A Poem by Sarah Plummer

We’ve become transient in our daily dealings,
like hobos peddling emotions from dark saddlebags,
casual and lonely.

At night our bodies are cathedrals inhabited by godless tourists —

crowding into each other,
finding symbolism in each breath,
praising the dim fresco of your chest.

“It must have taken years to paint such detail across his heart.”

We are busy and marvelous at nightfall,
but vacant as first light steals into our museum.

Only one Great Pyramid still stands,
and I’d much rather be filled with you and alone
than gilded,
admired,
and untouched.

Sarah Plummer is a Ph.D. Candidate in Social and Cultural Thought at Virginia Tech. She is a proud Appalachian who, in former lives, worked in journalism and theater.

A Poem by Michael Lee Johnson

As sure as church bells
Sunday morning, ringing
on Halsted and State Street, Chicago,
these memories will
be soon forgotten.
I stumble in my life with these words like broken sentences.
I hear and denounce myself in the distance,
mumbling chatter off my lips.
Fragments and chips.
Swearing at the parts of me I can’t see;
walking away rapidly from the spiritual thoughts of you.
I am disjointed, separated from my Christian belief.
I feel like I’m at the bottom of sin hill
playing with my fiddle, flat fisted, and busted.
So you sing in the gospel choir; sang in Holland,
sang in Belgium, from top to bottom,
the maps, continents, atlas are all yours.
I detach myself from these love affairs drive straight, swiftly,
to Hollywood Casino Aurora.
Fragments and chips.
I guess we gamble in different casinos,
in different corners of God’s world,
you with church bingo, and I’m a riverboat boy.
No matter how spiritual I’m once a week,
I can’t take you where my poems don’t follow me. Church poems don’t cry.

Michael Lee Johnson lived ten years in Canada, Vietnam era. Today he is a poet in Itasca, DuPage County, Illinois, published in 1098 small press magazines in 40 countries; 217 YouTube poetry videos. He has been nominated for 2 Pushcart Prize awards poetry 2015/1 Best of the Net 2016/2 Best of the Net 2017, 2 Best of the Net 2018.

A Short Story by Philip Goldberg

Another night, and once again the Runner hugged the building walls, still damp from the rain that had stopped falling not long ago. The scrawled messages and spray-painted symbols glistened on the wet concrete. Water drops dripped from the barbed wire wrapped around every mailbox. She passed it all with fluid steps. Her gray eyes were alert for any Sentry who might be lurking in the darkness. The gun she gripped was prepared for any armed patrol that crossed her path, and there had been a few.

Her mother had taught her well. She’d had the wherewithal to take them underground after the Leader was elected President by a hair-thin margin, had understood the man’s words were more than rhetoric. When he started turning his insane notions into action, rounding up what he’d called “undesirables” and incarcerating them behind barbed wire in disused warehouses and abandoned buildings, she joined the Resistance and brought her young daughter with her.

How the Runner longed for her mother back in her life. But there was no time for tears. She couldn’t let this hope slow her down, stop her from finding her mother. So she continued.

Daybreak approached, and the Runner sought a place to hide. She came upon a boarded-up building. Experience had taught her how to find an entry. Around the back, she found a window where some boards had been pried off. Boards were scavenged as fast as they went up. Probably used for firewood, she thought.

Once inside, she pulled the small flashlight from her pack and shined its beam ahead. A narrow hallway appeared before her. Doorways, most open, ran along the right and left. She knew better than to go through the first ones. Stories had reached her of those captured or killed hiding in the first apartments by hunting Sentries. She approached the fourth door on the left. It was shut. Pressing her ear against it, she listened, holding her breath. Silence. The door opened with only a small squeak. She kept it ajar, having learned this made it easier to hear anyone approaching. The flashlight’s thin beam illuminated a bit of the apartment. Some furniture remained, scattered about. She clicked off the light, sat on the floor, and placed the gun near her hand and her pack against her leg. Only then did she lean against the wall.

Her mother’s face, a smile curling her lips, appeared in the darkened room. A ghost? A memory? A comfort? They had last been together over a year ago, right after she’d turned fifteen.

Floorboards creaked, and the image of her mother disappeared. She grew alert. The gun back in her hand, her finger tightened around the trigger, the barrel aimed at the doorway. Someone appeared in the narrow opening and peered into the apartment. Whoever it was must’ve seen her, for the person receded into the hall. A Sentry wouldn’t flee. Perhaps a snitch? The Runner jumped to her feet in pursuit. Once in the hall, she said: “Stop—or I’ll shoot.”

The slight body stopped. Two hands shot up, frozen in the air.

With gun cocked, the Runner stepped close. “Turn… slowly.”

Now facing her was a teen girl, not much older than her. The girl’s dark hair was cropped short, and her amber eyes appeared tired. “Sentry?” The girl asked—her voice edgy.

“If I were, you’d be lying on the floor, bleeding.” She motioned for the girl to lower her hands and watched them drop to her sides. She relaxed her grip on the gun and let her own hand down.

“You… Resistance?”

The Runner nodded. “You?”

“Me? I should be long gone with the rest.”

The runner gazed at this white girl and arched her eyebrows. But before she could ask the question on her mind, the girl answered it.

“I’m Queer… Lesbian, whatever you want to call me. A disgrace in the eyes of God, you recall, a threat to girls everywhere, and all that bullshit.”

“I remember his rants.”

The cropped-haired girl shuffled her feet and stared at the floor. “Word on the street was they were rounding us up with the idea of imprisoning us in large Conversion centers. After two of my friends… disappeared, I dropped out of sight.”

The Runner remembered going to her friend, Rosa’s house, seeing the door wide open, the place ransacked, and the girl gone with all the other Mexicans.  She had stood frozen there with a look of wild despair.

“You all right?”

She was unaware that she now wore that same look. “I’m okay.” She watched the girl run a hand over her sweatshirt and noticed it read, University of Pennsylvania. Her mother had been a professor at NYU. Julia had been her mother’s name then, and it seemed so long ago. “Come on.” The floorboards creaked under her footfalls, and she returned to the apartment, the girl’s steps echoing behind her, as the first streaks of morning light came through parts of the window where some boards had been pried away. “Stay out of view of those openings.” She sat on the floor by her pack in the room’s shadows and motioned for the girl to join her.

The girl took a similar darkened spot across from her. “Scarlet’s my name.”

“Destiny’s mine.” The name felt unfamiliar passing through her lips. Once underground, she had shed it. Now hearing it made her feel like it had belonged to someone else. “How long have you been on the run?”

“Two years give or take a few weeks.”

“You’ve eluded the Sentries that long. How?”  

“Same as you probably. Good people are out there. They hid me, fed me, clothed me…” She eyed her hands and rubbed them together. “But there are less and less of them. Fewer hiding places.”

“I know. Sentries have infiltrated our ranks. Imprisoned and killed many members. Eliminated a lot of our hiders…” She studied the run-down room. “Tonight I’m moving on.”

“Where to?”

“Free Boston.” Part of the Federation of Free City States, she knew, also including Philadelphia, Houston, Seattle, Oakland, and South Chicago, formed just before the Seven Month War had ended in the stalemate that had led to the fragile peace existing now, which each side expected the other to break.

“Free Boston,” the cropped-haired girl said it as if the City State was a planet in a distant galaxy. “That’s one dangerous trip.”

“Sneaking through these streets is dangerous. Seeking a hider’s home’s dangerous. Searching for food and drink’s dangerous.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“—It’s okay. I have to go there, that’s all.”

“Boston,” she said the name with great interest. “My aunt and cousins live there. Haven’t spoken to them since…”

“You should come with me then. Better than remaining here—no matter how dangerous it’ll be getting there. No one will be hunting you there like some animal. You can stop running.”

“I’m tired of running.”

“So am I.”

Scarlet’s eyes possessed the look that came with deep reflection. After a few moments, she focused on the Runner and said: “I’ll go with you.”

“Good. Get some sleep. You’ll need it.”

That day, the Runner’s troubling dreams returned. In this one, she kept to the alleys, and dark spaces of the patrolled streets bringing important news to those incarcerated in the Sectors. Her mother’s voice echoed in her head, repeating: “Imagine you’re walking on cats’ paws.” Soft step after soft step, she continued until coming to the barbed-wire fence. She cut a hole at its bottom and crawled through.

In the shadows beyond the reach of the spotlights stood Miguel, head of the Mexican sector. His face was bloodied. “Believing what you tell me…” He let loose a defiant laugh, loud and chilling. Blood ran from the wounds on his face, his hands. “This is what believing you has brought me.” 

A shot rang out from the darkness. Miguel fell.  

Before he hit the ground, the Runner woke. A scream choked in her throat. Her breaths, fast. She wrapped both hands around her chest, tightened her grip. Her mother’s determined face appeared, hovered in the air before her eyes. Only then did she loosen her grip and noticed the few bars of sunlight shining through where the wood slats had been removed from the window.


When darkness came, the Runner pulled from her pack a bag of black powder. She applied it to her face and hands. She eyed the girl. “It comes off with a little water.”

Scarlet took some and smeared it across the same places as the Runner had. And then they headed out.

The Runner had heard of a break in the fence off Conner Street in Northeastern Bronx. Maybe the Leader and his minions had gotten cocky or sloppy not guarding this area because there was the hole at the base of the fence wide enough for both of them to crawl through and not a Sentry in sight. Once on the Westchester side, she led the way, holding her gun steady and ready. In the other hand was a compass. She stared at it and headed northeast, the old interstate on the right, now only traveled by the Sentries, the Keepers of Power, and those with political connections. Scarlet kept pace with her on empty small streets and roads. When the woods appeared, they went into them. The Runner pulled out her flashlight and held it. She aimed the beam ahead and made out the winding path laden with fallen leaves, as well as the tree branches growing naked. The breeze blew, and memories rustled through her: leaves changing colors, snow falling, blossoms blooming, summer rainbows. None brought joy, only pain of what she desperately missed, what she so badly wanted to reclaim. But her mother’s defiant voice consumed her: “Keep moving, keep fighting.” These words, the last her mother had said to her, became the motivation for each step she took.

The inky blue lightened. They quickened their steps until coming to an old cabin the Runner had heard about through the rumor chain.

Inside everything felt damp to the touch. Both teens checked the kitchen cabinets and found a few cans of beans. In one drawer, Scarlet located a can opener. Each grabbed a can and ate the beans cold. Somewhat sated and thoroughly exhausted, each found a place on the wood-planked floor and lay there. The Runner kept the gun by her side, as always. Despite being so tired, the Runner fought sleep but knew it was a battle she’d lose and did. She was roused out of sleep by strange noises and grabbed the gun, pointing it—for it had become a reflex—around the room, at the window, at the door. But it was only Scarlet, spitting out garbled words, twitching all over. She crawled to the cropped-haired girl and shook her awake.

Scarlet stared with bewilderment, appearing unaware of where she was. Gradually, she figured it out and sat up. The Runner noticed the tears glistening on her cheeks, setting off a strange feeling in her, at how long it had been since she’d cried. Even after losing her mother, no tears had come. She struggled to recall when tears had last fallen from her eyes. And then it came to her: still known as Destiny, she discovered a friend had posted a nasty lie about her on Facebook. Betrayed and hurt, she cried. Remembering this, she expelled a tortured breath.

“My parents, sister, and brother visit me in my sleep,” Scarlet said, her voice tiny. “They call out my name. But they never hear me when I answer.”

“Ever gone home again? See if they’re still there.”

“I went back to where we lived…”

“And?”

Scarlet rubbed her cropped hair. “Gone.”

”Hopefully they fled, too.”

“You should know better.”  

Silence, awkward and angry, clutched the room until the Runner asked with hesitancy: “Miss them?”

“Some. You?”

“I miss my mother.”

“Where is she?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t seen her in over a year. That’s why I’m heading to Free Boston, to see if anyone there knows anything.”

“Do you think someone will?”

The sound of a distant car passing made both look in its direction before Destiny faced her and said: “Can’t say. But I must go and ask.” She glanced at the window. “Sun will set soon. Try to get a little more rest.”

“You too.” Scarlet lay down.

But the Runner remained seated, her mind sorting out their conversation. A thought came to her: What would she do if no one knew where her mother was? She gazed out the window watching the sky darken. No answer came, but a stinging remembrance did.


She had come home that night over a year ago, tired from disseminating information to the new crop of Runners. When she’d opened the door to the apartment where she and her mother were hiding, the sight made her heart pump harder. The place had been ransacked, looking like Rosa’s house had. She ran into the room where their closet living area was. Its door had been ripped off the hinges, the small space within a mess—her mother—like Rosa and her family—gone.

This harrowing memory haunted her, as she trekked beside Scarlet, their path aided by the full moon. With each step, she felt the weight of those bitter recollections pulling her back into them. But she fought those dark thoughts, fought hard.

Scarlet looked at her, sensed something gnawing at her and wanted to ask her what it was but didn’t say a word, concluding that it was best to leave someone alone at moments like these. That’s how she’d want to be treated. So she continued walking. Crunching dry leaves crushed under their footsteps produced  the only sound between them.


The tweeted ranting of the Leader followed the Runner on every street, down every alley. It was as if the typed words were his Sentries, prowling, pursuing her like prey. In one lightless corner, they found her, trapped her, wrapped their letters, hashtags, exclamation points around her throat and began choking the life from her.

Coughing, she bolted up from the floor of another deserted cabin in the woods. She grabbed the gun and dropped it, a shot rang out, the bullet lodging in the wood wall before her. She became aware of the cropped-haired girl sitting and staring at her with fearful eyes.  

“Nightmare?” Scarlet asked, again rubbing what was left of her cut hair.

“Just another one.”

“Me… I’ve lost count.” She giggled in a nervous attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

“Sometimes I wake from them wishing I could go back to the way it was.” The faces of lost friends singing Happy Birthday, playgrounds filled with shrieks of laughter, going to the movies or ice-skating rinks hurtled through her mind. “But it always hits me that I can’t.”

Heavy sorrow weighed down the room.

“Is your father gone, too?”

His blank face replaced the memories of things she once prized. “Never knew him. Left my mom before I could remember. Little I know she told me… that I have his eyes, his chin, his smile… that he was one of her graduate students…”

“Do you miss him?”

“Miss not knowing him. At least wish I’d met him once.”

“I don’t know what’s worse.” Scarlet fidgeted with her fingers. “Knowing them and missing them… or not knowing them at all.”

