A Poem by J.C. Bratcher

If I could harness my hardness,
Buttress the heart to the carcass,
Rare to quiet the harping of harlots,
Hard to hearken how innocence parted,
Concepts of potential, amiss and abysmal,
Eventual grifter, adrift with a hymnal.
Blood of Christ is brought to life,
Perished in harness, dawning of lies,
Avalanche of souls upon the varnish
Take this cross, The Son is martyred.
On this night, death of a son omits the light,
To sledge my nail til flesh divides,
Albatross-fate, a Peter-crown,
Cursed by weight, a king to clowns,
Betrayal of self, a world let down.
Still and yet, the exit’s essential,
Tears for loss, reprieve for a criminal,
It is now the time to gather vision,
Soul is a chasm of staggering distance,
Spanning a bridge to redemption,
I am the plan, two hands to mend it.
Discard the crutch, Man to purpose,
I am no longer reborn,
I am unburdened.

J.C. Bratcher, educated at Cumberland University of Tennessee and participated in a doctorate program studying human behavior at Tennessee Tech University. Several publications in professional journals. Writer of poetry, prose, parable, and aspiring novelist.

A Flash Fiction by Rachel Johanna Darroch

The chair creaks under her weight in a shriek of metal and quarrelsome springs. Wheels whirl across the floor, clicking over the divots in the warped floorboards as she takes her place before the computer screen in grave repose. Hesitance tightens her shoulders to her ears like corkscrews. Her fingers settle over the keys, not quite daring to compress. Every muscle is held in suspension, even though she knows nothing has changed.

The clacking of the keys never comes.

A minute or two later, the chair creaks again, its burden now lifted. She stands, the wheels clicking at her like snapping fingers, telling her to get on with it. This an old dance, now, between her and the chair. Back and forth, like today might be different when it never will be.

The computer screen darkens to black while she moves on to another part of the house to simmer in perennial regret.

There will be no words today.

Rachel Johanna Darroch is a Canadian writer from Kitchener, Ontario. She is the author of several published short stories and flash fiction pieces, including At the End of Indigo, The Paradox, Light Years, Minor Key, and The Advent. She is a graduate of the University of Guelph and lives with her two cats, Archie and Edi. 

A Short Story by Scott Denis McCarthy

Many evenings along the side-road you could hear the crying coming from their back window. In a short time, someone would lift the latch to shut it. The crying was always there, but once the window was shut the noise was adequately obstructed. It was then no longer offensive. It was there but not upsetting in any true sense.

Years before this there was only one real estate business shared between six towns along the immediate coastline within a small strip of businesses by the water, midway between both extreme ends of the settled land. It was only the birthing of community then and so much of the developed land was ugly and the days quite lazy or bloated.

But the estate shop-front was very neat and seemingly hospitable, with clean white paint that did not peel in the winter as the surrounding architecture did. Normally the summer is a bad time for these places. When the weather is too hot or only pleasant or both, people are more content with what they have. We agree that it is easy to live as we are when the days are nice. Many estate agents say instead that summer is the best of times for buying and selling houses. But the old joke states that all the time is the best of times for buying and selling houses if you take estate agents literally.

Along the business strip, two sunburnt men were sitting on wicker chairs on an old balcony, playing cards and smoking. The easterly wind blew the dust from the road and made the air dry and the café tables chalky. The day was quiet but for the intermittent passing of big cars along the road sooting the air with noise and the shop-fronts in fine, hot dust. A young woman was sitting in the shade by the footpath, reading. Her husband was inside, sitting in the estate agency. It was hot, like the world was alight.

The agent was an Italian man, paunch and with small, hairy hands. He applauded the young man’s decision-making and intelligence with great vigour.

‘The place is very fine, sir. It is a very fine property altogether. And the Mrs. – your lady – will like it very well.’

‘We’re happy,’ said the young man.

‘I’m glad for that.’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘We’re happy and we’re secure. We’re all right. The four bedrooms and the little garden are all that we saw and that’s enough.’

‘You have great confidence.’

‘We’re not snobs, you see. We have the money saved but we have very few boxes to tick and are not snobs at all.’

Che palle, you are not snobs. I did not mean that you were,’ the agent said.

‘I said it only as a joke. Only playing.’

The Italian laughed, ‘Always my clients are so clever. Every time I am the stupid one, see? And you knew that the summer is the best time for houses.’

‘I knew that we needed a house with four bedrooms.’

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You are planning, yes?’

‘It will be a good home for a family,’ said the young man, pointing outside the window to his wife sitting under the shade of the awning.

Then the agent was looking at the man’s wife.

‘The bump is very discreet,’ he said, smiling. ‘But it is surely there. You are lucky like young people should be. Undoubtedly, that is how you are.’

‘No,’ said the young man. ‘Not quite yet.’

Porco dio,’ he said, putting his hairy hand to his head. ‘I am talking improperly again. Every time I am the stupid one, didn’t I say so?’

The man shrugged.

‘I can’t talk,’ said the agent. ‘But you will take this house and be very happy. This is a place where one can be quite secure and happy, you agree with as much.’ He was smiling and his lips bounced with the nodding of his small Italian head.

The young couple moved in nine and one half days later.

The air most of the time by the house that season was stagnant and misty over their tin roof; like an insulating cloud wrapping the walls in old, dead breath. In the early mornings, women pushed babies in prams along the path, before the sun damned the day, and made somewhat of a racket by the bench under the big elm tree outside their front-window, drinking coffee from thermos cups. Some of the time the babies were the offenders, but more often it was the women speaking excitedly; new mothers, still alive to the novelty of it all. But the homeowners did not mind. The young lady was always awake and listening and not upset at all.

‘I hope those babies never grow up.’

‘They won’t,’ her husband said, asleep.

‘Morning time is always so hopeful now,’ she said. ‘Babies have no business growing up.’

‘You’re a romantic girl,’ he said, rolling over to her.

And they were trying themselves then, before the working day and before the heat.

There are certain things that are very difficult to do in summer. People are most repulsive when it is hot and when you must love someone in the heat you can almost melt into one another and it can be a very unpleasant thing. You can only try with sufficient passion to overcome the terrible presence of one another. And they tried sincerely to do it.

But the summer passed and the fall was waiting afterwards. It is a time of great expectations. You can believe that promises, even of a metaphysical sort, will animate and fulfil themselves when all of the elm leaves die and melt in the warm rain, naked and alone on the road. You believe it because the leaves and all the shrubbery come back. All season you are watching it die and knowing it comes back and in spring it happens. You are watching it die in the fall but still it is more hopeful than spring because it is lovelier watching death than the rebirth if the rebirth is an inevitability. You see it and feel quite sentimental. And they did feel very sentimental at times.

But fall passes too and winter murders the hope and then spring’s resurrection and summer again. Always and again the hope in fall. Always their hoping and watching the leaves slush in the gutters. Always the southerly fronts afterwards and the wind all through their brick home and the empty bedrooms; the rain on the tin roof and empty and cold; the hours and the years of hands clasped and trying again and tired and empty, empty, empty. Their youth marred by the actuality of things. The time always going and the shape of loneliness etched into the red brick.


One night coming home drunk; scratching at the lock with the key; old scratches all around the keyhole; the taxi driving away, in the rain. And the living room dusty and the hallway dark and quiet before keys thrown on the table, cupboards open and the bottle opened, cap on the table with the keys.

He poured them both a drink.

‘Cheers,’ she said, laughing.

They were sitting in the living room, her sprawled on the couch, him sinking in the old armchair. Rain was coming, hard, down the windows.

‘They are a lovely people,’ she said.

‘Very.’

‘And the little daughter. Wasn’t she lovely, too? What was her name?’

‘Winnie,’ he said, and drank.

‘It was one of those very rare names,’ she said. ‘Very rare like you don’t hear it very much anymore.’

‘What did I say?’

‘Whatever her name was, she was just –‘

‘She was called Winnie,’ he said. ‘Didn’t I just say she was called that?’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I was rambling, wasn’t I darling?’

‘It’s not all that rare anyhow,’ he said. ‘Not really.’

‘O.K.,’ she said, staring out the window to the street. ‘It’s not that rare. You’re right, it’s not really rare at all.’

‘But yes, they’re good folk.’

‘Yes!’ she said. ‘And daughter Winnie – isn’t that how they called her? Daughter Winnie?’

‘I don’t know. I was drunk.’

‘Well,’ she went on. ‘She was just so so so lovely. Just like – huh? What’s a lovely thing she’s like?’

‘She’s a swell kid.’

‘Doesn’t this happen all the time? If I try to think of things like that then I can’t think at all,’ she said. ‘Go on, what’s a lovely thing like Winnie? Anything lovely or nice at all. I can’t think –‘

‘Jesus, what the hell,’ he said. ‘Get something to read or another drink. You’re chewing my ear off.’

‘I just can’t think is all.’

‘It looks that way,’ he said. ‘It does look like that.’

‘You’re doing it again.’

‘I’ll get you another drink,’ he said, finishing his own.

‘I’ll have more ice in mine this time.’

He filled her tumbler to the brim with ice, then the rum and some water. All in the house was quiet. The electric light above the kitchen-counter was humming but it was still quiet all around. He took the past day’s papers and the drinks back down with him.

‘This is a lot of ice,’ she said, drinking, starting again. ‘Oh! Remember when the ice in the pail had gone slush at the party and so they sent Winnie for more from their big ice machine and from the dining table we could hear the clinking of the new, hard ice in the pail coming from down the hall? Clink, clink, clink, that’s what it was like. And she being so little, the pail bigger than her head! Don’t you remember that?’

He went on reading.

‘Don’t you remember when the pail –‘

‘I’m reading the papers,’ he said, not looking up. ‘Can’t you see that?’

‘Yesterday’s,’ she said. ‘All of it is old, old, old; boring, boring –‘

‘Get yourself something to read, won’t you?’

‘I don’t read,’ she said. ‘I can’t read anymore. Our books are too sad.’

A quick gust threw the rain on the window like small pebbles on the pane.

‘Oh, but darling,’ she went on, ‘couldn’t we be drunk together and talk all about that fabulous house tonight and their strange paintings and the big long driveway all lined with little-big trees I didn’t know the names of or –‘

‘Look, now –‘

‘— even the brightness! Wasn’t it so bright and warm in their place? Even with the rottenness outside. Very good bulbs, I was told, but I didn’t believe it,’ she said, stopping to breathe. ‘It was a real adult place. That’s what I was thinking when we were drinking champagne in the billiards room. But we drank slowly, like gentlemen, didn’t we? I don’t even know what billiards –‘

‘Look,’ he said. ‘You’re getting all excited. Look at yourself, you’re all worked up and too excited now.’

‘I do it when I can’t think,’ she laughed. “I’ve had too much champagne and I can’t think at all at all.’

‘And I don’t mean to antagonize –‘

‘Never, never, never!’

‘Would you stop?’ he said, looking up at her.

‘Let’s both not read,’ she said. ‘Let’s be drunk, just like we really are.’

‘Christ.’

‘Let’s ask big drunk questions,’ she said. ‘Like: what’s the loneliest you’ve ever been? Maybe not that one, but even still. And if the answer is sad we can kiss and make it all fine for each other. Put the papers down, would you?’

‘Look,’ he said, putting the paper on his lap, picking his tumbler up from the stand. ‘I found a fellow who’ll sell us that cat you talked about.’

‘Oh, you have!’ she said, standing up, drinking her rum, water, and ice.

‘Sure. Didn’t I just say it?’

‘I’m so happy I could laugh and laugh,’ she said. ‘What sort of a cat? Is it like the really clean and grand ones I showed you before? Or the handsome ones I wanted so badly in the store we walked by that day in the fall?’

‘It’s a cat. The guy said it’d be healthy.’

‘Oh, I don’t even care if it’s the dirtiest, most rascal cat in the whole world!’ she said. ‘I’ll give it one of the spare rooms and spoil it with lots and lots of cat luxuries. Those exist, don’t they?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘A whole room for a cat! That will make it a really really really grand, royal cat, even if it is a rascal breed.’

‘Mm-hmmm.’

‘And if it’s a boy I’ll call him Prince and if it’s a girl I’ll call her Queenie to be very monarchical about it. And we’ll have a nice little time in its palace-room during the day-time,’ she said, thinking. ‘Sometimes we’ll lounge around all day and I’ll become very cat-like with her. But when you get home I’ll be me again so I can be close to both of you.’

The wind was still throwing the rain onto the window and the tin roof in big blows. Under the light of the black lampposts out front the night looked like static on a black, dead television screen.

She went on, ‘But what was I talking about before?’

‘I don’t know. Nothing. We were always talking about the cat.’

‘That’s right. It is such a pretty thing to think about,’ she said. ‘All drunk and I say I can’t think but now, look, all I’m thinking of is the cat and the cat-palace; me and royalty and us three at the end of the day.’

‘I have re-read this paragraph three times now.’

‘Sometimes it’s like we really can have the whole world. I was ashamed by the loveliness of that house tonight and all the luxurious people and daughter Winnie being so lovely. I was ashamed only from jealousy, but that’s still a real shame, isn’t it? But if you think about it, we really can have –‘

‘Hell,’ he said. ‘I’m getting another drink before bed.’

‘O.K.,’ she said. ‘Maybe me too, please. I need to be calmed, don’t I?’

‘Sure. And maybe you do.’

‘Less ice this time.’

‘All right.’

‘Really, though,’ she said, finishing her glass.

‘You’re too damned particular about things.’

Scott Denis McCarthy is a young Irish ex-pat living in Victoria, Australia. His favourite writers are Bukowski, Dostoevsky, and Emily Brontë.

A Short Story by Hayden Sidun

I sank into a worn-out leather seat on an airplane en route to San Francisco. Natural light was absent from the airplane as it flew through the dark sky in the early hours of the morning. Almost every passenger had fallen asleep since the flight embarked in Queens, but for me, tonight was no different from the past six caffeine-fueled nights I had spent in my Manhattan hotel room. It was around the third or fourth hour of the flight that the caffeine wore off, and I finally closed my eyes and slipped into a light slumber. Hours later, the satisfying shaking of the fuselage as the wheels hit the tarmac disrupted my nap. Looking out the window, I smiled as the warm California sun shone through the window and hit my arm.

Luggage in hand, I strolled out of the terminal and took in a breath of San Francisco’s salty bay air, smiling as the scent hit me for the first time in days. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and called an Uber to pick me up from the airport and take me home. After about ten minutes, a spotless white sedan with an Uber sticker on the back windshield pulled up to the curb and came to a halt. The driver rolled down the window as he ran his hand down his long, graying beard and yelled, in a heavy Russian accent, “Uber for Greg?”

I gave a subtle nod and walked over to the car. Placing my hand on the door handle, I opened the door, careful not to damage the door or the car’s opulent white paint as it swung toward me, and stepped into the back seat, putting my bags at my feet. “Thanks, man,” I said to the driver as I closed the car door and listened for the quiet thud it made when it was securely shut. The car started moving after my seatbelt clicked. At least he cares about my safety, I thought as a small grin took form.

My mind wandered as we drove away from the airport. A sense of relaxation and calmness washed over me as I slouched in my seat. I looked out the window and rested my cheek on the palm of my hand. As we got onto the freeway, a short glance at the windshield revealed to me the rolling green hills of San Bruno. My eyes got heavier as I became more comfortable, but I decided it would be best to hold off on that until the journey had come to an end. Sitting up, I folded my hands into my lap and gazed ahead in awe as the fog began to blanket the hills. The fog was familiar, but it has never failed to amaze me, not even after decades of living in the city.

A strange silence had settled in the car, and I was itching for conversation. I could only imagine what my Russian driver thought of me as the Soviet stereotypes that my teachers taught me in grade school came to the forefront of my conscience. Would he be open to conversation? I thought. I rubbed my face and looked at the road-focused driver.

“What’s your name?” I asked. My face became white-hot as I realized that I could answer that question for myself with a simple glance at the app.

He exhaled. “Sergei.” His monotonous voice echoed in my mind.

“Are you from Russia?”

Sergei turned around and glared at me. A deafening silence filled the car like helium in a balloon, and I could only imagine what he would say. “Why do you assume I am from Russia?”

“Um, I thought, you know, with the accent…” I scratched my head as the fear this would be an uncomfortable ride arose within me.

“What about the accent?”

I gulped as beads of sweat formed on my face. I rubbed my neck and let out a nervous laugh. “I’m sorry.”

Sergei groaned and shook his head as he focused his attention back on the road. “I am from Vol’no-Nadezhdinskoye. It is outside of Vladivostok.” Reaching into the center console, he took out a small package of wintergreen gum. I let out a faint chuckle as he unwrapped a single piece of gum and shoved it into his mouth.

“What brings you to San Francisco?”

“I have a new job. It pays well.”

My smiling mouth ajar, I raised my eyebrows and held in a laugh. “Wait…is this your job? Don’t they have Uber in Russia?”

Sergei glanced into the rearview mirror and exhaled as he stared at me with nothing but pure disgust. “Pft,” he exclaimed before muttering something in Russian.

“What’d you say?”

Sergei sighed and smacked the center console. “Damn you! Why do you ask so many questions?”

Wagging my finger, I responded, “Well, you’re clearly not making any effort to make this a comfortable ride. At least one of us should drive the conversation.” I chuckled, but Sergei could only sigh. I suppose I was foolish to believe he had a sense of humor.

“I call an American company on the telephone, and they say they would give me a job if I move to America. This job in America pays better, so I leave the farm to my cousin Vladimir because he would better take care of it than the rest of my kin. I leave Russia—forever or not—to begin a new job as an assistant to some hotshot businessman in a big, triangle building in the middle of the Financial District in a city so big it would make every Russian shit their pants.”

“You work at Transamerica Pyramid? No shit! I work there too!”

He raised his eyebrows. “Did I ask?”

I nodded. Impatient for the ride to be over, I took my phone out of my pocket. Seeing no missed calls or texts from my wife—or any other notifications, for that matter—I exhaled as I turned it off and threw it onto the seat next to me. I looked out the window, noticing for the first time we were back in the city. I looked around, hoping I could find something to do on my own, and childhood memories of going on long car rides filled my mind. When, after a solid two or three minutes, my fruitless search proved unsuccessful, I chuckled and said, “You know, it’s funny. These Uber rides are always so awkward.”

“What is awkward?”

“It’s just—”

“It is just what? Does my accent offend you? Do my stories insult your American conceitedness?”

Throwing my hands in the air, I respond, “Hey man, I’m only doing my best to make this an enjoyable experience for both of us.”

Sergei turned a corner and pulled over. I didn’t know what to think about this pit stop; we were only a few miles away from my house. He turned around once more and locked intense eye contact with me as he said, with the tone of a teacher scolding an unruly student, “Get out.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“You offend me. Get the fuck out of my car.”

“Now hang on a second, I—”

“Get out!” he yelled.

Flecks of saliva landed on my face as I picked up my bags and thrust the door open. I unbuckled my seatbelt and threw it off me as I stepped out of the car, pulling my bags out after me and throwing them on the ground. Standing on the sidewalk, I said, “One star, asshole.”

“Same to you, ublyudok!” he yelled back. I slammed the door and stood on the sidewalk. I racked my brain for ideas about how I would get home as my means of transport slipped away to the next unfortunate passenger. I smiled and laughed as I gave Sergei the finger and watched him drive away. I decided to complete my journey on foot as I turned away from my former driver; after all, home wasn’t too far away.

Out of nowhere, a roaring engine pounded on my eardrums, followed only by a loud crash coupled with shattering glass. The familiar hubbub of bustling traffic on the city streets was disrupted by an endless wave of tires screeching and car horns honking as unsuspecting drivers rushed to avoid the wreck. Some passersby screamed as they ran away, while others walked into the street to catch a closer glimpse at the wreckage. I turned back around in shock, and my heart skipped a beat when I noticed it was Sergei’s vehicle that suffered the awful blow.

I stared at the wreckage as time stood still, and, without a single thought crossing my mind, I picked up my bags and ran toward the wreck. I almost drowned in the sea of spectators holding up their phones, every single one of them filming the scene of the crash. Standing next to the mercilessly-destroyed driver-side door, I glared at these insensitive spectators and, channeling my inner Sergei, yelled, “Fuck off, you animals!” My heart sank as I watched a mere two spectators put their phones away, but turning my attention away from potentially appearing on YouTube, I looked around for something to break the window with. Hearing a clock ticking in my head, I closed my eyes as I bit my lip and punched the window with my white-knuckled fist.

The window shattered, and glass scattered throughout the vehicle. My bloody, glass-pierced hand throbbed as I forced myself into the car and grabbed Sergei by the shirt collar as I checked for a pulse, hoping I would feel something but knowing, in the very back of my mind, I would feel nothing. Thick red blood oozed out of the gaping crack in his skull as water flows down a raging river. Flecks of blood flew through the wrecked vehicle as I shook his lifeless body and screamed, “Wake up!” I couldn’t help but regret that my business degrees failed to prepare me even slightly for a godawful situation like this.

My eyes flung open as I snapped back into reality. Taking deep breaths, I looked around and saw nothing but row after row of airplane seats occupied by passengers waiting to disembark as they looked out the windows, checked their watches, and tapped their feet on the ground. Looking out my window, I saw the deep blue water of the San Francisco Bay shimmering in the morning sun. My head snapped forward as a voice on the intercom announced, “Good morning, passengers. This is your captain speaking. It is now 8:42 AM, and we will be landing in San Francisco in a few short minutes. We have enjoyed flying with you over these past eight hours, and we hope to see you again soon.”

As that announcement came over the intercom, the man sitting next to me tapped me on my shoulder and asked, “You okay, bro?”

I spun my head around and looked at him, and he raised his eyebrows as he stared back at me with puzzled eyes. I looked down at my hands and suit, elated that there wasn’t a single drop of blood on me, and I looked back at him as I rubbed my forehead. “I’m fine,” I said through a yawn. I looked around the airplane in awe, trying to convince myself that Sergei was a mere figment of my imagination.

He gave a subtle nod. “Alright. Just checking.”

I called an Uber to pick me up as I walked off the airplane and made my way to baggage claim. After a few minutes of waiting and watching strangers’ bags pass me on that monstrous conveyor belt, I retrieved my bags and walked out of the terminal, pulling my bags behind me. The bay breeze brushed past me as the salty smell of sea fog hit my nostrils. Sitting down on a cold wooden bench outside the terminal, I couldn’t help but envision my ride home as vivid memories of my dream surfaced.

That’s when a spotless white sedan with an Uber sticker on the back windshield pulled up to the curb.

Hayden Sidun is a high school student and an author of short fiction. Outside of school and work, he is involved in local politics and enjoys writing stories and listening to country music in the early hours of the morning. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.

A Short Story by Ellen Sollinger Walker

I

Full moons were good omens for David and me. One night, when we had started dating, he spread out a blanket in the meadow. We held each other, under a veil of stars, tracking the ball as it floated above us like a bright beacon, like a harbinger of good fortune.

“That’s our lucky moon,” he said, pointing. Two years later we were married, under a full moon.

With David, I felt reborn and alive. He said to me, “Hey, girl, you look so good,” a line he stole from a cowboy movie. On Saturdays in his truck, we meandered down country roads, buying fake turquoise jewelry and cheap Depression glass from back woods thrift shops. 

The feel of his skin under my fingers was soft and warm as kid-glove leather. When it rained, we stayed in, made love for hours, watched three movies in a row, and sipped greyhounds from cracked ceramic coffee mugs.

He had a great talent for charming people into doing things for him. One day, he asked to borrow a garden tiller from a neighbor and next thing I knew, the neighbor was tilling our soil. In a big-brimmed gardener’s hat, David watched, spouting comical stories as he leaned against a pole for sugar peas.

Once, when two bald eagles were circling above our house, he lay with me in the grass watching their graceful waltz on a bright blue dance floor.

II

After one year of marriage, my new job took us to a remote Native American village on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It was then David remarked he had a direct line to the spiritual world.

“When my father died,” he said, “I saw his spirit rise up from his body.”

“I think that happens a lot,” I retorted, not believing him.One weekend, driving through the majestic rain forest on the Pacific coast, we stopped to locate a hidden spring we had read about. Walking a path through fir trees, red cedar, spruce and western hemlock, we searched for the outlet pipe carved into a hill where supposedly, the stream of crystal-clear glacier runoff from Mount Rainier flowed.

“Maybe we’re in the wrong place,” I said after some time, as we walked through the deep, pungent forest, ferns up to our knees, hanging curtains of moss above our heads. But he assured me we were in the right spot. Disappointed in our failure to locate the spring, we headed back in the direction of the car and there, to our amazement, was a white pipe protruding from the embankment, with water flowing out in a clear stream.

“I swear, that pipe wasn’t there when we first walked by,” David said and I agreed. We filled twenty jugs of the magical water, the sweetest we’d ever tasted.

In a serious tone, he said, “The spirits are messing with us.” I was still skeptical.

A few weeks later, though, I became convinced David had an inroad with the supernatural.

I was stepping out of the shower one morning before work when I heard a crash.

“What was that?” I yelled. David had already been diagnosed with a terminal lung disease. Pushing the cannula connected to his oxygen machine into his nostrils, he turned on the light. An antique painting of Mount Rainier had broken its string and crashed down onto the glass dog bowl below it, smashing it and spewing water everywhere.

“Wow, the spirits must be angry about something this morning,” I quipped, combing my wet hair.

I drove to work, through a dense forest of ancient cedars covered with bright green moss. When I walked into the office, my cell phone rang. It was David.

His voice sounded shaky and serious.  “My nephew Danny was killed in a car accident last night.”

“Oh, my God, no,” I whispered. I felt my heart dip like a kite that has lost its air, all breathless and flimsy. Then, I remembered the spirits had sent us a message that morning.

III

David was hospitalized in December. The terminal disease was clogging the delicate membranes of his lungs; the tissues were becoming damaged and scarred. He was slowly suffocating.

He looked sweet in his green hospital gown. A few days before he died, the nurse put him in a recliner like he was royalty, accepting guests. Friends came to visit, old railroad buddies and their kids. The sparkle in David’s gray-blue eyes faded like a chameleon loses color on drab, gray stone.

When all his guests left, I climbed into his hospital bed with him; he had lost so much weight, we both fit easily. As we held each other, the cannula pushed oxygen into his nostrils, and his hands felt cold and lifeless. “Cannula,” we laughed. “Sounds like a tasty Italian pasta dish.”

“Look,” he said, pointing out the window. I twisted my head to see what it was. “There’s our moon,” he said and then in a croaky voice, “our lucky moon.”

He was going to die and no one, not even his doctors or nurses, had told him. So, that night, in his bed, I tried to tell him.

“You’ll be with God soon, you know,” I said, tracing the wrinkles on his hand with my fingers. “You’ll get to see your Mom and Dad again.” What a stupid thing to say. How did I know he would be with God and see his parents? How could I know what would happen to him after he died? And there was still time for a miracle.

He looked at me, dumbfounded.  

In the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was David’s pulmonologist.

“You should come right away,” he said.  “We need to put your husband on a ventilator.” I threw on clothes and rushed to the hospital. The road was lit by the gleaming globe. Are you our lucky moon?  I whispered.

When I arrived, David was sedated and asleep. I said my good-byes to his closed eyes and wept, holding his lifeless hand. Then the ventilator was thrust down his throat and we never spoke to each other again.

IV

David died at Christmastime and, as a result, we hadn’t been able to give each other presents. The gift he never received was a photograph I snapped on our trip to Glacier National Park, reprinted on canvas. Thin slices of glaciers in the process of disappearing were nestled between the crevices of steely mountain peaks. I unwrapped the picture and hung it by the fireplace. Alone in the house now and a widow, I hoped this photo would bring back happy memories.

When I got home from work that night, the picture had fallen off the wall and was right-side up on the floor. I rehung it firmly planted on the hook. The next night after work, it was on the floor again. Disquieted but determined, I hung it on a different hook.  The third night it had remained stationary, but a larger photograph of a hidden waterfall framed in glass had lost its grip and fallen to the floor. It too, was face up, directly below its hook, the glass intact. It was as if someone, had carefully lifted it off the wall and, with great love, set it down. I wondered, Is David trying to tell me something?

A few weeks later, BNSF Railroad, David’s former employer, contacted me by phone. The woman said he had been defrauding the railroad for years, even before we got together, and I needed to repay the $45,000 he embezzled.

I hung up. My brain froze. I grabbed a small pillow from the couch and put it over my mouth. A scream crawled up my spine and I howled as the rage boiled through my body. I could have killed someone. But I was alone, just me and my fury. How long did I scream? Hours, certainly hours. Then, I hurled dishes against walls. The Carnival-glass bowl David had given me shattered into a million small shards; the wine glasses we had toasted each other became dust; the plates for our new home splintered into tiny ceramic arrowheads; the Vaseline glass collection he was so proud of, thousands of dollars worth, smashed to the hardwood floor, firing glowing green fragments into the air. The pile of orange, green, lilac and fuchsia glass looked like the remains of a destroyed kaleidoscope.

I collapsed on the floor, stared at the TV, went to bed, couldn’t sleep. In the morning, I reluctantly went to work.

After work, I walked into the house, stopped in my tracks and gasped. The glacier picture lay upside down on the floor in the middle of the room, like it had been flung, Frisbee-style. The canvas, as if in a rage, had been mutilated with a sharp object, possibly a knife or a scalpel. This time, I was sure it was David. He had carved out the glaciers from the steely mountains that once protected them, leaving holes in the photo like many missing eyes.

V

I talked to a work colleague who was Native American, about pictures falling off my walls. He listened intently and said, “You need to perform a smudging ceremony.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The smoke will wash away dark thoughts and unwanted energy or emotion that clings to a space after someone’s death. David has not yet left your house.”

I agreed to try it. I was ready to try anything. Before the end of the workday, my colleague had given me a bunch of dried sage, wrapped with cotton string and small brass finger cymbals.

That evening, following his detailed instructions, I lit the dried sage like a cigar and walked around my house, allowing the smoke, which smelled like ancient cedar, to float into all the corners of all the rooms. Tibetan finger chimes were also part of my ceremony, their ethereal, heavenly sounds rising to the ceiling with the smoke.

“Please, David,” I said gently, “Please find peace and leave this house.”

The next day, my best friend, Paula came to the house for dinner. I reached into the cabinet where I kept my favorite dishes and there, hidden away behind the plates, to my astonishment, was my unwrapped Christmas present from David. Shaking, I sat down with Paula and laid the gift on the table.

“Wow,” she said.

It was a stunning silver necklace with a cross of bright white opals, each stone luminous and oval-shaped, like a waning, disappearing moon.

Ellen Sollinger Walker self-published a memoir/travelogue titled Just Where They Wanted to Be: The Story of My Amazing Parents (2nd Edition). The book chronicles her parents’ circumnavigation in their own 36-foot sailboat and is available on Amazon. She also writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Ms. Walker’s first career was as a classical pianist and teacher. She returned to school at age 42 and earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. She worked as a counselor and psychometrist for 20 years before retiring and moving to sunny Florida.

A Short Story By Michelle Hasty

May 16, 1951

Her screams could be heard from a mile away, the Rushton Banner reported; the Evening Star claimed it was three. The papers agreed on the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Evers: the couple was “devoted.” Other details were similar between the articles. Vance Evers, a known prankster, left his home in the Rushton River Valley community at approximately 6:45pm, on May 15, 1951, and returned close to midnight. Corrinne Evers sat sewing in the front room, when a knock sounded at the door. She asked who was there, the visitor refused to answer, and she threatened to shoot. When no answer came upon her repeated request, Mrs. Evers fired a 12-gauge shot gun. Mr. Evers died later that night at Murray County General, victim of his own tragic prank, leaving a wife and three children.


