The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story WAR RUGS

Spring 2020 / Issue 107

Brendan Egan

CYNOCEPHALI, a community of Monsters, (having, as their name (κυνός κεφαλή) implies, the head of a dog, but in all other respects resembling man,) who are described at some length by Ctesias, (ap. Photium, 72, de Indicis.) This author says that the Cynocephali bark a language which is understood by each other; that their teeth are longer, and their nails both longer and rounder than those of dogs; that their complexions are black, and that they occupy a tract of country in the mountains as far as the Indus. In their general dealings and institutes they are eminently just, (δίκαιοι πάνυ).

—Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, 1845

 

The Dogfaced girl sits with her red-furred muzzle pressed against the window of the van. The sidewalks of this neighborhood are empty, and the houses are brick, built in the image of their owners’ skulls—flat and clenched. If she holds still, she can hear all the TVs, spilling their caustic wash of anger and bubbling jingles. As has become their pattern, Alcibiades and Themistius drop her off last out of the whole Squad. They pull over at the end of a cul-de-sac adorned with flouncing flags and perfumed olive trees. Themistius, a puggy Dogface with a patch of black around his eye, turns to her from the driver seat as she tucks her nail file into her folder of sales brochures. She stares down at the one long fingernail on her left pinkie—pointed and polished black, winking one tiny fleck of lapis.

“You gotta be careful out there today,” Themistius says. “Don’t play games. They call hubby, you bounce. They tell you, ‘Wait right here,’ you bounce. They start asking questions, you bounce. Got me?”

The Dogfaced girl nods at him and slides open the van’s door. The early summer heat flashes up to meet her with tarmac and grass clippings.

Alcibiades, an Occidental—a “normal,” a Buttonhead—sitting shotgun, turns to him and says, “Give the girl some latitude. She’s not some bimbo like that Eris was. She knows what’s up. Right, Zylina?”

Three weeks ago, when she first signed on to the Squad, Zylina couldn’t tell which one of them was in charge. Their titles didn’t help. Alcibiades is called “Squad Captain,” and Themistius, “Squad Chief.” They’re both older than anyone else in the van. She’s guessing thirty, maybe thirty-five. But she’s beginning to see that Alcibiades is the one who pulls the strings. Themistius is just there to give all these Dogfaced kids some kind of hope that if they work real hard, maybe one day they can do the driving. Fucking Buttonheads.

But she softens a little, looking up at smiling Alcibiades, with his pretty eyebrows, nubby nose, and those stupid little ears, curled and naked. Sometimes she wishes she had ears like that. Ones that didn’t work so hard.

“Yeah, I got it. I’m just gonna run the script,” she says.

“Sure,” Alcibiades says. “You’re gonna work that uniform, though.”

She wiggles a bit, swaying her khaki skirt as she steps down from the van, half hoping Alcibiades is watching her ass. The sun licks the bare skin of her limbs and the fur on her face. There’s grapey mountain laurel in the air. She feels like howling—like her mother told her not to.

 

She knows the first house of the day is a no-sale straight off when the man comes to the door gawking from underneath a ball cap that says PROUD. Some TV voice, somewhere in the back of the house, is getting heated about the government. The man’s joints—his knee and hip—rasp in a broken way. He tilts against the jamb, holding a crackling Diet Coke. She should have turned away when she saw the marble-look statue of a sniper kneeling in the front lawn, aiming a scoped rifle at the road.

Most of the people who answer the door have probably never seen a Dogface in person before, and the sight of her is usually a shock at first. But there’s something almost accustomed about the way this man looks at her.

Zylina shakes off the uneasiness of the moment and runs through her usual routine.

 

SCENE: “A TOUGH CUSTOMER” OR “HELP ME,
HERMES WITH YOUR SILVER TONGUE”

A gorgeous yet approachable young DOGFACED GIRL stands in the colonnaded doorway to a large home. She grasps a sales flyer in her hand. A PROUD MAN stares her down from inside the house.

