The city of Los Verdes runs construction in patchwork patterns like a little puzzle game, sprucing up bits of road at the least opportune moments for anyone within the five-way intersections and inconsistent lane work that marks the average process of Californian logistics.

Bjornvito and Djanglo sit across each other on a small, rickety patio table of City Bowl #2, one of many cramped Chinese restaurants across the city. They don’t think too much of this place, except that the owners put in hard efforts to re-route burger brains and cig-bums: a sadly common occurrence in the commercial zones.

The pair just want to fill their stomachs and talk with each other again, like old times.

“It’s funny. I never knew about Paradiso until I took a classic lit course in college,” Djanglo says between sips of black coffee and a mouthful of teriyaki chicken bundled in a Styrofoam container.

“Yeah?” Bjornvito says as greasy noodles slide off a plastic spoon into his mouth. “I know kids always read Dante’s Inferno with the covers open in high school. I tried reading it. Wasn’t a fan. I like the idea that Greeks have their own little castle in space, though, even if they worshiped the wrong gods.”

“You’re not missing much. The Roman section of the Western canon blows. I dunno. It was really funny when Virgil smooched Dante in a ferry over boiling blood. Everyone compares this stuff to fan fiction now, but it really is,” Djanglo says.

Bjornvito laughs and chokes aloud, spraying corn-starched sludge across the black surface of the table. “Sounds like Final Fantasy or some shit.”

“I forced myself into that mindset to get through the book. Some of the descriptions are cool, don’t get me wrong. It’s just fucked the entire concept of Hell was built around an angry nerd calling out real people and throwing them in imaginary dungeons.”

“If I posted that stuff online, I’d get arrested. Those old people had it lucky.”

After a while, their paper cups soften and stain as the coffee cools into a lukewarm stew of oily brown. They drink it anyways because they find something utilitarian about free black coffee, and sneak cups every chance they get from the Robabank just around the block.

Just as they finish their meals, the shopping center fills with a chorus of scrapes and shuffling feet. This strip mall holds a Starbucks, Ross, Petco, and a Target nearby: everything a person needs to get along crammed into one place. Of course, that means cig-bums have this area on lockdown. Some stumble and shuffle. Others skitter back and forth like amphetamine sparrows. Bjornvito knows plenty of these people. They frequently stop by the Circle K he works at. Most of them are fine. Some smash signs and throw fists when Bjorn catches them stealing.

Bjornvito tenses. His usual slouch shoots bolt upright as one of the more particular bums notices them. This old man in a stained duster has skin wrinkled like beef jerky, but his walk was tight and lean as he locks eyes with Bjorn and closes in. ”You! Heard you kicked Daryl out. Why’d you do that fer, you ffff-fuckhead?” he asks.

“You mean Shitty Daryl? He shat behind our store like four times. I thought you change-wranglers run together. You want me to swap his diapers, too?” Bjornvito snaps back. His instinctual nervous neutrality as a clerk washes away once realizing the man wouldn’t bother with politeness. Bjorn welcomes this. It’s not often people speak their minds.

“Ffff-fuck you. Fuck! Daryl saw the jaws of life snap down. When he was in prison, they put electric bolts in his head. Filled his blood with tracker chips too. Life ambushes you like that, not like y-you-youu’d know. You fucking wage slaves, tax cattle, self-castrated pussy!” The man shouts. He closes in on Bjornvito and punches him squarely in the shoulder. It was more of a bully’s branding than an attempt to floor him.

Still, Bjorn lunges at his chance for catharsis. His arms lock around the bum’s shoulders, bracing perfectly to jackhammer his stomach with the blunt of his knee. Without looking at the man’s anguish, Bjorn stares into the space over his shoulder, past the other bums and into a nearby intersection where a cheeky woman in a Ford Raptor tries to flip a U-ey and gridlocks both lanes. After a few clean hits, he tosses the old man onto their table, where its surface and frail legs shatter.

