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.

APRIL, 2020

THE BOY WHOSE MOTHER LEFT

BY YASH SEYEDBAGHERI

I’m the guy whose mother left. In gym, they remind me, their words a chant. She didn’t love you.

In church, sitting with my older sister Nancy, we catch snatches of conversation. Dreamer. Unfit mother.

Images rise to my mind: Dark wit, contracting temper, triggered by a loose dish or something else. She had me read Yates and Cheever, said they captured discontentment with family well. Said the husbands were all assholes in the stories.

She never spoke of love.

So I concoct stories, wield words. Mother’s a secret royal, a spy battling Communists. She’s been kidnapped, even.

Lies trump uncertainty.

PRAYER ON AMERICAN SOIL

BY SYNNIKA LOFTON

On road less traveled,
I protect my chest and celebrate God.
I sing a fiery blues that resembles
field hollers on plantations.
A song pulsates through
the body.

Fela Kuti stimulates intellect
and aggression
and joy
and resistance.

I scream because colonial days
still show signs
still provoke beasts
to adopt modern ways.
I love jet noise,
voices in streets,
children that march to youthful beats.
I beat an instrument because
freedom is different
in my home.

VIRGINIA’S WAR

BY BETH BROWN

News of what happened near Farmville spread quickly. The retreating wagon train had slowed because of the narrow bridge, and the Union cavalry gained ground. It was destined, Virginia had made certain of it, and the soldiers would be arriving to put an end to things soon.

She and Ophelia had gone over every detail this time—there had been too many lives lost for there to be any mistakes. The cryptic letters Virginia exchanged with friends farther south had all advised her in the same manner. Their housemaids knew of the dark and hidden ways to make crops thrive or die, make their masters ill, and how to prevent carrying a child. Virginia was certain they also knew how to undo the mess she’d made.

It had been nearly seven days, but she tended the spell without rest. Ophelia made sure that she ate, and she sat and talked across the little side table with her through some of the long nights, but Ophelia needed to keep the house running and divert Wilmer’s attention when his curiosity hinted at cat-like.

Virginia sat by the oval side table. It was demure, unassuming, even with its spool-turned legs. The table was one of the few things she made sure had traveled with them on their coach from Manassas instead of with the other furniture. Wilmer had believed her when she told him that it was a favorite piece and she simply wanted to see that it arrived at Appomattox without damage.

The chess board and carved soapstone pieces that sat atop the table belonged to Wilmer. He was suspicious about her interest in the game at first, but then he seemed almost proud at how much she studied and practiced it. Virginia had no idea the excuse she’d use to explain why it needed to be destroyed when she was finished. Ophelia told her that haints like to cling. She supposed the table would have to go, too.

Virginia had tried to be a good wife, to support her husband like he’d helped to support her. A widow who could bear no sons was no good to a successful wholesaler like Wilmer, but he’d married her anyway. “Out of love,” he said.

She wondered if he would love her if he knew that she’d turned away from the church and taken up the slaves’ superstitions? The first spells she had worked were small thing— the speedy arrival of a letter she was expecting, plenty of eggs from the hens that one spring, a new contract for Wilmer’s trade. When his business fell slim and tension with the northern states increased by the day, Virginia decided to work something larger, something that would make Wilmer happy and tide them over for a while. She never counted on it being a battle that would eventually turn into a war.

The army had moved down from the north. Everyone in Manassas could tell that something was about to happen, like how the scent of rain and lightning carries in the air long before the sky darkens with a storm. Then General Beauregard arrived at the front door, and her house was no longer a home. A cannonball fell down the kitchen chimney to let everyone at the McLean plantation know that no one was safe. Wounded men screamed and cried from the barn while the filthy doctors did all they could to soothe them, even if it meant inflicting more pain first. The dead lay strewn across the fields and along the hillsides. Their blood ran in the creek all because Virginia dabbled in something she couldn’t control.

She had to make it right. Four years and hundreds of thousands of lives lost was just too much, and the very thought of it churned her guts and made her hands tremble.

“Miss Ginny,” Ophelia whispered, “Thomas down at the Anderson house says the army gonna be here by morning.” Virginia had only to hold out for one more night. Keep up the little heathen prayer and make the last move on the chess board, and then she could rest after it all came to pass.

She didn’t know what time it was, but darkness had fallen and Ophelia had lit a lamp long before she came to tell her about word from the Anderson farm. The day weighed heavily on her bones and pulled at her eyelids, but the pain in her chest of the heartaches she’d caused helped to keep her focused.

“You want me to stay here in case you nod?” Ophelia asked. Virginia shook her head and continued the prayer in a quiet whisper. She repeated the words so many times in the course of that long week that they came from her lips on their own. The hours and the words swirled together after Ophelia went to her room.

A lavender glow pulled the sky out of slumber, and Virginia looked up just as a glimmer of sun shone above the fields outside of the east window. With great effort, she stopped her chants and took the carved soapstone knight in hand and seized the queen. The monarch felt cold and dead in her grasp.

“A fine game.” The low, smooth voice came from behind her, close enough that she would have sworn she felt the breath on her neck. Virginia turned slowly and found a gentleman resting in an armchair by the darkened fireplace. “Fine, just fine,” he smiled. His hair glinted copper in the ripening sunlight, and his pale skin was dotted with freckles that drew together when he grinned.

“Who let you in?” Virginia was exhausted and felt that she had been drifting in and out of a dream all night. Maybe the dream had followed her into the day.

“Why, you did, my dear. You let me in when you buried that loaf of bread so your hens would lay plenty. You let me in when you set out that honey and whisky for a lucrative season of business for your husband.” One side of his mouth tilted upward and his eyes sparkled with something dangerous. “And you let me in when you started that game of yours and lay waste to thousands.”

Her dress began to cling to her arms and back, and a cold sweat made her hands go slick. This stranger claimed to know about things that she had not dared mentioned to anyone. Even if Ophelia had known, this man’s fine black coat and clean, polished boots told her that he was too proper to be gossiping with slaves.

“I assure you, you’ve done fine work, Virginia,” he said, “And now it’s time for us to go.”

Panic rose in her throat, “I’m not going anywhere with you, sir. I don’t even know who you are.” She struggled to hide the trembling in her voice.

“It’s true that we’ve never met, but we’re better acquainted than you think. You can call me Jack.” He stood and Virginia barely had a chance to blink before he’d crossed the room to take her hand. She flinched at the heat from his touch. “And you, Ginny, have been most loyal and productive. One of my finest pawns yet.”

LOOKING DOWN ON ME

BY HUGH BLANTON

How can I get back to that place where great sentences are born?
I’m stuck here in this land of indolence
and wool gathering.
My shelves are bursting with those
who wrote and wrote and wrote.
They there are— looking down on me—
Anderson— Chabon— Franzen— Pynchon.

I used to be able to crank them out.
Now I compulsively check the internet
looking for the latest twist on some image
of a woman screaming at a sneering cat.
The time that used to be devoted to
filling blank pages is now spent
watching the outraged fulfill
their moral imperatives on social media.

Maybe all the rejection beat me down
into a state of hopeless despair.
But long before I’d ever appealed to
an agent or editor sentences flew forth
from me with ease and love.
That bubbling well is still there
and I want to go back.

MARCH, 2020

THE SKELETON HORSE

BY NEIL TAYLOR

When I die, you’ll
fly down on your rainbow colored wings.
Lift me up and carry me
beyond my home galaxy.
Fly past a billion stars
out from beneath this canopy.
I’ll finally be able to see
with my own eyes.

WEIGHTED BLANKET

BY JENNIFER DELANEY

Disheveled mess,
Me, myself, and I all alone together,
In our bed.
I sleep with my sorry self, curled up on one,
side.
If I turn to the right
It’s easier to
Sigh, let smoke and sin try to escape my sorry body and
Mind. It hurts my head but,
If I lay on the left,
Where my bad rib is, guts gone thin, damaged, no tangible,
Bandage but;
Glory and carnage to the gods of undergrad, special thanks to my first car crash and that weird flex of a
Prescription pad, as they say,
Ok boomer knows best, what could I even understand, about
Unrest, slept gone but not, kept?

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UNLUCKY

BY BRIAN RIHLMAN

It’s heaven and hell for we obsessive
types.  Almost midnight and I’m
still trapped in this web.  A thousand
faces.  Mugshots.  An ex girlfriend’s
daughter’s going away— drugs,
prostitution…and man!  those eyes got
hard over the last six years. No tears
in them now, not like that first shot
in 2014, when her mascara ran like
rivers of black down smooth white
cheeks, and she looked down, and away.
Now she stares straight at the camera,
at me, with eyes the shape of broken
glass, eyes that say, “Fuck you!
This ain’t nothin’!”

Now I’m searching random names.
Digging just to dig…flinging dirt.
And here— holy shit!  My high school
girlfriend’s uncle.  The cool aunt and
uncle, just a few years older than us,
who used to get us drunk, let us crash
at their pad.  He stares at me, with an
angry red gash across his forehead,
blood down one side of his face.

That night….almost 30 years ago…
I was 17. I remember him with a
pool cue in his hand, swinging.
A billiard ball whizzed past my head.
Someone got in my face and I swung
wildly, my fist connecting with his jaw.
We ran when the bartender yelled
that he’d called the cops, and escaped
unscathed, somehow…laughing and
high-fiving as we passed the flashing
red and blues coming down the road.

I look again at his photo. The steel eyes.
The blood.  Jesus, dude…what the hell
are you into these days? But how I
avoided posing for a shot just like it,
all these years, is a question for
somebody much smarter than I—
I just…don’t…know.

