MARCH 2023

A Bottle Cap
By Sean Burke

“Swear to God,” Uncle Ted said, “they ought to herd them all onto an old aircraft carrier, paint it pink, and set it afloat in the Atlantic.” Deep chuckles rumbled across the uncles and adult male cousins assembled in a circle of rusting aluminum lawn chairs in Ted’s backyard. Dad laughed too, looking around like he knew he shouldn’t be.

The smell of the grass cut fresh that morning had already burned away leaving cigarette smoke, beer, and grilling beef to scent the McCarthy-Patelli annual picnic. Ted, my mother’s brother, was a Patelli and Patellis didn’t require shade nor did they ever feel compelled to offer it to guests. As I stood next to Dad struggling to twist the cap off the beer I’d been sent to fetch, sweat ran freely off my eleven-year-old sunburned, closely-shorn scalp and down my apple-shaped McCarthy face to soak into my three-quarter sleeve Rangers jersey. Mom told me not to wear it because I’d be too hot but the Rangers were pretty much the only thing my Patelli cousins talked about.

“Maybe use it for target practice then, right Teddy?” Uncle Larry piped in with his typical, lick-spittle observation. The group responded with a mixture of guffaws and groans as Larry took a satisfied drag from his Marlboro Light and coughed out a phlegmy laugh. 

“Seriously, though, I mean what the hell are we letting go on in this country? Where’d they all crawl out from?”

I looked up at Dad hoping for an inconspicuously whispered trick to the bottle cap. He misinterpreted and reached out his left arm with a silent offer to open it for me. Uncle Ted saw and pounced.

“C’mon, Billy,” he said to Dad. “Let Mikey do it. He’ll get it.”

Dad pulled his arm back, flashing a quick, embarrassed half-smile. I doubled over the bottle, now propped and squeezed firmly between my scraped, dirty kneecaps. I twisted the cap again with all the strength I could muster, my right hand burning.

“You can do it, Mikey,” Uncle Ted shouted. He slapped Larry on the shoulder. I glanced up to see them giggling and leaning forward out of the straining lawn chairs, their alcohol-bloated faces signaling to the rest of the group that this was the funniest little show they’d ever seen. Light-headed from the effort, I paused to take a deep breath and give the cap another mighty twist when my gut, full of hotdog and warm soda betrayed me. Like a piccolo cutting through an orchestra’s roar, one short, high-pitched, and startling loud fart pierced the party’s cacophony.

Startled silence was followed a moment later by an explosion of laughter from Ted, Larry and the other uncles which alerted the fifty McCarthy-Patellis spread across the vast yard who stopped what they were doing to look over at us, bemused, wanting in on the joke. After an excruciating thirty seconds, Uncle Ted stopped laughing to catch his breath and with his hands out in front of him, still wheezing and coughing, mock-pleaded with Dad.

“Billy, Billy, please, we gotta toughen this one up, alright? Can’t have this heading the wrong direction. You catching my drift?”

Ted stuck both hands out in front of him and let each hang limply from the wrist. He looked around, pursing his lips before bursting out laughing again. Larry joined him. The others simply looked away, sheepish. Crimson with shame, furious, I put my head down and braced to attack the cap once more.

“Mikey, hand it over,” Dad said. I pretended not to hear. I blinked back tears and paused to wipe my eyes with both hands, bottle still between my legs, certain I was ignoring him for his own good.

“Michael,” Dad growled and stood up. “Now. Give it over.” He stepped in front of me and wrenched the bottle from between my knees. “Go find your cousins,” he ordered.

I looked up. Dad was frowning and his eyes were wet. I suppressed the urge to run. He looked past me as he turned my shoulders and gave me a gentle shove away from him.

“Jeezus, Teddy,” someone said.

“For Pete’s sake,” someone else said.

