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"Clamshell" by Eric David Roman

Matt avoided the large, reused Amazon box, which arrived via his mother. The second box of childhood items he’d received, as noted from the black sharpie written on the side: Matt’s stuff - box 2. The box remained next to the first one, for he hadn’t bothered to bring either into the post-divorce apartment any further than the three-by-five tan-and-white linoleum square that acted as a foyer. The boxes sat for days as he had no rush to dive into the past, not with the present a huge fucking mess.

The humble apartment tried, but nothing hid the dreary sadness under the layers of paint and the putty-patched holes. Even Palm Meadows’s exterior, once a gorgeous teal color vibrantly shining along the shore of North Lake Never, was now faded, dull, and lifeless. Officious grey air conditioners jutting out from the windows pockmarked its complexion.

There’d not been one smiling face at Palm Meadows, but Matt hadn’t expected to see any. The building was a transitional place for people dunked into the lowest points of their lives as if nothing more than an off-brand cookie—Palm Meadows, the cheapest, easiest place to rent on short notice. Management didn’t care about background or credit checks. All they required: one reference, which they didn’t actually call, and the first and last month’s rent, along with the deposit. No questions, no niceties, pay them and get the key.

The apartment stood not as a warm and loving home, but a dreary low-watt cell in which Matt merely existed instead of thrived. The haze he’d been functioning within couldn’t be called living: barely eating, either not sleeping at all or sleeping all day, dragging ass to work where most days he phoned his performance in. His time bled together so much he couldn’t tell what day of the week he was on. Remaining on the couch, or in bed, or pacing the small one-bedroom where he counted the numerous holes sloppily patched in the apartment’s walls. Matt hadn’t asked for his life to change; the change occurred despite his best efforts, and he refused to accept it.

The issue wasn’t that his husband couldn’t keep his gorgeous black cock in his pants—Clark couldn’t—but Matt reconciled with that fact long before they married. Both were open, and the sexual openness worked for them. Matt believed the freedom gave their relationship legs, eighteen years' worth of them.

Terence and Dylan were a couple they’d known only briefly, friendly enough, and they claimed to have no interest in playing around—which made the fact Dylan crawled onto Clark’s cock a month later all the more interesting. Matt hadn’t minded. Before they met up, Clark informed him what would be going down and even showed off the videos he’d made afterwards for them to enjoy. And while Matt assumed nothing in life, he felt assured enough in the stability of his relationship that he would never hear the words, “I’ve been having an affair.”

And yet those five words arrived anyway, slapping Matt across the face like he owed them money. Dylan couldn’t keep the tryst quiet, and Terrence kicked him out, ending their five-year relationship. Dutiful Clark rushed to the rescue and consoled Dylan with much more than his erect penis. For five months, he kept the truth of playing boyfriend with Dylan a secret from Matt. Five months in which they were off on movie dates, sleepovers, early mornings spent in bed while Matt woke up alone believing Clark was traveling for work. The betrayal rocked Matt to his core. The sex never mattered, but having his husband share the genuinely intimate moments of their married life with someone else while professing to still love him proved to be a firm steel-toed kick to the groin.

The whirlwind of emotions Matt dealt with was held together by the thinnest strands of hope. Hoping somehow the situation was a mistake, nothing more than a momentary hiccup. He believed Clark wouldn’t throw away their eighteen years so easily, except he had. On top of his admission of the affair, he informed Matt he would move out, so their separation could begin. And like that, the dreaded D-word arrived anyway. Crushed like a beer can in a drunk jock’s hand, Matt cried as Clark spoke about ending their marriage as if it were nothing more than a business contract needing amending. The state required one year of separation before the divorce would be final.

Matt left instead. The idea of spending morose-filled days wandering around a house still fresh with memories held no appeal. Packing his things, he resisted the urges to be petty and destroy shit on his way out. However, for a moment as he cleared out his side of their walk-in closet, he considered channeling TLC’s Left Eye and torching Clark’s prized shoe collection in the garden tub. But a burnt-down house couldn’t be sold and its profits be split. What balance would come to the situation if he broke the antique clock in the hall? Or heaved one of those fucking pampered shoes into the plasma TV? He’d still be miserable, and Terrence would still be getting to sleep next to Clark at night.

Matt’s head wasn’t clear as he boxed up things, and much got left behind. There would be a time to fully divide their items, but Matt hoped when that time came, he wouldn’t care enough to want anything. With fourteen boxes and a backseat full of clothes, he glanced back only once at the renovated, four-bedroom split-level house with a perfectly manicured lawn and said goodbye with a middle finger high in the air and tears filling his eyes.

The cramped 700-square-foot apartment on the fifth floor of Palm Meadows acted as home now. And within it, most of Matt’s days found him awash in depression mourning for Clark, his home, his carefully refined routines. All of them were rudely taken from him, and their sudden loss slammed into him hard as a meteor, leaving a crater so deep in his soul, Matt’s sadness would echo within it forever.

