The Orwells

It was a good thing most seven-year-olds didn’t read the classics, or that’d be one more thing to find funny about him. His name was Ernest Orwell, and he was utterly failing as a writer.

The benefit of this job, then, was that the kids weren’t smart enough yet to make fun of him. They didn’t know anything that could make them mean; sometimes they could even be sweet. At each birthday party, Ernest stood by the snack table and twisted balloons into squeaky bald dogs, and even before the real magic show started, a couple of them always wandered up to him. They chatted about this or that with mouths that were already crusted with sugar, asking an endless variety of stupid questions, slurping the buttercream off of cupcakes. Not cute, but kind of endearing. When the parents got impatient, Ernest would start with his real tricks, and the rows of kids lounging in the grass didn’t know well enough to be offended by the way they were herded over like sheep to watch him. Instead they watched with rapt attention and eyes blown wide like saucers, kicking their feet aimlessly into windmills.  That, too, could be charming. For a brief moment, Ernest became someone worth listening to. 

Today, someone was turning eight. Of course every day someone turns eight, but this just so happened to be Stacey Durham’s birthday, and Mrs. Durham had asked Ernest very politely to come to Provencal Drive at two PM and bring your rabbit, please, so this was a birthday that actually mattered. He showed up on time, as always. He brought as many tricks as he could fit in the basket of his bike, as usual. Mrs. Durham let him in through the side gate and showed him around the too-nice backyard, and Ernest wordlessly set out his balloons and hats on the table next to the patch of grass where a frothy pink bounce-house modeled after some cartoon castle was slowly uncrumpling upward. A croquembouche lacquered in ribbons of caramel stood tall on a little pillar to the right. Ernest, shuffling cards, smiled. Just like one of these families to order a croquembouche for a kid celebrating single digits.

Mrs. Durham and her daughter were almost twins. They each looked like they’d been passed through a funhouse mirror of the other: tall and small, thin and chubby, but with the same light brown hair, big hazel eyes, and the same primal need to dominate, like this was the middle of the jungle and not a kid’s birthday party. Stacey did it in the way of all little kids, lording her changed age over everyone else until they had no choice but to start finding it impressive themselves. Mrs. Durham did it with a smile. Even from the backyard, Ernest could hear her welcoming in each set of guests, her voice so saccharine it became unnerving. When the parents did find their way to the patio, they already wore stricken expressions and a flush from drinking wine.

Kid after kid came running into the yard. In dresses, in shorts, barefoot, sunburnt. They went tumbling into the manicured grass and digging through the clusters of lamb’s ear bursting from the wood chips; they screamed and cackled and dismantled the croquembouche with their dirty hands. Their parents sucked wine through their teeth and grumbled about the grass stains. Ernest sat back on the stool Mrs. Durham had so kindly given him and focused on braiding a series of gray balloons into an elephant. 

A kid came up to him as he was knotting the elephant’s foot. “You make balloons?”

“Animals,” he corrected. “Someone else catches the balloons for me. I just keep them tied down.”

“Hm.” The kid — small, tan, with dark curly hair and buck teeth — was still watching, her big black eyes locked on the balloons as they twisted and hitched.  She didn’t seem to notice how much fun everyone was having behind her, how they howled and cartwheeled just a couple feet away. Just watched, her hands in the pockets of her overalls.

“What’s your name?”


“Not Maggie?”


Fair enough. Ernest wrapped a length of painter’s tape around the elephant’s neck like a collar and wrote MARGARET on it in awkward, slanted handwriting. “Tada.” 

Margaret took the elephant and gingerly tucked it under her arm, patted it on the head like a little dog. It squeaked against her overalls. “Her name is Scout.”

To Kill A Mockingbird?” asked Ernest, impressed.

“I like stories.”

“Me too,” Ernest said. He picked up a long red balloon and started to stretch it with both hands, tugging and releasing, tugging and releasing. “Sometimes I write stories.”

“What kind of stories?”

“Not-good stories.”

Margaret snorted. She patted Scout’s head again, smoothing down her plastic ears. The elephant’s black eyes watched Ernest with unnerving intensity. “Write a good story, then,” she told him matter-of-factly, like it was nothing harder than baking a frozen pizza.

“Hmm,” Ernest said. He snapped the balloon against his fingers. “I guess that’s not a bad idea.”

