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Chapter 1

Thirty miles an hour down the Jones Falls Expressway had never felt so amazing. Janzen raced southbound into the city faster than anyone, and with each increasing number on his speedometer, he reached something closer to freedom. Big metal bodies around him flashed by in blurs. The surrounding rush hour traffic pushed foot-by-foot into Baltimore with thrusts of red-lit propulsion. With his chest nearly parallel to the road, the only resistance he faced came from a late summer breeze off the Chesapeake, and he squeezed in his elbows and dropped low on his bars to combat such a force.


The issue – one of the many, really – was that Janzen’s disposition simply didn’t allow him the benefit of a vehicle. For someone deemed directionless for much of his life, to be labored with the necessity of direction often left a driver like him, well, enraged. Ever seen a wolverine caught by the leg? Now light it on fire.


Even the air conditioning during Decembers did little to temper his encased spirit. How many others out there were like him? Flying in between and around the cars, he recalled his days in the driver’s seat. He was curious who else had contested the amount of pressure it took to dislocate a steering wheel from its column. Were there those who sat at red lights counting the number of dents in the roof’s sheet metal? Why was it that one of the four humors stained so much? For him, these weren’t just ruminations but were the results of his confinement.


It was too much. During particularly onerous bouts of traffic, he had always unconsciously fingered the Darwin’s point of his ear, possibly triggering the rage he had inherited from ancient descendants. Maybe the roots of his family tree crossed paths with a young Phaethon, who dared drive his father’s chariot. Janzen had driven his father’s Subaru. Both vehicles ended up in flames, the Subaru from an abused catalytic converter. The car tested Janzen. It was an oven; so instead, he rode a bicycle. And this evening, he rode it right onto the expressway.


The only recognizable indicator of the job he had left twenty minutes earlier was the frayed necktie knotted tightly around his forehead, a pale blue number that whipped violently behind him, flagellating his back with the dips and turns of his head. His buttoned-down shirt and scuffed loafers had been placed one on top of the other in the lost and found box behind the unmanned security desk of his now former employer, Tappert Publishing. The corduroy pants he wore to work were cut at mid-thigh, and he was shirtless despite the likely road rash.

He had given his two weeks notice a month earlier, so this final day was filled with the requisite hugs and handshakes from a few well-wishers wishing they remembered his name. “It’s Janzen,” he told one of the higher-ups, “one of your content editors, but it’s on to the greener.”


“Freelance, right?”


“We all are, sir.”


“Excellent. Well, good luck, son,” said the suit, extending his soft palm.


Janzen had bypassed the polite farewell and went in for a full-on hug. Thanks to years spent in the wrestling room, he was well versed in the Greco-Roman pummel, and after a few precise movements, he managed to secure a firm double underhook. He laced his arms under the armpits and around the man’s tensed upper back and rested one temple softly on a taut shoulder. A flexed gluteus staunchly drove Janzen’s hips towards the opposing pleats. Of course, had this been a huggable situation between two men, a more acceptable embrace called for the standard one-arm-over, one-arm-under technique, but impending death sure had a way of shaking things up.


But fear not. Janzen harbored no death wish during his final ride from work. In fact, his plan was to take his usual route back home, zigzagging his way through county suburbs until he hit the city. The highway’s entrance, unfortunately, proved too tempting. It swallowed him right up until he was bombing his way down the ramp and into the evening slog of traffic. He wanted that stretch of roadway, and he took it. Or it took him. True, he was off his meds, but they didn’t govern his ability to turn left and right. He was sick of his slow, fuzzy life. He wanted to fly.

He loved his new toe clips, a final gift to himself for the last few rides. The connection between shoe and pedal was a perfect convenience for a man who took at least some pleasure in being uncomfortable. While one foot drove down, the other pulled up, and he hit forty with the declivity. The errant horns and growling traffic whispered softly behind the music playing through his ear buds. John Adams’ “Loops and Verses” compelled his quads and lungs through the burn, and the relentless repetition was a perfect soundtrack for his impulsive journey. Tears streamed from the corners of his eyes, their provenance presumably due to that pesky wind.