Present day

Corrinne Evers stands at the window twirling the wand hanging from the blinds. Warm morning light bathes the sitting room. Five windows look onto the facility’s grounds, and Corrinne walks to each one, opening the dusty slats. She wants them replaced with curtains that can be drawn back or better still, taken away to give the residents a clear view of the back gardens, the koi pond, and hills. This request will need to wait, however, because she is already in trouble with the day shift nurse, and breakfast has not yet been served.


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day nurse

Day/Time:
Thursday, 5/24, 5:00pm

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
stealing, eloping, lying
non-cooperative during interrogation
-refused sleeping pill
-needs reminder of facility policies
-losing cognitive function?

Recommendations:
-better served on the other side?


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night nurse

Day/Time:
Friday, 5/25, 5:55am

Resident of Concern:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
I asked about taking the bread from the kitchen; she says she does not remember doing that or going out back to the pond. She did ask me if I had a nice vacation and if the ocean was warm, so she remembered where I had gone. We talked about how the sand and water are different colors in the Atlantic and Gulf. I like the wide, brown beaches on the East coast, and she prefers the soft white sand and warm, green Gulf.

She read to the group from that paper she gets until it was meds-before-bed time. Mr. Frandall asked where Quito was from the article she read out, and she showed him Ecuador on the map and then did a google earth view of the place. She told the group about how Quito runs through the equator so water swirls the opposite way when you flush a toilet there. After I delivered everyone’s medicine, I came to the desk and did not doze off because I was working on a story for a contest in the newspaper.  Mrs. Evers did not leave her room all night.

Recommendations:
I will keep an eye out for her in case she comes out of her room again. It is possible that she is hungry and that is why she took the bread. Four residents have complained about the new cook. I will offer her some yogurt before bed tonight. I also will remind her of the policy about going out after dark. She has been here for only a few weeks and may not remember all of the rules.


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Cheryl Drake, day

Day/Time:
Wednesday, 6/4, 5:01pm

Resident of concern:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
-stealing, lying, inciting controversy and unrest
-bread in her room—again
-says she is making fish food
-agitated by weather in newspaper (no outdoor activities planned this week)
-read newspaper to sitting room gathering
-political debate ensued: raised voices, elevated blood pressure

Recommendations:
Night staff, watch her. Our residents’ safety is at stake.


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff/shift:
Nan Kelton, night shift

Day/Time:
Thursday, 6/5, 6:10am

Resident of concern: Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
After dinner last night, Mr. Frandall and some of the others asked Mrs. Evers to read another article from the political section. I told Mrs. Evers that I had heard about yesterday’s lively debate. She asked if she had been “banned from reading,” and when I said that she had not, she said, “Good. Everyone, regardless of their age, has a right to know what is happening in the world.” Mr. Frandall participated in the discussion that followed, and when I checked his blood pressure at bedtime, it was not elevated.

Mrs. Evers left her room last night about midnight. (I know that is what time it was because I had just submitted my story for the contest, and the deadline was midnight.) I waited to see what she would do. She had the yogurt container of bread in her hand, and she went out the back to the koi pond. I went to the kitchen windows and watched from there so she couldn’t see me.

She went out, looked up at the crescent moon, and then sprinkled the bread crumbs on the water. She sat on the stone bench and watched the fish come to the surface to eat the bread for about ten minutes. The moonflowers have bloomed, and she stopped at the trellis to smell them. Then she came back in and went to her room. I am not sure she was awake because I accidentally knocked over a plastic pitcher that was on the counter and it went clattering to the floor. Mrs. Evers was barely down the hall, and she should have heard it, but she never turned around.

Recommendations:
I will ask Mrs. Evers about getting up and feeding the fish tomorrow when I get to my shift. Also, re: Mr. Frandall, you might check to see if he is sneaking salt. The cook is concerned about the residents’ salt intake and is sparing. Miss Lister has her own shaker that her grandson brought her. She has been asked not to share, but this could be a contributing factor with Mr. F.’s blood pressure.


At the end of a long day, Cheryl Drake unlocks the door that leads from garage to kitchen and punches in the code before her alarm sounds. Depositing her bag and the mail on the desk, she retrieves an aluminum pan from the refrigerator and checks to be sure the contents have thawed. She cooks five entrees every Sunday afternoon and freezes them so on weeknights it is easy to pull something out and heat it. Landy will be home by 6:00; they will eat at 6:30. That should be plenty of time for Cheryl to put the signs in the yard and compose the email.

The signs are small plastic circles with a red slash through a picture of a dog lifting its leg. A point at the end of the sign sticks into the ground. Cheryl found these on the internet in one search. They arrived in a small yellow package in the mailbox today, with another sign that says, “Thank you for respecting our grass!” This came free with a purchase of five of the little circles. Cheryl places one sign at each end of the grass about a foot from the street. Then she estimates the middle, places one there, and one between each of the remaining spaces from middle to end. Cheryl decides the “Thank you” sign is most effective by the mailbox, positioned in the ground at an angle from the purple clematis vine climbing up the wooden post. She stands at the edge of the pavement surveying her work. Landy will not enjoy having to move these signs when he mows the grass she knows, but she also knows he will not say a word about it.

Cheryl returns to the kitchen and marks a straight line through “signs out” on her daily To Do, then sits to open her laptop. Letting the clinical director’s address autofill after a few letters, she pauses over the subject line. She does not want to give too much away, but she wants to catch Dr. Poston’s attention. With three facilities to oversee, Dr. Poston’s approach is to trust the nursing staff to make most decisions among themselves, and she rarely overrides or questions. Cheryl settles on “C. Evers: concerning behavior,” and begins to compose a description of Mrs. Evers’ behavior earlier that day.

Paranoid and defensive best characterize Mrs. Evers’ response when she entered her room during lunchtime. She told me I had no business being in her room or going through her personal things. I explained that I was bringing her mail, and I showed her where I had put it on the end table next to her Bible and the picture of her family. Consideration of a move to our memory care section may be warranted as paranoia is a common symptom associated with dementia. Cheryl considers citing a source here. She still subscribes to the Journal of American Medicine though she no longer thinks about becoming a doctor, but she is behind in her JAMA reading. The study she remembers is a few years old and could be unreliable now. She does not include the reference.

Nor does Cheryl include the fact that she entered Mrs. Evers’ room uninvited. It was lunchtime, and the older woman returned to find the nurse sitting in her green chintz chair reading newspaper articles she had removed from the Bible sitting on the end table. As Cheryl sends the message and hears Landy’s key at the door, the question that has been forming in her mind all day takes a definite shape: did Mrs. Evers know it was her husband at the door that night? If so, what does that mean for the other residents? Is she dangerous? What is my responsibility here? This last question is the real one, the heart of any matter for Cheryl Drake. What does duty demand of me?

While Cheryl and Landy sit at their kitchen table eating chicken divan, the residents of the Fernlake Care Facility are also having their evening meal. The day staff uses a table separate from the residents, but the night staff disperses and sits at the tables with the residents. Nan chooses Mrs. Evers’ table so she can make sure that Mrs. Evers eats well. The conversation is lively at the table because Miss Lister asks Nan about her vacation, and Mr. Frandall tells a story about picking up a set of false teeth on the beach thinking they were a shell. Mrs. Evers makes a dramatic show of offering her pie to Nan at the mention of the dentures, and the table erupts in laughter. Miss Lister’s salt shaker does not make an appearance.

After dinner, the residents gather in groups to play cards or watch television. Nan finds Mrs. Evers in the sitting room poring over the newspaper. Nan watches from the doorway, pretending to write on her clipboard. Mrs. Evers turns several pages, holds a section up and studies it, then puts it down and rushes out of the room barely noticing Nan, who steps out of her way. Mrs. Evers walks to her room. Nan follows. Mrs. Evers’ door is open a bit, and Nan sees her taking a loaf of bread from her closet. What is this about, Nan wonders, but it is time for her to begin the nightly medication rounds.

When she makes it back to the desk that sits in the center of the two hallways leading to residents’ rooms, it is close to 11:30pm. Nan often spends a half hour or more with some of the residents when she takes their pills to them at night. Mr. Frandall wanted to relay another story from the dentures trip week, his memory jogged by the success of the tale at dinner. Miss Lister asked Nan listen as she recited the Psalm she says each night at bedtime. This part of her job makes Nan feel useful.

The part of her job that Nan least likes is filling in charts on the computer. She is nearly finished when she remembers Mrs. Evers’ agitation over the newspaper. Nan goes into the dark sitting room and is relieved to see the pages just as Mrs. Evers left them on the couch. Nan is supposed to do a walk-through in each room to be sure things are neat, but she often forgets and hears about it from Cheryl in Staff Notes the next day. She picks up the paper and sees that Mrs. Evers was looking at the weather. Cheryl mentioned this. Nan sinks onto the couch. The weather is unremarkable. Sunny to partly cloudy all week, temperatures in the low 70s. What else matters here? Nan knows she is overlooking something. The page contains the daily weather, the moon phase, and a heating and cooling company advertisement at the bottom. Nan thinks about the last time Mrs. Evers went out at night. She had been looking at the weather. Or something on this page. The moon? Could this be what upset her and sent her out to feed the fish? Does she think they need to be fed when there is a full moon? But the moon tonight is a crescent shape. The same shape Nan had seen in the sky when she saw Mrs. Evers outside before. Nan heads back to the desk and sees Mrs. Evers walking down the hall toward the kitchen. Nan follows.


Nursing Staff Observational Notes
Fernlake Care Facility

Staff:
Nan Kelton

Date/Time:
6/18, 7:30am (please note that I have clocked out)

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
I followed Mrs. Evers last night and sat with her on the stone bench while she finished sprinkling the bread crumbs for the fish. When she turned back from the water, she saw me, and her face was alert. She was not sleepwalking.

The moon tells me it’s time, she said.

Corrinne, he calls, and I know I must go, for I have seen the moon.

It is my offering to him, my way of honoring his memory.

Your husband’s?

Yes. I will tell you the beginning, she said.

I think that means she will tell me more in time, but this is what I know now… Mrs. Evers and her husband and their three children moved out to Rushton, Oklahoma, from Tennessee in 1950. A tornado had torn through the town earlier that year, and people were moving away from the city proper because it was a tornado alley. Mr. Evers was a roofer and got hired to work with a company building subdivisions. He went ahead to find a house for the family to live in, and Mrs. Evers went months later by herself with the children on train when he got the house fixed up enough.

Mrs. Evers says the house he had found was out of town a little ways, on a road with almost no other homes in sight, one across the creek, and one about half a mile away. At first she felt isolated and missed their life in the city, but then she said the place started to feel more like home and to show her some of its treasures—that’s how she put it. The creek ran clear and cold, and she and the children would spend hours with bare feet wading and catching crawfish. She made a garden and grew tomatoes and cucumbers. She had a few neighbors, Mrs. Petersen, up the road, and Mrs. Hollands, the preacher’s wife across the creek. Sometimes Mrs. Evers was afraid being alone at home, especially at night because around the time Mr. Evers died there was a thief out in that area breaking into houses and stealing from porches and sheds.

Mr. Evers worked nearly every day, even on Sundays. Sometimes he would not come home until the next night. Mrs. Evers did not know where he went, and when she asked, he would laugh, and tell her that was for him to know and her not to find out. When he did come home, after supper he would grab the last slice of loaf bread or what was left of the kids’ crusts and take the children to feed the minnows. The girls would clamor around him, fighting over who got to be on either side, usually the older two would win, and he would toss the youngest up onto his shoulders. They would head down through the tall grass to the creek and toss bits of bread to see the minnows come up to the surface to gobble the crumbs. Mrs. Evers watched them from the kitchen window as bands of pink light streaked the sky. She could see the children lean into Mr. Evers as they stood on the rocky creekbank. He was a rough man, she said, not given to affection, but he adored his children and attended to them gently. They would stay out till the light was gone, and he would tell them about pranks he played on his boss as bedtime stories.

Mrs. Evers stopped and said she would tell me the rest later, that she needed to go to bed. I will continue to watch out for her.


Cheryl bites the inside of her jaw as she reads the lengthy note Nan has left that morning. Nan’s descriptive story does not mention any concern about Mrs. Evers’ potential danger to other residents. Cheryl wonders why she is the only person at the facility who is able to see the possible harm. She regrets not telling Dr. Poston about the bird argument. It would provide a solid example of Mrs. Evers’ desire to stir up trouble. Yesterday in the sitting room, Mrs. Evers said that a male cardinal is evolutionarily programmed to feed any open mouth in its sight. It will even feed koi like the ones out back, Mrs. Evers claimed. Chaos ensued. Miss Lister became upset at the mention of evolution. Mr. Frandall argued the science, and then everyone demanded to go outside to test the theory. They wanted to pretend to feed the fish and see what the cardinals would do. It was not a scheduled outside time.

Dr. Poston responded to her email by requesting additional observations and suggesting that she call one of Mrs. Evers’ children for their perspective. Great plan, Cheryl thinks, who better to ask than people who have hardly been around her for the last thirty-five years? But her job is to follow her superior’s orders, so she retrieves Mrs. Evers’ file and dials the number listed for Willene Evers.

Willene gives Cheryl little of her time and less information. She talks to her mother every few weeks, and she has not noticed any slippage of memory or coherence. Willene laughs when Cheryl asks about this and says, “Mother? Nah. She always knows exactly what she is doing.” Cheryl does not think it appropriate to ask more questions, especially any about Willene’s father, but after she hangs up, Willene’s flippant answer repeats itself in her mind. Was she telling me more than it seemed?


Fernlake Care Facility
Staff Change Notes

Staff:
Cheryl Drake

Date/Time:
6/18, 6:12pm

Resident:
Mrs. Evers

Behaviors exhibited:
Under Night Staff’s supervision, Mrs. Evers organized a turn about the grounds after dark last night to see moonflowers resulting in the following:

– Hydrocortisone ointment administered to four residents for mosquito bites

-Miss Lister’s knee iced and wrapped to alleviate swelling caused by uneven terrain

-Mr. Frandall repeating shooting star story, blood pressure elevated

Recommendations:
Residents are not allowed out after dark. Mrs. Evers needs to be reminded of the peril she is putting others in with careless suggestions and hapless plans.


Nan reads Cheryl’s notes and the pink post-it attached reminding her to please straighten the sitting room at bedtime. Is Cheryl’s concern that Mrs. Evers is not coherent or that she is too coherent and cannot be easily controlled? Footlights and stepping stones would seem an easy solution to the problem. She will ask Dr. Poston about this in their next conversation.

The next morning Nan enters her last note into the computer, and checks her watch. It is too early to call Dr. Poston. Nan had hoped to have a conversation with the director along with the observational notes she leaves. She knows that Cheryl will read them first. Should she abandon protocol? She decides to leave the form, but adds a note asking Dr. Poston to call her when she has a chance. This way she is sticking to the procedure of noting objective facts, but she can explain more when they talk. Maybe if Cheryl understands the story better, she will stop her campaign to send Mrs. Evers to the other side. It had taken little prodding for Mrs. Evers to tell Nan the rest of the story as they sat together on the stone bench the night before.

One night, Mr. Evers went out fishing after supper. That night he did not take the children out to feed the minnows. Mrs. Evers had heard about the thief striking at a house just down the road, and she had asked him not to go, told him she was afraid, but he laughed and said, “You know where the gun is, and you know how to use it.”

It was a dark night, cloudless, with just a thin crescent moon. She had put the children to bed and was mending one of the girls’ dresses when she heard three quick raps on the door. Ice spread in her chest as she stuck the needle into the fabric and laid the dress in her chair. The sounds at the door came again, this time with a kind of a rhythm, tap tappa tap. Tap tappa tap.  It was not the double, no-nonsense knock of Mrs. Hollands from across the creek, come to borrow thread.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

Silence.

“I said, ‘who’s there?’”

Silence.

“Name yourself and your business or I’ll shoot.”

Silence.

Then tappa tap tap.

A great weight flung itself against the door from the other side and the lock broke free from its catch so only the chain kept the distance between her and the intruder. The toe of a black boot shoved itself in the narrow space. Mrs. Evers was a good shot. As the eldest, with no brothers, she was her father’s hunting companion many a cold morning, and she knew how to handle a gun. She felt the cold metal and smooth wood in her hands, and she acted quickly.

The explosion rattled the windows, but she did not hear the sound. The noise she heard was her own voice, a low, growling, No, recognizing the boot wedged in the door as her husband’s.

Before leaving, Nan goes to the small office where she can have some privacy for the call to Willene, per Dr. Poston’s suggestion. Nan wants Willene’s view included so she cannot be accused of bias. It is an hour later on the East coast. Willene is brisk at first. As I said to the other nurse, Mother can be a pain, but I promise that she is a pain on purpose. But when Nan describes the after-dark outing Mrs. Evers’ organized for the residents to see the moonflowers and listen for the owl, Willene laughs softly and seems to relax. She likes to walk around after dark, always has. When we were kids, after that night, after it happened, we would wake up to her coming back in the door in the middle of the night. It scared us at first, but then it just got to be something she did. She always said my father was prone to wander, but she did her share.

Nan’s scalp prickles with Willene’s words. Last night, in the dark, with the sound of frogs croaking and the spicy-sweet scent of the moonflowers, Nan felt in her own heart Mrs. Evers’ sorrow, her need to make this strange offering summoned by the crescent moon. Now, as she steps from the fluorescent glare of the facility into the bright daylight of the humid June morning, Nan feels questions creeping into the edges of her thoughts. Did Mrs. Evers know it was her husband at the door? Does she feel compelled to honor her husband because she made a mistake or because she succeeded at what she intended?

The next morning Cheryl arrives early for her shift and finds Mrs. Evers straightening up the sitting room. Mrs. Evers’ good morning sounds tired.

Night staff didn’t clean up last night? Cheryl arches an eyebrow.

I couldn’t sleep and was in here a good bit of the night. I told Nurse Kelton I would take care of it.

Cheryl starts to open the blinds. The wand has fallen off one window, and she has to stand on a chair to rotate the short piece left at the top. Mrs. Evers holds the chair steady.

These blinds are terrible. Look at this. Cheryl holds up a finger she has raked along one of the yellowed slats. Her finger is caked in grey dust. We should see about replacing them with curtains that can be drawn back. Cheryl says and steps off the chair.

Or maybe just leave them bare. It is nice to walk into a bright room first thing in the morning.

Mrs. Evers heads off to breakfast, and Cheryl returns to the central desk.

Sighing, she starts fill out a Staff Note of Concern form. This will go straight to Dr. Poston. Night staff needs a formal warning that certain duties cannot be ignored.

Michelle Hasty is new to fiction writing. She has taken fiction and poetry writing courses and most recently worked with middle grades author and writing coach Hayley Chewins. A former high school English teacher, she currently teaches graduate education courses at a small university in Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband and sons.

A Flash Fiction by Philip Redo

It was a big pipe. And it was coated with some kind of cloth. Painted white. As he stared at it he thought that maybe the white paint had been brushed over some kind of adhesive tape or even a gauze. The big pipe turned at 90 degrees into the wall. He thought it would be called an elbow pipe by those who knew about such things. He didn’t. But he couldn’t help but look at the pipe as he swam his daily laps. On each trip across the pool he switched from side stroke to freestyle. He started with side and returned with the traditional crawl. The side stroke trip exposed the right side of his head parallel to the water. Going this direction he couldn’t help but see all the way up the wall that bounded the pool. Towards the ceiling the pipe was easy to spot. Even if you weren’t really looking for it.

He looked at it each time he swam. He couldn’t help it.

Below the pipe hung seven large panels. He had counted them. On each panel were swimming records. Backstroke. Breaststroke. Freestyle. Relay. The record holders were all children. The oldest age group listed was girls and boys between 13 and 18. The youngest group were 8 year olds.

As he swam he would calculate their times against his own. They were impressively fast.

He knew little about swim times. He only knew that these were this particular pool’s record holders. The glory of past efforts by people he did not know. How these times might compare to Olympic times didn’t matter. What he knew for certain was that compared to these times, he was slow. But he wasn’t 13-18 years old either.

As he swam he wondered what exactly the big pipe did. It was clearly part of the air filtering system. Or was it part of the heating system? Are those the same system? He didn’t know. Maybe some sort of vent. Venting what exactly? He imagined that when it was first installed it must have been all silvery and shiny. Like a brand new pipe in the hardware store. Then they taped it up and painted it white to match the walls around the pool. Maybe the wrapping also muffled some noises it might make. He didn’t know anything about pipes. He wondered how long ago the pool had been constructed. The oldest reference he could see was a smallish banner hanging on an adjacent wall from the pipe celebrating a championship won in 1968. 52 years ago. That was a pretty bad year, he remembered from personal experience, as he reached the deep end. He touched the wall. He swam back the other way. In this direction he wouldn’t be in position see the pipe or the names and times that were listed on the wall. Heading in this direction he swam the crawl. Freestyle. Traditional swimming. The way they first teach you as a kid. Face in the water. Up for a breath. Face back down. The entire length of the pool. Up for a breath and then back down.

Swimming was great exercise. Especially for him. He had to exercise. He was not 13-18 anymore. He was about to become a senior citizen. He had received his Medicare card in the mail two weeks ago. It was hard to believe.

At the shallow end of the pool he stopped for a few seconds. He bounced on his toes. He stretched his arms out wide and then he lifted them above his head. Then he kicked himself off the side of the pool aiming for the other side. He examined the names again. And noted their times. “R. Bouchard 24.23”, “K. Chu 21.54”, “M. Singleton 20.37”. He couldn’t fathom how even a kid could swim this same body of water so quickly. Two lengths! 50 meters in about 20 seconds. He had timed himself on occasion. The digital timer attached to the wall would continuously count up both the seconds and minutes elapsed but it did not divulge the hour of the day in which it was happening. It wasn’t a clock. It marked times but not time. He did some calculations in his head, accounting for the fact he had not started his swim with a dive. That would be an advantage. He also factored in his relatively advanced age. The kids were about three times faster and five times younger. “L. Munroy”, “J. Gardella” were their names. It didn’t matter.

The pipe seemed oversized as he went back the other direction. It didn’t seem in correct proportion to the space. It looked to him as if it either had been purposely over built or the wrong size pipe that they decided to make work because it was easier than ordering a new one. But he knew very little about HVAC duct pipes.

It was a strange thing. The pipe caught his eye the moment he first walked into the pool.

Ready to undress and get going with his laps.

It was a big pipe, covered with some type of cloth, painted white.

It looked exactly like the one he focused his eyes on when he had been wheeled into the operating room at the Medical Center. They were about to put him under. The doctors and nurses were milling around him. He was trying to take his overactive mind and put it someplace else. Anywhere else. He stared at the ceiling. At a huge pipe that was coated with some kind of cloth. It was white. He was going to have his heart repaired so he could go swimming.

A NYC native Philip L. Redo is a former broadcaster in both commercial and public radio/tv. Articles of his have appeared in several publications including an OpEd in the Boston Globe. He lives in Maine.

A Short Story by Andy Betz

I packed my Chevy S-10 with guns and ammo, bows and arrows, picks and shovels, flares, tires, tools, how-to manuals, can goods, clothes, knives, first aid kits, medicines, gasoline, propane and butane tanks, silver coins and a box of various springs, Raman noodles, bottles of beer, bottles of Jack Daniels, tequila, beans, beef jerky, camping supplies, toilet paper, ropes and climbing supplies, batteries and hand-held radios, maps, a roll of heavy plastic, a cooler, two lanterns with fuel, and as much water and barbed wire as would fit.

Then, and only then, I departed Atlanta and drove for the mountains taking only back roads.

My goal was to make the North Georgia Mountains by night and establish a defensive perimeter.  By morning, all hell would break loose and everybody else would be trying to escape whatever wrath would befall the stragglers.

Just after sunrise, the shooting began.

I parked overlooking a small town so the sunrise would be at my back.  I heard the gunfire and saw the first fires at the most distant buildings.  The screams could be heard even from my position.  A few rifle shots ended the chaos, but not the crazed exodus on the roads exiting the town.  I didn’t have to listen to the radio to learn the cause or the order of events transpiring.

All of that information was useless to me.  A historian might find comfort in knowing the truth when facing the end of civilization.  I find comfort in remaining mobile or hidden; preferably both.

My maps (roads and trails) are of the TAG area.  At the border of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, the TAG hosts a variety of caves, streams, cliffs, nooks, and crannies in which a man could shelter unseen for as long as his provisions provided, then life off the land afterward.  I had enough on my old truck to last two months, maybe three, if rationed.  I knew of a few caves in which I could drive my truck into and seal the entrance from prying eyes.

I would have to rig a few booby traps and a few decoys to prevent survivors from discovering me.  I wish I had a dog, a German Shepherd or Jack Russel, for company and alarms.  I would have jettisoned the propane and butane I loaded (meant for trade and for starting fires) for the canines and what they offered.

It would have been worth the trade every day of the week, twice on Sunday.

By noon, I found the dirt road leading to where I wanted to go.  Traveling in daylight is dangerous at any time in the backwoods, twice as so today.

However, I did not have the choice. 

Once I crossed the first wooden bridge, I took my car jack and separated a few load bearing beams and watched it collapse.  On foot, a few might still pursue my tracks, but via a car, they had better find another place to go.

I am not much for sharing today.

A few more miles and I dislodged a few choice rocks on the road.  Today, they will offer a choice to people wishing to wheel supplies toward my destination.  After a rain or two, their presence will cause erosion of the road and wash it out.  Even by foot, only the most determined would find me.  By the time they did, they might find more than they bargained for.

By sunset and I found the caves and my first thought.

I kept going to the smaller caverns further ahead. 

If anyone else knew what I know, and in these parts, they most certainly did, they would set up camp here.  The large caverns can shelter RVs and campers and the lot.

They cannot defend them though.

When I finally backed my truck into the small cavern, I took a pistol and a rifle and made my way back down the road to erase my tracks with some bushes I cut to sweep the road.  The wind was picking up and it was going to rain soon so the road would tell no tales.

A few strands of old barbed wire from a downed fenced, tied with more discarded beer cans (to rattle when bumped) and I was ready for first watch.

Then second.  Then third.

It was supposed to be a silent night tonight.

Just past midnight, I saw the headlights of three cars through the trees, up-road from my position.  More were coming.  Within twenty minutes, the parlay of the people turned to gunfire (it echoes it the hills).  I watched a total of seven cars with headlights slowly dim over the next two hours.  Maybe those people tried to keep a calm head and sleep off their differences.

Maybe not.

By morning, I used my binoculars to get a better look.  The cars were rough, but intact, and the camp fires still smoldered.  It took a few more moments to see ten people piled on the roadside.  Two men with shotguns gave a kick to each so their bodies would roll down the ravine into the dense woods.

These two were dangerous and too assured to be this obvious.  If I were part of their party, I would remain hidden and look for movement from the hills.  They displayed no supplies and no qualm about murdering to acquire some.  I remained inside my cave, behind the brush I used to cover the entrance with last night, still, and waiting.  If someone was watching for movement, they would not find mine.

These two, now three, when the third emerged from under a car, noticed the smoke from what must have been a campfire or two back at the larger cavern.  Rarely does the smell of smoke pique curiosity more than now.

With shotguns and rifles in tow, the three got in line and began the short walk.

They never made it.

Before I left home, I outfitted my Remington 742 Woodsmaster with a nice 40x scope and a standard 4 round magazine filled with 180 grain 30-06 shells.

I could miss but once.

My first shot entered the leader’s skull and dropped him instantly.  He was last in line so when he fell, the other two hesitated for a second.  That second was all I required to acquire the first man and hit him square in the chest. 

The middle one did not know which way to turn.  He won the lottery when I missed with the third shot.  I guessed he would retreat to the cover of the cars.  He tried and then thought differently.  When he broke in a full run forward, he was too easy to miss.

I reloaded the rifle and holstered my pistol before moving toward their bodies.

I couldn’t do anything for the ten they killed last night.  The bloodstains on the far side of the cars mimicked knife wounds.  The blood stains in the back seat of each of the three cars came from something much worse.

I guessed I had but a minute before someone came tracking the shots.  If they found me, I would be victim number 14 this day.  I grabbed two of the shotguns and a pistol and ran back to hiding.  By leaving a rifle and their provisions, whoever did come would guess these three died while looting, or at least during the attempt.  The disgust of the cars and the smell from the other victims might turn them away.

If their stomachs could withstand the carnage, they might take the cars and strip the bodies and leave the scene better equipped than when they arrived.

If their brains were made of lesser stuff, they might come looking for me.

I now had more firepower than the ability to use at my disposal.  But use it I would.

Fortunately, the group of six that did arrive (4 men and two women) wore the clothes of vacationers without access to a washing machine.  They vomited from the scene, a few made the sign of the cross, and the rest stripped the bodies of the three on the road.  They even managed to get all three cars started.  By the sounds of the engines and visible oil smoke, they wouldn’t last for long.  The youngest of the four men dragged the three naked dead men and pushed them over the edge into the raving with the rest. 

It wasn’t the most moral disposal of remains, but it was the most logical.  Most likely, word would spread of the corpses up the road a piece, dissuading all but the most inquisitive from my part of the road.  If the sight could not protect me from visitors, the smell most definitely would.

It took the better part of two weeks for the wild critters and bugs to decrease the smell.  Occasionally, one or two people, looking very thin, would use a wheel barrow to carry the recently deceased to my area and properly bury them. 

In essence, where I lived in solitude was now the new “Boothill Cemetery” of Old-West fame.

What this meant for me was no additional worries of accidental discovery.  I went a bit further up the road and gathered berries and set traps for small animals.  I updated my maps and charted water sources, the direction of their flow, and their purity.  With each foray, I refilled my empty bottles and the single bucket I brought.  With each foray, I chanced someone would be waiting for me at my cave so I dispersed my provisions into 3 interior locations and 3 exterior locations.  Each cache, wrapped in a plastic tarp, with the food, water, a few tools, and a single weapon lay ready for an immediate withdraw should I find myself on the run.

By September, there was a chill in the air and leaves began to fall.  Cover became a scarce commodity.  By October, I saw the last of the funerals from the large cavern.  I did not recognize the lady, but I did the men with her.  They looked raged.  I saw a few shotguns in tow.  I also saw three sets of bare feet.  It took nearly four hours for the men to dig the pathetic, shallow grave they laid the women to rest in.  I set my binoculars down and removed my cap in respect.  I saw their best effort that day.

Perhaps, it was time for them to meet me.

The first snowfall came early and I had just finished insulating my cave the best I could.  My original provisions, not parceled in hiding, were almost at an end.  I still had the alcohol and the propane.  Maybe I could offer them in a trade?  All I had to do was design an opportunity for first contact with my neighbors.

By what I guessed was Christmas Eve, I saw a single young woman walk the road toward the graves.  She prayed over a few, but left a note on the rocks covering the last grave.  She placed a yellow painted rock on top of the note, turned around to scan the hills, and began her walk home. 

I waited three days before I made a midnight run to retrieve the note.  To help fool the girl, or anyone else, I left a similar blank sheet of paper in its place.  I even took a circuitous route back to the cave, should I be tracked.

It was all for naught. 

She was standing at the false entrance to my cave.  I created this illusion to trap intruders in a much smaller version of what I call home should they prove hostile.  I could wait them out or burn them out (if need be).  Today, all I had to do was ask her to come out.

“Come out with your hands up” was my only order.  She complied and exited with both arms upward and palms facing forward.  He coat was threadbare and her shoes did not match.  I had the shotgun pointed at her when she spoke softly.

“We are in need of your help.”

Then, she fainted.  I had to carry her into my cave and seal the entrance with a few timbers and the weight of my truck.