PROUD MAN

You selling something?

DOGFACED GIRL

Well, I’m a disadvantaged student competing in a contest, sir.

PROUD MAN

Uh-huh.

DOGFACED GIRL

If I earn more than five hundred points a day, then I win a scholarship for my first year of college.

PROUD MAN

That right.

He empties his Diet Coke down his throat with a toilet
gurgle.

DOGFACED GIRL

Every person I sign up for a subscription from this list is worth fifty points.

PROUD MAN

Not interested.

A sour sweat rises from him. He lifts his hat to reveal his ears, which had been hidden beneath the band. They are scarred, almost melted looking flaps of flesh. There is a scar, too, running down the side of his neck.

DOGFACED GIRL

She clears her throat and pushes her shoulder blades together. Her red polo uniform shirt stretches against her chest—a piece of salesmanship she has perfected.

They’re all Occidental publications, sir. You can own the words at the very foundation of our society.

She points to a list of titles on her sales brochure.

This subscription, for example, is Notions of Justice and Freedom, and this one is The Tradition of Reason. You can cancel at any time.

The SCARRED MAN winks at her and shuts the door in her
face.

SCARRED MAN

From behind the door.

Arf-arf.

A SNIPER STATUE scopes DOGFACED GIRL
from his blind in a bed of irises.

END SCENE

 

She could have been more persistent, like Alcibiades is always telling her to be, but she knows not to push her luck with a guy like this. She’s smarter than Eris was, and she wants them to know it. She’s not going to end up in jail like that dumb bitch.

The next few houses on the cul-de-sac are a bust. Either there’s no answer, or people close the door in her face. One woman, foggy with the stank of wet socks, tells her to “go chew a bone.” Real fucking clever, lady.

She walks back out the main road, meandering through the neighborhood. She’s looking for some kind of house—the type of place that looks a little like a worn patch in the bottom of a shoe. Some kind of place you could poke your little finger through if you pushed it with the point of your nail.

She sees one of the boys from the Squad walking toward her— the one everyone calls “Q.” He’s a tall and disheveled blond, with a long muzzle. Handsome in his way and not afraid to use his looks to make a sale—effective but crude. He struts toward her with his muscled chest pushed out.

“Yo,” he says, pushing his polo sleeves over his puffy biceps. “You moving big dollars over there?”

“I didn’t even try,” she lies. “Looks dead.” She’s taunting him.

“Shit, you don’t even know dead. I’m gonna go crush that. Watch.”

He smells like too much Cool Water and blueberry Swishers. “What about you?”
“Nah,” he says, “that whole end is a bunch of tightwad trolls.

One lady tells me she wants me to meet her Chihuahua. I swear to God, they just set us up to fail. I mean, where the fuck even are we, though?”

“I don’t know,” Zylina says, as Q heads back toward the house with the sniper in the yard.

Since she jumped in the van in the Target parking lot back home, they’ve been in a new city every day. They must have driven through the grease-yellow dust of three states, stopping in each one to knock on identical doors and run identical pitches on identical Buttonheads. If Zylina is lucky, she sells two hundred bucks worth of books and keeps half, minus her share of gas money and the motel. Now that Eris is gone, at least she gets her own room, even if she has to pay for it.

It’s not really that Alcibiades and Themistius want them to fail—at the end of the day, they’ve got to get their cut, too—they just have a pretty limited idea of who makes a good mark. But Zylina is figuring that out.

See, the way they think is: catch a few stay-at-home moms with more dollars than sense. These ladies don’t know that their orders for a Book of the Month aren’t likely to get filled anytime soon and don’t really care. They don’t read anyway. Maybe they like the idea of the books looking good on a shelf someday. It’s fifty bucks they were going to spend on more yoga pants.

The stay-at-home women are fooled because they don’t try not to be. They trust a good-looking kid in a uniform, even if that kid is a Dogface. Sometimes, especially if the kid is a Dogface, because then they’re doing good for a goddamn change. This kid wants to go to college! She wants to be like us! Even better: Doing Good came right to their door. They don’t even have to mute the TV.

