VOLUME 6, ISSUE 1
2023 • ISBN# 9781970033274 • 92 pp • 6" x 9" paperback
Night Picnic is a journal of literature and art. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.
This issue includes:
Ryan Gary Williams, The Frogs of the Worm Rot Forest
Claire Russell, Purgatorio
Emme Clause, The Other Side
Thomas Hunt, The Last Alchemist
William M. McIntosh, Proverbs
Ben Nardolilli, Station and Street & other poems
Uzma Fathima, The Visitor & other poems
Steven Schutzman, Stupid Cookie
Thomas J. Misuraca, Memorial
Evan Baughfman, Nine is Enough
Enjoy work from this issue below:
Station and Street
In my private roomette, I get to roam over the rails
while sitting down, spying on every underside
America has to offer, from rust belt to trailer park,
unrefined refineries, and country club prisons
Tonight’s window reveals the tentacles of cities,
morning’s view brings in towns seeking exploitation,
after lunch I see the land’s dirty laundry revealing
broken tractors, lost toilets, and dying dogs
Other travelers can see as well as I can, on planes
they are too high up, and when driving in cars
they have to focus on the asphalt ahead, on roads
that lead outside of cities and beyond human ruins
Only walking is more voyeuristic, and then
you are liable to get caught by someone eventually,
on a train, I avoid the shotgun threats and the sirens,
the snares of barbed wire and backyard thorns
As the train slows for a station, the model scenes
of bucolic hamlets unravel, streetlamps are out,
the churches burnt, and the luncheonette windows
are filled with shadows too drunk to stand or cry
The Pedestal Is Another Matter
Outside of a souvenir shop, and I can’t remember
the last time I saw the Statue of Liberty, and even then
I can’t really remember the last time
I was in one of those tiny shops either, I stay at home
most of the day and when I go north
I am underground or above ground in an office building
It might not even be there any more, sold
for scrap or taken to another city to pay off a debt,
maybe she guards the harbors
of Dubai or Shanghai, or is part of that casino in Vegas,
finally making New York, New York
more real than real with the tall green lady greeting you
To Reporters and Commentators et. al
If you absolutely need to use the term
"reincarnation" make sure
the dates of the lifespan line up
You cannot be the reincarnation
of anyone who is alive,
breathing while they do the same on earth
Maybe my metaphysics are off,
but I've never heard
of a person receiving a soul after birth
That would be too complicated,
how would it work?
Would it cause a headache or heartburn?
No, it seems impossible, even
with the limits
of what we know about the human soul
Which means, do not call a writer
the reincarnation of W.C. Fields
Since he probably watched movies
by that actor in theaters when
trying to escape his asshole of a father
(Inspired by the bouts of sudden, jarring awareness that I’m susceptible to)
Sometimes you are a guest within yourself.
You watch with wonder in your eyes
At the person in the mirror,
The fuzz, the skin flakes,
The grits, the stain,
The spots that are bald,
The dark circles and all:
A pockmarked country.
You curl your fingers and toes;
Your heart echoes its echo;
Your mind thrums
With thoughts trespassing like
Overgrown grass that tickle
The back of your eyeballs,
And the absurdity of it all hits
You in the face
As if you've walked into a brick wall.
You are here within
Looking out owlishly.
And the wings that you hid under the pillow
Become charred remains.
You are the sound that your mouth makes,
The air that your nose inhales,
You are these bones and this body,
The chaos which is your brain,
All neatly put together one night
And pushed off a cliff the next day
Into the abyss of existence.
The sun bounces off your shoulders,
Eavesdropping from the window.
Your skin feels tight and oversized.
A fruit fly sits on your knee
And rubs its hands meditatively.
Your tongue tastes domestic and tart
From the sour mangoes that your mom
Cut into slices without removing the peels.
You drag your teeth over the flesh,
Bright yellow and prickly,
And scoop some white rice from yesterday
That your mom heated up for you,
Onto your spoon
And chew and chew,
Sick to the stomach while
Waiting for the claustrophobia to collapse,
Waiting to overcome this terrifying ordeal,
Waiting to forget your name,
Waiting to live casually
(Inspired by the line "Do I dare eat a peach?" from The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock by T. S. Eliot)
Do I dare eat a peach?
Do I dare indulge in the flesh of this moment
Stolen from the sticky limbs of time?
Gaze at it,
And dip my teeth into it,
The act of eating then is not an ultimate act of survival,
But that of a kindness towards self—
An obligatory one,
An inevitable one.
It is the catching of breath,
The calming of the pacing heart,
The consolation of the soul,
The worshipping of your bones and being.
It is the act of pausing,
The act of perusing existence,
And sustaining it.
Do I dare eat a peach?
Becomes do I dare roll up my sleeves,
And whistle down the street?
Do I dare give myself this gift of respite,
This solace, this relief,
This sugar-boiled sweet?
Dare I partake in
This reaffirming of senses,
This anchoring of body,
This breaking of the Earth's alphabet?
Dare I conspire for my happiness
Honey on lips,
Licking fingers under the bough of a tree?
Do I dare eat a peach?
Do I dare allow myself this intrusion,
Do I dare fall in love with this life?
Fasting, Feeling, and Feasting
(A poem from Ramadan)
I see summer’s hand
Placing flowers lovingly around
The laughing heads of lush trees,
Pink and perfect against
White flowing sea.
Outside the window
The sun is afoot
And running on the grass,
On blinding green,
With the song that
April is humming.
Every supple living thing,
Every escapee from a sumptuous dream,
Nods God’s greeting
Generously at me,
And I pass it on to you—
The only way I could—
In bare writing.
I came to in broad daylight
in the middle of a bank robbery
with a gun in my hand and no clue
if I was a bank guard or a bank robber
until I saw my ski mask
reflected in the marble floor. Oh crap.
Bank patrons were spread out face down
like victims you see all the time on TV news.
I knew one thing for sure:
I didn’t want to shoot anybody.
A masked guy with a satchel hopped the counter
and another masked guy screamed at people
to stay on the fucking floor
keep their fucking heads down
and not fucking move an inch
sounding like a violent deranged monster
scaring the shit out of everybody.
I recognized my father’s voice
and understood that I was part of a crime family
and that the guy with the satchel was my older brother
a fence-hopper and thief from a young age
and that my older sister
was driving the getaway car outside
because I was only fifteen
the baby of the family who didn’t drive yet.
Memory is a funny thing
making up arbitrary rules
that are news to you
but you have to obey them.
