Elements 2019

2019-EricShort-Visual-KingOfTheWorldIAm

Elements 2019

View all as a pdf here.


View as word documents:

Alexis Fioroni
Fairy Tales

Jewel Woodward
Everything Isn’t What It Always Seems

Cory Clark
Broken Memory
In The Dust

Austin Middelton
Days Gone

Curtis Pointer
Sound
Ekpharastic Poem

Aaron Mendenall
This Evening
Don’t Blame Your Diagnosis

Kaylee Gundling
Meshes Of The Afternoon
Letting Go
Director’s Cut

Morgan Cusack
This Place You Made
Chasing The Sun
Those Left Behind

Emilie Hahn
Overcome: A Sestina

Emily Trenter
Frozen Patience

Connor Sullivan
Evil Crow
Unlocked

Angelique Herrera
Abandonment
Just A Bite

Kate Birr
Caught

Sidney Bottino
Coffee

Casey Hendrickson
Cold
Human

Jacob Taylor
Living In Chicago

Emma Dayhoff
Greenwood

Joshua Miller
No Longer Alone

Matt Barry 
Birdcage

Shelby Davin
The Boogeyman

Marshelle Kellum
Me A Writer?

Alisa Davis
Deadbeat Dads
Best Part


CREATIVE WRITING AWARDS

See the winning pieces, professional judges and commentary on the blog post: Creative Writing Winners 2019

Lois C. Bruner Creative Nonfiction Award

Cordell Larner Award in Fiction

Cordell Larner Award in Poetry


Editor-in-Chief:
Morgan Cusack

Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Erika T. Wurth

Editorial Board:
Christian Sessom, Isai Lopez, Emma Dayhoff, Morgan Cusack, and Jacob Taylor

Visual Cover
Eric Short – “King of the World I Am”


Elements 2019

(web version)

Alexis Fioroni

“Fairy Tales”

What did you do?
I did what any woman would do,

I filled my bed with the finest queens
Searching for you,
in their damp skin
I kissed the quiet valleys in the cracks of their backs,
their celestial mooans,
Danced with sacred fairies.
But they weren’t you.
You, my love, had the power,
to raise the sun,
with just your smile.
The stars truly gleamed for you,
the constellations were jealous of the way

You swam effortlessly in Orion’s belt.
And you are, a symphonic siren
that can lull any skilled sailor to their death.
I would’ve crashed on your rocks.
I promised myself,
that I would not make you,
the sun, in my life.
That. Only that. Position could
be fulfilled by yours truly
But, my   god!
You must have been, my moon
so melancholy, so bright
I use to wrap myself in fairytales,
you were always the protagonist,
I wanted to save you, just once,

But I realized I didn’t have
the magical elixir,
that turned ogres into princesses,
I didn’t have the sword that sleighed the dragon,

And I couldn’t climb the tallest tower.
So what did you do?

What. Did. You. Do?
I stopped believing in fairytales.
___________________________________________

Jewel Woodward

“everything isn’t what it always seems”

everything isn’t what it always seems
that’s why at night i have nightmares
and in the day i daydream

some days i just can’t focus
and it hurts me to the core
that the memories we made
we couldn’t just make one more

i was only five when it happened
but it seems like it happened not long ago
i can only imagine the pain on our mother’s face
when they lowered your body into that cold empty space

how could they shoot you in the head?
over something that you said
then they turned the gun on everyone else
and made them clean up the bloody mess
as you lay there without a breath within your soul
they put plastic bags over your skull
and after that they threw you in the trunk
just like you were a worthless piece of junk
i guess no one in sight cared
that’s why at night i have nightmares

some days i just think about
how nothing will ever be the same
all i have left of you are memories and photos in a frame
i just daydream about how things could’ve been
i don’t even know where to begin
all the fun times we could’ve had
and all of the times you would’ve been proud of me
especially for becoming a high school grad
i daydream of what you could’ve been
i daydream about how on the football field you loved to win

you are my heart because
i need you to keep the blood flowing in my veins
so that nothing within me will fail
i need you to keep me going through high water and hell

you are my heart because
i know you’re inside of me
and there’s no way i can touch you
but i feel you, because forever here you’ll be

you are my heart because
i can hear your heart beat
as if i had a stethoscope to my ears
just like my headphones
i hear your music
it gives me hope
and dries away all my tears

my heart is broken because
i can only see you through pictures
and sometimes it makes the pain worsen
i yearn to see you without the nightmares and daydreams
oh how i wish i could see you just once more
in person…
___________________________________________

Cory Clark

“Broken Memory”

During a stride through winter lanes
I cursed the drifting snow
Carrying a sigh with my hindered gait
I wondered where to go
With every forgettable face
And unfamiliar home
I happened upon a place I did know

Stories were told on the winter winds
About a home of rich pine
Where the clearest glass met sturdy steels
Wrapped in a complex design
With the snow at my back
I gazed with surprise
For I saw a home much better than mine!

But despite all the glowing windows
There wasn’t anyone to see
No shadows wandered the halls below
It was as silent as could be
But hidden higher up
In a tiny window
Were little blue eyes looking down at me

A youthful gaze watched from way up there
Surprised and dazed, she froze
Then cocked her head to the side childishly
In an almost cute pose
Wearing a hint of fear
I started to draw near
But she quickly drew her curtains to a close

My curiosity swept with the wind
I turned back to face the road
When the squeak of an old door called
I looked back at the warm abode
That girl did peek
From the cracked door
And said quietly, “Come in if you’re cold.”

I was drawn inside the heated home
Leaving behind the winter
But to say I was comfy would be a lie
For the halls heard not a whisper
I couldn’t help but ask
For it was bugging me so
“Where are your mother or father?”

Her grin faded and eyes met the ground
A quiet tear tapped the floor
And the warm air turned tense and dark
She stood quietly at the door
Paused in place
She whispered
“They aren’t alive anymore”

A meek apology was all I could spare
She accepted it with a smile
Before charming me with happier words
Chatting calmly for a while
And though I wasn’t warm
I had to leave soon
The winter storm had grown hostile

Before stepping out into the whipping winds
I asked, “What’s your name again?”
She gave me a soft giggle and playfully said
“You can just call me a friend”
She left it at that
And bid me farewell
Our brief talk at an end

I thought to myself, “What an odd girl”
But despite her weird manner
I would go out of my way to see her
Standing at that aged manor
I’d wave to her
And she’d wave back
As we’d start our daily banter

When winter shed its shell for spring
And the snow’d be swept aside
Clad in a white sundress and rose garnish
She’d finally be outside
Watering vivid roses
Trimming green hedges
And clearing out small shrubs that had died

We exchanged our careless daily words
While the sun was falling fast
I knew it was time to scurry home
Because the day wouldn’t last
Before I could leave
With a quick motion
She stole a rose from green grass

And with a gaze aimed at my heart
She thrusted that rose my way
Wearing an almost haunting smile
“Just for you,” she’d say
I could only accept
Thanking her aplenty
And heading out while it was still day

But as I walked my solemn route home
People’s faces turned sour
They looked at me with bewildered eyes
For at least close to an hour
But I didn’t care
Not in the least
Still admiring the cute girl’s flower

Time dragged on with those merry days
Every wave and talk the same
It was a loop of cheer meant just for us
I surely couldn’t complain
But I still wondered
Much about that girl
Since I still didn’t even know her name

Spring had passed and nothing changed
While the summer reached its peak
I would still visit that lonely girl
Every day of every week
And on one late night
With a sullen march
My cheery friend I would seek

For I had a spat with mom and dad
And sought comfort
In that sweet girl’s soft voice
That would ease any hurt
At her bright home
I could see her
Prancing casually in the attic, hardly alert

Too afraid to knock on the door
And too hidden by night
I found a place to hop up on the roof
Grasping any foothold in sight
I scaled the rooftop
Reached for the window
And flung it open with all my might

Startled, the girl quickly rushed to me
Fleeing her quiet estate
Following me out, perched on the roof
Wood groaning under our weight
She crossed her arms
And asked with a pout
“What brings you here so late?”

“I was wanting to see my friend.”
I softly uttered
Her pout turned into that sweet smile
Not whispering a word
Her cold, pale hand
Rested on my head
And I spilled all complaints unheard

What comfort she offered to me
I took without respite
With every hushed word she gave
Into that glistening night
It was more than I wanted
And more than I needed
Seeing her was such a delight

And when my hopes were lifted
And the tears had passed
She’d ask me the silliest things
Questions about my past
Like where I was from
Or where I would go
“What did you want to be?” she asked

I never thought about something like that
“I guess a musician.”
She’d giggle softly in response
“Sounds fun!” she’d grin
That innocent smile
Led her hand to mine
Grasping tight with her soft, pale skin

“What about you?” I asked her
Wearing a blank stare
She tilted her head aside in deep thought
Her cute pose she’d wear
Ignoring the world
She’d think long and hard
The wind fluttering her long brown hair

“I think I just wanna marry a cute boy!”
She said with glee
I expected no less, leading me to ask,
“I suppose you mean me?”
Her head corrected
And her smile strong
She replied , “Of course, silly!”

Such an odd girl, but so sweet with words
“I still don’t know your name!”
I had to reply with a calming smirk
She carried no blame
“Names aren’t needed.”
She’d firmly reply
“Because our memories are still the same.”

No longer clear if she was just being silly
I took it to heart
Because I couldn’t easily forget her
From our forlorn start
That silly girl meant much
To the simple, young me
And nothing could take that apart

My energy waned and so did the night
She’d done what she could
Carrying myself down the jaded roof
And on firm ground I stood
I’d send my farewells
Wearing a calm smile
Thanking the one person that understood

“She’s been so kind and caring,”
I’d tenderly thought
“I need to give her something”
So any store I sought
But this late at night
They all were closed
Making my midnight raid for naught

It was when I had arrived back home
My sorry’s were said
Once my elders had been appeased
I trotted off to bed
And when firmly snug
I dreamt a dream
Tending the thought of being wed

When I woke that midsummer morn
I shot straight to the store
Aimed for the counter of gold and silver
And pricey jewels galore
There, somewhere between
All the glimmering chains
Was a simple necklace that I knew she’d adore

At the noisy front, I paid for the meager token
I fled with my receipt
Passing pedestrians, trees, and the sunlight alike
I’d meet the windswept street
Aiming far ahead
For a distant design
Rushing my feet along the roasting concrete

When I arrived, the worst had come true
My friend was missing
There wasn’t a glimpse, not a single call
That quiet winds would sing
Not in the yard
Nor in the halls
I wondered where that girl was hiding

Thrusting open the doors with an eager heave
“Where are you?” I’d call
Up wretching stairs where the dust had settled
I’d scour every hall
But no matter my words
Despite my search
I just couldn’t find that girl at all

My final destination at the peak of the stairs
Was the lonely attic door
Stopped right before it’s faded wood
Breath fainter than before
My head was light
My heart was fast
“She’s gotta be in here, I’m sure…”

Resting my hand on the ice cold knob
I slowly pushed on
My eyes searching every inch
Through the door’s yawn
As it was opened
Time drew to a close
Trapped in a world where my friend was gone

Unable to breathe, unable to speak
I found nobody
She wasn’t at her little window
Her chair cold and lonely
Silent tears fell
With hardly a breath
I harshly whispered, “Where could she be?

When I looked to her bed of vivid pink
I saw a faint outline
Resting within the cotton sheath
Was a bedridden sign
Peeking from the covers
Was a pinch of white
It was a hand of a rigid design

When I rushed to grasp that peeking hand
I made a grim mistake
That once gentle palm was devoid of flesh
Now fragile enough to break
Limp, cracked, and frail
Cold, chalky, and still
Frozen in time, never to awake

It didn’t matter how much I wished
It wouldn’t raise her head
No matter how much I begged
She’d stay confined to bed
Dressed in sheets
To hide her state
She’d never reply to what I said

Gripping tight the trinket I got her
I’d rest it on top
Of her tear soaked, cotton coffin
With a quiet drop
I urged myself
To leave her side
But just like her heart, I’d stop

Her sweet words, her enchanting smile
Her vivid, calming scent
“Our memories are still the same”
I’d recall with lament
She’d been so right
Those words were true
Dead or alive, I could never forget

“Sleep well. You’ll never be forgotten.”
I said tenderly
The house stolen by bittersweet silence
With that home empty
My breath returned
And time crawled on
That girl kept safe in home and memory

Year after year passed
No eyes peered out of that window
And the lights never came back on
The flowers and hedges stayed dead
As did my flower back home

But one thing that never fled
Was the memories wrapped in my head

Those cherished, broken, beloved, bittersweet memories…
___________________________________________

Cory Clark

“In the Dust”

When he was young and bound to home
He’d dream of when he could roam
And when his folks had settled down
They said he’d get to roam the town
It was at the old diner, a quarter after two
When he locked his blue eyes on you
A little worn, a little torn
And certainly forlorn
But it was good enough for him
When he picked you up on a whim
It was the summer of fifty-five
When he took you on your first drive
Said it was the best choice he ever made
And by his side you always stayed
Do you know what you meant?
To that merry, wholesome gent?
Driven down to his last cent
To pay for all the years you spent
For all the memories still on repeat
For all the friends you’d go on to meet
But you were going past your prime
And quickly running out your time
Those times would come to end
To say goodbye to your old friend
Seeing those cracked eyes
He would have to realize
When your colors started to fade
A painful decision was to be made
Bringing you to your last stop
He’d leave you one last teardrop
And never be back again
To see you in your gloomy den
With broken eyes you stare
To those passing without a care
Who will never know the tales you hold
Of treasured friends and a love so old
Just rest at ease and fall apart
With years’ dust atop your heart
Trapped in bittersweet serenity
What once was, what used to be
A timely beloved memory
Now left to rust for all to see.
___________________________________________

Austin Middelton

“Days Gone”

Days gone by and I simply go through the motions
I’m out of control, not even the captain of my ocean

My thoughts constantly dwell on the miles behind us
My mind struggles but there’s no one that I trust

Some look for safety behind bars
Others shed pain writing their memoirs

I chose the latter when I let love burn me like a fire
But then again who could stop the heart’s desire

The pain I feel has become so immense
Surely pretending it doesn’t exist is the best defense

This sorrowful life makes me yearn for more
Although I’m sure this is just the calm before

They all say that I need to be tougher
But it feels like I have been made to suffer

I hope one day I see the world without such disdain
Yet here we remain

I sit and think about what we become
I can see how slowly we’ve come undone

Fear the hunters, they try and conform you to their ways
I just wish and pray for better days

As I’ve grown everyone else has become quite salacious
Life among them has made me quite tenacious

I spend my time wishing and wishing well
Hoping that one day we find ourselves

Hoping that one day we can let go of all that occurred
Hoping that one day we can join a larger world

But I will always believe that there is something to fear
No matter what comes after, year after year

One day I could meet this march to war
Maybe then I wouldn’t feel this pain anymore

I like to think someday I might have a shot at winning
All I want is a new beginning

It’s hard to tell if these are just delusions and daydreams
All I know is they turn the whispers into screams

Maybe I just need to take a breath
It feels like this is life and death

This enemy that I can’t attack
I know there’s no turning back

It may feel as though I’ve done myself too much harm
But I swear I’ll answer my call to arms

And I don’t just sit here and assume
I know there’s more to my future than a certain doom

Because of all that I have slowly lost
When I look back I can’t regret all the lines we cross

I’ll try to remain hopeful for the things in store
And remember there is more to this life than the rotten core
___________________________________________

Curtis Pointer

“Sound”

Drip, drop, plop; the sounds of a pond.
Slight rain makes for a good musical.
Learning, living, laughing, lots of lavish living kids play.

The boots splash.
Waves of water crash.
I sat on the porch not watching, but listening.

My ears were on high alert
But my eyes only babysat when I didn’t hear feet pitty pat.
Soon the kids’ heads bashed.

The kids and I free time came to a crash.
Hot coco and power rangers
It’s always one adventure after the next.

The kids heard the doorbell and cried out stranger danger
I opened the door, the kids nearest
And it mother dearest.
___________________________________________

Curtis Pointer

“Ekphrastic Poem”

Many colors, many shapes.
Elegance is the word.
Silence is what I heard.
As I walked through the door I was unimpressed.
The air felt too familiar to be impressed.
I stepped further.
The texture of the walls changed.
Not the touch, the sight.
It was the art, the pictures that were hanged.
For someone who has no interest in art,
the atmosphere was comfortable.
Originally foreign, now my own personal fortune.
Home, I was home
___________________________________________

Aaron Mendenall

“This Evening”

You were all I could think about this evening
You wouldn’t leave me alone, but that’s okay
I tried listening to the music, but your cries drowned out the beautiful melodies
I tried following the musician’s every move, but you were always one step ahead tonight

You were all I could think about this evening
You almost brought tears to my eyes, but that’s okay
I tried to find some happiness in the music, but your presence only made me sad
I tried to forget you and focus on the music, but you were too selfish tonight

You were all I could think about this evening
You smothered me with our memories, but that’s okay
I tried to look away at the ceiling, but you followed my every glance and glare
I tried to close my eyes and just not think at all, but you wouldn’t let me be tonight

You were all I could think about this evening
I held my breath until there was nothing, and that’s okay
I tried to climb out of the darkness so I could finally see the light
I tried to chase after the day and leave behind this lonely tonight

But you are always there, and you always will be
You are always present
in my nightmares
and in my dreams

When I think about you it hurts me, but that’s okay
Because I would rather hurt
than feel nothing
at all
___________________________________________

Aaron Mendenall

“Don’t Blame Your Diagnosis”

You knew there was a problem
The doctor told you what was wrong
A medical professional said you need help
And you know that he’s right
But you chose not to fix it

Instead, it became an illegitimate excuse for your actions
I only cursed in front of the kids because I had an episode
I only threw the pots across the kitchen because I didn’t like what you said
I only raised my fist because dinner wasn’t ready when I got home

You don’t take your meds so you can do what you want
She would never leave you because you convinced her she was the problem
It took finding out you had been cheating on her for her to kick you out

It’s been three years since she died, but somehow you still get to live
You haven’t reached out to me in a year and a half even though you said you’d never give up
It seems like God always takes the good ones

Maybe there isn’t a God
If there is, how could He do something like this?
___________________________________________

Kaylee Gundling

“Meshes of the Afternoon”

I found your face
shattered to pieces
on the floor
and my own eyes
reflected back in it.
I had a dream
that a shard of you
cut my foot
on the beach
so I set it up in the sand
and watched the ocean
from the reflection.
My plastic finger tips
reach out
‘til they fade into
shadows
and I wander
from room to room
until I realize
the dream never ends.
___________________________________________

Kaylee Gundling

“Letting Go”

Part I: Fall
You’re a distant
memory.
The safe
forgettable
desire.
I drowned you
in the oceans
I found in his eyes
and the tides
swept me away.

Part II: Winter
Cigarette breath
on my cheek.
Safety
in a dangerous world,
in a dangerous mind.
Memory sharp
and white
as the snow
in the image,
the last day
you were mine.

Part III: Spring
Before the lilacs
could bud on the trees
I created
for myself
freedom.
And once the lilacs
turned from purple to brown
I drifted off
in the breeze
with them.

Part IV: Summer
Warm air
surrounded by the stars.
They fell around us
in waves
and I wished for one thing
every time.
I thought you wanted me,
but now I realize
you were drawn to the summer air
in my lungs
Once the winter set in
I lost you.

Part V
Only now I’ve discovered
you were never mine
to let go of.
___________________________________________

Kaylee Gundling

“Director’s Cut”

We start with an extreme close up shot of my eyes, closed. You can tell I’m asleep because of the pillow framing my dark hair. You can tell I’m a man because of the shape of my eyebrows. You can tell it’s the morning because of the soft light on my face, streaming in from the windows you won’t see until the panning shot of my bedroom.

But for now, we’re in a close up, and my eyes open. The camera jumps back, a wide angle shot of me sitting up. I look at the picture on my nightstand, another close up of my face shows that my eyes are as blank as they were in the first shot.

The shot cuts to the picture and you can clearly see a dark-haired woman. Her big eyes are shining and her red lips are turned up in a huge grin. She’s looking up over the camera at the person holding it, me. But you can only infer that it’s me. You won’t get this flashback. You won’t see our first anniversary, six months ago. You won’t see me bring her to the guitar shop down the street. You won’t see me tell her to pick her favorite, any one she wants. You do see which guitar she picked though. It’s in the picture. An electric guitar with a sparkly red body, like Dorothy’s ruby slipper. That’s why she picked it. She loves The Wizard of Oz.

Later, you’ll learn her name is Georgia. Later, you’ll learn I was going to propose to her. There will be a flashback sequence of me looking at rings. But for now, all you get is this shot.

What you’re about to see would never have made it to the theatrical release. This will be the director’s cut.

The camera cuts to me in the bathroom, but you are looking at the back of my head. In the mirror, past my head, you can see my face clearly. A particularly inspired director may use a dutch angle here. He would also use side lighting, illuminating half of my face and letting soft shadows fall on the other half. In the mirror, my lips are quirked up in a hollow smile. Only my mouth cooperates in the moment, my eyes are blank, unreadable. The right corner of my mouth is pulled up farther than the left. The whole image looks like a puppeteer in charge of my facial expression has a slacking string and didn’t bother to pull up the corners of my eyes to make me look human.

The camera starts to move, panning around my head, keeping the mirror focal. The camera angles so you can’t see my face past the eclipse of my head. When my face slips out from behind, the camera angle has straightened out and the angle of the lighting has shifted too, casting a soft light on my full face. I have a new smile fixed to my face. This time it reaches my eyes and my lips are even. This new smile is far more attractive. Perhaps you’ll even find me charming.

The next sequence of shots shows you my morning routine. The steam of the shower, the white foam of my toothpaste circling the drain, the buzz of my electric razor. I’m in the kitchen holding my cell phone. I hit a button on it and you hear a woman’s voice, “one new voicemail”. My jaw is tense and my eyes slightly narrowed as I listen to the message.

“Julian,” Georgia says, voice grainy sounding through my phone speaker. Even through the low sound quality, her voice is rough, like someone who’s been crying. “I’m at Mary’s house.” My eyebrows draw together at Mary’s name. I’ve never quite been able to keep Georgia away from her. “I just–” she breaks off. “I just couldn’t stay with you last night. Not after– anyways, I know what I did was wrong, but.” She takes an audible breath. “You hurt me, Julian. And I know that I,” her voice cracks. “I did something really bad too.” The screen stops showing me, and instead you see a flashback, you can tell it’s a flashback because of the altered coloration, of her getting into a car, black and shadowed to denote mystery. “And I’m sorry,” she’s crying again now. “I wish I could take it back. And I know you,” she stops. After a moment she starts again, “I had to go to the hospital, Julian. I just– I told them I fell.” A flashback to her falling down the stairs, I’m standing at the top. It isn’t a lie. “I think they bought it. But, Julian, I can’t keep doing this. You keep saying things are going to change but they never do. I love you, but this time was different. This isn’t just you yelling or throwing things, this crossed a line. I don’t want this to be the end but–” she cuts off again. “We should talk about this. In person. I want to try to fix things. Call me. Please.” She pauses. “No alcohol, okay?” She pauses again, for longer this time. “I love you,” she says, voice trembling. Then the message ends.

I stare at my phone a moment, the camera pans around me as I calculate my next move. The score here would surely be something airy and ominous, with piano at the foreground, some strings in the background, so light you can barely hear them. Maybe the dutch angle would come back while I’m listening to the recording, but it would straighten out when I hit the call button. I hold the phone in my palm out in front of me, a clear signifier that I will be using speaker phone. It rings three times then goes to voicemail. “Please leave a message after the beep.”

“So, I guess we’re just doing this through voicemail now,” I start with a sarcastic tone. My voice sobers up, “look, you know how sorry I am about what happened. I don’t want to apologize over voicemail though, I think you need to come over and we need to talk. Like adults,” my voice hardens on the last word. I take a breath and soften my tone. “I love you, Georgia. This doesn’t have to be it. We can get through this, just like we always do. It’s just– you know about everything with my mom and–” I cut myself off. I know I’ve hit a nerve. “Let’s just talk when you get here. I’ll be here all day.” I pause, I drop my voice to barely above a whisper, a pathetic sound but I know it’ll yield the results I want. On the camera, though, all you see is my incredible delivery. “Come home. I love you.” I end the message.

The next sequence shows me gathering empty bottles from the counter. They’re mostly beer bottles but there are two whiskey bottles in the mix that I also pick up. I put them all into a trash bag. They don’t fill it, but there is a bulge at the bottom from their weight. The camera follows me as I take the bag outside and throw it into the dumpster. When I get back inside I check my phone, which I left on the counter. I have a message from Georgia. It says “I’m on my way over”. Maybe the director positions the camera over my shoulder so you can see it. Or maybe the camera is positioned in front of me, at a slight upward angle, and you can see the words of the message floating over my shoulder in a clean, white font. Either way, the next shot shows me sitting on the couch, and the next sequence is a flashback.

I’m in a brightly lit store, there are glass display cases all around with shiny things catching the light. I’m standing at a counter with a glass top. I’m looking in. There’s a thin, middle aged woman on the other side in a tailored suit and emerald earrings. She’s beaming at me and I have that smile, the perfected one you saw in the mirror earlier, fixed to my face.

She pulls out a ring, a silver band inlaid with small white diamonds and a blue opal stone set in the middle. “This Georgia is such a lucky woman,” she tells me as she hands me the ring for closer inspection.

“I’m the lucky one,” I reply, and I hear the woman make a noise of endearment. It was the right thing to say.

We’re back in present time, and I’m holding the ring. I put it in my pocket when I hear the click of the deadbolt as Georgia lets herself in. I stand up and turn around to face her. She looks like hell. Her eyes have dark bags under them and they’re rimmed in red. She’s wearing clothes that are too baggy–they must be Mary’s–and they hang off her small frame. Her black hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail.

“Julian,” she says, her voice light.

“Georgia,” I say back, moving towards her. She flinches and I stop.

“I’m sorry,” she says. Her shoulders droop.

“Let’s just sit and talk,” I answer, expressionless.

We sit on the couch. The camera pans around us in a long take as we talk, going around and around in circles.

She starts with apologies. “I’ll never even talk to Eli again,” she promises. “It was just a stupid one-off thing. It won’t happen again.” I ask her why she did it then, but this was a mistake and it just makes her angry. “Because living in this house is hell, and you’re the one who made it this way!”

When she starts to get mad, when she says, “I don’t have to put myself through this anymore, Julian! This isn’t just a broken bottle or a hole in the wall, you broke my fucking rib!”, when she’s stood up, ready to leave, maybe for good, that’s when I strike.

“I know what I did is wrong,” I say pleading. “And I’m so sorry. You have to know it isn’t easy for me, either. I’ll never forgive myself for what I did to you.” I conjure up tears, I can see her softening up. “It’s just– with what my mom did to my dad. And what he did to me. I can’t help it, it just surfaces sometimes. You remember what the therapist said about trauma.”

She stops then, and sits back down, on the piano bench this time instead of on the couch. Another flashback sequence starts. We’re sitting on a different couch, a stiffer one that’s a pale yellow. There’s an older woman, probably in her sixties, sitting across from us in a matching chair. I’m talking and they’re both listening intently. “My mom cheated on my dad when I was seven,” I tell them. “When he found out, he was pissed. He hit her and he wouldn’t stop. I didn’t know how to stop him so I had to just watch–” my voice cracks and I let a tear drop from the corner of my eye. Georgia cries and hugs me, the therapist takes notes but I can see all the information I need in her sad eyes. I don’t tell them that my mom deserved it, that if she just hadn’t gotten caught she wouldn’t have had to deal with my dad’s wrath. I know they feel sorry for me now, and that advantage would be lost if I kept talking.

Back in our living room I can tell from her flared nostrils, her wide eyes, and her thin lips that my comment didn’t land. I feel confused for a moment, it must show in my face because she starts talking again.

“You can’t just push me down the stairs because you’re pissed off, Julian,” she shoots back, getting angry again. She’s back up on her feet now. “I don’t have to put up with this anymore. I’m tired of you hurting me. I’m tired of your excuses. I’m tired of feeling like this is all my fault.” She’s pacing, her voice is raising. The camera is positioned so you can see the profile of my face, my eyes are obscured by the shadows. You can see Georgia past my face, she’s turned now to face me, still on the couch. “You’re not your dad, Julian, and he can’t be your excuse anymore.”

“Let’s not get angry,” I tell her, standing to be on the same level. The camera watches us from a low angle, looking up at us. The lighting casts harsh shadows over our faces. “Let’s go back to therapy,” I propose, taking her hand. “Let’s work this out. We can make it better.”

She pulls her hand out of my grasp. “Therapy didn’t help anything,” she nearly shouts at me. Her eyes are filling with tears that haven’t spilled over yet. “In fact, I think it made everything worse. You make me feel like I’m going crazy, Julian. I know that you throwing things at me and manipulating me and pushing me down the fucking stairs is wrong but you convince me it’s all my fault and we just keep going in circles. I stay with Mary a few days, you apologize by making me think I’m the one who fucked up, and then I come back, things are fine for a few days, then you throw the tv remote at me and I’m sick of this!” She’s shouting at me now, tears are streaming down her face. “I’m not crazy!”

I grab her shoulders and she jumps. I speak to her with a low, calm voice. The camera is in a close up now, and you can see the profiles of both of our faces, looking at each other. We’re both breathing heavily. I know I’m losing right now. “Let’s talk about this tomorrow. When we both have a clear head. Go stay with Mary for the night and we can talk in the morning.”

“Here you are, telling me what to do again,” she spits at me.

“C’mon, Georgia, do you want this to all end because we’re pissed off. Let’s talk again tomorrow. If you still feel this way, we’ll go from there.”

I see her deflate. She turns and walks quickly to the door. She pulls it open and then pauses. The camera jumps closer to her, a close up of the back of her head. “Fine,” she says finally, and then leaves, closing the door behind her.

Once she leaves, the camera jumps back to me. I pick up the vase on the side table and throw it hard against the wall. It shatters, raining down water, old roses, and shards of ceramic. I go to the kitchen and the camera follows me, travelling behind me at an upward angle. I open the cabinet and pull out a bottle of whiskey. As I walk back to the couch, I take a long swig from the bottle.

For the first time in our relationship, I don’t know what to do or what Georgia is thinking. I drink more as I contemplate the situation. The camera is panning around me again. Going in circles. I keep drinking, I keep thinking. Georgia has never walked away from a fight winning before. I know I’ve lost control. I went too far. Everyone has a limit and I found hers. I close my eyes and breathe deep. I don’t know how to get it back. I keep drinking. It takes a while for the alcohol to affect me. Eventually, I break the panning circle. I stand up and punch the wall, putting a hole in the drywall.

Another flashback sequence: Georgia and I are in the hallway upstairs. I’m shouting at her, there’s a bottle in my hand. “Whose fucking car was that Georgia?” She’s crying and shrinking away from me.

“I’m so sorry,” she sobs over and over again.

“Who was it?” I demand, grabbing her by the shoulder and holding her against the wall with my free hand.

“You’re hurting me,” she cries out. I don’t let go.

“Tell me who that was,” I demand.

She pauses. “It was Eli,” she says quietly, tears still falling down her face.

“What the fuck were you doing with him?”

She cries more, big dramatic sobs. I tighten my grip and she yelps in pain. She finally tells me, “I slept with him. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Julian. I love you. I’m sorry.” She’s practically in hysterics.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” I shout at her.

“Let me go,” she cries. The camera switches angles to be over my other shoulder, a high angle this time, you can see the staircase next to us. I pull her away from the wall and shove her to the right, sending her stumbling towards the stairs. She falls, twisting and sliding down the whole flight. She screams as she falls but resumes her sobbing once she’s at the bottom, holding her torso. The camera angle is over my head now, facing down on her at the bottom of the stairs like I do as I take another swig from my drink. I throw my bottle and it shatters on the wall opposite me, over her head. She lets out a yelp of surprise as the glass falls around her.

Back in the present I approach the bottom of the stairs. A tile is cracked and I don’t remember if it was like that before last night. I’ve already cleaned up the glass, but the wall is stained from the alcohol that trickled down it.

I go upstairs, stumbling now but not spilling my drink. I reach the bathroom. I look in the same mirror I did earlier, but the lighting is different now. It’s much harsher and I’m lit from underneath. My smile isn’t charming anymore but it’s positively manic. I know what I’m going to do.

Georgia loves me right now. But if I let this go on, she won’t. She’ll move on, she’ll probably start dating Eli. She’ll tell everyone about her crazy ex, about the hell he put her through. There’s only one way to make sure she never stops loving me. We’ll never have that conversation tomorrow, the one that would inevitably end with her leaving and feeling like she’s doing the right thing.

I open the mirror up to access the medicine cabinet. I grab a bottle of pills. They’re Georgia’s, for when her anxiety is so bad she can’t sleep. I go back to our bedroom and sit down on the bed. I don’t particularly want to die, but this is the only way I can win.

I open the bottle and pour the pills out in a pile on the nightstand and set my bottle next to it. I take the ring out of my pocket, the blue opal ring you saw me buy earlier. The camera zooms in on it. Blue is Georgia’s favorite color. She would have loved this ring. I put it on the nightstand, next to the pills and the booze, and the camera tracks my movement. It’s a startling image, really. A director’s wet dream.

I take a handful of pills and use my alcohol to wash it down. It isn’t long before I feel tired. I lay down on my bed–our bed. The ring is still positioned on the nightstand, the perfect prop for the moment. The camera focuses on the ring, I’m out of focus in the background, laying on the bed, dying.

Tomorrow morning, Georgia will come to talk this over. She’ll probably be ready to end things. She will have practiced with Mary all night long. She’ll be confident, this time. No more red rimmed eyes, her hair will look nice. She will have showered. She’ll let herself in and see the mess of the vase on the floor. She’ll have to brush shards of vase off the piano. This will convince her that she’s making the right choice. I’ll never change. She’s right.

The camera will follow her up the stairs as she climbs them carefully, trying to not let emotion overcome her as she revisits this site, her ground zero. She’ll call out my name, she’ll probably assume I’m passed out drunk in the bathroom. She’ll check there, see the medicine cabinet open. This will be her first red flag. She’ll go to the bedroom, moving with urgency. The camera will follow her, but the director won’t use a track. He’ll use a handheld so you’ll get that shaky effect, so it feels more dramatic, more real.

She’ll stop in the doorway of our bedroom and the camera will stop behind her, still this time. She’ll take in the scene, me, lying peacefully on the bed. The pile of pills. The bottle. The ring. They’re all on the same nightstand as my picture of us.

She’ll rush to me. She’ll check my pulse. She’ll dial 911. She’ll be crying. She’ll be apologizing. She’ll be calling my name, asking me to come back, begging for this to not be real. It’ll be too late. I’ll be dead.

Right now, Georgia loves me. She’ll always love me, she’ll feel too guilty not to.

The sunlight will stream in from my window. The camera will move to an extreme close up of my eyes, closed.

___________________________________________

Morgan Cusack

“this place you made”

the lost and tormented crying out into the eternal night
fallen leaves dance to an eerie symphony
here the raven watches with judging eyes
i dream of it every night, holding your pages close to my chest
a land of madness
of sorrow and loneliness
here the dead can rise
i trace your words, whispering them to the shadows lurking on the walls
a world of darkness
of sickness and despair
here where ghosts linger
i found solace in its residences, peace among the decay and carnage
you made this place
with its dark beauty
and broken starlight
and i love calling it home
___________________________________________

Morgan Cusack

“Chasing the Sun”

Why do I follow her?
Because I have spent too long in the dark
She is like glimpsing the sunrise
Gentle and warm and so beautiful
Because she always finds a reason to smile
She laughs like it’s nothing
She pulls me to my feet and we dance around the fire, free and joyful
Because she is stubborn and brash and won’t listen to anyone
She is brave and loud and unapologetically optimistic
She has a soft heart but it has never stopped her from loving freely
Because she can see all my broken pieces
She has touched the jagged edges and came away with bloody hands
Yet she still tells me I’m beautiful
I walk by her side because she allows it with a smile and a bandaged hand clutched in mine
___________________________________________

Morgan Cusack

“Those Left Behind”

Eden had a lot of pictures. After Michael broke the news that he couldn’t afford her ballet lessons–and Eden herself realized how expensive soccer and softball could get–finding the old film camera felt like fate. Her art teacher had been more than happy to show her how to work the camera and develop the film. After that Eden couldn’t put the thing down. Now her room was wallpapered with her photos; she was proud of her work, more than happy to show it off to the world. There were a few photos though, the very personal ones, that she kept hidden from view. Buried at the bottoms of drawers, stuck behind her mirror, pressed between the pages of her favorite books like precious flowers.

James stumbled upon her hidden pictures a lot; that’s why he wasn’t really shocked when he was reading one of Eden’s books and a polaroid fell from between the pages. What made James pause, though, was that there was a couple in the photo; they looked vaguely familiar but James couldn’t place them. Something in the woman’s smile as she looked up at the camera struck James. It was in the man too, in the way he looked down at the woman with such obvious love and adoration on his face.

James felt Eden lean forward over her knees, trying to look at the picture as well. “Which one did you find now?” She asked, affection and amusement warming her voice.

“Who are they?” James held the photo out for her to see. Eden tensed. Her feet left James’ lap and she set her homework on the coffee table. She stared at the picture for a long time, the unease clear on her face.

Finally she said, “Those are my parents.” Eden tried to keep her tone light, like she didn’t care, but James could hear how strained it was. James looked back at the picture and it clicked, he could see Michael in the woman’s smile; Eden in the man’s eyes. That look the man wore was one that Eden gave James more often than James could count. Even seeing the similarities, from the things Eden had told him about her childhood, James found it hard to believe.

These are your parents? But they look so–”

“Happy? I know, I hate them for it.” Eden pulled away from James, going back to sorting her newest batch of developed pictures. Eden deliberately ignored the gnawing ache that settled in her chest whenever she looked at that polaroid.

“It was from when they were still dating,” she continued, trying to sound disinterested. “It was way before Michael or me. Before everything turned horrible.”

“Eden,” James said softly, unsure what else to say.

“I hate that stupid picture,” Eden muttered, not lifting her gaze from the coffee table. “We should have had that, Michael and I. They should have been our parents.”

“I’m so sorry.” James hugged Eden and she squeezed back. “You deserved better Eden.”

Michael deserved better,” Eden corrected. “It sucked watching my dad walk away and my mom kick my brother out. Those four years were absolute hell, but they are nothing compared to what Michael’s lost because of them. Because of me.”

James raised an eyebrow, “What are you talking about? You haven’t done anything to your brother.”

“No, but look at what he had to do for me.” Eden was somewhere between anger and guilt, and sadness. “Michael gave up his teenage years to raise me. He gave up college to fight for me. He gave up his dream job because teenagers are expensive. It’s not fair. I was never supposed to be his burden.”

“You are not a burden!” James said, grabbing Eden’s shoulder to make sure she was listening to him. “Michael made those choices because he loves you.” Eden seemed to wilt with those words, all the fight draining out of her.

James wanted to say more. He wanted to argue; that Michael was happy as long as Eden was, that Michael did everything because he wanted what was best for her. But Eden was on the brink of tears and James didn’t want to make it worse by pushing the subject. He decided to slip the picture back into the book and set it on the floor, out of sight. James took Eden’s hand and gave it a squeeze, Eden squeezed back but didn’t look up from her lap.

James racked his brain for something to say, anything that would make Eden feel better, but he couldn’t think of a word.  He was saved from his struggle by the sound of the front door opening.

“Princess, you here?” Michael’s voice suddenly filled the small apartment. Eden was already half off the couch before James could think to let go of her hand. Michael barely had a moment to set his things down and take off his shoes before he had his arms full of Eden. The teenager wrapped her brother in a tight hug and he laughed softly, hugged her back.

“You know, I’m really glad you never grew out of hugs.” Michael muttered into his sister’s curls. Eden held her brother a little tighter, burying her face deep in his shoulder.

“Hey, kiddo, what’s wrong?” Michael stroked his sister’s hair, feeling like he was fifteen again comforting Eden after a nightmare.

Eden pulled back, looking up at her brother. “I waited for you, last night. I was worried all day.”

“I’m so sorry.” Michael gave his sister another tight squeeze. “I picked up an early shift so I just slept in my car. I was going to call but I was out as soon as I sat down.”

Eden frowned and crossed her arms, “Mikey, you promised!”

“I know, Princess, I know.” Michael sighed, rubbing his temples. “It’s been a really long day, so can we table this argument for later?”

“I think that’s my cue to get going.” James said, reminding the siblings that they had an audience.

“You’re welcome to stay for dinner.” Michael offered, gesturing to the bag of takeout he left sitting on the floor. James smiled and shook his head.

“Not that I don’t want takeout for the fourth night in a row but I think Maria will report me missing if I don’t show my face at the apartment soon.” James pressed a quick kiss to Eden’s forehead, making the girl smile. “I’ll call you later, okay?”

Eden nodded, “Bye, James.” James slipped out of the apartment, leaving the siblings to their dinner and night in.

“Are you okay?” Michael asked softly, his hand brushing her shoulder. Eden gave her brother a weak smile.

“Yeah, it was just–” Eden bit her lip, their parents were never a good subject and Michael was right. It had been a really long day. The last thing Eden wanted right now was to start something; so she just shook her head. “Nothing, don’t worry about it. What did you get for dinner?”

“Chinese,” Michael said, deciding it was best to let this one go. “I’ll get the plates, you take this to the living room and pick a movie.”

“Alright,” Eden grabbed the bag and went to pick a movie from their collection. Michael followed behind a few moments later with plates and silverware. Eden already had a movie in and was setting the takeout cartons out on the coffee table.

“Scoot, kid,” Michael shoved his sister over gently. Eden complied, giving up the spot and taking the plate he offered. Michael watched as the preview started playing on the TV. “What did you pick?”

“A classic,” Eden said, picking up the carton of rice and putting some on her plate.

Michael looked up suddenly, “I swear if it’s another slasher flick—” Eden burst into laughter, cutting off her brother. Michael smiled, hearing his sister laugh eased the tension in his shoulders.

“It’s not, I promise,” She said between giggles. “What happened to my tough knight? You’ve fought dragons, yet a little movie blood makes you squeamish?” Michael made a face and stole the rice from her in retaliation for the teasing.

Nightmare on Elm Street has far more than just a little blood, Princess. That movie was disgusting, I can’t believe you could eat while watching it.” Michael’s face scrunched in distaste; Eden couldn’t tell if he was just playing it up to get her to laugh or if he was serious. Either way Eden found it entertaining.

“Alright hush, you baby. See, it’s Disney.” Eden pointed to the screen as the Disney logo appeared. “Nothing is more dinner friendly than Disney.”

Eden kept glancing over at her brother during the movie, the conversation that she had with James playing over and over again in her head. Michael could have been so much more. He could have been happy. If only he hadn’t had to deal with her.

“Do you ever regret this?” Eden asked quietly, half hoping that her brother wouldn’t hear.

“What?” His eyes skip from the TV to Eden, his brow creased with confusion.

“Taking me in.” Eden elaborated, staring at her lap.

Without hesitation Michael said, “Never, not for a single second.”

“But I ruined everything.” Eden clenched her fist in her lap and tried to stop the tears gathering in her eyes.

“Is this why you were so worked up earlier?” Michael asked softly and Eden nodded slowly.

“You wanted to be a teacher, Mikey,” Eden cried. “Not a library janitor or a cashier at freakin’ Walmart. You wanted out of this God awful town.”

“I was a kid when I wanted that stuff,” Michael shook his head, trying to find the right words. “Taking care of you is far more important to me than going to college ever was.”

“Dammit,” Eden muttered, angrily wiping away her tears. “Sorry, I’m crying like a baby.”

“Hey, come here, Princess,” Michael pulled his sister into a tight hug. “Never apologize for crying. You’re allowed to be upset about things.”

Eden dropped her head on her brother’s shoulder and they watched the rest of the movie in silence. It wasn’t until the credits started to roll that Eden realized Michael fell asleep. With a sigh Eden set about cleaning up their dinner. After the dishes and take out were cleared away Eden went back to collect her things and head to bed.

Walking around the coffee table to grab her English paper, Eden felt her foot bump against something. Glancing down she saw it was the book James had been reading earlier. She was tempted to kick it under the couch and forget that it– and the picture inside– ever existed. She couldn’t bring herself to, though. Picking the book up, Eden flipped open the cover and looked at the Polaroid again. The younger versions of her parents smiled up at her, looking so happy and in love. Eden felt the sadness and rage well within her again. Part of her wished that she had never accepted the photo, that she had thrown it in the trash the moment her father pressed it into her hands.

I’m sorry, but it’s better this way, I promise. He kept saying that, over and over again. One day you’ll understand why it had to be this way.

Eden had always thought that was crap. That it just another stupid excuse to get out of explaining himself. For most of her teenage years she had hated her father; thought he was a coward for running away and not even giving them a good reason. How could he just pick up everything and walk away from two children that were crying for him to stay? How could things get better? Glancing up at Michael, looking pale and so utterly exhausted, Eden couldn’t shake the thought that maybe she did understand.

After things with her parents Eden knew about toxic relationships; she knew how blinding they could be. Sometimes you could want someone in your life so badly, you did not see how they were destroying you piece by piece. Sometimes you could not see how terrible things got until one of you walked away. Sometimes people did not know what was best for them until someone made the decision for them.

Watching the slow rise and fall of Michael’s chest, Eden knew she had to make the decision for him. She draped a blanket over her sleeping brother and turned off the TV. After that Eden set to work. In her room she grabbed her school bag and turned it upside down, spilling the contents onto her bed. It took all of fifteen minutes for Eden to fill the bag with clothes, her camera and film, and a few of her favorite pictures.

Eden stood at the front door for a while, her hand on the door knob. She couldn’t stop second guessing herself. Michael was going to be so worried when he realized she wasn’t at school the next day. He was going to drive himself mad looking for her. The thought of hurting her brother even more almost made her turn back and forget the whole thing. He’ll get over it, a treacherous part of her mind thought, when he realizes how much easier things are without her. He’ll be fine.

With one last glance at her sleeping brother, Eden slipped out the front door and shut it quietly behind her. She pressed her forehead against the door and sighed.

“I’m sorry, Mikey, but it’s better this way,” She whispered before steeling herself and walking out into the night alone.

___________________________________________

Emilie Hahn

“Overcome: A Sestina”

A man, weighed down, filled with sadness to brim
Felt grief and solitude yet wanting nothing
Embracing sweetness of that intrusive edge
Desire and revulsion, a dissonant quest to end
And yet exist in the hold of that blissful fall
That, once done, leaves everything still.
Waxing false of self, both breath and heart still
Held desperately to the unknowable brim
Of what it means for a man to fall.
Those creatures past whose tales nothing
Speak of the war within which has no end
But only plunge, grasping air, past celestial edge.
But curious, challenge, the movement to edge
Away from damnation, yet further still
From redemption, with no means to end
Suffering. And so, with mouth full of brim
Stone and fire, a man should shout nothing
Of repugnance, but repentance for those who fall.
Ask, to what end does it serve to fall
Into ash, never again to fear that impossible edge?
Fondness grows with span of space, but says nothing
Of time, in which distance only makes greater still
Proof of minute sins that, in the pool of time, brim
Over and become a single drop. Again, what end?
A man, in refusal to accept this feeble end
Removes those weights of mourning. Laments fall
Soft, once latent behind him. Relief awash, brim
Tears of grace from humbled eyes. A Man on edge
Once before, remembering those halcyon days, still
Overcome with loss unrealized, weeps and says nothing.
What debt of life repaid with life satisfies? Nothing
So poorly fills a cup as breaking the glass. And so end
The trials that man partake to manifest harmony alone; Still
Body and mind from temptation of sorrow. The fall
Is much greater a consequence than the brevity of grief, the edge
A devil who challenges those to be as weak as he.
Let the sound of no thing, devil or man, promote fall
Or even stumble! The end is not a vicious edge
But triumph in still beating hearts, and in love brim.
___________________________________________

Emily Trenter

“Frozen Patience”

So in love that once he went away
she didn’t want that feeling to fade
She wanted no sadness, no grief
So she placed her soul in the heart of the tree.
A split second of time
forever frozen in ice.
Never allowed to move
Never allowed to breathe
A love so pure
In roots so deep
Someday he shall retrieve her.
But for now she’s frozen
and awaits his return.
Forever frozen yet she feels his touch.
She feels his touch at the rise of the morning sun.
Hears his whispers in the wisps of the wind.
Then at night when the moon goes up
She knows another day has past
aware that soon,
here soon
She will see him again at last.

___________________________________________

Connor Sullivan

“Evil Crow”

Evil Crow—
steals my Child’s food at night.
Takes it all away,
leaving my Child with none.

I despise that Crow—
that who ruined my Child’s appetite.
He pecked at my Child’s peace of mind,
disrupting my Child’s playful pipper.

It raged—
On and on, that Wretched Crow.
It did unspeakable things that spooked my Child’s slumber.
On the window sill at night, he scratched so sinister.

Evil Crow—
I grabbed my blaster
and shot, I did, into that Evil Crow’s eyes.
I watched as the life slowly drained from its Evil Crow eyes.
___________________________________________

Connor Sullivan

“Unlocked”

The initial contact was brutal. It hit hard and struck the surface, rippling into small waves. From the dock, she stood watching as it descended. As it hit, she looked unphased — as if it didn’t affect her. She thought, And how could it? For what it’s worth…it isn’t worth the tears. As she walked off the dock, not once did she look back.

As the locket cascaded down the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, its cheap silver chipped away leaving fragments of manufactured metal. It drifted smoothly and slowly as it took its time before reaching the sandy floor. The locket held secrets—dark, formidable secrets that wreaked havoc on those who wore it close to their heart. “A simple picture is worth a thousand words,” as they say. Inside, a picture was beginning to wash away, it had been quickly jammed into place. A couple posed for their picture, looking with a gay delight toward the photographer. They smiled and embraced each other as if they’d done no wrong. Their smiles reflected the camera’s flash, giving their teeth a pearly white finishing. Most painful of all —  they looked natural. Their happiness couldn’t be wrecked by a violent sea storm, no, their love affair would be perpetual.

The water was bitter and snappy. Rust accompanied the chaffing metal, as the salt rubbed away at the metallic finishing. Its lock grew weak by the water’s beatings, fluttering open to reveal the dark secret that burnt their relationship to ash. A secret that Aun-leigh mistakenly discovered as she was digging through his things with an unwavering sense that he’d been handsy somewhere that wasn’t her chest. Somewhere that wasn’t her.

Inside its chamber, the miniature polaroid of the couple, happier than she’ll ever be, again, begins to dissolve in the salty water. Its edges fringe and the polished finish bubbles as the water splashes. Wearing thin, the plastic film gives way and floats separately as the locket drifts in the deep blue waters. Slowly and beautifully, it etches into the sandy floor at last.

“How could you,” she yelled at him, her voice shredding with sorrow and anger. “What happened to ‘forever and always?’ Our vows — ‘until death do us part,” she faltered into a hurricane of tears. “Samson, the sight you alone makes me want to scratch my eyes out with my own nails—I know you couldn’t help it, but dammit, it still doesn’t fix the pain in my chest!”

There were only a few choice words that he could say to ease her rainfall of grief. His attempts to comfort all go deflected by the slight of Aun-leigh’s hand. She snapped and swatted until he got her message. “I know, I know… I can barely face you right now—I can’t describe the feeling. My stomach aches, I can’t change how I felt—how I feel. I don’t know what else to say, except—I’m sorry. I’ll do anything to make it up to you, but I know that there’s probably nothing that will ever undo the hurt. I love you, no matter what happens. No matter what comes of us.”

He removed his hand from the back of her neck, the hair on his knuckles stood on end as the coldness of the air met their follicles.

“What’d you say?” Her voice has deepened. Suddenly, the oxygen has left the room.

“I’m sorry, Aun-leigh. I’ll always love you.” She flinched at the word as if he stabbed her with its jagged steel.

“No, no, no, NO! You lost every right to say that—we’re over. There’s nothing left between us. Don’t you get that? You fucked up. You just said it yourself, you can’t fix your mistake. You can start by getting the hell away from me. Pack up your shit and just go.” The sobs continued to increase, growing in intensity. Her heart had truly been shattered.

“Aun-leigh—” he said as he reached for her shoulder.

Don’t!” She slapped his hand away from her and made her way out of the kitchen swiftly before he had the chance to chime in.

Hurt and upset with his failed attempts at mending what’s been broken, he began to pack his things into three suitcases. He packed his essentials: ample shirts, pants, socks, and boots to get him by, for the time being, hoping he’d get the chance to return for the rest. On the back burner of his mind, he thought when he’d return for them when things settled down between them and a silver lining would shine through, leaving room for a friendship. Leaving without a clue of where he’d stay, he drove out of their apartment complex in his 2006 Toyota Tundra. White-knuckled, he gripped the steering wheel. Tightness swelled in his shoulders and his heart. Her reaction was all but dramatic; he’d expected it, almost demanded her boiling-over reaction. Holding himself together was harder than he’d ever predicted. There wasn’t a speck of regret in his mind—just disappointment. However much he tried to guard his heart, he still came out disappointed by Aun-leigh’s reaction, for it meant things were over for good. They couldn’t be mended back together this time.

He didn’t have a destination in mind, he simply drove. Driving through town, he headed east. He left Boston, hoping he’d think of a place once he had some room to breathe. His folks lived about two hours out and down, surely, he could stay there for a couple of nights while things settled in the city. Another idea flashed in his mind, but it didn’t seem right—given that it’s the sole reason everything burns like Hell right now. Seeing Zander would be classified as insane. After all, their relationship killed his with Aun-leigh. No, he couldn’t. He shouldn’t—so, he won’t. He’ll simply drive away from it all — clear his head.

Aun-leigh changed out of her clothes after he left, but the feeling of him still lingered on them. It crept up on her skin like a caterpillar on a leaf. It unnerved her and made her want to purge in the bathroom. Purge her feelings, purge her thoughts, purge everything down the toilet. The scent of him on her pink blouse made her skin itch and it grew too uncomfortable for her to bare. She changed into cliche breakup attire: oversized hoodie, sweatpants, ankle-high socks with a hole or two in them, her dried mascara was smudged under her eyelashes. Her appearance was the least of her worries at the moment, given she’d lost what she referred to as her true love. Her world had stopped and she didn’t know how to start it again. But she sure as hell would. How could she? She’d been made a fool by—no. No, she won’t even think his name. She will get over this, in time. With all things, she needed time. Time to heal, time to grow, and time to move on.

After scrubbing off her cosmetics, she also needed to remove the essence of his touch on the back of her neck. Taking a hot pink hair clip, she hooked her hair up, letting her neck air out his touch. Air tickled at her neck, making the baby hairs on her neck stand on their ends.

Tink barked as she slammed the door on her way out. His wagging tail accelerated as did the frequency of his pitch, telling Aun-leigh that she’d forgotten him and she needed to come to fetch him, or else there’d be a puddle for her clean up once she’d returned.

Her 2007 Ford Focus roared to life. She backed out of the parking spot faster than normal. Her tires spun as she turned onto 82nd Street. She headed toward the docks, where she could process the heartbreak.

Aun-leigh always spent her sorrows at the harbor, something about the incoming vessels soothed her. The stress and anxiety floated away with the passing boats and ferries. Salty air kissed her face as she sat on the edge of the furthest dock. Her feet dangled, nearly touching the Atlantic Ocean. Her nose filled with the fragrance of travel and sea. Pungent smells filled her lungs, almost burning, but it did the opposite—it calmed her, acting as a clutch to take her back to peaceful memories of the ocean with her father.

Dammit,” she muttered under her breath to herself. How could this have happened—especially to us? We were happy…weren’t we? We were high school sweethearts, dammit!

She rotated the cheap metal between her fingers. Its coolness tickled her clammy hands. A token that was in part to blame for stealing her life from her rested in her grasp. Shakiness stopped her from opening its clasp, revealing what she didn’t want to see. If she saw the photograph, it was true. It was really happening and she couldn’t deal with such a trauma right now, given that today—today of all days—was the anniversary that pulled her heartstrings and jerked out tears every year since his passing. Her father dances through her mind and into memory.

Memories filled her thoughts, each flashed quickly, not lasting more than a second or two. Boat rides on the ocean with him made her tear up. Fishing stories made her smile. Hiking up the mountain trails made her knees sore. Just simple memories of being around her father made her lose all sanity—her chin became a delta of tears. They fell down her cheeks, flooding her vision with streams of tears.

Painful memories quickly replace her happier ones. Her father’s heavy hand made her liver ache at the memory of compulsive drinking. His random aggression made her shake with fear. Images complimented the jabbing memories. Her father drinking bottle after bottle – it didn’t matter the substance, just anything that gave him the fix he was craving – cursing at her mother for no apparent reason. “God ‘ammit, Josie! Can’t you do somethin’ for shit?” Not seeing the logic in yelling back when Josie knew there hadn’t been a reason to his insistent yelling, she left him to his self-wallowing and pity. He had plenty of reason to be the loser that he was: lost his job and was starting to lose his hair and sense of morale.

She hears a bone-curdling sound that evokes a shiver. Bang! The sound of the gunshot made her lose her breath. Its memory still haunts her. The details she remembers, replay over in her mind like a movie. Reliving coming home from school, dropping her book bag off on the table by the front door in the washroom. The way the sound shot through each room of the house. Bang!

Eight years later, she sat on the docks stronger than before. She’d survived his death then, she’d overcome a painful divorce now. Her tears eased up as she stared across the cerulean waters, mesmerized by the blazing sunset of vibrant corals and golden yellows.

She looked down at her hands. The locket sat in her palms, urging her to open it. Let the truth ring free, it sang to her.

It clicked as she undid its clasp. Inside, she saw their picture. They looked happy—truly happy—and it sparked sympathy within her. He’s happy, really happy. I’d never seen him this happy, she eased herself. Both of their cleft chins and dark hair looked almost fancy—like a picture out a magazine. Their white teeth reflected the light of the camera’s flash. His arm wrapped around his secret lover’s broad shoulder. They were happy—genuinely happy. Samson and whatever his name was, looked happy—like two soulmates who stumbled upon each other at the end of their roaring twenties. Their smiles were contagious—she grew a smile that mimicked theirs.

Aun-leigh pulled her feet up from the dock’s edge and looked out onto the clear, crisp water. With one pebble, it’d shatter and ripple as would shards of glass. Her gaze was frozen, looking into the water is if it were a crystal ball revealing her future. Great acts of courage, prosper over those of hatred, the locket speaks to her.

She breathed deep and released it into the dry air. Her breath fogs the exiting autumn air — winter is on the horizon. A season of change greets her on the harbor’s bay. Its initial jabs of icy air will plunge into her, but over time, she’ll warm up in time for spring.

The city will become a labyrinth of snow and ice, and in it, she will be alone. Not forgotten, but alone. Of course, she’d imagine a life with him, but he wouldn’t experience the joys of the winter months with her. For him, it’d be an act he’d have to force a smile in. Christmas wouldn’t be enjoyably spent with her, for whom he isn’t capable of becoming physically attracted towards, anymore.

She struggled to gain a sense of acceptance, but with time she assured herself things will find their happy ending. Once her tears ceased and she gained clarity in that she couldn’t find happiness if she continued to leach sorrow off of her heartbreak, no, she would have to stand up. Not only physically, but for herself, she would stand up and fight for her future happiness.

With a heavy heart, she knew the decision she needed to make.

Knowing she’d lost the battle of love and war, with all her might, she let the truth ring free as the locket flew out of her hand and started to drift to the ocean’s floor.

___________________________________________

Angelique Herrera

“Abandonment”

You were young
and dumb.
A  man from Juárez,
driving around Aurora.
Banda music blared
from the speakers,
of your red hoopty.
Spanish rolling off
your tongue,
as you sang along.
Unaware of the car,
pulling out in front of you.
BAM!
Fear etched its way into your mind.
Anxiety set in.
You were from México,
Not Aurora.
You were illegal, and insurance-free.
You had to
make your move.
Rápido,
or the cops would send you back.
Back to Juárez, México.
You flew out of the car
running down the uneven roads.
Not caring enough to look back.
Not caring enough to look back
At what you forgot.
At what you forgot?
The baby carrier.
At who you forgot.
At you you forgot?
Your newborn baby.
You forgot your baby.
You forgot me,
But I still can’t forget about you.
___________________________________________

Angelique Herrera

“Just a Bite”

Her skin glistened like cocoa beans; shiny, deep, and beautiful. Her almond-shaped, chocolate-colored eyeballs looking down at me. Always watching, sometimes with adoration; sometimes in frustration, but always with love. This was my person, my protector, my home, but most importantly my mother. Always looking out for me, guiding me towards what was right, and telling me what is considered wrong.

Grandma’s house was our home early on in life. We shared a tiny sky blue bedroom. The floors were wooden, a soft brown color from years of wear. The floor creaked against every step I took. Grandma given us a gigantic blue rug to drown out the noise from the creaking. In our room, sat our two beds. Her bed sat across from mine, taking up most of our bedroom. It was a queen-sized bed, perfectly fit for my mother. She was a queen. However, her bed looked monstrous compared to my wooden, twin-sized bed in the corner of our room.

Momma’s bed was my favorite place to hang out, because my bed was always covered in “Little Critter” or “The Berenstain Bears” books. They were piled up to the point where I couldn’t see Cinderella on my Disney Princess comforter underneath. Momma’s bed was silky smooth, her pillows filled with feathers. I only knew that, because they would poke me every now and then. Her blankies always had tigers on them. I roared, my hands shooting out in front of me like claws every time I’d look at it. Yet, my favorite thing about her bed was the smell. The scent of her Aussie mousse clung on to every part of her bed. I’d dive under her covers, wrapping myself up like a burrito, breathing in the scent of my momma.

Momma joined me some days, tackling me playfully with her cocoa colored arms. She smiled so widely, you could count every top tooth. Taking note that her two front teeth were shifted forward ever so slightly. Smile lines forming soft etches around her mouth. She smelled like Skittles, and laughed like Tinkerbell. You could hear her age within her laugh. Only twenty-two years to my three. Her hair; wild like a lion, it sprung in every direction as we play fought. Continuing to play, until we were out of breath from laughing too hard.

Mommy was tired. She always seemed so tired. She worked all day as a preschool teacher, then she’d come home to another little one. Too young at the time to understand her irritability. I just wanted to keep playing, but she was exhausted. I was too riled up, not listening to my momma warning me to settle down. Instead, I tried to get her attention by sinking my crooked little baby teeth into her arm.

Momma’s face got grumpy, lines formed at her forehead.

“Angelique Noel…that wasn’t very nice.” Momma said, still sounding like Tinkerbell when she’s mad.

I did it again, thinking I was being playful. Momma looked at me in shock.

Then, Mommy grabbed my arm, and sunk her big teeth into my little arm covered with baby fat. My eyes widened, trying to process what had happened. Looking down at my arm then back at Momma. I looked down once more, and let out a wail. Tears welling up in the corners of my eyes; eyes way too big for my round little face.

Momma laughed a bit, then scooped me up in her arms; wiping away my crocodile tears.  She proceeded to tell me in a soft voice. “Liquey, when someone tells you something isn’t nice, you don’t do it again. When you do something that hurts another person that gives them the idea to hurt you back. You have to remember that you treat people how you want to be treated. You got that? Also, stop crying baby, you are not a cute crier.”

“Yes Mommy.” I said pouting, as I snuggled in closer to her. Taking one of her springy curls in my chubby little fingers. I sat up, grabbing momma’s arm placing a soft, wet kiss on the spot I had bitten earlier.

“Kisses make me feel better. Does your boo-boo feel better now?”

My mom let out that youthful laugh of hers, “Yes Lique, it feels much better. I love you.”

“I love you too Mommy.”

My mother’s words and actions still resonate with me almost twenty years later. Treating others how you’d like to be treated, it was and still is a fundamental rule within my household. My mother, Tressa, is a big believer in the functionality of karma. She believes, that if you give out goodness and love, you will receive that in return. If not, negative attributes will come your way. However, as I grew older I recognized that her actions from that memory had contradicted the karma mentality. Which left me puzzled. Not on the biting, but more so the reasoning. The whole purpose of her biting me was to teach me a lesson, yet she had inflicted pain upon me. So, wouldn’t that bring upon bad karma to her as well? Instead of her biting me, should she have taken a less harsh approach that wouldn’t leave her in a contradictive place? Yes, most likely. Although, the belief in karma is a vast grey area. As I go about my life with a more realist outlook; I believe in the concept of positivity. If you are able to stay positive and respect others in a positive manner. If that positivity is reciprocated all will be okay. If not, you move on. Yes, my mother’s choice was a good way to prevent biting. However, it led to confusion in the long run when trying to explain her reasoning behind it to a three year old. Aside from the reasoning, I do know for a fact, that I never have and never will bite another individual ever again. That, and an amusing story to tell for years to come.

___________________________________________

Kate Birr

“Caught”

Stick to the story, don’t get caught
At that moment
Those were the words going through my head
Back straight, metal chair,
Cup of water and cuffs, that looked used
They tried to make me sweat,
Didn’t think that I would lie
Two faced in fancy suits
Hidden window
Even though there is a two-way, crystal clear view
Too bad for them I used my head,
For something other than a hat rack.
No evidence to be found at the scene
No case to be known
Their coffee is not hot,
Into a cold case
Folder already starting to be covered by dust
When in doubt, blame someone else
Hands like ice
They think they can take me down
But they haven’t gotten me yet
And there is a secret still, six feet underground
___________________________________________

Sidney Bottino

One sip
Running through my veins
Like water through a river
Flowing upstream
First to my Heart
Then to my Brain
Inspiring me to Work
Whilst distracted by my Dreams
One day I’ll get there
But First,
-Coffee
___________________________________________

Casey Hendrickson

“Cold”

You left me behind, for what reason,
one that I may never know.

It all seemed perfect, just me and—
well, just me now of course.

I miss us. I miss when you would listen,
for hours upon hours, how sweet of you.

I miss the way it was, everything was perfect,
but something changed.

You left me and your life behind,
behind in the cold.

Not a care in the world to what happened after that.
It seems as though it was never important to you anyway.

I catch myself wondering every day, just why I didn’t see it,
just how cold of a person you were all along.

The feeling of being used, wasted, non-important,
it is something that no one should go through.

No one should ever go through the pain,
especially from something so cold.

What did I do? How could I have been better?
The wrong questions. How come you were so cold?

Just don’t forget what you have done to me,
how you have wasted your life, and left us in the cold.

___________________________________________

Casey Hendrickson

“Human”

Unique, special, our own.
All words of a human.

Times get tougher than the last ones,
this can shield us from reality.

Reality that no matter what happens,
we are all still human.

Human. Can mean different things to different people,
and the truth can be over looked.

When we cause violence, death, anger,
are we still human?

Can we become something less?
Society thinks so.

One’s race, gender, way of life,
is sadly the decision maker.

We are more than just that,
we are all unique.

One’s race should not define them,
but show how unique and important they are.

Male or Female, typically one above the other.
Why not view both as humans next to one another?

The way you live, is your way of life!
Not for someone else to change for you.

We are all human, no matter what society says.
Even those who say otherwise, are humans with us.

___________________________________________

Jacob Taylor

“Living in Chicago”

The beautiful city lights
So many buildings stars don’t exist
The youth matter and money isn’t hard to get
Yet gang members would still beat on you and take all of your bread
Play it smart and be careful they said
Wind blows all day long
Portillos or Giadonos can’t make up my mind they’re both so delicious
The Bulls Sox Bears Cubs and Blackhawks
We love Them Dearly
South East West North
Chicago so huge
Hundreds of Public Schools
1.8 Million Citizens living life by the racist CPD
Messing with young men because “suspension”
When they’ve done no crime and happened to have his hood on his head
The lake sensational in the summer breeze
Chicago what beautiful city it is indeed
___________________________________________

Emma Dayhoff

“Greenwood”

My mother told me that the most important thing to know about surviving is that you have to fight. No matter what.

“You have to fight to survive, Moth. Trust is a luxury in this world. When it comes down to it, you’re on your own.”

For my mother, Margaret Greenwood, trust nearly killed her. My father, Robert Jones, was a cruel man. Abusive on multiple fronts-  a straight up tyrant. She tried to get out of the relationship on numerous occasions, but he was violent and wouldn’t let her leave. She learned quickly that she couldn’t fight back, not without risking my safety and of course her own. She got pregnant with me when she was nineteen. He was twenty-seven. They met in a club, which of course she was too young to be in. My mom was taking shots of cheap tequila and half-heartedly dancing to the thumping electronic music with her girlfriends when Robert approached her. The multicolored lights flashed on his sun-kissed skin.

“You from around here?” Robert asked Margaret in a booming voice, lightly touching her shoulder to get her attention, holding a bottle of Budweiser in his free hand.

She turned to face him. “Yeah, I’m only, like, twenty-five minutes from here.”

“Me too,” he nodded. “So what do you do?”

“I just work at a gas station. I’m thinking about taking a few college courses.”

“Oh nice. I loved college. Some of the best years of my life,” he said. “I’m sure you meet a lot of interesting people working at a gas station,” he said, keeping up the conversation.

“Not really. Mostly just old men buying menthol cigarettes and light beer. And high schoolers trying to buy Fireball with their shitty fakes.”

He chuckled and reached out his hand. “I’m Robert.”

“Margaret,” she replied. Her face flushed as she shook his firm hand.

My mother told me that when they met he seemed like a very nice and stand up guy. She’d had other asshole boyfriends before she married my father and became Margaret Jones. She said she thought Robert was going to be her savior, but she was young and naive. Really, he was her downfall. He left her scarred, both physically and emotionally. He died last year, may he rot in the fiery depths of hell. He was hit by a train, of all things. We’re not really sure how he managed to get hit by a train. Drunk, I assume. We’re just thankful that he did.

The day after I learned of his death, I legally changed my last name to Greenwood, my mother’s maiden name. I didn’t want any affiliation whatsoever with that wretched man any longer than I had to. He was dead to me long before he died.

I remember the first time I witnessed what he was truly like, at least the first time I remember, anyway. I was seven-years-old. I was sitting in the new living room on the hardwood floor I didn’t like. Our old house had carpet in the living room, which was much more comfortable to sit on. I was lying on my stomach, coloring in a My Little Pony book in front of the flat screen, watching The Backyardigans. My father and mother were in the kitchen, arguing about I don’t know what. I was too busy trying to block them out and focus on listening to my singing animal pals and coloring inside the lines on Twilight Sparkle. They fought all the time, so I didn’t think much of it.

Their voices kept growing louder and louder until suddenly I heard a SMACK! I snapped my little white blonde head toward the new kitchen with the granite countertops and long oak dining table, my green eyes wide with fear as the purple crayon in my hand slid across the page. From that day on, he only got worse. Every single argument, every dispute, big or small, led my mother to fear for her safety. And for mine.

When I was in high school, she told me that the first time she tried to break up with him was when I was eight. That’s when he really beat her, left blue and purple bruises all over her arms and some on her neck. They were in their bedroom, and he grabbed her by her long yellow hair, alcohol staining his breath. He threw her to the floor in shear rage. He held her down by her neck and gripped her arms tightly with one hand, throwing her around like a rag doll. I was in the house, just across the hallway. I had no idea.

She didn’t cry once.

He also hit me for the first time when I was eight. I was bringing him the pork chop, green beans, and stuffing my mom made for dinner and I accidentally tripped over my own two feet and spilled the entire plate all over him, causing him to drop his beer. His five o’clock shadowed face wrinkled at the mouth as he yelled at me viciously, his widened dark brown eyes piercing a hole into me as I started to cry. He slapped me. I cried, and my mother told him to “Get the fuck out!” He stared at her, and quietly threatened that he would hit me harder if she ever tried to kick him out of his house again. I was too young to fully grasp the situation. All I knew is that I was scared.

Growing up I always questioned why she just didn’t take me and run away somewhere far from that abusive jerk she was forced to call her husband, and when I asked her, she told me I was too young to understand and when I was older I would get it. Of course in my teenage years that answer made me furious. It wasn’t until he was finally gone from our lives forever that I truly did understand. It only took me twenty-one-years.

I love my mother. Is she perfect? No, not by a longshot. But I respect the shit out of her. She is my role model, the one I look to for strength and guidance.

My mother named me Moth for some ungodly reason. “Yes, like the bug,” is what I always feel inclined to tell people so I don’t have to hear them say it. There are three things I care about most in this world and that’s my mother, nature photography, and becoming a famous painter. Right now I work as a security guard at the Coos Bay Art Museum in Oregon. Essentially, my job is to stand against the white wall and be blinded by the bright ceiling lights and watch people walk by, scanning to see if they potentially have any weapons on them, make sure people don’t touch the artwork, and on very rare occasions break up fights. It pays decently well and has good benefits. I genuinely enjoy it because I get to be around all different types of paintings, drawings, photography, mosaics, ceramics, sculptures, woodwork-  you name it. Occasionally visitors will ask questions about the artwork and I’ll talk to them and tell them what I know, and given the opportunity I am able to publicize my own work to them as well. It’s a sweet gig.

Plus, I have this massive crush on another security guard who works there. His name is Kameron, with a K. Kameron Kilowoski. He hates his name, but I think it’s cute. We bonded over the hatred of our names and our appreciation for this one painting by Kim Osgood called “Nurse Stump.” It’s a painting of just a tree stump, and beautiful flowers are sprouted around it, almost ready to bloom. I love the artistic style-  realism, but not dull. And the way Osgood utilizes the color scheme-  warm colors, bright and vibrant, but not overbearing. When I look at it, it feels like I’m standing right beside it in real life. It’s a simple painting, but it’s simply beautiful.

Kameron thinks the flowers could also be unable to bloom and that they’re withering away around it and that the stump is not going to grow into a tree because it’s dead. He’s definitely a pessimist, but if you call him that he’ll correct you and tell you that he’s a “realist.” Everybody knows that’s just a bullshit word for pessimist.

He wants to be a security guard in a correctional facility, so he’s working here to gain some security experience. Though Kameron is a year older than me, we both got a late start on college. As of right now we are both taking classes at our local community college, but I plan to transfer to a four year university after I get my associates. Kameron thinks that he shouldn’t need a bachelor’s degree to work in corrections, which I don’t totally disagree with. He’s hoping he’ll just be able to get his associates in criminal justice and use this job as field experience and be able to get a guard position. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, but I know it’s getting harder and harder to get a law enforcement job without a bachelor’s. I’d hire him, but I’m bias.

Right now I’m at home, sitting next to my mother in the carpeted living room on the sunken brown leather loveseat, staring at my phone and waiting for a text back from my crush like a lovestruck school girl. After Robert died we moved to a smaller, more comfortable house closer to the gas station that my mother works at. I love it so much more than I ever did our big, fancy house in the suburbs.

The TV is on, but we don’t watch as the cheery Today show hosts talk nonstop about something pointless I’m sure. I think they’re talking about some nutritional breakfast smoothie. Yuck.

This is what we do on Saturday mornings. We sit on the old loveseat, the Today show playing in the background as I drink my sugar-loaded coffee and take pointless Buzzfeed quizzes while I wait to text Kameron at a decent time. I am the epitome of a morning person and he is most definitely not. Once, when his truck was in the shop, we wanted to get breakfast together before work, so I went to pick him up at nine o’clock and he wasn’t even out of bed yet. I had already been up since seven.

Mom drinks her nasty dirt coffee and reads outdated magazines, drawing mustaches and devil horns on the models.

I catch her peeking over my shoulder.

“Stop it!” I whine.

“When are you gonna ask him out? You’re driving me crazy staring at your phone like that.”

“I’m trying to get him to make the first move.”

She rolls her eyes. “Oh lord. Quit acting like a fifteen-year-old girl.”

“Maybe you should take another look at that model with the sharpied on saggy boobs, handlebar mustache, and eye patch before you go judging my maturity level, mother,” I say, smiling.

“Touche,” she responds with a grin, adding a unibrow. My smile widens.

You know how girls always say that their mother is their best friend, but it isn’t really true? For me, it’s the real deal. My mom and I go hiking together and to movies and coffee shops and bookstores and art shows. We do virtually everything together. Gossip, talk about boys, paint each other’s nails, cook-  everything. It’s why I’m a twenty-two-year-old woman still living with my mother.

God, no wonder Kameron won’t ask me out.

I also have my own little amateur art studio here in the basement. Not that I really need the whole basement for an easel and some paint, but I’ve made it my own personalized crib down there. It’s my safe space.

When my father was still alive, my room was my safe space. It was where I went to escape from him and his bullshit. He was always telling me about how my pointless art would never get me anywhere in life. If I wanted to be successful I had to do something practical so I wouldn’t end up cashiering at a gas station like my “useless mother.” She never went to college because she got pregnant with me. Yet my father had the audacity to blame her for “not getting a real job” even though she was busy taking care of me. He never helped around the house. Never. My father was a fancy engineer so that meant he could do whatever he wanted, apparently. Like beat her until she ran out of tears.

He treated me badly, sure, but I hated how he treated my mother so much more. My father is one of the reasons I work security, so I could learn how to defend myself and help others. I wanted to save my mother from that monster invading our house.

Even as shitty as my father was, he could never ruin Oregon for me. Coos Bay has amazing scenery. I practically never run out of things to paint. I like to paint nature. I’m trying to branch out and paint more of a variety of things, like people, but somehow I always get pulled back into trees, flowers, plants, the sun, the ocean. The outdoors is just so peaceful, so open and spacious. So free.

My mom wants me to paint a portrait of her, but I just don’t like painting people. I’m not necessarily bad at it, it’s just not my forte. Maybe I’ll indulge her one of these days. She would be a stunning model. I would have to resist the urge to paint on saggy boobs and devil horns though. I’m sure she wouldn’t find it as amusing on herself as she does on the magazine models.

Since I worked last Saturday, I don’t have to work. I’ll probably go hiking and take pictures of the outdoors as inspiration for my paintings. Looking up pictures online isn’t the same as actually going out in the wild; they look too photoshopped. They’re not genuine. I want my work to represent the natural beauty of the earth in all of its glory. My mother always says that I was born in the wrong time. Now there’s all this pollution and global warming and an increase in natural disasters. Mom says that Mother Nature is “seizing her vengeance” on us. I think there’s still hope that things will get better.

My phone dings.

Do you have any plans for today? I read, smiling.

My fingers type speedily. Not really. I was just gonna go hiking.

Can I join you?

I throw my phone up in the air and squawk with glee as it lands across the room on the tan chair that nobody ever sits on.

“Was that Kameron?” Mom asks with a knowing grin.

“Yes!” I screech, and my mom winces from the noise.

“Stop that!”

“We’re going hiking later. How romantic is that?”

“I don’t know where you get your girliness from cuz it sure ain’t from me.”

“Mom, you’re wearing a pink robe and fuzzy slippers and you’re literally painting your fingernails right now.”

She sticks her tongue out at me like a little kid and points to the bathroom. “Go get ready and seduce the shit out of that nice boy.”

“Mom!”

She gives me an ornery smile and continues painting her nails. “Will you be home for dinner?”

I nod. “I’ll text you when I’m on my way back.”

Her expression turns serious in an instant. “Be careful. He may be nice but he’s still a man,” she warns. “That Y chromosome of theirs is a real mess,” she says, shaking her head.

“I’ll be careful, mom. I always am.”

Quickly, I take a shower and slip on my worn denim jeans that I wear solely for hiking, and a gray t-shirt with the words “Coos Bay, Oregon” printed in faded blue letters. I have my camera and two bottles of water and some granola bars in my small brown leather bag. We’re going to my favorite trail, the Cape Arago Loop. The entire loop is 4.3 miles, most of it uphill. Hopefully, Kameron can keep up.

He picks me up in his navy blue Silverado. It’s a mess, as always. Empty Mcdonald’s takeout bags invade my foot space. For how fit he looks, I can’t believe how much Mcdonald’s he ingests.

We talk and jam out to The Doors and Pink Floyd and occasionally Prince, when he caves to my whining. Maybe I really was born in the wrong time.

When we get there, he deals with me stopping every couple of minutes to take pictures. Even though I’ve been coming here my entire life, I always find something new to capture.

Not a lot of people take this trail because it’s relatively long and physically exerting, so we venture slightly off the trail, unseen. We stand side by side near a ledge of land that overlooks the Pacific. Three thin, leafless trees stand guard behind us. It’s breathtaking every single time.

Kameron takes out his phone and takes a few steps back. “Say cheese.”

“Ew no, don’t take a picture of me!”

“I’m doing it! Say cheese bug girl!”

I give in and smile at the camera. “Alright, your turn,” I say.

“Ew no, don’t take a picture of me!” He mocks in an exaggerated high pitched voice.

“Shut up Kameron Kilowoski,” I say, grinning. “Say cheese.”

He does just that, the sun shining at the perfect angle at the perfect height in the sky over the glistening Pacific waters. The breeze of a mid-autumn afternoon gently blows back his shaggy dark hair, revealing the lightness in the brown of his eyes as he leans casually against the tan-gray tree trunk, looking at me. I just want to stay in this moment.

“Now was that so hard?”

“Yes. Agonizing, actually.”

We stand beside each other, looking out at the rippling ocean waves, our shoulders pressed together in silence.

Kameron turns around and I turn around with him. He extends his left arm and holds his phone, pulling me in closer by my slim waist and into his broad chest. We smile. He smells of pine and salt, his scent lingering as he pulls slightly away.

“Lemme see,” I say, and he shows me the picture of us. “Aww that’s cute. Send that to me.”

I turn my head to see him, and he’s looking at me, his strong jaw only inches from my face. Is he going to kiss me?

He’s not doing anything. Kiss me, dammit!

Oh screw it, I’m making the first move.

I close my eyes and firmly touch my lips to his. He tenses up for a second, then relaxes and rests his hands on my hips, kissing me back. Finally!

Our lips release from one another’s

We hike the rest of the trail, talking, laughing, and holding hands. This has been the best day. I can’t wait to tell my mom all about it.

I tell him that I have to be back for dinner, and we make our way down the trail, pushing and shoving each other playfully and goofing off as if we’d known each other our whole lives. I jump on his back and he spins me around with ease, the nearly leafless trees a blur all around me. His spinning is too fast and he loses control and stumbles over his feet. We crash to the ground, entangled in one another.

“Oh god are you okay, Moth?” He asks me frantically, the lines on his tan forehead prominent with worry.

I laugh so hard that my cheeks hurt from smiling so much, my laugh lines unable to stretch any wider.

“You are sooo not smooth,” I tell him, shaking my head and laughing hysterically as he tackles me onto the dry dirt, bathing me in the crunchy leaves. I lie on my back and he holds himself up in a push-up position on top of me, gazing into my eyes. I wipe my thumb across his dirt-splotted cheek, my eyes keeping in contact with his. Sweetly, he touches his soft lips to mine. My whole body shudders on the inside. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced before.

Kameron bounces to his feet and holds a firm hand out to me. I graciously accept and he gently pulls me to my feet, and we walk the rest of the way back to the parking lot, talking about how we both look like we got attacked by a bear. We’re both dusted with dirt from head to toe.

We drive down the highway, singing various Queen songs at the top of our lungs the whole way back to my house.

When we arrive, he parks in my driveway and gets out of the truck and runs around to the passengers side and opens my door.

“Such a gentleman,” I say, blushing.

“Do you wanna go out on Friday? Like, on a date?” He asks shyly, his stance stiff and upright.

I nod with a smile and he takes my hands in his warm ones and leans down and kisses me delicately on the lips. He’s so sweet I could melt.

“Goodbye my beautiful four-foot beauty.”

“Hey! I am five-four, bitch.”

We both laugh and I pull him into me by his wrinkled band t-shirt and shamelessly kiss him again. We’re already the gross touchy-feely couple that my mom and I always make fun of.

I walk up to the front door, waving goodbye to Kameron as he drives off, giddy to tell my mom all about what happened on our hike. I turn the knob and push the door open with ease. As I’m about to walk into the living room, my eyes widen as I look to my right and see my mom standing in front of the TV, the loveseat facing her. Her hands are in the air and she has a bloody gash on her left cheekbone. I turn my head to the left towards the kitchen and see a man I don’t know standing with a gun pointed at my mother’s head.

The rat-like man aims his gun at me and my heart skips a beat as I stand frozen in the doorway. He’s holding a small gun at me in his right hand and is gripping a large black duffle bag in the other, at least half full of various items that I can’t see. His thin ashy hair falls to the side of his bony face, blocking part of his vision in his right eye.

I can take him.

“Moth run,” My mom tells me in a voice that is somehow both calm and frantic. I feel a pang of panic punch my stomach.

“Shut up!” The man shouts, revealing his yellow teeth and returning his aim back to my mother.

My phone is in my back pocket. I slowly begin to reach for it, trying not to let him see me as I dial 911 and hit the green call button.

“What are you doing?” The man yells, once again, pointing the pistol at me. I throw my hands up, dropping my phone on the paved stairs.