“Wish I’d known him.”

“Funny, I wish I hadn’t known mine. He never took to what I was. Probably would’ve turned me in if I hadn’t fled.”

“You believe that?”

“I do.”

“Harsh.”

“So was he.”


Night’s thick black curtain descended, and the two teens left the cabin. The rain had fallen that afternoon. It had stopped, but the ground was still wet, and each step was sucked into the muddy earth, followed by an ongoing struggle to free the sunken boot. The wind had kicked up, blowing colder than the night before. Despite wearing coats, both girls steeled themselves against the frigid air. The gun felt heavy in the Runner’s hand, its grip like ice. Still, they trudged on.

A male voice cut through the cold woods. “Halt!”

She grabbed Scarlet’s hand and pulled her along, hoping to put some distance between them and their pursuer. Thudding footsteps, snaps of breaking branches came fast from behind. “Don’t look back,” she told the girl.

A shot rang out, a warning. “Stop now!”

Destiny wrapped her finger around the trigger. “Run!” She stopped, spun around and fired in the direction of her pursuer. Only then she saw there were two, not one, coming her way. Returned shots whizzed past her. She crouched, set herself and aimed at one, and fired. One Sentry dropped to the ground, but the other kept charging. She fired five shots. The last two hit and she watched the second Sentry fall. An uneasy quiet fell. She rose, surprised to see Scarlet standing a few feet away. Approaching the girl, she saw fear on her face, noticed her trembling.

“How do you kill?” The cropped haired girl’s voice, brittle.

The question wasn’t new. She’d asked it of herself. “I shoot to survive. Kill to keep going.”

The two teens came to a small town. Its streets were deserted. Still, the Runner remained vigilant, maintained her firm grip on the gun, and made sure they stayed close to the small facades that bordered the quiet, desolate main street. They passed stores long empty, their front windows grimy. When they came to an alley between two buildings, she led Scarlet down it. They wandered behind the buildings until she noticed a door ajar and stopped, looked at the cropped-haired girl, and whispered: “Stay here.”

Scarlet watched her step to the slightly open door and carefully push it open, squeaking as it did.

Pulling out her flashlight with one hand, aiming her gun in the other, she stepped inside. Floorboards groaned under her feet. The torch caught something in its beam: a mannequin of a woman, wearing a torn dress. She went to it, touched the fabric with a finger, and her eyes grew distant.

Destiny, all of nine, had come out of the department store’s fitting room, wearing the brightly colored spring dress.

Julia had stood before her, studying it. “Turn around.”

She spun around until facing her mother again. A smile graced the woman’s lips.

“You look pretty.”

She felt her cheeks grow warm. “Do I?”

The smile intensified. “You do.”

Then she ran her hand over the dress, felt the softness of it, and broke into an embarrassed smile.

The Runner released the piece of dress with heaviness in her heart. She took in the rest of the dusty room before returning to Scarlet, leaning against the building’s back brick wall. “We’ll stay here for the day.”

Inside, they opened a door that revealed stairs going down to the basement. The Runner took note and then looked at the cropped-haired girl. “I’m hungry. You?”

“Famished.”

“Stay here. I’ll find us food and drink. If anything spooks you, go down there and be still. Got it?”

“Don’t worry. I know what to do.”

And she realized this girl probably did.  

She prowled the main street, consumed by thoughts of how everything got this way. How someone so wrong convinced so many that he was their last hope, how they lapped up his lies like puppy dogs, and how they defended him when he was not defensible.

The rumbling of her stomach drowned out these thoughts. Before her stood a storefront and inside were shelves stacked with cans and packages of food. Her mouth watered. She wondered whether stores in a small town like this would be alarmed. Gazing up and down the street at the many empty storefronts, she suspected nothing around here would.  Still, hunger and thirst were worth the risk.

She found another alley, followed it to the back and came to the rear door of the grocery. Nearby, there was a rusted rod on the ground. She grabbed it and jimmied the door open. The silence that followed proved her suspicion right.

They ripped open the packages and cans, which the Runner had made sure had pull-tops, and feasted on cold Spaghetti-Os, fruit cocktails, and cookies. Each washed it down with warm water from bottles. Rare smiles graced their faces, and occasional giggles escaped their lips. Each ate like it was her last supper and when finished, prided herself on a full belly. Sweet sleepiness came over them, and soon both were snoring.

The Runner felt her body being shaken, and her eyes shot open. Her gun raised and aimed at someone hovering over her. That’s when she heard: “Wake up, wake up.” Her eyes focused and saw it was Scarlet. She lowered the gun. “We slept too late. It’s already dark.”

“Crap.” She jumped up and gathered her few belongings, making sure to stuff the remaining food cans and packages in her backpack.

They fled, leaving the mannequin to guard the storeroom, and soon came upon a narrow river and followed its curving path. Cloud cover obscured the moon from shining down on them. Their mouths expelled chilled breaths, white fogs that scattered in the breeze.

Only then did the Runner realize how lucky they had been. Her theft had gone undetected.  

Scarlet walked beside her and asked: “Ever been in love?”

The cropped-haired girl’s question bit her hard, and she replied in a somber tone: “No.”

“I have. Lara was her name.”

“She disappeared?”

Scarlet’s silence was answer enough.

The rush of the nearby river’s water seized the air. The Runner cast her curious look on the cropped-haired girl. “Have you ever…”

“Many times.”

The Runner’s steps picked up their pace. She moved ahead.

But Scarlet caught up and noticed the glum look on the Runner’s face. An awkward silence gripped them until Scarlet broke it. “You haven’t—

“—I’ve missed out on a lot of things.”

Scarlet gazed ahead without a word.

“Look, I shouldn’t be laying this on you. Things are what they are. That’s all.”

Scarlet peered at her. She placed a halting hand on her. “They don’t have to be. I mean, you and me, we could—”

The Runner stepped out of the crop-haired girl’s grasp. “Sorry, I’m not like you. Right now, I wish I was.”

“But—“

“—I’d be faking it, and I don’t want to do that. Not to you, not to me.”

“It’s okay. I get it. I really do.” Her voice, understanding.

“Believe me, I do wish—”

Scarlet placed a finger on the Runner’s lips, silencing her, and then she smiled.


Nightfall.

After eating and drinking from all of the remaining cans and packages, they snuck out of another cabin and headed into the rain. Their steps sloshed. The air thick with dampness clung to their faces, hands, even went through their boots and socks to their feet. The unpleasant sensations it produced made the Runner recall a night like this.

She had gone out to run information that night. The sky had opened up; the rain had fallen hard, chilling her body and bones, icing any exposed skin. Everything ached. By the next morning, she felt so sick, so feverish. Hallucinations plagued her. In one, the Leader, now a giant, chased her down dark, deserted streets wanting to catch her and devour her. In another, fireballs shot from his flaming hair and exploded around her.

But her mother had nursed her back from the illness, from its hell. When she recovered, her mother helped her regain the lost weight, the missing strength.

The time came when she wanted to return to running information, but her mother forbade her. She would give no explanation as to why the Runner couldn’t go.

So when the opportunity presented itself, she defied her mother and went out into the night. And what she found were empty internment camps. Places where she’d gone before and met with Miguel, Abbad, Rasheed, and others. The Leader had lived up to his word. The shock hit her, and she ran like she never had before. She finally stopped and glared at the glittering lights across the river where the Keepers of Power lived. A new determination overcame her, to fight harder against the Leader and his followers who lived behind those lighted windows.

This had been her sole plan until they’d seized her mother.


Glimmering lights were visible. Flashlight beams. Seeing them, the Runner grabbed Scarlet’s hand and led her deeper into the woods. She stopped at a safe distance from the road, pulling the cropped-haired girl onto the wet ground with her. She shivered. Scarlet shuddered. She focused on the moving beams of light coming closer. Dark figures walking along the road became visible. They were of four different heights and shapes. She wrapped her finger around the trigger, rose to her knees, ready to fire.

“Don’t just see, hear,” her mother had told her in training.

She listened hard, until picking up faint voices. That’s when she heard it: the voice of a woman. There were no female Sentries. Under the Leader, a woman’s role was in the home, caring for her husband, having babies for growing the White race. She stood and motioned Scarlet to do the same. Looking at the cropped-haired girl next to her, she said: “They’re Resistance.”

“How do you know?”

She told her how.

“We’ve made it.”

“Not so fast. We’re not there yet.”

“But?“

“Let’s talk to them first.”

They headed to the road, where the Resistance fighters spun on their boot heels, their rifles aimed and ready. The Runner and Scarlet raised their hands. The four before them kept their firearms steady, their eyes locked on them.

“I’m Resistance,” she said. “Destiny Hartman. My mother’s Julia Hartman.”

The sole female in the patrol, not much older than her, stepped forward. A look of recognition filled her eyes. “I’ve heard of her. Wasn’t she—”

“—Over a year ago. Been searching for her since. Hoping someone in Free Boston can help me.”

She lowered her rifle and focused her eyes on Scarlet. “And you?”  

“I’m seeking sanctuary there. Been on the run since the Great Conversion.”

“Lost some friends then…” She motioned with her head for the other three to lower their rifles. Looking at the two teens before her, she told them to lower their hands. “Come with us.”

Everyone marched up the road until they came to a truck, its side panel advertising a favorite beer. In the cab sat an older man at the steering wheel.

“Get in the back,” the patrol leader said.

Both climbed up and entered the empty space. A member of the patrol slid the back door down, and the space became lightless. The Runner turned on her flashlight. Both Scarlet and she sat on burlap sacks scattered about the floor. The cropped-haired girl was smiling.

The truck’s engine rumbled, vibrating along the metal walls of the container, as the big rig drove the road creating a soothing sound and rhythmic motion.

“Told you we made it,” Scarlet said, her voice relieved and happy.

The Runner didn’t reply.

The back doors of the truck slid open, flooding the container with sunlight. The Runner awoke, blinking furiously at her sleep being interrupted. She shaded her eyes with a hand, as the sunlight bothered her. She noticed Scarlet, awake and sitting with her back against the wall. Each rose and stepped to the open end. The hand of a Resistance fighter helped them down.

The Runner’s eyes acclimated to the sunlight, which she hadn’t been out in for some time, and then gazed with wonder at the towering steel and glass buildings shimmering in the bright light of day. Free Boston encircled her in all its tarnished glory. She looked at Scarlet, who fell into her arms, and she stood awkwardly embracing the cropped-haired girl. Like crying, it had been quite a while since she had hugged or had been hugged by someone. The last person to do so was her mother. Slowly, the hug felt less of a distant memory and more real, and she gave into it, accepting the comfort provided by it— and only then did a slight smile appear. For the moment, she was Destiny again. But she knew the moment wouldn’t last.

Later, the Runner was brought to the office of General Wright, the head of Free Boston’s Resistance Army. The windowed wall behind the General afforded her a breathtaking view of the skyscrapers of Free Boston in the now diminishing daylight.

She greeted the General. An imposing woman: tall, broad-shouldered, heart-faced with blue eyes that could mesmerize someone looking at them for too long.

The General placed her large hand over the Runner’s smaller one, obscuring it. “I must say you getting here from New York is… quite impressive.”

She fought off rising embarrassment by staring at her muddied boots. “My mother was a good teacher.” 

“I know.”

Her eyes shot up. “You know her?”

“I met her in the early days… before everything changed.” The General’s eyes held more buried memories of Julia.

“Is she… alive?”

“From the intelligence, we’ve gathered… she is.”

The Runner gasped. “Where?”

“She’s being held in a former Federal Penitentiary in Northern Virginia.”

“I’ve got to go there. Find her—”

“—Impossible. The place is a fortress. Heavily guarded. Even if you made it there—and you seem capable of doing so, you’d never get inside. We’ve tried.“

Her expression turned downcast.

He has done a good job of thinning our ranks… It’d be suicide sending anyone there.”  

She averted the woman’s stare and looked again at the skyscrapers cast in a pumpkin hue.

That night back in her room in a former hotel, the Runner sat on her bed and peered at the rain-splotched window. Beyond it, the skyline of Free Boston was barely illuminated and hard to see through the raindrops on the glass panes.  She thought about visiting Scarlet in the room next door and tell her everything she’d learned from General Wright. But she didn’t want to trouble the girl anymore with her burdens. So she stayed in her room and moved to the edge of the bed, staring out the window into the darkness. The face of her mother appeared there, a phantom floating before her, flashing fierce eyes. She became fixated on the eyes, growing certain of one absolute truth.

Her mother had trained her well.

Philip Goldberg’s short stories have appeared in both literary and small press publications including trampset, Junto, Thrice Fiction, Straylight, foliate oak, Borrowed Solace, The Chaffin Journal, and Twisted Vine Literary Art Journal. Two more of his stories have been accepted by The Halcyone/Black Mountain Press and by the Evening Street Review. Microfictions have appeared in Blink Ink and Starwheel. Three of his stories have been published in Best of collections and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently workshopping his novel.

An Essay by Chad W. Lutz

Two falls ago, I decided what the hell and attempted a rim-to-rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Just writing it out makes my right knee hurt, which is exactly what happened. But the knee is fine now, and the IPAs I’ve imbibed have more than neutralized any pain I would be feeling, that is, if everything wasn’t velvet-glove fuzzy at the moment. Thinking back, it seems absurd something so grandiose even fits into the long-listed catalog of events that make up my life. Flashes of red desert here. A setting crimson sun and a bright white moon blanketing everything under the night sky in a soft cocoon of bent, yellow light.

I don’t bring the excursion up as a means to brag or to even remotely revisit play-by-play. I never made it through the entire hike. In fact, I had to stop at the North Rim lodge halfway, so I won’t bore you with the thirty-some-odd hours it took to get there in exacting detail. There’s fresh snow swirling on a wicked wind outside my cozy cabin this evening, and when it catches the eaves just right, it howls like a banshee across the river as icy waves lap at its frosted shores.

A part of me would rather go outside and light a fire and spend the next few hours drinking beer and forgetting the pain of being man by staring into the flames and watching the way the light from the stars and moon bounces off the surface of the rolling waters. But I feel compelled to sit here in the warmth of my cabin and write about what happened to me today and how reminded I am of the doomed trek I made across the bottom of a desert chasm in what feels like ten lifetimes ago.

Let’s get started, shall we?