THE UNMOVED MOVER

BY J.B. TONER

A dam of glass. It rose above the wasteland, half a mile thick and fifty miles high, endlessly unspooled beyond the flat horizons. Before it was a vast country of dust and dying weeds; behind it were the pure silent waters. Above was nothing but the graveyard of heaven.

At the foot of that titanic wall, a Northman stood. With the desolation at his back, he laid a palm on the cool glass and squinted up to the distant heights where the sky was divided by its own dull reflection. His hair was night-black, his eyes a blue far darker than the empty empyrean; his features were frown-marked, pale, and lightly burned by the southern sun. A tall, lean fellow in his thirties, clad in blue, with a longsword on his hip.

There it was— an ocean’s worth, but fresh as mountain rain— perhaps a thousand strides away. Cundar of Raelor eyed the grim face eyeing him in the glass; eyed the quadrillions of gallons beyond. And slowly, deliberately, he balled his right hand into a fist. Raised it. Felt the earth pushing up against the balls of his feet.

Then he smashed his fist against the dam. Watched the impact ripple outward through the megastructure. And saw one tiny rivulet, an overslop from fifty miles up, come trickling down the surface to vanish in the hard, cracked dirt.

He raised his fist again.


“For the love of the dead gods, Northman.” Captain Mellifast gulped his drink and poured another. “You’ll be satisfied, I suppose, when you join them in the void.”

Cundar’s brow unfurrowed slightly: a smile’s equivalent. “I keep telling you, I never served one of your wispy southern dryads. Raelor’s god is War, and he’s alive and strong.”

“Then what’s the problem? You’re still on Kenoma’s payroll, go conquer one of our enemies instead of ‘training’ our soldiers into the infirmary. Did you know that sparring practice with you is considered the heaviest punishment in the Appleyard Brigade?”

The glimmer of smile faded like false spring. “I can’t do it anymore, Mellifast. These tepid battles. But for you and Kalagor, I haven’t met a fighter with spirit since I’ve been here; and if I kill you two, I’ll have no one left to drink with.”

“I too have always treasured our friendship.”

“And it’s no use taking on a platoon of spiritless foes at once. It’s just multiplying zeroes.”

“Doing what now?”

“Never mind.” (Folk of Raelor tolerated neither thaumaturgy nor natural philosophy in their battles, but they learned the rudiments of both, lest they be caught off-guard.) “I need a challenge or I’ll run yammering mad, is the point.”

“So you’ll pick a fight with the Maker of the Cosmos.”

“Why not?”

“Many would say you yammer already.”

“Prudence and wisdom keep scant company. I have fears like any man, but they’re not of my body’s death.”

The big, mustachioed soldier studied the moving flames upon the hearth. Listened to the prowling wind outside and rolled the whiskey glass between his hands. “Cundar, I’m a simple man. I haven’t seen the things you have. I don’t understand them. I do know that no worldly wind can change your course once you’ve set it. What’ll happen to the earth if you kill the Demiurge?”

Cundar shrugged. “Who knows? Nothing, likely. He made all things, then left them to dry and shrivel. I can’t see that we’ll be any the worse with him slain.”

“Well. All these years, I’ve yet to hear one tale from the other side of a sword that crossed yours in earnest. If all is doomed to freeze and fade, I can’t say I mind if our Creator goes down with his ill-rigged ship.”

“Oh, he’ll be waiting at the bottom when we get there.” Cundar raised his drink to Mellifast, then drained it. “Pleasant dreams, old friend.”

“And a pleasant death to you.”

The Northman rose and left the room with his hand, as always, on his sword-hilt. Mellifast finished his drink and poured another. And sat quietly, staring into shadow, as the fire crackled and the cold wind blew.


Ballads and tales attribute many feats to the dark-haired sword-man of Raelor. One of them is the defeat (or massacre, depending on the teller) of the Archons, idiot demon-god lieutenants of the Demiurge.

“But in truth, there’s no story worth the breath,” said Runa Li, High Priestess. “Is there, man of the North?”

“They were dead when I found them.” The dim-lit altar smelled of dust and hyacinth. Virth, somber she-wolf of the Temple, sniffed his sword-hand, and he scratched her ears. “It should’ve been a mighty fray, not a coffin tally. The spirit’s gone out of this universe.”

The corners of her eyes crinkled. Hair like snow, grey-frosted, framed her long-since lovely face. “Should have been, hey? Now there’s a matter for bards. Let your friend Trenneth Lute-strummer croon lays of what should have been. Let’s you and I speak of what is.”

“And what’s that?”

“A dying world. You’re right, Cundar, the soul of the Cosmos burns low. It’s why I’ve proffered my succor to your quest. With these harvested bits of the Archons, I can grant what you seek— in part. I can send you to the realm of the Demiurge.”

“In part?”

“That realm is one of thought alone. Your flesh will stay below in slumber, while your astral form does whatever battle it may find.”

“Battle’s battle.”

“You’re indefatigable, Northman. Come and sit.”

He obeyed. Next to her huge oaken throne was a humble seat reserved for acolytes; there he reclined, and Runa Li stood before him. Her hands rose and seemed to float, tracing slow designs of cryptic portent. The night sounds of the city did not penetrate the Temple walls. It was very still.

An orange glow arose from the Priestess— eerie but not menacing— strangely dreamlike.  Despite his intensity of focus, the swordsman found himself blinking slowly. A not unpleasant lassitude stole into his limbs. Runa Li began to whisper rhythmic words in some old, forgotten tongue. And Cundar closed his eyes.


And opened them with a snap, suddenly bolt upright. He was no longer in the chair, no longer in the Temple. He stood in a withered expanse, a wasted land, with a pale blue nothing overhead.

The Northman cast his gaze across the barren vista. Left and right and rear offered only bleak infinitude; but straight ahead, a distant secret glinted in the bitter sun. Cundar started walking.

He understood that he was here as a naked soul, but it seemed he could still feel weariness and thirst. The far-off glint was farther than he’d guessed: he walked for many hours. Many days, perhaps, but the dull haze of the sun never moved. He knew not whether he was heading east or west. But as the hungry miles went by, he came to know what lay ahead.

Taller than a mountain range, longer than the coast of any sea, the Thing reared up above the plain. He thought it must be ice, a colossus among glaciers. But it was perfectly regular, a crafted wall. Accursedly refusing to grow nearer, it simply grew higher and higher.

But the journey was a battle, and he was a fighter of Raelor. He would not be beaten. He walked on, bearing his load of famine and fatigue, until at last he came to the foot of the dam and beheld the sparkling reservoir beyond the glass.

He felt the presence before he heard the voice. “Cundar of Raelor,” it said, directly behind him.

Drawing his blade, he turned. Opened his mouth to give challenge—closed it, wordless.

“I know. You sought a mighty fray. I cannot give it.”

“You’re the Maker of the Cosmos?”

“Alas.”

“You’re just a bent old man.”

“In this place, you see not things, but the meanings of things.”

Cundar sheathed his sword in disgust. “Could you not create one worthy opponent before succumbing to your own flabby indolence?”

“My powers are a cistern full of sand. In my weaving of Time, I entangled myself in its fabrics. I became subject to entropy, to age. But in foolish arrogance, I tarried in the mortal realm, believing I could break free whenever I chose. Now it is too late.”

“For what?”

“To breach the dam. In this place, you see, you’re only as strong as your spirit.”

Involuntarily, Cundar glanced at the wall. “What happens if it breaks?”

As he turned back, he was utterly unsurprised to find the old man gone.

For a long moment, he stood at the base of the dam. Only as strong as your spirit, he thought. What happens if it breaks?

“One way to find out,” he murmured.

The first blow yielded a tiny rivulet. The second made a tiny crack. “Damn you,” he muttered. The pride of Raelor sparked, kindled, blazed. “Damn you!” he roared.

Weariness left him, and he began throwing punches with the power and speed of a war-god. The dam shuddered from foundation to summit, and water sloshed over the top in a hundred spots. The surface cracked and splintered along the length of the wall. From some of the cracks, water dribbled; from others, it geysered.

At the crescendo of his spirit’s conflagration, he freed his weapon from its scabbard once again. “My sword is my soul,” said Cundar of Raelor. And struck with all that he was.

As the dam exploded, as the world-shattering cataract erupted across the wasteland, every drop of that eternal ocean ignited into flame.


He overheard a whisper as he crossed the pavilion: “Northman looks a bit glum this morning.”

Stalking to the front of the column, he glared at the troops and barked, “Fall in!” They came to attention— rather more sharply than usual, he thought. Perhaps he’d finally dropped his standards. “All right, who’s first?”

As he raised his weighted wooden sword, he realized his voice did indeed sound glum. After the dam of the Demiurge had burst and filled the universe with fire, Cundar had woken with a start in his chair at the Temple to find that only moments had passed. At his tale, Runa Li had smiled with enigma and counseled patience; and the swordsman went home to a bottle of Forallan wine and a slumber of disappointing dreams. Now he faced yet another day of teaching these kittens to fight.

But lo, a posthumous marvel from some decomposing divinity: every man-jack of them raised their hands. Randomly, Cundar picked Sergeant Vorn, and was actually caught off-guard—rather than inching forward, striving only to be incapacitated with the least possible discomfort, the sergeant gave a hearty yell and charged.

One by one, he disarmed the men and sword-slapped them on the ribs or the head; and one by one, they grinned and asked for a rematch. When he explained where they’d gone wrong, they listened and made different mistakes the next time. By the end of the day’s training, Cundar discovered a look on his own face that he thought must be a smile.

Kenoma’s somber streets had an odd sense of bustle. The breeze felt cleaner and the sunlight warmer. When he met Mellifast that evening in the tavern, the room was full of song.