“Did you call the cops?” He screams furiously and takes an aggressive step at me, his boot echoing off the hardwood floor. I flinch, knowing that I have to do something right now, but not knowing what to do.

My mom sprints forward and leaps over the loveseat, charging him. I scream, and before I have time to move or react in some way I see a flash of light and hear a BANG.

Her head smacks the round wooden kitchen table. She fumbles over the top of the kitchen chair, taking it down with her as her body lands with a thump on the hardwood floor.

I stand there, stunned, staring at my bleeding mother as the man bumps my shoulder running right by me and out the door.

The blaring of sirens is muffled in the background.

“Mom?” I feel myself whisper, but I can’t hear myself speak.

The police come running in. I have no idea how much time has past, my thoughts clouded by my utter disbelief. The second they go near her I scream and cry and flail, trying to reach her, my body finally reacting to what just happened.

They hold me down and pull me out of their way as I fight to be by her side.

My aching heart beats rapidly and my breathing becomes uncontrollable, my chest rapidly pumping up and down and up and down.

I fall.

*       *      *

The police arrested the man who invaded our house, stole what little possessions we had, and shot and killed my best friend. My beloved mother. Apparently the man had been a part of a string of robberies in the area, but he had never been caught until he decided to pull the trigger, and that was it for him. For my mom.

Kameron stands next to me in front of my mother’s gravestone, his hand clasped in mine.

Margaret Jean Greenwood

1977-2018

Beloved Mother

A picture of her that I took when we went to the beach on my twenty-second birthday leans against her stone, her hazel eyes burning holes into mine.

You have to fight to survive, Moth. Trust is a luxury in this world. When it comes down to it, you’re on your own.

Those words keep repeating in my head. I was supposed to be the one to fight. I was supposed to be the one to protect her like she protected me my entire life… and I let her down. She put her trust in me. She counted on me to be there for her and I wasn’t and she had to step in and save me like she always did. And this time it killed her.

My mother fought her whole life to keep me safe from my shithead father, just so I would survive. She fought even when she couldn’t fight and even when she wasn’t really surviving. Not a day in her life did she ever put herself before me. Not even when I wished she would have.

Now I’m all alone.

I already gave the speech about how much I loved my mom and how much of a wonderful person she was and how she impacted so many people’s lives and how she’ll never be forgotten. Now everybody’s gone and it’s just Kameron and me left standing in front of her grave that sits next to hundreds of other graves on the dying grass. The chilly October air lines my bare arms with goosebumps, the sun trying so desperately to break through the thick wall of clouds. Kameron sets his suit coat over my shoulders.

“You were right about Nurse Stump.” I turn to Kameron, who looks at me as I continue to face forward. “The stump is dead. It hasn’t been a tree for a long time. The flowers around it are withering, not blooming.”

He turns to face mom’s gravestone again and doesn’t say anything for a while.

“I don’t know shit about art.”

I pull him into my body and weep into his shoulder.

*       *       *

A year has past, and my grieving heart slowly became easier to ignore, though I still think about her every single day. I’ve just gotten better at dealing, I guess.

Kameron and I bought a small house together. He just recently got a job at a correctional facility in Coos county, which he loves. He comes home with a lot of crazy stories. We’re taking a day trip to Cape Arago Loop this weekend, where I plan to propose to him.

I’m in art school studying to earn my bachelors degree. I still work at the museum, but I am also selling my paintings on the side. I’m happy where my life is heading.

I’m in my little art studio in the basement, standing in front of my easel, a stack of my mom’s old sharpied magazines piled next to me. Pictures that I’ve taken cover an entire brick basement wall from floor to ceiling. On the opposite side of the room I have one side of the wall dedicated to my finished paintings and one side for my works in progress. I’m working on a painting that has been a work in progress for months now. It might be my best one yet.

My mother was right about trust. It is a luxury in this world. I trusted my mother with every fiber of my being, and I would trust her a thousand times over. I loved her so much that when I lost her it nearly killed me. But I’m here. I’m surviving. No-  I’m living. Living happily in a house with the love of my life and doing what I love every day. I know my mom would want me to be happy.

I make the final touches to my painting, moving the thin tipped brush swiftly, but cautiously, across the canvas. I walk it over to the finished side of the wall and stare at the watercolor painting. A mixture of forest green, teal, a hint of blue, and daisy yellow make up the background, the colors of the trees, sky, ocean, and sun. Her golden hair cascades down her slender shoulders, complimenting the honey glow of her skin tone and oval jawline, her hazel eyes in contrast with the naturistic scenery.

A portrait of my mother, Margaret Greenwood, smiles at me.

I smile, too.

___________________________________________

Joshua Miller

“No Longer Alone”

I had heard of a large azure wolf running amok throughout the Valerian Woods. Clearly, the wolf’s fur color was of interest but what was most interesting about the rumors were they all said the beast was alone. I know there are some wolves that hunt alone or in small groups, but every sighting of it has seen the beast alone, on certain nights of each month. Coincidentally, they are within a couple days before and after the occurrence of a full moon. Intrigued by the possibility of a werewolf, I set out to the forest to investigate the rumors.

Upon arriving in the village just outside the forest, I talked to the locals to get a feel for what was really going on and a primary concern I had going in was answered promptly. The beast had not seen by people in the forest, instead it had only been seen at the outskirt of the forest. Seemed like it was acting more akin to a guardian of the forest. Interesting. The townspeople had tried many a time over the years to hire hunter after hunter, both alone and in groups, to deal with the creature; though each time they were either never heard from again or deliver messages in the form of their shrieks and cries of terror before a monstrous howl reigned over all on those dreadful nights. The particular detail of the wolf only being seen on nights around the full moon was false though, with the sightings on almost any possible night. Otherwise, the stories were accurate enough. I chose not to gauge much more instead choosing a more direct approach to understanding my prey. Delving straight into the forest.

The townsfolk thought I was a six foot tall madman but I mentally laughed at the thought. I knew the danger but still threw caution to the wind to explore the forest and get to know the environment the villagers feared. Troublesome underbrush dotted the first couple tens of yards, requiring a bit of climbing and nimble movement to get around downed trees, bramble, and other difficult foliage. A loose stick on a tree snagged my unkempt short brown hair for a moment, but was fixed easily. Otherwise, I was happy to know my choice of gearing up light was good thinking.

Along with the bag holding my sleeping gear and food and water, I had on slacks and a tunic for basic clothing. Considering what danger could be present, I chose to also wear a leather breastplate complimented by leather greaves and armguards. Still doubt I will need them though. Fortunately, the rest of the trek became easier the further into the Woods I went.

I will say I underestimated the size of the forest for its massive scope made it difficult to judge how far I’d already hiked. The tall pine and sequoias almost entirely enveloped the sky above, deflecting all but a few rays of light. This unfortunately made the horizon darker and harder to see through, even with my distinct eyesight brightening the world around me. Combine that with the almost never ending number of trees, I could’ve sworn the forest went on forever; at least the density of the trees kept out any unpleasant breeze or gust of air. Though thanks to the trees competing for the sun’s favor, it left less able to grow, thus made for an easier walk through the forest and easier to see the pretty shades of green everywhere.

It was hours later when I chose to set up camp with the setting sun, despite not being able to see much of it. I laid out my comfy yet tough blanket, an ordinary pillow, lit a fire with ease, and pulled up a nearby rock to sit down. I didn’t think about anything in particular while I sat, instead listening to the peaceful noises nature had to offer. The fire crackling away as it illuminated and fought back the surrounding darkness under the trees. The crickets and grasshoppers out in force, chirping away through the night. The occasional deer, rabbit, and other animal passing by, trying to avoid my attention. The trees rustling in the slight breeze above the forest. I couldn’t help but smile at all the life this environment had to offer, quite different from my home. It was while I sat, enjoying nature, I heard footsteps approaching from behind.

The person coming up was either very good at tracking, hunting, or remaining quiet in general as they expertly made very little to no noise. I was impressed but my ears were certainly able to pick up on light steps. As they neared, I slowly reached for the dagger at my right hip. “Hello?” I heard a distinctly female voice call out. The voice was soft with a curious tone. Taking hold of the dagger’s handle, I turned my head to see who was coming around.

She was a five and a half foot tall beauty to behold. Youthful fair skin with smooth round lips. Her eyes were a vibrant blue, shining even in the middle of the night. Obsidian black hair tapering at the end and long enough to touch the small of her back. She wore a blue kirtle over a leaf green dress with leather sandals and had an aromatic and exquisite scent. There was also another particular smell that stuck out. I won’t lie, I was awestruck and entranced as she walked up with a torch in hand. Standing to greet her, I let go of the dagger handle. “Yes? Can I help you?”

“I was going to ask that myself,” she responded. “What are you doing in the forest?”

“Honestly? Enjoying nature,” I said, looking to the landscape in the dark, seeing every rock, tree, blade of grass with ease. Returning my attention to my visitor “Where I’m from, it is quiet and almost lifeless. The life and sounds around this forest are quite pleasing. If you don’t mind, why are you here? Especially at this late hour.”

She paused a moment, clearly thinking over what she would say. “I actually live here. I was out picking berries and herbs and did not realize what time it was. My house is not too far, if you’d like I have some extra room.”

Really? I thought. She couldn’t tell what time it was? “If you don’t mind, I will take you up on the offer. My name is Drake,” I said outstretching my hand.

“Lupa,” she said shaking my hand.

With our greetings out of the way, I quickly doused the fire, packed up my gear, and followed her to her house. Along the way I wondered how big a cabin she had as I examined the dark woods. If this supposed wolf was here, there had to be some kind of tracks. While I still investigated, the short trip to Lupa’s home proved uneventful. Approaching the house, light began pouring through the trees as we came to a large clearing and walked towards the house.

The clearing was a several acre large, nigh-perfect circle. The sky was completely clear tonight with the light from the moon illuminating the entire area. In the middle, and to my surprise, sat a well-built log cabin. To the building’s right were tilled fields with growing crops. There was a chicken coop and barn, each large enough to hold a small number of animals. The grass around was verdant and well-trimmed from the animals chewing on it. Though a few spots in the field caught my eye.

Lupa led me to the house, opening the door for me. “I thought men were to be the chivalrous ones?” I said jokingly.

She chuckled a tad. “You’re the guest tonight so I thought I should be a pleasant host.”

I kindly thanked her as I walked through the door. Just inside the door, I was met with a hallway stretching from the front of the house to a door leading out the back. To the right sat a set of stairs leading to the basement. On the first floor, there were two rooms, a bedroom with a fairly comfortable looking bed (large enough for two I think) and a kitchen. The kitchen was fairly sophisticated, a similar set up for what a lord would have at their own manor house. Just as she came through the door, I heard a metallic clang as the deadbolt on the door locked in. I turned around to see Lupa’s eyes had changed from the beautiful blue from before to this almost blood red.

As I followed him into my home, I locked the door and turned towards Drake who had just turned around, locking my gaze with his brown eyes. “Now that I have you all alone, want to explain what you’re really here about?”

Crossing his arms, “Considering you have just locked me in, I am pretty certain you know why. Wolf.”

I was taken aback. “How…how did you…”

“Not too hard for those that are looking. There weren’t many tracks but when I saw them, they clearly led through foliage. Tells me they ran fast with wide strides to intentionally mask their path. And said tracks clearly led towards this clearing.” Pointing towards the floor. “There are also hints of freshly clean boards. Makes me think you were cleaning some of the mud you brought in barefoot.”

“So clean floors tell you I’m a werewolf?” I questioned mockingly. Though my blood was starting to boil with him around.

“No, though the paw shaped depressions in the grass help. What ultimately confirmed it for me was the one wolf print you left in the dirt outside the door.” My eyes shot open. How could I have forgotten?! I’m usually so cautious. Though I am impressed he was able to see such small details. “There was also a slight air of canine around you. Something I noticed upon first sight. The red eyes right now are not helping you. Should I go on?” he asked almost snarkily.

“Fine,” I surrendered, “you caught me. Guess if you know I am the werewolf everyone hunts, that means you are out to kill me.” I slowly prepared to pounce as he broke the tension.

“Nope.” As soon as Drake said that, I almost lost my footing from the shock. “I was more so curious if a werewolf really existed. Never seen one before.”

“Seriously?!” I exclaimed regaining my balance. “So I’m just, what? An oddity to you?”

“No no no. I just wanted to see or meet one. Even where I am from, werewolves are a myth,” he said crossing his arms with an inquisitive look about him. “That and I am kind of curious as to why sightings of you always tell of you being alone. I always heard wolves and werewolves lived in packs.”

I could feel my anger rising. “You really want to know?” He nodded yes. “Because your kind hunted them.” Gesturing to the entire forest and the clearing where I called home, “We used to call this entire forest home. This clearing used to be larger. Used to have more buildings. A larger field. All enough for twenty of us. And we caused no trouble other than to those who would do us harm. But when I was not even 13 years of age, many hunters came and sacked our home.” As the memory burned into my mind again, I dropped my arms to my sides again, and lowered my head to hide the expression of both sadness and anger. “They had numbers and silver tipped arrows and alchemical silver bonded onto their swords and axes; they had everything needed to exterminate us. They burned our houses and crops. They murdered my mother and father. They slaughtered my family! I ran away and when morning came, the hunters were gone and there was nothing but ashes. I have spent my life rebuilding everything I could replace.” Returning my gaze to Drake, I pointed to the door leading out the back of the house and his eyes followed. “You go through there and then step into the tree line, you’ll come across a small graveyard I made for everyone I lost on that day.”

Returning his attention to me, Drake inhaled and exhaled heavily, leaving him looking curiously deflated, though I did not think much of it. “I’m so sorry. I understand though,” he said apologetically. “Some enemies came and killed my own family…”

My anger boiled to the top as I interrupted him. “You don’t understand anything!” I shouted him down. “I lost almost everything. They took my family, my friends, my home! I have spent years trying to get things back to the way things were but the hunters who keep coming here keep ruining everything. This forest, this little homestead is all I have left. Don’t you dare think you know anything about me!”

“I’m sorry. I didn-” Drake tried to say before he noticed I stopped listening. Something in the distance caught my ear. I unbolted the door and rushed out the door. From outside, I could smell them. Death lingered on them. It hung on them like a pungent, putrid odor. And they were proud of every moment that bathed them in such a stench. Hunters.

“Look, do what you want,” I said coarsely. “I doubt you’re much of a threat. I am going to cool down by dealing with these invaders.” Removing my clothes, I also shapeshifted into my werewolf form, my figure reshaping itself to a large, bipedal wolf. With my transfiguration complete, I stood just short of seven feet tall with dark blue fur covering and concealing my formerly human form from head to fluffy tail. While my dark hair receded, the blue fur transitioned to black along my spine and on the very tip of my tail. “Maybe if you’re here when I get back, I will be in a more… pleasant mood. Maybe.” I looked back towards the forest, first leaping and then running as fast as possible to get rid of my mortal enemies.

I could smell them, the hunters. They were here and there were more than usual. Normally, only a small team of maybe three to five came after me. This time though, there were at least eight or ten, and with them was a strong and eerie scent present. As I ran ahead with breakneck pace, I jumped to the branches above and waited for them to pass. From there, I could see it was a group of nine who were walking closely together. They were outfitted lightly in leather or chainmail armor, each complimented with either a hat, helmet, bandana or nothing at all. Among the bunch, all but three carried torches with swords drawn. The three without torches walked in the middle of the group, swords holstered but crossbows in hand, bolts but a trigger away from being loosed.

As they walked by, I slid down the tree but stopped halfway down as I realized what the familiar stench was. Each one had a single pelt draped across their torsos like a bandolier. Each pelt recently stolen from their original bearer. Wolf’s pelts. My blood boiled as I could feel my claws dig faintly into the tree I clung to. With even greater conviction and eagerness, I quietly lowered myself to the ground and crept up from behind. When I was close enough, I grabbed the two at the back and quickly tore their throats out before jumping away into the darkness.

The others startled to the ready as two of their own dropped to the forest floor, blood pouring out of their now gutted throats. The three crossbows pointed around almost frantically, looking for a target while the swordsmen reformed a looser circle. I climbed up another tree and hopped the branches to get above them. Falling from above, I landed on two of the crossbowmen and tossed the other away with a backhand, paralyzing the others in fear. With the opening, I jumped and mauled the nearest hunter, gouging out his neck with my fangs.

The remaining hunters rallied and ran at me, but a howl from my lungs scared them once again. It was just before I went to pounce on the three they seemed out of character. The trio calmly took steps back and I paused before I felt the consequences of my folly. Suddenly, a crossbow bolt screamed through the air into my left shoulder. A cry of pain let out from my maw as several more hunters began to approach from behind the ones who drew me out. Each one in darker leather armor which was washed in mud, masking their scent from my detection. I dodged another bolt zooming my way, but I failed to notice a third that impaled my left thigh. I had been too careless and got myself caught off-guard. Now I sat there, crippled and unable to think from the pain. As one of the nearby swordsmen retrieved a crossbow from the man I tossed away and readied to end my life, I came to terms with my fate. The memories of everyone I knew passed through my mind. A tear of both sorrow and joy raced down my cheek as I relived each and every one of my memories with the now deceased. I only hoped I would see my family in death or enjoy their company longer in my next life.

As luck would have it, just before the bolt was loosed, a hand grasped the crossbow and pushed it into the air. Looking, I saw a familiar person arrive. The crossbow now cracked and splintered from the pressure Drake placed on it as he began crushing it with his bare hand. Following up his redirection, Drake delivered a right hook to the threatening hunter’s face and sent him flying into a tree. As the hunter collided, a horrendous cracking noise was heard as his head impacted the tree, followed by his body ragdolling out of sight. Almost fluidly, Drake then breathed in air and exhaled a torrent of flames, engulfing the closest hunters to us and then directing it to create a wall of flames between us and the remaining aggressors. Drake turned back towards me and his eyes were now this a light orange with slitted pupils. His face expressed only anger and hate, and he seemingly panted as smoke slowly flowed from his mouth.

Twisting round back towards the hunters, and in the same motion, Drake shapeshifted into a terrifyingly massive and toned western dragon; the immense release of pressure from his growth snuffing out much of the flames. As his clothes vanished from existence, scarlet red scales grew on his hide and his underbelly became armored by pale scales. His tail was thick but slenderly tapered at the end. Four large horns protruded from the back of his head and sharp claws extended from the ends of his fingers and toes. From his posture as he towered above all present, Drake’s dragon form was clearly quadrupedal more than bipedal.

Drake roared louder than the wind in a storm as he crashed a claw into the ground, crushing a hunter underfoot. Two hunters to Drake’s right shot bolts in complete fear, but the projectiles merely bounced off the scales and only drew his attention. He bathed the two fools in flames, rendering them charred before reflexively reaching his head around to grasp another victim in his mouth. Drake crunched twice on the helpless victim before launching him into the air, his figure disappearing into the tree line with a shriek of terror. The last hunter was already running when Drake took sight of him and roared. He turned around and grabbed me with his tail, carefully lifting and placing me onto his back before giving chase.

The retreating hunter bobbed and weaved through the trees trying to throw off Drake’s pursuit. However, the dragon would occasionally crash through a tree rather than avoid it. Eventually arriving at the edge of the forest, the lone survivor found out why I allowed the thickets, bushes, and other plants to grow as such. To impede the retreat of my prey. While Drake looked for an easy and safe way for us to move through the trees, having realized his aggressiveness was possibly dangerous for my health, the hunter struggled to cross the threshold, misstepping and tumbling occasionally from his haste. Just as the hunter was about to be in the clear, Drake reached out with his tail, grabbed the hunter, and drew him back in, the man clawing and wailing in terror. Drake lifted his victim, glaring deep into his eyes before clamping down with his jaw and tearing head from body, both of which he promptly threw away like trash.

Drake and I looked to the village, who had gathered in mass at the horrible sounds they had been hearing. There they all squinted, trying to pierce the darkness of the forest but only saw the shining eyes and shadowy silhouette of a dragon with a werewolf passenger. They all dropped to the ground in fear as Drake released an ear shattering roar into the night sky. He stood there staring them down, waiting for someone to make a move but soon stomped back to the clearing to my house. Along the way, he stamped out what fire and embers still remained using both tail and claws. Arriving at the house, we reverted back to our human guises, he helped me in and to the bed so as to tend to my injuries with medicinal herbs, salves, and other ointments. He even used his fire breath to heat a dagger and cauterize larger cuts and gashes, though I might have screamed his ear off from the pain. After tending to my more serious wounds, I felt healthy enough to change into my chemise, so I was not naked the remaining time he was . While he continued to patch me up, I asked “So… those enemies you mentioned… they were hunters, weren’t they?”

His voice became sullen. “They had watched us intently over the years, planning out how to exterminate us, even using a potent poison coating their weaponry. When the hunters struck, I was so young and exponentially more scared as what seemed like an army invading our cave and killing one dragon after another. I ran while everyone I knew died around me.” A tear rolled down his eye as I could see the memory causing him pain. One rolled down my own cheek as I listened to his story, one we both knew I was familiar with. “I flew away faster than ever and never looked back. All I did from then was run and run, occasionally picking a single cattle animal to tide me over for days. It wasn’t until I was lucky enough to come across a kind wizard who taught me magic, enough to where I could change my shape. After that, I begun to turn my life around as I spent years learning to live and fight as both man and dragon. In the process, I traveled the world see many a different sights, though I never once returned to my homeland.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said remorsefully. “I shouldn’t have said… I was angry and defensive…”

“It’s alright,” Drake said calmly, wrapping his hands around my right hand. “I understand. You have had to live your life one way for a long time now. You felt very tied down to what you knew and vengeful at those who tried to take it away. On guard to protect what little you had left.”

“But why would you help me? After all I sa-”

“Because I couldn’t just let you die.” he said endearingly. “Your dedication to your home and your beauty have smitten me. If love at first sight was a thing, I have been stampeded by it. At the end of the day, both reasons willed me to chase you down and fortunately too.” He paused. “I’m hoping you’d be willing to at least let me protect this forest with you.”

“You’re staying?” I asked with a raised brow.

“Wanted to at least. Sure beats a mountain. They are peaceful but too quiet and the lack of life compared to here is astounding. Even compared to other forests I’ve seen, this is something else entirely. The animals are lively and the plants are awash with a multitude of vibrant colors. I love it, and hope I am welcome here.”

I smiled, hearing someone else talk about my home so passionately was heartwarming. And while I did not know how to respond to his confession of love, it was still very endearing as I came to the realization I was not alone anymore. I carefully leaned in close and pecked him on the cheek, leaving him with a shocked look on his face. “Welcome to the Valerian Woods.

___________________________________________

Matt Barry 

“Birdcage”

Larus Dominicanus, otherwise known as the kelp gull, dines primarily on olives. However, when olives are scarce in its environment, mother gulls have been known to peck out the eyes of dead or wounded seals and carry them back to their nest to feed to their children. The young chicks, so overjoyed with the prospect of being fed, are blissfully unaware of their grotesque dinner, swallowing every morsel without a second thought. Birds are intriguing like that; so curious, so well-versed at capturing the imagination. They can be here and gone with just a few strokes of their feathers; flying without burden, without a cage, ever so free to live their lives.

Isn’t it strange? Humans have always been accredited as the superior species and from a physiological perspective that would seem correct. Evolution has bestowed them with the advances of bipedal posture, opposable thumbs, and developed brains to enable speech, complex emotions, and abstract thought. However, for all that superiority, humans are flawed by nature. Each and every one of them can be so easily ensnared by the world around them, slaves to the lives they lead. Demanding jobs, fantasies of power, divisive families—human beings were designed to be caged, and they do not seem to mind.

How then can they truly be superior if they are not free?

I have found that humans have trouble grasping this concept; people are quite stubborn when they don’t want to face the truth. Take, for instance, the public’s reaction to the failures of my students. I assume what they heard on the news made them all afraid—fear is the greatest of human cages, with the uncanny ability to shackle the best of us. I did not take offense to their fear—I hadn’t had the chance to teach them all the way to freedom—but it was their impatience and their insistence on stopping me that I found quite rude. All of them are so weighed down by their desire for what is real, what the facts are, when all I wanted was to lift them up and show them the way. But what line had I crossed that made them brand my work unjustifiable and appalling?

“You’re running out of time, Nestor.”

I’ve grown to admire Rene’s direct bluntness. As a budding criminal defense attorney, her naivety and lack of experience haven’t taught her to respect the decency of one quietly brooding alone with one’s thoughts. Even now she sits across the interview room table, the sound of her hands tapping nonchalantly on a thick file, one I imagine is filled to the brim with photos and coroner reports. My posture is craned to the side, eyelids closed, and head lowered as to deter eye contact from the spunky lawyer. She’s so adorably eager; the state could not have given me a quicker route to the death penalty.

“The DA is getting impatient, they won’t draw this out for much longer,” Rene continues in her best big-shot lawyer voice, “You have to cooperate, or else he won’t be so keen on offering you another deal.”

Rene has an exquisitely attractive voice—measured, innocent, but with a firm seriousness to it when she’s determined to prove herself. It would be wrong of me to say that I dislike her personally, however she’s obviously jumpy; worried that she will mess up her first big case. Work was her cage—the drive to prove herself the locking mechanism, and her future ambition the cold unforgiving bars. I would gladly help to set her free if given the chance. After all, she’s told me she’s fascinated by my work; but then again, who in this city isn’t?

Sensing no reaction from me, my lawyer proceeds. I hear Rene open the binding, the multitude of enclosed documents crinkle and slide over one another as she rifles through them, perhaps searching for a new strategy. The sound of her fingers dancing over the papers soothes me; soft plastic taps resonating through the otherwise silent room. Despite how clean cut she must be dressed, the harsh aroma of acetone hangs heavy over the young lawyer. The pungent odor may have washed away the color on her nails, but what deeper stains remained? How many glasses had they tapped against? How many rolled up papers had they pinched? How many men had they left painted scratch marks on?

And I’m the guilty one, they all say.

I hear the rustling of papers halt abruptly as the young attorney stops sifting through documents. It wasn’t my indifference and seeming lack of attention that scared her stiff to the point where she halted her work. No, even better—she found the paper she was looking for.

“I know you don’t care about getting locked up,” Rene states, her voice beginning to lose its validity. “But you have no chance of avoiding a needle in your arm if you don’t tell them where she is.”

I can tell by her tone exactly who she is talking about: Melody Brown, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that name. It’s hardly left my ears since I was taken into custody. The same name attached to the same questions; where was she, was she safe, what I had done with her, what had I done to her, over and over again.

The media frenzy that had grown rapidly since I began my work was always so keen on reminding the paranoid masses of the faces that went missing off street corners and alleys. None of them were more prominent than that of young Melody Violet Brown. It was impossible to walk past a newsstand without seeing those bright green eyes staring hopefully back. Miss Brown, top of her nursing class at Loyola, loving and worried parents and fiancé, beautiful and young, life planned out since age 8—if ever there was a caged bird, it would be sweet Melody.

Her dear better half had reported her missing after Melody never made it back to their apartment. Of course, I remember that night well—anyone could see how overwhelming the burden of Melody’s life was; the weight of her cage so unbearably heavy. I simply could not resist. I needed to make her my newest project—if I did not help her soon, she’d never be free. I took a tremendous risk taking her on as a student, perhaps that was where I went wrong.

“Nestor,” Rene’s voice pierces through my reminiscent state, but I still do not shift my head to respond to her call.

I was already gone from this place; gone from the world of today and off in the world of then. Somewhere at some time I had made a mistake; one small monkey wrench in the well-oiled machine of my work. What was it? How had my perfect dream of helping those most in need of freedom brought me here? In the past I found freedom in staring at the world through glass, in the movement of bodies in dance, in the birds that flew without a cage. Surely none of those could be where I went wrong; they were what set me free from my own cage. Why hadn’t they worked for my students?

Nestor,” she repeats. Her harsh tone has impeded my transition once more and I find myself back in the cold hard chair at the cold hard table, shackled hand and ankle with metal chains. The interview room stinks of cigarette smoke, a smell that has always put me on edge. How humans find it soothing to inhale toxic fumes—to shorten their lives with every puff of smoke—I will never know. Daddy always seemed to enjoy it. He always did enjoy things that hurt people, enjoyed clipping wings, caging birds—

“Nestor, I need you to cooperate,” Rene’s voice has grown strained, desperate. I still do not move my head or lift my eyelids; she’s not ready look me in the eyes yet. Rene is tired—I can hear her beginning to waver. Likely enough she’ll pass over my case, ask her boss the district attorney to be reassigned, and forego the springboard to a life-long career that the media spotlight brings with it. I almost feel sorry for the poor girl; it isn’t her fault that she’s failing sweet Melody.

“You think I like listening to myself talk,” Rene snaps, the strain giving way to venom, “You won’t talk about this case, you won’t even open your eyes and look at me. How am I supposed to convince the jury The Scarecrow Killer isn’t a real scarecrow?”

Scarecrow…scarecrow…why would I scare a crow?

Crows are the wisest of the creatures of the air; they see all, travel everywhere, eat everything. Long ago, my old home was a nesting ground for the black-winged things, a migration hot spot away from the inner city that would one day be where I would teach my students to fly. The crows were always silent; perched like sentinels on fence posts and shingles of the roof, their black eyes piercing every window of that old house. Daddy and Mommy never saw them, never took any notice or care for the birds. But then again, there was never any love for caged things in that house, not even in the cage I was kept in. So little room to move inside those cold bars, so much that I never could extend my arms or legs. Unfortunately for my parents, you can only keep a little boy in a cage for so long until they get bigger; they soon traded in the dog cage for the isolation of the attic.

I was locked inside that hollow room with no one save for the black crows outside my window. I watched the birds for years before I saw how their movements made them free; I made my body move in ways that it shouldn’t have in order to correct the damage of early life. It was painful, torturous, but I knew I needed to break out of my cage—my chrysalis of a body—to be free. I taught myself to dance like the birds did; moving my bent and broken frame to be free like they were, short of sprouting wings and flying. Dancing was what kept the despair at bay; the movements of my body the only way of unlocking the larger, metaphorical cage I was put in.

I had to share my discoveries to the world; every human being was trapped in a cage and now I was the one with the keys. My skills caught the attention of professionals, who took me seriously only long enough to gawk and dismiss me.

“Unnatural,” critics called my performance.

“Unprofessional,” the choreographers named it.

“Bizarre, disturbed, dangerous,” the dancers claimed.

To them I was nothing more than a cheap contortionist, a double and triple-jointed freak who thought breaking his bones into different shapes would help his act. They just didn’t understand—they weren’t watching a dancer prance about for their own entertainment, they were watching a higher being offer his hand in rescue. The dance I did was not for the minds of lowly humans; they couldn’t possibly appreciate the movements I could do—what we could do, the birds and I—without my help. Humans keep their spirits caged within the restraints of their corporeal vessels whereas I was one with the beasts of the air. I was free; from the moment I first broke out from my body, knitted the shackles of my bones back into new shapes, and danced to the silent song of freedom the crows showed me. Surely, though, the world didn’t have the patience or the wisdom to seek the guidance of birds—they needed a teacher, someone that could show them the true path to freedom and make them break their cages.

“Maybe you just don’t remember,” Rene’s voice is once again determined and I hear her hands begin to sift through papers again, the volume of her actions the only assertion I need. “Allow me to remind you,” she stops her aggressive filing and slams something onto the metal table. She’s probably hoping to spur a reaction from me, but I keep the lids of my eyes closed and my body cast to the side.

“This was Jeannette Ryder. A jogger found her leaned against a park bench at the crack of dawn. Key word ‘leaning’—every bone in her body was broken before she died, but no mortal wounds to constitute murder.”

Rene’s frustration has gotten the better of her. I imagine a small, determined frown spreading across her brow. The thought of it is almost enough to bring a smile to my lips and coax my eyelids open…but not quite.

Another slam, most likely a picture.

“William Benjamin Andrews, school teacher. Found with his limbs wrapped around the bars of the jungle gym on the playground outside his elementary school. Every single bone in his body was broken, cause of death: dehydration.”

Ah, yes, that’s right, Mr. Andrews begged and begged for a drink. I would have given him one, but he still preferred his cage rather than freedom. The shackles of his body had been broken, but his spirit was unwilling to embrace the chance to leave its prison. Day after day I asked him and every other individual I took on as a student if they wanted to return home—back to the cages they called lives. They all said yes, of course expected, but still unfortunate. The human body is the most important cage the spirit must break free from before it can soar above the world without any restraints—breaking their bodies was the first step in reaching that. I allowed their weary spirits to leave their vessels and fly among the birds that flew so carefree above them, but all chose to succumb to the physical limitations of their bodies instead. Mr. Andrews and all those others found getting themselves a drink of water rather difficult with all their bones broken.

A true shame, but on the bright side: with every new student vacancy, there was always another I could take to replace them.

Rene continues with name after name of the students that had failed their tests and died, the sound of her voice growing strained as she pleads with me to cooperate and to tell her where the police can find poor sweet Melody. The interrogation is interrupted by a loud buzzing noise, effectively silencing Rene: the interview room door is opening. The sound of papers sliding catches my ears sharply, but I still do not move. A heavy thudding fills the room as the door swings open, followed by rapid footsteps and loud yelling from someone outside.

“Detective! Ms. Evans is with her client you can’t—detective, stop!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Three weeks earlier:

After seven months of dead ends and dead bodies, Detective Lombardo finally had him cornered. The elusive serial killer’s bizarre methods of maiming his victims—breaking their bones to leave their limbs as useless and weak as a scarecrow’s, only to die from lack of nutrition after being left helpless—had led to the media dubbing him “The Scarecrow Killer”. Despite his years of experience, the frustrating lack of evidence or motive had almost driven Lombardo to the point of quitting the case; not to mention the gruesome state of the victims that nearly pushed him over the edge of his own sanity and back to the comfort of the bottle. Detective Lombardo poured countless hours into the case, desperately searching for a connection or some form of clue that the sick bastard was giving him. There had to be a reason for everything the killer was doing but what was it?

After the disappearance of Melody Brown, the department felt personally responsible to the girl’s family to catch the Scarecrow before he could do any further harm. Lombardo tried to reassure them, but without a single lead he felt that he was only selling lies. That all changed a few nights ago; while working late—and nursing his fifth glass of scotch—a small sparrow had flown straight into his dining room window. The thick glass had snapped the bird’s neck instantly, but in that small broken body Lombardo saw something: the final piece had finally clicked into place.

How had he been so blind? The scarecrow-like state of the bodies, the neglected state of the victims, all disappearing and reappearing from their jobs and it took a bird flying straight into his window for him to see the pattern. He read somewhere once that birds couldn’t see glass; birds evolved to fly without anything holding them back, so their brains hadn’t developed the concept of barriers or cages. All those bodies, each one had every bone in them broken with expert precision, after all scarecrows had no bones.

“The Scarecrow isn’t just killing people, he thinks he’s transforming them.”

The killer was making a statement, one that Lombardo had yet to discover. That didn’t matter to him, though; all he needed was the bastard in a prison cell. Fueled by determination, and no shortage of booze, Lombardo began making headway on the case. The lab boys had been running tests on samples taken from the bodies, trying to piece together where they had been kept. Lombardo had a hunch in a closed-down area of the city zoo; namely, the old conservatory. The good news kept rolling in for the detective; a partial print had been found at the scene of the latest victim—that poor schoolteacher—and finally found a match in the database. Lombardo was honestly disappointed at the image of the man he had hunted so long and hard for: Nestor Weber, a former dancer at some Cirque du Soleil-type show, a long history of mental instability that went hand-in-hand with violent behavior against both himself and others, and a list of residential psychiatric institutions a mile long. The gangly suspect looked enough like his media namesake, but not a crazed killer. Lombardo had expected his big grey eyes to be full of malicious intent, not the dreamy, removed stare of one lost in thought.

Lombardo was the first inside the abandoned conservatory, leading a raid of police officers to find the missing Melody Brown and put an end to the Scarecrow’s murder spree. The overwhelming stench of dead flesh choked him as he and his team swept the stained-glass interior. The zoo’s conservatory was home to hundreds of different plants, left to grow wild after the city had cut the funding for the seasonal garden. Oddly, the place was full of birds; local species that seemed to have been brought in after the fact. Lombardo himself opened the central greenhouse door, backed up by half a dozen rifles trained on the faded glass entrance. Normal procedure dictated that the SWAT team breach the door, but the liquid courage Lombardo had holstered in his jacket pocket said to hell with procedure.

As confident as he was, Lombardo didn’t expect what he saw inside.

The walls and ceiling were glass, but not the same translucent, two-way glass that the rest of the greenhouse was constructed in—they were covered in mirrors. The room was in pristine condition, all save for the figure in the center of the room. He was long and gangly, just like the name the media had dubbed him, and sat very still with his back to the door. The Scarecrow was clothed in a filthy matted leotard and each of his limbs were bent awkwardly in sickening positions, his hands smeared with fresh blood that dripped onto the glass floor in front of him.

Lombardo was the one to apprehend him. The killer never resisted, never jeered at the officers nor clamored for a lawyer; he never even opened his eyes to look at his captors. His face was a mess: eyelids red and swollen, keeping his eyes perpetually shut, dried blood caking his cheeks and coating his eye lashes. As Lombardo wrestled his suspect up to his feet and led him out to the waiting patrol car, he wondered about the condition of Weber’s eyes.

Maybe the killer’s feathered friends had pecked them out, the detective joked to himself…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Detective Lombardo’s hands lock tight around my shoulders, wrenching me up from the metal chair, “You know where she is you son of a bitch! Give her up now or I swear to God I’ll fucking kill you!”

The stench of whiskey perforates my nostrils, just as it did the day Lombardo arrested me. His voice is deafening, but the ringing in my ears cannot hold back the ever-growing smile on my lips. I’m sure Lombardo wouldn’t have dreamed of barging into an interview room like this, but alcohol does interesting things to people, as I have found. Interestingly enough, alcohol can be mixed with a few other ingredients to create quite an effective tranquilizer. A concentrated dose into the muscle fibers can cause severe tension almost to the point of immobilization, which made taking in new students from off the streets in front of their places of work incredibly easy. I never wanted to kill any of those I had taken into my care, only to break them free of their bodily cages like I had done to myself, and what could be a more perfect prison than the human skeleton?

Years of experience learning how to stretch and maneuver a dancer’s body teaches one to avoid broken bones, but also, how easily and efficiently it is to break them. With the skeletal prison out of the way, every single one of my subjects had a simple choice: release their spirits and finally be free, or succumb to their cage. They all rejected my proposal, but failed to understand that eating, drinking, and escape require the aid of a whole and mended skeletal system, a luxury they no longer had.

Lombardo’s fist collides with the left side of my jaw, but he does not release me. Those men that yelled at him as he came barging into the room finally reach him, but I assume he’s tossed them aside as easily as he tossed back bottles trying to find Miss Brown.

“Where is Melody!? Where are you keeping her!?”

The smile on my lips is almost too wide now, and I can tell the detective has finally seen it. He shakes me once before punching me again, but this time as my head snaps backward the smile on my lips breaks into words, my first in weeks.

“Melody…Melody has been staring you…right in the face…this whole time.”

Lombardo grabs me by the throat, forcing me to face him. Before he can utter a vulgar retort, his breath catches in his throat as I finally open my eyes.

Well, not my eyes, of course; my eyes have long since been gobbled up by the winged inhabitants of the conservatory. I knew that Melody would not have time to make her decision before Lombardo and his team found me, so I regrettably made her decision for her. I had just enough time to carve out sweet Melody’s eyes—the emerald windows to the soul that had been printed on every newspaper in the city—and give them a new home in my own head. Now her spirit is free, and she can watch the world go by without the burden of being caged any longer. I may have blinded myself, but after all, isn’t it the greatest thrill to fly without knowing the destination?

“Those…those…” Lombardo barely chokes out before he drops me. The shouts of officers coming in to offer back-up grow louder. Rene begins to scream. The sound of the detective vomiting breaks the mental wall holding back my laughter long enough to for me to chortle out a mocking, throat-ripping crescendo as I feel arms tighten around me.

“‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot cage!”

___________________________________________

Shelby Davin

“The Boogeyman”

The nightmares have yet to subside,
but they’ve drastically diminished.
I remember when he appeared every night
torturing me relentlessly,
as if once wasn’t enough.
I see his shaggy brown hair,
clothing tattered,
smelling of cigarettes and desperation
I watch as a slime trail follows behind him
and he makes way to my bed
I’m stuck, paralyzed by fear
He silences me,
and I let him
I watch closer as I become malleable,
like putty in his hands
my face is distorted into a woman I’ve never seen before
as I watch myself begin to slip away into nothing,
I awaken
swimming in my own sweat,
I throw my covers to the side
and check beneath the bed for you.
___________________________________________

Marshelle Kellum

“Me a Writer?”

A specific writing experience that I feel has the most impact on me as a writer is the time my English teacher freshman year of high school handed me back a paper and said “ It Doesn’t meet the requirements, Marshelle”. First of all you don’t know me like that, don’t be walking all up on me like that! After I came to terms with what was going on and being bombarded, I kindly turned to my right and asked her “Well, what do you expect me to do? You asked me to write a paper about me! That is me! Shelle, just Shelle.” Silence. After lecturing all morning about adjectives and nouns this teacher was at a loss for words. I then smiled and asked very kindly, with a sarcastic smirk, “What do you suggest I do?” She tried, as an instructor, to guide me without really guiding me. You know how teachers try to get you to guess what’s in their head like you’re some type of psychic. They say stuff like “No not that but close, not exactly though. Come on you know it!” Only difference I highly doubt that she even had that idea she was looking for in her head. We were starting from scratch. She couldn’t give me any hints because I got the feeling she was waiting for me to come up with some bright idea and if it was great she’d just agree with it like ‘That’s it! Yeah.’ Like no baby, no. Help me out. She was saying the cliche teacher sayings like “What can you do better? How can you give it that umph? What would make your paper go over that top?” Blah, Blah, Blah. I thought to myself ‘Do you think we would be having this conversation if I had any answers to that same but ‘restated fancily’ question? My Gawd’.

That conversation went back and forth until I simply told her I could not and would not comply to the “requirements of the prompt” no matter the outcome of my grade because you can’t ask someone to express themselves, yet put them in a box. She then tried to convince me to make revisions. She asked “Do you think that’s best for your grade?” At that point I wasn’t even worried about my grade. Like dude I will stop coming to this class altogether, talk bout a revision. F&k a revision. F&k this class. I won’t have to worry about this grade then. I’m thinking in my head about all the other students sitting in that same class. It had to be about 25 of us. Yet, this lady is sitting here wasting class time talking to me about something I already told her wasn’t gonna happen. I started to think that she found conversations with me amusing. I then started to play along and keep it going asking, “So, Ms. Hand. You mean to tell me that out of ALL these students in this Freshman English class, room 321, here at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, class of 2017, on this fine Morning at 9:00 o’clock, I’m the only one who didn’t fit in the box?” “Now, Marshelle…” she responded. “Nah, Nah, Nah, Ms. Hand.” I cut her off. “I see what it is. My fat ah clearly need to lose some weight.” Although I was being funny, I didn’t crack a smile. She then knew that she had picked the wrong one to try and coddle. Before I could act a fool she simply said “All right, revised draft due Friday on TurnItIn. But I hope you try and come up with something.” Of course I did come up with something. I made sure in my revision I ‘apologized’ for not being able to make better revisions using the sad critiques written in the margins of my original paper. I also didn’t forget to mention the in-class discussion I had and the “help” I received then. Now if that didn’t push my paper over that top, or give it that umph, I seriously don’t know what I could’ve done better.

Of course when I got my paper back I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to see what she said this time. After class I went up to her and asked her how’d she like my new and improved paper along with those revisions I ‘tried’ to make of her advice. I mean I love being an a**hole sometimes. She started, “Now Marshelle…” I cut her off with a chuckled lifting my hand up and walked out of room 321 at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, behind the rest of my fellow class of 2017 freshman English classmates at 9:41 that fine morning. Thinking to myself “She loved it.”

From that moment forward, I decided that I would not be confined as a writer to any prompt, the margins, or lines of any page and that a part of my true self would be implemented into every piece of writing I create.

___________________________________________

Alisa Davis

“Deadbeat Dads”

We think about your smile
We think about your laugh
We think about your love
We think about your presence
We wish it wasn’t an option
For you to be absent
See
Let me tell you about some of our thoughts
To learn lessons that you could’ve taught
Purchasing love that shouldn’t be bought
To fight battles that you could’ve fought
Do you know that your kids think about you?

See this is for all…
The Deadbeat Dads
The Drop out Dads
The Walk out Dads
The
Please don’t expose my flaws type Dads
The
I love you but won’t call type Dads
The
Give 5 percent instead of their all type Dads
Do you know your kids think about you?
They wonder…
If they weren’t the key to your heart,
Were they the key to your destruction
They wonder…
Will there ever be another man they can trust in?
They wonder…
Will their insecurities ever be loved?
And
They wonder…
Why for you, they were not enough…

You resigned from a job that you created.
It’s sad to say even your kids have replacements
We
Didn’t know your love came with limitations
But I hope that your son don’t imitated it
You
were the first to make your daughter feel unappreciated
Because you neglected your duties and obligations
She tried to find puzzle pieces to fix the situation
But then you want to just show up to graduation

This is for you
The Deadbeat Dads
The Drop out Dads
The Walk out Dads
The
Please don’t expose my flaws type Dads
The
I love you but won’t call type Dads
The
Give 5 percent instead of their all type Dads
Do you know your kids think about you?
They wonder
if they weren’t the key to your heart,
Were they the key to your destruction
They wonder,
Will there ever be another man they can trust in?
They wonder,
Will their insecurities ever be loved?
And
They wonder
Why for you, they were not enough…

They think about you,
You children think about YOU,
But the question is…
Do you think about them?
___________________________________________

Alisa Davis

“Best Part”

I wonder if the sun shines brighter when it sees you
If the moon is full in your presence
I wonder how big Gods smile was after he created you.
I wonder how much time it will take
To seal you to the basement of my heart,
Staple you to the walls of my mind
Tape you around the edges of my lips,
So that I know,
Your presence will forever be near me

They say love is a battlefield…
But you
Have turned love into a garden
That produces new beginnings
Love into a bakery
With flavors I have yet to taste
Love into Handmade hopes
You put my dreams in the oven
And it bakes them into realities

I just want to see how
Beautiful you are underneath your skin and scars
Delicate hands with a gentle touch
Carmel layers smothered in love
Peaceful presence
Soft kisses
I can’t wait to be your misses
Mist of love is in the air
At my love is where I stare
May my eyes be focused on the handsome one over there
And my heart and mind be centered on the king upstairs

I wonder how many times you’ll make me laugh between now and our 50th anniversary,
I wonder how much tighter your hugs will get
I wonder what the recipes to your smile are
(I wonder if it’s me)
I wonder how many tears you’ll catch from the corner of my eye
Fold in the palms of your hands
And wipe in love and forgiveness

They say love is a battlefield…
But you have turned
Love into a blueprint
That my sons will build their house from
Love into a song
That my daughter will one day dance to
Love into a chemical
That’s placed in the pool of my heart

I just want to see how beautiful you are
Cause this love can go so far
Progress, growth and self-control
May those be the morals that we hold
Quick to listen
Slow to speak
And slow to become angry
Lifetime concepts that’s never changing
Cause if life does cause us pain
May the foundation of love still remain
And even then,
You will be
My best part
___________________________________________

Marissa Purdum

“The Dog Days”

Imagine the beginning of the summer of 2009, about a year and a half after the Great Recession had started. Imagine a small city, about 25,000 people, in the southeast corner of Iowa called Burlington. Imagine a duplex, split top floor and bottom. Both the top and bottom had the same layout. The living and dining room were connected to a small room. Then that room connected to a hallway which had the kitchen, bathroom, and two bed rooms branching off of that.

Now imagine a twelve-year-old girl, brown hair, blue-green eyes with a family that consisted of a jobless mom with the same hair and same eyes, and a golden retriever puppy, named Pumpkin, living on the top floor of the duplex. The bottom floor housed my grandma, who also was the landlord. The last day of school was finished and now it was time for summer. It was also time for me to leave my childhood home forever.

My mom was packing up the last few boxes into our blue Chevy Impala as I was sitting on the wooden floors of my old room. With a small knife in hand, I carved my name, along with the words ‘Fuck you’ and ‘Bitch’, into the floorboards, right where my bed was once. I looked at my handiwork and I didn’t feel bad. I felt vulnerable, like this naked, white room. Everything that was in this room was already in the storage shed my mom had rented. However, we weren’t leaving on our own accord. My grandma decided to sell the duplex and move into a new house, so she was kicking us out. I never understood why she decided to leave me and my mom homeless and I still don’t.

I had just gotten up and hid the knife in a box when my mom came in.

“Hey, I’ll get the last few boxes into the car. Why don’t you take Pumpkin for a walk in the park?”

I nodded and asked, “Alright. Is the leash still next to the door?”

She shook her head and her expression changed from calm to sorrow.

“No, I packed it up. Take her,” she paused, “and lose her.”

I clenched my jaw. I knew what she wanted me to do. She expected me to walk around until she ran away from me, and then I come back home, without her.

I nodded to her. “C’mon, Pumpkin. Let’s go.” Then me and my dog went outside and walked across the street to Perkins Park.

Perkins Park was a relatively small park. The playground was filled with kids plying, so I directed Pumpkin away from them. I didn’t want her running off to one of them. Eventually I came upon a random bush, so I stopped behind it with Pumpkin.

“Oh sweetheart,” I hugged her and cried into her light golden fur. “I don’t want to leave you here.”

She nuzzled me in response. Pumpkin had always been smart like that. She picked up on a lot, and this scenario was one of them. I think she knew that this was meant to be goodbye. I sat there crying into her shoulder for around thirty minutes, and she didn’t move an inch. That’s how I knew I couldn’t lose her yet, so I told myself I needed to compose myself before I returned home.

I wiped the last tears from my eyes and said, “Alright, Pumpkin. Let’s go.” I started to walk back and close by my heels, the dog I loved so much followed.

We had been camping for a month now at Geode State Park, since it was all we could afford. This campsite in the middle of nowhere was our new home since we were kicked out. Our campsite rested under the shade of this big oak tree, which we used to tie up Pumpkin. We had a pretty large orange tent that had three sections. The middle section was our living room, and the two smaller side wings were our changing room and bedroom. We had a totally of four folding chairs, two outside and two in the living room. Our campsite also included a fire pit with a iron grill attachment. We were trying to come up with creative foods to roast over a campfire, such as bacon or grilled cheese. However, most days we ate hot dogs and cheap burgers.

In order to shower, my mom and I would drive into town and walk into the hospital. Geode normally does have showers, but during that summer they were closed for maintenance, so we had to make the drive into town. My mom had worked there once upon a time, so she knew where the hospital’s family shower was located. The shower was a privilege that we allowed ourselves every three days. There, I would shower first, in a small, blue tiled shower stall. I would dry off then get out and wait for my mom to take her turn. During this time, I often thought of my childhood home. The one I ached to live in again. The home where I etched her name into the floorboards to claim the house as my own.

My thoughts were interrupted by my mom’s shower ending. We would then return to the campsite because Pumpkin was there. Once back at the campsite, my mom would turn on the radio, and we would both sit singing to “I Gotta Feeling’” by the Black Eyed Peas or “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston in the blistering hot sun. When we got tired of doing that, we would play whatever card games we had on hand, which was usually either Skip-Bo or Crazy Eights. Sometimes we would explore the trails with Pumpkin, but after awhile of that, it became older than hearing the same songs on the radio five times a day. It was a boring existence, but at least I still had my best friend, Pumpkin.

The summer of ‘09 had brought a lot of changes. When we first moved out of the duplex, we had rented a storage unit for all of our belongings. However, as the summer continued, we could no longer afford to rent the storage unit anymore. So, all of our things were locked up and out of reach. Not only were our possessions locked up, but the cheap storage unit that we had rented was at the bottom of a hill, and every time it rained, it flooded. So I thought everything was ruined by the water.

During the summer of ’10, in the heat of July, an auction was taking place at the storage unit faculty where our things once resided. So my mom and I decided to go to see if any of our stuff had survived.

When we arrived, there were over a hundred people there, hopping from one unit to the next looking for their next hidden treasure.

“Mom! Look!” I pointed into one of the units. It wasn’t our unit but I recognized my pink stuffed animal dog named Mama along with a few of my other stuffed animals and my baby blanket. That gave me hope that some of our other stuff survived the flooding as well. We ended up finding a lot of our old VHS tapes, our old TV stand, and some more blankets.

“Next item up for bid is a couple of stuffed animals with a blanket. Who wants to start the bid with a dollar? Do I hear a dollar?” said the auctioneer.

I looked at my mom with pleading eyes.

My mom raised her card to bid.

“A dollar over there, do I hear two?”

A man and his wife raised their card next. And thus the bidding war commenced.

One by one, my personal possessions were sold to the highest bidder. My mom tried to bid on some of the items, but the price was always too high. When everything was sold and the auction was over, my mom and I walked away empty handed. I wondered why it seemed like everything I cared about always became “lost”.

The end of the summer of ’09 neared and it was also the time for a new chapter of my story. We were packing up our summertime campsite because we had to move on due to the new school year approaching and the cold weather. So, my mom did what she had to do. She got a hotel room for me that night, so I could rest comfortably while she went and started her new job at a weed killer factory. Then the next day we were going to live with the cruel woman who had made them homeless in the first place, my grandma. She was reluctant to let us stay with her, but she knew we were desperate, so she agreed to let us stay at her house.

Once we were in town, my mom pulled into a neighborhood a block away from the hotel. It was a small and quiet neighborhood where little to no traffic ventured.

She stopped in the middle of the street. I was so confused as to why we were there.

“Let her out,” she said, referring to Pumpkin. She refused to make eye contact with me.

“What?” I asked in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought we were taking her with us.

“Let her out and take off her collar.”

I paused for a brief moment before I got out. I opened the back door and rubbed behind Pumpkin’s ears then kissed her forehead goodbye. I removed her collar, then got out of the way so she could jump out.

“Hurry up and get back in,” my mom ordered.

I close the back door and hopped in quickly. My mom immediately drove off. I looked back and saw her running after us. Then she stopped to sniff something on the ground as we turned the corner. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Then I started to bawl. It was an ugly cry, complete with gulps and gasps as I tried to catch my breath between my screaming cries. As my mom pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, I was still bawling. This was the first time my heart was broken.

“You need to stop crying. I can’t leave you in here bawling while I go get the room key,” my mom said.

That only made me want to cry harder, but I slowly choked it down. She went inside, by herself, to get the key then we went up to our room. The lonely bed was draped in a dark red blanket. Once we were settled, my mom got ready for work and left. As soon as she was gone, I stood by the window for hours, hoping to see Pumpkin run down that street and find me. When it turned dark, I gave up my spot next to the window and went to bed, accepting defeat. I never got my gold trophy back. Instead, my consolation prize was crying myself to sleep in the fetal position as I gripped my best friend’s collar.

___________________________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“A Dose of Change”

I stole $35 from my mom. It was just sitting on the kitchen counter, left out like a steaming hot pie or some damp dishes set out to dry. I needed the money to buy Valium and some weed. I was a good kid, I promise. I would have bought the drugs myself if I had a job or a source of income, but I was just a little punk if I am being honest. Later I would cop to stealing the money and she would kick my ass. I had planned to leave that detail out of the story because it doesn’t necessarily fit the grand narrative, but I guess every point of conflict needs a resolution.

You could have called me a kid on a mission. I was goal-oriented. I hurriedly bought a single pill of Valium and a few joints from a dealer who lived a few blocks away. My plan was to split the pill with my girlfriend and maybe smoke a little with her. Later, this will turn out to be the last time I will see her. No, not for the reason you think. She didn’t overdose or anything. She was actually going to college — Columbia, in fact — on a full-ride.

For the sake of conversation, let’s say her name was AJ. You know, protect the names of the innocent and all that shit. Her parents immigrated to America from Poland and they had just recently within the last year moved to my town from Chicago. She was the most darling person I had ever met. I was utterly fascinated with her. Her hair was thick and dyed black and had faint curls that slightly danced when she moved her head. Her pale skin never burned and would always reflected in my eyes as if I were a deer caught in the high beams of a semi. Glasses rested on her nose that would just faintly obscure her green eyes from me. Which was probably a good thing, because I would have devoured them like candy. Her nose slightly protruded and so did her chin. It made her beauty more unique, though some of the bullies in school said it made her look like a witch. They were just typical Polish features, I figured. I was just so utterly captivated by her.

She was so smart, obviously so since she was leaving for Columbia. Every word she spoke enlightened me. The accent she had developed from her parents was so cute that it hurt. She would always stumble on her words and smile with a tint of frustration. Her smile, God, her smile, made my heart skip beats at a time. I was madly in love with her. A love that was intensified by my age. I was only sixteen. While I had just gotten my license, she was going to a prestigious university in New York cost-free.

I was her first love, too. Other guys never saw what I saw, at least up to that point. She was the new cute girl at school who kept to herself and would always wear the shirts of bands that I loved. I always saw here roaming around in the hallway, diverting attention from herself. I knew I had to talk to her. Soon we befriended and I took every opportunity to learn everything about her. She used to tremble and shake when she talked to me, partly because she shared the same fascination with me, but also because she was inexperienced with guys and her father damaged her. He was a miserable bastard. An incorrigible drunk that her mother never had the heart to divorce. He used to hit AJ. He defiled her. He robbed her of the recognition of her beauty. She was a sight that was too gorgeous for even me to bear, yet her trauma often controlled her. If I had ever had half-the-mind, I would have shot that motherfucker for what he did to her. But that would have complicated everything, rather than solve any problem.

If there was ever a thing as a soul mate, then I suppose she would have been mine. And, on a humid summer day in August, I decided that the best farewell to AJ that I could think of was to get high as hell with her. We would smoke pot together from time to time, but I hadn’t ever done any other drug. I did a little research on Valium and I thought that it was safe enough for us to try. She had always expressed interest in doing drugs with me. So what better method of parting ways than to be utterly vulnerable together on a drug we had both never tried?

I walked to her house with a ziplock-bag full of the drugs in my pocket. I had to jump the fence into her backyard. Her parents were at work, but I had to sneak around or else I ran the risk of catching the attention of her neighbors. They would have ratted me out to her parents. Her parents didn’t really like me at all. To them, I was just some punk kid whose hair was too long. They thought I wasn’t worthy of her because she was smart and had a future and I was just some poor kid. They thought I was some sort of exotic attraction to AJ that she would soon outgrow. We would always just sneak around together. It made everything more fun, like our love was forbidden or something.

I sat on her patio in the backyard and stared into her outdoor underground pool. Her parents were more well off than mine. The $35 I had stolen from my mom was what A.J.’s mother made in an hour. It was a nice pool, but sort of unkempt. There would always be loose strands of leaves floating and maybe a few bugs who had succumbed to the elements and drowned. The water was crystal clear, despite those blemishes.

I sent her a text that I was in her backyard. Readily enough and without much hesitation, the backdoor porch had swung open. There she was: my love. Sometimes I would have to do double-takes when I caught glimpses of her, just to make sure she was real. Her hair was in a bun. She was wearing loose shorts and a tight Joy Division shirt that showed off the wondrous shape of her body. I have always been told that it was impolite to stare, but I must have missed the memo with AJ. Gladly she didn’t mind being admired.

Her resting face was always full of anguish. Though when she saw me and our eyes caught each other, her smile would radiate the world and could make even the grayest of skies emit the sun’s rays. Despite the beautiful August weather, it was her gaze that laid upon me that felt more intense than the sun.

“Hey!” I excitedly said, probably with the biggest of grins on my face. “I’ve got the stuff, do you want to do it now?”

“Sure, Marcus,” She said, grabbing my hand and taking me to the edge of the pool. She had a really cute way of saying my name. She pronounced it like “Mardkoose.” Like I said before, her accent was unapologetically Polish and just added to my admiration of her. She sat down at the edge of the pool, submerging her heavenly legs and her bare feet inside the water. “Join me!” She said with a small giggle. Of course I had to oblige. I took my off my shoes and socks, and I sat right beside her. She placed her hand on my lap and her head rested on my shoulder. The most serene scenes that I could ever possibly imagine were when I was able to spend my time with her.

I took out the bag and was hit with the spicy smell of sativa. The joints fell into my hand with grace, though the pill took some coaxing to get out. I held the pill in my hand. It’s blue color and its solid state was so intimidating. I placed it near the edge of the pool, along with the joints. I had an exacto knife in my pocket that I intended to use to split the pill with her. The pill was 10mg, probably enough to put a horse to sleep. I was afraid that if I had gotten two 10mg pills and gave one to her that, with her small frame, only 5’4,’’ maybe 120 lbs., she would get knocked out for like fifteen hours. So, I decided splitting it would be the most effective option. It wasn’t easy to split the pill open, but after some trouble, I was able to cut it in half. Some of the pill’s coating came off, looking like grains of baby blue sand right near the edge of the pool.

“Okay, here goes nothing, right?” I say as I give half of the of pill to my beloved AJ as if it were an offering.

“Right,” A.J. replied. She was very confident, calm, and collected in her response. I would like to think that the confidence came through her association with me and that I was able to give her the strength she had to conquer the world, but I don’t really know if all of that is true. She grabbed the pill with her left hand, refusing her right hand to leave my thigh.

We downed the pill together. She did it with ease. It was damn-near a graceful display. On the other hand, I struggled with mine. The jagged edge got stuck in my throat and I had to hit my chest a few times in order for it to go down. I joked with AJ, saying that I should have used the pool water to help it go down. She laughed and said something to the effect of the chlorine not being the worst thing I had put in my body.

It didn’t take long to feel the effects. Within the first thirty or forty minutes, I was already feeling very spacey. It’s a very powerful depressant. AJ was feeling it too. It was like a wave of nothingness descended upon us. Everything felt absent and vacant. It was too relaxing, honestly. It was uncomfortable to realize that I was not control of myself and that my inhibitions were so decreased that I had no desire to do anything or to be anything. It was extremely hard for me to breathe. I would like to think that it was symbolic of a death wish that we were beside a pool and that I had planned on smoking. We very easily could have drowned and if I had smoked it would have deprived me oxygen. Though it wasn’t necessarily symbolism for our self-destruction at all. We just wanted to get high together in a beautiful place. That beautiful place just happened to harbor danger. It was all worth it to sit beside AJ and to hear the water run against our legs as we swayed our tangled legs, entwined in the water.

“Marcus,” AJ murmured, absentmindedly. “I don’t know if we can keep seeing each other when I move.” Her words would have wounded me if I were sober. Rather, the words haunted me like a specter. Sometimes I hear those words, even today. They linger in my brain. Sometimes I wake up to the faint sound of her crying, even though there is no one in my room. Maybe the wind from the window reminds me of her, I don’t exactly know.

She was sobbing into my shoulder. I would have been crying too, but the pool had enough water. I wasn’t able to cry because I wasn’t myself anymore. I wasn’t the person that A.J. helped sprout with her admiration and I wasn’t normal because my brain was out of sync with my body.

“I’m really sorry, Marcus,” AJ sobbed into me. I can only assume that was what she said, because her accent and the Valium made her borderline unintelligible. “I still want you in my life. I will message you all the time and video chat. It’s just, such a transition that I am not prepared for.”

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Is what I would have said, if I hadn’t been absent within my own mind. But my words were never able to come out. I understood her fully. She wanted to move on and I was just an anchor. She wanted the freedom to experience New York and Columbia without worrying about me. I knew this day was coming. I just didn’t want to it to happen. Maybe that is where the drugs come in. I don’t really know. It’s hard to explain because it is hard to understand.

“Stop crying. You’re fine, dear.” I managed to somehow muster those words. I pulled her closer into my arms and she nuzzled her head into my chest. I could smell the flowered fragrance in her hair. Rather than being enamored by it, it replaced the air in my lungs as I struggled to breathe. Suddenly, I staggered to my feet. AJ slumped over to the cement as I was her only support. My arms and my legs were heavy. Moving was taxing, but I had found a different motivation.

“Do you want to go for a swim?” I asked with a massive slur. I pulled my shirt off and threw it at her, which aroused a giggle from my watery-eyed star-crossed lover. I kept my khaki shorts on as I sat down beside her and gently positioned myself in the pool. The water was shrill and cold. My breath was only coming in spurts now, but I was happy. I wanted to make the most out of these final moments with AJ.

“I don’t know about that, Marcus,” AJ said within a haze. I gently splashed the water at her, soaking her shirt and her shorts. She laughed again. I realized at that moment that her happiness was what I had been living for.

“Okay, I’m coming,” AJ conceded in what I could assume would have been a hurry had the drug not intoxicated her. She pulled up her shirt and threw it behind her, exposing her stomach and a black bra. I can still trace the outline of her body just from memory. I don’t know if I will ever become that great of a writer to truly convey her beauty.

I moved towards her as she was still sitting with her legs in the pool. When I got to her, her legs wrapped around me as I placed my hands on the small of her back. I gently moved her into the pool. She clutched tightly to me. Her arms were weak. Letting go of me, her foot slipped on pool floor. Her head suddenly submerged under the surface of the water, knocking her glasses off in the process. She would have probably frantically tried to make her way up above the water if she had the willpower. Luckily, I was there as I clutched her and pulled her back to the surface. I rotated her so her back was touching my chest. I tightly wrapped my arms around her and held her as we swayed against the pool wall in the water.

Within that pool on that humid day in August, AJ and I created the most beautiful scene where I clutched her and kissed her neck, assuring her that everything would be fine despite the fact that we both knew that it was out of my control to decide that. Within this story, I can create a timeline where that segment of our life just repeats and stretches itself over and over again throughout the rest of time, ignoring the bludgeon of reality.

Had the story of our love ended here, then it would have been perfect. But I have never been able to let go, not without digging my fingers into the skin. If the story ends here in the scene of the pool, the reader wouldn’t know that I showed up to her doorstep a few days later, only to find out she had boarded a plane to New York without saying goodbye. The reader wouldn’t know that my texts would go weeks without a reply. The reader wouldn’t know that I would call and call and call and she wouldn’t answer. The reader wouldn’t know that she only responded to me months later, telling me that she met a guy who reminded her a lot of me. The reader wouldn’t know that he broke her heart. The reader wouldn’t know that a few months later she fell for a marine who fucked her just so he could get his dick wet before deployment. The reader wouldn’t know that she would call me in the middle of the night sometimes, drunk off wine, and cry about how her most recent lover didn’t kiss her like I kissed her. The reader wouldn’t know that I haven’t talked to her in a year.

And now here I am, four years removed from you. Going to a university in the Midwest that is far from Columbia. What the reader wouldn’t know about me is I can just divide my life into segments of affinities that diminished and wilted. What the reader wouldn’t know about me is that I would met other people. I thought they had outshined you, but maybe that’s all due to recency. After sitting down and having to confront the very tangible feelings I had suppressed, I must say that even the image of her in my mind takes my breath away. One of these days, I’ll find the person that eclipses AJ. Though I am so grateful to have ever met her.

___________________________________________

Kendrick Keller

“Flight”

I felt like I was in a straight jacket. I had full range of movement with my arms, but the quick shallow breaths I was taking used up all of my finite attention. On the long black leather couch sits my sinking frame, next to it the TV remote so I can swap between Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and the Nickelodeon classic Chalk Zone. I do like the mask even though I have to remove my glasses to wear it. The clear rubber mask of the nebulizer forms to my face, covering my nose and mouth. The thing looks like a slimmed down gas mask so I can at least pretend that I’m a 90’s movie villain. The inch wide holes in the mask pour out a thin smoke. The vapor careens around my head as I try to breath in as much as possible while simultaneously blowing it from my vision so I can see the screen awash with color. The green band that wraps around my curly mass of low black hair keeps the mask seated on my face. In my small lap is the nebulizer itself, a grey box with tubes that stretch upwards towards me embed themselves in my mask. The nebulizer is loud so I try to get the breathing treatment over with because over its droning washing machine like sound, I can barely make out the TV. When the translucent fluid encased in the capsule connected to the underside of the mask grows low, the nebulizer begins to spurt. The droning becomes a loud stutter that pierces the ear. I had to reach my eleven-year-old hand around the capsule and shake it while attached to my face in hopes that it would stabilize. When the fluid was all either in the air or in my lungs, I could turn the device off. The end of the whirling sound was a relief, but the trade off was a jitter that reverberated through my skeleton.

I was a few months of freshman year of college and I was In the closet. I didn’t like dudes or anything. I was sitting in the very non metaphorical closet of my room in the 3rd floor of Bayliss hall. I’m on a chair that I put in there for situations exactly like this. A combination of button ups and superhero shirts hit me in the face, I could feel their full weight on my shoulders because while I can fit in this closet, that definitely wasn’t the school’s intent. There was no light in my closet, no smell, and I had very little feeling left in my legs after sitting here for twenty minutes. But a sense that did remain was the sound. Even after my disappearing act, I could still hear the group that was gallivanting around my room. There were about five people besides myself in my blue and white colored corner room at Western. I don’t know why but today that’s too much babble for me to handle without the aid of heavy anesthetics. I was fine with some of them; I was friends with the one girl and my roommate Josh isn’t always a total nuisance. Josh’s physical appearance can only be summed up as unoffensive; the guy has a medium height and a light muscle tone. I think of him as a Twinkie that used to have a gym membership before he called it quits to pursue music. The short girl in the green sweater with the high pitched voice was so loud that I felt claustrophobic, so ironically, when no one was looking I ducked in the only closed off, dark, confined space I could find. For the first few minutes I counted a few times and breathed deeply while looking up at the ceiling. Once the pressure in my eyes dispersed and I no longer had the urge to chug the gallon of Great Value bleach, I kept on the top shelf, I could relax. I read comic books on my phone for a good 15 minutes before making my exit after everyone left the room to look for me. While in the dark closet, I bent myself over trying to change my clothes. We have to go to the wind concert in an hour so I might as well be dressed. I swapped out of my Green Lantern t-shirt into a plain grey one and threw on a shaggy black hoodie. Maximum effort. Josh and two of his friends returned to the room soon after.

“There you are. We thought you might’ve been in Jake’s room,” Josh said after seeing my in my rotating chair.

“Nope. I was just in there.” I point to my temporary place of refuge.

“The closet? You were gone for like half an hour or something?”

“Yeah. Time flies when you’re having fun. And it’s been a blast,” I smugly say while making my way around the room to pick up the place. “I’m ready to go so tell the others. You found me.” I leave the room without saying another word. Sure I’m not fond of talking when it’s not needed, but mostly I just like how confused Josh gets when I leave without explanation.

The effects of the breathing treatment had begun in full force. My body’s small dark frame sat perfectly still, but internally it felt like my bones were doing the Monster Mash. It was late, so I moved off the couch and through the archway in my flat Texas home to get to the hallway. When I set my hand on the wooden white door of my room, every movement looked full of motion blur. To my eyes I pushed open the door two or three times before walking in and climbing the steel ladder of my bunk bed. The climb to the top takes five seconds, but the placement of each hand and foot on the cool bars of the bed frame is a slog that is as difficult as recovering from a bad tumble at soccer practice. Laying down once I reached the summit was easy. My chest cavity could have weighed sixty pounds for all I could tell. My ceiling fan had five blades, all blue. I left the switch up permanently, so it’s always in rotation. The lights may be off but I can still track it’s movements with my eyes. The fourth blade (or any other number between one and five depending on which you start with) was limp, the thing drug a few inches lower than the rest when the fan was on. To me the fan looked faster than it could possibly be moving, and that was wrong. The rectangular blades with their inward arched points speed up and slowed down as I watched. The darkness swirled around them and bits shifted in the night below me. I could see movement coming from my closet that lacked a door. I could hear the creaking of the fan every time it went a full rotation. Even count it down.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

I tried to close my eyes and sleep, but I can still hear the movement, I swore to christ it was speeding up.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

Knowing nothing was there, I should’ve stayed in bed, but I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to close my eyes and forget. I shut the tight enough to break skin. I waited for about five minutes then threw my sheets off of myself and climbed down. Flipping on the light switch, I looked around and up at the slow moving fan. Before getting back into bed I look at the closet again and refold my sheets and straighten the wine red comforter. Once I’m back in bed with the lights out, I still think about the fan, but it’s soothing now.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

I’m in the bathroom washing up before the concert in Brown Hall. My hands felt like  a thin sheet of grime sat between the air and my skin. I soaped and washed quickly. When all the sods fell into the drain, I turned up the heat in full. The water caused my hands to heat up. My palms were clean, so I kept them closed and balled them into fists. When I turned it off, my hands glowed a soft red. Closing them tightened the up my red/brown skin and even though it hurt, it felt better than before. I could think, I could focus. I left the restroom and after a few minutes of playing video games in the room, the five others and myself went outside to wait on the bus. Mark, a dark-skinned dude with messy hair and a white button up was the first to get off the bus at Brown, followed closely by Josh, the rest of the pose, with me watching the rear. Brown is a sprawling almost circular building that sits upon a hill next to the bus stop. We walk through the grass, pulling our jackets tight because of the brisk night air. When we entered, we were greeted with bright yellow lights and many creepily happy faces handing out flyers with the set list printed on them.

The group moved through the double doors into a large auditorium that had black wires dangling from the ceiling. The wires were so thin and light that they could be used for trapeze; it made this feel more like a circus than a concert. I bet it wouldn’t take me long to find a few professional clowns at WIU. Josh had to walk over to the corner of the room to get proof he attended the event. He stuck his face in a circular recognition device that showed a mirror image of himself on screen. He took his fingers and ran it through his blonde hair before smiling cheesily for the camera. After Josh gets his headshots, we trailed off to find our place among the desert of theater seats. We were seated near the back left of the room, no reason the mix too much in the crowd of students, parents, and professors. The concert was John Williams themed, the only reason I was there was to hear overworked music majors play live music from Jaws, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park. They open with the ladder, I’m excited by the deep sounds coating the entire room in an eerie melody that makes you squirm a tad in your seat. After all the metallic groans and lovely sounding whines, I could feel an energy welling up within myself. An energy that after the first fifteen minutes manifested itself in stark boredom.

My eyes darted around and I started thinking of the million things I’d rather do than sit here. My wandering eye eventually saw the double door behind me open and in walk Jess. Walnut brown hair at mid shoulder length, black glasses that push up her face and slightly magnify her eyes to be larger than life, and a shiny black dress that followed down her length to blend in with the dark floor. She looked wonderful and  was smiling bigger and brighter than the spotlights filling the stage in front of me. Seeing her turned me into the last guy on the floor after John McClain leaves a room bloody and without bullets. I was conscious but barely and I had no clue what I wanted or where I wanted to go. All this because Jess danced onto the scene clutching the arm of some dude with a blazer.

Falling to sleep took plenty of work, considering it’s usually a chore to quiet my brain without an induced panic. Unfortunately, my lack of consciousness didn’t lead to a lack of fear. I was burning. My entire being was sweating, when I looked down at my short legs, I could see my skin boiling over, acting almost like rubber in a microwave. The floor underneath was charred and red; looking black and cracked like the tops of a mountain. The terror inside climbed as I realised that I was incapable of movement and had a great pressure that forced me down. I tried to disobey the force, this gravity that compelled me to bend down. I was small and young, there was no way I was going to break free.

When I finally looked forwards, I could see my favorite heroes sprawled out in chains. They would be suspended and held up on a wall ripped straight from Satan’s chambers. Blood would run down their tour up multi colored outfits, open sores with flies buzzing around them. The screams I would hear didn’t necessarily match the voices of those yelling, all I could distinguish was the anguish in their voices. Just like every time, I’d cry. I’d weep and my tears would evoke a taste as memorable as liquorice. The heroes changed, this time the cast of Dragonball Z, last time the Power Rangers, once my family. When the pressure reaches its peak, it would break. I’d wake in my bed, sweltering under my sheets. Afraid enough to not wait around to turn on the lights this time. I grabbed my tv remote and sat on the floor. I’d need to be up to catch the bus in five hours and I clearly would not spend them sleeping.

I don’t care. I shouldn’t care. I’m better than caring. I’ve always been better.

The thoughts burst into my skull when sitting there watching Jess wrapped around this guy as she took her seat. I whipped my head forward at the speed of sound; she was not going to catch me watching.

I don’t care. I shouldn’t care. She doesn’t owe me anything.

I hadn’t known her longer than a month, but time with her was magnetic. Snapchatting her. Texting her. Flirting with her. I needed to move. My legs were bouncing. My upper body tingled while my breathing increased. The music got louder, the crescendo. My spine crawled up my back like a snake wiggling up my shoulders to bite through my neck. I couldn’t stop it. I knew we weren’t anything, yet I was reacting. My vision focused and unfocused. No one in the row was looking at me but if they did, they could tell I was disturbed. The decision was made, I couldn’t do this anymore. I needed to move.

I don’t care. I shouldn’t care

When the band was in full swing, arms flailing and brass flying, I stood and bolted. I left my skateboard in the back and it was the only thing I was used to at this point. I felt like I was in a game of paintball. Running to the objective so that my cowardice could be hidden for just a bit longer. I grabbed my board, and I fled out the doors and into the cold. I planted both legs on the board and realized I was either breathing too fast or not at all. Seeing her for some reason made me shit bricks. I shat so many bricks you could hire some immigrants and build a house. Then I could live in that house. I could live in my shit house and never go back out; it’d be rent free.

I had no plan and knew everyone would be annoyed when they looked for me. I didn’t even last until they played Star Wars. At least I was moving. I pushed my board for so long and so fast that the rusted bolts under my feet transferred the rough vibrations from the road up the length of my right leg. It was painful, but I would not stop pushing, because when I push I don’t think. Kick push. Kick push. Count the kicks.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

___________________________________________

Adam Norris

“Cheap Rubber Mulch”

The stage is lit to an unnecessary degree; on that, both parties agree. The recently erected stage is gratuitously flanked by several light trusses, courtesy of Fulton State University’s theatre department, that bathe the temporary platform in a flaxen brilliance, slicing the room in half: on one side, an apprehensive darkness, littered with hushed voices (How long is this supposed to go? This guy isn’t a teacher, right? Do you have a charger for an iPhone?), on the other side, the battlefield upon which the contenders are to compete.

Who are these competitors?  One is a five foot five undergrad by the name of Sharon Stiegler. The other, a five foot ten bachelor named Peter Tumlin who’s two years too late for a mid-life crisis and only just beginning to show the signs of male pattern baldness.

Five weeks prior, neither of them knew the other existed. Sharon attended Fulton State University. She majored in Biology. After only two semesters, she was elected an officer of the Fulton State environmental club. After her third, she was elected president. It’s been 4 weeks, 6 days, and several migraines since the commander-in-chief of Fulton State’s eco army popped up in Peter’s work email. Since that day, a string of correspondence has plagued him.

To Whom It May Concern,

Hello. My name is Sharon Stiegler, and I’m a student here at Fulton State and president of the Environmental club. I’m emailing you today because of an issue we have with the new playground that was just constructed on the west end of campus. We’re concerned about the rubber mulch, which studies have recently shown leach known carcinogens into our environment. We are attaching a recent study conducted by The University of Santiago in Spain. Thank you.

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

Mr. Tumlin,

Thank you for looking at the study, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean by “take it into consideration.” Does that mean the mulch will be replaced? We have compiled a list of locally sourced, environment-friendly alternatives. I’m attaching the word document to this email. Thank you.

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

That kind of shit went on for weeks.

Mr. Tumlin,

I still don’t understand why the amount of recognized carcinogens, the zinc, the lead, the VOC’s, and all the other nasty things that leach into the environment when that stuff decomposes (which it is proven to do BTW!) doesn’t alarm you! And it’s not just into the air, that stuff can get into ground water and cause all sorts of problems!

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

Mr. Tumlin,

I don’t think I was disrespectful in the last email at all, sir. I think you’re misconstruing respect with letting you disregard the evidence I’m presenting you. I’m attaching a page from a recent essay I wrote on carcinogens. PLEASE READ IT!!!

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

Mr. Tumlin,

Dr. Baisden has informed me that you have accepted our invitation. I look forward to meeting you and discussing this matter in a public forum.

-Sharon Stiegler

And so now here we are.

Sharon enters stage right, a confident young student eager to take a logic she can’t wrap her head around and thrust it into the brilliant light of this decently-attended-for-a-Friday-afternoon public debate, where she trusts that either her peers will help her make sense of this man, or that this man will be exposed for a fraud, a con artist, or at least a lousy University employee.

Peter enters stage left. He squints under the heavy wash of the PAR cans and mentally kicks himself for getting roped into this (Dr. Baisden is known to be an extremely persistent, notoriously headstrong woman). A student moderator, no doubt another member of the Fulton State Environmental Club, is already seated at his station. He taps his lapel mic, and the corresponding “thump” that comes from the speakers confirms that, indeed, it is on.

The champions spar for a redundant 12 rounds of prepared bullet points. Evidence is presented. Rhetoric is employed.  Scientific jargon is mispronounced. Credibility is questioned. Nevertheless, Sharon receives a front row thumbs-up from her faculty advisor, that wiry, old Dr. Baisden. The crowd does not notice the mispronunciation.

But enough of this narration, enough of this set up. Let’s tune in and see what these challengers are saying…

Fade In:

Int. Fulton State Auditorium – Night

PETER

Furthermore, Ms. Stiegler, had you approached me with questions concerning this matter, rather than some immature campaign where you assume that my office does not know what it is doing, I would have told you that your one study you’ve provided from the University of Santiago is one of many studies on this subject. Though it may shock you, Ms. Stiegler, and any of you students currently working on research projects, one Google search does not provide the full scope of any scientific issue. Here’s an even bigger shocker, guys: my office thoroughly researches all of our Go Green Initiatives before we ever implement them, and this includes the rubber mulch your club is so concerned over. Did you know, and I’m asking in a purely rhetorical fashion, of course, that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has conducted extensive studies on the effects of rubber mulch on the environment? So have similar agencies in New York, so have similar Agencies in California. Do you know what they determined, Ms. Stiegler? They determined that certain components in these rubber chips do contain allergens, and that if you or your child should have an allergic reaction, you should see your family doctor. They determined that, indeed, the high concentration of Zinc found in storm water runoff from artificial turfs like our rubber mulch can pose environmental risks. Like so many substances in our world, yes, rubber mulch contains known carcinogens, and therefore can introduce these carcinogens into the environment, but all of these studies I have referenced concluded that the amount of risk involved does not surpass the threshold of an acceptable cancer risk.

SHARON

Acceptable cancer risk? What the hell is that supposed to mean?

(The moderator is blind-sided with inner-turmoil. Should he say something about his colleague’s language and preserve the prestige of his title, or is this one of the cool college moments the tour guides told him about? Before he can make that split second decision, Peter beats him to the punch)

PETER

See now, that’s better. Questions. It means, disregarding the vulgarity, that scientists with much more schooling than you have determined that the risk of our rubber mulch causing cancer is no greater than that of the beer you’re all drinking at parties, or the cigarettes you’re all smoking on our smoke-free campus, or the UV radiation we all enjoy from our Sun. It means that scientists have already determined that you are wasting the time of everyone within this auditorium.

(A single chuckle comes from the back of the audience)

SHARON

So, basically, what you’re telling us is that, because the scientific consensus is less than 100%, more research is needed before any action could be taken? Surely, Mr. Tumlin, you must see the irony here?

PETER

You’re associating me with climate change deniers now, Ms. Stiegler? Surely you must see the irony in that.

SHARON

Yes I believe we’re discussing the same irony, Mr. Tumlin, only you seem to think you’re not the butt of this joke.

(The crowd erupts into raucous applause and whooping)

PETER

I will not be insulted in any forum, ma’am, public or private. I was made certain promises before I agreed to this event, the very first of which being that this discussion would be civil and productive. As for your strange accusation, I am, perhaps first and foremost, a lover of science. Real science. It’s been a passion of mine since junior high.  As I’m sure you can tell, that’s been a while. I have a Master of Science from Oregon State University, and I have been an outspoken critic of climate change deniers for years. For you to use your privileged position to stand on this stage and insinuate that I am not committed to my job, is…well it’s disappointing, and highly inappropriate.

MODERATOR

Perhaps if we returned to one of the prompts…let’s see… “How can an individual best mitigate-“

SHARON

No, I don’t think so. I’m not letting you off that easy, Mr. Tumlin.

(A collective hush spreads throughout the crowd)

PETER

Excuse me miss? I’d remind you, you are still expected to show respect-

SHARON

Explain to us how your lackadaisical response to this legitimate environmental concern is any different than a climate change denier’s bread and butter. In the face of good, reputable science, you are choosing to ignore- let’s say a significant probability – that your cheap rubber mulch leaches dangerous contaminants into the atmosphere, all for the sake of saving money. All for the sake of doubling down on a bad decision you already made. Please, Mr. Tumlin, with every ounce of due respect, please explain to me how you, the director of our school’s office of sustainability, are any better than any climate change denier.

