Purple Hearts and Pancakes

I can’t take back what I dun. Iffin’ you’d ask me whether I’d do things differently had I to do ’em again, I’d tell you what I told the judge:

“No, sir; don’t reckon I would.”

I stand by that. Take away a man’s money an’ his station, comes down to him only havin’ his word. Some fellers — myself included of course — our word is all we ever had. We hold it tight. Just might save our souls iffin’ it don’t save our reputations. Continue reading

Advertisements

Black as The Hudson

In the dark of night, things take on a different look to ’em. Streets you frequent throughout your day all but upend on ya, and the next thing ya know you’re in a whole other neighborhood. Christ, maybe even a whole other town. Assuming a fella walks that far. I’ve known a few who have, and not a one of ’em has ever come back. Continue reading

Broken Crown

Amandine,

This atmosphere is… it strains me, to put it most mildly. At night they crack the door open and stand guard at all times, and the ceiling lights from the hall breach the tranquil black of my eyelids. They are dim, yes, but just bright enough to be a bother. I’d liken it to trying to sleep while a television plays in the background, and you well know how impossible a task that is for me. Continue reading

And We Will Compose A Symphony

It was a dream, and nothing more. My mind has been running laps while I try to call upon slumber, and by the time I awaken in the morning it is as though I have not slept at all. I’m used to not feeling rested, which does not make peace of my condition. No. In fact it worsens it. But last night…

Sleep found me quite readily, but it had come with such expediency I had no idea the reality through which I stumbled was a dream — a play put on by the troupe of my imagination which has cut its teeth on many pondered thoughts and aching desires over the years. What a performance it was. Continue reading

D.O.A.: 1/3

GodInABox

 Deity On Arrival

By

Jordan Siron

Dr. Moira Kostas stood before her creation, which sat atop a metal table. “It” was a simple box made of plastic, the front of which was hollow and allowed for the placement of a glass screen. Behind the screen rested a next of coiled wires, which connected to microprocessors Kostas and her team had spent years fine-tuning. She allowed herself a moment to take a deep breath, collecting her thoughts before she proceeded.

Here goes nothing, she thought. With a self-conscious wimper, it began.

The box hummed for several minutes, and an image finally displayed on the glass screen. It was a yellow circle, roughly the width of a human head, and in the center of the dot was an arrangement of lines, spaced to look like a facsimile of a  face. The expression given to it was indifferent. It looked like this:

(-_-)

So far, so good, she thought. She took a seat at her desk, making a note of the progress on her computer. The humming fell to silence, which she also made a point to notate, and after an hour’s wait the on-screen expression changed. It then looked like this:

(*_*)

This change inspired hope in Moira, and she made a note of it on her computer. 10:45 AM, October 10 2022: Woke Up!, declared her notation.

“Hello.” The greeting was quiet, calm, and Moira made another note.

10:48 AM, October 10, 2022: Spoke!

*     *     *     *     *

Three days later, Moira’s lab was flooded with members of the press. They were corralled to the back of the room, where they were told to wait politely, sitting in chairs that had been provided to them by NaviQuest Globaltronics. Moira’s box sat two yards away from them, covered by a white sheet.

“When can we see it?” Barked Chester Furguss, a brash and hungry reporter with United Collective. His query was bolstered by the grunts and snarls of his peers.

Him,” Moira corrected, “Please, just be patient for a few more minutes. He’s had a very grueling time.” She added, trying to be as congenial as possible, “In the mean time, I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have for me and my team.”

“Harumph!” Chester called back. The sentiment was mirrored by his peers. “I’ve got a question.”

Moira remained composed, smiling her approval at the impetuous youth.

“How do we know this isn’t another farce?” Chester asked, his digital recorder held in Moira’s direction.

Before Moira could respond, Clayton Knell stepped between Moira and the digital recorder. “We at NaviQuest engineer many things, but we do not engineer farces.”

“Step aside, Knell.” Challenged Chester. “Or have you forgotten about Quaque –” Chester looked down at his notes, trying to carefully read the word he wasn’t sure how to pronounce. He gave up, relying on its catchier title. “Omni Trekking, that is.”