Earlier this afternoon, I went cross-country skiing for the first time in probably twenty years. Being the full-hardy chubber of confidence that I am, there wasn’t a single second thought that crossed my mind. I simply laced up my boots, clamped on my skis, grabbed my ski poles, and out the door I went. I figured, after being considered an elite athlete in something as difficult as marathon running for the better part of the last decade, it’d be a piece of cake. Nothing to it. In my head, I was thinking, “Psshhh, I got this.” But all I got was yet another painful reminder of how fragile the human body is and how flimsy memory can truly be.

It’s amazing how twenty years can distort anybody’s perceptions of, well, anything.

I awoke this morning to the sound of the cabin’s heater clicking over. Scratching my tummy and slowly making my way to my feet, I went to the nearest window and looked outside: blankets of white snow piled ten inches high and covering everything within sight. Above the landscape, a v-formation of Canada Geese flew silently over the bay. I watched them until they became nothing but dots in the air and then disappeared into the horizon.

Watching their flight, I felt isolated and a part of everything at once; the same way I’d felt at the bottom of the canyon looking up at its mile-high walls in absolute awe, like a bug inside a cup, only this time trading the desert for the tundra, Arizona for Ontario. After eating and shitting and all those other mundane morning tune-ups we find ourselves unconsciously loping through each day, I grabbed a bagel, topped it with peanut butter and sliced banana, and made my way over to the Wellesley Island State Park nature center to scope my routes and grab a couple maps.

The park is located right smack dab in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River in Upstate New York and anchored by the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. To the south of the island lies Densmore Bay, which made me think of Jim Morrison and Robbie Krieger (Re: John Densmore), but if John Densmore and The Doors were a raging snowstorm, instead of a super psychedelic relic of an era gone by. South Bay (aptly named) also sits just off that same portion of the island, with Lake of the Isles tucked neatly into the centerfold of the whale-shooting-its-blowhole-looking scrub of land. In total, Wellesley Island consists of 12sqmi and calls home to just shy of 300 people. The park is divided amongst different parts of the island but controls around 2,600 acres. All of the park’s trails begin and end at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. There are about ten trails altogether, many of them looping and lapping back over one another.

It took me about an hour to walk the mile and a half from my campsite to the nature center. Along the way, I stopped and took pictures with my pocket Canon, running into not a single soul as I went. The roads themselves had yet to be cleared of the previous night’s snow, so the going was slick and sludgy. Tall, white-frosted pines poked out of the ancient glacial granite isle. The clouds had cleared, and so the sun was a blindingly bright light in the sky, made even more arresting by its reflection off the snow.

When I got to the building, which was a white-sided, wood-frame structure, with a big, glass atrium and a high, pointed lobby roof, I went inside and wandered around the beaver pelts and other taxidermied creatures: wolves, foxes, quail, squirrel, that were on display. Toward the back end of the lobby was a large, scenic window, where kids able to pinch quarters from their mothers’ purses could pop into viewfinders to stare out into the vast, chilly nothing happening across Eel Bay, which sits due west of the park and island. After twenty or so minutes of poking around, I eventually meandered back to the brochure and information racks setting by the front entrance, located the trail maps I was after, and then made the return trip to my cabin to grab a quick bite to eat, pack my Nathan Vest with my water bladder and little snack foods, change, and head out. Not once did I second guess what I was about to embark on. In fact, if I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure I had Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasting through my iPod on repeat as I made my way out the door.


I felt that exact same kind of blind and gratuitous confidence rolling around my cerebellum when the grey Cube driven by my girlfriend’s father, Ted, pulled into Grand Canyon National Park a quarter past eleven in the evening. It was the first week in October; hard to believe now a year and a handful of months ago. We were tired from our travels, but in good spirits, despite the hour. None of the three of us, Ted, Maggie, or I, had slept since 5:00am that previous morning. Eastern Time, mind you. We’d gained two hours in practicum, but our bodies couldn’t be convinced otherwise, and staring down a 6:30am wakeup call to try and beat some of the heat on the way down the following morning, this should have been a red flag. Not just for my ill-fated knee, but all of us.

Impervious to logic, I openly welcomed our wake-up call only a mere five hours from the time we finally laid our heads down on our pillows and said our anxious goodnights, each of us dreaming of whatever adventure the next day would hold.


Within ten minutes of setting out on my first cross-country ski trip in at least twenty years, I found myself lying on my back and staring up at a cloud-whitened sky, a tangled mess of ski poles and skis, with a fresh batch of snow settling into my underpants. For a while, I just lay there, listening to the sound of the winds coming off the river sweeping through the naked trees. Trying to gain my feet, I immediately fell right back down. One of my skis was wedged squarely under the other.

Great, I thought. Perfect way to start out.

And so I turned my attention back toward the sky to collect my thoughts and center myself. After all, I’d planned on being out there for a couple of hours. But when I looked back up, it was just in time for a huge clump of snow setting on a nearby tree limb to fall and hit me right in the face. I laughed, already sweating through my all-weather jacket and red in the face from exhaustion, thinking to myself, “This makes running look like a breeze.”

All I could think about was the canyon.


We were somewhere around our seventeenth mile, heading into our eighth hour on foot, when my right leg suddenly began to feel funny. Tight, really; a pinch, to the inside and back of the knee. At first, it was just a sensation I felt here and there, maybe once every ten to fifteen minutes. I’d stop, shake it out, and feeling like it had passed, start back up again. But, over time, the sensation worsened, my body stiffened, and my gait significantly began to suffer.

I winced and drew hard, sharp sucks of wind with every breath. After a while, I started limping, which eventually turned into hobbling. The hobbling made my hips hurt, which caused me to land on my feet weird, and soon they started hurting, too. It was the damndest thing: not two weeks prior, I took fifth place overall in a major marathon featuring a race field of over 3,000 participants, clocking an unbelievable 10mph per mile for the entire race, and here I was casually walking along — a tourist for crying out loud! — at a clip of maybe two or three miles per hour and feeling like my body was a glass sheet about to shatter.

Trying to focus through the pain, I grew completely silent and concentrated on the trek itself. I was determined to get to the other side before things got worse; before, the only option of getting out was by way of rescue helicopter. At the Bright Angel Trailhead, there had been a sign that encouraged hikers to give whatever it is they think they’re about to do one final, serious consideration before heading off down the sandy path.

“DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE FROM THE CANYON RIM TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY. EACH YEAR HIKERS SUFFER SERIOUS ILLNESS OR DEATH FROM EXHAUSTION.”

We were making at least quadruple that effort, and when my knee began to hurt, there was still a 6,000ft. climb to think about.

But we were all struggling, the three of us. We’d stopped at the Cottonwood Campground to rest for a bit just before the sun went down. We ate couscous flavored with hot sauce packets I’d stolen from the lodge cafeteria (for the sodium) and took turns going to the bathroom one at a time while the other two watched over our gear. With still another six miles to go to the top of the North Rim and the entire hike back, we sat at a picnic bench and shot grave, weary looks at one another.

“Chad, how’s your knee?” asked my girlfriend’s dad, as he messed around with the temperamental Jet Boil burner to prepare the couscous.

He must’ve noticed me massaging it.

“Tight,” I said, standing up to stretch. “I should be alright, though.”

What Ted said next, I’ll never forget.

He said, “Don’t be a hero. Not out here.”

The words hit bone, so loud you could almost hear them echo back and crack off the canyon walls.

By the time we made it to the park bench at the Cottonwood Campground, all of us looked worse for wear. Ted had a migraine and sore feet. Maggie had lost most of her steam around Phantom Ranch, some three or four hours before, and found it hard to eat.

My girlfriend’s dad, noticing the pain I was in, started telling jokes to take our minds off how tired we all were. There was no way I was going to let that happen. Not only would it cost the park service time and money to gas up a chopper and pay the rescue workers the overtime necessary to life-flight me out of the bottom of the canyon, but I’d have to later admit why, and a sore leg seemed like a pretty flimsy excuse for all that hassle. It’s not like it was broken.

On we pressed. Minutes felt like hours. Hours like days. At points, the canyon swallowed the moon, and with it, every ounce of light you could see. We stumbled on like this through total darkness. Ted’s jokes helped some, but after thirty minutes of feeling anything but the desire to laugh or be around other people, I sped up my pace and retreated inside my body. I blocked out the canyon, I blocked out the night, I blocked out the pain, the heat of the day, and the wear and tear on my resolve. I started marching up the canyon like I was on my way to a funeral I didn’t want to go to. In a way, it ended up being my own funeral.

My knee hurt so bad that I was forced to huddle in an alcove along the North Kaibab Trail wall, shivering and bracing against 40mph gusts of wind snaking over the cliffs of the North Rim like pushy fingers and standing less than two feet from a 2,000ft. drop. And there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. I could feel the tendons flex and strain beyond their want and will every step of the way, and after a while, I just got stuck. My leg locked, entirely. Stranded there while I massaged my knee and shook my leg to work the muscles out enough to start back up again, I kept thinking and rethinking and triple-thinking what it would take for me to be able to go the whole way, not just up the rest of the incline, but to complete the goal I’d set out to accomplish. Even then, I couldn’t allow myself the humility to say, “This is my line.” The thought of watching what I’d set out to complete might as well have been carried off on the breeze, and I remember clutching my arms and whimpering, realizing, like a running headlong into a brick wall, I’d bitten off more than I could chew, regardless of how or why.

I felt my heart plummet inside my chest; my head slunk in shame. It was as if the canyon was slapping me in the face. And, rightfully so. Here I was, living out a feat most people only dare to dream, having walked close to thirty miles in one of America’s most storied and celebrated natural spaces, and the only thing I could think about was how far I could push before I hurt myself for life. And for what?  Just so I could complete a hike I could technically do again at some other point in my life if I really wanted to?

Right at that moment, as if on cue, a group of hikers appeared around the bend in the trail just a few switchbacks below, talking about a van that was waiting with fresh clothes and warm food and rides for the members of their party who were calling it quits at the top. And, wouldn’t you know it, they, too, were staying at the South Rim and had just enough room for one more passenger.


The ride back to the South Rim from the North Rim Lodge was silent and eternal. It takes about four hours to drive from one rim to the other because the highway can’t just cut through the canyon; you have to go out and around. I fell asleep within ten minutes of our party pulling out of the parking lot, but awoke with enough time to spend the last two hours watching the sunrise over the hills in the east, dousing the landscape in firelight. Blue and purple clouds drifted lazily through the sky like temperate-colored logs in a hot ocean of oranges and reds and yellows against the browns of the earth and greens of what few pine trees dwell in the desert at such high altitudes.

“You awake back there?” the driver, a UA grad student studying geology named Matt, asked after hearing me stirring on the middle bench. I looked up to find him eyeing me in the rear-view mirror. Groggily, I confirmed.

“How’s the knee feel?” he said next without missing a beat. I attempted to give my leg a good bend but couldn’t. It was stiff as a board.

“Pissed,” I hissed back, not meaning to. He must’ve understood my frustration and nodded, turning his eyes back to the road and the increasing forests around us.

“Better than it was, though,” I said a handful of seconds later, realizing I’d taken the air out of the cabin. But the damage was already done. There was no way of hiding how defeated I felt. It was as if every painstaking mile had caught up to me in that van all at once. My feet throbbed, my quads were shredded; my glutes and hamstrings felt like they were made of stone. Even my lungs hurt, and the muscles in my neck, where my daypack had rested, were so tight you could have plucked major and minor chords.

“This your first attempt?” asked the person in the seat next to him, sensing the tension trailing in my voice. His name was Mark, another UA grad student. He had a curly mop of hair and a big scruffy beard that bounced as he spoke, unlike Matt, who was clean-cut and looked freshly shaved. Both had kind, sympathetic eyes that told me they’d had their own ill-fated run-ins with a canyon cliff or two in their day.

Behind all that unruliness, Mark’s decision to keep pressing put me at surprising ease.

“Yeah,” I said, drawing a deep sigh and letting it all out before I continued. “First time.” Some minutes passed in silence. A family of elk crossing the road stopped our progress, and we waited patiently for the gang to move. While we waited, I thought about the impermanence of our bodies and how we’re only given the ones we have. I imagined myself pressing on, maybe making it back to the South Rim on foot, and how it would have been a testament to the human spirit if I had.

But I also thought about how life isn’t about any one moment, or even a handful of moments; it consists of all the moments we ever are, that we’re ever so lucky to live, and how grateful we should all be that we’re even able to run into obstacles like elk in the road when all we wanna do is get back to the lodge, eat, and pass out for twenty-four hours so we can fly back home and ice our knees and lick our wounds in private.

The elk eventually moved on, and we drove the last half hour in about as much silence as we’d begun the trip. Right around the time, we started seeing signs for the South Rim entrance to the park, Matt interrupted the silence to ask if I thought this would be my last time attempting rim-to-rim-to-rim. I watched as a bright, white smile grew as wide as the canyon in the rear-view mirror. The giant Chevy Astro lurched as Matt downshifted, causing Mark’s hair to bob.

“Not likely,” I said, unable to help myself from smiling back. “I don’t know my own limits.”

And as the gears ground out, signaling our entrance into the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village, both Mark and Matt came back with a single reply.

“Good.”

I fell thirteen more times this afternoon before I finally realized 1.) I had picked hiking trails to ski instead of cross-country ski trails, and 2.) the clasp for my right ski was missing. I’d also lost one of my heavy gloves at some point, and the backup pair I’d brought along were already soaked through from the snow. Eventually, I took the skis off and carried them back along the trails to my car, which I had parked nearby, just in case this very side-show scenario happened.

Every time I went down today, I could feel the forest; the rocks and trees and the steep banks of the island shores like stony faces opening their frigid mouths into the ice-cold sounds below; I could feel all of these things laughing, howls made audible by the whining winds, reminding me the indifference nature takes toward human beings, of a canyon wall that offered no solace, no easier track to get to the top, and absolutely no relief where the topography proved otherwise. But no matter how many times the natural world jested and spread me flat on my duff or stung at my face and hands exposed to the biting winter weather, I stood up, brushed myself off, and laughed.

I’m fine now, nearly all the way through my fourth beer and thinking it’s about time to retreat outside, despite the cold, and light that campfire. Light that fire and maybe laugh a little at my own expense for what the world will eventually take from me, the thing I was so blindly willing to sacrifice for nothing: tomorrow.

Chad W. Lutz is a speedy, non-binary writer born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986 and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. They graduated from Kent State University with their BA in English in 2008 and from Mills College in Oakland, California, with their MFA in Creative Writing in 2018. Their first book, For the Time Being, is currently available through J. New Books.