(The crowd goes fucking nuts)

PETER

Are you kidding me?! Because I’m not making policy decisions here! We’re talking about some old recycled, repurposed rubber chips! For the ECD’s daycare! At the high school, right over there, people! You can go look at them! So again I repeat, this is NOT even a matter of YOU OR YOUR CLUB’S CONCERN. You know, I don’t know why I agreed to this. You’re clearly not here to for an informed, civilized, academic public forum, and I have no interest participating in this misguided pep rally any longer, good night every-

SHARON

Do you believe the Earth is heating up, Mr. Tumlin? You say you do, and I’m inclined to believe you, because, despite what you may believe, I think you seem like a very intelligent man. If you weren’t so stubborn, we might even get along. I mean, not in a creepy way. I’m 20, and you’re…but what I’m saying is, I mean what I’m asking is, do you really believe this place is going to burn? Do you believe, as I do, that future generations are fucked? Because if you do, and you recognize the big problem, I am here to tell you sir, those rubber chips over there, what you’ve done here, what you’re refusing to even consider doing…this is the little problem. This is symptomatic. It is a symptom of the big problem you claim to be an outspoken critic of. This behavior, this ideology… it takes a population to ruin this planet for posterity, but it takes just one person to get the ball rolling. If nothing else, you are one of millions of hands willingly pushing this ball along. What’s going to be your legacy, Mr. Tumlin? What will it say on your tombstone? Don’t blame me,I wasn’t the only one? Don’t blame me, I always did my job, and besides, the Connecticut Department of Whatever assured me that the risk of cancer was acceptable? Don’t blame me, my lazy response to environmental concerns was no worse than most, and better than many? Do you feel like you’re sustaining anything other than your salary, Mr. Tumlin?

PETER

Future generations are, as you say it, are fucked…because of our Rubber Mulch? That’s your assessment.

SHARON

In part?  Absolutely.

PETER

So now I’m a murderer as well as a climate change denier?

SHARON

Is there a difference?

PETER

Sure. One’s not murdering people.

SHARON

That’s rich. You claim to be an ally of environmentalists the world over, and you don’t see a connection between the victims of an insufficient response to the climate crisis, and the forces behind that insufficient response? When the seas rise, and the coast lines erode, you don’t think any guilt lies with the generations past who said no, those ice caps are fine, no those maps are here to stay?! I call bullshit, sir; do you not have any sympathy for people of the future?!

PETER

PEOPLE OF THE FUTURE?! I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE PEOPLE LIVING RIGHT NOW!!! I have a job. It’s a good job, and it’s challenging, and it’s rewarding. My office, our initiatives, we do a ton of good on this campus. For the environment.  And for the school. You know why your tuition has been stable? You know why you enjoy a beautiful campus, with efficient, innovative technology? It’s because my office does a damn good job promoting the welfare of this school and its student body.

But yeah, Ms.  Stiegler. Can I call you Sharon? Might as well, this thing has gone as horribly as it could have, I see you all with your parents’ phones out…yeah. If you want me to be honest, I don’t really give a shit about the people on this planet right now, and I don’t really give a shit about the people still to come. And I don’t have to. That’s not required of me by this university, or anything else, or anyone else. At the end of the day, I’m looking out for myself, just like everybody else, whether they want to bullshit about altruism and community and work themselves and everyone who’s gullible enough to believe them into some grand circle-jerk, or they’re like me, and they just want to do their fucking job, and do a damn good job at their fucking job, and then go home, and have a beer and watch some television, and not be harassed by some temporal world savior. I told you I’m a lover of science. I know where this is headed. You might even say I know it better than most. Life on this Earth, as we know it, is not sustainable in the long term, not with our species, not with our habits, not with our instincts. Our nature and this planet’s nature are opposed, and we are not on the winning side. Not in the long term of this universe, anyways, and there’s nothing that this office can do about that. It’s going to end. We’re going to choke to death on our own emissions! Yes! We’re going to flood the earth, you bet! We’re going to go crazy in little fucking rooms counting numbers and writing stories and coming up with holidays while the planet burns, sure! And humanity will go to its grave complaining about gas prices and the weather, and just before we all disappear up our own asshole, people like me will get to say “Ha! Told you so! Now let me die in peace!”

So if my time here at Fulton State is coming to a close, and after this fun event, I do believe it is, let me leave you with some knowledge…

There are people suffering, guys. I mean right now. Horrible, terrible suffering. Starvation. Oppression. Heartbreak. There were people suffering yesterday, there’ll be suffering tomorrow. I’m suffering a little right now. I’ve suffered worse. I’ll suffer worse. And at no point during my suffering, or anybody else’s suffering that’s continued without ceasing for the entirety of recorded history, has Sharon Stiegler, college sophomore, public speaker extraordinaire, or any other member of the Fulton State Ecological Society, jumped in to save the day! No one has ever come to ease our suffering! No one ever started a Gofundme! I never heard about any benefit concerts! Shit I can’t even remember getting any words of encouragement or moral support! Tell me Sharon, are future generations going to finally develop that time machine and retroactively make my life easier, save me from cruelty and anguish?

You stand there and act as if victims of tomorrow are any more important than victims of today or victims of yesterday, because what? Because notions of the future are just inherently cool? Because future suffering holds more value than current suffering? The generations that are already here starve and suffer and find themselves pummeled with injustice, but that’s a lost cause, let’s save the coastlines’ future, right? Let’s tell Peter he needs to get in line and change out the mulch on a playground, and if he doesn’t, well we’ll just put him on display for everyone to come see the devil, come see this man who would dare look in the face of something in this universe that might kill something else in this universe, and be thoroughly unsurprised, unimpressed, and uninterested!  Well if what you’ve said is true, Sharon, if my choice of goddamn rubber mulch is the momentum that gets the gears turning, that ignites the engine of abuse and torment, the seed of some trans-generational suffering, well then I say LET ‘EM SUFFER FOLKS!

MODERATOR

…Err-And that’s going to be all the time we have this evening, folks! On behalf of the Environmental Club, I want to thank everyone for coming out, and don’t forget, tomorrow is Earth Day! Let’s all find ways to save the planet guys, thanks and good night!

END SCENE

As the crowd disperses, additional club members hand out 6×8 flyers, which advertise the following day’s activities, as well as the remaining semester’s calendar. Peter has already stormed out of the auditorium, and is on his way to his office to pack his things. He’s going to beat this thing to the punch.  He’s going to resign. He’s going to move. He hasn’t decided where.

Sharon stands with a cluster of her most trusted classmates and discusses the alarming turn the evening has taken. All in all, she says to her confidants, the forum went well, and she has done what she meant to do: expose injustice. She had been in the right all along, she reflects, but she didn’t know just how much of a head case that man really was.

A hand on her shoulder interrupts her train of thought, and she turns to find a warm hug from her hero, Dr. Baisden, who tells her that she was just so good. The two of them walk out into the atrium together, discussing the debate. No one in the remaining congregation asks what’s going to happen with the rubber chips. Most of them assume it’s now going to be taken care of by someone, and a few even forget why they were there.

___________________________________________

Angelique Herrera

“Hush Hush”

The dimly lit chandelier casts a shadow against the stark white vanity and matching dresser, pushed against one of the egg-shell colored walls. Beneath the soft light, two men are splayed across a king-sized bed. Everything is silent, except for the sounds of the men gasping for breath. They face each other, both lying on their sides; only a black silk sheet covering the two of them. The Hispanic man, with dark, sharp features reaches out and caresses the caucasian man’s smooth, angelic-like face,  running his long fingers throughout the man’s golden curls.

“Marc,” the Caucasian man says in a sultry voice, as he leans into Marc’s touch.

“Yes, Eric?” Marc says, as a slight grin appears at the corner of his mouth.

“Why does time go by so quickly when we’re together, but feels eternal at the same time?”

Marc chuckles slightly at how cheesy Eric’s words sounded, “It’s because the time we have with each other is usually limited. Honestly, It’s refreshing being able to get a full night together. I do cherish these special moments with you Eric.” He winks.

“I do too Marc,” He sighed, turning slightly red. “I just wish we didn’t have to freaking hide anymore.”

“Baby, you know we can’t bring this out in the open yet.”

“Why not? Don’t you think five years has been long enough?” Frustration slowly building up in his voice.

“Cálmate, cálmate. How would that look on me Eric? I’m married. I’ve been married for seven years, and with the same woman for fifteen. One of your good friends I may add.”

Eric blushed shamefully at his remark.

“Plus baby, I’m up for district attorney next year. I can’t have drama come out of the woodwork. The voters would have an uproar if they found out I’m having an affair, especially if they found out it was with a man.”

“I know, I know. I’m just tired of keeping everything a secret. I’m tired of the lies. What kind of person does it make me, being her friend, yet in love and sleeping with you.  Why can’t you just ask her for a divorce? You’re unhappy, it would make the most sense.” Eric looked Marc in the eyes pleadingly.

“Eric, it’s not that simple,” Hurt flickered in Eric’s eyes, as Marc continued to speak. “Now stop talking about this mess, and let’s make the most of this night.” His eyes lowered, looking lustfully at the nape of Eric’s neck. He leaned in, placing rough kisses down his neck.

Eric let out a groan, “Fine, but this conversation isn’t going to go away. It will continue later”  He closed his eyes, allowing Marc to continue kissing down his neck. They both slowly sink back into the mattress, their hands roaming once again.

A faint clicking sound made its way throughout the house.

“Marc,” Eric jerks suddenly, whispering, “Did you hear something?”

Marc chuckles, “Relax mi guerito, you know Alicia is away on a girls trip. Your anxiety is getting to you. You’re starting to hear things loco.”

“You’re-you’re probably right, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m so jumpy tonight. I might have had one too many glasses of wine earlier”

Marc presses his pointer finger against Eric’s pouty lips, “Shhh mi angelito, enough talking.” He grabs his chin, gently tugging him closer. Their bodies medling together, as if they were matching puzzle pieces. Their lips touching ever so slightly.

A female voice suddenly rings out, “Marc?  Mi novio, are you here?”

The door swings open, bright white lights turning on suddenly. Too fast for either men to react quickly enough.

“Marc?” Alicia says in a confused voice. Her eyes focus on the king-sized bed in front of her; registering what’s actually going on. Her gaze drifting towards Marc, then switching to Eric. Her mouth falls open in disbelief as she stumbles backwards. She leans against the wooden door, trying to regain her balance.

Fuck.” Marc thinks to himself, shaking his head slightly.

“Alicia,” Marc says in quiet, hesitant voice, “it’s not what it looks like preciosa.”

He begins to get up from the bed, his hands out in front of him. Alicia pushes herself off of the wall, throwing her fists down to her sides.

“Sit the FUCK down, Marc! Are you seriously trying to tell me that THIS,” She waves her finger at Marc and then to Eric. “Isn’t what it looks like. You’re CHEATING on me, with a fucking DUDE for Christ’s sake!”

He sighs, “Baby. I can explain, if you just could calm down.”

‘Cálmate? Mi Cálmate? Ay dios mío! We’ve been together for fifteen years, and married for goddamn seven years! I just caught you cheating on me with your best friend, and you’re telling me to calm down? HOW DARE YOU!” Alicia then looks at Eric, “And you! Pinche cochino, I fucking trusted you, Eric! I thought we were friends. We have dinner every goddamn Tuesday; you were in our wedding for Christ’s sakes!” She lets out a hysterical laugh,  “But you’re sleeping with my husband?  How could you do that to me? All this time I’ve been worrying about him going off and cheating with another woman, but he’s over here sleeping with dudes now too! Damn bastard!”

Eric’s face turns stark white, stammering, “A-alicia, I’m so sorry. We just didn’t know how to tell you. I never meant to hurt you.”

“Tell me?” She scoffs. “Bullshit. Who the hell knows how long you two have been fucking behind my back.”

She looks over at Marc once again.“Marc, did our marriage seriously mean nothing to you? If you were unhappy why didn’t you just say something. Instead, you fuck our friend. Can you even look me in the eyes and show me an ounce of remorse for this shit?”

He groans in annoyance, totally over the entire situation.

“Look Alicia, I’m sorry…that you caught us. You were supposed to be away”

Alicia screams in frustration, “My flight got cancelled you narcissistic bastard! You do this and can’t even apologise? Do you even care how much this hurts me? God you’re sick! Four times you cheated on me! FOUR TIMES!”

She begins shaking her head furiously, her black curls springing in every direction. Fury forming behind her caramel colored eyes. She reaches down, pulling off her shiny, black, stiletto heel. Kicking the other one across the floor. She clenches the heel tightly, her petite fingers turning white at the knuckles. Her eyes narrowing in on Marc.

“Y-you,” she says through clenched teeth, “You are going to pay for this. I loved you despite all the affairs, the long hours at the office, the cold shoulder, not wanting kids, not wanting to have sex. I loved you through all that and this is what happens! I’m fucking done! No mas!”

“Wait, Marc has been sleeping with other women too?” Eric thinks to himself, his blood boiling slightly.

She lunged at Marc, swinging the shoe towards his head. Screams gurgling from her throat as her eyes glaze over, becoming animalistic.  He jumps backwards, the tip of the stiletto grazing his nose.A stinging sensation shoots through his face; he grabs his nose, as he falls backwards onto the bed. Eric starts to scream, lifting the sheets over his face to protect himself.  Screaming, “Alicia, please calm down!”

“Shut the hell up you homewrecker!”

“Alicia!” Marc screams, “ Are you loca!? What are you trying to do, kill me?”

She looks at him, then began chuckling slightly.Realization settling on her face. She looks down at the wooden floor, her breath hitching, as she lets the heel slip from her fingers. Everyone’s eyes focusing on the heel as it falls to the floor. The shoe making a small clunk as it makes contact with the wood.

“You know what, I could be crazy. But…you know, you’re just not worth it anymore.” She pauses slightly. “B-both of you,Get the fuck out of my house.”

Anger begins to overcome Marc, as he sneers, “This is my house puta, my job is what pays for most of this shit in here. You used my money to buy this furniture, all those name brand clothes in your walk in closet, and those fucking Coach bags of yours.”

Eric peeks out from under the covers, slowly putting the sheets down. He whispers, “Marc, I think we should probably leave.” As he thinks guiltily to himself, “This never would have happened, if Marc would have told her earlier on. Instead of keeping me as a closet freak. Or if I never got in between them, but apparently he’s been lying to us both. God, I love him though…”

“No Eric. This is my house. If you want to scram, fine. I ain’t leaving though”

“Actually Marc, this is OUR house. You may have bought things, but don’t act like you cutting the checks for things, wasn’t just a way to shut me up. I may have designer labels, but that’s besides the point. We’re married, and your money is my money. I married you before you even had money. I’m tired of you undermining me. I work. I work very hard. I know I didn’t go to law school like you, but I work more days than your lazy ass does.”

“Oh please woman, you’re just a high school English teacher.”

“I may be “just a teacher”, but I’m more literate than you’ll ever be.”

“Again, this is my house. Your salary wouldn’t even cover the electricity costs in this house.”

Alicia threw her head back and cackled.

“Let me tell you something idiot, this house is already paid off. The lease is co-signed under both of our names, so technically, it is mine regardless of whom has paid it. Also, I want a fucking divorce Marc. I’ll enjoy seeing how “sorry” your ass is going to be when we’re both standing in front of a judge, discussing who gets what. I’m more than sure that the judge will empathize with a distressed wife, who just got cheated on AGAIN, by her unloving husband. Her husband who happens to be running for district attorney, and who happens to now be gay,” She sighs.  “Now, both of you. Get. The. Fuck. Out. Of. My. House,” She stares Eric directly in his wide, blue eyes as she says, “Before I call the cops on his ass.”

“I’ll go.” Eric says quickly.

“No,” Marc says, “we both can go finish the night elsewhere.”

“Is this guy seriously just thinking about sex right now?” Eric thinks angrily.

“Good, grab your shit and get out. You have five minutes before I call the huda”, Alicia says, as she walks out the door and down the wooden staircase.

Eric flies up from the bed, frantically searching for his clothes. Pulling them on as he finds each piece. “Marc, I’m so sorry. I ruined your marriage, and I hurt someone who was my friend. We shouldn’t have kept this a secret for so long”

“Don’t worry about it, that bitch isn’t going to get shit.”

“Stop calling her that.”

“What you’re defending her now? After all this secrecy, and sneaking around. I’m finally free of her, we can be together now.”

“Now you want to be together?  I asked you to leave her numerous freaking times. Even earlier today, you said it would cause too much drama if you did. But, she just threatened to take all this to court and you didn’t even bat a fucking eye! You cheated on her with me, and other people too. You weren’t going to tell me that one were you asshole? You could have prevented this shit though, but no. You wanted to keep me a secret. Your dirty little gay secret, huh? The only reason you’re leaving now is because she found out about it. If you really “loved me”, you would have ended things with her two years ago.” He stammers, “I-i don’t think I want this anymore. I know I was wrong on my part, but you’re wrong on all parts.”

“Are you fucking serious? You want to leave me now? What the fuck. Ha, fine. Leave. You and her will both come crawling back to me sooner or later.” He sneers.

“You know what Marc, Alicia is right. You are a narcissistic bastard. You only care about yourself, and boning”

Marc lets out a roar, his tanned arm cocking back. He swings at Eric, nailing him right in his left eye socket. Eric falls to the ground screaming, while holding a hand to his eye. Bruising and swelling begin forming around the area he was hit.

Alicia runs back up the stairs. Screaming, “What the fuck is going on?”

Marc turns and faces the doorway where Alicia is standing, “This bitch wants to leave me too, but he got what he deserved. You’re lucky you aren’t a dude too.” He smirks.

Eric, still holding his eye, inches towards one of the fallen heels that Alicia had thrown aside earlier. He looks up to see Alicia watching him carefully. He puts a finger to his lips, signaling her to hush and not give anything away. He grasps the top of the heel firmly in his right hand. Silently standing up.

“Hey, Asshole.” Eric says tauntingly.

“You shouldn’t have anything to say to me, seeing how I just beat your ass.” Marc says, as he turns around to look at Eric.

As Marc turns, Eric swings the stiletto down. The heel landing directly into Marc’s right eyeball. His eyeball pops and he screams violently, as blood begins spurting from his eyeball. The heel lodging itself deeper into his eye socket. He falls to the floor, curling up into a fetal position. Blood spurting in multiple directions, pooling onto the wooden flooring.

He screams hysterically, “You are sick!” He clutches his face, his breath hitching “You ruined my FUCKING EYE!” Sobbing, he yells out once more, “Alicia, don’t just fucking stand there. Call 911! Do you want me to die? I’m your husband!” He cries.

“An eye for an eye you bastard. I’ll call an ambulance for you. I am going to claim this incident as self-defense though, and I’m sure your soon to be ex-wife will back up my story.” He looks at Alicia, “I’m sorry for sleeping with your husband, he fed us both lies. I know this doesn’t make up for it, but I do sincerely apologize.” He then pulls out his phone to dial 911.

Her gaze towards the pool of blood breaks, looking up at Eric.

“ First of all, I don’t accept your apology. I will not be backing anyone up. You cochinos are on your own,  I’ll say what I saw but that’s that. Now get the hell out of my house, and wait outside for the cops.” She looks over at Marc, “This isn’t even all you deserve. You’re lucky. Get the hell up off of the floor and get out of my house, you’re bleeding all over my floor. The ambulance should be coming.”

Marc sobs, as he attempts to get off of the floor. Grabbing a sheet and putting it around the heel, to prevent the blood from spurting any further. He finally gets up, and hobbles towards the stairs. She watches both men as they walk down the stairs, following behind shortly.They all begin to patiently wait for the ambulance. Both the ambulance, and the police showed up to the scene of the events. The first person to show up to the scene, was an officer by the name of Officer Weathers. He was a younger black man, average build, and a stern face. He cautiously approached the three by the front steps. Taken aback by the distraught looking woman, the half-naked white man, and the hispanic man, covered in blood. With a heel protruding from his eyeball.

“Hello all, my name is Officer Weathers. I’ve come to take statements, about the ordeal that’s happened here tonight.” The officer looks to Marc, “Sir, the ambulance is on its way. Are you light-headed? I’d like to collect your statement, before the medic arrives. If possible. Please sit down on the steps if you’re more comfortable. Meanwhile, the other two can stand over there.”

He points to a tree, about fifteen feet away. Eric and Alicia make their way over to the tree. Marc then gives the officer his perspective on what happened.

“Officer, Eric and I were having an affair. We have been on the low for years, but my wife and I have not been happy for a long long time. Yes, I know it was wrong. I just couldn’t stay away from Eric, he’s the love of my life. My wife was very angry, she threatened my life, my job, and to take away my house. After that, Eric threatened to leave me too. I had a mental break, and black-out. He said I punched him, but all I remember is the way his eyes looked before he swung the heel down. It was awful officer.”

“Sir, I have all the information I need from you. Thank you. The ambulance is pulling up now.”

The ambulance pulled into the driveway and, Marc was taken to the hospital immediately. Officer Weathers signaled Eric over to give his side of the story.

“Sir, please tell me your perspective on the events that transpired today.”

“Yes officer. So, today Marc and I wanted a night to ourselves. His wife was out of town, and we were having an affair. She ended up coming home, without our knowledge and caught us. She was very upset, and she had every right to be. They did end up getting into a verbal argument over the house, but nothing terrible. She almost went after Marc, but regained her composure. She told us to leave, and I got my stuff to leave. Marc however, was not happy about it. Him and I got into a heated discussion over our relationship. I told him that he could have prevented all of this, and I told him I no longer wanted to be with him. He got very angry, and knocked me right in my eye. Then he made a snarky comment about how Alicia and I going to come crawling back to him.”

“Sir, tell me about the heel in his eye.”

“Well officer, he hit me really hard. I felt defenseless, so I picked up the heel and swung at him. It got stuck in his eye. It was a spur of the moment thing.”

“Okay sir, I have all the information needed from you. Go back to where you were standing, and tell the Mrs. to come give her statement.

Eric walks over, and Alicia soon walks to where the officer is standing.

“Ma’am please tell me your side of the story.”

“Okay, so I was supposed to be going on a trip. My flight was cancelled, so I came home. When I got here, I found my husband in bed with one of our good friends. I was furious, and almost hit Marc. I didn’t though, I was in shock. Like, I knew we weren’t happy but I never thought he would be sleeping with a man…” Her voice breaks slightly.

“My apologies ma’am, but keep going.”

“Well we got into an argument over the house, and I threatened him with court. His responses were vain of course, he’s diagnosed with narcissism. I told them to leave then walked downstairs, only to come back minutes later. I heard a scream, and Eric was on the floor when I got up there. Marc had punched him, and then was laughing about it. He said I was lucky to be a woman, or I would have ended up the same. Anyways, that’s when I noticed Eric going for the heel. He like, put his finger to his mouth to tell me to almost keep it hush hush. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening sir, but then in like moments. A shoe was in Marc’s eye. I stood there shocked. Now, you’re here.”

“Well ma’am, after collecting everyone’s statements; I will not be putting you under arrest. However, I will be arresting your husband with aggravated battery. He may serve jail time, but there’s a possibility of bail if you want him out.”

“He can rot in there for all I care. I’ll be serving him divorce papers whether or not he’s in jail.” She thought to herself briefly.

“I will be arresting Eric as well, with a higher charge.”

She nodded at the officer, watching him walk over to Eric.

“Sir,” The officer said. “Can you please tell me your last name?”

“Yes, it’s Edwards.”

“Alright, thank you. Eric Edwards, turn around and put your hands on your back.”

“Wait…what? No!” Eric steps back.

“Sir, turn around and put your hands behind your back. You’re being arrested for attempted involuntary manslaughter.”

“No! No! He deserves to be arrested, not me!

The officer proceeds to detain Eric, finally getting him in the squad car. Officer Weathers then comes back over to Alicia, “You have a good night Miss.”

“Thank you officer.”

The squad car exited her property, and Alicia made her way back inside. She climbed up the wooden staircase slowly. Walking towards her bedroom door, she pushed the door open gently. Her eyes fixated on the tousled bed in front of her. She sighed loudly, “Great, they just had to screw in the bed I sleep in. Now I’m going to have to burn the sheets and mattress.”

She tries to laugh at the joke she made, but instead, a sob escapes her throat. Her body begins to convulse. She falls to the floor, landing in the pool of Marc’s blood. Sobs erupting from her throat, as she convulses uncontrollably. Blood staining her hair and skin. Her sobs finally quiet down,and the shaking ceases. She puts her fingers up to her mouth, whispering to herself, “Hush hush Alicia, hush hush.”

___________________________________________

Brandon Williams

“end measured mile”

It’s probably eight o’clock or so when the van rumbles to a stop and the overhead light comes on like a dim yellow alarm. Everyone’s blinking against it, staggering out of their seats and stretching, freed from the too-tight seatbelts, the stale air conditioning and the ever-present scent of Cheez-Its. Sue stays bundled up in the old army blanket, blinking blearily at the intrusion of noise and the sudden cessation of motion.

The sliding door just past the top of her head opens, sending her backpack thumping to the asphalt along with a half-eaten packet of Starburst. “Come on, girlie,” Dad says, patting her on the shoulder. He’s talking too loud, ears deadened by twelve hours on the road.

Sue just squeezes her eyes shut more tightly. The sooner she gets up, the sooner she has to help unpack.

All too quickly she finds herself making the weary trek to the back of the van to grab the nearest suitcase, her hair floating free with static, the army blanket draped over one shoulder like a half-hearted toga. The driveway is on a steep incline from the road, ending at the big white door of the garage. Sometimes she feels like the walnuts that fall from the huge, crabbed tree at the top of the hill, rolling down to where Grandad has to sweep them off the front walk. No matter where she goes, she rolls back here.

She falls into the line of suitcases trundling towards the front door and watches from the rear as it opens, dutifully stepping forward one vacated space at a time, eventually taking her place at the front. Her turn to hug, pat on the back, make awkward noises in her throat when she can’t take a compliment, can’t think of anything pertinent to say about the fact she’s taller (she’s not) or prettier (nope) or maybe wider, if Grandad makes a joking jab (but it’s funny because it’s true).

“How was your trip?” Nanny asks, putting her long arms around Sue. Nanny, tall and frail and beautiful, like a stilt-legged bird.

“Long,” Sue says.

“Never gets any shorter, does it,” Nanny says with a small laugh. She pulls back and cups Sue’s cheek, piano fingers dry and cool. “Glad you could make it, hon.”

Sue just smiles and gently pulls free.

Then Nanny and Grandad gather up to make a fuss over Benji; and look how tall he’s gotten, how broad his shoulders are, he’ll be shaving soon and, goodness, they heard he made the track team. Benji soaks it up because he’s conventionally attractive and athletic and accomplished and fits in his skin, it’s tailormade.

Sue is ninety-percent sure she doesn’t hate him for that.

She doesn’t miss how all this is happening in the middle of the foyer. Sue is on the right edge and Mom stands on the left and Dad, Benji, Grandad and Nanny all huddle between, talking over each other, providing a barrier. Because this is the distance proscribed by this summer’s cold war. Nobody ever said, ‘keep Sue and Mom apart’. Nobody had to; there’s ice there, forming crystals in the gap, and they all feel it.

Sue turns and pulls her suitcase away.

Her room is the laundry room. Once upon a time she and Benji had shared the kids’ room, but that was before high school, before bras and blemishes and all the other plagues of puberty. ‘A growing girl needs her own space,’ Nanny had said, and if that space is mostly taken up by a washer and dryer, well, Sue isn’t that picky. Besides, she likes the way it smells: Tide and clean cotton and dryer sheets. Her airbed is wedged against the opposite wall, already fitted with sheets and a pillow. There’s a small bathroom right across the tiny hall.

She’s brushing her teeth when she looks directly into her own reflection and freezes, toothbrush prickly against her gums. She has the sensation that she’s looking through a window, not a mirror, and another Sue is staring back at her, caught in the same moment. For a long, shuddering second, she’s hesitant to move because the reflection might not move the same way. And what would that mean?

It’s a child’s thought, something long leftover from the days when she would peek around the doorframe, pretending the silvery sheen crouched above the sink was a window to another world. Now here she is, in front of the same mirror; fully formed, fully reflected. No magic, no shades of Mirror-Sue. Just her, facing herself and a future she can’t seem to find the shape of.

It’s always just her.

She goes back into her room and collapses onto the air mattress with a rubbery squelch. Getting comfortable always sounds like someone molesting a balloon. She reaches over into her backpack and pulls out the letter, with its creased edges and faraway zip code. 90095—California. The same country but still so distant—so different—from Michigan, from Arkansas. She tugs it out of the envelope just enough to see the words that make her heart race.

You have been accepted

She tucks it back away.

The next morning is the first day of vacation, always set aside as the laziest day. Sue eats a quick breakfast of cereal, after which there isn’t much to do except wait for lunch. Benji is still sleeping in the kids’ room, so the Sega is off limits. She doesn’t feel like watching TV; she does plenty of that at home.

At the back of the dining room is the sliding door to the second-story deck. She steps out into a day just beginning to hit the first edge of summer heat; dew sits heavy on the thick-bladed grass below, the planks of the deck moist beneath her bare feet. Two clear acres stretch out and down to the drop off at the far edge where the creek cuts through the red clay and winnows past the trees dotting the high bank. Across that shallow ribbon of water is a fence on the other bank, backed by high grass. The Ozarks roll above it all, estival greens rising and falling like the wooded humps of whales breaching on that misty horizon.

She descends the creaky wooden steps to the lawn. Down near the edge of the creek is a shady oak tree with a trampoline beneath it. Per usual, she tires of jumping within fifteen minutes. She’s lying on her back enjoying the dappled light winking through the shifting leaves when Benji finds her. The trampoline is kind of a first day tradition.

He pulls off his shoes and rolls onto glossy black mat. “Mom said she’s going shopping with Nanny, so we’re on our own for lunch,” he announces.

“Cool,” Sue says, which it isn’t, really, but she doesn’t feel like talking.

Benji always feels like talking. “So are you still all brooding and stuff?”

“Shut up, Benji.”

“What? I’m just asking,” he retorts in a tone that’s nothing close to innocent. “Unless you’re just going to hate Mom forever and still stay.”

“Seriously?” Sue kicks out blindly with one foot and connects with what feels like Benji’s midsection, getting an indignant squawk for her effort. “Go. Away.”

“It’s my trampoline, too!”

“No, it isn’t, it belongs to the neighbors.”

“Well, I was there when they said we could use it,” Benji states, like that’s the ultimate argument.

Sue sighs and rolls over, intent on ignoring him.

“I just wish you’d do something,” Benji mutters. “You and Mom are making things so weird.”

She doesn’t know what he’s complaining about. He’s the golden boy—always has been, always will be—and if Mom ignores Sue from now on then he’ll get that much more attention.

But it’s hard to push him away, here on the trampoline. A thousand echoes of their younger selves flit through memory. Benji isn’t Sue’s enemy, and she misses the days when the gap between younger brother and older sister hadn’t seemed so wide and meaningful. Now she’s grown up (yeah, right), and he’s waiting to catch up.

“Maybe you should talk to her,” Benji suggests. He makes it sound that easy because it would be, for him.

“She doesn’t listen,” Sue tells him.

“You haven’t tried.” Benji sits on crossed legs, tearing up a fallen leaf into tiny green shreds. He shrugs uncomfortably. “This just sucks, you know?”

She knows.

Dad shows up on the ATV about twenty minutes later. The noise of the engine cuts through the peaceful morning like a buzzsaw; Sue can track his progress without opening her eyes. He pulls up alongside the trampoline and kills the engine.

“You guys been down to the creek yet?” he asks. He looks them over. “You’re still dry, so come on. Let’s see how it’s doing this year.”

Dad doesn’t own the property or the creek, but he still treats it like it’s his own pet project, noting slight changes in its course year by year. Since Nanny and Grandad moved here from the old house the creek has eaten away a good twenty feet off the end of their yard. It’s never safe to walk right up to the edge of the ravine. Sue and Benji follow Dad around to the narrow trail that cuts through the tall grass, meandering down to the creek bed.

Benji and Dad start skipping rocks; it takes about a minute for it to become a competition. Sue finds a spot that’s deep enough for her to sit in and settles there with the water lapping up and down between her chest and stomach. She turns over the smooth rocks, watching tiny minnows scatter and the small clouds of mud get swept away. No crawdads so far.

Once, she found an arrowhead mixed in among all the other rocks. It was a lustrous, speckled red-brown, its edges long since dulled with age. She had wondered if anyone would find something left from her after she was dead. If they did, it wouldn’t be as cool as an arrowhead. ‘Someone wrote ‘SUE’ on this rock,’ they would say in that distant future, ‘but we don’t think they were important.’

She’d scared Benji with the arrowhead, telling him it was haunted by an Indian ghost and then hiding it under his pillow that night. He’s too old for that to work anymore, but she feels like she might have been half right. Not because ghosts are real, but the person who had made the arrowhead had been, once, and sort of still is. The arrowhead sits at the bottom of a drawer in Sue’s room, an extant piece of a life long since lived.

So, maybe everything is haunted, because everything has been touched by someone. And everyone leaves pieces of themselves behind, even though they don’t mean to. The past never fully fades away. It’s a sea of ghosts, beneath the map.

“Sue!” Dad yells, breaking her from her thoughts. “We’re going back for lunch.”

She stands and walks heavily to the rocky bar, slow with the weight of the water and its cold. Her arms are covered in goosebumps despite the glaring sun. She looks back at the creek and she can see the impression where she’d been sitting; she wonders how long it’ll last.

Benji strides by, shaking off droplets like a dog. She’s about to fall into step with him when he raises his hands in front of her face, forcing her to halt. He’s got a toad perched on the seam between his palms, its tawny little eyes glittering like gold flakes.

“Kiss him, he’s a prince!” Benji says with a wide, mischievous smile.

“He’s your toad; you kiss him,” Sue counters.

“I tried, but he’s a reverse-toad prince. He needs a kiss from another toad.” Benji thrusts the toad even closer to Sue’s mouth. “He said no tongue.”

“Come on, guys!” Dad calls from further up the bank, distracting Benji.

Sue sidesteps her brother and gives him a five-star square on his developing sunburn. As Benji screeches the toad makes a heroic leap for freedom and flies in a graceful arc like a warty comet; it dives back into the welcoming waters of the creek with barely a ripple.

Ten out of ten, Sue thinks.

            She wonders if toads can remember things like this.

Dad’s in charge of lunch, which means Sue and Benji each get a can of Campbell’s finest Chicken & Stars. Afterwards they convene in the kids’ room to kill some time with the Sega Genesis in the TV cabinet.

“Bet I can get past the Labyrinth Zone,” Benji says, grabbing the controller.

“Bet you can’t,” Sue says.

She’s right. Benji throws himself onto his bed in a huff, followed by the taunting tones of the Game Over music. Sue takes up the controller and makes it all the way to the Star Light Zone, earning an obscene gesture from Benji.

She pauses the game and goes out into the garage to grab a soda from the second fridge. Grandad keeps the place obsessively clean and the concrete floor is cool and smooth against her bare feet. It smells like oil and metal, underpinned by the acrid hint of gasoline. She finds Dad at one of the workbenches against the far wall. Curious, she comes up next to him to see what he’s working on.

“Just weighting these lines,” he tells her, crimping a lead ball onto the fishing wire.

“We fishing tomorrow?” Sue asks.

“Probably not tomorrow. We’re going shopping, remember?”

“Oh, right.”

She watches his hands as he squeezes the pliers, smashing the lead closed. Dad works with his hands, always has. There are tiny white scars all over them, scratched onto the pitted leather of his skin like counting notches. They remind her of the sketches he sometimes draws, spindly pictures in blue pen made of dozens of quick little lines. The scars make his hand a weathered parchment, each small cut a scratched-in memory. It’s his history; and Sue’s, too. It’s the work he’s done for her, to bring her into the world, to bring her to the here and now. The scars of a family tree, drawn in thin white lines. Hers is the branch that skews towards the wrist, about to fall off the page.

“Benji said I should try talking to Mom,” Sue blurts out.

Dad’s practiced motions stop for a fraction of a second, the only sign of his surprise. “I think he’s right.”

Sue isn’t so sure. “What if it just makes things worse?”

The final lead weight goes onto the line. It dangles heavily from Dad’s fingers, straining towards the floor. “You won’t know unless you try, Susan.”

“I don’t even know what her problem is,” Sue mutters.

“She misses you.”

Sue frowns. “What? I’m right here.”

“Well, sometimes,” Dad says.

Sue rolls her eyes. “Yeah, thanks, I prefer my advice to be cryptic.” She grabs a soda from the fridge and stalks back into the house.

Truth is, she knows exactly what Dad’s talking about.

Fireworks tents back home are primarily filled with disappointment: weak smoke bombs, sparklers, maybe some snakes if you get lucky. Party favors passing themselves off as fireworks. Down here, it’s the real deal. Sue, Dad and Benji load up on the good stuff and back home they put everything in the shed where it will sit until they start setting up tomorrow afternoon.

Inside the house, Nanny’s in the kitchen prepping all kinds of food for the family who will arrive for the Fourth. Sue gets roped into helping, which she has long since resigned herself to. Chores are just a part of staying with Nanny and Grandad, the price of an otherwise great vacation. As Sue putters around the kitchen she can hear Benji running the weed eater at the side of the house while Grandad’s riding mower drones in the distance.

“How you likin’ vacation so far, Susie Q?” Nanny asks in her honeyed drawl as Sue dutifully chops carrots for a chicken pot pie.

“Good,” Sue says. Then, more animatedly, “We got a great haul this year from the tent. Tomorrow’s show will be awesome.”

            “You always did love those fireworks,” Nanny remarks, and while there’s that same hint in her tone that Mom always has—the one that says ‘I don’t get it’—there’s something else there that Mom lacks: acceptance. “Well, I look forward to it, hon. Pass me that salt, wouldja?”

Mom passes by the kitchen with an armful of tablecloths, headed for the laundry. Sue keeps her head down and chops, fearing eye contact.

“You know we all want what’s best for you,” Nanny says.

There’s a part of Sue that wants to let it go, but she doesn’t. “Even if I’m moving away?”

“Well, we don’t hardly get to see you but once or twice a year anyway,” Nanny says with short laugh. “You aren’t moving to the moon, are yuh?”

Sue looks down at the half a carrot on the cutting board, surrounded by its own parted segments. “I’d still try to visit.”

“Well, that’s good for me and Grandad. But maybe your momma isn’t used to that. She’s used to having you around.”

Frustration surges through Sue, drowning out the first pangs of empathy. “Okay, fine, but why doesn’t it matter what I want? I thought it was my decision.”

“It’s your decision,” Nanny says mildly. “You’re eighteen now. I’m just sayin’ that it might be hard for your mother, that’s all. It doesn’t hurt to try and understand.”

Nanny isn’t the person Sue wants to vent at. She takes a deep breath through her nose. “I really would try to visit,” she murmurs, resuming her chopping.

“You’re always welcome,” Nanny tells her. “Always will be. You’re my number one granddaughter.” A gentle squeeze of Sue’s shoulder leaves behind the floury imprints of Nanny’s fingers, a white half-star.

Sue doesn’t bother to brush it off.

The next day Sue’s cousin Jessie arrives bright and early, rushing through the doorway with a big hug for everyone. She’s about three years older than Sue and every time Sue sees her she’s got another color in her hair or tattoo on her freckled skin. She’s loud and fun; Sue has always been close with her.

They take the ATV out like they always did when they were kids. They roar a circle around the house—careful to avoid the lip of the driveway so as to not crumble the asphalt—and swing wide around the walnut tree, racing down the hill with the wind howling in their ears. They cut through the neighbor’s yard and find the hole in the barbed wire fence on the far side. Past that is a long series of trails through the woods and fields, thickets of trees ending as suddenly as they begin, giving way to wide overgrown spaces where the grass whips at their exposed legs. Sue holds on tight to the bars across the ATV’s wide back, swaying with the terrain, every hard bump reverberating up her spine. It hurts, but it’s still a great time.

They roar through a clearing to the rocky embankment ahead. The ATV chugs up it, the tires sending small rocks clacking down the incline. At the top are the train tracks; Sue’s never seen or heard a train go through, but the tracks aren’t overgrown, so they must. A little way down the line is a rectangular white sign, rusted around the edges and pockmarked from someone’s BB gun.

END
MEASURED
MILE

Sue’s probably seen it a dozen times. If she’s asked about it before, though, she doesn’t remember.

“What does that mean?” she shouts close to Jessie’s ear.

“What?”

“The sign. What does that mean?”

Jessie shrugs, goosing the ATV over a hump. “Dunno. Something to do with trains, I guess.”

She guns the engine and the ATV shoots forward past the sign. Sue wraps her arms around Jessie’s middle and doesn’t look back.

It’s getting close to evening. The house is filling up with extended family, clustering around the living room, congregating on the deck. Dinner soon, then fireworks as dusk descends. Sue gets her share of hugs and answers the same questions about college repeatedly. Yes, that far away. Yes, she’s excited.

At dinner she sits at the adult table for the first time, squeezed uncomfortably between Uncle Fred and her dad. She can hear Benji and her younger cousins goofing off at the other table and she kind of misses them, though she would never admit it. The kids’ table erupts with laughter, high and bright. Dad raises up in his chair a little to tell them to quiet down. The balance is restored. Sue thinks the weather is fine, yeah, definitely.

“Sue, can you pass the ham?” Mom asks.

The question hits exactly at a moment when the table falls temporarily silent, and suddenly the air is charged. Sue sees her dad watching her out of the corner of his eye, sees the quick glances that come her way. Does everyone know? What the hell do they think she’s going to do, refuse? Throw the ham in Mom’s face? What is this?

“Yep,” Sue says, and passes the ham down Mom’s way.

Maybe the crowded setting makes it clearer how awkward this all is; or maybe it’s just the last sign in a series. But this is the moment Sue decides to do something about it.

The show doesn’t start right after dinner. As the sun dips towards the far horizon there’s setting up to do while they wait for darkness. Sue carries out a few of the makeshift tables and boards to the base of the hill and then slips away, going through the garage and back to her room. In the hall she can hear the hollow echoes of clothing being dropped into the washing machine.

Mom is there with a laundry basket, working in the light from the overhead fan with her greying hair tied back. Sue pushes the door open but stays in the hall; it’s sort of a one-person room.

“Did you need to get something?” Mom asks with a brittle half-smile.

It’s one of life’s provided ironies that Mom and Sue look so much alike. Same small, rounded nose, same dark brown eyes, same lank black hair; same wide hips, curved lips and short square fingertips. They are books with the same cover, the pages reading in ways that wildly diverge. And if Sue lives in the clouds then Mom lives in the dirt, in the hard clay, on the solid ground with the solid people, God Bless America.

Sue picks up right where they left off a month ago, as if the space between one breath and the next has been erased and they are still standing in the wreckage of a screaming match, their house shaking with the sound. “It’s not about being better than anyone,” she tells her mother.

Mom doesn’t explode. “I know,” she says sadly. “I’m sorry I said that. I know that’s not what you think.”

Sue’s already lost her footing. She expected anger; she’s ready for a fight. “I… okay.”

Mom turns back to the laundry. She unfolds a shirt with a sharp, jerking motion, fingers digging into the fabric. “I just didn’t know you wanted to get away from me that badly,” she says, and there’s no rage. Just defeat.

Sue’s heart plunges, rattles around her ribcage. “Mom… No, it’s not… I’m not trying to get away from anyone.”

Mom faces Sue again, mouth pinched. “Then what? I don’t understand. What is it you can only learn across the country? We have schools back home, good schools—there are schools here you could go to, Jessie would love to have you as a roommate! Why do you have to go so far…?”

“I don’t know.”

The flat of Mom’s hand slaps disbelievingly against the top of the dryer. “Well that’s not good enough—”

“No, I mean I don’t know yet! The why, the…” Sue wants to reach around and pound on her own back until the words come out. “I— I’ve just always been at home, or here, and I want to know who I’ll be somewhere else. Doesn’t that make sense? I don’t know what’s over there, but I never will if I don’t go! I’ll just… be the same.”

“What’s wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with you!”

Sue knows that she can keep trying to explain, but it won’t matter; Mom will never understand. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because she can’t. Mom’s world is small by design. What Sue wants is bigger; is outside.

“No, Mom…” Sue sighs. “I need to do something different, on my own. And even if you don’t get it, can’t you at least be cool with it?”

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to ‘be cool’ with my baby girl running halfway across the country,” Mom says tightly. Sue starts to brace herself for an onslaught. Then Mom takes a breath and her expression twists into a wry and melancholy resignation. “…but I’ll try.”

“I’m not running,” Sue says.

“Okay,” Mom says.

Sue steps forward and feels her mother’s arms wrap around her, and for a moment she is not eighteen and standing on the edge of an unknown tomorrow; she is a child finding solace in the safest space she knows.

That night, the air is cooling as the sun descends behind the Ozarks. The horizon glows with layered strata of orange below a thick band of violet as the moon crawls up and over the fading light. Sue plunders the cardboard boxes for the best explosives, setting them out by order of desire.

As Sue stands ready, she hears shoes brushing through the grass. She turns and sees Mom approaching. She’s holding a few cookies wrapped in a napkin.

“Thought you might want a snack,” she says.

Sue takes the cookies gratefully. “Thanks.” She’s not sure if she should say more. The air between them remains stilted.

Mom assesses the massed firepower with a raised eyebrow. “Your father always spends more than he should.”

“Looks about right to me,” Sue mumbles, unwilling to agree.

Mom rolls her eyes and for an instant Sue feels like she’s looking into the mirror again. “I’m sure. Have fun and be careful, okay?” Mom’s hand rises to briefly touch Sue’s, then falls away. “I’ll be watching.”

An unnamable feeling swells in Sue’s chest; a sweet ache like the opposite of heartbreak, like something clicking into long-absent place. “It’s going to be amazing,” she promises.

Mom smiles, though Sue thinks there is a soft sadness at the corners of her mouth and the bottoms of her eyes. “I know it will.”

The fireworks show is spectacular. When it’s her turn, Sue runs down the line of mortars with a propane torch and steps back to feel the deep, rhythmic thud of each launch in her chest. The explosions blast and sizzle against the black velvet of the empyrean, stars being born and dying in the same bursting instant, sending their crackling contrails to all sides and leaving behind the ghostly imprint of their smoke. It’s a war on eardrums and retinas, achingly loud and searing bright. The audience claps from their array of lawn chairs, lemonades and teas in hand.

Dad puts a hand on Sue’s shoulder. They watch as Benji shoves three bottle rockets into the PVC pipe all at once, showering the grass with sparks.

“Proud of you,” Dad says.

Another mortar goes off and the sound breaks across Sue’s face, the night fragrant with the smell of powder. This is hers, this moment. And there will never be another exactly like it.

Later, when everyone else has left or gone to bed, Sue steps up on the patio table and clambers onto the roof. She lies down on the scratchy shingles and looks upward. Above is a field of stars like bright, distant gems, dappled over the deep endless black of a universe which stretches away into unknown infinity. They disappear at the horizon in the barest remnant of the late day sun. It has sunk to nothing but the faintest tinge of amethyst at the very bottom edge of the sky, like the light from beneath a door.

The wind stirs the tree at the side yard and ruffles gently across roof, cool and welcoming. Stars wheel above, shingles brace below; the house sits on the hill and inside is her family. It is all one piece, one unbroken road glittering on the cosmic thread. She lies beneath the wide bright dark; listening, absorbing the world in its active slumber. Shining along with this single brilliant pebble winging through a limitless dark. Sue closes her eyes and just feels it. All of it.

Everything.

And for a moment, she thinks—she knows—that she can feel the love that insulates against all that far-flung darkness, the ties that bind them to the earth and to each other. That they are not, cannot be, alone. There are candles in the constant. And each candle is a heart that burns until it lights another, passed palm to palm, cheek to cheek, until the rows become a choir. That joyous heightening becomes a murmur, becomes a clamor, becomes the bright curve of arcing song. The glow swells in her chest and flows to the tip of her tongue and the words are what she is to them and they to her and it’s right there; she can nearly hear the chorus. They are all who can love and are loved. Hers here with her, in the strings they tied themselves, in concert and company, in a copse.

She blinks. The stars come back into focus.

And it’s gone.

___________________________________________

Eric Short

“Speak to Us on Freedom”

I had a ’91 Pontiac Grand Prix that was a real piece of work
Stuff was always falling off and you had to hold your mouth just right for it to start; not really a smile but more like a sarcastic grin
Sounded like Bevis and Butthead when it was running
I didn’t do much cleaning on the old beast and I swear you could make out the drawings of Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet in the dust on the dashboard
Wispy dancing muses
I would speak to it on freedom and it would get me to work
With us, both laughing all the way – huh huh huh huh huh
___________________________________________

Eric Short

“The Drinking Game”

Half way down the glass
A bead of condensation
Slowly rolls
Not exactly straight
The wind is no factor
Nor the conversation
It must be the subtle film
Of oil from my touch
But I am convinced
It is always something
Changing the outcome
Of water
I wipe it away
With my thumb
And for my amusement
Here comes another
___________________________________________

Eric Short

 “You’re Old Country Now”

I wanted to describe you
As an old telegraph pole whose glass insulators had
Survived a hundred Missouri spring thunderstorms
And year after year of relentless wind and ice
Yet still ready to bring news of the gold rush and western lands
To the smallest towns
I wanted people to know that the forest’s attempts to swallow you whole
Were taking a toll but that you could carry on waiting
Waiting for revivals and handmade everythings
I wanted people to know that although you have been forgotten
You could still be found in hidden byways and valleys
Standing tall and dappled in the morning’s shadows
Insulators gleaming blue atop the cross timbers
Waiting for nothing now but the red feathered cardinal
To land upon the cross and sing
Blessings for the testament of your old America
___________________________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“102 E. Clay”

The house had diminished throughout the years,
one could assume at one point it was perfectly perpendicular to the ground,
but there it stood,
tilted and slanted off of its foundation,
nothing more than a three-dimensional parallelogram,
its once stained-brown wood weathered into a mass of gray splinters.
Each room of the degrading monolith became an unsalvageable time capsule.

I drove by it every once and awhile,
coasting the car to stare at the relic.
I knew from the town’s gossip
that the house was built well over a century ago
and housed four generations worth of a family.

One day, city workers came by,
and taxpayers footed the bill
for the oldest house in the town being
disposed of and sent to the scrapyard.
The city claimed that the house was a hazard to children.

The neighbors swiftly conquered the land for pennies on the dollar,
and a housewife planted a garden full of watermelons
that were imprisoned behind a white picket fence.
Of course, I was never consulted on the matter.

Without much notice,
the memories of the house degraded within
the thoughts of the community
and though I had never had a home within that house,
seeing the vacant lot
on that block
caused me to feel like a trespasser in my hometown.

There would be no more voyeurs (like me) to imagine the history
that had been confined between those walls that were
insulated with the hollow yearning of progress,
by the arbiters of the original American Dream;
as the house was reduced
into some fragment on the town’s property line archives.
___________________________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“Zerzan”

Sometimes words are missing
at the end of a sentence,
and in the absence
is a ghost of the mind.

It’s known that within all of our art
comes the fragrance of our own demise–
the construction of annihilation to blackmail the eyes.

I recently sold all of my canvases,
my easel, my paint, and all of my brushes,
I made more money off of that than all of my paintings,
what a convenient narrative:
that poor bastard with a dream.

The palate gets cleansed in a fury with absinthe,
as the body is now the canvas,
the brush gets traded for stainless steel:
sharp to the touch,
puncturing the skin to create a delicate precipice
as the silk cream icing
drowns the subject in the flowing magnum opus
that drips like a moldy faucet.

The reviews are missing;
the critiques and the words never come but aren’t necessary,
as no tapestry, painting, or sculpture can convey
the tranquil scene of the true image.
___________________________________________

Janae Imeri

“The Puppeteer”                                                                     “The Puppet”

She was once a graceful dancer                                  I was once a graceful dancer

Every step was poised and lively,                               Every step was poised and lively,

Charming and gay                                                       Charming and gay

Until I tied strings to her hands and feet.                   Until he tied strings to my hands and feet.

Her dance became mine,

Then her once-poised steps grew circumspect,

I guide her through new choreographies

I pull strings for her every step                                   I let him pull my every step

Through tearful eyes I watch my

now-careful feet step to each beat

They used to be so brave.

And still,                                                                 And still,

Her feet match each beat to the music,                       My feet match each beat to the music,

through shaking knees and trembling hands              through shaking knees and trembling hands

She doesn’t run offstage.                                            I don’t run offstage.

Through each dance, I wear away the

strings,

I begin to love the steps I take again

and with every snapped string

My grace, my poise, my charm

Begins to come from me again.

___________________________________________

Janae Imeri

“Train of Thought”

My thoughts always deviate
From the clear path set circumspectly
Before them; they

Dash from work to home
To what’s on tv at three
To in five years what could be

And

Suddenly the lingering
scent on my pillowcase
Transports to transparent times

When I could color
the sky eloquent emerald
And decorate the grass a vivid indigo,
When dreaming was easier to come by.

Take me back to when dad made breakfast each morning
The smell of cinnamon in the air as I get dressed
But not too far back
Towards darker days of fighting and yelling
Bouncing off the house walls,

Take me forward
To the no-homework, bills-are-due days
To the dancing in my own home with no pants on days
To days where I see my lover everyday days,

Then, zip, zap, whoosh!
Like the wind brushing my hair,
Goes the never-ending train of thought
To each and every

Stop.

Creative Writing Awards 2019

2019 Creative Writing Award Winners

Lois C. Bruner Creative Nonfiction Award

The entries were judged by Toni Jensen.

Toni Jensen is the author of Carry, a memoir-in-essays about gun violence, forthcoming from Ballantine. Her essays and stories have been published in journals such as OrionCatapult and Ecotone, and have been anthologized widely. Her story collection, From the Hilltop, was published through the Native Storiers Series at the University of Nebraska Press. She teaches in the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas and in the Low Residency MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is Métis.

  • First Place is Marissa Purdum with her story The Dog Days

On the story Jensen says: Marissa Purdum’s “The Dog Days” is a vivid, heart-wrenching account of her time as a homeless youth. Though the story itself is compelling, it’s Purdum’sexecution of the story that makes it so—from watching her teddy bear be auctioned off, to the loss of her dog, each moment is rendered through clear-eyed details.

On the story Jensen says: Marcus Sweeten’s “A Dose of Change” looks straight at the experience of first love and first loss. Sweeten gives each scene, each moment through distinct scenes. In particular, the pool scene is lush and memorable for its language.

  • Third Place is Kendrick Keller with his story Flight

On the story Jensen says: Kendrick Keller’s “Flight” puts in motion everyday and also extraordinary experiences. The scenes move so well, and the language used to describe the college experience make each scene feel like something new, something strange but familiar.

Cordell Larner Award in Fiction

The entries were judged by Brandon Hobson.

Brandon Hobson is the author of the novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction and winner of the Reading the West Book Award. His other books include the novels Deep Ellum and Desolation of Avenues Untold. His work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, Conjunctions, NOON, Post Road, and in many other places. Beginning in fall 2019, he will be an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at New Mexico State University. Hobson is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma.

On the story Hobson says:  I really loved the dialogue and playfulness in the prose. The writer maintains an urgency by being innovative with form. Great work.

  • Second Place is Angelique Herrera with her story Hush Hush

On the story Hobson says: I loved the sense of conflict right from the beginning. The writer was able to keep a consistent sense of immediacy and conflict throughout the story.

On the story Hobson says:  I loved the prose here. Really beautiful writing, and very strong dialogue. Also, the pacing was really nice, which is very hard to do well; this writer succeeded.

Cordell Larner Award in Poetry

The entries were judged by Justin Bigos.

Justin Bigos is the author of the poetry collection Mad River (Gold Wake, 2017), which was a finalist for the Emily Dickinson/Poetry Foundation First Book Award; as well as the chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO, 2014). His poems, stories, essays, and interviews with poets appear in publications including New England ReviewThe Seattle ReviewPloughsharesSouthern Indiana ReviewMcSweeney’s QuarterlyThe Rumpus, and The Best American Short Stories 2015. Justin cofounded and coedits the literary magazine Waxwing. He has recently joined the faculty of the MFA Program in Writing & Publishing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and makes his home in Barre, VT.

On the poem Bigos says: Eric Short’s poems look so hard at the world that the world looks back–and speaks: an America whose past and present overlap in “a hundred Missouri spring thunderstorms,” the revving and belching of ” ’91 Pontiac Grand Prixs” and Beavis and Butthead, and the oily beads of sweat rolling down a glass during a drinking game. These poems are not things merely seen, but visions.

On the poem Bigos says: Marcus Sweeten’s portraiture and self-portraiture collide and spark and flare in these beautiful poems of longing, conflagrations my mind cannot stamp out. They are nothing less than ars poetica and ekphrasis in the ancient traditions, and I salute them.

On the poem Bigos says: Janae Imeri’s dreamy nostalgia has a rare honesty to it, a raw tenderness, an ache. And it is shaped into lyrics so particular to this poet’s experience that, paradoxically, we feel their hot breath on our necks as if they were our own. In these poems I feel nothing less than wonder.


View these submissions in Elements 2019 (pdf)

(On the web):

Marissa Purdum

“The Dog Days”

Imagine the beginning of the summer of 2009, about a year and a half after the Great Recession had started. Imagine a small city, about 25,000 people, in the southeast corner of Iowa called Burlington. Imagine a duplex, split top floor and bottom. Both the top and bottom had the same layout. The living and dining room were connected to a small room. Then that room connected to a hallway which had the kitchen, bathroom, and two bed rooms branching off of that.

Now imagine a twelve-year-old girl, brown hair, blue-green eyes with a family that consisted of a jobless mom with the same hair and same eyes, and a golden retriever puppy, named Pumpkin, living on the top floor of the duplex. The bottom floor housed my grandma, who also was the landlord. The last day of school was finished and now it was time for summer. It was also time for me to leave my childhood home forever.

My mom was packing up the last few boxes into our blue Chevy Impala as I was sitting on the wooden floors of my old room. With a small knife in hand, I carved my name, along with the words ‘Fuck you’ and ‘Bitch’, into the floorboards, right where my bed was once. I looked at my handiwork and I didn’t feel bad. I felt vulnerable, like this naked, white room. Everything that was in this room was already in the storage shed my mom had rented. However, we weren’t leaving on our own accord. My grandma decided to sell the duplex and move into a new house, so she was kicking us out. I never understood why she decided to leave me and my mom homeless and I still don’t.

I had just gotten up and hid the knife in a box when my mom came in.

“Hey, I’ll get the last few boxes into the car. Why don’t you take Pumpkin for a walk in the park?”

I nodded and asked, “Alright. Is the leash still next to the door?”

She shook her head and her expression changed from calm to sorrow.

“No, I packed it up. Take her,” she paused, “and lose her.”

I clenched my jaw. I knew what she wanted me to do. She expected me to walk around until she ran away from me, and then I come back home, without her.

I nodded to her. “C’mon, Pumpkin. Let’s go.” Then me and my dog went outside and walked across the street to Perkins Park.

Perkins Park was a relatively small park. The playground was filled with kids plying, so I directed Pumpkin away from them. I didn’t want her running off to one of them. Eventually I came upon a random bush, so I stopped behind it with Pumpkin.

“Oh sweetheart,” I hugged her and cried into her light golden fur. “I don’t want to leave you here.”

She nuzzled me in response. Pumpkin had always been smart like that. She picked up on a lot, and this scenario was one of them. I think she knew that this was meant to be goodbye. I sat there crying into her shoulder for around thirty minutes, and she didn’t move an inch. That’s how I knew I couldn’t lose her yet, so I told myself I needed to compose myself before I returned home.

I wiped the last tears from my eyes and said, “Alright, Pumpkin. Let’s go.” I started to walk back and close by my heels, the dog I loved so much followed.

We had been camping for a month now at Geode State Park, since it was all we could afford. This campsite in the middle of nowhere was our new home since we were kicked out. Our campsite rested under the shade of this big oak tree, which we used to tie up Pumpkin. We had a pretty large orange tent that had three sections. The middle section was our living room, and the two smaller side wings were our changing room and bedroom. We had a totally of four folding chairs, two outside and two in the living room. Our campsite also included a fire pit with a iron grill attachment. We were trying to come up with creative foods to roast over a campfire, such as bacon or grilled cheese. However, most days we ate hot dogs and cheap burgers.

In order to shower, my mom and I would drive into town and walk into the hospital. Geode normally does have showers, but during that summer they were closed for maintenance, so we had to make the drive into town. My mom had worked there once upon a time, so she knew where the hospital’s family shower was located. The shower was a privilege that we allowed ourselves every three days. There, I would shower first, in a small, blue tiled shower stall. I would dry off then get out and wait for my mom to take her turn. During this time, I often thought of my childhood home. The one I ached to live in again. The home where I etched her name into the floorboards to claim the house as my own.

My thoughts were interrupted by my mom’s shower ending. We would then return to the campsite because Pumpkin was there. Once back at the campsite, my mom would turn on the radio, and we would both sit singing to “I Gotta Feeling’” by the Black Eyed Peas or “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston in the blistering hot sun. When we got tired of doing that, we would play whatever card games we had on hand, which was usually either Skip-Bo or Crazy Eights. Sometimes we would explore the trails with Pumpkin, but after awhile of that, it became older than hearing the same songs on the radio five times a day. It was a boring existence, but at least I still had my best friend, Pumpkin.

The summer of ‘09 had brought a lot of changes. When we first moved out of the duplex, we had rented a storage unit for all of our belongings. However, as the summer continued, we could no longer afford to rent the storage unit anymore. So, all of our things were locked up and out of reach. Not only were our possessions locked up, but the cheap storage unit that we had rented was at the bottom of a hill, and every time it rained, it flooded. So I thought everything was ruined by the water.

During the summer of ’10, in the heat of July, an auction was taking place at the storage unit faculty where our things once resided. So my mom and I decided to go to see if any of our stuff had survived.

When we arrived, there were over a hundred people there, hopping from one unit to the next looking for their next hidden treasure.

“Mom! Look!” I pointed into one of the units. It wasn’t our unit but I recognized my pink stuffed animal dog named Mama along with a few of my other stuffed animals and my baby blanket. That gave me hope that some of our other stuff survived the flooding as well. We ended up finding a lot of our old VHS tapes, our old TV stand, and some more blankets.

“Next item up for bid is a couple of stuffed animals with a blanket. Who wants to start the bid with a dollar? Do I hear a dollar?” said the auctioneer.

I looked at my mom with pleading eyes.

My mom raised her card to bid.

“A dollar over there, do I hear two?”

A man and his wife raised their card next. And thus the bidding war commenced.

One by one, my personal possessions were sold to the highest bidder. My mom tried to bid on some of the items, but the price was always too high. When everything was sold and the auction was over, my mom and I walked away empty handed. I wondered why it seemed like everything I cared about always became “lost”.

The end of the summer of ’09 neared and it was also the time for a new chapter of my story. We were packing up our summertime campsite because we had to move on due to the new school year approaching and the cold weather. So, my mom did what she had to do. She got a hotel room for me that night, so I could rest comfortably while she went and started her new job at a weed killer factory. Then the next day we were going to live with the cruel woman who had made them homeless in the first place, my grandma. She was reluctant to let us stay with her, but she knew we were desperate, so she agreed to let us stay at her house.

Once we were in town, my mom pulled into a neighborhood a block away from the hotel. It was a small and quiet neighborhood where little to no traffic ventured.

She stopped in the middle of the street. I was so confused as to why we were there.

“Let her out,” she said, referring to Pumpkin. She refused to make eye contact with me.

“What?” I asked in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought we were taking her with us.

“Let her out and take off her collar.”

I paused for a brief moment before I got out. I opened the back door and rubbed behind Pumpkin’s ears then kissed her forehead goodbye. I removed her collar, then got out of the way so she could jump out.

“Hurry up and get back in,” my mom ordered.

I close the back door and hopped in quickly. My mom immediately drove off. I looked back and saw her running after us. Then she stopped to sniff something on the ground as we turned the corner. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Then I started to bawl. It was an ugly cry, complete with gulps and gasps as I tried to catch my breath between my screaming cries. As my mom pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, I was still bawling. This was the first time my heart was broken.

“You need to stop crying. I can’t leave you in here bawling while I go get the room key,” my mom said.

That only made me want to cry harder, but I slowly choked it down. She went inside, by herself, to get the key then we went up to our room. The lonely bed was draped in a dark red blanket. Once we were settled, my mom got ready for work and left. As soon as she was gone, I stood by the window for hours, hoping to see Pumpkin run down that street and find me. When it turned dark, I gave up my spot next to the window and went to bed, accepting defeat. I never got my gold trophy back. Instead, my consolation prize was crying myself to sleep in the fetal position as I gripped my best friend’s collar.

___________________________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“A Dose of Change”

I stole $35 from my mom. It was just sitting on the kitchen counter, left out like a steaming hot pie or some damp dishes set out to dry. I needed the money to buy Valium and some weed. I was a good kid, I promise. I would have bought the drugs myself if I had a job or a source of income, but I was just a little punk if I am being honest. Later I would cop to stealing the money and she would kick my ass. I had planned to leave that detail out of the story because it doesn’t necessarily fit the grand narrative, but I guess every point of conflict needs a resolution.

You could have called me a kid on a mission. I was goal-oriented. I hurriedly bought a single pill of Valium and a few joints from a dealer who lived a few blocks away. My plan was to split the pill with my girlfriend and maybe smoke a little with her. Later, this will turn out to be the last time I will see her. No, not for the reason you think. She didn’t overdose or anything. She was actually going to college — Columbia, in fact — on a full-ride.

For the sake of conversation, let’s say her name was AJ. You know, protect the names of the innocent and all that shit. Her parents immigrated to America from Poland and they had just recently within the last year moved to my town from Chicago. She was the most darling person I had ever met. I was utterly fascinated with her. Her hair was thick and dyed black and had faint curls that slightly danced when she moved her head. Her pale skin never burned and would always reflected in my eyes as if I were a deer caught in the high beams of a semi. Glasses rested on her nose that would just faintly obscure her green eyes from me. Which was probably a good thing, because I would have devoured them like candy. Her nose slightly protruded and so did her chin. It made her beauty more unique, though some of the bullies in school said it made her look like a witch. They were just typical Polish features, I figured. I was just so utterly captivated by her.

She was so smart, obviously so since she was leaving for Columbia. Every word she spoke enlightened me. The accent she had developed from her parents was so cute that it hurt. She would always stumble on her words and smile with a tint of frustration. Her smile, God, her smile, made my heart skip beats at a time. I was madly in love with her. A love that was intensified by my age. I was only sixteen. While I had just gotten my license, she was going to a prestigious university in New York cost-free.

I was her first love, too. Other guys never saw what I saw, at least up to that point. She was the new cute girl at school who kept to herself and would always wear the shirts of bands that I loved. I always saw here roaming around in the hallway, diverting attention from herself. I knew I had to talk to her. Soon we befriended and I took every opportunity to learn everything about her. She used to tremble and shake when she talked to me, partly because she shared the same fascination with me, but also because she was inexperienced with guys and her father damaged her. He was a miserable bastard. An incorrigible drunk that her mother never had the heart to divorce. He used to hit AJ. He defiled her. He robbed her of the recognition of her beauty. She was a sight that was too gorgeous for even me to bear, yet her trauma often controlled her. If I had ever had half-the-mind, I would have shot that motherfucker for what he did to her. But that would have complicated everything, rather than solve any problem.

If there was ever a thing as a soul mate, then I suppose she would have been mine. And, on a humid summer day in August, I decided that the best farewell to AJ that I could think of was to get high as hell with her. We would smoke pot together from time to time, but I hadn’t ever done any other drug. I did a little research on Valium and I thought that it was safe enough for us to try. She had always expressed interest in doing drugs with me. So what better method of parting ways than to be utterly vulnerable together on a drug we had both never tried?

I walked to her house with a ziplock-bag full of the drugs in my pocket. I had to jump the fence into her backyard. Her parents were at work, but I had to sneak around or else I ran the risk of catching the attention of her neighbors. They would have ratted me out to her parents. Her parents didn’t really like me at all. To them, I was just some punk kid whose hair was too long. They thought I wasn’t worthy of her because she was smart and had a future and I was just some poor kid. They thought I was some sort of exotic attraction to AJ that she would soon outgrow. We would always just sneak around together. It made everything more fun, like our love was forbidden or something.

I sat on her patio in the backyard and stared into her outdoor underground pool. Her parents were more well off than mine. The $35 I had stolen from my mom was what A.J.’s mother made in an hour. It was a nice pool, but sort of unkempt. There would always be loose strands of leaves floating and maybe a few bugs who had succumbed to the elements and drowned. The water was crystal clear, despite those blemishes.

I sent her a text that I was in her backyard. Readily enough and without much hesitation, the backdoor porch had swung open. There she was: my love. Sometimes I would have to do double-takes when I caught glimpses of her, just to make sure she was real. Her hair was in a bun. She was wearing loose shorts and a tight Joy Division shirt that showed off the wondrous shape of her body. I have always been told that it was impolite to stare, but I must have missed the memo with AJ. Gladly she didn’t mind being admired.

Her resting face was always full of anguish. Though when she saw me and our eyes caught each other, her smile would radiate the world and could make even the grayest of skies emit the sun’s rays. Despite the beautiful August weather, it was her gaze that laid upon me that felt more intense than the sun.

“Hey!” I excitedly said, probably with the biggest of grins on my face. “I’ve got the stuff, do you want to do it now?”

“Sure, Marcus,” She said, grabbing my hand and taking me to the edge of the pool. She had a really cute way of saying my name. She pronounced it like “Mardkoose.” Like I said before, her accent was unapologetically Polish and just added to my admiration of her. She sat down at the edge of the pool, submerging her heavenly legs and her bare feet inside the water. “Join me!” She said with a small giggle. Of course I had to oblige. I took my off my shoes and socks, and I sat right beside her. She placed her hand on my lap and her head rested on my shoulder. The most serene scenes that I could ever possibly imagine were when I was able to spend my time with her.

I took out the bag and was hit with the spicy smell of sativa. The joints fell into my hand with grace, though the pill took some coaxing to get out. I held the pill in my hand. It’s blue color and its solid state was so intimidating. I placed it near the edge of the pool, along with the joints. I had an exacto knife in my pocket that I intended to use to split the pill with her. The pill was 10mg, probably enough to put a horse to sleep. I was afraid that if I had gotten two 10mg pills and gave one to her that, with her small frame, only 5’4,’’ maybe 120 lbs., she would get knocked out for like fifteen hours. So, I decided splitting it would be the most effective option. It wasn’t easy to split the pill open, but after some trouble, I was able to cut it in half. Some of the pill’s coating came off, looking like grains of baby blue sand right near the edge of the pool.

“Okay, here goes nothing, right?” I say as I give half of the of pill to my beloved AJ as if it were an offering.

“Right,” A.J. replied. She was very confident, calm, and collected in her response. I would like to think that the confidence came through her association with me and that I was able to give her the strength she had to conquer the world, but I don’t really know if all of that is true. She grabbed the pill with her left hand, refusing her right hand to leave my thigh.

We downed the pill together. She did it with ease. It was damn-near a graceful display. On the other hand, I struggled with mine. The jagged edge got stuck in my throat and I had to hit my chest a few times in order for it to go down. I joked with AJ, saying that I should have used the pool water to help it go down. She laughed and said something to the effect of the chlorine not being the worst thing I had put in my body.

It didn’t take long to feel the effects. Within the first thirty or forty minutes, I was already feeling very spacey. It’s a very powerful depressant. AJ was feeling it too. It was like a wave of nothingness descended upon us. Everything felt absent and vacant. It was too relaxing, honestly. It was uncomfortable to realize that I was not control of myself and that my inhibitions were so decreased that I had no desire to do anything or to be anything. It was extremely hard for me to breathe. I would like to think that it was symbolic of a death wish that we were beside a pool and that I had planned on smoking. We very easily could have drowned and if I had smoked it would have deprived me oxygen. Though it wasn’t necessarily symbolism for our self-destruction at all. We just wanted to get high together in a beautiful place. That beautiful place just happened to harbor danger. It was all worth it to sit beside AJ and to hear the water run against our legs as we swayed our tangled legs, entwined in the water.

“Marcus,” AJ murmured, absentmindedly. “I don’t know if we can keep seeing each other when I move.” Her words would have wounded me if I were sober. Rather, the words haunted me like a specter. Sometimes I hear those words, even today. They linger in my brain. Sometimes I wake up to the faint sound of her crying, even though there is no one in my room. Maybe the wind from the window reminds me of her, I don’t exactly know.

She was sobbing into my shoulder. I would have been crying too, but the pool had enough water. I wasn’t able to cry because I wasn’t myself anymore. I wasn’t the person that A.J. helped sprout with her admiration and I wasn’t normal because my brain was out of sync with my body.

“I’m really sorry, Marcus,” AJ sobbed into me. I can only assume that was what she said, because her accent and the Valium made her borderline unintelligible. “I still want you in my life. I will message you all the time and video chat. It’s just, such a transition that I am not prepared for.”

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Is what I would have said, if I hadn’t been absent within my own mind. But my words were never able to come out. I understood her fully. She wanted to move on and I was just an anchor. She wanted the freedom to experience New York and Columbia without worrying about me. I knew this day was coming. I just didn’t want to it to happen. Maybe that is where the drugs come in. I don’t really know. It’s hard to explain because it is hard to understand.

“Stop crying. You’re fine, dear.” I managed to somehow muster those words. I pulled her closer into my arms and she nuzzled her head into my chest. I could smell the flowered fragrance in her hair. Rather than being enamored by it, it replaced the air in my lungs as I struggled to breathe. Suddenly, I staggered to my feet. AJ slumped over to the cement as I was her only support. My arms and my legs were heavy. Moving was taxing, but I had found a different motivation.

“Do you want to go for a swim?” I asked with a massive slur. I pulled my shirt off and threw it at her, which aroused a giggle from my watery-eyed star-crossed lover. I kept my khaki shorts on as I sat down beside her and gently positioned myself in the pool. The water was shrill and cold. My breath was only coming in spurts now, but I was happy. I wanted to make the most out of these final moments with AJ.

“I don’t know about that, Marcus,” AJ said within a haze. I gently splashed the water at her, soaking her shirt and her shorts. She laughed again. I realized at that moment that her happiness was what I had been living for.

“Okay, I’m coming,” AJ conceded in what I could assume would have been a hurry had the drug not intoxicated her. She pulled up her shirt and threw it behind her, exposing her stomach and a black bra. I can still trace the outline of her body just from memory. I don’t know if I will ever become that great of a writer to truly convey her beauty.

I moved towards her as she was still sitting with her legs in the pool. When I got to her, her legs wrapped around me as I placed my hands on the small of her back. I gently moved her into the pool. She clutched tightly to me. Her arms were weak. Letting go of me, her foot slipped on pool floor. Her head suddenly submerged under the surface of the water, knocking her glasses off in the process. She would have probably frantically tried to make her way up above the water if she had the willpower. Luckily, I was there as I clutched her and pulled her back to the surface. I rotated her so her back was touching my chest. I tightly wrapped my arms around her and held her as we swayed against the pool wall in the water.

Within that pool on that humid day in August, AJ and I created the most beautiful scene where I clutched her and kissed her neck, assuring her that everything would be fine despite the fact that we both knew that it was out of my control to decide that. Within this story, I can create a timeline where that segment of our life just repeats and stretches itself over and over again throughout the rest of time, ignoring the bludgeon of reality.

Had the story of our love ended here, then it would have been perfect. But I have never been able to let go, not without digging my fingers into the skin. If the story ends here in the scene of the pool, the reader wouldn’t know that I showed up to her doorstep a few days later, only to find out she had boarded a plane to New York without saying goodbye. The reader wouldn’t know that my texts would go weeks without a reply. The reader wouldn’t know that I would call and call and call and she wouldn’t answer. The reader wouldn’t know that she only responded to me months later, telling me that she met a guy who reminded her a lot of me. The reader wouldn’t know that he broke her heart. The reader wouldn’t know that a few months later she fell for a marine who fucked her just so he could get his dick wet before deployment. The reader wouldn’t know that she would call me in the middle of the night sometimes, drunk off wine, and cry about how her most recent lover didn’t kiss her like I kissed her. The reader wouldn’t know that I haven’t talked to her in a year.

And now here I am, four years removed from you. Going to a university in the Midwest that is far from Columbia. What the reader wouldn’t know about me is I can just divide my life into segments of affinities that diminished and wilted. What the reader wouldn’t know about me is that I would met other people. I thought they had outshined you, but maybe that’s all due to recency. After sitting down and having to confront the very tangible feelings I had suppressed, I must say that even the image of her in my mind takes my breath away. One of these days, I’ll find the person that eclipses AJ. Though I am so grateful to have ever met her.

___________________________________________

Kendrick Keller

“Flight”

I felt like I was in a straight jacket. I had full range of movement with my arms, but the quick shallow breaths I was taking used up all of my finite attention. On the long black leather couch sits my sinking frame, next to it the TV remote so I can swap between Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and the Nickelodeon classic Chalk Zone. I do like the mask even though I have to remove my glasses to wear it. The clear rubber mask of the nebulizer forms to my face, covering my nose and mouth. The thing looks like a slimmed down gas mask so I can at least pretend that I’m a 90’s movie villain. The inch wide holes in the mask pour out a thin smoke. The vapor careens around my head as I try to breath in as much as possible while simultaneously blowing it from my vision so I can see the screen awash with color. The green band that wraps around my curly mass of low black hair keeps the mask seated on my face. In my small lap is the nebulizer itself, a grey box with tubes that stretch upwards towards me embed themselves in my mask. The nebulizer is loud so I try to get the breathing treatment over with because over its droning washing machine like sound, I can barely make out the TV. When the translucent fluid encased in the capsule connected to the underside of the mask grows low, the nebulizer begins to spurt. The droning becomes a loud stutter that pierces the ear. I had to reach my eleven-year-old hand around the capsule and shake it while attached to my face in hopes that it would stabilize. When the fluid was all either in the air or in my lungs, I could turn the device off. The end of the whirling sound was a relief, but the trade off was a jitter that reverberated through my skeleton.

I was a few months of freshman year of college and I was In the closet. I didn’t like dudes or anything. I was sitting in the very non metaphorical closet of my room in the 3rd floor of Bayliss hall. I’m on a chair that I put in there for situations exactly like this. A combination of button ups and superhero shirts hit me in the face, I could feel their full weight on my shoulders because while I can fit in this closet, that definitely wasn’t the school’s intent. There was no light in my closet, no smell, and I had very little feeling left in my legs after sitting here for twenty minutes. But a sense that did remain was the sound. Even after my disappearing act, I could still hear the group that was gallivanting around my room. There were about five people besides myself in my blue and white colored corner room at Western. I don’t know why but today that’s too much babble for me to handle without the aid of heavy anesthetics. I was fine with some of them; I was friends with the one girl and my roommate Josh isn’t always a total nuisance. Josh’s physical appearance can only be summed up as unoffensive; the guy has a medium height and a light muscle tone. I think of him as a Twinkie that used to have a gym membership before he called it quits to pursue music. The short girl in the green sweater with the high pitched voice was so loud that I felt claustrophobic, so ironically, when no one was looking I ducked in the only closed off, dark, confined space I could find. For the first few minutes I counted a few times and breathed deeply while looking up at the ceiling. Once the pressure in my eyes dispersed and I no longer had the urge to chug the gallon of Great Value bleach, I kept on the top shelf, I could relax. I read comic books on my phone for a good 15 minutes before making my exit after everyone left the room to look for me. While in the dark closet, I bent myself over trying to change my clothes. We have to go to the wind concert in an hour so I might as well be dressed. I swapped out of my Green Lantern t-shirt into a plain grey one and threw on a shaggy black hoodie. Maximum effort. Josh and two of his friends returned to the room soon after.

“There you are. We thought you might’ve been in Jake’s room,” Josh said after seeing my in my rotating chair.

“Nope. I was just in there.” I point to my temporary place of refuge.

“The closet? You were gone for like half an hour or something?”

“Yeah. Time flies when you’re having fun. And it’s been a blast,” I smugly say while making my way around the room to pick up the place. “I’m ready to go so tell the others. You found me.” I leave the room without saying another word. Sure I’m not fond of talking when it’s not needed, but mostly I just like how confused Josh gets when I leave without explanation.

The effects of the breathing treatment had begun in full force. My body’s small dark frame sat perfectly still, but internally it felt like my bones were doing the Monster Mash. It was late, so I moved off the couch and through the archway in my flat Texas home to get to the hallway. When I set my hand on the wooden white door of my room, every movement looked full of motion blur. To my eyes I pushed open the door two or three times before walking in and climbing the steel ladder of my bunk bed. The climb to the top takes five seconds, but the placement of each hand and foot on the cool bars of the bed frame is a slog that is as difficult as recovering from a bad tumble at soccer practice. Laying down once I reached the summit was easy. My chest cavity could have weighed sixty pounds for all I could tell. My ceiling fan had five blades, all blue. I left the switch up permanently, so it’s always in rotation. The lights may be off but I can still track it’s movements with my eyes. The fourth blade (or any other number between one and five depending on which you start with) was limp, the thing drug a few inches lower than the rest when the fan was on. To me the fan looked faster than it could possibly be moving, and that was wrong. The rectangular blades with their inward arched points speed up and slowed down as I watched. The darkness swirled around them and bits shifted in the night below me. I could see movement coming from my closet that lacked a door. I could hear the creaking of the fan every time it went a full rotation. Even count it down.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

I tried to close my eyes and sleep, but I can still hear the movement, I swore to christ it was speeding up.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

Knowing nothing was there, I should’ve stayed in bed, but I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to close my eyes and forget. I shut the tight enough to break skin. I waited for about five minutes then threw my sheets off of myself and climbed down. Flipping on the light switch, I looked around and up at the slow moving fan. Before getting back into bed I look at the closet again and refold my sheets and straighten the wine red comforter. Once I’m back in bed with the lights out, I still think about the fan, but it’s soothing now.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

I’m in the bathroom washing up before the concert in Brown Hall. My hands felt like  a thin sheet of grime sat between the air and my skin. I soaped and washed quickly. When all the sods fell into the drain, I turned up the heat in full. The water caused my hands to heat up. My palms were clean, so I kept them closed and balled them into fists. When I turned it off, my hands glowed a soft red. Closing them tightened the up my red/brown skin and even though it hurt, it felt better than before. I could think, I could focus. I left the restroom and after a few minutes of playing video games in the room, the five others and myself went outside to wait on the bus. Mark, a dark-skinned dude with messy hair and a white button up was the first to get off the bus at Brown, followed closely by Josh, the rest of the pose, with me watching the rear. Brown is a sprawling almost circular building that sits upon a hill next to the bus stop. We walk through the grass, pulling our jackets tight because of the brisk night air. When we entered, we were greeted with bright yellow lights and many creepily happy faces handing out flyers with the set list printed on them.

The group moved through the double doors into a large auditorium that had black wires dangling from the ceiling. The wires were so thin and light that they could be used for trapeze; it made this feel more like a circus than a concert. I bet it wouldn’t take me long to find a few professional clowns at WIU. Josh had to walk over to the corner of the room to get proof he attended the event. He stuck his face in a circular recognition device that showed a mirror image of himself on screen. He took his fingers and ran it through his blonde hair before smiling cheesily for the camera. After Josh gets his headshots, we trailed off to find our place among the desert of theater seats. We were seated near the back left of the room, no reason the mix too much in the crowd of students, parents, and professors. The concert was John Williams themed, the only reason I was there was to hear overworked music majors play live music from Jaws, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park. They open with the ladder, I’m excited by the deep sounds coating the entire room in an eerie melody that makes you squirm a tad in your seat. After all the metallic groans and lovely sounding whines, I could feel an energy welling up within myself. An energy that after the first fifteen minutes manifested itself in stark boredom.

My eyes darted around and I started thinking of the million things I’d rather do than sit here. My wandering eye eventually saw the double door behind me open and in walk Jess. Walnut brown hair at mid shoulder length, black glasses that push up her face and slightly magnify her eyes to be larger than life, and a shiny black dress that followed down her length to blend in with the dark floor. She looked wonderful and  was smiling bigger and brighter than the spotlights filling the stage in front of me. Seeing her turned me into the last guy on the floor after John McClain leaves a room bloody and without bullets. I was conscious but barely and I had no clue what I wanted or where I wanted to go. All this because Jess danced onto the scene clutching the arm of some dude with a blazer.

Falling to sleep took plenty of work, considering it’s usually a chore to quiet my brain without an induced panic. Unfortunately, my lack of consciousness didn’t lead to a lack of fear. I was burning. My entire being was sweating, when I looked down at my short legs, I could see my skin boiling over, acting almost like rubber in a microwave. The floor underneath was charred and red; looking black and cracked like the tops of a mountain. The terror inside climbed as I realised that I was incapable of movement and had a great pressure that forced me down. I tried to disobey the force, this gravity that compelled me to bend down. I was small and young, there was no way I was going to break free.

