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can i offer you a nice egg in this trying time

Matt tells the waiter he’ll have his eggs over easy. They come back scrambled, a neat glistening pile framed by perfect triangles of toast, a lacy froth of hashbrowns lurking across the plate.

He doesn’t notice he’s chosen to move until he’s already halfway to the kitchen, adrenaline flooding his body. It feels good, electric, the old berserker rage no longer a long-lost daydream—the same rage that once let him defend Hirekkyo and the Sphinx who ruled it.

Gary charges out of the kitchen to meet him, doors swinging in his wake, arms outstretched as if to embrace Matt. Last week’s black eye still decorates his face. He goes for the grapple and they go down rolling towards an empty four-top, both men trying to obtain sufficient leverage for a punch. Once Matt realizes he can’t land a solid hit with his fists he snaps his face forward for a headbutt, catching Gary in the chin. Their bodies know each other like their own reflections, two students of the same teacher. The clack of Gary’s teeth meeting echoes in Matt’s ears, even though he still dimly registers the sounds of “Toxic” blaring on the Waffle House sound system.

Matt tries to draw his legs up to lever Gary off him, but a knee to the lower intestine distracts him. Somewhere in the fugue of battle he recognizes wetness on his face: blood, sweat, tears, spit? Whose? Gary rolls them under a table, and in the sudden darkness Matt is pinned.

And then hands are hauling Gary back. Matt lunges upward and brains himself on the underside of the table.

Before the starbursts have cleared someone seizes him by the ankles and drags him into the horrible fluorescent light. All his senses are in overdrive: the whiff of sweat and kitchen grease, the pulse of the lights, the taste of blood in his mouth—he hadn’t even noticed he’d bitten his lip—makes him queasy. He hasn’t been hit this hard since a time and place he wishes he didn’t remember.

The night watchman gazes down at him with unvarnished pity. “Man, you have got to cut this shit out. I haven’t called the cops on you yet because Gary here asked me not to, but you keep this shit up and I’m gonna have to do something about it, get me?”

He forces Matt into a chair like an errant child, which, fair enough. “What is your beef, champ? And why haven’t we just fucking banned you already?”

Gary groans, clutching a lumpy dish towel full of ice to his jaw. “I told you, Marco, it’s fine. He’s just going through it. We’re friends from school.”

“Oh, is that all?” Matt snarls.

“Ex-boyfriend?” a waitress asks Gary.

“Not my type.”

They laugh, and Matt wishes he’d hit his head a little harder so that he wouldn’t have to hear it. He closes his eyes, still leaking tears. Fuck Gary for having anything to laugh about.

Marco grabs Matt’s hand to unlock the smartphone he’d dropped. “What’s your girlfriend’s name? I’ll call her to come get you.”

“No,” Matt yelps. “No, fuck, don’t. I—I’ve got Lyft on there. I’ll take a Lyft.”

Matt’s tears give way to convulsive, wretched sobs as he limps to the parking lot. He has given up on using his words. He used his words the last three times this happened: moaned, “Immuteios, Immuteios, say you remember, say it was real” as Gary put him into a headlock on the thin, stained carpet.

Using his words hadn’t gotten him anywhere. It isn’t even about the goddamn eggs. He regresses whenever he sees Gary, shrinks into a sweaty-palmed teenager in baggy hand-me-downs staring into and through the old apple tree in the park as if it would open again.

And he keeps seeking him out anyway because—man, fuck Gary. Fuck Gary and his shiny new sneakers and his perfect hair.

Fuck Gary, smiling like he owns the world while he dishes out the wrong eggs for shits and giggles.

He doesn’t pass out in the Lyft, but it’s a close thing. Matt watches the sleeping commuter town blur past the window as the heaviness of faraway settles into the tired lines of his face and wishes he could blow it all up, set it on fire, kick it far away from himself. Fuck this whole world for daring to exist. Fuck this whole world for not being Hirekkyo.