I rested for a little while under the shade of an elm tree in the empty front yard where a warm breeze carried the smell of honeysuckle from the field across the road. When the tears and the sweat stopped, I made my way around the other side of the house, grabbed a can of grape soda from the cooler, and headed to the pool. Just Uncle Ted’s sons, Tony and Luke, were there. They were scrambling out of the deep end and up the ladder they had propped against the roof of the garage to do back flips into the water. Fifteen and sixteen, their teenager ways were magical to me.  I sat with my feet in the water at the shallow end and watched mesmerized as they flung their bodies, impossibly, upside down and across the several feet of concrete, again and again. Just as they splashed into the water, their heads missed the edge of the pool by mere inches. Disaster skirted each time. Generously, they called to me between launches to join them. I laughed nervously and shook my head. I knew better. I sipped my soda. I kept watching. With every jump I caught my breath and wondered why nobody told them to stop.

By Lucy Hooft

Her name means jasmine, the riot of tiny star-shaped flowers that ruled over her house in ash-Sham, rousing the senses at dusk.

But here no one asks her name. Why would they? Armed only with their language, words with no beauty stall in her mouth. How can she tell them who she is? Who she was? She has lost her spectrum of reference—pomegranate, persimmon, zeit zeitoun, pistachio, sumac, hibiscus, cherry. How can she describe her former life with their anemic words?

Ash-Sham, Damascus, means the land of the rising sun.

Utrecht, uut traiectum, is defined by a fortress.

The Dutch November sun, the pale cousin of the fire that rises over her abandoned home, cowers behind the fortress walls. The gloom seeps through her window dampening the taste of fresh white loaves, labneh and zataar, coffee and cardamon. Leaving only bland, noiseless foods that mute her palette. Dutch tomatoes are an optical illusion. Time and again she falls for their vermillion blush, anticipating the sharp pop of Levant sunshine, the tart taste of hot stones. Instead their flesh meals in her mouth, the illusion fizzles on her tongue.

In the market, she can’t resist running her thumb across the slick skin of a pomegranate, feeling for freshness in the leathery husk. The stall owner flashes her a look ripe with mistrust. I had a pomegranate in my garden, she wants to say, whose jewel-like seeds brought a throng of songbirds to my tree. But she doesn’t have the words.

She smiles. He turns away. He sees neither who she is, nor who she’s pretending to be.

By silencing all that makes her different, she is making herself nothing.

Her eyes prick with tears until her nose catches a note, a snatched phrase that reminds her of something lost. She sees a bicycle wagon laden with potted jasmine. Something of herself that can thrive in these long months of lowland darkness.

She brings it home and sets it on her windowsill, sealing the gloom. Now at dusk, there is no adhan, no pink glow lights the stone, but a tiny piece of her heart runs riot.

Across the Bay
By Bayveen O’Connell

The city shimmers on the horizon, it pulses nearer with each skip of the ferry through the waves. Tomorrow, when she discovers my bed empty, Mama’ll bite her lip and cry soundlessly stirring the breakfast tea. Papa’ll chain smoke and kick at our concrete doorstep. I’ll write when the storm of my departure has passed.

I am not the first daughter to realise, to know, to show that I am not just a function of my parents’ status in the community, of their bartering power, a human scale responsible for the weight of their pride and shame; while my languishing, lecherous younger brother has been his own free agent since the day he was born.

There’s a steel-scape of winking lights before me: I can almost smell the sizzle of a thousand kitchens in a thousand restaurants, I can almost hear musicians warming up, freestyling in the jazz clubs with real saxophones and actual trombones: both of which I’ve only heard on record.

There are girls who make their own living and pay their own way. Girls who decide if a guy is worth their time for a dinner in one of the sizzling establishments. There are shops where a girl can choose her own outfit without the approval of a whole village of matriarchs. There are girls who might kiss men who will never be their fiancés, there are girls who are twirled around dance floors who don’t stir up a cauldron of gossip, girls who might want to tumble with a fella before tying her raft to him. That’s the girl I’m going to be.

Where the Light Killed the Stars
By Aston Lester

The first fight I ever had was with a boy named Sammy. It wasn’t so much a fight because he didn’t fight back. He just took it and cried, but he never told on me. I remember not feeling tough afterwards, just sort of mean. I only done it cause Richard told me Sammy was making fun of me behind my back. I can’t remember what Richard told me he said, and I don’t even think it was true that he said anything at all. Richard was that sort.

