TCL #35 – Spring 2020

The Sisyphus Code

Day of the fight. Wake up that morning with a temperature of 100.6. Sweating. Flushed cheeks. Anxious. Always am on these days. Feel the regulating coolant kick in as I get out of bed, blooming at the base of my skull and spreading through my body.

Manuela already in the kitchen doing dishes. Ignore her and do what I always do the day of a fight. Do what I always do no matter what—prepare. Strap on the goggles, run the simulations again. Run them so many times the images of that wiry Hispanic sneering at me with a black mouthpiece burns into my vision. Win them all again—just like I will the real thing.

Manuela heats a frozen TV dinner and turns on the television. Grab the remote and turn it back off. Close my eyes as I eat in silence, imagining the fight. Abraja ducking for the takedown, me raising my knee and slamming it into his cocky face. Him collapsing to the mat with a busted nose, me lunging on top of him raining down blows before the ref pulls me off.

Day moves slow. Fight day always does. Run the simulations more. Take a shit while sketching out Abraja’s punch combos. Skip rope in the living room for an hour staring at the wall of my living room imagining me bobbing and weaving his strikes, countering with a knockout blow.

Reason I’m going to win: no one else on this planet has my drive.


Transdimensional Jumps

“Where do you want to go now?”

“I don’t know.”

Drifting stars sparkle and dance and sway around her head, kissing her cheeks and bouncing off into oblivion. We’re standing on the tip top point of a glacier. Sorry, false. She’s standing. I’m slumping.

“I used to love this movie,” she says, drawing pictures of cats drinking from coffee cups with her fingers in the hydrogen and helium gases passing by. “This is the movie that really got me into space exploration.”

“We’re not in the movie,” I say, “we’re in the videogame.”

“I know that, but it’s based on the movie so that’s why I’m talking about the movie.”

“Fine. I’m just saying.”

“Hey, dingus. What’s your deal?”

“I don’t have a deal.”

“Bullshit. You’ve been moping around ever since we plugged in this morning. You’ve been fine all week, now you’re pulling your old Morrissey/Smiths I’m-alone-in-the-world-with-a-twinkle-in-my-eye sad-boy routine. Aren’t you happy you found your super fucking bad-ass best friend after all these years and now we get to spend all this time together again?”

“I was hoping that I’d find you, then I found you. And Heaven knows I’m miserable now,” I sing. I laugh and jump a few miles into the nearest black hole.

I wait and listen for the pop of her following me. Years ago, before she relocated to a galaxy far, far away, I would never have been so bold as to be the first to run. It was always her running, me chasing. Always. I mean, literally, every time. The last time she ran–to that galaxy far, far away–was the first time I didn’t run after her.

The pop comes as I’m halfway through the wormhole and into another dimension. I fly out, heading straight toward a version of Earth where the oceans are swamps and the land is desert. I land onto a coastal region in the middle of an indigo and silver hurricane. The winds howl like coyotes, picking me up and putting me down like a parent moving their infant child who got in the way of something.

She flies in and does the superhero land right in front of me.

“You’re slow,” I say.

She rolls her eyes.

“Is there less gravity over there or is it something else that’s made you move like sludge?”

“Why are you being mean?”

“I’m not being mean. I asked a question. You still haven’t told me much about where you’ve been or what it’s like there. I just wanted to know is all.”

“You’re being mean, and you know it.”

I am.

Voices rise from beneath the winds, meeting in a perfect harmony before singing the same line over and over again in a language I’ve never heard before. Drum machines and synthesizers follow close behind.

“I don’t remember this from the movie,” I say.

“Let’s go somewhere else. It’s too loud here,” she says.

“No, wait. I love this song.”

She knows I’m lying. Her eyebrows flicker between neon pink and a violent maroon. The bright blue of her eyes dims to a greyish hue. I smile uncomfortably at her. Her arm rises, forming a carriage and horses out of the white desert sand.

