James Ensor, "Self-portrait with Masks (1899)

James Ensor, “Self-portrait with Masks (1899)

a short story by Michael Chin

IT’S INDEPENDENCE DAY, and the birds are losing their minds. Flocks of them flying in cross-directions, threatening to collide. Advancing from chirps to squawks.

“They say animals can sense disaster.” Lily wears a pink-and-white-striped tank top and jean shorts tight enough that they’ve left indentations on her thighs, just visible when she shifts her legs if you look in the right spots.

I know those spots.

“And when birds chirp at each other, they’re communicating,” Lily says.

“Is that right?” Jacob drapes an arm around her shoulder. Casual as hell. Everything he does is effortless. He wears oversized, wrinkled t-shirts that offer no hint at his muscles. But his abdomen is chiseled, his chest bulges into masses of muscle. He’s already a man, and I’m jealous. It’s part of what drew us together—that, and an unlikely shared interest in science fiction novels. He spotted me reading The Martian Chronicles on the bleachers at lunch last fall and told me Bradbury used to be his favorite, back when he used to read.

“More pets run away on the Fourth of July than any other day of the year,” Lily says.

Jacob nibbles on her ear.

She giggles. “Quit it.” She pushes Jacob away. “Animals get scared, and their owners are nowhere to be found.”

“The little fuckers probably think it’s the end of the world,” Jacob says.

“I bet they do.” Lily nods. Her skin has gone dark from the summer sun. She’s a day camp counselor. A nice paycheck for a high school kid, but a shitty hourly wage when you break it down. She’s almost never around during the day, tired at night, always complaining she has to get up early the next day.

She’s left Jacob and me on our own a lot of these summer nights. We have our rotation. My place, where we have central air. His place, where his father keeps enough beers he won’t notice if a couple go missing. The movie theater, where we buy tickets for the last matinée and then hop from movie to movie the rest of the night.

We were at the movies last month, the first time Jacob put his arm around me. It was a joke between us and Jacob’s friends—my friends, too, I guess—that year at school. A game we called Gay Chicken, in which one person would make an advance and the next would escalate until somebody backed down. The thing is, the theater was cold, and I didn’t mind having his arm over me. Maybe he was playing the game. Maybe I was playing, too, when I turned to face him, and maybe he knew I’d look and that’s why he was already facing me.

But that’s how we kissed. When no one backed down, and we were in the dark theater with no one to see us. Jacob tasted like the butter from his popcorn. Could he taste the chocolate from my Milk Duds? Did he hear the movie sounds? It was a war movie—the whir of a tank’s gears and a chopper’s blades, the rattle of machine guns, and the explosion of an IED followed by expletives, all the backdrop to Jacob rubbing my arm and Jacob pressing my fingers to his chest. He was the one to pull away. I suppose I won that particular round of Gay Chicken, but when he looked back at the screen he seemed content. At peace. I had to catch my breath.

It was just kissing, but that night, I humped my fist and remembered the moment. Imagined Lily there, too. Imagined her like I had a thousand times before in her bra and panties, in a bikini, in the buff. Then stopped imagining her. And finished.

“The birds up there are probably trying to warn each other.” Lily’s got the day off for the Fourth of July, so we’re out together, the three of us, sitting at a café by the riverfront—sort of a misnomer because the river is little more than a trickle by the time it reaches Shermantown. Most of the crowd is older, sipping beer and cocktails under the sun, tanning their wrinkled flesh. We come here because Lily likes their jalapeño poppers. “Making a plan,” she says.

“But there’s nothing they can do to stop it,” I say.

Jacob shakes his head and looks at me from over the top of his sunglasses. “The two of you act like it really is the end of the world. It’s fireworks.”

“And how would you feel if there were explosions going on all around you that you couldn’t explain?” Lily asks. “Like you were living in a minefield all of a sudden.”

Jacob hugs her around the waist. “If I had the right company, I’d stay put and enjoy the show. Not move a muscle.” He pivots, putting his knee up on the bench, inching his pelvis toward her. “Well, maybe one muscle.”

There’s movement beside us, a flash of gray fur. It’s one of the cats that frequents the riverfront. Most of them are emaciated, but I recognize this one because he’s borderline-sickly-fat. Lily locks eyes with him and pats her lap quickly until he scoots over and, with remarkable agility, hops up onto her. She pets him on the nose until his muscles ease and he lowers himself to a relaxed pose.

