Monday, March 18, 2024

“Broken” • by Karin Terebessy

Mike and I walk into a sporting goods store, hoist a canoe over our heads and onto our shoulders, and portage out without paying. My head’s buried between two gunnels at the stern. Only close sounds reverberate in the hollow of aluminum; our squeaky sneakers, my steady breath.

If I look straight ahead, I see Mike at the bow, his red hair seeming to emit light. An impossibility that hurts my eyes straight into my brain. So I look down and follow his heels, like air bubbles, to the surface.

We portage along the ravine by the highway, down the off ramp, and all the way to the Naugatuck River.

I steady the boat with my foot as Mike climbs in.

“No oars,” I say.

He grins and shoves me so hard I fall back against the bank as the boat launches forward. I hit my head on a rotten tree stump. It’s okay. I’m wearing my thick wool cap, pulled low over my ears.

Mike yells something to me as he drifts down river, mimes for me to take off my hat.

I hear him shout, “Sorry, dude! This won’t work if you see me die,” before he disappears around the bend.


I stuff cotton into my auditory canals. I twist toilet paper tight and deep into the channels, like a worm boring holes. I wear ear plugs Mike steals for me and a wool cap with thick ear flaps. I wrap gauze around my head like a wounded soldier.

Anything to silence the world.


I go to the library. It’s cool in the summer, warm in the winter. There’s a bathroom and free coffee for patrons. I read philosophy, science, mythology.

Mike sits next to me; chews his thumbnail. Many of his nails are striped with parallel white lines that run across them.  “You have a protein deficiency,” I state.“Your nails.”

He glances at them. “What this? Calcium deficiency, right?”

“That’s a misconception.”

“Hm,” he mumbles, spits out a piece of nail. “What do you think of that girl over there?” He nods at the librarian. She’s old and shaped like a cartoon woman with wide hips and thick legs.

“Don’t talk to me,” I mumble back. “I don’t like sounds.”

His skin crackles with a grin. “You know, you talked to me first, buddy.”

I furrow my brow. “Is this the first time we’re meeting?”

Patrons look up when he laughs. His laughter feels good in my brain.

“You are one weird dude,” he says, “know that?”

“I’m broken,” I apologize.

“Who isn’t?” His ragged nails catch on the fabric of my shirt as he gives my shoulder a squeeze.


Life is timeless.

Soup kitchens. Dumpsters. Day olds.

At the Sikh Temple, they feed me milky tea and mushy bread. At the Congregational Church, they feed me Christ between bites of cake and cookie. At the Synagogue, they ask me to wait as the Rabbi blesses the bread. They ply me with wine and questions and challah.

I love moments of silence. The scent of prayer books. Choirs. Cantors. Gentle kindness. Everything but the chatter.


I dig a discarded burger from the trash and walk into McDonald’s.

“This burger is half-eaten,” I state. “And stale.”

No one asks if I ate it. They hand me a fresh burger and a coupon for fries.

I try never to lie.


Girls kiss Mike. Mike kisses them back. Sucks the gum from their mouths and the lipstick from their lips. He will kiss anyone, steal anything. Everyone knows this about him.

I sit under the bridge, by myself. A chunk of concrete has fallen away from a supporting wall, creating a small alcove that protects me from the wind.

Some people are gathered around a barrel, burning trash, on the other side of the underpass.

I jam my hands into my pockets. Tuck my chin low into my chest. It’s cold. New England is a cold place.

Mike looks over at me, jogs lightly across the space, and kicks my shoe lovingly.

“That’s a warm-looking hat you’ve got on there, dude. Mind if I borrow it? You can have my spot at the barrel,” he offers.

“I need my hat,” I mutter. “It helps block out the noise.”

“What noise?”


Mike snorts and claps his hands. Each clap echoes beneath the bridge; inside my skull.

Flopping down beside me, he sighs to catch his breath and cozies up next to me, until our touching sides grow warm.“And they told me you were deaf,” he muses.

“I’m the opposite of deaf.”

He chuckles softly. “I don’t even know what that means.”


Monks come from Tibet and take up residence in the foyer of the all-girls private school in Middlebury. For one week, they create a sand painting. At the week’s end, they will release it into the wind. It is open to the public. Anyone can watch their process.

It’s warm in the lobby, with its thick velvet drapes and maroon carpeting. And quiet as the monks work. Girls rushing to classes, hush as they walk through.

Mike keeps getting phone numbers. Re-tells them to me so I will remember them for him.

“Don’t you have a cell?” The girls ask. “I could text you. Or write it down.”

“Don’t worry,” he assures them, “my buddy’s got an auralgraphic memory. He remembers everything he hears.”

The Dean comes towards us in beige high heels that sink into the carpet, causing her to wobble as she walks. “I think you boys have enough numbers.”

Mike asks for hers. She gives us thirty seconds to vacate the premises before calling the cops.

“Thirty seconds your time or his?” Mike indicates me with a wink.

I grab his elbow and force him to run.