Quaquatraversing,” Moira corrected. “We haven’t forgotten about that, but there is no evidence that says the mission was a ‘farce’.”

“Then where is the pilot? Where is the ‘oodles’ of information your spokesperson promised would return with her?”

Clayton once more interrupted, “That is neither here nor there.” He confronted Chester, hoisting him from his seat, expelling him from the room despite the young man’s fervent attempts at releasing himself. He slammed the door to the lab, locking it before turning back to face the rest of the stunned reporters.

“You were all briefed beforehand as to what questions were considered ‘in play’, yes?”

The reporters looked to one another then back at Clayton. They nodded.

“Good. Then no more bullshit about Quaqua… Omni Trekking. Yes?”

Another reporter timidly raised her hand. Clayton gestured for her to speak.

“How–” the reporter faltered, clearing her throat before she continued. “How long has ‘it’ been awake?”

“That’s more like it.” Clayton withdrew to a corner of the room, taking with him a fraction of the tension.

Moira smiled warmly. “He has been awake for roughly three days now, give or take an hour or so.”

The reporters all made a point to correct their questions, removing “it” in exchange for “he”.

“Three days? Why the delay in alerting the press?” Asked the reporter, feeling more brazen. “Isn’t this the kind of thing you would want to mention sooner — especially in light of…” the reporter caught herself, casting a nervous glance at Clayton. “I mean to say, in light of how big this could be, wouldn’t you want the world to know as soon as possible?”

“Most assuredly. All the same, when dealing with something this ‘big’, it’s best to take every precaution. Wouldn’t you agree?”

After a round of questioning, during which Moira was asked the standard queries (How long was the project in development? Whose idea was it? How did Moira get the job? And so forth.), Moira was ready to introduce the star of the show. She pulled back the white sheet.

Quaquaversal: Part 1/5

EndOfDaysPart One

The sky had reddened. It had worn thin, and behind the warm hue the people on Earth could see into the infinite cosmos. Somewhere in that vast expanse, lightning storms were never ending. They must have been distant, for no one could hear the thunder; their light did not illuminate the streets, and the bolts struck no ground. Further still, two galaxies could be seen merging.

There had been no solid reason for this change, this perceived re-working of the rules of reality. All the same, suspicion ran rampant. NaviQuest Globaltronics shouldered most of the casual blame. People conspired to construct some kind of explanation that the conglomerate had finally submerged itself too deep in the waters of exploration, having been known to dip its toes in them since its inception in 1976.

There was talk of leaked reports, murmurs of secret meetings abroad with Quantum Physicists who lived comfortably on the cusp of the scientific community. Accusations of bribes and severe, inhumane counter-measures being taken in order to keep the public blind were par for the course in the coming days. Even with circumstantial evidence and expedited efforts, nothing solid had been gleaned from the members of countless tribunals who met at all hours. This hardly mattered to the public.

A sense of dread hung over the men and women as they busied themselves with the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’. Someone, or something, had lifted the pale blue veil that had hidden their eyes from the unspeakable infinity that had always been there had they cared to look. Those who had held out hope that God Almighty would be waiting for them above the clouds could not find Him. Their lives had been built with every leap of faith, and now they found themselves suspended — not by good-intentioned angels, but by a cold vacuum rich with stars that had no grand design in mind for those who basked in their light.

Scientific minds called for reason, for the God fearing men and women to see this development not as a belittling of all they held dear. Rather, they called for society to consider the benefits of this sudden “unmasking” of nature. It was not a breaking of the rules of reality, but the first of many clarifications of realty’s terms. Indeed, much of the tools and formulas that guided science were asked to be reconsidered. If not for how accurate the laws were to our reality, then for how they might reconcile the very different realities that might lay in wait outside of humanity’s grasp.

A common analogy during those days: “Man flourished when he sailed beyond the horizon not to find sea monsters, or the very edge of the world, but more land.”* The universe was now in a position where it could be as demystified to the common person as the oceans had been. The flagrant revelation of the world outside humanity’s own would spur the need to wander further. Not simply the need, but the want — the inherent desire to see what else might be possible.