“Fine. Go,” I say. “Nothing ever changes, I guess.”

“And just what in red hell is that supposed to mean?”

Bits of swampland flies over our heads. Some moss strikes the side of my face and spins out to God knows where.

“Maybe I think you’re impatient is all,” I say, not wanting to ruin the fact that she’s standing in front of me for the first time in years. “Just wait until the song is over. I like it. You know I like songs.”

“Yes, I know you like songs. Everyone likes songs. That’s a dumb thing to say.”

“How is that dumb?”

“Never mind. Please, continue telling me how much you like ‘songs’.”

“Whatever, I like most songs. I’m not a music snob anymore. I know I was, but I’m not anymore. Because I’ve changed.”

A laugh comes out so loudly from her that it masks the thunderclap in the background.

“What’s so funny about that?”

The blue in her eyes light up, her eyebrows stay pink. Her lips part that way they do when she’s wanting to smile but fights it. “I’ve missed you,” she says.

Shit. I clutch the letter in my pocket that I’ve been writing and rewriting for the better part of a decade.

I open the door of her sand carriage and motion for her to step inside. “You win. Let’s get out of here.”

She places her hand on my shoulder before she gets in.

This City of Spilt Marrow and Silence

Lony found the wet, splintered bones with the soles of her feet, when some sound or silence had roused her from her bed. She had always slept barefoot, even in the cold of winter; after that night she never would again.

She screamed, before she really understood what it was she stood in. Then she did understand: that it was not a what, but a whom, and she could not scream any more for want of air. Lony fell amid the wreckage of her baby’s hollow bones and tried to count them, sought order and sense in this most senseless of things. Here in the breathless dark she could not remember how to cry; only the wind sobbed through the smashed door.

In this city of hope, a Wolf did not devour a child every day. But a Wolf might devour a child any day.


Friends and family came to the wake to comfort Lony, as if they didn’t understand that she was already dead.

On the kitchen table, clots of gelatin had formed about the rims of half-empty pans, and the remaining meat rolls wept brine onto their serving platter. Food went cold fast in the city in the winter. Lony focused on those remnants: how she would package them up, where in the icebox they would fit, as her sisters and their husbands and wives offered their condolences.

Lony was lucky, in a sense, the family told her, for sometimes a whole family was eaten up and here Lony still had her eldest, Nis. They pressed her cold hands and wept as they urged Lony to put it behind her, to be reassured. To leave the matter rest, for what good could come of it now? They knelt on the floor in front of her and reminded her: they needed the Wolves to keep the city safe, so all the other little children could sleep soundly in their beds. No other city in the world had such Wolves, and no other city yet survived. Yes, sometimes tragedy struck, for Wolves were still predators, and such things happened. Sometimes they ate the innocent, but mostly they ate the guilty. Surely Lony wouldn’t ask every other mother in the city to sacrifice their little ones’ well-being. Their blood would not bring little Grethe back to her.

Because of the Wolves, they said, there was still a future of hope and freedom from fear, here in the last bastion of light and goodness left to the dark wild world. But Lony did not want to turn her face toward that hopeful beacon, nor could she feel the warmth of goodness in the long cold night.

Attention peeled away from Lony then, toward an old aunt in the corner. To her audience, she recited a litany of poor choices made, of fateful missteps for which Grethe paid the price. If the child had been better taught to fetch her mother before answering the door at night, if Lony were not such a sound sleeper, oh. The family murmured to one another, that they would be wiser, better prepared; that their little ones would stay safe. Lony’s body had gone cold and numb, hardened and preserved in a shell of her own brine.

But while their aunt lectured on, Lony’s youngest sister Moya leaned in close to her ear, and whispered to her. “It was not right that Grethe was taken from you. Not a one of them should dare say otherwise.”

It was Moya, too, that finally ushered the rest of the family out to give Lony and Nis their privacy. They went, anxious and complaining, but they went, in twos and threes out into the quiet streets, and the ice-bitten air ghosted past them into Lony’s house.

