A Boy Free on Christmas Morning

Fiction / Enit’ayanfe Ayosojumi Akinsanya


:: A Boy Free on Christmas Morning ::

            It was a day in Octo­ber, 2005. And like all days in Octo­ber in a prop­er aca­d­e­m­ic year, the term had just begun, new schemes of work writ­ten in chalk on the boards, old friends recon­nect­ing, and new bonds get­ting fas­tened. Old class­mates embraced and shook hands and clapped backs and shared sto­ries from the hol­i­day. They paused in their high laugh­ter and plo­sives only to dust out their lock­ers, clear the walls of cob­webs and the floors of lit­ter, and copy down the new timetable. It was a glit­ter­ing, unbro­ken air.


            The call had pierced through the stac­ca­to din—behind which he had grate­ful­ly slipped—through the thick­ness of his thoughts, and reached him like an arrow. He whirled around, his heart bad­aboom­ing like drums. It was Christo­pher Ayomikun. Of course, it was Christo­pher Ayomikun. Only Christo­pher Ayomikun barked out his name like that. Only Christo­pher Ayomikun cared enough to see him. He wait­ed in his seat. Christo­pher Ayomikun swag­gered up, one cor­ner of his mouth lift­ed as usu­al in a sneer. Tomi­wa wait­ed, his arm rest­ing on the slight swell of his well-worn duf­fel bag, which slouched almost weight­less­ly into his lock­er. Run­ning to the bus stop every morn­ing and every after­noon with it on his back posed no prob­lems for him. He had so few books.

            “Hey, Tomi­wa.” Christo­pher Ayomikun final­ly stopped by his desk, stand­ing too close for com­fort, stretch­ing out his hand. “How are you?”

            Tomiwa’s eyes slid down to the prof­fered hand. He gaped. It was sur­pris­ing enough that Ayomikun had  called him “Fagstard” as usual—Christopher Ayomikun had an ani­mat­ed imagination—but what was even more aston­ish­ing was Christo­pher Ayomikun offer­ing him—him—a hand­shake.

            “Well, well, well, are you going to shake my hand, or are you going to dis­grace me in front of the whole class?” Ayomikun asked. The nois­es in the class­room had dimin­ished into a steady, sin­gle thrum­ming; peo­ple were already begin­ning to watch. The boy cradling his old bag dared not look around to see, but he felt the hun­gry eyes, as strong­ly as he did each time Christo­pher Ayomikun engaged him inside or out­side the class­room. Christo­pher Ayomikun spoke again, “Come on, pal, this is a new term. Old things are gone. I’ve real­ized how child­ish I have been. Let’s start afresh.”

            His voice had tak­en on a soft­ness; his eyes, too. His sneer was also stretch­ing into a smile that looked sin­cere. And, as if “Tomi­wa” had not been enough, he had called him “pal”. Tomiwa’s mud walls were crum­bling. His heart lift­ed. He took Ayomikun’s hand, care­ful­ly at first, and then more con­fi­dent­ly, his fin­gers curled around Ayomikun’s firm palm. “Good morn­ing,” he mum­bled, feel­ing stu­pid; he wasn’t sure that was what he was sup­posed to say. He felt as in a dream. Some­thing ice-cool and sweet, like glu­cose, was spread­ing inside his chest. He won­dered if he should look around the class and smile tri­umphant­ly at the increduli­ty that must be past­ed on those faces. He stopped won­der­ing and looked around. They were all gaw­ping at the scene: his hand in Ayomikun’s, Ayomikun’s cov­er­ing his in a full firm clasp. A mir­a­cle kin­ship. He felt like scream­ing. He part­ed his lips, not sure what it was he would utter, but just then Christo­pher Ayomikun screeched and, with a vio­lent jerk, flung Tomi­wa’s hand off. It smacked against the desk. He spread out his arms like an actor and addressed the class.

            “See? I told you. Fagstard is not a mon­ster. You can actu­al­ly shake his hand and he will not rape you senseless!”

            Then he burst into gales of laugh­ter; some boys joined in. Tomi­wa rec­og­nized them as the ones who had way­laid him on his way home from school, once, twice, three times, and beat­en him up for walk­ing like a girl. They were like Christo­pher Ayomikun—tall, big, mus­cu­lar, things he was not. Because of them, he now ran instead of walk­ing. Because of them, he had stopped going out to the can­teen dur­ing break, just so they couldn’t see him walk­ing and have cause to beat him again. Not that he had the lux­u­ry of fre­quent­ing the can­teen any­way; his pock­et mon­ey was N20, every day. Includ­ing those days they had Junior WASSCE lessons and closed at 6 pm.

            Christo­pher Ayomikun’s laugh­ter slowed and lowed to spo­radic hic­cups, but the rest of the class—even the twin girls that were vot­ed “Most Qui­et” last term—had tak­en up the mirth and were all dou­bled over. Tomiwa’s heart sank. His palm stung. Sweat broke down his back and tem­ples, despite the sun­less­ness of the morn­ing. Goose pim­ples rose on his skin, as if some­one had splashed water on him and pushed him into a basin filled with raw rice. His eyes welled up.

            This was indeed a new term. He might not sur­vive it. Some­body shook the bell for assem­bly time. The class made for the door, girls and boys press­ing against him, push­ing past him, some scream­ing when they came in con­tact with him, the girls look­ing as if they want­ed to spit, some of the boys hold­ing their hands over their behinds, their eyes dis­tend­ed in mock ter­ror. He tried to slip past them but in his haste, his already squig­gly zip­per ripped open and his rat-eat­en books spilled out to the floor. His class­mates watch­ing from the cor­ri­dor erupt­ed in loud laugh­ter. He sank to the floor, will­ing it to yawn open and take him.

            “Clum­sy homo,” they chant­ed and dart­ed their eyes around in case a teacher or a pre­fect was coming.

            Where he sat on the floor, the boy hugged his split bag to his chest and wept.


*                                      *                                    *


            Tomi­wa was the first of two sons. Born to a gar­den­er in the rus­tic town of Ije­bu-Ode, he learned ear­ly enough to occu­py spaces like a thin shad­ow. His father raked lawns, plant­ed alla­man­da bush­es, trimmed sun-bleached flow­ers for a stingy rich fam­i­ly, and col­lect­ed N4,000 pay at the end of the month. Some­times, the salary would come. Some­times, it would come late. And then there were times it would not come at all. Dur­ing these times, it was hell for Tomi­wa, his lit­tle sick­le-celled broth­er, Eni­tan, and their moth­er. She had a makeshift kiosk in front of a weath­er-beat­en bun­ga­low, where she sold soap and sweets and match­es and cig­a­rettes. There, they had rent­ed a one-room apart­ment, and they owed the can­tan­ker­ous land­lord N15,500.

            Tomi­wa’s father, on those days of no pay, would arrive home in the dead of night and in a sog­gy whiff of alco­hol stench, his shirt front stained with beer vom­it, his face grotesque, his lips loose and his eyes bulging. When Tomiwa’s moth­er con­front­ed him about where he had been and what he had been up to, he beat her up. His stag­ger­ing and sway­ing did not dull his punch­es; they could have smacked holes in any liv­ing body. His words slur­ry, his artic­u­la­tions blur­ry, he would rain curs­es on his wife, his chil­dren, his rich employ­ees and the poor coun­try as a whole. Then he would resume beat­ing his wife, hold her by the neck, yank and tou­sle her hair, and force her down to her knees. Where is my food? No food! Why did­n’t you cook? No mon­ey! Must you wait for me before you cook? You have too many debts? No sales? Unfor­tu­nate woman! Oloribu­ruku obin­rin! Your legs are bad! My life scat­tered the day I mar­ried you! These played out in front of Tomi­wa and his lit­tle broth­er, who always burst into loud cry­ing and so stopped Tomi­wa from cry­ing loud­ly as well, for he would have to hold his broth­er close and con­sole him.

            Then, a Sat­ur­day came. His broth­er had a crisis—the fourth that month—and his moth­er had to rush him to a small, unreg­is­tered clin­ic. Tomi­wa watched her clam­ber onto the pil­lion of an oka­da, his heart pal­pi­tat­ing where he sat wash­ing his over-patched school uni­form beside the house. He had just wrung the soap out of his shorts when his father called him in and told him he would have to drop out of school. Tomi­wa stood and stared, the foam dry­ing on his hands.

            “Baba, what did you say, sir?”

            His father coughed. Tomi­wa noticed the new drawn shade in his eyes, the new­er unsight­ly criss­cross of veins on his fore­head. He had always looked sick, from exces­sive drink­ing and work­ing in the sun, but not this much. Tomi­wa wished things were dif­fer­ent for his father, for them all.

            “E pele, sa,” he said in concern.

            “Do you have owu ele­po in your ears?” his father shot at him. “I said you will have to stop going to school. I don’t have the strength to send you again.”

            The world spun rapid­ly inside Tomi­wa’s head; all of his life gath­ered up in his throat. He propped his wrist against his lips, sur­prised by the sud­den­ness of his own cry­ing. Per­haps it was the way his father had shout­ed it. With­out think­ing, with­out choos­ing to be dra­mat­ic, he sank to his knees and start­ed wring­ing his hands in plea. He thought lit­tle of his actions, of what his father would see. All he knew was that he was plead­ing to be allowed to con­tin­ue in school.

            His father sneered at him, a cold sneer that froze Tomi­wa in his move­ments. His father’s blood­shot eyes ran up and down him, until he thought he was about to spit on him.

            “How did I end up with a son like you sef?” his father said, and start­ed hack­ing again. His cough­ing shook his body.

            “E pele, sa.

            “Kneel­ing and mov­ing your hands like a girl.” He spat the phlegm in Tomi­wa’s direc­tion. Anoth­er fit seized his wil­lowy frame.

            Tomi­wa scram­bled up to get him some water.

            “Stop there, my friend!” his father barked. “Where you think say you dey go?”

            “Nowhere, sir.” Tomi­wa shiv­ered, stuck, con­fused, afraid to use his hands lest he did some­thing to fur­ther enrage his father.

            “My ears are full. I hear how you laugh like an idiot when those home­less boys on our street touch your body. I am warn­ing you. No child of mine will bring abom­i­na­tion into this house. E bet­ter make I kill that son with my bare hands than let him see that day.” He launched into anoth­er raspy paroxysm.

            Tears bloomed into Tomiwa’s eyes again, but he fought it. He had to kill vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Boys didn’t cry, his father once said. “E pele, sa,” he said again. This time, he felt the sym­pa­thy for his father more keen­ly. He moved uncer­tain­ly towards him, his hand stretched.

            “Get out of my sight!” his father blared, eyes flashing.

            Tomi­wa ran out, his eyes sting­ing, and for a while he couldn’t see his white vest as he washed it.

            His father left work and took ful­ly to drink­ing and owing a pile of mon­ey at the local bar in town. Often, in the mid­dle of the day, furi­ous ser­vice girls would drag him home and demand pay­ment from Tomi­wa’s moth­er. There were after­noons Tomi­wa and his moth­er found him crum­pled in the gut­ter, bab­bling old hymns. How his moth­er stood alone and Eni­tan did not die of his crises, and how Tomi­wa did not drop out of school, Tomi­wa could not say. But he wished he had dropped out anyway.


*                                      *                                    *


            Drop­ping out dan­gled in his mind—a fresh offer at escape—that day in Octo­ber. The day he prayed the floor of his class­room should open and gulp him in. The same day Abdul came into his life. Abdul was a youth ser­vice corps mem­ber new­ly post­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty school. Tall, firm-jawed Abdul, with a wide fore­head and wider shoul­ders and a lit­tle stut­ter that made the stu­dents find his every word even more pre­cious. When he stepped into their class that morn­ing, after the first three teach­ers had taught and left, he told them he came to teach Math­e­mat­ics and Math­e­mat­ics only.

            “I can solve all prob­lems. Care­ful—all arith­meti­cal prob­lems. Don’t bring your life’s prob­lems to me. Don’t bring your boyfriend-and-girl­friend issues to me.”

            A rip­ple went through the class.

            “Those ones are prob­lems I can’t solve. I have those prob­lems, too, you hear?  So make every­one go solve their prob­lems on their own, abeg. Gov­ern­ment no dey pay me allowee for that one.”

            The class burst into laugh­ter. Except Tomi­wa, who was still mop­ing over his ruined school bag. Abdul smiled and turned to the board.

            After school, a school pre­fect accost­ed Tomi­wa and told him Abdul want­ed to see him in the staff room. Stiffly, his mind blank, he made for the detached build­ing. Abdul sat, a Pace­set­ters nov­el held open with his thumb, and asked Tomi­wa his name. “And also tell me why you were look­ing moody dur­ing his class in the morning.”

            Tomi­wa part­ed his lips to speak, but it was tears, not words, that broke free. It annoyed him, that he was cry­ing before this stranger-teacher in tight white vest and green kha­ki pants. It was like a scene from all those TV melo­dra­mas his class­mates always chirped about dur­ing Free Peri­od. He pressed his hands to his face. He felt like scream­ing at him: Leave me alone!

            “Noth­ing, sir,” he mum­bled. “My head was aching. My name is Tomi­wa Arogundade.”

            The cor­p­er gawped.

            Lat­er, as Tomi­wa walked home through the bush­es flank­ing a lone­ly path, Christo­pher Ayomikun and his boys leaped out at him, their check­ered shirts undone and tied around their waists to reveal off-white sin­glets, long lithe canes swish­ing to and fro in their hands. Tomi­wa stag­gered back­ward. They had nev­er brought canes before. He wished he knew any oth­er route home, but this was the only lane. The boys sur­round­ed him, leer­ing and sneer­ing and whistling. He thought of his moth­er pray­ing into the night on her knees, reel­ing out psalms after psalms for divine pro­tec­tion from evil and its doers. Tomi­wa had man­aged to mem­o­rize only Psalm 23 com­plete­ly. He reached for it now like a tal­is­man. He mut­tered it earnestly.

            Christo­pher Ayomikun detached him­self from the cir­cle and neared Tomi­wa with his cock­sure swag­ger. Tomi­wa stared. He should run. These were peo­ple with height­ened preda­to­ry skills. These were peo­ple who grew up watch­ing too many Amer­i­can and Chi­nese films. The silence, punc­tu­at­ed by the twit­ter­ing of bush birds, stretched on for too long. They lolled the canes in their hands and peered at him thin­ly, like lizards. Tomiwa’s heart start­ed throb­bing again, and when Christo­pher final­ly spoke, it was like some­one splashed a buck­et of ice cubes down his shoulders.

            “Hey, Fagstard, how about we get your dis­gust­ing rosy ass pro-per-ly whipped?”

            Tomi­wa held onto his loose bag. “Please. E jo. I don’t want any more trou­ble. Let me just go home.”

            “Hey, hey!” Christo­pher Ayomikun threw his hands about in that the­atri­cal way com­mon with pul­pit clowns. “The sis­sy pleads!” He made a face and aped Tomiwa’s words.

            “Come on, Chief CA!” one of the oth­er boys screeched. “Why we dey waste time?” Some­body fit come and inter­rupt na. Make we naked this girlie and see wetin him been dey cover!”

            Tomi­wa went numb.

            “Well, well, well,” Christo­pher Ayomikun starred his role again, hands on hips, “you are about to regret ever being born into this world, you abom­i­na­tion.” He revolved on his heels. “He’s all yours!”

            They yelled in uni­son, their canes raised high, and raced toward Tomi­wa, who stood trans­fixed in the mid­dle of the path. It was over. It was beyond him what atroc­i­ty it was they were going to do to him this time. He closed his eyes, like when the lights of the world go out, slumped to the ground, and wait­ed for the onslaught.

            He could not see any­thing, but he heard a sud­den silence. Some­one had bound­ed into the road. They all stiff­ened in their tracks. The fig­ure approached steadi­ly, unflinch­ing­ly. A tall broad fig­ure. White vest. Green pants. A green cap.

            “It’s Cor­p­er Abdul!” some­one screamed.

            Tomiwa’s ear­lobes thud­ded with feet. They all melt­ed into the bush, leav­ing behind their weapons and a few san­dals. Tomi­wa opened his eyes and looked hard through the wink­ing green of his vision. It was Cor­p­er Abdul. The man pulled him up. Tomi­wa glanced up through the trees to send his thanks to what­ev­er god was there. He watched his sav­ior van­ish in a blur of white and green, and he didn’t know what next to feel, to do.


*                                      *                                    *


            Abdul gave chase, briefly. He caught none of the boys. They had moved through the for­est like light­ning through slip­pery clouds.



*                                      *                                    *


            “Are you hurt?”

            Tomi­wa shook his head no.

            “Are you not that boy in JSS3 A?”

            Tomi­wa nod­ded, feel­ing self-pity­ing­ly young and helpless.

            “Where do you live?”

            “Just before the busy road.” He point­ed vague­ly. The numb­ness was begin­ning to clear.

            “Hmm. The Cor­pers’ Lodge is not too far from there. Let’s walk together.”

            He nod­ded, his tongue glu­ing itself back to the roof of his mouth.

            They start­ed walk­ing; their foot­falls crunched the crisp Octo­ber-dried leaves under­foot and echoed in the trees. The silence grew too loud.

            “Hey, broth­er, I don’t know you much.”

            The man sound­ed a lit­tle force­ful, as if he had rum­maged and rum­maged around in his brain to find the least embar­rass­ing way to con­tin­ue the con­ver­sa­tion, and so wouldn’t con­done anoth­er list­less response. Per­haps it was his bari­tone. Per­haps it was his broad shoul­ders. Per­haps it was his clear open face, which gave the sen­sa­tion of star­ing into a cloud­less sky. Or per­haps it was sim­ply that the man had called him “broth­er”, but Tomi­wa sud­den­ly found his tongue uncling­ing from the roof of his mouth, like a weight in flight.

            “I real­ly don’t know much about you either, sir,” he said.

            Abdul smiled, appar­ent­ly encouraged.

            “I fin­ished from Obafe­mi Awolowo Uni­ver­si­ty. Depart­ment of Math­e­mat­ics. I am Yoru­ba, from Lagos, and serv­ing in a Yoru­ba town. I am one of the luck­i­est, I guess.”

            Tomi­wa gig­gled, a lit­tle amused, a lit­tle stunned by himself.

            “Okay, sir.”

            A bird cried.

            “So…when did all this rub­bish start?”

            Tomi­wa watched a lone lizard slith­er through a clump of bit­ter leaves. “Since I came into the school, sir. Three years ago.”

            “Ya Allah!

            Tomi­wa smiled, wry­ly amused, think­ing of what his moth­er was most like­ly to say if he ever told her about this part of the con­ver­sa­tion: she would snap her fin­gers and quote “do not be unequal­ly yoked with unbe­liev­ers”. His moth­er, he had often guilti­ly thought, was an incu­ri­ous, unin­tel­li­gent, faith­less worshipper.

            “But why did­n’t you report them to the school authorities?”

            “I did, sir. I did. The vice-prin­ci­pal him­self has pun­ished them over this issue. But they way­laid me again and beat the day­lights out of me and swore to kill me if I report­ed them again.”

            Abdul stopped. “And you believed them?”

            Tomi­wa nod­ded, his eyes heavy and shadowed.

            “This is unac­cept­able!” Abdul bawled. Then he caught him­self, as if he would have said more. He inhaled deeply. “Your parents—what about them?”

            Tomi­wa thought about his father’s beer-dark face, his moth­er’s blank exhaust­ed stare and his broth­er’s pained breath­less look.

            “I…um…couldn’t approach them. I did­n’t want them involved.”

            “To your own detriment?”

            For a while, Tomi­wa thought Abdul was going to slap him. He had raised his voice and a new ener­gy had entered him. But he only walked on, his face turned away.

            “I over­heard one of those imps call­ing you some­thing,” Abdul said. “I could­n’t hear it clear­ly. What was it?”

            A new, heavy silence fell.

            “They…call…me…Fagstard.” Tomi­wa’s voice trembled.

            “Fag-what?” Abdul’s face crum­pled into lines of utter confusion.

            “Fagstard, sir.”

            Abdul scratched his head. “Well, my broth­er, help your big broth­er out o. ‘Fang’ I know. ‘Cus­tard’ I know. But which one is ‘Fagstard’? They did not teach us this in school o.”

            Tomi­wa smiled sad­ly, touched by Abdul’s dis­cre­tion, his delib­er­ate avoid­ance of words that hurt like knives, but he also wished Abdul had hurled those words anyway.

            “Sir, I use the dic­tio­nary a lot. I am sure Ayomikun formed the word out of a join­ing of the words ‘fag’ and ‘bas­tard’.”

            A shad­ow fell between Abdul’s thick eye­brows. “No, Tomi­wa. You can’t be so sure about that.”

            Tomi­wa took a deep calm­ing breath before he spoke. “It’s okay, sir. I know what I saw in the dic­tio­nary, and I also know what I saw in Christo­pher Ayomikun’s eyes each time he called me by the name.”

            “Well, that’s not your name. It is foul. Christo­pher has to know that. You don’t deserve it. No one deserves to be called such non­sense.” Abdul kicked at a stone; his feet moved more quick­ly. He seemed to be gulp­ing air. After a while, he spoke again. “At least you know what they call you. Some of us, we don’t know the name of what we are. Even Ayomikun does not know yet what he is. The day he finds out, he will see that he is some­thing much worse than he could ever imagine.”

            Tomi­wa tugged at a tall stalk over­hang­ing the path. He won­dered what Abdul meant by that. He want­ed to ask for elab­o­ra­tion but Abdul was still speaking.

            “Back then on cam­pus, we had this room­mate. A fun­ny, gen­er­ous chap like that. He walked sway­ing his hips. He had a high-pitched voice and if you were not care­ful while lis­ten­ing to him from a dis­tance, you would con­clude it was a girl speak­ing. He hard­ly ever spoke with­out twirling his fin­gers and mak­ing dra­mat­ic faces. We called him ‘Mr. Pep­per’. He would cook and all of us would eat even more por­tions than he, the own­er of the food, would eat. He always left his cup­board open. You could pick any food item you want­ed from it. He always smiled and made us laugh by exag­ger­at­ing his walk. He said the only rea­son he did that to cre­ate laugh­ter was because we didn’t see him as mere enter­tain­ment. There was a time like that when peo­ple tried to talk him down because of his girli­ness. See eh. We all rose to defend him o. Very bril­liant boy. Grad­u­at­ed with a first-class. And he was a musi­cian, too. Would play this love­ly black gui­tar on rainy nights.”

            “Wow,” Tomi­wa said, gen­uine­ly wowed. Hear­ing about some­body that was almost exact­ly like him felt like redemp­tion itself.

            “Yes. Wow.”

            But Tomi­wa won­dered, “Cor­p­er Abdul.”


            “Would you have defend­ed him like that if he had been stingy, dumb and unfriendly?”

            Abdul cocked his head side­ways and scratched it again. Then he con­fessed, “I’m not sure oth­ers would have defend­ed him. They were like, ‘Who will now cook for us?’ But I would. I know would. I just liked him. No reason.”

            Tomi­wa plunged into ques­tions. “So how did he end up? Was he your set? Where was he post­ed to?”

            Abdul smiled, and Tomi­wa thought he saw a hint of sad­ness in the smile.

            “What, sir?” he asked.

            “Ismail is dead.”

            Tomi­wa stopped walk­ing. Abdul also stopped walk­ing. The trees sighed.

            “How… How did he die?” Get­ting those words out was like self-torturing.

            “There are some things that can’t be explained to you now.” Abdul spoke briskly. He looked rue­ful, as if he thought he had said way too much.

            Tomi­wa gazed at the foot­path. “Did he die because he was like me?”

            Abdul slipped into silence, a long, long silence. Final­ly, he said, “You are not ripe to know some things, my dear. But one day, I promise, you will know.”

            He looked like he want­ed to add some­thing, but they had got to the busy road, mar­ket and vehic­u­lar nois­es spoil­ing the air. And Tomi­wa thought about all the times he had tried to drink up his mother’s kerosene or chew up her bar soaps, and how on each attempt his lit­tle brother’s face had flashed into his mind, thin and sal­low, and he won­dered just how much was left to know. Abdul wait­ed and watched him cross to the oth­er side and dis­ap­pear into a corner.


*                                      *                                    *


            After that after­noon, Christo­pher Ayomikun and his boys were locked into inter­minable coun­sel­ing ses­sions with Abdul in the staff room, after school, repeat­ed­ly, and they no longer ambushed Tomi­wa on the path home­ward, nor harassed him as fierce­ly as before in school. After that after­noon, Abdul start­ed send­ing him a flask of food every lunch break and, after clos­ing, they walked the lone­ly path togeth­er and talked freely about all of Abdul’s past girl­friends and the cur­rent one who was in her final year at the Ogun State Uni­ver­si­ty and who vis­it­ed Ije­bu-Ode twice in a fort­night. But it was this first after­noon, this first walk, this first con­ver­sa­tion, this day in Octo­ber, that Tomi­wa would always remem­ber. The moment Abdul, a young man with no illic­it inten­tions, held him by the hand and picked him up from the dust. He won­dered what Abdul had seen. Abdul had cer­tain­ly not seen just a boy who liked boys. He had not seen just a boy being bul­lied and who need­ed his help. He had not seen just a help­less boy. Abdul had seen a broth­er. A full human.

            And from that episode, Tomi­wa was strength­ened. Ele­vat­ed. Human­ized and for­ti­fied. One day, it slipped out of his mouth, that famous­ly await­ed ques­tion of: “Where do you live in Lagos, sir?” And Abdul had hur­ried­ly told him where, his lips stop­ping soon­er than the words had come out, as if it had slipped out of him, too.

            Months lat­er, as the year wound down into Decem­ber and the har­mat­tan descend­ed in all its cold and dry­ness, Tomi­wa would still remem­ber that day in Octo­ber. He would see girls rub­bing an extra sheen of gloss on their lips and think of the first time he had rubbed on lip­stick. It was his mother’s. A pur­ple shade. And it was, like this, Christ­mas­time. His moth­er had seen it on him, and he had won­dered what she was going to do to him. But she had mere­ly laughed and asked him not to use that shade of lip­stick any­more because it didn’t suit his skin col­or. He had been sur­prised, but his sur­prise had been faint and fibre­less; his moth­er had always regard­ed his dif­fer­ence with the calm­ness of a wise silence. She had nev­er judged him, nev­er react­ed to his authen­tic being with the hor­ror of oth­er peo­ple. He would take this mem­o­ry, this lack of hor­ror, and with it go and vis­it Abdul in his home in Lagos to spend Christ­mas. Abdul, shocked to see him, would ask him—How!—and Tomi­wa would laugh a bel­ly laugh and slump against him in the weak­ness of that laugh­ter and tell him that he had lied to his par­ents and broth­er that he want­ed to spend Christ­mas with his mater­nal aunt in Lagos, a staunch Deep­er Lif­er who detest­ed phones and com­mu­ni­cat­ed only by let­ters. And Abdul would laugh deeply, shoul­ders shak­ing, and smack the boy’s head and call him, “Omo kata”—mis­chie­vous child—and wel­come him “into my hum­ble abode”. Tomi­wa would look around the siz­able room, the walls bare of pho­tographs, the air full of a dis­tinct­ly sin­gle scent, and would won­der about ask­ing whether Abdul lived alone and his girl­friend now vis­it­ed him often, whether she lived in Lagos as well. Then he would look at Abdul in his sin­glet, his broad chest taper­ing down to a small, dim­pled waist, his mus­cles step­ping out more obvi­ous­ly than they did in his NYSC shirt, and decide not to ask any­thing at all.

            Abdul would cook spaghet­ti and fried eggs, which Tomi­wa would find delight­ful­ly deli­cious, and they would sit on the mat­tress and eat it togeth­er. Over the meal, while the street chil­dren fired their bangers past the open win­dow, they would remem­ber Christo­pher Ayomikun and the rest of the class, and cack­le away into the night. After many hours of talk­ing and laugh­ing and yawn­ing, while in bed with him, Tomi­wa would think of sleep­ing and fac­ing him. He would imag­ine Abdul breath­ing into his face. He would shut his eyes and savor the sen­sa­tion. After a while, he would open them and lie in the oppo­site direc­tion of the bed, so that his face nes­tled close to Abdul’s warm feet. Abdul’s feet were always warm. Abdul would stir awake, look at him and give a faint smile of reas­sur­ance. In that smile was You are safe with me.Tomi­wa would mar­vel, once again, at this unshift­ing open­ness. He would wrap an arm grate­ful­ly around Abdul’s right foot and hold it close to his cheek.

            And sleep hap­pi­ly into Christ­mas morning.

From the writer


:: Account ::

HISTORY: There is homo­pho­bia in Nige­ria and there are severe cas­es of queer people—especially the young—getting bul­lied, dis­pos­sessed and, in extreme sit­u­a­tions, killed. It is crim­i­nal to be homo­sex­u­al or bisex­u­al in Nige­ria. Most queer peo­ple can­not come out to their loved ones as who they real­ly are. And it is hard­er for chil­dren whose sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion is already assumed because of how they present, for instance, effem­i­na­cy. Such kids are often lone­ly and mis­un­der­stood, and it takes only a mir­a­cle to find a friend out there.

SKETCH: I drew out this sto­ry around a sit­u­a­tion I had in ear­ly sec­ondary school (or what is called “high school”). I was bul­lied by school­mates who thought my effem­i­na­cy was an excuse for them to ridicule and malign me. To fur­ther sat­i­rize homo­pho­bic slurs and attacks, I thick­ened the main char­ac­ter with oth­er nuances going on in his life that con­tribute to his dis­il­lu­sion­ment in human kind­ness. I delib­er­ate­ly sketched it around a rare friend­ship curve, an avun­cu­lar guid­ance that is high­ly con­tro­ver­sial espe­cial­ly in a world still uncom­fort­able with, and igno­rant about, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. But the old­er man in this sto­ry is straight and not abu­sive; I only want­ed to show the grit­ti­ness of an asex­u­al pup­py crush.

MARKER: I set the sto­ry in Nige­ria, where homo­pho­bia and the bul­ly­ing of effem­i­nate men still rage on. But it is such a uni­ver­sal­ly rel­e­vant con­flict that I have had most of my for­eign beta read­ers say they could relate to every emo­tion. I set it in the years pre­ced­ing the pass­ing of the anti-gay law by the Niger­ian gov­er­ment (mean­ing the years before 2014). I did this to min­i­mize the exces­sive hor­ror val­ue of the sto­ry. I wrote the sto­ry using a third-per­son point of view, osten­si­bly to make the read­er watch with a safe detach­ment but actu­al­ly to mag­ni­fy the sheer hor­ror of bul­ly­ing and lone­li­ness. The only  grave trig­gers in the sto­ry are homo­pho­bic slurs used by the antag­o­nists. The rest is a beau­ti­ful sto­ry of friend­ship and redemp­tion. I did my best to use plain Eng­lish throughout.

REPOSITORY OF INFLUENCES: I did not use exten­sive mate­ri­als for research for this sto­ry. All I had to do was take a look into my own ear­ly teenage, the strug­gles as an effem­i­nate Niger­ian child, my expe­ri­ences. The sto­ry is also heav­i­ly influ­enced by my deep, eager hunger to see some jus­tice hap­pen to the lone­ly, bruised queer child out there. I hope the sto­ry gives some kind of light to some­one out there.


Enit’ayanfe Ayoso­ju­mi Akin­sanya was born and raised in Nige­ria. He is the first-place win­ner of the 2022 Arts Lounge Inter­con­ti­nen­tal Lit­er­ary Award for Non-fic­tion, first-place win­ner of the 2022 inter­na­tion­al Itanile Sto­ry Award, a major final­ist for the 2018 Nation­al GTB Dusty Man­u­script New Nov­el­ist Award, and a top final­ist for the 2023 Afriton­doShort Sto­ry Prize. He is twen­ty-eight years old and the author of “How to Catch a Sto­ry That Does­n’t Exist”, a col­lec­tion of queer sto­ries pub­lished in 2022. He lives in Nige­ria. He tweets at @OsumareAy­o­mi.

Houses in the Sky

Fiction / Nicola Koh


:: Houses in the Sky ::

Okay, sure, fourteen’s a bit old to be build­ing tree­hous­es. But a) I’d nev­er had one and Sal­ly Long said I’d been deprived, and b) this wasn’t going to be just a few rot­ting planks nailed to a branch, this was going to be the best god­damn tree­house east of the Mis­sis­sip­pi. After all, our par­ents were archi­tects at the best firm in Min­neso­ta, and we researched for months, trad­ing design ideas and learn­ing to sketch.

            It was code­named Oper­a­tion House in the Sky and kept strict­ly clas­si­fied. It was going to take a lot to con­vince said par­ents; specif­i­cal­ly, my mother.

            The Mater­nal­ly Ori­ent­ed Parental Unit came from Malaysia, a coun­try where kids appar­ent­ly had no rights. There were zero dis­cus­sion about eight pm cur­fews, the two hours a week allot­ted for video games (pend­ing good behav­ior), or the list of chores which could have tak­en a whole toi­let paper role. We got top grades and won awards, or else. Any sniff of dis­si­dence result­ed in hours-long lec­tures on ingrat­i­tude, self­ish­ness, and my-house-my-rules.

            When I’d point out my moth­er nev­er pushed her sub­or­di­nates half this hard, she’d say, “With them, there’s too much to fix. You’re like a pot with only a few cracks, so of course I want to fix the ones that are there.

Sal­ly thought the best time for me to bring up H.I.T.S was around my birth­day in late July, when she’d be more amenable to requests. I said she’d just think it imper­ti­nent to ask a favor on the anniver­sary of the twen­ty-three hours it took to pop me out. It turned out to be moot either way when ear­ly in the month, the moth­er yelled at me and my broth­er to come to the liv­ing room. We assem­bled, exchang­ing the uni­ver­sal look for what the hell did you do this time.

            My moth­er hat­ed that liv­ing room: trape­zoid with a ten-inch depres­sion that pro­vid­ed less sep­a­ra­tion than a place to trip and a faux-mar­ble fire­place with Gre­co columns designed pre­sum­ably by some­one who’d only watched Disney’s Her­cules. When she sum­moned me and my broth­er there, it was almost cer­tain­ly sit­u­a­tion critical.

            “You two are los­ing touch with your roots.”


            “We’re tak­ing a trip back to Malaysia.”

            Shit, shit, shit.

            The H.I.T.S timetable was offi­cial­ly in tat­ters. For that mat­ter, so was sum­mer. Hell, my life might be at risk—no exag­ger­a­tion. I’ve been chased by packs of mon­keys, twice, and the last vis­it I’d spent three days in the hos­pi­tal with food poi­son­ing where the nurs­es poked me five times look­ing for a vein. We were also warned to be care­ful to wear our bags away from the street because peo­ple on motor­cy­cles might snatch it while you were walking.

            Even sans out­right tragedy, the prog­no­sis was grim. Flights so long we’d be at gen­uine risk of deep vein throm­bo­sis. Days of shit­ty-long jet­lag, the first in the mid­dle of an eight-hour-min­i­mum wel­come by the fam­i­ly (which for Eurasians means cousins, aunts, uncles, sec­ond cousins, and some­times den­tists), where we’ll be con­stant­ly told we look tired and should get some rest, but won’t actu­al­ly be allowed to, and receive the mul­ti­ple ver­dicts on whether we need­ed to eat more or less. Then it’s sweat­ing non­stop for weeks while eat­ing gameshow-weird food and vis­it­ing one site after anoth­er full of great cul­tur­al rel­e­vance and noth­ing actu­al­ly inter­est­ing. Not to men­tion at least ten giant fam­i­ly din­ners and the days-long marathon of goodbyes.

            But Sally’s voice float­ed into my head. Lose the bat­tle, win the war. She’d said that when the moth­er vetoed an Ari­ana Grande con­cert in May and again when I was for­bid­den from pierc­ing my ears. It was attrib­uted to Sun Tzu the first time and Aris­to­tle the sec­ond, but it was almost cer­tain­ly from a meme. It did make sense, though, not that I’d tell her. So I just nod­ded and asked when we were going and what I should pack. My father and broth­er may have stared like I’d gone cer­ti­fi­able, but my mother’s lips curled ever so slight­ly in surprise.

            Three cul­tur­al-hori­zons-broad­en­ing expe­di­tions in, how­ev­er, I was start­ing to won­der if the war was real­ly worth it. By the fifth, I was ready to dump Sal­ly in one of the many mud­dy rivers, prefer­ably one espe­cial­ly full of snakes and eels.

            The trip in ques­tion was a vis­it to my mother’s child­hood home in some rail­road vil­lage a thou­sand miles from moder­ni­ty. Every­thing smelled like mud and cow dung and was sur­round­ed by sprawl­ing bush­es and trees with leaves so green they shone. My moth­er didn’t know who was liv­ing there in her old house, so we just walked around it. It was bare­ly more than a hut raised on con­crete stilts in a dirt clearing.

            “Don’t get too close, cobras like to nest under these hous­es,” she said, like it was a per­fect­ly nor­mal thing to say.

            There were two bed­rooms, a liv­ing room, and a kitchen, with a table out back on a slab of con­crete serv­ing as a din­ing room, shel­tered by walls and a roof made of rust­ing tin sheet. My moth­er often told us how my grand­moth­er favoured my uncle. She’d make her and my aun­ty mop while he sat and read the news­pa­per, only mov­ing to raise his legs for them to get under him. She espe­cial­ly brought this up when we com­plained about our hours-long sets of chores. She’d nev­er men­tioned how lit­tle there was to mop.

            “How come the gov­ern­ment didn’t let Grandad have a bet­ter house?” my broth­er asked.

            My moth­er shrugged. “He was just a rail­road con­duc­tor. They didn’t get paid much. He would fight with Grand­ma a lot because she was care­less with the money.”

            In a house that small, where did you hide from yelling?

            “Can we go?” I asked.

            “Look at those vents,” my moth­er said, point­ing to slits about three-quar­ters of the way up the house. “Such a sim­ple and effi­cient way to keep a house cool.”

            My moth­er loved shit like that. She paid her way through col­lege and then got a full ride to Cor­nell for her Mas­ters in Archi­tec­ture. After my father joined her in Min­neso­ta, peo­ple often asked him how he could leave his home and fam­i­ly to be with a new wife.

            He’d say, “Have you met her?” My mother’s will is tsunamic.

            It was hours before we final­ly got back to my aunty’s house in Kuala Lumpur. I flopped on the bed, got out my iPad, and Face­timed Sal­ly. “How’s civilization?”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “It’s not like you’re liv­ing in the jungle.”

            “It’s prob­a­bly less swel­ter­ing in the jun­gle,” I said, jab­bing at the tem­per­a­ture but­ton for the A.C. “My par­ents tried to make me eat chick­en feet.”

            “Ew,” Sal­ly said.

            “They already made me eat the fish head curry.”

            “Fish head??”

            “It was huge, too. I tried to make it talk, but my moth­er told me not to ‘act the child’.”

            “You should have tak­en a picture.”

            I snort­ed. “With what? They gave me a flip phone to use.”

            “Oh, gross. That’s worse than chick­en feet.” Sal­ly sighed. “Still, I wish I was some­where cool like Malaysia.”

            “Trust me, cool it is not,” I said. “In any sense.”

            The moth­er start­ed yelling from downstairs.

            “More famil­ial oblig­a­tions?” Sal­ly asked.

            I shrugged. “Probs screwed up the homework.”

            “Home­work?” Sal­ly said. “Gab­by. You’re. On. Vacation.”

            “Tell that to Drill Sargeant Chili Padi,” I said. “We’re writ­ing reports on Malaysian life.”

            “Good lordy, have fun with that,” Sal­ly said. “And keep but­ter­ing up your mother.”

            “I still say we just plant a tree in your yard. It’ll be faster.”

            The mother’s yells were grow­ing loud­er and decid­ed­ly less patient.

            “Get out of here,” Sal­ly said and hung up.

            Turned out the Por­tuguese col­o­nized Mela­ka not Penang; Malaysia’s inde­pen­dence date was 1957, not some long-ass time ago; and the Dutch and British East India com­pa­nies did not trade ter­ri­to­ries like Poké­mon.

            “Even your gram­mar is atro­cious,” my moth­er said, whip­ping out one of the dozens of red pens she seemed to have sequestered in every bag, pock­et, prob­a­bly the lin­ings of her clothes. After ten min­utes, the pages were more red than black.

            “You might as well rewrite it,” I noted.

            “I’m not doing your work for you.”

            “You did that audi­to­ri­um project.”

            Last Spring our class had tak­en part in a city­wide con­test to design a mod­el auditorium.

            “You know all the par­ents did it,” she mut­tered. “Espe­cial­ly Mr. Long.”

            The last, at least, was true.

            After anoth­er five min­utes, I said, “Can we go to 1‑Utama again?”

            “We didn’t come here to go to malls.”

            “Did you know it’s twice the size of the Mall of America?”

            “You looked that up, but you can’t spell Tereng­ganu properly.”


            “No means no.”

            Sal­ly nev­er had this prob­lem. When I wasn’t allowed to watch Hunger Games until my moth­er vet­ted it, Sal­ly told me dri­ly that Mr. Long wouldn’t have cared if she’d watched Saw. When I was ground­ed for get­ting a B‑plus on midterms, she informed me air­i­ly she got thir­ty dol­lars for an A and twen­ty for a B.

            “Do you get twen­ty-five for an A‑minus?” I asked.

            She sniffed. “Dad­dy says minus­es are just what teach­ers use to annoy their students.”

            When I final­ly returned State­side, Sal­ly and I went to the Coney’s Cones road­side shack to get ice-cream.

            “You have no idea how good this tastes,” I said.

            “It’s just a reg­u­lar old twist.”

            “Malaysian ice-cream sucks,” I said. “Their cows must be deficient.”

            “Aren’t Asians lac­tose intol­er­ant?” Sal­ly said. “Maybe that’s why you fart up a storm every time we come here.”

            “I do not.”

            “It’s the worst.”

            I shoved her almost off the rail­ing, but she stead­ied her­self and stuck out a straw­ber­ry cov­ered tongue.

            “Also, how are you not the slight­est bit dark­er?” she said.

            “The moth­er made us wear buck­ets of sun tan lotion.”

            “One day on the lake, and I still got burnt,” she said, turn­ing her back to show me.

            I traced the burn. “Ouch.”

            “Also, we’re in trou­ble,” Sal­ly said after a moment, strange­ly breathily.


            “Our audi­to­ri­ums made the finals.”

            The burn was the shape of a bird, I decid­ed. It tin­gled on the sticky tips of my fin­gers as if it were electric.

            “So what do we do when our par­ents find out we chucked theirs?” Sal­ly said eventually.

            I shrugged. “Ours were better.”

            Sal­ly gig­gled. “Daddy’s was sooo bor­ing. How is he even a real architect?”

            “The big­ger thing to wor­ry about is H.I.T.S.”

            “You’ve got to talk to your mom. Today.”

            “Dude, I just got back.”

            “To. Day.” Sal­ly turned around and wiped my cheek. “You’re such a slob.”

            She jumped down from the rail­ing. At the traf­fic light, she turned to salute me. When she dis­ap­peared around the cor­ner, I touched the place where she’d smeared ice-cream on my cheek.

            At nine-thir­ty, I found my moth­er fold­ing clothes in the kitchen. “Hey, Ma?”

            “What?” my moth­er said, not look­ing up.

            “Can Sal­ly and I build a tree­house in the oak?”

            She stared at me. “Are you mon­keys? Decent peo­ple live on the ground.”

            “It’s basi­cal­ly a req­ui­site for a sub­ur­ban Amer­i­can childhood.”

            “If Amer­i­cans walked on their hands, would you do it too?”

            I chose not to point out that I was, de fac­to, Amer­i­can. “We’d make it real­ly cool.”

            She huffed. “Every­thing with the Amer­i­cans is cool this, cool that.”

            “I mean sophis­ti­cat­ed,” I said. “Like a mod­el house. All our own design.”

            My moth­er paused with a t‑shirt in her hand. For all the ser­mons on grat­i­tude, I knew she hat­ed our house. The lay­out wast­ed space, it couldn’t hold heat for shit, the walls were paper thin, and the exte­ri­or was a 50s cook­ie cut­ter sub­ur­ban style that was out­dat­ed before the hous­es were fin­ished. And the liv­ing room: the way she glared at it when she thought I wasn’t looking.

            “It could be the best tree­house in the Mid­west. They’d prob­a­bly talk about it on MPR.”

            “Why must every­thing in this coun­try be best, great­est, most,” she muttered.

            But I could see it work­ing behind her eyes. After fold­ing a pair of jeans and two shirts, she said, “I’ll think about it.”

            The next morn­ing, I patient­ly chased corn flakes around my bowl until they start­ed to break while my moth­er was on the phone for almost an hour. When she sat down and start­ed but­ter­ing slices of toast with infu­ri­at­ing­ly care­ful strokes, still I kept grave­yard quiet.

            “About this tree­house,” she said, finally.

            “Hmm,” I said with a non­cha­lance I def­i­nite­ly hadn’t prac­ticed for an hour.

            “We can build it.”

            “Oh, cool.”

            I washed my bowl with ago­niz­ing delib­er­ate­ness, then went to fetch our design. It was a thing of beau­ty, print­ed with actu­al blue­print on pro­fes­sion­al 36-by-24 inch sheet, dia­grams and exten­sive notes.

            “What is this?” my moth­er said. She looked at it for a sec­ond, then frowned. “No, that won’t work.”

            She flipped it over and start­ed sketch­ing. It looked noth­ing like our design.

            My throat clenched. “Why not?”

            “Too com­pli­cat­ed to explain.”

            “Can we at least try?” I asked.

            “Why set your­self up for fail­ure?” my moth­er muttered.