After the hysteria began to fizzle, progress was allowed to find purchase back on Earth. NaviQuest Globaltronics, hoping to use the early allegations to their benefit, poured money into the privatization of interstellar travel. They had eclipsed the efforts made by all who had attempted such an undertaking, which had spanned decades before The Clearing (as it would come to be known).

Their efforts were not in vain. Thus emerged the science of Quaquatraversing. The classification came from the Geological term, Quaquaversal, which meant “to slope in all directions starting from a common center”. Hoping to make the venture seem less alienating to the common person, the marketing men at NaviQuest simply dubbed it “Omni Trekking”.

Whichever term one preferred hardly mattered. By any name the process had captured the imaginations of the common person. It promised the ability to travel in every direction, simultaneously and instantaneously. The first manned attempt would take place that October. The world waited with baited breath.

*Dr. Jacob Maumbstein, “Exceeding Expectations: Man’s Grasp, and Interstellar Travel”.

Of God On High

Harmon stood atop the rails on his balcony. It was made of stone, and was very much a selling point to him when the realtor showed him the place. Place? The apartment was a palace; a metropolitan Taj Mahal. It had cost him nearly every cent from his third book deal.

In previous years, Harmon had been the subject of much adoration. He wrote purely, and honestly, and to his surprise the people below had respected him for it. They liked lies. Preferred even for their daily news programs to air fairy tales. Still, somehow, they had been taken by Harmon’s scrawling.

He wasn’t the voice of a generation. He certainly hadn’t converted any one to his philosophical camp. The people below seemed merely to enjoy his books for their characters, and perhaps because Harmon didn’t condescend to them. Not any more than most other writers, any way. He had monetized his inner self, which was the surest way to success in America, and he did so gladly.

In the years that followed, however, Harmon found himself wanting to reverse his good fortune. He had written honestly and purely, yes; but, his intentions were as gaudy as they were misunderstood. He didn’t want to entertain, but he had longed to thrive. He wanted to pontificate, to change minds and start dialogues. He wanted to be taken seriously, but found himself prostituted along with all the other novelties.

He had his penthouse palace, yes; he had his comfortable existence; he loomed over every one else while he ate his bacon and eggs. But, under no circumstances, was he content. He was a jester seated in the King’s throne, but he wanted to be taken seriously. That had always been his aim. Life and his ill-conceived reactions to it had made that impossible.

His writing had become misconstrued as satire, or parody. He had represented the truths authentically, but they were so absurd that the people below could not receive them as such. He could hardly blame the people below, for the manufactured truths they were fed were more palatable in every way. Through the lens of fiction, benefitted by structure and character arcs, clear protagonists and antagonists, everything made more sense. Harmon had long known this.

His father had been a pastor when he was young. The people seated below the pulpit had taken the man very seriously, though he proselytized lie after lie — however well intentioned they were in the eyes of all who knew well enough. The people had turned to the man for direction, for advice on how to better lead their lives. They wanted to be like Jesus, because being themselves was not good enough.

His father had told him that being a writer was no way to make a living. The same was said about being a pastor, but of course there was an imagined distinction between the two: One wrote tales to entertain, the other bellowed tales to enlighten. This lunacy had persisted because of the great lie of religion: The stories of Jobe or of Revelations had not been written by men looking to tell tales, but were the immutable words of God himself.

Harmon had more in common with God than did his own father, or any of the dedicated damned who spoke His word. He created, and had his creations ruined by those who received them. For all the good his words might do, the counterweight was far too great. It pulled at his legs, forsake them with its heft.

He wavered atop the stone barrier. A lit cigarette clung to his middle finger, having been adhered to it by the faint misting of sweat that seeped from his skin, and which had mostly dried in the howling autumn breeze. He had considered the cleaning woman before relocating outside. That was his last good deed.

Nyctophilia and The N Line: Part Five – Conclusion

The following contains explicit language. The author advises that any one with an aversion to such language move along, or at the very least not complain.

1:36 AM

Friday

The last half hour had seemed to stretch on at the pace of two full hours, and the passengers languished in time’s apparent halting. Though several windows had been opened not long after the conductor’s announcement, the men and women were beginning to strain from their collected heat. They had removed overcoats and hats, unbuttoned shirts and blouses, but no amount of reasonable shedding seemed to help alleviate the stifling warmth.

