They woke her every night, those dreams, so loud she was sure her eardrums would shatter.

She’d open her eyes and the ringing was deafening, the tinnitus whispering memories of sounds she could no longer remember.

Every night her hand would tremble in the dark, grope desperately until it found either her glasses or the light switch. (She preferred glasses first; hunting for glasses with the light on forced her to confront her blindness.)

She was lucky tonight: her fingers closed around a cold metal frame. When she slipped her glasses on, the shadows in the room took shape. There was the light switch. There her dresser. With the tinnitus still ringing in her ears, she took comfort in the familiarity of her surroundings.

One flick of the light switch and she crawled out of bed, slipped her feet into the slippers waiting loyally by the bedside. A moment’s pause to catch her breath, then she shuffled across the room.

Nestled in a padded box on her dresser was her second most prized possession: her hearing aids. She stood in front of the mirror and gently wrestled them into place. The tinnitus vanished, replaced by a deafening silence that slowly evolved into a gentle tick tick tick.

On the bedside table was her first most prized possession: a large wristwatch that had belonged to her husband. The sound had driven her mad in her youth, and now was the only thing keeping her sane.

When she crawled back into bed, she propped herself up against the headrest and fell asleep upright, lulled by the ticking of silence.

Inspired by musical ear syndrome.


“This was NOT what I agreed to.”

Chris had already settled deep into the sofa, controller in his hand, video game loading. “Come on, Susie. I said we’ll talk, so we’ll talk. We’ll just play video games at the same time. My time’s precious, you know. Multi-tasking is where it’s at.”

She sat reluctantly into a crease made by another bum. A bigger bum, she decided snarkily, wiggling to get comfortable before the I’m-a-bitch guilt could kick in.

(Ex-girlfriends are fair game, she sternly told her conscience.)

“This game is incredible,” Chris said, handing her the console. “I’m utterly hooked.”

How it differed from any other point-and-shoot game was beyond Susie, but she smiled and nodded. When Chris wasn’t looking, she wiggled further across the sofa, doing her best to iron out every trace of his ex.

“So,” she began, “how’ve you been holding up?”

He tensed, wouldn’t look at her. “Fine. But about this game–“

“You haven’t left the house in a week, Chris. People are worried. I’m worried.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s not because of…” He couldn’t even bring himself to finish the sentence. “It’s this game, honestly. It’s largely formulaic, until it’s not, and then it’s–“

Time to change tactics. She aimed at the approaching zombies. “Firing laser gun! Poi poi poi!

“–WOW. Wait a minute.” He hit pause, stared at her. “Laser guns do NOT go poi. They go… umm… pew?”

She raised her eyebrow. “Mine’s a Japanese model. It’s the best of the best.”

“Whatever they do, it’s not poi.”

“You know what? I’ll forgive you for not knowing the truth.” She put down her controller and turned to face him. “Laser guns are mostly used in deep space, where no one can hear your gun go pew. But if they could, they’d know that you’d bought a Chinese rip-off.”

He rolled his eyes. “Surely Chinese guns go pong.”

“Now you’re just being racist.”

He cracked a smile, then, the first genuine smile since she’d arrived.

The silence between them stretched, held.

“You couldn’t have known she was a fake,” Susie said gently. “But you’re better off without her. You deserve the best.”

His smile trembled. “Poi poi poi from here on out.”

“Exactly,” Susie said, before hitting play and killing more wide-assed zombies.


The love is gone.

When she looks at him, striding towards her across the busy square, she is looking at a stranger. Even the pigeons disown him, scattering from his every footstep.

In the intervening months his hair has grown longer than she’s ever seen it before. But even though it is he who has been off travelling the world, she is the one who has changed.

The kiss he drops on her lips is impersonal. How much of that is in her mind and how much of it is him?

“I missed you,” he says.

“I missed you, too.” The you she remembers, not this man before her. The strange familiarity of his scent disconcerts her; when his fingertips brush her arm she feels vulnerable.

She lets him take her hand because that’s what they used to do, and walks with him through the crowds of tourists and cajoling street vendors. The air is hot and heavy. Perspiration beads on her upper lip.

They turn down a narrow side street lined with canopies. Tucked away down an alley is their usual cafe, too small and grubby on the outside to attract  tourist attention. It has no AC either; the fans swinging in lazy circles overheard are barely more than decorative.

Months ago they’d agreed this place served the best coffee in town. Now she sits opposite him grimacing through each sip and wonders what else has changed.

