I thought I was the first in my school to have boobs, but really I was the heaviest girl at Trent Elementary. In middle school, the girls around me blossomed. I marbled with saturation.
When maturity hit, a palmful sufficed, stood to attention as needed, even looked mildly entertaining in a push-up bra. My boyfri
I thought I was the first in my school to have boobs, but really I was the heaviest girl at Trent Elementary. In middle school, the girls around me blossomed. I marbled with saturation.
When maturity hit, a palmful sufficed, stood to attention as needed, even looked mildly entertaining in a push-up bra. My boyfriend calls my boobs “raviolis,” tasty and fun, but tiny and filled with fat. I found this charming until I didn’t.
My aunt had a boob job, per her ex-husband’s request.
Let’s call him Mark—they’re always called Mark.
He was a prison guard—they’re always a guard.
After she healed, her boobs went rock solid. My face crushed into them, used to pillows, received bricks. Then, she had breast cancer. She thought she could fight off the cancer; her boob job would save her. She wept when they took (what I assumed to be) balloons from her chest. Then the second boob job. I found this disgusting. Piecing together a body that wasn’t meant to be. A body that formed tumors, telling her, please leave us alone. I was in middle school, two-hundred pounds. She was in her forties, maybe a hundred pounds, addicted to painkillers after boob job number two. My mom suggested 5k walks for breast cancer, bake sales to raise awareness, Auntie said, no thank you, we’re actually going to file for bankruptcy and go to Hawaii. Mark was raised in Hawaii, an army brat. They kept the house at seventy eight degrees, specifically. They wore shorts and Hollister tank tops in the middle of an Eastern Washington cold snap.
Now, I want a boob job. I want to travel to Hawaii. I finally have the body for shorts and Hollister tank tops. All of my middle school secret desires are coming to a head, and yet I’m unhappy in my body, or more accurately, in my skin. I’ve lost over 120 pounds in the past four years, some gradually, but the last 60 pounds was all this past year. After finding out I’m a type II diabetic, I got to work. I cut out carbs; I lifted weights; I went on nightly walks; I attempted to run but my feet and my boobs and my mind hated it. I worked on my stress levels, sometimes successfully, sometimes terribly. I cried at night, afraid my fat would smother me. Slowly, after changing my diet and gaining muscle, the fat melted, and so did my skin. I saw my hip bones for the first time: pointy little bastards. The scale would often stick at 170, 168, 172, 169, but my jeans fell to mid thigh. I liked this. Until my tummy skin didn’t snap around my abs.
Soon the scale said 150: mine and my doctors goal. Holy shit I haven’t been this small since age nine. Even in a pandemic, I inched down to 140. In fact, I look skinny, and healthy, and strong. But I have to pull aside my arm skin to show my defined muscles. I have yoga shoulders, and a trim waist. Muscular calves and thighs, traversed with varicose veins and bruising. Feet that swell in the mornings, and sometimes tingle at night, but are taut around muscle. I work out every day for my blood sugar to still be whack, to still eat at my little veins?
I can hold a plank, traditional, weighted, side, you name it; but still, my tummy, at least the skin of my old one, hangs below my pubic line. I want to take scissors to the skin, chop, chop, like split ends.
My boyfriend and I were doing long distance for most of my weight loss. When we reunited he said, You're tiny! At 160, he was proud; 150, he was impressed; at 140 he said where did my girl go? I had to tell him to stop playing with the excess, to appreciate my muscles—I worked damn hard for them. I constantly ask him if I’m pretty, and model for him in a tight dress; the skin molds well. He once confessed my body changing has been hard for him. I said I understand, it’s hard for me too. I told my friends and therapists this, we all said fuck that guy. The next day I pulled a Stephanie Tanner, threw out a How Rude. He profusely apologized—said he failed me. Somehow, I comforted him.
But I did think of my boobs, hanging over him during sex. Literally pulled down by gravity, shrunken from a C to an A. Stretched out, with the marks to prove it, flaccid, empty, no fat left in sight. When I’m laying down, they flow into my armpits, the nipples tucked away.
The next day he started squeezing my booty, showing love to the other assets society says we should lust for. My boob man evolved into an ass man for the sake of our relationship. Our sex turned into a get on your stomach, spooning shoulder kisses, marks up and down my back.
I talk to my boyfriend about a boob job. He scrunches up his nose but I think secretly, he likes it. He says he likes my boobs, but I notice. I notice it in myself, when I stick out my butt as we walk up the stairs to the bedroom. What I really notice is that I’m trying to drastically change my body, just like my aunt, for a semblance of happiness with no warranty.
Casey Canright is a nonfiction writer working on a memoir about instant gratification. She holds a BA from The Evergreen State College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Inkwell and Porridge Magazine.
At 3:04am, you lie awake because of the noise coming from up the hall and immediately think of your grandmother. Of her sensitive hearing and light-sleeperness. You think of these things because you are listening to your step-grandfather snore. You are listening to him snore because you cannot sleep, because he snores. Because his snore sounds like stampeding elephants that do not tire. You think of your not so sensitive hearing and heavy-sleeperness, and how the elephants still have you lying awake; how they must have her lying awake too.
You think of how he has snored since they wed eighteen years ago, and how countless others bear the same burden as her. You think of how she still searches for a well-fitted pair of earplugs. She has small, oddly shaped ears. As do you. You think of how she sweats when she wears earmuffs to bed, how she gently rolls him three times a night from his back to his side. You think of how they tried Vics and other concoctions, and how they all failed in quieting the elephants.
You cover your ears and curse under your breath, “Shit.”
You think about taping his mouth shut and stuffing tissues up his nose, but then think that is morbid and extreme, and wipe the humorously ugly thought from your mind.
You think of your grandmother only really getting to sleep around 4:30am, when he wakes up for work. Of how she doesn’t burden him because he is old and tired, and should be retired, but cannot afford to be. You think of how tired you are, again. You think of how you can barely do this for a week, yet alone a couple of decades. You think of a friend to call to inquire about a free couch you can crash on tomorrow. Then you remember how rarely you get to visit your grandmother and know how disappointed she would be if you slept anywhere else. You think of the impossibility of putting up with what your grandmother does every night.
And then you think of your step-grandfather tip-toeing around their room before the sun comes up with his weak knees and bad back. How he makes enough breakfast for her and leaves it covered on the stove because she is tired from not getting enough rest due to the thing he cannot control, and stirring oatmeal inflames the nerve damage in her right hand from the accident that turned her into a retiree. Something she was not prepared to do because she couldn’t afford retirement either, but it became a thing she could not control. You think of how this has become their daily, or nightly, routine.
You remember a time before they wed when she’d wake you just after the sun to help her tend the garden, and how she no longer has the energy to do so. Or how you’d sit on the porch and people watch – and she’d let out an almost unrecognizable grin as couples intertwined fingers and didn’t notice the two of you sitting there. You remember the empty way her eyes would slump when you had to leave, you think of how they no longer do that. Slump, yes; empty, no.
You think of your step-grandfather’s first wife leaving him for the man she’d had an affair with for six months, because she’d grown tired of their routine. You think of him being unbothered by it all, even after twenty-five years of marriage. You think of your grandmother only being touched by a man once in her life, until your step-grandfather that is.
You remember when she told you about him, the way her cheeks turned to high dollops and eyes almost sang. You think of her accent paralleling his, his craving for blood pudding and hers for Ackee and saltfish. You think of how they attracted uneasy looks and how neither of them noticed, or how they paid them no attention. You remember the mixtape at their wedding, Bob Marley and the Beatles, Neil Young and the Temptations. You think of what a good tape that was. You think about digging it up and playing it to drown out the elephants.
You remember the time you brought up possible medical reasons for the snoring over dinner. Your grandmother’s attentiveness and step-grandfather’s angst. You realized he took issue with perceived criticism then, when you think of the little you know of his past you understand why and quiet your suggestions. You are there for a few weeks out of the year. You can bear it. Think of when he came to find you after, apologising if he seemed crass. You listen and hear that he had gone to the doctor about the problem, that he has tried nasal strips and muscle relaxants. Nothing has helped. Nothing has helped and he feels guilty for moving into your grandmother’s bedroom and feeling like a burden to someone again. You stopped him and reminded him of how much it meant to you that she wasn’t alone anymore. That the last thing he could ever be was a burden. You remember the way he smiled at you that day and wonder if the feeling that came over you is what it must feel like to have a grandfather.
You think of your grandmother again as you lay in bed, “But how does she deal with this?”
You think of how one of them could sleep in the spare room, it’d be somewhat quieter. You think of how neither of them would even consider it. You think of how she is no longer lonely, and how the thought alone warms you. You close your eyes and are overwhelmed by your tiredness. Your eyes are too weak to open now, and as your consciousness fades you realize you are beginning to hear those stampeding elephants again. You smile in the darkness and roll on to your side. You think you are beginning to understand, love.
