me. You can see them frothing at the mouth to nail themselves a bona fide domestic terrorist.”

Blink blink.

“Bullshit. They’re out there right now trying decide if I radicalized you.”

Blink blink.

“And how do you think my parents’ accents are going to play on American t.v.? Did you ever think about that? About the blowback on them in all this? No, of course you didn’t!” Yusef strides up to the monkfish’s bedside and leans in close over the rail, getting right in the monkfish’s face “You can do anything you want with your life, you understand? Hell, even go ahead and end it for all I care. Just don’t kid yourself you’re not hurting anyone.”

And with that Yusef stands aright and storms out. 

At last the monkfish lets his heavy eyelid succumb to its own weight—lowering as though to blink, then laying there at rest.


The monkfish stirs to the sound of voices surrounding him, familiar voices. Saying things like, “Oh my God, my baby!” and, “Is it something we did? Where did we go wrong?”

The monkfish keeps his fisheye shut, looking out instead from behind closed lids.

“Will you shut that godforsaken idiot box off, for Christ’s sake! It’s half the friggin’ t.v.’s fault we’re in this mess. All those news shows reporting on ten tragedies for every ten seconds of good news,” his father’s voice shouts from somewhere across a room that seems shrunken.

“What about the Internet?” his mother’s voice barks back from directly over the monkfish, clearly leaning over his slab, as though to shelter him. “All those websites the kids visit? I swear, we’re putting one of those parental blocks on our computers as soon as we get home. We’re not making the same mistake with Tyler, I promise you that.”

“And what are supposed to tell Ty about this anyway, speaking of? He’s out there right now in the waiting room sobbing on some nurse’s shoulder about he doesn’t know what. He just wants to come in here and see his big brother.”

“Absolutely not! Are you insane? Not like this. We’ll just tell him Andrew is sick. It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“Well, I sure wouldn’t call this healthy and normal. Certainly not your typical post-adolescent rebellion.”

“Clearly Andrew needs some serious help. And it’s up to us to make sure that’s just what he gets.”

“Of course we are,” his father says as though accused of something. “You hear that, buddy? We’re going to take good care of you.”

“Do you think he can hear us?”

“It’s worth a try. Andrew, buddy?” His father’s voice comes from over him now too, clearly each parent taking opposite sides and leaning in over him. 


“It’s mommy and daddy.”

“We’re here now.”

“Everything’s going to be okay.”

And the monkfish wonders: What does that even mean—Okay? What does “okay” look like exactly? Like the two of them? Like the world they live in? Why would he want that now, all of a sudden? But it wouldn’t look like that, anyway. Not for him.  Did they realize what they were even asking of him? What sort of life could he expect?

Weeks more in critical care, morphine-addled, shitting in a bag through a hole in his side. Then months, or years, of alternating skin grafts and physical therapy, with all its concomitant infections, rejections, and a burgeoning addiction to pain meds. Eventually he’d get a new throat, harvested from a cadaver: a new, dead man’s voice in some twisted irony. And how long would he stay bedridden, then in a wheelchair, then on crutches. And that’s if he was lucky. Whether he’d ever walk or talk or eat like a normal person again was anyone’s guess. He’d be housebound. Then again, where would he go?

He’d be naked, always. And hideous. Everywhere he’d be the sideshow, a symbol of what not to do: “Kids don’t try this at home—or anywhere. Ever!” A true-life urban legend whispered to the uninitiated every time he rounded the curve. They’d laugh at him because he failed. He’d never escape that blunder, not in private or public. Even those who never heard of him would see the scars and wonder. Innocently some would ask, and their heartfelt sympathy would pry the truth from him.

His parents and Yusef were right: eventually the medical professionals would have to write off the episode as a psychotic break—temporary or permanent depending on how he played it. Throw in a PTSD diagnosis. A pile of scrips for head meds. Regular therapy. Worse, they might actually identify some real physical anomaly in his brain to pin this on. Recommend surgery. And all for what? 

So that once he’s deemed “Better” he can assimilate back into the same society he so violently declaimed? If he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a padded cell he’d fall in step. And this time he’d have to pull it off even more convincingly than he’d faked it the first time. 

It’s a waste of time, thinks the monkfish, right as the nurse walks in to change his dressings. His family leaves them to it.

Withdrawing deep into the in-between as the nurse proceeds with her scheduled torture of his living remains, the monkfish makes his decision. They don’t need a note and they don’t need him. They found the poster and in time they’ll find every other scrap of evidence they’ll stitch into a palatable theory. The different groups and organizations will comfort themselves with the facts however the facts suit them best. By turns he’ll be Activist, Criminal, Martyr, Freak, Hero, Loser, Artist…Symbol for your Cause: Fill-in-the-Cause. In the end, the burning monkfish will be whatever anyone needs him to be.

And then, like all his predecessors, they’ll forget about him.

Suddenly Yusef bursts through the door, red-faced, dripping tears and sweat, cap on crooked, and ignoring the nurse’s protests, rushes to the stilled t.v., flips it back on, stands back and stabs an outstretched finger at the screen. “Do you see this?”

