Creative Direction by Junzhe Tang

Written by Ethan Richmond

Photography by Junzhe Tang and Duc Tran

Model: Joseph Plitt

(THE MAN sits in his studio apartment, smoking a cigarette. Film strips are scattered on his spare furniture.) 

(He picks up one of the strips. If he stares at it for long enough, maybe he’ll have some idea of what to do with it.) 

(He sets it back down. Staring didn’t help. The blank strips are nothing but reminders of his lack of ideas. Mementos to his creative emptiness.) 

(Without warmth, his room shifts. Expands. The walls are pulled back. Given a different color than gray. On them, family photos appear. The windows bulge, growing from little slits until they take up half the wall. It’s dark out, but the warm light of the overhead bulb could fool you into thinking it’s day. The dust that hangs in the air glows. 

(On a couch, in the center of the room, sits THE MAN’S MOTHER.) 

(On her lap, the man sees himself.) 

(He knows instinctively that it is him. Instant recognition. He wants to reach out and say something. Especially to his mother. She’s been gone for… anyway, he can’t. He doesn’t even try. He knows it won’t work.)

(THE CHILD awakes. He looks up at his mother briefly, then puts his head back down on her lap. THE MOTHER taps him gently.) 

MOTHER: You should go to your room. 

(THE CHILD murmurs something.) 


THE CHILD: Why can’t I just stay here? 

(THE MOTHER smiles.) 

(The room shifts again. Now THE MAN is somewhere else. It doesn’t look exactly like how he remembers it – some of the toys are in different places, his bedsheets are a different color. But despite the incongruities, THE MAN instantly knows where he is. His childhood bedroom.) 

(THE CHILD sits on the bed. The lights are still on. He looks ahead  and sees THE MAN.) 

THE CHILD: We haven’t met yet. 

(THE MAN startles.) 

THE MAN: What—what do you mean? 

THE CHILD: There’s Theo, Papo, and Gimbo. We play every day. But you’ve never played with us. 

(Instantly, he remembers. Theo, his stuffed teddy bear. Papo, a lanky, humanoid rabbit. Gimbo—what the hell was he supposed to be, an alien? THE MAN’s menagerie of imaginary friends. THE MAN is at a loss for words.) 

THE CHILD: You look like Daddy. 

(THE MAN doesn’t even want to think about that.) 

THE MAN: I’m… I’m neither of those things. 

THE CHILD: Then what? 

(THE MAN turns the idea of telling the truth over in his head. This is probably a dream. He couldn’t really be here. In this room.) 

THE MAN: I’m you. 

(THE CHILD doesn’t seem surprised.) 

THE MAN: A few years from now, anyway. Well… (he looks around the room) not a few years. A lot—a lot of years. 

THE CHILD: What would I know? 

THE MAN: I’m not really sure what you mean. 

THE CHILD (as if all in one breath): I read this book where a man travels from the future and tries to tell his friend stuff, and his friend made him prove it by asking him a thing about him that only he would know.
(It takes a second for THE MAN to follow his younger self’s sentence. Also, he can’t seem to remember this book. When he was younger, he thought he’d remember every book he read.) 

THE MAN: Okay. (He racks his brain.) Can I show you something? 

(THE CHILD looks skeptical for a moment, then quickly nods his head.) 

(THE MAN pulls up his left pant leg. On his ankle, two parallel scars. Once great, now faded.) 

THE MAN: I opened—we opened the back door too quickly. Wanted to play outside. It sliced open our ankle. It really hurt. Then Dad came out and… (THE MAN remembers his father ridiculing him for crying, mocking him for asking for mother, leaving him, bleeding, alone outside.) Anyway, that should have happened to you by now. 

(THE CHILD grimaces, then pulls up his pant leg. Two much longer lines. A little faded, but still very deep.) 

THE CHILD: Okay. (Suddenly, a burst of energy.) Can we play Twenty Questions? You know Twenty Questions? 

THE MAN: Sure. (He looks around.) Can I sit down? 

THE CHILD: Yeah. Just sit on the bed. But take off your shoes. 

(THE MAN complies.) 

THE CHILD: What am I when I grow up? Am I an astronaut? Am I a firefighter? Am I a police officer? 

THE MAN: You’re a photographer. (He pulls out a film reel from his breast pocket.) And a writer. So, really—you’re all of them. 

THE CHILD: Is Craig still my best friend? 

(THE MAN resists the urge to ask who Craig is. He stands there for a moment, trying to seem like he knows, but is just trying to think of the perfect phrasing. He reaches into every corner of his brain, trying to summon Craig. Finally, he manages to scrape out a foggy recollection. Walking home from school together. Sleepovers on Sunday. Play fighting. Different middle schools. A promise they’d stay in touch. A few Facebook messages a couple years back. Nothing else.) 