Ernest was almost home when his phone rang.  It was cool and dark out, except for the loud blare of streetlights against the blackness; the edges of buildings, cars, and people blurred into a mass of moving shadows until all of Chicago became an encaustic painting. His bike went bumping over the stilted pavement until he finally ground to a stop outside his apartment, teeth almost chattering from the continuous impact. When he finally remembered to fish the phone out of his pocket, he was unsurprised to see the caller ID said Oscar. Unsurprised, but disappointed nonetheless.

He let it ring as he unlocked the front door and started toward the second floor. Bring-bring-bring, and the thump of his footsteps on the stairs overwhelming it. The door to his apartment squeaked open at the push of a shoulder, and after he flipped on the yellow overhead light, he begrudgingly picked up the call.

“Hi, Oscar.”


“Oh, don’t call me that.” The apartment was exactly as he’d left it: his typewriter was still sitting on the coffee table in the living room, surrounded by sheaves of paper both blank and typed on, books about children’s magic, notebooks crammed with old photos and mind maps in blue ink. Ernest stood for a minute and watched the table forlornly, phone against his shoulder, miserable as he realized how long he had gone without writing a sentence. He turned back into the kitchen.

“Ernie, do you know what day it is?”

Ernest checked the Monet calendar above the stove. “February third.”

“It is the eve of JJ’s birthday.” There was a brief crackling noise on the end of the line, like Oscar was shuffling something around. “We’re having dinner next week at Monteverde. Don’t worry, Mom’s covering yours—”

“I can pay.”

Oscar laughed. “Uh-huh, yeah. She’s still paying.”

Ernest bit back a noise of discontent and put Oscar on speaker before setting him down on the kitchen counter. The soft hum of the radiator (unfairly old but still functional) intermingled with Oscar’s mumbling, then with the click of the fridge as Ernest poked his head inside the coffin of fluorescent light to look for food.

“How’s the novel coming along?”

“Oh, you want to do this whole thing.” Ernest unscrewed the top of a jar of pickles, fished one out, took a loud bite. “It’s going great, Oscar. Perfectly. Fantastic. Exquisite, even.”

Oscar shouted, “Well, I’m proud of you!” though he damn well wasn’t.


“Did you know Charlotte is getting another manual published by December?“


“A software installation guide for the new Windows update—”

“Oh, great—”

“—and she’s getting compensated quite well for it—”

“Maybe she should pay for JJ’s birthday dinner, then.”

“Oh, be quiet,” Oscar admonished. Ernest made a very specific point of chewing his next pickle right into the mouth of the receiver. “Stop that.”

“Goodnight,” Ernest said, as loud as possible, and hung up with the stab of a finger. 

The quiet was suddenly overwhelming. He stared at the phone for a minute, listening: for the sound of the heater, someone showering in the next apartment, the possibility that Oscar would call back. He didn’t.

Mrs. Yasin called a few days later and asked if Ernest could come by at two for Eva’s party, I know it’s last minute but the band canceled so now there’s no entertainment, I can give you a little extra under the table for the inconvenience 

“Sure, that’s fine,” Ernest said. “I didn’t have plans anyway. Do you happen to know if Eva has a friend named Margaret, not Maggie? Margaret Espinoza, yep. Okay, see you at four.”

Strange man, he could imagine Mrs. Yasin saying to her husband just after she hung up. Little weird but Stacey’s mom said he’s good. They probably lived somewhere near Stacey anyway — in the nice suburbs, in a house with a pool, receiving checks big enough to cater a party for a seven-year-old. Mhm, Mr. Yasin had probably responded, shaking out his newspaper. Aren’t we all a little weird? 

Yeah, but not like that.

Ernest turned out to be mostly right. They did, in fact, live less than a mile from the Durhams. Mr. Yasin was a prolific criminal defense lawyer who had personally designed the uncomfortably geometric pool and hot tub. Eva, though, was a surprisingly quiet kid. She’d asked her parents for a pirate-themed party and gotten just that. The Yasins’ backyard boasted a treasure chest full of small, nautically-themed toys, a waterslide hoisting the skull and crossbones flag, and an entire table laden with black licorice cannonballs, Ring-Pop jewels and seaweed salad. 

There was enough for the kids to do that they hardly needed his entertainment; Ernest’s duties turned out to be little more than making the odd balloon cutlass. As the party stretched on and the sky melted from blue into a soupy purple, his mind wandered to the real pirates that had roamed the seas centuries ago. He imagined the salty-cold foam of the ocean washing over their boats and the smell of gunpowder and smoke, how it might feel to sink your hands into a whole chest of gold coins, the startling transition once every few months from sea to shore. There were plenty of stories to be written there. You could be a newbie for hire who had only just gotten his sea legs, never even shot a cannon, or a buccaneer with his own huge ship burning and pillaging his way through the Caribbean; you could be the siren on the rocky shore with the lilting voice, or the mermaid the size of a blue whale following the path of a slow merchant ship across the Atlantic.