I also remembered that I would get my license soon
and be able to park above the waterfalls
and make out with girls,
something to live for
something to not go to jail for.
I just wanted to close my eyes again.
I dropped the gun in a potted plant,
tore the mask off,
and got down on the floor with everyone else.
I figured I was the lookout
supposed to keep an eye on people.
Now I was one of the people
I was supposed to keep an eye on.
I knew that my insane story
of coming to in the middle of bank job
would sound made up
to my family and to the cops
so that I was completely alone in the world
a feeling familiar to me
doomed to be on my own
on neither side of the law,
stuck with a story
nobody would believe.
I started slithering lizard-like on my elbows
across the shiny floor
toward a carpeted lounge area
where patrons of the bank
were supposed to wait
to speak to a bank officer
on comfortable chairs and couches.
There was a plate of cookies
on the coffee table I crawled under
and across from me a native kid my age
barefoot and dressed in traditional white
under an identical coffee table
but without cookies on top.
Banks that give away cookies
were not part of his culture.
The kid was shaking with fear,
crying quiet tears in a strange land.
I reached up
took a cookie
and offered it to him.
I saw the cookie had a mountain range
drawn in pink icing
sharp peaks and deep valleys
on top of powdered sugar like snow
and a riverbed in the cracked dough
the kind of place where the kid in white
might be tending his family’s sheep
instead of winding up here
in danger of his life
because of my screwed-up family.
The kid wanted nothing to do with my cookie.
He wouldn’t even look at it.
He wanted to be back in the mountains
before all the craziness we were stuck in started.
If I could close my eyes
that’s where I would wish myself
when I opened them again,
no guns, no masks, no crime family,
just me and the kid together
without a common language
except the mountain air.
Coming from opposite sides of the world
we had backed into each other
our fates collided and intertwined
refugees under our separate coffee tables
wanting to disappear.
The stupid cookie symbolized
the unfairness of it all
but I took a bite
and heard the sound of rushing water
coming to sweep us away.
RYAN GARY WILLIAMS
The Frogs of the Worm Rot Forest
Gael and Thomas were always getting into trouble. The two boys grew up in the group home of Rain Rot, a shabby farming village on the edge of the supposedly-haunted Worm Rot Forest. Often referred to as “the blasted devils,” or “little shit rats,” the two terrors had a reputation for causing trouble wherever they went. Gardeners would wake up to find their flowers had all been plucked clean off, while the school teacher would often be found locked in the schoolhouse’s lavatory. Shop owners were forced to keep a watchful eye anytime they entered their stores as a precautionary measure to ensure no sweets were swiped or bites were taken out of apples. Everywhere Gael and Thomas went, chaos ensued.
“The two of you’s is a pain in my side!” Ms. Merriman, the elderly caretaker of Rain Rot’s group home, would shout at them across the kitchen, waving her rusty soup ladle at them like a sword. “I hope you’s two run away and never come back!”
Ms. Merriman was not the warm, compassionate mother the boys had dreamed of. However, her insults and worst-wishes were background noise to the boys, who were usually too tied up thinking about their next prank or hullabaloo.
Thomas was the domineering mastermind of their follies. He did not know his parents, so he chose to think of them as great inventors who traveled the countryside selling their marvelous machines to those who could shell out a pretty penny for an automatic clothes washer or a self-cleaning skillet. He chose to believe that they loved him dearly, and that he was kidnapped out of the caravan in the middle of the night by a rival inventor, who knew he would never be as skilled as Thomas’s parents. It was comforting for Thomas to imagine that they were out there looking for him, hoping one day to be reunited with their beloved son. But, deep down, Thomas knew this was pure fantasy.
Gael, on the other hand, a stark realist, spent more time worrying about the karma of their actions than enjoying the entertainment of their mischief. He was the younger of the two by a technicality — neither of them actually knew how old they were. They assumed their ages based on the day they showed up at the group home. Thomas was dropped off in the summer while Gael arrived in the winter. And, despite a lack of validity to this idea, Thomas abused his seniority over Gael, using it to strongarm him into some of their more dangerous schemes. Gael often felt manipulated by Thomas, but he never put up a fuss — he really did not have a choice, as Thomas was the only family he had. Well, and Ms. Merriman, but Gael did not really like her too much.
So, to bide their time until they were old enough to venture out into the world, the two chose to terrorize the citizens of Rain Rot. At least this way, someone would notice them.
* * *
One particular summer afternoon, Gael and Thomas were up to their usual trouble. They had spent all morning constructing a trap above the door of Mr. Steuerwald’s house that would dump a sack of flour all over him the moment he opened it. Much to Gael and Thomas’s surprise, it worked! And, much to Mr. Steuerwald’s surprise, when he opened his door to fetch his milk jugs, he was greeted by a pound of white, dusty flour dumping onto his bald head.
“I’m going to kill you’se twos!” He shouted at them, fist waving in the air. He was so livid that his pudgy, red face burned through the white coating of the flour, like a crisp apple coated in sugar. “Come back here so I can whop the demons outta you’se twos shit rats!”
The boys, laughing so hard they could barely breathe, bolted from around the back of Mr. Steuerwald’s house, down the stone pathway that led into the woods that lined Rain Rot. Knowing most villagers thought of the Worm Rot Forest as haunted and dangerous, the boys often used it as an escape. Many of their adult adversaries would not dare cross into the thickets, so it was a haven for the troublemakers.
“We got him good!” Thomas squealed in delight.
“You think he’s really mad?” Gael said, his laugh coming to a mumbled halt.
The boys made it a few yards into the Worm Rot Forest before they stopped to see their victim’s proximity. Usually, people would stop at the edge of town, not heated enough to exert energy on chasing the boys. But Mr. Steuerwald was so ferociously furious that he had followed the boys down the path and to the edge of the forest. He stood guard a mere foot from the wilted tree that hooded the entrance to the forest, his arms crossed, holding what appeared to be large hunting knife.
“Get yer asses back here so I can skin you like the hogs you are!”
Gael gulped nervously and his heart began to putter.
“Oh, Thomas, he really is mad!”
Thomas could not be bothered, though. He was still belly-laughing loudly, doubled over with his hands on his knees. Pride from his work exuded in his echoing laughter.
“I’m gonna stand here all day if I have to!” Mr. Steuerwald shouted, spit flying out of his mouth like a rabid Doberman. “You’se gotta come out sometime!”
“What do we do?” Gael asked, his anxiety building more and more. The terror of having to run past Mr. Steuerwald clouded his brain, giving him a massive headache. “He’s not going to let us leave.”