When I finally looked forwards, I could see my favorite heroes sprawled out in chains. They would be suspended and held up on a wall ripped straight from Satan’s chambers. Blood would run down their tour up multi colored outfits, open sores with flies buzzing around them. The screams I would hear didn’t necessarily match the voices of those yelling, all I could distinguish was the anguish in their voices. Just like every time, I’d cry. I’d weep and my tears would evoke a taste as memorable as liquorice. The heroes changed, this time the cast of Dragonball Z, last time the Power Rangers, once my family. When the pressure reaches its peak, it would break. I’d wake in my bed, sweltering under my sheets. Afraid enough to not wait around to turn on the lights this time. I grabbed my tv remote and sat on the floor. I’d need to be up to catch the bus in five hours and I clearly would not spend them sleeping.

I don’t care. I shouldn’t care. I’m better than caring. I’ve always been better.

The thoughts burst into my skull when sitting there watching Jess wrapped around this guy as she took her seat. I whipped my head forward at the speed of sound; she was not going to catch me watching.

I don’t care. I shouldn’t care. She doesn’t owe me anything.

I hadn’t known her longer than a month, but time with her was magnetic. Snapchatting her. Texting her. Flirting with her. I needed to move. My legs were bouncing. My upper body tingled while my breathing increased. The music got louder, the crescendo. My spine crawled up my back like a snake wiggling up my shoulders to bite through my neck. I couldn’t stop it. I knew we weren’t anything, yet I was reacting. My vision focused and unfocused. No one in the row was looking at me but if they did, they could tell I was disturbed. The decision was made, I couldn’t do this anymore. I needed to move.

I don’t care. I shouldn’t care

When the band was in full swing, arms flailing and brass flying, I stood and bolted. I left my skateboard in the back and it was the only thing I was used to at this point. I felt like I was in a game of paintball. Running to the objective so that my cowardice could be hidden for just a bit longer. I grabbed my board, and I fled out the doors and into the cold. I planted both legs on the board and realized I was either breathing too fast or not at all. Seeing her for some reason made me shit bricks. I shat so many bricks you could hire some immigrants and build a house. Then I could live in that house. I could live in my shit house and never go back out; it’d be rent free.

I had no plan and knew everyone would be annoyed when they looked for me. I didn’t even last until they played Star Wars. At least I was moving. I pushed my board for so long and so fast that the rusted bolts under my feet transferred the rough vibrations from the road up the length of my right leg. It was painful, but I would not stop pushing, because when I push I don’t think. Kick push. Kick push. Count the kicks.

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

___________________________________________

Adam Norris

“Cheap Rubber Mulch”

The stage is lit to an unnecessary degree; on that, both parties agree. The recently erected stage is gratuitously flanked by several light trusses, courtesy of Fulton State University’s theatre department, that bathe the temporary platform in a flaxen brilliance, slicing the room in half: on one side, an apprehensive darkness, littered with hushed voices (How long is this supposed to go? This guy isn’t a teacher, right? Do you have a charger for an iPhone?), on the other side, the battlefield upon which the contenders are to compete.

Who are these competitors?  One is a five foot five undergrad by the name of Sharon Stiegler. The other, a five foot ten bachelor named Peter Tumlin who’s two years too late for a mid-life crisis and only just beginning to show the signs of male pattern baldness.

Five weeks prior, neither of them knew the other existed. Sharon attended Fulton State University. She majored in Biology. After only two semesters, she was elected an officer of the Fulton State environmental club. After her third, she was elected president. It’s been 4 weeks, 6 days, and several migraines since the commander-in-chief of Fulton State’s eco army popped up in Peter’s work email. Since that day, a string of correspondence has plagued him.

To Whom It May Concern,

Hello. My name is Sharon Stiegler, and I’m a student here at Fulton State and president of the Environmental club. I’m emailing you today because of an issue we have with the new playground that was just constructed on the west end of campus. We’re concerned about the rubber mulch, which studies have recently shown leach known carcinogens into our environment. We are attaching a recent study conducted by The University of Santiago in Spain. Thank you.

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

Mr. Tumlin,

Thank you for looking at the study, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean by “take it into consideration.” Does that mean the mulch will be replaced? We have compiled a list of locally sourced, environment-friendly alternatives. I’m attaching the word document to this email. Thank you.

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

That kind of shit went on for weeks.

Mr. Tumlin,

I still don’t understand why the amount of recognized carcinogens, the zinc, the lead, the VOC’s, and all the other nasty things that leach into the environment when that stuff decomposes (which it is proven to do BTW!) doesn’t alarm you! And it’s not just into the air, that stuff can get into ground water and cause all sorts of problems!

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

Mr. Tumlin,

I don’t think I was disrespectful in the last email at all, sir. I think you’re misconstruing respect with letting you disregard the evidence I’m presenting you. I’m attaching a page from a recent essay I wrote on carcinogens. PLEASE READ IT!!!

-Sharon Stiegler

President, FSU Environmental Club

Mr. Tumlin,

Dr. Baisden has informed me that you have accepted our invitation. I look forward to meeting you and discussing this matter in a public forum.

-Sharon Stiegler

And so now here we are.

Sharon enters stage right, a confident young student eager to take a logic she can’t wrap her head around and thrust it into the brilliant light of this decently-attended-for-a-Friday-afternoon public debate, where she trusts that either her peers will help her make sense of this man, or that this man will be exposed for a fraud, a con artist, or at least a lousy University employee.

Peter enters stage left. He squints under the heavy wash of the PAR cans and mentally kicks himself for getting roped into this (Dr. Baisden is known to be an extremely persistent, notoriously headstrong woman). A student moderator, no doubt another member of the Fulton State Environmental Club, is already seated at his station. He taps his lapel mic, and the corresponding “thump” that comes from the speakers confirms that, indeed, it is on.

The champions spar for a redundant 12 rounds of prepared bullet points. Evidence is presented. Rhetoric is employed.  Scientific jargon is mispronounced. Credibility is questioned. Nevertheless, Sharon receives a front row thumbs-up from her faculty advisor, that wiry, old Dr. Baisden. The crowd does not notice the mispronunciation.

But enough of this narration, enough of this set up. Let’s tune in and see what these challengers are saying…

Fade In:

Int. Fulton State Auditorium – Night

PETER

Furthermore, Ms. Stiegler, had you approached me with questions concerning this matter, rather than some immature campaign where you assume that my office does not know what it is doing, I would have told you that your one study you’ve provided from the University of Santiago is one of many studies on this subject. Though it may shock you, Ms. Stiegler, and any of you students currently working on research projects, one Google search does not provide the full scope of any scientific issue. Here’s an even bigger shocker, guys: my office thoroughly researches all of our Go Green Initiatives before we ever implement them, and this includes the rubber mulch your club is so concerned over. Did you know, and I’m asking in a purely rhetorical fashion, of course, that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has conducted extensive studies on the effects of rubber mulch on the environment? So have similar agencies in New York, so have similar Agencies in California. Do you know what they determined, Ms. Stiegler? They determined that certain components in these rubber chips do contain allergens, and that if you or your child should have an allergic reaction, you should see your family doctor. They determined that, indeed, the high concentration of Zinc found in storm water runoff from artificial turfs like our rubber mulch can pose environmental risks. Like so many substances in our world, yes, rubber mulch contains known carcinogens, and therefore can introduce these carcinogens into the environment, but all of these studies I have referenced concluded that the amount of risk involved does not surpass the threshold of an acceptable cancer risk.

SHARON

Acceptable cancer risk? What the hell is that supposed to mean?

(The moderator is blind-sided with inner-turmoil. Should he say something about his colleague’s language and preserve the prestige of his title, or is this one of the cool college moments the tour guides told him about? Before he can make that split second decision, Peter beats him to the punch)

PETER

See now, that’s better. Questions. It means, disregarding the vulgarity, that scientists with much more schooling than you have determined that the risk of our rubber mulch causing cancer is no greater than that of the beer you’re all drinking at parties, or the cigarettes you’re all smoking on our smoke-free campus, or the UV radiation we all enjoy from our Sun. It means that scientists have already determined that you are wasting the time of everyone within this auditorium.

(A single chuckle comes from the back of the audience)

SHARON

So, basically, what you’re telling us is that, because the scientific consensus is less than 100%, more research is needed before any action could be taken? Surely, Mr. Tumlin, you must see the irony here?

PETER

You’re associating me with climate change deniers now, Ms. Stiegler? Surely you must see the irony in that.

SHARON

Yes I believe we’re discussing the same irony, Mr. Tumlin, only you seem to think you’re not the butt of this joke.

(The crowd erupts into raucous applause and whooping)

PETER

I will not be insulted in any forum, ma’am, public or private. I was made certain promises before I agreed to this event, the very first of which being that this discussion would be civil and productive. As for your strange accusation, I am, perhaps first and foremost, a lover of science. Real science. It’s been a passion of mine since junior high.  As I’m sure you can tell, that’s been a while. I have a Master of Science from Oregon State University, and I have been an outspoken critic of climate change deniers for years. For you to use your privileged position to stand on this stage and insinuate that I am not committed to my job, is…well it’s disappointing, and highly inappropriate.

MODERATOR

Perhaps if we returned to one of the prompts…let’s see… “How can an individual best mitigate-“

SHARON

No, I don’t think so. I’m not letting you off that easy, Mr. Tumlin.

(A collective hush spreads throughout the crowd)

PETER

Excuse me miss? I’d remind you, you are still expected to show respect-

SHARON

Explain to us how your lackadaisical response to this legitimate environmental concern is any different than a climate change denier’s bread and butter. In the face of good, reputable science, you are choosing to ignore- let’s say a significant probability – that your cheap rubber mulch leaches dangerous contaminants into the atmosphere, all for the sake of saving money. All for the sake of doubling down on a bad decision you already made. Please, Mr. Tumlin, with every ounce of due respect, please explain to me how you, the director of our school’s office of sustainability, are any better than any climate change denier.

(The crowd goes fucking nuts)

PETER

Are you kidding me?! Because I’m not making policy decisions here! We’re talking about some old recycled, repurposed rubber chips! For the ECD’s daycare! At the high school, right over there, people! You can go look at them! So again I repeat, this is NOT even a matter of YOU OR YOUR CLUB’S CONCERN. You know, I don’t know why I agreed to this. You’re clearly not here to for an informed, civilized, academic public forum, and I have no interest participating in this misguided pep rally any longer, good night every-

SHARON

Do you believe the Earth is heating up, Mr. Tumlin? You say you do, and I’m inclined to believe you, because, despite what you may believe, I think you seem like a very intelligent man. If you weren’t so stubborn, we might even get along. I mean, not in a creepy way. I’m 20, and you’re…but what I’m saying is, I mean what I’m asking is, do you really believe this place is going to burn? Do you believe, as I do, that future generations are fucked? Because if you do, and you recognize the big problem, I am here to tell you sir, those rubber chips over there, what you’ve done here, what you’re refusing to even consider doing…this is the little problem. This is symptomatic. It is a symptom of the big problem you claim to be an outspoken critic of. This behavior, this ideology… it takes a population to ruin this planet for posterity, but it takes just one person to get the ball rolling. If nothing else, you are one of millions of hands willingly pushing this ball along. What’s going to be your legacy, Mr. Tumlin? What will it say on your tombstone? Don’t blame me,I wasn’t the only one? Don’t blame me, I always did my job, and besides, the Connecticut Department of Whatever assured me that the risk of cancer was acceptable? Don’t blame me, my lazy response to environmental concerns was no worse than most, and better than many? Do you feel like you’re sustaining anything other than your salary, Mr. Tumlin?

PETER

Future generations are, as you say it, are fucked…because of our Rubber Mulch? That’s your assessment.

SHARON

In part?  Absolutely.

PETER

So now I’m a murderer as well as a climate change denier?

SHARON

Is there a difference?

PETER

Sure. One’s not murdering people.

SHARON

That’s rich. You claim to be an ally of environmentalists the world over, and you don’t see a connection between the victims of an insufficient response to the climate crisis, and the forces behind that insufficient response? When the seas rise, and the coast lines erode, you don’t think any guilt lies with the generations past who said no, those ice caps are fine, no those maps are here to stay?! I call bullshit, sir; do you not have any sympathy for people of the future?!

PETER

PEOPLE OF THE FUTURE?! I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE PEOPLE LIVING RIGHT NOW!!! I have a job. It’s a good job, and it’s challenging, and it’s rewarding. My office, our initiatives, we do a ton of good on this campus. For the environment.  And for the school. You know why your tuition has been stable? You know why you enjoy a beautiful campus, with efficient, innovative technology? It’s because my office does a damn good job promoting the welfare of this school and its student body.

But yeah, Ms.  Stiegler. Can I call you Sharon? Might as well, this thing has gone as horribly as it could have, I see you all with your parents’ phones out…yeah. If you want me to be honest, I don’t really give a shit about the people on this planet right now, and I don’t really give a shit about the people still to come. And I don’t have to. That’s not required of me by this university, or anything else, or anyone else. At the end of the day, I’m looking out for myself, just like everybody else, whether they want to bullshit about altruism and community and work themselves and everyone who’s gullible enough to believe them into some grand circle-jerk, or they’re like me, and they just want to do their fucking job, and do a damn good job at their fucking job, and then go home, and have a beer and watch some television, and not be harassed by some temporal world savior. I told you I’m a lover of science. I know where this is headed. You might even say I know it better than most. Life on this Earth, as we know it, is not sustainable in the long term, not with our species, not with our habits, not with our instincts. Our nature and this planet’s nature are opposed, and we are not on the winning side. Not in the long term of this universe, anyways, and there’s nothing that this office can do about that. It’s going to end. We’re going to choke to death on our own emissions! Yes! We’re going to flood the earth, you bet! We’re going to go crazy in little fucking rooms counting numbers and writing stories and coming up with holidays while the planet burns, sure! And humanity will go to its grave complaining about gas prices and the weather, and just before we all disappear up our own asshole, people like me will get to say “Ha! Told you so! Now let me die in peace!”

So if my time here at Fulton State is coming to a close, and after this fun event, I do believe it is, let me leave you with some knowledge…

There are people suffering, guys. I mean right now. Horrible, terrible suffering. Starvation. Oppression. Heartbreak. There were people suffering yesterday, there’ll be suffering tomorrow. I’m suffering a little right now. I’ve suffered worse. I’ll suffer worse. And at no point during my suffering, or anybody else’s suffering that’s continued without ceasing for the entirety of recorded history, has Sharon Stiegler, college sophomore, public speaker extraordinaire, or any other member of the Fulton State Ecological Society, jumped in to save the day! No one has ever come to ease our suffering! No one ever started a Gofundme! I never heard about any benefit concerts! Shit I can’t even remember getting any words of encouragement or moral support! Tell me Sharon, are future generations going to finally develop that time machine and retroactively make my life easier, save me from cruelty and anguish?

You stand there and act as if victims of tomorrow are any more important than victims of today or victims of yesterday, because what? Because notions of the future are just inherently cool? Because future suffering holds more value than current suffering? The generations that are already here starve and suffer and find themselves pummeled with injustice, but that’s a lost cause, let’s save the coastlines’ future, right? Let’s tell Peter he needs to get in line and change out the mulch on a playground, and if he doesn’t, well we’ll just put him on display for everyone to come see the devil, come see this man who would dare look in the face of something in this universe that might kill something else in this universe, and be thoroughly unsurprised, unimpressed, and uninterested!  Well if what you’ve said is true, Sharon, if my choice of goddamn rubber mulch is the momentum that gets the gears turning, that ignites the engine of abuse and torment, the seed of some trans-generational suffering, well then I say LET ‘EM SUFFER FOLKS!

MODERATOR

…Err-And that’s going to be all the time we have this evening, folks! On behalf of the Environmental Club, I want to thank everyone for coming out, and don’t forget, tomorrow is Earth Day! Let’s all find ways to save the planet guys, thanks and good night!

END SCENE

As the crowd disperses, additional club members hand out 6×8 flyers, which advertise the following day’s activities, as well as the remaining semester’s calendar. Peter has already stormed out of the auditorium, and is on his way to his office to pack his things. He’s going to beat this thing to the punch.  He’s going to resign. He’s going to move. He hasn’t decided where.

Sharon stands with a cluster of her most trusted classmates and discusses the alarming turn the evening has taken. All in all, she says to her confidants, the forum went well, and she has done what she meant to do: expose injustice. She had been in the right all along, she reflects, but she didn’t know just how much of a head case that man really was.

A hand on her shoulder interrupts her train of thought, and she turns to find a warm hug from her hero, Dr. Baisden, who tells her that she was just so good. The two of them walk out into the atrium together, discussing the debate. No one in the remaining congregation asks what’s going to happen with the rubber chips. Most of them assume it’s now going to be taken care of by someone, and a few even forget why they were there.

___________________________________________

Angelique Herrera

“Hush Hush”

The dimly lit chandelier casts a shadow against the stark white vanity and matching dresser, pushed against one of the egg-shell colored walls. Beneath the soft light, two men are splayed across a king-sized bed. Everything is silent, except for the sounds of the men gasping for breath. They face each other, both lying on their sides; only a black silk sheet covering the two of them. The Hispanic man, with dark, sharp features reaches out and caresses the caucasian man’s smooth, angelic-like face,  running his long fingers throughout the man’s golden curls.

“Marc,” the Caucasian man says in a sultry voice, as he leans into Marc’s touch.

“Yes, Eric?” Marc says, as a slight grin appears at the corner of his mouth.

“Why does time go by so quickly when we’re together, but feels eternal at the same time?”

Marc chuckles slightly at how cheesy Eric’s words sounded, “It’s because the time we have with each other is usually limited. Honestly, It’s refreshing being able to get a full night together. I do cherish these special moments with you Eric.” He winks.

“I do too Marc,” He sighed, turning slightly red. “I just wish we didn’t have to freaking hide anymore.”

“Baby, you know we can’t bring this out in the open yet.”

“Why not? Don’t you think five years has been long enough?” Frustration slowly building up in his voice.

“Cálmate, cálmate. How would that look on me Eric? I’m married. I’ve been married for seven years, and with the same woman for fifteen. One of your good friends I may add.”

Eric blushed shamefully at his remark.

“Plus baby, I’m up for district attorney next year. I can’t have drama come out of the woodwork. The voters would have an uproar if they found out I’m having an affair, especially if they found out it was with a man.”

“I know, I know. I’m just tired of keeping everything a secret. I’m tired of the lies. What kind of person does it make me, being her friend, yet in love and sleeping with you.  Why can’t you just ask her for a divorce? You’re unhappy, it would make the most sense.” Eric looked Marc in the eyes pleadingly.

“Eric, it’s not that simple,” Hurt flickered in Eric’s eyes, as Marc continued to speak. “Now stop talking about this mess, and let’s make the most of this night.” His eyes lowered, looking lustfully at the nape of Eric’s neck. He leaned in, placing rough kisses down his neck.

Eric let out a groan, “Fine, but this conversation isn’t going to go away. It will continue later”  He closed his eyes, allowing Marc to continue kissing down his neck. They both slowly sink back into the mattress, their hands roaming once again.

A faint clicking sound made its way throughout the house.

“Marc,” Eric jerks suddenly, whispering, “Did you hear something?”

Marc chuckles, “Relax mi guerito, you know Alicia is away on a girls trip. Your anxiety is getting to you. You’re starting to hear things loco.”

“You’re-you’re probably right, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m so jumpy tonight. I might have had one too many glasses of wine earlier”

Marc presses his pointer finger against Eric’s pouty lips, “Shhh mi angelito, enough talking.” He grabs his chin, gently tugging him closer. Their bodies medling together, as if they were matching puzzle pieces. Their lips touching ever so slightly.

A female voice suddenly rings out, “Marc?  Mi novio, are you here?”

The door swings open, bright white lights turning on suddenly. Too fast for either men to react quickly enough.

“Marc?” Alicia says in a confused voice. Her eyes focus on the king-sized bed in front of her; registering what’s actually going on. Her gaze drifting towards Marc, then switching to Eric. Her mouth falls open in disbelief as she stumbles backwards. She leans against the wooden door, trying to regain her balance.

Fuck.” Marc thinks to himself, shaking his head slightly.

“Alicia,” Marc says in quiet, hesitant voice, “it’s not what it looks like preciosa.”

He begins to get up from the bed, his hands out in front of him. Alicia pushes herself off of the wall, throwing her fists down to her sides.

“Sit the FUCK down, Marc! Are you seriously trying to tell me that THIS,” She waves her finger at Marc and then to Eric. “Isn’t what it looks like. You’re CHEATING on me, with a fucking DUDE for Christ’s sake!”

He sighs, “Baby. I can explain, if you just could calm down.”

‘Cálmate? Mi Cálmate? Ay dios mío! We’ve been together for fifteen years, and married for goddamn seven years! I just caught you cheating on me with your best friend, and you’re telling me to calm down? HOW DARE YOU!” Alicia then looks at Eric, “And you! Pinche cochino, I fucking trusted you, Eric! I thought we were friends. We have dinner every goddamn Tuesday; you were in our wedding for Christ’s sakes!” She lets out a hysterical laugh,  “But you’re sleeping with my husband?  How could you do that to me? All this time I’ve been worrying about him going off and cheating with another woman, but he’s over here sleeping with dudes now too! Damn bastard!”

Eric’s face turns stark white, stammering, “A-alicia, I’m so sorry. We just didn’t know how to tell you. I never meant to hurt you.”

“Tell me?” She scoffs. “Bullshit. Who the hell knows how long you two have been fucking behind my back.”

She looks over at Marc once again.“Marc, did our marriage seriously mean nothing to you? If you were unhappy why didn’t you just say something. Instead, you fuck our friend. Can you even look me in the eyes and show me an ounce of remorse for this shit?”

He groans in annoyance, totally over the entire situation.

“Look Alicia, I’m sorry…that you caught us. You were supposed to be away”

Alicia screams in frustration, “My flight got cancelled you narcissistic bastard! You do this and can’t even apologise? Do you even care how much this hurts me? God you’re sick! Four times you cheated on me! FOUR TIMES!”

She begins shaking her head furiously, her black curls springing in every direction. Fury forming behind her caramel colored eyes. She reaches down, pulling off her shiny, black, stiletto heel. Kicking the other one across the floor. She clenches the heel tightly, her petite fingers turning white at the knuckles. Her eyes narrowing in on Marc.

“Y-you,” she says through clenched teeth, “You are going to pay for this. I loved you despite all the affairs, the long hours at the office, the cold shoulder, not wanting kids, not wanting to have sex. I loved you through all that and this is what happens! I’m fucking done! No mas!”

“Wait, Marc has been sleeping with other women too?” Eric thinks to himself, his blood boiling slightly.

She lunged at Marc, swinging the shoe towards his head. Screams gurgling from her throat as her eyes glaze over, becoming animalistic.  He jumps backwards, the tip of the stiletto grazing his nose.A stinging sensation shoots through his face; he grabs his nose, as he falls backwards onto the bed. Eric starts to scream, lifting the sheets over his face to protect himself.  Screaming, “Alicia, please calm down!”

“Shut the hell up you homewrecker!”

“Alicia!” Marc screams, “ Are you loca!? What are you trying to do, kill me?”

She looks at him, then began chuckling slightly.Realization settling on her face. She looks down at the wooden floor, her breath hitching, as she lets the heel slip from her fingers. Everyone’s eyes focusing on the heel as it falls to the floor. The shoe making a small clunk as it makes contact with the wood.

“You know what, I could be crazy. But…you know, you’re just not worth it anymore.” She pauses slightly. “B-both of you,Get the fuck out of my house.”

Anger begins to overcome Marc, as he sneers, “This is my house puta, my job is what pays for most of this shit in here. You used my money to buy this furniture, all those name brand clothes in your walk in closet, and those fucking Coach bags of yours.”

Eric peeks out from under the covers, slowly putting the sheets down. He whispers, “Marc, I think we should probably leave.” As he thinks guiltily to himself, “This never would have happened, if Marc would have told her earlier on. Instead of keeping me as a closet freak. Or if I never got in between them, but apparently he’s been lying to us both. God, I love him though…”

“No Eric. This is my house. If you want to scram, fine. I ain’t leaving though”

“Actually Marc, this is OUR house. You may have bought things, but don’t act like you cutting the checks for things, wasn’t just a way to shut me up. I may have designer labels, but that’s besides the point. We’re married, and your money is my money. I married you before you even had money. I’m tired of you undermining me. I work. I work very hard. I know I didn’t go to law school like you, but I work more days than your lazy ass does.”

“Oh please woman, you’re just a high school English teacher.”

“I may be “just a teacher”, but I’m more literate than you’ll ever be.”

“Again, this is my house. Your salary wouldn’t even cover the electricity costs in this house.”

Alicia threw her head back and cackled.

“Let me tell you something idiot, this house is already paid off. The lease is co-signed under both of our names, so technically, it is mine regardless of whom has paid it. Also, I want a fucking divorce Marc. I’ll enjoy seeing how “sorry” your ass is going to be when we’re both standing in front of a judge, discussing who gets what. I’m more than sure that the judge will empathize with a distressed wife, who just got cheated on AGAIN, by her unloving husband. Her husband who happens to be running for district attorney, and who happens to now be gay,” She sighs.  “Now, both of you. Get. The. Fuck. Out. Of. My. House,” She stares Eric directly in his wide, blue eyes as she says, “Before I call the cops on his ass.”

“I’ll go.” Eric says quickly.

“No,” Marc says, “we both can go finish the night elsewhere.”

“Is this guy seriously just thinking about sex right now?” Eric thinks angrily.

“Good, grab your shit and get out. You have five minutes before I call the huda”, Alicia says, as she walks out the door and down the wooden staircase.

Eric flies up from the bed, frantically searching for his clothes. Pulling them on as he finds each piece. “Marc, I’m so sorry. I ruined your marriage, and I hurt someone who was my friend. We shouldn’t have kept this a secret for so long”

“Don’t worry about it, that bitch isn’t going to get shit.”

“Stop calling her that.”

“What you’re defending her now? After all this secrecy, and sneaking around. I’m finally free of her, we can be together now.”

“Now you want to be together?  I asked you to leave her numerous freaking times. Even earlier today, you said it would cause too much drama if you did. But, she just threatened to take all this to court and you didn’t even bat a fucking eye! You cheated on her with me, and other people too. You weren’t going to tell me that one were you asshole? You could have prevented this shit though, but no. You wanted to keep me a secret. Your dirty little gay secret, huh? The only reason you’re leaving now is because she found out about it. If you really “loved me”, you would have ended things with her two years ago.” He stammers, “I-i don’t think I want this anymore. I know I was wrong on my part, but you’re wrong on all parts.”

“Are you fucking serious? You want to leave me now? What the fuck. Ha, fine. Leave. You and her will both come crawling back to me sooner or later.” He sneers.

“You know what Marc, Alicia is right. You are a narcissistic bastard. You only care about yourself, and boning”

Marc lets out a roar, his tanned arm cocking back. He swings at Eric, nailing him right in his left eye socket. Eric falls to the ground screaming, while holding a hand to his eye. Bruising and swelling begin forming around the area he was hit.

Alicia runs back up the stairs. Screaming, “What the fuck is going on?”

Marc turns and faces the doorway where Alicia is standing, “This bitch wants to leave me too, but he got what he deserved. You’re lucky you aren’t a dude too.” He smirks.

Eric, still holding his eye, inches towards one of the fallen heels that Alicia had thrown aside earlier. He looks up to see Alicia watching him carefully. He puts a finger to his lips, signaling her to hush and not give anything away. He grasps the top of the heel firmly in his right hand. Silently standing up.

“Hey, Asshole.” Eric says tauntingly.

“You shouldn’t have anything to say to me, seeing how I just beat your ass.” Marc says, as he turns around to look at Eric.

As Marc turns, Eric swings the stiletto down. The heel landing directly into Marc’s right eyeball. His eyeball pops and he screams violently, as blood begins spurting from his eyeball. The heel lodging itself deeper into his eye socket. He falls to the floor, curling up into a fetal position. Blood spurting in multiple directions, pooling onto the wooden flooring.

He screams hysterically, “You are sick!” He clutches his face, his breath hitching “You ruined my FUCKING EYE!” Sobbing, he yells out once more, “Alicia, don’t just fucking stand there. Call 911! Do you want me to die? I’m your husband!” He cries.

“An eye for an eye you bastard. I’ll call an ambulance for you. I am going to claim this incident as self-defense though, and I’m sure your soon to be ex-wife will back up my story.” He looks at Alicia, “I’m sorry for sleeping with your husband, he fed us both lies. I know this doesn’t make up for it, but I do sincerely apologize.” He then pulls out his phone to dial 911.

Her gaze towards the pool of blood breaks, looking up at Eric.

“ First of all, I don’t accept your apology. I will not be backing anyone up. You cochinos are on your own,  I’ll say what I saw but that’s that. Now get the hell out of my house, and wait outside for the cops.” She looks over at Marc, “This isn’t even all you deserve. You’re lucky. Get the hell up off of the floor and get out of my house, you’re bleeding all over my floor. The ambulance should be coming.”

Marc sobs, as he attempts to get off of the floor. Grabbing a sheet and putting it around the heel, to prevent the blood from spurting any further. He finally gets up, and hobbles towards the stairs. She watches both men as they walk down the stairs, following behind shortly.They all begin to patiently wait for the ambulance. Both the ambulance, and the police showed up to the scene of the events. The first person to show up to the scene, was an officer by the name of Officer Weathers. He was a younger black man, average build, and a stern face. He cautiously approached the three by the front steps. Taken aback by the distraught looking woman, the half-naked white man, and the hispanic man, covered in blood. With a heel protruding from his eyeball.

“Hello all, my name is Officer Weathers. I’ve come to take statements, about the ordeal that’s happened here tonight.” The officer looks to Marc, “Sir, the ambulance is on its way. Are you light-headed? I’d like to collect your statement, before the medic arrives. If possible. Please sit down on the steps if you’re more comfortable. Meanwhile, the other two can stand over there.”

He points to a tree, about fifteen feet away. Eric and Alicia make their way over to the tree. Marc then gives the officer his perspective on what happened.

“Officer, Eric and I were having an affair. We have been on the low for years, but my wife and I have not been happy for a long long time. Yes, I know it was wrong. I just couldn’t stay away from Eric, he’s the love of my life. My wife was very angry, she threatened my life, my job, and to take away my house. After that, Eric threatened to leave me too. I had a mental break, and black-out. He said I punched him, but all I remember is the way his eyes looked before he swung the heel down. It was awful officer.”

“Sir, I have all the information I need from you. Thank you. The ambulance is pulling up now.”

The ambulance pulled into the driveway and, Marc was taken to the hospital immediately. Officer Weathers signaled Eric over to give his side of the story.

“Sir, please tell me your perspective on the events that transpired today.”

“Yes officer. So, today Marc and I wanted a night to ourselves. His wife was out of town, and we were having an affair. She ended up coming home, without our knowledge and caught us. She was very upset, and she had every right to be. They did end up getting into a verbal argument over the house, but nothing terrible. She almost went after Marc, but regained her composure. She told us to leave, and I got my stuff to leave. Marc however, was not happy about it. Him and I got into a heated discussion over our relationship. I told him that he could have prevented all of this, and I told him I no longer wanted to be with him. He got very angry, and knocked me right in my eye. Then he made a snarky comment about how Alicia and I going to come crawling back to him.”

“Sir, tell me about the heel in his eye.”

“Well officer, he hit me really hard. I felt defenseless, so I picked up the heel and swung at him. It got stuck in his eye. It was a spur of the moment thing.”

“Okay sir, I have all the information needed from you. Go back to where you were standing, and tell the Mrs. to come give her statement.

Eric walks over, and Alicia soon walks to where the officer is standing.

“Ma’am please tell me your side of the story.”

“Okay, so I was supposed to be going on a trip. My flight was cancelled, so I came home. When I got here, I found my husband in bed with one of our good friends. I was furious, and almost hit Marc. I didn’t though, I was in shock. Like, I knew we weren’t happy but I never thought he would be sleeping with a man…” Her voice breaks slightly.

“My apologies ma’am, but keep going.”

“Well we got into an argument over the house, and I threatened him with court. His responses were vain of course, he’s diagnosed with narcissism. I told them to leave then walked downstairs, only to come back minutes later. I heard a scream, and Eric was on the floor when I got up there. Marc had punched him, and then was laughing about it. He said I was lucky to be a woman, or I would have ended up the same. Anyways, that’s when I noticed Eric going for the heel. He like, put his finger to his mouth to tell me to almost keep it hush hush. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening sir, but then in like moments. A shoe was in Marc’s eye. I stood there shocked. Now, you’re here.”

“Well ma’am, after collecting everyone’s statements; I will not be putting you under arrest. However, I will be arresting your husband with aggravated battery. He may serve jail time, but there’s a possibility of bail if you want him out.”

“He can rot in there for all I care. I’ll be serving him divorce papers whether or not he’s in jail.” She thought to herself briefly.

“I will be arresting Eric as well, with a higher charge.”

She nodded at the officer, watching him walk over to Eric.

“Sir,” The officer said. “Can you please tell me your last name?”

“Yes, it’s Edwards.”

“Alright, thank you. Eric Edwards, turn around and put your hands on your back.”

“Wait…what? No!” Eric steps back.

“Sir, turn around and put your hands behind your back. You’re being arrested for attempted involuntary manslaughter.”

“No! No! He deserves to be arrested, not me!

The officer proceeds to detain Eric, finally getting him in the squad car. Officer Weathers then comes back over to Alicia, “You have a good night Miss.”

“Thank you officer.”

The squad car exited her property, and Alicia made her way back inside. She climbed up the wooden staircase slowly. Walking towards her bedroom door, she pushed the door open gently. Her eyes fixated on the tousled bed in front of her. She sighed loudly, “Great, they just had to screw in the bed I sleep in. Now I’m going to have to burn the sheets and mattress.”

She tries to laugh at the joke she made, but instead, a sob escapes her throat. Her body begins to convulse. She falls to the floor, landing in the pool of Marc’s blood. Sobs erupting from her throat, as she convulses uncontrollably. Blood staining her hair and skin. Her sobs finally quiet down,and the shaking ceases. She puts her fingers up to her mouth, whispering to herself, “Hush hush Alicia, hush hush.”

___________________________________________

Brandon Williams

“end measured mile”

It’s probably eight o’clock or so when the van rumbles to a stop and the overhead light comes on like a dim yellow alarm. Everyone’s blinking against it, staggering out of their seats and stretching, freed from the too-tight seatbelts, the stale air conditioning and the ever-present scent of Cheez-Its. Sue stays bundled up in the old army blanket, blinking blearily at the intrusion of noise and the sudden cessation of motion.

The sliding door just past the top of her head opens, sending her backpack thumping to the asphalt along with a half-eaten packet of Starburst. “Come on, girlie,” Dad says, patting her on the shoulder. He’s talking too loud, ears deadened by twelve hours on the road.

Sue just squeezes her eyes shut more tightly. The sooner she gets up, the sooner she has to help unpack.

All too quickly she finds herself making the weary trek to the back of the van to grab the nearest suitcase, her hair floating free with static, the army blanket draped over one shoulder like a half-hearted toga. The driveway is on a steep incline from the road, ending at the big white door of the garage. Sometimes she feels like the walnuts that fall from the huge, crabbed tree at the top of the hill, rolling down to where Grandad has to sweep them off the front walk. No matter where she goes, she rolls back here.

She falls into the line of suitcases trundling towards the front door and watches from the rear as it opens, dutifully stepping forward one vacated space at a time, eventually taking her place at the front. Her turn to hug, pat on the back, make awkward noises in her throat when she can’t take a compliment, can’t think of anything pertinent to say about the fact she’s taller (she’s not) or prettier (nope) or maybe wider, if Grandad makes a joking jab (but it’s funny because it’s true).

“How was your trip?” Nanny asks, putting her long arms around Sue. Nanny, tall and frail and beautiful, like a stilt-legged bird.

“Long,” Sue says.

“Never gets any shorter, does it,” Nanny says with a small laugh. She pulls back and cups Sue’s cheek, piano fingers dry and cool. “Glad you could make it, hon.”

Sue just smiles and gently pulls free.

Then Nanny and Grandad gather up to make a fuss over Benji; and look how tall he’s gotten, how broad his shoulders are, he’ll be shaving soon and, goodness, they heard he made the track team. Benji soaks it up because he’s conventionally attractive and athletic and accomplished and fits in his skin, it’s tailormade.

Sue is ninety-percent sure she doesn’t hate him for that.

She doesn’t miss how all this is happening in the middle of the foyer. Sue is on the right edge and Mom stands on the left and Dad, Benji, Grandad and Nanny all huddle between, talking over each other, providing a barrier. Because this is the distance proscribed by this summer’s cold war. Nobody ever said, ‘keep Sue and Mom apart’. Nobody had to; there’s ice there, forming crystals in the gap, and they all feel it.

Sue turns and pulls her suitcase away.

Her room is the laundry room. Once upon a time she and Benji had shared the kids’ room, but that was before high school, before bras and blemishes and all the other plagues of puberty. ‘A growing girl needs her own space,’ Nanny had said, and if that space is mostly taken up by a washer and dryer, well, Sue isn’t that picky. Besides, she likes the way it smells: Tide and clean cotton and dryer sheets. Her airbed is wedged against the opposite wall, already fitted with sheets and a pillow. There’s a small bathroom right across the tiny hall.

She’s brushing her teeth when she looks directly into her own reflection and freezes, toothbrush prickly against her gums. She has the sensation that she’s looking through a window, not a mirror, and another Sue is staring back at her, caught in the same moment. For a long, shuddering second, she’s hesitant to move because the reflection might not move the same way. And what would that mean?

It’s a child’s thought, something long leftover from the days when she would peek around the doorframe, pretending the silvery sheen crouched above the sink was a window to another world. Now here she is, in front of the same mirror; fully formed, fully reflected. No magic, no shades of Mirror-Sue. Just her, facing herself and a future she can’t seem to find the shape of.

It’s always just her.

She goes back into her room and collapses onto the air mattress with a rubbery squelch. Getting comfortable always sounds like someone molesting a balloon. She reaches over into her backpack and pulls out the letter, with its creased edges and faraway zip code. 90095—California. The same country but still so distant—so different—from Michigan, from Arkansas. She tugs it out of the envelope just enough to see the words that make her heart race.

You have been accepted

She tucks it back away.

The next morning is the first day of vacation, always set aside as the laziest day. Sue eats a quick breakfast of cereal, after which there isn’t much to do except wait for lunch. Benji is still sleeping in the kids’ room, so the Sega is off limits. She doesn’t feel like watching TV; she does plenty of that at home.

At the back of the dining room is the sliding door to the second-story deck. She steps out into a day just beginning to hit the first edge of summer heat; dew sits heavy on the thick-bladed grass below, the planks of the deck moist beneath her bare feet. Two clear acres stretch out and down to the drop off at the far edge where the creek cuts through the red clay and winnows past the trees dotting the high bank. Across that shallow ribbon of water is a fence on the other bank, backed by high grass. The Ozarks roll above it all, estival greens rising and falling like the wooded humps of whales breaching on that misty horizon.

She descends the creaky wooden steps to the lawn. Down near the edge of the creek is a shady oak tree with a trampoline beneath it. Per usual, she tires of jumping within fifteen minutes. She’s lying on her back enjoying the dappled light winking through the shifting leaves when Benji finds her. The trampoline is kind of a first day tradition.

He pulls off his shoes and rolls onto glossy black mat. “Mom said she’s going shopping with Nanny, so we’re on our own for lunch,” he announces.

“Cool,” Sue says, which it isn’t, really, but she doesn’t feel like talking.

Benji always feels like talking. “So are you still all brooding and stuff?”

“Shut up, Benji.”

“What? I’m just asking,” he retorts in a tone that’s nothing close to innocent. “Unless you’re just going to hate Mom forever and still stay.”

“Seriously?” Sue kicks out blindly with one foot and connects with what feels like Benji’s midsection, getting an indignant squawk for her effort. “Go. Away.”

“It’s my trampoline, too!”

“No, it isn’t, it belongs to the neighbors.”

“Well, I was there when they said we could use it,” Benji states, like that’s the ultimate argument.

Sue sighs and rolls over, intent on ignoring him.

“I just wish you’d do something,” Benji mutters. “You and Mom are making things so weird.”

She doesn’t know what he’s complaining about. He’s the golden boy—always has been, always will be—and if Mom ignores Sue from now on then he’ll get that much more attention.

But it’s hard to push him away, here on the trampoline. A thousand echoes of their younger selves flit through memory. Benji isn’t Sue’s enemy, and she misses the days when the gap between younger brother and older sister hadn’t seemed so wide and meaningful. Now she’s grown up (yeah, right), and he’s waiting to catch up.

“Maybe you should talk to her,” Benji suggests. He makes it sound that easy because it would be, for him.

“She doesn’t listen,” Sue tells him.

“You haven’t tried.” Benji sits on crossed legs, tearing up a fallen leaf into tiny green shreds. He shrugs uncomfortably. “This just sucks, you know?”

She knows.

Dad shows up on the ATV about twenty minutes later. The noise of the engine cuts through the peaceful morning like a buzzsaw; Sue can track his progress without opening her eyes. He pulls up alongside the trampoline and kills the engine.

“You guys been down to the creek yet?” he asks. He looks them over. “You’re still dry, so come on. Let’s see how it’s doing this year.”

Dad doesn’t own the property or the creek, but he still treats it like it’s his own pet project, noting slight changes in its course year by year. Since Nanny and Grandad moved here from the old house the creek has eaten away a good twenty feet off the end of their yard. It’s never safe to walk right up to the edge of the ravine. Sue and Benji follow Dad around to the narrow trail that cuts through the tall grass, meandering down to the creek bed.

Benji and Dad start skipping rocks; it takes about a minute for it to become a competition. Sue finds a spot that’s deep enough for her to sit in and settles there with the water lapping up and down between her chest and stomach. She turns over the smooth rocks, watching tiny minnows scatter and the small clouds of mud get swept away. No crawdads so far.

Once, she found an arrowhead mixed in among all the other rocks. It was a lustrous, speckled red-brown, its edges long since dulled with age. She had wondered if anyone would find something left from her after she was dead. If they did, it wouldn’t be as cool as an arrowhead. ‘Someone wrote ‘SUE’ on this rock,’ they would say in that distant future, ‘but we don’t think they were important.’

She’d scared Benji with the arrowhead, telling him it was haunted by an Indian ghost and then hiding it under his pillow that night. He’s too old for that to work anymore, but she feels like she might have been half right. Not because ghosts are real, but the person who had made the arrowhead had been, once, and sort of still is. The arrowhead sits at the bottom of a drawer in Sue’s room, an extant piece of a life long since lived.

So, maybe everything is haunted, because everything has been touched by someone. And everyone leaves pieces of themselves behind, even though they don’t mean to. The past never fully fades away. It’s a sea of ghosts, beneath the map.

“Sue!” Dad yells, breaking her from her thoughts. “We’re going back for lunch.”

She stands and walks heavily to the rocky bar, slow with the weight of the water and its cold. Her arms are covered in goosebumps despite the glaring sun. She looks back at the creek and she can see the impression where she’d been sitting; she wonders how long it’ll last.

Benji strides by, shaking off droplets like a dog. She’s about to fall into step with him when he raises his hands in front of her face, forcing her to halt. He’s got a toad perched on the seam between his palms, its tawny little eyes glittering like gold flakes.

“Kiss him, he’s a prince!” Benji says with a wide, mischievous smile.

“He’s your toad; you kiss him,” Sue counters.

“I tried, but he’s a reverse-toad prince. He needs a kiss from another toad.” Benji thrusts the toad even closer to Sue’s mouth. “He said no tongue.”

“Come on, guys!” Dad calls from further up the bank, distracting Benji.

Sue sidesteps her brother and gives him a five-star square on his developing sunburn. As Benji screeches the toad makes a heroic leap for freedom and flies in a graceful arc like a warty comet; it dives back into the welcoming waters of the creek with barely a ripple.

Ten out of ten, Sue thinks.

            She wonders if toads can remember things like this.

Dad’s in charge of lunch, which means Sue and Benji each get a can of Campbell’s finest Chicken & Stars. Afterwards they convene in the kids’ room to kill some time with the Sega Genesis in the TV cabinet.

“Bet I can get past the Labyrinth Zone,” Benji says, grabbing the controller.

“Bet you can’t,” Sue says.

She’s right. Benji throws himself onto his bed in a huff, followed by the taunting tones of the Game Over music. Sue takes up the controller and makes it all the way to the Star Light Zone, earning an obscene gesture from Benji.

She pauses the game and goes out into the garage to grab a soda from the second fridge. Grandad keeps the place obsessively clean and the concrete floor is cool and smooth against her bare feet. It smells like oil and metal, underpinned by the acrid hint of gasoline. She finds Dad at one of the workbenches against the far wall. Curious, she comes up next to him to see what he’s working on.

“Just weighting these lines,” he tells her, crimping a lead ball onto the fishing wire.

“We fishing tomorrow?” Sue asks.

“Probably not tomorrow. We’re going shopping, remember?”

“Oh, right.”

She watches his hands as he squeezes the pliers, smashing the lead closed. Dad works with his hands, always has. There are tiny white scars all over them, scratched onto the pitted leather of his skin like counting notches. They remind her of the sketches he sometimes draws, spindly pictures in blue pen made of dozens of quick little lines. The scars make his hand a weathered parchment, each small cut a scratched-in memory. It’s his history; and Sue’s, too. It’s the work he’s done for her, to bring her into the world, to bring her to the here and now. The scars of a family tree, drawn in thin white lines. Hers is the branch that skews towards the wrist, about to fall off the page.

“Benji said I should try talking to Mom,” Sue blurts out.

Dad’s practiced motions stop for a fraction of a second, the only sign of his surprise. “I think he’s right.”

Sue isn’t so sure. “What if it just makes things worse?”

The final lead weight goes onto the line. It dangles heavily from Dad’s fingers, straining towards the floor. “You won’t know unless you try, Susan.”

“I don’t even know what her problem is,” Sue mutters.

“She misses you.”

Sue frowns. “What? I’m right here.”

“Well, sometimes,” Dad says.

Sue rolls her eyes. “Yeah, thanks, I prefer my advice to be cryptic.” She grabs a soda from the fridge and stalks back into the house.

Truth is, she knows exactly what Dad’s talking about.

Fireworks tents back home are primarily filled with disappointment: weak smoke bombs, sparklers, maybe some snakes if you get lucky. Party favors passing themselves off as fireworks. Down here, it’s the real deal. Sue, Dad and Benji load up on the good stuff and back home they put everything in the shed where it will sit until they start setting up tomorrow afternoon.

Inside the house, Nanny’s in the kitchen prepping all kinds of food for the family who will arrive for the Fourth. Sue gets roped into helping, which she has long since resigned herself to. Chores are just a part of staying with Nanny and Grandad, the price of an otherwise great vacation. As Sue putters around the kitchen she can hear Benji running the weed eater at the side of the house while Grandad’s riding mower drones in the distance.

“How you likin’ vacation so far, Susie Q?” Nanny asks in her honeyed drawl as Sue dutifully chops carrots for a chicken pot pie.

“Good,” Sue says. Then, more animatedly, “We got a great haul this year from the tent. Tomorrow’s show will be awesome.”

            “You always did love those fireworks,” Nanny remarks, and while there’s that same hint in her tone that Mom always has—the one that says ‘I don’t get it’—there’s something else there that Mom lacks: acceptance. “Well, I look forward to it, hon. Pass me that salt, wouldja?”

Mom passes by the kitchen with an armful of tablecloths, headed for the laundry. Sue keeps her head down and chops, fearing eye contact.

“You know we all want what’s best for you,” Nanny says.

There’s a part of Sue that wants to let it go, but she doesn’t. “Even if I’m moving away?”

“Well, we don’t hardly get to see you but once or twice a year anyway,” Nanny says with short laugh. “You aren’t moving to the moon, are yuh?”

Sue looks down at the half a carrot on the cutting board, surrounded by its own parted segments. “I’d still try to visit.”

“Well, that’s good for me and Grandad. But maybe your momma isn’t used to that. She’s used to having you around.”

Frustration surges through Sue, drowning out the first pangs of empathy. “Okay, fine, but why doesn’t it matter what I want? I thought it was my decision.”

“It’s your decision,” Nanny says mildly. “You’re eighteen now. I’m just sayin’ that it might be hard for your mother, that’s all. It doesn’t hurt to try and understand.”

Nanny isn’t the person Sue wants to vent at. She takes a deep breath through her nose. “I really would try to visit,” she murmurs, resuming her chopping.

“You’re always welcome,” Nanny tells her. “Always will be. You’re my number one granddaughter.” A gentle squeeze of Sue’s shoulder leaves behind the floury imprints of Nanny’s fingers, a white half-star.

Sue doesn’t bother to brush it off.

The next day Sue’s cousin Jessie arrives bright and early, rushing through the doorway with a big hug for everyone. She’s about three years older than Sue and every time Sue sees her she’s got another color in her hair or tattoo on her freckled skin. She’s loud and fun; Sue has always been close with her.

They take the ATV out like they always did when they were kids. They roar a circle around the house—careful to avoid the lip of the driveway so as to not crumble the asphalt—and swing wide around the walnut tree, racing down the hill with the wind howling in their ears. They cut through the neighbor’s yard and find the hole in the barbed wire fence on the far side. Past that is a long series of trails through the woods and fields, thickets of trees ending as suddenly as they begin, giving way to wide overgrown spaces where the grass whips at their exposed legs. Sue holds on tight to the bars across the ATV’s wide back, swaying with the terrain, every hard bump reverberating up her spine. It hurts, but it’s still a great time.

They roar through a clearing to the rocky embankment ahead. The ATV chugs up it, the tires sending small rocks clacking down the incline. At the top are the train tracks; Sue’s never seen or heard a train go through, but the tracks aren’t overgrown, so they must. A little way down the line is a rectangular white sign, rusted around the edges and pockmarked from someone’s BB gun.

END
MEASURED
MILE

Sue’s probably seen it a dozen times. If she’s asked about it before, though, she doesn’t remember.

“What does that mean?” she shouts close to Jessie’s ear.

“What?”

“The sign. What does that mean?”

Jessie shrugs, goosing the ATV over a hump. “Dunno. Something to do with trains, I guess.”

She guns the engine and the ATV shoots forward past the sign. Sue wraps her arms around Jessie’s middle and doesn’t look back.

It’s getting close to evening. The house is filling up with extended family, clustering around the living room, congregating on the deck. Dinner soon, then fireworks as dusk descends. Sue gets her share of hugs and answers the same questions about college repeatedly. Yes, that far away. Yes, she’s excited.

At dinner she sits at the adult table for the first time, squeezed uncomfortably between Uncle Fred and her dad. She can hear Benji and her younger cousins goofing off at the other table and she kind of misses them, though she would never admit it. The kids’ table erupts with laughter, high and bright. Dad raises up in his chair a little to tell them to quiet down. The balance is restored. Sue thinks the weather is fine, yeah, definitely.

“Sue, can you pass the ham?” Mom asks.

The question hits exactly at a moment when the table falls temporarily silent, and suddenly the air is charged. Sue sees her dad watching her out of the corner of his eye, sees the quick glances that come her way. Does everyone know? What the hell do they think she’s going to do, refuse? Throw the ham in Mom’s face? What is this?

“Yep,” Sue says, and passes the ham down Mom’s way.

Maybe the crowded setting makes it clearer how awkward this all is; or maybe it’s just the last sign in a series. But this is the moment Sue decides to do something about it.

The show doesn’t start right after dinner. As the sun dips towards the far horizon there’s setting up to do while they wait for darkness. Sue carries out a few of the makeshift tables and boards to the base of the hill and then slips away, going through the garage and back to her room. In the hall she can hear the hollow echoes of clothing being dropped into the washing machine.

Mom is there with a laundry basket, working in the light from the overhead fan with her greying hair tied back. Sue pushes the door open but stays in the hall; it’s sort of a one-person room.

“Did you need to get something?” Mom asks with a brittle half-smile.

It’s one of life’s provided ironies that Mom and Sue look so much alike. Same small, rounded nose, same dark brown eyes, same lank black hair; same wide hips, curved lips and short square fingertips. They are books with the same cover, the pages reading in ways that wildly diverge. And if Sue lives in the clouds then Mom lives in the dirt, in the hard clay, on the solid ground with the solid people, God Bless America.

Sue picks up right where they left off a month ago, as if the space between one breath and the next has been erased and they are still standing in the wreckage of a screaming match, their house shaking with the sound. “It’s not about being better than anyone,” she tells her mother.

Mom doesn’t explode. “I know,” she says sadly. “I’m sorry I said that. I know that’s not what you think.”

Sue’s already lost her footing. She expected anger; she’s ready for a fight. “I… okay.”

Mom turns back to the laundry. She unfolds a shirt with a sharp, jerking motion, fingers digging into the fabric. “I just didn’t know you wanted to get away from me that badly,” she says, and there’s no rage. Just defeat.

Sue’s heart plunges, rattles around her ribcage. “Mom… No, it’s not… I’m not trying to get away from anyone.”

Mom faces Sue again, mouth pinched. “Then what? I don’t understand. What is it you can only learn across the country? We have schools back home, good schools—there are schools here you could go to, Jessie would love to have you as a roommate! Why do you have to go so far…?”

“I don’t know.”

The flat of Mom’s hand slaps disbelievingly against the top of the dryer. “Well that’s not good enough—”

“No, I mean I don’t know yet! The why, the…” Sue wants to reach around and pound on her own back until the words come out. “I— I’ve just always been at home, or here, and I want to know who I’ll be somewhere else. Doesn’t that make sense? I don’t know what’s over there, but I never will if I don’t go! I’ll just… be the same.”

“What’s wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with you!”

Sue knows that she can keep trying to explain, but it won’t matter; Mom will never understand. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because she can’t. Mom’s world is small by design. What Sue wants is bigger; is outside.

“No, Mom…” Sue sighs. “I need to do something different, on my own. And even if you don’t get it, can’t you at least be cool with it?”

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to ‘be cool’ with my baby girl running halfway across the country,” Mom says tightly. Sue starts to brace herself for an onslaught. Then Mom takes a breath and her expression twists into a wry and melancholy resignation. “…but I’ll try.”

“I’m not running,” Sue says.

“Okay,” Mom says.

Sue steps forward and feels her mother’s arms wrap around her, and for a moment she is not eighteen and standing on the edge of an unknown tomorrow; she is a child finding solace in the safest space she knows.

That night, the air is cooling as the sun descends behind the Ozarks. The horizon glows with layered strata of orange below a thick band of violet as the moon crawls up and over the fading light. Sue plunders the cardboard boxes for the best explosives, setting them out by order of desire.

As Sue stands ready, she hears shoes brushing through the grass. She turns and sees Mom approaching. She’s holding a few cookies wrapped in a napkin.

“Thought you might want a snack,” she says.

Sue takes the cookies gratefully. “Thanks.” She’s not sure if she should say more. The air between them remains stilted.

Mom assesses the massed firepower with a raised eyebrow. “Your father always spends more than he should.”

“Looks about right to me,” Sue mumbles, unwilling to agree.

Mom rolls her eyes and for an instant Sue feels like she’s looking into the mirror again. “I’m sure. Have fun and be careful, okay?” Mom’s hand rises to briefly touch Sue’s, then falls away. “I’ll be watching.”

An unnamable feeling swells in Sue’s chest; a sweet ache like the opposite of heartbreak, like something clicking into long-absent place. “It’s going to be amazing,” she promises.

Mom smiles, though Sue thinks there is a soft sadness at the corners of her mouth and the bottoms of her eyes. “I know it will.”

The fireworks show is spectacular. When it’s her turn, Sue runs down the line of mortars with a propane torch and steps back to feel the deep, rhythmic thud of each launch in her chest. The explosions blast and sizzle against the black velvet of the empyrean, stars being born and dying in the same bursting instant, sending their crackling contrails to all sides and leaving behind the ghostly imprint of their smoke. It’s a war on eardrums and retinas, achingly loud and searing bright. The audience claps from their array of lawn chairs, lemonades and teas in hand.

Dad puts a hand on Sue’s shoulder. They watch as Benji shoves three bottle rockets into the PVC pipe all at once, showering the grass with sparks.

“Proud of you,” Dad says.

Another mortar goes off and the sound breaks across Sue’s face, the night fragrant with the smell of powder. This is hers, this moment. And there will never be another exactly like it.

Later, when everyone else has left or gone to bed, Sue steps up on the patio table and clambers onto the roof. She lies down on the scratchy shingles and looks upward. Above is a field of stars like bright, distant gems, dappled over the deep endless black of a universe which stretches away into unknown infinity. They disappear at the horizon in the barest remnant of the late day sun. It has sunk to nothing but the faintest tinge of amethyst at the very bottom edge of the sky, like the light from beneath a door.

The wind stirs the tree at the side yard and ruffles gently across roof, cool and welcoming. Stars wheel above, shingles brace below; the house sits on the hill and inside is her family. It is all one piece, one unbroken road glittering on the cosmic thread. She lies beneath the wide bright dark; listening, absorbing the world in its active slumber. Shining along with this single brilliant pebble winging through a limitless dark. Sue closes her eyes and just feels it. All of it.

Everything.

And for a moment, she thinks—she knows—that she can feel the love that insulates against all that far-flung darkness, the ties that bind them to the earth and to each other. That they are not, cannot be, alone. There are candles in the constant. And each candle is a heart that burns until it lights another, passed palm to palm, cheek to cheek, until the rows become a choir. That joyous heightening becomes a murmur, becomes a clamor, becomes the bright curve of arcing song. The glow swells in her chest and flows to the tip of her tongue and the words are what she is to them and they to her and it’s right there; she can nearly hear the chorus. They are all who can love and are loved. Hers here with her, in the strings they tied themselves, in concert and company, in a copse.

She blinks. The stars come back into focus.

And it’s gone.

___________________________________________

Eric Short

“Speak to Us on Freedom”

I had a ’91 Pontiac Grand Prix that was a real piece of work
Stuff was always falling off and you had to hold your mouth just right for it to start; not really a smile but more like a sarcastic grin
Sounded like Bevis and Butthead when it was running
I didn’t do much cleaning on the old beast and I swear you could make out the drawings of Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet in the dust on the dashboard
Wispy dancing muses
I would speak to it on freedom and it would get me to work
With us, both laughing all the way – huh huh huh huh huh
___________________________________________

Eric Short

“The Drinking Game”

Half way down the glass
A bead of condensation
Slowly rolls
Not exactly straight
The wind is no factor
Nor the conversation
It must be the subtle film
Of oil from my touch
But I am convinced
It is always something
Changing the outcome
Of water
I wipe it away
With my thumb
And for my amusement
Here comes another
___________________________________________

Eric Short

 “You’re Old Country Now”

I wanted to describe you
As an old telegraph pole whose glass insulators had
Survived a hundred Missouri spring thunderstorms
And year after year of relentless wind and ice
Yet still ready to bring news of the gold rush and western lands
To the smallest towns
I wanted people to know that the forest’s attempts to swallow you whole
Were taking a toll but that you could carry on waiting
Waiting for revivals and handmade everythings
I wanted people to know that although you have been forgotten
You could still be found in hidden byways and valleys
Standing tall and dappled in the morning’s shadows
Insulators gleaming blue atop the cross timbers
Waiting for nothing now but the red feathered cardinal
To land upon the cross and sing
Blessings for the testament of your old America
___________________________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“102 E. Clay”

The house had diminished throughout the years,
one could assume at one point it was perfectly perpendicular to the ground,
but there it stood,
tilted and slanted off of its foundation,
nothing more than a three-dimensional parallelogram,
its once stained-brown wood weathered into a mass of gray splinters.
Each room of the degrading monolith became an unsalvageable time capsule.

I drove by it every once and awhile,
coasting the car to stare at the relic.
I knew from the town’s gossip
that the house was built well over a century ago
and housed four generations worth of a family.

One day, city workers came by,
and taxpayers footed the bill
for the oldest house in the town being
disposed of and sent to the scrapyard.
The city claimed that the house was a hazard to children.

The neighbors swiftly conquered the land for pennies on the dollar,
and a housewife planted a garden full of watermelons
that were imprisoned behind a white picket fence.
Of course, I was never consulted on the matter.

Without much notice,
the memories of the house degraded within
the thoughts of the community
and though I had never had a home within that house,
seeing the vacant lot
on that block
caused me to feel like a trespasser in my hometown.

There would be no more voyeurs (like me) to imagine the history
that had been confined between those walls that were
insulated with the hollow yearning of progress,
by the arbiters of the original American Dream;
as the house was reduced
into some fragment on the town’s property line archives.
___________________________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“Zerzan”

Sometimes words are missing
at the end of a sentence,
and in the absence
is a ghost of the mind.

It’s known that within all of our art
comes the fragrance of our own demise–
the construction of annihilation to blackmail the eyes.

I recently sold all of my canvases,
my easel, my paint, and all of my brushes,
I made more money off of that than all of my paintings,
what a convenient narrative:
that poor bastard with a dream.

The palate gets cleansed in a fury with absinthe,
as the body is now the canvas,
the brush gets traded for stainless steel:
sharp to the touch,
puncturing the skin to create a delicate precipice
as the silk cream icing
drowns the subject in the flowing magnum opus
that drips like a moldy faucet.

The reviews are missing;
the critiques and the words never come but aren’t necessary,
as no tapestry, painting, or sculpture can convey
the tranquil scene of the true image.
___________________________________________

Janae Imeri

“The Puppeteer”                                                                     “The Puppet”

She was once a graceful dancer                                  I was once a graceful dancer

Every step was poised and lively,                               Every step was poised and lively,

Charming and gay                                                       Charming and gay

Until I tied strings to her hands and feet.                   Until he tied strings to my hands and feet.

Her dance became mine,

Then her once-poised steps grew circumspect,

I guide her through new choreographies

I pull strings for her every step                                   I let him pull my every step

Through tearful eyes I watch my

now-careful feet step to each beat

They used to be so brave.

And still,                                                                 And still,

Her feet match each beat to the music,                       My feet match each beat to the music,

through shaking knees and trembling hands              through shaking knees and trembling hands

She doesn’t run offstage.                                            I don’t run offstage.

Through each dance, I wear away the

strings,

I begin to love the steps I take again

and with every snapped string

My grace, my poise, my charm

Begins to come from me again.

___________________________________________

Janae Imeri

“Train of Thought”

My thoughts always deviate
From the clear path set circumspectly
Before them; they

Dash from work to home
To what’s on tv at three
To in five years what could be

And

Suddenly the lingering
scent on my pillowcase
Transports to transparent times

When I could color
the sky eloquent emerald
And decorate the grass a vivid indigo,
When dreaming was easier to come by.

Take me back to when dad made breakfast each morning
The smell of cinnamon in the air as I get dressed
But not too far back
Towards darker days of fighting and yelling
Bouncing off the house walls,

Take me forward
To the no-homework, bills-are-due days
To the dancing in my own home with no pants on days
To days where I see my lover everyday days,

Then, zip, zap, whoosh!
Like the wind brushing my hair,
Goes the never-ending train of thought
To each and every

Stop.

Elements 2018

The Vintage Georgia Gulag Blues.1

Elements 2018

View all as a pdf here.


(in word documents)

Emma Dayhoff
Red Haired Beauty
Guilt
Virtual Reality

Sophia Gawron
Sassed And Harassed

Tim Bradish
The Pasture

Alexander Lounsberry
Circles
Road Of Infinite Time
Rage Against The Esteemed

Kurt Messenger
Clock Of The Gods
Infinity Measured By The Teeth

Shelby Davin
Riley
Coercion
Untitled

Kaylee Gundling
Orange Streetlights
The Feast
Entropy

Tyray Ratliff
Swallowed In The Sea
Beach Peace

Morgan Cusack
Shadow
Calla Lily
How Not To Cope

Patrick Page
The Agony And Joy Of Hunting

Joionna Brown
Inside Out
Simple
Alone And Broken

Kenneth Speegle
David’s Chamber

Jazzy Thomas
She’s A Hot Girl

Koyo Masore
Paraphrased Predicament


CREATIVE WRITING AWARDS

See the winning pieces, professional judges and commentary on the blog post: Creative Writing Winners 2018

Lois C. Bruner Creative Nonfiction Award

Cordell Larner Award in Fiction

  • 1st place – Cheyenne Rideaux – “Blue Aster
  • 2nd place – Maria Chiaradonna – ?
  • 3rd place – Marissa Purdum – “Flipped
  • Other – Austin Middleton – “To Love Is To Bury

Cordell Larner Award in Poetry


Editor-in-Chief:
Matthew D. Gamperl

Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Erika T. Wurth

Editorial Team:
Cheyenne Rideaux, Maria Chiaradonna, Morgan Cusack, Jacob Barnhill, Isai Lopez, Carlos Arroyo

Cover Art:
?


Elements 2018

(on the web)

Emma Dayhoff

“Red Haired Beauty”

Her hair is red, like that princess from under the sea.
I love the way her eyes sparkle when she’s looking at me.
Blue and always moving, like the waves in the ocean.
I remain on the sand, watching her in motion.
Her hair is red, like the cherry on top of a sundae.
Everyone wants her on a warm summer’s day.
Her skin is as pale as vanilla ice cream.
When her lips touch mine, we are one team.
Her hair is red, like the blood in my veins.
There are so many feelings that I cannot contain.
She is warm, she keeps my heart pumping.
Like when we’re dancing, the music thumping.
My red haired beauty, I cannot lie.
I would do anything for her, even die.
But she, she cannot see.
She cannot see that she is the only one for me.
My red haired beauty, what does she do?
She holds my hand, and I hold hers, too.
The freckles on her face have been stained with tears.
Her unhappiness is one of my greatest fears.
My red haired beauty, can’t you see?
You have entirely all of me.
But if you have to go, you do as you may.
I will be here, even when you are not okay.
____________________________

Emma Dayhoff

“Guilt”

She is the first thing I think about when I open my eyes in the morning.
Her green glazed eyes are all I see when I shut mine for the night.
Now it is me who is running out of fight.
Moments throughout the day I feel that nothing ever changed.
As if she never left this world, never took herself away.
And I am here without her today.
I can’t stop thinking: It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault!
Why did she leave me? What did I do?
I am left behind without a clue.
The guilt consumes me, plaguing me with a darkness in my heart.
I should’ve seen the signs, should’ve prevented her death.
Guilt overtakes my undeserving breath.
If I hadn’t seen the life leave her beautiful pale face, this trauma would not be real.
Yet I see her in a crowd of strangers when I know she is not there.
Life is getting harder for me to bear.
Eventually my grief will become a tolerable buzz in the background.
But I know the guilt, the guilt will always be loud and clear.
I can’t even look at myself in the mirror.
We had a connection, her and I, stronger than I ever thought.
When she cut her wrists red, she bled me out with her.
Beside me lies an empty bottle of liquor.
The abyss of guilt I feel in my chest keeps growing deeper, darker.
Her smiling face was all just a ruse for me to ponder.
I guess it was her who I was fonder.
Rage seeps into my veins and despair sits like a pit in my stomach.
There is nothing I can do to focus, nothing to be rid of this pain.
All I want to do is run, but I know I must refrain.
No one can tell me how long this cycle will repeat itself.
Was this her plan? To make me feel such sorrow?
I don’t know if I can make it until tomorrow.
I can’t remember the last time I slept since that night.
The days are a blur, the nights are a rewind.
It turns out the world is not so kind.
Guilt follows me around, unshakable, a shadow at my side.
Again I ask myself: What did I do?
How do I go on without you?
The only thing I can do is live with this debilitating guilt.
With her untimely death, there was no reprieve.
Living is the punishment I must receive.
____________________________

Emma Dayhoff

“Virtual Reality”

The bright, radiation induced light burns my retinas,
As I stare endlessly at the screen too close in front of me,
Forgetting where I am, who I am, and why I’m even here.
Running, shooting, fighting, dying, reviving. Repeat.
The slick controller clasped tightly in my sweaty palms,
I don’t blink, I don’t think, and I don’t eat or drink,
For as long as I can, I am immersed in my virtual reality.
____________________________

Sophia Gawron

“Sassed and Harassed”

            “Why’d you just smack my ass?” I say.

“Why’d you assume it was me?”  His gray-green eyes are glaring down at me as I confronted him of his action.

“I saw you do it.”

“It’s not like you didn’t want it.  I know how you’ve been looking at me while we’re working.  You’re lucky that’s all I did.”  His smirk sends a cold chill down my spine as he turns away from me to go back to making the pizzas. “Maybe next time I’ll give it a nice squeeze.”

I didn’t want it.

I’m sixteen and this is my first instance of being sexually harassed.  I don’t know  exactly what had happened, all that I know is that I did not want it to happen again.  I had told friends of mine about the instance that had occurred at the restaurant I was working at and they had acted like I should of been happy it had happened.  I didn’t want the attention of the eighteen-year-old boy that had violated my space as if it was nothing, I wanted to hide to make sure it never happened again.

**

I’m at a party with my best friend and it’s freshman year of college.  I’m eighteen and it’s first time really drinking while I’m away at school, never having been the party-type at home.  After taking a myriad of selfies in the bathroom mirror, we are scrolling through the pictures, trying to find one to post on our snapchat story.  My chubby cheeks are pink from the cold, and my curly short dark hair frames my face in a way that accents my glasses, my outfit consists of a lacy-white crop top that resembled an antique table cloth, red high-waisted jeans which accents my curves in a positive way.  My black jacket is tied around my waist, just in case.

It’s not too long into the evening when I feel my waist get grabbed.  I turn to see two tan arms and white tee looking back at me.  I look up to see dark eyes staring at me with a hunger that seemed much more than desire.

“Hey, beautiful.  Can I get you a drink?”

Now, if I were to remember anything that movies and tv shows told me about parties, it was to never accept a drink from a stranger.

“No, thank you.  I’m good for now.”  His hand is still lingering on my waist and I shift to try to get him off of me.

Instead, he took that as an invitation to lean closer and whisper, “Well, I’ll keep an eye on you and get you one when I see that your cups empty.”  He flicks my cup and walks away from me.

My best friend and I are speechless as to what had just happened.  Throughout the night, I feel his carnal stare pouring into my exposed back, and I feel violated.  I look down at my outfit to see if there is anyway that I can try to be less noticeable, only finding out that I can put my jacket on, which doesn’t do much. I try to pull my curls into an updo of some kind but fail as it hasn’t grown long enough, just long enough to be an annoyance.  Periodically, I make a side glance to see if he is still watching me.  It’s a small house so there isn’t too many places to go.

I make sure that I don’t finish my drink the entire time I’m there but that doesn’t stop the “kind” stranger from approaching me again, this time placing a hand back on the lower part of my back, trying to reach around to the front of me.  He pulls me to the side, away from my friend, who had just entered the bathroom.

He slurs this time when he speaks, “You’ve had that glass for awhile now.  Are you suuuuuure that I can’t get you something a little better to drink?  The jungle juice can be a little lame.”

“Yes, I’m sure.   Let me get back to my friend.”

“Playing hard to get?  I like that in a girl.  We can go upstairs if you’d like,  I live in this house.”

“No.  Back off!”  I shove him out of my way as I try to get back to my friends when he grabs me once more.

“I don’t give a shit if you take this drink or not, you’re coming with me and you’re going to let me fuck you upstairs.”

The next thing I know, my best friend grabs my arm and pulls me away from this guy, “Get off her man, she doesn’t want you.”

“Who are you? We’re having a conversation that doesn’t concern you.”

“It does concern me, she’s my best friend and she obviously hasn’t been wanting to talk to you at all tonight so if you could, back the fuck off.”  Her slightly-tanned skin has a red hue to it from being mad.

“Whatever,  I’m not going put up with two bitches and work this hard for shitty sex.  Get out of my house.”  The guy stalked off to seemingly find another prey to stalk.

My best friend saved me from what could of been the worst night of my  life.

**

I’m sitting in a cheap, worn-down, donated leather chair in the hallway outside my class.  I always tend to show up a little early just to make sure that I can get there on time, living by the motto “If you’re not ten minutes early, you’re five minutes late.”

I’m going over all of the notes for the upcoming quiz for my math class and in the background I am hearing students, professors, and janitors walking up and down the steps in the doors that lay beyond the chair I have placed myself in.  The door opens and I glance up to see my professor walking through, he gives me a polite nod in my direction and says:

“It always makes my day brighter whenever I see your face.”

And walks off to our classroom.

I find it a little odd in my gut at his wording, but nonetheless I shake it off, amounting it to him being a nice guy.  I gather my things and walk towards the class.

Once I’m inside, I take one last glance at the clock that sits on the tan wall behind me, pull out my swivel-ly blue chair and sit down.  As I’m pulling out my polka dotted planner, my glove falls from my lap into the row in front of me.  I go to get up and retrieve it, but my professor beats me to it, picking it up and handing it back to me.

“Thank you Professor.”

“Not a problem Sophie.  Now, would you mind keeping an eye on the clock for me?  I want to make sure that I have enough time for the quiz and all the material I want to cover.”

“I mean, sure, but wouldn’t it be easier for another student whose chair is facing the clock?  I’d have to twist around nearly completely to see it.”

“Ah, yes. It would be, but you see,” he leans onto my table and whispers, “you’re a student that I trust.”

I lean as far back as my swivel chair will allow and just say okay.  Wanting him to get out of my face as fast as possible.  I never tell him when there’s twenty minutes left to take the quiz.

The following class, I showed up earlier than usual, having met a friend for breakfast and walking with her to class.  I walk up the steps to my classroom, realizing I took a different route than normal so I end up lost once I reach the second floor.  I spot a new chair, much more worn-down than the first one, but in a spot that my professor won’t see me before he enters the class.

I map out where my class is before sitting down, then I proceed to take off  my black coat, scarf and my beanie.  I place my backpack next to the chair and sit down.  I get on Instagram to check my notifications, seeing how many likes I’ve gotten on my most recent post.  It’s of me with some friends at the bar, celebrating my twenty-first birthday.  I notice that my clunky, big framed glasses are sliding down my face more than they should of and my dark brown hair is all over the place, with one single chunk of my bangs pointing directly down my forehead.  Being the tallest in the photo, I was subjected to being in the back, but my arms dangled over my friends in a way that  showed we were comfortable with each other, even without the alcohol that pulsed through our veins.

I glance at the clock at the top of my screen as it reads “8:54 A.M.” meaning that it’s time to go into class.  I gather my things and just as the day before, place them down and pull out my planner and have a seat.

I’m writing down my daily to-do list as my professor approaches me again.  We don’t have a quiz scheduled for today so I’m assuming it’s to pass back homework assignments that we had worked on.

“Where were you today?  I really missed seeing you when I came down the steps this morning.”  He winks at me and I feel a lump in my throat.

“I, uh. Was running late.”

“Oh, well. Maybe I’ll see you back there before the next class.”

I can’t make eye contact as he places my assignments down in front of me and turns to walk away.

For the rest of the class, I am checked out mentally, and creeped out as his lecture goes on.

**

I’m sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed across from my friend, it’s Sunday morning and we aren’t too keen on working on any of our homework because of having gone to a party the night before.  I’m scrolling through Facebook looking at videos of dogs being reunited with their owners that return home from the military as she is telling me some meaningless story about a guy she fucked the night before.

“He was so good though, like I thought I was gonna die from how good it was.”  her fiery-red curls from the night before are now pulled into a messy-bun, honestly making it look she’s done copious amounts of cocaine throughout her lifetime.

“Uh-huh. That’s good?”  I reply, not being to sure on what kind of response she wants.

“Do you even care?  It’s been the first time I’ve gotten dick in awhile, we all can’t be you and have a dude on speed-dial.  Let alone the SAME dude.”

“How do you expect me to take that?”

Her cackle is so loud and high pitched I feel as if my ears are going to bleed, “You KNOW I’m just messing with you.  What’s up your ass?  Are you still butt-hurt about what that guy said to you?  He thought you were hot, let it go.  You totally overreacted.”

“I overreacted?  How do you think I overreacted?  He was grabbing me!”

“Yeah, and?”

“And?!?”

“Yeah, and.  Like I said, he thought you were hot, you shouldn’t be offended because a guy thinks you’re attractive.  Honestly I think you made a huge mistake not going with him, you probably lost your only chance.”

“Too bad I don’t care about that.  Why should I feel anything other than offended?  I made it clear that I wasn’t interested.”

“So?  He said you were hot and wanted to -”

“So that means I just should let him have his way with me even though I didn’t want it and made it explicitly clear? Because he fucking thought I was hot?”  I say that last word with such rage that I’m practically yelling.

“Listen, Soph.  You’re blowing this completely out of proportion, I’m not saying that.  What I’m saying is that maybe you shouldn’t of ended it so fast and actually talked to him…”

“No.  Save it.  I’m not going to give some random fucking creep the time of day because he offered to get me a drink I didn’t want and gave me copious amounts of disgusting compliments that I again did. Not. want.  I’m also not going to be guilted into entertaining some creep who decides that in their free time they enjoy trying to force women to be with him.  Don’t fucking try to fight me on that either.  Get the fuck out of my room.”

____________________________

Tim Bradish

“The Pasture”

Jack’s fork clinked against his plate as he finished the last of his scrambled eggs. He scooped up one of the last mouthfuls as he listened to his mother say,

“Don’t take too long getting that tractor up and going again. Your father needs you to take care of the front yard before lunch.”

“Ok, momma.”

Jack said as he grabbed his last piece of bacon and stood up to put his plate in the sink. He snatched his worn out red hat off the counter and gave his mother a quick sideways hug.

“She broke down on the far side of the field up on top of the hill. It’ll make for a solid morning walk.”

Jack slipped out of the kitchen door and squinted as the sun beamed across his freckled cheeks. Gravel crunched under his boots as he walked across the driveway. The toolshed had been one of Jack’s favorite places for as long as he could remember. The latch let out a long creak and light flooded in and illuminated one wall of the shed. He picked up the wooden tool box that his grandpa had given him and started to throw everything he thought might be handy to get the old tractor running again. Jack was looking for a screwdriver when a loud crash came from the door of the shed. Jack wheeled around to see a dopey looking Australian Shepherd panting and seemingly smiling from the door way.

“Dang it Creedence!” Jack exclaimed as he laughed and reached down to pet the dog.

“You scared me half to death boy. Come on pupper, let’s go get Big Bertha breathing again.” The dog sped up ahead of the boy and kept looking back as Jack latched the door shut. Jack and his dog headed out across the back yard which led into a field, the first field of many that Jack and his father farmed in Southern Illinois.

The bottom of Jack’s pants were damp in no time as the morning dew accumulated with each step. They never planted this field or the pasture beyond it because of the giant hill that rolled up steeply at the end of it. Every year if there was a big rain parts of these fields would be under water, so why bother planting them? Jack made his way into the pasture as the sun came out from behind a low hanging thin cloud. He could hear birds chirping and his dog panting excitedly as he ran around with a stick he had found. The sun warmed his face and he could feel the warm buzz of the morning around him as he made his way across the pasture quickly and started to take long strides to get up the steep hill as fast as possible. Once at the top he could see the tractor a way off in the distance and he strode off with his objective in sight.

Jack had always been a hands-on kind of guy. He was no mechanic just yet, but for a boy of thirteen he had some skills with a wrench and hammer. The tractor was dark red and looked as if it had been teleported out of the fifties. His dad used newer stuff to do most of the work, but Jack didn’t mind using the old tractor to take care of business. He hopped up into the seat of the tractor and ran his hand along the wheel.

“alright girl. Let’s see if you’ll just start up.”

Jack cranked the key in the ignition, but the engine just choked and sputtered until he quit.

“She’s strugglin’ for air Creedence!” He called to his dog who was now laying down in a patch of shade. Jack jumped down off the tractor and rummaged through his tool box. Tools rattled together as Jack cast everything from one side to the other and back again.

“shoot!” he exclaimed as he ran his hands over his pockets.

“I didn’t bring a stupid screwdriver, why don’t you go get it boy? I forgot it cuz of you.” Creedence gave Jack a long lazy look before exhaling and putting his head down.

“fine, looks like its back-tracking time.” Jack muttered to himself as he started back toward the tool shed.

Jack was about to start back down the big hill when he heard a sort of whistling carrying on the wind. He took long strides down the hill and the whistling noise became louder and he could make it out more clearly. At the bottom of the hill it was clear to Jack that he was hearing an instrument being played. He looked across the knee-high grass of the pasture and a saw a girl spinning around joyfully as she played a violin. It was odd, seeing a random girl in the middle of his family’s land, but the music was inviting and Jack felt awestruck as he listened from a distance.

She looked a little older than Jack with long dark hair. Jack watched her as she swayed back and forth with the slower pulls of her bow and skipped around lightly whenever the pace quickened. She spun faster and faster her bow a blur before she came to the end of the song and ended on a long slow pull across her violin. Her hair swayed behind her head as she released the violin from the nook of her neck and Jack felt a shock of terror as she yelled over to him

“I haven’t played for anybody in a long time, but from what I recall its proper to applaud at the end of a performance!” Jack’s face started to turn redder than his hair and he started walking toward her because he didn’t know what else to do.

“That was great! You’re beautiful, I mean the way you play, it’s beautiful.”

Jack stammered as he got within talking distance. He reflexively put his hands behind his back to grab his old hat out of his pocket, and decided to wring it in his hands as he watched the girl put the violin back into its case.

“Thank you. I don’t get to play very much anymore. It’s good to know I still sound good.” The girl was all smiles as she stood up and faced Jack straight on.

“Hi, by the way, I’m Abigail.” She stuck out her free hand and waited for Jack to take it.

“I’m Jack…” He liked how calm she looked as he shook her hand, but he found himself struggling to think of anything to say.

“umm, Abigail, how exactly did you end up in this field?” She laughed and gave him a sideways glance

“I could ask you the same thing, but my dad had to visit the guy that lives here, and I came along. Figured I had some time to kill, so why not find somewhere to play?” Jack explained who he was and where he was headed and Abigail and Jack started off toward the tool shed.

“So why don’t you get to play for people anymore?” Jack asked as they strode together side by side.

“Well my school shut down the music program and there arnt really any places around here to perform. Sometimes I play for my family, but overall my violin collects more dust than anything these days.”

Jack felt a pang in his stomach as he thought about the amount of people that had not been able to hear the beautiful sounds that this girl made. The walk back to the tool shed seemed to go by ten times faster than it normally did, and Jack was annoyed when he saw it getting bigger and nearer. The pair had laughed and chatted the whole way back and Jack was sure he wanted to spend more time with this girl.

He stopped along the side of the shed so that he could continue to chat before Abigail went back to the garage where her dad was visiting with Jack’s father.

“I would listen to you play anytime that you want to come over here. I don’t have a cell phone, but I bet your dad has my parents number.” Jack said as he shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot. She always seemed to have a smile on her face, but it looked a little brighter after hearing Jack say that. She eyed the red headed boy from head to toe and stepped in toward him so that they had very little personal space.

“I would really like to play for you again. You make for a good audience… just to make sure that I come back, I’ll just keep my hands on this!”

Abigail quickly snatched Jack’s tattered hat out of his back pocket and

placed it on her head with both hands as she started toward her dad’s truck. A little disconcerted, Jack was unable to think of anything to say for a moment, so he just smiled as she walked away. He unlatched the lock on the tool shed and started toward a screwdriver that he thought would work. He stood for a moment in the shade of the closed door and realized that Abigail was much more interesting than a tractor.

Jack closed the door and heard the latch snap shut as Abigail’s dads truck fired up behind him. He looked over at the truck and saw a smiling girl looking back at him. The wheels started to turn and the girl took the hat off her head and let it wave in the wind as the truck went down his driveway. He wanted his hat back, but more than anything he just wanted to spend time with that girl again.

