Close Range

By Colleen McCarthy


It was dangerous to like a guy like him. I did it anyway. Looking back, I can now recognize the moment I should have wised up, saw him for who he was, and ran. But I didn’t. Not then. (That wouldn’t come until many months later, when he abandoned me mid-PTSD panic attack at a party so he could go fuck some girl he had met at the pub.)

On the night I should have learned, we were in a friend’s small house on the lake—me, him, the friend, and some other girl whose name I never caught—sitting on two pleather couches the color of dark espresso. This house, covered in wood-paneling, with rooms full of cluttered nonsense from someone’s childhood (a toddler’s Strawberry Shortcake scooter, a stack of Disney coloring books, a binder full of Pokémon cards), was where I’d spent every weekend that summer, fall, and now late into winter. Because he was always there.  

            I sat still beside him on the couch, holding my breath. We were so close his thigh grazed mine each time he moved. Was he doing it on purpose? Then he leaned back, and I felt the weight of his arm as he casually rested it behind my shoulders. A subtle gesture, but a gesture.  

            While he talked, his arm around my shoulders, he would occasionally glance at me. When the conversation turned in a direction that he liked—toward aliens, or conspiracy theories, or, most especially, Justin Timberlake—he’d use his free hand to tap at my knee. Every once in a while, he’d turn to me and just smile. I felt like he saw me.

            An orange kitchen plate was laid out on the coffee table in front of us, lines already cut, as if it were cheese and crackers. A rolled up five-dollar bill hung carelessly off the edge of the plate. As I sat there, I mentally prepared and rehearsed several potential responses in case someone offered me a line: No thanks, I’m good; or, I don’t like to mix with alcohol; or (and this one I would deliver laughingly), I had my experimental phase in college. Nobody offered.

            The weight of his arm lifted from my shoulders and I watched as he scooted forward, perching on the edge of the couch. He grabbed the five-dollar bill and rolled it tight between his fingers before putting it to his nose. He leaned forward, snorted loudly. I could hear it over the TV, which was playing a Childish Gambino music video on YouTube. I watched as the rolled bill glided across the plate vacuuming up the line. Still sniffing, he threw the bill back on the plate and wiped his nose with the meat of his thumb.

“I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me.”

Later, he led me to the back porch where he lit a cigarette. I stood with my arms wound tightly around myself and watched as he exhaled thin curls of blue smoke that hovered in the frigid winter air before finally dissipating. He seemed to want to talk, so I listened. His voice was deep and smooth, a voice you could listen to endlessly. He told me a story about how that previous summer he’d been shooting his BB gun “in these very woods.” He said he’d been trying all afternoon to hit something—a squirrel or a chipmunk—wanting to prove to himself that he could.

            I followed his eyes as he stared into the darkness, as though I might be able to see the events unfolding as he spoke. He set his sights on a chipmunk frozen in fear. As he described it, he slowly lifted his arm, his middle and index fingers extended, imitating a gun. He closed one eye and jerked his fingers upward, mimicking the kickback it made when it fired. He stood like that for a moment, silent. He’d hit the chipmunk, he told me. With a mixture of dread and excitement, he’d strode over to see the damage he’d caused. The chipmunk wasn’t dead. He watched as the tiny creature struggled for breath, blood running from its wound. In that moment, he said, he felt regret and sorrow, and he wanted to take it back. He wanted to put the chipmunk out of its misery, but was unable to bring himself to kill it. To shoot from a distance, from the safety of the porch, that had been one thing, but to kill an animal at such close range was another game entirely. He said it was the most oddly beautiful thing he’d ever seen, how the sun reflected off the blood and pooled in a leaf.

            The ghost of a shamed-smile spread across his face and I almost felt bad for him. I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me. He was a coward. He’d taken an innocent animal to the brink of death, then walked right up to it and hadn’t had the courage to end its misery. He let it suffer, watched as it struggled for its fleeting life. He’d found beauty in it.

            For months after, we’d step away from our friends to come out here on this porch. We would have quiet conversations alone. Huddled together against the chill, he’d tell me he was no good, that I was too good for him. He’d tell me that I shouldn’t like him, and then he’d ask why I did. He’d say this over and over and I’d tell him again and again that he saw me, and that that meant something. I told him I believed in him, I believed that he could be a good man, that he was a good man. He’d just been dealt a shitty hand.