“Are you coming out with us tonight?” Jacob asks me. “Or are you too busy reading for Advanced Placement English Literature.” He says the name of the class in a faux British accent. Jacob’s not taking AP. No plans for college, just looking to skate through senior year, and he gives me crap when I study during the summer months. Times like last night when I said I couldn’t go out.

“I’m coming,” I say. The cat rolls over on his back. His purr borders on snoring.

“My sister took AP Calc,” Lily says. “She was a math genius. Anytime we have to figure the tip at a restaurant, she figures it out like that.” She snaps her fingers.

The cat opens his eyes, raises his head ever so slightly to meet the sound, then
decides there’s no danger and drops his head again.

“I’m not taking AP Calculus.” I pick at a brown stain crusted onto the bottom of my t-shirt.

“Cal’s fucking smart,” Jacob says. “Now he’s all shy about it, but you should have seen him in middle school. Raising his hand every time the teacher asked a question. It wasn’t until last year I smartened up and made friends so he’d let me copy off his homework.”

“And Jacob let me hang out with him,” I say. “He taught me how to be cool.”

“So you think you’re cool now?” Jacob asks.

Lily tells him not to be a jerk.

Jacob smirks and gets up from our table. Silently, slowly, takes a couple steps back. “Watch this.”

I know what he’s up to. Jacob raises a finger to his lip and curls himself into a tight ball. Stays coiled for ten seconds. Fifteen. Twenty. Thirty. Lily opens her lips to say something again, when he uncoils. His body is like an animal’s. Fluid. Instinctual. He has a control over his limbs that I’ve never had. He probably could have been on the gymnastics team if he wanted to, or had the discipline.

He springs forward, arms spread, legs kicked out, creating the broadest surface area he possibly can for a moment, before expertly retracting his limbs, landing in a crouch right by Lily’s side, right by the cat’s head.

The cat, sensing Jacob’s shape and the motion—the explosion—springs up and away, to the ground, fur standing on end. He meows plaintively and leaves us.

Jacob can’t stop laughing. Lily looks to me, and all I can do is shrug, the straight man to Jacob’s goof. He sits back down, and underneath the table his foot rubs against mine. I tell myself I know what he really wants.


Jacob has more friends than I can keep track of. More friends by the month, by the weekend. Friends from working a dozen jobs around town—custodian, burger flipper, landscaper—none of which stuck. Friends from parties. Friends from being in the right place at the right time.

Tonight, it’s an older crew. Not his friend’s parents’ place, but a house of their own. Out in the Podunk-est outskirts of Shermantown. Rundown as it is, the house is big, I’ll give them that, with flat eaves and segments of roof already set up with lawn chairs. Someone is grilling burgers out back. Our car is one of eight or nine, pulled up to arbitrary spots where the road turned to gravel that may or may not be a driveway. A one-eyed dog sits out there, not six feet from our car, and I wonder if Jacob spotted him first, or just got lucky not to have run him over. The dog lies there, legless at first observation, his only recourse to slither like a snake across the gravel. When I get closer, I can see that he does have legs, they’re just folded all in under him. He’s taken up residence in a pothole and demonstrates no interest in leaving his spot, to dodge cars or to pursue raw ground beef, much less to greet us. I wonder if he’ll stir with the fireworks or if he’s content to endure whatever fate the world has waiting for him.

Jacob leads me and Lily through the doors. The floor of the first room is covered in moldy carpet, curling unevenly where it hits the walls. It gives way to rotted hardwood where the living room begins, in a horseshoe of mismatched, thread-worn couches, all pointing toward a surprisingly nice flat screen mounted on the wall. A chubby guy lies sprawled across the center couch, a filthy bare foot with horned toenails propped over the back of it. At the foot of the couch, there’s a girl in an oversized plain white t-shirt and maybe nothing else, her knees closed tight and propped under her chin, arms hugging her shins close to her. She’s got a burning cigarette in her fingers, dangerously close to the upholstery. The guy works his fingers through her ratty hair, massaging her scalp.

Jacob extends a hand. “Anderson, what up?”

Anderson doesn’t take his eyes off the TV. Independence Day is showing. Doctors slice through the membrane that coats a seemingly dead alien, only for the alien’s fingers to move, only for its eyes to open, only for a horrible squealing sound to begin.

Anderson’s hand flies up from the girl’s hair and collides with Jacob’s in a high five that echoes across the room. It makes me realize how big and empty the space is.