            I real­ized then our fatal error. We’d been so focused on the need to con­vince my moth­er to build the tree­house, we for­got we had to also con­vince her to let us build the damn thing.

            And just like that it was all in smoke. H.I.T.S mis­sion report: failure.

            My moth­er went through four drafts and ten revi­sions to her final design. Twice we had to build the imposter tree­house then tear it down because of some triv­ial flaw or another.

            “Still work­ing on that?” Sal­ly asked, nod­ding at the bones of the lat­est attempt.

            We were sit­ting on the lawn, which was grow­ing unruly because no one had time to mow it. I plucked dan­de­lions and blew their spores out.

            “We’ll prob­a­bly be going at the stu­pid thing until the zom­bie apocalypse.”.

            “At least you’ll have a place to hide. Dad­dy refus­es to build a bunker.”

            “You can chill with us,” I said. “My broth­er will want to fight the zom­bies anyway.”

            She start­ed mak­ing a chain of dan­de­lion stems. “I don’t know. Your mom would get on my case about how I shoot them.”

            “Right between the eyes. Or no dessert.”

            “She’d even nag the zom­bies,” Sal­ly said. Her voice went low and stac­ca­to. “Backs straight! Stop limp­ing! Chew the brains before swallowing!”

            I fell over laugh­ing. “Oh my god, don’t let her hear you,” I wheezed. “I’ll be ground­ed for a year.”

            “You got spores,” Sal­ly said when I got up. She start­ed comb­ing my hair.

            My spine shiv­ered. “At least it adds color.”

            “Dude, your hair’s gor­geous. It’s so black and shiny.”

            “But you have the best hair,” I said.

            Sal­ly fin­gered one of her locks, so pale it snatched the reds of the set­ting sun.

            “Yours is bet­ter,” she said.

            I start­ed to protest, but Sal­ly point­ed to the tree­house. “Your mom’s calling.”

            “What, Ma?” I shouted.

            “Come hand me the lev­el,” my moth­er yelled.

            “Give me a minute.”


            Sal­ly looped the dan­de­lion neck­lace over my head.

            “You’d bet­ter go. Got­ta fin­ish that thing before the zom­bies get here,” she said, wink­ing as she got up.


            “O.K, Ma!”

            When I brought her the lev­el, my moth­er looked at me quizzi­cal­ly. “What are you wearing?”

            “Noth­ing,” I said.

            I tried to take the neck­lace off gen­tly, but it broke.

            It was two more months before the moth­er was sat­is­fied. Two half-lev­els, a sloped roof, gen­tly pol­ished wood. And as much as I hat­ed to admit, it was a vir­tu­oso in Amer­i­can tra­di­tion­al minimalism.

            Sal­ly and I vol­un­teered to be the tri­al mon­keys. She said she was only com­ing along to indulge me, but I could tell she was just as gid­dy. Sur­round­ed by all that red and amber and gold, it was like being cocooned by fire.

            “I don’t know why more peo­ple don’t sleep in trees in the Fall,” I said.

            “Because it’s freez­ing?” Sal­ly said. “How are you only wear­ing one sweater?”

            “It’s not that bad. Must be my trop­i­cal blood.”

            “You’ve been to Malaysia like what, four times?”

            “Blood doesn’t for­get,” I said, solemn­ly. “Or so the moth­er claims.”

            “I’ll nev­er under­stand her,” she said. “No won­der you’re so weird.”

            “Says the girl who eats every­thing in her sand­wich one-by-one.”

            “It tastes bet­ter that way,” she said. “Also, we should be tak­ing pictures.”

            “Why live life through a camera?”

            “Wow, now you’re even sound­ing like her,” Sal­ly said. “And the point of pic­tures is to make oth­ers jealous?”

            She bus­ied her­self choos­ing the right fil­ter and cap­tion. “You see the way Carl’s been look­ing at you?” she said, peer­ing at me from the cor­ner of her eyes.

            I shrugged “He’s got the yel­low fever bad.”

            “I mean three Asian girls in a row. But he is on the bas­ket­ball team.”

            “That’s because he’s already six feet. He can bare­ly toss a ball into a canyon.”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “So you’re not inter­est­ed in him?”

            “No dat­ing until I’m out of col­lege with a job, remem­ber,” I said. “Prefer­ably with a doc­tor­ate or two.”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “Yeah, but if you could date him, would you?”


            Sal­ly nod­ded. “Yeah, I wouldn’t date him either.”

            There seemed to be an empha­sis on him. My stom­ach clenched unpleasantly

Around eight, my moth­er came by to tell us to go to sleep.

            “Oooh, bed­time for the baby?” Sal­ly gig­gled until I shoved her over.

            We got out our sleep­ing bags. “This thing smells like hot dogs,” I said.

            “Tell your mom not to shop at Good­will,” Sal­ly said.

            We talked for bare­ly ten min­utes before Sal­ly fell into inco­her­ence. But I couldn’t get myself to sleep. My breaths mist­ed above me, but I some­how felt uncom­fort­ably warm, like there was a heat gnaw­ing through my chest. I wres­tled my way out of the sleep­ing bag.

            Sally’s face was a pale glow, cheeks trem­bling with every snore.

            I nudged her awake.

            “Move over,” I mumbled.

            I crawled in and set­tled on my side, face-to-face with her, the bag squeez­ing us tight enough that our breasts just bare­ly shift­ed against each oth­er with every breath. When I opened my eyes, hers were fixed on me, almost emer­ald in the dark.

            “Hi,” Sal­ly said. Her voice was quavering.

            It felt like hours before I leaned clos­er. I could smell the gar­lic from spaghet­ti din­ner on her breath.

            The only time I’d ever kissed some­one it was rough and wet and gross. Some cousin of a girl from school at spin the bot­tle. I left the game mak­ing a face.

            These kiss­es were rough, and wet, and beautiful.

            In the morn­ing, after we’d dropped Sal­ly off, my moth­er asked, “Did some­thing hap­pen last night?”

            “No,” I said.

            “I’ve nev­er heard you two be so quiet.”

            “Why do you always have to inter­ro­gate me?” I said, foolishly.

            She pulled over. “You’re hid­ing some­thing, and I do not like it.”

            “Noth­ing happened.”


            “Oh my god. We kissed, okay?”

            “Oh,” my moth­er said, start­ing the car again. “I was wor­ried it was drugs.”

            I couldn’t believe it. I texted Sal­ly—my mom guessed and shes not flipping?

            —holy shit. maybe the zom­bies got her

I start­ed plas­ter­ing the reply box with laugh­ing emojis.

            “Of course, you can’t date.”

            The words didn’t reg­is­ter for a moment. “What?”

            “You know the rule, no dat­ing till after college.”

            My blood turned ice even as my skull felt like it was on fire. “That’s bullshit.”

            “Watch your language.”

            When we got back home, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceil­ing. I was so numb. I stared at the line of laugh­ing faces on the unsent text, then delet­ed them one by one.

            The next day, Sal­ly found me at my lock­er. When she leaned into me, I backed away.

            Sal­ly flinched. “What the hell?”

            “It’s…” I said. “I mean…”

            Sal­ly bit the cor­ner of her lip. “It’s your moth­er isn’t it.”

            I couldn’t look at her.

            “Oh my god, Gab­by, stand up to her for once in your life!”

            “You don’t under­stand,” I said.

            “Yeah, I don’t,” Sal­ly said. “It’s the twen­ty-first fuck­ing cen­tu­ry. What kind of fas­cist bans a teenag­er from dating?”

            My head snapped up. “Look, I’m sor­ry my moth­er isn’t some pushover you can bat your eyes at and get what­ev­er the hell you want!”

            Sal­ly blinked slow­ly, like a lizard. “My dad’s not a pushover. He’s just not certifiable.”

            “My moth­er only wants what’s best for me.”

            “That umbil­i­cal cord looks real good on you,” she said, turn­ing to leave.

            “God help us all if you don’t get your way for once!”

            Sal­ly stiff­ened, then kept walking.

            The silence between our two desks start­ed to grow thick­er than smog, then spread through the whole class­room as every­one ner­vous­ly gauged the sit­u­a­tion. Halfway through Wednes­day, Ms. Walk­er asked Sal­ly to switch to a dif­fer­ent desk. She moved with­out a word.

            If school was a cold war, home was full nuclear. My moth­er and I screamed our throats ragged as the bat­tle­fronts mul­ti­plied. My ridicu­lous extra home­work. How Amer­i­can­ized I was. How many times I’d been ground­ed for miss­ing a smudge of dust. How, when peo­ple at church asked me how I was, I would respond, “You know, just sur­viv­ing the slave­mas­ter. Wa-pish.”

            When I called her a bitch, my mother’s eyes widened far enough for her eye­balls to roll out. Pass­ing my brother’s room on the way to storm­ing to mine, he was cow­er­ing on his bed.
            “What the hell are you look­ing at?” I snapped.

            The only time my moth­er and I paused hos­til­i­ties was when my father gin­ger­ly brought up fam­i­ly ther­a­py, and we con­cur­rent­ly let him know our shared pieces of mind.

            Mean­while at school, I’d tak­en to wear­ing gobs of con­ceal­er so no one could tell how much I was cry­ing. I laughed loud­ly at the weak­est jokes. Sal­ly still wouldn’t look at me.

            When my moth­er con­front­ed me about my plum­met­ing grades, some­thing broke.

            “I hate you,” I said.

            Her head snapped back, like she’d been elec­tro­cut­ed. “What?” she stammered.

            “You’ve ruined my life.” My voice was as monot­o­nous as an answer­ing machine. Press “1” for How Gab­by Real­ly Feels. “I. Fuck­ing. Hate you.”

            When I passed my parent’s bed­room that night, my moth­er was sob­bing on my father’s shoul­der. He was plead­ing silent­ly for me to say some­thing. I rolled my eyes and went to bed.

            Then a few days lat­er, at lunch in the cafe­te­ria, an announce­ment on the P.A from Vice-Prin­ci­pal Colne. Our mod­el audi­to­ri­ums had won prizes for the city com­pe­ti­tion. My chest clenched. Build­ing those with Sal­ly felt like an episode from some show we’d watched obses­sive­ly then abrupt­ly for­got about.

            “Our own Sal­ly Long’s placed third, and Gabrielle Deli­ma placed second!”

            I glanced at Sal­ly, two tables away, but she didn’t turn around.

            “Please give them a big round of applause.”

            The cafe­te­ria clapped awk­ward­ly. Sally’s voice sliced through the silence that followed.

            “It’s because she’s Asian,” she was say­ing. “Affir­ma­tive Action bullshit.”

            A meat­ball sailed through the air and splat­tered on the back of her head. It took me a moment to real­ize I’d been the one who’d thrown it. Sal­ly whipped around just in time for mari­nara sauce to explode all over her face.

            “Don’t you dare talk about me that way!” I screamed.

            Sal­ly grabbed a glob of spaghet­ti and hurled it back. Sal­ly, per­fect in every way but this: the noo­dles missed me by a mile and struck the the­ater kids.

            “It’s called free speech!” she screamed. “Look it up!”

            Any­thing else she might have said was lost in the ensu­ing mael­strom of food. We stood unmov­ing through it all even as pieces of boiled broc­coli and dis­in­te­grat­ing meat­balls splat­tered on us, and milk and pop soaked our clothes. Nei­ther of us would be the one to look away as fury redou­bled between our eyes like micro­phone feedback.

            “What the hell was that?” Vice-Prin­ci­pal Colne said, nine­ty min­utes lat­er, furi­ous­ly dab­bing an orangey grease spot on his shirt.

            “She start­ed it,” Sal­ly said.

            “She insult­ed me,” I shot back.

            “I don’t care,” Colne said. “Who start­ed what. Who said what. Deten­tion, two weeks.”

            He silenced our protest with a slash of his hand, then ges­tured toward the door. Mrs. Long and my moth­er walked in. They sat on either side of us, avoid­ing our eyes as they gave the stan­dard words of con­tri­tion and promis­es of good behavior.

            “Now apol­o­gize,” Colne said to us.

            “Sor­ry,” we muttered.

            “Not to me,” Colne said. “To one another.”

            Sal­ly froze too.

            “Look at each oth­er,” he said.

            It was the first time in weeks that I’d been this close to her. I’d for­got­ten how green her eyes were. Con­ceal­er was flak­ing beneath them.


            I was sur­prised how much it sound­ed like we meant it.

            Sal­ly looked away. “Good aim. You should try­out for softball.”

            My lip twitched. “Maybe if they got bet­ter uniforms.”

            When we got home, I start­ed toward my bedroom.

            “Wait,” my moth­er said.

            “Can I at least take a nap?” I said.

            “Please?” she said softly.

            I froze mid-step. I couldn’t remem­ber my moth­er ever say­ing that to me. When she col­lapsed into the sofa in the liv­ing room, I approached war­i­ly and sat down on the arm on the oppo­site side.

            “I want­ed to nur­ture you. Pro­tect you. Push you,” my moth­er said. Her eyes were spi­der-webbed with blood lines. “I thought that’s what a moth­er is sup­posed to do.”

            She leaned for­ward, star­ing at the fire­place, clasp­ing her hands on her knees, as if pray­ing. “Grow­ing up, I felt so alone. Grand­pa was always gone for work and Grand­ma bare­ly paid atten­tion to me.” She looked at me again. “I nev­er want­ed you to feel that way.”

            “What’s that sup­posed to mean?”

            “I just want you to under­stand. I get so caught up in it. You and your broth­er are my joys. You’re the best things I ever made.”

            “Destroyed, more like.”

            “Some­times I want to shield you so much I for­get you have to breathe,” she said. “But I’m try­ing, Gabrielle. I’m try­ing to be better.”

            I stood up. “Too late.”

            In my bed­room, I looked up Sally’s Insta­gram. Only five pic­tures down, there we were, in the tree­house, Sal­ly grin­ning like it was her birth­day and me look­ing like some­one who hadn’t quite fig­ured out smil­ing. The cap­tion said: #BFFs <3

I texted Sal­ly. —can I call?

            A minute lat­er the phone buzzed. —yeah

Hey,” she said. “How much trou­ble you in?”

            “Not sure. The moth­er bot didn’t even yell at me. Must be out of juice.”

            “Mine went full soap opera. What are peo­ple going to think about us?

            I gig­gled. “I miss you.”

            “Me too.”

            “I want to be with you. No mat­ter what my moth­er says.”

            There was silence on the oth­er line.


            “It’s just…” Sal­ly said. “I don’t know. You real­ly hurt me.”

            “I’m sor­ry,” I said. “We hurt each other.”

            “Yeah,” Sal­ly said.

            After a minute I said, “You still there?”

            She exhaled. “My dad’s tak­ing a posi­tion in Chicago.”

            My throat shrank. I could bare­ly whis­per an oh.

            “Yeah,” she said. She paused for a minute. Her breaths came soft and shal­low. “Maybe it’s best… Maybe we just shouldn’t let any­thing happen.”


            “I’ll…” Sal­ly said, “See you around, I guess.”

            I didn’t let the phone drop from my ear even when the two beeps of the hang-up tone came, like the last beats of a heart.

            Any­time now she’ll call back and say it was a mis­take. We were BFFs.

            The snow-coat­ed roof of the tree­house turned gray, then red, then a bruised pur­ple. Best friends for­ev­er. She had to call back.

            How could for­ev­er end like this?

            The tree­house was glow­ing in street­light amber when my moth­er came to sit on the edge of the bed.

            “You win,” I said. “Con­trol my life all you want. I don’t care. Noth­ing mat­ters any­more. Not a sin­gle god­dam thing.”

            “I’m sor­ry,” she said.

            It took me a moment to com­pre­hend what she’d said. That impos­si­ble word had pulled some kind of plug in me, and the rage build­ing in my chest drained in a rush.

            “I’m going to make din­ner,” my moth­er said. “I’ll leave some in the fridge.”

            It was past mid­night when I final­ly crawled out of bed. My moth­er was work­ing at the din­ing table.

            “What’s that?” I asked.

            “We’re redis­trib­ut­ing Mr. Long’s remain­ing projects.”

            “Oh,” I said, sit­ting down. The tree­house looked gray and dead. I tried to pic­ture the red and gold of that autumn day back onto it, but I couldn’t. I start­ed cry­ing. Her lips had been so warm.

            “That damn tree­house,” my moth­er said suddenly.

            “Huh?” I said, rub­bing my eyes.

            “It’s crooked.”

            “Doesn’t look it,” I said.

            “A seri­ous struc­tur­al flaw.” She sighed. “Too com­pli­cat­ed to explain. We will have to tear it down.”

            She glanced at me as she said it. “Ah,” I said. “Guess so.”

            The next day, wrapped in a dozen blan­kets, we shiv­ered in front of the fire­place, our coats pool­ing water by the door, nei­ther of us say­ing any­thing. When­ev­er the fire start­ed to fade, I grabbed anoth­er piece of the tree­house and shoved it into the flames. Each piece glowed brighter and brighter, then crum­bled. Like a promise, like a dream.

From the writer


:: Account ::

The germ of this sto­ry was the phrase start over bounc­ing around my head which had me won­der­ing what kind of sto­ry would revolve around that. It was while tak­ing my first MFA class, almost a decade ago, taught by the ines­timably bril­liant and nur­tur­ing Deb­o­rah Keenan, who pro­vid­ed more prompts in a class than you could work through in a year, so many that I was now mak­ing one up on my own. And maybe it was because, while severe­ly depressed and on an ill-fat­ed jour­ney with hor­mone replace­ment ther­a­py, I found myself exor­cis­ing demons around my rela­tion­ship with my moth­er, but the sto­ry I imme­di­ate­ly fell into was about deal­ing with a per­fec­tion­ist father who kept scrap­ping any­thing his kids did that wasn’t up to stan­dards and telling them to start over.

     But as much as the heart of the sto­ry was drawn from my own life, the details weren’t. And in a way it prob­a­bly felt like when a friend tells a sto­ry that you sus­pect has all the impor­tant bits obscured.

     Some­one once told me that writ­ers have to ask them­selves: where’s their skin in the game? Because there are some sto­ries you can’t tell by wad­ing in the shal­lows. So the gener­ic Asian father became a Malaysian Eurasian moth­er, the trip to Malaysia was stuffed with details that could be auto­bi­o­graph­ic, and the con­flict between par­ent and child became the embod­i­ment of all the anger and hurt that I felt grow­ing up. What remained fic­tion­al, such as grow­ing up in the U.S. for exam­ple, did so as a vehi­cle for the sto­ry, not a way to hide.

     One mys­te­ri­ous thing is how I masked my moth­er at a time when our rela­tion­ship was strained. But in the months that fol­lowed, maybe after hav­ing got­ten all that out in that class, I found myself able to move past the hurt she caused by her mis­takes to appre­ci­ate the love that was behind it, and some­how freer to be hon­est about the hard truths of our rela­tion­ship. In the orig­i­nal, the end­ing involves Sal­ly dying and Gabby’s father dis­man­tling the tree­house and ask­ing if they can start over with the plans the girls made, per­haps some kind of wish ful­fill­ment on my part. The new end­ing feels a lot clos­er to the nature of my own accep­tance of my mother.

     And maybe that’s a les­son: art imi­tates life, but some­times as writ­ers we have to let it.


Nico­la Koh is a Malaysian Eurasian 16 years in the Amer­i­can Mid­west, an athe­ist who lost their faith while com­plet­ing their Mas­ters of The­ol­o­gy, and a minor god of Tetris. They got their MFA from Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty and were a 2018 VONA/Voices and 2019/20 Loft Men­tors Series fel­low. Their fic­tion has appeared in places like the Mar­gins, Brown Ori­ent, and A‑Minor Mag­a­zine. Amongst oth­er things, they enjoy tak­ing too many pic­tures of their ani­mal fren­e­mies, craft­ing puns, and lis­ten­ing to pub­lic domain audio books after injur­ing their neck read­ing (which feels like some kind of lit­er­ary wound of hon­our). See more at nicolakoh.com.



Fiction / Wayne Mok


:: Oblation ::

            I would often dream about John Calvin. That might be a weird thing to dream about, but I had just returned from sem­i­nary abroad after fin­ish­ing a the­sis on John Calvin’s Chris­tol­ogy. In my dreams, I would see him stand­ing behind the pul­pit of the church in Gene­va, arms high, nose in the Bible, preach­ing to a crowd­ed room of peo­ple trans­fixed on him. He wasn’t a tall man, but there was a sense of urgency, almost anx­i­ety, in the tone of his gut­tur­al voice. In those dreams, I would be in the front pew look­ing up, tak­ing in every last word that came out of his mouth like I was sip­ping on pure water from an ancient spring. Occa­sion­al­ly, the dream would turn into a night­mare. One moment, I’d be sit­ting in the front pew, but the next, I’d feel out of place, con­scious that I didn’t belong—my black hair, yel­low skin, flat nose, Asian eyes—and I’d be dragged out of the church by the con­gre­ga­tion, thrown out onto the street. Calvin him­self would close the church doors, say­ing some­thing to me in a lan­guage he knew I did not under­stand. It didn’t hap­pen often, but when it did, I couldn’t help but be dis­turbed by what it might’ve meant.

            The the­sis on Calvin won the Bavinck Prize that year. The pan­el praised the piece and espe­cial­ly applaud­ed the appli­ca­tion I drew out for the church and social jus­tice. One pro­fes­sor said he would talk to an edi­tor he knew to see if they would be inter­est­ed in it. The same week the prize was announced, the vic­ar from my church in Hong Kong called. He heard the news and asked if I was inter­est­ed in a job. He was plan­ning to retire in a few years and was look­ing for some­one who could replace him then. It seemed like a sign from God and I accept­ed the posi­tion on the spot.

            I first encoun­tered the home­less man a few months after I returned to Hong Kong. The Christ­mas Eve ser­vice just end­ed. I had preached on the birth nar­ra­tive in the Gospel of Luke and talked about Calvin’s con­cept of the accom­mo­da­tion of God; it was my best ser­mon yet. At the end of the ser­vice, a mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion came up and said that he saw Jesus descend­ing into the sanc­tu­ary as I was preaching.

            As a year­ly tra­di­tion, the church gave out gifts to every­one who attend­ed the ser­vice. The box was wrapped with a fes­tive print of baby Jesus in the manger. Inside was a mug with a Bible verse print­ed on it. On my way out, the vic­ar hand­ed me one with a sly smirk on his face, “We need to get rid of these—the sex­ton needs space in the store­room for the new nativ­i­ty scene.”

            I took it.

            “Want another?”

            I shook my head, “I don’t know what I’d do with it.”

            The night sky was bright, illu­mi­nat­ed by the lights of Hong Kong push­ing against the dark­ness long for­got­ten. A large crowd streamed past the church towards the MTR Sta­tion on their way to the fes­tiv­i­ties that would run late into the night. I straight­ened my cler­i­cal col­lar and head­ed towards home.

            Halfway across a desert­ed foot­bridge on my usu­al route home, I saw him. A pair of feet with frayed socks stuck out from under­neath a flat­tened card­board box. A damp T‑shirt was draped over the rail­ing. As I walked clos­er, I was struck by a sour stench—like that of urine mixed with beer. I cov­ered my nose. An emp­ty take­out box lay open reveal­ing a used pair of chop­sticks, some chewed up meat, and a few tooth­picks. The man’s head rest­ed on a pair of old shoes.

            My ini­tial instinct was to walk past the man, but as he twist­ed and turned under his card­board box, try­ing to find his way into sleep, I felt some­thing. It was dif­fi­cult to name it at the time, but I deduced it was prob­a­bly some­thing like com­pas­sion, or char­i­ty, or maybe even love. It was Christ­mas after all.

            I tip toed over, bent down, and lay the gift next to his feet, care­ful not to touch him. Just before walk­ing down the steps at the end of the bridge, I looked back. The neat­ly wrapped gift stood in stark con­trast to the filth that cov­ered every­thing about the man. The Apos­tle Paul had once said, “A man reap what he sows,” and I couldn’t help but won­der what the man did in the past to deserve his present life. The roar of the street and the chat­ter of the crowd below was almost deaf­en­ing. A tram passed by under­neath with Christ­mas car­ols blast­ing on its speakers.

            That night, I had a night­mare. I was sit­ting in the church at Gene­va in my cas­sock, man­u­script in my hands, ready to preach on the Beat­i­tudes from the Gospel of Matthew. At some point dur­ing the first hymn, I looked down at my man­u­script and real­ized that it was all in Latin—I didn’t read Latin. The next moment, the pul­pit was emp­ty and the con­gre­ga­tion, includ­ing Calvin him­self were all look­ing in my direc­tion. I start­ed to pan­ic. An uncom­fort­able heat rose with­in my chest and ascend­ed into my neck. My cheeks took on a red flush, my hands start­ed to trem­ble, and my abdomen tight­ened. I man­aged to stand up and pro­ceed­ed to walk towards the pul­pit, but before I arrived, some­one was already there. I couldn’t make out his face, but I some­how knew exact­ly who it was—it was the home­less man. He wore the same damp T‑shirt and pair of old socks that I saw on the bridge.

            The man then opened his mouth to preach in Latin, with a voice far deep­er and more force­ful than that of Calvin’s, “Beati pau­peres spir­i­tu quo­ni­am …” As his deaf­en­ing voice echoed through­out the church, I felt an urge to run. I gath­ered my strength and ran down the cen­ter aisle towards the exit, but just before I could reach the doors, I felt my abdomen and groin give way. I woke up drenched in sweat. I pulled off my blan­ket and got out of bed, but my pants were so wet it felt like I just got out of the pool. Half-con­scious, I stood there try­ing to fig­ure out what had hap­pened before I caught a whiff of an odor and glanced at my bed—I had peed my pants.

            As I was in the show­er clean­ing myself off, I thought about the dream and what just happened—was God angry that I gave the home­less man a cheap gift? Was there some­thing spir­i­tu­al going on with the man—demonic pos­ses­sion? Did he need my help? Was God speak­ing to me? I had no clue, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew I need­ed to vis­it him again. I need­ed to find out. I put on a set of fresh­ly ironed cler­i­cal clothes and went to see the man, with a hunch that the vis­it would make things right, somehow.

            He was sit­ting on his card­board box, cross-legged, sip­ping on a bot­tle of beer while eat­ing a steamed pork bun. A Chi­nese man with a big face, dark skinned with unkempt greasy hair, he was dressed in the same red­dish-brown T‑shirt, car­go shorts, with a dif­fer­ent pair of socks this time, but the same hor­rid stench. The mug from the church was at his side, full of cig­a­rette butts emit­ting a con­stant stream of smoke like incense in a censer. The Bible verse print­ed on it felt odd­ly out of place.

            I point­ed at the mug, “I left that there for you.”

            He turned his head, “What?”

            “It was a gift.”

            He looked at it, before tak­ing a sip of his beer. “What about it? You want it back?”

            “No, but you shouldn’t be using it for cigarettes.”

            He shook his head and downed the rest of his beer. In a swift motion, he whacked the mug with the emp­ty beer bot­tle. The mug skid­ded on the con­crete floor before hit­ting a met­al rail. Upon impact, the mug shat­tered into pieces, send­ing cig­a­rette butts fly­ing across the rest of the bridge.

            “Get lost,” he yelled.

              Stunned by his response, I ran as fast as I could in my cas­sock to the oth­er side of the bridge and felt a shard of the bro­ken mug crack beneath my foot.

            At staff meet­ing lat­er in the week, I shared about the man. The vic­ar nod­ded in approval. “It is our call­ing as min­is­ters to rep­re­sent Christ to the poor,” he said, sip­ping instant cof­fee from anoth­er Christ­mas mug. Though his com­ment affirmed my intu­ition that I did the right thing, the more I thought about the man, the more dis­gust­ed I felt—the way the man dressed, the way he spoke, his lack of man­ners and respect, not just for me, but for God, even his stink. I knew that it was wrong to not help some­one in need, but I couldn’t help but think the man didn’t want my help, in which case, there prob­a­bly wasn’t any rea­son to vis­it him again. 

            In the fol­low­ing weeks, mirages, or per­haps you can call them visions, of the man, began to appear wher­ev­er I would go. He would be out­side the super­mar­ket beg­ging for loose change. He would be sprawled out on the bot­tom deck of the tram. He would be smok­ing in the park, loud­ly com­ment­ing on the play of casu­al foot­ball teams. These visions became more and more fre­quent, and I kept try­ing to ignore them, until one day after work as I was leav­ing the church, I had a vision of him there at the front of the chapel, ine­bri­at­ed, loung­ing by the altar, burp­ing after tak­ing a swig of wine out of the chal­ice. God was sure­ly say­ing some­thing, like he spoke to Samuel in the night. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew that the only way to find out was to see the man again.

            The man was there lying on flat­tened box­es. A blan­ket was pushed to the side, soak­ing up runoff from the rail­ings. A bro­ken umbrel­la faced the street, shield­ing off the mild rain. Neon signs illu­mi­nat­ing the bridge gave the night a red­dish-green glow. His stink seemed to be inten­si­fied by the humid­i­ty, mak­ing each breath that much hard­er to bear.

            He sat up and wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt, “What do you want?”

            I point­ed towards the church, “I’m a min­is­ter there. I want to help.”

            He ignored me and reached for a pack of cigarettes.

            I pulled out a paper bag from my brief­case and put it on the ground in front of him. He took the bag, pulled out a bot­tle of water, and then a chick­en avo­ca­do sour­dough sand­wich I picked up from an expen­sive sand­wich place down the street. He held the sand­wich close to his face, and then sniffed it, like an animal.

             “I don’t eat gwei­lo food,” he said, set­ting it down on the floor.

            “Sir,” I said, try­ing my best to con­vey respect, “I’m try­ing to help.”

            He shook his head and chuck­led, “I know your type; you don’t want to help.” He tossed the sand­wich at my feet. “You know what will help? Tsing Tao, cig­a­rettes, fried rice …” he paused for a moment, “and a Mark Six tick­et.” He roared with laugh­ter and pro­ceed­ed to pick up the water bot­tle, “I’ll take this though.” I walked away, annoyed at the man, and if I was being hon­est, at God.

            That week, the mild rain strength­ened into a typhoon. Streets start­ed to flood and there were land­slides in rur­al areas. Schools were closed, work halt­ed, peo­ple stayed home. The news report­ed that it was the strongest typhoon record­ed in half a cen­tu­ry. Per­haps it was cab­in fever, but a week into the storm, my apart­ment began to smell like the home­less man. That same nasty stink. At first, I thought it was a clogged drain or a plumb­ing issue caused by the rain. I plumbed the toi­lets, snaked every drain, checked for leaks, but to no avail. I took out the trash, cleaned out the fridge. I spent the rest of the day clean­ing and san­i­tiz­ing the entire apartment—I vac­u­umed and mopped, wiped down every sur­face, cleaned the mold out of the grout in the bath­room, scrubbed the kitchen down along with all the grime from the past year. I even threw out any­thing remote­ly close to old into large garbage bags and resealed my win­dows and doors to ensure noth­ing could get in. Still, the scent lin­gered. It was as if his pres­ence infil­trat­ed every cor­ner of the apart­ment, not want­i­ng to leave.

            That night, exhaust­ed from the clean­ing, I fell into a deep sleep. It was the same dream. I was sit­ting in the first row of the chapel as usu­al, lis­ten­ing to Calvin as he preached, but this time, Theodore Beza, John Knox, and younger the­olo­gians like Charles Hodge and Abra­ham Kuyper were there was well. The greats. Con­scious of their pres­ence, I was ner­vous, but also excit­ed about being there, when the stench hit me. That God-awful stench. I looked around. Oth­er peo­ple smelled it too. Peo­ple pulled out hand­ker­chiefs and cov­ered their faces; oth­ers tried to fan the smell away with their hands. The stench con­tin­ued to inten­si­fy. An old­er mem­ber of the church faint­ed in her seat, and moments lat­er, a young child vom­it­ed on a pew. A few peo­ple in the back tried to open the doors, but they were locked. No one could get out. The crowd start­ed to rush towards the door, ram­ming them­selves against it, try­ing to break the lock. The church Fathers stood in hor­ror at what was going on, bewil­dered at the situation.

            I, too, made a run for the door, but stopped when I real­ized that the stench was com­ing out of my mouth. Every breath I exhaled emanat­ed a smell so sick­en­ing that it trig­gered my gag reflex. I tried to hold it in, but my abdom­i­nal mus­cles and diaphragm con­tract­ed vio­lent­ly, send­ing a burn­ing sen­sa­tion up my chest and into my throat. Expect­ing food or bile to come out, I knelt on the ground and bent over, but instead, all that came out was more of the smell, an end­less stream of putrid odor that smelled like skunk mixed with rot­ten cabbage.

            At some point, the chapel cleared out. I was on my knees in the mid­dle of the aisle, alone, when I heard some­one walk­ing towards me. I looked up—it was the home­less man. It was him. He was behind all of this, that damned human being. My imme­di­ate reac­tion was to get up and tack­le him to the ground, but my body ached so much I couldn’t move. As he moved towards me, the stench strange­ly began to fade, and instead, there was a faint trace of anoth­er scent. I wasn’t sure exact­ly what it was, but it was an allur­ing scent—not just a scent you appre­ci­at­ed like that of a rose or lily, but an aro­ma that whet­ted your appetite and made you hun­gry. Not before long, he was stand­ing over me. The stench had van­ished and the fra­grant scent by that point was over­whelm­ing. The nau­sea was gone and I felt famished—stomach growl­ing, mouth drool­ing, dying for food with a hunger that peo­ple prob­a­bly only expe­ri­enced in a famine, and I woke up, starving.

            I checked the time, got dressed, and went down to the restau­rant down­stairs. It was Thurs­day after­noon. The wind and rain seemed be let­ting up. Shops had reopened and peo­ple returned to the streets just in time for the East­er week­end ahead. I opened the door and entered the fra­grance that filled the restaurant—Yangzhou friend rice—the tra­di­tion­al Can­tonese type with eggs, peas, bits of char siu, prawn, and scal­lions. I placed an order. As I wait­ed, I stood at the counter of the restau­rant watch­ing as the chef stirred the rice in his wok, I thought about the ser­mon I was prepar­ing for the week­end on the Para­ble of the Ban­quet. I won­dered what that feast would be like, and whether it’d be any­thing like a Chi­nese ban­quet. Who would be there? Would I? What about the home­less man? Per­haps it was guilt, or maybe the voice of the Spir­it, I placed a sec­ond order.

            I stepped out onto the street, when the sky began to crack, releas­ing buck­ets of water splash­ing onto the side­walk. Fall­en leaves, branch­es, and lit­ter were scat­tered all over. I held onto the bag of food with one hand. With the oth­er, I opened my umbrel­la, shield­ing myself from the skies that roared above.

            There were two umbrel­las this time, both bro­ken, posi­tioned against the rails. The thun­der­ing rain, the neon signs, the fra­grance from the restau­rants, and exhaust from the busses and trucks all seemed to cur­tain the space around us.

            He lift­ed his head. “You again. What do you want?” he asked, rub­bing his eyes with both hands.

            “I’m hun­gry,” I said, “Want to eat?”

            Unex­pect­ed­ly, he sighed, in the way old Chi­nese men do and said, “Come sit.” He shift­ed his belong­ings aside and made space on the cardboard.

            I hesitated—reasons not to flood­ed my mind—but in the moment, it was the only thing that felt right. The card­board was cold and wet. I took out a box of food and set it in front of him, “What you asked for.” He popped off the lid. The aro­ma of the rice filled the space between us. He smiled, show­ing his stained teeth before tak­ing a spoon to dig in. He scooped each por­tion of rice with a gen­tle swoop; rais­ing the spoon up to his mouth, he closed his mouth around the spoon, mak­ing sure to catch every grain, then chewed.

            I opened my box and began to eat, spoon after spoon of fried rice. The aro­ma of the scal­lions and heat from the oil filled my nos­trils, the bits of bar­be­qued pork and chopped up bits of prawn tick­led my tongue. I chewed metic­u­lous­ly after each bite, slow­ly fill­ing the deep recess­es of my stom­ach. The rain con­tin­ued to drown out all that was around us. After what felt like a long time, I was stuffed. I thought I had eat­en a lot, but there was still food left in the box.

            “You want that?” he asked. I shook my head. He took my box, closed its lid, and put it by his bags.

            By this point, I was tired. I need­ed to work on my ser­mon so I decid­ed to leave. But as I attempt­ed to push myself off the ground, I felt a deep sense of exhaus­tion as you would after run­ning a marathon. Even the act of try­ing to get off the ground felt like an impos­si­ble task. I leaned back against the rail­ing and tilt­ed my head towards the sky. The rain splat­tered on my face, sting­ing my eyes. I opened my mouth, hop­ing to catch a few drops of rain to alle­vi­ate my thirst.

            I heard the man crack open a bot­tle of water. “Drink,” he said, hold­ing out the bot­tle to me.

            I took the bot­tle. The first sip was bit­ter, remind­ing me of the first time I tast­ed wine at the Eucharist. I spit it out onto the floor. I scraped my tongue against my molars, hop­ing to get rid of the taste. The bit­ter­ness sunk in, burn­ing my tongue and the walls of my mouth. “It’s bit­ter,” I point­ed to the bottle.

            “Just drink it.”

            “You’re mad,” I set the bot­tle down on the floor. The bit­ter­ness trig­gered the mus­cles in my throat, which con­tract­ed, and I start­ed to cough violently.

            The man picked up the bot­tle. It had now accu­mu­lat­ed a lay­er of con­den­sa­tion, mak­ing the bot­tle glow as it refract­ed light from the ceil­ing pass­ing through it. He gazed into my eyes intent­ly, and hold­ing out the bot­tle, he repeat­ed, “Drink it.” In that moment, as I was chok­ing on my sali­va and regur­gi­tat­ed food, cough­ing vio­lent­ly to the point where it felt like my lungs would come right out of my mouth, I had a moment of insight: if I didn’t drink this, I was going to die here on this bridge. I took the bot­tle from the man and began to drink, swal­low­ing large gulps. The liq­uid tore at every tis­sue in my mouth and esoph­a­gus, claw­ing like scorpions.

            The taste of the water grad­u­al­ly trans­formed. Each sip seemed less bit­ter, but also eased the sting. I con­tin­ued to drink. Three-quar­ters way through the bot­tle, the water had not only regained its neu­tral fla­vor, but acquired a sur­pris­ing sweet­ness to it. I felt my body regain strength, absorb­ing the water one mol­e­cule at a time. I set the emp­ty bot­tle down, the sweet taste lin­ger­ing in my mouth.

            As I sat there next to the man, silent, watch­ing the last drops of rain waver before find­ing their way off the edges of the rail­ings, I thought about the gift—what hap­pened to the pieces of the shat­tered mug? Did they remain there, ignored by pedes­tri­ans? Where they cleaned up and dis­card­ed? Were they washed away, bit by bit, by the thun­der­ing rain? At that point, over­come with a sense of release, I couldn’t help but close my eyes, stretch my arms wide as if I were reach­ing for the ends of the uni­verse, and yell at the top my lungs.

            The rum­ble of the sky eased into a gen­tle growl. The veils of rain lift­ed, reveal­ing rays of light from the build­ings, shop signs, and street­lights. A dou­ble-deck­er bus hummed past, its sus­pen­sion squeak­ing. The clat­ter of pedes­tri­ans, chil­dren, and shop­keep­ers res­onat­ed, accent­ed by clang­ing dish­es and cups, gen­tle gusts of kitchen exhaust, and the faint clicks of cross­walk signals.

            I stood up and looked down at the man. His eyes were closed and his body inclined against the rails. The rise and fall of his chest pro­duced a gen­tle snort. Every so often, he’d wake him­self up with his own snor­ing, but then he’d catch his breath and fall back into a lull. I noticed the wrin­kles that lined his face, the streaks of white in his greasy disheveled hair, the cracked skin on his hands. He seemed old­er, frail­er, more worn out than when I first met him. As I walked down from the bridge into the night, I looked up at the sky. It had cleared up, reveal­ing a vast black can­vas glis­ten­ing with specks of shim­mer­ing dust. A thin film of water glazed the street, reflect­ing the bright sky above.

            I nev­er saw the man after that. The next time I crossed the bridge, it was clean as a whis­tle, no trace that any­one was ever there. Some­times I’m not even sure what happened—it felt like it was all just a dream. Even to this day, I’m not sure where he came from or who exact­ly he was. Nei­ther do I know whether there was any­thing I could’ve done to help him except bring him a box of fried rice. But I do know, now, that he had done for me some­thing that I could’ve nev­er done for myself.

From the writer


:: Account ::

I wrote this sto­ry short­ly after work­ing for a faith-based home­less ser­vice in Hong Kong. Dur­ing that time, I was exposed to the long-last­ing socio-eco­nom­ic rem­nants of British colo­nial­ism, the per­pet­u­a­tion of sys­temic injus­tice often through reli­gion, and the imbal­ance of pow­er between the rich and the poor in the city. At the same time, I saw great wealth in a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who did not have much, and beau­ty as they reclaimed the faith of the gwei­lo as their own. The expe­ri­ence forced me to con­sid­er my own faith and iden­ti­ty, so shaped by my life in the West, yet felt in many ways bank­rupt com­pared to those whom many of us would want noth­ing to do with—poor, old, for­eign, out­siders, neu­ro­di­ver­gent. Even though it’s all too easy for many to ide­al­ize pover­ty from a com­fort­able dis­tance, I think some­times, it’s that ini­tial gaze that makes us won­der whether what we need is often found in the places we least expect.


Wayne Mok is orig­i­nal­ly from Hong Kong and now lives in Syd­ney, Australia.


The Toaster

Fiction / Stephen Short


:: The Toaster ::

            Pegatha Bur­roughs didn’t trust her toast­er any­more. She only had it for three days and it dis­played only dubi­ous intent. She brought it home from the South­way Sec­ond­hand Store for four dol­lars. Her pre­vi­ous Toast­mas­ter had final­ly bit the bul­let after twelve years of devot­ed ser­vice. Every morn­ing, two slices of plain white bread dropped to the glow­ing grills, and every morn­ing, two slices of crisp toast jumped over the thresh­old and wait­ed for her but­ter knife. But ear­li­er in the week the Toast­mas­ter made a bark­ing sound and nev­er baked the bread.

            Peg hung her head low through the entrance to the Sec­ond­hand Store. She was ashamed that she had to come here. She tried not to look any­one in the eye, lest they rec­og­nize her from out in the world. It smelled like old paint and plas­tic. Peg tried not to touch any­thing if she could help it and hoped to bee­line direct­ly to the kitchen appli­ances. After a brief dal­liance around the tele­vi­sions she found them; waf­fle irons, cracked blenders, and the only toast­er on the shelf; A tiny black num­ber, two slots on top, and the depres­sor cocked at a slight angle. Four dol­lars showed the hand­writ­ten tag draped off the but­ton. She slid it off the shelf and clutched it under her arm like a foot­ball. She pulled her hood low­er. As she shuf­fled to the front counter, she heard crumbs spilling from the bot­tom of the toast­er and they bounced off her coat. She set the toast­er down to the scratched counter and saw a bot­tle of hand san­i­tiz­er near the reg­is­ter. She pumped a glob into her palm and slathered it over her ringed fin­gers, spat­ter­ing. The cashier told her an amount that was slight­ly more than four dol­lars and Peg gave her a five to break, then pock­et­ed the change and dashed out the glass doors.

            On her counter she exam­ined it ful­ly. A black plas­tic cov­er­ing with buff marks all over. Well used. It didn’t have a name. The depres­sor rest­ed at its angle but would wob­ble to the exact oppo­site angle if tweaked. It made a scrap­ing sound when pressed down. There was a spin­ning dial that was num­bered from one to five, most like­ly indi­cat­ing desired dark­ness of prod­uct, and cur­rent­ly set to four. Peg took a risk and set the dial to three. The crumb tray would not open. She flipped the toast­er upside down over her trash can and jos­tled it the way unpaid musi­cians rat­tle mara­cas. Crumbs spilled every­where but her trash can. She set it down on the counter where the old Toast­mas­ter had gone and plugged the crin­kled black cord into the wall. It sat there, unsus­pect­ing, the rest of the evening.

            In the morn­ing Peg stum­bled from her bed in her flow­ing night­shirt and wob­bled out to the kitchen. She was a gar­bled mess of nerves. She smushed her glass­es up her nose, unspun the loaf of plain white bread, and dropped them into the lit­tle black toast­er. She pushed down on the depres­sor and the bread slipped inside with a screech. A slow orange glow sung out from the slits and Peg wrung her dry hands. The toast­er gave a sub­tle buzz, let­ting her know it would be okay. “Yes,” she said only to her­self. “I think so.” With con­fi­dence, she cracked the lid on her cof­fee pot and poured grounds into a fil­ter, added water, and flipped the switch. She pulled a sil­ver mug from the cup­board. She opened her sug­ar jar and uncapped a half gal­lon of milk. She clanked down a small orange ceram­ic plate and laid it next to the new toast­er. It was emp­ty. Com­plete­ly breadless.

            Peg stared down at the toast­er. The depres­sor was up. There was no glow. There was no heat. She poked it. It shuf­fled a cen­time­ter on her rough counter. The cof­fee pot was bur­bling and hot. Peg licked her chapped lips and picked at her knuck­les. She unspun the loaf of plain white bread and dropped two slices into the new toast­er. She turned the dial down to two. She plunged the depres­sor down with a squeal. The slow orange glow lit up her white bread and the mel­low buzzing calmed her just so. She stood her ground and crossed her arms, her night­shirt crum­pling wild and her shoul­ders tick­ling her ears. Peg locked her eyes on her bread and watched every pore brown over until it popped out of the toast­er, a lit­tle less done than she’d pre­fer. She turned the knob back to three. She pulled the warm toast from the slots and but­tered them near her cof­fee sta­tion. Sug­ar and milk in the cof­fee, toast in the mouth, Peg was happy.