Every time we had these conversations it brought me back to the night when I should have stopped liking him.  It took me back to when he tore his gaze away from the woods and looked at me. He wiped at his nose, dripping from the coke, and asked if it was running. I shook my head, no, and he smiled. “You’re sweet,” he said. “But you’re lying.”

Colleen McCarthy is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.


By W. Jade Young

There was a logic in his belly that made everything he said the truth. He used it to build people into heroes, to make them feel glorious, to draw followers to his empty church. I fell into the rhythm of his tatta-tat cadence without noticing I’d begun to march. I was nineteen, he was older.

The first words I said to him were, “I will fucking cut you.”

This pleased him. He laughed from his gut and told me we would be friends.

And so, it came to pass.

His friends became my friends. He told me beautiful half-truths about them, made them gods. He told them beautiful half-truths about me, made me their equal.


We were pretenders; it was our bread. We were actors and storytellers and fakes. We wrote backstories, wore costumes, painted faces, spoke in voices that didn’t belong to us. Once, twice, three times a month we were not ourselves. We were fairies or monsters or sorcerers or knights. We wielded swords made of PVC pipe that left black bruises for days, shot each other with 25-pound bows and padded arrows that left welts. We killed each other again and again.

I was always a different me, but he was always the same him.


When we weren’t pretending, we were reliving our pretend lives. We ate dinner together, everyone, after we went back to being us. At dinner, he would spin our straw stories into gold, make us grander than we were. We knew they were lies and exaggerations, but who was harmed in the making of heroes? Who benefitted from the dulling of our adventures? The listeners were treated to the bard’s performance, and the heroes were made to feel invincible, infallible.

I began to love the other mes more than I loved the me I was. Those mes were daring; they were just, instead of just me.


We took his words with us to other games, other groups, other friends, and told them for ourselves. They were never as shiny, but they filled us with warmth. We sprinkled the borrowed words like fairy dust on our same-old lives and thought happy thoughts.

He was Peter Pan. He taught us to fly.

We stopped searching for our own truths because his was all we needed. It was good to have someone as all-knowing so we didn’t have to ask any questions or form independent thoughts.  It was a relief to know my opinions were wrong, that he would help me form new ones.

He was fat, his truth-belly spilling over his belts. No matter the level of physical exertion, no matter the weather, he sweated through the pits and down the backs of all his shirts. The reason for this last was because of the incomparable pelt of thick, wiry hair that covered him from neck to ankles.

He had two girlfriends, both young, beautiful, smart, strong. They were girlfriends with each other, too. This, I was told, was polyamory, but whatever name they gave it, I never understood the physical draw he had. He was another Pan, old Pan—half-god, half-goat—patron of sexual energies and fucker of innocent things.

I never wanted anything more than his stories of me.


I had seen the other side of him, the monster-man who whipped words around himself like a lasso and tied people wrist-to-ankles. They were deserving of his dark power. They were terrible or mean or damaged or misguided or weak or confused or easy.

He knew the tender places inside a person just by looking. He knew where the foundational fissure would be, where to place pressure so the structure came down with one strike. He left people dazed and wondering why they hated themselves and how he had known. They left less than human, stripped of their skin, bleeding disgracefully.

He told their stories, too. They were villains. They were conquests.

They weren’t us, so it was okay.


It was sudden when the luster wore off, or else it was bitterly slow. We were give-and-take, he and I, ten years of together. We were colleagues, coauthors, roommates, best friends.

I had come to him already shattered by the one man who should have protected me above all else. I had been collecting shards of myself, trying not to cut my articulate fingers on my own sharp edges. I’d been a ghost, and he had performed my séance. He showed me the fractures in my own foundation and told me they were not irreparable. He helped pour concrete for a new one, helped secure beams, hammer in hand.

Sometimes I cry when I think of how much better he made me before he broke me.


There is a depth of sorrow that, when you reach it, you stop being the same person. You make inhuman sounds. You make inhuman faces. Your body forgets how to move like you, your mind forgets how to think like you.

You descend into a singularity of every weakness, every inability, every flaw of your own character. The crying goes on for days, but feels like moments. You can’t remember the last time you bathed or loved or felt anything other than nothing. You are a mass of tears, held together by raw heartstrings only. Your soul evaporates, illusive heat-vapor on tarmac.

It leaves you only shards.

The blessed never know this. Me, I’ve known it twice.

W. Jade Young is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.