Arts Feature

Brief excerpts from the NaNoWriMo novels.

Excerpt from Best Intentions
If you ask me, it all started with that damn fire truck. One morning this thing came barreling down our street, wailing and flashing and roaring like a fart from God, just when Davy was sitting on the porch eating his Doritos. You see, Davy wasn’t too bright. Retarded in some way. Couldn’t handle school after the first grade and dropped out. Twenty years old, and the man could barely make it down to the corner grocery by himself, and don’t even think about asking him to count money—thank God old Parker knew he was slow and wouldn’t cheat him when he was giving back his change.

Davy liked bright flashing things, too. We’ve got this old strobe light that belonged to our Dad back in the ’80s, and at least once or twice a week Davy would go get it out of the closet, and we’d find him sitting on his bed with the strobe in his lap, flashing it right in his face. We’d take it away from him, try to tell him it was bad for his eyes, but he’d be right back the next time. And he had this old toy police car from when he was a kid, and it still worked, and he’d turn it on and run the siren and let the lights flash, just like when he was four. Mom would tell him to turn it off, but he loved it.

So you can imagine what happened when that fire truck came down our street. I don’t know how Davy had made it that long without seeing a fire truck, but he just went nuts. You know how kids get when they see something like that—well, Davy was just like a little kid. I was watching the football game in the living room and heard the siren off in the distance. It started getting louder, and next thing I knew there was this high-pitched moan coming from just outside the door.

I got up to make sure Davy was OK and made it to the door just in time to see the truck go by. I looked to the right, and Davy was standing up with his arms in the air, just howling at the truck like a dog. I guess he was trying to sound like the siren, because his voice went up and down just like it. He had this huge smile on his face, too, like it was the most incredible goddamn thing he’d ever seen.

“Jesus Christ, Davy, knock it off,” I said. “Neighbors are gonna think we’re torturing you.”

He just kept going on with the howling and the waving, turning to watch the back of the fire truck as it headed off down the street. Then all of a sudden, he jumped down over the steps and took off after the truck at top speed, waving and yelling the whole time.

“Shit,” I said, and ran after him.

—Brian Stovall

Excerpt from Behind the Iris
On the line was a colleague who’d just gotten her email. Ken Shore from San Francisco was one of her favorites, something of a celebrity amongst other archivists, a man who showed up at conferences in suits and silk ties the color of green olives. He was a smart researcher, able to lay his hands on layers and layers of historic records within minutes, but he always watched Iris with curiosity, as if her occasional presentations were both charming and unorthodox, which, Iris was willing to admit, they may be.

“Tell me,” said Ken from California. “Why are you ghost hunting? ‘Move things with her mind?’” he quoted.

“I know, I know,” sighed Iris. “It’s as believable as snake-charming. But have you ever seen the woman in this photo? Or the child?”

“I can’t even make out her face. Don’t you have anything clearer?”

Iris didn’t have anything clearer. Clarity, in fact, was exactly what was missing from her entire hunt. But she’d decided, just weeks after Edith died, that she would finally pursue this family secret, and she didn’t want to let Kurt from California know that it was personal.

“I don’t have anything else,” she said. “This is just a little side project for a local amateur historian. Thinks this woman might have been a member of her family.”

Kurt was silent for a minute. Iris imagined him staring into the child’s face.

“Well, it’s interesting enough anyway, especially with that mirror in the shot.”

Iris hadn’t noticed a mirror. She picked up the original again.

“Is that what’s in the little girl’s hand?” she asked. She squinted down at the fingers wrapped around something fuzzy and gray. She noticed just a glint of light thrown along the floor and over the toes of the woman’s slippers. A tiny reflection of light flew off the buckles of her shoes and illuminated the ruffles of the woman’s skirt.

“Why is that interesting?” she asked.

Kurt gave a little huff. “Doesn’t strike you as odd? A hand mirror in a family portrait?”

“Not as odd as the fact that the woman’s face is almost completely obscured by her movement,” said Iris. “It’s like the camera caught her recoiling from a slap.”

“Hmm,” said Ken, smoothly. He had a vibrant sort of music in his voice. “Well, you might want to brush up on your pre-Victorian imagery. Hand mirrors, like roses, like specific colors, were visual metaphors. A hand mirror was a sign of one of two things. It either meant the bearer was vain, like some great beauty, or it signified something very different: She needed protection.”