“Cundar!” the captain shouted, throwing his gigantic arms around the Northman. “Come on, try the ale. It’s never tasted so good.”

It was true. Everything tasted better. The woodsmoke smelled better. Cundar heard himself laughing, and wondered why it happened so rarely.

“Now let’s have the tale, you lunatic. How did you fare with the Maker?”

And the man of Raelor said, “We won.”

FEBRUARY, 2020

TO THE WOMAN I FELL IN LOVE WITH IN THE THIRD FLOOR BATHROOM

BY DELANEY BURK

Red hair tickles my sight first; you smile
at me and I can’t help imagining
a future. Leaning against the sink, dial
up the charm. We get coffee, you’re toying
with your chunky jewelry. Our first kiss
(my first, period) is on my sofa.
We’re watching Star Trek, and I don’t miss
how you say I’m grumpy McCoy. Boba
tea trips and we hear whispers of how you
are older than me. Shame is washed away
with fondness and Queen lyrics. And you do
not mind how ugly my laughter is. “Say,
would you like to—” Request silenced.
I watch you go. Was nice while it lasted.

PATENT FLATS

BY BETH BROWN

There they are again: the same feet— black patent flats with a decorative silver buckle on top— presumably attached to the same legs, attached to the same woman who is always in the bathroom stall that my body naturally directs me towards. The second stall is always anybody’s first choice. Nobody wants to go in the first because it’s usually the gross one, and anything beyond stall two is a gamble when it comes to cleanliness and supply of toilet tissue. All women know these things. It’s a given.

Still, this set of feet is always in the second stall. I’ve worked here for over two months and I’ve never been in this restroom when those feet weren’t there. I’ve even mixed it up and decided to go at random times, even if I didn’t actually need to, just to find out if the feet were there. I did this for weeks and it was like somehow she knew.

She’s just there.

It started to get on my nerves around the first of the month. I decided I’d get in a few extra steps and take the stairs and use a restroom on a different floor. There was a strange sense of satisfaction that came with walking in and going right to that second stall, blissfully unoccupied. That’s never the case on the floor where I work. It’s like having to take a detour you didn’t expect, or like trying to drink from a straw before you remember that you don’t have one—there are just some actions that are pure muscle memory.

For me, that’s walking to stall two.

Seeing them there now makes my ears burn. Why can’t she hide from her boss in the last stall like a normal person? I decide I can’t ignore it anymore. I can’t act like she’s not there and keep walking to a sub-par toilet and hope that there’s a functioning lock and no wide gap in the door.

I pretend that I didn’t realize the stall was taken and walk straight over and rattle the door. “Oh, sorry,” I mumble.

There’s no response. Like every other time before, no sound. Not a single drip or a rustle of tissue. No shifting of the feet, no repositioning of clothes, nothing.

It makes me even more furious. “Hellooo?” I say with annoyance crackling in my voice. “You know, you don’t have to be rude.”

Silence.

I stand there for what feels like forever and notice every muscle in my body start to tense. Like an out of body experience, I watch myself pound on the door with the heel of my hand. “Hey! You know other people would like to use this stall, too. Take a nap in your car or something,” I shout. The indignant response I expect never comes.

I bang on the door again and feel the latch rattle. I don’t stop, I don’t get quiet, I just keep beating the textured plastic until something shakes loose.

I pull back as the door slowly moves inward, my hand frozen in mid-air.

The realization hits me that I’ve probably just scared some poor woman half to death, and now I’m busting in on her as she’s trying to hide out in a bathroom stall. What the hell am I doing?

I watch the door as it swings with painful slowness towards the toilet. A sheet of tissue hangs from the bottom of the dispenser. A layer of dust clouds the top of the purse shelf. The door continues to move until I can see the water in the bowl.

The stall is empty.

The shoes are gone. No legs. No woman. All that’s there are the faded outlines of two footprints made by a pair of patent flats.

WIND SCATTERED

BY LACIE SEMENOVITCH

Poetry stopped calling
my name or maybe I stopped
listening because I grew to distrust
my voice, twangy, small, full of questions.
No profundities or music, words
flattened by the stomp of work
boots. Images without beating
hearts, wingless. Images afraid
truth would hemorrhage the dead,
the left behind, the bodies
forgotten like lonely mountains
shouting my name on a wind gust,
a wound, so far away that distance
turned scars to whispers, wisps
of memory like ghosts passing
through my skin in a city I can’t
claim because the hold of dirt,
of tree, of chicory, of winding
roads pulls me back like muddy
faces and ashes scattered on the ground.

PUT ON, PUT UP, PUT OUT, PUT AWAY

BY HEATHER LUSTIG CURRAN

You’re curled up on your faded ivory couch, the cushions’ permanent concavity are cupped  like oyster shells.  You’re swaddled in comfort clothing, the periwinkle jammies with frayed holes in the thighs.  You’re ignoring the rom-com on the screen, reading “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufock.”  He’s bemoaning the reality that the women ignore his fashionable clothing and focus on his thinning hair when the notification swims up your phone.

Hey babe cant w8 2 c u

Your hand levers backwards as you sigh.

You hate “babe.”

But you like him.  He’s nice.  Not amazing.  But you’re willing to give him a chance.  Besides, it’s not like you have tons of opportunities, and he wants you.

You wish your feelings were stronger, less cautious, but you’ve experienced enough of the love mythology.  Yet you still fall for the traps.  As far as you know, though, Cupid’s arrows are stashed in your closet.

So you overlook babe.  After all, he saw past your imperfections and chose you.

Your cell phone drops into your lap.

Tonight is the third date, and you feel the pressure.

He’ll pay for dinner.

You’ll pay for the courtesy.

He’ll pick a restaurant but you want the nightcap to stay at the bar and not your bed.  You want intimacy but don’t equate that with sex.  You like the sweet way he cups your face, kisses you, backs away, looks at you with a coy, cocky smile.  Plus, he’s always telling you how sexy you are.  You spool those words around your loneliness to buttress yourself against the long quiet, periods between admiring attention.

Prufrock and his loneliness will have to wait for your empathy.  You haul yourself from your warm, sagging place to take a shower.  It’s been a long day.  You look forward to hearing his stories, even if they revolve around escapades with friends you haven’t met and sports teams you don’t follow.  You hope he’ll listen to your stories.  The needled hurt pricks again from when he’d cut you off on the last date.  You were describing the woman with alzheimer’s and how she awakened at your delivery of sixty roses.  You wanted him to take the hint.  Instead, you took the hint that he wasn’t interested.

Your bathroom is a DIY catastrophe.  Between the pink and white striated clam shells glued to gold-crackled frames and the sand yellow and tropical blue towels, you hoped to evoke a tropical paradise.  You created a ticky-tacky grotto.  And you swear the mermaids on the shower curtains are laughing at you.

You want to fill the tub, lower your aching body into the deep, let your muscles uncoil as the water saturates your hair, leaks into your ears, cups your neck.  You want him to bring you a cold cider while you recline in the hot water.   Let you soak in water and not expectations.

But you’ll take a shower.   Clean out the roses’ nicks and pricks that must be the god’s punishment for romance.  Scrub the long green stains tatted around your fingers.

You switch on the water, twist the tap to the highest registry in red.

You wait.

This is your life.  Waiting.

For the acceptance you seek and try to catch, like milkweed seeds pelting on the wind.  They slip through your fingers, constellate in the air, tumble to the sky.

When the steam collects behind the curtain and the mermaids look like they are wearing a second skin, you drift under the water, gasp at the sudden pain of the intense, hot water, and dial the knob back.

Some like it hot.  You prefer it not too hot.

You squeeze the trigger and the pink slush coils into your hand, reeking of chemical wildflowers.  The edges blister and you massage the bubbling mass across your legs and up your thighs.

You draw up the razor over your knee and flinch when the blades gouge out a chink of skin.  The blood wells, like an eye opening, and seeps down your leg to be swallowed by the drain’s wide mouth.  

You hate how if you aren’t careful, the blood will stain the white carpet the landlord thought was appropriate to lay in your shoddy one room apartment.

You have a personal war with your entire body.  So much of it you’d like to dismantle, return to the original manufacturer.  On close inspection, no one could think you’re sexy, not with the long black hairs on your inner thighs.   The constellation of whiskers under your chin.  “Beauty is only skin deep” people say, but your skin is pock marked with pimples, ingrown hairs, moles, slightly bulging veins, and freckles that you didn’t think were blemishes.

You have a love-hate relationship with your body.  You love to hate it.  You love your wrists.  Your eyes.  Sometimes your hair. The rest can be chucked.


As a girl, you learned that skirts and dresses were dangerous, especially on Friday-Flip-Up-Day which wasn’t always Friday.  The first time you wore a skirt, the girls clustered in a tidy herd with you in the middle until the predating boys burst through the girl-ball, flushing out the quarry.  On that Tuesday, the boys chased you, their hands reaching for the knee-length hemlines, their fingers snapping with urgency.  You squealed, your voice high-pitched with what sounded like laughter, acceptance, excitement.

You kept them at bay until fatigue loosened your joints.  You sought the chatting teachers clustered in a corner, and the boys drifted back, thwarted, waiting for you to leave base.

You hopped around the group of women, wanting to interrupt but knowing that was impolite and would result in a scolding.  You rocked from side to side until your teacher peeled away.  And you realized you had nothing to say.

Nothing had happened.

You hadn’t been touched.

But the boys drifted in and out from behind the playground equipment, waiting, with gap-toothed smirks.

