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Fiction

Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir

Sydney’s cellphone rang and she ignored it, on the grounds that it was either her mother or news that someone had died, and either way she was too high to handle it. Her phone went quiet, then started ringing again, and anxiety clawed at her belly and then up her spine. Maybe someone wasn’t dead, maybe they were just dying, and if she ignored this call she’d miss her chance to say goodbye at the hospital. Everyone else would be there, and she’d be the only asshole who hadn’t made it in time.

She wasn’t sure who “everyone” was in this scenario, or even who was dying, but the threat of it seemed real enough that she crossed her apartment and dug her phone out of the supermarket tote bag she’d been using as a purse.

Michaela Reynolds’s name was on the screen—an ex-girlfriend she hadn’t seen or really thought much about since college.

“Oh,” she said into the phone. “Um, hi.”

There was a pause. “Syd?”

Michaela’s voice hadn’t changed; her tone was a mix of seriousness and hesitance that had deposited any number of well-intentioned statements into awkward, interrogatory terrain that always put Sydney on the defensive.

“Yeah,” said Sydney. “Totally. What’s up?”

“Wow, it’s so good to hear your voice! I wasn’t sure if this would still be your number?”

“It is.” Sydney’s words hung there for a minute, and in the silence she lost the thread of their conversation. “I’m, uh, not sure why I called you,” she confessed.

“You didn’t! I called you,” said Michaela.

“Oh,” said Sydney again.

“Wow, I don’t mean to be rude, but . . . are you drunk right now? Or on painkillers or something?”

“No, no, I’m high as fuck.” It was a relief to not have to pretend otherwise. Sydney sat back down on the couch, next to the window she’d cracked open to let in some of the chill April air. The only sign of spring was a distant crabapple tree just starting to bud, but even the damp parking lot fumes were fresher than the air in her apartment.

“Is this a bad time, then?” Michaela asked.

“Nah, I’m usually high as fuck.” They’d dated in the era before her cancer, when Sydney was a diligent student and passionate feminist instead of a wake-and-baker who avoided going out in public.

“Oh, cool.” There was that tone again: clearly Michaela didn’t think this was “cool.” “Anyway,” Michaela continued, “the thing I’m calling about is a little bit weird.”

Sydney settled back into the couch so thoroughly that she felt like it was an extension of herself. “Awesome,” she said. “I love weird.”

“Have you talked to Edík Němec recently?”

“Edík? The Russian kid?” She did not say: Edík? The dude you dumped me for?

“Czech, actually,” said Michaela, two words Sydney had heard Michaela utter in sequence so many times that she almost said them with her.

“Nah, I haven’t seen him in forever.” Sydney held the phone with her shoulder to pick up her half-smoked bowl and take another hit. “You two still together?”

“Oh, no,” said Michaela. “No. I just . . . I still have some of his stuff? It’s been in a box in my mom’s basement for like eight years, and I just stumbled across it. Thought he might want it back. Thought maybe somebody from the old gang was still in touch with him.”

“Maybe,” said Sydney. “Not me, though.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Michaela. “Thanks for talking, though. Would you do me a favor?”

“Maybe.”

“If he gets in touch with you, will you let me know?”

“Totally.”

“Thanks, Syd. It was good to talk to you! Maybe we could meet up sometime, grab a beer or whatever.”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Sydney lied. Or maybe, she thought, she wasn’t lying. Maybe it would be good to go out and grab a beer with an ex.

Edík waited till she’d hung up to gesture for her to pass the bowl and lighter over to him.

“You know I’m not Russian,” he said ruefully. “So rude to pretend.”

Sydney shook her head. “When you said you needed to hide out for a week or two, I figured you meant from, like, gangsters or something. Not an ex-girlfriend.”

Edík looked sincerely surprised as he huffed out a cloud of smoke. “Gangsters? Me?”

“You just seemed so . . . desperate, when you showed up. Scared.”

Edík waved the cloud of pot smoke away. “No,” he said. “I’m not scared of anything.”

But even as high as she was, Sydney could hear the doubt in his voice.

• • • •

They’d met in college, when Sydney was still dumb enough to think that pursuing an English degree was a good idea. One day Michaela showed up late at a party with a boyfriend on her arm, a white guy who was not too tall or too short or too anything really, though he had a nice smile and a pixyish set to his eyes that had to be at least a little bit unusual, because Sydney didn’t habitually notice men’s eyes. The boyfriend was Edík, wearing cuffed jeans and a goatee and a vest that was just a little bit too small for him. He didn’t look so much like an undergrad as like a refugee from some dapper past that had never existed, and his Czech accent—which they all thought was Russian at the time—was the perfect pièce de résistance that explained Michaela’s smug smile and possessive hand-holding.

