"Combines the otherworldliness of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” the menacing irony of Shirley Jackson and the cold feminist fury of Margaret Atwood" --The New York Times Book Review
Named a Fall Read by The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune
The mundane becomes sinister in a disquieting story collection from the author of The Grip of It
In Jac Jemc’s dislocating second story collection, False Bingo, we watch as sinister forces—some supernatural, some of this earth, some real and some not—...
To celebrate the release of Jac Jemc’s latest collection, False Bingo, we are delighted to present one of our favorite stories from the collection: “Loser.” Brimming with hormonal, olafactory angst, it’s a short and sharp dive into the social anxiety of middle school and the unfortunate consequences of trying to fit in. We’re thrilled to include original art inspired by the piece by the brilliant Rebecca Morgan. Get your copy of False Bingo now, and revisit middle school hell below.
I didn’t have a single friend to leave behind. The whole school envied these girls, but everyone else already had friends, and the risk of moving from one group to another was too great. I didn’t suffer such a conundrum. When I tried to think about what type of person I was, I drew a blank, and so I wondered if I could stretch and braid that nothing into a form they might welcome. If I found success, only my loneliness would require an apology. I registered a current of magic speeding beneath their skin, and I wanted more than anything to know if that spurred pulse was stoked by sinister power or innocent wiles. Most likely it was some bewitching balance of the two.
I was pale, but well rested, so I glowed in a way that required making up in other, lesser complexions. I liked chunky sweaters and dark jeans and classic sneakers, none of which provided any indication as to a personality. I wasn’t quick to react, which allowed for a level of mystery. Perhaps it was this same combination of qualities that prevented others from trying to befriend me. They assumed I had my own people or they couldn’t tell if I was like them and so they didn’t engage.
I had a plan. I spent hours in a department store, on countless days, sniffing cardboard strips of paper trying to figure out what scent it was the lot of them wore, until my nose no longer registered the differences, burned by the deep inhales of alcohol. I returned many times to continue, marking possibilities in a notebook, leaning forward in chemistry class to smell the backs of necks to check my work. When I finally figured out which bottle held the answer, I begged my mother to buy it for me.
“You’ll have to pay for that yourself,” she said.
I had just started working at a bakery. I’d planned to save the money for college, but one purchase to celebrate the beginning of my employed life seemed reasonable. I’d save every other penny. When I received my first paycheck I took the bus to the mall and laid my cash down on the counter. The saleswoman handed me the bottle in a box wrapped in tissue and dropped in a bag. It all felt like ceremony appropriate to the gravity of my endeavor. Before I left, I sprayed myself once with the tester. It seemed economical. I’d keep a tally of how many sprays the bottle held so I could work out how many cents I spent a day.
The next morning I blew my hair dry. It looked exactly the same, but making the effort caused an internal change. I applied mascara and lip gloss. I felt the same things I had as a kid when a tooth loosened: a shiver of potential and a safe sort of danger. I couldn’t stop tonguing that excitement. I spritzed myself with the bottle, felt a pang in my salivary glands.
In the locker room the next day, Angela saw me pull the perfume from my bag. I registered what I thought was an affliction of privilege take over her face. “What’s that?” she asked. I’d anticipated her seeing me spray the perfume, smelling her own scent, and feeling her acceptance of me triggered.
“Rogue,” I said. “Would you like to smell it?” If I pretended I didn’t know it was what she wore, it wouldn’t appear like the desperate bid for friendship it was. “I can smell it from here.” She slammed her locker door and the bank of metal quivered. “Putrid.” Her smile appeared almost kind.
Tears stung my eyes and I put the bottle back in my purse. I thought of saying, It’s your scent. I know it is, but I stopped myself, afraid my embarrassment might blossom on my cheeks. Her shoulder brushed mine as she walked out.
In chemistry, Tina turned and sniffed. “Is there something rotting in here?” Everyone else glanced around, confused. “Elaine, is that you?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Are you wearing perfume?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, my eyes loading themselves again.
“It’s not right,” Tina said.
“It’s Rogue,” I responded, and I knew that naming the scent as a defense showed my hand.
“I’ve always hated that scent,” she said. “Can you skip it tomorrow? I can’t concentrate with a headache.”
I refused to slump in my chair. Samantha, a mathlete, also excluded from that band of elites, flashed skepticism at Tina, and then transformed it to disappointment when her eyes shifted to me. She understood what Tina was denying me, and she thought less of me for wanting it.
On the bus home, Bella leaned across the aisle, placed her hand on my neck, and whispered in my ear, “I think someone on the bus is wearing Rogue. I could just throw up.” She’d never spoken to me before.
“Who are you?” I asked.
She tilted her head and squinted, pulling away.
At my stop, I left the bottle on the seat. As the bus drove off, I saw Bella slide over and hold the bottle to her nose, then spray herself.
I walked home, surprised I didn’t feel more disappointed. Maybe I’d known the plan would never work. I’d wash my sweater that night, erase every trace of this effort.
In the kitchen, my mother asked if she could smell the perfume that I’d wasted my money on.
I told her I’d already lost it.
Her wooden spoon clattered against the pan as she turned to me. “Already?”
“What’s the opposite of losing?” I asked. Was it winning or finding? In either case, the answer was yes.