FEBRUARY, 2021

TABBY TALK

BY MARTIE FULP-EICKSTAEDT

One of the orange tabby kittens taking shelter in the garage had strangled himself in the window blinds. The names Tater and Tot only worked for a duo, so when she discovered the scrappier yowler had lost his life in a game of peek-a-boo, my cousin Mags renamed the surviving one Bojangles. 

“Tater hung himself over the summer.” Mags clacked her Mountain Dew can down on the table and shrugged, then reached across the Thanksgiving spread for another scoop of mashed potatoes. My grandmother set down the knife she was using to butter her roll, wincing, wafting a light chuckle her way. My uncle blinked at his teenage daughter, then bowed a waggy head, muttering, “Clearly, she’s torn up about it.” 

Before Thanksgiving dinner, I had smoked a joint, which may seem like a slight to the family, but they should have been flattered; I had used up the remnants of my stash in an effort to be pleasant around them. 

“Well, this is a mighty good turkey,” my grandmother said, dribbling gravy over her second helping. She has always been gifted at tending conversation, keeping it alive and comfortable. 

“I know you like ‘em plump and moist, don’t you, Gran?” The weed delayed my consciousness of the question I was asking. Across from me, my grandfather’s elbows flopped up against the table like slabs of dough, and my eyes widened from a spear of panic, paranoid that my question had come off as a roundabout, insolent remark on his diabetes. I cleared my throat. “I mean your birds.” 

“I sure do like a moist turkey,” my grandmother said, taking a bite. I breathed, sank coolly back into my chair, though Mags had smirked to let me know she could tell I was high.  

“I myself prefer ham,” my grandmother’s sister said, “but the day calls for turkey, so turkey it is.” Genteel disagreement came naturally to them. After their marriages, the matriarchs had unyoked in their Christian faith and politics, my great aunt a racist Baptist Republican, my grandmother a racist Lutheran Democrat. The previous Christmas, after I came out as gay, I overheard them talking in the kitchen while baking a chocolate pie together. 

“I think it’s fine,” my grandmother had said over the whir of the electric mixer. 

My great aunt clicked off the mixer and plucked out the gloppy whisk to rinse in the sink.  “It’s fine as long she isn’t telling the younger ones about her lifestyle choices.” 

I wondered if she was only referring to me having a girlfriend, or if “lifestyle choices” also included me dropping out of college to decorate birthday cakes at Publix. 

 “I’ve got good news,” my grandmother said now, pouring herself some more water. “My friend Sally is off the waiting list for a liver transplant.”

“Oh, that is good news,” my mother said. She told a story I had heard many times before about a woman from her church who had donated her bone marrow to a pure stranger, a young father of three with cancer, saving his life. “She just felt called to do it.” My mother leaned down to pet Bojangles, who was rubbing his head against her jeans. “Isn’t that amazing?” 

“Maybe I will do that,” I said through a mouthful of sweet potato casserole. “Maybe I will donate my bone marrow to a stranger, and it will make my dumb life worth the waste.”

My mother grimaced as though she had stepped on a glass splinter. “Okay,” she said, “that’s enough.” 

My grandmother chuckled, and this is how we know she is not to be trusted. Even so, I smiled; what fun, at least for a moment, to think she had truly found it funny, to fancy myself a delight. 

JANUARY, 2021

CUTTING HIGH– TIES WITH AGONY

BY EMILY MULLIGAN

Glassy eyes lolled up into the ceiling,
Limbs slackly splayed across crimson flecked linens.
My breathing deeply shallows,
Coral lungs barely inflating,
My languid heart faintly whispering against my chest.

When mania is roaring through my mind,
Setting synapses ablaze and tearing neurons asunder,
When depression is clouding my thoughts with overcast skies,
And sorrowfully mourning at its own funeral,
When anxiety is shredding me from the inside out,
Viciously eating me alive,
It can all be quieted with just one slice of the flesh,
Two brands seared into skin,
Three bruises hemorrhaging through a porcelain epidermis.

Everything melts away,
Walls cease to exist,
Feelings take a backseat to floods of endorphins,
My body goes limp like a rag doll,
Lifeless, dead-eyed, and mute.

All those dazed memories,
Those moments in time when nasty, pesky things
Like emotions were no more,
Still fill my soul with fluttering elation,
Yearning for that sweet release.

But it’s just – too – good.

That liquefying of existence,
The eradication of empathies and sensations,
I could revisit in one single beat of my swelling heart.

I have a penchant for sharps,
A fascination with blades,
And a spiritual, vast, complex connection,
With intense physical suffering.

Yet I know if I were to ever flirt with those alluring, glistening edges again,
Whether it be a miniscule razor or a tight, precise scalpel,
That I would be a fool.

DECEMBER, 2020

FINDING

BY JANE EMRICK

On the afternoon they go to find the tree, she insists on bringing the dog. It is something to sit between them on the truck seat; something to focus on, to talk to and about. It provides a safe space between, a reason not to claim the intimacy of holding hands, or of thighs touching as they drive.

This whole afternoon, he thinks, is a nuisance. He has agreed to go and is instantly resentful of it, this muddy, gray December afternoon outing to get the tree. It brings to mind his own early tree experiences, not outside, but unpleasant all the same. Helping his mother set fiberglass branches slot A into tab A, main trunk B into stand C, while his father paced and drank and criticized. The same tree, every year, same red-white checked bows and matching Lenox china ornaments of gleaming ivory edged with gold paint. It was the illusion of perfect, he muses, so different from his life now, as he parks the truck and follows his wife through the weedy field and rows of unshaped pine.

It has always been like this with them, he thinks, her child-like enthusiasm urging him to go with her, to run the errands or take the walk or drive to the farm to pick peaches on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Him always set on not going. Why does he always give her a hard time? He wonders. Is it out of habit, repeating patterns forged from the painful fires of his own childhood? Is it a decades-old dread that no perfectly planned family outing could ever end well?

Yet he sees that this is what has drawn him to her since their first meeting, her need to make things warm, her sense of home so different from his own. Drawn to the genuineness of her mismatched IKEA plates, and the coat she got from Goodwill. And that sad-eyed, lop-eared dog, rescued from a shelter where it had arrived so badly abused it was deemed unadoptable. That was her heart, her essence, he thinks as they tramp through the field of evergreens. She seems to him a collector of damaged things, as if by the sheer effort of love she can restore and make valuable what was cast aside by others. Even the dog senses this, always walking close enough to touch, following her around the house with its quiet padded feet, never demanding, but just grateful to be near her.

He follows behind them now, with a vague sense of envy, watching the dog, watching her tamp down long grasses as she inspects each tree “to see which one needs us,” as she would say. He thinks, in a way, that he was like the dog, to her– a broken thing in need of rescue, despite his façade of capability and his financial success. It was that way with them from the very start. He noticed her guileless face, open for listening. They started taking long walks and having endless talks. She was so easy to talk to, seemed so interested in hearing him share about his life before her. Hearing about his hopes and dreams for a different future. And from the start, he knew she’d stay. “Loyalty is my strong suit,” she’d told him early on, laughing. “I’m like a bulldog with a bone, so you’d better be sure you want me ’cause you’ll never get rid of me.”

And God, he’d wanted her. Drank her in like a balm, and couldn’t get enough. That was early days, when he ignored the speed limit just to get to her faster. They’d had good chemistry right from the start, and although his parents treated her coolly, even now after nearly a dozen years, she never let it get to her. “You and me, against the world,” she’d sing, after a particularly difficult visit.

A watery sun bravely peeks through the gray afternoon as he tramps behind her and lights a cigarette. He wants to say “just pick one–they’re all the same, it doesn’t matter,” but he knows this will hurt her feelings. A few more minutes of this and we’ll be done, he thinks, and takes a deep drag to calm his impatience.

Last Christmas, there almost hadn’t been a tree. He’d been involved on a project in Denver– or was it Atlanta?– It would have been easier to just work through the holiday on-site, celebrate later when he got home, like they did when he missed a birthday or anniversary. He’d hung up on her when she cried on the phone. Jesus, didn’t she understand anything about business? But the next night, when she called back, told him it had taken her half the day to find him a seat on a flight late on the 23rd, and would he please take it? And he did. Found her home wrapping colored lights on a skinny four-footer, a tree small enough that it had fit in the trunk of her Volkswagen, “And I only had to pay $5 extra for the boy to cut it, “ she’d explained.

The year before that, finding the tree had been quite a festive day. They’d been really involved in church then, had made friends with a few other couples. She had this “progressive party” idea. “It’ll be four couples, all friends, and we’ll all go together,” she explained. “Get our trees together and share the day.” At each house, the trees would be set up and then part of a meal shared–appetizers and drinks here, dinner at another, dessert, coffee. A whole day. “You’ll see, it’ll be fun, and I’ll do all the work so you don’t have to worry about a thing,” she’d said. He almost didn’t go, had decided not to, until Jeff called and talked him into it.

Three trees went on top of Richard’s minivan (that was before they’d gotten the truck) and one tied onto the open trunk of his old Buick. He’d bitched about the needles in the trunk. She’d promised to clean them up.

That December, the eight of them– nine, if you counted Bill and Linda’s baby in their backpack– went to two different farms looking for trees. They’d walked through endless rows, and compared prices; considered and rejected trees; made jokes about “Charlie Brown” scraggly pines and 30-foot cedars. The men had taken turns with the saw. And then to Carole and Richard’s to wrestle with their old stand, eat cheese and crackers and hear the story of their first Christmas together. Then to Jeff and Jen’s where the long-needled soft pine had curved over way beyond the low ceiling in their apartment. We all swore Jeff would never live that one down! He had to lop two feet off the top! Jen had taken pictures, and served some sort of chili soup with tortilla chips and beer.

Then, it was off to Bill and Linda’s. They’d thrown their tree into a bucket of water in the basement and ordered pizza. Bill and Linda still acted like lovesick teenagers, although he was pretty sure they were the oldest of the bunch. He remembers now their explanation about not “doing the tree” till Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed, so they’d think Santa brought it all. And then a sadder note, the story about losing that third baby, and trying three more years before this one.

And then, finally, to their own place, with the largest tree of all. Just right for the nine-foot ceilings in their old restored colonial. He knew he’d have to help her decorate this one, since he had insisted on getting such a tall one. Already he was regretting that decision and the work ahead. He didn’t like decorating their tree and usually just let her do the job.

But once the Douglas fir was bottom-trimmed to fit the stand–with her insisting on a fresh base cut, no less, so it would be sure to “drink” more–he could see how beautiful it would become. She’d been up early to make that Swedish cinnamon ring he liked, and he saw her stifle yawns as they ate dessert with their friends and drank coffee from her grandmother’s good china cups. That year, he entertained the gang with his own story of the latest trip to London and the ticket-baggage fiasco during his return flight. He could still remember the sweet mixed fragrances of evergreen, coffee and cinnamon, and lemon wood polish.

That had been a good year for finding trees, he thought. And helping her decorate, just that once, it wasn’t so awful. Too bad he’d had that argument with Jeff, and stopped going to services. And where was that phone message from Bill? He called a month ago, but work had been so busy…

“I think we found it!” her happy cry cuts short his reverie as she gestures for him to come and see. He flicks his wasted butt aside, grinds it into the mud with the heel of one Timberland work boot, and catches up to her and the dog. To him, this tree looks exactly like all the others around it, but “This one’s speaking to me,” she insists, walking all around it. “If we just put this side against the wall? Do you think?”

He takes her in– scruffy ponytail full of pine-straw, scruffy dog and old rubber boots. The big brown eyes and her ready smile. He wonders, not for the first time, why she hasn’t left him. Why after all the ruined dinners and phone calls from airports, after missed anniversaries and hurtful things he’s done. Wonders why his parents don’t like her, but then again, they hadn’t liked any of the girls he’d taken home to meet them. Hell, he thought, they don’t even like each other.

Her voice snaps him back to the moment. “Is this it?” she asks, smiling, eyes shining, hand reaching toward him, a lifeline. Is this it?

“Yeah,” he replies, smiling back, reaching out, taking hold.

NOVEMBER, 2020

RICHMOND, VA, 2020

BY ALISSA BARBER

the cool September breeze 
touches me comfortingly 
and makes it way past,
as a withered leaf reaches the pavement
and the squeak of bike wheels
echoes in my eardrums.

the fabric on my cheeks
reflects every breath,
two layers of polypropylene
all I need to protect me.
as my feet scrape the pavement
my eyes inspect the scene.

those that are daring sit close.
the even more confident 
smile broadly unashamed
of the light hitting their face freely.
others fingers reach out over tables,
intertwining, sharing a secret.

through the grass and trees
a cement block and a plaque deserted,
lonely with nothing to top it.
a memory of the past
painted with words that promise
something to come in the future.

but my feet come to a halt,
while my mind runs wild.
finding a place to rest
underneath the soft shadow
cast by branches intertwined.
stuck in the middle of a moment.

and I wonder what my future holds?
will I die with
a smile forever hidden,
in a city full of 
loose ends and lost dreams,
will I ever know a love
when I’ve been told not to get close?

UNTITLED

BY LINDSAY BROWN

I will die in a plume of pink smoke under a particularly magnificent aurora borealis. 
A tall black monolith will mark my grave. 
People will shed white tears at my funeral and bellow in pain and in sorrow in one collective anthem.
They will throw gardenias into the plot of earth that I will rest in, the flowers will rot on top of my plain pine wood box. 
My body will decompose, sour rotting stinking flesh. 
My hair will grow long; my fingernails too will curl in a flagrant and raw defiance to God. 
The meat of my flesh will eventually be eaten, my nerve endings disintegrated. 
My heart that once beat love for my tribe will silently and slowly vanish. 
My calcified bones will lie still in a sordid pile of leftover human. 

Until one day my remains will be dug up. 
People will murmur their appreciation at my perfect fossilization. 
They will admire the way my spine curved in curiosity, the engorged sphere of my skull. 
They will tremble in wonder at the pieces of fingers and toes and measure their length. 
But they will not understand how I lived. 
Though they may be able to run a delicate finger round my eye socket, they will not be able to see what I have seen. 
They will not understand the magic or the stars like I had. 
They will not know the stretch of foam that outlined the sea, nor the mountaintops glazed with snow, as I knew like the back of my hand. 
They will not be able to recall the nearly maddening darkness of jungles I have explored, not the sunbaked rock I have crawled over like a salamander. 
I already feel sorry for my excavators because they knew not of the cold sweet grapes I tasted or the thrill of dancing under moonlight with my lady. 

OCTOBER, 2020

LAKES

BY BEN GORELICK

Lakes have always been 
a source of catharsis for me. 

I dangle my legs off docks 
or chairs in the late spring months. 
The chill of the water shocks 
my feet at first and gradually 
becomes a slight icy ache in my skin. 

It reminds me I am real. 

Schools of minnows 
gather around my toes. 

I watch them dart at 
every slight gesture. 
I stay still and watch 
them slowly shimmer with the settling sand,
planting myself in their ecosystem. 

It reminds me I am real. 

Wandering deeper, 
I always look upwards. 

When above the water I see 
the world as I usually do, but 
if I just sink down a bit, I can see 
what the shimmering minnows see, and how the water 
becomes a mirror, with a clearer image than any other. 

It reminds me I am real.