The sun rose and set, and Matt wouldn’t have moved from the bed. He felt numb and broken the first few weeks, remaining motionless upon the mattress tossed on the floor. He stared up, watching the shadow of the rickety ceiling fan glide over him as the day passed him by. The apartment’s needs forced Matt out of bed and into the land of the living. Wanting the shopping to be over with as quickly as possible, he picked whatever was available, deliverable, and, more importantly, cheap as hell. No color palette selected, no debate over swatches for the walls, and no need to overspend; Palm Meadows wasn’t a new palace to fill with treasures. The apartment was a blip in his life, one he had to endure, and whatever he purchased would suffice until the blip passed.

Once all the pieces were delivered, he stood in the space looking at the mix-matched furniture sets. Along with the messy bedroom and the half-assed set-up of the entertainment center, the apartment carried all the unflinching echoes of his first place. At twenty, he could laugh off poverty by referring to his meager abode as Bo-Ho Chic. A lifetime later and TV trays were once again substitutions for a dining table, side tables, and his nightstand. His plates and bowls were paper, utensils plastic, and swiped by the fistful from Chipotle whenever he got dinner. At forty-two, the apartment stood as a guttural reminder of how hard he’d been drop-kicked to square one. And unlike in his youth, no amount of blinding optimism would help delude him that the situation was only temporary.

For more than a few Palm Meadows residents, Matt saw their blips—which also started off as temporary—had morphed seamlessly into a comfortable acceptance of the way things were. One of the ‘lifers’ introduced herself in the laundry room on his third night there, her story the same as Matt’s except gender-swapped. Her plan mimicked his own: stay a year, refocus her life, and move on—she’d been there ten. Matt tried to shake off the boozed-up woman’s story, but the clinging stench of his own possible future hung all over him. Would he be in the laundry room in ten years, hacking his way through cigarette after cigarette while pouring out his sob story to some new resident trying to wash their underwear?

The more he dwelled on thoughts of being stuck in Palm Meadows, the more horrible outcomes he envisioned for himself, and the more morose he felt. The traffic in his brain was relentless. There couldn’t be one thought without spiraling off into two more, and each one of those branched off into endless directions of possibilities, worst-case scenarios, and questions upon questions upon questions: did he need to start looking for a new house? Would a condo or townhouse be better? What could he afford? Did he need to look for a new job with a higher salary? The savings took a bigger hit than he’d been expecting. Did he need to wait until after the divorce? Should he move back home to Florida? What were Clark and Dylan doing? Were they sleeping in his bed? Was he getting Clark’s homemade Sunday-morning brunch? Were they fucking every night?

Matt couldn’t be sure where to begin rebuilding his life, still so deeply entombed in the rubble of his old one. The longer he concentrated, the more pissed he became at himself for feeling secure enough to never think of even the simplest contingency plan. And should he start forging a new life solo, on his own terms? Or should he wait and find the next mister to build something with?

He’d not begun thinking about when he would start dipping his toe into the dating pool. The idea made him tense, nauseous, and uncomfortable. The single world wasn’t the same one he’d navigated twenty years before. There were new rules, new games he didn’t understand, and there were no shows about single forty-somethings trying to have it all to relate with. To everyone else in his circle, since Clark moved on to someone else, Matt should have been out mounting dudes, two at a time, nightly. Except in Clark’s case, he got to glide past all the breakup unpleasantness thanks to the blinding newness of Dylan and him playing house. But for Matt, there was no distraction from the marriage and the life being grieved.

There’d be no dating. No random hookups. No responses to friends who were pushing for him to get out there and reclaim his power. Matt found no satisfaction in drowning his sorrows within some nameless person’s flesh. Maybe if the situation were different, or if he were younger. His hurt ran deep.

Sitting up on the couch, he fought his brain to stop hounding him with the same thoughts he’d carried around for nearly a month and a half. His gaze drifted around the apartment, from the TV hanging alone in the sparse, cold living room, past the open kitchen, and to the front door, settling on the boxes. Matt tried to shake the stiffness out of his body. A conversation with his mother was planned for later that day, and the boxes were bound to come up. The boxes posed a possible distraction from the nonsense in his head, even if only for a few minutes.

Muting the TV at a loud commercial, he reluctantly rose to a chorus of pops and groans as his body ached with every move. No one talked about the pains the body felt during depression. Rain pelted the balcony’s sliding glass door as grey clouds, which had hovered in the sky all day, finally made good on their promise. A full-on downpour started when he set the two boxes on the coffee table. Plopping onto the couch, he pulled the coffee table closer and unmuted the TV. The silence of the apartment affected him, like a toxic, stealthy ninja. If he were in his house, however, the quieter, the better. His silent days were among his favorites during the week. Wandering around the house without the television on or music playing so he could enjoy the safe, meditative calm of his warm and loving home. The same safe quiet did not exist in the apartment; it was a deafening quiet. A depressive and deceitful quiet, if unchecked, would force him down a flume ride of negative thinking. The TV or a playlist remained on 24/7.

Tearing open the first box, he found a card from his mother. Time Heals All the outside said in an overly cheery floral font. On the inside a handwritten note: Time will, love, I promise. Until then however, here is some of your old crap. I wanted to throw it away, but Dad says you’ll love it for the nostalgia. I think it’ll make you feel old and like shit—but either way, the closet in our newly remodeled gym is now clean! Time to do my Jane Fonda. We love you, son—Mom and Dad.