Morgan's work has appeared in Room, Aethlon, The Hawai'i Review, Obra/Artifact, Blackberry, BLF Press, as well as others, and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. Her poetry chapbook 'Variations on a Lobster's Tale' was the winner of the 2017 Alexander Posey Chapbook Prize (University of Central Oklahoma Press) and her second poetry chapbook 'Sterling' was released by CW Books. Her first full-length short story manuscript 'These Bodies' was published by Tolsun Publishing, and her most recent poetry chapbook ‘when they come’ was released by Black Sunflowers Press (2021) and is featured in the Forward Arts Foundation’s National Poetry Day exhibit.
My femurs remember holding the tension of my 10-hour workday just below my hips. My thighs were the barrier between the pain of the floor and the place where my brain might absorb it. My body held dozens of silent conversations with the floor, without my permission. After the store went out of business, I stood in the empty spaces, and feel that floor. It was the source of my memory, the part that kept me sure it had all been real.
That concrete floor was a kind of home to me. The first time we had concrete poured at the Buffalo Ranch, the people in town knew. My parents bought the Buffalo Ranch and the three of us went to live on the land that was named long before we got there, to walk in the tracks of the beasts before us. Fifteen buffalo stayed on with us for a year while their owners worked to rehome them. Mom and I fed them hay through the fence with our bare hands. Their grunts reminded me of warm comforting exchanges with my grandmother, their breath sweet with hay, and black eyes watching me through their fluffy fur.
The first pouring of concrete was our sidewalk. Until the sidewalk, mom had creatively repurposed tree rounds to create a path from our driveway to the front door of our single wide mobile home. They lay in our yard like misplaced slices of bread. They gave our home a quaint, rustic vibe, but they were not a permanent solution. The sidewalk was permanent. It was one of the first steps we took in establishing our home, that could not be reclaimed by the wilderness surrounding us.
A wooden swing and a rope swing lived in our barn above a pile of hay. Some bales were stacked, not yet ripped open to feed the livestock they were intended for. The hay pile meant endless joy for me, climbing the winter woodpile, the thick heavy rope swing in my hand. In a single move, my feet jumped around the knot and I held my breath, gravity sucking me forward. I was suspended, swinging until I chose the moment to let go and allow my small body to fling into that hay and roll into the dirt. The wood of the rafters where the rope was tied cracked, echoing off the sheet metal.
When Dad poured a foundation in the barn, and my playhouse became his business. Edwing Boats Inc. had already been growing. Dad’s wardrobe consisted of flannels and jeans that collected burns and holes from the sparks of the welding guns. Diesel and sweat were part of his permanent chemical makeup a scent he carried with him everywhere. Now the lines were drawn. If I fell on the concrete after a swing, no amount of hay could save me. The swings were cut down, the hay moved out, and I signed my name in the new cement.
When I am three, Mom decides I need to learn to read. She says I have too much energy and there are not enough places for it to go. She tells my father to start reading aloud to me. I remember crawling into his lap and looking at a large bright yellow engine manual as my bedtime story. I didn’t understand and it didn’t matter. He reads it to me anyway.
One night I bring him a book I want to read. It’s “Aladdin” and it contains fifteen chapters. Dad tells me he will not read it to me, that I will have to read it to him. “No!” I protest, but we practice every night until I do.
“When you’re in college, you’ll have to read at least 100 pages a night,” he said.
He teaches me how to ride a bike. Every night he runs behind me, a rake jammed into the bars behind my bike seat. He never lets me fall. It is weeks before I realize he is jogging behind me, no longer holding the rake. He teaches me how to drive. He gets out of the truck and places cans in the middle of the road until I can back over them perfectly. We roll down the windows so we can hear the aluminum crunch.
I brought home good report cards that got me into a state university. It was the first Thanksgiving break home from college when my father sat in the dark living room with me and cried. He told me he never finished his first semester at Pacific Lutheran University, dyslexia crippling him. I struggled to understand why staying enrolled for just 10 weeks had been so easy for me, so difficult for my father, and how it meant everything to him that I had done a thing that he could not. Tears wet his soft face until his beard absorbed them.
I couldn’t think of what to say to contain him, put him back into a form I could understand. He was my father, the man who never let me quit, by giving me space to fail until I succeeded. He was there with me, letting me know it was okay and to keep going. I know now, he needed to be vulnerable. He was proud of me. He was allowed to cry; to let go of the rake. I wish I’d put my hand on his. I wish I had told him my ladder was his ladder. Until that moment, I didn’t understand that I had something Dad didn’t. I had the foundation.
Elaina Erola studied English at Western Washington University and is an Alumni of Humboldt State University. She is currently pursuing a Juris Doctorate from Northwestern California University and has been published in the Seven Gill Shark Review, winning both honorable mention and second place for prose. She was selected for a scholarship to the 2020 Mendocino Writers Conference as well as third place in their annual writing contest for memoir. She is published in Bad Bride Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Bangalore Review. This year she was chosen for a scholarship for a Master Class in Memoir and participated in the UCLA Writers’ Program. She is working on her first book.
The answer comes in a fogged mirror
To die means to let go of uncertainty. The uncertainty of not knowing what there is to know about death.
What is there to know?
I have never had a stable relationship with the unknown. Thoughts of dying sent me into a panic attack at the Newark Airport after a 2010 vacation to the Florida Keys. A storm delayed our flight two hours, then cancelled it. Cancelled my chance of returning home. Stranded. Hyperventilating in the back seat of a rental car father drove six hours home. The chorus of my sisters’ laughter didn’t quite harmonize with my ragged notes. In 2012 the fear transformed into too cold rain during a boat ride the last week my family would ever go to the lake house on Cayuga. Shivering under the covers as my pulse remained elevated. Mother tried to calm the shaking with comfort. A comforter. But I wasn’t cold. Fifth grade science class focused on death from a cellular level. An Osmosis Jones educational film that educated me on the contraction of anthrax from eating a hardboiled egg manhandled by a chimpanzee. Every surface became a chimpanzee.
Teetering on suicidal thoughts for 19 years, weighted uncertainty saved me from being the lower level of the seesaw.
Swinging in the breeze until the moment felt right to jump. But I didn’t jump off that bridge on that trail over that waterfall. I don’t think I was going to jump.
What if I did?
That question was why I was holding onto the metal. Metal monkey bars transfer the sun into my palms, reminding me of the coldness in that chain fence. Warmth juxtaposes cold. I love laying on the cat-hair covered carpet that makes my skin itch during winter months where polyester fibers seem to be the only material willing to absorb fragmented rays of sunshine.
I’d miss the warmth of sunshine. An equilibrium on the scale of crematorium to cellular decomposition.
Certainly, it would be too hot in a crematorium. Becoming ash means becoming hellfire hot. Hellfire is much too hot. Not sunshine during winters on the suspicious stained rug that was once several shades lighter and never will be again.
I certainly imagine it cold six feet under once bare bone is exposed, like the bareness of stepping out of the shower without a towel and the window is cracked to let out the moisture but allows the breeze to seep in. Seeping like the moisture of melted ice into the carpet after the dog is let inside after being outside in the snow.
What is there to know?
How to draw a smiley face on the fogged mirror because you remembered to close the window this time.
Kelly Proctor is an undergraduate student at Ithaca College, majoring in writing with a minor in English. She focuses much of her work on mental health and hopes to discover a greater platform for outreach.
Wilson was the kind of guy who was always talking about how he was going to survive the apocalypse, and the more you talked to him, the more you kinda believed it, too. He was ex-Navy, a die-hard survivalist, way older than the rest of us (by which I mean at least 25), covered in tattoos, and he stood out as existing a level above it all. No matter how many times the managers wrote him up—for being late or breaking radio etiquette or being out of uniform—they couldn’t faze him. I mean, he was a real adult—what could a manager at a shitty amusement park do that was gonna affect him? It was like a superpower, and the rest of us went in awe of him.
Wilson was the one who got us banned from riding our bikes on the clock when he got hit by a bus riding from employee parking to clock-in (apocalypse #1). Miraculously, he walked away with no more than a broken wrist.
Later that same month, when his friend and fellow supervisor Brody unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest in the middle of the day (apocalypse #2), Wilson was one of the first to arrive on scene, having sprinted across four sections when the call went out over the radio. He was the one who did chest compressions—cast, broken wrist and all—keeping Brody’s heart pumping till EMS got there.
The first time I spoke to him it was to ask him to help me get my combination lock unjammed. He did, but not before he spat out his Orange Crush, doubled over laughing for a solid minute, and informed me between chortles that I had the speaking voice of a cartoon mouse. I didn’t talk around Wilson for at least a month after that.
There was no one better to be a lifeguard instructor, though—little apocalypses were always happening in his mind, too, and when I was his lead he’d ask questions like What would you do if this balcony collapsed on top of all those swimmers? Who would you notify first? How would you direct first responders? And we’d talk about first aid for mass casualty incidents and how to divide labor and how to set up a makeshift care station on the deck, and somehow I’d feel like I was a part of something bigger and more important than I had been before.