You tried to explain so that the teacher would understand without humiliating you.  The boys were chasing you.  Truth.  You didn’t like it.  Truth.  You didn’t tell her why.  The reasons made you sound dirty.  Truth.

“Just tell them no.  Stand up to them.  They’ll listen,” she said.

Adults don’t lie.  Teachers know everything.

You left the bubble.  The hunters broke through the camouflage and you surrendered to the instinct to run while the girls watched.

When your legs were wobbly with exhaustion, you acted on your teacher’s recommendation.  You stopped.

You swung around, threw up your hand.

“No!  Just leave me alone.”

The boys hadn’t listened to the teacher, though.  Your skirt was lifted up and over your waist; your equator and southern hemisphere exposed like a globe bisected to display its innards.

When the teachers responded to your shrieks, the boys scattered and the girls shivered in their blind silence.  You were asked the stupid question of why you didn’t just play on the swings or the slide.  You were told that you should have never run, that running just encourages them.

But the playground equipment was an avenue for exploratory observation.  Playing on the swings while wearing skirts invited boys to climb the jungle-gym and perch on the top, waiting for the moment when the skirt ballooned open.   The boys waited at the bottom of the slide, looking up, salivating for drifting hems, the inevitable gapping of the legs which opened the treasure chest of secret panty sightings.

Even though they made you feel frumpy, you wore shorts under skirts.   You couldn’t communicate what it meant to be exposed.   Besides, it was your fault for choosing to wear a skirt.


Beginning in girlhood, you devoured animated movies starring princesses and ballerinas who were taught that the alchemy for success was to love themselves.  The power of self-belief transformed kingdoms, defeated the malevolent, and inspired forever romantic relationships.

You tried to accept this fortune-cookie truth.

“Just be yourself.”

You thought you were yourself.  Who else would you be and how could you not know who you were?  You were a future woman who understood nothing related to femininity.  The concept of cosmetics and submission were terms you couldn’t insert into your vocabulary.

You wanted freedom.

You wanted to wear jeans and t-shirts and ride your bike past sunset.  You loved singing and dancing and playing with Barbies.  You also loved using tools to build clunky birdhouses.  You knew you were plain looking and wanted to feel pretty.  You were curious about make-up but intimidated by the colors and the applicators that looked mildly tortuous.

Who you were supposed to be and who you wanted to be and how you were supposed to be were at such conflicting angles on this prism that the refracted light broke into muddy spectrums, yielding no beauty.


In middle school, your pancake-flat breasts inflated into gelatinous blobs.  You learned that cup size was proportionate to your IQ.  The bigger the boobs, the smaller the brain.

Boobs.  Middle school is when you grew boobs.  Not breasts.

Boobs.

Boobies.

Bongos.

Garbanzas.

Honkers.

Hooters.

Jugs.

Tatas.

Tits.

Titties.

You don’t understand why we had such awkward words for basic biology.  You grew these things because you have two X chromosomes, not because you wanted them or wished for them.   You learned to talk about your body in hushed, ashamed whispers.  If adults couldn’t say the word “breast,” then clearly something was wrong with your body.

Just be yourself.

As your breasts grew, you grew to hate them.  They made you look fat.  They made you look fertile.  You learned to roll your body into a scroll to tuck away the jiggling, wiggling body parts that were suddenly salacious.  You bagged your body in swampy sweatshirts that stank of body odor and comfort.

Friday-Flip-Up-Day was replaced by bra snapping.  Between classes, you were at the water fountain when the fingers dug into your vertebrae.  They pinched the strap.  Pulled backwards.  Released.

The sting welted up your back and down your arms.  Your temper snapped and you swung around on the smarmy boy leaning against the wall, his arrogance nauseating.

Instinct drew your arm back, curled your hand into a fist, launched your knuckles forward.  You punched him in the soft point where the shoulder melts into the chest.  He was bony, almost fragile, and his taunting pride evaporated.  You weren’t supposed to hit back; that wasn’t part of his well-rehearsed game.

Your name echoed off the walls.  A teacher strode toward you, her face angry and purposeful.

“Apologize.  Right now,” she demanded.

“But…but he started it,” you said.  You couldn’t give voice to his touching your bra.  Touching your underwear was just as dirty as touching your privates.

“And I’m ending it,” the teacher said.  “Young ladies don’t hit.”

You muttered an apology, slunk away.  Later, he sneered at you about being “on the rag.”


To be yourself is a Hamlet quandary.  You aren’t entirely certain what it means to be yourself, to love yourself.  You leave the bathroom and the mermaids.  In your bedroom, you begin the beautification process.  Sit on your bed, let the towel eddy from your body.  Slather your skin with the heavy, lavender scented lotion. Starting at your ankles, your hands run in circles, lapping and overlapping the gaping pores, the years of erosive wear.

Your skin tightens, the cottage cheese curds shrink.  A warm vibrancy replaces the coldness within the extremities.

You don’t know yourself, but you know how to create yourself.


In high school, you entered a slaughterhouse of reduction and reproduction.  You studied relationships and love through television, movies, and books.  You gawked at the couples making out in the halls, coveting the hands-on romantic gestures and attitudes.  Alone, you belted out love songs, for once being an object of desire, even if it was imaginary and one-sided.  Anything to fill the void.  You were too old to pretend, but you did.  At school, you were invisible.  In your mind, you were a lean princess, a thriving heroine, a girl loved by all, especially the handsome boy from English class.

You found Adonis; he read Hamlet to your Ophelia.  He stared in the distance as he contemplated his life and thought about death.  You followed the teacher’s direction to enter and he turned around.

He walked to you, his hand outstretched, and, without looking at the textbook, said “Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered.”

A fragment of your heart shifted, and the loneliness thawed.  He smiled at you, not beyond you at the guffawing classmates.  And your eyelashes fluttered down, demure, feminine.   You stumbled over the lines, your face burning with embarrassment…with something like love.

You walked with him to his next class, clasping your books to your chest like the girls did on TV.  You absorbed his words, encouraged him to tell stories.  Ignored the fact that he didn’t reciprocate.  You had time.  You had love.

For the next three weeks, you pursued him.  Walked him to his classes, memorized the tones of his voice, the way he hunched over his desk.  You noticed him looking at the svelte girl who sat one row from him.  She was more beautiful, but you had dibs.  You had fallen for him first.

You wrote poetry about him.  When you sang your love songs, you imagined his face, the cherished eyes brightening when he realized how authentic your emotions were.  You imagined him holding your hand, pressing his lips to yours.  You were ready for that moment.  You were ready to be his.

You were not ready to find out that he called you a dog because you followed him like a lost puppy.


Your skin fragrant, the bulging flabbiness lifted, shrunk, defined, you move to the dressing table, sit before the triptych images of yourself.  Within the western mirror, the plain woman looks askance, stares at the toner soaked cotton ball sweeping across the arch of the cheekbones.  The woman in the center pane looks at the nothing before her, within her.  She empties herself and prepares for the night’s communion.  The girl in the eastern mirror teases at her youth, at the vibrancy sweeping her face.

You’re settling.  The poetry still calls to you from its dismissed place on the coffee table.  You could just text him, tell him you’re not feeling well.

Instead, you squeeze out tidy drops of twenty dollar spot cream, dab at the zodiac of imperfections on your skin.  Leaning forward, you inspect would-be blemishes, tiny volcanoes and mountain ranges whose tectonic plates surrender to the chemistry set inhabiting each bottle, tube, and color palette arranged like tarot cards on the vanity’s tabletop.


Despite your flabby body and awkward personality, you were eventually found.  He wanted you and you wanted romance.  He took you to the hill by the playground, wrapped his arm around you.

Held you.

With your head nestled in his shoulder, you felt what might be love.  You heard his heart beating and thought that it was for you.  Laying in the sunlight, the clouds undulating across the horizon, you were brilliant with anticipation.

He rolled you to your back and kissed you. You were hoping for this but weren’t expecting it so you didn’t pucker.  His moist lips grazed over yours and that was it.  Your first kiss.  Not disappointing.  Not enthralling.  But it was your first kiss and he was pretty good looking against your not good lookingness.  You wanted this.  You wanted him….

…to kiss you.

You thought you were being yourself and that someone liked you for it.  He didn’t expect you to wear make-up and revealing clothing.

Then he got past the kissing, wanted to take it to the next step.

It was Friday-Flip-Up-Day again.   Even though you only wore pants.

He wanted to hold you.  Or parts of you.  Like the left gelatinous blob.

You grabbed his hand when you realized where it was.  He kissed you harder, slid his tongue into the edge of your mouth, against your teeth.

Kissing felt good.  Kissing distracted you from how he tried to find your zipper, unclasp your buttons.

You were clear with your no’s.  Movies and TV shows proved that a girl’s first time was supposed to be special: candlelight and roses and chocolate and the lovesongs you sang to yourself.  They also showed the regret if she didn’t choose the right boy or wait the unspecified prerequisite amount of time.  A boy’s first time is his initiation into manhood.  A girl’s first time is her destruction.

He didn’t worship your purity.  He smirked and called you a prude.

Being a virgin didn’t mean you were immune to the rising physical sensations during your kissing sessions.  You didn’t like that being a prude meant you were judgmental, that you hated anything sensual. But you didn’t love him and weren’t even sure that you liked him, but he kissed you so he had to like you.  And you weren’t about to lose this opportunity of having a boyfriend.  So you accepted his “playful” advances, chalked it up to him being a boy.  You figured that as long as you knew what was happening, you could keep him from going too far.

His patience with your denial was dry-rotted elastic.  When he probbed your zippered wall and absolute barriers, he called you a tease.