After a time, when he was sure none of the parents were watching, he pulled out his notebook and wrote each one of these down. He was particularly attached to the idea of the gargantuan mermaid. She could be the benevolent spirit of a children’s book, tens of feet long with opaline white scales. Her hair would be bound up by ropes of slimy kelp; she would have bright pink eyes and needle-sharp teeth, only visible when she smiled especially wide. And she would be the patron saint of good-natured pirates, the ones who only stole from those that deserved it and, when they landed, showered the island’s poor in nuggets of gold. Those who had spent their lives on the sea could call her by her name and ask for her assistance, but should someone less than pure-hearted use it…

“Are you writing a good story this time?”

Margaret stood in front of him. She wore a velvet eyepatch, and a foam sword hung at her side from a loop in her belt. Like last time, she was separated from the other kids, physically and otherwise, either unaware or uncaring of the shrieking and tumbling behind her. When Ernest looked up at her blankly, as if he didn’t quite know what she was talking about, she picked up the sword and used its point to gesture at his notebook.

Oh.” Ernest smiled. “I think so. Not to jinx it.” 

Margaret made a noise that was almost a cool but not quite. She set her elbows and chin on the snack table and asked him first for a balloon hat, then to tell her what the story was about. He fulfilled the requests simultaneously. 

“That sounds like a good story,” Margaret told him afterward, plonking the hat onto her head without ceremony. It pulled her stray hairs into a crown of static flyaways. Ernest hid a grin: a compliment from a kid was almost never thought out in advance, which made it infinitely more flattering. Margaret collected a handful of Goldfish and began cramming them into her mouth, five at a time. “Does your family write stories, too?”

Ernest paused. He closed the notebook and put it back in his magic bag, wrung his hands as he formulated a response, Margaret watching him patiently. Finally he said, “They do the opposite.”

Margaret looked at him incredulously: “They… erase stories?”

Ernest laughed, though some part of it was painful. “Oh. No, not quite. They write, but they write… well, do you use textbooks in school yet? They write stuff like that. Textbooks. Manuals. Uh, the big, long contracts you never read before you download stuff. Dress codes.”

“So, boring stuff.”


“Why don’t you do the same thing as them?”

“You said it yourself. It’s boring.” Ernest shrugged. It was the most obvious answer to a simple question, and Margaret probably didn’t want to hear (or wouldn’t understand) the more long-winded explanation. It was difficult for even the Orwells to keep track of. Charles and Virginia had named every one of their children after famous authors, and apparently Ernest was the only one stupid enough to take it as instruction. “They’d like me to do the same thing as them, but.” 

Margaret sat quietly for a minute. Her arms were still crossed on the table, and she watched Ernest with big, dark eyes, perfectly calm. “But,” she echoed.

He shrugged. What else was there to say?

It was only just dark out when Ms. Yasin excused Ernest from the party. Kids were flopped down on the wet grass half asleep, stomachs distended with sugar; their parents swayed on their feet from various places on the porch, still draining dark-hued wine bottles. Overhead stars were starting to fight back against the streetlights. It had been an easy job. He waved goodbye to Margaret (who was dozing on a table), collected his check and stepped out of the yard and into the street, which was silent except for the kiss of wind through the leaves, dim except for a foamy stripe of purple right up against the horizon where the sun still kissed it. Ernest unlocked his bike from the tree it stood up against, climbed on and cycled down the sidewalk. 

The Yasins’ house was situated on a street so quaint it belonged in a picture book. Against the sunset, diaphanous sheets of leaves turned from green to soft yellow and pink. Front yards turned into pools of warm light. Streetlights raced all the way down the avenue, holding orbs of pure white high in the air. As Ernest cycled, a gust of cool wind pushed against him, ruffling his short pale hair and flapping the loose straps on his backpack. The apartment was a decent ride away, and it got colder by the mile. The transition from suburbia to inner city was abrupt. One minute the houses sprawled onto perfectly manicured lawns; the next, buildings stretched high into the sky and dark shapes prowled the sidewalks. The metro thundered overhead. Ernest pedaled and pedaled until the wide streets narrowed into a maze of alleys, weaving left and right and left until he came to a screechy, ungreased stop outside his building. The doorman looked at him through the window with huge, dark eyes.

