Are You Still There?

A woman entertains an unusual request from a disfigured paramour.

Chaplin admitted that he had a strange request, and if it made Milena uncomfortable, he’d never ask again.

The other shoe’s finally dropping, she thought. Adjusting the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder, she glanced at the alarm clock on her dresser. It was nearing midnight. She was lying in bed in a black lace slip and no panties, wondering if he was in bed as well, perhaps idly stroking his cock as they chatted. She didn’t dare ask. Their conversation was intimate but not erotic, just as it had been every other night over the last two weeks.

“I’m listening.” She sensed he was about to invite her to do something old-fashioned and romantic, like go to dinner at some fancy Italian restaurant, and started preparing a suitable rejection. I’m sorry, Andy, I really only think of you as a friend. Yes, she’d call him by his real name when rejecting him—Andy not Chaplin. Strange to think it had only been one week since she’d started calling him that nickname, teasing him for being such a film snob, and two weeks since he had turned from a distant coworker into a close confidant. It already felt like she’d known him for ages.

“I have very fond feelings for you, Milena,” he began, “and I know you have the same for me. But I also know where your feelings end, and why.”

She frowned.

“I’ve thought a lot about this,” he went on. “About a situation that would satisfy both our needs. And eventually, I came up with an idea. It’s unusual, but so is everything about this thing between us.”

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. “Perhaps it’s time to consider a career in theater,” she teased. “The way you build suspense.”

“I’d like to brush your hair. And I’d like to pay you for the pleasure of doing so.”

“I’m sorry?” The idea seemed so absurd, so utterly ridiculous, she felt certain she’d heard him wrong.

He spoke steadily, sounding fully confident in the rationality of his request. “I want to run a soft-bristled brush through your hair, to comb it between my fingers, and to smell it.”

She wrapped a long auburn lock around her finger. It was her singular claim to beauty, falling to the small of her back in shining, lustrous waves. Part of her thrilled at the idea that he could be so enamored with it; part of her was disappointed to think that’s all he was interested in.

“Ask me how much I’d pay you,” he said.

She twisted her lip between her teeth, ignoring the pulsing between her legs. “I couldn’t let you pay me for something like that.”

“Six hundred.”

“All to brush my hair?” she asked, incredulous.

“You’d come to my apartment. I’d have a chair set up for you by the window. You would look out over the street as night fell while I gave your beautiful locks a hundred soft and gentle brushstrokes, and then ran my fingers through them a hundred more times.”

The hair on the back of her neck pricked up as he spoke. His voice was so calm, so close. It was the sort of tone she’d imagine he’d use to instruct her to touch herself in her most private fantasies.

“Do you understand the nature of what I’m asking you?” he said.

“I—I think so.”

“And does it repulse you?” Something in his tone made her suspect he relished the idea that she might be shocked. The pulsing between her legs only grew more difficult to ignore.

“Why should it?” she said, playing with the hem of her slip. “We’re both adults, aren’t we?” Beneath her casual tone, though, she wondered for a moment whether she should be repulsed, even alarmed. Was this how people became victims of serial killers? By acting as if insane requests were merely inside jokes?

“Think about it in the sober light of day. Will you do that for me, Milena?” he asked. “I don’t want you to agree too hastily to something that doesn’t feel right.”

“Sure,” she said.

There was a long pause. She glanced once again at the clock. Past midnight, now. They usually spoke for another hour or more, struggling to pull themselves away from their conversations before dawn. Now she felt a chasm growing between them, no longer sure she wanted to talk to him at all.

“I—I should get some sleep,” she said.

“And I should learn to fold a fitted sheet,” he replied. “But at a certain point, we have to accept we are not our ideal selves. And you, my dear Milena, are someone who can very easily be persuaded to stay on the phone with the right incentives.”

“The right incentives?”

“I finally watched Night of Cabiria.”

