A Short Story by Mark Hall

“Christ!” Daniel McRae’s father cried. The back door slammed shut with such force that it shook the house. “Daniel!” John McRae bellowed, drawing out his son’s name. “Get your ass down here! Now!”

For an instant, all was quiet. Daniel crept from his room at the top of the stairs. On the landing, he froze in the silence. Then, heavy footsteps as his father made his way through the house. “Shit,” Daniel muttered to himself. Quickly, he searched his mind for what could have set his father off this time. His hands shook as he ran them through his mop of dark hair. He gripped the stair rail to steady himself. Then he remembered his bike.

Daniel looked down over the banister in the direction of the kitchen. His face bruised with anger, John stalked his son, one hand gripping a sturdy broom. There were specks of dried blood on its thick handle from the last time he had struck Daniel. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped. “How many times have I told you not to leave that bike in the driveway? How many, goddamn it?”

Daniel was fourteen, slight for his age. There on the landing, he stood several steps above. From this vantage point, his father appeared only slightly less threatening.

“I’ve told you and told you!” John roared. “Put your goddamn things away!”

Daniel took a step back. Cornered, he turned his back to his father and steeled himself. He covered his head with his forearms as John raised the boom with both hands. He struck his son hard, again and again. “Goddamn it!” he shouted with each blow. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! Goddamn it!”

As the blows struck, Daniel’s mother, Aida-Claire, appeared below. She could have stopped her husband. She knew that Daniel hadn’t just left his bike carelessly in the drive. He’d put it there deliberately, to replace a tube in a flat tire. Daniel had talked to her about it that morning. There wasn’t room enough to work inside the garage. He’d only just finished and left the bike for an instant to run upstairs for his shoes.

But instead of intervening on Daniel’s behalf, Aida-Claire mirrored her husband’s anger. “Your Daddy has told you time and time again not to leave that bike in the driveway,” she echoed. Aida-Claire kept her eyes on John as she spoke. She was performing for him. “Someday, one of us is going to back over it.” She glanced, briefly, at Daniel, her voice trembling, “Then you won’t have a bike.” Daniel registered the fear in his mother’s eyes. He hated her for that. Bile rose in his throat. Aida-Claire was trying to remember her lines. “Maybe,” she added, her voice rising, as in a question, “you shouldn’t have a bike in the first place, if you can’t take care of it.” Like an actor on a stage, she looked to her husband for approval. Whenever his rage exploded, Aida-Claire stood on the sidelines like this, egging him on. Sometimes she’d even pile on additional transgressions from days or even weeks past that Daniel ought to be punished for. If John’s anger was directed at him, Daniel understood, then it wouldn’t be aimed at her. But it wasn’t enough simply to avoid her husband’s wrath herself. Aida-Claire had to become his ally, his accomplice.

His anger exhausted, John threw the broom to the floor below and turned toward the kitchen. For several minutes, Daniel remained still, to be certain it was over. Then, with difficulty, he unfolded. Slowly, he made his way back to his room, leaning against the wall as he went. He was careful not to slam the bedroom door, though he wanted nothing more than to tear it from its hinges. Curled up on his bed, his head throbbing, Daniel caught the sound of his bike as it clattered into the back of his father’s pickup. “Godfucking cunt!” John shouted, as the tailgate failed to catch. Then the truck scratched out of the drive.

The first time Daniel’s father struck him, John and Aida-Claire had been out one evening. Daniel was looking after his little brother, Will, who had had a nightmare. When their parents returned home, Will was in tears, groggy, incoherent, lost between waking and sleep. He cried out from this in-between state. They found Will on the floor, next to his bed. His father concluded that Daniel must have hurt his brother somehow. But that was ridiculous, inconceivable. Daniel would never hurt Will. But John had come for him. He’d pierced Daniel with a low, steely voice: “Go to my room and get the biggest belt you can find.”

By now, Daniel knew well how the next day would go. Ordinarily, on Sunday mornings, the whole family attended church together. But after a Saturday night beating, only Daniel and his father would go, just the two of them. Daniel hated this worse than the beatings, riding silently in the car, alone with his father, sitting next to him through the service, watching him pray, then the mute drive home.

Knowing his father would expect him at the ready, when morning came, Daniel dressed slowly, painfully. He hadn’t left his room since yesterday. Will had brought a sandwich, which Daniel hadn’t touched. His little brother sat on the edge of Daniel’s bed and laid a hand on his hip. He patted Daniel gently for a long time. Will had come to tell Daniel that he’d hidden the broom behind the living room drapes so their father couldn’t hit him anymore. Daniel could not respond. He was sore all over. Even his teeth hurt. He was deep inside himself now. There he would remain. He would not speak, unless prompted. He would not look at his parents tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. He would give nothing. He would be a blank.

As Pastor Lealand droned on, Daniel ruminated. He’d heard the expression, “This hurts me worse than it hurts you.” Daniel didn’t believe it, but he understood that his father suffered whenever he beat him. Daniel read it on his face, the deep trough between his eyes. That’s why they were at church together in the first place, just the two of them. His father felt guilty. That’s probably what he was praying about right now, Daniel thought. He took pleasure imagining his father’s anguish. How could he add to his pain, Daniel wondered.

He could tell. Daniel could tell a teacher at school how his father beat him. On Monday morning, Daniel could raise his shirt and show the angry welts across his back. By then they’d ripen, purple, black. He could show his teacher, Mrs. Winfield. “My father did this,” he would say. Mrs. Winfield would gasp as her eyes filled with tears.

Among his friends and colleagues, John McRae was respected, well-liked. Out in the world, he was charming, jovial, a successful businessman, a deacon in the church. His family was handsome and happy. But at home, Daniel’s father was silent, brooding. Night after night he sat in a worn leather wingback chair, working a crossword puzzle. From time to time, he cleared nothing from his throat. “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh.” Daniel hated that sound. He cringed at the thought of it. No one would believe what John McRae did at home behind closed doors. If Daniel told, then maybe he would be removed from his home, he fantasized, taken into care. Even if a foster family was horrible, it would be worth it. It would be worth it to shame his father and mother. She’d be the talk of the next Junior League luncheon. His parents would hate that, all the talk. Imagine the looks they’d get at church next week when word got around.

After church, Daniel put on his headphones and set out to mow the grass. The front lawn was wide and deep and took hours to finish. Normally, he chafed at the task, but not today. Today, Daniel didn’t care, because mowing the lawn gave him an excuse to avoid his parents. This afternoon Daniel took more time than usual, moving slowly, wincing at each turn. His shoulders ached. But he pressed forward into the heat, knowing that afterwards he’d be too exhausted to think, his mind washed clean by the scorching sun and the ordered lines drawn with each pass of the mower.

Midway through, the McRae’s neighbor, Dave, pulled up, a small boat hitched to his truck. It was a Boston Whaler, just like the one they’d rented once on the Gulf. Uncle Dave, who wasn’t really an uncle, had taken Daniel and John fishing at Apalachicola Bay, not long before John began beating Daniel.

Inexperienced with saltwater fishing, the three of them had nevertheless enjoyed themselves immensely. Daniel had been impressed with his father. On the pier at Cedar Springs, a tiny fishing village on the Bay, John McRae seemed at home among the people they met there. He chatted up the old salts to learn where the fish were biting, what lures to use. On the water, John was easy, relaxed. He and Uncle Dave drank beer, while Daniel downed Cokes. They ate sardines from a tin and peed off the back of the boat. They joked and made up fish stories about “Hog-o-rilla,” the big one that got away, again and again. Lines were tangled. Hooks were caught in their hats and fingers. They bled prying them loose. A rod snapped. A pricy reel was lost in the water. They laughed through it all. Then, in the heat of the afternoon, the three of them leapt from the boat to swim in the Gulf. Together with Uncle Dave and his dad, Daniel had felt a part of something, the world of men that had seemed so strange and distant to him before.

John beamed with pride when Daniel caught the largest speckled trout of the day. “My boy,” he said with a wide smile. Afterwards, back at the pier, Uncle Dave showed Daniel how to gut and clean a fish. Daniel could tell that his father was surprised to see how deftly his son handled a knife.

At home, John set a wide, black cauldron of grease on a gas burner in the backyard for a fish fry. Neighbors gathered. The McRaes always put on a good party. Daniel watched with admiration as his father sliced potatoes neatly, with the skins on, then fried them up, at once crisp and tender. Then, without a recipe, John made up a batter of hushpuppies, with onions and jalapenos chopped fine. Before he dropped a fillet into the grease, John held up each one and praised its perfection. “My boy,” he said again, as he told the story of how Daniel had wrestled the big one into the boat, then, later, on the pier, how he had cleaned the entire catch all by himself, like a skilled fishmonger. Looking back on that day, Daniel considered it the happiest time he’d ever spent with his father.

“Nice work.” Uncle Dave said, as he surveyed the half-mown lawn. “What do you think?” He smiled back at the boat and made a sweeping motion with his outstretched hand, as though he were presenting a lavish prize on a game show. “It’s just like the one we rented at Apalachicola Bay.”

Before Daniel could speak, from behind him, John stepped out the front door and down from the porch. “Uncle Dave!” he drawled loudly, a wide smile, all hail-fellow-well-met. Daniel tensed as his father laid a hand across his shoulders, his thumb and forefinger resting lightly around his son’s neck.

“What do you say we take this baby out at the end of the month?” asked Dave. “Your Mama says your birthday’s coming up, Dan. Let’s make a day of it. Bring home that Hog-o-rilla this time.”

John squeezed Daniel’s neck slightly. Daniel stiffened. “Yes, sir,” he said to Uncle Dave.

At school on Monday morning, Daniel didn’t tell. Nor the next day either. As one day led to another, he found that he had folded so completely inward that now it was difficult to imagine turning out again. In his mind’s eye, he could see the scene in vivid detail: the raising of his shirt, the turn of his back to his teacher, Mrs. Winfield. Her eyes would widen. Tears would well up. Her doughy fingers would reach toward Daniel to touch the ugly bruises, tentatively, gently. Then Mrs. Winfield would pull him to her. She was a big, expansive woman. Daniel would wince in her fierce, soft embrace. He might cry too, as he gave himself over to her protection. But Daniel could not summons up the words to tell her what was happening at home.

The next time John struck his son, Daniel had been sitting at the kitchen table, shelling peas, while Aida-Claire stirred a pot on the stove. More than two weeks had passed since the last beating. Tensions had lifted, though Daniel, wary, continued to steer clear of his father. But he and his mother were mostly back to their old selves. Daniel enjoyed watching her cook. She was relaxed at the stove, organized, efficient. She could juggle lots of tasks at once with calm. Whenever they were alone together in the kitchen, theirs was a quick, easy, banter. They teased one another often. They laughed. Aida-Claire confided in Daniel, sometimes airing complaints about his father. Daniel enjoyed her confidence, which made him feel grown up.

On this evening, Daniel had said something joking to his mother. John had walked in at the tail end of Daniel’s remark. He hadn’t liked whatever he thought he heard. Then, in a flash, John was on him. That’s the way it was. One moment, calm. The next, pure rage. From zero to ninety in an instant. Anything might set him off. In his unpredictable volatility, John McRae was utterly predictable. He snatched Daniel up by his arm. His grip was fierce. Daniel was up and out of his seat before he knew it. The chair clattered to the floor. The peas overturned. “I won’t have you talk to your Mother in that tone of voice,” John shouted.

“What? What did I say?” Daniel screamed, his voice high, breaking. Already he could not remember his own words. He could not reconstruct the conversation he and his mother had been having. His heart pounded in his ears. He opened his mouth to defend himself. “I, I . . .” But nothing would come. Daniel looked to his mother. She would explain. It was just an innocent joke. She hadn’t been bothered by it at all. But Aida-Claire’s mouth was a straight line. Still holding a wooden spoon in the air, she would not meet Daniel’s pleading gaze.

John dragged Daniel out the kitchen door and into the backyard. He took a wide stance and held his fists up in front of him like a boxer. “Put up your dukes, boy!” he demanded.

His father’s pose, his words, struck Daniel, unexpectedly, as comical. Surprising not only John but also himself, Daniel erupted into bitter laughter. “You wanna hit me? Is that what you want?” Daniel laughed. He looked at his father squarely now. His dark eyes, the mirror of John McRae’s, narrowed. Laughing at his father, Daniel discovered in that moment, diminished him. Suddenly Daniel felt strong, commanding, and so he continued to provoke. “You wanna hit me, big man?” he taunted. “That make you feel powerful? Big man gonna beat up a fourteen-year-old kid?” Daniel’s own fists were balled tightly at his sides. His voice was low and steady now. He pressed, “Beat up a kid. That make your dick hard, big man?”

The next day, Daniel woke with a glistening black eye. He smiled wryly as he examined it in the bathroom mirror. He laughed again, the same bitter laugh he had laughed the night before, seconds before his father decked him.

Later, at school that day, Daniel told anyone who asked that he’d hit a pothole and gone head over handlebars on his bike. He hadn’t told anyone that he no longer had a bike.

With the black eye, something had shifted in Daniel. He was no longer afraid of his father. He could see his weakness clearly now. After he had laughed at him, Daniel had felt something rise up inside of himself and break loose.

Nevertheless, Daniel continued to brood about his father’s increasing violence, an endless loop of white-hot resentment, turning over and over again in his mind. Early on, his father had demanded, at the slightest provocation, “Go to my room and get the biggest belt you can find.” John knew which one he meant. So did Daniel, who learned quickly that the beating would only be worse if he chose the wrong belt. The broom had come later, then anything close at hand, once an extension cord, another time a brass candlestick. Only lately had John pared down to bare knuckles.

Daniel puzzled over the why of his father’s behavior. What had he done wrong, Daniel wondered. Aida-Claire had tried to explain once. She reminded Daniel that John had lost his own father when he was only eight years old. The grandfather Daniel had never known had died of a heart attack in his mid-thirties. “And so, you see,” his mother had said, “your Daddy doesn’t know how to be a father, because he never really had one himself. He doesn’t know what to do with a teenage boy. He’s afraid. Afraid you’ll challenge him. Afraid you’ll outstrip him, outshine him.”

To Daniel, this sounded more like an excuse than an explanation. His mother was merely propping up her husband, taking his side again. If he was a threat to his father, Daniel reasoned, then before long he would come for his brother, Will, too. Will was only eight. His father had not yet hurt Will. But he would. Daniel would kill his father first, before he’d let him do to Will what he’d done to him.

The night before their fishing trip, Daniel was lying in bed, when through his noise-cancelling headphones he heard a shriek from the bathroom that separated his bedroom from Will’s. His brother had been splashing in the tub, sloshing water onto the floor. It had soaked clear through to the downstairs, leaving a dark stain on the silk wallpaper in the dining room below.

His father had surprised Will, still naked in the tub, beating him violently with a hairbrush. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! Goddamn it!” he roared.

The next morning, Daniel and his father and Uncle Dave were to leave in the dark hours well before dawn, driving south to Apalachicola Bay. They would be on the water by daybreak. Dave’s boat was too small for the open ocean, Aida-Claire had worried. It wasn’t safe. She wouldn’t think of letting Will go along. He was too small, she insisted. After last night, Daniel thought, Will wouldn’t have wanted to spend the day with their father anyway.

In the kitchen, Daniel tiptoed around his father, making sandwiches, packing the cooler, gathering up their gear. Already on edge, he startled at a knock on the kitchen door. Outside in the dark was Dave’s wife, Sara. Still in her nightgown and slippers, damp from the wet grass, she’d come over to say that Dave was too sick to go fishing. He’d eaten a bad oyster last night, she thought. But Daniel and John should go on without him. The boat was all loaded up and hitched. She handed Daniel the keys to Dave’s truck. “He won’t be going anywhere today,” she said, as she turned on the stoop. “Happy birthday, kiddo. You two have fun.”

Daniel smiled weakly. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. His stomach tightened, as he thought of the long, seething day alone with his father. Without Uncle Dave as a buffer, Daniel wished that he himself had eaten the bad oyster.

The drive south was silent, tense. Daniel put on his headphones and tried to sleep. But he was too restless, and so he only pretended to doze, his eyes closed, nothing in his ears but his own thoughts. He’d been wide-awake most of the night, trembling with rage about Will and the hairbrush. After his parents had shut themselves behind their bedroom door, Daniel had crept into his brother’s room, where he spooned him up in his arms, still teary, trembling, gasping from time to time, until Will finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.

As soon as John stepped out onto the pier at Cypress Springs, it was as if he had flipped a switch. He was at home on the water. It was early yet, still dim. A few old salts were tying chicken necks into tattered crab baskets and tossing them off the rickety pier. John talked tide charts and wind speeds with a toothless old man, so brown and weather-beaten he looked like a desiccated leather bag, washed ashore from some distant land.

Daniel stood beside his father, gazing out over the Gulf, John’s hand resting lightly on his neck. “My boy,” John said to the old man with pride, “Turning fifteen today. Near ‘bout grown, he drawled. He’s gone land a hog-o-rilla today!” For catching speckled trout, the small, wizened man recommended a white rubber grub with a weighted red head and a double salmon hook. He rooted through a battered tackle box and handed Daniel a small packet of lures. “Good luck catching that hog,” he said with a wink.

Daniel remained taut until he and his father had successfully launched the boat. This was just the sort of cooperative task that could easily go wrong and set his John off. Not until he settled into the bow of the boat did Daniel take his first deep breath of salt air. His father stood behind the wheel and sped, full throttle, toward the open Gulf. Daniel braced himself as the small craft bounced against the chop. One hard bump, he thought, might catapult Daniel right out of the boat. His mother had been right: The Boston Whaler was too small to be safe on the open water. With the wind in his ears, Daniel was both afraid and exhilarated in equal measure.

