On Loving Contemporary Horror Movies

On Loving Contemporary Horror Movies

And so what’s the final temple? What’s our last defense from horrible death? After we have left our homes, all that we’ve got are our bodies. Which is why, so often, possession films are the most terrifying of all: The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Shining (sort of), The Conjuring. The reason we’ve seen such an oversaturation of these stories in recent years is because the horror industry has exhausted all its precedent anxieties. We’ve reached the end of a cycle in which the horror movies have systematically broken our sanctuaries down, violated them, reminded us we aren’t ever safe.

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Beyond the Pale

by John Vercher

Laurie broke my heart. She didn’t mean to. I know that now. I’m sure I knew it then. But still.

My parents transferred me to the public high school after four years in two separate parochial schools. This is to say I knew no one. The first day seemed interminable. Class after class, I extended my hand to introduce myself and met with hard stares and warnings to not get caught in the parking lot alone when the bell rang at the end of the day. That all happened before lunch. Noon came, and I exited the food line, tray in hand and looked out across throngs of unfamiliar faces. They glared back. I weaved my way through the tables in the hopes that someone would slide a chair out for me instead of pushing the empty ones in. I ate alone and wished the day away.

Alphabetical seating arrangements left Laurie and me in the last seats of our respective rows of Algebra I. Blonde bangs hovered above her forehead, a waterfall that flowed out from the sawtoothed strands of her crimped hair. Before class began, she laughed with her friends and her braces glinted in the glow of the fluorescents overhead. Her laugh lines almost, but not quite concealed a mole next to her nose, a beauty mark, perfect in its imperfection. The second bell rang and as the students finished their murmurs and turned forward, she glanced back at me.

I opened to a random page in my book and hoped she hadn’t seen me. I felt her look away. Certain I was in the clear, I went to resume my stare.

She’d been watching me. This day was looking up.

The curtains pulled back and the movie trailer of our relationship played on the screen of my mind’s eye. Berlin sang “Take My Breath Away” over footage of me as I scrawled my first note to her. Will you go with me? Check yes or no. Sorry So Short. Cut to our own table at lunch. Cut to holding hands in the hallway. Cut to prom. As I stared off into space, I caught movement in my periphery. She looked at me again. This time neither of us looked away. My glasses, thick enough to see the future, had slid down my oil-slicked nose, and I pushed them back up. I finger combed at the duckling soft hair on my upper lip, smiled my gap-toothed smile (my braces wouldn’t come for another year) and just when I thought I the day couldn’t end any better, she went ahead and said it.

“You have a really nice tan,” she whispered.

The movie reel sputtered. The celluloid melted. The film broke.

* * *

In the countless times I’ve thought about that day, I haven’t figured out what I honestly expected Laurie to say. The truth is, I never expected her to say anything, at least not to someone like me; someone who collected comic books, played with action figures a little longer than he should have, and spent lost weekends with Sonic the Hedgehog and King Hippo. Someone whose clothes were less cool than his glasses, and with a complexion that resembled the terrain of a topographical map. I never thought about the fact that I had brown skin, a wide nose, and straight hair. I was a biracial geek before it was hip to be either. No wonder Laurie stared. To be fair, I shared her confusion, about what I was and about who I was. And though my struggles with identity had begun long before that day, Laurie still ended up my first.

With one statement, Laurie became the first person to make me realize that there was something else about me that people, particularly girls, would see before they noticed the barely-there moustache or my questionable fashion sense. That afternoon was my big bang, the event from which all other questions of my identity sprung forth. It was the beginning of a high wire act, on which I walked with a constant teeter, only able to take a step before I re-assessed my footing, before I found a balance between what I liked and what I was supposed to like. How I talked and how I was supposed to talk. Who I loved and whom I was supposed to love. As if being thirteen weren’t hard enough.

* * *

“I kind of have it all the time,” I said.

“Are you Italian?”

“Nope.”

“Spanish?”

I shook my head. She cocked hers with tight-lipped confusion. Her bangs didn’t move.

“So…what are you?”

“I’m black,” I said.

“Both parents?” she asked.

Laurie had exclaimed it with such surprise that a few students ahead of us turned. My face went hot, embarrassed at their watching, humiliated by her disbelief. My throat felt dry and I managed a nod.

“Huh,” she said, and turned back around.