She sank deeper into her blankets, unable to repress a smile. He was right, of course. Even in the midst of such a strange request, he was still Chaplin, and he still knew exactly how to pull her in.

“I want your full report,” she said.

The next night, Milena told Chaplin she was open to his offer. “But I have conditions,” she said. She had him on speakerphone since she was in the bathroom, fixing a towel over the hot oil mask she’d just put on her hair.

“Let’s hear them.”

“I’ll only do it if I can leave as soon as you’re done brushing my hair. I wouldn’t be comfortable staying any longer than that. And given the strange nature of the request, I’ll be telling my sister where I am and how long I’ll be gone.”

“I suppose that’s a sensible precaution.”

“And I want the money in cash. Up-front. I want to see it before I sit down.”


“And when I get home, I want you to call me and talk to me as if everything is the same.”

There was a long stretch of silence. “That was always the plan, Milena.”

She realized she’d been holding her breath and let it out in an uneven exhale.

“You think this has all just been a long con?” he asked. “That I’d lose interest in you as soon as I got my way with you?”

He said it with humor, but she answered with silence. Her focus drifted to her reflection and the giant dots of oil that stained her t-shirt. She’d forgotten how difficult it was to do a hot oil treatment, how time-consuming and messy.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice dropping a few levels until it reached sincerity. “I forget, sometimes.”

“Forget what?”

“That you’re you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You don’t trust easily.”

She opened her mouth but didn’t speak.

“Milena?” he asked. “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Everything can stay the same. If that’s what you want. Our conversations give me great pleasure. I don’t need more than that if you don’t want it.”

She pressed the front of her hips against the porcelain sink. With her hair hidden beneath a towel, she looked mousy and beady-eyed. Was it any wonder that her hair was the part of her he wanted? The part of her he craved?

You don’t have to do this. She’d heard that often enough before to recognize the phrase for what it was: merely something so-called good men said to separate themselves from the bad. It meant I won’t force you, I’ll just leave you.

“I probably shouldn’t have made such a request of you,” he went on. “But every day when I look at you in the office—”

“You never so much as glance at me at work.”

“When you’re turned to your computer, especially in the late afternoons, when the sunlight falls over your hair and lights it up like fire…”

She sank onto the lip of her tub. Surely he’d meant it as a compliment, but there was something alienating about his admission.

“The truth is that I’ve imagined stroking your hair long before you called me up afraid you’d crashed the website making line edits,” he admitted. “Long before I heard your voice and realized you had a kindness the others didn’t.”

She frowned at this, thinking of the other young women in the office who called him Wally the Wall-Eye behind his back. The women who made cruel jokes whenever they recalled his awkward attempts at small talk at office holiday parties, making fun of him for the old-fashioned way he dressed and spoke, for his conscientious politeness.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” she said. While she never joined them, she also never defended him.

“It is,” he said. “Which is why I brought up my desire. Because I knew you wouldn’t run back to the water cooler and tell everyone.”

Pulling the phone from her ear, she looked at her timer on the screen. The hot oil treatment had another fifteen minutes to go.

“You have decency, Milena,” he said. “That’s why I’m–” He stopped short, like someone realizing they were about to run off the edge of a cliff. It didn’t matter; she knew what he was about to say anyway. That’s why I’m falling for you. Or worse. In love with you.

She bit the inside of her cheek. “Can we talk about something else?”

“What would you like to talk about?”

She thought for a moment, scrambling for anything. “I finally watched In the Mood for Love.”


“And it broke my heart.”

“I thought you’d like it.”

“When he whispers his secrets into the tree, I thought about doing the same. If I ever did something like that, unloaded all my secrets at once, I mean, I’d die still whispering.”

“Do you really have so many secrets?”

“It feels that way, sometimes.” She closed her eyes, feeling her weight begin to sink against the hard, awkward surface of the tub. Her body ached and her mind buzzed with restless fatigue. She wished she were already in bed and didn’t have to deal with the hair treatment, which would take ages to wash out. “Sometimes I worry I’ll never know anything as well as I know how to be lonely,” she said.

