Richard Chiem

from King of Joy

What are you working on right now?
I am working on a novel called King of Joy, about a young woman named Corvus in grieving over the loss of her husband, via suicide, a week after their wedding night. In this excerpt, Corvus is sixteen.


THERE ARE MOMENTS when she can feel a shift happening. Where does all the good go? Michelle flicks her cigarette into heavy rain waves goodbye and leaves through the back door. Corvus can hear her mom's rusty truck pulling into the garage, the engine dies, the headlights illuminate the carpet hairs from beneath the door before fading gone. Without knowing what possessed her to do so, Corvus suddenly rushes to quickly turn off all the lights and she hides behind curtains, her hurried breathing brings her pulse pounding to her ears. When she tries to calm herself down, she says, There is no center, there is no center, over and over again. There is no center ever.

Her drenched mother stumbles in the front door with a strong wind, little things flutter in the house, magazine pages and opened letters. A gigantic man almost twice her mother's size follows her in. He shuts the door gently and whispers something into her ear. She says, No, laughing. My daughter is asleep and James is at the casino.

She shakes her hips, swaying backwards, and hoarse-voiced says, I'm all yours.

Keep your body still, the man says, locking the door behind him, and he touches the light switch.

He says, The lights are off. They exchange swigs from his flask chained to his belt.

Corvus paces her breathing from the dark shadow of the curtain. She stands there like she is never coming back. She watches her mother and the giant, mouths slightly agape, embrace and kiss before racing for the bedroom upstairs. Listening to their deep footsteps, it dawns on Corvus anew how horrible her mother is, how it keeps shocking her enough to care. The sex moans fill the house, the sound bleeds through thin walls, and Corvus remains stiff among the curtains, but finally exhaling and readjusting.

She walks to her room to her ever-playing radio right at the moment when her phone rings. Just past midnight. My Bloody Valentine. The kitten looks dead asleep in the space between her bed and wall. The phone reads, PAPA.

Corvus answers, When are you coming home?


Corvus can hear slot machines in the background. A little louder she says, When are you coming home? You haven't even left the lobby.

He takes his time, takes a drag from his cigarette, and watches anonymous women drift across the room, the sea of lights bells and chimes.

Corvus says, Papa.

I lost another ten thousand, he says in measured breaths. I think this time I'm going to die I'm so stressed out. Papa doesn't know what to do. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.

BLACK MARKETS. HIRED killers. Orca whales. Idle times, little moments to herself, can drift her mind to strange comforting places. Imagined worlds and perfect self-movies. If only Corvus could be an actor playing herself in a movie, if that’s the mentality she was going to use to approach her days with, perhaps things will become more manageable, the terrain would be known, life all encompassing would be her choosing, her challenging role to play. Everything would be easier, death would end the movie. Corvus, after hanging up the phone, let’s the air eat at her from all over; there is a ringing in her ears, a buzzing on her skin. Fuck, she says. Fuck me.

Without packing a bag, feeling sick inside, she runs out the back door to Michelle's house. The door slams. The rain is freezing but the run down the middle of the road is transformative. Suddenly she is very different and more alive, more present, the air has a charge. Michelle answers the door immediately, the rain behind Corvus seems to be falling from all directions, endless droplets bouncing high from the dark pavement and parked cars. Michelle can't see Corvus’ eyes, if she's happy or sad, crying or drenched.

I thought you said weren't coming to the party, says Michelle. Her voice shakes from the breeze and the unexpected pleasant surprise. Just having Corvus being there in front of her has always silently delighted Michelle, and something fragile in her shakes, and she smiles in flashes every time Corvus makes her way back to her. Corvus is breathing hard, her face hidden inside her black hood. There is a mouth there.

Smiling to her gums, Michelle says, You said, No cute boys, no party.

Corvus asks, Can I ask a huge favor?

Of course.

Corvus asks, Can I bum a cigarette?

Michelle reaches for her back pockets, opens the door wider, and fingers her lighter. The music, vibrating the walls inside, is hypotonic, so melodic. Boys in baseball caps and polo shirts walk up and down the hallway, girls in baseball caps sit in smoke on the steps of the stairs. She hands Corvus her last cigarette. Michelle asks, Are you crying?

No, Corvus says, shaking her head. It’s raining.

Richard Chiem is the author of the book of short stories You Private Person, published by Scrambler Books in 2012. His work has appeared in City Arts Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and Fanzine, among other places. He currently lives in Seattle with his wife and their very loud cat.

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