Sydney, who had been dumped by Michaela two weeks earlier ostensibly so Michaela could pursue a Bobcat cheerleader, wanted to believe that this was all a show for her benefit, but even in the moment she could see that it was a show for everyone’s benefit: Clearly, Michaela felt she’d won the dating game.

At the time, dating had seemed terribly important.

• • • •

Sydney and Edík settled into an easy pattern, and whenever Sydney started figuring it was time to kick him out, he gave her a reason not to. She’d been temping at Home Depot for only two weeks and was already thinking about quitting when she came home to find pulled pork in the slow cooker with a plastic bag of hamburger buns and a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s nestled next to it. Another day she smelled bleach, and discovered that her bathroom was cleaner than when she’d moved in. Edík worked night nurse shifts over at Mt. Carmel East, which meant that between his long hours, cross-the-city commute, and day-sleeping, Sydney almost never saw him. It had been a lot of work to find an apartment she could barely afford by herself in the Clintonville neighborhood she wanted, but now that she had a roommate again she found she didn’t mind. Suddenly her sheets were being washed weekly, and fresh towels cropped up in a bathroom that didn’t smell like mildew.

She was reasonably sure that Edík was sleeping in her bed when she was gone, because the smell of his deodorant sometimes lingered there, but even that felt . . . friendly, in a way that was hard to describe.

Then someone knocked on the door the same way Edík had: uninvited, unexpected, and early in the night. When Sydney opened the door, Michaela was standing there with a growler of Seventh Son and a determined set to her mouth. She hadn’t changed much: still wore her hair very long and very straight, still favored a shade of coral lipstick that wasn’t particularly flattering. It wouldn’t occur to Sydney until the next day that maybe she’d styled her hair that way and dug out an old lipstick on purpose, like a parody of herself from almost a decade before.

“Whoa,” said Sydney when she opened the door. “How’d you know where I live?”

“Asked around.” Michaela stepped forward, and Sydney let her in without quite thinking it through.

“Weird.”

“Do you have any cups?” Michaela held up the growler with both hands, a triumphant gesture dissonant with her serious expression.

“Yeah, yeah.” Sydney started for the kitchen, then stopped. She was high, but not incoherently high. “Did you, like, stalk out my address? Is this creepy?”

Michaela smiled. “You said you’d grab a beer with me some time, but everybody says you never leave your room? So I brought the beer to you!”

It had been too long, maybe, since a girl had smiled at Sydney like that.

“I guess I just lost track of you after the whole cancer thing,” said Michaela. “And you’re never on Instagram or Twitter. I don’t think I realized how long it’d been until I actually heard your voice.”

The whole cancer thing. Sydney realized she didn’t actually know what Michaela knew about her cancer: whether she was aware of the stoma in her abdomen and the colostomy bag she’d been wearing for more than five years. At a time when the recovery narrative was all about reevaluating your life and reaching out to a support network and thinking relentlessly positive thoughts, Sydney had instead pruned her friends into acquaintances and discovered a reservoir of loathing and disgust for her own body that was so deep she still hadn’t reached the bottom.

“Yeah, that was pretty rough. Nobody thinks of colon cancer in a twenty-two-year-old.” She tried out one of her only jokes about her diagnosis, one worn thin back when she still thought it was important to make other people comfortable with her illness: “You never think you’d reach a point in your life where you say, ‘wow, I’m grateful about shitting so much blood,’ but that ended up being what saved my life. Any less gross symptom and I’d’ve just ignored it.”

The words didn’t sound like a joke as they left her mouth. She sat down on the couch and started packing a bowl.

“Um, cups?” said Michaela, sitting down beside her.

“Oh, yeah, yeah.” Sydney disappeared into the kitchen and came back with two stemless wine glasses, the last of the glassware that wasn’t hanging out in the unrun dishwasher. Michaela had emptied Sydney’s grinder onto a piece of paper and was gently tapping the pot into her glass pipe. Her easy familiarity with the process made Sydney feel weak with relief. She poured them each a glass of beer and watched Michaela take the first hit.

“I, uh, didn’t know you smoked,” Sydney said.

