Foliate Oak May 2015
By Alex Austin
Mansehra is not far from Shangla District, but the drive weaves through pretty countryside and Papa drove slowly, chatting about my numerous aunts and uncles, turning the radio volume up and down according to the song and even stopping once so that we could view wildflowers. Papa let me pick a few and said I should give them to the family on whom we were calling.
“Who is this family?” I asked as we drove away from the field, for Papa had described our outing as a business trip. “Are they our relatives?”
“No, Sinela. They are the family of my business associate.”
“Oh... What is their name?”
Papa frowned and rubbed his belly as if he had stomach trouble, a sure sign he was not in a mood to talk.
When we reached the city of Alpuri, the district’s center, there were many open spaces, but Papa drove around the town several times before parking on a street adjacent to a market, in front of which hung a row of freshly slaughtered sheep, heads hanging to one side or other. People must eat, but still it was a sad sight. I hoped their lives had been happy until that harsh moment. Papa said we were going to walk from here, explaining that the road that led from the town to our destination was rough and sometimes impassable. In a few minutes, we left the town behind and were tramping down that dirt road.
“How much farther?” I asked after walking for a half hour.
“Oh, not much.”
“Are we lost?”
“No, not at all,” my father said, though his eyes looked uncertain. “Just taking our time.”
“Well, it’s not such a bad place,” I said, swinging the bouquet of wildflowers.
“Would you like to pause?” he asked.
“Thank you, Papa, but no.”
“I you get tired...”
“This road seems fine to me.” I scuffed my foot along the hard flat dirt. “It doesn’t look as if it would be a problem for a car.”
“It can be,” said Papa. “Its curves can be dangerous in the rain.”
“Is it supposed to rain?”
“The rain can come anytime.”
That was of course true during monsoon season, July and August, but it was October and I didn’t think that the weather in Shangla was much different that in my hometown of Mansehra, where I would say the chances of rain approached zero. But I was not in the habit of contradicting my father.
With little talk, we strode north toward the distant mountains. The houses thinned out and open fields, tattered with the remains of harvested crops, stretched to the horizon. I thought of how my brothers and sisters would have enjoyed this adventure, but I was the oldest, thirteen, and Papa’s favorite, the first of his children he had taken along on one of his business trips.
I sniffed my wildflowers. I didn’t know the name of this light-purple plant, but I could label all its parts: corolla and calyx, pistil and stamen (which comprised stigma, style and ovary), receptacle and pedicel. In my science class I got 100 percent on that test.
I looked up from my flowers to see two, large white cattle strolling as one from their unfenced field into the dirt road and walking toward us side-by side, dewlaps swinging in wide arcs. With their humps, pink fluted ears, and coffin-shaped heads, they were funny-looking creatures, common in central Pakistan, and not at all dangerous despite their size. But their black eyes had no focus and as our distance closed, I thought that they might accidently trample us. But my father expressed no concern, and when we were no more than six feet from the beasts, together as if in harness, the animals suddenly split and veered, one passing on each side of us, so close that I could feel the movement of air from the swinging dewlaps and smell the fly dappled dung clinging to their bellies. A moment later, I turned to see that they had changed direction and now followed us.
“There it is, just up ahead,” said Papa, pointing.
The dirt road climbed a small hill, at the top of which a high concrete wall bordered a big rectangular house. I thought that it must be a very rich man who lives there. The third story, which I could see best, had few windows, and they were small and dirty as if the occupants didn’t want or need to look out of them. Papa and I were breathing heavily by the end of our climb, and as we stopped to catch our breaths, the cattle walked past us, continuing onto the grassy slope, a continuation of the pasture. Papa took my hand and led me toward a V-shaped red door. As Papa knocked, I noticed a face in one of the murky third story windows. Before I could discern its features, the face withdrew.
As if someone behind the door inquired, Papa shouted that he had arrived with the coffee, but he carried nothing and certainly not coffee. All the same the gate opened. Papa put his hand on my back, kissed my cheek and urged me inside. As I stepped through I was surprised to see a young girl of my age. The door closed behind me. I smiled at the girl and looked back to Papa, who was no longer there.
“Papa?” I asked.
“I will see you later, Sinela,” he said from behind the wall, “Sinela” almost inaudible, as if he were already at a distance.
“Come,” said the girl, taking my left hand.
“Where has my father gone?”
“On business for my father,” the girl said.
The leaves on the trees stirred, whispers in a crowd. I broke from the girl and twisted the handle, but the door was solidly locked.
“I want to go with my father,” I insisted, hammering the wood. “Papa!”
“It really is all right.”
I tugged on the door handle.
“It won’t help,” she said.
I yanked again, but the door was as if nailed shut. I turned, thought of pushing the girl or giving her a good thump.
“I will scream. I mean it, girl,” I said.
“Please be calm, Sinela. Your father means you to be here.”
Her eyes were still and fixed on mine. My heart sunk, for I knew that those steadfast eyes were not lying. If my father meant me to be here, then it must have been all right, though still it didn’t feel right.
“How do you know my name?” I asked.
“Such pretty flowers,” she said, smiling warmly and taking my hand.
“Did you think your father wouldn’t tell us?” she asked.
“I don’t know your name.”
“Lintah. Now please come.”
As if I had not used my body in weeks, I stiffly followed. We walked beneath a grape arbor with few vines and a handful of shriveled grapes to come out on the entrance to the house. The door opened as we approached, and from the interior came the smell of paper burning. A lightly bearded man in his twenties, wearing a T-shirt with a slumping dirty collar, closed the door behind us.
“Come, there is nothing to be scared of,” said the girl. I looked to the man, who scraped his dirty collar with his dirty fingernails and lowered his eyes.
Drawn by Lintah, I passed several open rooms in which every wall was painted the palest green as if it were disappearing. In the one occupied room, an older woman sat in a low chair repairing a man’s waistcoat. Her needle squealed as it penetrated the thick cloth. She glanced at me and murmured something unintelligible. Behind the older woman, two younger women silently watched me pass.
“I’m sure my father has returned,” I said to Lintah, though it had only been a few minutes...
“No, not yet.”
Lintah guiding from behind, we climbed a staircase to the second floor, the smooth thin banister running too quickly under my palm. As we came into a brighter light, I breathed as though I’d climbed a hundred steps. She guided me down a hall to a room with a closed door. She knocked softly. A man’s voice said to come in. Lintah opened the door and gestured for me to enter.
Before my foot touched the floor, a man and a woman sitting on a sofa stood up.
“This is Sinela,” said Lintah, who moved to my side, put her hand on my back and eased me forward.
The man and woman, who appeared to be in their mid-fifties, smiled at me.
“Hello, Sinela,” said the man. “I’m Farooq and this is my wife Tooba.” The woman stepped past a low table set for tea and extended her hand to me. Though I was beset with confusion, I took her hand and returned a small smile.
“I hope your drive was pleasant,” said Tooba.
“Yes, it was a nice drive.”
The man and woman seemed to consider my voice as if it were an instrument being tuned. Tooba released my hand and put her arm around me, hugging lightly.
“She is a lovely young woman, isn’t she Farooq?”
The man nodded. “Would you like some tea?” he asked.
A guest doesn’t refuse tea, and though my heart beat like a hummingbird’s wings, I accepted and allowed myself to be guided to a chair close to the table.
Tooba released me and returned to the couch. Farooq lowered his head, touched his forehead and also sat down. The young girl poured the tea.
I kept my eyes on the pale amber liquid. Never before had I been left alone with strangers. It was not right, but my father had permitted it.
“My father—please, I don’t understand.”
Farooq said, “Your father will be here soon. He wanted to be here for this but he had something to do that he could not put off.”
For this? What was this?
I had been taught to respect my elders, but always I knew who my elders were, understood their relationship to me. These people were not my relatives; I was sure of that, but why then this theater? What was my part?
As if Farooq had read my thoughts and wanted as quickly as possible to eliminate any false interpretations, he said, “Sinela, your family and mine have arranged for you to be married to our son Sameer.”
My science textbook had these very helpful illustrations of a machine intact and then exploded. A car’s engine in one picture and in the next all the parts of the engine flying outward and labeled. I was now Sinela exploded. My head, my limbs, my torso, my bowels and heart lay pinned to the walls of this handsome sunlit room.
In Pakistan when a family wants a son to take a wife, they arrange matters with the girl’s father and mother. I knew several girls at school to whom this happened. One day, the girl is playing in the schoolyard and the next day, or soon after, she is a bride, Most girls react with silence and acceptance. So we get to be girls, but not young women. Some do not get chosen, and they are the ones whose lives go on, who attend high school and college, work in hospitals or laboratories—pursue their goals in great buildings with views of the world.
I was the coffee.
Farooq and Toober were speaking to me, discussing all that now would happen: the stikhara and imam-zamin; ijab-e-qubul and nikaah. I heard these wedding words but I tried to think only of the parts of a flower.
Do you not understand? I am thirteen. I don’t want to be married.
I do not want--
But it was settled. Perhaps an hour went by and I did not say a word. Now Farooq and Tooba rose, smiling at me and assuring me of my coming happiness and fruitfulness. Someone knocked and the girl opened the door. I looked for my father, who perhaps had changed his mind and would intervene, but someone other than my father filled the doorway.
“Sinela, this is our son, Sameer, your future husband,” said Farooq.
For an instant, I made eye contact with a thickset, bearded man of forty. I now kept my eyes on the floor, on the flowered rug beyond my bouquet. Those present exchanged pleasantries, and the new voice, deep and powerful, shook me like a clap of thunder. I murmured something nonsensical and did not look up. The door closed. My eyes could have been shut but I would have known that now I was alone with the man who was to be my husband.
He stepped in front of me. I stared at the hem of his tunic.
“Hello, Sinela,” he said, his voice enveloping me as if a sheet had been tossed over my head. “Please, let me see your eyes.”
As if a flower could choose not to open its petals to the sun’s hard rays.
I am not stupid. I know how men look at girls and women. It is the same look they give an animal they are hunting. They can’t make silly faces and shout or the prey will run. So this man looked kindly at me. Kindly and appreciatively. His was the face I had seen in the dirty window.
Without parting his lips, like someone who is hiding bad teeth, he smiled at me and said some words in Arabic, and then as if remembering himself switched to Pakhto, my first language. He asked me simple questions, questions he no doubt had the answers to, like how old I was, where I was born, did I have brothers and sisters. I answered everything straightforwardly as if I were filling out a form for school..
A man as old as my father took my measure.
I am sure I gave nothing away in my eyes, which I tried to make as dull as possible as if I were waiting for a long time in a dentist’s office and I’d gone through all the magazines.
“Do not be frightened,” he said.
As soon as he smiled, I looked away, for I did not want to belong to his smile
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Have you ever had Lebnania tea?”
“Many times,” I lied.
“I can have some made.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
He pulled his ear. “Do you know what vani is?” he asked.
That I remained standing was surely a miracle.
If at school a girl was told her marriage was to be vani, she would shrivel, as if something devoured her from within. She had been offered up as payment for some wrong one family had done to another, perhaps injured or killed someone. A girl whose marriage was vani would be a slave in the other family, treated like dirt by her husband and all the others. Vani: blood debt.
“My father has hurt your family?” I managed to ask.
“No, of course not.”
“Your father helps us. He’s a good man.”
“You are not vani,” he said, smiling faintly as if he had made a good joke, and I swallowing the bitter vomit that had leaped into my throat.
In a firm voice, Sameer explained that I was to become his wife. Everything would take place quickly. Then I would come to live with him in this house. Did I understand? He waited until I nodded. He then added, “You will work beside my other wives and be their equal.”
He had saved the best for last.
“Good.” He glanced at my flowers. “Are those for me?”
I shook my head. “They’re for my sister.”
He stroked my head, kissed me on the cheek and called out for the girl.
I do not remember leaving the house, all I remember is walking past my father when the red gate opened. My father’s cheeks were wet, and as we walked back down that hard dirt road, the two cattle a distant white beast, he pleaded for my forgiveness.
I dropped my flowers behind me in the dirt.
Alex Austin’s stories have appeared in Black Clock, carte-blanche, This Literary Magazine, River and South Review, The Dying Goose, Apeiron, Beyond Baroque and Midway Journal. His novel Nakamura Reality will be published by Permanent Press in January 2016. Some Girls is an excerpt from a novel in-progress.
* * *
By Joseph Fleck
Steven Vile was born on May 23rd of the year 2074. Seventeen years later, he would become solely responsible for the deaths of every person on the planet, causing the extinction of the human race. Fortunately, nobody was complaining or resisting as he murdered every living man, woman, and child one by one. Everybody was completely fine with it.
“I just got the new set of numbers,” Vice President Bentham announced as he walked into the conference room. “We’re dropping the bomb.”
The foreign diplomat shook his head. “You can’t do this.”
“Of course we can!” Bentham said, taking a seat. “We have no choice! Our Calculator doesn’t lie!”
The diplomat argued, “Dropping that bomb would mean killing hundreds of thousands of people!”
President Mill, at the head of the table, rubbed his chin. “Killing them will only make the world a better place. You understand that, don’t you?”
Clenching his fists, the diplomat shouted, “Killing is wrong!”
“No, no, it’s perfectly okay,” Bentham sighed. “You don’t understand. Calculator looks at every variable, every possible future, and it finds the decision that will lead to maximum happiness. If Calculator thinks that destroying your country will make the rest of the world happier, then it must be done.”
“What if this Calculator is wrong?” the diplomat glared. “What if it made a mistake?”
“It hasn’t made a mistake yet,” President Mill shrugged. “The world seems to be a fairly happy place. Honestly, every other country except for yours has started using a utilitarian code of ethics. That’s probably why Calculator saw it fitting to eliminate your people.”
The diplomat rubbed his eyes with his hands. “Explain how this is supposed to work.”
Vice President Bentham told him, “There are two possible choices for us right now. Well, technically there are nearly infinite choices, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll say two. We either nuke your country or we don’t, right?”
“Right…” the diplomat nodded slowly.
Bentham continued, “Calculator determined that if we leave your country safe and sound, happiness levels around the world will be… moderate. If we bomb you, killing every single one of your people, Calculator says that happiness levels will be a fair amount higher.”
“But why?” the diplomat pressed.
“We can’t be sure,” Bentham answered. “The numbers and algorithms are very complex. It would take ages to explain it all to you, and I scarcely understand it myself. It’s likely that your people are simply not as happy as the rest of the world. And thus, killing them will increase the average global happiness.”
The diplomat stammered, “But… but killing is wrong!”
“It’s utilitarian,” President Mill smiled. “They say you can’t make everybody happy, but we can still calculate the decisions that will make the most people happy. Anybody who isn’t satisfied, we can just kill.”
“Speaking of which,” Bentham spoke up, “we should discuss the situation with this Steven Vile person.”
“Yes, yes, we’ll talk about it later,” Mill disregarded him.
“This is ludicrous!” the diplomat shouted. “You can’t kill my people just because they aren’t as happy as yours!”
President Mill chuckled, “If they aren’t as happy, then we’re simply putting them out of their misery, aren’t we?”
“They aren’t miserable!” the diplomat refuted. “Maybe they aren’t ecstatic like the lunatics who live here—”
“Our decision is final,” Vice President Bentham told him sternly. “Your country will be destroyed, and that is that. You may be excused.”
The diplomat leapt to his feet. “I will not stand for this!”
“You may be excused,” Bentham said more loudly.
The diplomat marched out of the room.
President Mill sighed, “Goodness, some people are so difficult about utilitarianism. It drives me wild!”
“Yes, now can we discuss Steven Vile?” Bentham asked.
“Yes, let’s get this over with. Who is he?”
Bentham sorted through his papers. “Steven Vile is a seventeen-year-old boy from the South Sector. He’s really into murder and violence.”
Mill nodded, “Ah, another one. I supposed Calculator suggested that he be killed?”
“I had assumed that would happen,” Bentham sighed. “Most serial killers decrease the average happiness, because being killed is painful and saddening, but this seems to be a special case.”
“Most serial killers enjoy killing, but this boy… He is very passionate about it! Every person that dies at his hands makes him downright elated! In fact, the joy that he gets from murder is more significant than the pain and suffering of his victims.”
President Mill leaned forward. “You’re telling me that Calculator… supports his actions?”
“Don’t you see?” Bentham grinned. “Murder makes him unfathomably happy, and if he kills everybody, and I mean everybody, then his happiness will be the only happiness that counts. Average global happiness will be equal to his happiness if he’s the only living person on the planet! And after killing everyone, it’ll be pure bliss!”
Mill scratched his head. “When he kills somebody, his happiness is stronger than the pain of the victim, so each kill increases average global happiness.”
“Right,” Bentham nodded.
“And if he kills everybody, average global happiness will be the highest it’s ever been in history.”
President Mill clapped his hands together. “This is spectacular! If we let this Steven Vile kill everybody, happiness ratings will be through the roof! I’ll go down in history as the greatest leader in history!”
“Well, not quite, because nobody will be alive to remember you,” Bentham pointed out.
“Right, right, but the average global happiness is more important,” Mill reminded him. “This is the best news that I’ve ever heard! We have to contact this boy right away! We need to start rounding up the citizens, preparing them for their new job!”
Bentham and Mill stood from their seats. “This is the happiest that humanity will ever be!” Bentham chuckled.
One month later, after all of the horrific slaughters and terrifying attacks, Steven Vile was the last living person. And he was very, very happy.
Shortly after, humanity was extinct.
Joe Fleck was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently attending Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA for degrees in Math and Psychology. For more of his work, visit fleckfleck.com.
* * *
Nina and Dan
By Charles Haddox
Nina and Dan’s mom died a few years back, but at least they have nice foster parents. Still, they’re just a couple of misfits in a dork wrapper. Dan used to stand outside the mission at sunset, after polishing off a greasy, high carb dinner, facing the ocean. His lips would move as he whispered to himself. I thought he was praying, but Nina told me he was hallucinating, talking to their dead mom.
We had missed dinner at the mission, so at midnight I led Nina and Dan to the back door of Chick’n n Donuts to help with the dishes and the kitchen breakdown. In return for our help the cooks served us heaping trays of chicken and candied sweet potatoes with mini-marshmallows and hushpuppies and coleslaw, under the bright florescent lights and neon blue bug lights. It was cold outside, so we ate standing up in the steamy kitchen, over by the walk-in, instead of outside on a bench facing the train tracks that ran behind the place and were faintly illuminated by streetlights surrounded with rainbow coronas of late-night fog.
I had dragged the two teen siblings along with me to Chick’n n Donuts after a night of serious boosting. I knew they were straight edge, but their particular permutation apparently didn’t preclude shoplifting. They were foster kids of a poor couple who had inherited a big house in Alexander Heights. Their own kids were grown and they were good foster parents—not too on top of things, but not mean, either. Nina and Dan would always want to tag along with me if there were going to be eats at any point in the evening, mostly because they didn’t care for the Mexican food that their foster mom fixed. They generally ran on candy and oily popcorn they made themselves in a popcorn popper Nina got at a Christmas party that Social Services put on for the foster kids. Man, those two chunky punks in black loved that stupid popcorn popper!
I knew that after closing time the leftover chicken at Chickn n Donuts would either end up in our mouths or in the trash, so eating it was like a community service. The cooks just wanted to head out, especially Muhammad, a Haitian guy who had family at home.
“Hurry up, so I can mop you out.”
Dan and I were carrying a twenty gallon trash can we had just emptied into the dumpster outside.
“Dude, let me put in a liner. Then we’ll be outta your way.”
I had met Nina and Dan at the mission, where I’d eat whenever I was down on my luck. If I helped with the kitchen cleanup, the cook would give me an extra dessert. Dan got wind of the deal and started to help out with the cleanup as well. After I had gotten to know Dan and noticed how weird he was, I mentioned it to Brother Bob, one of the cooks, and he said to me on the sly, “You think he’s an uber freak? Wait ’til you meet his sister.”
That night at Chickn n Donuts the two of them worked hard in exchange for the free meal, and Muhammad was impressed. He asked them if they wanted to come around and do some dishwashing on the evening shift.
“I’ll talk to the boss about it. Come by tomorrow before five. You’ll get minimum and a free dinner.”
“What?” I said. “How come you never asked me if I wanted work here? I bring these two kids around and right away you’re puttin’ ’em on the payroll.”
“Hey. I know you. You’d show up for t’ree days and then you’d be gone.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
"What do you think?" he asked Nina and Dan.
“Sure, we’ll give it a try,” Dan said, and Nina nodded.
“So what are you going to do with all the money you’ll be makin’ at your new job,” I asked them as we climbed a steep hill to get to their house in Alexander Heights. I didn’t want to walk the whole way with them because I knew they were going to be in trouble for staying out so late.
“Give it to my foster mom,” Dan said.
“And go to the movies,” Nina added.
Man, those two were hopeless. Poor foster kids.
We said, “Later,” and I started back down the hill. As I headed over to my sisters place, I thought to myself that Nina and Dan were just about the most clueless pair I had ever met. It started to sprinkle. I picked up the pace. And though I could scarcely admit it, even to myself, I was also thinking how much I really liked that pair of misfits.
Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Concho River Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Corium Magazine and The Summerset Review.
* * *
My Date for the Prom
By Davis Horner
My date for the Prom this year was a trilobite named Lauren. I had grown tired of dealing with human girls, with their game-playing and their seeming sadistic way of dangling you on a string until they ultimately let you drop. Besides, Lauren is a nice girl and has certain attributes that a discerning young man such as myself can appreciate.
I picked her up at her home. Her parents were welcoming, though they tried not to act too excited at my presence. They had moved here from a small town on the south coast of England a little over a year ago, and this was the first time Lauren had been asked out on a date. It’s been a challenging transition for her. They helped me figure out exactly where I should pin the corsage on their daughter.
We made quite a splash when we walked into the gym. My strategy was “Let them look. Let them wonder. From the way I see it I’ve made a real catch. If they want to know why I think so, let them ask.” The photographer fumbled a bit trying to find a good camera angle for our portrait. I guess he never had photographed a trilobite before.
We spent the first part of the evening watching the crowd, listening to the music, and getting better acquainted. You can believe the crowd was watching us too. Every time I scanned the roomful of people there were eyes on us.
Lauren excused herself after several minutes, so I sat alone at our table. My friend Brad ambled over to me and gave a wink and a grin. “Du-u-ude! Nice work! Where’d your lady get to?”
“She’s out for a swim. She has to at least every hour.”
“You did good, dude. I was admiring her… segments. Is that what you call them?”
“Hey, I saw her first! And yes, ‘segments’ is the correct term.”
“Now you know I wouldn’t trespass on your territory, my brother. But I can admire from a distance, right?”
A few minutes later I saw Julia Cipriani walking toward me. Here was a girl that loved to see me dangle. Indeed she had dangled me a year ago for three weeks while she supposedly was deciding over whether to go to the prom with me. When she finally devised her extremely lame excuse it was of course too late to find another date. I had to go stag. She showed up for prom with a boy she claimed was a third cousin. “My parents insisted,” she said.
A smile cracked Julia’s deeply red lips. “Who’s the new date? I’ve seen her around school. You two make quite a couple.”
“Her name is Lauren. She’s lived here for about a year.”
“Hmm. I wonder if she’s coming out next month at the Cotillion? Do you know anything about her family?”
“Yes, Julia. She’s from a very good family. You’re fond of explaining how your family can trace back to Roman times? Lauren’s bloodlines go back five hundred million years! Well, except that she doesn’t have blood, exactly…”
“Don’t patronize me, dear boy. It’s not like I slept through Paleontology, you know.” With this she tossed her honey blond hair. “Well, I’ve got to keep moving. So many people to see, ya know?” As she walked slowly away she shot me a sly backward glance, her eyes flashing.
When Lauren returned I went to the beverage table and got a cola for myself and a lemonade for her. Uncertain as to exactly how she drank things, I also got her a straw.
When we finished our drinks I took her out onto the dance floor. That’s when we really began to dazzle the crowd. I didn’t have any idea she had such liquid moves. During a couple of the numbers some of the other dancers actually stopped to watch us. This had definitely never happened to me before. I saw Julia watching us with an enigmatic half smile. Oh yes, my plan was definitely working.
At evening’s end I walked Lauren to her front door. I knew she had had a good time. I decided not to actually kiss her – truthfully I wasn’t sure exactly where. But I gave her a peck on the glabella.
I’m sitting in my bedroom looking at our prom picture and thinking about Lauren. I need to take a copy over to her. I haven’t called her since the Prom, though I don’t know if she expected me to. I also want to tell her some things. She may not be aware that I used her. Yes, I used her. I used her to impress my friends, to make one or two of them uncomfortable, to show them that I’m not trapped in their high school hierarchy, that I can be perfectly happy and self-assured by taking a crustacean to the prom if I please. Somehow I want to tell her that this is not the only reason I took her to the prom. I took her because she is a very brave, unprepossessing person, and has managed her first year in a new country and a new school with gracefulness and with her cephalon held high. She is fun to be with. She’s a great dancer. She is a nice girl.
Davis Horner has been a staff features writer for The Edge, Creative Loafing, The Point, The Travelers Rest Monitor, and other publications. He has published poetry and short stories in regional and national literary journals in years past. For him the obscure labor of writing takes place in Greenville SC.
* * *
By Katie Knecht
Empty plates are stacked in the center of the table. Satisfied moans and compliments to the chef, Tommy’s mom, make their way around the room. My boyfriend is busy with a portable flosser that he keeps in his pocket for post-meal cleanings. I grin and take an extra second to watch him and let this scene saturate my mind: us in the dining room with walls of dark green, surrounded by Tommy’s family, who are now slowly disbanding to the living room and kitchen, watching Tommy’s nieces battle post-meal sleepiness and piling leftovers in Tupperware; sleepily full on fruit salad, chicken and veggie kabobs, with the promise of oatmeal raisin cookies (Tommy’s favorite) and ice cream to follow; celebrating Tommy’s upcoming yearlong adventure to Spain; and him doing as he always does, keeping himself as healthy as possible, down to his gums.
He glances up at me, and smiles around his hand, which is halfway in his mouth. His older brother, still seated at the table with us, snags a final piece of chicken from a remaining plate and declares he might burst he’s so full. Their sister gives Tommy a squeeze on the shoulders before joining the action in the living room revolving around two little girls. Their mom comes back in to collect plates and I stand to help her. She spots her point-and-shoot camera sitting on the edge of a dark oak cabinet against the wall.
“Oh!” she exclaims, reaching for it. “Let me take your picture before I forget.”
I find my seat again and tug Tommy’s hand playfully away from his mouth. We lean our heads together and she takes a photo, an image of the two of us forever stationary, that I know will soon be posted to Facebook with a mother’s proud love of her handsome son. The flash goes off, creating bursts of light when I close my eyes and look back to Tommy’s brother who sneaks in another piece of red pepper, saying that this time he really is finished eating.
“Katie,” I hear from my right. It’s so quiet I’m not sure if I imagined it.
I glance down to see Tommy’s arm outstretched toward me, his hand slowly rising and falling. He is staring straight ahead. “Take my hand,” he says quietly.
For the briefest of moments I want to ask him why he’s suddenly acting oddly. That half-second is gone and I see: he is going to have a seizure.
He has told me about this, and I used to half-expect it to happen any time. But it has been so long since his last seizure—before I even knew him—that I thought of it as something from the past. He takes medicine for it, but he doesn’t like to because it makes him groggy, which is not suitable for someone so active. I have always understood that he wants to skip a pill here and there, but now it seems outlandish.
He can always feel his seizures coming on a few seconds beforehand. Once he collapsed in a field on a hot summer day, and another time he sat down to watch television with his roommates and everything went black. He says he seizes for a minute or two and it passes. There is nothing anyone can do.
“Don’t call the ambulance,” he told me the first time I stayed over and asked to know more. “It’s a waste of money. I’ll be fine as soon as it’s over.” I immediately saw a vision of myself, heroically comforting Tommy after a seizure and his look of admiration for my courage.
These thoughts course through my brain like underwater torpedoes. I am drowning in fear. I believed Tommy when he said his episodes were nothing to be scared of, but he has never seen himself have a seizure, and I have never been more afraid.
I’m watching this scene unfold from the ceiling of his parents’ dining room, slowly zooming out, away from the horrible, dead look in his eyes; now I see the two of us petting his 14-year-old border collie in his backyard earlier tonight; I see us walking hand in hand in the city I moved to so we could be closer to each other after nine months of long distance; we’re curled up in a chair in his tiny living room because he doesn’t have a couch, and he’s explaining light sabers to me as I watch Star Wars for the first time; I am sitting in his floor crying as he tries to comfort me because his crazy ex-girlfriend sends him cathartic texts at 2 AM when he has done nothing to provoke it; I’m sliding into bed with him and lying awake after he falls asleep, watching his slow breaths, wondering how we will do with an ocean between us, a silent tear dripping onto his brown sheets; and now I’m afraid none of this will ever matter if he was wrong about his seizures.