            She got a mes­sage from her daugh­ter, Sheila. She need­ed more mon­ey trans­ferred over. Sheila was a sopho­more at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. She was study­ing Latin. She scraped Peg for every dol­lar she could spare and hur­ried off the phone before Peg could ini­ti­ate any real con­ver­sa­tion. But chil­dren need­ed to be cared for. Peg opened her phone to her bank­ing app and trans­ferred one hun­dred dol­lars to Sheila. Peg had twen­ty sev­en dol­lars left for the next week and a half.

            Peg got to work exact­ly at 8am and left just after 5pm, mak­ing sure the day’s tasks were all com­plet­ed. Her cowork­ers had left prompt­ly at 5pm, if not ear­li­er. She sched­uled her doctor’s appoint­ment at 5:45pm, know­ing she would leave late. She had hip and back pain for sev­er­al weeks now, and it took sev­er­al weeks to get in with Dr. Kramer. She uri­nat­ed far too much in her cup (“Just to the line,” the nurse had said) but she want­ed to be sure. Giv­en her age, Dr. Kramer sug­gest­ed it was like­ly pain from sit­ting at skewed angles or strain from stress, and rec­om­mend­ed a series of exer­cis­es and stretch­es for Peg to do at home. She sug­gest­ed a yoga class or that she could do them at home with online instruc­tion tar­get­ing her hips and low back, and to move to full body indef­i­nite­ly. Alter­na­tive­ly, a chi­ro­prac­tor may prove effec­tive but may not be cov­ered by insur­ance. Peg had a din­ner of peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly on white bread and a glass of milk and sat in front of the tele­vi­sion to watch game shows. She thought about call­ing Sheila but talked her­self out of it. Dur­ing the next com­mer­cial break she talked her­self back into it and poked her name on the phone screen. It rang once and went to voice­mail. Peg turned the vol­ume up on the tele­vi­sion and fin­ished her milk.

            The next morn­ing Peg crawled out of bed and slipped on her skin­ny robe and hob­bled to the kitchen. She unspun the loaf of white bread and placed two slices in the slots of the new black toast­er. She pushed the depres­sor down and it screamed in met­al. A slow orange glow hugged her bread and the buzzing noise bounced off the kitchen walls and made Peg grin. She dumped yesterday’s cof­fee fil­ter in the trash and added a new one, with cof­fee grounds and dumped water in the tank. She pulled a white mug from the cup­board, uncapped the sug­ar jar, and pre­pared the milk. She clanked a ceram­ic plate down to set near the new toast­er and she gasped see­ing that it was emp­ty once more. Depres­sor up. No heat. Absolute­ly bread­less. She lift­ed the new toast­er and scrunched her face to peer inside the slits, shift­ing it so the kitchen light bled in. Peg jos­tled it about and crumbs sift­ed through the cracks but the draw­er would still not open. She set it down and turned the dark­ness dial to four, then slipped in two pieces of bread to the slots and plunged the depres­sor down as it scraped. A slow orange glow rose about and a pleas­ant heat crept over her arms. Peg stared, unblink­ing, at the toast­er, crisp­ing her bread dark­er and dark­er. The cof­fee pot seared. The toast burst out of the slits and Peg shuf­fled a step for­ward and plucked her black­ened slices to the plate. She turned the dial back to three. She but­tered them and let it melt as she pulled her phone out. Sheila post­ed on social media that she was bored in her dorm. Peg dialed her num­ber and it rang once before going to voicemail.

            Peg got to work at exact­ly 8am and stayed just past 5pm once again, just like she always did. She made sure all the tasks were done despite her cowork­ers’ time­ly exits. On her way out of the glass doors her phone buzzed. Peg jug­gled it out of her coat pock­et hop­ing to hear from Sheila, but it was just a text mes­sage from her bank inform­ing her of her sad balance.

            Peg drove straight home and set her bag and keys over the back of her chair at the kitchen table. She unspun the bread bag and slathered peanut but­ter on one slice and grape jel­ly on anoth­er. She filled a cof­fee mug halfway with milk and dropped into her old chair in the liv­ing room and put on game shows. Her phone buzzed and she snatched it from her thigh. It was a text from the phone com­pa­ny remind­ing her of her pend­ing with­draw­al for more than she had in her account.

            Her hip stung and boiled pain to her leg and spine. Reluc­tant­ly, she turned off the game shows and dialed up begin­ner yoga videos just like Dr. Kramer had rec­om­mend­ed. Peg fol­lowed the direc­tions and heaved into posi­tions she had nev­er vol­un­tar­i­ly entered. Arms splayed, legs askew. Her wrin­kled face was con­tort­ed and strained. The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to breathe. She gasped and winced.

            Peg woke the next morn­ing and shuf­fled to the kitchen in her night­shirt. She unspun the bread bag and dropped two slices into the slits of the new toast­er and pressed the plunger with a screech. She stared at the toast­er while its care­ful buzz echoed. A slow orange glow calmed her and she adjust­ed her hip, remem­ber­ing to breathe. Peg stepped back from the toast­er towards the cof­fee pot on the oppo­site counter but didn’t look away. The dial was on three. The glow was still orange. Sat­is­fied, she dumped yesterday’s grounds to the trash, filled a new fil­ter with dry, and added water to the bin. Peg flipped the switch and it slurped to life. She pulled a white mug from the cab­i­net, unlid­ded the sug­ar jar, and placed the half-gal­lon of milk on the counter. She slipped a ceram­ic plate from the cup­board and walked to the new toast­er to find it ful­ly emp­ty. Absolute­ly bread­less. Peg felt a burn­ing fury spilling from her fore­head and she smacked the new toast­er. It slid a few cen­time­ters and some crumbs drib­bled to the coun­ter­top. She hat­ed to admit it but her hand was sting­ing from the hit. The cof­fee pot bur­bled. Peg unspun the bread loaf, which was dis­ap­pear­ing faster than usu­al, and dropped one slice into a slot. She did not change the dial. She round­ed her shoul­ders and clenched her teeth and stabbed the plunger down to a wail. A slow orange glow breathed from the wiring and Peg melt­ed. She snapped back, remem­ber­ing to be angry at the toast­er, and stood clenched and hud­dled over the top of it, lis­ten­ing to the buzz. Her hip ached and she decid­ed that part could unclench, but the shoul­ders, no way. Peg remem­bered the voice on the tele­vi­sion telling her to relax and to breathe. She shut her eyes and heaved a strained breath past her lips. She noticed the heat left and the buzzing stopped. Peg burst her eye­lids open to see the bread­less toast­er in front of her. She unplugged it. She plugged it back in, and dropped half a piece of bread into the oth­er slot and dropped the plunger to a wiry wail. The glow didn’t calm her. She saw the bread crisp­ing up then took a step back­wards and stepped in a cir­cle, turn­ing away. The new toast­er was emp­ty when she spun back around. The oth­er half of the bread went in a slot and the plunger went down to a screech. She closed her eyes before the slow glow could win and when she opened them back up the bread was gone.

            Peg hob­bled over to the kitchen table, spilling over with torn envelopes and receipts. She grabbed a bill and fold­ed it down and stuffed it in a toast­er slot. She pressed it down screech­ing. The slow orange glow pleased her as she saw smoke ris­ing from the grills. She closed her eyes. The new toast­er was emp­ty. Absolute­ly bil­less. Peg poured out her cof­fee and added extra sug­ar and slurped it, star­ing at the toaster.

            Pegatha Bur­roughs didn’t trust her toast­er any­more. She unplugged it and scooped it in both hands and moved it to the oth­er counter. She picked it back up and set it on the kitchen table. She stepped back.

            She did not arrive at work at 8am. She drove to the South­way Sec­ond­hand Store with the black toast­er buck­led into the pas­sen­ger seat. Peg held it out like a bomb and wad­dled to the front glass doors and rat­tled them; closed until 11.

            Peg re-buck­led the toast­er and wait­ed on the side of the street. Her phone buzzed and she fum­bled the screen on. Sheila texted ask­ing for more mon­ey. Peg called her. The phone rang once and went to voice­mail. Peg opened her bank­ing app and trans­ferred fif­teen dol­lars to Sheila. She got a noti­fi­ca­tion from the bank about the sad bal­ance she had remain­ing. Sheila mes­saged again com­plain­ing about the mea­ger trans­fer. Peg called her. The phone rang once and went to voice­mail. She set her phone down next to the toast­er. It buzzed. The pow­er com­pa­ny was inform­ing her of the pend­ing with­draw­al which was much more than she had in her account.

            South­way Sec­ond­hand Store would not open for sev­er­al hours. She drove to work and clocked in late. On her lunch break she went back to the store and hauled the toast­er in under­neath one arm, slid­ing her hood for­ward over her hair.

            “I need to return this.” She set the toast­er down. Crumbs fell to the blue plas­tic counter.

            “We don’t take returns.” Peg didn’t look her in the eye.

            “It was four dollars.”

            “We don’t take returns,” the teen repeated.

            Peg couldn’t look her in the eyes but lift­ed her head and focused on the ceil­ing fan. “Please,” she said.

            “I can’t give you your mon­ey back, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

            Peg dropped her head back down and crossed her arms. She tried not to lean on her hip. “Just take it back then. I’ll donate it.” She spun around and burst out the door.

            Peg stayed lat­er at work to make up for the time missed in the morn­ing. At home she made her­self a din­ner of a peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich, fold­ed over on one piece of bread. She called Sheila. The phone rang once and went to voice­mail. A mes­sage from the water com­pa­ny noti­fied her of a pend­ing with­draw­al which was much more than she had in her account. She threw her phone across the room to the couch and it bounced off to the floor. Her jaw clenched, her hip burned, her back stilted.

            Peg crawled to her flat­tened car­pet and pulled up the next yoga video in line. She tugged off her socks and spread her bent toes at hip dis­tance. The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to breathe. She heaved. The voice told her to breathe in light and breathe out dark­ness, weight, unneed­ed things. A rat­tle of air wheezed out of her throat while she fold­ed her body upside over. Close your eyes, the voice said. Breathe.

            Peg bum­bled out of bed in her skin­ny robe and stalked to the counter that didn’t have a toast­er on it. She closed her eyes and breathed. She heeled to the cof­fee pot and dumped yesterday’s grounds, then filled a new fil­ter and the tank at the back. It growled water up. She pulled a black mug from the cup­board, uncapped her sug­ar jar, and prepped the half-gal­lon of milk. She dug a small ceram­ic plate out. Peg unspun the loaf of plain white bread and stared at the crum­by sec­tion where no toast­er wait­ed. She but­tered a limp piece while her cof­fee pot hissed. Peg didn’t know how to eat plain­ly but­tered bread. She resort­ed to tear­ing hunks off and pop­ping them in her mouth. She even dunked some into her cof­fee, just to try it.

            She limped into work five min­utes ear­ly, as usu­al, and cleaned up what the oth­ers left behind to leave at 5:15pm. Her keys and bag slung over the kitchen chair, she unspun the emp­ty­ing bag of bread and made a fold­ed peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich with a cold glass of milk. Her phone buzzed and she scram­bled across the counter to her bag. It was Sheila, send­ing a text in all caps. Peg dialed her num­ber and the phone rang once and went to voice­mail. She asked her phone to remind her to respond in an hour. Her phone buzzed again with a noti­fi­ca­tion from the phone com­pa­ny that her pay­ment was unsuc­cess­ful. To her sur­prise, anoth­er noti­fi­ca­tion came from the pow­er com­pa­ny that her pay­ment was, too, unsuc­cess­ful. Peg cool­ly observed her phone receiv­ing the mes­sages and her lights still on. She stretched to the left and to the right, with each oppo­site hip jut­ting out, burn­ing a strip down her leg.

            The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to breathe. Inhale light. Exhale dark­ness, weight, unneed­ed things. The voice told her to thank her­self for com­mit­ting to her prac­tice. Peg was press­ing her pelvis into the car­pet and her shoul­ders and back screamed. She unpret­zeled and flipped over to game shows. The reminder on her phone told her to respond to Sheila. Her bank­ing app issued her a warn­ing when she logged in. She trans­ferred five dol­lars to Sheila and gri­maced at her sin­gle-dig­it bal­ance. Peg shut off the tele­vi­sion and went to bed ear­li­er than usual.

            Peg slipped out of bed in her gray night­shirt and sneered at the toast­er­less coun­ter­top. She dumped grounds, added more in a fil­ter, filled the back with water, and flipped the pot on. She unspun the plain loaf of white bread and dug two pieces out and slathered togeth­er a peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich for break­fast. It didn’t pair well with her cof­fee. Her hip and back burned.

            She made it to work five min­utes ear­ly and left alone late. She drove to the oppo­site end of town to the depart­ment store and shuf­fled through throngs of tired shop­pers to house­wares. Peg eyed a new Toast­mas­ter but not­ed its price. She checked for any oth­er toast­er but none were in the sin­gle-dig­it range. There in the aisle, she bent at the waist and her back creaked as she dragged her fin­ger­tips on the tongues of her shoes. Breathe, she heard the voice on the tele­vi­sion say.

            Peg arrived at the South­way Sec­ond­hand Store before they closed and didn’t both­er putting her hood up. She found the toast­er. It was the only one on the shelves. Black plas­tic with two slits on top and a radi­al dial that went from one to five. It was point­ed to three. The plunger was tilt­ed at a slight angle. The price tag dan­gling from the plunger read three dol­lars. She heard the voice on the tele­vi­sion telling her to exhale unneed­ed things. She closed her eyes and exhaled.

            She paid three dol­lars and tax at the counter, buck­led the toast­er into her pas­sen­ger seat, and plunked it down on the crum­by coun­ter­top at home. She plugged it into the wall. Peg walked to the liv­ing room and put on the next video in the yoga series. Her bony ankles kissed and the voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to inhale light, more than she would nor­mal­ly breathe com­fort­ably. Exhale dark­ness, the voice told her, and all unneed­ed things. Her phone rang and buzzed around the table. Peg saw it was Sheila call­ing. She closed her eyes. Inhale, the voice said, exhale deeply, the voice said. Peg creaked her body over itself, exhal­ing, inhal­ing. The phone buzzed again and Peg blew air through round­ed lips. She felt light and faint as smoke. The voice on the tele­vi­sion told her to thank her­self for her com­mit­ment today. With­out any air of pre­tense, Peg thanked her­self fully.

            Peg rolled to her feet. She felt a long twang down her hip, dif­fer­ent than before, as if blood found new cor­ners to paint in her ves­sels. She toed to the kitchen and stared at the new toast­er. Plas­tic black, scuffed, tilt­ed plunger, dial point­ed to three.

            She unspun the loaf of plain white bread and dunked things into the slits.

            She pressed the plunger and met­al screeched. A slow orange glow lit up the grills and crisped the bread and warmed her fin­ger­tips. Inhale light, she heard the voice on the tele­vi­sion say. Exhale dark­ness, and all unneed­ed things. Peg’s atten­tion turned to her pock­et which was miss­ing her phone. She stared at the toast­er with rabid intent. Inhale, the voice said, exhale. Peg opened her lungs to fill her chest, and dragged in deep­er when she thought it was at max­i­mum. She saw the bread becom­ing toast sur­round­ed by the glow. Peg antic­i­pat­ed the voice ring­ing in her brain, to exhale, and she closed her eyes and felt the glow on her face and let the air drift out of her lungs. Her body was warm, her face was warm. She couldn’t hear her phone buzz, and she didn’t care it wasn’t in her pock­et. When she was out of air, she clenched and heaved just a lit­tle bit more out, still warm. Peg opened her eyes and the plunger of the toast­er screamed back up. Her toast came out to a small ceram­ic plate and she but­tered it with the room tem­per­a­ture stick on the counter. It didn’t pair well with her milk, but bet­ter than her peanut but­ter and grape jel­ly sand­wich did with her coffee.

            Peg woke the next morn­ing and had cof­fee and toast, like she always did. She arrived at work a few min­utes after 8am to lit­tle fan­fare and left pre­cise­ly on time.

From the writer


:: Account ::

The Toast­er is a short fic­tion piece that puts a spin on the “try/fail” cycle. Ini­tial­ly con­ceived to be a pseu­do-hor­ror piece, it end­ed up pulling me in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion to address ideas of anx­i­ety, self-worth, and the L‑word. I often write of char­ac­ters strug­gling to go about their day-to-day or at least get back to it despite out­side influ­ences. While writ­ing this piece I was think­ing of Jeff Van­der­Meer, who is loose and eccen­tric with his descrip­tions and word choice. A remark­able oppo­site to that is my always-influ­ence, Ray­mond Carv­er, who com­mu­ni­cates so much with so lit­tle. I don’t think I’ll ever for­get, “I did the drinks,” in Cathe­dral. This piece isn’t quite so min­i­mal but doesn’t strive to be over­ly com­plex or include unnec­es­sary infor­ma­tion. I trust the read­er to form the image I’m try­ing to con­vey as my ideas are less about the read­er see­ing a clear pic­ture and more about the read­er feel­ing a neb­u­lous weight. I think say­ing too much more may spoil the expe­ri­ence of the sto­ry, so I thank you for your time and I hope you enjoy it.


Stephen Short is a native of the win­try Pacif­ic North­west and a non-tra­di­tion­al stu­dent at Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­si­ty. He writes fic­tion, cre­ative non­fic­tion, and poet­ry. His work is influ­enced by the pared down selec­tions of Ray­mond Carv­er and the ver­bose eccen­tric­i­ty of Jeff Van­der­Meer. Stephen sin­cere­ly wish­es you a fan­tas­tic day and life.


There’s Nothing Left For You Here

Fiction / Allegra Solomon


:: There’s Nothing Left For You Here ::

            I real­ized my neigh­bor was see­ing the guy across the hall around the time things were get­ting rocky for them. Some­one more astute may have put the puz­zle togeth­er soon­er; may have cor­re­lat­ed the unvar­ied echo of the two doors clos­ing. His, hav­ing fresh­ly left her. Hers, after hav­ing watched him go. How one day their ani­mal­is­tic, gut­tur­al moans came croon­ing from my left, then direct­ly across from me. It was elec­tric the way their con­nec­tion pre­sent­ed itself to me. The pre­sen­ta­tion itself was a slow crawl, but when it came, it was gleaming.

            Ear­li­er that year, I heard them argu­ing through the thin wall that sep­a­rat­ed my neighbor’s unit from mine. My ear was cold against the plas­ter. I was addict­ed to this cold­ness; it was sooth­ing, med­i­c­i­nal even. The argu­ment wasn’t a shout­ing match. It was coat­ed in subtext—it was some­thing qui­et and brew­ing. Glim­mers of the spat echoed to me—my neighbor’s pup­py­ish prod­ding, her boyfriend’s sto­ic, male indif­fer­ence— and then I heard the sound of her front door closing.

            We’re okay right? He said.

           She said, Of course.

            The inter­ac­tion was almost lost to the white noise of my heater. It was in that moment I decid­ed to take out my trash.

            In the hall­way, I saw him push­ing her against her door with his hands in her hair as they fever­ish­ly kissed. A pink mess of lips and skin, miss­ing the mouth more than mak­ing it. I made a note not to look at any­one too directly—to bee­line for the trash room—but I have nev­er been good at resist­ing temptation.

            There it was: His black nails. Her shut eyes. I drank it up quick­ly, in one pas­sive blink and the after­im­age of them burned behind my eye­lids in a crisp orange out­line. When the girl saw me com­ing, she squeaked a non­com­mit­tal plea of resis­tance that dis­si­pat­ed as soon as it appeared I didn’t care.

           It was quite the oppo­site; the two of them com­pelled me beyond belief. There isn’t much else to it than this: I was awful­ly bored back then.


            All of my clos­est friends had moved out of state the year before and none of us were good at main­tain­ing emo­tion­al close­ness over that much of a dis­tance. My child­hood best friend and simul­ta­ne­ous ex-boyfriend of five years decid­ed that what we had was not a roman­tic love and nev­er was. There were no good shows on TV and the mid­west­ern win­ter was a force. What else was there to do? I let my home swal­low me whole.

            In my bore­dom, I’d start­ed to toy with the con­cept of rein­vent­ing myself. This was orig­i­nal­ly out of enter­tain­ment. Not appear­ance-wise. I more­so won­dered what would hap­pen if I went against all my nat­ur­al instincts and did what was thrilling rather than what I usu­al­ly did, which was what was right. Act on impulse for any lev­el of grat­i­fi­ca­tion with­out think­ing of the effects, just to move my blood around. It wasn’t always any­thing big. Some­times I would steal can­dy from Wal­greens and then throw it away because I could. Eaves­drop on my neigh­bors. Stare at peo­ple real long in pub­lic and watch them unrav­el before me. When I got deliv­ery food I would either tip entire­ly too well or not at all, depend­ing on the day and my mer­cu­r­ial tem­pera­ment. It felt like I was grab­bing my life by the neck and chok­ing it out, deadpan.

           Work had become the only social aspect of my life. I worked at Best Buy, rec­om­mend­ing print­ers and tele­vi­sions to fill the dead air. There was a guy I worked with named Josi­ah who would flirt with me in the breakroom—call me cute, short ver­sions of my name while every­one else addressed me by every let­ter. Run his fin­gers up and down my fore­arms while we sat in the Nin­ten­do aisle and argued about the most effec­tive char­ac­ter to use in what game. His girl­friend was a near­ly six-foot brunette. She lift­ed reg­u­lar­ly at the gym and could kill me if she want­ed, but—to her dis­ad­van­tage— had the sweet, sopra­no voice of a Sesame Street char­ac­ter. She always picked him up at the end of the day or brought him lunch when her law school sched­ule allowed. I went out of my way to strike up a cor­dial friend­ship with her; ask her how the first year was going, make sub­tle jabs at Josi­ah to seem like a non-enti­ty. Some days we would sit and talk for half an hour alone before she went over to him. On my birth­day in Jan­u­ary, she brought me a cook­ie with my first ini­tial on it in icing. My com­plex rela­tion­ship with her was one of my main sources of enter­tain­ment. The rush it gave me was too addict­ing to stop.

            At home I would usu­al­ly watch old episodes of New Girl or Every­body Hates Chris until my neigh­bors start­ed up again. Some days my ex-boyfriend would stop by to col­lect some of his old things, but he always left quick­ly, with­out much word or touch.


           Things with my neigh­bors became most entic­ing in Feb­ru­ary. There was a night where I heard the front door slam hard as they walked in the house; com­ing from—what I’d decid­ed was—a din­ner. I heard the bass in his voice, fol­lowed by the hard, undu­lat­ing tre­ble of hers.

            I turned down New Girl and returned my ear to it’s home on that cold wall.

            What about Christ­mas? She said. You wouldn’t want to spend it with my family?

            That’s ten months from now, the guy said.


            And so, we don’t have to wor­ry about that right now.

            You don’t think we’ll be togeth­er in ten months?

            I didn’t say that.

            There was a soft, bare­ly dis­cern­able whim­per and then things were qui­et again. I went back to my show and turned the sound all the way up.


            I nev­er heard the guy leave her house that night, or if he had, I missed it because my ex-boyfriend had called and asked if I still had his Cavs jersey.

            Yes, I said, because you gave it to me.

            He asked for it back calm­ly, and when I didn’t say any­thing, he said, I’m kind of wor­ried about you, by the way.

           I laughed. Why?

           Because you seem very lone­ly. Who do you talk to all day?

            My neighbor.

            Any­one else? he asked. You’re not being self-destruc­tive, are you?

           Not yet, I said. Maybe it would be good for me.

            I don’t think that’s true. You’re a very log­i­cal and empa­thet­ic girl.

            You wor­ry about me a lot for some­one who end­ed things.

           He sighed.

             Love is not exclu­sive­ly roman­tic. I can still care about you. Quit iso­lat­ing yourself—the pity par­ty is get­ting bor­ing. Then, he hung up.


            The next day at work I real­ized I didn’t real­ly know what my neigh­bors’ faces looked like, and I didn’t know their names. This was exciting—it still is, remem­ber­ing that mys­tery and what was pos­si­ble inside of it. How my impo­si­tions still held water. I had just learned the girl had orange hair—I caught a glimpse in the hall­way the night before. I knew the guy had jet black hair and pale skin, but that was all. Before I’d seen them, I had imag­ined them to both be blondes—that maybe they’d look eeri­ly sim­i­lar. They seemed like the type of white peo­ple to be attract­ed to a ver­sion of them­selves. I imag­ined her apart­ment had pas­tel mono­grams of her ini­tials on any bare wall space and a tank for ill cared for gold­fish. Through the wall my neigh­bor had the muf­fled voice of a petite, five foot, stick thin soror­i­ty girl. In real­i­ty she was this tall, round, red­head with freck­les. In terms of stature, the two of them looked each oth­er square in the eyes.

            Where’s your mind at, Josi­ah asked. He was lean­ing back against a row of Mario games that avalanched onto the floor while he played with the hem of my polo. I was stand­ing in front of him, spac­ing out into the open air over his shoulder.

            I’m just think­ing about my neigh­bor, I said, as though I was far away. She’s dat­ing the guy across the hall. I think they’re fighting.

            She your friend?

           I nodded.

            Rela­tion­ships are com­pli­cat­ed, he said. My girl and I fight all the time.

            Because you’re a cheater?

            I’m not a cheater, he laughed. If I was a cheater, we wouldn’t be stand­ing out on this floor right now.

            Josi­ah held my eyes for a long time before I broke the gaze and poked his chest.

            I like your girl­friend, anyways.

            Right. You two are all bud­dy bud­dy now. What’s that about?

            I don’t know, I said. I could feel him affec­tion­ate­ly tug­ging on my shirt as I began to dis­ap­pear into my mind. I think it makes me feel powerful.

            He flashed his teeth, laughed, then said with a mix of edge and intrigue, Most peo­ple wouldn’t admit that.


            I came home lat­er than usu­al that night, hav­ing been stuck in traf­fic. The guy across the hall usu­al­ly went to my neighbor’s place around eight, and I was afraid if I was late I would miss an essen­tial sto­ry­line. There had been many. I’d count­ed about three. A preg­nan­cy scare, a for­got­ten birth­day, unmatched love lan­guages. (I wish you would com­pli­ment me more, she’d said once. I just told you that your ear­rings look cool, he said.) The preg­nan­cy scare made me celi­bate for weeks, though, I sup­pose that had less to do with agency and more to do with the way things just were. When she for­got his birth­day it wasn’t a big deal, but it was obvi­ous to me, a room away, that he was down­play­ing it. One time he wait­ed in her house while she was gone to the store and he talked on the phone to one of his friends about it. (Yeah, we didn’t do any­thing, he said. No, no, it’s not a big deal. You know I’m not big on birth­days any­ways. Yeah, it would have been nice but, you know.)

            It was cer­tain­ly a rela­tion­ship forged by attrac­tion alone, and the mess of this real­i­ty began to creep up behind them. Though, none of this was impor­tant. This was a mat­ter of self; I did not want them to break up.

             When I got to my floor, I could already hear them as I passed by her door to get to mine. Des­per­ate sobs. Akin to the preg­nan­cy scare sobs, but less existential—more heart­bro­ken. Long, deep, drawn out—like being pushed out of a brass instru­ment. Under­neath those sobs was the guy say­ing, Come on. Are you seri­ous? You knew this!

           I stopped in front of her door and pressed my ear to it—a high-risk urge much eas­i­er to suc­cumb to than you might expect. I could hear much bet­ter out there; the sounds were crisp and alive, like I was stand­ing in the liv­ing room with them.

            You knew this. Like—I told you that at the start, the guy said.

            I didn’t know you were still see­ing oth­er peo­ple, though. I thought we were past that.

           Her sobs got caught in her throat.

            I am. I am, but I like you both. That doesn’t take any­thing away from you.

            I can’t believe this.

            Come on.

            I can’t believe this.

            To be fair, I had assumed she knew. Occa­sion­al­ly when she wasn’t home, I would hear him walk into his place, laugh­ing along with a voice that wasn’t hers. It was always so con­ve­nient­ly timed that I assumed it was an arrange­ment. Her heav­ing proved oth­er­wise, but it was enter­tain­ing, nonetheless.

            There was an abrupt sound of heavy foot­steps and the tell­tale sign of a lock being undone. I slow­ly and as unpan­icked as pos­si­ble, walked to my door and began to put the key in.

            The two of them were sud­den­ly out­side with me. It felt famil­ial, though nei­ther of them noticed my presence.

            Go. She point­ed to his door.

            Oh my God.

            I’m seri­ous. Go play with your oth­er toy.

            At this, I went into my apart­ment, only to get a bet­ter visu­al through my peep­hole. That was the mon­ey shot. At first, I could only see him—his back pressed against his front door, and his arms spread eagle, grasp­ing for a way out.

            We talked about this. You know monogamy isn’t for me.

            Then go—be free.

            She walked so she was stand­ing in his face, fore­head to fore­head with him. They yelled at each oth­er for anoth­er five min­utes before she said, I’m done, and walked back into her apart­ment. There were her foot­steps; the click of the door open­ing; the slam; and then nothing.


            The silence that fol­lowed was the qui­etest it had been in a month or two. I laid in bed and watched the ceil­ing fan turn until the arms of it liqui­fied into one sol­id cir­cle around the lights. I stared at the lights until it hurt my eyes; the bright cir­cles, blink­ing resid­u­al­ly in my view as I assessed my room. I had already been through both New Girl and Every­body Hates Chris’ entire series respec­tive­ly five and four times; there were no sur­pris­es left. There was noth­ing. Not even a drone of white noise or leak­ing faucet water. I checked my phone and I had no texts. Insta­gram was most­ly peo­ple I didn’t talk to any­more. One of my friends that moved away slid up on a sto­ry I post­ed about Inse­cure end­ing and said: I guess Lawrence can stay. I liked it and said: Girl, I guess. I scrolled through the rest of our mes­sages since she moved away. They were all about as incon­se­quen­tial as that. YouTube proved to be tem­porar­i­ly mind numb­ing and I watched a video essay about Mark Rothko. When that video end­ed, I stared at my reflec­tion in the black screen and traced the out­line of myself in the col­lect­ed dust.


            I found myself knock­ing on my neighbor’s door before I could think bet­ter of it. Like a quick flash—my knuck­les were against the hard­wood, and then she was twist­ing the knob.

            Her face was all red—freckles dis­ap­peared in the tear stained, inflamed skin. A mane of curls cas­cad­ing down to her shoulders.

            Yeah?  She looked me up and down.

            Hey. I live over there.

            She just nod­ded, prod­ding me for the point.

            I’m sor­ry, I began again. I just want­ed to know if I could bor­row a tampon.

            She broke an apolo­getic smile that was crooked on its left side. Her face fell in a way that seemed she was embar­rassed of her brashness.

            God. Yeah, sor­ry. Here, just, um— She opened her door and motioned for me to come in. What do you want—light? Super?

            She lived in a one bed­room that mir­rored mine. The bath­room was in that first hall­way, and I scanned her place as she dis­ap­peared into it. There was none of the per­son­al­ized mono­grammed art I’d expect­ed. No gold­fish. In fact, the walls were most­ly emp­ty aside from a few stock Ikea paint­ings and one lone, prac­ti­cal­ly vin­tage One Direc­tion poster right above her bed. The apart­ment smelled of nothing—no can­dles, no sprays, no oil dif­fusers, which was so un-twen­ty-some­thing-year-old-girl like of her I won­dered if there was some­thing wrong with her. There was one with­er­ing set of flow­ers on the kitchen island, but that was all. I decid­ed I liked my ver­sion of her place more—it felt truer.

            I’ll take what I can get, I said.

            What’s your name?

            She was rum­mag­ing through the cab­i­net under the sink, pulling out hair straight­en­ers and hair ties alike. I told her what it was.

            That’s fun­ny, she said. You look like one.

            Then she told me her name was Dar­leen, and I told her she looked like one too.

            It’s sup­posed to mean Darling—loved one, she said.  Which, I don’t feel much like right now.

            Mine means “Filled heart,” I said with air quotes.


            I shook my head. No. Not right now.

            She walked out of the bath­room with three tampons—two light, one super. Her body was swim­ming in an over­sized Mets t‑shirt, as if it was night­gown. As she placed them in my hand, she said, I know you can prob­a­bly hear us. Sor­ry about that.

            Don’t wor­ry about it. Seri­ous­ly. I put the tam­pons in my pocket.

            I used to hear you, too, actu­al­ly. That guy.

            Ah. I nod­ded my head. Sorry.

            No, it’s okay. I thought about you, actu­al­ly. I hoped you were alright when I noticed he stopped com­ing around.

            There was a moment of silence that sat a bit too long, but it main­tained a soft­ness I felt could be use­ful to me.

            It’s that guy right? The one that lives across from me?

            She smiled and nod­ded her head—still fond at the thought of him, despite every­thing that had just happened.

            Yeah. It’s a fun­ny sto­ry, actu­al­ly. Maybe I’ll tell you sometime.

            Sure. Thanks for these.

            I walked back into my apart­ment and put the tam­pons in the box with the oth­ers I had.


            For a while, it did not seem like they were going to get back togeth­er. Because of this, it was silent in my apart­ment for three weeks. This was bad for me—I need­ed them to occu­py my mind while home. I start­ed tak­ing extra shifts at work just to stay out the house. I would hope to come home and hear anything—them laugh­ing, talk­ing, fight­ing, fuck­ing. But there was noth­ing. My ex-boyfriend had stopped com­ing by because he’d effec­tive­ly got­ten back every­thing that he wanted—excluding the Cavs jersey—but would call occa­sion­al­ly. It was always out of con­cern; out of the pla­ton­ic love we’d built since we were chil­dren. At some point I stopped answer­ing him. It felt like the wrong deci­sion to make, so I made it. The resid­ual high sati­at­ed me for a while. I called some of my old friends a time or two, but it was always brief and most­ly unex­cit­ing in the way things nev­er were when they still lived in town. Pod­casts became impor­tant to me quick­ly. After work, I would sit out­side the store and watch the cars go by.

            Dur­ing the third week of silence, I burned my hand bad­ly at work. I was heat­ing up water in a mug to make tea, and while tak­ing it out of the microwave, I spilled it all over me. The skin tem­porar­i­ly became flim­sy and loose, and the pain reduced me to a child. Whim­per­ing and jump­ing as I shook my hand, like I’d fall­en off my bike and need­ed a kiss. A few of my co-work­ers helped me get ice until Josi­ah came in and said, You’re not sup­posed to ice it. Here, run it under room tem­per­a­ture water. He took my hand in his and ran the water over both of ours like it was his pain too. We stood there like that—his thumb glid­ing over the inside of my hand, sooth­ing it— until I told him I felt okay. He then sat me down and rubbed Neosporin on my palm. Nice and slow, to savor the moment. We didn’t talk much. I sat still and let him take care of me. It was then that I real­ized I had not touched any­one in a long time. I had not kissed any­one, hugged any­one, had my hand del­i­cate­ly loved on. It was a sud­den but alarm­ing rev­e­la­tion— dis­cov­er­ing I was will­ing to do any­thing for it. 


            There was not much else. I attempt­ed to build a book­shelf. Picked up a poet­ry book an old friend post­ed on her Insta­gram sto­ry. I start­ed going for walks. Any con­trol I felt I had dwin­dled into a thin string I could hard­ly tie. I had a close call steal­ing a can­dle from Bath & Body Works. I wasn’t able to sleep all the way through the night, even with mela­tonin. I laid in bed most nights and filled the absence with my mind. I imag­ined they were talk­ing on the oth­er side of that wall, or per­haps, they were talk­ing to me. Those moments felt awful­ly normal.

            In that forth week, Dar­leen knocked on my door. Her face was hard­ly vis­i­ble in the over­growth of her hair. When I opened the door she had a bot­tle of Caber­net in her hand, dan­gling like a weight. Before I could speak, she just said:

            I’m kin­da drunk, so kick me out if you want— but I need to talk to some­one and no one is answer­ing my calls.

            I would have been more offend­ed under dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, but my need for com­pa­ny was stronger than my pride.


            The girl scanned my walls inquis­i­tive­ly, walked right up to a can­dle I had burn­ing and took a strong whiff—told me the can­dle smelled like “man.”

            It’s fen­nel and pine, I said.

            Fen­nel and pine, she repeat­ed absent­ly. Her voice was soft­er, and raspi­er than I remem­bered. She took her free hand to scratch her fore­head and began to lazi­ly walk through the room, pick­ing up note­books before putting them down—opening and clos­ing the blinds like they were some kind of puz­zle. She thumbed at the tape hold­ing up a Sade poster over the couch and I fought the urge to tell her to stop.

            You’re not busy? she asked, rolling one of my pens around the inside of her wine-stained fin­gers. I shook my head. Can I just vent to you? She asked.

            Of course. I repressed my excitement.

            Lit­er­al­ly stop me any­time. She then sat down at the kitchen table and began tear­ing up.


            She and the guy start­ed see­ing each oth­er in Novem­ber. He had knocked on her door to see if she had a bot­tle open­er. He nev­er gave it back to her, so a week lat­er she went over to get it—I had bot­tles to open too, you know—and he was like, I can’t find it. Here, come in. She sat at his counter, and they talked for two hours. I remem­ber think­ing he smelled like a for­est, she said. Right after rain.

            The open­er was in the kitchen draw­er the entire time. And then they fell into a rou­tine. She said at the begin­ning he did men­tion he was see­ing oth­er peo­ple, though, of course, she assumed it was for the time being. When they start­ed see­ing each oth­er every day she assumed she was the only one, and all those nights he didn’t come home she thought he was out being a drunk­en man with his friends at bars.

            He’s been tex­ting me, but I haven’t texted him back, yet.

            Yet? I sat up.

            I know it’s bad. I like him, but I don’t love him. We aren’t entire­ly good for each oth­er but, some­times you just take what you can get. You know?

            I do, I said.  I looked at her; body perched in one of my kitchen chairs, sip­ping direct­ly from the bottle.

            You seem to be cop­ing with your breakup well, though.

            I shrugged.  I won­dered how she would feel know­ing how much I knew about their rela­tion­ship, or the role she played in the coping.

            He was the last per­son close to me that still lived in town, I added, rock­ing back on the hind legs of my chair. All our oth­er friends slow­ly got city jobs and moved away one by one.

            So, what do you get up to now?

           Noth­ing. I’m very bored these days. I try to find ways to enter­tain myself.

            What’s that thing? She said, in a bub­bly, bur­py gig­gle. The idle mind being the devil’s playground?

            She drank more of her wine, and I watched it fall down her throat in car­toon-like gulps. It occurred to me that this inter­ac­tion might not be sig­nif­i­cant to her. Just a drunk­en ther­a­py to exor­cise her thoughts on her boyfriend—I, the only per­son present enough to help her do so—and in the morn­ing, this would all be a hazy half mem­o­ry, which could be qual­i­fied as a dream.

           I was a place hold­er. She was white noise. I sup­pose we all do what we must to get by.

           I have this idea of hit­ting rock bot­tom and becom­ing a worse ver­sion of myself, to then come back refined, I said.

            She stared at me blankly. Why would you do that?

            It might be fun. Keep me busy. It’s like play­ing a video game. Mak­ing all these bad deci­sions, but they’re mine to make.


            It was said as a half thought—her mind was else­where. She set the wine bot­tle down on the kitchen table. It was most­ly emp­ty and left a nice red ring on my white table­cloth. Then she said, I think I’m going to take him back soon.

            Even if he’s still see­ing that oth­er girl.

            She nodded.

            I’ll just deal with it. I’m not good at being alone. Does that make me a bad person?

            I’m not the best per­son right now, so you’re ask­ing the wrong one.

            You keep say­ing that. She drunk­en­ly tilt­ed her head to the right, and it made her whole body sag a lit­tle. What do you mean? She asked smal­ly. Like, what are you doing?

            I mean, I sighed. I might fuck my co-worker.

            That’s not bad.

            He has a girl­friend, though. And she’s real­ly nice. I like her.


            She squirmed a bit in her chair and avert­ed eye con­tact. I real­ized that maybe her ver­sion of a bad per­son and mine weren’t exact­ly mir­rored def­i­n­i­tions, but we were oper­at­ing from the same core.

            After a moment of silence, I saw her face tight­en. She said, Please don’t remind me of any of this in the morn­ing, okay? Then stood up to throw up in the bath­room toi­let. I could hear it echo­ing and splat­ter­ing against the porce­lain sides all the way from the liv­ing room. The retch­ing was vio­lent. I knew she would remem­ber none of this the next morning.

            I joined her on my knees, gath­er­ing her hair in my once burned hand like rope, and held her as her body lurched for­ward. After, I wiped her face soft­ly with a tow­el, gave her water, and walked her back to her apart­ment. Inside, she climbed into a big sweatshirt—It doesn’t even smell like him any­more, she said— and I laid her down in bed, push­ing a trash­can to her bedside.

            Lock the door, I called back. She said nothing.

            Once back in my apart­ment, I wrote on a piece of paper: BUY HER FLOWERS. SHE WILL TAKE YOU BACK and slid it under the guy’s door.


            Work was slow the next day because there had been an ice storm. The roads were slick and emp­ty, which gave us all free reign to be on our phones or take turns play­ing dif­fer­ent con­soles when our man­agers weren’t look­ing. Josi­ah and I hung at the back of the store, stand­ing as close as pos­si­ble to the HD screens to see what it did to our eyes.

            The thing is, I gen­uine­ly liked him as a per­son. He was dark skinned, had a head full of hair, and was twice my size—which was just my type. Our humors aligned in a way he often told me him and his girlfriend’s did not. I’m sure it was an inten­tion­al manip­u­la­tion, but I didn’t mind—it felt warm.

            There was an HQ replay of a Steel­ers game unfold­ing before us. I was mak­ing a com­ment about how it felt like 4‑D Smell-o-vision when he took my hand and used it to touch my hair.

            You do it your­self? He asked, eyes not leav­ing mine once.

            I smacked my teeth. Come on now.

            He smiled. You know how do to cornrows?


            He then took the hand and touched it to his head. I could feel the minute coils on my fin­ger­tips, already work­ing them­selves to bur­row under my hangnails.

            You think you can do mine? My girl’s out of town.

            I paused.

            When? I asked.


            Around that time, I often felt like I was sus­pend­ed some­where in the air, watch­ing myself live and act and breathe. Observ­ing my body move around pow­er­ful­ly from out­side my body, like a video game—removed from my actions, my con­se­quences. In that moment, I returned to my bones.


            Except for Dar­leen, no one new had been to my apart­ment in a long time. When we walked in, I become hyper aware of the rolled up, dirty white moun­tain of socks in the cor­ner by my vinyl—the way the couch frayed white where leather should have been. Where it once was.

            Josi­ah walked to the front of the room and thumbed through a poet­ry book that was sit­ting on the TV stand, skim­ming page seventy.

           Are you gonna show me around? He asked.

            There’s only two rooms, I said, more soft and less assured than any­thing else I’d ever said to him. 

            So, show me them.

            He motioned me towards him. When I was stand­ing in front of him he play­ful­ly turned me around by my shoul­ders and point­ed to the paint­ing above the couch. What’s this?

            I showed him the black and white Pol­lock imitation—left out that it was some­thing my ex-boyfriend and I had worked on togeth­er, long before we’d even dat­ed. I showed him the can­dles I hoard­ed and how they lived in the box under the TV stand, because I don’t burn them faster than I buy them.

            And this? he asked, pick­ing up a golf ball sit­ting on my desk.

            An old friend and I found it on a walk a long time ago.

            You seem like a sen­ti­men­tal per­son, he said, earnest­ly in a breath. I shrugged and became very hot suddenly.

            I have been one at times.


            We walked onto my bal­cony and spit off of it onto the cement—it was his idea. He said he used to do that a lot in the place he grew up. A small apart­ment not too dif­fer­ent from mine.

            I felt it again then— a pinch of con­trol while up there wield­ing our agency like gods. The pinch felt too much a moment lat­er when his hand touched my back and asked if we should wash his hair.

            Yes, I heard myself say. There was an elec­tric­i­ty in the air. A shift had occurred. I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I was still try­ing to decide what kind of per­son I was.


            We stood in the kitchen—he in front of me, back bent, head under the sink faucet. The room smelled like argon oil and mint—strongly grip­ping at the nose.

            I used to love when my mom washed my hair like this, he said. And then, in the most airy, sin­cere voice I’d ever heard from him, I think this just brought back a for­ma­tive memory.

            I’ve nev­er done this to some­one before, actually.

            I feel lucky, he laughed. To be your first.

            My fin­gers were tan­gled in sham­poo, wash­ing and lath­er­ing his hair from the back, hard­ly able to reach over his tall frame. He laughed when I used my nails to real­ly get in there. We were so close. I could see the open brown skin of his scalp and the way his hair sponged and soaked up the prod­uct. Some­thing about see­ing the top of his head, vul­ner­a­bly car­ing for him in this way, human­ized him to me. Proved he was breath­ing, warm to the touch, with blood inside. A per­son, with aches, hungers, mem­o­ries. When he was a kid his moth­er washed his hair over the sink, and he used to spit off bal­conies— the facts of a real per­son with a real life. He was him­self, and a son, and boyfriend. He was a boyfriend, and I was cradling his head soft­ly in my hands.

           When I asked if he okay he said, Yes—please, keep going. This feels good.

            It had been more inti­mate that I had expect­ed; the act of wash­ing his hair and feel­ing the heat of his body alone in my home as opposed to the open exhi­bi­tion of our job. It felt con­crete, not just a play­ful, casu­al tee­ter­ing on an awful edge for our own plea­sure. It was clear that this could be the begin­ning of a con­sis­tent complication.