The passengers anxiously eyed one another. Had they, like Kayden, tuned in to the tension which hung like steam in their communal, subterranean sauna? Perhaps they were watching one another out of sheer boredom? In actuality they were sizing one another up; looking for faults or quirks that could be used to justify any number of impending explosions. No one likes the asshole who yells at an old woman, but maybe they would be more forgiving of the socially conscious civilian who yelled at an old woman who wouldn’t stop hacking phlegm into bunched-up tissue paper… Such rationalizations ran rampant.

At the front of the car, having sweated their way to sobriety, the rowdy group of young men were beginning to lose their patience. While the wait had been lighthearted for them in the beginning, their begrudging sobriety had given them very little to be amused by.

“Fuck, me,” one of the men lamented as he looked at his watch. “We’ve already missed last call at Bohemian Hall.”

“Emmy will have left by now.” His goateed friend chimed in, throwing his head back. “I was totally going to tap that tonight, man.”

The passengers shook off the Goateed Man’s crass lack of discretion, which must have displeased the man. He began knocking on the door of the conductor’s compartment.

“Hey! Asshole!” The Goateed Man pressed his face to the door. “You owe me a lay. Your sister free?”

Several passenger’s vocalized their disapproval of the Goateed Man’s insistance on continuing his lazy routine, and so loudly. Others, the Goateed Man’s friends included, snickered and jeered.

“Shit, I’ll take your mother if you don’t have a sister.”

“Would you shut up?” Demanded a Middle Aged Man sitting next to Kayden, taking ahold of his Wife’s hand. “We don’t care for that kind of talk.”

The Goateed Man looked to the Middle Aged Man, his nostrils flaring. “Excuse me? You don’t talk to me like that.”

“And who are you?” The Wife shot back.

The Middle Aged Man, feeling vulnerable, attempted to recall his Wife by squeezing her hand. His looked to the floor, hoping trouble would pass him by.

The Goateed Man did what was customary in such situations. He straightened up, puffing his chest and huffing as he strode over to the Middle Aged Man and his Wife. It was a behavior that was engrained in many men’s DNA — an archaic reaction to having been called upon to be reasonable. It was one of the many flaws that haunted male members of homo sapiens — especially the young. It was a physical instinct that was called upon when a person hadn’t the mental fortitude to react otherwise.

“And who the fuck are you?” The question, purely hypothetical, seethed from the Goateed Man’s frothing, clenched teeth.

“I…” the Middle Aged Man began, stumbling over his nerves. “I’m just some one who wants to wait patiently in quiet. It’s been a long day.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t asking you.” retorted the Goateed Man. “I was asking the bitch.”

Nearly every one of the passenger’s winced at the Goateed Man’s words, but none of them said a word. This wasn’t their fight, they rationalized.

“Now listen,” the Middle Aged Man said with an ounce of courage. “You can’t call my wife something so hurtful.”

“Listen: I’m sorry I’ve upset you for using foul language,” the Goateed Man condescended. “But just because you don’t get laid any more doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t talk about ‘making love’ in front of you.”

“Now hold on…”

“Oh, what? Do you still tap that shit? Let me guess, she let’s you in every couple of months right? When you’ve been good?”

The Goateed Man looked back at his friends. They all shared a laugh.

“I’ve had just about enough of you, you… frickin’ punk.” The Middle Aged Man’s attempt at vulgarity came as naturally as his timid attempt at bravery. The awkwardness of it all traveled through each passenger, all of whom secretly hoped that the Goateed Man would just up and punch the poor fellow. After that release things could go back to normal. Maybe the train would even start up, and the night could commence.

Instead, the Goateed Man just laughed a hearty guffaw. He confronted his friends, mocking the Middle Aged Man’s nervous chivalry.

“Hold the gosh darn phone,” he parroted in a nasally voice. “You can’t say the f-word. It’s offensive.”

