from "When Fire Splits the Sky"


After he and the girl are done, Ben stands in the motel bathroom in his undershirt and boxers, the faucet running water so hot it forms steam-ghosts on the mirror. He’s flushed, hair tousled, trying to force himself back into what he considers his true self. This, the guy in the motel, that’s not him. Not really.

Ostensibly, he’s out here on a hunting trip, but every city, every town, it’s always the same thing. It’s there if you know what to look for. What else is he supposed to do? How else is he supposed to function, not only in his normal life but also as some kind of support for Maranda? He’s supposed to come home and take care of dinner and everything else while she sleeps through the day. The rare times they do have sex just lead to fighting anyway. If he didn’t have a way to blow off steam he probably would have called it quits months ago.

At least this way—out of town, anonymous—it’s not messy. It’s biology, a prescription, if you think about it. Maybe a better man would be able to navigate all this without an outlet, but at least now he’s able to come back home and be patient with her, without pressuring her to have sex with him when she’s clearly got no interest of her own. If anything, she should have some sympathy for him, honestly.

Ben stops. Takes a breath. He’s a fucked up guy and he knows it. There’s a maw in his belly that swallows each orgasm as soon as it ends. He scoops water over his forearms, pulls out the waistband of his boxers and scrubs himself, then lathes water as hot as he can take it over his chest and neck and face. He grips the edge of the sink, lets his head fall.

He can’t do this anymore. He fucking can’t. 

Driving in, he’d seen in the distance a collection of clouds windblown into the shape of a fist. They were backlit to a bloody orange, edges rimmed with dark. A familiar feeling accompanied it, the kind of brimstone guilt he still associates with his father.

The truth is, he wants to be different. Wants to not be the kind of man who needs sex to shore himself up. All his life he’s been limping along, trying to hide it, but all this hiding is about to choke him out. He never comes home feeling anything but dirty, hesitant to touch anything. Like it’s not his house anymore. He tries to mask it, tries to make her laugh, but he’s a performer in his own life.

There was a couple that came in probably twice a week to the pharmacy where he worked to refill their blood thinners or heart medications, whatever. He can’t even remember their names, but a few weeks ago it was just the woman. When Ben realized the old guy had probably passed away, it fell into his head that if he himself died, no one would have known him, like, at all. Since then, he’s been feeling the pressing need not only to stop, but to tell her. There’s so much she doesn’t know. He wants to call, tell her what’s been going on, that he wants to stop but doesn’t know how, that he’s sorry, and that he’s certain there’s got to be something deep within him, something good—but everything’s so grimed over he can’t even access it long enough to wrestle it into words.

Through the door, he hears the girl get up and leave. Enough, he thinks, steam rising from his skin. No more.

This was the last time, he tells himself. The absolute last time.   


Going out, he nods at the muscular guy in the blazer he paid earlier, but the guy doesn’t look up. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Clouds coil. Rainbow smears of oil spread on the pavement.

Ben takes his wedding ring out of his pocket and slides it back on. He tries to will some better part of himself to the fore. And even though the inside of him is all clawed over, he thinks that maybe he can feel something fall away from him as he walks into the evening. Scales from his heart. There’s a difference to this day. Like maybe he’s on the verge of actually changing.

When he looks up, at first he doesn’t recognize the woman with her arms crossed, leaning against his Land Rover’s door. Absently, she spins a phone between two fingers.

“Hey,” she says, and actually smiles, which is scary as hell. Ben freezes, keys still stupidly in his hand, like he might be able to muscle this into a normal or an okay moment.

Maranda raises her eyebrows. “Had a bad feeling,” she says. “Were you with someone?”

 A pickup pulls into the restaurant next door. It’s now or never. Ben tongues the inside of his lip. When he finally speaks there’s no volume to it. “Yeah.”

For a moment, she doesn’t do anything. Like maybe she didn’t know what he meant. But then she flinches, blinks hard.

“Mar,” he says, but she doesn’t hear him. She twists her head to the left like she’s cracking it, but he knows she’s not. He watches the tremble leave her face as she exhales, closes her eyes, and rolls her neck out again. She turns without saying anything else and marches across the lot.

“Wait,” Ben calls, following. “Mar, wait. It’s not…Mar!”

She gets in, slamming the door. He stands in front of the car, blocking her, but when he sees her eyes dare-widen, he steps back.

She screeches out. Ben stands with his hands interlocked above his head, squished under some blind malice. A dog barks. He kicks the tire of his Land Rover, then does it again. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, but before he knows it, he’s keyed half the length of a seventy-thousand-dollar SUV. The clouds are breaking into shreds behind him, clots of darkened color bleeding into the clear. He smacks the window again and again, blind and lunatic, like he could raze the thing with his bare hands, wreck it all down to nothing.



Tyler James Russell

Tyler James Russell is the author of To Drown a Man (2020), a poetry collection, and When Fire Splits the Sky (2022), a novel, both from Unsolicited Press. He works as an educator and lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Cat and their children. His writing has been nominated for the Rhysling and Best of the Net, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction, F(r)iction, Janus Literary, and the NonBinary Review, among others. You can find him at, on Twitter at @TJamesRussell, or on Instagram @_TJamesRussell. Tyler recommends the Polaris Project.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, November 28, 2022 - 22:05