Smile: A Short Story

- by Josh Saxe



Amanda squints into the peephole that stretches a shaggy face winking under white light. “It's Mike”: she says, wringing the indoor air with her tightened throat, her tone hiding in decayed drunkenness; she clamps him with nervous fingers, like a bombed-out refugee clutches pear-faced kids and burnt jewelry. Tonight he and Eli leave for a dusty base in Seattle, from there it’s off to Baghdad. Eli looks on from the living room, his body melding with sun and dust soaked coach cushions, struggling to vanish. Hot acid brinks the fat root of Mike’s tongue, receding like a wave on a lemon beach.

Aaron, Mike, Amanda and Eli prepare to do a round from a muddy Jack Daniel's bottle, tarred soy sauce and piss yellow margarine caked at its rippled prism base.

Top-40 hip-hop taps in the background. Mike fills. Aaron toasts-to adventure, imagined as his two year Navy stint in the Gulf fucking slum girls in brothels where paint peels off the walls like dead skin. Imagined as teenage animal terror at shooting down a gun-wielding Iraqi in an abandoned bunker, once in the stomach to knock him down, twice more in the neck for his body to stop twitching. Eli swallows, throat swells, skips the coke bottle chaser as he has since middle school; the group’s belly laughter filling the cracks in the kitchen tiles and cabinet hinges, Amanda's giggles shivering the wood-putty in the rafters and prying at the space between bones in Eli's skeletal hands. Piano hands, his teacher tells him. Now they're cold and purple at the joints.

Soon Amanda and Mike are chained in sweat and saliva in the bathroom, Amanda amorous like she was in 9th grade, the other two speaking in murmurs and slurs beyond the door

Aaron has a cheap yellow camera with a built-in flash that makes a dull clack when he takes a picture. He and Eli burst into the bathroom, Dove and Pantene-Pro-V skidding on the floor, the lovers terrified, laughs everywhere, Amanda red, giggling, towel clamped to her adolescent breasts, Eli striding awkwardly towards her, Mike with jeans around his ankles, razor burns over birthmarks on his scalp. The four melt with laugher, faces loosening - “Smile!” grits Aaron, wearing a wide child’s grin as he presses the trigger - all the energy in that thin instant pressed white hot between past and future.

Josh Saxe is an activist and student living in Los Angeles. He can be rached at

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