He goes rigid and begins to convulse rhythmically as I pull him toward me. I can’t let him hit his head on the chair. His brother is next to me; his hands, which held Tommy as a newborn, meet mine to form a makeshift berth under him. His sister flings herself from the living room, stumbling over her own urgency, and surrounds him from the remaining side.
My instinct is to save Tommy, to grip his condition by the collar and throw it down in disgust. A black surge of indignation rises in me. But he has told me what to do.
“We just need to let it happen and keep him safe,” I say, surprised at how even my voice sounds over the ragged breaths of my boyfriend. He is still shuddering violently in our cradle of human hands.
“It’s okay, Tommy, it’s going to be okay,” I tell him even though he cannot hear me.
“Just keep talking to him,” his brother says to me. I think it comforts him more than Tommy.
“We’re right here, Tommy, it’s us, we’re right here. You’re going to be fine. It’s almost over,” I say, not knowing how far we are from his stillness.
He continues to shake, his pale blue and aqua-striped shirt rubbing against my palms, out of his control and mine.
His brother and sister-in-law’s wedding photo smiles up at me, frozen in a moment, from the cherry cabinet behind Tommy’s chair. Next to their ornate white frame, his sister and her husband grin at each other on their wedding day, only a year ago. Tommy and I witnessed their vows to each other on a cozy farm in Kentucky on a yellow June day.
“Hold him, keep holding him,” his sister, who had been a beautiful bride, tells us.
His brother is an accountant. His sister wanted to be a veterinarian; maybe she knows about medical conditions. His grandparents are stuck to their flowery-upholstered seats in the living room. His parents watch their son at the mercy of this unpreventable health condition, his mother with her hands to her mouth.
We all know about the perfectly straight scar across the middle of his head from the brain surgery he had 13 years ago. We know seizures aren’t supposed to be fatal, but I feel helpless. I am not the golden hero I imagined I would be.
A yellow glow from the old, tiny chandelier hanging over the dining room table drapes itself around the room. The air is damp with food gone cold. Tommy’s hair is stuck to his forehead with sweat.
He cannot control his body; he, who monitors everything he eats and runs 20 miles a week, does not even know he is having a seizure. Spit is sliding out of his mouth between his guttural, struggling breaths. His eyes are closed to the dark violence of his body.
Then he is still again, once more the 160-pound, 6-feet-2-inch man we know him as, and he is limp in our arms. His siblings and me move him to the floor in hushed tones. Someone scoots the kitchen table away from us. Momentary, cool relief hits me like an ocean’s tide and I collapse next to his chest. It is not rising and falling.
His lips—they’re blue.
“He’s not breathing, he’s not breathing,” I half-shout in panic as my stomach clenches in alarm. He never told me to expect this.
His clothes are disheveled, his stomach exposed and shorts askew.
“Tom, do something, do something!” his mother yells to her husband.
“Call 9-1-1!” is all I can say as I succeed in pushing back his hair, matted in fear, away from his face.
His brother’s phone is in his hand and his sister is at Tommy’s other side, pumping his chest, giving him CPR because I don’t know how. I grasp for his wrist that is a confused medley of hot and cold, looking for a pulse. I think I feel one but now my hand is the one trembling so violently that I cannot know.
His lips have not gained back their color, they are as blue as his shirt, and I think to myself for the first time: I’m going to watch my boyfriend die.
Katie is a Kentucky native living in Brooklyn, NY, earning her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She particularly enjoys petting cats and eating mint chocolate chip ice cream.
* * *
By James Krehbiel
They stood side by side in our back yard; their arms intertwined, and gazed off towards the pine forest that sat well back from our property. These were the first two I saw, and I paused at the window, wondering who they were, why they were here and what they wanted. The blue- haired woman with the rounded shoulders that hunched inwards pointed off into the distance; her companion stared in the same direction, her white, wispy hair hardly moving in the breeze. The two of them stood close to one another in silence, one supported by her cane that sank slowly into the wet ground and other bent, resting against her friend. I called my mother from the other room to come see.
“Look mom.” I pointed towards the two of them standing in our back yard.
“Look at what? I don’t see anything.”
“Don’t you see them? ... right there .... see?”
Mom glanced at me with an expression of bewilderment, her brow slightly furrowed.
“There’s no one there.” She chuckled, glanced out the window again, shook her head and wandered off to another room.
I wasn’t seeing things. They were real, as real as the yard, the house, the gardens, and as real as the forest behind our property. They were there. I saw their shadows stretched across our lawn as the sun came to rest on the horizon.
As if they were one, they stopped and turned to me.
“Can I help you?” I asked. “Are you looking for something?”
The one with the cane, thought for a moment, glanced to her friend and then in my direction.
“No, I think we’re fine ... thank you.” She gazed off towards the forest.
“Do you mind if I ...”
My mother’s voice cut into my question. She called from the kitchen window, her tone tinged with confusion, wanting to know what I was doing standing all alone in the back yard.
I had no explanation and reluctantly ambled back towards the house. Frustrated, I paused, feeling drawn to these two women and looked back.
I watched as one of them pointed in the direction of the forest, the other leaned in for a few words and then, as if coaxed, they shuffled arm in arm away from my home.
That was sixty years ago and I am now entrenched in my golden years, although I have no idea why or who termed them as such as there is nothing I’ve discovered that is golden about them. I’ve decided it’s finally time to tell this story of the people who came to our home that summer.
I’ve lived thirteen years longer than I should have and knew that I would. It seemed as though everyone who came to our home that summer sensed they would as well, and as that summer of my youth passed, more and more people came. Most everyone appeared to be old, although I now realize my perception of age at only thirteen was most likely skewed. In hindsight, I’d say most were in their seventies or eighties. They were frail and some were obviously ill or maimed. Many arrived bent over hobbling with the aid of a cane or a walker. Others looked emaciated, pale, and appeared to be clinging to what little life they had left.
I’m not sure if they had been coming in previous years. Either I simply never noticed or it indeed started that summer when I turned thirteen. No one else remarked about the people that streamed in day after day that summer. Their presence seemed solely for my eyes.
The first to came to our door, did so on a humid, July afternoon. I was alone when the doorbell rang; my parents were out running an errand and due back shortly. I’d been told never to answer the door to strangers but this time, I knew not to ignore whoever waited on our front porch.
I opened the door and before me stood an old man, at least he looked quite old to me. He stood slightly stooped over leaning on his cane, his tattered tweed jacket, stained white undershirt and jeans threadbare. He wore a pair of sandals, ragged from too many years of use. His face, so deeply cracked, looked as if shards of glass had been slowly dragged across his skin, creating ruts that criss- crossed signaling years of insight and pain. His clouded eyes looked up. Small beads of perspiration trickled down from a nonexistent hairline.
“Am I in the right place?” he asked.
The man’s left canine tooth glistened gold among others that were yellowed from age. “The right place?” I responded.
“Yes, am I the first?”
“The first? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
The man’s muddy eyes looked through mine, off to an unknown location. He waited, then turned and hobbled one step at a time down to our front lawn, supporting himself on his cane. He stood there for a moment, glanced from side to side and then slowly turned and shuffled around to the side of our house.
He lingered in our back yard and with excited anticipation, I headed out the back door. My parent’s voices interrupted the sound of the door closing behind me. They had arrived home. I felt suddenly stuck, unable to move. My feet rooted in place. Disheartened, I watched the man trudge off towards the forest, alone.
He was the first of the visitors to ring our doorbell. There may have been others before him that didn’t ring our bell and as if they knew where they were headed, made their way off towards the forest. Early on, I never noticed anyone coming back. It seemed as though the forest had scooped them all up and held them confined among the richness of generous pine limbs.
I longed to follow the people that came to our home that summer; discover what lured them. But with each attempt denied, I started to wonder if their journey was never meant to be mine.
The first person I saw return from the forest, showed up on a sweltering August afternoon, the air so thick with moisture, you could grab hold of it, feel it, squeeze it and see the drops tumble to the ground. The man’s black hair was buzzed short, his solid torso erect. I remember he stood on one leg in our front yard, the other leg gone and his empty pant leg folded up and pinned just beneath his pelvis. He stood there looking around, crutches under both arms. He wore Army fatigues that were meant to hide him but now, there seemed little to hide from.
I could only watch, my parents nearby, as he too wandered off towards the forest. It wasn’t until later that evening that I saw him return.
The full moon cradled by the tops of noble trees; the evening breeze cloaked in the scent of pine. I was sitting on our back porch when I saw the man coming back towards our house. I recognized him not by how I remembered him, but by his clothes. He walked unaided, in the same Army fatigues, only now, they hung on him. His sleeves dangled down, long past his hands; his trousers folded up as not to trip over them. He resembled a child that looked as if he had played dress up in his father’s fatigues. He walked quickly, kicking the stray stone on his way and eventually disappeared around the corner of our house.
I’m not sure if they all returned from the forest. Some may have remained there; others might have lost their way. And I have often wondered as well, if the few that were younger, had shared my experience. I only saw a handful of them return, but with each, there were no more canes or walkers. They all moved quicker, with more life than when they arrived.
The stream of people coming to our house continued throughout that summer but as autumn approached there were fewer and fewer. By early September, no one came. I’d nearly forgotten about them until one day I came home from school and found an elderly woman standing in our front yard. She seemed lost and stood propped up by her walker. She looked frail and so very thin. Her sheer skin hung loosely from her arms, her veins just barely below the surface and her jowls stretched. She stood there in a housecoat of sorts, and wore an untamed white wig positioned slightly askew with one side covering one of her ears and the other side higher up, stuck to the side of her head.
“Can I help you?”
The woman looked up at me through horn- rimmed glasses, her eyes opaque like so many of the others.
“Is this where I’m supposed to be?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“It feels like I should be here.” She leaned on her walker, looking around through overly thick lenses, her milky eyes magnified.
“Perhaps if you went around to the back of the house...” I started to ask if she needed my help, if I might join her on her journey, but she turned and shuffled off towards our back yard, the straps on her shoes had slipped down from her heels. She disappeared around the corner of our house. I watched out the back window as she paused in our back yard for a moment. She looked off towards the forest, and eventually plodded on.
This was the moment I’d been waiting for. The house empty and no one due home for hours, I dropped my book bag by the kitchen door, threw on a pair of sneakers and bolted outside. Off in the distance, I could see the woman’s wig growing smaller.
It seemed painstakingly slow. She moved cautiously, so slowly, that I had to sit and wait every few minutes before I could get up and move on. She paused on the other side of the field, just about to enter the forest. I watched as she disappeared under the canopy of pine branches. The sun- scorched brown grass crackled under my steps. An errant hawk hovered overhead looking for its next meal, the air so still that tiny pieces of milkweed were held suspended and dispersed with my presence.
I entered an undiscovered world. The towering pines gave the impression of being upside down; the longest boughs high above, with each of them reaching inwards, as though they were yearning to touch one another. I felt no ground beneath my feet, only a lush and dense blanket of delicate ferns that rustled when walking by. The fading light broke through the boughs in slivers so thin, it appeared as though individual strands of flaxen hair gently floated down around me. I heard only silence as I made my way along an almost indiscernible path. And in the calmness and serenity of my surroundings, everything appeared so beautifully vivid. The vision of fertile deep green ferns, the graceful overhanging boughs and even the rough bark of the trees touched all my senses. I paused and felt the needles of pine boughs high above me gently brush my hair. The tips of ferns delicately tickled my palms and the dark brown, deeply- etched bark pressed its imprint into my shoulders. Every nerve felt alive. The sweet fragrance of pine enveloped me.
Up ahead, I saw the woman. She knelt down and leaned over the edge of a pond, a pond that radiated an iridescent blue-green hue and possessed the clarity of a thin sheet of translucent ice, the surface still. Around the perimeter of the pond were downy, moss- covered vines that cascaded down and reached towards the woman, holding her and the pond separate from the rest of the forest.
Along the edge of the pond was a graveyard of canes, walkers and crutches, some leaning against tree trunks, others were lying where their owners had abandoned them. A wheelchair poked up through a cluster of outstretched ferns.
As I looked on, the woman lowered her face to the water’s edge, cupped her frail vein- covered hands, and drank. She drank for only a few seconds, then pushed herself back from the edge of the pond and gently lowered herself, one of her arms out over the pond, her fingertips just below its surface. I knelt, hidden behind a gnarled tree trunk; the woman appeared to be asleep. Had I not been watching so closely, I never would have seen. Her chest rose ever so slightly at first but with each consecutive breath, her chest rose higher and higher and as her breath deepened, her frailty receded, her sagging jowls faded and her body slowly transformed. I leaned into the tree trunk mesmerized by what I witnessed; the shortness of my own breath and rapid pulse held me in that moment. She opened her eyes, sat up by the water’s edge, and moved her hands over her face, the impression of fingers getting acquainted. She removed her glasses and gently slid her wig off, setting it on the ground beside her. Blond curls fell around her face, framing smooth, unblemished skin.
She stood and glanced to the right and the left, as if making sure this moment had been only for her and then she walked towards me. I shifted for more cover and as she neared, I held my breath; my clammy hands braced against the trunk of the tree, my pulse quickened. I remained still, hidden and protected as she walked past. I noticed a slice of youth in eyes as clear as the pond and heard it in the cadence of her gait. Within moments, she was gone.
I stood and walked over to the water’s edge. I knelt down, looked into the water and saw myself looking up into my eyes. I saw no fear, no anxiety and felt only a sense of tranquility. I dipped my hand into the water. The cool liquid sifted through my fingers, rejoined the surface of the pond and rippled away. I brought my hand to my face. There was no scent. Enticed by the inquisitiveness of youth, and as if there were no choice, I brought my fingers to my mouth and licked the last few drops of liquid from them. I will never forget the taste, tinged of sweetness and the texture of silk.
The last thing I remember from that moment evoked a feeling of warmth, as though someone or something had wrapped itself around me, embraced me. I felt one last breath escape, a sigh of calm swathed me. Everything went dark.
My eyes opened but struggled to see. I felt submerged, encased in warm liquid unable to move. And then it started, slowly at first until I found myself being jostled around. I felt pushed, prodded and just before I was able to see, it felt violent. And then, I went from total darkness to unbearable light. I felt a sting and lastly, arms ... arms that held me.
James Krehbiel is a professional musician (violinist) and was a member of the Syracuse Symphony. In addition, he served on the faculty of the School of Music at Syracuse University. Mr. Krehbiel received
his Bachelors of Music degree and his Performers Certificate from the Eastman School of Music. Having
enjoyed an active career as a musician, Mr. Krehbiel has turned his attention to writing. As a “new”
writer, he has joined the Central New York Creative Writers group, is learning about the craft of writing and has recently had his first short story published in Through The Gaps literary journal. In his spare time, he is an advocate of the creative arts, enjoys biking, golf and is an avid reader. He also enjoys spending time with his bloodhound-beagle mix and is thankful for her unconditional love and support.
* * *
By Joe Miller
“How do I look, doll?” he asked as I tightened his neck tie. His eyebrows rose expectantly adding another twenty wrinkles to his forehead. George’s eyes were cloudy but I could still see that old, faint twinkle.
“Like the love of my life.” I said with a smile. George leaned to the side and glanced at himself in the mirror over my shoulder.
“Boy, oh boy. To the nines, Jane. To the nines!” He made a loud click out of the side of his mouth and gave himself a wink. “When the joint sees me stroll in with a dame like you on my arm, they’ll hand the keys to the place right over, I’ll bet. You know what they say about my dancin’ feet.”
“Like lightning.” I beamed. I couldn’t help it.
“That fast; like lightning, they say!” He wiggled his hips awkwardly.
I stepped back to the chair beside the bed and sat down. I smoothed out my jeans around my knee and looked at my hand. I still wore the ring George had given me. It was battered and soiled but looked radiant on my withered hand. It needed to be cleaned, but I couldn’t bear to take it off, as if a moment away from it would make me forget, too.
“What time’s our reservation at Frankie’s, chickadee?” George asked, shuffling away from the mirror. He wore his navy blue suit with a bright green tie that Abby had given him one Christmas when she was still in grade school. His socks didn’t match; his slippers did.
“Um, any time, dear. Your table is always reserved. Special treatment; just for you.”
“Oh. Hehe. That’s right. Sure.” He smoothed over his few strands of silver hair across his scalp and contemplated a moment.
“Would you like to go eat now, George?”
“Uh, well, sure. I suppose we ought to hit the road then, huh?” George began to pat his pockets clumsily. “I’ll drive, doll. Just let me find my keys.” He shifted in a small circle surveying the room.
I reached down beside me to grab the keys from my purse to play along. As I did, my cell phone went off, dinging loudly to let me know that I had a text message.
I cursed under my breath and frantically rifled through my bag to shut the sound off but it was too late.
“Ding. Ding? What was that? Ding?” His eyes darted from side to side though he looked at nothing. My hand gripped around the phone and I lowered my head to peer over my glasses. I found the mute button and switched the phone to silent. I knew better, but I’d forgotten to turn it off. The noise was one of his triggers. The screen was still lit up from the text message.
Abby: How’s dad tonight?
I glanced back to George. His gaze had landed on his slippers. He was breathing heavy. I had been through it enough times to know when it was too late. I stood up and called for the nurse. George mumbled rapidly as though he was reliving the last sixty years in thirty seconds, trying to catch up.
Claire marched into George’s room as I helped him back to his bed. She looked tired. I felt bad having to call her in, but you could never tell if it was going to be a violent episode or not.
“Alright, alright. Let’s go, Mr. Hannigan. Lie down. Relax. You in good hands with Mrs. Hannigan and me. Everything’ll be alright. Okay, now, okay.” George looked at me. His pursed lips quivered. His brow furrowed, his twenty wrinkles turning to forty. I held my breath, the only way to stop the tears whenever I saw that face he made. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. Tonight it didn’t. I choked on a tear.
“Jane? Where-What is this?”
“It’s alright, sweetheart. I’m here. You’re okay.” I could see the nursing home room materializing in front of his eyes. He put his limp hand to his mouth and began to cry.
Claire looked to me. I nodded that I was alright, and she left quietly. George continued to stare at me.
“It-It happened again? I-I’m still here. Oh Jane. I’m so sorry.”
“No,” I stopped him. “It’s alright. It’s not your fault. I’m here. I’ll always be here.”
His face broke again, and he sobbed. I softly stroked his head.
“It just happens so fast, Jane. One minute I’m here, and in a flash, I’m back somewhere else; like lightning.”
“I know, sweetheart, I know.”
He leaned his head back on to the pillow. After a few moments he dropped his head to the side so that he could look straight at me.
“I’m sorry, Jane. I can’t imagine what I must look like to you now.”
“Like the love of my life.”
Joe Miller is a scientist who enjoys experimenting with words. He studies molecular biology to define reality, and he writes fiction to explain it. His two loyal dogs follow him wherever he writes, and are a constant source of comfort.
* * *
By Nicholas Olson
The one thing support group never tells you about recovery is that you’ll come to a point where your shiny new normal life will bore you to tears. That you’ll crave the old pain and drama, the self-loathing, and are to fight these cravings. That the most unsexy part of healing (maintenance) is also the most vital.
Early on, the milestones will carry you.
Your life force will return with each pound you shed: a perfect inverse proportion. That untrustworthy brown line on the back of your neck will disappear. Your jeans will turn into parachute pants. You will regularly inform people that it’s hammer time. When people say you’re looking good, you’ll want to ask them if they really think so. You are to fight this craving. You’ll consider starting a blog about simple habit changes that’ll turn your life around. Later that week you’ll go over your daily calories. Weekly too. You will be a complete and total fraud and will have to start all over.
You’ll imagine what your coke-addled mom might say once you stop at the Center with parachute pants in hand, if she’ll apologize for calling you a fat fuck or what. Your support group will remind you that this is your journey, your achievement, and not hers. You’ll thank them but mutter under your breath anyway.
You will update social media with how much you’ve lost since last weigh-in, unless you’ve gained, and then you’ll post nothing. It’ll hit you that you’ve lost a whole person. That an entire human being has been removed from your body. You will try to tuck the extra skin into your jeans on bad days and pretend to be Stretch Armstrong on good ones. You’ll post a before and after picture. A friend will comment and say that yes, your taste in tee shirts really has changed. You will consider inflicting bodily harm on this person but will settle instead for making a veiled allusion to their just having been dumped. Your comment will receive some likes, the friend in question will shut up, and you’ll feel victorious for an hour or two. That night you’ll go five hundred calories over and make up for it next morning with an early run where you’ll puke up apple.
You will cry when you reach your goal weight. This is normal.
You’ll tolerate the forced congratulations in support group and try not to feel bitter, hurt. There will be nothing more to post. No updates to make. The compliments will trail off like a conversation that’s reached its logical end. You’ll still listen to the old motivational playlist sometimes but it’ll feel cloying, corny. You will refuse to play anything by MC Hammer. You’ll pack the parachute pants into the bottom of your closet.
A friend will recommend you read Infinite Jest. He’ll say it “holds the cure for what ails us as a society.” You’ll ignore the pretentiousness and give it a go. The book will meditate, among other things, on our culture’s tendency to glorify active protagonists, to see stasis as death. The author will counter that glorification by asserting that sometimes a good protagonist is one who is defined not by the good things he does, but by the bad things he doesn’t do.
You will cry when you finish the book. This is normal.
You will pore over every fan site, join forums, read over the fiction you wrote years back, before you gave it all up. You’ll start writing again, and will hide a little part of yourself in every story you create, like an elaborate literary scavenger hunt. You will read your old stories and laugh at how hard they’re trying, cringe at how pompous they are.
You will publish one story, then another, then another. You’ll fall into the old social media gratification habit and convince yourself that it’s okay to do this as long as you recognize it’s happening. You will sit down and write something about your weight loss. You’ll stop trying to be witty and just tell a fucking story already. You won’t know what the end should be.
At first this will make you feel like a shitty writer. This is normal.
You will tell yourself that maybe this is the point. That maybe the end is that there is no end. You will always be recovering, always cresting over the endless wave of addiction. You will say: this is okay. You will say: I’m allowed to be human. You will say: our lives always end mid-sentence, so maybe our stories
Nicholas Olson earned his BA at Columbia College Chicago. A triple finalist in the 2013 Written Image Screenwriting Competition, he currently lives in Chicago where he’s writing a novel and wrangling a cat. He has work published or forthcoming in Eunoia Review, Apocrypha and Abstractions, The Open End, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He can be stalked at nicksfics.com.
* * *
The Tall Girl's Wedding
By Todd Outcalt
She had been the tallest girl for as long as she could remember. In grade school, when the other girls were hitting their stride in puberty—growing boobs and voices and pubic hair—she had stood head and shoulders above them all, a giant among dwarfs. She was taller than her teachers. Taller, even, than the doorway of the girl’s locker room under the gymnasium.
At first her parents had been alarmed by her growth. They considered her abnormal. They took her to doctors and specialists and swamis—all of whom examined her and pronounced her normal. “She’s just a tall girl,” they said. “Perhaps the tallest.”
But by middle school her features had blossomed and she filled out majestically, like an immense angel spreading her wings. Her mother had named her “Lisa”, but after her daughter’s shoulder-length hair darkened and her face assumed its startling beauty, she began calling her “Liza” in hopes that the name might somehow bestow her daughter with a measure of new life and identity and also change her fortunes with the boys.
Liza knew many boys in high school, of course—but all of them regarded her as a freak of nature. For conversation, Liza preferred the company of older men, for she had the type of rare stature that made her stand out in a crowd. She just looked older. But in spite of her intelligence and wit, she never had a date. Not even an invitation. And by the time she was eighteen she stood six feet eleven inches tall and had the life experience of a twenty-five year old, though love had always eluded her.
College came and went, and so did graduate school, but as Liza grew older she found that most men were not interested in her intelligence and beauty as much as they enjoyed the shocking presence of being in the company of a tall woman. She had heard all of the jokes, had grown accustomed to looking down on men (even as inferiors), and had gently resigned herself to the idea of living alone.
On her thirty-first birthday, Liza moved out of her small apartment near the university and purchased a modest house. The quaint ranch had tall doorways and a better-than-average flower garden and was located directly across the street from a city park where, sometimes in the evening, she would take walks, or watch the children playing, or sit at a picnic table to read a book and daydream. Liza was happy, though she had few friends, and even though most women leered at her, slack-jawed, as if she had descended from heaven, like a goddess residing among mortals.
One Saturday morning Liza was sitting on the front step of her home, nibbling at the toasted end of an English muffin, when a ball bounded onto her lawn. Glancing toward the park, Liza noted a circle of sweaty men who were playing Rugby. She watched as one of the men coaxed himself from the line of bodies and bravely emerged to retrieve the ball.
He approached shyly, out of breath and slump-shouldered, his bare muscular torso pale but defined, the sun bathing his face like a halo. As he neared the sidewalk, however, he was suddenly taken aback by the sheer magnitude of her frame. He paused, wide-eyed and mouth ajar, gazing at the magnificence of her body.
Liza, often mistaken for a basketball player, though she had no penchant for athletics at all, rose from the steps in a smooth movement to pick up the ball. She flipped it underhanded and, much to her amazement (and the awe of her admirer) the ball spun perfectly in a line, arced slightly, and settled neatly into the young man’s outstretched hands. The man gasped, blinking into the sun as he peered up at her face.
Having grown accustomed to such nonsense from men, Liza settled onto the front step again with the morning paper. The young man, handsome in a plain sort of way, staggered back to the park to join the others. He crept away slowly, calculating what he knew, certain that he had just met the tallest woman on earth.
Watching the fellow over the rim of her paper, Liza imagined the range of conversation around the scrum: Where does a woman that tall buy her shoes? What size are her breasts? Can she fit into a car? Where does a seven foot woman sleep? How would you like to make love to that?
After a few minutes, Liza gathered her paper and retreated into the house, every eye in the neighborhood upon her, the park screeching to a halt at the very shock of her towering presence.
Later that afternoon, when Liza returned from the grocery with two sacks of canned goods, she was surprised to see a plain package leaning against her front door. Leaving her sacks in the car, she bounded across the yard to retrieve it.
There was a simple note taped to the package: My name is David Phegley. I’m the guy who noticed you this morning. I’d like for you to give me a call, if you’re not seeing someone else.
He had also written his phone number, and inside the package there was a beautiful porcelain music box that played the theme song from Doctor Zhivago.
She studied the situation. It was not romance which moved her exactly, nor the thought of going out on a first date, nor even the wonder of the gift itself—but the mystery of it all which compelled her. Here, at last, was something new, she told herself. After all these years, she had a choice to make. The prospect was not merely a date, but a fresh venture into the wondrous, heartrending world of men. Experience had taught her well: that men were the real oddities, that men were the true freaks of nature, and that most men possessed few redeeming qualities. And yet . . . there was this David Phegley, with his music box, his kind note, his shy smile. She had his number.
Later that evening, she sat down in the quietness of her bedroom and dialed. He answered right away, a kind of sleepy voice strained with overtones of sincerity.
“This is Liza,” she said. “You left the music box at my door today. That was very nice.”
“Oh, oh . . . yes,” he stuttered. “Thanks for calling.”
She waited for him to carry the conversation forward, but no words were forthcoming. He was the usual inarticulate frog.
“I love that movie,” she told him.
“What one is that?”
“Doctor Zhivago. Omar Sharif. The song from the music box.”
“Oh, oh, that. Right. The music box.”
“It was very nice.”
There was more stifling silence. Finally, she heard him clear his throat. “I was wondering,” he said, “wondering how you’d feel about a blind date.”
“Well, it’s not exactly blind,” she pointed out. “I met you earlier. But I think I startled you when I stood up.”
“No, no,” he said haltingly. “The date is not with me.”
She was stunned, somewhat taken aback. “What did you have in mind, then?”
“My brother,” he said. “Larry. He’s tall, too. I think he’d like you.”
“Because I’m tall?”
“No! Well, maybe that too. But you’re beautiful. You’re just Larry’s type.”
She laughed a bit at the situation and the direction of the conversation. “What’s your brother’s type?” she wanted to know. “Is he like you? A gift-giver, a number-dropper? Or was the music box your idea?”
“Larry? He’d never dream of being so forward,” David said. “The music box was my idea. Larry’s kind of backward . . . but in a good way. Listen, he’s a nice guy. Thirty-two. Never been married. Has enough college degrees to get any job he wants.”
“And does he?” she found herself asking.
“Does he what?”
“Have any job he wants? Or does he even have a job?”
“He works in a lab. Chemical engineer. Top secret stuff I can’t tell you about, otherwise I’d have to kill you.”
She furrowed her brow, thought about hanging up.
