Issue #79

Summer 2021

Three Stories

by SJ Han

Acquainted

She was a quick reader and a ruthless reviewer. Cover letters and prospectuses were to be disregarded; the text was paramount, but often insufficient. All it took was an unearned emotion or a particularly irksome phrase, such as "the wind whispered," and the manuscript would leave her hands to join an ever-growing pile of rejects. One afternoon, she happened upon a thin submission, dry but free of any immediate fault.

As paragraphs laced together, a city of glass sprawled. A nameless protagonist wandered through a valley of skyscrapers but could not find anyone else. On one street corner, he happened upon a nameless acquaintance. The two wondered aloud where everyone had gone, then stumbled upon a bridge suspended over sea. Over the horizon was a city that looked identical to theirs. Strange. They recalled no such thing. Before they could venture forth, a tollkeeper appeared, demanding a fee that neither could pay.

And so the final page was turned. She was startled. She recalled a dream of the exact premise from just a few days ago, the memory of which eluded her until now. She reread the story repeatedly. Her recollection became clearer. The acquaintance was a friend who she had not heard from in years, the tollkeeper a faceless, broad-shouldered man who might've been her father or her son, or both. She searched the submission for a name or address but found none. She stepped from her workroom but found the office lights now dimmed. The sun had yet to touch the hills. She found herself abandoned.

***

Purgatory

When the most agreeable man on earth dies, he finds himself in a small café with wooden walls and dimmed lights. He takes a seat at a table by the wall.

He soon realizes he is not alone. Six raccoons lounge upon a treehouse-shaped apparatus in the middle of the store. Three are asleep, while the other three note his arrival. The man meekly waves at the trio. A strip of glass runs across one wall, but its contents are an opaque blue.

As he squints at the window, a lanky but neatly dressed man walks to his table. "Your maker will be here in a few minutes. Would you care for a cup of coffee?"

"Oh, no thank you." A cup of coffee sounds good, but his pockets feel awfully empty. He is not sure whether he would be charged.

The waiter nods and leaves. The man twiddles idle thumbs, wondering what this maker of his is like. Perhaps his maker was expecting him to accept the offer of coffee. He raises a palm ever so slightly, but the waiter is no longer in sight. Instead, one curious raccoon jumps from her ledge and wanders towards the man. The man tenses as the creature nibbles on his ankles. Her teeth are jagged.

"Excuse me?" the man inquires to empty air. He pulls his leg in, but the raccoon inches forward to continue running her teeth against him. He tries relaxing. If she intended to bite, she surely would've bitten by now. He tries turning his attention elsewhere, musing about what lies beyond the window, but a light thud signifies the indubitable. A second raccoon strides his way. The man raises his feet off the ground, intending to perch them upon his seat. He resists prodding paws and has his way. He can feel – but does not entertain with a gaze – the click of teeth and claws against wood.

The waiter returns with a cup of tea and a platter of cheese. A treat on the house. He apologizes, explaining that his maker is currently taking an important phone call. The waiter notices the man sitting crisscross on his chair but makes no note of it. The man smiles politely, failing to announce that he would prefer to not be in the company of raccoons. Left alone once more, the man slowly takes a sip of tea.

As the teacup ever so slightly clinks against its saucer, one beast lurches her front legs upon the seat of his chair, her chin now bristling against his lap. Frightened, the man offers peace in the form of a sliver of cheese. He realizes his mistake when a third creature stretches out her limbs and leaps from her perch.

It will be a while before his maker gets off the phone, he can tell.

***

Paris Pills

The first tablet he swallows is Paris-flavored. He'd piled all the European cities together, the way his son used to do with the green skittles. The hotel room smells like a sneeze. The wall opposite his bed thumps at a rhythm he can only assume is fucking. The roar of an airplane can be faintly heard. The long-awaited family vacation has been canceled, though nobody really agreed to cancel it. Today would've been the day they returned home.

The pill kicks in. He falls asleep right before the thumping abruptly stops. The Seine River flows soft like a melody, city lights shimmering upon its surface. From far away, the bony silhouette of the Eiffel Tower lights up into gold, just as dusk completes its slow ascent.

His neck is damp with sweat when he wakes up. Only a few hours have passed. He checks his phone, just in case. The officers have still not replied to his inquiries. The case is going cold – a woman and two children have vanished into thin air, and they appear to be nowhere on Earth. From the hallway, a woman huffs with laughter. The way she caws at irregular intervals – it reminds him of his wife. He takes another pill. The wrapper on the bottle: Traveling alone has never been easier! Out of spite, he takes another pill, then another and another. After the last pill slips into his throat, he melts into his mattress. His mind's eye enters a vehicle that travels leftward, rightward, and forward all at once. The Colosseum races past him, growing opaque as it converges with Big Ben. Grass sprouts from the clouds, rivers run through the middle of the asphalt. Park Güell emerges from the Alps like a ghost through the wall.

He shakes violently in his bed. From the room next to his, another man assumes it is the rhythm of fucking. Wrong – it is a stranger who consumes all the cities, though he has nobody to accompany him.

Author Bio

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SJ Han is a bilingual writer from Seoul. He is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. His work is published or forthcoming on Smokelong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, Typishly,and Laurel Moon.