I laid her on my cot and began checking her for wounds and diseases.  To the best of my knowledge, she was malnourished and hypothermic.  I could not build a fire with the front entrance sealed, so I used my only bottle of butane to light my camping stove and provide heat.  I boiled some water and dropped in a bouillon cube for taste.   If she came to, the beef jerky and a few boiled beans would be hers.  I gave her my wool blanket and moved to watch both her and the entrance.

Then I waited.  Then I read her note.  It said what she previously said.  I returned to waiting.

It was morning before she awoke.  She did not scream or move about when she saw me with my 12 gauge.  All she did was smile.  I pointed to the “soup” and the jerky and made the motion to eat.  She sat up and kept covered while eating both.  I didn’t press her when she finished.

I didn’t have to.

Ann, she introduced herself, said she was sent by her father to find me.  She called me the Caretaker.  When I asked why, she said it was obvious.

“That day my family walked here when they heard the gunshots was not by accident.  We wanted to do a bit of exploring before the ugliness came to this part of the woods.”  She let that sink in while she adjusted the blanket.  “We saw what you did that day.  Father told me to look to the hills and not the men on the road.  He is, I mean was, a police officer before he retired.  I was to remain far enough back so as not to be seen, but to warn the rest if you did not do what you did.  I saw the muzzle flash from this cave.  I didn’t know it was you, at first, but I knew you took care of those men.  Thus, the name, Caretaker.”

Now it was my turn.  “You spoke of needing my help.  What kind of help do you need?”

“Father told me not to spend so much time searching for you.  That is until last week.  Our radio is still working.  We have heard of those who are sick are coming.  They will soon overwhelm us.  Father says then they will infect us.  From what the radio reports, it is not their fault they became infected, but it is our duty not to become so.  We have some supplies, but what we need most are firearms, ammo, food, and clothing.  Can you help us?”

“How do I know any of this is true?  This could be a ruse to lure me out in the open?  Why should I trust you?”

She picked up the cup of my “soup” looking for a few remaining drops.  I did the same with coffee back when I had time to let my mind wander, forgetting I already finished my coffee, forgetting about the world and all of its problems.

“I have no proof with me.  However, if you come with me, you can meet Father at the large cave.  Listen to the radio and make your own decision.  Until you do, I am at your mercy.  You can kill me now; I know you have the ability.  Or, you can do the right thing and help.  Remember, once the sick finish with us, they will come for you.  Maybe not immediately, but from what the radio says, the sick are like locusts.  They will find this place.  I did and that’s all the proof you need.”

I fed Ann then clothed her to withstand the cold December wind.  She said her father taught her how to shoot, but I was not yet ready to arm her.  I informed her I would go to her camp and speak with her father.  Ann could carry one of the cached supplies that was on our way.  I would carry the firearms and ammo.

By midnight, I heard the broadcasts from her father’s radio and designed a plan with him.  He would send Ann and three of her brothers back to my cave to arm, eat, and eat again before returning.  To help, I gave Ann the keys to my truck.

“Let your brothers ride in the back with the supplies.  Distribute it to everyone as you see fit.  I have more elsewhere.  We will meet there if all goes poorly.”

“Caretaker, where will you be?  I want to be with you.”

I figured it was her mother that the brothers buried that day months ago.  Ann’s family died that day.  I never had an inclination to be in that position of caring for others, watching them die.  Ann’s father saw a few of the supplies I brought for something special.  His face revealed his understanding.  I didn’t need to tell him.  He would tell Ann if I couldn’t.

I took enough to lace the road leading to the main cavern with enough booby-traps, punji-sticks, single shot shotgun triggers tied to strings, shotgun shells buried just under the ground positioned over a board with a nail on the primer, metal springs ready to launch a bundle of rocks, and finally, a few sections of thin ropes strung both high and low in the woods to trip or decapitate mobiles who needed to be slowed down.

Then I waited.  I am always waiting.

But not for long.

The sick may be physically problematic, but by no means mentally impaired.  Some walking in pairs, some alone, one was even riding a bicycle.  The rest either pushed shopping carts with a few supplies or walked with wheelbarrows loaded with something important enough to walk with.

I fired the first shot.

Then the next 29 from my Romanian SKS.

I had 10 of these magazines loaded just for this type of contingency.

I dropped only the vanguard of the invasion.  The rest soon arrived in vehicles.

I quickly retreated to the next stage.

I climbed the hills and began firing with my Remington.  No sense saving the 30-06 ammo for the only gun using this caliber.  When I finished, I left the rifle so as not to encumber me on my next dash.  Being healthier than the sick, being armed, and knowing the landscape, I had the advantages.

During my next extraction, I retreated to a wooden bunker of fallen trees and my full propane cylinder and pump 12 gauge.  I opened fire with the shotgun before I opened the valve on the cylinder.  I then ran into the woods.

The first vehicle moving through the propane field ignited it exactly as planned.  The car and its occupants burnt quickly.  The remainder of the invaders halted in retrospect and began to flank the road, oblivious to all of the hidden traps.

By my count, who remained numbered a few dozen, but between the noise and the fire, more would come.  All I did was purchase a few days of time.  Even victory would come with a price-tag of eviction. 

Many of the sick fell prey to the traps in the woods.  Eventually, even the most insistent retreated from whence they came, evidently to regroup.  I found Ann’s family packed and ready to depart from the large cavern.  The brothers were already setting fire to anything they could not bring (it wasn’t much except for their broken-down RV and the salvaged remains of three bloody cars). 

We all rode in my truck back to my cave.

Formal introductions aside, I offered all I had to the five of them, for I had now thrown my lot with them.  We fought a few more skirmishes with more of the sick while we still had the advantage of a defensive position.  However, and there always is a however, by the time mid-January rolled in, we had to roll out.  Ann bid farewell to her mother and others buried near the road.  We dug-up the remaining supplies and each of us carried our share.  Ann and her Father road in the truck while her brothers and I walked. 

Starting with half a tank of gas, maybe two weeks of food, maps detailing nothing in the direction we decided to travel (West), and a few good firearms and ammo, we began our trek.

The last radio broadcast from the truck indicated most of civilization was damaged beyond repair, looters thrived in the towns and streets, the sick owned the cities, and the six of us began living our lives one day at a time for as long as possible.

I had but a single day to prepare for today.  I hope to make the most of it.

Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 30 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 28 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.

A Short Story by Joshua Hill

He woke up everyday to go to work at a reasonable hour. He brushed his teeth, combed his hair and drove an economy car to an office building. His life was fairly hum drum. His job consisted of documents, numbers, and Microsoft Publisher. The pay was enough to afford a small unit on the third floor of an apartment complex. The buildings of which were situated around a green area that surrounded a pond. There was a fountain that would go off in the summer. In the winter, the pond would freeze over, and the families that would normally go on walks around it would return to their homes.

He loved the pond. It was perhaps the sole reason he had chosen the apartment on the third floor. There was a window that faced the water, and be it summer or winter he enjoyed watching the pond change with the seasons. In Autumn, the leaves would turn a brownish auburn and fall gently on the surface. In the winter, snow fell on the water slowly crystalizing into ice. Every evening upon finishing work, he would sit on a wooden bench, and stare out at the pond. The bench he sat on was engraved with the words “In memory of Sylvia.” Sometimes when he sat he would think of Sylvia. What kind of person must she have been? Did she enjoy the pond as much as he? Did she too, love watching the seasons pass over?

He loved her name. In his life, he had never come across someone named Sylvia. This was a name of an artist, or a poet. Someone who wore large scarves in the winter. She was probably from somewhere exciting like New York.

Sylvia loved opening the windows of her apartment on hot summer days on the upper east side. She loved records, and took great pleasure in placing the needle on the phonograph. She would listen to classical music, her favorite being Gabriel Fauré, and her favorite song being “Après un rêve.” She would play the record and the notes would gently trickle down to soothe the people below.

What had brought Sylvia to this pond? What had brought her so far away from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast? Could it have been that she desired the quiet to write her own great works of poetry? Perhaps the pond gave her a sense of the serene that New York could not provide.

She had come originally to visit family living here, and she had seen this pond. She had fallen in love with the tranquility it provided. She had imagined the kaleidoscopic colors of the leaves changing and falling over the water. She had written a poem that was beautiful, and then let the paper take off on a stray gust of wind. This was a poem just for this place. She had immediately planned on moving to be near the pond. Her life in New York no longer suited her. She had told her publisher simply that she was “inspired.” She had packed her belongings in a bright red suitcase and journeyed back. She needed to be near this place. She took a red eye flight and arrived as sun glistened through the windows of the airplane. She walked with a confident stride as she wrapped one of her scarves around her long black hair.

“Her hair, must’ve been black” he thought.  As dark as night, with a distinctive shine. A shine that was natural. She was the kind of person who just had natural shiny hair. Hair that fell down over her shoulders, in a way that would be accentuated by her elegant scarves. She had taken a taxi from the airport holding a small black notebook brimming with poetry, ideas, and drawings of her lovers. He imagined the warmth of her touch and the smell of her breath. She was a person who smoked cigarettes, yet had sweet smelling breath all the same. Something about her breath always felt comforting. Like a warm blanket, a souvenir from a faraway home. 

She gripped her black notebook as the taxi wound down the streets taking her to the pond. The taxi was taking her home. The driver was unaware of how sacred his mission was, for him it was another fare. However, for Sylvia he was an honored guide fulfilling her destiny. Sylvia looked outside of the taxi window. It was raining and the water droplets made a sound of music as they pitter pattered on the windows. She closed her eyes and imagined the pond, the blue water, the cascading leaves, and the ubiquitous sense of calm. As the taxi pulled up to the complex, she kept her eyes closed. She exited carrying her red suitcase, and walked towards the pond. She sat on the bench. The bench that would one day become “her bench” he thought. She let a rosy smile cross her lips as she looked upon the water. She felt tempted to immediately draw out her little black notebook. To write a poem, to write about how she felt. Yet, she did not. She stayed frozen in awe of the beauty. She looked at the water, she felt the wind on her face. She smiled a deep, peaceful smile, and faded away.

He opened his eyes and took a moment to reflect on the disappearance of Sylvia. He looked back towards the pond. The pond that had given him a sense of belonging for as long as he had lived on the third floor. Rain gently began to fall on the surface, and he got up to slowly to return to his apartment.

He felt the raindrops gently hitting the pavement. The wind passed over uttering the whispers of those he had never crossed. That night as dark filled the air, he heard the poems of a faraway place too beautiful to exist on paper. Poems that would only ever exist falling gently with the seasons, over the pond.

Joshua Hill is a writer, cartoonist, and poet from Colorado.

A Short Story by Germán Mora

With her forced, sweet voice, Marisol tells Jesus he’s a great lover.  Lying on a second-hand bed with a hospital blue sheet draping her naked body, she says that this has been the best fuck she’s had in years.  He turns toward her, gives her a little smile, and nods.  He silently prays not to have caught anything from her but turns ashen at the realization of just having broken his oath – the one thing he promised his wife he would never do when he left her with his baby daughter fifteen months ago.  The plan was simple:  He’d go to Phoenix, where he’d get a good job working with his cousin and save some money to bring her and the baby over to Arizona.  Instead, he now sits at the edge on a filthy bed next to a prostitute who has absorbed the summer smell of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – salty, oily, and putrid.

Jesus throws on a canary yellow shirt and slips on his underwear with its inner pouches, one on each side, sewn in by his wife so he can hide in each of them five twenty-dollar bills folded into squares.  He peers inside his gray socks, where he’s storing the rest of his savings – eighty dollars in all, split equally between them.  They’re there, so he slides his feet into the socks, finishes getting dressed, and says thank you in Spanish to Marisol.  On his way downstairs, deflated and somber, Jesus wonders whether he should offer his regret to Rafa for not having being proper with his wife, but when his friends turn their heads toward him, Jesus rewards them with a thumbs-up and a strong smile. 

“I hope you had fun upstairs,” Rafa says with derision, and his words make Jesus feel small.

“Nothing like a good lay to end a week of hard work,” Antonio says in his fake Sonoran accent, lifting his beer in celebration.

His words pounced on Jesus, who has wanted to slam Antonio for wondering aloud about him this evening.  Antonio whines that Jesus is too skinny and too young for construction work.  When taking a piss earlier in the evening, Jesus heard him saying that he, Jesus, kisses himself in the mirror after seeing his pretty reflection.  Yes, pretty was the word he used.  All of them laughed, and Jesus imagined him enacting his words by hugging his compact, barrel-chested torso and kissing the air with his serpentine tongue.  I’m not one of those, Jesus thought, and to prove it, he strayed upstairs to screw with Marisol.  Jesus wishes he could whisper this to Rafa so he could understand.  Jesus suspects Rafa would.  Whenever Jesus has fucked something up at work – letting the cement go dry, nailing the wrong beam, or protesting like a jerk – Rafa would place his hand on Jesus’ neck and ask him to do another task.  “You’ll learn.  Just take it easy,” Rafa would say.

“She almost gave me my money back once she saw this,” Jesus says, grabbing his crotch.  He then winks and forces a laugh.

“Who would have guessed that Hondurans are such stallions?” Antonio asks.  He claims to be from Mexico, but Jesus recognizes his real accent – southern Honduran, like his own.  Antonio has said Mexicans get better chances than everybody else, and Jesus suspects he’s right and surmises that’s the reason behind his shamming.

“I’ve been in this business for a while, and let me tell you something:  Hondurans ain’t what they say,” Doña Juana declares in her Nicaraguan accent, slamming an empty shot glass on the table, a wooden box that used to contain something useful.  “This skinny boy is talking bullshit.”

Jesus sits next to her and feigns being serious by studying her squinty brown eyes, framed by unruly black eyebrows that match the color of her unkempt hair.  Jesus throws his arm over her broad shoulders, and with a grin, he says, “We’re not all like your husband, and by the way, you just stole forty bucks from me.”

“What you’re talking about, boy? I’m no thief!” Doña Juana says, shaking her head.  “I barely break-even with those deadbeat girls.”

Doña Juana looks like someone in her late forties and not thirty-four as she says.  She’s fond of wrapping her short, burly body with tight shirts and short mini-skirts that make her broad legs look like an upside-down, thick stump poorly cleaved with an ax.  She refers to her middle-aged prostitutes as girls, and Antonio contends that by some conservative accounts, Doña Juana has more experience than the other three girls combined.

“You break even?” Rafa asks in his Sinaloan accent as he sets his warm beer can on the wooden table.  “That’s bullshit!”

Jesus noticed that Rafa’s mood had changed earlier in the day.  Rafa was atop a ladder when he let loose of a bucket full of copper rods.  The rods almost hit Antonio, who was below him caulking a window sill.  Antonio yelled that Rafa was getting weak in his old age, a complaint Jesus had heard from others in the squad.  Rafa calls himself a veteran of his trade, and his weather-beaten skin proves it.  Doña Juana, who knows him best, insists his working days started when he was old enough to carry a shovel.  Now that he’s turned fifty, Jesus thinks, he might just be tired of carrying it around.

“The girls bring only drunks like you to my bar,” Doña Juana replies.

Jesus looks around, realizing that the bar used to be the combined living and dining room of some past family – with its seating areas, each consisting of four wooden boxes, surrounded by four to five plastic, dingy white, outdoor patio chairs, probably passed along by so many owners to be beyond the point of calling themselves second-hand.

“They bring customers only?  That must be why they have to clean your filth,” Rafa says, putting his hand on his forehead.  “Don’t they pay you rent too?”

“The girls would have to pay for that no matter where they live,” Doña Juana counters. “I’m doing them a favor, if you ask me.”

Jesus beams a forced smile, having heard this before.  Soon after deciding to go to Phoenix, he and his extended family borrowed the five thousand dollars needed to pay a coyote for help with crossing the border, money he’s still repaying in $300 monthly installments.  After trekking through the desert and making his way to Phoenix, Jesus griped to the coyote about having been left with a sip of water and a bite of food for the ten-mile hike across the desert.  “You’re here now, aren’t you?” the coyote said to him.  “I did you a favor, so stop bitching about it.”

Jesus’s tongue is now sharpening itself against his canines at the prospect of lashing out at Doña Juana’s false tales of doing any favors for anyone, but he reins in his tongue and says nothing.  He feels it’s unbecoming to test his fate.

“I bet you say the same thing to your husband, perhaps when he’s on all fours cleaning up puke,” Antonio says with a grin, lifting his finger in the air, as if he were piercing a vapid idea floating above him.  “I’m doing you a favor, honey,” he adds, mimicking Doña Juana’s raspy voice, damaged from years of smoking.  “It’s all for your health.”

“What can I say? I’m a sucker,” Doña Juana says, lifting both hands in the air as if she were a priest in the midst of a sermon.  “Sadly, useless fuckers like you take advantage of good Samaritans like me,” she adds with a thick grin.

“A good Samaritan?” Rafa asks in disbelieve.  “What’s next?  Comparing yourself to Mary Magdalene?”

“Since you mention it, my friend,” Doña Juana says while nodding, “I should be sanctified by the Pope himself for the hard work I’ve done for this community.”

Doña Juana has seduced city workers into coming to her brothel to dispense advice to her customers.  A few weeks ago, a young gringo suggested in his thick accent that grasping some English words eases the burden of landing work.  Doña Juana elbowed Jesus and pushed him toward the gringo, who passed Jesus a colorful pamphlet with pictures of brown kids with crooked smiles crouching over a book.  Above them, it said in Spanish, “Free English Classes in Your Neighborhood.”  Jesus held the pamphlet with hesitation.  Doña Juana snatched it, flipped through it, and pointed at a bolded entry: “Saint Brigid Catholic Church.  Saturdays.  4 to 6 pm.”  Jesus decided to start attending without telling Rafa after Doña Juana insisted on it.  “Rafa has nothing to show for it, so why are you following him like a puppy dog?” she said.

Now in the bar, Jesus stands up, thrusting his warm beer can into the air and loudly proclaiming, “A toast for Doña Juana, the patron saint of the whores and all their useless fuckers.”

The men sitting at the other tables cheer, and Jesus smiles in delight.  He scans the room, looking for more approving faces, but his gaze stops at Rafa, who glares at him while shaking his head in slow motion.  Although Jesus feels secured within the cocoon created by Doña Juana’s brothel and Rafa’s protection in this part of town, he wonders whether he would be better off somewhere else, in a calm place far from the commotion of this part of town, a place where Jesus could make more money than is needed to pay his loan.  Jesus even told Rafa two weeks ago he had heard from other construction workers that there were others like them in the suburbs getting better jobs.  Rafa discouraged him, saying that he would be paying more rent in the suburbs so it would be a wash. 

Now Jesus wants to say he’s sorry to Rafa for dismissing his thoughts.  “Life’s too short, Rafa,” Jesus says instead.  “Just lighten up.”

“Well said, Jesus,” Antonio chimes in.  “We’re here to have fun, not to think.”        

“One more beer, Rafa?” Jesus pleads.  “I’ll pay for it.”

“You’ve already thrown enough money away for one evening,” Rafa responds, and then directs his gaze to Doña Juana.  “She should be the one buying us beer with her cut of what you just paid upstairs.”

“What else does the Mister want?” Doña Juana asks, bowing her head as if she were having a royal audience.  “Would your Eminence want me, perhaps, to let you and your loser friends stay here for free?”  She then leans forward toward Rafa, placing her elbows on the wooden box.  “Or maybe your Eminence could give me the honor of allowing me to wipe his holy ass?”  She leans back and gives him the finger.

“You’ve never picked up our tab, even though we’ve been entertaining you with our conversation for all these weeks,” Jesus says to her with the sincerity that only a newcomer could possess.  “It’s only fair.  We’re providing a service too, you know.”

She laughs so violently that the buttons of her tight, plaid shirt almost burst.  She places her sweaty palm on Jesus’s cheek.  “I like people like you,” she says.  “Cute and dumb.”  She resumes her laugh, sliding her hand from Jesus’s face to grab her drink.  “You should work here.”

“I knew it!” Antonio shouts.

Jesus feels a tsunami of heat rising toward his head.  He realizes his smile has disappeared, so he wills his facial muscles to contract, only to discover that they do it with hesitation, the same hesitation his entire body is offering, as if it were about to go on strike.

“Leave the kid alone,” Doña Juana orders.  “He has a lot to learn from me.” She glances at Jesus and says, “Maybe we can make some money together, perhaps using those pretty lips of yours.”

Antonio nods and says, “I sure can see you working upstairs.”

His words leave Jesus speechless.

Earlier in the evening, Jesus had suspected it was stupid to go out tonight, particularly with Antonio, whom Rafa used to recommend when contractors – or White Knights, as Rafa called them both for their skin tone and the color of their aging vans – needed another set of hands.  Rafa now recommends Jesus when the White Knights descend on their neighborhood, Highlandtown.  He started doing that ever since Jesus told him about getting married at age seventeen once his girlfriend got pregnant with his baby girl.  “It was what was expected of me,” Jesus explained after Antonio quizzed him about marrying someone he barely knew.

“That’s all that you can think of,” Rafa barks at Doña Juana. “How to prostitute others so you can make money. It’s disgusting.”

“Your babbling stopped being cute just about half an hour ago,” Doña Juana says with a tight smile. “You need to calm down, or I’ll throw your sorry ass out!”

Rafa mutters something back at her, but stops mid-sentence.

Jesus interjects, “We’re just tired of busting our asses for nothing.”

“Well said, Jesus,” Antonio slurs.  “We should demand more money.”

Jesus smirks at those words.  A few weeks back, after seeing a sign pinned on a bodega’s board asking him and others not to accept less than ten dollars from the White Knights, Rafa implored Antonio and Jesus to band together.  Antonio blenched, his body bulky and clumsy, and mumbled under his breath, “I can’t.”

“Yes, you should,” Doña Juana coos at Antonio, mocking his fake accent.  She then lets out a hearty laugh that practically shakes the table.  “These good-for-nothing drunks won’t do it.”

Antonio’s face becomes ablaze with anger at being found out.  Jesus has never seen him like this, even after Rafa stopped giving him praise.  Every morning, Antonio goes out with them, and when the White Knights don’t pick him, as if he were yesterday’s news, he displays no emotion.  He just stays there, waves at Rafa and Jesus, wishing them good luck, and strays away, searching for other opportunities.

“We’re not like your whores!” Rafa barks.

“Really?” says Doña Juana.  “Didn’t you beg me for work when you arrived in Baltimore?”   She then leans forward, adding, “I remember you saying ‘willing to do whatever around here,’ or was that bullshit?”

Rafa turns his gaze to Jesus, who tries to appear normal but nonetheless feels bad for Rafa.  Jesus thinks he should have known better than to cross Doña Juana.  The first time Jesus met him at the bus station in downtown Baltimore, Rafa told Jesus not to trust anyone, particularly White Knights, who may stiff him once the work is done.  He said it was pointless to argue with them or to go to the police – just learn from it.  It’s just fate.

Tonight, it seems Rafa hasn’t learned much because he stands up, staring at Doña Juana with a murdering look, shoves his chair out of the way, and marches toward the bathroom.

“Oh! How delicate,” Doña Juana derides. “The mister’s mad.”

Antonio seems to ignore her, gazing at his beer instead.Doña Juana places her rough hand on Jesus’s and waves him in with the other.  Jesus leans in, and she whispers, “Don’t let them drag you into their shit.”

Jesus leans back and turns his gaze toward Antonio, who’s still brewing silently.  Jesus grabs his now empty beer can and clinks it against Antonio’s.  “One more?”

Antonio’s red face has faded away to unveil its typical caramel color.  He clinks his beer back against Jesus’s.  “Sure.”

“I’ll get them,” Doña Juana offers, waddling her way to the bar.  She says something to her husband, who then rushes to the kitchen.  Rafa emerges from the bathroom, and Doña Juana calls for him.  She goes to the kitchen, and Rafa disappears behind her.

Antonio tilts his head toward Jesus and narrows his eyes.  “Was she good?”

“Who?” asks Jesus.

“Marisol.”

“Oh.”  Jesus considers the question for a moment. “Yeah.  Of course.”

“Of course,” Antonio repeats with a smirk.  “Did you like it?”

“What?”

“Never mind.” Antonio runs his fingers through his hair and leans back against his chair.  “Where are our beers?”

Jesus stares at Antonio.  “You’ve slept with her?”

“Who hasn’t?”

Jesus throws his arm over Antonio’s shoulder and asks him with a smirk, “Was she good?”

Antonio turns his head toward Jesus, who catches a blast of Antonio’s leathery scent.  Jesus smiles at him but then feels Antonio’s gaze sweeping over his face.  “Why?  Do you want me to show you how to do it?”

The words jar Jesus, who removes his arm from Antonio’s shoulder.  Jesus then creeps away from Antonio, who looks into Jesus’s eyes as if he were telling him that he found Jesus’s question, if not Jesus himself, disgusting.

Rafa charges out of the kitchen, marred and stomping hard, heads directly for the door, and storms out of the house.  Jesus and Antonio follow him outside.  It’s only four blocks to their house, heading east along Pratt Street, but the frigid air of this February evening tightens Jesus’s muscles and slows his pace.  He’s a few steps behind Antonio, keeping a measurable distance from him.  Rafa is still seething, and Antonio keeps telling him to let it go.

“What happened?”  Jesus asks, the cold air stabbing his lungs.

“We need to do it tomorrow,” Rafa announces.  “When they come and offer us work, we all have to ask for ten dollars an hour.”

“But they could go elsewhere,” Jesus counters.

Jesus wants to tell them it’s idiotic to expect that the White Knights would pay that much.  He had to leave Phoenix because there were so many people asking for work that contractors could offer six dollars an hour and get enough hands in the air.  Jesus asked his cousin where there might be less competition, and he told Jesus to go east, where he had a trusted acquaintance – Rafa.  On this cold evening, Jesus also wants to ask Rafa why, of all months, he had to pick February, when there’s the least amount of work.  Instead, Jesus says nothing.

“Once they drive all the way into the city,” Rafa responds, “they won’t waste their time going to another place, and there won’t be many people looking for a job on a Sunday.”

“I’m with you, brother,” Antonio says as he gently elbows him.

Both of them slow down and turn to see Jesus, their faces beaming with anticipation and intoxication.  Jesus gives them a little smile and nods.  Antonio and Rafa smile back and bob their heads simultaneously.  Antonio steps forward, rests his hand on Jesus’s shoulder, squeezing it slightly, and bellows out, “United will never be defeated!”

Jesus grins, puts his hand on Antonio’s shoulder, both looking as though they were about to start dancing at a quinciañera, and repeats, “United will never be defeated!”

Both laugh.  Antonio throws his arm on Jesus’s shoulder, nudging his body toward Antonio’s and making his head bow under the pressure of his arm.  Antonio playfully grinds Jesus’s head with his knuckles.  “This kid will be all right,” Antonio yells to Rafa, who is almost a block away, staggering to their home.

Jesus feels a warm fluttering in his heart.  He hugs Antonio and says, “You’re drunk.”

“Yep,” responds Antonio, who then releases Jesus and starts ambling up the empty street.  Jesus follows him a step behind, grinning all the way to their home.


The row-house that Jesus now calls home, one that he detests, is similar to Doña Juana’s, at least in size and layout.  It differs in that every room is cluttered with foam mattresses, each covered with second-hand sweaters and winter coats that serve as both blankets and outfits for the nine people who live in the house.  After opening the door, Jesus slinks upstairs to the room he shares with Rafa and Antonio, passing through the stink of tobacco and alcohol that comes from the dormant bodies lying on the mattresses.  In their room, Jesus leans forward to grab a toothbrush from his backpack, only to come across a small, blonde Barbie doll, handed down to him last month by a tall woman living outside the city in a beautiful brick house with a faulty chimney that needed urgent repair before the arrival of winter.  He pulls the doll out of the backpack and places it gently against his heart, knowing that he left Honduras to look for better opportunities as much as to escape the responsibilities of being a father and living with a wife for whom he has no feelings.

“Is that for your girl?” asks Rafa.

Jesus glances over his shoulder and sees Antonio plop onto his mattress.  “Yes,” Jesus whispers soft enough for Rafa to hear but not loud enough for Antonio to ridicule.

“And for your wife?”

Jesus looks away.  He feels small telling Rafa he’s better off without her.

“What happened in the kitchen?” Jesus asks Rafa, glancing at Antonio, who snores with the roar of a great critter.

Rafa sits on the floor, his back leaning against one of the walls. “She thinks I’m fucking up your future.”

Jesus crawls toward Rafa and sits next to him.  “Why?”

Rafa sighs and rubs his eyes with his hand.  “She has plans for you.  She said working for the White Knights is not the way to go.”  He folds his arms, hugging his body.  “She also said my days as a construction worker are almost over.  Getting old.”

Jesus nudges Rafa’s leg with his.  “She was pissed off, so she was trying to get into your head.  What does she know about anything?”

Rafa stares at the doll that Jesus left lying on his mattress.  “I suppose,” he responds with a brooding tone.  “Time to sleep now.  We have work to do tomorrow.”


The next day, Jesus and his comrades head north along Highland Avenue, carrying their backpacks, full of gloves, candy bars, and a plastic bottle filled with tap water.  They are still a bit inebriated and had only instant coffee and a stale piece of bread for breakfast.  Not many people are walking or driving on this February morning, and the alcohol has not worn off enough for his body to register how cold it actually is.  As soon as they turn on Fayette, Rafa reminds everyone about the plan, which Jesus believed earlier today was just the result of last night’s intoxication and scorn.  He thinks Rafa will reconsider, once he sees others at the corner waiting for work, but it is only the three of them today.  They stand motionless at the street corner, dropping their backpacks next to a stop sign.  The cold air gradually invades their bodies, draining any desire to talk and lifting the fog that cloaks Jesus’s memories of the money spent last night:  almost a full day’s pay.

“For what?” he thinks.  “A headache and a regret?”  He understands he needs to recoup the money for his wife, but just for a moment, Jesus thinks of not sending any.  He then pictures his daughter.  Unlike the image of his wife, foggy and foreign, that of his child is always alive in his mind.  However, he suspects he may not be a good father because once his daughter was born, he realized he would rather spend time playing soccer than changing her diaper.

A muddy van finally pulls in, and two bearded men step onto the street, wearing overalls and equally dirty jean jackets that cover their over-sized bellies.  Jesus wonders about the thinness of their outfits, particularly in this weather.

One of them says in broken Spanish, “You three.  Seven dollars.  Six hours.”  He motions his index finger in the air to create an imaginary circle, adding, “Back… afternoon.”

Rafa shakes his head and counters in English, “Ten dollars an hour.”

The men from the van look at each other for a second, confused.  Then, they both respond in both English and Spanish, “No, no…. seven dollars.”

Rafa puts his hands in front of himself with his palms facing the men, spreading his fingers as wide as possible while repeating in English, “Ten, ten, no less.”

The two men from the van exchange some words between them that Jesus can’t understand, but their expressions have turned from confused to tense.  The one who speaks broken Spanish turns and says, “Seven dollars hour.  Only two.”  He then points to Antonio and Jesus, while the other man points to Rafa and waves him off.

Antonio stares at Rafa with an emotionless expression for a second.  He turns to the two men and asks for eight dollars.  The White Knights exchange looks with each other and then nod.  Antonio grabs his backpack and marches toward the van.  Rafa turns his gaze toward Jesus, who then looks away.  Antonio, who now is near the van, yells to Jesus in Spanish, “Let’s go.  It’s cold.”

Jesus considers his request, feeling a lump trapped in his belly.  He sighs, hoists his bag up onto his back, and strides by Rafa, not wanting to exchange any words or looks with him.  Antonio squeezes by the front seat and sits in the back, and so does Jesus, who can’t help looking through the window and seeing Rafa, who is on the sidewalk, staring at them with a surprised look.

“He’ll be alright,” Antonio says.  “His turn to wait for us.”