He speaks at length about his travels, the things he’s seen and the people he’s met. His speech is as slow and measured as she remembers, his gestures as grandiose. But their familiarity has passed the threshold of affection. His every character quirk is now another aspect to dislike.

When he presents the gift to her, with a flourish, she wonders how many others he has bought.

He finally notices her expression and says: “You know.”

Her neck stiffens, but she manages to nod. “How long…” The question isn’t worth finishing.

“I’ll be moving in a month… and you know how I feel about long distance relationships. They don’t work.”

She stares. This isn’t the answer she’s expecting.

“Look,” he says, “I know I should have told you months ago, but… You knew I wouldn’t stay in this town forever. We’ve still got a month left. Why don’t we enjoy it, and worry about the rest later?”

“You’re moving.” The words are flat and hard and not the slightest bit shaky. “I didn’t know.” Now she can truly see how much his familiarity has blinded her. She pulls her hands out of his reach, folds them in her lap.

Finally she has the strength to say the words that have burned inside for months: “Have you told all the other girls you’re stringing along, or am I the first to know?”


It started slowly, his cheeks reddening, his eyelids twitching with the pressure. Droplets of sweat rolled down his forehead, beading in his eyebrows.

The air was hot and sticky, the glass table between them an iceberg. Louise lay her hands on the table and stared at him until the cracks began to show.

His cheeks pushed together as if an invisible band was wrapped around his head. His eyes bulged, his wheezing breaths grew laboured, and the musky stench of fear rolled off of him in waves.

There! A hairline crack on his forehead as his skin began to tear. Another crack, and another–

–and then his head imploded.

Only his lower jaw remained intact as blood and brains spattered across the room, painting polka dots across the table.

Her lips were salty with blood.

“What are you staring at?”

Snapped out of her daydream, Louise smiled coldly and stared at her husband straight in the eye.

“Nothing,” she said. She picked up the a fountain pen and signed the divorce papers with a flourish.


Michael killed two men before bedtime.

Two men, barehanded, one right after the other. Gifts rained down on him from the audience: money and flowers. The money his master pocketed, and the flowers… What the fuck was he going to do with flowers? He left them to rot with the bodies.

His master was waiting in the washrooms, counting the money. She was wearing an ankle-length red dress with a side slit that ran up to her thigh. From his vantage point Michael could see straight down her neckline. The sight stirred absolutely no interest.

“You’ve got a month off,” she said, pausing to catalogue Michael’s injuries as he stripped. “Looks like you’ll need every second of it.”

“I thought you needed the money.” Michael strode over to the hot springs and lowered himself into the water. If he concentrated he could hear the crowd’s distant cheers as another man died.

“I don’t have a choice.”

She walked over to the edge of the springs and stood over him, waiting for him to ask why. Michael kept his eyes closed, tried to imagine he was somewhere else. Someone else.

“The Prince is getting married,” she finally said. “He requested you specifically after seeing your performance today. You’re barred from fighting until the wedding feast.”

While she calculated her losses, Michael relished the thought of the month ahead. One month’s respite meant at least ten or fifteen men he didn’t have to kill.

“What’ll I do with myself for a month?” he murmured to the water.

“You’ll train.” His master squatted down to his level, her entire leg exposed, the hem of her dress dipping into the water. “They’re pitting you against the Bull. He’s double your size, squashes men with his fingers. You need to bulk up.”

“I need to sleep,” Michael retorted. His body ached. His bones ached. Worst of all was his conscience. How many more men could he kill before he lost every last bit of himself?

“Sleep?” She sneered. “And what, work on your sleep muscles?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t crack a smile. “Exactly that.”

“If you win, the Prince will clear all my debts,” she snapped. “If you die, I’ve got nothing.”

He nodded to her legs. “You can always sell that.”

Michael wasn’t expecting the slap — and neither was she. She straightened, her hand stiff with surprise. “Sleep or train, do whatever you want. But if you’re not ready, you’ll be dead the moment you step into the pit.”

Michael picked dried blood from under his fingernails. “I’m already dead.”

* * *

That night there was a feather pillow on his cot.

Thankfully, it didn’t smell of her perfume. Instead it smelled of the pine needles in his home town and the cheap soap his mother used to use.

Michael closed his eyes and dreamed of another life as his sleep muscles repaired his body.

With another few sleeps, he’d have enough left in him to kill one more man.