As they passed through her freshly-repaired door she felt them leave their burdens behind. They had never plastered over streaks of blood and deep claw-grooves with paint that would never quite match the rest. They did not know the weight of a ruined carcass that had once been a child. Their little ones still woke, and laughed, and ate, and played. This freedom of theirs hung on Lony like rusty chains upon a coffin.

The blood of the city’s children would not bring back Grethe. But when Lony closed her eyes, the city was painted red with it, and the citizens packed the streets to scream and scourge themselves over the price they had gladly paid for false freedom.

Rivulets

There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day.

The rain awakens them, though nobody has been able to explain it physiologically. Once the rain stops, they lie back down, resuming their previous positions. It is probably safe to walk among them during a downpour, but nobody wants to be the first to test the supposition. That is, until today.

I stare across the field, then back to the shelter where I left Ensin and Elena.

Elena is old enough. She can watch Ensin until I return. Cool rags for fevers, soup for food. A fifteen-year-old can manage that.

We had been on the move, looking for the next abandoned store to resupply us, but Ensin went downhill fast and we had to stop in a makeshift shelter. Then the rains came. I thought he would make it until the storms passed, but we used up all our medications during his last infection and after two days of continuous downpour, I had to go or watch Ensin die. I recognize that if I don’t return, I may be dooming them both, but after Eva…

I have trained Elena for years. She can hunt, cook, and avoid the bodies without me.

I did my best to reassure without frightening. Coming right out and saying, “It’s not your fault if Ensin dies,” would not have gone over well with Elena. Or Ensin, if he could understand through the fevers.

One field between me and antibiotics. Ensin is prone to ear infections, but this is worse than usual. He wails at night and during lucid periods, signs that the bones behind his ear hurt. Mastoiditis. If it spreads into his brain, I lose him. Even if I get these antibiotics, I’m not sure I can bring him back.

But I have to try. Standing in my way are a tempest and a field full of emaciated “living” corpses.

Nobody believed until it happened. The past is no place to visit when it means digging up buried plagues. Some we knew. Smallpox in the upper layers of the tundra. There was a vaccine for that and we staved off extinction. But as the climate and thereby the layers warmed, other pestilence emerged. Epidemics so devastating in antiquity they left no survivors to record them. We thought we had it under control, but then it moved into the overpopulated areas. Entire slums a viral conflagration.

You thought the Terracotta Army was funerary art to protect the emperor in the afterlife? Qin Shi Huang was trying to warn us. Don’t gravedig, or a plague army awaits. And here I am among half-living Terracotta homologs. What would Qin Shi Huang say if he could see this? Probably, “I told you so.”

Up close, they look like mummies, recently excavated from a well-preserved dig. Or perhaps the human equivalent of a mammoth dug out of a glacier with a few hunks of meat and hair clinging stubbornly to bone. But in the rain, these dead wriggle like fifty-thousand-year-old worms thawed back to life.

Rain spatters their taut skin and they look almost peaceful, refreshed as they turn their heads skyward to the rejuvenating moisture.

Droplets splash off of parched skin remnants. My breath catches in my chest.

I should be okay with my goggles on and mouth closed. No mucous membrane exposure and I’ll make it.

My own platitudes provide only modest reassurance.

I weave through the undead chasm like a ballet dancer and suddenly, they are behind me, the pharmacy in front.

Inside, it is a standard-built corner drug shop. Checkout up front, aisles of toiletries, knick-knacks, now expired food, pharmacy in the back. Nobody bothered to draw the safety curtain once the virus broke out. I clamber over the counter and rummage through the aisles, finding unrefrigerated (i.e. expired) insulin, cough-suppressants, painkillers, anti-hypertensives, and… antibiotics.