On t.v. a man is on fire. 

Sitting crosslegged in a public square. In Baltimore. 

It’s not the monkfish. It’s a different monkfish.

Soshigateli! flashes into the monkfish’s mind, the name of the group who, two centuries after the last of the Old Believers was fire baptized, revived the practice. Copycats.

“Do you see?!” Yusef shouts, manic.

And the monkfish’s fisheye widens, and he thinks of the babyfaced Prague student whose self-immolation in protest of Communism not only sparked a rash of copycats over the ensuing years, but 35 years later inspired 6 more young Czechs to reproduce the act in the same location in homage. He thinks of the Lithuanian high school student whose act inspired 13 copycats and the largest post-war riots in the USSR. He thinks of how Mohamed Bouazizi’s act provoked 107 copycats among his own countrymen alone and dozens more in neighboring countries before catalyzing the famed revolution. He thinks of the Indian college student whose blazing declamation against inequality inspired 150 copycats, despite his own survival!

“Now do you see what you’ve done?”

And the monkfish doesn’t yet, but it may be starting to come clearer. Ending one’s life, he realizes, may be the ultimate act of hopelessness, yet what is ending it in this way if not one last desperate grasp at hope? Hope that maybe it will change the people who see it and maybe that will be enough to spur some change in the world. Isn’t that the paradox of the burning monk and all the burning monkfish who followed in his wake: that they’re beacons of hopelessness born out of hope? Or might it be the other way around?

Drew Ballard blinks once and lets his eyelid rest. He’s going to need his strength.

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Blonde Noir

Sunday, June 28th, 2020

by DC Diamondopolous

Kit Covington sat on the sofa in her Pacific Palisades mansion with a cigarette lodged in the side of her mouth. A cloud of smoke floated around her head. She adjusted the oxygen tube in her nose, then brushed ash from her dog Muffin’s champagne-colored curls. The miniature poodle dozing in Kit’s lap startled when the camera crew from The Great Morning Talk Show banged equipment into Kit’s antique furniture. 

“Watch it! You scratch anything, you’ll pay for the restoration.” Since her left lung had been removed, Kit’s husky voice had a rattle that lingered between words chaining them together like loose ball bearings.

“Sorry,” the stocky, tattooed sound woman said. 

Kit wondered if the all-female crew was a set-up—some kind of knife-twisting in the gut. She’d been anxious about the interview and now regretted it.

Her son, Robin, urged her to confront the nonsense. The 1950s blonde bombshell became notorious because of some damn youtube video a pop singer made by superimposing Kit’s dance sequence from the 1956 movie, I Was a Teenage SheWolf From Mars, while he sang to her. It went viral. Paramount capitalized on it with a box set of her films. The Screen Actors Guild sent her checks she hadn’t seen in sixty years. 

Kit would have laughed at the male juvenile obsession with her big breasts, platinum blonde hair, and erotic gyrations in her bullet bra and tight sequined space suit. But it happened at the time actresses came forward and named producers, directors, and actors who raped and assaulted them. The video ignited a firestorm of criticism from young women, who blamed her for their being sexualized. She became the poster girl, Adam’s Eve, the anti-feminist, the target for all the ills cast upon womanhood—making her name Kit into a verb synonymous with “fucks for favors.” 

What a load of shit! 

Kit had had enough after months of headlines, CNN pestering her old studio for her telephone number, and the tabloids offering money to anyone who had a recent picture of her. 

Centerfolds, headshots, movie-posters, her sexy blonde images from the 50s were everywhere.

She chose The Great Morning Talk Show because Bridget Lundgren, the lawyer turned TV host, defended her on the show.

Muffin jumped from Kit’s lap and wolfed a piece of jelly donut the beefy, spiked- haired, lighting woman had dropped. 

“This isn’t a barn! Use a napkin. That’s a three-hundred-year-old Persian rug,” Kit said. 

“Sorry, Miss Covington.” 

Kit watched Lundgren scrutinize the pictures on the wall. She was a real fashion plate in a navy pantsuit, with her short blonde hair tucked behind her ears. Kit tensed when the woman took a photograph from her carnival days off the wall and examined it, revealing a yellow nicotine outline. How dare she!

“Is this from the Gerling Carnival?” Lundgren asked.

“Could be,” Kit said surprised that Lundgren knew about her carny days. 

Lundgren replaced it and moved to the photo of Kit riding bareback in The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, where she performed flips until she fell from the horse and broke her ankle. 

Above the walk-in fireplace, Lundgren gazed at the huge painting of Kit by Willem deKooning. It was Kit’s favorite, by the artist who inspired her to take up painting. Completed in 1958 when she was twenty-five, the painting recalled the memory of sitting for hours, her back arched, her tits pointing to the North Star, pouty full lips, a halo of platinum blonde hair, and the moist come-hither look women still use to lure men into the bedroom. 

“This is one of the few deKoonings I’ve seen that isn’t an abstract,” Lundgren said.

“He did others.”

“My favorite was the Woman series. I love how he broke rules.”