And he loved them right back. His Caucasian mother and Puerto Rican father were his own version of Lucy and Ricky; they were cute together, endlessly loving, and always cracking him up. Telling them about Clark and the divorce broke his heart. His father flew into a tirade in Spanish, which his mother tried to simmer. And Matt found himself spending most of their phone calls lately trying to stop the ranting or his mother’s crying. Avoiding the subject altogether proved impossible.

Missing them, he decided to stop delaying, diving into the first box. A glance at the television showed the same weather advisory scrolling over the news, which regurgitated the same mess from the morning: politics, global warming, the tragedy at a cancer clinic, the horrible messes occurring elsewhere in the world. Life-affirming content if he ever heard it. No one needed a constant reminder of a world turned to shit. He wondered why he’d flipped on the news at all. His fingers pressed against the aged cardboard of an old shoebox first. Flipping the top over, he found the inside filled with mixtapes labeled ‘Radio Jams’ written in Matt’s youthful and evolving handwriting, dated ‘93 thru ‘99. An uninvited smile showed up to the party, marking the first appearance in weeks.

Matt hadn’t recalled the collection of tapes until he opened the shoebox, and instantly, he remembered the hours upon hours he’d spent making and listening to them. Over and over in his room, getting excited once a tape filled, and time came to open a new one, label the cassette—the best part—and then pop the tape in his stereo. He patiently waited, listening for his favorite songs, and he worked hard at making sure he got both the front and the end of the song without the annoying DJ talking. Pirating music used to be a delicate practice which took skill.

Ready to revisit each one, he became excited at the possibility of the songs hiding on them, perhaps a chance to recapture some of the joy they had brought him in the past. Matt looked up, expecting to see not the apartment’s meager entertainment center but his own living room wall neatly organized with his fully packed audio system set against a plush collection of greenery. The apartment had only the newly purchased fifty-five-inch screen staring at him crookedly from the crisp, white wall. He missed his digital surround-sound stereo system, complete with tape deck, turntable, and many speakers. They were at the house, waiting to be fought over in the mediation room of some overpriced lawyer’s office. The tiny flicker of joy, ignited despite all odds, found itself extinguished.

If Clark hadn’t been a lecherous asshole, Matt would be settled in at home on this gloomy rainy afternoon. Comfy in his sweats and on his overstuffed couch, happily popping in tape after tape, enjoying his audio-guided trip down memory lane. Even his car didn’t have a tape deck anymore, and the possibility of revisiting the trove of songs got shoved aside with a defeated grunt.

He refrained from glancing in the box, deciding instead to allow whatever came out next to surprise him as the tapes had. Another shoebox appeared, this one taped shut. Instantly, he recognized his teenage private-time box. Ripping off the aged tape, he recalled most of the porn stash once stored within was removed. Left behind were reminders of the pre-internet age, a deck of nude male playing cards he’d stolen from the Spencer’s in the mall. There were three muscled hunks on the front, which made the deck appear more exciting than they were actually, but in ‘95—before the evolution of smartphones—any image of a naked dude caused a queer teen boy’s excitement. He’d sneakily slid the deck into his pocket and raced from the mall with high hopes for when he got home. Only when he did, Matt discovered the cover’s hunks were merely bait, and the cards were filled with lesser models. He utilized them once and never again.

Next to them, rolling around, were two small black plastic film containers with grey lids, another relic. Matt popped them open and sniffed the faint scent of the cannabis they once housed. Now the herb had legality, and he could walk down to the dispensary whenever he wanted. In ‘97, things weren’t as easy. He held the film canisters in his hands, remembering the nights he would roll a joint with a friend, smoke till they were silly, and sometimes even fool around. He tossed the containers into the box; weed was medicinal now, helping to alter his mood and ease his anxiety so he could avoid harsher pharmaceuticals. But the flower was still a good time.

The last item, a collection of notes rubber-banded together, made Matt’s heart skip. He refused to touch them as if they were hot coals. Nothing in those old letters from his first boyfriend, Jerome, held anything he wanted to revisit. Matt thought he’d gotten rid of them a long time ago. He closed the shoebox’s lid; reading them would only evoke painful memories, even after all that time. Despite appearances, Matt had found himself very much in love, but Jerome never tried to be a real boyfriend. He’d used Matt for sex, pretending to want more the whole time, before leaving the state without even a goodbye. Matt had been devastated, as the crushing pains of first loves tended to do.

Once a trove of hot, hidden sex, the simple shoebox was the birthplace of Matt’s type, his kinks and preferences and now as frigid and empty as his own bed. He crushed the box in his hands, the decades-old cardboard collapsing easily as Matt dropped it to the floor, stomping down for good measure until he kicked the crumpled, beaten thing into the kitchen. He’d throw it into the trash later.

Matt took a deep breath and checked the rest of the box: his graduation cap and gown, the tassel, junior and senior yearbooks, which he opted not to go through. A memory book filled with photos of him and his friends at the time, movie stubs, receipts from various outings and dates, and personal polaroids he’d taken of Jerome whenever he stayed the night. Again, nothing warranting a revisit.

His mother’s card had been correct; the box had failed at making him feel nostalgic. As she’d accurately predicted, the items made him feel like shit. They represented a past that now felt further away than ever and reminded him of how alone he was. Those friends weren’t around anymore, not to call up and talk to anyway. His current friends were still debating whom to remain close with, him or Clark. And Clark appeared to be winning the votes.