Djanglo sits with his container in-hand. He never liked bending over to get his food. His back is bent enough as is, so he holds it up to his mouth. He doesn’t mind the table collapsing, nor Bjornvito’s kicks. “Good job, dude,” is all he says before the throng gets chased off by City Bowl #2’s cashier, who wards the area with swings of his broom.


“Was that too much? I feel like dick,” Bjornvito asks.

“I dunno. It looked like that guy caused a lot of trouble before. You didn’t need my help. I would’ve stepped in if they swarmed you or something,” Djanglo says.

“The old man, I don’t remember his name, but he’s a real heel. He’d saunter into any gas station and rip on people. He stands right next to the register. He ignores the customers. He doesn’t shoplift liquor or soda. He goes right to any clerk and mocks them for minutes straight.”

“I remember that. My mom used to talk about him. Saw him punch one of the crusties off her bike for stepping on the wrong turf. A lotta people don’t get that change-wranglers are organized. They run pretty controlled circuits.”

“Oh definitely. I swear, gas station and corner shop clerks are the babysitters of the lower class. The field workers and construction guys are good. They get their coffee and Modelos and never cause trouble. It’s always some ambling suburban robot, bum, or partykid degenerate who comes in at 2:01 AM and yells at me for 20 minutes because I legally—by corporate and state law—close down the liquor aisle by 2. It’s the same people, always. I think they lash out like this as some unobserved psyche-defense mechanism.”

“Fuck man,” Djanglo grunts. He claws a hand through his brown mop top like he’s grooming for bugs. “You ever get robbed before? I heard the Circle K employees keep sharpened broom handles under their registers.”

“I wish. I’d soak the spear in a bucket of dirty mop water and set it up like a Vietcong trap.”

“Pungee spikes.”

“Yeah. I can’t defend myself at all. No conceal carry, either, of course. As far as I see it, I don’t bug loiterers or shoplifters unless it’s painfully obvious. Why should I defend a company that doesn’t care if I live or die? I’m not being facetious here. I’m just surprised any employee or security guard goes ape on a burger brain. Just stay detached. You have to, or you’ll lose your fucking mind.

“Circle K is run by some Canadian conglomerate. You know, that country where a jogger can spot a BB gun on your coffee table from an open window outside your house, then…boom! Seven years in jail.”

“I heard they also deny you healthcare after a certain age. You work for 70 years and then they put you down, yet people still think they’re progressive. One of my buddies worked as a slave shop animator in Toronto for a while. His wrist swelled up real bad and they made him draw for half a year before a doctor’d even bother with him.”

“I’m glad no one stuck you up, at least. You know Muravez died last week at the downtown store? One of the gangs he used to run with got snappy at him, from what I heard. It made me worry about you,” Djanglo adds softly.

“You mean Muravez from highschool!?” Bjornvito shouts. His head snaps from the daze of conversation and toward Djanglo like a scanning predator.

“Yeah. That’s him,” Djanglo said.

“I thought he just collected anime books and crap.”

“He used to, but AT&T caught him uploading Yu Yu Hakusho rips. Couldn’t go online anymore. They got his blood trace.”

“Eh… Damn.”

“The funniest part: he’d been shoplifting and getting into fights around school like every day. He punched the catheter right off Mr. Longbrone. He never got busted for that, though,” Djanglo adds. He knows you need time to soak things in. He also knows that comedy is only two things: humor and timing.

Bjornvito laughs, so his gamble succeeds.


Bjornvito and Djanglo cut through the train yards. Their eyes scan across hot dirt. The brittle grasses and sage brushes tremble with snakes and mice, but no one’s tailing them. A freighter train with a tri-county mural of graffiti roars from their left while a bike lane on the right swarms with Lance Armstrong wannabes, fitness neurotics, and leering boomers who make sure the two didn’t feel welcome.

“Is it a beach day? So many goddamn people out,” Djanglo asks.