THE MAN: You make a lot of friends. A lot of different people, wherever you go. But you’ll always know Craig. 

THE CHILD: Do I still see Theo? And Papo? And Gimbo? Mrs. Wormwood says that they’re gonna go away when I get older. I know they’re not going to. I know she’s wrong. She’s wrong, right? 

THE MAN: Yeah. Of course you do. Especially Theo. He sticks around. Always been more reliable than the other two. 

(THE CHILD mouths out the word “reliable.”) 

THE MAN: It’s—it’s when you can count on somebody. You know they’re going to show up. Because they’re reliable. 

(THE CHILD nods. He was always eager to learn new things. THE MAN remembers his phases of learning, about dinosaurs, sharks, space – rushing home and telling his mother all the knowledge he’d gained, tripping over his own words.) 

THE CHILD: Does Mrs. Wormwood get nicer? 

(This answer comes with no hesitation.) 

THE MAN: I’m sorry, but if anything, she gets worse. How many times has she put you in time out? 

THE CHILD: Five. No, four. 

THE MAN: I think she put everyone there at least nine times. So get ready for five more. Reasons were all bullsh – it’s never for a real reason. She’s just one of those teachers. 

THE CHILD: Am I gonna have more of those teachers? 

THE MAN: Yeah. There’s a lot of jerks out there. But you get some good ones too. (Mrs. Wormwood, that was third grade. Yeah, third grade. Fourth grade, that was a good year. Schuman. THE MAN remembered loving Schuman.) Next year, that’s gonna be fun. High school, you get a lot of good teachers too. 

THE MAN: What else? Any other questions? 

THE CHILD: Does Daddy start coming here more? Does he get more reliable? 

(THE MAN wishes THE CHILD would ask about teachers again. He knew how to answer that. How does he answer this? That day in the car. Mom driving. Dad gone, as per usual. The truck hit the front seat from the side. Not the backseat. It didn’t touch the backseat. Dad making him move away—he didn’t want to leave the house. He was in third grade. So two years from now. Two more years of Mom. Two more years before living with Dad.) 

THE MAN: Yes. You see a lot more of him. 

(THE CHILD pauses. He thinks hard about his next question.) 

(After further consideration, he asks.) 

THE CHILD: Do I do something great?

(THE MAN thinks back to his apartment. Scattered film negatives. A few published photos here and there. Not much to show for his work. For his passion, that Dad berated him for following. That he blew so much money to major in—it would take years to pay all those loans off. No one else in the apartment. No time for a social life. Gotta focus on getting out there, getting exposure. That’s all that matters.) 

THE MAN: We’re going to do great things. 

(Instantly, the dimensions of the room shift again. THE MAN returns to his empty studio apartment.) 

(He picks up a film reel, not wanting to process what just happened.) 

(He knows what his next project is.)

Wall Art of an Ocean

If you trace the contents of a painting— an authentic one you paid good money for— the grooves of your fingers follow the same path the artist made with a brush. Every impression, streak, and divot literally at your fingertips. 

If you trace the contents of a mass-produced T.J. Maxx canvas wall art, the warmth of your fingers will melt the faux brush strokes made out of Mod Podge atop the canvas to give clearance shoppers the illusion of fine art. Warmer, summertime temperatures make these paintings perpetually sticky for the duration of the season, tacky to the touch. Put the wall art in a cramped half-bathroom full of five third-grade boys pissing, it just might start melting off the wall. 

My eldest brother was born in July. His birthday parties had one stipulation: include your little sister who was miserably born in January and never had proper parties.

On his ninth birthday, after presents and cake, my brother and his guests split into two for a Nerf gun battle. The Red Team, comprised of my brother and his absolute best friends, set up base camp in the quiet luxury of his bedroom. The Blue Team, made of forgettable classmates and a seven-year-old girl, found our lodgings in the downstairs half-bathroom. Exhaustive guerilla warfare and failed sieges on the Blue Team’s part resulted in foam bullets to the gut and a somber retreat back to the ‘ol shitter, à la sad Charlie Brown. Conditions in the bathroom were poor, morale was low. The Red Team hoarded our spent ammo in their fortress, and all we could do was wait them out. Surrender was not an option. 

I was stuck in there for well over an hour, hearing the Red Team taunt us by enjoying a second serving of cake, fully knowing their Nerf guns were loaded next to their plates, like Tony Soprano. More waiting. 

The first kid who said: “I have to pee,” prompted an echo of concurrence amongst the boys. The Capri Suns reached their bladders, and rock bottom got lower.  

The rule was while each boy peed, the others had to face flush against the wall with our hands over our ears. It was a pissing contest inside a pissing contest. A turducken of third-grade-boy showmanship, prompting the boys to sneak peeks and giggle. I kept my mouth shut and followed orders, because I didn’t want to be the lame little sister. 