He didn’t reply.

“Are you still there?” she almost wishing he wasn’t.

When he spoke, his voice was low. “You know all of this is unusual for me as well,” he said. “It’s like something in a dream.”

She felt a warm trickle fall down her forehead and wiped away the slick oil. She didn’t like the way he did that—how he seemed to read between the lines in her speech. To know how ill-prepared she felt for this connection, without her having to say it out loud.

“I’ve already made up my mind,” she told him. “About your request. If it wasn’t obvious from the start that I’d say yes.”

“It wasn’t obvious to me.”

On the night they agreed upon, Milena arrived at Chaplin’s apartment. She walked to his door slowly, exhaling carefully—the way she’d been taught to before pulling the trigger on a gun, or creating a wing of eyeliner—and knocking.

Silence for a moment, like someone holding their breath. Then footsteps. It was all too much, this idea of being face-to-face, even momentarily, with someone who knew so many of her secrets. Someone whose appearance was the only impediment to her desire. Static filled her head and she reached for the door frame to keep her balance. She felt overdressed and greasy. The hot oil treatment had stubbornly stuck to her roots even after several nights of standing under the water trying to scrub it out.

The door opened. The static in her head receded. It’s not so bad, she thought, it’s really not so bad. He stood on the blade’s edge between attractive and ugly, a man in aesthetic purgatory. Sharp cheekbones and full lips, model-like on others, only made his lazy eye feel like more of a tragedy.

He offered her a close-lipped smile. “Milena,” he said. “You look lovely.”

She looked down and blushed, unable to focus on his good eye, even for a moment. Her chest sputtered like an engine turning over. She’d spent hours wringing her hands before the mirror, wondering which of her outfits he’d like best before settling on a little black dress with a sweetheart neckline. She’d chosen it thinking, if there’s one image I want fixed in his mind when this is all over, it’s this one.

He moved aside and she stepped in. His apartment was simple, clean, and warm. It smelled of citrus—essential oil, perhaps. She’d once told him that was her favorite smell in the world, and now imagined him going to the store, picking out the drops just for this afternoon. It made her heart feel like it was slipping on black ice. There was an equivalency, she thought, between his apartment smelling like oranges and her putting on this dress and doing the oil treatment for him.

“It’s that way.” He gestured towards the living room. She was surprised he hadn’t chosen the bedroom. She was also surprised it wasn’t a chair set up before the window, but a backless bench. An envelope rested on it, with six one-hundred-dollar bills fanning out of the top, and a hairbrush.

She wanted to turn to him and say something light and silly, something to break the tension, to restore their relationship to what it had been before she’d stepped across the threshold of his apartment. But when she looked at him he was looking at her hair and she found she could not speak.

She stumbled onto the bench facing the window and took a deep breath. She imagined when they spoke on the phone next they’d dissect all of this, make it feel less bizarre. She hoped they would.

“May I?” he asked.

She nodded.

He picked up the boar-bristle brush. His hands were large but slender. Looking at them made the breath catch in her throat. She’d never noticed before. Was it any wonder? She’d spent the last four years at the company avoiding looking at him, the way one tries to avoid catching the gaze of someone begging on a street corner when you don’t have any change to spare.

No music or radio chatter filled the apartment, no canned sitcom laughter or bickering seeping in from the neighbor’s apartment. It was just them, the hum of the heater, the gentle buzz of electricity.

He moved behind her and sectioned her hair. Then he held her locks tightly in his fist, so when he hit a snarl at the bottom, it wouldn’t snag and hurt her scalp.  She’d expected him to fumble, awkward and apologetic, and was surprised by the sureness of his touch. She found herself closing her eyes, letting all her attention settle on the gentle pressure of him pulling her hair taut as he stroked it. This is the easiest $600 I’ve ever made, she thought, and for the first time since entering his apartment, she began to relax.