FLOOR 31

BY JONATHAN WICKREMASINGHE-KUHN

Phil took up his usual spot in the right-hand corner of the elevator, leaning against the railing. The crowd inside grew larger, but none of his colleagues were there, meaning another ride in silence. He had resigned himself to staring at the backs of heads he didn’t know, but right before the door closed, she stepped inside. He only caught a glimpse of her face before she turned toward the door, but it did not matter. He had already memorized it. Besides, her expression today was not particularly pleasant, full of intensity as she’d rushed to get on board. But Phil was just happy to share her company, even if it was along with a group of strangers.

Her name was Linda. Or maybe it was Laura. Lisa? Phil’s only clue was the monogrammed bag she sometimes carried. He also knew that her last name started with a “B,” but the possibilities were so endless that it was ridiculous to even venture a guess.

It had been raining the day he’d first noticed her, though he was almost certain he’d seen her before because she seemed vaguely familiar. She’d apparently fumbled with her cheap umbrella all the way across the lobby because she only got it closed upon stepping inside the elevator. Tiny droplets of water shined in her hair, and Phil watched with fascination as some held firmly in place while others slowly slipped down before plunging to their demise on her coat collar. A strand of her hair twisted playfully around her delicate ear, as if sharing a secret.

There was fear that someone would notice his staring, or worse, that she would feel his gaze and turn to confront him. But he suppressed this and continued studying what little of her face he could see. He closed out the rest of the world so completely that it took him by surprise when she stepped forward to exit when they had reached her floor. She turned down the hall and smiled, greeting a coworker, and that was all Phil needed to see.

He had not kept count of how many elevator rides they’d shared since then, not out of any self-respect to avoid becoming obsessive, but because it was too depressing to think about how much he looked forward to them. The current one was passing by too quickly. There were only three more stops before her floor.

A group of heavy-set men with strong aftershave exited, maneuvering around her. As she repositioned herself, she looked Phil’s way. Was that a smile? And if so, did it mean anything?

He contemplated moving slightly closer to her. Though he had no real reason to change positions, his movement would not be noticed in the shuffle. But by the time he had made his decision, the elevator was already moving again. The moment had passed. To act now would be too obvious. He sighed and leaned back against the wall.

He had searched valiantly for her name even though this would only make it harder to one day approach her. Speaking to a stranger was already a monumental task for Phil, but the added pressure of knowing her name when he should not and being afraid that he would accidentally reveal it would surely cripple him. Still, he had looked for it, the search being the only way to feel that he was making any progress.

There were three companies on the floor where she worked, and only one of them had pictures of its staff. He did not know if her position was picture-worthy, though in his mind it certainly was. Another company listed names, but there were no “LB”s among them. The last had an outdated website that was generally useless, and Phil convinced himself that she couldn’t work for such a place.

Two floors before hers, fate shined on Phil in the form of a Hungarian cleaning lady. She entered with her large cart, heading straight for Linda/Laura/Lisa. LB would either have to move to her right (away from Phil) or to her left (right next to him) in order to accommodate it. She chose the left, and as she stepped over, she accidentally brushed up against him.

“Sorry,” she said, offering an embarrassed smile. It was the first time he’d heard her speak.

A million words streamed through Phil’s brain, but only a few managed to string themselves into coherent phrases, and each one sounded dumber than the next. So before too much time had passed, he threw out a simple, “That’s okay.” She nodded and turned back to face the doors.

He’d gone down to her floor a few weeks ago, hoping that perhaps she worked in a visible area. It wasn’t much of a plan because he had no pretense for being there. She wasn’t anywhere in plain sight, and he wound up being grateful for this when, after looking around aimlessly for a few moments, a secretary asked if she could help him. If it had been her, he would have made a complete fool of himself. Instead, he was able to lie and claim that he was looking for his own office.

They finally reached her floor, and she left. Phil watched her go, following her until the last second, when the doors finally closed to send him up to eight hours of monotony. He’d never shared a ride with her on the way down, even though he had made up excuses to leave at different times. He thought it might be easier to speak to her after work, when he could go drink off the rejection right away.

Maybe this would be the day.

SEPTEMBER, 2020

THIS IS NOT A POEM

BY VASA CLARKE

When chaos takes a wrench to the divine
And scandals haunt some persons of renown
The least that we can do is take the time
To watch the pillars of the Earth come down.
When children cry to me in their distress
And peace is not to be found anywhere,
My ass was not made for this sort of mess:
You won’t find me within a mile of there.
I know a thing or two about the ways
Of all the people that I’ve walked among,
And even if I’d fire on my tongue
With all the songs of Heaven in my head,
I’d rather tend the garden of my days
And let somebody else do it instead.

OUTER DARKNESS

BY C.G. SCHWARTZ

“A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible.”

The boy says he would like to eat.

The man asks him why.

“It’s been a while.”

The man stares down. Bronze firelight licks the curvature of his cheekbones and ripples the pooled shadows under his brow. “Not really,” he says, prodding the campfire with a stick.

The boy’s eyes search for a place to rest but wander in the darkness. He looks at the man and insists that he’s hungry—that it takes time to be this hungry.  

“We just ate,” replies the man. 

“No, we haven’t eaten since Winslow died.”

“Is that right?”

“It has to be.”

The man turns a burning log, prompting a helix flock of sparks to geyser up from the coals beneath it. His eyes stay low, veiled in dark. “That was recent,” he mutters. “Winslow just died.”

The boy squints, thinking. He shakes his head. “It’s been a long time.”

“It can’t be that long,” says the man. “The one from Dayton went first.”

“Ernest,” says the boy.

“Yes, him.”

The boy looks up, trying to remember. “Well,” he says, “that was a long, long time ago. Even longer ago than Sam.”

Fire glints off the man’s tired eyes; he lifts them to see the boy. “Is that right?”

“She was really upset about Ernest. I remember.”

Tall flames oscillate in brief flickers, snapping up like whips and disappearing at the crack. The man strokes a jagged stone lying on the dirt next to his thigh. It’s heavy, roughly the size and shape of a sledgehammer head, with protrusions every place. “I don’t think she was upset,” says the man. “I think she was tired.”

“She was upset,” says the boy, nodding insistently. He pauses for a moment and looks into the fire—pensive—then doubles over, cradling his stomach.

“Stop it,” the man says. “We don’t need your theatrics.”

“I’m hungry,” moans the boy. “Can’t you hunt another pig?”

“Boar,” says the man, correcting him.

“Boar,” sighs the boy. 

The man shakes his head. “No. They’re murderous. If they kill me, what will you do then? They killed everyone else. They can kill me, too.”

A long moment passes. The boy fidgets with a stray piece of bark. “I can hunt them.”

“No.”

“Sure, I can.”

“They’ll gore you out there in the dark. You’ll be impaled.”

The boy sighs his exasperation. “How do you do it then?” He jerks his chin at the man.

The man looks up from the coals and shrugs. “I’ve been here a while.”

“I’ve been here just as long!”

The man scowls. “No, that can’t be right. Not this whole time.”

The boy strips ribbons of cambium from the bark he’s holding. “You lost track of time,” he says, flinging a strip into the fire. “It’s hard without the sun, but I can still tell it a little bit.”

The man rocks forward, squatting on the balls of his feet. At this height, the firelight turns his bony chest amber. His dirty skin is stained with dark splatter marks and wraps over his ribs like canvas on tentpoles. His organs huddle inside like refugees, barely secreted from the outer dark beyond his skin. The man stands and stretches.

“Where are you going?” asks the boy.

“To get wood,” the man replies, turning away.

The boy watches him disappear. Neither light nor sound pass through the black air encircling this place. It’s like fog, but heavy—the fire makes a bubble in it. The boy can’t remember coming here. He doesn’t know where he is or how this came to be—only that there was a sky above him once and now there is not, just as there were once a dozen people here and now there are two.

The man grunts. A loud snap pierces the silence, colliding with nothing—a missile in empty space. The man reappears dragging a naked tree branch whose extremities curl up like dead fingers. He pulls this giant hand by its wrist and, panting, drops it by the fire. Then he stomps on it and pulls the curled fingers off until it isn’t like a hand at all—just firewood.

“We’re getting out of this,” says the man, adding sticks to the fire. “You can believe that. We’re getting out.”

The boy tilts his head. “You think there’s still a place outside of here?”

“Of course there is. Lots of places. In London, they’re probably drinking tea at cafes and hearing about this on the news. In Mexico City, they’re out playing soccer right now. I bet they are.”

“You think so?”

“Sure,” nods the man as he arranges wood like a tipi over the fire.

The boy pauses for a moment, thinking hard. “This place was full a while ago.”

The man glances at him with an expression almost like fear, then turns back to the fire.

“Connor and Mary even sang when they were here. We played Tic-Tac-Toe in the dirt. You remember that? And there wasn’t enough food for all the people.”

“All right. Stop dwelling on food.”

“No,” says the boy. “I mean that everything could be like that. The whole world.”

“What, hungry?”

“Empty.”

The man freezes, his hands motionless as the tipi falls apart between them. The orange fire glints from his eyes, and he turns to face the boy. “No,” he says. “It’s different here. The boars kill them.”

“Couldn’t there be wild boars everywhere?”

“No, that’s not their habitat,” says the man.

The boy squints. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know,” the man says, trying to balance the logs again.

“So how do you know what a boar’s habitat is and isn’t?”

“It’s where the fucking boars are,” he grumbles. Then his tipi begins to fall a second time, and, seeing this, the man throws his hands up. The logs crash into the coals beneath them, launching frenzied sparks into the black air.

The boy stares, unsure of what to say. The logs burn and crackle in the silence. The boy rolls a pebble between his fingers. His eyes cross the fire and dwell on the large rock lying by the man. It’s dark. It’s stained with what he thinks is mud, just like the man’s body is.

Suddenly, the man whips his gaze toward the darkness, startling the boy. His shoulders hunch low and his eyes grow wide like glass orbs full of fire. He glances at the boy as if to ask, “did you hear that?”

“God,” cries a voice—a woman’s voice. “God.” 

The man and boy look at each other, each seeming to ask the other how they should proceed. Then the man stands up. “Who’s out there?”

“Wait!” The woman shouts. “Wait, stay there!” The crunch of dirt and deadwood grows louder as she draws near. The woman rushes into the light like a meteor strike in miniature. She looks at the fire, squints, and winces—her eyes are unaccustomed to light.

The boy stands up. He stares at her in shock—in wonderment—in recognition that his world has been invaded and that the overwhelming stasis, the stagnant pool of his being, is now undammed.

“How did you get here?” Asks the man.

The woman squints hard. Her wet eyes glisten. “I don’t know how long I walked,” she says. “I just walked.”

“Where did you come from?” The man demands.

“They killed each other,” she says, rapidly shaking her head. “They did it and I ran.”

The man looks her up and down, carefully. “This must have been recent,” he says.

“It was,” the woman replies, trying to blink sight back into her eyes. “I can still hear it.”

The boy points excitedly, unable to contain himself. “You survived the pigs?” He shouts.

The man tries to interject.

“Pigs?” The woman interrupts, puzzled.

“Boars, I mean.”

“Stop it,” snaps the man, glaring. Then he steps forward, folding his hands as if to convey civilization with as few muscles as possible—as if to overpower his stained skin and knotted hair through sheer force of delicacy. “You should sit,” he says. “Come by the fire.”

“It’s bright,” she says, rubbing her eyes.

“Give me your hand,” says the man. Then he leads her to the fire and instructs her to sit. “As the boy will tell you, we don’t have any food. But there is a stream running just outside this circle. There’s water if you want it.”

“No,” says the woman. “I’ve had plenty. I found rivers in the dark.”

“Out there?” Asks the boy.

“You step into deep water, and you don’t know if it’ll be minutes or hours until you reach the far bank. But you know it’s a river by the current. I waded into something stagnant once and turned right back.”

The boy’s eyes are large and full of wonder. “A lake?” He asks.

The woman turns to him, still squinting but able to lock eyes with him now. “Or an ocean.”

“There would be waves,” the man says.

The woman turns toward him. “No, there wouldn’t be,” she shakes her head. “That’s done with.” Then she pauses, seeming to reflect on what she just said. “How long have you been here?”

The man looks up, searching his thoughts. “Not long.”

“You lost track,” the boy erupts. “It’s been a long time. A really long time. There used to be twelve people here.”

The woman freezes, her breath shallow and skin lined with goosebumps that cast round shadows on her arms. “What happened to them?” She asks, straightening.

“Wait,” the man says. “Why are you going to tell her that?”

The boy apologizes.

“No,” the woman insists, adjusting her posture so that one foot is underneath her, ball down. “I’d like to know.”

So the man sighs. “We have a boar problem. There’s a sounder of them here. You know, each one can be 200 pounds. They have tusks and they’re not vegetarians. It’s dangerous.”

“We used to cook them,” the boy declares. “And I’m going to hunt some later. So, you don’t have to worry.”

The woman stands, backing away from the fire.

“Hold on,” the man says. “It’s not what you think.”

 The woman steps backwards slowly as the man inches toward her. She glances over her shoulder at the dark, fearing it—weighing death against a long march through bottomless night and coming up unsure. Her eyes are wide now. She has moved far enough from the fire to see again.

“Are you crazy?” The boy shouts. “Don’t go out there!”

Then he looks at the man and sees that his right hand is behind his back. And his fingers are wrapped around the large, jagged stone that he likes to rub when his thoughts begin to wander. The fire shines on it—a spotlight indulging the stone’s hammerlike form—a brush drawing lines in shadow, describing its lethal perimeter. The stains are copperlike. They are on the man’s skin, too. His red right hand curls under the stone, cradling it between his fingers and forearm.

“No!” Cries the boy, leaping to his feet.

The man springs forward, twisting his arm out from behind him like a trebuchet sling. His fingers slide off the stone, giving it spin. The rock is weight. Velocity. A crater in process.

The woman ducks her head back, leaning away, but it smashes into her chin, wrenching her head sideways. It concusses the earth, thumping heavily. And she stumbles toward it, flailing.

The man pounces, landing on top of her. His elbows rise like the tops of oil derricks and sink as he beats her with his fists.

“Stop!” Screams the boy, rushing forward.

Suddenly, the woman grasps the stone and, with both arms, swings it up into the man’s head. He falls. She clambers on top of him. Still clutching the stone, she straddles his body and lifts it high with both hands.

As the boy hurries forward, he sees the man raise his hands to stop the descending stone. But it drops like a guillotine blade, breaking the man’s thumbs backwards as it falls. His face jerks sideways when it strikes him. The second impact cracks the side of his head. And the third collapses it. His hands lay motionless in the dirt, thumbs snapped backwards and fingers curled up.

The woman looks up at the boy, who stands next to her in shock. His mouth hangs open. He does not blink. “He tried to kill me,” she says, still sitting on the dead man’s stomach.

The boy shakes his head. “You killed him.”

She looks down at the man—at his opened mouth, lips stuck with dust and blood—at his wide eyes that look white in the shadow her body casts—and shuts her eyes. But she can still see him. She sobs and shakes her head. “I did,” she says. “I did.”

AUGUST, 2020

MUSCLE MEMORY

BY JULIANA LAMY

It starts with an Old Spanish style on Cordova. We’re heading over to the Checker’s a few blocks away, and we’re walking down Jefferson, about to hit the Western Union on Ridge. There’s a tinfoil sky hanging over us.