I guess I knew Misty (apocalypse #3) for a few years before I processed her. I hated being her lead, because she didn’t really need one—she’d been a supervisor summer after summer for eight years at that point, and her sections ran like a well-oiled machine. I didn’t like feeling superfluous, but I did like watching Misty. She was fierce and determined and completely self-sufficient.
She was the reason I started speaking around Wilson again. One day when I was sitting on the benches below the clock-in station they came in together. She sent Wilson up the stairs alone and sat down next to me and told me she wanted to hear my voice. She laughed, but not at my voice. She told me Wilson was an idiot who just liked giving me a hard time, and if I needed a ride they could take me wherever I needed to go. Wilson came back down the stairs and she stuck her tongue out at him, and I felt a strange contentedness, like they were a fire that I could sit by and be warmed.
One day it rained everybody out of the park and Misty sat at a picnic table with me and while the shitty tin roof produced a constant tattoo of raindrops told me about the four kittens she and Wilson had adopted, and how they would scale up the sides of the bed with their tiny claws at all hours of the night, and how Wilson would grab them by the scruff of the neck and throw them back down, and how she would yell at him for doing it.
Misty’s was the only funeral I’d ever been to. I sat in a back row next to some other work people and watched as her sister broke down and her mother sobbed and Misty’s face smiled down at me from the picture of her on the screen and I felt like I had lost something incalculably precious, but I couldn’t explain how I’d had it in the first place.
Wilson wasn’t there.
I scoured the internet for news about the shooting, but what I found told me nothing I didn’t already know. An “unidentified male” had been taken to Central Texas Medical Center and released after treatment for “minor injuries.”
Everyone had their own version of what had happened, their own opinion of who was to blame. Misty’s family held that it was all Wilson’s fault—even though he was never arrested, never charged, and her death was later ruled a suicide. It didn’t matter, though—a much more serious verdict had been solidified already in the court of public opinion. A few months later, the managers would fire him on some pretense, and Wilson would move to Florida and out of my life.
I got to see him one last time before he left. Two months after the shooting, he walked back into work and showed me his newest tattoo: a heart that said MISTY, enveloping the pink, raw skin of the half-healed bullet wound in his calf.
Liz Ramirez is a graduate student currently finishing a master's degree in English at Texas A&M University, where she studies abolition literature, representations of chronic illness, creative writing, and creative nonfiction. This past April, her poem “et tu” was published in OyeDrum Magazine’s Volume IV.
I did not blame my mother for leaving me back then, on the eve of my birthday. Our home had been at the centre of constant chaos during events that would eventually culminate in the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the establishment of an Islamic republic. Below our windows, we heard the shouts of young students who would regularly get gunned down by the Shah’s guards. Living through that mayhem was bound to make anyone insane. What eluded me, was why my mother only took my brother with her? Why not me? Several of my mother’s relatives suggested that since she left me behind for my father’s sake, while others insisted that, as a girl, I was not as important to her.
Her last words, “Be good,” took root in my soul, planting a conviction that my evilness must have been the reason she left me that day. What other rationales could I come up with? This was the very beginning of my troubles as I struggled to find the true meaning of being good, especially in a country that hosted so many political parties fighting for power, each certain of their own definitions of good versus evil.
We went to live with my grandmother, Madar, in Niroo Havayi, in a house my father had grown up in. My father’s younger sisters still lived there as well, and almost all of their cousins had grown up in the same neighborhood. The house had a vast rooftop connected to other buildings around us, a wonderful spot to watch the starry sky at night. The neighbourhood kids and I would gather on the roof to play tag or cards, from sunrise to sunset, taking refuge from the conflict through our games.
Every corner of my grandmother's house is still a vivid memory. The tranquil pond in her yard, a contrast to the quacking ducks residing within it. I would feed the glistening goldfish and sing to them as they swam in circles. The architecture was exquisite: a magnificent domain of serenity that protected me from the external chaos. As children, we could not understand what all of the demonstrations were about, but my father and his friends would try to explain the revolution to us in a prudent way:
“You see, people are constantly trying to make others see things from their point of view. Sometimes they talk about it, and sometimes they go and demonstrate. What is important is that everyone’s voices are heard,” Amoo Khosroo, my father’s cousin who would visit us on holidays, explained.
My father, extremely sharp, yet stupidly courageous, chimed in, “People in our country are fed up by the selfish actions of the king, and they want to change things.”
Sensitive, tough, educated, my careless father did not worry much if the Shah’s guards overheard him. “Since the beginning of civilization, there has been a struggle between good and evil, and now the people in our country are no longer willing to put up with evil. It is plain and simple.”
“You mean like in Star Wars?” I asked.
“Exactly just like that.” He kissed my cheek.
This was a great comfort for me. Even though I did not know who the “Jedi” were in this revolution, I did clearly envision a happy end. One hot August afternoon, my father announced the homecoming of Amoo Khosroo, who had just graduated medical school in Moscow. He decided to return to Iran to participate in the revolution as well as celebrate his engagement to his childhood sweetheart. Amoo Khosroo was a socialist and a great literate; he truly cared about people. He held Marxist beliefs and was convinced the monarchy's time in history had to come to an end. His parents had sent him off to Russia to study for that very reason; there was no room for intellectual Marxist discourse in an Iran ruled under the Pahlavis.
We all awaited his arrival with extreme enthusiasm. When the melodious doorbell rang, I rushed to open it. Amoo stepped in, dressed in a stylish Western-cut coat, with his hair gelled and the traces of a fashionable goatee growing on his chin. My cheerful heartbeat was so loud that I could barely hear the quacking ducks in the pond. Amoo’s hands were full of delicious toffees and caramels in colorful wrappers. His lips curved upwards and he scooped me into his arms, throwing me in the air with ease.
As I landed on the floor, there was a flash followed by a horrendous noise that left a sharp ring in my ears. The tear in the side of his beautiful suit revealed what I now know to be the barrel of a .38 revolver. A moment later he fell into the fish pond, red colors muddying the waters and obscuring the goldfish. I lay there, in a state of paralysis. I remember, vaguely, my father’s strong hands pulling me from the ground and tossing me into the house. In front of my eyes, the pristine white marble around the pond was stained in a horrific shade of red.
I could hear shouts outside, “Wannabe Communists, watch and learn.” Others, “They killed Khosroo,” “Death to Shah and his regime,” “Death to America.” The shouts were the least frightening part of what was happening, seeing people’s angry faces, that was an image I will never forget.
A week later, I asked my father, tearfully, “Is it America’s fault that Amoo Khosroo had been shot? Or is it the Communists' fault? Is it the people who hate the Communists? Or is it the Shah’s soldiers?”
He leaned forward, so our foreheads could touch: “Azizam, the delineation between good and evil is not as simple as what we saw in Star Wars, nor any other films for that matter. In real life, the heroes can be as flawed as the monsters.”
I wanted to ask more questions, but he shook his head, and we embraced as he cried.
“Have you seen my daughter?” she asked, peering into the kitchen.
I hesitated. This was a new question, and I didn’t know how to answer. She waited.
“Mom, it’s me,” I sighed. “I’m right here.”
“Oh, okay,” she nodded with a smile. “I’m waiting for you to drive me home so I can take my pills. I’m going to bed early if the neighbor’s dogs don’t bark like last night. I should have called the cops.”
“You live here now, Mom,” I explained for the umpteenth time today. “You’ll have to wait until eight o’clock to take your medication; twice a day at eight o’clock. A nap before dinner sounds nice though. I’ll pull the shades so it’s darker.”
“No, it’s still afternoon,” she snapped, “I’ll wait!” Mom glared at the lazy bulldog stretched out in front of the fireplace, even though she normally adored him. “You should bring that dog in so it doesn’t keep the whole neighborhood awake at night!”
“George sleeps in our room,” I reminded her. The dog looked up and yawned at the mention of his name. “He didn’t bark, but I’m sorry you didn’t sleep well.”
“Well?” she glared at me now, waiting for an answer to a question I didn’t understand.
“Want to play a game with Alice while you wait for dinner?” I asked to distract her.
“Oh, how is Alice?” Mom’s voice softened as she sang out the words. “I bet she’s getting big now!” I doubted my daughter had grown much in the last hour, but nodded in agreement as I called my seven-year-old to rescue me yet again. Alice had become the only distraction I could count on. I felt guilty, and I waited.
Just two months ago, Mom had lived in her own apartment. Then her neighbors called the police when they saw someone suspiciously climbing in her window early one morning. It was her. The apartment manager called me while the police called Adult Protective Services. Her caseworker was surprised to discover she had a daughter; I was surprised to discover he’d been called out before. The caseworker suggested she move to assisted living, but she wasn’t quite seventy-years-old yet and hated the idea. She said she’d gotten locked out while taking out the trash, and her neighbors should mind their own business. She hadn’t wanted to wait for management to let her in; that was all.
The last time her neighbors called police it was because she was wandering around outside in an open bathrobe, disoriented and scared, and this time police called an ambulance. At the hospital, her myriad doctors compared notes and found she’d told them all different stories about her life history, unknowingly mixing past into present. Most blamed low sodium.