“I mean, I went to college? So obviously. It’s been a while, though.” She paused to exhale. “You didn’t really smoke in college, did you? I don’t remember that.”

“No. I was kind of a late bloomer.”

“Was it a chemo thing?”

Sydney laughed, and with her lungs full of smoke the laugh turned into a cough. “Nah, not really. I just . . .”

She didn’t know how to explain, and tried the beer instead. It was a dark Belgian stout, the kind of fancy shit she’d never have bought on her own, but she found she didn’t mind it. “You’re still looking for Edík?” she asked.

“Nah, right now I’m here to see you.” Michaela touched Sydney’s shoulder with just the tips of her fingers. Sydney got up to put on a Pandora station, and they drank and smoked in a leisurely silence that surprised Sydney with its ease.

“It wasn’t a chemo thing,” she said after a while, and when Michaela didn’t say anything she kept going, staring out the open window. It was raining again, the air sharp but finally smelling a little bit green. “The pot. Like, I thought kicking cancer would give my life meaning. Or make me find the meaning that was already there. So I wrote about it. Cancer memoirs are such a thing, and I was so young, and it was really good. I got an agent.”

“Wow!” Michaela blinked at her. “I didn’t know that! Congratulations.”

“Like, I put everything I had into this. And it was funny and sad and difficult, which is basically all the things that life is, and it was good, and after I rewrote it with my agent it was even better. And then . . . Nobody wanted it. No. Buh. Dee. Like, I lived, so it wasn’t quite sad enough. And also it was colon cancer, which is the least sexy cancer in a field of incredibly unsexy diseases. And there was no success story at the end. It turns out that just living is not enough of a success, apparently. And eventually my agent dropped me.

“And that was . . . I mean, you go to college, and you major in English, and you’ve always been one of the smartest kids in the room, and one of the best writers, and you think, I’ve really got something here. And then something happens, like cancer, and that is your story, the one no one can tell but you, something that’s relatable but exceptional, and eventually you find out . . . It’s not good enough. That was the one thing I had, right? I don’t do well with people. Between the cancer and the recovery and the goddamn English degree it’s not like I was really hirable, and the economy was already a POS. And then . . .

“Have you ever tried internet dating with a colostomy bag? Like, have you even considered typing the word ‘stoma’ in an OKCupid profile? Because I don’t recommend it. So writing was going to be the thing that made my life meaningful. And then I wasn’t good enough at it, and I started smoking more and caring about other shit less, and eventually, I dunno, just being high all the time and having Netflix instead of friends was easier. It made life bearable, you know?”

It was the longest string of words she’d said out loud in over a year.

“Wow,” said Michaela, putting down her beer so that she could rest her hand on Sydney’s knee. “I had no idea you were so sad.”

“I’m not,” said Sydney. “I mean, that sounded really sad, I guess, but the whole point is that I don’t feel sad. I feel . . . manageable.”

“Are you seeing somebody? Like a therapist?”

“Jesus, no. I had enough fucking counseling when I thought I was gonna die, and I’ll probably go back whenever the cancer recurs—I mean, if it starts this young, eventually it’s gotta recur, right?—but that shit’s for the dying.”

“Non-dying people can also suffer from depression, though? Which sounds . . . relevant . . . to what you’re describing.”

Sydney was saved from an argument with her ex about her mental health by Edík’s key in the lock. Michaela’s hand tightened on her knee.

Edík walked in and took off the white denim jacket he’d kept wearing no matter how many times Sydney told him it looked ridiculous. He carefully hung it up so it would dry before his next shift, and only then did he look up and notice that there were two women on the couch instead of one. He stood perfectly still, one hand still outstretched, almost touching the sleeve of his jacket.

“Hi!” said Michaela. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

Edík slowly put his arm down and stood up straight.

“Michaela just dropped by,” Sydney said, voice a little hazy. “Hope that’s okay with you. Want a beer?”

Edík just stood there.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” snapped Michaela. “This is a social call! Come relax and smoke this bowl with us.” They’d repacked it twice, and gotten halfway through the growler. Feeling lighter and more cheerful than she had in ages, Sydney got up, pulled a dirty glass out of the dishwasher, and rinsed it out with hand soap. When she came back, Michaela and Edík were still on opposite sides of the room, and Michaela was sipping her beer rather pointedly.

“Come sit with us?” suggested Sydney, and after a moment Edík sat down on the floor across from them. “How was work?” Sydney asked, pouring beer into the freshly cleaned glass.