Riding a bike had filled part of the masochistic void when sobriety finally became the last option. At 29, he was just over two years without the drink. He had never been in better shape and never thought more clearly, the latter of which scared him shitless.


He passed 43 on his 25 mm tires. There was no give when rubber touched road. That morning, he had filled both inner tubes beyond capacity. It was a rough ride but fast. At this speed, a pothole was as lethal as a pickup.


In the past year, two IEDs had blasted apart gaping sections of Baltimore’s highway system. The second assault resulted in the 695/70 interchange collapsing after the coordinated attack. Several surviving witnesses reported backpacks thrown from moving vehicles seconds before the explosion. Compared to other major metropolitan areas, Baltimore ranked somewhere in the middle for number of lives lost; consequently, the roads were cracked or cracking, relegated to gravel in sections. Funds dedicated to improving an already decaying infrastructure were now stowed away for the next catastrophes, ones everyone had grown to accept as part of civilian life. More and more of these attacks were decimating the U.S. highways, so regular upkeep soon became something of the not too recent past.


Janzen knew the work that went into laying road, and the fractures he dodged and hopped that evening required from him a little something extra. It stung to see such disrepair, these roads held hostage that needed fixing. There were still so many Baltimoreans who needed these jobs, but they sat around, waiting for the next disaster.

A relatively smooth patch opened before him, and he pinched the top tube between his knees to check for what dripped off his elbow. The color on his fingertips confirmed a collision with a side view mirror, an unnoticed injury and further evidence of the bicycle’s wonder.


With his speed dropping, Janzen’s mind wandered the course of a fleeing hare. He grabbed the corner of his consciousness and held fast to the roadway beneath him. The condition of the JFX ushered in an immediate heaviness his bike would not detect. Before spending the previous two years at Tappert Publishing, he had worked for a string of smaller, locally run construction outfits. Years in the business had callused his hands and provided him a sense of accomplishment at seeing something through to the end.

His father reacted to his son’s vocational path with a lift of his one eyebrow and a snide comment about the difference between a métier and a trade. For Janzen, that was fine, coming from a man who often yelled at men and women alike. He preferred his father’s more subtle expressions of scorn when compared to his loud fits. He considered that lifted eyebrow a graduation gift from the old man when he finished up his MFA from the University of Maryland. Through that educational journey, Janzen read the good book but preferred satanic verses; he slogged through Chaucer to Fowles; he bulls-eyed meter, and his participles dangled not. He had laid his literary foundation, so he figured he should learn to pour concrete. The first thing he wrote after finishing grad school at 23 was a cover letter to C and J Construction looking for work. If Howard Roark had his granite quarry, then it was time for Janzen to toil.

And toil, he did.

Adams’ crescendo was an assault, and the grade now climbed past seven percent. He was up off the seat, and his drop bars flew from side to side under his bared chest and sidewinder arms. This acclivity demanded the white-hot. His speed slowed and he pumped and pumped. The drenched necktie around his head retained all it could until he no longer saw clearly with the new sting in his eyes. He saw stars along with the cars. He bit into his lip knowing the metallic taste would clear his vision and drive the legs.

He reached the top of the incline, and a flick of his ankle released the toe clip. His foot touched ground, he sucked in air, but his leg held steadily. His muscles reacted well, and a series of smacks to the quads warned the lactic acid to retreat. Two stalled lanes of traffic lurched on either side of him. Those heading north on the other side of the divider enjoyed three car gaps and speeds over sixty – off to the county or across state lines where the number crunchers from Pennsylvania justified their daily commute.