            When we fin­ished, I sat in a chair—he sat on the floor at my feet, fac­ing the tele­vi­sion. As time went on, I became qui­eter. Tread­ing cau­tious­ly. I blow dried his hair as slow­ly as pos­si­ble, attempt­ing to find out if I was more moral than des­per­ate, more self­ish than kind, all while watch­ing his hair go smooth in my hands.

           When I clicked the blow dry­er off, behind the sound of the tele­vi­sion was my neigh­bor talk­ing. There were two voic­es, drip­ping with the spe­cif­ic affec­tion that comes post-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. She cooed and the guy laughed. I love them, I love them, she said loud­ly, and I won­dered if she want­ed me to hear. Yeah? He replied.

            They don’t sound like they’re fight­ing any­more, Josi­ah said.

            Yeah, I guess they’re not. She’s weak for him. I ran the end of a rat­tail comb down the mid­dle of his head to form a part. They prob­a­bly shouldn’t be togeth­er if I’m being honest.

            Who cares? Everyone’s just doing what feels best to them, he said stand­ing up.

            He turned towards me and asked if the part looked straight, extend­ing a hand so I would stand up too. His eyes scanned me as I stood in front of him re-draw­ing the part, push­ing some hairs to the side, avoid­ing the warmth on my face and what I’d like to do about it if I was, in fact, more des­per­ate than moral. His shoul­ders and my fore­head were lev­el with each oth­er. Sud­den­ly, my face was being held in his rough hands, pulling my gaze up so we were look­ing at each oth­er. I took the comb and adjust­ed all the zig-zag­ging parts, mak­ing it as straight as pos­si­ble. He licked his lips.

            Remem­ber what you told me you weren’t, I said, qui­et­ly. At work that day.

            I do.

            What are you now?

            In this moment? He laughed. I’m still not.

            It just seemed like in that moment, us being out on the floor was the decid­ing variable.

            I sup­pose you’re right.

            Josi­ah and I stood in a charged silence, and then he added, You don’t have any room­mates that are gonna come knock­ing, right? I shook my head. Any friends that just show up?

            No, I said. No friends that show up.


            No, I said. No boyfriend.

            He nod­ded as his hands trav­elled cau­tious­ly to my low­er back. Josiah’s lips brushed against my neck as he leaned down to my ear.

            That pow­er you felt, he whis­pered. Do you still feel it?

            His fin­gers pressed into my back slow and soft, as if play­ing a chord. My body knew that move­ment. It hummed. I exhaled as he inhaled, and I felt it as one.

            To be hon­est, it all hap­pened very quick­ly. I couldn’t bring myself to speak—I just leaned into the touch.

From the writer


:: Account ::

This sto­ry came to me in 2021 as the pan­dem­ic was still present, but the cul­ture and pre­cau­tions were not the same as they’d been the year before. I’d become hyper aware of my iso­la­tion and all the futile ways I’d attempt to feel con­nect­ed to oth­ers. Escapism at the time seemed to be the only bit of refuge—whether that be escap­ing online, in media, books, or my own imag­i­na­tion. I could often hear my neigh­bors through our adjoined wall, and I would won­der about them. 

I’d spo­ken to many peo­ple about how they’d dealt with their lone­li­ness at that time, and it became clear to me that des­per­a­tion lived with many peo­ple. I am always inter­est­ed in what des­per­a­tion leads a per­son to, and after the lone­ly peri­od that fol­lowed 2020, this felt like a sto­ry I need­ed to write. 


Alle­gra Solomon is a Black fic­tion writer from Colum­bus, Ohio. She received her MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky and her B.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Ohio Uni­ver­si­ty. Her work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Tri­Quar­ter­ly, New Ohio Review, Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Review, Lol­we and more. She was the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kentucky’s 2022 recip­i­ent of the Fic­tion MFA award. She lives in Lex­ing­ton, Kentucky

Mother Gosling

Fiction / Brodie Gress 

:: Mother Gosling ::

      Around the time I became twen­ty-sev­en, half as old as my moth­er, I was irri­tat­ed to learn that life was exact­ly what she had warned me it would be.

          “What­ev­er you study, make mon­ey with it,” I remem­ber her telling me, dur­ing the first of our many calls, when I asked her what my col­lege degree should be. I’d just fin­ished my first semes­ter of col­lege, still unde­clared. I was lean­ing toward music, unwill­ing to let it go, but my moth­er pushed me oth­er­wise. She was end­less­ly prac­ti­cal, like when she bought me a Dave Ram­sey book for my high school grad­u­a­tion or emailed me a list of mechan­ics as her first cor­re­spon­dence with me after col­lege began. Despite that, I real­ized that I did in fact like my family—even my annoy­ing younger sib­lings, even my down-to-earth mother.

          As grat­ing as her val­ues were, I fol­lowed them. As a com­pro­mise, I dou­ble majored in music and busi­ness, the sec­ond of which made of cours­es I found sti­fling to sit through but which also led to a paid intern­ship qua bud­ding career in the non­prof­it sec­tor. I thanked my moth­er for her advice, dur­ing the first time I called her after I got my job.

          My father was there, too, dur­ing our calls, in the back­ground cheer­ful­ly yelling greet­ings to me over my mother’s shoul­der: How was the non­prof­it, was I enjoy­ing my non-rais­es and no-perks yet, and I’d laugh and tell him to bug off. I knew he had his issues with his fam­i­ly, but he had the ears of my broth­ers and sis­ter. I gave mine to my moth­er. Us two eldest daugh­ters. The more I called my moth­er, the more I learned about her. She had her own ordeals, with her orig­i­nal fam­i­ly, whom I’d only ever seen dur­ing hol­i­days grow­ing up.

          As our calls and vis­its rolled on, I learned that my Grampa—my sweet, fun­ny Gram­pa who car­ried me on his shoul­ders and made me my first violin—had been a shit­hole father.

          “She’s stay­ing home again,” my moth­er said, annoyed with her mid­dle sis­ter, over the first phone call we had when I’d start­ed my job. “Twila said she’d come this time, she swore, but you know she always backs out last minute. Gigi—your cousin Lorraine’s youngest, you remember—came down with the flu, and Lor­raine called her moth­er like always. I told Twila she couldn’t always swoop in and help Lor­raine every time, or Lor­raine would nev­er be a con­fi­dent mother.”

          “Oh, Mom,” I said, my con­stant inter­lude upon her sto­ries, to let her know I was lis­ten­ing, that she was heard, even if I didn’t under­stand all of it. All I could real­ly under­stand, dur­ing her many sto­ries, was that moth­er­hood was some­thing I wasn’t sure I would ever want.

          “And I remind­ed Twila we were sup­posed to decide what to do with Grampa’s old scrap­yard art today, that Mom—Gramma—had request­ed she be there, but Twila just waved me off. You decide, Geor­gia, you’re the eldest, she said, but you know she’s just going to crit­i­cize what­ev­er I decide to do … Oh, but I’m just let­ting off steam. She’s busy, like Ulyssa. We all are. I have the most time out of any of us, I’m sure, even with babysit­ting Ned.”

          My moth­er often spoke like that. She’d snow­ball her mem­o­ries and thoughts into a long and detailed dia­tribe against her sis­ters, but then she’d catch her­self and find a gra­cious con­clu­sion, as if pen­i­tent. But I was always dis­ap­point­ed when the grace came. My moth­er sound­ed human when she com­plained, so very human. I felt like I could tell her my prob­lems, too, air my own griev­ances with my job, the guy I was sort of dat­ing now, the way the world was going, and over the phone I’d hear her mm hmm, to let me know, in turn, that even if she didn’t under­stand all my frus­tra­tions, that she lis­tened. That I was heard. 

          I have a strong mem­o­ry, once—when I was a child, I raid­ed my mother’s dress­er and tried a pair of gleam­ing red flats I nev­er saw her wear. I thought they were the most beau­ti­ful shoes, with lit­tle rhine­stones gleam­ing from the shoe’s tongue. When I put them on, I found them ill-fit­ting, but I walked around my mother’s room, then down the hall, and then to my room, where I chas­tised my dolls for loaf­ing around on the shelf doing noth­ing. I heard my broth­er, a baby then, wail, and I turned to find my moth­er glar­ing dag­gers at me. She wrenched my hand.

          “Take those off,” she said with the warmth of ice­berg let­tuce. I hur­ried my feet out of them. “Don’t go through my dress­er again. That was so thought­less of you, Ann.”

          Despite the decades, the expe­ri­ences, and any oth­er gulfs that dis­tanced us, I still try to put on my mother’s shoes. I still try to wear my moth­er, try to walk how she would walk, talk how she would talk, feel how she would feel. An impos­si­ble task.


          A few nights before her father died, Geor­gia was stir­ring beans in a bub­bling pot, sea­son­ing them with salt and pep­per, adding a lit­tle brown sug­ar and sharp ched­dar for her grand­son Ned, when her phone rang.

          “Dad’s not well,” her sis­ter Twila said over the phone.

          “He’s been unwell for a while now.”

          “No. It’s bad this time.”

          Her father died in the hos­pi­tal, at last of his liv­er can­cer. The doc­tor tried to explain it sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, that the can­cer had metas­ta­sized and made short work of its dwellings, but Geor­gia couldn’t help but notice the tim­ing. A week before, she and her sis­ters had final­ly con­vinced him to enter assist­ed liv­ing. Their mom couldn’t take care of him on her own, and his daugh­ters couldn’t make the time for him. He had fought for the longest time—how he clung to that dying light—and this rapid death of his felt to Geor­gia like a final spite.

          She’d been jilt­ed. At last, her father and moth­er would have been sep­a­rate. Geor­gia would have final­ly had the chance to vis­it her father alone, under the pre­tense of a lov­ing daugh­ter. The nurs­es would have admit­ted her. She would have walked into his room, exchanged pleas­ant hel­los. He would have invit­ed her to sit down, stare out the win­dow at him. And just when he start­ed to ask her if she remem­bered jar­ring straw­ber­ry jam with him and her broth­er, or the time he pranked her prom date with his gun, that’s when she would have told him exact­ly what she remem­bered. What her broth­er had bab­bled to her, before he’d died. Her moth­er no longer there to medi­ate her vol­canic rage. No. At last, she and her father would have had words.

          But he’d tak­en that from her, too, sneak­ing out the back door toward death. He left his fam­i­ly with noth­ing but a body to get rid of. He had a barn full of junk, an unruly plot of land, and no sav­ings for a funer­al. Her, Ulyssa, and Twila were left to cov­er much of their mother’s health­care. Geor­gia and her sis­ters decid­ed on cre­ma­tion. Her moth­er didn’t protest, though she did ask whether they couldn’t put some of her life insur­ance toward his funer­al. Geor­gia told her she’d look into it, and she didn’t.

        Only a few of the fam­i­ly arrived for his inurn­ment: Geor­gia, her sis­ters and moth­er, and Ulyssa’s chil­dren. Ulyssa had made hers come, while Geor­gia had let her own chil­dren decide.


          “Do you want to come to Grampa’s funer­al?” My moth­er called me to ask.

          I had loose mem­o­ries of my grand­fa­ther, dis­joint­ed but hap­py ones. I was one of his first grand­chil­dren. He’d been a farmer and car­pen­ter, I knew. He had shown his work at some of the local fairs near where I grew up, I remem­ber. One of my ear­li­er mem­o­ries involved him. 

          When my moth­er was hav­ing my baby broth­er, Dad at the hos­pi­tal with her, Gram­pa and Gram­ma came to babysit us. Gram­pa took us out for a stroll, walk­ing down our dri­ve­way until we got near the lake, answer­ing ques­tions from my broth­ers and sis­ter and me about child­birth. Then I saw the geese and pulled Gram­pa back with my lit­tle hand.

          “No, Gram­pa!” I told him. “Geese are awful. They always chase me.”

          “Annie, dearie, look closer.”

          He put me on his shoulders—Grampa still took care of a small farm, his body sinewy and tough—and from his shoul­ders I could see the geese a lit­tle eas­i­er. They seemed less threat­en­ing. I real­ized they were hud­dled around a nest full of cheep­ing goslings.

          “Fam­i­ly always looks out for its own,” he’d told me when he gave it to me. “Did I ever tell you about the time I got into a star­ing match with a goose in my toma­to garden …”

          And look­ing back now I can see where my moth­er had got­ten her tal­ent for weav­ing sto­ries. Gram­pa did voic­es, spread his hands wide, and con­stant­ly winked while telling his sto­ries, so much you weren’t sure how much he was fab­ri­cat­ing, whether it even mat­tered, his sto­ries were always that good. He would tick­le me and make me laugh, and I remem­ber now—it’s so obvi­ous to me now, the mem­o­ry like an opti­cal illu­sion, where your eyes final­ly see the trick and you can’t unsee it once you do. I remem­ber that Mom would always decide then that she need­ed to tuck my shirt in more, or comb my hair, has­ten­ing Gram­pa to end his sto­ry. I had liked Gram­pa, back then, and years lat­er when my moth­er told me about her father, I found it unset­tling to square my Gram­pa and her father as one and the same.

          “I wish I could,” I told my moth­er over the phone, “but we have this big fundrais­er com­ing up at my work, and I can’t take time off for it. Could I send a card instead?”

          “That’d be fine. I’m sor­ry you’ll be busy,” she said, not push­ing the mat­ter fur­ther. When I put down my phone, I couldn’t help look­ing to my wall, where a vio­lin hung. My welling grief pricked of hot shame.


          But Ulyssa’s chil­dren did attend the funer­al. They all took time off, each of them flew in, every one of them suc­cess­ful, at least by rudi­men­ta­ry mea­sures. One of them worked as an inter­na­tion­al con­sul­tant for tech com­pa­nies. Anoth­er worked for a law firm in Chica­go, had recent­ly scored a clerk­ship with a dis­trict court judge. The third had mar­ried an indie filmmaker—cineaste auteur, as he called him­self over Thanks­giv­ing dinner—after his first divorce. Each of them eulo­gized their Gram­pa, and Ulyssa cried. Geor­gia did, too, though not as much.

          Back at her mother’s house, in the liv­ing room where they’d always held hol­i­day par­ties, Geor­gia passed along a tray of pigs in a blan­ket, not par­tic­u­lar­ly hun­gry. Ulyssa’s chil­dren excused them­selves with their jobs and fam­i­lies, and Gram­ma announced she was exhaust­ed and turned in for her after­noon nap, leav­ing the three sis­ters to clean up the food they’d put out.

          “Mom can come live with me,” Ulyssa said. “She’s always want­ed to live in the city, and Dick and I have more than enough space now that Nash has his own place.”

          “That sounds fine to me,” Twila said. “Why don’t we all go out to McFee’s? It’s been a day; let’s go let off steam.”

          She just want­ed a drink, Geor­gia knew, though nei­ther Geor­gia nor Ulyssa could under­stand how Twila could even stand the smell of alco­hol. Rather than say any­thing, Geor­gia got up and col­lect­ed everyone’s plates to wash them in the sink, not wish­ing to stay in the liv­ing room any longer. She knew Ulyssa was right.

          The next week, Geor­gia sat in her car, clean­ing cad­dy in the pas­sen­ger seat, lock­ing her eyes on the front door to her mother’s home, pro­ject­ing her wor­ries and angers onto its pan­eled face. It was fun­ny how much eas­i­er sit­ting still became, the more she aged. An hour, two hours, four, ten, a hun­dred: how­ev­er long she sat didn’t mat­ter much. Her mind was over­flow­ing with thoughts now, and she was grate­ful for any time she got to rest and relin­quish them. She’d unscrew the cap to them, pour them out on the ground, feed the grass with them, pol­lute the riv­er with them, toss them care­less­ly out an open win­dow. She refused to hoard them, like her moth­er. Some thoughts were non­sense, some unpleas­ant, some repet­i­tive. At times, she might wet her hands with a thought and mark a tree, curse it for­ev­er, no mat­ter, she would do it. What­ev­er it took, to free a thought of its words, dis­solve it into some sense­less state she no longer had to deal with.

          Her thoughts crys­tal­ized and meta­mor­phosed, and Geor­gia shook her head to send them fly­ing away. She climbed out of her van and entered the house.

          Inside she found Ulyssa, stand­ing in the cor­ner, exam­in­ing a por­trait of their moth­er with her sis­ter and broth­er, in front of their old home in Ken­tucky. Ulyssa held it in her hand, exam­in­ing every cor­ner of it. She wasn’t dust­ing it, wasn’t check­ing the frame for loose screws, and when she hung it back up it was slight­ly askew. Ulyssa wouldn’t be able to spot askew things, of course, Geor­gia thought. Her work at the con­sul­tan­cy firm filled her head so much she couldn’t remem­ber how to man­age her own home, which is why Geor­gia was there every week, to clean out the oven, scrub out the dish­wash­er, step into the dark cor­ners of homes few oth­ers would think of when there, and with time spent so long in such cor­ners. Geor­gia knew how clean­ing a home could reveal it to be a fam­i­ly archaeology.

          “Didn’t think you were com­ing today.”

          Ulyssa smiled at her old­er sis­ter, and the two embraced.

          “I took a per­son­al day,” Ulyssa said. “Got some work done early.”

          In their mother’s room, their moth­er lay in her bed, threw a weak smile at her daugh­ters. Grand­ma wasn’t sick, but rather tired. Geor­gia imag­ined the mat­tress call­ing to her, embrac­ing her, encour­ag­ing her to lie still, sink. 

          “There’s no need to clean,” their moth­er said, like she always did, since Geor­gia had been a child. “I’ll get to it later.”

          When their moth­er fell asleep, Geor­gia start­ed sweep­ing the kitchen of crumbs and chas­ing the ants away, while Ulyssa retched and retreat­ed to the liv­ing room to pore over their mother’s med­ical records. Ulyssa had always been book­ish that way, Geor­gia recalled, com­fort­able in her bed­room get­ting lost in her fan­ta­sy nov­els, or the Bible. Geor­gia won­dered if she, too, would have been book­ish, had she not been sad­dled with chores. Their moth­er had tried to get Ulyssa to han­dle the laun­dry, at least, but Ulyssa proved so for­get­ful that their moth­er quit ask­ing and went to bed instead.

          “Do you think we did it right?” Ulyssa called out from the silence.

          “Did what right?”

          “His funeral.”

          Geor­gia swept the last of the debris and emp­tied it into the trash can, refus­ing to notice the spare crumb or two under­neath the bot­tom cab­i­nets. Clean­ing was nev­er over. She sim­ply tam­pered and fend­ed off every room’s unend­ing yearn­ing to rot back into the dirt.

          “It was what he deserved.”

          Their phones rang, Twila tex­ting them to ask how the clean­ing was going. Ulyssa thumbed a response before slid­ing her smart­phone back into her purse, scan­ning the bills from the nurs­ing home for incon­sis­ten­cies, Geor­gia figured.

          “Would you be mad if I said I miss him?”

          “No,” Geor­gia lied. She knew Ulyssa could tell. They both remem­bered what he’d been like. Yet, despite that their father had soft­ened over the years and giv­en Ulyssa an eas­i­er child­hood, despite their diver­gent paths in adult­hood, despite how she envied and maligned them under her breath, Geor­gia would not deny her sis­ters their grief.


          “Why don’t you spend more time with your sis­ter?” Mom used to egg my lit­tle sis­ter and me. We would throw each oth­er shrugs then go back to our rooms, Jen­na talk­ing with her friends over the cord­ed phone we still had, me prac­tic­ing the vio­lin. One Fri­day, Mom quit ask­ing and sent us both out to get bags of ice from the gro­cery store. She gave us fifty dol­lars and remind­ed us about the JCPen­ney in the town square. We tried to bring up that we had plans.

          “Can­cel your plans,” she told us. “You need new clothes, the both of you, and those fifty dol­lars are your allowance.”

          We didn’t get an allowance, typ­i­cal­ly, so we sul­len­ly let our friends know, me call­ing them and Jen­na log­ging onto the fam­i­ly com­put­er to mes­sage them—calling on the phone is lame, she loved to tell Mom and me. I drove us both downtown.

          At the JCPen­ney, we flicked through the racks, most of the clothes we liked priced well into the for­ties and fifties, more than Mom had fig­ured. We could either each get some under­gar­ments or a few t‑shirts. Jen­na groaned.

        “All the clothes here are lame,” she said from the oth­er side of the dis­count rack. “Per­fect for you. Buy your­self a lame out­fit. Just tell Mom we had a won­der­ful time and told each oth­er our secret crush­es or whatever.”

          “Who is your secret crush?”

          “No one.”

          “You sure it’s not Cory Anheuser?”

          “What?” Jen­na squeaked.

          “You for­got to log out. Saw some mes­sages that would get you grounded …”

          “He’s just a friend.” She blushed. “Mind your own business.”

          I poked Jen­na through the rack, mak­ing her jump. While I laughed, she unracked a pair of ripped jeans and threw them at me, and I retal­i­at­ed, both of us rel­ish­ing this oppor­tu­ni­ty. Mom nev­er let us brawl at home; she yelled for us to keep it down, that we were giv­ing her a headache. Jen­na threw one shirt too far and pelt­ed anoth­er cus­tomer, who scowled and told an asso­ciate. The asso­ciate came by to tell us we would have to leave, berat­ing us to learn some man­ners before we could shop at JCPenney’s again. We exit­ed in snick­ers, and out­side I showed Jen­na the shirt I’d shoplifted.

          “Didn’t know you had it in you, nerd,” my sis­ter punched me. “But ugh, the goose shirt? You would pick the lamest one, throw that in the trash.”

          “It reminds me of Grampa’s sto­ry about the geese,” I said. “I’m get­ting a goose tat­too on my shoul­der one day. A goose play­ing a vio­lin, and under­neath it the words, Did I ever tell you the one …Like what Gram­pa always says.”

          “You can’t do that. Mom will kill you.”

          “No, she wouldn’t, she has a tattoo.”

          “Not the tat­too, idiot. She hates Grampa.”


          I stopped, and Jen­na stopped, too, like I was anchor­ing her in place. What she said didn’t make sense, like she’d told me the sky was green.

          “She hates him. Duh.”

          “No, she doesn’t. He’s her dad. He annoys her, sure, but she can’t hate him.”

          “She does, though.”

          “How do you know?”

          “It’s obvi­ous. She always shoots Gram­pa glares, and not like her usu­al glares, but mean glares, like when that guy cat­called you and me at the mall and she cussed him out. She shoots Gram­pa the same kind of glare, and she always grabs my shoul­der before she lets me hug him. Doesn’t she grab at you, too?”

          “That’s ridicu­lous. Why would she take us to his and Gramma’s every Christmas?”

          “I don’t know. Appearances.”

          “You’re stu­pid,” I said. “You’re a child. You don’t know what you’re talk­ing about.”

          Jen­na gri­maced and turned back toward the car, leav­ing the dis­cus­sion flat. We drove all the way back home in our usu­al silence, bag of ice in the back shim­mer­ing. When we got back, Jen­na went to her room, and I told Mom we’d had a won­der­ful time, that we’d learned a lot about each oth­er. Mom was hap­py, until in the com­ing weeks when she noticed us pass­ing each oth­er silent­ly in the hall­way again. I could feel her watch­ing my back.

        “You’re ground­ed,” she told me dri­ly one day. “I’ve told you to clean your room a thou­sand times, sick of pick­ing up after you.”

          “I was lit­er­al­ly going to do it tonight!” I yelled back.

          “Do it now.”

          The next Christ­mas, I couldn’t shake what my sis­ter had said. I close­ly watched my grand­fa­ther, dressed up in a San­ta hat and suit, as he roamed around, giv­ing all my lit­tle cousins hugs, presents, and stories.

          “Hi there, Annie Dearie,” Gram­pa laughed when he approached me, and my mem­o­ry nev­er burned hot­ter than when my mom’s fin­gers dug into my palm, leav­ing deep imprints before let­ting go.

          Gram­pa held out a gift to me, watch­ing me unwrap it with that San­ta Claus twin­kle he could muster. It was a vio­lin, one with birds carved into the tail­piece, one he’d made him­self. “Give ‘ole San­ta a hug.” 

          “Tell Gram­pa thanks, Anna,” Mom said, and I hugged Gram­pa. The cozy warmth I used to feel so eas­i­ly around him felt too hot, almost des­per­ate. I resent­ed my sis­ter for her words.

          “Thank you,” I told him, and he winked at me. I watched the whole par­ty and real­ized he and Mom rarely spoke direct­ly to each oth­er, real­ly only through my sib­lings and I. Mom spent most of the par­ty in the kitchen with Gram­ma, or her sis­ters. I saw Jen­na busy with her new disc play­er, and I thought I caught a smug smirk on her down­turned face.

          Every Christ­mas after, I couldn’t help star­ing at the accent wall at moments, feel­ing the past alight on my shoul­ders, dig­ging its talons in, draw­ing blood.


          Some long time after her father’s funer­al, alone at her mother’s house, halfway through giv­ing the liv­ing room a quick dust­ing, Geor­gia paused to exam­ine the accent wall. She must have seen it a thou­sand times, the book­shelves dot­ted with plants and col­lec­tions of strange books: a pho­to album of old gas sta­tions, yel­lowed pen­ny dread­fuls, mis­shapen pur­chas­es from a local book­mo­bile. But she thought of the news she’d seen ear­li­er. Israel and Pales­tine, old ten­sions flar­ing up into bombs and bul­lets, why his­to­ry could nev­er rest in peace, she didn’t know.

          She remem­bered a pho­to of the sole pink crib among the wreck­age, and then she imag­ined this wall, also cracked and splin­tered. She imag­ined her old dolls behead­ed and ampu­tat­ed, their stuff­ing splat­tered across the lawn. The high­way out­side fis­sured, blast­ed, sunken under the weight of war. Her old high school bell bot­toms and turtle­necks, untouched among the smell of burn­ing cloth and poly­ester poi­son­ing the air. The insan­i­ty of it all.

          “Mom,” she called to her moth­er, “Did you see the news about Pales­tine and Israel?”

          “What news?”

          “The mis­sile strikes.”

          “There was a mis­sile strike? Where?” Gram­ma walked into the room, look­ing about it fear­ful­ly. Mom—Georgia sighed.

          “Nev­er mind.”

          She set about tak­ing the books off, final­ly giv­ing them a long over­due dust­ing. Her moth­er set­tled into the old reclin­er in the cor­ner, the wide one with the lamp hang­ing over it. Geor­gia had always thought all the fur­ni­ture in this house gave too much. None of it was firm; sit­ting any­where in the house was as if a sink­hole threat­ened to swal­low her up.

          “Israel and Pales­tine. They’ve always been at war,” her mom said, “as long as I can remem­ber. Gram­pa used to joke that they could set­tle their fights with corn­hole and a tobac­co pipe to pass around.”

          “Sure,” Geor­gia said. She couldn’t imag­ine her father paci­fy­ing any­one, and she wished her moth­er would quit call­ing him Gram­pa around her.

          “I miss him.”

          The books on the top shelf were coat­ed in dust, and Geor­gia leaned up to wipe their spines off, one by one.

          “It was heart­break­ing to see you cry, Geor­gia,” her moth­er con­tin­ued. “I know you and he had dif­fer­ences, but he loved you in his own way.”

          “I wasn’t cry­ing for him. I would nev­er shed a tear over him.” 

          Her moth­er recoiled from Geor­gia, like she was a snake, and it angered her so much, that her moth­er could despise her for this, but she wouldn’t pre­tend noth­ing had been swept under the car­pet. She wouldn’t let her feel­ings go to the grave with her father.  She did know why it couldn’t rest.

          “You both act­ed like it’s Ernie’s fault he drank him­self to death, but what Dad did to us—to him!—followed him. Admit it, you know it.” Geor­gia shot her moth­er a look of revul­sion. “And you stayed mar­ried to him, all these years. You made me let him walk me down the aisle. You made my chil­dren meet him every holiday.”

          “Geor­gia,” her moth­er ceased being a grand­moth­er. Time rolled back, and Geor­gia was a teenag­er, her moth­er try­ing to cow her. “Your father did his best. Farm­ing was thank­less work, and you and your broth­er were hard­ly angels. Ernie always stayed out late at the riv­er with friends, and he crashed the trac­tor. The cost of repairs and lost crops set us back for months. And you, screw­ing that hip­pie every week­end, for God’s sake he could have knocked you up—”

          “You sad­dled us with all the chores while Ulyssa and Twila did jack shit around the house, of course we act­ed out. That doesn’t excuse—”

          “I don’t want to hear this.”

          Her moth­er walked down the hall, stonewalling any fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion. Georgia’s anger shook through all her bones, and she wrung her dust rag as if break­ing a neck, before she stormed out of the house. Furi­ous that her moth­er still act­ed that way, that she couldn’t roll time for­ward to the present. She wasn’t a child anymore.

          Nei­ther was I.


          “I’m sor­ry!” I tried to say, for the thou­sandth time in that house­hold, felt like, when I was ten.

          “Drop­ping your baby broth­er on his head, how care­less could you be?” My moth­er snapped at me, tow­er­ing over me in rage as she held my sob­bing baby broth­er, the third of my younger broth­ers. “You could have hurt him, could have caused head trau­ma. I hope you’re nev­er a mother.”

          I said some­thing back to her, but I don’t remem­ber the rest. Nev­er a moth­er. Never.

          She told me to go to my room, and I oblig­ed her, while she tend­ed to Nathan, feel­ing his head for bumps and bruis­es, hold­ing him and bounc­ing him while he squalled.

          She did apol­o­gize, lat­er that night. Or, she apol­o­gized in her own way. She told me she had trou­ble rein­ing her words in some­times, that she didn’t mean half of what she meant, she was just vent­ing. She said she was sure I could be a won­der­ful moth­er, if I want­ed. I told her it was okay, that I knew she didn’t mean it.

          “So why can’t I for­get it?” I told my ther­a­pist two decades lat­er. “Nathan turned out fine. It’s just, when he had a speech delay, or when he kept get­ting lost in the store when we went with Mom, I thought … I couldn’t help think­ing it was because I dropped him. That I cracked his head like an egg.”

          That sto­ry, like a switch, made me cry every time I told it to myself. I was so used to blam­ing myself for what hap­pened to oth­er peo­ple, I told my ther­a­pist, like I was con­stant­ly fail­ing them.

          My ther­a­pist would wait, offer me a tis­sue, and once more tell me, with unbe­liev­able patience, that I’d been the child, not the par­ent. I wasn’t to blame. She’d remind me that my moth­er, too, couldn’t help revert­ing to child­hood, some­times. We all cling to these old pat­terns we learned, despite our best efforts, she said. She tried to say it, over and over again, like she was call­ing out to me as I let a storm blow me every which way.

          “You’re right,” I’d tell her, before we start­ed our breath­ing exer­cis­es. And I would cling to what my ther­a­pist said, for as long as I could, while ward­ing off those deeply root­ed rots, threat­en­ing to sup­plant every kind word ever spo­ken to me.

          Bruis­es, lash­ings, break­ing, curs­es, regrets.


          Bruis­es, lash­ings, break­ing, curs­es, regrets.

          I pic­ture lash­ings. Belt­ings. Beer bot­tles break­ing. The scenes I’ve seen on TV, the sounds I’ve heard over pod­casts, the scarce hints my moth­er gave me—I stitch them, com­pos­ite them, con­coct them, into what I imag­ined hap­pened to my mother.


          I pic­ture Gram­pa, not as a grand­fa­ther but a father, few­er wrin­kles but stained with dirt on his brow, his face nev­er smil­ing. I pic­ture his hands cal­loused from the fields, his legs threat­en­ing to buck­le under­neath him, his skin burn­ing with the heat of the sun. I pic­ture him walk­ing back to the house and see­ing his truck’s bumper dent­ed, damaged—why, he could eas­i­ly guess. I pic­ture him think­ing of his own child­hood, what his par­ents had said to him, done to him, and what their par­ents had said to him, and so on and so forth, words, ges­tures, par­ent­ing reach­ing back through the ages.

          I pic­ture him growl­ing, then hear­ing through the win­dow his old­est jab­ber­ing over her phone, his son pick­ing at a gui­tar, his two lit­tlest scream­ing at each oth­er in the back­yard. All of them so fuck­ing loud.

          I can nev­er fol­low him inside.


          It was some time before I told her, years after my moth­er con­fessed her child­hood to me. I didn’t tell her through a call but a vis­it, my first since Grampa’s funer­al. She was shar­ing with me, late one night over the kitchen table, how the funer­al went. A quick and qui­et affair. A few things Ulyssa and her chil­dren had said. Some food they shared at Gramma’s. Mom talked about the pigs in the blan­ket that were passed around, describ­ing them in ful­some detail. How good they tast­ed, how she hadn’t had any in years, how Twila had added a strange pick­le rel­ish to them that some­how worked.

          “She’s real­ly learned some­thing from those cook­ing class­es, I sup­pose,” Mom told me. “Maybe I’ll take her up on her invi­ta­tion sometime.”

          She stared at the table for a bit before pick­ing up her book, lick­ing her fin­ger and turn­ing the page. How eas­i­ly she could enter a book, as the TV news blared mute beside us. I remained at the table with her, until I aired what I’d come home to say.


          She looked up from her book.

          “I’m sor­ry Gram­pa hurt you,” I told her. “I can’t imag­ine how you car­ried that all this time.”

          Like how “I love you” car­ries so many mean­ings and con­no­ta­tions, “I’m sor­ry” does, too. This wasn’t one of my usu­al apolo­gies. Not the polite ones I told strangers I bumped, nor the frus­trat­ed ones I told my ex-boyfriend for for­get­ting he was cel­e­brat­ing May 4th with his friends,  when I asked him to pick up some milk and but­ter, nor even the guilt-rid­den one I told my friend when she told me not to ask her to touch her hair,.

          No. I didn’t say this sor­ry out of man­ners. This sor­ry was the one you screwed up courage for.

          In the sec­onds after, Mom took a sharp breath before piv­ot­ing. She told me it was noth­ing, I shouldn’t both­er myself over it. It was years ago, old his­to­ry. She start­ed a sto­ry about Twila and Ulyssa com­ing over for East­er, bring­ing their grand­chil­dren for a play date with Ned. Gram­ma would come, too, wouldn’t that be some­thing, four gen­er­a­tions in one house­hold, a small mir­a­cle. Mom said every­thing but what I want­ed her to say. She didn’t say how much it meant to her, that I rec­og­nized her pain.

          And she didn’t, as my heart of hearts want­ed, in turn say sor­ry to me.

          But I think I’ll always be dis­ap­point­ed by my moth­er, that way, if I pic­ture her as nobody but my moth­er. So, I tell myself the sto­ry of Geor­gia, as a balm for those wounds. Per­haps I could brave more ques­tions with her, rather than stitch­ing her sto­ry out of scraps, but I don’t wish to pry her open. She’ll always be my moth­er; the real Geor­gia is hers.

          I rose from my chair, telling my moth­er good night.

          “I love you, Mom.”

          “Good night, Anna.”


          I pic­ture my moth­er, unsure why she couldn’t return such a sen­ti­ment into three tidy words that night. Maybe the con­fines of those words angered her. Of course she loved me. She would throw her­self in front of a car for me, for all her chil­dren. The end­less root­ing for pock­ets of cash, the slights she and her hus­band suf­fered end­less­ly at their jobs, the back pain they’d endured, the surg­eries they’d put off, vaca­tions can­celled, dreams dis­in­te­grat­ed … When she thought of the pay­less work she’d done, the weeds he’d hacked and toi­lets he’d scrubbed, she want­ed to think of how they’d toiled to do bet­ter by their chil­dren, her and Tim both. But my mother’s imag­i­na­tion could trick her.

          She some­times thought of my father, her hus­band, hack­ing weeds by the creek, his back to her, and when the man turned around, she saw her father, my grand­fa­ther. My moth­er Geor­gia would yelp, angry with her­self. Why would her mind play this trick on her? she’d ask, in a cru­ci­fy­ing tone. Tim was qui­et, sen­si­tive, fac­tu­al. He didn’t rise to her lev­el in her angri­er moments, because he knew she’d inher­it­ed the worst thing from her father, a tem­per she failed to rein in most days, so why, why, why would her mind do this to her, what was it try­ing to tell her, and she couldn’t help smack­ing her head with her book before head­ing to the liv­ing room to read from it, some emp­ty-head­ed mys­tery she fig­ured out halfway through, bad­ly edit­ed copy she couldn’t help ink­ing over, some inan­i­mate object she could poke and prod with­out any guilt over the consequences.


          My moth­er was right about what life was like, among many things. Life was long. Life was repet­i­tive. Life was chas­ing after mon­ey you’d nev­er have enough of, work­ing jobs you’d grow to hate just to get more of it. Life was geese mak­ing you late for work.

          Even in the city, per­haps espe­cial­ly so, I see geese. The geese wad­dle around the grass strips between busy roads, haughty toward the human traf­fic honk­ing around them, beg­ging them to get on with their day. They trav­el in flocks, peck­ing the grass for worms, left­over food, what­ev­er suits their appetite. I see them con­stant­ly, and I usu­al­ly ignore them. All my mem­o­ries of them blur togeth­er. All but one.

          It was a hot August day. I was already run­ning late to work, impro­vis­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion about bud­get num­bers, idling before my office at the last traf­fic light, per­sis­tent­ly red. And just before it turned green, a goose and its fledg­ling began cross­ing the street in front of me. I almost slammed my horn with my fist before I looked clos­er and saw.

          The goose was rush­ing its child along, peck­ing at its lit­tle head with fury, like the poor thing couldn’t walk fast enough for its moth­er. The gosling ran and stum­bled, and the parent’s ire grew. It jabbed again, so sharply I touched my own head. I sat still, obliv­i­ous to the cars behind me. I was lost and out of body—what did it mean, what did it mean, what did I mean—my work for­got­ten, the time no more a num­ber on my dash­board but sum­mer grass, crick­et har­mo­ny, soft arms squeez­ing me.

          The geese dis­ap­peared behind the hedge, and I was late to work.

From the writer


:: Account ::

After my dad’s moth­er had passed away, we were tour­ing his fam­i­ly home­stead. There, he shared with my broth­ers and I all the chores he and his sib­lings woke up each day to do, what all the dif­fer­ent machin­ery was for, and the pranks and hijinks they inflict­ed on each oth­er. After I drove home, I sat with my mom at the kitchen table and told her I want­ed to record my dad nar­rat­ing his mem­o­ries, and I had the good sen­si­tiv­i­ty to offer her the same. She said she had no desire to revis­it her past, and that’s when she told me, for the first and only time.

That sum­mer, when my grandmother’s funer­al took place, the first sum­mer of COVID-19, I was part of a vir­tu­al work­shop that had formed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. I lat­er found myself at a cof­fee shop try­ing to write a sto­ry for them to read, as good as the last one we’d read. Like many of my sto­ries, this one slipped out through my fin­gers, demand­ing to be told. I can tell I care about a sto­ry when the first draft pours out of me like molten gold, how­ev­er much tam­per­ing it needs lat­er in revision.

This semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ry is my way of explor­ing gen­er­a­tional trau­ma; it’s in no way non­fic­tion. I’ve nev­er asked my moth­er again about the vio­lence she suf­fered from her father, but fic­tion lets me make up answers to the inces­sant ques­tions I have, with­out both­er­ing my moth­er over it. I have my own com­pli­cat­ed mem­o­ries of my par­ents, and this sto­ry start­ed out with a pro­tag­o­nist like myself. Yet as I wrote, I grew inter­est­ed in the sto­ries and tri­als of eldest daugh­ters like my moth­er, and I changed the nar­ra­tor into one like my old­er sister.

My moth­er wouldn’t like me writ­ing this sto­ry, and like many writ­ers, I feared I was appro­pri­at­ing mate­r­i­al which wasn’t mine. Yet, I’ll put my name on this any­ways. I doubt many fam­i­lies appre­ci­ate hav­ing a writer amidst their ranks, but writ­ers have got to write. It’s my hope who­ev­er reads this sto­ry will say I’ve craft­ed it justly.

I’d like to acknowl­edge my fel­low writ­ers in my work­shop for chal­leng­ing me to write my very best, and I’d like to acknowl­edge my fam­i­ly, too, par­tic­u­lar­ly my old­er sis­ter and mother.

Brodie Gress is a gay writer based in Louisville, Ken­tucky. He has pub­lished fic­tion and poet­ry with Polaris, Chelsea Sta­tion Mag­a­zine, The Rotary Dial, The Rain­town Review, and Forces. He works as a tec­ni­cal writer at a med­ical dis­tri­b­u­tion facil­i­ty, and he for­mer­ly taught and tutored writ­ing and com­po­si­tion at the local com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. He is work­ing on a novel.

Laugh Track

Fiction / Ben Briggs

:: Laugh Track ::

            I just need him gone.

            See­ing him makes me think about the girl. I don’t want to think about the girl.

            I brought it up to my ther­a­pist, Emi­ly, and she agreed. It’s my per­son­al space. It’s my home. The week­end was one thing. Now it’s Sun­day night. Now I need him gone.

            He’s watch­ing Sein­feld in my liv­ing room, still drink­ing beer, still not using a coast­er even though I encour­aged him to use one. I don’t care that he’s my cousin. I don’t care that he’s try­ing to help me. I like to read on Sun­day nights so I can get my mind ready for work in the morning.

            Even from my room I’m unable to do this because he has the vol­ume turned above 40 on the TV. It sounds like it’s at lev­el 45. I put down my copy of The Dance with Anger and walk back into the liv­ing room so I can find out when he’s leaving.

            Adam’s lying down on my couch as if he owns it. The shreds in his jeans were cool when we were kids, but he’s thir­ty now. And his hair? Christ. I would tell him to cut it, but if he won’t lis­ten to me about using a coast­er, he cer­tain­ly won’t lis­ten to me about that.

            To think he’s a father.

            He has to move his feet, leav­ing only inch­es for me to sit down. Both hands are behind his head like he’s loung­ing on a hammock.

            “My guy,” Adam says. “You hid­ing in a cave back there? Thought we were gonna crush a cou­ple movies together.”

            I only par­tial­ly agreed to that. Nev­er actu­al­ly confirmed.

            “I have work tomor­row. I’m get­ting men­tal­ly prepared.”

            “Pssst. Feel you on that. The Scaries are no joke. I fig­ured I’d take a few days off myself. Too much going on at home, with all the remod­el­ing and Aria start­ing school.”

            It’s hard to con­cen­trate on what he’s say­ing because the vol­ume on the TV is so high.

            “Have you heard from Lil­lian yet?”

            This makes him sit up straight.

            “I was just gonna tell you. She’s gonna stay at her Dad’s for anoth­er cou­ple days. It’s good for them to get away.” He paus­es. “Any­way, cool if I crash here one more night? Con­struc­tion guys are gonna be at it in the morn­ing. Too much riff raff.”

            He again puts his hands behind his head and leans back on the couch.

            “I have work in the morning.”

            “It’s no stress on me. I know you’re get­ting back on the horse, and believe me, by the time you get home tomor­row, I’m gone. Promise you that.”

           I nod and take a deep breath. Inhale and exhale, just like I do in my ses­sions with Emi­ly. I feel my feet on the ground, my back press­ing against the couch. If he’s going to leave tomor­row, that should be okay.

            “Could you please keep the vol­ume to a minimum?”

            Adam looks at me with a sly grin. “It’s the least I can do.”

            As I walk back to my room, I can hear the laugh track play­ing on the TV. Before Emi­ly, I used to think the laugh track was about me. That these peo­ple were mock­ing me. Laugh­ing at me, not with me. Now I imag­ine it dif­fer­ent­ly. I imag­ine a group of peo­ple locked in a room with seat­belts on their chairs. All of a sud­den, a bright light shines in front of them. “LAUGH” the light tells them. So they laugh. They don’t know what they’re laugh­ing at, or about, but they do it any­way. Until it becomes a call­ing. A way of life for these peo­ple. They laugh and laugh until they can’t laugh anymore.


            I’m dri­ving to work and it’s raining.

            It’s very impor­tant I’m on time today, as it’s my first day back in over two months. After the inci­dent, Emi­ly rec­om­mend­ed I take time to decom­press. But it’s been too long.

            Very rarely does it rain in the Bay Area and I didn’t account for this. I’m going to be late because of it. Adam kept the vol­ume above 40 all night. At 1:13am, I went into the liv­ing room to tell him to turn the vol­ume down. Of course he was already sleep­ing. Of course he was. For­tu­nate­ly, he’ll be gone by the time I get back.

            The rain will make me late, but as Emi­ly says, that’s out of my con­trol. She tells me to height­en my sens­es when I’m stressed. So I start with the rain, know­ing I should appre­ci­ate the sound it makes against my wind­shield. It’s a pat­ter­ing sound. Rhyth­mic. It lets me absorb every­thing around me. I feel my feet on the ped­al of my Hon­da Civic. I feel my back against the leather chair. One hand on the wheel, the oth­er rest­ing on my lap. I can taste the banana I had this morn­ing. Deep breaths in. Deep breaths out. There are beau­ti­ful things in the world, real­ly. I just have to notice them.

            I see the cars around me as I merge off the high­way and into the city. There’s a cross­walk up ahead so I slow down. Com­muters are still out, even in the rain. Someone’s walk­ing very slow­ly through a cross­walk so I ease my breaks. They have rain boots on, a blue wind­break­er and a black umbrel­la. I see each step the per­son is tak­ing. Right. Left. Right. He’s about to pass my car so I put my foot back on the gas. My car starts to move for­ward, but then he slips. I slam on the breaks. Slips. He’s on his knees, try­ing to re-bal­ance. He slipped. No one pushed him. Slipped. I didn’t push him. My breaths are fast. Stop it. Deep breaths in, deep breaths out.

            The per­son gets up and waves at me for stop­ping. I fin­ish my com­mute to work.


            Even with the rain, I’m the first one in the office so I take a seat in my cube. My screens. I missed them. Breath­ing is easy here.