“Just kidding!” he exclaimed. “No, really. He’d love to see you. Doesn’t have to be dinner. He could just drop by some Saturday when we’re playing Rugby at the park, come over and talk.”
“Why wasn’t he at the park today?” she wondered. “Or doesn’t Larry play Rugby?
“He’s not into sports,” David said. “Numbers, crossword puzzles, books, movies. That’s his bag. But he’s not a nerd. I mean, he’s a nice guy. Really.”
She sighed at the thought of heading into the unknown. She’d gone this far, however. “I’ll be at home tomorrow,” she said. “Perhaps he could drop by the park around eleven? I’ll be at the picnic area reading Doctor Zhivago.”
“Swell,” he said, adolescent-like. “You’ll really like Larry. He’ll be there.”
After she hung up the phone she sat on the edge of her bed for the longest time, counting the flowers in the window box, wondering how many meetings it would take before she finally met a guy worth meeting.
The next morning, Liza strode across the street and into the park fifteen minutes early. He was waiting for her at the picnic area, sitting with his hands folded neatly across his chest, a thin pile of books at his side.
He was immense.
She approached cautiously, yet carried herself with such dignity, as she always did, stretching out her hand at the last minute in order to greet him. “I’m Liza,” she said shyly. “You must be Larry.”
He stood, all seven and a half feet of him, and for the first time in her life, she found herself looking up at another person—a kind of Orwellian face with wire-rimmed glasses and a pleasant smile. “Yes,” he said. “I’m Larry. It’s nice to meet you, Liza.” He offered her a seat at the picnic table. “You brought Zhivago,” he observed.
Liza sat at one end of the table and quickly assessed his personality. Quiet, unassuming, yet courageous in a confident way. “Yes,” she said. “And be sure to thank your brother for the music box. That was very nice of him.”
He shrugged, casting a gargantuan shadow across the table. “David’s a bit impulsive,” he said. “But I can give nice things, too.
“I see you brought books?”
“Poetry mostly. You know . . . this is my letter to the world kind of stuff.”
“Dickinson,” she said.
“Some. You have a favorite?”
He handed her a book. “Yeats,” he said. “Not too sweet, good texture, dry, the perfect after-dinner read.”
Liza found herself laughing as she thumbed through the book. She asked him about his work. He asked her about hers. They discussed the usual get-acquainted topics in an all-together tall manner, sharing ethereal ideas every now and then as several Sunday morning pedestrians gawked from the sidewalk near the playground.
“I usually don’t like blind dates,” Liza admitted after an hour and a half of engaging conversation.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My brother sometimes has his own ideas. He’s forward, much more outgoing than I am.”
“It worked out,” she said.
“For a date based purely on inches, it went well.”
He smiled at her in a way she had never noticed before. It was as if she had been invited into some part of his life he had never revealed to anyone. “I think I’m going to ask you for an honest-to-God date,” he said. “You’ve met the height requirement. We’ll start at seven feet and work our way up.”
“I’m not that tall,” she admitted.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve got you covered.”
She wanted to kiss him, not for her own sake really, or because she thought she would enjoy it, but for the cause of the mysterious experiment. For the first time in her life she could tell a tall joke to someone who could understand.
Sensing Liza’s predicament, Larry leaned forward and allowed her to touch him. Their lips met momentarily, a feathery tap that lingered as they sat gazing at one another.
“Tonight?” he asked. “Dinner?”
“You’ll bring the poetry?”
“Always. Do you have a favorite?”
“It’s an oldie,” she said. “But nothing I want to recite right now. It’s too soon. I’ll keep it a secret. Like Dickinson’s stash in the trunk.”
“If you let me in on your secret,” he said, “I’ll recite one of my favorites, too.”
She had never risked so much before. The light was growing taller in the morning and the park was filling with ordinary people. Passing eyes had already fixed upon them, and they were now the center of attention. “It’s hokey,” she said. “A syrupy poem.”
“Go ahead,” he prodded. “I can take anything.”
She knew Millay by heart. “I cannot say what loves have come and gone; I only know that summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more.”
“Edna St. Vincent,” he nodded. “A classic.”
She was ready to flee. Her heart raced. There was no room in her life to be embarrassed by his knowledge, or by her own sentiment. The mystery had gone out of the day, and she knew where this was going.
Liza stood, stretching her frame. He rose with her, looming over her, expressing his hope for a good evening. “I’ll pick you up around six,” he said. “I know a good restaurant.”
She finally smiled at him—the guy named Larry—and he pushed another book into her hand. “It’s marked in there,” he said.
“My part of the bargain.”
She watched him walk away, the other books stashed under his arm, and noticed how his stature produced the kind of awkward looks from ordinary people which she had rejected so often. He was grand, she thought, this guy named Larry, with his warm poetry and his intelligent face. She could hide in his shadow for a long time.
Eventually, she sauntered across the street to her house, sat down on the sofa and opened the book. He had marked the place with a bit of yellow paper shaped like the state of Indiana. The page had been worn smooth in the corners, slick at the edges where his fingertips had paused many times.
She eased back in the sofa and tried not to cry. It was one she knew herself, though only from a distance, and the words hurled themselves off the page.
When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book . . .
A moment passed between them at dinner that night, Larry sitting across from her, his fitted suit filling the space, vast as a navy blue sea. They had dined on crab legs and oysters and shared the better part of a fine wine between them.
She knew about his work now, his family, his thoughts on politics, religion, and the greenhouse effect. She’d opened up, too, and told him about herself in honest terms—of her childhood, her goals, her achievements—the kind of talk which made common men tremble with inferiority.
“You’ve lived a big life,” he told her. She understood that he understood what he meant and what he wanted to say. That was all that mattered.
“You’ve lived, too,” she said softly. “A life of high ideals. Elevated.”
They kissed again, this time across the table, without the strain of leaning over something so small and insignificant as wine glasses. “You’re beautiful,” he had to admit when they parted. “Your eyes. Your hair. You’re something.”
What could she say about a guy named Larry? “I’m speechless.” She tapped her throat and swallowed hard. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here with someone like you. This is—“
“—too big to handle?” he said, finishing her thought.
They laughed until tears rolled from the corners of their eyes and everyone at the bar turned to stare at them—this immense couple, heads nearly touching the ceiling. They kissed again. Then he reached out and took her hand, beckoning her to reveal more of herself to him, as if there was so much of her to know, and so little time, and not nearly enough evening to fill the spaces in between.
He sent her letters. She was impressed with any man who knew how to put his thoughts into words. But his letters were elegant.
These are my tall tales, he wrote. For exaggerated times.
Every letter was an excavation, as if the layers of his life were being uncovered bit by bit, and she was the archaeologist. I tell you things, he wrote, that I tell no one else. All ignorance toboggans into know. And history is too small for even me; for me and you, exceedingly too small.
She recognized cummings, but she knew herself as well, and there were moments which betrayed her quickening feelings for him. She found herself calling him on her cell phone during her lunch break, talking to him while buying new clothes at the Big-N-Tall Store, asking him what colors he liked. Something was being extracted from her, but she did not want to fall too quickly from her height.
Once, she found herself writing his name on a napkin at the lunch counter. When she folded it and slipped it into her purse, it felt like a slender thread holding onto her heart.
He wrote to her, it seemed, at least twice a day. Whenever they met, he had put something on paper—a poem, a statement, or simple observations he had composed on note cards—and he gave these to her wrapped in ribbon or lace. Their hands touched often.
Liza found that Larry was a man of subtle wit, and it was his charm that was most attractive. He loved children, and did not look down on the people who made crude comments about his size, but usually humored them with a joke. Later, when she was alone with him in the car, he would cut them down with an intellectual barb, a quip about the inferiority of the small brainpan and the superiority of breathing the sweet, clean air of the stratosphere above the common yokels.
Slowly, she discovered a part of herself in him, and found that she was learning more about her dreams than she had anticipated. She hoped that, somehow, he was beginning to feel the same about her.
They kept company every night for a month, most often at her house, with him stretched across the sofa, his shoes off, revealing a pair of feet that darkened his face like an eclipse when she entered the room with tall glasses of iced tea. He was no longer an enigma, and it was no mystery to Liza why she found him so immensely attractive and enjoyable. They had their work; they had each other.
One evening, in the final days of August, he came to her door bearing a new book of poems. It was a thick tome, heavy with the weight of many years. “Auden,” he said. “Collected Poems.”
She kissed him immediately, forced to stretch ever so slightly on her toes to reach his lips, their faces pressed together somewhere near the ceiling. “Are you getting taller?” she joked.
“No, you’re getting shorter,” he quipped.
He sat down in his usual place and opened the newspaper. “Haven’t had a chance to read all day,” he said. “What’s the word? Madness? Mayhem? More destruction?”
“Think good thoughts,” she reminded him, having regarded such joy throughout the day: the sound of his voice, the Yeats poem, their first meeting in the park. Rarely, in the past week, had she entertained a distressing moment. Everywhere she looked, she saw possibilities. There was promise. It was as if the world was floating on a cloud and all her days were doorways.
They talked again, always of big things, large concepts and momentous events--turning points of civilization. Outside, the cicadas kept a constant drone in the trees. They sipped tea, read, and spoke to each other with perfect timing.
“Would you like to take a walk?” he suggested before sundown. “Stretch a bit?”
“I think there’s a park nearby,” she laughed.
He took her hand and led her out the door, across the street to the place where the trees opened beyond the playground into a wide expanse of grass. Nothing beyond was as tall as they were, together walking across the evening lawn under the expanding sky. “I like it here,” he told her. “This is the spot where we should have it.”
“The wedding,” he said dryly.
She fell into him before he had a chance to take her hand and offer her the ring. Hugging his neck, she tried to jump into his arms. The neighbors along the street all turned to watch, hoping for a memory to tell their grandchildren—the day they witnessed two giants embracing in a sea of green.
At last, after the initial outburst, he felt compelled by tradition to kneel. He gazed, slightly upward, into her eyes. “Will you?” he asked. “Will you marry me?”
She’d never considered the question in its full context until now, her life before the moment filling with unexplained joy, as if her body could not contain all that was to come. “Yes,” she answered, kissing him deeply.
They embraced for a long time, admiring the color and shape of the diamond ring, unwilling to speak until there was something that needed to be said.
“And our wedding,” he said finally. “Do you want it to be a big affair?”
“The biggest,” she said, imagining at once the green lawn sprinkled with tables and chairs, their myriad guests happy and toasting their prosperity as the two of them approached the altar together: he in black tuxedo, she in a satin gown of elegant white, carrying a bright bouquet of red, aromatic roses. There would be a velvet cake, musicians with violins and cellos nestled in a corner of shade, and gifts. There would be attendants, at least twelve, each dressed in hues of blue and cream, their accompanying groomsmen dapper in black tie and silver. And afterwards, a delicate dance with dinner and Champaign, a first kiss, a long drive to the airport, and a honeymoon in Hawaii.
But none of these dreams would be big enough. Even these would be too ordinary for the two of them. A love such as theirs could only be celebrated in the grandest way. She would have to find a way to enlarge the details.
He cleared her mind with his Auden. “When shall we learn, what should be clear as day, we cannot choose what we are free to love? . . . How much must be forgotten out of love.”
“On second thought,” she said, “I think that big is a relative term.”
“Couldn’t agree more.”
That was what she loved most about Larry—the fact that he could read the largest thoughts in her mind. She didn’t have to tell him that their wedding would actually be a small affair—just the two of them and a few guests. They didn’t need an army of people to be spectacular.
And besides, their wedding would be an even grander event without the little people. After all, she would be there. So would he.
The two of them, and their love, would be big enough.
Todd Outcalt is the author of thirty books in six languages with most recent or upcoming titles including, Common Ground (Skyhorse), Husband's Guide to Breast Cancer (Blue River Press), The Other Jesus (Rowman & Littlefield) and Where in the World We Meet (poetry, Chatter House Press). Todd has written for many magazines including Leadership, The Christian Science Monitor, Aim and American Fitness. He lives in Brownsburg, IN and will be writing twelve novels (mystery and romance) under the pen name R.L. Perry.
* * *
By Laura Stout
I sat brooding on the front steps of my family’s farmhouse, a rat trapped in a maze of summer boredom. The heat stomped down with the weight of a battleship and bound my limbs with lethargy as I stared at my bike abandoned in the dry, dead grass of our front yard. Something needed to happen, something mouth –gapingly awesome, something that would knock the days upside down. So when that fiery red Corvette barged down the dirt road kicking up plumes of dust, I had every reason to believe a summer savior had arrived.
The stones in the driveway popped and crunched beneath the roadster’s fancy white wheel tires. It glided to a stop, purring like a leopard in heat. The woman inside checked her face in the mirror. Then the engine shut off and the door clicked open. A goddess emerged and stood in one long, evocative rise.
Black hair skimmed naked shoulders. Pale white thighs streamed from a too short skirt. In between, cleavage was all I would ever remember.
My mom crashed out the front door as if the house was on fire. The two women squealed out each other’s names and hugged until I thought their bones would crack. They walked arm in arm, straight at me. My mouth went dry, and my heart skidded around inside my scrawny chest. My mom’s friend squatted down right in front of me. Pewter gray eyes snared me whole. I couldn’t look away. She was a dopamine flood in my blood stream.
“Well, this must be Louis. He’s much more handsome than you told me, Evie. Looks just like you. Has your eyes; sharp, green eyes. And you said he just turned eleven. So tall for eleven. Nice to meet you Louis.”
She took my hand, limp and damp from the heat. Words were beyond me, kidnapped and held for ransom, every letter, every sound, gone.
“Come inside, Suzie. I’ve got us some cool drinks waitin’,” said Mom.
Suzie stood. “Well, what are we doin’ out here in this god-awful heat then?”
Pent-up giggles bubbled out as the two of them scrambled up the porch steps.
Mom paused at the screen door and smiled at me. “You go on and leave us be for a while, darlin’. Okay?”
My shoulders sagged. My mouth opened, but no words came out. Mom untangled herself from Suzie, swept back out to the lawn and threw her arms around my neck. Her silky hair tickled my cheeks as she kissed my forehead.
“You’re an angel, Billy,” she whispered in my ear. Her breath was citrusy and warm.
After the screen door slammed behind them, I scurried into the living room and spied on them from over the top of my dad’s leather chair.
Suzie chattered nonstop admiring every snapshot clinging to the refrigerator door. “How adorable.” She pointed to my five-year-old school picture. “Evie, you’re breathtaking.” She held my parent’s tenth anniversary photo in pale, pink-tipped fingers.
She popped her gum and opened cabinets, inspecting their contents. “Let’s use these,” she said, pulling two Superman jelly jar glasses from a shelf.
“Bring them over,” said Mom as she mixed drinks in a ceramic pitcher. She added gin from the bottle above the refrigerator. I’d never seen it pulled out at two o’clock on a Tuesday before.
I spied on them all afternoon: from the laundry room window with the dryer humming against my back, from the garage where I fiddled with the gears of my bike. Black oil stained my fingertips.
They lounged out back on a concrete slab dressed up with potted geraniums and white plastic furniture. Suzie was a fireball spitting rivers of far-flung memories straight into Mom’s veins, slipping them under her skin until she glowed like a full moon. Stories, sometimes weepy and tender, sometimes lewd and shameless, flew across the tabletop. I flinched as obscene expressions spilled from Suzie’s tongue like rain.
Mom’s face flushed with laughter and heat. She tossed her hair and made grand gestures with her hands. She smoked a cigarette, flicking the ash onto an empty plate like she’d done it all the time.
Before it all ended, Mom brought out the transistor radio from the kitchen. She found a station playing a song from long ago. Their voices split the heat soaked air, opened a chasm, blended like silky braids of rope.
When the sky turned orange, and a crescent moon appeared ghostlike above the barn, we all went out front for farewells.
“Goodbye handsome.” She ruffled my hair and placed her cool palm against my cheek.
She hugged Mom hard and then slipped away down the dirt road: tires spinning, horn honking.
I’d thought it wondrous, the pinnacle of my summer. Suzie had charged into our August afternoon and radiated those magic memories around Mom. They had made her beam like white lightning. But what I didn’t think about, was too young to consider, is what happens when that bright sun slips away and leaves shadows in places it hadn’t felt so dark before; when the shock of ordinary life is all that remains.
Mom went straight out back. She pushed aside the clutter of empty glasses and plates, reached for the pitcher, poured a thin ribbon of what remained into a glass. She switched the radio back on, fiddled with the dial until she found something slow and mournful. Sipping her drink, she opened an old photo album, flipped through the pages, stopped on one, in particular, touched it with her fingertips.
I had been watching her, face pressed against the screen door until my legs ached. But when I saw her shoulders heave, I hurried out, mesh marks flourishing on my forehead. “You okay, Mom?”
She looked up, startled. “I’m fine, Billy. Just fine.”
The bloom in Mom’s face had withered. Her eyes mused, longed, for what I didn’t know. She sighed. That breath broke my heart. I hated saviors then.
She closed the album and slid it across the table. “Can you throw a TV dinner in the microwave, Sweetie?”
“Think I’ll just watch it get dark.” She took my hand and pressed my fingers, held them like a life line. I stayed and watched the darkness flood the cornfields, waited for her resurrection.
Laura Stout graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work has appeared at Halfway Down the Stairs, Menda City Press, The Corner Club Press, Drunk Monkeys, Literary Orphans, Blue Lake Review, Greensilk Journal, and Writers Type. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net 2014.
* * *
The Fruit is Depressed Again
By Taylor Bond
The places where I cut myself puckered
like citrus, like a cross-section of an pink grapefruit ! spliced in two halves. When I cut myself !
I sometimes pretend I’m a surgeon and
my hands don’t even tremble —I hold
the razor, the scalpel, whatever I find that day,
in between my hands, nestled between my palm
and every finger clenched with my thumb pressing down
hard on the metal neck. It’s only an instrument, I’m
just shaping things, just shaving. It’s not traditional, the way I do things.
My scars look like dried brown leopards spots, ! not the pale lattice of zebras, because I scoop
among the surface instead of diving as far as I can do against my veins.
If anyone tells you sadness isn’t physical, they’re lying.
The physical is real,
it’s the only thing you can feel, and talk to anyone
who’s ever had depression if
they could experience anything outside of their pain.
It’s this gnarled pit that wriggles and coils,
weaving through your body with arms
like metal, and it starves you of yourself.
And it’s there,
it’s always there and you can feel it and you need it out, there is nothing ! else you need in the world except for this parasite, this thing,
to be out of you.
So you attack it.
With razors, with scalpels, with whatever you can find that day.
You can’t stop it, you can only distract it.
Taylor Bond is a 2014-2015 Lannan Fellow, a writer for FireBack Records, and a freelance photographer. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Underwater New York, Belle Reve Literary Journal, The Anthem, Spilled Ink, Behind The Counter, Wimapog, Ygradisil, and The Camel Saloon.
* * *
3 Poems by Douglas Cole
My father dreams the red spider dream
in his lonely hotel room far from home.
The phone is ringing but he won't answer it,
knowing it will only open to the drunken
flood of his wife's voice complaining
about the sewer and her migraines,
the renters who won't pay,
a new glitch in the treadmill.
He looks out on a city, somewhere
(he can't remember which one),
at the cranes, the stock yards,
the industrial river and perpetual night.
Another drink, another lidded streetlight
comes on like the sloppy women in the lounge,
with their jet talk and smiles,
to him another part of all the meetings,
the deals and the precious contracts
he mules across the time zones.
When at last he sleeps that final sleep,
the rooms around him alive
with the fury of the end of the world
parties and the television drone,
he throws the universe into silence
absolute, everything now eclipsed
like a flame snuffed out by a fist.
If only this were a snapshot,
but it's real, here and now,
full light and the homes smoking
in the trees, fog seducing me
into seeing that great wall of gray,
the West, collapsing.
The mad woman in her moose coat and mukluks
sneers the buses into passing her stop.
The son hasn't been by
with her medications, so she's off
picking gum from the concrete,
needling the crows with her eyes.
Up the street, that kid
who wanders around most of the time
to stay away from home,
sits alone on a stump
in the cold yard smoking.
I'm sure he hates us all,
looking out through burning eyes,
just as he hates the foster mother
at his back who screams at him,
because he's got a black girlfriend,
her voice penetrating for a block:
He's sure to kill somebody, someday.
That wall of gray keeps coming closer.
Blind Mary canes her way
through the fingers of rain.
The birds are still and watching.
And sad child of the family across the street,
thirty by years but locked by syndrome
in the mind at four,
bursts naked through her door,
her wild hands flying as she conducts
the annihilating wind.
Childhood ended between the Siskyous
and Yreka as my mother, sister and I
drove south in our old Volkswagen
loaded with all our crap falling off
along the freeway. We lost things
I can’t even remember as we moved
in perpetual reduction of space
through Berkeley student housing
meagerly furnished with broken-down
beds and desks carved in by years
of migratory seminary students.
Friends I made were outlaw children,
and we broke into every building,
especially Barrington Hall with its high
windows looking down and out on
the flatlands and the fiery bay
and the Transamerica Pyramid.
We absorbed World At War
and played our own games of war,
rock fights in construction sites
that always came to a bloody end
with curses and spoils of proud
scars we bore as noble decorations.
Exploding fluorescent lights became
the universal destruction of delight.
Yet we had our great epics, too,
like the story of John-John flying
through the plate-glass window,
high and cut and crazy laughing,
blood-soaked as he walked away.
And every day the sky went dark,
the schoolyard flooding with smoke
that rose from the city incinerator
as children screamed in unison
to the sound of the air-raid siren.
Through the maze of Cal Campus,
thieves denned in Eucalyptus groves,
darkness crowned Strawberry Creek
as I walked beneath the buzzing
street lamps up Seismograph Hill,
making my way by perfecting
the mask of invisibility or threat
to pass safely through the quadrangle
and the alleyways, as moonlight slid
like blood down our duplex door.
Douglas Cole has had work in The Chicago Quarterly Review, Red Rock Review, and Midwest Quarterly. He has more work available online in The Adirondack Review, Salt River Review, and Avatar Review, as well as recorded stories in Bound Off and The Baltimore Review. He has published two poetry collections, Interstate, through Night Ballet Press and Western Dream, with Finishing Line Press, as well as a novella called Ghost, with Blue Cubicle Press. He has received several awards, including the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry; the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House; First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway. He was also recently the featured poet in Poetry Quarterly. He is currently on the faculty at Seattle Central College.
* * *
Exit and Crossing By J.K. Durick
The next one comes up in a mile; the sign mentions
Services, the offerings are enough, easy to imagine,
Filling stations and mini-marts, a chain motel or two,
A shopping mall with acres of half-empty parking;
Perhaps I should stop fill the tank, get some coffee
There in that store they always attach to gas pumps,
Could get in line, watch the comings and goings of
This place, whole worlds center on places like this,
Families wandering around, guys with six packs and
Lottery tickets who know each other talking wisely
Of things I, as an outsider, can only pretend to know,
Teenagers by the magazine rack, cigarettes smoking,
The air filled with routine, familiar with hometown;
Perhaps, I could get a room down the road a bit, at a
Best Western or Holiday Inn, could check in, check
The TV for all its stations, then go down by the pool,
Sit there reading a handful of brochures I picked up in
The lobby, ads for local attractions, Whispering Cave,
Molly’s Pancake House, factory stores selling local
Things, candles or soaps or baskets, things I might buy
And take with me, drive away, ever sprinkling money;
But fully clothed old men by the pool pretending to
Read may be too suspicious, so maybe I won’t stop at
This exit; maybe I’ll go on to the next one or the next;
Highways, like this, become thematic anthologies of
American life, each exit another poem, another story,
Plain text, dull, monotonously predictable, patterned,
Poorly plotted and beautiful for all that; I’d love to
Stop by, blend in, become a part of things outside
Myself, to stand in line with a six pack and friends,
To sit by the pool and watch my family swimming
Through the comfortable afternoon, but I drive by;
People without lives imagine them, and some of us
Create them on paper, keep creating exit after exit.
Of course, we do it when we get to them, like the bridge in the cliché,
But I’m talking about highways here, highways four and six lanes deep
Where drivers act out their NASCAR fantasies, hell drivers, bumper cars,
Where road rage has just become epidemic, and we need to get across.
It’s as if highway planners couldn’t imagine us being on the wrong side of
All this, there are no buttons to push, no blinking sign to tell what to do,
Walk, don’t walk, run, scamper, jump; there is the other side beckoning,
Like the promise land, the end of the rainbow, and we must set out unaided.
Our newspaper once ran a picture of a sneaker all by itself mid- road,
Its owner mistimed, miss-stepped, didn’t look right and left at the same time,
Was thrown a distance that’s hard to imagine, his sneaker remained, posed.
Crossings, like this, are a matter of timing and a willingness to put it all on
The line, the line we sketch out in our heads and then head bravely into it,
The other side looms large, the distance isn’t that great, we dash, we dodge,
Weave in and out; cars and trucks, buses and vans become a moving maze
We wend, we walk. This is what being alone, singled out is like, we are alone
Out there, no one knows us anymore, a lone figure surrounded and foolhardy.
J. K. Durick is a writing teacher at the Community College of Vermont and an online writing tutor. His recent poems have appeared in Camel Saloon, Black Mirror, Milo Review, Eye on life Magazine, and Leaves of Ink.
* * *
Dares to Wonder There
By Nicole Emmelhainz
clung close around
for that first
for that next
she learns to
she learns to
of her lungs
soft bristled sepals
for the first
she learns to love
the sound of blood
as it stirs
Nicole Emmelhainz is an Assistant Professor of English at Christopher Newport University, where she teaches various writing-intensive classes, including creative nonfiction and poetry. She holds a PhD in Writing History and Theory from Case Western Reserve University and an MA in Creative Writing from Ohio University.
* * *
If Feminism is for Ugly Girls and Easy on the Eyes
By Kaity Gee
If Feminism is for Ugly Girls
If feminism is for ugly girls,
Let me be ugly.
Let my face be covered in boils and sores.
Let my teeth rot into pieces.
If all you desire is a pretty face,
a woman who sits silent and
nods to coarse words,
Make me screaming and savage
Make me the woman yelling
Louder than a freight train.
If all a woman is an object,
let me be the Medusa
whose head of snakes will turn you to stone.
Let me be righteously terrible
Let me be scar-faced,
for I will bear my trauma
where it is plain to see.
Let me be untouchable, undesirable;
Let the other women laugh
at my crooked nose and jagged teeth.
Tell me, man
With my hair of snakes
and rotted smile—
Do I terrify?
Easy On The Eyes
She was easy on the eyes,
Slight in the hips.
The curve of her face was a melody,
And she had a piano-key spine.
Looking hard in the mirror
into her eyes
set into a valley
of dying stars,
She counts her calories,
lower than her self esteem.
She measures her self-worth
by the nosedive numbers on the scale.
Her fingernails fade into blue,
and her skin screams, cracks and peels,
Her long chestnut locks have begun to fall,
and her wind-up doll heart beats in
As her rib cage juts out like jagged cliffs,
Her mind fades
into a blackout blur,
in the mirror
at the stranger,
sneering back at her.
Kaity Gee is a high school junior at The Harker School in San Jose, California. She is currently multimedia editor of her school paper, The Winged Post. Only sixteen, she has already been making a splash in the creative writing world, winning eight regional Scholastic Writing Awards and one Gold Key nationally in Flash Fiction. Kaity has won multiple awards for her journalistic works, most notably second place in the prestigious NFPW's Features category for her piece on eating disorders. Kaity has been writing for as long as she can remember. Short stories, poems, novels, memoirs; writing has been an integral part of her life. She is currently a blogger with About-Face Media Literacy Inc., and is Multimedia Editor for Harker Aquila. In her spare time, Kaity dances classical and contemporary ballet and enjoys making films.
* * *
Grandma Ceitha and I Am Not My Father's Son
By Michael Grover
When I was born
Grandma Ceitha lived in Green Acres, Florida
With my Papa
She was a large southern woman
Born in South Carolina
Being a southern woman
She cooked a lot
Her kitchen was always full
Of steam & the sound of water boiling
Rice, fresh snapped green beans, corn on the cob,
Black eyed peas,
Smell of fresh lemon pound cake baking
I do the cooking in the house
I still think of her
Every time I hear water boiling
My parents & I stayed with them
As they built the house I grew up in
I say the house I grew up in
Because I barely remember the house in West Palm Beach
Or my grandparents house in Green Acres
My Papa was a carpenter like Jesus
My father an electrician
They built that house with their own hands
Saturday night was date night for my parents
Grandma Ceitha & I would stay up watching Creature Feature
Eating bananas till our stomachs hurt
I remember when she died
She had tubes in her throat
& an oxygen mask
It was obvious, the end was near
I walked into her hospital room
With a Mountain Dew
She went crazy, jonesing for caffeine
She was grabbing for the bottle
I didn't care, she was dying, I handed it to her
She tried to force it through the oxygen mask
With no success
She handed it back with a beaten look on her face
I Am Not My Father's Son
One day you just wake up
& it's too late
To be what you meant to be
Life full of anger
Fueled by alcohol & drugs
Anything to forget
I hold no rage
It has eaten its way out of me
It will die with me
This cycle will stop
Both of us live alone
Even with someone
But believe this
I am not my father's son
Michael D. Grover is a native Floridian now living in Toledo, Ohio. He sees himself as an activist for poetry, and has hosted weekly readings. Michael has been published all over the world, and has performed all over the country. He has had over a dozen chapbooks including his newest Some People Go Crazy which is available on Citizens For Decent Literature Press. His first novel Lockewood/The Wolves Of Lockewood is now available on Hipity Scotch Press. Michael is the current head poetry editor at Red Fez.