When we were older and in high school, we hung around the same group. Everybody liked Sammy. He was funny. And I really wanted him to like me, and I wanted to be as popular as him. He got the prettiest girls and fit in and knew guys that could buy beer. Anybody was lucky to be his friend.

One night at the end of the school year, a group of us went out to the lock and dam where there was a little park area. Some of us pitched in and got a few cases of beer. We played beer pong and blared music from Sammy’s car stereo. I drank from when it was just a few of us until the parking lot was full of people, a lot of them from the school the town over. I didn’t know anybody from that school, and I wished they hadn’t come. The boys were cocky and preppy, and the girls looked stuck up. I didn’t like being around those kinds of people. And I was suddenly uncomfortable in my drunkenness.

Sammy was ignoring me and hanging out with the kids from the other school, even after we played a game of beer pong as teammates and won, even after we had known each other our whole lives. He never liked me, and all the people were too much, so I wandered off, away from everyone and the bright lights and the loud sounds. I walked around the lake till the noise of the party was small. I stared out at the water, black under the night sky. Above the lake was a patch where the light didn’t kill the stars. They came down through the darkness true, nothing hiding them from the world, and nobody was looking for me, and nobody wondered where I was.

Once when we were boys, Sammy came over to my house with his toy trucks. His trucks were better than mine. I asked him if I could borrow one or trade for it, but he wouldn’t do it. That was the only time he ever came to my house to play. And I remembered that is when I first disliked Sammy. Poor Sammy never did anything wrong. He did not deserve that. He was a good guy the whole time.

Stumbling back to the party, I was unsure of myself. Everyone from a distance was having a good time. I walked into the light and felt odd as hell. I wondered if everybody would notice. Their faces were all blurry. I hadn’t brought my glasses with me, and it made me uncomfortable to look at anyone. I had to stare to recognize them. Sammy was talking and laughing somewhere within the crowd. I could hear him. Then I found Richard by the cooler. He handed me a beer. He was grinning drunk and said I had a wild look in my eyes.

“You going to talk to Amy tonight?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. I had no plan to talk to her. She was far from my mind, but he asked and that was the answer I had to give. Then he called me afraid and said that I wouldn’t. When I found Amy, she was with Sammy. “You finally had a girl that liked you, and you let pretty boy Sammy steal her,” Richard said. I had a meanness inside of me that I did not understand. It was so easy for Sammy. I shoved his face with my palm before I knew what I was doing.

We squared up and people circled around us. We danced a little before I threw the first punch, thinking it was going to be like when we were kids, but I missed, and he threw one at me that connected on my shoulder. Sammy was fighting back. But I was still bigger than him, and we threw and missed a few more sloppy punches before I got him down and straddled him on the concrete. He was only covering up then. I landed one on his nose and felt it move under my fist. Blood shot out of it. I stopped punching and watched him hold his face and squirm around in pain beneath me. He moaned. The red ran down his cheeks, and I breathed heavily under the lights. It was just me and him for a moment. All I wanted was for him to see me. And it wasn’t till they pulled me off him that I noticed I was crying.

On Hold
By Jennifer Lai

I’ve been on hold for four minutes and seventeen seconds. Way too long for a Saturday morning when I still have yet to inventory last month’s sales, schedule next week’s meetings, and prepare the quarterly reports before Monday morning’s video call.

At least there’s music—Opus Number One. Claps, bells, ta ta ta ta. It’s melancholic, but soothing.

I turn up the volume on my phone to drown out the noise down the hall.

Katie’s practicing again.

When I told her to try something new, I didn’t mean the trumpet. There should be a law against entrusting third graders with an instrument of auditory endangerment.

Sure, she will eventually get better. That’s what the other parents at the after-school program tell me. Just like how my toothache will eventually be fixed if I can ever schedule an appointment.

As a distraction, I rifle through the fridge for something to snack on. Nothing hard since chewing is out of the question. Leftover pizza, steak, chicken wings (when did I order chicken wings?). No, no, no. Katie’s favorite very-berry yogurt might have to do. It’s one of those squeezable treats that has so much sugar I may as well be eating ice cream. “Do you know how many calories are in one serving of that?” my ex used to hound when he caught me binging on a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

A fitness fanatic, Paul was always watching his figure. And mine. Until he found someone else’s figure to watch.

