2017 Creative Writing Award Winners
Lois C. Bruner Creative Nonfiction Award
The entries were judged by Megan Stielstra. Megan Stielstra is the author of three books: The Wrong Way To Save Your Life(forthcoming August 2017 from Harper Perennial), Once I Was Cool (Curbside Splendor 2014), and Everyone Remain Calm (ECW/Joyland 2011). Her work appears in the Best American Essays, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Guernica, Buzzfeed, The Rumpus, and on National Public Radio. She teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University.
- 1st place – Afolarin Sanni – “In Transition“
On the story Stielstra says: Terrific stuff. We covered so much time, so many places, so many characters and everything was constantly clear and focused, like the fragment theme laid out in the first paragraph (and immediately followed by the image of fragments, the broken green-glass beer bottle from the writer’s earliest memory). I appreciated how, near the end of each memory fragment, there was a gut-punch of a line that wrapped up why the scene I’d just experienced was important to the overall idea of what we can’t run away from, what we ca’t shake. Specifically: “I became familiar with that word, potential,” and “I reminded myself that I didn’t cry.” If Afolarin is interested in giving this essay another look, maybe consider how the last paragraph might echo back to the first paragraph, a repeat of language, perhaps?
- 2nd place – Rebecca Gonner – “Mirror, Mirror Fuck You“
On the story Stielstra says: I loved how visual this essay is, almost cinematographic, like watching a movie, while still giving us the full interior life of the narrator. The structure is excellent, too: different instances of how others see her – mother, photographer, friends, bully – before the final scene of how she sees herself. What stood out the most for me was the moment at the top of page 7 when she’s looking outwards and telling us how she sees the beauty of her friends. If Rebecca is interested in giving this essay another look, maybe consider that same idea in the other sections? What she sees when she looks at her mother, the photographer, the bully….
- 3rd place – Sarah Radtke – “Untitled”
On the story Stielstra says: I identified fiercely with this piece; how we examine our youthful obsessions with the greater wisdom of adulthood (but rarely do they have such a positive outcome as this! What an incredible story!). I also appreciated how Sarah moved us through time via technology. Made me think a lot about how social media has changed our access. If she’s interested in giving this essay another look, I’d love to see the scene of that first concert she attended (seeing him onstage was the first time you saw him IRL, right? What was that like? The crowd, the music, etc.?), and hear some of the dialogue between her and Costner later to really understand how this experience move from a dream to a reality.
Cordell Larner Award in Fiction
The entries were judged by Laura Pritchett. Laura Pritchett is the author of nine books. She began her writing journey in her early 20s with the short story collection Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which won the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. This was followed by the novels Sky Bridge, Stars Go Blue, Red Lightning, and The Blue Hour. She’s the editor of three anthologies: Pulse of the River, Home Land, and Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers. She also has two nonfiction books: Great Colorado Bear Storiesand Making Friends with Death, Kind Of (due out Sept 2017). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, O Magazine, Salon, High Country News, The Millions, Publisher’s Weekly, The Sun, Brain, Child, and many others. www.laurapritchett.com
- 1st place – Allen Dullin – “After the Fire”
On the story Pritchett says: This story captures a coming-of-age moment—a hard-earned wisdom—when the narrator glimpses a simple truth: “No longer did I think of myself or anyone else as invincible. Thoughts and beliefs that were concrete were in a state of flux, reshaped by lines of events.” In a brief connection between a young man and his uncle during at a wake, we feel the narrator grappling with his father’s death and his own uncertain future.
- 2nd place – Cheyenne Rideaux – “Neverland“
On the story Pritchett says: What starts as a redux of the old classic fairytale turns dark and foreboding when we realize the power of addiction, old wounds, and the inherent problem with escape.
- 3rd place – Matt Gamperl – “Yawning Pines“
On the story Pritchett says: A surprising tragedy puts big questions on the table: the pull of friendship, the life-changing nature of one mistake, the importance of responsibility.
Cordell Larner Award in Poetry
The entries were judged by Larry Jones. Larry Jones’ Publications and Prizes include the collections, We Become a Picnic: Selected Poems 1971-1983, Troubadour (CUNY, 2005) (Venom Press, 1994)Anthologies: ANYDSWPE Anthology Series (Rogue Scholars Press, 2014), Crossroads (Ikon Press, 1994), Downtown Poets 1999 (Montclair Takilma Publishing, 1999). He’s been published in magazines such as Perspecties and The Opiate and he has been the CUNYarts Fellow in 2005.
- 1st place – Allison Hartman – “We Grew Up” & “Scarred“
On the poems Jones says: In poems such as “We Grew Up” and “Scarred,” she assembles something of a bildungsroman of gender and social identity in the 21st century.
- 2nd place – Rachel Troyer – “Ars Poetica“, “The Foul Deed” & “My Lost Friend“
On the poems Jones says: Mystery, irony and the gothic romantically merge in the Moriarty of “My Lost Friend” and “silly sparkling teenaged vampires” of “Ars Poetica.”
- 3rd place – Natalie Jacobson – “The Night Is“,”It Rained Last Night” & “Cold As Stone, Soft As Lace“
On the poems Jones says: Seemingly disparate qualities and configurations as “sweet” and “sour” and “stains” and “glitter” are juxtaposed to promote a graphic ambiguity.
View these submissions in Elements 2017 (pdf)
(on the web):
There’s certain moments in life that stick with us, forever etched into our heads, helping define who we are and how we see the world. There’s also the moments that we try to force ourselves to forget, stacking new memories on top of them like office papers, hoping that the past remains buried under the weight. On rare occasions though, we’re shaped by the moments that we run away from, but also defined by those same fragments of the past that we can never shake.
What seems like a million pieces of green glass decorate the pavement, glass that I’d later attribute to Heineken beers, an African father staple. My mother rushes back into the car with my younger sister and seats her in the minivan next to me and my brother. She’s bleeding, side effects of having a beer bottle smashed against the side of her head. Past the driver’s seat and out the window I can see my dad, furious and still holding whatever’s left of the Heineken bottle. Time moved quickly as my mom pulled the minivan out of the Chicago driveway, and the only feeling I remember was fear.
That’s how my earliest memory goes. I queried my mom about it once when I got older, to which she was surprised at my accurate recalling of the events. She pulled her wavy black hair back and flipped down her left ear to reveal a now-faint scar, right where the bottle made impact. She told me that my dad was crazy. I wanted to say something, to ask more questions, but the words never did end up coming out.
Sometime shortly after our time living in Chicago and a short stint in New York, we ended up moving to a quaint housing complex called Ginger Ridge in Calumet City. It was me, my middle brother Wale, last-born sister Jade, and my mom. I was nine years old at the time and still struggling to speak fluent English after coming back from a year-long trip to Nigeria, where my brother and I were enrolled as students for a school year. We had to pick up Yoruba, the language named after the tribe that both of my parents were from, to function well in Nigeria. It was so much more different than English, the sounds were harsher, and one had to contort their lips to get some words right. We’d spend the days on my grandfather’s estate, going to school and spending an hour each day afterwards learning to read Arabic and the Qur’an daily.
My grandfather had a farm on his estate in Aiyepe, which my grandmother tended to daily. There was the noisy chicken coop, the cages where they kept the dogs, and the swimming pool full of fish. My brother and I always would walk up to the mango tree and grab a fruit to eat, the sweet taste of a fresh mango being something that we could never replicate back home. I remember being in marvel as Christmas passed without snow ever touching the ground. In Nigeria, the “winter” was just as hot as July. Wale and I would run through the hallways of the massive complex that my grandfather owned, occasionally being scolded by an adult for causing a ruckus and disturbing the adults.