I remember everything I hear but I don’t know that I’m remembering. Not exactly. To remember, by definition, means there must be a past. But there is no past. There is only now. Inside my head, outside my head, it’s only ever now.

Everything I hear lives inside my brain and doesn’t move; doesn’t file away.

Each new sound adds a rubber band to an ever growing ball that slams down into my brain over and over, without end, without beginning. No way to know which sound comes first, fiftieth, last. No way to unravel the input. No way to know what is now, what is then, what is inside, what is out.


In the shelter, we lie on our cots—army cots with thin pillows and worn sheets.

“Tell me a story to pass the time,” Mike says.

“There’s no such thing as passing time.”

Mike groans. “Tell me anything, dude. A story. A story about someone more broke than us.”

I tell him how Herman Melville was so broke, his ink would freeze in the inkwells from lack of sufficient heat. I tell him how Edgar Allen Poe chopped up furniture to burn for warmth. I tell him about Diogenes who went broke on purpose, giving up everything but a loin cloth and a cup to drink from. One day, down by a river, Diogenes sees a boy drinking from his joined hands. He tosses away his cup and says, ‘I have been shamed.’

“He sounds like a charlatan,” Mike says.

“He’s a cynic.”

“Call it whatever you want. He sounds like he’s working an angle.”

“He didn’t believe in honest men, either.”

“That’s just a fact, man. Belief’s got nothing to do with it.” The bed springs squeak as he rolls onto his side. 


I break into my foster mom’s office and use her computer.

It’s a misconception that we only use ten percent of our brain. We use all of it. What is true, is that ten percent of our brain is comprised of neurons, while ninety percent of the brain is comprised of glial cells whose function remains unknown.  Using this information, I diagnose myself.

“I have an auralgraphic memory,” I tell the case worker. “Just because it isn’t outlined in the DSM-V doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

“You’re a schizophrenic,” he replies dryly, “and your foster mom wants you out.”

He closes the folder with my paperwork.

“Is this the first time I’ve been here?” I ask him. “Because my file looks thin.”


I understand cause and effect. I understand that events must by necessity flow in a sequence. Small moments contain succession and can be kept in order, encapsulated in a solitary egg.  But there are millions of these metaphorical eggs in my brain that look like every other egg. They are indistinguishable. And they don’t stack or line up or stay in place. They just roll and roll.


Sharp implements do not exist in Juvi. We eat everything with spoons.

“We know you won’t hurt anyone, kid. We just don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

They hand me a relaxation CD. In private, I snap it in half. The edge is thin, bright and  jagged. I bring it to my ear.

Protecting others from harm is law. Protecting me from myself is a violation of free will.


In the food pantry, the retiree fits some extra food into the bag.

“Two bag limit, so let’s use the space wisely, eh?” He winks. He is methodical and masterful, fitting items, shape to shape. The bags strain with his generosity.

He presses a candy bar into Mike’s palm as we leave. “You look like you could use it, son.”

Mike coughs. Wipes his nose with the back of his hand.


They don’t like my hands against my ears. They think it’s disrespectful and handcuff me to the chair. The precinct is so full of noise my jaw almost snaps. I squeeze my eyes, clench my teeth, snuff and flare my nostrils. Anything to block out sound.

“What’s this auralgraphic business?” The officer gestures to his computer screen. “Says here there’s no such thing.”

“Please give me my cap,” I whimper.

“After some questions, buddy.”

“Please give me my cap,” I say over and over until it fills my brain. They take me to a holding cell.


I’m in my room at the Y and Mike’s at the door. He looks pale. His voice sounds sticky, like there’s a windmill lodged in his throat. “My results came back. I got AIDS, dude. They just told me.”

There’s an AIDS Project in Danbury. And one in Hartford.

“They can get you on Title XIX. Free medicine,” I say. I hear people talk about this.

He rubs the back of his neck. “No, that’s not going to work for me.”

He scans my room on instinct, always casing. “No worries, man. I’ll think of something.” He gives my arm a friendly pat.


Sirens scream. Skin and cartilage of my outer ear hang from my head. Blood slides across my cheek, over my lips.

“Easy kid, easy,” the medic says. They strap me down. “Don’t try to talk.”

I need to tell them not to sew my ear back on. But when I open my mouth, all I taste is pennies.


There’s free music on the town green in Naugatuck. Folks bring lawn chairs and buy ice cream. I wear my wool hat pulled low. It’s hot. New England is a hot place. Curious bugs flutter around my sweaty temples. I like chamber music. It has structure and order. It relaxes me.

Mike leans against a tree. His red hair shining brightly. “I’m going to make it so I don’t have AIDS anymore.”


“I’m going to take time out of the equation.”

“Like Einstein.”

Mike blinks. “Sure. Maybe.”

We listen to a piece by Bach. It’s soothing, but Mike is too excited to be soothed.

“I got it all figured out,” he says, his voice climbing higher, “I’m going to live inside your head.”

I lift one ear flap of my cap. “Say that again?”