The music stops. “The next available Saturday is August 12th at ten A.M.” Three months from now.

After clearing her throat, the receptionist continues, “If you would like to schedule during the week, we can fit you in sooner.”

Obviously, the receptionist doesn’t have kids. Or an ex-husband who plays house on the weekends with a petite redhead—Lululemoned Verronica-with-two-r’s who serves my daughter gross-ass-healthy-crap. Katie’s words, not mine. Although I don’t condone her swearing, I can’t help but fist pump at her choice of expletives.

“Can’t you—” I start, before the sound of a deflated duck reverberates from Katie’s room, causing a sharp pain to radiate through my molar. From the kitchen, I project my mommiest voice. “Katie. Honey. Time to get ready. Your father will be here soon.”

A lie.

Yes, Paul will be here today. But soon? More like eventually. It’s always a waiting game with him.

“Ma’am?” the receptionist says.

“How . . . about . . .” I quickly scan my wall calendar while drawing out my words to fill the void—a trick I learned from Paul, who used to do this in restaurants to prevent the waitresses from leaving. A trick that had worked with Verronica-with-two-r’s four months ago.

“Monday the 22nd before nine?” Mike could cover me. “Or Wednesday the 31st at ten thirty?” Darla owes me a favor. “Or June 15th after two, but no later than three forty-five?” I could miss the mid-month meeting. Maybe. Probably.

“Hold please,” the receptionist says. Opus Number One starts again. I place my phone on the counter and enable the speaker.

Katie shuffles into the kitchen. The corners of her mouth sag as if she’s about to cry. “Daddy called. He’s not coming until after lunch.”

I’m not surprised but try not to show it. He was supposed to take her to the state fair today. By the time he gets here though, they won’t make it in time. She knows this. Paul knows this.

“Oh, honey.” I tuck a black curl behind her ear then pull her in for a hug. “He’s a busy man.”

Another lie.

But it sounds better than “your father is a self-centered dipshit.”

Katie wraps her arms around my waist and buries her head into my chest. We sway on the linoleum to the claps, the bells, the ta ta ta ta. She’s grown up so fast. Wasn’t it just yesterday she used her fingers, stubby as baby carrots, to sign for more or please because her words betrayed her? Now, she’s forming full sentences, full emotions, full tears. She’s even wearing the outfit he bought her for Christmas: a ruffled yellow tunic with sunflower leggings. Dang it, Paul.

The music stops.

“Ma’am, those dates are not available,” the receptionist says, her voice sharp, piercing.  Instinctively, I touch the side of my jaw to brace the pain. Katie sniffles, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. Seven minutes and forty-eight seconds have passed. Way too long for a Saturday morning.


The weekly supermarket ads on the counter catch my eye. Ben and Jerry’s are on sale.

“Ma’am. Are you there?”

“I’ll have to call you back.” I hang up, place my hands on Katie’s shoulders and kneel to her eye level. “How about some ice cream?”

Katie smiles widely, showcasing her missing front tooth. She sticks her tongue in the space where the incisor used to be then nods her head vehemently.

“One pint for you.” I press a finger to her chest and then press it to mine. “And one pint for me.”

It’ll be full of a million calories, I’m sure. But who cares? Gross-ass-healthy-crap. Not on my watch.

They Will Feel Lucky
By Slawka G. Scarso

In a few minutes she will go inside, turn to the left corner, to the table tucked between the piano and the bay window, and find him there. He will smile, and her heart will start to dance. She’ll wonder whether she should run to him—but would it be appropriate?—or walk, knowing his friends will be watching her, because some of them know her already, from before, and others will ask who she is and nod knowingly.

As she will approach the table, he will stand up and kiss her hand—he’s always believed chivalry will never fall out of fashion. Then she will hug him even though he was never a hugger, not even with her, because she knows now that she can take nobody for granted, not even him. She will feel all his friends’ eyes on her. And yes, she will imagine some of them will dwell on her short skirt too, she’s seen them doing it with other girls, but she won’t care.