“Just wait,” her neurologist said. He made adjustments to her prescription and sent her to live with me… temporarily. “She’ll improve as the medication evens out.”
A home health aide was supposed to come three times a week to check on her while I was at work, but the aide only got two visits in before Mom fired her. Mom didn’t want to wait for someone to show up and “do nothing.” Waiting was exhausting.
I took a few days off to spend with her while I tried to hire a new aide. But then, at the pharmacy she got lost while I paid for her prescription, and at the store she got lost going to the bathroom, and at my house she got lost coming to dinner and fell down the stairs. She hated “my” stairs and wanted to go home.
I quit working and moved Mom to the living room sofa… temporarily.
“Just wait,” her neurologist said again. “Medication changes take time to even out.”
Every day was worse, and a week later I found her swallowing pill after pill from her little, plastic medication box that was labeled with the days of the week. She thought Tuesday was Thursday and was trying to “catch up” to the right day. I phoned the ER and read off the name and dosage of each missing pill to the nurse-on-call, anxious to see if she would need her stomach pumped.
“Just wait,” the nurse said. “She’ll be sleepy, but the effects are temporary. Skip the evening’s doses and lock up the drugs.” I hid the pillbox behind the twice-a-year china.
As her confusion increased, so did her resentment at being held hostage in my house.
“I want to go home now,” she said. “What are we waiting for?”
It was a good question, and I wasn’t sure of the answer anymore. Her condition no longer seemed temporary, despite the neurologist’s assurance that it should be.
We toured the assisted living facility, and they put her on the waiting list. In a town of three thousand people, there is only one. I felt guilty, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to get back to work.
“I liked the birds,” she said back at my house. “I could be the Activities Director. I should get an application.”
“Maybe you could help with activities while you live there,” I said. “It would just be temporary… until you can live at home again.”
“I like bingo,” she answered. “I’m going to get a therapy dog when I go back home, for Alice to play with when she comes over. You should take me home now. I need to take my pills.” She stood up and put her purse on her shoulder.
“You live here for now, Mom, but Alice will be home from school soon,” I promised. “You’ve been waiting to see her.”
“How is Alice?” she asked gaily, just as I knew she would. “I bet she’s getting big now!”
Tara Thiel is a photographer and writer whose work examines the fragility and temporality of life. She is a US Navy Veteran, a Southern transplant to the Midwest, and a Visual Artist pursuing a Master’s in Creative Writing & Literature. Her stories and images have been published in Twyckenham Notes, Variant Literature, Inkwell Journal and others.
The Intolerable Mr. M.
I don’t know how the rumors started, but they took root like the relentless weeds of summer. Hans Miesenzahl, known in the neighborhood as Mr. M, was a former Nazi. His exact role in the atrocities of that terrible time in history varied, depending on who was telling the story. Some thought he'd been a g
The Intolerable Mr. M.
I don’t know how the rumors started, but they took root like the relentless weeds of summer. Hans Miesenzahl, known in the neighborhood as Mr. M, was a former Nazi. His exact role in the atrocities of that terrible time in history varied, depending on who was telling the story. Some thought he'd been a guard at a concentration camp. Others, that he was part of a brutal occupying force. Everybody had their own opinion, but no one knew for certain. So while the details of his past were unclear, everyone agreed on one thing. Mr. M was a Nazi who'd escaped justice, and his presence was a black mark on the neighborhood.
At first, I kept my personal speculation to a minimum. What little contact I’d had with him over the years when delivering his mail, he’d always been nice---just an old man who spoke with a German accent. He kept to himself and didn’t like to talk about his past. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might be hiding a dark secret. After the neighborhood talk began, I started to have my suspicions, and joined the conversations. I knew that kindly old men weren’t always what they seemed. In my youth I spent the summers with my grandfather who taught me how to fish, and hunt, and fix things---how to be a man. Years after his death, I learned that he’d been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I loved him dearly, but I hadn’t known him any better than I know Mr. M.
# # #
When I first started on this route two decades ago, most of my customers were older. Over the years the make-up of the neighborhood changed. Many of the original inhabitants moved away or died. The people who've taken their place are younger and more diverse. Once entirely white, there are now people of several different races living here, and they're proud of the diversity in the neighborhood. It's refreshing to see neighbors so accepting of everyone. Everyone except Mr. M. As some of them so bluntly put it: "We simply can't tolerate someone like that old man being around our families. We don't want him near our kids, and we have to do something about it."
I could understand them wanting to see a criminal brought to justice, but I wasn't sure what threat a ninety-year-old hermit posed to children. Perhaps there were other things going on here as well. All the houses around Mr. M's were well kept, with newer paint, and manicured lawns. In addition to his questionable past, I'd heard complaints about his overgrown yard, and deteriorating house. Even modern, open minded people worried about real estate values.
A week ago as I was walking my route I noticed there was more traffic than usual on the quiet street. Drivers were stopping in front of Mr. M's house to gawk. Several swastikas had been painted on the front, along with the word "Nazi." It was a clear and powerful message. They were trying to drive the pariah from the neighborhood. When I went up on the porch to put the mail in the box, I could see Mr. M through the window. He was sitting in his usual chair. He glanced at meand then away. There was no smile and wave. No coming to the door for a greeting and brief chat. I'm certain he knew what was painted on the front of his house. I almost felt sorry for him. He’s so alone, like my mother was toward the end. I should’ve visited her more often, but I was “too busy.”
Several days later I went on his porch and knew immediately something was wrong. He was sitting in his chair, but he wasn't dressed. He was only wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt, as if he'd been sitting there all night. He didn't turn to look when I tapped on the window. I called 911 and waited for emergency responders. I followed them inside, but it was too late. Mr. M was dead. Whatever secrets his past held, they were forever gone, scattered by the wind like the ashes of so many Nazi victims.
Several of his neighbors wandered in to investigate. We all looked at him, and then at each other. I knew they saw the same thing I did---the irrefutable proof of Mr. M's hidden past. The numbers tattooed on his left forearm were faded from time but still clearly visible. Mr. M, the intolerable scourge of the neighborhood, wasn't a Nazi. He was a Holocaust survivor.
I finished my mail route like a man in a trance and then drove back to Mr. M's house.I’d wronged one of life’s victims and forced him to suffer all over again. There wasn’t any way to make it right.
The neighbors who'd been inside with me earlier were there, along with the other people who lived nearby. They silently painted the porch, as if erasing the graffiti could somehow absolve us of our sins. When I got out of the car, there was an autumn chill in the air that stung the hands and face and soul, like pinpricks of regret for words that can't be unsaid, and deeds that can't be undone. The fading sun accentuated the yellow, orange, and red leaves of the trees. The summer weeds were turning brown and dying. Without saying a word, I stepped onto the porch and picked up a paintbrush.
Steve Bates is retired from the newspaper business and lives in rural Missouri. His short stories have been featured in Free Flash Fiction and Microfiction Monday Magazine. His first novel COME DANCE WITH ME is available on Amazon.
“Can you see it? “
Rosie unclasped her hands from her mug of cocoa as she spoke and placed it on the oak table, leaving sorry dregs swirling around the bottom.
“The sun,” she continued, as if I didn’t know what she was referring to.
I reluctantly let go of my mug. It was still steaming, half full and not completely serving its purpose. She took me by the hand, her soft pale fingers locked in my fatter ebony ones, and led me to the cottage door.
I could see. But it hardly seemed to matter. It was weak and insipid, not worthy of the name.
I had grumbled about the weather for three weeks and it seemed churlish not to acknowledge the golden globe after it had done the decent thing and emerged. I ought to give it its due respect. But I couldn’t.
This was no sun! The sun shines. Radiantly! It does not fake. It burns skin and casts real black shadows - not the grey imposters this throws. The sun makes you sweat, and dries your clothes. The sun preserves the spread-out cocoa beans and prevents the koobi fish from putrefying. It wearies the athlete and drains the beaded warrior. It does not promise and disappoint like this one. Now it didn’t even seem to be up to doing what it was supposed to do. To melt the confounded snow.
Rosie had warned that this time would have its hazards and that the postcard prettiness would revert to sludgy mess and that it would then turn ugly. That I should be careful not to slip. I did not listen and paid for my foolhardiness with an undignified fall and a sore hip.
“She will take you away, away from Africa” Uncle Kofi once said “and you will go to a cold country. Your first winter will be a war.”
I was there. I got baptised into a week of dull frosty greyness, one more of whirling rain, followed by frozen droplets she called ‘sleet’ and after that descended the blankets of powdery whiteness. I knew of snow, of course from Enid Blyton story books and glossy magazines and television and countless films -but it was still a shock to the senses.
She pulled me across the threshold and out over the stone step. This was our home now. She was well worth it I knew, but what had I done? What on earth had I done?
“Look”, she said.
I felt complete loss of sensation in my toes. My inappropriate African-designed footwear gave little protection.