When the days are gray like this it always makes me nervous as hell. Gray doesn’t take any sides, it’s neutral. And on days like this it feels like everything else is trying to make up for that, trying to make itself extra special. It’s all moving faster. Nothing has any soft lines anymore, no sluggishness, and I’m looking at a world distilled. Cars with solar flare paint, buildings with razor blade corners, trees and grass and bushes with radioactive leaves. Shining with that bright green shit they need gloves and special suits to handle, energy irrepressible.

Makai’s walking up ahead of me and I can barely keep up. He fell out of an animated feature, edges refined, skin that kind of brown no one’s ever gonna come up with a good name for. You’d find it in the woods, maybe, if you spent enough time looking. Maybe you’d see it if the earth got sick and its skin got thinner, and the hot gold magma inside its veins brushed up against the dirt you’re standing on. See how the colors run into each other, climb across one another, slot into each other to make something you still can’t name, something that sears any commentary to the back of your throat and closes your mouth shut. Makai’s like that. Inexplicable.

And inside the capsule of the bright fast day, he’s the brightest fastest thing for miles. You ever met anyone like that? Those people you feel like you can never really get a good look at— they’re moving too quick, you can’t see them anymore, dammit, you blinked and now they’re gone—but fuck it all to hell, you’re gonna try anyway?

We’re walking past the Western Union logo when he says it.

“We’re really gonna be the only ones not going to Lion Country with everybody else? This is some bullshit.”

I nod. “Yeah, it’s fucked.”

“It’s like we never get to do anything. Everything costs money, everything has a fucking age restriction.”

When Mrs. Richardson told us how much Lion Country’s entry fee was, Makai and I were devastated. Looking at our faces you would’ve thought we’d just gotten laid off after twenty years of dedicated, back-breaking work.

Everyone else was going. Of course they were. Our parents loved the idea of having us go to the better uptown school, but I don’t think they thought it through. Don’t think they ever really considered it. How lonely we’d be.

We’re walking past the bus stop now. Some guy older than my dad stares at Makai, tracks him with his eyes. I move up to Makai’s left, block him from the guy’s view.

“And are we even technically done with eighth grade if we don’t go? Like yeah, we’ll be in high school next year or whatever, but we still missed a huge part of what makes our last middle school year bomb.”

I see King’s Creek across the street, and I watch a big Mercedes drive through the gates. I don’t even notice that I’ve stopped walking until Makai’s nudging my shoulder.

“Leto? Leto, what’s—”

He cuts himself off. I don’t think the silver Lincoln turning into King’s Creek expected an audience today. The old guy driving it gives us a weird look. He barely gives the gates enough time to open.

“Hmm.”

When I look over at Makai, there’s a little smile on his face. Small enough to miss if you’re not looking hard enough. He had it that Thursday last year, when he asked Ms. Henderson to use the bathroom. After lunch that day everybody went back to class, but most of our teachers weren’t there. Turns out the knob on the teacher’s lounge door stuck. We got an extra free period right then while our janitors tried to figure out how the hell to fix it.

Had it when the lady who lives in the modern-style five-bedroom up the street from our complex woke up bald the morning after she hit me with her Lexus and drove off.

Had it right before he broke his arm walking up our landlord’s driveway, a few weeks after she tried to have him and his family evicted.

I narrow my eyes at him, suspicious. “What?”

He shrugs, noncommittal. “How badly do you wanna go to Lion Country?”

And I think about it. I really have to think about it, because whatever Makai’s about to suggest… it’s gonna need everything from me, no space for doubt.

The gray’s almost completely gone now, leaves the sky a chalky blue. I’m looking out at the side of the street we’re standing on, out at the cracked asphalt stretching out in front of us like an imperfect ocean. The chain link fences like gray nets around our houses, our strip malls of thirsty concrete, trees that always feel like they’re trying to run out of your eyeline. Some place with no intensity, some place color forgot, where hue dripped through its scrawny fingers and rainbow droplets found each other in the gutter, raced each other to the sewer.

And I think about seeing the lions and the giraffes and the sloths and the birds for real. Living, breathing things that aren’t people sad or people desperate or people disgusted or people lost confused lonely, about seeing what grass looks like when it’s everywhere and when it’s not fighting for attention, and my answer’s badly. Really, really badly. How could it be anything else?

“Bad.” I say it out loud. Makai nods.

We go home that day, sit in my room and come up with a plan. The money and the permission slips for Lion Country are due on Monday, so whatever we’re about to do, it’s gotta be quick.

“It can’t be King’s, too much security. What about Verdant Oaks?”

I shake my head. “No. We might get through the gates, but there’s always a patrol car rolling around.”

“Hmm Hardwood, then? It’s far but we could probably make it?”

“What about one of the houses on Cordova?”

He smiles big. “Yes. Oh my fucking God yes! We really shouldn’t have jumped straight to gated communities when— Okay, okay, this could work. Fuck, okay.”

Our plan is a non-plan. I sleep over at Makai’s because his apartment complex is closer to Cordova. It’s right across the street from that corner where Sherman Ave turns into it. We stay up past midnight, wait till Makai’s parents and little sisters are all asleep. Then we slip out into the streets heavy with the night time quiet.

I stare at the back of Makai’s neck while we walk, where one of his braids curls up against his nape and makes its own little galaxy.

We’re so nervous we go with the first upscale house we see. Old Spanish design. Walls a loud yellow quiet with the dark. Brown roof. One story. Perfect lawn. There aren’t any cars in the driveway. There’s a gate right next to the house that probably leads to the backyard. Makai and I pad up to it and it’s— not locked. We look at each other while we’re standing on the other side of the gate, in that backyard. Share a single breath, feel thrill chasing down anxiety inside our chests.

The back door’s not locked either. It’s one of the sliding glass ones, the ones white people can’t seem to stop walking into in those Windex commercials.

I thought it would feel different, walking into one of these houses. Didn’t think they’d look lived-in, didn’t expect the rainbow blanket hanging off the back of the bright white sofa. The Blu-Ray DVDs on the coffee table, sliding off each other, like somebody threw them down and forgot about them because they could. Because they’re home and they can do shit like that here. Wasn’t ready to see the family pictures. The dad’s tall and tan, the mom’s a little taller than him, and the kids are cute as hell. They’re at the beach and they’re all smiling—

“Um, Leto?” Makai whispers. “Can we do this little open-house walk-through some other
time?”

We grab the first kinda-fancy things we see, these two vases on the tiny table next to the loveseat. They’re white, and they have blue vines that wrap around them like fingers. And they’re so pretty I almost want to keep them.

We pawn them the next day, and the guy at the counter raises his eyebrows at us. Makai gives him his bomb-diffusing grin while I try on my best poker face.

One day and sixty dollars later, we’re riding around in a safari jeep, watching a grown giraffe and its baby walk across the green. It’s like somebody tore my life right open, let me see all the things dancing around behind it. And it makes my blood sing, turns it into a five-octave powerhouse. I’m dizzy with the feeling, giddy with it, fucking elated with it.

It’s supposed to be a one-off thing, but it’s not. Every time Makai needs money for something, we do a house. A physical for school, a trip to Universal with his band, a light bill. We never plan shit out, never know exactly how we’re gonna get into the houses or what we’re gonna take, but we get better at it. It’s like muscle memory.

And me? I get some of the money too. I pay for shit with it. Stuff at school, bills at home. But every single house we do gives me a glimpse of shit I’ve never been a part of. Families where everybody gets their own room, where expenses are an afterthought, where everybody’s in every single picture and everybody looks happy. Sometimes I’ll look over at Makai while we’re in some sleek King’s Creek kitchen and I’ll just see him staring at the coffee maker, the sub-zero fridge, the food processor, and I’ll feel whatever he’s feeling so hard my breath’s unsteady with it. It’s that longing, that wanting, yeah, that wistfulness. You might call it jealousy but I call it something else. It’s looking out at all the worlds out there, watching them all spread out in front of you, and knowing you got one of the worst ones. And that’s not an ache I could ever explain to anybody who’s never felt it.

When I was younger, before Makai, I would dream myself to pieces, shards of me like lava glass on the cracked streets inside my head. And every time I tried to pick up those bits of my splintered self they would cut at my fingers until red danced so angry and so beautiful on my skin that I felt like a dying sun. I felt like the tiny, malnourished strip of the universe that God had given me was falling apart, losing itself.

Makai? He never told me but I knew when I met him that he felt like that too. And knowing that made shit easier.

It hurts to see all the better lives that you didn’t get, the off-limit ones, strung out in front of you. But with every single thing we take from those houses, the vases, the china, the glasses, it feels like we’re chipping away at worlds with no room for us. We’re building moments with them. And it makes things better for a little while.

DOLPHIN DOUBT

BY MARTIE FULP-EICKSTAEDT

Lola did not know which one of her father’s addicts slit his wrists that day. She did not know the slightest bit about Mr. Jones, or, for that matter, any one of her father’s “sad friends.” This is how he had referred to his clients after Lola asked him to explain drug abuse counseling for her fifth-grade career day presentation. “I help some very sad friends through some very sad times.” Lola opted to write her report on her mother’s profession instead. Not that her life as a veterinarian was altogether free of woe, but at least routine pet check-ups and successful surgeries balanced out any bereavement brought on by euthanasia or road accident victims. And, better yet, the report was an opportunity for Lola to talk to her classmates about the teacup pig her family had taken in, her precious Angelina, a tyrannical, 150-pound porker. Once a charming piglet, Angelina had been abandoned on the veterinary office doorstep by owners gullible enough to believe she would always be small enough for photo shoots in baseball caps and garden pots.

Mr. Jones slit his wrists just as dawn began to hatch, underneath a stunning tulip poplar that seemed out of place next to a Taco Bell dumpster. Though he only needed one, he used an entire package of razor blades. The previous day his drug abuse counselor, a refreshingly heartfelt man named Roger, had signed a document that permitted him to withdraw from his residential substance abuse recovery program against medical advice. Beforehand Mr. Jones completed a questionnaire that asked at the bottom, “How severe is your suicidal ideation, on a scale from 1 to 10?” Mr. Jones had spelled out “four” in all caps, a winning answer, his prize his release.

By the time the Taco Bell employee taking out the trash that morning discovered Mr. Jones, his limbs stretched out like a basking cat, it was too late to call an ambulance. Even if there had been prospect of rescue, the stoned cashier would have likely botched it; her first thought upon seeing the puddle hardening around his wrists was, fuck that’s a lot of chocolate sauce.

Lola was on a field trip to the aquarium when her father received the call, her mouth agape, mirroring those of the fish behind the glass. She was having a hard time keeping up with everyone else, entranced by the acrobatics of the manta rays, the wily grins of the moray eels, the sleek pirouettes of the sea otters. Her favorite were the piranha, with scales glittering like cheap handbag sequins and bright orange underbellies, not nearly as lethal, perhaps, if not so alluring.

More than once her teacher snapped at her for straggling. Lola was the type to re-read informational plaques, her thoroughness often more of a handicap than an asset, though it had enabled her to become an impressive collector of facts. While marvels of science and history swam quickly out of the minds of her peers, she could keep them alive for years within an ever-expanding tank of knowledge. Classmates liked to label her annoying; adults, precocious.

The afternoon of Mr. Jones’ suicide, Lola’s older brother Kyle, an oafish outfielder for his High School’s baseball team, expected the family to attend his second game of the season. Lola’s father complained of a headache, a predictable excuse for him to flake, worn enough for everyone to suspect it was a front. Roger had missed half of his son’s basketball season that winter due to “headaches.” Lola promptly mimicked the excuse, finding her brother’s baseball games dull and a little cringey. Kyle consistently struck out, and he had a tendency to trip over his own cleats and fumble fly balls.

Before Lola’s mother left to drive her and Kyle to the game, she said, “Sorry, love,” to Roger, who sat slumped forward in his recliner, elbows on knees. Though Kyle had tersely reassured his father that his absence did not matter to him at all, as he followed behind his mother he slammed the door.

Lola took Angelina out into the backyard to root around in the sandbox for a while. She had named the pig after one of her best friends, though she had since fallen out of favor with her playmate over a nasty gel pen dispute, making the name an apt one at times. Angelina the pig could be a spiteful nuisance, sloshing the water out of her bowl for passerby to slip, chewing up stray socks and carpet corners, and even head-butting shins for green apples, her favorite treat. Her family had filled her sandbox with foam blocks and plastic hotdogs and ice-cream cones leftover from Lola’s toddlerhood to keep her amused.

After grabbing the last can of Sprite from the fridge, Lola tossed the cardboard box into the sandbox, too, then crouched in the grass to slurp her soda and watch Angelina crush it with her hoof, then gnaw on the green flaps, and then rip the whole thing apart. Roger liked to say Angelina did not deserve the dignity of a four-syllable name, referring to her instead as “Chunk.”

“Naw, don’t call me Mr. Jones. Call me Candy.” These were the first words Mr. Jones spoke to Roger. Now he wished he had asked Mr. Jones what specifically inspired the nickname. Whatever it was, Candy was fitting. Though he was nearing sixty, with scruffy cheeks and a liver-spotted scalp, he had the naïve, fearful eyes of a child who had been lured by sweets into a trap. Before becoming acquainted with his narcissistic ex-wife, and then meth, he ran a popcorn booth at carnivals. He blamed his tooth decay on an untamable taste for snow cones. And during free time hours, Roger could usually find him playing Uno in the rec room, smiling behind his fan of cards, one tooth in the top corner of his mouth twinkling like the North Star.

After bringing Angelina back inside Lola found her father still in his recliner, filling out a newspaper crossword puzzle in front of the living room T.V. Normally he completed these puzzles in the morning, over a bowl of oatmeal, his square glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, but this afternoon the glasses were atop his head, buried among the graying curls.

“Why are you watching golf?” Lola asked. Roger was known to poke fun at his brother for liking the vapid and pretentious sport. He reached for the remote and clicked to the next channel, a Western movie, loud and percussive with gunshots and galloping horses. Lola asked him if his headache was any better and he nodded, then clacked the remote back down on to the coffee table without turning down the volume. Though they both knew their headaches had been fabricated, Lola was a little hurt he had not asked about hers in turn.

“I went to the aquarium today,” she said.

Her father raised his eyebrows but did not look up from his crossword puzzle. Sometimes they worked on crossword puzzles together, Roger reading aloud the clues and giving her time to come up with the answers, even if he already knew them. She could make him especially proud by coming up with an answer first.

When Lola bent down closer to read a clue or two, she discovered her father was not answering them at all. Instead of filling out the empty boxes with letters, he was methodically, one by one, blacking them out with the felt tip of his pen.

“You want to know something interesting?” Lola squirmed with yearning for him to look up from the puzzle, now almost fully devoured in ink.

“Huh,” he said, moving down to the final two rows of the crossword.

“At the aquarium I learned that dolphins are most likely capable of metacognition.” Lola paused for him to ask for the definition of this scintillating new vocabulary word, but his curiosity lay fallow. She began to pinch at the tan leather skin of one of the recliner armrests.

