WEDNESDAY: Postmodern Infatuation as Lactose for the Intolerant

Valentines Week 2024 Contest
First-place Winner


Copyright is held by the author.

TO THE New-nited States of Amerika, Anka was a traitor to the Ekonomy with a 75-bitcoin reward on her head. A socialist insurrectionist, leader of a mobile indigent commune, she wasn’t considered big game like the anti-war Enemies of the Nation or Abortionists, those went for upwards of 150 bitcoin, but she was still up there. Liam won the headhunting bid on her contract and had been tracking her for eight months.

When he first laid eyes on her, Liam felt disappointed. The 5-ft. middle-aged woman had none of the Valkyrie presence Liam had envisioned. In reality, Anka was unremarkable. Still, she was the only female ever blacklisted by the NBE, the National Board of the Ekonomy, and other head-hunters had failed to complete previous contracts on her for over 10 years. That alone was at least intriguing, if not impressive. Anka’s country-wide network of minivan activists specialized in picking up homeless people from city parks and underpasses and rehoming them to ghost towns across Middle Amerika.

Since the Doomsday Clock hit midnight in 2024, the Midwest had rapidly turned into a wasteland of abandoned settlements, their populations swiftly recruited towards patriotic service and deployed for duty, never to be heard from again. Anka, a millennial immigrant from a communist culture few could remember, saw and seized the housing potential of all unsupervised dwellings. The NBE didn’t agree with Anka’s “picklock and claim” tactics. When their rightful owners went missing in the line of duty, properties could be claimed by the entity that the rightful owner owed most money to, which was typically an entity of the Ekonomy. Consequently, the NBE heavily frowned upon people claiming anything, which made Anka a threat to the sheer fabric of society.

Liam followed Anka and her band of minivan commies, taking notes and observing their behaviour until he felt prepared enough to make contact. The group went about their business without acting as if they were trying to hide, which made Liam suspicious and cautious about the ways they’d been avoiding detection for years. It was about six months in that he realized avoiding detection was just a natural outcome of operating in areas that ranged from unsavoury to uninhabitable, never venturing into any city’s Downtown, populated suburbs, or gated communities. Anka wasn’t dangerous, as he’d been warned, the reward on her head was just the price the NBE decided to pay to avoid the yuck of venturing outside their comfort zone.

From what he’d witnessed, Anka was in fact the opposite of dangerous. She willingly engaged with unhoused individuals on their territory despite their sometimes obvious levels of intoxication and violent outbursts. But it seemed that this utter disregard for her personal safety was precisely what made her endearing, because she was never alone. There were always one or two of her group following far enough behind to give her space, but not so far that they couldn’t jump in to help her out of sticky situations. For instance: the time she approached a teenaged boy curled up on a bust stop bench, sporting what looked like a rather fresh head wound, who got startled and slashed his switchblade across Anka’s forearm deep enough that she stitched herself up at the minivan camp after. But a tall white-haired woman Liam had in his notes as The Crone had the kid’s switchblade hand in the next second and both the women sat him down and talked to him until he started crying with his head buried in Anka’s chest as she wrapped her bleeding arm around him. The Kid had joined their group, travelled with The Crone in her minivan, and was the first one to shadow Anka anytime she went off to do a new rescue. That’s what Anka did, she made people cry and they loved her after.

Liam wasn’t a fan of crying, but he felt that he didn’t need to get emotional in order to make contact, and on month eight he was confident enough that the group didn’t have any weapons, and if they did, they weren’t using them violently, so he’d be safe to approach them. All he had to do was look pitiful enough for Anka to want to rescue him.

It wasn’t hard for Liam to look pitiful. He’d been surviving on scavenged Tako Bell garbage the whole eight months, which was OK enough dining since fast food was subsidized by the government, and chains always met their output quotas and trashed the unsold food daily, particularly in areas with dwindling demand due to decreasing populations. He’d been eating; it wasn’t the hunger that made him look pitiful. The problem with government subsidies for fast food chains was that they often came in the form of processed cheese, which quickly became the main ingredient for all menu items. Developing a tolerance for this type of lower-tier government dairy took years of dedicated consumption and Liam’s colon was more accustomed to aged Reggiano and other luxuries he could afford by being on The Ekonomy payroll. Spending eight months in close pursuit of a target that mingled exclusively with the poor and the indigent meant that fast food and government cheese were always in close proximity and if he wanted to eat at all, he had to accept the immediate bouts of diarrhea that came with every meal, a weight-loss routine better than Ozempic. At the time he decided to make contact, Liam’s unkempt look was compounded by an air of severe malnourishment.