Morning finds him spangled with misery, suffering under what feels like the invention of hangovers. Unfair: he wasn’t even drunk last night. But consecutive hits to the gut (fuck you, Gary) can wreak just as much havoc as tequila. Before he hauls himself upright, he wonders if maybe a kidney hasn’t ruptured in there. He’d be okay with that outcome, but since he didn’t bleed out in the night, it seems unlikely.

Alice, love of his life, a goddamn saint, has coffee and potatoes hot and waiting when Matt staggers into the kitchen. She frowns at the dried blood on his face, or maybe at all of him. It’s hard to be sure.

Flushed with embarrassment, he scrubs at the scabbing crust on his swollen lip. “I’ll, uh, wash the sheets before I leave today,” he says.

“That’s not the problem,” she says, gesturing for him to sit down. Matt throws a hearty squirt of ketchup on his home fries and digs in. He gets three bites down before he realizes that Alice is still standing at the counter.

“You have to tell me why you’re doing this shit,” she says.

He keeps chewing.

“Tell me,” Alice says.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

She looms over him, merciless as a drill sergeant. “If you don’t tell me what he is to you,” she warns, “I will keep asking until you break.”

Matt thinks that he is already broken, that nothing she does can grind the shards any smaller. He turns his mind away from that as if he’d touched a hot stove.

“Ex-boyfriend,” she guesses. “Stole a Tonka truck from you in kindergarten. High school rival?”

Fight, flight, freeze, fawn—he always picks freeze with Alice, cowed by her righteousness even as he shelters under it. She’s had four years to learn that and she pounces.

“I knew it! Was it some kind of sports thing? Did he beat you at water polo? God, I don’t even really know what men hate each other about.”

He hates himself for giving away that much. He should’ve moved after he graduated. How did he ever think this county was small enough for him to forget?

But he would never have moved. He’d have had to leave the apple tree.

“Allie,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. It—it won’t happen again. I love you, and you’re the best thing in this world that could ever happen to me, and I’m sorry I disappointed you.” Two lies, three truths. The truth tally is still up, and that’s what counts, right?

“Matt, listen to me. I am not willing to be in a relationship with someone who gets into fistfights, plural, with the cook at Waffle House and refuses to explain himself. You can keep holding whatever stupid secret grudge you’ve got against him until the heat death of the universe if you just stop picking fights with him. But you can’t expect me to let you come home and smear blood all over my Boll & Branch pillowcases and never tell me why.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Matt mumbles, fully fucking aware that this is, like, one hundo percent the worst thing he can say. It’s unfortunate that it’s also true.

Man, fuck Gary. Fuck that guy for being the only person who gets it.

“Okay.” Alice’s voice is tighter than he’s ever heard it; she twangs like a bowstring. “You either want to keep your weird rage-y secret, or you want me, and I guess I know which.”

She is so firm, so strong, and Matt wonders if the only reason she’s got it together is because she hasn’t been tested. Alice has no specter of old hurts smiling serenely and sending out the wrong plate of eggs. Alice has no well of pain to send her flying over a table at some ex-friend she hasn’t seen in a decade.

Ex-classmate. Ex-acquaintance. They were never friends, were they? A friend wouldn’t have left Matt alone all those years ago. But Gary hadn’t even recognized him that first night. Matt had ordered his eggs poached, gotten them scrambled, looked for the waitress—and seen her laughing with Gary as he plated sirloin and eggs with the kind of grace that belonged in a much more expensive restaurant. Just a mistake, but one that had sent Matt sprinting with raised fists.

The second time, and the third, and the fourth—Gary had recognized him then. He’d pulled this shit on purpose. And Matt should have backed down, should have gone to any of a dozen other restaurants where no one was deliberately sending out the wrong order. Where Alice is wrong is thinking that he could.