“That means they are aware of their own thinking,” she continued, the pace of her speech quickening with both excitement and the chagrin of having it unmatched. “So, let’s say researchers are rewarding them with treats for responding to yes or no questions correctly. If the dolphins don’t know the right answer, they hesitate or won’t swim to an answer at all, and that’s proof they experience doubt like humans do.”

Her father had yet to look up at her.  His nod reminded her of the serene, automatic propulsion of the jellyfish.

“Dad,” Lola said. “Dad!”

Finally, his gaze met hers. “What?”

“Isn’t that cool, dad?”

“Sure,” he muttered, leaning over to set the crossword and pen down on the coffee table. “That’s very interesting.” He rubbed his temples and sighed.

Not always, particularly when he was suffering from a headache, but sometimes, Lola’s facts could captivate her father, his rapt attention alone better than speaking to a crowded auditorium under a stage light. “Where did you learn that?” he would ask. Or, “Is that really true?” Or, the loveliest question of all: “Isn’t the world a wondrous place?”

Roger stared out the sliding glass door at the Sprite box debris Lola had simply left in the sandbox, vaguely registering that she was watching a band of cowboys kidnap a woman on the screen in front of them, but not that this meant he should change the channel again. Angelina was squealing and huffing, her hooves scrabbling against the linoleum tiles as she careered around the kitchen island again and again, sounds he had learned to tolerate out of love for his wife and daughter.

Aside from Mr. Jones’ elderly mother, who had depleted savings to help finance his string of failed treatment programs, Roger wondered how many other mourners would attend his funeral. In a group therapy session he once mentioned a friend from his carnival days who had been maimed while training a sea lion to catch hoops with its neck. Fed up with parading around as little more than a ring-stacking toy, the sea lion charged and chomped down on his forearm. After this story, far-removed from Roger’s planned discussion on positive self-talk, Mr. Jones snorted and shook his head. “Dumb fuck,” he laughed. “But Christ I loved that man.”

Lola, who had changed the channel to a cooking show where a model thin woman was giving instructions on how to bake lemon meringue pie, asked her father if he wanted her to heat up leftover meatloaf for him, an especially kind offer given her vegetarianism. He shook his head no. Her eyes wandered over to the Peanuts themed calendar hanging on the wall. April 15th, a date she recognized from studying for a test on the Civil War.

“Hey,” she said. “Did you know that on this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated?”

He laughed gruffly. “You still torn up about it?”

No, Lola thought. That would be stupid.

Angelina trotted into the room, announcing her presence with a harsh squeal, livid for a snack.

Roger wiped a palm down one side of his face and then slapped it down on an armrest. “Will you do me a favor and shut that thing up with some food? And please, for God’s sakes, clean up that mess you left in the sandbox. We can’t just have Chunk leaving messes all over the place.”

Lola stalked off to the kitchen without a word, Angelina chortling softly at the back of her heels, delighted to be getting her way.  Hungry herself, Lola ripped open a pop tart package and slid the two frosted strawberry pastries into the toaster for dinner, but when they popped back up she decided she only wanted one of them. Already embarrassed by her father’s scolding, she now became even more aware and embarrassed of the prepubescent chub testing the snap button on her jeans. Normal and healthy, if not for the diet book eying back at her from the cookbook shelf: How to Burn Fat and Reclaim your Life. Maybe if she looked different, Lola deduced, her father would like having her around more. Though she was not supposed to feed Angelina processed food, she threw the other pop tart for the pig to fetch and gobble up.

Petting Angelina was not at all like smoothing back the fur of their former pet, a handsome golden retriever that had died of old age in her father’s arms. Angelina’s black and white coat was coarse, with a scraggly Mohawk rising behind her ears. Lola knelt on the floor and gently scratched her chin, prompting her to flop down and roll onto her back for a belly rub.

Over the weekend, a friend had invited Lola to her church, where the pastor preached a sermon about how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man by driving the demons out of his body and straight into a herd of pigs. The pigs all hurtled down a cliff and drowned in a lake. Deeply perturbed by this “miracle,” Lola sobbed to her mother afterwards that she really did not want to go to church with her friend anymore. Her mother assured her that this decision was perfectly okay, combing her fingers through the dark head of hair Lola had lain across her lap. After her breathing settled, Lola looked up at her mother and asked if she thought people could really be possessed by demons.

“No, no, I don’t think so,” she said. She told Lola she thought maybe when Jesus was alive that was their way of explaining mental illness.

“You know,” she said. “Like when your father talks about helping his very sad friends at his job. A lot of those people have mental illnesses.”

As Lola rubbed her belly, Angelina began to drool, her blinking droopy. Lola thought if Jesus were to drive deep sadness out of a man and into pigs, they would just fall over and lie there, dazed and motionless, like her father staring off in his recliner on a headache day.

After cleaning up the sandbox, making a show of stuffing the bag of cardboard bits into the trashcan so her father would know she had taken care of it, Lola went to go finish her homework in her bedroom. On the bed her history textbook lay open to a page with a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, regarding her through a window of printed lessons about his presidency.  Lola, who had never been keen on sarcasm, thought how ridiculous it was for her father to ask if she was still grieving a stranger who died over a century ago. She might not have been too upset even if she had known President Lincoln personally. Though posing for a portrait, he looked like he was standing around at a graveside service, gloomy and austere. He was clearly not the type to talk much, his furrowed, bushy eyebrows suggesting that joking around with him would not have been smart. Funny, Lola thought. He was shot while seeing a comedy at the theatre.

Kyle had returned from his baseball game, and now Lola could hear her father asking him how it went in the hallway outside her door.

“It’s fine that you didn’t come,” Kyle said. “I was benched for most of it. And anyway, we lost.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t go.”

Kyle dropped his baseball bag on the hardwood floor. A loud clunk.

“I said it’s fine, Dad.”

That night Lola woke from her sleep around 1:30 am with snarls rising from her belly. Irritated at herself for being too hungry to wait until sunrise, she shuffled in her frog slippers toward the kitchen in pursuit of some potato chips, but stopped halfway there in front of her parents’ bedroom, paralyzed by the wretched noises coming from beyond their door. It took a moment for her to realize it was her father crying, a heaving, snotty cry that lasted a long while, interspersed with hiccups and honks from nose blowing. The only familiar sound was her mother’s shushing, the kind caress of a lake over its shore.

“And that damned pig!” he blurted out. “That pig!” More blubbering. Another honk. Another long shush.

Lola tiptoed quickly back to her room, her hankering for potato chips forgotten. Earlier that evening Angelina had vomited a suspiciously pink spew across the living room carpet. When her father stormed into her room with a fistful of sopping paper towels to ask if she fed the pig something weird, Lola shook her head no. “I think she was just feeling sick today.”

Now Lola felt sick. Her father did not always suppress his laughter when Kyle cracked jokes about frying up strips of Angelina for breakfast. And he often complained about the financial toll of owning a pig. But this was the first night the worry crossed her mind that her family might actually ditch Angelina, subjecting her to yet another abandonment. She curled up into a donut shape on the floor next to the pig sleeping in a crate at the foot of her bed, her forehead pressing into her kneecaps.  Hours later, she finally fell back asleep by thinking of the crossword puzzle her father had left on the coffee table. In her mind she had a magic eraser that was able to clear the puzzle of ink, uncovering each empty box, one by one, so that each letter of each solved riddle would have a place to be kept safe.

JULY, 2020

KHANEVADEH

BY GRANT LOMELINO

Reminiscing of hookah smoke,
Where smiles are exchanged between the passing of the wand,
The customary tap of the wrist,
As the wand moves soul to soul,
A gesture that says I’m here, now, not by mistake.

Through the smoke lazily making the trek to the nearest window,
Are faces that know all the intimacy and tragedy in my life.
And I know theirs.
There is no fear to share or consume,
Just the gleeful riff of laughter
The playful jazz of storytelling.

The tobacco may dry out,
The smoke may drift away
But, don’t let the conversation die
I know no family,
This is my reunion.

EDGEWISE

BY ANDREW J. DOLSON

Doctor Amsler flicked off the dazzling blue light.  Joel lifted his chin out of the testing equipment and sat back in the examination chair.  The doctor exhaled a bit too loudly into the silent room and scribbled on his chart.  That told Joel all he needed to know, confirmed his dark suspicion.  He was going blind.

“The difficulty you’re experiencing, Joel, is called macular degeneration.  The central region of the retina, the part responsible for sharp, straightforward vision, is becoming overgrown with new blood vessels.  These excess vessels leak blood and other fluids, which damage the light-gathering cells.  We don’t know the cause of the condition.”

“What happens now?”

“We don’t yet have a cure, but there are some treatments which may slow the progression of the disease.”

“So . . . I’ll be blind.  How much longer?”

“First, Joel, you won’t become completely blind.  Macular degeneration damages central vision, but peripheral vision is unaffected, so you’ll still be able to see out at the edges of your eyes.  On the other hand, while there’s no way to accurately predict how fast the condition will progress, the form of degeneration you are exhibiting is unfortunately known for its rapid onset.  I’m very sorry.  I’m going to arrange for you to meet with a specialist next week, Dr. Rubin, an eye surgeon at the medical college.  She’s working on some stem cell treatments that may be promising . . .”

Joel had stopped listening.  He couldn’t say he’d been shocked by the news.  He’d already guessed it was serious.  His fast clouding sight had frightened him, prodded him to make a rare appearance in a doctor’s office in the first place.  And at one level, it was something of a relief.  He’d been half-convinced that he was simply losing his mind.  For weeks, he’d been catching unnerving glimpses out of the corner if his eyes, substantial shapes that evaporated when he turned fully towards them.


Joel parked the car in the deep shade on Strawberry Street.  “Won’t be driving that much longer, I guess” he thought to himself.  He grabbed the big pile of brochures Dr. Amsler had pressed upon him—did he even want to know this much—and walked around the corner to his row house on Floyd Avenue.  He pushed open the short, wrought-iron garden gate with his knee and, as he started up the walk to the porch, caught sight of a woman kneeling in the far corner of his postage-stamp front yard.  She was almost lost in the hydrangea and the early evening twilight.

“Can I help you, miss,” Joel addressed her, more politely than he really felt was necessary under the circumstances.  The woman turned to face him, but she didn’t otherwise respond.  “Miss,” he repeated after an uncomfortable silence, “can I help you somehow?”

“You can see me,” she stated flatly, a declaration rather than an answer.

Joel reflected momentarily that when he looked straight on, he actually couldn’t see her, at least not precisely.  Turning his head slightly, though, allowed him to take in her general features.  Small-boned, pale, blond-gray hair pulled straight back and tied.

“Yes, of course I can see you,” Joel responded.  “Who are you?  What are you doing there?”

“Well”— she hesitated— “I’m Diana.”  “I take care of things on this street,” she said, motioning up and down the row of houses.

“Take care of things— what do you mean you ‘take care of things?’” Joel asked.  She turned back to the shrubs edging the lawn, fiddling with leaves, not answering at first.

“When I first went away and came back, I stayed right around my old house, that white one there, two down from yours.  Well, it was plain brick when I was . . . before.  But after a long while, I began venturing outside the yard, and I found that there were others nearby, like me.”

Joel had no idea what she was talking about, but after being so reticent, now the words were spilling out of her.

“One of my friends from . . . here . . . kept an eye on an older woman, a widow in this same block over on Hanover, who seemed nice, kindly.  But he watched her hands knotting up with arthritis, her slowing step, noticed she couldn’t keep up with her garden.  He started helping out, yanking little weeds, flicking Japanese beetles off the rose of sharon, that kind of thing.  Just seemed like a good idea to me.  So, I sort of adopted my old street, and now I do things I can.  I deadhead the flowers, clear out old brown blossoms on the azaleas, brush the gumballs from the big sweetgums— like your two there— to the gutter, so no one will slip.”

“So, wait, do I have this right, you don’t live here anymore, but you do come and secretly garden at my house?”

“Oh, not just your house, all these houses, on this block and the next.  Well, except for the house second-to-last on that side; I don’t think much of those people—tried to rat poison the squirrels one time.  I clear their gumballs, because I don’t want anyone else to get hurt, but that’s it for them.”

“Miss, are you homeless or something?  I’m sorry, really, but I can’t just let you come on my property while I’m gone.  You’re going to have to go somewhere else.”

Again, she didn’t answer him.  “How can you see me,” she asked instead.

“What do you mean?  You’re standing there right in front of my eyes,” he replied, which was very nearly true.

“Most people can’t see us—nobody’s ever seen me before.”

“Yeah, well, I’d just as soon not see you here tomorrow, OK, so move along, please.”  Joel turned up the porch steps, fumbled with the lock and pressed inside.  He felt certain she had no intention of heeding his demand.  When he finally peered out through parlor window, though, it was nearly dark, and even if she was there, he could no longer see her, see much of anything.  “‘Others nearby, like me,’ what the heck was she talking about,” Joel asked himself later that night.  He turned her words over in his mind until he fell off to sleep.


Diana wasn’t there the next morning, which was a relief.  Joel had half expected to find her sitting on his front steps.  Walking to the corner, though, on his way over to Grove to catch the bus he decided he’d better start taking, he spied her fixed Indian-style on the neighbors’ grass, a scrawny black and white cat swishing circles around her.

“You know,” he startled her, “those people work downtown, but I doubt they’d be happy having you sit around their yard all day.  Can’t you just go hang out somewhere else?”

“Their cat is lonesome,” she replied, composure regained.  “She’s happy being outside—they used to keep her locked in the house all day— but still, she wants company.  She likes me, and I keep that big orange tabby from bullying her.”

Joel hadn’t noticed the approach just then of a young woman, another neighbor, whose name he didn’t know, pushing her toddler in a stroller.  Hearing her footfall close by, he cocked his head and saw her out of the corner of his eye.  She met his sidelong glance briefly, averted her eyes, and then hurried past down the block.

“She can’t see me, you know,” Diana giggled, “so she thinks you’re crazy, talking to the cat.”

Joel would ordinarily have bristled at the teasing, but his mind was elsewhere, retrieving.  “People can’t see you; used to live here; went away and came back,” he turned the puzzle pieces over out loud.  “You’re not alive, are you?  You’re not really here.”

No hesitation now, Diana met his questions head on.  “I don’t think I’m alive anymore.  I died.  But I am really here; right here’s where I always am.”

“But how did you get here?  What, I mean, what are you?”

“Joel,” it was the first time she’d spoken his name, “I’m happy that you can see me and that you’re not scared.  My friends tell me that usually the ones who see us are afraid and won’t talk to us.”

It hadn’t occurred to Joel to be frightened, which was pretty odd, considering.  “Should I be scared?  Are you going to do something?  And . . . there are others?”

“Don’t fret— I wouldn’t hurt anybody.  And most other folks here seem alright, really.  There’s a bad egg once in a while, but you can just give them wide berth.  Not hard to spot; you’ll see them.  They mutter, shuffle along, kick at stuff, like that.”

Joel didn’t know what more to say or ask.  An extended silence passed between them.  Diana broke it.  “You should talk to Jesseniah.  He stays around Byrd Park, ‘cause he likes the water.  He’s been around here the longest of any of us.”

Hopping on the bus down to work no longer made much sense to Joel.  He reached for his cellphone, dialed his office, told his secretary he’d be out sick for the day.  Then, he set out on foot for the park.