When we did get back to America, we were right back to being students. I eventually made my way to the fifth grade at Caroline Sibley elementary school, while my brother got to skip a grade and end up right behind me in the fourth grade. I’d always wanted to be a good student, even back then, but I never wanted to put in the work. I would be in classes and only pay half-attention, busy sketching away anime characters and coming up with my own stories. When we did get home, it was straight to the TV to watch Toonami on Cartoon Network, waiting for shows like Dragonball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho to come on. After that, we’d eat and either play video games or wait for wrestling to air. The next morning, we’d watch Power Rangers and then head off for school. There was no time for homework.
Of course, my mom would disagree, and during every parent-teacher conference, she’d listen to teachers go on and on about how her son had the potential to be a good student but “Just doesn’t try hard enough.” In-between every couple of words spoken by my teachers, my mom would turn to look at me with a scowl. That you’re-about-to-get-your-ass-whooped scowl. I’d be upset with my teachers for ratting me out, not knowing that they’re setting me up for some painful punishment later in the day, but I soon got used to it. I became familiar with that word, potential.
After sixth grade, my mom decided it was time for a change, so we packed up and moved to South Holland, a neighboring town to Calumet City. We lived in our own house on the corner of the street, where the bus stopped right in front of our door to pick students up in the morning. I enrolled at Coolidge Middle School, a school that I hated with every fiber of my being. My siblings and I didn’t want to leave Calumet City, where we were familiar and had established our friend groups. I just didn’t like the students at Coolidge, and they didn’t like me either. Students were split into cliques based on attractiveness, smarts, or gang affiliation and I didn’t identify with any of the three, so I just floated, struggling with being the new kid.
“Ah-foh-lah-rin,” I’d say every time someone asked how to pronounce my name. They’d make us wear these heather gray shirts with “Coolidge” printed on the front and tiny red shorts for gym class, both of which I hated because I didn’t go to the Laundromat frequently enough for mine to not smell like sweaty gym socks. I spent middle school drifting further inwards and sketching more and more, which my grades suffered for. So the phone calls from teachers intensified, and I’d get sent home with more letters that required parental signature. I’d gotten smarter though. I’d beat my mom back home from school and clear the incriminating messages from teachers, that way I’d keep my punishments to a minimum.
As smart as I thought I was, there were some situations that a middle school student couldn’t dodge. The most outstanding being the progress report. Teachers from each class compiled their grades for the quarter into a report and sent students home to bring back their parent’s signature on the sheet by the end of the week. Earlier on in the school year, my mom would take us to the buffet to celebrate a good quarter, or let us buy a new game. We’d just recently got a Nintendo GameCube for transitioning form Calumet City to South Holland nicely, but now we were in the latter stages of the school year. My grades had slipped, and so did my brother’s. Neither I nor Wale was sure how my mom would react, especially since the move wouldn’t be an excuse since my younger sister Jade excelled in her classes.
Whenever parent-teacher conferences came around, my mom would always threaten us with the idea of calling our dad about our failures in school. It was the nuclear football of our Nigerian household. Failed a class? “I’m going to call your dad.” Got into a fight? “I’m going to call your dad.” When we showed our mom our progress reports for that school year, she relaxed in her bed, didn’t yell or even get up to dole out a punishment. She simply spoke,
“I’m going to call your dad.”
To the three of us, that was a god-sent reprieve. My father was a specter in the Sanni household, a ghost often heard about but never seen. We’d occasionally hear that he was in Nigeria on business, or that he was in the city working on his real estate business. No matter what the news was though, he was never around. The last active memory I had was of him crashing my tenth birthday party with his most recent girlfriend, drawing the ire of my mom and causing confusion amongst the guests. Those words spoken by my mom were our get-out-of-jail-free cards. We went back to the basement to play Super Smash Bros. Melee like nothing happened and soon went to bed. By the time we got off the bus back from school the next day, I could hear my father’s booming voice in the distance, like a siren.
He was towering at the wooden dining table in his black trench coat, speaking to my mom when all of us were called into the kitchen. He looked the same as he always did; a short fade for a haircut, 5 o’clock stubble, rough brown skin, and the deep lines into his forehead that became more pronounced when he got expressive. Our progress reports were out on the table in front of him. “What’s up with your grades, man?” He asked in his growling voice. My dad had a penchant for saying “man” a lot.
Of course, we were too petrified to respond, which only further annoyed my dad. He’d go on to lecture me about how I was the oldest and named after him, how I should be setting an example for my siblings. He continued to ramble on until a pause where the air was still until he spoke the most dreadful words to hear in a Yoruba household,
“Get me the omorogun.”
An omorogun is a wooden stick often used to stir food, what most people would refer to as a turning stick in America. But to us, an omorogun is the instrument of death, used to dish out punishment with force. If Satan existed, this was his trident. My brother was led down to the basement where we played Super Smash Bros. the previous night and took his hits, and then I was called to the basement for my turn. My dad alternated between slapping my left and right palms, with enough force that he snapped the omorogun and had go back upstairs to get a second one. For the whole next day, I would sting in pain at even balling my hands into a fist. I couldn’t draw or play video games until the weekend ended; my burning red palms a reminder of my lackadaisical approach to school.
I reminded myself that I didn’t cry once throughout the whole thing.
Early into my sophomore year at Thornwood High School in South Holland, my mom decided that it was time for a change again. As an adult now, I realize that the move was due to a combination of factors, one being that South Holland was becoming a more dangerous area to live in, another that my mom was no longer able to afford the price of a house on her own. My siblings and I didn’t appreciate the magical single mother powers that our mom had enough at the time. My mom had another child in the year of 2005, my now-youngest half-sister Zainab, which changed the dynamic of our house. The stresses started piling up, taking care of a newborn daughter, covering the bills, trying to make sure the other three of us were still taken care of. She started to look less and less like the caramel-colored, always smiling, twenty-something year old mother that was in the framed photograph on our living room wall. She needed a change probably more than we did.
So we gathered as much of our stuff as we could, stuffing our video games and toys into boxes and trash bags, moving to a tame city a couple of hours north of our old house called Elgin. I hated this move more than any of the ones we’d made. Moving from Calumet City to South Holland involved switching schools, but the two towns at least neighbored each other. Elgin was a whole galaxy away from everything I knew. I was leaving behind my recently-formed group of friends, leaving behind the after-school sneaking sessions into computer labs to play Halo, saying goodbye to my group of all-black friends that enjoyed Naruto and comics just as much as I did. I’d note to my siblings how eerily quiet Elgin was, and wondered what anyone did there for fun.
Even with the fresh start though, some old habits followed from our old house to our new townhouse. I finished my sophomore year at Elgin High school on a mediocre note, still in academic cruise control. I’d do just enough to maintain a “C” average, catching the ire of my mom, but not so much so that she’d detonate on me. She spent her free time watching Nigerian movies and on the phone with various Nigerian aunts and uncles, gossiping about who wore what to which party. My brother Wale and I started to enjoy being popular at Elgin High, our Fresh Prince-like high top fades making us instantly recognizable figures. My sister Jade was getting used to her new middle school and my youngest sibling Zainab was getting old enough to start going to school as well. South Holland moved further and further into the rear view mirror for us.
On a random day that fall my dad came to our townhouse to pick me up, he wanted me to meet my half-brother, who was a football player for the University of Illinois. I’d always heard about my other side of the family, the siblings on my dad’s side that I never met. When I was at Thornwood High School, my half-brother played basketball and football for our in-conference rivals. I remember going home and getting online to check his ranking amongst the rest of the high school athletes, comparing myself to the number of stars that were illustrated next to his name. My mom always called my dad’s side of the family “useless,” a term that was applied to my dad as well. I didn’t know much about them, but I wanted to meet him, and potentially establish a connection. Maybe I could get tips on sports and becoming athletic, or maybe ask him questions about college. So I hopped into my dad’s white Toyota truck, and off we went to Homewood.