“What?” Iris said, and she squinted again at the original. “What would a 2-year-old need protection from?”

Ken sighed. “This was America in the early 20th century. What didn’t a child need protection from?”

Ken went on.

“In popular bedtime stories, a mirror, held up to certain threats, shows no reflection. If it was in the woman’s hand, or on her dressing table, it might have been a sign of the woman’s desirability, a visual cue to tell the viewer that she was in her prime, much courted. In the child’s hand, however, it’s more likely to mean that the pair of them needed saving.”

“Huh,” said Iris, looking hard at those little fingers, blurred on the handle of the mirror.

“Why would the mirror be pointed toward the floor then?” she asked.

“Well, it probably means that the girl’s safe with her mother,” said Kurt. “She can relax.”

“But isn’t this a completely weird thing to document?” asked Iris, staring at the buckles on the impossibly small feet of her great-grandmother.

“Odd, sure. But maybe this wasn’t really a family portrait. Didn’t you say the woman performed? Could this be a botched shot from some promotional photo-op or something?”

Iris realized she knew nothing about the event of the image. It had seemed simple to her. Odd, but simple.

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “What do you think?”

“Well, honestly, I wouldn’t know. I just called because I might have a match on the little girl. Long shot, but …”

Iris sat up straighter. The line sat dead for a moment, and Iris could imagine Ken smiling, taunting her with his version of a dog biscuit. Archivists are teases, she reminded herself.

“You know what happened to her,” said Iris.

—Chrisanne Beckner

Excerpt from Glamour Boys
She walked back over to the dresser and stood with her back to me, across the bed, looking in the mirror at me behind her. I started to loosen my tie.

“No,” she said, “not yet.” I stopped, slowly lowered my hands to my sides. “I’ll tell you when.”

She raised her hands and reached down behind her neck, unbuttoning the first two buttons down the back of her dress. Then she turned around to face me. Reaching around behind her, she started undoing the other buttons, beginning at the bottom just below her waist, arching her back as her fingers moved higher. Her long, lithe, limber dancer’s arms made it look effortlessly graceful.

“I want to explain something to you, Dill,” she said. “I hope you’ll understand, but it really doesn’t matter whether you do or not.”

She slid the dress off her shoulders and down to her knees, stepped out of it and hung it from the corner of the mirror. She walked to the head of the bed, turned down the covers and sat on the white sheet. As she undid the garters on her right stocking she said, “When I kissed you in New York that time, I said it would never happen again.” The stocking was off, floating to the floor. “I didn’t think it would. I’m not even sure why it happened then. I could say I was drunk, but I wasn’t. I knew what I was doing, and I did what I wanted.” She dropped the other stocking.

She stood up. “What I’m doing now—what I’m going to do—well, the rules are the same.” She reached down, took the hem of her slip and pulled it up over her head. She shook her hair out and hung the slip from the mirror, on top of her dress. “Maybe this will happen again, maybe not. I don’t know anymore.” Sliding the garter belt down over her hips, she let it fall in a ring around her feet. She stepped to one side. Watching me again in the mirror, she undid the hooks on the back of her brassiere. “But don’t ever speak of it. Not a word.” She took the brassiere off and set it down on the dresser.

She hooked her thumbs in the waist of her panties and pulled them down. She bent at the waist and with one foot pushed the panties to the floor and held them there while she pulled the other foot free. She turned around and faced me. She was completely, un-self-consciously nude, and she looked me straight in the eye.

“I like you, Dill, but I don’t love you. If I did, I don’t think I could do this. I’m doing it not because I don’t love Randy, but because I do. Not because I’m leaving him, but because I won’t. Is that clear?”

I nodded.

“Good.” She got into the bed and pulled the covers up, turning onto her right side, her elbow on the pillow and her head resting in her hand. She gazed at me with tranquil eyes. “Turn out the light and open the door just a little.”

I did as I was told. A shaft of light from the living room and the pale yellow glow of a streetlight through the curtained window made the room a labyrinth of shadows. Nancy’s eyes glistened in the dim light, still regarding me calmly.

“Get undressed and come to bed,” she said. “Don’t hurry. Take your time.”