Upstairs, his apartment was as still and quiet as ever. The same typewriter in the same place with the same papers in the same order, the same loud, cranky radiator, the same yellowish light that flickered no matter how much wattage it was afforded. Normally the sight of his writing station would make Ernest desolate, but tonight was different. Would be different. He had an idea this time. The gargantuan mermaid was still swimming around in his head, and on a bathroom break, he’d even managed to scribble down a vague outline of some other main characters and the general storyline in his little notebook. It was the first time in a long time Ernest had been able to grasp onto a concept he was actually excited about. The thought of it sent a little rush through his body. He smiled without realizing. Electricity tingled in his fingers.

He put on some Ella Fitzgerald, tinny through his phone speaker, and set her up against a wall. Butter — real, cold and salted. Crusty white bread. Waxy, deep yellow slices of aged cheddar. Ernest cooked himself a grilled cheese in a square pan as Ella sang to him about birds and bees and educated fleas. Stars winked outside the tiny window above the sink. JJ had texted him, but that was a problem for tomorrow. Right now it was dark out and Ernest had toasted his bread to a perfect gold and he had no responsibility but to eat his sandwich and write and write and write, into the wee hours of the night, to his apartment filled with the sound of jazz and the smell of roses, nothing to do but bring his mermaid to life before someone else did. He tore off a bite of grilled cheese, chewed with his mouth open to let the heat escape. Sat down on the couch across from the typewriter (both dreaded and beloved) and reached for the notebook in his work bag.

Reached again.

The bag was empty.

Okay, not empty entirely, but empty of the fucking notebook. Ernest squeezed the bag and squeezed it again, found nothing, peered inside and found nothing, shook it upside down furiously and found nothing. Heat flared in his face. “Where,” he wailed, “is it—” Even disregarding the mermaid, his notebook was full of other sketches and translations and story ideas, every little thing he’d thought of in the past couple of months, and without it, he would be another ten steps behind everyone else. Ernest balled up his fists in his hair. Where was the last place he’d seen it? At the Yasins’, but he was sure they would have called if they’d found it, they were that kind of family. Maybe it had fallen while he was biking — that would make finding it impossible — or maybe, if he was lucky, it had simply been discarded somewhere in the apartment, while he was busy counting his eggs before they hatched. Ernest frantically patted down the couch. No. Rifled through everything in the kitchen, including the fridge. Nope. It wasn’t under the chairs, the coffee table or the pile of blankets, it hadn’t been put carelessly anywhere. Oh, he was fucked. Absolutely fucked. For the first time in months Ernest might be as excited about a story as he always lied to his family about, and now this had to happen. It was so unlucky it could almost be a sign.

Monteverde was a compact, unsettlingly modern French restaurant packed between a clothing boutique and a bakery downtown. The inside, bathed in only faint light, had no discernible theme except for hammered copper, which could be found on absolutely every one of the restaurant’s surfaces, horizontal and otherwise. By the time Ernest entered, his family was already packed into one of the longest tables (accented, of course, with hammered copper); Virginia gave him a look of fierce disappointment from her seat at the head of the table.

“Hi, Mom,” Ernest mumbled as he sat down in the last open chair.

Virginia glared. “You’re late.” Her striated gray hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, her eye makeup was dark, she wore a bright-red silk blouse pinned into her skirt. The only parts of her left unpolished were the gnarled, bulbous knuckles in her hands, and that was impossible to avoid considering the length and success of her career, which depended entirely upon typing.

Across the table, Oscar was sitting with his new boyfriend, one which Ernest had not only never met but never even heard of. It wasn’t unusual behavior, but somehow Ernest managed to be surprised each time. JJ, meanwhile, was absorbed in his wife and their twins, T.S. and C.S., who were, for their age, unnervingly well-behaved—more like robots than toddlers. The only one who really acknowledged Ernest’s arrival was his sister.

Charlotte-who-goes-by-Emily was the youngest and by far the moodiest, something Ernest could sympathize with, especially in a family setting. (She had an inferiority complex the size of Australia, though it was impossible to tell whether that was a youngest-sibling thing or an only-girl thing.) “You look like shit,” she told him. Ernest fought back the urge to say the same: she was even thinner than usual, dark circles bludgeoning her under-eyes, her white-blonde hair ruffled like a rat’s nest. But still unfairly pretty. The sickliness had, over time, become part of her charm. As Ernest watched, she stubbed out a pathetically small cigarette on her cloth napkin.

“You can’t possibly be allowed to smoke in here,” he hissed.