“It’s Saturday and we’re by the boardwalk. I’m just surprised the faux-wranglers aren’t dogging us,” Bjornvito says.

“Those kids in designer jeans begging for money, we still have those?”

“They burn out on marisoma and synthetic drugs real fast, but they keep coming back.”

“California has the weather for them, I guess. If our zoning and land laws weren’t so insane you could live outside all year round, like that hippie place in La Conchita. The soil there is so rich we could grow fruit forever.”

“La Conchita has mudslides every five years. People die there, don’t they?”

“Yeah, but why does anyone live in California, with its sunshine taxes and pseudo-humanitarian plutocrats, other than being forced to by paying out the ass for a bundle of wood and concrete? There’s an odd sense of peace here, in some ways. Something has to be drawing us here.”

“You make it sound like a magic spell.”

“Or moths into the warm glow of a zapper.”

“Have you ever heard of Swedenborg’s hell?”

“No, but I’ve seen Inland Empire.”


Bjornvito and Djanglo break off near the drainage ditches and walk to the public library. The place is well built. It reeks of mass-print paperbacks like yellow acid and the walls are painted baby blue. The AC blasts at a skin-prickling 40 degrees, which the older librarians prefer.

Djanglo glances over the general inventory of books and asks sharp questions about title organization and software to a flustered front desk worker. Meanwhile, Bjornvito heads upstairs to the public computers.

He sits in one of the open stalls and looks to a blood scanner built on the side of the screen. A scorpion tail-like needle stands out. Bjorn hesitates to use it. He knows the scanner disposes needles with every prick, but this is a public terminal. He knows there’s some new gonorrhoea going around, likely from the free love partyboys and that SB 239 law, a blessing for HIV bug-chasers.

It’s harder than ever to meet someone, he thought. I hate going outside, wandering all day until work, doing chores, watching my old friends grow tired, slamming marisoma and playing video games worse and worse until they can’t focus anymore. Then they sign their blood traces away to watch YouTube all day long. It’s a mess.

Bjorn then decides that unless he invests in private needle extensions, he’d have to take the risk. There’s bills to pay, a bank account to check. He has to see if Benny still needs a ride home over Facebook Messenger. Most of all, he wants to check for job replies. Circle K is getting old fast. He can’t take any more cig-huffing, alcoholic nurses telling him to get a real job because their favorite sodas ran out that evening.

His thumb presses gently into the slot. The blood scanning needle pricks and slurps up his life essence. Bjornvito imagines some breakdown of DNA into RNA, RNA to codons, commands into constituent words, then letters that code his entire body. This information feeds into the computer, verifying Bjorn’s exact location via satellite pings and every detail of his identity, as well as his Internet Etiquette Rating: 106/150. Rank: Fine. He haven’t trolled anyone or pirated from the constant influx of media-mush clogging the net, so no trouble comes his way yet.

I wish I had an desk gig like Djanglo, that lucky dropout, Bjornvito thought.


“I used to work at the Sierra Private College upstate. Best poetry collection in the west coast,” Djanglo says and smiles.

“That must be delightful. What did you study?” Nadine replies. At least that’s what her name tag lists. She has hair like steel wool. Djanglo pretends not to notice the harlequin pulp novella on her desk.

“Erm. Biology, switched to Poetry, then English Literature. I applied for as much work as I could, though. Worked at the library for two years as well as an editor for some lit mags around there and Reno. Then, I moved back here and got fucked for three years.” Djanglo replies nervously at first, but eases into blunt honesty as he goes on.

“Oh…oh my. I’m sorry to hear that. I worked as a substitute elementary teacher for a few decades myself. The public schools got too rowdy for me. Too crowded now. Poor kids.” Nadine complains and laughs. Her voice pitches into chicken-like squawks, as if to undermine her own grave observations. This bothers Djanglo a lot for some reason, so he decides to further inflict her with his existence:

“I wanted to do cartoons also, but two of my buddies killed themselves a day before we were set to collaborate. These were the few friends I really got to know and I didn’t even know ‘em. We smoked mari and played Smash Brothers and rode around town at night, just talking until the police got us for trespassing on parks so often. Then they’re just dead and I don’t know why.”