But the angle that Alcibiades and Themistius are missing is the folks who don’t get fooled but will pay you anyway. Zylina’s seen it before: a woman who looks at you like she knows just who you are—a full-of-shit kid trying to get enough money for beer, somebody headed anywhere but college. This kind of person, they side-eye you as they hand you money and give you a smirk that says “enjoy all that while it lasts.” There’s something cynical but honest about that, Zylina thinks. The whole world is thirsty for a good frozen-vodka shot of truth.

 

Wandering a few blocks back toward the interstate, Zylina spots an apartment complex. Outside the gate to the parking lot, the shaggy bark of palm trunks shreds in the hot wind. Through the iron bars of the complex gate, the basin of a sputtering obelisk- shaped fountain is collecting hunks of mulch and a few gas station cups. The wind carries cheap incense and the kind of spicy food you leave cooking all day so it’s falling apart by dinner. She’s been living on boxes of defrosted waffles and energy drinks.

She waits for someone to come punch in the gate code. Themistius is always telling the Squad not to go looking for their own leads. “We’ll pick the doors. You just knock,” he tells them. And this was part of Eris’ problem, she started trying to pick doors—the heaviest doors, the richest ones. That and she started trying to rob motherfuckers.

But Zylina is more clever than Eris ever was. She’s not trying to trade up. She’s trying to trade down—looking for someone who recognizes her.

After a while, Zylina realizes that she could be waiting for hours for someone to drive up to the gate. Fuck it. She walks up to the split in the gate and pushes at the two sides. At first, she thinks they might not budge, and truthfully—for a second—she’s relieved. But then, the gate begins to slide. It opens just enough that she can squeeze through, and she slams it shut behind her.

Where the sidewalks of the posh neighborhood were totally abandoned, here in the apartments, she sees people drifting on the cracked pathways. An old man pushes a shopping cart full of laundry past her, leaving a whiff of musky dryer sheets. Two kids who ought to be in school boot a balding soccer ball off a wall, the smack ricocheting across the courtyard.

On the face of every building, balconies are cluttered with charcoal grills, disintegrating cardboard boxes, and pots of limp petunias. There’s even a legless sparring dummy like the one her cousin used to throttle, his shirt off in her parents’ driveway. The dummy’s head juts through the bars of the balcony like a snared animal.

On one balcony she sees an old woman sitting in a folding lawn chair, like her mother used to do, eyes closed against the sun. The woman wears a crepey dress in a bright pattern of diamonds. Zylina walks up the stairway of the woman’s building to the third floor. She approaches the door of the apartment that she thinks belongs to the woman. Zylina takes a breath and then presses the bell.

There’s buzzing inside, then the sliding of French doors, the rattle of plastic blinds, slippered feet shuffling on linoleum, a chain lock and deadbolt, a hand on the knob.

When the door opens, she sees the small woman standing there, smiling her chunky gray teeth, her ears half-covered in a loofa of gray curls.

“Can I help you, young lady?” she asks Zylina.

Zylina runs through the script Themistius insisted she memorize her first day in the van, the freeway exits flipping past her, becoming strange.

GOOD [MORNING/AFTERNOON/OTHER]! . . . I’M COMPETING IN AN EXCITING CONTEST, [SIR/MA’AM/OTHER] . . . THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADVANCE MY EDUCATION! . . . OVERCOMING CHALLENGES AND FULFILLING MY DREAMS! THE STRUGGLE OF BEING A MINORITY IN AN OCCIDENTAL WORLD . . . TO SUPPORT ME AND MY FAMILY BACK IN [HOMETOWN]!

When Zylina gets to the end of the script, and finishes showing the old woman the brochure of books that could be shipped to her on a monthly basis at a limited-time discounted rate, the woman asks, “Wouldn’t you like to come in for a cup of tea?”