Edík shrugged. Sydney took a hit and passed him the glass pipe, too. Pandora cut to commercial, and discomfort wormed up Sydney’s spine. She wanted things back to ten minutes ago, when she and Michaela had felt so content in each other’s quiet company. As they smoked, Edík’s shoulders gradually fell, until he looked more like a regular stoner and less like a trapped dog. Finally Michaela broke the silence.

“I can’t believe you haven’t helped her,” she snapped, and immediately Edík’s shoulders tensed back up.

“Edík’s been great, actually,” said Sydney. “Cleans things up and shit. You shoulda seen the place before he moved in.” She gestured at the mismatch of furniture, things she’d gathered from curbsides before bedbugs hit Columbus, when you could still trashpick without fear of infestation. There was no particular style or art to the things she’d gathered, but all of it was clean.

“So Edík is staying here? You were just lying to me on the phone.” Michaela’s voice was short and angry, but still accented with uptalk. Suddenly Sydney could sympathize with Edík’s trapped look.

“I just—” she started.

“I’m not doing that anymore,” said Edík.

“Yeah right,” snapped Michaela. “You have to do it. Don’t bullshit me.”

“I do it at work, now. For the dying, where it doesn’t make any trouble.”

“What doesn’t make any trouble?” asked Sydney.

Please. Have you even talked to Sydney since you moved in here? Or looked at this place? She practically is one of the dying.”

“I, uh, don’t quite get what you guys are fighting about,” said Sydney. “But I don’t think my place is that bad.”

“You can help her, it would be so easy, and it’s total bullshit if you’re refusing to do it.” Michaela put her glass down heavily on the table, and fumbled with the growler to refill it.

“I can do a thing,” said Edík to Sydney. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

“He’s like a goddamn muse,” said Michaela. “But for everything, not just painters and poets and weirdoes.”

“A muse?” Sydney repeated. She looked out the window. The rain had let up a little bit, just coming down in soft sprinkles, making puddles in the parking lot that sometimes surprised you with their depth.

“I’ll show you. Look into my eyes,” Edík said, sounding less like a sinister hypnotist and more like a battered girlfriend. Sydney did, and Edík blinked once, so slowly that Sydney giggled through her awkward nervousness. Next to her, Michaela was still. When Edík finally opened his eyes, they were like two holes in his head, holes through his head, holes that emptied out into a starless galaxy utterly devoid of light.

“Oh,” said Sydney, her mouth dry. “I guess that is a thing.” She paused and looked at Michaela. “This is real, right? Because I’m pretty high, but I don’t think I’m-actively-hallucinating high.”

“I can’t see it,” said Michaela shortly. “It’s just for you. Watch.”

“Keep looking,” added Edík, his voice distant and gentle. The world around them became pointed and luminous, and though Sydney didn’t break eye contact, she became more aware of the world in her peripheral vision, suddenly capable of perceiving beauty even in the graceless angles of this mismatched room. She felt giddy with her own potential to impact every shape around her.

Edík blinked, and when he opened his eyes again they were just regular brown.

“That,” he said, voice back to its normal volume, and a little bit slurred. “That’s the thing I do. Most people like it very much.”

Sydney inhaled deeply. Her body felt light around her, and she was aware for the first time in a long time of its many positive attributes, not least among them that it was still alive.

“That was like tripping,” she said. “Like tripping but not. I don’t know how to describe it.”

“It’s indescribable,” said Michaela, patting Sydney’s knee in a perfunctory way that was nothing like how her warm hand had lingered there earlier in the night. “But you should do something you haven’t done in a while: go on a date, or apply for a job, or write an essay. Something you used to think you were good at but haven’t felt good at for a long time.”

“Was this a date?” Sydney asked, swallowing.

Michaela considered. “No,” she said finally. “I’m sorry.” She stood up. “Edík, come back home, please.”

Edík stood up looking woozy, though he’d smoked and drank considerably less than Michaela.

“I don’t want to,” he said hesitantly.

“Do you feel good right now?” Michaela asked. “Doesn’t it feel good to help people?”

Edík nodded. “But . . .” he said. Sydney waited for the rest of the sentence, but it didn’t come.

“I miss you,” said Michaela softly. She went over to Edík and ran her fingertips along his back. He shuddered at her touch, and leaned towards her. “Without you there, I feel like something less than what I was before. Come home.”