He will help her to her chair, and then he will pretend to look at the menu, even though on Sundays it’s always the same, even now, the only thing to change being the soup—asparagus, today. He will ask her about her flight, and about her mum. She will tell him she has something from her in the rental car. And she will tell him she has a new boyfriend now, and he will act jealous.

‘Is he someone you’d like me to meet?’ he will concede.

And she will say: ‘Yes, Grandad, actually he is.’

‘Oh, well, then … ’

After lunch they will go for a walk in the park. She’ll notice he’s slower, these days, something that didn’t pass through two years of Skype calls across an ocean with no flights. They will feel lucky.

To the Sword-Swallowing Woman in Uranus, Missouri
By Leah Mueller

Let me start out by saying that I’ve never once tried to swallow a sword. I’ve performed fellatio on many occasions, so I know a bit about muscle relaxation. But I haven’t put anything remotely sharp down my throat. Your talent is far beyond what I could ever hope to pull off.

I’m sure you get tired of standing behind a counter all day. Rowdy families pile out of their minivans and mill around the gift shop. Tittering loudly, they scoop up coffee mugs that read, “Uranus Gas and Lube.” Teenagers pose for selfies, wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Straight Outta Uranus.”

After they return home, the tourists will have no use for these items. Mom and Dad will pull into their driveways in Boise, Idaho, Portland, Maine, or Tupelo, Mississippi, glad to finally have a chance to relax on their recliners with a few stiff martinis. They’ll shove the mugs and clothing into the backs of cabinets and drawers. No one wants to enter Safeway while sporting a sweatshirt that proclaims, “The Best Fudge Comes From Uranus.”

Like everyone else, I stumbled upon your workplace as I was tooling down Route 66, searching for roadside adventure. Who can resist an establishment with a two-headed turtle? Not me.

Ignoring the signs for funnel cakes and brewpub experiences, I headed straight for the sideshow museum. Once inside, I felt disoriented. I spent too much time staring at the exhibit about Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in the world. As a geeky kid, reading The Guinness Book of World Records, I developed a crush-like fascination with Wadlow. The poor man suffered from a condition that caused hyperplasia of his pituitary gland. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded rough.

Museum photos showed Wadlow, dressed in crisp, specially made suits, smiling as he stood beside people of normal height. He didn’t quit growing until he reached 8’11”. One day, he just stopped stretching upward. It must have been a relief to not be any taller than he was the previous month.

Wadlow managed to appear happy in the photographs. Like he’d achieved a state of zen bliss, even if he had to gaze at the tops of people’s heads all day long. After an unsatisfying stint in the circus, he became a shoe salesman. Free shoes for life. No matter what, he made the best of everything.

I confess that I was absorbed in the exhibits and didn’t see you at first. I strolled amongst the mummies, mermaids, and alligator men, trying to find meaning in the chaos. The place was weird, but it beat the hell out of the Cadillac Ranch. I wondered whether I should break down and buy some fudge. Or at least a couple of postcards. Decisions, decisions.

You gestured towards me from your place behind the counter. A plump, heavily tattooed woman in a tiger-print sundress. Instantly, I fell in love. You fixed me with a petulant expression. “Leaving already? Would you like to stay a while longer and watch me swallow a sword?”

Who could say no to such a request? I followed you to a tiny platform in the back room. The audience area was devoid of chairs, so I stood on the linoleum floor while you prepared backstage for your act. Apparently, you’d planned a solo show, something just for me. My heart pounded with exhilaration.

A minute later, you charged onto the stage and began to gyrate. Your heavy hips and ample thighs jiggled with a rhythm that only you could hear. I gazed at you, enthralled. You stared at the space behind my head, but I didn’t mind. It wasn’t every day that I got to see a sword swallower in Uranus.

When the suspense became unbearable, you pulled a sword from behind the curtains. Your body was stock-still as you opened your lips wide. You held the sword aloft, then plunged its long blade deep inside your mouth.

The whole process took only a couple of seconds. You extracted the sword and placed it on a table behind you. Then you shrugged. “Well, that’s it.” Your tone sounded brisk, matter-of fact. “Would you like me to do it again?”