Thomas, not worried in the slightest, tapped Gael gingerly on the arm. “Come on,” he said nonchalantly. “I bet there’s another exit down the way.”
Thomas turned and began waltzing down the path, deeper into the Worm Rot Forest. Gael was hesitant to follow. Despite having sought refuge on the inner crust of the forest daily, the boys had never wandered more than a few yards past the edge. But they did not have much choice. Gael swallowed hard and said a small prayer, then followed his brother into the thick of trees.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
James ran a finger over the childish Sharpie-scrawl written on the jungle gym: “JAMES WAS HERE.” He vividly remembered that day, eight years old, finding a marker on the ground that was missing its clip, writing the message and declaring his existence to children of the future. He sat down on a swing that was much smaller than he remembered and looked over at his huddle of friends with tipsy affection.
It was so dark that he couldn’t make out who was who, but he counted one, two, three, four, five, of them: Laura, Marianne, Alexander, Adeline, and Francis. Such good friends. They graduated from high school yesterday. They were sitting on the wet grass underneath a massive oak tree that had surely been there before this town was manufactured with its fallout shelters and cul-de-sacs. It would surely be there when they were all blotted out of existence.
James and his friends had arrived at 1 a.m. after a visit to the beach (drinking under the boardwalk and chicken fighting in the water), a quick stop at the 24-hour diner (unchanged in both appearance and quality since 1963), and a ten-minute stay at a classmate’s house party that they weren’t invited to. The typically-vibrant park was now desolate. Shadows of play structures and trees and benches, blurred around the edges from the visible humidity, loomed like nightmares all around. In James’ hazy mind, he found it profound; how daylight was the only thing distinguishing the sinister from the pure.
The night of revelry had reached the point where their excitement to be together had dissipated and been replaced by sentimentality. They found themselves uncharacteristically nostalgic, suddenly aware that their graduation meant that something was ending. They weren’t quite sure what.
“I haven’t been to this playground since I was seven,” announced Laura. Her voice had a tendency to carry despite never having anything important to say, but she had a car. “My babysitter used to bring me here all the time.”
“I had this babysitter named Elizabeth,” Alexander said quietly. “She would always make such good food. Really good food. Like this French toast with berries. And then she died, I forget how. But it scared me so much that I could never eat French toast again after that and I went to the funeral with my mom…'' He continued pouring out his drunken eulogy for a few minutes while the rest of the group talked over him, recounting tales of their own lost-in-time babysitters. Adeline was silently listening. She smiled to herself imagining her friends as small children. She wondered if knowing them at that age would have made her love them more or less.
James shuffled over to the tree from the playground in a daze, once he had finished independently reflecting on his own distant childhood. He reached down and pulled the beer bottle from Alexander’s hand as he was raising it to his lips. He took three gulps and handed it back.
“Remember that old shed that people said was haunted?” Marianne said during a lull in the conversation.
“Of course. My friends and I used to smoke there in middle school,” Francis said.
“Can we go look at it?” James asked with a twinge of daring in his voice. Nobody was brave enough to say no. So they stood up and set off.
The shed was in the weedy backyard of an infamous house that had been abandoned for fifteen years. The doors and windows were boarded up and graffitied. Cats ran in and out of the cellar windows all day and night like they had places to be. Alexander recalled whenever he and his mother drove past it she would say, “There goes the neighborhood.” She grew up in the town and would die there, too.
The group was not covering much ground. It took them about twenty-five minutes to traverse the entire park; the darkness was all-consuming and nobody knew which direction was the right one. They were each blindly following the person in front of them. After some arguing they eventually reached the chain-link fence separating the park from the backyard, the fence that had given countless teenagers infected cuts all over their legs, and climbed it giddily. They reveled in the juvenile glory of proving to each other how inebriated they were, how little control they had over their spatial cognition, how great a height they could fall from and remain unharmed.
Eleven minutes later they were all on the other side of the fence, admiring the dirt and rust and blood on their skin. They trudged through the tall grass and clouds of gnats. “Like fucking Vietnam,” Alexander mumbled. He turned his beer bottle upside down to confirm it was empty. The last drops stained his white sneakers.
Adeline turned on her phone’s flashlight and focused it on the rotten-wood shed slouched like an ancient temple in the vast yard. “Creeeeepy.”
Francis ran over to it with exaggerated steps that made everyone laugh nervously, quietly. He was always so good at easing tension. His friends often wondered if it was intentional. They cautiously followed him. “It’s locked!” he cried out after trying the door handle. Alexander pushed him aside and slammed his gangly body into the door with all the brute force he could manage. It didn’t cave in as neatly as he’d expected. It was already so brittle and worn that he burst through, the wood splintering in a jagged explosion. He screamed in melodramatic agony and stumbled into the shed, pulling a few shards out of his bare arms.
“Are you okay?” Marianne tried to sound as concerned as someone possibly could with tears of laughter in their eyes. When the giggling died down and they all quieted to hear his response, to hear if he had some sarcastic quip or if he was begging for medical attention, they heard him retching.
They hurried to look through the Alexander-shaped hole in the door and found him hunched over. He looked up helplessly at them with an expression that made their skin crawl. Then they noticed the smell.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
The Other Side
The school bell rang, signaling the end of the day and the fifth week of ninth grade. I collected my things from my locker and waited near the parking lot for Bowie. I couldn’t wait to go on a nature walk with her, as we did every day after school. I looked out at the crowd; some raced to their cars while the others stood on the lawn, talking in groups.
After a few minutes, Bowie emerged from the mass of people. Her face was red and blotchy, and her eyes were bloodshot. She took my hand and started walking. It was obvious something had upset her, and she wanted to be away from the school as fast as possible. I let her yank me along the sidewalk.
“Are you ok?” I asked. I furrowed my brow and studied her face. We stumbled along the sidewalk, passing a few other students walking home.
“No.” Bowie said. She looked back toward the school, her eyes wide with worry. “Let’s just get home first, ok?”
I nodded. Bowie’s last class of the day was one we didn’t share. However, she did have the class with Alex. They dated for a month last year before Alex got abusive. He was only interested in getting physical with her. Even though they broke up, he did not stop threatening her. This is no doubt his fault, I thought. I hurried with Bowie, our bookbags thumping against our backs.
We turned left onto our street and Bowie seemed to visibly relax. She dropped my hand and slowed at the sight of the familiar houses. We stopped at my neighbor Mrs. Baker’s house to pet her orange cat, Mittens. He meowed at us from his spot on the grass.