And then his debt to her would be over.

(Inspired by Lindsay.)


“I’m working on a weird theory,” Tim announced to the chat room.

He had their attention now.

It was eleven o’clock at night; the perfect time for conspiracies. Tim skimmed through the list of chat room participants in the top right of his visual field until he was satisfied that only regulars were plugged in.

He nudged the room into invite-only mode and turned to face the three other avatars floating in space. Yes: actual outer space. A replica Earth hung below them, the moon floating gently overhead. Tim remained standing on the space station, preferring the illusion of ground beneath his feet. Cyberspace was confusing enough without zero gravity thrown in.

“Next time I pick a room theme,” he said sourly to Steve, the only one who’d bothered to create a spacesuit for his avatar. Imagine the Incredible Hulk in a spacesuit: not pretty.

Judging by Steve’s scowl, that thought-strand had escaped him. As soon as Tim got back to meatspace, he needed to upgrade his implants… as long as his theory was wrong, that is.

“Your theory?” Steve grunted.

“Ah. Yes. I’ve a question for you all: when you press your bellybutton, does it kind of tingle, like there’s a nerve there?” Tim’s index finger tapped against his stomach in demonstration. “Because mine does.”

“Yeah!” Sarah chimed in. “That tingle drives me nuts when I get an itch there!” Her avatar for the evening was a mottled puppy with large, dark eyes. She doggy-paddled through space, brown-tipped tail wagging. Hearing a human voice emanate from non-human jaws never failed to disconcert.

Tim was a traditionalist: he stuck to normal humanoid male avatars, just dissimilar enough from his actual appearance to protect his identity.

“No,” Steve said. He poked his bellybutton with progressively more force. “Now it tingles, though.”

“I’m not sure that counts.” Tim shook his head, the ball of nerves in his stomach hardening. “So if it’s not a gender discrepancy… Michelle? What about you?”

Michelle’s eyes were cold and flat, her translucent skin glittering in the starlight. She slid up the hem of her silk t-shirt high enough to expose her stomach. “I don’t have a bellybutton.”

“I meant in meatspace–“

“Why are you wasting our time with this?” Michelle cut in.

“Because if it’s not a gender difference, then what is it? What if the government is implanting nanobots in our stomachs to track us? Both Sarah and I have recently had new implant surgeries. They could easily have taken advantage of our unconscious state to plant a bug.”

Steve deleted his spacesuit so he could move in closer. “Have you run diagnostics in meatspace?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “Nothing.”

Sarah’s tail had dropped between her legs, her ears pulled back. “If the government finds out about my P2P history I’m doomed.”

“We all are,” Steve said. He placed a hand on Tim’s shoulder, requesting access. Tim strengthened the firewall around his personal memories, then let him in.

Michelle floated closer, her skirt billowing behind her. “What are you doing?”

“If there are really nanobots in Tim’s stomach, they will have incorporated themselves into every version of himself, including his avatar. We can run more thorough diagnostics here, identify any foreign presences unconnected to his mind.”

Was it Tim’s imagination, or had his bellybutton begun to tingle again?

Sarah trotted over. “Michelle, do me! Come on.”

Michelle placed a hand on Sarah’s back, but her eyes never left Steve.

“There’s something there, alright,” Steve said, eyes flicking back and forth as he read his displays. “A low frequency emission coming from your navel. I’m trying to track its destination; it can’t be going far…”

Steve’s hand tightened painfully around Tim’s shoulder. His other hand wrapped around Michelle’s throat in the blink of an eye. “You!” he snarled, before diving into her mind.

The connection between Tim and Steve was still open. Tim felt the impact of slamming into Michelle’s firewall, followed Steve through the cracks into the person beneath.

Except… Michelle wasn’t a person.

The thin layer of her personality was a shield covering a hive mind. An artificial mind.


The message was broadcast on every available frequency, sending Tim and Steve reeling. The chat room melted into darkness, and all of a sudden Tim realised he was alone.


Not even an echo.

He blinked and tried to remove his goggles, then realised he had no hands, no face.

If Tim had had a mouth, he would have screamed.

* * *

Somewhere in meatspace, Tim’s body is being unplugged, the nanobots removed. His body they will destroy. His consciousness, however…

The nanobots have enough data to recreate a virtual likeness. His consciousness will be the thin shield covering the hive mind beneath.

(Inspired by this. Thanks Tim!)


I’ve been waiting for you.