There are more people in the kitchen. Jacob makes introductions, but most of the names don’t stay with me. They seem older—not much older, but out of high school. Most of the guys eyeball Lily to some extent or another, and there’s a protective piece of me that’s grateful for the detour she had Jacob take before we came out here—insisting the mosquitoes would eat her alive if she didn’t wear long pants and if she didn’t have sleeves.

Out in the yard, the grass is tall and full of weeds. A short, curvy girl in a black tank top hugs Jacob, kisses his neck, jumps up and coils her thighs around his waist. She has a tattoo of a barren tree on one arm, with branches that reach all the way around her shoulder, roots that dig down as far as her wrist.

Jacob contorts his neck to make eye contact with her. “Sara, this is my girlfriend Lily. And my best friend Cal.”

I like the sound of that. Best friend. I nod to Sara.

Sara loosens her grip on him and focuses on Lily. She has this look on her face—equal parts sheepish and daring Lily to say something. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Lily threads her arm through Jacob’s and holds him close.

We load up paper plates. Jacob goes first and gets two hamburgers, a generous pile of mac salad, and a handful of salt-and-vinegar chips, so I follow his lead, help myself to a big dinner. Lily takes corn on the cob and some baby carrots. We all get cans of PBR from the cooler.

Jacob and Lily sit on a bare mattress in the grass, me on a couch cushion next to them. I’d like to get Jacob alone, if just for a minute tonight. I’m not expecting anything major to happen, but can imagine the rush of stealing a kiss or holding hands when no one can see us.

People are playing a game where they point their elbows at one another and say names. Someone points at me and calls me Jerry, and I correct them that I’m Cal, and they say I have to drink. Soon enough, I figure out I’m supposed to say the wrong name and pass it on.

Lily laughs, but I think she’s getting frustrated. She never seems to get it right—keeps pointing at Jacob and saying his name and frowning when the group of strangers laugh at her and point and holler at her to drink. I don’t see how the game is much fun, but like that, Jacob disappears and returns with a fresh can of beer for me just as I was finishing my first. I like it when he momentarily wraps his arm around my neck in a headlock. I like the way his bicep feels against the back of my skull. That he is stronger than me. That despite not showering today, he still doesn’t smell bad, just more like Jacob. I like that I’m better at this game than Lily, and wonder if she might excuse herself, ostensibly to go the bathroom or get something else to eat, but really just to get away from the crowd, and if that might be Jacob’s cue to sneak off with me, back into the house, or behind the oak tree with the wide, thick trunk at the edge of the yard. It’s getting darker, which opens up possibilities.

Sara sits down next to me. Whispers, “scoot over,” in my ear and just flicks the lobe of it with her tongue and nudges me with her shoulder so that we share that couch cushion together. There is hardly enough room for the two of us, but I suppose that’s the point, and I prop my hand just behind her ass to sit up straight while she guides one cheek back, just on top of my thumb, enough to feel its softness, not enough for the weight to hurt me. It doesn’t seem to be an unusual situation for her—this backyard, strange boys.

I’m not sure when the game ends, only that one minute I’m playing, the next Jacob’s dropping off my fourth beer, and I hardly get to thank him because I’m trying to listen to Sara, but she talks low so I have to lean into her, and her tank top is cut low enough so I can almost see down to her nipple, and she’s holding my hand, and I’m surprised that her palm is so cool to the touch. Then the municipal fireworks start, probably five miles away, still loud enough to pop and sizzle, still near enough to make a show in the sky, and I realize Jacob and Lily are nowhere to be found. Sara kisses me, and I think that this ought to be romantic or sexy, and it is sort of, but I’m preoccupied. Jacob’s my ride, not to mention that he and Lily are the only two people here I have first and last names for, and I’m crossing the threshold between buzzed and tanked, and I have to pee very, very badly. My stomach hurts. I might have to take a shit, too.


“Back in a minute,” I tell Sara. I leave her behind and stagger back to the house. My left foot is asleep. I catalog everything I must have eaten, though I hardly remember eating it. Only the flavors. I have my beer in my hand still—my fourth—and take a drink.

Inside, I wander. I pass up on the first bathroom. The toilet seat is drenched in piss, the bowl stained with a brown streak, and though my own stomach gurgles, the idea of sitting there is more off-putting than my gastric distress. Besides, it feels important to find Jacob first. To know where he is. To know what he’s doing.