The siren in the distance carried well that early evening, but Janzen’s head bobbed to an old Double Dagger cut, perfect for an impromptu excursion among the working folk. Janzen reveled in Strals’s raw delivery, and while he caught his breath, the colors around him tightened and swirled. The view was swathed in his favorites. Sheeler crafted the vehicles perfectly, right down to the lug nuts, each side a different shade. Estes handled the surrounding cityscape, applying textures of coarseness to the old bricks that played prettily against the sheen of the vivid windows and their popping reflections. Redon took over at the horizon and filled Janzen’s canvas with warm hues that could aptly be described as evocative.


“Is you crazy, muthafucka?”


Janzen removed an ear bud and tracked the voice as the one coming from the young black male steering the Land Rover. “Evocative isn’t it?”


“There ain’t no pedals on the light rail, bruva,” said the other fella in the passenger seat. Coasting alongside the vehicle, Janzen clipped back in and grabbed the corner of the SUV’s open window.


“Ask me about miles per gallon on this thing,” said Janzen, enjoying the arterial conversation.


“Yeah, well, my honey ain’t jumpin’ on no pegs come the weekend, bruh.” The driver smiled and checked the rearview before turning down the stereo. “You gonna wait around to see if them sirens are singin’ for you?”


Janzen pushed away from the SUV and scrolled through his watch. “I have something better.”


“Man, is you crazy?”


Janzen grabbed the door panel again and answered as if being deposed. “I’m not psychotic…I don’t think.” He readjusted the tightness of the knot at the back of his head. “In a clinical sense, you know…all that axis one bullshit. I can tell you that my psychosis probably does not require immediate hospitalization. Manic, though, yes. I’m manic as fuck.”


“Well Mercy’s right down on St. Paul, but you wanna go to Sheppard Pratt, bruh. They check yer head when it ain’t bleedin’.”


“I didn’t like the vibe there,” said Janzen. “You see, I require the freedom to roam!” He swooped an arm out in front of him. “Ah! My egress comes a-calling gentlemen.” He nodded his goodbye and pushed away from the SUV. He caught a straight line and powered the bike through the traffic, ass off the seat until his thighs sizzled the appropriate sizzle. He built up to his favorite speed: lights out fucking nuts. He wanted to scream a magnificent scream, but he’d save that.


Is you crazy?


To the casual observer, a bicyclist pushing pedals down a major metropolitan freeway during rush hour may elicit similar conventional responses. It was a little over two years ago when Janzen finally questioned his sanity shortly after quitting the drink. Not a sip of alcohol had passed his lips since then, but it was on his mind tonight while he tested the limits of his body and bike. He flickered his fingers off the drop bar, and the trails of the scars on his busted up knuckles took him back to the times years earlier when he first opened those wounds against the likes of brick walls, refrigerator doors and swerving foreheads. He drifted off and pedaled without effort, fueled by that big diesel engine in his chest.


In his clouded artistic process, Janzen had drunk the wine with Fante and the whiskey with Bukowski. He drank and read; he drank and wrote; he drank and fucked; he drank and fought. It became sloppy, and the lowest common denominator went from quotidian to daily, poetic to obligatory – a necessity for the shakes in place of a pathway to the sublime. The romance had soured.


Years of the elixir gave way to three slow-motion days of the cold turkey. The fevers, chills, vomit and fetid sweat were a reprieve from his restless legs stabbed over and over with invisible metal spoons. He found no sleep and lived within the fist of nausea. At one point he rolled over but realized he was on the floor. He tasted blood and his tongue swelled in his mouth. He thought he had some plague or best-case scenario: Covid-19. It turned out to be a seizure. On the fourth day of his newly sober world, he stomached half a sub sandwich and then lost touch with the reality he had been struggling to set right.


Voices not his own spoke the thoughts he was about to think. The hallucinations turned tactile. What was tactile grew razor-edged teeth and armored bodies. Who knew maggots bit so hard and drew so much blood? On that fourth day, everything started to shriek. The broken bones and kidney stones of yore whimpered off his podium of pain. A new king of torment was crowned. The problem was physical and supernatural; the problem was audio and visual; it turned spiritual and psychological.