____________________________

Alexander Lounsberry

“Circles”

The end is only the end,
Until the next beginning comes
Wise men and fools alike,
Flee these dying suns
Flee what is to come
Circles are complete,
Everything, thus, is as one
Brave men and cowards alike
Scared of what’s to come,
And flee these dying suns
The lion’s flesh is to the earth
As the gazelle’s to the hunter’s gun
Savages and animals alike
Embrace the cold agony of the run,
Yet flee the warmth of these dying suns.
Sleep of sleeps, gentle grace passionately
Takes her daughters and sons
Even they can’t grasp the circles,
The inevitability of what’s to come
Nor the dying of those fair suns
Circles are complete,
Everything sprouts from endings
The only true end,
Comes from these beginnings
And is the end of all endings
____________________________

 Alexander Lounsberry

“Road of Infinite Time”

Chariot of salvation
Mirror to reflect those bound
Shackled by heart’s desires
A poisoned life to be drowned
Destruction and death lift thy crown
Echoes of greed call forth
Deadly speed these wheels turn round
Circles to both end and begin
Misdeeds lost and never found
Red rose of life lift thy crown
Road of infinite time
Carry those that might be bound
Passengers of damnation
Sinners without a sound
Gods of redemption lift thy crown
Smoothest is the road traveled
Clarity that may astound
Innocence: an abstract meaning
Upon a chariot they crown
Now buried beneath the ground
Chariot of salvation
All that’s happened falls to time
Mistakes and errors matter not
The spokes of rebirth lift these crimes
Lost upon the road of infinite time

____________________________

Alexander Lounsberry

“Rage Against the Esteemed”

Attacks of rage will withstand the net force
To win or destroy—sentenced to greed
That burns away anthills with a sizzle
Lost in the fire of a survivor’s sun
Such a cycle is heartless Zen
Before the cold aftermath can rectify
A recipe of your jury yet assigned
Align intentions to that of the perceiver
Wolf among the flock to extinguish
A devil’s gaze they will counter you with no longer
Vent your nerves to bend under open eyes
Soon they jest you no longer on intent,
But rather on delivery driven by hate
They are merely a flood to barrel downstream
This is the source of your yearning
Terrorize
Destroy
Pulverize
They wander an ill land of excellence
A journey that qualifies them your superior no longer
A trance full of solution can bury them
Eyes that can detach to do your bidding
Excel to hit them at their base
Anger—a tender sword of bottled drive
Perhaps fragile in their hands
Yet in yours in cuts their chunky, esteemed flesh
They flop in a polluted river of their own excrete
It serves to besiege them indefinitely.

“Mother”

Crisp water holds me
Rocking me like a newborn
A baby smothered
____________________________

Kurt Messenger

“Clock of the Gods”

In many cases,
the earliest designs are quite complex.
As time progresses,
simplicity is engineered into place.
Where does inspiration originate,
for the common analog clock?
It resides in the universe around us,
our solar system in particular.
The earliest used the sun to tell time,
and through progress,
the sun now sits upon the wrist.
Our system has thousands of objects,
revolving around a large singular sun.
But just like time, size is only relative.
The relationship between our planet
and the largest of the celestial bodies around us,
is much the same as the hands of a clock.
The sun is our center axel,
each planet is the tip of a hand,
and gravity acts as the gears that drive it all.
Be they batteries, springs, or a pendulum,
all our clocks eventually lose their driving force.
I wonder then,
when will the great first clock do the same?
____________________________

Kurt Messenger

“Infinity Measured by the Teeth”

Three columns move in relative unison,
One in the shadow of the First,
and the First in the shadow of the Second.
The Second is the fastest,
followed by the First,
while the One is quite slow.
Always joined at the hip,
the Second is small but pulls the other two.
The First is stronger,
but requires guidance from the Second.
The One is fat and heavy,
and cannot step on its own.
one to three,
one to four,
one to five.
In sixty steps the Second moves the First.
one to three,
one to four,
one to five.
In sixty steps the First moves the One.
one to three,
one to four.
In twelve steps the One reunites the columns.
Three hundred and twelve,
the number of teeth required,
to move three columns,
for all eternity.
____________________________

Shelby Davin

“Riley”

You did it again.
Perched high above the bathroom sink
sat your pearls of pleasure,
pearls of pain pushed to the past,
pearls of broken promises.
The bright orange canister read caution,
but you did not.
Spilling over with ambivalence,
you took that tainted maraca.
Why did you do it again?
 
Pop the top,
the click clack as the pearls cascaded into your palm
you stood frozen,
as stale and chilling as the night he took your innocence.
Looking through yourself in the mirror,
you began to crack at the surface,
insides trembling,
freckles fading.
I’m sorry you had to do it again.
You pushed the pearls past your lips unapologetically,
your red hair radiated and turned to flames
as the bitter embers enveloped your mouth,
they engulfed your entire throat and set your body ablaze.
Like a furnace of fear,
You melted into the floor.
They found you morbidly mangled,
one part Riley, one part pearls.
Please, never again.
____________________________

Shelby Davin

“Coercion”

I’ve heard of liquid courage,
but somewhere along the line
someone turned that into liquid entitlement.
They mixed you a drink that refashioned your no to please,
your trust and intuity became fuzzy and forgotten,
they started to collect your innocence
like a child collecting lightning bugs
your vulnerabilities on display for their pleasure.
Don’t forget to poke holes on the top of the jar,
you don’t want them to suffocate.
____________________________

Shelby Davin

 “Untitled”

Clams of calamity
Clams of catastrophe,
their plastic orange skins
produce antidepressed grins.
Sullen with sin
we let the monsters win,
monsters of calamity
monsters of catastrophe.
The clams open wide,
see the shiny pearls inside,
wipe away your tears, paint your tainted smile,
this feeling won’t last but a short while.
Throw them down the hatch,
but only the allotted batch.
The monsters can’t win,
the pearls burn their skin.
____________________________

Kaylee Gundling

“Orange Streetlights”

You probably should have been at home.
You were supposed to go home
when the streetlights came on.
But you didn’t go home
and the streetlights came on
and they were orange.
That’s the detail you remember most vividly,
the color orange.
You’re never quite sure
how to tell the story.
You have a whole script
in front of you but
your line delivery is always off.
You realize storytelling
from the second person helps,
you can put some distance
between yourself
and the story now.
This way, the people in your story
become objects,
set pieces.
You arrange them just so,
and don’t forget to get
the lighting right.
You’re in a fire station parking lot.
Make sure it’s dark,
but not too dark.
And for heaven’s sake
don’t forget to
make the streetlights orange!
Audiences notice
that kind of thing.
The audience is the most important
performer in any show.
The actors on stage,
you’re all secondary.
The audience laughs when it’s supposed to,
cries when it’s supposed to,
hems and haws on cue.
They’re impeccable.
You,
the players on stage,
you give the audience
a standing ovation.
The audience bows
and the lights go down
and only then do you realize
you never told your story.
____________________________

Kaylee Gundling

“The Feast”

Gather around the table, it’s time for a feast;
they were so kind as to set the table
for us, the full spread is here. It’s time
to eat. Don’t look at me like that.
The food is perfectly edible, that is if you
can get over the smell. They say if you hold your breath
you can’t taste the mold that has spread
across the hardened plane of the loaf of bread;
if you hold your breath you won’t smell
the rotting meat. If we devour it quickly we
might get to it before the maggots appear;
you may eat around the blackened patches if you must.
The flies, I’m afraid, are a permanent fixture,
there’s nothing to be done about it except swat
at the filthy things, if they land on the browning
core of the apple on your plate it hardly should spoil
your dinner. Please, don’t be a stranger.
Take more from the fruit bowl, try the grapes.
You like grapes, don’t you? They’re shriveled
and browning, but if you just close your eyes
it’s just like eating a raisin, or you can eat
the discolored peach, if that’s more to your liking.
Depression is a bit of an acquired taste,
but dig in, my friends, we’ll get there someday.
____________________________

Kaylee Gundling

“Entropy”

I am never the first to leave the party,–
I can’t stand the thought
of anything continuing without me,
of not knowing what comes next.
I am never the first to leave the party,–
I’d hate to miss out
on the best part of the evening. And that is why
I am so afraid to die.
____________________________

Tyray Ratliff

“Swallowed in the Sea”

The profound waters embrace my body
as I begin to descend like a sinking ship
I try to fight it off,
kicking my legs desperately, flapping my arms frantically
as I shriek at the top of my lungs, “Help!” with the little energy I have left..
But it’s no use.
My arduous efforts are no match for the waves.
I start to lose consciousness
as a cascade of water goes through my nose,
flooding my helpless lungs.
I can’t move a muscle,
my body is solidified like a statue in the sea.
This pain burns like hot lava
and it’s inevitable.
This is it,
my last stand.
____________________________

Tyray Ratliff

“Beach Peace”

The thirst quenching breeze zooms
smoothly through my hair as I lay on my
chaise lounge beach chair.
My body rests in the shade while my sunglasses
protect me from uv rays.
The wind lifts up the sand and sends it gliding leveled across the surface.
Next to me is a long glass of lemonade on the rocks
with a colorful bendy straw.
I relax and listen to the sound of the blue waves
pushing back and forth on the shore like it’s nagging for attention.
My body has desired for this stress free sensation.
I cherish this moment and savor it
participating in every second
because I know it won’t last long and will
soon be only a memory.
____________________________

Morgan Cusack

“Shadow”

A dark copy
Forever stuck moving
But never where she wants to be
Gliding over earth
Weightless, yet forever grounded
She burns to be free
To stand on her own
To feel the rain and count the stars
To smell the summer breeze
She cries with no tears,
She screams with no voice
____________________________

Morgan Cusack

“Calla Lily”

She has her sleeves rolled up
Flour covering up to her elbows
Her strong fingers kneading the dough with precision
I barely remember how to speak
Her soft brown hair pulled into a tight knot
A streak of white across her cheek
And a smile gracing her lips
I barely remember how to breathe
She speaks of home, lost to ash and flame
She speaks of snow, a kind of fond longing in her voice
She speaks with a gentleness I haven’t heard in a while
I look at her and I can’t think of anything but calla lilies
____________________________

Morgan Cusack

“How Not to Cope”

Michael flexed his sore knuckles, watching as blood slowly oozed out of his broken skin. In the moment, punching that idiot Jack Torren in the face had felt like a reasonable reaction. Michael knocked Jack on his ass and he should have left it at that. He should have just walked away, but the thing was: he didn’t want to. He wanted a fight. So he stayed, he let Jack get back to feet. He felt elated when Jack rushed at him and threw a sloppy punch.

Michael knew how horrible it was—how fucked up he must be—but it felt good. It felt so good to hit something. To let out all the rage and frustration that had been boiling under his skin. To see the blood and feel the bone crack beneath his fist when he broke Jack’s nose. For one fleeting moment Michael felt better.

Now he was here: sitting on one of the impossibly uncomfortable plastic chairs outside of the principal’s office, waiting for his dad, Sam, to finish talking to the principal and the guidance counselor. Jack’s parents had already been there, shouting about their poor son’s face and demanding Michael’s immediate expulsion. Principal Carth tried to calmly explain to them that he wanted all sides of the story before he made any decision about punishment. They stormed out, taking Jack with them, offended that anyone would think it could be their precious Jack’s fault.

Michael pressed an already bloody ball of tissues against his knuckles, letting the blood seep through and bloom across the bright white. Suddenly the office door opened and out came Michael’s father. His face was stony, his eyes hard as they landed on Michael.

“Let’s go, son,” was all Sam said as he passed Michael, heading straight for the door. Michael sighed and trudged after his father.

The whole walk across the parking lot Michael was holding his breath, waiting for the yelling to start. Sam didn’t say word, didn’t so much as glance in his son’s direction as he climbed into the car and started the engine.

When Sam finally spoke, they were already half-way home. The car slowed to a stop at a red light. Michael started out the window, watching the trees sway with the breeze. The leaves were starting to change orange and flutter from the branches. His eyes were drawn to a little family walking down the sidewalk. A mother and father both holding one of their little girl’s hands. They were all smiling and happy and perfect.

“What the hell is going on with you, Michael?” Sam said softly, as if Michael was a wild animal he didn’t want to spook.

“Nothing,” Michael responded. He didn’t look away from the family. The little girl was talking, telling her father something with the same excitement as Eden when she told Michael butterfly facts. The father laughed, a big laugh that shook his whole body, while the mother covered her smile with her hands and the girl smiled proudly.

“Nothing?” Michael’s father scoffed. “You started a fight on school grounds; you broke a kid’s nose.

“Not my fault he doesn’t know how to protect his face.” The family kept walking, the little girl was giggling for some reason. Michael couldn’t hear her laugh but he imagined it sounded like Eden’s.

“That’s not funny, Michael.” The light turned green and they start moving again. Michael looked in the side mirror, catching one final glimpse of the little family. The mother scooped the little girl up into her arms and the girl pressed a kiss to her cheek as the father looked on fondly. Sam took a turn and the family was gone.

Michael could see his father take a deep breath, his hands tightening on the steering wheel. Sam was gearing himself up for the big lecture. “You need to take this seriously, you really hurt someone today—” Sam started but Michael cut him off.

“Jack Torren is some asshole bully,” Michael sneered, Jack’s hateful words still ringing in his ears, the kids’ faces burned in his mind. The freshmen boys had been minding their own business, laughing and holding hands, when Jack started spewing his homophobic bile. The boys looked so scared; it was the same look Eden got when she woke up after a nightmare. Michael couldn’t make himself walk away. So he punched Jack and kept punching him until he finally stopped talking. “He deserved a hell of a lot more than just a broken nose.”

“Michael!” The astonishment on his father’s face almost made Michael laugh; instead he just shrugged his shoulders.

“What? He does,” Michael watched the road as it rushed by outside the window. He thought about what would happen if he just opened the door and jumped out of the car. They weren’t moving that fast; he would probably survive hitting the road.

Michael’s fingers curled around the door handle. If he jumped out—and survived—then he wouldn’t have to deal with this conversation. He could just escape and never look back. No more school or stupid Jack Torren. He wouldn’t have to lie to Eden about why their mother was always yelling and their father was crying. He wouldn’t—

Eden. His baby sister was at home, waiting for him. She was probably curled up on the couch with one of her books, eyes darting to the door every few pages. Maybe she was practicing her ballet, wanting to get the moves just right before she showed him the whole dance. She expected Michael to come home to her.

Michael let go of the door handle.

“I just don’t know what’s going on with you.” Sam was talking, seeming to not have noticed Michael’s lack of attention.

“Right, can we just skip the lecture?” Michael sighed. He was so tired and not at all in the mood for a long talk. “I get it, you’re disappointed in me and I should have known better and set a better example for Eden. I’m grounded and I should never start a fight again. Did I cover everything?”

“Michael, please,” Sam begged softly. “I’m just trying to understand.”

“What’s there to understand, Dad?” Michael huffed, exasperated. “Jack was being a dick, I got angry and I hit him. That’s it. End of story. Nothing else.”

“You need to talk about what happened Michael,” Sam said beseechingly. Sam was completely out of his depth and he didn’t know how to move forward if Michael wasn’t going to let him in. “Principal Cath can’t do anything if you don’t tell him. I can’t do anything. There is something going on with you. You’re so angry all the time and you’re letting your schoolwork slip. I haven’t seen you with any of your friends in a long time. Now you’re picking fights. I know there’s something wrong but can’t help you if you don’t tell me what it is.”

Michael scoffed hotly, “Like you care.”

Sam eyes jumped from the road to Michael, the shock and hurt evident on Sam’s face. “Of course I care! You’re my son, I love you and I want you to be happy.”

Michael was practically seething, the rage bubbling up in his chest. “Then why the hell has it taken you so long to fucking divorce her?”

“What?” Sam flinched, started by the sudden anger directed at him. Michael took a breath, clenching his aching fist to try and calm himself. Getting pissed off was not going to help him right now.

“The walls are a lot thinner than you think.” Michael muttered, staring at his hands in his lap. “I can hear you guys fighting. Mom said she wanted a divorce.”

“You heard that?” Sam asked softly, shame and guilt washing over him.

“Yeah, and a lot more.” Sam could only imagine what else his son had heard through the walls. Nothing good.

“I’m sorry, Michael. I didn’t want you to find out this way.” There was so much he wanted to tell Michael, so many things he had to explain. The boy was so young and the last thing Sam wanted to do was drop more on his shoulders. “It’s going to be hard, a lot of things are going to change. It’s better this way though, I promise.”

“Dad, I know it will be,” Michael rolled his eyes. “Things will be a lot easier without her around. If she wants to leave us, then fine. Good riddance.”

“Michael!” The spite and bitterness in his son’s tone made Sam’s heart twinge. How could he let this happen? How did he let Michael became so hard and angry?

“It’s true and you know it,” Michael accused harshly. “All she does is work, come home pissed, and yell at us. She’s never around and never has been.”

“That’s not fair,” Sam said half-heartedly. “Your mom works hard to provide for you guys.”

That, that right there is why I’m pissed!” Michael pointed his finger at his father. “Why do you keep making excuses for her? You say you want me and Eden happy but then why have you stayed with her for so long? Can you not see how she’s destroyed my childhood? I’ve been bending over backwards trying to salvage Eden’s.”

Every missed play and lonely parents’ day and long nights sitting up listening to his parents scream. All the mornings he missed the bus because he had to get Eden ready. Coming home to his father sobbing on the couch and having to pick up the pieces. All the fake smiles and lies he had to tell Eden to save her innocence. All the resentment and anger and misery came bubbling to the surface in Michael’s mind. It left Michael blinking back tears.

“It hasn’t been that bad…has it?” There was his son, nearly in tears in front of him and it was all his fault. Sam let himself live in denial for so long in some vain hope he could hold his family together. Now it was all crashing down and Sam was left with nothing but rubble.

“Yeah, it has.” Michael sighed heavily, “Why did you let it get like this?”

“I love her, Michael. I still do, for all her faults. Even though she doesn’t love me anymore.” It still knocked the breath out of Sam, knowing that his wife didn’t care about him anymore. Apparently twenty years didn’t mean as much to her as they did to him. “You’ll understand when you love someone.”

Love?” Michael parroted, saying the word as if it had personally offended him. “If that’s love, I don’t want any part of it.”

What could Sam say to that? How could he explain to Michael, who was still so young and full of so much turmoil, that even imperfect love was worth it? Sam and Hope were happy once, they had had a few good years. They had Michael and Eden which Sam wouldn’t give up for anything.

Sam didn’t even get the chance to try. They had just pulled up to the house and Michael was out of the car as soon it stopped moving.

Michael was more than ready to be finished with that conversation but he stopped, his hand on the front door. He couldn’t go into the house angry. Eden would see it in a second and Michael knew that would upset her. Taking a few deep breath he tried calm himself, to will his pulse to slow and the rage to disappear.

Calm down, he told himself. Eden can’t see you like this.

Michael could feel his father’s eyes on him, he was giving the Michael the minute he needed and for that Michael was thankful.

When he finally felt like he could fake a descent smile, Michael opened the front door. He didn’t even make it a few steps in before there was Eden, in her tutu and ballet shoes, with an impossibly bright smile.

“Mikey!” She squealed, wrapping her arms around his waist.

“Princess!” Michael replied, forcing himself to match her enthusiasm. He knew how to play the part of happy big brother well. Giving the best smile he could muster Michael scooped Eden up in a big hug that left her giggling. “How was your day?”

“It was great! I saw a butterfly today at recess. One of the orange ones that fly to Mexico for the winter. A m-m-something.” Eden scrunched her noses as she tried to remember the butterfly’s name.

“A monarch,” Michael supplied gently.

“That one! It was so pretty.” She got this dreamy look on her face whenever she talked about butterflies. It warmed Michael to see her so happy and carefree.

“You have to come see my dance!” She was already tugging on his hand, leading him to the stairs. Michael could hear his father walking through the house, heading for the kitchen by the sound of it. He dimly wondered where their mother was. “Miss Lorn said I was learning really fast and—”

She stopped her rambling suddenly and turned Michael’s hand over to look at his scraped knuckles. She looked up him with big, worried eyes. “What happened to your hand?”

Michael knew she was going to ask at some point. The last thing he wanted to do was tell Eden that he lost his temper. He hated lying but he hated the idea of telling her the truth more. “There was this nasty dragon at school today. You should have seen it, E, it was big and ugly and spitting fire! It was going to eat everyone in the school; so I, being your brave and awesome big brother, fought it off.”

Eden gave him a look; that one all little kids give adults when they know they are being talked down to. “Dragons aren’t real Mikey. Everybody knows they’re just a fairytale.”

“Well everyone is wrong, because I totally just fought a dragon.” Michael puffed out his chest, playing the part and getting a giggle out of his sister.

“No you didn’t!” Eden challenged with that sunshine smile.

“Yes. I. Did!” Michael started tickling Eden stomach making the little girl burst into fits of laughter.

The siblings’ fun was interrupted by their mother’s loud voice. “What the hell happened?” She yelled, they could only assume, at their father. “Why did I have to leave work early to get Eden?”

“I had to talk to the principal at the high school about Michael.” Sam started but was quickly cut off.

“Michael? What did he do now?” She sound exasperated.

“He got into a fight. There was this bully—” Sam started again, trying to explain before his wife completely lost reason.

“He’s fighting now! What is wrong with him?” Michael felt himself shrink at his mother’s words. The way she talked about him as if he was some malfunctioning computer program that she was getting tired of dealing with.

“Hope, if you would just let me talk—” Sam was fighting to keep himself calm and his voice even.

“This is your fault,” Hope accused. “You’re too soft with them. They think they can get away with anything!”

“Right, because everything that goes wrong in this house is my fault!” Sam, done with being talked over, raised his voice to match his wife’s. Both the children flinched at the anger in his tone.

“They’re fighting again.” Eden whispered, clinging to the sleeve of Michael’s shirt.

“Don’t listen.” Michael turned his back on their parents and herded Eden to the stairs. “Go put on your shoes Princess, we’re gonna go for a walk okay?”

Eden nodded and ran upstairs. Michael sighed, he expected them to start fighting, they always did, but he thought they would at least wait until after dinner.

“He’s your son too!” Sam yelled, it was thunderous, practically shaking the house. “I am not the only one that fucked this up. Take some responsibility!”

“You’re his father, he’s supposed to learn how to be a man from you. Obviously you’re failing at that.” Hope shouted back and Michael couldn’t take this. She was really trying to pass the blame off on his father, as if they didn’t have equal parts in ruining him. Michael wanted to charge in there and scream at them both, curse them for all that they had put him through. But then Eden came down the stairs, clutching her bear and looking close to tears.

“Mikey?” The fear in her voice nearly broke him. Eden was his priority, above everything else. Michael gave her a forced smile, like they couldn’t hear their parents tearing into each other in the other room.

“Sir Bear is coming with us?” He asked as he led his sister out of the house. She nodded, giving the bear a tight squeeze.

“He doesn’t like it when they fight.” She mumbled into the bear’s fur.

“Well, it’s good he decided to join us. We’re going to need all the knights we can get for this quest,” Michael declared, playing up the part again. Eden’s eyes went wide and he could see excitement creeping into her face. “I’ve heard there are trolls in the woods, someone has to make sure they don’t start terrorizing the town.”

“There’s no such thing as trolls!” Eden huffed but Michael knew she was only saying it to get a reaction out of him. If that’s what she wanted then that’s what he would give.

“You wound me, fair princess!” Michael pressed a hand to his chest, playing up the dramatics. “You doubt that I fought a dragon and now you doubt when I say there are trolls. Don’t you trust your knight’s word?”

“Alright, I trust you, Sir Knight.” Eden said in what Michael liked to call her princess voice. “We can go to the woods and look for these trolls.”

“Then let us be off!” Michael took Eden’s hand and started walking to the woods.

“Oh!” Eden said suddenly and stopped. She set down her bear and grabbed hold of Michael’s hand. With utmost seriousness she pulled out handful of bright pink Disney princess and Dora the Explorer band aids. She started applying them to his knuckles, taking special care to cover every scape but still leaving the princesses and Dora visible.

“Well thank you, my lady, now let’s go find us some trolls.” Keeping Eden distracted was like second nature to Michael. He took Eden into the woods not that far from their home and they spent a few hours exploring and troll hunting. Every time Eden started to look sad or scared Michael would start telling her a story or chasing after imaginary trolls. He wanted to stay out of the house as long as possible, giving their parents plenty of time to fight it out and cool off.

The sun was just beginning to set when Eden started to complain that she was tired. That’s how Michael ended up carrying his sister the whole half a mile home. Almost as soon as they left the woods she fell asleep on his shoulder, her arms tight around his neck and her bear pinned between her chest and his arm.

She was still asleep when Michael walked up the driveway to see their father packing things into the car.

“Dad? What are you doing?” Michael saw his father flinch before he slowly turned around to face his children.

“Michael! We were starting to wonder where you guys were.” Sam couldn’t seem to meet Michael’s eye and Michael knew that something wasn’t right.

“I took Eden out. She doesn’t need to hear you guys at each other’s throats.” Guilt flickered across his father’s face before it was gone. “Why are you packing the car?”

“Your mother—” Sam sighed, struggling with the right words. “We’ve decided that it might be best for us and for you two if we separate for the time being.”

Michael stared at his father for a long moment before it finally clicked. “You’re leaving us.”

“No!” Sam said quickly, “Just because I’m not living here doesn’t mean I’m abandoning you or Eden.”

“Then take us with you.” Sam’s heart lurched, Michael sounded so hurt and Sam knew what this was going to do to his boy. It’s better this way. That’s what Sam kept telling himself.

“Son, I—I can’t do that.” Sam forced the words out as if they physically pained him. He watched as the last little spark of hope fled from Michael’s eyes. Michael nodded, his face hard and expressionless.

Michael wanted to fight. He wanted to scream about the injustice of it all. Their father was supposed to be on their side. He was supposed to protect them from the monsters, not leave them alone with one. Their father was supposed to be the one that stayed.  Michael wanted to curse both his parents, to pack all of his things and just walk away from them both forever. The only thing that stopped him was the girl sleeping in his arms.

Michael tightened his hold on Eden and turned his back on his father. It looked like it was just going to be him and Eden now. That was fine, Michael was more than willing to look after his sister alone. He started walking to the house, throwing a simple “Goodbye,” over his shoulder to his father.

“Michael!” Sam tried to call after him but Michael didn’t spare him a glance.

Eden began to stir against Michael’s shoulder. “Mikey?”

“Shh, it’s okay Princess,” Michael soothed. Eden mumbled something sleepily and put her head back down. “Everything is just fine.”

____________________________

Patrick Page

“The Agony and Joy of Hunting”

The morning started differently from other hunting mornings. I had only had four hours of sleep. If I had only drunk one less beer, I would have slept better. The alarm barked at me through the darkness, jolting me awake, causing me to look for whatever emergency it was that happened to not be there. I reached to shut off the alarm on my phone and looked at the time; it was 4:15 in the morning. Not ready to get up, I laid there in my warm nest for about five more minutes, with my dog resting between my legs looking at me with sleepy eyes, asking me why I had disturbed her dreams of chasing rabbits. I cautiously got out of bed, trying not to disturb the spoiled princess that is my dog, and moved my way toward the door so I could start my ritual of cleansing the stench of the human world off me.

After shutting the door to my room, I started to move with a little more urgency because I was running behind the timeline set in my head. I grabbed towel from the basement that had been washed with my hunting clothes with a special soap the night before, so I would not acquire any unnatural scent. I walked upstairs, jumped into the shower, and began to clean myself. After standing in the shower for a few minutes allowing the water to warm me, knowing that I was about embark on a cold hunt, I dried myself and walked back downstairs where I had left my clothes in the dryer and started to get dressed in as few layers as possible. I double checked the weather to be sure to bring the right clothing to keep me warm. Checking my gear one last time, I loaded my car and pulled away from the curb. This day, the day that would leave me with a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach, was under way.

As I drove the thirty-five-minute journey, I visualized my approach to my tree stand. Along the route to my hunting grounds, I was scanning the sides of the road for any signs of the elusive White-Tailed deer. Seeing nothing, I started to question my instinct that this morning’s hunt would be a good. Then, like the universe and mother nature had read my doubting mind, on the second to last turn before my property, there they were, a herd of does eating in a freshly picked cornfield. Their eyes reflected the light from my headlights back at me like stars that had fallen from the sky and landed on the ground. This raised my hopes and reassured me that I knew what I was doing. I sat there and watched them for a few minutes through my binoculars, admiring the beauty and grace with which they moved. This elegant side of nature is why I love hunting White-Tailed deer.

I parked my car, shut off the engine and sat in the silent movement of the darkness around me thinking of my possible encounters on my walk into the woods. A few moments passed; as I opened my door to exit, I was immediately met with a force that nearly ripped off my door. I took a step and forced my door to shut quietly, then moved to the rear of my car. As I opened the rear hatch and started to remove my gear, I heard the sighing, creaking, and moaning of trees straining against the wind, which sounded like a young man being dragged onto a dance floor by his mom. As I meticulously donned my gear, like a soldier getting ready for a patrol, I once again started to doubt my endeavor. The sight of the herd of does just seen flashed through my mind’s eye and filled me with the resolve and hope to continue my journey. I double checked my and shut the door, stepping away from the poll barn light and into the stillness of the darkness, letting it surround me.

The walk-in was as slow and methodical with a pace of carful excitement. The rain the night before allowed me to move quicker than normal for the fact that my foot falls impacted the wet ground with soundless precision. Noticing the sights, sounds, and smells of the immediate area that surrounded me, I was developing a picture of my environment and the organisms that inhabited it. The smell of wet corn, the earth from which it grew, and the worms that feed on the nutrients filled my nose as I trekked through the maze of darkness and sound. Finally, with the relief of a warm bath after a cold challenging work day, I was at the steps of my tree stand without scaring any deer or other animals along the way. With the stealth of a cat tracking a mouse, I slowly moved up my ladder the twenty feet to my stand, clipped myself to the safety strap, and waited an hour and a half before sunrise.

Sitting there in the abyss, I started to slow my heart rate and began to prepare for the show that comes every morning when the world awakens from the long hibernation while the sun is on the other side of the planet. First to be heard would be the movement in the grass as nocturnal mammals head back to the safety of their hides. Just as quietly as it starts, the movements give way to the predatory wings that flap and glide through the night after their prey. Among the chaos can be heard the cry of a Bard owl asking” Who cooks? (pause) Who Cooks? (pause) Who Cooks for yooooooou?” and the repeat call from the mate. Like a light shining through a cracked door, the sun’s first rays of life start to blanket the earth, awakening the birds, creating an orchestra of songs and movement that make it hard to hear a thought on a quiet day. This however was not a quiet day; the trees’ agony and the wind’s fury drowned this morning’s song.

Just after the sun illuminated the clouds with enough light for me to use my binoculars, I started to glass the corn field and woods in front of me like a ship’s captain looking for land, searching every movement and every hole in between the leaves and stalks, making sure nothing went unnoticed. As I glanced to my right, there she was, a doe, no more than fifteen yards from me,walking into the woods. How had I missed her? From what direction had she come? Those were the questions that ran through my mind as she slowly blended into the surrounding woods like a drop of rain blends into a puddle. Trying fruitlessly to call her back, I realized that I had missed my chance; she had to have walked so close to me that if she were a snake I would have been bitten.

Sitting there in disbelief, I started to glass the field again, this time a little more cautious of my surroundings and paying closer attention to the last spot I had seen her disappear. Then it happened again, as I dropped my binoculars from my eyes to give them a rest, there she was, another doe, no more than ten yards from me on my left. She had come from behind me, traveling southwest with the wind, walking slowly, looking behind her every four or five steps. “I got her,” I thought, as I started to get in position to harvest her. I slowly stood like grass that rises to greet the warmth of the sun in the morning. The sorrow-filled rush of adrenaline and excitement flowed through my body while I prepared to draw my bow for the ambush. “Oh, fuck!” I thought, “I almost missed him.” I was so focused on the doe that I had not seen the six-point buck slowly walk into my view from the same direction that his prey had come. With his nose to the ground and then in the air like a blood hound tracking an escaped convict, he was following her about ten yards behind her.

A new rush of adrenaline-filled excitement flowed through me causing me to shiver like I was nearing hypothermic levels. I was starting to lose my composure. I slowed my breathing, trying to control any involuntary movement, I watched him as he froze, looked around the area, sensing something was amiss. Squatting his rear legs low, after a few heart beats he reared his head like a dog thrashing with its favorite toy, and continued to follow the doe. I quickly made a deer bleat to stop him again, taking aim while simultaneously drawing my bow with the ease of years of practice. I prepared to take my shot. To ensure he would fall quickly with relatively little pain, I made certain that I was aimed toward the right area of the buck’s body—just a few inches from the back of his shoulder blade and up about an inch. Slowly, I worked through my check list: make sure my bow is not canted left or right but level; make sure my grip is correct; make sure I am relaxed; take a breath and release it, applying pressure to the trigger on the release. Then, just as I was about to loose my arrow, the wind, which I had forgotten about in all the excitement, forced the tree to which I was attached to move, causing me to become unbalanced and lean, sending the arrow forward deep in the ground just under the bucks belly startled the deer toward cover. I sat there in a sorrow-induced haze contemplating what I could have done differently and  how I could have changed the outcome of the situation. Licking my wounded pride like a defeated wolf after a fight for leadership, I descended from the tree stand and made my way to my car.

Once there, I removed some of the layers that I had been wearing, changed my shoes, packed my gear, and started my car. Disembarking the woods in a melancholy mood, I paid less attention to the drive home, only consciously focusing on what was required to drive safely home. Once at home, I sluggishly moved about the house, let my dog outside, and rewashed my clothes. After a quick nap, I showered with a little more vigor than what I had felt before resting. After getting dressed for a second time, I departed for the second half of the day that would inevitably land a solid kick to my stomach and leave me gasping for air.

Arriving at the property for the second time that day, I pushed all that had happened that morning out of my head and, like before, donned my gear, checked and rechecked it, and then set off. Taking more care this time to pay close attention to the damp ground of the path I was on, I looked for fresh signs of the ungulates that may have passed by in my absence. Once I reached the bottom section of my ladder, I looked up to see that the sun was trying to come through the clouds that had worked feverishly to hide it. Sitting in the stand again, I hunkered down and began the eternal four hour sit until the sun would lay down for the day. Scanning my surroundings, I noticed that the wind’s temper tantrum had diminished to just a sob Glassing the field and woods again, searching for that hint that my prey is nearby, I heard the movement of an animal, to my right, this time twenty-five yards up the hillside from me, walking in my direction.

She had stopped behind a cluster of trees, only exposing her body from the front legs back. Slowly rising from the seat, I prepared my bow for the draw, the second time of the day, and I waited to see what her move was going to be. After what seemed like two eternities, she moved slowly down from behind the trees and began to work her way down the hill toward where I sat. Ten yards out, I tried to stop her so I could get a shot, but the power of her thirst was stronger than my attempt. She stopped five yards from my stand with a picture perfect broad side shot, if you were sitting in a blind. I drew my bow, took aim, and, once again, went through my check list. Preparing to send the arrow in her direction, I paused to make sure I did not have a repeat of the morning, depressed the trigger on my release, and watched as the arrow soared through the air as an eagle soars down to catch a meal. With a thud, the arrow hit the deer, passed through, and stuck in the mud as she ran off.

Excitement quickly filled me; I had just made a shot that felt great! This made up for that morning’s debacle, thus filling my freezer with meat for part of the year. Sitting there, waiting the appropriate time before getting down, I glassed the arrow, looking for the signs of a clean hit. At that moment, as I looked at the arrow through my binoculars, my stomach fell the twenty feet to the ground from my stand. There was blood on the fletching of my arrow, but nowhere else. The shaft was covered in a white substance that looked greasy if touched. Quickly, I started to scan the ground in the direction that she took off, looking for signs of a blood trail. There, in the deep green grass, was blood, good in color and plentiful. I got down from my stand after the thirty-minute wait and walked back to my car. After shedding my harness and layers, and grabbing my rope, light and knives, I headed back to where I had shot her.

Starting at the first sign of blood, I followed every drop and every hoofprint in the search for her. Along the trail, about 50 yards from the shot, I spotted a pool of clotted blood. This was a great sign, I thought, this means that I did have a well-placed shot and she would be close and I could start to field dress her. The sun was dropping fast, and light was getting scarce. I needed to find her fast or be forced to dress her by flashlight. Scanning the area looking for where she laid down, I noticed that the blood continued in the direction I was moving. Following the trail about a hundred yards more, the blood seemed to have evaporated into the cold night air. On my hands and knees, wishing that my eyes would turn into microscopes and my nose would turn into a blood hound’s, I painstakingly searched for the next sign of blood, hoping that the trail would turn into the deer I had shot not more than an hour and half ago. The darkness tried to force itself on me as I worked, my head lamp keeping it at bay. My stomach twisting deeper and deeper in to a pretzel as each excruciating minute passed as I searched.

While working to find my prey, the wilderness around me became alive with the chatter and purring of a family of raccoons. The chattering of the group sounded as if they were two rows of corn away from my location, just outside of the reach of my light, and growing closer, as if at any moment they would bust into my sanctuary of light. Continuing my work, I searched for signs that would point me in the direction of travel the deer had taken. There was a feeling in the air that I was being hunted, like every eye that was cloaked in darkness was watching my every movement, looking for a weakness to exploit and capitalize on to win the upper hand.  After about twenty yards of a drop here and a fresh print there, the chattering seemed to grow closer and closer at a rapid speed. Quickly, I turned towards the noises and illuminated eight sets of eyes shrouded in darkness, that were wide with surprise.  After I shook some stalks of corn and kicked the ground the eyes disappeared and reappeared as the calls of retreat were sounded while they ran away.

Realizing that my trail had grown cold about thirty minutes ago, I frantically searched in all directions for 200 yards from the last spot of blood for a sign of the deer. Four and half hours had elapsed since I loosed the arrow that had sent me on this fool’s errand. As my light grew dim, so did my hopes of recovering the deer. As I stopped my search, my stomach was knotting like a two-year old’s shoelace, as it moved toward my throat. With the smell of defeat and regret in the air, surrounding me like a fog, I realized that my shot was not as well placed as I initially thought. The shot was too steep, I wounded her badly (the blood was evidence of that), the arrow could have bounced off her ribs, gravely wounding her but not enough to drop her quickly enough for me to find her, or worse, she is still walking around with a gruesome wound on her side.

Shutting off my headlamp, I gave myself to the darkness. Sitting there, waiting for my eyes to adjust, I noticed the night sky for the first time. The gloom of the day had dissipated and was giving way to a cloudless sky with the Milky Way full of stars stretching into the abyss and beyond. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, more and more stars appeared in the ceiling. I started to go over the events of the last five hours in my head. Knowing all this heartache and agony that the wounded deer and I had both felt, I obsessed over how it could have been avoided if I had been a little more patient. I could have let her drink the water that she had craved, letting her walk a few more yards away from me. This would have allowed me to make a better, more ethical shot on her. The feeling of accomplishment as I packed my freezer with the harvest could have been mine if only I had waited a few more yards. The shot I could have taken at that point would have caused her less pain. Hunters do not start to hunt because they enjoy hurting animals; they start because they want to become one with nature, admiring it, appreciating it, respecting it, and sharing it, not damaging it or causing it harm. After losing a deer, I often contemplate hanging up my bow and gear and never going out in to the woods ever again. Knowing that my actions harmed an animal that I did not recover so it could provide for my family and I makes it hard to return. The one thing that lessens the sickness and allows me to continue, is knowing that even though I lost her, she is still providing for nature. The coyotes, eagles, crows, and other natural scavengers and hunters will enjoy the fruits of my spoils. With the fact in mind that the harm or death I was part of still provides, I still wake up early, year after year, day after day, and sneak in to the woods to experience nature at its most pure state.

____________________________

Joionna Brown

“Inside Out”

Outsides worn like a played out suit
Too loose
Not bulletproof
But it’s see through
Inside out
I am beneath you
I am tainted waters
Like a tattoo
predominantly black
Wear the ink, but it wears you
Cracks in society meant for poverty to bleed through
Outside worn like a played out suit.
Outsides skin deep
Razor blade to wounds cut deep
Not me
Slept on, no sleep
What’s beneath we don’t see
Unable to fit into
Too loose.
Outsides worn for no reason
Society has spoken
Inside, like battling demons
Enslaving ourselves
Treason
Black on black, we still lose
They kill us
We kill ourselves
Not bulletproof.
Society too loose
lethal
Racism back like a sequel
White supremacist
Trump says they’re not evil
Quoting “They are good people.”
Society too loose
But it’s see through.
“Be Unique”
Past due
You wear yourself, the world tells you not to
SHOUT
“All people are worth it”
But we kill what’s different not preserve it
Society
Inside out.
Recycling old habits, like we’re meant to
We are different
Don’t destroy what’s not you
Sameness
Past due
I am beneath you.
I am beneath you
Inside out
But it’s see through
Not bulletproof
Too loose
Outsides worn like a played out suit.
____________________________

Joionna Brown

“Simple”

Implications are nothing to hold onto
Onomatopoeia?
Sound a thing makes
silence defies you.
If glass could shatter
If glass shatters, like paint splatters
broken pieces could gather
platter holding like a bladder,
rather
space and matter,
full of water no splatter.
Implications are nothing to hold onto.
If glass could shatter?
If glass shatters, life would be simple
Like a smile with an unforced dimple.
White walls speak in silence.
If glass shatter, things could be simple.
Glass shatters…..life is simple.
____________________________

Joionna Brown

“Alone and Broken”

“This is a broken story, with missing pieces. This is a broken story left shattered and scattered. Everything has disappeared and reappeared, but for the sake of this story I will let it stay gone. People like reruns, repeating actions and old habits until their tired or life expires, and they stay gone.

Who knew snow could kill. Taking a part of him away from her, from me, from us. He would play in the snow until he went numb. Until his brain went lame, until his body could no longer feel pain. His brain cells subside, choking more of internalized fear. His senses would grow vivid and his vision would blur. The more he would inhale the less he was in hell. However, snow would kill taking away his soul only to leave his body living.

She gave him the gift of life, if he didn’t want it, then she didn’t want it. So her body would self destruct day by day. It will squash her organs, making her weak. The Pigment in her skin will be washed away. No one is disposable, but the man who breathed a life under fluorescent lights gave her an expiration date as if she was. His words splintered inside me. Equivalent to the blade of a butcher knife rammed forcefully into my stomach, as it seizes the deepest depths of me. I cried. Cried until my eyes ran dry, until my chest heaved violently.

Words have the tendency to fall out the mouth and die at the feet, but these words took me with them. Melancholy hung over me like a black cloud, drenching me in my personal sorrows. My heart felt as if it were tar making it hard to keep a steady beat. Who knew that words could turn into pain? It was taking me and didn’t have the common decency to leave anything more than skin and bones.

Every human life in this mortal plane, but death would be longer than any life and more painful than it had to be. It’s not dying that will scare, it’s the pain. The pain I was living. The pain I am living. Souls wither away every day, forgetting to tell our bodies that decided to hold on just a while longer.

***

Feet pounding like a sack of wet concrete. The blistering cold air scrapes my throat as i inhale deeper, faster. My heart and lungs are pumping blood, but air didn’t seem to be enough. Suddenly my perception of time distorted, everything slowed down until there was nothing. Nothing left. Nothing left in me, or this empty cycle we call life. I don’t want to be anywhere, I just don’t want to be myself anymore. I sit in class and look blankly off into space, surrounded by people every day, yet I’m alone. I run, and I run, and I run until I realize that I can’t keep trying to escape myself.

So I cry. I breathe in the grayness that sits as if it’s the backdrop of my life. And I cry, breathing in the rain that falls from my eyes for no reason at all. I cry, because I am choking, struggling to hold my breath. I cry as my lungs fill with water. I cry as my entire body begins to burn, trying to find the surface. I cry because I am tired of gasping for air. I struggle no more. I cry, my lungs cry and I resign. Resigning from life and everything in it. Resigning from the things not yet mastered. Resigning farther away and faster.

So I cry. Breathing in the art of losing that I’ve not yet mastered.

____________________________

Ken Speegle

“David’s Chamber”

“Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss.”

Those seven little words shattered me and is the reason I’m risking what’s left of my marriage, my family, and maybe even my career – not for healing but for simple, brutal revenge.

Friday starts like any other school day. The hours teaching high school social studies pass quickly, followed by a few hours coaching my high school boys basketball team as we lose a nail-biter to the team from the next town over. I get home just as my wife of nine years is returning from her job at the 9-1-1 Dispatch Center in nearby Nauvoo, Illinois.

Relaxing in front of the TV as we fill each other in on our days while we scarf down Chinese takeout, Sarah’s eyes light up as I tell her how close we came to knocking off our archrivals, and how proud I am of my boys.

“You almost got ‘em this time, Travis. Keep working the kids like you have been. I sense a huge Regional victory in your future. I hope your kids realize what a fantastic coach they have!”

I snuggle a little closer to her on the couch and sigh. Even though she hates all sports other than gymnastics, she plays along for me, and I love her for it. She even manages to make it to some of our games when she’s not working.

“I sometimes think they’re doing good to find the gym. Other times, they make me feel like the smartest coach in Illinois, especially when they run the plays the way I draw them up. When things click, they’re good together. I just don’t know if they know how good they can be. Enough about my day, tell me about yours, gorgeous.”

Sarah tells me about a few emergency calls and a big accident outside town that day, then asks how my kids did on their pre-SAT exams. This is her way, constantly shifting the focus back to me. After once again building my self-esteem with an outsized sense of my importance and accomplishments, and how well she thinks my students will do when they take the real SAT in a few weeks, I lean down and gently kiss her.

“I don’t deserve you. Beautiful, talented, and you can see into the future.”

As we talk, Sarah begins running her fingertips up and down my arm, with those little feathery, circular strokes that always drive me wild. She grows quiet before asking, “Do you know your future?”

Knowing this is just a tender moment and not a prelude to sex – I misjudged her intent repeatedly the first three years we were married until I learned to scout the signs – I’m content to just be close. I’m more than a little surprised when Sarah mischievously runs her hand up my thigh and says, “Whaddya say, Trav? You wanna?”

Not the most astute guy when it comes to not-so-subtle hints, I catch on pretty quickly for once and take her hands as she walks backward with catlike grace up the steps towards our master bedroom. Three kids into ‘til death us do part, workday sex is out of the ordinary, but is welcome. It’s been awhile.

Sarah pulls me close and kisses me on the steps, then pushes me away so she can pull her shirt over her head, revealing breasts mostly undaunted by the passage of time. As we stumble up the stairs, our hands begin caressing each other, touching, teasing, pleasing, as we desperately try to make it to our bedroom before we give in to our rising passion.

Making our way into the darkness of our bedroom, we help each other undress the rest of the way as only two people who know each other so intimately can. I try to push Sarah onto our bed when she suddenly spins me around and gives me a hard shove that knocks me off balance. I land hard and she falls on top of me.

“On your back, boy.”

I begin to protest when she covers my mouth with her hand and says, “Shh, don’t talk. Give me the silent treatment.”

Sarah begins moving, slowly at first, then faster. With our racing hearts beating out time, we lose all sense of time and place as we alternate speed and rhythm, letting the moment take over until eventually, too early yet much too late, Sarah cries out as we peak together. She collapses onto me, breathing heavily.

Running her fingers through the hair on my chest, Sarah reaches over me and pulls the blanket from the mostly still made bed over us. Enjoying the closeness of the moment, I can stay this way all night, but my lovely wife has other plans.

Sitting up suddenly, Sarah says, “I have an idea.”

“What’s that, sweetheart?”

After love, I’ll agree to anything. Hell, I’ll break into the Federal Reserve to see if it still has gold if that’s what she wants.

“I’m going to the bathroom to drain. When I get back, let’s throw some clothes on and go for a drive. Just like old times.”

This is weird. I shrug.

“Works for me.”

After a traditional after sex sugar fix that replaces the cigarettes we used to smoke early in our marriage, we’re screaming down the highway in my jet-black Buick, ZZ Top blasting out of the speakers.

A cloudless, crisp night, I drive aimlessly, following the twists and turns of the river road that connects Hamilton and Nauvoo. Content to be serenaded by thoughts of Legs and Cheap Sunglasses, my thoughts wander.

It begins to dawn on me that Sarah must have planned this night in advance because Chris, Taylor and Paul, our three kids, are spending the night with Sarah’s mom. In retrospect, I should have known something was off. I’m blissfully content to enjoy this moment for what it is, though. With three stairstep kids not quite old enough for Junior High, we only occasionally get to steal moments like these for ourselves.

After skirting Nauvoo and turning around by the Mormon Temple, I slowly head back towards Hamilton. Sarah points at an almost hidden scenic hideaway I’ve never noticed before and says, “Hey babe, pull into David’s Chamber. I want to show you something.”

“David’s what?”

“David’s Chamber. It’s a historical site.”

“Hmm, this is a new one to me.”

I park in the darkness. Beginning to sense once again that something’s a little off, I forget when Sarah says, “Put your seat back. You have to see this.”

As I recline my seat, Sarah climbs over the console and slides onto my lap, our bodies intertwined, with her head resting on my shoulder. She points up at the sky. We marvel at how it seems like we can reach through the moonroof and lasso the stars, they’re so close.

God, how I miss the carefree days of when we’d do shit like this all the time. We lie there and talk for what seems like hours, our words and the occasional passing vehicle on the highway just behind us the only sounds breaking the almost spiritual silence.

Sensing I’m on the verge of drifting off to sleep, I reluctantly suggest we head home. On the outskirts of Hamilton, Sarah wants me to pull into another pitch-black parking lot, this one a popular launch where boaters and fisherman ease their watercraft into the Mississippi River.

I’d like to say I know something is amiss, but I’d be lying. Something feels a little off, but Sarah is known to occasionally get quirky, spontaneous urges. I’m not a soothsayer and God knows I can’t predict the future. I normally have to be hit right between the eyes with stone cold reality before I put things together.

As soon as I park, Sarah gently holds my hand. I look expectantly at Sarah, wondering if she’s about to do that little thing she doesn’t do very often, that happens only on the bluest of sexual moons.

The only light source is a streetlamp on the other side of the parking lot. It casts an eerie shadow over Sarah’s face. Even in the pale light, I can tell she isn’t in the mood for a midnight snack. She looks troubled. I begin to worry and don’t know why.

“I want you to know how desperately I still love you. It’s important you know this because what I’m going to say will hurt – a lot.”

Not knowing what she’s about to say, I steel myself for the worst. Just before she continues, it occurs to me I haven’t asked Sarah about her mammogram earlier in the week. God, I hope she’s OK. I don’t know what I’ll do if anything ever happens to her.

Suddenly fearing the worst, my mind is in a different place as Sarah begins speaking. It takes a moment for my mental gears to shift, from worry for her well-being to what she reveals to my disbelieving ears.

“Babe, I don’t know any other way to tell you this other than to just say it. Since Mark took over as Director of the 9-1-1 center, we’ve gotten friendly. Nothing serious, just smalltalk… at first…”

I listen intently as Sarah speaks, dying inside with each passing moment.

“…He’s funny, not hilarious like you but kind of sweet. A little rough around the edges. At first, I told myself I was just being nice. Before I knew it, we would share takeout lunches locked away in his office, chatting away like old friends. He asked questions about my life, what I would do if I ever found myself single and living far away from here. One day, he kissed me. I can’t explain why but I let him. I knew it was wrong but in that moment there was nothing I wanted more.”

Sensing my pain, Sarah pauses for a moment, tears welling up in her eyes. I don’t know why but I’m morbidly fascinated by her story. It’s almost as if I’m listening to a stranger tell me about her latest fling.

“After that, I kissed him several more times. Usually at work but not always. Mark lives over in Carthage. Sometimes after work, if we left at the same time, he’d follow me as far as Hamilton since it’s on the way. One time he flashed his lights at me. I thought maybe he’d forgotten to tell me something important at work, so I pulled off to the left, into David’s Chamber. That’s how I found out about that little spot. That was the first time he kissed me at that spot, after I got into his car to find out what he wanted.”

Shell-shocked by what Sarah is saying, I simply sit there, waiting to hear what other revelations she has to share with me. I’m heartbroken and angry, yet strangely stoic about it all. I’m also on edge, wondering how much more there is to this story.

As Sarah opens her mouth to continue, I brace myself for the inevitable. I don’t know how much more my tortured mind can take. Knowing she’s about tell me how she has also been sleeping with Mark, my left hand grips the door handle until the pain gets through to my brain and I relax my grip enough to ease the throbbing I feel in my fingers.

“In case you’re wondering, sweetheart, the answer is no.”

I looked at her, confused.

“What do you mean?”

“No, I didn’t sleep with him. I wanted to – but there’s no way I could do that to you. Yes, he kissed me. I kissed him back. But that’s about as far as it went.”

Still reeling, I begin emotional damage control, struggling mightily to process everything she has said. Unsure what to say, my mouth alternately opens, then closes, several times. I don’t want to reveal what I’m feeling but I want to scream in her face, to make her understand how I really feel and how profoundly she has hurt me.

Normally not overly emotional about anything, I struggle with cascading emotions and countless questions. Instead of asking about the details, lashing out at her, or screaming about how badly she’s hurt me, I simply sit in silence, letting the dismal news permeate my being.

Sarah looks at me with tears streaming down her face and says, “Talk to me, sweetheart. Say something, anything.”

I desperately want to shake her, to make her understand what I feel inside, how my will to live, to exist, is drifting into the night like cigarette smoke on a breezy night. Just when I think I’ll be able to speak, I look into her eyes again and I see equal parts guilt and anguish.

Sarah’s pain becomes my pain. Through it all, I remember the young lady I fell in love with more than a decade before. The one who once rescued a stray cat and hid it in her bedroom, smuggling food up to it so it wouldn’t starve to death or freeze to death outside in the bitter cold. I want to absorb her pain like an airbag does the force of a car crash.

I’m overcome with love for my wife, not animosity or hatred. I want nothing more than to forget this night ever happened. So, I do what feels right, right now.

I lie.

“It’s OK, babe. I think I understand. I don’t like it, but I understand.”

Seeming relieved at my understanding, Sarah rests her head on my chest, sobbing uncontrollably, clutching me like she does when she sometimes wakes from a nightmare and needs to be held. Every convulsion of her body cries out to me for absolution.

I don’t understand, not yet. There’s time for that later. Right now, my wife needs her best friend. There’s time to learn details and unsort my convoluted emotions later.

Most of my residual anger is gone as Sarah looks at me through tear-soaked eyes reflected by the streetlight and says, “Sweetheart, can you ever forgive me? I am so sorry… more sorry than I’ve ever been about anything in my life. If you forgive me, I swear to you, I’ll live the rest of my life making this right – making you believe in me again. I’ve learned why I love you and what I have to lose. You, the kids… our life together…”

She trailed off.

The truth is, I don’t understand. None of this makes any sense. Before the anger and hurt can bubble up again, the rational part of me that works overtime to maintain an even keel takes over. It’ll take some doing but I think I can handle this.

Beginning to sob again, she simply said, “I love you.”

If Sarah needs me to be her rock, then by God that’s what she’ll get. We’ve invested everything in each other, clinging to each other when everyone said we married too young and that we were a train wreck waiting to happen. I hold her tight to let her know that nothing between us has changed, that I’m still the same man she married, that I’ll protect her from her pain – and if necessary, from herself.

Seeming relieved that I understand, Sarah then opens her mouth and says something that haunts me to this day: “Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss.”

My mind recoils from Sarah’s words. A kiss is just a kiss but not when you’re married. Especially when it’s with someone else.

I’m emotionally spent and overwhelmed by the day. As we start home, my mind drifts from Sarah and the pain she’s feeling, to my pain, then back to Sarah again. Just before pulling into our driveway in Hamilton, I realize something.

Mark is walking away from this, a winner. He’s a lucky man, getting through this unscathed.

Everything isn’t OK after all. No indeed.

Things may never be the same again between my wife and me. In fact, I’m nearly convinced. It’s not every day a man learns that his seemingly perfect wife is anything but. If you’ve ever been down Infidelity Road, you understand how treacherous navigation is. I quietly adjust my narrow six-foot frame in my seat, and I begin to plot my revenge.

Not against my wife, the most obvious person I should be pissed at. Even though this may change later on, right now, I see Sarah as a sympathetic figure, the hapless victim of an out of control, sex on the brain, Don Juan coworker.

I can almost feel the pain Sarah felt as she shared some of the details of what’s been happening with Mark McIntire.

Even though I’ve never had such a visceral response to anything before, above all, I want to make everything all right for Sarah, to absorb some of her pain and make our family whole again. Because this is what I do.

For this to happen, I need an outlet for my emotions. This demands something primal, a down payment on my healing process. I need this if there’s any way I can salvage my life.

It is in this moment I have an epiphany. Mark will be the target of my frustration.

I have to heal, too. Just a little differently than Sarah.

A kiss might be just a kiss in the end.

But Mark will pay dearly for my wife’s sweet kisses – and for convincing my loving, faithful wife to temporarily forget her marriage vows and risk her marriage and my happiness.

Mark and I will get to know each other well – much better than he has probably ever considered.

Because vengeance is mine. And I will have it.

Sarah and I silently walk into the house and begin getting ready for bed.

* * *

After the day I’ve had, I expect sleep to come easily. It doesn’t. Instead, with Sarah fitfully sleeping beside me, I lay in bed, mulling over everything I’ve learned tonight. My beautiful, dutiful wife has done something I’ve never considered possible.

Struggling mightily to think dispassionately about Sarah’s relationship with Mark, I suddenly remember an article I read recently. I mentioned this strange new creation, the emotional affair. It’s strange how fast my perspective has changed. When I read the article, I laughed to myself about how silly it is to get upset over something as simple as a kiss. On this side of the article, I feel differently.

Sharing one’s innermost feelings, things they ought be sharing with their life’s partner, and swapping spit but not bodily fluids is supposed to somehow make me feel better. It doesn’t. Angry, bitter, painful tears well up. I swipe them away. I can’t afford to let weak emotions interrupt the task at hand. I’m angry and I will be for a little while. I need to feel deeply, to let my heart scream out for revenge, to know what it’s like to live on the edge of vengeance.

I keep getting sidetracked by questions. Has Sarah told me everything? Has she actually screwed the guy, rutting around like pigs in the mud in a cheap little motel room in Nauvoo? Will I ever know?

Just as importantly, what about Mark, who lands a new job as the Coordinator of the 9-1-1 Dispatch Center, then immediately put the moves on my wife? How much fucking game does this guy have if he can convince a seemingly happily married woman to confide her deepest, darkest secrets to him, then start sucking face… or more?

I begin feeling guilty. I think some of my thoughts could land me in jail in some places. It damn sure isn’t politically correct. Sarah isn’t my property, she’s my wife. I’m not sure what my line of thinking says about the kind of guy I am on the inside, where nobody can see.

My thoughts linger on Mark and whether it is fair for me to want to even the score with him even though my wife has been an equal party to this affair.

Near dawn, I decide a couple of things. First, I don’t give a fuck what my revenge on Mark says about me. The pain I feel has to be paid for by someone. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, justice isn’t always fair. If someone needs to pay the price for a problem between a man and a woman, everyone knows it’s the dick’s fault. Since I’ve already given enough through my pain, Mark will have to be the sacrificial lamb in the act of vengeance I am planning.

Even though my coaching job is dominated by alpha types, I’ve always considered myself a little more beta than alpha, intellectual and sentimental, but with a hard-scrabbled inner voice who says all kinds of stuff, big, bold words that never leave my head.

I’m the kind of guy who never forgets birthdays, always says “I love you” and is certainly not the type to get into physical confrontations – ever.

Deciding there’s a first time for everything, I think I have enough anger and brute strength to get in Mark’s face in a full-on confrontation. Without meeting Mark, I sense I’m just mad enough to deliver the kind of beat down that will let him know in no uncertain terms that my wife is off-limits to him, no matter how much he might want her.

As I lie in bed thinking, my anger builds again, rising to a crescendo that demands release. Right or wrong, I know what I have to do – for me.

For all the times in my life I’ve done the right thing, where I’ve let things go even when I don’t want to, where I’ve behaved exactly as expected, where I’ve taken the proverbial road less traveled.

It’s time for me to test drive my anger on a different road, one paved with revenge and – for once in my life – a response that far exceeds what anyone would think me capable of considering, much less delivering.

A quick glance at the clock confirms what the early morning light seeping through the curtains suggests: I’ve worried, plotted and schemed away the night. After quietly showering and dressing, I slipped out the door and head towards Carthage, to scout out Mark’s house and deliver a care package of revenge.

* * *

Several hours later, I park on the street across from Mark’s house. Finding the house is much easier than I imagined. $39.95, a couple of swipes and taps on my mobile phone, and I have his address.

Feeling a little guilty for acting like a stalker, I hunker down in the driver’s seat of my car, hoping I don’t attract too much attention. It wouldn’t look good for a high school teacher and coach to be arrested outside the home of the man my wife has been seeing. I’d have no ready response if asked why I’m suspiciously parked there on the street.

I don’t want anything to derail my plans. If I’m careful, I can slip into Mark’s garage, beat the shit out of him and leave, undetected. At least, I hope I can. If I can’t, the rest of my world will unwind.

Mark can come up with a cover story for his wife. He can tell her anything he likes as long as he leaves my name out of it. He’s the one who’s been fucking around with my wife. The least he can do is use his imagination for something worthwhile, something that might even save his marriage and his worthless ass.

Just then, Mark walks out of his house and into his front yard. The first thing that leaps out at me is how big he is. I realize my mind’s eye played a cruel trick on me when I was safely tucked away in my bedroom dreaming about revenge. I had pictured him as a dude I could easily take, one who would be unable to withstand the violent beating I’d give him. The man I see fire up a cigarette in his front yard has a full six inches and 50 pounds on me.

There’s no fucking way I can take this guy.

Most of the fight evaporated from me. There’s no way I can pummel this guy. It would take more than I can bring. I might be able to kill him but I’m not the killing type. For Christ’s sake, I’m a high school teacher. Taking a gun or other lethal weapon and using it as a means of ultimate punishment, as death’s taxicab, just isn’t my style. Maybe if I’m defending my family. Not this way.

No matter how much I hurt or how desperately I want to forever alter the landscape of Mark’s life, killing him just isn’t an option.

My mind reeling from my sudden rediscovery of my true beta nature, I start the engine and drive away, disgusted with myself and my weakness. Vengeance might be mine, but it’s a worthless possession unless I can find a way use it.

Driving home, I think about my options. I don’t want to let it go, I can’t. Not without at least trying to take him. My mind keeps circling back to the undeniable truth of my beta weakness. Walking through my garage on the way into the house, I stop in my tracks. The answer to my strength problem is propped against the wall next to the door that leads into the house.

My son’s shiny, rarely used, aluminum baseball bat. I chuckle softly. I realize I’ve leveled the playing field and significantly improved my odds of success.

Maybe I can’t miraculously gain 50 or 60 pounds in a day. I can, however, mitigate Mark’s weight and height advantage. I flip the bat in the air, catch it, and take a practice swing. This should work nicely.

Parked down the street from Mark’s house, this time at a much safer distance, I wait patiently and think about what I’m about to do. As a coach, I know how important it is to not just have a game plan, but one that considers most scenarios.

I may not be able to account for everything, but I can minimize the chances that a fuckup will cost me my freedom. Lost in my fantasy of beating Mark to within an inch of his life, I watch as a boy of about 12 comes out of Mark’s house and runs across the street, then returns. He must be Mark’s son.

After the boy goes back into his house, I can’t help but wonder about the relationship this kid has with his dad. His dad might be a dickhead, but no kid deserves to see their dad after getting the epic beatdown I plan to deliver with my son’s bat.

My blood runs cold as the ramifications of what I’m planning sinks in. I’m going to commit a felony with my kid’s bat. A felony that might very well hospitalize another kid’s dad – or worse.

Using a bat with my son’s fingerprints on it.

What if I can’t stop beating him once I start? Or, God forbid, Mark manages to wrest control of the bat from me. I could be badly hurt, which would expose all kinds of dark secrets to my own kids that I’d just as soon keep to myself.

I howled in rage at my dilemma. Fuck my life!

My revenge requires a brutal response, yet here I sit, debating the finer points of my pussification. In other words, a return to the normal me.

I need to think this through. No, I don’t. I can’t do this.

Finally at peace with the idea that I won’t be able to commit felonious assault or aggravated battery (is this what they call what I’ve been considering?) my mind carefully weighs options.

A brutal response is out of the question. Unless…

Finally, I know what I’ll do. It will be brutal. It will also probably keep me out of jail if things go south. If I’m lucky.

I watch Mark’s house, and I wait. Patiently.

Five minutes after Mark drives off in the other direction, I confidently point my car towards his house, and think about parking on the street before boldly parking in his driveway. After ringing the doorbell, I wait, like a kid with a secret he can’t wait to share. Moments later, a gentle faced woman with some of the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen answers the door.

“Mrs. McIntire?”

She nods her head affirmatively and says, “What do you want?”

“My name is Travis. I have something to tell you about your husband. I’m truly sorry but what I have to say is going to hurt – a lot. May I come in for a moment?”

She unlocks the screened door and holds it open for me and I step inside. She sends her son to his room so we can talk, then offers me a seat.

Brutality takes on different forms. No less satisfying than leaving a man bleeding in the street or on the floor of his garage, my decidedly non-violent method of revenge will still be brutally painful to Mark.

When he returns home, life as he knows it will forever change.

Something Mark’s wife said while I was in his house haunts me.

“He’s done this before. When I took him back, he swore he’d never hurt me or the kids again. He said he’d live the rest of his day making it up to me,” she said.

“I’m done. The bastard is on his own.”

I climb into my car, satisfied that vengeance is nearly, neatly, infinitely complete. Mark’s wife has picked his punishment, will control the timing, and will slowly let him roast in his own anguished juices.

I do feel bad for Mark’s son. But I feel infinitely better than I would if the boy had found his dad lying in the garage in a puddle of blood.

As I back out of Mark’s driveway and head home, I pass Mark about a block away from his house. He is blissfully unaware of what is about to happen when he walks through the door of his house.

I smile to myself.

“Mark, buddy, you don’t know me, but I know you. Your wife has something to tell you about your future. I’m truly sorry but what she has to say is going to hurt – a lot.”

I begin whistling.

Sarah and I will have challenges.

I need to tell her what I’ve done.

I’m sure she’ll be pissed and maybe a little hurt.

I like our chances of working through this challenge a lot better now than I did yesterday.

After the last day or so, I know much more than I did about life, love, and creative solutions to overwhelming hurt. Some men will fly off the handle, others will leave a marriage.

I’m a fighter, just not from the usual mold.

Now that it’s done, my life is infinitely more complicated. But it’s also simpler.

I’ve learned a thing or two about breaking bad news. I think I’ll find a different way to tell Sarah about this.

Before I go home, I think I’ll drive by David’s Chamber. I think it’s a little messed up that Sarah chose this spot to share an intimate moment with me. Maybe one day I’ll ask her about it.

For now, my trip to David’s Chamber has one purpose: a celebratory, primal scream of… renewal. I’m reclaiming what is mine.

It’s not perfect but it ain’t bad.

____________________________ 

Jazzy Thomas

“She’s a Hot Girl “

 “SHIT”, was the only statement that came to Icy’s mind as she sat on the street curb waiting for officers to finish ransacking her truck. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon during the middle of June, her birthday was 7 days away and it appeared to Icy that trouble kept finding her. Today’s plan was supposed to be simple, go pick up her custom-made dress, head downtown to Michigan Avenue to the Givenchy store and buy a pair of shoes, make her drop and head back home for the day. This traffic stop delayed the last of her plans. She tried to play it cool because she had a secret compartment added to her 2015 Range Rover a few months back, it was hidden in plain sight right above the glove compartment on the passenger side. A 22-year-old Black girl driving a luxury car that no regular CPD officer could afford, would surely raise suspicion. Since Icy wasn’t some privileged offspring of a bourgeois couple, nothing about her lifestyle made sense to a spectator from the outside looking in. Cops were always on her ass, pulling her over at every opportunity they got. That shit didn’t bother her, she felt as though she’d been marginalized her entire life, so all forms of attention was good attention, and would fulfill her constant urge to be seen. After about 15 minutes of searching, one of the cops returned to the squad car while the other approached Icy. She proceeded to stand.

“Well Ms. Lola, I guess this was a misunderstanding” said the officer, He slide her ID between his two fingers as if he was going to flick the card at Icy. He leaned in “What’s a mutt like you doing around these parts anyway? Englewood doesn’t belong to your kind anymore”

The other officer walked back to where the two were standing. Icy stood 2ft in front of the officer staring him directly in the eyes, the other officer approached with his hand on his gun and interrupts the stare down.

“We have a call to take on 69th and Halsted, let’s go, were done with this mutt.

Mutt?” Icy shouted back in an inquisitive tone. Right before she was about to go off on the officer she received a notification on her Apple watch. She glanced down to check it, and then looked back at the officer. “Can I go now?”

“Sure,” replied the officer, “next time signal before your turn”.  She scoffed and grabbed the ID. As she sat in her truck waiting for the police to pull off she responded back to the notification she received earlier. “On my way” was the simple message she sent to Bryant before tossing her phone into her purse and pulling off.

As she drove down 63rd Street, it baffled her to see what gentrification had done to the streets of Englewood. There were two Chipotles and four Starbucks within a six-mile radius, white women with Michael Kors and Coach bags crossing the street on 63rd and Halsted to enter the grand opening of a Whole Foods. What in the entire fuck, she thought: These are the same streets I fought to survive in, and now it’s yuppie central Tssh unbelievable, and I bet those purses aren’t even from a department store. It was a bitter sweet thing for Icy, the land that bred her to be the cold hearted, money hungry ambitious girl that she is, now no longer exist. She awaited the day she could pull into the hood and show off her success, but the hood wasn’t the hood anymore. Everyone had been displaced and shuffled to different parts of the city. She pulled into a Starbucks on 87th right before the E-way and ordered a large chai tea latte with almond milk and three sugars. As she sat in the drive thru she freshened her matte nude lipstick by Mac and teased her fresh cut, loosely curled bob.

She froze as she reached to pull up the visor mirror. “What’s a mut like you doing around these parts?”. The officer’s statement rang in her ears again. Locking eyes with her reflection, Icy broke into tears. Not often did she get to cry, not half as often as she fought back tears. She was soft on the inside, very insecure about her looks and she clung tightly to others opinion about her, she desperately sought love and acceptance from people. The two statements she’s became numb to were “you’re cute for a dark skin girl”, and “you must be mixed with something” indeed those phrases no longer phased her, the term mutt was rare, so it was still painful. That term clung to Icy tighter than the 500-dollar romper she wore.

Icy, who was legally named Lola Armiley Carter, received her nick name partially from her physical appearance, the other from her later accumulated personality traits. She was  5’5 with a medium brown complexion. She had natural bleach blonde soft curly hair, and deep sky-blue eyes. Her mom started called her Icy as a child because she said reminded her of Siberian huskies running through the snow mountains of Alaska. She had a small, round nose, medium lips that had a natural dark lip line around them. The line was so perfect it was as if God took his time drawing the lines, they complemented any shade of lipstick she used. At 140 pounds, Icy was thick in all the right places, plus her condo building had a Gym for residents so she frequented there often, at least three times a week focusing in on core and legs.

Icy is snatched from her trance by the sound of the blaring horn from the car behind her. She looked up and saw the cashier hanging from the drive thru window signaling her to move up. She paid for her 6.00 drink with a $20, paid for the car behind her, and left the rest as a tip.

Fifteen minutes later she arrived at Bryant’s brownstone in Bronzeville. A beautiful two-story home with a modern Victorian style. After parking her truck, she hit the secret compartment, grabbed a brown paper bag with 2800.00 worth of coke in it and stuffed it into her purse. Before she could reach out to knock on the front door, it opened. Bryant stood behind the door anxiously, “Damn took you look enough and why you didn’t use the back door?”.

“Because Jim Crow died back when I stopped giving a fuck about your wife” she shot back.

“You need to chill. You got the shit?”

“Of course, I got the shit, How’s Vickie anyway”?  She placed the brown paper bag on the stand that was positioned under the coat hooks by the front door. She turned to sit her purse on the stand as Bryant reached for the bag.

“I thought we agreed not to talk about my wife anymore.” Bryant said.

“Yeah, we did, ‘Icy replied’, but that was last time, and we made quite a few promises to each other last time.” She grabbed the brown bag from the table and put it back in her purse Bryant approached her. He grabbed her tightly by the waist and pulled her in.

As they made their way to one of the guest rooms, Icy stopped in the hallway and started to chuckle, she passed a portrait sized wedding photo of Bryant and Vickie.

“What’s funny?” Bryant asked.

“I just find it funny how fuckboys justify their actions. You’re completely down for cheating on your wife in her house, but audaciously, got the decency to fuck in the guest room.”

Bryant exhaled, “Damn Icy that mouth of yours would fuck up a wet dream. You got a brother feeling bad and shit.”

“Guess not bad enough for you to turn this down and send me home,” she hastily replied as she dropped her in season Burberry catalog romper and stood naked. The foreplay started to get intense.

The housing alarm system cried out a series of beeps. Completely captured in the moment, neither heard the front door being opened. Vickie silenced the alarm using the code. She set her keys in the bowl on the stand and approached the bottom of the stairs, she placed her hand on the pillar for balance while taking off her 6inch Louboutin’s. She called out for Bryant from the bottom of the stairs.

“Bryant!” she took four steps, then called out again, “Bryant!”

The second time he heard her loud and clear. Bryant jumped up in a panic unaware of what to do, his heart was beating fast. This would be the second time he was caught cheating, and with the same girl. Bryant and Icy were very well acquainted. It was Bryant and Icy’s affair that landed the couple and the mistress back into the city of Chicago. Bryant was an established professor at an Ivy League University in Atlanta and his wife was a district attorney in the same city. Both were Chicago natives who built a prosperous life away from the place that  the wife hated so much but the husband considered home. It all began to go down the drain when Bryant picked back up on his coke addiction. He relapsed because he was unhappy with his life at that moment. After his wife received the promotion to be the district attorney for the state’s second largest department, their marriage fell apart. Vickie became so career oriented that she forgot she was married, there were times she would be so involved with work that she never made it off the couch and into bed before she would fall asleep. One time, for a week straight Vickie slept on the couch just so she could do work and not disturb Bryant.

“Yeah babe, Bryant yelled from behind the closed room door.

Icy moved swiftly and quietly around the room gathering her items, preparing to hide in the closet.

“I’ll be down in one second I’m wrapping something up” Bryant replied to Vickie.

“And what the fuck am I going to do? How are you getting me out of here? I mean, I don’t mind waltzing down the front steps, but to save you some alimony and my fresh manicure we need a better plan.”

“Where’s the bag?” Bryant asked.

“Over there on the dresser,” Icy started to get irritated. “Fuck those drugs, I’m tryin to get out of here.”

“That’s the only way to get you out.” Bryant said.

“How so?”

“If I do a line of coke and go down stairs, she’ll know I’m high and fly off the handles,” he exhaled. “I’ll just lead her into the kitchen and we’ll argue in there. Wait at the top of the steps. The moment you hear me slap my hands on the table, you leave out, I’ll be sure to keep her in the kitchen.”

Tears started to form in Icy eyes, “But” she dropped her head.

“That’s the only option we have. If Vickie catch you here, its more than just a fist fight. She’s going to place those phony charges on you and of course divorce me. I rather go face her high and possibly sleep on the couch for months than to risk your freedom.”

Icy’s spirit was broken, and she instantly began to blame herself. Earlier she said that she was just going to come make the drop and leave. Bryant was so irresistible to Icy that temptation was always stronger than both their self-disciplines combined. He wasn’t the average philosophy professor. A younger Black male with a Jawline chiseled by Picasso, he had white teeth that stood out brightly compared to his dark complexion, he had the body of a Greek God. At 6’3, 200 pounds he had a physique that every man dreams of. He had a fine texture of thick black hair that was low cut, his hair resembled the ocean in the way his 360 waves drifted from the top of his hair line, to the nape of his neck. He was muscular with a sex appeal that not many women could deny. Icy and Bryant were not amateurs at the cheating game, but this escape plan was the most dramatic. Bryant had been clean from his coke addition for a year. He only copped from Icy because, he was the connect for his colleagues at the university where he currently was tenured and Icy is his plug.

“You are my freedom. The only living thing on this earth that loves me unconditionally. What is more freeing than that?” Icy said as the tears formed behind her eyes.

The two met back in Atlanta at the end of Icy’s sophomore year of college. She was enrolled in a big philosophy lecture class taught by Bryant. One day, a few officers came into Bryant’s office inquiring about Icy and her character, asking Bryant if he could provide information on who Lola Carter was. The visit from the officers really intrigued Bryant. He knew who Icy was by face and name, on the first day of class when he seen her he thought: Woah, she’s gorgeous. After the police visit, it was a week before Icy returned to class, that made Bryant even more interested in finding out who this girl really was. Bryant pulled Icy to the side after class. That next week, they scheduled a time to meet during his office hours. After the first meeting with Icy, Bryant mind was blown, in all his studies he had never been introduced to a creature of more fascination than Icy. From her physical appearance to her mind frame, he felt a sense of urgency in getting to know her. They both decided to continue meeting weekly outside of the university to prevent any suspicions.

It was after Icy’s first semester at the University that she learned how much rich kids were willing to spend on drugs. She soon found out what was in demand on her campus, and she supplied it to all. And, no, she wasn’t doing it because she wanted to pay her way through school, Icy was there on a full ride. She did it because she saw it as an opportunity to obtain things she never had, the material things that come with glamor and success. Selling drugs didn’t bother her morally at first. She saw no wrong with it, she figured someone was going to sell it anyway why not her. But, she turned a new leaf when she came to Chicago, she stopped selling drugs directly and became a wholesale distributor. She figured it would lessen her load on the way to hell if she didn’t sell directly to the humans who were using.

Bryant formed a line from a small amount of coke that he shook from the bag.

“Don’t do this please. If you do I’ll leave you, like leave you forever, for good, I can’t watch you throw away your sobriety like this. Not again, because this time I’ll know for sure that I am the origin of your down falls. Prove me wrong. Find another way” she cried.

“Origin? No baby, I have been battling my demons long before I met you. If anything, you are my salvation, that’s why you have to let me do this.” Bryant said.

The two became silent as pain crept over them like a wave of warm air suffocating them past the point of speech. Icy flashed backed to the day she was expelled from her school in Atlanta. That day Bryant and Icy had met at a sushi house in Buckhead, it was 10 minutes away from where Icy lived in Georgia, and 25 minutes away from the University. So, it was safe for them to be in public, or so they thought. After the two finished their meal and unknowingly having pictures of them taken, they left the restaurant to go back to Icy’s house to talk. The two were unaware that they were being followed, and that the both of them had an open investigation pending. Someone tipped the police about Bryant’s newly found hobby of dealing, and it just so happen to be ironic that Icy was one of his students. Detectives on the case opened a joint investigation, and in support of their suspicions, Icy and Bryant were connected. With the suspicion confirmed detectives had enough evidence to have the district attorney ask the judge for a search warrant. The detectives called the DA immediately and was told that they would be able to receive the search warrant within an hour. The district attorney was a powerful Black woman named Vickie McCauley, although she had just recently received her promotion, she had connections high up and everywhere. This was her first case as a DA, she had been tracking this Lola Carter since the change in her position.

Back at the apartment Bryant and Icy had just finished having sex.

“You want a drink?” Icy asked Bryant.

“Nah I really should be going, Vickie will be home soon”. He looked down at his phone and saw a notification from his wife Vickie.  He decided to check it because he had been ignoring her a lot lately. The message said that she would be home later tonight because she had a case she was about to close. Filled with joy, Bryant locked his phone and sat it down. He walked over to icy and grabbed her from behind.

“Actually, I’ll take that drink. What you got?” Bryant asked.

“Well, I have some 60-year-old scotch, week old Hennessey, and hard lemonade in the fridge.”

“I’ll take the hard lemonade, you have scotch that’s older than the both of us combined, whew must be nice. Your student loans aren’t due yet, so I guess you can afford that” Bryant Joked.

“Well, we can get you some if you let me add a few more clients to your list”

“No babe, I told you ill be out of dealing soon, once I finished paying off that Brown Stone for us in Chicago”

Bryant was madly in love with Icy because she brought fire back to his life. He realized this after finding out that she would be expelled for selling drugs on campus. Bryant decided to buy a home for him and Icy so that they could escape Atlanta together, he was going to leave his wife. After Icy got the drink for Bryant from the fridge she went into her safe to get his package of coke.

“Here, its best if I give it to you now because it may slip our minds later.” Icy Said.

“You’re right, because all I can think about is you” Bryant said.

The two laughed, then suddenly someone started banging on Icy’s door. “APD! Open up, we have a search warrant.” The two stood there half dressed in shock, Bryant began to panic he grabbed the drugs and tried pouring them into the sink, and to his surprise the water supply in the house was cut off.

“Fuck, that’s not going to work, this was a planned raid, they shut the water supply off so I can’t flush or drain. I have two more pounds of that coke in my room” Icy Said.

“Throw it out of the window.” Bryant replied.

“Yeah, only thing about that is were on the 15th level, with floor to ceiling windows, they don’t open fool.”

“Shit, were going to jail” Bryant voice was shaky.

“No, we’re not, I’ll sit in jail for 8 hours because I’ll take the rap, I just need you to call my lawyer and have him bail me out” Icy said.

“I can’t let you take the fall for this” Bryant said sternly.

The police knocked again.

“Look you have more to lose, I’m young, no priors, great lawyer. Ill get a slap on the wrist, if any time its going to be less than 6 years, I’ll be out before 3.  Plus, overall, they are my drugs, at my house. You tell them you were unaware of my habits, just here for sex.” Icy said.

Before Bryant could agree or disagree with the plan, officers kicked the door in and made there way into the house. Yelling orders for the two to sit on the couch with their hands behind their head. Officers put the two half naked lovers in cuffs as the searched the rest of the home. An officer walked out of the room with the two pounds of coke Icy had stashed, at the same time the DA walked in the front door.

“Vickie?” Bryant said confused. Vickie looked over and when she saw Bryant she fainted. Icy snapped out of her flashback.

This was reciprocity at its finest. Bryant rolled the dollar bill, putting one end at the opening of his nostril, the other end at the start of the line of coke. Bryant held his left nostril down and took a deep inhale while making a swipe motion across the line. His head rushed. Icy’s heart stopped. Nothing could be said. They looked each other in the eye. Bryant wiped the residue from his nose and walked out of the room, leaving the door open behind him. Down in the kitchen, Vickie was checking her emails on her iPad and enjoying a sangria when Bryant walked in. Icy was positioned at the top of the stairs, the two in the kitchen exchange a few statements, and seconds later Icy heard a glass being thrown at Bryant. It missed him and hit the wall.

“You stupid asshole” Vickie Screamed. “You’re high right now!” Vickie Rushed into Bryant, he blocked her and moved closer to the kitchen counter. Vickie found her balance and aimed for him again.

“How selfish could you be, you’re right back getting high after my whole life was tossed down the drain for your addiction. I’m literally in the pit of hell, in trashy ass Chicago, with a lower position in life now all because of your fuck ups.” Vickie said.

“Don’t put this on me I NEVER asked you to come back here! I wanted a divorced, I wanted to leave and come here. It was you that decided to honor the part about death do us part.” Bryant shouted.

“So, is this your cowardly way of getting a divorce? You purposely throw you sobriety away to break free, as I remember you said till death do us part as well. I didn’t force you, you took vows at your own will.” Vickie said.

“I’m not sorry to say, but, your career was death of our marriage, that’s what did us part. You became cold, isolated, you lost the fire that sparked me into being a better man. What I needed was your warmth, nothing else just you. My girl on fire from the Englewood district.”

Victoria paused in utter confusion, especially since she wasn’t from Englewood.  She didn’t understand a word Bryant was saying, the Hunger Games analogy threw her for a big spin.  That’s because the statement wasn’t for her, it was for Icy. Icy knew exactly what that meant, the first date her and Bryant shared was at the premier of “Catching Fire”. It was the second film based on a series of books Icy loved. Bryant saw many similarities in the main character that matched characteristics of Icy.

“Just remember that, I will always love you, may the odds be ever in your favor”. Bryant said as his voice cracked. Bryant slapped his hands down on the counter. Icy wiped a tear that was preparing to fall, she sped down the steps and out of the door. As she closed it quietly, she stood there for a moment holding the door knob in her hand, something couldn’t let go. Vickie and Bryant started to argue again.

____________________________ 

Koyo Masore

“Paraphrased Predicament”

Plenty propositions,
plan paragraphs.
Place pen on paper
pen on proofs.
Possibly put pointless pieces,
Pieces of puzzles
Pieces of people,
Points on pieces of paper.
Probable postulates pop from the performer,
pre-formed by the poet.
Powerful pieces of poetry
perpetuated by on point penpoints.
Pursued by perusing persons
partaking in publicizing pieces.
People pinpoint possible penpoint parables
praise poetic patterns.
Preposterous presents,
presented to placate populations.
Plenitude of platitudes
passed on from preacher to teacher
pretend to place power to pretentious preachings,
place priority on spacing and pacing,
place priority on rhyming and timing.
Not on purpose.
Purposeful poets
playing our preconceptions
procreate possibilities.
To what poetry could be
____________________________

Austin Middleton

“The Brutal Indifference of Life”

November 21rst, 2009

It was just like any average day for me in eighth grade, the final bell had rung and I was waiting outside the main doors by the flagpole with my younger brother Dalton. It was a small junior high school in the middle of the smallest county in Illinois, so as we waited for our step father Rick the only thing to look at was a cornfield and busses pulling away loaded down with students yelling excitedly. We never had to wait long because we only lived a mile from the junior high on a small farm. We technically could have walked but it was never much time before Rick would pull up in his big black Chevy truck just like today. My brother and I load into the truck and Rick pulls out of the school parking lot and heads for home. His truck reeked of cigarettes and miller light, but that was far from unusual.