            When peo­ple ask what I do for a liv­ing, I tell them it will be too com­plex for them to under­stand. All they need to know is I’m at a com­pa­ny that val­ues me great­ly. It’s also a com­pa­ny I own, as I am a shareholder.

            My man­ag­er Angela tells me I’m on the fast track for promotion.

            I’m an Inven­to­ry Con­trol Ana­lyst now, and assum­ing my per­for­mance stays in line, which it will, I’ll become a Senior Inven­to­ry Con­trol Ana­lyst in two years. More plants, more dol­lars. After that, it would like­ly be anoth­er three years before I’m eli­gi­ble for anoth­er pro­mo­tion. But then, the pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less. I could become an Inven­to­ry Con­trol Project Lead, or I could do a lat­er­al move and become a Senior Pro­duc­tion Con­trol Ana­lyst. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the Senior Pro­duc­tion Con­trol Ana­lyst role has to line up with East Coast hours with our plant in Mass­a­chu­setts. So I’d either have to relo­cate to Mass­a­chu­setts or be at work by 5:00am each morn­ing. Nei­ther of which I’d be will­ing to do.

            After a few moments of check­ing email, Angela walks by and stands out­side my cube. My col­leagues are fil­ing in.

            “Well. Hel­lo there, Richard. Wel­come back.”

            Angela’s lean­ing against the wall with her left hand on her hip. I don’t know why she stands like that. She’s chew­ing baby blue gum, just like she always does. It match­es her baby blue dyed hair. When she chews, she looks like a dog gnaw­ing at a bone. Which is okay. I can acknowl­edge this, but not let it both­er me.

            But, even if it doesn’t both­er me, it does impact my per­for­mance. I don’t know how to address the issue because the cor­po­rate pol­i­cy states I should dis­cuss dis­tur­bances like this with my man­ag­er. I plan to re-read the pol­i­cy for a loop­hole one evening. Maybe tonight as Adam will be gone.

            “Thank you,” I say.

            She glances around and low­ers her voice. “Did you have any issues with HR, you know, get­ting paid or… Any­thing like that?”

            I have a lot of work to catch up on, and don’t have time for small talk.

            “Nope. All seamless.”

             Our team meet­ing starts in five min­utes which will derail my pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. She’s still stand­ing there though, smil­ing at me awkwardly.

            “I know you like your space, so I’ll leave you be. But remem­ber, my door’s always open if you ever want to talk about your… break, or any­thing real­ly. Hap­py to have our num­ber one work­er bee back.”

            I tight­en up for a sec­ond, but I have to keep my com­po­sure. I have to remem­ber com­ments like this come from a good place.

            “It’s great to be back,” I say.

            And it is. This is why, gum chew­ing aside, I like Angela. She real­izes the worth I pro­vide to the com­pa­ny. She can spot tal­ent a mile away.


            The team meet­ing was pointless.

            The more time I talk about what I do, the less time I can actu­al­ly do it. I’m back at my desk now. This is where all the mon­ey is saved. I open up my doc­u­ments and look at all the part num­bers. I imag­ine the dol­lar sav­ings I’ll be able to generate.

            I copy a part num­ber from Excel that’s no longer going to be pro­duced by our com­pa­ny and paste it into the Inven­to­ry Man­age­ment Sys­tem. I check the inven­to­ry lev­els in all of our plants. I have all the pow­er. 37 units on hand in Tecate, MX, 45 units on hand in Shang­hai, CN and 172 units on hand in Cham­paign, IL. I email the plan­ners for each facil­i­ty and inform them the parts are going to be dis­con­tin­ued. We won’t be mak­ing them any­more, so they need to bleed off the inven­to­ry. I’m doing good by the com­pa­ny. Brick by brick. Part by part. I repeat the process for the next part num­ber, and the next one, and the next one.

            Before I can blink it’s 5:42pm. I skipped lunch, it appears, but I for­give myself because it was such a pro­duc­tive day. My breaths were con­trolled. I was present and in the moment. Adam is gone now, so I’ll have my space. I can read, I can make din­ner. I can do what­ev­er I want.


            I’m in the hall­way of my unit, about to open the door when I hear noise from my kitchen. I must be hear­ing things. It’s impos­si­ble for me to be hear­ing noise from my kitchen as Adam is gone. But when I open the door, it hits me like a tidal wave. Clang­ing pots and pans, the siz­zling of bacon, eggs being bat­tered. Adam is mov­ing through­out the kitchen, play­ing music on his phone, lin­ing up plates and mak­ing a mess. He’s in the kitchen. He’s not gone.

            “Ricar­do! Wel­come back amigo.”

            He’s wear­ing an apron. I had it tucked away above the oven. He must have searched the whole kitchen. Each and every drawer.

            “What are you doing here?”

            “Your shelves are thin, my broth­er. For­tu­nate­ly a lit­tle break­fast for din­ner nev­er hurt any­one. Want any?”

            It’s a mess. Every­thing is a mess. Why is he not gone?

            “I thought you were leav­ing today.”

            “You won’t believe it,” he says, paus­ing his oper­a­tion. “Pow­ers out at our unit. Some­thing the con­trac­tors did. Maybe a snip where there shouldn’t have been a snip?” He laughs. “I’m no expert though.”

            He puts his hand up in mock defense, as if I would ever insin­u­ate him to be an expert in any­thing. I start to shake when I real­ize what this means. Not only is he not gone. He’s not leaving.

            “Wouldn’t our Mom’s love this? Just me and you, bunk­ing just like old times!” He grabs the skil­let and starts pour­ing eggs on his plate. “Say… Why don’t we just chat tonight? You could tell me about work, how you’re feeling…”

            I can tell he wants me to nod my head or to give him some sort of cue that it’s okay he’s still here. Like I can’t read through these lit­tle “check ins”. Like I don’t know he’s just the mer­ce­nary my fam­i­ly puts on the front line with me. Years ago they were more fre­quent. But it’s been a while.

            I feel like my body is frozen in time. Breath­ing is get­ting hard­er, and I real­ize it’s inevitable. The longer he’s here, the more I have to think about the girl.

            “All the stuff you’re doing with Emi­ly,” he says. “Seems pret­ty chill. I’m sure I could learn a trick or two myself.”

            “Great,” I blurt out.

            But I imme­di­ate­ly go to my room. I lay with my back on my bed and stare at the ceil­ing fan. The spin­ning usu­al­ly calms me. Should I call Emi­ly? I inhale. No, I can’t. Not right now. I exhale. I can’t let her down. Besides my fam­i­ly, who have no choice, it’s typ­i­cal­ly two min­utes before some­one becomes dis­in­ter­est­ed in me. They turn their head. They change the sub­ject. Emi­ly gives me fifty five min­utes. No mat­ter what.

            She deserves my best.

            For her to see me like this? Not com­posed? No. She was the only one that believed me. Of course the fam­i­ly didn’t. Why would they?

            But the girl. We talked at the social. The girl, with her tight jean jack­et. The girl, with her freck­les. She should have remembered.

            “Are you going to apol­o­gize now?” I said to her.

            I shouldn’t have said it like that, but I did. It was lat­er in the night. On the dock. It was fog­gy. It was crowd­ed. It was right before she slipped.

            She looked up, then back at her phone. Like I wasn’t there.

            “Hey,” I pressed. “What’s wrong with you?”

            How could she not have remem­bered? What hap­pened next was an acci­dent. I know I moved clos­er. Too close, prob­a­bly. But push her? No. I didn’t do that. I didn’t.

            The ceil­ing fan is giv­ing me clarity.

            Adam’s done this in the past. Stayed at my place, “kept” an eye on me. So why does it feel dif­fer­ent this time? Yes, his house is under con­struc­tion. Yes, Lillian’s par­ents don’t like him. Yes, he can be a job­less dead­beat. But maybe it’s some­thing more.

            Maybe this is all… A set up? Yes. That’s it. Adam sup­pos­ed­ly saw every­thing. Or so he claims. He was only ten feet away from us on the dock. Tops.

            But not only that night. A few days lat­er, when it was all set­tled, when the girl final­ly got “clar­i­ty” and false­ly accused me — Adam stepped in and talked to the police, to the girl’s fam­i­ly. I assumed he was help­ing me. But what if he was doing the oppo­site? A set up. How did I not think of that? A set up, yes. Is he try­ing to lure some­one here to trap me? It was only a mat­ter of time before some­one tried it. Something’s been off. That sly grin on his face. I know he’s work­ing with them.

            Stop it. Adam’s my cousin. Deep breath in. We were born in the same town. Deep breath out. The same month. Deep breath in. Our Moms would take us school shop­ping togeth­er. He helped me move in here when I couldn’t afford it myself. Deep breath out. He’s here to help me. Even if I just want to be alone.

            I grab a remote from my bed­side and turn up the ceil­ing fan pow­er. It spins faster, but I can still hear the TV vol­ume. It’s above 40. Prob­a­bly close to 50 now.

            Order. Clean­li­ness. Rules. Emi­ly told me to estab­lish them. They will calm me.

            I take more deep breaths and feel the oxy­gen flow through my body.

            No one’s accus­ing any­one of any­thing. But, if Adam is going to be here, in my home, I need to address the rules with him. If the house is order­ly, there won’t be any problems.

            I walk out of my bed­room and into the liv­ing room where he’s already stretched back onto the couch. He left his half-eat­en plate of bacon and eggs on the floor, not the side table where it should be. I pick up it up stare at the TV. It’s the Sein­feld episode where George, Jer­ry and Elaine are at the car deal­er­ship. Kramer is out test-dri­ving a car.

            I turn to Adam.

            “Okay, so a cou­ple rules if you’re going to be stay­ing here for a few more days. Over the week­end we were going out. Now it’s the week. Now I have work.”

            “Of course.” He perks up.

            The TV is blar­ing. George can’t get food out of the vend­ing machine. The laugh track plays. That laugh track.

            “Would it be okay? Could you just turn the vol­ume down?”

            Adam flips the vol­ume from lev­el 47 to 42.

            “So a cou­ple of rules.”

            George is yelling at the deal­er­ship own­er now. He’s demand­ing his mon­ey back from the vend­ing machine. More laugh tracks. LAUGH.

            “Actu­al­ly could you turn it off?”

            I see Adam try­ing to be patient with me. But I know he’s get­ting irri­tat­ed. He doesn’t respect my rules. Inhale, exhale.

            “Okay, so just a cou­ple rules. This is a pro-coast­er house­hold. I’ve put them on all the counter sur­faces for you to use. If you’re drink­ing beer, which you’ve been drink­ing a lot of, and I get it, it was the week­end, there’s no prob­lem there. But now… There’s only a few left. For those last few beers, it’s best to use a Koozie. Trash goes in the grey bin. Recy­cling in the blue bin. I try to recy­cle as much as I can to elim­i­nate trips to the garbage room. Appar­ent­ly, there are rats in the garbage room at night. I nev­er go in at night. From 7:00am to 3:00pm is fine in my expe­ri­ence. So if you’re mak­ing a trash run, that’s when you make it.”

            He nods his head a few times.

            “All clear?” I say. “Okay, one last thing. Dur­ing the week, I’m typ­i­cal­ly lights out by 9:30pm. 40 is the mag­ic num­ber for the TV vol­ume. You can watch TV all night as long as it doesn’t go over 40.”

            “All good bro.” Adam says. “Did you feel bet­ter being in the office?”

            I shouldn’t have agreed to talk­ing with him.

            “I always do.”

            “For sure, for sure. You men­tioned look­ing at num­bers relax­es you. How was all that?”

            Emi­ly is the only per­son I want to dis­cuss this with. Not Adam. Not now.

            “I’m going to read in my room. I’ll see you in the morning.”

            Emi­ly would be very sat­is­fied. Expec­ta­tions have been set. I made rules that every­one, myself includ­ed, can fol­low. I com­mu­ni­cat­ed calm­ly and effec­tive­ly. And now that I’ve made myself abun­dant­ly clear, there shouldn’t be any more issues.


            It’s Thurs­day now. Adam has re-pro­grammed the TV. The vol­ume says it’s at 34. I checked it. But it’s over 40. I know it is. The laugh track plays and plays and Adam joins in as well. He’s laugh­ing at the same pitch. It’s an end­less loop of laugh­ter that plays in my head. It won’t go away. It’s been three more days.

            I’m trapped in my room, where I’ve been trapped all week. There’s no sign of Lil­lian or Aria. Adam says Lil­lian is pick­ing him up tonight, and he’s leav­ing. But I don’t believe him. I’m run­ning on emp­ty. Every time he starts to fol­low one rule, he breaks three or four more. Rules I didn’t even know existed.

            On Tues­day he was singing in the show­er. Loud­ly. I could hear him from my bed­room. Singing in the show­er, that loud, is worse than the vol­ume being over 40. Then lat­er, he left the win­dow open all night. It’s an ice­box in here bro, he said Wednes­day morn­ing. I won­der why? And then last night, he fell asleep on the couch after order­ing deliv­ery. Some­one rang the door­bell. Three times. Past 10:00pm. I was already in bed, and not to men­tion the unit doesn’t allow vis­i­tors that late.

            Now I can hear the laugh track again.

            I look at the clock and see it’s past 7:00pm. It’s offi­cial­ly night­time. He knows the rules and he’s not fol­low­ing them. I open the door to my bed­room. His bags are packed. He’s real­ly play­ing the part, pre­tend­ing that he’s actu­al­ly going to leave.

            I’m pant­i­ng as I walk up to him on the couch and snatch the remote out of his hands.

            “It’s past 7:00pm. The vol­ume is over 40.”

            Of course it comes to this. After it hap­pened, after the girl slipped and fell four­teen feet and every­one was shout­ing and throw­ing her a life jack­et, and every­one was focus­ing on the girl and only the girl, Adam was look­ing straight at me. From the oth­er side of the dock. He wasn’t look­ing at her. He was already accus­ing me.

            “Easy my guy. Are you okay?”

            I’m more than okay. I final­ly understand.

            “It’s you. That’s why you’re here.”

            Final­ly, I can hear them. The sirens. They’re com­ing for me. They want­ed to lull me to sleep. It’s been two months since the girl slipped. Just enough time for me to final­ly become hap­py again. To get back to the job I love, to find some­one like Emi­ly who believes in me, and now it comes crash­ing down. The only good thing is that the laugh­ter is drowned out, but it’s replaced with the sirens which are get­ting clos­er. And loud­er. I’ll take the laugh­ter over this. Any­thing but this.

            “How long have you been plan­ning this?” I press.

            It’s his fault I was even there in the first place. His Mom’s dumb “social” gath­er­ing with her col­lege friends. An annu­al din­ner and cruise for the Beta Kap­pa class of 87. What a scam. I shouldn’t have let him drag me there.

            I was out­side the restau­rant, play­ing Tetris on my phone, when I met the girl.

            “Why are you out here by your­self?” she asked.

            When I told her I had work in the morn­ing, and that it was an impor­tant call, and my voice couldn’t be raspy, she rolled her eyes.

            “It’s not like you’re the CEO,” she said.

            “Well, I do own the com­pa­ny,” I said. “I’m a shareholder.”

            And then she laughed. Right at me. All night she was laugh­ing, walk­ing around the social, telling oth­er strangers how ridicu­lous I was for think­ing the truth. Laugh­ing. What if some­one there worked for my com­pa­ny? She had no right.

            I’m stand­ing firm­ly over Adam now, and that’s when I see the girl on the dock, back­ing away from me. Adam’s scared of me. Just like she was.

            “Hold on dude,” Adam says. “What are you talk­ing about?”

            The stu­pid grin is off his face. It’s about time. I knew he was up to something.

            “Answer the question.”

            “Easy bro.” He puts his hand up. “Can you back up just a little?”

            I take one step closer.

            “I let you into my house. And you treat me like this? I thought we were family.”

            There are more sirens. Fire-trucks too. The whole city is com­ing. There’s no crowd­ed dock this time. Just me and Adam.

            “Bro, we are fam­i­ly. Why don’t you sit down. Have you called Emily?”

            I clench both my fists and I’m shak­ing. He can see it and I don’t care.

            “How long have you been plan­ning this? When you called me to stay here, was this the plan all along? I bet it was! I’m sure Lil­lian and Aria are just laugh­ing their ass­es off. What about the police? What did they have to say about me?”

            His expres­sion flips again. He looks at me with clar­i­ty, like he’s final­ly going to spill it. That it’s all a set up. That he made a mistake.

            “You did it… Didn’t you?” He paus­es for a few sec­onds. “You pushed that girl off the dock.”

            My heart is rac­ing. The sirens are get­ting loud­er. They’ll be here any second.

            “No. She slipped. I didn’t push her.”

            I’m clos­er now to Adam. I could reach him if I want­ed to.

            He wags his fin­ger and stands up. “You know what? I don’t need this. Lillian’s gonna be here any minute. Here’s to think­ing you actu­al­ly want­ed my help.”

            “Wait. I didn’t push her.”

            “Yeah. Tell it to your shrink.” He grabs his bag and walks to the door. He’s shak­ing his head, refus­ing to look at me. “Fuck­ing lunatic,” he mutters.

            Once he leaves, I walk over to the win­dow and know I’ll see the police, the ambu­lance, the fire-depart­ment, every­one. They’re all here to arrest me for some­thing I didn’t do. But when I look out the win­dow, I see a car I recognize.

            It’s Lillian.

            She’s stand­ing out­side her car on the side­walk. Aria is in the back seat. Adam walks up to Lil­lian and whis­pers some­thing, which makes her look up at the win­dow. I duck and sit down on the floor now. They can’t see me. The laugh­ter is gone. The sirens are gone. So I close my eyes.


            But I open them back up imme­di­ate­ly. I can’t rest. I start pac­ing and feel it com­ing through me again. Like a lion, ready to pounce. My apart­ment is spin­ning and wind­ing in every direc­tion. I walk to the kitchen and grab a ham­mer. Do I hear the laugh track again? I don’t know. The breath­ing meth­ods, my rules – they’re all use­less. Espe­cial­ly to a piece of shit like me. A piece of shit that scared a girl off the side of a dock. I pick up my phone to call Emi­ly. My heart’s pound­ing so hard it hurts.

            “Richard,” Emi­ly answers. “Are you okay?”

            I’m dizzy. I can’t say it but know I need to. I’ll spend a whole life­time like this if I don’t.

            “It’s just… How come I’m not bet­ter?! You said I would be!”

            The line is silent. I’m grip­ping the ham­mer tight.

            “I admit it, okay?” I point my fin­ger at my chest “I scared her, and she slipped! But why? Why aren’t I fixed yet?”

            I glance out the win­dow. Adam and Lil­lian are gone. The police aren’t here. No one is. Emi­ly final­ly answers. “I want you to take a deep breath in.”

            So I do. I slouch on the wall and fall back to the floor. The ham­mer slips out of my hand.

            “Now take a deep breath out.”

            I do that too. Deep breaths in, deep breaths out.

            “This is a process,” she says. “A slow one. But you can’t give up now.”

            My breaths are slow­ing down. The room’s no longer spin­ning. I want to start every­thing over. Go back to that night and change it all. But I can’t.

            “Let’s do an exer­cise,” she says. “I want you to think of a time when you were hap­py. It doesn’t mat­ter when. Let’s go to that moment.”

            Hap­py? I can do that. Just one time. I close my eyes and think of how I’ll answer.

From the writer

:: Account ::

In “Laugh Track” I want­ed to inhab­it the mind of a char­ac­ter on the verge of a men­tal health cri­sis. Men­tal health is so impor­tant to me, and some­thing I feel should be at the fore­front of con­ver­sa­tion in today’s cul­ture. Did Richard push “the girl” off the dock? I think it’s dif­fi­cult to say, but I don’t know if it real­ly mat­ters. I don’t believe he phys­i­cal­ly touched her, but I do believe his aggres­sive behav­ior and tem­pera­ment forced her to slip and even­tu­al­ly fall. I think what real­ly mat­ters is how he inter­nal­izes the inci­dent. How is he going to take the next step for­ward and improve his men­tal state?  In the ear­ly stages of this sto­ry, I imag­ined a house guest (Adam) over­stay­ing his wel­come and con­stant­ly blar­ing re-runs of a sit­com over and over that was dri­ving the nar­ra­tor crazy. The ini­tial drafts were more light­heart­ed, and focused on the house­guest more than the “host”, which in this case ends up being Richard. The more I dug into the sto­ry, the more I began to won­der – what if the host has some demons him­self? Who is this per­son, and why does he want Adam so des­per­ate­ly to get out of his apart­ment?   In terms of influ­ences, Haru­ki Murakami’s Blind Wil­low, Sleep­ing Woman col­lec­tion stands out. Muraka­mi does a sen­sa­tion­al job of get­ting very close into his narrator’s psy­ches and cre­at­ing sto­ries that force the read­er to ques­tion the valid­i­ty of what the nar­ra­tor is shar­ing. From a craft stand­point, I also will cite Robert McKee’s Dia­logue as an influ­ence, in an attempt to cre­ate unique voic­es for each char­ac­ter in the sto­ry.    Ben Brig­gs is an MFA can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co. He’s the Edi­tor-In-Chief for the Invis­i­ble City Lit­er­ary Jour­nal. 

Something happened in Udanre

Fiction / Oluseye Fakinlede

:: Something happened in Udanre :: 


The day Tola Tubo­sun was down­sized was a Tues­day. The day before, he spent what he described as qual­i­ty time with the branch man­ag­er, whom he took as an Egbon. Wole Thomp­son, his Egbon by choice, had assured him not to wor­ry that day before. But on that Tues­day, he went berserk when he could not log into his por­tal, and sub­se­quent­ly was called into the HR office that he had some­thing wait­ing for him. Some­thing or a let­ter? He scoffed, as he wiped a tear trick­ling down his cheru­bic face with the back of his palms before drop­ping the inter­com, out­right­ly ignor­ing the pity faces of his col­leagues in the mar­ket­ing sec­tion, even that of Sub­o­mi who sprawled on his chair cast­ing rue­ful eyes on his friend. 

He had always had pre­sen­ti­ments about Tues­days, espe­cial­ly if an event, a promise, an inter­view, a meet­ing, a date, an appoint­ment, just name it, falls on that day. So, he was not sur­prised but wound­ed up sad despite the spir­i­tu­al for­ti­fi­ca­tions he had received from his moth­er when he told her about con­clu­sions at the bank for down­siz­ing that month after their branch had been debriefed three months ago due to the loss accrued, espe­cial­ly that of Mar­keters who were not meet­ing their targets.

 He also had per­son­al­ly prayed against the hunch he felt, a rea­son why he went to see Mr. Wole, because he feared the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being retrenched from the bank since the deci­sion was to be tak­en on a Tuesday.

 “Egbon”, why must the deci­sions be tak­en tomor­row, Tues­day? Ha, Tues­day, he roared. 

Tola, well, some things are super­sti­tious. Besides, if you believe them, you fuel the fears. And I can assure you that it might just be a threat for us to sit tight,” He said rolling his big body over plac­ing his arm on his shoul­der, while he gen­tly part­ed his soaked blue shirt. He smiled, straight­ened his gray check­ered tie, and hurled him to get to work, and stop being a worrywart. 

Five years ago, Tola came to Lagos just like most Niger­ian youths after their Nation­al Youth Ser­vice Corp Pro­gram in search of a green­er pas­ture. And after being on sev­er­al jobs; he became a con­tract staff at Eagle’s Bank 3 months ago, and had been on pro­ba­tion since as well as three of his colleagues. 

In his case, he had come from Eki­ti State, Erin-Ije­sha Eki­ti, and attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ado Eki­ti, where he stud­ied Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, and served at Okig­we, in Imo State. Hav­ing had a rough slice of life, he resolved one morn­ing, telling his aged moth­er, and his sis­ter that he would be going to Lagos, to look for bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties as none was forth­com­ing in Eki­ti. He added that he would be stay­ing with Lekan, a guy he met dur­ing the NYSC, and who was the Home Cell Coor­di­na­tor of their lodge. His moth­er could not dis­suade him from trav­el­ing to Lagos, nor the thought of putting up with the Lekan whom he had not seen for three years. She said, peo­ple change and most times, they change from bad to worse. Yet, this fell on deaf ears. 

Short stay­ing with Lekan had its rough edges, yet, it was a pro­peller of the good things to come for him. At his house, he was clothed, fed, and nur­tured. Three months after they lived togeth­er, Tola’s moth­er had a change of thought that there was still good­ness in the depraved world. It was Lekan that shared with him the Bank’s link, just like he helped him secure a job as a Sec­re­tary at a Neo­life, just like he helped him sub­mit his CV with the Chi­nese shoe fac­to­ry that had a strict rule of strip­ping up to one pant before entry or exit. And when the real­i­ties of his dream job seemed to fall apart like a two-dol­lar suit­case, he knew he rather runs home to Lekan who had not only become a true friend but his bur­den bearer. 

 Like a drenched foul, he dragged his feet along the busy Ogba Street, took some cut inside Ifako-Ogba, till he got to Pen cin­e­ma Agege, and sat at the front seat of the Keke Maruwa, head­ing towards Abule Egba to the two-bed­room apart­ment he shared with Lekan. Noth­ing made sense to him now, he felt a com­plete empti­ness, and his own body vivid­ly sticks. Wob­bled through the stairs, as if count­ing their num­bers, gave a cold smile to their smil­ing neigh­bor who always had an opin­ion about every mat­ter, and ignored her ques­tion of why he was home so soon and began telling the tale of their soon-to-fin­ish pre­paid meter unit. He unlocked the door and col­lapsed on the couch like a sawed tree. 

He checked his buzzing phone, swiped delete at a pop-up mes­sage from his office Egbon, swiped down the screen, and clicked on flight mood after he reject­ed two incom­ing calls. It was on the couch he curled up, till he fell asleep, and was awok­en by Lekan who took his head on his lap, and lis­tened as he whim­pered telling him all that hap­pened over and over again. Lekan on the oth­er hand, part­ed his back gen­tly, assur­ing him that all would be well. 

In the fol­low­ing weeks dis­card­ing his sui­ci­dal thoughts, he casu­al­ly began writ­ing, to avoid slid­ing into depres­sion. He first began shar­ing dai­ly quotes on Twit­ter, then it blos­somed into the cre­ation of a blog where he for the very first time decid­ed to write about places, the epi­cure­an places in Lagos he had vis­it­ed when he still had enough, and luck­i­ly, he still had the pic­tures he took with his DSLR Canon cam­era he bought on Konga. 

He wrote about the Ele­gushi beach as he vis­it­ed there yes­ter­day, and wrote about the Whis­per­ing Badal­gry palms, and all oth­er places of inter­est. Lekan also tried to light­en his mood by offer­ing to do his month­ly sub­scrip­tion, and he also promised to foot the house rent, believ­ing that the soon­est he would refund he like had always done. 

You are a good writer o, Tola. Lekan said one night read­ing through some­thing on his phone from his room. 

That’s flat­tery. Tola replied from the kitchen, with a mouth­ful of citrus. 

I am seri­ous. Lekan paused, wheeled the cur­tain open, stick­ing out his head, and showed him his phone rapid­ly scrolling till he got to the end of a page he was reading. 

Hey, you have been read­ing my blog. Tola replied with a shy smile point­ing the cit­rus at him, like an invi­ta­tion to suck on it. 


See, see these comments…

Wow, I have got 16 already? 

Not just that, you also have 22 in another. 

You need to go pro­fes­sion­al with this, and launch your blog… Hmmm, buy a domain. And always reply to these bud­ding read­ers of yours. This also means you have to pro­vide them with gen­uine con­tent all the time. Lekan said. 

Well, I know a friend that can help with the domain thing. He con­tin­ued, though it will cost some mon­ey. But that’s not a bother. 

Why are you always doing this Lekan? Drop­ping the sliced orange on a tray and stood affixed with his head tilt­ed to the back like a non­plussed child. 

Do not resist help bro, you have stood for me back then, dur­ing ser­vice year remem­ber? He wrapped his hands around him, con­tort­ed his lips, and made a smack­ing sound on his cheek. 

You can write about most tourist sites in West­ern Nige­ria, begin­ning from Eki­ti, since you lived all your life there and you told me that you have gone to some sites there. You can also write about Ondo State. 

Ha! That state, I have nev­er been there o. Tola interjected. 

No way! Then you must. They have nice places, for exam­ple, the Idanre hills. 

By the way, it is my State. And I am trav­el­ing in a few weeks to Owo, to see Mama. You should come along, and tour. 

Short­ly after the kind words from Lekan, and after read­ing a pletho­ra of com­ments on his entire 12 blog posts, Tola began to sense a new­ness of pur­pose thus tripling his writ­ing efforts. He would sit on their din­ing set that only had two sets of chairs for hours punch­ing the keys of his key­board till mid­night doing noth­ing but writ­ing and cre­at­ing new posts or re-edit­ing his writ­ing plans. And when­ev­er he felt a writer’s block, he would slouch on the wood­en chair after he had placed a pil­low on it and fell asleep. Most times, it was Lekan’s soft touch that woke him up, plac­ing a cof­fee on the table or at times, ask­ing him to go to bed to stretch properly. 


The set day arrived for the duo’s trip to Owo. The two friends packed their belong­ings inside sep­a­rate trav­el box­es and hit the road to Osho­di, where some Ondo State bus­es await­ed. They sat on the pas­sen­gers’ seats very close to the trib­al-faced dri­ver who con­sis­tent­ly and irri­ta­bly told Lekan to remove his thigh that curved like a female’s from the gear until the two end­ed up in a hot ver­bal exchange. 

On get­ting to Owo, they found a bike man that took them straight to the com­pound of Lekan, and his mom wel­comed his friend whom she had only spo­ken to on phone with Pound­ed yam and a bowl of steam­ing egusi soup pre­pared by one of the young girls that always attend­ed to her. And at night, she spoke about her desire for Lekan to get mar­ried soon because age and health were no longer on her side; I want to car­ry your child, like your oth­er sis­ters. She said, end­ing the dis­cus­sion with a 30 min­utes prayer ses­sion thank­ing God for health, jour­ney mer­cies, and peti­tion­ing his ears to soft­en the mind of her son and bring him his life partner

Tola and Lekan on the oth­er while they were alone, alone in the room, real­ly could not sleep but were starred bla­tant­ly on the moon peep­ing through the cur­tains, and then on each oth­er before they were knocked out by heavy snores.

After three days in Owo, Tola began to surf the net for tourist sites in Ondo, after he had toured major land­marks in Owo and had writ­ten about them. He felt the hunch to vis­it Idanre hills since it is about an hour’s dri­ve from Owo town. He told Lekan about his solo plans to Idanre as and he hoped to spend two days in Idanre. Lekan did not both­er to dis­suade his solo plan nor did he attempt to sug­gest being his trav­el bud­dy, as he was sad­dled with the respon­si­bil­i­ty of tak­ing care of his moth­er whose nurse had an ear­li­er morn­ing and after­noon appoint­ment, while he had promised to watch over her till the fol­low­ing week. 

On Mon­day morn­ing, he left Iyere Owo, in a red salon car sit­ting in the passenger’s seat, his favorite trav­el spot. The dri­ver of this car had all the sto­ries, but his eyes were fixed on the rub­ber semi-clad ecce homo that kept dan­gling its head all through the jour­ney, and no soon­er did they arrive at Akure, the Cap­i­tal City of Ondo State. 

Since it was the first time vis­it­ing the State, he did put sev­er­al calls to Lekan who kept send­ing him inter­mit­tent texts and voice notes on where to take the next cab and final­ly told him joc­u­lar­ly to ask any­body since it was not Lagos where peo­ple hard­ly talk to strangers. 

He soon found his way to Idanre Garage, and after wait­ing for about some min­utes, the car was filled. 

They got to Idanre town, and when they alight­ed he hailed a bike man who on the jour­ney to the tourist site, told him he was ini­tial­ly from the East­ern Part of Nige­ria but had since been liv­ing in the town after his NYSC because he nev­er want­ed to return home since noth­ing was wait­ing for him. Short­ly after he dropped him at the foot of the hills’ rusty gate, they both exchanged con­tacts with the promise to call and saved his name as “John Idanre”, and wait­ed to see him ride away. 


The sur­round­ings of the hill were quite a big one despite its signs of sheer aban­don­ment. There was a mini-open bar built like a gaze­bo hous­ing six plas­tic chairs that were placed dis­joint­ed­ly. Besides this bar, were two lit­tle boys wear­ing only briefs, pick­ing up plas­tic cov­ers and bot­tles under­neath a tree. They moved up, and down, mut­ter­ing some dialec­tal ver­sion of the Yoru­ba lan­guage. And when they raised their heads, like preys who felt the hunch of an approach­ing preda­tor, Tola moved for­ward to calm the children’s ner­vous­ness or anx­i­ety with a wave of hands, and they glad­ly returned a sim­i­lar ges­ture with their bot­tle trea­sures clenched fists. And as he walked towards a cir­cu­lar shaped build­ing in front of him, the lit­tlest boy who had a rosary around his chub­by neck and a wide grin on his cheeks, took small steps for­wards, while scratch­ing his groins with his clenched fist of plas­tic trea­sures, and con­tin­ued to grin until it fad­ed away. 

As he made his way into the cir­cu­lar thatched-roof build­ing, he cleared his throat that had become dried, call­ing out hel­lo before a man rose from a camp bed, yawn­ing, and asked him how he would love to be helped. 

Good after­noon, Tola checked his wrist­watch, paused, and resumed again the greet­ings. Good morn­ing, he said again, rais­ing his eyes and meet­ing this man with the rarest blue eye he had ever seen. 

The man stretched his body again, plac­ing an arm on the door frame, yawned now but with the cov­er­ing of his back palm, and retort­ed morn­ing.  

Tola con­tin­ued. I was won­der­ing whom I can talk to. I would like to tour the hills, and… inter­rupt­ed by the sleepy man who had now adjust­ed his shirts, and offered him a seat. 

Sor­ry bros, you know that body no is fire­wood, hence why I dey sleep. He said. 

My name is Oba, he stretched forth his arm for a hand­shake. I will be the tour guide here and the bar man­ag­er. So, you said you wan tour the hill? Well, I am the per­son, you can talk to and the mon­ey varies depend­ing on what exact­ly you wan do for this hill.” He said with­out a pause. 

How much is to tour? Tola asked, flip­ping his pause open, and wait­ing on a reply before bring­ing what­ev­er charges he might be billed. 

Na shiki­ni mon­ey, na 1k! Oba said laughing… 

Oh, a thou­sand naira. Tola retort­ed like a reecho. 

But I would like to spend some days in Idanre, at least to have a con­crete write-up for my blog. By the way, I am Tola, a blog­ger. He said, stand­ing up and stretch­ing forth his hands in a phat­ic way to Oba who was smil­ing all through as he was speaking. 

Nice meet­ing you, Mr. Tola. I guess you came from Lagos, and be rest assured that you would have a nice short stay in Idanre, but spend­ing time on the hills would cost you more, and the chalets are not in good con­di­tion. Oba replied now, no longer speak­ing in Pid­gin English. 

Tola burst into a peal of ran­corous laugh­ter that made him look embar­rassed after­ward. He had to be stu­pe­fied by the stand­ing fig­ure who had sud­den­ly switched from a usu­al street man­ner­ism to some curtsies. 

Par­don me. I should nev­er have done that, he said stand­ing up and wear­ing an apolo­getic face. I was just amazed that a while ago, you were speak­ing some pid­gin, and nev­er could have thought that you have some pol­ish tongue for Eng­lish. He said, wait­ing for a response. 

Well, that’s just the error most west­ern Nige­ri­ans make. Too many assump­tions that every­body under­stands this Eng­lish thing, so they blare it on anyone’s face, and that is com­mon with those bank people. 

Oba replied. 

Bank peo­ple? Did you know I used to work in a bank? Tola asked in a sur­prised tone. 

Haha, I would have guessed right, your Eng­lish will give you away, he said flir­ta­tious­ly. Shall we pro­ceed, we have got 682 steps to climb Mr. Tola. 

Please drop the Mr. I am sim­ple Tola. 

Okay, sim­ple Tola. He said joc­u­lar­ly, and Tola raised his eye­brow in a shy way, too dazed for a reply. 

The two end­ed up chok­ing on laugh­ter as they pro­ceed­ed to the end of a small rock, and began their jour­ney to the ancient city climb­ing the hued stone steps. 

At each rest­ing point, Oba told him sev­er­al sto­ries about the hills, act­ed some one-man cast dra­ma, and helped him to car­ry his waist back, so he could get some good shots of the hills, land­scape, and some of the left build­ings on the hills. 

You know, I would have loved you to wit­ness the Oro­sun fes­ti­val com­ing up next week in Idanre, and for­tu­nate­ly, it is done on this hill. Oba said to break an awk­ward silence that seemed to be exceed­ing for too long. 

Real­ly? Tell me about the Oro­sun fes­ti­val. Tola replied elatedly. 

It is a tra­di­tion­al fes­ti­val, a fes­ti­val of requests like I like to call, where the god­dess Oro­sun grants requests, and the tes­ti­monies prove that the god­dess Oro­sun, answers heart cries. See, point­ing to some small huts aloof. Those are the huts the chiefs camp in days before the fes­ti­val. See, they have start­ed clear­ing the thick­ets… He said. 

They stopped inside the old palace, where unclad effi­gies stood. This is a palace court­yard. Oba said, sit­ting on a block, and motioned that he writes on the walls like many vis­i­tors on the hills. 

Ummh, Oba, Tola asked after a short pause, could you take me to the Oro­sun shrine on this hill? I feel I will have a request to ask the goddess. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Oba Replied, the Oro­sun does not have a shrine on top of the hill, except the Aworo’s hut, the Orosun’s priest’s hut, where he prays that the peti­tions of Oso­los and any oth­er wor­shipers are grant­ed sits and per­forms the rituals. 

I feel that is all I need­ed, the Aworo’s spot, and what else? Tola asked. 

Some kola nuts, some gin, and a pure heart I sup­posed. Oba replied. 

The Oro­sun is pow­er­ful but does not answer any­one with anger or filth. He added. 

I have no resent­ment in my heart, well they have spurred me to where I am today, and for filth, what does Oro­sun see as filth? He asked slur­ring his ques­tions like one struck with a revelation. 

See bros, he switched to his jerk­ing pid­gin. I no be a wor­ship­per. Paused and raised his head, eyes affixed at him. But I think if I were a child­less god­dess that now answers requests from the mun­dane whose taunts were what drove me away in anger? I will be biased to con­sid­er only the inge­nu­ity of the requests com­ing from peo­ple whose inter­nal lives have been a mess, and those who seek hap­pi­ness because they may not find it. 

I will take you to the priest hut, you go make your requests.” He stood up, dust­ing his buttocks. 

Where we can get those items? Tola asked as they moved away from the old palace sites. 

You might just be lucky to see them there. Oba replied with a chuckle. 


It was now mid-day when they returned to the huts belong­ing to the chiefs mov­ing in quick short quick steps and stopped at the hut belong­ing to the Aworo, the priest of Orosun. 

Well, we have got to your spot man, enter, and make your wish. Oba snickered.

You know I should charge you more for this, he said affec­tion­ate­ly, rest­ing an arm on his left shoulder. 

There was a strange qui­et between the two men, but Tola jerked his shoul­der free­ing him­self from the man’s touch, and gen­tly pushed the wood­en door which squealed giv­ing them a free entry. 

Inside the hut was a small alter hav­ing a mir­ror direct­ly fac­ing the entry point. Besides the mir­ror were dif­fer­ent effi­gies and a very unique one which was the biggest, hav­ing a shape of a woman with point­ed breasts. At the foot of this altar was a tied cock with a col­lapsed comb. On the wall were stains of ani­mal blood smeared the walls, aside from the emp­ty bot­tles of gin, and a pack of gins bot­tles placed on a small pes­tle. Beside the pes­tle, was a bas­ket full of kola nuts, cov­ered by a fold­ed cane mat. 

Clears throat… Oba final­ly said, it seems you have got all your items here, say your prayers as I am run­ning out of time to return to the bar. After this, the quiet­ness in the room was restored but was dis­turbed by the mut­ter­ings of Tola, who had now stooped down, bit­ing on a kola nut he had bro­ken, and pour­ing some gin on the head of the biggest effi­gy with point­ed breasts. As it pour the gin, the liq­uid trick­led down till a por­tion of it touched the breasts and it looked like a lactation. 

The scene befud­dled Oba, as he knelt too, broke a kola, poured some more gin, prayed aloud, let my emp­ty heart find love, and laughed. 

The rum­ble of the thun­der made them shud­der and like the clouds angri­ly poured down rain like bust­ed pipes. 

Was this a sign of an answered prayer? Tola asked.

I don’t know, I am only a tour guide here and not the Aworo. He laughed. 

The tor­rent of the wind, made the wood­en small win­dow flut­ter as if it would break. Tola stood up and pulled it clos­er to its hook. He picked up the mat, and laid it on the floor, while sprawl­ing on it, and buried his head in his thighs. 

The steps would be slip­pery now even if it stops ‘Oba inter­rupt­ing the silence that now hov­ered in the air. 

Sat close to him on the mat, shoul­der to shoul­der, and occa­sion­al­ly raps his shoul­der with his, until the two gave each oth­er a steal­ing glance. 

You said you used to be a banker, how long have you worked here” were ques­tions from the duo like a knock wood. Then laugh­ter, and silence, and an awk­ward silence. They looked at each other’s eyes, and like indi­vid­u­als who had been pas­sion­ate­ly burn­ing and desirous, grasped each other’s heads, and began an in-depth con­sum­ma­tion of their lips. The two fell supine on the mat and were com­plete­ly over­pow­ered by this deep­est passion.

Ewo! Awon won leleyi (Abom­i­na­tion, who are these?) said a man stand­ing at the entrance with hands filled with all types of leafy things? 

Ha! Oba, you dey mad? You bring peo­ple to come here to defile this place?  Oke Udane ma ri aba mo e, roared in a dialec­tal sim­i­lar to what Tola heard from the chil­dren when he came in the morning. 

Oba clam­bered from the mat and head­ed to the door for a chase, but the stand­ing man floored him with a blow. The man called again, and two oth­er men, who were approach­ing ran inside the build­ing and got their ears filled with what they had seen. 

Aworo, must hear this, one said. 

Before nko. He needs to see what had become his hut, and what kind of sac­ri­lege is committed. 

Not even you, Oba. Aja! (Dog!) 

Where is Aworo, he should have been here, the rain must have inter­cept­ed his movement. 

Good, it is here we will wait for him. 

Please, Tola final­ly mus­tered the strength to plea for their lives. 

You sil­ly dog wey man dey touch touch for hill. 


It was evening, and the sun seemed to have cast its full­ness on the hills, long after the rain had stopped, and much longer after the men were caught. 

The men in some cor­ners, tak­ing turns to crack jokes, and a few times, taunt the caught men on who was play­ing the woman, and who was play­ing the man. At some points, the man that looked at the eldest, who had ini­tial­ly seen them, smack their heads and whip them with the leafy cut branch he car­ried. Then they heard a whis­tle, a famil­iar one, and as it drew near­er, they stood up from their makeshift seats, stoop­ing to wel­come the Aworo, who had come to super­vise the men who were on the hills to pre­pare the huts and clear the vicin­i­ty with the for the forth­com­ing fes­ti­val ritual. 

Ba le o, greet­ing the aworo. 

Enh, he jerked his head up motion­ing to why Oba , and the oth­er man were sweaty and ter­ri­fied on the floor.

E ba, .. na so we see am. Wetin we see, we no fit talk. 

Na Oga Ajayi here catch them o. they were togeth­er, and about to, cupped his left-hand fin­gers and at inter­val thrust his right mid­dle finger. 

Oba, na true? Aworo queried? 

Ha, bami… No, that was not what hap­pened. We were… Oba inter­ject­ed but was slapped with a back­hand by the man who had seen them, Oga Ajayi. 

Ajayi stopped, and the Aworo’s com­mand­ed halt­ed fur­ther slap. 

He looked at his men, and then cast a help­less look on both men who were already kneel­ing ram­ming their hands togeth­er, soaked with tears and expect­ing the inevitable dis­grace, and most like­ly the beatings. 

Well, he began, “Let’s not cru­ci­fy these men or fight for the god­dess whose pres­ence this all hap­pened. Besides, it is get­ting late, and you too need rest after the long work. And in as much as this is a sac­ri­lege, let’s be care­ful to decide for the god­dess what he must see as an aber­ra­tion. So, this is what we will do. We will keep them here, in the pres­ence of the god­dess they have defiled, and see what becomes of their flesh while we return tomor­row, that’s Tuesday. 

And I am sure, by the time we return tomor­row, Oro­sun would have killed them or have struck them with lep­rosy.” He said. 

Ha, Tues­day! Tola protest­ed, strug­gling to stand up, but received per­sis­tent kicks from the men before the next com­mand of the Aworo could stop them. 

Okay, that’s right. Baba has spo­ken well. Oga Ajayi said, and the oth­er men took turns leav­ing the hut, and after they had ham­mered the win­dows with nails from the back, they bolt­ed its door with an iron rod picked from the floor. 

Tomor­row is here already, Oga Ajayi said to the oth­er two men. 

Yes, Tues­day, Aworo replied.

From the writer


:: Account ::

The idea for this sto­ry came after a vis­it to Idanre hill, a tourist site in Ondo State, Nige­ria. The hill aside from being an ancient town, and hav­ing some myths around it, became a per­fect set­ting for my sto­ry because of the annu­al cel­e­bra­tion of the god­dess-Oro­sun, which is the god­dess of fer­til­i­ty. As a child­less woman while she was alive accord­ing to the tra­di­tion of the Idanre peo­ple, and was told about her empa­thy for peo­ple, irre­spec­tive of whom they are. With this, I begin to won­der about the god­dess per­cep­tion of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty. And for the char­ac­ter who lost his job and seem­ing­ly found love at first sight on the hills, I leave my read­ers to won­der if the god­dess will strike the lovers caught on the hills mak­ing out dead. 