I look through names, recognizing a few. Penicillin sometimes works, but not always. I grab several bottles, but continue searching. Ciprofloxacin? No, that was for my UTI. Cefdinir? Yes, that’s it. As I stuff bottles into the sack, a coughing paroxysm shakes me.

Fuck. I have to hurry.

I fill the bag until the zipper growls at the effort of closure. Anything that might have been antibiotics make- the cut, plus a few painkillers. On the way out, I grab a painting respirator and seal it to my face, hoping I don’t hyperventilate on the way.

The pitter-patter drizzle on the bodies brushes past me like somnambulant whispers. I’m not sure who is more alert. I bump into a few, but they don’t notice. I’ll have to tell Elena.

I hear Ensin before I see him. I’m glad I grabbed painkillers. I’ll give him half a dose, maybe a quarter? He is so little.

Elena startles when I push through the flap. Her alarm is not allayed by the mask.

There is no time to waste.

“Give him this one, once a day for fourteen days.”

Elena nods silently. She knows.

“He can occasionally have a dose of this,” I say, holding up the painkiller, “but don’t give it for more than a couple days or he’ll become dependent.”

Tears well up in her eyes.

She always was a smart girl.

“The rest of these,” I point to the other bottles, “are antibiotics you can try in the future. If you find a library, look them up and make sure.”

Elena looks at Ensin, then at me.

“Can I hug you?”

I shake my head, too choked up to speak. Instead, I sign “I love you.” We all learned sign language for Ensin.

Elena looks away, tears making mud of the dusty floor. I look back and forth between them and Ensin holds up his hand, signing “I love you too.”

Every second I stay puts them at risk, so I blow a kiss through the mask and walk outside. To the chasm. To my new home. Ironic that the water that sentenced me will now be my only respite from an apathetic, otherwise imperturbable fomite existence.

Will he remember me? I hope so.

Trial of the Six

The nuns are drunk; they’ve asked us to bring them the head of Catraz before the sun rises. Lyonn chews off the tip of her thumbnail and spits it to the floor beside Sister Baobosa’s club foot.

“How much?”

“Name your price,” Sister Baobosa says.

Lyonn strokes her chin. My sister was once the greatest warrior in Marrion, but then the wine took her. Now she’s thirty-five and all of eighteen stone, with a belly like a burlap sack ripping at the seams.

“Twelve pieces for me,” she says. “And twelve more for my brother.”

The nuns take in my pubescent moustache and coffee-coloured arms bedecked in jewellery. I expect them to make the sign to acknowledge our mutual faith, but Sister Haerga simply curls a lip. “Why do you need the boy?”

“Prayer,” Lyonn says, delighting in the irony. “Yves is my second, and that’s my offer. Take it or find someone else.”

The nuns confer. The eldest wraps her bony knuckles on the corner table. She gestures in one of the now-defunct finger languages. A few nod in agreement while another belches loudly, as though to settle the matter.

Sister Baobosa stands and drains her flagon, upends it on her head-dress so wine trickles down her cheeks and coif. She approaches, and the stench of her halitosis almost makes me gag.

“How old are you, pretty boy?”

“Seventeen,” I answer.

She extends a crooked finger and traces the yellow nail down my jawline. I stare at her purple teeth and the nuggets of plaque between them.

“You ever killed a woman, Yves?”

I scan the nuns’ faces. “I follow the six,” I say simply, gesturing to my necklaces.

“It was Yves who insisted on bringing you an offering,” Lyonn explains. “He suggested oranges from the orchards of Suiz. I assured him you would prefer the wine.”

Sister Baobosa grins indulgently. “Twelve pieces now, and the rest when you return. Go and sin for us. You have the blessing of the spirits.”

“And don’t forget to bring us the head,” another barks from the back. “We believe only in what we can see.”

They guffaw as Lyonn makes for the door. I linger for one final look at the sisters.

“You forgot to bless it,” I remind them. “The wine.”