The first pink rays of sun peeking up from the east, John brought the Whaler to a stop and they dropped their lines. After some time, Daniel could feel a loosening inside himself. He could see from his father’s smooth, easy casting that he, too, was relaxing. They both enjoyed the quiet. On the water, the silence wasn’t strained, as it had been on the drive down, as it always was at home. Here, the silence was purposeful, attentive. The only sounds were the gentle lapping of the water against the hull, the occasional plop of their lures on the surface, a light breeze in their ears.

There was nothing to talk about until something powerful struck Daniel’s line. He popped up his rod sharply to stick the hook. John leapt up and grabbed a net. Sparked with adrenaline, for several minutes Daniel wrestled, expertly reeling in, then releasing the slack to tire the creature out. His arms began to throb, but Daniel remained cool and steady. His father praised and encouraged. “That’s it. Bring that hog in,” he coaxed. When a streak of white flashed alongside the boat. John leaned over and scooped up a shark, nearly eighteen inches long. “My boy,” he said with pride, as he held it up by the tail. Daniel didn’t want to care, but, in spite of himself, he felt the warm rush of his father’s approval.

This jolt of excitement shook both Daniel and John out of themselves. As morning turned to afternoon, they talked a little, then a little more. They talked about college and Daniel’s interest in veterinary school. His father knew a local veterinarian from his business-networking group, who might be willing to take Daniel on as an intern. Daniel was pleased when John offered to arrange for them to meet next week.

When the sun rose high above, Daniel and his father raised the Bimini top and retreated under the shade. At lunchtime, they devoured their sandwiches. John pointed out that they’d packed beer enough for two, expecting Uncle Dave to be along with them. He offered a can to Daniel. “Just one,” he said, looking over the top of his sunglasses, raising his eyebrows. “You’ll be drinking on the sly soon enough,” he smiled. “Happy birthday, kid.”

“Cheers,” Daniel said, looking at his shoes.

They clinked their cans together. Daniel had tried beer once before, but he didn’t much care for the taste. He drank anyway, to please his father.

Daniel considered the moment. This day met up with other joyful days, though Daniel had to search for them now, when he had been happy in the company of his father, like the first fishing trip with Uncle Dave. But too many other days, terrible days, had stacked up against him and made Daniel wary. Anything could shatter the calm. Daniel might say or do the wrong thing at any moment. And when he did, his father’s rage would flash. His voice, that howl, “Christ!” like a wounded animal, would make Daniel whither. Then the bottom would drop out. Thinking of it now made Daniel nervous. The sweat turned cold on his back. Suddenly, he felt trapped on the tiny boat, alone with his father.

When it became too hot to fish any longer, John tossed over a small anchor and he and Daniel leapt into the water. By now, they’d tried several spots with mixed results. As the day wore on, they’d traveled further and further out into the Gulf. Closer in, near the shore, they could see the bottom clearly, even stand in the open water in some places, the sea grass tickling their legs. But now they were far out, where the water was much deeper, colder. They could barely see land now.

Once in the water, Daniel thought of the small shark he’d caught that morning. Where there were small sharks, there were large ones. He climbed back into the boat and dosed under the Bimini top.  The beer had made him drowsy. When his head nodding snapped him awake, Daniel scanned the surface of the water, searching for his father. He found him in the distance, floating on his back. John had drifted far from the boat. If Daniel closed one eye, he could almost make him disappear.

Daniel’s mind turned again to his brother, Will, and to the hairbrush of the night before. He ground his teeth.

Just then, his father waved, swam a few strokes, then returned to floating on his back. Daniel closed one eye and made him disappear again. He thought about starting the motor and making his way toward his father. John was a strong, confident swimmer, but here the current was stronger. He had drifted too far to make it back to the boat on his own.

Daniel could make his way toward his father, he considered. Or he could turn the boat in the opposite direction, toward the shore. He held this thought for several minutes, like a delicate sharp object cupped in his hands. He unspooled the idea. There were no other boats nearby, none in his field of vision. There was no one to call for help. Their cell phones were back on shore in Dave’s truck. There would be no reception this far out in the open water. How long, Daniel wondered, could his father swim in the open Gulf? How long before he got a cramp, or just tired out? Daniel would need to take his time getting back to shore to call for help. Anything could happen. His father might have been drunk when he went in for a swim. Daniel could pour out several more beers on the way back to shore. Maybe his father had drunk all the beer, intended for Uncle Dave and himself. Or maybe his father had had a heart attack while swimming. Anything could happen. His father had been there, floating on the water, and then he wasn’t, Daniel would report. He had searched and searched, he would say. He hadn’t given up, even when a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. Only when night began to fall did Daniel return to shore.

Daniel looked up and considered the darkening sky. He scanned the surface of the water again. It was becoming choppy. Thunder rumbled low in the distance. When he spotted his father again, Daniel closed one eye and made him disappear once more.

Then Daniel pulled in the anchor and lowered the outboard motor. He turned the key in the ignition and the engine sputtered to life, belching a cloud of blue smoke and fumes. The sound of the motor caught in his father’s ear. He popped up and waved vigorously, this time motioning for Daniel to swing around and pick him up. Daniel stood and waved back. He smiled. He turned and squinted toward the shoreline, then back at his father. Daniel put one hand on the wheel, and with the other, he pressed the throttle lever.

Mark Hall is a professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Timberline Review, Lunch Ticket, Passengers Journal, the Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Hippocampus, The Forth River, and others.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

One more time, am I dining in the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory?

I’m sorry, what?

The darkest place on earth.

A little obtuse, but okay. They call this dining in the dark.


Because it’s very dark.

No shit. But why are we dining in the dark? Our first date and you bring me here. Is this your online dating debut? Are you embarrassed?

Of course not. You’re beautiful. After two weeks of serve and volley, I feel like I know you. I wanted something special, something you’ll remember. They say the other senses are heightened when you’re deprived of one. The food will smell better, taste better, the conversation will be sharper, more focused, absent visual distractions.

Glad I spent so much time getting ready. I should have cut a slit in a little black trash bag. Would have been more in keeping with the ambiance. Can you help me find my water?

Right side at two o’clock.

You’re saying that only because water is always right side at two o’clock. I absolutely assure you, if I spill, it will not be in my direction.

You won’t spill.

Is that your chair I heard sliding away?

You didn’t spill, did you?


Just having fun?


At least they let us order in the foyer. Do you remember what we ordered?

Honestly, no. I couldn’t keep from staring at you. You’re so much prettier than your picture. Why?

Life lesson. Set a low bar and exceed it. Instant success without effort.

You’ve done a lot of this social app dating?

Some. How about you?

Lately, yeah.

Madam and monsieur, my name is Aramis, and I will be serving you tonight.

Aramis, as in the cologne?

No madam. Aramis as in the Three Musketeers. My mother was a Dumas fan. But enough of me. I am prepared to serve your appetizers. Please place your hands in your laps to avoid any culinary catastrophe.

How can he see our hands?

Night vision goggles.

Why can’t I have night vision goggles?

Kind of defeats the purpose.

For the madam, the fried squash blossom stuffed with a savory ricotta filling resting upon a cushion of our house-made marina featuring local heirloom tomatoes,

And for the clearly more adventurous monsieur, the pan-fried pufferfish tails with a delightful sweet and sour apricot accouterment.

Wait, I didn’t order pufferfish tails.

I may have made a menu modification for you when you went to the restroom. You surprised me with this dark dining. Thought I’d spice things up for you.

Aren’t pufferfish poisonous bottom feeders?

Monsieur, our chef is highly skilled and can only remember a single instance of adverse reactions to this most delicious morsel.

Aramis, you’ve tasted them?

No. But more importantly, I’ve served them numerous times.

More importantly, to whom?

That would be who. But I assure you, prepared by a knowledgeable chef, the toxins in these delicate tidbits cause nothing more than a pleasurable tingling or numbness in the lips and mouth and a slight high.

And the chef is knowledgeable?

So he has informed me.

I’d like to change my appetizer.

Aramis, you still there? Where is he?

I think he’s gone. Left in a puff of smoke. Man up. If I hear a loud thump on the table, I’ll call for help. Besides, I’ve got more important problems. I’m certain the squash blossoms are wonderful, but how do I find my mouth.

It’s below your nose and above your chin.

Eat up. I’ll just wait for the thump.

Too late, I already took a bite.

I’d put you on the clock, but I can’t see my watch.
You feel okay?
Did you hear me? Are you all right?                                                                                           That was your fist hitting the table. Say something.

May I offer you a taste?

Very funny. Not a chance.

Can I ask you a question?

Why do people do that? Ask if they can ask a question. You’ve already asked a question. You should say, may I ask you two questions? Sure, you can ask a question. After you answer mine. What do you think of Hawaiian pizza?

Suddenly I wish I could see your face. Are you kidding? No answer, so I’ll assume you’re not kidding. You’re serious.
Okay, a question demanding a multi-layered response. Medically, adding a food group to an otherwise divine entre can only be a healthy choice. Theologically, there are those who say God didn’t intend pineapple on pizza. Structurally, the wet of the fruit may damage the integrity of the crust. Politically, liberals are more likely to accept, while conservatives will look back for guidance to Queen Marguerite of Italy. And of course, libertarians believe it’s the domain of the individual to decide. Philosophically, is it still pizza, although possibly quite delicious, does it become something else? Sociologically, can Americans justify making radical changes to a dish created by Italians or is it an inappropriate appropriation?
How’d I do? And as important, why’d you ask? Maybe this restaurant wasn’t such a good idea. I wish I could see your face. A little help; I’m working hard here. You still there? Why so quiet?

You are different.

Different good. Right?

Yes, intelligent, funny. A good man. You care about this. It’s not just dinner.

Finally, this stupid restaurant is serving a purpose. You can’t see me blushing.

You wanted to ask two questions. You’ve asked one. What’s the other?

Madam and monsieur, we will be removing your appetizers and serving your entrees. You have both selected the salt-encrusted branzino. The chef has chosen a little-known method which allows the crust to seal in moisture. The fish will steam in its own juices, while the crispy skin prevents the salt from penetrating. The crust is a mixture of kosher salt and egg whites reminiscent of the appearance and texture of wet beach sand. Please enjoy.

The madam has a question. This branzino, does it have a face?

Of course, madam.

Can you guide me as to where I might find the face?

Above the shoulders.

Great question, but he’s gone again. Am I right?

I believe you are. I’m going to use my finger to figure this out. I’m not eating fish eyes. Give me a second, then you can ask your question.

Right with you.
Found it!

Ditto. Executing a lobotomy. You ready for my question?

The wind-up has been massive. The question better be commensurate.

How do you feel about short-term relationships?

Short-term relationships? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I’m not even sure what it means.

Let me help. Picture your normal relationship, but with an abrupt ending.

You do remember this is a first date? You’re proposing some relationship with a baked-in exit strategy? Is it because I’m only semi-worthy?

No. No. It’s not you, it’s me.

Finally, we agree.

I have an expiration date.

What are you, a bottle of milk?

I’ve got cancer. A year, maybe eighteen months. I don’t want to be alone, but I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to make impossible promises.

Suddenly dining in the dark makes nothing but sense. You’re hiding in the anonymity of the shadows.

It’s a balancing. I’d love to see your reaction, but I’m not sure I could ask the question in the reality of full light.

You’ve done this before and I’m guessing with zero success. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. Look, I like you, although it’s more accurate to say I’ve enjoyed our 45 minutes together, but this is insane. What if I just commit to give you an answer sometime in the near future?

I can work with that. I just don’t want to hide anything.

Can you get our waiter’s attention? I need to use the ladies’ room. I’m feeling the stress of your second question in my bladder.
Did you just whistle?

Sorry, trying to be helpful.

Monsieur, you beckoned?

The lady wishes an escort to the restroom.

Madam, please place your hand on my shoulder.

If I can find it.

Monsieur, I am sorry for the delay, but the madam seems to have vacated the premises.

Aramis, she’s not coming back, is she?

No sir, I do not believe so.

Did you offer her the money?

Yes sir. As always.

Her response?

Quite typical. She hit me.

Slapped you?

No. Hit me. Fist to face.

I knew I liked her.

She did leave you this note. Take my flashlight. Please place the note under the table as you read it.

The Dance – Garth Brooks

And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance

Thank you, Aramis. Did you read the note?

I must admit, I did.

The lady should have paid more attention to the last two lines of the song.

I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance

Will you be dining with us again tomorrow night?

It seems I will.

Bill Garwin has several degrees and a third-dan karate black belt. He believes stories indelibly enrich our lives and relishes in their telling. His novel, City of Schemes, received first place, Utah League of Writers 2020 Quill Awards for its opening chapter.

A Short Story by Amanda Schroeder

Echo and I dream up powers that no one will believe. In the midday Summer heat, we lay side by side in her backyard under a linen teepee. She’s so tall her legs poke out the front holes, but I fit perfectly.

We spent the whole day in her backyard, exploring every patch of grass as though the lawn behind her house was the whole world. We catch box elder bugs and stow them in pencil cases while we build them a castle made of dirt and sticks. When we come back to release them into their new kingdom we find them dead, suffocated slowly in the yellow plastic. I hold back tears of frustration, but Echo assures me everything is going according to plan. We dump dead box elders onto the muddy castle and assign them their roles, moving their bodies like they’re Barbie dolls. I think This must be heaven.

Echo’s parents are never at home, which is why we always spend our days at her house. Her dad works at a law firm where they make money when people get injured at construction sites. Her mom works in marketing and is always talking about the copy for her latest mock-up. When my parents would ask me about her parents, I would always pretend to know that they are doing well.

Echo and I always like to make up games. Echo would play dead and I would dance around her like a witch, trying to bring her back to life.

Or we huddle in silence in her living room, listening for any sounds the house makes, making up stories for the ghosts that created them. The tapping of the heater springing to life is the soul of a young dancer who died dramatically on stage, a loose latch under his tap shoes plummeting him 8 feet to his death. Echo and I always argue about which of us he is in love with. The moaning of the pipes was a woman who died hot and heavy in the middle of childbirth. We don’t know what childbirth looks like, but we imagine it orange, like a flame in the dark, and damp. We imagine her wafting through the house trying to find her baby and we sit close, holding our breath so she can’t find us instead. Echo can hold her breath for longer than me, but I always cheat, sneaking in air through my nose.

We sneak into her mother’s closet and dress ourselves up in her clothes, smearing makeup on our faces and pretending to be prostitutes. We don’t know what prostitutes are, but we know the way men talked about them from the movies. We look at each other in the full-body mirror and think THIS was what it means to be a woman.

One day, we painted our faces red with her mother’s lipstick and chased each other around the house, screaming for our lives. We didn’t hear her mother come in over the sounds of yelling and laughter. When she found us with a full tube of Mary Kay’s Red Stiletto smeared onto our faces, she started hiding her makeup.

In fourth grade, Echo’s parents move to a house with big windows overlooking a flower garden Echo isn’t allowed to set foot in. She starts at the catholic school in the neighborhood and I don’t hear from her for weeks.

One day, my parents tell me Echo is coming over. They say it like I have no choice and I look down at my dinner, embarrassed that my loneliness is so apparent my parents need to intervene.

When Echo comes into our house, it feels like welcoming in a stranger. Echo and I sit in my basement and our silences feel like smoke. When the heater makes a creaking sound, I imagine an old man who died in a rocking chair opening the doors to the heating closet peering out at us, but Echo doesn’t seem to notice. She tells me about her new life and her new school and I try my best to picture it, but I’ve never imagined a place I’ve never been before. I ask her to describe the coat rack where they hang their book bags in the morning, but she doesn’t understand the question.

I try to ask a different way – where are you in the first five minutes of school, between where you drop off your backpack and walk into the classroom. Those minutes had always been my favorite, but I dreaded them without Echo to fill the silence. I found myself praying that she was just as lonely as me.

She tells me Tommy always waits to walk in with her. When I ask her about Tommy, she says they kiss after school lets out. She shrugs like it’s nothing and I blush thinking about all the things she has done that I have not.

Five years later, I hear that Echo has died. I haven’t heard from her since the day in the basement in fourth grade, but my parents still get a call from her parents.

When my parents break the news to me, they hold hands and cry. I don’t shed a tear because I don’t feel a thing. Echo has died so many times and has always risen again. I try to let the truth sink in, but all I can remember is playing Romans in her backyard. She was Jesus and I was Pontius Pilot. I washed my hands in the little puddle at the bottom of the drainpipe, then dragged her body to the cross, a tree low enough where she could hang her arms from the branches. She hung there for three full minutes until her skinny arms gave out.

We played this game on Good Friday the year before she moved schools. Echo called it her favorite holiday after we sat in the chapel at school and got chills on our arms when the pastor slammed a book into a wall – the closing of the tomb. The silence was so dramatic and our exhilaration was so high that we sat giggling into each other’s necks.

I can’t imagine the person Echo became at 14. She died of alcohol poisoning, something I have never even tried. We miss the open casket but show for the burial. While her parent’s friends all give speeches about the person Echo would’ve become, I stare into the face of the girl in the memorial photo. She looks like a fox, except she’s cold instead of warm. Older than 14. I don’t recognize a single thing about her except for her white-blonde hair, a color most people lose as a baby.

I try to fill in the blanks of who she became. I imagine her as a doll being thrown around in a castle made of sticks and mud, her exoskeleton keeping her safe from prying fingers trying to get inside. Her pretty blonde hair never gets dirty. I imagine her in cars with leather seats going places I’ll never be at hours I’m already asleep at. I imagine her dying little deaths every day, only to get back up and start again. I imagine her smarter than me, the kind of person who realizes we need to seize the best of life every day, but who slipped too early and couldn’t get back up.