A Poem by Paul Pruitt

 Do I dream the Red King, or am
 I in the Red King’s dream? Do we
 Each the other dream, or do we dream,
 Both, one dream of mutual exercise?
 Am I contained in his dream, free—
 More so than we may be in waking life—
 And have I freed the Red King to dream down
 His small forever? 
                                 Should I now cast him out of mind,
 Turning all my mirrors to the wall, turning his hunched
 Shape—yes, with all that inhabit realms of wonder—into
 A rare form of translucence, a ghost primed to be seen
 In a side glance, registered, then forever dimmed? 
  
 Or shall I keep a part of my thoughts
 Still working in the twilight, accepting that I
 May meet my proper self trapped there, 
 Half-alive, a would-be actor caught 
 Behind the pages of so many books? 
  
 First, I will begin with a decision small
 But necessary, all in all, and likely beneficial to my head:
 I will learn to wear this crown—so heavy, so red. 

Paul Pruitt is a law librarian at the University of Alabama. He has published a number of poems over the years, most recently with the Birmingham Arts Journal. He is currently working on a series of poems entitled “Scenes from Childhood.”

A Short Story by Melinda Keathley

Back in the day…

The members of Holy Evangelical Trinity Church of Titan, Tennessee, first noticed the shift in Jamison Jefferies during the time of Welcome that Sunday morning. Typically, congregants used this time to exchange pleasantries with those brothers and sisters in Christ sitting nearest to them and to get a better look at any visitors. But, Jamison Jefferies, a twenty-year member, and brother of the late and revered Deacon Jasper Jefferies, firmly shook the hand of every man, woman, and child he encountered, looked them square in the eyes, and said, “This is my least favorite part of the whole damn thing.”

He met their open-mouthed stares with a wide sincere grin and a slap on the back before moving on to the next person. Sister Sevena Leevee would later tell authorities she had smelled liquor on his breath.

Members watched Jamison suspiciously as they went back to their seats for the time of Giving. After an infamously liberal guest pastor spoke on the virtues of inclusion, the Deacons unanimously voted to move Giving to the beginning of service, so tithes were collected before any unintended change of hearts or minds.

As Mrs. Betty Carmichael, one of the oldest founding members, walked on stage to the piano for the instrumental interlude, Jamison ripped the notes section from the bulletin and began scrawling a message. When the plate got to Jamison, he dropped the note inside and made what Brother Rip Bowman, who was waiting on the other end of the pew to collect the plate, would later describe to police as “aggressive eye contact.”  Before Mrs. Carmichael made it to the last verse of “Lord Thou Lov’st a Cheerful Giver,” Brother Bowman abandoned his post to show the note to the other elders working collection.

The note read: “Tip: Close that gaping financial wound Holy Grounds!

Holy Grounds was the recently opened congregational coffee and book shop located off the main lobby. Its stated purpose in the business plan was “to provide a place of fellowship and a new source of revenue.” Although skeptical, the elders approved the investment after Reverend Ricky persuasively argued, “Millennials love their Starbucks, and people need a convenient place to shop for their Christian gifts and reading material.”

Nevertheless, despite intensive barista training by the franchise owner, the Christ themed cappuccinos and mochas failed to bring in those elusive younger members, and people continued to find online shopping a more convenient alternative to brick and mortar retail. It also didn’t help that the Holy Ground’s prices were at least 15% more than Amazon. Despite weekly specials advertised in the bulletin, sales were weak. In the six months since the grand opening, Reverend Ricky Wandsbow had preached three sermons on patience and perseverance framed around brand loyalty.

As tithe collection came to a close, Brother Bowman took the note to Reverend Ricky. Shocked by its contents, Reverend Ricky turned around in the pew to look at Jamison, who met the Reverend’s glare with a two-finger mock salute. Unaccustomed to such blatant and public disrespect from a member of his flock, Reverend Ricky got flustered and nearly missed his queue to lead the opening prayer. His wife, Walinda, had to elbow his ribs to get his attention. On his way to the pulpit, Reverend Ricky whispered to Brother Bowman to put their volunteer Chief of Security, 80-year old Korean War POW, and Purple Heart recipient, Captain Leon Simmons, on high alert.

Reverend Ricky, above all else, enjoyed leading the congregation in prayer. He took pride in what he described to Walinda as his inspiring and poetic orations, but the morning’s excitements caught him off guard, and he forgot at least half of what he had written the night before. What he had hoped would be a rousing call to action to lay aside all impure thoughts and accept the glorious and redeeming word of the Gospel ended up being a wandering and sometimes stuttering request to “keep an open mind,” which Walinda worried might be misinterpreted as a slight leaning toward progressivism. To her relief, there were three “Amens” and one “Hallelujah” called out mid-prayer. Reverend Ricky, relieved to have not heard a peep from Jamison during the prayer, silently thanked Jesus and closed his Bible. On his way back to the pew, he stopped mid-step, as if by the hand of God, when he heard Jamison mock applaud and say, “Amen and praise God, you kept it under five minutes this time, Ricky.”

The entire church turned in their seats to stare at Jamison, who crossed his arms and sat back in his pew. Then in unison, like spectators at a tennis match, every head turned back to Reverend Ricky to see his reaction. Reverend Ricky, now completely unnerved, forced a smile and decided, if asked about it later, he would label his frustration and lack of action as a measured and Christ-like response to a brother in need. He signaled to Brother Bowman, who radioed Captain Simmons and ordered, “All eyes on The Eagle.”

The Eagle was the security code word for the Reverend. The security team had originally decided on The Dove, but Reverend Ricky had felt that too feminine and requested they use that for his wife’s code word and find a bird more masculine for him, regardless of its Biblical significance.

Captain Simmons took his post at the back of the church, making sure he had Jamison in a direct line of sight. The other elders sat at the four corners of the fellowship hall on heightened alert. Sensing the growing tension, some of the members used the inclement weather text chain to discuss Jamison’s unusual behavior. In less than five minutes, the news made its way to every single member. Even the teen missions group distributing English version NIV Bibles to village children in San Jose, Guatemala, got word via text. Everyone waited anxiously, wondering what in the world had gotten into Jamison Jefferies and what he would do next. They all found out when Holy Evangelical’s contemporary Christian rock band Crown of  Thorns played their first song.

As Crown of Thorns ended their fourth consecutive chorus of “Jesus is My BFF,” and the Minister of Music, Desmond Devean, began his guitar solo, Jamison stood up, marched down the center aisle to the sound equipment, and began to furiously yank cords out of the amplifiers. As the music faded and the crowd began whispering and texting, Jamison pointed to Desmond Devean with the disconnected end of his guitar cable cord and yelled, “If I wanted a concert, I’d go see a real band! Nobody wants to hear this shit so early in the morning!”

His words were first met by violent feedback from the speakers and then by the members’ dismayed silence. When Reverend Ricky attempted to stop Jamison from completely dismantling the sound equipment, his faithful wife Walinda followed behind him. Unintentionally, as Jamison slung his arm back to get Reverend Ricky’s hand off his shoulder, he hit Sister Walinda square in the face, busting her nose and knocking out the dental bonding from an old cheerleading accident. The shock from the blow sent Walinda spinning out toward the first pew — blood spewing from her nose and gums like a lawn sprinkler. Three generations of the McAttrey family, who had faithfully sat on the front pew since the churched doors opened 30 years ago, were covered torso to tophat in blood splatter.

Three of the elders ran at full speed to the front of the fellowship hall and tackled Jamison, taking Reverend Ricky down with them. Michael McAttrey, now angry and covered in blood, jumped in to help. Captain Simmons made his way to the front of the church, unclipped his firearm, and took a crouching stance near the communion table, waiting for a clear shot of Jamison’s shoulder or leg — his intention never to kill, just to wound. To everyone’s surprise, Jamison turned out to be quite the scrapper for his age. Some of the witnesses later attributed Jamison’s wiliness to his wiry build. Others speculated he may have been “hopped up on drugs.”

The three elders, Michael McAttrey and Reverend Ricky could not subdue Jamison Jefferies no matter how they tried. The entire congregation stood up to get a better view of the wiggling and grunting pig pile before them. Every now and then, Captain Simmons caught a glimpse of Jamison’s curly grey hair or kaki Dickies, but he never got a clear shot. Frustrated, Captain Simmons fired three warning shots over his head, hitting a brass chandelier, which came crashing down on top of the communion table. Tiny cups of grape juice and unleavened crackers flew like shrapnel. Jamison, Reverend Ricky, Michael McAttrey, and the elders stopped mid melee–their arms and legs twisted and suspended in midair. Every member stood frozen in disbelief. No one texted or made a sound. The drama, for a moment, seemed over.

“Freeze! Put your hands up!”

Two Trinity police officers, whose typical Sunday morning of coffee and computer solitaire had been interrupted by Sister Sevena’s frantic 911 call and dispatch’s consequent relay of a report of a 10-96, rushed the sanctuary with their guns pointed at the only other person brandishing a firearm.

Captain Simmons did not hear the officer’s orders. Captain Simmons, who had been hard of hearing since his time in the military, had removed his prescribed hearing aid and replaced it with the church’s security walkie-talkie earpiece, as he did every Sunday he was on duty. Captain Simmons kept his eyes on the ball of squirming and wrestling bodies until he noticed the ball had stopped squirming and wrestling and had shifted its attention to the back of the church. In his confusion, Captain Simmons turned towards the police officers with the barrel of his semi-automatic pistol leading the way.

“Put the gun down!” both officers yelled. 

The entire congregation took cover on the floor between the pews. Captain Simmons, finally appreciative of his situation’s precariousness, took his finger off the trigger and slowly raised his left hand in the air. Bending down as low as his decades-old double-knee replacement would allow him to go, he laid his pistol on the ground. As the gun left Captain Simmons’s hand, the officers rushed him, handcuffed him face down on the church floor, and informed him he was under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment of hostages.

Reverend Ricky canceled the rest of service. Paramedics arrived to treat Walinda’s face and the McAttreys for shock. Brother Bowman left to accompany Captain Simmons to the police station. For two hours, officers took the statements of each member in attendance, except Jamison Jefferies.

Jamison Jefferies was the only person not questioned by the police at the church. In the confusion of the standoff, Jamison had rolled behind the podium, crawled to the baptismal dressing room, walked out the backdoor of the church to the parking lot, got into his car, and drove home. He later told police the first thing he did after leaving the church was to compose his formal letter of member withdrawal from Holy Evangelical Trinity Church of Titan Tennessee. Jamison fully cooperated with authorities and agreed to come down to the station for formal questioning. Although Trinity Police and the County Prosecutor considered Jamison’s actions extremely blasphemous, they could find no actual laws broken. No formal charges were ever brought against Jamison.

After police verified Captain Simmons’s license to carry a concealed weapon and the registration for his pistol, and witnesses made statements attesting to Captain Simmons’s heroism and official role as volunteer Chief Security Officer, they dropped the charges and released him. Brother Bowman drove Captain Simmons home to his gated senior living community. He was later given a spaghetti banquet in his honor and awarded a medal of bravery by the homeowners association.

After Jamison agreed to pay for the busted amplifier and three porcelain veneers for Walinda, Reverend Ricky dropped the Wandsbows’s civil suit.  The following Sunday, a swollen and bruised Walinda Wandsbow proudly and piously stood before a packed house with a gleaming white smile and gave her testimony of forgiveness and Christian strength in the face of adversity. As a show of support and solidarity, the church took up a love offering for the Wandsbows, inspiring Reverend Ricky to publically declare, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Jamison Jefferies never returned to Holy Evangelical, but his memory remained. Reverend Ricky preached at least one sermon a quarter that seemed directly inspired by the incident. All the Sunday school teachers coordinated lessons on the dangers of secularism and the war on Christianity. Members occasionally reported seeing Jamison at the grocery store, local food bank dropping off a donation, or at the park where he now took daily meditation walks. He seemed to be in good spirits and always spoke kindly to his former Holy Evangelical members. The church never conclusively determined what triggered Jamison’s behavior that morning, but members speculated. He was one of the few open drinkers at Trinity, so drugs alcohol was blamed by many. It was also rumored for weeks and finally confirmed by a member who had a friend who had a friend in the neighboring town that Jamison had joined the Unitarian Church. Upon hearing the news, Sister Sevena Levee remarked during a potluck, “That figures. Bless his heart.”

Melinda Keathley is a native Mid-Southerner, born in Arkansas and later drawn to the bright lights on the bluff of Memphis, TN. She earned a BA in History and an MA in English Literature from the University of Memphis, and now makes her living in a human resources department of a Fortune 100 company. In October, she won the Memphis Magazine Very Short Story Contest, and her poetry can be found on Instagram @MKMKPoetry.

A Poem by Julia Ponder


This will not be the last

congregation of sparrows
to gather in the empty winter orchard,

and comb in it for left behind skins and stems;
each picks and plucks

between the muddy aisles of apple trees
scanning the scripture of dirt for

secret thawed places hidden in snow
where their answered prayers lie.

This will not be the last
gust of wind that sends them off again
in search of warmer places and higher things.

Julia Ponder is a poet and teacher living in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Her poetry and creative non-fiction have been published in several print and online publications, including Chronogram, 805Lit, Shawangunk Review, THAT Magazine, and The Sonder Review.

A Prose Poem by Ace Boggess


While I lay in bed, reading a novel by Hesse, I said to my then-wife, “I don’t think Burroughs is my favorite writer anymore.” The next morning, I read in the paper that he died. I know: coincidence, not serendipity, interconnectedness, butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon. Reasoning couldn’t dislodge the fantasy I’d killed him by disloyalty as I targeted my whisper rifle, shushing on both ends. I devalued his swirls of literary mayhem, joining a serenity movement in long-dead Hesse’s east/west metaphysics. I had met the Buddha on the road & killed Burroughs. Or maybe you did, Reader. Didn’t you give up on him, too? Didn’t he mentor you on loosing chaos before you left his words behind? You murdered him—not as dramatically as I, & I doubt you remember that bloody choice. Distracted, you left the door open, & he wandered out into traffic, another gray-eyed, wizened, lusty hound.

Ace Boggess is author of five books of poetry, including MisadventureUltra Deep Field, and The Prisoners. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.  

A Poem by Esme Waters


Real poets describe me as artless.
Me, someone who throws words onto the page
with very little grasp of poets past.