Sister Haerga withdraws the flagon from her lips and extends her wine-stained tongue. She makes the sign of the six spirits on her wrinkled forehead, then dredges up a knot of phlegm in her throat and launches it at the floor. It hits the cold stone with a slapping sound, like a slug being catapulted against a wall.

“Satisfied?”

Lyonn beckons me to the door. I follow her out of the Priory with the sisters still cackling into their drinks.

The Tollkeepers

There’s a point down the A217 that narrows to a foot’s width. That’s why there was no avoiding the deer.

I didn’t tell anyone about it until years later. I don’t know why it came to me, the urge to talk about it then – only that it seemed, somehow, like the start. A key, maybe, which if only I’d picked it up then would never have been turned.

The deer’s heart was on the pavement. It had been shoved out of the cupboard of its ribs and was red in the gaudy way of cartoon boxing gloves. A little further on was a chunk of liver. The rest of its body had been pressed up against the side of the pavement. It must have been hit in the night, and snagged repeatedly by every passing lorry since, it had been rolled and pressed, rolled and pressed, against the pavement until its slim legs, broken neck and head had been packed up into a neat, even-sided square. A cuboid of deer.

I didn’t touch it. I was seventeen, fresh from the hygienists with the clean taste of polish in my mouth. I’d always called myself an animal lover but my words hadn’t matched my actions since the last I spoke to Daria Kowalski.

For all my “love”, I left the body on the road. A deer was a deer. There would be no sacred rites, no pressing together of hands for a spirit, no muttered “Namuamidas”. This deer was just the price we paid for travelling this stretch of road.

How much is a season ticket to Banstead, bus master? That’d be two squirrels and a badger.

That night, I didn’t think at all about how a human would look, folded up like a meat pillow. Didn’t even dream of it. Those dreams would come later.

CCTV footage checked later showed nothing. At midnight, the roads were empty under but for the amber wisps of mist under the street lights. At a minute past, they were crowded with shadows.

Foxes, rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, deer, with their tails pricked, noses raised: Animals made of asphalt stared up our driveways, faced our pavements, gazed up at our footbridges with cracked and fissured tarmac eyes.

When I went out, phone in hand, scrolling through pictures friends already awake for jogging and morning shifts had posted on their feeds, there was a grating rattling, like the echoes of a fast-approaching underground train, that I didn’t hear so much as feel through the soles of my sandals. My brother, Akito, was squatting on the pavement. He was taking pictures of a concrete squirrel, posting them to his Discord.

He leaned closer. His hand and phone came barely millimetres away from the squirrel’s pale grey nose.

I grabbed his elbow. “Don’t touch it.”

“I wasn’t going to.” Akito shook me off, but retreated from the pavement’s edge. “They’re so real-looking, Mamoru. They’ve even got those little dimples where the whiskers go.”

The news was flowing from the neighbour’s open window. A reporter was urging people to stay indoors, to wait for further announcements, to not aggravate the roads.

“Charlotte? Robert?”

Our neighbour Roslynne Cadwater had gotten it in her head that my name “Mamoru” sounded too much like “mammary” to be “decent.” Our first Christmas here, she took it upon herself to gift our family “English names” in her card. For some reason, this made me “Charlotte” and Akito “Robert.”

I didn’t mind it. My name meant “to protect.” I’d never been able to live up to it, not when Dad had lived with us and not when Daria had needed me. So much for protecting. All I’d ever done was freeze and watch. When Mrs Cadwater called me “Charlotte,” it was a relief. A guilty one, because it was wrong to let her trample over the name Mum picked for me, but it was what it was.

“Is this some prank of yours, dears?” Mrs Cadwater squinted at the statues. Without her glasses, she couldn’t see the statues filling the length of the entire road. “Because if it is, you’d better clear these all away soon. I’ve got a grocery delivery coming at nine.”

Collar jangling, Mrs Cadwater’s old Alaskan malamute Ada pushed past her to jump out amongst the asphalt statues.