Amanda Schroeder is from Utah but is currently based in San Francisco, California. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Utah and her work has appeared in Cathexis Northwest Press, The Crack the Spine 2019 Anthology, and others. She is the co-founding editor of F3LL Magazine and currently serves as the web editor for Split Lip Magazine.

A Short Story by Heather Whited

Christmas Eve. The unheated attic. Marcy and Otis, passed a joint back and forth and drank ciders as they watched Christmas unfold out the window. The neighborhood was brittle, gray. No snow this year, not even rain, just a sharp wind that ripped at the empty tree branches. Still, decorations were up, and a tree glittered in most windows that they could see.

It wasn’t late, only around 9:00, but the house was quiet. Silent in the tense way a space that should have been filled with happiness, created a chafing, nagging void instead.

Dad was out with Uncle Rod, probably drinking too, probably enough to make tomorrow uncomfortable, and Mom was asleep. The house smelled of cooking though, enough to lull them into thinking for seconds at a time that the holiday was going to go well. It never did though. It hadn’t for years, not since they were children.

Next door, a half-deflated plastic Santa wavered on someone’s roof, battered by the wind. A group of carolers sang for their neighbors. Their scarves whipped around their faces, their sheet music rustled and threatened blow away, but the singers clutched at them, joyous still.

Marcy grinned tiredly down at them, passing the joint back to Otis.

“I wonder if anyone’s told them that the new family there is Jewish?”

“I’d guess not,” said Otis after a too long pause.

He pulled his coat closer around himself and blew smoke out the open window. They sat watching for several minutes and the carolers shuffled off and started up a new song at the next house.

“You’re in a shit mood,” said Marcy. She popped open another can and watched Otis fidget as he smoked. “What’s up? You’ve obviously got something to say.”

He looked away, briefly toward some boxes in the corner, at the joint in his fingers, then down at his shoes.

“I… saw something in the news. But you can’t tell Mom and Dad.”

He pulled out his phone and passed it to his sister. On the screen, a picture of a dark-haired young woman about their age, taken at just the right moment to catch her smiling. Underneath, the circumstances of her death the month before. Marcy’s heart sped up as she skimmed, wishing with each word that she hadn’t read it. Marcy stared at the spot where, “murdered by her partner,” appeared in the text. Her shoulders slumped as the words weighed her down. She absentmindedly set her cider on the windowsill.

“Is that…” she started to ask, not looking up at her brother but still staring down at the woman in the picture who had been their sister for a few years, when they were children.

“Yeah, it’s Mindy.”

“Well, she got a new name with her next family. I guess, really, it’s Candace. Was Candace. Fuck. Where did you find this?”

Otis worried at the dry skin of his lips. He was too thin, Marcy thought, chiding herself for not noticing sooner.

He continued to look out the window as he spoke. “You remember Mike Salas?”

She did. Her brother’s friend from elementary school who’d run around their yard, up and down their stairs, and jumped through their sprinkler in the summer. Ate bologna sandwiches on the front steps with them, back when the siblings were three. He’d only lived a couple of streets over and he and Otis had run back and forth from each other’s house for a few years, inseparable. It was a name she hadn’t heard in over two decades, not since she was barely ten years old. Much like Mindy’s name, relegated to whispers.

“You still talk to Mike Salas?”

“Not really,” said Otis. His hands were shaking. Marcy noticed he’d been biting his nails. One finger was bandaged. “But we kind of keep in touch. Comment on posts and things every now and then mostly, but he’s nice, checked in on me when I was…”

He did not say ‘in the hospital,’ but he didn’t have to.

“His mom saw this last week and he sent it to me.”

Marcy locked the screen, and it thankfully went black before she had to look to look at Mindy’s face again, or read the new name she’d been given when their parents decided they didn’t want Mindy anymore. She passed the phone back to Otis, who stuck it in his pocket.

“How did he find out?”

“Well, I don’t know if you remember, but his family moved away a few months after everything.”

Everything. The most concise way, the most polite way to talk about it, when they needed to, which was rare. The weeks of their sister running away, tearing through the neighborhood in her bare feet, darting across traffic as cars screeched to stop in her path. The broken television when Mindy threw a block at it as hard as she could. Mindy one day going red in the face at lunch and biting their mother. A screech escaping their mother’s throat, a slap that sent Mindy reeling and dislodged her. Dad running down the stairs. A green towel with blood seeping through. Black stitches snaking down from Mom’s thumb. Visits from people they didn’t know, always couples in beige and pastels, all of whom wanted to meet tiny, five-year-old Mindy, who had become their sister three years before. Marcy and Otis were always made to play outside then, no matter the weather. Then one day, after school, they came home and Mindy’s bedroom was empty. The smell of fresh paint and Mom washing her hands over and over to get the specks off. It’ll do wonders, she’d said to herself as she scrubbed and scrubbed. New paint always does.

Marcy looked at Otis and said, “Yeah, I remember they moved.”

Otis nodded. His overlong hair, the ends bleached and parched as the dead grass of the lawn, had fallen into his eyes and Marcy fought the urge to push it back. She also remembered that he hadn’t talked for weeks after Mike and his family left.

“Well, his parents were apparently disgusted with Mom and Dad. They were all part of this Christian parent’s group that had been encouraging Mom and Dad through all the rough spots of getting Mindy settled. You know, the tantrums and things. Mr. and Mrs. Salas hated everything about what had happened. Giving her away after being her parents for three years, how they’d done it, just letting some other family take her and not letting the agency know for months. I guess there was some big fight about it and then Mike’s family decided to move. Mike says his mom searched for Mindy and wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“Shit,” muttered Marcy. Her stomach lurched and she was suddenly freezing. She didn’t want to be up here anymore. She didn’t want to be at home. At her parent’s house, that is. She wanted to be back at the apartment she shared with her friends two hours away. That was home.

“Mrs. Salas found out her new name and she searches for her every now and then to see how she’s doing. Last week she found this. Mike decided I’d want to know.”

“Did you?”

Otis shrugged and wiped at his eyes.
“I really hated all that,” he whispered. “I was so scared. I went to school and came back and she was gone and all the pictures of her were gone and Mom just said she’d found a new family that was better for her, that could take care of her. I used to worry myself sick. Actually sick, puking sick. I used to get so scared I’d just…”

He mimed scratching at his arms.

“There was blood. It got infected once. Mom took me to the doctor then never said anything again.”

“I know,” said Marcy. Her voice barely audible. She hugged herself and looked out the window. Christmas lights twinkled in most of the houses. At her real home, her roommate Kate would be baking, there would be a movie on. She hated it here.

“I know. I wanted to help. I just didn’t know how. I was only ten.”

“It’s okay. It wasn’t your job. It was Mom and Dad’s.”

Marcy picked up the cider she’d abandoned and took a large swig, then another. It dribbled down her chin. Now she was sure she would be sick later, maybe very soon, actually, but she wanted to keep drinking. Sick would not be bad, the blackness of a deep, drunken sleep would not be especially welcome. She had never understood her father so well. She finished the cider and her stinging eyes again wandered to the boxes in the attic.

“I wonder if they kept anything at all?” she asked.

“No,” said Otis. He glared back at the boxes, their lids gaping. “I looked at everything. Everything. They got rid of it all.”

“I figured.”

Mindy opened another cider.

“Was she happy? Do you think she did okay after those new people came for her?”


They both jumped at a noise from downstairs. They peered out the window to see the group of carolers on their front porch. A tall blonde woman at the front started singing and the others followed. They did not look up at the attic window where two young people watched, unmoving.

Heather Whited is a writer and teacher from Nashville, Tennessee currently on the west coast in her second home of Portland, Oregon. She lives with an evil dog and a much nicer cat. She’s been lucky to have a number of magazines take a chance on her.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

A Short Story of the Life of Dan Ivan Sensei

They’ll come. I need them. I left a light on as a beacon or maybe more like a flame. They can’t resist. It’s what they do. Inflict injury on the weak. Humiliate and take a life’s accumulation. They’ll come in numbers preceded by their stench and the spittle from their bikes. They’ll be loud, wearing leather in the night heat; unafraid of a single old man floating in the isolation of this desert shack. It’s taken me a lifetime to get here. A lifetime of violence. A lifetime of honor.

The Great Depression and I were born within hours of each other. I was raised, if that’s what you call it, in Alliance, Ohio. My dad, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was twice as old as my 16-year-old mom when they married. He left six months after I was born. Mom waitressed to survive, leaving little time for mothering. We lived with my grandmother; the house language was Hungarian. I bathed every Saturday night in a large, galvanized tub. I can’t remember having toys, electricity or phones.

I began riding the rails when I was ten. Hop a moving train from here to there. The hobos were decent, the guards brutal if they caught you. At thirteen, I took the train to California. Slept in boxcars, ate when I could, usually at the kindness of the hobos. Kept a club and never, ever, let anyone see I was afraid. Stoic. I’d steal vegetables from gardens, shoplift groceries. Did some work when I could get it, sweeping floors, washing dishes. Never panhandled. I’d rather steal than beg. When I came back, I think my grandmother was glad to see me.

Sammy, Frankie and I were the worst kids in town. I carried a blackjack until the police took it away. They never did find the brass knuckles. I fought. A lot. So did everybody else. But I was never a bully, except maybe when we were rolling drunks.

I’m fifteen, driving with Sammy, we see a guy who turned us in to the police a week earlier. Maybe for stealing from the market, robbing drunks, fighting. I can’t remember. I tell Sammy to pull over, jump out and beat the crap out of the guy. Next day, Sammy, Frankie and I are picked up by the cops. They take us to court and the judge decides it’s Juvie or the army. I complain I’m only fifteen. Judge, pen in hand, allows as how he has my birth certificate in front of him and I’m eighteen.

Boot camp’s great. Bed, clean sheets, indoor plumbing and all the food I can eat. There’s nothing better than hiking, drilling, camping out with a can of sterno and K rations. Tough guys back from the war taught me discipline and respect. I learned to kill.

I did a tour in Guam, was discharged and went back to Alliance. I started to slip into the same destructive cycle. Not who I wanted to be so I re-upped. They sent me to Japan where I met my wife and the love of my life, karate.

I courted my wife floating on the canals of Tokyo. We couldn’t be seen together on the streets, so our romance was limited to the low-tide stench of the canals or a well-hidden small café. Surprisingly, her family mostly accepted me. Maybe she’d have been better off if they hadn’t.

I’m at Camp Zama in the Criminal Investigation Division, CID. A military cop with a mandate to “Do what has to be done”. It’s a violent job for which I’m perfectly suited. Just another extension of a life of fighting.

I managed to spend some time learning judo. I’m paying for my lessons by selling my GI cigarette allotment on the black market. I will eventually have black belts in karate, judo, aikido and kendo.

I studied judo at the Kodokan, a large gray building which had evaded the American bombing. Wide steps led to an always open double door, behind which as many as a hundred students could be found training. Beginning students would show up early practicing falls to warm up the frozen straw tatami mats for senior students. Training would last 2 or 3 hours.

I’ve spent my life fighting, dominating. It’s who I am. I hear about this karate dojo. I grab an interpreter from the Provost Marshall’s office and tell him what I want. He’s so busy shaking his head in the negative, he doesn’t even notice we’re on our way.

Off the train at Ueno, through the underground where entire families live in stench and poverty. We emerge to the smell of charcoal hibachi fires and lean-to living. Through the destruction to what seems like the uninhabited bones of a bombed-out building. Yes, he’s certain this is the place. I move towards the basement and sounds of men screaming. I follow the smell of sweat into the dojo of Gogen Yamaguchi Sensei, the Cat.

There stands a short, but massive man. Shoulder length black hair, commanding in a deep guttural voice. Gi clad students matched off in pairs down the length of the room. Each strike, each block emphasized with a shout concentrating the energy of the blow. I stopped halfway down the stairs, sat and watched. Yamaguchi Sensei approached. We communicated through gestures. If I wished to train, I was to leave and return with my uniform.

I come back the next day, gi in hand. Training was brutal, especially for a gaijin. A senior student took me to the back and taught basics. But soon, I did much more. Other dojo’s practiced kata and staged sparring. Yamaguchi Sensei introduced free fighting. Manners were observed, control required, but blood flowed. Blocks hurt as much or more than strikes. The injured, the truly injured, could lean against a wall to recover.

My wife and I returned to the States. The Army sent me to learn Japanese at the language school at the Presidio, Monterey. After my discharge, I begin establishing dojos. At one point I’ve got eight of them. I bring instructors from Japan. I start the Japan Karate-do Federation. I’m the American Director of the first World Karate Championships. I’m elected to the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame. I write a book, invest in real estate, get involved in movies and Las Vegas productions. I travel and teach. In Japan, they award me eighth dan in karate for a lifetime of achievement. I receive it from a Zen monk who is a descendant of Ieyasu Tokugawa, a 17th-century shogun.

I’m hurting. The VA docs tell me it’s cancer. Not much they can do. Eventually, it’ll eat me up. I’ve got this isolated, little place in Whitewater, California, population 892. A shack painted loud pastels. Maybe 500 or 600 square feet that never saw a building permit. Concrete ramps between small rooms with mud walls. And this is where I sit. A bird on a perch waiting for vultures. For one last fight. The coda of a lifetime of violence, achievement, and honor. A singular life.

In memory of Dan Ivan Sensei

Bill Garwin received a B.A. from UCLA, an M.S. in Journalism from Boston University, and a J.D. from the University of San Diego. He studied martial arts for 20 years, holds a 3rd dan karate black belt, and practiced and taught fencing. He is the author of the soon-to-be published, City of Schemes.

A Short Story by Simon Plant

Every year comes the cold dark winter and every year I dread it. Hektor tells me I’m neurotic; my paralyzing fear a hysterical response to something benign, a natural event—should not be feared by rational-thinking humans. “You’re being ridiculous,” he says now as I nail plywood over the windows in our living room. “And ruining the architraves! We’ll have to repaint—again.

Every year I do the same and every year it drives him mental. But he doesn’t know what it’s like to live with this annual phobia. How it feels to be a man who cowers during a cold snap; crackling of the radiator; pattering of sleet upon windows turning him frail.

Yes dear, I think. We’ll repaint… Painting holds no flame to what I saw in the flurry. Hideous open void. Her eyes like crystals from another realm…

“It’s for the best,” I say, adding—for good measure—another snippet of psychological jargon received from a quack therapist I invented years ago; a professional whose (fabricated) words I now use as diversions to avoid explaining myself properly: “Dr Kershaw said I need to take control of my fear.”

“But Wilt, does control have to be so… destructive?”

“A proactive approach.”

Hektor finishes decorating the Christmas tree while I drill plywood over the windows in the kitchen; I hear him muttering irritably to himself as he props the star on top. Staring in horror at what has become of our home: windows and doors shuttered-over with plywood as if in preparation for a hurricane.

Poor Hektor. He didn’t know when we embarked upon these renovations it would forever be a work in progress; I never warned him of his husband’s manic neurosis. (If neurosis justifies my having once sighted a door to another world.) Christmas should give him cheer, and that should please me. Despite the fact this fixer-upper—which Hektor and I bought with the intention of flipping—is never going to be finished, we are at the very least both loved on Santa’s Eve. Still, his resentment is tangible.

It’s better this way. Better he not know the truth; what I saw twenty years ago…

We sit on the couch together and watch the news. My knee bounces, and Hektor applies a staying hand. I drink my wine quicker than normal, knowing the weather report is next. A chubby woman in a too-short dress speaks of a “bomb cyclone” and I feel my body shrinking into the cushions. Hy hands tremble, wine sloshes precariously.

“Maybe we should watch something else—” Hektor suggests, reaching for the remote.

I stop him with a shrill objection. “No!” My voice cracks. “Better the devil you know, right,” I add with a nervous laugh. A valiant feat of acting, this summoning of humor even as my stomach plummets like a dysfunctional elevator. You think it’s just the snow I hate? If only changing the channel could protect us from Her.

On screen the map is overlain by swooping purple graphics, gradient shades which represent concentrated parts of the coming storm: light lavender the least intense; deep, ruddy burgundy the most. Our house might be somewhere beneath that splotch in the top corner—a warning color not too dissimilar to the wine in my hand. I force myself to breathe.

Hektor, ignoring my agitation, ends the news, starts some carols playing, and climbs to his feet. “Dance with me,” he soothes. Timidly, I do. But cannot keep my body from shaking. I hear it; pitter-patter of ice tapping the glass—just beyond the plywood. It’s begun.

“Who’s she,” says Hektor, stopping mid box-step to study me curiously.

I blink up at him. Didn’t intend to speak out loud.

“The Queen,” I sputter.

He laughs, but gravity in my eyes snuffs his humor like a candle at a birthday party. “Wilt, what are you—”

“Twenty years ago she came…” My ears are ringing. There’s a blizzard on the underside of my eyelids. “Rode in on arctic breeze, slipped through a keyhole, straddling ice like it was her beast.”


“A crack. A soft spot. A doorway.”

Boom! rends the walls of the universe.

Hektor stares in lax comprehension, but my mind is elsewhere…

Poor little boy cowering on his bed as She descends from her void—whatever hellish reality She came from; punched through from a cold dead world where no good deed goes unpunished and where charity is a condemnable offense. Her blue eyes pierce darkness with domineering moon-glow and carry a hunger in them like that of a thousand-year-old famished vampire. Sovereign of misery. Queen of sorrow.