* * *

My sons are three and one. My wife is white. Beyond the pale of her skin, my oldest boy looks little like her. He shares my wide nose, my gapped teeth, and my straight hair. My one year old has my wife’s features and her complexion. The frequency with which I’ve thought about that afternoon increased exponentially since I first found out we were pregnant.

My three year old might meet his own Laurie. She won’t stare at his skin color. She won’t list all the possible races and ethnicities she thinks he could be, (because that’s a thing to do), and she won’t bark in disbelief when he names the only one she didn’t guess. They’ll pass notes, hold hands and maybe he’ll even bring her home to meet his folks. That’s when the questions will start, both his and hers. She won’t understand why I look so different. He won’t understand why it matters.

I know what to teach my sons about who they are, but not about who the world expects them to be. I want to infect them with mine and their mother’s rampant idealism, with the notion that we all crawled from the same soup, that we are all human beings but I know that doing so leaves them vulnerable to pain. I know that as much as we don’t want it to matter, despite the declarations that we live in a post-racial America, it does matter. I want my sons to understand the struggle, but I don’t want them to experience it. And I don’t know if that’s right.

I know that Laurie didn’t mean anything by what she said. I do know that even at our young ages, the fact that she thought it was okay to ask those questions isn’t okay, that it’s representative of a problem ever present almost thirty years later. I also know that while I want my boys to know why Daddy is nervous when he gets pulled over, they won’t ever have to be. I know that while I’ll be concerned when they’re out late with their friends, I won’t be worried because their pants are a little baggy or they wore a hoodie that night. I won’t be worried about these things, because while they look like me, they don’t look enough like me. For that I am glad.

And because I am glad, I am ashamed.


John Vercher is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. His piece, "Homewood," won the 2014 Assignment Student Contest, and can be seen in Issue #1.

Chill, Baby

by Nadia Owusu

There was, as is often the case, no warning that the G train would not be running past midnight. No flyers or posters. No announcements on the A train telling passengers not to bother getting off to transfer. Nothing. The woman on the microphone at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street station sounded thrilled about this inconvenience even as she apologized for it.  

I was pissed off because nobody came into the restaurant for dinner that night so I didn’t make any money. I only had two thirds of my rent that was due in a week. I was going to have to pick up shifts during finals. I stood around all night polishing wine glasses and folding napkins instead of studying for my statistics exam. Tonight would be another sleepless one. There would probably be crying. I usually cried when I studied for math tests because I’m very bad at math. Doing things that I’m very bad at makes me sad about all the things in the world that I will probably never really understand, like electricity and Einstein's general theory of relativity.

During my shift, the bartender I was in the process of breaking up with had gotten drunk and annoying. He flirted all night with that blonde woman from across the street, and not just in the compulsory bartender way. She came to see him every night, even in this snowstorm. Usually he was polite to her, but disinterested. She had thick, square, acrylic French-manicured nails. She wore sticky pink lip gloss. She always started out her evening with a Sex on the Beach. Her voice sounded like her acrylic nails on a chalkboard. But, he leaned over the bar and looked into her eyes. He probably talked to her about his art, how he’d dropped out of law school for it. I did not like the thought of him sharing that part of himself, the part I liked, with her. So what if I had ignored his phone calls for three days? I was supposed to be the one ending it, not him. And now the stupid G train wasn’t running.

I kicked an empty forty bottle that someone had discarded on the platform. It was still wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag. It rolled unsatisfyingly for a few seconds then stopped at a middle-aged Rasta’s feet. He had his head tipped up as though waiting for further instruction from the MTA. I was not holding my breath for any such thing. We were, I knew, on our own.

“Chill, baby,” he said.

I hate it when random men call me ‘baby,’ especially when they’re telling me what to do. I might have told him as much. I thought about it. I was in the mood for it. But I had kicked a bottle at him so I didn’t exactly hold the moral high ground. I scowled at him instead.

“I hear ya,” he said, even though I hadn’t said anything. “How we supposed to get home?”

“Yeah,” I said.

There was a bus that would get me close enough to walk to my apartment. Not as close as the G train, but closer than the A train. I had never taken that bus but I knew it existed because my friend Sarah who lived down the street was always going on and on about how she took it everywhere. She talked about taking the bus the way people talk about juice detoxes and meditation which is weird because there’s nothing about the bus that is healthier than the train. At least nothing I can think of.

Outside, the snow was still coming down in heavy, sharp white pellets. It was the kind of snow that made opening an umbrella look pitiful. I buttoned the coat button that pinches the skin under my chin. I had to do that so my hood would not blow off in the whooshing wind. Google on my cellphone told me that the bus stop was six blocks away. The bus, I thought, better be running as usual. My brain said this in threatening tones. I needed the universe to know that I meant business.

