An Extremely Normal Man

An extremely normal man walks past a park bench, a stoplight, a pigeon, a dog, etc. So certain is he of these objects that he can think about other things as he walks, which is why he fails to notice when the world becomes paper. He’s agonizing about something in his briefcase.

Only as the snowflakes fall more thickly does he discover they’re not snowflakes at all but rather scraps of paper. He looks up to locate the delinquents responsible for this prank . . . and finds that the trees are flat, two-dimensional, made of brown paper. The sky beyond has no depth. He sits on the park bench to relieve his trembling legs; it crumples beneath him, throwing him onto the stiff, papery grass. The pigeon takes flight, flapping its impossible paper wings. The stoplight changes: a circle of red paper miraculously replaced by a circle of green, as though large, powerful fingers switched them while he blinked. The dog is now a paper dog. As it runs toward him through the falling snow, its fur sounds like the pages of a book being flipped. This begs the question — and he looks down at his hands. They are indeed made of paper, carefully — even tenderly — cut into the proper shape. The dog sniffles kindly at his paper shoes.

The wind strengthens. It sucks up the grass. Piece by piece, it yanks the dog’s paper fur off its body. Soon the dog is just a half-ear, three paws, and a tail taped to a stick. The trees blow away. A panel of the sky blows away, leaving a rectangular gap beyond which emptiness can be seen. The man holds tight to himself. Another panel of the sky vanishes, revealing more emptiness beyond. Coming apart at the, he thinks, but never completes the thought, for his arms are pulled off, his head, his — and soon all that remains of the entire world is a few pieces of wood, awkwardly nailed together to resemble the shape of the human body, floating in the universe.

Helen Phillips is the recipient of a 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the 2008 Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, the 2009 Meridian Editors’ Award, and a Ucross Foundation residency. Her work has appeared in Salt Hill Journal, The Mississippi Review, Small Spiral Notebook, Faultline, The Brooklyn Review, L Magazine, and The Hotel St. George Press Literary Magazine, among others, and is forthcoming in the anthology American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Thompson. Her book And Yet They Were Happy is forthcoming from Leapfrog Press in 2011 (

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