But, I didn’t want to be in that bathroom anymore. I suddenly had no desire to be included. 

I squished my baby face further into the spot on the wall I chose, where the T.J. Maxx wall art hung, ignoring the ongoing bathroom situation. The painting was of an ocean, madly blue in color. I softly swayed my skull like a bobblehead, feeling all the pseudo-brushstrokes of the art with the tip of my nose. My hands never left my ears, and the sound of pulsing blood in my head crashed like waves at sea. Up this close, I only saw blue. I only heard waves. 

Once all my brother’s goons finished their business, I peeled my forehead from the humid painting, like thighs on a leather car seat. The painting stuck to my dewy skin, just enough to sever from the wall and drop a hearty pile of red Nerf bullets onto the tile floor. The beloved T.J. Maxx wall art was my hiding spot from years of having my Halloween candy taken from me and being shot in the ribs with Nerf bullets. I learned, with the right maneuvering, it was possible to shove a bunch of junk behind the painting and have it stay there for as long as I needed it to. We used the ammo to fight like hell until the party ended. 

As I grew up in that house, I used the painting to put things away I didn’t want recovered, not even for myself. Nerf bullets I never wanted used against me. What the neighbor’s son begged me not to tell his mom about. Mascara tubes I took from my mom’s bathroom. Hopes of someone walking by the older boy’s bedroom any of the times he touched me in there. 

Like the child I was, my mind cleaned up messes by shoving it away behind that wall art of an ocean and forgetting it.

Sometimes, like at my brother’s birthday party, the junk behind the frame gets knocked out of place. There are moments in my adult life where I sit up in shock, because something got knocked loose. Something I wanted to forget forever. I see red; rage for what happened to me, but mostly for remembering it. 

Red is the color of Nerf bullets. 

Red is the candy wrapper I hid because I felt guilty for eating it. 

Red is the stain of my mouth from the phallic cherry popsicle I couldn’t enjoy on field day. 

Red is the scrapes on my knee from trying to get initiated into the same club as the neighbor’s son. 

Red was the color of the older boy’s team. 

I don’t care much for red anymore. And I know I loved this painting for a reason. It is blue. 

Blue like the clear, sunny skies back home. 

Blue like the curtains in my bedroom. 

Blue like my dog’s collar. 

Blue like my veins in my skin that’s regenerated hundreds of times over since then; skin that’s been untouched. 

Blue like the fabric softener my mom uses. 

Blue like the ocean. 

I don’t bother peeling the frame to see what lies beneath, instead, I only see blue. I only hear the pulsing of my blood. I only feel warmth. 

I am not what has happened to me.


Monster Under the Bed

Momma, the walls breathe at night and you don’t believe me. You and dad check every corner of my enormous room. You open the closet and see darkness. You look under the bed as it clings to my mattress like moss in a bad, wet cave. You look in all the wrong places. And while you do that you don’t even see the stars you painted on my walls turn into eyes slowly as night fills up the world. Your dragon will protect you, you say. His name is Drelion, I tell you as you wrap him around my neck like a scarf. And then you leave and shut off my light. That’s when the monster comes out. It drops down from the bottom of my mattress. It crawls out from underneath. When it hits the floor it’s like my room has a heartbeat. Then it stands at the edge of my bed. I don’t look. I keep my eyes closed, to make sure they don’t fly out of my skull.

. . .

The monster is quiet. I don’t hear it move but it always ends up right in front of my face, so close that if I opened my eyes they would dry out from his stinking breath. The monster is quiet. I listen to its breath and hear its soft voice. Its starving voice. I’ve heard that voice before. That’s why it’s so scary. The voice is thick like a slow dying tortoise but light like a feather. So light my eyelashes would blow it away as they opened. The monster smells like sour bread and strawberries, a bad smell and a nice smell. A smell that would make dad cry. I think that’s why dad pretends there is no monster because he’s embarrassed to be afraid. I wish Dad would save me but he never does. 

. . .

The monster waits. I don’t know what it waits for or what it wants for. It never touches me, never puts its teeth around my head. Sometimes I pretend it’s ripping one of my eyes out and my eye turns into a blue jay. Sometimes I think it will break my fingers off and eat them like worms, or french fries. I really think it wants to talk to me but I don’t know what it will say. Maybe it will sing me a song. Maybe it will tell me why dad is so sad. Maybe it will tell me about all its bad dreams. But I get so tired from keeping my eyes shut tight that I fall asleep before it can say anything. And when it is morning, I know it’s the monster’s turn to hide from me. 