Real poets, they craft.
They, artists, have access
to a (the) special place.

I am not allowed to go there.
I am not allowed to pretend
to go there, without permission.

And they never give permission.
Permission is earned, in some ways.
In other ways, permission won.

Probably, no one will ever read this
which is okay, until you consider
that you are not the arbiter of me.

And I will.

Esme Waters is the pen name of a writer who wishes to remain anonymous; a writer who writes because he has to, not necessarily because he wants to.

Flash Fiction by Rob Reynolds


I’m pulling out of Fresno late one night when this baboon waves me down.

He wants to know how far I’m going. I say I don’t know.

He shows a fifth of Jack.

We’re on our way.

I wonder sometimes why I keep this up — the stench, the hair, the hangovers. But it’s late in the game for those thoughts. I lean over and kiss the beast. His lips are soft, a hint of passion. He pulls away.

After a while, he asks me what kind of music I like.

“I like the three-word, one-syllable bands.”

He snickers. “Goo Goo Dolls?”

“There you go.”

“Third Eye Blind?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

My kind of primate, but I don’t tell him that. I tell him to pop the glove compartment, see if there’s anything he likes.

His big paw burrows beneath the owner’s manual, finds a Snickers bar.

“No, I mean the CDs.”

He pulls out Miles Davis’s Some Day My Prince Will Come. It’s the only CD I own. But I own ninety-six copies.

“Faith No More?”

“Jesus, give it a rest!” I run my hand through my hair. Humans, baboons. Give ‘em an inch, they want two.

I cue it to the title track and steer us toward the desert. Miles blows away the miles. We pass the bottle between us.

He tears the wrapping off the chocolate bar, slides it between his lips, sucks each long, beautiful finger. Says, “We never talk anymore.”

Rob Reynolds‘s comic novel Wire Mother Monkey Baby was published in 2017 by Outpost19, a small, independent publisher in San Francisco. His stories have appeared widely including the Tampa Review, Kennesaw Review, Vestal Review, flashquake, Mad Hatter’s Review, and Hobart Pulp. “What You Can Learn in a Bar” was anthologized in Ooligan Press’s You Have Time for This: Contemporary American Short-Short Stories.  He’s a former Contributing Associate and Contributing Editor of the Harvard Review and the Boston Book Review.

In what seems like a previous life, he taught English at Tom Petty’s alma mater, Gainesville High School. He’s lived in Austin, Texas, since 1994 and is a big fan of cats, dogs, and children.

Check out more of his writing at robreynolds.me.

A Poem by Gina Ferrara

An unknown hour, arrives unassigned,
above crenellated stucco walls,

a flock flies in crown formation,
unbreakable, an avian presence, ominous halo,

dark corona without beginning or end,
their black plumage an honest onyx

holding evidence of moon glow and lifted luminosity
to give sheen, divine shine, nearly oiled, anointed…

they cast no shadows, only bringing hard consonance
in this timid and actual light.

Gina Ferrara lives in New Orleans. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including Tar River Poetry, Dovecote, and The Briar Cliff Review among others. Her latest collection of poems, Weight of the Ripened, was published in early 2020 by Dos Madres Press. She teaches English at Delgado Community College.

How Darkness Enters a Body by Sarah Nichols

For art enthusiasts, the name ‘Diane Arbus’ instantly evokes an image – stark, minimal, haunting, and focused on an individual – a unique individual. As the quote by Arbus at the start of Sarah Nichols’s collection of poems inspired by Arbus images, How Darkness Enters a Body (2018, Porkbelly Press) keenly reads:

“Nothing was ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I haven’t seen that I recognize.”

“Five Photographs by Diane Arbus,” ArtForum, May, 1972

The quote reflects the curiosity about her work and reinforces her mantra and perspective for the strange.

Nichols’s writing echoes Arbus’s approach: intriguing depth of content, with a release by focusing on the fleeting, often peculiar moment, captured. 

The images are not included in the book—for this visual person, I had to seek them out and, at first, over-analyzed – but it’s unnecessary and not an apt interpretation; the enjoyment lies in flashes of authentic, sometimes odd, humanity. Querying deeper intent in either the poetry or the photography does not yield deeper appreciation.

Most admirable about Nichols’s minimalistic poems: each stanza can work on its own.

In “Etiquette for a Headless Woman,” after Headless Woman, NYC, 1961, Nichols writes: “…Now I sit on a pedestal, waiting / For an audience, your invisible / finger pressing on my spine.” In context, Nichols refers to the haunting portrait of a woman sitting atop a pedestal upright with a gown, without a head, in front of a velvet curtain—perhaps as a sideshow. Nichols’s refined description presents a strong woman whose mother’s pressure led to her disappearing head. The aforementioned lines reflecting the mom’s continued tenacious presence, even as the star of a show. As Nichols relates, this feeling of the mom’s pressure—is too relatable, even in reference to a figure we may not typically connect to.

“Something Was There and No Longer Is,” after Inadvertent Double Exposure of a Self Portrait and Images of Times Square, NYC, 1957, is as immaculate as the image. “I haunt this place now,” it begins… “I pass between worlds.” Again – so simple, yet every line can read alone. The poem exudes the artist’s confidence, courage, and unapologetic blunt perspective. Closing with a stun, Nichols’ articulates Arbus’s often-eccentric subjects, “I don’t dare to shut my eyes.”

The title poem, written after Kiss from “Baby Doll,” NYC, 1956, is almost a mini-manifesto from the moment the camera clicked. The photograph depicts a movie still, mostly black with only whites showing a man and woman’s noses, nearly touching, a pose implying embrace and romance. However, the text exudes the darkness of the photo, relaying the mystery of the media’s results—“…every contact sheet a specimen case, / every camera a killing jar…” It is tempting to search between the lines. As with the imagery, overthinking detracts from the intent. Appreciating the poignant, few words of Nichols, as the striking black and white images of Arbus, is enough to realize the value of both.

There are seven poems in this tight collection, each with their own exquisite, modest little moments around Arbus’s curious work—all images of which can be found in Diane Arbus Revelations (New York: Random House, 2003).

The cover art – a black circle covering what appears as light emitting onto a black field – like a cap covering a camera lens, curiously shows no body. Though perhaps its significance lies in the perspective and moment of the capture. The photography, by E. L. Trouvelot, “Total eclipse of the sun. Observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory,” from the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division – is, to boot, a very old image of an eclipse – not an abstract work at all. Much like the works in the book, so much between the lines, but maybe just appreciate the lines themselves.

How Darkness Enters a Body by Sarah Nichols
Porkbelly Press, 2018
$7.50, 15 pages

Sally Brown Deskins is a writer, artist, and curator who focuses on feminist and women artists. Her writing has been published in Hyperallergic and Artslant, among others. Her artwork has been exhibited in the US and UK. She edits Les Femmes Folles, a blog supporting women in art.

An Essay by Ashley Cooper

TRIGGER WARNING: The following essay contains an account of sexual assault, rape, and the aftermath which readers may find distressing.

I sling my head to the edge of the toilet. My knees hit the carpet, unable to avoid the burn of another encounter with him. I have washed my sheets so many times that I ran a negative balance on my debit card that holds my minimum wage paydays whenever I can find the work. I have washed vomit off my face so often that there is a dry patch at the corner of my mouth that stings every time I wipe a washcloth across my face. I have washed my body so many times the shower only runs cold, and my roommate leans against the bathroom door to listen. I have never been one to take too long in the bathroom. She has never been one to breathe this loud. I wonder if she heard him.

It has been two days since he raped me, and I can still smell him. My bed is soaked in his cologne, and the pores of my skin are filled with his sweat. When the smell fades away, I don’t know what to do with myself—it comes back, and the ends of my hair wind up in toilet water again.

I try to take a walk, hoping the polluted air will save my lungs from him—but it’s January, and when I go outside, and I feel the wind weave through my scarf and skate across my neck—I feel his fingers there. His hands wrap around my neck, and the snow I am standing in becomes a metaphor for whatever that glue was that kept me from fighting back, stuck to my bedroom floor. I am pushed gently by a man trying to get past as I stand in the middle of the sidewalk outside my building’s door, and I know I can’t yet handle the cold.  

I read somewhere once that fifty-three percent of rapes go without being reported. I never understood it until I tried to go outside forty-eight hours later.  If I can’t get more than five steps away from the door, how am I supposed to go five blocks to my college’s title nine offices or another ten to the closest police station? 

I also read that ninety-seven percent of rapists are never incarcerated. I read that when I considered myself an activist—fighting for victims that fall into the statistics and fighting against rapists who get to keep their scholarships.

I am a statistic now.  

One in four women are raped in their lifetime.

I have written two poems today. I have nothing but clichés on these pages, but I am learning that they are not clichés—they are echoes. I have heard you lose ownership of your own body. Not just for the minutes he is inside of you, but for the lifetime that follows. Everything is unfamiliar. I do not walk the same now. Not just because of the bruises that line the insides of my thighs and my pelvis, up to my stomach, but because I cannot seem to find control. I sit on the saddle, and I pull on the reigns, but I cannot feel myself doing so.

I keep writing about his smile. The one he carried as he finished. He smirked, asked me where to find a tissue—like this was a scene from a rom-com, a one-night stand. I tried to get up off the bed to get the tissues, and he tightened his grip on my neck. He’ll get them. I couldn’t tell if it was over yet. He grabbed the box of tissues and opened my legs. He inspected me like a gynecologist. He held my ankle with one hand and took a tissue in the other. Slowly wiping his mess off of me. He couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. His smile said so much. For a twenty-year-old, he seemed to be a professional.

He didn’t force himself into the apartment. I let him in. I had spent the entire morning perfecting my makeup and outfit choice for our second date. I led him to my room so I could grab my coat. I thought we were going to Chinatown for lunch. He sat on my bed, and I followed suit. He took his finger and circled it around my knee. It tickled, and I laughed. I didn’t look into his eyes because, as he touched me, I felt immediately out of control. 

Every part of me turned cold—so I turned away. He rested his palm on the top of my head, his fingers ran through my hair. I turned back to him, and I blushed. I loved it when guys run their fingers through my hair. His resting hand quickly turned into a fist. My hair fell out of place as he yanked my ponytail from the roots.

I stood up—shocked. As if I hadn’t seen him as one to commit sudden acts of violence. He said, “That was a mistake.”

I could no longer move.

He stood up and kicked my knees in from behind. I fell forward onto the bed. My knees hit the corner of my bed frame and began to bleed through my tights. My face fell against the wall. He locked my bedroom door,  restrained me, and ripped through my tights.

That was the first time I said “no”.

I counted every time I said “no” or “stop” or “please.”

I said these words eighteen times before I saw the pool of blood that rested in my white cotton sheets.

When I saw my blood, I lost my voice.

He threw my clothes at me when he was done. He tightened his belt and told me that we’d need to reschedule lunch. I was looking a little too rough.

He had seen me undressed for over an hour, and yet the first thing I did when he let go of me was cover my breasts, that were now unrecognizable, with my arms. They were covered in shades of blue and purple and red and yellow. It hurt to touch them. He let himself out of my room and my apartment and took the elevator down to three. He was only two floors away from me.

I sat naked in my room and cried until I could no longer feel my face. And then I got dressed in the most comfortable clothes I could find, and I hugged myself. I didn’t know what else to do.

My bed was covered in blood, and my walls had streaks of my red toenail polish where my toes met the wall as a result of me kicking. I could no longer be alone in this room.

The first person I called was the only person I called for the first two days. My best friend. He met me at my door moments later and hugged me while I sobbed into his hoodie. I felt like a child.

Before I invited him in, I turned over my sheets and placed my comforter over my blood. I forced a bra onto my aching breasts and pulled my hair back into a tight ponytail.

When he walked into my room, it still looked like a crime scene. He sat on my bed as I looked into the trash noticing the tissues used to clean me. They were covered in blood and him. My friend noticed too. I didn’t say much at first. I just cried into him. I told him what happened from the beginning, and he listened. I don’t know why he cares about me so much—but I know he does.

This moment should be so ugly and horrible, but I realize something. I haven’t had many permanent people in my life, and I realize now he is one of them. He always has been. I just see it now.

He leaves me to be alone, and I try to shower the rape off of me.

I sit on the shower floor with my back to the water to clean out the cuts he left in me. It stings, but I know I need to.

I grab my phone from the edge of the tub and write my first poem about being raped. I did not know it was a poem then. I was just making a list of words about how I was feeling. I never wanted to feel that way, but I also never wanted to forget the way I felt.

Seventy-two hours after being raped, I got myself outside, and I took a walk, in silence. Well, city silence. Alarms went off, and people were shouting, but I couldn’t hear an­ything but the sound my sheets made when I peeled them off of the bed so that I could wash them. The blood was sticky. It had latched onto my plastic mattress. I washed that, too. Scrubbed each side with an old sponge as fast as my arms would allow, hoping it would erase the mattress from this universe entirely.

I took another walk the next day. This time, with a destination in mind. I kept repeating “no pressure” in my head as I walked the five blocks, I didn’t want to force myself to do anything. I walked into the title nine office and it immediately felt like I was torturing myself. But I couldn’t belong to the statistic of fifty-three percent of rapes going unreported. I couldn’t accept that my last memory of him was his smile and him expecting my silence.

Ashley Cooper is currently pursuing a double major in both creative writing (nonfiction) and musical theatre at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently working on her memoir, Rum and Coke which focuses on surviving abuse and growing up with alcoholism in the family. She hopes to reach young adults who have experienced similar situations through her work. You can find her on Instagram, @AshleyCooperWriting.

A Poem by Kendra Leonard

I’m not your lover
and I’m not your girl
and I will leave this house for the wood

and there I’ll make myself
a place
of timber and branch
and mystery.

All the children shall call me the witch
though I haven’t a single spell,
but do walk alone in the night
to watch the bats
go hunting.

I’ll build and build,
my own two hands and a saw,
my own two eyes and a hammer,
and in the spirit-guarded strangler fig,
there’s my very own house,
the world turned upside down.

And in this golden, rosy-fingered tree
I’ll too be golden, a goddess of the dawn
and of stray dogs
and the night

no one’s girl,
a little Hecate of the wild.