Jesus wants to shut him up but chooses to remain quiet.  For a brief moment, Jesus wonders if he could jump out of the van and join Rafa, but he tells himself that he can’t because Antonio and the White Knights will be very mad.

“You speak English?” Jesus asks Antonio in Spanish.

The White Knights climb into the van, and Antonio asks him in English if they’re having a good morning.  They mumble something Jesus takes as a yes.

“Learning,” Antonio whispers to Jesus in Spanish.  “Doña Juana helped me.”  He looks out as the van chugs along, passing by boarded-up houses.  “We can’t depend on Rafa forever.”

The van heads west, rolling through a maze of dilapidated buildings.  Antonio elbows Jesus and then discretely points at the White Knights, as if telling him to pay attention to his next move.  With a syrupy voice, Antonio tells them this is a great van, the best ride he’s ever had.  The driver nods and lets out a little smile.  Jesus turns to look back, hoping to see Highlandtown, but now it’s more of a memory than a distant object.  He looks through the other windows.  Everything is unfamiliar.  He fidgets on his seat.  The image of Rafa’s somber face weighs on him, and even though it’s stifling, Jesus suspects he’ll eventually defeat this familiar feeling, if nothing else, by the firmness of his faith in fate.

Germán Mora is a native of Bogotá, Colombia.  He is the author of over thirty scientific articles and has a PhD in biogeochemistry.  He lives in Baltimore, where he serves on the faculty of Goucher College, teaching students to be better stewards of the natural environment and takes creative writing classes with some of his own students.

A Short Story by Emma Merchant

Cars passing under the Kansas City junction of highways sang together a beautiful harmony of engines and tire squeals, while bright fluorescent lights lined the ceiling of the tunnel and bounced off cars all the way through to the other side. Many of the speeding drivers lived there and traveled the same route every day, but others were only experiencing it for the first time. Among the newcomers were eight-year-old Rebecca and her father, coasting in a small, burnt-blue Subaru on their way through towards Denver.

“What does J-C-T mean, Papa?” Asked Rebecca, pointing towards a large traffic sign.

“Junction. Like, ‘conjunction-junction, what’s your function?’” He responded in song, remembering the silly tune he taught his daughter during her first Grammar class.

Before the hectic city, they had driven through long stretches of highway sided by old, shabby neighborhoods which appeared to dissipate further with every gust of wind. Rebecca had asked her father what was wrong with the houses, and who could possibly survive in a building so thin and small. He took a few minutes to digest the question before answering her,

“Many people cannot afford to fix up the house every time something breaks. And if they can’t afford to fix things, they surely can’t afford to buy a whole new house. Does that make sense?”

It hurt Rebecca deep down when he said that, reminded her of their own home in Florida– the one they were leaving behind. The home she had grown up in with both parents, to which no future home will ever compare since her mother left them for another man. It would just be the two of them in a house, and the thought made Rebecca nervous in a new way. She couldn’t quite place what it was until she remembered that her father would be working in an office. Full-time. What was she to do all day while he was gone? School in Denver would only go until 1:30 p.m. on most days–according to her dad.

“A junction is an overlapping of streets, highways, train tracks, or other transportation. See? We just went under and over many other roads and now we are crossing the river.”

She looked through the window at the passing city around her. They had moved through the thicket of traffic and into a dark, industrial side of downtown, made of stained, damaged, burnt brick structures that cast an ugly shadow, making it appear to Rebecca as though the streets were buried in soot. She could not see the ground through the darkness of the shadows, and she wondered how people living in Kansas City could see anything. Did they move here to start over after their mom abandoned them, too? Does anyone ever stay in the same place for their whole life? Would her mom ever come back to them?

Rebecca’s dad interrupted her thoughts again, saying

“See, kiddo? The river divides Missouri from Kansas, but Kansas City continues through both!”

She looked out ahead of them and the winding road began to stretch open on either side, exposing soft, rolling hills with pleasant grass and even some wildflowers. The clouded sky began to slowly part and reveal the light aqua tableau behind. It immediately felt like a different place. But they had only gone a short distance, and were still in the same city. Rebecca was baffled at how different she felt now that they had left the darkness of downtown. All the way through Florida and the southern Midwest, Rebecca had not noticed such a drastic difference in one city, in such a short period of time. She drifted into absent thought again, wondering if this view through the windshield would remain for the rest of their journey; if this is what she had to look forward to in the new place she’ll call “home.” She didn’t know very much about Denver, other than it had no beaches but many mountains. Her father wouldn’t stop talking about the mountains and the many trips and adventures he had planned for them. Hikes and boat rides and journeys together, where they could bond and become a two-person family of their own.

“I see, Dad. I like the Kansas side better.”

She glanced at him, how he gripped the steering wheel gently but firmly–the same way he held her hand, and she felt a knot form in her throat. Her eyes stung and she swallowed.

“I love you, Dad. I can’t wait to get there.”

Emma Merchant was born in Washington State and has spent her life exploring the world. Many of her stories are inspired by fond memories of traveling.

A Poem by Julia Haney

I squeeze sea urchin spines
from my sister’s palm,
diving wine dark
pain
to the breaking
pinhole
beneath her skin where
cities unfold,
new language
sparks,
green stars press
against space.
here,
her eyes are pinwheels
and the shore is
a horse
galloping towards
what will be will be.
here, I am grass
underfoot
I am eucalyptus
decaying
just a hymn
to sharpness
you cannot pierce
without a supple landing place
for the shrill,
nocturnal cry,
for the breaking open—
for the sea star.

Julia Haney is the Editor of Digital Content at Ovia Health and the Editor of Fiction & Poetry at Thalia, a magazine dedicated to celebrating creative writers and visual artists. Her poetry was selected by Mass Poetry to be featured on the Boston T and has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, in video poems by the artist, Morgane Richer La Flèche, and in a recent collection entitled, A Lemon Invitation.

A Short Story by Max McCoubrey

Claire made her way through Merrion Square toward the entrance of the National Gallery. The day out was a well-deserved break from her responsibilities at home and, as she neared the impressive building, a flush of freedom warmed her face. It felt as if she’d escaped from jail. She walked along the granite ramp, through the grand columns, and, once inside, she reached for a copy of the gallery map.

She’d spent many hours lost in wonder, roaming the halls of the gallery, admiring Irish masterpieces, Italian Baroque, and Dutch masters. But Claire was on a mission to see a particular painting. She’d watched a documentary about how artist Gareth Reid won the honour of painting Graham Norton’s portrait, and she wanted to view it for herself. She found room twenty-three on the gallery map and headed in that direction.

Claire made her way into room twenty-three and, in the exact moment that she saw Graham’s portrait, she also saw a man standing in front of it. There wasn’t any part of him she didn’t recognise. There in front of her were the long legs that had wrapped themselves around her, the arms that had held her when sobs of shock racked her body, and the lips that could deliver the sweetest kisses she had ever known in her twenty-nine years on this earth.

As if he could sense her presence, he turned slowly toward her and away from the portrait. The years fell away as he searched for recognition.  Finally, it came.

“Claire,” he said softly.

A flicker of a smile fought its way from the corner of his mouth and tried to make the journey to the centre.  His eyes registered shock.  She let his once familiar name fall.

“Leo.”

The name jumped from her lips and waltzed into her heart as if it had always been there, which in a way it had.  It had been so long since she had entertained it and she was surprised to find that its use sent a sprinkling of warmth thru her like a lit firework on route on its sky journey to light up a million dark places.

Another visitor to the gallery, an elderly lady, intent on seeing Graham Norton full on in centre tapped Leo on the shoulder and said, “You’re masking my view of Graham, dear.”

Leo took two steps to the right and even though that brought him nearer to Claire he made no attempt to greet her warmly.  He stood awkwardly and remainted silent.

She cleared her throat.

“I saw you on Graham’s television programme a while ago, you played beautifully.”

He didn’t answer. She thought he looked well.  The scarf around his neck brought out the blue of his eyes and his black frock coat gave him an illusion of mystery. She remembered that his sartorial elegance always made him an imposing figure and marvelled at how mature he had grown in the years since she had last seen him. He still had a preference for black shirts and black jeans.

“Yeah, I’m on a clock,” he motioned to his wrist which didn’t have a watch on it. “I promised Graham I’d look in on his portrait and I’ve done that so….”

“Of course.” 

She watched him walk away, pull the big white door open and her eyes stayed with him as he pressed the button on the lift.  When he had disappeared, she stood looking at Graham’s portrait for a long while. Lost more in remembrance than the present. She eventually wandered away and went in search of the William Orpen painting of Count John McCormack.

She overheard a little girl ask a question.

“Who’s the man in the statue at the front?” The little girl was looking out the window.

“That’s William Dargon,” the lady pointed to it. “The people of Ireland would not have this lovely gallery if it wasn’t for him.”

Claire was still lost in thought. She was thinking of piano man and the day he had come to audition for her late night gig.  After he had wiped away all competition and secured the booking, he had not thanked her. Instead, he had set his boundaries.

“I’m just here because I need some new equipment,” he had said emphatically.

She wasn’t sure if this was honestly or rudeness, but she listened anyway and forced a smile. She was tired. She had to take what she could get, attitude or no attitude.

Playing pop or popular music was ‘selling out’ in his opinion and he played it only to save the money the philistines paid in and then he’d run away as fast as he could with all the jazz lessons he could afford and a Hammond organ with vibrato, reverb and harmonic percussion.

She tolerated the derision night after night until one time when she was tired and hungry and fed up waiting to be paid and she suggested he leave, or else hand back some of the money as a protest.

“Couldn’t do that,” he said sarcastically, “that’s the only reason I am here.”

Claire tried to push back the memories but they grappled with her and won. Now, mentally, she was in the car beside him as they drove to Limerick.

“It’s not Borris on Ossory.” he said exasperatedly. “It’s Borris in Ossery, don’t you know anything?”

She had been relaxed beside him for once and was telling him a funny story about their last piano player fixing their car when the fan belt went in Borris, by using her tights. 

He was missing the point of the fun story.

“It’s a medieval Irish kingdom which existed from the first century until the Norman Invasion in the twelfth. Do you understand that?” 

He changed gear and stole a glance at her to make sure she had heard him correctly.  She had not spoken for the rest of the journey.

Claire brushed her hair away from her face and for no logical reason began to smile at the memory.

She heard the little girl’s voice high above the whispers of the public viewers. “What’s a turret?” and immediately Claire knew she was talking about Ireland’s favourite painting, “Meeting on the turret stairs” by Burton.  She waited for them to leave and then alone in the room stood in front of the painting and reflected on it.

A moment of unrequited love captured in talented brush strokes. She heard a noise.

Leo was standing with the gallery map in his hand. “The guy who painted it…”

“Butler. I know”

They stood together aware of a strong vibration. 

“Time has been good to you,” he finally whispered.

His voice brought her to a faraway place. The rasp in it always had attracted her, but today, it held a power over her too.  She remembered how once it had made her feel safe.

After a show in the midlands of Ireland in the mid-winter, during a storm ,they had packed the car  with their three encores ringing in their ears  and Leo , deciding he would drive for the first hour of the journey home sat into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key.

Nothing.

He turned it again.  Again nothing.

His voice was a flat as the battery.  “Did you leave the interior light on?” he said accusingly.

She opened the door and took out her overnight case.

“Tomorrow I’ll call the AA,” she said. “I’m staying here, you figure what you’re going to do and we’ll meet whenever you have done that.”

She encountered his stony face again, at the reception desk.  She was looking for a room.  So was he. The receptionist told them she had only one double left. Claire booked it and he followed her wordlessly.

“You can use the bathroom first,” she said throwing her bag on a chair by the window and turned on the muted television.  The light was like that of a silver moon.

He said he wanted to apologise for being rude and told her he had a lot on his mind. He felt he had a vocation and had, after much deliberation decided to enter a seminary.  She felt a salty tear cascade from her eye and bunji jump to her shoulder.  It was closely followed by others and they were even more closely followed by sobs she found difficult to control.  If she could have saved her privacy by bolting out the door, into the car and driven to Dublin she would have but she was trapped.

He was staring at her with disbelief in his face and she was mortified.  His shock was apparent. He was not the only one who had not expected this reaction.  Instinctively he reached for her uplifted face and comforted her.

What had followed next was the unforgettable part. She blinked and marvelled at how the painter had captured the longing in the eyes of his models.

She shifted her gaze from the painting to Leo.  She saw in his eyes an expression that told her that he had lived a lot since that night the best part of a decade ago. Those blue eyes were wiser now.  They had seen a lot of life. He had made adult decisions and leaving the seminary was one of them. “I had some bad experiences. It wasn’t what I thought it would be” he was all he was prepared to say.

“Could we start again please?”  He moved behind her and looked over her shoulder “I would love to begin again.”

She turned around and looked straight at him. His face was so famous now. His music sold in millions. She looked at his familiar fingers. 

“You’re so well known,” she pushed a stray hair away from his face.

“That wasn’t what I thought it would be either,” he kissed her fingers.

She took her hand away, reached for her business card and pressed it into his.  “All my contact details are there,” she pointed to the list of information under her name. “This was an unexpected meeting so you may need time to think.”

“I don’t need time to think.” He looked closely at the card. “I’ll be in touch first thing in the morning!”

“Enjoy the painting,” she whispered and left him alone in the room.

Claire walked into café to calm herself with a cup of tea and, even though she didn’t notice him, Leo had followed her and was standing by the stairway, the fingers so familiar were putting her details into his phone.

Max McCoubrey is a freelance writer living in Dublin Ireland. Her background is in show business and she often draws on her experiences in her stories. Her work has been published in Qutub Minar, Pioneer Magazine, Ireland’s Own and Little Gems.

A Short Story by John Sheirer

They had been hiking for half an hour when Ben stumbled over a root hidden under a layer of leaves. He lunged forward and caught himself by grabbing his sister Beth’s shoulders.

“Holy shit, Ben!” Beth grumbled as she staggered but managed to keep her much larger brother from falling. “Walk much, doofus?”

“Hey!” Ben said through a grimace. “Mom said I reached all my developmental milestones faster than you did.”

“And you’re going the other way faster, too,” Beth replied. “But, seriously, you okay?” she asked as they both stopped to regain their balance.

Ben held a nearby tree as he flexed his right leg. “Nothing three or four operations won’t cure.”

Twenty yards ahead on the trail, Alex and Kelly, their spouses, stopped their lively pace through the autumn New England woods. Alex turned and shouted, “You guys all right?”

“Just fine!” Beth said, waving. “Keep going, honey. We’ll catch up.”

“No you won’t,” Kelly called out with a laugh. “It’s okay. We’ll see you at the car.”

Alex and Kelly always walked ahead of Beth and Ben during their weekly Sunday afternoon hike. Their visits to various trails in the area had become such a ritual that they even hired a babysitter to watch Ben’s toddler, Monty, while they hiked. All four were excited for the day when Monty could join them without whining and needing to be carried after ten minutes.

Ben sighed. “Yeah, okay,” he called ahead to their faster soul mates. Then he spoke softly to his sister. “Those two are in such great shape it makes me ashamed.”

Beth laughed. “Tell me about it,” she said. “Alex gets up an hour before me to exercise each day.”

“No kidding?” Ben responded. “Kelly waits until after work, then runs for an hour on the treadmill.”

“We’re pathetic, aren’t we?” Beth asked. “Early forties going on seventy.” They both laughed.

“We couldn’t be too pathetic if we convinced those two to marry us,” Ben said.

Beth replied, “What do they even see in two broken-down farts like us?”

“It sure isn’t beauty or money,” Ben replied.

“Must be our personalities,” Beth said with a fake smile.

They resumed walking. This time, they had enough room to walk side by side on the widening trail. If either one stumbled, they would have no sibling ahead to catch them.

After a few minutes of silent hiking, Ben’s knee loosened up, and their step quickened. Sweat glistened on their similar broad foreheads. They even closed the gap behind Alex and Kelly by a few yards.

“Speaking of personalities,” Ben said between deep breaths, “did you visit Mom this week?”

“Yeah,” Beth replied. “I went Wednesday instead of the usual Tuesday. Meetings all afternoon on Tuesday.”

“I went before work on Monday,” Ben said. “It was nice to spend an hour with her in the morning. Her room gets good light.”

“Was she surprised when you showed up?” Beth asked.

Ben laughed. “Yeah. She wondered if I got fired. I told her that people were allowed to be late for work now and then if they’re visiting their mother in the nursing home.”

“I’ll bet I can guess what she said about that,” Beth said.

“Okay,” Ben replied. “On three. One, two, three—”

“Then you should visit more often!” they sang out in unison. Then they shared a dignified, understated high-five. Alex and Kelly turned, laughed, and kept walking.

“Did she say, ‘like you sister Karen’?” Ben asked.

“No,” Beth replied, “but I’ll bet she was thinking it.

“I wish I could visit as often as Karen does. I’m sure you do too,” Ben said.

“We just don’t have the time that she does,” Beth said.

“I confess to being jealous that she can work from home,” Ben said. “I don’t actually want to work from home, mind you. When I’m home, I like to forget about work.”

“Me too,” Beth replied. “And I’d get so fat with such easy access to my personal chocolate supply. But it does give her a lot more time to visit Mom than we have.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It’s hard having the best sibling ever.”

“People overhearing that comment might think you’re bitter and petty,” Beth said.

“I am not bitter,” Ben said.

“And only a little petty,” Beth added with a chuckle.

“Well, sure,” Ben said. “And Karen knows we love her.”

“It’s been hard since her divorce,” Beth said.

“She told me that she’s glad she didn’t have kids with him,” Ben said.

Beth lowered her voice. “Don’t tell Karen, but I never liked that turd. She deserves much better.”

“Let’s get her on Match.com,” Ben suggested. “Not quite yet, but soon. She’s almost fifty”

“But she’s definitely not showing her age, unlike us. Maybe she’ll find a guy who can keep up with her,” Beth said.

They slowed their pace, giving up on catching the speedsters ahead of them.

“You’ve got a bug,” Beth said, pointing at her brother’s beard.

Ben slapped at this face with quick, staccato movements.

“Let me,” Beth said. They both stopped as Beth reached up to her brother’s face and flicked the bug away.

“Thanks,” Ben said, smoothing his beard.

“You’re welcome,” Beth replied as they started walking again. “You can repay me by coming to visit me when I’m in the nursing home one day.”

Ben laughed. “I’m older. I’ll be there first.”

“Just by one year,” Beth said. “You never know.”

“We’re lucky,” Ben said. “Those two …” he pointed to Alex and Kelly. “They’ll outlive us by a decade easy. They’ll take care of us when we’re old and feeble.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Beth mock protested.

“Tell me you haven’t thought about it,” Ben replied.

Beth hesitated, looking deep into the woods. “Okay, sure I have. I’m terrible too. But I would never say it out loud.”

“Maybe we should,” Ben said.

“Should what?” Beth asked.

“Say it out loud,” Ben replied. “We should talk about this stuff sooner or later.”

“Yuck!” Beth said, a pained look on her face. She pointed to the side of the trail. “I’d rather drink out of that mud puddle over there.”

“Beavers probably peed in that puddle,” Ben said.

“I don’t care,” Beth insisted. “Drinking beaver pee would be better than talking about getting old and going to a nursing home.”

“True,” Ben said. For a moment, they were quiet. Only their dragging boots and heavy breathing rose above the ambient forest sound.

“Do you have one of those thingies?” Ben asked.

“Thingy? What thingy?” Beth replied.

“You know,” Ben said. “Instructions for what you want done if you end up brain dead or something. A living will.”

“I guess we are talking about this,” Beth said.

Ben raised both hands above his head as if surrendering to a greater force. “I don’t want to either, believe me,” he said. “But we should.”

“There’s no water near here,” Beth said. “So, no beavers to pee in the puddles.”

“Lots of squirrels, though,” Ben said. “With these dry leaves, they’re loud as bears.”

They walked in silence again. Step, step, step. Breath, breath, breath.

“A bear attack might be okay,” Beth said. “Maybe we’ll die quick.”

“Best way to go in a bear attack is quick,” Ben agreed.

“Don’t want to hang on if a grizzly bear chews your face off,” Beth said.

“Grizzlies are brown bears,” Ben said. “We have black bears in New England.”

“Smarty pants,” Beth said. “Brown, black, grizzly—doesn’t matter. They all bite hard.”

“Yeah. Dad was smart about that. You know. Dying quickly,” Ben replied. “Even finished shoveling the driveway so nobody had to finish it for him.”

“Smart and courteous,” Beth said.

“I always admired that about him,” Ben replied.

“You’re starting to look like a bear with that bug-catching beard,” Beth said.

“Kelly likes it,” Ben replied.

“Heart disease is hereditary, you know,” Beth said.

“Have you gone to a cardiologist?” Ben asked.

“Alex made me. Last year,” Beth replied. “The quack said my heart is great. What does he know?”

Ben snorted. “Those two must have been plotting. Kelly nagged me until I went last year too.”

“And?” Beth asked.

“Yeah, I’m good too,” Ben replied. “If you can believe anything a doctor has to say.”

“Not like they went to medical school or anything,” Beth mumbled, kicking a fallen tree branch.

“Hey,” Ben said, “remember how good Mom was at helping Karen when she got sick about ten years ago?”

“You mean when she had H1N1 and then it turned into pneumonia?” Beth asked.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “Mom dropped everything and went to her. Stayed with her for three weeks until she could go back to work.”

“I’ve always felt a little guilty that I didn’t help or even visit,” Beth said.

“Me too,” Ben replied. “We thought we were too busy with our own jobs and lives and whatever. Some siblings we are, huh? But Mom was there for her.”

“Mom’s the best,” Beth said.

“Yep, the best,” Ben echoed.

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were taking turns sprinting twenty yards and then waiting while the other sprinted to catch up. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait.

“Those two should have married each other,” Ben said with a chuckle.

“I’m sure they did,” Beth replied. “In an alternate universe.”

“Seriously,” Ben said. “What should we put in our living wills?”

Beth spoke with her eyes fixed on the trail ahead. “Well, don’t pull the plug just because you want all of our big inheritance.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “There’s probably a few hundred dollars at stake.”

“Mom and Dad weren’t exactly big savers,” Beth said. “And the money from the house is mostly going to the nursing home.”

“What if you have a stroke and can’t talk?” Ben asked.

“Wow,” Beth deadpanned. “Oddly specific. But okay. I can’t talk. Can I still feed myself?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Soft foods only.”

Ben pointed to a patch of poison ivy just a few feet off the trail. Beth nodded and maneuvered to keep extra distance from the evil weed that had plagued them both since childhood.

“Can I still walk even if I’m mute and subsist on bananas and apple sauce?” Beth asked.

“Can you now?” Ben laughed, pretending to trip her. “Yeah, but slow and with a walker so you don’t fall and need knee surgery like me.”

“How about going to the bathroom by myself?” Beth asked.

“Number one or number two?” Ben replied.

“All three,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “You can still handle basic bathroom stuff alone.”

“Then don’t shove a pillow over my face yet,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Same here.”

Alex and Kelly had stopped sprinting and were stretching to let Beth and Ben catch up.

“What if we can’t read or follow a basic conversation?” Ben asked.

“What if we forget which cabinet we keep the coffee in or say something really fucked up, like, ‘You know, that Trump fella really wasn’t so bad after all’?” Beth asked in a doddering, foolish voice.

“Holy shit, yes! If I ever start rambling about rigged witch hunts or fake news, kill me on the spot, obviously!” Ben replied.

“Because of coffee or Trump?” Beth asked.

“Yes!” Ben replied with a smile.

“Gotcha,” Beth replied.

“You should be having this discussion with little Ben, Jr.,” Beth said, casting Ben a sideways glance and holding back an equally sideways grin.

“That’s not Montague’s name,” Ben said, feigning annoyance.

“I know,” Beth said. “But it’s so fun to think of little Montague as little Ben, Jr. Who is he named after again? Kelly’s paternal great-granduncle twice removed or something like that?”

“Something like that,” Ben said, allowing himself a chuckle. “I honestly can’t remember. But everybody loves the name ‘Monty.’”

“Yeah, that is a seriously cool name for a three-year-old,” Beth conceded. “Years from now you can yell from your hospice bed, ‘Monty, where’s my butterscotch pudding?’”

Ben called out in a sing-song voice to match Beth’s, “And I need my bedpan emptied again, Monty!”

Beth cringed. “Yikes, that escalated quickly.”

“The conversation or the trail?” Ben asked.

“Both,” Beth responded.

From up ahead, Kelly called back, “Are you guys yelling for us?”

“No!” Ben and Beth shouted in unison, exchanging mischievous looks.

As they trudged ahead on an uphill part of the trail, their smiles gradually faded. Sweat renewed on their foreheads, and they were huffing too hard to say anything.

When at last they crested the peak and started back down the slope, their breathing returned to normal.

“It is a comforting thought that Monty will be around when Kelly and I are old,” Ben said softly.

“Yeah,” Beth replied.

“I don’t plan on nagging him to come see us the way Mom does to us sometimes,” Ben said.

“What’s the old saying?” Beth asked. “‘Make a plan and watch God kick you in the nuts?”

“Fair point,” Ben replied, “even if your quote isn’t quite accurate.”

“Parents nag. Kids get nagged at,” Beth said. “It’s in the official job descriptions.”

“What’s up with you and Alex?” Ben asked. “Are you thinking about it?”

“We’re about the same place we’ve been from the start,” Beth said. “We’re happy with our cats and small laundry loads.”

“You’d be great parents,” Ben said.

“Not as good as you and Kelly,” Beth replied.

“Thanks, sis,” Ben said. “And you’re both welcome to nag Monty to come see you guys in the nursing home when the time comes.”

“That kid will have so many grandparents to visit that he won’t have time to hold down a job,” Beth said.

“If all goes well, he’ll be retired by then,” Ben said.

“God, it’s so weird to think about that little guy being retired someday,” Beth replied.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It was probably weird for Mom and Dad to think of us as grown-ups too.”

“I still think it’s weird that we’re grown-ups,” Beth replied.

“Speak for yourself,” Ben said. “I have no intention of growing up until I have to.”

“Sorry, dude,” Beth replied. “You drive a minivan. That makes you a grown-up.”

“Damn,” Ben said. “That’s a good point. Okay. I give up. I’m a grown-up.”

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were moving again. Beth and Ben noticed that they had almost reached their cars parked in the little gravel lot at the trailhead.

“Praise Jesus, we’re almost back!” Beth said, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“What if we get so bad that we can’t recognize each other or those two up there?” Ben asked, pointing to their spouses.

“That’s a whole different story,” Beth said. “I don’t mind the walker or a little help in the toilet, but not having my mind working or forgetting who I love would really suck.”

“As if your mind works now,” Ben said.

“True,” Beth replied. “Also, I’m rubber and you’re glue, bug guy.”

The brother and sister caught up to their spouses as they waited by their respective cars.

Alex had unlocked their Subaru and was drinking deeply from her water bottle. Beth admired how her long brown hair flowed down her back as she surprised her with a hug.

“I still recognize you!” Beth said with a laugh as she kissed Alex’s face on both cheeks.

“That’s good to hear!” Alex replied. “Let me know right away if that changes, okay?”

Ben gave Kelly a bear hug. Combined, the two big men probably weighed as much as a medium-sized black bear.

“Let’s go home,” Kelly said. “You guys were so slow that the sitter’s probably wondering if we’re ever coming back. And the Patriots game starts in an hour.”

“Can’t miss that!” Ben said through gritted teeth as Kelly slipped into the driver’s seat of their Honda minivan.

“Your husband loves him some football,” Beth said to Ben as they met halfway between their cars.

Ben laughed. “I’m sure he’ll insist on watching the Patriots in my hospital room before they make any decisions about life support and heroic measures.”

“For you or him?” Beth asked.

“Either,” Ben replied. “Depends on whether the Patriots are winning or losing.”

“Do you suppose straight couples have conversations like this?” Beth asked.

“Some of them, sure, I guess. Straights can be as normal as we are,” Ben said. “But Mom and Dad never did.”

“True,” Beth said. “But they didn’t seem to talk about anything important. Maybe that’s a generational thing.”

“Or maybe we just didn’t hear them talking about it,” Ben said. “Who knows?”

“We could ask Mom,” Beth said.

“You go first,” Ben replied.

“We should probably have this conversation with Monty for real,” Beth said.

“Oh, lord,” Ben sighed. “I guess. But not for a few years, okay? Toddlers don’t need to hear this kind of talk.”

“Yeah, we’ll dump this on him when he’s a teenager who hates talking to us as much as we hated talking to Mom and Dad back then,” Beth said with a laugh. “He’ll love that!”

Their laughter ended quickly, and they shared a meaningful look.

“For now,” Ben said softly, “let’s look for the forms and maybe talk to a lawyer, make this stuff official.”

“Okay,” Beth said. “If you insist. And let’s all go see Mom one evening this week. All of us. I’ll call Karen. You and me. Kelly and Alex. Monty, too. She’ll be as excited as Mom to have us all together.”

“Will they allow that many of us in Mom’s room at one time?” Ben asked.

“Maybe. We might break a few rules, but so what?” Beth said. “It won’t be the first time.”

“Or the last,” Ben replied. He pulled his sister into a hug. Neither remembered the last time they did that. And Ben said something he didn’t say often say to his sister. “Love you, sis.”

“Love you too, bro,” Beth replied before playfully pushing Ben away. “Now get the hell home and take a shower. You smell.”

“Speak for yourself, stinky,” Ben said, and he hopped in the van beside his husband and struggled with the annoying seat belt. Kelly reached across Ben, grasped the strap, pulled it smoothly across Ben’s chest, and snapped it into place.

“I want you to live a long time. Safety first, honey,” Kelly said.

“Always, sweetie,” Ben replied.

John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

A Prose Poem by d w Stojek

We sat, my Grandmother, myself, with my Mother between, quietly in the waiting room of the doctor’s practice.  I cannot remember, despite my best attempts, as to which of us was the patient to be. I was four perhaps, five years of age and suffered frequent bouts of a savaging tonsilitis: stifling my voice, running my throat with that unique crimson of infection reminiscent of a depiction of a martian landscape in an illustrated beginner’s guide to astronomy. My mother, meanwhile, endured a rather playful strain of ebola, while my grandmother absorbed the impact and consequence of a day’s hiccoughs and a variable astigmatism. That said, I believe it safe to hazard that I was the subject of the visit…

The windows close-curtained, affording some peace to the infirm, who only sour in the sun; the institutionally pragmatic slate grey furniture and carpet, coupled with strips of walnut veneer lining the walls devoured the amber nebula of the corner table lamp; the room arrested in Shadow…

Despite which, I was sifting through the collection of boarded books and periodicals to read in that ill light. Issues of” International Topographic” were stratified in undisturbed archeological anticipation; a book of rhyme, and “A Beginner’s Book of Astronomy“ cluttered the low table. Choosing something, I remember words made of letters printed at the size of dimes, elegantly lain across the glossy pages but no memory as to the meaning or to the relation they had to the octopus, brilliant, in his top hat and dancing shoes as the hippopotamus, on the opposing page, searched the beach for clues.

The door opened, coming with it: the stunning sun; adapting, one saw the race of red and orange leaves tumbling on the walk was able to taste the crisp of autumn on the in-blown breeze as this crack was sealed behind the silhouetted figure entering. I looked quickly, seeing only an overcoat and hat positioning itself in conversation with the attending nurse, nothing could be heard. Rejected: I returned to my pages. The lamp having been moved closer to me by my Mother in order to stave or retard the inevitable blindness she was assured would strike; offering the Overcoat a pocket of that newly annexed dark. I glanced upwards, struggling to interpret suggestion and shade; my eyes not yet having adjusted, then retreating, so as not to be caught. The cycle repeating, my vision: straining, then acclimating till I could see his face…and what I could not comprehend; it was not horror or revulsion: it was all fluster and confusion. I was fixated: imagining, rather insisting, upon a nose to form upon his face, only for it to fade along the Prospect.

d w Stojek is a poet, photographer and general nuisance to those within earshot. He is eagerly awaiting the day when ‘Build-a-Bear’ re-opens as a series of genetic labs that will enliven the blighted strip malls of Suburbia.