But being a tease meant you were playing with him, “dicking him along.”  Being a tease was being a slutty virgin.  Being a tease meant you could be changed through guilt and manipulation.

He teased you for turning away what he offered.

He wasn’t teasing you when he saw you with your notebook, looking dreamily out the window, and said, “Another feeble attempt at poetry?  Bad poetry?”

He walked away, cocky in his sexual assuredness.  Victorious that if you refused to let him plunge into you then he could plunge in the emotional knife.  He got the last word.

You got to sink into the desk and pretend that you weren’t going to cry.

You hadn’t been raped.

You hadn’t had sex.

But you had been dumped.

Because you were a tease.

You thought he had liked you.  What you realized, was that you were an opportunity, a temporary lust, a malignant treasure hunt in which you were just a stupid booby prize.


You didn’t know how to be a woman when you were told to love yourself for who you were.  The woman you wanted to be didn’t care about appearances, didn’t need expensive creams and color palettes.  You lean forward, your breath steaming the mirror.  You pluck eyebrow hairs.  You line your upper lid, drawing up the brush at the corner, creating the Egyptian cat’s eye.  Leaning back, you pretend that you resemble Cleopatra, a woman who killed herself because she refused to be a man’s tool.

You wish you had her strength.  You wonder if he would respect that.

With a few swipes, the smokey eye is achieved.  Your eyelids lower, slowly.  You are sultry.  To a degree, you’re slutty, and you ignore the discomfited conscience gnarled in your belly.   You are transforming into the beauty you have longed to be.  You are intimidated by this fabricated woman, but you know she is loved, and so you try to love her as well.


In college, you still submerged yourself into your guilty pleasures, your romantic movies, your quasi-erotic romance novels that filled your barren reservoir of loneliness and constructed a mystical him.

He would find you.  You knew that somehow you were fated to find him.

But this belief was secret because strong women didn’t need men. They weren’t lonely.  Their iron self-confidence and self-love lifted them from you and the rest of the masses.

To show your appealability, you sat in the middle of the lecture halls, far enough from the front to avoid looking nerdy.  Far enough from the back to avoid looking apathetic.

Everyone loved you because you were “so nice.”  When they got drunk and puked, you made sure they slept on their sides and cleaned up the foul piles the morning after. You edited papers and helped with homework. You listened to their stories, held them when they sobbed, and supported them no matter what.  Even some of the young men called you the “perfect woman” because you “were always there and just listened.”

But you were alone. Steadily, the girls found their dream men.  In October, you broke down, sobbing “What’s wrong with me?”

Blinded by the attention and acceptance, you succumbed to a makeover.  By Sunday night, you even bought your first “cute outfit” that you were afraid of wearing.  Too much skin showed in some places, skin that was mottled or cleavage that felt unsettling or dangerous.

The next Friday night, your hallmates took you to a frat party.  The room throbbed with bodies and booming bass notes and schizophrenic strobe lights.  Entranced, you stood within a humping cluster of people and tried to fit in which failed because you were unable to mimic the tribal ritual.

Through the surging ball of people, a young man penetrated your vision.  He saw you and his expression became sympathetic. He saw your loneliness.  He saw the girl in a spotlight and he came to you.

It was pure magic.

Just like what was written in those books that predicted romance and happiness for the unsuspecting girl.

You knew those books were bound together with cliches and tropes and that nothing this mystical could happen to you.  You were not the forlorn heiress, the trapped princess, the cursed ballerina.  And even though you were corseted into the cute outfit, the sediment of makeup suffocating every pore was a reminder of your imperfection.  You were not worthy.

But then he was there, in front of you.  He had a pack of cigarettes in his white t-shirt’s breast pocket and held two cups of translucent, golden beer.  The stench of old smoke and cheap brew was repulsing.

He was not the Prince Charming you were waiting for. But every love story was about transformation, and you had been ripped through your chrysalis stage for him.

You took the beer but didn’t sip it.  You’d heard the cautionary tales.  You were smart no matter what your bra size might say.

He asked for your name.

“Helen.”

“Helga?”

“Helen.”  You were patient.

“Melon?”

“Helen,” you shouted.

“Helen?”

It had been over a year since you felt the warmth of your ex-boyfriend’s arm draped over your shoulder, and you liked hearing this new young man say your name, like he really wanted to know you.

The strobe lights blinked into your eyes and your waxing wistfulness and the young man steered you into the crowd.  His body humped into yours, his arms crescented around your waist, scythed you in.  The music shifted, just like in the movies.  In the slowness, he drew your tentative hands from yours sides, knotted them around his shoulders.  Your fingers conformed to what might have been soft muscle or the beginnings of fat.  You didn’t care.  How could you judge him when you were so imperfect?

This moment was saturated in meaning.  You rested your head on his chest and heard his heartbeat and believed that it was beating for you.  His body guided you through the compact circle of people who were smears of color. You noticed your hallmates grinning at you, proud of their little girl and her first hookup.

Unbidden, his lips stretched across your neck.  His lips were moist, almost room-temperature against the blistering heat searing through you.  The dampness of his skin, his urgency, the fact that you didn’t know his name.

This wasn’t romantic.  This was a slug trodding across your clavicle, searching for the plumb line that would sink him into your depths.

Your hands fastened themselves to his chest.  You pushed lightly.  He surfaced from his attention at the top of your cleavage, his fingers had tried to hook themselves into the neckline of your dress.

“No,” you said, applying more weight to your fingertips, more pressure to the words he didn’t understand.

You read that he saw himself as Adonis, but he was just another boy in a man’s skin-suit looking for a quick release.

“Babe,” he said.

“My name is Helen,” you repeated.  You needed to hear him say your name.  You needed to be more than just this belt notch, this conquest.

“Babe.”

You pushed away from him.  You floated through the crowd, being pummeled without noticing.  The floes of people parted for you, reformed.

At the door, you turned and looked back at him.  This was when he was supposed to come to you, apologize for making you feel cheap.  Instead, he snagged two fresh cups of beer and approach one of your hallmates.  She accepted it enthusiastically, started drinking in spite of the warnings she had given you that night. She lowered the cup, went into his arms, merged into the vibrating crowd.

You walked back to your dorm alone where you locked yourself in. You peeled yourself out of your slut-suit and decided never to wear it again.  In the shower, your skin reeking of beer, cigarette smoke, and unwanted desire, you went through the motions of washing yourself, unsure of how to process the evening. You should have felt proud, but you couldn’t summon any trace of emotion.


You move onto your lips.  With a liner, you plump your lips, draw a cupid’s bow.  With the lipstick, you craft lips that can form seduction or conform to his.  Each is another layer of spells you’ve learned to cast in your womanhood.  With each step of your regimen, the fat shrinks, your breasts tighten, lift.  You could pass the pencil test.

With fluency, the brushes skim your face, as though you are finding yourself, an archaeologist unsurfacing the work of art entombed beneath the refuse and filth. You tilt your head at the woman in the mirrors, open and close your eyes languidly, flirt a little with her. The burgeoning beauty intoxicates you. With your hair parted to the side, the tips cupping your perfectly blended face, loveliness explodes.

He will kiss you tonight. Or, rather, he will kiss the woman in the mirrors. You will still be home, waiting for the rightness to come outside. You will be coiled in loose fitting pajamas while the beautiful woman surging out of your skin will slip into the size 2 dress that you diet and struggle to enter.

She might not eat dinner tonight. But she will be happy. She will have completion.


In the beginning of your sophomore year, you met him.  He lived on the floor below you and knew your suitemate. She liked him, had clearly set her designs on him. She was the one who invited him to come with you to the dining hall or the Friday night free movies.

But he sat next to you and you found out you shared unique commonalities. You both loved anime. You both had and hated the same English adjunct professor. Horseradish made you both violently ill.

You kept your hands clear of him, but he walked with you. When you dodged the mud puddle splattered across the sidewalk, he rested his hand on the small of your back to guide you past.

You refused to nurture the seedling within you. But your suitemate conceded that he was attracted to you. You saw the traitorous twitching in her eyes, the way she couldn’t really look at you directly. You recognized the anger and told her you weren’t interested in him.

She said that she didn’t really want him anymore. She liked someone else in her business ethics class.

You started dating him the next day.

You were still intact, a sexual nobody. And, unlike the previous three breakups, this one didn’t seem to care. He kissed you until your body swam with pleasure and awakened new nerve endings in your core.

When you came back after your third date, your roommate noticed your intact clothing and unmussed hair.

“Hasn’t anyone told you about the third date?” she asked. “He’s going to expect you to put out or he’ll probably dump you.”

Your suitemate watched you through hooded eyes as you considered this.

And the panic rose. You really liked him and wanted to be with him. And you were tired of being on the outside, looking in at all of the successful relationships blossoming around you. Why did you have to be doomed to isolation? Surely, allowing things to move to the next step couldn’t hurt anyone?

Maybe, he was the right one.

Maybe.

So when he fingered at your buttons or teased at your zipper, you didn’t feel like he was a duplicate of Creep Number One, as you liked to call him. You were an adult woman ready to make this adult decision.

You still wanted to wait a little longer. You were scared of the pain.

You were scared of it being meaningless, of it just being it and not the magical night that seemed to be what should happen.

You wanted the candles and the lovesongs.

You wanted the silk sheets and the stars aligned and the full moon and the perfect date which would not lead to his dorm room.

Which is where it finally happened.

Funny how the man who earned you a new nickname was your first and you were not his. He had mentioned to you somewhere over dinner, or maybe in the casual walk to and from his car, the number of lovers in his past.

You didn’t think he was bragging. You heard his insecurity, his questioning.  He was lonely too. He was beyond kissing, though.