Kit puffed on her cigarette and flicked ash into a large serving dish sitting next to her. She wondered how much of the art world Lundgren knew. In person, Kit judged her as a cool and calculating woman, the way she inspected the pictures as if they hid the da Vinci code. Why not ask how all the hullabaloo affected her, how it made her irritable, critical, bitchy. She wondered if Lundgren had gone so far as to play nice-nice on TV—knowing Kit would be watching.

Outside the sliding screen door, she saw Robin watering the rose bushes. Since the operation, he’d been pestering her to stop smoking. She cut back from a four packs a day, to two and a half. What the hell did he want? She’d been smoking since she was ten.  When he tried to scare her with images on his phone of how the cancer could spread to the liver and kidneys, she grabbed the phone and threw it at him. She made him swear that when she died, he’d put her in a box, stick a cigarette in her mouth—preferably lit—and prod a lighter in her right hand.

“I can go without oxygen for four minutes,” Kit said.  “So break. I don’t want these damn tubes on camera. I’ll need a cigarette—.”

“Your son told us.” 

Miffed by Lundgren’s rudeness, Kit said, “When do we start?”

“In five minutes. Do you need to use the restroom?”

“My legs are cramping.” Kit struggled to rise, shooing Lundgren away when she tried to help. She stood and rolled the oxygen tank she called Sherman across the living room floor while pulling a pack of Winstons and a lighter from the pocket of her long flowing gypsy skirt. 

“Aren’t you afraid of the tank exploding?” the sound woman asked as Kit wobbled by.

“No, I’m not. If I could walk a tightrope while on my period, I can roll a damn dolly while smoking a ciggie.” 

The girl raised her eyebrows and turned away.

Robin saw her and slid open the screen. 

“I don’t want to do this,” Kit said. “That woman’s going to ambush me.”

“C’mon mom, you liked her.”

“Not anymore. She snapped at me, ‘Your son told us,’” she mimicked. 

Kit pushed past Robin and stood above her tiered English garden. Even with her fading sense of smell, she caught fragrances of her lemon and peach trees. Below the garden was a view overlooking Highway 1, Malibu, and the Pacific Ocean. She had bought the house in the fifties while pregnant with Robin and married his father Daniel soon after.

The April morning glistened as Catalina Island sat like a treasured cast-off from the mainland. Cast-off. When Kit hit her late twenties, it was over. No producer wanted to hire an old hag at thirty. Her agent got her jobs on TV, as a panel member on To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret, and her big whoop-de-doo, the center box on Hollywood Squares. In the 1970s, her agent dropped her. 

“You signed a contract, Mom. Let people hear your story.” He peered into the living room. “They’re ready for your close-up.”

Kit rolled her eyes. Robin was always quoting from Sunset Blvd., The Wizard of Oz, or All About Eve. On occasion he’d dress in drag and perform dance numbers from Cabaret, A Chorus Line, and musicals she never heard of. Her boy knew how to make her laugh. 

Kit counted five strangers in her house, eating, drinking coffee, moving her furniture, and using her bathroom. Well, at least they were women and wouldn’t be pissing on the floor. 

“We’re ready, Miss Covington,” the sound woman yelled.

“C’mon, Mom. It’ll be fun.”

“I look like an old beatnik.”

“You arean old beatnik.”

Kit’s chuckle rumbled like a truck bouncing over potholes. She smoothed her long white hair with her ciggie hand. She hadn’t worn lipstick or make-up in years. She lived in sandals and, before the operation, went barefoot. 

Robin waited for Kit to enter, then slid the door behind him. Kit rolled Sherman to the couch and settled in. Muffin jumped in her lap and Jezebel the cat slinked around the sofa and nestled beside Kit.

“We’ll open with the video,” Lundgren said. “then cutaway for the interview.”

“Why show that again?”

“It’s the reason for the interview, Miss Covington.”

How sucky, Kit thought. She wasn’t ashamed. She just didn’t like having to defend herself. 

“Everyone in the world has seen it.”

“It’s a lead in,” Lundgren said.

Kit scowled at Robin. He came over and straightened the string of turquoise and silver beads that dangled from her neck.

“Quit fussing.”

“Come out, come out, wherever you are and meet the young lady, who fell from a star,” Robin whispered.

“Glinda the Good Witch,” Kit mumbled.

Robin winked at her. 

“Ready when you are, Bridget,” the camerawoman said.

“Good morning. Today, we have a very special guest. Kit Covington. In case you’ve been living under a rock the last several months,” Lundgren smiled, “we’re going to play the video that’s caused a sensation. Here’s the Grammy-winning pop star, Walker, singing from the hit video, “You’re My Dream Girl in the Night” along with Kit Covington from her movie, I Was a Teenage SheWolf from Mars.

The video played on a small monitor. Kit watched herself from the 1956 horror movie, dancing, spinning, cleavage bouncing, her generous ass stretching the satin on her sequined spacesuit. It was hard to imagine her wrinkled and shriveled body once had so much oomph and had been so sexy. 

She took off the tube and laid it beside her.

The camerawoman pointed her finger, and Lundgren began.