He went on like that for some time, taking the car hostage with his excruciating brand of entertainment. The Middle Aged Man and his Wife had since looked back at the floor, trying to simply ignore the strutting moron. Kayden, however, had decided that the brute had gone on long enough. If even for only her own sanity, she would have to do something.

She waited for the Goateed Man to wander closer to her, and when he was within arm’s reach she made her move. Bolting from her seat, piloted purely by her own confused instinct, Kayden took the Goateed Man by his jeans. With one forceful motion she yanked them down, revealing a secret the Goateed Man had been hiding with all of his posturing:

Instead of boxers or briefs was a pair of women’s underwear. They were silk, adorned with a frilly, laced bow on the front. A thong ran along the backside.

The Goateed Man froze in place, basking in the dropped jaws of every one in the compartment. His friends recoiled, their expressions caught in a limbo between abject horror and pure bafflement. No one said a word.

The on-board intercom chimed, and came the conductor’s voice. It was sullen, but remained professional. “We will be moving in just a moment, ladies and gentlemen. There was an incident on the tracks, and it has only now been handled.”

An incident… The riders all knew what that meant, and the conductor’s tone only verified. At some point during the night, one of the city’s forgotten had stumbled onto the tracks. Even in the coming days, no information would be released that might reveal the person’s identity. No motivation would be gleaned.

“Thank you again for your patience and understanding. Thank you for riding MTA, and get home safely.” The intercom cut off.

The Goateed Man pulled his pants back up, rejoined his friends at the front of the train, and refused to make a peep for the remainder of the ride. The Middle Aged Man and his Wife huddled closer together, sharing small, quiet chuckles with one another.

The next few stops came and went, and Kayden found herself alone in the car by the time the train reached Lexington Avenue. After the events of the night, she relished the solitude. The city had given her more than she had bargained for when she stepped out of her apartment hours earlier. And this was the city’s charm.

True, there were misanthropes at every turn. Kayden was one such example. Her affinity for exploring the night had always made her an outcast back home. But these broken, vulnerable people were what made the city live up to its grand aspirations. She didn’t belong back in the midwest, where everything closed down with the sun’s setting, and every one scrambled back into their homes so that they could fill their evenings with television programs that safely revealed the world that existed outside their doors.

Kayden was still a part of that mentality deep down. All of her observing and skulking in the shadows — this behavior was in keeping with the repressed nature of her upbringing. But she had moved beyond that. The minute she lept from her seat and pulled on the Goateed Man’s pants, revealing his own repressed nature that shamed him so… she had not merely been watching the city she loved. She had written her own chapter to be read.

Nyctophilia and The N Line: Part Four

12:50 AM

Friday

The N train barreled through the tunnels, heading back to Queens. Kayden had found herself so affected by Zaria’s musings that the best thing she could do, as near as she could figure, was to return to her apartment. She had gotten more out of the night than she had expected, and it was unlikely that the 20 stops between 14th Street/Union Square and Coney Island would follow suit. Indeed, Zaria’s public breakdown had outweighed even the best goings-on of  prior weeks.

The train had just disembarked from the platform at 49th Street, and was midway through the tunnel when it came to a screeching halt. Drunks grabbed for the stabilizing rails as their booze-logged bodies swayed toward the front of the car. Strangers merged with one another, dislodging the shopping bags and purses that separated one from the other. An old woman tumbled to the floor, landing perfectly on her rear end. For the next two minutes, as the lights of the train flickered and went soft, the woman’s moaning was all that broke the silence.

Once the passengers had regained their composure, a young woman rose from her seat and helped the old woman to it. The others on the bench spaced themselves out so as to provide ample room. It would have been a touching scene, were it not for the careless release of chuckles and chortles from a group of drunk men clustered near the front of the car. No one took them to task for their behavior, possibly because the scene had been quite humorous.

Before any one could ask aloud what the matter was, the overhead speaker chimed gingerly.

“Attention, passengers,” the voice of the conductor came calmly, made tinny by loose wires in need of replacing. “There has been an incident at the 5th Avenue station, and we are now in holding pattern indefinitely.”