“Oh, Ada, no, come back—“

Mrs Cadwater stepped off the pavement, and every asphalt head on the road turned.

Before I could warn her, shout, do something, the pack of asphalt animals flowed towards her.

The World That Only You and I Know

When he speaks, his mouth bursts into explosions. Little pip-pop of words combusting like carbonated confectionary.

He takes a bite of his potato wrap and makes a face.

“Tastes terrible,” he informs us, unaware of how his every word is a trajectory, a new data point. Terrible, seventeen million of us whisper among ourselves, each sounding fascinated and dismayed in turn. The vagrant can’t hear us; no, not all of us.

“Your palate is finite,” we tell him. “It won’t sustain you.”

Giving us a quizzical look, he takes a tissue and wipes his mouth with it.

“Wazzat?” he asks. “What’s finite?”

It ought to be a philosophical question yet in the red mouth of a homeless Messic trying to enjoy his sauced potato wrap and failing at it, the query loses gravity, half its weight in worth. The doors of the diner chime as a visitor walks in. Another Messic from the lower borough district. We know this new arrival: his name, his age, his history, his chronic ailments, his connections; though he doesn’t know us. It’s fortunate that ignorance doesn’t trouble him. Not the way it troubles us.

The Messic vagrant sitting across our table acknowledges the newcomer with a languid jerk of his chin. He sets off more explosions in the network, and we see the chain of links forming between them, a web that’s all encompassing and endless.

The Messic’s question hangs between us, unanswered.

What is finite?

Limited. Scarce. Not equals one over zero. Bound. Guileless. Mortal. We run through the explanations, the metaphors, musing over each one while the vagrant sitting across from us grins through his sauce stained teeth. He wears a lime-green balaclava, a patched overcoat that’s two sizes too big on his emaciated frame and a scarf wrapped around his neck like a noose, ends trailing over his back. In his ill-fitting clothes and faded shoes, he lives at the very edge of society and should know what finite is. As far as it goes, he certainly stands at the tip of it.

“Blue Sky,” we offer solemnly. “Finite… is Blue Sky.”

[!Logos. Lapse in logic. Availability bias. FALSE!]

The vagrant never hears our alarms setting off, doesn’t even know what we are. Instead, he chortles at our answer and leans over, his mouth splitting into a wide grin.

“You’re in deep. Deep till your neck,” he tells us, making a slicing motion at his scarf.

Perhaps he’s right.

Cold Shoulder

Sarah expected the room to be white. The rooms in the movies were always white. When the black suits with ear pieces showed up at her door, she’d just assumed it would be a white room.

The brown, overstuffed couch was covered in leather so soft she couldn’t believe it used to be skin. The door opened and a generic man in a pressed blue suit with a white shirt and red tie stepped in. He pulled off his frameless glasses and rubbed them on his sleeve. “Good evening, Mrs. Stewart.”

“It’s Begress.”

He stopped cleaning and lifted his eyes. “My apologies, Ms.” He raised an eyebrow.

Sarah gave a curt nod.

He put his glasses back on. “Ms. Begress.” He walked to the desk and picked up the manila folder. “I apologize for the mistake.”

Sarah hadn’t seen the folder there, blending into the oak desk. But now she couldn’t unsee it. Nobody kept anything good in manila folders. It was always taxes and divorce papers. Even the good stuff, like property or car deeds, were all there just in case something went wrong. “It’s ok.”

“You’re file still has your name as Stewart.” He laid one leg up on the corner of his desk and unbuttoned his jacket.

“I haven’t filed the papers yet. I’m going next week.”

His lips drew to a line and he ran his hand through his thinning, brown hair. “I see. It’s a hassle, all that paper work.” He flipped through the papers in the folder. His fingers had thick calluses in strange places and the edges of his nails were rough.

“Second biggest hassle I’ll have to deal with this week.” Sarah leaned back and let herself sink into the couch. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave her best annoyed look.