Jesseniah wasn’t tough to spot.  The park was mostly empty at the early hour, but a morning jogger whipped so close past an older man standing on the path along Shields Lake that Joel was sure there’d be a collision.  There wasn’t.  “Never saw him,” Joel said to himself, “that’d be him, I’m guessing.”

Jesseniah wasn’t hard to draw out either.  He answered questions before Joel even asked them.

“For a real long time, I just watched and sat.  Didn’t have much interest in helping people out, like some others here.  Even if we want to, cain’t do really big things, carry a child out of a burning house, shove a stalled truck off the train tracks.  Not strong in the world, we’re not.  I was always partial to animals, though—looked after the Dooley’s horses at Maymont House when I was alive— and I seen that they see us.  Got you a dog, mister?  Probably seen him staring off at nothing.  Most likely watching one of us.  Anyway, favored critters more’n people, so I took to shooin’ ’em out a traffic for, well, for a lot a years now.  Just wave my arms and spook ’em.  That’s a joke, son.  Works real good with squirrels, cats, dogs.  Not possums; they’se just that stupid, waddle right into the road.  What can you do?”

“Well, let’s see.  Mrs. Dooley died in 1925, but I’d stopped working for the family ‘bout three years before.  The gout got in my hands and knees to where I couldn’t do chores no more.  See my fingers?  Still all swoll up, even though they don’t hurt me no more.  Anyway, Depression come, and I lost all my savings.  Should’ve had my money in the Penny Savings with Mrs. Walker— only colored bank that made it through, ya know.  Got sick, no money for doctor nor hospital, and I died in the winter of ’30.”

“I come into the world April 2, 1865, round about midnight, my mamma told me.  Know that date, young fella?”  Joel didn’t.  “You need to learn your history,” Jesseniah scolded.  “Richmond burnt that night.  Lee’s army marched south across the James and put flame to the tobacco warehouses as they left.  Wind whipped up, and near the whole city catched fire.  I come three weeks early, and I was a tiny pup, but I done alright.”

“Oh, bein’ here ain’t that bad.  When I’se alive, I never learnt to read—even free colored children weren’t allowed no school.  But young Mr. Johnson, who was a teacher at the John F. Kennedy High School before he died, started me with readin’ and writin’ in 1972—taught some of the others since, too.”

“No, no, we ain’t forever.  All move along sooner or later.  I’m beginnin’ to fade myself; cain’t you see that?”  Joel couldn’t.  “Sometime, my hand’ll sweep right through somethin’, dog’s collar or tree branch.  I ‘spect before long my time’ll be done. You goin’ blind, ain’t ya?” Jesseniah asked him.

“Yes,” Joel answered, “how did you know?”

“Seen you lookin’ edgewise.  And sometimes folks losing their sight can catch sight of us. Are you fretful, Joel? Scared a becomin’ blind?”  Joel knew he was, afraid of the dark, afraid of the loss of freedom.  “You be awright, son.  Diana’ll look after you, if you let her.  She’s a sweet-natured one.  Others likely help, too.  They can, you know.  Keep you outa traffic, find things you laid down somewheres, tell you which bus is comin’ down the road.  Just ask ’em, you’ll see.”

Joel realized he was being gently dismissed.  He said his thanks and goodbyes and set off for home.  A few steps down the path, though, he turned and asked, “Jesseniah, what if I don’t go blind, what if my eyes get better?”

“Happened one time to me,” he answered, “fella with the catarack.  Doctors fixed him up, and he couldn’t see me no more, couldn’t even hear me.”


The following days passed quickly.  Joel spent all the time he could spare outside the office talking with Diana.  And, since he couldn’t just stand by while she worked, he found himself tending the flower beds he’d never even taken much notice of in his own yard.  With introductions from Diana, he made the acquaintance of some of his other new neighbors.  They were a quirky collection, some timid as marsh deer, others cocksure and proud.  Not every block had a caretaker, but Joel got to where he could tell instantly which ones did.  They were just tidier, brighter somehow.

On the 15th of July, a month since he’d meet with Dr. Amsler and since he’d first caught sight of  Diana, Joel called in sick to the office.  “A mental health day,” he told his secretary.  Earlier in the week, Diana, her brow furrowed with concern, had catalogued all the chores in the garden that should already have been done by Independence Day.   They were kneeling side-by-side, pinching back the mums one last time, when the phone rang inside.  Joel headed up the porch steps and caught the phone just inside the screen door on its last ring.

“Joel, it’s Dr. Amsler.  Dr. Rubin’s office called this morning to let me know they hadn’t heard from you yet.  Is everything alright, Joel?  If there’s a problem with insurance, maybe we can help.”  Diana, he saw, was sitting very still—odd for her—perched atop a stone Japanese lantern.

“No, sir,” Joel answered, “it’s not that.  I’m fine, everything’s just fine.”  At the edge of his vision, he could see something flash in the sunlight—a hummingbird, hovering before her.

“These experimental treatments need to begin before degeneration has progressed too far, so it’s important you be seen as soon as possible.”

“Joel,” Diana stage whispered, “can you see him?  He’s beautiful, and fierce.”

“I’ll call and set up an appointment, I promise,” Joel spoke into the phone, “first thing next week.”  He stood the phone back in its cradle and stepped back outside.

The hummingbird darted off at his approach.  Diana turned, beaming, “Don’t you just love those little ones?  Who was on the phone?”

“Oh,” Joel hesitated, “no one, really—my office, nothing important.”

“OK, then,” she continued with a conspiratorial gleam, “go fetch the shovel.  We’re going to separate out some of these daylilies and sneak them into Mrs. Andrews’ back garden while she’s away visiting her daughter.  It’s a little early to unearth them, but it’ll be such a nice surprise come spring.”  Joel retrieved the spade from the tool house and plunged it into the center of the clump of lilies where Diana pointed.  He enjoyed the midsummer sun on his cheeks, the cry of the cicadas, the smell of damp, dark earth.  He was not at all sure life could be better than this.

TETHERED RED BALLOONS

BY EMILY MULLIGAN

Floating away as delicately as a prismatic butterfly,
While being smothered in corroded chains.
I feel as if I have no core,

Yet am being weighed down by the earth itself.

My conscience is soaring,
A bloodied brain and viscous eyeballs tethered to scarlet balloons.

Off into the star-riddled cosmos,
Past the ever-expanding chasm in the ozone,
Ascending past nonexistent heavenly bodies,
And drifting by a malignant, unnecessary God.

Yet here I stand,

My feet as thick as cement and my lungs listlessly pumping dust.

I feel jagged,
I feel faux,
And I feel spectral.

Those same cardinal balloons hover past,
Viscid eyes peering down,
At a hunk of flesh stirring without a presence,
A sinewous casing without a soul.
Eventually mind meets body once more,
As my essence slithers under my skin,
Through gristle and bone,
Gushing into ventricles and veins,
Then finally nestling warmly against my cranium.

SELF-ISOLATION

BY ABIGAIL CORDES

Person.  Person.  Another person.  But never people.  One after another, arms tucked in so as not to touch anything by accident, they obediently arrived alone and kept themselves six feet apart.

Marge sighed.  Weeks of social distancing, panicked toilet-paper-hoarders, and covering other employees’ shifts had worn her thin.  It had been bad enough before this all started, when she was merely another disgruntled Walmart greeter killing time and earning a little extra cigarette money instead of retiring.  But now she was an “essential employee,” which didn’t mean anything except that nobody was going to send her $600 checks to lie around, eat homemade bread, and watch documentaries about murderous zookeepers.  Newspapers, radio stations, and social media hailed those in Marge’s position as heroes.  She tried to feel a little heroic that maybe the alcohol she was spritzing on yet another shopping cart would spare some child with leukemia from contracting pneumonia and dying, but it didn’t work.

Another person passed by, and another, and another.  All wore gloves (although Marge questioned how clean the gloves were by this point) and masks (not always correctly—quite a few were oriented upside-down, with the metallic nosepiece on the chin, and some fit only over the wearer’s mouth, leaving their nostrils entirely exposed).  She pretended to check their bags and receipts, but honestly, the second the shopper exited, she could not have named a single item from their basket.  Probably bleach and ramen and toothpaste.  Ultimately, they were really all the same.  They didn’t even have faces to remember them by.


She unlocked the door to the bungalow.  Complete darkness, complete silence.  She kicked off her shoes—they had probably accumulated a good layer of the virus on the soles by now—and flung them onto the porch.  She went inside, bleached her mask, and washed her hands while singing “Happy Birthday” to herself twice.  Her birthday was coming up soon, now that she thought about it, but the thought didn’t linger.  It would pass, just as St. Patrick’s Day and April Fool’s Day and Easter and Earth Day had passed, without any real celebration or comment.

Marge cut through the living room, momentarily contemplating turning on the news before opting to let the remote acquire just a little more dust tonight instead.  Better for her sore body to shower and don soft pajamas than to nod off on the couch as yet more footage showed barren streets and deserted shopping malls while repetitive charts announced the latest numbers.  After rinsing any last theoretical vestiges of the pathogen from her skin, Marge climbed onto her half of the bed.

It was funny how after four years, she still restricted herself to the right side of the queen-sized mattress, as though Robert might waltz in at any moment and reclaim his spot on the left side.  But that was superstition, a phantom with about as much substance as the moment of panic whenever she felt a tiny urge to cough.  As real as it might feel in that fleeting second, nothing would ever come of it.

Marge tossed and turned—but did not breach the meridian of the bed—for about an hour before she relented and reached into the nightstand for her melatonin.  Somehow, even though she had just bought the pills last week, she had to sift through clutter that had lain in the drawer for years, decades even.  Nail clippers that never really worked properly.  A bracelet that a friend had left at the house a long time ago and that Marge just hadn’t gotten around to returning.  A bookmark with a cutesy religious poem about footprints on a beach.  A stray photograph.

For the first time today, Marge felt her lips turn upward into a smile.  She remembered the day fondly.  She, Robert, and Mackenzie had visited a pick-your-own-fruit orchard, as evidenced by the cherry trees behind the family in the picture.  Mackenzie was so much younger, as evidenced by the braces and silly boy-band T-shirt, although not so young as to wear the macaroni necklace that, incidentally, also still lay in the drawer.

When Mackenzie was eight or nine, she had proudly worn her homemade “jewelry” everywhere she went, and this particular piece had elicited an especially emotional response when the roll-away couch had crushed one of the brittle noodles under its wheels.  Robert had promised his teary-eyed daughter that he would fix it, a promise on which he delivered while the child was asleep by painstakingly painting and glitter-coating another piece of pasta to match the original perfectly, then unstringing and re-stringing the necklace so as to restore the rotini’s proper position between an elbow and a bowtie.  Mackenzie’s childlike wonder at the impeccable repair job had led her to treasure the necklace dearly… for a while.  But eventually it, too, had wormed its way into the nightstand drawer, as memorable as that day at the orchard.  To this day, did Mackenzie recall either one?

Marge had no way of knowing.  It had been a year and a half since the last phone call, either from Mackenzie to her mother or vice versa.  All that could be said now had been said back then, and back then it hadn’t gone very well.  Why dredge up old arguments in times like these?

Marge found the melatonin, swallowed two tablets without any water, and settled in for the night.


The next day, there were people, three of them, to be exact.

They were all very young—a toddler on the cart’s fold-out seat, a little girl clutching a stuffed fox in the main compartment of the basket, and an older girl of sufficiently ambiguous age as to be either the children’s mother or their sister.  Like everyone else, the family kept their masks on, homemade fabric things printed with tractors, butterflies, and argyle, respectively.  Even the toy wore a mask, albeit one with sloppier craftsmanship, just a piece of felt tied awkwardly over the muzzle with yarn.  Upon making eye contact with the greeter, the fox’s owner made its paw wave, and Marge could tell even through the butterfly mask that the child was smiling.  Marge smiled back the best she could; despite being the store’s logo, smiles were in short supply these days.

What the heck.  She hadn’t done this in ages, but she reached deep into the pockets of her apron for three yellow smiley stickers, offering one to each member of the party.  The children eagerly peeled off the backing and adhered the stickers to their hands, while the mother-or-sister (“Liz” according to the nametag on the Burger King uniform she was wearing) smiled wryly and held up a hand, declining.

“Can Gina have her sticker?” the little girl blurted out as Marge was about to put the remainder back inside her apron.  It took Marge a second to realize that “Gina” was the child’s fox, but shrugging, she handed over the sticker, which the girl fixed to the toy’s mask.

“I don’t see why not,” Marge mused as Liz nodded and thanked her.  “You all be safe, all right?”

“We will,” said Liz as they headed off for the produce section.


There was a man who didn’t wear a mask.  Of course, he didn’t comply with any other laws, so why should he?

He’d completely ignored Marge when she asked to check his receipt for the TV he pushed out, when she raised her voice and asked him a second time, when the alarms buzzed as he left, and there wasn’t a thing she could do.  The store would be in bigger trouble if she pursued him and got hurt than if he got away with the merchandise, so she wasn’t allowed to follow him.  From his utter indifference, Marge strongly suspected he knew of this policy.  He knew she wasn’t really essential.

Then there was the conspiracy theorist, who got in Marge’s face to preach about The Media.  And the teenager who dropped his gum right onto the floor.  And the girl who yelled obscenities on the phone as eyeliner ran down her face.  And the white guy who went off about “reverse racism” when Marge asked for his receipt.  It hadn’t been a pleasant twenty minutes.

So of course Marge wasn’t surprised to see the family from before exit in a much more sour mood than when they entered.  The toddler was desperately trying to untie his face mask and turning red in frustration.  The girl sobbed, arms wrapped tightly around herself as she walked, the cart where she’d ridden before now full of bananas and off-brand Oreos and bologna.  Liz ignored them both as she talked hurriedly into her cell: “Look, I get it, but I already told you, I don’t have a—oh, are you sure?  Because last time I brought them in—mmhmm, okay, fine.  See you tomorrow at six.”

Irresponsible parents.  Bratty kids.  Drama and cell phones and crime.  Why should Marge expect anything else?


Her smoke break came so late it was almost pointless.  Nevertheless, she slipped out the back and lit one up as she watched trucks loading and unloading—merchandise, garbage, recycling, more merchandise.  And here came another contribution to the trash pile.  The new guy, at eighteen years of age and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, struggled as he lugged a single bag of refuse outside.  He almost tripped over Marge as he pushed past her.

“Careful, kid!” she protested, but stopped as she noticed a peculiar bulge in the white trash bag.  A shape vaguely cat-like in form.  No, not cat-like… foxy.  “Wait a sec, can I see that?”  She didn’t wait for an answer as she snatched the bag away from him, reached inside despite the look of disgust on his face, and withdrew a toy that she definitely recognized.  Suddenly, it all clicked.

“Oh yeah, found that thing on the cookie aisle.  Customer service said keeping it in the lost-and-found was a safety hazard and—”

“I know whose it is,” Marge asserted.  “I’ll take it.”


Marge grappled with her memory as she put away her protective gear that night.  She remembered Liz, but how often did Liz come in?  Had she already called and asked about the fox?  Did customer service tell her the same thing they’d told the kid with the trash bag?  Had Liz left a phone number just in case?  Probably not, Marge realized glumly.  Or if she had, the folks at the desk probably threw it away at the end of the day.