“No, really, that’s okay. Once is enough. Thank you so much.” I’d paid six bucks admission, so I’d more than gotten my money’s worth. I didn’t want you swallowing swords all afternoon on my account. The pay scale in Uranus probably isn’t high, even for someone with such a rare skill.

Feeling dazed, I staggered towards the door. I felt certain I would never see you again. You’d probably already forgotten about my existence, but I couldn’t blame you. I was just another aimless tourist with too much money to spend on nothing.

The parking lot seemed unnaturally bright. One hour before closing, most of the cars had already left. They’d found the freeway and made a beeline towards MacDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, and Cracker Barrel. In the distance, I could see the silhouettes of Uranus’ outbuildings, with their comical signs: The Moonicorn Creamery and Funnel Cakery. The Uranus Axehole. Chicken Bones Party Bar and Grill.

None of these options appealed to me. If I left soon, perhaps I’d find Route 66 without too much trouble. The last thing I wanted was to go in circles and end up stuck in Uranus. I had gotten lost on the route more than once.

You probably take 66 all the time. At the end of each day, you pack away your sword, punch the clock, and head home. I hope you live in a place that’s as exotic as you are, and not just some lonely trailer beside a field.

Unmarked highways are difficult to navigate, especially at night. No wonder most people take the interstate. Freeways are a hell of a lot faster. Normal folks plan their route and their destination, but they miss everything in the process. I guess that’s why I never cared much for normal folks.

Constant Vigilance
By Matt Goldberg

Somebody once told me God was dead, or maybe I read it. I can’t remember. Either way, it seemed like a complete waste to let God die. Like, wasn’t God worth saving? I wondered something pretty similar when I found out my good friend Rob, only one grade below me, had been murdered at school along with Susan, Jerry, Kamal, and Felix.

In the aftermath of the incident, our town held a meeting at the high school gym to decide what to do. Right off the bat there was a lot of yelling and sobbing and whatnot. We’d lost so many at once—it was unthinkable that this kind of thing could happen, especially in a small town like ours. Emotions ran hot, sizzled like there was an electric current running through the place. I sat in the back bleachers, just taking it all in.

The main thing the town yelled about was a lack of vigilance. That was the problem, they agreed. If Rob and the others had been more vigilant, heck if we’d all been more vigilant, perhaps the tragedy could’ve been nipped in the bud. That sounded right to me. Rob wouldn’t want us to suffer his fate, would he? His own father said, voice cracking as he cried into the microphone, that this would be the last thing Rob would want.

Everyone seemed to be on the same page, until Leo, the town wimp, tried to dissent, saying: “Hey, let’s not get carried away here. We might not want to up our vigilance too hastily. We ought to figure out a sustainable way to avoid this type of heartbreak in the future.” He asked: “Wouldn’t we want to live in a place where we didn’t have to be vigilant all the time, where we trusted one another not to do us harm? Wouldn’t that be preferable?”

The gymnasium went quiet for a moment, then all at once a clamor rose and the town responded: “Hey Leo, shut up, you don’t know the first thing about vigilance. In fact, we’re going to up our vigilance even higher to show you just how wrong you are.”

To me upping vigilance was the only answer that made any sense. If the right people were more vigilant, that would cancel out the bad, dangerous people with hate in their hearts who intended to do the rest of us harm. So, from that point on, I decided to personally step up my vigilance to make sure nothing like this would ever happen again in our little town.

Then one day it paid off!

Me and some other people were in a supermarket when a guy barged in, armed to the brim with vigilance, which goes to show that even the most vigilant need to be watched. In the chaos, I was able to swoop in from behind—and boom—I got the guy right in the back of the head. Sadly, he did manage to take out a few others in the supermarket who weren’t as vigilant as me, trusting their safety to who knows what. God being dead and all.

We’ll never forget their names: Lenny, Sarah, and another poor soul named Rob.

However, on the bright side, I was a real hero following this latest incident. People were so proud of me for standing up to evil and injustice. For being the good guy. Honestly, it was a great feeling to have all that vigilance pay off. At the latest funerals, I even had the honor of sitting in the front row along with the family members. That was neat.