Any semblance of a smile Nadine has vanishes into a rigid wall, a dead-eyed stare. Her face relaxes, but her wrinkles tighten.

“I broke down and went home after hallucinating for weeks on end. Never happened until then and only then. I signed up for an outpatient program at a loony bin around here, next to that junkyard, but the Thomas fires burned the place down after three of my seven days,” Djanglo says. He waits, pretending this is still a conversation Nadine can reply to, then continues, “It sucked anyways. Six hours a day of some neurotic dickhead whining about their wedding while the rich, sad divorcees get scammed into submission by their own loved ones, or the quiet ex-druggie who’s probably seen a lot—you can see it in their eyes—but never talks because she knows most people can’t handle it. Meanwhile, I doodle cartoons and wait for the elementary school pow-wows to end. I lost every fucking cent to that, so I went to drawing cartoon porn on the Internet. Now my hands are giving out. Look at these things. I’m 24 years old and I’m no Vivaldi. I can’t overcome this.” Djanglo presents his wrists and hands to the shriveling Nadine. He has long, witch-like fingers held together with swollen sockets, like pulsing balls of meat.

“What’s wrong with you, kid?” a voice sounds from the line now forming behind him.

“Nothing. I’m just a human being in a human conversation. Maybe if this library upped their staff they’d increase workflow and free time to mingle with the community they represent,” Djanglo replies. He nods to Nadine. He apologizes and thanks her for the time, then turns around to find Bjornvito. His eyes drift straight into the worn Dragon Ball Z manga checkouts sitting on a shelf. He also feels the glare of a pot-bellied man with grey and peppered hair: likely the guy who got mad at him.

More importantly, he notices the book the man carries: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

“Yeah I bet you like that shit! The first three novels were good moral stories, but the later ones are just teenage angst and wannabe dystopic fiction—baby’s first McCarthyism. They were written by ghost writers!”

”Shut up. Get away from me, you little goblin.” the man groans. His face clenches with bulldog-like folds around his cheeks.

“Why do middle school reading exams award students 15 points for Potter novels while classics like Brom Stroker’s Dracula only get eight or nine?” Djanglo huffs, not moving an inch.

“Who gives a shit!? I’m getting my kid something to read. Back in my day, we didn’t have to worry about nutjobs like you.”

“Well, now I’m here, so what are you gonna do, grandpa?”

“Dude, calm the fuck down! I finished up. Let’s go.” Bjornvito shouts from the upper floor.


Bjorn and Djanglo walk into the humid coastal sunset. The glinting water reminds Djanglo of a film reel, a sequence of captured time repeating with splotches and tears, burning through its functions until it all falls apart. Bjornvito, now confident of his empty checking account, leads them both to the Target near that strip mall they first met at.

The Target storefront dominates its own strip mall. The streets are better laid here, with plenty of parking space and sections that loop around the back of the stores to avoid crowding. A McDonald’s drive-thru also directs much of the traffic flow, but unlike other spots in town, the crowded streets don’t pour directly in or out to it. They have their own dividers. The Target itself has a few nice bums around, only taking short rests or selling patriotic wares from their stands. It seems safe for now.

A spiderweave scuttles by on a set of hooked legs interlocked with pivots that whir softly. It crawls up a chain link fence outside the gardening supplies section with careful, calculated steps, like a chameleon. The machine then buzzes and shoots out a metallic wire from an internal spool. It wraps around a sliced-apart section of fencing (cleanly cut, likely from bolt cutters). The wire, connected to a rotating reel, yanks back and forth with great strength. Like a sutured wound, the chain link flaps stretch together and close again. The spiderweave shoots up the fence and over a faux-stucco wall until disappearing to the roof.