“We’re sitting in the home of Kit Covington, a movie actress known as the Queen of the Bs from the 1950s, who has become infamous for being the poster-girl for the sexualization of generations of women.” 

“That’s a load of shit!” Kit said. “Why blame me? Women have always used their bodies to get what they want. As if women didn’t fuck before 1956.”

Lundgren’s jaw dropped. Seconds went by before she made the throat-slash sign with her hand.

Kit coughed and hacked. Muffin jumped on the floor. Jezebel leaped from the sofa and ran around the couch. Kit took the tube and fastened the nasal cannula inside her nostrils, then lighted up a Winston. She inhaled and glanced at the stunned crew and Lundgren. Robin, with his eyes popping and mouth opened, reminded her of Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

“You can’t swear on TV,” Lundgren said. 

Kit glanced at her, looked away, and flicked ash into the dish. It was a knee-jerk reaction, a build-up from the last several months. Also, she wasn’t convinced Lundgren was on her side.

“You can’t go off the rails like that, Miss Covington. It won’t help you.”

“Infamous. Sexualization. Men sexualize women. Who’s head of advertising? They use sex to sell hamburgers, anything. Look at films! Who runs the networks?” 

“It’s a lead-in,” Lundgren said. 

“I’ve been assaulted and harassed like all those women. I don’t blame anyone but the shits who hurt me.” Kit blew smoke at the side of Lundgren’s face. “How dare you judge me.”

Lundgren waved away the smoke. “I’m not, Miss Covington. Not at all.” Jezebel arched her back and rubbed against Lundgren’s leg.

Kit crushed the cigarette into the plate. She narrowed her gaze at the blonde, who with her furrowed brow and the gentle way she stroked and caressed Jezebel, didn’t fool Kit. Behind Lundgren’s look of compassion was a frozen dish of ambition. 

“Would you like to try it again?” Lundgren said.

Kit caught the rapport—the way Lundgren and Robin shot glances at each other— and now her cat had turned traitor.

She took off the oxygen tube. “Muffin.” The poodle ran to her and leaped in her lap. Robin sat at the far end of the couch.

“We’re ready,” the camerawoman said.

Lundgren looked into the camera. 

“We’re here with Kit Covington. Known in the 1950s as Queen of the Bs, she has made a scandalizing comeback—.” 

“Scandalizing! That’s nothing compared to the shit I see on HBO.”

Lundgren made the throat-slash sign and stood from the sofa. 

“We need to take a break.”

“We sure as hell do.” Kit attached the oxygen tube and rose from the couch. Muffin bounded to the floor. Kit wheeled Sherman to the screen door, shooing Robin away, opened it, and went outside. 


Kit ignored him. She wheeled Sherman down the ramp while lighting a cigarette. 

She and her boy had been snookered into believing Lundgren was on her side. “Scandalizing,” she mumbled. What did Lundgren know about the life of a girl in the 1940s? Those young punks don’t know a damn thing about what life was like before they were born. 

She clamped the ciggie in the corner of her mouth and steered the wheels over the yellow bricks Robin had laid that led down to her studio. She’d shut the door, pick up her pallet and brush, and lose herself as she disappeared into her painting.

The white stucco building, with red bougainvillea blooming against the side of the wall, inspired the artist in Kit. She painted color in splashes and dashes, mix-matching paint, blending oil, watercolor, and charcoal onto the canvases. Entering her studio was the closest thing to going to church. It was a place where her creativity transported and elated her.

She mashed the cigarette into the standing ashtray outside. The galleries complained of having to clean her canvas’. To show her how the smoke diminished her work, Robin took a moist cloth and gently wiped a painting. The rag turned yellow. Without the cover of nicotine, the colors burst with vitality. It was a huge sacrifice not to smoke while she painted, but for her art, she would do anything. 

Kit went into her sanctuary, the studio overlooking her cactus garden. Rows of tall windows allowed light to stream in. And where there weren’t windows, her imagination decorated the walls. Robin had constructed built-ins for stacking paintings, nooks for brushes and paints, a worktable with drawers. Her boy built the studio exactly how she insisted. 

In the late 1980s, Robin went behind her back and entered her work in contests. Furious by Robin’s betrayal, even when she won, she wouldn’t talk to him for days. He adored being the son of a movie star, but being her art agent satisfied both his nurturing and dramatic nature. He arranged her exhibits at MoMA, the Whitney, and others, with as much flare as his once movie star mother. He made deals so her work hung in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Prado.

From the beginning she signed her work D. L. Hawkins, after Robin’s father, leaving off his last name, Sutton. He lived his forty-four years as an art form, free and spontaneous, he danced when other men walked. My God how she missed him.

Kit made a fortune from her paintings, donating millions of dollars to art institutes. Who would take her seriously if they knew the esteemed D. L. Hawkins was once a second-rate sex-kitten?

Kit shut the door against the world. It hurt having those young women wrongly judge her. She knew what women went through, especially young women. Mad at herself for being so sensitive, she hated to admit that she cared what others thought of her.

“I knocked but you didn’t answer.”

Kit turned so fast the oxygen cannula pulled at her nostrils.