Despite that, I took one long, defiant stare upwards and had to blink. It had power after all. I began to waver a sliver.
Perhaps I had been too hard on her. Perhaps this counterfeit sun was indeed a friend. Perhaps it indicated that summer would come.
And then I would smile again.
No Man’s Land
My visa expired while I was living in Serbia. I had to exit the country and get my passport stamped. My dinara were dwindling and I didn’t have enough money to go on a trip. I could’ve written my folks and asked them to send the money—my dad would’ve loved that, another reason for me to get citizenship…but I wasn’t about to capitulate. My short-lived, booze-filled career as a footballer ended, anticlimactically, and amidst plenty of pivo. I just wanted to drive across the Croatian border and get it done with quickly.
I phoned my uncle who lived down the street from me—not far from the house he and my dad grew up in. I could rely on my uncle’s discretion not to relay our occurrences across the Atlantic. He and I’d grown close; he always made a point of showing me his favorite hangouts—kafane that were small, cramped, and overflooded with folk music and drink stronger than moonshine. Needless to say we bonded at those small cafes. I knew he would help me out of this bind.
He arrived in the morning with his neighbor, Falcon, in Falcon’s small coupe, claiming his car was in the shop. I knew it was a lie, but I kept quiet. I had a grumbling hangover, and, besides, who wants to drive ninety minutes to the Croatian border in a Chevy Spark? The little thing barely got around Belgrade.
It was 7:30 and we were all groggy. As we drove along we awoke slowly, and Falcon started warning me about the border. This was serious business. After all, even though I had a traditional Serbian name, I was on an expired visa with an American passport. He said the last part with dark undertones, like it was a disadvantage to have an American passport. I couldn’t argue. And, my uncle added, probably more for himself, it didn’t matter that I had Croatian blood. But I knew that. The Serbo-Croat conflict. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard as a kid a million times before. I learned when and where to keep silent.
And it was all fine, I thought, because I knew they had my best interests at heart. They agreed to give up their morning for me after all. And in some divine way, I felt like there was purpose in my uncle and Falcon taking me across the border. When I first met Falcon earlier that month (I never figured out why it took me months to finally meet him—he lived next door to my uncle) and he discovered I came from Chicago, it didn’t take long for our conversation to reduce to—“Chicago! You must know my childhood friend so-and-so. He has a daughter about your age.”
The Serbian meet-and-greet.
Except the divinity wasn’t only that I did know his childhood friend. No! I actually had a passing you-know-what with Falcon’s childhood friend’s daughter. Wasn’t there purpose in that? I mean there are small worlds and there are small words.
I tried making sense of it all, sitting in the back seat while the two up front continued expounding upon what a catastrophe these gung-ho border laws were compared to the old days when they drove around Yugoslavia to their hearts’ content.
We pulled up to the kiosk at the border. My uncle began freaking. His passport was on the heater at home; he could see it. Falcon felt his pockets. Nothing. Outside, the patrolman, who had been hovering over the coupe, walked away gruffly to discuss with his fellow patrolmen. Falcon suggested I drive across the border alone, but my skills with manual transmission were pitiful.
My uncle started swearing and lit a cigarette. I followed suit. Falcon joined us, and as he lit his cigarette, the patrolman came back to our car. Falcon offered him a smoke. The patrolman took one without a word. I knew the game. They made small talk. The patrolman kept glancing at me, probably assuming I didn’t understand. I could play the game. I gave him my passport and he went away again. My uncle exhaled curses under his breath. Falcon shook his head. They agreed, not only were these patrolmen dimwitted, but they were wasting our time.
The patrolman came back, this time with the chief. My uncle and Falcon, both bright-eyed and smiling, wondered aloud if there was no way this could be fixed. Some nice pečenje for dinner, a nice roasted pig perhaps? On us, of course. The chief laughed. We laughed. The game. He informed us my visa expired yesterday, a problem he could fix for us, but there might be trouble on the Croatian side. Not to worry though, he would radio them, give them a heads up. He was good friends with his Croatian counterpart. It would all work out. Except I’d have to walk there.
I clutched my passport and started walking. My hangover vanished. There was that sliver of my soul wanting. Maybe I was granted something I silently wished for. After all, Serbia wasn’t cutting it. I had family in Croatia. But that wouldn’t be a new start, just a continuation. All I needed was to get through this international charade. The Serbian chief was beyond fair and accommodating. But that was the game. Hopefully the Croatian side would play.
I made it to the Croatian border, standing in a line of cars. My turn came, I handed my passport to the patrolman, and he stamped it without speaking or raising his head. The Serbian charm; not much different in Croatia. Hvala lijepo, I said. Most likely I wasn’t only the first (and last) person that patrolman saw through on foot, but also the first (and last) person to say ‘thank you.’ He looked up at me and managed a thin smile. The little victories.
I walked back along that stretch of highway to Serbia. Between two countries; two antagonistic countries. Between two worlds.
Voyo Gabrilo won the Oakton PlayOn Playwriting Competition and Festival in 2014 and 2016. His fiction has appeared in The Manifest Station, and he is currently in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois Chicago.
I’m in the middle of a job interview when my titties say, “But do we actuallyknow how to manage a shoe store? Like…you’re sure we’re not too nice to be a leader?”
“Oh, interesting point.” The interviewer tilts her head, smiles a little. “Speak on that.”
I make a fist under the table to keep from yelling. “My current job is managing a book store, so I think that’s pretty relevant to-”
My tits cut me off. “Anyone who walks into a bookstore these days is a sweet little nerd and so are all the employees. Good eggs. Easy. Can you imagine any of them making the kind of fuss an upper-middle class mom or a grandpa who refuses to learn anything about technology are capable of?”
The interviewer fires off a tightly-controlled customer service laugh.
I will not be called back regarding that particular opportunity.
When I get home, I slam the door. “You didn’t have to do that,” I say through clamped teeth.
“Sure I did,” they respond, “That’s who I am. What do you want me to do? Repress my true self? Live a lie? That just ain’t healthy.”
I fall face first into my bed.
Shortly after I’ve emerged from a sweaty 4pm nap, my neighbor knocks on the door. What’s his name? Todd? Jake? Alcibiades? “Sorry to bother you,” he says, “but is your internet down too?” He’s wearing a shirt with an N64 logo on the front and Japanese text down the long sleeves.
I check my phone. “Looks like it.”
“Damn.” He shakes his head, ruffling the pile of curls on top. A furious envy sprouts in my gut. “I was only downloading a game when it cut out, but I could lie and say I was doing something smart like researching stuff for my PhD in…uh…”
“My PhD in Gamer, yeah.” He grins. I feel cool.
The tits say, “I was watching The Bachelor.”
“That’s untrue,” I say, “I like that shirt.”
“I would look awful in it,” Double Ds says, “Lumpy.”
He raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think…”
“You, though? It makes you look like you produce music and have a sick IG. I’d look like a mom from Ohio.”
“Thanks, I guess?” He smiles, mildly confused. “See you around.”
“I hate you,” I tell them when the door’s closed.
“I’ll be here all week,” they say, “And the next. And the next.”
I slump into my desk chair and stick my phone in front of my face.
I’m 20 feet deep in the comments of a Reddit post, when Double Ds pipes up again. “Hey, scroll back up. What did that guy say about Cardi B?”
I indulge them, for some goddamn reason.“It says ‘There was a pic of them going around and those are some of the most worn out looking pancake tits I’ve ever seen.’”
“Expand the thread. I want to see more,” Double Ds says.
“The next comment is ‘if she doesn’t already have 5 kids, those areolas are going to consume her chest when she does.’ And then ’Yah they’re pretty salami looking.’”
I huck my phone across the room, and it thumps into the tangle of blankets on the bed. “Neckbeards,” I mutter, “What do they know?”
“Apparently not that their opinion of someone who’s gonna live like a god for the rest of her life is entirely unnecessary.”
A loaded silence.
“But, I mean…” says Double Ds.
“Oh fuck off.”
They do not. “I’m just saying, we do kinda have some deli meat and breakfast food types of situations going on, don’t we?”
I explode. “What is your problem? I can’t get a moment of peace? I can’t look how I want? Be comfortable?”
“Why don’t I get to be included in any of that?”
“You don’t belong here.”
“That right there” they shout, “How do you think that makes me feel?”
I spring to my feet and they retaliate, tugging downward. “I don’t care about your feelings. You were not invited.”
“Oh you’ve done it now,” they say, “You thought you couldn’t get a moment of peace before? Try walking down some stairs - I dare you.”
A throat-shredding groan crawls up from the root of my being. I lean forward and press my forehead onto my desk, taking slow breaths. They dangle, hatefully.
Merle Kinney lives in Denver and writes about writes about gender, work,
and virtual spaces. Their work can be found in Dime Show Review, Catapult,
and great weather for media's Escape Wheel.