* * *
By Richa Gupta
It emerged bright, radiant
leaving behind its chrysalis
in a flurry of wings, restless and tense,
gifted with an array of shades
and a motif of patterns
etched on its wings, fluttering and frail
The air was biting, a knife of ice,
slashing through the leaves
The light was blinding, a shower of rays,
more piercing than the breeze
The warmth of the cocoon vanished,
leaving it exposed, susceptible
to the forces of nature-
so relentless and unforgiving
to a newly formed creation,
with a wealth of beauty,
a myriad of flair, deciding to hone
its abilities in the glacial air
It perched on a slender stalk,
absorbing its surroundings, the various hues,
clearer than a crystal
For the very first time, it spread its wings,
fell prey to the gusts,
joined the breeze, merged with the currents
and learned to fly
Gliding through the air,
it found a sense of liberation-
of new-found independence
By slicing through the atmosphere-
it wielded a sense of power
The sky was its residence- the endless blue,
golden during the day, indigo at night-
a profusion of colors or also a miracle
It reminisced on the bygone days-
days of impotence, of being rooted to the ground,
slow, listless, with no means of escape,
days without beauty, without passion or joy,
days of distress and inferiority
as it looked up, and gaped at the sky-
intimidating, infinite, the home of its kind
once they broke free of the chrysalis,
and learned to fly
It basked in the chill, the tropical shades,
reveling in this wondrous change-
neither the change of metamorphosis,
nor the sensation of flight
It was a change that dominated the rest,
thought the butterfly,
as it pirouetted with its kin
It was a change that let it fly
towards the enticing flowers,
rather than having to climb up its stem
It was a change that brought beauty
and pleasure in the hearts of others
It was a carrier of esteem
and the magic of freedom
Richa Gupta is a fifteen-year old girl living in Bangalore, India, with her parents and sister. She started developing an interest in poetry from a young age, and has been honing her interest by writing and composing. She plans to publish a book of a collection of her poetry and short stories.
* * *
The World is Sad
By Jim Gustafson
The world is sad
people are ugly.
Or is that backwards?
I am not sure.
One breeds the other.
High places bring
Dreams of flight
tempt the wingless
to swim the air.
to roll down.
sky’s start from land’s
end. Tumble weeds
long for calm, search
Light strikes deep
on well walls,
Shells coast ashore,
wash and dry with sand.
Feet crush graves
of amphibious ghosts.
Moon tanned skin peels
during later hours.
Tree limbs have unseen
roots, each their own.
Shade crawls the ground
above. They boast
best under full sun.
None of this
all this in mind.
Watch for things
out of place. Order
is first to depart.
Jim Gustafson is an adjunct instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University. He received his Master of Divinity from Garrett Theological Seminary at Northwestern University and his MFA from the University of Tampa. He is the author of Take Fun Seriously (Limitless Press 2006) and Driving Home (Aldrich Press 2013), a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee. Jim lives in Fort Myers, Florida where he reads, writes, teaches, and pulls weeds
* * *
The Counselor Leads Running Group
By Josh Huber
We ran night down to day
dawn’s asthmatic yellows and reds
startling the sky’s stuttering omniscience.
The sleeping still stranded in their beds
simmered in dreams like ours,
when you noticed, in the pale light, the health of your hands
splayed angels pressed into the summer grass.
How fit the fingers measured span,
how the veins strained blue
and tight against the skin,
as if the blood were rather
too thick than thin.
Josh studies poetry in the Masters of English program at the University of Missouri, where he also teaches. His various works have appeared most recently in Dark Matter, Scissors & Spackle, and The Missouri Review.
* * *
By Anna Ivey
armor and tourniquets
After I marry Chad I do stupid things and get angry over not having to work in the summer. Irrelevant as a horse returning to its burning barn I wear armor and tourniquets to copper-cardinal sunsets and ballroom affairs. Something relents on a Monday night when I sob I am afraid of you because you never hurt me. His eyes grow luxurious. You have given me a corner. Take your two hands gripped on your heart. I could subside to him and the second skin became a marriage to a good man.
the coursework of the poet
We inhabit marriage as a set of river stones lining the row of gardenias. I cook lunches in bulk for us and plan the grocery list. Inventing candle scents becomes the coursework of the poet in the house. Aralyn goes to school with me and I can let take her to see horses or a movie. Yet my womb aches now after six months for another child. I do not know how to adjust to this desire since I shamed it for so long. A woman wanting a baby is a conniving being. He has softened but the words are pooled under my tongue.
unfold the origami-words
I bide my time as a tolerant priestess. In November we are alone in the kitchen and he asks why I am distant. It releases. I fold and unfold the origami-words. Rummaging and genuine and terrified. You’re shitting me says Chad. He wonders for days if I will stop drinking wine. Can I can manage not sleeping. Will I still work. Do I plan to keep writing. Will I complete my Phd and when. Is it clear to me that we cannot give it back once it is here. That we must pause the plans for the house. That we are not giving it away to our parents to raise for us. That nothing before frees him to want a child even now as when I sit on the counter and say Well, I have been thinking…
Anna Ivey is currently working on a PhD in poetry at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her most recent publications have been featured in So to Speak, The Unrorean, Antithesis, Stone Highway Review, and West Trade literary magazines. She lives in McDonough with her daughter, Aralyn.
* * *
F. Scott Fitzgerald
By David Klose
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote first
you take a a drink,
then the drink takes a drink,
then the drink takes you.
Its wet hands lead you
in & out of parties, to bars
where you dance because everyone
is dancing, then home
where you sleep, because everyone
else is gone. It holds you
as you stagger through the night
sewn together by gaps of memory.
No, Officer, I haven't had anything
to drink and the drink is hiding
behind the passenger seat, hands over
its mouth, to stop itself from giggling.
Later, as you puke behind someone's car,
it will say whew, that was a close one,
then carry you, your new shoes clipping
against the rock hard stairs, up to your apartment.
It rolls its fingers through your hair.
It puts you on your stomach. It's seen
your kind before. And you'll wake up,
afraid that you've missed Christmas,
that all the presents have already been opened
and no one saved you any ham.
The fear grips you, like the time
you were told that the world is running out
of cork. The drink does its best. It promises its promises,
but you've seen dead pine trees in the back
of pick up trucks before. But how can you
be expected to perform, to vote and succeed
and love and be loved, when a world can just run out
of something like cork?
David Klose is a Senior at Arizona State University. He currently works as a Blogger at Superstition Review.
* * *
Order & Chaos
By Kirstin Maguire
The fine tapestry we needle between
The ordered and chaos.
Treading tight-rope of colliding worlds.
Working hard for the order
The home tidy, possessions in place,
The Papers and To Do Lists.
Healing underway for burden of your choosing,
Mysterious, mythical magnetism,
Adds and subtracts, repels and compels.
Colourful, disorderly, untying, whirring, spinning
Dives structured, routined, organised, disciplined rigour.
Striking Scorsese-eseque rebellion lurks
In shadows of fine order.
Waking, dreamed-up world
Twitches red button swerving its darkness.
It's all some great sort of balancing act,
To stride or to stumble,
To define own fine way.
The fine tapestry we needle between
The ordered and chaos.
Treading tight-rope of colliding worlds,
And gripping the surface.
Kirstin Maguire is a London based writer. She writes lots of poetry and prose, as well as essays, articles and film treatments. Her work is often inspired and informed by arts and culture, politics and philosophy, and the blues.
* * *
The Urban Chicken
By Kyle Martindale
In ten years, every shelf will be farm-fresh, grain-
this-animal. Organic eggs? Big deal. Our urban
chickens are graffiti artists and grass-roots-
campaign managers. Free-Range will be Walmart-
run-of-the-mill—the good stuff will be stalked,
coaxed and culled in a streamable tragic-comic
saga narrated by Morgan Freeman in the sociolect
of the wild.
Kyle Martindale is a poet, writer and teacher. He has taught three years in Metro Nashville at Antioch High School, and is pursuing his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at San Diego State University. He and his wife, Jessica, live in East Nashville with their dog, Lucky.
* * *
Presidents' Day Sale
By Jean Kingsley
In the black night of a dream
you follow the stars home
except home isn't home anymore
instead a wire dog crate
you enter making yourself small
curling up in the blankets.
The next thing you know
you stop breathing and it's all over
but the only problem
is the blinking star that won't stop
so you open your eyes
to a tiny thought whose time
has come to pass
and there by your bedside
is the ghost of your mother
who tells you to get up, stop
wasting time because tomorrow
won't wait for such nonsense--
the stars, the dogs—your life
is almost over. You get up,
pass out flyers: Presidents' Day Sale
20% off everything.
Jean A. Kingsley earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. She is the recipient of the 1995 Academy of American Poets Prize, a finalist for “Discovery”/The Nation and The Constance Saltonstall Foundation of the Arts Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in Tar River Poetry, River Oak Review, American Literary Review, Excursus Literary Arts Journal, Eclipse, and Poetry Lore, among others. Recently her poems have appeared in Amethyst Arsenic, Damselfly, Storyscape Journal, Stone Highway Review, Apeiron Review, Cactus Heart, and Columbia Poetry Review. She won a poetry book award for Traceries from ABZ Press in 2014, selected by C. D. Wright, and is a recent reviewer for the Antioch Review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
* * *
By Sarah Frances Moran
No one cares that you woke up this morning,
snotty nosed and puffy –eyed
got in the shower before using the bathroom to save time,
and decided that today was the day you’d write the most
Epic – Poem – Ever.
They don’t care about that stifled genius
or about how you’ve received 52 rejection letters to date.
What they do care about,
is the meat of you.
What’s deep down in your guts?
What makes them churn and what makes them ache?
What makes you so alive?
Why do you sit at the bottom of the tub
and just cry sometimes?
What pain racks your body so violently
that sobs come out of you like a siren?
Where the dogs in the neighbor’s yard start howling like wolves,
because, they. definitely. understand.
They want you split opened and splayed on the cutting board,
dissected and then resurrected by passion.
What kind of passion?
They want you microscoped in metaphor.
Crawling through the trenches of the war inside yourself
you’re trying so desperately hard to bring to an end.
And every time you hit your knees and elbows and drag yourself
through that muck… what is it you’re searching for? running from? or towards?
When you hit the end of it, are you appeased? Are you covered all up in it?
In the mud and in the stench of the things they want you to reveal.
Fuck the shower and the thoughts of should I
Fuck your fears.
Show them the way the scalding water reddens your skin.
How you watch it as your mind ponders why you get so sad.
How you play this game of figuring it all out before the water turns cold
and how it always, always turns too cold too fast.
Explain that you haven’t figured it out so far.
That before you come to that resolution the water is cold, your skin is cold, your fingers are wrinkled and pruning and you’re just sitting there naked and freezing.
Tell them that you get up anyway,
And seize the day.
You write the poems.
You redraft yourself, every day
for this battle.
Sarah Frances Moran is a stick-a-love-poem-in-your-back-pocket kind of poet. She thinks Chihuahuas should rule the world and prefers their company to people 90% of the time. She believes words are immeasurably powerful; more powerful than She-ra’s thighs.
* * *
MY WEEKDAY MORNING ROUTINE
By Douglas Nordfors
Night didn’t stick, and so I went on living,
as if woke up
to the border between two peaceful countries
I had crossed
on the backs of five animals who declined
that the earth was one earth. Metaphor was like
of a pattern of renegade veins, and five loose
vials of blood,
and work was like the full length of a chick's beak
open five cracks in an egg. A half an hour later,
as I always
do, I drove 15 minutes, and then stopped, as
I do always,
at a particular store for coffee and breakfast.
There it was,
the counter, as well as the usual quite pleasant
behind it. I was sure—I mean I believe now—
prior to dawn, she had been upright and alert,
over and over, her "thank yous." As soon as
that she had already said it once to me, she
needlessly. She said it twice to me. That's how
my weekday morning routine.
Douglas Nordfors lives and teaches in Central Virginia. He has published two books of poetry, Auras (2008) and The Fate Motif (2013) with Plain View Press in Austin, Texas.
* * *
By Stephen Page
I am so pleased that you have volunteered for Meals on Wheels--a noble endeavor to say the least. The driving around and handing out of containered food must surely keep you busy; which as we both know is something you need to do, especially now, at this point in your life.
Here on Santa Ana it is raining, a necessity for all ranches and farms alike. There always seems to be too much or too little of the wet stuff: cows either grazing in knee-deep water or chewing cud in puddles of dust, wheat like reeds in lakes or corn withering and dropping cracked ears. Last week the soy leaves turned from yellow to brown, a worsening state of bad, and the wind–break evergreens ochred the cow-lot borders. This afternoon, after two hours of steady raindrops the size of acorns, the whole ranch and everything on it seemed to sigh with relief; an almost audible sigh like one you hear in a dream as you are waking. The land has blackened to chocolate and the air chilled to jacket weather. Today’s downpour reprieved a two-month bout of ninety-degree swelter that made ill the character of the entire Santa Ana populace, not to mention tainted much of our cupboard tins and racked red wine.
We start the yerra next week—a picnic for us, as we watch while the gauchos perform. The cooler weather will be perfect for it. In a month or so we sell the calves.
I am sure you are happy that you will soon move to Florida after such a cold Michigan winter. Two months of breath-cracking below-zero is enough to make anyone seek guayaberas and daiquiris on the beach. Retirement will be pure pleasure. No more up before daybreak! No more “thru rain and shine!”
I hope your recovery from prostate surgery goes well. A hobby is in order for you to find, as we spoke about, to keep you occupied. Distracted. Don’t be like your father. Your career is over, not your life.
I trust this letter finds you and Mom well.
With much thought,
Your son, Jonathan
PS The jacket you gave me during my last visit, the bombardier with the shoulder insignia missing, keeps me from the wet and chill. I use it on my wood walks.
S. M. Page is from Michigan. He is the author of The Timbre of Sand and Still Dandelions. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Bennington College. His critical essays have appeared regularly in the Buenos Aires Herald and the Fox Chase Review. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He loves his wife, travel, family, and friends.
* * *
By Meggie Royer
Gretel drinks seven beers a day, smokes packs of Pall Malls
down to the nub, Eve remakes herself from memory,
from coffee mug circle stains and Oklahoma, and Adam stops
writing love letters to his missing rib. Joan of Arc swallows the fire
that was meant to burn her alive. Beauty decides she doesn’t
need the Beast. The blooming of salmon in my uncle’s hands
as he slices their bellies open sideways with a pocketknife,
ghosts of blood crescendoing across the cutting board.
Rapunzel lets her hair back up into the tower
to prevent the prince from climbing in.
The gutting of my mother like a fish, lying open and gasping
on somebody’s frameless bed, taking a beating
again and again. Scheherazade kills the king and escapes,
never to be seen thereafter. My mother
decides to leave the man who tore out her spine,
moves to a state far away where he can never
stumble through the door after five too many beers. But
like all good stories, this one is fiction.
Meggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently majoring in Psychology at Macalester College. Her poems have previously appeared in Words Dance Magazine, Winter Tangerine Review, Harpoon Review, and more. In March 2013 she won a National Gold Medal for her poetry collection and a National Silver Medal for her writing portfolio in the 2013 National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
* * *
Bubbles, White Flowers, and Unconscious
By D. N. Simmers
They complete a circle as the eye
catching the edges of winds.
Some sounds are
a pop or a bang or a cry.
They are silent when the
Flesh made of violent and
in and out of existence.
There is nothing to show for them.
Being there or not
a vague rise near water’s edge.
“ It is wrought in violets, upon a background of white flowers”
Highland deaths are not my life.
But D Day and a uncle knew of death.
What Prince Leopold had died for, went through.
The poem reminders us of Scotland.
Our blood in these thing is a cold shivering
knife against our bloodlines
We are there
where deaths are
as they place and are played
and fought over
White flowers used before our time.
Now the blood has made the poppy
the symbol that all the world sees.
We will remain with the white flower and
grieve in our own way
of the past.
Actor comes out in the night where
Dreams mix with the mix of the moon.
Drift with the leaves and swords that are tossed
in a lakes and then dried out against
a filtered lenses of first light.
Run. Run and then fly.
Bake the words and press them into T shirts
or blankets and fly with the stars.
Woke in a sweat. Wanted to go back.
Maybe. Maybe knit a few more for tomorrow.
As the film is being rewound. Tight.
D.N. Simmers is an online special editor with Fine Lines. He is in and will be in again Poetry Salzburg Review. He was in will be in the Storyteller, Plainsong, Iconoclast, California Quarterly, Poets Touchstone, Descent, Bluestem, Nomad's Choir. He is online in the Potomac, Red River Review, damfino, New American Digital,Word Press and was in Van Gogh's Ear, Paris France. He is in a newly launched Royal City Poets (4) and was in an international anthology this past summer.
* * *
By Emily Strauss
Being Old Like You
When I am 76 I want to wear earrings in my garden with dangling pearls,
change from my breakfast skirt to shorts and back again, my blouse crisp
with embroidery, in sandals and anklets with frilly edges.
I will lay crocheted blankets across every chair, cut up old sheets for rags,
bring out my 85-year-old tablecloth with hand-rolled napkins for company,
sip from great-grandmother's crystal goblets.
I will bring in my own firewood too, burn oil lamps, heat my wash water
on the stove, bathe in a dishpan, hang my clothes on pine branches,
grow my own melons, harvest pumpkins and persimmons,
put up chutney, bake bread, write letters by hand, walk through muddy fields
wearing a baggy coat and boots. I will care for myself—
beat the rugs, sweep the floors, gather spiders' webs, spread gravel
for a winter path through the yard, trim the bushes, dig under old flowers,
close the door firmly against the cold night, wrap myself in frayed blankets
next to the stove with herbal tea, stare at all my pictures, listen to the wind
and rain, fingering antique memories and souvenirs, wait for light to return,
a new dawn ebbing in.
The final year you retreated to your heated recliner, wrote in your journal,
the pencil still inserted in the book the night they found you, you left before
I could come to say farewell.
The New Eye Doctor is 6’ 6”
Look right into my eyes, he says
from behind his machine, fiddling
with the dials and knobs, those eyes
so pure blue they hurt
I have a theory, he says, about why
tall men marry short women.
He told me he played basketball
in college before he got interested
in medicine but that turned out to be
too difficult, you see, to us everything
is tall so we need someone petite
to remind us of another world
which is better than the dentist who asks,
as my mouth is full of tubes and suction,
now don’t I remember that you teach,
and I’m not sure if a simple nod will
answer the intricacies of that question
And I say, that’s interesting because short
men have always liked my height and I never
understood why they wanted to look up,
and grab my ample ass, I didn’t add
Keep looking straight into my eyes, he says
still turning dials, fine-tuning he calls it,
and they are still blue against a butch
haircut, you should have seen it before,
he says, this is pretty severe, and I continue
to stare into those pools thinking, at least
I’m not drooling, with no equipment to catch
me, just these alien goggles he’s hiding
behind as he perfects my eyesight before
I don’t have to stare straight into his eyes
anymore, and I am disappointed at the loss.
Emily Strauss has an M.A. in English, but is self-taught in poetry, which she has written since college. Nearly 250 of her poems appear in over a hundred online venues and in anthologies. The natural world is generally her framework; she also considers the stories of people and places around her and personal histories. She is a semi-retired teacher living in California.
* * *
By Diane Tucker
too much in love with skin
to splinter you, painted and worn
wood smoothed grey by many shoes
wood finger-oil printed
wood pierced with bolts
lacerated by rusty nails
wood is the spongy skeleton of the living tree
a floor, a shelf, an old guitar freckled with nicks
these are our relationship with wood
naked wood peeking out
from under the chipped paint – a body
we are invited to love
wood gives, wood swells, it responds
to tears on the air or the absence thereof
how we coax it into its afterlives
with saw and sandpaper,
bolt, screw, oil and wax
we mummify the tree’s body,
brighten and smooth it to comfort ourselves
(a stair rail rounded
under the descending hand,
a solid knife handle,
well-balanced baseball bat)
infusing every fibre
with what we can of timelessness,
out of the dead stems of trees
we wring life after life
Vancouver, BC’s Diane Tucker has published three poetry books (God on His Haunches, Nightwood Editions, 1996; Bright Scarves of Hours, Palimpsest Press, 2007; Bonsai Love, Harbour Publishing, 2014) and a YA novel (His Sweet Favour, Thistledown Press, 2009). Her poetry has appeared in dozens of journals in Canada and elsewhere.
* * *
By Doug Van Hooser
live next door across the
street down the block everywhere
like locusts feeding on the
what ifs if onlys if not fors the
sweet nectar of possibilities a fat
free sugar free gluten free nutritious
meal that never ends a buffet
to pick and choose from
didn’t someone say
you are what you eat
hard to believe after this snack
that is true get on the scale
and see which way it tips all
bets the needle doesn’t move so
lie to yourself the fib of maybe
has anyone ever explained the
difference between hope
it coulda been or
maybe it shoulda been it
certainly woulda been
just ask the Wannabes
Doug Van Hooser is a network playwright at Chicago Dramatists Theatre. His fiction most recently appeared in The Riding Light Review and his poetry in Stoneboat Literary Journal and the Black Fox Literary Magazine.
* * *
By Lynne Viti
Get up in front of your third grade class,
on a rainy day when everyone’s done the seatwork,
with twenty minutes to kill before the bell.
Sing Secret Love or
Young and Foolish— unaccompanied.
Bother Mrs. Smith till she lets you sing solo,
What Child Is This in the Christmas concert
in the gym, everyone in white shirts,
the boys in dark pants,
the girls in navy blue skirts,
yours is a cheap one
from Epstein’s in Highlandtown
because your mother
says you’ll only wear it once,
why spend more money?
Sing the Telephone Hour from Bye Bye Birdie
at the first assembly in your all-girls school,
Eight girls in summer uniforms, fists to ears
Crooning into imaginary handsets,
hi Penny, hi Helen, what’s the story?
–on the stage that rises up
from the gym’s polished floorboards.
Then the singing stops, at least in public.
Singing in the shower doesn’t count, nor does
singing at rallies, ain't nobody goin to turn me round
where have all the flowers gone, one, two three,
what’re we fightin for, don’t ask me.
In the car on the way home from the play,
slaphappy and tired, sing the Marseillaise,
Sing show tunes, that was a real nice clambake,
At home, sing Surabaya Johnny along with Bette Midler
On the stereo, the last record on repeat, repeat.
When the babies come, sing old Beatle songs, sing Sinatra,
It happened in Monterey a long time ago, sing Girl Scout tunes,
I’m happy when I’m hiking, baby’s boat’s a silver moon,
sing Raffi, Rosenshontz, can you tell me how to get,
how to get to Sesame Street.
Now it’s quiet in the house. Everyone’s
out or has moved away. Leave the radio off,
keep the Ipod silent. Sing
whatever you please.
Two nights after
The president was shot
my mother went out.
She put on silver blue eyeshadow.
She wore her Persian lamb jacket
with the mink collar.
It was the year
she was having the kitchen redone.
The house was in disarray.
I sat on our brocade sofa.
The small black and white tv.
It sat in a temporary place
atop an end table.
the news replay
Jack Ruby shooting Oswald.
A boy I thought I liked came by.
I didn’t like the way
he chugged from the green Coke bottle,
swished it around like mouthwash
before he swallowed.
I never forgave my mother.
I wanted her to sit
on the sofa with me
Don’t kid yourself
into thinking that the past isn’t still
stuck inside you, no matter how you will it
away or meditate until you think you touch
infinity, or the edges of it, if infinity
has edges, like the edges of the yellow walls
where they met
or the edges of the wooden window frames
in the room where you gladly gave up
your virginity, another thing
in your to-do list before college.
That longhaired girl with ivory skin
freckled in summer, body slimmed
by regimen of hardboiled eggs and grapefruit
— she’s still with you. She stretched out
on the narrow bed, raised her arms
above her head, looked into the eyes
of her novice lover, the one
she chose for the deflowering,
as if she might find some clue,
some notion of how to be a woman.
And after, when the thing was done,
she was done with him as well.
It was more or less a
disappointment, an act
to have behind her.
When he left that day, she knew
only that one more line
could be crossed off her list.
The old steamer trunk her aunt had lent her
sat in the hallway, its drawers and shelves
waiting to be filled.
Lynne Viti is a senior lecturer in the Writing Program at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She writes about law, television, nature, yoga, and anything else that comes into her vision field, and has published poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
* * *
By Flannery White
She lies still,
palm up. The nearby freeway's rush
sounds like the surf. Maybe it is
too dark to see the cracks in the ceiling,
but it is not too dark to feel them, etched on each tense
muscle, like her desperation to live in the present tense,
to do more in her life than be still.
I am too young, she thinks, to stare at a ceiling
this way. She lifts a hand
to study it and finds it foreign in the dark. It is
the wrong color in the intermittent rush
of headlights. Her heart thumps. She wants to rush.
That is what present tense
means to her: it is
a challenge, the reason she hates being still--
she is terrified to risk never meeting it. Her hand
curls and she aims for the ceiling
but it falls, while the ceiling,
immobile, remains unharmed. She remembers, when she was nine, the rush
of grabbing an electric fence with her whole hand.
She knows she went tense,
knows her teeth clenched, but all she remembers is flying. She still
wants to grab electric fences whenever she sees them. She now realizes this is
the origin of her fondness for pastures. She is
afraid she will be caught under this cracked ceiling
her whole life. Still
forever, never to fly, never to feel that rush
again. She is afraid of the past tense,
can feel it closing in. She refuses to believe this the hand
life will deal her. She studies her pale hand
again, recognizes it this time. She knows who she is.
She is the lepidopteron that flies when others would be pinned, tense
with rigor mortis. Neither that glass ceiling
nor any other could ever hold her. The certainty is a rush
of euphoria quickly gone. She is still
lying under that cracked ceiling. She flexes her tense hand: it unfurls
like a wing. She grows still as she is lulled to sleep
by the oceanic rush of lights across her ceiling.
Advice from my Grandmother
“A person can live too long,” she tells me.
“Don’t get old--
whatever you do, dear heart, don’t get old.”
“I hope I’ll be old!” I say. Smile.
I watch her unbalanced walk and think: I’ll try.
This group home is not her home.
A person can live too long.
Don’t be ridiculous, her sons and daughters tell her.
You aren’t a burden. We love you. You aren’t a burden.
They mean it,
even as they give up weekends to remember things for her
to wash her clothes to check her meds
to pay her bills to clean her sheets
They love her.
But she has lived too long and so she knows:
a burden you love is still heavy.
I tell her
“Missing you would be a burden, too.”
She pats my hand and calls me kind
but in two minutes she has forgotten and here I am next to her
missing her anyway.
I can’t stay forever.
I hate to have her thinking well of me
when I am leaving her here
waiting with equal anticipation on a relative or Death
whoever gets there first.
A person can live too long,
she tells me.
Don’t get old.
Flannery White currently lives in Seattle and works at a design company. She is a graduate of the University of Washington who grew up as an expatriate in Beijing and The Hague. Her work has previously appeared in Potluck Mag.
* *. *
Masquerade for Money
By Lina Aissa
This story is of a woman who thought she could trick the whole world. A woman whose life was a deeply buried secret that she shared with one and only one person, not voluntarily, but only because that person was forced into her life. She was certain that her daughter would never betray her or divulge what her mother had hidden for years. She knew that her daughter was smarter than to blab their confidence.
The mother always said “Whenever someone asks you about our situation, tell them that we are poor and needy and that your mom has no job. We starve and we shiver from cold and our clothes are shredded and full of holes.”Every time, the child gawked without understanding, but never asked why-“Why are you lying mum? Why aren’t you telling the truth?” She nodded because she knew she had to. See, it is quite impossible to convince someone that they are not whom they think they are. It would obviously lead to the conclusion that one of you is mad- seriously brain damaged- and that one is surely you.
The mother woke up in the early morning to wait for the milkman on his rusty motorcycle rumbling from far away. Every window in the small neighborhood opened. Children scurried towards the milkman with their saucepans, empty bottles, and large mugs and surrounded him like a clowder. Furious mothers scolded their children for not filling their bottles first and yelled at the man for his preference of one over the other.