The blonde talk show host stood in the doorway, holding Muffin. Lundgren wore the same expression—open mouth, wide eyes—as when Kit dropped the f-bomb. 

“Oh my God. I don’t believe it.”

“I’m not doing the interview,” Kit said. 

Lundgren gazed at the art on the walls. “Neither am I, Miss Covington.”

“Then why are you here? And why are you holding my dog?”

“I followed Muffin,” Lundgren said, releasing the poodle. “She brought me here.”

“Fink,” Kit said, glaring at the dog.

“I wanted to let you know I cancelled.” Lundgren continued to stare at the art and the unfinished oil painting on the easel. “And to say goodbye.” Lundgren shook her head. “I can’t believe it,” she said, looking at a pastel that leaned against the wall. “I’m standing in D.L. Hawkins’s studio.”

Kit hacked, “Th—This is,” she stuttered, “private.”

“I’m sorry. I swear—swear, I won’t mention a word to anyone. Are you and Hawkins an item?” she said, glancing at Muffin’s bed and water dish in the corner.

Shaking, startled by the intrusion into her secret life, Kit watched dumbfounded as Lundgren made a b-line to the easel.   

“You, you’re not supposed—.” Kit stammered.

“A merry-go-round, where the horses are riding the people.” 

Didn’t Lundgren hear her? Just barged her way into D. L.’s studio as if Kit didn’t exist. She shuffled across the wooden floor, shoving Sherman over to the easel.

Lundgren angled her head. “Animal cruelty. It’s amazing to me how Hawkins takes an idea and turns it on its head. I saw his exhibit at MoMA when I did my post-graduate work. Blew me away.”

“You know his work?”

“I majored in art. Didn’t have the talent, so I changed to law.” Lundgren leaned into the unfinished painting. “He tells a story with brush strokes. What a genius.” She looked at Kit. “I know he’s a recluse, but I’d be honored to meet him.”

It reminded Kit of when Robin told her how critics and docents praised her work at exhibits. But to have someone stand in her studio and express how her art touched them, well, it made her—happy. 

“He uses horses a lot,” Lundgren said. “My favorite is the Equine Series. You can feel the movement, hear the hooves beating against the ground.”

Kit was impressed by the woman’s knowledge, her trained eye.

“Where did you meet? In the carnival, or circus? It must have been a hard life.”

“Not as bad as home. Carnival came to town, and I ran away. Fourteen years old, a hoochie-coochie girl. It was roughest on the animals and freaks. In 1948, no jobs for women, but I survived.” Kit hadn’t talked about her life with the carny for years. But like Lundgren said, it showed up in her work, often with horses. “The circus. Then the pin-ups and movies. I survived that too. Not like the other blonde bombshells. So many died— suicides, over doses. Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car crash.” Kit felt fatigued. “Yes,” she nodded, “I survived that life, too.”

Lundgren listened, but Kit observed her inching her way toward the collage series on the worktable. 

“This is an incredible studio. The lighting. High ceilings. Skylights. Everything an artist could dream of. Makes me want to paint again.” Lundgren glanced at Muffin lapping water from her bowl and then settle into her bed. 

Kit flinched when Lundgren spotted her pink paw-patterned smock draped over the back of a chair and the unopened pack of Winstons on the work table.

Lundgren turned slowly. She didn’t look at her, just stared off. Kit experienced a shock of her own. She saw Lundgren putting it all together— amazement, then the revelation. Oh shit! What could Kit do about it? Kill her?

Lundgren tidied her short blonde hair behind her ears. 

“I need a cigarette.” Kit wheeled Sherman toward the door. “C’mon Lundgren. D. L. wouldn’t want anyone but me alone with his work,” she said, making light of a moment that changed both their lives.

Muffin ran out the door. Kit looked over her shoulder. “You coming?”

Their eyes met. Lundgren’s were filled with tears. 

“I’m tired. I need to sit down. Coming?” 

Kit and Muffin walked down the path to the cactus garden. She figured Lundgren was somewhere behind. Tears. She knew them well. But when others cried, it put her at a disadvantage, made her feel mushy. And the young woman looked so beautiful standing in her studio with the sunlight catching every nuance of understanding that passed over her face.

Kit sat on a wrought iron bench, pulled Sherman close, lighted up, and surveyed her garden. 

On a lookout, atop the Palisades, her nearest neighbor somewhere below, she really was a recluse. At eighty-five, with death a kiss away, she’d been angry for decades, for her stepfather’s abuse, Daniel’s death, even the small slights, building on top of one another making her view of life a vista of loneliness. 

Muffin whined. Kit looked up and saw Lundgren. Muffin jumped up on her hind legs begging Lundgren to pick her up. The woman crouched down, petted Muffin, and looked at Kit. 

She nodded. 

“I have two silkies, I bet she smells them.”

“It’s more than that.” Kit’s voice had the tired monotony of a flat tire. It wasn’t even noon and she needed a nap. She coughed, hacked, and spit out a glob of phlegm. “Excuse me.” Kit took out her handkerchief and wiped her mouth. “I’m not used to company,” she said and continued to smoke.