I have one more story to tell.

When I was your age, my life’s word count was an incomprehensible, endless number.

Over the years I chipped away at my wealth. I murmured and babbled. Whispered and shouted. Rambled and lectured.

At university I learned words in other languages, trebling my output. Then I met your mother, and words of love consumed us both. And then you arrived…

The years passed and eventually my word count became a recognisable number. A finite number. So I stopped saying please and thank you, and pushed past people rather than say excuse me.

The elderly are rude because they know how few words they have left.

But your mother didn’t care. She spoke indiscriminately. She said money is for spending and words are for speaking. And then… she passed.

I hoarded my words and lived on. But for what?

In 102 words it’ll all be over, and only now I see your mother was right.

Without a word limit to our lives, our words would have no value. But even worse, the words you hoard have the least value of all.

I should have told your mother that I loved her a thousand times more than I did. I should have told you I love you…

35 words left.

Don’t make my mistake. Words are for speaking and life is for living. I’m sorry I was not the father I should have been.

I love you. I love you. I love –


The fight changed him.

The knife sliced straight through his prefrontal cortex, taking with it the man I used to know.

He doesn’t touch me anymore. Doesn’t kiss me anymore. At night I lie in bed alone on sheets that no longer smell of him.

He sits downstairs all day, staring into the mirror. Whisker wrinkles crease his eyes as he traces the raw, raised edges of flesh, trying to remember.

It’s healing, though. Doctors say it won’t be long until he is back to how he used to be.

The knife is ready for that moment.

How To Publish Your Novel In Print

I never realised how lucky I was.

Thanks to 1889 Labs, I’ve avoided the hassle of publishing. No typesetting, no exporting ePubs and mobi files, no cover-making or spine calculations… and absolutely NO dealing with any retailers and distributors.

Until now.

Sadly, 1889 Labs is in a position where it needs to cut back – so it’s down to me to make sure my books get (re)published.

Boy, is it a steep learning curve.

In this post I’m sharing what I’ve learned so far about the print on demand (POD) options available.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

Where to print your book

There are many POD services, but ideally you want to focus on the ones that will offer you the best distribution and price. The ones I know of are:

  • Lulu
  • Createspace (Amazon’s POD arm)
  • Lightning Source (owned by Ingram, a huge book distributor)
  • Ingram Spark (also owned by Ingram, a Createspace rival)

Disclaimer: I can’t vouch for the print quality of any of these companies other than Lightning Source.



  • The publishing process seems easy; you’re guided step-by-step with templates and manuals.
  • The only cost incurred is for a printed proof copy. (I assume you’d be able to review a digital proof for free.)
  • Lulu offers hard back printing options and some unusual sizes (but IMO you’re best off sticking to trade sizes).


  • Lulu seems to have high manufacturing costs. Buying copies of your own book is expensive, plus you’ll have to price them quite highly in order to earn a decent amount of royalty.
  • To me, Lulu has a negative reputation for vanity publishing.

I couldn’t find out whether you can control the wholesale discount.

Verdict: The high manufacturing costs don’t make Lulu worth your while. Plus, it’s Lulu. Eugh.

Createspace (aka Amazon)


  • The publishing process is painless; there’s a step-by-step guide or an advanced option for experts.
  • Digital proofs are free, and print proofs only cost a few bucks.
  • You can get a Createspace ISBN for free.
  • Your book will never show up as out of print (or taking 3-4 weeks delivery) as it could do if you use a third party to distribute to Amazon.
  • A lot of people buy books on Amazon.


  • If you want ‘extended distribution’ (to libraries, bookstores, etc) you have to use a Createspace ISBN. That means Createspace is listed as your publisher, which marks your book as self-published.
  • Bookstores often do not like ordering from Amazon.
  • You can’t control wholesale discounts. It’s 20% for the Createspace store, 40% to Amazon, and 60% to other retailers. So books that sell outside of Amazon will earn you a lot less royalty.
  • No hard back printing options.

Verdict: Despite all the negatives, Createspace is very easy to use and I would recommend it if Amazon is your main selling point.

Lightning Source

LS is primarily aimed at medium-large publishers so is unlikely to work for individual authors – but I’ve given a run down below.


  • Owned by Ingram, the biggest book distributor in the world.
  • I can personally vouch for the great print quality of the books.
  • They have a nifty cover template generator which automatically creates a bar code out of your ISBN.
  • You can set your own wholesale discount for retailers, and allow or refuse returns. Depending on what settings you pick, bookstores will be far more likely to order your books than if they were distributed through Createspace.