Olus­eye Fakin­lede is a Niger­ian writer and free­lance jour­nal­ist. He is a grad­u­ate of Eng­lish and Lit­er­a­ture. ‘Seye is inter­est­ed in African lit­er­a­ture with sub­jects around men­tal health, migra­tion, cul­ture, reli­gion, sex­u­al­i­ty, and Afro­fu­tur­ism. He has also been pub­lished on Afro Rep, Scrawl Place, New Note Poet­ry, Art Lounge Jour­nal, Brit­tle Paper, Afr­o­critik, and else­where. Find him on Twit­ter @ohxeye.

Her Name Was Tamar

Fiction / EIisa Subin

:: Her Name Was Tamar ::

I only recent­ly learned to enjoy silan, a date syrup that could be poured into near­ly any­thing. It wasn’t just the taste that I enjoyed. I loved the way silan’s thick­ness demand­ed absolute patience. Pour­ing silan into a sim­ple cup of tea was a com­mit­ment of time that felt to me just a bit luxurious. 

Ben­ny and I final­ly had an after­noon free. Exhaust­ing days spent unpack­ing box after box had left them both tense, but eager to stretch our legs and explore. It was Ben­ny who’d said it first.

Let’s get out of here. Let’s just go some­where, anywhere.”

For lunch, you mean?” I asked, smil­ing, sit­ting on the floor of the new apart­ment sur­round­ed by crushed box­es and pack­ing peanuts, my fin­gers red and rid­dled with paper cuts. 

Sure,” he answered casu­al­ly, “for lunch. You pick the place.” I knew there was a rea­son I loved Benny.

I wasn’t sur­prised Ben­ny didn’t want to decide. He relied on me for deci­sions. I’d pick the place, check for the direc­tions on my phone, and Ben­ny wouldn’t even ask for details. He’d just drive. 

You tell me where to go,” he’d always say. 

Once we got the Hon­da out of the city, and reached High­way 4, we drove north along­side the train tracks. We opened the win­dows and turned up the radio. Stand by Me was play­ing on Gal­galatz. Laugh­ing and singing along, I pon­dered the uni­verse and the chances of an Israeli radio sta­tion play­ing my favorite song at just the moment I didn’t know I need­ed it.

With the win­dows down and the music turned up, every­thing felt so famil­iar. Dri­ving on open roads is like that. We could be every­where, nowhere, and any­where all at the same time. As we con­tin­ued north, the rhythm of the road helped mefor­get the stack of box­es still wait­ing to be unpacked, while Ben­ny smiled and half raced the train com­ing up beside us. 

Just a bit fur­ther north on 4 and then a left onto 57,” I said. 

You got it,” replied Benny.

We would dri­ve into the city through the old indus­tri­al zone. Then, a few lefts and rights to find a park­ing spot. That part was a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than we’d antic­i­pat­ed. But Ben­ny was in a good mood and up to the chal­lenge. After only a few min­utes, he’d rid­den the waves of traf­fic into a good spot. “Not quite per­fect,” he said, maneu­ver­ing the car in, “but I’d count it as a suc­cess.” He gave a sat­is­fied smile, and we exchanged high fives before get­ting out of the car.

By now, I real­ized just how hun­gry I was, and I guessed Ben­ny must have been fam­ished too.  Now was prob­a­bly as good a time as any to con­fess to Ben­ny that I didn’t know pre­cise­ly where we were head­ed. The restau­rant – a Geor­gian hole in the wall – didn’t actu­al­ly have an address. But the rec­om­men­da­tion had come from a local friend, and she’d assured me that I’d find it no problem.

Its in the shuk,” her friend had said. “No name, but you can’t miss it. Best katchipurri in the city. The woman who owns it is a fab­u­lous cook.”

We walked the short dis­tance from the park­ing spot to the shuk.

The shuk itself was not the kind of place a tourist would think to vis­it. Of course, Ben­ny and I weren’t tourists. But the trans­for­ma­tion from vis­i­tor to local hadn’t tak­en hold, at least not yet. We strolled thru the shuk, Ben­ny soak­ing in the atmos­phere while I tried to locate the restau­rant. The shops, tin-roofed and ram­shackle at best, were teem­ing with ven­dors hawk­ing per­sim­mons, turmer­ic, col­or­ful scarves, and every house­hold good imaginable. 

Ben­ny was trans­fixed by the scene, and I had to take him by the hand and pull him along.

As we wan­dered fur­ther into the shuk look­ing for the restau­rant, I tried my best to bal­ance hunger with a now press­ing need to find a bath­room. Sens­ing that we’d lost track of time and unsure how far we’d walked, I knew Ben­ny had a short fuse when he was hun­gry. I was actu­al­ly sur­prised that Ben­ny wasn’t vis­i­bly frus­trat­ed at this point. But when he motioned toward a sign indi­cat­ing a pub­lic bath­room with an arrow point­ing down an alley­way, I smiled and  knew that I’d mar­ried the right man. 

Yes,” I said. “I’m dying for the bathroom.”

Me too,” Ben­ny said. “Let’s hit the bath­room, and then we’ll just find some­place to eat even if it’s not the Geor­gian restaurant.” 

It’s a hind­sight kind of thing. Walk­ing by a table of old men play­ing backgam­mon in an alley­way can be unre­mark­able. In fact, it should be unre­mark­able. Oth­er times, though, it can be some­thing else — but only in hind­sight. And hind­sight is born only after some­thing – a par­a­digm shift of sorts — occurs. Obvi­ous­ly. For now, though, nei­ther Ben­ny nor I paid the old men sit­ting around the backgam­mon board any mind.

At the end of the alley­way, past the backgam­mon game, the bath­rooms were what one would expect of bath­rooms in a shuk. That is, if you are using the bath­room in a shuk then you are just hap­py that there is a bath­room in the shuk. Ben­ny went into the men’s room, and I turned right into the women’s room.

It looked as if no one had been in the woman’s room for weeks. There were two stalls. The first one closed and locked, as if it was used as stor­age. The door to the sec­ond stall was ajar. Absent­ly, I pushed on the door, but it took only an instant for me to sense that it was blocked. Peek­ing in, I drew a breath, closed my eyes tight, and opened them again, as if that car­toon-like action might some­how remove the dead woman from my sight. 

I was sur­prised that I didn’t scream. Instead, I care­ful­ly – why care­ful­ly, I nev­er knew – stepped out of the women’s bath­room and leaned in to the men’s room. I spoke in a voice that I didn’t rec­og­nize and asked Ben­ny to come out. Delib­er­ate­ly vague, I told him to go in to the women’s room and take a look inside the sec­ond stall.

You want me to…what?” Ben­ny asked, incredulous. 

Just do it. Please. Go in there and tell me what you see.”

Ben­ny was in and out quick­ly, and from the look on his face, there was no doubt what he had seen. I went back in, again care­ful­ly. I wasn’t sure why. Habit had me close and lock the stall door. I half chuck­led at the futil­i­ty of my actions and mum­bled baruch dayan emet. Blessed is the true judge. I wasn’t cer­tain that there was a true judge, and if there was, why then was a name­less woman lying dead in front of me on the floor of a bath­room stall.  But I said it any­way, more out of habit than belief. 

I remem­bered peo­ple I’d loved who’d died. Grand­par­ents and elder­ly aunts and uncles, most­ly. They’d died in hos­pi­tals, sur­round­ed by fam­i­ly. Their bod­ies care­ful­ly pre­pared in accor­dance with tra­di­tion. Funer­als well attend­ed. Shi­va hous­es over­flow­ing with food and guests. After the mourn­ing peri­od, well mean­ing fam­i­ly and friends care­ful to men­tion the deceased’s name at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, believ­ing that each men­tion ele­vat­ed the dead’s soul to a high­er lev­el. Yet some­one had died right here, alone in the woman’s bathroom. 

Who was she?” I won­dered aloud. “How did she end up here?” A name would help me under­stand that emp­ty feel­ing grow­ing in my chest. I was aware of my breath­ing and was look­ing for some­thing I could grab on to, both real and metaphor­ic. As I leaned back on the stall door, I noticed that my shirt was now snagged on the latch. Try­ing to free it, the fab­ric tore. The sound of rip­ping fab­ric star­tled me, and I real­ized that time had some­how shifted.

The stall was start­ing to feel tight and I had no rea­son to be in there. Star­ing over a dead woman’s body in a pub­lic bath­room is nei­ther nec­es­sary nor a good look. I opened the stall door and saw Ben­ny, trem­bling and pale. “What do we do now,” he asked. “If we were back home, I’d call the police, but here? I just don’t know. Please can you just tell me what to do,” he asked, and I was sud­den­ly aware of how des­per­ate­ly frag­ile he was. This morn­ing poor Ben­ny didn’t even want to pick a restau­rant. And now? 

I didn’t know where the thought came from. Some part of my brain that hadn’t been called upon until now, but I again took Ben­ny by the hand, and togeth­er we walked out of the bath­room, leav­ing the name­less dead woman behind. 

Are we going to the police?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “We are going over there,” I said, point­ing to the men play­ing backgammon. 

As I approached the men, I could see they’d been sit­ting around that table for hours and for years. Time required patience in this alley­way, and I was caught in its cur­rent. That tired bowl of sun­flower seeds next to the backgam­mon board, it was always full. Their tea was always hot, and the game of backgam­mon, it nev­er end­ed. The smoke from their hookah hung as a cloud just above, shield­ing them from both the day’s sun and the night’s cool­er tem­per­a­tures. I stood to the side unsure of how to begin. But in a moment, one of the men caught my eye and asked if I was okay. I said that yes, I was okay, but the hes­i­tan­cy in my voice was hard to over­look. The man who spoke sensed some­thing was amiss and brought me a chair. 

My hus­band and I,” I began. “Wait, where did he go?” I asked, as I turned my head to each side in con­fu­sion. “He’ll get lost here with­out me. Where did he go?” I must have been a bit of a sight, torn shirt and all. 

The man intro­duced him­self. He said his name was Yaakov, and he brought me a cup of tea. I told him my name. The oth­er men remained silent, but I was odd­ly com­fort­ed to have learned Yaakov’s name. 

Yaakov asked if I want­ed silan in my tea, but I sus­pect­ed he already knew the answer. I told Yaakov my sto­ry. It all came out too fast and jum­bled, like a child recount­ing a sto­ry in every painful dis­or­ga­nized detail. Yaakov lis­tened, yet he didn’t seem sur­prised at all. He even smiled as I told him of look­ing for the Geor­gian restau­rant. He said he knew where the restau­rant was, but that it had closed ear­ly that day. That’s prob­a­bly why I couldn’t find it. Some­thing about the own­er feel­ing dizzy. When I told him about the woman’s body in the bath­room, he spoke sooth­ing­ly, reas­sur­ing me that he’d see to every­thing. The oth­ers paid no atten­tion at all as they sat spit­ting sun­flower seeds and drink­ing their silan spiked tea, argu­ing backgam­mon tactics. 

Lis­ten­ing to the men debate the fin­er points of backgam­mon strat­e­gy helped me focus on my still hot tea, and filled the silence after I’d fin­ished telling Ya’akov my sto­ry. But the sun was set­ting as the backgam­mon strat­e­gy debate neared an end, with agree­ment that a com­bi­na­tion blitz and prim­ing strat­e­gy – “the essen­tial, two-pronged win­ning strat­e­gy” — was far supe­ri­or to a run­ning game – “non­sense, based only on luck.” Yaakov smiled as he tried to explain away the friend­ly debate with a know­ing nod about rolls of the dice, life, and the like. But the day had caught up with me, and I began to feel that Ben­ny and I were the dice. 

I even­tu­al­ly found the right moment to extract myself from my new friends. As I made my way toward the bath­room I thought I saw Ben­ny in the distance. 

Let me just go to the bath­room quick,” I said to myself, “and then I’ll catch up with Ben­ny and we’ll make our way home.” I entered the women’s room and found the door to the sec­ond stall easy to open. Yet, the dizzi­ness caught up with me, and the floor tiles rose to hit me in the head. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

My hus­band and I had recent­ly moved over­seas. Long days spent unpack­ing an end­less sea of box­es were punc­tu­at­ed by lunch time trips to any num­ber of hole in the wall restau­rants in search of some authen­tic cui­sine. The events in this sto­ry hap­pened dur­ing one such lunch-time foray.

I remem­ber being struck not just by how help­less I felt as the events unfold­ed, but also by the very fact that I was shar­ing an inti­mate moment with some­one whose sto­ry I would nev­er know. In my mind I named her Tamar, the Hebrew word for date. But I won­dered who would mourn this woman? Who would say kad­dish for her? Was some­one wait­ing for her to come home that evening? I stopped think­ing of these ques­tions because the answers were just so painful­ly sad.

It was all I could do to write her sto­ry in the hope that peo­ple will read it and pause for a moment to think of the stranger who pass­es through their lives if only briefly. Even if it is too late to save them.

EIisa Subin is a poet whose work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in the Inflec­tion­ist Review, Not One of Us, 34 Orchard Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, CCAR Jour­nal: The Reform Jew­ish Quar­ter­ly, Thim­ble Mag­a­zine, Jam & Sand and Nebo: A Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, among oth­ers. She won an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the Reuben Rose Poet­ry Com­pe­ti­tion and was longlist­ed for the Geminga Prize. 

What the Crow Knows

Fiction / Monica Kim

:: What the Crow Knows ::

We found the dead crow before my old­er sis­ter got into David Moon’s car but after the pow­er went out. 

We didn’t know why the pow­er went out, and if we did know, I don’t remem­ber now. It’s been ten years since that day. My sis­ter once claimed it was because of all the elec­tron­ics run­ning at the same time, com­pet­ing with the heat—the air­con, the Game­Cube, the desk­top com­put­er where she was mes­sag­ing David Moon on AIM—though she didn’t tell me this last fact until now. Andrew, at the time, said it was because of the apart­ment com­plex­es we all lived in, since every­one else’s pow­er went out too. And Hen­ry, of course, said he didn’t care what caused the pow­er out­age, he just want­ed to find some­thing to damn do. His voice cracked at the word damn, and he looked around the room as if his par­ents were there to gasp and pray over the words of an eleven-year-old boy. All I know is that we were play­ing Mario Kart on Andrew’s Game­Cube, with Andrew in third, Hen­ry in sixth, and me in eleventh, and just as I’d got­ten an item box with a black bul­let to rush past every­one else, the game cut and the tele­vi­sion turned black. 

We groaned. Hen­ry threw his con­troller onto the ground, even though it wasn’t his. Andrew got up and start­ed shak­ing the small square tele­vi­sion, then kicked the Game­Cube, which he could do, since it was his and he was the only one of us who owned one. I stretched my arms above my head, feel­ing the sweat already start to bead on the back of my neck. 

It was some­time in ear­ly June, a day that felt unusu­al­ly like the mid­dle of July, and we com­plained about the air­con that was now sud­den­ly shut off. Andrew scrounged around the liv­ing room and found the del­i­cate paper fans his mom brought from Korea and kept tucked away in a wood­en box under­neath the fad­ed tan couch. We slumped onto the floor, fan­ning our­selves with the pink and red and white fans lined with hangul and han­ja cal­lig­ra­phy. 

What do we do now,” Hen­ry whined, flick­ing the controller’s but­tons uselessly. 

Caleb,” Andrew said, turn­ing to me, fan­ning him­self so furi­ous­ly I thought his wrist might fall off. “Ask your noona what to do.” 

It was an unar­tic­u­lat­ed fact that Andrew was our ring­leader. It wasn’t just that Andrew’s fam­i­ly had more mon­ey than mine and Henry’s, that he was an only child, that he seemed to have friends out­side the two of us, where­as Hen­ry was pret­ty much indif­fer­ent to most peo­ple he met and I was too tongue-tied to ever start a con­ver­sa­tion with any­one. It was also that Andrew had a face most peo­ple, chil­dren and adults alike, but espe­cial­ly me, couldn’t say no to: uneven bangs that some­how endeared him to every­one despite every oth­er Kore­an Amer­i­can boy hav­ing the same hair­cut, the small dim­ple on his left cheek that widened when he smiled. 

Okay,” I said, get­ting up and walk­ing to Andrew’s par­ents’ room, where the shared desk­top com­put­er was. My old­er sis­ter, Jen­nie, was sit­ting at the desk, elbows on the wood-worn table. In front of her was the black screen of the dead com­put­er and her sketch­book with a new draw­ing I couldn’t see. 

All of our par­ents worked and fig­ured hav­ing Jen­nie babysit the three of us was much more ide­al than enrolling us in the only after-school pro­gram that catered to Kore­an Amer­i­cans in this tiny town. So, Jen­nie often sat at this com­put­er, sketch­book near­by, prob­a­bly wish­ing she was with her friends doing what­ev­er four­teen-year-old girls did. But instead, she was stuck look­ing after her younger broth­er and his two idiot friends. Some­times she bribed us with some of her babysit­ting mon­ey and left us by our­selves, mak­ing us swear that if we didn’t tell our par­ents she was going off to watch the high school soc­cer game because David Moon was play­ing, she’d let us have fif­teen bucks to order Bon­Chon Chick­en or buy Poké­mon cards or what­ev­er else nerds like us did these days. Andrew would mere­ly raise an eye­brow, ask­ing why we shouldn’t just take her mon­ey and tell our par­ents any­ways, while Hen­ry would widen his stance and cross his arms, and I’d look at my sis­ter with her hair curled and black eye­lin­er smudged around her eyes and won­der what hap­pened to the girl who used to play Game­Cube with us. 

Because you’ll get the Game­Cube tak­en away if you tell, she’d say to us, most­ly to Andrew, and then leave, tuck­ing how­ev­er many bills she had into my palm. 

Noona?” I asked, and she turned around, still hold­ing her pen­cil. “The power’s out. What do we do?” 

She looked out the win­dow; we both star­tled as a bird flew past, a black blur against the clear pane. 

I don’t know, go out­side or some­thing.” She waved a hand dis­mis­sive­ly, and made to turn back around, when I stepped forward. 

But what would we do out­side? It’s too hot to play Man­hunt or pre­tend to be Naru­to char­ac­ters or any­thing.”  

My old­er sis­ter rolled her eyes. “Well, duh. I don’t know, find a card game or board game or whatever.” 

She began to turn again, when I tugged on her pony­tail.  

Caleb‑a,” she hissed, using the Kore­an pro­nun­ci­a­tion of my name, which meant that she was real­ly, real­ly annoyed with me. 

Noona,” I said, cross­ing my arms, try­ing to copy Andrew. “If you hang out with us, I promise I’ll leave you alone for the rest of the week.” 

She closed her eyes, rest­ing her fin­ger­tips on her tem­ple. She looked like our mom in that moment, when Jen­nie and I would fight over who should set the table for din­ner. Why can’t Caleb do it for once, omma? Jen­nie would ask. Why does it always have to be the girl? 

Jen­nie opened her eyes, glanc­ing at the win­dow, and I won­dered if she was wait­ing for some­thing. Maybe anoth­er bird to fly by. 

Fine,” she final­ly said, tak­ing one last look at the dead com­put­er before stand­ing up. She ripped a page she was work­ing on from her sketch­book, then shoved it into her shorts pock­et. “But this is gonna take twen­ty min­utes, tops.” 


We brought our fans with us out­side, swap­ping hot air for hot air. 

Aren’t you afraid some­one will see us with these?” Hen­ry asked, as Jen­nie closed and locked the door behind us. “They look kin­da girly.” 

Andrew con­tin­ued to fan him­self. “Do you wan­na be super hot with­out one?” 

Hen­ry grum­bled some­thing but didn’t say any­thing more. Andrew’s word was Andrew’s word.  

Jen­nie shield­ed her eyes with a hand. “Alright, where to?” She didn’t look at any­one when she asked this, but we all knew she was talk­ing to Andrew. 

He shrugged. “We can just walk around.” 

Jen­nie sighed but led the way, walk­ing a few paces ahead of us, as if she couldn’t wait to be rid of us—which was prob­a­bly, most def­i­nite­ly true.  

There isn’t much of the walk I remem­ber, because we’d walked around the neigh­bor­hood prob­a­bly hun­dreds of times, scop­ing out the best places to hide for Man­hunt, the best patch of grass to kick a soc­cer ball back and forth, the best stretch of asphalt for races. I don’t know if the images stored in my head from this day’s walk are a col­lec­tion of images patched togeth­er into a mis­matched kalei­do­scope, or if their source is tru­ly from this odd ear­ly June day. But Jen­nie tells me these are the images she remem­bers, or at least the ones she draws, when she finds her­self obses­sive­ly replay­ing the day’s events, unable to cut her­self from the loop: the three of us, Andrew, Hen­ry, and I, kick­ing tiny dis­lodged chunks of asphalt against the backs of her bare legs—the open doors of neigh­bors’ apartment-houses—a glimpse of fur­ni­ture, the tat­tered flo­ral ottoman with a rip on the seam, per­haps from a cat, per­haps from some­thing else—up a set of neu­tral gray con­crete stairs, no rail­ing, to more looka­like apartment-houses—the same fad­ed yel­low, fad­ed tan, fad­ed blue—cutting across someone’s grass—running when we heard a dog bark—down a dif­fer­ent set of neu­tral gray con­crete stairs, return­ing a dif­fer­ent, back­ward way to Andrew’s place—coming across the dead crow splayed at the foot of the black dumpster. 

Every­one remem­bers find­ing the crow in a dif­fer­ent place. Jen­nie says it was at the foot of the black dump­ster. Hen­ry told me, ear­li­er today––before I talked to Jennie––that it was on Andrew’s doorstep. What Andrew remem­bers, I don’t know, because I haven’t talked to him in years. I don’t know if this is a blip in his mem­o­ry, if he thinks about this day as much as Jen­nie does and I now do, or if he doesn’t remem­ber it at all, if it’s like the day nev­er exist­ed for him. 

But this I know for sure: we all remem­ber who touched the crow. 

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead ani­mal. Road­kill was com­mon on these sub­ur­ban roads. But there was some­thing about this crow—its bent wing, its blood­less­ness, the open eye—that unnerved me. 

I don’t like this,” Hen­ry mut­tered, even as Andrew bent down. 

Hey,” Jen­nie said sharply, and Andrew’s head snapped in her direc­tion. “It might have the plague.” 

I thought that was a long time ago,” he replied. 

It was,” she agreed, arms now around her­self, as if she was cold. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t cursed or any­thing.” She looked at me, and I knew what she was thinking. 

The crow had to be a bad omen. Kore­ans are, if not any­thing else, very super­sti­tious peo­ple, and Jen­nie and I were no excep­tion. We made sure all the doors were closed at night. We nev­er turned the fan on while we were sleep­ing, not even in the sum­mer months. When we had a bad dream, we made sure to wait at least twen­ty-four hours before telling all the details to our mom, and if we had a good dream, we made sure to tell her right away. We made sure our beds in the room we shared weren’t fac­ing the door. Even to this day, when I catch myself whistling at night, I’ll stop, afraid of see­ing the death­ly spir­it my mom said would sure­ly come, whom I always imag­ined as a kind of ghost girl ver­sion of Jen­nie, long black hair hang­ing in front of her face like a curtain. 

Well, we can’t just leave it here,” Andrew said, nudg­ing the crow with his sneaker. 

Sure we can,” Jen­nie said. “It’s real­ly easy. Here, watch this.” She start­ed walk­ing away, hands in pock­ets. “Easy!” she called back to us.  

Maybe we can put it in a shoe­box,” I sug­gest­ed, not want­i­ng to aban­don it, but also not want­i­ng to do any­thing sub­stan­tial about it, not want­i­ng to take sides between the two of them. 

Andrew point­ed in my direc­tion. Some­thing like pride welled in me. “Yes! Good one, Caleb. Your donsaeng’s smarter than you, Jennie.” 

Show some respect for your elders, Andrew.” 

He stuck his tongue out at her. 

We can use my shoe­box,” Hen­ry piped up, say­ing it in a rush, like he didn’t want to be left out. “I have it in my backpack.” 

Isn’t that for our class shoe­box project?” I asked. 

He shrugged. “I haven’t start­ed it yet, so it’s emp­ty. And I can always find anoth­er one at home.” Hen­ry only owned one pair of shoes, so I wasn’t sure how he was going to do that, but let it go. 

Okay, let’s do this.” Andrew fist-bumped the both of us. 

When Hen­ry returned with the emp­ty shoe­box, he bent down and placed it next to the crow. The four of us stared at it, its black feath­ers not quite blend­ing in with the black asphalt. 

So,” Jen­nie crossed her arms. “Before one of you idiots even thinks about touch­ing this, you can’t use just your hands. God knows what kinds of things are on it.” 

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Duh. We’re not dumb.” 

Jen­nie blew the wisps of hair out of her eyes. “Are you gonna do it, then?” 

Andrew shift­ed his weight from foot to foot, fid­get­ing with the hem of his t‑shirt. I real­ized, then, that Andrew was feel­ing some­thing I thought he didn’t have: fear. 

The next thing I knew, I took off my t‑shirt, feel­ing the sun against my bony, sticky, eleven-year-old back, wrapped my hands around the fab­ric, and picked up the crow. 

Caleb!” Jen­nie yelped, tak­ing a step back as I held it by the tips of my fin­gers. I thought it would smell––don’t dead ani­mals usu­al­ly? espe­cial­ly in the heat?––but the crow emanat­ed nothing. 

Both Andrew and Hen­ry gaped at me. I didn’t look at either of them as I placed the crow, gen­tly, into Henry’s emp­ty shoe­box. When I did look up, at Andrew—hoping to see, I don’t know, admi­ra­tion, maybe—he was look­ing else­where. In fact, Hen­ry and Jen­nie, too, were look­ing in the same direc­tion. At the same person. 

It was David Moon, senior star of the high school soc­cer team, Ivy League bound, beloved of all ajum­mas at church. His car idled as he got out, walk­ing, for some rea­son, toward us. 

What you guys got there?” David pushed his sun­glass­es to the top of his head. “And why’s your lit­tle broth­er got no shirt on, Jennie?” 

David?” Jennie’s voice squeaked. She coughed, clear­ing her throat. “Er—well—” 

He looked at her, up and down, eyes lin­ger­ing. We could all see her blush­ing. Then he turned to the three of us. “Is that a dead crow?” 

Andrew found it,” Hen­ry said imme­di­ate­ly, and Andrew glared at him. 

Cool,” David said, and Hen­ry looked like he wished he hadn’t giv­en Andrew cred­it. “Why’s it in a shoebox?” 

I lift­ed a fin­ger, as if to say it was me, but the words nev­er came out. David noticed the move­ment, and he smirked—though not at me, at Jen­nie.  

Cool. Like your sis­ter.”  

Hen­ry and Andrew both looked at me, as if to say, Jen­nie? Cool? But no one dis­agreed with David. 

Jen­nie shrugged in response. “Not that cool.” 

What are you guys gonna do with it then?” David asked. 

Hen­ry shrugged. “Should we throw it out?” 

No,” Andrew and I both said. Jen­nie opened her mouth as if to agree with Hen­ry, but closed it. 

Fine, fine, fine.” Hen­ry pushed the box into David’s hands. “Do you have any ideas?” 

He looked away, at Jen­nie, away again. “Yeah, I’ve got one, actu­al­ly. I’ll take care of it for you guys.” 

Andrew frowned, as if he couldn’t believe that David Moon, of all peo­ple, would be will­ing to take a dead crow from three eleven-year-old boys. “You sure?” 

Oh yeah,” he ruf­fled Andrew’s head, which might’ve made him mad had it been any­one else, but it was David Moon. “Your crow’s in trust­ed hands.” 

But what are you gonna do with it?” I asked. 

He clapped my shoul­der. “Don’t wor­ry, lit­tle Park. We’ll leave it up to God, right?” He fist-bumped all of us before head­ing to his car. 

At the driver’s side door, sun­glass­es back on his face, David turned back to us. “Hey, big Park, wan­na help me with this?” 

Jen­nie looked at me, at Hen­ry and Andrew, back at David. “Me?” 

Yeah, you, Jennie.” 

But I—” she cleared her throat. “I have to babysit them. You know how our par­ents are …” she trailed off as David turned his gaze on us. 

You guys are gonna be in what, sixth grade soon?” he said. “Aren’t you old enough to look after yourselves?” 

Both Andrew and Hen­ry puffed up their chests; yes, they were, indeed, actu­al­ly old enough to look after themselves—there were plen­ty of times when Jen­nie left us alone, after all. She was unwrap­ping and wrap­ping that draw­ing from ear­li­er. I couldn’t see the whole thing, but there was a cor­ner of a face, a boy’s face, I thought. 

Jen­nie didn’t have any babysit­ting mon­ey on her yet to bribe us with let­ting her go. But Andrew didn’t care that we weren’t get­ting any mon­ey from Jen­nie, at least not this time. He nod­ded at David. “Yeah, duh, we are.” 

Alright, then it’s set­tled.” He opened the door. “Jen, you coming?” 

No one ever called Jen­nie Jen. I frowned, but when she looked back at me, head tilt­ed to the side—is this okay?—I waved at her. She fist­ed the paper back into her pock­et and got into the pas­sen­ger side of David Moon’s car. 

Ear­li­er today, Hen­ry and I met at our local Paris Baguette for our once-a-year check-in. When we meet, it’s usu­al­ly to catch up on the details of our lives any stranger could find on our Face­book pro­files. It’s also to exchange any new infor­ma­tion we have on our old friend Andrew, who’d slow­ly dropped out of our lives in the way friends do, after he moved away before we all start­ed high school. Henry’s friends with him on Face­book, where­as I occa­sion­al­ly check his pro­file now and again, most­ly to see if he has a new girl­friend or not. Usu­al­ly, we leave after thir­ty min­utes of chat­ting over mediocre cof­fee and red bean filled breads. 

But this after­noon, after we asked each oth­er how we were, if I still had a boyfriend (no), if Hen­ry was still lead­ing youth groups at our old church (yes), if I would ever go back to church (no), if Hen­ry knew whether Andrew was still dat­ing a white girl and whether his par­ents dis­ap­proved (yes), I was expect­ing us to shake hands and walk our sep­a­rate ways, when Hen­ry ordered a sec­ond cup of cof­fee. It was unheard of. 

Caleb,” he said, after return­ing to our table. “Did you hear about David Moon?”  

I blinked. I hadn’t thought about David Moon since that day we found the dead crow. “No.” 

Well, you won’t believe this.” Hen­ry leaned for­ward, so I did, too. He looked around, eyes flit­ting from face to face—probably try­ing to make sure he didn’t rec­og­nize any­one, and that no one rec­og­nized him. “There’s alle­ga­tions against him. You know, sex­u­al assault allegations.” 

I blinked again, lean­ing back. “What?” 

Yeah. Sun­min Jeon, you know, the one who played piano for the church orchestra?” 

I shook my head. I hadn’t been to church since junior year of high school, and even back then, I only ever talked to Hen­ry. If Andrew had still been there, maybe I’d have talked to him too. 

Okay, well, she came back for the Class of 2010 Reunion, she was in the same grade as David, they were both in the church orches­tra. But appar­ent­ly she react­ed pret­ty bad­ly when she saw him, ’cause it’d been years—” Hen­ry was now ges­tur­ing with his hands, “—and then peo­ple noticed and asked what was wrong, and she told them. It hap­pened the first or sec­ond year in col­lege, when they were back home for the sum­mer and help­ing out with the orchestra.” 

It felt like there was some­thing stuck in my chest. “Shit,” I mur­mured. All I could think about was that image of Jen­nie get­ting into his car, play­ing on loop over and over again. 

Yeah. But that’s not even the whole thing.” Hen­ry leaned in even more. I start­ed to feel sick over the prospect of anoth­er woman—could it have been Jennie?—and it didn’t help that Hen­ry seemed to enjoy telling me about these women as if it were just anoth­er piece of the lat­est Kore­an church gossip. 

The oth­er day,” Hen­ry con­tin­ued. “After mass, I heard one of the ajum­mas talk to anoth­er ajum­ma about what a shame it was that David had hurt anoth­er girl. She was a lit­tle younger than Sun­min, maybe clos­er to your noona’s age?—” my leg start­ed shak­ing under the table at the men­tion of my old­er sis­ter “—and told some peo­ple a week or so after the reunion. Can you believe it?” 

I could. Hen­ry didn’t give me time to respond, though, before he leaned back in his chair, sigh­ing. “David Moon. It’s too bad—I always thought he was one of the good guys.” 

And what about the women? I want­ed to ask him. Do you feel bad for them too? How are they doing now? But he prob­a­bly didn’t have the answers, and even if he did, I wasn’t sure he’d tell me in a way that would stop my leg from shaking. 

Instead, I asked, “Do you remem­ber that day we found the dead crow?”  


Hours after I met with Hen­ry, I get ahold of Jennie. 

Caleb,” she answers on the fourth ring. “What’s up? I thought we weren’t gonna talk until lat­er?” Jen­nie lives in Cal­i­for­nia, work­ing on graph­ic design for some media com­pa­ny, while I’m still in New Jer­sey fin­ish­ing up col­lege, and we call each oth­er exact­ly on the fif­teenth of each month. 

Hi, noona,” I reply, wish­ing we still used old ana­log phones so I could fid­get with the cord. Instead, I keep tap­ping my fin­gers on my knee. “There’s some­thing I need to ask you about.” 

What is it?” There’s some sort of back­ground noise on her end—is she stuck in L.A. traf­fic? Eat­ing at the food court in Koreatown? 

I take a breath, curl­ing my fin­gers into a fist. “I talked to Hen­ry the oth­er day. He—he told me some­thing about David Moon.” 

Silence on the oth­er end. 

He, uh … at church … there are two women …” I stam­mer. Clear my throat. I start over. “I keep think­ing about that day we found the dead crow. Do you remember?” 

I remem­ber,” Jennie’s voice, though I can bare­ly hear it. 

Did … did some­thing—” I cough. “Did something—” 

I can’t fin­ish my ques­tion, but Jennie’s silence gives me the answer.  

While Jen­nie was sit­ting shot­gun in David Moon’s car, going who knows where, Andrew, Hen­ry, and I returned to Andrew’s. The pow­er was still out, so we found our­selves lying on the hard­wood floors again, splayed out as far as we could, hop­ing they could cool us down. 

What do we do now?” Hen­ry asked. 

My eyes were on the ceil­ing, but I could almost feel Andrew’s shrug from across the room. “Wait until the pow­er comes back.” 

But that could be hours.” 

You got any bet­ter ideas?” 

Instead of lis­ten­ing to them argue—or until their argu­ment could reach me, and I’d have to be the one respon­si­ble for com­ing up with some­thing fun to do—I got up and walked to Andrew’s par­ents’ room, where Jen­nie had been sit­ting in front of the desk­top com­put­er, sketch­ing something. 

I sat down in the chair, imag­in­ing her here. Scrolling through Myspace or Face­book and talk­ing to her friends, prob­a­bly com­plain­ing about us. What were she and David Moon doing togeth­er now? What was hap­pen­ing to the crow? 

Next to the key­board was Jennie’s sketch­book. It was closed, and my fin­gers hov­ered over the cov­er, hes­i­tant. DON’T TOUCH ANY OF MY STUFF Jen­nie would often say to me. I could imag­ine her rip­ping the sketch­book from my hands as soon as I touched it; but Jen­nie wasn’t here right now, to watch as I opened the sketch­book, flip­ping from one draw­ing to the next. 

There were a bunch of por­traits of her friends at school, in the cafe­te­ria, in class. One or two of David. One of Andrew, Hen­ry, and I with the Game­Cube. One of our par­ents. None of her­self. In the mid­dle of the sketch­pad was a torn-off page, hasti­ly ripped on the side. 

I touched the edges, care­ful not to give myself a paper­cut. Was this the draw­ing Jen­nie had in her pocket? 

I heard foot­steps in the hall­way and quick­ly closed the sketch­book, turn­ing around to find Andrew in the doorway. 

Your omma’s here,” he said, sim­ply, then walked away. 

When I got home that night and went to my bed­room, the one I shared with Jennie—hoping to give back her sketch­book with­out her dis­cov­er­ing that I’d looked through it—I found her lying on her bed, her back fac­ing me. 

Noona?” I asked, qui­et­ly.  

She didn’t say any­thing; I tried again, then a sec­ond, and then a third time. After the third time, I fig­ured she was asleep, and that’s when I noticed the draw­ings on the wall on her side of the room. 

They were all crows. Doo­dles, sketch­es, scrib­bles. Tiny ones, big ones, medi­um-sized. Vary­ing shades of black and gray. If I looked away, I swore I thought I saw their wings flap out of the cor­ner of my eye. It couldn’t have been a breeze, because the win­dow was closed. But when I looked at them head-on, they were still. 

Where do I even start?” Jen­nie asks, exhal­ing. I don’t hear any back­ground nois­es on her end of the phone anymore—she must’ve found some­where qui­et to talk. 

What do you remem­ber?” I whis­per, my voice so qui­et I’m afraid she hasn’t heard me—but Jen­nie starts talking. 

The pow­er went out that day. Do you remem­ber that?” I nod, though she can’t see me. “I was mes­sag­ing David on AIM, ask­ing him for help with geom­e­try home­work, ’cause he was one of the tutors my teacher put on a list, and I thought he was cute and liked watch­ing him play soc­cer, so I thought, I don’t know, why the hell not?” 

She says every­thing in a rush. My leg keeps shak­ing up and down, wait­ing for the moment her sto­ry turns. 

I told him I was babysit­ting you and Andrew and Hen­ry, then he asked for Andrew’s address, I gave it to him, the pow­er went out. I didn’t actu­al­ly expect him to show up. I real­ly didn’t. David Moon, a senior, and me, a fresh­man? God, every­one was in love with him.” 

You had a crush on him,” I say, a state­ment more than a question. 

Jen­nie exhales again, a bit shak­i­ly this time. “I did. I thought he was––I don’t know. But then, who would’ve believed me, right? He asked me to come with him, when he took that dead crow for us. And I said yes. I said yes, think­ing we’d just work on geom­e­try after. And, you know—part of me—” she paus­es, takes a breath, starts again. “Part of me, I know, was hop­ing for some­thing. A kiss, maybe. Some­thing small. But not that. Not what happened.” 

My hand is curled into a fist, fin­ger­nails dig­ging into skin. If only I had—what? Asked Jen­nie not to get into the car with David? Fol­lowed them, impos­si­bly? Asked why she was spend­ing longer times in the bath­room after that day? 

Caleb? Are you still there?” Jen­nie asks. 

I close my eyes. “Still here. Sor­ry. Just—a lot to process. There’s so much I didn’t know, or didn’t remem­ber, but think­ing back on every­thing now, it—it—some of it—” 

Is start­ing to make sense?” she fin­ish­es. “You were eleven, Caleb. I was your annoy­ing noona. You were my insuf­fer­able don­saeng.” 

I’m still your insuf­fer­able don­saeng.” 

She laughs, but it comes out gar­bled. “Then I guess I’m still your annoy­ing noona.” A pause. Sec­onds of silence pass. “You know—I’ve nev­er actu­al­ly real­ly told any­one what hap­pened next. I think a lot of peo­ple thought I was a prude ’cause I didn’t have my first boyfriend until after col­lege, but … well––” Anoth­er breath. I wish I was there, in Los Ange­les, to put my hand on her shoul­der, or give her a tis­sue, any­thing. But there’s a part of me that’s glad I’m not, so I don’t have to see her face crum­ple when she starts talk­ing again. 

He took me to the church park­ing lot,” she says. I can see it in my mind so clear­ly, years lat­er: the main lot, with its clean white lines. And sev­er­al hun­dred feet away, in a spot over­run with grass: the place of my first kiss. I’d snuck off at night to meet up with anoth­er clos­et­ed guy from a dif­fer­ent high school. We thought we were being hilar­i­ous­ly iron­ic, trans­gres­sive. But this was a dif­fer­ent place for Jennie. 

None of the ajum­mas or ajusshis knew about that spot, you know. So he knew there was no way any­one would see us.” She takes anoth­er breath. “So—yeah. That’s it. I don’t—I don’t want to get into the details.” 

I don’t need to know them,” I say, hop­ing it’s enough. 

There’s a sound on the oth­er end, like she’s blow­ing her nose. “I thought we were gonna bury the crow in the trees behind the park­ing lot. But he start­ed kiss­ing me—which, you know, I thought I want­ed, but then—it didn’t stop there. Even though I want­ed it to. To stop, I mean.” 

What do you say to your old­er sis­ter who’s just told you a ter­ri­ble secret? What do you do when she’s reliv­ing the trau­ma, when that day for you meant find­ing a dead crow and try­ing to impress your friend you had a crush on and for her meant some­thing com­plete­ly, utter­ly different? 

God,” she laughs, or cries, I can’t tell which. “It’s just so—I’ve spent so long replay­ing this day in my head. And now I’m final­ly telling someone.” 

You don’t have to keep going,” I say, gently. 

No, I—” she stops. “God, Caleb. What if I’d told some­one ear­li­er? You think the same thing wouldn’t have hap­pened to those girls?” 

I’m about to answer, when she con­tin­ues in a rush of words. 

There’s one part of me that says, You couldn’t have known. No one would’ve believed you any­ways. And then there’s the side that says, What if they did? What if one of them did? And then the oth­er side says, Look how they’re react­ing to them now. All the ajusshis and ajum­mas can talk about is David this, David that, how he was so suc­cess­ful and now it’s all col­laps­ing. They would’ve done the same to you ten years ago. They wouldn’t have cared about you. They would’ve told you to keep qui­et because no one can know that some­thing ter­ri­ble like this hap­pened to us, us upstand­ing church-going God-lov­ing Kore­ans. But then, what if one of the girls had heard about you, and decid­ed to stay away? What if it made all that dif­fer­ence? And then I come back with—but it shouldn’t have rest­ed on them, on us. It should’ve been on David.” 

There are half-moon cir­cles imprint­ed on my palm from where I’ve been dig­ging my nails into the skin. “You can’t blame it on yourself.” 

I know I can’t.” She laughs. “I know. I fuck­ing know. But I spi­ral some­times, Caleb, I spi­ral. But you know what some of the weird­est, creepi­est shit out of all of this was?” 


I don’t know what he ever did with the crow, but when I got home, I couldn’t stop draw­ing them.” 

I blink, remem­ber­ing the crows on the wall. “But you hate birds.” 

I do. But when I picked up my pen­cil, it was like my hand took over me. I think I went through an entire note­book. And then at school the next day, when David Moon opened his lock­er, a bunch of post-it notes flood­ed out.” 

My mouth hangs open. “Did you—”  

No, I didn’t even go near his lock­er that day. But I sure as hell hope he got a ton of paper cuts.” 

Wit­ness­es, I think. But I don’t say this out loud to Jen­nie. She might’ve been silenced, but they were try­ing to say something. 

When I got home,” Jen­nie con­tin­ues, dis­rupt­ing my thoughts, “all my draw­ings of the crows from last night were gone. All that was left was the tape on the walls.” 

Chills run down my arm. “Sounds like one of omma’s super­sti­tions.” 

Jen­nie laughs. “I know.” 

When we get off the phone, I lie down in my bed, star­ing up at the ceil­ing. Through the closed door, I hear one of my house­mates come in, rum­mag­ing through the pots and pans in the kitchen. For him, it’s a nor­mal day: class­es, work, stu­dent org stuff. For me, I can’t stop think­ing. Can’t stop the images swirling behind my closed eyes, dead crows and silence and Andrew and Hen­ry and David and Jen­nie and that hot June day that used to mean some­thing dif­fer­ent for me but now—now moves beyond that dead crow I picked up with my t‑shirt, sun beat­ing down on my bare skin and won­der­ing what would hap­pen next. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

What the Crow Knows” began as an inquiry into a memory. 

When I was in third grade, my friends and I found a dead bird on the side of the road. Unsure of what to do, my friends’ old­er sib­lings took charge—I remem­ber there being a shoe­box, a strange man who approached the sib­lings, and I remem­ber myself, my cousin, and my friend going back to his house and dis­tract­ing our­selves by watch­ing TV. I remem­ber being vague­ly wor­ried about the old­er sib­lings, but in the end they returned just fine, the dead bird hav­ing been tak­en care of.  

Part of this inquiry is a “what if”—what if this stranger wasn’t a stranger but an acquain­tance of a mot­ley crew of kids? What if the old­er siblings—just one old­er sib­ling in the sto­ry, Jennie—doesn’t turn out fine? What if the younger kids, who might not be ful­ly aware of the under­ly­ing pow­er dynam­ics between those old­er than them, remem­ber this day dif­fer­ent­ly than them? 

Part of this inquiry is also rumi­nat­ing on what hap­pens when we real­ize more sin­is­ter things had hap­pened retroac­tive­ly, and when our mem­o­ries of a cer­tain day or event don’t match up with the mem­o­ries of some­one else. It is also about, of course, con­fronting sex­u­al assault and trau­ma, and the lin­ger­ing con­se­quences of trau­ma of that assault and abuse––on the sur­vivor, on the survivor’s fam­i­ly, on the survivor’s com­mu­ni­ty; and what that means for a spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty. Part of that con­fronta­tion asks––what if there is no wit­ness? What if the only wit­ness is a dead crow?


Mon­i­ca Kim is a queer writer and orga­niz­er. Born in Korea, she now lives in Brook­lyn, New York. She won the inau­gur­al Jane Keny­on Chap­book Prize Award for her series of mul­ti­verse poems and her writ­ing has been pub­lished in the lickety~split, Pol­lux Jour­nal, Pine Hills Review, and oth­ers. You can find her on Twit­ter at @kimmonjoo.