He had worked enough jobs in the Baltimore area to know Sheppard Pratt was the psychiatric establishment he needed. He didn’t drive, so he took a sufferer’s route along sidewalks through a night rain infested with sharp and slimy things. Some were insects he didn’t recognize. They sprouted from the downpour and moved like locusts. They invaded every open orifice. He rolled in the grass and on driveways and ran his exposed skin against tree bark, but nothing stopped them. It was in this condition that Janzen walked to the hospital grounds, acknowledging every home he passed as another haunted house.


Mile four of four turned into one of those rain-drenched, soul-searching, thousands of wasps dive-bombing into the eyeballs type of walk. Luckily, a discarded pair of eyeglasses he found near a curb at least forced the battalion of wasps to negotiate a barrier before they burrowed one after another into his eye sockets. That was a new kind of venom. The cracked glasses blurred his path, but they were his only defense. Some of them bounced off his drenched body, but they flew back under his shirt where they found other access points down below. Others crawled into his mouth and tore at his tongue, so he chewed and chewed and tasted their blood, which flowed down his chin and shirt. He swung his arms, and the pounding of his heartbeat shook some of them off – a driving bassline scored from the fluttering wings of a coked-up hummingbird.


His hold on reality was fleeting but grounded in a single word: asylum. He needed someone to make sense of the sinister voices yelling at him and the insects’ infestation of his body and their piercing stings. Were they speaking to him? Was he the new host for their larvae? Why was it so important that the pain they inflict be so severe? These questions had only confused him when his only focus was sanctuary. The University of Maryland had been the oldest institution he held onto as his own, the respected cornerstone of his literary pursuits; however, that night saw Janzen straining to grasp at anything worth remembering. In its place, the words and sentences and structures he had honed with so much precision scattered in shrapnel and led him elsewhere towards institutionalization. The neural pathways he blazed in College Park had finally dead-ended or short-circuited. What was once fertile ground had pickled. He needed asylum that night. He needed help.

Overwhelmed by the expansive sprawl of Sheppard Pratt’s Towson campus, he tried opening door after door until a wary security officer took him into one of the resident buildings. Janzen confessed to a nurse that he was being possessed. Years of focused atheism dissolved in the rain that night. The nurse had tried to calm him, and if his full awareness hadn’t failed him, he would’ve seen a woman frightened for her safety. He repeated and repeated his concern about the availability of a priest who would both sanction and perform his exorcism. He kept asking whether Sheppard Pratt was considered a secular mental health facility. Was it true that only the Vatican could approve an exorcism? He asked if she could see the bugs all over him. The nurse yelled promises of a priest if he would just wait quietly in his seat so that she could arrange for a doctor to see him first. Janzen tore off the soaked shirt that clung to his torso. He tied it around the glasses as another blockade for the wasps and whatever else wanted in. A shard of the shattered spectacles freed the blood that soon flowed down his face, dying the shirt and eventually the tiled floor.


Cheap labor on the job site had led to Janzen’s fluency in Spanish. Three days in an ICU taught Janzen his only Latin lesson: Delirium Tremens, the diagnosis made at Sheppard Pratt.


“Fuck you and your Stone Age language!” yelled Janzen upon hearing the diagnosis. “My blood’s drawn with a syringe, not a leach, you fuck!” His confusion and anger stemmed not so much from the words coming out of that doctor’s mouth. More precisely, it was the invisible children’s choir singing songs of ancient curses that proved to be so disconcerting. He ran back through the hallways of the building and out into the rain. He sprinted across the hospital’s grounds and crossed Osler Drive until he found another hospital with a revolving door. That St. Joseph’s waiting room employed another frightened nurse and more agitated security guards, and the one with the clipboard arranged for Janzen to see a second doctor who repeated the same diagnosis.