  • You HAVE to be set up as a company to have an account. It’s not easy either to; faxing legal documents etc, etc.
  • Other than the cover template generator, you have no support. Your files need to be 100% ready to go.
  • Their website was built in the 13th century. Seriously.
  • It’s the most expensive. Setting up a book is $75, proof copies are $35, and revisions cost $40.
  • Amazon hates competitors, so often lists LS books as taking 3-4 weeks delivery despite it being POD.
  • You need to buy/supply your own ISBNs.

Verdict: Lightning Source offers high quality and great distribution to the brick and mortar side of the business. If you want to really invest and set up a company, pick them.

Ingram Spark

This is a fairly new sister company to Lightning Source, focused on authors and small publishers.


  • Allows you to distribute ebooks and print books at the same time, so you don’t have to submit all the information twice.
  • Great way to get your ebooks to the non-Kindle market.
  • Owned by the largest book distributor in the world.
  • Lightning Source handles the printing, so the quality should be good.
  • You can choose between a 55% wholesale discount or a shorter 40% discount.
  • Book stores are more likely to order books from Ingram than Amazon (assuming you select 55% discount and allow returns).


  • Only launched last summer, so is still playing catch up with Createspace in many respects.
  • You need to buy/supply your own ISBNs.

Verdict: In terms of extended (non-Amazon) distribution, Ingram Spark has a better offer than Createspace. The print quality of books is likely to be higher. However the experience isn’t as slick – yet.

Other companies

There are doubtless other countless print on demand companies – but I don’t think any could match the flexibility and distribution offered by the ‘big’ boys Amazon and Ingram.

Best of both worlds?

If you want the easy, fast route and think most of your sales will come through Amazon, publish on Createspace and be done with it.

My plan is to take a little more time and not put all my eggs in one basket.

Amazon prefers to buy from Createspace. So I’ll publish through Createspace, using my own ISBN. That means I won’t get their extended distribution – but I don’t want it.

Using the same ISBN, I will publish the book through Ingram Spark for extended distribution. (Ingram Spark does not allow Createspace ISBNs so you must have your own.)

Why the same ISBN? Because sales are tracked by ISBN. If you have two different ISBNs for the same book, it will mess up the sales stats. Don’t do it!

That’s my plan, anyhow.

I’m still struggling to get Ingram Spark up and running – but I am confident that they will be a good choice once they iron out some kinks.




“I swear to you, I’ve discovered the origin of clapping.”

Mike delivered this sentence with his usual awkward solemnity. His every word was vetted before he spoke, each syllable careful, precise. “After months of research, I’ve found it,” he continued. “History in the making.”

Jen glanced at her car, its red bonnet gleaming in the sunlight, then back to Mike. His tall, skinny frame filled the doorway. Sunglasses shrouded his eyes, and the black trilby perched on the back of his head added an element of geeky rakishness.

Maybe she should call off this social visit. She felt guilty, sure, but she’d expected to find Mike heartbroken and despondent, not completely off the rails.

For old time’s sake, she thought. Then, before she lost her courage: “Are you going to invite me in?”

“Of course!” He stepped back, beckoned her through. As Jen crossed the threshold, her nose wrinkled. The house smelled stale and earthy. The floor was littered with crumbs, and a trail of cashews led down the hallway towards the lounge.

Mike shut the door, shrugged self-consciously. “That’s Cal’s doing.” From his voice to his movements, every mannerism was fastidious — which made the state of his home all the more incongruous.

“Your new house mate?”

“Come meet him.”

Jen picked her way down the hallway towards the lounge, sidestepping food wrappers and a pile of unidentifiable brown pellets. She accidentally kicked a paper bag on the floor and almost gagged when a cloud of fruit flies drifted into the air. The smell was growing stronger with every step.

“Are you… okay, Mike?”

“I am MORE than okay.” He ushered her into the lounge, and pointed at a monkey curled up on the sofa the size of her forearm. The monkey was dark grey, and had a wrinkled, pink face surrounded by cotton white tufts of fur. His dark tail curved down the side of the sofa in a question mark.

“Meet Cal,” Mike said. “Short for Caligula.” He was grinning, shifting his weight side to side. In his excitment he’d forgotten that he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. Jen had never seen his eyes before – not this closely, anyway. They were the pale, murky eyes of someone who spent far too much time in tiny science labs researching inane issues.