With the whole neighborhood coming out from every corner, she rather preferred to remain inside and wait for the man to knock on her door, at last. She put on her rugged bathrobe and covered her hair with a loose scarf and drew a fake smile on her face.
“I hope you saved me some good milk, son” she said in a low tone.
She washed her face with tepid water and take a deep, reflective look over her face in the mirror- somehow the flesh in it was of no flexibility; as it was dangling from her bones. She gave it a try once, twice, and over and over again smoothed her cheeks and widened her eyes with her fingers until she surrendered to her misfortune and gave a loud, desperate sigh. Drying her face with a towel was definitely her favorite part; as she managed to do it quickly so as not to perceive her reflection in the mirror.
She sat alone at her large round crimson mahogany dinner table with two spindly arm chairs, put her cup of coffee, her neatly-cut toasts, her honey and butter, a large chocolate cake, a bottle of mango and papaya juice (her favorite), and sizzling sausages on top of the table and rubbing her eyes, she kept staring out of the window. She tried so hard to escape the emptiness and the silence of the morning. She kept staring, drowsing and growing sleepy until the coffee turned cold and took two or three sips of her now muddy coffee and nibbled a buttered toast. Mornings could be very dull and the gray clouds accentuated the dreary atmosphere. After a long time resting her head on her arms, she suddenly realized that it would rain soon and that she needed to pull off the laundry.
She ran upstairs, enveloped in her warm, thick wool bathrobe and twitched the laundry that hung on a wire, covering her forehead with her hand. The moment she reached the door leading to the stairs, a giggle jutted out of her throat in a way she could not oppress. The gentle rain gave her a feeling of warmth and pleasure.
Coming down stairs and carrying her basket full of semi-wet clothes, she started calling her daughter to get ready for school. On the last stair, she watched her heaving her backpack on her shoulder and jostling the walls stealthily towards the door. She immediately followed her for the daily inspection-after all little twelve-year-old girls are not to be granted full trust. “BYE, MOM” She said in a hasty voice, eyes slanted towards the giant oak front door. Before she could even reach the door lock with her hand, she sensed a firm grip pulling her back into the house.
Little Sanae spotted a crazy look in her mother’s eyes. There was a wicked twinkle in them; a fury that only her daughter could recognize while other people would have mistaken it with a look of jouissance. Her mother squinted her eyes, giving her the feeling of being enclosed in a stifling hot box and put under the fervent light of a giant bulb. The little girl sobbed.
“I see you are crying. Now open that backpack.”
She wiped her eyes with her old shirt sleeve. Her mother held her jaw so tight in her hand and smirked while her daughter was still muttering the same words, then she locked her in and turned to her daughter:
“You are not leaving this house. Go back to your room, you little thief.”
“NO, MOM, PLEASE, NO. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. I HAVE AN EXAM TODAY.” She begged and begged, tears dripping out her face. She fell on her feet and hung on her mother’s legs.
“I TOLD THEM AT SCHOOL THAT I HAVE ONE TOO, BUT THEY DIDN’T BELIEVE ME. SO, I THOUGHT I SHOULD SHOW THEM. THEY CALLED ME A LIAR.”
“I don’t care. I thought we had an agreement. Whatever you find in this house stays in this house. I hope you learn from this.”
She detached her leg from her daughter’s hands and disappeared. On the floor, the daughter cried and cried and then sat erectly in silence until her tears dried. “I will never do it again” she told herself in a low whisper. The next morning her mother spoke to her like they were the closest friends in the world.
It was frightening the way she changed. When she wakes up, I find her in a large silky robe with her hair down, a pair of new slippers, a shiny gold ring in her right hand and a thick gold bracelet in her left one. She looks so pretty and I cannot take my eyes off her. But, then she goes to work- the way she calls it- and decides to play her masquerade. How scared I was whenever I saw her final transformation. It’s like people were blind not to see the real her. Who could be fooled by such a false appearance? I wasn’t. But then not everybody lived under the same roof as her.
I saw her put the filthy scarf on her neatly brushed silky hair that covered her gold earrings, her large gray rugged djellaba, and a pair of booties that looked inherited from her great-grandmother. I never knew what to say to her. So many ideas were bursting in my head. I never knew why we had to live in such a big lie and conceal our real life. So many secrets enclosed inside those walls, they could fall down! She told me when I was very young that she had to beg in order to buy us food. But what I discovered later was that she had begged for so long that she could start giving instead of taking. She couldn’t stop.
One day, she was very tired but in a ludicrously and extremely rare good mood, and decided to confess to me. I was her secret keeper. She said that she was ill and her illness was money. She became addicted after all these years of having to roam the crowded streets, twitching people from their sleeves, giving this one a look of sorrow, the other a look of searing pain, lying about her hungry children left at home, and squirming on the floor for her dying girl in destitute for medicine. She sat for hours at the doors of mosques waiting for people to extend their hand and drop a dirham. People gave her food, dry bread, soup, sometimes couscous, a bit of meat and as soon as she turned the corner, she tossed the bags in the dump. They gave her clothes, but didn’t know she wore far better than they can afford. She said she was sick of the looks people threw her. She wanted to tell them that she had more than they had. If only they knew! She found herself a spot for long years and she needed to safeguard it. She knew her disguise was worth keeping.
She always bought me the best clothes, but forbade me to wear them outside. I wondered what the aim of them was after all, if I had to walk the streets head down, avoiding the penetrating stares and the humiliating comments. “Look at that poor little girl. Isn’t she the beggar’s little daughter? Oh, poor little twisted creature!” they would say. And for a long time I loathed her for that. She was responsible for everything people told me- she was responsible for the looks they gave me.
She is a very good woman- a poor woman, yes, but a willing one. She goes to work every day. I don’t know where, but I see her depart every morning carrying her sacoche, even on cold rainy days, shrouded in filthy old clothes. I tried so many times to talk to her. I greet her and she only nods. We, women of the neighborhood think that she is deaf. Poor thing! Poverty and handicap, what a life! What a destiny! We often give her clothes, but somehow she never wears them. We knock on her door and she opens a narrow gap for her hand to protrude from it. All what we can see is her eyes rolling in the dark. I wonder if she ever eats the food we give her. Indeed, a strange woman she is! After thinking about it, I don’t even know her name!
The two residents of the house were inclined to isolation, mainly coerced by the mother, who thought it better to keep people at bay. People can be very nosy. A “Hello” soon develops into a “How are you doing?” that after a while will be “How much do you earn per month?” She did not admit herself to be the reason for their exile. Instead, she blamed the odd location of the house for detaching them from the rest of the neighborhood. They never had guests under any circumstances- they never been ill, the house never caught fire, and nobody died. They never knew how it felt like to be around people with no mask on. Surely, one day all will be revealed, but she could not tolerate that very idea.
They say everything happens for a reason and that no matter how much one fights to change the turns of things, they will eventually happen the way they were meant to. It is all written in “the stars”- the term stars probably seems cheesy and lame in such a problematic context. We live to the fullest and forget what is important. What we forget is that we are nothing but infinitesimal organisms with an ego as big as earth itself. We think big, we dream big, but we are still nothing. Looking from the top, one can see a fourmilière; people running all over the place like headless chicken, some fighting, some working, some stealing, others begging.
She thought nobody would ever know. She thought if they lived in pure concealment, she could enjoy her sybaritism in peace. But, alas, life is full of ups and downs. Little Sanae grew into a beautiful young woman to be married. The bride-to-be wanted to have a proper wedding like normal people, but feared her mother would refuse the idea of letting other people in their life and locking her in the way she did years ago. How relieved she was hearing from her mom that she would help her prepare after she was certain that the groom and his family came from a distant city. Her heart melted with joy, when she saw her mother sweeping, dusting, and decorating in a way she never done before.
We mounted the staircase. We kept on climbing stair after stair of marble covered with a long red runner rug and held tightly on the golden banister from our immense shock. On the sculptured ceiling a tremendous spiral crystal chandelier dangled in the center of the house and cast light on every corner of the room. The walls were made of a deep blue mosaic festooned with large silk carpets. Hand knotted Moroccan tapestry of different patterns and colors covered the entire floor of the house. Luxurious furniture was carefully placed in every corner; gleaming dark wood armoires, light oak wood dressers, and long sofas with Andalusian hand carving on them and scattered throw pillows on the floor next to velvet poufs. Easels displaying pottery vases and plates, crystal glasses and jars, a blue and white porcelain china set was magnetically captivating the eye. We sat on the high wool sofas of the best fabric we have ever touched with our feet raised above the floor and our jaws dropped. We were not invited, but hearing the music and laughter we decided to have a look and we did absolutely not regret it.
All the people in the room were astonished; reality struck them. Who would have thought that the poor beggar lived in a palace? How did she get all this stuff inside without anyone noticing? How did she keep this secret for years and get away with it? How didn’t we suspect her? How stupid we were! She fooled us all for long years!
Lina Aissa was born in the city of Kénitra, Morocco. In 2014, she obtained her B.A degree in linguistics from Ibn Tofail University School of Arts and Human Sciences. She is currently a student in the "Culture and Linguistics" master program at the same faculty. She is an aspiring young Moroccan writer who is interested in both poetry and prose writing, as well as research in the field of women rights and gender studies. She was published in TheMoroccanTimes and MoroccoWorldNews.
* * *
By Jessica Barksdale
Our bikes jangle like coins in the back of the station wagon. My mother drives on but doesn’t say another word.
No one does. My sister Sarah, my best friend Connie, and I press together in the backseat, clutch onto her last sentence.
Your father’s going to die.
Fat summer tires hum down the highway. The whirl of hot hair. Sounds of my sister’s quick breathing. Chlorine from our wadded up swimsuits in fabric bags.
Connie will let go of the words as if they were handlebars.
But Sarah and I are going to hold on all summer, till August when it’s 96 degrees, and my father bleeds out in his hospital room. On the television, Elvis’ funeral parade.
We’ll clutch and squeeze tight, while our younger sister gets sick and well and sick and then dies.
Sarah will give up and move across the world.
Me? I’m still in that station wagon, the bikes clacking. I’m still listening to my sister sniff, waiting for the answers we will never get. Searching for my father in the air that is already gone.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of thirteen traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, How to Bake a Man, was published October 2014 by Ghostwoods Books. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.
* * *
Searching for Souvenirs
By Peggy Barnes
Pop’s County Store sounds a lot friendlier than it looks. Pickups with rifle racks surround the lone gas pump. Men slouch against the wooden building as if the heat or years of habit have disabled them from doing much else. They stare at me as if they know I'm from Ohio. I've stepped away from the van clearly tagged Alabama, but around here, they can spot a stranger two cornfields away.
I'm not afraid of sweaty men. I'm not afraid of sheriffs. This is hallowed ground. I’ve got months of research that proves my mother, and possibly even I, walked through an earlier model of the rusted screen door.
It’s ten a.m. The place smells of lard-fried chicken, stale smoke and motor oil. No other customers. No one here but the man behind the counter. Counter Man is middle-aged, porky, wearing a Bull Dogs cap, and is surely suspicious of a woman scribbling in a little notebook balanced on her knee. I write fast: scuffed round table, a place to smoke and drink RC cola. A table so old it could have touched bellies with folks come to gossip about my mother. A machine slushing purple-tongue grape drink. Cotton candy in cardboard tubs. Red Man chewing tobacco.
I should buy something. The most abundant product is a wall of Marlboros. In my forties I was up to two packs of Kent’s a day, puffing and wheezing on small hills. After dozens of failed attempts (including late night trips wearing a raincoat over my nightgown to stores not unlike this one), I quit. It was easier than quitting booze, which was much less of a calculated decision.
The thermometer outside reads 104 degrees. I am sticky all over as if I'd been rubbed down with some of that shocking pink candy. My tee shirt is stuck to my bra, and sweat is fogging my sunglasses. I'm wearing wrinkled pedal pushers, or whatever they call these things today.
The door creaks open and a young man with a frightful cough heads toward the lottery ticket machine. “Hey there, Richie,” says Counter Man. “Today’s your lucky day!” Could Richie be my relative? A link in a new chain of cousins? Of course he could. I consider offering Richie one of my eucalyptus and thyme cough lozenges.
If Counter Man asks, I’m just trying to find souvenirs for my grandchildren. Darlin’ young’uns’, I'll say, in that drop-jawed, slow-talking, Alabama-raised part of me that is never far away. Southern drawl is my first language, especially when I'm stressed.
If I were making this up, I'd have Counter Man much older, a very bright gentleman who’d say howdy, ma’am as he handed off a cold drink and a pack of Golden Flake peanut butter crackers. Refreshed, we’d strike up a conversation and he would stare at my thick brown hair and say I reminded him of someone. I'd say I’m trying to find my mother. Why, bless your little heart, he’d say. Pauline Miller? That lovely girl. Too bad things turned out the way they did. Running her out of town that way.
Right, I'd say. Bless her little heart. And at that hand-carved table our talking would go and on while I filled notebook after notebook so, by the time I left, I would know if my mother were dead or alive.
Instead, I go up and down four short aisles looking for a souvenir. I yearn for a special object, something for my writing desk that would reconnect to my beginnings. But all I see are Beanie Weenies and stay-alert pills. So I just grab a freebie, a copy of the Alabama Advertiser, as if I'm keen on buying a truck or a bass boat. I head for the door.
I can’t understand what Counter Man is saying, but he and Richie are headed toward me and the half-opened door. “Ninety-nine cents,” calls Counter Man, “Ain’t you got ninety-nine cents?”
I give him a dollar. Or maybe it's a five. Outside in the parking lot, Richie and the guys are laughing. I expect one to slap his knee, but that would take too much energy in this heat. Before I get to the car, I spot a cold drink case over beside the tire pump, and I imagine another stifling hot day.
It is 1939. Pauline is here. She passes by a huddle of local citizens and saunters toward the cold drink box. I, the bulge in her dress, am making her miserable, and she wants to buy an RC Cola. Pauline lifts the lid, leans over rows of bottle caps, nudges them and clacks the bottles together. She takes her time, fingering the icy water until her hand is so cold it is practically numb. Whore! She slams the lid, tosses her nickel on the counter. Bastard! She turns away and walks back toward the hills.
Peggy Barnes received her MFA from Bennington College. Her award-winning work has been published in literary journals and has provided scholarships to major writers’ conferences. This story is an excerpt from, I Knew You by Name: The Search for My Lost Mother, a memoir to be released in June, 2015.
* * *
By Dan Branch
I never cried at funerals. Until recently, I had cried only once since Sister Anna Marie’s first grade class. That time I shed tears of frustration, not sadness. It happened in 1972 when I broke down in the office of UC Berkeley Professor Thomas Parkinson.
The day before, in his creative writing class, I had asked the professor for the definition of a run-on sentence. He stiffened, glowered at me from behind his Old Testament beard and said, “See me during office hours tomorrow.”
The definition of “run-on sentence” must have flowed into the other students in their mother’s milk. Otherwise they would not have reacted to my question with gasps and derisive laughs. They could sniff out a run-on sentence hidden in Limburger cheese.
I blame the nuns at St. James the Less School for my ignorance of grammar. If they had not tried to beat writing rules into me with their rulers, I might have never developed an adverse reaction to sentence diagrams or the tendency to sing, “La La La” to myself when someone mentions a rule of grammar. Thanks to pressures I will not describe here, I eventually managed to absorb and sometimes apply the lessons of Strunk and White, except for the one about keeping it short.
Professor Parkinson’s better students cared about dangling participles, could identify a gerund, and knew the professor’s reputation as a Yeats scholar. They honored him, not for his poetry, but for his testimony in defense of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl at an obscenity trial.
Professor Parkinson’s gifted students longed to have their work published by The New Yorker. I just wanted to write long, meaningless short stories like the ones I read in that magazine for the break it provided me from political science homework. Readers of The New Yorker in the 1970’s might remember the kind of stories that inspired me; stories in which nothing happens to the characters even though they doubt themselves and treat other people badly, which is ok because no reader could care about their victims.
The perceived pointlessness of The New Yorker fiction made it the perfect no-pressure medium for me to emulate. I could create a world no one would care about and fill it with characters that lacked motivation or lives. I didn’t have to struggle to give the stories something that the professor called, “arc.” Until I asked for a definition of “run-on sentence,” I thought I could get five needed credits toward graduation for playing in this wordy sandbox.
Now, more than forty years after that class, I learn about narrative arc from the professors in a MFA program. Those teaching the non-fiction cohort convince me that writing is hard but satisfying work. The fiction cohort students learn to be responsible gods—designers of clockwork worlds where every word counts and tension moves the story arc forward.
The day after my grand embarrassment, I knocked on the professor’s office door.
Inside, the professor sat behind a desk of age-darkened oak. He gestured to a wooden chair on the door side of the desk. I sat after nodding to the grad student who ran the class related seminar that I attended.
“You have no talent for writing."
“No, listen. You should stop wasting your time.”
“You don’t understand…”
“I am telling you this for your own good. Stop wasting your time.”
“No, really, if it is not too late, change your major to accounting.”
My face blushed and for the first time since grade school, I had to scrunch my eyes to block tears. The professor, who had had been looking at me like God must have looked at Moses when the prophet asked for another copy of the Ten Commandments, grew pale. Lifting his hands, like the angel might have to calm Abraham after telling him that the whole “slay your son” thing was just a test, he said, “Well you might make a go of it. Even John Steinbeck had a hard time. I don’t how many publishers rejected, Cup of Gold before McBride printed a few hundred copies of it.”
Being the recipient of what I now think of as “The Cup of Gold” speech broke me. I cried. I wanted to tell the professor that my dreams were filled, not with prestigious bylines but with a kind woman who loved me, an acceptance letter from a good law school, and a job that would pay for a nice three-bedroom ranch house in the East Bay. I had taken his class for the opportunity to write stories that end without with a meaningful paragraph that rings of truth. But, I didn’t speak because I knew my words would sound like the protests of a crying child.
The professor’s hooded eyes showed fear. When he calmed, he said, “You can still come to class but don’t ask questions. I don’t ever want to talk to you again.” Pointing to the grad student, he said, “All future contact must be through Jack.”
Before I enrolled in a MFA program, I told this story the same way many times. I ask the stupid question. The smart ones laugh. The professor glowers. I cry tears of frustration because the professor thought I wanted to emulate him while I just wanted to write pointless stories for fun and five credits.
Because I have learned from my writing mentors to test memory with reflection, I need to correct The New Yorker fiction part of the story. What I saw then, as pointless prose may have been insightful. Now I see the problem stemmed from my ignorance, not the writers’ skill sets.
The New Yorker authors described life in a place for which I had no context. They didn’t write about children who lived in the lower-middle class household of a sheet metal mechanic who loved family, his dog, and the Los Angeles Dodgers; knew about union seniority rules and strike benefits but had never read The New Yorker or John Updike. My father’s children went to church on Sunday, but at St. James the Less, R.C., not St. Luke’s Episcopal on Foothill Blvd. For most of my eight years at St. James, one Irish nun controlled me and fifty-nine other kids with immigrant names like Canale, Van Hooten, Moy, and Bevacque; some from homes with nine or twelve, maybe thirteen siblings and mothers too tired to do a nightly head count, fathers unsure of their youngest ones’ names.
Jack was a kind man. Unlike many of the TAs assigned to my other class seminars, he concentrated on the transfer of knowledge and not on seducing the prettiest woman in the group. The professor had banned my submission of any more pointless stories but allowed me to hand in poems and essays. After returning his critique of my essay on how to rebuild a VW engine, Jack asked me to wait for him after class.
Loitering outside the Dwinelle Hall dungeon room where the seminar met, I wondered why he wanted to talk. I needed the class credits to graduate so I hoped he wasn’t giving me the axe. He asked me to go for coffee. I’d like to write that we walked down Telegraph Avenue to the Café Med for an afternoon espresso. It’d be nicer to tell you that Jack sent my VW repair essay on to the professor who laughed at the funny parts. But we just walked over to the student union where he gave me the professor’s back-story.
He told me that I was not the first student the professor had moved to tears. In 1961 he had invited a struggler to see him during office hours. This one concealed a double-barreled shotgun in his overcoat. When the professor gave him the Cup of Gold speech, the student shot him with both barrels. The pellets killed an attending grad student and disfigured the professor’s face. He grew the full-face beard to hide the scars.
The explanation angered me but I didn’t take it out on Jack. On the way back to the cell I rented from the Berkeley Co-Op, I cursed the tenure system that allowed the professor to take out his frustrations on the pathetic, someone like me: a poli sci major who happened to stumble into his world on the way to law school.
I got my five credits from the professor and graduated. After spending the summer working in a drug company warehouse unloading shipments of expired plasma from the Viet Nam battlefields, I started law school, worked as an attorney, and then enrolled in the MFA program. Having developed an aversion to writing fiction in college, I study creative nonfiction. This involves writing, to be sure, but also a lot of “critical” reading. We learn from the masters, who all distrust their memories. According to Argentine neuroscientist Rodrigo Quiroga, they have good reason to doubt their memories. His research proved that memory changes a story each time we repeat it.  But my memory does not change the things that mattered. I remember what Professor Parkinson told me in his office. I remember the high points of Jack’s explanation for his boss’s behavior.
After using Google to get the date of Professor Parkinson’s shot gunning, I now wonder if I owe Quiroga an apology. The search lead me to a University of California summary of the professor’s life which makes a liar out of one of these three: Jack, my memory, or the guy who wrote the summary.
Calling the professor a tall tree that attracted lightning, the Cal guy wrote that Parkinson’s left wing activities, and the fact that Senator McCarty branded him a communist, brought him to the attention of a rightwing political group. Its members published a broadside that branded the professor a Stalinist and homosexual. The document of hate ended up in the hands of an insane former student who walked into the professor’s office with a sawed-off shotgun under his coat and fired it point-blank
All the Internet hyperlinks lead to Calisphere so it establishes the truth for cyberspace. But I trust my memory of the meeting with the professor. It was too emotionally charged to forget. I also trust my memory of Jack’s story. He told it to me during the Viet Nam war, which I opposed and protected against. I had canvassed for McGovern and still despise Senator McCarthy. I would have remembered the professor as a victim, not a bully if Jack had told me the right wing shooter story. So kind Jack, my buffer and the deliverer of five credits, had it wrong.
 Not his real name.
 Quiroga, Rodrigo Quian, Borges and Memory. Trans. Juan Pablo Fernadez. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2012.
 "University of California: In Memoriam, 1992". Calisphere. University of California Regents. 1992. Retrieved 2015-02-27.
Dan Branch lives in Juneau, Alaska. His work has won prizes including two firsts for poetry, one awarded by Charles Bukowski. Kestrel had accepted one of his essays for their Fall 2015 issue and Twisted Vine Journal will include one in their Spring 2015 volume.
* * *
I'm Not Dead Yet
By Kevin Brown
A few months after I turned twenty-seven, I was talking to one of my co-workers. After I listed what I had already experienced that year, she shook her head and said, “You should be dead by now.” Somehow our discussion turned toward the stress test that is often reprinted, where people are given a certain number of points for events in their lives to see how much stress they have been under (It’s called the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale (after Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, two psychiatrists), and each Life Change Unit has a different “weight” given to it). I might not have been dead, but I thought I could do fairly well on that test (and I was one of those weird children who liked taking tests; I’ve turned into a weird adult that still does).
Divorce: 73 points; Running Total: 73 points
My divorce was final in the same month I turned twenty-seven. I should be clear that, as divorces go, mine was one of the least painful. We didn’t have any kids, and it had been clear for over a year that the relationship was going to end. We were only together four and a half years, though that was four years too long. I had tried to end the marriage after six months, but I listened to both my parents and her parents and gave it another chance.
It’s not that she was an awful person in any way; it was more about my failings, actually. I was a young twenty-two when we were married, and I had no idea who I was or who I hoped to become yet. I knew I was going to graduate school and that I hoped to teach, but that was all I knew at that point. She was four years older, had held a steady job for all of the four years she had been out of college, and she clearly knew who she was. We had almost nothing in common, especially as I began graduate school and moved more toward academic and intellectual pursuits (some of which were affectations, not surprisingly, given graduate studies in English), which did not interest her.
Unfortunately, because I did not have the courage to end the relationship after six months, I tried to end it through passive-aggressive means, simply refusing to truly engage in the relationship. I was at least honest enough with her to let her know that things were not really going to change in our marriage, but I never ended matters in a decisive fashion, which would have been the adult thing to do. She ended up bringing up divorce as an option when she had a chance to move back to Northeast Tennessee, where we had been living, and work for the person she had worked for before. She even went and met with the lawyer to take care of the official paperwork.
Change in Living Conditions: 25 points; Running Total: 98 points
The divorce precipitated a number of changes in living conditions. Obviously, my soon-to-be-ex-wife moved away, and I was left living alone. I allowed her to take most of the furniture, and I was planning on giving away the rest when I moved out, as I wanted a clean start after the divorce (and the furniture was fairly old, anyway). I had also been relying on her salary, as she worked full-time when I was attending graduate school (I had an assistantship through the library that paid my tuition and gave me a small stipend, and I also taught part-time at a community college and state university, though both were ending, just as my marriage did). Throughout that summer, then, I lived on credit cards, both through charging what I could and through taking out cash advances to pay the rent, decisions I would regret for years to come.
I also moved to a different state about a month after she left; however, the move was not a simple one. I was moving from Mississippi to Indiana to take a new job, but I could not move in until the middle of July. I was leaving Mississippi in May, so I had to move the few things I had kept to a storage facility in Indiana, then live with my parents in Tennessee for the intervening time. My parents were fine with my doing so, and they treated me like an adult, but the lack of independence still grated on me, especially because I had also started a new relationship.
Marital Reconciliation: 45 points; Running Total: 143 points
I might be a bit dramatic here, as I did not reconcile with my wife. Instead, I started dating my childhood sweetheart (CS from here on out) before my divorce was official. I had not really planned on doing so, but I am the one who initiated matters. I had seen her a year before on a visit to my hometown (where she still lived) when I went to visit a former professor at the college I attended (and where she was now a student). On the pretext of getting her brother’s email address, I went by her house the next day, and we talked for an hour or so. It was clear we still got along quite well, and my marriage was only a year away from the end (a fact I tried to communicate, but which she did not pick up on at all), so she was certainly on my mind. Thus, when the divorce process began and I was in my hometown on a visit, I went by her house to see her. She was not in, so I ended up telling her parents about the divorce, which was not the way I had hoped to break the news to her.
The next day, I went back, and we started talking about our lives. She said that her mother had told her about the divorce. I admitted that I wasn’t sorry, that it was a good thing, but that everyone else seemed sorry to hear it. She blushed a bit and said that she wasn’t sorry. It was fairly clear at that point that we would get back together, so I asked her out to dinner to celebrate her coming graduation from college (which I attended).
By this point, she and I had known each other for over a decade, and we had spent part of the six years I knew her in high school and college dating, though we were always off and on, mainly due to my inability to stay in any relationship more than a few months. We had not seen each other while I was in graduate school (until that chance meeting), but I kept up with her life through her brother, whom I had shared a dorm room with during my junior year of college. When we began dating again, it felt like a reconciliation, and we were both clearly thinking that this time would be the time that would lead to marriage. When she said that she definitely wanted children, I put aside the part of me that did not (another thing my ex-wife and I did not have in common, though I was clear about my feelings with her before we ever married) and believed things would work out.
Change to a Different Line of Work: 36 points; Running Total: 179 points
What complicated our relationship was that I had accepted my first full-time teaching job in Indiana, and she was living in Tennessee, where she had a job that paid the bills, but was not connected to her college major (French) at all. She was born and raised in the same house all of her life, so the idea of her moving away was not realistic at that point. I was looking forward to my job, though this was the first time I had ever moved on my own. I lived in same town from the time I was two until I was twenty-four, and my then-wife had moved with me to Mississippi (obviously). I liked the other new faculty, though, and I enjoyed teaching.
I was teaching at a private high school, an age group I had never really taught (one summer, I worked with high school students through Upward Bound, a program designed for students who will be the first in their family to attend college), but they were motivated students who often attended (or at least applied to) Ivy League colleges. I taught the classes largely as I had taught college classes before, and the students responded well enough (I now know that I could have taught those classes so much better than I did, a feeling most teachers share). These students were strong high school students, and discipline problems were largely handled by people higher up than me. It was a great job for a rookie teacher, though I didn’t know that at the time.