Carolyn Huizinga Mills
This morning I threw out your shampoo. I want to include that in my statement. I want to describe the sound of the lime green bottle clunking against the bottom of the garbage can. Only, I can’t get up. It’s not just the shampoo. It’s the razor balanced on the edge of the tub, the jumble of make-up in the drawer, your toothbrush almost touching mine in the holder beside the sink. Everywhere I look, there are remnants of you. You’re everywhere. And nowhere.
You left a pair of socks beside the bed. My mom scooped them up, adding them to the pile of laundry she was collecting. “I’m just trying to help,” she said when I screamed at her. If she washes your things—the pants that brushed against your legs, the ratty t-shirt you wore to bed, the socks you left on the floor—I will lose even more of you.
“At least let me do the kids’ clothes,” she said. “I won’t touch any of her things.”
“Okay,” I agreed, clutching one of your balled-up socks in my fist.
Sullivan calls out for you every night. He’s never known this kind of hurt and all he wants is his mommy. You’re the only one who could make something this hard okay. Except, of course, you can’t. I do my best, but I’m no match for the confusion and grief that have clamped around his little heart. You know how he gets. It’s your arms he wants. Your kisses he needs. So how is he supposed to survive losing you without you here to help him? How are any of us?
Wesley is trying to be brave. He hardly ever talks, though. I think he’s afraid that if he opens his mouth, all his sadness will come pouring out in a never-ending wave. I know the feeling. I am constantly on the brink of drowning—like this moment now, sitting on the bathroom tiles, gasping for air.
Even the dog has taken to whimpering. She sleeps in Sully’s bed and I let her. The night of the funeral, we all slept together—me, Sully, Wesley, and the dog—the four of us crammed into one bed.
You would have loved it. Well, maybe not the dog sprawled across the white comforter, but given the circumstances, I think even you might have made an exception.
Just from touching your apple-scented bottle of shampoo, I can conjure the smell of your hair. If I close my eyes maybe I can fool myself, just for a second, that you’re right here beside me, sitting on the cold bathroom floor.
“It’s okay,” you’d say. “You have to do it sometime.”
“Why? Why do I have to get rid of anything? WHY?” I slam my fist against the tiled floor and the pain that shoots through my knuckles, eclipses, for one breath-taking moment, the pain that has been coursing through every muscle and fibre and neuron since the accident.
I didn’t believe it at first. It thought it had to be some other car, some other person. How could it be you? How could you be gone, just like that?
“I’m sorry,” one of the officers said.
The kids were upstairs. I offered water to nobody in particular. I straightened the cushions. Somebody contacted your parents.
Rachael came right away. She’s the one who told the kids with me, in the morning. Sully came down first, hugging his stuffed rabbit, his hair all rumpled, cheeks flushed with sleep. I had to wake up Wesley. He followed me down the stairs, groggily. I wanted to carry him, but of course, he’s too big for that now.
“What’s happening?” he said, noticing Rachael where you should have been.
“Oh, Sweetie,” Rachael said, going over to both boys, one hand touching each of them. “Last night your mommy was in an accident.”
My heart ached as I watched their faces crinkle in confusion. “She was hurt really bad,” I said.
“Where is she?” Sullivan asked.
The other driver wasn’t hurt. He knew the light was about to change, but gunned it anyway. Didn’t you see him? Couldn’t you tell he wasn’t slowing down? Did you even have time to panic before the sickening crunch of metal, before a thousand pieces of glass rained down on you?
Killed on impact. That’s the phrase everyone uses to describe what happened to you. Impact. The word ricochets around my mind. I’m supposed to prepare a statement, a Victim Impact Statement (that damn word again), to detail all the ways in which our lives are less now. I wrote two sentences before folding in on myself. Because how can I describe any of this—this moment where I can’t get up off the bathroom floor? How for days I couldn’t rinse out the mug you used on the last morning you stood in our kitchen?
The space you used to occupy can’t be measured in words.
Sully finally lost his tooth, the one that was wiggly forever. He put it under his pillow but the Tooth Fairy forgot to come. He showed me the tooth the next morning, still wrapped in its neat square of Kleenex.
“The Tooth Fairy was probably busy,” I told him. “I’m sure she’ll come tonight.”
Then Wesley asked me to help him find his soccer cleats and when I asked where he usually kept them, he stormed away.
“Mom would know!” he yelled.
“Yes, but she’s not here,” I yelled back.
What was the last thing I said to you? Did I tell you to have a good night? That I loved you? Or was I reminding you we were out of ketchup? I can’t remember. I can’t remember the last words I spoke to you. At the time, I thought it was just one more of a thousand casual goodbyes.
I reach into the garbage can and pull out your shampoo. Not yet.
Ever since reading L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon as a child, Carolyn Huizinga Mills has dreamed of being a writer. In 2014, her story “Without a Soul” placed first in the Canadian Authors Association Short Story Competition, and in 2017, her story “Finders” placed second in the Alice Munro Short Story Competition. Carolyn’s first picture book, The Little Boy Who Lived Down the Drain (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2017), was chosen as a 2018 Blue Spruce Honour Book. Her second picture book, Grandpa’s Stars, is forthcoming. Her debut novel, The Good Son (Cormorant Books, 2021) was released in March.
A grade seven teacher, Carolyn loves to share her passion for reading and writing with her students. She grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and now lives in southwestern Ontario with her husband and two children. In addition to reading and writing, Carolyn loves playing soccer, camping, travelling, and eating dark chocolate.
The Red-tailed Hawk
“Daddy read me a story.” Beautiful words. So, I break out dust covered volumes of poets and thinkers, undertakers and dreamers, and I read. I read to the young boy, both me and not me, who lays comfortable in his bed on the earth so far below my flying words. From my lips flow the great cosmic blasphemies of men who dare to question and cry; men who curse the very breath they’ve been given with each breath they have, only to turn around and praise the profundity of life. The warm scent of worlds on paper fills the room, fills our minds, like the wind off a battlefield. I read to my son and I watch his eyes as I read, eyes that glint with immortal knowledge and I know he feels it too. He feels the warmth that draws our cold hearts in, to stand like icemen around the blazing fire and feel our souls melting in the heat. He hears the explosion as each page falls upon its brother, dead in the passing. I smile. Then when the final page turns and falls like coffin lid back onto the grave of the immortal blasphemer we read that night, I see the words cutting like blades upon my son’s mind.
For what seems like decades, and might truly be in the un-turning landscape of the mind, I see the cuts bleed inside of him. Finally, when the red pool is deep and calm enough that he can peer in and see his reflection, he looks up to me. With tears in his eyes he asks, “Daddy, why do they always have to kill the hawk?”
I know the answer. I know the cost of the bird upon the soul, its burning-golden taunting feathers and god-like flight, its sharpened wings scything through bone and marrow and soul. I know.
“I don’t know.” I say, tucking him in for the night.
“Daddy? I would never kill a hawk.” As tears run cutting chasms down his face.
“I know.” I say and turn out the light.
“Dad, it’s beautiful.” He says, holding the cold, gleaming, black metal up to the light. Remington, .22. It was mine, my first, my father’s first. I see his nimble fingers running over every joint, every screw, every deadly detail, feeling them for the hundredth time but now born again-anew in a new adjective. His. The dying wrappings lie discarded on the hardwood floor, jagged ripped edges of paper that lay still where they had dropped to the ground like so many feathers. The paper had fallen on top of the mountain of gifts that had already been unwrapped-a football and baseball mitt, telescope and marbles, and so many books-already come through the ritual of rebirth on this twelfth year birthday, all but covered by the fallen tissue paper.
“Now you be careful with that. It’s not a toy.” I say, remembering how I played with it; remembering all the squirrels and rabbits it had claimed over the years, how many times I had played soldier once and because of that, because of my imagination, watching a furry tail go still, or a golden feather on a silver sky fall slowly to the earth.
“I would never play around with it. You know that.”
“I know.” I say and tousle his hair, sending him outside to go shoot. For a time, I watch from the window, see him line up the sights, peer down the barrel. An old tin can; no, bandit or villain, a hundred yards away goes flying. For a second, I feel the dying grass scratch against my stomach and smell the spent gunpowder carried off in the autumn wind. The cold walnut brushes my cheek, a kiss-my first. Then the memory passes. I watch him line up the next can then I turn, proud and sad, from the window.
The boys, almost young men now, are outside, like cavemen throwing rocks up at the blue heavens. I know what they are aiming at, know that their rocks will never hit it, never wound the god-in-the-sky. The day bloomed bright and cold and I feel the chill of early spring in my blood. For a moment I try to think of the words I know I will need, try to hear the truth in the blasphemy; try to recall anything of use. “Forever earthbound. Fit only for dog tooth, not sky.” Those cursed words now cut me. I dare to look down, only to be ashamed of my reflection. The window in front of me seems more like a cell than ever before and I’m trapped behind it in the cage of experience and years. I feel a tear winding its way down my face, to fall like passion on the floor.