“Hey, Mom,” Robin yelled from the top of the garden path, “is everything okay?”

“Yes,” Lundgren answered for her. “Tell the crew I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

Lundgren handed Muffin to Kit and walked around the garden. Her hair was tousled by the breeze. 

Kit preferred her like this—mussed. She wondered what the woman looked like at home, in jeans and a T-shirt. Lundgren walked through the narrow aisles, inspecting the plants. 

“They’re beautiful how they bloom,” she said. “Like a miracle. I love the subtlety of the color, the shape, how the sunlight captures the unexposed side of the petals.” 

Kit remembered how Lundgren studied the photos on the wall. She was sensitive, with an artist’s eye. Maybe she wasn’t going to exploit her after all. The pretty blonde with the slender build must have put up with a lot of sexual harassment. If so, Kit doubted she’d share any of it with her. She thought of Lundgren as quiet, low-key, except when she talked about D. L. Hawkins, then she herself bloomed. 

“I understand why you had to choose a pseudonym,” Lundgren said with her back still to Kit. She turned. “I can’t imagine what you went through.” Lundgren walked over and sat next to her. “Not just your generation. My mother had me young. My father ran off and the only way she could keep me and get an education was to dance in strip clubs. She made a good living. That was the 1980s. It’s still hard.” 

The two women gazed at the garden with the Pacific as a backdrop. 

“There’s a way to make everyone forget about your video,” Lundgren said.

Kit took a deep inhalation of oxygen, closed her eyes, and savored her last moments as D. L. Hawkins. It was her little champagne-colored poodle who had pulled back the curtain and revealed her identity—Muffin, leading Lundgren down the path to her door, giving her away. 

Kit could see it now. Robin would take off her oxygen tube and dance her around the living room, overjoyed that his mom would be coming out of the closet. The thought of his endless euphoria exhausted her, but Lundgren was right. It would wipe that stupid video off the networks and change her name from a verb back to a noun.  

She stubbed out her Winston. Leaning on Lundgren, she struggled to her feet.

“I’m going to lie down. Run this by Robin. You guys work out the details. But tell him not to wake me until three. And I’ll want my martini extra dry.”

Kit shuffled along. She pulled Sherman as the wheels made clap-clap sounds over the yellow brick path, with Lundgren beside her and Muffin running ahead. 

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Meet the Finalists of the 2020 !Short Story Contest!

Thursday, June 25th, 2020

— including a portrait of each author’s favorite chair–
!a tradition!

Read the stories, here.

DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning novelette, short story, and flash fiction writer with over 200 stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. DC’s stories have appeared in: 34th Parallel, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Ball State University, Lunch Ticket, Progenitor, Blue Lake Review, and many others. DC was nominated for Best of the Net Anthology. She lives on the California central coast with her wife and animals.

Sage Kalmus is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer whose work has appeared in The Writer Magazine, Spine Magazine, Sanctuary, Whisperings Magazine, CARNIVAL Online Literary Journal and Rose Red Review. He is a freelance writer, ghostwriter and editor of tens of thousands of articles and dozens of novels, plays and screenplays. He is a writing teacher, including a course in magical realism in Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program. He is also the publisher, with his beloved spouse, of 10 LGBTQ+ literary anthologies. They live in the lovely Berkshires of western Massachusetts with their furred, finned and feathered family. 

Malda Marlys teaches science just outside Chicago and writes the sort of speculative fiction that requires too many qualifiers for the normal flow of conversation. An out-of-practice black belt, mediocre birdwatcher, and two-time ISFiC Writer’s Contest winner, she spends most of her time being bullied by disreputable housepets and adding to a monumental TBR pile.

A.L. Diaz graduated cum laude from the University of La Verne with a degree in Creative Writing. She has publications with such literary anthologies as Prism ReviewCultural Weekly, and Fiction Kitchen Berlin, and was selected as a finalist for Defenestrationism’s 2020 Flash Suit Contest.

John D. Payne grew up on the prairie, where the tornadoes and electrical storms play.  Watching the lightning flash outside his window, he imagined himself as everything from a leaf on the wind to the god of thunder. Today, he lives with his wife and family at the foot of the Organ Mountains in New Mexico, where he he focuses his weather-god powers on rustling up enough cloud cover for a little shade. 

John’s debut novel, The Crown and the Dragon, is an epic fantasy published by WordFire Press. You can find his stories on podcasts like The Overcast, magazines like StoryHack, and books like X Marks the Spot: An Anthology of Treasure and Theft. 

Stalk him on Twitter @jdp_writes. Patronize him at

Aditya Gautam is a writer from India who believes very much in the power of fiction beyond entertaining—for instance, in throwing people out of windows. Among the many things he loves in this world are roasted peanuts, the sound of rain, thick books, toy trains, and weak sunlight. 

His short stories and poems have been published in Singapore, the USA, and the UK.  A speculative short story by him was included in the Best Asian Fiction Anthology, 2018 by Kitaab, Singapore. Most recently, he has been published in the June 2020 issue of The Bombay Review. 

His debut novel, A Dream of Duplicity, will also be published sometime later this year.

Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He edited the University of Oregon’s research magazine, Inquiry; was senior managing editor at Oregon Quarterly; and served as text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.

Bryan Joe Okwesili is a chocolate loving realist, a poet and storyteller keen on telling diverse African queer stories. He writes from Anambra, Nigeria. He divides his time between reading, writing and drinking lots of water. His art have appeared on Brittle paper, Lunaris, Expound, Kalahari review, African Writers, and forthcoming elsewhere.
He is currently a student of law at the University of Calabar, Calabar.

Back to the 2020 !Short Story Contest!
Who’s responsible for this madcap affair?– Masthead
home/ Bonafides

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Last Hours of the Submission Period for 2020 !Short Story Contest!

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020

It is the 9th of June, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. Which means there are very few hours left for you Lovers of Literature to submit to our Summer short-fiction contest.

Be forewarned– this is not a subtle contest, but a contest of sudden change.

Read our very specific guidelines, here.
And be sure to meet our Judges, here.

We will accept submissions until it is no longer June 9th anywhere on Earth.

Best of luck, Lovers of Literature,
Yours, Paul-Newell Reaves,
owner, co-editor,

And no matter what, never forget the words of
poet Thomas Sayers Ellis
“Whatever you do, don’t stop”.

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Strong Traffic Heading into 2020 !Short Story Contest!

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Greetings from Defenestrationism reality.

With less than one week left to submit to our 2020 !Short Story Contest!, we have some substantial traffic numbers to brag about– including a new daily high in site-visits.

On Monday June 1st, we received 1,640 hits– 1,388 of which went to our !Short Story Contest! guidelines page.

In the past week, alone, we exceeded our average monthly rate for visits with 2,765 site-visits. Although we average between 500 and 2,500 site visits per month, months in which we hold our three annual contests generally garner far more. January of this year resulted in 8,622.

So keep surfing through, Lovers of Literature, as we publish the 2020 !Short Story Contest! across July and August.

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Dispatch from Washington, D.C.– we must make bigotry unprofitable

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020

by Paul-Newell Reaves,
owner, co-editor, co-founder,

Greetings from the Capital of a flawed and troubled nation.

No one in the current administration gives one orange hair about people in the street– those marching peacefully, those staying still, those looting opportunistically, even those incapable of movement at all.

For this reason, and at this time, protesting is a useless endeavor towards sincere, meaningful change. Undoubtedly, it is a great emotional catharsis for all involved– but that is about all.

My sister called my today. She lives on 5th st., NW. That’s eleven blocks from the Whitehouse– on 16th. Last night, Monday June 1st– the same day the city was to open from the quarantine– military grade helicopters flew past her building at rooftop level. In her words, a phalanx of armed guards marched down her two-lane street. E st. is not very wide.

There is no resisting a Black Hawk helicopter. With the shows of force this administration is willing to display, no amount of people in the streets will demonstrate anything other than their need for greater force.

The issues we have faced this year, however, reach far beyond the current administration– far beyond Nation States, and far beyond recorded history. And, for the issues of Racism, Bigotry, Rape-Culture, Hate-Culture and Sexism, there will be no vaccine. So what will we do? What can we do?

We need to vote with our dollars.

Capitalism is also larger than Nation States. We must apply this system to address our deepest flaws. The stock-market need not rebound to do so, nor the economy surge– no one need die, no one need become infected to do so. Indeed, a bust-economy will only make my following strategy more effective.

We need to make bigotry immensely unprofitable.

If profit is all that the empowered care to consider, then we must let them know how bigotry will not be stood for in the only ways they understand.

We know how to do this. Research whom you buy from– choose which stores, which corporations. The information is there– pay attention to the watchdogs, the independent media groups, the American Civil Liberties Union. As importantly, be vocal about this effort– tell your friends, your co-workers, and tell those you will not patronize why they have lost your business. We know how to do this. We need only follow through, commit, and be thorough in our pursuit of this aim.

In Sincerity, Solidarity and Peace
— Paul-Newell Reaves,
owner, co-editor,

Should you choose to submit to our Summer fiction contest, please read our Editing Tips.

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Before you submit: some editing tips

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

Importance in Editing

Have you edited enough?– probably not.

So, here are some tips, including

Substantive Content Editing

and advice from Contest Judge Glenn A. Bruce

Substantive Content Editing:
Major changes– often deletions– that make a piece of writing better.
-Is this scene necessary?– would the piece flow better without it?
-How realistic is this bit of dialogue, or that character’s decision?
-If this entire character were deleted, would that strengthen the piece?
-Is the ending as impactful as it can be?
Break-out the black Sharpie marker, because these types of edits make contest winners.

Toying with language to maximize your desired voice.
-Reorder words in a sentence. In a sentence, reorder the words.
-Exchange words– usually the verbs.
-Delete words.
-Prepositions: substituting a different preposition can be endlessly generative in prose– not recommended for dialogue, as it can sound unnatural (importance of editing becomes, importance in editing).
-Save old drafts and compare the effects.

WARNING: this part becomes obsessive.
It has been said that writing is never finished, merely abandoned. I am inclined to disagree. There is a point when writing becomes as good as it can be. At that point, any changes do not improve. Identifying that point is the trick.