After arguing about charging stations or if maintenance employees work on the roof to assist their robots, Bjornvito and Djanglo take their sweet time to peruse the store’s innards. They make sure to avoid showing direct interest in any products, or else an employee may try helping them. They go to the tech aisle. Past the video games and gaming related toys sits a two-for-one on cans of aerosol computer duster. Bjornvito takes the package and slides it down his oversized jeans, where a bag of sewn-in fishnet catches it safely.

Bjorn and Djanglo then walk casually out of the store. They talk about nothing. They don’t worry. They don’t show any awareness of employees or security, or the batons and mace at their belts.

Bjornvito remembers when Muravez taught him about keeping cool, about lookout tactics and improvising questions to distract employees over any classic concepts of stealth.

“There’s stealth in avoiding a crowd and stealth in blending with one. I learned that from a Ninjitsu manual,” Muravez used to say.

Neither of them know if spiderweaves have security cameras or not. While the sides of the Target are mostly empty, there are still plenty of streetlamps and headlights to spook them, so they saunter to the rear of the store, where only burnouts lurk. They nestle behind the equidistant shrubs and pygmy palm trees just adjacent to a dumpster. Under the shroud of darkness, Bjornvito recovers the computer duster cans. From his backpack, Djanglo pulls out a hammer, a plain cloth, an empty water bottle, his dad’s old combat knife, a set of pliers, and a pair of neo-eco batteries.

The batteries crunch and sizzle between blows as the two work out how to crack them open. If they strike too often they might risk a buildup of thermal energy, they hazard, but have no idea how these new batteries even work, let alone the detonation temperature of their acid.

After going at it with a hammer and knife, the pliers loosened the damaged hulls until they break open. And holding them by the pliers, Bjorn lifts them safely above the cloth. An iridescent acid spills out of them, staining it purple and black.

“There. Get the cans ready,” Djanglo whispers. He lifts the stained cloth over the bottle’s open mouth. Bjornvito sprays one can through the battery acid and into bottle until clouds form, then removes the cloth and seals the bottle quickly.

With the risk of blood traces, it’s hard to look up much in terms of drug info anymore. Supposedly, the trick is this: one of the ingredients in these newly released neo-eco batteries counteracts the deadly poison federally laced in every can of computer duster and nitrous oxide canister. The federal government does this to dissuade degenerates from frying their minds with the risk of death.

Djanglo opens the bottle, wiping off the acid residue with his shirt before inhaling the gas within. He lets out a groan, then flops back on the wood chips lining the ground. His body melts into relaxation and pleasant drowsiness. He slurs to himself in a tongue Bjornvito didn’t understand.

Bjornvito waits a few minutes. He occasionally jostles Djanglo to make sure he’s still moving and breathing. Then, something thumps against the dumpster.

The old man from earlier rounds the corner, his shoulders square and stiff but visibly straining with every step after Bjorn’s beating. They lock eyes. The man’s face softened. “Hey. Can I have some?” He asks.

Bjorn blinks. His nerves rack as tight as they go, expecting a jumping of their own. After realizing the man is alone and seemingly sincere, he replies, “Uh. Sure.”


An enjoyable night passes. Djanglo and Bjornvito split up as soon as dawn reveals itself. They go their walks of life with Bjornvito at Circle K and Djanglo freelancing smut from home. They never meet again, both unsure if they’re avoiding each other or are just busy.

Djanglo smashes dead into a barrier from a road rage incident. Bjornvito moves to Wisconsin, where’s he’s killed in a seemingly random knife attack.

The only thing either of them recall from that night is this blip of conversation:

“You remember back when I was talking about Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso?”

“The Roman fan fiction?”

“Yeah. I think the reason no one talks about Paradiso is because heaven is boring. It’s perfect. How do you make perfection interesting? Paradise, a perfect world, or afterlife. How do we accept that when all our best stories are driven by conflict?”

“You still need to read Swedenborg…”