“Right,” she acknowledged, still grinding the cigarette into the table. “That’s why I’m putting it out.”

He let out an exasperated sigh and buried his head in the menu. A waiter came by and deposited a glass of viciously red wine, which Ernest gulped down like it was water. He nearly dropped it when the headrush hit him. 

JJ was turning thirty-four. He was infinitely more successful than his youngest brother and slightly more successful than Oscar. Watching him was like looking into a terrible mirror, into a version of Ernest who was much luckier than this one — or, if not luckier, easier to control. Ernest watched him ruffle the heads of the twins and felt nearly sick to his stomach, hating the sweet way the kids looked up at him, hating his perfectly-tailored suit, hating the way the Orwells were willing to pack themselves into a pretentious restaurant like this to celebrate him. Ernest, to his credit, did not have a quick temper. He could smile his way through nearly anything. But he had instead been cursed with the kind of anger that simmered instead of boiled, and it was simmering now.

He simmered as JJ congratulated him on being able to make it; as Virginia asked Oscar’s boyfriend where he worked; as the waiters brought out platters of fresh bread and salted butter and bones with their marrow roasted to jelly. He simmered as he was forced to process the knowledge that his family’s inane careers were supplying them better than his ever would. There were hours’ worth of conversations for them to have about this manual and that ruleset, and they did, talking across the table for hundreds of minutes as Ernest sulked over his soup. The simmer — or the heat under it — had strengthened. Hearing them talk was starting to take a physical toll on him. Every time JJ spoke in his calm, musical voice, Ernest’s teeth itched like they were being sanded to the gums. Whenever Oscar ran a hand through his boyfriend’s hair, he fought the urge to gag. Even Charlotte-Emily was getting on his nerves: she had officially abandoned her cool-girl-grumpy-youngest shtick in favor of bragging to the table about the size of the check promised by her newest assignment. He held his hands in tight fists under the table and tried not to fume.

T.S. and C.S. turned out to be the only ones who didn’t bother him. Ernest had always been good with kids. They were sticky blond five-year-olds with the quintessential Orwellian blue eyes, in the stage of adolescence where they could be reliably counted on to be injured in some way, and indeed C.S. was sporting a particularly greenish bruise on his noggin at the moment. When Ernest asked him about it, he looked up from his slobbered-on hunk of bread and said “Mhhmmhfm hhmgg gmh.”

“Excuse me?” asked Ernest.

C.S. spat a hunk of crust onto the table. “I hitted it after the bounce house at a birthday party.” 

“Ah, I see.”

“It hurt!”

“I bet.”

T.S. finally joined the conversation. Until now he had been scribbling on scratch paper his mom had brought, alternating between furious drawing and gnawing on the end of the crayon with his blunt baby teeth. Now, blue-tinted saliva coating his napkin, he put down the artwork and said, “We were playing pirates.”

Ernest stabbed a soft pillow of gnocchi and mashed it against his plate. It split like a bad stitch. “Mhm.”

“They told us a story,” C.S. said loudly, “about a mermaid.”

Ernest glanced up at him.

“She had pink eyes,” T.S. added. “And sharp teeth.”

Ernest asked slowly: “And white scales?”

“Opaline,” recited C.S., and Ernest’s face started to go hot. T.S. launched into a long-winded explanation about how the mermaid’s name was a secret and how she braided her hair with kelp and rescued good-natured pirates, and with each added detail, the tightness in Ernest’s chest increased until he had to breathe through a clenched jaw. T.S. and C.S. either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Who could blame them? They were five.

But Margaret was not. 

The simmer was all too quickly becoming a boil. Ernest felt it rising in his chest like a tidal wave, like a wildfire. His heart pounded in his throat; under the table, he clenched and flexed his fists, trying to contain it. The already-dim restaurant became nearly black. Across the table, JJ was whispering something into his wife’s ear, his hand around her arm, and when he caught Ernest’s eye over a plate of paper-thin lemon slices he smiled, as though he knew everything, too.

Outside the sky had turned pure black. Cold, foamy rain came down in insubstantial sheets, glazing the streets and sidewalks in a lacquer that reflected every golden light pouring down from the high-rises and restaurants. The Orwells had departed from Monteverde in small clumps. Now Ernest was the only one left, standing and shivering under an awning on Sixth as the rain poured its patina down around him. Girls with their headphones in and umbrellas above them went hurrying by. Couples, linked-arm and laughing, smiled secretly as they passed. Cars roaring through the streets flashed and swiveled their headlights back and forth over the lane dividers. Throughout it all there was the constant smell of rain — clean petrichor — and an undulating wave of white noise, overlapping conversations and movement at varying levels, that held Ernest in a cocoon of familiarity.