I had only been there a few weeks when I realized that the relationship with CS was never going to work as long as she was eight hours away. We talked on the phone, but there was no way we could see each other regularly as long as we had that distance between us. I was going to be helping with the basketball team, so it was not possible for me to get away on the weekends for visits, and her job (and finances) prevented her from doing so. One night, during a rather heated phone conversation, I mentioned that I didn’t believe things would work as long as she was in Tennessee. She hung up, and I thought that might be the end of the relationship, but she called back within the hour and said that she wanted to move to Indiana. Because I lived in a house that was owned by the school, she wasn’t able to live with me, so I had to help her find a place to live and work, while teaching full-time for the first time and adjusting to a new place myself.
Divorce: 50 points; Running Total: 229 points
We weren’t married, so we didn’t get divorced, but the ending of that relationship certainly felt like it. We didn’t make it more than a few months before the end came. We fought almost once a week after her move, even leading to my hanging up on her during a conversation about money (I had never hung up on anyone, nor have I since). We could have worked things out, and we could have probably gotten married (except for the issue of kids, which probably would have ended things for a good reason), but I was still too immature and too emotionally unstable at that point. I was a few months recovered from the divorce, and, while that event didn’t really affect me, the years before did.
Because of the passive-aggressive approach I took, I had largely shut down emotionally, withholding myself from my then-wife and everyone else. Once I started using those emotions again, they had a tendency to get out of control. Once, when I was living in our hometown, I was driving down the interstate when I began beating the passenger seat for no particular reason. I just had a wave of emotions (partly anger, but partly just feeling again) that I needed to deal with, and that seemed to be the best way at the time.
Given mine and CS’s on-again/off-again past, she thought we might get back together again, but I never considered it. I knew this time was final, and we both needed to move on. She did, actually, as she was engaged within seven months of our breakup, a relationship that did not go well for her, though she did end up with a daughter. My situation was both more and less complicated.
Beginning a Dating (sort of) Relationship: 0 points (!); Running Total: 229 points
I can’t pretend that my relationship with M is anywhere near marriage levels, but it seems the stress test should give me something for all of the complications this relationship brought to my life. M and I never officially dated, as she was unwilling to commit even at that level, but we often went out together, and anyone else would have said we were dating, though she and I would not (in explaining the situation to people later, I would contend we did date, mainly on the basis of the last couple of weeks when M began trying to move the relationship in a more physical direction before the end of the semester; there were clear commitment issues there that I didn’t recognize at the time). We would have what we felt were meaningful conversations, then avoid each other for the next week (we worked in the same department, which made matters even more complex), then reconcile through some other extended conversation. This back-and-forth went on for the seven months of the school year after the relationship with CS ended, then she left and I left.
Change in Living Conditions: 25 points; Running Total: 254 points
I had decided by October that I didn’t want to teach any longer. I enjoyed the classroom, certainly, but I didn’t like everything else that went with it, from the grading and preparation to the meetings before and after school. I wanted to have time to read what I wanted, not what I needed to in order to teach. What I really wanted, I now know, was to live like I did in graduate school, without any real responsibility, so it’s no surprise that I went back to graduate school, though this time I was pursuing library science. I had enjoyed the work I did in the library when I was working on my English degree, and I knew that that job ended when librarians went home for the day, unlike teaching, which does not. Telling M on the first date that I was leaving at the end of that year probably did not help my chances with that relationship, though she was only there for one year, as she was an intern (similar to a student teacher, though she had graduated from college) at the school, not a full-time teacher.
Begin or End School/College: 26 points; Running Total: 280 points
I moved from Indiana to Alabama immediately after the high school graduation, as I was taking summer classes in order to complete the program in a year. I started classes six weeks before my twenty-eighth birthday, and I did enjoy them. More than anything, though, I enjoyed the free time to read and write as much as I wanted. I went to classes in a research library that had almost every book I could want, and I made ample use of the collection. I stayed up late, spent time with new friends, and enjoyed life. If this was stress, I could take as much as life could give me.
Change in Financial State: 38 points; Running Total: 318 points
Of course, returning to graduate school meant the end of a full-time salary. My ex-wife even called me (our only communication post-divorce) to see when I was planning to pay off a credit card that was in both of our names (and which I had taken as part of the divorce, as the charges on it were mainly mine), as she was planning to buy a house and was concerned about her debt load. She did not know I was in graduate school (again), and she wasn’t happy the card would not be paid off soon, but she accepted it, as there was nothing she could do.
One would think my quality of life would change with the return to graduate school, but student loans prevented that from happening. I lived in a duplex that was as nice as the house I had lived in in Indiana (though it was not as spacious, certainly), and I ate out much more often. The credit card debt I had accrued during the previous summer had not diminished by much, and I doubled my student loan debt by returning to school. But those were things I would not worry about when I was twenty-seven. They would come due much later.
Overall Total: 318 points; Results and Conclusions
Holmes and Rahe calculated that a score of more than 300 would lead to a person’s having a higher chance of becoming ill. Their test is not really a measurement of stress; it is more a measurement of how likely someone is of getting sick. Since stress is one factor that leads to illness, they hoped to see if major life changes impacted one’s chances of illness. According to their chart, I had a “high or very high risk of becoming ill in the near future.” And I did get sick within my first two months of teaching in Indiana. I remember walking along the sidewalk beside the lake that bordered our campus with the wind blowing and the misty rain making me feel even worse as I headed toward the health clinic on campus. They prescribed Amoxicillin, which my students said was the default drug from the clinic, as they joked that it would be given to someone who walked in with a broken arm.
I did get sick, then, but I didn’t die, as my co-worker had joked. In fact, it was my first year as an adult (graduate school has a way of keeping people from becoming one) and, though I did not handle it well in many cases, I began to see who I wanted to be. I ultimately came back to teaching, and I have realized it is my main purpose. I began to take writing more seriously than I ever had (including a failed novel), leading to my first creative publications the next year. Ultimately, the stress test tells me nothing more than that I went through what most young people go through (maybe in a more condensed time frame, but perhaps not) in order to become who they need to be. It is such events that help us to grow up, to become the people we need to be.
Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University. He has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems; A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press, 2009). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. He received his MFA from Murray State University. You can find out more about him and his work here.
* * *
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
By Katerina Bryant
“Why have Mummy and Daddy brought you in today?” she asked, her smile reflecting on the aluminium bench top.
Moments earlier I’d stood mesmerised in anxious silence. My thoughts were interrupted by the vet declaring what was previously unbeknownst to me, that I was a parent.
“Her stomach is kind of sensitive,” Mat aka. Daddy replies.
We were nervous. After the last visit, the vet had suggested that we might have to reconsider Suzie’s future in our family of four. This time we had taken her to a new vet.
She expertly slipped on a glove that looked a little too thin for my liking, asking her assistant and Mat to hold Suzie. I looked into Suzie’s eyes as she whined and squirmed in a how-could-you-betray-me kind of way, the whole time keeping her teeth out of sight.
“There’s a lot of pus. She’ll need to take two tablets a day for a few weeks to clear up the infection.”
“How could this have happened?” She’d spent the last two weeks making it very clear that my new Sheridan sheets were hers.
“This is quite a common occurrence, especially for small dogs or dogs who have been sitting a lot on concrete.”
“She’s a shelter dog. Her pen was concrete.”
We approach the counter to pay the second lot of vet fees in two weeks, my wallet full of receipts and little else.
So Suzie was feeling sick, maybe that could explain it. We hoped so anyway.
“Well she was sitting outside the kitchen, firmly planted on the ground but looking a little lost. I gently shook her collar to coax her into the other room… and then it happened.”
“She bit you?”
“She jumped up and lunged at my face. She nipped the side of my cheek, here.” Mum pointed to the soft patch of skin between her right eye and hairline, which days earlier had a distinct pink tone.
We were at the RSPCA talking to Alex, one of the resident animal behaviourists, about how best to address the problem.
“Well there are a few things, first when she is sitting stiffly like you described it’s best not to try to move her. You can tell a lot from Suzie from how her tail is positioned. It’s a common misconception that if a dog wags their tail they’re happy.”
We all were nodding, in time, silently and solemnly listening to her advice.
“If it’s lowered and in between her legs that indicates fear. If it is a broad, sweeping wag positioned medium to high that is a friendly gesture.”
This was the first incident, an event that brought Mum’s grief of losing our pocket-sized cavalier to the forefront of her mind. The night Suzie had bitten she had said quietly to me, “It scared me. But we forgot that Suzie was fragile, that’s all. She doesn’t trust me yet. But she will and we will work it out so it doesn’t happen again.”
My hand plunges into the faded couch cushion, uncovering the body of a tiny sliver of blue plastic.
“Maaaaaaaaaaat. I found another one.” I call out, my voice travelling down the hallway.
“Where does she get them from?” he replies, strolling into the sun lit room.
“I don’t know, but I’m sick of fishing fritz packets out of the furniture.” The way the pink crumbs of meat stick to the shiny white plastic unsettles me, particularly as a long-term vegetarian.
“He must be sneaking them to her.”
“Don’t say anything to him, okay? He sees her looking so thin and wants to feed her.”
“She’s a staghound, they’re supposed to be thin.”
“Don’t say anything? That’s just how he is.”
I loosely grip what is left of the chewed up fritz packet and drop it into the kitchen bin. It’s the only meat in the house, much to the chagrin of my farm born father who sees schnitzel as its own food group. I don’t know how much fritz she’s been eating. The two of them could be sharing the meat tubes, like a scene from Lady and the Tramp. Or maybe she downs it in one chomp leaving the red and blue plastic as the only evidence.
It has been this way since the first day Suzie came to our home. Dad took a couple of hours off work to drive Mat and I to the shelter. We barely slept the night before, cleaning and making her a den to call home. She later decided she much preferred furniture to a lousy foam mattress on the floor, despite my well-meaning throw cushion flourishes.
When we arrived, we were escorted through tall mesh gates into the isolation area. Suzie had a case of suspected ringworm and wasn’t allowed to see other dogs or go on walks until her results had come in. They ended up being negative, but that didn’t stop me from Googling what a ringworm rash looks like on humans. Hint: it is circular and disgusting.
“Wait there,” Jade the resident dog behaviourist told us as we began the adoption process. She walked two hundred metres down to where the dogs lived between walls of grey cement. I could see that the metal cage doors were starting to rust and the cement had hints of being stained, despite the regular hose downs. The shelter was worn, which isn’t surprising considering the 10,000 dogs the RSPCA cares for a year. Jade told us that the brown Labrador Suzie had been surrendered with had been euthanized for unmanageable aggression. A fifth of all surrendered dogs share the same fate. We were glad Suzie would be joining the half who found new homes.
Suzie trotted towards us, as only large thin dogs can do. Her grey pointed face looked at me and as she approached, I could begin to see beard-like whiskers protruding from her cheeks. She sat down at Jade’s command and we patted her, introducing ourselves. As she rolled on her back, my hand reached down to stroke her belly. Her white fur thinly stretches across her ribcage, forming a harsh triangular shape.
“That’s a sign of submission,” Jade said as my hand hovered over the pyramid of her belly. “You can still pat her, it just means she wants you to know she isn’t a threat. See how she is fooling around as a puppy would? That’s called a Passive Defence Reflex or PDR.”
She continues turning my previously unshakeable knowledge about dog belly-rubbing upside-down, as I keep stroking.
“She sees you as a higher-ranking member of the social group. Her past owner was… heavy-handed. She feels threatened around new people and this is her way of showing her emotions.”
It was that first night when the Schmackos and fritz began. Suzie was lying luxuriously on a pink foam mattress positioned in the centre of the sitting room, our floral stitched couches facing her. She drifted in and out of sleep, as though unsure of whether she could trust her new surroundings. She seemed very aware that all of us – Mum, Dad, Mat and I – were staring at her and not the TV. Dad had positioned himself on the mattress and her brown eyes followed him, her head still, and the occasional tail flick asserting a just-awake status.
“Thank you for bringing her home,” Mum said.
“Yes, you made a good choice indeed.” Dad’s voice had an unfamiliar note: he sounded sincere. He usually volleyed between giving strident lectures on the latest legal matters and telling dry long-winded jokes about 16th century French politics.
I meditated on the strangeness of the small horse like creature, now ours, sleeping in our living room. So peaceful, so quiet and so suddenly biting Dad on the very hand that was stroking her.
“Shit. Are you okay?” I asked.
“You must have frightened her,” Mum said.
“I’m fine. It was just a nip.”
He was repeatedly touching his wrist where the skin was somewhere between pink and red. We started to notice that Suzie was different to our last dog, who was small and could be harassed no end. When Dad had carried Henry, our little white and burgundy bundle to his final vet visit he had cried. Something I can’t remember seeing before. Not even when I was sixteen and Dad put down the phone, turned to me, told me my grandmother had died and turned back around to continue playing computer solitaire.
“Did you know if a dog bites you playfully you should yelp?”
I look up from the dogeared pages of Think Dog the bestselling guide to canine psychology, awaiting a response.
“Mmm?” Mat replies, way less excited than I would have hoped.
“That’s what puppies do when they’re young and all learning to use their teeth. Yelping means ouch that hurts. Humans can effectively imitate the sound with a high-pitched squeal.”
“I’ll keep that in mind…”
I’d been educating myself on dog behaviour and shelter dogs since another incident occurred a week earlier. Suzie had been sleeping on our bed. The rule had now been very clearly affirmed as “don’t wake Suzie when she is sleeping.” But what do you do when it’s 10pm at night and you want to settle down underneath some blankets and indulge in a little online chess?
Mat firmly patted her backside, trying to wake her without getting too close. As his hand tapped her, she sprung forth. She barked declaring don’t you dare mess with me while her bared teeth thrust her entire body forward. I was at the edge of the room, decked out in flannels and struggling to comprehend what had happened.
“Matty, are you okay?”
He looked back at me with brown eyes, just like Suzie’s, and continued to look betrayed. His hand hovered over his red cheek.
“Did she get you?”
“The bitch bit me on the face.”
Sometimes, in times of sadness, my face will cruelly form a grief expression that resembles a smile. I tugged back the edge of my lips as much as I could and approached the wounded man and the bitch.
“I can’t believe she actually bit me… “
“It’s okay, she was frightened. She didn’t know it was you.”
Whenever I have these conversations with bitten family members, I can’t help but feel I’m rationalizing what she has done. She has had a hard life. Shelter dogs often experience adverse behaviours like separation anxiety or food aggression from being in a dog-eat-dog environment for months. I still can’t help but defend her, no matter how hard she bites.
“Lets get her off and go to bed” he mumbles back at me.
I run to the other room, returning with a squeaky furry lion toy to coax off the angered hound. She follows me as Mat settles into the warm spot she has left behind.
After two months of Suzie systematically making every room with a cushy couch or a Queen-sized bed her den, we went away. Mum, Mat and I spent a week in Melbourne doing the usual eat, shop and catch the wrong tram spree. Dad stayed at home with Suzie and a heavy workload.
“I can’t wait to get home to our fur baby,” I said entwining my arm around Mat’s on the last night in Melbourne and thinking about the way Suzie would press her nose against my arm when she craved a pat.
When we arrived home, we left our suitcases at the door and sprinted down the hallway, checking all of Suzie’s haunts.
Nosing in the kitchen bin?
We finally found her on the three-seater couch (she doesn’t care for the cramped two-seater) in the family room.
“SUUUUUUZIE” Mat exclaimed.
I’d never seen her that excited. She flopped onto her back, her tail wagging ecstatically as we stroked her wiggling body. I moved from kneeling on the floor to sit at the end of the couch. A suede cushion was still warm from where she had slept and I could feel its heat through my shorts.
“Mat… Maaat… SHE PEED.”
He laughed out loud and continued patting her.
“I can’t believe it. She loves us THAT much!!!! Are you gonna pee on me too, Suzie?”
“That doesn’t quite make me feel better,” I mumbled as I squirmed out of my shorts, which was no easy feat as the wet patches of denim insistently stuck to my legs. While house soiling is conventionally seen as a dog suffering from over-attachment anxiety, I took this as a compliment despite being covered in urine.
As I put my shorts in the washing machine, I couldn’t help thinking about the past two months. After all of her neglectful, terrifying encounters with humans she was so excited to be reunited with her family that she lost bladder control. Her willingness to trust and heal was incredible. It is something many people are inspired by when adopting shelter animals.
As the months went by, the incidents got further and further apart. Of course she will still nip at us occasionally, but only when we break the rules. Occasionally she’ll even sleep in my lap. But, on the whole, it’s best to let her lie.
And they’re best friends now, Dad and Suzie. All it took was some fritz.
Katerina Bryant is a writer, editor and law student based in Adelaide, Australia. Her work has appeared in journals such as Overland Online and Voiceworks.
* * *
By Darlene Campos
New Year’s Eve in my family varies from year to year but one thing that remains constant is the grapes. Some years we spent the holiday with Dad’s family. He comes from a family of ten siblings, so there was barely any room to sit down. Dad’s relatives were still grounded in old traditions which didn’t make sense anymore. If a woman in the family was pregnant on New Year’s Eve, Grandma Ruth would tell her to bundle up extra tightly because one gust of wind to her back would cause an instant miscarriage. At ten years old, I thought this idea was ridiculous. And then the grapes came out along with the champagne.
It’s a tradition in Ecuadorian households to eat 12 grapes just before the New Year arrives. Each grape is said to cause good luck for each upcoming month. Around 11:30 at night, the whole Campos family scurried to grab their bowl of grapes and ate them hastily. Mom and I were the only ones who didn’t bother with it. Dad questioned why she didn’t, though at this time, they had been married for over 20 years and Mom never followed the grape tradition. I don’t know why he expected her to suddenly change.
“Because they’re going to come out as waste,” Mom said to him. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. You’re a doctor, you should know better.”
Mom loves her heritage and taught me to love it as well, but she never taught me any Ecuadorian traditions. She was raised Catholic but stopped going to mass as a teenager. She said she got tired of memorizing the names of saints. When she got engaged to Dad, she had been married before, so technically, by Ecuadorian traditions, she was no longer a virgin. Dad’s family told her there would be severe consequences if she showed up to the wedding in a white dress. White, they said, was only for pure women. Mom didn’t want any trouble and she bought a peach colored dress. Dad soon returned it for a white one, which Mom wore at the wedding. There haven’t been any dire consequences yet.
To make sure I had good luck in the New Year, Grandma Ruth passed a bowl of grapes to me. Grapes are among my favorite fruits, so I ate them and then I asked for more because they were sweet with a hint of sour, just the way I liked.
“No,” Grandma Ruth said. “You only eat 12.”
“Why?” I asked, confused. Mom sighed, grabbed another grape filled bowl, and gave it to me. I ate the grapes happily, but I still wanted more.
“If you keep eating all the grapes, you’ll spoil the family’s luck for the New Year,” Grandma Ruth said. “When something bad happens to this family, I know it will be because of you not sharing the grapes.”
I honestly don’t remember if bad luck happened the following year. I’m sure it was the same as any year with good and bad fortunes all throughout. In fact, just this year, I got a good raise at work but Mom lost her job. She went on government assistance for the second time in her life until she found a better paying job three months later. You can’t gain good fortune without a little bit of bad fortune.
An Ecuadorian tradition I’ve never experienced with my own eyes is Año Viejo. Año Viejo consists of burning effigies of people or characters that were popular in the past year. Though most of my family has immigrated to the United States, I still have a couple of relatives who have never left Ecuador. They attend the Año Viejo festivities every year and take pictures for me. Past effigies have included Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, the Incredibles, Bart Simpson, and Shrek. Legend has it that Año Viejo began during the 1895 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Guayaquil. The epidemic hit right before New Year’s Eve and many families burned the bodies of their loved ones to obliterate the germs from passing on to others. Even though I haven’t witnessed Año Viejo, I like the idea of it. Effigies are filled with gunpowder and set aflame. Some attendees actually jump over the flames 12 times for good luck. It is said that the flames cleanse the bad fortune of the previous year. The difference between people and effigies is that you can’t burn people to clean them.
Grape eating continued year after year. Each time, I was older and I still asked for more grapes to satisfy my sweet tooth. When I was 21, I spent New Year’s Eve with Mom’s family – the Martinez side. Unlike the Campos relatives, the Martinez family is relatively small and generally doesn’t follow traditions. However, the Martinez family, like the Campos family, is made up of proud Ecuadorian people. My Aunt Katy’s house, Mom’s older sister, has always been plastered with the Ecuadorian flag and other symbols such as figures of Galapagos tortoises, pictures of indigenous tribes, and rondadors.
The grapes appeared on the table shortly before midnight. Everyone reached out to grab their little plastic cup of champagne and started counting 12 grapes in their palms. Mom didn’t touch any of the grapes. She sat at the head of the table, drinking nonalcoholic cider. When asked why she wasn’t having her share of the grapes, she said, “I don’t believe in it.” Of course, she was reminded it’s a tradition. She didn’t care.
“We don’t even know why the grapes are a tradition,” Mom said, which is true. I’ve noticed most traditions are only done because they’ve been done for a long time. The origins of most traditions remain unknown. There must have been an Ecuadorian ancestor who decided to eat grapes for the hell of it on New Year’s Eve and all of his or her relatives followed suit because they were hungry or bored.
When I was 22, Mom volunteered to have New Year’s Eve held at her house for the first time in family history. For as long as I can remember, Mom refused to have holidays held at her house because it meant she would have to “dust and vacuum.” I helped out with the cleaning while Mom cooked vegetable lasagna. The traditional New Year’s Eve meal in my family has always been ham until Mom and I decided to stop eating pork after reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I reminded Mom that our family probably wouldn’t appreciate eating veggies for dinner.
“If they don’t like it, they can choke on their grapes,” she said and continued stirring the marinara sauce at the stove.
Just before midnight, my relatives asked where the grapes were. Mom admitted she didn’t buy any. Everyone looked at her in total shock. Then when the vegetable lasagna was served, their shock grew even larger. First no grapes and now no ham – Mom was obviously an Ecuadorian imposter.
The New Year didn’t take too long to come upon us and for the first time, no one in the family ate a grape. None of us have spontaneously combusted or been eaten by tigers, so I would say living without the grapes didn’t turn out to be so bad. After the ball drop on television, we all checked in with our relatives in Ecuador who were just starting to burn the effigies. We could hear the brutal shouts of the crowds on our cell phones.
“Burn it!” they screamed. “Burn it all to ashes!”
Darlene P. Campos is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Writing Program. Her work appears in Prism Review, Cleaver, Red Fez, Bartleby Snopes, The Writing Disorder, Word Riot, Plain China, and others. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador but has lived in Houston all her life. You can visit her website here here.
* * *
By Nicholas Finch
Webster came back from boot camp with blistered calluses all over his palms. We asked him about basic training and he told us a story about a kid who tried to commit suicide during the first week. This kid stole an AR-15 from the armory and stowed away with it into the shower room. The kid put the rifle’s barrel into his own mouth and pulled the trigger a few times, right in front of the company commander and a few staff sergeants who were trying to stop him. Poor son of a bitch had never fired a rifle before, and hadn’t yet learned to load a gun properly or even check to see if a gun was loaded in the first place; so of course nothing happened. All the battalions new what’d went down but they didn’t kick the kid out of boot camp. Two days later he rejoined Webster’s battalion. No one said anything to the kid about it, in fact, no one talked about it period. They left it alone, they left him alone. That moment, that part of the kid’s life was a completely isolated incident. Even for the kid it must’ve been like it had never happened. But halfway through basic the kid was gone. His bunk was empty. His stuff was gone too. It was as though the linen that his sheets were made of had crushed him and everything he owned into nothing. Private Smith disappeared, or maybe it was Private Shaw, Webster doesn’t quite remember. All he remembers is how bad the kid’s hands would shake during the parade rest position. I asked Webster how his palms got cut up so badly. We do PT in the mornings, he said, when it’s the coldest out. The winters are brutal, so when you’re doing pushups outside the skin hardens and breaks. Hell, he said, every morning I left bloodied hand prints in the snow.
Nicholas Finch is the assistant editor of the Neon literary journal. He was raised in England and South Africa before moving to Florida. His major influences include Ernest Hemingway, Ben Lerner, Raymond Carver, John Keats, Flannery O'Connor, Rudy Wilson, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, and Akiko Yosano. Finch has pieces published or forthcoming in Haiku Journal, Wyvern Lit, Catfish Creek, Pioneertown, Gravel Mag and elsewhere.
* * *
This Means War: The Art of Gardening
By Laurie Jacobs
THIS MEANS WAR: THE ART OF GARDENING
Begin With a Hole
You will need a spade. Make sure the blade is sharp. Find a patch of soft earth in the sun. If you haven’t got soft earth, any earth will do. And if you haven’t got any sun, shade will do. And if you haven’t got a spade, fingers will do. Dig your hole. But remember, by digging this hole, you have become an invader, a colonizer, an alien force—be prepared for opposition.
Plant and Hope
Tuck in your plant, or your seed, or your bulb, or your sapling or shrub. If you believe in the efficacy of prayer, pray. If not, pray anyway. The world is full of things out to destroy what you have planted: insects, viruses, rodents, deer, your puppy, your neighbor’s cat, your neighbor’s toddler, your elderly uncle. Not to mention catastrophes like drought, or flood or late frost. Nature is the enemy of your garden.
Weed and Weed Again
Weeds are party crashers who will eat up all your snacks and drink all your beer and then strangle all your guests. Remove every shoot, every root, every weed seed but know that when you go to sleep, other weeds will sneak into your garden, weeds like Black Swallow Wort or Japanese Knotweed or Switch Grass—weeds you cannot tug up or dig out because they spread through underground runners. You will frantically search for ways to eliminate them and will discover the only way to do so is to eliminate your garden.
Take Up Arms
While you are worrying about weeds, insects will descend on your plants. Squash them. Drown them. Hose them off. You may be tempted to add to your arsenal with pesticides, herbicides, fire. You may dream of covering your garden with cement to suffocate the invaders. Remember, you have taken up gardening to create beauty, to enjoy a peaceful, restful pursuit.
Steel Yourself For Loss
On warm summer days you will find the moist yellow-brown boneless bodies of slugs oozing along the wide leaves of your hostas, blue-green like the sea or the bright sharp green of emeralds, and they will bite and chew and mangle those leaves and you will hate those slugs with all your being because slugs are disgusting, but as disgusting as they are, at least they won’t kill your hostas.
One day you will admire the lovely canopy of green leaves on your crab apple trees and the next you will see drilled into those same leaves holes rimmed with spiny projections like monstrous eyelashes. And soon those leaves will curl and yellow and drop to the ground making June look more like October and you will suffer the sickening sensation that you have missed all of summer. But wounded as they are, your crab apples will limp on and so will you.
And then your rose bushes, thick with flowers lush and blowsy as young women in low cut blouses, will begin to brown. Within days those flowers will wilt and the rose leaves will be reduced to skeletons as if they have been touched by the Angel of Death whose cold hand you can feel hovering over your own shoulder. The experts will tell you this is the work of sawflies, and your roses may survive and bloom again next summer—but will you?
In autumn, you will abandon your claims and cede your garden back to the weeds and the insects. You will let the snow cover the battlefield and hide the slugs and weeds and crippled roses. You will find all that white restful.
Renew the Fight
By the end of winter you will ache for green. When the hours of sunlight lengthen and the snow melts and shoots of daffodils sprout from the soil and the fiddleheads of ferns unfurl, the sap will rise in your body and optimism will cloud your reason and you will sharpen your spade, sharpen your claws, take out your weeder, your pruner, your axe, your flame thrower, and get back to work in the garden.
If that old rose bush doesn’t bloom, you will get a new one.
And dig another hole.
LEARNING TO LIVE BY GARDEN TIME
When you plant the clematis by the arbor, you will wear sleeveless tank tops and cut-off jeans and a bandana tied around your head and you will be lithe and limber and can bend and stoop for hours. Your puppy will dig up your tulips and try to dig up your maple sapling and your neighbor’s toddler will pluck your Shasta Daisies and leave a trail of crushed petals and your elderly uncle will drive across your lawn and flatten your daylilies.
Before you know it, you will be gardening in a long sleeve shirt and a wide brimmed hat and your back will ache after ten minutes of pruning. Your old dog will sleep in the shade of the maple and your neighbor’s kid will ride a tricycle into your astilbes and then skateboard across your peonies and then like your long dead uncle will drive a car across your lawn and flatten your daylilies.
And still you will be waiting for that clematis to bloom.
Laurie A. Jacobs has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her prose has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, The Drum, The Review Review and other literary magazines. When she isn't writing, she is reading or cooking or gardening, sometimes doing all three at once.
* * *
Just A Cat
By Richard LeBlond
Until I met Tansy, I didn’t think cats were among the brighter lights in the animal kingdom. They seemed more instinctive than thoughtful. Cats spend a lot of time staring into space, as if their brains are in a holding pattern, waiting for some movement, sound, or smell to awaken a purpose. But I now have a great respect for the cat thinking process, and its awareness of how the world works. I thank Tansy for that. One evening I watched her perform a brave and wise act that revealed a conscious mind not unlike our own.