Kendra Preston Leonard is a poet, lyricist, and librettist whose work is inspired by the local, historical, and mythopoeic. Her chapbook Making Mythology was published in 2020 by Louisiana Literature Press, and her work has appeared in vox poetica, lunch, The Waggle, and Lily Poetry Review, among other venues. Her novella-in-verse Protectress, about the gorgons in the modern world, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2022. Leonard collaborates regularly with composers on new operas and songs. Follow her on Twitter at @K_Leonard_PhD or visit her site kendraprestonleonard.hcommons.org.

A Poem by Steve Gerson

“I can find my way,” 
I said, myself at 21, 
my black and white world

aligned at right angles, 
the horizon a crosshair 
centered polestar straight.

“I see a light,” I
said, myself at 41,
“and fly toward it,”

in row-beat meter
to climb steep sky inclines
but glide winded down,

dimmed, a crow molting.
“I’ve been,” I said, myself now
61.  My bifocaled

view more askew, my
gray a teetering cairn, wobbled
on rounded edges.

Steve Gerson, an emeritus English professor from a Midwestern community college, writes poetry and flash about life’s dissonance and dynamism. He’s proud to have published in Panoplyzine (winning an Editor’s Choice award), The Hungry Chimera, Toe Good, The Write Launch, Route 7, Duck Lake, Coffin Bell, Poets Reading the News, Crack the Spine, Riza Press, White Wall Review, Variant, Abstract, Montana Mouthful, the Decadent Review, Indolent, Rainbow Poems, Snapdragon, The Underwood Press, Wingless Dreamer, Gemini Ink, and In Parentheses.

An Essay by Patti White


THE EMERALD ZOYSIA was like a Persian carpet, so thick it concealed ant hills, the water meter, the slightly depressed grid of the sprinkler system. I walked quickly across the lawn, on my way to teach a class, my bookbag in one hand, and caught my foot in a hole I couldn’t see. Forward momentum carried me toward a face plant on the sidewalk. I stopped myself with my hands and one knee and flipped sideways onto the grass. And my head found the only hard spot there.

Coup and contrecoup. In a whiplash situation—like when I got rear-ended at the cross-walk, just six weeks before I fell—the brain moves forward, then sloshes backward, hitting the skull in both directions. In a side impact on the ground, maybe gravity keeps the brain squashed against the earth, pooled and puddled, an impact rippling through the cells and then subsiding. Immediately—or maybe hours or days later—the brain reacts in protest. I know that’s what must have happened. But until that day, for me, the brain was intellect and consciousness. An abstract and intricate structure, Escher-like, with mazes and helixes and arcane corridors. A spiral galaxy in a shell. Now I know different. The brain is flesh. It is physical and fragile, and it does not abide a fall.

THE WAITING ROOM had a giant abstract painting that made me recoil. Reds and yellows, vertiginous black streaks, the most aggressive piece of artwork I have ever seen. I moved to another seat but couldn’t get away from the colors. Or the sounds: people chatted as they waited, rustled papers, made phone calls. Stretched their legs. Rattled keys. It was too hot and too bright. I saw one man put a prayer slip into a wooden box; he was backlit like an angel of god, and it hurt my eyes to look at him.

In the changing room, I felt vibrations in the floor, sensed movement, whole populations of the addled or broken walking the halls. I heard doors open and close. I huddled on the bench in a thin cloth gown that felt impoverished, an orphan garment, what you wear when all is lost. I waited. I sang a little folksong to myself: come all ye fair and tender ladies. I put my hands on my forehead. I waited and waited until I feared I had been forgotten. I sang, very softly, another verse: I wish I were a tiny sparrow.

The MRI chamber was dim and cool. I was grateful to lie down, to be tucked in, to feel a breeze over my face. But the noise was unbearable, like planets colliding in space. I tried to interpret the different tones, the apparent shifts in the placement of the machine. Clearly, things inside my brain were shattered. There must be blood and swelling. But when the report came back, there was nothing to see: minor white spots that might have been old vascular damage. Two weeks after the fall, there was no evidence of the concussion—only the symptoms. Like the way a piece of artwork could terrorize my brain and send me sideways.

THE MOTION OF THE SPOON taking yogurt from the cup. The motion of a page turning. I couldn’t read and couldn’t drive. That first week a neighbor took me to the grocery store to pick up a few staples: more yogurt, some bread and milk, cat food, canned soup. She waited in the car while I walked the aisles, dazzled by sensory data. Overhead banners flapped in an air-conditioned breeze. People talked on their phones; the carts rolled and racketed. I wanted lunchmeat, but the shelves confused me: long rows of packages, so many words and colors. None of it made sense. I gripped the handle of my cart. Lowered my head. Checked out and fell into the car like a lifeboat.

The grocery was a challenge for a good while. One day I stood in line behind an enormous woman in a scooter who had coupons. Lots and lots of coupons. I waited. She discovered more coupons in her purse and sent the bagger for more items. And still more items. The manager moved me to another lane and unloaded my groceries onto the belt. The computer wouldn’t boot up. I stood there, breathing softly. My brain wobbled from the strain of so many things happening. I wanted to lie down on the cold floor, but instead, I leaned on my cart. The manager apologized, gave me a coupon for free groceries, moved me to a third lane. When I finally made it to my car, I just sat there, my head against the steering wheel, my eyes closed. I don’t think anyone saw me.

A MONTH AFTER THE FALL, I was able to read a chapter in a book. Three weeks later, I finished an Agatha Christie novel. Then I drove to Lowe’s for a pot of mums. I voted in the presidential election even though standing in line made me dizzy. Some days I was able to walk the dog; other days, I turned back at the end of the driveway. It was three months before I could carry on a conversation for more than 40 minutes. I almost fainted the first time I went to the hairdresser.

Six months in, a tooth cracked and needed a crown. The dentist had a picture window with bird feeders outside and a view of the river, but I couldn’t see it — the chair reclined so acutely it gave me vertigo. They brought me a warm blanket, they gave me Novocain and gas, but I resisted everything. I squirmed when they tied gauze around my tongue. I flung my arms wide when the assistant touched metal to my teeth. I asked for bathroom breaks. I took the mask off and got up to walk in the hall. They brought another warm blanket. I clung to the arms of the chair. I told myself I was not upside down, not slipping back, not unable to breathe. By the time the temporary crown was in place, I was disoriented and exhausted. And starving, so even though my face was still numb, we stopped for egg drop soup. When I finally got home, I put a bag of frozen peas on the top of my head.

During my last exam, I still wouldn’t let the ophthalmologist dilate my eyes. I let him photograph my retina, then endured the correction process: is this lens better? or this one? number one or number two? The lenses fogged over; my eyes were overheated, my brain on the edge of a revolt. The doctor told me his mother fell down the stairs and hit her head; now she has dementia. His voice was too loud. The room too cold. The machine clicked in an unpleasant way. Maybe none of the lenses were better. This was three years later. That’s how hard a fall it was.

TWO MONTHS AFTER THE FALL, a friend took me on an excursion to a small family graveyard about an hour outside of town. Curves in the two-lane road; light through the pines. And then a gravel road, bumps and dust and my head spinning. But the graveyard itself was steady and calm. Some headstones so thin and worn they looked like tabular bones. Others just rocks with no names. One family buried under a sort of roofed cabin, with screened windows and sand for a floor. I wandered among the graves. The day was warm, late October, the wildflowers all brown or barely alive, weeds here and there. Outside the wrought iron fence, I found evidence of a teenage bonfire. We walked among the dead, among strangers who died of causes we couldn’t imagine: smallpox and tuberculosis, the civil war or a family murder. I was just glad to be somewhere that wasn’t my house. But I had to steel myself for the drive home: more trees, more light and shadow. My friend talking and talking.

It was a while before I realized that I was, in some ways, a dead person. Invisible injuries, like chronic pain, erase the person who quietly suffers them. My colleagues apparently thought I was on sabbatical or had left town for good. It didn’t occur to them to inquire. My family, scattered across the country, took note of my Facebook updates but felt no need to check on me in person. Only a few close friends and my kind neighbors made efforts: to take me to the doctor or buy groceries; to meet me for lunch; to plan an excursion to the graveyard.

Small acts of kindness mattered more than I had expected. One day, a husband and wife from down the street came looking for me and my dog. They had seen us walk past just before the storm broke and found us sheltering on a porch a quarter-mile away. One neighbor made a point of putting my newspaper on my front porch; another started bringing random milkshakes. These things pulled me back from the edge of invisibility; they were like white stones among the dead wildflowers, bits of order, structures to cling to, ways of knowing who I was and where I belonged.

THAT FIRST WINTER we made a trip to Gulf Shores, a tourist town on the tiny strip of Alabama that meets saltwater. Only five hours from home, it seemed ideal for recovery: a deserted beach, bright skies, the Blue Angels practicing air show maneuvers over the water. We ate charbroiled oysters, swamp soup, and fried grouper. But at the lonely minigolf course, all my angles were wrong. The waves along the shore made me a little nauseous. And the jigsaw puzzle laid out on a glass dining table was impossible to process; I couldn’t see the relationship of depth and ground: the pieces and the glass and the tile floor beneath the table seemed to exist on the same level.

One day we braved a cold wind to explore the damn-the-torpedoes fort at the entrance to Mobile Bay. We found a grass quadrangle protected by ramparts and battery emplacements; entered vaulted arsenals and dark storerooms; touched the crystals formed by minerals leaching through stone walls. We traced a narrow drainage canal where water trickled over moss. That man with a parrot on his shoulder was not a pirate but an actual colleague, a professor of photography; he said he was camped out nearby or renting a house on the bay or maybe he said he was leaving soon for Paris. I couldn’t follow his conversation. So I wandered off, climbed the rotten metal stairs to look at the water beyond the walls. Saw freighters on their way to port; a couple of oil rigs in the distance. Whitecaps on the bay.

Each morning we woke to condensation streaming down the outside walls of the condo. Once, we ate breakfast at a small diner on the main road. I ordered eggs over medium, sausage patties well done, and biscuits. It was another bright day, and the small restaurant was busy. Then out in the parking lot, a trailer caught fire, somebody’s mobile meth lab, or a grill packed too soon. Everyone rushed to the windows. Voices rose, and people ran out to help. Silverware clattered. I looked at my plate, round and white on a red-checkered cloth. I looked at my coffee cup. I grasped the edges of the table and held on tight. My friend said I went pale and started shaking. All I could tell was that my brain had just turned off.

MOST OF THE BRAIN’S ENERGY is consumed with filtering out excess information, the sensory data we don’t need, a whole world of input that would overwhelm us if allowed in. It was clear that my filter was broken, and I was drowning in sounds and colors and the way things moved. The internet advised the obvious: avoid high stimulus environments; control your space; sit with your back to the wall; wear a hat; consider noise-canceling headphones. I learned that sleep, especially a long sleep with a fever, helped re-set the brain a bit. So did watercolor painting. I turned to familiar series on Netflix, plots I already knew by heart. I learned to live a small life: do one or two things per day.

I developed an adversarial relationship with my brain. Spoke of its needs and demands, its refusal to process information. How it felt shrink-wrapped after a difficult day, how it prickled, or felt leaden or buzzed. I told the neurologist I felt dizzy or confused or anxious. Or as if I’d been hit by a two-by-four in a Saturday cartoon. He manipulated my head to fix the positional vertigo and prescribed Xanax for the anxiety. He said: do what you normally do until it feels bad; then stop doing that.

What I would normally do is attend softball games at the university. The second spring after the fall, I made it to one game. I went alone and sat in my usual seats, just to the left of the batter and seven rows up; perfect seats, shaded in the warm afternoon. The stadium was full, the sky was clear and blue. I felt connected to something essentially American, something seasonal and sweet: a home game and a good team. The loudspeaker blared pre-game music as I stood in line for a hot dog with mustard and relish and a Coke. A woman and her daughter in front of me waved their hands around in some kind of slapping game, and I had to look away. I had to breathe. The game started, and someone hit a home run. During a media break, kids in Taco and Hot Sauce costumes raced around the perimeter of the field. Fans clapped to encourage the pitcher to throw a third strike. Cars moved east and west on a highway beyond the fence, out beyond the flags and the terraced area for fans with lawn chairs and suntan lotion. It was softball. I lasted three innings.

When I got home, I got out the frozen peas. My brain felt like tin foil. My eyes refused to stay open; I didn’t want to look at anything. The silence in the house was balm in Gilead. But I felt the world narrowing around me. In the quiet of my house, surrounded by crape myrtles and hydrangeas, the summer not far away, I realized I was in a very soft prison or a southern gothic novel. My brain had a front porch with ferns and rattan chairs, and I was sitting there with a glass of lemonade.

IT WAS A HEAD INJURY FROM A FALL in the front yard. The kind where symptoms might resolve in a week or two, or where cognitive functions might be disrupted for months. The neurologist tells you to wait it out. After six months he starts calling it post-concussion syndrome. You hear stories: a man who still has difficulty with language fifteen years after hitting the dashboard; a woman whose vision had to be retrained after a hiking accident. A year goes by. Then three.

No doubt the concussion was complicated by my age. By the fact that there were really three concussions: a whiplash from being rear-ended in July; a side-impact concussion in September; a rattled head from a fender-bender the following June. We know now that the effects of brain trauma are cumulative over time. So maybe you have that one catastrophic injury at war. Or maybe you get tackled on the football field over and over. Or maybe you are an older woman who has a year of accidents.

I was lucky to have insurance, to have a job that offered medical leave, to recover so much function. I can read with nearly complete attention. I can drive for 2.5 hours without incident and carry on a conversation for an afternoon and do three errands in a day. I can go to a movie. But I still can’t face the idea of an airport. Or enjoy a neighborhood party.

A year ago, we had a driveway happy hour. I walked the dog down the street and sat in a tailgate chair to socialize. People milled around getting snacks. The dog strained at the leash. A toddler threw a tantrum. Older kids rode bicycles up and down the driveway. I held a red cup of iced tea and tried to focus on the conversation. More people arrived. I said it felt like weather on the horizon. The toddler climbed up on a chair and tipped over and the dog freaked out a bit. It was warm and humid and pollen was thick in the air. People talked and talked. I lasted a little more than half an hour. Then I had to go home and get quiet.

I was lucky but I know that I am not quite who I was. I hesitate and retreat. I am not sure what to say or why. I think about brain death, about losing words, about the effects of isolation. I worry about falling again. And I manage myself like a difficult child. I carry food and water and a book to read. I evaluate the sensory environment, monitor soundscapes. I make sure I have an exit strategy for events. I plan my day around my brain.