The door flies open. “Hey, Father. We’re just playing around. I’ll see you later.” Then he is gone again. Out beyond my home, out beyond my cell. I watch him join the other boys, carrying it. Watch it go up, watch it fire. In him, I feel the gun thud against my shoulder, my face pure elation as the god spirals to the ground. It cracks on the fledgling grass. I wonder why, and feel my face harden into a smiling mask of death. Disgusted and weeping I turn back to where my father sits in the window, watching. The metal taste of blood flares into my mouth.
“Father, I’m sorry. I didn’t,” in a minute, I am there next to my son. He throws the weapon at me. Sobbing, the tears muffling and distorting his speech, he says the words caught in his throat, “it shouldn’t have been like this. Why?”
With one hand holding the demon of adolescence, I pull my son into an embrace. Peering over his shoulder, I see the hawk, crumpled and bleeding great dark beads of life into the ground. Its cold black eyes peer up into mine; in them I now think I finally find forgiveness.
“I know, son. I know.”
Gabriel Parker is an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University majoring in Creative Writing. He has had fiction published by the Underscore Review, Ripples in Space, and in an anthology by Grey Wolfe Publishing. He can usually be found deep in the bowels of the campus library holding back piles of books with one hand and typing away with the other. More of his work can be found at gparkerauthor.wordpress.com, or on Instagram @gabrielparkerauthor.
Melissa Ridley Elmes
“I want to go for a walk,” Jim announced for the tenth time that day.
It was five o’clock p.m. and the sun had been ducking in and out between enormous thunderhead clouds, playing hide-and-seek with the earth all afternoon. The clouds were purple-grey and swollen, not ominous, exactly, just promising to douse everything when they were good and ready. Because rain was seemingly imminent, mother had hemmed and hawed and stalled going outside, but really as far as Jim could tell that was much more so she could advance on the Cookie Jam leaderboard than out of actual concern over the weather.
Jim was bored, and fed up, and the promise-that-didn’t-happen of the rain mirrored too precisely the promise-that-didn’t-happen of we’ll go outside when it’s nice out his mother had made all week. It had been nice out, only a little foggy, on Monday morning, and then they were busy with errands Monday afternoon. And then it was Tuesday, and there was a light drizzle, not enough to properly call for an umbrella or even a raincoat, but enough that mother explained to him that they couldn’t risk going out and the weather worsening once they were outside. Then on Wednesday it had rained steadily all day, a good soaking rain and we needed it, we really did, the grass will be so much greener and nicer, mother assured him. And then it was Thursday, today, and it hadn’t rained even a single drop, but the Weather Channel said there was a chance—a 20% chance—of rain, and so they were stuck inside, again.
Jim was eight, and an only child. He didn’t have a phone of his own to play games on, and his father was out of town again so Jim couldn’t use his phone, and his mother was using her phone to play Cookie Jam so Jim couldn’t use hers either, and he wasn’t allowed any more TV or computer screentime today, and everything was unfair. And it wasn’t even raining. It hadn’t rained since dinnertime, yesterday. The family room was strewn with his toys, and he was tired of them all. He looked over to where mother sat curled up on the couch, focused on the game she was playing.
“I want to go for a walk,” he repeated. “You promised.”
“I said when it’s nice out,” his mother replied, swiping a red heart over one square to send the entire line of shapes collapsing.
“It is nice out. The sun’s shining, even”
“Oh, Honey, look at those clouds. It’s going to rain.”
“But it isn’t raining. We could go out until it does. If you wanted to, we could.”
“But it is going to rain any moment! By the time we went out, it would probably have started raining.” She swiped a purple crescent upward to crash into two other purple crescents, one of which had a white “x” on it, and that sent multiple lines of blocks skittering off the screen, replaced by new combinations of color.
Jim felt he’d had enough excuses masquerading as explanations. Mother always blamed the weather. It was never the weather. He might be only eight, but he was old enough to understand that much. He scowled darkly at her.
“You just don’t want to go out. You don’t care if you keep your promise. You just want to play Cookie Jam and beat everyone.”
“That’s not fair. Of course I want to keep my promise. It isn’t my fault if the weather doesn’t cooperate, is it?” Mother made a disapproving noise as she lost the game she was playing. She immediately started a new one.
“But the weather is cooperating. It hasn’t rained all day,” Jim insisted.
Mother didn’t look up from her phone while she was talking to him. She didn’t even look out the window, as she said, “But look at those clouds. It’s going to rain. It will be a big storm when it does.”
Jim pushed a toy car across the carpet as far as he could with one foot, scooting down to lie on his back to stretch out even farther. He banged the other leg impatiently against the ground, testing the possibility of a tantrum. Mother didn’t notice. “You said all week we’d go out when it is nice out. It’s been nice, and we still haven’t gone out. I’m bored, and I want to go for a walk.”
“It was nice on Monday. We went out on Monday,” Mother said, her tone of voice triumphant as she advanced another board.
Jim kicked the ground again, one foot, and then the other, until his heels hurt. “We went shopping on Monday. We didn’t go out to play. We didn’t walk.”
Mother made another disapproving sound. He couldn’t tell if it was directed at him or at the game this time. “What on earth do you call what we did when we got out of the car and went into all those stores?”
Jim sat upright and scowled again. “That’s not walking. That was doing errands.”
“We went out. We were out all afternoon, and we walked. And today we are staying in because I said so,” Mother said in her and that’s final voice.
Jim’s frustration bubbled over. He stood up, grabbed the largest metal toy car he could reach, and hurled it at the window where the sun taunted him through the pane. The glass shattered spectacularly, with a satisfying cracking noise. Shards went skittering across the carpet.
Mother cried out in alarm, leaping up from the couch, her game abandoned as she surveyed his handiwork with horror. “What did you just do?”
“Now we have to go to the store and buy a new window,” Jim answered reasonably. “So I guess I’ll get my walk after all.”
Mother stood, staring at him in stunned silence.
“And you’ll keep your promise,” he added.
As if on cue, the clouds also kept their promise, and it started to rain.
Melissa Ridley Elmes is the author of *Arthurian Things: A Collection of
Poems* (Dark Myth Publishing, 2020) and her fiction and poetry have
appeared or are forthcoming in *Heartwood, Thimble, Gyroscope, In
Parentheses *and Star*Line. She holds a PhD in English and an MFA in
Writing and is an Assistant Professor of English at Lindenwood University.
Hell Hath No Fury
By Bryan Starchman
There have been countless studies conducted on the International Space Station to determine the effects of weightlessness on the human body but in 2047 astronaut Carl Whittle unintentionally started a newresearch project on how close quarters can affect the human heart.
Whittle and his girlfriend Teresa Givens were only the second romantically involved couple to fly into space. The first couple, Mark Lee and Jan Davis, were secretly married in 1992 just before they flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor. When they returned, NASA changed its policies, forbidding married couples to fly together. Carl and Teresa thought this policy was archaic but when they fell in love during the training camp leading up to their flight to the ISS, they decided to keep their relationship a secret. They’d worked too hard to risk losing their positions in space.
But as they entered the sixth month of their expedition, they fully understood and appreciated NASA’s policy. Working in close quarters puts a strain on any relationship, whether it be romantic or professional. Throw in a foxy Russian cosmonaut named Tatiana and that strain is likely to break you.
In the beginning there were a total of six astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the 357 foot long station. And yet, Carl and Teresa still found nooks to neck in and crannies where they could copulate. The others knew something was up. With no laundry facilities on board and a limited supply of clothes, they tried to be careful when making love but they often emerged from the Tranquility Node looking suspiciously disheveled. Then three of the astronauts returned to earth and growing international tensions, that would eventually lead to World War III, put a halt to all space flights. So Carl and Teresa had more work on their hands, completing hundreds of experiments and constantly maintaining the station, but they also had only one person to hide their affair from: Tatiana.
Carl didn’t mean for it to happen. The flirting was innocent enough at first. Tatiana was in charge of the microgravity garden and needed some help repotting the nightshades. Teresa was in another module completing the neverending preventative maintenance so Carl found himself alone with the Russian. On Earth their respective countries were on the brink of bombing each other back to the Stone Age, but in space...there was peace and harmony. And lust.
Tatiana reached from behind Carl to help loosen the roots of a stubborn Solanum lycopersicum and their hands brushed against one another’s. She laughed breathlessly and then he turned to face her and without meaning to, their lips brushed against one another’s. And before he knew it, they were naked and brushing their everything against one another’s.
That’s when Teresa walked in.
Carl wanted to tell her that it wasn’t what it looked like, but weightless fornication is pretty hard to cover up. He suggested a menage a trois and that’s when she started throwing tools at him. (It is not a good idea to throw a monkey wrench on the International Space Station). To make matters worse, it turns out that Tatiana really was in the dark about their relationship. She thought Carl was a single man and fair game, but as soon as she realized that Teresa had been cheated on, the two women formed an alliance against Carl.
And it’s not like he could pack his things and head for a Motel 6 on Mars. It was a little tense to say the least. The women commandeered the Zvezda sleeping module and Carl was banished to the proverbial couch. He tethered his sleeping bag to the wall of the Destiny lab and slept with one eye open.