When I turned back the covers and got in, she slid across the bed to me. One hand caressed the back of my head, and the other reached down to find me and guide me to her. A moment later, her arms and legs enveloped me, gathering me to her in a warm sliding motion. Her body rolled and rounded, moving in a sinuous dance to secret unheard music. Her breath came in waves and buffets, growing deep and forceful, rising at times like a storm wind, but her voice made not a sound. At my ear I felt her lips move, forming silent words I could not know. We moved, rose, arched, tensed and then hovered suspended while time froze and we held our breaths, at last spiraling down into dark and bottomless silence.

I must have slept, because suddenly she was gone, as quietly and completely as if she had never been there at all.

—Jim Lane

Excerpt from Shooting Fish
Jessica was back in the office, too, asking concerned questions about whether anyone had heard from Giles and how Elise was doing. Simone looked over. “What do you mean, has anyone heard from Giles?” she asked.

“Haven’t you heard?” said Bella. “He disappeared in the middle of the shoot. Just—poof! Gone!”

“Gone?” said Simone. “What do you mean, gone?”

“He just left, I suppose, and he hasn’t turned up since,” said Bella. “It’s not unlike him, really, he’s so unpredictable.”

“In the middle of a shoot, though,” said Jessica. “That’s weird. He usually gets obsessive at shoots.”

“That’s true,” said Bella. “Most of the time, to get him off of a set when he’s said he’ll be styling you’d more or less need a crowbar.”

Jessica nodded. “I think something strange is going on,” she said.

“Well, those Russian guys were pretty threatening,” said Sasha. “Maybe he decided to go on the lam or something when he heard about them.”

Russian guys?” said both Jessica and Simone. Lucy explained what had happened at the shoot, with the guys who had come to find Giles. As she finished the story—leaving out, of course, the part about the cell-phone number and her deduction that the same guys had called and threatened Giles previously—they heard a pained gasp from the foyer. Nobody had seen Elise come in, but she had been standing there and heard the story, and to everyone’s dismay she started to cry, in big gulping sobs. She looked tired and afraid, her hair was in a mess, and she was wearing no makeup—all most unusual for the usually well-groomed and consciously well-preserved Elise.

“He just hasn’t called or come home at all,” Elise gulped out between sobs. “Hasn’t anyone heard from him?”

They all said no. “And our bank account …”

Everyone looked at her, with no idea what to say to comfort her; it was hard to work up any sympathy for the usually tough-as-nails and bitchy Elise, in any case, and now she was having something of an embarrassing meltdown.

“Your bank account?” said Bella.

“It’s gone,” wailed Elise. “All the money … just gone.”

“Wait, so now he’s just buggered off with all your money?” Bella said. “And you haven’t heard from him at all? Did he leave you a note or a message or anything on Tuesday?”

Elise just sobbed, shuddering.

“Well, it seems rather obvious that we should call the police,” said Bella, showing an unwonted burst of good sense, and everyone else nodded in agreement. “He’s vanished into thin air and left his mobile behind, and he’s been gone nearly two days. I don’t think we should mess about anymore with wondering where he is.”

They all looked to Elise to make the call, but she just sat, crying. Jessica went to her with a box of Kleenex, and she took one, wadding it up into a damp little ball against her freely running eyes and nose. Jessica patted Elise on the shoulder and quietly led her into Carrie’s office, which was the most private part of the magazine’s office space. Everyone seemed relieved to be free of the uncomfortable spectacle of watching Elise break down—Sasha in particular, who had always thought of Elise as something of a caricature and found her burst of emotion unwelcome and unflattering.

“Right, then,” said Bella. “Who’s going to call? And where do we even call? 911?”

“I don’t think we need to call 911, do you?” said Lucy. “It’s for actual emergencies. Giles has been gone for two days, so either he’s left of his own accord or something has happened to him, but it’s not exactly an urgent situation. He’s not having a heart attack or something.”

“Just call the police station,” said Simone. “They might even have a missing-persons branch. Look in the phone book.”

They unearthed a phone book from under Charlene’s desk and found a number that looked promising. “Right, so who’s going to call?” repeated Bella.

“Well, shouldn’t Elise call?” said Lucy. “I mean, she’s not a next of kin or anything since they’re not married, but she’s kind of his partner, right?”

“I suppose she should, but she’s plainly in no state,” said Bella.

“Well, why don’t you?” said Simone. “You’ve known him longer than anyone else.”