Humoring me—for Hektor knows when I get like this there’s little else to do: “What’d she want?”

“I… I don’t know!

Yes, you do. It’s you she wants. That night She laid sights on you, promised one day to return. Your very own boogeyman. Stalker. Haunting face of a frozen woman whose domain is a corrupted place where everything pure turns sour like rancid milk. Where good cheer and sanity are sucked and sundered like fingers in a blender.

Cold eyes sparkle as she laughs. “Little boy you will come when I tell you. When you’re old enough. No choice.”

The snow’s heavier now. Wind rattles the rafters and sends groans through the house like creaking bones. Hektor regards me warily, a warden appraising a patient in a psych ward. “A bath might calm your nerves?”

Minutely I nod.

In the warm water I lay, head propped back against the iron tub, feet crossed on the other side, wineglass within reach. I’m grateful. Hektor knows how to allay me, how to make me sane again. Even as the tempest howls I am validated by warmth, love, alcohol.

Pleasures that don’t exist in Her cruel cold world—

Stop. No more. Not real. Something you dreamed when you were young. Part of your phobia. “Forget about Her. Nothing but a night-terror—”

A great resounding crash shakes the house to its foundations. Then Hektor; his scream reaches me over the querulous storm.

“Hektor? Hektor!” No reply. An eerie silence (void) down there now…

I’m out of the tub, wrapped in a town and heading for the stairs. Wet feet scamper down wooden treads. When I reach the living room, I stop. Carols are still playing. Fire crackles in the hearth. And the tree stands tall, decorated in the corner like some sweet confection—picture of joy; but I am filled with dread. No sign of Hektor. And a stinging breeze is puckering my skin in gooseflesh, threatens to freeze the droplets of water on my naked body. I turn to face the kitchen—where chunks of plywood cover the tile floor; flurries of snow blanket bench tops and continue to fall upon scattered slivers of glass.

Something has punched a hole in (reality) the wall like the fist of an angry giant.


I approach the window—what’s left—ignoring the pain of splintered wood and shattered glass underfoot. Steam rises from my body; warmth whipped from me by an arctic breeze cutting in through a cavity left by some destructive passage. Through it, in the night beyond, I perceive nothing. Just whiteout. Snow. Darkness.

But I hear her. Laughing as she retreats to her malevolent world. Ascending back through the trench she dug—new recruit in hand.

“No! The wrong man! You wanted me! Take me!”

But she’s gone.

Twenty years had been the golf of Her absence, time in which I invariably convinced myself of and tore myself away from the notion that I’d made her up completely. But there’s no arguing with proof. Hektor’s missing now. Days have passed and still no sign of him.

The threshold between worlds is shut, and She alone holds the key to unlock it.

Simon Plant is an Aussie expat short writer and dancer who lives in NYC with his husband and cat. When he’s not performing on a stage somewhere, you’ll find him writing something or neurotically watering houseplants (it’s not an addiction…). He grew up in Sydney, Australia before finding his place in the world as a professional ballet dancer. His stories have appeared in anthologies by the following: Red Cape Publishing, Raven and Drake, Not a Pipe, Breaking Rules Europe, Hiraeth, and Black Hare Press. You can learn more about Simon and his writing endeavors at his website: www.simonjplant.com

A Short Story by Kayla Davis

I climb down the side of the mountain. Although my flimsy flip flops are no match for the crumbling rocks, my mother helps me down, supporting me as I slowly slide. I tumble into her, spraying her jet-black bathing suit with bits of grime from the mountain. She laughs, then points towards the ocean and tells my grandparents where to set up their umbrellas. I throw off my shoes and toss them to the side, knowing that my dad will pick them up.

I run toward the water. The sand is warm under my feet, stinging my toes with its sharp heat. I ignore the rocks and bits of shells jutting into my heels while I dash across the shore. I cross the line that separates the land from the sea, and the sand isn’t hot anymore. It’s gooey, almost gelatinous. I spot sand crabs digging into the divide, and I grab my grandmother’s pail, digging where I see bubbles. I spend the next half-hour making a habitat within my bucket. The sand crabs will be safe within this little world, able to paddle around without fear of a seagull or whatever else invades their soft crustacean shells.

I make drip sandcastles, using the wet sand to my advantage as I build towers spiraling high into the crisp air. My grandmother sits next to me, laughing, then gasping as my favorite tower falls. I finally release the sand crabs and watch them burrow into the beach/ocean mixture. I eat lunch, crunching on the sand that has infiltrated my peanut butter-banana sandwich and my strawberries, prepared by my grandmother, who cut the tops off just for me. I run my tongue along my teeth, trying to pry the grit off, but the little bits and pieces of beach won’t budge. I ask my grandfather about his book and why he won’t come into the water. He grunts and returns to reading. I look over at my dad, who winks and makes a joke that I’m too young to understand. My grandpa chuckles, and I hug him, then run towards the water.

This time, my mother jogs after me as we both cackle along the shore. Just as the water reaches chest level, she snatches me up in a hug, then dunks my dry head into the water, explaining that it’s the best way for me to get used to the temperature. She says that she’ll teach me how to body surf. She teaches me to ride the waves, throwing her head back to laugh when seawater gets in my mouth, and I spit out the salt. Finally, I am ready. I pull my goggles tight and begin.

We both swim out, avoiding other divers and the seaweed floating in the water. She drifts in and out of my vision. After going out just a little too far for my liking, we meet up at what seems like miles from any sign of civilization. I bob up and down, barely keeping my head afloat as the waves begin to engulf the bottom half of my face. The only thing my toes touch are particles of dust in the otherwise crystalline water. I do my best to face the shore, scanning the beach for any sign of my dad, any glimmer of sun on my grandpa’s glasses, any glimpse of the multicolored umbrellas. My mom looks out to the seemingly empty skyline, surveying the thinning clouds and, with a wink, she asks if I’m ready. With a sour gulp, I tell her, yes. I’m ready.

Suddenly, a wave approaches behind us. I swim as fast as I can, trying to catch the break. I search but don’t see my mom anymore and, figuring that I’ll find her on the shore, I dive under the wave, praying that the current pushes me forward, towards the shore, towards the drip castles, towards the sandy strawberries, towards my family.


I forgot to take a breath.

I didn’t breathe.


It’s too late. The undertow pushes me down. I flip onto my back, looking up at the surface of the water, giving thanks that I can tell which way to go, but suddenly, a dark figure floats over me. At first, I think it’s a shark. I begin to panic, but then I realize that it’s my mother. I try to scream, but the sound doesn’t travel well underwater. My attempt at a squeak only squeezes what’s left of my air out from my aching lungs.

My mother’s pass over me seems to take forever. I feel trapped, under the waves, under the current, frozen in the icy water. I’m sinking. My eyes are slowly closing, trying to protect themselves from the salt. It’s as if a tentacle is wrapped around my leg, pulling me deeper, dragging me down. Somehow, I can still see, but my perspective has shifted. It’s like watching a horror movie. I can see myself sinking and crying — I’ve been on the verge of sobbing for weeks, and it’s finally here. More sinking. Where am I going? What am I doing? It’s too cold. Deafening silence. An inferno of tranquility.

A muffled whisper echoes through the water, pleading with me to swim. I look to see where the whisper is coming from. Nothing. Is it my voice? I can barely hear it. But I notice a small coin at the bottom of the sea that catches my eye. It’s flickering, reflecting safety. I lift my head and see the light shining through the depths. I start kicking.

I’m doing the best I can. But it doesn’t feel like I’m moving at all. I kick faster, and I can feel myself warming up ever so slightly. It’s not much, but it’s giving me just enough to continue. Slowly but steadily, I kick my way closer and closer to the surface. The whisper is now a yell.

There’s so much running through my head. Am I going to make it? This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. For a moment, everything goes dark. And then — I break the surface.

I take a deep breath, looking around my surroundings.

Finally, it is over.

I pull myself back to the shore, back to earth from my foamy prison. I spit salt onto the sand. There is seaweed wrapped around my right foot. I no longer have my goggles. I gasp for air.

My dad hurries over to me with a water bottle. He unscrews the cap, then hands it to me, watching as I take a few sips. Are you okay? I’m fine, I say. I’m fine. I made it out. He looks me over, then takes my hand. With a tight squeeze and a soft blessing tingling across his lips, he walks me back over to our setup. My mom is waiting for me, unscathed under the umbrella, blissfully unaware of the terror I had gone through. Ready to go again? It’s time to go again. She smiles, hoping I enjoyed it. It was her favorite pastime as a child, after all, and she was passing it down to me. Might as well make an effort.

I force a weary grin, and nod.

And I run towards the water.

Kayla Davis is a high school junior from Menlo Park, California, although she often says that she’s based “40 minutes south of San Francisco” to simplify things. When she’s not stressing about college applications, she can be found spending time with her friends and playing saxophone.

A Short Story by Kip Knott

I drink a lot of coffee. I’m talking a lot of coffee. What’s a lot? Ten cups? Fifteen? How about thirty cups? Well, I drink six Mr. Coffee pots a day. That’s sixty cups. And I’m not talking about orange-handled pots of gas station decaf. I’m talking about sixty cups of black, full-bodied, caffeinated Eight O’Clock coffee with just a pinch of sugar to honor my late wife Daisy, who I called “Sugar” because she sweetened my life.

I never looked back after Sugar gave me my first cup and an ultimatum one morning to sober me up from a particularly hard night of whiskey doubles. Her hope was to get me to trade one addiction for the lesser of two evils. Before then, it was nothing but Bloody Marys in the morning, beer after lunch, and whiskey from dinner till bedtime. After then, it was coffee, coffee, coffee.

It’s no real secret how I’m able to down so much coffee in a day. Getting up every morning at 6:00 helps. And snapping off the light at midnight doesn’t hurt either. That gives me a full eighteen hours every day to squeeze in sixty cups.

This morning, just like every other morning, the first thing I do is kiss my Sugar’s picture on my bedside table and say, “Good morning, My Sweet.” Then I make my first trip of the day to the bathroom. I usually don’t make more than five trips there a day. And I never have to get up in the night to go, which you might find hard to believe given my daily liquid intake. Sugar, who must have had the bladder the size of a gnat, had to go at least a dozen times a day and twice in the night. She’d even leak a drop or two if she laughed too long or sneezed too hard. She always said, with a touch of anger, that I must be descended from a camel because of how I could hold my water.

Next I brush my teeth, which, despite the brown rivers of coffee that wash over them daily can still be classified as pearly whites. Sugar was a dental hygienist when we met back in ’65, and imposed upon me her own rules of proper oral hygiene, which began with a toothpaste concoction of baking soda and a splash of peroxide.

After I’m showered and dressed, I commence with the coffee by firing up Pot #1 on the Mr. Coffee that Sugar gave me for our fifth anniversary. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio wasn’t lying when he guaranteed a better cup of joe with Mr. Coffee. I’ve estimated its given me over 82,000 cups over the years, while I’ve only had to give it three new heating coils and one new power cord in all that time. And Sugar wasn’t lying either when she promised coffee could see me through the tough days ahead of me, that was if I still wanted her to stay next to me in bed every night.

I wash down my two sunny-side-up eggs, two strips of bacon, and bowl of oatmeal with my pot of Eight O’Clock while I scan the obituaries in the newspaper for any names I might know. After I do the dishes (Sugar never allowed a dirty dish to sit in the sink), I top off the two birdfeeders just outside my apartment window with the best black oilers money can buy. Then I settle in my La-Z-Boy with Pot #2 and watch the cardinals, juncos, and goldfinches fight it out at my expense.

At seven o’clock I flip on Good Morning America to see what’s new in the world. Sugar never missed it, but if I’m being honest, it wasn’t anything but background noise for me until after she passed just over a year ago. Even so, David Hartman’s deep voice was much more soothing to my ear than whiney George Stephanopoulos.

By eight o’clock I’m through with Pot #2 and ready for my walk. Seton Circle Senior Center has beautiful walking paths that snake their way through the wooded one-acre courtyard surrounded by our building. The paths are clearly marked with signs every hundred feet or so for the “Bad Memory Bunch,” as I like to call them. But my mind purrs like a super-charged engine fueled by caffeine, so the signs are lost on me.

The real trick for me every morning is to get from my second floor apartment, through the hallway, down the elevator, past the rec room, and out the doors without having to make small talk with any of my neighbors. What I see as a gauntlet I must survive just to get outside, Sugar—a true-blue people-person who loved to chew the fat with anyone willing to chew back—saw it as one of the highlights of her day. With a quick nod to Dorris Veech, the 92-year-old woman who thinks every day is Pearl Harbor day, I make it out the doors unscathed.

I take two trips around the courtyard, making sure to keep my head down except for when I check the two robins’ nests for any new progress before I go back inside, make my way past the rec room, up the elevator, through the hallway, and back into my apartment without running into anyone.

Once inside, I take my second bathroom break, then make a beeline for Mr. Coffee to get Pot #3 going, which will see me through both The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. I’ve got to admit that Drew Carey was funnier as a heavyweight back in the ‘90s than he is in his current welterweight incarnation. And that Wayne Brady is a ball of energy that puts Monty Hall to shame.

By noon I’m ready for the first forty of my daily eighty winks. Coming up fast on 80 years-old counteracts any amount of caffeine I’m happy to put in my body. Truth be told, though, I’ve never had any trouble falling to sleep. Whenever I want, I can hit an internal “snooze” button and nod off. Sugar used to blame the booze, but once she boarded me on the Coffee Express and I was still able to slip off to Dreamland as soon as she snapped off the light, she had to admit that my conscience must have been clean enough to not worry about my fate in the dark.

 When my alarm rings at one o’clock, I’m ready for Pot #4. This is the part of the day I look forward to the most. Between one o’clock and three o’clock every day, I read a book from the list Sugar wrote me before she passed.

“You’re going to need something to get you through your days once I’m gone,” she told me. “When you read these, just remember I’ve read them, too. It’s like we’re reading them together.”

With more than a hundred books on the list, and with me being a slow reader touched by a bit of dyslexia, I’ll probably never get through them all before Sugar and I are together again.

At three o’clock I dog-ear whatever page I’m on, close the book I’m reading, then settle in for the second forty of my daily eighty winks.

I’ve never been one for dreaming. I don’t know why. Instead, when I sleep I have the sensation of floating; not in the air like a balloon, but like the way I imagine a ghost must float between this world and the next. Sugar believed that it was a sign of some kind of sixth sense I was born with. She believed that if only I believed myself, I could be some kind of link between me and whatever world it was she was headed for. Now that’s she gone, though, I’m not sure what I believe in. Except for coffee.

My alarm set for 3:55 p.m. every day wakes me in time for bathroom break #3, Pot #4, and Jeopardy. While I was always a fan of Jeopardy, Sugar didn’t really come around until Alex was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the same cancer she fought. From that point on, she never missed a show, even on the days after her chemo when she needed to have a bucket nearby just in case. No amount of nausea could dampen her competitive spirit, though, and she’d mumble “Shit,” every time I yelled out the question before her. Wheel of Fortune, which comes on right after Jeopardy, was never her thing. Now, just as when she was still alive, I watch it alone.

Pot #5 fills up precisely at five o’clock every day, and accompanies whatever frozen delight I choose for dinner. Stouffer’s lasagna is my absolute favorite because it tastes as close to Sugar’s cooking as I’ve been able to find. Banquet fried chicken is also a good bet. Better, I think, than the greasy rotisserie chicken that stinks up the grocery store on our weekly trips. Tonight it’s Panda Brand Kung Pao Chicken. I still have one of Sugar’s chicken tetrazzini casseroles in the freezer, but I’m waiting for our 50th anniversary to eat it.

By the last pot of the day, Pot #6, I slow my consumption down considerably so that it sees me through the local and national newscasts, the hour between seven o’clock and eight o’clock when I record the day’s events in the diary I promised Sugar I would keep after she was gone, all my primetime shows, and SportsCenter at eleven.

By 11:30 I’m ready for my last bathroom break of the day, after which I wash up and change into the pajamas Sugar got me on my last birthday with her.

I walk back to the kitchen and pour the last cup of coffee—always the sweetest yet saddest cup of the day—from the pot. I rinse out the pot and set it on the drying rack so that it’s ready first thing tomorrow. I snap off the kitchen lights and walk with my cup of coffee into our bedroom where I set it in front of Sugar’s picture on the bedside table. I reach under the bed and pull out a solid silver urn with lapis lazuli accents. The urn is cold and never seems to warm in my hands, no matter how long I hold it.

“How was your day, My Sweet?” I ask. “My day was fine. Still just coffee. I haven’t strayed. Lots of coffee. Nothing new with the robins.”

I run my fingers along the name “Sugar” etched in deep Gothic lettering on top of the lid. “I’m not sure how much longer I can last without you, My Sweet,” I confess.

I gently unscrew the lid, reach inside, and take a tiny pinch of ashes between my thumb and forefinger before replacing the lid and sliding the urn back under the bed. I gently rub my thumb and forefinger together over my cup. Sugar’s ashes feel soft and velvety before they drift down into the coffee. I hold the warm cup between my hands just as I used to hold her face when I would kiss her goodnight, then lift the cup to my lips and drink her in.

Kip Knott’s writing has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, and Virginia Quarterly Review. His debut full-length collection of poetry—Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom, and so on—is currently available from Kelsay Books. A new full-length collection of poetry, Clean Coal Burn, is forthcoming in 2021, also from Kelsay Books. More of his work may be accessed at kipknott.com

A Short Story by Eric Knowlson

The bedroom walls were adorned with loud punk-rock posters. The vanity on the right held a large mirror that sat between an impressive collection of make-up. The mirror reflected a blackened spoon, lighter and a few orange syringes. A fan buzzed in the corner dousing Setti and Easton with bursts of dry air. They sat on the bed, swinging their legs and watching the closed bathroom door. Sweat dripped from Easton’s forehead. He looked over at Setti, she rolled her teary eyes before readjusting her position in a slow and deliberate motion.  