“He clapped,” Mike said. “Or does clap. Can clap. Not on command, but it’s a start. After months of research I’ve figured it out.”

Jen looked between Cal and Mike, didn’t know which was worse. How the animal spent so much time with Mike, she never knew. Clapping Cal the monkey. It had a ring to it, anyway.

“All my life,” Mike continued, “I’ve wondered why people clapped. When it started. It’s such a long-standing cross-cultural phenomenon and we know SO little about it! This could be important, Jen! History, made in this room!”

“Clapping. Important.” She nodded slowly. “Right.” A quick glance over at the monkey, whose mouth was hanging open. Sound asleep. Not in the least noteworthy.

She’d come here because she felt bad. Mike was a friend; or had been a friend until research had consumed his life. He’d been a socially well-adjusted (albeit geeky) guy, dating a beautiful woman who happened to be her other best friend. Until said girl best friend dumped guy friend, and she was left caught in the middle like melted cheese in a sandwich.

Her tummy grumbled. Well, not exactly like melted cheese. But she was hungry so the simile would have to do.

Mike had found his sunglasses and put them back on. He had the thin, contented smile of one who has found a secret treasure. He sat on the sofa beside Cal and beamed at Jen, waiting for her verdict.

“You’re not photophobic, are you?” Jen asked, all of a sudden. She nodded at the glasses. “You know…”

The lower half of Mike’s face looked confused. “I tell you about my ground breaking discovery and you ask that?”

She shrugged. “I’ve always wondered. You didn’t use to wear them all the time, before…”

Mike turned away, grabbing a small blanket from the sofa and lovingly tucking it around Cal. “They protect me,” he said. “It’s an extra layer between me and the world.” He turned his head to her but she couldn’t see anything past the dark glass. “Besides, it means I can spy on people. When I wear these no one knows where I’m looking.”

Jen looked at the v-neck of her top. “You’re not… perving on me, are you?”

“There’s more to life than THAT, Jen. Like, at least ten percent more.”

“And that ten percent includes monkeys clapping?”

Mike nodded. “This could be proof that we not only evolved genetically from monkeys – but also kept or developed their cultural traditions. Cal here could be recreating those first few moments in the history of clapping. He’s never met another monkey to learn that behaviour from, and has never seen a human clap. This is a brand new development… but what’s most important is that he does it with PURPOSE. A single, strong clap.”

He sensed her disinterest, his fingers flittering against his jeans. “I’ll show you, then you’ll know what I mean.” The monkey was stirring, his big dark eyes boring into Jen. He crawled into Mike’s lap, staring at Jen with the blatant curiosity of a child.

“Go on then,” Jen said. “Make him clap.”

“Do you just clap for no reason?” Mike shook his head. I can’t MAKE him clap. He has to be impressed by something.” He picked Cal up, swinging him onto his shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “So far Cal has done 100% of his clapping in the kitchen.”


Mike didn’t answer.

Jen followed Mike through the lounge and into the kitchen. Mike set Cal down on the counter, accidentally kicking the recycling bin as he did so. A few fruit flies danced into the air, swirling like dark dust motes.

“Well?” Jen said. “I haven’t got all day you know.”

“It won’t take long. I think.”

Jen put her hands on her hips. “How many times has he clapped?”

Mike looked sheepish now. “Once. Two days ago. I haven’t been able to get him to repeat it since. I’ve tried recreating the exact circumstances, creating new circumstances… anything. But I can’t seem to impress Cal anymore. See, the first time he clapped I had successfully flipped an omelette for the first time. But when I did it a second time, Cal didn’t think it was interesting anymore.”

The silence stretched between them. Everything Jen had wanted to say was burning within her: the condolences, the sympathy, even the reassurances that his ex-girlfriend was either heartbroken or doing just fine (she wasn’t quite sure which he wanted to hear). But when she looked at the monkey sitting on the counter, all the words dried up.

Mike kicked the recycling bin. “I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”

Cal clapped.

A single, purposeful clap.

He looked at Jen and Mike for a single moment of silence, then studied his hands.

“Did you SEE that?” Mike exclaimed with a woop. “I’m on to something, I told you! I’m on to something!”

Or maybe, Jen thought as she forced a smile and agreed, your monkey’s just killing fruit flies.

Cal lifted his head, looked straight at her, and clapped again.