This is not part of the scene.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Zylina says. “I got a lot of houses I’m supposed to visit this morning.”

“You said you have to sell five hundred dollars a day to meet your goal? For the scholarship?”

“Uh, yeah,” Zylina says. The number is made up. Shit, lady, the scholarship is made up. They’re supposed to make as much money as they can, but nobody ever makes the goal. Q sold three hundred a few days ago and he celebrated by smoking everybody up at the motel that night.

“Well, I’d love to look over your brochure, sweetie,” the old woman tells her. “I’m sure I can find something. You just come in and sit for a while.”

Zylina tries to keep the satisfied surprise from her eyes, but she feels her ears stand straight with the shock.

Themistius would tell her this was a trap and she should get out of there. Tell her it’s against company policy. Themistius would remind her that this is what Eris did, going into customers’ houses where she wasn’t told to go, waiting until they went into the other room to get the slice of cake, the glass of lemonade, and then grabbing their purses or phones off the table and running out the door. When you play that game, you never know when the person you try to fool turns the tables and you end up arrested. But Zylina was just trying to run up her commissions. What was this woman going to do? Call the cops for accepting her invitation?

“OK,” Zylina says, handing her a brochure. “I guess I can pop in. For a quick minute.”

“Wonderful.”

Inside: traces of garlic, essential oils, ashed-out incense, and maybe, underneath that, some lingering stink from a cat a few years dead and cremated. A radio still plays out on the balcony. Zylina can hear the noodly guitars of classic rock radio coming through the glass—the kind her father used to sing along to with his improbable English: “The girl with col-li-ding soap eyes!”

The old woman pulls out a chair for her at a dinged-up kitchen table and wobbles over to the sink to fill a copper kettle that looks a little like the one Zylina’s mother kept on the stove at home.

“Do you mind if I ask a personal question?” the woman asks, like someone who doesn’t care if you mind or not.

“Whatever,” Zylina says.

“How long have you been doing this? Selling these books, I mean. Door to door?”

“It’s got to be almost three weeks, I guess.”

“That’s not such a long time away yet.” The woman puts some spoonfuls of tea into the basket of the kettle and turns on the stove, which ticks until the burner ignites. The gas is sharp in Zylina’s nose.

“It’s the longest that I’ve been away, but I don’t miss it much, really. Maybe you think that’s mean of me?”

“When I was young, all I wanted in the world was to get away from my parents. I thought they were just dreadful,” the woman says, turning back to Zylina. “My father was a banker.”

“My parents are pretty chill,” Zylina says, trying to gauge the woman’s response—how pathetic is enough to win her sympathy, but not so much that she seems like a lost cause? “But you know, they don’t know what it’s like for me in my town.”

“Of course they don’t.” The woman’s face softens with pity.

“They lost their shit, though, when I told them I dropped out of school.”

“School isn’t for everyone,” the woman says, angling an eyebrow.

“I guess,” Zylina says. “The kids didn’t talk to me, which is stupid because I’m the one who should be afraid of them.” She’s still not sure if she’s pegged this woman right. Just to be sure, she adds: “This is why I’m working so hard, ma’am. So that I can go back to school and make something out of my life.”

“Of course, it’s not so different around here,” the woman says. “You might have noticed. Or anywhere, I suppose.”

“But I don’t live here,” Zylina says. “I’m just moving through.”

The kettle spittles into the flame on the stove, and the woman rises to attend to it. While she fixes the tea with milk and sugar, Zylina looks around the small apartment.

What she first thought were just paintings hanging on the walls are instead framed weavings—red, blue, and yellow thread knotted into the shapes of bomber jets with wide wings and bulbous heads, or tanks with blocky treads. One repeats a pattern of grenades like crystalline green eggs. Another spreads an array of interlocking rifles. Zylina makes out beautiful missiles, intricate choppers, elegant borders of flame. Tea splashes into one cup, then the other.