“I’m going to live inside your head, dude.” His eyes twinkle. His teeth twinkle. “There’s no order in that brain of yours. No chronology, right? That’s what you’ve said. So if I just exist inside your head then I’ll always be alive.”

“But without time you will also be dead inside my brain.”

He waves that away. “No, I got it all figured out. The trick is, you can’t ever know that I die. If you never know I die, I’ll never be dead.”

“Don’t you want to try the medicine?” I say.

“Come on,” his voice cracks. “You just have to make sure you never hear that I’m dead.” He swallows. “Promise me.”

Applause floods over the town green. The musicians rise and bow.

Mike rocks into the balls of his feet, eager to move, raising his eyebrows, asking again.

I nod my head.


Mike and I walk into eternity, hoist time onto our shoulders, and portage out, into the vacuum. My head’s buried between two epochs at the stern. Mike’s at the bow, holding up the future.

We walk sideways. Circle. Turn backward. Go up and then down.

Time gets heavy. I drag it alone. When I flip it off my shoulders, Mike is nowhere to be found.


I read books, pull my wool cap low over my ears, ignore the case worker at the Y, ignore the guys under the bridge, ignore the cops who want to take me to the morgue.

“Buddy, if you don’t identify the body, he’ll just be another John Doe. Is that really what your friend would want?”

I clamp my hands over my ears. Sing “la-la-la” until they go away.

I know what my friend wants.


I sit on a playground swing. Each creak of the rusty chains adds another rubber band in my brain.

Mike sits on the swing next to mine. “Tell me a story to pass the time.”

“There’s no such thing as passing time.”

Mike laughs. At me. With me. But mostly, for me.

“Tell me about that charlatan, then,” he says, “that trickster Diogenes.”

I say, “Diogenes searched with a lantern for an honest man.”

“I never stole a lantern,”  Mike says and kicks his toe into the dust.  “And I never felt like looking.”


I find a thick wool cap in the lost and found bin beneath the bleachers on the little league field. I pull it down low over my ears. The sound of breath fills my skull.

The world goes silent.


Karin Terebessy likes to write speculative flash fiction stories. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, Sci-Phi Journal, and other ‘zines. She is currently attempting to write a novel based on her short story “Mood Skin” which appeared in Stupefying Stories in 2016. You can follow Karin on TikTok @karinbendsreality or find her on Instagram at karinterebessy.

Her most recent appearance in our pages is “Bandages” in Stupefying Stories 26. Before that, she’s been with us since “The Memory of Worms,” in the now out-of-print Stupefying Stories 16, and has given us many SHOWCASE stories, including, “Robin’s Egg,” “Not Quite Ready for Armageddon,” “The Finder of Lost Things,” “Mood Skin,” and “The Real Reason Why Mrs. Sprague Came by Her House So Cheaply.”


Normally this is the point in the post where we put in an advertisement for a book, but today, we’re putting in a plug for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. NAMI is an alliance of more than 600 local Affiliates and 49 State Organizations who work to raise awareness, provide support and education, and strive to build better lives for those affected by mental illness.

In particular, NAMI sponsors many fundraising walks, throughout the year and all over the country, to raise awareness and raise funding for their programs. If you want to get involved you can find one near you through the website, NAMIWalks. The next one is this coming Saturday, March 23rd, in Fort Myers, FL.

If you’ve been looking for a way to do something good in a good cause, here’s your opportunity. 


Becky said...

What a beautiful and unsettling story! Thank you for writing about the humanity behind mental illness, especially one like schizophrenia. I always appreciate your twisting endings!

Anonymous said...

A very powerful and moving story.

Karin Terebessy said...

Thank you for this thoughtful comment

Karin Terebessy said...

I appreciate your feedback. Thank you for reading it and sharing this conment

Mike said...

Another wonderful piece Mrs. Karin. While being the work of fiction, this is a partial but clear snapshot inside the mind for many individuals with mental illness. Your human side to stories always amaze me.

Karin Terebessy said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback

CED said...

My favorite kind of story. I was totally confused at first but then it comes into focus and snaps into place by the end, and on re-read, it was all there all along. Nicely done!

Kerri said...

Your word choices and use of figurative language are like truffles - decadent, satisfying, just perfect. For speculative fiction, you certainly will have me speculating all night! Beautiful piece!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much! Your response has me smiling - YOUR word choices are fabulous too!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment

Misa said...

Heart wrenchingly beautiful.

Karin Terebessy said...

Thank you so much for that response. I think there’s so much beauty in these characters and the people and ideas they represent. Thank you for seeing that.

Anonymous said...

Broken, and so beautiful.

CC said...

I always appreciate the vivid images brought forth in your writing. When I read it, I pay close attention to your word choices. The line “Protecting others from harm is law. Protecting me from myself is a violation of free will” landed as a complicated truth; even if society begs to differ on the second part.

Anonymous said...

Don’t take this the wrong way….your commitment to truth is annoying 😂. You never shy away from the uncomfortable, which makes your writing so piercing. Ouch. I love you remind us to feel, even if it hurts. Truth is always its reward. Thank you Karin.