“Hey, kitty,” I said. The cat purred and rolled over on its back. Bowie crouched down and rubbed Mittens’ furry belly. We usually kept treats in our bag for the neighborhood cats, but not today. I looked up from the cat to see Mrs. Baker looking at us from her kitchen window. She gave a small wave before disappearing back into her house.
“Was it Alex?” I asked.
Bowie stood back up and groaned. She turned away and started walking to my house. I gave Mittens one final pat and followed her.
“You’ve got to tell your parents. If you don’t tell someone, I will.” I was angry. I knew he had some nude pictures of her from their time together that he always said he’d send out. Those pictures kept her under his control. She did not respond.
Once we reached my house, we dropped off our backpacks, and I retrieved our other bags that were solely for our nature walks in the nearby woods. They held our journals, water bottles, pencils, Bowie’s pocketknife, and other items we thought were useful. She led the way through my backyard to the eight-foot stone wall that bordered this side of the neighborhood from the forest. Of course, we could take a longer route to go around it to get to the woods, but we liked to sit at the top of the wall. It was like the couch in a therapist’s office, where Bowie could fill me in on what was troubling her. At times it exhausted me, but she was my best friend. I would do anything to help her. We scaled the stones and sat close together.
“I thought we would never get here.” Bowie sighed.
She rummaged through her bag until she found what she was looking for: a stick of gum. She folded the silver wrapper into a tiny star and sighed.
“Alex threatened to follow me home today because I pissed him off. I didn’t want to make you nervous by telling you, but now that we’re here, it’s okay. I didn’t see him behind us,” she said.
No wonder she was acting so strangely. That stupid boy was making her paranoid. It was one thing to destroy her life at school, but flat-out evil to threaten her at home.
“God, I hate him. I’m sorry, Bo.” I squeezed her shoulder. “But I’m serious about what I said. Tell someone. I can’t stand to see you like this.”
She chewed the gum loudly and looked away from me. I noticed that her hair hadn’t been dyed blue in a while; her blonde roots were showing.
“I don’t want anyone else to know about the pictures. You have no idea how humiliating this is,” she said. Her voice was wobbly. “He makes me feel so gross.”
I could imagine it was horrible, but the guilt I felt for not doing anything to stop him plagued me. I felt like an enabler, like I was on Alex’s side. “I know I have no clue. But I just want you to be happy. Those pictures don’t define you.”
She shook her head and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel happy. I’m so sad, all the time. And it’s not only Alex, but my parents too. They’re always fighting. The only time I am even close to being happy is when I’m walking out in the woods with you.”
I wrung my hands together and sighed. She’s mentioned her parents arguing before, but not in great detail.
“It won’t always be like this,” I said. I thought about my own life. My parents were still married, my older brother was in college, and my grades were decent. Bowie’s parents were on the brink of divorce, she was an only child, and her grades were low, especially this year.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “And how do you know that?”
I chewed on my bottom lip, trying to think of something positive to say. Every day her attitude got worse. It was getting harder and harder to cheer her up. While I was pondering, I heard something grumble behind us. Maybe my mom had come out on the back porch to ask us about our day. We wouldn’t have much to say besides the regular “it was fine” response.
I turned my head just in time to see Alex’s face inches away from mine, his mouth twisted and his eyes glaring. He was panting from climbing the wall so fast.
“What are you—” I started before he pushed against Bowie’s back, just as she turned her head to look at who had joined us. She fell forward, her bag going with her.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
The Last Alchemist
The magnum opus. It’s the unattainable dream, the neverending quest. For thousands of years, people in my craft have attempted to achieve it like a horde of desert-dwellers trying to catch a mirage on the horizon. Many throughout history ran out of breath a few steps in and gave up, deeming the task impossible.
I have not.
Before me, my flasks and my instruments rest on the table like a miniature city of glass and copper. Everything is in place; all the pieces are ready. A lifetime of study and labor has brought me to this moment. Today, I am going to catch the mirage.
Gold is one of the most coveted substances in the entire world, the most precious metal known to man. Most ordinary folk think it can only be derived from the enigmatic recesses of the Earth, the hadal shadowlands beneath the jagged flesh of the ground. They don’t realize its yellow beauty can actually be found all around us, at all times, in all places. They don’t realize it can be grown, synthesized, transmuted from mundane matter people encounter every day.
I know many would scoff at this idea, would consider it a madman’s dream. These people know nothing of the complexities of God’s universe, the true depths and intricacies of nature. Humanity floats only on the surface of reality. Underneath what we perceive, underneath what we touch and see, an entire ocean lies, endless and alive. On its most fundamental level, all of existence is as amorphous as a cloud on the blue canvas of the summer sky. There is no form of matter that cannot be changed to another. The all is one.
The only challenge in inciting transformation is finding the keys God has left for us in nature, which is an admittedly elusive task. No alchemist in the present day truly knows another who has actually witnessed the magnum opus first hand. Rumors always abound, of course. There’s always talk of somebody in some faraway land who threw a brick of lead into a cauldron and ended up with a pot of gold. These hearsays come and go like rubble blowing through the wind, though, nothing ever coming from them in the long run.
Things are going to change, though. The whole world is going to change when I’ve finished my great work.
A strike of flint gets things into motion. One by one, my instruments begin to heat up, the chemicals start to boil and drip from the tubes of the outer containers into the central flask, the hermetic vase at the heart of the crystalline palace. The experiment is underway, and I’m more exhilarated than I’ve ever been in my long life.
This is hardly my first attempt. Like everyone who practices the art, I have experienced countless failures before, countless nights wrought with self-doubt and depression. Things will not turn out so, this time. I have learned from my mistakes, accumulated an understanding of nature deeper than my peers and predecessors. I will not fail.
The objective is to reduce matter to its most primordial form, the quintessential substance from which the whole universe was carved out of. Once that is accomplished, I can build it back up into the glittering form I so desire, emulating the same geothermal forces God used to create gold naturally within the Earth.
A solid amalgam of lead and mercury housed in the central flask is the focus of my work, the caterpillar that I will blossom into a shining butterfly. As the purified essences of all the four elements are siphoned into the same container, creating an amniotic broth around the stone, I observe now that the long transformation is almost underway. Behind the glass, completely air-tight save for a steam-release plug at the peak of the flask, the chemical process will occur in stages, each marked by a change in color by the fluid:
First black, the color of space.
Then white, the color of heaven.
And finally, red, the color of tehom, the unformed cosmos. Out from this red, this holy color of creation, shall my gold be born, transmuted from the lead.