When we got there after sunset, my half-brother got in the truck and greeted my dad, and responded to meeting me with “cool.” I sat in the truck as they talked about grades, girlfriends, and sports. The highway lights would briefly bounce off my father’s face as we progressed towards Champaign, as I sat in the backseat listening and watching the cars blow by. When we did finally get there to drop him off, it was like arriving at a kingdom. The buildings were massive and looked ancient, way fancier than anything that I’d seen in Elgin. The street lights illuminated the scene, burning the scene of sculpted statues and an amazing gym into my brain. My dad told me that if I focused in school, I could eventually go to a school like that.
Focusing in school wasn’t particularly my forte though, and another quarter passed as I failed biology and a geometry course. My “cruise control” mode wasn’t as effective as I thought, and I wasn’t enough of a genius to walk into geometry tests blind and walk out with an “A.” My mom, increasingly frustrated with how her punishments proved ineffective, picked up on a new threat that fall.
“I’m going to send you all to boarding school.”
Occasionally, her voice would become shrill and she’d yell that out from her room whenever one of us screwed up. Sometimes she’d say it in Yoruba, which we’d respond to with the same blank expression that we’d have if it were in English. I was already on my second high school in less than three years; I had the leverage on my side. I knew my mom was tired of moving from place to place. There was no way she’d sign up for another transition. According to Zoey 101, boarding school was an awesome place anyways. So the winter came as we ignored my mom’s idle threats and continued to enjoy our time in Elgin. When the second week of December came, that Monday our mom told us that tomorrow would be our last day at Elgin High. On Tuesday, he had a half-day as the school dismissed us early because of our transferal. Wale, Jade, and I spent the rest of that day packing.
Mooseheart. That was the name of the boarding school that we were headed to, where they had students of all ages and even a zip code of their own. The next day, my father joined us as we began our first day on the campus, where I’d spend the next year-and-a-half before graduating in 2011.
One the more recent times I saw my dad was the winter break of 2013, when it was New Year’s Eve and also his birthday. I had just dropped out of the University of Illinois Chaimpaign-Urbana, and had yet to tell my family at the time. We were slated to meet up with my dad and half-siblings in the city for a small get together, but I ended up totaling my mom’s car on the highway before we ever made it there. I called my dad to let him know what happened, to which he asked if I was ok, which I replied “Yeah.” Wale sat in the car with me, freezing from the cold and wondering how I’d explain to my mom that I crashed her car, as we waited for one of his friends to come pick us up from in front of the Eisenhower Tower in Maywood, Illinois, where we’d leave my mom’s car to come back for. That was the last day that I cried.
Now, my mother calls me every once in a while to ask why I don’t check up on her, to which I always reply that I’m busy with school. I’m never actually that busy, I’m just the worst at reaching out to people. Years of moving around will do that to you, I suppose. My family is still in Elgin, where my mom lives with her boyfriend and Wale and Jade both attend the local community college. Every once in a while, Wale will call me to complain about how my mom is always sending him on some errand, how there’s always a new goose chase when you live at the house. I tell him to focus in classes and transfer from Elgin Community College like I did, then he wouldn’t have anyone telling him what to do. My youngest sister Zainab, now eleven years-old, sometimes sends me a snapchat of her enjoying her time schooling in Nigeria, which always puts a smile on my face.
“Mirror, Mirror, Fuck You”
My mother is helping me take in a shirt that is a bit too big on my slim frame. We stand in the kitchen by the oven as she pinches the thin straps of the top—a lacy black tank top meant to show just a hint of midriff that my b cup breasts fail to hold up properly—checking and adjusting till they sit at the proper length. The light through the large window over the sink shines on my porcelain white stomach, a strong contrast to the black top and one I hope to take full advantage of.
“Your stomach is so smooth and perfect. I used to have a stomach like that.” My mother’s comment comes suddenly, and I imagine my smooth, unblemished stomach next to my mother’s. Stretch marks, almost like scars, cover her torso, the signs of three kids now fully grown. The wrinkled skin sags across her midriff, excess now that no fetus grows in her. Bone white lines maim her, as though it were some beast that came from her rather than three human babies.
I never imagined my mother cared about looks. Growing up she’d been more concerned with teaching me cooking techniques or being sure I’d practiced for my piano lesson than helping me apply mascara or discussing how to properly coordinate outfits. In the nine years she was a stay at home mom, she always wore what was comfortable. You were more likely to find her in an old t-shirt with her hair pulled through a baseball cap doing yard work than putting on makeup or out shopping for clothes. Even when we went to the pool or out on the river as a family, she never tried to hide her stretch marks, wearing a two-piece swim suit and enjoying the sun with the rest of us. I never thought to question how she felt about the skin across her stomach, the testament to her role as a mother. Her observation of my stomach is the first time I consider my mother could even have insecurities about her body.
I remember seeing pictures of my mother pregnant with my older brother. She’s smiling, blue eyes shining, hair tied back from her face, the markings of age I’ve always known her to have nowhere to be seen. My brothers and I all got our skinny genes from her, and her belly was big as a watermelon on her slight frame. In the picture, her shirt covers her stomach, but I can imagine the skin stretched over my fetus brother. It’s smooth and taut—it has yet to relax into the stretch marks I know and love.
“When you’re pregnant,” she holds my straps in place and sticks a safety pin through the fabric, I tense, wanting to shrink away, fearing the prick of the sharp metal, “buy cocoa butter and spread it over your skin every day. It’ll help it shrink back down after the birth so you won’t have stretch marks like me.” She finishes securing my straps and sends me to change my shirt.
* * *
It’s picture day in elementary school. I’m wearing a purple dress with pink flowers—think tropical and you’ll have the right idea. My brown hair is in its straight phase, which lasted from approximately age five to age eleven, and it hangs around my face from its center part, symmetrical and dull. The photographer waves me up to take my place. Yellow footprints on the floor show me the exact unnatural position they want us to stand in for optimal efficiency. I squirm under the bright lights, wishing I was back in the comfort of the shadows.
Though I can’t see them with the lights blinding me, I know the rest of my classmates stand in the line awaiting their turn or cluster on the other side, having already stood for their picture. No one pays attention to me, but I feel the pressure of being in front of everyone nonetheless. The big camera stares at me with its giant lens like the Eye of Sauron, and I don’t want its gaze on me any more than Frodo did. It looks into my soul, finds every insecurity, and captures it on film. The tripod, the lights, the covers to soften the light, this equipment is a whole different species of camera than the handheld digital my mom brings to family gatherings.
From the shadows of that tower he calls a camera, the photographer asks me to place this arm here and tilt my head forward slightly, as though these slight shifts in position could mask my pointy elbows, curve-less waist, non-existent hips, and awkward smile. His assistant comes over to guide me because apparently I’m head tilting wrong. Her closeness makes me uncomfortable, and my desire not to be touched brings my head to the appropriately awkward angle. She also takes a moment to tuck my hair behind my ear, and I feel it bunched there, all crowded together, the strands too close for comfort. I resist the urge to push it back into place, because I know she’ll only tuck it again. What in reality takes only two or three minutes seems to last at least ten. I finally form my face into what feels like a smile and the flash goes off. I unfurl myself from their careful staging, release my hairs from their captivity behind my ear, and quickly shuffle off to the right side to join the others who’ve completed the mandatory photo shoot.