“I’d really rather not,” said Bella. “My visa … well, let’s just say I’d rather not talk to the police about how I’m working in this country if I can help it.”

—Kate Washington

Excerpt from Hannah Finn
It was fitting that the last time I seen him was in the ruins of a poker game. The first time I laid eyes on the old man, and he seemed old even then, was when he was playing poker with my pa in the room back of a store at a river tie-up too small to even have a name. I’d been sleeping under the table, but the game got heated up, and some of the men—probably Finn, because he was that way whether he was winning or losing—started kicking his feet. I took a boot in the ribs, and it woke me right up, even if I’d been able to sleep through the grunting and cussing. I popped out from under the table and heard him ask where the hell I’d come from.

—What’s the matter, Finn? Scared of a little girl?

—I ain’t scared of nothin’ that’s still livin’. An’ she ain’t so damn little.

And I wasn’t, I guess; I was all of fourteen. I’d been drifting along the river with my pa for a couple of years after cholera took my ma, both my little brothers, and almost took me and pa. We’d left the town we settled in and headed up to Saint Louis for a while, but pa started drinking, and we never stayed anywhere for long after that. Sometimes he’d leave me to work somewhere, house help someplace where they were too poor to have slaves, and he’d go off with trappers and traders to try and make some money. He was always promising that we’d settle someplace else, once he got some money, but he managed to drink it up or lose it in a poker game or buy a horse that wasn’t what it seemed to be. Without my ma to keep him steady, he was just one of those kind of men.

One summer, he left me with a German family in Ludwig and went off to the rendezvous with a couple of trappers and a load of corn liquor, sure he was going to get rich selling it to the Indians, or die trying. More likely die trying; at least that was what the frau said. But he came back about a year later, broke as always, this time with a few new scars and just enough money to pay for a stay in Saint Louis while he tried to scramble for something else to do.

I don’t remember what we’d been up to that year, but we’d ended at that tie-up, where all sorts of riff-raff and river men stopped in to buy liquor and play cards, and every once in a while pick up some supplies. The only females in the place were me and an old whore who worked out of a tent out back of the store. She usually had a line waiting if there were many boats, canoes or rafts tied up at all, and I got nervous at the way some of the men were looking at me. And I was tired, because once my pa started playing cards, he’d never stop until all his money was gone. So I’d crawled under the table to find a safe place to sleep where I wouldn’t be bothered.

It hadn’t worked.

I rubbed my ribs and looked over at the man who’d kicked me. He wasn’t all that old, I suppose, but his beard and hair was all shot through with gray, and the hair that was black was so black that it made his skin look pasty-white like the belly of a fish. White, that is, where the wide, floppy brim of his hat kept the sun off; every place the sun hit was red as an apple. Frankly, he was whiter than just about any white man I’d ever seen, except for where he was red.

His face wasn’t all that lined, so he couldn’t have been as old as I’d thought at first, but he had a way of twisting it that made him look old, at least until you figured out that he was looking for a way to work you. He’d squint one eye like he was having trouble seeing and look at you sideways, his mouth moving the whole time, only half of what he said clear enough to follow. Maybe he thought talking fast and mumbling at the same time would make folks so irritated they’d just go along to shut him up, but it did seem to work sometimes, which is proof that annoyance has its advantages if you know how to use it. He wasn’t a big man, kind of narrow through both hip and shoulder, and I later found him to be lean and stringy muscled, like a rooster that’s been left to fend for itself for too long and grown rangy on scrub instead of fat on grain. Still, he seemed bigger than he was, mostly because he had a booming voice that got frequent use. Everybody in the place seemed to know him, and no one seemed too pleased about it.

And he was beating my pa at cards, pretty badly. Every cent we had was laid on the table.

I should have left then, wandered down to the river and found something to look at or thrown out a line and tried to catch something worth eating. But I didn’t. My ribs hurt, and I was tired, and I sort of hoped that my pa would lose the hand so we could get in the canoe and head somewhere else.

My pa lost the hand, all right, but then I think he must have lost his mind, too.

—You’re cheating, Finn. You got cards stashed …

He should have known better, and if he hadn’t been drinking, he would have. We didn’t know anybody in the place, and there my pa was, calling a man a cheater and standing up.

Finn shot him before his knees was unbent.