The next month was a living hell. He couldn’t escape the tension and after trying (and failing) to rekindle his relationship with Teresa, he stupidly made another pass at Tatiana. The heart wants what the heart wants. And both the women wanted him to stop and stay as far away from them as possible. He centered himself and focused on making it through the next four months.
But then, due to the threat of war back on Earth, the water delivery was delayed. Which meant the pressurized oxygen delivery was delayed. And they were running low on rations. They ate and drank only what was necessary for survival. They skipped their daily exercise regime and the women stopped talking to each other to conserve as much oxygen as possible. After two months they started to lose bone and muscle mass. After three they were too weak to perform all of their required tasks. But after four months NASA finally sent word that they were days away from launching a rescue shuttle to retrieve them.
Carl felt a glimmer of hope. If he survived this he would swear off women, he would find religion, he would become a better man. And one night, as he prayed to God, Allah, Buddha, and the President of the United States in front of the large bay window in the Tranquility Node, he saw a white hot blast of light. It looked like it originated somewhere over Eastern Europe. But then...there was another. And another.
He tried calling ground control; there was no answer. Just static. Teresa and Tatiana had also seen the flashes and joined him at the observation window. Soon the planet below them was peppered with hundreds of explosions and even from 254 miles away, they could make out the sinister shapes of mushroom clouds. The nightmare of a nuclear holocaust was now a reality and they had front row seats in the mezzanine.
As the Earth smoldered below, they ran out of food. Carl suggested they draw straws to determine who would be sacrificed but the scorned women simply licked their lips and pulled out their matching standard issue Victorinox Swiss Army knives.
They were on him before he could even say “Houston, we have a problem”.
BRYAN STARCHMAN is an author, published playwright, and educator from Mariposa, California. In the past year his short fiction has been featured in The Saturday Evening Post and in the literary magazines Litro, After Dinner Conversation, In Parentheses, Scribble, Apracity, The Good Life Review, The Write City Magazine, Flumes, Some Scripts, The New Plains Review, and Avalon Literary Review. Learn more about Bryan at www.bryanstarchman.com
They come too early and are spent
before the party they were to have served
as a conversation piece for,
or are so late they are
the stargazers had come out,
or are sparse this year, or
so full they can’t be believed.
So, they lay their
magnificent, perfumed bouffants
on the ground, long before
it is time
They come too early and are spent
before the party they were to have served
as a conversation piece for,
or are so late they are
the stargazers had come out,
or are sparse this year, or
so full they can’t be believed.
So, they lay their
magnificent, perfumed bouffants
on the ground, long before
it is time to cut them down.
Why had no one warned them
of the heartbreak of blooming?
Ron Bernas lives and works in metropolitan Detroit. He came to poetry late in his writing career. These are his first published poems.
Ode to Summer
O sweet summer, O honey dripping
like amber from our lips – why
must we deprive the bees
of the fruits of their labor;
why do we pick summer’s last roses
to put on display? let them melt
into the good and giving earth;
allow the petals to fade and fall
and dive into a loamy oblivion;
the soil dark and deep
with the promise
of another summer
O summer, sweetened on the vine
of the seasons; O honey flowing
like wine, O amber-laden coast;
I have deprived the shore
of its shells; but you – you
always left the beach
as it was in a time before time;
the ever-shifting ocean
dreaming of the drowned
as she falls into the arms
O summer, O humid August heat
O sweet rind of warmth
before we are plunged once more
into the cool abyss of ice and snow
and hoarfrost slow-blooming
on the window; the willows
buried under eons of snow,
the hush; the quiet chill and
the willows, lacking the will
even to weep.
Caitlin Cacciatore (she/hers) is a queer writer and poet who lives on the outskirts of New York City. She believes poetry has the power to create change and brighten lives, and wishes for her work to be an agent of forward motion. She won first prize in Bacopa Literary Review 2020 for poetry. You can find her at caitlincacciatore.wordpress.com.
Hand over your feelings.
I’ll confine them between my flaky hands,
hold them like a finicky child might hold a captive butterfly,
and pour them into a clear glass jar resembling the one
my mother uses to store her sesame seeds and dried thyme.
And I’ll screw the cap on, and they’ll pickle.
You tell me
to hold your secrets tighter,
to guard them with all my might.
No one is to know your agony,
for some will be happy to hear it.
And the rest may be indifferent.
I tell you it’s okay to speak it;
I assure you it will help.
You shake your head with conviction:
Maybe in a land far away, not in a quarry town like ours.
Not where there are greater things to worry about.
Your eyes mean the bombs.
And your finger points to your home.
You tuck it deep into your bosom,
armor it with bones and flesh.
And when it stings, you clench your teeth
and say you’ll do what your mother did before you:
pass it on to your own.
And maybe things will be different then.
And maybe things will be different then.
Shurouq Ibrahim is a Palestinian-American English instructor residing in Ohio. She holds an MA in 21st Century Literature from the University of Lincoln, UK. Her poetry has appeared or is upcoming in Barzakh Poetry Journal, Prospectus Literary Review, Welter Literary Journal, Perch Magazine, and Wingless Dreamer. She often writes about the taboo in Arab and American culture: mental health, war, divorce, and domestic violence.
Our childhood ended on the day we learned that chocolate bars
had insect legs in them. When we were only children, we wanted to see
where the land ended and the fog began and dispersed, like an eclipse of moths.
We wanted to go driving to watch the mountains disappear behind us.
We wanted to see the sun kiss the air during summer and flirt during spring.
Grandma believed in the sentience of nature, when the storm brewed like
the frogs in her caldron the neighborhood children believed she kept
in her basement. She taught us how to breathe before the peak of the
mountain she could no longer reach, that felt like reaching the
plastic star of a half-decorated Christmas tree. She kissed our lips,
when she lingered between the liminality of life and sleep.
And so we dance, us and our grandmothers, at the brink of innocence.
Tonight, rivers don’t have to lead to oceans and waves can crash upwards.
We can run on air and breathe the earth, take in the soil
the waste, and people, like steam over the water.
We can let go of our bodies and float to the moon,
and pick and the ghosts of stars that haunt our nights.
We begin to fall asleep to wake up.
Juheon Rhee is a writer residing in Manila. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Indolent Books, 580 Split, Lunch Ticket, and Cleaver Magazine among others. She has also received nominations for her work, such as the Best of the Net Nomination.
In Florida, we swim with the manatees and I tell you about the time I thought I was going to drown in three feet of water hugging my navel. You say
typical, Black people can’t swim, as if
your flesh doesn’t match mine but you dip in the water and hold your breath, practicing for the day you get pulled over I assume. You say the trick to swimming is harvesting as much air as you can.
Learn to outlive the ocean in a battle
and I wade neck-deep in a bay almost as dark as
my palms. My grandfather told me that water is the strongest element. I begin a list of things diminished by water beginning with the stack of wood crumbling underneath my porch, eroding from termites and neglect. In my dream, I am washed away by water so fresh it could reflect God’s eyes before he opens the gates to heaven. You do not belong to the ocean, says the earth
who clings to my fingernails.
Amber Moss is a Black writer and editor from Atlanta. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the University of South Florida and completed a writers residency with the Sundress Academy of the Arts. She is the author of Some Kind Of Black, forthcoming in January 2022 (Nymeria Publishing). Her poetry has been published in Bewildering Stories, Little Rose Magazine, Liminality Magzine, Poetry Super Highway, and others.
I lost my virginity
two oak trees
and a stream—
I didn’t scream,
but watched fire
burn in the wood.I walk there now,
find the bug
not like other bugs
match legs against
a good bug,
just like me
full of spots
on her back
just like me
who lost her leg
to a greedy,
She is happy
She was scared
here, all alone.
We are whispers,
sisters in one life
lived so broken.
Anastasia Jill (she/they) is a queer writer living in
the Southeast United States. She has been nominated for Best American Short
Stories, Best of the Net, and several other honors. Her work has been
featured with Poets.org, Pithead Chapel, apt, Minola Review, Broken Pencil,
I never learned how to lie in Cantonese.
I can lie in English,
second language coming second
nature without a second
banalities are easy when I’ve assimilated the border so easily
that when I say English is my mother tongue
it doesn’t feel like it isn’t true.
My mother’s tongue:
She scrubs at it with sandpaper like it’s the kitchen floor,
eroding the valleys of an ancient melody.
When I was young my tongue was sandpaper, too,
words in both languages trapped
behind the dam of a lisp and a stutter.
Chinese trickled into me, English poured out of me:
herbal tea twisting unconsciously
into creamy milk and honey.
This world, this promised land,
from the one my grandmother hoped for.
My tongue climbs through a mouth that’s neither mountain nor valley,
searching for the place where this side of me ends
and that side of me begins.
If I ever find it, I’ll let English run a little looser across my teeth,
because it won’t have to fight
for a place inside me anymore.
One day I’ll make my bed
where the mountain meets the valley.
Maybe then I’ll know how to lie
I never learned how to lie in Cantonese.
Kristy Kwok is currently pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and songwriting.