I already know what I’ll see in a few weeks when they distribute everyone’s photos. The side of my face exposed by my tucked-away hair, lips technically turned up at the corners but nothing anyone would call a real smile, brown eyes staring with the slight discomfort of the whole experience. Pointy elbows, stick-like arms, fingers held at awkward angles meant to look natural. White skin, brown hair, and purple dress all contrast off each other, distinct. The teacher will hand out the envelopes, the cellophane panel on the front that allows you to view your photos will crinkle like a potato chip bag, I’ll either flip it upside down or shove it in my backpack immediately while the other girls show theirs off. Their faces sit comfortably in front of the camera. Her blond hair, her petite nose, her straight white teeth, her deep blue eyes, they all seem to have some feature worth showing off. No one asks to see mine, the blessing to the curse of not really having friends.
Unfortunately for me, my parents are the type to buy those photo frame Christmas ornaments for every school year. They come in packs of three, so it’s perfect, one for me and each of my brothers. My discomfort each picture day is proudly displayed in the torsos of angels and faces of snowmen, framed by snowflakes and penguin stomachs. They aren’t all bad. I was cute in kindergarten, with my two long pigtails perched high on my head and my smile excited and genuine. Fifth grade, when I cut my hair to the chin to donate, made a bit of a comeback as well. For the most part, though, I’ve lovingly labeled years seven through eighteen of my life as “the awkward years.” And they hang from the branches of our artificial tree each winter for everyone to see (to make matters worse, we have a rotating stand, so there’s no hope of hiding the worst ones in the back). The gangly hair, the crooked glasses, the teeth-less smiles, all celebrated with Christmas cheer. My years of quickly shoving my school photos into hiding was for naught. My insecurities will be seen, whether I like it or not.
* * *
Purple silk swishes around my legs as I twist back and forth in my dress, the light catching on the fabric as it folds and expands with the shifts in motion. It isn’t really silk, there’s no way our deteriorating, private high school could afford such luxuries, but it’s shiny and smooth so that’s what I call it. The deep purple skirt connects to the elaborately beaded bodice that ensnares my torso; thankfully the boning that holds the top up only occasionally pokes me uncomfortably. I glance around the high school cafeteria, temporarily our show choir practice space, at the other girls dressed the same as me. There’s a group of them chatting just a few feet away. They’re all so pretty. I don’t know how I always manage to find myself surrounded by beautiful people. The purple of their dresses stands out vividly against the pale pink and tan tiles of the floor and the plain white cinderblock walls. As the boys continue to practice their number on the risers, I wander closer to the girls near me to hear what they are talking about. I may be quiet and shy, but I’m always listening.
“Having these tights rolled up around my thighs always makes me feel so fat,” Christina complains, flicking back her straight brown hair and lifting her purple hem to display the slight bulging of her thigh where she’s rolled the black footless tights up. Our outfit for the second half of the show includes black tights, but we don’t have time to pull on a pair of tights while we frantically change dresses and shoes during the guys’ number, so our director came up with the solution of buying footless tights that we can roll up under our first dresses so they won’t be seen, then quickly pull down during our costume change to be ready for the second dresses. It isn’t the most comfortable, and rolling the tights up is a pain, but it’s efficient.
“Everyone’s thighs bulge, Christina, it doesn’t mean you’re fat.” Melissa: blond hair, blue eyes, long eyelashes, nose like a Who straight out of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and sweetheart of the Wahlert Catholic High School music department. As the other girls in the group hoist their skirts to show that she’s right, I lift mine to check as well. Two skinny legs peek back at me shyly, the black fabric lashed around them like a death grip, the bottom hems likely wondering why they are forced to accommodate thighs when all they signed up for was ankles. I quickly drop my skirt hem again and try not to draw attention to myself. I don’t quite succeed.
“Hold up, uh-uh, not everyone,” proclaims Emily, a beautiful, curvy girl a year older than me who’s always placed in the back of our formations “because she has good arms,” which is what they say to console girls who are always placed in the back. She’s the best at doing show choir hair (a large poof surrounded by voluminous curls) and always offers to help the other girls when her blond hair is done (she’s a bit of a mom like that). You can find her waving a curling iron around someone or another’s head in the home room at every competition, the smell of hairspray thick around her. “Rebecca Gonner’s thighs don’t bulge at all.”
I shift uncomfortably as all eyes turn to me, surprised and perhaps slightly accusing, although that could just be my imagination. To me they seem as a pack of wolves: strong, intimidating, focused single-mindedly on their target.
“Well,” Christina gestures to me impatiently, “let’s see it.” Despite being only slightly over five feet, Christina has a presence that is much bigger. She can intimidate when she wants to and she knows it. Her face has strong lines: a straight nose and strong jaw that mean business. When she turns her eyes to you, you feel it. Her body is filled out comfortably, she is sturdy. As someone who can be pushed off balance by a strong breeze, I envy her.
Through the discomfort of so much attention, I manage to reluctantly lift my hem, revealing perfectly straight, bulge-less thighs.
“Wow,” Melissa breathes as sighs of envy roll through the group, “what I wouldn’t give to have legs as skinny as yours.”
“If I had legs like that I’d feel comfortable wearing short shorts!” chimes another girl.
“Do you even have a lick of fat on you?” Emily places her hands on her hips in disbelief.
A familiar guilt crawls its way through my veins. The guilt of being born skinny. The guilt of having what everyone else seems to want so desperately. Sometimes it feels like my presence, my mere existence, makes other girls blind to how beautiful they are. Well, not my existence, more the existence of my skinny. If they looked through my eyes, though, they’d see it. They’d see the presence they have, the way an eye is drawn to them when they enter a room.
They’d see the beauty in their curves and the way they fill out the choreography. Their bodies move to the music in a way mine never can; my lanky limbs lack the substance to look anything but awkward. These thoughts run through my head, but I remain silent. I can’t tell them of their beauty. No one wants to listen to the skinniest girl in the room talk about body image.
* * *
A stack of textbooks clutched to my chest, I try to keep my head down as I make my way through the high school hallways. My unruly dark hair falls in my face, its frizzy, wild thickness making a perfect curtain to hide behind. I can feel every grain of dirt on the linoleum floors through these black flats, but there was no way I was going to wear heels at school all day for one choir performance in the afternoon. I’m achingly aware of how I stand out in my dark purple blouse and black skirt surrounded by the school dress code: collared polo shirt of any solid color, and khaki, navy, or black slacks. I shift my books to one arm and tug down on my skirt with the other, trying to keep it at the regulatory three inches from the knee, but it’s hard when it creeps up with every step I take.
I reach my Spanish classroom and head to my desk as students chatter around me. When I reach the fifth desk over and third desk back, however, something’s not quite right. It’s occupied. Staring back at me from my desk are blue eyes under furrowed brows, a flat nose on a square face over the broad shoulders of a high school football player. Eleven years has not been long enough for me to get over my discomfort around Nathan Reimer, but then elementary school bullies tend to have that effect.
I wait for him to move: we both know that’s my desk he’s sitting in. He stares at me, eyebrows drawing together, and my mask of hair isn’t enough to keep me hidden from his scrutiny.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
I attempt to shift my hair further in front of my face while also maintaining eye contact, a difficult task. I don’t want him to have the satisfaction of thinking he’s getting to me.
When I pulled my mom’s makeup out from under the bathroom sink this morning, I was already dreading having to wear it on my face all day. Only the insistence of Ms. Mumm, the choir director, that all the girls wear makeup during performances convinced me to attempt applying any cosmetic concoction to my face. Despite the fact that she owns the makeup, my mother is no help; I inherited my lack of interest or talent for fashion of any sort from her. So it was on my own that I pulled out the eyeliner, mascara, and red lipstick that morning and began painstakingly applying it to my face. With my glasses settled on the side of the sink and my face leaned three inches from the mirror, breath fogging the glass with every exhale, I’d done my best to line my eyes, darken my lashes, and paint my lips as subtly and effectively as my limited skill could manage. More of my time was spent wiping mascara off my nose or fixing mistakes in my eyeliner than actually properly putting the makeup on my face. All my attempts at subtlety were useless, and I knew it. The fact that I never wear makeup was enough to make it glaringly obvious when I did, but my porcelain white skin certainly didn’t help by contrasting with the red on my mouth and black on my eyes. This school-wide choir concert was forcing me to do one thing I try most to avoid: draw attention to myself.