Edík reached out and wrapped an arm around Michaela, and she folded herself into him, though they were almost the same height. “I can’t,” Edík murmured. “I don’t want to live that way anymore.”

Michaela shoved him, and he stumbled back, tripping over the low coffee table that held the growler and landing on the couch, looking less hurt than surprised.

“You piece of shit!” snapped Michaela. “You can’t do this to me!”

“I’m not doing anything to you,” said Edík softly. “I’m just . . . leaving. You can’t stop me, and it’s fucked up of you to try.”

Sydney stood up and came to life in that moment, realizing with sudden ferocity that this was her apartment, and that Michaela was her ex too, and that she wasn’t remotely okay with the way this exchange was going.

“Get out of here, Michaela,” she said. “And take your fancy fucking microbrew with you. Edík says he’s staying here, and I say he’s staying here, and that’s the end of it.”

Michaela curled her lip. The coral lipstick had worn away, and she looked better without it. “See?” she said, not quite to either of them. “It’s already working.” She picked up the mostly-empty growler and her purse and swept out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her.

Edík reached over for the pipe and took a hit, still sitting in the position he’d landed in.

“So, um, sorry about that,” said Sydney. “I guess I didn’t realize how bad it was. I shouldn’t’ve . . . If she comes back, I’ll call the police.”

“Don’t call the police,” said Edík. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“I mean, um. If she’s stalking you or hitting you or whatever, that seems like police stuff.”

“Not until I take the citizenship test. Police trouble looks bad.” He held out the pipe, and after a moment Sydney slid back onto the couch beside him.

“That’s fucked up,” she said.

Edík shrugged. “The system, it is fucked up.”

And they killed the bowl, passing it quietly back and forth as Pandora went on playing cheerful, oblivious pop music.

• • • •

It made Sydney feel dirty to take Michaela’s advice, but she did it anyway. After she finished her shift at Home Depot, instead of smoking up and putting on Twin Peaks for the hundredth time, she set her ancient laptop on the kitchen table and booted up OpenOffice. It felt weird to sit down and consciously try to write something—actually it felt pretentious and ridiculous, and she was embarrassed that she’d spent so much of her youth in exactly this position. She’d been so sure then that she had something to say. Now she was mostly aware of the failure of her labels to make for good marketing: gay cancer survivor memoirs about unknowns too niche a market for anything but self-publishing.

Actually, why hadn’t she tried self-publishing?

She felt a burst of enthusiasm, the same almost cheerful surge that had pushed her to kick Michaela out of her apartment. Self-publishing wasn’t the weird hinterland it had been even five years ago, and the world had the dubious model of E. L. James to prove it.

She could do something with that goddamn memoir.

Maybe she could even write something new.

• • • •

“I’m probably going to move out soon,” said Edík, coming up behind Sydney while she sat at her laptop. It had been almost a week since Michaela’s visit, and this was their first real conversation since. “Now that Michaela knows I’m here, I should be somewhere else instead.”

Sydney reluctantly pushed her chair back from the kitchen table and turned to face him. “She didn’t show up again, did she? Because I’ll call the police on my own. Your name doesn’t have to come up.”

Edík shook his head. “I don’t want to call the police. I don’t want Michaela to get in trouble. I just want to be left alone, and she can’t leave me alone.”

“Um, that’s like weird Stockholm syndrome talk. Of course she can leave you alone, and the only reason she won’t is because she’s being kind of abusive about your break-up.”

“No, she can’t leave me alone.” Edík looked at the wall rather than at Sydney. “The thing I do. I . . . I used to do it a lot for her. She’s in marketing, it’s very stressful, very competitive. I was her edge. It takes time not to need that anymore. I knew better at the time, but it was so much easier just to do it, for both of us to feel good. But it doesn’t make me feel good anymore to help her. It makes me feel tired.”

Sydney tapped her fingers on the table, not quite touching the keyboard. “Did it make you tired to help me?” she asked.

“No.” Edík smiled at her. “You’ve been kind to me, Sydney. Maybe Michaela was right, and I should have helped you before. But I worried . . . I came to America in the first place when this thing went wrong with someone else. And with Michaela, it went wrong again.” His smile soured. “I’m trying to learn to not repeat these patterns.”

“Sorry if this is a really fucked up question, but are you a human being? Like a totally normal one?”

Edík shrugged. “I think of myself as a human being. My mother was. My father, who can say? But this way I help people, it isn’t normal. It feels good to do with the dying, to make them calm, to make them feel that even at the very end of their lives all is not lost. But with the dying, there’s an end point. The living, I think, will just take until nothing is left.”