. .

you talk in your sleep. fight, even. some sleeping dog kicking at air.

the gaps of silence are where i live, then.

when the kick to end all kicks

causes flash of eyelid collision before the breath

the cerebral cortex cerberus vanishes 

into the orange kitchen light strip below your door

then, there i am.

the half caved limbo between the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and the endless vortex beyond it

draw near, child. your heartbeat sounds like boiling water.

you can’t remember. you can’t remember any of it.

you know the answers of my existence and you locked it away,

you’re imagining my face, and you’re right. the stories were all right in their own way. 

but none of them mentioned how i exist for you.

Draw Near.

is it my heartbeat or yours? is it my fear,

or yours?

i hope you’re afraid. and that you still fear death.

that the hope hasn’t left you.

that mind-made castles and creatures protect you from me.

you think this is scary?

imaginary creatures in crevices collected

like stuffed animal items in a kids shopping section

you think this is scary?

curse words encrusted in the cracks of your mothers favorite plate

an accident, an honest one

you think this is scary,

but in my world we have colder commonalities.

drelion, your great and mighty dragon is loved as long as he is known.

hold him tight.

your under-eyes will slowly betray you and the light in the back of your sockets will dim.

you think paralysis is the worst of it

you think you know


you haven’t even experienced its true form.

your father fears the foundational morals of the stories that created me.

those stories, fables fighting for their place on withering page-staples

loved as long as they’re known.

a hyphenate of maturity.

i smell your fear and there’s no way to remove it.

draw near, child,

 listen to the words in your head

the six-foot-buried memories encapsulated by a halo of fantasy

i exist to warn you.

After Party

As always, Lenore’s playroom is filled with wonderful things today! Strings of roses curl pinkly across the wallpaper, each flower lighting up like a round firefly by the sun spilling through the curtainless window. It’s a modest room, but the day seems somehow to fill and expand its walls as one would imagine a balloon. The ceiling is a sky over the happy scene of Lenore and her teatime attendants. A tall, trusty clock stands with steady hands, punctuating the silence with a pleasant tik tik tik until—

Pierre, across from Lenore at the foot of the table, flings his papier mâché arms with wild glee, “It’s very good of you to have hosted us for this tea party, Lenore!” The puppet’s painted smile beams, a joyously jagged, ever-living expression painted onto his form. “I do LOVE receiving your invitations.”

“Too true,” seconds Wilfred, the stuffed lamb to Lenore’s left.

“And what a day for it!” exclaims The Lady with a twist of her parasol, “Shall I pour the tea?”

Baby Doll wiggles out an ecstatic, “Tii-tumpafh!” A clear sign to all to begin the festivities.

The puppet prince raises his kettle, “Shall we?”

“We shall!” salutes The Lady.

The now-brewed teapot makes a light clink as it makes contact with the porcelain hand of The Lady. Rapturously, the party-goers watch as the pretty doll tilts the pot and eases air into each cup, starting with Baby Doll’s cup and going round clockwise.

Lenore accepts the tea graciously, knowing that when she is old enough to handle the bulky pot, it will be her turn as the host to pour the tea. Wilfred receives his tea next. His woolen hooves brace the cup as he blows away imaginary steam.  The Lady then turns to the cup of Mr. Phone, a rotary fellow with a handsome smile. 

“Mr. Phone! Ring once for one lump of sugar, and TWICE for two!” said Pierre, with an endless grin.


The table buckled with laughter.

“Still ever the sweet tooth, I see!” Pierre’s grin brightens as his cup is filled with wind, “Thank you, Lady.”

“My pleasure,” says The Lady, keeping her attention on his teacup and then her own.

“Thank you for inviting me, Lenore. I’m awfully grateful for such a cordial offer,” hums Wilfred, stirring cream into his cup with his embroidered paw.

“Wilfred, you goof, you’re always invited,” Pierre scoffs, “Me, on the other hand . . .”

Mr. Phone rings! Wilfred reaches to pick it up.

“Well, that’s silly!” he sets Mr. Phone down gently, his teacup on the table reflecting into his button eyes.

“What did Mr. Phone say?” asks The Lady.

Lenore’s head tilts inquisitively.

Baby Doll coos while playing with the table cloth, before The Lady swats her hand away.

“He said that Lenore doesn’t like to invite Pierre because he’s scary,” Wilfred says plainly, ”Isn’t that silly?”

The Lady huffs in scandal. Such talk is unbecoming.

“Well, isn’t that funny!” Pierre chortles, motionless in the face despite the texture of his words.

Isn’t that funny.

“Lenore isn’t afraid, Mr. Phone! How ridiculous, no . . . no, she’s only shy,” The Lady says to Pierre. 

Wilfred is reminded of his manners. “What a lovely dress you have on, Lady!” 

Baby Doll swings her heavy head in agreement.

“Oh this old thing?! I’ve had it ever since it was painted on me!” The Lady blushes softly.

Wilfred nods, “It has aged like wine, My Lady.”

RING RING! Wilfred picks up Mr. Phone.