Better to not be reminded of those years anyway, no matter the good times; whenever he reminisced, he found only the bitter loneliness of being heartbroken and struggling as a queer youth in a world that fervently refused to accept him. Now he considered himself a relic wandering through a world he no longer recognized. Where had the world he’d grown up in gone? Where tape decks were commonplace, and youth hadn’t faded? Every day, more of the comfortable world died, and he’d been okay while safe in the bubble he’d created with Clark. But comfy bubbles burst harshly, and now the truths of the world beat him down.

His thoughts were spiraling. Why had he bothered to open the damn thing anyway? He set the first one on the floor, giving the box a firm kick, wanting to destroy it too. Deciding against such actions, he scooped the box up and hid the offensive package in the hall closet where it’d be forgotten about until the time to move.

Matt hovered over the second box, feeling the dull ache of sadness swell within him. Jerome, the tapes which couldn’t be played, the good friends who time and distance took away—all sucked the will to keep moving forward from him. And under his hands, a second box waited to be opened. He figured since he already felt shitty, why not go all the way? An excellent justification, though one was hardly needed, for hitting the bottle earlier.

The storm raged outside the sliding glass door as Matt tore open the second one and dug in with less excitement than he had the first. His fingers grazed what took him a moment to realize was a video game controller. Feeling the cord wrapped around the controller’s curvy structure, the pad and the buttons. His hand gripped the controller like a gun, and his finger found the trigger underneath. His thumb placed itself over the joystick, and instantly, he knew the feel of his favorite sky-blue Nintendo 64 controller. Withdrawing it from the box and unwrapping the cord from around the body, he handled the vintage controller as brighter memories cut through the cloudy anger of his mind.

The controller happened to be a holy relic from what he’d dubbed the ‘Summer of GoldenEye.’ Seventeen and unconcerned with encroaching adulthood, he and his friends were obsessed with the game. Playing nonstop into the early hours of the morning, Matt won nearly every match—attributing the victories to his special blue controller. His muscle memory activated; his hand slid into position as if about to play. The sounds of gameplay, his friend’s defeated moans, the controllers being thrown down as shouts of ‘fuck this’ filled the air. The shots being fired, the James Bond theme-stinger every time someone got popped, all the noises ricocheted in his ears as if he were standing in Tommy’s game room. An odd but familiar smell hit Matt’s nose, and he had no trouble identifying the persistent body funk of four teenage boys holed up in a garage-turned game-room in the central Floridian heat for days on end.

A sugary, slightly toxic flavor bubbled on his tongue, and he cycled through his memories trying to place the taste. He recognized his then go-to soda, Surge. Gallons of the stuff were consumed that summer and a few years after until he graduated to coffee, but the taste awash in his mouth was eerily identical. Those gaming days and nights were the only good times during that summer, as the relationship with Jerome ended, and his being closeted meant there was no one to talk to about it. Within a second of the intrusive thoughts of Jerome and his past melancholy hitting him, the Surge, the body funk, and the sounds evaporated. Matt found himself wishing the oddly tangible memory hadn’t faded so quickly. There was comfort in the feeling that he was once again in Tommy’s garage. He wouldn’t have minded staying a little longer.

Shaking himself out of the vapor of the memory, Matt found himself slumped down halfway off the couch, positioned awkwardly as if sliding off to go sit on the floor and play a video game. His hands were wrapped around the controller, geared up to win. Straightening himself up, he set the controller down on the coffee table, swearing to himself the Floridian heat remained in his apartment. By the time he scratched an itch on top of his head, the heat left.

Reaching into the box, Matt uncovered a time capsule of the ‘90s beneath an excessive amount of packing paper. A TalkBoy voice-recording device from the movie Home Alone 2, a few random broken action figures, three containers of old, dried-up Gak Splat, Nickelodeon’s signature slime. A pink Tamagotchi with a long-dead battery. An unopened bottle of Vanilla Orange Orbitz. Matt chuckled at the find, looking at the murky drink with its dulled orange flavor balls still suspended within it two decades later. He’d saved the drink believing the bottle would be valuable like a Beanie Baby; a quick eBay search showed him otherwise. Matt set all the items aside for an Instagram pic once he was done—#90svibes.

He looked at the state of his youthful items, at one time so loved, and now reeking of desertion. Rooting around the box again, Matt stopped when his finger caught a jagged edge. Whipping his hand out, he cursed loudly, bringing the injured digit to his lips, unaware the tiniest droplet of blood splashed onto the carpet. He pulled the finger away and found a thin cut from which a minuscule drop of blood tried to push its way out. Frustrated by the stinging pain, Matt tilted the box down, ready to unleash a brutal retaliation on the culprit until he found the white VHS case.

It was called a clamshell, a large white case mainly used at the time for Disney movies. The corner broke off at the right angle to create a refined, sharp edge. Shoved in the box vertically, he removed the clamshell and found Sleeping Beauty. The pain in his finger ceased as if a switch flipped. His mind, a constant blizzard of to-do lists, worries, and regrets, quieted down. Delicately, he turned the case around in his hand, thinking on how he had not held the cassette in nearly twenty-plus years. Before the day he set the movie down—never to pick the thing up again—it was one of his younger self’s most prized possessions.

