top of page

"A Miniature Castle Surrounds My Brain" & "Subject Line Mercy" by Paul Rousseau

A Miniature Castle Surrounds My Brain

Think: 2lbs of hamburger meat plopped and nestled in a shoebox. Think: a drawbridge, moat, archers on battlements, a ballista on every tower, gatehouses, a portcullis, turrets, and huge vats of oil and tar, fire at the ready against a gooey pink horizon. Enough defenses to keep the thoughts out, most often. But in actuality, the thoughts, invasive by nature, are strategic. They bide their time. They wear no colors, because they fight for no Country, no cause but to lay siege on my brain. For fun? For sport? Just because they can? The thoughts are mad in that way. An army to themselves: paranoid delusions, irrational fears. Everything I’ve ever done wrong, back again to torture and interrogate, bind me on the rack.

Before bed, the thoughts sense a slippage, a weakness, an opening, and they collect like plaque. No need for gigantic wooden ladders or battering rams, they pile on each other as most pests do and storm the gates, breach the curtain walls. Overcome, I shake and sweat that near-surrender, vinegar-like sweat, bombarded by thoughts. Is that Honda Odyssey from this morning still parked out by my mailbox? I am increasingly concerned that its owner wishes to murder me with some knife/gun combo weapon, or strap a bomb collar around my neck. Did I remember to lock the sliding glass door? By now I’ve learned to sleep with one eye (and my video doorbell app) open. What’s worse, empirically: dying a horrible, painful death by a strangely inventive intruder, or wasting my life worrying about such a thing as I spiral deeper and deeper until I’m wholly unable to parse out real threats versus imaginary.

Reading a book, I get no further than a page. A potion of minor healing. Doom scrolling Twitter only feeds their frenzy. A spell of swift destruction. Listening to a podcast invokes an enchantment over the land. A momentary mercy. The thoughts scatter, disorientated, unfocused. I bet wherever you leave a fingernail on Earth is where you can travel to in the afterlife. In their confusion, I make it through the hatch. I situate my makeshift raft to escape down the river of sleep. Where I’ll wake up on the other side, full of rations and reinforcements to take on a new sun. But just as I kick off the cold dirt, launch from the sediment and begin to drift along the water, the thoughts recoup and attack in hoards.

They play out past ill deeds in my head: me, a high school sophomore, crouched down by the safe under the register at Mr. Tony’s Pizza. Constance, my older coworker, is mopping front of house. It’s after close. I angle my body perfectly away from the security camera above my right shoulder, to make it look like I’m scrubbing the tile floor with a wet rag. Really going to town on the mozzarella eternally congealed in the grout lines. But I’m not. I’m fishing for a twenty from one of the big bill envelopes. Though it’s not a chain restaurant, no corporate lords or ladies to Robinhood from, Tony underpays and we don’t make tips. In the parking lot after our shift, I convince Constance, reluctant, but kind to a fault, to buy me a tin of chewing tobacco from the Speedway around the corner. I pocket the change.

Even though that was fifteen years ago, the thoughts make me worry about the potential harm that solitary, immediately repugnant pinch of Grizzly Wintergreen did to my gumline, the cancer that’ll undoubtedly grow. They make me worry about talking over the phone to schedule a dentist appointment. They make me worry about a nicotine addiction I may somehow unknowingly have. They make me worry about Tony, likely retired, living a thousand miles away in Mesa, Arizona, calling the cops to throw me in jail for stealing from him way back when. But most of all, they make me worry about Constance. I was too demanding. She for sure hates me. I don’t remember if I even said thank you, and regret using her all the more.

I know I must act fast to not be eaten from the inside out. To not fold up, crumble, lose my last supply of reason buried deep in a dank crypt, hidden away from these barbaric thoughts. God only knows what would happen then. I rush to the medicine cabinet. Not for milk of the poppy. Not for valerian root. Not for poison-dipped chocolates. Not yet ready to accept defeat. But for a fighting chance. 10mg of maximum strength time release melatonin. My vat of oil and tar. Fall asleep faster. Stay asleep longer. I choke down the pill and wait with a shrewd smile. Because I know what’s to come. Because I have been here before. And I will be here again, so says the soothsayer. There will be complete obliteration. A clean scorch of the battlefield. Sweltering blazes of absolution and fury. There will be sweet, if only temporary, victory.

Subject Line Mercy

Daniel ate a quick lunch on the hotel’s terrace, the seat across from him empty, and thought about the difference between true atonement and self-flagellation when he was interrupted by a gentle buzz in his pocket that caused him to hold his phone up, lean forward until it recognized his sleepless, unshaven face, which, after some time, finally populated the subject line of an email he’d just received like invisible ink under a blacklight that read: Hey, wait a sec! We know you didn’t mean to leave 101 Ways to Forgive Yourself & Other Lies unpurchased in your cart. Come back now for 10% off with code WHOOPS10. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it right here ready and waiting for you.

Paul Rousseau is a disabled writer with work in Roxane Gay's The Audacity, Waxwing, Catapult, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, and Wigleaf, among others. You can read his words online at and follow him on Twitter @Paulwrites7.

bottom of page