“Mr. Phone is asking if Lenore remembers painting Our Fair Lady after—”

Pierre’s strings throw up with a start. “Well, if you ask ME, she could’ve used a steadier hand!”

Lenore, embarrassed, slumps into her saucer.

“Manners, Lenore,” says The Lady, though facing the puppet.

Lenore whips up to adjust her posture. She remembers to keep her shoulders back and her head lifted high, as if held in place by thread.

“How about another round of tea?” Before getting an answer, Pierre jolts alive, sloshing the nothing-tea in broad swinging motions. He goes round the table, humming something without pattern until interrupted by Wilfred.

“But Pierre…” He starts.


The dry, hollow shell of a papier-mâché head swivels in Wilfred’s direction. 


“If I’m not mistaken, Lenore has barely touched her cup.”

Wilfred feels satisfied in having remembered this detail, not out of consideration for Lenore, but in some unidentifiable ‘Aha!’ moment. But then, Wilfred recognizes something erratic in Pierre’s lasting stare: a sense of denial. Pierre’s motionless body is brimming with energy.

“Lenore,” The Lady speaks, “Your tea is going to get cold.”

RING RING! No one picks up Mr. Phone.

RING RING! Hesitation.

RING RING!  It would be rude not to answer the call.

A lone hoof approaches the phone, threatening to end the silence. It is met rapidly with eight strings, slicing through the lamb’s arm. Plastic beads scatter all across the floor.

Pierre smiles. “Wilfred, I think you dropped your spoon. Allow me to answer him.” A long, long arm reaches to wrest the phone from its resting place, “Helloooooooooo? INTERESTING . . . Oh yes! That sounds like good fun! I’ll tell the others.” Mr. Phone’s body is slammed into itself.

“Mr. Phone thinks we should play a game.”

“Oh, delightful! What shall we play? Did he say . . .?” The lady stares into the distance above Mr. Phone’s head.

Wilfred’s posture slumps, “I like games . . .” 

“Mr. Phone would like to play a game of I Spy,” Pierre’s smile spreads even further. 

I Spy is Baby Doll’s favorite game! She releases a tiny roar of approval.

“Mr. Phone should go first because he proposed the game.” The Lady glows in pride of her own etiquette.

RING RING! Wilfred’s arm fumbles before picking up Mr. Phone.

“Mr. Phone? Mr. Phone, are you there?” The Lamb asks meekly.

“Oh this flavor is DELIGHTFUL!” Pierre exclaims.

“Yes, tell us, Lenore, what did you use to make this?” The Lady chimes in.

Wilfred raises his voice lightly above the conversation. “Mr. Phone spies something pink.”

The Lady snaps back her attention to the game, “Hmmm. Pink? Could it be the wallpaper?”

Mr. Phone doesn’t ring.

“Perhaps it is none other than Our Fair Lady’s rosy cheeks?” Pierre smiles.

“Oh you flatterer! Well, Mr. Phone?”


“Mr. Phone…could it be your button n..ose . . .?” Wilfred tries to take a sip of tea but can’t even lift it to his mouth. Met with silence from Mr. Phone, he tries again, “Maybe the teacupsssss…” His deflating voice manages a whisper.

No rings.

The Lady concedes, “Maybe we should ask for a hint.”

The party returns their attention to Mr. Phone expectantly. In three motions, Mr. Phone slowly moves his stressed gaze in the direction of Lenore. Tik. Tik. Tik. In the corner of her mouth, there is something curiously pink! The open window brings a wind to Pierre’s back. Crawling across the table, Baby Doll giggles, eager to solve the puzzle. She grabs the pink thing and yanks. Lenore’s whole torso collapses into the table as Baby Doll, like a small magician, pulls endless yards and yards of sullied, brown-pink fabric out of her mouth. Lenore’s body puddles into a pile of skin, now emptied.

Show’s over.

Paint chips fly in wild abandon from Pierre’s smile as he releases a violent sequence of shrieks and pained moans. 

The party-goers go limp in their chairs, now unstrung. Tea cups, spoons, and plates all crash into the malfunctioning table, the overhead light pummels onto the table as the strings spasm, the looming clock spinning erratically, ringing in reverse, the ceiling is a sky, the ceiling is a sky, the ceiling is a sky and Pierre is the sun, the centerpoint of it all, thrashing.


Silence. Pierre and Mr. Phone sit in recognition of each other. Their eye contact doesn’t break as Pierre methodically returns each tea cup to its starting position. The puppet crawls desperately onto the table, determined to make things perfect again. In airy, marionette movements, he shoves rotting curtain back down the flabby gullet of Lenore’s corpse. Carefully, Wilfred is stitched back together, restuffed but emptier. Some plastic beads remain on the floor. Mr. Phone watches the clock rewind to 4 p.m. Lenore’s playroom is filled with wonderful things today!