Sliding his excited hands across the front cover, he flipped the case around, scanning the words written on the back. The vacuum-formed plastic and cardboard creaked when he handled it. Long before romantic comedies and hour-long medical dramas ruled Matt’s viewing hours, his go-to was always Sleeping Beauty. From the night his father brought the movie home, Matt claimed the film as his favorite. He reminisced how after their dinner, they’d settled in and watched the movie. And from the moment Matt’s deep brown eyes greedily took in the image of the gold bejeweled book opening to start the story, he’d been hooked.

Tumbling the clamshell around in his hands, he marveled at how much smaller the case appeared now he was older; in kid-sized hands the box appeared gigantic. The case’s spine squeaked when Matt popped the clamshell open to see the black video cassette snuggled comfortably in the plastic housing. The film was rewound, which didn’t surprise him as he’d had a rewinder, a machine whose sole purpose was to speedily rewind tapes. Closing the clamshell, he ran his fingers over the vintage cover art, which changed four times over since then, but he’d always been fond of the original.

Disregarded in a box for years, Matt knew the case was nothing more than a cold, inanimate thing—and yet the clamshell radiated warmth through his hands. A warmth which crept through him. During every mild cold, heavy flu, and one horrible bout of chicken pox in ‘89—in which the movie ran a record eleven times in a row—Sleeping Beauty never let him down. Even as Matt grew older, as his tastes evolved, the film remained steadfastly his favorite.

He didn’t want to put the case down, wishing to keep the clamshell close to him like a security blanket. Only when the itchy spot on his head once again clamored for his attention did he set the movie on the couch’s armrest. The itch burned hot for a moment and faded rapidly; he assumed a bug had bitten him but didn’t pay attention to anything other than the flutter of excitement within him. An idea sprung up. Perhaps he would get to watch the movie. Before getting too excited, he slammed the brakes on that line of thinking. Not even his amped-up entertainment center at the house had a VCR anymore.

Reluctantly, he returned his attention to the box, but with one hand firmly secured around Beauty. Inside, he found a couple more movies: the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, two of the X-Men cartoon series tapes which came with his personal pan meal at Pizza Hut, and a blank VHS tape with no label. His fingers worked like miners desperate to get a hold of a diamond as they dug through more packing paper until stopped by a large solid object. Matt felt a plastic casing, and a tinge of excitement rose. Pulling the item out of the box, he found his initial assumptions correct—a VCR. Matt let out an excited gasp when the a/v cables were connected and dangling from the back.

Figuring, like the Radio Jams cassettes, he’d been robbed of revisiting a joyous moment from his youth, he paused the cheering section in his head. Lately, the world shit on him at an unprecedented rate and showed no sign of easing up. He forced himself to assume the VCR wouldn’t work but found himself corrected once again when everything tumbled into place. Despite the television being a recent model, the necessary ports to connect were there, and within a minute, Matt stared at a familiar blue input screen, smiling as if it were an old friend he’d not seen in years, which in many ways was accurate. The blue screen meant nothing to anyone who’s existed solely within the digital and streaming era, but for those with a little vintage to their souls, the blue screen meant something fun was about to start.

Matt hesitantly proceeded; always a chance the machine would eat the tape within its innards before the movie could even begin. Or the video could be old and worn and snap. VHS was a great, albeit flawed, technology. The squeak of the clamshell opening gave him another rush of warm feeling, genuine excitement for the first time in weeks. The fact the film would be in full-frame and lack the clear quality of Blu-ray didn’t persuade him to stop either. Beauty was responsible for making some of his loneliest, saddest days feel brighter throughout most of his young adult life. Matt believed the movie could lift him up again now as it did then. Removing the cassette, he paused, thinking of how much had changed since the last time he’d held the tape. How life moved as fast as a bullet train, and yet he hadn’t honestly noticed until he’d been kicked off.

Saying a silent prayer to the Tech Gods, Matt pushed the tape gently into the VCR. The plastic tape’s noise sliding past the machine’s front flap, the video being loaded as the whirring heads spun to life, were sounds not heard in years. Their noisy vibrations hit Matt’s ears and reverberated through his whole body like a bouquet of tiny orgasms. The blue screen switched to black as the word ‘Play’ flashed in the upper corner before a red-colored FBI warning popped up within the TV’s center. Tiny light distortions appeared, and after a moment, he recalled the tracking often needed adjusting. They were cleared up by the time the opening credits started.

When the Tchaikovsky overture began, Matt’s body relaxed, overcome with a full-bodied tingle as jovial waves crashed upon him. The endless back-and-forth in his mind, the cacophony of bullshit his brain insisted he think about, simmered down as he bounded into the kitchen with a couple half-hearted pirouettes. He laughed out loud at how uncoordinated his limbs were. Swooping his hands through the air, they danced along to the score. He grabbed a bottle of vodka from the freezer. His socks allowed for easy spins on the kitchen’s scuffed-up linoleum, so he spun. Plucking a glass from out of the sink, he kicked out his left leg in another faux ballet move, as he poured the vodka until the glass overflowed.