I must keep my attention fixated completely on the flask. With each change, a new piece of the puzzle must be added to incite the next stage, a new chemical key must be turned to bring the process closer to its completion. I have all the materials I need already stored in the cucurbit vessels connected to the hermetic vase, but it’ll be my diligence to see that they’re prepared properly and implanted into the amniotic stew at the right time. Any error on my part could result in a failure of the entire project, and a waste of the precious resources I had struggled so many years to gather.
It’ll be a challenge in and of itself just to keep my nerves steady. Right now, however, all I can do is watch and wait as the clear fluid slowly begins to boil above the athanor furnace in which it’s situated. The process will take some time to start.
A chemical-scented draft blows through my tattered clothing as I loom over the round flask like an owl waiting for its chick to hatch, my dreary, wizened face reflected back at me through the luster of the glass. I can’t even count how many years I’ve spent laboring in this dingy work-room, how much of my life I’ve sacrificed to make this ultimate vision come true. There was once a time when the face that looked back at me from my equipment was young, but those days are long gone.
The air around me in this shed bears the noxious residue of all the experiments I’ve performed here, a sour miasma that still almost makes me choke even after all these years. It would take an army of maids just to purge the scent from the floorboards, provided I could ever convince any to come here. Most people in town avoid this place like a pagan shrine.
My exuberance sinks a bit as my gaze shifts over the dark walls of my laboratory, the cabinets and shelves that house the arcane tools of my trade. It’s difficult for people to comprehend what I actually do in here. In the absence of understanding, many in town have weaved their own sinister theories.
The only friends I’ve ever really had were other alchemists, other students of this esoteric art. As gloomy as this place might seem, I can say with certainty the fondest days of my life were spent here working with my colleagues, our spirits united in a common dream. With all my heart and soul, I wish they could be with me now to share in the joy of this moment, but that is something that cannot be. They’ve all been lost at this point to the somber void of time.
Without warning, a pang of sickness begins to simmer inside the pit of my torso. Try as I might to maintain my focus on the flask, I suddenly find myself unable to keep my head from sinking to the table, the weight of the room’s emptiness rapidly becoming too much for me to bear. With trembling hands, I reach up to wipe my eyes clear, a veil of mist having rolled over my vision like a fog creeping across an open field.
It takes several seconds for my sight to finally restore, the quivering frame of my body hunched over beneath the towers of glass. When I finally pick my head off of the oaken table again, my eyes as red as cinnabar, I gaze back at my work and straighten up immediately upon seeing the flask. The chemical reaction has begun.
Matter must be charred and decomposed before it can be rendered into its purest form. Beating back the haze trying to overtake my spirit, I readjust myself at the table and frantically begin bellowing the hot coals beneath the flask, flecks of ebony lingering through the amniotic fluid like a gallery of black stars adorned on a silver cosmos. As the temperature begins to rise, these tiny patches branch out through the ether, their bodies steadily growing in tandem with the rising thermometer.
Several minutes pass as the broth proceeds to heat, my heart pounding all the while. Bit by bit, the shards of night continue to stretch their tendrils out through the shimmering waters, searching pensively for any empty space where they can nestle their bodies. Eventually, the fluid becomes so dark that the stone it encompasses in the half-filled flask is completely obscured.
The first milestone has been reached. Placing aside the bellow, pausing for only the briefest moment to wipe away the smoldering dust that had blown back on my face, I swiftly begin working to ensure the reaction will hold stable long enough to reach the next stage.
With another strike of flint, I shakily start lighting several of the miniature beds of kindle underneath the copper retorts connected to the flask. Sal Caelum is a compound of my own discovery, a substance of potent transformative power. I had derived it from pitchblende harvested out of the Ore Mountains of Bohemia and Saxony, treating the raw mineral in a solution of aqua fortis and lye to render the curious, yellow powder. It’s the most important ingredient in catalyzing the next stage of the process, though trying to sublimate it to add to the amniotic mixture can sometimes yield capricious results.
My limbs as tense as a rig of mast lines, I wait in silence for the copper appendages of the flask to digest their chemical contents and release them into the black globe. For an undertaking as significant as this, with every juncture planned to the most miniscule detail, even the smallest uncertainty is something that can make a person’s nerves feel as if they’re writhing around inside of him like a horde of living animals. Through the chemical miasma of my shed, the petite wingbeats of a moth flying near the ceiling meet my ear, the static air unbroken by any other disturbance, even my own breath.
To my great relief, I don’t have to endure this state of anxiety for very long. After only a mere handful of minutes, I see the dark waters around the metal nozzles begin to tremble, the vaporized ingredients exiting their chambers to join the assembly of their partners in the flask. The Sal Caelum has cooperated with my will. The seeds for the next stage are being planted.
With an exhale as heavy as an entire keg being uncorked, every ounce of tension in my body leaves me in a single rush. Stumbling back from the table, I rest my hands on my knees and take several deep breaths to abate the adrenaline still flooding through my veins, my limbs having become numb from the excitement. The despair that had touched my soul only minutes prior almost feels like a distant memory, now, my spirit as light as air.
So far, everything is proceeding even more perfectly than I had anticipated. Straightening back up, I quickly step back over to the table and resume my position of vigilance. The disorienting excitement that had gripped my body still hasn’t quite left me, but I don’t want to be derelict in my duties even for a moment.
With some effort, I eventually manage to calm myself down, my heart reverting back to its usual rhythm. Even with the catalysts introduced to the formula, I can’t tell precisely how long this stage will last. As before, it likely needs to boil for some time before the next change will begin. After that, I’ll be another step closer to my gold.
Gold. That’s what this is all about, the pebble on the seashore my friends were never able to find. We had many goals, many scientific ambitions, but the magnum opus was always the ultimate pinnacle we were climbing towards. We all sacrificed so much of our lives for this one dream, and yet, the value of the metal itself was never something that held much interest for us.
As I learned very quickly during my early days of apprenticeship, this craft is not something one pursues to satisfy his own greed. I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far if I couldn’t find a way to move beyond the trap of pettiness all people are prone to falling into. Those who venture into the art seeking only to get rich usually abort their careers in failure and frustration when they realize how much work is required to yield so little reward, oftentimes nothing more than just a few scraps of insight about the chemical process.
Your heart has to be able to lust for something more than just material gratification. Money is merely a contrivance to steal autonomy away from people, a tool to subjugate men with greed and wage labor in lieu of chains and whips. It has no innate value to the human experience. Though there’s little wealth to my name, nor much comfort or stability in my life, my ambition for completing the magnum opus is divorced from any desire to line my pockets with cash.