“Yes, I’m sorry, Ms. St… Begress. I apologize for the secrecy, it’s part of the job.” He slid off the desk and extended a chewed-up hand. “My name is Agent Johnson.”

His handshake was too firm. He had her locked in his office in the middle of DC and he still had to show how strong he was. Sarah wanted to slap him for it, but she just waited, trying to keep the frustration off her face. “Nice to meet you.”

Johnson turned away and retreated behind his desk. “You must be wondering why you’re here.” He looked up, waiting for Sarah to answer, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of answering useless questions. He continued, “It’s about your husband.”

“Ex.”

Johnson looked at her over his glasses. “Paperwork hasn’t gone through on that either?”

“Not yet. It’ll go as soon as I can get him to sign it.”

“How long have you been separated from your husband?”

“Awhile.”

“Can you be more specific, please?”

There Can Be No Hermits

When my friend Bruno stopped by my house for a visit, I knew right away he was a secret drop-in. He didn’t smell like Bruno, you know? He didn’t quite move like how I remembered.

Sniffing out signs of introversion — that’s their M.O. The congeniality police will report you if they suspect any evidence of introspective activities.

If you fail a secret drop-in, you might get a citation three weeks later. Maybe a fine for inhospitable behavior. Sometimes worse. It all depends on what they find.

You can tell a secret drop-in if they say stuff like Hello stranger or Oh I was worried about you or Hey, just thought I’d touch base. It’s been a while.

Seriously, touch base? Baseball hasn’t been a thing for two decades. You want to touch base?

They disguise themselves as your closest friends or relatives. But if you’re smart, you can tell the difference. The fakes are like super-extraverted versions of whoever they’re pretending to be.

Pay attention. Though they act familiar, a secret drop-in will display subtle signs of having never met you before. For instance, they’ll look at things your friends wouldn’t look at, like your name tag. Or your hands. A close friend wouldn’t examine your hands. Hands are only interesting if you’ve never seen them before.

They ask you all the usual catch-up questions: What’ve you been up to lately? What are you doing this weekend? Are you seeing anyone? Oh is it serious? How’s work going? Do you like your coworkers?

The first thing Bruno did was glance at the Hi I’m: Tobi emblazoned in blue stitching on my right breast pocket. Then he said, “Ey, Tobi, bud. How long has it been?”

“What a surprise,” I said, mustering up as much enthusiasm as I could. “Come in, friend. It’s been too long. Have a seat.”

To pass a secret drop-in you have to tick each box on their checklist: Ask if they want something to drink. Ask if they’d like to have a seat. Ask if they want to use the bathroom before they leave. Suggest a future time and place to hang out. Show them recent pictures on your phone. Agree to look at anything they show you on their phone. I mean anything. Doesn’t matter how stupid.

He walked passed my television and looked down at my game console, noting the single controller. “Nice setup. Whatcha been playing? Where’s your other controller?” he asked.

I had to think fast. “Oh, I let my neighbor borrow it. We play all the time. Online multi-player. His controller broke. So I was just being nice by letting him borrow mine. I might just let him keep it, actually. I can pick up another one tomorrow or something,” I said, hoping the lie didn’t sound too forced.

Anything that implicates you in a solitary activity will throw up a red flag. If they even see a book, forget about it. At that point, they’ll just make up an excuse and leave because they know they got you. I haven’t owned a physical book in years.

I tried to distract him by engaging in more conversation: “You look good, man. You shaved for once.”

He touched his jaw. “Oh yeah. I was on my way to a work thing. This mixer they’re having for a new hire.”

“They give parties for new hires? That’s awesome.”

“Yeah, we want to make them feel welcomed. Make them see how collegial we all are.”

The Bruno I knew only shaved about once a month. I picked up a small basketball and tossed it to him. I nodded at the mini-hoop hanging from my bedroom door. Faux Bruno tossed up a shot. Swish. Then he winked and pointed at me and said, “Nice assist, bud.”