He knew that people who looked starving was Anka’s biggest weak spot; she always gave away food, which he found to be quite an annoying quality he would absolutely hate in a female companion. Liam hated all of his past female companions for a myriad of annoying qualities they inevitably manifested after month three or so of dating. During his surveillance, he had started a list of Anka’s annoying qualities. The list was considerably long and included both personality flaws like civil disobedience and head shaving, and acts of annoyance such as rebuilding a motorcycle carburetor, which was clearly meant to be a man’s job. And goddamn, did Anka do a lot of annoying things! The fact that Liam was still following her in spite of the ever-growing list gave him a strange feeling of satisfaction: this was his longest relationship to date — actual proof that he didn’t have commitment issues.

Infiltrating Anka’s group proved to be a lot easier than he’d expected. He just walked up to them when they were setting up camp for the night at a small gas station parking lot right in the middle of an abandoned, yet still quaint suburban haven of Amerikan Foursquare houses with overgrown lawns. Nobody questioned his presence. He looked like he needed help, which was pretty much a communist hippie’s dream. The man Liam wrote about as Big Dude, a large, tattooed fellow with a shaved head, long black braided beard, and turquoise nail polish welcomed Liam, called him “sweetie,” and walked him right over to Anka’s van where she was stirring a large pot over a one-burner propane stove. She was stirring something in that big pot, every day, hours of stirring. Liam could never understand why she always found so many hours to feed other people, and that was annoying.

“Eat,” Anka said, shoving a bowl of mashed turnip into his hand. The smell of processed cheese steaming up from it made Liam slightly nauseous.

“I’m . . . not hungry,” he could have sounded more convincing if his stomach didn’t utter a ravenous grumble that would have been hunger or a sign of terrified protest on behalf of his digestive tract.

Anka laughed, sending tingling heatwaves through Liam’s inner thighs as a reminder of how long it had been since he made a woman laugh. He tried making appropriate eye contact but couldn’t peel his gaze off Anka’s chest. She was wearing a dirty wife-beater that may have been white at some point. Her armpit hair was thick and fiery red. The sight of it made Liam start to sweat and he could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra, which was very annoying, and he would have to add that to the list later.

“Eat,” she didn’t raise her voice, but the camp site fell silent to sudden midday dust in Antioch, Nebraska and the rising smell of cheese.

Admitting to lactose intolerance would blow Liam’s cover. He caught Anka’s gaze and spent a moment thinking how the freckles on her shaved head were king of adorable but could also be age spots. He had the sudden urge to offer her his sunblock, then realized she was studying him intently, bringing him back to the task at hand: the bowl of food. He knew the moment she put that bowl in his hands that she had him by his suddenly sweaty balls that he really wished he could unstick from his thigh. The thought made him blush profusely and he took a spoonful to avoid looking at Anka, deciding to focus on a dandelion growing out of the parking lot concrete. The turnip didn’t taste bad, a bit like sweet potato and feet. He fought his gag reflex, convincingly he thought, and managed to swallow four, five bites, enough to convince Anka that he had the stomach of a dissident unfazed by ultra-processed lactose.

“Good,” Anka smiled and leaned back in her folding chair, digging a hefty pinch of tobacco out of an old Ziploc bag. “How long have you been following us?”

Liam’s mouth dropped open, coated in un-swallowed turnip. Her smile was all teeth, surprisingly white for a smoking minivan-dweller. She stared him down kindly, flicking a wet tongue over the rolling paper.

“What do you mean?” he managed to unstick the words off the roof of his mouth, wishing for a limoncello-flavoured seltzer.

“I’ve been watching you watch us. You’re a dedicated little soldier, aren’t you?”

Liam didn’t look up. He heard the lighter flick, the tobacco crackle, and her breath drawn in behind her majestic, gravity-defying, bra-less tits. Smoking was absolutely unacceptable and he had a sudden urge to bend her tiny frame over his knee and spank the bare part of her ass hanging out of her too-short-shorts for being so infuriatingly annoying.

“I’ve been following you for eight months,” he replied a little louder than he wanted, but he didn’t feel flustered over getting caught, at least all the cards were on the table now and he could just be himself. He didn’t have a problem being himself around women. “There’s a nice reward on your head,” he shrugged and raised his hands from the elbow, palms open, offering up that bit of information as if he was throwing confetti.

“Eight months . . .” Anka squinted her hazel eyes at him. “Not many people would track a bounty for this long. Particularly when they have to fit in with a crowd they normally despise,” she emphasized that last word looking for Liam’s reaction, which was one of mild surprise.

“I don’t despise you,” the words left his mouth in an apologetic tone before he could catch them, making Anka smile.

“Well, let’s say you despise our circumstances then. I saw the beat-up Toyota you’ve been using to follow us around, must have killed you inside to have to use a foreign brand. And the public transit, oh boy.” She started laughing so hysterically her nipples got hard. “You’d think touching your ass to a bus seat would infect you with some terminal cancer,” she finished with another bout of laughter that made Liam seethe. He really wanted to shut her up, but all he could do was cross his arms over his chest and picture pinning her down by her shoulders to stop her tits from shaking. As if she could read his mind, she stopped and snuffed her cigarette out on the sole of her sneaker.