“It’s very good of you to have hosted us for this tea party, Lenore!”

Small Towns

She is five years old. She sits in the diner with her mother. Due to a doctor’s appointment, she did not have to go to school today. She is ecstatic. She eats her pancake with the diner’s syrup which always tastes better than the store-bought one. An old man makes his way to the table. He has felt the need to tell her mother how beautiful her five year old daughter is and that one day there will be boys lining the block and how she will break all of their hearts. She feels uncomfortable. Her mother gives a tight lipped smile and returns to the conversation. He seems annoyed at the flippant response to his compliment. They both begin laughing. Even at five she is confused by the events that just unfolded.


She is six years old. The clock reads 1:42 a.m. She doesn’t think she’s ever been up this late and she’s worried this is going to interfere with Santa coming. Someone is yelling and she’s hoping it’s not about her. She peeks her head through her bedroom door and sees her mom fighting with her uncle. He is leaving, it is too late to be leaving. She’s worried Santa won’t come if they are in the living room and she’s angry that they woke her up. This is her Christmas too. She hears her mom mention that her brother is crying in her parent’s room. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen him cry before. She thought big brothers didn’t cry. She runs back to her bed before they see her and throws her head under the covers. She hopes she’s on the nice list.

She is twelve and walking her dog. He takes a piss on the motorcycle outside of her house. The man from down the block who owns the motorcycle yells from his porch and asks if she is going to be the one to clean that. She ignores him, her heart is beating faster than she thought it could. She wants to ask him why he would park his motorcycle outside their house instead of his own. That would be too much, that would get her in trouble. She can tell he is waiting for a response so she yells back something between an act of acknowledgement and dismissal. He calls her a fucking slut. She laughs, nothing is funny. She is more scared than she has ever been before. She wonders if she could get into the apartment of her neighbor or into the house of her best friend. He is waiting outside her house when she rounds the block. There is nowhere else to go; she will have to walk past him. It is late, and there is nothing around to stop him if he would like to take his anger out on her. She walks past as he stares bullets into her back. She runs into the bathroom. She can’t breathe, she’s never felt like this before. She laughs when she tells her mom, but nothing is funny.


She is fourteen and absolutely wasted. The party she threw in her next door neighbor’s house is in full swing and she doesn’t think she has ever seen this much alcohol in her life. She sits on the stairs with her head on the shoulder of one of her guy friends. He is trying to convince her to go upstairs with him. She doesn’t understand why they would go upstairs if the party is downstairs. For some reason it makes her feel special. He tells her it will be fun, he tells her he just wants to show her something, he asks please. She doesn’t feel so special anymore, she’s worried that he will be mad if she says no but she doesn’t want to leave her friends. She is giggling because she is drunk and she thinks he is too and this all feels so silly. Someone else walks by and she takes the opportunity to get up. He grabs her hand and for the first time she realizes that he is stronger than her. There is a knock at the door and when she answers it it’s her mother. She thinks the world just ended. 


She is fifteen and in the basement of this boy’s house. His childhood photos decorate the wall and she feels uneasy. She wonders if he is her age in any of these. He asks her how old she is and she does not lie. Then he asks if she will be a junior. She tells him yes, and this seems to resign any worries he had about her being underage; he is nineteen. She has heard about him before, he seems to be popular amongst the kids she goes to school with. Maybe that’s why she agreed to come over at one in the morning. Maybe that is why she is so worried about disappointing him. He kisses her. He gets her high. He gets her naked. He can’t find her an Uber and he has work in the morning, so he asks her to walk home. Her legs feel like rubber. She has never been this high before. She walks across town alone and calls her friend. He sounds worried but there’s something else in his voice, like he swallowed something sour, like he is disappointed. She feels empty. Her eyes start crying when she gets into bed and she doesn’t know why.


She is seventeen and in the back of her friend’s car next to someone much too old to be hanging out with a seventeen year olds. He just bought them alcohol and in exchange, they had to drive him somewhere. She hates this guy and she cannot wait until they drop him off. They pull up in front of what looks like an abandoned house. Something is wrong, so she puts her hood on. He is screaming on the phone with his mom begging her for money, and his mom begins crying and shouting back, calling him a drug addict and telling him that she can’t do this anymore. She feels like she’s six again. Two guys in ski masks approach the car and he gets out to collect the drugs. She keeps her head down. They pass him a little bag filled with snow. He asks if she wants to try it, and she wonders what her mom would think.


That is a field mouse. I read about it in my book about animals. The book is called Animals of the American Northeast and it has a part about mammals. That’s the part that has the field mouse. It says that humans are also mammals. But that makes no sense. I am a human and not a field mouse. How could I even be related to this field mouse? I am nothing like this field mouse. 