Tansy was part of a small troupe of feline gypsies herded by Irene, a biologist who lived in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. At the conclusion of a successful courtship in the early 1980s, she moved into my small house on the edge of a Provincetown woods.
Irene arrived with three cats: Tansy, Winkin, and Mudlark. I was struck by their distinctive personalities. Winkin was aloof, and could only be approached under her terms. Irene had found her as a kitten on a busy city street – so young she was still blind. Irene surmised Winkin’s mother had given birth in the urban wild, and dropped the kitten during a relocation of the litter. Irene became the replacement mom, and Winkin grew up thinking she was a human in a cat’s body. Poor Winkin. She got along with no one.
Mudlark was skittish. The slightest movement or sound might send her into another room or under the bed. But she loved laps and petting, and her purring sounded like a motor boat coming down our drive.
The clowder soon expanded to five when Irene was flagged down by a part-Siamese cat. It happened in the beech forest that grows in the Provincetown dunes. Irene was bicycling through the forest when she was stopped by a sleek gray cat mewing along the side of the road. Irene noticed that the small cat (soon to be named Minnie) was nursing, and eventually found her litter beneath a fallen pine, an empty cardboard box nearby. Minnie was healthy-looking and must have been a house cat. Apparently she and her six infants had been boxed and rudely dumped in the woods. Irene fetched her animal transport cage, and brought Minnie and her children to our home. All but one of the kittens were given away. The retainee, Buddy, acquired her name by a habit of crawling onto the forward part of one of Irene’s shoes, and staying there as Irene carefully walked around the house.
Tansy, the oldest and biggest cat, was the house warlord. It only took one whack to put another cat in its place forever – a whack accompanied by a look that said, “Do that again and I will have you for lunch, and you look pretty tasty.” The rest of the time, Tansy was content to be the house diva, mellow and unassuming. You could pet her if you wanted, but she seldom asked for it.
So now the table has been set for that evening when Tansy revealed her consummate awareness of how the world works.
Although I failed to notice it, Irene had observed that the house needed another mammal, a dog; in particular, a male English cocker spaniel named Cory. A purebred, Cory had been raised in a kennel. He grew up in a confined area whose width could be determined by measuring the diameter of the narrow circles he ran whenever he got excited. Even when he was out of doors with the whole world at his disposal, Cory ran in the same tight circles, confined by his imaginary cage. He always ran counter-clockwise, which we attributed to the Coriolis effect, and that is how he got his name.
The Tansy Incident happened the evening Irene first brought Cory into the house. She set the transport cage down in the living room and opened its door. Cory stepped out, took one look at five wide-eyed cats, and hastily turned back into the cage, lying down on its floor, looking outward and alarmed. The five cats were spellbound. The moment seemed to last forever. I had no idea how it would resolve itself.
Tansy was sitting on the floor, facing the front of the cage from about eight feet away. She brought that forever moment to an end by standing up. Slowly, deliberately, Tansy walked toward the open door of the cage, toward the startled dog, who must have been at least three times her size. We were breathless. What on earth was Tansy doing? Cory, although obviously apprehensive, did not freak out as Tansy approached. He was lying against one side of the cage, with his body occupying about two-thirds of the cage floor. Tansy walked right up to the door, stepped into the one-third space remaining, turned around, and lay down next to Cory.
It’s impossible to say how long she stayed there, and it’s important to note that Cory stayed there too. Even five seconds would have been an eternity, but I think it was closer to half a minute. Tansy then got up and walked out of the cage, ever so calmly. Shortly after, Cory did the same, and the house was together.
It was one of the most extraordinary acts I had ever seen any non-human perform, stretching the limit of credibility. Her behavior seemed to reveal an awareness that the dog must be shown it was accepted by the cats. She must have known it could have ended horribly, yet she had the courage to bring the olive branch anyway.
No doubt her wisdom came from age. A couple of years later, she began to fade, enduring a feline dementia. Sometimes when we let her out, she would be gone too long. And once she never came back at all. Irene posted notices on neighborhood telephone poles, and about a week later we got a call from a woman who had a house on the harbor. There was a cat matching Tansy’s description hanging out on the understructure of her pier. We found the cat on a cross beam below the pier’s deck. She was facing the sea, the tide moving in and out beneath her.
As we approached, Tansy mewed in recognition. Had she forgotten how to get back home? Had she forgotten she had a home? Staring out to sea during the final stages seemed a human thing, something Winkin might do, the human trapped in a feline body. Tansy was just a cat, with a cat’s practicality. I think she was there for the smell of fish.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the early 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.
* * *
Out of the Box
By Andy Miller
I step out of my hotel. Hop in a taxi. Tell the driver “Wailing Wall, please”. It is Shabbat, so there are no cars on the streets, no one around, a foreigner in a seemingly abandoned, ancient city, where I was told specifically by the Birthright Israel staff not to go for fear of violence as the country was in the grip of what was to become known as the Second Intifada. Just me, the Arab-Israeli cab driver and the Old City on a Saturday morning.
No Jews. No tourists. I am clearly not being taken to the Wailing Wall, at least not now. The driver mentions the Sabbath, as if to explain away the absence of other human beings from these odd, abandoned streets, striking the fear of “what if?” into my well-traveled yet jetlagged brain, trained to be fearful of men such as this. My heart begins to pound a bit harder. My rational mind says “get the hell out of here” while my curious mind says “let’s see where this leads”. The cab driver continues to weave in and out of the single lane streets of the Old City, past empty shop windows, dirty buildings, locked doorways and closed businesses. “Where the hell is he taking me?” It’s too late now, time to enjoy the ride.
The cab comes to a stop outside a shabby, foreboding building on a street that time long forgot. The driver tells me this is a market and I should shop. I am not an idiot, I have traveled all over the world. I nod my head, get out of the cab, and shop. Under the watchful eyes of the shopkeepers, who appear to have opened the store just for my shopping pleasure, with the cab driver looking on and speaking with the others in their extremely foreign Arabic tongue, I peruse the various menorahs, mezuzahs, tallit, tfillin and the other chotchkies I tend to avoid while traveling. My memories and photographs are typically my souvenirs, however I feel just a bit compelled to make at least a few purchases if I want to return to the hotel in the same condition in which I left.
I make my selections, I do not haggle, I receive wide smiles and gratitude from the shopkeepers, and the cab driver happily beckons me back into the car. I passed the test, whether that was spending the requisite amount of Shekels at the store, appeasing the shopkeepers, whom I believed to be related to the cab driver, or being brave enough not to run when the cab pulled up to the establishment in the first place. My mind numb, my heart racing, scared, but fully, completely, utterly, alive. “Is this what it takes? Stepping outside of my box? Defying the wishes of my trip leaders, and most likely US State Department warnings, to feel what it is to truly be alive?”.
Suddenly the empty, derelict ancient stone streets became a bit more inhabited, cleaner and busier, I see Jews walking to and from synagogue, I see tourists, I see tons and tons and tons of IDF soldiers. My heart stops pounding. I have arrived at the Wall.
I have a habit of – no, a genuine interest in – observing and conversing with those I deem different than me. The Other, the one who exists outside the box. The man serving Guinness in a bowl to his dog in the pub in London. The intravenous drug user at the Acropolis (“A Ruin at the Ruins”). The people speaking in front of a statue of Jesus with Hebrew letters above his head on the Charles Bridge in Prague as a form of reconciliation. This is the good stuff, this is real life, this is unfiltered. People living outside of boxes history and society and ourselves have placed us in.
This is why I left the hotel that morning – to experience what I knew our highly planned trip to Israel, where we were driven around in private air-conditioned busses with armed ex-IDF soldiers guarding us, would not – the chance to interact not as students, not as Jews, not as Americans or any other person in a box. This was the chance to interact and share and discuss and learn. Existing outside of the box. The essence of what it is to be human.
Once I pass through the heavily guarded gates, I enter the area near the Western Wall. It is quite large. A quarter of the courtyard is occupied by IDF troops, who are either on patrol, flirting with one another, or on a big armored cultural field trip, I cannot tell. I go to the Wall, I experience all that is the Wall, and it is amazing, however, I want to see more. "What is here that I am not supposed to see?" "Why was I not supposed to come to this place, alone, even with the presence of an army division to protect me?" I walk from the Wall to the first set of metal detectors I see, which happens to be surrounded by IDF troops.
As I pass through the metal detectors, I enter an ancient world of winding alleyways, shadows, stone façade shops and myriad languages. I enter a shop where I meet Ramadan, a middle aged Muslim man, an Arab, the Other that I was to be protected from at all costs. This man, however, stepped outside of his box, treated me as an equal, invited me into his shop, served me sage tea, spoke in a kind and caring voice about politics, his family, his yearning for peace and the notion that a very small number of bad seeds need not determine the fate of an entire people. Ramadan wanted peace, for his children to grow up in a safe place, to run a business, to be a human being. Ramadan’s wishes, hopes and dreams are my hopes and dreams. I am no different from this man than I am any other man.
I thought back to my experience in the taxi cab. If the cab driver and the shopkeepers he brought me to were people to be feared, was that thought simply due to the box I put myself in, that of an American and a Jew and a potential target? I came to realize these boxes we place ourselves in are just artificial constructs that push us farther and farther apart.
My experience in the cab? A kind man’s way of showing a tourist a place to get a good deal on some souvenirs for his family (my parents still display the menorah in their home). My experience with Ramadan? A discussion amongst two individuals, who happen to live in two very different parts of the World, but who share more in common than we lack. This otherwise scary, life-threatening journey proved something some might think of as naïve and trite: Most of us utilize boxes to separate ourselves from others. Jews, Arabs, Christians, Americans, Israelis, gays, lesbians, Millenials, loyalists, separatists, Orthodox, secular. We all want peace. We all want to raise our families in relative comfort and safety.
The best experience of my trip to Israel was something all of us can realize without ever leaving home. If we step out from beyond our protective boxes, shed our preconceived notions of the Other, have some conversations and some sage tea, we can begin to heal the world’s problems.
I return to the hotel that afternoon and tell of my experiences. I am admonished by the trip leader, but I could not have been more grateful for the opportunity and hopeful for the future of humanity. To think, if just a handful of the other students on the trip had created the same opportunity for themselves as I did, another group of individuals step out of their boxes, expose themselves to society, and make real, tangible connections with other human beings who were previously been deemed “different”. If we continue to break down our collective boxes and teach our children to do the same, what an amazing world awaits us all.
Andy Miller is a recovering attorney, project manager and single Dad to two wonderful boys. Originally from Chicago, he currently resides in St Paul, MN. He attended University of Wisconsin-Madison for his BA and University of Denver for his JD. He loves ideas, words, travel, observing people and being in nature.
* * *
By Anthony J. Otten
Uncle Junior was always dying. He had been about to die for almost eight years, and if he had been logical, he would have done it long before he did. His legs were swollen and dark with diabetes, and he weighed as much as the couples he married in church. He was just one huge diminutive waiting for heaven to summon him to its gates. But he spent his later years teasing the Grim Reaper, tiptoeing to the edge of the unknown. He would call all the relatives from his hospital bed to let them know his time was imminent. He would pray, wail out his repentance, then go home and stay quiet for a few months, skitter away as if death were a mole the doctor had scraped off his neck.
When I learned he had died, I thought it was a trick and asked my mother if the mortician was going to build a custom casket. But he was really gone—the slick-fingered, moon-eyed presence at everybody else’s funeral, who always wanted you to contribute to the Junior retirement fund. He had once asked his widowed niece, only half joking, if she would buy him a Mercedes now that she didn’t have to get groceries for her husband. But I also knew him as the jolly divine who had preached my parents’ wedding. He stood at the pulpit that Sunday and warned his flock against “the tentacles of Satan wrapping around you,” except that he said “testicles” and made the family weep with laughter while the rest of the church sat in confused silence.
Later I heard that he was crying at the end. I don’t know why, whether it was from pain or fear, though he had spent his life introducing people to God and helping them grab their ticket to heaven. Those in the ministry, perhaps, are more vulnerable to dread about the afterlife. They have built their selfhood on definite outcomes, transactions, holy contracts. Regardless of the confidence in their brains, they may cringe in a secret space in their hearts when faced with a reminder of their own fallibility, the recognition that they are dust. To die and be wrong is not just a mistake for them, but an insult, a scar on the ego. Of that I can only say the same that any grizzled pastor will tell a neophyte—that no one should preach to save his own soul.
Anthony J. Otten has published work in Grasslimb Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Wind, The Louisville Review, and The Penwood Review. He blogs on faith and writing, and studies English at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky.
* * *
Daphne and Apollo
By Cezarija Abartis
There was a time when my skin was soft and smooth, not patchy and wrinkled and rough tree bark. Who of us really knows who we are? He courted me: I was a country girl, and I expected to become a farmer’s wife. I learned about all the plants, how to trim them, mulch them, cover the saplings during sudden frosts: the olive trees, the fig trees, the poplars that were merely beautiful. (Everything grows, my father said in a voice certain and immovable, everything changes.) My father taught me about rivers, flood plains, watering the crops, predicting the weather. My father said I was a hard worker: I knew how to milk cows, make cheese. But we lost our farm and moved to the prince’s property. I never wanted to move again. I did not expect to be courted by a prince, and not just a prince, but the most eligible bachelor in all the land. The courtier courted me.
He noticed me from his chariot and climbed down. “I haven’t seen you before on the estate.” He patted the trace horse, a fine white stallion.
“No, sir.” I put down the basket of grapes. His face shone like the sun. The coarse wool farm boy I went walking with was nothing like this prince. That boy and I sometimes held hands; I let him kiss me once. This prince strolled easily; his narrow fingers wore rings; his eyes were serene. He had everything and was used to commanding and owning. No wonder he was serene.
That spring we chased each other through the olive orchard. I tagged him and hid; then he found me behind a tree and laughed. I asked a riddle: “Why do birds fly south for winter?” He looked puzzled. I answered, “Because they're too tired to walk!” I clapped my hands in pleasure at surprising him.
Then he gave a riddle: “What’s the same about a bird and a tree?” He barely repressed a smile. “They both fly, except for the tree!”
“Mine’s better,” I said.
He taught me about music, and I taught him about plants; he taught me about poetry, and I taught him about silence.
I liked him that spring and summer, but as the year unfolded into the abundance of autumn, I changed, or maybe he changed, or maybe we both changed. I did not care for our childish riddles anymore. I missed the fields and the lambs; he missed the court with its mosaics of the golden fleece and its frescoes of the four winds trumpeting air out on the world. He missed his silver and gold friends.
“Come,” the prince said, “let’s travel across the world.”
I pulled my hand back.
I felt the breeze like a cat’s rough tongue on my hand. I turned away from him.
I slowed down. My plumpness faded. Father said I was wasting away.
I became a hard tree. My fingers burned, and twigs erupted from their tips--leaves sprang up around my head--my eyes clouded over with knots--roots twisted out of my toes into the ground. It felt a relief to be unmoving.
Birds now sing in my branches; my glossy leaves provide shade to small creatures. I want to know if I did the right thing. Was that the right choice? Should I become a girl again? Can I undo what I did?
Cezarija Abartis' Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.
* * *
In the Dunya
By John Gabriel Adkins
My life was normal but it got worse. I was married but it got worse. Now I'm out here on a city corner watching cars pass with gusto. I wave away flies and mosquitoes and vultures. Hunger strikes so I reach for my refreshing bottle of Hidden Ralley Vanch to refresh myself, but I'm still famished. So I traipse into the evening looking for roadside edibles, for discarded French fries and Big Gulps. I look for Sarah. Funny colors are just starting to crop up in my eye-edges when my imaginary friends track me down. They punch me up in the alleyway and disappear offstage.
I climb lightly scuffed out of potent alley garbage and check the black bags for Sarah. The sun is melting and kaleidoscoping up above right now and you have to remember the smell of chicken pot pie from your kid years, back when it had a scent. But who has time for that? I rip open another bag. Out in the street there's a sound like a two-ton man skateboarding over concrete and I'm confused again. I reach for my Vanch. It's empty.
I find myself in a gas station convenience store. Louis Armstrong is spitting hot bars in Spanish over a radio as I shuffle two packets of gum to the checkout. "Why am I not buying food?" I ask the smiling cardboard cutout at the register. I can't hear an answer. Louis seems to say, "Gotcha."
Now I'm sprawled emaciated on a park bench in the dark and I'm blowing bubbles. This is supposed to be a man's world-oyster, but it's your shadow who calls the shots, I think. Now I see Sarah standing over me with that I-was-waiting expression.
"I knew you weren't a lie," I say.
"How were you led to me?"
"My best friend in the subway played piano keys that proved you'd be here."
"What was the second sign?"
"I was out under the stars in a cold night meteor shower. I saw your face in my tea leaves, and my alphabet soup spelled your name."
She smiles and her eyes grow tall as windmills. I look up from my bench and blow another bubble.
"The bad people keep saying bad things in my head," I mumble.
"I know. This soup will help."
She hands me a bowl of steaming pork and cabbage pozole, spoon included.
"Meet me offstage at the corner of Paper and Plastic. This is the last riddle."
Sarah sprints off fast and I chase, chasing with pozole balanced in hand as the sun rises, but she disappears into a mousehole where I can't follow even though I strain. A ship of living bone people comes crashing down the boulevard to trade in tacky tapestries. I'm lost in the huff and hustle of morning urbania and the imaginaries are running up behind me again with violence in their hearts. C'est la vie.
I eat a spoonful and exit the stage.
John Gabriel Adkins is a writer of fiction and essays. His work has been published by The Escapist, Gone Lawn and Apocrypha & Abstractions (forthcoming), and he is a member of the artist collective Still Eating Oranges.
* * *
By Hannah Allman
The waves rolled under the pier and the June sky was a wash of blue strewn with cotton. The sun whitened her little blond head and made his green eyes squint. The ocean wind blew at their clothes - his shirt and trunks, her overalls.
He held his daughter around her waist, her bare feet dangling from the hammock made of arms. They looked into the camera. He smiled, but her round white face stayed stoic, and no amount of coaxing could change it.
He kissed the little blond head. It smelled of salt water and baby oil, and for a moment he remembered another kiss, another little head, another daughter, long ago when he was too young to be a father. One kiss was all he had gotten then.
Now this one was here, and he was old enough to be a father.
He kissed her head again, because he could.
Hannah Allman is a writing student at Geneva College in Pennsylvania. Her work can be found in the new creative nonfiction anthology, "The Bestiary of People We Know and Love and Hate", coming out April 2015. She writes at the blog "Pins and Needles", where she shares her poetry, prose, and ramblings.
* * *
Inside This Concrete Fish Tank
By Ambre Bourdier
Despite the dandelion seeds, some wishes are not meant to come true. I watched a little boy on the metro pluck his eyelashes and beg each one to turn him into a tiger. Meanwhile, the woman who sits across stares through yet another graffiti stained window and realizes—the insides of our bodies are always painted red. Simultaneously, a daughter holds the smooth hand of her grandmother and presses down on a vein, bouncing up and down like a nervous snake. Behind the two stands a pessimistic young man, leaning his earlobe against the cool window of the metro door. As a train noisily passes by in the other direction he leaps at the sight of a bearded man who doesn’t see him. Instead he is concentrated on repeating the bewildering line that is imprinted on the surface of his brain: Un cheveu poursuivi par deux planètes.
A little girl stands a few feet away looking up, distracted by some green paint clumping the frizzy hairs under the man’s beard. At a right angle from the girl a businesswoman remembers the mathematical equation that had troubled her the night before: fear = thinking + time. Two train cars away, a divorced man retraces the outline on the inside of his wrists along which a transitory woman had once drawn a path in a dark green pen. Hands firmly gripping the metro pole, a grieving old man’s eye twitches like the 332nd tick of a seizing clock. Suddenly, in a corner, a boy with dark hair looks up from his book and wonders if perhaps it is just an illusion that you see farther into the forest when the leaves fall from the trees. His older brother leaning sleepily against him winces as he reaches down into his pocket and pricks the skin of his chewed up fingers with the corner of his metro ticket. A one-eyed girl, whose father once read her Sleeping Beauty night after night, wishes she too were pricked. This girl, perhaps I knew her once before, but now we are two human blurs, contemplative ghosts missing each other every day as our trains rush in different directions.
At the other end of the train, the conductor, condemned to the incessant soot-covered nocturnal life of the metro, stares through particles of misery. Restlessness pours from every crack into his mustard colored cabin, leaving him numb. His head falling back he closes his eyes but still feels the flickering lights, fireflies trapped in dirty glass tubes. Turning his head towards God he asks, “what are we fighting for?” but he shrinks into a dust bunny and hops away. The man’s eyes flutter open just as a dandelion seed collides against the windshield in a sign of defeat.
Ambre is currently a senior in an International school in France and is part-time professional overthinker slash cat enthusiast.
* * *
By Audrey T. Carroll
You take drives in the car because once it starts to warm up it's a more normal temperature than the apartment with the broken heat that you know won't be fixed even if you tell management because there's black mold the cats drink up from the windows, a result of their winter "sweating" even though you know what window sweating looks like because the house of your childhood with five people and three rooms was seventy years old but you're just thankful the heat is still working in the car even though the engine ate the belt that makes the cold air happen in ninety-five degree Arkansas. You sit in a tax office with your cherry ankle socks on top of knee-high socks, your lacey tank top under short-sleeved sweater under hot pink cardigan under leather jacket, your Ravenclaw scarf and your three dollar gloves with the hole in the one pointer finger even though they're only a month old and ask him if you can stay here for a while because you know you'll be returning to that apartment and you're distracting yourself from the fear that the tax return won't be enough to pay to file it and you just spent seven hundred on a stark white dress because he wants you to have one thing that you really want on that day in July when you'll maybe take the train to Chicago and then New York because you're fairly certain that you'd end up stuck somewhere in Tennessee with no wheels if you take the car with heat but no air conditioning and you fear the tubes of metal that bounce around on air currents, though your argument to him is that trains are romantic (almost a pre-honeymoon adventure in themselves) and they're conducive to writing. When you come home after teaching or taking classes or just being lost in the whirlwind and see the cats cuddling on the edge of the bed and the tailless one scrambling to distance herself because she's been caught in a moment of sweetness when she is an alley cat, damn it, you understand the impulse, the sleepless nights spent pressed against his bare chest, no heat to turn on but the fan blowing on the other side of him because if he doesn't drown them out the neighbors will keep him up all night with flirtatious giggles shared with their guitar-playing boyfriends on the one side and the same baseline vibrating through the wall constantly on the other until you're not sure if there's truly a rhythm or if it's just noise.
Audrey T. Carroll is an MFA candidate with the Arkansas Writer's Program and graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. Her work has previously been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Writing Maps' The A3 Review, The Legendary, The Cynic Online Magazine, The Red Fez Review, and others.
* * *
By John Grabski
Winter 1812. You lay shackled, imprisoned in the belly of an English Man O’ War. You hear and feel the thunderous pounding of temporal waves explode against the wooden bow as the ship holds true, bound for Dartmoor, a prison made famous by the Hounds of Baskervilles. And now, dark and adrift through a timeless place where faceless men fought shapeless wars, each man must bear to hear his story told.
Solomon. Four months shy of twenty-two. Distinguished by sheathes of flaxen hair, likely owing to your Scottish descent. You tower a half head taller standing chained to others of the same misfortunate lot. Soldiers all, captured at sea. Around you the sounds of celebration as your rivals hoist tankards of grog to honor their king. In jest, your fellow seamen rattle their chains like feral hominid dogs, snap their teeth, pump passionate fists in the air. Shots are fired. A volley of acid banter ensues. Above the chaos, the English captain roars.
“Heathens! A disgrace to the king!”
He unsheathes his sword, levels the blade to your chin.
“We’ll settle this with a duel. Pick your best man and I’ll do the same. They’ll scrap bare-knuckled, a proper Englishmen’s fight! When my soldier puts yours to the ground, and he will, the scab will be dropped in the brig. We’ll proceed until every last heathen lay piled in a stinking heap! And should your man win, then by God he’ll muster to fight again!”
You look to your fellow seamen and they in turn to you. A bedraggled crew, days without food or sleep. You turn to face your captors.
“I’ll fight your man!” you say, “With one condition.”
The Englishmen howl and jeer.
“What pray tell, is this, condition?”
“We fight to the death!”
The captain retracts his jaw, arches his brow and grins. The soldiers, desperately silent.
“And after you’re dead?”
“The duel will end.”
“And your weapon?”
“We’re both to be shackled to the deck. Our only weapon, a four-foot length of rope.”
The captain and crew raise their grog to chant and cheer as a hulking brut with enormous silver teeth lumbers forth. The captain acknowledges the ruffian with a wink and a nod and returns his gaze to you.
“Perhaps you’ll reconsider?”
Mid-laugh, an Englishman belches the invisible stench of sour grog.
The brut stands glowering, shackles are clasped and snapped to the deck. Ropes are cut and tossed to the floor.
The captain points his pistol skyward. “On my command, you’ll begin.”
A deafening blast. With motion severe, you fashion a knot and swing it with savage intensity. A circular thumping hammer that fells the giant brut as if lighting had surged from the heart of the very knot itself.
You air your jaw and turn to the quivering Englishmen, their gazes affixed to the disembodied eyes of the brut.
You raise the bloodied knot high in the air.
“Dreadnaught, the Man O’ War.” you say. “Dread we men born free!”
John Grabski is a long distance runner that writes fiction from a farm in New York. In addition to Foliate Oak Literary Magazine his work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine and Cyclamens and Swords. He is hard at work on his first collection titled Into the Vertex.
* * *
Doug & Sharyl
By Brandilyn Haynes
When they’d first been married, Sharyl wore her hair long and dark, but as she began to grey she cut it short and bleached it, insisting she felt youthful. Every morning she curled the strands out and away from her face until they sat atop her head in a perfect halo, a circle of ringlets that she fluffed before draping her green sweater over her shoulders and going about her business. The sweater was a gift from her mother, knit for her fifty-eighth birthday, and she often wore it with the sleeves knotted at her slender, pale neck.
Doug was sixty when he retired, eager to spend his days golfing with a cigar clenched between his teeth. He often felt out of place in the beautiful home Sharyl had hired a decorator to furnish, but on the golf course, he was comfortable and welcome. It was easy to put his cell phone on mute, to pretend he didn’t see the missed calls lining up on his screen, to listen to the golf cart tires hum over the manicured grass instead of the shrill pitch of Sharyl’s voice. He hadn’t always avoided his wife. Age had thinned his patience for her, though, and now he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what he disliked most about her.
This morning, Doug had left the back door open as he loaded his golfing equipment into his Volvo, allowing him a straight view into the dining room where Sharyl sat with her back to him, folding napkins for their next dinner party. Her sweater was draped over her shoulders as usual, and she sat very straight and still while she worked. As he carefully organized the clubs in his bag, he lifted a driver up, briefly holding it in his hands and giving it a practice swing through the air. From where he stood, Sharyl’s head looked very small and he squinted as he lined up a perfect shot, mentally hearing the satisfying thwack! as his club made contact, imagining how it felt to see a ball go flying. He smiled then turned, sliding the club into its place in his bag before closing the door and driving away.
Sharyl’s shoulders slumped as Doug shut the door. She waited until the garage door shut before letting herself cry, burying her face in the sleeve of her sweater. She inhaled deeply, wishing it smelled of lavender like when she’d opened it on her birthday, a gift from her mother just six weeks before she passed away. Doug had never liked his mother-in-law, had even acted reluctant to fly to the funeral last month, and she often felt exhausted trying to hold back tears around him.
She had collected herself by the time she heard the garage door open that evening, and she kissed Doug on the cheek before encouraging him to shower before dinner. Sharyl prided herself on being an excellent cook and she hummed softly to herself as she bustled around the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on dinner. As she heard Doug’s footsteps on the stairs, she pulled the roast chicken out of the oven, cutting the twine around the legs before laying it on a flat serving dish.
Sharyl glanced briefly from her position at the kitchen island into the dining room where Doug sat at his end of the table, his back to her. The skin on the back of his neck was dark brown, evidence of hours spent bent over a golf club, and he fiddled with his place setting as he waited for his meal to be served. The carving knife suddenly felt heavy in her hand and she tilted her head, squinting as she contemplated the pull of metal through meat, the give of flesh as it separated beneath her hand. She smiled quickly, the set the knife back on the marble counter and brought dinner out to her waiting husband.
Brandilyn Haynes is a student in Lindenwood University's MFA in Writing Program. She lives in Arizona with her husband, toddler son, and cat.
* * *
Miranda's Sudsy Escape
By Sharon Kurtzman
An amazing idea sprouted in Miranda’s mind when she happened onto the website. BulkApothecary.com was the domain, a how-to site rich with information and ingredients for making bath salts, bath oils, bath detox concoctions, and a myriad of luxurious add-ins.