“So are you here for the reward money or for the good of The Ekonomy.”

Liam felt scolded.

“I want the money,” he snapped defiantly. “You play your game,” he gestured vaguely at the camp site “and I play mine,” he finished and leaned forward, ready to engage. She was a smart woman, that much he knew. Living the way she did was a choice, not a necessity, and that was fucking annoying. The lack of comforts like showers, movie streaming services, Instagram, Cakebread Cellars Cabernet with a perfectly cooked steak dinner, who chooses to live like that? Women were meant to want sparkly things and to be told they’re pretty, they weren’t meant to shave their heads instead of their armpits and commit B&E felonies in the name of the housing crisis.

“Money isn’t real,” Anka stared right back at him and her eyes were otherworldly. “And this isn’t a game. These people are real. I’m real.”

Even though he hadn’t touched her yet, Liam knew very well she was real. She’d been the only real thing to him for the past eight months, as real as the notebook full of her annoying qualities and the bitcoin reward on her head. A reward he wasn’t going to see if he didn’t find a way to bring her to the National Board of the Ekonomy headquarters. He looked down into his empty turnip bowl and they stayed silent for a while.

“So . . . what now?”

Anka didn’t answer, she just stared over his head at the sun setting over the charming little suburban neighbourhood. Liam’s stomach let out a drawn-out gurgling sound: the processed cheese was already working its poison.

“I’m not coming with you, you know that. I don’t know if you were planning on tying me up, throwing me over your shoulder, and walking off into the sunset with me but, as you can see, my people outnumber . . . you.”

Liam found the image she painted surprisingly attractive and was a little embarrassed that it was attractive for reasons other than the reward. He thought about the phone in his backpack, the one he was only supposed to activate when he was with the target, in close enough proximity that the executioner drone could also capture video evidence that he was the one completing the contract. Somehow, after eight months of surveillance, ending it like this felt abrupt and somehow impersonal. He was starting to understand how crying, head buried between Anka’s breasts could indeed provide some relief. But Liam’s intestines didn’t agree and made a loud, growling sound of protest.

“You’re looking a little pale,” Anka’s tone sounded slightly worried. “Is it the cheese?”

Liam winced, remembering a time when he really enjoyed cheese: aged Manchego, Mimolette, Camembert, triple-crème Brie. Nina’s tan thighs sticking out of her shorts looked like smoked Gouda rinds. He wondered how much it would hurt him if he took a bite out of one. Or if he could spread her on a cracker. His stomach growled again.

“Tell you what: if you can pick a lock, you can use a toilet. Otherwise . . .” she gestured at the overgrown yard landscapes and offered a hand to help him up from his lawn chair.

Anka’s hand felt rough, and he couldn’t help picturing her fingers unsticking his balls from his thigh. She walked him across the street, to a four-bedroom home, with a one-car garage and buttermilk-yellow picket fence. And Liam could and did pick the lock. There was no alarm system and he briefly thought about how ridiculous it was that a simple latch bolt was all that separated the outside from the inside. As he pondered how houses without proper security may be deserving of being broken into, Anka turned on the water main from the basement and the hiss of water filling up the toilet tank reminded him he needed a bathroom immediately.

As an explosion of brown sewage water splattered back up Liam’s ass cheeks, he leaned his head on the sink to the side, the cool porcelain soothing, the bathroom clean and inviting, the house quiet, and he could see himself living here. Away from the city, from alarms and sirens, from rent payments and utility bills. He could even live here with Anka and maybe 2.5 children if she wasn’t too old to still have them.

As Liam was sitting in his thoughts, elbows on knees, eyes closed, cool porcelain on his left temple, he felt Anka shove a wadded-up newspaper in his hands.

“Here, there’s no toilet paper.”

“Thank you, dear,” he heard himself reply before he could stop.

Anka watched him with an annoying smile on her face as if backed by whatever span a relationship takes for two people to shit with the door open, about eight months Liam thought. The phone in his backpack was somehow the last thing on his mind at this moment. He was more preoccupied with how many of Anka’s annoying qualities he could cross off his list, and how long it might take him to build up a tolerance to government cheese. After all, was life without cheese even worth living?


Image of Andreea Ceplinschi

Andreea Ceplinschi is a Romanian immigrant writer, waitress, and kitchen troll living and working at the tip of Cape Cod. She writes poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Solstice Literary Magazine, Cathexis Northwest Press, Hare’s Paw Literary Journal, The Blood Pudding, Wild Roof Journal, The Quarter(ly) Journal, and elsewhere. When not writing for herself, she volunteers for Passengers Journal. Find out more about her at

1 comment
  1. Congratulations on winning first prize, Andreea. A decidedly different take on the theme. An interesting and entertaining story.

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