You weren’t certain that this was what you wanted when you followed him to his dorm room, when he closed the door behind you after twitching something over the doorknob.

He walked nervously around the room, turned on the television, a white noise that belied his practiced inability to seduce. He chatted about hobbies, his work, his interests.  You casually listened, casually glanced at the light strobing from the television, at the people trying to save one another, trying to hurt one another.

He sat next to you on the bed. Crossed his leg, uncrossed it. His fingertips lightly stroked your shoulder. In concert, you moved toward him, his slightly parted lips.

Like the movies, you tilted your head in a complementary angle to him. Stretched your head forward. Your lips met. An emotional carbonated rush flooded you. Each time you kissed him, the intoxication, the sense of heaviness plumbing your joints left you an inch from fulfillment.

In his arms, the loneliness was staved. With him, you knew who you were.

You were love.


Later, he wasn’t as impressed as you hoped he’d have been with you and your inexperience.

He confessed to looking at other women. Not touching. Just looking.

But in his looking, he was also fantasizing.

You were “okay.”

But he’d “had better.”

The sexual recipe you followed had failed.  You had no idea what you had been doing and now you were damaged goods and he released you to the world where you were once more a tidbit on the side of the road.

The girl who had wanted to be with him learned of the breakup. She flaunted her interest, snaked her walk in front of him, offered him her wares. The girl who had encouraged you to be with him now called you a slut. To your face. Because she had been doing that for the last two months behind your back.

First you were a prude.

Then you were a tease.

Now you were a slut.

Just be yourself.

Just love yourself.

With all those names, you weren’t certain how you could.  So you plunged two fingers down your throat and melted your body into tiny clothing and learned to walk in a way that suggested knowledge and availability.


You earned a degree in business and opened a flower shop because, naturally, you would. You plaited love into the stems, wrapped desire laced ribbon with wire at the edges around bouquets. You knotted bows, tied together dreams. You delivered hope and promises and pain.

Several times a month, you received the castigating, angry phone calls of the scorned, the cuckolded.

You delivered vases of red rimmed thorns with messages…

Slut

Skank

Whore

Ho

They don’t paint those names on souvenir mugs. If they did, businesses could never keep them in stock.

Because casual one-night stands left you feeling lonely and filthy, you decided to overhaul yourself. You walked the cosmetics aisles in grocery stores and then in high end department stores. You went to the temples of specialized boutiques and you invested.

Your body swelled with power. You could change, alter, and improve yourself.  With special brushes, tweezers, wax, and thread, you could refurbish your body and finally find some sense of peace. You could find your way into acceptance.

But the gnawing loneliness was not sated.

You went to bars and churches. You created accounts on dating sites.  You found occasional moments, the dates that lead to more dates that lead to expectations that were hollow and so emotionless that you refused and they ghosted you.

Passive aggressive dumping. Kinder than the first. Just as painful in the end.

And then you met him, the man for tonight.

He’d meant to go to the dry cleaners next to your shop; he was so focused on his phone, he didn’t notice he’d entered the wrong business. He came out of his digital unconsciousness when he knocked over a vase, the flowers and water spilling down his pants leg.

“What the hell?” he said.

You felt the instant attraction. This was how it happened in movies, television, books, the romance how-to guides that you followed religiously. The serendipitous moment. You stepped away from the register, snagged the paper towels under the counter, approached the awkward scarecrow with his arms lifted over his head, his clothing dangling from one hand, his offending phone clasped uselessly in the other.

“I’m sorry,” you said, even though you should have known better. You shouldn’t have put that perfect arrangement of flowers in the perfect vase in the perfect place for customers to see and buy on impulse because they forgot someone’s special, significant event.

He looked down at your hand that was offering the paper towels so he could wipe up the water that was creeping up his knee, toward his thigh.

“Don’t bother,” he said, turned around, his clothing brushing your face.  You smelled his cologne, a scent of old leaves within a wood, a touch of earth within embers.

The door chimed with his departure and you were left within a penumbra of glass and cut flowers.

Minutes later, you were blotting up the water from the dark, scratchy fibers of the industrial carpet.  The door chimed and you said to the carpet and the tattered paper towels, “Just a minute.”

The would-be customer said nothing while you finished cleaning the mess.  When you righted yourself, clasping the sodden mess, you recognized him.

“I’m so sorry,” you repeated.

“It’s not that big a deal,” he said.  “I should have been paying more attention.”

He dug into his back pocket, extracted his wallet.

“What do I owe you?” He fingered through several bills.

“It was my fault,” you replied.

His face twitched and a perplexed half-smile crescented.  His eyebrows furrowed, he lifted his eyes from his money to you.

“Okay?” he said.

He glanced around the displays, calculating.  You wondered if his girlfriend or lover or whomever would appreciate what he did or immediately suspect that he’d done something wrong.  His eyes rested on nothing as they did a second, a third sweep.

“Look, let me make it up to you,” he said with self-assurance.  “How about I take you out to dinner tonight?”

You noticed that he didn’t ask about your boyfriend, lover, husband, anything. Your initial enamor collapsed a little.  You didn’t think you’d broadcasted your isolation.

But then he gave you a cocky, coy smile and you surrendered.

He glanced at your operating hours.

“Pick you up at seven?”

“Sure.”

He left, not asking where you lived. Regardless, you took a long lunch to go home, filled your travel case with make-up, and snagged that cute dress you’d just bought.

Between customers, you prepared, intensifying eyelashes, flecking the corners of your eyes to highlight the shadowy depths within.  You brushed color across your lips, rimmed them with a headier intensity. Around you, music cascaded, the rose blossoms plumped voluptuosity. Irises sang out choruses, praising your beauty.

Steadily, men and women entered the store, fingered the wares, were drawn to the counter where you hovered and smiled. With an unconscious reverie, they migrated through your inventory, made requests, paid the sums you quoted without hesitation.

The day was perfect.

He arrived a little late, just thirty minutes.  Your innate patience was complemented by your beautiful forgiveness.

He tapped on the door and you came around the counter and stood within the circumference of the recessed lighting. His breath caught.

That first date was magical. It was a Monday night and you weren’t home, watching television while eating a microwaved chicken potpie. He was drowning in your presence and you loved it when he folded his hands around your face, as though in prayer, and kissed you.

You kissed him back and an effervescent intensity bubbled up through you. He leaned back and that cocky, coy smile appeared.  The lightness faded, the bubbles popping.

“You are so damn sexy,” he said. He waited for you to thank him.

He saw you for what you built, not who you were. But he had kissed you and in that moment, you were willing to settle.


You dab perfume on your finger, press your finger into the crook of your neck.  You moisten your fingertip, press it against the pulse in your wrist, kiss your wrists together.   Scented, primped, primed, and ready, you step into the tiny dress, fold yourself into tailored cuts.  You check the lift of your breasts, that they are cupped in the correct places.  The hem huddles mid-thigh, clasped against your smooth skin.  Returning to your sofa, you wait.  You try to read more about Prufrock and his un-lovesong but the words catch.  Instead, you put the book back on the coffee table next to the unlit candles and wait some more.

He comes in without knocking, a confident grin spreading when you rise.

“Hey babe,” he says.

That same disappointment from the first time he kissed you screeches into your abdomen.

His eyebrows jerk up and down. Approval.

The satisfaction you felt sours into a bitter aftertaste. A night spent on your couch, wearing your comfy pajamas while watching silly movies sounds enticing.

“You want to do take out, eat here? We can watch TV,” you offer.

“But you look great,” he replies, holding out his hand. “Come on.  Let’s go.”

You follow him to his car parked out front. The headlights blink and the locks tumble open. He walks around the car, gets in without a word.

You’re standing outside, looking at your skewed reflection in the automobile’s yellow, concave surface. You don’t understand your hesitation. This is the romance that you can earn with your imperfect looks and sonorous insecurity. The confidence you have painted on will disappear in your shower tonight after you are done. He will see you.  He will reject you. And the cycle will continue.

The window slides down; he leans over.

“Come on, babe.”

Your hand is on the cold metal of the handle.  Is this all you’re worthy of?

You created a face and a body and a personality that you don’t know.  All you know is her name.

Babe

“My name is Helen,” you say.

“Okay.” Impatiently, he leans over, his eyes roaming the length of your body. He reaches over, pops open the door.

“Come on. We gotta go,” he says, settling back into his seat. His phone whistles. He chuckles at the text bubble. Taps a reply, hits send. The phone makes a swooping sound.  He’s bragging about you, about being with you.

You find no compliment within this. He’s bragging about being with a fake you. The real you is upstairs, sitting on the couch, your feet tucked up under you, as you read poetry and ignore the television. You love that you, the one who wears fuzzy pajamas with filthy hems because the legs are too long and you refuse to cuff them because you like the cloth cupping your feet when it’s cold. You love the you who sings out of tune love songs and dances like a crazy woman when the downstairs neighbors aren’t home and can’t complain about how loud you thump. You love the you who loves the lonely man who exists in poetry and walks along the ocean, wanting to hear the mermaids sing.

You like getting dressed up and made up and feeling pretty. You like the tightness of your skin and its sultry feel. You enjoy being wanted and appreciated.

But you don’t like him.

You know he’s told his friends that you’re going to put out tonight. You know he’s excited because it’s your third date and can’t wait for the climactic conclusion, even if he won’t call you by your name.

You step away and he realizes that you’re retreating. With alacrity, he steps out of the still running car, comes to you, wraps his arms around you.