“I hope she hurries up,” Easton sighed as he rubbed his arms.

Eventually, the bathroom door swung open with a waft of perfume. They watched as Le (pronounced like Ley) strolled into the room. She was a tall girl clothed in a careful mishmash of attire. Her skirt dripped with Harajuku bubble-gum while her studded belt, and leopard-print top hummed a forgotten punk song.

She had a round face, creamy almond skin and straight black hair. Her haircut framed her cute features ­—which were further accentuated by her perfectly applied makeup. The only cracks in her image were pricked pupils that seemed to disappear into her iris.   

“Sorry,” Le said. “You guys got here earlier than usual.”

Easton couldn’t help but feel an air of inauthenticity radiate from the bright medley of make-up and mannerisms that Le paraded in front of them. He looked over at Setti and winked.

Setti smiled, she gathered from his amused face that he was contemplating the absurdity of Le requiring fully done hair and make-up to sit at home and sell dope, especially to her friends.  

Setti softly chuckled at Le’s expense before feeling guilt for not putting on such a flawless front herself.    

Le was fiddling with something on her dresser but looked back at them with a raised eyebrow. “So, what can I get for you today?”

“We were hoping to do the same as yesterday. A front and then we’ll pay you back tonight.”

Le paused and then averted her eyes, “Sorry, I can’t today.”

“Why not?” Setti asked. “We always pay you back.”

“Have you guys?” Le feigned ignorance shrugging her shoulders.  

“Of course, we have,” Setti replied.

“Really?” Le swung her palms open and raised her eyebrows. “Honestly, I can’t keep track, I have so many customers,” she paused and squinted her eyes, before continuing, “I remember doing it a few times, but not every day. Besides, Nautic told me that I can’t do anymore fronts.”

“Can’t you just do a dub?”

Le shook her head no.

  “How many times have we helped you? Huh?” Setti quipped. “This isn’t cool.” She was angered Le would do this without warning, allow them to drive to her house, wait an hour while she got ready and then deny them.

Yet, Setti was more hurt by Le’s seemingly flippant disregard for their friendship. Before this period the three had been included in a close circle of friends. Le and Setti had been inseparable, people even mistook them for sisters. But that was then. Now that their clique had been dissolved and dispersed, like powder in a spoon, they were only left with faint traces of what used to be.

Easton stood up and glanced at the two girls, who were staring fiercely at each other and decided to fix his gaze on Le.

“Well, thanks anyways,” he said in a dejected tone. “Let’s go Setti.” Setti shot Le a malicious glance before storming out of the room. Easton slowly followed, stopping in front of Le. He wanted to affirm that there was still something left from their past friendship, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. So, he gave her a weak smile instead, before frowning again and walking out the door.


Outside, the Albuquerque sun was already starting to bake the ground. Despite the warmth, they shivered as they made their way to the car.

“She’s a fucking bitch. I’m done with her.”

“Yeah.” Easton thought for a moment, “But she is our friend after all, maybe Nautic really…”

Setti cut him off, “No, you believe that? You’re so gullible. She’s lying, I know she remembers. It was only yesterday for god’s sake!” Setti stiffened her body and hit Easton, “I wish you would take my side. I know she has something against me and did this on purpose.” Setti knew this because it’s something she would do. Now that the girls weren’t close, perceived slights, no matter how small, were met with passive aggressive behavior.

“I am on your side. I’m out here with you, aren’t I?” Easton hated this argument. “We’re about to get really sick. It’s not worth arguing about.”

“Okay then, what do you propose we do?” she growled and kicked the gravel in Le’s front yard, spewing rocks all over the street. “Fuck!”

“Let’s just forget about Le.”

“I’m not going to just forget about her,” Setti said mockingly. “Once we get money, I’m never buying from her again. She’s not our friend, she only wants to make money.” Easton sighed and agreed. He felt a tinge of guilt, but he had to admit Le had changed. They all had changed. He knew Setti was (mostly) venting but he wished she would let things go.


He changed the subject, “How are we going to get well?”

There were no more money or valuables left in either of their parent’s homes, or some of their neighboring homes, for that matter. They didn’t feel like they had parents anymore. Both had been disowned due to their parent’s shame. Easton remembers his parent’s reaction, a great wail followed by anger and tears. He tried to comfort them but they didn’t want to hear it. They said becoming a heroin addict was the worst thing he could have done. Just leave, they said.  

Setti’s parents had been worse and gotten violent with her. Easton remembers her frantic phone call, later dodging blows from her dad and haphazardly carrying a bleeding and crying Setti to his car. After their parent’s reactions, it felt unsafe to tell anyone.

They didn’t have insurance. There was no one to help them. They were stuck using. Ostracized from society and on their own, they had to adopt new rules. Neither of them could have conceived of stealing from their parents before this, but being told you are scum has a weird effect on you.

 “We could steal records or clothes.”

“We just did that.”

“Maybe textbooks or a laptop but…”

“No.” Setti waved her hand. “It’s too much work.” Despite their cold facade, they both felt guilty when they stole from actual people. They didn’t mind big stores or corporations. She nervously paced back and forth. “What about the other day when you had that money?”

“Laura and I burrowed Max’s car. We did the gas scam with his license plate. Made like three hundred each.” Easton smiled with momentary pride, “all within an hour but…” he scratched his head, “but my car’s a piece of crap and has a NM plate. Plus, Laura is a blonde white girl. People felt sorry for her.”

 “I wish I still had money. It went so fast.” Setti sighed. She had received a large scholarship disbursement at the beginning of the semester but that was long gone. Still, the thought of it made her smile. She took pride in her ability to keep up with school, especially with all the chaos surrounding her.  

“I think we have to go to Wal-Mart,” Easton shook his head.


The Walmart parking lot stretched on interminably, while the sun created mirages of water on the distant asphalt.  Setti or Setareh (her given name) wore light but delicately applied makeup that was beginning to run. She flipped her black straightened hair back, attempting to keep it away from the beads of sweat forming on her bronze Persian skin.

“I hate being sick in the summer, it makes my hair turn curly again.”

“I love it,” Easton replied.

“It looks like shit to everyone else.”

“For real! It’s like a lion’s mane. Majestic,” he laughed.

Setti allowed herself a smile but didn’t reply. The word majestic spawned a myriad of thoughts. She believed she was a princess in her past life and it was no coincidence she was born under the star sign Leo. She was a glowing star trapped in a frail mortal shell. Easton seemed to intrinsically grasp this. He understood her, probably more than he knew. She looked over at him with wide teary eyes and a thankful smile. But he didn’t see her. She frowned.   

Easton was distracted. He rubbed his arms again; goose bumps were forming on his milky white skin. “I’m starting to get pretty sick,” he complained as he wiped away tears and snot from his face.

“I know! You don’t need to keep reminding us,” she hissed. “Let’s just get this over with.” She pointed towards a small xeriscaped median in the parking lot, “go that way.”  

They walked in separate directions, staring at the ground.

A receipt blew in the wind, he picked it up, examined it, and threw it back down. He found another and briefly looked at it before crumpling it and littering it on the sidewalk. He looked over at her, she was looking at another receipt. He watched her study it for longer than usual. “I got one!”

 He jogged over.

It had multiple items listed; socks for 3.95, toilet paper for 8.75, laundry detergent for 21.76 and a utility ladder for 58.99.

“So, the detergent and the ladder?”

“Yeah, I’ll do the detergent. You do the ladder. Here put this item number in your phone.”  


As they entered the store the bright florescent lights strained their eyes. They split up and went different directions. He headed for the home and garden section, stopping at every type of ladder. He compared the last four digits of the barcodes to the number in his flip phone. After looking at a few different ones he found a match. It was a large stepping stool ladder that could extend up to a few feet. Carrying it took both hands. Just as he picked it up, she appeared around the corner carrying a large bottle of detergent.

They smiled at each other. Something about the absurdity of this scan amused them.

They decided with some consternation that it would be better to take the items to another Wal-Mart rather than trying to do it here.

“This would be a whole lot easier if it wasn’t for Le. Does she know how hard it is to hustle while sick?

“Yeah, she does. She just didn’t care.”

“Karma’s gonna get her.” Setti’s eyes narrowed, “She never has to be sick because of Nautic, but one day her luck will run out. We are out here hustling every day —sick too. I’ve seen her sick, and she can’t handle it.”

“That just proves how strong you are.”

“Ah, shut up.” Setareh blushed Lightly.” She took Easton’s hand, “Let’s go.”

They held the items and walked to the front of the store. They casually walked past a register making their way towards the bathroom. He sat down on a bench with the items while she used the restroom.  

She looked in the mirror and frowned. Her face was flushed and red, her eyes wide and alert surrounded by smudged makeup that gave her racoon eyes. She thought about Le and how she had all day to put on a full face of makeup. It wasn’t fair, she was supposed to be the glamorous one. She’d seen better days, but she consoled herself that it was okay. She was Heroin Chic. She pulled a pair of large bug-eye sunglasses from her purse and put them on. She watched herself toss her hair back and look over her shoulder at the mirror.

The motion made her dizzy, she leaned against the counter top for support and let her head droop. Life wasn’t supposed to be this way. She was a straight A student. She did everything her teachers and parents asked. She did everything right! Yet somehow, she found herself detoxing in a Walmart bathroom on a Wednesday afternoon. The absurdity made her chuckle.

She flipped her hair again, this time more slowly. She dabbed her forehead and lower back with a paper towel, threw it on the ground and exited the bathroom.

She picked up the detergent and he grabbed the ladder. His heart beat quickened. He scanned the store and to his relief it seemed everyone had forgotten them. But he couldn’t be sure. Feeling the danger served to focus him. He strolled towards the exit, behind Setti, ignoring his churning stomach that urged him to walk faster.

She held the old receipt visibly in one hand and the detergent in the other, he followed behind using both hands to carry the ladder. She walked past the greeter first.

“Have a beautiful day,” Easton smiled with a hint of irony.

The greeter nodded.

The summer heat, past the sliding doors, was a welcome relief.

“Another flawless escape!”

He loaded the items in his car and took a deep breath.


A few miles away, at the next Walmart they talked to a new greeter, telling him they needed to return some items. He stamped an orange sticker on each product and they proceeded to wait in line at the returns counter.

Easton’s legs bounced up and down.

“Don’t worry, we’ve done this hundreds of times.”

“I know, that’s what makes me nervous. They must recognize us by now.”

“Who cares? It’ll be fine. I just hope we don’t get that beast of burden,” Setareh pointed with her eyes towards one of the women working behind the counter. She had much too bright of makeup, especially for her worn-out Walmart uniform. Rather than making her look better, the makeup made her look worse. Her drawn on eyebrows sat in a state of perpetual exclamation that didn’t match the dreary countenance that seemed to afflict her and all her fellow Walmart employees. Her uniform also appeared to be two sizes too small. Her looks weren’t the reason they didn’t like her though.

“Next,” she squawked.

“Of course,” Easton laughed quietly.

Setti smirked, and they dropped the items on the counter.

“We need to return these items. My senile aunt bought the wrong things.”

“Well, I can do an exchange for you,” said the clerk. She eyed them suspiciously.

“Oh, no that’s okay, there is nothing wrong with them. She just buys stuff we don’t need, my mom has me return it for her.”

“Uh, huh,” said the clerk unbelieving of Setti’s story. She picked up the receipt, “I see they were purchased with a debit card. Do you have that on you?”

The clerk knew they were up to something and wanted to try to make it difficult.

“No, my aunt has it. My mom puts money in her account. Why? I don’t know.” Setti flipped her hand in a dismissive gesture, “Oh, crazy aunt Ingrid always buying useless stuff. We must keep an eye on her, ya know? If we didn’t there would be no room left in our house. Have you seen the show hoarders? That’s Ingrid for you.”

Setti was trying to keep from laughing while she spun her tale, she liked using outdated names that she dubbed, old white people names. The fact that she wasn’t white and was using the name Ingrid to describe a relative made it even funnier to her. “Oh, our Incompetent Ingrid,” Setti sighed and shook her head to mimic bewilderment.

Easton could barely keep from laughing too, he wrapped his arm around Setti’s shoulder and chimed, “it’s true.”

A look of confusion came over the clerk’s face, for just a few seconds, before she reclined back into her previous Walmart face.

The clerk grunted. The couple could almost see the gears turning in her head, she was trying to think of a way to refuse them, yet she knew she couldn’t. They didn’t need the card. They knew Walmart’s policies better than the workers did.

 She scowled and eventually pushed a button. The register plopped open. “Sign this,” she pushed a proof of return slip towards Setareh. She signed as Le Nhan, slid the paper back and chuckled.  

The clerk threw the 86.40 at them and yelled, “Next.”


“She really doesn’t like us.”  


“It’s just because she is exploited by Wal-Mart. I honestly feel bad for those employees. They don’t understand that we are just doing a different kind of work.” Setti brushed back a few strands of curling hair.

“Work with higher risks,” Easton added. “Did you see how everyone stared at us? We are just trying to get by. We’re not doing anything wrong for once.”

“Well technically, we’re stealing, but it’s from Walmart so who cares?” She paused, letting the strands drop before flipping and shaking her hair back in a regal gesture. “If people had any idea what being addicted meant they would show more compassion. We’re not lying in bed all day nodded out, like some stereotype. No, we are out here from dawn to dusk running missions, just to be able to function. Tell me that’s not dedication.”

 Easton laughed. “Any job would be lucky to have us.”

“Yeah, if we could get jobs. You know, not having to steal to survive is a privilege. Most people don’t realize that.” 

“Hmm, I never thought about that before…”

“It’s tragic times we’re living in.” She coughed. “But I’m getting delirious.” Setti shook off her thoughts, beamed and lightly jabbed Easton, “Call the Mexicans already.” 


Easton dialed a number labeled The Mexicans. On the third ring a voice answered, “Bueno…”

“Hey, can we meet?”

“Si, Podemos. Vas a la calle de San Mateo y Candelaria,” he then switched to thickly accented English, “one East on North side.”

“Cuanto tiempo?”

“Twenty minute. Hasta pronto.”

Once at the intersection of Candelaria and San Mateo they turned to go east and then looked for the first side street that headed north.

They took a left turn. It was a sleepy neighborhood that led to a park. They pulled up and let the engine idle under the sparse shade of a park tree.

Easton called again 

“How long did they say?” asked Setti.

“A couple minutes.”

“That could be hours, they are horrible judges of time.”

“Yeah, I hope they don’t take too long,” Easton yawned, “when they give an exact time you can usually trust that.”

Setti bobbed her head in agreement and asked Easton to roll down the windows. Already the car was beginning to get extremely hot. The air-conditioner was running, but to no avail. Both their shirts were soaked in sweat. Their legs bounced up and down with restless energy. Their chests and stomachs vibrated with a creeping anxiety that had steadily increased since they left Le’s house. By now, the word anxiety was much too benign to portray what they felt. Their eyes were wide and wet, their bodies moving, shaking, sweating and changing positions. About once every minute one of them looked in the rearview mirror to find nothing but an empty street and worried thoughts.

“I’m starting to get the true terror,” Easton exclaimed. A phrase he previously coined to reference the overwhelming dread that eventually crept in during the sickness.

“How long has it been?”

“About five minutes,” he careened his head around to glance out the back window but saw a black SUV drive by. He quickly glanced forward to watch from the mirror again. He needed to watch for undercover cops.

“Fuck! Five minutes, those assholes said a couple minutes. It’s been like 24 hours since our last shot. They need to hurry up,” Setti reached into her purse and pulled out a red pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and shakily lit one. As she dragged it, the smoke burned her throat, but she held it in. Her chest vibrated with more anxious energy, but the cigarette mildly soothed her thoughts. She took another drag and started coughing violently, the cigarette flew from her mouth onto the floor. She reached down to pick it up and her coughing morphed into a quick succession of six sneezes with no space in between. Her head resurfaced with the cigarette between her lips, the filter soaked from spit and snot.

“Let me have a drag,” Easton looked over and held out two fingers but when she handed it to him, he dropped it. “God dammit,” he reached down fumbling beneath his seat, following the trail of smoke.

Setti hit him, “forget about it, He’s here! Let’s go!” 

A brand-new gold SUV drove by. Easton put his car into drive and followed it as it snaked its way through the suburban neighborhood. He used his left foot to try to blindly stamp out the cigarette.

“Did you see who was driving?” The person who answered the phone was never the driver. After receiving a call, he would use a walkie talkie to radio the driver who was closest. Because of this they never knew which driver they would get.

“It looked like Jolly Poncho.”

“Yay,” Setti exclaimed while clapping her hands.  

Jolly Poncho was a moniker that Setareh had made. The man had claimed his name was Poncho, but she felt he was lying to protect his identity. So, she decided to make up a name for him. She dubbed him Jolly Poncho, or Jolly for short. She thought it was clever because jolliness was indeed Poncho’s defining trait: he was always smiling, he was always happy to see them, and he had a jolly buddha body. Setareh knew more Spanish than Easton and always enjoyed talking to him.

“He’s like our Santa Claus. Jolly Poncho! Bringing the presents!”

Easton laughed and continued to follow Jolly’s SUV until it pulled up to a curb in front of a neighborhood house. Setti grabbed the wadded-up bills from the middle console and jumped out, accidently slamming Easton’s car door. She skipped up to the front passenger side of the SUV and got in. Easton finally retrieved the ashy remainder of the cigarette from the floor and inhaled its last spark of life.

