Best of the Net 2015  


Some physicists believe the world we live in is merely one of an infinite number, all coexisting, but never touching. Once you start playing with infinity, you realize that anything that could happen has happened or is happening in one of those other universes. Some people find this thought ludicrous, others find it terrifying. People like me find the idea of parallel universes reassuring. It doesn’t bother me that in the vast, vast, vast majority of those worlds, I never existed at all. It doesn’t bother me that in quite a few, my life took worse turns. I feel sorry for those Harmonys, but they’re not the ones I think about. I also don’t spend much time imagining the ones who branched off in different directions at a young age. What if my mom had divorced my father when I was an infant, a toddler, in preschool? I have no idea.

When you start dealing with infinity, most things are possible. When you deal with infinity, you start to acknowledge there are likely hundreds or thousands of worlds where I am more or less typing almost exactly this document right now. In some, I didn’t just go out and smoke. I’ve eaten breakfast or had more or less coffee or didn’t run my sister’s water thermos up to her elementary school, and yet, ultimately, the bulk remains unchanged. The beat of a butterfly’s wings might cause a monsoon or might move a speck of dirt.

In this world, I’ve become a person who watches too much TV. Others leave the house, see people, do things, but I lay in bed, a voyeur, devouring the lives of the fictional, living in any world that isn’t this one. I strain to remember what it’s like to be in a relationship, to fall in love, be loved, touch the beloved. Some days, I think I’ll have an aneurysm. Some days, I don’t think I can take any more, bear witness to the fantasy or the semi-real. I see the soul mates who are deeply and desperately in love, who have been together for 15, 20 years, who propose to each other on Project Runway, who hand paint love letters on designer dresses. I sometimes slide lengthwise from my bed to the floor. Cheek on the carpet, I lay there until I feel less crazy.

Most people do not experience that sort of burning love, that long-lasting connection that spans decades. Most of us don’t get that in this world. But in the other worlds, in those alternate universes, in at least one, each of us gets that. And isn’t that what each of us wants, more than anything? In our deepest recesses, burning down in our toes, this desire for a profound, unending love.


I have never been to Memphis. I know almost nothing about Memphis. Right now, in a world next to or on top of this one, simultaneously existing, there is a Harmony in Memphis. She’s been there for almost half her life. She has a Memphis accent, whichever Southern dialect that entails. She didn’t let people convince her that she needed to go straight from high school into college or her life would be ruined, meaningless. Instead, she followed her heart from Florida to Arkansas, where she picked up Bethany, and they ran.

Bethany manages a GNC. It’s not a glamorous job, but it pays the bills and she gets enough time off. She brings home stories of the people who come into the store, the drug dealers who buy expensive plastic jars of a fine white powder that is odorless and tasteless, the body builders, the diet-pill poppers, the teenagers looking to grow bigger boobs, longer penises, get rid of acne. The hypochondriacs who buy hundreds of dollars in supplements each month to ward off illness.

Harmony knows that most of the supplements are at best a scam and at worst harming people, but she’s made her peace with Bethany’s line of work. The reality is, most jobs are at best a scam and at worst harming people. Harmony works as a part-time copyeditor to support her writing. She’s moderately successful with her short stories, placing them in small magazines and the occasional anthology. She’s been trying to sell a few novels based on Vampire: The Masquerade to White Wolf, but so far, they aren’t biting. She worries that they’ve taken her idea and hired someone else to write the books.

But mostly, she doesn’t spend much time worrying. She enjoys her day job well enough, and steadily works on her fiction. Her evenings are spent with Bethany, sometimes going to museums and shows, often staying home with a nice meal and bottle of red wine. Sometimes they buy bottled white Russians and drink them over ice, giggling at themselves all these years later. On weekends they go inner tubing or on road trips to the weird small towns nearby where they order “famous” dishes at local diners and walk through broken cemeteries. Some weekends are reserved for Vampire the Masquerade, the Kindred. Bethany is one of the highest ranking Toreadors in the tri-state area. Some of her peers suspect an unseemly relationship with a Brujah, but no one has been able to prove anything. Sometimes they drive to Jonesboro and go to hoedowns with Bethany’s mother, sit on bales of hay, watch people dance for pies, watch Jan flirt with whatever man is in her life or about to be. They wear fringed Western wear purchased specifically for these occasions, Bethany in red down to her boots and Harmony in browns. They ignore Jan’s panicked expression when they forget themselves and hold hands.