“Sir, when did you last drink?” asked Dr. Number Two. It was four days ago, and it was his final Tullamore D.E.W. “Are you currently taking any medication?” To this question, the reply came quickly. “Lamictal and Trazadone. Abilify and fluoxetine. Dentyne and Thunderdome.” At first, the words tramped from his mouth with a militant march, but the more he repeated them, the more loosely they came out until they next found a rhythmic cadence and the march turned to melody. “LaMICtal and TRAAAzadone SeroTOOOOnin hydroCHLOOOORide.” It was a perverted verse bent over the lap of withdrawal. His hummingbird heart slowed to a quavering warble. It was as if Janzen’s nervous system had anticipated the influx of benzos about to flow into his bloodstream.


Another seizure was a possibility, so the nurses were all vitals and drips and anticonvulsants. In his volatile state, he tried yanking the IV line from his arm because its insertion was just one more stinging insect. He waved his arms and fought them off the best he could, but his swats eventually connected with nursing staff, who were shadowed and blurred and resembled the half-formed spooks flying off the walls to haunt him whenever he blinked in certain intervals.


Those on call were mostly sympathetic to Janzen’s condition, but one of his backhands drew blood so leather cuffs chained to the underside of the gurney kept his wrists and ankles in place. They were padded against his skin, but he strained against their grip with grunts and howls. The veins in his neck and forearms rose like inverted furrows of a living and mutating land forgotten on some abandoned tract. He struggled with everything he had knowing he was now rendered a defenseless organism for the evolving waves of pestilence.


There was no stopping them. Once he gave in, the shadows, parasites and night stalkers struck in their horrifying syncopation. It was over. He was theirs now. It went on for hours until hours turned into days.


The youngest and largest of the nursing staff had maintained a cherubic affability and christened this patient ‘Doozy’ because of the doozy of a job the poor young man had done to his liver. Blood was drawn, and tests revealed enzymes and protein counts endemic to a much older and tenured drinker. “You gotta shoot for them stars, Nurse Ratchet. You just gotta shoot for them stars.” Janzen saw her name tag that read Vanessa Williams, but she didn’t mind the Ratchet references. For the next two days, she was both anchor and engine amid the rocky sea and rogue waves of his horrors. When she could have returned to her station between rounds, Vanessa sat in the darkened room at his bedside. She would always return to stroke his clammy forearm while he twisted and flinched, held tightly to the bed with the restraints. Her touch was tender and possibly inappropriate by some clinician’s handbook, but she was there with her softness when everything else was jagged with backbones or segmented bodies and nasty intentions.


Lying there, largely immobile, Janzen found himself in waking nightmares, and Vanessa’s voice became a beacon to a kinder place. He sometimes spoke in rolling incoherent incantations and rambled on about his future plans with a swollen, chewed up tongue. She was mostly left to her own digressions, and the lilts and timbre of her words were more important than their meaning. His flinches and choked whimpers were coaxed and nuzzled with her humming. In her touch and her voice, Janzen recognized something familiar. There was a depth both tight and taught, stretched across every waking second of her day until it was resigned to that shallow and transparent courage she showed the world. For Janzen, her sounds, that touch and her courage filled her history that she either revealed or he invented.


 Vanessa Williams was not yet thirty. She also might have been imaginary. The burgeoning crease in between her eyebrows was of a noticeable depth and was assuredly contoured over years of contemplation or was perhaps the result of that smirk she could not yet define. She moved with a lightness of foot, motion that belied the extra weight she carried while hinting at years of rigorous training in mirrored studios. She wore no rings and applied her makeup to be seen from afar. When she hummed, she hit every note, and her voice rose and fell and skipped across Janzen’s dark seas. Her melodies were sometimes improvised; some belonged to others – to the soprano Dawn Upshaw and to other symphonies of sorrow. Her fellow nurses called her by different names, and her scrubs were fresh and new. She tried hard to appear eager. Sitting next to Janzen, she hummed softly and switched her feet between first, second and third position.