Not caring about the spill, he playfully attempted a few more sloppy moves before parking himself on the couch. The golden bejeweled book, which he credited for making his young queer self even gayer than God initially intended, opened to begin the story. Matt kicked the now empty box off the coffee table as he threw his feet up. Taking a sip, he swished the vodka around, relishing the icy-cold burn before swallowing. Though the drink hadn’t been real, the phantom Surge lingered in his mouth.

Matt didn’t take long to settle in, and after a few sips, he became lost within the film’s exquisite imagery. His favorite moments weren’t until further in when Aurora appeared, and while he had affection for all the princesses, Aurora was the one who’d won his heart. At his parent’s house, a photo album sat on a shelf gathering dust, containing nothing but pictures of Matt, from age seven to well into adulthood, posing with Aurora at Disney World.

He envied her. Aurora had the sweetest deal of all the princesses: life in a pretty cottage in a beautiful forest with three fun aunts, animal friends, got to nap through all the drama, and woke up to snag the man of her dreams. Clark had been Matt’s ‘Prince Phillip.’ And on cue, the momentarily eclipsed sadness returned. He found this time the thoughts were curiously swished away by an unseen hand, as if whipped up to say ‘shoo, not while Sleeping Beauty is playing.’ And the idea ready to strike him next—that there were no princes left out there for him—also vanished. The powers of Sleeping Beauty were working to make Matt feel better, as the film proved to do throughout his whole life.

As Maleficent made her dramatic entrance, Matt was bummed the scope of the evil fairy’s fierceness wouldn’t be fully acknowledged in the chopped-up, pan-and-scan format, which forced her widescreen glory into a horridly confined square. The film’s colors were muted and dull, the details in the background unclear, as was the villainess’s face. A pristine Blu-ray copy sat on a shelf at the house, part of the collection he hadn’t bothered to sort through. Before the thought could drag him into melancholy, the unseen hand rushed in again, clearing the negative thoughts away and ushering in one from the past.

There were rare moments in childhood when all the elements conspired to create a memory magical enough to withstand time. For Matt, the moment fell on the night of their inaugural viewing of Sleeping Beauty. His parents, still young, were cuddled up on the couch behind him while he sat on the floor in front of the TV. One of his butter-covered hands shoved in his favorite blue bowl, digging out the M&M’s mixed into his mom’s fresh-popped popcorn, his other around a cup of Kool-Aid fruit punch as he smiled wide-eyed at the screen, and they all enjoyed the movie. A genuine, loving family moment, the kind advertisers so often tried to replicate.

A shot of the castle, and the pool of warm nostalgia he’d begun wading in turned cold. Aurora’s castle held the honor of being the centerpiece of Disneyland in California, and three years into their relationship, he and Clark flew out there for a mini vacation. After an epic, picture-perfect day, they stopped in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and Clark dropped to one knee and proposed.

Matt felt himself about to lose his thinly achieved mental peace. No part of his life remained unspoiled by that callous sonofabitch. There would be no escape from—his thought vanished midsentence. Taking another sip, he found what met his lips and washed over his tongue was not vodka. A saccharine shock of fruit-punch-flavored Kool-Aid flooded his mouth. Surprised, he swallowed and found the taste identical to how he recalled the drink as a child, not how the drink tasted now since ingredients and recipes changed. Confused, Matt looked down at his hand to make sure he still held his vodka, except the glass was no longer there—instead, a plastic cup. A remarkably familiar white tumbler covered in cartoon figures who were being worn off from repeated washings.

Confused, he glanced up at the movie, and his attention was snatched away from the cup and mysterious drink. For over twenty minutes, the film resided in a dull, low-res prison which betrayed its true beauty. As the woodcutter’s cottage appeared, Matt’s eyes were saturated by vibrant and stunning colors emanating from the screen. The picture was crystal clear, as if the animated cels were freshly painted and barely dried for his viewing. Every detail, down to the various hues used within the background, was clearly distinguishable.

Closing his eyes, Matt pinched the bridge of his nose, questioning how much he’d already drunk that day when the sound of popcorn popping forced his eyes open. He turned his head, expecting to see his apartment’s tiny, outdated kitchen. The kitchen was gone. Matt floated in disbelief, knowing full well he sat inside his shitty apartment. Yet there in front of him was the brown swinging saloon door which led to the kitchen of his childhood home. The image of the door appeared from the exact angle he remembered seeing it most vividly, his spot on the floor in front of the TV.

Matt found himself oddly unmotivated to delve into why he saw the kitchen from his youth or why Kool-Aid and not vodka filled his glass. A rising feeling of contentment blotted out his curiosity despite its best efforts. Whatever magical thing resided within the saloon door and hid in his drink conspired to calm him from the inside out, ushering in comfort unlike any he’d felt in years. The muscles from his feet to his head were relaxing; the tension burrowed deep within them was being escorted out by a cresting wave of comfort.

Upon hearing the opening musical cue, his eyes darted to the screen, not wanting to miss a second. “Once Upon a Dream” started as Aurora took a stroll with her animal friends, singing about a love she’d only dreamed of. The part Matt adored most: the beautifully drawn forest with its tiered terrains and tall, box-shaped trees. To him, the art depicted heavenly perfection. A forest that with every viewing he wished he could step into and spend the rest of his life within. Questions were rattling around his mind, a slew of them in fact, but their volume had been turned down and drowned out by the movie’s audio, which grew louder.