Gold was always just a starting point, the first in a series of even greater miracles. If I can master transmutation, if I can prove it can be done, then I can change the entire world. In the long run, this tiny nugget I’m creating here today could be worth more than every goldmine on the planet put together.
Though I doubt there are many years left in my life, there’s still a lot I could accomplish after tonight if everything goes according to plan: I could manufacture substances of any kind, not just gold, but anything that exists in nature. Duplicating the chemical process on a mass scale, I could potentially create as much fuel and resources as the people of the world need. Money itself would be unnecessary if humanity didn’t have to compete for the materials that power our civilizations. Without scarcity, the entire landscape of the planet could be transformed, and technology could rapidly advance far beyond its present state.
Food, likewise, could be created by the same methods. Manna, pure nutrition, could be extracted from the Earth itself, giving people of every race and creed a near limitless supply of sustenance. The abandoned souls who now don’t even have the basic necessities of life would no longer have to tread day in and day out on the razor’s edge of starvation. All people would have a chance to thrive, regardless of whatever circumstances they were born into.
It would be a world where conflict was only a memory. No wars for resources, no struggles for survival. Peasants and slaves could walk free, their burden of labor no longer required for anybody to perform. People could just live.
To many, I know this would sound like a fantasy, even more so than the idea of creating gold in the first place. As inconceivable as this world might seem, though, I know with every fiber of my being that it’s still one worth striving for. I’m not someone who’s arrogant or entitled enough to think I’m guaranteed a space in Heaven. The prospect of a blissful afterlife shouldn’t mean people treat our present home like it doesn’t matter.
Inside the flask, my future gestates behind the wall of darkness, the last of the chemicals having been fully assimilated into the black mass. Since calming my heart down, I haven’t looked away from the glass once, my focus as singular as a concentrated beam of light.
Time forges coldly ahead as I proceed with this watch. For how long, I cannot tell. At this point, I can feel my knees starting to ache from the effort of standing, so I deduce that it must’ve at least been a few hours since I started this experiment. This stage certainly seems like it’s taking longer to change than the last.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
WILLIAM M. MCINTOSH
They say anxiety is a real killer. You’ve seen the articles, read the studies. You may have even had a doctor or close friend tell you: stress and anxiety are major factors in early-age death. It pays to keep your ear to the ground with things like dying at an early age. No one wants to hit a stride in their fifties just to learn they’d spent too much time worrying and are now lying on an ER bed dying from a massive coronary. They call the worst of these “widow makers.” How embarrassing to have one of these having never found a wife. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
It may seem tedious and unimportant to you now, but stepping back from whatever you’re chasing long enough to catch your breath may pay dividends in the end. You may miss a few deadlines and lose that Christmas bonus from time to time, but you’ll live long enough to reap the rewards, albeit more broke for it. One in the hand is worth two in the bush.
I’m what you’d call a Grade A worrier. I stress about everything, and I do mean everything. Of course, there are the normal triggers: that big work conference you lose sleep over the night before, visiting with family for awkward holiday dinners, working up the gumption to speak to the cashier while you checkout with your toothpaste and Vaseline at Ralph’s. But me, I’m in it for the little things. I worry about my house suddenly caving in and being eaten alive by some sinkhole that isn’t there. I worry about that semi in the lane three over suddenly veering towards me and taking my head off in the style of that famous scene in Christmas Vacation. I worry that my less-than-perfect hair on any given day will prevent me from getting that promotion, that love at first sight, that new friend. I’m worried about everything from the sun in the sky to the nails on my toes. It’s so tiresome that I can’t focus on any one thing long enough to find even liminal success. Jack of all trades, master of none.
It isn’t an entirely solitary exercise, either. I’ve found that when I’m out in public, on some city bus or something, that the feeling is contagious. I’ll be sitting there, white-knuckle grip on the seat in front of me, staring out the window, worrying myself half to death about the axles coming loose, or an asteroid careening into Earth, or crazed meth heads in balaclavas storming the vehicle and ass-raping everyone into submission for their pocket change.
I’ll look to my right and the old lady across the aisle will be eyeing me back with antsy energy. Looking up, I’ll catch a glimpse of the bus driver in the mirror, his face reading terror. They must be sharing in my energy; that or it’s me that has them scared. Either way, misery loves company.
I read somewhere that owning a pet can be a great relaxer. Having something to care for and look after, having a friend around if you’re lonely, these pets can act as a sort of meditation for your brain. So here I am at the local pet store, fresh off a doozy of a panic attack brought on by how many times the news has revised the chance of rain today, looking for a new friend to bring home. I’ve had enough of feeling so wound up all the time, and I’ve been thinking more and more about coming undone, intentionally or otherwise. Prevention is better than cure.
I’m sauntering the aisles looking at all my prospective roommates. Iguanas lying around under their heat lamps, puppies moaning from behind glass, clamoring to finally be taken from this place and escape the children ceaselessly banging on their tiny windows. I look at bunnies and guinea pigs. I survey the snakes and I kowtow to the cats, stopping to pet each one I can reach. And that’s when I make the turn towards the avian section. I catch myself say out loud, “What an ass I must be, seeking comfort from a bird.” I don’t even flinch when I hear in return, “Don’t be such a speciesist.” Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
I look around, searching for the nosy bastard who felt the need to interrupt my search for a support animal. No one is there. It is as if I have the whole shop to myself. I look back to the cockatiels and parakeets and I hear the voice again.
“Don’t be stupid, you know who’s talking.” Only this time there is a distinctive click click click after the words. Then a squawk.
I look around for some sort of defense. I look at the puppies, the iguanas, the hamsters. I look at the fish. The big-brained kind you see sometimes, the ones with the bulging eyes and sucky little mouths. I could have sworn one of those bulbous golden bobbers looked right at me and winked. Fish always rot from the head downward.
“I’ve never heard a bird have such a wide and assertive vocabulary,” I say. “Not even a parrot.” I’m feigning confidence but the anxiety is building.
“I’m a Quaker parrot,” he squawks. “Or a Monk parakeet if you prefer. And I’m a mature one at that, so don’t go acting surprised at my vocabulary. And relax, you’re going to worry yourself to death.”
“Have any suggestions on how to do that? It isn’t like I haven’t tried.” Hope springs eternal.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” the bird replied. “How about you pay the fine man up at the counter, throw in some nutritional pellets and nuts for me to eat, and let’s go home.”