Again, the SUV meandered forward, and Easton followed behind. They turned down a few more streets until Jolly stopped in another seemingly empty neighborhood. The mid-day summer sun was the perfect cover as it confined most of Albuquerque’s population to humid, swamp-cooled living rooms.

The transaction was made, and Setti jumped out, a large smile gracing her face. She climbed back into Easton’s car. She displayed two water balloons that had been tied and stuffed with two marble sized objects.

“He gave us two Gs.”

Easton waved to Jolly. Jolly smiled before he sped off in an opposite direction. 

“Let’s do a mother fucking shot,” Setti exclaimed.

“Yes, lets,” Easton sighed with relief, “I’m just going to go over to Comanche. I know a good place we can fix.”

“Okay, just don’t take too long. You always take forever to find a place.”

“I already know where it is, calm yourself.”

Setti slumped back into her seat and reclined. “So, hey! When I was in their car, I told Jolly, Thank God for this, but then he shook his head and got all serious. He said, No Senorita, thank El Chapo.”

“Ha! El Chapo? Isn’t he that drug lord?”

“Yeah. I suppose this is his cartel.”

“I’ve always wondered…”

“Yeah, you don’t want to fuck with these guys, they’ll kill you. Like what’s his name, he talked to the cops and then later he was found decapitated.”

“Yeah…” Easton trailed off before enthusiastically adding, “but I can’t deny they have great service.”

“I know, I love them.”

The two laughed as they thought about this. They had learned laughter was better than the alternative.


Setareh turned on the radio. An overplayed pop anthem blared through the speakers. It was a song by Miley Cyrus called See You Again.

Easton felt the song was cheesy and reached to change it. They usually alternated between his underground punk tapes and Setareh’s various Lou Reed and Elliot Smith CDs. Setti’s hand grabbed his and said, “Wait!” Her fingers tenderly curled around his, she squeezed once and let go. “Let’s just listen,” she said.

The words, I feel like I must have known you in another life felt prophetic. The two intimately stared into each other’s eyes before Easton looked back at the road and swerved to avoid hitting a car.

This caused Setti to laugh. “I love you so much baby.”

Easton laughed too, smiling back at her. Then he began to shiver and sway to the music. “Damn, it sounds so good when you’re sick. I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m actually enjoying this song.”

“See, I told you we shouldn’t change it… Except it’s making me all emotional. Le had this as her ring tone, do you remember?”

Easton nodded.

 “It reminds me of all the good times we had at her house with Krista, Braeden and everyone else. Before the junk, back when Le and I were friends.” Setti paused and then melancholically added, “I miss the old her.”

“Me too,” he mused. “but mostly, I miss the old us… Those times were special, it felt like anything could happen. We were so in love, we had friends, families. It wasn’t just us against the world, like it is now…” Easton readjusted his seat and involuntarily twitched a few times; his hands tightly gripped the sweat-soaked steering wheel. “This is intense, it’s like when you hear a song and your hair stands on end, except I’m feeling that sensation everywhere.”

 “As much as I hate being sick, I sometimes like being sick. Everything is so magnified.” She then turned up the dial and began singing along, “My best friend Leslie says, Oh she’s just being Miley.

Easton sang too, except he said, “Oh, she’s just being SETTI.”

She looked over at him and smiled. Tears were forming in the corner of her dark almond eyes. Seeing this, Easton began crying. He shook and balled while still choking out the lyrics to the song. Setti glanced at him again, this time with concern.

“It’s not because…” He wiped his large blue eyes, half laughing, half crying with tears continuing to flow. “I’m not sad, I’m okay. it’s just, it’s just… So beautiful.”

She had never seen him cry before. She looked out the window to gain composure, the blue sky seemed mammoth and the heat felt like a thick blanket wrapping the world tightly in its embrace. The huge purple mountains appeared ancient and wise. She could feel them watching her, not in judgement but in acceptance of all that she was. And the music, oh the music. It was like wind that fluttered her emotional butterflies up, up, upward to her eyes. Easton placed his hand on her shoulder, and she realized that she too was crying.   

They continued down the road; in this unique moment they felt a reprieve from the war that had become their lives. They laughed at the absurdity of the moment, two hardcore junkies crying to Miley Cyrus. For the first time in a long time they felt happy.

 Yet, they instinctively knew, like all good things, this moment was only temporary. A realization that brought more tears and a fresh gash of sorrow.

“I never knew life could be this hard. I wish we could… I wish we could quit and go back to how we used to be” Easton babbled out. “It’s like I just woke up one day and everyone I knew was addicted to heroin.”

“Yeah,” she wiped her eyes. “It happened so fast. Everything…” Her voice shook. “And everything was gone. I miss my family. I wish I still had a family. Besides you I’m so alone.”

Their feelings continued to overflow and spill from every emotional nook and cranny. Joy and sorrow released themselves in poignant bursts of tears and shivers. They remembered the good times they’d left behind. They remembered friendships past. They remembered the friends that had died. They remembered who they used to be. Maybe one day they would see their happy selves again. 

Setti suddenly felt empathetic towards Le. Yes, she had fucked them over. But they had done fucked up things to her too. They had done fucked up things to everyone they knew. Even their parents, who weren’t bad people —they just didn’t understand.

Their tears seemed to purify the monsters inside.

They smiled at each other, clasped their clammy palms together, and tried to hold the moment a little longer. The line, I can’t wait to see you again, took on new meaning. Miley had intended it to refer to her crush, but for the couple it was an ode to the transient moments in life.

Easton asked, “Is it possible to feel nostalgic for a moment that hasn’t yet passed?”

Setti didn’t answer but gripped his hand tighter attempting to hold onto the feeling.

“We can be in love again.”

 “We don’t have to use.”

“Life can be fun again.”

Despite their words, there was another force at work. Easton was driving, but something else was driving him. Something base, something reptilian was in control. It steered the wheel and guided them into a quiet neighborhood. As a passenger in his body, he parked the car by a wall between two houses.

She looked over and said, “I don’t want this to end. I think we could do it. We could be sober together.” Yet even as her lips uttered these words, her hands were pulling out the spoon, syringes and balloon.

“I think…” She tore open the balloon with her teeth

“everything…” She placed a black rock into the spoon

“is going to…” She cooked the liquid and drew it up.

“turn out…” She slid a syringe into her arm and pulled back to reveal a crimson steam.    


 Eric Knowlson
Eric Knowlson

Eric Knowlson is a writer and poet hailing from Albuquerque, NM. He is fascinated by the fleeting moments of beauty that sometimes only last seconds, but shape lives forever. He attempts to capture these transient moments in his writing. His work has appeared in The Leonardo, and Coffin Bell Journal. He can be reached at Etknowlson@gmail.com

A Short Story by Joe Phipps

Today I ran errands. I usually run the errands and my wife usually does the chores, except for cooking. She doesn’t run errands because she believes that, if one commutes to work like she does, it is bad luck to stray from one’s established route for any reason. She does not cook because she never learned how. She never learned how because she claims to be afraid of certain vegetables. I find this hard to believe but, in our five years of marriage, she has maintained her position on the matter even though she is fine with eating most of the feared vegetables when they are undetectably added to her meals.

However, the one vegetable to never enter the house: onions.

Once I asked, “What is so much more horrid about onions than any other vegetable that you are afraid of?”

My wife responded, “There is nothing so much more horrid about onions than carrots or beets or any other vegetable.”

“Then why are you so much more afraid of them that they cannot even come into the house. You are fine with other vegetables if I disguise their presence well enough?”

“It is not accurate to say that I am afraid of onions. Onions are like wolves. I find that most people do not have an accurate understanding of wolves. And, while most people are not afraid of wolves, and really why should they be, these same people would not willingly let a wolf into their home,” she said.

“I think that a pet wolf would be nice to have in the house. If we let it come and go when it wanted it could keep me company while you work, and keep deer out of the yard at night,” I said.

“If I cannot have a cat you cannot have a wolf either.”

“I’m allergic to cats, but okay. No onions.”

That was on Monday, and on Sunday I did the errands. I went to the grocery store, bought my usual assortment of food, and picked up a large bag of birdseed for the neighbor’s chickens. I told him that I thought he wasn’t feeding them enough because they look far too skinny. He told me to stop bothering him about his own birds.

I said, “I am not trying to preach anything to you about how to take care of birds that aren’t my pets. It’s not like they are your pet either, and I guess you can raise your food however you like, but in my opinion your rooster looks more like a parrot than a chicken given how skinny it looks.”

This was an exaggeration that made him very upset with me and he told me that if I cared so much about the birds I could go out and buy food to feed them myself, which I decided to do so I could watch him pop a blood vessel when I walk into his yard.

After that I went to city hall to pay our water bill. Outside were a couple of kids playing baseball. One girl hit the ball so hard that it went flying over a fence separating the field they were playing in from an apartment complex. It wasn’t really that far, but the kids had looks on their faces like she had hit that ball hard enough to create a sonic boom, and the ball had burnt up trying to leave the atmosphere. To them it was enough to pack up and go home for the day. The score up to that point had been forgotten, and in a team sport that one girl was recognized as the singular winner.

The sun was in the middle of the sky and all that was left to do errand-wise was to stop by my friend Georgie’s house to return his toolkit. I needed it to fix one of the doors after I accidentally bust it down moving in a new bed frame. My wife was concerned about the cold air killing us and demanded that I fix it that day despite loaning my tools to her brother to fix a window in his kitchen. He did not have his tools because he had loaned them to a friend who’d loaned someone his tools, and so on to the point that I am beginning to think that no one owns tools. Instead they just exist in a constant state of being used by someone who didn’t buy them.

When I got to Georgie’s he was already outside stripping the metal off a broken-down truck that had sat in his driveway for years. He was shirtless and covered in sweat. His entire upper body was pink from a fresh sunburn, and his black hair was greasy. When I pulled into the driveway, he ran over to my car and said, “I was hoping you’d stop by soon. I want to talk to you about this plan I got. I know a way that we can both get set up real nice once I get my hands on some bees.”

I responded, “I’m not exactly sure what you are trying to get at.”

“There is no way that this can go wrong man. I know that you don’t really know nothing about bees, but you got to trust me that this can really be something worth the money, and I want you to be a part of it.”

“How exactly is this supposed to work?” I asked.

Georgie said, “Its real simple man. All I gotta do is go and buy some bees and build them little bee homes for cheap, and then they start making honey like it is no one’s business, and there are plenty of suckers out there that’ll pay big bucks for honey if you tell them it is straight out of the bees’ ass and you treated the little buzzers nice. And I do intend to treat them nice. I’m going to make them little houses out of bean cans, and that is where you come in, because I went ahead and did the math on all of this and for the number of bees that I intend to buy the most cost effective way to build the houses is to use old bean cans. So, while I am out taking care of the bees, I need you to start eating beans up a storm so I can keep making them houses. And make sure that you actually eat them and not just throw them out because food waste is a real problem man.”

“How many cans of beans are we talking, Georgie?”

He said, “I don’t know. Couple a day at the start, but you should be able to slow down eventually.”

“Okay,” I said. “I got to go then. Here are your tools back. I lost a screwdriver somehow under my house. It rolled under while I was working, and I’m not going onto that snake-pit to get it. If you want to get yourself bitten you can go down there and look for it, but I don’t do snakes.”

I parted ways with Georgie and drove off back to the store to stock up on beans.

Back at the store I thought about what I was going to cook for dinner and decided that it was going to be something with onions in it to prove a point.

When I got home first, I fed the neighbor’s chickens, and then I made me and my wife two separate meals. I made her a meatloaf where I diced the onion up so small, and put so little in it that there was no way for her to notice I had slipped them in. At the dinner table I served it to her while I ate beans directly out of the can to avoid dirtying more dishes. When she asked me why I was eating something different than her I told her I was doing a favor for Georgie.

“You shouldn’t just accept everything he says like it’s always right,” she said.

“But he’s usually right. He was right about the weather. He was right about what times are best to go to the grocery store, and he was right about what horse we should have bet on at the fair. If we’d listened to him, we could spend all day wasting time like he does ripping apart machinery and partying.”

“Those are things you want to spend all day doing. Most days I want to drive to work and back. I don’t really like the job, but I like going to and from it. There are several stores on the way there that I always look through the windows of as I pass to see the decorations the owners have put up. And there is a hayfield that I think about how it might be nice to disappear into. In the summer an old farmer goes through it and bails it all up. Sometimes he smiles at me like he recognizes me,” she said.

“Those things do sound pretty nice,” I said.

“Did you put something different in the meatloaf?”

“I did.”

“I don’t like it. What is it?” she asked.

“Chives. My mother said to put them in.”

“Lair,” she said before taking a loud drink of water.

“Onions,” I said.

She took another bite and chewed it slowly. “I understand,” she said.

“I can make you another one if you want,” I offered.

“No, this one is fine,” she said as she continued eating, “but we are going to have to talk about things when I get done.”

“Things like divorce?” I asked.

“Yes, and other things like, is there any alcohol in the house?”

“We still have the bottle of wine we bought for your birthday that we never opened.”

“Good. I feel like opening it tonight.”

“That seems like a good idea. Do you plan on running away with that elderly farmer?”

“I might. If I do be prepared to get dressed up nice for the wedding, because I am going to need a maid of honor. We’ll probably get married in the fall, in the middle of his hayfield where we first met. That to me seems appropriately romantic for a second marriage. You can even bring Georgie if you want, as long as you promise that he will clean himself up. Do you think that the farmer is allergic to cats too? How unlucky would it be for me to find myself smitten by two men in a row allergic to cats? It would make me think that love and cats are completely incompatible,” she said.

“I’m not sure that smitten is the right word for it. Smitten implies something divine or forceful, and I don’t really remember it happening like that. I just remember I was here, and you were here too, and it just made sense to us to be here together. That just doesn’t feel like anyone was smitten,” I said.

“I suppose you are right, but even if I wasn’t smitten, I still think love’s an accurate word for it,” she said.

“I agree, and maybe you actually will be smitten with love by your farmer. Assuming he is not allergic to cats, what do you think you will name it?” I said.

“I am thinking of something like Turkey. I like it when animals are named for animals they are not. I think it confuses people in a good way,” she said.

“That sounds like a great name for a cat.” I said.

“And once Georgie goes and makes you rich enough to do whatever you want, what will you name your wolf?” she said.

“I think I like the name Lawrence,” I said as I began collecting her empty plate.

“Lawrence is a good name for a wolf,” she said.

Joe Phipps is a writer from Logan County, West Virginia, an MFA Candidate at Syracuse University, and a lover of comic books.

A Short Story by Maria Diaz

If my brother found out that I was sleeping with one of the Beltrez boys, he would kill me. We had to be really secretive about it — sneaking out when the entire campo was at church, pretending we were arranging community meals so that we could be in the same house. I regularly invited Teofilo over when he was headed to New York, dizque pa’ mandarle algo a mi hermano. I knew they never saw each other, but the effort kept the bochinchosos from opening their big mouths. Teofilo had a wife and kids in New York and a wife and kids right here, in Sabana Iglesia. I wasn’t his wife. I didn’t want to marry him, anyway.

In a few months, I would also be in New York, rich like my brother. The entire campo chased him every time he came back with his wife, whose beautiful blue eyes could only temporarily distract my neighbors from my brother’s good fortune. He bought a house in Queens, big enough for all of us, he said.

Teofilo lived in Manhattan.

“That’s where the real Dominicans live, mami,” he said to me, “how will the kids know what it means to be Dominican?”

Teofilo liked to pretend that we could one day live together, as if he did not already have several beds to keep warm and mouths to feed, as if I was not the biggest secret he kept. I knew there was no world in which we could coexist. He was actively a Trujillista, a believer in the dead dictator’s policies who had upended the life of so many Dominicans.

My family fought to save us from that reality; my brother was a very vocal opponent and protestor against the dictator’s hateful rhetoric. He moved to New York in fear that he might one day be arrested for his public dissent. I stayed in Sabana Iglesia as proof that we were not traitors. I had a visa. I could have left.

Teofilo entered my house and took one look at me before commenting, “Tu si ‘ta gorda,” as he rushed towards my bedroom. He didn’t kiss me; he didn’t hug me. He didn’t bother to ask how I was. He noticed the weight I had gained, and he made it a point to comment on how fat I was getting.

He had been gone for four months, and in that time, I had learned that I was pregnant. Teofilo was the only man I had been with in two years, so it was definitely his baby, but I knew that telling him meant risking losing him. Money and land were sacred in Sabana Iglesia, and babies guaranteed access to both.

“I’m pregnant,” I blurted out, as he undressed himself in my bedroom. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“It can’t be mine. I’ve been gone for months,” he said.

Teofilo thought I wanted his money. That’s what all DominicanYork men think the side chick they keep hidden away in el campo want. But I didn’t need any of his money. Our family had our own.

I wanted to hear three words I had never heard from him in the six years we had been doing this: I love you.

Teofilo kept coming back for a healthy release throughout the pregnancy and wrote me letters while he was in New York. He signed every letter, con amor, but he never once told me he loved me. In the last letter before Robert’s birth, he told me that his New York wife was due in October and that his Sabana Iglesia wife had just given birth to a baby boy months before.

Teofilo’s visits became sporadic after Robert’s birth. He sent me a total of $5000 to keep quiet about the paternity of the baby, but there was no denying who his father was. Robert had his father’s white face, his very round brown eyes and his coarse, curly hair.  He did not take after my side of the family.