—Kel Munger

Excerpt from Forget Safety
Initially, I thought Robin’s problem was her mother and sister and their emphasis on class rings and cheer competitions and the student council. Her sedate father too busy re-reading Louis L’Amour novels to dream or pursue life himself let alone encourage that in Robin. And that’s been part of it, of course. But I think she was starting to recognize those factors when I came along. You could tell she was waking up, becoming aware that something had been missing, becoming aware of her own self and what it meant that she had just been gliding along. (That’s probably not fair; I mean, does anyone just glide along?)

Later I thought her problem was the base, and if I could just get her to leave Little America, she’d fall in love with Italy the way I did. Or she’d fall in love with writing, or cooking, or dance clubs, or something. She rarely left the circle: barracks, work, enlisted club, Navy Exchange, galley. She didn’t pursue herself, who she might have been beyond that environment.

Now I think her main problem is me. And Italy and writing and learning and living are all just suffering from guilt by association.

She was bright and she was sunny, when I met her. She wore strawberry lip gloss and vanilla-scented lotion of some sort that I would imagine later I could smell in the breeze (as though clouds and wind and water brought her to me in spirit from Sicily). But I’m a romantic. We were two young women in Italy when we met, and that’s a romantic notion in the first place.

Summer in Sicily is warm and windy. When the sirocco blows in over the eastern part of the island all you want to do is shed your skin. The sirocco comes from Africa, from the Sahara and Arabian deserts, where it starts as a dry and dusty force. It picks up moisture over the Med, and by the time the sirocco hits Sicily, its gusts are hot and humid and sometimes still gritty with African dust.

It’s not unbearable; many south-hating Northern Italians still vacation on the island every summer, drawn to its relaxing ruralness, fabulous food and warm nights. But hot days, when the temperature’s in the 90s and the sirocco rolls in, reduce you to a lazy hedonist—to weekends spent napping, drinking, swimming in the deep Ionian Sea.

There are innumerable rocky shores in the city of Catania and its neighbors, and there are beautiful sandy spots up and down the eastern coast—more than 1,000 kilometers of coastline all around the island—but I did most of my swimming in the gulf of Augusta, where trails and staircases lead down to the sea from jagged cliffs. A number of Americans lived in Augusta and nearby Brucoli, 45 minutes from the two main bases in the area and just 30 minutes from Siracusa.

The majority of the bases’ population lived closer to NAS I and II, in the villages and small cities that dot the slopes of the rumbling Mount Etna.

My town, Motta S. Anastasia, was home to a thousand or so Americans, renting homes and apartments near military bus routes. My own apartment, a two-bedroom on the second floor of a building full of widows, looked out upon the volcano—and collected its ash and dust. (My landlady warned me that I wouldn’t be able to keep my floors and furniture clean unless I swept and mopped and dusted frequently. I mostly minded the gravel on my windshield in the mornings.)

Motta was an adorable town, worth painting and putting on a postcard, with its 11th-century castle, cactus and olive trees and citrus orchards, narrow streets, rolling hills and the festival of Sant’Anastasia every August. But it was 13 kilometers inland, and in the summer, that was too far away from the ocean, and altogether too close to the base. So I spent a lot of my weekends in Augusta Bay with friends.

Dan Barnett, one of my closest friends in Sicily, was an aviation electronics mate for HC-4, our local helicopter squadron. He had a big old house in Augusta. And we’d become close to a few of his neighbors, like Salvatore and Paolo, both in their early 20s and going to college in Siracusa. Sometimes I’d stay the whole weekend, the group of us walking each morning down to our favorite coves and returning late in the afternoon, happy and sun-warmed and ready for a glass of table wine. The summer I met Robin, she tagged along as well. That was when our friendship really solidified. Between the awkwardness of the beginning and the aggravation of the end.

Augusta made a work week disappear.

Back then, I was working at the base paper, The Signature, which also did the base public affairs. As the lowest-ranking sailor in a four-person office, I worked some very long hours. I shot pictures, developed and printed them, laid out the paper, did the typesetting, wrote articles, went to ceremonies and tournaments and command events, and held real journalists’ hands when they visited the base. And every Thursday, I drove to Catania in a big old cargo van to pick up the paper, and then I went around the base delivering the damned thing. I was stressed out, to the point of going to counseling for a little while. My lieutenant, a psychotic micromanager who changed her mind five times an hour, didn’t help.