It’s not exactly the life Harmony expected, but it’s a good life. She’s happy. She’s one of those people who married her high school sweetheart (even though she’s not legally married), and it actually works, they’ve both grown into the relationship. She’s not really afraid of anything. She has hopes for the future, goals, but she has everything she needs and wants. At night, she holds Bethany in her arms and feels the peace a person can only feel in the arms of their soul mate, of the person who loves and is loved, deeply, permanently.

This World

It’s an unusually cool morning for late September in central Florida. I sit on the front steps of my mother’s falling-apart triple-wide trailer, smoking cigarettes and considering options I’ve considered before. I could look up Robert Robbins’ mother and give her a call. But why would I do that? I could find out where exactly they’re keeping Robert and send him an envelope with the essays I’ve published about Bethany. The line I’m most proud of is, “Robert Robbins isn’t very good at killing people.” But that might start a dialogue I’m not prepared to enter.

My breath comes shallow and quick, from the smoking and from the anxiety I feel about a fact I know. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to go back. I’ll have to go back to Arkansas. I’m going to have to see Robert Robbins face to face. I comfort myself with the fact of the Americorps position I accepted that begins in November. For at least a year, I’ll be too poor to do it, to go there, to see him. But after that, at some point, I’m going to have to climb in my car and go.

The other thing I consider is looking for Jan again. I’d have to place “Desperately Seeking Susan” ads. There’s no other way, except asking those of you reading this: if you have any idea where she is, please tell me. Do you know how many Janet Whites live in Arkansas? I don’t even know if she’s still in Arkansas. I can’t be sure she’s still alive. I don’t know for sure how old she is, if she’s remarried. I don’t remember Bethany’s dad’s name. I don’t have any of the information I would need to locate Jan, to tell her I’m sorry about everything.


Bethany is at a conference with the other top physicists in her field. They have made great gains on black holes and dark matter. Harmony tagged along to report on the findings for a popular science magazine. Her German is bad. She can’t always remember which nouns are masculine and which are feminine, a problem she’s been informed makes her sounds less intelligent than a toddler, since even children just learning to speak never get those wrong. She’s grateful when anyone speaks English.

Harmony’s a bit disappointed that black holes may not crush a person to a singularity after all, but the possibility of them serving as portals to other regions of the universe intrigues her. She finds that part of the conference much more interesting than Fermi bubbles and the Magellanic Stream and Clouds, but of course, she wouldn’t say so to Bethany.

They stay at a four star hotel and eat exquisite dinners while wearing well-cut dresses. All traces of the South have vanished from their bodies and mouths in the years since they attended college in Memphis. Harmony remembers Bethany’s grad school years and grins. The only real difference now is fiscal, ornamental. Occasional fancy dinners instead of pubs, nicer clothes, a house, a safety net, but the hours haven’t changed and Bethany’s drive hasn’t let up. She’s at her lab from dawn to dusk most weekdays, though she insists they take the weekends off to spend together.

It’s a hectic and stimulating life. Harmony never would have guessed she’d also become so passionate about science, though she admits she prefers researching what others have done and writing about it. The thought of studying one small question until she dies makes her shudder, but it makes Bethany sparkle. They sit at a table full of men, the light glinting off Bethany’s earrings. Harmony watches the shapes Bethany’s red lips make as fluent German spills from them. She doesn’t catch everything, but it’s only dinner and doesn’t matter. She doesn’t care that a few of the men have a leer in their eyes while they watch Bethany speak. If Bethany wants one, they’ll share him. If she doesn’t, they won’t.

Memphis II

Harmony hurries up the gravel driveway of her small rented house, chicken noodle soup, crumpets, and diet coke in the bag in her arms. Bethany has been sick again. She had to call in at GNC. Harmony went to work at her copy-editing job, then swung by the grocery store on her way home.

Something feels wrong before she even gets to the door. She puts her key in the slot, but it’s already unlocked. All the lights are out. A sliver of crescent moon hangs at her back as she pushes the door and it slowly creaks open. Time slows down in that instant. The silver waves of twilight turn her home into an alien space. Her foot lands on something round and squishy. She smells citrus and metal. She turns on the light. She takes in the wreckage of her living room, the oranges all over the floor, the pictures and decorations torn from the walls, the blood smeared across everything, Bethany in a heap, her body leaking from over a dozen wounds, her eyes gouged out, the duct tape wrapping the lower half of her face like a mummy. In the same instant, she does not scream, but she drops the bag she’s holding. In the same instant, she starts to run towards Bethany. In the same instant, she is struck on the head from behind. In the same instant, she hears him growl, “Lesbian whore!”

This World

That’s the story people most want to tell me in this universe: if you had been there, he might have killed you too. Apparently, they think I would find such a story comforting, that it would make my choices better, rational even, that that gruesome tale would somehow be a reason why everything is as it should be, and I am held blameless, a victim who has done all she could. If you’ve told me that story, I invite you to look at it again. Look at it. That’s how you tried to comfort me? You’re sick.