Could it be as easy as the site claimed?
Damn it, yes!
Eyes lifted to the waiting room clock, young charges occupied in the ballet studio as the opportunity of a lifetime unfurled before her: She would create an empire by bottling and packaging bath items—products that the hoity-toity mothers to whose spawn nannies like her tended, would consume because they consumed everything.
Flowers starred as the main ingredient—roses, lilacs, gardenias, bluebells, honeysuckles—infinite possibilities. Ground petals listed as the bedrock for two-thirds of the recipes she scanned.
How hard could petal grinding be?
Idiots could do it, and Miranda was no idiot. Just the opposite, her smarts proven with a 4.5 GPA and full-ride to Dartmouth for earning a Master’s in Biology. Kickstarter could help fund her sudsy venture, the company eventually paying for her to finish that degree. Lousy scholarship office had run dry of money in the middle of her program. Mom and Dad had said, sorry, but had offered no assistance, at least nothing green.
Nanny Wanted, read the ad in Upper Eastside Mom Magazine, a thin glossy tree-killer about rich mothers, their idle pursuits, their ideal lives and ads featuring all manner of worshipped toys and gadgets.
Options were few for Miranda back then. Places to rent came with four-digit price tags. Quelling the niggling voice inside, she slapped together a resume, one that highlighted her babysitting years and a counselor-in-training summer spent at an all-girls camp in Maine. Reese Winslow, the wife of a hedge fund manager, set up an interview immediately and though Miranda should have seen that as a red flag, she didn’t. Sophie and Serendipity Winslow were five-year-old twins, demanding little terrors cut from the same fiery bolt as their mother.
Thoughts of the twins sparked an offshoot idea: a line of children’s bath products. Upper East Side mothers would gobble that up, too. Vivid images of a bursting bank account cha-cha’d through her thoughts accompanied by dreams of magazine write-ups in Forbes and Fortune, interviews on chat shows, swanky board meetings and an even swankier life.
Windows to a wonderful world.
X-rated bath products were another possibility, Fifty Shades of Everything having washed away erotic taboos for the pampered one percent.
You can do it, was Bulk Apothecary’s catch phrase.
Zipping through the product offerings, Miranda quickly added ingredient after ingredient to her virtual basket, but kept an eye trained on the studio clock, praying she would complete her order before the pink-tutu clad banshees came screaming out of class.
Sharon Kurtzman’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Every Writer’s Resource, River Lit, 1000 Words, Crack the Spine, Belle Reve Literary Journal, moonShine Review, Airplane Reading, Still Crazy, Raleigh News and Observer, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers, and Main Street Rag’s anthology, Voices from the Porch.
* * *
By J. S. McCloud
The woman sat in the diner, laughing vibrantly as the server at the counter poured drinks and filled salt shakers for her and her companion. Long, red hair cascaded down her smooth dress, in bright contrast to the dull beige scenery around her and the dark hair and suits of the two other men who occupied the counter.
“Do you have anything else? Water isn’t as much a drink as it is medicine.” Her red lips separated widely as the woman spoke, filling the otherwise unsound room with loud zest. When the response came…
Nothing came. The server's mouth moved and his arms swayed, his body switched position and he still moved with verve, but in silence. Thinking this a misinterpretation, she spoke again, this time fuller. The sound vibrated off the glass windows surrounding them and bounced back.
“I said, do you have anything else?!” Now, it was her voice that split into oblivion as she barely concluded her repetition before gasping for breath, one pale hand reaching for her intact neck. It was not breathing she was losing. Her lungs were fine, and she was wrong to think otherwise. After the surprise, her face turned an orange hue, pupils dilating as she still attempted a nervous, stinted clamor.
When several attempts failed, she breathed a moment, looked around the room. She had not noticed it before. Her companion, the man sitting across the stool as well, their face had changed. The expressions showed cold annoyance, complete disregard for any real stimuli. The server worked on behind his wooden barrier, oblivious, constantly smiling, maybe whistling. The woman waved her arms at both the men, the server, and grabbed the hat from her companion’s head. Nothing changed.
She thought her heart might give if this insolence continued, she has not processed its stillness, all her attention on the diner. The isolation has not set in yet, though it has existed longer than she realized.
J.S. McCloud began writing poetry before she can clearly recall, and fiction when she came to realize that life is a stream of events. She is from in St. Paul, Minnesota and will attend Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont this coming year. Her journalistic work has appeared in the Grand Forks Herald. This is her first creative publication.
* * *
WHO DO YOU CALL WHEN YOU NEED TO SAY "I LOVE YOU"?
By Jerry Mullins
The man moved to the chair nearest the window, looking out on the famous street. From the top floor of the once grand house, a clear view down the hill to the park revealed the changing leaves, the occasional dying branch jutting out from the trunks of the trees lining the street, the bold white bark of the newer sycamores like strong human limbs.
He was alone in the house now. On most days he was pleased to be alone, after many years of the obligations of performance and appearance, when there was little substance behind the outward shell. The folly of public service with sparse support or real meaning to the feckless day-to-day actions had long ago dulled his sensitivities. The only saving grace was the unspoken acquiescence of his counterparts in the international arena, who similarly felt powerless to do little more than the diplomatic dance of shallow words, the legacy of diplomacy from the sallow past. Even enemies bent on world domination became pliable friends, or so it seemed. Perhaps that is how it all started.
The family was gone now, the spouse long gone into a later marriage, the children now grown and well into their own careers and achievements, along with the usual alarms and disasters of their personal attributes and lives. He often told them, jokingly, “I hope I have not fouled up your life too badly”. They were kind in replying, “You are fine. We feel blessed to have you as our Father.” He was glad they did not, and could not, know the worst of the situation.
The leaves outside the window rustled with a gust of wind from the hills west of Georgetown. He noticed the several people on the street below hurrying by, picking up their walking stride as the wind struck them. The man thought how pleasant it was that he had no such need to quicken his step on any matter at anyone’s behest at this point in his life. But he missed the ego’s drive to demonstrate competence and the importance of place and position, the march of prominence in the hierarchy. He knew he now would never feel that march again, nor want to, except in fleeting moments of remorse. He knew he had been an exceptional diplomat, in a field of political appointees with only a large political campaign donation as their chief qualification.
He missed the attention he could pay to the young women, even if it was only ephemeral and driven by their attention to the position. At times it became more, although dangerous, but usually with the ample warning signs of over interest or eagerness. He had never seen anyone so cold at the outset as she had been. It had been a challenge penetrating the shell that seemed to surround her.
He missed even more the opportunity to simply express himself in a loving way. Not just the physical expression, but also the small actions, the occasional smile for even the least reason, the ending of a telephone call with an “I love you”. He did not feel old, aged, and dreaded the thought of aging. He was saddened to realize day after day he had no one to call and say “I love you”.
He looked across the room and thought of the revolver in the ornate desk’s top right drawer. He had often looked at it and sat in this same chair and held it in his hand after returning home from his last posting. Eventually he dismissed the idea of taking his life, mindful of the effect of such an action on his children and their children over the coming generations. No matter how depressed he became during that short time, he reasoned his way past that. He often thought back then of “Custer’s last stand” and the little known story that some of the soldiers at the height of the battle had taken their own lives, observing the “Save the last bullet for yourself” tenet, rather than be mutilated by the attacking warriors.
The Department had been very gracious. “You can take an early retirement, and we will facilitate anything you need as you make the transition. And if you feel the need to work we can speak for you with any number of organizations to take you on. But we are fairly well aware you may not need income, with the assets you seem to have. We are trying to be as sensitive and careful as we can. You have been a fine Foreign Service Officer, and it is not often we have the grandson of a former Secretary of State here. This whole thing is unfortunate. No one has proven you divulged sensitive information to that woman, nor did she divulge their information to you. The problem is she was not only a member of their diplomatic corp, but also a member of the royal family. We can call it a clash of cultures.”
The wind outside seemed to subside, the leaves outside came to a rest, and brilliant sunshine filled the west-facing windows. He prepared to take a walk. Perhaps he would meet someone.
Jerry Mullins grew up in central West Virginia, and has lived in the Washington, DC suburbs in recent years. His work has recently been published in or is forthcoming from Columbia University Journal-Catch and Release, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Broadkill Review, Tower Journal, Indiana Voice Journal, Newfound Journal, and internationally in Nazar-Look (Romania) and Southern Cross Review (Argentina).
* * *
At the Seam
By Helen Paloge
I’ve never been at this particular spot by the river on Greendale Road, or in this relation to the river flow. Downstream is to my right instead of left. It’s a bit disorienting, like brushing your teeth with the wrong hand or putting your bra on by hooking it in the back instead of the front. Nothing is familiar. A disconnect is necessary from time to time.
The water here is louder where it falls over a succession of rocky steps on one side of me. Yet it's also softer, slurpier where it slides mellowly from the shade into the sun on the other side over rounder, smoother stones. I sit at the seam. The trees bend more disheveled into the water upstream. Some have fallen first under the weight of winter snow and then in the subsequent summer storms. Some of these trees are twisted, thin and frail, like men who’ve grown sickly old and have lain down to die. Many trees have broken limbs that will have to go unmended, hanging at crazy angles painful for the eye to see. Some have branches molded by the wind into poses too human for comfort – dancing maidens, embracing mothers, crestfallen lovers. The banks seem to be folding under into the river, and the trees at water’s edge lean precariously before they will fall in. Across the way, the sun speckles the forest floor and makes the tree trunks light up like doors to a mysterious world, teasing, inviting and then gone as clouds above extinguish the light.
I would want to sit over there, perhaps, rather than here. But if I were there, I’d be looking at where I am now and longing to be part of this. I am afraid of the day I’ll no longer feel that way, becoming so complacent about where I am that nothing else will call to me or make me want. I know the comfort it would bring, so long as I gave in to it, to simply be whatever I was, in the moment, entirely. But the stasis it implies, the death of movement, of dynamism, of change … . It’s the log lying heavily across the bank, perched on a moss-covered rock that stopped its fall into the river. Lying there long enough, other trees will fall on top of it till it will no longer be a tree.
I see a path light up between the trees and am sure, sitting on my plastic chair this side of the water, that I’d follow that bright yellow road to wherever it took me, along the river, through the trees, deep into the forest until the path, and everything around it, turned grey, then dark green, and finally black. In the thick of night, I’d have to close my eyes and try to sleep, not so much from tiredness as to avoid the blinding darkness. I am not afraid of monsters coming out at night – though there would be all manner of creatures sniffing around me in the dense woods – but of the perpetual, unmitigated darkness both behind closed eyelids and in the world around me when I open them. I think if I made it through the dark into the light of day in the forest, we’d be bonded forever. It takes that – grappling with the bogey man, the unfamiliar, and not turning away.
But I sit here on my plastic chair. Today’s adventure is no more than sitting on the right rather than the left of the river. I’m not about to disappear into the woods, not about to take the trouble or face the discomfort, let alone the fear. I am getting closer, am I not, to the inertia of acceptance, the placidity of living in the here and now, the thrillessness of contentment, the log perched in waiting for nothing more than more of the same, the stillness to which these waters run.
Helen Paloge was born in Montreal, Canada, moved to New York when she was 9, back to Montreal when it was time to leave home and go to college, and then to Israel, where she has been living for the past 43 years. She is an English lecturer by profession, a wife (second time around), and a mother of 2 daughters and a son. She has been writing on and off most of her life, and for the last decade has made it her second skin. Though she writes mainly creative nonfiction and some prose poetry, she has also published 2 books in other genres: The Silent Echo: The Middle-Aged Female Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and The Other's Other: Reflections and Opacities in an Arab College in Israel (Peter Lang, 2012).
* * *
A Mother Knows
By Wayne Scheer
I knew something was wrong, terribly, horribly wrong, the moment I saw Jonathon's name on my telephone screen. Call it a mother's intuition. Call it an appreciation of history.
In the past, these calls would come late at night. He wrecked his car. He was mugged and had no way to get home. He needed to be bailed out of jail. He loved us, he cried. We loved him too, and paid his debts.
We knew he had a problem with alcohol. Throughout his teen years, we spent a fortune on private schools and therapists. Even two weeks in rehab.
He smoked pot--what teenager didn't? We even told him stories of our own pot-smoking exploits when we were young. But the point of our stories was that we were smart enough not to get caught and smart enough to stay away from stronger stuff.
He told us he had tried cocaine, but didn't like the heart-thumping way it made him feel. We exhaled, convinced that he was taking control of his life.
He was a lifetime more experienced than his high school classmates when he graduated, with honors, and scored near perfect on his SATs. Always a bright child, we convinced ourselves he was bored and needed a challenge. We saw his high school graduation as him turning his life around. When he and his father hugged after the graduation ceremony, they cried the tears of men.
He entered Georgia Tech with an interest in industrial engineering. He thanked us. We felt genuine pride. And relief. Our boy had survived adolescence; he would live to be a man.
But a semester later, he dropped out of school and took off with his girlfriend to California. We didn't hear from him for over six months. He came home with tiny red eyes and needle marks up his arm. He stayed long enough to steal my mother's diamond broach and our laptop. He called two weeks later, apologizing, begging forgiveness and asking for more money. His Dad and I said no.
I exploded in a way I had never done before. I told him I hated him, I hated what he was doing to us and what he was doing to himself. I refused to help him destroy himself.
So when I saw his name on the telephone screen, my stomach tightened and my hands shook.
“Mom.” He was crying now. “There's so much blood. So much blood.”
Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He's published hundred of stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories. A short film has also been produced based on his short story, "Zen and the Art of House Painting." Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife.
* * *
By Mike Scofield
Grandma smiles when she looks at me, her eyes behind glasses content. I give up the armrest for her.
“This is going to be fun!”
The jet has been climbing since we took off. The former astronaut is droning about weightlessness, how we achieve it, what to expect.
“When the plane descends quickly enough, we float.”
I don’t want to know how it’s done.
Grandma looks at me, doesn’t listen to him. Maybe she knows what to expect.
She’s always been firm in her beliefs. Maybe what she believes will come true. I hope so.
I do my best to shut out the amplified voice. Weightlessness explains itself: not like a fall off a ladder or riding a waterfall – it’s the feeling of suspension with nothing to drop into, nothing to hold one up. The sensation of dreams.
I try to remember if there ever was firm ground under my feet while I dreamt…
“Here we go!” says our pilot.
Grandma comes loose from her seat. The belt rises and settles. I undo mine and escape the chair while I point to the buckle for her.
“Release yourself, Grandma!”
She fumbles and gets it.
The two of us rise to the arc of the padded ceiling. Our heads brush the top and we smile at each other. Grandma does a somersault and her weightless laughter rings down through the tube of unleashed bodies. Padded giggles clatter back to us.
We lock arms for another spin, faces close and bright.
She says, “Have we died?”
“Can we stay like this forever?”
“As long as they keep us from gravity.”
And that ain’t long.
We gain weight slowly and settle toward our seats. I adjust Grandma so that she will return right side up. She feels about forty pounds. I pull myself into my seat and sigh.
The astronaut is telling us what we just experienced. I try to shut him out.
“Is that all there is?” says Grandma.
“I believe we go again.”
She nods, wistful for the last past moment. “It’s nice to slip your moorings.”
“The slip is our descent.”
The plane climbs again. We are as heavy as we will ever be.
“I don’t think I need to do it again.”
“C’mon, Grandma, it was cool!”
“No. I’ll watch you.”
She is content and I am selfish. I want to go alone. I don’t argue.
“Here we go!”
Grandma moves slightly under the strap but stays put. The blue veins of her hands gnarl her attachment.
I lift off and circle above her, grinning down. I merry-go-round the headrest and it gyroscopes me back. The wind from my limbs could hurricane a butterfly. I get the giggles then bark laughter. There is an erotic touch where parts that weighted me before pendulum to a different dimension.
I twist and spin, levitate and sink, crab-crawl the cabin walls. The fuselage headstands me, I pogo and jockey. I swan the depths and vulture the heights.
Grandma, seeker of wisdom and solace, has closed her eyes and relaxed her grip.
Mike Scofield lives on the great frontier of upstate New York where he tells himself stories to make sense of it all. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals.
* * *
By Katha Sikka
She was as pale and lifeless as the hard, white tile floor she sat on in her dorm room. Her eyes had a certain innocence but were now creased with craters as large as the moon. She seldom opened her mouth, which was almost in perfect synchronization with the sporadic creaks of the floor. Just as how the floor basked in the heat that came from the radiator, Deanna depended on her breath that provided warmth within her body.
Her backpack. Everything indispensable to Deanna was packed into her backpack from Grey’s Anatomy to her pen. When I told you that Deanna’s life depended on her breath, I lied. It depended on this pen with its pointy tip, its substance in between, and its magical powers. But what was so special about an ordinary pen? I would tell you, but it is time to go to biology class.
She sat every day in the same spot. No, it was not in the corner all the way in the back, but front and center. There were about hundred kids, but Deanna’s emotionless presence was paradoxically so strong that it felt as if she was the only one in the room. Even the teacher’s presence was negligible, but the words that came out of her mouth were not.
What she said: Simply put, diabetes mellitus is an amalgamation of maladies that result from too much glucose in your bloodstream.
What Deanna heard: Simply put, this zombie permeates you and slowly eats you alive.
She was a rainbow, a series of colors with her blond hair, crimson lips, and vivid blue eyes. What she didn’t know was that her rainbow would turn into an eon of clouds and rain as she moved from a destination wedding in Hawaii to nearest hospital.
#1: Her bridesmaid’s dress no longer fit due to her sudden weight loss. She had been cutting down on her Starbucks’ Oreo Frappuccinos but 12 pounds?
#2: At the rehearsal dinner, she ate 5 servings and was still hungry.
#3: The minister said, “And I now declare you …
“DIABETIC, severely diabetic. You fainted during the wedding you were attending. You will need this insulin pen at all times. Consider this pen your lifeline. Also, you will need to manage your diet.” said the doctor as the rhythmic flow of insulin into her leg matched the pouring of the doctor’s words into her heart.
What she said: Once one is diagnosed with diabetes, there are a multitude of forms of treatment to regulate one’s blood sugar levels.
What Deanna heard: You can try to fight off the zombies, but what about the humans?
“Not here, not now,” thought Deanna in her biology class of high school. Her chest became tighter, but her control on her life was loosening and became as tenuous as sand. She finally took out her insulin pen from her yellow backpack and showed its magical capability.
But if Harry, a powerful wizard, didn’t fit in with the Muggles, how would Deanna live with them? They never said anything to her face, but she always knew.
#1: Deanna Maloney and diabetes mellitus have the same initials. That’s why they are made for each other.
#2: What if she has an attack next to me? I don’t think I would be able to control my laughter.
#3: She’s a robot, with all her meters and pens, wired by diabetes.
What she said: Not only must one treat the immediate problem of high blood sugar levels, but one must also preclude the potential complications that supplement diabetes.
What Deanna heard: The zombies bring vampires and ghosts too.
#1: Her tree stumps, otherwise known as legs affected by diabetic neuropathy, were always concealed. The visible roots of diabetes seemed to anchor more firmly in her skin every time she was reminded that although she had committed herself to the study of life, its seed would never be planted in her soul.
#2: Why would she play Call of Duty when she could fight H. pylori bacteria?
#3: Of course, she could have sweets once in a while, but she longed to hear the noise of the oven.
She heard it. That DING, but this one meant that class was over. Deanna walked toward her dorm with her yellow backpack, passing by a bakery filled with confections, and opening a can of brussel sprouts, a “diabetic safe food.”
Katha Sikka often incorporates the elements of other writers such as Jane Austen's extensive knowledge of human nature into her own writing style. In addition, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, awarded her writing piece a Gold Key, the highest level of regional recognition.
* * *
By Tori Thomas
“Luella Cariggan.” I told the secretary. I squeezed Lulu’s hand and glanced down at her, her other hand was fiddling with the end of the braid I put her hair in this morning.
The secretary typed on her computer furiously, her grey hair sticking out of her bun in strange places. “And what seems to be the problem this morning?”
I pressed my lips together and tried to think of a way to explain without drawing attention. I opened my mouth to say something, anything but she shook her head. “Okay. Take a seat and someone will be right out.”
“Thank you” I mouthed as I dragged Lulu into the waiting room behind me. She stumbled over her feet but thankfully they stayed firmly planted. I sat down in the chair closest to the door and pulled her onto my lap. My heart was racing but I tried to keep a straight face. I was going over what I would say when they called us in when Lulu’s voice interrupted. “Momma?”
I managed a shaky smile for her sake “Yes baby?”
She shifted on my lap and I tightened my arms around her. “How come that lady over there looks so angry?”
I followed her gaze to see a young women sitting across the room reading a magazine. “Oh. She’s just concentrating.”
Lulu gazed off for a moment, thinking. “When I was concentrated the doctor made me drink that yucky juice. Remember?”
It took a minute for me to realize what she was talking about. “You mean the prune juice? No shes not...”
“Luella?” a nurse said from the door.
Lulu started to get up and follow with out me but I managed to grab onto the back of her shirt before too late.
“Ooo Momma look! She’s got Minnie on her Pajamas!” Lulu squealed, pointing to the nurse.
“Those are scrubs baby, not pajamas.” I told her quickly.
We were led into a room painted blue with a mural of a train filled with passagers on the wall. I picked up Lulu so she could see. I held her until the Dr. Carlos came in, which, didnt make my arms hurt. Unfortunately.
He had purple bags under his eyes and his usual glowing tan skin seemed despondent. “Alright Ms. Cariggan, what bring you in today?”
“Well...” I began, but before I could finish Lulu started squirming.
“Dr. Carlos! Did you bring me a sticker?” she squealed lunging towards him. He put his arms out, ready to catch her but as soon as she was out of my arms I knew I would no longer have to worry about explaining. She slowly started gliding toward the ceiling. She reached her hand out so she wouldnt hit her head,and started to giggle.
I glanced at Dr. Carlos, expecting to see shock on his face but instead finding frustration. “Not again.” He whispered, exasperated.
“Again? What do you mean not again?” I hissed, grabbing Lulu’s foot and pulling her down, much to her dismay.
Dr. Carlos sat down and put his head in his hands, rubbing his face before looking back up. “These cases have been coming in all week. I dont know why its happening, no one does.”
“What are we supposed...”
He got up out of his chair and opened the door “One second.”
Lulu caressed my hair and kissed me on the forehead. “Its okay Momma, Im fine. See?” she grinned as wide as she possibly could.
When he came back inside, Dr. Carlos was carrying a shoe box. “For now she’ll have to wear these all the time.”
I sat Lulu on my lap as he strapped them onto her feet. “What are they?” She questioned.
“Lead boots.” he told her. “Okay try them out.”
She jumped off my lap and paraded around the room, staying planted firmly on the floor. She lifted up one foot and examined it.
She thought for a moment and then her eyes lit up. “Do you have any pink ones?”
Tori Thomas grew up in a small town in Massachusetts. She is an aspiring author and entertainer. She currently spends most of her time watching Disney Movies and reading to her 1 year old son.
* * *
By Natalie Tinney
Jane left her house without locking the front door. She trotted down the driveway carrying her things in her arms, dropping her sunglasses and lip chap before clambering into the front passenger seat of my car.
“Phew! Sorry to keep you waiting. Hey, do I look okay?”
“Okay” would have been an overstatement. Jane was a walking epidemic. The only redeeming quality about her outfit was the daffodil barrette she placed in her hair to keep it from flying in her face. It matches reasonably well with her bicycle-print dress.
“You look… fine” I mumble while Jane is trying to curl her eyelashes with a spoon, checking her reflection every so often in the side-view mirror.
I drop her off downtown and tell her to call me when her interview is over. I don’t bother turning off the engine –I already know how this will end.
Ten minutes later, she comes back in tears.
“This is so unfair!” wailed Jane. “They said I’m just not the right match!”
I try my best to hide the fact that I’m not surprised. “Really?! Don’t cry, Jane. Everyone knows those lousy head-hunters always play favourites. Come on, let’s go grab coffee”.
We arrive at the café and take a seat at a table for two by the window. I reach into my briefcase and slide this pamphlet across the table in which they’re recruiting volunteers for a One-Way expedition to Mars. She exhales deeply like this is some kind of joke. She doesn’t seem to understand that I’m being serious. Jane needs to pack up her belongings and move to a zero gravity environment if staying alive is part of her future plans. At least that way she will be less likely to choke on her own gum.
Jane belongs in a place where the waiters accept tips in chocolate coins. Are restaurants a thing on Mars? I really hope they are, because Jane always insists on pulling out the coffee pot while the machine is still brewing.
Natalie Tinney is a Canadian-Peruvian in her fifth year of medical school at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru. Natalie is an avid backpacker and aspires to complete a residency in Psychiatry. Her work has appeared as a flash fiction contest winner in Soliloquies, and in The Steel Chisel.
* * *
By Mika Yamamoto
There are consequences for seeing a boy in bright yellow pants walking down Kaiser Strasse in Frankfurt on a grey March day and mistaking him for the sun.
There are consequences for knowing you are not in-love but letting yourself get pregnant anyway.
There are consequences for marrying someone who hit you because you don’t want to be a single parent.
There are consequences.
There are consequences for staying in a marriage long enough to get pregnant again.
There are consequences for ending the marriage, too.
You have to hear your five-year-old son tell you he is so sad he feels he will die.
You have to drink wine with your mother-in-law and see her thinness.
You have to wipe butts at the hospital so your work schedule allows you to be home by three.
For this there are consequences too.
You must apply for free or reduced lunch for your kids.
You won’t be able to add to your retirement account. In fact, you will withdraw from it.
Your expensive comparative literature degree continues to be useless.
So when it comes down to it, you pay the consequences for the original mistake you made as a 20 year-old on a cold March day in Germany. Had you never made that mistake, there would be no consequence for it. The equation would come out to zero.
But then you have the problem.
Where do you write down the 14 stitches put into two children by 3 different doctors? Or the 17 people you have worked with for 3 years? The 22,005 cups of tea you drank in Japan? The 7 steps down into your garden apartment? The 11,040 miles spent on a plane alone with a baby during which time he vomited 4 times? The 1 brown corduroy pant suit in size 4 girls? The 5000 dollars earned from donating 12 eggs which may have resulted in as many babies you will never know about? Or the 1 set of braces for 1child the egg money paid for? But where on the ledger do you write these numbers down?
Debit or Credit?
Mika Yamamoto is currently a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program. She loves gossip, meddling, and feeding people. She is grateful for her classmates who accept her for the busybody that she is.
* * *
Art Samples from Series Work by Allen Forrest
Graphic artist/painter, Allen Forrest was born in Canada and bred in the U.S., he has created cover art and illustrations for many literary publications, he is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University's Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation's permanent art collection. Forrest's expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas.
Photography by Susie Garay
Susan Sweetland Garay lives in the Willamette Valley with her husband and daughter where she works in the vineyard industry. She has had poetry and photography published in a variety of journals, on line and in print, and her first full length poetry collection, Approximate Tuesday, was published in 2013.
Five Oil on Canvas Paintings by Martin Kiel
Since retirement, Marty Kiel has revisited his interest in poetry and has participated actively in poetry writing workshops and local writer's groups. He also enjoys oil painting, wood and stone carving, astronomy and recently microscopy to explore life in pond water.
Artists Musings by Priyadarshini Komala
Priyadarshini Komala, an emerging artist, primarily makes paintings and mixed media artworks. Captivating, riveting, her work portrays the beauty of India’s rich heritage and challenges faced by Indian women. Notable are her artistic pieces on Bharatanatyam dance form and the piece ‘Torn in two’. Having a degree in Computer Science, her other works depict how art and science intersect. Ms.Komala’s strength lies in her in-depth research be it either culture or social issues, which enables her to lend a personal touch to her paintings. The artist’s constant experimentation with acrylic on canvas radiates fresh and thought provoking perspectives.
Floral Design and Waterfall by Junior Mclean
Junior Mclean is a self taught freelance artist specializing in 3D, fractal and graphic design illustrations to basically showcase original digital artworks.
Hardt Throb by William Paul Plumlee
William Paul Plumlee is a Texas-based California artist in between collecting eggs from his hens. He is currently moving toward ownership of a certified organic dairy farm in Oregon because dairy cows and producing clean healthy food are great passions of his. His current body of work is a group of abstract digital paintings produced from the manipulation of “Dream Boards” comprised of “found” images of nudes, pornography, and the famous of the soccer pitch and film titled “For Tom so Loved My Heart.”
Southern Intimacy by Matt Tucker
Observing nature was a part of life growing up in a small, southern town. Matt Tucker now strives to capture the beauty of nature- the obvious and the subtle- and share the intimate perceptions he creates. His hopes are to inspire viewers to see their world with fresh, new eyes. To learn more about Matt's images, visit www.mtuckerphotography.com.