But a weekend at the beach made that all go away.

The city of Catania made that all go away. Sicily in general—Aci Castello, Taormina, cliff-diving into the sea in Augusta, dancing at the discoteca Marabu—the whole place made the Navy so … surprisingly worth it at the end of the day.

—Sarah Sol

Excerpt from Process
So I’m standing in front of Rick’s Dessert Diner, and I’m debating whether or not to go in and buy a brownie. I know what you’re thinking. “She’s worrying about whether or not she should eat a brownie? What is this? A Cathy cartoon? Bridget Jones’ goddamn diary? Is there going to be a calorie total at the start of every chapter?”

I know you’re thinking that because a part of my brain is thinking that, too. It’s totally cliché and vapid to worry about eating dessert in the face of the world’s serious kids-are-starving-in-wherever problems. There’s this entire fashion/diet/exercise industry conspiring to make me feel bad about wanting to eat a brownie—bad enough that I’ll give in and eat 15 of them every night for months, hiding in my closet and crying while smearing chocolate over my face, and then I’ll have to buy bigger clothes and go on Jenny Craig and give them my money, and they’ll win. If I stand here worrying about a brownie, I’m just playing into their scheme.

I know all that. But another part of me honestly worries about gaining weight—the part that gives my thighs a quick frown whenever I’m getting dressed. This part gets picked on mercilessly by the first part I mentioned.

Then there’s the part of me that worries that the first part is picking on the second part and that isn’t healthy. I should love myself just as I am. But who can do that, really, except Jesus? And did he even exist anyway? I mean, he probably did as a historical figure, but as the son of God? And if he did, is his message still relevant today? And how can we even find it, since the Bible’s been tweaked by so many people with different agendas?

My mind follows that tangent for a while before a blinky glitch in Rick’s pink neon sign reminds me that I’m still hovering on the sidewalk, halfway between chocolatey goodness and the safety of home. I abandon theology for the brownie debate, which honestly seems much more relevant to my life.

The dilemma goes way beyond weight and calories and feminism, though. There’s also my guilt about white sugar. I read this book Sugar Blues a while back, which the lady at the co-op said was “a must-read classic” and no one else I’ve talked to has ever heard of. The book was all about how eating refined white sugar has caused so many evils in civilization. For real. The author links sugar consumption to fallen armies, the slave trade, the English having bad teeth. It just went on and on. My mind kind of glazed over during the historical stuff, but then when it got to the parts about refined sugar affecting your brain chemistry and causing everything from mental illness to diabetes to menstrual cramps, I got really spooked.

So I gave up white sugar for years. Literally, years. I compulsively read labels, and I brought my own food to dinner parties, and I was kind of fanatical, to tell the truth. I can get that way sometimes, when my desire to stay healthy gets so intense and difficult to achieve that it starts stressing me out and making me sick instead. I ended up with all these digestive problems, which I’m not blaming on the lack of sugar. It might have been the Reiki healer I went to, or just the fact that I was temporarily living with my parents for a few months and feeling really down on myself.

I was getting worse, so I ended up spending my savings on this holistic nutritionist who charged me $400 to tell me to read this diet book that I could have gotten for $18 at the bookstore without seeing him. The book had this lengthy list of random things not to eat, based on your blood type. I tried to stick to it, but I ended up eating mostly baby carrots for a month, and I lost 12 pounds and felt light-headed and even worse. One night I went to the store in a fit of hunger and bought sourdough bread, microwave popcorn and dark chocolate. I went home and ate them all, and I’ve never had any digestive problems since—which doesn’t make any sense, according to the books.

Anyway, I’ve lightened up since the all-carrot days, but I still feel really guilty when I want to eat something all-out sugary. Sugar Blues wrecked every birthday party I’ve ever been to, I swear. But even as I’m calculating the effect of a brownie’s worth of sugar on my insulin levels, I’m worrying over an even deeper problem: I’m vegan, and the brownie is not.

By now, you’re probably getting the idea that I can be a bit obsessive about whether or not I’m doing the right thing. So take a mind like mine, capable of massive food guilt, and show it a PETA slaughterhouse video at a party when it’s 15 years old, and you can imagine the effect. Ten minutes of downed cows and screaming pigs, and I never touched another animal product again.