“Austin I talked to your mom and it looks like the weather is going to be good enough for your grandfather to come get you,” Rick tells me as he moves his sunglasses up onto his hat, revealing the lighter skin around his eyes where they had been. It made his farmers tan much harder to ignore, “Do you need to pack still?

“Awesome! I already packed my suit case last night just in case!” I had been worried all day at school watching the clouds roll overhead. I knew if the bad weather held up then he surely wouldn’t be able to come and get me. My grandfather had been a pilot for many years and often my mom and dad found it easier for me to fly for an hour and a half between them instead of driving me between them, but the weather was always a factor we had to consider when he flew to get me. We stopped at our farm house for all of five minutes for me to grab my stuff and to drop Dalton off. My younger brother is very awkward looking; he is very tall and his arms and legs are lanky and almost look disproportioned to his torso. He wasn’t coming to my dad’s with me because he is a half sibling on my mom’s side, I remember only giving Dalton a halfhearted good bye as he was always on my nerves and I was only going to be gone for a week so who cared?

Rick and I left our house on our way to Lacon which was not too far away. I had taken off from the Lacon airport countless times over the last few years so it had become the normal meeting place. Although unfortunately, by the time we arrived only thirty minutes or so later the weather had taken a toll for the worse. Rick was on the phone with mom and apparently my grandfather had radioed in saying he was going to have to land in Kewanee and pick me up there; it was as close as he could get with the storm coming in. The possibility of bad weather had been making me nervous all day, and now that the storm was making him reroute to a different airport I felt downright uneasy.

We arrived at the airport in Kewanee around five o’clock and my grandparents had just arrived, and as I sat in the small airport terminal I watched them get out of H’s 1972 single engine Cessna and approach the building. Harold Middleton, better known by most people and myself simply as H, was a great man. He was pushing it into his nineties and although he moved slowly with a shuffle in his step and a hunch in his back he still came into work at our family’s lumber company several times a week. H always wore slacks and suspenders over an old VFW jacket, for as long as I could remember he had kind of an old fashioned smooth wave haircut that was thinner and thinner every time I saw him; very fifties era when you looked at him. He had served in the second world war and worked hard his entire life to support those who relied on him, and on top of that he was one of the kindest people I have ever known in my life. He was one of the only men I had ever met who I aspired to be like when I grew up. My Grandma Peggy was just as sweet and wonderful, H’s fourth wife I believe and she was very plump and round with a short crop of blonde hair on her head that was so obviously dyed to anyone who saw it. They were wonderful grandparents and I always loved when I got to be around them.

They greeted me and they spoke with Rick for a few minutes before I said goodbye and we left through the back door of the terminal into the airfield. There were a couple of light posts I had noticed as I loaded my suitcase into the luggage compartment. By far though the greatest amount of light came from the ones that were rotating on top of the more tower like poles, the ones to warn any incoming planes. Like a lighthouse sitting on the cliff face so ships can find the shore in the dark or storms. This was actually my first time flying at night, and that fact for some reason made me more nervous than I already was. I just shoved all that out of my head and tried to convince myself it was just nerves, flying had always made me nervous and that’s all this was. Nothing more.

We all loaded into the plane which was only a four seater, it wasn’t spacious but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. I just watched as H went through his preflight check flipping switches and confirming his takeoff on the radio. I just wanted this flight to be over as soon as possible so I grabbed my iPod from my pocket and put my ear buds in. I figured I could probably drown out the roar of the engine and maybe take a nap so the flight flies by. As I turned on the music and closed my eyes I leaned my head back and folded my arms back trying to get comfortable, and just then I could feel the plane taking off from the ground and I felt that twinge in my stomach. The one you get at the top of a rollercoaster right before the drop, the feeling of near weightlessness. I had not gotten through the first song I was listening to when it happened, and I will never forget what I saw in a million years. I felt something very odd. It was like I was being dragged to my right and it was strong, it was only seconds before I realized what I felt was gravity and I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I couldn’t process what I was seeing until I thought about it hours later, but what I saw right outside the right window of the plane was the ground.

Midflight the plane had for some reason tilted to the right and for a moment we had been flying with our wings perpendicular to the ground, and with the lights from the wings beaming down I could see the rows of corn flying by one after another as I got closer and closer and then there was an impact. My eyes were closed but I don’t remember losing consciousness. I was thrown around the inside of the plane like a ragdoll due to the lack of a seatbelt and when I opened my eyes again what I saw was horrible. The whole right side of the plane was gone, torn open and I could see the night sky and a cornfield. We had landed a mile and a half south of the airport in the middle of a cornfield. H’s seat was broken and though he was still strapped in, his seat was leaning back and pinning me down into mine which had undoubtedly kept me from being thrown from the plane.

“Is everyone alright?” I whimpered quietly as I pulled myself out from under my grandfather and out of the wreckage of the plane, the disorientation was so intense I couldn’t even begin to understand what had just happened.

“I’m fine,” H told me as I grabbed his arm and helped him climb from the plane. Peggy was still buckled into the passenger seat, but she was leaning out the torn open side and it looked as if she was stretched and stuck half underneath the wreckage. “Peggy are you okay?” I could hear H ask and all he got in response was a very weak no. Even in the midst of the tragedy H kept his cool, and I think that was what kept me from losing it myself. I had just checked my cell phone to see if I could get a signal and make a call, but the second I opened the phone the battery died.

“Oh God damn it, of course!” I yelled and threw my phone in the dirt. I noticed I could still see the rotating airfield lights and knew we couldn’t be that far from the airport. I looked by and saw H trying to clear debris and help Peggy. “I’m gonna run back to the airport and get help, Okay?” I tell H trying to keep it together and stay calm. He replied but was solely focused on helping Peggy, like this crash was totally normal and he had just been waiting this whole time for things to go south.

I took off through that corn doing nearly a full sprint down the rows wearing only one shoe. Cornfields absolutely terrified me ever since I was a little kid, but in that moment it never even registered to me where I was at. I probably made it through a mile of dark cornfield before I fell to my knees out of breath. I buried my face in my hands and started to sob. Waves of adrenaline were slamming into me. I still couldn’t even begin to process what had just happened to me. I sat there for several minutes just repeating to myself, “I’m alive.” It didn’t seem real. None of it. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do a single thing. I sat and tried to steady my breathing, to get my body and mind under control. I watched the rotating airfield light go back and forth counting it slowly, one rotation after another. Before long though I started calming down ever so slightly and felt like I needed to puke, but when I leaned over to let it out I did nothing but heave. Then I noticed the blood on my hands in the thin veil of light, my forehead was definitely bleeding. I sat a few minutes longer, feeling the wet dirt beneath my wet socked foot, the broken corn stalks underneath my shoe on the other foot, and for the first time in my entire life I was thankful that I was alive, I could actually appreciate what I had. I stood up on shaky legs and readied myself, after three deep breaths I ran for all I was worth, as fast as I could and when I finally broke free from the edge of the cornfield I was directly across the road from the main doors of the airport.

I run up to the small brick building and I burst through the doors as quickly as I could as saw the attendant in her office where we had left her. She looked up at me from her desk through the office window and I sincerely thought this old lady was going to have a heart attack. She stood up from her desk with her mouth gaping open and walked out of her office. I just stood in the entryway trying to form the words and I simply mumbled as I collapsed into a nearby chair,

“Plane crash…” It was all I could utter as I tried to catch my breath. the woman on duty looked even more shocked than she had before.

“Oh my god, oh my god,” She started repeating as she went into her office for the phone, “I don’t even know who to call!”

“Uhh 911 maybe? Jesus any emergency services will do!” I couldn’t say anything else, I just buried my head in my hands and tried to hold myself together. The police response time was surprisingly good because the first officer showed up in what seemed like less than a minute, and I summoned what strength I had to meet him outside the front door. The police officer got out of his car and took one look at me,

“You were in the crash? Are you alright?” he seemed genuinely concerned.

“I – I’m fine,” I stammer quietly, “But my grandparents… their still at the plane.”

“What about the pilot?” He asks me as after speaking into his radio.

“My grandfather is the pilot,” I say quietly. Behind him two ambulances and more squad cars pull up, “We took off going east I think, I came from that direction.” I point across the road from where I ran out of the corn and the officer informed me that I was pointing south, “Okay man. I don’t know which direction it was then; I just know I came from that way.” He asked me a few more questions and then they loaded me onto a stretcher and put me in an ambulance, before they closed the ambulance doors the officer informed me they had found my grandfather on a road nearby flagging down the sheriff. We left for the hospital and with all the adrenaline starting to wear off, I found it hard to fight the tears welling up in my eyes and I remember the EMT patting me on the shoulder, telling me that it was over now and I was alright. It was far from over though.

We arrived at the hospital and they wheeled my grandfather in a few minutes after me. The first thing I noticed was that we ended up in trauma room A, the same room my sister ended up in after her car accident. It wasn’t long before my mother was on the phone with me and her speech was an unintelligible mix of screaming and crying. I couldn’t even get a word in, and she scared me so badly I almost didn’t take the phone when my dad called. He was much calmer and told me how much he loved me and how lucky I was.

When the doctor came in to tell H and I that Peggy was dead, I already knew. It seemed obvious at that point but what stuck with me was what the doctor said after my grandfather started breaking down, telling him that Peggy had been alive. He looked really apologetic and said the words,

“I truly am sorry Mr. Middleton. If we had gotten to her a couple of minutes sooner… I’m sorry. I promise we did everything we could.”

If we had gotten to her a couple of minutes sooner. Those words rang in my head like someone was shouting them through a megaphone. A couple of minutes. To say I felt guilty was an understatement. I sat in that cornfield for what must have been ten minutes at least, trying to calm myself down and it could’ve been the difference? I was overwhelmed with guilt, completely distraught. On top of it all I was unscathed, I got to go home and pretend nothing happened.

I didn’t go to Peggy’s funeral. At her visitation I was welcomed by everyone as a hero. They all said I was incredibly brave for what I did, and I felt like I couldn’t even look H in the eye. I sat in a chair and stared at my feet for most of it. At one point a woman came to sit next to me who was apparently longtime friends with grandpa H, and she leaned in and whispered to me asking if I was alright to which I mumbled I was. I didn’t look at her though.

“You know sometimes in life God has to harden our hearts. It’s not our place to know why, but we need to believe there is a purpose to it. We take that pain and turn it in to something useful. Please don’t let it drag you down,” she leaned in and hugged me, and got up to leave. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that any faith I previously held had taken a serious beating. I just wanted to throw up.

December, 2009

I was back at school, everything was basically the same. The day I came back everyone would just stare at me and whisper. I think I probably told the story at least forty times that day to students and teachers, even the school social worker. She thought I needed to talk about what happened but I didn’t, I needed to move on. Eventually things got back to normal, relatively speaking. That was what I needed since I was still struggling with what had happened to me, still trying to process such strong emotions and now an extreme anxiety on top of it.

One day only weeks after my accident I was sitting in class at school. We were in science and we were doing a lab, so everyone was at a lab station. Our teacher left the room for a few moments and I hear someone whisper my name. when I looked up I instantly noticed a few of my classmates a few stations down smiling at me. I just look at them and wait and one of them puts his hand in the air lying flat, and he then begins shaking his hand violently, doing loops and eventually crashing it into the lab table which the other boy followed by mimicking an explosion with his hands and mouth. The class thought it was absolutely hysterical, but I just sat there and looked at them. Then I looked down and I could feel my chest tighten and my breathing pick up, I could feel an anxiety attack coming on so I get up and excuse myself. I walk out and end up in the library just down the hall, only trying to catch my breath and not breakdown in school. I was just getting ready to go back when my teacher found me and she asked if I was doing okay. I told her I was fine and she told me not to worry and that I was very lucky, that there were angels watching over me. I looked up at her trying to hide any emotion, and as monotone as I could I said,

“There are no angels. There is no god. Nothing we do matters. We are all gonna die. What’s the point?”

From that point I slowly slipped into a pit. A cynical pit of loneliness, despair, and confusion.

September, 2016

I stood back as everyone made their way out of the cemetery and to their cars. I stood there reading the tomb stone and rereading it. It was sudden, but he died peacefully. Of course it was too soon for us, me especially. We had unfinished business; I had never gotten to talk to him about what we went through. We just never spoke of it. I wanted to but it just never seemed appropriate or always like the timing was bad. I wish I had, especially then standing over his grave. If I had been brave enough to bring it up maybe things would have been different. Maybe I would have processed my grief in a healthier way. I rolled one of the shells from his twenty-one guns in my fingers and thought about what I wanted to say.

These shells were supposed to be a symbol of bravery, honor, duty and for some reason rolling it in my fingers, besides making me feel close to him, gave me a sense of confidence. It took me a long time to realize what exactly had traumatized me so badly. I was a fourteen-year-old kid who had been relatively sheltered, and overnight my innocence had been snatched from me. Then I had to worry about things I shouldn’t have had to worry about. I was kept up at night with anxiety about things like what the meaning of life is, why we are here and if it mattered. I was burdened with my realization of the fragility of life and the razor thin line we live on a daily basis. But mostly I was afraid from that moment on that I would live a life without purpose, and that I would die a young, fruitless death at any moment. H helped me through this being the man he is, being as strong as he was, even the few times I could see the pain in his eyes he pushed it away and wore the brave face he had worn his entire life, and he got on with his life, back to his business, his family, his purpose.

“I’m going to miss you. I hope wherever you are, you have a brand new pair of wings and clear skies. I’m sorry… for a lot. I wish I had done things differently. I’m sorry I let it drag me down for so long. I just hope you knew before you left that I rose above that darkness. I found my purpose, finally. I couldn’t have done it without you either.”

____________________________

Jason Cummins

“Shame in His Eyes”

I take the keys out of my father’s hand. He gripes them tighter, stumbling and falling towards me. He is sweating profusely and flushed bright red. The smell of whiskey from his body, and the smoke from that murky bar is empowering. I get those keys and lead him into the front seat of the truck. I am sixteen and have thankfully just gotten my driver’s license, though I have been driving him home drunk from bars for much longer than that. In a small town, the cops tend to look the other way. They know about our family. Our family stays in the shadows of the town, but people whisper. My father’s head hangs down, willing himself not to vomit. I pray he doesn’t get sick in my truck. It is a cold December, the week after Christmas. There is still snow on the ground as it had been a white Christmas. The twinkly lights displayed in windows in our small town seem to be teasing me as I deal with the disgusting smells in my truck. We get home, and mom is still at work. Step by step, I have to shoulder a portion of his 200 pound weight to get him into bed. As he lays down, I see the look of shame in his eyes. He will remember the shame in the morning, but it isn’t enough to make him change.

I know early on that all families were not like ours. I would go to friends’ houses for dinner after sports practices. Other dads would read the newspaper at the kitchen table. Other dads could hold down jobs and not sleep all day. In my town, sports were everything. I was accepted into the popular crowd because I was a good athlete. That was the only reason I was welcome, but I never really belonged. I was in outsider to the good families. I was an outsider in my own home, as I was powerless to stop my dad’s actions. I always felt alone, and always, always ashamed.

It is late autumn, and my senior year football team had made the play-offs. There was so much energy in the air that Friday. I walk through the halls feeling unstoppable, wearing my varsity jacket and having my girlfriend by my side. I was invincible. The locker room smells of sweat as the boys pad up. Nelly music thumps through that room, creating a soundtrack for our 2001. The cheerleaders and marching band fill the night with their school spirit. We claim a victory that night, making play after play, under the bright lights. It was the best night of my life, until I see my dad in the stands. Again, I am different than every other player that has just won tonight. I was scared of my own father, always walking on eggshells. I never knew if he would be my quiet dad that was kind, or the drunken dad that couldn’t walk straight. He goes to congratulate me, and I again saw the look of shame in his eyes. I knew he was sober from his shaking hands. I also knew he would drive to the bar as soon as he left the high school. Eighteen years were gone. I had been a kid and needed my dad to help my navigate this messy world, but in that instant- I realized how alone my childhood had been. Standing there in what should have been the happiest moment of my life, I only felt full of loneliness and regret. There were no more chances for him to be the dad that I had needed. I was a man now, and I swore to myself that I would never need him for anything ever again. I would never let him have the power over me to make me feel alone.

Alcohol was ingrained in every childhood memory that I have. Every holiday, my family would sit around our downstairs bar and pour drink after drink. A glass was never left empty. My father was in his element, playing the boisterous bartender when he was still sober enough. A couple of hours in, he would be the one that couldn’t stop. He would be the one that passed out drunk on the sofa when relatives or friends were over. Every camping trip involved much of the same. My dad started his dad with orange juice and vodka, around noon switched to beer, and in the late afternoon, moved on to Jack Daniels. I remember the times that an ambulance was needed to take him to the hospital. I remember the smoky bars that called the police to show up after he was cut off from buying any more drinks. I remember the times he lost his driver’s license. I hated the disappointment of our childhood.

It is 2018. I am a father myself. I play catch with my kids in the backyard. We go legitimate camping that has nothing to do with what we drink. My boys will never have to know the pain of alcoholism. I refuse to drink, scared that with one drink, I could turn into him. I never want them to feel like an outsider in their own family. I never want them to worry if I will be able to stay sober long enough for their wedding. I never want to hold my grandchildren with shaking hands from withdrawing. I don’t hate my dad anymore. Holding onto a lifetime of hate is exhausting. Life is too short to hang on to that. I feel sorry for him. His life has had decades of disappointment, shame, and heartache.

I walk into my childhood home, and down the hall to visit my dad. Nothing has changed in that house. The same pictures hang on the walls. The same dreary curtains cover the windows. My dad is laying in a hospital bed that has been brought in for him. His skin and eyes are yellow from jaundice. His stomach is swollen from an enlarged liver. He is dying, and this is the end stages of cirrhosis and liver failure. He looks much older than his 65 years. He spends most of his days sleeping. My mom is getting counseling from the hospice workers, and she seems more at peace than she ever has. She smiles and laughs again. My dad has been sober for almost a year. He is kind now and asks questions about my life. We watch baseball together. It feels like we have met for the first time. The irony that it is too late is not lost on me. This is alcoholism, and it is ugly. It is the smell of dying in the air. It is planning a funeral when your parent is still living, with your dad requesting a Jack Daniels flag on his casket because he sees it as a fitting tribute to his life. Alcoholism is regret. It is a disease and choice all at the same time. It is the look of shame in his eyes, that neither of us can seem to erase.

____________________________

Kendrick Keller

“A Poisonous Idea”

The office had a yellow tinge to its overhead light, even though the whole school was supposedly operating on fluorescent lighting, the environment and whatnot. On the left side of the Junior High office was a shelf full of colorful nick nacks, a degree from some Texas University framed with dust covered glass, and a picture of some high school football team presumably from a time before the invention of sliced bread. The two uncomfortable black chairs in front of the center desk sat two fourteen year old boys. The first boy, with his mud brown hair, thin frame, and Puerto Rican looks (he’s not) tapped his feet and scratched his elbow red. The second boy had light brown skin, short, fuzzy, sky black hair, and green store bought hoodie that clinged to his body like a cage to a bird. The first boy out of nervous anger spoke and answered the question.

“Why are you looking at me, he started it. He stabbed me first!”

I am not the first boy.

“Hold on, you made me do it. It was coercion. He stabbed ME first!” I, the second boy, said. This reignited the argument that started on the way out of art class and continued the whole way to the Vice Principal’s office.

The first boy, Joseph flailed his arms in anger. “Well if you hadn’t messed with my project.”

“Messed with? I moved it and you freaked out and went straight for the pens,” I said while quickly flashing my fangs because I found the whole thing hilarious.

“Boys! You have both never been to my office before. Right?”

The deep, soft voice came from the large blonde man sitting behind the desk. Mr. Hendrickson was the Vice Principal of La Vernia Junior High. He wore the standard white button up and khakis getup used by school reps and waiters around the country. Hendrickson had a warm presence, always had a smile on his face even when delivering disheartening news. From our few interactions at the time he always showed that he walked around with his authority on his hip, not his face, kind of like a reverend or a traffic officer.

“Yes.” Joseph and I responded in unison.

“And the two of you are friends. Right? I’ve seen you eating together and you had to sit next to each other for this to even happen.”

“Yes.” We said simultaneously once more.

“Ok then, act like it. There’s no reason for the two of you to behave like animals. You’re friends, so don’t attack each other. As long as this is the end of this, you boys can go,” Hendrickson shifts his weight and leans back in his chair. “Is this the end?”

“Yes, sir.” We said for a final time.

Joseph and I stood up to take our leave through Mr. Hendrickson’s thick wooden office doors to return to class. Hendrickson followed behind us and reached out his long sleeved hands to the both of us before we took our leave. Shaking the man’s hands felt relaxing yet oddly empowering, like walking up to a 400 pound unchained lion and him letting you pat his mane, if only for an instant. Teachers to me weren’t symbols of a learning establishment that respected and engendered good will towards its students, even the bright ones. Teachers demanded and belittled, they abuse power to teach you a lesson you already know. Being near Mr. Hendrickson however, all I felt was respect.

The Ouroboros, originating in the ancient Egyptian text, The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, is an ancient symbol that depicts a serpent eating its own tail. The Ouroboros connects head to tail with its jaw sprawled wide to allow its scale covered tail to cram itself elegantly into the creature’s own throat.

On an all but normal Wednesday in March 2011, Ms. Hendrickson, the elderly mother of Glen Hendrickson, rushed to La Vernia Texas after a distressing phone call with her son. In Glen’s home which he shared with his school teacher wife and two young boys, Ms. Hendrickson found her son on his bedroom floor with a gunshot wound in his head. Mr. Hendrickson killed himself at his home in the local Rosewood subdivision; a quaint cul-de-sac like subdivision filled with wide roomed townhouses attached to small fenced in backyards. My longtime friend Brett lived in Rosewood; it took me far too long to make the connection between the house I visited to play Grand Theft Auto and shoot airsoft guns and the suicide of my friendly administrator.

We first heard of the death of our beloved VP at the place we flock to for fun and guidance every Wednesday after school. I along with several dozen of my classmates walked through the dark pews of our dimly lit Baptist Church after school. We looked up to the front of the auditorium-like room; overlooking our seats was a wooden stage, built with nothing but God’s love, hard community labor, and a measly few thousand dollars worth of tithes. The stained glass windows painted with colorful depictions from the bible towered over us teenagers. The lights that poured through illuminated our soft faces with brilliant reds, bright yellows, sun spotted oranges, and a tacky looking green that must be made of leftover Heineken bottles.

The service opened with the news of Hendrickson’s death, barely half a day old, not even a black and white headline yet. When the preacher spoke on the suicide, the room evacuated all light; we might as well have been in the chill Nevada desert under a sheet of night. It’s as if we were left without a star in the sky, the southern church was barely lit and the only sound was sobbing. The dams flooded before my preacher even stopped for a breath: sobbing from puberty stricken kids erupted from the pews. Students came forward to speak, to pray, to be cradled by an adult, any adult, just so someone else could do the work of keeping their bodies upright while their spirits lie at the steps of God’s house. My friends and I didn’t know Mr. Hendrickson well, but we still bore witness to the dreary scene around us. I was at a loss for actions. I sat, trembling within my booth, gripping the wood and biting my nails while mourning surrounded me in real time. The tense lack of understanding and anxiety with nowhere left to escape to, fell from my eyelids and dampened my green hoodie, a venom that needed extracted. After a single moment of pouring my saltwater from my face to my jacket sleeves, I found myself with nothing to do but sit and watch.

Hendrickson died because of corruption, greed, and the mistake of being a person who cared. The higher ups at La Vernia Independent School District had stolen money from the district, lied to parents and students, and covered up for a Drama teacher that used hard drugs before class. In the aftermath, we found out that Hendrickson knew all of this and was powerless to stop any of it. The morning of Wednesday March 30th, Hendrickson left school and visited my Drama teacher in jail, before driving to his Rosewood home one last time. The school learned nothing from the loss of Hendrickson, corruption stalked us, viper like, creeping in the background throughout our next four years in the town. After that week, there was no long term reaction from the school or the town because of Hendrickson’s passing. He wasn’t made a martyr, he died without a cause, teaching his students without the need for a lecture that a single bullet can’t fix everyone’s problems, but it can fix yours.

The symbol of the Ouroboros represents both beginning and end as a closed loop that swallows itself, this representation of life and the passage of time is not however as symmetrical as it would suggest. The Ouroboros’ interpretation of beginning and end is that they are one in the same, or at first sight, it paints it this way. However, anyone with eyes can identify the beginning and ending points of the serpent, the slender eyes, protruding from the enlarged head, the beginning.The bloated and pronounced beginning takes over and devours a tail that thins as it reaches out to its tip, tickling the far end of the serpent’s throat, the end.

I lived in La Vernia throughout almost the entirety of my primary schooling. This meant that the only time I met anyone new was when I left or they came. Because of the lack of intellectual and ideological diversity, the town can only be described as incestuary. Change wasn’t prevalent in the community, the most modern thing about the town was the new Whataburger (“Just like you like it”). Seeing the same faces everyday for the first sixteen years of your life means that everyone supposedly matters, no matter how well you know them, how close you are, or if you’ve ever spoken a word to each other. Lives are treated like a roll call, every day you go down the list to check if all the ducks are in a row.

I had seen Bryan a few times a year since I was in elementary school. He knew my name and I knew his. All other information we had about each other must have been secondhand. I could tell based on his friend group, his large truck, and his boots that he was very southern and somewhat stoic; in a much more passive way, people liked Bryan, his presence was never treated as a nuisance. Bryan most likely knew about me what most kids at my high school knew, I took advanced classes, skateboarded the town with my sometimes lovable shithead group of friends, and I was part of the approximately six and a half black kids in the school; everyone also knew I was the half. Our tertiary relationship could only get us that far. I had personally spoken to Bryan, probably less than ten times in my life. The majority of my interactions with him took place sophomore year of high school. I would see Bryan slither past in the open pathway between the brick buildings that houses the departments of the school. I passed him by maybe once a month, he’d nod his head and whisper my name “Kendrick.” And I’d hiss back, “Bryan.” We wouldn’t stand there too long, I was taller than I was in junior high, my glasses were traded for contacts so you could easily see my brown eyes with their full black center. As if we were five year old barely capable of looking through a book to find Waldo, point to his face and call out his name to prove to our parents and counselors that we didn’t have a learning disability.

On a winter day sophomore year I didn’t nod to Bryan. No one did. That morning we were informed that Bryan hung himself at his home the previous night while his parents were out. We were given no reason or explanation, we were just expected to hear the news and hand out “thoughts and prayers” in return. I didn’t cry when Bryan died, I didn’t stop with my day or leave the school and neither did most. However to say it wasn’t felt in every moment without a distraction that week would be a lie and an injustice. Whenever I would exit the classroom that week every spot and surface was grey. I would walk the same path I took every week. I would like clockwork leave my class at the bell and get precisely five minutes to traverse my campus that was covered in a pathetic combination of concrete and muddy grass. I never saw Bryan’s round face or still eyes on my way to class again. There was now this tiny point of empty space with a gigantic weight. Bryan’s absence was a supermassive black hole that sucked in all light with no hope of escape. My sadness over the loss of Bryan was much more selfish than it could have possibly been for the rest of the student body. I wasn’t feeling the pain of his family, or the sympathy of every parent with a son his age. I was constantly in shock by the blunt quickness that someone who had always been there had willingly departed with.

Everyone has had the experience of looking into a mirror and seeing a pore that sticks out in just the wrong way. This pore doesn’t quite fit in and in that moment you become bothered. Whether because for curiosity or perfection, you prod at it. You scratch or stab or slice at it to get it to leave, to fall out. And what does the it do in response? The only thing it can, it bleeds. That’s how I dealt with Bryan’s death for the remaining week. I’m prone to obsession of thought. And the lowering of the population of my town was one I couldn’t shake if I blasted a Disturbed album and banged my head on a solid chunk of wood for fifty four minutes straight. Because of this anxiety and how little felt I knew Bryan, I didn’t even consider going to his funeral.

The Principal announced over the scratchy outmoded loudspeaker one morning in the latter half of the week that anyone who wants to go to Bryan’s funeral on friday doesn’t have to go to school. Lucky for me I had a Doctor’s appointment. Our town was small enough and safe enough that it was usual for a kid to walk the town by themselves regardless of the time of day. I walked from my house through La Vernia towards my little Doctor’s office on the hill that overlooked a large lot of grass that stretched out in front of a wealthy neighborhood. When I reached the top of the hill, I could looked down and saw the very funeral that I wished to keep my distance from. Dozens of people stood hand in hand, some with heads bowed and others with small fires the size of Coke cans in their palms. The sight made my spine tinge and my mind race a few MPH faster than usual. What could they possibly be asking of God, is this to ease the agony of the family, to make Bryan’s loved ones feel better? Or is it for themselves? There’s no criminal to catch, no tragedy to clean up after, there’s not even a single person that we know to blame. Bryan must have been suffering, they type of suffering that time and laughter don’t erase. If we can’t fix the problem, why beg for it to go away? Why he needed to die for anyone to think about him after they nod in his direction? Bryan was a kind hearted sheep who was sacrificed in the middle of the week so we could collectively give a damn. A god didn’t pluck Bryan’s soul from him and leave his lifeless corpse to fall to the the ground. At the end Bryan finally had control. Bryan scarfed down his own tail.

____________________________

Cheyenne Rideaux

“Blue Aster”

We all knew little Sami Wallows was not Ava’s son. Although he shared her blond hair and green eyes, there was no likeness past that. With either Wallows. No. Ava would never have admitted to us that she was infertile. We all knew though. Rosie Stevens had known first; pointing out the suspicious vacation the two had booked only weeks after the pregnancy announcement.

We all knew Mrs. Cruz had lost her job in town. We had begun to notice the way she hoarded her newspapers, cutting the coupons as if her life depended on it. Occasionally, her son, Anthony Jr., would come to one of our homes to spend time with one of the children. On more than one of these play dates, he was happy to ‘volunteer’ to stay for dinner.

We all knew of the affair between Joseph C. Darin, the science teacher at Sterling High School, and Elizabeth Moore, the English teacher at the same school. This was brought to light quite recently when Annabelle Moore walked into her mother’s classroom to retrieve her lunch money. Suffice it to say, the affair came to an abrupt and silent end.

That is the key term to our community and its perfection. Silent. We know the secrets and imperfections in the neighborhood, but it is expected, out of courtesy, to never admit or complain about your problems. That should be none of our business. Never voluntarily. We agree to ignore the gossip; unless behind closed doors. That was our unspoken agreement. Until Verna-Mae Tissano.

It was nearly eleven at night when we awoke to the sound of a moving truck pulling into the Darin’s driveway. The couple had moved out a few days prior, but it was no surprise that a family would be moving in so soon. Blue Aster was a highly sought after community. We stood outside on our stairs, watching as the moving truck pulled in, followed closely behind by a beat up, grey, 2007 sedan. Rosie was standing at the house across the street, staring at the atrocity.

We watched curiously as someone exited from the car; a large hoodie pulled up so we could not see any features beneath the streetlamps. The person was followed by two small children exiting the back seats. It was far too dark to see them clearly. We let out sighs, knowing we would see nothing more until morning.

As soon as day broke, we set to work on our welcoming gifts. It had been a while since someone new moved into our neighborhood, but we still knew exactly what we were each responsible to bring. We met at the Steven’s kitchen to put together the basket. Rosie’s muffins sat on the counter cooling, while she worked on the little “Welcome to Blue Aster” ribbon that would be tied around the basket. We watched as her expert hands moved the thread around to create an intricate ribbon around the weaved basket. It was one of the many hand-weaved baskets that Rosie’s daughter, Mary, took immense pride in making.

The rest of us placed whatever items were meant for the basket onto the table. There were hand lotions from town; from one of the expensive stores that marked the price onto the item itself to ensure that the receiver would know just how much was spent on it, home-made jams, expensive cigars shipped from overseas, and a book; the newest best-seller romance. Rosie was the one leading the welcoming committee. The rest of us carried our own glass Tupperware full of casseroles.

“Okay girls, let’s give this new family a nice welcome,” Rosie said, smiling. It was the perfect mix of heart-warming and threatening, showing anyone who looked at her that she was clearly the head of the community. We walked with purpose towards the Madres yellow house, smiles on our faces that, after several years, felt natural.

Rosie’s light rasping on the door was the only sound that we could hear as we stood on the front porch. The house was eerily silent. There were no footsteps, no TV, no radio, no children giggling. The ugly sedan remained parked in the same spot it had pulled into last night. Perhaps this family had another car we didn’t see? We were about to turn away and walk back to our respective homes, when the door suddenly swung open.

“Can I help you?” A little boy asked. He stood in the doorway, a hand on the doorknob still, his other hand clutching a toy car. He was most likely around six years old, maybe younger, with curly black hair, olive skin, brown eyes, and a frail frame. He stared up at us with boredom.

“Hello there, is your mother home?” Rosie asked in the same voice she used when talking to one of her pomeranians. We wouldn’t have been surprised if the boy had rolled his eyes. However, he merely turned around and called into his house.

“Mama, people at the door!” He announced as he walked away and into the living room. We were shocked that he simply left the door open, let alone answered it without a parent present. There were a few more seconds of silence before a woman emerged from the kitchen.

“Why, hello there. Sorry to have kept y’all waiting,” she said with a heavy southern accent. Unlike the child, this woman had fair skin, freckles sprinkled across her nose, her shoulders, and the back of her hands. Her red hair hung straight and flat down to her shoulders, and her frame was a tad bit stocky. The only thing that she shared with the boy was the brown eyes; dark enough to be mistaken for black. She smiled at us, revealing an upper row of shockingly crooked teeth. “I was in the kitchen working on breakfast for the boys, feel free to come in and make yourselves at home. I won’t be but a few minutes.”

Like the boy, the woman simply walked away from the wide-open door – and our confused expressions. She sauntered back into the kitchen and made no sound at all. We remained on the porch, looking at one another as we waited for someone to make the first move. To no one’s surprise, Rosie was the first to step into the house. It looked almost exactly the same as the Darin family left it, save for the boxes that lined the entryway and spilled into the living and dining room.

We entered the living room, standing close the walls and bay window. The only furniture in the room was a single coffee table and a grey couch that looked as though it had been picked up at a garage sale or on the side of the road. Rosie stared at it with a skeptical eye, but turned to Elizabeth, nudging her head in a silent “You should sit, it would be the polite thing to do.”

Elizabeth timidly sat in the middle of the couch, so far off the edge that it took most of her strength to keep from falling. The boy who had answered the door was seated on the other side of the coffee table on the hardwood floor. There was another boy with him, an identical twin, who moved his own toy car around on the floor; racing the first boy’s. It was shocking, yet pleasing, how silent the two played in front of us.

“Breakfast time! Come and get it before it gets cold!” The sound of their mother’s hollering jolted us, making Rosie tense and Ava nearly drop her glass tray of tuna casserole. The boys scrambled up to their feet, racing each other towards the kitchen, shoving into one another on the way. The woman walked in the opposite direction, separating them nonchalantly as she came into the living room. “So, what can I do for ya, ladies? Is this the welcome committee or something?” The way she pronounced ‘something’ came out more like ‘some-than’.

“Yes, we are,” Rosie said matter-of-factly. “We came to welcome you and your family to the neighborhood. Is your husband home by any chance? We would love to welcome him as well and to let him know when he could meet with our husbands.”

“Ain’t got no husband,” The woman said plainly. We weren’t sure if she was going to say more or not, but when she continued to stare at us with her big eyes, we figured that was all she had to say about it.

“Oh! Well… you know we don’t have any issues with lesbians.” Elizabeth informed her quickly. We glanced down at Elizabeth, shocked by her accusation. After all, there were many reasons as to why someone could be without a husband. Death. Military. Divorce.

“That’s good to know. I don’t have any issues with lesbians either. But if you’re trying to reassure me, there’s no need for that. I’m not a lesbian. I just don’t have a husband.”

“Did you adopt those two boys, by any chance?” Ava asked in a timid voice. Rosie gave her a sideways glance, knowingly, but remaining silent about her opinion.

The woman smiled at that, but shook her head. “Nope, they’re mine. Had them six years ago, and have loved and raised them since.” The room fell silent after that. We waited for some sort of explanation. Grilling her on the whereabouts of the father was quickly becoming awkward.

“Well! I think this is all lovely. We would love to stay and chat more, but it is clear you have plenty of work to do with unpacking. I would be happy to send over my husband to help if you would like, but he may be busy with Mr. Kim.” Rosie said quickly as she handed the woman the welcome basket. We all stood, placing our own gifts onto the coffee table. The woman remained smiling, not seeming to mind the quick exit, and nodded her head.

“By the way, we will be having a bar-b-que at my house, a sort of belated farewell to the previous owners of this house. You are welcome to stop by if you would like. We would love to learn more about you and your family.” Elizabeth chimed in at the last moment. Rosie glanced at her, but remained silent.

We quickly made our exit, smiling at her as we left. We were halfway down the stairs when the woman opened the door. “The name’s Verna-Mae by the way!” She called down to us in her heavy accent. We turned back, smiled, and waved to her.

The sun was beating down on our backs as we stood on Rosie’s back porch. Our sun hats managed to protect our skin from the sun, but did absolutely nothing for the warm breeze that was beginning to pick up. Ava Wallows had to hold the hem of her blue summer dress down to keep the breeze from blowing it up. Verna-Mae was the only one who had shown up in a pair of high-waisted denim shorts and a blue tank top. Liliane and Joseph C. Darin had come for the day, wanting to apologize for their sudden departure from the community, so the rest of us felt it would only be appropriate to dress our best.

“It was awfully sudden of you. None of us even knew you were leaving until we saw the moving truck.” Rosie Stevens stated in a ‘concerned’ tone. We raised our eyebrows and leaned closer in our own feigned shocked expression. Liliane nodded her head, glancing over at her husband at the grill. The men, our husbands, stood on the grass, crowding around the grill, attempting to keep the wind from blowing the food away. Or they didn’t want us to over hear anything they had to say. They each held a can of beer in their hands as they chatted. None of them drank for a few moments; sensing our eyes on them.

“Yes, Joseph found a job in Bonney Lake, Washington. There is a beautiful gated community, Trilogy at Tehaleh. Plus, I have extended family there who I wish to be closer to.” We nodded our heads in understanding as Liliane explained. We took sips from our lemonade and blotted napkins against our lips in silence. Verna-Mae’s eyes flicked over each of us, almost as if she were trying to determine if we were robots. “I’ll desperately miss this community. I see all you girls as my sisters,” Liliane continued after a moment. Her eyes flicked to Elizabeth Moore.

We could feel the tension as the women stared at each other. Elizabeth chose to stand directly across from the host, despite our better judgement. Elizabeth placed a strand of her chestnut brown hair behind her ear, a small frown winkling the corners of her mouth. “I’m happy Joseph found a better paying job. I hope you’ll be happy in Washington. However,” she started to say as she shuddered slightly, “the name of your town, Bonney Lake, just sounds dreadful.”

We tensed as Elizabeth finished speaking. Our eyes were glued to Liliane, silently noting the way the corners of her eyes did not crinkle as she forced a smile onto her face. It was the kind of smile that was clearly fake. The way her hands tightened at her side; not into balls and not fully straight, just tightened. It was something that not many would have noticed. In a small community, it was easy to begin to notice just about everything about someone else.

“It is a silly name for a town, isn’t it? We wish we didn’t need to move, but it is for the best. The high school had some… issues, that I don’t believe Joseph, or our future child, needs to be around.” Once again, no one was surprised at the mention of the unborn child. The looks of surprise still appeared on our faces, mixed with delight. Liliane had told Rosie about the pregnancy a week after the affair came to light; only a month ago. Rosie felt it would be best for everyone to know, save for Elizabeth. We didn’t believe it was for any vindictive reason, however, the reaction of poor Elizabeth was entertaining to us all. Elizabeth was the only one who had a truly genuine reaction. The superior fire in her eyes dimmed, stolen by Liliane as she placed a hand on her flat stomach.

“I can’t help but feel like there is something between these two. What happened?” Verna-Mae asked, leaning towards Ava to whisper the question. Not surprisingly, her whisper was easily heard over the silence that had fallen over the group. Ava looked towards Rosie, unsure how to answer the question.

“The food’s ready! Are you girls going to continue to stand there and gab, or join us?” Joseph C. called to us, saving Ava from the needing to make the decision. We looked up towards him, but we said nothing. We walked carefully towards the men, making sure our Mary Janes did not sink in the dewy spring grass. “What were you ladies talking about anyways?”

“I told them the good news about the pregnancy,” Liliane informed her husband. She stood beside him, placing her arm around his waist. We couldn’t help but notice the way he hesitated to put his arm around her. His eyes shifted subtly to look at Elizabeth standing beside her own husband. Rosie was the first to break the silence, taking the moment to congratulate the soon-to-be father. We nodded in agreement, offering our own congratulations and advice from personal experiences. The Moore couple were the only ones to remain silent.

“Oh! Did something happen here?” Verna-Mae suddenly broke the silent. Her finger pointed from Elizabeth to Joseph. We were genuinely shocked this time. The audacity of such a question. Liliane tensed, staring at the new woman. If looks could kill.

“I have no idea what you are talking about. As stated, we are leaving for a better job opportunity,” Liliane said through clenched teeth. “Besides, I’m not too sure who you are to be saying anything in the first place.”

“My apologies, my name is Verna-Mae Tissano. I’m the one who moved into your house.” She held her hand out towards them, waiting with a patient smile plastered on her face. We couldn’t tell if it was a fake one or not. Joseph was the first to reach towards her hand; only to be stopped by his wife.

“Pleasure,” she said coldly as she held Joseph’s arm, lowering it back to his side. Verna-Mae slowly lowered hers as well, keeping the smile tugging at the corner of her lips.

“Well, now that we’re all acquainted, I believe the men prepared us some delicious food.” Rosie’s eyes remained on Verna-Mae as she spoke. Her attempt at dissolving the tension did nothing. If there was one thing Rosie hated, it was a community event being ruined.

A month. A month was all it took for Verna-Mae Tissano to change Blue Aster’s perfection.

We were nearing the very end of summer when. It was the end of the summer Blue Aster block party. The streets were lined with different activities, mainly for the children, ranging from bounce houses, pony rides, face painting, and small arts-and-crafts tables. The doors to everyone’s homes were wide open, letting the smell of our cooking out into the streets.

As custom, each family was put in charge of a different course for our party meal. We would start at the Wallow’s house for the hors d’oeuvre portion of the night. As we expected, the start to the evening was nothing special. We filed into the Wallow’s home, the layout and color identical to the rest of ours. Her furniture focused on a very blue and glass aesthetic, matching Ava’s personality. We stood in the dining room, picking at the pastry-wrapped asparagus, sweet fig crostini, and tomatoes with lemon dill dip. We talked amongst ourselves about our children, who remained outside snacking on the finger foods that we had prepared separately for them, and our husbands’ promotions.

“I’m sorry, hope I’m not too late. I was figuring out how to make sure my food didn’t burn or nothing while we did this house hopping thing (thang).” Verna-Mae apologized loudly as she came into Ava’s house. Everyone turned their attention to her, confused and surprised at the sudden, loud, burst of energy. We had almost forgotten that the Tissano family even moved into Blue Aster.

The family had been silent for several weeks following their welcome ‘party’. The twin boys mostly kept to themselves, playing in the backyard a total of seven times in the past month. Verna-Mae remained in doors most of the time. We had assumed it was simply to unpack all her boxes. The only times we knew of that she or the boys left the house were the few times when we heard the rackety sedan making its way out of Blue Aster or the weekends, then returning during odd hours of the night.

The men stared at Verna-Mae with surprised, confused, and impressed expressions on their faces. We, the women, glanced back, scrutinizing. She wore a short, bright red dress that hung off her shoulders, showed off her cleavage, and stopped just above the knee. Her heels added at least four inches on her, making her once stocky body appear almost as normal as the rest of us who worked out.

“Don’t worry about it, we’re happy you could join us. We were about to head to the Cruz’s house for the soup course,” Rosie informed her in a threateningly sweet voice. Her smile was strained, losing it’s ‘natural’ feel as she looped her arm in the new woman’s. Verna-Mae smiled at her genuinely, showing off her crooked teeth. She flipped her thin hair over her shoulder and looked back at the rest of us, her eyes falling on Andrew Moore. Elizabeth’s back straightened, her eyes narrowing at the other woman as Rosie led her and the rest of the group to the next house.

The tension during the soup course managed to dissipate slightly. We sat down for Elaine Cruz’s famous albondigas soup, smiling at one another and returning to our small talk. The soup was followed with the fish course at the Kim household, without any issues. However, it was the salad at the Moore house that signaled the shift of the night.

“I thought I would try to bring the freshness of summer out through this strawberry balsamic salad with French 75, a little cocktail I found in a ‘Spice Up Your Night’ book,” Elizabeth told us as we sat at her large table. The salads looked classic, nothing too special with them, but classy. Ava was the first to take a sip from her drink, and her face told us enough. Her lips puckered and her eyes widened slightly from the sharp vodka taste and tartness of the lemon juice. However, she did her best to put a smile back on her face.

“Oh come on, it can’t be that bad, can it?” Verna-Mae suddenly asked as she grabbed her own drink and took a long sip. Her eyes widened as well, but she smiled widely. “Now this is what I’m talking about! I ain’t never had a cocktail at a fancy dinner this good!” Rosie’s eyes narrowed at her, then at Elizabeth; blaming her for this fiasco. The rest of us remained silent.

Rosie grabbed her own glass, her eyes never leaving Verna-Mae. She gulped down the drink faster than any of us had ever seen her drink before. She refilled her glass right away, and downed the second one just as fast. Verna-Mae locked eyes with her, and seemed to take pleasure in what she interpreted as a challenge. She drank her glass quickly. She was onto her third within minutes, as Elizabeth was the only other woman to join the little drinking contest.

“Well, I moved here from Louisiana because I wanted to give my kids a new life. There were a lot of things I did down in the south that I’m not too proud of. I wanted to start new for my boys.” The men stared at Verna-Mae, nodding their heads vigorously as she told her story. “They haven’t had the best life so far, so I thought a place like this could do them some good. Maybe fine myself a man or men to help them learn things like fixin stuff and grillin.”

“What happened to their father?” Rosie asked, her head cocked to the side, staring the other woman down.

Verna-Mae didn’t even waver as she stared back at her with a smile slowly spreading on her face. “I don’t know. It was one of those situations where you just don’t really know who the father is.”

We were shocked silent for a moment, not wanting to continue to probe, but Rosie was clearly not backing off.

“What do you mean? Don’t worry, we’re a loving community, you can tell us.”

“Ain’t much to tell. I was in my third year of college, thought I would have some fun. I was the kind of girl who liked to have a good time and never thought it would catch up to me. After a good night at a party with a few friends, I realized maybe I had a bit too much fun. Never bothered to try and track down the possible fathers, so I did what I had to and now I’m here.” She started to lean closer, leaning over the table towards Rosie in a snake-like manner. “Did that story satisfy your need for fresh gossip?”

Rosie was taken aback by the comment, but said nothing. Instead, the men were the ones who spoke up to break the tension. “What kind of fun did you like to have?” Andrew Moore asked as he leaned closer to Verna-Mae. Elizabeth reached over, slapping her husband’s arm with disbelief written on her reddening face. Her eyes struggled to focus on him through the alcohol. “Oh, come on! You can have a full-on affair under my roof, but I can’t ask a simple damn question!”

We all fell silent, unable to think of anything to say. There were tears threatening to fall down her face as she sat, mouth hanging open, and stared at her husband. He started to turn towards Verna-Mae again; ignoring his wife completely.

“Listen, I don’t want anything to do with this martial thing. I never meant to start anything, but I worked damn hard on the main course of the dinner, and y’all are still welcome to come,” Verna-Mae said, holding her hands up in a defensive gesture.

“Looks like you already started something,” Rosie said under her breath, her words slurring ever so slightly. She stood first, slamming her glass on the table in annoyance.

The rest of us stood then, our chairs scraping against the Persian rug beneath us, and we awkwardly, but silently, made our way out of the house. Andrew stood to leave as well, but Elizabeth grabbed his arm, still seated and staring down at the discarded salads. Rosie closed the Moore’s door behind her, stumbling only slightly as she walked down the stairs. Verna-Mae led the group to her house. The only sound around us was the high-pitched laughter of our children.

“Welcome to my home! I hope y’all don’t hold none of this against me. I was trying to tell my story,” Verna-Mae said. The home was extremely different from the house the Darin’s left. The once egg-shell white walls were now a vomit green, the furniture was random; from the old grey couch to the scratched-up red book shelf. There were children toys lining the entry way, shoes that had clearly been thrown into the corner and ignored, and jackets draping the couch and stair railing.

We took our seats at the table and our nostrils were bombarded with the scent of spice and meat. “Please, don’t worry about it Ms. Tissano. Those two have been having problems for years,” Dick Stevens reassured her with a gentle smile. Rosie’s eyes narrowed at her husband, as if daring him to say anymore. He quickly dropped his head, like a shamed puppy, and sat rigid in his chair.

Verna-Mae ignored the awkward moment that had just transpired, and took her seat. “So, under your dome covers are your meals. I thought I would try to make it pretty fancy with those.” She noted, a proud smile on her face. We lifted the domes and stared at the food before us. We weren’t sure if it was the colors or the smell, but we could tell this would be the last straw for Rosie. “In front of you is some of my famous Louisianan rum vinegar-glazed ribs, collard greens, and crackling.”

“Crackling,” Rosie repeated the word as though it was a foreign language. That was it. That was all it took. “You made crackling and ribs? I gave you the honor or making the main course, something I thought anyone with a brain could figure out, and you make fucking crackling and ribs?”

To our surprise, Verna-Mae managed to keep her expression calm, another small smirk tugging at the corner of her lips. “Now, I didn’t do nothing wrong to any of you, so I don’t see why you think you can come into my home and speak to me like this. Y’all said you wanted a dinner, and a meal that represented us as individuals, so that’s what I gave you.”

“Look around you! We do what we can to be harmonious! We follow the fucking rules!” Rosie screamed at her. We sat in silence, knowing she was right. “Either get with the program, or get out of my community.”

Verna-Mae slowly brought herself to her feet, letting her chair scrape loudly against the hardwood floor. “It’s funny you think you’re something special. Me and my boys have done absolutely nothing wrong here. My boys have kept to themselves, remained quiet, and I’ve tried to stay in and make my house look presentable for your damn fru-fru asses. All I’ve wanted was to make a new start in a nice community. But in the month that I’ve spent here, all I’ve heard is you all talking gossip about one another behind each other’s backs. Who gives a damn if Mrs. Cruz is unemployed, or Mrs. Wallow’s kid ain’t hers?”

Ava and Elaine’s eyes widened. Their shame was obvious. “You have no right to say anything! You’re… you’re just a damn slut!” Ava exploded. She stood up quickly and stormed out of the house with her husband, slamming the door behind her hard.

“You know what, yea, I’m a whore. I had my moment in college and I ain’t ashamed of it. If I didn’t do what I did back then, I wouldn’t have the boys who I love more than anything. I won’t ever be ashamed of that. And I ain’t going nowhere. So, you best be leaving my house.”

The warm air outside the house chilled us. I watched as the women left with their husbands, walking in every direction towards their own homes. Door after door slammed shut, the sounds of muffled discussions trickling out into the streets; quickly masked by the laughter of the blissfully ignorant children.

I entered my house, my husband walking into the living room to turn on the evening news. He sunk into his chair, like on any other night. I walked into the dining room and stared at the plates. The lemon-berry savarin that I had slaved over for hours looked fake. The slices all looked like some plastic toy you would buy your daughter for her tea set. I reached down and grabbed what would have been my slice and stared at it, unsure if it would even taste like anything.

____________________________

Marissa Purdum

“Flipped”

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. I turn over to see my alarm clock going off. It’s 4:30 AM, and here I am awake hours before my dad gets up. I lay in bed for a few moments, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness before I get up and trudge to the bathroom. I groggily flip on the light and head toward the small sink. I splash my face with cold water to try to wake up, then I stare at my reflection in the mirror. My long brown hair is awry this morning, tangles left and right. I grab my bristled brush, and work out all the tangles. Then I notice my green eyes are carrying heavy, dark bags underneath them. I grab my concealer and start to make my bags magically disappear, then I add my usual fountain, black eyeliner, and mascara. Even though my face has remained relatively the same this past year, the sameness is just a mask hiding what I am really feeling.

I can’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. I look at my bed, longing to return to its sweet embrace, but I knew if I did, I wouldn’t fall asleep. I would just lay there feeling empty until it was time to get ready for school. Instead, I go to my wooden dresser, pick out one of my pairs of dark blue skinny jeans, a gray NASA t-shirt, my black bra, and a pair of black socks to go with it. As I change out of my t-shirt and shorts pajama combination and into the clothes I just picked out, I look around my room. Most of my walls are white and bear. They don’t have anything on them anymore. At least not for a year now. I remember when these walls used to be almost covered from ceiling to floor with the photos I’ve taken of my family, my boyfriend, and anything else I loved. But I’ve given up my photography. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Waking up this early has become a ritual of mine for the past eleven months. I do the same thing every morning, wake up, do my makeup, get dressed, then I sneak past my dad’s room, steal his car keys, and I leave. I remember the first few times I did it, I was so afraid that my dad was going to wake up and stop me. However, after the first month, those fears melted. I’m pretty sure he knew that I left by the third time I snuck out, but he didn’t say anything. It’s been a rough year for the both of us. Instead, he ignores the fact that I steal his car for about an hour every morning just to drive to IHOP to eat some pancakes. Why do I do this? Let’s just say about a year ago in December, my life was flipped upside down.

James and I were at the local mall here in North Muskegon, right along the coast of Lake Michigan. I needed to get some of my pictures developed, but I didn’t just want to go to the mall for five minutes and then leave. So James and I decided that we wanted to add some bright purple highlights in our hair, and then afterwards we would go to the camera store. We made an appointment at Live or Dye, the best hair dye specialist in a fifty-mile radius. As we were waiting for our stylist to finish up the customer before us, we sat down and I started looking around the salon. The walls were all black with various Black Sabbath posters, lit with purple UV lights. However, at the stations where the stylists worked, the lights were a bright white and they almost blinded me. The stylist cleaning up one of the stations had green spiked hair, black lips, thick, black eyeliner, and a lip ring sticking out on the left side of her face. Then I averted my attention to James. His pale skin reflected all the hours we put into playing Call of Duty over the summer instead of hanging out on the beach like every other normal high schooler. His brown curly hair was just dangling low enough past his ear for me realize that he really needed a haircut, and his brown eyes were focused on whatever was on his phone screen. As usual, he was wearing his favorite band’s t-shirt, Guns n’ Roses, some jeans that had way too many holes in them, and a pair of old sneakers that matched his jeans.

James looked up, “Ready for this, PJ?” he asked.

“Ha! Are you?” I replied.

James smiled and held my hand, “As long as I’m with you, I’ll be ready for anything.”

I smiled and gripped his hand tighter. James had always been that cheesy, it was just who he was, which is why I loved him.

The stylist interrupted and said, “Penelope?”

I shifted my attention from James to the stylist, “Yeah, that’s me.”

She nodded to the chair and said, “Sit down.”

I looked at James. He smiled and said, “Go get ‘em.”

I sighed and started moving toward the chair. My heart was pounding. I don’t know why I was so nervous. This was something that I have always wanted to do. I guess the reality of it all was enough to get my heart pumping. Seems almost silly now that I was so nervous, especially after what happened last December.

When I was halfway to the chair, my phone rang. It was my dad. I turned to the stylist and said, “Sorry, it’s my dad. I have to get this.” She rolled her eyes at me, but continued to prep the station. “Hello?” I answered.

At first there was a long silence, then my dad’s voice cracked, “PJ?” He paused.

After a few more moments of quiet I asked, “Yeah, dad? What is it?”

He took a long pause before he spoke again. “It’s your mom…”

“Are you going to sit down or not?” the stylist asked in a snarky tone.

“Dad, can you hold that thought for a second?” I asked, then I turned to the stylist. “I’m sorry, it’ll just be a minute more.” I then turned my attention back to my phone, “Okay, dad. What about mom?”

There was a slight pause before he spoke again, “PJ, she’s in the hospital.”

“Wait why? Was there an accident or something?” I hurriedly asked.

“No, no. She…” he paused again.

I began to wonder why my dad couldn’t just spit out whatever he had to say to me. “Dad, just tell me. Did she accidentally twist her ankle again?”

Then my dad said, “No she didn’t, PJ… She had a stroke.”

At that moment in time, everything stopped. His words echoed in my head like a song playing on repeat. My heart pounded like it was about to jump right out of my chest, and I clenched my jaw to hold back on all my emotions. “Alright,” I said, “I’ll be right there.” I felt my chest begin to tighten and before I knew it, I found myself walking straight out of the salon, car keys in hand. James hurriedly followed me.

“PJ! What’s up? What’s happening?”

Tears formed in my eyes, but I couldn’t get a word out. My mind was only focused on getting to the hospital. I rushed past everyone, bumping into anyone who got in my way. Once out of the mall, with James following close behind, I unlocked my car, got in, put on my seatbelt, and started it before he had even gotten in.

James said, “PJ, talk to me. What happened?” but I ignored him. I pulled out of the parking spot and the next thing I remember was passing cars on the four-lane highway. I watched the speedometer go up, sixty, seventy, eighty. I was speeding so fast past the other cars that they were only a blur to me. James spoke again, “PJ, you need to slow down. Tell me what’s wrong.” I couldn’t do either of those. I was focused on my mission and nothing could get in my way.

“PJ, please.” His ‘please’ snapped me back into reality. I looked over to him and time seemed to slow down. James gave me very concerned look. He knew something bad had happened, but he was so confused as what could make me act this way. I could see in his eyes that his mind was racing a mile a minute, trying to decode and defuse the ticking bomb that was inside of me… but he would never figure it out.

“Watch out!” James screamed at me. I looked towards the road and I saw a massive buck. Before I knew it, I had swerved to avoid it, but I turned too fast. The road was so slick from the snow slush that it caused my car to roll sideways. I had no control, I was entirely helpless. I know it sounds cliché but flip after flip, my life flashed before my eyes.

Crunch. It’s my first day of kindergarten. My mom had dropped me off at McKinley elementary. Other kids were filing into the school, but my mom made me stay back. She hugged and kissed me so many times that I was almost too embarrassed to go to school. She could not stand to leave her baby girl there. She was proud of her little girl, but at the same time she couldn’t bear the thought of me growing up.

“Alright, you got your lunch, crayons, pencils… Hmmm…” she paused, “What is Mr. Blonk doing in here?” my mom smiled as she pulled out my favorite teddy bear out of my bag. I started to giggle. My mom’s smile broadened, and she started to tickle me. “You silly girl,” she laughed. The first warning bell rang. “Well,” my mom’s face saddened, “It’s time for you to go, baby.” She gently shoved me inside. When I looked back, my mom was wiping tears from her eyes. “I love you!” she yelled as the door closed behind me.

Crunch. When I was in second grade, my goldfish, Blushie, had just died. I remembered when I had got him a few days earlier after a small circus came through town. I had won him after my dad threw a ball and it made it into his small fish bowl. He meant everything to me. So I went up to my dad and showed him the dead fish in the bowl. He promptly directed me upstairs to the bathroom. I was crying over the toilet as my dad flushed Blushie down.

My dad patted me on the head and said, “PJ… It’s just a fish.”

My mom, a much more gentle soul, gave my dad a dirty look, then turned to me and said, “It’s okay, hun. I know you loved Blushie, but think of it this way. He lived a good life, and his death will not be forgotten.” She paused, “Do you want to go get some ice cream?” I nodded, and she took my hand.

Crunch. It’s Christmas morning. I woke up and made my way to my parent’s room like I usually did for Christmas. I quietly climbed into their bed and started jumping.

“WAKE UP! WAKE UP!” I yelled.

“Urrrghhhh, okay, okay, we’re awake,” grumbled my dad.

As soon as my dad said that, I rushed downstairs and sat beside the tree. I picked up my first present then waited for my parents to make their way down, which at the time felt like forever. The second their faces were in the living room, I tore open my present. It was my first camera. It was not any old camera though. It was my mom’s old polaroid camera that she had while she was in college. One day when I was younger, she would show me all these photos of her adventures. Her ice skating, her climbing a mountain, even just her and my dad enjoying the day out in a park. After that, I used to go around the living room pretending that I was taking pictures of everything.

I smiled, got up, and hugged both my mom and my dad. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

My mom smiled at me and said, “You’re welcome, sweetheart. I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom… and Dad” I replied. Then I turned the camera around and snapped a photo of the three of us. That photo was the first to make it up on my bedroom wall.

Crunch. It was the middle of my seventh-grade year when James moved here from Wyoming. His hair was short back then, not even long enough to form curls. He walked into Mrs. Fraphorn’s class like he owned the joint, then he sat next to me.

He flashed me a smile, looked at me with those brownie colored eyes, and asked “So, what is there to do around town?”

I smiled and hushed him, “Mrs. Fraphorn doesn’t like people to talk when she’s talking.”

“That old bird?” he gestured to the teacher, “She doesn’t scare me. What is she going to do? Give me detention on my first day?”

“Mr. Kelch,” Mrs. Fraphorn said sternly, “I know it’s your first day here, but if you speak out of turn, I will give you detention. Consider this your first and final warning.” Then she turned back to the board.

“Geez,” James said. “She’s a bit of a grouch, right?” I smiled at him, but remained silent. “Cmon, this is more like a prison than a class if that’s the rule!” he said.

Mrs. Fraphorn raised her voice, “Mr. Kelch, I warned you. I’ll see you after school today for detention.”

James dropped his jaw and I giggled at him. He remained silent for the rest of the year.

Crunch. Freshman year of high school sucked, but luckily I was friends with James. Even then, he always seemed to make things better. One day, the popular girls walked up to my locker and started to make fun of my all black outfit.

“Hey, PJ,” one of the girls taunted. “Are you going to a funeral, or did you find those clothes in the trash?” The other girls in the group laughed.

“Just leave me alone, what did I ever do to you?” I replied.

“You know… Just your mere existence bothers me,” she said as she took a notebook out of my locker.

“Hey! Give that back!” I demanded.

“What this?” she dangled the notebook in front of me. “Why? It’s not important, just like you,” she laughed. Then she tore up my notebook and threw it on the ground. The other girls followed her lead. They took everything out of my locker and scattered it across the hallway.

At that moment, James rounded the corner. “Hey!” he shouted then rushed towards the scene.

The girls looked at him, laughed then continued kicking my stuff around.

“Hey, back off,” he said threateningly as he got closer. “Go apply more clown makeup or something.”

The leader gave him a dirty look. “Whatever…” the girl replied. “C’mon girls, let’s get out of this loser hallway,” she said as her and her posse left.

I started to pick up my stuff when James asked, “Hey, PJ. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I replied. James helped me pick up my stuff and put it back in my locker.

“You know what, PJ?” he smiled his handsome smile. “You are so much better than those girls. You’re freakin awesome.”

I looked James in the eyes. He was looking at me differently, like he was examining the most beautiful photo he has ever seen. I smiled back and blushed. He became my first crush that day.

Crunch. It was the day James finally met my family. We had been dating for two months when my mom invited him over to our house for dinner. He treated my parents like any true gentleman caller would by trying to impress them with kindness and humor.

“So, James,” my mom said. “PJ told us you were originally from Wyoming. Do you miss it there?” Then she took a bite of the chicken parmesan she had prepared.

James smiled, looked at me, and squeezed my hand, “You know, when I first moved here, I thought I’d miss Wyoming a lot. It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be though.”

“Well that’s good!” said my mom. There was a short awkward silence before James spoke up again.

“I mean, the thing I miss most is the ol’ ride around town, guns a blazin’ and riding off into the sunset, but I’m glad to retire. It’s so much more peaceful here.” James joked. I stifled a snicker.

“Ah yes, I remember the good ol’ cowboy days as well!” my dad added. “Me and my stallion, Rex, trampled over the neighbor’s cat one time… That vermin never saw it comin’.” We all busted out laughing at my dad’s remark. I thought nothing could be more perfect.

Crunch. Last Sunday, we were all at IHOP for breakfast to celebrate my seventeenth birthday. My mom, my dad, James, and I were sitting at our favorite booth in the corner of the restaurant. I was eating my favorite, pancakes. I sat next to my mom and James and we were lightheartedly discussing some of my ‘cherished’ childhood memories. Then my mom’s voice changed.

“James,” my mom said seriously, “I need to tell you something about PJ.”

I shook my head. I knew what this voice meant. It meant my mom was going to embarrass me again. “Mommmm no, not on my birthday!”

“Yes, Mrs. Wallace?” James smirked.

“Well… When PJ was three years old, we asked her what she wanted for dinner.” My mom and my dad exchanged grins.

“Mom. I beg of you, no.” I beamed.

My dad butted in, “At that age, all she wanted was soup. I still have no idea why she wanted soup all the time, but that’s what she wanted.”

“Hey, I was fascinated that a food could come purely in liquid form, okay!” I replied.

“Anyways,” my mom turned to James. “We asked her what she wanted and out of her mouth came the word ‘poop’. Her father and I were so concerned until we realized that she wanted soup. She didn’t grow out of that until she was five, so for two years we had to explain to people that when she said ‘poop’ she really meant ‘soup.’” We all started laughing, and my face turned red from embarrassment. I was so happy, despite being embarrassed. I looked around the table and realized how much I love all of these people. I wished that moment could last forever. Crunch.

The car had stopped rolling. We were both upside down dangling from our seats. Feeling dazed and my ears ringing, I looked around the car. Blood was splattered all over the car like paint. I wondered if it was mine. Then I over at James, he was bloody and unconscious. “Oh god.” I uttered. I watched the blood drip from his mouth onto the ceiling of my car. I tried to reach out to him, “James?” He didn’t move. I have never been the religious type, but in that moment, I prayed. I prayed in hopes that James will be fine, that everything will be fine. I needed things to be okay.

Next thing I knew, my eyes fluttered open to see my dad sitting in the chair next to my hospital bed with his head in his hands. His brown hair was disheveled, his stubble was growing in, and it looked like he hadn’t slept in days. I tried to move my hand towards him, but I felt so weak that I barely wiggled a finger. My dad looked up from my small movement, and grabbed my hand. “Thank God,” he muttered. When he looked at me, I could see that his eyes were red and puffy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this before. It seems as if he had aged five years since the last time I saw him.

“Dad?” I croaked.

I tried to sit up, but my dad gently held me down. “PJ, just relax. I’m going to get the doctor.” He got up, and started heading towards the door. Once he got to the doorway, he paused looked back just to make sure I was still alive, and then continued on his way.

Once he was gone, I took a better look at the hospital room. Unlike most hospital rooms, this room was surprisingly warm. The walls were white, with pictures of random medical charts scattered like a collage across them. To my left was the dark green, upholstered chair my dad was just sitting in. To my right were a few machines, like the ones you see in movies.

Then my dad returned with the doctor who was carrying a clipboard.

“Hello Penelope, my name is Dr. Lancer. How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said softly.

“Good, good. You aren’t feeling any pain or nausea?” he asked. I shook my head no. “Great,” he scribbled down something on his clipboard. “Do you remember what happened?”

I nodded and uttered, “I was in an accident.”

Dr. Lancer nodded, “Can you tell me what happened?”

I looked at my dad, he nodded encouragingly. “I was speeding to get here,” I paused to give my voice a break. “Then a buck appeared out of nowhere and we swerved and…” Then I remembered my mom and James. “Is Mom okay? What about James?” I asked.

Both the doctor and my dad exchanged solemn glances. Dr. Lancer turned to me and said, “How about you get some more rest, I’ll come back to check on you later.”

Once the doctor left the room, I looked at my dad. His gray eyes were avoiding my gaze. “Dad?” I asked.

He looked at the charts as he said, “The doctor told me you had no broken bones or internal bleeding, but he did tell me your brain was swelling so they needed to put you into a medically induced coma until the swelling went down.” He sighed, “They kept you under for a couple of days as they ran their tests. The doctors kept me updated, but every time I tried to ask questions I became more and more confused. I just wanted to know if you, my baby girl, were going to survive and no one was giving me any straight answers. They would say things like ‘Oh we can’t be certain yet’, ‘It’s too soon to tell’, or ‘It looks promising, but I don’t want to get your hopes up.’” He paused. My dad turned to look at me. His eyes were full of tears as he said, “I was just so afraid I was going to lose you too.”

My dad looked away. I laid there, not quite sure if he was saying what I thought he was saying. “Dad?” I paused, “Are they…” He moved towards the chair and sat down. I could tell he was struggling to tell me something. Then he grabbed my hand, and nodded. At first my mind rejected the idea that they were both dead. Eventually, it slowly began to sink in, but I still felt the need to ask.

“How?” I asked.

My dad swallowed his emotions before he responded, “They tried everything they could to save her, but the stroke… It was massive. There wasn’t much they could have done.” He cleared his throat before he continued, “And James… He never made it out of your car. He was already gone by the time they got there.”

My lip started to quiver, and then the tears started to roll. My dad looked at me with sorrowful eyes and hugged me. I could feel him tremble, which only made me cry harder. I couldn’t stop myself, all I knew was that two of the people I loved died today and one of them was because of me. I was so focused on being here for my mom, like she always was there for me, that I disregarded everything else. Everything had changed. I was no longer the seventeen-year-old, excited for some dumb purple highlights to be put into my hair. I had become broken and unfixable, just like my car.

And that’s why I started this ritual. I lost both my mom and James in the that fateful day in December. So every morning before school, I wake up, steal my dad’s car, and go to the last place where I was with them both together, IHOP.

I walk into the restaurant and wait to be seated. As I am waiting, I look around. Nobody else is here today, just me and the staff. On their tan walls, pictures of different breakfast foods decorate the restaurant. Then I look at the corner booth. The brown faux leather seats are worn down and are starting to fall apart.

The usual waitress, Stacy, approaches me and says, “Follow me, hun. I’ll take you to your booth.” She leads me from the entry way and to the corner booth on the far side of the restaurant. “Would you like some coffee today?” she asks.

“Oh yes please,” I respond as I remove my coat and sink into the booth.

Stacy leaves for a short while and then returns with the coffee, “Here you go, hun. I’ll be back in a little bit.” Then she leaves again and heads towards the kitchen.

As I sit in the corner booth with my coffee in hand, I think about everything that has happened this past year and how it all seems… I don’t know… It just feels different today. When I woke up this morning, everything seemed the same. Well, I guess it is the same. I mean, I’m doing the same thing I did yesterday morning, and the morning before that, but something feels different.

Stacy approaches my table again and interrupts my thoughts, “Hiya, sugar. What do you want today? The usual?” she asks.

More than anything, I wanted everything to be ‘usual’ again. I wanted my mom and James back. I wanted life to be like it was before, but nothing ever will be the same. I know that now. So I guess now I want to just make them proud of me, wherever they may be. I want to show them what I can do with my life.

“Hun, you alright?” she asks.

“You know what, Stacy?” I smile meekly, “I think I’m just going to go home, I’m not too hungry today.” I get up, leave her a small tip for the coffee, and I leave. As I pull out of the parking lot, I look into my rearview mirror. I can see the corner booth, both my mom and James are sitting there, smiling and laughing. I take a mental picture of the scene. Then they both slowly melt away until the booth is empty again. I smile and wipe away a stray tear. I miss them both so much, but it is time to keep moving forward and stop blaming myself for their deaths.

As I pull onto the same highway where the accident happened, I look over to my passenger seat. I can still imagine James sitting next to me smiling and cracking one of his jokes. I place my hand on his seat then turn my attention back to the road. Up ahead I see something moving, so I slow my car to a stop. In front of me is a huge buck. It stares at me and I stare back. After a couple of moments have passed, I honk my horn to attempt to scare off the buck. It still doesn’t move. Eventually, he walks slowly back into the woods where he came from, disappearing from sight. As I continue down the highway back home, I think about that buck. Was it the very same one from a year earlier?

When I finally make it back home, I immediately head upstairs to my room. I get on my hands and knees and look under my bed. They are all still here, all my pictures and my camera. I pick out a few pictures that had James or my mom in them and hang them back up on my wall. I smile in attempt to try to hold back my tears. Then I kiss the picture of my mom, James, and I sitting in the booth twice. One kiss for my mom, who will never be replaced, and one kiss for James, who will forever have my heart.

“I love you, Mom and James. I’ll move on and live my life. It’ll hurt like hell, but I know you both will still be there for me,” I say as I lean my forehead on the picture. “I’ll miss you.” Then I kiss them both goodbye.

____________________________

Austin Middleton

“To love is to Bury”

On a very cloudy day in the middle of London, a young man is returning home from his work as a solicitor at a law firm in Piccadilly, London.

“Ello! Mr. MacCulloch? ‘Ello?” a little newspaper boy says to the young man.

“Hello there little Charles,” Mr. MacCulloch says to the young boy, his full name is actually Griffin MacCulloch. He gives the boy five pence and takes a paper.

“Ave you been to the ‘arbor yet today? Ere’s a storm coming in,” the young boy says to Griffin.

“I agree. I should make sure Alice has battened down the windows,” he tells the boy, smiling.

“Good day, Mr. MacCulloch!” Charles says as Griffin walks away, leaving the small child to peddle his papers. His home isn’t much further away, and although it isn’t much it was enough for him and Alice. A nice modest home, a loving wife, children soon, maybe. Griffin couldn’t have asked for a better life. Coming up upon his steps at residence No. 347 Piccadilly London, he opens his front door.

“Alice?” he calls.

“In the Pallor Griffin Dear,” she calls to him. He enters the room and sees her sitting in an armchair reading a book.

“What are you reading?” he says, trying to see the title of the gold covered book from where he’s standing.

“It’s called Dracula. It’s brand new,” she says beaming. Alice loves to read, although she prefers tales of fantasy which Griffin had to admit were much more enjoyable to read than his legal books. She looks so lovely; Her long brown hair, perfectly groomed. She has fair skin, and the most gorgeous white dress on. He just sits in his favorite armchair, sits and admires her as she reads. They’ve been engaged for about six months, but in love nearly fifteen years. They met when they were very young.

“I am going for a quick jaunt in the park, I have been sitting at a desk all day and my legs could use a good stretch,” he tells her, “Maybe I’ll get caught in the rain.” he winks at her and she smiles.

“Don’t be gone too long so we can eat supper, I’ve asked Olivia to prepare your favorite,” she tells him trying to sound stern, but failing. He smiles at her. He loves her so much. He leaves the house and on the way to the park it starts raining. He doesn’t mind though, he always loves a good walk in the rain. London is such a beautiful city. When he gets to Hyde Park, he finds it as alive as always. The birds are singing despite the rain. He continues on for a while, and eventually the rain stops but the sky doesn’t clear any. When he catches a glimpse through the trees, he can’t help but thinking it looks very ominous.

He thinks about turning around, before it gets too dark. Then he notices something very, very odd. There are no noises anymore. No birds chirping, no crickets, not even an occasional dog bark; its deathly silent in the middle of the woods. Then bushes about twenty meters away start moving violently.

“Who’s out there?” Griffin calls out. Then it jumps out of the bushes and clears a ten-meter gap. It’s a huge, hideous beast. The word monster simply does not do it justice. It stands to its full height, which is easily two, two and a half meters tall. It stands on bent hind legs, covered from head to toe in fur. It has an elongated snout and ears, with claws that Griffin thought almost begged to rip his throat out. Griffin was paralyzed with complete and utter terror.

The monster decides to pounce, easily covering the next ten meters. It slams into him, knocking him down. It holds him down and sinks its teeth into his neck, gnawing chunks out. Then a burning sensation flares to life underneath his skin. Griffin screams out in pain. A scream of pure, heart wrenching agony.

Out of nowhere the beast is gone; he can see the night sky through the trees. He is only slightly aware of a struggle happening a few meters away. Griffin turns his head, ever so slightly and even that movement sends tremendous amounts of pain through his body. He sees, through blurry vision, a second even meaner looking monster fighting the first one. The new monster was actually slightly smaller than the first Griffin noticed. After a few seconds of exchanging blows the new monster smashes its giant fist over the head of the first one and the savage goes limp.

The new arrival walks up to him on its awkward, bent legs. Griffin is too weak to even attempt to move. The mean looking beast slowly transforms, somewhat painfully by the looks of it, into a young man. If Griffin could move his face into an expression, it would have been one of horror. The monster… the man… speaks to him,

“Listen carefully, you are dying; and very quickly from the look of it. The bite from that werewolf will kill you,” he pauses, “I might be able to save you…” he stops short as Griffin starts shaking violently and foaming from the mouth. The man’s face starts transforming, and he sinks his teeth into Griffin’s neck where the first werewolf bit him. The burning sensation is amplified times a thousand. It’s almost as if a bomb has gone off in his artery. He lets out another scream of pain. The man stops biting him and looks griffin over, checks the wound. All the while the first insane werewolf gets up and is slowly crawling towards the pair; but griffin is too stunned to utter a single syllable. Then monster attacks the one trying to supposedly save Griffin.

The “good” werewolf throws the insane one off. Griffin notices his movements are more controlled, more agile. He slams his fist into the snout of the insane werewolf. The insane one returns his blow with his deadly claws, slashing flesh. In a gruesome fight of clawing, biting, gnawing and punching the insane werewolf wins as he slams his fist over the head of his assailant; an eye for an eye. The monster is grievously wounded though and falls to the ground unconscious, leaving two bodies slumped on the ground and Griffin paralyzed. He struggles to gain control but he can’t. It’s like a tiny war going on inside him. He notices the insane monster stirring. So he tries harder. He can feel his toes. He wiggles them happily, and then his fingers. He can start to at least flex his muscles. Then Griffin roles himself over, slowly dragging himself on his weak arms. He manages to crawl about ten yards away before risking a look back, and when he does the scene is exactly the same. The insane werewolf’s face is visible from his position and it looks terrifying. Griffin is about to start off again when its eyes snap open. It jumps up with unnatural speed and lunges at him. This is it he thinks, this is the end. In that very moment before the beast is upon him, his head clears, the pain fades, and he has complete control.

With unbelievable speed he rolls over onto his back and grabs the beast by the throat as it lands on him. He starts to squeeze, and large claws start to extend from his fingertips. The monster barks out in pain. Griffin tosses it to the side like a rag doll, and gets up to run away. He runs faster than he has ever run before, faster than any human could ever even dream of running. It seems like it’s only seconds later when he’s out of the park and back on a city street. Griffin is in a daze. He heads towards the nearest place that’s open, a pub. It’s somewhat crowded so no one notices as he dashes straight for the wc as he gets in. He checks himself in the mirror. Apart from ruffed up hair and a bloody shirt, he looked fine. No wound, no scars. It looks like he just got back from playing a game of rugby in the park, not fighting for his life against a mad werewolf. Then a horrifying realization strikes him. The monster was a werewolf, half man, half wolf. It should be able to track him to his home… to Alice’s home… he takes off in a full sprint. As fast as he can he bolts down the streets of London. When he reaches their home he doesn’t even open the door, he just runs into it and breaks it down. Alice was right where he left her, reading in the parlor, and she jumps about a foot into the air.

“Griffin? What on earth have you done?” she squeals, assessing the damage. “And what have you been doing? You’re dirty and sweaty. And what in God’s name is wrong with your ears?” he stops and runs over to the mirror above the parlors fireplace. His claws protruding about an inch or so out of his fingertips weren’t the only thing different about him. His ears have a very definite point to them and his top and bottom canines were very fang like. He also has rough patches of hair growing on his jaw line. He looks very similar to the man when he had saved him, except his mouth wasn’t very snout like. Thank God! He thought.

“Alice, my love, we must leave at once,” He tells her, urgency in his voice. She senses this quickly.

“Griffin dear, what is the matter? Has something happened?” she asks worriedly.

“Yes!” he screams at her, “We need to leave now! Or we will die!” her face was one of horrified shock and she could do nothing but stammer. As Griffin pleads with her, he hears a slight tapping sound, so slight and quiet its almost nonexistent. He looks past Alice as she’s trying to form words and out the window, a large grand window made of crown glass; through the window he sees the large, insane werewolf. It’s drooling, and almost… smiling at him. Griffin instantly grabs Alice and throws her to the ground as the monster breaks through the giant window. The beast slams into griffin, along with several shards of glass.

It attempts to slash Griffin with its huge claws, but he bats them away and throws the beast off of him with ease. The monster scrambles towards Alice.

“Run Alice, Run!” Griffin yells at her just before grabbing the beast by the hind legs and swinging it hard into the fireplace. Alice is half sitting up. She seems almost frozen, completely rooted to the spot. The beast takes advantage of Griffin being distracted by Alice and picks him up then throws him into the nearest wall. Griffin hits the wall hard; not only the wall but the monster tosses him into a very sturdy lamp sconce. When he hits, the lamp breaks off and the bit the lamp was perched on imbeds itself deep into Griffin’s back. He can almost feel it about to poke out between his ribs. The sconce holds his weight and Griffin is left weak, and suspended on the wall all the while losing a lot of blood.

The monster goes and stands over the stunned Alice.

“Run…” Griffin breathes. The werewolf smiles his satanic smile at Griffin, and he notices the beast readying its claws. Killing them both is simply pleasure. “Please…” he says towards the werewolf. The beast looks thoughtfully at him for a moment. Then it smiles again and throws its head back and howls loudly bringing its claws in an upwards slash across Alice’s torso, killing her instantly. In a stunned silence, Griffin doesn’t have the strength to cry out Alice’s name.

The werewolf leaves Alice’s body alone and walks over to Griffin. Hanging from the wall like this he almost matches the beast’s height. Griffin only glares at the beast. It sneers at him. It snatches him up by the throat and lifts Griffin off the sconce. He thinks about just letting the monster finish him but could not bring himself to roll over so easily. He knew if he did that Alice would be furious at him, no matter where she is now. Using all of his strength Griffin uses both feet to kick the werewolf in the chest, breaking himself free and managing to slice his neck on its claws. The beast howls and charges at Griffin, who jumps over the beast and kicks it in the head with ease. This only makes the monster angrier. It uses its claws to slash and slice at griffin every which way but it can’t land a single hit and Griffin finds it surprisingly easy to slide out the beasts’ path each time. He slices at its back, deeply, as it misses again. That was it, the werewolf is done playing and in the blink of an eye it whips around and smashes its fist into Griffins jaw. He doubles back falling over broken furniture, hits the floor completely stunned and figures his jaw is shattered.

The werewolf stands over griffin, sneering again. Griffin digs deep and finds his strength. He finds his anger, and stands up on wobbly legs. The beast slashes at him and Griffin catches his wrist mid swing. The beast puts more effort in the swing and in one flick of his hand Griffin snaps the monster’s wrist. It howls in pain and Griffin digs his claws into the monsters throat and squeezes around it esophagus, in one movement Griffin jumps high into the air flipping over the monster and taking its throat with him, ripping it clean out. The monster crumples to the ground with blood gushing out from its neck. He drops the monster’s esophagus.

“That was… impressive,” Griffin hears from the hallway. He whips around and he sees the man; the werewolf from the park who “saved” him. He looks surprisingly normal, wearing a suit of all things. Griffin figured him dead.

“What in the ‘ell do you want?” Griffin demands.

“I am here for you,” the man replies.

“Why should I go anywhere with you!” Griffin yells at the man.

“The Yard will be here soon, if they find you here at the scene of a grisly murder… they will never stop hunting you,” the man says.

“I need to say goodbye to her,” Griffin tells him, kneeling next to Alice.

“There isn’t time, you will have another chance to say goodbye, I promise! But we must leave now!” Griffin looks at him hesitantly, not trusting the man, but knowing he is probably the only one who can answer all his questions.

“What do we do?”

“Just follow me.”

Griffin is standing on the roof of the home across the street from his. He found it surprisingly easy to climb up the side of the house. He is changing into clean clothes which he thankfully had time to grab, while the man is watching the commotion the police are making right across the street.

“What is your name?” Griffin asks the man.

“Ranlyn… Ranlyn Dunsford,” he tells griffin, turning his head back to him.

“How old are you?” griffin asks, assuming he is in his early twenties.

“I was born 543 A.D.” Ranlyn tells him, and Griffin scowls.

“I’m sorry, how old are you?” Griffin asks again, thinking he heard wrong.

“I am thirteen hundred and fifty four years of age,” Ranlyn tells Griffin, completely serious.

“That’s impossible; do you think me an imbecile?” Griffin asks.

“If I were a human, then yes, it would not be possible. But neither you nor I are human, we are werewolves. We are immortal,” Ranlyn tells Griffin.

“Immortal? As in… we never die?” Griffin asks.