A Poem by Sally Badawi

Tonight, I saw your name
You published something
Your face and fiction
Outrageous:
You’re still writing and living in the world
With that cheesy grin
You jolted me
D: “I never read his work”
E: “He can suck a crab claw”
I picture your awkward hands and heavy tongue
Slurping on crab
Grad school isn’t for the weak
I knew that
Grad school isn’t for the strong either
Those gray halls pretend impotence
Caves buzzing fluorescent lights
Your wife’s frizzy hair
Do you still have those mahogany wood floors?
They gleamed as if she had spent all day waxing them
I’m 40 now, same age she was back then
But I know better
I look at your piece
I see you
Acting all writerly
Thinking about girls and swamps and plots
And it’s madness, utter madness
You’ve created something worthwhile
I want to write without anger
To evaluate your work fairly
But it is not possible
We all come here with names
I imagine your mother naming you
Wondering if the name was strong
Turns out it was stronger than you
I think of you as Howie or Leonard or Steve
But your name is yours even though you are them
You are eastern standard time
Oblivious your name has caused such disturbance
D & E have stopped texting
Their whirring wings still
I remember the words you said back then
Your tanned fingers clamping your wedding ring
At 21 I heard them without absurdity
“You look like hunger”
Who talks like that?
And why did I think it was tender?
“I like that yellow bracelet”
That faded filthy ribbon wrapped around my wrist
Every time I see dandelions I think of that ribbon
Not of you though
You have been a wax figure in a musty museum
I want to feel lukewarm
To will this 2020 version to carve away at 2004
I experience fleeting joy at this possibility
Maybe after all you are not my epic poem
But a vowel diluted in a 15-letter word
Too sterile for melody

Sally Badawi teaches in Portland, Oregon where she lives with her husband and two children. Her most recent work is published or forthcoming in Neologism Poetry JournalMonths to Years Magazine, and Pink Panther Magazine.

A Poem by Vijaya Sundaram

The old year is dying
And a new one limps around the corner,
And we wait in tired expectation.

Yes, we do our chores,
Wash our dishes, fold our clothes,
Read the news, tell each other
“I love you” every day.

But the old year is dying,
And a new year waits, behind that corner,
Breathing shallowly, breathing fast.

People we knew are gone,
And people we know hold on,
And we, we eat, laugh, sing, weep.

The Zeitgeist looms over us,
But its gaze is elsewhere, while we
Scramble, getting our house in order.
Its concerns are remote,
While we recede from view.

If everyone was propelled by something else,
If everything plays out like it’s meant to,
What of rage and fear, and sorrow, and grief?

To feel now is pointless,
To think, futile.
And yet, we do both –
We know nothing else.

And we think and feel,
Even as we recede from view,
Even as we see ourselves receding,
Even as we know that somewhere else,
We are emerging, though our backs
Are to the future.

But I shall grieve, and I shall smile,
I shall rail, and I shall accept,
I shall hate, and I shall love,
I shall fear, and I shall venture forth
Boldly, sans expectation,
Into that future to which
My back is turned.

The old year is dying.
I shall laugh it into dust.

Vijaya Sundaram is a Massachusetts-based poet, song-writer, singer, and teacher of East Indian origin. Vijaya’s work has been published in publications like The Rising Phoenix Press and the Stardust Review, among others. Poetry, music, reading, teaching at the local community college, and talking long walks in the Fells, are some the things she loves to do. In these perilous times, poetry, music, and nature are restorative to the spirit, but she also loves the theatre, and miss seeing her actor friends. When life is hard, it’s the arts that sustain us (apart from family, food, and shelter).

An Essay by Rob Colby

I came to San Francisco to get a fresh start and to cut family ties. But that didn’t stop me from accepting help to get on my feet. My mother kindly offered to pay my first month’s rent and then, kinder still, made it clear that I was on my own after that. Though I interacted only fitfully with them—short, sporadic long-distance calls—in my mind, they still stood like two totems I had to pass between daily.

I wasn’t just negotiating the pale hypocrisy of late adolescence. My mind was embroiled in tense negotiations with the past now that I’d gained perspective on the way alcohol had affected my life growing up.

Junior year of college, my advisor, who’d taken a particular interest in my well-being, had asked me that follow-up question so many times—“No, but how are you really?” I finally relented and started sharing. But not about my own life. That was still a tangle of briny rope and fishing line in a moldering bucket. Instead, I rotated the proverbial film projector towards the wall to screen stories of growing up in Boston, about my family, and my father’s drinking.

As the evidence mounted that my father may have had a problem, the professor thoughtfully suggested that I go to an Al-Anon meeting. There was a men’s group near campus, filled with college types: faculty, administrators, even some students. I went and enjoyed it and kept going back. I’d never heard grown men talking openly about their feelings, their past, their struggles. It was like discovering a new species of human.

I began to calculate the toll my father’s drinking had taken on me, now that I’d assumed the mantle of “child of an alcoholic.” Though I was named after him, resembled him, embodied his mannerisms, I could already look back on a vexed dynamic that I’ve come to call “the spitting image:” the two of us locked in shouting matches, uncannily marshaling the same accusation against each other. With the realization about his drinking, I only wanted to be his opposite. So, when I moved out to San Francisco after graduation, I decided to put aside the booze myself and didn’t miss it. I continued attending Al-Anon meetings, this time in church basements and vestry halls in the Castro, which, in my memory, are all the same large room colored a dusty seafoam grey that matched well the emotional atmosphere. Still, I continued to hear reassuring echoes of my story in the lives of other grown children of alcoholics.

I soon realized there was a catch to my new, no-drinking-child-of-an-alcoholic-Al-Anon-California-recovery lifestyle. The friends from Oberlin I’d come out to San Francisco with didn’t want to hang out anymore. Gone was edgy, precocious Rob from the year before, who had imposing intellectual ambitions, wore battered tweed jackets and costume jewelry. Alcohol had once served to batten down the emotional hatches that were started to bang open. Now I was both sloppy and puritanical, as I tried to “get my life together.”

So, when I moved into the apartment in Noe Valley it felt like the kind of beginning that’s really an end. The room itself told me this. For starters, it would have made Edward Hopper’s black-eyed muse feel right at home. A large bay window looked out over the tops of the houses on the lower side of Elizabeth Street, framing a hemisphere of sky. It didn’t even occur to me to buy drapes to offer myself a modicum of privacy. The sunlight just streamed in, scouring every inch. Judging from the elaborate carved fireplace and beveled mirror, the room had once been the parlor. It was bare now but for a futon mattress and the ghostly outline of old furniture stamped in the carpet. My new roommate was kind, and this made a difference. He told me where to get good fresh fruit down at the Mexican market in the Mission and warned me to be careful. “You can still get mugged on the side streets.” Then he showed me the kitchen and gestured to the stove. “The pozole’s almost done, so help yourself anytime.”

That last semester in college, I’d taken up long-distance running to get in shape and quickly discovered it quieted my mind. I found the mental rest I needed, expiating the toxic energy for a few hours. But the monsters of anxiety and isolation were always waiting just around the corner. In San Francisco, I ran so much the cartilage in my knees felt like it was wearing out. Some days, when I didn’t have anything else to do, I’d run as far as I’d could, across the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and down into Sausalito until I couldn’t go any farther. Then I’d take a bus back, my legs practically locking into place at right angles against the cool plastic seats. But at least it ate up the time.

I couldn’t find a job right away; that was part of the problem. I was discovering that my art history degree didn’t qualify me for much. When I applied for an entry-level position at a credit card call center, the interviewer looked at my resume, noticed words like ‘Hotchkiss’ and ‘summa cum laude’ and politely interrogated me. “Why do you even want this job?” Cause my parents have cut me off and I need to make rent and eat, I said to myself, as I made up a reply plausible enough to lock it down.

Once I’d gained employment, I spent most nights there was no Al-Anon meeting at home. Had I cleaned regularly the room might have been pleasingly minimalist. But I rarely did, so it mostly looked like a squatter was passing through. At a makeshift desk formed by a board and two piles of books, I attempted to craft the story of my life. No paragraph ever survived the next day’s scrutiny.

I returned to making art and created large pelt-like wall hangings by tearing off little pieces of masking tape and sticking them together on the mirror over the mantel in seemingly random configurations. Then I would brush on matte gesso, and when it dried, peel it off and attach it to the others until the pelt was around five feet across. The process of ripping and laying down the tape was hypnotic and gave my mind a task to focus on. Eventually, I realized I could place the pelts over part of the windowpane like a layer of skin. The light shone through from behind, creating bleached, illuminated mandalas.

I backfilled my empty life in other ways, too: reading a classic American novel, trying to formulate a definitive postmodern worldview (there are only stories and stories of stories). I even attempted to learn Latin. Despite all this effort, my inner life still felt desiccated, as if my soul had been scoured with a toxic cleanser, leaving a hygienic but noxious void.

Then a funny thing happened.

I was leaving the Mexican grocery store in the Mission and had just turned the corner onto one of those scrappy side streets my roommate had warned me about.

Unbidden, an overwhelming sense of peace overcame me, like the dramatic change in weather that often happens in San Francisco when the tepid air of the valley is expelled by a cool front descending from the barrier mountains. Instead of the endless inner chatter, I felt an easy restfulness, like when I finished a seven-mile run—but without the pain in my knees and tightness in my back. I sat down on a dirty stoop along the sidewalk with a curious feeling, like I’d become one with the river, my body just a channel for the water to flow through. Maybe this is what they mean by “being in the moment.” Breathing in and out this new sensation, I reached into the plastic bag and pulled out an orange to peel. I put the wedges in my mouth one by one like a handful of sacraments.

The sensation surprised me, but the timing didn’t. Three days before, I’d gone to an AA meeting at the invitation of a guy I was dating. He stood at the podium and shared that night. I sat in the back, and as everyone went around, kept thinking, Why are they saying what’s in my head? Is this who I am?

I began to re-catalog my memories according to this new logic, starting with the effects that alcohol had on me, relief of that inner compression, that vague, persistent tightening in my chest. But also, my treasure trove of shame—passing out in the bathroom and cracking my head open after day-drinking at the beach; the barfly banter (You call that a double?); the dreaded “hot tub incident” of 1996. After the meeting, I waited for my friend outside, then threw my arms around him. “Oh my God! I’m an alcoholic!” It felt like coming home.

Nothing really changed in the few days that immediately followed, until my sidewalk epiphany. Now, instead of scuttling through life as if I were running along the lip of a smoldering crater, suddenly, I could see how the hours might unfold harmoniously—how days and weeks and months could build on each other, could compound each other, make a life of purpose. Some mornings instead of launching from bed like a sprung trap, I’d move my futon mattress over to the window, stare out the side light up to Diamond Heights, and watch as the hierarchy of water, earth, and sky would overturn itself when clouds of ocean blue and ocean grey would descend from above.

One night, I took the ‘N’ train all the way down to the beach at Outer Sunset, a lumbering forty-five-minute ride from the Castro to the ocean. There, I put on my headphones and blasted Annie Lennox anthems as I walked along the water—impervious to the lapping foam around my ankles; to the waves as they engulfed my shins and knees; to the stares of the beach strollers as they saw me throwing myself into the dance of the wind while the Pacific waters splashed around me.

Born in Montreal and raised in Boston, Rob Colby attended Oberlin and the Courtauld where he studied many things except how to write well. A few years back, he had an awkward break-up and hasn’t stopped scribbling since. Rob’s currently working on a book examining the legacy of Anglo-Saxon heritage, for which he recently received a Logan Nonfiction Fellowship. A member of the Wild Goose Creative writers’ group, Rob lives in Columbus, Ohio.

A Prose Poem by Bryan Barks

As we walk to dinner, you and I are reflecting on what an awful year it has been.

“But at least we got married this year!” you say. No, my love. That was last year.

But yes, let’s just say we got married this year. Let’s push the rest away and say we’re getting married next year and the next. Let’s hoard the anticipation and the afterglow. Let’s keep stacking rings until we can’t see our fingernails, until the tiny circles start falling to our feet.

Let’s say we’re getting married tomorrow and on every bleak Monday morning. On the bathmat in winter, shivering in a white towel. In the kitchen amid the shards of the cup you just broke, let’s say our vows.

In the hospital, we get married every day at 4 p.m. Your name in the visiting log is the signature on our marriage certificate. A crisp commitment, the i’s in your name buoyant and devoted. Each kiss goodbye is a mutual promise to stay.

There is no perfect place. No perfect person, no perfect year or words or season.

The lump in my throat is a church; we are standing inside it. My hand on your shoulder is a vow. Our patio in snow an altar. Every bite you feed me with your hands is cake.

So no need to wear white, no need to light sparklers to celebrate this terrible year or its grand exit. Just the two of us by the fire, hoping for better.

Bryan Barks is a writer and advocate living the Washington, DC area.

A Poem by Oliver C. Seneca

out of my mind
into the universe
my thoughts materialize
nothing into something
imagination into creation

I’ve thought of you
now I can hold you

it’s no longer a dream
a wish
you’re here with me

perhaps you’ve always been

Oliver C. Seneca was born and raised in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His first foray into storytelling came in high school when he was accepted to the Capital Area School for the Arts where he focused on filmmaking. Oliver is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and, in addition to writing, he works in his family’s law practice.

A Poem by Elizabeth Chung

The slaughterhouse runs like a faithful 
watch, never late or losing time. Cows come in,
steak comes out. As if they understand the bleak 
inevitability of their situation, the cows rarely 
struggle. They walk tamely towards the stench of
blood, their heads swinging low. 

And yet, this old cow is blind to the ending hour. 
It digs its boned feet into the cold ground, it pulls
at the rope held by the tired men. Scared of the
looming black, the cow sweats in futile protest, and
when its red eyes roll back, it sees the green grass
so far away.

Elizabeth Chung is currently a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in English and Media Studies, as well as pursuing a minor in Art History. She has won the 2016 Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Poetry Contest, 2 Silver Keys from the Scholastic Writing Awards in 2019, and been published in Whispers to Roars, a small literary magazine. As of today, she moves between San Francisco and New York.

A Poem by William Frank

To be set in the hottest part of the battle
near to the wall where the archers
throw their murder volley from the sun
while holding on desperately to my strength
in the shouting, dying zigzag of confusion,
the vast, terrible violence of our barest center
killing everything all around me
even as I pressed forward in the crush
only to see a band of valiant men
slowly approach to set themselves upon me,
their tawny hunting dogs on a chain
who I briefly saw in my imagination
curled together quiet around a hearth
until I was awakened by the cold sense
that I am far away
emerging from the finish of a wave
when I turned around and saw
Joab and all his men, all my own,
stare like thieves at me as they withdraw

now laying here hacked to pieces
a corpse on my left and the trunk of a man
I cannot reach crying on my right
I can finally see the summer
the quiet bright blue, the ice cream shop light
that shines over the joy and freedom of children,
over the young men and the young women
meeting in the spray of a fountain
the prisms dripping from their perfumed hair
where the passeggiata is driven like a breeze
only by its own neighborly delight
as I lay here in the time when kings go to war
spattered again and again with blood
like a flower in the rainy field

sleepiness

how my wife is now so far beyond me

how the summer is going everywhere without me

how this sun is so beautiful and intense

look how we’re curled together around its hearth.

William Frank is an author of 6 books of poetry with an extensive list of performances in and around New York City. When not writing poetry, he enjoys long hours of chess, bingeing on 1950’s Japanese Cinema, taking naps with Scrambles his cat, summering with the Devil, press-ganging the elderly and Sadism. Visit him at TuckfordBunnyPress.com.

A Poem by Pedro Hoffmeister

We are the silence you never wanted
the sitting and the thinking, mouths shut
without a television or a podcast playing

your wrists like something improbable taped
to the ends of your arms, George Washington’s
dentures a collection of animal and human teeth.

I’m staring out the window at the rain
coming across slant, 30-degree-angled
Duraflame log burning in the fireplace

as a crow turns a dark arc through the wet
of the front yard, swimming the rain,
cutting the cedar in half yet it still stands

and I turn to see you no longer there.
This is the best answer I can give you:
I don’t know, and maybe never will.

Pedro Hoffmeister‘s poems have recently appeared in Open: Journal Of Arts & Letters and Writers Resist. His novels have earned starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal, and Best Books of 2016 from The American Library Association. Hoffmeister was the writer-in-residence of Joshua Tree National Park in the spring of 2015, writing poems in both English and Spanish, and he tells stories on the Boring Is A Swear Word podcast.

A Poem by John F. McMullen

 Thursday, December 24, Christmas Eve
 Friday, December 25, Christmas
 Saturday, December 26. Day After Christmas
 Sunday, December 27, Two Days After Christmas
  
 Today is the night of the 26th
 and there is a headache and 
 a tightness is my chest --
 there is only one 
 way to understand it
 
 It’s the third full day without
 Zoom meetings and I already
 know that there will be none
 tomorrow (my feast day) and 
 probably none the next day 
  
 It was Zoom meetings that
 have gotten me this far
 My wife and pets have 
 always been here --
 before the lockdown and 
 after – that has not changed
 but they are all busy --with 
 work and eating and sleeping
    
 And Zoom took the place of
 the many in-person meetings
 that I went to (3 or 4 a week
 and a few monthly) and 
 the Mall, Pet-Smart, CVS,
 and Wal-Mart – but not
 today or yesterday or the
 day before or tomorrow
  
 I type zoom.com and then
 is anybody out there?
 

John F. McMullen, “johnmac the bard”, is the Poet Laureate of the Town of Yorktown, NY, an adjunct professor at Westchester Community College, a graduate of Iona College, the holder of two Masters degrees from Marist College, a member of the American Academy of Poets and Poets & Writers, the author of over 2,500 columns and articles and 10 books (8 poetry), and the host of a weekly Internet Radio Show (300 shows to date).

A Poem by John F. McMullen

 I may have violated
 the CDC warnings 
 on holiday travel as
 I went to: 
            the snows of Aspen
                           to 
            the heat of Acapulco
                          then to
            the monsoons of the South China Sea
                          and finally to 
           the mud and rice paddies of Vietnam
 where I thought on this Christmas Day
 of the tragedies of fifty-plus years ago 
 And I did it all on one day 
 Christmas Eve 2020
 without ever leaving
 Jefferson Valley New York 
 The day that Climate Change
 came to my house  

John F. McMullen, “johnmac the bard”, is the Poet Laureate of the Town of Yorktown, NY, an adjunct professor at Westchester Community College, a graduate of Iona College, the holder of two Masters degrees from Marist College, a member of the American Academy of Poets and Poets & Writers, the author of over 2,500 columns and articles and 10 books (8 poetry), and the host of a weekly Internet Radio Show (300 shows to date).

An Essay by Zach Lebovic

The water wasn’t still anymore, it was as turbulent as my thoughts. When I dove into the pool that morning I felt claustrophobic. The water shocked my system, taking my breath away and I panicked, remembering the nightmare I had last night: I dove in for my race like usual, not realizing that a weight had been tied around my waist. No matter how hard I struggled I couldn’t kick myself back up to the surface. A hand grabbed me from behind but instead of rescuing me, it pinned me to the bottom. 

I warmed up prior to my race like nothing was wrong. But inwardly my thoughts kept closing in on me. The closer it got to race time, the more intrusive they would become. The entire day I felt sluggish, like I was swimming in a pool of molasses. Everything I had learned about racing, every bit of advice I had been told over the years, every technique I had mastered disappeared.

I bombed every race.

During swim meets I began to dissociate from my body, watching helplessly from above as a “different” me took over my brain– suffocated by a floor of negative thoughts.

My mind suddenly became my ultimate enemy. It was as if it were a separate entity, conspiring to keep me from being whole. I wondered what it would be like to be able to quiet my thoughts, to be in charge of what I focused on. Instead, I was constantly assaulted by torrent after torrent of intrusive thoughts. Most days, I felt I was drowning. I was a swimmer who couldn’t breathe–on land or in the pool. Water used to be my sanctuary but now even that felt hostile. I was at a loss to remember a single time when my mind had been free from its own grasp.


Weeks before I began my senior year in college, I fell ill in the middle of the night. Awakened from sleep by a pain that felt like two nails being driven into my temple, I rolled out of bed clutching my head. I fell over instantly. My legs had an uncontrollable tremor that rooted me to the floor. Vomit seeped out of my mouth. I’d lived with migraines my entire life; I saw them as just another mode of attack my brain used against me. It wasn’t until I was admitted to the ER that I would wonder why it took me so long to know something was wrong.

An emergency CT and MRI later, my doctor called. “There’s one of three things wrong with you. You either have meningitis, a brain aneurysm, or a stroke.” Extensive silence. “This is a life threatening emergency.” The weight of her words took hours to land. Later, I would ask my mom, “Which one am I supposed to be hoping for?”

I was admitted to the critical- neurology ward where I learned that I suffered two strokes in my cerebellum. Just like that everything changed; my mind was eerily still.


Nothing about the hospital invokes healing. The ER is crammed with cases ranging from the sick and dying to the drunk and disorderly– it’s mayhem. Amidst the ringing alarms and cries of pain, I found myself panicking. It was as if my mind had been turned inside out, manifesting in the mayhem around me. Because of COVID, my family couldn’t come into the waiting room with me. I sat alone shivering in pain, distracting myself by examining the weirdos around me. Everyone in there– from the lady slumped in a chair vomiting into her hands, to the parents huddled in the corner cradling their baby– seemed more sick than I was. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Even after they transferred me to the critical care neurology ward I couldn’t escape the chaos. The wires the doctors attached to my chest and head beeped unceasingly. Every five minutes or so I was bombarded by people giving me one test or another, the culmination of which came in the form of a spinal tap. Every object, every person served as a constant reminder that I was in a foreign place all alone.

This sense of isolation peaked when my next door neighbor Nelson spent hours maniacally yelling at his nurse because she “wouldn’t end it all fast enough!” I could hear him through the wall we shared, thrashing around in his bed as he fought off every nurse and doctor who tried to reassure him. By the time the police came to quiet Nelson down, I had wondered how anyone could possibly heal here.

It wasn’t until I watched Nelson being transferred to psych that I was struck by how sick I was. My unwavering health was taken away from me so quickly that I hadn’t yet registered my new reality. I was still clinging to my past self, still pretending I was the same 21 year old college athlete who had entered through the hospital doors. Just thinking about how I was missing the first week of my senior year of college, missing moving into a house with my best friends, made my heart explode. The more I ruminated and obsessed about what I was “missing”– the more I complained to my parents and friends about how shitty my situation was– the more my head would throb in pain. Those closest to me tried their best to help, to understand. I was inundated by calls and texts, cards and food. Instead of comforting me, every gesture made me angrier and angrier until finally the anger gave way to hopelessness.

Surprisingly, it was this state that brought me clarity.

There was nothing I could change about the situation. My brain was going to continue to misfire, to cascade anxiety, to clog with thoughts (and the occasional blood clot). I could do nothing. I hadn’t decided to fall ill, I couldn’t beg my body to heal itself faster, and I couldn’t resolve to be healthy again. The way I saw it, I had three options. I could remove myself from the situation (which was impossible since I couldn’t even stand to pee on my own); I could surrender to what is; or I could suffer. And I was sick of suffering.

So I changed my attitude.

Making the decision not to engage in self-inflicting behaviors was the hardest thing I had ever done. My false sense of self was as addicted to complaining as others were to junk food. The more I mentally ran away from the situation, trying to change what already was, the more I would inadvertently cause myself pain. Just deciding that I no longer wanted to cause myself to suffer didn’t change anything for me immediately. My alarming thoughts didn’t float away magically like I expected them to. They still cast a shadow upon my daily life. But for the first time in a long while, I felt like I could take a breath.


Four months after my stroke and one heart procedure later, my doctors still do not have an answer for me. Nor can they give my family and me a clear response when asked if I am at risk of stroke again. Sometimes I feel that not knowing might be the worst part. But instead of floundering in the unknown, I’ve chosen to look at the situation as a blessing, not a curse. I may still struggle to keep my balance, and my memory may not be as sharp as it once was, but at least I’m alive. I still have intrusive thoughts that cry out for my attention and occasionally occupy my time, and that hasn’t changed. But they don’t scare me anymore. Life is short. I don’t want to live in fear of my own mind, wondering if and when I would be bombarded with compulsions and obsessions. Instead, I let those thoughts flow through me. They are no longer the weight around my waist, but the water keeping me afloat.

Zach Lebovic is a senior English major at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

There once lived a completely unremarkable man. He was not tall, but not short. He was not handsome, but not bad looking. He lived in a San Francisco complex of 207 apartments. He only barely knew his neighbors. If he could be summed up in a single word, it would be “average”. None of us aspires to average. In the beginning, we all anticipate and strive for more, but eventually we settle because, after all, average demands most of us.

He worked as an accountant in a large firm, at a desk hidden in the bowels of the 14th floor. He was competent. Not great and no one would ever call him “boss”, but he showed up every day and completed a reasonable amount of work with a minimal number of errors. He was dependable. Should he so desire, he could keep his job for another thirty years with a token, but sufficient, annual raise.

He was not without introspection. Of late he’d come to believe he was spending his life an hour at a time and receiving little in return. Tomorrow promised less than yesterday and this bothered him greatly, which is why the fortune cookie seemed so important.

Three days a week he ordered Chinese to-go from the restaurant on the corner. Without fail, sweet and sour pork, fried rice and egg rolls.

“Golden Dragon. May I help you?”

“This is Mike.”

“The usual?”

“Yes, please.”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Thank you.”

Dinner always included a single fortune cookie. More than one fortune only begged confusion.

Mike ate dinner as the fortune cookie obediently waited its turn. After twenty minutes, he carefully broke open dessert. As always, he first read the script on the strip of paper, but this time it seemed to offer more.

“Find Hope and You Will Find Happiness.”

Until that moment he hadn’t understood that what he was missing was hope.

Had he reached a level of desperation so low he would follow the instructions on a fortune cookie? The answer was simple. Yes. Tomorrow was Saturday. He silently vowed to start his search.

He awoke the next morning excited, anxious and faced with a quandary. Where to begin? Applying something approaching logic, he reasoned since the fortune cookie was Chinese, he should start in Chinatown.

He passed under the ornate entry arches, took the second right and came upon “Lucky Massage”. Hope and luck are inextricably intertwined. He entered the small shop to a series of chanted greetings he could not understand.

A row of five unoccupied recliners faced a wall of televisions all playing Chinese soap operas. Middle-aged ladies were stationed at each chair. An elderly woman approached Mike with a menu from which he selected the 50-minute foot massage for $40. Apparently, hope could be purchased rather cheaply.

Mike slid into a chair and immediately a masseuse brought out a large, wooden tub of steaming tea. She helped Mike remove his shoes and socks and placed his feet in the tub. He began to relax. After a few minutes, the lady started on his feet. At first it tickled, but then he was pervaded by a sense of well-being. His mind slowed, completely occupied by the comforting sensation. He could drift asleep, but believed if he was to find hope here, he needed to stay awake.

After precisely 50-minutes, she was done. He was instructed to take his time and relax, which he did. He finally rose feeling a pervasive calm. Maybe this was hope. He hadn’t felt this way in maybe forever. But as he took each step, he seemed to lose a little of the euphoria and as he focused on making payment and stepped out the door he realized he had rejoined the world unchanged. Hope was not in Lucky Massage.

Most of the day still remained; he pledged not to give up, but where to next? A homeless lady approached with an outstretched hand. A common sight in San Francisco. He simply shook his head in the negative but had a thought.

While the misfortune of others saddens us, it simultaneously leaves us grateful for what we have. Maybe hope could be garnered by comparison, but where to go for that experience. Certainly, someplace hopeless. His eyes wandered toward the San Francisco Bay only to come upon one of the most hopeless places in the world. Alcatraz.

The boat ride to the island of despair was short and brisk. Mike obediently followed at the back of the tour group led by a park ranger. He learned Alcatraz, originally constructed as a lighthouse, had served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Sitting 1¼ miles off the coast and surrounded by frigid waters patrolled by sharks, the Feds used the island for prisoners too unruly for other penitentiaries. 

Small, damp, cold cells housed the worst of the worst. The place reeked of despair. Mike immediately knew this would not work. He felt no elation, only a blending of academic wonder and sadness for those who had inhabited Alcatraz. The day was winding down and his life was in no way more hopeful.

Back ashore, Mike wandered until he realized he’d missed lunch. Such is the lot of a man in search of meaning. He surveyed the landscape for food and spotted the FC Diner. Maybe the FC stood for Fog City, maybe not. It was fashioned after a railroad car and offered “Home Cooking”, even though that wasn’t possible from someplace not home. He walked in and followed the instructions to grab a menu and seat himself.

The place was packed. He chose a navy blue, faux leather booth which was seriously underpopulated by his party of one. He quickly browsed the menu and decided on a hamburger and fries. He scanned the diner for a server. He saw only one.

She was a waitress in the classical sense, if for no other reason than diners should have waitresses. She was about his age wearing an ice blue, neatly starched uniform with crisp lines and white piping. Her silver name tag bore an inscription he couldn’t make out across the diner.

She was not pretty, but cute. Not tall, but not short. She didn’t walk. She glided. There was no other way to describe her movement. Her smile was luminescent. She glowed leaving everything else in the diner shrouded and ordinary. As she approached each table she brought on joy and grins as if spreading pixie dust.

He watched her. Actually, much more than watching and each time she glanced his way it was as if she was looking into him rather than at him. At that place and time nothing else occupied his thoughts. He was consumed by infinite possibilities of aspiration and expectation.

She approached, her expression pleased, but also quizzical. He ogled.

She didn’t ask “Are you ready to order?”

Rather, “Don’t I know you?” More of a statement than a question.

His eyes shifted from hers down to the name tag. At that moment, he knew he had found happiness.

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

A Poem by Jeffrey Hampton

I wish I was a poet,
but instead I am a pianist.
With no rhyme schemes…
No clever plots…

Struggling, hoping for an inspired line
or five. Devilishly working,
but I made no deal with
the Devil for words.

My soul was cheap, plucking
notes out that I read on paper,
written by others—
a courageous farce.  

I wish I was a poet,
but instead I am a pianist.
I was told as a boy I had gifts,
a garden full to nurture.

Nature versus nurture…

Nurturing verses was my nature.
Though, never simple, a variety of 
flora and fauna grew in my garden. 
Each needed tending, and
I didn’t heed the care of that flower, 
letting petals wilt. Touching a
beautiful wild rose would taint 
its joyful yield.
Or so I thought…

I wish I was a poet,
but instead I am a pianist.
Graceful facility, turn of phrase, wordless.
Feelings of a divine spark coursing through. 

Poetry did come easy to me—
spinning tales from the existential nothing on the page.
Black dots made more sense than
Love’s language lost.

Did I use existential right?
I am not sure…

I guess it doesn’t matter…

For I am not a poet, 
but instead a pianist.

Jeffrey Hampton is a pianist and educator, having went to school for piano performance at Indiana State University. He splits his time performing as well as teaching privately out of his home studio, finding time to write when he can. He currently lives in Vincennes, Indiana, with his wife, Cahtlyn.

A Short Story by Millie Walton

I close my eyes and smell the stale wind rushing down the tunnel, brushing against my cheeks, lifting my hair. I press my back into the wall, experiencing the cool of the concrete and the closed heat of the tube simultaneously. There are times, like these, when I feel wholly present, when I know who I am completely.