“What’s wrong?” Your resolve corrodes. The heat of his body against yours, his solidness is a reminder of the continual loneliness that you loathe. As though hypnotized, your hands raise, adhere to his chest. He leans forward, kisses you. A closed mouth, hard kiss. He slips back, takes a breath, comes in again. His lips part, the tip of his tongue enters.

You relax into the kiss, lean into him. His hand slips down your back, follows the curve of your buttocks. His fingers touch the hem of your skirt, flicks payfully at the edge.

It’s not Friday.

You tap on his chest, jerk your head back, a string of spittle hanging between you.

Revulsion.

“Stop.”

“What?” His eyes are mirthful, his fingers play a song on your ass. “God, babe.  I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” He leans forward again, his mouth slightly agape. You recoil, your face slinking back into your neck, and your double chins appear.

His hands fall uselessly to his sides and he jams them into his pockets.

“What’s going on?” he demands. Movement. A slight shifting.

“My name’s Helen,” you say.

“I know.  Look, I don’t have all night,” he fumes.

But you do. You have all the nights in the world, in history, in time. You have the nights of yesterday and today and tomorrow and they will not include him.

“No.”

You turn around, walk back to your apartment building. Behind you, the door slams.

“Bitch!” he shouts.

You take off the shoes, hook the heel straps around your finger.

You’re on the first landing when he calls you a tease.

You’re at your apartment door when his car’s tires squeal in protest. He shoots forward until he’s feet away from the speed bump and he hits the brakes. Eases over. Guns the roaring engine once more.

You unlock your door, step inside, drop the heels, and lock the door behind you. You snag the book of poetry and go to your bathroom. The mermaids shoot perplexed looks at one another. You weren’t supposed to be home for hours. You weren’t supposed to come home alone.

You flip the curtain out and ignore their protestations, turn on the hot water, seal the tub.

The water rises and the dress falls. You step out of it, kick it into the hall. You ease into the water, hiss a little at the heat. The water slides through your hair, spills into your ears. Sound is muffled, amplified, a series of chords as you adjust, the water flicking around your knees, up your thighs, across your arms and chest.

Under the water, you scrub at your face. You feel your skin, feel yourself. Your body relaxes from the shape you had conformed it to.

Your mouth breaches the water. You release the tension concealed within your lungs and chest.

Take in a long breath.

And your body rises to the surface.

RELATED: BEYOND THE RUNWAY

DECEMBER, 2019

FORWARD INTO A DREAM

BY SYNNIKA LOFTON

I lean and let gravity play its music, play its
role in crafting my destiny, a purpose that I
celebrate. In my head, a kingdom lives with
stones shaped in an innovative design. I
breathe for those that sacrificed. I climb
for those that didn’t have a chance to realize
their potential. This is much more than a
slave song, a ballad that circles in air from
the coast of West Africa and makes a home
on a street corner. I lean forward into a
dream, with a clenched fist.

CINEPHILIA

BY GRANT LOMELINO

She was like a Kubric Film,
Master strokes of purposeful small details.
A soft directional stare
Holding a distant beauty

I’ll eat up every second—
popcorn in hand,

Admiration in eye
She placed her hand in my palm
Carefully slipping her fingers in between mine
Just for a moment
Then returning her hand to a fist
To lay dormant atop my open hand.
I lived for the drives we would take.
Winding, twisting, flying
Past street lights,
Framed perfectly in the passenger window

She glowed—
I stared lovingly at the scene

She avoided my sight line,
With pontificated silence and dismissive head nods
As I stumbled into a monologue of my personal interests
She was a troubadour to my passions
Entertain,
Dismiss,
Move on.
I played the fool to it.
Always waiting for the next performance

SOUL·AR*

BY ALIE MCARDLE

lovers so transcendent
i would feel my soul
lay into his
our bodies activated
telepathy

onward into the kaleidoscope
our energies plugged into
separate neurons

and our connection
weakened

RELATED: THE PAINTER

NOVEMBER, 2019

A DOUBLE, AT LEAST

BY BRIAN RIHLMAN

I grabbed the bat
from beneath the bar
and brandished it, yelling
“That’s enough, assholes!
I’ve already had a gun
pulled in here tonight!”

They stopped shoving,
but the three hundred pounder
with the shaved head
glared at skinny me, shouted,
“Fuck you, motherfucker!
I ain’t afraid of your bat!”

I blinked. Glared back. Waited.
His friends talked to him,
sat him down, got him a drink.

Not the reaction I expected,
but at least I’d smoothed the wrinkles
from the rest of the night.

Under the counter,
the bottle clinked
against the glass
as I poured myself
a vodka cranberry.
Double, at least.

THE WEIGHT OF MY SKIN

BY DARLENE SCOTT

She says the man threatened her.
Salt stings the corners of my eyes

wider than usual with the index
crisscross of plaid, cracked leather

of his sneakers; dare in his pout; my wet
skin, heavy to the pumpkin flesh, his also

cracking; my lips viscous; tentative.
I am cadence, 180 strides per minute.

Channel 6 will ask for a word or witness
to account the sprout of her limbs

near a bronze box, replica of the one in which
Henry Brown shipped himself to Freedom.

I give myself to morning nearly every day;
today, the breeze interrupts thick humidity.

But fails my skin.

In autumn, even, the weight of wet skin;
in the store choosing dinner; I-64 to errands

so heavy my Human wilts under it.
We should both know this.

Her petition finds me an excuse
of sweat and anonymity.

REINCARNATION

BY LYDIA GROTE

Shattered
I picked up the pieces
of dignity
and happiness
that littered
the street like
broken glass

Reincarnated
I died at the corner of
N. Franklin and W. Monroe
I came back
as a woman

Shallow
The future was dim
I trudged through
to find
myself

Patched
A Band-Aid fix
to hide
my sadness

Graduated
I left you
I left this chapter
I left my self-loathing

Reincarnation II
Here I stand
In the city
That—
shattered me
killed me
swallowed me
But I am —
mended
reincarnated
powerful
whole

RELATED: A SON OF COMMON SENSE

OCTOBER, 2019

PHRANKLIN PHINSTER

BY TRAVIS FLESHOOD

And so it was, that Phranklin Phinster did take his neon pink skateboard; and with it, mercilessly thrash his Aunt Sam’s begonias, for they had offended him. After which, he meandered down the pock-marked avenue that was his sanctuary, from the rutabega-festooned two-story bungalow that was his home. It was, that as he meandered, he accused random mammals of incestuous cribbage games and believed several automobiles to be singing “O, Danny Boy”. His steps became more ungainly, his stride more stilted, and his hair more aflame as he continued his aimless trodging. His eyes glazed over and several witnesses accounted to seeing him start doing the Hustle sporadically over the course of seven minutes. He then came to a sudden stop that was so sudden, all the loose change and lengths of wire and rope kept in his pockets, socks, and codpiece were expelled from therein, with such velocity that there were nineteen instances of penetration in the stucco and brick walls of the houses and shacks lining the avenue; and one case of penetration of Mrs. Stuck-in-the-Mud, from whom was later removed $2.83 Latvian, and a string of tea bags.

After stopping with such great force, Phranklin craned his head back so as to observe the sky, on that day a lovely shade of bright purple. He craned his neck to the point where his adam’s apple was perpendicular to the uneven asphault, and further still until he was looking directly behind him, taking in the collateral affect of his erstwhile stroll.

Upon seeing what lay behind him, coupled with the effect of viewing it upside-down, it is said that his eyes began to fill with tears of milk and honey. His heart welled up with sorrow, his stomach with bile, and his bladder with urine.

He felt he could not bear to view the aftermath any further, and so he began to tilt his head back even further, pressing it into the bumblebee pattern on the back of his shirt, until a tear formed at the front of his neck. Further he stretched, until he had ripped his own head off from his own neck on his own shoulders, and had taken note of the hole in the back of his shorts’ leg as the level of his eye fell. His body, however, much like that of a chicken, was not yet consigned to death; and proceeded to drop the skateboard, mount it, and ride it down the avenue. Without the benefit of a head, though, the body jumped the curb and slammed into a spreading chestnut tree. And so it was, that Phranklin Phinster was dead.

JOHN

BY MARY COGGINS

It is nearly dusk on Halloween, and soon the youngest costumed children will be coming to the door escorted by their parents in wagonfuls. John sits on the couch, facing away from the closed bedroom door. He was previously thinking about dinner but is now preoccupied with his decision from several hours before to let the hospice nurse go home early.

There must be a paper somewhere, he thinks, with all the appropriate numbers. They have classes for these kinds of things, he is aware, but they were always at such inconvenient times. Did the hospice nurse have children she needed to take trick-or-treating? He doesn’t remember. For some reason his memory of the hospice nurse looks like McDonald’s clown, which is unsettling so he would prefer not to linger. Perhaps her number is on the paper that must be somewhere. He is unsure of how to handle this situation.

The doorbell rings and John dutifully pushes himself out of the deep cushions. When he opens the door there is a three year old Dalmatian with blonde hair and ears made from the corners of an old crouton box. John recognizes her as the Moorfield girl, Jenna, or Gemma. Perhaps it’s Jennifer. The Moorfield woman is behind her holding a baby in bumblebee stripes.

“Trick or treeeat,” the Moorfield woman says in the delicate voice women use for children.

“Gemma, what do you say, baby?”

The Dalmatian lifts a plastic pumpkin closer to John and mumbles something he assumes is related to the holiday.

“Oh, wonderful!” John says, “Look at what a pretty puppy we have here, oh yes, ha ha … let me go find a treat for this good girl, okay? Okay. I’ll be right back now.”

Of course, there is no candy. John is aware of this. He does not purchase candy; it’s terrible for your teeth and his teeth are terrible already. John vaguely panics thinking about the dentist and shuffles back toward the kitchen in hopes that there may be some peppermints shoved in the back of a drawer somewhere. He is not sure how to handle this situation.