What’s nice about walking in a snowstorm when you’re somewhat unreasonably miserable is that it makes your misery more reasonable. I don’t mind snowstorms when I don’t have to go anywhere except down the street to my favorite hole-in-the-wall for a hot toddy, or when I can stay indoors reading books and making soup. I do mind them under most other circumstances.

There were very few cars out that night; very few pedestrians. Downtown Brooklyn didn’t feel peaceful though. It felt abandoned. It felt like everyone was safe and sound at home except for me. I blamed a lot of people for this. I didn’t care if my reasoning was irrational. I was not interested in considering association versus causality. Perhaps this tendency is why I was having such a hard time with Statistics II.

It was my landlord’s fault for raising the rent by $150 when I was already struggling to pay it. I knew that this would happen when the hipsters moved in. I blamed those hipsters and their rich parents. I blamed my parents for not being rich. I blamed the university I attended for being so expensive. I blamed financial aid for not covering my whole tuition. It was the bartender’s fault for flirting with that blonde woman and making me jealous enough to stay at the restaurant for an hour after closing time to drink whiskey with him. The MTA was the worst institution that ever existed. Never mind that it ran trains and buses twenty-four hours a day so that I didn’t have to own a car. The G train wasn’t running right now. I also had a bone to pick with the mathematicians who developed theoretical and applied statistics.

I was walking with my head down so that the snow didn’t attack my eyeballs. They’re very sensitive. Walking in that way made it difficult to see where I was going. I had to stop every block to check whether or not I had arrived at the corner where I was supposed to turn left. My sense of direction is very poor. I was standing on Atlantic and Nevins when something large and brown leapt past me and into the street. A bus, perhaps my bus, rolled over it. The bus kept going, leaving the street empty and white again, except for a mangy mutt that was now bleeding red into the snow.

The mutt was silent. I rushed over to where it was lying. Its belly had been crushed and split open. The sight of its exposed flesh and guts filled my lungs with freezing oxygen. It—he—was dead.  As far as I could see, there hadn’t been anything or anyone chasing him, nothing to spook him. I wanted to touch his nose but as I bent down and reached out my hand, I started to shake.

“Hey sweetheart,” called out a man wearing a backpack with a hard hat tied to it, “you okay?”

I don’t like it when off-duty construction workers I don’t know call me ‘sweetheart,’ but it didn’t seem important in that moment.

“There’s a dead dog in the road,” I yelled at him.

“Why?” he asked.

That the mutt had been hit by a bus was not the answer to that question. It was only a consequence.

“I don’t know,” I yelled. I didn’t need to yell. He wasn’t very far away. Maybe I wasn’t yelling at him.

I felt ridiculous standing in the street now, so I joined the construction worker on the sidewalk. The two of us stood in silence, looking at the mutt.

“That’s the way it is sometimes,” he said after a while. “It was probably the snow.”

What he meant by that last part, I did not know. But, I nodded and started walking towards the bus stop again. This time, I let it snow into my eyeballs. The snowflakes didn’t feel as sharp as I imagined. They just felt like cold water. I blinked and let them drip onto my cheeks. I had to accept that the storm would keep storming until it was over. And when I got to the bus stop, the bus would come or it wouldn’t. There would be reasons for whatever happened just as there must have been reasons for the mutt in the road. But, I might never know them. And they wouldn’t necessarily mean that any of it made sense.

So Go the Ghosts

So Go the Ghosts

I think the common misconception with Schrödinger’s experiment is that its findings can encourage indecision. But choosing to make no decision, to take no measurement, to send no text, are still in themselves active resolutions. I’ve consciously left the ghosts of those affairs in the box, cryogenically frozen, petrified in amber. They’re still there. In having done so within the Schrödinger framework, I elected for their life. Rather, I chose life and death and everything else; I elected for their infinity.

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Winners and Losers

by David Moloney

A five year old’s birthday party at a Taekwondo school sounded like a bachelor party at an opera house. It didn’t make sense to me. I imagined kids clumsily kicking foam dolls, or throwing limp-wristed punches at padded walls, getting barked at by dudes in doboks until they collapsed in defeated tears. I didn’t imagine it was a place where a room of four- and five-year-olds would have barrels of fun.