“Oh no… we die. But we have the potential to live forever. Although everyone is bound to slip up and make mistakes. Some life threatening,” Ranlyn tells him turning his head back to the police across the street.

“Do we do anything else?” Griffin asks, “Besides turning into giant beasties?”

“We have many powers and abilities, and I will teach you to use each one of them. More importantly I will teach you to control them,” Ranlyn tells him.

“Why? Why bother? You have no reason to,” Griffin says.

“As a matter of fact I do. The bond between an Alpha and their cub is incredibly strong. You do not feel it yet, but you will,” Ranlyn tells him.

“An Alpha?”

“I will explain everything soon enough, Griffin,” Ranlyn says looking intently at the scene across the street. “They are bringing out her body.” Griffin gets up and walks over to the edge of the roof, and looks at the scene. Sure enough they have a body on a stretcher covered in a blanket. They load it into the back of the ambulance and take off. “We must leave now.”

“You can go,” Griffin tells him, “I am not leaving her.”

He begins to wait, and the longer he stands there, the more these thoughts try and force their way into his head. They threaten to drive him insane. Alice is gone, she is dead. All that’s left in her absence is a gaping hole filled with anxiety, terror, and uncertainty.

“Have you been awake all night?” Ranlyn asks. Griffin’s heart skips a beat and he jumps about a mile into the air, he hadn’t even been aware any time had passed at all. Like he had just entered a trance for several hours.

“All night, I will not leave her until the funeral,” Griffin tells him, with a look of annoyance as he shoves all of those thoughts into the back of his mind.

“Very well,” Ranlyn says, and then settles down on the roof cross legged. They sit the like that for some time. Neither move, their eyes never leave the building.

Then around three o’clock, a black carriage pulls up to the door, and they carry a casket out, and place it in the back.

“That must be her,” Ranlyn says to Griffin.

“Okay… Are we going to follow them?” Griffin asks, looking back at Ranlyn.

“Yes, lets go,” Ranlyn tells him.

The two start off and follow the funeral procession to the nearest cemetery. When they get there, they scramble up into a tree near the funeral, a spot they won’t be seen accidentally. He just sits in the tree and watches the funeral.

“I suppose we had best be off,” Griffin tells Ranlyn after a while.

“Yes, I think that would be best,” Ranlyn agrees. Just then, Griffin spies Alice’s mother and father arguing with the priest about opening the casket. He can make out the conversation exceptionally well from this distance. They open the casket and begin to cry, Griffin can’t see Alice from this angle but he can smell her now.

“Wait…” Griffin says sharply.

“Yes, what is it?” Ranlyn says, almost falling out of the tree.

“She smells tainted. What is wrong with her?” Griffin looks at him. Ranlyn closes his eyes and breathes in slowly.

“Hmm… Interesting,” He says quietly.

“What? What is interesting?” Griffin asks nervously.

“It is just her body beginning to decay,” Ranlyn tells Griffin, “Now, we are going to jump into the bushes below and make for the edge of the cemetery. Follow me closely and be quick about it.”

“Now wait just a moment I have come across dead animals before and they smelled nothing like that, now tell me what it is or I will go nowhere with you,” Griffin tells him, not believing he is being entirely truthful. Ranlyn lets out a low, almost inaudible growl, towards griffin.

“If you follow me, I will explain it once we are safely concealed.” Griffin eyes him suspiciously but nods in agreement. The pair drops into the bushes just below and makes for the edge of the cemetery. Once they reach the cover of a nearby wood Griffin grabs Ranlyn by the arm,

“Now, what was that smell?” Griffin asks him.

“That… was the smell of the vampire,” Ranlyn replies, tugging his arm from Griffin’s embrace.

“You mean to tell me she was bitten by a vampire?”

“Yes, if I had to assume, there is probably a vampire working in the morgue,” Ranlyn says, leaning up against a tree.

“So what does this mean?” Griffin asks, falling to his knees.

“It is possible she is not dead.”

“But that monster… it slashed her throat. How could she possibly…?” Griffin asks.

“One can have the smallest spark of life left in their body, but if it is there, the bite of the vampire or werewolf is strong enough to bring them back.” Ranlyn explains.

“That is incredible!” Griffin says, a smile crossing his face.

“You mustn’t get too excited yet, Griffin,” Ranlyn tells him. His smile disappears.

“What do you mean?”

“Yes, but she is vampire. You cannot be with her anymore, our laws forbid it. The laws of both our races forbid it,” Ranlyn tells him.

“Your laws forbid me from being with my wife?” Griffin scoffs, “To hell with your laws then, I do not need them and I do not need you. Now shove off!” he yells with a growl and pushes Ranlyn away. Ranlyn stumbles backwards awkwardly trying to catch himself, although he manages to steady himself and comes up behind Griffin, putting him into a headlock.

“You have been infected with Lycanthropy for less than twenty-four hours and you already want to be a lone wolf?” Ranlyn growls. Griffin manages to pull his head out from the headlock and looks at Ranlyn.

“For the last time old man, shove off!” Griffin yells again his anger growing, and he shoves Ranlyn into a tree directly behind him which causes it to violently shake. Ranlyn closes his eyes and stands still, breathing heavily. Griffin turns around and looks back at the crowd, remaining silent. Ranlyn narrows his eyes at him, then slowly walks away. Griffin stands there like a statue, watching as the funeral proceeds and eventually ends.

As the sun starts to set he moves closer to the grave site waiting, and sure enough just past three in the morning the vampire shows up. Griffin watches as he slowly makes his way to the grave, just a general shadow of a man. The vampire, who was carrying a shovel, starts to work re-digging the grave and he manages to do so with incredible haste. Once the grave is dug, the vampire pulls the casket up and opens it. He seems to study Alice for a moment or so, then he lifts her out and gently places her on the ground. He returns the casket to the grave then fills it back in. After he is done he picks up Alice in his arms and stands up straight. In the blink of an eye he shoots up into the sky and is gone. Griffin looks to the sky in awe,

“It can fly?!” Griffin exclaims, “How in the ‘ell am I going to find Alice now?” He asks himself. He jumps from the tree, starting to set off, the smell of that vampire still fresh in his nostrils. Then he gets an idea, Griffin breathes in deeply and the smell grows. He can pick up the general direction they went and starts off for it. He can feel this immense power fill his muscles, making him strong. He leaps from a running point and flies through the air, landing on a nearby roof. He continues to run from rooftop to rooftop quickly evading chimneys and hoping large gaps from home to home or scaling the wall when the roof abruptly rises due to an adjoining home with a higher roof; like many in London.

Griffin follows the vampire to a small inn on the edge of London. There he wait all night and day; solid and unmoving, like a statue. Shortly after the sun fell again he watched the vampire leave the inn without Alice. Curious, Griffin decides to tail him. The vampire strolls along the street quickly and quietly, blending with the shadows. He only walks a few blocks away from the inn where he enters a pub. Griffin quickly makes his way to the back of the pub and settles himself on the roof of the building across the alleyway from the pub. After a few minutes the vampire actually emerges from the backdoor and Griffin quietly drops to the ground, covered by darkness. The vampire instantly notices something is wrong and scans the alleyway.

“Hey you,” Griffin calls, emerging from the dark. The vampire looks at him confused for a moment and holds his stare, sizing him up Griffin figures.

“Good evening,” the vampire nods, giving Griffin a smile full of fang. He smiles back at him, showing the vampire fangs of his own. Griffin was quickly building with rage and could only think of attacking the vampire.

“It is a nice night,” He agrees, stepping closer, “The moon is nice and big.”

“Is there anything I can assist you with?” the vampire asks. Griffin loses control and grabs the vampire by the collar of his coat and slams him into the wall of the pub as hard as he could, and he holds him there so he can say what he needs to say. Then the vampire grabs hold of both Griffin’s wrist and attempts to pry his hands off, but Griffin only gets angrier and puts even more strength into his push forcing the vampire off the wall and onto his knee. The vampire is strong though, and manages to pry Griffin’s hands away from his coat for a moment. Griffin pushes back and grabs hold again, picking the vampire up and slamming him against the wall even harder still.

“I know what you did to my Alice,” Griffin speaks to him, calmly as he can.

“Griffin… MacCulloch? I thought you died,” He tells Griffin.

“Did you tell Alice I was dead too?!” Griffin starts yelling, his voice turning growl like, then he pulls the vampire away from the wall, suspending him a foot in the air. The vampire grabs Griffin by the wrist with both hands and tries to pry free of his grip. The Vampire looks completely shocked, but the he isn’t scared yet. That’s what Griffin wanted. He wanted vampire to be afraid, to feel complete and utter terror. To know that Griffin definitely meant business. He could feel the vampire’s neck breaking in his hand.

“You were never going to tell her the truth?! You did not want her to know?!” he screams at the vampire, baring his fangs.

“I… did not know… you… were… alive,” it’s becoming harder for the vampire to speak.

“Listen, and listen well. I am going back to that crumby little inn and I am taking Alice away from you before you can hurt her further,” Griffin seethes at the vampire.

“Griffin!” a very familiar voice yells, and Griffin turns his head ever so slightly to see Ranlyn jump from a nearby roof and sprint over. Griffin can feel how mad he is, but he is also very worried and for some unfathomable reason that made Griffin worried. Ranlyn grabs Griffins wrist and pulls on it hard, attempting to aid the vampire. Griffin let the vampire down but didn’t loosen his grip, then he easily swats Ranlyn to the side with his free hand. He was in control, and he could feel his new power flowing through him.

“Listen to me carefully, you spawn of Satan,” Griffin says, pulling the vampire in closer, “If I ever find out that you hurt my Alice, I will hunt you down to the ends of the earth, and I will kill you. Leave her alone forever. Do you understand me?” At those words the vampire quickly and effectively broke Griffin’s wrists and swept his legs out from underneath him. He bent over and put his nails to Griffins throat, who howls out in pain.

“You have just threatened a vampire noble,” he tells Griffin, who has no idea what that means, “I have half a mind to execute you, but considering you are obviously new to our world, I will spare you.” The vampire extends his hand to griffin, who takes it reluctantly while glaring at the vampire. “How is your wrist?”

“It hurts. But healed,” Griffin mumbles.

“I am very sorry about my pup’s behavior, Count?” Ranlyn asks.

“Howard, I am Count Howard. You are?” Count Howard asks.

“Count Howard? Pollux Howard? My name is Ranlyn Dunsford. My apologies again, Count Howard, I promise I will keep him under control,” Ranlyn tells him, bowing ever so slightly; Griffin glares at both of them. Pollux Howard turns towards Griffin and says to him very sharply,

“Listen to me now and listen well boy. Alice is my new progeny and she is going to walk this world by my side and learn the ways of the vampire. Any rights you think you have over her are gone. Dead. Our two races are not to intermingle, and that is law as solid and unbreakable as stone, I assume your master would have mentioned that. I want you both out of London by daybreak,” Count Howard tells them, staring them down.

“Maybe I should kill you now,” Griffin tells him, “I am sure I could.”

“You are strong for one so young, but not strong enough I fear,” he tells Griffin, “If you two value your lives, you will leave this city immediately.”

“Yes, we will be off right away,” Ranlyn says, “Come Griffin.” Ranlyn walks away, but Griffin stays where he is, eyes glued to Howard. “Griffin! I have said come!” Ranlyn yells and Griffin reluctantly follows him.

____________________________

Claire Dodson

“Match Head Toxicity”

My head hurts. It is still spinning from recent blindsiding events
in actuality I saw coming from
several smiles away,
several snaggletoothed smiles away.
head like a match head
easily stricken
quickly set to flame
but just as quickly extinguished.
I was planning ahead
safety net cradling insecurities
bracing for the Venus flytrap love curse
waiting for its jaws to wrap me in virginal mercy once more.

____________________________

Claire Dodson

I study Latin because I like dead things
A yeasty, pearlescent, wet scent blows by me,
But not before it runs up my nose,
Offers me a seat on the train to an uncovered past.
Alive she is
My hope is ongoing for a past that slept like a dozed dog under the rosebush:
Belly-up & defenseless.
But the blue recently started creeping in at repeated observances
“Here we go again”.
I know that if I take the road–
When I take the trip–
It will be a shallow death first
Followed by a blissful afterdeath
I didn’t know could exist.
The most recent issue is unwillingness to assume
I replay my own end relentlessly
And I make it beautiful, a masterpiece
All white and satin and exactly how I dreamed,
The sweet breathtaking release.
Waterfall or racecar inferno,
driving me to do anything.
Cremation sounds brilliant.
But I am porcelain.

____________________________

Claire Dodson

Constant state of abstaining
I look with eyes at a frenzy
it has burned, fallen—the phoenix, deeply rooted.
before it happens it will come along very often
the listless blossoming might create bad shape,
but you’re still in luck:
be blunt or suck the puck.
this secret expression of darkness,
that tragedy haunting, taunting to hurt, pardon me!
the theft of my thoughts, utter burglary,
is preferable to mediocrity.
before it happens it will scrawl the second half
it’s basically a massive distraction—chocolate, coffee
but it be such a nice suffering.

____________________________

Marissa Purdum

“A Love Story: Fog”

Like a cresting wave, fog rolls in.
He rolls through the empty small-town streets
and gently onto the dewy morning grass
before anyone awakes.
Gradually at first, but then
all at once, the entire town is shrouded.
As the sun rises,
the light gray hue conceals
the dawn’s pink and orange gleam.
Like a white, matte, masquerade mask
he hides the sun and sky from our sights.
Although seemingly eerie,
the fog is like a bride’s veil.
He hides the face, then when the time comes
the veil lifts to reveal the Earth’s countenance.
However, the veil lifts only for his one love;
the warmth of the sun’s embrace.
Then he ascends to join her.
He disappears slowly at first,
then as suddenly as he came…
He’s gone.

____________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“Hand in Hand”

Run in innocence,
Hurry down past the grass
Where the lilacs bloom near
Quartered water fields,
There’s an escape here,
A place no one near can find
And no one can hear your sighs,
Or see the discontent in your gaze,
Or notice our urge to just runaway
And to disavow everything,
There is a path underneath the trees
Where we can pick all the daisies we can find,
I look at you and wonder what is on that restless mind,
Everything here is displayed and made by Mother Nature
Just for you,
You and I.
We can find here
Nothing quite so menacing,
Until our last goodbye.

Creative Writing Awards 2018

2018 Creative Writing Award Winners

Lois C. Bruner Creative Nonfiction Award

Cordell Larner Award in Fiction

  • 1st place – Cheyenne Rideaux – “Blue Aster
  • 2nd place – Maria Chiaradonna – ?
  • 3rd place – Marissa Purdum – “Flipped
  • Other – Austin Middleton – “To Love Is To Bury

Cordell Larner Award in Poetry


View these submissions in Elements 2018 (pdf)

(on the web):

Austin Middleton

“The Brutal Indifference of Life”

November 21rst, 2009

It was just like any average day for me in eighth grade, the final bell had rung and I was waiting outside the main doors by the flagpole with my younger brother Dalton. It was a small junior high school in the middle of the smallest county in Illinois, so as we waited for our step father Rick the only thing to look at was a cornfield and busses pulling away loaded down with students yelling excitedly. We never had to wait long because we only lived a mile from the junior high on a small farm. We technically could have walked but it was never much time before Rick would pull up in his big black Chevy truck just like today. My brother and I load into the truck and Rick pulls out of the school parking lot and heads for home. His truck reeked of cigarettes and miller light, but that was far from unusual.

“Austin I talked to your mom and it looks like the weather is going to be good enough for your grandfather to come get you,” Rick tells me as he moves his sunglasses up onto his hat, revealing the lighter skin around his eyes where they had been. It made his farmers tan much harder to ignore, “Do you need to pack still?

“Awesome! I already packed my suit case last night just in case!” I had been worried all day at school watching the clouds roll overhead. I knew if the bad weather held up then he surely wouldn’t be able to come and get me. My grandfather had been a pilot for many years and often my mom and dad found it easier for me to fly for an hour and a half between them instead of driving me between them, but the weather was always a factor we had to consider when he flew to get me. We stopped at our farm house for all of five minutes for me to grab my stuff and to drop Dalton off. My younger brother is very awkward looking; he is very tall and his arms and legs are lanky and almost look disproportioned to his torso. He wasn’t coming to my dad’s with me because he is a half sibling on my mom’s side, I remember only giving Dalton a halfhearted good bye as he was always on my nerves and I was only going to be gone for a week so who cared?

Rick and I left our house on our way to Lacon which was not too far away. I had taken off from the Lacon airport countless times over the last few years so it had become the normal meeting place. Although unfortunately, by the time we arrived only thirty minutes or so later the weather had taken a toll for the worse. Rick was on the phone with mom and apparently my grandfather had radioed in saying he was going to have to land in Kewanee and pick me up there; it was as close as he could get with the storm coming in. The possibility of bad weather had been making me nervous all day, and now that the storm was making him reroute to a different airport I felt downright uneasy.

We arrived at the airport in Kewanee around five o’clock and my grandparents had just arrived, and as I sat in the small airport terminal I watched them get out of H’s 1972 single engine Cessna and approach the building. Harold Middleton, better known by most people and myself simply as H, was a great man. He was pushing it into his nineties and although he moved slowly with a shuffle in his step and a hunch in his back he still came into work at our family’s lumber company several times a week. H always wore slacks and suspenders over an old VFW jacket, for as long as I could remember he had kind of an old fashioned smooth wave haircut that was thinner and thinner every time I saw him; very fifties era when you looked at him. He had served in the second world war and worked hard his entire life to support those who relied on him, and on top of that he was one of the kindest people I have ever known in my life. He was one of the only men I had ever met who I aspired to be like when I grew up. My Grandma Peggy was just as sweet and wonderful, H’s fourth wife I believe and she was very plump and round with a short crop of blonde hair on her head that was so obviously dyed to anyone who saw it. They were wonderful grandparents and I always loved when I got to be around them.

They greeted me and they spoke with Rick for a few minutes before I said goodbye and we left through the back door of the terminal into the airfield. There were a couple of light posts I had noticed as I loaded my suitcase into the luggage compartment. By far though the greatest amount of light came from the ones that were rotating on top of the more tower like poles, the ones to warn any incoming planes. Like a lighthouse sitting on the cliff face so ships can find the shore in the dark or storms. This was actually my first time flying at night, and that fact for some reason made me more nervous than I already was. I just shoved all that out of my head and tried to convince myself it was just nerves, flying had always made me nervous and that’s all this was. Nothing more.

We all loaded into the plane which was only a four seater, it wasn’t spacious but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. I just watched as H went through his preflight check flipping switches and confirming his takeoff on the radio. I just wanted this flight to be over as soon as possible so I grabbed my iPod from my pocket and put my ear buds in. I figured I could probably drown out the roar of the engine and maybe take a nap so the flight flies by. As I turned on the music and closed my eyes I leaned my head back and folded my arms back trying to get comfortable, and just then I could feel the plane taking off from the ground and I felt that twinge in my stomach. The one you get at the top of a rollercoaster right before the drop, the feeling of near weightlessness. I had not gotten through the first song I was listening to when it happened, and I will never forget what I saw in a million years. I felt something very odd. It was like I was being dragged to my right and it was strong, it was only seconds before I realized what I felt was gravity and I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I couldn’t process what I was seeing until I thought about it hours later, but what I saw right outside the right window of the plane was the ground.

Midflight the plane had for some reason tilted to the right and for a moment we had been flying with our wings perpendicular to the ground, and with the lights from the wings beaming down I could see the rows of corn flying by one after another as I got closer and closer and then there was an impact. My eyes were closed but I don’t remember losing consciousness. I was thrown around the inside of the plane like a ragdoll due to the lack of a seatbelt and when I opened my eyes again what I saw was horrible. The whole right side of the plane was gone, torn open and I could see the night sky and a cornfield. We had landed a mile and a half south of the airport in the middle of a cornfield. H’s seat was broken and though he was still strapped in, his seat was leaning back and pinning me down into mine which had undoubtedly kept me from being thrown from the plane.

“Is everyone alright?” I whimpered quietly as I pulled myself out from under my grandfather and out of the wreckage of the plane, the disorientation was so intense I couldn’t even begin to understand what had just happened.

“I’m fine,” H told me as I grabbed his arm and helped him climb from the plane. Peggy was still buckled into the passenger seat, but she was leaning out the torn open side and it looked as if she was stretched and stuck half underneath the wreckage. “Peggy are you okay?” I could hear H ask and all he got in response was a very weak no. Even in the midst of the tragedy H kept his cool, and I think that was what kept me from losing it myself. I had just checked my cell phone to see if I could get a signal and make a call, but the second I opened the phone the battery died.

“Oh God damn it, of course!” I yelled and threw my phone in the dirt. I noticed I could still see the rotating airfield lights and knew we couldn’t be that far from the airport. I looked by and saw H trying to clear debris and help Peggy. “I’m gonna run back to the airport and get help, Okay?” I tell H trying to keep it together and stay calm. He replied but was solely focused on helping Peggy, like this crash was totally normal and he had just been waiting this whole time for things to go south.

I took off through that corn doing nearly a full sprint down the rows wearing only one shoe. Cornfields absolutely terrified me ever since I was a little kid, but in that moment it never even registered to me where I was at. I probably made it through a mile of dark cornfield before I fell to my knees out of breath. I buried my face in my hands and started to sob. Waves of adrenaline were slamming into me. I still couldn’t even begin to process what had just happened to me. I sat there for several minutes just repeating to myself, “I’m alive.” It didn’t seem real. None of it. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do a single thing. I sat and tried to steady my breathing, to get my body and mind under control. I watched the rotating airfield light go back and forth counting it slowly, one rotation after another. Before long though I started calming down ever so slightly and felt like I needed to puke, but when I leaned over to let it out I did nothing but heave. Then I noticed the blood on my hands in the thin veil of light, my forehead was definitely bleeding. I sat a few minutes longer, feeling the wet dirt beneath my wet socked foot, the broken corn stalks underneath my shoe on the other foot, and for the first time in my entire life I was thankful that I was alive, I could actually appreciate what I had. I stood up on shaky legs and readied myself, after three deep breaths I ran for all I was worth, as fast as I could and when I finally broke free from the edge of the cornfield I was directly across the road from the main doors of the airport.

I run up to the small brick building and I burst through the doors as quickly as I could as saw the attendant in her office where we had left her. She looked up at me from her desk through the office window and I sincerely thought this old lady was going to have a heart attack. She stood up from her desk with her mouth gaping open and walked out of her office. I just stood in the entryway trying to form the words and I simply mumbled as I collapsed into a nearby chair,

“Plane crash…” It was all I could utter as I tried to catch my breath. the woman on duty looked even more shocked than she had before.

“Oh my god, oh my god,” She started repeating as she went into her office for the phone, “I don’t even know who to call!”

“Uhh 911 maybe? Jesus any emergency services will do!” I couldn’t say anything else, I just buried my head in my hands and tried to hold myself together. The police response time was surprisingly good because the first officer showed up in what seemed like less than a minute, and I summoned what strength I had to meet him outside the front door. The police officer got out of his car and took one look at me,

“You were in the crash? Are you alright?” he seemed genuinely concerned.

“I – I’m fine,” I stammer quietly, “But my grandparents… their still at the plane.”

“What about the pilot?” He asks me as after speaking into his radio.

“My grandfather is the pilot,” I say quietly. Behind him two ambulances and more squad cars pull up, “We took off going east I think, I came from that direction.” I point across the road from where I ran out of the corn and the officer informed me that I was pointing south, “Okay man. I don’t know which direction it was then; I just know I came from that way.” He asked me a few more questions and then they loaded me onto a stretcher and put me in an ambulance, before they closed the ambulance doors the officer informed me they had found my grandfather on a road nearby flagging down the sheriff. We left for the hospital and with all the adrenaline starting to wear off, I found it hard to fight the tears welling up in my eyes and I remember the EMT patting me on the shoulder, telling me that it was over now and I was alright. It was far from over though.

We arrived at the hospital and they wheeled my grandfather in a few minutes after me. The first thing I noticed was that we ended up in trauma room A, the same room my sister ended up in after her car accident. It wasn’t long before my mother was on the phone with me and her speech was an unintelligible mix of screaming and crying. I couldn’t even get a word in, and she scared me so badly I almost didn’t take the phone when my dad called. He was much calmer and told me how much he loved me and how lucky I was.

When the doctor came in to tell H and I that Peggy was dead, I already knew. It seemed obvious at that point but what stuck with me was what the doctor said after my grandfather started breaking down, telling him that Peggy had been alive. He looked really apologetic and said the words,

“I truly am sorry Mr. Middleton. If we had gotten to her a couple of minutes sooner… I’m sorry. I promise we did everything we could.”

If we had gotten to her a couple of minutes sooner. Those words rang in my head like someone was shouting them through a megaphone. A couple of minutes. To say I felt guilty was an understatement. I sat in that cornfield for what must have been ten minutes at least, trying to calm myself down and it could’ve been the difference? I was overwhelmed with guilt, completely distraught. On top of it all I was unscathed, I got to go home and pretend nothing happened.

I didn’t go to Peggy’s funeral. At her visitation I was welcomed by everyone as a hero. They all said I was incredibly brave for what I did, and I felt like I couldn’t even look H in the eye. I sat in a chair and stared at my feet for most of it. At one point a woman came to sit next to me who was apparently longtime friends with grandpa H, and she leaned in and whispered to me asking if I was alright to which I mumbled I was. I didn’t look at her though.

“You know sometimes in life God has to harden our hearts. It’s not our place to know why, but we need to believe there is a purpose to it. We take that pain and turn it in to something useful. Please don’t let it drag you down,” she leaned in and hugged me, and got up to leave. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that any faith I previously held had taken a serious beating. I just wanted to throw up.

December, 2009

I was back at school, everything was basically the same. The day I came back everyone would just stare at me and whisper. I think I probably told the story at least forty times that day to students and teachers, even the school social worker. She thought I needed to talk about what happened but I didn’t, I needed to move on. Eventually things got back to normal, relatively speaking. That was what I needed since I was still struggling with what had happened to me, still trying to process such strong emotions and now an extreme anxiety on top of it.

One day only weeks after my accident I was sitting in class at school. We were in science and we were doing a lab, so everyone was at a lab station. Our teacher left the room for a few moments and I hear someone whisper my name. when I looked up I instantly noticed a few of my classmates a few stations down smiling at me. I just look at them and wait and one of them puts his hand in the air lying flat, and he then begins shaking his hand violently, doing loops and eventually crashing it into the lab table which the other boy followed by mimicking an explosion with his hands and mouth. The class thought it was absolutely hysterical, but I just sat there and looked at them. Then I looked down and I could feel my chest tighten and my breathing pick up, I could feel an anxiety attack coming on so I get up and excuse myself. I walk out and end up in the library just down the hall, only trying to catch my breath and not breakdown in school. I was just getting ready to go back when my teacher found me and she asked if I was doing okay. I told her I was fine and she told me not to worry and that I was very lucky, that there were angels watching over me. I looked up at her trying to hide any emotion, and as monotone as I could I said,

“There are no angels. There is no god. Nothing we do matters. We are all gonna die. What’s the point?”

From that point I slowly slipped into a pit. A cynical pit of loneliness, despair, and confusion.

September, 2016

I stood back as everyone made their way out of the cemetery and to their cars. I stood there reading the tomb stone and rereading it. It was sudden, but he died peacefully. Of course it was too soon for us, me especially. We had unfinished business; I had never gotten to talk to him about what we went through. We just never spoke of it. I wanted to but it just never seemed appropriate or always like the timing was bad. I wish I had, especially then standing over his grave. If I had been brave enough to bring it up maybe things would have been different. Maybe I would have processed my grief in a healthier way. I rolled one of the shells from his twenty-one guns in my fingers and thought about what I wanted to say.

These shells were supposed to be a symbol of bravery, honor, duty and for some reason rolling it in my fingers, besides making me feel close to him, gave me a sense of confidence. It took me a long time to realize what exactly had traumatized me so badly. I was a fourteen-year-old kid who had been relatively sheltered, and overnight my innocence had been snatched from me. Then I had to worry about things I shouldn’t have had to worry about. I was kept up at night with anxiety about things like what the meaning of life is, why we are here and if it mattered. I was burdened with my realization of the fragility of life and the razor thin line we live on a daily basis. But mostly I was afraid from that moment on that I would live a life without purpose, and that I would die a young, fruitless death at any moment. H helped me through this being the man he is, being as strong as he was, even the few times I could see the pain in his eyes he pushed it away and wore the brave face he had worn his entire life, and he got on with his life, back to his business, his family, his purpose.

“I’m going to miss you. I hope wherever you are, you have a brand new pair of wings and clear skies. I’m sorry… for a lot. I wish I had done things differently. I’m sorry I let it drag me down for so long. I just hope you knew before you left that I rose above that darkness. I found my purpose, finally. I couldn’t have done it without you either.”

____________________________

Jason Cummins

“Shame in His Eyes”

I take the keys out of my father’s hand. He gripes them tighter, stumbling and falling towards me. He is sweating profusely and flushed bright red. The smell of whiskey from his body, and the smoke from that murky bar is empowering. I get those keys and lead him into the front seat of the truck. I am sixteen and have thankfully just gotten my driver’s license, though I have been driving him home drunk from bars for much longer than that. In a small town, the cops tend to look the other way. They know about our family. Our family stays in the shadows of the town, but people whisper. My father’s head hangs down, willing himself not to vomit. I pray he doesn’t get sick in my truck. It is a cold December, the week after Christmas. There is still snow on the ground as it had been a white Christmas. The twinkly lights displayed in windows in our small town seem to be teasing me as I deal with the disgusting smells in my truck. We get home, and mom is still at work. Step by step, I have to shoulder a portion of his 200 pound weight to get him into bed. As he lays down, I see the look of shame in his eyes. He will remember the shame in the morning, but it isn’t enough to make him change.

I know early on that all families were not like ours. I would go to friends’ houses for dinner after sports practices. Other dads would read the newspaper at the kitchen table. Other dads could hold down jobs and not sleep all day. In my town, sports were everything. I was accepted into the popular crowd because I was a good athlete. That was the only reason I was welcome, but I never really belonged. I was in outsider to the good families. I was an outsider in my own home, as I was powerless to stop my dad’s actions. I always felt alone, and always, always ashamed.

It is late autumn, and my senior year football team had made the play-offs. There was so much energy in the air that Friday. I walk through the halls feeling unstoppable, wearing my varsity jacket and having my girlfriend by my side. I was invincible. The locker room smells of sweat as the boys pad up. Nelly music thumps through that room, creating a soundtrack for our 2001. The cheerleaders and marching band fill the night with their school spirit. We claim a victory that night, making play after play, under the bright lights. It was the best night of my life, until I see my dad in the stands. Again, I am different than every other player that has just won tonight. I was scared of my own father, always walking on eggshells. I never knew if he would be my quiet dad that was kind, or the drunken dad that couldn’t walk straight. He goes to congratulate me, and I again saw the look of shame in his eyes. I knew he was sober from his shaking hands. I also knew he would drive to the bar as soon as he left the high school. Eighteen years were gone. I had been a kid and needed my dad to help my navigate this messy world, but in that instant- I realized how alone my childhood had been. Standing there in what should have been the happiest moment of my life, I only felt full of loneliness and regret. There were no more chances for him to be the dad that I had needed. I was a man now, and I swore to myself that I would never need him for anything ever again. I would never let him have the power over me to make me feel alone.

Alcohol was ingrained in every childhood memory that I have. Every holiday, my family would sit around our downstairs bar and pour drink after drink. A glass was never left empty. My father was in his element, playing the boisterous bartender when he was still sober enough. A couple of hours in, he would be the one that couldn’t stop. He would be the one that passed out drunk on the sofa when relatives or friends were over. Every camping trip involved much of the same. My dad started his dad with orange juice and vodka, around noon switched to beer, and in the late afternoon, moved on to Jack Daniels. I remember the times that an ambulance was needed to take him to the hospital. I remember the smoky bars that called the police to show up after he was cut off from buying any more drinks. I remember the times he lost his driver’s license. I hated the disappointment of our childhood.

It is 2018. I am a father myself. I play catch with my kids in the backyard. We go legitimate camping that has nothing to do with what we drink. My boys will never have to know the pain of alcoholism. I refuse to drink, scared that with one drink, I could turn into him. I never want them to feel like an outsider in their own family. I never want them to worry if I will be able to stay sober long enough for their wedding. I never want to hold my grandchildren with shaking hands from withdrawing. I don’t hate my dad anymore. Holding onto a lifetime of hate is exhausting. Life is too short to hang on to that. I feel sorry for him. His life has had decades of disappointment, shame, and heartache.

I walk into my childhood home, and down the hall to visit my dad. Nothing has changed in that house. The same pictures hang on the walls. The same dreary curtains cover the windows. My dad is laying in a hospital bed that has been brought in for him. His skin and eyes are yellow from jaundice. His stomach is swollen from an enlarged liver. He is dying, and this is the end stages of cirrhosis and liver failure. He looks much older than his 65 years. He spends most of his days sleeping. My mom is getting counseling from the hospice workers, and she seems more at peace than she ever has. She smiles and laughs again. My dad has been sober for almost a year. He is kind now and asks questions about my life. We watch baseball together. It feels like we have met for the first time. The irony that it is too late is not lost on me. This is alcoholism, and it is ugly. It is the smell of dying in the air. It is planning a funeral when your parent is still living, with your dad requesting a Jack Daniels flag on his casket because he sees it as a fitting tribute to his life. Alcoholism is regret. It is a disease and choice all at the same time. It is the look of shame in his eyes, that neither of us can seem to erase.

____________________________

Kendrick Keller

“A Poisonous Idea”

The office had a yellow tinge to its overhead light, even though the whole school was supposedly operating on fluorescent lighting, the environment and whatnot. On the left side of the Junior High office was a shelf full of colorful nick nacks, a degree from some Texas University framed with dust covered glass, and a picture of some high school football team presumably from a time before the invention of sliced bread. The two uncomfortable black chairs in front of the center desk sat two fourteen year old boys. The first boy, with his mud brown hair, thin frame, and Puerto Rican looks (he’s not) tapped his feet and scratched his elbow red. The second boy had light brown skin, short, fuzzy, sky black hair, and green store bought hoodie that clinged to his body like a cage to a bird. The first boy out of nervous anger spoke and answered the question.

“Why are you looking at me, he started it. He stabbed me first!”

I am not the first boy.

“Hold on, you made me do it. It was coercion. He stabbed ME first!” I, the second boy, said. This reignited the argument that started on the way out of art class and continued the whole way to the Vice Principal’s office.

The first boy, Joseph flailed his arms in anger. “Well if you hadn’t messed with my project.”

“Messed with? I moved it and you freaked out and went straight for the pens,” I said while quickly flashing my fangs because I found the whole thing hilarious.

“Boys! You have both never been to my office before. Right?”

The deep, soft voice came from the large blonde man sitting behind the desk. Mr. Hendrickson was the Vice Principal of La Vernia Junior High. He wore the standard white button up and khakis getup used by school reps and waiters around the country. Hendrickson had a warm presence, always had a smile on his face even when delivering disheartening news. From our few interactions at the time he always showed that he walked around with his authority on his hip, not his face, kind of like a reverend or a traffic officer.

“Yes.” Joseph and I responded in unison.

“And the two of you are friends. Right? I’ve seen you eating together and you had to sit next to each other for this to even happen.”

“Yes.” We said simultaneously once more.

“Ok then, act like it. There’s no reason for the two of you to behave like animals. You’re friends, so don’t attack each other. As long as this is the end of this, you boys can go,” Hendrickson shifts his weight and leans back in his chair. “Is this the end?”

“Yes, sir.” We said for a final time.

Joseph and I stood up to take our leave through Mr. Hendrickson’s thick wooden office doors to return to class. Hendrickson followed behind us and reached out his long sleeved hands to the both of us before we took our leave. Shaking the man’s hands felt relaxing yet oddly empowering, like walking up to a 400 pound unchained lion and him letting you pat his mane, if only for an instant. Teachers to me weren’t symbols of a learning establishment that respected and engendered good will towards its students, even the bright ones. Teachers demanded and belittled, they abuse power to teach you a lesson you already know. Being near Mr. Hendrickson however, all I felt was respect.

The Ouroboros, originating in the ancient Egyptian text, The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, is an ancient symbol that depicts a serpent eating its own tail. The Ouroboros connects head to tail with its jaw sprawled wide to allow its scale covered tail to cram itself elegantly into the creature’s own throat.

 

On an all but normal Wednesday in March 2011, Ms. Hendrickson, the elderly mother of Glen Hendrickson, rushed to La Vernia Texas after a distressing phone call with her son. In Glen’s home which he shared with his school teacher wife and two young boys, Ms. Hendrickson found her son on his bedroom floor with a gunshot wound in his head. Mr. Hendrickson killed himself at his home in the local Rosewood subdivision; a quaint cul-de-sac like subdivision filled with wide roomed townhouses attached to small fenced in backyards. My longtime friend Brett lived in Rosewood; it took me far too long to make the connection between the house I visited to play Grand Theft Auto and shoot airsoft guns and the suicide of my friendly administrator.

We first heard of the death of our beloved VP at the place we flock to for fun and guidance every Wednesday after school. I along with several dozen of my classmates walked through the dark pews of our dimly lit Baptist Church after school. We looked up to the front of the auditorium-like room; overlooking our seats was a wooden stage, built with nothing but God’s love, hard community labor, and a measly few thousand dollars worth of tithes. The stained glass windows painted with colorful depictions from the bible towered over us teenagers. The lights that poured through illuminated our soft faces with brilliant reds, bright yellows, sun spotted oranges, and a tacky looking green that must be made of leftover Heineken bottles.

The service opened with the news of Hendrickson’s death, barely half a day old, not even a black and white headline yet. When the preacher spoke on the suicide, the room evacuated all light; we might as well have been in the chill Nevada desert under a sheet of night. It’s as if we were left without a star in the sky, the southern church was barely lit and the only sound was sobbing. The dams flooded before my preacher even stopped for a breath: sobbing from puberty stricken kids erupted from the pews. Students came forward to speak, to pray, to be cradled by an adult, any adult, just so someone else could do the work of keeping their bodies upright while their spirits lie at the steps of God’s house. My friends and I didn’t know Mr. Hendrickson well, but we still bore witness to the dreary scene around us. I was at a loss for actions. I sat, trembling within my booth, gripping the wood and biting my nails while mourning surrounded me in real time. The tense lack of understanding and anxiety with nowhere left to escape to, fell from my eyelids and dampened my green hoodie, a venom that needed extracted. After a single moment of pouring my saltwater from my face to my jacket sleeves, I found myself with nothing to do but sit and watch.

Hendrickson died because of corruption, greed, and the mistake of being a person who cared. The higher ups at La Vernia Independent School District had stolen money from the district, lied to parents and students, and covered up for a Drama teacher that used hard drugs before class. In the aftermath, we found out that Hendrickson knew all of this and was powerless to stop any of it. The morning of Wednesday March 30th, Hendrickson left school and visited my Drama teacher in jail, before driving to his Rosewood home one last time. The school learned nothing from the loss of Hendrickson, corruption stalked us, viper like, creeping in the background throughout our next four years in the town. After that week, there was no long term reaction from the school or the town because of Hendrickson’s passing. He wasn’t made a martyr, he died without a cause, teaching his students without the need for a lecture that a single bullet can’t fix everyone’s problems, but it can fix yours.

The symbol of the Ouroboros represents both beginning and end as a closed loop that swallows itself, this representation of life and the passage of time is not however as symmetrical as it would suggest. The Ouroboros’ interpretation of beginning and end is that they are one in the same, or at first sight, it paints it this way. However, anyone with eyes can identify the beginning and ending points of the serpent, the slender eyes, protruding from the enlarged head, the beginning.The bloated and pronounced beginning takes over and devours a tail that thins as it reaches out to its tip, tickling the far end of the serpent’s throat, the end.

 

I lived in La Vernia throughout almost the entirety of my primary schooling. This meant that the only time I met anyone new was when I left or they came. Because of the lack of intellectual and ideological diversity, the town can only be described as incestuary. Change wasn’t prevalent in the community, the most modern thing about the town was the new Whataburger (“Just like you like it”). Seeing the same faces everyday for the first sixteen years of your life means that everyone supposedly matters, no matter how well you know them, how close you are, or if you’ve ever spoken a word to each other. Lives are treated like a roll call, every day you go down the list to check if all the ducks are in a row.

I had seen Bryan a few times a year since I was in elementary school. He knew my name and I knew his. All other information we had about each other must have been secondhand. I could tell based on his friend group, his large truck, and his boots that he was very southern and somewhat stoic; in a much more passive way, people liked Bryan, his presence was never treated as a nuisance. Bryan most likely knew about me what most kids at my high school knew, I took advanced classes, skateboarded the town with my sometimes lovable shithead group of friends, and I was part of the approximately six and a half black kids in the school; everyone also knew I was the half. Our tertiary relationship could only get us that far. I had personally spoken to Bryan, probably less than ten times in my life. The majority of my interactions with him took place sophomore year of high school. I would see Bryan slither past in the open pathway between the brick buildings that houses the departments of the school. I passed him by maybe once a month, he’d nod his head and whisper my name “Kendrick.” And I’d hiss back, “Bryan.” We wouldn’t stand there too long, I was taller than I was in junior high, my glasses were traded for contacts so you could easily see my brown eyes with their full black center. As if we were five year old barely capable of looking through a book to find Waldo, point to his face and call out his name to prove to our parents and counselors that we didn’t have a learning disability.

On a winter day sophomore year I didn’t nod to Bryan. No one did. That morning we were informed that Bryan hung himself at his home the previous night while his parents were out. We were given no reason or explanation, we were just expected to hear the news and hand out “thoughts and prayers” in return. I didn’t cry when Bryan died, I didn’t stop with my day or leave the school and neither did most. However to say it wasn’t felt in every moment without a distraction that week would be a lie and an injustice. Whenever I would exit the classroom that week every spot and surface was grey. I would walk the same path I took every week. I would like clockwork leave my class at the bell and get precisely five minutes to traverse my campus that was covered in a pathetic combination of concrete and muddy grass. I never saw Bryan’s round face or still eyes on my way to class again. There was now this tiny point of empty space with a gigantic weight. Bryan’s absence was a supermassive black hole that sucked in all light with no hope of escape. My sadness over the loss of Bryan was much more selfish than it could have possibly been for the rest of the student body. I wasn’t feeling the pain of his family, or the sympathy of every parent with a son his age. I was constantly in shock by the blunt quickness that someone who had always been there had willingly departed with.

Everyone has had the experience of looking into a mirror and seeing a pore that sticks out in just the wrong way. This pore doesn’t quite fit in and in that moment you become bothered. Whether because for curiosity or perfection, you prod at it. You scratch or stab or slice at it to get it to leave, to fall out. And what does the it do in response? The only thing it can, it bleeds. That’s how I dealt with Bryan’s death for the remaining week. I’m prone to obsession of thought. And the lowering of the population of my town was one I couldn’t shake if I blasted a Disturbed album and banged my head on a solid chunk of wood for fifty four minutes straight. Because of this anxiety and how little felt I knew Bryan, I didn’t even consider going to his funeral.

The Principal announced over the scratchy outmoded loudspeaker one morning in the latter half of the week that anyone who wants to go to Bryan’s funeral on friday doesn’t have to go to school. Lucky for me I had a Doctor’s appointment. Our town was small enough and safe enough that it was usual for a kid to walk the town by themselves regardless of the time of day. I walked from my house through La Vernia towards my little Doctor’s office on the hill that overlooked a large lot of grass that stretched out in front of a wealthy neighborhood. When I reached the top of the hill, I could looked down and saw the very funeral that I wished to keep my distance from. Dozens of people stood hand in hand, some with heads bowed and others with small fires the size of Coke cans in their palms. The sight made my spine tinge and my mind race a few MPH faster than usual. What could they possibly be asking of God, is this to ease the agony of the family, to make Bryan’s loved ones feel better? Or is it for themselves? There’s no criminal to catch, no tragedy to clean up after, there’s not even a single person that we know to blame. Bryan must have been suffering, they type of suffering that time and laughter don’t erase. If we can’t fix the problem, why beg for it to go away? Why he needed to die for anyone to think about him after they nod in his direction? Bryan was a kind hearted sheep who was sacrificed in the middle of the week so we could collectively give a damn. A god didn’t pluck Bryan’s soul from him and leave his lifeless corpse to fall to the the ground. At the end Bryan finally had control. Bryan scarfed down his own tail.

____________________________

Cheyenne Rideaux

“Blue Aster”

We all knew little Sami Wallows was not Ava’s son. Although he shared her blond hair and green eyes, there was no likeness past that. With either Wallows. No. Ava would never have admitted to us that she was infertile. We all knew though. Rosie Stevens had known first; pointing out the suspicious vacation the two had booked only weeks after the pregnancy announcement.

We all knew Mrs. Cruz had lost her job in town. We had begun to notice the way she hoarded her newspapers, cutting the coupons as if her life depended on it. Occasionally, her son, Anthony Jr., would come to one of our homes to spend time with one of the children. On more than one of these play dates, he was happy to ‘volunteer’ to stay for dinner.

We all knew of the affair between Joseph C. Darin, the science teacher at Sterling High School, and Elizabeth Moore, the English teacher at the same school. This was brought to light quite recently when Annabelle Moore walked into her mother’s classroom to retrieve her lunch money. Suffice it to say, the affair came to an abrupt and silent end.

That is the key term to our community and its perfection. Silent. We know the secrets and imperfections in the neighborhood, but it is expected, out of courtesy, to never admit or complain about your problems. That should be none of our business. Never voluntarily. We agree to ignore the gossip; unless behind closed doors. That was our unspoken agreement. Until Verna-Mae Tissano.

It was nearly eleven at night when we awoke to the sound of a moving truck pulling into the Darin’s driveway. The couple had moved out a few days prior, but it was no surprise that a family would be moving in so soon. Blue Aster was a highly sought after community. We stood outside on our stairs, watching as the moving truck pulled in, followed closely behind by a beat up, grey, 2007 sedan. Rosie was standing at the house across the street, staring at the atrocity.

We watched curiously as someone exited from the car; a large hoodie pulled up so we could not see any features beneath the streetlamps. The person was followed by two small children exiting the back seats. It was far too dark to see them clearly. We let out sighs, knowing we would see nothing more until morning.

As soon as day broke, we set to work on our welcoming gifts. It had been a while since someone new moved into our neighborhood, but we still knew exactly what we were each responsible to bring. We met at the Steven’s kitchen to put together the basket. Rosie’s muffins sat on the counter cooling, while she worked on the little “Welcome to Blue Aster” ribbon that would be tied around the basket. We watched as her expert hands moved the thread around to create an intricate ribbon around the weaved basket. It was one of the many hand-weaved baskets that Rosie’s daughter, Mary, took immense pride in making.

The rest of us placed whatever items were meant for the basket onto the table. There were hand lotions from town; from one of the expensive stores that marked the price onto the item itself to ensure that the receiver would know just how much was spent on it, home-made jams, expensive cigars shipped from overseas, and a book; the newest best-seller romance. Rosie was the one leading the welcoming committee. The rest of us carried our own glass Tupperware full of casseroles.

“Okay girls, let’s give this new family a nice welcome,” Rosie said, smiling. It was the perfect mix of heart-warming and threatening, showing anyone who looked at her that she was clearly the head of the community. We walked with purpose towards the Madres yellow house, smiles on our faces that, after several years, felt natural.

Rosie’s light rasping on the door was the only sound that we could hear as we stood on the front porch. The house was eerily silent. There were no footsteps, no TV, no radio, no children giggling. The ugly sedan remained parked in the same spot it had pulled into last night. Perhaps this family had another car we didn’t see? We were about to turn away and walk back to our respective homes, when the door suddenly swung open.

“Can I help you?” A little boy asked. He stood in the doorway, a hand on the doorknob still, his other hand clutching a toy car. He was most likely around six years old, maybe younger, with curly black hair, olive skin, brown eyes, and a frail frame. He stared up at us with boredom.

“Hello there, is your mother home?” Rosie asked in the same voice she used when talking to one of her pomeranians. We wouldn’t have been surprised if the boy had rolled his eyes. However, he merely turned around and called into his house.

“Mama, people at the door!” He announced as he walked away and into the living room. We were shocked that he simply left the door open, let alone answered it without a parent present. There were a few more seconds of silence before a woman emerged from the kitchen.

“Why, hello there. Sorry to have kept y’all waiting,” she said with a heavy southern accent. Unlike the child, this woman had fair skin, freckles sprinkled across her nose, her shoulders, and the back of her hands. Her red hair hung straight and flat down to her shoulders, and her frame was a tad bit stocky. The only thing that she shared with the boy was the brown eyes; dark enough to be mistaken for black. She smiled at us, revealing an upper row of shockingly crooked teeth. “I was in the kitchen working on breakfast for the boys, feel free to come in and make yourselves at home. I won’t be but a few minutes.”

Like the boy, the woman simply walked away from the wide-open door – and our confused expressions. She sauntered back into the kitchen and made no sound at all. We remained on the porch, looking at one another as we waited for someone to make the first move. To no one’s surprise, Rosie was the first to step into the house. It looked almost exactly the same as the Darin family left it, save for the boxes that lined the entryway and spilled into the living and dining room.

We entered the living room, standing close the walls and bay window. The only furniture in the room was a single coffee table and a grey couch that looked as though it had been picked up at a garage sale or on the side of the road. Rosie stared at it with a skeptical eye, but turned to Elizabeth, nudging her head in a silent “You should sit, it would be the polite thing to do.”

Elizabeth timidly sat in the middle of the couch, so far off the edge that it took most of her strength to keep from falling. The boy who had answered the door was seated on the other side of the coffee table on the hardwood floor. There was another boy with him, an identical twin, who moved his own toy car around on the floor; racing the first boy’s. It was shocking, yet pleasing, how silent the two played in front of us.

“Breakfast time! Come and get it before it gets cold!” The sound of their mother’s hollering jolted us, making Rosie tense and Ava nearly drop her glass tray of tuna casserole. The boys scrambled up to their feet, racing each other towards the kitchen, shoving into one another on the way. The woman walked in the opposite direction, separating them nonchalantly as she came into the living room. “So, what can I do for ya, ladies? Is this the welcome committee or something?” The way she pronounced ‘something’ came out more like ‘some-than’.

“Yes, we are,” Rosie said matter-of-factly. “We came to welcome you and your family to the neighborhood. Is your husband home by any chance? We would love to welcome him as well and to let him know when he could meet with our husbands.”

“Ain’t got no husband,” The woman said plainly. We weren’t sure if she was going to say more or not, but when she continued to stare at us with her big eyes, we figured that was all she had to say about it.

“Oh! Well… you know we don’t have any issues with lesbians.” Elizabeth informed her quickly. We glanced down at Elizabeth, shocked by her accusation. After all, there were many reasons as to why someone could be without a husband. Death. Military. Divorce.

“That’s good to know. I don’t have any issues with lesbians either. But if you’re trying to reassure me, there’s no need for that. I’m not a lesbian. I just don’t have a husband.”

“Did you adopt those two boys, by any chance?” Ava asked in a timid voice. Rosie gave her a sideways glance, knowingly, but remaining silent about her opinion.

The woman smiled at that, but shook her head. “Nope, they’re mine. Had them six years ago, and have loved and raised them since.” The room fell silent after that. We waited for some sort of explanation. Grilling her on the whereabouts of the father was quickly becoming awkward.

“Well! I think this is all lovely. We would love to stay and chat more, but it is clear you have plenty of work to do with unpacking. I would be happy to send over my husband to help if you would like, but he may be busy with Mr. Kim.” Rosie said quickly as she handed the woman the welcome basket. We all stood, placing our own gifts onto the coffee table. The woman remained smiling, not seeming to mind the quick exit, and nodded her head.

“By the way, we will be having a bar-b-que at my house, a sort of belated farewell to the previous owners of this house. You are welcome to stop by if you would like. We would love to learn more about you and your family.” Elizabeth chimed in at the last moment. Rosie glanced at her, but remained silent.

We quickly made our exit, smiling at her as we left. We were halfway down the stairs when the woman opened the door. “The name’s Verna-Mae by the way!” She called down to us in her heavy accent. We turned back, smiled, and waved to her.

The sun was beating down on our backs as we stood on Rosie’s back porch. Our sun hats managed to protect our skin from the sun, but did absolutely nothing for the warm breeze that was beginning to pick up. Ava Wallows had to hold the hem of her blue summer dress down to keep the breeze from blowing it up. Verna-Mae was the only one who had shown up in a pair of high-waisted denim shorts and a blue tank top. Liliane and Joseph C. Darin had come for the day, wanting to apologize for their sudden departure from the community, so the rest of us felt it would only be appropriate to dress our best.

“It was awfully sudden of you. None of us even knew you were leaving until we saw the moving truck.” Rosie Stevens stated in a ‘concerned’ tone. We raised our eyebrows and leaned closer in our own feigned shocked expression. Liliane nodded her head, glancing over at her husband at the grill. The men, our husbands, stood on the grass, crowding around the grill, attempting to keep the wind from blowing the food away. Or they didn’t want us to over hear anything they had to say. They each held a can of beer in their hands as they chatted. None of them drank for a few moments; sensing our eyes on them.

“Yes, Joseph found a job in Bonney Lake, Washington. There is a beautiful gated community, Trilogy at Tehaleh. Plus, I have extended family there who I wish to be closer to.” We nodded our heads in understanding as Liliane explained. We took sips from our lemonade and blotted napkins against our lips in silence. Verna-Mae’s eyes flicked over each of us, almost as if she were trying to determine if we were robots. “I’ll desperately miss this community. I see all you girls as my sisters,” Liliane continued after a moment. Her eyes flicked to Elizabeth Moore.

We could feel the tension as the women stared at each other. Elizabeth chose to stand directly across from the host, despite our better judgement. Elizabeth placed a strand of her chestnut brown hair behind her ear, a small frown winkling the corners of her mouth. “I’m happy Joseph found a better paying job. I hope you’ll be happy in Washington. However,” she started to say as she shuddered slightly, “the name of your town, Bonney Lake, just sounds dreadful.”

We tensed as Elizabeth finished speaking. Our eyes were glued to Liliane, silently noting the way the corners of her eyes did not crinkle as she forced a smile onto her face. It was the kind of smile that was clearly fake. The way her hands tightened at her side; not into balls and not fully straight, just tightened. It was something that not many would have noticed. In a small community, it was easy to begin to notice just about everything about someone else.

“It is a silly name for a town, isn’t it? We wish we didn’t need to move, but it is for the best. The high school had some… issues, that I don’t believe Joseph, or our future child, needs to be around.” Once again, no one was surprised at the mention of the unborn child. The looks of surprise still appeared on our faces, mixed with delight. Liliane had told Rosie about the pregnancy a week after the affair came to light; only a month ago. Rosie felt it would be best for everyone to know, save for Elizabeth. We didn’t believe it was for any vindictive reason, however, the reaction of poor Elizabeth was entertaining to us all. Elizabeth was the only one who had a truly genuine reaction. The superior fire in her eyes dimmed, stolen by Liliane as she placed a hand on her flat stomach.

“I can’t help but feel like there is something between these two. What happened?” Verna-Mae asked, leaning towards Ava to whisper the question. Not surprisingly, her whisper was easily heard over the silence that had fallen over the group. Ava looked towards Rosie, unsure how to answer the question.

“The food’s ready! Are you girls going to continue to stand there and gab, or join us?” Joseph C. called to us, saving Ava from the needing to make the decision. We looked up towards him, but we said nothing. We walked carefully towards the men, making sure our Mary Janes did not sink in the dewy spring grass. “What were you ladies talking about anyways?”

“I told them the good news about the pregnancy,” Liliane informed her husband. She stood beside him, placing her arm around his waist. We couldn’t help but notice the way he hesitated to put his arm around her. His eyes shifted subtly to look at Elizabeth standing beside her own husband. Rosie was the first to break the silence, taking the moment to congratulate the soon-to-be father. We nodded in agreement, offering our own congratulations and advice from personal experiences. The Moore couple were the only ones to remain silent.

“Oh! Did something happen here?” Verna-Mae suddenly broke the silent. Her finger pointed from Elizabeth to Joseph. We were genuinely shocked this time. The audacity of such a question. Liliane tensed, staring at the new woman. If looks could kill.

“I have no idea what you are talking about. As stated, we are leaving for a better job opportunity,” Liliane said through clenched teeth. “Besides, I’m not too sure who you are to be saying anything in the first place.”

“My apologies, my name is Verna-Mae Tissano. I’m the one who moved into your house.” She held her hand out towards them, waiting with a patient smile plastered on her face. We couldn’t tell if it was a fake one or not. Joseph was the first to reach towards her hand; only to be stopped by his wife.

“Pleasure,” she said coldly as she held Joseph’s arm, lowering it back to his side. Verna-Mae slowly lowered hers as well, keeping the smile tugging at the corner of her lips.

“Well, now that we’re all acquainted, I believe the men prepared us some delicious food.” Rosie’s eyes remained on Verna-Mae as she spoke. Her attempt at dissolving the tension did nothing. If there was one thing Rosie hated, it was a community event being ruined.

A month. A month was all it took for Verna-Mae Tissano to change Blue Aster’s perfection.

We were nearing the very end of summer when. It was the end of the summer Blue Aster block party. The streets were lined with different activities, mainly for the children, ranging from bounce houses, pony rides, face painting, and small arts-and-crafts tables. The doors to everyone’s homes were wide open, letting the smell of our cooking out into the streets.

As custom, each family was put in charge of a different course for our party meal. We would start at the Wallow’s house for the hors d’oeuvre portion of the night. As we expected, the start to the evening was nothing special. We filed into the Wallow’s home, the layout and color identical to the rest of ours. Her furniture focused on a very blue and glass aesthetic, matching Ava’s personality. We stood in the dining room, picking at the pastry-wrapped asparagus, sweet fig crostini, and tomatoes with lemon dill dip. We talked amongst ourselves about our children, who remained outside snacking on the finger foods that we had prepared separately for them, and our husbands’ promotions.

“I’m sorry, hope I’m not too late. I was figuring out how to make sure my food didn’t burn or nothing while we did this house hopping thing (thang).” Verna-Mae apologized loudly as she came into Ava’s house. Everyone turned their attention to her, confused and surprised at the sudden, loud, burst of energy. We had almost forgotten that the Tissano family even moved into Blue Aster.

The family had been silent for several weeks following their welcome ‘party’. The twin boys mostly kept to themselves, playing in the backyard a total of seven times in the past month. Verna-Mae remained in doors most of the time. We had assumed it was simply to unpack all her boxes. The only times we knew of that she or the boys left the house were the few times when we heard the rackety sedan making its way out of Blue Aster or the weekends, then returning during odd hours of the night.

The men stared at Verna-Mae with surprised, confused, and impressed expressions on their faces. We, the women, glanced back, scrutinizing. She wore a short, bright red dress that hung off her shoulders, showed off her cleavage, and stopped just above the knee. Her heels added at least four inches on her, making her once stocky body appear almost as normal as the rest of us who worked out.

“Don’t worry about it, we’re happy you could join us. We were about to head to the Cruz’s house for the soup course,” Rosie informed her in a threateningly sweet voice. Her smile was strained, losing it’s ‘natural’ feel as she looped her arm in the new woman’s. Verna-Mae smiled at her genuinely, showing off her crooked teeth. She flipped her thin hair over her shoulder and looked back at the rest of us, her eyes falling on Andrew Moore. Elizabeth’s back straightened, her eyes narrowing at the other woman as Rosie led her and the rest of the group to the next house.

The tension during the soup course managed to dissipate slightly. We sat down for Elaine Cruz’s famous albondigas soup, smiling at one another and returning to our small talk. The soup was followed with the fish course at the Kim household, without any issues. However, it was the salad at the Moore house that signaled the shift of the night.

“I thought I would try to bring the freshness of summer out through this strawberry balsamic salad with French 75, a little cocktail I found in a ‘Spice Up Your Night’ book,” Elizabeth told us as we sat at her large table. The salads looked classic, nothing too special with them, but classy. Ava was the first to take a sip from her drink, and her face told us enough. Her lips puckered and her eyes widened slightly from the sharp vodka taste and tartness of the lemon juice. However, she did her best to put a smile back on her face.

“Oh come on, it can’t be that bad, can it?” Verna-Mae suddenly asked as she grabbed her own drink and took a long sip. Her eyes widened as well, but she smiled widely. “Now this is what I’m talking about! I ain’t never had a cocktail at a fancy dinner this good!” Rosie’s eyes narrowed at her, then at Elizabeth; blaming her for this fiasco. The rest of us remained silent.

Rosie grabbed her own glass, her eyes never leaving Verna-Mae. She gulped down the drink faster than any of us had ever seen her drink before. She refilled her glass right away, and downed the second one just as fast. Verna-Mae locked eyes with her, and seemed to take pleasure in what she interpreted as a challenge. She drank her glass quickly. She was onto her third within minutes, as Elizabeth was the only other woman to join the little drinking contest.

“Well, I moved here from Louisiana because I wanted to give my kids a new life. There were a lot of things I did down in the south that I’m not too proud of. I wanted to start new for my boys.” The men stared at Verna-Mae, nodding their heads vigorously as she told her story. “They haven’t had the best life so far, so I thought a place like this could do them some good. Maybe fine myself a man or men to help them learn things like fixin stuff and grillin.”

“What happened to their father?” Rosie asked, her head cocked to the side, staring the other woman down.

Verna-Mae didn’t even waver as she stared back at her with a smile slowly spreading on her face. “I don’t know. It was one of those situations where you just don’t really know who the father is.”

We were shocked silent for a moment, not wanting to continue to probe, but Rosie was clearly not backing off.

“What do you mean? Don’t worry, we’re a loving community, you can tell us.”

“Ain’t much to tell. I was in my third year of college, thought I would have some fun. I was the kind of girl who liked to have a good time and never thought it would catch up to me. After a good night at a party with a few friends, I realized maybe I had a bit too much fun. Never bothered to try and track down the possible fathers, so I did what I had to and now I’m here.” She started to lean closer, leaning over the table towards Rosie in a snake-like manner. “Did that story satisfy your need for fresh gossip?”

Rosie was taken aback by the comment, but said nothing. Instead, the men were the ones who spoke up to break the tension. “What kind of fun did you like to have?” Andrew Moore asked as he leaned closer to Verna-Mae. Elizabeth reached over, slapping her husband’s arm with disbelief written on her reddening face. Her eyes struggled to focus on him through the alcohol. “Oh, come on! You can have a full-on affair under my roof, but I can’t ask a simple damn question!”

We all fell silent, unable to think of anything to say. There were tears threatening to fall down her face as she sat, mouth hanging open, and stared at her husband. He started to turn towards Verna-Mae again; ignoring his wife completely.

“Listen, I don’t want anything to do with this martial thing. I never meant to start anything, but I worked damn hard on the main course of the dinner, and y’all are still welcome to come,” Verna-Mae said, holding her hands up in a defensive gesture.

“Looks like you already started something,” Rosie said under her breath, her words slurring ever so slightly. She stood first, slamming her glass on the table in annoyance.

The rest of us stood then, our chairs scraping against the Persian rug beneath us, and we awkwardly, but silently, made our way out of the house. Andrew stood to leave as well, but Elizabeth grabbed his arm, still seated and staring down at the discarded salads. Rosie closed the Moore’s door behind her, stumbling only slightly as she walked down the stairs. Verna-Mae led the group to her house. The only sound around us was the high-pitched laughter of our children.

“Welcome to my home! I hope y’all don’t hold none of this against me. I was trying to tell my story,” Verna-Mae said. The home was extremely different from the house the Darin’s left. The once egg-shell white walls were now a vomit green, the furniture was random; from the old grey couch to the scratched-up red book shelf. There were children toys lining the entry way, shoes that had clearly been thrown into the corner and ignored, and jackets draping the couch and stair railing.

We took our seats at the table and our nostrils were bombarded with the scent of spice and meat. “Please, don’t worry about it Ms. Tissano. Those two have been having problems for years,” Dick Stevens reassured her with a gentle smile. Rosie’s eyes narrowed at her husband, as if daring him to say anymore. He quickly dropped his head, like a shamed puppy, and sat rigid in his chair.

Verna-Mae ignored the awkward moment that had just transpired, and took her seat. “So, under your dome covers are your meals. I thought I would try to make it pretty fancy with those.” She noted, a proud smile on her face. We lifted the domes and stared at the food before us. We weren’t sure if it was the colors or the smell, but we could tell this would be the last straw for Rosie. “In front of you is some of my famous Louisianan rum vinegar-glazed ribs, collard greens, and crackling.”

“Crackling,” Rosie repeated the word as though it was a foreign language. That was it. That was all it took. “You made crackling and ribs? I gave you the honor or making the main course, something I thought anyone with a brain could figure out, and you make fucking crackling and ribs?”

To our surprise, Verna-Mae managed to keep her expression calm, another small smirk tugging at the corner of her lips. “Now, I didn’t do nothing wrong to any of you, so I don’t see why you think you can come into my home and speak to me like this. Y’all said you wanted a dinner, and a meal that represented us as individuals, so that’s what I gave you.”

“Look around you! We do what we can to be harmonious! We follow the fucking rules!” Rosie screamed at her. We sat in silence, knowing she was right. “Either get with the program, or get out of my community.”

Verna-Mae slowly brought herself to her feet, letting her chair scrape loudly against the hardwood floor. “It’s funny you think you’re something special. Me and my boys have done absolutely nothing wrong here. My boys have kept to themselves, remained quiet, and I’ve tried to stay in and make my house look presentable for your damn fru-fru asses. All I’ve wanted was to make a new start in a nice community. But in the month that I’ve spent here, all I’ve heard is you all talking gossip about one another behind each other’s backs. Who gives a damn if Mrs. Cruz is unemployed, or Mrs. Wallow’s kid ain’t hers?”

Ava and Elaine’s eyes widened. Their shame was obvious. “You have no right to say anything! You’re… you’re just a damn slut!” Ava exploded. She stood up quickly and stormed out of the house with her husband, slamming the door behind her hard.

“You know what, yea, I’m a whore. I had my moment in college and I ain’t ashamed of it. If I didn’t do what I did back then, I wouldn’t have the boys who I love more than anything. I won’t ever be ashamed of that. And I ain’t going nowhere. So, you best be leaving my house.”

The warm air outside the house chilled us. I watched as the women left with their husbands, walking in every direction towards their own homes. Door after door slammed shut, the sounds of muffled discussions trickling out into the streets; quickly masked by the laughter of the blissfully ignorant children.

I entered my house, my husband walking into the living room to turn on the evening news. He sunk into his chair, like on any other night. I walked into the dining room and stared at the plates. The lemon-berry savarin that I had slaved over for hours looked fake. The slices all looked like some plastic toy you would buy your daughter for her tea set. I reached down and grabbed what would have been my slice and stared at it, unsure if it would even taste like anything.

____________________________

Marissa Purdum

“Flipped”

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. I turn over to see my alarm clock going off. It’s 4:30 AM, and here I am awake hours before my dad gets up. I lay in bed for a few moments, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness before I get up and trudge to the bathroom. I groggily flip on the light and head toward the small sink. I splash my face with cold water to try to wake up, then I stare at my reflection in the mirror. My long brown hair is awry this morning, tangles left and right. I grab my bristled brush, and work out all the tangles. Then I notice my green eyes are carrying heavy, dark bags underneath them. I grab my concealer and start to make my bags magically disappear, then I add my usual fountain, black eyeliner, and mascara. Even though my face has remained relatively the same this past year, the sameness is just a mask hiding what I am really feeling.

I can’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. I look at my bed, longing to return to its sweet embrace, but I knew if I did, I wouldn’t fall asleep. I would just lay there feeling empty until it was time to get ready for school. Instead, I go to my wooden dresser, pick out one of my pairs of dark blue skinny jeans, a gray NASA t-shirt, my black bra, and a pair of black socks to go with it. As I change out of my t-shirt and shorts pajama combination and into the clothes I just picked out, I look around my room. Most of my walls are white and bear. They don’t have anything on them anymore. At least not for a year now. I remember when these walls used to be almost covered from ceiling to floor with the photos I’ve taken of my family, my boyfriend, and anything else I loved. But I’ve given up my photography. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Waking up this early has become a ritual of mine for the past eleven months. I do the same thing every morning, wake up, do my makeup, get dressed, then I sneak past my dad’s room, steal his car keys, and I leave. I remember the first few times I did it, I was so afraid that my dad was going to wake up and stop me. However, after the first month, those fears melted. I’m pretty sure he knew that I left by the third time I snuck out, but he didn’t say anything. It’s been a rough year for the both of us. Instead, he ignores the fact that I steal his car for about an hour every morning just to drive to IHOP to eat some pancakes. Why do I do this? Let’s just say about a year ago in December, my life was flipped upside down.

James and I were at the local mall here in North Muskegon, right along the coast of Lake Michigan. I needed to get some of my pictures developed, but I didn’t just want to go to the mall for five minutes and then leave. So James and I decided that we wanted to add some bright purple highlights in our hair, and then afterwards we would go to the camera store. We made an appointment at Live or Dye, the best hair dye specialist in a fifty-mile radius. As we were waiting for our stylist to finish up the customer before us, we sat down and I started looking around the salon. The walls were all black with various Black Sabbath posters, lit with purple UV lights. However, at the stations where the stylists worked, the lights were a bright white and they almost blinded me. The stylist cleaning up one of the stations had green spiked hair, black lips, thick, black eyeliner, and a lip ring sticking out on the left side of her face. Then I averted my attention to James. His pale skin reflected all the hours we put into playing Call of Duty over the summer instead of hanging out on the beach like every other normal high schooler. His brown curly hair was just dangling low enough past his ear for me realize that he really needed a haircut, and his brown eyes were focused on whatever was on his phone screen. As usual, he was wearing his favorite band’s t-shirt, Guns n’ Roses, some jeans that had way too many holes in them, and a pair of old sneakers that matched his jeans.

James looked up, “Ready for this, PJ?” he asked.

“Ha! Are you?” I replied.

James smiled and held my hand, “As long as I’m with you, I’ll be ready for anything.”

I smiled and gripped his hand tighter. James had always been that cheesy, it was just who he was, which is why I loved him.

The stylist interrupted and said, “Penelope?”

I shifted my attention from James to the stylist, “Yeah, that’s me.”

She nodded to the chair and said, “Sit down.”

I looked at James. He smiled and said, “Go get ‘em.”

I sighed and started moving toward the chair. My heart was pounding. I don’t know why I was so nervous. This was something that I have always wanted to do. I guess the reality of it all was enough to get my heart pumping. Seems almost silly now that I was so nervous, especially after what happened last December.

When I was halfway to the chair, my phone rang. It was my dad. I turned to the stylist and said, “Sorry, it’s my dad. I have to get this.” She rolled her eyes at me, but continued to prep the station. “Hello?” I answered.

At first there was a long silence, then my dad’s voice cracked, “PJ?” He paused.

After a few more moments of quiet I asked, “Yeah, dad? What is it?”

He took a long pause before he spoke again. “It’s your mom…”

“Are you going to sit down or not?” the stylist asked in a snarky tone.

“Dad, can you hold that thought for a second?” I asked, then I turned to the stylist. “I’m sorry, it’ll just be a minute more.” I then turned my attention back to my phone, “Okay, dad. What about mom?”

There was a slight pause before he spoke again, “PJ, she’s in the hospital.”

“Wait why? Was there an accident or something?” I hurriedly asked.

“No, no. She…” he paused again.

I began to wonder why my dad couldn’t just spit out whatever he had to say to me. “Dad, just tell me. Did she accidentally twist her ankle again?”

Then my dad said, “No she didn’t, PJ… She had a stroke.”

At that moment in time, everything stopped. His words echoed in my head like a song playing on repeat. My heart pounded like it was about to jump right out of my chest, and I clenched my jaw to hold back on all my emotions. “Alright,” I said, “I’ll be right there.” I felt my chest begin to tighten and before I knew it, I found myself walking straight out of the salon, car keys in hand. James hurriedly followed me.

“PJ! What’s up? What’s happening?”

Tears formed in my eyes, but I couldn’t get a word out. My mind was only focused on getting to the hospital. I rushed past everyone, bumping into anyone who got in my way. Once out of the mall, with James following close behind, I unlocked my car, got in, put on my seatbelt, and started it before he had even gotten in.

James said, “PJ, talk to me. What happened?” but I ignored him. I pulled out of the parking spot and the next thing I remember was passing cars on the four-lane highway. I watched the speedometer go up, sixty, seventy, eighty. I was speeding so fast past the other cars that they were only a blur to me. James spoke again, “PJ, you need to slow down. Tell me what’s wrong.” I couldn’t do either of those. I was focused on my mission and nothing could get in my way.

“PJ, please.” His ‘please’ snapped me back into reality. I looked over to him and time seemed to slow down. James gave me very concerned look. He knew something bad had happened, but he was so confused as what could make me act this way. I could see in his eyes that his mind was racing a mile a minute, trying to decode and defuse the ticking bomb that was inside of me… but he would never figure it out.

“Watch out!” James screamed at me. I looked towards the road and I saw a massive buck. Before I knew it, I had swerved to avoid it, but I turned too fast. The road was so slick from the snow slush that it caused my car to roll sideways. I had no control, I was entirely helpless. I know it sounds cliché but flip after flip, my life flashed before my eyes.

Crunch. It’s my first day of kindergarten. My mom had dropped me off at McKinley elementary. Other kids were filing into the school, but my mom made me stay back. She hugged and kissed me so many times that I was almost too embarrassed to go to school. She could not stand to leave her baby girl there. She was proud of her little girl, but at the same time she couldn’t bear the thought of me growing up.

“Alright, you got your lunch, crayons, pencils… Hmmm…” she paused, “What is Mr. Blonk doing in here?” my mom smiled as she pulled out my favorite teddy bear out of my bag. I started to giggle. My mom’s smile broadened, and she started to tickle me. “You silly girl,” she laughed. The first warning bell rang. “Well,” my mom’s face saddened, “It’s time for you to go, baby.” She gently shoved me inside. When I looked back, my mom was wiping tears from her eyes. “I love you!” she yelled as the door closed behind me.

Crunch. When I was in second grade, my goldfish, Blushie, had just died. I remembered when I had got him a few days earlier after a small circus came through town. I had won him after my dad threw a ball and it made it into his small fish bowl. He meant everything to me. So I went up to my dad and showed him the dead fish in the bowl. He promptly directed me upstairs to the bathroom. I was crying over the toilet as my dad flushed Blushie down.

My dad patted me on the head and said, “PJ… It’s just a fish.”

My mom, a much more gentle soul, gave my dad a dirty look, then turned to me and said, “It’s okay, hun. I know you loved Blushie, but think of it this way. He lived a good life, and his death will not be forgotten.” She paused, “Do you want to go get some ice cream?” I nodded, and she took my hand.

Crunch. It’s Christmas morning. I woke up and made my way to my parent’s room like I usually did for Christmas. I quietly climbed into their bed and started jumping.

“WAKE UP! WAKE UP!” I yelled.

“Urrrghhhh, okay, okay, we’re awake,” grumbled my dad.

As soon as my dad said that, I rushed downstairs and sat beside the tree. I picked up my first present then waited for my parents to make their way down, which at the time felt like forever. The second their faces were in the living room, I tore open my present. It was my first camera. It was not any old camera though. It was my mom’s old polaroid camera that she had while she was in college. One day when I was younger, she would show me all these photos of her adventures. Her ice skating, her climbing a mountain, even just her and my dad enjoying the day out in a park. After that, I used to go around the living room pretending that I was taking pictures of everything.

I smiled, got up, and hugged both my mom and my dad. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

My mom smiled at me and said, “You’re welcome, sweetheart. I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom… and Dad” I replied. Then I turned the camera around and snapped a photo of the three of us. That photo was the first to make it up on my bedroom wall.

Crunch. It was the middle of my seventh-grade year when James moved here from Wyoming. His hair was short back then, not even long enough to form curls. He walked into Mrs. Fraphorn’s class like he owned the joint, then he sat next to me.

He flashed me a smile, looked at me with those brownie colored eyes, and asked “So, what is there to do around town?”

I smiled and hushed him, “Mrs. Fraphorn doesn’t like people to talk when she’s talking.”

“That old bird?” he gestured to the teacher, “She doesn’t scare me. What is she going to do? Give me detention on my first day?”

“Mr. Kelch,” Mrs. Fraphorn said sternly, “I know it’s your first day here, but if you speak out of turn, I will give you detention. Consider this your first and final warning.” Then she turned back to the board.

“Geez,” James said. “She’s a bit of a grouch, right?” I smiled at him, but remained silent. “Cmon, this is more like a prison than a class if that’s the rule!” he said.

Mrs. Fraphorn raised her voice, “Mr. Kelch, I warned you. I’ll see you after school today for detention.”

James dropped his jaw and I giggled at him. He remained silent for the rest of the year.

Crunch. Freshman year of high school sucked, but luckily I was friends with James. Even then, he always seemed to make things better. One day, the popular girls walked up to my locker and started to make fun of my all black outfit.

“Hey, PJ,” one of the girls taunted. “Are you going to a funeral, or did you find those clothes in the trash?” The other girls in the group laughed.

“Just leave me alone, what did I ever do to you?” I replied.

“You know… Just your mere existence bothers me,” she said as she took a notebook out of my locker.

“Hey! Give that back!” I demanded.

“What this?” she dangled the notebook in front of me. “Why? It’s not important, just like you,” she laughed. Then she tore up my notebook and threw it on the ground. The other girls followed her lead. They took everything out of my locker and scattered it across the hallway.

At that moment, James rounded the corner. “Hey!” he shouted then rushed towards the scene.

The girls looked at him, laughed then continued kicking my stuff around.

“Hey, back off,” he said threateningly as he got closer. “Go apply more clown makeup or something.”

The leader gave him a dirty look. “Whatever…” the girl replied. “C’mon girls, let’s get out of this loser hallway,” she said as her and her posse left.

I started to pick up my stuff when James asked, “Hey, PJ. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I replied. James helped me pick up my stuff and put it back in my locker.

“You know what, PJ?” he smiled his handsome smile. “You are so much better than those girls. You’re freakin awesome.”

I looked James in the eyes. He was looking at me differently, like he was examining the most beautiful photo he has ever seen. I smiled back and blushed. He became my first crush that day.

Crunch. It was the day James finally met my family. We had been dating for two months when my mom invited him over to our house for dinner. He treated my parents like any true gentleman caller would by trying to impress them with kindness and humor.

“So, James,” my mom said. “PJ told us you were originally from Wyoming. Do you miss it there?” Then she took a bite of the chicken parmesan she had prepared.

James smiled, looked at me, and squeezed my hand, “You know, when I first moved here, I thought I’d miss Wyoming a lot. It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be though.”

“Well that’s good!” said my mom. There was a short awkward silence before James spoke up again.

“I mean, the thing I miss most is the ol’ ride around town, guns a blazin’ and riding off into the sunset, but I’m glad to retire. It’s so much more peaceful here.” James joked. I stifled a snicker.

“Ah yes, I remember the good ol’ cowboy days as well!” my dad added. “Me and my stallion, Rex, trampled over the neighbor’s cat one time… That vermin never saw it comin’.” We all busted out laughing at my dad’s remark. I thought nothing could be more perfect.

Crunch. Last Sunday, we were all at IHOP for breakfast to celebrate my seventeenth birthday. My mom, my dad, James, and I were sitting at our favorite booth in the corner of the restaurant. I was eating my favorite, pancakes. I sat next to my mom and James and we were lightheartedly discussing some of my ‘cherished’ childhood memories. Then my mom’s voice changed.

“James,” my mom said seriously, “I need to tell you something about PJ.”

I shook my head. I knew what this voice meant. It meant my mom was going to embarrass me again. “Mommmm no, not on my birthday!”

“Yes, Mrs. Wallace?” James smirked.

“Well… When PJ was three years old, we asked her what she wanted for dinner.” My mom and my dad exchanged grins.

“Mom. I beg of you, no.” I beamed.

My dad butted in, “At that age, all she wanted was soup. I still have no idea why she wanted soup all the time, but that’s what she wanted.”

“Hey, I was fascinated that a food could come purely in liquid form, okay!” I replied.

“Anyways,” my mom turned to James. “We asked her what she wanted and out of her mouth came the word ‘poop’. Her father and I were so concerned until we realized that she wanted soup. She didn’t grow out of that until she was five, so for two years we had to explain to people that when she said ‘poop’ she really meant ‘soup.’” We all started laughing, and my face turned red from embarrassment. I was so happy, despite being embarrassed. I looked around the table and realized how much I love all of these people. I wished that moment could last forever. Crunch.

The car had stopped rolling. We were both upside down dangling from our seats. Feeling dazed and my ears ringing, I looked around the car. Blood was splattered all over the car like paint. I wondered if it was mine. Then I over at James, he was bloody and unconscious. “Oh god.” I uttered. I watched the blood drip from his mouth onto the ceiling of my car. I tried to reach out to him, “James?” He didn’t move. I have never been the religious type, but in that moment, I prayed. I prayed in hopes that James will be fine, that everything will be fine. I needed things to be okay.

Next thing I knew, my eyes fluttered open to see my dad sitting in the chair next to my hospital bed with his head in his hands. His brown hair was disheveled, his stubble was growing in, and it looked like he hadn’t slept in days. I tried to move my hand towards him, but I felt so weak that I barely wiggled a finger. My dad looked up from my small movement, and grabbed my hand. “Thank God,” he muttered. When he looked at me, I could see that his eyes were red and puffy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this before. It seems as if he had aged five years since the last time I saw him.

“Dad?” I croaked.

I tried to sit up, but my dad gently held me down. “PJ, just relax. I’m going to get the doctor.” He got up, and started heading towards the door. Once he got to the doorway, he paused looked back just to make sure I was still alive, and then continued on his way.

Once he was gone, I took a better look at the hospital room. Unlike most hospital rooms, this room was surprisingly warm. The walls were white, with pictures of random medical charts scattered like a collage across them. To my left was the dark green, upholstered chair my dad was just sitting in. To my right were a few machines, like the ones you see in movies.

Then my dad returned with the doctor who was carrying a clipboard.

“Hello Penelope, my name is Dr. Lancer. How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said softly.

“Good, good. You aren’t feeling any pain or nausea?” he asked. I shook my head no. “Great,” he scribbled down something on his clipboard. “Do you remember what happened?”

I nodded and uttered, “I was in an accident.”

Dr. Lancer nodded, “Can you tell me what happened?”

I looked at my dad, he nodded encouragingly. “I was speeding to get here,” I paused to give my voice a break. “Then a buck appeared out of nowhere and we swerved and…” Then I remembered my mom and James. “Is Mom okay? What about James?” I asked.

Both the doctor and my dad exchanged solemn glances. Dr. Lancer turned to me and said, “How about you get some more rest, I’ll come back to check on you later.”

Once the doctor left the room, I looked at my dad. His gray eyes were avoiding my gaze. “Dad?” I asked.

He looked at the charts as he said, “The doctor told me you had no broken bones or internal bleeding, but he did tell me your brain was swelling so they needed to put you into a medically induced coma until the swelling went down.” He sighed, “They kept you under for a couple of days as they ran their tests. The doctors kept me updated, but every time I tried to ask questions I became more and more confused. I just wanted to know if you, my baby girl, were going to survive and no one was giving me any straight answers. They would say things like ‘Oh we can’t be certain yet’, ‘It’s too soon to tell’, or ‘It looks promising, but I don’t want to get your hopes up.’” He paused. My dad turned to look at me. His eyes were full of tears as he said, “I was just so afraid I was going to lose you too.”

My dad looked away. I laid there, not quite sure if he was saying what I thought he was saying. “Dad?” I paused, “Are they…” He moved towards the chair and sat down. I could tell he was struggling to tell me something. Then he grabbed my hand, and nodded. At first my mind rejected the idea that they were both dead. Eventually, it slowly began to sink in, but I still felt the need to ask.

“How?” I asked.

My dad swallowed his emotions before he responded, “They tried everything they could to save her, but the stroke… It was massive. There wasn’t much they could have done.” He cleared his throat before he continued, “And James… He never made it out of your car. He was already gone by the time they got there.”

My lip started to quiver, and then the tears started to roll. My dad looked at me with sorrowful eyes and hugged me. I could feel him tremble, which only made me cry harder. I couldn’t stop myself, all I knew was that two of the people I loved died today and one of them was because of me. I was so focused on being here for my mom, like she always was there for me, that I disregarded everything else. Everything had changed. I was no longer the seventeen-year-old, excited for some dumb purple highlights to be put into my hair. I had become broken and unfixable, just like my car.

And that’s why I started this ritual. I lost both my mom and James in the that fateful day in December. So every morning before school, I wake up, steal my dad’s car, and go to the last place where I was with them both together, IHOP.