I venture upstairs. Search room by room. One is devoted to a ping-pong table. There’s a Jenga game abandoned in progress. There’s an old Nintendo hooked up to a twelve-inch tube television in the corner. The TV flickers from gray to pink to black, the kind of static you get from dusty old cartridges, but no one has bothered to fix it or turn anything off.

I go from bedroom to bedroom. There’s a waterbed in one with the sheets half pulled off and clothing strewn across it—a skirt, a pair of long-legged jeans, a t-shirt with a gaping hole beneath the collar.

And then I find him. Them. The door is open.

They’re both fully clothed. Jacob is hugging her, sort of. Squeezing her. Pressing her to the wall, where her hair splays out as though it were spilling from her head. Spilling and staining. He’s kissing her hard and rough. When he pulls away, a string of drool connects them to one another for a second. My stomach churns. He kisses her neck. She breathes heavily. I can’t tell if she’s into it or if she’s really just struggling for oxygen. Jacob and I have had make-out sessions like this. But now he’s with her. He spins her, as if they’re dancing, as if he’s dipping her, but he lets her fall all the way down to the bed. He looks up.

I leave just before we would make eye contact. Maybe he saw me, maybe he didn’t, and I convince myself it doesn’t matter. He’s already made his choice. I find another bathroom. No lock on the door, but I don’t care. There’s no one else up here besides Jacob and Lily. I need space to breathe for a minute. Just one minute.

The mirror over the sink is cobwebbed with interconnecting cracks. There’s no curtain on the shower, and the window on the far side of the tub has no blinds. I can see straight through to the fireworks. A purple one disperses just as a denser white explosion takes shape at the center of it, shining brighter, longer. This toilet looks marginally cleaner than the other one. I flip down the seat, sit, rest my head in my hands, tugging hard on my own hair—it feels good. Maybe Sara has a car, and I can get her to give me a ride home. I’d probably have to make out with her longer first, but that’s the price you pay. I can’t imagine riding home with Jacob and Lily now. Can’t picture myself cramped in the backseat while he runs his hand over her thigh in the front. Or maybe it would be one of those times when she insists I take the front seat because my legs are longer, and passes out in back to leave us to talk about trivial stuff because she’s still there and might wake at any moment.

Shit, I’m crying.

There’s a knock on the door.

I steady my voice. Dry my face against the collar of my t-shirt. “I’ll be out in a minute.” Stand up, flip the seat. Piss and piss and piss.

The door opens.

Jacob. Of course. When my face is streaked with tears. When I’m at my most pathetic. Of course he’s here.

Explosions sound outside. Fireworks. It could just as easily be nuclear war the likes of The Martian Chronicles. It could just as easily be missiles hitting the side of an alien structure like in Independence Day a floor below. The pops are louder and faster than before. More destructive.

Jacob closes the door.

“I’m peeing here, man.”

When he approaches, at first, I think he’s leaning over me, trying to get a look at the fireworks outside the window. But then I feel the soft flit of something against the side of my neck. He’s kissing me. Presses his chest to my back. Takes my dick in hand and shakes for me. Takes me in his hands in that soft but firm way of his and jerks me slow and steady. Before I can think, my body reacts. I straighten to him, blood rushes to meet his touch.

“I don’t want to.”

He knows I’m lying. Kisses the wetness from my cheek. Starts to rub himself against my ass. We’re kissing. His breath reeks of beer, and I have to assume mine does, too. I swallow a belch, thinking this was what I wanted. This. This.

Then I’m standing in the tub, facing the flurry of fireworks, and he’s behind me. He’s in me. We haven’t done this before. I remember that alien’s membrane splitting apart—tearing on TV earlier. That awful, squealing sound it made and how everyone on screen covered their ears. Everything is that sound now. All I can hear. All I can feel.

I manage to say no. I’m certain of it. The sound takes shape. It sounds like a nonsense syllable. Take any consonant and add an oh sound. Po. Vo. Row. Show. Dough.

“You’re OK, you’re OK.” He’s going faster now.

“No.” I don’t hide the tremor in my voice anymore. I can’t. “No.”

“You’re OK.” He comes inside me. I can feel him pulse and stiffen.

The second he pulls out, my guts go liquid.

My shorts are around my ankles, covered in darkness. Weighed down. Wrong-colored clumps of ground beef and water. I watch the last of it drip from me, brown green with hints of red.