It’s unusually quiet. Lottie calls it the sweet spot. When you somehow stumble into the lag between the last flow of people and the next, and the moment seems to stretch like the sky.

Flip-flopped feet slapping the ground. I’d say four or five pairs from the way the sound echoes. It’s hard to say how far away because the tunnels wind back and forwards, under and over.

A bitter drip slides down the back of my throat. Licked fingers fumbling under the table, rubbed across gums, sideways glances. Lottie biting down on her lower lip, in that way which sometimes makes me nervous depending on who we’re with and her mood that day. She likes to be that person. The one who flashes an old baggy in front of my face, and says, Look what I found, even though she knew it was there. She licks a finger, dips and rubs it across her gums before passing it under the table.

Go on, her eyes press and so I do. She stands up and claps her palms together. Fuck-it, I’m getting Hendricks. One for you too.

I sit picking my nails and watch her being watched.

The ice cube clinks dully against the crystal tumbler, as she lifts her glass, shooting a look at the guys over her shoulder. I know that she knows. It’s a game. She drinks it for them, slowly wetting her lips.

Should I get a bob cut? Would it make my face look fat? Like a moon, I say, my hands cupping my cheeks.

There’s a rush and the light behind my eyelids changes. The train is coming and there are more feet, new pairs, running from within the concrete. I have this insane thought that they’re coming for me, but of course, they’re not.

I’d like to be that person too. I can be.

I say it again, Moon. Face. Tucking my hair into the collar of my t-shirt, sucking in my cheeks, mirroring the way she drinks in case they are watching me too.

I stand, swaying and smooth the back of my skirt with one hand. It has a habit of getting caught up. Would it be so bad? Yes, and no, yes, and no.

A pair of black Doc Martens line up next to me. The same ones are in one of my virtual baskets somewhere, have been for weeks. I still can’t decide: black or red, leather or vegan. This pair is well-worn, creased around the midsection, with untied, trailing laces, which look as if they might have once belonged to a different pair. In general, docs look better dirty than new. Ella buried hers before she wore them. I’ve heard the best way is to fold them repeatedly with your hands, that you really need to put your full weight into it to get the good, deep indents.

The train stops. The doors jump open, thin light spills like watery milk. The boots step in first and I follow. She sits opposite me, or I sit opposite her. It feels like a dance. I look up and we both smile. I see her teeth for a second and then she closes her lips. Her mouth is long and straight. Her hair’s the brightest shade of red I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of something specific. Sun-burnt skin. A neon light. A place, a bar or a club. Another person’s hair cut out from a magazine and stuck onto this woman’s head. She looks not much older than me. A couple of years, five at most. She sees me looking and I find myself blushing. I blush too easily, a permanent red sheen, like a farmer who’s spent his days briskly walking through the wind. I look away as if something’s caught my attention down the carriage. The doors close on a man who steps back, arms folded. He looks away, already waiting for the next. The train starts to move and I feel nostalgic for no reason.

I try to picture the world above us, the streets that I walked along six, eight, ten minutes ago. The street I imagine is generic. I am not an imaginative person, I’ve come to realise this. It is London from tourist shop posters, red double deckers, glossy curved black cabs, men in top hats holding the doors open to hotels and rain that’s neat, shiny and clean, falling in perfectly formed droplets that are made of air, not water.

The woman is standing directly over me, her hands clasping the bar whilst her body absorbs the sway of a bend. It feels odd to be so close to someone when the carriage is nearly empty but even without the crowds, there’s always a sense of being squeezed on the tube. There’s a gap roughly the length of my forearm from her belly button to my knee. I can see blonde hair in her armpits. Who dyes their hair red? I decide she is an artist, or a dancer. I follow the line up to her face, her chin is tilted as she reads not the tube map, but the ad beside it. I know it from the blue. I’ve seen the same one, huge against a station wall. Green Park or Victoria. Her eyes slide down to mine. I feel myself flush again. It’s worse when I’ve been drinking.

It’s terrible isn’t it, she says.

I wait for a moment to check who she’s speaking too, and then say, Yes. It is. Terrible.

She pushes back and lets go of the bar. She’s not beautiful in the conventional sense. Her features give the impression of being cluttered together, too small for her face, but there’s something sensual about her. I can imagine people finding her attractive. She arches her chest forwards as if releasing a tightness and I realise, as she rolls her shoulders and sits, that I’m doing the same thing. I clasp my hands into my lap.

The tunnel becomes platform and the train stops. Three men climb in, speaking loudly over their shoulders to one another. First one, then the others notice the woman standing in front of me. I follow their eyes and see that the dark circles of her nipples are clearly visible through the fabric of her dress.

She drops into the seat opposite me, slips her feet out of her boots and kicks them high into the air. A slither of black lace appears as the fabric flutters over her knees. The train lurches and I start to feel sick.

Did I flash you? she says.

I didn’t see anything. I rest my forehead in my hands, elbows pressing into my thighs.

Are you alright?

I nod and swivel myself to look through my handbag for my headphones, then remember that I left them at work. I find chewing gum and drag a piece up through the wrapper and into my mouth with my teeth.

The red head’s familiar, one of the guys says. Isn’t she though? From TV? I look back at her. Perhaps that’s it.

You famous? he calls and even though he’s not addressing me I turn towards him.

Nope, the woman says.

The train’s stopped. Through the pane of glass, the concrete looks almost like earth. I feel as if it’s pressing inwards, squeezing. My chest aches. I have to remind myself to breathe.

There’s a sharp whine and a distant voice apologises for the delay, we’re being held at a signal. The woman stretches an arm across the backs of the seats. I can feel sweat drawing up between my breasts. I tap my thumb and index fingers together. How many stations have we passed? I taste bitter again.

Coke or horse tranquilizer, Lottie says shrugging, what difference does it make?

I check my bag for my bottle which isn’t there, I know this already. I stand, and grip the rail with one palm. My eyes won’t focus. Somewhere between Pimlico and Vauxhall. I could get the bus.

Are you alright? a voice says, very far away or very close. A hand touches my arm, drawing me down into a seat and at the same time, the train jolts forwards and starts to move. I’m sitting beside her somehow. Her hand on my arm. I pull it back and rub the place she touched, half unconscious of the movement. She sees me do it.

Have we met somewhere before? No. I don’t think so.

It’s just you seem familiar. Have we worked together maybe?

I think that’s unlikely. She crosses her legs and stares forwards.

Through friends or something then? My mouth feels dry and the words catch in my throat. She shakes her head.

The train stops and moves. I miss the name. Pimlico, she says.

You’re from London?

No. She bends to scratch her ankle, and her arm brushes my leg. I notice there are a few mosquito bites down her calf. I used to live here in a tiny flat share, so small I had to get dressed sitting on my bed. I moved to Margate last year and now I can see the sea from my window.

That sounds nice.

You should come.

To Margate?

Why not?

I laugh. Because I don’t know who you are.

I’m Grace. Now you’re supposed to say your name.

Rosie.

That’s a nice name.

Yours is nice too.

You’re just saying that because I said it.

I’m not. I really think it is nice.

This is my stop.

She jumps up, grabbing her shoes with one hand. The platform rushes against the glass. She turns, and the doors slide closed behind her. I watch her waving at me through the window as we rush past: her hair obscenely bright against the tunnel wall and then, she’s gone.

Millie Walton is a London-based art and fiction writer, and a graduate of the MFA at the University of East Anglia. This story has been adapted from her debut novel in progress.

A Short Story by Christie Marra

“The pain’s almost too much to bear by lunchtime,” the judge says, shaking his head. Back when he was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, John won cases against him so consistently John sometimes wondered whether he’d lost on purpose.

“I don’t know how you navigate all those suffering families,” John’s wife Eliza remarks, looking at the judge sympathetically and placing her hand on his arm. John hates seeing his wife touch another man, any man. He isn’t jealous; he tells himself. It’s the principle. Why should a woman touch other men when she’s refused to touch her own husband for so long? John averts his eyes from Eliza and the judge and turns to Mayor Larique, seated beside him.

“How’s life on the dark side?” John asks, knowing he’d been a reluctant candidate, coaxed into running by the twenty-somethings who had marched with him throughout the year of protests.  The mayor rolls his eyes.

“This city needs some work,” he says.

John pours him more wine. “Start with fixing that jail, man. Nobody should have to stay in that shit hole an hour, let alone twelve months.”

“It’s on the list, a hell of a long list,” the mayor trails off.

Damn, man, you gave up quick! John thinks, turning away from the young mayor. The restaurant couple sits on his other side. She’s describing plans for her newest restaurant, while he moves his food around on his plate, occasionally glancing and nodding at his wife.

Exquis opens next month, and it’s going to be my most successful bistro yet!” she exclaims. Her husband’s shoulders slump.

“She’s moving you to the new restaurant?” John whispers, and he shrugs. “You should stay where you are, or go back to your favorite. You’re one of the best damn chefs in the city.” The chef smiles weakly and continues shrugging.

Am I the only man at this dinner party with balls? John wonders, looking at the new guy, quiet, almost sullen, directly to the right of his wife.  The new guy laughs suddenly at something Eliza says, and Eliza gives him her special look, glancing sideways and curling her lips into a half-smile. John remembers, bitterly, a time when she looked at him that way.

He studies the new guy, trying to figure out what Eliza sees in him. He wears Clark Kent glasses – always a sign of weak character – and his bald head is too large for his thin body. John’s head is perfectly proportionate to the rest of him. At least it used to be, before those late-night munchies inflated his gut.

“Do you enjoy being a public defender?” a soft voice asks. John looks across the table at the young brunette with a sharp nose and wire rims that match his own.

“I do.” He raises his wine in a toast, wondering if this dark cloud of a dinner party might have a silver lining. The brunette follows suit. “To well-chosen careers!” She smiles with closed lips before she drinks. “And what is yours?” he asks, hoping she won’t say nurse or teacher.

“I’m a chemist.”

“Ah, you must be the new member of Eliza’s team!” John says, and she nods. “How do you like working for The Man?”

The brunette shakes her head. “I, um…I don’t see it that way.” She dips her head toward her plate as she cuts a piece of filet mignon. A very fine wisp of hair escapes from behind her ear, brushing her cheek.

“How do you see it?” John asks in a softer tone. It would be a shame to alienate her so quickly. He still has to endure the remainder of dinner and dessert, and she’s the only dinner guest who even slightly interests him.

“I’m exploring new remedies, new solutions to ailments that plague people.”

“And the six-figure salary’s just a convenient bonus?” he chuckles.

She tucks her hair back in place and takes a long drink of wine. “I don’t think about the money.”

“People who have enough of it never do,” John replies, tiring of her.

Next to the chemist sits a man wearing a red bow tie. John hates bow ties. He wouldn’t even wear one for their wedding, insisting on leaving the top button of his starched white shirt open. Back then, Eliza called such things “quirky-cute.”

“McCain’s gonna have a tough time of it,” John says, looking directly at the man in the bow tie.

“How’s that?” the man asks, shoveling risotto into his mouth. Grains of rice stick to his mustache just beneath his nostrils, like frozen snot, and John holds back a smirk.

“We’ve got our first black presidential candidate, and he’s a good family man who’s smart and has a down-home relatability despite being primarily professorial.”

“Plus he’s cute as a button!” Bow-tie’s wife adds.

“McCain has stellar military and public service,” Bow-tie replies, with a cool, sideways glance at his wife. “Plus he was a prisoner of war.”

“But how can we put the future of our country in the hands of a man who chose a gun-toting, xenophobic airhead as a running mate?” asks the guest across from John, setting his suede patched elbows on the table. “The most important quality of a president is his ability to choose wisely.”

“His?” John asks. He’d bet his last paycheck on Suede Elbows being one of those liberals who valued a man’s statements over his substance.

“Well, um, his or hers,” Suede Elbows replies. “Good catch, pal.”

“Why do you think a little known senator will choose wisely?” Bow-tie asks, pointing his forkful of risotto at Suede Elbows.

“He already has,” Suede Elbows asserts. “Can’t find fault with Joe.”

“Hmph!” Bow-tie grunts. “Anyone who has suffered some sort of tragedy becomes a hero to you people.” 

“I’m sorry,” John interrupts, determined to re-route the conversation before it turns into the same empty analysis he’s heard dozens of times, “I know Eliza introduced us, but—”

“Seymour Gillespie.” Suede Elbows drops his fork, and awkwardly extends his hand.  John reaches across the table to shake it, purposefully shoving his arm straight through Eliza’s flower arrangement. A few petals flutter to the table as he pulls his hand back. He remembers Eliza gushing about how this florist’s arrangements lasted “for weeks and weeks, sometimes more than a fortnight!” and has to fight the laughter. He’s so bored with Eliza’s absurd affectations.

“How long you lived around here, Seymour?” John asks. He feels Bow-tie’s wife’s hand on his thigh and removes it decisively.

“A few months. I started teaching at Roanoke College last semester.”

“Ooo, what do you teach?” Bow-Tie’s wife squeals. John wonders whether she’s trying to play footsie with the professor under the table.

A glass hits the floor and shatters at the other end of the table.

Eliza jumps up and shouts, “Sallie!” The waitress supplied by the caterer rushes into the room with a broom and dustpan.

“It’s Cindy,” the waitress corrects Eliza as she cleans up the glass.

“Thank you,” Eliza says, eyeing Cindy icily and placing her hands on the judge’s shoulders.

“Objection!” John mutters, irritated by Eliza’s classism. The young chemist hears him and giggles, and John thinks perhaps he dismissed her too quickly. He winks at her. 

As the broken glass is cleared and Cindy begins to remove the dinner plates, Eliza raises her glass.

“Friends, it is an honor to host you,” she begins. John glances at the chemist and rolls his eyes. The chemist hides her giggle behind a napkin. “Our little city, tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains, home to a small but stellar college that gathers and nurtures young minds until they blossom and fly away to grace other lands with their wisdom…”

John shakes his head. The chemist catches his eye, tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. John grins at her.

“We have it all here – wisdom,” Eliza nods at the judge, “wealth,” she smiles at Bow-tie and his wife, “and ingenuity!” Eliza extends a regal arm toward the restaurant queen. “And we have a generosity of spirit, welcoming those who simply wander here.” Eliza looks pointedly at the chemist, whose blush is evident in the dim candlelight.  “And of course, we are eager to learn new things.” Eliza nods at Suede Elbows, and she moves closer to the new guy, so close that her elbow meets his shoulder. John watches their body parts touch, disgusted with Eliza and with himself. He hasn’t had a physique as obviously well-toned as the new guy’s in decades. He notices the chemist watching him and forgets about his paunch as he raises his glass to her.

“Mathematics,” Suede Elbows says. John and the chemist stare at him. “I teach mathematics.”

“Oh! You must be brilliant!’ Bow-tie’s wife squeals. Suede Elbows launches into an explanation of how math is everywhere.

“Every road is a plane, every room a cube, every decision based on some inherent mathematical formula!” he exclaims. If Bow-tie’s wife is playing footsie with him, it isn’t distracting Suede Elbows at all. His lecture continues as Cindy serves dessert.

Suede Elbows’ lecture is too much for John. He excuses himself and slips out to the warmth of the back porch. Why does Eliza keep the house so damn cold! He pulls a small glass pipe and a bag of buds from behind the potted fern, and carefully packs the pipe. He inhales deeply, savoring the burning sensation that makes him feel whole. Smoke leaves his mouth and dances in the darkness before it disappears. John watches the moon, high and bright, and the world begins to slow.

“There you are!” The chemist bounces through the door and throws her arms around John’s neck. Over her shoulder, John sees Eliza laughing with the judge and the new guy in the kitchen, placing a hand on each man’s arm. The new guy stares at John, challenging him. John starts toward the door, but the weight of the woman embracing him holds him back. “I knew you expected me to follow you out of the dining room, but I had no idea where you’d gone,” she says.

John puts his hands around the chemist’s waist, trying to focus on her smile instead of his wife touching two other men. The air around them hums as he studies the chemist’s face.

“It’s been so long,” she says, tilting her head back to look up at John. He kisses her hard, moving his hands down to her buttocks. “No, wait.” She removes his hands and leads him into the yard, stopping beneath the magnolia tree. “You remember the magnolia tree, don’t you?”

“Of course,” John says, no idea what she means, liking where it’s heading, and guessing any other answer might change their course.

They have sex on a blanket of hard, dry leaves, their pointed tips pricking John’s shoulders, back and rear. But he doesn’t care. He hasn’t touched a woman since Eliza kicked him out of their bedroom three years ago. The chemist is a good partner, open and vocal and willing to follow wherever he leads, and he takes her everywhere he’s dreamed of taking a woman in the past three years – between her breasts, in her pussy, and in her delightfully tight ass. 

“Ooo, that’s new!’ she squeals beneath him, giggling into the magnolia leaves.

“So it’s okay?” John asks, chuckling. “I’ve never done it before.”

“I like it. It excites me!”

The chemist gets sexier by the second. After he climaxes, John stays inside her a while, sliding his stomach up and down in the sweat of her back, relishing  how the physical closeness makes him tingle with pleasure.

He rolls off her and lies on the crisp magnolia leaves, arms crossed behind his head, hoping to hold onto this new, fresh, wild connection.

“Wow!” the chemist declares, laying her head on John’s chest. “That was so much better than the first time!”

“Really?” he laughed. “You’re the only person I’ve ever been with who could have an orgasm that way.”

“What?” The chemist sits up and looks at John, confused.

“I mean, you know, from the back.”

The chemist shakes her head. “I didn’t enjoy it that much.”

“But you said it was better than the first time.”

“I meant better than the first time we, well, you know.” She kisses him. “Can you believe it’s been three years?”

“What?” John asks, feeling a little queasy. How could she know it had been three years since Eliza banished him from their bedroom so she could fuck every new man in town? Did Eliza tell everyone?

“Did you ever get my note?” the chemist asks. “I’d thought you’d make up some excuse to come to the lab as soon as you knew I was there, but this was much better.” She laughs an uncontrolled, almost maniacal laugh.

“What…what note?”  John stands up, his legs wobbling. The chemist holds her hand out to him, and he pulls her up quickly then pulls his hand back to his side.

“The invitation, my dear!” the chemist replies, grabbing his hand.

Invitation? What on earth is she talking about? As she smiles at him, John sees that one of her teeth is missing. Where’s her tooth? He could have sworn she had all her teeth at the dinner table.

He throws the chemist her clothes and hurriedly puts on his own. Before he can start back to the house, she grabs his arm.

“Kiss me like you did the first time on the lawn, under the low yellow moon.” She rises onto her toes and lifts her face toward his. “Kiss me. Baby!” Trapped, John leans down and brushes his lips softly and quickly against the chemist’s. She pulls him closer, forcing his lips open with her tongue. He tries to resist, but her lilac scent makes him forget the missing tooth, and his body responds to her scent and her tongue. She pulls away first. “I’ve saved myself for you, you know,” she drawls, and John starts trembling again. Lilacs be damned!

“It’s late. Don’t you need to be in early tomorrow?” John walks rapidly toward the house.

“Don’t worry! I won’t tell anyone!” the chemist promises, following him. “You know, I took the job to be close to you.” She laughs her maniacal laugh again. The chemist makes less sense every minute. How did she know about him before meeting him tonight? Eliza never acknowledges his existence outside of their house these days. But what if this time she did acknowledge him? What if Eliza had more than acknowledged him? Perhaps she’d actually advertised him as part of the position, subtly communicating a surprise bonus, an exciting, illicit twist to taking the job. Eliza would do that to get rid of him, especially after he’d told her he’d never leave their marriage without squeezing every last penny out of her.

The house is empty. Were they outside that long?

“Looks like we have the place to ourselves,” the chemist says, putting her arms around John’s waist. John removes her hands and backs away. She doesn’t seem sexy anymore, now that he knows she’s missing a tooth and may be an unscrupulous bargainer who chose John over a corner office.

“It’s so late,” he says. “And I’m so tired.”

“I suppose I should head home,” the chemist admits. “But tell me – when can we see each other again?” She grabs his sleeves, and John fights the urge to back away again. If he can just get her to her car—“When?” the chemist asks again.

“Soon,” John says. “I’ll find a way.” Seeming satisfied, she follows John out the front door.

Eliza is in the circular drive staying good night to the judge. She hugs him, and stands with her back to the yard as his car pulls away and heads down the driveway. When she turns around, she’s wiping her eyes. She sees John and the chemist and smiles brightly, dropping her hands to her side. “Did John give you a nice tour of the house, Eleanor?”

“John and I made love in the yard, Eliza,” the chemist says.

“Really?” Eliza asks, and even as focused as he is on trying to escape whatever the chemist has in mind for him, John can tell Eliza is surprised.

“It had to happen, Eliza. We knew from the moment we met at Oxford three years ago that we were meant to be together.”

Oxford? John’s confused. He’s never been to Oxford. He hasn’t even been outside Virginia except for his honeymoon to New Orleans.

“Oxford?” Eliza asks.

“I was working on my Ph.D., and he was a visiting professor at the law school.”

It was just a case of mistaken identity! John’s heartbeat begins to calm down, and he sighs.

Eliza looks at John and shakes her head. She approaches the chemist, takes both her hands, and says, “Eleanor, my husband has never taught at Oxford. He couldn’t even get into Oxford.” Eliza’s dismissive tone stings, and for a moment the sting overshadows his relief.

“That, that’s not true!” the chemist says. “He was an instructor there. We met at a cocktail party. We made love in the Botanic Garden!”

“I’m sorry, Eleanor,” Eliza says.  “My husband isn’t a very nice man.” She puts her arm around the chemist. “Come, let’s have some cognac and get to know each other better.”

The women turn and walk toward the house, the chemist taking one final look at John before following Eliza inside and closing the door.

John watches the door close, and the final traces of his fog dissipate while the brightness of the moon illuminates his solitude.   

Christie Marra is a legal aid attorney who writes, dances and poles in Richmond, Virginia. Despite her diverse interests and activities, she’s frequently vexed by her inability to maintain a clean house and cook without burning something. She blames this unhealthy obsession on the Enjoli commercial that seemed to play constantly when she was growing up. Christie’s short stories have appeared in various publications, including Little DeathThe Write Launch and Pangryus.

A Short Story by E. M. Issam

“It was three winters ago when the artist declared their war against excuses,” Hamil started. “And it was hot. Real hot. The hottest winter in a decade. All the winters are hot now, but this one you could see the air above the road all shimmering in waves that made you thirsty to look at them. The artists were sick of being hungry. They were sick of five years of excuses from their NRAP caseworkers (Nutrition Replication Assistance Program) not giving them enough food stamps, sick to death of not being able to feed themselves.

“The ones without family or money, True Artists they called themselves, lived in that deserted neighborhood behind the Rose Garden. Thirdi, that’s right. The True Artists still live there now. Why do people call it ThirDi? On account of the neighborhood being shaped like a Thirsty Dinosaur chugging the Willamette. No bullshit. You gotta look on a map to get it. So then don’t believe me. Just, look, the point is the neighborhood is called Thirdi, alright? Who cares why? And I bet your mom told you not to go there. ‘The scary people live there,’ she told you. Even though Thirdi is ‘where the real Portlanders lived when Canada ended at the Great Lakes.’ Or so people used to say. She’s right about one thing though, your mom. Thirdi is a slum.

“After the war, but before unification, the Canadian Army used to cage Americans in the Rose Garden. They locked up everyone who wouldn’t pledge allegiance to queen and Canada, including American soldiers. And when anybody died, Nucks used to dig open graves for them back in Thirdi. Yea, Nucks. You don’t know Nucks? It’s what our guys called the Canadian fighters. Like Charlie in Vietnam or Haji in Iraq. Jesus, but then this seems to be the night I find out you’re not so street smart. Okay see, you know how when the east winds start going, the whole west side of Portland smells like sewer? That’s because of all the bodies that Nucks dumped in mass graves. Hundreds of Oregon soldiers are buried under Thirdi. People say it could be up to half of Portland’s World War III vets. Nobody knows, maybe it’s more.

“And so, the artists say all that history and horror gives the Thirdi neighborhood a special kind of magic, nestled back there behind the Rose Garden. In Thirdi, whole walls are known to collapse at bad hours of the night. In Thirdi, everything is dangerous and streaked with howlite veins of soot. In Thirdi, an artist can live rent free.

“Rent free means they don’t have to pay to sleep there. Because artists don’t have any money. Yea, maybe they could get jobs, but they don’t want to get jobs. You’ll understand when it’s your turn to slave for a living. No, nobody likes their job. Then your mom is lying to you because she doesn’t. Hey, why don’t you be like your brother? See how he sits there and doesn’t ask so many questions? That’s why we like him so much. That’s why we let him bring you over.

“Still, it’s difficult to fight a war against excuses, for the artists I mean. Because if you remember, that’s what this whole story is all about. And all True Artists get are excuses. Like why can’t they grow their own crops? Everybody says it’s too hot to grow crops anymore. They say replicated food is perfect, that the bugs in real food will kill you if you eat it, but the artists just want to try. And who can blame them? A good replicator costs as much as a house. And you see what a pound of amino acids costs? Of course, you don’t. But trust me, it’s more than you want to pay. And nobody will fix old replicators anymore either. So, people are forced to buy new ones. And no one can afford that. And you might as well just eat your handfuls of long sugar and fatty acids rather than stuff them into one of those Canadian knockoffs. If you ask me, my dad is right. This continent has gone to the wolves.

“So, but why not let the artists try? Let them grow a few stalks of corn and see if they don’t end up just fine. Excuses, that’s why. Lies. All of the NRAP bullshit. And so the artists call it their war against excuses, but it’s really a war against a government that demands I.D. for food stamps, and a unified North America that won’t let them grow corn, and all the other million little evils that bureaucrats do to put off calamity for one more day. But the artists, they know a secret. If the people only came together as one, if they only resisted the forces which oppress them as one people, then the magic of that alone would be bread enough to eat. Sounds crazy, right?

“No one remembers which artist first came up with the idea to throw a party. But once people heard about it, the idea spread like wildfire. The way it was said to me, the True Artist’s plan was to bring everyone from all over Portland to Thirdi and get them drunk enough to love each other. A communion of that kind of collective spirit would force new crops into existence. That’s what the artists said anyway. Sounded good too. I went.

“On a lucky Tuesday, a truck full of hydrocarbons and long sugars crashed going past the Rose Garden. Its tires popped, just like that. By the time help arrived, three hundred pounds of cargo were missing, and the driver had an extra concussion. No one was ever arrested and with a good replicator, hydrocarbons and long sugar are all you need for some quality booze. The Friday after the accident, the artists threw their party. It was magic. A never-ending supply of drinks for anyone who wanted, totally free. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t know how they managed to replicate alcohol. They must have stolen a replicator too. Well if they had a replicator the whole time, it doesn’t really make sense they’d be angry about the food stamps thing does it? Just shut up, let me finish.

“By Saturday, there wasn’t a person in Portland who hadn’t heard the stories. On and on the party went. Sunday, Monday, into Tuesday too. Starved, hairy men and women. Handsewn clothes in bright colors that hurt your eyes to look at them. Lime skirts, vermillion blouses, pinstripe trousers, orchid jackets. I learned all these colors from the artists. You can too. Big lights and loud music. No shoes to be seen anywhere. The smell, you can’t even imagine. But everyone was happy, everyone was coming together. And then guess who showed up? I bet you know. That’s right. Police battered down the door to this flophouse where we were all dancing like angels. One by one, those jackals in blue killed all the plants of goodwill we’d manifested into life. They took everyone to jail. Everyone they could catch that is. I escaped by pushing a poor boy into a riot shield. He couldn’t have been no older than you, fifteen at most. Not a day goes by I don’t remember the look on his face. I think he peed himself. I was smelling ammonia all the way to Loring Street.

“But, so, after the heat died down, the artist returned. In protest of getting their asses kicked, a sculptor named Misery Van Sant hung a lantern above their party house. Turning to the stumbling bodies around her–those drunkards still had plenty of alcohol left, you see–Misery proclaimed, ‘From now until forever, my sculpture of Lantern on a Hook will mourn the moment the artist dream died.’

“The following sober day, no one, not even Misery Van Sant, could remember her speech nor why she gave it, but the artists found the hanging lantern so useful that she got praised for showing a True Artist’s practicality. Misery lanterns are still hung above Thirdi houses today, lighting the way to the next big party.

“Yes, obviously someone remembered her speech or no one could repeat what Misery said. Listen, Alex was it? It’s real simple, Alex. They say the artists still have a hundred pounds or more of their stock. Drinks are always cheap and easy. But this would not be one of your freshman parties, okay? These are grown up people, doing grown up things. Now, I know your replicator has a parent lock, so you’ve never tried a drop before have you? That’s what I thought. Your brother, he says you’re cool. For my part, I don’t know. You keep bothering me with all these questions. Well now it’s my turn to ask something. And it’s really the only question that’s going to matter tonight. Pay attention. The True Artists, I hear they’re going to hang a Misery lantern tomorrow. So, you wanna come or what?”

E. M. Issam is a breakout writer of the Northwest’s exploding creative writing movement. If there was ever any doubt that the resurgent Northwest style is ready to make its mark, read “True Artists Light a Misery Lantern.”

A Poem by MK Punky

When the lies and hypocrisies and cruelties comprising the daily news
became too much for her to bear
she disconnected from her networks
and retreated to a grassy meadow
in a thoroughly Thoreauvian gesture of abdication
substituting amorphous clouds for concrete avarice
romping dogs for rambling pundits
birdsong for Supreme Court testimony

Grounding the soil’s electrical charge in her supine spine
she would admit freely to skeptical interlocutors
I too am no scientist
yet her corporeal senses
reliable reporters all these years
told her the truth about our climate
evident to everyone who spends all day outside
staring at the sky
while those who scheme to rob women of their rights
spew foul air from diseased lungs and overstuffed colons
artlessly denying the conflagration
burning down their republic

A founder of the 80’s hardcore band The Clitboys and the poet laureate of Vista Street Community Library in Los Angeles, MK PUNKY is the author of many books, most recently a memoir of housing a homeless man, The Unexpected Guest (Diversion Books). “Inside Out” is an excerpt from MK’s collection The Year of When, 365 daily poems beginning with the same word.

A Short Story by Elizabeth Powers

Mirabel had known Joseph for all of three hours, and already she knew that she wanted to bash in his head. Or lick his face. She couldn’t really decide which, and the line between destruction and desire was maddening. He had introduced himself as Joseph K, and she had immediately known two things about him: that he thought very little of her intelligence and thought a lot of his own. Still, she was intrigued by his quick wit, the way the word “narcissism” rolled off his tongue when he told her about its Greek origins, all honey and olive oil and red wine.

She saw him standing at the reflection pool, blue-eyed and dark locked, his cheeks sallow, his muscles wasted away. She wasn’t sure why he had started talking to her about the book she was reading, why she had let him sit across from her, black coffee in hand, leaning over the table like a lover, whispering words of acumen and self-interest that sounded like songs. But the way his lips curved around the word “nymph” was why she let him continue the conversation over dinner. She insisted on briám and baklava and he took her to a restaurant on the lower east side, where they sat on overstuffed purple pillows in a dimly lighted room and he tried to make her eat everything with her hands because he said it was more sensual.

His apartment was not exactly what she expected, but it was close. Instead of the upstairs of an old house or an old-fashioned brick structure that was converted from a brothel, he lived in a basic grey building with stain-resistant carpeting lining the halls. But the inside more than made up for the nondescript outside. Bookcases lined the walls, filled with collections of Joyce and Kafka, a copy of Chekov on his coffee table opened to The Lady with the Dog. A stool cluttered with plants stood next to the front window. A painting of a naked woman hung across from the kitchen.

“A drink?” he asked. “I have a cabernet or a bottle of whisky.”