The woman returns to the table and sets a teacup down in front of Zylina. The steam is too rich and hot, but she laps at it daintily.

“It’s good?” the woman asks, raising her white eyebrows.

“Sure. Thanks,” Zylina says. The woman looks disappointed at her reaction, and she pushes through her poofy hair to grasp the back of her neck. The pose uncovers her ear, the shape of a wave- beaten shell. A silver crescent earring, dripping with beads, hangs from it like a snail trying to escape.

“What are those?” Zylina says. “The pictures on the wall.”

“Yes,” the woman says, a smile wriggling her fleshy lips. “I thought you might find those familiar. They’re Cynocephalian.” She enunciates the term with careful precision.

Zylina has never actually seen that name used outside school or printed on her refugee card:

FEMALE, CYNOCEPHALIC

“Dogheaded,” her father had explained. “The only way their misshapen mouths can name us.”

“You collect them?” Zylina asks.

“When I could,” the woman says. “I don’t travel so much anymore.”

“So you’ve been there? To my—my parents’ country?”

“The first time I went was over twenty years ago, now. It was a much different place then, as I’m sure they’ve told you. The weapons were still there and the soldiers, but it was very peaceful for a little while. And with the most beautiful people! I wanted to swallow the whole place up and take it back with me in my belly. The last time was probably just before you came here. Just before the first bombings. Well, you know how it was then.”

“I don’t remember it either way,” Zylina tells her. This doesn’t make her sad to think, though she’s sure that this woman thinks she should be feeling some kind of way.

“So you don’t want to go back there someday?”

“No, ma’am. I’m going to California.”

“To go to school?”

“Well, maybe school. Maybe not. My parents told me I had to get a job or move out. So, I did both. I don’t really have a, like, long-term plan, but California is as west as you can go, so I’m going there. I’m getting lit and watching the sunset. Have you seen how purple the sunset is in California? The sunset there is like grape jelly. As soon as the van stops in California, I’m not getting back on.”

There’s something weird about the way the woman is staring at her hands as she rocks the tea cup. It could be that she really believed Zylina was going to be majoring in drama next year at USC, or some shit. Or it could be she’s just happy that Zylina didn’t bullshit her.

“The van?” the woman asks.

“Yeah. You know it drives us around—the Squad that I sell with. These two guys, they drive us and let us off. We take orders, get back on, and they drive us somewhere else.”

The woman’s eyes are fixed on Zylina’s hands, the same way she’s seen Alcibiades staring at her body—some stifled appetite. It seems like she is looking at her fingernail—the long one on her pinkie.

“Sounds kind of exciting,” the woman says. “Living on the open road.”

“I don’t know about that.” Zylina skims her nail along the rim of the cup, testing her.

“When you’re older, you’ll see. Life gets so dull so fast.”

“Thanks for the tea,” Zylina says, standing and fanning her fingers on the table for the woman to get one more look. “So, did you want to buy a subscription?”

“I’m still not totally certain,” the woman says. She puts her hand on Zylina’s, pressing down just hard enough to hold her palm to the wood.

“I thought you were going to order the books.” Zylina looks at the woman’s steamed-over gray eyes. She tries to show her disappointment. “Two full subscriptions you said.”

“Yes,” the woman says, “I was just wondering . . . Would you indulge me?”

“Ma’am?”

“Your fingernail. I was wondering if you would let me take your fingernail.”

Zylina moves to her practiced expression of alarm. It’s the kind of face she gave her parents the moment they told her that she had to leave the house. It didn’t stop them from kicking her out, but she’s pretty sure that it convinced her father to give her the fistful of twenties from his sock drawer before she left.

“I’d be willing to pay for it, of course. And it would grow back.”

“You gotta understand, ma’am, having been to my country, how important that is to my culture.”

Whatever that meant now. Her mother had taught her how to file the nail into a long point, how to lacquer it with polishes that she had kept in tiny crystal pots (now replaced with drugstore gunk), how to open doors and jars without breaking its fragile point, how to brandish it when she was pissed-off with someone. Her mother told her that it was supposed to remind her of the claws the Buttonheads thought all the Dogfaces had—a lie that told her something true.