T.S. and C.S. were more than happy to admit that the girl who had told them the story was, in fact, named Margaret, only because they didn’t know any better. And Margaret may have been a kid, but she was smart. Her parents must have taught her, by then, that it wasn’t okay to steal. She had done it anyway. And not only did Ernest not have his story now, its bare bones had unwillingly become Margaret’s. 

Life was unfair. That was the simple matter of it. Ernest Orwell was not and would never be a successful writer, no matter how much he tried: he was doomed to be a birthday magician forever, both cut down by and reliant on the children of Chicago. He had fumed his way all through dinner and was still fuming now, and if the rain touched him, it might’ve turned to steam. 

Ernest’s phone rang in his back pocket. It was JJ.

Ernest picked up. “What.”

“Thank you for coming,” came JJ’s voice, fruity and clear even from inside the phone, and Ernest blinked in surprise. Of all his siblings, he had always gotten along the worst with JJ. Even when they were kids and JJ went by his full name — James Joyce — they had been improbably at odds, fighting over the highest grades, the best friend groups, the respect of their parents. Ernest hadn’t ever quite recovered from it. He’d assumed JJ hadn’t either, but maybe that was a misjudgment.

There was silence for a moment, and Ernest fidgeted under the awning, unsure how to proceed. “Sure.”

JJ went quiet. Rain splashed down on the street. “What are you working on?”

Normally Ernest wouldn’t dignify that with an answer. His family was notorious for asking just to criticize, especially when it came to his penchant for fantasy (he’d found it funny, more than once, that he was both the only fiction writer of the Orwells and the only professional clown). But something about the softness of JJ’s voice talked him off the metaphorical edge. “I had a really good idea,” Ernest recounted. “About a mermaid. But someone took it.”

“Oh, the twins were just telling me a story about a mermaid.” Of course they were. JJ continued: “What do you mean someone took it?”

“I mean it got stolen. The notebook I had it in. It’s — well, I don’t want to sound crazy. It’s the one the twins were telling you. Apparently it’s getting passed around in the suburban birthday party circles.”

“Like a drug ring.”

Ernest laughed. 

“Maybe it’s a sign,” JJ offered.

“A sign to stop trying?”

“A sign that you have a better idea in your head, somewhere. And that you should stop letting kids so close to your stuff. They’re evil. But no. Don’t stop trying. I… I would be disappointed.”

“Disappointed? By what?”

“That we got you,” JJ said bitterly. “The family, I mean. Or the world. That it got you like it got the rest of us. And we’re all stuck in it, but you’re not. You’re still pushing. Don’t get sucked in. You know, the older I get, the more jealous I am of you —”


“Because you just do what you want to do, it doesn’t matter about the money or what we say about it. And I wish I had done that. Things would be different.”

“You would be happier?”

JJ was silent for a a second. “Yes.”

Ernest crossed his free arm under his chest. He sniffled and realized that he was on the verge of tears — not for any particular reason, or at least one that would make sense. A girl wearing jasmine perfume passed him a pitying smile before crossing the street. “Well. Thanks.”

“Anyway, I’m sorry it got stolen. But I’m still proud of you.”

“…Thank you.”


“Goodnight, James.”

For what felt like a very long time, Ernest stood with his phone in his hand, watching the way the refraction of the rain played over the blank black screen. His pulse beat quickly in his wrists. Still the world turned and people went about their lives, which was somehow both offensive and comforting. Stars flashed onto the pavement. And then, eventually, Ernest tucked his phone away, pulled his coat up to his ears and went dashing down the street.

A blur of light, of movement, of music! Jazz clubs poured their guts into the streets. The clattering of silverware leaked through restaurants and propped-open doors. As Ernest went running down block after block, streetlights and neon signs broke down into a bright, pure fog of rainbow light streaking through the city like a ghost. Shadows patterned the puddles. On 10th, there was a bookstore open late. It was small and old-fashioned, built in brick. He threw open the door and burst into it, shedding water on the floor like a dog sheds hair, but the girl at the counter said nothing, only nodded at him.

Up against the display window lay a stack of notebooks—leather, canvas, colored, dull. Their different sizes made an uncomfortable pattern, pushed up against each other. Ernest could have, and almost wanted to, spend hours poring through the collection, trying to find something perfect. Instead, he reached for the top one and went to the checkout counter.