Excerpt from King of Joy

by Richard Chiem

Someone hands Corvus a Polaroid-it’s a photo of herself she doesn’t recognize-and the boy who gives it to her is the chubbiest at the party. The photo feels like a gift from a nightmare, something she should not be holding, something close to vertigo. There is a ringing in her ears still, her face bright and damp. Outside, the rain slackens against the tall Victorian house, trees push to the windows.

He’s the chubbiest boy at the party but he’s polite, she can tell that he’s polite. He waits with his head down and doesn’t say anything; he hands her a red plastic cup of water.

It is a Polaroid of her biting a knife with an unknown hand cupping her breast outside her tank top. In the photo, her eyes are closed and she looks more at peace than she has been recently.

She feels a tingling on her neck and the turbulence of the dryer in final spin against her back. She’s wearing Michelle’s old Slayer T-shirt, which is stretched at the chest, waiting for her clothes to dry in a nook at the stairs away from the party. A small birthmark on her chest shows above her camisole underneath: it looks like a crescent moon. Corvus likes him almost immediately and she arches her back, watching where he stares.

She imagines having larger breasts than she does. Corvus says, Thank you. I don’t remember this. She shakes the Polaroid like it’s developing.

He looks up at her and sticks out his stiff hand and says, Perry, my name is Perry. That’s my hand.

It is, says her voice.

No, I mean that’s my hand in the photo.

She says, This is you?

Corvus looks at the photo again and looks at his hand and says, I don’t remember this at all, Perry. She doesn’t reach to shake his hand.

Perry appears shocked to hear his own name, his face glows, he stands a little straighter and recovers.

Perry nods and says, I’m sorry, I think you were really drunk. And sad about something but you wouldn’t say. You stuck out a knife towards me and asked me to take a picture. You yelled for my hand.

Corvus whispers, Jesus. I’m sorry.

Perry hands her a joint and says, No, I’m sorry, and walks away to the other end the party, in the cloud of smoke and dim neon. The dance floor lights up downstairs. Corvus watches Perry join the others, a sea of dark bobbing heads, young bodies.

A bedroom door flings open and Michelle walks out, her skirt rolled to her waist, and there is a little blood on her knuckles as she smiles and walks up to Corvus. Michelle says, Hey.

A boy with a bloody nose runs out of the room looking upset, holding his baseball cap in one hand. He nearly falls on his face scrambling away.

Michelle sits next to Corvus on the stairs and Corvus can see Michelle’s clothes are nearly ruined, there are little tears here and there. Michelle says, I lost a button.

Corvus asks, What happened to that guy? She eyes and follows a small trail of blood on the carpet.

Asshole kept telling me to smile so I told him to smile, says Michelle’s voice; she sounds hollow and faraway. Michelle takes the Polaroid from Corvus’ grip. She asks, Did you say hi to Perry?

Did you see this happen?

Michelle starts cackling laughter, leaning her head against Corvus’ chest and collar bone.

Michelle says, You don’t remember? The other night. You pulled a knife on that guy and ordered him around. It was funny as shit.

Corvus asks, What else happened?

You did another shot of tequila and told him you liked him a lot. Michelle’s eyes look as though she is about to faint. She says, You told him to get you high the next time you see him.

As quickly as she came, before Corvus can say another word, Michelle leaves and follows a new boy in a baseball cap down her red hallway. She can hear Michelle say that she’s lost a button, repeating herself over and over again in an unbelievable echo heard despite the dance music. Corvus catches herself mouthing lyrics, looking dreamy and drowsy into the dark mass downstairs, the throbbing hip-hop. Her mind fires and fires, forming his face just as it was just now.


In the dark of smoke, Corvus approaches Perry and touches the small of his back and says, Hey. She whispers something else in his ear but he can’t quite hear what she’s saying, the mob of bodies around them swarm and bump and grind. The bass speaker vibrates the floor, the balls of bare feet. Some faces are kissing. Corvus says, I’m sorry for pulling a knife on you.

Perry moves the strands of hair around her ear and says, It’s okay. His face is expressionless, suddenly blue like the hovering neon light above him, then green then purple.

She asks, Were you scared?

Perry shakes his head and smiles at her. He says, I’m not scared of you.

Corvus says, very clearly, You don’t have a baseball cap.

He says, No.

Touching his chest, Corvus says she really loves that. Corvus holds the joint between them and asks, Do you want to go somewhere?

With fingers interlocked, the heart pumps new blood as she leads him out of the back door away from the pounding stereos, a little calm arriving with what little terror she feels. The crowd parts. No one stares at her, she stares at everyone in her decided detachment, her desired demure. He seems like he’s there to listen to her, he is easy to be around, the hand in the picture, this brand new person. It goes quiet between them. She feels her pocket for a lighter before he slips one in her hand and gently curls her fingers amidst the wet woods where a fog settles and blankets around them. They can smell mint in the air.

Richard Chiem is the author of the book of short stories, You Private Person. His work has been published in City Arts Magazine, Fanzine, and Everyday Genius, among other places. He currently lives in Seattle with his wife.