“The wine,” she said. “Straight from the bottle.”

He chuckled and brought back two mismatched goblets filled with dark liquid from the kitchen. Hers was blue and etched with globes of fruit that she tenderly ran her thumb over as they toasted. They sat on his couch and drank the entire bottle, him talking about his work as a graduate student, how mythology and literature went hand and hand, how Persephone was the unsung beauty of the underworld, her moods as dangerous and changing as any other heroine, her skin as ivory soft as the spring, as the feather of a swan, as Mirabel herself. When he touched her for the first time, his palm on her bare knee, lightly feeling out her geography and the effect of the wine, her skin raised, goosebumps peppering the tender flesh underneath her skirt.

“You see?” he said, his hand making circles upward, “they are all the same stories.”

They had sex on his gray sofa, her body contorted, back uncomfortably bent at different angles. A welt, she was sure, to form across the side where she had been pressed into the metal bars, too distracted to stop him while he pounded into her madly, pulling on her hair.

Afterward, sticky and sore, she stretched her long limbs out against the fabric and he stood up with his back to her. She followed him to the bathroom where he smoked a cigarette out the third story window while she cleaned herself up. She washed her face in the mirror and noticed that the bottoms of her eyes were rimmed with thick black mascara lines that looked like pieces of seaweed and that her hair was knotted. She took comfort when she realized that they both looked ridiculous. It wasn’t so much his physical appearance as it was the stance he was currently taking. His cigarette dangled from his hand, propped against the open glass, his other hand resting on his hip. He wore only his dark grey boxer briefs, slung low on his hips. He would have looked like a Calvin Klein ad, all sex and indifference, if he hadn’t been standing inside a white porcelain bathtub. He flicked ashes out the window and smirked at her still naked body

“Seconds?”

Mirabel pretended to doze off after a cup of lukewarm coffee, no cream, and slipped out the door a little after three. She walked four blocks and then sat on the curb in front of a Dairy Mart and called for an Uber. She contemplated Joseph momentarily. Mostly she contemplated the empty bagel box that sat on the side of the road, half crushed and wholly dirty from the recent downpour, which had covered everything from waist level down in a thin grime of loose gravel and dirt clods. She felt a vague kinship to this box, and when the driver dropped her at her building she took a shower and made herself a piece of toast and watched an infomercial for a new kind of vegetable chopper.

She did not expect to see Joseph a week later, while she was perusing tomatoes at the farmers market. Actually, she had all but forgotten about him until he appeared behind her, bag of apples in hand, and told her she should wait a few more weeks if she wanted her tomatoes to be really ripe.   

“Red and juicy,” he said. “These aren’t there yet.”

She asked about his school and he followed her from bunches of kale to heads of cabbage talking about his latest paper on modern perceptions of Aphrodite. He asked if she knew that the goddess of love was actually born from the remnants of the ruler of the universe’s castrated testis, thrown into the sea. She said no and put down the head of garlic she had been considering. He asked her to dinner but she politely declined, claiming she was meeting a group of girlfriends for sushi. She went home and heated up a cup of ramen noodle soup instead.


“Some would call this fate,” Joseph said two weeks later, sideling up very closely next to her in a used book store.

“Some would call it stalking,” Mirabel said.

Joseph chuckled and held a tattered book out in front of him.

“Research.”

“So fate, literally.”

He told her about Athena as they perused shelves of horror stories and misspent poetry. Strategist and virgin. Motherless and cut out of her father’s forehead.

She did not deny him when he asked her to dinner. They ate pancakes and bacon at a 24 hour diner, cup after cup of black coffee keeping them there into the night.

“Why Greek mythology?” she asked.

“Because, they got it right.”

She laughed at him and shook her head. He just smirked, his cup of coffee held up between them.  

Mirabel declined the offer to spend the night at his place, but did agree to see him on purpose the following weekend.


When she got to the coffee shop that they had agreed upon, Joseph was not there yet. The night was rainy and cold, a clear sign that the summer was ebbing away, and her hair was stuck down to her forehead. She found the restroom, slicked her hair back into a high ponytail and fluffed her bangs back into place.

When she returned to the main room, Joseph was waiting, a glass of wine for her in one hand, a latte for him in the other.

“Presumptuous of you.”

“I aim to please.”

They talked about poetry and music and Joseph asked her if she knew that the name Mirabel comes from the Latin word for “of wondrous beauty.”

“Ah, so it’s not Greek then,” she said, smirking.

“Joseph means ‘he will add’ in Hebrew. We can’t all be perfect.”


After their drinks, they walked, his breath puffing in front of him in small white clouds. Her hands were cold, and she shoved them in her pockets.  Joseph stopped outside his building around the corner and asked her if she would like to come up again. The rain had stopped, but the cold was still there, and so she followed him up the steps.

He did not have wine, and the tea he poured her was hot and smelled like lemon. She picked up a book that was sitting on the table, a title she didn’t recognize. She pretended to read the back cover, but mostly her mind kept drifting back to the first night she had been in his apartment, the couch and the wine and the feel of metal against her bare back. But now, he was sitting on a chair on the opposite side of the room, not next to her. And she remembered her initial impulse upon meeting him. Pleasure and pain and destruction.

“It’s not an accident, you know. You and me.”

“No,” she said, setting down the book and looking at him. “Stalking, like I said before.”

He chuckled. His skin looked pale and his eyes looked wide. Mirabel felt like maybe she should be afraid of this man and his mythology, but she couldn’t make herself look away, couldn’t muster up the feeling of anxiety, the rush of adrenaline that she knew she should feel coursing through her. She wanted to ask him if she could lick across his ribcage, all muscle and taut skin. Instead she said, “When did you know?”

Joseph looked at her for a moment, his eyes traveling the length of her body, pausing on the soft curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts, the slit of skin visible between her thin sweater and her waist.

“I thought I knew the moment I saw you,” he said. “But I was sure the moment I touched your skin. So soft. So yielding. So unforgiving.”

She glared at him.

“I have time,” she said. “Before I return.”

“Oh my dear,” Joseph said, “you stopped following the rules ages ago.”

Mirabel shook her head.

“Times have changed, but the seasons stay the same.”

Joseph chuckled, lifting his tea to his perfect lips. Mirabel looked at him again, more closely than she had allowed herself when she first met him; his chiseled jaw, his muscled arms, the feature of his face perfectly symmetrical. It was no wonder she couldn’t stay away from him in the dark. But looks had been his downfall, hadn’t they? Hadn’t beauty destroyed most things in her world, including herself?

“He won’t be happy with you,” she said.

“I’d be more worried about your husband’s wrath if I thought you were going to tell him about our tryst. Besides, it’s only right that the two most beautiful people should end up with each other. It was as inevitable as the orbit of the sun. He should have known it when he sent me to look for you.”

“I’m surprised that he could pull you away from yourself long enough to go. I will admit, you were well named. The word ‘narcissism’ suits you.”

“At least the world has co-opted me. I live inside their minds, leaving their lips in moments of anger, in fiery passion. When does Persephone grace the thoughts of the world? You are all but forgotten. A distant memory. Your beauty buried and rotting.”

He stood, coming closer to her. She could see the look in his eyes, the same other men had given her millennia ago.

“He can make you a queen, but you are not immortal in this world. Here, you are nothing but flesh and bone.”

He pointed to the books that littered his walls.

“Where are you in all of them? A footnote to a greater god. A source of pain to your mother. Nothing more.”

He leaned in then, hovering over her.

“But I can change that,” he whispered. “I can make you infinite.” She felt his tongue dart out, making contact with the soft shell of her ear, and knew that she would give in to him again.

As Mirabel headed home, she raised her eyes to the sky and let the early morning sun sink into her skin. She would walk, she had decided, and enjoy the final moments of the summer. She could smell the scent of autumn in the air, knew the familiar dankness of the soil would soon beckon her home. She looked up once more at the open window where she knew the once beautiful boy was still sleeping, his cheeks sunken, his body all but bones in the light of day, and decided the encounter with Joseph had been a myth all of its own.

Elizabeth Powers has lived and wrote in many different places, but somehow always returns to the area of Cleveland, Ohio. She received her MFA from Eastern Washington University and works in electronic communications to pay the bills. You can normally find her bopping around coffee shops, binge-watching bad television with her significant other, or chasing after her young daughter.

A Poem by Carl Boon

Any fire you see’s a trace
of what you might’ve been.

How lucky you were
to have ambushed the world
when you did; how a sliver
of oxygen accompanied
the coming, the ecstasy.

Fix your gaze upon the mouth
of Wolf Creek, Mount Uludağ,
or Mars. Strips of smoke
carried west by the wind,
the noncompliant voices

of your ancestors—a martyr,
an aunt, a drummer.

Consider your descendants:
their fears, the different ways
they’ll shield themselves
from heat and pain and thought.
Ember’s merely discontinued

form, the maybe-you. Recline.
Place your elbow on the bedside
stand and listen to your mother
in the room below. She waited
for you before you came.

Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at Dokuz Eylül University.

A Flash Fiction by Pamela R Winnick

Marla parked between the yellow lines and slid out of her Jetta, the April breeze teasing her long blond hair. She wore a leather jacket and tight-fitting leggings that revealed skinny, well-toned thighs. When she spotted Art’s Jeep, she waved at him, smiling.  He stepped out, his belly bulging above his sweatpants, his polo shirt stained beneath the underarms.     

“Hey,” he said, “What’s up?”

If only he’d hug her or at least kiss her cheek.

“You’re looking kind of, uh, tired,” she said.

He scratched his head, his hair flecked with dandruff. “Tax season. Everyone waits ’til the last minute.”

Maybe that’s why he hadn’t called, she thought as she reached for his wrist. “Such a tragedy. Losing her to pneumonia of all things. She was only forty.”

Freeing himself from her chokehold, he looked her up and down. “In the mood for a burger and fries?  Looks like you could add a few pounds.”

So he’d noticed the weight loss, she thought as they wove around parked cars, stopping when they reached Charlie’s Burgers, tucked between Target and Walgreens. Inside, he asked for a booth in the back, dropped down without waiting for Marla to settle in.  

“Do you believe in heaven?” she asked, twirling her gold chain.

“I guess.”

“If Claire could see us now, what would she think?”

He shrugged. “She’d be grateful, probably. We’d been out of touch since high school, but all of a sudden you were there. Feeding us when she was in the hospital. Speaking at her funeral. Arranging the flowers.”

Marla might have done more, but, dropping by his house one day with a tuna casserole,  she spotted a pile of plates on his front stoop, covered in foil. Bolting, she realized she’d have to act quickly; she couldn’t just wait around.

The waitress slapped two plastic menus on the table, announced the day’s specials:    French onion soup and fried calamari.

“I’ll take the green salad,” Marla said. “Dressing on the side.”

Art ordered a triple cheeseburger, fried onions, extra mayo.

“I hope I’m not bothering you,” she said. “But when I didn’t hear from you, I worried. So I thought I’d shoot you a text and ask you to lunch.”
With a shudder, she recalled his response. Since you’re asking, I guess the meal’s on you.

 “We’re friends, aren’t we?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She twirled a loose strand of hair. “Then why didn’t you call me? It’s been a month since the funeral.”

“Sorry. But, like I said, I’ve been super busy,”

“I would have helped if you’d called. I’m here for you.”

The waitress brought their food, warning Art that his plate was hot. He tucked a paper napkin in his shirt,  drowned the cheeseburger and fries with ketchup, lathered the hamburger bun with mayo, took a huge bite, without waiting for her to start.  Marla filled a teaspoon with vinaigrette and dribbled it on her salad, picking at the lettuce and allowing herself three green olives. He downed his meal as though it were his last, chewing with his mouth open. But unmarried men were few; she could always fix him later.

She pushed her bowl away, tilted her head. She’d planned the words, rehearsed them again and again, but now they eluded her. Summoning her courage, she plunged ahead, unscripted..

“I hope it’s not too soon.,” she said.

“Too soon for what?”

She twisted her napkin. “I was thinking you might be lonely.” Looking up, she drew a deep breath. “If you want to catch a movie or something, maybe you’ll think of me?”

The waitress cleared their plates, asking it they’d like dessert. Art ordered pumpkin pie with whipped cream, lots of it.  Marla demurred.  Beside them, two tables had been joined together for what looked like an office party. A promotion. a birthday.

Or maybe an engagement

The waitress set down his pumpkin pie. He ate lustily, his mouth open, not a crumb left on the plate.  A crowd formed a line by the entrance, entering in twos and threes. He licked the whipped cream off his fingers.

“So what do you think?” Marla pressed. “You and me? It’s not like we just met. We’ve known each other since first grade.”

He patted his belly. “I’m kind of seeing someone.”

“A woman?”

“I’m no queer.”

“Who?”

“Suzanne Mills. We went out for a while senior year. She called me after the funeral and, well, one thing led to another.”

“I ran into her recently. She’s obese.”

He smiled apologetically, a crumb caught between his teeth. “Yeah. I guess she’s sort of heavy, but I like a little meat on my woman.”

The waitress set the check in front of him. He slid it toward Marla, but she couldn’t bring herself to pick it up.  

“What was I supposed to do?” he went on. “Sit home nights and cry?” He crunched his paper napkin, tossed it on the table. “I mean a guy’s got needs.”

A graduate of Columbia University’s Schools of Law and Journalist, Pamela R Winnick was an award-winning journalist before turning to fiction. Her debut novel, Betrayed, is due out in 2022.

A Flash Fiction by Aditi Ramaswamy

So my car breaks down a lot…

I really should replace it––but somehow, I can’t bring myself to. Fine, I’ll say it: I’m fond of the damn piece of junk. I think people nowadays are far too focused on their destinations that they don’t take time off to enjoy the journey itself. So it’s kind of nice, being forced to stop so much: you meet the most interesting people.

Anyway, it always happens to conveniently sputter to a stop right smack dab in Nowheresville, USA––and always next to a dilapidated inn named “The Shady Hotel of Horrors” or some crap like that. You can practically hear the banjos playing.

That being said, you’d expect me to have met a whole bunch of creeps––you know the type. Toothless inbred hicks with a taste for gruesome murder, and all that. I had to admit, part of me really did hope to come across one, just to see if they really do exist. But the closest I’d ever come to Encounters of the Urban Legend Kind was the one-eyed weight-lifting gas station attendant in Pennsylvania who insisted on stepping out back and showing me an entire camera reel of pictures of his goat. (Her name is Albertine, by the way, and she likes wearing pink ribbons in her beard.)

Until the other day. I was down in––well, I’m not naming names here, but let’s just say it was one of them states known for great food with a side of whackjob evangelism. It was maybe one, two in the morning, and I was putt-putting along one of those winding country roads in the Crapmobile when it had suddenly decided to stop cold turkey on me. No amount of turning the key or cussing at the steering wheel would make it move––so I’d finally given up, gotten out of the car, and surveyed my surroundings. Nothing but broad, squat tobacco leaves for miles around–

No, wait, over there––a few yards off the side of the road. Yeah, definitely a house. I’d kicked the Crapmobile one last time, then waded through the thick sea of future lung cancer toward the light in the distance.

Upon closer inspection, I’d realised that calling it a “house” was actually pretty generous of me. It was a hovel, a shack, a moldering pile of boards held together by a handful of nails and the will of God. And when its door had creaked open and its sole inhabitant had stepped out, I’d definitely seen the family resemblance: she looked as if someone had stretched a sheet of white paper haphazardly over a jumble of bones. Her eyes had leisurely slid across me from head to toe; then she’d licked her cracked lips and bared a set of sharp, crooked teeth the colour of coffee stains.

“Well hello there,” she’d drawled in a voice like nails tap-dancing on a chalkboard. “And what’s a tender scrap like you doin’ outside my old home?”

“Sorry to bother you, Ma’am,” I’d said, smiling ingratiatingly. “But my car broke down, and my phone is near dead. Mind if I use yours?”

A spark of hunger had ignited in the depths of her pale bloodshot eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t got no phone. But you’re welcome to some supper, and to use my guest bedroom after. It’s a very comfy bedroom,” she’d added. “So comfy, some folks never wanted to come out!”

“That’s very sweet of you,” I’d said, stepping around her to get in the door- and nearly tripping over a bloodied axe lying out on the sagging porch. Frankly, I had been pretty thrilled: my first real crazy! This would be an experience to write home about for sure.

The first thing that had hit me when I’d walked inside was the smell: a heavy curtain of warm metallic tang enveloped me the moment I set foot in the shack. The woman had gestured to a narrow black hallway in the back of the dwelling. “You’s sleepin’ there. But first––supper!”

“Oh, it’s all right–” I’d started to say, but she had already shuffled into the kitchen and was busy clattering pots around.

“Nonsense!” she’d snapped. “You’ll eat, and you’ll enjoy it. I even got a whole pecan pie left, all the better to fatten you up. You’s thin as a beanstalk!”

I’d stifled a giggle when she’d said that. A lunatic who sounded like she’d just fallen out of the pages of Hansel and Gretel? ’Twas my lucky day, indeed.

She had come out bearing the aforementioned goods on a tin platter, and had set it down with a firm thump on the rickety wooden table. “Now, I want to see you eat this all up.”

I had eyed the food distastefully before looking back up at her. She certainly wasn’t a gas station attendant––but, I had supposed, something was better than nothing. “Thank you very much, Ma’am,” I’d said finally. “But I’m afraid I can’t partake of this. See,” I’d continued, smiling politely, “bit of a quirk of mine––I only eat fresh meat.”

And then I drew my knife.

Aditi Ramaswamy‘s dream job is to haunt a pond in the woods. Until she becomes the forest spirit she’s destined to be, though, she’ll stick to software engineering and writing fiction. Ramaswamy’s debut novel, Nathaniel Keene (The Lovelace Chronicles Book 1), is available here.

A Poem by James B. Nicola

It doesn’t really matter what you did
today, what great infraction, what small sin.
What’s more important is that it has gotten
you to now and soon to all tomorrows.

Nor does it matter what I’m doing now,
talking to you about it. Some tomorrow,
all will be forgotten. Really. That’s
the way it is, and is supposed to be.

Don’t get me wrong: it matters, but what matters
even more is that in time, it won’t.

What really matters is what you shall do
next year, or even twenty years from now.

When I’m long gone and equally forgotten.

James B. Nicola is the author of five collections of poetry: Manhattan Plaza (2014), Stage to Page: Poems from the Theater (2016), Wind in the Cave (2017), Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists (2018), and Quickening: Poems from Before and Beyond (2019). His decades of working in the theater as a stage director, composer, lyricist, playwright, and acting teacher culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award. A Yale grad, he hosts the Hell’s Kitchen International Writers’ Roundtable at his library branch in Manhattan: walk-ins welcome.

A Short Story by Emily Guy Birken

Mrs. Bantry stood in the doorway of her richly appointed library and fumed. She turned her disapproving glare from the sprawled limbs and lifeless eyes cluttering up her Persian rug to her husband, whose mouth still gaped open.

“Well?!” she demanded.

Mr. Bantry immediately began sputtering. “My…my dear! I have no idea who…”

She cut him off. “Yes, yes. You’ve never seen him before in your life. I don’t care a fig about that!”

Mr. Bantry’s eyebrows shot up to where his hairline used to be. “M…Martha?”

Mrs. Bantry sighed. “Arthur, my book club will be here in three-quarters of an hour. I need everything to be perfect. Lionel will be here.”

Mr. Bantry knew that his wife’s rivalry with the local parson had gone to ridiculous lengths before. After Lionel Sedges’s strawberry rhubarb pie had been complimented by the other members of the book club, Martha had hired a pastry chef to create a masterful concoction for the following meeting, and then locked the poor woman in the basement for a full 24 hours after the book club guests all departed to ensure no one detected her deception in claiming the recipe as her own.

After Lionel won an award for his rose garden, Martha had dug out their own garden, added a hedge maze, over a dozen topiary animals, seven different varieties of flowering trees, and even built a decorative hermitage—although the unemployed actor she’d hired to be their hermit quit after two days to audition for a foot-cream commercial.

The library’s addition to their home was only the most recent in Mrs. Bantry’s campaign to one-up the diffident young clergyman. Apparently, Lionel had converted his study into a traditional country house library, having inherited a number of gorgeous old volumes from his father and wanting a suitable place to display them. The young man had spent his evenings and spare hours designing and building the shelves, paneling the walls, and staining all the wood to a bright, perfect walnut. He had debuted his beautiful new room at the book club meeting the month before, after two years of work on it.

Mrs. Bantry had come home seething and kept Mr. Bantry up half the night with her angry mutterings. It wasn’t until nearly 3 in the morning, when Mr. Bantry heard her suddenly exclaim, “Oh, yes!” in the tone he had learned to dread, that he was truly afraid. She slipped off to sleep soon after, and he watched her form in the other twin bed, wondering what she would do next.

The following morning, Mrs. Bantry shook him roughly awake to ask him where the rest of the newspapers were.

“M…my dear?” he’d asked her, blinking at the dressing-gown clad figure of his wife, her head held stiffly in her righteous rage.

“The newspapers, Arthur! The newspapers!” she huffed. “I can only find this week’s. I need something I read a fortnight ago. Perhaps as much as a month. Where are they?”

Mr. Bantry reached for his glasses on the night table. “Have you checked the kitchen, my dear? I often place them there.”

Mrs. Bantry’s smile was possibly the most terrifying thing about her—at least, to Mr. Bantry. She displayed it now, showing all her large white teeth, and leaned over to kiss her husband. “Thank you, Arthur!”

When he had finally dressed and sat down at the breakfast table, Mrs. Bantry was already on the phone. “I don’t care what it costs!” she shouted. “I need you here tomorrow morning.” And she slammed the phone down.

Mr. Bantry knew better than to ask about her plans, or inquire to whom she was speaking. He would find out soon enough.

He was not at all surprised the next morning when a lorry arrived with the name “Latham’s Libraries” emblazoned across the side. Mrs. Bantry jumped to meet the driver, who turned out to be Mr. Latham himself. A short, stocky man, his eyes shone with a glint of humour as he shook Mrs. Bantry’s hand.

“Rush job, eh?” Latham asked, pushing his dingy blue cap up off his head to scratch at his scalp. Though it was barely 8 o’clock in the morning, Latham was already glistening with a thin layer of sweat that darkened the brim of his cap. “Lucky fer you Miz Bantry, I specialize in quick work.”

“Yes, yes,” she said, with an airy wave. “I’ve read your advertisement. It’s why I hired you. Now get to work.”

And get to work he did. Within a week, he had built the addition onto their home, installed shelving, imported books, artwork, furniture, rugs, and aged brandy, and even a purring Siamese cat. The three weeks between the completion of the library and the day of Mrs. Bantry’s book club were the most excited Mr. Bantry had ever seen his wife. He caught her practicing her “this old library?” look and self-deprecating chuckle several times a day.

But now, there was a dead body in the center of her library, and the cat was sniffing at the corpse’s shoes—all on the very day of her triumphant reveal of the new room, and she was very cross about it, indeed.

Mr. Bantry swallowed hard before squaring his shoulders. “Martha,” he said, “We need to call the police.” His voice only wavered slightly.

Mrs. Bantry turned and walked decisively toward the phone table, and Mr. Bantry began to congratulate himself. He should put his foot down more often.

“I’m glad you agree with me, my dear,” he said. “I am sorry about your book club,” he added magnanimously, “I know you are desolated.”

Mrs. Bantry simply snorted, not even bothering to refute his suggestion. She looked up a number in the book beside the phone, and quickly dialed. “Mr. Latham!” she said peremptorily once connected, “we have a body!”

“My dear!” Mr. Bantry cried. “Why are you bringing Mr. Latham into this?”

Mrs. Bantry turned a cold glare on her husband, shooing him away with a wide gesture of her arm. Mr. Bantry was close enough, however, to hear Mr. Latham’s rough voice through the receiver: “Oh, I was afraid of that!”

“Well, really, Mr. Latham,” Mrs. Bantry responded. “You could have warned me!”

The tinny voice of the contractor replied, “I spell out the all the potential problems in the contract, Miz Bantry. Right there in subsection A, I explain that dead bodies often turn up unexpectedly in traditional English libraries. Not my fault if you don’t read all the fine print.”

Mr. Bantry’s legs felt like blancmange, and he sank to the floor. He was horrified to realize he had landed on the dead man’s outstretched hand and shuddered, jerking away so that he was no longer touching it. The cat ceased its investigation of the body’s feet and came to settle itself on Mr. Bantry’s lap.

Mrs. Bantry hadn’t noticed her husband’s pallor or change in altitude. She continued berating Mr. Latham. “And what am I supposed to do with this thing now? I have guests coming in…” she paused and glanced as the clock on the mantel “40 minutes.”

“Get rid of it,” advised Mr. Latham. “And quickly, too, before a detective shows up. No little foreign men or daffy old spinsters hanging about, are there? Once one of them arrives… well, let’s just say you’ll miss the peaceful time of just having a corpse to deal with.”

Mrs. Bantry turned to glance out the curtained windows. There was no way she could see anything through the tiny slit of window that showed, but she still pressed her lips together in a thin line, as if she spied amateur detectives coming up the street four abreast. “And where do you suggest I dispose of this body?” she asked Mr. Latham.

Mr. Bantry could not hear the man’s reply, but whatever it was did not satisfy his wife. She slammed the phone back in its cradle and turned to him.

“Come on then,” she said to Mr. Bantry. “You’ll have to get the shoulders.” She suited deed to word by moving to the corpse’s feet and neatly hoisting them up.

Mr. Bantry’s mouth opened and closed for several moments with no sound coming out. When he finally managed to stammer out his wife’s name, she let out an impatient breath.

“Arthur,” she said with the kind of exaggerated calmness that wives usually reserve for tense conversations with their husbands during dinner parties. “There are only 35 minutes remaining until my club arrives, and I still have not assembled all the food or mixed the punch. Please grab this dead gentleman’s shoulders and help me carry him into the hedge maze. We’ll figure out what to do with him after the party.”

And so a dazed Mr. Bantry stood and reached for the corpse’s shoulders. “Lift with your knees, darling,” Mrs. Bantry reminded him. “No sense putting out your back.”

What followed was an unpleasant several moments. Though the dead man was not particularly large, bodies are unwieldy things, and the Bantrys struggled to get him around corners and through doors. When they had finally laid him at the first turn of the hedge maze, Mr. Bantry pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead, staring down at the prone body.

“Shouldn’t we say a few words or something?” he asked, fearing that his voice was on the verge of whining. He cleared his throat. “I mean…”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Arthur!” Mrs. Bantry exclaimed, turning her back on him and exiting the maze. He stood dumbly for a long moment. From across the garden, he heard his wife call “Are you coming?!”

Mr. Bantry was sitting at the kitchen table with his hands braced around a much-needed cup of tea an hour later, listening to the gentle murmur of discussion from the library, when he saw a stooped old woman with fluffy white hair and bright blue eyes and a little man with an enormous handlebar mustache and a meticulously tied cravat enter their garden and walk toward the maze.

Mr. Bantry squeezed his eyes shut and sipped his tea.

Emily Guy Birken is the author of four books on personal finance, including The Five Years Before You Retire, with a fifth under contract, and her byline has appeared in Forbes. She has been writing professionally since 2010. She lives in Milwaukee with her engineer husband, two sons who are determined to make her a Pokemon expert, a retired greyhound, and a cat that doubles as a throw pillow. You can follow Emily on Twitter @emilyguybirken

A Poem by R.T. Castleberry

A drink at The Zero mixes strong.
Shots spill the rim,
cocktails served brimful and burning.
Scent of lime slice, mint sweetly crushed
hovers in the smoke.
Matador and picador swing through,
each precise in his fiesta control.
Coastal painters pull them
to sketch pad, to laptop easel.
Poets sip confessional absinthe,
snipe at journal critique.

At the window tables,
the café blooms like winter lilies.
Tea and tangerines accent each seating.
Lake winds caress the elms.
The random raging wife snares 
a carafe of vino tinto, settles
sipping beside the tugboat quay.
Tremulous over lover’s lyrics,
a strolling soprano warns, “Goodbye, I’ve lost.”

Garnet ring gracing clenched fist
my third adultery instructs, “Don’t marry.
Adopt a string of dogs,
the kids and cognac mothers that come with.”
She gifts me her greyhound—tethered,
dozing at the ballroom door.
Living privilege to its conclusion,
she repudiates crowns of iris, rose, camellia;
denies family pressure, ominous marriage.
Despite all balcony lies,
the horoscope years that lay between us,
if she were to ask, I’d embrace
her children fighting on the river,
her children dicing in the desert.

A Pushcart Prize nominee, R.T. Castleberry is an internationally published poet and critic. He was a co-founder of the Flying Dutchman Writers Troupe, co-editor/publisher of the poetry magazine Curbside Review, an assistant editor for Lily Poetry Review and Ardent. His work has appeared in The Alembic, Blue Collar Review, Misfit, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, White Wall Review, Silk Road, and Trajectory. Internationally, he’s had poetry published in Canada, Great Britain, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Portugal. the Philippines and Antarctica. He lives and writes in Houston, Texas.

An Essay by Steven Schroeder

Michael stood in front of the classroom with his partner, Gretchen. She was a foot shorter than him with brown hair, almond-colored eyes, and wore a green sundress. He wore a button-down shirt tucked into slacks with brown dress shoes. Michael could feel the sweat collecting in his armpits as he read off the PowerPoint presentation behind him,

“So although there are no physical symptoms of illness or perhaps meeting set criteria, it would be difficult for a doctor to allow physicians to assisted suicide based on the principle that it is against a doctor’s code to cause death. Without a severe medical condition, seeking to ask a doctor to commit suicide because of something they cannot see. Where one person may be suffering a debilitating disease such as cancer, a person suffering from mental illness would be intangible and therefore the legality of allowing for products such as euthanasia, which are the most harmless form of suicide.”

A hand rose. It belonged to a girl named Tina who sat in the front of the classroom. She titled her chin up and said, “What you’re saying is, is that if someone goes to a doctor, and let’s say, I don’t know, that you are sitting in a room blaring music all day, has no friends, don’t talk to anyone, that the doctor wouldn’t describe you as being depressed.”

“Yes.”

Professor Durlich interrupted: “If I may class, I believe that what Michael is saying is that without such visible signs such as mental retardation, its impossible to know the mindset the patient is under when considering suicide. Now, being retarded is no doubt difficult but can be managed, simply having a bad day, going to a doctor, and asking for euthanasia is not in either party’s interest.”

Professor Durlich nodded his head, satisfied with his own opinion. He sat in the back corner of the classroom, one leg over the other revealing his Patriots Football socks. He had on a black sports jacket with missing gold buttons, a white polo shirt that had a mustard stain on the collar, and the jeans that must have been purchased a size too short so that everyone could see his patriot’s socks which he possessed infinite quantities.

Michael and Gretchen looked at each other. Gretchen pressed the small remote in her hand and the last slide came on the screen that stated their sources.

The classroom applauded.

The next pair came and gave their presentation on a different topic of mental illness, picked at random from Mr.Dulrich’s old Red Sox hat. The windows of the classroom were large and evenly spaced, giving a warming amount of sunlight through the leaves of the oak trees tapping the window, calling for the classroom to be let outside. Their desks were cheap plastic with small tables that would fold up and were just big enough to fit an open notebook and underneath was the name of the prison where they were manufactured from in Western Massachusetts.

Michael stared at his phone. He had an email from campus security:

“Dear Mr. Gallagher,

“As of this moment you are on academic probation. Below you will find the incident report filed by one of our campus officers.