“Matt, you are a person who seeks someone out, deliberately and repeatedly, to hurt them for mystery reasons! Do you know how scary that is? Do you understand that I can’t trust you not to point that anger at me? All the thousands of times I’ve seen you be normal and peaceful can’t outweigh that. I’m not going to hang around hoping you get your shit under control.”

Matt picks at his chapped lips until they split. He bites his nails to the quick and then some. When he was a kid he’d worry at loose teeth with his tongue until he could push them out, the only reward for his trouble a mouthful of blood. Matt doesn’t know how to stop hurting himself. Where do you even begin a task like that? How do you unlearn that habit?

She is shaking, or he is, or they both are. Matt isn’t sure. He only knows that she’s quivering in front of his tired eyes, that the leg of the table is rattling faintly.

“I already talked to my dad before you got up. He’s bringing his truck over this afternoon to get my stuff,” Alice says, resigned. “If you could be elsewhere I’d…appreciate it.”

Matt racks his brains for anything he can say to halt her. His eyes dart around the apartment, scanning four years of shared history: the couch they went halfsies on, the scarf he knitted for her last birthday, the Lothlórien travel poster Alice picked out on a drunk Etsy spree.

“We made a whole gallon of tomato sauce last weekend. I can’t…I can’t eat it all alone.”

When he looks at Alice again there is a tired pity in her eyes. She’s gazing at him the way the night watchman at the Waffle House did, as if he is a sad stranger she can’t help.

“Are you aware of your total inability to get to the point, or have you genuinely never noticed how you dodge everything that matters?” Alice says. “To hell with the pasta sauce. You should have led with I love you, maybe.”

“I do love you—”

“But not enough to change.”

He could go anywhere. He could go to his study carrel on campus and sit with the other PhD candidates, pretending that his palms don’t sweat every time he thinks about the forty thousand dollars in student loans he’s taken out so far. He could go to the library, to Taco Bell. He could even go to the goddamn Waffle House.

But he goes to the apple tree. It’s far back enough in the park that it can’t be seen from the road. Its leaves are yellowed with the autumn, and small, hard fruits stud the ground around it. He feels for the door for the thousandth time, and when he still can’t find it, he tears at the bark until his short fingernails are broken and bleeding, and he collapses heartbroken against the roots. The parents shepherding rambunctious toddlers and the dogs leading their humans give him a wide berth.

Matt closes his eyes and prays for oblivion. He doesn’t care why he was born into this world, why he only got the briefest hit of a better one, why fate decided to destroy him specifically out of all the scrawny teenagers it could have picked. He just wants it all to go away.

“Dude,” a voice above him says.

He ignores it.

Bro,” Gary says, more insistently.

“I’m not your bro, pal,” Matt mutters halfheartedly.

“Do you still want me to call you Gratiteios, then? Fine, Gratiteios. One knight of Hirekkyo to another…you let it go or it kills you.”

Matt can’t open his eyes. His head is full of Gary’s grin the day they knelt before the Holy Sphinx, and their mingled laughter under an unfamiliar sky. They’d never paid much attention to each other in school, but inside the apple tree, living three years in a summer afternoon and recognizing only each other, it hadn’t mattered.

It should have changed something, afterwards. There should have been knowing grins, rueful glances, shared secret contempt for how little pre-calc mattered after they’d watched the sorcerer rain fire down the mountainside.

But nothing changed. Gary made valedictorian and stared through Matt every time their paths crossed. Matt quit water polo to hide away reading every pulpy fantasy the library would lend out, desperate to find something familiar.

“I only ever wanted you to admit it was real,” Matt says at last. “You always…always fucking walked around like none of it ever happened.”

“Like it never—”

Thinking he’s finally provoked Gary into throwing the first punch, Matt forces his eyes open. Gary drops onto his heels, putting them on eye level, but no violence is forthcoming: only a soft and terrible gaze. A bloom of purple along his jaw shows where Matt touched him last night.