Memphis III

Harmony hurries up the gravel driveway of her small rented house, chicken noodle soup, crumpets, and diet coke in the bag in her arms. Bethany has been sick again. She had to call in at GNC. Harmony went to work at her copy-editing job, then swung by the grocery store on her way home.

Something feels wrong before she even gets to the door. She puts her key in the slot, but it’s already unlocked. All the lights are out. A sliver of crescent moon hangs at her back as she pushes the door and it slowly creaks open. Time slows down in that instant. The silver waves of twilight turn her home into an alien space. Her foot lands on something round and squishy. She smells citrus and metal. She turns on the light. That fucking motherfucker has Bethany on the couch, his hand clutching her hand, which holds a knife to her throat. He’s telling her to do it, she’s worthless, she should just end it. His eyes don’t so much as flicker to where Harmony stands, grocery sack in hand.

Bethany’s eyes manage to blink as Harmony slowly sets down her sack and picks up the aluminum bat she keeps by the front door for exactly this reason. There’s an aluminum bat in every room of the house. She holds the bat ready to swing and slowly walks towards Robert Robbins, who is still repeating his sick mantra in Bethany’s ear.

“Put it down, Robert,” she says in an even tone. He makes no response. Harmony creeps closer, “I’m warning you to put that knife the fuck down right this second.” She pulls back to swing. He drops Bethany’s hand in order to rush Harmony, block her swing with his body blow. Bethany lunges with the knife, sinks it into his back. Harmony scrambles up from where she’s been knocked to the floor. They screech at him to stay down, but he’s trying to get up, to come after them. Harmony hits him as hard as she can in the head with her bat. He stays down.

This World

The problem, generous well-wishers, besides your lack of imagination, is that you don’t know the whole story. How could you? You don’t know the facts and variables that led to Bethany’s death. I might have told you that I’d promised Bethany I’d move to Memphis, then backed out to go to Knox College, but I didn’t tell you I was already turning into someone else, trying to leave my past behind, how I ignored half of Bethany’s phone calls, then, the last time I did pick up, wasn’t all that responsive to anything Bethany had to say, certainly not her idea that she might also escape to that tiny town in the barren Midwest. She took the hint, wrapped it up, said, “I love you,” which we’d been saying to each other for years, all those times she went to the payphone at the Piggly Wiggly, dropping quarter after quarter in the silver and black box to call me in Illinois, all those fifteen dollar conversations, some with her standing in the rain or snow, all the quarters spent just to say and hear those words. I let the silence linger, grow, expand to a void, a slap, a punch, a hateful, hateful black hole of nothingness.

“Bye,” I said.

A shocked silence, a catch in the throat. “Bye,” she whispered.

Mere weeks later, I was only left with me, for the rest of my life, me, the person who’d treated Bethany the way she had, and now Bethany was dead. I lived in the silence of that last phone call, existed in that liminal space I could do nothing to change. I spent months hearing nothing but the sound of my blood in my ears as she sat on the other end waiting, while I withheld the simplest syllables, crushed everything we’d been to a singularity of black silence. But you, new friend, casual acquaintance, professor, administrator, counselor, family member, you decided you had some idea of what plagued me, so you tried to sell me a narrative.

Sure, when one approaches infinity, there are worlds in which Robert Robbins killed us both, but what a tiny, tiny percentage of possible worlds that is, so much smaller than all the worlds in which Bethany and I are both alive today.

Memphis IV

Bethany’s been sick again. She had to call in at GNC. Harmony went to work at her copy-editing job and was planning to swing by the grocery store on her way home. Harmony’s only been at work for a few hours when she gets the call. Robert Robbins was at their house, trying to get Bethany to let him in. She dialed 911. In Memphis, Robert Robbins’ grandfather is not the mayor. The police took their time, but they came and found Robert on the porch, holding a bag of oranges. They arrested him.

Harmony leaves work and drives straight home. She calls the police station to find out how long they’re going to hold him, what she and Bethany can do. In this parallel universe, law enforcement takes the threat of violence seriously. They question Robert. They consider the fact that he drove all the way from Vanderbilt in the middle of the school week to break his restraining order. There is something off with him, they can tell. They listen to Bethany when she tells them that he’s tried to get her to kill herself, that he’s thrown her down stairs and kicked her in the ribs, that he’s hit his own mother, that he’s threatened to kill her. They get in touch with Vanderbilt and have campus security check his room and computer. There, they find his detailed plans to kill Bethany. They charge him with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

This World

It’s difficult to imagine these other universes, the Harmonys and Bethanys in them. I first have to remember who I was back then. I have to strip away the fallout from what happened: the anxiety, the mistrust, the despair, the anger. I have to strip away college, graduate school, the people I’ve met, the friends and lovers, my little sister. If I go back to the major forks in the universe, so many things break off, fizzle away, vanish. Who are those other Harmonys? Are they still conservative? Do they still like Ayn Rand? Are they still loud and opinionated and so very very wrong about most things?