There were twenty or so kids who attended. The school's Master told us to remove our children’s footwear upon entry. My daughter May ripped off her socks without hesitation and hurried over to the group. The kids sat on a blue mat and we parents were scattered throughout three rows of bleachers. The Master announced that we would have a day of fun and games in honor of Oliver, my nephew, the birthday boy.

The first game was dodge ball. I wondered how May would do with losing. May is dainty, cautious, and sweet. She would have been my first target in middle school gym class. The way the kids were so unsure of themselves made me remember the days of slinging the ball at the weaker kids first, the ones you knew would just stand still and frozen. I looked over the kids and I could instantly pick out the ones who would lose first, and the ones I would have hid behind early in the game.

Halfway through the game, a small boy lost and one of the instructors guided him off the mat. He cried. The parents in the bleachers exhaled a cohesive “awe” as he ran to his father. The instructors kept the music playing and the game going. The kids still in the game gave no attention to the boy crying. They played on, and no one else cried when they lost. The boy sat on his father’s lap and never rejoined the party.

May pirouetted her way around the bouncing ball. She twirled and skipped carelessly, as if she may not have even been part of the same game. She made it to the final four. When the ball finally found her, she walked off the mat smiling without searching me out in the bleachers.

*

There’s a growing concern among millennial parents about the absence of dodge ball in school. I’ve heard the argument that kids need to learn how to lose, that not everyone can be winner. My uncle Billy calls it the “pussification of America.” I’ve been entangled in this argument and I’ve championed the need for dodge ball, the need to “un-pussy” America. I’ve laughed in reminiscence about head-hunting the slower kids, the dainty kids, the kids like May.

The first thing my family mulled over at the after party was the dodge ball game and the crying boy. There was a collective praise from my siblings, my father, and my uncle Billy, about the way the crying boy was handled by the instructors.
    
“See how they didn’t even look at him?” my father asked. “That’s how you do it.”
    
This sort of praise was expected from my family. I am one of four children, and growing up, there was always a respected competitiveness amongst us. No one ever wanted to lose, even if the sport or spelling bee or game of flashlight tag didn’t include siblings. We always wanted to dominate. It came from the top down. My father wasn’t easy on us in games. He was notorious for the line, “I’ve never lost a game of (insert game here).” That included games against his children. He never let us win.

*

A string of snowy days the week after the party brought me to dusting off our Wii and setting it up for May. We sampled the games to find out which ones she was coordinated enough to play. She picked up Swordplay quickly, the game where two Mii’s battle on a platform with light saber type weapons until one gets knocked into the water below. May beat the A.I. fighters quite easily. Then, she challenged me to a duel.
    
Up until this point, our game-playing experience had been cooperative contests against a common enemy: get all the chickens back in the coup away from the hungry fox, build a rainbow so the Ponies can run underneath to a star dusted freedom. But now, I held the controller and stood against her.
    
May’s idea of trash talk was to make fun of my Mii’s ordinariness.
    
“Look at your eyes,” she said, “they don’t sparkle like mine.” She had insisted, when making her Mii, to have the eyes that were diamonds.

Best of three rounds, and without thinking I beat her round one. Her Mii fell into the water and she spun to me in disbelief.  She yelled, “Daddy,” and in that moment I realized the position I’d put myself in.

She then told me she was going to kick my butt in genuine confidence.

The next round, May swung up and down a few dozen times and my Mii fell into the water. She cheered.

Round three I made sure to make May work for it. I blocked her wild slashes until her arms were tired and the swings became tiny chops. I brought myself close to the edge and May gave a final sweeping blow.

When you’re the one of the kids in gym class with a good arm and good hands, when you can flatten to the floor under a high throw, leap over a bouncing ball, you love dodge ball. You count down the minutes through math class until you can roll around and smash a red ball off kid’s foreheads.

When you’re a kid and you’ve lost hundreds of games of chess to your father, trying to out-maneuver him, figure out why you can’t beat him, and, then, finally win on one foggy morning in a camper at Lake Sebago, the victory stays with you like a proud scar.

But when you have the say on whether or not someone else wins or loses, when you control the outcome, the game changes. You’re a giant gripping the ball as swarms of easy-target little people run around your feet.  You’re a teacher. You have knowledge of cause and lasting effect, of inevitable outcome.

As my Mii floated in the air with his normal-looking eyes, stayed suspended there for a moment, then plopped into the pixelated water below, I knew this first allowance of victory wouldn’t be my last. I’ll shelve the ball until she is ready to throw it back.