I walk into the restaurant and wait to be seated. As I am waiting, I look around. Nobody else is here today, just me and the staff. On their tan walls, pictures of different breakfast foods decorate the restaurant. Then I look at the corner booth. The brown faux leather seats are worn down and are starting to fall apart.

The usual waitress, Stacy, approaches me and says, “Follow me, hun. I’ll take you to your booth.” She leads me from the entry way and to the corner booth on the far side of the restaurant. “Would you like some coffee today?” she asks.

“Oh yes please,” I respond as I remove my coat and sink into the booth.

Stacy leaves for a short while and then returns with the coffee, “Here you go, hun. I’ll be back in a little bit.” Then she leaves again and heads towards the kitchen.

As I sit in the corner booth with my coffee in hand, I think about everything that has happened this past year and how it all seems… I don’t know… It just feels different today. When I woke up this morning, everything seemed the same. Well, I guess it is the same. I mean, I’m doing the same thing I did yesterday morning, and the morning before that, but something feels different.

Stacy approaches my table again and interrupts my thoughts, “Hiya, sugar. What do you want today? The usual?” she asks.

More than anything, I wanted everything to be ‘usual’ again. I wanted my mom and James back. I wanted life to be like it was before, but nothing ever will be the same. I know that now. So I guess now I want to just make them proud of me, wherever they may be. I want to show them what I can do with my life.

“Hun, you alright?” she asks.

“You know what, Stacy?” I smile meekly, “I think I’m just going to go home, I’m not too hungry today.” I get up, leave her a small tip for the coffee, and I leave. As I pull out of the parking lot, I look into my rearview mirror. I can see the corner booth, both my mom and James are sitting there, smiling and laughing. I take a mental picture of the scene. Then they both slowly melt away until the booth is empty again. I smile and wipe away a stray tear. I miss them both so much, but it is time to keep moving forward and stop blaming myself for their deaths.

As I pull onto the same highway where the accident happened, I look over to my passenger seat. I can still imagine James sitting next to me smiling and cracking one of his jokes. I place my hand on his seat then turn my attention back to the road. Up ahead I see something moving, so I slow my car to a stop. In front of me is a huge buck. It stares at me and I stare back. After a couple of moments have passed, I honk my horn to attempt to scare off the buck. It still doesn’t move. Eventually, he walks slowly back into the woods where he came from, disappearing from sight. As I continue down the highway back home, I think about that buck. Was it the very same one from a year earlier?

When I finally make it back home, I immediately head upstairs to my room. I get on my hands and knees and look under my bed. They are all still here, all my pictures and my camera. I pick out a few pictures that had James or my mom in them and hang them back up on my wall. I smile in attempt to try to hold back my tears. Then I kiss the picture of my mom, James, and I sitting in the booth twice. One kiss for my mom, who will never be replaced, and one kiss for James, who will forever have my heart.

“I love you, Mom and James. I’ll move on and live my life. It’ll hurt like hell, but I know you both will still be there for me,” I say as I lean my forehead on the picture. “I’ll miss you.” Then I kiss them both goodbye.

____________________________

Austin Middleton

“To love is to Bury”

On a very cloudy day in the middle of London, a young man is returning home from his work as a solicitor at a law firm in Piccadilly, London.

“Ello! Mr. MacCulloch? ‘Ello?” a little newspaper boy says to the young man.

“Hello there little Charles,” Mr. MacCulloch says to the young boy, his full name is actually Griffin MacCulloch. He gives the boy five pence and takes a paper.

“Ave you been to the ‘arbor yet today? Ere’s a storm coming in,” the young boy says to Griffin.

“I agree. I should make sure Alice has battened down the windows,” he tells the boy, smiling.

“Good day, Mr. MacCulloch!” Charles says as Griffin walks away, leaving the small child to peddle his papers. His home isn’t much further away, and although it isn’t much it was enough for him and Alice. A nice modest home, a loving wife, children soon, maybe. Griffin couldn’t have asked for a better life. Coming up upon his steps at residence No. 347 Piccadilly London, he opens his front door.

“Alice?” he calls.

“In the Pallor Griffin Dear,” she calls to him. He enters the room and sees her sitting in an armchair reading a book.

“What are you reading?” he says, trying to see the title of the gold covered book from where he’s standing.

“It’s called Dracula. It’s brand new,” she says beaming. Alice loves to read, although she prefers tales of fantasy which Griffin had to admit were much more enjoyable to read than his legal books. She looks so lovely; Her long brown hair, perfectly groomed. She has fair skin, and the most gorgeous white dress on. He just sits in his favorite armchair, sits and admires her as she reads. They’ve been engaged for about six months, but in love nearly fifteen years. They met when they were very young.

“I am going for a quick jaunt in the park, I have been sitting at a desk all day and my legs could use a good stretch,” he tells her, “Maybe I’ll get caught in the rain.” he winks at her and she smiles.

“Don’t be gone too long so we can eat supper, I’ve asked Olivia to prepare your favorite,” she tells him trying to sound stern, but failing. He smiles at her. He loves her so much. He leaves the house and on the way to the park it starts raining. He doesn’t mind though, he always loves a good walk in the rain. London is such a beautiful city. When he gets to Hyde Park, he finds it as alive as always. The birds are singing despite the rain. He continues on for a while, and eventually the rain stops but the sky doesn’t clear any. When he catches a glimpse through the trees, he can’t help but thinking it looks very ominous.

He thinks about turning around, before it gets too dark. Then he notices something very, very odd. There are no noises anymore. No birds chirping, no crickets, not even an occasional dog bark; its deathly silent in the middle of the woods. Then bushes about twenty meters away start moving violently.

“Who’s out there?” Griffin calls out. Then it jumps out of the bushes and clears a ten-meter gap. It’s a huge, hideous beast. The word monster simply does not do it justice. It stands to its full height, which is easily two, two and a half meters tall. It stands on bent hind legs, covered from head to toe in fur. It has an elongated snout and ears, with claws that Griffin thought almost begged to rip his throat out. Griffin was paralyzed with complete and utter terror.

The monster decides to pounce, easily covering the next ten meters. It slams into him, knocking him down. It holds him down and sinks its teeth into his neck, gnawing chunks out. Then a burning sensation flares to life underneath his skin. Griffin screams out in pain. A scream of pure, heart wrenching agony.

Out of nowhere the beast is gone; he can see the night sky through the trees. He is only slightly aware of a struggle happening a few meters away. Griffin turns his head, ever so slightly and even that movement sends tremendous amounts of pain through his body. He sees, through blurry vision, a second even meaner looking monster fighting the first one. The new monster was actually slightly smaller than the first Griffin noticed. After a few seconds of exchanging blows the new monster smashes its giant fist over the head of the first one and the savage goes limp.

The new arrival walks up to him on its awkward, bent legs. Griffin is too weak to even attempt to move. The mean looking beast slowly transforms, somewhat painfully by the looks of it, into a young man. If Griffin could move his face into an expression, it would have been one of horror. The monster… the man… speaks to him,

“Listen carefully, you are dying; and very quickly from the look of it. The bite from that werewolf will kill you,” he pauses, “I might be able to save you…” he stops short as Griffin starts shaking violently and foaming from the mouth. The man’s face starts transforming, and he sinks his teeth into Griffin’s neck where the first werewolf bit him. The burning sensation is amplified times a thousand. It’s almost as if a bomb has gone off in his artery. He lets out another scream of pain. The man stops biting him and looks griffin over, checks the wound. All the while the first insane werewolf gets up and is slowly crawling towards the pair; but griffin is too stunned to utter a single syllable. Then monster attacks the one trying to supposedly save Griffin.

The “good” werewolf throws the insane one off. Griffin notices his movements are more controlled, more agile. He slams his fist into the snout of the insane werewolf. The insane one returns his blow with his deadly claws, slashing flesh. In a gruesome fight of clawing, biting, gnawing and punching the insane werewolf wins as he slams his fist over the head of his assailant; an eye for an eye. The monster is grievously wounded though and falls to the ground unconscious, leaving two bodies slumped on the ground and Griffin paralyzed. He struggles to gain control but he can’t. It’s like a tiny war going on inside him. He notices the insane monster stirring. So he tries harder. He can feel his toes. He wiggles them happily, and then his fingers. He can start to at least flex his muscles. Then Griffin roles himself over, slowly dragging himself on his weak arms. He manages to crawl about ten yards away before risking a look back, and when he does the scene is exactly the same. The insane werewolf’s face is visible from his position and it looks terrifying. Griffin is about to start off again when its eyes snap open. It jumps up with unnatural speed and lunges at him. This is it he thinks, this is the end. In that very moment before the beast is upon him, his head clears, the pain fades, and he has complete control.

With unbelievable speed he rolls over onto his back and grabs the beast by the throat as it lands on him. He starts to squeeze, and large claws start to extend from his fingertips. The monster barks out in pain. Griffin tosses it to the side like a rag doll, and gets up to run away. He runs faster than he has ever run before, faster than any human could ever even dream of running. It seems like it’s only seconds later when he’s out of the park and back on a city street. Griffin is in a daze. He heads towards the nearest place that’s open, a pub. It’s somewhat crowded so no one notices as he dashes straight for the wc as he gets in. He checks himself in the mirror. Apart from ruffed up hair and a bloody shirt, he looked fine. No wound, no scars. It looks like he just got back from playing a game of rugby in the park, not fighting for his life against a mad werewolf. Then a horrifying realization strikes him. The monster was a werewolf, half man, half wolf. It should be able to track him to his home… to Alice’s home… he takes off in a full sprint. As fast as he can he bolts down the streets of London. When he reaches their home he doesn’t even open the door, he just runs into it and breaks it down. Alice was right where he left her, reading in the parlor, and she jumps about a foot into the air.

“Griffin? What on earth have you done?” she squeals, assessing the damage. “And what have you been doing? You’re dirty and sweaty. And what in God’s name is wrong with your ears?” he stops and runs over to the mirror above the parlors fireplace. His claws protruding about an inch or so out of his fingertips weren’t the only thing different about him. His ears have a very definite point to them and his top and bottom canines were very fang like. He also has rough patches of hair growing on his jaw line. He looks very similar to the man when he had saved him, except his mouth wasn’t very snout like. Thank God! He thought.

“Alice, my love, we must leave at once,” He tells her, urgency in his voice. She senses this quickly.

“Griffin dear, what is the matter? Has something happened?” she asks worriedly.

“Yes!” he screams at her, “We need to leave now! Or we will die!” her face was one of horrified shock and she could do nothing but stammer. As Griffin pleads with her, he hears a slight tapping sound, so slight and quiet its almost nonexistent. He looks past Alice as she’s trying to form words and out the window, a large grand window made of crown glass; through the window he sees the large, insane werewolf. It’s drooling, and almost… smiling at him. Griffin instantly grabs Alice and throws her to the ground as the monster breaks through the giant window. The beast slams into griffin, along with several shards of glass.

It attempts to slash Griffin with its huge claws, but he bats them away and throws the beast off of him with ease. The monster scrambles towards Alice.

“Run Alice, Run!” Griffin yells at her just before grabbing the beast by the hind legs and swinging it hard into the fireplace. Alice is half sitting up. She seems almost frozen, completely rooted to the spot. The beast takes advantage of Griffin being distracted by Alice and picks him up then throws him into the nearest wall. Griffin hits the wall hard; not only the wall but the monster tosses him into a very sturdy lamp sconce. When he hits, the lamp breaks off and the bit the lamp was perched on imbeds itself deep into Griffin’s back. He can almost feel it about to poke out between his ribs. The sconce holds his weight and Griffin is left weak, and suspended on the wall all the while losing a lot of blood.

The monster goes and stands over the stunned Alice.

“Run…” Griffin breathes. The werewolf smiles his satanic smile at Griffin, and he notices the beast readying its claws. Killing them both is simply pleasure. “Please…” he says towards the werewolf. The beast looks thoughtfully at him for a moment. Then it smiles again and throws its head back and howls loudly bringing its claws in an upwards slash across Alice’s torso, killing her instantly. In a stunned silence, Griffin doesn’t have the strength to cry out Alice’s name.

The werewolf leaves Alice’s body alone and walks over to Griffin. Hanging from the wall like this he almost matches the beast’s height. Griffin only glares at the beast. It sneers at him. It snatches him up by the throat and lifts Griffin off the sconce. He thinks about just letting the monster finish him but could not bring himself to roll over so easily. He knew if he did that Alice would be furious at him, no matter where she is now. Using all of his strength Griffin uses both feet to kick the werewolf in the chest, breaking himself free and managing to slice his neck on its claws. The beast howls and charges at Griffin, who jumps over the beast and kicks it in the head with ease. This only makes the monster angrier. It uses its claws to slash and slice at griffin every which way but it can’t land a single hit and Griffin finds it surprisingly easy to slide out the beasts’ path each time. He slices at its back, deeply, as it misses again. That was it, the werewolf is done playing and in the blink of an eye it whips around and smashes its fist into Griffins jaw. He doubles back falling over broken furniture, hits the floor completely stunned and figures his jaw is shattered.

The werewolf stands over griffin, sneering again. Griffin digs deep and finds his strength. He finds his anger, and stands up on wobbly legs. The beast slashes at him and Griffin catches his wrist mid swing. The beast puts more effort in the swing and in one flick of his hand Griffin snaps the monster’s wrist. It howls in pain and Griffin digs his claws into the monsters throat and squeezes around it esophagus, in one movement Griffin jumps high into the air flipping over the monster and taking its throat with him, ripping it clean out. The monster crumples to the ground with blood gushing out from its neck. He drops the monster’s esophagus.

“That was… impressive,” Griffin hears from the hallway. He whips around and he sees the man; the werewolf from the park who “saved” him. He looks surprisingly normal, wearing a suit of all things. Griffin figured him dead.

“What in the ‘ell do you want?” Griffin demands.

“I am here for you,” the man replies.

“Why should I go anywhere with you!” Griffin yells at the man.

“The Yard will be here soon, if they find you here at the scene of a grisly murder… they will never stop hunting you,” the man says.

“I need to say goodbye to her,” Griffin tells him, kneeling next to Alice.

“There isn’t time, you will have another chance to say goodbye, I promise! But we must leave now!” Griffin looks at him hesitantly, not trusting the man, but knowing he is probably the only one who can answer all his questions.

“What do we do?”

“Just follow me.”

Griffin is standing on the roof of the home across the street from his. He found it surprisingly easy to climb up the side of the house. He is changing into clean clothes which he thankfully had time to grab, while the man is watching the commotion the police are making right across the street.

“What is your name?” Griffin asks the man.

“Ranlyn… Ranlyn Dunsford,” he tells griffin, turning his head back to him.

“How old are you?” griffin asks, assuming he is in his early twenties.

“I was born 543 A.D.” Ranlyn tells him, and Griffin scowls.

“I’m sorry, how old are you?” Griffin asks again, thinking he heard wrong.

“I am thirteen hundred and fifty four years of age,” Ranlyn tells Griffin, completely serious.

“That’s impossible; do you think me an imbecile?” Griffin asks.

“If I were a human, then yes, it would not be possible. But neither you nor I are human, we are werewolves. We are immortal,” Ranlyn tells Griffin.

“Immortal? As in… we never die?” Griffin asks.

“Oh no… we die. But we have the potential to live forever. Although everyone is bound to slip up and make mistakes. Some life threatening,” Ranlyn tells him turning his head back to the police across the street.

“Do we do anything else?” Griffin asks, “Besides turning into giant beasties?”

“We have many powers and abilities, and I will teach you to use each one of them. More importantly I will teach you to control them,” Ranlyn tells him.

“Why? Why bother? You have no reason to,” Griffin says.

“As a matter of fact I do. The bond between an Alpha and their cub is incredibly strong. You do not feel it yet, but you will,” Ranlyn tells him.

“An Alpha?”

“I will explain everything soon enough, Griffin,” Ranlyn says looking intently at the scene across the street. “They are bringing out her body.” Griffin gets up and walks over to the edge of the roof, and looks at the scene. Sure enough they have a body on a stretcher covered in a blanket. They load it into the back of the ambulance and take off. “We must leave now.”

“You can go,” Griffin tells him, “I am not leaving her.”

He begins to wait, and the longer he stands there, the more these thoughts try and force their way into his head. They threaten to drive him insane. Alice is gone, she is dead. All that’s left in her absence is a gaping hole filled with anxiety, terror, and uncertainty.

“Have you been awake all night?” Ranlyn asks. Griffin’s heart skips a beat and he jumps about a mile into the air, he hadn’t even been aware any time had passed at all. Like he had just entered a trance for several hours.

“All night, I will not leave her until the funeral,” Griffin tells him, with a look of annoyance as he shoves all of those thoughts into the back of his mind.

“Very well,” Ranlyn says, and then settles down on the roof cross legged. They sit the like that for some time. Neither move, their eyes never leave the building.

Then around three o’clock, a black carriage pulls up to the door, and they carry a casket out, and place it in the back.

“That must be her,” Ranlyn says to Griffin.

“Okay… Are we going to follow them?” Griffin asks, looking back at Ranlyn.

“Yes, lets go,” Ranlyn tells him.

The two start off and follow the funeral procession to the nearest cemetery. When they get there, they scramble up into a tree near the funeral, a spot they won’t be seen accidentally. He just sits in the tree and watches the funeral.

“I suppose we had best be off,” Griffin tells Ranlyn after a while.

“Yes, I think that would be best,” Ranlyn agrees. Just then, Griffin spies Alice’s mother and father arguing with the priest about opening the casket. He can make out the conversation exceptionally well from this distance. They open the casket and begin to cry, Griffin can’t see Alice from this angle but he can smell her now.

“Wait…” Griffin says sharply.

“Yes, what is it?” Ranlyn says, almost falling out of the tree.

“She smells tainted. What is wrong with her?” Griffin looks at him. Ranlyn closes his eyes and breathes in slowly.

“Hmm… Interesting,” He says quietly.

“What? What is interesting?” Griffin asks nervously.

“It is just her body beginning to decay,” Ranlyn tells Griffin, “Now, we are going to jump into the bushes below and make for the edge of the cemetery. Follow me closely and be quick about it.”

“Now wait just a moment I have come across dead animals before and they smelled nothing like that, now tell me what it is or I will go nowhere with you,” Griffin tells him, not believing he is being entirely truthful. Ranlyn lets out a low, almost inaudible growl, towards griffin.

“If you follow me, I will explain it once we are safely concealed.” Griffin eyes him suspiciously but nods in agreement. The pair drops into the bushes just below and makes for the edge of the cemetery. Once they reach the cover of a nearby wood Griffin grabs Ranlyn by the arm,

“Now, what was that smell?” Griffin asks him.

“That… was the smell of the vampire,” Ranlyn replies, tugging his arm from Griffin’s embrace.

“You mean to tell me she was bitten by a vampire?”

“Yes, if I had to assume, there is probably a vampire working in the morgue,” Ranlyn says, leaning up against a tree.

“So what does this mean?” Griffin asks, falling to his knees.

“It is possible she is not dead.”

“But that monster… it slashed her throat. How could she possibly…?” Griffin asks.

“One can have the smallest spark of life left in their body, but if it is there, the bite of the vampire or werewolf is strong enough to bring them back.” Ranlyn explains.

“That is incredible!” Griffin says, a smile crossing his face.

“You mustn’t get too excited yet, Griffin,” Ranlyn tells him. His smile disappears.

“What do you mean?”

“Yes, but she is vampire. You cannot be with her anymore, our laws forbid it. The laws of both our races forbid it,” Ranlyn tells him.

“Your laws forbid me from being with my wife?” Griffin scoffs, “To hell with your laws then, I do not need them and I do not need you. Now shove off!” he yells with a growl and pushes Ranlyn away. Ranlyn stumbles backwards awkwardly trying to catch himself, although he manages to steady himself and comes up behind Griffin, putting him into a headlock.

“You have been infected with Lycanthropy for less than twenty-four hours and you already want to be a lone wolf?” Ranlyn growls. Griffin manages to pull his head out from the headlock and looks at Ranlyn.

“For the last time old man, shove off!” Griffin yells again his anger growing, and he shoves Ranlyn into a tree directly behind him which causes it to violently shake. Ranlyn closes his eyes and stands still, breathing heavily. Griffin turns around and looks back at the crowd, remaining silent. Ranlyn narrows his eyes at him, then slowly walks away. Griffin stands there like a statue, watching as the funeral proceeds and eventually ends.

As the sun starts to set he moves closer to the grave site waiting, and sure enough just past three in the morning the vampire shows up. Griffin watches as he slowly makes his way to the grave, just a general shadow of a man. The vampire, who was carrying a shovel, starts to work re-digging the grave and he manages to do so with incredible haste. Once the grave is dug, the vampire pulls the casket up and opens it. He seems to study Alice for a moment or so, then he lifts her out and gently places her on the ground. He returns the casket to the grave then fills it back in. After he is done he picks up Alice in his arms and stands up straight. In the blink of an eye he shoots up into the sky and is gone. Griffin looks to the sky in awe,

“It can fly?!” Griffin exclaims, “How in the ‘ell am I going to find Alice now?” He asks himself. He jumps from the tree, starting to set off, the smell of that vampire still fresh in his nostrils. Then he gets an idea, Griffin breathes in deeply and the smell grows. He can pick up the general direction they went and starts off for it. He can feel this immense power fill his muscles, making him strong. He leaps from a running point and flies through the air, landing on a nearby roof. He continues to run from rooftop to rooftop quickly evading chimneys and hoping large gaps from home to home or scaling the wall when the roof abruptly rises due to an adjoining home with a higher roof; like many in London.

Griffin follows the vampire to a small inn on the edge of London. There he wait all night and day; solid and unmoving, like a statue. Shortly after the sun fell again he watched the vampire leave the inn without Alice. Curious, Griffin decides to tail him. The vampire strolls along the street quickly and quietly, blending with the shadows. He only walks a few blocks away from the inn where he enters a pub. Griffin quickly makes his way to the back of the pub and settles himself on the roof of the building across the alleyway from the pub. After a few minutes the vampire actually emerges from the backdoor and Griffin quietly drops to the ground, covered by darkness. The vampire instantly notices something is wrong and scans the alleyway.

“Hey you,” Griffin calls, emerging from the dark. The vampire looks at him confused for a moment and holds his stare, sizing him up Griffin figures.

“Good evening,” the vampire nods, giving Griffin a smile full of fang. He smiles back at him, showing the vampire fangs of his own. Griffin was quickly building with rage and could only think of attacking the vampire.

“It is a nice night,” He agrees, stepping closer, “The moon is nice and big.”

“Is there anything I can assist you with?” the vampire asks. Griffin loses control and grabs the vampire by the collar of his coat and slams him into the wall of the pub as hard as he could, and he holds him there so he can say what he needs to say. Then the vampire grabs hold of both Griffin’s wrist and attempts to pry his hands off, but Griffin only gets angrier and puts even more strength into his push forcing the vampire off the wall and onto his knee. The vampire is strong though, and manages to pry Griffin’s hands away from his coat for a moment. Griffin pushes back and grabs hold again, picking the vampire up and slamming him against the wall even harder still.

“I know what you did to my Alice,” Griffin speaks to him, calmly as he can.

“Griffin… MacCulloch? I thought you died,” He tells Griffin.

“Did you tell Alice I was dead too?!” Griffin starts yelling, his voice turning growl like, then he pulls the vampire away from the wall, suspending him a foot in the air. The vampire grabs Griffin by the wrist with both hands and tries to pry free of his grip. The Vampire looks completely shocked, but the he isn’t scared yet. That’s what Griffin wanted. He wanted vampire to be afraid, to feel complete and utter terror. To know that Griffin definitely meant business. He could feel the vampire’s neck breaking in his hand.

“You were never going to tell her the truth?! You did not want her to know?!” he screams at the vampire, baring his fangs.

“I… did not know… you… were… alive,” it’s becoming harder for the vampire to speak.

“Listen, and listen well. I am going back to that crumby little inn and I am taking Alice away from you before you can hurt her further,” Griffin seethes at the vampire.

“Griffin!” a very familiar voice yells, and Griffin turns his head ever so slightly to see Ranlyn jump from a nearby roof and sprint over. Griffin can feel how mad he is, but he is also very worried and for some unfathomable reason that made Griffin worried. Ranlyn grabs Griffins wrist and pulls on it hard, attempting to aid the vampire. Griffin let the vampire down but didn’t loosen his grip, then he easily swats Ranlyn to the side with his free hand. He was in control, and he could feel his new power flowing through him.

“Listen to me carefully, you spawn of Satan,” Griffin says, pulling the vampire in closer, “If I ever find out that you hurt my Alice, I will hunt you down to the ends of the earth, and I will kill you. Leave her alone forever. Do you understand me?” At those words the vampire quickly and effectively broke Griffin’s wrists and swept his legs out from underneath him. He bent over and put his nails to Griffins throat, who howls out in pain.

“You have just threatened a vampire noble,” he tells Griffin, who has no idea what that means, “I have half a mind to execute you, but considering you are obviously new to our world, I will spare you.” The vampire extends his hand to griffin, who takes it reluctantly while glaring at the vampire. “How is your wrist?”

“It hurts. But healed,” Griffin mumbles.

“I am very sorry about my pup’s behavior, Count?” Ranlyn asks.

“Howard, I am Count Howard. You are?” Count Howard asks.

“Count Howard? Pollux Howard? My name is Ranlyn Dunsford. My apologies again, Count Howard, I promise I will keep him under control,” Ranlyn tells him, bowing ever so slightly; Griffin glares at both of them. Pollux Howard turns towards Griffin and says to him very sharply,

“Listen to me now and listen well boy. Alice is my new progeny and she is going to walk this world by my side and learn the ways of the vampire. Any rights you think you have over her are gone. Dead. Our two races are not to intermingle, and that is law as solid and unbreakable as stone, I assume your master would have mentioned that. I want you both out of London by daybreak,” Count Howard tells them, staring them down.

“Maybe I should kill you now,” Griffin tells him, “I am sure I could.”

“You are strong for one so young, but not strong enough I fear,” he tells Griffin, “If you two value your lives, you will leave this city immediately.”

“Yes, we will be off right away,” Ranlyn says, “Come Griffin.” Ranlyn walks away, but Griffin stays where he is, eyes glued to Howard. “Griffin! I have said come!” Ranlyn yells and Griffin reluctantly follows him.

____________________________

Claire Dodson

“Match Head Toxicity”

My head hurts. It is still spinning from recent blindsiding events
in actuality I saw coming from
several smiles away,
several snaggletoothed smiles away.
head like a match head
easily stricken
quickly set to flame
but just as quickly extinguished.
I was planning ahead
safety net cradling insecurities
bracing for the Venus flytrap love curse
waiting for its jaws to wrap me in virginal mercy once more.

____________________________

Claire Dodson

I study Latin because I like dead things
A yeasty, pearlescent, wet scent blows by me,
But not before it runs up my nose,
Offers me a seat on the train to an uncovered past.
Alive she is
My hope is ongoing for a past that slept like a dozed dog under the rosebush:
Belly-up & defenseless.
But the blue recently started creeping in at repeated observances
“Here we go again”.
I know that if I take the road–
When I take the trip–
It will be a shallow death first
Followed by a blissful afterdeath
I didn’t know could exist.
The most recent issue is unwillingness to assume
I replay my own end relentlessly
And I make it beautiful, a masterpiece
All white and satin and exactly how I dreamed,
The sweet breathtaking release.
Waterfall or racecar inferno,
driving me to do anything.
Cremation sounds brilliant.
But I am porcelain.

____________________________

Claire Dodson

Constant state of abstaining
I look with eyes at a frenzy
it has burned, fallen—the phoenix, deeply rooted.
before it happens it will come along very often
the listless blossoming might create bad shape,
but you’re still in luck:
be blunt or suck the puck.
this secret expression of darkness,
that tragedy haunting, taunting to hurt, pardon me!
the theft of my thoughts, utter burglary,
is preferable to mediocrity.
before it happens it will scrawl the second half
it’s basically a massive distraction—chocolate, coffee
but it be such a nice suffering.

____________________________

Marissa Purdum

“A Love Story: Fog”

Like a cresting wave, fog rolls in.
He rolls through the empty small-town streets
and gently onto the dewy morning grass
before anyone awakes.
Gradually at first, but then
all at once, the entire town is shrouded.
As the sun rises,
the light gray hue conceals
the dawn’s pink and orange gleam.
Like a white, matte, masquerade mask
he hides the sun and sky from our sights.
Although seemingly eerie,
the fog is like a bride’s veil.
He hides the face, then when the time comes
the veil lifts to reveal the Earth’s countenance.
However, the veil lifts only for his one love;
the warmth of the sun’s embrace.
Then he ascends to join her.
He disappears slowly at first,
then as suddenly as he came…
He’s gone.

____________________________

Marcus Sweeten

“Hand in Hand”

Run in innocence,
Hurry down past the grass
Where the lilacs bloom near
Quartered water fields,
There’s an escape here,
A place no one near can find
And no one can hear your sighs,
Or see the discontent in your gaze,
Or notice our urge to just runaway
And to disavow everything,
There is a path underneath the trees
Where we can pick all the daisies we can find,
I look at you and wonder what is on that restless mind,
Everything here is displayed and made by Mother Nature
Just for you,
You and I.
We can find here
Nothing quite so menacing,
Until our last goodbye.

Elements 2017

 

Elements 2017-2018
Sam Horizon – Afolarin Sanni

Elements 2017

View all as a pdf here.


(in word documents)

Poetry

Af Sanni 
Orange Jumpsuit
Changes
Waiting In England

Arielle Henry
The Lonely Wall

Laurence L. Leff 
Ode To A Rowing Machine

Maria Chiaradonna
Nothing
The Machine

Michelle Sierra 
Mad Love
Sunday Dress

Natalie Jacobson
It Rained Last Night
The Night Is
Cold As Stone, Soft As Lace

Shelby Davin 
End Of The Beginning
Pocket Change

Prose

Af Sanni
Girl With The Pixie Cut

Destiny Thomas
Family Affair

Haley Helgesen
The King And Me: My Many Meetings with Stephen King

Maric Mclean
Head Games

Morgan Cusack
Pancakes At Penny’s

Rebecca Gonner
The Photograph


CREATIVE WRITING AWARDS

See the winning pieces, professional judges, and commentary on the blog post: Creative Writing Winners 2017

Lois C. Bruner Creative Nonfiction Award

Cordell Larner Award in Fiction

  • 1st place – Allen Dullin – “After the Fire”
  • 2nd place – Cheyenne Rideaux – “Neverland
  • 3rd place – Matt Gamperl – “Yawning Pines

Cordell Larner Award in Poetry


Editor-in-Chief:
Arielle Henry

Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Erika T. Wurth

Editorial Team:
Sarah Rogers, Adrienne Tinsley, Morgan Cusack, Matt Gamperl, Sara Hopkins

Cover Art:
Afolarin Sanni – “Sam Horizon”


ELEMENTS 2017

(on the web)

Af Sanni

“Orange Jumpsuit”

When the spring lifts,
the white lilies grow beautifully.
I’d be watching at the window,
as the rain poured past the glass.

The white lilies grow beautifully
after the coldness of winter has passed.
As the rain poured past the glass,
I would count the days until I returned home.

After the coldness of winter passed,
I was ready to get back to my family.
I would count the days until I returned home,
until there were no more days left.

I was ready to get back to my family,
yet here I am still writing.
Until there were no more days left,
I’d write one day after another.

Yet here I am still writing,
drowning sorrows in black ink.
I’d write one day after another,
until the white lilies grew beautifully again.

Drowning sorrows in black ink
when the spring lifts.
Until the white lilies grew beautifully again,
I’d be watching at the window.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Af Sanni

“Changes”

Do you remember
a time when we were combustible?
When we danced on Charles street
as moisture dripped from your red hair.

Do you remember
when the sky exploded?
Purples and oranges stirring above
as we laid under the parting clouds.

Maybe I remember
all of it a bit differently.
Nostalgia about brown eyes and sunsets
cloud how I remember everything.
__________________________________________________________________________________

Af Sanni

“Waiting In England”

I’m standing at the clock tower, waiting for the rain.
Remembering how Lisa said she’d be here by dark,
even though it’s past 8 ‘o clock by now.
So I’m stuck in a country that I don’t even know,
with some change and the box I got for her.
Maybe she just needed some space?

Or maybe I need the space.
Walking down the street, my feet splashing in the rain.
I wonder what she’s up to. Does she know I’m thinking of her?
Shaking my head, I continue to move forward in the dark.
Feeling lost amongst these people I don’t know,
I decide to stop in a bar and relax for now.

Time quickly passes as I look into the glass now,
the brown liquid glowing like the stars do in space.
Maybe we were just too young, you know?
I finish the glass and look out at the rain,
thinking about walking back to our hotel in the dark.
And how missing a date is just like her.

Do I really want to spend forever with her?
My thoughts are cut off by the woman next to me now,
her legs long and slender, brown eyes smoldering and dark.
After following her out of the crowded space,
I find myself under the cover of the rain,
making new memories with a woman I did not know.

I wake up to something that I do know,
which is the sunlight beaming on me and her.
That means I’ve been gone longer than the rain,
and I should get back to my hotel now.
So I close the door to her vacant space,
and walk through streets that feel so empty and dark.

When I get back, the room is dark
and Lisa is still, like all the beautiful sculptures that I know.
Not wanting to invade her space,
I sit in the chair across from her.
The box uncomfortably jutting out my pocket now,
my clothes still wet from the rain.

Somewhere in the dark, I forgot about her
and made mistakes I know not to make now.
But as I sit in this space, I find myself still waiting on the rain.
__________________________________________________________________________________

Arielle Henry

“The Lonely Wall”

There was an art in the way he charcoaled my eye. And picked me apart,
Rock hard sums of gold, flying off after every clink.
Creating massive sparks as they hit the ground
Cracking and chipping
Away.
An art it was.
I simply couldn’t resist the cold pointed metal digging into my skin.
Ugh, it feels so good to be used again.
__________________________________________________________________________________

Laurence L. Leff

“Ode To a Rowing Machine”

written December 2016

One morning, I arrived nice and early at the Spencer Campus Recreation Center. The Concept Rowing machine near the stair case that I usually use was occupied so I walked to one of the two at the back of the center. It was still dark. As I was doing my thirty minutes, through the East-facing window, I saw the sun come up.

My father loved to sit at his breakfast table in the kitchen and watch the Sun come up in the East. Five years ago, I bicycled from Nashville to Charlotte, North Carolina. Being disciplined, I was up and on my bike just before dawn and rode into the sun rise. I told him that, thus, on that bike ride, I thought of him and vowed that whenever I took a major bicycle ride, I would plan it to ride from West to East.

So here I am, riding nowhere, but riding into the sunrise, thinking about him–who passed two months ago.

And the electronic doohickey on top of the machine told me I averaged eighty-seven watts over my session.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Maria Chiaradonna

“Nothing”

I knew, I knew,
I truly did know,
I saw You
Old friend, daring my very
Word, You taunted me and laughed at me
Mocking me while you poked and prodded at the core
The snake in the Garden knew when to stop,
Yet two is one and you are two
Scales that hide lives, and eyes that mask your many lives
I was the Man, I was a Crusader
Or the lion in the derisive, confining pen, But dear old Friend
An ode to the great fight, harr harr, swords to the slaughter!
Pride torn and cut open, vessels to flesh, crimson river oh how you’ve come!
Lacerations, sweat, bewilderment, not the warriors best
My roots are rotten but I had planted my healthy seed,
Dear old Friend, you have won the battle, yet as I, the
War as my banners displayed running through the
Melancholic streets, while my blood and tears drain into the ocean
It is not shallow, but deeper, deeper, deeper, I see it!
Deeper than the wounds, roots, and ruts
Then sharp prod while you, being flushed out of me
No longer does the cumbersome pain I bear
Slipping,  slipping, slipping
Here, dear old friend,
Where have you gone?I am here and you are not to be found
My worn soul is replenished, for it no longer thirsts
Ahh, indeed, this is nothingness, this must be
Peace.
_________________________________________________________________________________

Maria Chiaradonna

“The Machine”

I am me. Therefore I am I  .I am loved But not loved.Hated,   full of distaste, Foul.  I am weak,  Predators watch with anticipation   Dangerous eyes,   They see me But do they really? I am beautiful,   A dove, Graceful and strong,I am a giraffe, I see above so I can see others, But from all of this,  I am me,  Human.  Since this, I am hated and a hater,  Of both the same circumstance . Reflections. I see what I want, not who  I am.  I am beautiful, but I am horrific,Athletic, but manly,  Vivacious, but annoying,  Strong, but weak.  Underneath,  A fistful of life ,With every pump,  Every beat  ,Every hit of   a hand,    Life flows       through this          Beautiful yet   horrific,   Athletic yet a manly  ,Vivacious yet annoying,   Strong but weak. Look upon me,  Then the reflection.   Not of me .What is the difference   ,Let me say,   If I dare to dismay you,  I have a life in my chest      Words that grasp the wind from my mouth.  Two souls that see through and out,  Into the universe I wish to amount  A machine,  working and quenching me,  Wisdom inside my beauty   Workers that multiply every day,   The beautiful words,   Giving me life   .So let me ask,    Do not concede dear friend.   What is different,  From the reflection, Then to me?   How can it be the same?   Look away, Turn around. That enemy you saw,   A contorted, And twisted,  And manipulated,  And hateful.  That Thing that you saw,    It’s you but not   true.  That is not you.   A perception of hate,  A seed planted by a foreigner    yet native.  The hate and you.   It’s claws gripping at your machine,  manipulating your two souls.  Poor   ,Poor,  Poor,  Poor.  Heal your thoughts, For I am me, Therefore I am I. There was two now there is  one,   One was low the other high.   Soaring like a dove in the sky,  Stop. Stop…Curl your lips,Release that high pitched life full voice,  And scream,  Then scream louder.  Let them see what you are.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Michelle Sierra

“Mad Love”

When Time is violent
Calm is quiet, lying silent beneath cement
Deep breath grapples with dead air
Rationale drips slowly amidst raging waves of media and twisted fists
Gnarled words hide common sense
Hope slips away

When Time is violent
Panic invades sidewalks
Worry seeps, separating dreams
Hatred hangs up on humanity
Fear shuts off all light
Freedom can no longer see

But when Time is up and violence has lost breathe
Calm will rise and settle in
Humanity will wash the wounds
Common Sense and Hope will return
Because somewhere…
Love has left the light on
__________________________________________________________________________________

Michelle Sierra

“Sunday Dress”

Red Wagon filled with church clothes strolls to the laundromat on Saturday morning
Rusted handle pulled by mama, I trail behind
Five cent hopes of bubblegum and soda spins my Sunday dress
Cousin Carmella chomps loudly trying to teach me how to snap gum

Saturday morning rituals
Arroz con leche as music dances in the kitchen
A full load for mama after late night shifts washing dishes at the American Café
Automatic loaders, a blessing sent from St. Veronica
Saved her hours of wash tubs and boiling hot water
Decades of scrub boards and hanging clothesline

Red wagon filled with church clothes strolls to the laundromat on Saturday mornings
Automatic Fluff-n-Folds twirl my Sunday dress
__________________________________________________________________________________

Natalie Jacobson

“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
Deep within
_________________________________________________________________________________

Natalie Jacobson

“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.
_________________________________________________________________________________

Shelby Davin

“End of the Beginning”

I still remember,
The time you professed your admiration
Your gaze set in mine
I remember, the way you braided my hair
Your fingers entangled in my tresses,
Like a confused seamstress
The way you lit up the room,
Like radium in the darkest abyss;
That’s what you fell into,
Darkness, muted, eternal
As you sank I watched, I remembered
The end of time, your time,
My time.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Shelby Davin

“Pocket Change”

I feel you in my pocket
Weighing me down
Making noise when I crave silence
You are virtually, useless.
Until this morning,
While waiting for my morning coffee,
You rescued me
$1.42 for caffeinated bliss
Finding paper money, effortless
Making change from the twenty in my pocket
Was simply a pain, instead
I reached in and caressed you
Cold to the touch
Yet the warmth of your heroism persuaded me
Today I deem you useful,
Today.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Af Sanni

“Girl With The Pixie Cut”

We sat in the homely coffee shop, keeping warm from the gusting fall winds outside. It’d been awhile since I saw my best friend. We tried to stay in touch, but we never actually met up after I transferred schools the year prior. Now that thanksgiving break was finally here, we had the chance. Sitting in the chair across from me, she didn’t look any different than the last time I saw her. Her red hair was still cut into that short pixie style, her sweater was still just a little too baggy, and her purse once again took up most of the space on the table. It felt like we were back in Champaign.

Jean was always the wild child type. Everyone wanted to be her friend, guys couldn’t stop themselves from asking her out, and she balanced the party life and school like no other. Hanging out with her, it always felt like there were just a couple more hours in the day. More time to do something new, another chance to go somewhere that nobody had ever heard of. We’d been friends since high school and she’d always been like this. Bright and optimistic. Qualities that I wished I had.

We ordered our coffee and started talking about memories we had from my time at University of Illinois. She spoke in her singsong voice about the time I went to a barn dance and ended up laying in the grass in an alcohol-induced stupor, in front of my at-the-time crush and her boyfriend. We laughed and also talked about friends I hadn’t seen in ages, and I filled her in on how it was getting adjusted to my new school. She originally wanted to go to Western Illinois University herself, but got accepted to University of Illinois and chose to switch at the last second. At the time in Mooseheart High, it seemed like a miracle, someone getting accepted to such an awesome school. But not to Jean, she was rarely ever phased, even by her own accomplishments.

Eventually our coffee came and Jean said she wanted to fill me in on something serious, her high-pitched voice dropping flat. “I dropped out of school.” It took me a second to process the sentence. She shuffled in her seat and explained further. “I spent too many semesters on academic probation, and now I have to take a semester off to have a chance to re-apply for the spring.” As she continued on, I just looked at her in disbelief.

Between all the trips to the bar, all of the house parties, and the nights that turned into mornings, she failed her way out of school. I didn’t judge her, as I had been down that road myself. But I wasn’t Jean. She told me about her plan to stay on campus and avoid telling her grandparents, who would’ve blown a gasket at the news. We spent the next couple of hours talking, and later on said our goodbyes, promising to hang out again soon. I did see my best friend again later on that week. But her brightness and optimism never came back from that warm coffee shop in St. Charles.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Destiny Thomas

“Family Affair”

        Dear Diary, I never wanted it to start off this way. With…this..lust. But his body, his smell was so alluring and I couldn’t help myself. If anyone ever found out what I did, it could ruin so many lives. But, I love him and I know he loves me too. He has to.

    Yuri sat alone in her window sill staring aimlessly at the two lovers in the house across from her. They were kissing, hands caressing each other’s skin as if they were silk. The man was now anxiously tearing off her clothes about to wander into her paradise. Yuri was hot.

“Yuri!” her mom yelled. “Yuri, come here for a second.”

Yuri rolled her eyes and said. “Coming mom!” She gave one final glance at the two across the street and went downstairs.

“You called?” Yuri said walking over to the fridge.

“Yeah. Your school called. What the hell were you thinking ditching school? I’m not gonna put up with this.”

“I wasn’t feeling well mom. So I came home,” Yuri said eyeing her empty fridge, “Besides what’s the big deal? It was only one day.”

“Yuri. I paid a lot of money to get you into that school.”

“I didn’t ask you to do that. Did I?” Yuri’s tone was acerbic. “If you don’t believe me, ask Jake.”

“Why would I ask your brother?”

“He knows I was here. I’m not lying mom.”

Yuri’s mom sighed and got up from the kitchen table. Yuri’s eyes were cold and empty. Yuri smirked as she bit into an apple. “I’m going back to my room now.”

Yuri hurried back to her room. It was dark and she knew she wasn’t alone. She felt a warm and heavy breath on her neck. She knew better than to move. The dark figure pressed his lips firmly to her neck and her head flew back in delight. His strong, muscular hands wrapped themselves around her small waist and moved slowly towards her pants. Her mind fluttered back to the couple across the street. Without warning, Yuri was flung onto the bed. The dark figure climbed onto her and found his way to paradise. They rocked together until he finished and they lay there in bliss.

“I have to go now,” he said as he got dressed. Yuri watched him leave the room as she drifted off to sleep.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Yuri reached over to her desk and tried to search for the snooze button. Her hand slammed down against the button as she groaned. She rolled out of bed and ran her hands through her brown hair. “I fucking hate Wednesdays,” she mumbled to herself. Slowly, she walked to her closet. She chose a navy-blue sweater with white jeans. As she laid her clothes on the bed, she couldn’t help but think about last night. She smiled to herself as she walked over to the mirror. “Fuck.” she exclaimed as she noticed three red marks around her neck. She searched for her white scarf to hide her hickeys. As Yuri changed from her PJ’s into her school outfit, she heard her door open.

“What the hell?!” Yuri yelled before she turned to see her mom standing in her door way. “Have you ever heard of knocking? Or privacy?” Yuri pulled her pants up and threw on her top.

“Yuri, stop sneaking Malcolm in the house at night. Especially if you two are going to be…sexually active.”

“Woah. Mom. Thanks.” Yuri said as she carefully put her scarf on and grabbed her backpack. “Can I have a ride to school? I don’t want to be late.”

“Go ask Jake. I have to get to work”. Her mom left the room and went downstairs to leave. Yuri walked across the hall to Jake’s room.

“Knock knock,” Yuri said opening the door. Jake was asleep with no covers and was only wearing his boxers. “Jake, mom left and I need a ride to school.” Jake mumbled something unrecognizable and turned away from her. “Jake seriously, come on. I’m going to be late.”

“Ughh fine. I need you to get a license Yuri.”

“I’m working on it,” Yuri rolled her eyes. “I’ll be downstairs.”

She walked into the living room and sat on the couch as she waited. She turned to look outside. She smiled gently as her neighbors shared a kiss and the husband left for work.

 I can’t wait to have that. A man to love me and will always come home to me. A man who will never leave me. Not like he…

“You ready?” Jake asked interrupting her thoughts.

“Yeah, let’s go,” her eyes never left the window as she spoke.

Even in the car Yuri was distracted. Her father left them when she was only seven. She took it hard but never spoke about it. Jake and her mom seemed to forget about the whole situation but Yuri thought about it often. She had walked in on her mom and dad having sex a lot but it was shocking when she caught her dad having sex with his secretary.

“Jake. Did dad love mom?” Yuri asked sadly. Jake looked at the road ahead with blank eyes.

“Uh, yeah. I guess so. Why?”

“Well he just left us. No explanation or anything.”

Jake shrugged.  “Yuri, look. Mom wasn’t happy. She knew about the affairs he had been involved with.”

“Why didn’t she say anything?” Yuri questioned.

“There was nothing to say. She stayed for us and when he decided to leave, why would she stop him?” Jake stared ahead with hateful eyes, “Dad was a coward. He was supposed to protect the family. Be there for mom…and you. He wasn’t supposed to go around screwing other women. He was supposed to love you two.”

“Do you love me?” Tears fell from Yuri’s eyes as she spoke.

“Of course,” Jake said glancing at her. He gave her a hopeful smile.

“Always?” Yuri asked.

“Forever,n” Jake replied smiling.

Yuri couldn’t get what Jake said out of her mind. She was so grateful to have Jake. She knew that he would never abandon her like her father did. Jake was always there for her since their dad left when she was seven. Every soccer game Jake was there. He was her savior. Yuri couldn’t focus in any of her classes. She kept falling into a daydream of how happy her family was before her dad fucked it up. Movie nights were her favorite. They’d watch all of their favorites and when Yuri fell asleep, her dad would carry her upstairs and tuck her into bed. Some nights, he’d stay there with her.

The final bell rung waking Yuri up from her daydream. She was anxious to get home. She rushed out the front doors of her school and quickly walked home. Once she got home, she walked to her closet and pushed back all the clothes, revealing a locked chest. Yuri grabbed the necklace around her neck and put the key into the lock. With a smile, Yuri unlocked the chest. Dressed in skimpy black-laced lingerie, Yuri waited in her room for her next trip to paradise. Soon enough, her door creaked open.

“I’ve been waiting for you.” Yuri said seductively.

“Is that right?” the dark figure asked in a husky voice.

“Yes. Come here.” The dark figure walked towards her. She grabbed him and pulled him onto her. She pushed her tongue into his mouth and began to kiss him passionately. “Tonight, I’m the dominate one,” she said through her kisses. She rolled so that she was on top of him. She wasted no time and they both went to paradise. Lost in ecstasy, Yuri broke the one rule that the two had set in place.

“Oh Jake. Make love to me.” Yuri moaned. Jake tried to grab hold of Yuri and cover her mouth but he forgot that she had tied his arms to the bed.

Fuck Jake thought.

All he hoped was that they didn’t get caught. Soon Yuri was going over the edge. She leaned down to kiss him. Lost in their moment, they never heard the door open.

“What the fuck is going on?!” Their mom stood in the doorway.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Haley Helgesen

“The King and Me: My Many Meetings with Stephen King”

This is the very real story of the times I met Stephen King. I say real not to impress you, but to impress upon you the reality of what happened and give you a sense of the mortification I feel whenever I recall these encounters. Without further ado, I present my tale of woe: The King and Me.

Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams… it was Florida. (That’s the only part of this I’m doing in verse.) Five years ago, I was living in Sarasota, which Tripadvisor will tell you is known for its stunning vistas over the Gulf of Mexico, for being the home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, and for having somewhat-decent seafood. Tripadvisor will not tell you that Sarasota is mostly populated by people over the age of 70 who are basically waiting around to die. It’s a stagnant town, punctuated by beautiful beaches, and wrinkly old men in speedos.

I’m working at a Ruby Tuesdays on the day I first meet Stephen King. For those unfamiliar, I advise you to stay that way. It’s a glorified salad bar made famous for somehow pioneering worse versions of White Castle burgers. I’ve just gotten off a catering job, and am dealing with the subsequent existential crisis that comes from serving miniature burgers to nursing home patients and Viagra-hocking pharmaceutical reps. My wonderful boyfriend, Max, is sympathetic to my tiny burger crisis, and takes me out to lunch at the most romantic restaurant in town: IHOP. I would like to point out that Max is very romantic, and much better at picking out date spots, but alas, Sarasota is awful and IHOP is indeed its most romantic dining option. I don’t actually like IHOP, but I am thankful for Max’s kind gesture.

Surprisingly, we’re the only ones in IHOP on that fateful Tuesday afternoon. As we struggle to decide which French Toast Special to order, I notice a man walk into IHOP and go directly to the bathroom. Seeing a skeletal, geriatric-looking man immediately beeline for the bathroom upon entering a building is an everyday occurrence in Florida, so it doesn’t raise my suspicions in the slightest. A few minutes pass and the man exits the bathroom. This time I cannot help but notice how familiar he looks. Had I just served him a mini burger? Was he the guy that sneezed on the salad bar earlier? I blatantly stare at him as he passes, and either he doesn’t notice my deer in the headlights look or he chooses to ignore me. The man walks out of IHOP and strolls into the Barnes & Noble next door. I know I’m obvious about watching him leave because our waitress comes over and smiles at me.

“You recognized him,” she asks.

“Bathroom guy? Yeah, he looks really familiar.”

“Which of his books is your favorite?”

“Bathroom guy writes books?”

“Yes,” she laughs, “that was Stephen King.”

My world stops. Creepy old bathroom guy is actually creepy old bathroom Stephen King! I’ve read every one of his books. He’s the first author I metaphorically followed, and I just missed my chance to literally follow him. He had walked right past me because I was too distracted by IHOP’s dumb seasonal French Toast Specials. I’m devastated, but I also have so many questions.

“Why was Stephen King eating at IHOP?” I ask our waitress.

“Oh, he doesn’t eat here,” she says with a surprising degree of awareness. “He just comes in to use the bathroom.”

“He does what?”

“He comes in, uses the bathroom, and leaves. We have very nice bathrooms.”

“I don’t understand, is he driving out here specifically to use the bathroom, or is he doing other stuff and just happens to stop by?”

“Honestly, I’ve never asked him, but a couple times a week he uses our bathrooms, and then goes to the Barnes & Noble next door.”

Max grabs my hand and we race to Barnes & Noble. After some discrete searching, we manage to corner Stephen King in the new arrivals section. Max selflessly asks if he is in fact Stephen King, and he responds with a cheerful yes. At this point, I completely lose the ability to speak, partially due to being star struck, but also because I can’t stop wondering why my favorite author doesn’t just use the infinitely nicer bathrooms in Barnes & Noble. In any case, I manage to blurt out that I love him and his work, and I thank him for creating the stories that fostered my love of reading. He appears genuinely touched until I awkwardly hug him. I’m too self-conscious of what I’ve done to let go immediately, so the hug lasts for an uncomfortable duration. He doesn’t say anything when I finally let go, and since there’s no eloquent way to leave an interaction where you’ve stalked a person out of IHOP and into Barnes & Noble to tell them you love them, I proceed to run out of the store. I am giddy all over, and my intense embarrassment over the whole affair is assuaged by what I now recognize to be naive confidence that I’d never see Stephen King again.

Fast forward a few months. I am recruited out of salad bar hell into the classiest seafood restaurant in Sarasota. The place is reservation heavy and servers seldom have walk ins. This evening, I have a table of three booked with a cordoned off section. Such requests for privacy are not out of the ordinary given the caliber of the restaurant’s clientele, so I think nothing of it and continue to prep. From the kitchen, I see the hostess seat my reservation and draw the privacy curtain up between them and the rest of the dining area. As I make my approach, I review the spiel I’ve prepared where I introduce the specials and encourage patrons to spend $65.00 on a bottle of wine. I walk up, confident in my craft, but lo and behold, Stephen King, his wife, and his son are all sitting at my table eager to mortify me.

In that moment, I question if any gods exist and whether they are cruel or benevolent. I decide to give no indication that we’ve met before, or that I even know he’s Stephen King. I smile and deliver my spiel. When I finish, I ask if they have any questions.

“Yes.” Stephen King says plainly. “Are you the girl who followed me into Barnes and Noble a few months ago?”

And just like that I discover that the gods are indeed cruel, and I find myself at an impasse. Should I lie for the sake of carrying out the rest of the evening with a shred of dignity? Or do I answer honestly and offer him another server. I decide that since my constitution is already faltering I might as well be honest.

“Yes, yes I am.” I say.

His wife and son begin laughing, but Stephen King only gives an amused smile. His son, also a noted author whose books I read, kindly points out that this must be incredibly awkward for me.

“Yes, yes it is.” I answer.

To my surprise, King himself starts to chuckle.

“So you’re a big fan?” he asks.

“Yes, I read Tommy Knockers when I was seven and I’ve been seeing a therapist ever since.”

This makes the whole table laugh.

“Have you read my newest book?”

“I have.”

“And?” he asks.

“I didn’t like it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah… was that a dumb thing to say? Do you want a new server?”

“No, that won’t be necessary. You’re a bit odd, but you’ll do fine.”

“Wonderful! So… will you be having wine this evening?”

And like that, Stephen King and his family become my regulars. They are always kind, quirky, and polite. Stephen King orders the same thing every time, a BLT with fries, which is not what you order at a renowned seafood restaurant, but whatever, he’s Stephen King. During his visits, we talk about different TV shows, books, and movies. I end up reading The Hunger Games on his recommendation, and think it is just okay. At some point, I let slip that I am an aspiring writer and from then onward he always asks me how much I’ve written since the last time we saw each other. Spoilers, but no matter how much you write it’s never enough for Stephen King. It’s kind of surreal to be lectured by Stephen King, but his son and I end up bonding over being disappointments to him.

The end of our peculiar relationship comes when I inform the Kings that I am moving to pursue higher education. That evening, he leaves me a generous tip, and thanks me for all our conversations. He also tells me to put him down as a reference and to add him on LinkedIn. To this day, I have done neither because it feels too weird. I also think he may be aware that the $65.00 wine I sold him every week was only worth $8.00.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Maric McLean

“Head Games”

This is not my paper and you are not my audience. Is there anything more beautiful than terrible art? I don’t think so. In fact, why don’t we just sit in this white room right here? Yes, right there. Don’t mind me, I’m just laying carpet down. Raise your feet please and thank you. My office needed some redecorating. A lot of crazies visit me here. Now then, would you mind telling me why you are here?

….

Oh fascinating! Not what you said, I didn’t even hear you. It’s just that this carpet is so soft! It’s like cat hair. But oh no, it’s not made out of cat hair is it? You see, I’m allergic to cats. You understand that though, as I see on your medical form it specifically says “Bleep Bleep is allergic to cats.” Oh I’m sorry, did you want me to say your name?

….

Well that’s a shame! I don’t know your name, and no you can’t tell me. Moving on—you know my cats have really long hair. They’re soft and fuzzy, kind of like cheetahs but without the ferocious, tearing you to pieces part. Or I guess I could say ‘the tearing you apart part’ but that doesn’t quite roll of the tongue now does it?

So…are you just going to stand there reading or are you going to talk, hmm? Because it’s kind of weird with this whole monologue thing. Now, I know you tried to talk to me earlier, but it just didn’t feel like you were trying hard enough. Here, let me help you. I just going to put this here and you use it to say something all right?

Now, you see, you were supposed to write something there. You aren’t even trying. Oh well. I can’t blame you for not being talkative. After all, you are allergic to cats and I brought them up, didn’t I? Three times now to be precise. Now, if you look to your left, you will see a door.

….

No, your other left. Do I need to teach you directions? Anyway, that door there will take you out of here. If you want to leave—hey, I wasn’t done talking to you—oh now look what you’ve done. You’ve gone and fallen through the door. If only you had waited for me to tell you that it was a trap door. What a shame.

He should be here right about, thud, now. It’s nice of you to finally join me. We wouldn’t even be speaking if you had any brains. You should have waited for the other me to say that specific door, not any of the others, was a trap door.

….

Wait, there was only one door? Are you sure? The other me sure is sadistic. Anyway, welcome to the land of honey! It’s not the metaphorical land of honey where all of your dreams come true. However, I’m afraid it is the actual land of honey. You know, where everything is made out of honey. It’s all over your shoes by the way. And your back from when you fell earlier. No matter. How does it feel to finally be rid of those cats and in this sweet smelling, syrupy land of honey? It’s so sweet it could make you sick to your stomach. Err, one moment please.

Ah, that’s much better. The only thing that tastes better than honey going down is honey coming back up if you know what I mean. You do know what I mean right?

….

What do you mean that’s gross? No wonder the other me wanted to get rid of you so bad, what with the only giving you one door and all. That cruel bastard. Oh look, some cats have made their way down here too. They are just falling from the sky, meowing at nothing in particular. They make the funniest sound when they hit the honey too. Listen.

You hear that? That plop sound that makes you laugh because you know the cat landed in honey but you still think it is animal cruelty because we pushed the cat through the door and made it fall hundreds of feet. Oh, but it’s ok. The cat enjoys licking the honey off of its paw. Now if only we could look that elegant while licking our hands. Here, you try that. Just take your hand, bring it to your face, and lick it. Not too hard now. We don’t want any skin coming off. Do you taste the honey? No? Good because that would be really weird.

So, do you have any last words?

….

What do you mean “what do you mean”? I just assumed you were having a stroke or something since you have been completely oblivious to everything I have said. Except for the licking your hand part. That was adorable. You were like a fuzzy little kitten trying to be all adorable and such. Licking your paw when I told you to. Oh well, I’ve had my fun with you. You should be sinking into the honey any minute now. Any minute…ah, there we go. Now, before you go, I need to tell you this important life less–.

I just love it when a plan comes together, don’t you? Here you are in this rock hard chair, struggling against the hand and leg restraints you so graciously put on yourself. I bet you are wondering something like, “What am I doing here?” Well, let me tell you. You are here to learn how to read and write.

….

What? You already know how to read and write? Well, that’s just nonsense. If you knew how to read and write, then you wouldn’t be learning how to read and write now would you? Yeah, how do you like that logic? I should write a book. I’ll call it, How to Read and Write by Reading and Writing. Sounds glorious doesn’t it? I would buy that book. I would even get it signed by the author, Bleep Bleep.

….

No! You didn’t write the book silly. Just because you were told that your name is Bleep Bleep doesn’t mean that every little thing by Bleep Bleep is by you. Silly human. Don’t mind that smell in the background. That sweet, greasy bacon smell. Haaaaw-yeah, that’s the smell. Actually, scratch that, let’s mind the smell. That sweet and savory smell of cooked cat. Wait, you did know that it was cat we were cooking right?

….

Oh, well this is awkward. The cat sure is tasty though. Smells like bacon, tastes like chicken, is chewy like frog legs—you’ve had frog legs right?

….

God you’re lame! I think I’m just going to leave you here while I enjoy my tasty cat…Actually, you should leave. I think it’s time for you to get back to your life, just not yet. Remember, I’m, trying to help you. Is it too repetitive to use another trapdoor here? Oh who cares, bye bye!

So, here you are again. Back in the office type room with the nice cat-hair-like carpet. What’s that? You don’t want to talk about cats anymore? Well, all right then. There is nothing I can do about cat, I mean that. You know what I meant.

It looks like it’s time for us to say our goodbyes. I’m sorry it has to be this way but we both have better things to do. I have to get back to my research and you have to get back to…sitting there I guess. Anyway, you have my contact information if you want to do this all again. Just don’t schedule another appointment soon. I have much better things to do.

….

What? You don’t have my information? All right, then. My number is ______ and my email is _____@___.com. See what I did there? That’s called being mysterious and playing hard-to-get. Like that one person you can’t get to talk to you no matter how hard you try. You know, your cat. Don’t you wish you had more control?

__________________________________________________________________________________

Morgan Cusack

“Pancakes at Penny’s”

I have long since lost faith in God but there is no getting out of Sunday mass with my mother. Normally, I count the tiles on the floor, or stare blankly at a random brink in the wall. Sometimes I have staring contests with the six year old two pews over. Recently though, I have had something new to hold my attention.

I don’t know anything about him, not even his name. He and his parents moved to town a few weeks ago, and no one seems to know much about them. That doesn’t stop the rumors of course, but I learned a long time ago town gossip meant very little.

I spend most services sneaking glances at the boy, trying to glean some understanding of him from afar. Sometimes I think I feel him looking back at me, but that’s probably just wishful thinking. I have been trying to work up the courage to talk to him since I first saw him. Haven’t had much luck yet.

Today, mass ends and people file out of the little church. The front entrance is a bit crowded because everyone has to shake the priest’s hand and tell him how good his sermon was. I give him a passing wave and go to wait by the car. Mom’s going to take her time talking to all her church friends. I lean on the passenger side door and turn my face to the sun steadily raising in the sky. It wasn’t nearly as hot as it should be for the beginning of summer.

“Hey,” I jump slightly at the sudden hand that touches my shoulder. I look up at the person it belongs to. It’s the boy. He looks older than I originally thought. A few years older than me, at least sixteen, maybe seventeen.. He had thick dark hair and the warmest brown eyes. His lips were strained in an awkward smile.

The boy pulls his hand back at my reaction, it goes to rub the back of his neck. “Sorry,” he mutters, staring at the ground.

“Hi,” I say. Nice, very eloquent.

“Uh, hi.” He gives a small wave. He pauses for a second before continuing, “I’m Az.”

“Gray.” Apparently I can’t say more than one word at a time.

“Gray,” he says my name, testing it on his tongue, before nodding. A long silence stretch between us, neither sure what to say next.

“Az? That’s a nickname right?” I force the words out, something to fill the silence. Five word, though. Progress.

“Yeah. It’s a long story, believe me.” He shrugs with a small smile.

“I got time.” Shit. That sounds weird. Don’t creep him out. I take a breath and force myself to relax. He’s just a guy. No reason to be so nervous. I can handle this.

He chuckles, “It’s a long, embarrassing story. Got to know me a bit longer to get that kind of information.”

“I can understand that.” I get a little bolder, his laugh giving me courage. “Don’t want to give away your secrets too easily.”

“Oh, no, that would ruin my mystique.” He says without missing a beat and I find myself laughing.

“We can’t have that, now can we?” He shakes his head; that brilliant smile never leaving his face.

“I came over here for a reason.”

“Yeah? It wasn’t just for my amazing small talk?” Az snorts and it makes me smile even bigger.

“Sorry, no. My parents are going out to eat with some people from church and I really don’t want to go. I was hoping you could point me to where I could get breakfast.”

“Mm, if you’re looking for good food,” I swing around to look down Main Street and point to a little place near the end of the street. “Right there, a dinner called Penny’s. All their food is great but I can personally promise their pancakes are amazing.”

Az follows to where I’m pointing and nods. “I’ll definitely be going there then. Thanks for the directions.”

“Sure thing,” I figure that he’s going to go but he lingers there on the sidewalk.

Az rubs the back of his neck again, “Uh, if you don’t have plans already, do you maybe wanna maybe join me?”

“Yes!” Az looks a little startled at my enthusiastic answer. I blush a nice shade of red and backtrack. “Oh, uh, sorry. It’s just that I don’t want to go to brunch with my mother either.”

“So we’re in the same boat then.”

“I guess so, just let me go tell her I’m leaving. Then we can go.”  I leave Az there to go to find my mother. I spot her talking with a few other parishioners, two of which I recognize as Az’s parents.

“Gray!” My mom beams when she sees me approach. She grabs my shoulder and pulls me close to her. “This is my son Gray. Gray this is Catherine and Felix Chase.”

“Hi,” I wave in greeting.

“It’s nice to meet you, Gray.” Mr. Chase says as he offers me his hand. I shake it and nod. “We saw you talking to our son, Az.”

“Yeah, he’s actually why I came over.” I glance at my mother. “I was going to grab breakfast with him, if that’s okay?”

“That’s a great idea!” Mrs. Chase says with a wide grin.

“It’ll be nice for Az to make a friend.” Mr. Chase looks almost relieved by the news.

“Of course you can go sweetheart.” I can hear the forced cheeriness in my mother’s voice. “Just don’t be out too late, okay?”

“Yes, I promise.” I say and my mother releases me. I leave before she can change her mind.

Az is leaning on my mom’s car, fingers tapping a rhythm on his thigh. He straighten when he see me, I smile and say, “Come on, food is calling.”

The walk to Penny’s is a quick one. I pull open the door and our arrival is announced by the tinkling of a little bell. The diner’s mostly empty other than two men talking at a table in the corner and a woman sipping coffee and reading the paper at the counter. I grab Az’s hand and lead him to the counter, a few seats down from the woman.

An older woman comes bustling out of the back carrying a plate of eggs and toast. She smiles warmly at me, “Gray! Where have you been hiding? I haven’t seen you in weeks!”

“Hiya, Miss Lilly,” I say as she sets the plate before the woman reading the paper. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around. Finals had me swamped.”

Miss Lilly comes to stand before me, “And how did those go, sweetheart?”

“Great, few As, few Bs. Better than I thought I’d do.”

She waves her order pad in a dismissive gesture. “You’re a brilliant boy, I’m not surprised.”

I flush a little under her praise and shift uncomfortably. I glance in Az’s direction and realize he probably isn’t acquainted with our server. “Oh, Miss Lilly this is Az, Az this is Miss Lilly.”

“Well, hello there young man! I haven’t seen you around before.” Az jumps slightly at Miss Lilly’s bright and boisterous tone.

“Oh, yeah, no, my family just moved into the area. It’s taken a while to get things settled so I haven’t really been around town.” Az looks at his hands, fingers fidgeting for something to do.

“Welcome then,” Miss Lilly beams brightly. “Now I’ll stop talking your ears off and take you orders.”

“You know me, Miss Lilly,” I lean against the counter and grin.

“Pancakes and chocolate milk,” Miss Lilly nods, writes it down, and looks to Az.

“The same, please.” He says it almost sheepishly.

Miss Lilly points her pen accusingly at me, “He’s gotten to you has he?”

“I don’t—?”Az looks at me confused.

I roll my eyes, “It’s nothing, Miss Lilly just thinks I have an unhealthy love for pancakes and that I inflict it on everyone else.”

Thinks.” Miss Lilly scoffs, “I know you do. Anyway, I’ll get these to Art.” With that she disappears into the back, leaving me and Az in silence.

After a few beats Az speaks up, “Miss Lilly is very lovely if only a bit… loud.”

I laugh, “Yeah, she takes a bit of getting used to.”

“I think that applies to the whole town.”

“Without a doubt. Not use to small town life are you?” I hazard a guess.

Az stares at the counter, tapping his fingers against the cracked linoleum top. “Yeah, things here are a lot different than where I grew up.” He looks up at me, the smallest smile touching his lips. “But that’s okay, I think I am going to like this different.”

We don’t really talk about much else. The silence is long but not unpleasant. Soon Miss Lilly comes out with two glasses of chocolate milk, which she set them in front of us.

“Here you go boys,” I don’t even hesitate to take a big gulp of mine.

“Don’t drink that too fast, Gray.” Miss Lilly tries to sound authoritative but the smile curling at her lips kind of ruins it. “You would not believe what happened once—” She starts to tell Az but I cut her off.

“Don’t tell him that!” I have to force myself not to blush again. She laughs but thankfully leaves without another word.

“So…” Az stirs his drink with a straw. “What are the chances that I get to know that story?”

“If I can help it, zero.” I point my own straw at him, “Now try it, I swear it’ll be the best chocolate milk you ever tasted.”

Az laughs quietly and take a sip of his drink; I watch carefully for his reaction. He hums happily. “It’s pretty good.”

“‘Pretty good’? That’s it?” I scoff in mock offence.

“It’s just chocolate milk, Gray.” Miss Lilly returns and set two plates down before us.

“And we were getting along so well.” I have to fight to keep a straight face.

“You know, not everyone has a sugar dependency like you.” Miss Lilly teases.

“It’s not a dependency, I just have a sweet tooth.” She responds with a hum before making her way over to one of her other customers. I glance at Az and see he’s taken his first bite. Nudging him with my elbow I ask, “Amazing right?”

“They’re really great,” It was muffled by food in his mouth. He shoots me this little smile that I can’t help returning it.

It’s easier to talk as we eat. He tells me about the city he’s from and what his parents are like. I tell him about my two older siblings and slightly overbearing mother. I didn’t notice we had both finished until Miss Lilly came by with the bill. Az made a move for his wallet but I wave him off.

“Let me get this,” I pull out a few dollar bills and hand them to Miss Lilly. “Consider it a welcome to town present.” Az tries to protest but I won’t hear any of it.

Miss Lilly frowns at me as she counts out the bill, “This is far too much,” I shake my head when she tries to hand be back the extra.

“Keep it, it’s your tip.”

“Gray,” She chides, about to protest but I hold up a hand to stop her.

“You know you earned it, Miss Lilly. You work so hard every day.”

She sighs in defeat but a smile touches her lips. “You’re too good to me.”

“Only because you deserve it.”

Az smiles politely, “Thank you very much, Miss Lilly. It was great to meet you.”

“Of course, sweetie!” Miss Lilly chirps cheerfully, “Make sure to come back in sometime.”

Az nods vigorously, “I will, I promise.”

“Good, now out with you both.” Miss Lilly waves her hands in a shooing motion. “Go enjoy your summer.”

I lean over the counter and press a quick kiss to her cheek. “See you soon.”

“I’m holding you to that!” Miss Lilly calls as I guide Az out.

“That was great.” Az says as we walk up the sidewalk. “Thank you for that, really.”

“No problem.” I nod, “Honor Point can be kind of boring but there are a few good things around here. Penny’s and Miss Lilly are just the start.”

“Care to show me the rest?” Az asks hesitantly.

“I would love to.” I grab Az’s hand and tug him along. “Come on, I know just the place.”

“Oh yeah?” Az laughs, a sound that warms my chest, “And what exactly is this place?”

“It’s a surprise!” I say, a teasing smile curling at my lips. “Don’t ask questions-”

We’re barely off Main Street before I hear someone call, “Gray!” I look up, startled, and see my mother standing by the open driver side door of her car.

“Mom?” Horror washes over me and I rip my hand out of Az’s grasp. I take a few steps away from the other boy, putting a bit of space between us. I keep my eyes fixed on my mother, afraid to see Az’s reaction to the sudden distance.

If my mother had noticed our closeness she isn’t showing it. “Good, I found you.” Her face was unreadable and it was putting me on edge. “Come on sweetie, let’s go home.”

“But I was gonna show Az around.” Mom looks at Az, taking him in for the first time. Her face pinched, looking completely unimpressed.

“Gray.” She says, tone hard and clipped, leaving no room from argument.

“Right, of course, sorry.” I turn back to Az, sheepish.

“Rain check?” Az askes hopefully.

“I-” I stop, flinching as my mother yells my name again. I back away from Az. “I’m sorry, I really am.” I turn and run to the car.

I barely hear Az say, “Bye, Gray.”

I climb into the car and my mother starts heading home. The silence is long and heavily. Finally I speak up, “I thought you had brunch?”

“We finished.” She says, her eyes never leaving the road.

“Ah, well how were Az’s parents? They seemed really nice. I think me and Az are going to be great friends—” My mother cut my rumbling off with a sharp look.

“Don’t want you to see that boy ever again.” Her tone is icy and demanding, this is a demand not a request. Yet I finding myself questioning it.

“What? Why? Az is really cool, he—”

“His parents told me he’s gay, Gray.” She spits the words out like they’re venomous and my heart stops.

“Oh,” I whisper, suddenly it all makes sense.

“I won’t have you tempted, not again.” I flinch, trying not to think about that party. James and the game of spin the bottle that got out of hand. My life was ruined the moment that boy kissed me.

“That was one mistake,” my voice said small and pathetic to own ears.

“One that I am going to make sure you never repeat.” My mother hisses, “I will not have you turn out like Dean. Do you understand me Gray?” Dean, it’s the first time I’ve heard her say my older brother’s name since she threw him out last year. Since he came out as bisexual. I shiver at the memories.

“Yes, Mother.” I say, looking out the window and trying to banish Az’s brilliant smile from my mind.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Rebecca Gonner

“The Photograph”

The unlatching of the door barely catches David’s notice from his desk chair across the room. His knuckles strain white as he grips the controller, mashing X in a furious attempt to take down the CPU fighting him as the scantily clad sword hoop wielder Tira. Playing as Maxi—known for his speed and easily combined nunchakus moves—he still couldn’t evade Tira’s attacks. David pounds his fists, still clenching the remote, as the CGI character again swings her deadly hoop around her disproportional hips to knock down his character, his health bar taking a substantial hit.

“Soul Calibur still?” His roommate Chris dumps his backpack by his desk as he watches David dodge the next attack, finally getting a hit in on Tira and managing a critical attack.

“I don’t know why you always play as Maxi, he’s totally OP.” Chris’s point is proven as David’s character swings his nunchakus dramatically, delivering three powerful and unblockable blows to his opponent and sending her flying off the stage.

“K.O.” The deep announcer voice declares David’s victory as David quickly taps A to skip Maxi’s taunting.

“Who cares if he is more powerful than the other characters? I like playing him and I can win with him, who gives a fuck?” David pushes his blond hair out of his eyes. Normally this length would bother him and he’d have gotten it cut by now, but he can’t bring himself to care.

The next battle begins, this time with Maxi paired off against Natsu, a lithe female warrior with two short blades and an acrobatic move set.

“Dude, can you actually look at me for like two seconds, I think we need to talk.”

“Later,” David begins smashing buttons again as soon as the announcer says “fight,” ignoring the cramping in his fingers from holding the controller for so long. He also ignores the twitching in his legs. He’s filled with restless energy since he’s started sitting in his desk chair for hours on end.

“No dude, now.” Chris crosses their small dorm room to David’s gaming set up in the corner, reaches for the remote sitting in front of the TV, and promptly turns it off.

“What the fuck, man?” David finally looks up, his eyes wide with disbelief.

“I feel like asking you the same thing,” Chris throws his arms up in frustration, still holding the TV remote. “What the fuck are you doing? Look, I’m not one to tell people how to live their life, but when was the last time you left the room for a reason other than food? Have you even been going to class? Every time I come in here it’s like you haven’t moved an inch since I left and it’s always you fighting some female Soul Calibur character. Why?”

“Look, I go to class, alright?” David slumps back into his chair and grabs the chain around his neck, fiddling with it absentmindedly as he avoids eye contact with Chris. “I’m not an idiot, I’m not gonna pay thousands of dollars and put myself in debt to fail my classes. Now back off, and give me the remote.”

“David, what happened?” Chris runs a hand through his curly mop of hair in frustration.

“You don’t geek out to me about your comic books anymore, you completely stopped going to the gym, you haven’t even touched your guitar in days.” His arms reach helplessly towards the acoustic guitar propped against the post of David’s lofted bed, in the same dismal position it’s held since David got frustrated with the song he’d been trying to write the other week.

In the whole first year that Chris had roomed with David, he’d constantly grabbed his guitar whenever he needed a break from homework or a distraction from his own head. There was hardly a day that went by that he wasn’t plucking at the strings three or four times, whether he was working through a 30 Seconds to Mars song or writing one of his own. David’s songs were usually about break ups. Chris had a secret joke with his girlfriend that David was the male Taylor Swift.

David looks over at the abandoned guitar. As he does, his face shifts from closed off and stubborn, slowly melting into quiet despair. He leans his elbows on his knees and drops his head into his hands. His whole body slumps with an exhaustion that seeps down to his bones.

“Chris,” David’s voice sounds hoarse with emotion, as though the words were getting caught in his throat. “I can’t talk about it, ok?”

Chris sighs, the tension leaving his body now that he’s finally gotten through David’s hard outer shell. He walks toward his desk and grabs his chair, pulling it over next to David’s. He plops himself down and checks the time on his watch.

“Look, I gotta be at a rehearsal for Rent in like an hour. Until then, I’m here if there’s anything you want to just get off your chest. You can’t keep isolating yourself like this, you’re gonna have to talk about it eventually.”

Silence fills the room for several seconds. Eventually, David huffs out a breath and shifts in his seat. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out something small and crumpled, then hands it to Chris without looking at him.

As Chris takes it he realizes it’s a folded photograph. He unfolds it to reveal a girl standing next to a rope swing, holding the rope and smiling at the camera. It’s very Senior-picture-esque. Her short brown hair curls and frizzes in a wild mass around her face, and braces shine on her teeth.

Chris looks up at David, still slumped in his chair, green eyes filled with surprise and concern.

“This is the picture that used to sit in the frame on your desk.”

David nods.

“Why do you still have this? I assumed you’d stored it in the box with the rest of her stuff months ago. For Christ’s sake David, it’s been a year.”

“No,” David’s voice cuts out sharply. “It’s been six days. A year ago she broke up with me. Six days ago she blocked my phone number, officially cutting me out of her life.”

Chris shakes his head in disbelief, “I thought you stopped talking to her before the summer. I remember that you video chatted a few times after the break up, but I thought you were done by the spring.”

“We’d meet up whenever we were both home from school, and we texted for a while over the summer. Until she decided to cut me off again.” David’s eyebrows furrow in frustration, he begins to wring his hands together in agitation.

“Oh, man…” Chris looks from David to the crumpled picture in his hand. He’d had no idea that all this time, David still hadn’t moved on.

“Look,” Chris sets the picture aside and tries to catch David’s eye, “you can’t keep being so down on yourself man, you should start working out again and pick up your guitar, might help you feel better.”

“There’s no point. She’s never gonna take me back, she doesn’t even want me in her life anymore.” David sits up straight, finally looking Chris in the eye. His voice raises slightly.

“Getting in shape, writing the songs, it was all for her, man. And now it’s for nothing. She’ll never see the progress I’ve made, she’ll never hear the songs I wrote for her. I can’t stand to look at that stupid guitar.” He stands, cringing slightly from the ache of having his legs bent too long.

When he makes to head for the door, Chris stands and blocks his path.

“It doesn’t have to be for nothing,” Chris reaches and grabs David’s shoulders, as though he could channel hope into his friend through this simple contact. “Maybe you blew it with her, but there are other girls. And honestly man, her loss, ya know? If all this working out and getting healthy has really been for her then she clearly can’t see what’s good for her. Stop doing it for her and start doing it for yourself. You can’t just keep moping and feeling miserable all the time, you deserve to be happy.”

“But I don’t Chris!” David shakes out from under Chris’s grip. “That’s just it. It’s not her loss, she was right to cut me out. I don’t deserve her, I’m not sure I ever did.”

“Bullshit man, you’re a great guy and a great friend.”

“You don’t know what I did to her. I loved her more than I loved anyone, and I still did that to her…” David stays quiet for a few seconds, breathing heavily as though it took a lot out of him to admit this. “I don’t deserve another chance. With anyone.”

“What could you have possibly done that was so bad?” Chris takes a step back, now that it seems like David isn’t about to make a break for the door.

Silence settles in the room as David struggles to find a way to let out what’s been writhing inside him. His eyes dart around the room, looking anywhere but Chris.

“Do you remember those skits they made us watch at freshman orientation? About the consequences of drinking underage and different rules in the dorm halls?”

There’s a pause as Chris tries to decide if this is David’s desperate attempt to change the subject.

“Yeah, I mean I didn’t pay much attention cause they were boring, but I remember them.”

“There’s one that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for months. Two people were playing a couple that had been together for a while. In the skit, one of them wanted to have sex but the other wasn’t interested. The one who wanted to tried to convince the other, saying how good it would feel, saying they’d done it in the past, saying how much they wanted it. The other one tried to say no for a while, but eventually gave in. After the skit was done they said that that was a form of sexual abuse.” David has grown distant, his eyes unfocused, like he’s forgotten Chris is even there. Chris waits for David to explain, giving him time to come back to the present.

Finally, David seems to remember his surroundings. He runs a hand through his hair, his eyes darkening with anger. “I did that to her, Chris. For years. We were together for over three years, and the only complaint she ever had was that I pushed her too much. Not only that but she told me she felt guilty, guilty, that she couldn’t want me more, that she didn’t want to make out all the time like I did. I never pushed her for sex but we did other things…god, I’m glad she never agreed to have sex with me, who knows what I’d have done to her then.” David’s voice cracks here, as though this is the first time the thought occurred to him. The horror of his past is written across his face. “She told me over and over again how awful I made her feel, and I just kept doing it…”

David collapses into his desk chair, all energy seeped from him after revealing what he’s harbored for so long. Chris stands stunned in place; he wasn’t sure what he expected when he confronted his roommate earlier, but it wasn’t this.

“I don’t deserve a relationship…if I’m alone, I can’t hurt anyone else the way I did her.”

The silence in the room is almost palpable after the whirlwind of emotion that just swept through. Chris works to process all he’s just been told as it becomes clear David has no more to say on the matter. David reaches for the T.V. remote Chris had set aside and turns it back on. The sounds of Maxi fighting Natsu pull Chris from his reverie.

Chris glances at his watch and makes a decision. He steps forward and once again takes hold of the T.V. remote. The screen clicks to black.

“Dude, what the fuck?!” David jumps out of his chair, ready to fight Chris for the remote.

Chris quickly reaches the remote behind him so David can’t snatch it, “I have to leave for my Rent rehearsal, come with me.”

“What, no, why would I—”

“Look man, that was a lot of crazy shit you just told me. And it’s awful that it happened. But you realized you were wrong, and clearly you’re sorry for it. There’s no way you’re gonna let it happen again. You were in high school man, you were still just a kid. You know better now. You deserve a second chance—not with her, but with someone new. And the first step to that is getting you out of this room and interacting with people again. C’mon, we could use an extra hand back stage, I know you used to do theater in high school.”

David stares at Chris in disbelief, controller hanging limply in his hand.

“Dude, you’re making me late, let’s go.”

After a few seconds, David sets down the controller and grabs his coat. As Chris heads out the door, David turns back into the room. The crumpled picture of the girl lies abandoned next to the T.V. where Chris had dropped it. David crosses to it and picks it up. He thinks of her. The way she looked sitting next to him on the front porch swing, eyes closed and enjoying the breeze through her hair. The way her face turned tomato red when she was embarrassed, which was often. And the last time he’d seen her, the hurt and desperation in her eyes when she’d confronted him, wet trails shining on her skin, not a trace of the smiling face he sees now. He refolds the picture and slips it back into his pocket. Taking a deep breath, he follows Chris out of the dorm.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Af Sanni

“In Transition”

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.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Rebecca Gonner

“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.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Sarah Radtke

“Untitled”

 ….missing

__________________________________________________________________________________

Allen Dullin

“After the Fire”

 …missing…

__________________________________________________________________________________ 

Cheyenne Rideaux

“Neverland”

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.

Beauty.

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.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Matt Gamperl

“Yawning Pines”

“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.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Allison Hartman

“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
Eventually faded
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.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Allison Hartman

“Scarred”

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
Stay hidden
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

And roll
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
Somehow

__________________________________________________________________________________

Rachel Troyer

“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.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Rachel Troyer

“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.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Rachel Troyer

“Ars Poetica”

A poem should be sculpted,
As if by the hands of Michelangelo.
Social
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
__________________________________________________________________________________

Natalie Jacobson

“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
The peach
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
are visible
Between the flecks of glitter

Creative Writing Awards 2017

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.

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?

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 RiverHome 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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):

Af Sanni

“In Transition”

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.

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