I’d like to think not, especially since Bethany was the first to call me out on my shit, every single time. But I don’t know. How could I know?

And of course, if you peer down one road, you sometimes peer down the alleys too. In some worlds, I no longer have a mother the same way in this world I no longer have a soul mate. In some worlds, my mother did not utter the words, “This is just like Robert and Bethany” while being choked, and my father did not respond, “I don’t know who those people are,” but then let her go.


Bethany came back with me the summer before our senior year in high school. It was obvious Robert Robbins was dangerous, and once it became clear I couldn’t stay, instead of me returning to Illinois and leaving Bethany behind, she came back with me. We applied to the same colleges, agreeing to go wherever we both got in with the best offers. I wanted to go somewhere with an awesome creative writing program. She wanted to go somewhere excellent in science.

She convinced me to apply to Carleton College even though their gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans club was called “HARMONY.” I could too deal with the bad jokes for four years. After all, I’d lived through high school with all the requisite jokes, including the jocks lamely calling out, “Bone Thugs -N- Harmony!” every time I walked by.

We went to Carleton or we went to Knox, or maybe Bethany’s pragmatism won out and we applied to state universities where we got full rides. In any universes where we went to Carleton, I spent many hours at Goodbye Blue Monday, drinking coffee and chai the floor below a woman’s CPA offices, a woman I never met, probably never thought of except to think isn’t “Leota” such a strange name when I saw her sign. I sipped my milky chai never knowing the woman upstairs, who in other universes is my mother-in-law, who in this universe was almost my mother-in-law, is still family, if not legally defined as such.

There are a million branches this line can take, with Bethany and I still friends or lovers or not either any more, but out there, regardless, living a million different lives.

This World

It’s a week after Thanksgiving, a month since Bethany’s been dead sixteen years. An essay I wrote about her death, “You Know this is Madness,” has been nominated for a Pushcart. That’s two for two, two years running. The first was simply titled, “Bethany is Dead.”

Congratulations flood my Facebook. People are sending emails no one sent when the essay was merely published, online, where they could have read it if they’d wanted. I watch the first Hunger Games again on Netflix. When it’s done, I can’t bring myself to open the emails from Facebook, the emails people sent directly to my Gmail. I go to the back porch and light a cigarette. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt in the Florida winter air that’s only cool when the sun’s hidden beyond the horizon. I look up into the clouds and smile, close my eyes. A breeze lifts a lock of hair onto my forehead and I giggle, as if Bethany is a happy phantom after all, just messing with me. The tears are caught in my eye ducts, and I can’t believe how much it can still knock the wind out of me all these years later, almost half a life later. For a few seconds, my brain goes back to that time, to that day, to the phone call, to everything, a warp speed rewind through so many memories and alternatives. I shake my head and stand up, call my dog back inside, get ready to pick Rose up from school.


We take off for California, the land of my birth. We stop frequently to check out state parks and weird rest stops. We only eat at local establishments, because why eat McNuggets when you can have AprilMae’s famous pot pie? We are discovering America, we are looking for our roots, we are young and doing whatever we please. We are adventurers.

We spend three weeks covering every park we can in Orange County, looking for a fragment of memory. Just when I start to admit that the green triangle structure could be pure imagination or long plowed down, we see it glistening in the distance. It’s bigger than I’d thought it would be. It had loomed giant in my memory, so I’d prepared myself that it might be no bigger than my shoulder, but it’s exactly what I remember, exactly, reaching up into the sky, a green pyramid of plastic triangles you can climb, climb, climb. I make my way to the center of the structure, dangle my legs, and cry.

So many things are stolen from us in life, particularly when we’re children and have no say. So many things we can never get back, or if we do, they aren’t what we’d wanted. But in this one parallel world, why can’t I have back this place, overlooking water, giant redwoods looming in the background, birds flying overhead, squirrels in the trees, why not throw in a few friendly bears? Why not put everything here, in this moment, add in my Grandma and Hondo with a Frisbee, place a dash of Rose, my sister still, through some magic of infinity. Watch five-year-old Rose climb up with Bethany’s help, her hand in Bethany’s.

–Harmony Neal (from Eleven Eleven)