“It’s okay, Gina, we’ll figure this one out,” Marge told the stuffed animal as she plopped down on the couch, pondering.  “Liz was wearing a Burger King uniform, wasn’t she?  So she must work at a Burger King.  And there are only two Burger Kings in town, and the other one is in the mall, which hasn’t been open lately.  So I bet she works at the one behind the Sheetz station.  Am I right?”  Gina didn’t answer, of course.  “I’ll run by there tomorrow morning, and pick up breakfast before my shift.  And if Liz is there, I’ll drop you off.  I’m sure she’ll have somewhere safe to keep you until she can give you back to your owner.”  Marge was about to set Gina down next to her purse when she thought better of it.  “Customer Service might have been right about you, though.  If you’ve been on the floor all day, you’re probably filthy.  Let’s get you cleaned up.”

After Marge had thrown Gina into the washer along with a generous ration of detergent, she thought about getting a snack or watching TV, but instead she sat on the little folding chair she kept in the laundry room, drumming her hands impatiently on the machine.

Her eyes flickered around for something to do.  She noticed little details about the room that she’d long since stopped paying attention to, like the old board games on the top shelf, or the random Mr. Potato Head ear that had for some reason stuck around long after Mackenzie had gotten too old for Mr. Potato Head and donated him to the thrift store.  Marge had often wondered if his subsequent owner ever noticed that there was a piece missing.  Kids often noticed that sort of thing more quickly than their parents did.  Marge hoped she wouldn’t unwittingly return Gina with some kind of damage the little girl would see, like a broken stitch somewhere or a bleach stain or a… missing piece?

Marge slapped her forehead.  Of course.  Gina had been wearing a mask when the family entered the store, but not when Marge had withdrawn her from the garbage.  It was probably some trivial crafts project undertaken during a boring day in quarantine, but undoubtedly it was now as much a part of this fox as its ears or its tail.  Returning Gina unmasked was almost as bad as not returning her at all.

Marge scrounged around for her old sewing kit and some kind of material.  She didn’t have any felt, but she did have a box of odd scraps from the days when she’d make Mackenzie’s pajamas and Halloween costumes.  Surely something would… aha!  Marge found a piece of butterfly print—not the same as on the child’s mask, but reminiscent—and set to work.  It would take some creative design to accommodate the toy’s nose, but the end product was a befitting accessory should the nation’s next pandemic target foxes.  It was perfect.

No… not quite perfect.  It needed one more thing.  A thing Marge had far too many of all over the house, in various drawers and cupboards and jacket pockets.

Once Gina was dried and outfitted in Marge’s handiwork, Marge placed the final touch.  “Now you’re perfect,” she approved as she adhered a smiley-face sticker directly to the mask.


“Welcome to Burger King, may I take your order?” came the staticky voice from the little box at the drive-thru.

“I’ll have the breakfast burrito, some hash browns, and a large black coffee.  Also, I was wondering—is Liz in today?”

A pause.  “That’s me.”

“I work at Wal-Mart.  I found something that I think might belong to you.  Did you lose a stuffed fox yesterday?”

Another pause.  Then, in a quick, low voice, Liz responded excitedly, “Do you mind coming into the dining area?  I can unlock it in two minutes.”

“I can do that.  As long as I still get my hash browns!”

Marge parked the car in a space littered with cherry-blossom petals and picked up Gina from the passenger seat.  She dashed across the parking lot, to where Liz was opening the door and desperately gesturing for Marge to come in.

Inside the dining room, the lights were off, and chairs were stacked upside-down on top of the tables.  But in a booth by the window sat a toddler and a little girl, each with a stack of coloring pages, a basket of mostly broken and/or unwrapped crayons in the middle of the table.  To the left, the toddler happily scribbled with no regards for the outline of a giraffe on the paper.  He alternated amongst three or four crayons, all of them some shade of green.  The pages he had finished seemed to be covered in green, so much green!  Meanwhile, to the right, the little girl slowly and neatly filled in the horn of a unicorn with a magenta crayon.  Her posture was slumped; she did not appear to be enjoying the coloring session as much as her brother.

“Kyli!  Kyli, look who it is!” Liz called, prompting Kyli to look up.

Instantly, Kyli dropped her crayon, dashed across the tile floor, and pulled Gina into her arms, kissing the fox’s head fiercely through her mask.  She turned to Marge and eagerly opened her hands for a hug until she remembered and dejectedly took six steps backwards.

Marge laughed.  “It’s okay, I know we have to be super careful about hugging right now.  Instead you can hug Gina extra tight and pretend it’s me, okay?”

Kyli nodded solemnly before embracing the toy again.

“You have no idea what a relief this is,” Liz told Marge.

“Oh, I might.  I have a daughter of my own, and I remember when she was that age.  It was so long ago.”

“Maybe she’ll get a kick out of hearing how you singlehandedly saved our family from days of sheer doom and gloom!  You should tell her about rescuing Gina the next time you call her.”

Marge smiled.  “You know… I just might.”

 

SHORT STORY CONTEST

HONORABLE MENTION

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY

BY ASHLEY WEAVER

The bald undertaker of a taxi driver blasts a last-ditch attempt to get me out of the intersection. I’m too tired. I’m always too tired. I enter the all-too-familiar apartment building and clamber up the stairs. The elevator is still broken.

“I’m home!” I holler, launching my keys and handbag onto the sofa.

I open the fridge and search for the last piece of chocolate cake I had been harboring until it’s inevitable expiration date. Stories about my comatose board meeting, the bug in my salad at lunch, and the raw jealousy I’m feeling about one of my co-workers spill off of my tongue as I ravage the refrigerator.

And then I enter his room and swallow the rest of my words. “Oh honey, I’m sorry for ranting like that. How was your day?”

No answer. Just the up and down rhythmic hum of the ventilator pumping air into his lungs. I pick up the worn novel sprawled open on his chest. Page 106. The same page he was on when I left.

“You don’t have to be this lazy, you know!” I wag the book at him. But it’s clearly the last thing he wants to hear right now.

I finally calm myself enough to level my voice. “I’m going to make dinner, and when I’m done, we’re going to have a talk.”

I make dinner. We never have a talk. He just lies there and the same feelings of frustration begin to boil inside me.

I wash the dishes for over an hour. Scrub and rinse. The hot water scalds my hands, but I’ll do anything to keep from going back there. From what we both know is coming.

Finally, I meander back into his room. Slowly. I pass the sick cadence of the ventilator and pick up the crinkled book from its place on the chair beside his bed.

I begin:

“…He hesitated at the sight of her, entranced, for he had never seen a creature so still, so lovely. He leaned over her bedside, breathing in her beauty, and pressed his lips to hers in a gentle kiss. Just one. Suddenly, her eyes fluttered open, radiant with the breath of new life. True love’s kiss…

I stop and look up from the page. I never do that.

I reach my hand over to his face and lift one of his eyelids with my finger. Glazed over like a marble, the cornea reflects no life back to me of the man I know.

I lean over and my lips meet his. He doesn’t wake up.

HONORABLE MENTION

A NEARLY PERFECT DAY

BY BILL GLOSE

Summer in North Carolina and the temperature is unusually cool. Throngs of revelers fill Lumberton Carnival’s fairgrounds with the ubiquitous glissando of laughter. Amid the raucous glee, soldiers from Fort Bragg are easy to pick out with their silent, staring ways. Home from war, their heads swivel as they scan the multitude, eyes flicking from face to hand and back again, checking for weapons, checking for intent.

Brendan Mueller wants so much to leave the desert behind, to pass by trampled litter without thinking Bomb, to linger near the Strength Tester without thinking Mortar every time someone swings the sledgehammer and sends a puck rocketing toward the bell. For months he’s longed for exactly this—a day out with his wife and daughter, ambling over matted grass instead of sand. Freed of body armor, dressed in his favorite Levis, the ones with the seat and thighs worn soft, he knows he should be more at ease, like all these smiling faces in the boisterous crowd, unaware of anything but whirling machines, painted clowns, and tents with all their games of chance. But the coil in his gut won’t unwind. His body and all its interconnected nerves say vigilance is required. There are just too many people here, too many hands to scan, too many potential threats.

Squirming in his arms is his three-year-old daughter, Chrissie, dressed in bright red shorts and a Mickey Mouse tee shirt. Her heart-shaped face and gray eyes are duplicates of her mother’s; her button nose and stubborn streak, gifts from her father. She hasn’t seen him in eleven months. Another time he’d been gone for six. Absent for almost half her life, he’s a stranger to her still. He lives in hallway pictures and on her mother’s computer when she Skypes and Chrissie burrows into her bosom, turning one eye to the screen. It’s hard for her young mind to correlate that one-dimensional face with this three-dimensional man, wiry and square-shouldered, his brown hair buzzed high-and-tight, his eyes roving away as if she doesn’t even exist.

Brendan’s wife, Sophia, is wearing yellow capris, a sleeveless, white blouse patterned with daisies, and a faux pearl necklace. He’s promised time and again that once he makes rank and catches up on bills, he’s going to buy her the real thing, a string of pearls the size of marbles, something to make the other wives in their housing quad drool. Here, she says, let me take her.

The girl stretches her arms out as Brendan passes her over, then she tries to settle on her mother’s hip. No, Baby, Sophia says, setting her daughter down and holding her hand, you’re too big for that now.

Brendan leads his family along the edge of the swirling cacophony, trying to keep the crowd to one side. But not everything is located on the perimeter; not the carousel, not the bumper cars, not the flying chairs. Those family-friendly attractions are clustered in the center, which shares space with food trolleys and gift shops, everything else funneling target customers into the confined area. Just like the kill zone in an ambush.

They ride the teacups, Brendan pulling hard on the center ring to spin them faster, Sophia yelling, Stop, stop, I’m going to throw up. But she’s laughing, as is Chrissie, so he keeps tugging with all his might. When they step off, Sophia’s woozy and leaning into Brendan for support. Chrissie is between them, holding her parent’s hands and giggling. They’re a Norman Rockwell portrait of the perfect American family.

As they make their way to the arcade, Sophia buys Chrissie a small stick of cotton candy. Chrissie pulls at the wispy stickiness and throws a chunk of it on the ground.

No, Baby, Sophia says, you eat it.

Chrissie opens wide and bites into the pink confection, getting as much on her cheeks as in her mouth. Then the taste hits her and wonder fills her eyes. She’s chomping the last bits and asking for more by the time they reach the gaming tents with their shelves crammed full of stuffed animal prizes.

At the ring toss, Brendan’s throws bounce off the necks of bottles before skittering away.  Same with ping pong balls at the table of colored bowls. But then he steps up to the Annie Oakley Shooting Game and picks up an air rifle. Leaning an elbow on the counter for support, he ignores the big targets—the barn and cows—aiming instead at tiny birds atop haystacks and the chickens peeking out from small windows in their coop, their metal faces snapping back with satisfying Pings as he strikes each one. His score is high enough to earn a prize from the top shelf. Lifting Chrissie onto the countertop, he asks, What do you think, Honey, you want the Panda?

She nods, and the carnie pulls down the black-and-white animal, passing it to Chrissie with delicate care, as if it were fine china and not stuffed with wadding. Your father’s quite a shot, he says in a jovial tone.

And your mother’s quite a babe, says a man from the half-circle that had gathered to watch Brendan’s shooting display. A couple of other men chuckle along with him.

Brendan sets Chrissie back on the ground and steps over to the man who made the comment. Brendan’s face has turned to stone, mirth squeezed from his now flattened lips, his slit eyes. You say something about my wife?

The man is mid-twenties, same age as Brendan, but three inches taller, big-boned with thick, hairy arms protruding from a cut-off flannel shirt. A light blue UNC Tar Heel cap is tilted back atop his curly black hair. Lighten’ up, buddy, he says. Just payin’ a compliment. The guy looks sideways at his two friends, gives them a wink. One of them nods back. The Tar Heel looks back at Brendan, his brow wrinkling, some inner calculations crunching the odds and determining, with his bigger size and posse, that he’s way up on the plus side. Just sayin’ she’s Grade A, you know.

Brendan doesn’t hesitate. It’s the instinct drilled into him from a thousand rehearsals, his sergeant’s voice bellowing in his head, Someone confronts you, you put them down. And so, almost unbidden, his right hand shoots out, grabbing the man’s right wrist and twisting his arm backwards. Then Brendan kicks behind the man’s knee and presses his face into the grass. Were he still in Iraq, he’d zip-tie his wrists and pull a sandbag over his head.

The two friends are as dumbstruck as the rest of the gasping audience. The one who’d nodded encouragement earlier to his friend now flattened in the grass is first to respond. But not for long. Just as he reaches out to pull Brendan away, another hand yanks back on the neck hole of his Mötley Crüe tee shirt, momentarily choking him. The new hand belongs to someone in the crowd with the crew cut of a soldier, ebony-skinned, biceps stretching the sleeve of his Polo shirt. He’s no one that Brendan knows, but his brother nonetheless. Not your fight, man, the soldier says, holding onto the tee shirt’s scruff until its occupant nods agreement.

Brendan leans close to his captive’s ear. Apologize. Right now. He jerks up on the man’s twisted arm for emphasis.

The man wriggles like a landed fish. Okay, man, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.

Not to me. Apologize to her. Brendan looks over his shoulder at Sophia, who is hugging herself and shaking.

Sorry, miss. I didn’t mean anything. Honest.

Brendan doesn’t even hear it. The man is forgotten now. Brendan is taking in the area around his wife, his eyes wild and searching. He jumps up and runs to Sophia. Where’s Chrissie?

Sophia reacts as if slapped. She spins in a quick circle, calling out, Chrissie! Chrissie! Where are you, Baby?

The man Brendan had tackled is now on his feet, wiping grass from his shirt and pants, as wobbly as Sophia had been stepping out of the teacup. Brendan glances his way, wanting to attack the man all over again, to punish him for his daughter’s disappearance, but that would be sidetracking. Chrissie is his mission. He scans his surroundings in a slow and methodical 360, surveying every slice of arc. The air is still filled with rings and buzzers from the arcade and beyond that the grinding of amusement rides and the screams of their passengers, but the crowd is quiet here, nothing emanating from this spot except for Sophia’s frantic calls.

Brendan grabs his wife by the shoulders. His voice is steady and firm. You look that way, he says, pointing back toward the teacups. I’ll go this way. He hooks a thumb toward the Ferris wheel. Meet you back here. He waits a beat to make sure she understands. When she nods and runs off, he turns and does the same.

He trots instead of running full out, calling Chrissie’s name while scanning the swarm of people for a tiny kid in red shorts and a white shirt. There are hundreds of children here but none fit the description. Then he sees one that does, a child holding a gray-haired man’s hand as they walk together, their backs to Brendan. He races up to them and is just about to grab the man’s shoulder when he sees the kid’s pink Nikes. Chrissie had been wearing white canvas shoes like her mother.

Brendan has suffered nightmares before—dead comrades asking him to help stuff their intestines back inside, rail-thin prisoners boring through him with their damning eyes as they squat on cardboard squares in cold holding cells, Iraqi children pulling his arm, begging him to let their father go, to let their brother go, to stop pointing his M4 at their sack-covered heads. Perhaps, Brendan thinks, this is penance for all his sins. He’d thought he could leave the desert behind, but if war has taught him anything, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned.