Well, not until recently. After years and years of strict veganism—no meat, milk, eggs or dairy products—I’m suddenly starting to cheat. It started at a party where there was no vegan food, and I really needed to eat something, and the pasta with marinara was made with bowtie egg noodles, but I ate them anyway, because the wine was going to my head and, trust me, it was an emergency. But that small deviation has led to others: a mini milk-chocolate bar from the bowl at work, or a muffin at a staff meeting. Nothing seriously creamy, cheesy or meaty, just maybe something with trace dairy products baked in.

But this has me worried, because I feel like maybe one of these small cheats—maybe this very brownie I’m considering—will be the gateway food. And before I know it, I’ll be sitting in Carl’s Jr. chewing on a Six Dollar Burger, wiping cow grease off my lips and yelling, “Yeah, I used to be vegan!” at random passers-by.

The thought makes me shudder, but then again, so did egg noodles. What doesn’t is the brownie. I can see it through the window, alone under some sort of baked-goods bell jar, nestled in a white paper cup.

At this point, while all the different parts of my brain are arguing for and against the two-dollar treat, another part—silent until now—points out that I’ve been standing on the sidewalk swaying from side to side like an impoverished street urchin for some time now. The families inside are staring at me over their milkshakes and cheesecakes.

—Becca Costello

Excerpt from When It’s Over
A shifty, unhandsome 34-year-old man skulking around the basement of a women’s dormitory has a way of provoking suspicion, even among the deeply Yankee souls of Usquatuck, who for efficiency usually bypassed the slow degradation of suspicion in favor of direct distrust. Of course, increasing numbers of attractive, insatiate young men had been detected here over the years, with various fanfare. But this was Dave.

“Excuse me,” he beseeched of a turtlenecked young woman sitting shoeless on the common-room sofa with a notebook in her lap. Her eyes had not diverted from him since his arrival. “Where’s the darkroom?”

“Uh,” she said, slowly rolling the turtleneck up over her exposed skin and toeing for her clogs, “it’s in the basement.” As soon as she’d said it, the girl looked like she needed an airsick bag. She closed the notebook, gathered her clogs, and padded purposefully from the room. As he went searching for the stairs, Dave, the otherwise invisible, felt eyes on him.

When his knock went unanswered, Dave considered going home. But something made him try the knob, and it wasn’t locked. He thought then about throwing the door open, ruining all her pictures in one fell swoop, with a single flash of dull fluorescent light. But the door opened from the inside, and he lurched.

“Hey,” she said. He’d marveled at her composure in front of the library, but she seemed much more at ease here, as if really in her element. As if she too were invisible on the world’s surface.

“I’m sorry,” Dave answered. “You must think I’m a freak.” She briefly scanned the hallway and then motioned him inside the darkroom and closed the door behind them.

“No,” she gently lied, “I understand.” Then she told him she would love to take a picture of him first laying eyes on the other picture of him, but his expression forced her to disclaim that it was just a joke. He hovered as she worked. Dave watched the other exposures come into view, one at a time. He didn’t know much about photography, but these pictures looked real to him, like they were from a magazine. He recognized some of the regular characters from the library, many of whom had always seemed like apparitions to him anyway. Some had looked right into her lens, unfazed.

“Our culture is so obsessed with this impossible concept of beauty and celebrity,” she was saying. “It’s maddening and sickening. I’m trying to be obsessed with the dispossessed.” The rhyme made Dave wonder if he was being teased. “The glamourless, the irrelevant,” she continued. “You’re perfect.” He tried to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t look up from her work. “How they live. How they … divert themselves from all the … relevance. You know?”

He didn’t, really. This wasn’t Usquatuck talk, and Dave’s professional immersion in the town’s assertively bucolic history hadn’t set much of a precedent for parsing it. To a social Darwinist, Usquatuck might appear as an island on which cultural exploration, and, for that matter, simple ambition, had been selected against. The ambitious only came to take vacations from their ambitions, or to lick the self-inflicted wounds of failing to live up to them. Or else they gathered their strength, attended secret meetings of their kind, and planned their shared escapes, never to realize them. It was therefore a matter of some local consternation when the women’s college became accredited, each successive graduating class exuding an unsettling vim and casting eyes further and further outward.

She sighed. “I was doing a thing about people and books. It was just an idea. It’s totally pretentious, isn’t it?”