She never really thought about it much, except that taking care of it made her mother happy even if the kids in school said it made her look like a cokehead. Since she had left, she kept it looking clean more out of habit than anything else.

“You can sign me up for three of your subscriptions,” the woman says with a sharp nod.

“But my mother . . .” Zylina says. “If I ever go home . . .”

“Alright,” the woman says, “I have eight hundred dollars. That’s enough for your five subscription quota with a little left over. You can write that down on your sheet however you’d like.” She winks, unzips a little nylon fanny pack and digs out a neat stack of Benjis.

Zylina makes a slow show of her agreement, taking a deep breath and holding out her hand. The woman tells her to sit still while she gets a pair of scissors.

Zylina listens to the sliding of drawers and the clatter of shuffling through the detritus contained in them—plastic, metal, glass. She stands quietly and walks to the far wall of the room. The framed weavings of the guns and grenades stare back at her. Zylina lifts the edge of one of the frames to look at all the tiny knots of silk, each one the trick of fingers like her own. She thinks of the Dogfaced women pulling hooks, combs, and needles, their own jeweled false-claws kissing the threads as they work. If she had a place to put it, she’d nab this thing—this work—right off the wall. She lets the frame back down, drifts back to the table, and sits down.

The actual cutting is quick. The woman’s hands shudder and the tip of her little Buttonhead tongue presses her upper lip. The stainless blades snip through the nail, and it drops like a breath into a linen napkin cradled in the woman’s palm. Before she places it in a small cedar box, the woman holds it over the tip of her own finger, as if auditioning some prosthesis of spirit.

The woman thanks her and then presses a wad of bills into Zylina’s hand. The money is heavy and damp. Zylina counts out five hundred for the books, three hundred for the nail. She wonders if the woman always keeps so much money on hand. If there is more. If it would be easy to take. She thinks of Eris—how good it must have felt to give in to this curiosity.

“You keep yourself safe,” the woman says as they approach the door.

“Don’t worry about me, ma’am,” Zylina says, looking the woman in the eyes. “There’s plenty of other people to worry about.”

She hurries down the apartment building stairs and strides through the complex back toward the gate. The loss of the nail is such a small change, but without it she feels at once camouflaged and somehow more exposed. The kids kicking the soccer ball do not stop as she crosses the courtyard, and the old man with his laundry cart, who must be coming back with another load, does not lift his head as she passes him in the parking lot. Still there is an alarming sense of lightness. When she gets back to the neighborhood where Alcibiades and Themistius dropped her off, she avoids the other kids in the Squad. There are dandelions growing in the seams of the sidewalks. Zylina spends the last hour kicking off their heads.

 

That night, they stay in a Budget Inn a few miles down the interstate. The pool is open, but the water is filmed with leaves and oily scum. By eleven, nearly everyone is drunk and back in their rooms. Zylina is still stretched out in a plastic chaise with a pool towel wrapped around her knees. Alcibiades is there, too, and they are watching the boy called Q, who sits shirtless with his feet swishing in the water. One of the other boys sits next to him glancing between the smoldering blunt in his fingers and Q’s chest, which flexes, covered in goosebumps. Zylina wraps the towel tighter.

“Damn, you crushed it today, huh?” Alcibiades says, lifting a tallboy of Bud to his lips.

“I guess,” Zylina says. She keeps running her thumb over the rough edge of her pinkie nail.

“Must be working that uniform, like I said.”

“Hell yeah. All the stay-at-home moms drooling at my titties in this shirt,” Zylina says, squeezing her arms together and giving a shimmy.

Alcibiades laughs a little too hard at this, and she goes quiet looking at him. He shows his square teeth and his little nostrils flare. He really is good-looking for a Buttonhead. At least that’s what she thinks right now. She finds herself staring at his ears again. They are soft, delicate, bare—nothing like her own, which stand and point without her choice, covered in coarse red fur.