“Oh my god Nathan, what is wrong with you?” Marissa’s shocked face rises to her almost-six-feet of height as she stands up from her desk. The only time she seems comfortable with her height is when she’s on the basketball or volleyball court.
I can feel my face heating from embarrassment as I pray this will all be over soon and wish that I were anywhere but here.
“What?” Nathan leans back in my chair from the verbal attack, his face incredulous and his arms rising to his defense.
“Don’t listen to him Rebecca, you look fine.” Emma flicks her wavy brown hair out of her round face. She has the prettiest smile, her dimples emphasize the apples of her cheeks which frame her nose perfectly. Her hazel eyes look shocked, but her concerned glance can’t settle the unease in my stomach. I didn’t want to wear this makeup. I didn’t want to dress up for class today. All I want is what I want every day: to be left alone.
Nathan finally shoves out of my seat with a huff and moves away. I quickly fill the space he’s evacuated and do my best to hide behind my stack of textbooks that I’ve finally placed on the desk. As I silently wait for class to start, I count down the minutes until I can take this mess off my face.
* * *
They tell me the face that stares back at me in the mirror is mine. All that it’s attached to as well. I can’t say I disagree. The girl across from me in the full-length mirror attached to my dorm room door moves when I move, how I move. We are in perfect unison, but I am the one in control. The girl in the mirror is pretty, beautiful even. So I guess I am too. The girl in the mirror has a smile that makes others feel happy inside, most can’t help but smile along. Including me. She’s tall and thin, but not awkward, most of the time. There are moments, like when she goes to the gym (which she hates doing but does to spend time with a friend) that the girl in the mirror once again feels trapped by pointy elbows, skinny legs, clunky feet. Usually in these moments, I try not to look, to save the girl in the mirror the discomfort, but I don’t always succeed.
Most of the time, though, the girl in the mirror looks confident. It’s these times that I find I can’t stop looking at her. She smiles, sticks out her tongue, strikes a pose some might call sexy, others might call goofy. She angles her shoulders and tilts her head slightly, so I can admire the delicate clavicles and graceful neck that rises to a small chin and feminine face. She loves when she gets to show off her legs, especially in a tight black skirt that hugs her hips and heels to make her legs look just that much longer. That girl is an attractive young woman, and I’m not entirely sure where she came from, but I’m glad she did.
Unfortunately this girl, with all her confidence, is trapped in the mirror. I rely on the looking glass to show me she’s there, that she’s real, that she’s me. And by this reliance, I too am trapped. Sometimes I wish I could escape it, that I could say “Fuck you, mirror” and walk away, and never need to look again. That I could know that she’s there without her looking back at me. That I could trust that I’m not still that elementary school girl standing on the yellow feet, uncomfortable in front of the camera. Still, I am trapped, and I feel it every time my eye is drawn to a reflective surface, in my need to check, to be sure she’s still there, the girl in the mirror with the confident smile.
“After the Fire”
She smiled up at the boy as he floated outside of her window. His ageless face smiling at her, like a child staring at a new playmate.
“Are you ready to go?” He asked innocently. She nodded her head, taking a moment to look back into the room that she would be leaving behind. The room she stayed in was barely a room at all. The wooden floorboards were dark in some spots from water or piss. The wallpaper was peeling. Her bed was a single, dingy, mattress that laid in a corner on the floor.
The boy kept his hand stretched towards her, waiting patiently.
“They call me Peter. Come with me, I promise you will never feel lonely again,” he whispered. Without another moment’s hesitation, she took his hand and followed him out of the window, trusting him to catch her. Her foot slipped out of the window, pulling her body fully out like a rag doll. For a brief moment, she imagined herself falling, plummeting to the world below. However, she remained floating in the air. She let out a breath that she did not know she was holding, feeling as though she let go of the only anchor that was keeping her on the ground. Like a balloon, she floated, kept out of the clouds only by the hand that held hers tightly.
The two of them soared above the city life, looking down at all the corroded buildings and garbage that covered the ground. A chill filled her as she soared through the air, but inside she could feel nothing but a burning fire. She stared at the people, watching as their faces showed all the dreams that they once had. There was a lifelessness about the way they walked; looking like robots from high above. Her heart filled with sorrow, but that was quickly erased by the adrenaline that flowed through her the higher she flew. She held on to the boy’s hand tightly, flying towards the stars as fast as she possibly could. Her heart pounded in her popping ears as she reached the brightest star in the sky. She looked at it with wonder, letting it blind her as the two of them soared to the new world.
When the light dimmed, she was in a whole new world. The bright green grass contrasted with the vibrant blue of the ocean. The sun beamed down on her, warming her entire body like a warm hug. Mermaids and fairies flew around them, giggling a musical sound that filled her with ease. She smiled, smiling brighter than she knew possible. This world showed her something she never thought she would see again.
However, just as soon as she had caught a glimpse at the perfect world, she felt her body begin to sway in her spot; feeling the adrenaline start to slowly fade.
“It looks like you are getting ready to go home. Do you want to return?”
She looked at the ageless boy. She nodded her head desperately, already dreading the thought of leaving her new home. Peter smiled, placing his hand on her cheek as he stared at her with his dark eyes. “Then find me. You know exactly where I will be. The only rule I have, don’t let anyone know. We already have Captain Hook after us,” he instructed her.
“Yes sir, I promise. I won’t tell a soul about you,” she promised in a child-like voice, a baby girl desperate for her father’s approval. He smirked, leaning down and pressing a kiss against her forehead just as the world started to fade away.
She awoke, her head spun as she tried to look around the room. The smell of mold, piss, and smoke filled her nostrils, making her gag. The room was too dim to actually see anything. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness, but as soon as they did, she wished they hadn’t. The beauty from her dream- or rather, her hallucination- was long gone. An image of a dank room filled with shabby mattresses and people lying amongst each other like a pit of snakes made her skin crawl momentarily. Rolling over, her skin scratched against the mattress she laid on. She would most likely need a shot if it broke the skin.
Oddly enough, she was not surprised to see the man that was beside her. His back was towards her, making it hard to catch a glimpse at his face. However, she knew very well that even if she could see his face, she would not recognize him. The air around her was stuffy, as though it was filled with smoke. With a deep breath, she brought herself up to a sitting position. Her hand rested on her chest as she attempted to take in even breaths. Just like last time. She made the mental note. She always found the morning after the hardest to deal with.
She glanced around. There was a cover, slightly wet, draped over her body in a way that covered a majority of it. With shaky hands, she lifted the blanket. To her relief, she was still wearing her short black dress and green thong. Despite not having a bra on, she figured it could be far worse.
Her legs wobbled beneath her, giving out as she took a step towards the window. The only thought on her mind now was the memory of her vivid dream world. Peter, standing at the window, just as she had wished all those years ago. But those childhood stories were lost on her long ago. This time, she did not bother to get up. She laid back on the ground, shivering as her insides began to burn. The high from last night was quickly fading, leaving her with the aftermath she knew too well. Her hand flew up to scratch at her arm, almost clawing at it as she tried to satisfy the itching sensation that ran through her.
“Nyx? Are you here?” A voice asked from the other side of the door. She froze, her mind flashing quickly to an image of the storybook Captain Hook. The people around her did not move though, most likely still on their own high, or just dead. It was near impossible to tell. She dragged herself into the corner, keeping as still as possible as she tried to act as though she were invisible. But it was too late. The door opened and she was being stared at by a familiar face.