That’s the story of how I got Terry, and that’s the day my life changed forever.
* * *
I’d be lying if I said that little green bird didn’t completely deliver on his promise. I can’t explain it, because the advice he gave me wasn’t anything new or something I couldn’t have told myself, but it worked. Coming from someone else, the advice was a sort of permission to be fully bought in on the idea. Terry explained to me over crackers and water that night that my problem was that I was taking in everyone else’s negative energy and making it my own. I was absorbing all of this ugly crud and letting it envelop me. He explained that instead, I should try just the opposite: take pleasure in the negative. Enjoy the pain of others. Revel in the darkness and do as the parrots do; be happy as a clam.
So for a week straight I’m on cloud nine. I’m riding the bus and I’m no longer fearing a crash or a bum rush of meth freaks. I’m smiling wide and feeling brand new. My soul is bible black but it’s refreshing. The same old lady looks at me with disgust and abject fear and I just smile right back, eating her contempt and feeling sustained. The bus driver stopped shooting glances days ago. Ignorance is bliss.
It’s been going so well, in fact, that I’m sleeping every night, six hours at least. I haven’t been late for my shit job once since that night. I work just outside of town at Pitts Abattoir and have for the last twelve years. People always perk up when I tell them this, but that’s just because they don’t know what an abattoir is. When I elaborate, they go from intrigued to something else. It’s a great way to end a conversation fast. A hog in satin is still a hog.
I’ve put time in at every position at Pitts. I started out managing the incoming herds of doomed souls, keeping them calm and shuffling them from transport vehicle to the start of the line. I was stationed in waste management for almost five years, dragging around trash cans full of guts and blood and hooves. I put three years in doing nothing but standing on a catwalk and administering a pressurized bolt between the eyes, leaving the animals brain dead. Finally, I landed where I work now, the stage of the line where the cow is hoisted up by the leg and brought into the small corridor room where I pierce its still-living body with a large knife, drain it of its blood, and yank the hide down the length of its body, exposing viscera and meat for the next step in the process. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The one upside to such a dirty, hard job is the fact that Pitts Abattoir specializes in meat that isn’t rendered fit for human consumption. Think pet food. Think of large animals who die on farms and can’t be easily disposed of. Think roadkill. Whereas the typical slaughterhouse is required to adhere to the strictest standards, there isn’t much oversight in a place like ours. Dropped meat is scooped from the floor and returned to the line. Pus-filled wounds that would disqualify a carcass elsewhere are simply trimmed and the remainder salvaged for Alpo. Injuries are never reported, although I’ve made my fair share of accidental cuts to my hands and arms. I’ve known several who have lost fingers. Out of sight, out of mind.
It didn’t take Terry long to pick up on the smell. By week two as a tenant, on the Monday night after an especially palate-cleansing weekend and an equally putrid shift of murder, he’s privy to the stink of death as I walk in the door of my modest efficiency apartment. I become conscious of it when he starts asking questions.
“What’s that smell? You didn’t smell that way before, but now it’s all I’m getting. Have you been to the butcher?”
“I am the butcher,” I say back. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I didn’t realize until now that to a pet bird, what I do must seem insensitive. Cruel, even.”
“It’s not that,” he responds. “We parrots are omnivores. Although many of us prefer the vegetarian diet, some of us are more keen to animal protein. I myself enjoy a bit of rare steak when I can get it. Being a pet store prisoner doesn’t afford one much of an opportunity to sample such fare.”
He looks at me with a sort of ornery impatience. Even in the eyes of a bird you can see intention, plotting, scheming. Terry doesn’t hold his cards very close to the chest feathers. He’s a straight shooter, and that’s a big part of what I admire about him. Honesty is the best policy.
“Say, friend,” he begins. “What’s say we make a sort of trade off?” His head tilts a few degrees, and I could swear I hear his little heartbeat hasten.
“You’ve found my advice useful, haven’t you?”
“I have,” I say back. “I can’t tell you how things have changed for me. I’m forever grateful for what you’ve—”
He cuts me off before I can get it all out, “Good! That’s good, friend. I want to help you more. I want to take you under my wing and teach you everything I know. I want to share everything with you, friend, but I wonder if I might ask you a small favor in return?”
He never looks away from me, not even when he finishes speaking.
“How about you bring me just a small taste of that wonderful meat you harvest? Just a small taste. You must toss many good meal’s worth of it every day. I haven’t had a bite of anything but nuts and grain for several years. Would you do that for me? In return, I can advise you, lend you insights. You may think that alleviating your stress was the pinnacle, but there’s more. You could find real success if you only ask.”
I think on it for a moment. Sure, there’s mountains of the stuff just lying around, waiting to be dumped or smashed into corners of the building where it will never be seen again. My only concern is getting it out unnoticed. And how much could I possibly get out of the facility to begin with? After several tense moments of mental debate, I decide that throwing caution to the wind has only served me well since Terry came into my life. What good would it do to worry about the details? If the worst happened, I’d be caught and fired. So what? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing having a fresh start.
“Sure,” I say. “I have the day off tomorrow, but I can bring you some Wednesday. You can feast and tell me all about it.” One hand washes another.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
THOMAS J. MISURACA
Jose: a young Latino man, deceased
Mary: a woman, deceased for a longer time than Jose
Trent: a man, deceased even longer than the other two
Mother: Jose's Mother, older
Sister: Jose's sister, near him in age
Night. A street corner with a telephone pole featured prominently.
(Lights up on: a street corner. Night. A telephone pole is represented center stage. It is littered with flowers, stuffed animals and memorial or “Jesus” candles. Jose stands a few feet away from this. He looks lonely and bored. Mary stands near him stage right, looking as bored. Trent stands as far up stage left as possible, looking happy. Mary turns to speak to Jose, but she will not move too close to him. Trent will perk up when he sees them talk.)
Mary: Any idea what time it is?
Jose: I don’t even know what day it is.
Mary: Never care about the day, I just like to know the time. Dusk is my favorite.
(Trent waves at them.)
Trent: Hi, guys!
(They wave back.)
Mary: Hi, Trent.
Trent: Beautiful day, isn’t it?
Jose: It’s like every other day.
Trent: Every day is beautiful.
Jose: No it isn’t.
Mary: Be nice.
Jose: I can only be so nice to somebody so annoying.
Mary: He’s happy.
Jose: That’s annoying.
Mary: Maybe if we were happier, we’d be… further along.
Jose: I doubt it.