I DON’T KNOW IF I HAVE LOST MEMORIES. How would I know? All the words seem to be there, all the math I need, how to get from one place to another. But my memory of the past has never been strong. When I went to my 25th high school reunion, I recognized the names of classmates and even some of their faces. But except for my closest friends, I had no memory of interacting with them as people. You must remember Linda, my best friend said, she fainted in class all the time. But I did not remember her at all, though I remember the mercury in chemistry class, how the silver liquid rolled and split and then coated someone’s class ring. I remember designing a poster for the senior play. The plaid headscarf on the girl who had mange. The taste of the onion rings at the Big Boy drive-in. And so much of my past is like that: small bright chunks of exquisite detail with oceans of darkness in between. How would I know if some of that darkness, the concealed or dim memories that never made it into poems or the stories I tell people, how would I know if those were gone?

I do know that my sense of time-shifted and then shifted back. I didn’t notice that until recently, when a 20-minute drive to doggie daycare suddenly seemed like a 20-minute drive, like nothing, just a few songs on the radio. Instead of a trek, a journey, something needing forethought and vigilance and endurance. During the worst of the concussion, everything seemed to take longer, though not in a way that made me impatient. Just that the steps in things became visible to me as my brain took account of them. That look in the rear-view mirror. Turning the stove off. Putting the detergent in the washer. Twisting the cap off the milk jug. My brain noticed every move I made. It was as if I were living in a foreign language and putting together sentences from a phrase book.

I wish I could have translated that language for the neurologist. I wanted to tell him that what I felt in the brain was not just cognitive but physical. That when I said it crackled, I meant the material of my brain sizzled with electricity. That the confusion was also a bruise or a pulled muscle. That there’s a place on my forehead that feels like I walked into a freezer door. A place that is not where my head hit the ground.

THE BRAIN IS HEAVY and dense and cushioned by spinal fluid. The skull is hard. All of this protects the brain, but also makes it vulnerable. When faced with an impact, the brain keeps moving until it hits bone.

I think about the spiral galaxy inside my head; how those long arms of stars spark and fly outward. The surreal staircases of poetry. The corridors I walk in dreams. How tenuous it all is, the sense-making, the creation of new thoughts, the mechanisms of memory. How it all depends on not falling into the holes we can’t see.

I think about the split second when balance goes and you come crashing down. How the whole universe of your self is in peril at that moment: the brain and skull and earth reduced to a singularity, a narrowing of reality followed by something explosive or shattering or a just blinding light.

How everything on the other side of that moment is different.

Patti White is the author of four collections of poems, Tackle Box (2002), Yellow Jackets (2007), Chain Link Fence (2013), and Pink Motel (2017), all from Anhinga Press. Her poetry has appeared in journals including Iowa Review, North American Review, River Styx, Nimrod, DIAGRAM, Forklift OhioMissouri ReviewParcelMcNeese ReviewSlippery ElmVine LeavesWaccamaw, and New Madrid; her nonfiction in Gulf Coast, Miracle Monocle, and Mulberry Fork Review. Her most recent publication is Particularly Dangerous Situation (Arc Pair Press, 2020), an experimental novella. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Fiction by Michael Washburn


A couple of months into our campaign to make Julian Assange the next prime minister, something entirely unexpected happened.

“Hey Pete, what trouble are we in now?” said my colleague Devin, gazing through a window near the front of our makeshift headquarters.

“Come again, Devin?”

“Take a look outside, mate.”

I got up from my desk, walked to what I’d once called a living room, and peered outside. After so many weeks of treacherous weather, we were in the midst of a gorgeous platinum afternoon. Across the street was parked a gleaming bright red car, an Acura NSX, or something like that, and a young man wearing shades, a light gray sports jacket, matching trousers, and a white dress shirt with pink stripes, was coming across the street toward the front steps. Dumfounded, I stepped outside to greet him before his finger hit the buzzer.

“Can I help you, sir?”

He stood there in the full light of the early afternoon, a placid expression on his shaven and scented features, examining me with curiosity tinged with something a bit less benevolent.

“Mr. Peter Logue?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Good day. Blake Purcell’s the name. By order of the man you work for, you are officially now co-manager of the truth campaign. As of now there are two people, with equal authority and responsibility, answering directly to the candidate!”

I stared in disbelief. The air outside was too soft, the sun too mild and flattering, for the information just disclosed to me. But it shouldn’t have been such a shock. A grant we’d sought from the Monmouth Foundation had come through, and the campaign had gotten funds for the purpose of bringing a “professional manager” aboard. Yet, here was the first I heard of the new arrangement. Our candidate lived in an embassy and was perpetually in legal trouble. Communication was spotty at best.

“Would you follow me, sir?”

“Your place is my place now,” Blake Purcell said.

I went inside, with this stranger following me, and ordered my staff to take a coffee break. Warily eying Blake and myself, they picked themselves up and set off for the student hangout around the corner. We sat down at the table facing each other.

Blake chuckled.

“You fancy yourself the manager of a national campaign, Peter. I could be anybody. You let me walk right in here on nothing other than the pretext I’ve given you.”

“Well, the candidate did say something about a pending change to the management of the campaign. For all his concern for transparency, his communications can be rather oblique at times.”

“Is that so?”

“Indeed. I guess you don’t consider knowing a thing about the candidate to be a prerequisite for running his campaign.”

“Well, that’s a bit of a jump. I daresay I know more about him than you do. It’s been an awful long time since you were students together.”

“Damn it, man, I was with him in his most formative years. Why are we talking about this? I want to know what entitles you to walk in here and be rude to the people who’ve been with this campaign from the start. More to the point, why does it need fixing?”

Blake cut me off.

“Oh, I’ve seen the figures, mate. Get real. Right now, there’s $13,452 in the treasury. If you look at your outlays for rent, travel, mass mailings, and your employees—a subject which we’ll get to in a minute—that’s not going to get you through the spring with enough left to buy one ad on the radio or one online ad or one TV spot. Not one.”

“But Blake—”

He brooked no interruption.

“You know nothing about raising funds. I don’t know what your vision of ‘health’ is, but it’s not a useful or relevant one, and this campaign will not compete with the establishment parties if things don’t change radically by the turn of the month.”

“Listen to me, man—”

But he charged ahead.

“Now, on a related subject, I don’t know where you found this flotsam you’ve got working for you. I might be charitable about a temporary marriage of convenience. But I don’t think you have any intention of replacing any of these people, and they’re not helping the campaign’s image at all. They’re dragging it down!”

I tried to respond in an even voice as I felt the darkest kind of rage surge within me.

“How can you say that? Devin Rhodes is an IT genius. He’s forgotten more about software than you’ve ever known in your life.”

Judging from Blake’s face, nothing I said could faze or subvert his placid attitude even a bit.

“I’m not talking about Devin, although I’m sure you could easily find someone who looks more professional. I mean those other two: the ADF-reject and the screw-up, Mark what’s-his-name. You know there are rumors out there, Peter. Do a bit of online searching if you don’t believe me. Oh yes, there are rumors about an episode where you and Mark were at Bondi Beach, both roaring drunk, and he hit on, like, thirty women, jumped up on a table, fell off, had a breakdown, and started crying hysterically.”

“No,” I said, unable to keep the rage out of my voice.

“I suppose you knew that, and you just didn’t consider it relevant to the campaign.”

“I didn’t know it, and what you’ve said is ninety percent bullshit. I was just waiting for the part about Mark dancing naked on the table. Why not toss that in if you’re going to invent stuff?”

“I don’t invent stuff. I’m the co-manager of a national campaign about truth and transparency.”

Never in my life had the present tense been as brutal, as hard to accept.

“All right, then. I’m never going to fire Mark, or Stuart, or Devin unless one of them turns out to be a North Korean agent. Things will go much more smoothly if we proceed on that understanding, Blake.”

“Well, we’ll see, Peter. The candidate likes you very much, and I can’t do a bloody thing about that. But I can re-cast this campaign and make it a winning proposition, with or without your help.”

“But if we have equal decision-making power—”

“Peter. Pay attention, man. Having an equal say on things doesn’t mean we both vote on everything. This is politics. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. In the end, when we rock the polls, you’ll come to see me as a godsend. For now, let’s just try to be friends.”

Blake Purcell got up and walked out of the kitchen and through the living room and left. I watched through a window as he descended the steps, crossed the street, and slid back behind the wheel of his car, and drove off into the wide brilliant day, leaving me pondering, once again, the myth of Sisyphus.


A couple of days after Blake’s visit, I was in the midst of my early morning review of email when I opened a message from a stranger, one Bill Decker, saying that he and fellow principals of his fund were interested in meeting me in person.

The message didn’t say much, but it inspired just a bit of hope. While Decker was vague about the meeting’s purpose, he said he and his colleagues discussed the allocation of funds for the coming fiscal year. The email signature below his name contained the words New South Wales Equity Partners, a name I found promising. Here was the kicker: Decker had reached out to me after an interview with an applicant had fallen through, and I needed to get myself over to the tower in the CBD housing New South Wales Equity Partners right away.

Though I would have liked to perform due diligence on Decker and this outfit, I couldn’t bear to see a possible donor slip away. So, I quickly agreed and fired off a message to a grandmother in Canberra with whom I’d scheduled a call for 10:00 a.m., humbly asking to postpone our chat. So much for running a grassroots campaign, I thought, as I sent a message to Devin, who wouldn’t be arriving here for another half an hour at least, asking for info on New South Wales Equity Partners.

A short while later, I ascended from the depths of Wynyard Station in the CBD, walked a few blocks east and north, and entered the lobby of a gigantic tower. One of three uniformed guards at the desk spanning the center of the lobby, a fiftyish man with thin blond hair and a hard, weathered face, asked where I was going and demanded ID. I handed him my driver’s license, and stood there tensely watching him scan it and produce an adhesive strip with my name and headshot from a tiny machine. When I mentioned Bill Decker’s name, the guard said that Decker was with ACP on twenty-two.

I’d never heard of ACP but didn’t want the guard to detect my bewilderment. Behind and to the left of the desk, I waited amid the big reflective bronze-tinted elevator doors, in the company of a grinning dark-haired man in a taffeta suit and shiny brown shoes with wire-thin laces, clutching a deep brown briefcase. Neither of us spoke. When the doors to my right swished open, he followed me into the lift and rode it up to twelve before stepping off. Just as he left the elevator, I thought I noted a change in the look on his creamy contended face, as when a person petting a cat notices a gash behind one of the creature’s ears. I rode up past nine more floors until the ping! announced my arrival at twenty-two.

When I stepped into the hall, a sign indicated that ACP was behind the third door down the hall and to my right. If I was keeping things straight, it occupied part of the southern half of the floor. I tentatively made my way down the hall, opened one of the large glass double doors, walked fifteen feet toward the rear of the building, and spoke to a woman with flowing amber hair who wore a white, faintly tinted dress with gray like clouds on a damp March afternoon.

She told me Mr. Decker would be right out and asked me to take a seat on a row of chairs with plush deep blue cushions running perpendicular to the front desk and commanding a magnificent view of the gleaming blue and gray towers of the CBD through the long window behind the desk. Instead of doing so, I asked to use the men’s room. She pointed toward the north side of the building. I walked up past empty conference rooms, turned left, and walked into a brightly lit room with pristine beige tiles and three empty stalls.

Seconds later, I had my new cell phone in my hands and was hurriedly typing a message to Devin, demanding to know what he’d found out. To my relief, I got a reply almost instantaneously. God bless that guy, I thought.

“Pete—afraid I can’t tell you jack about NSWEP—there’s just not much info out there, even on their website.”

“Zero?”

“Practically. The ‘About Us’ section of the home page is so vague this could be a tobacco company or a tampon manufacturer or a Scientology outfit.”

“Well, how about ACP?”

“Huh?”

“It’s, I don’t know, a unit or a subsidiary of NSWEP or something. I need all the info on them, and I need it an hour ago.”

I thrust the cell phone into a pocket and tried once again to compose myself before the mirror. Then I returned to the waiting area. The tops of the buildings beyond the long pane of glass looked so sedate in their gleaming majesty they almost helped me breathe evenly again. Two gentlemen in their forties emerged from the hall on the south side of the waiting area, opposite the hall I’d returned from.

They reeked of Paco Rabanne and Gucci Pour Homme. One of them had dirty blond hair and the face of a jovial, if aging former frat boy, and wore a gray suit. This was Bill Decker. The other, a guy with knots of ash-colored hair, in a somber blue suit, was Alan Pierce. After exchanging pleasantries, I followed the two men down the hall, and we entered a room with an oval table with a smooth oak surface matching the panels of the walls. On the desk was an old-school phone in a black plastic tray. We sat down.

“Thank you for coming in at such short notice,” Bill said.

“Oh, you’re welcome.”

“I must say, the truth campaign has been in the news quite a bit, but we’re not alone in wondering about some of the basics. First off, Alan and I would like to ask you a few questions about your managerial structure and your finances.”

I blinked. “Come again?”

“This is a routine vetting procedure. We get to know you. You get to know us. You know you can’t go on being a cipher if you expect to draw support that will make any kind of difference in your prospects in the election,” Bill replied.

“I, ah—how should I say this?—I could use just a tiny bit more background on ACP before we proceed.”

“Alan?”

His colleague gave me a condescending look.

“As the organizer of a national campaign, I take it you do know something about the private equity space?” Alan asked.

I swallowed. “Well, of course, I could tell you about private equity generally, about macro trends, about where the deal flow in M&A and project finance is these days, but I’m sure you’d agree that private equity shops are highly secretive about what they do and this one’s no exception. Not even the most informed analyst could give you more than a general profile of any outfit worthy of the name. And it’s only fair to acknowledge that I didn’t have time to catch up with what little information may be public.”

Bill and Alan exchanged looks. Alan continued.

“Our founder lives by his credo, Mr. Logue. He passionately supports causes that have merit and swats things and people he doesn’t believe in like so many pestering little gnats. I would never get on his bad side or get in his way. Now, once again, we’re sorry to call you over here at such short notice, but there may not be another opportunity for this vetting to take place.”

At the moment, it was easy to envision scenarios where any information I volunteered might well become ammunition for the other side. But just imagine if we did get their support.

“This sounds like something we could accomplish via email,” I said in a neutral voice.

“Well, we did want to meet with you in person, and since you’re here, we might as well proceed. The window is closing fast,” said Alan.