“Seriously, though,” he says, scrunching his eyebrows and looking into her eyes.

“Seriously, what?”

“I saw you wandering off today. You went into those apartments. You went inside one, with some little old lady, and you didn’t come out for, like, a half-hour. And then when you did, you walked away pretty quick, huh?”

Zylina looks away from him, back toward the pool, where Q and the other boy lean together, licking each other’s faces.

“You don’t even know that was me,” she says, trying to keep her eyes from going wide and her ears from pricking.

“You get a good look around here?” Alcibiades says. “Not a lot of Dogface girls in red polo shirts.”

Across the pool, the boys’ feet are still dangling in the dirty chlorine. They grope at each other’s arms, their waistbands.

“Look,” Alcibiades says, “the folks at the corporate office have been pretty concerned since what happened to Eris. So, maybe you were lost. Maybe I can write down on my report to corporate that I saw you were lost and you stopped to ask directions.”

“Yeah, OK,” Zylina says, “I was lost.”

“Alright. Maybe I’ll write that then. You know, corporate doesn’t want me to have to call the cops on anyone else.”

You called the cops on Eris?”

“I had to. She was gonna get us shut down. But you know, you’re smarter than that. And I like you.”

“I like you, too,” Zylina says, and there’s a part of her that means it. Maybe the same part that is feeling grateful that Alcibiades hasn’t called the cops on her, or the part of her that’s flattered that he looks at her, even now, like he’s hungry for something. She’s worried that it’s the part of her that can’t see a way out of this. She’s picking at the rough edge of her missing pinkie nail. It feels like a scab.

“I’m glad,” he says. “I think that’s going to make things easier.”

She can’t look at him. The boys are leaving the pool, leaning their slick bodies together. She stares down at the towel. The loops in the cotton remind her of the weavings in the old woman’s house with the pictures of the weapons in them. She wonders if the people who made them thought they were just recording what they saw—if they were trying to write history in those rugs. If they were trying to tell her something.

She feels Alcibiades’ fingers on her jaw. His touch is gentle but strong. He lifts her head to look up at him as he slides next to her. “Look,” he says. “You are a really good Squad member. And I think you’re so beautiful and smart.” He smiles almost shyly at her. “You got such soulful eyes.”

“Thanks,” she says. She realizes she is holding her breath.

“And I really like this.” He uses the tip of his thumb to point to his own tongue resting on his lower lip. She realizes that he’s talking about her tongue and feels her ears prickling.

Nervously, she leans in toward his mouth. Cardboardy beer sours his breath. She’s never kissed an Occidental before. She’s never even thought about how it would work. But as she gets close to his mouth, Alcibiades puts his hand on her shoulder and turns away.

“I didn’t mean like that,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” Zylina says. She covers her eyes—half with embarrassment, half with relief.

“It’s just,” he says, “I’ve never been with a

bitch

before.”

The word, coming out of this Buttonhead’s mouth, strikes her.

“Oh,” she says.

“Hey,” Alcibiades says. “Let’s try this.” He reaches down and unbuckles his belt. She hears the soft tinkling of the buckle and then the scratch of his zipper. When he reaches for the fur on the back of her head, she doesn’t need to look down. She can smell him. Bad beer and the ripeness of a man. Her fingernail is still gone, but on the tip of her tongue she can feel the points of her teeth.

“Wait,” Zylina says, tilting her head down to look at him. “I want to tell you what we do . . . back in my country.”

Alcibiades leans toward her and she pushes her muzzle toward his soft, dumb ear. She hears the heave of his breathing, his thudding pulse, the hungry click of his mouth. And beyond that, the hum of the interstate, a gust that just picked up, sizzling dirt against the motel windows.

Before she bites down and tugs back, ripping the cartilage from the pale skin behind his temple, she licks the warm, soft lobe of it, sending electricity down his neck and spine. It is an unspeakable gift.