The conductor’s boiler-plate platitudes thanking the passengers for their patience and understanding went almost unheard, buried under the countless lamentations. The choir of “fuck me” and “can you believe that shit” subsided after a moment, giving way to a cadence of perturbed sighs and agitated muttering as the wait extended into the yawning morning. Even Kayden, who would normally relish the chance to observe to her heart’s content, found the train’s immobility to be quite an inconvenience.

The subway was not her favorite place to explore her habits. Inside their cramped cars, people were more willing to wear their personas which won them their poor reputations. It wasn’t strictly a New York thing — not hardly. Indeed, it was a very human condition to break under the stress of being confined to closed quarters, not knowing how long it would be until your scheduled life could commence.

Compounding the issue was the relative unpleasantness that was trademark of all public transportation. Vagrants left their odors behind. Even if a homeless person had not been in a particular car for 20 minutes, still it would linger. What should have served as a reminder that there were men and women in dire need of help in the city, instead, served only to remind more prosperous members of society why it was they avoided contact with them.

When the smell of vagrants wasn’t burning the nostrils of impatient riders, the general woes of daily life would begin to gnaw at them. These concerns — often times petty, some times quite great — had nowhere to go, you see. There were no bars to dispense distracting tonics, no trails to be jogged, and certainly no pillow into which a person might bury his or her face and scream. They would rattle around in their synaptic cages, chewing and chewing until, at last, they could emerge.

Emerge they would, brilliantly and violently. A New Yorker trapped in a subway car was capable of terrible fury, and like antelope grazing listlessly in some prairie who can feel a predator approaching — feel it in their bones, in the very fiber of their muscles… such tension could be felt by all others on the train.

But man’s ability to discern from where, exactly, such danger might arrive was scattershot. Centuries of living in mostly controlled societies had dulled their instincts. As a survival mechanism, homo sapiens had learned to hang their heads and hope that the trouble would simply pass them by. Woe be upon the poor bastard who stood in its way.

It troubled Kayden that she could sense the tension rising, and yet the train showed no sign of moving. She kept her eyes to the ground, yet could not keep them from anxiously inspecting each passenger. Who would it be?, she thought. Who is going to make this worse? Who is going to cross that line?

Nyctophilia and The N Line: Part 3

12:40 AM

Friday

Kayden hid her observant gaze behind the brim of her collar. To make her seeming indifference more convincing, she pulled a book from her satchel. It was The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman. She opened it to a page somewhere past the halfway point, kept her head down so as to give the illusion that she was lost in its words, but she kept her eyes trained on the crying woman to her left.

This kind of activity — spying, if one was to be so blunt — was simpler at night. The sun’s absence, furthered by scant streetlights in the right spot, made it difficult for untrained eyes to notice when someone was observing them. Perhaps this was what drew Kayden so strongly to the night. That enriched anonymity. That, as well as the more robust provision of interesting subjects.

The crying woman was certainly worthy of such a superlative. Her clothes mismatched, her hair a gaudy mess of curls that seemed to bunch in groups without any rhyme or reason. Her tears sent streaks of azure eye liner down along her cheeks. But there was something more in her tears. A vulnerability that the woman felt no shame in displaying to those who might care to take notice.

Kayden had grown up in the midwest, in a little town called Muncie. She had moved several times during her childhood, yet seemed always to remain in the affectionately dubbed “fly-over states”, and such human behavior was rare in public. In fact, given the rampant repression that is paramount of the midwest, Kayden had been trained to hide her emotions from “decent” eyes.

For all the talk of New Yorkers being out of touch, or emotionally distant, they were willing to do what those back home never would. They were willing to exist in public. They would dismantle their delicately conceived exteriors and step outside, naked and wounded, from time to time. They would do so as if it were perfectly natural — opinions about their behaviors be damned! But the crying woman was different.

The crying woman took notice of Kayden, and began to stifle her tears. She stared at Kayden sheepishly, as if she, too, had forgotten the wisdom of her own childhood; to exercise restraint at all times, and to never let the other people see you as you really were. She attempted a smile then, which Kayden could not help but acknowledge. She looked over to the crying woman, and smiled back.

“I am sorry…” the crying woman said weakly, her accent similar to the man’s.