Sal stared down at her with worried eyes. He took one whiff of the room and was taken aback, pulling his shirt up in an attempt to cover his nostrils from the awful smell. He forced himself to step into the room, trying to carefully step over the dark, wet spots on the wood while avoiding a lanky brunette girl, possibly a few years younger than Nyx, who was lying with the needle still lodged in her arm. He placed his free hand on Nyx’s arm and hoisted her up to her feet.
She didn’t try to pull away as he took her out of the room and into the rest of the torn down house. Once out of the room, he turned to stare at her with the same concern that was painted on his face daily. “Nyx, do you know how worried I’ve been for you? What the fuck are you doing here, again? Squatting, really?” He asked in a rushed voice. She stared back at him, trying to focus on his words. Her head still swam, far off in the ocean of Neverland. He could tell she was not fully there, throwing his hands up in the air in a gesture of giving up.
A long beat of silence passed before he was able to look at her again. This time, his gaze dropped to her arm, sighing as soon as he saw all the marks that scarred her once perfect skin. “Shit, this again? Did you not learn anything from mom?”
She pulled her arm away violently. “Don’t fucking compare me to that woman!” She yelled at him. She wanted to say more, but just shook her head, “I don’t need this. I was fine. I was with someone who understood me, why did you take me away?” She asked in a wavering voice. The boy looked back into the room, his eyes falling on the man who laid in the bed she once occupied.
“Who him? Who the fuck has you on smack this time? I know drugs make you do shit, but this…” Sal began to say, but he let the words fall and hang in the space between the two of them.
“Forget it, you wouldn’t get it.”
“Then tell me. Do you want to be like mom? Is that it? You want to leave?”
She shook her head, closing her eyes as she tried to remember the Neverland she just abandoned. That was where she wanted to be. He was right, but he was wrong. “No, no, no, no, I just need to go back. I need to find Peter,” she was speaking erratically as she tried to pull away from her brother. He reached out, holding her tightly against him as she tried to leave. But she screamed, struggling against him as her insides began to burn even more. She felt like she was on fire, needing to claw at her skin that encased the fire. “Listen, I don’t want to be like mom. I don’t want to be in the same situation as her. I just… I need help…”
“Let me help you. Give me a chance. I can’t lose you like we did mom,” he said in a desperate voice. Nyx nodded her head, wiping the tears that started to force their way to the corners of her eyes from the pain of her short withdrawal.
“Okay… okay, you can help me. Just let me wash this shit off my face.” She saw the skepticism on Sal’s face, but she tried to keep her face straight. Slowly, he began to back up, watching carefully as she made her way towards the bathroom. She walked to the bathroom, turning back for only a moment to give her brother a quick, reassuring smile.
As soon as the door was closed, she turned on the faucet, letting the sound fill the room. She stared straight ahead at the dingy window on the other side of the room. Why are you doing this? Go back to him, she thought to herself. She froze, staring out the window at the dark sky on the other side. Just as she was beginning to doubt her decision, the burning sensation that had started in her arm began to spread through her body, making her feel as though she was standing directly in a fire. Without any more hesitation, she ran to the window and yanked it up. Although the opening was small, she managed to barely wiggle her way out. She fell to the ground, pulling herself to her shaky legs.
She ran through the town. It looked so different from last night. When she had soared over it, all the darkness and garbage seemed to be beautiful in its own way. Now that she was amongst the trash, she felt disgusted. Everything around her mirrored the black gunk that sloshed within her. The darkness in her mind came to life in the streets of the city. She passed by the hookers, a dark version of the mermaids she had seen in Neverland. The gang children; like the fairies that had giggled so sweetly in her ears. She closed her eyes, trying to hold onto the thought of Neverland as she ran.
She shook the thoughts off, trying to shake the image of Neverland back into her mind. She ran down West Madison street, reaching the intersection of South Kenton avenue. Her feet forced her forward towards the West Garfield Park district, despite her brain begging her to stop. She never went through the area, finding anyway she could to avoid it. She couldn’t go through it.
“Just wait here with your brother. I will… mommy will be right back,” the woman in front of her said. Sal held his sister’s hand tightly as they stood at the entrance of a local ice cream shop. She could remember that very moment. The woman had brought the two of them there in the middle of June, promising to give them a good day since school was over. Sal was 18 and Nyx had just turned 12. She nodded her head obediently as she stared at the glossy look on the woman’s face. The woman smiled, scratching at her arm as she looked around nervously. Sal’s face refused to show any sort of emotion. Nyx knew what that meant. He was angry. He always knew better than her.
“I’ll be right back, I promise,” the woman spoke once more. Nyx continued to nod her head, but it felt robotic the longer the woman stood before her.
Sal placed his arm over her shoulder, pulling her against his side. “Okay, whatever you say. We will be right here,” he told the woman in a cold tone. She reached out to touch his cheek, but let her hand drop inches away.
The day was long as they stood there. Waiting.
She pushed the thought away as violently as she could. She had to forget. She needed to forget. She would find any means to erase the memories, like always.
When she reached the abandoned railroad, she ran towards the cave-like entrance. “Peter, Peter!” She called out desperately. From somewhere in the darkness, she saw a shadow move. Slowly, the boy-man appeared, smiling at her with a wide smile. He came up to her, taking her in his arms. She melted at his touch, feeling safe again.
“I need to go back. I need to get back,” she told him desperately. He took her hand, pulling her further into the railway.
“You know; it will cost you to go to paradise. The trip isn’t cheap,” he informed her as he rummaged in his pockets. He pulled out a little packet of what looked like yellow glitter. Pixie dust. She smiled, reaching out towards it, only for it to be pulled away. “It’s going to cost you.” Peter started to reach towards her with his free hand. His fingers slowly closed around the hem of her dress. She nodded, not caring as his hand roamed over her body, inching its way towards her thong.
“The dust first,” she said as she reached for it again. He chuckled, a musical sound like the fairies. He pulled away from her, digging into his other pocket to pull out an old needle. He filled it with the pixie dust and took out a small elastic from his back pocket. She smiled brighter, the heat rushing to her face. Slowly, the fire returned to her core, no longer painfully burning as she realized she would get what she needed.
“Are you ready to go?” He asked, just as he had at her window. She nodded her head just as eagerly as she had before.
Neverland was just as she had remembered. All the colors shone like a child’s nursery painting. She stared up at the bright sun that shone down on her as she sat on the sand of the beach. The mermaids swam near her, trying to entice her to take a dip with them, while the fairies flew above her and urged her to join them high above. But no matter how peaceful the world around her seemed, there was something wrong.
The fire inside her was dim. All she felt was a cold chill. A freezing that would not leave, no matter how bright the sun shone above her. Her body shook on the sand, thrashing slightly as she felt sick.
The world around her shook, disappearing briefly to be replaced by the railway. Her vision was blurry, but she could barely make out the image of Peter being pressed against the wall by a police officer.
“How could you do this, you bitch? Did you call them? You fucking brought the cops!” Peter yelled towards her. She could barely comprehend his words while her name was shouted and bounced off the walls of the abandoned tunnel. Sal ran towards her, pulling her head up so it was resting on his knees while he cried. She could not hear what he was saying though. For the first time, she felt scared. Scared of what was next to come. Scared it would be too late. Scared of the fire going out.
“Kristian, I need help.”
The phone felt cold in his hands. He couldn’t even focus on the text because he had just woken up. Stupid fucker, what did she do now?
“What do you need now? Do you have any clue what time it is?”
“meet me a little past 740 blackjack road now please.”
Seriously, blackjack road? That’s like a 40-minute drive from here. I’d have to go all the way across the bridge into Illinois to rescue her bitch ass.