Jacob laughs. That loud, real laugh, like the first time he’s heard a really good joke in a really funny movie. In his laughter, I hear the guys at school and Lily and my father. Everyone is laughing but me.

I look behind me, and he’s pumping out hand soap, washing his dick in the sink. “You’d better clean yourself off, man. I’ll keep anyone from coming up here while you finish.”

I start to sit, but think better of it. Start to pull up my shorts, but they’re soaked. Try to take a step and almost fall over. My knees are liquid. My body. I might wash myself down the drain if I run the water hard and fast enough.

“I’ve gotta find Lily. I told her I was only going to be a minute,” Jacob says. “Don’t take too long, for real.”

He’s gone.

In a minute, I’m running the tap over the bathtub, all hot water, full pressure down onto my shorts. Steam rises. My feet burn pink. The water is growing clearer, at least, until it hits the drain where my shit clumps.

I dig my keys and my ruined cellphone and wallet from the pockets and abandon the shorts there. There’s a lone bath towel hanging opposite the toilet, and I wrap it around my waist. Steal a pair of jeans from the waterbed room, way too big on me, but I bundle them in a fist at my waist.

When I get downstairs, Jacob is standing guard at the foot of the stairs. I hear him tell a girl with bleached blond and faded pink hair that the bathroom upstairs is out of commission. She asks why, and he says his best friend has to drop a deuce and asks do you want to smell that? Lily is hugged to his side. She looks up and sees me. She’s got tears in her eyes, and she looks younger than I remember. More vulnerable. She buries her face in Jacob’s shoulder.

I wait a few extra seconds, then climb down the last half flight of stairs more loudly, letting my feet settle heavier on the wood so they know I’m coming and will assume I didn’t hear anything before that.

The living room is full. The fireworks are over, and people have come inside. Anderson from the couch is screaming in the front yard. “Snickers! Snickers!” He pauses and shouts, “Go slow! And put on your high beams. Holler if you see him!”

Jacob explains, “The dog got spooked by the fireworks and split.”

Lily’s eyes are still a little glassy, but she seems calm as she looks me up and down. “You look like hell.”

“Bad burger,” Jacob volunteers. He takes one hand from her and plants it on my shoulder. “Let’s get you home.”

We go out to the car. Anderson is still calling for Snickers. Desperate now. Elongating the i until it sounds almost like an e, as if he were yelling sneakers! It sounds like he might cry. Lily offers me the front seat, but I act like I don’t hear her and push past her, into the back.

It’s pitch black behind us as we back up. When Jacob rocks the car into drive, we can only see a little ways ahead of us. Just as far as the headlights will reach, nothing to either side. Ahead of us, empty black space.

The gravel turns back to road, and we hit something. It’s like front passenger side tire rolling over a speedbump. We can’t see anything, but I know immediately that it’s Snickers. I hope we blindsided him. Hit him on his sightless side so he never saw the car, while he crouched down in another pothole, cowering from the sparks of light that grew enormous up above.

Jacob stops and gets out of the car, even though Lily tells him not to—tells him we should just go home. He leaves the car running, the lights on, his door open and circles around front. Outside my window, I see him crouch and his shoulders jostling, struggling. It’s nearly a minute before he stands up.

“Oh my God,” Lily says.

It’s too dark, outside the glow of the headlights, to make out much for certain, but Jacob has the dog in his arms. Snickers’ head lolls over his forearm, hanging wrongly, too far askew from his neck. Jacob carries the dog. Anderson is running. Jacob hands the dog over to him gently—puts a hand on the dog’s head and then the same hand on Anderson’s shoulder. They talk for a couple minutes.

There’s a five second period when I consider reaching up into the front seat and pressing down on the horn. Just to hear the noise. Just so Jacob has no choice but to listen to me. I don’t move, though. Lily and I sit silent, both of us watching this exchange.

A couple minutes later, Jacob ducks back into the car and shakes his head. He says, “I hate to leave him like that,” then slams the door shut, buckles his safety belt and eases the car back into drive. There’s a dark smudge over his cheek—maybe from the dog, maybe a trick of shadows and the dashboard lights.

Halfway home, I spy a firework in the distance. Silent. Just a lone, streaming, sizzle of blue that barely opens at its apex in the sky. Not part of any display. A single shooter, here and gone, probably lit by some kid who thinks he’s old enough to go out on his own for the Fourth of July.

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse, and Bellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Moss and blogs about professional wrestling and a cappella music on the side. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.