After 72 exhausting hours in the ICU, Janzen approached a clarity he was on the trail of days earlier. On day four, he and Nurse Williams embraced outside the empty hospital chapel. Janzen loved her for what she did for him, and with his sensor on the fritz, he had no problem telling her just that. She cried enough to shake her round frame. She also made Janzen promise to look for love in less life-threatening ways. He asked for her information, all of it. He finally had an emergency contact.


That specific hospitalization took place a little over two years ago, and now that Janzen was sober and healthy, the memories played like a sentimental clip show on TV after a long, celebrated run. But what was that terrible noise interrupting such a broadcast? It was a howl the folks of Baltimore knew well. The siren had, in fact, been singing his song. The congestion on the JFX was an uninspired peloton with Janzen on the breakaway and the cop car now yo-yoing behind. Either expressway shoulder provided passage for the black and white, whose pursuit provoked heads out of many a car windows. Janzen muted his music to better gauge the distance that remained between the cop and him. Encouraging motorists shouted for him to “Ride, mutha-fucka! Ride!” and the speed brought back his tears. The flick of his finger found a bigger gear, and his legs and lungs pumped. He tucked down tight on his drop bars when the car appeared alongside in the outer lane. The policeman manhandled the wheel at ten and two, his forearms cords of ferocity twitching under his skin. The officer yelled something unintelligible, and his angry gestures were met with a smile, a flick of the eyebrows skyward, and then a hard left in front of the cop car and through a gap in the freeway divider. Weaving through the oncoming traffic was all Frogger and fortune as he flew up the ramp past the merging vehicles. Homeward to Hampden!

Janzen overshot his row home and cruised down the switchback to Falls Road from Wyman Park. He wasn’t done riding yet, and he always enjoyed the presence of the Jones Falls stream alongside him. He removed the tie from around his head and squeezed out the wetness before putting it back in place and yelled playfully toward whatever brown trout might be swimming along with him. He had ridden this stretch of Falls hundreds of times in the past few years, and he slowed his speed and dropped into a more appropriate gear, one that would allow for a moment of nostalgia. He would miss these roadways. He’d even miss parts of Hampden, though it was more of the neighborhood’s history that endeared it to him rather than the availability of sous vide dog food and flavored compost material.


In the years before the Civil War, gristmills and a busy harbor initially drew many of the poor white farmers north to the Hampden-Woodberry area where they settled around the Jones Falls watershed in the row homes lining the meandering, dirt-packed roads. Given Baltimore city’s majority black population nowadays, the Hampden neighborhood had retained its own little white enclave due in part to that Southern lineage, a population that boomed in the latter 1800s and had somehow maintained its bloodlines throughout the decades until those mill workers, farmhands and cotton swappers of old begot and begot until the fathers of babies eventually gave birth to baby daddies. If the ghosts of those descendants walked about Hampden today, they’d see their families still white as white talking black as black. These young men now walked around with their sagging pants and were sons of other young fathers who had hung onto the words and movements of whatever Yo! MTV Raps broadcasted. And now what fathers remained watched on at the parade of endlessly pregnant teenagers with skinny legs and loud mouths, whose main role revolved around manicuring the boys’ tight fades and pushing around their hand-me-down strollers.


The middle-aged meth-heads were a throwback to decades earlier when the neighborhood’s kitsch was still a ways off, but the restaurants soon came one-by-one. Coupled with rent control and the wide expanse of Jon Waters’ cinematic shadow, Hampden eventually played host to a hipster infiltration, a population that clashed with the old-timers and their grandsons and granddaughters in a most silent and segregated way. Janzen had straddled the line between blue-collar grunt and one of the harbingers of gentrification. Ultimately, the books he read and the music he listened to and the beer and coffee he drank all formed a cultural undertow that drew him further and further away from the tool belts and Firm Grips of years past, but it was a gap he bridged with his daily struggle. In truth, he wasn’t out in the mix like he used to be; his sobriety assured him of that. He preferred his isolation and took in the neighborhood’s changes mostly from behind his second story window.


