Like an Itch You Scratch

The playground’s got this tunnel we figured we could hotbox. This was right at the start of everything, so it was shut down, caution taped, and Jen figured we might as well use it if no one else was gonna.

Five of us. Jen and Lena and Oscar and Chewy and me. Out in the little kids’ park on Bloom. Itching hard for a hit. The playground’s got this tunnel we figured we could hotbox. This was right at the start of everything, so it was shut down, caution taped, and Jen figured we might as well use it if no one else was gonna. I figured our folks paid taxes, so we were entitled to community services. Chewy figured he didn’t care where we smoked his pot as long as we smoked it all cause if his Pops found his stash, he’d beat the shit out of him. Oscar and Lena didn’t figure anything except where to bone after, but they were in love, so whatever.

We got there just as the streetlights went on. Me and Chewy jumped the gate before Jen saw it hadn’t been locked. The playground was wet, beads pooling at the bottom of the slide and in the scoops of the swings, but the astroturf was dry, crunched like a Cheeto. That was the first weird thing that none of us noticed. We were wired; too much to see it, I guess. Afraid of getting caught but also caught up in the moment.

Crossing the rope bridge felt like we’d already gotten away with something. We sort of had. We were young and alive and together, weren’t we? Oscar and Lena making out, his thumb hooked in her belt loops, her hand in his back pocket. Jen applying apple-flavored gloss. I wanted to scrape that artificial flavor off her mouth with my teeth. Jen’s like a goddamn flea that way—you know scratching makes it worse, but it feels too good to stop.

The tunnel was purple plastic, dark inside. Cobwebbed in a corner, a couple flies shivering in Chewy’s cell beam. Lena freaked about an unseen spider, so Oscar pulled his hoodie off and cleared the web away. Jen said Who says chivalry is dead? and we laughed, and it echoed around and around. Chewy parked at one end of the tunnel, and I blocked out the other, Oscar’s hoodie draped over the mouth behind me to help keep the smoke in. Chew pulled out a freezer bag full enough to burst. Goddamn, Oscar said, and Lena regretted not bringing snacks. Jen pulled some papers out of somewhere, rolled blunts fat as cigars, one for each of us, barely made a dent. We really gotta smoke all that tonight? I asked, and Chewy said Don’t sound so grateful. He would rather have sold it, but when school shut down, he’d had to cancel all his orders. You should make brownies Lena said, deliver by mail, and Chewy told her if she wanted to outbreak bake he’d cut her in.

Someone pulled out a lighter. No time at all, we were lit, marinating. Chewy’s stuff was good shit, skunk as hell. Oscar played Thriller off his phone, sang along off-key. Jen got a case of the giggles. Lena kept telling us all how much she loved us. I kept fingering the soft inside of Oscar’s hoodie, the lining wet and slick to touch.

What happened next’s a little blurred.

There was rain, and there was lightning, and the lights went out. Maybe not in that order. But it was all the lights together—the streetlamp and Oscar’s phone and Chew’s phone and all our phones and what must have been the lights in the buildings nearby, headlights of cars, everything—thick dark, like cream. There was the faintest glow off the tips of everyone’s spliffs, one-two-three-four-five little lightning bugs, and then—pfft—one of them went out, right as the rain started really beating the roof. Oscar’s hoodie slipped down, and a whole bunch of smoke came shooting out the mouth, and I climbed further in to keep dry, my knees and Jen’s knees squished up against each other’s, my back against one side of the curve and hers against the other like two halves of a full moon. Yo, Chewy was saying, voice soupy slow, someone pop that lighter, and we all felt around for it and came up empty. There was more lightning then, or maybe it was the first lightning, or maybe it wasn’t lightning, I dunno, ‘cause it was bright like that but longer, long enough where I could see that Oscar was gone, and Lena must have seen it, too, because she started screaming his name and telling him this wasn’t funny.

Back to black and in that caterpillar dark, Jen started laughing again, hyena, laughing-laughing or nervous-laughing I couldn’t tell which, but Lena growled at her to shut up and then Oscar said, Babe, it’s all good. She’s just flying high. We’ve all been there, just like he’d been there all along. Lena asked him where he went, and he said, I was here the whole time, and she said slowly, Well, then how come you’re soaked? Chewy said he thought we’d better bounce, and I seconded, and then the rain hammered so hard it turned to hail, big-ass stones like teeth, and we quick agreed to wait till it stopped or we’d get mauled. Jen said We might as well finish the job, and took another hit. She blew the smoke in my face, and it smelled like Granny Smith, and her knees slid apart, and my knees slid between them like fingers or like jaws. Lena asked Oscar again how come he was wet, and he said, Girl, you trippin’. I’m them dry bones. I reached out the tunnel to get at his hoodie but couldn’t find it, and when I pulled my hand back in, it was covered in cuts, little crescent slashes like dog bites. Chewy took another hit, a long one, the ash skittering across his paper like a thick, furry centipede, and we all held our breath along with him to see who’d break first.

Oscar lost, coughing like a punk.

When the lights came back on, we booked it out so fast Oscar left his hoodie, and Chewy dropped his stash twice. The rain was done, but there were still flashes from above—weird shit, no thunder, incisors chomping down. We said bye on the corner, walked off in all different directions, except Lena and Oscar, who were still looking to bone because smoking turned her she-wolf—Oscar’s words, not mine.

In the group text later, no one could remember the same thing as anybody else, so we’re not all clear on what exactly went down, but we all got home all right, goggles and gloves and face shields back on like good little boys and girls, fake-ass grins, told our folks that yeah, the jog was good, yeah we stayed on the path, how much we missed exercise, all that. We’d gotten away with it, we figured, home free. Still young and alive and together, whatever shit went down in that park probably something we hallucinated, the high too strong for all the wrong in the world right then, too weird a spot to not trip some monsters. We barely took a bite out of Chew’s supply, though, so we’d have to go again soon—

//what’s good for Thursday night//

//feel like getting some air?//

//maybe I’ll make brownies.//

—except Wednesday morning, Oscar got the itch, got the cravings, got the notch in his canines and the lump in his nodes, got the nose swab, got admitted to the state hospital where they put him in the jacket and the padded cell to wait and see if he got it bad or just a little, and called us all, one by one, cell phones howling at the dinner table, to let us know we’d have to come in to get swabbed, that our families would have to get tested, that we’d have to tape up the windows and doors for a while, to hot box the house with the virus inside.

Four of us. Jen and Lena and Chewy and me.

Sitting around, trying not to scratch.

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Issue 1.4 Paperback

These 23 works of dark speculative fiction demand readers consider the following:

Who do we become when we only have ourselves for company? What remains when we've sacrificed too much? Where do the babies really come from?


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Issue 1.4 Paperback

Read a story out loud, upgrade your legs, and glow. Break quarantine for a quick smoke with your friends, learn where the babies come from, start a gratitude journal during an apocalypse, and obtain more followers, no matter the cost.

Meet Mona Luna, rob a bank, get the best spot on the ledge, sew a suit fit for a king, laugh until you choke, and scream until your throat bleeds.

Whatever you do, don’t look back, and never tell the beautiful bartender to smile.

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Like an Itch You Scratch

The playground’s got this tunnel we figured we could hotbox. This was right at the start of everything, so it was shut down, caution taped, and Jen figured we might as well use it if no one else was gonna.

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