(Jose perks up and looks off-stage. He’s not happy with what he sees.)
Jose: Oh, no. Not again.
(Jose’s Mother and Sister enter. Sister carries flowers and the Mother carries another memorial candle. Trent perks up even more at this.)
Trent: Your family’s here!
Jose: I can see that. When’re they going to stop?
Mary: It took my family… I have no idea, but it felt like a very long time.
(Mother and Sister stop at the telephone pole. Sister places the flowers down.)
Jose: Sis, why’re you wasting your money on flowers? You’ve got kids to feed.
Trent: Your sister is very pretty.
Jose: (Dismissive.) Thanks.
(Mother lights the candle.)
Jose: Mom, no. Don’t.
(Mother and Sister make the sign of the cross, they bow their head in silent prayer. Jose shakes his head in frustration. Mary looks at them sadly.)
Trent: Your mom looks great for her age!
Jose: (Slightly less dismissive.) Thanks. (Reflective.) I can’t even remember how old she is.
Mary: I can’t remember my mother’s name.
Jose: At least I still do… it’s…
(Jose falls silent.)
Trent: I can hear my mother singing to me.
(Mother and Sister end their silent prayer with another sign of the cross. As they talk Mary will turn away, but obviously still listen. Trent will watch with glee.)
Mother: We miss you, Jose.
Jose: I miss you, too, mom. But you gotta stop coming here.
Sister: We all miss you, bro. The kids especially.
Jose: I miss those little guys so much…
Sister: I’ll bring them next week.
(Mary appears to be disturbed by that.)
Mary: She can’t. Children’s imaginations are so… powerful.
Trent: I’d love to meet them!
Jose: Sis, please, don’t.
Mother: (Looks to the sky.) Miguel, take care of our son.
Jose: I haven’t seen Dad. He’s probably wandering around the hospital he died in.
Sister: He is. And we’ll all be together again in the glory of Heaven.
Jose: Not if either of you die like we did.
The rest of this play is available in Volume 6, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
Nine is Enough
Dahlia: a black cat, female
Waffles: a tabby cat, male
Underground, in a pet cemetery.
(Two caskets rest side by side. Inside one of the boxes is Dahlia, a black cat. She seems to be at peace. Her eyes are closed, and she has a little smile on her face.
Inside the other casket is a different cat: Waffles, a tabby. He also looks to be at peace… until his eyes snap open. Waffles takes in his confined surroundings. Panic quickly settles in.)
Waffles: The heck?! What’s…!
(Soon, he is completely frantic, clawing at the sides of his wooden cell. He yowls.)
Help me! HELLLLLLP! GET! ME! OUT! OF! HERE!
Dahlia: Great. A rookie.
(Waffles continues to freak out, to plead for help. He yowls louder than before. Dahlia clears her throat and has to practically yell to be heard.)
Hello, there! Yeah, you! The cat in the box!
Waffles: Who…Who said…?
Dahlia: I know it’s your first time and everything…that you’re scared and confused… But all that screeching is just going to make things worse. Try to maintain some calm, will you? Some composure. For both your sake and mine, alright?
Waffles: Where… Where am I? Where are you?
Dahlia: Well, I’m inside your delirious, little head, of course. Your oxygen-deprived brain is causing you to hallucinate this disembodied voice. You’re going crazy, kid!
Waffles: I am? Oh, God, I am!
Dahlia: Oh, yeah. Completely cuckoo!
Waffles: And knowing this is supposed to make me feel calm how?!
Dahlia: (Snickering.) Okay, okay. I’m just messing with you. I know, that was a little mean. But I’ve got to get in some final bits of fun before I’m gone for good.
Waffles: Huh? I don’t under—
Dahlia: I’m real, kid. Same as you.
Waffles: You… You are?
Dahlia: Yup. Alive and kicking, for the time being. I’m your neighbor, buried next door. Name’s Dahlia.
Dahlia: They named you Waffles? Better than “Raisin Bran,” I suppose. The bright side to your current predicament is that you get to—
Waffles: Excuse me, but a bright side? I’ve got night vision but still can’t see a thing in here! What “bright side”?! And I love boxes! Love them! Love climbing in them…love playing in them… Or at least I used to! But after whatever this is... I’m sorry, but it’s just too much! Boxes are officially ruined! Forever!
Dahlia: You’re technically in a casket, if that helps any. Try not to get so down on boxes just yet. You’re still young, and boxes still have plenty to offer.
Waffles: What the heck’s a casket? And why am I in one?
Dahlia: Well, you died, kid. And the casket’s what your People put your body in.
Waffles: I…I died?
Dahlia: Yes, you did.
Waffles: I…I don’t want to be dead!
(He starts yowling again.)
Dahlia: Will you stop that? Quiet! Don’t need you getting the gravedigger’s attention. That’s the last thing I need.
Waffles: But you said…said I’m dead! Really, really dead!
Dahlia: You were dead. But not anymore. I’ll explain everything once you calm down a little—
Waffles: (Not calming down.) And…and…and you said my People put me in this prison! But they wouldn’t do that to me! …Would they?
Dahlia: Hey, now, I’m sure they were perfectly nice People… Even if they named you after pockmarked breakfast food.
Waffles: They are nice. The best! Or at least I thought they were, until they put me in this… this freaking…!
Dahlia: A casket’s better than cremation. And I’ve heard plenty of other horror stories. Some cats, when they wake up underground, they’ve got no casket. Not even a shoebox! Just tons of soul-crushing earth squeezing the life right out of them again and again and again, ’til they can never come back at all. Those poor bastards get thrown into some hole, forced to spend the remainder of their lives choking on dirt and worms. Which sounds like a fate far worse than hairballs.
Waffles: You’re saying, if I ever get out of here, I should go and thank my People, then, for stuffing me inside this thing?
Dahlia: Oh, no, no, no. Definitely not. You can never see your People again. They’re a part of your past now, kid. See, they watched you die. Held your body in their hands. Cried over your corpse. Cared enough about you to give you a plot in this place. They loved you and mourned you. If you suddenly showed up back at their doorstep…
Waffles: They’d cuddle me and kiss me and throw a big party!
Dahlia: No, kid. They’d think you’re some kind of unholy monster. And kill you again with fire… or a baseball bat…or a gun.
Waffles: They aren’t violent People, though. They’re kind.
Dahlia: Most People don’t understand how cats work. They think dead means dead. They’re not nearly patient enough to wait for us to come back to life. We’ve got nine lives, People! Nine!
The rest of this play is available in Volume 6, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.