“May I use the restroom?” I asked with a bright, innocent face.

I hurried out. I avoided making eye contact with the receptionist as I moved through the lobby. Back in the men’s room, I moved into one of the stalls and called Devin, my body hunched over as if I’d come in to puke. I thought myself lucky there wasn’t anyone else in that pristine glistening space. There was hardly time for composing texts to each other now so I called him.

“There isn’t much to find about ACP, Pete.”

“Thanks a ton.”

“But there’s something else you might find interesting.”

“Shoot.”

“I asked Stuart for an updated list of all the sources of threats we’ve gotten. I cross-checked the email from NSWEP against the list, and one of the threats, from about three weeks ago, has the same suffix in the email address. The sender gives his name as ‘Ogre.”’

“You’re kidding!”

“Wish I were.”

“So, it came from the company whose property I’m on right now?”

 “No, it came from someone on the eighteenth floor of the building.”

“But ACP isn’t on eighteen!”

“Do you know that, Pete?”

“What exactly does it say, Devin?” I asked, terrified that my voice was shrill enough for the receptionist outside and possibly others to hear me.

“You really want to know?”

“I don’t have fucking time for back and forth. TELL ME!

“It’s pretty horrible.”

The men’s room’s door swished open, and in my surprise and alarm, I dropped my brand new phone into the toilet. I snatched it out, frantically wiped it with the edge of my shirt, flushed the toilet using my left foot, moved out of the stall. The middle-aged homme d’affaires who’d come in had a large, bold forehead, receding black hair, and wore a coal-black suit. Fortunately, he displayed more concern with his appearance than me as I moved out of the stall with the hem of my shirt hanging out, frantically wiping a phone. I tried to smile, tucked my shirt back in, pocketed the phone, exited the restroom, and headed back down the hall. When at last I reappeared in the room, Bill and Alan looked bored and restless.

“Forgive me. I’ve had a bit of trouble with my digestion lately,” I said as I slid back into my seat.

Alan began again.

“That’s quite all right. So, now, Peter—may I address you as Peter? We need to establish a few things here. We’d like to know about the sources of funding in Australia and which of the candidate’s friends in the U.K. have been sending money here.”

“You really couldn’t have found out any of that?” I asked with polite surprise.

“Some of the information is public, and some isn’t.”

“Why do you care where we’ve been getting money? This is about financing arrangements going forward.”

“These are all components of the profile we’re putting together, as a matter of course,” Bill said, in a tone suggesting my conduct was getting unseemly.

I checked myself, drawing a deep breath. After all, this wasn’t like meeting with some unstable veteran in a park, hearing about how one fire-laps bores to ensure the widest possible spray of blood and brain tissue.

“Of course, gentlemen. I didn’t mean to be testy.”

“Who is your biggest donor to date?” Alan asked.

“The Monmouth Foundation.”

“You must be extremely grateful to them,” Bill said.

“They’ve made a huge difference in the structure of the campaign, that’s for sure,” I said, thinking myself clever.

“How many accountants do you employ?” Alan continued.

“I’ve consolidated that role with certain others. If I must go by an official headcount, it’s zero. But please don’t let that mislead you.”

“Do you have Cayman and Swiss accounts?”

Taking this question for a joke, I let it pass.

“Some people in the campaign are in a state of disbelief. I mean, the Monmouth Foundation came through with what is easily our biggest contribution to date,” I said quite truthfully.

“What sort of fundraising strategy do you pursue?” Alan asked.

“Generally speaking, we target foundations with endowments that support investigative journalism, and midmarket donors and lenders who may be a little less susceptible to corporate influences, which helps us avoid obvious conflicts of interest. And students, professors, lawyers, intellectuals, artists, writers, the intelligentsia broadly speaking. They tend not to have deep pockets, but some of them are awfully eager to pitch in.”

“Where are your offshore accounts?”

“Offshore accounts, needless to say, are all about secrecy. Concerns keep coming up about what is or isn’t in registries of funds parked offshore. Quite apart from the philosophical issues, we would have quite practical, reputational concerns about the use of them,” I said, looking Alan in the eye.

“If your financial profile continues to evolve, would you consider using them?” Bill asked.

“We’d consider it.”

“What healthcare provider are your employees signed up with?”

“There’s no single one. It’s all decentralized.”

“Do you take a helicopter to work?” Alan said.

“May I use the restroom again?”

They said nothing but gave assenting looks.

Back in the stall where I’d dropped the phone before, I frantically tried to raise Devin. Though I dreaded throwing away an opportunity, I was fairly certain those two men in suits were mocking me while extracting information they’d use for malicious ends. I was able to pull up the number of the Glebe office. I hit ‘send.’ Nothing. I’d screwed the phone up good. But the mishap hadn’t disabled texting.

“So, your sis finally squeezed one out, Pete? Great news. We’ll see at what Fahrenheit toddlers melt.”

And after that, another message.

“The world of accomplished men and women, real people, does need a respectable-sized hole to evacuate into, so thanks for opening your mouth wide.”

And yet another:

“Enjoying your childlike antics, Petey. Do keep the firing squad entertained.”

I saw what Devin had done. He’d typed in the messages that had come from that anonymous emailer on the eighteenth floor and sent them off to me. I scrolled down further and found another message.

“Have found ref. to NSWEP re. private army in Sierra Leone, arms deal in Sudan, and a political assassination in Cambodia. The last is unverified, though. Wouldn’t trust rumors.”

Well, what we did have was quite enough, I figured. Good for Devin for pulling these references from the murkiest depths of the internet with so little notice. I put the phone away again. I contemplated darting out of this office right now, jumping onto an elevator, dashing out of the building, never looking back, or giving ACP or NSWEP or equally wretched acronyms another thought. But I couldn’t quell my curiosity. Before leaving the restroom again, I texted back to Devin: “22nd floor of Chromium building downtown. Bill Decker and Alan Pierce. Pompous buffoons. About 46 and 48, respectively.”

The two gentlemen looked oddly unperturbed in the conference room as I took my seat across from them and reestablished eye contact once again. Still, I expected cross words. 

 “Thank you for your patience with us,” Bill Decker said to my amazement.

It was briefly quite hard to breathe. I composed myself for a few excruciating moments before I managed to open my mouth. “I beg your pardon?”

“I want to thank you for bearing with us through this process. The profile we’ve been putting together requires a fair amount of minutiae, but it’s part of the vetting process for something that’s kind of an urban legend. People whisper about it, but they don’t believe it ever actually happens,” Bill said.

“I don’t understand.”

“It can be overwhelming, I know. You’re thinking, why are these strangers asking so many invasive questions? Don’t tell me you haven’t thought that.”

“It’s virtually impossible for me to lie, so I won’t tell you that.”

“Good. Do you have any more questions at this point, Alan?”

Bill’s prim middle-aged colleague shook his head.

“Well, I think we’re about ready to go ahead, then.”

“Before we go any further, there’s something pretty major on my mind, guys. I’m talking about a series of strange messages we got from an employee of yours, Ogre, who, I believe, is working or used to work on the eighteenth floor of this building.”

“We don’t hire ogres,” Alan assured me.

“More importantly, we aren’t on the eighteenth floor,” Bill said.

“We have a threatening email message with the same suffix as the one you sent me.”

“Ah, well, that’s not surprising.”

I could only stare, dumbfounded.

“We formed a joint venture last year for acquiring this highly selective bit of real estate, Peter. The other party, for your information, was called Leichhardt Venture Partners. Our management was separate from theirs, but we were co-signers on the lease, as New South Wales Equity Partners. For a while, we were employing the same people to manage our operating systems. We had the same IT infrastructure as Leichhardt,” Bill said.

“And, of course, it was the same email domain names for ACP and LVP people.”

“A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think?” said Alan, and his burst of informal speech nearly floored me.

“Just what have you been sitting there thinking about us all this time?” Bill asked.

To this, I had a ready reply.

“I’ve had no idea what to think, and for all your blue-blooded haughtiness, I can’t say you’ve been very forthcoming or professional or considerate thus far.”

Bill and Alan exchanged looks once again.

“Please come with us, Peter,” Bill said, as the two of them rose.

We exited the conference room and pursued the hall toward the southern end of the building. In this bland setting, the sight of plain doors numbered 2204, 2205, 2206 triggered a cold, contracted feeling in my abdomen. At the last door, before yet another hall running along the tower’s south edge, we stopped. Bill carefully and ceremoniously turned the handle, and we proceeded into a big room with a sterile floor with white panels.

There stood elegantly slanting bookshelves that Walter Gropius might have designed, filled with volumes on architecture and film theory. At one end of the room hung a Duchamp painting and, at the opposite end, a Balthus. Between the framed scenes, a wizened man with thin strips of white hair, wearing a black suit and a pair of glasses with black frames, leaned forward over a pile of papers. In his right hand, he held a red pen. I inferred that he’d been circling and underling items in the text on those papers. At this moment, I was looking, with knowledge, at Warren Turlington III. Even as the three of us stood there facing him, he carried on with what he was doing for a good twenty seconds before looking up.

“Mr. Turlington, this is Peter Logue,” said Bill, ever the smooth presenter.

The wizened man picked himself up, advanced around the desk, and extended a gnarled hand, with I shook with trepidation.

“Good day, sir,” he said in a scratchy, labored voice.

“Good day.”

“You may address me as Warren if you wish.”

“Mr. Logue here had us mixed up with Leichhardt Venture Partners,” Alan said in an acid voice.

Warren Turlington III laughed softly. When he spoke, he put me in mind of an aging judge whose speech retains every vestige of long-practiced formalities even as both body and mind are acting like they want to quit. But then that was silly. The man was barely in his seventies.

 “I don’t believe we can claim credit for offing a mayor in Cambodia, Mr. Logue. Leichhardt Venture Partners is of a decidedly different cast from us. I hope you understand our dealing with them as no more than a temporary arrangement undertaken, I must admit, without much due diligence.”

“Yes, sir. I understand entirely.”

“But, you know, Leichhardt takes its name from an adventurer, from one who set out to ascend to levels of experience denied to first-generation Australians or even to generations since his time. In that respect, we are not totally different. We aim to foster works of art that are daring, innovative, works that grow out of tolerance or even love for risk on the part of the artist.”

I nodded, considering his words carefully. He continued.

“As you may be aware, the art scene in contemporary Sydney is suffocating. It chafes and squirms within the stranglehold of a benighted critic by the name of Edward Rance, who has an incomparable bullhorn with which to excoriate any art that displeases him. Well, we are determined to foster innovation. We also, as it happens, believe passionately in your campaign, Mr. Logue. But our charter forbids us to spend directly on political campaigns.”

As I stood there, still nervous and frightened, in this strange office on the twenty-second floor of a gleaming steel tower in the CBD, the universe, at last, began to make just a bit more sense to me.

He went on: “However, it does not, by any interpretation, forbid us, the principals of Australian Cultural Progress, to spend as lavishly as we please on galleries of merit. Some galleries around the city and one in particular, with which you may be familiar, have devoted themselves to selling art to benefit the truth campaign.”

Warren Turlington III referred to a Balmain gallery owned by a dear friend and supporter, Bob Farnsworth. He stepped forward and shook hands with me, formally and ostentatiously, with a surprisingly strong grip. The other principals in the room at once followed suit and said it was an incomparable honor to have me on the premises today.

Thirty minutes later, I walked out into the brisk morning, thinking, Take that, Blake Purcell, you pompous ass.

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. His books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). His short story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction contest, and his story “My Role in the Rise of Julian Assange” won the Adelaide Books fiction award for 2019.

A Note from the Editor

It has truly been an exciting week for The Dillydoun Review. We opened our proverbial doors on October 26, 2020, and ten days later, we have over three hundred submissions. Some were accompanied by a contribution to our Tip Jar via Submittable.

Thank you very much for contributing to The Dillydoun Review via our Tip Jar.

This helps us actually pay for Submittable (which is wonderful but wickedly expensive) until we can become full members of CLMP. At that time, we will qualify for a generous discount.

We must publish our first issue before we can become full members of CLMP so, not long now.

And, speaking of our first issue, I have received several questions regarding the publication format for The Dillydoun Review.

Are TDR Issues produced as print publications?

Many people have contacted me asking if TDR issues are produced as print publications.

The answer is no. Not yet, at least. For the time being, we are only online.

A print version of the journal is definitely on our list of things to accomplish but, for now, we are online only. TDR publishes quarterly issues of prose and poetry each March, June, September, and December.

We also publish (beginning Monday, November 8, 2020) a blog called TDR Daily which features short stories, flash fiction, poetry, prose poetry, articles, interviews, reviews, and essays.

All submissions are considered for both TDR Issues and TDR Daily unless you specify otherwise in your cover letter.

One is no better than the other, in our opinion. It is our goal to make TDR Daily just as desirable a home for your work as our quarterly issues.

So, thanks again. Hope this answers at least one of your questions.

We look forward to reading your work.

Amy Burns, Managing Editor

The Dillydoun Review is now accepting submissions for our inaugural issue which is scheduled for publication at the end of December 2020.

TDR is an online publication only. We do not publish a print issue at this time, although it is a goal to work toward.

We read unsolicited manuscripts throughout the year. Submissions are considered for both quarterly issues and our daily blog.

Online Submissions

We accept submissions online through Submittable.

If you have any questions or problems feel free to contact us at thedillydounreview@gmail.com

Mail Submissions

If you wish to submit via mail, send your manuscript and a self-addressed stamped envelope to:

The Dillydoun Review
ATTN: Amy Burns
P.O. Box 1208
Hanceville, AL 35077

IMPORTANT: Manuscripts will not be returned. Please do not send your only copy.

For more details, please see our Writers’ Guidelines.

The Dillydoun Review is a new online literary journal that publishes prose and poetry each March, June, September, and December.

To keep our readers and writers engaged between issues, the goal is to publish articles, essays, reviews, interviews, opinion pieces, fiction, and poetry each day on the TDR blog. If you have an idea for the blog that falls outside the mentioned categories, feel free to pitch it.

My name is Amy Burns. I am the Managing Editor. Some of you might recognize me from other lit mags including Unbound Press, Spilling Ink Review, and Mulberry Fork Review. I missed being part of the online writing community and look forward to reacquainting myself with old friends and, of course, making new ones.

I am still in the early stages of developing the journal so the website is a bit sparse. Check back soon and see our progress!