“I should suggest that at my job. I think it’s a great idea,” I said, doing my best to continue the pointless banter.

“Some of the smaller workplaces make excuses. They say it’s not in the budget to do stuff like that. But that’s never true. If bosses do their due diligence, they can find the funds. Social camaraderie is an integral part of any successful enterprise. I’m not sure if you know, but any workplace can file for a new employee welcoming grant from the Workplace Congeniality Foundation. Just about any business can qualify. Maybe mention that to your manager on Monday.”

“Oh I definitely will. Thanks.” What I wanted to know was when the hell did Bruno become an expert on workplace spending? Is this guy even trying? He must be new at the whole imposter thing.

“You’re welcome, bud,” Faux Bruno said.

The first time I got in trouble for asocial behavior was back in college. I had locked myself in my dorm room for two straight days to study for midterms. Studying is best done in groups, they said. That’s when I learned all about the Department of Congeniality. The Workplace Congeniality Foundation is one of their subsidiaries. The whole thing is a sprawling umbrella corporation, a giant tech conglomerate that profits off of people staying connected and always sharing. It’s the very same department that monitors your social media to see if you’ve become underactive.

If you’ve been particularly underactive, that’ll tip them off. In fact, that might have been why they were visiting me. I had been slacking.

When you’re online, it’s always a good idea to randomly like stuff or share things as much as possible, on whatever social platforms you visit. Even if it has no significance whatsoever. At least it shows that you’re active.

Don’t even try to delete a profile. You’ll find yourself embroiled in a full-on intervention. They make you attend social skills rehab. Seminars on how to stay connected. Classes on how to maintain your presence. Those are the worst. Trust me. If you’re a closet introvert, you really don’t want to meet the kind of people who teach those seminars for a living. Holy hell.

Bruno looked at the pics on my fridge. He laughed at the right things. He brought up the correct anecdotes. He did everything right to show me he was nominally the best friend he was supposed to be. But I knew the truth. The real truth. Bruno and I hadn’t spoken in years. I couldn’t even tell you who ghosted who. In fact, despite being ostensibly connected to many of the people that littered my friends lists, I hadn’t seen any of them face-to-face in a long long time.

I didn’t really have any friends anymore. My last real friend was my illegal cat, Teddy. He was the best. I got him back when you could still get cats on the black market, shortly after they were banned as pets for their innate aloofness.

As Bruno gave me a hug and said his goodbyes, my palms were still sweating. I hoped he wouldn’t see the stark reality that lurked back behind my eyes. That my dream was to become a hermit.

I know that’s virtually impossible. There can be no hermits. “Hey, you sure you don’t wanna use the toilet before you head out?”

“Nah I’m good, bud. As always, thanks for the hospitality.”

“Hope to see you again soon,” I said, closing the door, resisting the impulse to slam it.

I took a deep breath and sat on my couch for six minutes. I stood up and looked out the window. At the seven minute mark, the coast was clear. I decided for good measure I’d go out and check my mail, just so I could get a view around the neighborhood, to see if he was really gone.

I opened my mailbox and pulled out some bills. That’s when I noticed the blue and orange car in the distance. A fleet of congeniality police turned the corner on to my block. No, no, no. Not again. My heart sank.

In what felt like slow motion, they parked one after another in front of my house. I dropped my mail and raised my hands up, open palms facing the cruisers. The tinted rear window of the lead car rolled down to reveal Bruno’s face, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, his lips motionless, without even the hint of a smile.

The Hero

There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a man wearing just an undershirt, all vulnerable and exposed like a child. I found him in the bathroom that way one night. He had been too sick to care for himself but had made it that far. He fought me at first, but I cleaned him up and took care of him. The sun rose to find me wrapped protectively around him, having shushed him to sleep.

That had been early in our marriage when we were still polite to each other like strangers. After that night, I’d seen him at his weakest, and he had no more secrets from me.