This field mouse fell in the little plastic pool that Dad set up. I picked this pool last year as a birthday present. I just liked the look of it—dark blue waves and bubbles on the inside, seaweed the color of grass in the springtime, just after dad mows it. And there are cool fish, like swordfish and octopi and moorish idols—like from Nemo. It’s like I can actually be in the ocean, even though I know it’s a little silly. 

I went inside to pee and when I came out this field mouse was in there. It must have fallen into the pool somehow. What a stupid animal. The water is probably not clean anymore, so I can’t even go in it. It’s trying really hard to get out. Its little hands and feet keep scraping over the moorish idol but it can’t get out because the plastic is smooth. It has nothing to grab onto. Stupid thing. If it’s not smart enough to get out of the hole it fell in, I guess it deserves to die. So I’ll just watch it. I’ll just sit here and watch.


Today Mom and Dad did something weird. Really it was Dad. It was weird because he never does it. Why would he suddenly do things he doesn’t do? I don’t like that. It’s like in my book Animals of the American Northeast. All the animals are split up into groups and they don’t cross. Mammals don’t breathe water all of the sudden. Where would we be if all the animals in the world acted like every animal except for the animal that they were? It would be discord. That was a vocabulary word from school last week.

Mom or Dad almost always wait at the end of the driveway with me for the bus to come but today they told me to wait by myself to prove I was a big boy. Dad said that. Mom thought it was weird also but didn’t say that. I was waiting then realized I forgot my axehead for show and tell. I found it in the dirt when I was doing something called excavating. It looks like a rusty tooth of a huge monster that lived a long time ago. An axe was used to kill people. I left the axehead on my nightstand and went inside to put it in my backpack. 

But before I go inside I can hear Mom and Dad whisper so I stand and listen. Whispering means they want to hide something. If they whisper when nobody is around they want to hide something extra bad. I listen.

Dad says, He was just standing there. 

Mom says, For how long? 

Dad says, For a while. For a few minutes. 

Mom says, Maybe he didn’t know what to do. 

Dad says, No, he did. I was waiting for him to do something, to call for help maybe, but he didn’t. So I rushed outside and scooped up the mouse. And you know what he said?

Mom says, What?

Dad says, He said, “Why are you saving the mouse?”

Mom says nothing. I agree with her. I don’t get why Dad is talking about this.

Dad says, I feel like most kids would try to save it, right? Or at least be upset about it.

Yeah but that’s because I’m smarter than almost all the other kids. Other kids don’t know that a mouse is a rodent and not a human.

Mom says, I don’t know.

Dad says nothing.

Mom says nothing.

I guess they’re done so I go inside. I startle them. I laugh. I go get my old weapon.


I know it’s my bedtime but I can’t sleep. I was sleeping for a little bit, but then my eyes opened and all my tiredness was gone, like it was a goldfinch on my chest that suddenly got scared and flew away. There’s a page in Animals of the American Northeast about goldfinches.

I hear this weird roaring sound—it’s not really a sound. Somehow it’s less than a sound. I guess Mom and Dad are watching a movie downstairs. I’ll go watch with them since I have nothing better to do, except lay here and twiddle my thumbs like a dummy. I’m not a dummy. I’m much smarter than that.

I walk down the stairs to the living room and I see a white-blue light moving around on the wall, and I hear people scream. I was right: Mom and Dad are watching a movie. 

I turn into the living room and stand in the doorway. Mom is curled up against Dad on the couch. Their eyes are fixed on the TV—entranced. That was a word on the vocabulary list in school last week. I was the only one in class to get all the vocab questions right last week. Everyone else is pretty dumb.

Their eyes look like dark circles, and Mom keeps ducking away into Dad’s shirt. I don’t really get it, but Dad looks like he can’t look away. Then the room is covered in dark red. I look at the TV screen. There’s this big man in a weird, ugly-looking mask that doesn’t really fit his face. He’s stabbing a woman through her stomach with a chainsaw and her blood is going everywhere. He lifts up the chainsaw and hoists her off the ground. This is so stupid! How could she still be screaming if her stomach was being destroyed like that? Scooby-Doo is a cartoon and even it is more realistic than this, because the ghosts are never ghosts or anything like that. Just really unhappy people pretending. I laugh at how stupid it is. 

Jesus!” Dad jolts up and looks in my direction. “Aw, shit.” Mom smacks him and they rush to grab the remote and turn it off.

“What’re you doing out of bed?” Mom asks me.

I shrug. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Oh.” They look at each other. 

I go over and pat Mom on the knee, because she still looks scared. “Don’t be scared, Mom. That’s not how people actually die.” I look at the TV screen. It’s switched to a basketball game now. “Plus, if anyone tried to do that to you, I would do it to them first.” I wouldn’t let someone hurt my mom. And if they did, they would deserve what I did to them.