Janzen made his way up Roland Ave. and took a right onto 36th Street, The Ave. as the locals knew it. Hampden’s main drag offered its patrons Michelin star restaurants, head shops, mom-and-pop bookstores and barbers, consignment shops, a terrible Mexican joint, and everything else one might expect from a townie’s town thrust in trendy directions that most locals would’ve preferred have happen to nearby Charles Village.


The Avenue shimmered on this early August evening. The sidewalks were busy with people making their way to eat while the lookie-loos held tightly to their purses and window-shopped through the less fashionable window fronts. Some of the locals sat on the bus stop benches and fanned themselves. Baltimore’s heat was only oppressive to the uninitiated; that’s not to say it wasn’t hot as hell, but one was bound to run into some weather south of the Mason-Dixon. Janzen loved the heat and believed himself baptized after every ride. Tonight, the neighborhood sparkled in such a way because he’d no longer call it home. He always enjoyed Hampden at about twelve miles an hour; any slower and Smalltimore reared its ugly head. He hooked a right on Chestnut and dodged a family full of fatties spread out across the intersection like drugged slugs on the wrong ‘shrooms, too involved with their artisan ice cream to take notice of incoming traffic. In their defense, The Charmery made a delicious cone.


Janzen cruised to a stop and led his bike over the curb and into the hallway of his row home. It was the time of year when the humidity swelled the laminate flooring beneath his feet, and he bounced his way down the hall and up to the second floor, his home for the past few years. To describe his apartment as spartan would be generous. There was a single beach chair opened for business in a room typically used for watching television. A card table rested in front of the chair, shimmed for steadiness with Salinger’s Nine Stories. On the table rested a computer. Past the laptop on the wall hung the one remaining decoration: a framed headshot of John Kennedy Toole. Every other piece of furniture had been sold or given away weeks ago. He spent the last few nights chasing dreams in the sleeping bag he used as a child.


Janzen had scrubbed the place floor to ceiling because his soon-to-be-former-landlord was a peach of a woman, who frequently left salted brownies outside his apartment door in an effort “to fatten up them cheeks, hon.” Janzen had helped her find a replacement tenant, showing her how to navigate the new online sites with sortable credit scores and background checks.


He flipped the computer alive knowing there awaited a final unread email, one he had received a week earlier. The subject line in his inbox gave no indication of its contents, but if it read like the others, he’d no longer have any further need of the computer, which he intended on passing along to his landlord. He clicked on it.


Mr. Hakkinen,


Your novel details a rich tapestry of emotions woven into a dynamic narrative, but what it lacks is a singular focus we here at Top to Bottom Press feel is imperative to thrive in this current market. Tawdry Fields is a work bathed in the boiling water of solipsism, whereas what we publish here is more akin to a water slide at an amusement park. The opening is rife with action and consequence, but the concern is that the readership will not follow the protagonist and his self-referenced bi-polar perspective.


While your voice is unique and thought-provoking, there were more questions raised than answered, and I wonder if it would behoove you to reconsider Teezer’s final decision to turn himself in when there are obviously no charges brought against him. I found it courageous that Teezer attends the “Preserve the White” rally of Senator Howley to confront that or whom he loathes the most in the face of his recurring dream of torturing and killing the politician. (I offer this as an aside: are two protracted chapters necessary to evoke the brutality of these sadistic acts of torture? I do applaud your attention to detail, but the exercise becomes a horrific lesson in mutilated anatomy and the tensile strength of the senator’s fingernails, eyelids and select organs.)


These two chapters do raise interesting comparisons to the effectiveness and morality of state-sponsored techniques, which your protagonist repeatedly mentions, as he believes his deeds to be for the greater good of society, but where are you really going with this manuscript? Please consider submitting any future work to my attention.


Good luck, Janzen.


Cordish Mayweather


That Cordish could write, and his response was far from the form rejections that had been trickling in over the past few months. He asked the right questions, too. Janzen knew they were coming, and he knew where he was going with this manuscript: Formstone Avenue.

Chapter One: Text
Sean Byrne Original Mock Cover
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