I gave that money to my brother, to help him pay the mortgage on the Corona house that would soon be mine as well — a home I hoped would one day house my grandchildren and their grandchildren, a little piece of New York that could be ours. How would my children know they were Dominican? How could they deny what ran so prominently through their blood?

I left Sabana Iglesia in 1965, months after having Teofilo’s second child, who I left with his big brother, in el campo with my younger sister. I trusted that my boys were safe in Sabana Iglesia and I knew that this sacrifice — this temporary separation — was for our collective benefit.

Corona, Queens was unapologetically racist — we were among the first Dominicans to settle in the neighborhood, and when asked if we were Cuban, we often answered, “Yes,” though we knew the answer was wrong.

We thought people were asking if we knew Spanish, trying to find an easier way to communicate with us, but they were using Cuban as a substitute for communist, and every “yes” was an admission of guilt. We had not yet figured out how to navigate this new world where politics intersected with racial identity. Our light complexion, it turns out, told a particular story about our heritage that was neither true nor relatable in the Corona context. To our neighbors, we would be Cuban until at least the 1980s, when a mass migration of Dominicans made our story easier to understand.

I spent the first few years in Corona watching what was happening in the neighborhood through the curtains in the windows and calling las vecinas pa’ bochinchar, to tell them whose husbands I saw entering single women’s homes, spying on my brother, who developed a gambling addiction since arriving in the states, and cooking dinner for all of the Sabana Iglesia transplants who had settled in the neighborhood. I went to church not because I was a devout Catholic, but because that was the best place to get the latest chisme, pa’ saber que pasaba.

The prayer group of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans that came to my house on Saturday nights actually came over to play Bingo — we didn’t pray at all, except to pray that we took the most money home that night. I often cheated, making sure that the house always won.

I thought about Teofilo often, wondering what he was up to in his big Manhattan four bedroom apartment, curious about the daughter who was about the same age as our son. He was my past now, with whom I shared nothing but memories of sins of adultery and two beautiful boys who lived in the Dominican Republic, waiting to be reunited with their mom and stepfather.

Robert could come at any time, but we were waiting. I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, exactly. He would have a house with a big backyard, a garden, and his own bedroom. Nelson had to wait because he was younger, and he was struggling to learn to read and write. I felt like it was my fault. I abandoned my children and the younger one, the one I had spent less time with, could hardly write his own name.

Right after we came back from visiting my kids in December 1971, I came back to my Corona home to a brand new television in my bedroom; my brother and my husband had banded together to get me one because they knew I liked my bochinche. I watched Univision every night at 6:00 and 11:00, sure to write down any time they mentioned a Dominican last name I recognized from el campo: Diaz, Rodriguez, Collado, Nuñez, Beltrez, Valerio, Fernandez, Hernandez, Vargas, Franco.

The news stories usually repeated themselves between 6:00 pm and 11:00 pm, so I did not expect the variation on January 2, 1972. I did not get a warning. Nobody called me to tell me.

The newscaster said that a man entered his four bedroom apartment in Manhattan, where he lived with his wife and his daughter, when he was approached by his angry wife, who met him at the door with a butcher’s knife.

Someone called her from Sabana Iglesia, to tell her that they saw a boy, about ten years old, who was identical to her husband, which meant he had to have been cheating on her. They had been married thirteen years at that point. She stabbed him seventeen times in the back. The life-threatening injuries took his life.

“Teofilo Beltrez, de Sabana Iglesia, Santiago de los Caballeros, murió en su apartamento en Manhattan.” Teofilo died in his Manhattan apartment, after his wife found out he had cheated on her.

After someone in Sabana Iglesia went to my house, took a picture of Robert, and sent it to her.

I called the boys that night to tell them.

I couldn’t mourn his death publicly. I was not his widow. I was married to a man who loved me, and I was expecting a baby.

I dressed in black for a week, stayed in my house, and did not bother staring out the window.

Robert would be flying to New York for his father’s funeral and I knew that in short time, I would be bochinche, not just for the Sabana Iglesia transplants, but for all Dominicans who live near — and for the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who make it a habit to spend Saturday night at my house.

When my son came, I held him over his father’s casket and said, “This is your father. He died in a car accident.”

Other mourners stared at Robert, whose face was identical to his father’s. They heard my lie, shook their head, and they did not have to say what I knew they were thinking.

His wife killed him.

But I caused his death.

Maria Diaz is an educational consultant living originally from Queens, New York, where she currently lives, though she has left parts of her heart in Cambridge and Palo Alto. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, The City College of New York, and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

A Short Story by E. P. Tuazon
or Mamamalengke Ako

Los Angeles, California, May 31, 2020.

In the Island Pacific market, overcome by hunger, Jess cannot take it anymore. She draws an Asian pear from the fruit section. It is a little bruised but otherwise edible without washing. She takes a glance at the lola picking up and putting down Filipino sweat sausages in the meat section and the woman in the hijab preoccupied with trying to find the crease to open her plastic produce bag in front of the eggplant. Once she confirms they are not looking, she pulls down her mask and makes quick work of it. The juices of the pear run all over her face and make dark lines on her black mask. Its refreshing, sweet taste is short-lived and she plants its seed-peppered core at the foot of the display before wiping her face with her shirt and limps her way to the seafood section unnoticed. 

Pulling up her mask, she exhales and takes in the fruity fragrance of the pear mixed with the Dewar’s still sitting in her throat from last night. She is trying to get over the fact that she was hit by a truck in Hollywood just a couple of hours ago. She had joined the protest there, but once the looting happened, she started to trot off shakily with the rest of those like herself who lingered long after the more organized groups of protestors had left.

She headed in the direction of the metro station when she witnessed five masked men drag out an ATM machine from a nail salon and load it into a truck. Deciding it was none of her business, Jess proceeded to walk to the opposite sidewalk to avoid the growing mass of looters flooding broken windows and doors. However, once her feet made it to the asphalt, the truck screeched into drive and clipped her foot. She spun onto the ground and met the sharp smell of tear gas and weed.  The drone of cheers, sirens, helicopters and her own blood pulsing above her eyes accompanied the cold ache in her cheek and foot. One passerby coming out of a raided anime store stood beside her in awe.

“Bro, I saw the whole thing! I wish I got it on camera.” The man had on science goggles and a Messi jersey wrapped around his head and face. Despite all these things covering him up, she knew he was Filipino too. Under one arm was a giant Totoro. Under the other was a body pillow with an anime girl on it. Jess couldn’t help but laugh. Why did she think to come alone?

“Bro, you hit your head or something?”

“No, it’s just my foot.” She wiggled her toe, but she couldn’t tell if she was actually doing it or imagining it. She couldn’t be fine, she thought. You don’t come out of things like this being able to wiggle your toe without something else happening.

“Those guys are lucky. They got that whole thing. Fuck the police!”

Jess thought of the nail salon. Scattered among the glass were the signs that read “Reopen June 1st” followed by something hand-written in red and Thai.

“Yeah, fuck twelve.” Jess said, reading the graffiti that was everywhere now.


“Fuck twelve.” She said and pointed at the boarded-up windows across the street, eyeing the restaurant signs and the billboards. They were all covered in the words.

“Bro, fuck the police.” The man said and proceeded on his way, walking off to the smoke in the distance, the glow of destruction reflected off his goggles as if he was participating in an experiment.

“It means the same thing!” Jess explained although the man was gone by then, his exit expediated by the sound of sirens in the distance, the lack of things to take left in the vicinity.

And, somehow, Jess was able to get up and walk. Somehow, she made it to her stop and the metro came and her foot could push the pedals down in her car and she was able to go home to her one-bedroom apartment in Canyon Country, far from it all. Somehow, she was able to pour herself a drink and another drink and swipe through all the news on her phone trying to find news about what just happened until she passed out. Somehow, there was nothing about her. Somehow, she hadn’t let the pain bother her until now, in the market, her insides empty, her foot throbbing. And, somehow, it all came with a question; while she lay on the ground, trying to explain what meaning things had, she did not know what meaning there was for herself. Why did she go to the protest in the first place?

She is trying to skip over the fact that she was hit by a truck a couple of hours ago, but her body cannot help but remember. Her shoulder hurts, her face hurts, her legs hurt, her foot hurts. She finds the aisle for beauty supplies and, below the malunggay supplements and kalamansi oil, she plucks a small bottle of Aspirin from its place. She presses the bottle open, pours a couple into her palm, then launches them into her mouth. To wash them down, she throws in a few gummy vitamins straight out the bottle. She chews on them and lets her mouth flood with saliva and their sweet-sour taste while she counts the number of pixels that make up the blown-up, low-quality picture of fruits on the label. She swallows them and cruises up the aisle thinking about what kind of thinking terribly made labels came from. If you had to do a label but couldn’t afford to give it a good finish, why even try to do something with color in the first place? Why not keep it simple, like black and white? Surely people would trust to buy what you’re selling that way. But that was the problem, wasn’t it, she thought, tasting the vitamins come up and mix with the Aspirin, the Asian pear, and the Dewar’s. The label could never live up to what was expected inside, what the inside could offer.

She feels like she nearly reaches an epiphany but, at the end of her aisle, there is a young Filipina her age crying into her phone in the seafood section, disturbing Jess from her reflection. She sees her move from the iced squid to the blue crab. She watches, wondering if it is a problem with allergies, the Corona virus, or if she is genuinely weeping. One has to be skeptical these days. She had marveled at the possibility of the thought going away, and with the protests and reopenings, she nearly convinced herself that it had. However, here it was, the awareness, the mistrust.

Jess throws the open bottles of aspirin and gummy vitamins into her cart and rolls it towards the woman until it is between them.

“Excuse me? Are you ok?”

“Ew, don’t fucking talk to me.” The woman says, not even looking at her. She puts her back to Jess and continues to look down at her phone, over the red snapper.

Jess immediately regrets being concerned but does not have enough strength to fight her pride. “Sorry, I just noticed you crying from the beauty section.”

“Six feet! Privacy!” The woman says, still not turning around.

The butcher several displays away notices the woman raise her voice but doesn’t look alarmed behind his mask. He looks back down at his work and forgets Jess and the woman are there again.

Jess shakes the handle of her cart. “The cart’s six feet and we’re wearing masks.”

“What? Are you a doctor or something? You going to point a temperature gun at my head and shoot? Get away from me. I saw you limping from a mile away. You’re making me feel uncomfortable.”

The word “limp” hits a nerve with Jess, but she is still too weak to retaliate and continues her crusade. “I’m sorry. I got hit by a truck yesterday.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was at the protest last night. Some truck dinged my foot.”

This makes the woman turn and Jess cannot help but feel a pang of shame for having to stoop so low as to have to mention it.

“Oh my God. Those racist assholes!”

Jess doesn’t correct her. She looks down at the woman’s phone and there is a feed of posts from the protest last night. She recognizes some of the people and moments from yesterday. She sees the protestors, the police, the store owners, and rioters. She sees the chanting, the praying, the marching, the beauty, the bricks, the broken glass, the looting, the police brutality, and the fires. They collage on her tiny screen in sharp tiny boxes.   

“Did you go to the hospital?” The woman says, dabbing at her eyes with the cuff of her sweater. Jess could tell she is not wearing makeup. She is not either. It is too early and too late.

“No, I’m all right. It’s just sore is all.” Jess says, still looking at the woman’s phone.

The woman notices Jess looking, and she swipes the screen with her finger, the squares rolling down it like a slot machine. “Wasn’t it terrible what happened last night?”

“Actually, it was great.” Jess says, her pride going strong, her legs and knees remembering the march, the kneeling, the trek all over Hollywood and its uneven streets.

“But what about the police? What were those jerks thinking?” The woman says, her cheeks tender but the tears gone.

“Yeah, they were shooting smoke bombs and rubber bullets at everyone.”

“Oh my God, did you get shot?”

“No, just hit by a truck.”

“Oh my God!” The woman exclaims, as if she forgot she heard it the first time.

Jess winces as the guilt wells. “So, was that what you were crying about?”

“Yeah, that and I read that they’re putting a curfew on us tonight.”

“A curfew? Like we’re a bunch of children? Jesus Christ. I can’t believe they’re doing this.”

“Only a tyrant makes curfews.”

“Well, it did get pretty bad out there.” Jess remembers the awning to the anime store tattered and shredded, the Hello Kitty painted on it covered in soot. The torsos and legs of broken action figures strewn together with the glass on the sidewalk.

“I know. The police brutality was terrible. What happened to George Floyd was terrible. Everything needs to change. We need to be better. I can’t believe we did this.”

“I know,” Jess says, and, after thinking about the woman’s words for a second, continues, “What do you mean we did this?”

“Oh my God, yeah. It’s all of our faults. We allow this to happen every day. With our president, our American culture, and institutions of racism that keep minorities out of power. But what really gets me miffed, and I don’t get miffed about just anything, but what really gets me miffed is us. Asians. Filipinos.”

Jess feels the regret already resurface at the word “miffed”, the question she had applied to last night beginning to apply to the now. “You think we’re the problem?”

“Yeah! The model-minority. The silent panderer. We’re in league with the problem: the Whites of America.”


“Think about it? Think of your parents. Weren’t they racist? Didn’t they say racist things like you shouldn’t hang out with those Mexicans? Stay away from that Black boy? Don’t lend that Bumbay that five dollars? My parents said things like that all the time. Don’t tell me yours didn’t.”


“It’s what Filipinos call people from India.”

Jess thinks of her sweet old parents. They are living in Porter Ranch in a predominantly Filipino community. She had heard her fair share of off-hand ignorant things from them but never saw them as the problem. Should she?   

“We’re just as guilty as the Whites. We’re friends with them. We do everything they say. We date and marry their kind. We’re the lookouts while the White man murders all the other minorities who don’t step in line. We need to change. We need to fight back. We need to undo the conditioning and return to our roots and reconnect with our diaspora.”

And there it is, Jess thinks. She couldn’t figure it out until now, the feeling that had led her to the protest, that had led her to the girl. She feels it swell with the pain in her body. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

“You have to continue fighting! Thank you for what you’re doing!” The woman says and Jess makes the mistake of looking back and catching the tears well in her eyes again. Jess cannot take it; it is humiliating to her to hear her talk about things like “diaspora” and mean it. It is embarrassing to Jess that this woman believes—actually, whole-heartedly, believes—in what she is feeling more than Jess believes in the same feelings in herself. It distresses Jess that this woman, this Filipina like herself, feels confident enough to scream it out loud in front of the dead fish and bound crab.

“I’m trying. I’m just someone trying to fight everything.” Jess says, remembering the lights of the truck turn on, the shadow she made on the street. She stretches out, wide on the pavement, but, she herself is so small in the light.

The woman’s face is covered in tears and a pure sheen of sincerity, but it does not understand her, Jess thinks. It only knows the answer to Jess’s question as much as Jess does. “Oh my God,” the girl says through the aisle Jess escapes, “don’t try too hard—you might get yourself killed.”

Outside, with her bag of opened aspirin and gummy vitamins, she is feeling the night beginning to wear off and the need to do something, anything, to satisfy herself again, to tell her she is doing the right thing. The thought of the woman, the man with the Totoro, and the pounding in her head like the chants and explosions from last night. She faces forward, looking beyond the parking lot, thinking about them, and—boom—Jess is hit by a car accelerating past the front of the store.  Jess spins to the ground and an all-to-familiar feeling buzzes at her foot again. She lies dazed at the front wheel, driver-side.

The woman who hit her leans out and yells, maskless. She is the same woman, the Filipina from the store. “Are you fucking crazy, lady?”

People gather. “Is anything broken?” someone asks.

She struggles to stand. She thinks she sees the feet of the man in front of the anime store running off into the chaos.

“Don’t move.” Someone else says.

“Let’s call the police.” Another says.

“Oh, Fuck. Thanks a lot, bitch.” The woman who hit her says, getting out of her car.

“Do you want the number of my lawyer? Just let her know it’s me and she’ll do it pro bono.” A woman younger than Jess scribbles a number on her receipt and gives it to her. At first, she thinks it will say something like “fuck 12” but there are just numbers and totals and items purchased. A bag of rice for $12.99. Two pounds of ox tail for $8.37.

“Fuck you, lady. I just tapped her.”

Pakikiramay! Show ng ilang empathy!” an old man says coming out from the Island Pacific. He has more bags in his hands than he looks like he can carry but he does not run. Not like last night.

“Let me help you with those, lolo.” Someone who is not Filipino says. The old man lets him.

“What were you doing? How would you expect me to see you? Who do you think you are?”

“I was leaving.”

“Why didn’t you wait and look like people are supposed to?”

“You ran me over.” Jess says.

“I’m a mother. You ruined my day!” She says.

The woman gets on her phone while more people come to Jess’s aid. Some are wearing masks. Some aren’t. Someone brings her some coconut juice with pulp. Another one, a Lakers cushion. “Benny. I had an accident. I was getting out of the market and someone got in front of my car. She’s giving me a hard time. I hate people like that. People who think it’s other people’s fault for things that happen to them.” She stops talking to her phone to ask Jess, “Do I have to wait until the police come? I have things to do, you know?”

A worker from the Island Pacific comes with a package of lumpia and puts it on her foot at the point of impact. Jess winces. It’s cold. The worker uses a roll of duct tape patterned with the words Balikbayan on them to bind the eggrolls to her foot. “I’m training to be a medic,” he says with an acne smile, “in the Reserves.”

“What do I owe you?” Jess asks the man.

“You don’t owe us anything. Just promise not to let these go to waste.”

Jess forces herself to stand; the crowd applauds as she crawls to her feet. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She says and takes a bow. 