Kayden’s heart raced. She never spoke to people, let alone crying strangers. She much preferred to keep her distance and to go unnoticed, but in that instant she could not help what happened next.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “I mean, is everything okay?”

The crying woman perked up, feeling every bit as surprised as Kayden that she had, in fact, responded.

“No,” the crying woman replied, somewhat cheerfully. “But in the morning all will be well.”

Kayden smiled once more, then took control of herself. She went back to pretending to read.

“Zaria.” The woman held out her hand, and waited patiently for Kayden to accept it.

“I’m sorry?” Kayden looked out at Zaria’s outstretched hand.

“It is my name.” Zaria smiled once more.

Kayden set down her book, shaking Zaria’s hand. “Kayden.”

“Is lovely name, ‘Kayden’.” Zaria repeated the name slowly, as if to study it, “Kaaaayden,” and then nodded her approval.

“T-thanks,” Kayden replied, her nerves causing the word to falter as it left her lips. “Is, uh… is everything okay? With that guy?”

“That pig?” Zaria sent her scorn into the night air, letting it echoe in the streets. “He thinks this is Kiev, that he owns me — but no one owns Zaria!”

Zaria posed confidently, holding her arms up as if to flex. A grin stretched from ear-to-ear. She relaxed herself then removed a Kleenex from her purse, and began wiping the cosmetics from her face.

“So Kiev? That’s where you’re from?”

Zaria nodded. “Yes, and good riddance to that hell hole.”

“And that man is, too?”

“Correct.” Zaria removed her eyeliner from her purse, and began reapplying it. “I was sex worker there — not by choice, mind you, and I was far too young. But, it is what it is.”

Kayden was taken aback by Zaria’s ease of admission. Zaria must have noticed, as she quickly clarified her station.

“No, no, Darling — no longer. This is why he thinks I am his, thinks I am a ‘tease’.”

Kayden nodded, though she still didn’t feel any more at ease.

“I was a little girl. It is common back there. Many families cannot afford necessities, and it is regular for daughters to sell themselves.”

“There’s no other option?” Kayden said, unable to hide her distaste with the idea.

“There is always an option, but… well…” Zaria shrugged. “Who will stand up for us? The money is too good.”

Silence fell for a moment, Zaria seeming to get lost in memories of those days. She stared into the distance, as if viewing her childhood with equal parts nostalgia and disgust. She remained that way for some time, until, at last, the crashing of a skateboard behind her drew her back from Kiev to New York City.

“My aunt lived here for many years, and she told my parents that I would come to live with her.”

“And they were okay with that?”

Zaria scoffed. “Didn’t want me in the first place. They were happy to let me go.”

“Oh…”

“It’s okay,” Zaria reassured Kayden. “Without me there was one less mouth to feed. They could, uh…” Zaria searched for the words. ” ‘Scrape by’, yes?”

Kayden smiled.

“I come to New York, and my aunt tells me, ‘Aglaya, life will be better now’. And it has been.”

“Aglaya?” Kayden repeated.

“My name — or, old name. It means ‘beautiful’. I didn’t want to be beautiful any more. I knew what that meant for a young girl. To be viewed like some precious item, like not being human.”

“Like being a commodity,” Kayden added. “I guess I never thought about that. I always assumed being beautiful was something to aspire to.”

“You think about that now, yes? Not so great to be beautiful?” Zaria grinned conspiratorially.

“So what does Zaria mean?”

Zaria took a deep breath, then answered with great admiration, ” ‘Sunrise’.”

“I like that,” Kayden responded. “Why did you choose it?”

Zaria thought for a moment, organizing her thoughts. “It gave me hope, like the sunrise gave me hope back home. I would work at night, of course. I hated the night, because I was not free. But I would see the sunrise and would think, today could be the day everything changes. Last night there was no hope, but today… today there is a chance for hope to spring.”

And, of course, that thought carried Zaria through until her aunt could give her that chance. It found her sitting on the steps of Union Square Park, instilling in Kayden why the spot held so much acclaim in her own mind. Were the podium still planted in front of her, she knew exactly what she would say into its microphone.

As abruptly as the conversation began, it had ended. Zaria went her way, and Kayden wandered back into the subway terminal.