Matt’s focus remained on the film, while the stress was redirected away from him. With eyes intently focused, his right hand shifted from its resting place in his lap to his side, where he expected to feel the cheap microplush of the couch, only to find carpeting. He undertook a mammoth effort to pry his attention away from the lovers dancing and singing for two seconds to glance down and see he no longer sat on the couch. Matt found himself cross-legged on the floor in a sea of wall-to-wall brown shag carpeting. The white tumbler still in his hand. The aroma of fresh buttery popcorn crept into his nose as the salon door swung on its hinge as if someone stepped out, and the simple action of the door swinging released another wave of calm throughout him.

For a moment, watching Phillip on screen reminded him of Clark, and as rapidly as the intrusive thought wiggled in and tried to destroy his calm, it vanished. Matt brought the cup to his lips, not noticing the blue cuff of his Masters of the Universe pajamas around his tiny wrist. Or the TV, which no longer hung on the wall with cords hideously left dangling under it, but sat on the floor. Not the sleek flatscreen, but a wooden floor console housed within a thick brown cabinet with three ornamental knobs along the bottom. As a child, he often pulled on the knobs, pissed they wouldn’t open to reveal the secrets he believed they held.

His eyes, wide as he enjoyed the colors radiating from the red coat and Beauty’s hair, drifted past the screen for the briefest glance at the wall behind the television. The dim white paint melted away in patches, replaced by cheap wood paneling as the apartment’s wall faded from view and the one from his youth emerged in its place. He still didn’t register anything as odd when he reached next to him without looking and dove his hand into a familiar blue plastic bowl. Filling his small hand with buttery popcorn, Matt tossed the kernels into his mouth and welcomed the slightly warmed chocolate candies mixed within them. A combo of flavors which had not danced on his tongue in a long while.

Matt couldn’t break the trance to turn behind him and see the yellow, flower-patterned couch with wooden armrests on which a young version of his parents sat. But he felt them there as he had that night, sensing their loving eyes watching him wipe his buttery digits along the front of his pajamas as fairies fought over colors. Trying only once more to look around, to take in all 360 degrees of his childhood living room, which brought him an avalanche of happiness by sitting in again. A gentle pull on his chin redirected his focus toward the screen if he tried to stray too far from the picture. If Matt turned around, he would have seen no old couch, no wood paneling, and no loving parents. Only himself sitting in the solitary loneliness of the apartment—and the entity which floated above his head most of the afternoon.

Matt settled in. No longer pressed to turn around or take in every detail of the living room, he let comfort wrap around him as snugly as a thick, weighted blanket. Onscreen, the kingdom celebrated their princess’s return, and Matt no longer felt his age-related aches and pain hounding his body. The traffic jam of thoughts smoothed out until the highways in his brain were empty. With no more worries consuming him, Matt released the last of his mental restraints and submerged fully into the sensory overload the childhood memory set off within him.

There were innocuous moments in life—which could not be replicated or ritualized—where cosmic elements entwined so flawlessly, becoming so incredibly potent, they could be felt in the beyond. Matt inadvertently found himself in one of those moments when his depression, acting as a cauldron, mixed his anxiety, anger, and the deep, aching sorrow which clenched a hold on his soul. A powerful blend, which created a beacon to those residing in the darker realms. The ones who remained eternally hungry.

The unnamed thing waited on the outskirts of reality like an insect buzzing around a porchlight. It was not alone—they never were. A box of cassette tapes provided a spark of nostalgia, and the entity proved itself strong enough to squeeze through the tiniest of fissures and into the apartment on the fifth floor of Palm Meadows.

Floating in the air above Matt’s head, the entity, not much more than a murky, greenish-brown blob of pulsating membranes, shuddered as it forced itself back to full size. Under the umbrella-shaped dome, the creature’s body stretched only a mere four feet long, tiny compared to the others who’d been waiting. But with each pulse of its body, a collection of two-inch-wide tentacles developed. At first, hundreds pushed their way out of the muscular edge along the underside of the dome, stretching down ten, twelve feet until, like the strands of a beaded curtain, they filled the living room. At the top of the crown, a leathery tether protruded forward. Affixed to the end, a bony, two-inch-long, corkscrew-shaped fang—a lure, which dangled over the center of Matt’s head.

The creature exerted enough energy to dive to the floor once before propelling itself in a slow spiraling ascent around Matt, who remained oblivious to the horror encircling him as he dug through the boxes. The entity’s growing numbers of tentacles grazed across Matt’s skin, becoming excited, until the creature returned to the ceiling and remained lethargic, waiting for the perfect timing.

The hideous thing did not perk up again until the discovery of the controller. As Matt flipped the device around and started recalling the memories attached, the tether drew taut. The bony fang shot down, inserting itself into the center of Matt’s head. He felt nothing except the itch around where the fang broke his skin. From the fang’s hollow tip, minuscule spines were pumped out. They inched forward like determined ants through the thick grey matter.