The Window Bride

Fiction / Carly Brown

:: The Window Bride ::

The day my sis­ter Anto­nia turned fif­teen, we took her to the win­dow. It was late June and the street out­side my uncle’s store smelled of veg­eta­bles gone mushy in the sun. Tin cans shone on the side­walk by my feet, shiny as locust wings. I kicked one with my shoe, watch­ing it bounce off a fire hydrant and roll under­neath a black auto­mo­bile parked near­by. Mam­ma would usu­al­ly have scold­ed me for that, but she was busy rety­ing the rib­bon around Antonia’s braid and smooth­ing down her new dress. The dress was a lacy thing that remind­ed me of our nice table­cloth, the one Mam­ma only brought out at East­er. It looked like you could rip it apart easily. 

There were sev­er­al women com­ing out of Uncle’s store, car­ry­ing bags of let­tuce and loaves of bread tucked under their arms, dab­bing their brows with hand­ker­chiefs and squint­ing in the sun­light. We pushed open the door and Uncle Sal­va­tore came out from behind the counter to greet us, dressed smart­ly as ever in a white coat and stiff collar. 

Buon­giorno, ladies,” he said, bow­ing to my sis­ter and me, as though we were fine women out for an after­noon stroll. Anto­nia and I gig­gled at being called ladies, although I sup­posed she was one now. 

He led us over to the store­front win­dow where he kept box­es of panet­tone at Christ­mas and crates of squash in the fall. There was a sin­gle chair there now, on a lit­tle raised plat­form, next to a bas­ket of lemons. Uncle’s store smelled like lemons that day, so he’d prob­a­bly cut some open already to make lemon­ade. I liked his store: you could spin on the high stools or get Coca-Cola in a tall glass and drink it with a straw, or you could order a Root Beer Float instead and watch vanil­la ice cream bob­bing in dark liq­uid until it dissolved. 

Anto­nia climbed up and sat down in the chair. She had her back to us so I could see drops of sweat slid­ing down her neck and dis­ap­pear­ing into the lace. Mam­ma thanked Uncle again for let­ting us do this. 

Fig­u­rati,” my uncle said. It’s noth­ing. Then he smiled at me and point­ed to a jar of can­dies wrapped in sil­ver foil. “Seems like I ordered too many caramels this week, Ros­alia. Can you help me with that?” 

I plunged my hand into the jar. The foil squeaked as I plucked one out and popped it in my mouth, let­ting the sug­ar sparkle on my tongue. 

Then I looked out the win­dow and saw that, out­side on the street, an old­er woman with a lit­tle boy in tow had stopped to stare at my sis­ter through the glass. Her skin was wrin­kled and browned like the inside of a wal­nut, like non­na before she died, and she had a blue silk scarf knot­ted under her chin. She looked Anto­nia up and down, per­haps with a grand­son or nephew in mind. 

My sis­ter wasn’t pret­ty like the women in mag­a­zines, with their cloche hats stuffed with flow­ers. They all looked sky­scraper tall and thin. My sis­ter was short, with plump elbows and a round face. She was shy, unlike me, and get­ting her to talk was often like pry­ing open an oys­ter shell. But she nev­er com­plained about any­thing and, of the two of us, she was the best at cook­ing lasagna, not to men­tion the fact that, to my extreme envy, she had also recent­ly mem­o­rized all the state cap­i­tals. But the old woman look­ing at Anto­nia now could see none of these things. 

I watched her nod polite­ly to my sis­ter and car­ry on down the street. 

Next came a man who looked a lit­tle younger than Father, maybe Uncle Salvatore’s age, with a nice suit and slicked-back hair glis­ten­ing in the sun. He stopped in front of the win­dow. I don’t know if Anto­nia was smil­ing at him, but he smiled at her before he walked away with his hands shoved in his pock­ets and his lips pursed togeth­er like he was whistling. 

It was then that I real­ized my sis­ter wasn’t going to sleep beside me any­more. Soon, I would walk to school on my own, brush my teeth on my own, sit in front of the radio, fid­dling with the dial as it gur­gled out sta­t­ic, on my own. Anto­nia would go live with a man like that slick-haired fel­low. I would only see her at St Leo’s on Sun­days. That was what hap­pened when Lena Maggiore’s sis­ter got married—Lena only saw her on Sun­days now. 

I turned away from the win­dow and walked over to the shelf, notic­ing peach­es piled up in a wick­er bas­ket. Two cents apiece, said a chalk sign in Uncle’s neat hand­writ­ing. I did some quick mul­ti­pli­ca­tion in my head. Two cents meant you could buy fifty peach­es for one dol­lar. Or you could buy two hun­dred and fifty peach­es for five dol­lars. Or you could buy one thou­sand peach­es for twen­ty dol­lars. But nobody would waste twen­ty whole dol­lars on that many peaches. 

I took one—its fur­ry skin in my palm felt like a liv­ing thing. There were dents in the flesh where my fin­gers had grabbed it. Then, with­out think­ing, I start­ed squeez­ing. I squeezed and squeezed it until its juices ran down my knuck­les, drip­ping down onto the wood­en floor. 

It wasn’t until I was squeez­ing so hard I could feel the seed in the mid­dle start­ing to press into my palm that Mam­ma turned round—”Rosalia!” She star­tled me by cry­ing out. “What are you doing? What are you doing?!” She swept over, swat­ting the seed out of my hand. It clat­tered to the ground. “Look at your dress,” she said, point­ing to the sticky stains on the hem of it. “What were you think­ing?” She turned to Uncle. “I am so sor­ry.” He waved away her apol­o­gy, but she fished into her purse and pulled out three cents. The coins clinked as she laid them on the counter. 

That’s too much,” I mur­mured, but nobody seemed to hear.  


The next morn­ing, Anto­nia said she felt sick and didn’t want to go to school. Mam­ma didn’t mind, espe­cial­ly since Anto­nia had done so well yes­ter­day and would be leav­ing school soon any­way. The fam­i­lies of two men had already vis­it­ed, ask­ing about my sis­ter, but most like­ly it would be nei­ther of them. Mam­ma said Anto­nia would mar­ry a young man called Giuseppe Sun­day who worked at Uncle’s in the storeroom. 

I knew this boy. He always had pow­dered sug­ar on his nose because his fam­i­ly had a bak­ery, and he brought over trays of can­no­li to sell at Uncle’s. They were not the best can­no­li in town, but they were good. My mouth watered think­ing of their crunchy gold shells filled with ricot­ta and choco­late chips. Giuseppe Sun­day was shy like Anto­nia. Nev­er spoke a word to me. I pic­tured them sit­ting across from each oth­er, silent, sweat­ing in the heat and star­ing at a tray of lasagna, gooey cheese bub­bling like the lava that I had recent­ly learned poured out of volcanoes. 

Since Anto­nia was sick, I was sent to school on my own. I car­ried my books pressed against my chest, enjoy­ing the stur­di­ness of my chalk­board and how the pages of the arith­metic book rip­pled in the wind. My teacher Mrs. Rag­gun­ti said I was quick with num­bers and some­times she called me up to demon­strate addi­tion and sub­trac­tion on the chalk­board in front of the whole class. I took pride in my care­ful hand­writ­ing: my 3s all pret­ty and curled like the lacy hem of a dress. I took pride, too, in how quick­ly the answers bloomed in my head. But, in six years, I wouldn’t go to school any­more. In six years, I would be fif­teen like Anto­nia and that meant sit­ting in Uncle Salvatore’s win­dow and agree­ing to mar­ry some­one like pow­dered-sug­ar nosed Giuseppe Sun­day. I told myself that six years was a long time, but I wasn’t sure about that. 

The wind picked up, car­ry­ing with it the sting of salt from the har­bor, and I hugged my school­books tighter into my chest. I tried to think of what my life would be like when I got mar­ried, but noth­ing came to mind. Oth­er girls at school mused about what they might wear on their wed­ding day or what they hoped their hus­band would look like. Giu­lia Messi­na said that she hoped her hus­band would look just like Dou­glas Fair­banks, the star of Robin Hood we’d seen at the pic­tures last year. It’s not that I was opposed to get­ting mar­ried, exact­ly. You don’t oppose the sun­set or the moon. They just are. They just hap­pen. But I didn’t want to leave school. 

I loved learn­ing about num­bers. And I loved count­ing up things in Uncle’s shop—cans of sar­dines, bags of flour. But the real­ly neat thing about num­bers was that, some­times, you could use them to count up noth­ing. I asked Mrs. Rag­gun­ti in class once, when she’d made me divide thir­ty by five on the chalk­board, what the thir­ty stood for. “Thir­ty of what?” I had asked. At first she was con­fused, but then she said that it was just thir­ty, just a num­ber. It could be thir­ty of any­thing: thir­ty dol­lars, or thir­ty girls, or thir­ty chick­en eggs. The class laughed at this, but I thought it was swell. When you’re doing arith­metic, you’re count­ing up any­thing and noth­ing at the same time. 

The breeze lift­ed my hair as I walked past Uncle’s store and gazed at it from the oth­er side of the road. I saw the sign hung on the door in Eng­lish and Ital­ian. Chiuso/Closed. I looked at the place where Anto­nia sat yes­ter­day, expect­ing an emp­ty chair. But it was not emp­ty. There was some­one there. 

A girl was sit­ting with her hands fold­ed neat­ly in her lap. Her white dress looked like Antonia’s, only the lace went all the way up to her chin. She had dark hair too, yanked back in a braid. I couldn’t see her face very well. Was it some­one I knew? 

I ran into the street to get a bet­ter look at her, and heard the screech and honk of an auto­mo­bile. I leapt out of the road as the dri­ver shout­ed curs­es at me. 

Mi scusi, sig­nore!” I called, but he was already off, smoke tun­nel­ing out of his exhaust pipe. 

When I turned back to the win­dow, there was nobody there. I pressed my fin­gers on the cold glass, peer­ing inside for some sight of the girl, but she was gone. The taps of the soda foun­tain shone like jewelry. 


I saw a girl today in the win­dow of Uncle’s store,” I said at dinnertime. 

Mam­ma looked up from her frit­ta­ta. “Who?”  

I didn’t rec­og­nize her,” I said. 

My sis­ter looked curi­ous but not threat­ened. Anoth­er girl in the same win­dow could be com­pe­ti­tion for the same eli­gi­ble young men, but Anto­nia didn’t seem to care. 

That can’t be true,” said Papa, but­ter­ing a roll. “Your Zio told me that only Anto­nia would sit in his win­dow this week. Gius­to, Anto­nia?”  

Anto­nia looked down at the veg­eta­bles jig­gling inside the frit­ta­ta. She shrugged. 

I will ask him,” Papa said, and the mat­ter was settled. 

It’s too hot for frit­ta­ta,” said Mam­ma, push­ing her plate away. “I should have made salad.” 


Uncle Sal­va­tore said he knew noth­ing of this girl. He said that unless some lit­tle girl broke into his shop to go sit in the win­dow, he had no idea what we were talk­ing about. I must have made a mistake. 

Un fan­tas­ma, eh?” He asked, nudg­ing me. 

At first I couldn’t remem­ber what the word meant, but then it occurred to me and I tried to laugh. Fan­tas­ma. Ghost

We bought a bag of toma­toes that Anto­nia would stuff with rice tonight when her new fiancé Giuseppe Sun­day and his fam­i­ly came for din­ner. As Mam­ma passed the bag of toma­toes to me to car­ry, I knew I’d spend all after­noon scoop­ing out toma­to guts in our hot kitchen. 

When we left the store, I glanced back at the win­dow and saw the girl again. There she was, sit­ting calm­ly in the chair, her hands laid across her knees. She didn’t look like any ghosts I’d heard of. She wasn’t trans­par­ent, but sol­id. And there was a faint hum of light around her. 

Mam­ma, there she is!” I shout­ed, drop­ping the sack of toma­toes and rush­ing towards the win­dow. But, by the time I reached it, she was gone again. 

Mam­ma stared at me with her hands on her hips, and then she jerked her head towards the toma­toes. I picked them up one by one, putting them back in the brown sack, feel­ing dizzy from the heat and what I had just seen. 

Enough non­sense, Ros­alia. After you help your sis­ter with din­ner, you should have a nap in your room,” said Mam­ma, as she pressed a palm onto my fore­head. “You don’t have a tem­per­a­ture, but I don’t want you to fall ill too.” 

I nod­ded, plac­ing the last of the toma­toes in the bag. It wasn’t non­sense. I had seen some­one there and, this time, I had rec­og­nized her. 

I still did not know what she was—a fan­tas­ma? A ghost? Or maybe an angel, like those that vis­it saints? But though I didn’t know what she was, I was cer­tain now who she was. 

The girl in the win­dow was me.  


At din­ner with Giuseppe Sunday’s fam­i­ly, I didn’t eat any­thing. I pushed Brus­sels sprouts across my plate and watched them knock into each oth­er like mar­bles. I mashed up the toma­to under my fork until it was prac­ti­cal­ly pas­ta sauce. My par­ents fawned over his par­ents, who frowned at our lit­tle apart­ment near the water­front. My father asked Giuseppe Sun­day ques­tions about how he would take over his father’s bak­ery one day. 

Giuseppe Sun­day seemed to enjoy bak­ing and talked for a quar­ter of an hour about why he pre­ferred to fry can­no­li in peanut oil, rather than short­en­ing. “It’s a bet­ter fla­vor in the end,” he said. His voice was qui­et, bare­ly audi­ble over the honk of horns out­side and the occa­sion­al screech of the seag­ulls. “And I think it makes bet­ter bub­bles in the dough.” But he admit­ted that he did not much like account­ing. He hoped to one day hire some­one “to help with the books.” 

Ros­alia is good at arith­metic,” said Antonia. 

The sound of my own name fright­ened me. But I felt flat­tered that Anto­nia had said this. I imag­ined sit­ting at the bak­ery counter with a pen­cil in my hand. Per­haps this bak­ery was my future: adding up how much we’d spent that week on sug­ar, how many can­no­li we’d sold. All that arith­metic I’d been doing at school—twenty-five divid­ed by five, thir­ty-two divid­ed by eight. Had it been prac­tice for this? All those noth­ings trans­formed into some­things in my head. Twen­ty-five bis­cot­ti. Thir­ty-two slices of black­ber­ry crosta­ta. I imag­ined spear­ing receipts in a row on a lit­tle spike at the end of each day. I thought of the door jin­gling as I called out to cus­tomers, “Come again!” 

Yes,” I said. “Yes, I could help.” 

Giuseppe gave me a small, encour­ag­ing smile, but then Papa burst out laugh­ing, Mam­ma fol­low­ing suit. 

Anto­nia, Giuseppe is speak­ing of run­ning his busi­ness, not school arith­metic,” Papa said and pat­ted Giuseppe Sun­day on the shoul­ders with such force that the small boy winced. 

My cheeks burned and I did not say anoth­er word for the rest of the meal. 


After din­ner we went to the liv­ing room. Mam­ma poured tea from her beau­ti­ful black pot with red ros­es, the one she brought over from Sici­ly. Giuseppe Sunday’s moth­er brought bis­cot­ti but they were hard as flint. Aren’t they sup­posed to be good bak­ers, I thought, suck­ing at a piece until it went gum­my in my mouth. 

When they start­ed drink­ing Marsala, I stood up. I said I had to use the bath­room, but nobody noticed when I kept going down the hall, towards the front door, down the stairs, into the orange and pink of ear­ly evening. There was a light, cool­ing breeze from the har­bor. Moth­er had tied a yel­low rib­bon into a bow at my col­lar and the wind made the loose ends rise up and flut­ter in my face. I swat­ted it away. 

Uncle’s shop was just around the cor­ner. I had to make sure of what I had seen. The girl’s face was nar­row­er than mine and she had more of a swell at her chest. But it was me. I knew it. 

Uncle once told me that we nev­er meet our­selves in dreams. If we do, it’s a sign that we will die. In dreams, we can meet kings, pres­i­dents, and cir­cus per­form­ers, long dead rel­a­tives, and famous base­ball play­ers. But we can nev­er meet ourselves. 

I round­ed the cor­ner and looked at the chair in the win­dow. Emp­ty. I was both relieved and dis­ap­point­ed to find nobody there. I stood in front of the shop for a few min­utes star­ing at the win­dow, but it was only when I turned to walk away that I heard mut­ed scream­ing and spun back around. There she was: the girl. And she was pound­ing on the glass. Her dark hair was wild around her shoul­ders and there were rib­bons on the floor, along with scat­tered lemons. She kept look­ing behind her, ter­ri­fied, like some mon­ster was about to charge out of the store­room and eat her. 

I rushed towards the front door and tried to tug it open. It was locked. 

I searched the ground for any­thing use­ful. I saw a sin­gle tin can, an apple core, and at the base of the fire hydrant—a smooth, flat stone. I grabbed it, wind­ing back my hand, like I’d seen boys in alley­ways do with their base­balls. Then I let it fly. 

The glass shat­tered, all of the shards tum­bling down like rain. Through the hole in the win­dow, the girl stepped out, glass crunch­ing underfoot. 

She didn’t look at me but ran right past, up the street, gath­er­ing her skirt in one hand so her ankles were show­ing. Then she turned a cor­ner and dis­ap­peared. I lis­tened for her foot­steps, but couldn’t hear them any­more. I could only hear sirens gath­er­ing, some­where far away. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry began with anoth­er sto­ry. One Christ­mas, my Uncle men­tioned, in pass­ing, that my Ital­ian-Amer­i­can great-grand­moth­er got engaged after her future moth­er-in-law saw her in a shop win­dow and liked the look of her. “That was the cus­tom,” my Uncle told me. “To put eli­gi­ble daugh­ters in win­dows.” My mind con­jured up an image of my great-grand­moth­er on dis­play in a store­front win­dow, next to tin cans and fruits and cakes. This idea, of stick­ing would-be brides in win­dows, was star­tling and unsettling—how it took objec­ti­fi­ca­tion to (almost) com­i­cal heights and made the mar­riage “mar­ket” literal. 

Sev­er­al months lat­er, when I went to write a sto­ry inspired by this anec­dote, I dis­cov­ered that it prob­a­bly wasn’t true. Nobody else in my fam­i­ly had heard of it. Indeed, nobody could even remem­ber my Uncle say­ing it that Christ­mas. I couldn’t find a record of this “cus­tom” in any books on Ital­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, and my part­ner, who is from north­ern Italy, knew noth­ing about it either. My Uncle, sad­ly, has passed away, so I can­not ask him where he first heard the sto­ry. Per­haps he made it up. Per­haps I made it up. Or mis­heard him, or mis­un­der­stood. But it is just strange enough that it could have happened. 

What is true is that my great-grand­moth­er, Lena, lived in Bal­ti­more in the ear­ly 1900s. She had a bad, arranged mar­riage. Appar­ent­ly I met her, once, when I was very young, but I can’t remem­ber it. Just as my char­ac­ter Ros­alia is haunt­ed by the mys­te­ri­ous girl in the win­dow, I am haunt­ed by Lena and by the image of her behind glass, look­ing out at passers­by. This image feels very pos­si­ble, indeed very real, to me, whether or not it actu­al­ly happened. 


Car­ly Brown is a writer and aca­d­e­m­ic based in Edin­burgh. Her sec­ond poet­ry pam­phlet, Anas­ta­sia, Look in the Mir­ror (Stewed Rhubarb Press), was released in 2020. She holds a Doc­tor­ate of Fine Arts in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Glas­gow and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a his­tor­i­cal nov­el. Her web­site is carlyjbrown.com.

Bristlecone Pines

Fiction / Annalise Burnett

:: Bristlecone Pines ::

Aaron’s father used to tell him the sto­ry of his birth, in the mid­dle of a bliz­zard on the cold­est day of the year. Five and a half weeks ear­ly, he was born blue and shriv­eled, strug­gling to breathe. His par­ents watched him from the oth­er side of a glass wall as his weak lungs tried to cry, watch­ing his chest fall, not sure if it would rise again. Over and over again, the col­lapse of tiny ribs fol­lowed by the unex­pect­ed, habit­u­al inhale.

While his moth­er wait­ed in the hos­pi­tal, his father went home to care for his oth­er two sons and con­tin­ue the long fam­i­ly tra­di­tion of plant­i­ng trees on the moun­tain­side for each new mem­ber born. The land was cold and dark, but he hiked deep into the moun­tains, car­ry­ing a sapling, lit­tle more than a twig. When he arrived at the fam­i­ly grove, where the oth­er trees stood wait­ing for him, white with snow, he dug. He dug through the ice until he found the rocky ground beneath, and plant­ed Aaron’s tree there in the frozen ground.

And when I came back to that place and the tree was still alive, I knew you’d be okay,” Aaron’s father used to say.

Why those trees?” Aaron asked, because he liked lis­ten­ing to his father’s answer.

Because they live in life­less places,” he said. “Some of the old­est liv­ing things on earth are bristle­cone pines.”


Fall burns deep in the Col­orado moun­tains. The slopes turn amber with dead grass, and the ferns and shrubs fol­low in reds and browns. The only thing that does not change are the ever­greens, which dot the sides of hills, wait­ing to bear snow.

Aaron dri­ves home in his com­pa­ny car. He watch­es the moun­tains slow­ly rise above him, back­lit by stars. The emp­ty seat next to him is filled with fast food trash and emp­ty ener­gy drink cans. The back seat is filled with one over-packed suit­case and anoth­er case filled with phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sam­ples. In this car, he refus­es to dri­ve above the speed lim­it. He goes from place to place, sell­ing med­ica­tion to doctor’s offices with­out any rush. Liv­ing on the road suits him—he nev­er has to be the same per­son for very long.

Since the last time he has been home, Aaron has had a year of low sales num­bers and tak­ing his own sam­ples in half-rate hotel rooms, feel­ing dizzy as he watch­es reruns of ’90s sit­coms. He keeps wait­ing for a phone call or an email that says he’s just not cut for this. Find a new job, best of luck. Every morn­ing he wakes up and doesn’t have to turn in his car, his sam­ple case, and his move home is a relief.

As he enters his home­town, every­thing is remark­ably dif­fer­ent and uncom­fort­ably the same. In his mind, the town and every­one in it exists as it did when he was a child. There are still the same stores and peo­ple work­ing in them, the same eb and flow of trav­el­ers. At the house, his father is still com­ing through the door, kick­ing off his hik­ing boots, a hint of smoke on his breath. He smells like the wilder­ness; he looks like it too with his hair that’s gone white ear­ly and his sun-cracked cheeks. His mom is cook­ing din­ner, healthy and hardy, and Emer­son and Jack are argu­ing over who gets to watch the TV, who gets to dri­ve to school the next morn­ing. Some past ver­sion of him­self is still wait­ing to be told that din­ner is ready in his room, read­ing old comics and ski mag­a­zines. He used to sit on the floor, pressed into the far cor­ner of the room, and wait for his father to open the door—he’d know him by his dark socks and fad­ed jeans—and call him in. Come on son, how was your day?

As Aaron pulls into his mother’s dri­ve­way, he reminds him­self. His father is cast across the moun­tains as ash; he has become gray snow. His sons have scat­tered with him.


A year ago, Aaron drove home with­out plan­ning to after ignor­ing phone calls from his father. He remem­bers watch­ing his father’s caller ID light up his phone as he sat in a meet­ing try­ing to sell an exper­i­men­tal treat­ment for nico­tine addic­tion. When he final­ly answered, it was his moth­er cry­ing on the oth­er end, and then his brother’s voice cut in.

Where the hell are you?”

He broke his rule. He drove as fast as he could, and still didn’t make it in time. Aaron remem­bers think­ing that his father didn’t end as he should have. He thought the man would hike for anoth­er twen­ty years, and then one day hik­ers would find him three days frozen in a snow drift, final­ly defeat­ed by the ele­ments he faced so often.

With­er­ing in the hos­pi­tal, refus­ing any kind of life-length­en­ing treat­ment, when there was no life­sav­ing avail­able, that is unimag­i­na­tive, unfit­ting, bor­ing. That is how oth­er peo­ple die, not his father.

Aaron learned after his death that his father had been two men. There was the Emmitt he knew, the man built of tall tales, who knew the hills and val­leys, who hat­ed maps, who named every peak, pass, and star. And there was the Emmitt who came back from the moun­tains and smoked and drank until he was kicked out of one bar and then went to anoth­er, until he couldn’t remem­ber his own name, much less his son’s.

Aaron learned that his father went to the doc­tor alone—received test results which were so def­i­nite they were shock­ing. He refused every treat­ment, remained him­self, or the two ver­sions of him­self. He didn’t tell any­one, didn’t think it mattered.

When their moth­er found him cough­ing up blood, that’s when she found out. From a white-coat­ed doc­tor, and by then she wouldn’t tell his sons for him.

Aaron received a call from his father, bare­ly strong enough to speak, five hours before he passed.

He had let them all go to voice­mail. One day he was huge, too huge to be real, the next day he was ash­es in an urn. That is what the three Beck­er sons said good­bye to.

There is noth­ing like the dri­ve home after a long absence, where you see every­thing for the first time, because the habit of ignor­ing it has gone away. The town looked small­er than he remem­bered, and so did the moun­tains, like it was all shrink­ing under­neath his feet. The house was the same when he stepped inside. The only change was more space, few­er clothes, box­es of old flan­nels and worn-out hik­ing boots wait­ing by the door. How long had his moth­er known?

Emmitt hadn’t want­ed the fuss of a funer­al, but they gave him one any­way. There was an annoy­ing num­ber of peo­ple there, to say good­bye to a man that had told no one he was dying. But what did they want, for no one to come? Every guest said the same thing, about what a shock it all was. They give timid hugs and eat cheese off of tooth­picks. Then they leave, and the house is just as emp­ty as it was before, scat­tered card­board box­es and emp­ty bot­tles that their moth­er had stopped throw­ing away.

That after­noon, as a fam­i­ly, they hiked up the moun­tains to that place there deep in the hills that only the fam­i­ly knows where the fam­i­ly is plant­ed. There is the Emer­son tree, the Jack­son Tree, the Aaron tree, and tow­er­ing over them all, the Emmitt tree. The fam­i­ly has cho­sen bristle­cone pines to plant in the name of each child for their har­di­ness. They exist in con­tra­dic­tion: to give them too much water, warm air, or lush soil would be to suf­fo­cate them. Here and only here, on the south­ern slope where wind cuts into stone, is where they have learned to endure. The Emmitt tree is its own incon­sis­ten­cy, taller than all the oth­ers. It looks like wis­dom and growth. They spread his ash­es at its base, and this is their only goodbye.


Home for the first time since the funer­al, Aaron rings the door­bell of his old house. His moth­er answers, and she hugs him in the foy­er. He catch­es the scent of flo­ral per­fume. That is new, not con­nect­ed to any mem­o­ry of her. He feels as though he is a din­ner guest and that he should have brought a bot­tle of wine or side sal­ad with him.

How long has it been?” she asks, and nei­ther of them answers. Even though it’s a Sat­ur­day, her eyes are lined with choco­late-col­ored lin­er. She’s wear­ing a pink sweater with a match­ing puffer vest over it. Warm but lay­ered, that is the rule of this place. He tries to remem­ber if her hair was that gray the last time, he saw her or if her face had so many lines. He thinks of how her skin looks like tis­sue paper, wait­ing to rip.

I’m glad you’re home.” A sin­gle look past her tells him that the house has been gut­ted. All that is left of the place is blank white walls and emp­ty rooms. “I’m mov­ing, and I need you to fig­ure out what to do with some stuff for me.”

Aaron doesn’t under­stand. For the sec­ond time, he has come home only to find that there is no home left. The place has moved out from under him. The white walls of their small moun­tain house have been scrubbed clean. Pic­tures of the fam­i­ly on skis, of scenic views, and fam­i­ly reunions have been loaded into unmarked box­es. The books have been stripped from the shelves, and all fur­ni­ture is miss­ing. Aaron has set his foot down into emp­ty space. He shouldn’t be sur­prised, but he is.

He sits at the kitchen table, across from his two broth­ers who have already arrived. Emer­son, a stiff pilot with red eyes, greets him with a loud “what’s up.” He gives Aaron a bone-crush­ing hand­shake, as if he wants Aaron to hire him for a job he’s not qual­i­fied for. The oth­er, the climber, looks up at him from under his over­sized beanie, nods. Jack, who wears drug rugs and lives out of a van, blog­ging and pick­ing his way up sheer rock for a liv­ing. He is sport­ing a scrag­gly beard. His fin­gers are hard­ened and swat with thin chip­ping nails.

There is a moment before they eat when they look at each oth­er and try to remem­ber. Aaron imag­ines his moth­er with­out gray on her hair, Emer­son smil­ing, Jack with­out a beard. He remem­bers fol­low­ing down the ski slopes in win­ter, claw­ing to catch up with them. Now they are strangers, meet­ing for the first time, sup­posed to know each oth­er from some­where else.

As he eats, Aaron looks at the last pic­ture on the wall. It is a pic­ture of his father Emmitt in full ski gear, with two poles in one hand, a cig­a­rette in anoth­er. He isn’t smil­ing, he’s just look­ing for­ward through his mir­rored snow gog­gles, about to throw the cig­a­rette into the snow, pull a mask over his face, and plunge down the moun­tain. Ski­ing always feels like falling, like the world is slip­ping out from under you, he used to tell Aaron when they stood togeth­er at the top of a slope. The more you fight it, the more you’ll lose your bal­ance, tum­ble into the snow.

I’ve already bought a con­do in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia,” their mom says, smil­ing like she has prac­ticed it in the mir­ror. “It’s right near the beach, sun­ny all year long, no snow blow­ers needed.”

Mom, this is our only home,” Jack tells her.

Look, here’s what you should do, Mom. You should take a lit­tle bit of mon­ey out of your retire­ment, just a lit­tle, and you should use that to buy a lit­tle con­do in, and then rent it out half the year,” says Emer­son, lean­ing over the table.

Already bought it,” she mut­ters, rolls her eyes.

And you live there in the win­ter. That way you can make nice new friends in a dif­fer­ent place, you don’t have to wor­ry about get­ting snowed in. And then in the sum­mer, you come back here. Rent the oth­er place out, make your mon­ey back.”

What’s the point of that if tourists would always be here?” Aaron asks Emer­son, accus­ing with­out mean­ing to. “We should just keep it.”

The three sons argue by nature of who they are like beta fish dropped in the same tank. Aaron can­not remem­ber the last time they all want­ed the same thing. They go back and forth, mak­ing grand plans for their moth­er, and talk­ing of how they will either rent the place, or that she could give it to Jack, how he would pay her back. Aaron tries to imag­ine him­self mov­ing back only to pay rent to his younger broth­er. He bites the inside of his cheek and argues for some­thing bet­ter. Just keep the house.

Dad would have kept it,” says Aaron.

She purs­es her lips, exhales hard. This is the right thing to say. “Your father would also leave emp­ty beer bot­tles and cig­a­rette pack­ages all over the house when he came home, and leave me to clean it all up, to stuff it in my purse so you boys wouldn’t see when you woke up.”

Aaron has nev­er imag­ined this ver­sion of his mom, the exas­per­at­ed wife she forced her­self to become. He tries to make his breath qui­et, so it doesn’t break the cur­tain of silence.

Your father was like that, wasn’t he. A year dead, and it’s still all about what he wants.”

The three of you don’t have any­where else, I know that. But don’t blame me for it. I’m choos­ing my own place now.” Her paint­ed on façade has melt­ed, and now her back is stiff, and her hair pulls itself out of its pins. Emer­son and Jack both lean onto their hunched arms, star­ing into their emp­ty bowls of chili.

Aaron mut­ters, so qui­et almost no one hears him, “What else will we have of him?”

What else will we—” she echoes in a breath voice, looks up at the ceil­ing. “What can we still want from him? He didn’t exist in the first place.”

Aaron knows that you become the place you live. He imag­ines his mom every night call­ing bars and hos­pi­tals, wor­ry­ing, relieved when he comes home, angry when he wakes up hun­gover. He imag­ines her wait­ing patient­ly by lamp­light, read­ing a book she can’t focus on. These habits would not be part of her fam­i­ly, it would not be some­thing that was acknowl­edged. To her sons, it was all vague and far away. They only knew it was some­thing their dad did over there, like golf or play­ing cards with friends.

She has been in this fam­i­ly longer than her sons, and there is no tree plant­ed for her, because she was not born into it.

She takes a deep breath. She has pushed her gray hair from her cheeks, and her voice returns to nor­mal. “If you love this place so much, buy it your­selves. I’m not com­ing back.”

There is noth­ing they can say to that. This is the place they fall back on in the qui­et of their minds. It has made and unmade them, and they have nev­er real­ly left.

She walks away with­out clean­ing the table and goes into her bed­room and clos­es the door. She isn’t mad, she is final, and that is worse. There is noth­ing left for them to do but move on.


They go to vis­it their father in the morn­ing, though there is noth­ing left of him. He is blown into the wind, dis­solved into the ground. All the remains are the trees that grew him, the bristle­cone pines. The tree plant­ed for him is taller than the oth­ers. It looks ancient and tired, but in its whole lifes­pan it is still young. It will out­live all mem­o­ry of Emmitt, the father, the drinker, the moun­tain man. When the town in the val­ley below is aban­doned and the moun­tains sink into the earth, in by inch, sliced by wind and rain, these trees will be here, enduring.

Of the six trees in the grove, three are plant­ed for peo­ple who are still liv­ing. They refuse to look like trees. They look like cer­tain­ty, sit­ting squat and stur­dy. They patient­ly inch their way toward heav­en, one cen­tu­ry at a time. They do not grow many nee­dles because they do not need them. The bark wraps around itself in coils. As Aaron watch­es them, he thinks of the cold­est day of the year on which his was plant­ed, when rocks and frozen ground were enough.


Aaron packs what is left of his life into card­board box­es. His room is stripped down only to the bed­frame. Book­shelves, the chair, night­stand, have all been sold away to pay for new con­do fur­ni­ture. Aaron holds a black trash bag in one hand and piles Pow­er Rangers fig­ures and Legos into it.

We could give those to some­one,” his moth­er says, stand­ing in the doorway.

Who would want them?” He knots the top of the bag and puts it in the hallway.

Have you sold it yet?”


There are some things which seem too hard to throw away. Old year­books and pic­tures of him on

the moun­tain, posters and old com­ic books. He buries his child­hood self into these box­es, which he will put in the back of his car and not think about, not unload until he finds some­place to put them.

You know you’re wel­come when­ev­er you want to come to Cal­i­for­nia, right?”

He smiles and thanks her, he gives her a hug as he looks at the naked walls of the room. It has become just anoth­er place he once lived. It looks like every hotel he has ever stayed in. He places each box in his car over the case of sam­ples. He lets them go unmarked, and the rest he places on the curb. He purges him­self of his­to­ry and feels guilty as he does it. Just before Aaron leaves, he says good­bye to his broth­ers. They nod at each oth­er, and they take one last long look at the house. Aaron loves the place and resents it.

For Christ­mas this year, we’ll have to all meet at Mom’s,” says Emerson.

I’m busy Christ­mas,” says Jack.

New Year’s then,” says Aaron.

I can make that work,” Emer­son agrees.

Aaron gets into his car and dri­ves out to his next sales pitch. He can­not endure any longer, but he is giv­en no oth­er choice.




From the writer

:: Account ::

The idea for this short sto­ry came about when my good friend told me about how in her fam­i­ly, they plant a tree for each new fam­i­ly mem­ber. She also told me that she had just learned about bristle­cone pine trees, which are some of the longest liv­ing trees on earth. I was fas­ci­nat­ed both by the idea of the endurance of the pine trees and the tra­di­tion of plant­i­ng a tree in the hon­or of each new fam­i­ly mem­ber. As I com­bined these two ideas in the sto­ry, I real­ized that it became a space to process the feel­ing of what it means to leave home and come back, as I have moved recent­ly from one place to anoth­er. I want­ed to explore a person’s com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with their fam­i­ly after becom­ing an adult, see­ing how par­ents aren’t per­fect, and how your child­hood might be nos­tal­gic, but you can nev­er return to it. I also want­ed to explore the anx­i­ety of not know­ing what’s next in your life and the root­less feel­ing of ear­ly adulthood.

In ear­li­er drafts of this sto­ry, I thought that the pine trees were a sort of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the fam­i­ly, which endures in spite of every dif­fi­cul­ty. Then I real­ized that the pine trees are not reflec­tive of the fam­i­ly mem­bers at all; rather, the pine trees func­tion as a sort of promise—that endurance and life can be found in all places.


Annalise Bur­nett is a writer and stu­dent cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the Atlanta area. She works with a small non­prof­it pub­lish­ing house.

Telling Stories

Fiction / T. E. Wilderson

:: Telling Stories ::

Every­thing is all my fault. Because she got yelled at by her boss yes­ter­day for being late, today––since she’s decid­ed to be on time––she wants to yell at me like I’m keep­ing her behind. What­ev­er. She makes me sick. I’m try­ing to curl my bangs, and I’ve got to lis­ten to her yelling up the stairs. So, I close the bath­room door. I hear her stomp­ing up the stairs, still yelling. That’s okay. I lock the bath­room door before she can get to me. Now she’s bang­ing on the door. So, I hur­ry up. A bit. But first, I take her tooth­brush from the hold­er, and swirl it around in the toi­let a few times before I put it back. Now I’m ready to unlock the door and go to school. 

P’Mona,” she says. “Are you try­ing to make me lose my job?” Then she pinch­es me all hard on the arm as I’m going down the stairs. 

I say “Ouch,” and remind her that I’ve got the num­ber to Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices writ­ten inside my shoe. 

You need to take those damn tap shoes off!” She spits as she’s talk­ing. “I don’t know why you got­ta wear them all over every­where, anyway.” 

I make a point of dra­mat­i­cal­ly wip­ing her spit spray from my cheek. “My tap teacher says I have poten­tial, and that I should let the shoes become a nat­ur­al exten­sion of myself.” I pick up my knap­sack and wait patient­ly by the door for Mama to find her house keys. 

That’s bull­shit, P’Mona. That woman ain’t nev­er said that. What have I told you about always telling sto­ries?” Now she’s dumped out her entire purse on the hall table. I open the door, and step out­side, to empha­size who’s exact­ly wait­ing for who. “Besides, that tap­ping is annoy­ing as shit.” Besides, her house keys are sit­ting on the kitchen counter next to the cof­fee pot. She keeps yap­ping on and on, until she final­ly fig­ures out where she left her keys. When she comes out and locks the door, she wants to look at me like it’s still my fault. 

Shot­gun!” I say, as we head for the car. 

P’Mona, I don’t know why you always insist on yelling ‘Shot­gun’ when there ain’t nev­er but the two of us,” Mama says. 

It’s called sar­casm,” I say. When I climb into the car, she pops me one in the mouth. 

It’s called smart­ing off, and you need to watch your­self,” she says. It’s not my fault she doesn’t have even a basic sense of humor. It’s not my fault I’m already smarter in the eighth grade than she is, and it’s not my fault she knows a eighth grad­er is smarter than her. She choos­es to be bit­ter about it, and that leaves me no choice but to write her off as a sim­ple­ton. Besides. She’s bit­ter about a lot of stuff, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Most of the rest of the world is on my side. So, if her boss cussed her out, my guess––she had it com­ing. My dad had the right idea slip­ping out on her first chance he got. I don’t blame him for not being here. Real­ly, I don’t. I’m glad he nev­er came back around. It shows good judg­ment, and I admire that. How could he know whether or not I’d be just like Mama? Or, the polar oppo­site, which I am. He wouldn’t, so why take the chance? If I ever do meet him––or not even meet him, just if I come across him in life––like if I’m a check-in clerk at a hotel, and he shows up at the desk to reg­is­ter. I wouldn’t even tell him who I was, I’d just ask him if I could shake his hand. Mama says I’m a lot like him. Some­times she says too much like him. I don’t care when she says that. Actu­al­ly, I take it as a compliment. 

When she drops me off in front of school, I don’t say good-bye to her when I get out. I just close the door smooth­ly, to empha­size that I’m not the emo­tion­al­ly out of con­trol one. Then she yells through the car win­dow, “Don’t for­get I bowl tonight. Remind Mrs. Hick­man I’ll be late. You hear?” I just flash her the peace sign, and nev­er look back. But now, I’ve got to make a quick detour to catch a smoke before first peri­od. That’s how much she got on my nerves. 

Vicky and Kim are hud­dled at the bot­tom of the stairs behind the lunch­room, puff­ing away. They have their backs to me. As I go down the steps, they don’t even turn around. So when I get to them I say, “Damn, you guys. I coul­da been a teacher or some­thing, and you guys would be so busted.” 

Vicky turns around first. “Hey, P’Mona,” she says. “We knew it was you.” She reach­es out her pack of smokes, so I can take one. That’s what I like about Vicky and Kim. We all share our smokes auto­mat­i­cal­ly with­out keep­ing tabs. Kim’s mom is always find­ing her stash and throw­ing them out. So, she prob­a­bly bums more than Vicky or me. But I guess, in the end, it evens out. 

I so could’ve been the prin­ci­pal,” I say. “Not like any of us can afford to get bust­ed again this semester.” 

How could we not know it was you,” Vicky says. “Not like the whole world can’t hear you in those shoes from a mile away.” Vicky is the first one of us to get her peri­od. So now, she gets to be bitchy and blame it on PMS. “Why do you wear those all the time, anyway?” 

It’s total­ly my mom’s idea,” I say. “She thinks I’ll be, like, dis­cov­ered or some­thing, so she can become a stage mom and total­ly live off my danc­ing mon­ey. Or some­thing. Like Brooke Shields and her mom.” 

Brooke Shields is a mod­el. They earn way more than dancers,” Vicky says. 

I know,” I say. 

That’s so lame,” Kim adds. 

I know. My mom’s so lazy, she’ll find any way not to have to, like, work her­self,” I say, and roll my eyes for emphasis. 

She should be like my mom,” Kim says, “and just keep dat­ing men with mon­ey who take care of every­thing for her.” Kim’s mom looks like a Vogue mod­el. Plus, she looks like she could be in high school, and her hair is super long. I think Vicky’s just jeal­ous. My mom looks like an amphib­ian. She’s got these bug eyes, and on top of it she has these real­ly thick glass­es. And these big weird lips. I made a joke one day, when she had on this head-to-toe lime green out­fit, that she looked like Ker­mit the Frog on crack. She popped me in the mouth and told me she had plen­ty more of that crack if I didn’t watch out. Either way, count­ing on her to snag a man to set us up is a major waste of time. I don’t even know how she snagged my dad. The last time I asked her about him, she said he didn’t want to know shit about me, so what do I care about him for? I nev­er said I cared. I just want­ed to see what she’d say. Besides, I found out his name any­way, and I wrote it down. It’s Wayne Hen­ry Turn­er. And he lives at 1717 Live Oak Dri­ve in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land. One day, when I was look­ing in Mama’s purse for smokes, I found a check fold­ed in her wal­let. It was for three hun­dred and six­ty-six dol­lars and fifty cents. And, it was super big––bigger than Mama’s checks, and it was all typed except for the sig­na­ture. It said, “Pay to the order of P’Mona Denise Turn­er Trust.” At the bot­tom on the “Memo” line, it said “By Court Order.” I wrote down every­thing that I could, before I heard Mama com­ing down the stairs. The next time I looked for the check, it was gone. 


The home­room bell rings, so we have to fin­ish our smokes real quick so we’re not late. Kim and Vicky both have home­room with Mrs. Anderson––skinny Anderson––that every­body likes. I’ve got Fat Ander­son, who nobody likes. She’s always smirk­ing at peo­ple, like she knows some­thing fun­ny. The only thing fun­ny about her is her breath, which always stinks. So today, after she calls roll, how come she has to say, “P’Mona, come up to my desk, please.” She gives me that dumb smirk of hers the whole way I’m walk­ing up to her desk. Then she hands me a note from the office. I don’t give her the plea­sure of look­ing at the slip right then. I don’t even look at it at all dur­ing home­room. She calls my name when the bell rings, but I total­ly make it out the back door before she can catch me. And, once I’m in the hall, I nev­er look back. I showed her. I look at the slip dur­ing my first peri­od Social Stud­ies class. It says I have to see the guid­ance coun­selor dur­ing my study hall. I’m think­ing it could have been worse. Besides, my study hall is right after lunch, so I can go have a quick smoke to cool my nerves before I go and meet The Freak. My guid­ance coun­selor, Mr. Piekars­ki, is such a freak. He thinks he’s all hip and cool and tries to talk and act like he’s everybody’s friend, but he’s not. He’s just a freak. Like when he’s try­ing to talk to you all seri­ous, it’s hard not to laugh. He’s got these huge Mr. Ed buck teeth, and glass­es with a fade tint that are twice the size of his face. Like some mad sci­en­tist who thinks he’s a rock star. And as obvi­ous­ly dam­aged as he is, if he had an eye patch, a wood­en leg, and a kick­stand, my mom still wouldn’t be able to snag him. So now you see what my life is like. And why, even if it wasn’t Thurs­day and I had to stay late at Mrs. Hickman’s, I’d be hat­ing this day. 

So, all through first and sec­ond peri­ods, I’m try­ing not to sweat it. There ain’t noth­ing I’ve done late­ly to get me called into the guid­ance office. But by third peri­od music class, it’s start­ing to bug me. We’ve been prac­tic­ing “Thriller” by Michael Jack­son, and I can play my part in my sleep. But today, I keep mess­ing up, and it’s piss­ing me off because I know I know it. Then, Mrs. Bigelow has to go and rub it in, say­ing, “Con­cen­trate, P’Mona. You know this piece.” I know I do, ya heifer. Why’d she have to call me out in front of the whole class like that? Then I made the mis­take of look­ing over at Claude. Some­times I think he’s secret­ly in love with me. For the most part I just ignore him when he looks all goo­gly at me. He’s not so bad, he’s just not super cool. Any­way, when I look over at Claude, he’s all bugged out like I just stripped naked and danced a jig. I don’t look at him again for the whole class. 