E. P. Tuazon is a Filipinx-American writer from Los Angeles. He has published his works in several publications, most recently Five South, Peatsmoke Journal, Third Point Press, 3Element Review, Allegory Ridge, Adelaide Magazine,  and  a Forthcoming piece in The Rumpus. He has two books, The Superlative Horse and The Last of The Lupins: Nine Stories and The Comforters. He is currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club. In his spare time, he likes to wander the seafood section of Filipinx markets to gossip with the crabs.

A Short Story by Shae Krispinsky

At Rhythm & Brews Lounge, the pours would always be watered down, the bartenders surly, the jukebox programed to loop the same two dozen modern country songs, the dance floor empty. It was a place for people to come and be lonely together, and little had ever changed there in the all the years Natch had been going.

Except tonight when he’d pulled in, the parking lot had been full, unusual for the Monday-through-Thursday stretch that was the doldrums of life. Inside, some digital recording of a wannabe cowboy wasn’t warbling about a honky tonk badonkadonk; there was a long-haired pretty boy up on the small stage, wearing ratty clothes that looked pulled from a dumpster and playing a $4000 guitar. A gaggle of women swayed before him, transfixed, sucking on their Smirnoff Ices.

And then there she was, the most obvious change of all, seated in the far corner booth with a bowl of peanuts in front of her. By the way she held herself, back straight, not touching the red vinyl cushion, alert but not alarmed, Natch knew the loneliness he saw in her was a familiar feeling. The Busch Beer stained-glass lamp hanging above her table gave off a cool glow that highlighted her cheekbones and her sandy hair that hung in a long tangle over her shoulder. Natch wasn’t the only one who noticed. He was, however, the one who approached, offering to buy her a drink. He would have done the same even if she hadn’t been so beautiful; he felt it his duty to be welcoming. The beauty didn’t hurt.

“Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t.”

“Nothing?” Natch asked. “Coffee? It’s not bad here. I mean, it doesn’t melt the spoon.”

“Any chance they have green tea?”

“Sweet tea, maybe.”

She settled for a club soda with lime, which Natch retrieved along with a beer for himself. “Name’s Tod, but everyone calls me Natch.”

She squeezed her lime into her soda, then dropped the spent wedge on a napkin. “As in naturally?”

“As in Natchez, Mississippi. Where I was born.”

Her name was Hanlon and she had, she shared, been born right there in Marville, a fact he found hard to believe. With the green tea and the posture, he had taken her for a city girl. Turned out he was partially correct—she had gone to grad school at NYU. After that, she had spent a few years wandering around before settling for a while in Savannah. As she spoke, Natch noticed the way the sundress she wore dipped slightly in the front, revealing she had nothing on underneath. Natch forced himself to stare at his beer, his head cocked, as though straining to hear over the live music.

“What brings you back?” he asked.

“My mother died.” Hanlon said this as though she were commenting on Natch’s shirt. “Twice, really. First when she left me and my father, and then again last year.” She shrugged. “I got a house here out of it.”

At this turn of the conversation, Natch reached for his Mich Ultra, took a deep, distancing quaff, and considered getting up for a whiskey neat. She leaned in across the table, her hair catching in the front of her dress, and said she didn’t mean to make him uncomfortable. Natch forgot about his thirst.

She turned her attention to the stage, where the pretty boy was switching out harmonicas in the holder around his neck. The women on the dance floor continued swaying, even as the pretty boy adjusted his capo and told some story about growing up in Memphis. Pretty Memphis Boy began intricately fingerpicking and Natch had to admit, he could play.

Music was the fastest way to earn Natch’s respect. He spent so much time on the road that music was what kept him awake and focused. He liked to say he owed his life to the songs. Pretty Memphis Boy started in on a harrowing cover of “Pancho and Lefty” that brought a palpable change upon the bar. No one wanted to face that kind of emotion at Rhythm & Brews. They came to forget their troubles; the wood-paneled walls, thankfully, did not reflect their darkest selves and never would. Conversation on the periphery drowned out his singing, but Pretty Memphis Boy took it in stride. A few women at his feet took this time to refresh their drinks, but the majority stayed: he was pretty whether he sang sad or not. But then he doubled down, playing “Waiting Around to Die,” and the floor cleared. Natch admired his conviction and whistled when the song ended, the only one to acknowledge Pretty Memphis Boy’s detour from his set of bluesy originals.

“That was remarkable,” Natch said, turning back to Hanlon.

She stopped playing with the lime wedge. “I prefer not to dwell on sadness,” she said and slid from the booth. “Time to call it a night.”

Natch stood. “Let me walk you out.”

In the parking lot, the transition from sad songs to a symphony of cicadas felt almost violent, the rending of two distinct realities. Natch shifted uncomfortably.

“You noticed that, too,” Hanlon said. “You sense things others don’t.” She put her hand on his arm, down near the wrist. “I could tell you saw me when you walked in tonight. No one else did.”

“Every guy in there was looking at you,” Natch said, his attention fixed on her hand, the heat pooling there. “Some of the women, too.”

“But they didn’t see me.”

Though she was tall, she had to stretch up to kiss Natch on the cheek. He could feel himself blushing as he watched her cross the gravel lot.

Returning inside, Natch found Pretty Memphis Boy posted up at the bar, staring at his phone, his set over. Women milled around, trying to get his attention.

Natch, cutting through the crowd, joined him. “That’s the first time Townes Van Zandt has been played in Rhythm & Brews. It was a welcome change.”

“Hey, thanks, man,” Pretty Memphis Boy said. He turned, offering his hand. “Seamus.”

Natch shook and introduced himself.

“So, Natch, how do you know about Townes?” Seamus asked, pulling a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his pocket.

“My mama.”

“Yeah, me too,” Seamus said, lipping his cigarette. Three beers and one stop at the package store later, Natch and Seamus were down at the creek, skipping stones and passing a paper-bagged bottle back and forth. Night smells rose off the water and the silence around them seemed to hold up the moon. As the liquor settled in, they climbed the embankment leading to the train tracks abandoned when Marville began fading from the map. A quarter mile up was a bridge leading toward Missouri and there the two men sat, staining their hands with rust and kicking their feet, sharing stories until they caught dawn eavesdropping. Before going their separate ways, they made plans to grab a beer later in the week, the bond between them set.

The nearest grocery store was down in Union City, across the Tennessee line. Natch, amid his bi-weekly run, rounded an end display and found Hanlon studying a package of bulgur wheat. She smiled when she saw him and put the cereal back on the shelf. “I hate grocery shopping,” she said. “Let’s go explore the city instead.”

There was something about Hanlon beyond her beauty that made Natch want to go wherever she led. He left his buggy in the aisle next to hers and followed her out into the bright warmth of a Tennessee spring morning. Natch heard the day singing with possibility.

Downtown, they walked the length of the storefronts then talked over Mexican food. Her knowledge of music was slim; of art, vast. She told him she had moved to Savannah to study under Lenka Vargas, a world-renowned performance artist. Natch found the name vaguely familiar but couldn’t place it until Hanlon mentioned Vargas’s most famous work, stripping bare and hiking across Siberia alone. He had heard about that on the television.

“Is that what you do?” he asked, wondering if she, like her mentor, worked naked, and then chided himself for such a crass thought.

Hanlon shook her head. “I do endurance work, like Lenka, but her focus was on the physical limits of the body. Mine is more psychological. I test myself when faced with the quotidian.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Boredom is what I work with,” she said. “It’s the one thing that challenges me.”

“Well, I hope you’re not currently being challenged,” he said.

“No,” she said, lowering her eyes. “I’m not working now.”

“If I recall,” he said, nudging the conversation back to Hanlon’s mentor, “Fox News called her a witch. They said it was the only way she could have survived that trek.”

Hanlon sucked in her breath. “Please don’t tell me you watch that.”

Natch sprinkled hot sauce on his rice. “Not on my own,” he explained, “but stop in any ten diners from here to Tucumcari and eight of them’ll have it on behind the counter.”

Breaking a tortilla chip into pieces, she said, “You spend a lot of time in diners?”

“A trucker’s life,” he said.

“It sounds lonely. Like being an artist.”

Natch couldn’t fathom how someone like Hanlon could ever come to be lonely. It was a cruel world in which that could be the case. He tended to believe the cosmic baseline was lawful neutral and it was his aim to keep things on the right side of good. If it was meant for him to ease her loneliness—well, he was willing to shoulder that burden.

Back at the grocery store parking lot they stood at Hanlon’s car, not ready to say goodbye. He wanted to hear more about her life, so vastly different from his of making time, getting the next load, seeing dozens of states and experiencing none of them. Hers was spent chasing some spark, an inner calling, the vagaries of the muse. He found her interesting and got the feeling she felt the same about him. How that was possible, he didn’t question.

Natch’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked out of habit, expecting work. Instead, a text from Seamus. He had forgotten he promised to help change the drive belt on Seamus’s motorcycle. Natch knew the only way for one’s word to mean anything was to stand by it. “I should get back,” he apologized.

“You could ask for my number while you have that out,” Hanlon said, nodding toward his phone. Natch punched in the digits as she spoke them. “Don’t be afraid to use it.” She looped her arms around his neck and pulled him in close enough to smell her lilac perfume.

Seamus was parked in Natch’s driveway, lying supine on the seat of his motorcycle, his feet kicked up over the handlebars.

“Thought you needed my help with that thing,” Natch said, climbing out of his truck.

Seamus sat up, straddling the bike, a pristine Triumph Bonneville. “It was easy,” he said. “Figured maybe you’d want to take her out.”

“It’s been years since I’ve been on one,” Natch said.

Dismounting, Seamus said, “It’s like riding a bicycle. And easier than driving your rig.” He passed Natch his helmet, his leather jacket.

“Wanna ride bitch?” Natch asked, grinning, zipping up the jacket.

“You know damn well I don’t,” Seamus said, holding up his bottle of whiskey. “My date and I are going to sit on your porch and enjoy this weather till you return.”

Natch took it slow through Marville’s serpentine hills but then gunned it back to Union City. He pulled off at the gas station next to the Mexican restaurant and bought a lottery ticket, feeling lucky. He scratched it, matching three, winning five dollars, not worth cashing out. He’d keep the ticket, a token of the day. He zipped it in Seamus’s jacket pocket and headed back.

Seamus had moved from the porch to the bed of Natch’s truck, where he leaned against the rear window, listening to music on his phone. “This small-town living,” he said, after Natch parked the motorcycle and joined him. “There’s not a single fucking thing to do. It’s wonderful.” He was at the point in the bottle where he turned giddy, loquacious. “Any new conquests?”

Cordial and confident, Natch felt secure knowing he could date if he chose, though he rarely did. It was unfair to pursue something when he could have to hit the road for days at a time, and when he explained this, Seamus went into a bit about sowing seeds, carpe noctem. Natch asked why Seamus wasn’t doing as he preached. Seamus held up his left hand, showing off a simple silver band on the ring finger. “Those days are over, my friend.”

Natch strained to articulate the morning. A part of him didn’t want to present the date—was it a date?—for Seamus’s judgment. To someone like Seamus, who had gigged across America, leaving countless beautiful, heartbroken women in his wake, enchiladas and discussing art wasn’t all that exciting, even if Natch felt his pulse quickening thinking about it. He asked instead about Seamus’s wife.

“With her, sometimes I feel like the luckiest sonovabitch on the planet,” Seamus said, lighting a cigarette, taking a drag, then passing it to Natch. “Then sometimes it feels like I could be on fire and she would just sit there, letting me burn, like she doesn’t even see. And I know this makes me sound like an insufferable prick, but being ignored by women? Not something I’m used to. Maybe that’s why she does it, to keep me in my place—I like that.” He laced his fingers behind his head and stared up beyond the trees lining Natch’s yard. “I never thought it’d be for me, but there’s something about marriage, man, something about making something real, something lasting, out of love, that’s pretty fucking special.

None of that sounded like love to Natch, but he kept his opinion to himself. He thought of the way Hanlon had sat across from him, both earlier that day and on that night at Rhythm & Brews, with her attention focused, her interest apparent. He felt sad for his friend and decided he would call Hanlon to ask her on a proper date as soon as Seamus left.

Hanlon accepted Natch’s invitation to dinner and a movie a few evenings later. A storm had loomed in the distance most of the day, and as Natch pulled in front of Hanlon’s house, the sky let loose a spate of rain. She motioned for him to wait and disappeared back inside, reemerging with a leather jacket thrown over her long floral sundress. At dinner, she talked about her art, which still made no sense to Natch. She said she had been working on a performance for a while but feared she wasn’t strong enough to complete it as planned. Natch asked what the performance entailed, and she mentioned domesticity and countering the matriarchal paradigm of her youth. When Natch asked what that meant by that, she said, “Not turning into my mother.”

“I thought your work was about boredom,” he said.

“It’s one and the same,” she said, exasperation in her voice. During the movie Hanlon kept her arms crossed and her legs tucked up beneath her and Natch thought he had made her mad but afterward she suggested he take her back to his place. He asked if she was sure, and she told him never to question a woman about such things.

In his kitchen, he offered her a water, apologizing that it was all he had beside beer. “I don’t do this much,” he said. “Have company.”

“Why is that?” she asked.

“It’s hard to connect when you’re always leaving again.” Natch uncapped a beer but held it without drinking.

“Yet here I am,” she said, with a small smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t get too attached.”

Natch set his bottle down on the table and pulled Hanlon into a fervent kiss. She shrugged off her jacket and worked first the buttons of his shirt, then his belt buckle. They made their way to Natch’s bedroom and afterward, Hanlon dozed with her head on his chest. As he lay listening to her breathe, he considered if this was why he had remained single for so long, to leave himself open for the right person, who arrived in Marville like a miracle. Hanlon was willful and independent and occupied with her art; he didn’t see her getting teary and begging him to stay when she knew he had to go. It was a match like a hand in a glove.

Lightning flashed outside the window, followed by a thunderclap so loud it rattled the glass and woke Hanlon. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” she said, sitting up and smoothing her hair. She glanced at the clock on Natch’s side table. Its face was blank. “Did the power go out? What time is it?”

Natch leaned over the side of the bed and retrieved his phone from his jeans. He held it up for her to see. “Not too late.”

She burrowed back under Natch’s blanket. “I hate being in the dark during a storm,” she said. “It makes me feel so powerless.”

“I’ve got some candles in the pantry,” he said, “but I’m not sure about matches. I’ll look.” He slipped on his jeans and headed to the kitchen, using his phone as a flashlight.

“Check my jacket. There might be a lighter in the pocket,” she called after him.

Natch found the candles, then picked Hanlon’s jacket up off the floor. He had never seen her smoke and wondered why she would have a lighter, but there it was. Something else, thick paper like a business card, was in the pocket. Curiosity getting the better of him, Natch fished it out and struck the cheap Bic to inspect. His heart sank. The lottery ticket, matching three, winning five dollars, that he had forgotten to take before giving Seamus back his jacket.

He stood there staring at ticket, piecing together what it meant, until the metal lip of the lighter grew too hot and bit at his thumb. He cursed under his breath as it clattered to the floor.

“Everything okay?” Hanlon asked, coming up behind him, wrapped in the bed sheet. “What were you looking at?”

“Just an old scratch off,” he said.

“Win anything?”

He crumpled the ticket into a ball and lobbed it into the sink. “No.”

The few citronella candle tins, once lit, cast angry shadows across the cabinets. Glancing around, Hanlon said, “It’s nice like this.”

If he feigned ignorance, he could keep the night going on his preferred trajectory. Carpe noctem, right? Seamus’s own dictum. Lead her back to his room for a reprise kept going till dawn. Her skin against his, the scent of her hair permeating his pillow. Instead he slipped the lighter back into the pocket, zipped it shut, and handed the jacket to Hanlon. “This is Seamus’s,” he said. When Hanlon didn’t respond, he added, “He’s married.”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “To me.” Her face hardened. “I thought you knew.”

 Anger hit Natch so swiftly he had to steady himself by grabbing hold of the table. “How would I have? What are you doing here?”

“And here I was impressed by your nerve,” she said.

The microwave beeped and the overhead lights flashed back on. Hanlon blinked up at Natch. “I never wanted to get married and do that whole thing. Neither did my mother,” she explained. “That’s why she left. She couldn’t stand it, the honoring and obeying. I wanted to prove that I was stronger than her, that I could do what she couldn’t, that I could make a commitment and stay. And it would be the ultimate performance, something more brutal and numbing than crossing Siberia because even in Siberia, the scenery changes. Sleeping next to the same person night after night—no one talks about how difficult that is. No one talks about how boring it is, being a wife, or how lonely. Or how strong you have to be. How do you prepare for that? How can you? I thought I could.” She clasped Seamus’s jacket to her chest and dropped her head. “I’m just as weak as she was.”

Natch held Hanlon’s gaze as he said, “She left, and so should you.” It was a hit below the belt, and it felt good to land it.

To avoid the conversation he was not yet ready to have, Natch waited until Seamus would be gone before heading to Rhythm & Brews. After ordering his whiskey neat, he fed a twenty into the jukebox and searched the digital database until he found the song he wanted, setting it to play ten times in a row. A voice like well-oiled leather began to sing about a woman leading him down through misery and leaving him as low as low could be. Natch didn’t want the music to save him tonight. He wanted it to sear the pain so deeply into his chest that the next time he saw a beautiful, beguiling woman across the bar, he would remember that hurt, and he would wince, and he would walk away.

Shae Krispinsky lives in Tampa, FL, where she fronts the indie rock band, Navin Ave. Her short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Vending Machine Press, Connotation Press, The Citron Review, Thought Catalog, and more. She is currently at work on two novels and finishing up her band’s first album.