Identifying and eliminating errors.
-The process should be as such: Read through your manuscript, entirely, marking any errors you find. After you have read through entirely, correct them, then read entirely through, again. Hopefully, every time you read through, you will find something new to change. Repeat this process until you do not find anything to change. Then read through once more. Then, print it, and read again. If you change anything in the printed version, re-print, re-read (don’t worry, printer paper is recyclable). Only once you have read the printed version twice without changing anything, should this process be complete.

And, straight from the pen of Glenn A. Bruce
— one of our esteemed !Short Story Contest! Judges

“Cut every damn thing you can cut before submitting. Make it as clean and sparse as possible without taking away from the story, characters, flow, or (minimal) descriptions. Some disagree with this ultra-clean kind of writing, but it is what I strive for and what – I believe – most of today’s readers seek. I.e., they don’t want to spend a lot of time reading extra “stuff.” Tell me the tale, do it efficiently, and give me a solid ending. It’s not easy! But it can be done.

“Also, I strongly recommend using the red/blue/green underlines in Word. They aren’t always correct – i.e., they adhere to grammar norms which might be broken in, say, dialogue – but they catch a LOT. I have never used Grammerly, but I know people like it for that reason as well. Basically, use anything available to make sure you have caught everything that can be caught. Typos are inevitable, but lazy editing is a sin.”

more of his thoughts on:
Working with an Editor

Even– or especially– if you have already submitted, you have until the end of each reading period to submit new drafts.

Finalists will have an additional week or two to revise before the contest begins.

Is it as ready as can be?– then Submit:
!Short Story Contest!

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Talk for the National Writers Union D.C. Chapter

Sunday, April 26th, 2020

Paul-Newell Reaves presenting on Lengthy Poems, Modernist Poems, Populist Poems, including a reading of his own poem “No Skateboarding”
to the National Writers Union District of Columbia Chapter
on April 26th, 2020:

links referred to in this talk:

In a Station of the Metro, by Ezra Pound

The Plumet Basilisk, by Marianne Moore:

A Lamppost Named Mark, by Paul-Newell Reaves:

No Skateboarding
is an unpublished poem by Paul-Newell Reaves,
only available in this reading.

So, You Want to Understand T.S. Eliot’s the Waste Land?
more from

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Judges Confirmed for 2020 !Short Story Contest!

Saturday, April 11th, 2020

The !Short Story Contest! is STILL ON, and
now open for submissions. So read the guidelines, here,
and submit by June 9th.

But first,

! We are ecstatic to announce
confirmation of our
returning and fully healthy
Contest Judges !

Meet the Judges:

Suvi Mahonen is a freelance writer based in Surfers Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast. Her non-fiction appears on many platforms including The Weekend Australian MagazineHuffPost and The Establishment. Her fiction has been widely published in literary journals and anthologies including in The Best Australian Stories and Griffith Review. A portion of a longer work-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Follow Suvi on:
and check out her page on the online art-selling platform Redbubble, here:

Glenn A. Bruce, MFA, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review. He has published nine novels and two collections of short stories. He wrote Kickboxer, episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch, and was a sketch-writer for Cinemax’s Assaulted Nuts. His stories, poems, and essays have been published internationally. He won About That’s “Down and Dirty” short story contest and was a two-time finalist in the Defenstrationism annual short story contest. He has judged film contests, art shows, and short story contests. He was the final judge for Brilliant Flash Fictionin 2015 (which has included one of his stories in their first print collection) and currently for Defenstrationism (2016-2019). Glenn left 12.5 wonderful years of teaching Screenwriting at Appalachian State University to concentrate on fiction.

Lady Moet Beast, the Beast From Southeast. What can’t be said about this interesting lady? Godmother of D.C. Rap, multi-genre lyricist, producer, poet, musician, writer, singer, actress, and the list goes on. Performing live since the age of 5, determined to be heard, adored and admired, Lady Moet Beast has performed all over the U.S. for the past 25 years. Not your average HipHop Femcee she has grown along with her husband obtaining her own band The Cruddy Crankerz, Beast & Monster Ink,  Drama City Records/Draztick Measurez., Cruddy Rite Publishing, Cruddy Rite Radio, Monster Graphix, and Lioness Filmz. Lady Moet Beast has set a lot of trends from green dreadlocks to hardcore femcees in Washington, D.C. and abroad.

Christian McKay Heidickerthe 2013 !Short Story Contest! Winner, reads and writes and drinks tea. Between his demon-hunting cat and his fiddling, red-headed girlfriend, he feels completely protected from evil spirits. Christian is the author of Scary Stories for Young FoxesCure for the Common Universe and Attack of the 50 Foot Wallflower. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Judging Process:

Our contests are judged by our four Judge Panel, with two weeks of online Fan Voting counted as an additional Judge vote. 

In the event of Judge Votes and Fan Votes being equal, the fan-vote becomes a tie-breaker.

One Grand Prize vote counts as two Runner-Up votes.

Guidelines for the !Short Story Contest!
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