“Elizabeth please tell me what happened.”
“Just meet me there.”
“Alright I’ll be right there. DON’T MOVE.”
He hopped out of bed and started to dress. The snow wasn’t that bad, but there was enough to make him throw on a pair of boots. What could she possibly need that she needed to wake me up at 2 in the morning for some stupid bullshit? He ran outside to turn his car on, hoping that the minute he was giving it to heat up would be enough that it wouldn’t feel like the arctic inside. He grabbed gloves, a hat, and his jacket and prepared to make the 40-minute trip out to Blackjack road.
The little blue Ford Focus was used to this trip, though usually it was with a pair of skis, some poles, and a little green backpack with “ULLR” written on the front of it, destined for the small ski resort that has since seen better days. Something was off with the way Elizabeth was texting that rubbed him the wrong way. She better not be using again. Something didn’t seem right about those texts. And why would she bring me all the way out to Blackjack road? Fuck it, I’ll find out soon enough.
He looked at the digital clock that constantly flashed in the middle of his dashboard. 2:32 AM, only 20 or so more miles before he found out what the big deal was. At least by this point his beat up sedan was spouting warm air so it started to feel a little like fall inside the car.
Across the Mississippi lay a sleepy little northern Illinois town that blossomed during the winter due to the ski resort and stagnated the rest of the year. At this time of night there was nobody else out, all having better judgment than himself at this current moment. Driving a little faster than the posted speed limit, he passed through the floodgates that stood guard outside of the main road leading into town, ever ready to stand between the river and the town built around it. Darkness had taken hold of the small town, not a light to be seen amongst the buildings adorning the main road, nor on the church that stood atop the hill looking down at the town. Almost as soon as he entered, he was already through the sleepy town. He pulled his phone out, may as well text Elizabeth and let her know where I am.
“Almost there. Only about 10 more miles down US 20. See you soon.” His fingers buzzed over the digital keyboard. He knew it wasn’t smart, the roads were already slick and he couldn’t see well with the snow falling in sheets now. Kristian couldn’t care less, the mystery of this whole thing now fully engulfing him. All he wanted to do at that moment was find out why he was driving down a dead county road at 3 in the morning. He wasn’t even all that mad, just intrigued. The sign for Blackhawk drive appeared on his left, and his destination was getting closer.
After what seemed like forever he finally was getting close to where Elizabeth had said she wanted to meet. The secluded set of of trees that crowded along the edges of the county road seemed almost ready to swallow it, wiping the small road from all existence. Snow began to fall even more abundantly, making the large pine trees look like shadows, looming over him with a sense of foreboding. He saw the big black SUV Elizabeth always drove pulled over to the side of the road, though the skids in the snow clearly showed it wasn’t on purpose. Kristian turned down the Mumford and Sons he was blasting to better concentrate on what was happening, slowing the car down enough that the Mjolnir hanging down from the rearview mirror started to sway back and forth with some force. He sat for a moment and took a breath.
Kristian opened the door and exited the vehicle. Suddenly, Elizabeth came running from the SUV and threw her arms around him.
“Finally. I thought you were gonna ditch me.”
“Of course not.” He could smell the alcohol coming off her almost from the moment she got within arms reach. Shit, it’s even been an hour since she first messaged me. She must be trashed. There goes her parole.
Kristian broke away from the hug and stared her in the eyes, his hands bracing her at her shoulders to make sure she didn’t fall.
“Elizabeth what’s goin’ on? Why do you need me out here?”
Her eyes darted way from his as soon as the question left his lips, taking it as a veiled accusation that only she could shed light on.
“A couple guys and I went down to that biker bar just off US 84 and I may have gotten a little tipsy before I left.”
“Did you join in any drug use? You know you can’t keep doing that shit.”
“No, no I swear I haven’t.” She shook her head violently while she said that.
Kristian immediately pushed her against the car and lifted up her sleeves, looking for any recent track marks. Scanning both her arms he couldn’t find anything new, so he moved his focus to her hands. The space between fingers was a common place to shoot up once the veins in the arms collapse. Nothing there either. At least she isn’t back on the H.
“You didn’t ingest any other drugs did you?”
“Kristian I swear all I did was drink.”
He could tell by the tone of her voice she was being honest.
“Do you need a ride? I can park the truck a little farther off the road and we can get it in the morning.”
“Ya… but I need something else too.”
Weary, Kristian looked over at her shivering in the oversized hoody, her arms crossed with the snow piling up on her.
“What is it?’
“There was an accident.”
Kristian started to look around and could see what he had missed before: little scratches on her face that would have been barely noticeable, little droplets of blood in the snow from where she must have been pacing, and a small off colored patch of skin beneath her nose where she must have wiped some blood away from.
“What happened? Move over to the passenger side of my vehicle so you can get out of the cold”
As they moved towards the car he could see what looked like an almost larger pool of blood forming near the tree line about five feet from the road. Pausing, he opened her door and then moved towards where the puddle was forming. Sensing he was catching on, Elizabeth jumped up. Stumbling out of the vehicle, she slowly made her way towards him.
“Kristian, I hit someone on a bike going the other way.” She bit her lip the way she always did when she knows she’s in trouble. A tear formed and fell slowly down her face. He kept walking, intent on finding out what exactly had happened.
There, about twenty feet in front of the SUV, was the metal skeleton of a motorcycle with a skid leading into the wood line. Kristian stopped, stuck between the possible body of a biker and Elizabeth. Turning slightly, he looked back at Elizabeth.
“Kristian can we please just go.” She knew this would mean jail time. The tire marks in the snow prove she swerved her car numerous times before impacting the bike.
“Elizabeth can you please sit in the car. I’ll be back in a second, don’t worry.”
Kristian remembered a time when they would have done anything for each other, and he still would. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, knowing that what he was going to do was the right thing.
After making the call, he went to check on the biker. Laying face down in the snowy ground was a man dressed in jeans and an 80’s style pink parachute jacket. The wind had picked up at this point causing the snow to blow around in a tornado like fashion, the trees making a moaning, yawning tone as they swayed around him. He felt the guys neck for a pulse, and received an icy touch in response. The man had obviously been dead for a while, probably having bled out while she was sending me the initial texts. He walked back to the car and sat down in the driver’s seat.
“Hey Liz remember when we first met? It was some stupid move in day party freshman year, remember that? And then Sam introduced all of us?”
“Fuck ya, haha! Then all ten or so of us went upstairs and watched Game of Thrones.”
“Ya, fuck that seemed so long ago. What’s it now, six years?” Kristian pulled a pack of Turkish Royal cigarettes from inside the driver side door and stuck the carton up to his mouth, pulling it away to reveal one stuck in his big mouth. Looking over, he offered one to Elizabeth who gladly accepts. The sound of sirens could be heard in the distance as the zippo flicked to life.