Something occurs to Brendan. He snaps his fingers and says, Lost and found. He remembers seeing the booth near the carnival entrance. He turns and runs that way, his focus back on mission, trying not to breathe life into his fears. Then his wife calls out his name. He looks in her direction and stops dead. She’s standing at the shooting gallery counter with Chrissie in her arms. Brendan’s heart is thumping in his ears as he walks over to them.

She was at the cotton candy machine, Sophia says. Just standing there watching it swirl round and round.

The attendant in the booth places the panda on the counter.

Keep it, Brendan says, grabbing Sophia by the elbow and pulling her away. How could you let this happen? he growls in her ear, propelling them into the crowd, which swallows them up, this once-perfect family on this once-perfect day.

MOST CREATIVE

THREE WALLS

BY AMANDA HARMAN

1.

The way I found out that I am merely a creation of word is actually quite funny, but then, I do share the author’s sense of humor. I was walking along and had the sudden urge to start running. I didn’t see any reason to do that, so I fought back the desire. Against my will, I began racing down the sidewalk. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t stop. Then, I heard a voice: Running was a pleasure, an escape. I cast my eyes around me, searching for a source. Realizing I was alone, I decided the voice was either in my head, or else it was emanating from the ground and sky all at once. I gulped down my fear and confusion (a hard task if one is also gasping for air), and I looked up. There, where the sky should have been, where the proverbial fourth wall should have completed the world, I saw the focused face of an intellectual. She was typing and clearly enjoying it. Instantly, I understood; she was the author. I was merely a character in a story that somehow involved me running. I hate running; it was not a pleasure or an escape. If anything, it was a form of cruel and unusual torture. Why would the author describe me so wrong? Another realization smacked me so hard that I thought my uncontrollable feet had propelled me into a wall: I am whatever she wants me to be. In some stories, I’m a pirate, bloodthirsty and on the prowl for treasure. Other times, she turns me into a princess brandishing a mighty sword against a dragon. No matter what it is, it’s always me, and it’s never me. I am the author’s pawn, a forever morphing slave to her crazy whims. Seriously, I have no free will, no ability to sit out of a plot that’s too intense or scary, and, trust me, there have been quite a few. The running incident, what I came to refer to as waking up, was years ago, and I’ve been in countless stories almost every day since.

I can’t help but imagine what it would be like if just one time, the author let me be myself in a story. Or better yet, to not have to be in a story at all.

2.

“Where do you think you are going?” Mary asked Peter when she stopped him in the dim hallway of the hospital.

He rolled his eyes, “I told you, out.”

She chose not to acknowledge the eye-roll. “And I told you that you need to spend time here with your grandfather.”

“I don’t want to,” Peter whined.

“Well, he wants you to be here, so you’re staying.”

“What’s the point? He’s going to be gone soon anyway.”

Mary hung her head. “That’s the point, Peter. You’ll never get this opportunity back. I know it hurts, and I know it’s scary, but don’t run away.”

All Peter could manage was a weak shrug before he began to cry. “I don’t want to see him like this!”

“I know, honey, but he wants you here.” So, together, they went to see Grandpa.

At that point, the author turned off her laptop for the night, and the lights all around our small scene dimmed. I closed my eyes and came back to myself, letting the imposed grief roll off my shoulders. I turned to the one the author named Peter, who was still sobbing.

“How’re you doing?” I asked.

He looked at me with his pain-filled eyes and replied, “You know how I am doing. My grandpa is dying!”

I shook my head. This problem often happens with new characters. “Do you even know your grandfather? What’s he like? How old is he?”

“Umm, he is… my grandpa, and he is…”

“You don’t know, do you?”

The pain in his eyes disappeared behind a lens of fear, “No. Why is it impossible for me to remember anything about him? What’s wrong with me, Mary?”

“I’m not Mary, and the reason you don’t know him is because he doesn’t exist. The author hasn’t actually created the grandpa character yet.”

The fear lens was quickly displaced by one of confusion. He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. I waited, relieved that his tears had finally stopped. We stood like that for almost a minute before he finally managed to force out, “But, you are Mary?”

“Not really, just in this story. Sorry.” And I really was sorry. I knew how awful waking up feels. This guy the author called Peter was about to have the biggest identity crisis. “My name is Prota.”

“Prota?”

“Yeah, like Protagonist. It’s the name I gave myself when I figured out that none of this is real.” I’ve learned that it’s better to be blunt with new characters; my words had the intended effect. He started slightly as if a static charge had just poked him with its electric fingers.

He released a shaky breath, “This is all imaginary? None of it is real?”

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.” Knowing may be awful, but it’s better than living in a lie.

“No, that actually makes sense. I would never leave my grandpa alone if he was really dying.” He looked at me like he wanted me to tell him that he was talking nonsense.

Instead, I nodded, “Uh-huh. That’s just the character the author wrote for you.”

A light flashed behind his eyes as a new idea flew into his head. “So then, my name is not Peter, is it?”

“Nope. That’s the character.”

“What is my name then?”

“I guess that’s up to you.”

He nodded; a strand of blonde hair fell out of place and hung over his forehead. “I think that I am Foil, then.”

That wasn’t the answer I expected. Most of the new characters the author dreamed up chose something like Joe or Sally, and they only hung around for a story or two, while I was in all her pieces. Oddly enough, the name did seem right for him, and I had a feeling deep in my gut that he would be around for longer than a couple plots. “Nice to meet you, Foil.”

We shook hands. I asked him if he had any other questions, but he was already fairly at-ease with the whole situation. That was a good thing; one poor girl, who ended up calling herself Betsy, couldn’t function for an entire week after she woke up. She played her role in the author’s plot, then went and stood by herself in the corner for the rest of the time, shivering and staring at the screen in abject terror.

3.

Because it was getting late, I decided to show Foil where the characters usually went to sleep, or rest, or whatever the heck we did as fictional beings. It was a humble little shack over in the corner of what, to us, was the entire world — a 100-yard square area that the author changed into any setting she could ever desire. The shack was wooden with a corrugated tin roof. It was low to the ground and smelled distinctly of pine no matter what I did to change things up; it’s not like there are many candle stores inside the laptop. The inside was humbly furnished with simple cots and couches, but it was cozy, illuminated by several small lamps that cast yellow light over the whole space. Taking up the entire back wall was a bookcase with shelves bowing and bending under the weight of their burden. I explained to Foil that the books were all the stories the author had saved onto her laptop, whether novels, websites, or her own creations. Again, he accepted this insane information like it was common sense. It had taken me months, and a brief period where I somehow convinced myself I was in Moby Dick, to figure that out, but I did finally turn in my harpoon. We turned in for the night, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like the lone survivor on a desert island.

The next day, bright and early and right on schedule, the laptop opened. Foil and I waited on the edge of the patch of light, waiting for the setting to fill in. He was nearly bouncing with excitement.

“What’s up with you?” I asked.

His eyebrows arched, “What do you mean? We get to be in a story!”

“That happens every day.”

“But it is a surprise every day. What will the author write? It’s so exciting, living with the unexpected.”

Finding myself unable to respond, I stared at him. His attitude made no sense. I hated not knowing what would happen; I hated not being in control.

The bricks crumbled when Peter approached, as if on cue. He winced at the cacophony that was unleashed as the clatter echoed off the blank walls. Empty windows eyed him suspiciously, like they knew he should not be there. A light drizzle had started, casting a gloom over the already dreary atmosphere.

Foil stepped into the scene when the author typed his character’s name. I was more than happy to be a spectator as I puzzled over his misplaced excitement. I could see how eagerly he maneuvered around the crumbling ruins the author had conjured into our world. I glanced back at her for a moment. I may not have always enjoyed what she put me through, like Foil seemed to, but she had been my only constant in the years since I woke up.

As I was looking out at her, a man, with disturbingly familiar blonde hair, crept up behind her and abruptly grabbed her shoulders. She jumped slightly and whacked his arm without turning around. He laughed, kissing her head. I gaped in wonder as she continued furiously tapping the keyboard. The sentences formed slowly in my brain. Foil had a real-life counterpart. That man —whoever he was — was the inspiration for Foil, or Peter, I guess. I’d never known any of the other characters to be from the author’s life. Maybe that was why Foil seemed so concrete and permanent; he was not entirely imaginary.

4.

For the next few days, I struggled with this concept. If Foil wasn’t entirely imaginary, then maybe, perhaps, I wasn’t either. That would explain so much: the reason I had been around for so long, why I woke up by myself without anyone explaining it to me. All of this made perfect sense to me, and yet I knew that I was making massive assumptions. It seemed too good to be true that I was, in any way, real. It would mean that I did have an identity that the author didn’t choose. That somewhere out there, a version of me was living her life, making her own choices, starring in her own story instead of someone else’s.

I didn’t mention any of this to Foil. He hadn’t seen his counterpart, and I didn’t want to release the Kraken of my worry upon his unsuspecting mind. I continued to carefully watch the author, hoping against all sense to find a clue to who I was to her. I kept telling myself to let it go; I was a creation of her imagination and nothing more.

I tried to keep my internal turmoil hidden from Foil. One night, we were sitting in our shack reading selections from the bookshelf. Foil was leaned against its base with his nose almost touching the pages of the book clutched in his whitening knuckles.

I paused in my third or fourth reading of an article about literary inspiration. It had no real answers for my own situation, but the author had clearly used it for Foil. “It’s getting good?” I asked with a chuckle.

He looked up at me, reluctantly leaving the world of the novel. “Yes, this is amazing!”

I rolled my eyes slightly and nodded.

“What? You disagree?”

“It’s no different than any other book I’ve read.”

“Really? I think it is uniquely thrilling.”

“Nope, it falls into one of the seven plots, just like every single story ever written.”

He set his book on the ground and pulled himself to his feet. He walked across the room to stand in front of the couch I had sunk into. Leaning forward so his face was just a couple inches from mine, he said, “What seven plots?”

I lightly pushed his shoulder to remind him to back up some. I’d quickly learned that this dude had an odd concept of personal space, which was new for me. I was used to being alone, since that was how I spent most of my time since waking up. “There are only seven different plots in all of literature: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy, and tragedy.”

“Hmm, so where would you say my Sherlock Holmes mystery fits in that list?”

“That’s easy, overcoming the monster. The killer is the monster, and Sherlock and Watson have to overcome by stopping him. See? If you know which plot it is, you can predict the ending. It takes the suspense out completely.”

He slowly nodded. “Even if the plot thing is true, and I am not so sure it is, that does not stop me from enjoying the thrill of a well-written novel.”

Once again, I was silenced by his strange opinion. Knowing the ending kind of, by definition, ends the suspense. That was why I hadn’t read any of the books for years, just the research articles saved to the author’s computer.

We had many conversations like that over the course of several months. He was always way too naïve about the struggle of this existence. I initially chalked it up to inexperience, but I grew to suspect that it was just his genuine outlook. He thought the author was generous for letting him try out the many, many characters, which was absolutely insane. He didn’t seem to understand that we lost all identity in the rush of personalities that constantly buffeted us from the author’s mind.

One night, things got more intense than usual. Foil got so close to me, I felt his breath on my face. “Why are you so jaded?” he asked me in an intense whisper.

I looked deeply into his eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t try to be; it just comes with experience.”

“It does not have to.” He leaned in even closer.

I shook my head. “I can’t help it.”

“Let me help you,” he said, right before he closed the remaining gap between us and pressed his lips to mine. It was the first time we had done anything like that without the author writing it. I pictured the author and the boy I had seen with her. I hadn’t ever considered that he was a romantic character. It was unsettling for such a soft person to enter my world; I’d prided myself on being hard as nails (forgive the cliché, I never said the author was amazing).

The next day, I got up for the laptop opening like every morning since I had woken up, and Foil was gone. I searched every inch of the shack, but he was nowhere. It was like he had been erased.

“Foil! This isn’t funny!” I screamed to the corners of my entire world. No answer.

Abruptly, the laptop was yanked open. I peered out and saw the tear-streaked face of the author. That was new; the author had never cried while she was writing before.

Without warning, and just when things seemed to be perfect, Peter left. Mary was alone in a new world of utter blackness and sorrow. She didn’t know what to do or how she was even supposed to breathe through the piercing pain in her heart, like a ragged hole had been ripped through her chest. She collapsed in a pool of self-pity and let the sobs wrack her body.

Just as quickly, the laptop slammed shut. I glanced around, and Foil was still gone, but I was used to the blankness. I dried the obligatory tears from my face as the truth revealed itself to me slowly, like that cheesy sunrise the author wrote the other day. Foil was a projection of the author’s friend, who the Peter character, among others, was based on. I had been the Mary character; the one Peter had hurt. If the author was crying at the same time as Mary, that meant — the thought struggled to organize itself in my head— I was based on the author herself. Every story I was part of was the author imagining herself having an adventure. I was her way into new worlds, making it possible for her to escape her own. I was the author’s avatar, the character most like her.

What I didn’t understand was why the author was so crushed by her version of Peter. I mean, I missed Foil, but not enough to sob. She’d put me through much worse pain in many of her tales, crafting countless broken legs and hearts for me over the years. And, anyway, a new story would come along soon; they always do.

WINNER

FATTENING THE CURVE

BY DAN HUYCKE

Since it had started, there was no stopping it. Coronavirus was the silicone to the augmented tit of depression that everyone, Jeff being no exception to the woody hard rule, suckled from. Twisted in his bedding on the old cheapo carpet he swore to vacuum weekly, brain a-flood with craving, Jeff disturbed himself with focusing too much on one of those odd, involuntary and inexplicably localized muscle twitches the body just has, this time somewhere vaguely left of center of his left asscheek. Light the color of evening snow gone guttery ashen sickened in through the frosted north-facing window. Sinestra is Italian for left. Jeff tried to focus on the little moments in life, like this, that keep defining him, struggling to adjust that internal reality and project it, metronize its palpitating, onto the smear of shadow on the ceiling, above which, with the cartoonish rhythm of an idiot villain sawing at the plank he sits on, his neighbors fucked. Never any voices, Jeff’s brain said, but only because Jeff couldn’t think of the speaking verby thing part of the dialog tag if that dialog’s spoken by, like, Vincent Price, but also because Jeff remembered a professor, bald, stout with modern coolness evidenced by a total lack of tweed, repeating, chalk in ultra-cool hand, Said is not dead. No groans, no moans, no fugitive yelps or yips escaped on accident. Just ceaseless sawing.

“Sugar.” Said Jeff.

The processed kind with dyes and saccharide polymers, added starches of ambiguous, unpronounceable origins (for familiar texture and satisfying crumble), -oses innumerable, the kinds that pack into the crags of your molars like concrete and leave your tongue burning. And the advertising. Lately they’d rolled out those resealable packages, the kind with the sticky rim that, unless he ate them fast enough, a not-so-implausible case, collected constellations of precious lost sugardust Jeff felt mocked by in a weird cheated-consumerist sort of way. Font was important, Jeff solemnly reminded himself. Even a fool could tell you that. In a way, it was everything. Whether it was that zingy, caper-esque slant, or the more subtle, but not at all refined, cursive drawl resembling silvery strands of juiced-up drool, each had a role to play and Jeff felt pretty damn sure he knew what each one was.

