A Poem by Sarah Plummer

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

At night our bodies are cathedrals inhabited by godless tourists —

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

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

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

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

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

A Poem by Michael Lee Johnson

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

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

A Short Story by Philip Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You… Resistance?”

The Runner nodded. “You?”

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

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

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

“I remember his rants.”

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

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

“You all right?”

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

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

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

“Two years give or take a few weeks.”

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

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

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

“Where to?”

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

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

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

“I didn’t mean to—”

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

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

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

“I’m tired of running.”

“So am I.”

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

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

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

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

A shot rang out from the darkness. Miguel fell.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I went back to where we lived…”


Scarlet rubbed her cropped hair. “Gone.”

”Hopefully they fled, too.”

“You should know better.”  

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

“Some. You?”

“I miss my mother.”

“Where is she?”

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

“Do you think someone will?”

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

“You too.” Scarlet lay down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just another one.”

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

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

Heavy sorrow weighed down the room.

“Is your father gone, too?”

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

“Do you miss him?”

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

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

“Wish I’d known him.”

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

“You believe that?”

“I do.”


“So was he.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look pretty.”

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

The smile intensified. “You do.”

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

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

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


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

“Don’t worry. I know what to do.”

And she realized this girl probably did.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have. Lara was her name.”

“She disappeared?”

Scarlet’s silence was answer enough.

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

“Many times.”

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

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

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

Scarlet gazed ahead without a word.

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

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

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


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

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

“Believe me, I do wish—”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

She told her how.

“We’ve made it.”

“Not so fast. We’re not there yet.”


“Let’s talk to them first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Runner didn’t reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

Her eyes shot up. “You know her?”

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

“Is she… alive?”

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

The Runner gasped. “Where?”

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

“I’ve got to go there. Find her—”

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

Her expression turned downcast.

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

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

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

Her mother had trained her well.

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

An Essay by Chad W. Lutz

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

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

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

Let’s get started, shall we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great, I thought. Perfect way to start out.

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

All I could think about was the canyon.

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

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

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


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

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

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

He must’ve noticed me massaging it.

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

What Ted said next, I’ll never forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A Poem by Paul Pruitt

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

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

A Short Story by Melinda Keathley

Back in the day…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Freeze! Put your hands up!”

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

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

“Put the gun down!” both officers yelled. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Poem by Julia Ponder

This will not be the last

congregation of sparrows
to gather in the empty winter orchard,

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

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

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

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

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

A Prose Poem by Ace Boggess

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

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

A Poem by Esme Waters

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

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

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

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

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

And I will.

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