Nostalgia proved to be a powerful vibration, one strong enough to pull a ravenous creature into our world. And when those spines reached into the deep lobes of Matt’s brain, their sharp ends tapped into the inner workings even we do not fully comprehend. His nostalgic memories became weaponized: Matt tasted Surge in his mouth. Heard the video game’s soundtrack in his ears. Felt the sticky heat of a Floridian summer on his skin. But the garage memory had too many distractors which succeeded in ruining the illusion. The creature remained attached, but floated motionless above him.

When Matt discovered the clamshell, the creature sensed his brain activity light up. Childhood memories were the best source of untainted comfort. A comfort—when accepted fully—would seduce Matt enough to keep him docile. The spines were anxious to press down but remained still, awaiting the command, knowing a filling meal took prep and patience.

A struggle played out, for the unnamed thing expected Matt to succumb easily, as most people did. But his stubborn mind kept pushing away happiness and comfort, unwilling to accept them, seemingly preferring to stay miserable. The creature countered every attempt to break the seduction, ushering away any intruding thoughts as they arose. It dove deeper into Matt’s memory of the inaugural viewing, capturing the finite details needed to orchestrate the vividly realistic hallucination as if it were a conductor. This memory would be deep enough to remain uninterrupted.

He accepted the drink on his tongue and the olfactory triggers the creature threw at him. When Matt reached into a bowl that wasn’t there, to snack on popcorn which did not exist, the entity believed Matt was in deep enough. The patient creature held off for one more beat, needing to be sure Matt fully accepted the seduction. If not, what occurred next would become far messier, and expend more energy, than the creature cared for.

The kingdom onscreen fell under the same sleeping spell as their princess, and Matt’s eyes were glued to the scene unfolding. Around him, and now in the hundreds of thousands, the tentacles stiffened up and readied themselves. When the signal came, the arched tentacles snapped forward, enveloping his body. Matt felt only the amped sensations housed within his memory and not the tiny, circular mouths clamping down onto every square inch of his body.

No matter how remote or small an area, a hungry mouth sought a space out and affixed itself. In unison, the ravenous mouths began their race to burrow through Matt, for within each slime-covered tentacles’ mouth were dozens of razor-sharp teeth spinning like circular saws. And in their center, a boney hollow tongue, liquefying the viscera being viciously torn from Matt’s body and sucking it up. They tore through his clothes, skin, muscles, and bone, and all while he remained entranced. Not a drop of blood or a single, stray piece of flesh escaped their hungry mouths. As they chewed through him, the tender organs went to the lucky few who got through the body cavity first.

Matt believed he reached for popcorn, scooping up a few kernels and a couple pieces of chocolate. The taste filled his mouth as he licked the buttery stickiness off fingers which were no longer there. They’d been feasted on minutes before. The mouths continued their path through his palms, working their way up to his arms. He smiled as Phillip fought the dragon—but there were no longer any lips. He ate popcorn while the tentacles ripped apart his tongue, dissolved his teeth, and chewed through his lower jaw until nearly a third of Matt’s face had been masticated by the time the dragon fell to its death.

If the creature were some natural thing, we would gaze upon its dietary habits in awe, marveling how speedily and efficiently this demonic jellyfish devoured its prey. But this was not nature; this foul monstrosity and the revolting display of the entity eating could only be met with abject horror: the figure of a man buried within a sea of tentacles and who’d already been devoured from the waist down.

The reunited couple danced around the grand ballroom as the film’s happy ending unfolded on screen. Matt loved Aurora’s dress switching colors from pink to blue as she danced. The overwhelmingly happy ending with its swelling, joyful score and the magical color-swapping dress captivated him more than any other part of the film as a child, and remained so upon every subsequent viewing. Except Matt no longer viewed the movie through his actual eyes. A swish of her gown and the dress became blue as the tentacles ravaged his chest. The dress turned pink, and six of the mouths wrapped around and finished off the toughest muscle, Matt’s heart. Another spin and the dress turned blue, and the last remnants of his skull were cleared away, leaving only his brain.

The brain was always dessert. But first, as if to admire the mysterious tangle of nerves and electrons which animated human bodies, the creature allowed the brain a moment to simply be. Letting the three-pound organ, still tethered by the fang, float in the air within a sea of circling tentacles, devoid of its body—but still operating. The moment was ever so brief before the mouths descended upon the brain with renewed vigor.

The bejeweled book closed on the screen, ending the story. As the film stopped, the VCR activated the auto-rewind, sending the heads spinning wildly. The video tape’s rewinding filled the empty, silent apartment on the fifth floor of Palm Meadows. Matt was gone. Not one piece of his physical body remained. Not a drop of blood left behind, except for the one which escaped his finger earlier. The unnamed thing slithered out of the world through the fissure it’d entered and retreated to the darkest corners of its realm, digesting a filling meal while already seeking the next.

Eric David Roman spent twenty years wandering the wrong paths; he tends to get lost a lot. Working the wrong jobs (hey, I did things for the money...and the shame) and avoiding his true passion, writing. After finally escaping retail management hell, he focused on his mental health and his writing (well...I do as much as my gAyDD allows). He is the author of the outrageous novella Despicable People and the queer-horror slasher Long Night at Lake Never. Eric remains forever socially distant in Northern Virginia where he lives, loves, and writes. He's a cat dad (but I'm not like a regular cat dad, I'm a cool cat dad) and loves all things horror, camp, and queer.


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