“At approximately 20:55 hrs, a marked State Police Cruiser entered campus with Trooper Samson operating it. This officer was standing outside the security booth and in a brief conversation with Trooper, Samson learned that he came upon a Devos College student who was intoxicated and sitting in the middle of Boylston Ave. You are in the back of the cruiser loud, abusive and banging on the petition. Informing Trooper Samson that we had no place on campus to house loud, abusive and intoxicated students, he stated he would handle the matter personally and exited from campus.

“Respectfully Submitted,
“Lt. Tyler Fitzpatrick”

The class ended. Michael gathered his things. Gretchen tried to tell Michael that he did a good job on the presentation. The crowd around him carried on their schedules, their lives where Michael once valued their opinions but now he felt the black edges of his sight creep in toward tunnel vision and a ringing in his ears that followed down the marble stairs.

The hallway had no discernable features from any other hallway, high ceilings, polished tile floor, tack boards made by student government. In the middle, leading out to the quad, was a café. Michael hadn’t eaten all day. The door to campus security was toward the end, off a smaller hallway to a room without a door next to a locked room.

A student worked the front desk, a high piece of a cubicle wall that had a counter that went up to Michaels’s neck as he scanned the stack of charging radios, the book with names and address, times, he looked around and there, sitting by a filling cabinet in a chair was Lt. Fitzpatrick Oafish, ugly, with a dropping Boston drawl, and narrow metal glasses on a mushroom sized nose, he sighed as he stood up. His uniform resembled that of a police officer and he spoke with a weak authority,

“you, uh, get my message?”

“…yea…”

The student at the desk looked up at Michael from their homework and left the room. Fitzpatrick  made a few clicks, and then stood up, hand on his gun, and motioned for Michael to come over and take a look. Fitzpatrick pointed at the screen,

“There. That’s you. I saw you in the back of the car you were drunk, spitting, yelling, and cursing. I thought you were going to break the window you were pounding on it so hard. When Tony came to drop you off, he said you were sitting in the middle of the road, like a drunk monk. ”

“You didn’t even get the time right”

“What?”

Michael was late for economics. He walked to the door in defeat, his shoulders hung low. He went into the men’s bathroom and looked at himself. He cried but that was all, a little pale and he splashed some water on his face.

*

The class was debating who was better, China or the US. By the time Michael climbed to the top floor he was out of breath, and more tired than angry. He went into the classroom and sat down. Professor Len was taking attendance, “Lauren.”

“Here.” She raised her hand. She was the last name on the list.  

Michael took a seat and raised a hand, “I’m here.”

“You are not.”

Michael lowered his hand and his neck twitched. The classroom laughed. Michael opened his notes for the debate. He didn’t get called on and spent the class looking over the news on campus. Lately, there had been cases of someone rubbing their shit on the men’s bathroom walls. They wrote slogans in shit on the mirrors. More than once Michael had gone in to have his nostrils assaulted by the odor of burnt hairs that rose into a gargantuan odor that pushed him out gagging. Michael closed his computer and spent the rest of the class doodling in his notebook, a picture of a handgun, a man with narrow eyes and mouth, and what looked like scissors coming out of his head, and a jug of whiskey marked by the double x on the barrel.

Michael had the paper in his backpack signed from his guidance counselor to drop the class. When the debate was over no one cared who won and Professor Len pointed to the homework assignment on the chalkboard. Michael handed her the form without a word, and she flicked her pen on the signature line. Michael put the paper in his backpack and walked down the stairwell out the metal doors to the quad.

Michael heard his name called and saw that Fitzpatrick was waving at him, smiling. He looked clumsy as he hopped off the curb, his gun belt, and keys clanking from across the street; Michael could see the campus security officer sweating.

“How’s it going, Michael?”

He acted like they were old friends.

Michael veered off course from the dining hall and made a straight line for his dorm. His roommate Rob unofficially moved into his girlfriend’s apartment. There was no natural sunlight, the windows looked into a common room of the dorm building. Michael closed the lights and went to bed, his alarm set for the next lesson.

*

Michael heard the guidance counselor give his speech through the door as he peered through the chicken wire window to the one open seat directly in front of the class. When the guidance counselor had his back turned to gesture to the PowerPoint Michael opened the door and sulked over to the chair and put his backpack down. The counselor pretended not to notice him, “college will change your life, like never before. The difference in income with a college degree, and without on, is staggering.”

He wasn’t a teacher though he gave his lectures on the merits of college to students who were already enrolled in college. This was meant to motivate those who would be seeking their internships in the coming semester. The guidance counselor was in his late 40s, had thin combed over blond hair with a wide gap in his front teeth. He wore a sweater vest over a button-down shirt, wrinkled khakis, and grass-stained track shoes.

“Within the first 10 years of your graduation from Devos, you should all have had made at least 1 million dollars. Compared to a person without an undergraduate degree and we see that number doubling. Not only that but your potential for earning increase with your experience to add with your knowledge.”

He was reading from a sheet of paper. “A college degree guarantees a person’s life to pursue their own interests. A degree from Devos opens doors to countless fields in STEM and business. Finding these jobs can be difficult though, with a competitive field of applicants. Now, we are going to do a classroom exercise. Everyone will stand up, and I will describe a job to you. Based on my description you must decide if this is a job you would apply for or not.”

Everyone stood. The counselor read off the sheet. Michael heard laughter. He turned and the rest of the classroom was seated. He was the only one and the guidance counselor looked at him and grinned,  “Michel, it looks like you have just been given a job as a blackjack dealer. Now, let’s do another one.”

Michael heard the class behind him stand up. Michael again heard laughter. He stood alone in front of the class. The guidance counselor turned his page in half so he could peer at him and smile, “ Michael, looks like you are hired. You would be a city garbage worker.”

Michael sat down in his chair and the guidance counselor continued. “The positions I described to you may have been a bit out of proportion but never the less the situations and the work are real. These are some of the jobs you will be able to avoid thanks to a degree.”

Michael was the last to leave the room as if he was searching for ripcord he could pull that might eject him from the building. A security guard Michael didn’t recognize came in the classroom and motioned with his hand for Michael to follow him. He had perfect posture, a grey buzz cut, and a blank, expressionless face. In the empty hallway, it was just their footsteps down into the basement. They didn’t go to the campus security office, but to the unmarked door across the hall.

The floor had just been waxed, and a yellow plastic triangle was folded against the wall. When the guard walked past the sign collapsed on the floor in a loud smack. He hooked his thumbs in his gun belt and kicked the ground as if to say “sorry bud, looks like this is the end.”

The door closed behind Michael. He was in a small anteroom, with a desk and an empty green velvet chair. The door beyond that was open, and the head of campus security peeked around the corner and said, “Here.”

Michael walked forward.

Jack Prescott the head of campus security sat, hunched over in a grey shirt with a red tie. He had a furrowed look on his face as if he was hiding something, and Michael knew it was a pleasure, as one might feel relief after extracting a splinter. He said, “Michael, you, submitted a fiction writing piece for your English lit 101. I’d like to read it out loud for everyone to hear.”

Sitting next to him was the dean of students, her face wrinkled and bunched together in fake concern. She wore a navy blue suit, and a bright handkerchief round her neck in an attempt not to cover, but highlight the gold necklace, the gold earrings, the gold rings on her fingers that tapped her bare knee as she put on her best sympathy.

Jack picked up a folder next to him and handed it with the story to Michael, who had sat down in the empty chair, starring in the corner, hearing his own words as if they came from a stranger. Jack said, “I crossed the street too my college dorm room. I didn’t see anyone. The streetlights turned red. Headlights enveloped me. Tires squealed on the ground. Blue and red lights splashed on the trees, on the buildings. My hands came out of my pockets. The car stopped inches from me. I was terrified. I backed away. The driver door opened. A state trooper grabbed arm. He pulled me to the side of the car. I couldn’t scream. I didn’t know what was happening. The police officer didn’t say anything.

He put on the handcuffs. He put them on as tight as he could. I quaked and from my shaking throat

“Why.”

He walked me back to the sidewalk. I screamed as he opened the door. I cried again. He reached in. His hand closed around my throat. I tried to pull away; I looked out the windows. No one.

“You better shut the fuck up.”

I couldn’t breathe. The door heaved shut.

“Why.”

 He stepped on the gas. He turned on the siren. He pulled around corners and rocked my head against the door. I fell on the floor. We came to a stop. I looked up. We were under a highway. The door opened. He pulled me by the ankle. I fell to the gravel. He picked me up. He put his arm under my handcuffs, bending me over, and he walked me to a grey brick building with no windows, just a metal door under lamplight.

There are more police officers, bored looking, behind a high counter. There is a bench. I sit down. He cuffs me to the bench. While he takes off my shoes, he says,

“I caught this dumb fuck, you guys, I caught this dumb fuck, and I shit you not, sitting, in the middle of the fucking road. I go to help him, and you know what this kid does? He takes a swing at me! Drunk bastard.”

“What’s your name? Date of birth.”

“Who cares just fucking book him, I got to head out.”

“I’m going to take your picture now.”

I hadn’t been drinking, but I felt like I had. I hadn’t been sitting in the road, but I felt like I had. I have never punched a person in my life. They walk me to a cell. There is a metal bed. There is a metal mirror with a metal sink, a metal toilet with a camera lens in the corner. He takes the handcuffs off me.

I walk inside. The door closes. I looked at my veins. Blue, but the blood is red. They were blue, were they blue? Did I see a color that no one else saw? I press my head against the cell door until I crawl on the metal bed and use my hands as a pillow and go to sleep.

What I had been before, I would never be again.

I forgot how long, maybe less than a week, but I received a notice that I was under academic suspension and had been stripped of campus privileges such as parking and having guests over. A campus security guard said that the police officer who arrested me came back to the college first, and said that I was acting like a wild animal, pounding my hands against the glass in the backseat. I showed him the scars from the handcuffs, and he told me to leave his office. At this point, I could no longer understand what was real anymore. I felt again like I had done something wrong and so I began to do crazy things. I started to write. I wrote this story, though not as well, and gave it to my English teacher who gave it to campus security who made the case that I was a danger to the school.”

Jack finished reading Michael looked at the scars on his wrist, and he could feel the grip of the state police officer tightening around his throat. The person behind him was the state trooper. He could see that in his eyes, and he could see that in his blank face, unassuming, and unimpressed. The dean handed Michael his diploma.

“We think its best if everyone leaves on good terms. Congratulations. You are now Alumni.”

 Michael took his diploma and left.

Steven Schroeder is a 30-year-old salesman living in Boston. He uses the air fryer for everything, wears a facemask, and has a blog of additional writing at Lay Low Magazine.

An Essay by Elizabeth Ricketson

A large 3 x 3-foot Christmas wreath, displaying a red and black buffalo plaid bow this year rather than the traditional Christmas Tartan, hangs on the side of our little yellow house on the hill. The wreath is strategically placed on the side of the house because it is the first decorative visual one sees upon arrival after the bends and turns in our driveway.

Our annual holiday tradition feels curious this year. Other than the odd and intermittent delivery, no one is arriving at our home during the COVID-19 days of social distancing. Even our UPS driver has social distanced. Packages are no longer delivered to our front porch. Instead, he employs the ‘Last Mile Rule.’ Anyone who lives remotely is familiar with this door to door delivery exception. Our packages are delivered to the local post office.

Interestingly enough, our local post office is under construction, and we must travel to another town, several miles away, to get our mail from a temporary post office. So, yet another rule we believed to have merit has been inconveniently redefined. Exceptions and acceptance of broken rules are what 2020 has been all about. Well, technically, it began in 2016.

Tradition remains important to us and possibly even more so since we have experienced first-hand how what we love to do over the holidays has been challenged and compromised. Still, Christmas candlestick lights appear in our windows, white lights wrap around the front porch iron railing, and the wooden bean pole at the far end of the patio is decorated this year.  A new tradition or just a modification? An embellishment of an already existing tradition to offer us the illusion of sameness this holiday season? Much needed comfort?

The fruit of the bean pole harvest amply nourished us this past growing season, and now the wooden structure has been employed to offer something more esoteric. The lighting strung quite uniformly provides a nod to our Christmas traditions while illuminating our small remote community and the rare passer-by. We hoped the wooden shape might resemble the shape of a small perfect pine tree from the road. Needing to reserve judgment on that point until my morning run the next day; I would be able to see the modest display of lights from the road to determine how correct our thoughts might be.

 A heavy mist had settled over the hills for the past number of days feeling more like weeks at this point. Sunshine would surely benefit us all during this endlessly long gray period we are experiencing. The low forming fog mystically hovers and hugs the landscape. Feeling so close to the clouds as we make our way down the street, I feel like I could reach up and pull off a piece of the atmosphere as if I were snatching a piece of cotton candy from the large sugary confection. The exterior lights aglow, and the warmth a beacon home as I see our house from a short distance.  The bean pole clearly not an image of a small pine tree but beautiful in its uniqueness and quite possibly has now found a new permanence in our Christmas decoration rotation.

Saturday afternoon while flipping through the cable channels, desperately looking for anything but a news station and something to shift and ease my cluttered brain. I came across the movie Fiddler on the Roof. I had seen this movie years ago with my mother in the small local theater near where I grew up in Massachusetts. Tevye, the lead character, is a poor dairy farmer who ponders Jewish tradition as he openly converses with God. Traditions are clearly in question this year. Maybe different questions being asked about traditions than in the movie but timely ponderances about what they might mean to each of us. Like viewing the play Hamilton I could only watch the first half of the movie Fiddler on the Roof as the weight of more sadness is just too much right now. I know how both stories end, and self-preservation is a must right now.  I recognized that my emotional stress level, like many of us, has reached a new high. I cried through the final episode of the fabulous Schitt’s Creek comedy on Thanksgiving Day eve!!!! Apparently, I just needed an excuse to cry…a release.

Anticipating a very different holiday has been weighing on my mind even more heavily than I had acknowledged. Tradition. Missing the traditions, we have taken for granted over many years. Family traditions certainly have evolved and changed over the years as none of our lives or the people in them have remained static. None the less I knew I would miss the reoccurring and comfortable traditions that I had known for a lifetime with my immediate family. I was surprised at the end of the day by what gave me pause as I reflected on the lack of the reminders that a family had gathered. The clean-up of spilled apple pie crumbs on the dessert table. Deciding which dishes had been used and which hadn’t? Knowing I would wash them all either way. The threat of cranberry sauce stains on the crisply starched tablecloths my parents had gifted us from their many trips to Aruba. Random half-filled coffee cups dotted over the center island in the kitchen where the majority of our holidays were ultimately held. The clean-up of special dishware used only for holidays seemed insignificant in its demand this year. Not a complaint just an acknowledgement of yet more loss this year, 2020. We had a lovely albeit quiet day. We had lively and lovely phone and zoom chats over the course of the day, which brought many smiles to our wonderful family members.

The promise of a vaccine is just that. There is real hope on the horizon, but we are still charged with doing the right thing. Wear a mask, wash your hands and respect the lifesaving concept of social distancing. The right thing still needs to happen, and it is dependent on each and every one of us to do just that so we can all look forward to reemploying our family traditions in the future.

There is beauty in preserving tradition…

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” 
― Gustav Mahler

A graduate of Providence College with a BA in English, Elizabeth Ricketson has always had a love of literature and the fine arts. In the 1990s, she studied figure drawing at the Rhode Island School of Design spending years dedicated to understanding human form, movement and anatomy. Blog titled “It’s Complicated.” Elizabeth’s essays focus on life experiences and life in Vermont. Essays available for consideration.

A Flash Fiction by Kevin Reigle

Johnny Rutledge flipped open the lunch pail as he straddled his usual bench.  His legs kicked out at each side like a jockey waiting at the starting gate. He rummaged through the lunch pail for his sandwich.

Johnny grimaced at the loud clanging that pulsed through the walls and into his brain.  His eyes snapped closed, and his teeth clenched.  Just as he was about to open them, he heard a familiar voice.

“Are you alright?”

Johnny relaxed his jaw as he looked across the table at Erik Newsome.  “Yeah, the banging was just getting to me.”

“You should be over that by now,” Erik said with a chuckle.

Johnny rubbed his temples as he watched Erik sit down on the bench across from him.  “It just gets to me every once and a while.  It’s not a regular thing.”

“I guess I’ve been here so long that nothing bothers me.  I can still see myself walking through that door the summer after high school.  I was pretty nervous, let me tell you.  My old man got me this job.  I worked right beside him till the day he died.”

“Heart attack, wasn’t it?” Johnny asked, unwrapping the tinfoil around his sandwich.

“Yeah, it happened right there in the back room.”  Erik extended his arm and pointed toward a rusted-out door in the mill. “I went to get a replacement part from the floor manager, and when I got back, he was face down.”  Erik looked across the table at Johnny’s sandwich.  “A bologna sandwich again?  She packs that for you every day, doesn’t she?”

Johnny started to lift off the bread, deconstructing the sandwich.  “I guess she doesn’t know how to make anything else.”

“You’d think she’d figure something out,” Erik said as he unsnapped the metal clasp on his lunch box.

“Every penny counts.”           

“How is the overtime going?  Is Anderson giving you any?”

“Not yet.  I went to see him earlier,” Johnny said as he put the sandwich back together and took a bite. “He said he didn’t have any to give me.”

“That college boy is such a jackass.  He doesn’t know anything.  Those kinds of people just swoop in here and think they know what the hell to do.”

“I’ll tell you; we aren’t doing too well at home right now.  I don’t know if I can get this check to stretch, or not.”

“Things are tight for everyone, aren’t they?”

“I guess so,” Johnny said as he shook his head.  His gaze froze on a poster beside the snack machine.  It was a picture of three dogs playing poker.

“You know, I do know a way you can make a couple extra bucks,” Erik interjected.

“How’s that?”

“If you want to place a bet on a horse, I got a pretty good tip on the sixth this Saturday,” Erik said as Johnny’s face went flush.

“Come on. Are you serious?”

Erik raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m sorry.  I thought, uh, maybe you were over that.”

“That’s not how it works,” Johnny said as he reached into his lunch box and pulled out a can of soda.

“I hope Anderson changes his mind about that overtime.”

“Yeah, me too. Before I forget, did you see the flyer on the bulletin board?”  Johnny pointed at the slab of cork hanging beside the hallway to the administrative offices.

“No, I hadn’t looked.  Why?”

“At the company picnic, they’re having doubles for horseshoes.  You’re pretty good, aren’t you?”

“Pretty good, do you know who you’re talking to?”

“Oh, I know exactly who I’m talking to.”

“So, you want me to be on your team, is that what you’re asking?

Johnny finished his sandwich and tossed the crumpled tinfoil into the lunchbox. “I think we could win.”

Erik nodded his head. “As long as you hold up your end, we will.” Johnny closed the lunchbox and started fiddling with the metal clasps. “You know that horse race you were telling me about?”

Kevin Reigle has previously been published in the Pensworth Review. He works at the University of the Cumberlands.

A Short Story by Sara P. Cullen

It went off at 3:05 in the morning, but he’d been awake hours before, just waiting for the shrill sounding alarm that would have most people groaning and curling back into their nook of blankets.

Not him. He’d been waiting impatiently. Barely creased, he pulled back the covers and pulled on his boots, still dressed from the day before.

They slid off the curve of his finger as he tried to yank them on, catching his hand. Cursing, he waved off the wound, sucking on it briefly, and grabbed his jacket that he’d folded over the back of his chair. He toyed with the idea of bringing his phone but decided he wouldn’t need it.

Laying it carefully on his bedside counter, he took a look around his room. It looked perfect, untouched but for the few things that lay around making the space his.

Tapping the side of the wall, he clicked the door closed quietly. Sound easily traveled.

Stepping out into the hall, he almost expected someone to be waiting there, ready to stop him, demand that he go back to bed and quit waking up the whole house. But there was no one there and, listening to the silence, he realized no one was coming.

His mum was sleeping gently, but his dad had woken up to the sound of the door. He heard him toss and turn before grumbling something intelligible under his breath, something that resembled, “Stupid, fuckin prick.”Realizing that standing on ceremony was pretty pointless, he strode down the hall purposefully and banged the door frame loud enough that the whole house rattled. He could imagine his mum waking up in a gasp of, “What was that?” And his dad, gently ushering her back into bed, eyeing his bedroom door with that scowl resting on his tight, overdrawn lips.

Disappearing down the backfield, he listened for commotion, but there was nothing. He drew his jacket tighter on his shoulders and sucked in a sharp breath of the biting cold. The dawn started to make its way through the darkness, making the path just visible. He’d been walking this track for months, and he could feel it calling to him. He could hear the waves crashing against the edge of the mountain in one crackle of bristling thunder.

It calmed him. Not the water, peacefully waving in and out in one melodic motion, but the angry hurtle that sounded louder than him, angrier than him, was heaven.

Just as he came to a huddle of trees lining up the golden passageway, a fox ran by with no intention of stopping but, catching a glimpse of him, came to an abrupt halt.

The fox seemed to size him up. His heartbeat raced, and he thought for a second that the fox was going to jump at him. Foxes weren’t known to do that, but there was something in the translucent glare of the eyes and the snarl of the lips that made him think the fox was angry at him.

There was no reason to be frightened. He made his hands into fists and stepped forward.

The fox blinked sadly at him, almost disappointed, and raced away.

What the fuck.

Blinking in concession, he shook off the daze and stumbled onwards, raking a hand through his hair. It was just a fox. Just a fox. He laughed to himself.

Rounding the last arch of the bend where the trees leaned away back to the forest, leading an open break of light to the runway before him, he thought, Im finally here.

Speeding up with a smile on his lips, he jogged on, catching sight of the precipice looking forward onto the sea. What he saw surprised him.

There was a girl there, her feet dangerously close to the edge. Her dusty blonde hair whipped around her pale face by the cutting wind as she stared forward.

She was messing up his plans. For a second, he thought about going home, trying it again another day. But he’d made his decision. This is the plan. This is the time. This is the day.

Tiptoeing forward, careful not to spook her, he moved within a breath of distance behind her and carefully placed a hand on her shoulder. Ready to pull her back if needed.

She felt odd, almost gelatinous.

A sharp breath escaped her, and she waved forward a circus performer riding a unicycle.

“I got you,” he said, steading her and moving her an inch away from the edge again.

She turned and slapped him. Hard, in the chest. She seemed dainty, but he could feel the burn into his lungs, and for a moment, it was hard to catch his breath.

“What are you doing here?” she spat, moving back to the edge. “I came to do this, and I won’t have anyone stop me.”

He was too stunned to speak as her gaze narrowed in on the jutting rocks, and for a moment, he thought she was going to soar right off the top.

Leaning forward, he grabbed her and yanked her back once again.

She slapped him harder this time. He doubled over, his stomach lurching.

“Just wait,” he said. “I’m not trying to stop you. I came here to do the same thing, alright?”

He laughed, but it came out oddly, and her face scrunched up in confusion. “Then why do you keep pulling me back?”

Scratching the edge of his jaw, he searched.

 “Cause I planned to do this now, and you’re fucking it up.” He sighed, “If I see you do it first, I mightn’t have the balls to jump.”

She eyed him warily as if he was trying to trick her. “I don’t care if you wanna die or not. Not really my problem.”

He held up his hands in surrender.

Studying him, she nodded and wordlessly held out her hand. It was cracked and uncared for.

He stepped away from her and looked from her outstretched hand to her imploring eyes.

“Take it,” she snapped, waving it at him.

“Why?”

“We can do it together.”

He supposed they could, but something about taking her hand scared him. It seemed wrong, and from the way she felt before, he could only imagine what it would feel like in his. He felt like he didn’t have a choice.

Nodding, he took her hand and fought back a dry heave.

It was coarse and grating, and he could almost feel it shaving pieces of his skin. Her palm dipped oddly. It was empty and not touching his.

“Your hand feels strange,” he said.

“So does yours.”

When he looked up, she was smiling playfully with a catch of light in her eyes. Closing his own eyes, he took a breath and stepped next to her.

The wind was strong at the edge. It almost sent him hurtling out. He gripped her hand tightly and planted his feet on the ground.

“Why are you scared?” she asked.

“I’m not…” he trembled out, “I’m-“

“Scared.” She finished raising a cocky brow at him.

There was something in her, humming like electricity, and it was the only thing that kept him holding on; it soothed his anxious heart.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked her.

Turning, she looked into him, and without a hint of doubt, she said, “Because I’m all alone.”

She spoke simply, and he couldn’t doubt for a second that it was true.

“I’m here,” he said, squeezing her sore hand tighter.

“And you’re about to leave, are you not?”

Testily looking over, he analyzed the drop. It would be long, he would go down fast, and he’d remember everything until his body finally was smashed apart by rocks and god knows what else.

He thought it would be nice, his family wouldn’t find him, and he’d be taken into the sea like a million more lives before him. He’d be just another young troubled man who’d disappeared, but he hadn’t expected a girl surer of herself than him and so ready to jump.

“Mhmm,” He managed.

“Alright, then. You ready?”

He nodded wordlessly, and without a second to think, she outstretched one leg, hovering there for a moment. Her weight, heavier and stronger than it looked, pulled at his shoulder. He seized up in a blind panic.

In fright, he pulled back with enough force for two people and sent them crashing to the ground in an entanglement of limbs.

The bang left him dazed for a second, and he didn’t realize she was hitting him, over and over again until he had to hold back her arms and push her spindly body away.

Spit curled up at her mouth as her skin shifted and tried to find its place inside her. The more he pushed, what was wrong with her?

“Why’d you pull us back? Why’d you pull us back!”

Slackening his hold, she grabbed at his throat in a fit. His eyes were rolling in her head as she found the right grip on his neck, and visibly shaking, she gritted out, “Why’d you do it?”

Beating her away and shoving his knee into her folding stomach, he pushed her off and got to his feet.

“Cause…”

“Cause what, eh?” She advanced towards him, hitting him again.

He hissed out a strangled breath. He didn’t have time to speak. His body was burning from the inside out and, with every push, he realized that she was stealthily guiding him closer and closer to the edge.

He could taste the crashing waves ready to eat him up, and he was afraid.

Whimpering as his heel caught the edge of crumbling rock, he grabbed her hand desperately with his own, “Please stop.”

“Why?”

Holding the strange form in his hands, he watched her calculating look and let out a relieving sigh, bowing his head at this strange, wonderful creature.

“Why?” she shouted.

“Cause I don’t wanna die!” he shouted back.

She dropped onto her knees and looked up at him.

“Fuck,” he said, running a frayed hand through his hair. “I get it, alright. I never really wanted to die. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. And you- you’re so sure, well you seem sure, but what if you aren’t and when you leap off the edge, you realize it’s too late to turn back? What’ll you do then?”

Smiling to herself, she got up and tilted her chin proudly up at him.

Moving in close, so her mouth was right beside his ear, she whispered, “I was never gonna jump.”

“…What…but…” he stumbled out.

“And I knew you wouldn’t either.” She winked, walking back towards the way he started, “Now you know.”

Her voice sang out from the trees, and he jogged after her. She’d only been a few steps in front of him, and the field was clear. There was nowhere to hide, but as he ran around the corner, she was gone.

Spinning around, he tried to spot any sign of her. There was nothing but the chirping of birds risen and determined to wake all sleeping things.

“How’d you know?” he asked the air.

What the hell…”

After a few moments of disbelief, he kicked at the ground, alright, and headed back home.

Hands in his pockets and jacket zipped up to his neck, he raced back the way he came, and as he came to the field of his house, he saw a fox, paused and staring at him.

It tilted his head up at him and squared off its shoulders.

There was something familiar about its mouth, and for a moment, he thought he saw the curl of a smile. He found himself smiling back as the fox skipped through the long grass and disappeared into the woods.

Laughing still, he went back into the house, quiet as he could. Letting himself into his room, he fell onto his bed and went back to sleep in a matter of minutes. He hadn’t been to sleep so quickly in a long time.

Sara P Cullen co-runs an equestrian centre with her mother in the countryside of Ireland, spending most of her active lifestyle with her horses and many pets. Leaving not much time to pursue other hobbies. 

However, her love of books and movies plays a huge part in her life, running off to the cinema any chance she can get and staying up late at night to finish another string of books. 

Her sporty nature comes from her mother, but her father’s side comes from a family of show-people, funfair folk, and musicians who encouraged her to pursue a more creative past time. Sara had been writing stories since she was very young and has now taken creative writing courses to further her craft. 

Although she would describe herself as an avid animal lover and perceived less people friendly, her stories have a vivid and descriptive narrative of other people’s personalities and their relatable internal struggles. Showing a great interest in the people around her, usually from a witty first-person narrative.  

A Poem by Garrett De Temple

in the sicksweet
morning,
through the purplish vacancy
of magnetic space

I know

you’re just far enough away
for silence, fingers
crossing
your pursed lips

wiping away
that  icedark gloss,

a borealis
split pink from laughing,
I can almost hear you

almost—
(a shivering windowglass
against a bright wind)
and

in this
my
most vacant hour,

I wonder

how our final nights will ring
with the trumpets we deserve.

Garrett De Temple received his MFA from Manhattanville College in 2014. His work has most recently appeared or is upcoming in Crack the Spine, YO-NewYork, Miracle Monocle, and Permafrost. He is a lyricist for the Brooklyn-based songwriting duo The Point (@thepointsongs) and one-half of the occasional americana band SkyMagik (@SkyMagikBand).

A Poem by Linds Sanders

night swimming
we pass between days

you fell asleep in the passenger seat
as we crossed the border

there are whales in our hearts
coming up for air

Linds Sanders habits in saying “yes” to things that scare her. She yessed herself into whitewater kayaking, working with preteens, and saving house spiders. She’s not frightened by teaching art classes, serving on boards of directors, or living in a 60-square-foot van with her husband. She repurposed her BA in Journalism into an equally underpaying pursuit in poetry and art.

A Poem by Sarah Plummer

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

At night our bodies are cathedrals inhabited by godless tourists —

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

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

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

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

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

A Poem by Michael Lee Johnson

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

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

A Short Story by Philip Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You… Resistance?”

The Runner nodded. “You?”

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

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

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

“I remember his rants.”

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

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

“You all right?”

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

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

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

“Two years give or take a few weeks.”

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

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

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

“Where to?”

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

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

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

“I didn’t mean to—”

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

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

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

“I’m tired of running.”

“So am I.”

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

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

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

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

A shot rang out from the darkness. Miguel fell.  

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I went back to where we lived…”

“And?”

Scarlet rubbed her cropped hair. “Gone.”

”Hopefully they fled, too.”

“You should know better.”  

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

“Some. You?”

“I miss my mother.”

“Where is she?”

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

“Do you think someone will?”

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

“You too.” Scarlet lay down.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

“Just another one.”

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

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

Heavy sorrow weighed down the room.

“Is your father gone, too?”

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

“Do you miss him?”

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

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

“Wish I’d known him.”

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

“You believe that?”

“I do.”

“Harsh.”

“So was he.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look pretty.”

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

The smile intensified. “You do.”

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

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

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

“Famished.”

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

“Don’t worry. I know what to do.”

And she realized this girl probably did.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have. Lara was her name.”

“She disappeared?”

Scarlet’s silence was answer enough.

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

“Many times.”

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

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

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

Scarlet gazed ahead without a word.

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

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

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

“But—“

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

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

“Believe me, I do wish—”

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


Nightfall.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“How do you know?”

She told her how.

“We’ve made it.”

“Not so fast. We’re not there yet.”

“But?“

“Let’s talk to them first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Runner didn’t reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

Her eyes shot up. “You know her?”

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

“Is she… alive?”

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

The Runner gasped. “Where?”

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

“I’ve got to go there. Find her—”

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

Her expression turned downcast.

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

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

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

Her mother had trained her well.

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

An Essay by Chad W. Lutz

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

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

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

Let’s get started, shall we?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Great, I thought. Perfect way to start out.

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

All I could think about was the canyon.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He must’ve noticed me massaging it.

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

What Ted said next, I’ll never forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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