Writers / Writing

A Study of Compounds by Mark McKee

That night his cowardice crept out of his gaping mouth and lived.

To be free! To feel what others must!

It was dark on the stoop outside the building, but his cowardice was darker still. A wavering black shimmer, shiny as crude oil, diaphanous as butterfly wings.

His cowardice strode up to the first lady it met. “May I say what a fetching ensemble that is.”

The lady curtsied and continued down the street.

To simply speak to someone! His body would never allow it.

There was a diner on the corner. Bright light illumined the pavement outside the windows. In waking life, his body avoided places like this. Too many people made him nervous. But his cowardice decided to see what it was missing.

Inside, his cowardice took a seat across from a young woman in a booth. She wore a tattered sweater. A textbook lay open in front of her.

“Hey there,” his cowardice said.

The young lady looked up. “I don’t understand any of this!” she said.

“Here,” said his cowardice, “let me see.” The cover read: Organic Chemistry: A Study of Compounds. “I think I can help,” his cowardice said. “Here, let me show you.”

His cowardice explained to her the basics. She was thankful, threw her arms around him. Inside he felt a small explosion.

“Would you like to go dancing?” he said. He surprised even himself. What if she said no?

“Sure!” she said.

His cowardice took her hand.

Across town was a discotheque he had always wanted to visit. In waking life, he had been too nervous.

They took the bus uptown and chatted about Voltaire. He mesmerized her with his knowledge.

There was a long line outside the discotheque. His cowardice walked up to the bouncer, told him they’d like to dance.

“Go right in,” the bouncer said.

Inside, music hummed. A wall of dancers seethed as one. In waking life, he would have been afraid. But his cowardice stepped forward.

“Shall we dance?”

And they danced.

He held her waist, she gripped his shoulders. They twirled and sang and laughed.

Why couldn’t he do this in waking life? He was missing out on so much.

As they danced she quoted with gusto certain lines from Shakespeare.. Her father wanted her to be a chemist. She wanted to be an actress.

He told her she should do what pleased her. She blushed, said it wasn’t that easy.

He said he understood.

“It’s getting late,” she said. “I better be getting home.”

He wished her luck and reminded her of the basics.

“And don’t forget,” he said. “Do what pleases you.”

She smiled, thanked him, kissed his wavering cheek.

Dawn was approaching. He would have to hurry.

He took a cab back uptown.

Past the stoop, up the stairs, back to his apartment, he sprinted. His body was still sleeping, his mouth still gaping. His cowardice slipped inside and waited for night to come again.


Mark McKee is from the American south. His work has appeared in Icebox, Eyeshot, and others. Find him at goodreads.com/markmckeejr .

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