They are in the hallway after they carried me back to my bed. They think they are whispering. Their voices echo down the hallway.

Dad says, What kind of kid laughs at Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

Mom says, Kids laugh at weird shit. 

I guess this is bad because that is a bad word.

Dad says, But after the mouse thing?

Mom says nothing.

Dad says, I feel like we should look into it.

Mom says. What do you mean by it?

That is a question I also have. 

Dad says, The possibility that our kid is, you know.

Mom says, No.

Dad says, A psychopath. Or a sociopath. Or something

Mom says nothing. I hear my heartbeat. Then Mom says, It’s not called that anymore.

Dad says, What?
Mom says, It’s antisocial personality disorder.

Dad says, Oh, great.

But the way Dad’s voice sounds tells me that he doesn’t really think it’s great.

Mom says, What, are you scared?

Dad says, I think it’s reasonable for me to be a little creeped out that my son thinks a woman getting disemboweled with a chainsaw is funny.

Mom says, That’s just made up for TV plots.

Dad says, What?

Mom says, He won’t—he wouldn’t kill anybody. Most don’t.

Dad says, Most


No one plays with me anymore because I pushed someone down once. 

It was finally time for recess and we were all running out to the baseball field next to the playground because we wanted to play tag. Then this boy suddenly ran in front of me and almost made me fall over. That’s not nice so I just pushed him down and ran right over him. Then I turned around and yelled DICK! It’s a word I heard from one of the older kids around school. Then when he tried to get up I pushed him down again, then I kept on running. I didn’t think about it. It just happened. It was autonomic. That was another word from this week, autonomic. It just happened, like when a dog sees a squirrel and just starts running. It doesn’t think about it, it just does it. Kind of like that. So I pushed him down and stomped on him as I kept running. And then it was over. But he didn’t think it was over. 

It’s still like that. Like I’m still stomping on him, like I’m constantly stomping on him. But I’m not. Now I just want to play tag. Whenever I go out into the field everyone stops running and just stares at me. “You’re the mean kid,” they say. But I don’t want to be the mean kid and I don’t see how they don’t get that.

So now I just sit on the swings and kick wood chips and look at the sky. It’s all gray but a really dark gray, like it has rain in it. There’s one cloud shaped like scissors, a cloud shaped like an hourglass, and one kind of shaped like a heart in the palm of someone’s hand.


When Mom stops the car in the driveway and gets out of the car I don’t get out of the car. I just stay there. I’m tired from crying.

Mom opens the door and unbuckles my seatbelt then picks me up. She hasn’t picked me up in a long time. I wrap my arms around her neck and hold on like a sloth in a tree that could walk around. That is ridiculous but the world is ridiculous.

Mom opens the door and carries me through the kitchen. Dad is in the kitchen and sees us. He starts following us. He asks what happened but Mom doesn’t answer him. I don’t answer him. I don’t want to answer him.

Mom opens the door of my room and puts me in my bed like she is tucking me in. How did she know that? How did she know I want to sleep? She’s a good mom. She gives me a kiss on the forehead and closes the door. 

And then Dad starts whispering again. He thinks he is whispering but he’s not. He is right outside my door so of course I could hear him. 

He says, What happened?

Mom sighs and says, When I picked him up from school today he just sat there and cried. All the way home.

Dad says, What did he do now?

I feel accused. I had to look that one up in a dictionary one time for a story I had to write for class. It was about someone saying you killed someone even though you didn’t.

Mom says, Nothing.

Dad says, Then why was he—

Mom says, No one would play with him.

Dad says nothing. 

Mom says, What’s wrong?

Dad says, I’m just trying to think.

Mom says, Think about what?

Dad says, About how this happened. 

Mom says, What do you mean?

Dad says, I mean…did I give it to him? Or did—did I fail—

Mom says, Hey.

Then there’s this weird sniffing sound. Then there’s another sound. It’s sad and small, and it hurts. It comes from something that hurts. I’ve heard that sound before. I don’t know where. 

Mom says, Hey. Come here.

Dad says nothing. It’s just that sound—I remember where it’s from. It was the sound that field mouse made except if it came from a human. From my Dad.

Mom says, It’s okay. He’s going to be okay. His first session is next week. 

Dad says, Okay.

Mom says, It can be passed down, but it’s all nurture, okay? It doesn’t matter if he has it, as long as he can deal with it.

Dad says, Okay.

Mom says, We’re doing okay. He loves us. He’s a good boy.

Dad says, I know. I’m just worried now—way more worried than I was before, you know?

Mom says, Of course I do. It’s okay.

Dad says, I just don’t know what to do now. And that scares the shit out of me.

Mom says, Hey.

Dad says nothing. 

Mom says, Look at me. We just need to love him, like we always have. Okay?

Dad says, Okay. 

I’m glad my parents love me. I hope they don’t stop.