The best part though, is following my example, our town has had a number of other heroes take matters into their own hands, leading to only minimal additional casualties on a month-to-month basis. It’s a relief to know that when push comes to shove, vigilance really is the answer. Which makes me think: if only God had been more vigilant, then maybe He wouldn’t have died either, cause it’s a real shame He’s not around to see the good we’re doing.

Four Square and Ray-Ban
By Rashmi Agrawal

Veena flipped a cig between her fingers, blew imaginary smoke rings, and wriggled her eyebrows the way I loved them. One by one. We cackled until our sides stitched. She tucked the stick in her mouth and asked me to light it.

Nope, not you, me first, I said and plucked one from the white pack with red print—the famous Four Square. I’d to strike off smoking from my bucket list before finishing high school. With the perpetual risk of being disowned by my parents, I’d try everything before I died. The clean sweep with which I’d targeted all things forbidden so far … they hadn’t caught me yet.

Veena lit my stick, but before I could drag a swig, she doused it. You’ll introduce me to that flute boy from your music class?

Accha baba, I said in a frustrated-fine tone, tomorrow. Deal. She lit the cig again and shoved it toward me, but I moved her aside, gawking in the corner. A pair of large sunglasses with gradient blue-green lenses sat by their expensive remote-operated TV.

Don’t touch it; it’s Ray-Ban. It-it’s costly.

As if I don’t know … I copied her sing-song voice. Stop fretting. I’ll handle it nicely. She warned me again, saying, it was her dad’s new toy, worth eighteen-hundred rupees. My eyes popped; I’d never worn spectacles beyond two-hundred. And merely demanding a paltry pair of sunglasses would destroy Papa’s annual budget. Ray-Ban like this … was an air castle.

Between her coughing bouts, Veena screamed not to touch the aviators. I wore them anyway and flaunted myself in poses, walked as if I were on a ramp. Even took her cig and acted like a hotshot model. I grinned and she sulked until our jaws hurt.

A car’s loud honk broke my fashion stupor.

Hurry, it’s them. They returned early. Veena’s eyes were red and face pale with coughing. Oh God, what do we do with the smoke? Mom would kill me.

We frantically waved our hands in failed attempts to shoo the smoke, and those treacherous sunglasses slipped and landed under my foot. With the Ray-Ban dying a death at my careless thump, it was the demise of our seven-year-long best-friendship, too.


Throughout the two-hour journey, glimpses of Veena’s father adorned with those Ray-Bans, drowned in the curls of smoke, flooded my vision. Like a gangster in the Bollywood movies from the 90s. After thirteen months of no contact, her call in the dawn had baffled me. Her dad had a car accident yesterday on the state highway.

I hugged Veena tight, mumbled my sympathies for her loss, and assumed she’d be consoled with me by her side. After this patch-up, we could become the notorious twain again, would remain in touch forever, and meet frequently. But she quickly pulled away and said, Good you came, meet Saanvi, my hostel roomie, who has been my pillar in that godforsaken college. Her dad had sent her away to a college, where cold was tough to sustain … among many other things.

Saanvi started blabbering about selling some gold locket they’d found in their hostel premises. They discussed the girl who’d accompanied Veena’s brother in hushed voices as if I weren’t there. While Veena accepted condolences and commiserations, inseparable from her new best friend, I struggled to find the right spot and gestures to blend in.

After my role as a passive listener and mute spectator turned suffocating, I moved out into the hall. Her dad’s body was lying there, shrouded in a pristine sheet, flowers scattered around his head and feet. Veena’s brother, standing next to his bored girlfriend, was nodding to a priest as if absorbing the secret sermons on life after death.

Close to the door were a stack of business books on a rack and three sets of keys hanging on the wall. Over the books sat a red and white pack. My eyes scanned the mourning crowd. No one had time to mind a pea-sized felony. I sneaked my hand towards the wall.

Hey, can you, the brother said, startling me, please pass those keys? His face flashed a familiar smile. I tossed the bunch he’d pointed at, my fingers trembling. As he exited, I slipped the Four Square pack inside my hoodie. My bucket list hadn’t changed much. Nor was I a fool to miss another chance. And life owed me this much after a day spent with travelling, mourning, and losing my best friend again.