It had started. So how could he stop it?

Thin spit gleeked out from under his tongue. It had the same alkaline taste spit has right before puking from too much clearance-aisle red. Jeff couldn’t swallow fast enough. All that Nancy Reagan shit he’d been fed in health class about that life-altering ‘first hit’ turned out to be true. If he could go back to then, to four year old Jeff, smeared stupid with chocolate, he’d beat the bastard black and blue, instill some Pavlovian sense into the little twerp. But here he was, too many years later, flushing time down the daydream drain, agonizing over the prospect of donuts, fudge, the standard and, honestly, dull assortment of Big Names, cookie confections, gelled worms/amorphous globs/children (generously spritzed with that zapping, freebase crystal stuff) was all well and good, too good really, but there was nothing that held a sticky soothing candle to the One, the Constant Crave that never Caves, the Big Kahuna, the Commander in fucking Chief of jonesing. Jeff had no brand loyalty, not really. Bank statements played a part in whether it was Turkey Hill or Blue Bell, Blue Bunny or that whackass looking Aldi shit, but besides matters of personal finance at whatever time of the week that Jeff was in that aisle of the grocery store, that corridor of partitioned glass door after glass door, the breath from within calling to those on the other side, namely, with cherubic sorrow, lusterless Jeff, slumped and visibly “off” Jeff, stooped and mumbling, as if drawn and hammered by the burden of choice, of will, made miserably ductile by the consumerist decision designed specifically to unleash, in all its unwanted humility, that special flavor of personal abasement only we can inflict on ourselves, the newest and hottest, not to mention most crushingly common, way to self-flagellate, Jeff.

Yes, it had always been, and could only ever be, dearest ice cream that commanded Jeff’s brain. Alcohol had, for a time, staked tyrannical claim on Jeff’s life for a few months, but it was nothing several consecutive days of vegetarianism, two-mile runs and a genuinely concerning policy admonishing any self-pity with too many push ups, slapping his own face, or both, couldn’t clear up. He had even flirted with cocaine for a scintillating spell, but it never really flirted back, and Jeff wasn’t the type to go chasing dogs. Nothing ever came close to darling ice cream, ice cream the heartthrob, the starlet, Jeff’s joie de vivre and esteemed, lipless confidant.

Nevertheless, there was a pulse, however feathery, of extraordinary violence beating in the walls of Jeff’s thoughts of ice cream. Sometimes they were as simple as scenes imagined and smirked at of Jeff groping for the soup ladle to literally excavate lurid green hunks of Mint Chocolate Chip out of its pint-sized packaging and into his fanged mouth, or of Jeff, smeared with berry-juice, traditional Great Plains headdress on yet askew, machete raised and dripping Death by Chocolate, eyes a-bulge with creamlust unredeemable; these were not all unwelcome.

But sometimes there was an invasive force that occupied him, a manual override executed by a hand he could not see even if he were searching on his hands and knees, triggering thoughts in Jeff that he would proudly (indeed, publically, and with great ado) punt a small child for verbally expressing, but that upon thinking, no matter the brevity of the thought, iced him with sweats. Disgust didn’t even begin to describe what it made him feel, this Edy’s sponsored terrorism of the soul. When it descended— this is always the choicest word, determined long ago, probably during the toxically umpteenth repetition of scissoring leglifts, to properly illustrate it’s essentially god-like and vengeful propulsion, it’s brimstone velocity— waste was laid. In the past, Jeff had clawed at his throat thinking a tightening rope there whenever he considered, no matter how momentarily, of seeking social, perhaps even sexual, shelter from that mental maelstrom he could not outrun. Now though, Jeff just twisted, listened in between the twistings to the pulse in his skull, the blood batter whisking unpredictably in his gluteus maximus, sinestral style.

At that forgettable moment Jeff received a text from a newly inaugurated hypochondriac friend. Very simply it read, ‘Death Toll Tops A Million; Riots Erupt Worldwide.’ Jeff fiddled his fingers the way people do to intimate the fleeting sense of the world, and the phone clunked to the floor. No echo. Jeff waited, maybe for his breathing to stop, maybe for the guilt-jacking impulse to rise, to try and take a shit, to just do something. What really needs to be, Jeff’s brain offered in a voice occupying some weird no-man’s land between 2nd and 3rd person, a kind of dictatorial plasma, is some recontextualizing. Jeff grinned, sort of. What raw-boned textures the word had. What morphologia nebula. The critics would nod. The campus would approve, but keep an aslant eye constantly transfixed on him, primed at full cock, crosshairs hungry for future transgression. Recontextualize, my dear, foppish Jeff. ‘Tops a Million’! This virus had him sighing through his nose, a preposterous not-so-little number, with provocatively tubular suggestions to it. His peaked roof at the front door, as his very healthy mother (no pre-existing conditions, pulmonary or otherwise) of seventy-something used to say. Should I call her? Maybe wait two weeks. The last time they’d spoken they hadn’t really spoken; he’d been a peripheral presence outside the intense remisremembering scope of her and his father’s medical past, specifically concerning a certain top ranking health official with serious COVID suction, and the Washington Post expose on said official’s breadth of research and outreach during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, stating, according to his mother, with no absence of laudal flare, and, more or less, sycophancy, that this woman had bravely given birth at the very height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, refusing an epidermal, bleeding profusely, and right as the midwife was about to transfuse much needed blood into the laboring lady in question, shouted “Don’t! It’s infected!” and promptly, like the hackneyed heroine of so many sentimentalist cheese-fests, passed out. Jeff’s mother was appalled at the story because that midwife was her. She had delivered the baby of this now highly influential medical advisor in the time of pandemic; she had been the one accused of attempting, albeit, unknowingly, to essentially murder this woman, and her darling child, with shamelessly sourced blood, when in fact the story was all “marmalade in the fry”, as a really unfortunate looking and strange relative of Jeff’s used to say, and at really inappropiate moments. Certain details had been not only left out, but erroneously reversed. The woman was not bleeding profusely, Jeff’s mother, finger wagging, lips puckered into a foot locker of crow’s feet. The story, she said, was propaganda.

“She was a total wuss,” Mrs. Jeff began, splaying herself in her armchair, rubbing bare bunions together hideously, proverbial hammer and nails in hand to crucify patient-provider confidentiality with, “whose idiot husband, god bless him, was going green with misplaced machismo, staring into her dilations, not that he could stare (his eyes were swirling in opposite directions; I’ve never seen anything like it), so I grab him, walk him over to her head, which, I might fffff add, was still perfectly fffffucking quoiffed and poofed and conditioned, vaginal rippage notwithstanding, and I tell him to hold her hand because she’s screaming ‘There’s too much blood! Give me the transfusion now!’, when it was a perfectly normal amount of blood during a perfectly normal, unexceptional birth from an unexceptional woman with too many mirrors in her life.” She relaxes, sinks exhausted into her cushions.

The whole time Jeff’s father is squinting like he, Jeff, imagines his father imagines a sage squints. “Hmmph! Most nefarious!” Jeff Sr. cloudy-brained. “Reverso muck-rake-o-o-oh, no?”

“And another thing!” torso bolting upright. But the rest, it dawns on Jeff, is lost to memory, that heel of narrative hid in the muted boom of a story’s (listing) shadow, and all that might matter is what that woman is willing to do for us, the fearful dying thousands. Upstairs, the body-knocking has stopped and the customary female throat-clear means they’ll start arguing in fiveish minutes. Jeff had not spoken about his life at all that night with his parents, which at the time was fine by him. What would he talk about, the hours wasted on the floor, dopesick for dairy? Or how about his neighbors’ ritual fuck-fight-fuck routine and how sad and jealous it made him, or how he had never wanted so badly to be ultra-elderly in his entire life as he does right now in this historical global moment just so he can say, ‘I’m ancient. My front steps are trying to kill me so go away and let me cough and eat fried chicken.’? Shut lips, not unlike a ganache-layered cake, got him through life’s riots and made the paper thin walls of experience seem pointless which meant there was doubly no point in talking about it. So the hours passed; the carpet never got vacuumed. He went outside.

The previous tenant had left an ashtray full of rain-stained cigarettes on the knee-high brick wall that Jeff figured he now had the right to call a stoop. Burned off fog left the air queasy thick, so Jeff went up his two steps to street level thinking it might be better. Out on the sidewalk, without a crisp edge to speak of, was a tin pan of waffles someone had had enough of. Instead of being waffled like waffles, a doughy sugar-powdered bootprint could be distinctly made out. He approaches, stands over the thing. It’s sad, alright. A pace or two away is what looks like a blob of used condoms, but Jeff’s brain is seeing the wrong glove. Painter’s masks, deflated latex digits, the weekly new addition to the corner’s panhandlers— the torrent is multiplying, the curve bulges. Wobbly humanity has an ill-founded universe stacked against it. Jeff begins to feel jumpy in that moment, a cursed kind of feeling sweeping down the street and over the potholes to swirl around him like the warm evening winds of femme ferocity in a heroine’s red dress, the blazing scarlet number that says, ‘yeah, I got some tricks up my sleeve, pal’, but the opposite. Jeff wanted to either die or be on a huge, empty beach or both. He couldn’t tell. What that told him about the afterlife should’ve been interesting (to Jeff, that is) but not this time.

Maybe he should just get some chocolate, the nice kind with the smoky nightclub backlighting in the picture. An idea occurred: all this weird sex stuff, the really subliminal, subdued, cloaked kind, had fucked Jeff up. Think about it. There’s this ad that pops up on his Spotify, an English version and a Spanish one (Jeff’s ex spoke Spanish but Spotify must’ve figured once a multilingual targetability, always a multilingual targetability): a woman, youngish-sounding, posing really inappropriately leading questions in this voice. It’s too at-ease sounding, a hardly hidden giggle somewhere in there, in that voice that maybe had a couple real stiff vodkatinis and all of a sudden dear god has hips whose sway makes you seasick and has this way of running its fingers through its shampoo model hair and Jeff only ever hears this ad when his headphones are in his head. If the phone’s through a speaker or on its own, neither version plays. It’s as if the voice knows it is powerless unless it can be closer than a lover’s whisper. Craft chocolate does the same thing.

He’d had enough of this. Sugar withdrawal had his head creaking with raw-boned pain, like a hangover but somehow more embarrassing. Patting his pockets, he felt his wallet with the debit card and the driver’s license (quietly proud organ donor, please and thank you), his key, phone.  There was no denying he was all set. He even had his headphones tangled in a stuffed bunch in his back pocket. A big breath in, a big breath out.

“I’m ready now,” he said, and he turned to the door and held out a shaky hand towards the knob that doesn’t always turn the way you want.

 

MAY, 2020

KINDRED SPIRITS

BY TJ HERRIN

Lights embrace bottles
warming the smooth glass
glowing
crimson,
ashen,
sickly, neon jade showcase
of pain drowning in a glass full
of words flowing through brunette liquid.

listening— azure conversation holding
truths told to strangers.
the waitress
slinging fiery liquid band-aids
from behind the chestnut bar.

glass reflecting an atmosphere of
Tuesday night loneliness.
two black notebooks
three chairs apart,
occupied by strangers
revealing their secrets
to ink soaked hoary sheets

together.

THE PITCHER

BY JAY CALHOUN

Listening for
Mrs. Anna Mary Moses

Who became our Grandma
Many works later
What could she know
Of the usual essence
And where did she learn
Of her colors and light
The farming and harness
Of right composition

I imagine her voicing
The essentially usual
Hard and insistent
Like a nail or a handle

Slinging

Don’t slam that door, Tom
Got a cake in the oven
And leave them boots on the steps

Cain’t you see
I’m tryin to paint sump’n

I’m makin a pitcher out here.

SKY FULL OF BLOOD (A CAVEMAN STORY)

BY AMANDA CRUM

Opening your eyes here is like bathing in a dust storm.

The grit coats your teeth, angles hard beads into small spaces that hurt the most. There is no word for it, no way to curl the tongue inside the mouth and form language. I have so much inside me.

I sleep under the stars, or in a hollow cave in the eaves of a canyon. She sleeps with me much of the time, but not always. Things change with the sun, with the knots in her long dark hair. Once, she showed me the shadows moving slowly beneath the grasses, dark stripes on hard clay, and pointed to the sky; when the light goes, she told me with her eyes, the stripes get longer. We squatted on our haunches there until darkness came, watching the shadows until they were the same as everything else. You have to be patient to survive here.

She never dares to go beyond the big rock, stays inside the bowl of the canyon where the heat of the day isn’t so strong. It is up to me to hunt, something I have never minded until today. The air shimmers above my head, sizzles on my skin and draws the moisture out for creatures to feast on. I want to be past the canyon, watching the shadows grow on another patch of dust; asleep in the cool, dark cave that seems so far away just now. Anywhere but here.


Every day, the sky hurts. It bleeds as we all do, but goes quietly into the dark. It does not holler or beat its chest so it cannot be just as I am, but only as I remember it.

When she sleeps I lay my hand across the angles of her back, her skin warm like the clay. The air inside her rises and falls, reminds me of the feathered beast I came upon once as a child. It was broken but still lingered, pale belly facing the sun, a pitiful creature that wanted out. I carried it carefully into the shadows, vowing to bring it back to health, but while I was hunting, a slink-eyed cat came upon it. I returned to blood, carnage, and I wept. In that small creature I saw myself.

There is cruelty here. The days blend to shadows and the shadows whisper to me. They say this life is not worth living.


The rains come.

The clouds gather and crowd the sun out of the sky, a great purple mass shot through with streaks of silver. Water falls in curtains across the canyon, where she swings her body around with a look on her face like coming alive. We embrace, briefly, as steam rises from the clay, and when the rains stop falling she looks at me with eyes wide and speaks.

It is only one word, an utterance of sounds put together much the same as the ones she makes in pleasure or pain, but I know what she means. I understand. After all these long days and nights of feeling alone even when I am not, there is a way.

We retreat to the cave and speak for hours, watching the sky turn the color of fire as the last of the clouds move away. She uses ash to paint on the walls, smoky pictures of all the beasts she can think of, and we name them. Later, inside a canyon painted in starlight, the wind wakes the tall grasses in a rush. I wait for the sound of rain but none comes. Change has come on stealthy cat’s feet, the smell of clean mud alongside it.

When morning comes and fills the sky with blood I’ll rinse the gold dust from my eyes and find the bones of every last carrion, washed white by the sun and gleaming like something pure in the cracked clay. I’ll raise my fist and pretend I’m not the same as them, resisting the inevitable with every breath I take. Below me the dogs climb the rocks, famished and toothy. They turn their heads left to right, watching each crevasse with eyes that have seen the world.

MAYBE I’LL WATCH A MOVIE LATER

BY GRANT LOMELINO

I stood on the porch
Amazed at sky for turning a deep blue color
With a loose cigarette fluttering in my finger tips
Forgetting about the frozen dinner getting cold,
In the microwave diligently beeping to no one.
The street cat bolts from garbage can to garbage can
A couple chases after their son furiously pedaling a tricycle
The cemetery that is my missed call log continues to rot.

The family disappeared
The cat found solace somewhere else
The sky faded to black
Bringing my attention back to the world I inhabit,
I grab my cellophane covered dinner,
Sit on the floor of my room
With nothing but four eggshell walls.