“We Grew Up”
We grew up
Filling our bellies with sweetcorn and watermelon
Crops that flourished in the floodplain’s fertile soil
But the fruits of our neighbor’s labor sloshed in me
As though I was empty, a vessel to be filled
You didn’t tell me what I was missing
We grew up
Untethered by parental definition of roles
Throwing rocks, stomping in the Mississippi’s mud
Screeching with pure joy as we ran in summer storms
We sang songs sung by men in musicals
Dressed up as warriors for Halloween
I justified it, saying there were no good girl characters
We grew up
And rounded out, smoothed out
Like the pebbles my sisters skipped across lakes
At your urging, I cut my hair
But told everyone it was for convenience
Told myself that was the only reason
You were real to me
But to others, your inability to seesaw
Was evidence against your existence
An existence that even to me
As I explored a newfound tangible world
We grew up
In different states
But went to school in the same riverside city
Where the streets downtown had organized names
We didn’t know them, but still knew where they went
Ironic then, that in high school we got lost
Long enough for the sun to chastise me
Slap my bared shoulders for wearing spaghetti straps
We never listened to her
Unlike the high school
We felt comfortable
Expressing ourselves through exposed paper skin
We grew up
Playing male-led video games
Too stubborn to back down
We never tempered or tethered our tongues
Instead, we lashed them like silver whips
Targeting anything and everything
United in our core desire to pick a fight with injustice
We grew up
Went our separate ways
To California, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin
You were my sister
Not by blood, but by bond
A bond strengthened
When I took my first hesitant steps outside a closet
To walk toward you
That baggy, stained shirt you gave me
Somehow still smells like you, though it’s been years
And on days when I miss you so much it hurts
I wonder if I am still your sister
The girl you knew is no longer me
We grew up
Struggling to find ourselves
I hoard sundresses and smell like vanilla sugar
I have two pairs of steel-toed boots and an immunity to poison ivy
The first time we met
I knew who I was, but not what I was missing
You knew what you were missing, but not who you were
We grew up
Joined at the hips, not the lips
Painting colors on our cheeks
Decked out in bright stripes
Our bodies proud flags on parade
On Valentine’s Day, your gift to me
Was a whisper
That you had maybe, finally found who you were
I was still empty
But you would help me find what I was missing
We grew up
Shunning the societal rules and roles
Sticking our tongues out at pronouns and significant others
Content to define ourselves our way
He, she, they, them
Boyfriend, girlfriend, yes, no
You were something else
Someone new and more
Unsure in your footing, which I had only ever seen in me
You’ve never played in Iowan floodwaters
But I still borrow your laugh
For late night delirious jokes
While I intertwine your fingers and mine
We grew up
Watched others do the same
Into men, women, both, neither.
I grew up
But don’t know what I grew into.
Like everyone else, I have scars
From the day I was born, I collected them like limited edition lunchboxes
My favorite pair of brown sandals hide them
Where my dog dragged her leash across my ankle
Where I got stitches for the first time
Where I stepped on a comb that went right through my foot
My epidermal scars are battle wounds, reminders that I’m somehow still alive
After mishaps and mess-ups and mistakes
They aren’t the scars of a veteran, but of someone who never went to war in the first place
Cutesy circles and stripes
I keep the ugly ones buried under my skin
The scars that pump the blood in my cardiac muscle
The scars that control my emotions, my thoughts, in my grey matter
The scars that control how see, how I hear, how I speak
The scars that prove I was on the front line
Because no one would want someone who had to stitch themselves together
No one would want someone who is still bleeding
I stopped wondering why the world treated me poorly
And traded it for wondering why the world treats me so well
I no longer question what I did to deserve heartbreak
But question what I did to deserve love
“What did I do to deserve this?” is a scar
That I may never be able to reclaim
I have long accepted the beauty of the world
That people can be good, that they can be bad, that they can be neither, that they can be both
But when someone shows kindness to me
I feel born anew
With the knowledge that someone has given me
Basic human decency
When someone says my name with warmth
Something deep within me hums harmoniously
When someone approaches me first
My arteries dance the Charleston
When someone leaps to my defense
I feel my heart stop and drop
Building up speed
Running along my axons, my capillaries, my nerves and tendons and tissues
Crashing over all of my scars, but for once
The phantom pains don’t throb
This sweet stimulation
Makes them sing
I will always take years to trust someone fully
I will always be ready to leave someone behind
I will always be amazed
By kindness and consideration and caring
By the idea that I am worth befriending, worth loving, worthwhile
I take what I can get
I embrace the sugary sensation of validation my scars left behind
I respond to the red flags that make them wince in memoriam
I allow myself one person, two, three, to see my scars
My ugly scars
The throbbing, jagged marks across my heart, my mind, my eyes and ears and mouth
The scars that sometimes, stop bleeding
We all have scars
But we all wear them differently
These are the ones I am proud of
Badges of honor that prove
I have made it this far, somehow
I will continue to keep going
“The Foul Deed”
You were a building covered in cracks and choking vines,
Ready to wrap around my jugular.
You were that one lone tree tied with yellow ribbon awaiting death,
And I was the chainsaw that did the foul deed.
You were the window with the blinds glued shut to the world,
Only peeking out to scare the mailman away.
You were the jam packed journal filled with crimson and pitch black ink,
And I was the senseless animal that shredded each and every page.
You were the ice on the windshield shattered by a blunt edge,
Which was me chipping away violently.
You were the tipped over coffee cup spreading its contents to its many victims.
And I was the very first one the burning contents touched.
“My Lost Friend”
From a distance they believe
The tiny toes have grown together
To create a water born creature.
Diving down into my own imagination
And pulling others along with silent ferocity.
Pretending so fiercely my skull
Covered in soft innocent hair
Splits into two identical pieces
The ocean churning inside
Makes my whole being a sea
Of chemically treated water.
The deep end is my frenemy
Someone that embraces with its mass
But pulls you under at the same moment.
Looking from up above the world
It has a wide grin ready
To invite me over.
The current changes swiftly
And the imagination bleeds from my ears.
That board that once was
My conquest crackles up above me
Like Moriarty knowing the final problem
But never willing to share.
A poem should be sculpted,
As if by the hands of Michelangelo.
As a pack of hyenas during a bad joke.
Mute as a stalking feline,
Shaking its hind legs before it strikes.
A poem should be paper thin,
Like the birds being tossed by the wind.
A poem should be light,
Fitting snugly into the holes of your heart.
The trinket that you keep at your chest,
One of kind that would take a piece of you if lost.
Passed down from your parents,
Whispered as bedtime stories.
A poem should be like lint,
Forever lining your insides.
A poem should be spoken,
With low rambling voices that send shudders.
In smoke-filled coffee houses,
Where the hipsters are born.
Each word followed by clink of glasses,
Vibrating tabletops with each word.
A poem should be Eternal,
Outliving even those silly sparkling teenaged vampires
“It rained last night”
The sun hides behind the thick grey clouds
the word damp and gloomy
A tunnel of the deepest darkest wettest brown
Large green leaves heavy with the rain
Wet damp cold seeps through my shoes
The air is warm and still
Moisture clings to my skin
Lush fields of verdant green
Dewy with rain
Trees dance with the whispering wind
As the cold moves in
The clouds thicken
A solid steel dome
The small puddle of a pond
its water clear
its water cold
The bed soft with slime and moss
I slide so easily into the clear water
I can see the goosebumps on my skin
The cold sets in
“The night is”
The night is that type of night
That is cold and deeply dark and pinches at your skin.
The stars are out, bright dots on the dark swath of the sky.
The faraway stars build themselves to dark oblivion
Their light still shines, billions and billions of miles away it dances in my eyes.
You stand next to me. It is silent.
The wind rustles the leaves of the trees and rushes at my ears.
We don’t speak. There are many things to be said.
I wish you would tell me them
I wish you could tell me them
The night is cold and dark
The earth moves slowly past the stars
Maybe we will turn to the sun the dawn will arrive
Slowly I begin to see them now
The patterns in the stars
The shapes they create
The mysteries and wonders they reveal
I wish I could show you them
But the earth moves on
And the morning star looms.
“Cold as stone, soft as lace”
She’s sweet and sticky
Sour like sugar
Hard and cold as delicate lace
Her heart hammers
Blood boils and pops
Roils through her veins
in spurts and globs
She’s in the pink of rose
The blue of the sky
with skin so soft
you can taste it
Heaven’s Light glimmers off her hair
A ruddy light shines behind her eyes
The metal is cold
in her hot hands
The bang reverberates
in her skull
The rust colored stains
Between the flecks of glitter