All he can manage in return is a scream.

 

Zylina is still holding on to the ear as she walks into the sulfurous light of a Valero parking lot. She wipes the thickening blood from her lips with the corner of the pool towel and fingers the folds of flesh cupped in her palm. In the store, she spots a rack of red, white, and blue T-shirts that say PROUD in blocky letters across the chest. In the bathroom, she takes off the uniform polo and changes into the T-shirt. In the mirror, she sees herself—long fox-red face, black nose, ears that tremor, even now, at every noise. She holds up Alcibiades’ ragged ear to the side of her head, covering her own. It’s a bad fit.

“Understand?” she says to herself through the ear. Then wraps it in the polo and throws it in the trash.

She pays for the T-shirt, an energy drink, and a bag of snack mix with banana chips. The lady at the counter clucks her tongue when Zylina asks which direction she needs to go to get to California, but then points left along the interstate. On the access road, Zylina stands with her thumb out, the pool towel wrapped around her bare arms. In the dark, it is impossible to see the little streaks of blood staining it at the edges.

A box truck rolls to a stop in front of her. A driver, whose face she cannot yet see, leans over the cab and pushes open the door. She breathes in, preparing to ask how far the driver is going. It is a bargain she can make in her own voice.

Zylina reaches through the neck of her new shirt and thumbs the hundred-dollar bills stuffed into her bra. Those people who wove guns into their rugs—maybe they weren’t sending her a message but a cure.

 

MOTHER’S LOVE, A SOCRATIC DIALOGUE.
PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Zylina. Mother.

SCENE:—In Exile.

 

MOTHER. I am telling you to stay because I love you.
ZYLINA. Well, your love is a little fucking hard sometimes.
MO. Is it?
ZY. Yes. Your love is like cinderblocks under some ragged-ass pillow.
MO. What should my love be like? Tell me that, Zylina. How should I love?
ZY. I don’t know, Mom. Maybe don’t be so mad at me for leaving?
MO. I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.
ZY. Did you get that from a TV show?
MO. Probably yes, but does that make it false?
ZY. Does it make it corny?
MO. You should do what I have done: Give up your home and career to bring your child out of war and poverty.
Work hard for not enough money only to watch your child reject the opportunity she has been given! Then
tell me you think about my texture. Then tell me who is cinderblocks and who is ragged-ass.
ZY. Ohmygod.
MO. Your grades are good. You have one year left. Why would you not go to college and make a way for yourself
in the world?
ZY. What makes you think that that’s what’s good for me if it’s not what I want?
MO. It’s because I love you.
ZY. Why do you keep saying that?
MO. I say what’s true. I don’t have to prove my love to you.
ZY. You could try.
MO. Tell me: How do I prove? Do you want me to bleed for you? Give me the knife. I bleed for you every day.
ZY. Stop. You’re so extra. Just tell me one time—one time you loved me normally like a mother.
MO. Yes, I’ll tell you. When you were just a baby, three children died in one year from scorpion stings. The nearest hospital was a half-day’s drive away. Your father’s car might not have even made it so far. But the herbalist in our village started using a big horse’s needle to inject the children with scorpion venom. He told everybody that with the venom already in their veins, the scorpions would stay away. It had been thinned—almost harmless. Still, it was a very difficult choice.
ZY. What? Did you do that to me?
MO. Of course. You were fevered for three days. That needle is still inside my heart. But you were never stung by a scorpion. I was always a good mother to you.
ZY. Mom, that’s insane.
MO. No. Not getting you the cure would have been insane.
ZY. That’s not even scientific.
MO. I’m not proving scientifically. You want to know how I love you, and I am telling you. Perhaps my love is needle-love, but how else can it protect you?
ZY. Do you even hear yourself? Why can’t you just be a normal mother? Do you actually believe you can protect people just by feeding them a little piece of what’s trying to hurt them?
MO. Why shouldn’t I believe? You’re still here, aren’t you?