After he coaxed out the knots at the bottom of her hair, he brushed softly from her roots to her ends. She opened her eyes and looked out the window. Pedestrians passed on the street below, rushing off to drinks or dates or microwaved soup for dinner. Pride warmed her as she watched them. She was certain none of them had experienced something like this before. This is mine alone, she thought, this moment, this money, this man. It was a bizarre thing to think, a thought that had never before crossed her mind—that he might be hers. Yet it somehow didn’t feel wrong to think it.

After some minutes passed, he put the brush down beside her. She felt a twinge of disappointment, thinking it was already over, that she hadn’t savored it enough. Then he ran one hand down over her scalp and through her hair, pressing gently with the tips of his fingers. A shiver worked its way up her spine and she jolted.

His hand went still.

“It’s fine,” she said, flushing as he resumed. She wanted him to say something, to say anything. She wanted the Chaplin she’d come to know so intimately on the phone, the Chaplin who could smooth talk his way out of any awkward dead-end in conversation, to be standing behind her. Instead, she was in the presence of a stranger–not the painfully shy IT worker who sat across the office from her and never made eye contact with anyone, nor her friend, but someone else altogether, a man she did not know at all.

She leaned into his touch and imagined him fumbling with his trousers, toying softly with his stiffening cock. She crossed her legs, a slickness between her thighs making her back arch. She felt perverted, tense, aroused.

I could turn around, she thought. He must be hard—he has to be—and if I were to just acknowledge it, maybe this would all go away, this bizarre sense of separation.

Jerkily, she turned around on the bench, eye level with the zipper of his trousers.

“Milena,” he said, and his voice was the same one from the phone, at once teasing and terribly sincere. She was about to reach out to undo his belt buckle when her gaze fell to the floor. The polished wood was covered in long, copper curls, like a nest of snakes.

She raised a hand to the back of her head. Strange, that she hadn’t even heard the snip of scissors.

“Milena,” he said.

She kept staring at the hair on the floor.

It came back to her, then. A memory, not repressed, merely forgotten. Erica in payroll, a rodent-like woman with blinking, insolent eyes. She’d had long black hair up until about six months before, when she’d decided to cut it into a shaggy pixie for no reason at all, and abruptly quit two weeks later.

“Milena. Look at me.” He put one hand very softly beneath her chin and tilted it upwards, his hand warm, so warm. Still, she kept her gaze down. For a moment she imagined him murdering her for disobeying. Snapping her head right off her neck, or slitting her throat. She almost wished for it, a definitive ending, for something she would not need to suffer the burden of recovering from.

After a silence that seemed to stretch out for ages, he dropped his hand. She wondered what expression she might find upon his face if she dared to meet his gaze. Was he amused? Disappointed? Ashamed?

Slowly she rose, collecting the money with trembling hands. She felt foolish; not so much because of what had happened, but because she knew she could never tell anyone about this. To explain how he’d wronged her, she would first have to explain her own complicity, her own insolent stupidity and hubris, and hope, which all seemed a hundred times more shameful than anything he’d done to her.

There was nothing more to say. Not to him, not to anyone. She walked out of his apartment into the descending dusk and was already wondering how soon she could get into a hairdresser, and what kind of lie she’d need to tell the beautician.

As she drove back home, she took some solace in the idea of a kind, gossipy older woman shampooing her hair with rough, bony fingers until the last remnant of stubborn oil circled the drain.

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Issue 1.2

COMING FALL 2023 IN PRINT AND EPUB. Purchasers will also receive access to downloadable desktop and phone wallpapers of our beautiful cover art created by the amazingly talented Katerina Belikova (aka Ninja Jo) and inspired by Ephiny Gale's story, “Watchhouse."

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Purchasers will also receive access to downloadable desktop and phone wallpapers of our beautiful cover art created by the amazingly talented Katerina Belikova (aka Ninja Jo) and inspired by Brian Low's story, “Have You Seen This Hungry Ghost?"

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