Sydney balanced what he was saying with the way she’d spent her last week: furiously researching, then at last making her memoir available on Smashwords and crossing her fingers. She even had notes on a tentative new project: fiction, for the first time in a long time.

“I mean,” she said, “you’re welcome to stay a little longer. At least until you’ve got your next move figured out.”

Edík put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I do. I just wanted to say thank you, Sydney. This was a very pleasant respite.”

Despite herself, Sydney felt a rush of panic. She needed rules and explanations. How long would the thing Edík had done last? Could she keep writing without it? Had this just been the placebo effect she needed to get herself out of a rut, or would she become like Michaela, a bad actor with a nasty agenda?

“Could you do it one more time?” she blurted out. “The thing?”

Edík looked at her. His face was very blank, and he looked inscrutable in his white denim jacket.

“It’s not a pattern,” she added quickly. “Twice is just twice. I don’t want . . . I kicked cancer, man, and I’ve been throwing my life away ever since. I don’t want to be that girl anymore.” She swallowed. “You said you like to help people.”

After a long and terrible moment of silence, Edík sat down on the edge of the table across from Sydney.

“This is all,” he said. “And it’s only because I’m grateful. You don’t need this thing. You were fine before, and you’ll be fine again once I’m gone.”

Sydney snorted. “I feel fine right now. I feel like myself, after a long time just . . . waiting.”

Edík’s lips tightened, but he didn’t say anything else, just closed his eyes in that same slow blink he’d used a week ago, which now seemed ominous instead of funny.

Again, when he opened his eyes, Sydney had the sensation of impossible vastness in that deep black, and also the sensation of rising, as if the universe was a thing she could travel through, or even conquer. The air she breathed had a taste beyond the damp of her apartment, beyond even the musk of spring—it was what the Platonic idea of air tasted like, maybe.

By the time Edík blinked again and returned to normal, Sydney could feel the tingle of possibility in her very blood.

“Thank you,” she breathed.

Edík smiled at her, the same fuzzy expression as last time, though he’d just gotten off work and hadn’t smoked or drunk a thing. He leaned towards her slightly, and when she put out a hand towards him he covered it with his own. His hands were calloused only at the very tops of his palms, and the tips of his fingers were soft as he touched them to her wrist.

“Thank you,” she said again.

“It’s nice,” said Edík. “You’re nice. I’m going farther away this time, so everything can be nice and I don’t have to worry anymore.”

Sydney remembered the way Michaela had almost talked him into leaving with her the last time he’d been this way.

“Yeah?” she said cautiously. “How far are you going? Where to?”

“Champaign,” he said mildly. “It’s a city in Illinois. I thought, Ohio is basically nowhere, but it turned out not to be safe enough. So Champaign is my new nowhere. Not even 100,000 people in the whole place.”

Sydney made a face. Recluse that she’d become, it still offended her sensibilities to downgrade to a city even smaller than Columbus.

“What’s your address?” she asked. “So we can stay in touch?”

Still wearing that fuzzy smile, Edík told her, and Sydney immediately saved it in on her laptop, then closed the window.

“I’m thinking about looking for a job,” she said quickly. “I mean, a better-than-temping job. I dunno, maybe writing copy, or some kind of entry-level bullshit at McGraw-Hill.”

“McGraw-Hill . . .” he repeated.

“The textbook people. I dunno, getting paid to basically do middle school homework has to better than hauling mulch at Home Depot.”

“See?” said Edík. He already looked more alert, more like himself. “You don’t need me. Already, you’re figuring things out.”

“I dunno what I’ve been so afraid of,” Sydney confessed. “Like, I’m a grown-up. What’s the worst that could happen? I’ve already had all the ostomate disasters you’re supposed to dread, and they turned out fine. Bag blowouts, weird gas, wax that comes unsealed . . . I think that was part of why I liked temping, so I didn’t have to keep looking people in the eye after something gross happened. But I feel ready to look people in the eye. Hell, I feel ready to make people look me in the eye.”

“Colostomy Bag Blowout sounds like either the best band name or the worst Black Friday sale in the world,” said Edík, and Sydney laughed out loud.

Everything, she suddenly realized, was going to be okay.

And if it wasn’t, she’d know where to find Edík.

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Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray is a used car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing “expert” in a head shop. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with a tall man and a small toddler.