He didn’t answer.

“It’s the only place I knew I could find people with books.”

“Don’t you have friends who read?”

“I’m so sick of all that college-y stuff. Everybody in my class comes in with pictures of their roommates or unsuspecting homeless people.”

“So you choose unsuspecting people with homes.”

Suddenly he felt as vulnerable as he had the day before. His words had surprised him, and he worried about how she’d respond. Also, he thought he smelled formaldehyde.

“Is anyone in there?” called an authoritative female voice from behind the door.

“Yes,” she said.

“Is everything all right?” the voice asked, sharply.

“Yes, it’s fine.”

With heavy steps, the intruder seemed to leave.

One particularly blurry image evoked a famous picture of Normandy on D-Day that had haunted Dave for years. It prompted him to scold himself for getting so worked up about all this; walking out of the library into an ambush of undergraduate artsiness was nothing compared with being dumped into a storm of Nazi artillery, rained down from sheer, impassable, unfamiliar cliffs. People had actually done that, and died, on behalf of Dave’s ancestors, many of whom were themselves already dead by then anyway.

—Jonathan Kiefer

Excerpt from Dishwasher
Life was over and gone in a second. Max knew that. His friend Carl who he used to know had died suddenly last year. He was only 30 or so, maybe 31. Anyway, he’d gotten sick and started feeling terrible and went to the doctor, and they did some tests. Carl went in for an operation. When they cut him open, there was cancer everywhere. All over. His whole body was riddled with cancer.

Soon after, Carl was dead. Max could still conjure him, see him in front of him like a hologram, his dusty yellow skin and hair, the same color. His acne scars, his baseball cap, his stoner California surfer-dude way of talking. Carl used to rent out the granny flat from Max’s dad for a short time, so they hung out a lot. Then Carl moved in with an aunt in Davis. Then Carl was gone.

That’s why Max washed dishes: It was death. It was difficult to explain, like he couldn’t to his dad, and it went back before his trip to the East Coast and the Hobart cult. It went back to his teenage suicide attempt, standing in a steam-choked bathroom in the shower with the hot water going full blast, razor held against his wrist. It went back to shaving, the primal sense of hygiene that is next to blank, antiseptic death but somehow transcends it and goes to the other side, to pure clean angelic stark light. Max wouldn’t have been able to explain this to anyone, though.

—Justin Allen

Excerpt from Matthew Craggs’ untitled novel
Alicia’s eyes were closed, but she could sense the presence of a warm body sliding upward toward her arched neck. As her lips gently fluttered, Alicia’s fingers began to trace the bed underneath her where her hands lay. Occasionally her nails would catch a small mound of the sheets, and it would be brought along with her fingers on their miniature quests of exploration. A tingling breeze swept through her lower back as it touched upon the cold sheets for the first time. Her breathing had become slow and steady, punctuated with sudden gasps of excitement followed by a slow release that would bring her body back into the rhythm of the night. With a sigh, she shifted her gaze and squinted in front of her.

Despite there being a full moon, the light was barely able to squeeze through the tightened blinds to illuminate her lover. A gently silhouetted figure was perched above her, simultaneously motionless and writhing with kinetic energy. The only distinct feature Alicia could make out were her lover’s lips positioned almost directly above her. Beginning to move, Alicia felt that they were saying her name, but she could hear no sound emerging from their movements. Straining her neck forward, she fought to hear the secret those lips intended to breathe forth. Every nudge forward brought a faintly noticeable increase in the volume of those lips’ words. With a final push of her head forward, Alicia was suddenly confronted by a voice. “Gooooooood mmmooorrrnnnning! You’ve tuned in to 100.5, and it’s now 6:45 a.m.”

“That’s right, Jon! We’re broadcasting from the freezing cold in front of Grind It Up, where we’re celebrating the grand opening. Come by, spin the wheel, win some prizes! We’ll be here until 8 or so, so stop on by …” The radio was swiftly silenced with a crash from Alicia’s hand as she rolled over and looked disgustedly at the alarm clock. The rising sun from outside was splashed over her bed, bathing the white sheets in a warmth that can only come from the dawn. As Alicia stretched her arms into the air, she slid her legs out, trying to shake off the sandman. The covers rolled down her body, riding the curves and dips of her essence as they slowly revealed her waking form.

—Matthew Craggs