“You know why I dropped out of college?” Gary demands. “I tried to kill myself. Right here, right where you’re fucking sitting, because I couldn’t get back inside this stupid tree and if I couldn’t live in Hirekkyo I didn’t want to live anywhere. I woke up that night in the hospital because some lady walking her dog found me. They had to pump my stomach. Kept me on hold for two days.”

“But you got better?” Matt says dully. He hasn’t gotten better. He’s not sure there is a better, for him. There might have been if he’d controlled himself, if he’d stopped chasing after Gary and just focused on holding together the normal life he’d been building with Alice, but that version of “better” is out of reach now, and it’s his own fault.

“Yeah. Stopped trying to distract myself by doing everything my parents wanted, stopped pushing myself so fucking hard for nothing, started figuring out what making life worthwhile looked like for me. Learned to cook. Started meditating. Got a job that fit my sleep schedule. Took judo at the Y. I teach the kids’ classes on my days off work.”

“Must be nice.”

Gary lets that one hang until Matt can feel what an asshole he’s being. It’s a heaviness in his stomach, like chalupas when it’s not cheat day.

“How’d you know I was here?” Matt finally asks.

“Your…friend called the restaurant, and they called me,” Gary says, confirming his suspicions. “And I figured, where the fuck else were you gonna go.” He pauses, and then: “Nice gal. Reminds me of the Commander, doesn’t she.”

The words land harder than a punch ever could. Matt flinches, remembering the woman who’d made up for his real mother’s distraction and distance with her careful tutelage. The Sphinx had named them to their posts, but it was the Commander who had made them mageknights.

“Do you remember what she told us about the apples?” Gary plucks one from the ground and shines it up on the leg of his Dockers.

“That’s rhetorical, right? You can’t seriously think I’d forget.”

“Of course it’s rhetorical, dickweed.” And Gary slices the little fruit in half with his pocketknife. Matt wonders if he’d had the knife on him before—and why he’d never pulled it in self-defense.

“‘The star in every apple is the soul of a hero long gone,’” Gary recites, and in that moment his face is almost beatific. “‘With every bite you add their strength to yours. Someday you will be strong enough to withstand everything your heart does to you.’”

The tears are hot on his face but Matt can’t find it in himself to be ashamed for crying. He’s too busy feeling ashamed of everything else about himself. He takes the fruit Gary holds out to him. The star of seeds is intact and perfect. The burst of acid shoots through him like cold sunrise.

“So eat more apples,” Gary says, “and less two A.M. eggs, and be less of an asshole.”

“I’m an asshole? You kept fucking with my food!”

“First time was an honest mistake.” Gary crunches at his half of the apple, looking chagrined.

“Yeah, and after that?”

“You were mad. You needed a place to put it.” Gary stands up, wiping his sticky hands on the hem of his shirt. “And you couldn’t put it in Hirekkyo anymore.”

“So what, it was your idea of therapy or something?”

“Call it an object lesson in not getting what you want out of life.”

And Matt knows it is so much more mercy than he has ever deserved. Every egg he ever eats will turn to dust in his mouth, compared to the memory of this strange grace. Gary turns to leave him.

“Hey!” Matt blurts. “Can I buy you a beer sometime? Call it an apology for the black eye. And the jaw. And, uh, whatever else I did to you.”

“Nah.” Gary doesn’t even look back at him. “Not healthy for either of us to keep rehashing this shit. But if you order ‘em over easy next time I’ll cook ‘em that way.”

 

(Editors’ Note: Iori Kusano is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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Iori Kusano

Iori Kusano is a queer Asian American writer, competitive Yu-Gi-Oh! duelist, and Extremely Ordinary Office Gremlin living in Tokyo. They are a graduate of Clarion West 2017 and their fiction has previously appeared in Apex Magazine and Baffling Magazine. Their debut novella, Hybrid Heart, is forthcoming from Neon Hemlock Press in 2023. Find them on Twitter @IoriKusano and Instagram as iori_stagram, or at kusanoiori.com.

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