John empties the drawers of all their toothpicks and embroidered napkins and soy sauce packets, but finds no peppermints. Perhaps butterscotch drops, he thinks, because Barbara used to buy a bag and hide it in the crevice between the oven hood and the cabinet to eat while she cooked and he watched golf. It was a long while since Barbara cooked though, and there is no butterscotch bag in the crevice. John thinks perhaps there are some cokes in the fridge. Children like Coca-Cola, he thinks, but inside the fridge there is only a casserole from whoever lives across the street and a large bottle of beer, which John tells himself to remember for later.

And then, a stroke of luck! When he shuts the refrigerator door the paper with the appropriate numbers is right next to his hand, tacked on by a large plastic magnet commemorating John and Barbara’s cruise to Alaska four years prior. He takes the paper down and studies the magnet for a while, remembering that there was a very decadent chocolate cake for dessert when they had dinner with the captain and how thrilled Barbara was to win bingo the third night. John finds that he is smiling to himself despite the situation at hand. He is not sure how to handle it.

The immediate situation at hand, he suddenly remembers, involves a Dalmatian with an outstretched pumpkin. Candy, he thinks, and grabs a can of prunes on the way back to the front door. They are wrapped individually, John thinks, this is fine. 

“Okay then,” John says as he walks back to the Dalmatian and her mother, “I think I’ve got something this puppy-dog might like.”

He tries to open the can of prunes and realizes that it might be difficult while still holding the paper with the appropriate numbers and the rather bulky Alaska magnet. He does not want to put them down and risk misplacing them again, so after several long seconds of wrestling with the prune can it finally pops open. John is unsure how to handle this situation. 

“Aha!” John says. “Sorry there ladies, I was having a little bit of senior difficulty, ha ha.”

He pulls out two prunes and drops them into the Dalmatian’s bucket. He pulls out a third and hands it to the Moorefield woman for the Bumblebee.

“Fank you,” the Dalmation says.

She is timid in the way tiny blonde girls often are. John thinks she has excellent manners.

“You are very welcome,” he says and tries his best to bend to her level, “are you gonna grow up to be a big strong puppy dog?”

The Dalmatian nods emphatically.

“You’re gonna look out for this little bumblebee, right?”

Emphatic nodding.

“Wonderful, just wonderful. You’re a precious little thing, aren’t ya? Ha ha.”

John has to use the door frame to stand up all the way. The Moorfield woman is smiling, apparently proud of her offspring. There are less children in the neighborhood then there were ten years ago, John notes. He has been here for a long time.

“Thank you for the treats, Mr. Rivers, they’re very yummy, and not even bad for your teeth!” The Moorefield woman looks at her children while she talks, as if she is simultaneously speaking for them as well as instructing them on grown-up manners.     

This is a good woman, John thinks. He is admiring the children while she asks vaguely about Barbara’s health. This scenario can be handled privately, John thinks, she does not need to be involved. Women like to cause scenes, and there are a Dalmatian and a Bumblebee present.

“Oh Barbara’s fine, just fine,” he says, “Just taking a little rest today, you know?”

The Bumblebee gropes at her mother’s hair and seems to have some difficulty controlling her saliva.

“Yeah? I heard she was on bedrest, and then of course I’ve seen the nurse here every day.”

“Yes, yes, she’s been here. Very helpful for Barbara, you know, I’m absolutely useless.” John says. He is attempting to be amiable but is still distressed by the image of the hospice nurse as the McDonald’s clown. Leave that alone, he thinks.

“Well is there anything we can do to help out? Dean works all day, you know, and us girls aren’t bad company if you needed some extra help around the house.”

“Oh, we make out all right here,” John says, and for a moment is thrilled by the thought of spending languorous autumn days with the Moorfield woman, the Bumblebee, and the Dalmatian.

“I think mostly what Barbara needs is peace and quiet.”

“Mmm, that makes sense,” the Moorefield woman nods with a significant amount of sincerity.

“Yes, rest and rest is what the doctor ordered, ha ha.”

John is overwhelmed with the urge to tell this woman that his wife is dead. He is not sure how to handle this situation; it seems bad in every direction. How would this woman react if he told her Barbara died exactly forty-seven minutes after the hospice nurse went home? How could he explain, with the Dalmatian right at his knees, that his wife is a corpse under the covers with his own bedtime rapidly approaching?  The risk is great, John thinks, but somewhere on this page the appropriate number is written. And if she can help me find it, perhaps I can have dinner at a reasonable time. He clutches the Alaska magnet and prepares to breach the truth.

“I cannot have them thinking this is a prank,” John says.

The Dalmatian is looking up at him with so much innocence.

“I’m sorry?” The Moorfield woman asks.

“You know, for the holiday,” John says, “the Halloween and all.”

“I’m, sorry, I don’t understand.”

John takes a rather deep breath.

“I am reasonably sure that my wife is dead. I need to call someone, but I’m not sure which number it is. They have classes for these things, I know, that you’re supposed to do together before, you know, one of you becomes hopelessly infirm but we went to Alaska instead and had a wonderful time, and I’m glad we did, honestly, seeing the moose and the lynxes and lots of men with big beards and the syrup there is just fantastic so– ”

“You’re reasonably sure? She’s– dead?”

She didn’t even whisper the word, John thinks. She just said it.

The Moorfield woman moves past him into the house and sets the Bumblebee on the floor near the stairs. She asks several questions about the nurse and Barbara’s medications while the Dalmatian waits patiently at the door. The woman heads for the bedroom, toward the closed door beyond which  Barbara is no longer breathing.

“No no,” John says, trying to move as quickly as possible in slippers that seem directly opposed to his will, “I don’t think you need to see her. She’s dead. Please don’t cry.”

The woman is already in the bedroom. The Bumblebee scoots toward John and he marvels at the resilience of her diapers.

“I am afraid I don’t know who to call,” John says after her, “I don’t want the children to think it’s a prank, when they come to take the body away.”

The woman comes out of the bedroom not crying at all and John is surprised. Don’t women cry at dead things? Barbara cried at the very mention of dead things. She closes the door behind her. 

“I understand,” she says, “let me see that paper, please?”

John sees as he hands it to her that there is a name written in large capital letters, circled several times and highlighted. That is probably the appropriate person, he thinks, and tells the woman.

“Yeah, this is the coroner,” she says, “but I don’t know if they’d wait to take the body away. Maybe we should call the nurse? Is her number on here?”

“She had to go to her second job at McDonalds.” John thinks there is a possibility this might be true, as he is still unsure of the connection between Ronald McDonald and the hospice nurse. At any rate, he does not wish to see her.

The woman stands scanning the paper for anything. She seems to have a sense of what to do, John thinks. The Bumblebee stands up and clutches John’s leg like a tree trunk, moving in jerky, unsteady steps. He bends down to pat her bald-ish head, soft like a real bumblebee.

John wishes more than anything that Barbara had waited one more day to die. The day, even the morning following Halloween would be an ordinary time to die. People would only come to their house after the fact, bringing covered dishes instead of asking for candy. There would be no costumes and most likely no children. But tonight there would be people, complete strangers progressing in degeneration as the night wore on, milling about the neighborhood to witness his wife’s body being carted out of their house. They would assume it was a totally rad Halloween decoration, John is sure of it.

He wants her to be respected. He wants her to come back alive for twelve more hours. He wants to sit down.

“I think I would like to take a seat,” John says, but cannot detach himself from the Bumblebee.  He shakes his leg lightly but she’s clutching hard. She does not even look up at him, and her mother is preoccupied with her phone. The Dalmation has moved on to the yard, plucking dandelions from the grass. There is supposed to be some kind of dignity in this scenario, John thinks, and instead there is a small bumblebee drooling on my pants. This has gotten out of hand.

“I said I think I would like to take seat,” John says, rather loudly. He is suddenly overwhelmed by a need for French fries.

“Oh, sorry,” the Moorfield woman scoops up the Bumblebee and still manages to hold onto her phone and the paper with the appropriate numbers.

John moves toward the couch and its deep cushions. He sinks in and does not fight the urge to put his head into the soft bowl of his hands. He thinks he may be crying. How did I get here, he thinks. And where the hell do I go now?

Millions of tiny wonderings fill his head, like how will I fill my hours without the butterscotch hidden beneath the cabinet? What about the mums in the fall and the radio playing in the kitchen? Who will accompany me on all those exasperating grocery trips? What is left without my wife, John thinks. I do not know, is all he knows for sure. I have no idea.

 After a short while John realizes the Dalmatian has climbed up beside him and is studying his grief. She places one of her several dandelions on his lap. The Moorfield woman and the Bumblebee are watching him from the ottoman across the room. John takes the dandelion and puts it behind his ear, which makes the Dalmatian smile. She says something to the elementary effect that he is beautiful, and he wants to give her all the dandelions in the world.

SHIVA

BY DANIEL PRAVDA

when i threw the guitar off the tenth floor roof, i pictured how far it would go: carried by wind and my baseball swing, it could have sailed across the parking lot and over the 4-lane street into and through the front glass of city hall. when i threw the guitar off the tenth floor roof, i could say the glant guitar flew through the lobby of city hall–security sleeping–smashing the front door of the mayor and spanking him literally off his ass and rededicated to the people. in/stead she in her sheen grabbed by the gears of gravity spun like a crashing jet and broke her neck on a pallet of cinderblock amid yips and yells of glorious destruction. when i threw the guitar off the tenth floor roof,  i almost lost my balance.

RELATED: THE PSYCHIC