Final­ly, the stu­pid bell rings, and I bolt. I can hear Claude run­ning to catch up to me. “P’Mona. Hey, P’Mona, wait up!” he calls. 

Hey Claude,” I say, cut­ting my way through the hall to my lock­er. “What’s up?” 

Man, I can’t believe Mrs. Bigelow cracked on you in class.” His eyes are so big, I’m afraid he might be hav­ing some kin­da attack. Claude’s body is always let­ting him down over sim­ple things, so I’m not mak­ing this up. Like, he’s aller­gic to wool. And grass. Which makes win­ter and sum­mer two of his worst sea­sons. Plus, he has asthma. 

Don’t sweat it, Claude,” I say. “Even Monk had his off days.” 


Skip it,” I say. Like I said, Claude’s not super cool. “If you don’t know, you’ll have to wait until you’re ready to learn.” He just stands there, star­ing at me like a gup­py, while I spin the com­bi­na­tion on my lock. I open the lock­er door wide enough to dig in my knap­sack for a smoke, which I tuck up the sleeve of my shirt. I shut the lock­er, and Claude is still stand­ing there. 

Lis­ten,” I say. “No big whoop, alright. Thurs­days always suck. Why should today be any different?” 

Ohhh, yeah. Thurs­day.” Claude starts shak­ing his head, like I’ve just explained how the world almost came to an end but missed. Now I’m beel­in­ing to the lunch­room, ’cause if I’m gonna have a real good smoke before study hall, I can’t get stuck at the end of the lunch line. This means Claude, who is like a foot short­er than me, is near­ly run­ning to keep up. 

Hey,” he says. “I brought Scrab­ble with me today, because I was going to play at the library after school. But I could play with you over at Mrs. Hickman’s. Okay?”

Claude lives only a cou­ple of blocks from Mrs. Hickman. 

Lis­ten, Claude.” I stop just inside the lunch­room. “I so can’t think about that right now, okay? I’ll total­ly see you after school.” Claude says that I can think about it, so I flash him the peace sign, and make it to be twelfth in line. Claude is smart enough to be pres­i­dent one day. He has these com­plete hip­py par­ents who don’t believe in TV, so he reads all the time. He’ll read any­thing, includ­ing the dic­tio­nary. The library near his house has a Scrab­ble club that meets once a week, and he is like the undis­put­ed champ. So, the fact that he’d offer to give up the one day of the week where he’s like a rock star to ease my hell is total­ly cool. So when I say I think he’s in love with me, you know I’m for real. 

Lunch today is chipped beef, which means Thursday’s also crap­py food day, since Mrs. Hick­man gives me frozen pot pies on Thurs­days. At least I get my pick between chick­en, turkey, and beef. She always makes sure I have a choice, and she carves P, apos­tro­phe, M in the crust on top. So more or less she’s not the worst. Aside from the fact that her house smells like dead rodent. And, she’s always fart­ing, and blam­ing it on the dog. And, she doesn’t have a col­or TV, just this tiny black-and-white one you have to be almost on top of to see, so what’s the point? Basi­cal­ly her house is bor­ing as shit, and smells like it, too. She smokes Salems, though, and has like ten packs lying around the house ’cause she for­gets where she puts them once she opens them. So, I can palm as many as I want when I’m there, and she nev­er knows the difference. 

I sit next to Mis­sy and Muffy, ’cause they’re the least stuck up of the girls in my lunch peri­od. If I could be any­body else in the world, it would be Muffy. First of all, she can wear make­up to school. Not only that, her mom buys her make­up for her––and I mean the super expen­sive stuff at the depart­ment store. One day, she was touch­ing up her eye shad­ow in the bath­room, and she told me her mom bought it for her one day when they got makeovers togeth­er down­town. It was a kin­da shim­mery, princess blue col­or, and it came in a lit­tle case that looked like a gold clamshell. She even let me put some on. The col­or was Desert Twi­light, and on Muffy it looked just like it did on the mod­el in the ad in Cos­mo. I wouldn’t call Muffy pret­ty, but she’s tall, and kin­da exot­ic look­ing. She could total­ly make it as a mod­el, except for the fact that she wears her hair in a ’fro. Her mom has her enrolled in this mod­el­ing school uptown, and one day she brought her “test pho­tos” in to show every­body. She explained that these were the pic­tures she was going to put in her port­fo­lio, for when she was ready to go on “go sees,” which are basi­cal­ly what you call mod­el audi­tions. Mama said no way in hell was she was gonna pay for mod­el­ing lessons––even if I grew a foot overnight and woke up pret­ty. Mama also says that the only rea­son Muffy’s in mod­el­ing school is because she’s adopt­ed by these white folks that wouldn’t know black beau­ty if it slapped them in the face. Maybe so, but last sum­mer Muffy and her mom went to New York with some of her pic­tures and met with a bunch of agents. Muffy said that the lady at the top agency in New York said to call her when she grew to be five-nine, because she might be able to start in their run­way divi­sion. Mama didn’t have noth­ing to say after that. Any­way, I decid­ed to take mat­ters in my own hands. I went down­town to this funky store that has one of those pho­to booths in it. I took a bunch of pic­tures of myself, pos­ing like they do in fash­ion mag­a­zines. I had to go a few times before I had enough pic­tures that I thought were as good as Muffy’s, but the good thing is you get six to a strip. So, I had enough to choose from. I cut the best ones out and sent them to these mod­el­ing agen­cies I read about in Sev­en­teen. That was a few weeks ago, so I’m still wait­ing to hear. I fig­ure I can mod­el dur­ing sum­mer vaca­tions until I’m out of high school. Then, who knows? 

Mis­sy reach­es into her purse, and hands these Avon cat­a­logs to Muffy and me, announc­ing she’s now an Avon lady. I can­not believe I didn’t think of that shit first. Missy’s going on and on about all the sam­ples she’s ordered, and how much she’s already sold, but I’m stuck on the nail pol­ish page. I’m try­ing to fig­ure if I have enough mon­ey for the Cot­ton Can­dy and the Can­dy Apple. But more than that, I’m think­ing how much I could make if I sold my own damn Avon. 

I was gonna sell Avon,” I say. “But I heard it was run by the Hare Krishna.” 

No way,” says Mis­sy. “You’re total­ly mak­ing that up.” 

I’m not,” I say. “It was on 60 Min­utes, and they showed how they have like all of the Krish­na kids work­ing in the fac­to­ry.” Now both of them are look­ing at me instead of the cat­a­log. “Plus, they all have to work like twen­ty hours a day, and sleep in one room about the size of this lunch room, and sleep two to a sleep­ing bag.” I look up from them to see my freak of a guid­ance coun­selor pass by, and I real­ize I bet­ter smoke while the smok­ing was good. I gath­er all of my trash on my tray and get up to leave. But not before adding that if a new prod­uct doesn’t make it to stores, it’s because some Hare Krish­na babies went blind from the prod­uct test­ing done on them. 

No way,” Mis­sy says again. “I’m gonna ask my mom.” 

That sounds so sad,” adds Muffy. 

Okay,” I say, as I get ready to leave. “It may not be the Hare Krish­nas, but it was some­body just like them. I mean, it was on TV. Not like a bazil­lion oth­er peo­ple didn’t see it, too. Any­way, I’ll catch you guys lat­er.” As I walk away, I hear Mis­sy say, “No way. Hare Krish­na peo­ple don’t even wear make­up.” But, I nev­er look back to let her know I heard her. 


By the coat clos­et in the band room is a fire door with a dis­con­nect­ed alarm, so I head there for a smoke before my guid­ance coun­sel­ing freak­fest. I’m halfway to the coat clos­et, when I see Belin­da Buck­n­er dig­ging around in a knap­sack. It total­ly looks like a theft-in-progress, but like I care. When she looks up at me, I just give her a silent nod, and keep step­ping. I’m light­ing up, sit­ting with my back to the door, when it busts open and almost knocks me over. 

Damn,” I say, when I real­ize Belin­da has fol­lowed me. I fin­ish light­ing my cig­a­rette and scoot onto a step clear of the door­way. Belin­da leans toward me, point­ing her crooked fin­ger close to my face. 

If you tell any­body you saw me up in here, I’ma kick your skin­ny ass,” she says. I just roll my eyes. So, she steps clos­er and says, “I’ma kick your ass after school, you lit­tle cross-eyed snot. Don’t let me catch you after school, I swear!” And then she lets the door slam shut behind her. I don’t know who she’s call­ing cross-eyed, with those bowlegs of hers. Now my knee is bounc­ing up and down a mile a minute. Plus, this cig­a­rette is old and tastes like the bot­tom of my shoe. So, my plan to cool out a bit is shot, plus I’ve got to dodge Belin­da after school, because she is known to keep her butt-kick­ing word. I decide to cut my loss­es, and just head for the guid­ance office. 


I’m wait­ing for my guid­ance coun­selor to go over my file and get to the point of this moment in hell, when I real­ize he’s an even big­ger freak than I remem­ber. He’s wear­ing this gold chain around his neck, and this pol­ka dot shirt––which looks just as ridicu­lous as it sounds. It’s like this morn­ing he got dressed to go to the roller rink, and instead came to work. He hasn’t said a word since he told me to make myself com­fort­able when I came in about for­ev­er ago. As if mak­ing myself com­fort­able was pos­si­ble. I’m hop­ing I’m here because he has to check in with all of his new trans­fer stu­dents, to see how we’re adjust­ing. He’s look­ing through my file, eat­ing a Whop­per and some onion rings, and his eye­brows are mov­ing almost as much as his jaw. I kin­da think he might be try­ing to hyp­no­tize me. This goes on like for­ev­er. Any­way, he final­ly stops read­ing and puts his elbows on the edge of his desk with his two fin­gers point­ed up like a steeple. So, I’m guess­ing he’s being seri­ous with me. 

Well, I see here that your grades are okay––they could be better––but they’re pass­ing.” He stops to suck his teeth a cou­pla times. “What con­cerns me, is that your teachers––every last one of them––says that you could do bet­ter if you didn’t spend so much time in class flirt­ing with the boys.” 

His eye­brows go up, and he just holds them there. Which I guess means he’s wait­ing for a response, but I can’t move. I think I’m not old enough to have a heart attack, but I’m sure that right now I’m dying. I want to tell him that I need to go to the hos­pi­tal, real­ly, but I can’t move. At all. I can see that he’s talk­ing to me. But all I can hear is this whoosh noise in my head like when I swim under­wa­ter in the pool at the Y. I’m think­ing about what Mama is gonna do when she hears this, and I start to feel a lit­tle shaky. My eyes fill up with hot water. Mr. Piekars­ki folds his hands on the desk and leans over his Whopper. 

Andrea, is there any­thing you’d like to say about this?” he asks. 

I know my lips are mov­ing, but it takes a few sec­onds before I hear myself say “I’m P’Mona.” 

Oh. Oh! Excuse me,” he says, look­ing down at the file. “Let’s see now. Just one sec­ond.” He licks his fin­gers, clos­es the file, then pulls mine from the heap under his ham­burg­er. He opens it, and his eye­brows do their thing. Then he starts over. 

Okay, P’Mona. Sor­ry ’bout that. Here’s what we’ve real­ly got.” I can bare­ly hear him over the whoosh­ing and Mama’s cussing in my head. “So, while your grades are admirable, there are still some issues.” He rais­es one eye­brow, then the oth­er. “The feel­ing is, P’Mona, that expec­ta­tions of enrolling you in a Mag­net arts school where there is an empha­sis on cre­ative out­put would alle­vi­ate your need to express your­self by …” He paus­es for a long time, mak­ing these rolling ges­tures with his hands, like he’s for­got­ten what he was going to say. I just look at him. I’m not a mind read­er. “There were hopes that you would, you know, that it would alle­vi­ate, you know, your need for … fib­bing.” He folds his hands into a steeple again. “How do you feel about that?” 

I just shrug at him. 

Is there some­thing about the tran­si­tion that’s been par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult for you, P’Mona?” This time I don’t even both­er to shrug. “The feel­ing, P’Mona, is that if you can’t get this … tale-telling … under con­trol, well …” Now his eye­brows shrug at me. “The feel­ing is that, per­haps, you should start to talk to some­one on a reg­u­lar basis. To kind of sort this out, you know? Get to the bot­tom of this … need to fib.” 

I don’t know what my face did, but it must have been some­thing, because he adds all quick, “Oh, not me. The sug­ges­tion has been made that, per­haps, see­ing a coun­selor out­side of school might be a next step. As opposed to trans­fer­ring you to anoth­er school again.” He licks his thumb, sticks them in onion ring crumbs, then licks them off before he focus­es back on me. “What do you think, P’Mona?” 

I think I’d like to break his big, buck teeth and watch him swal­low them. But, I’m also think­ing I can’t say that. 

Is there any­one that maybe you might be com­fort­able enough to talk to about things?” he con­tin­ues. “A favorite teacher maybe? Or a rel­a­tive? Any­one? I’m just think­ing if you test it out with some­one you trust first, it might help. Just see if open­ing up a lit­tle bit seems help­ful to you. Would that be, you know, cool with you?” 

Now I’m think­ing he’s not try­ing to put me on about any­thing. They’re real­ly think­ing about sign­ing me up with a shrink. Then I’m think­ing Mama must know all about this, and that it was prob­a­bly even her idea. I’ve been framed. 

Mr. Piekars­ki is still look­ing at me all hope­ful, and I feel kin­da sor­ry for him, so I say, “Well, there’s Mrs. Hick­man, I guess.” 

He kin­da leaps up in his seat a bit, and he claps his hands togeth­er. “Great! Mrs. Hickman!” 

She’s kin­da my adopt­ed grand­moth­er,” I add. 

Alright. Alright!” His eye­brows are doing the Mex­i­can hat dance. “And how often do you see Mrs. Hickman?” 

I usu­al­ly see her once a week. She lives alone, so I usu­al­ly go and see how she’s doing. Kin­da keep her com­pa­ny and stuff. Maybe help her around the house if she needs it … That kin­da stuff.” 

Well, excel­lent, P’Mona. That’s just great. Just great. You see––this is progress.” He points his steeple fin­gers at me. “It’s won­der­ful to know that there is some­body you feel you can con­nect with. This is good. Real­ly good.” He pulls the fold­ers out from under his Whop­per and straight­ens them up while he’s talk­ing. I’m think­ing that for all of my trau­ma, I should get the rest of the day free. 

P’Mona, can we agree that the next time you’re with Mrs. Hick­man, you’ll try and share one thing with her? Just one thing that you might have oth­er­wise kept to your­self.” My foot starts to kick the leg of his desk out of reflex. 

It doesn’t have to be any­thing big, mind you. A dis­ap­point­ing grade, or even just how your day went at school. Can you do that? Just to see how it feels?” I tell him that I guess I could, but I don’t men­tion that hell’s got­ta freeze over first. Final­ly, the bell rings, which means I can bolt. 

Alright, P’Mona,” he says, walk­ing me to the door. “I look for­ward to our next meet­ing. We’ve made some real progress today. Real progress.” I slip free into the hall­way. I’m bare­ly ten feet away, when he calls my name. I don’t look at first, but then he calls my name again. I stop, and turn to look at him stand­ing in his office door. He’s kin­da bounc­ing on his heels, and when I look at him, he smiles and rais­es his hands high to give me a dou­ble thumbs up. I dis­ap­pear into the crowd, but I look back quick and see his thumbs still high above everyone’s heads. 

I don’t remem­ber plan­ning on going to the nurse’s office. But, when I get there, and the nurse comes from behind the desk to ask me how I’m feel­ing instead of rolling her eyes like she usu­al­ly does, I know I’ve done the right thing. I tell her I didn’t know what for sure was wrong, but I feel a lit­tle light­head­ed, and my stom­ach kin­da hurts. She brings me back to lie on one of those cots they’ve got for sick kids, and she puts a blan­ket over me. She shakes the ther­mome­ter a few times, then takes my temperature. 

You’ll be alright,” she says, then touch­es my shoul­der before she goes back to her desk. The fact that she’s being super-nice to me means I must real­ly be sick. 

The fifth peri­od bell rings, and I real­ize I’d fall­en asleep. I don’t open my eyes. I just lis­ten to the noise in the hall­way of every­body chang­ing class­es, won­der­ing when the nurse is gonna come and make me go to Alge­bra. Final­ly, I hear her foot­steps com­ing close. But then they stop and make a lit­tle squeak when she turns to go back to her desk. 

I’d almost fall­en back asleep when I hear some­one sneeze, and the nurse lets out a kin­da dis­gust­ed shriek. Then I hear Claude say, “I must be aller­gic to gauze.” I almost laugh out loud. The nurse tells him he can lie down with his head tilt­ed back until his nose­bleed stops. 

Last peri­od goes by quick, and I’m try­ing to fig­ure out how to dodge Belin­da after school. I’m won­der­ing if there’s any way to incor­po­rate Claude in my get­away plans, when the nurse comes and touch­es me again on the shoul­der. “P’Mona, the bell’s going to ring in a few min­utes. Time to get up.” I look over at Claude’s cot, and he’s adjust­ing his glass­es. “It’s close enough to the bell that you can go when you’re ready.” And she dis­ap­pears back out front. This is the break of a life­time, as far as I’m con­cerned, and I whis­per to Claude that I’ll see him on the bus. Then I make for the door, wav­ing to the nurse as I go. 

You feel­ing bet­ter, P’Mona?” she asks. 

Yeah, I think so,” I say, hand on the doorknob. 

Well, good. You’re look­ing a lit­tle better.” 


As I’m stand­ing at my lock­er, I decide that I’m not going to Mrs. Hickman’s. I’m just gonna go home. I can watch TV. And I’m gonna watch some­thing oth­er than old peo­ple TV. And make pud­ding. They’ve got a recipe for vanil­la pud­ding on the side of the corn­starch box. It’s easy to make, too. 

Claude and I are head­ing out, when I say, “Here’s the deal, Claude––I’m not going to Mrs. Hickman’s.” Claude looks at me like I just slapped him. “I’m gonna call her when I get home, and tell her that Mama got sick, and came home ear­ly from work. So you should total­ly go to Scrab­ble club.” 

Okay,” says Claude. “How are you gonna get home?” 

I’m just gonna walk.” It takes about a half an hour to walk home, which is why tak­ing the bus to Mrs. Hickman’s doesn’t com­plete­ly suck. “Besides, if I get on the bus, Belin­da might catch me.” Claude nods his head in agreement. 

Good plan,” he says. 

I wave good­bye to Claude as he heads for the bus, then I start home. 


When I get home, I call Mrs. Hick­man. I tell her Mama’s lying down, ’cause she came home ear­ly from work feel­ing sick, and I’ll see her tomor­row. I don’t know why Mama won’t let me stay home alone for more than an hour. I’m in the eighth grade, and it’s not like I’m scared. But she says she doesn’t like me being home alone. Whatever. 

The first thing I do is turn on the TV. My favorite game show––Match Game––is on, so I lie across the sofa and watch the end. Then I make pud­ding. I watch TV while it cools. Then the mail­man comes, and my Sev­en­teen came! Plus the cat cal­en­dar I saved up pur­chase seals from the cat food box to get! Plus the mini Bonne Bell Lip Smack­ers that I ordered! I nev­er get mail. Nev­er. Final­ly, the pud­ding is cool enough. I eat almost all of it, then I go back to read­ing Sev­en­teen. The last thing that I remem­ber, I’d fin­ished, and was look­ing for some­thing oth­er than news on the TV


I wake up to Mama shout­ing. “P’Mona! What in the hell? Have you lost your mind? You bet­ter have a good rea­son for not being at Mrs. Hickman’s. Well? What do you have to say?” 

I went to her house, and nobody was home … Maybe the door­bell is broke …” 

That’s bull­shit, P’Mona. That woman told me you called her.” 

I wasn’t feel­ing well. I even spent the last three peri­ods in the nurse’s office. You can check.” 

P’Mona, I can’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth.” 

I’m telling the truth …” 

You don’t know noth­ing ’bout the truth.” Mama said. She just stands there star­ing at me hard all hard, with her hands on her hips. I guess I hadn’t thought my plan all the way through. “Go to your room. And don’t come back down,” Mama says. 

So I do, and lie down on my bed. I’ve almost for­got about the pud­ding, the Sev­en­teen, the cat cal­en­dar, and the Lip Smack­ers. Now my eyes are fill­ing up, so I grab on tight to my pil­low. She’ll see. I’m gonna be rich and famous, and she’ll be lucky if I ever even talk to her. And, I’m gonna find my dad. He should know how suc­cess­ful his daugh­ter turned out to be. She’ll see. They’ll all see. I’m gonna make it. 

And this time––this time––I’m for real. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

As a child, I nev­er could tell a good lie. My face is one of those that gives away all my secrets. I had fan­tasies about “telling sto­ries,” whether it be about going to a friend’s house to real­ly skip out and meet a boy (nev­er hap­pened) or who I was talk­ing to on the phone (invari­ably, a boy I liked). I’d form my mouth to tell a cov­er sto­ry, but only truth would spill out. 

As I grew old­er and start­ed writ­ing, I thought many times about how I mar­veled at peo­ple who could lie with ease—including a very dear (patho­log­i­cal) friend. She’d con­coct whole fairy tales and I nev­er once called her on it. Then I began think­ing about what a bur­den it must be, keep­ing all those lies straight. That’s when I came up with my pro­tag­o­nist and wrote the bones of this sto­ry. I decid­ed that she’d lie as a defense mech­a­nism, as a way to inoc­u­late her­self from real­i­ty. She felt like a bur­den to her moth­er, which made her resent­ful, and that is why she act­ed out. Then I decid­ed to top off her mis­ery by giv­ing her a name that was a burden—P’Mona. Unnec­es­sar­i­ly dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to get straight and one that could nev­er be spelled with­out being told how.  

The one thing I con­tin­ue to won­der is if the liars among us believe their lies … or if they just don’t give a damn about their deceit­ful­ness. I want to think they have a rea­son, like P’Mona. Deep inside, I’m not so sure. 


T. E. Wilder­son is a New Orleans-born writer cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the Mid­west. By day, she is an edi­tor and graph­ic design­er. Her short sto­ries have appeared in Crack the Spine Anthol­o­gy XVII, The Louisville Review, Tish­man Review, The Notre Dame Review, and F(r)iction, among oth­ers. She holds an MFA in writ­ing from Spald­ing Uni­ver­si­ty, and is a 2019 McK­night Foun­da­tion Writ­ing Fellow. 


Fiction / David Stromberg

:: Panic ::

Well, I was sup­posed to be in Paris for a short stay, and I real­ly wasn’t try­ing to meet any­one. The com­pa­ny was con­sid­er­ing coop­er­at­ing with our French com­peti­tors, and I was the only one in the office who’d stud­ied even basic French. The idea was to meet rep­re­sen­ta­tives from dif­fer­ent depart­ments and, based on that, see how we could work togeth­er. It was my first chance to lead a project—and the French agreed—so I went. We nev­er real­ly set a time­line—and, I know it sounds crazy, but I think that’s part­ly why I end­ed up in an emer­gency room. 

As soon as I got to Paris, I called Mel—you know, my friend from busi­ness school, the one who went to work at one of the French banks and end­ed up mar­ry­ing a native Parisian—and she invit­ed me to her hol­i­day par­ty. That’s where I met Clémence. 

Mel lived in an old Parisian apart­ment over­look­ing the Bastille. Her hus­band had inher­it­ed it from one of his grand­par­ents and con­vert­ed it into a super-mod­ern Euro­pean loft.  I did­n’t know any­one except for Mel at the par­ty, and she was busy host­ing, so I spent a lot of time stand­ing in the cor­ner look­ing at the view.

Clé­mence walked by, giv­ing me this sweet apolo­getic smile. I smiled back and said, Hel­lo. She asked me, in per­fect Eng­lish, what I was doing there, and I told her. She said she knew Mel’s hus­band from high school and didn’t real­ly know any­one else there. Most of the peo­ple at the par­ty were from the cor­po­rate world, and she was an inde­pen­dent cloth­ing design­er try­ing to make a name for her­self, so she thought she’d come to net­work a lit­tle. But in the end she said she felt too shy. And that’s how we end­ed up talk­ing to each oth­er for most of the night. 

At the end of the par­ty I drunk­en­ly asked her whether I could kiss her. She said not tonight—but gave me her num­ber. I asked her whether she want­ed to come to where I was stay­ing for lunch the next day. She said she would. As we said good­bye, she had that sweet sad smile on her face again. I asked her why she was smil­ing. She said she was hap­py. I might sound mean, but my first reac­tion was a feel­ing of hor­ror, like, Oh no …  

So that was the first night. Actu­al­ly, I was so drunk that I did­n’t exact­ly remem­ber how the night ended—only that it end­ed very late. I man­aged to some­how get back to the tiny stu­dio apart­ment I was rent­ing just off the Canal Saint-Mar­tin. I woke up around ten o’clock and wasn’t even sure that what had hap­pened was real. Did I real­ly meet a woman named Clé­mence? Was she real­ly plan­ning to come over for lunch? 

So I wrote her a text message—like good morn­ing and how’re you feel­ing and do you remem­ber any­thing—and it turned out it was all real. She was com­ing over for lunch. 

Look: I couldn’t have known what would hap­pen at that moment. How strong the attach­ment would grow. I mean, how do you do that? You don’t even know that anything’s going to hap­pen at that point—you cer­tain­ly don’t know how it’s going to develop. 

All you’re think­ing as it’s hap­pen­ing is: this is inter­est­ing. Sud­den­ly you’re filled with all these feel­ings, out of nowhere, and just like that, you have an emo­tion­al life. And you just met this per­son two sec­onds ago. 

We had a nice lunch. I made mush­room-bar­ley soup with leeks and car­rots. I made us cof­fee. We talked—not as eas­i­ly as we had the night before, but still, there was some­thing nice about the awk­ward flir­ta­tion. And I guess that was the point. 

When we fin­ished she got up, and I got up, and we both kind of froze like we weren’t sure what to do next. I put my hand out toward hers, and she put hers out toward mine. We locked fin­gers light­ly and then leaned in to kiss each oth­er. It wasn’t pas­sion­ate. Just a soft, pro­longed kiss. Real­ly nice. 

She left. That should have been the end. It could have been the end. But it wasn’t.  

The next day she texted me and asked if I want­ed to come over after work—she was plan­ning on mak­ing pump­kin bisque. 

I have to tell you that she’s a very beau­ti­ful per­son. Not just physically—though I think she’d be con­sid­ered attractive—but there’s some­thing else. You can see it in how she moves: care­ful, con­sid­ered, slow. She’s got this sim­ple style—she can be for­mal and casu­al at the same time. You can tell when you see her that this is some­one special. 

So I said yes to her bisque. I went to work for meet­ings that didn’t real­ly go any­where. And then I went to her place. 

You have to under­stand, I had no idea how long I was going to be in Paris. I had noth­ing to think about oth­er than work. The com­pa­ny was pay­ing all my trav­el expens­es. There was noth­ing for me to be con­cerned about except what I was expe­ri­enc­ing at that moment. 

Clé­mence lived off the République in a tiny stu­dio where she also did her design­ing. We sat at a lit­tle bar that’d been attached to the kitch­enette and had wine and talked. It was the stan­dard get-to-know-you stuff that comes after a cou­ple of dates: where did you grow up, who are your par­ents, what made you pick your career. She told me that her dad was British and that was why she spoke Eng­lish so well. She told me about her deci­sion to switch pro­fes­sions from graph­ic to cloth­ing design. I told her that I’d always intend­ed to go to busi­ness school and work in finance. That sort of thing. 

She also told me that she’d been invit­ed to the hol­i­day par­ty because her best friend from high school—who’d died in a car acci­dent a few years ago—had been the sis­ter of my friend’s hus­band. And since her friend’s death, Clé­mence and the broth­er had become friends of sorts, and tried to see each oth­er at least once dur­ing the holidays. 

Her bisque need­ed a lit­tle salt but oth­er­wise it was good. We got through more than half of the wine bot­tle. The whole thing was very sweet. And it had this slow­ness that some­how made it feel safe. 

After­ward, we sat down on her futon bed to fin­ish the wine. You can imag­ine how that end­ed. The thing is that, on the way there, I remem­ber think­ing: go, have a nice time, and then go home. Don’t get involved in any­thing or give her the wrong idea that some­thing might be pos­si­ble between the two of you. You’re leav­ing. So don’t act like you’re not. 

But who remem­bers that sort of thing by the time you’ve shared a bot­tle of wine and are sit­ting togeth­er on a futon? And it had been a while since I’d been with any­one. There was this sweet per­son here who was open to shar­ing moment … who could remem­ber anything .…

It was real­ly nice to be with her that night. You know I don’t usu­al­ly talk this way, but it felt like some­thing deep had hap­pened, some­thing rare and spe­cial. I imag­ine there are peo­ple who can resist some­thing like that. I’m not one of them. 

So that’s how it start­ed. That first week was real­ly so easy. I’d been to Paris before but I didn’t know it well, and she showed me around all these dif­fer­ent areas that you wouldn’t see unless you were with some­one from there. Every evening after I fin­ished work I’d meet her at her stu­dio and we’d go to Belleville, to Oberkampf, to Mon­torgueil, to the Batig­nolles. It was real­ly some­thing to walk the streets of Paris with her. She seemed so at home. 

Paris in win­ter is dark and cold and dank. It’s a good time to have some­one in bed with you. That might have also con­tributed to our spend­ing so much time togeth­er. Though it wasn’t just that. We real­ly liked each other. 

One week turned into two, which turned into three. And most of that time I was with Clé­mence. A few times we went out with Mel and her hus­band, and my French col­leagues took us out once or twice. I also met some of her oth­er friends. But most­ly it was just us. We talked about our ambi­tions. I told her that I want­ed to go into prod­uct inno­va­tion, that it was a spe­cial­ized niche in the finan­cial indus­try which was hard to get into, that this was why I’d even accept­ed the French project. She told me that her inter­est in cloth­ing design had devel­oped from a poster project on pat­terns, that she was less inter­est­ed in glam­or than in using out­er pat­terns to help peo­ple become aware of their inner pat­terns. Our worlds were dif­fer­ent but they also felt some­how par­al­lel. And we were break­ing the rules of math­e­mat­ics through some kind of worm­hole that allowed us to cross paths some­where in the middle. 

But you can only do that for so long. And the trip start­ed drag­ging out. 

I’d orig­i­nal­ly booked my plane tick­ets and sub­let for a three-week trip. But work was going well, and it looked like we were actu­al­ly find­ing some com­mon lan­guage and shared goals. I sug­gest­ed that the French com­pa­ny could work with us to devel­op a new finan­cial product—conceptualize its pur­pose and gauge its mar­ket poten­tial and maybe even co-patent it—while apply­ing our coun­tries’ tax laws to pro­mote the prod­uct in our own mar­kets. The French liked the idea, but it meant com­ing up with a min­i­mal blue­print for that poten­tial prod­uct, and that’d take more time. 

I shared the good news with Clé­mence. I told her that I need­ed to quick­ly find a place to stay and asked her what areas I should con­sid­er. We’d been sleep­ing at her place half the time and at mine the oth­er half—and it did occur to me that she might think I was try­ing to insin­u­ate that she should invite me to stay with her. But real­ly I just want­ed her input on where I should look for a place. And I trust­ed her to resist the temp­ta­tion to invite me to stay with her. 

She smiled the way she had on that first night. And then she said that, if I want­ed to, I could stay with her. 

She was very cool when she said it—I remem­ber we were drink­ing wine at a bar in the Haut Marais before going to dinner—and even though I knew she might say it, I was still sur­prised. It wasn’t about sav­ing money—she knew the com­pa­ny was cov­er­ing my expens­es. And it’s not like we were mov­ing in together—because any­way I was leav­ing as soon as this part of the project was done. I didn’t under­stand why she made the sug­ges­tion. But I couldn’t ask her. I was afraid to know. 

What I felt very strong­ly was that get­ting clos­er than we already were was dan­ger­ous for us both. You don’t want to get so attached to some­one you’re going to leave. It was one thing to spend time togeth­er, to even sleep in the same bed night after night, but it was a whole oth­er thing to only have one liv­ing space. Even for a short amount of time. This was a romance, not a rela­tion­ship, and there had to be some boundaries. 

The thing is that I didn’t know how to say any of this. I’m not sure I even knew I felt this way. I just had this sense of dread. And it made me feel guilty. 

We left the bar and went to din­ner at a lit­tle gourmet restau­rant near­by. We talked about oth­er things—her recent ideas for a new col­lec­tion and the need to redesign her label—but the whole time I kept think­ing about her invi­ta­tion and what it meant. 

We went back to her place—she lived clos­er to where we’d had dinner—and on the way I tried to express my hes­i­ta­tion. I told her I appre­ci­at­ed her invi­ta­tion but that I real­ly hadn’t meant to sug­gest that. She smiled again and said she believed me and that it real­ly didn’t wor­ry her. 

As we walked, I found myself hav­ing to put my feel­ings into words that were clos­er to what I actu­al­ly felt—though I didn’t want to hurt her. I said that I was com­mit­ted to my job and intend­ed to go back as soon as I was done with the project here. She said she under­stood and that maybe there’d be some unex­pect­ed change. Maybe I’d find a way to stay at my job while also stay­ing in Paris a while longer. I told her it was unlike­ly because my job was in Amer­i­ca. She smiled and said that I was already stay­ing longer than expected. 

When we got to her place we went straight to bed and made love. It was very strange. It’s not like we were in a lov­ing mood. We were basi­cal­ly arguing—but some­how there was no out­right anger. There was con­fu­sion and there was frus­tra­tion. She had this hope that she’d revealed, and she decid­ed to hold onto it no mat­ter what I said. And I just want­ed her to hear me and to accept that I was going to leave. I think that’s what I real­ly wanted. 

But she wouldn’t. When we were done we lay in bed and talked some more. She said that she didn’t expect any­thing from me except not to pre­sume how the whole thing might end. Just to let things devel­op how­ev­er they devel­oped and to give myself room to accept what I hadn’t con­sid­ered beforehand. 

I can’t explain to you what that com­ment did to me. It’s like I could see two ver­sions of the future extend­ing out of me—one that extend­ed only from what I planned for myself and anoth­er from what was hap­pen­ing at that moment with Clémence—I saw an entire life with her in this place. I saw that poten­tial, I felt it, it entered into my heart. And then I got scared as hell. And start­ed crying. 

I was shak­ing and Clé­mence took my hand. She asked me: “What hap­pened?” I said: “I real­ized some­thing.” And I just kept cry­ing. She asked: “What is it?” It took me a few moments to catch my breath enough to say what I felt. “I always thought,” I said, almost pant­i­ng, “that I was afraid of death. But now I real­ize that I’m actu­al­ly afraid of life.” I buried my head in her arms and the tears just flowed and flowed. 

I know I’m cry­ing again, but it was very very pow­er­ful. I don’t think I’d ever faced such a deep fear in front of any­one. I’m not sure I’d ever faced one with myself. And I can tell you that it wouldn’t have hap­pened if I hadn’t trust­ed Clé­mence so deeply. That was the thing about her. You could trust her with your life. She was a deeply good per­son. How many peo­ple like that are you ever going to meet? 

So I end­ed up mov­ing into her place. I just couldn’t see myself hav­ing an expe­ri­ence like that and then walk­ing away. I fig­ured she was right. I’m here now and that’s what counts and who knows what the future will bring. I was work­ing to devel­op these ideas with the French. Things were going well. I could just as well leave when I was done—what did I need to rent some oth­er apart­ment when I could take the chance to spend some time with some­one so spe­cial? There was no need to insist on being sep­a­rat­ed from her when in all like­li­hood we were going to be sep­a­rat­ed any­way. What harm could come from being with some­one so good? 

That’s what I told myself. I had no idea then how much being with some­one good could hurt. 

Things at work were going well. I’d sug­gest­ed devel­op­ing per­son­al trav­el loans that would cre­ate direct lines of cred­it with air­lines, hotels, and car rental companies—like mort­gages or car loans that fun­nel resources from these com­pa­nies back to their con­sumers in return for inter­est. The idea was to use pro­ject­ed over­stock and can­cel­la­tions to cre­ate lim­it­ed num­bers of loans. Our com­pa­nies would work with trav­el providers in our respec­tive coun­tries to pre­pare pack­ages that min­i­mal­ly exposed them to loss while using their excess ser­vices to cre­ate debt-dri­ven income. I have to admit, even I was sur­prised that no one had done this yet. 

The French loved the idea and had me work direct­ly with their inno­va­tion department—which has been in the glob­al mar­ket much longer than ours. We set our goal at prepar­ing a pitch for the prod­uct that we could each present to trav­el providers. I report­ed the progress to my boss, and she said I could get my name on the inter­na­tion­al patent. That’s a real­ly big deal. 

Clé­mence was work­ing on her new col­lec­tion, and I helped her devel­op her own mar­ket­ing plan. She want­ed to rent a lit­tle show­room, and I helped her pre­pare a bud­get. She had some mon­ey from her par­ents that she was liv­ing from, but she also knew that she had to turn her project into a busi­ness and earn some income. I sug­gest­ed she should lim­it her goals to what she could real­is­ti­cal­ly reach—and to be patient. 

We were a work­ing cou­ple. Our days were filled with pro­fes­sion­al wor­ries, and at night we enjoyed our few tired hours togeth­er. We went out for drinks and din­ner, we watched movies, some­times her friends invit­ed us over and we went. Paris is a great place for hav­ing a sim­ple city life. It’s so beau­ti­ful that the whole expe­ri­ence is just enough by itself. 

Before I knew it I’d been in Paris for nine weeks—six of them liv­ing with Clé­mence. And at that point I also real­ized that the project was going to end soon. It was an abrupt real­iza­tion because pulling togeth­er data from dif­fer­ent indus­tries had gone slow­ly, but the analy­sis and con­struc­tion of the trav­el pack­ages went much more quick­ly. By the time I real­ized this, we were going to be done in a cou­ple of days. So just as Clé­mence and I were  get­ting into a rhythm—I had to start prepar­ing for my departure. 

Clé­mence and I were liv­ing togeth­er, so it wasn’t like I could go home and think things over. We were liv­ing in a tiny stu­dio. There was no room to think. 

The French com­pa­ny was based in Mont­par­nasse, near that big ugly tow­er, so I decid­ed to walk home to the République—which is about an hour’s walk. I left a lit­tle ear­ly, it was the begin­ning of March, so there was actu­al­ly some sun­light left in the day. I walked out and saw this beau­ti­ful street in front of me, in this mag­i­cal city, with all this activ­i­ty right there. I didn’t under­stand how I was going to leave it all. I’d only been there two months, but it felt like I’d been liv­ing there my entire life. 

I remem­ber real­ly well the route I took on that walk home. I went down the Rue de Rennes and then turned onto the Rue du Four then end­ed up on the Rue de Buci and then the Rue Saint-Andre des Arts. I remem­ber I left like this area was so touris­tic, and then I laughed because I was a tourist too. But I also felt like I was going to miss being able to just walk through here. 

I crossed the Pont Saint-Michel and saw the Notre Dame off in the distance—and it wasn’t like I was going out of my way to see these sights. It was just my walk home. And in the last rays of the after­noon sun there was just this amaz­ing warm bril­liance to the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was going to do back home with­out all this. 

And then obvi­ous­ly I real­ized that the city was the easy part—what was I going to do back home with­out Clé­mence? I loved this woman. And it made me want to cry. 

The whole rest of the way to her place I thought about the var­i­ous options that we had, and it seemed pret­ty straight­for­ward: either I stayed, or she came with me, or we did the long-dis­tance thing until one of us could join the oth­er. All we had to do was fig­ure out which of them was best for us. 

By the time I got home I was prac­ti­cal­ly excit­ed about the fact that I was leav­ing soon. It felt like this weird lim­bo that we’d been liv­ing in was actu­al­ly going to take some prac­ti­cal form. Our time togeth­er hadn’t had any struc­ture, and now we’d have a chance to give our rela­tion­ship a real frame­work. We’d just been sort of float­ing from day to day, each of us doing our thing, and being together—but there’d been no vision, no direc­tion, no plan. Now there was no way to ignore the fact that I was leav­ing, and we were actu­al­ly going to have to think about what we meant to each oth­er, and what that meant for each of us going forward. 

Well, that con­ver­sa­tion did not go as opti­misti­cal­ly as I’d imag­ined. She start­ed cry­ing. And it wasn’t like just reg­u­lar crying—I mean like the sad-that-you’re-leaving kind of crying—she was cry­ing with this deep sad­ness. Like some­one was about to die. 

I’m alive,” I kept telling her, “and you’re alive. Why don’t we just first be grate­ful that we’re alive.” 

But she just cried and cried. We were sit­ting on the futon and she leaned into me and put her arms around my waist and just kept crying. 

I didn’t know what I should do or say. I felt guilty that she was cry­ing and I was just sit­ting there, and sud­den­ly I start­ed feel­ing this deep sadness—I don’t know how else to describe it except to say it felt elemental—and I just start­ed cry­ing too. 

In my head I told myself that I was just cry­ing to make her feel bet­ter, so she wouldn’t have to feel like she was the only one who was sad about our sep­a­ra­tion. And I was sad about the fact that I had to leave. But I was also think­ing ahead, about our next steps, about the future that we could build together. 

But as we sat on the futon, cry­ing togeth­er, all the thoughts I’d had about our future some­how start­ed to dis­ap­pear. It felt like there’d nev­er been a future and maybe not even a past. It’s like the mem­o­ries that we had of the time we spent togeth­er just evap­o­rat­ed. There was just this sense of a now that was full of the feel­ing of death. It’s like we were sit­ting right there on the futon and dying together. 

I’m not say­ing it felt like an out-of-body experience—but you know how some­times there’s no way to explain some­thing oth­er than with words that already exist? So in a way it was like an out-of-body experience. 

I squeezed her and asked her why she felt so sad. She said she hadn’t had a friend like me since her best friend who’d died. She said she loved me and I told her I loved her too. 

I tried to steer the con­ver­sa­tion toward some­thing more concrete—like our plans for the near future. I had to reserve a tick­et back and I told her it might be good if we made a plan for her to come vis­it. She’d nev­er even been to America. 

She hes­i­tat­ed. She said she want­ed to come, but that she had to work on her col­lec­tion. It was the only anchor she had, and she’d just start­ed mak­ing plans for a show­room. She couldn’t just get up and go to anoth­er coun­try. She had to think about when she could come. 

You can imag­ine my con­fu­sion. All I want­ed was for us to have some point of con­tact that we knew we’d have in the near future. And all she want­ed was to stay in Paris. I couldn’t stay—that was clear—and so sud­den­ly I saw that it meant we were break­ing up. 

When I real­ized this I start­ed cry­ing. Not for her. For myself. “I don’t want to lose you,” I said. And she said, “I don’t want to lose you either.” “So what do we do?” I asked her, cry­ing. And she said, “We try not to come to any conclusion.” 

And I just began to cry hys­ter­i­cal­ly. I mean real­ly hysterically—like with my jaw shak­ing out of control—and I couldn’t under­stand what was hap­pen­ing to my body. It was too much unknown. 

We hugged and cried and fell asleep just like that, on the futon, with­out even open­ing it up. We slept fold­ed into each oth­er all night, and in the morn­ing we woke up with our mouths sticky and our teeth unbrushed and lines of dried salt down our faces. 

We got up and cleaned up and I made us cof­fee and some­how we man­aged to make it through the morn­ing. When I left for work I didn’t even both­er chang­ing my clothes. 

That day I got an email from my boss say­ing the French com­pa­ny had updat­ed her on our progress and that she was look­ing for­ward to hear­ing more of the details when I returned. I wrote her back say­ing I was plan­ning to return by the end of the week and that I’d see her in the office first thing Mon­day morning. 


Clé­mence and I had two more days togeth­er. They were qui­et days—almost silent—we went out for drinks and din­ner but we didn’t talk the way we had before. She cried some­times. I didn’t cry again like I had that time, but I was sad. She was a sweet per­son and all I want­ed was to be in her presence. 

I think I was also mad that she refused to plan to come and vis­it me. I under­stood her rea­sons, but I was still mad. And I think that helped me not fall into the same sadness. 

We got through those two days, and then the time had come for me to go to the air­port. I’d ordered a taxi and it came to pick me up. We went down­stairs togeth­er and tried to say good­bye. But I could­n’t say the words. My jaw start­ed shak­ing again. You have to under­stand that I’d nev­er expe­ri­enced any­thing like that before. My body had nev­er been out of con­trol that way. 

I don’t know what to do,” I said, hold­ing onto her. “It’s like I’m scared of leav­ing you.” “It’s all right,” she said, “I’m with you.” And I just kept hold­ing onto her while my jaw shook. “I don’t know what’s hap­pen­ing,” I said. “It’s all right,” she kept say­ing. “I’m with you.” 

She reas­sured me enough to get into the taxi. Once I was on the road I felt this shift, like trav­el­ing split you into all these dif­fer­ent parts, and you didn’t even know exact­ly who you were. I just went into this trav­el­ing mode because the whole thing just felt crazy anyway. 

I slept most of the flight back, and after I land­ed I took a cab home. When I turned my phone back on I saw an email from her that just said: “Love.” In the cab on the way back I hit reply and wrote: “So much.” Then I hit send. 

I put the phone in my pock­et and watched the road. All these build­ings, all so straight, so dif­fer­ent from Paris. Amer­i­ca was made different. 

I called up a cou­ple of friends—I called you—that was when we made our plan to meet up for a drink Wednes­day. But I didn’t make it that long. I bare­ly got through Mon­day in the office. I man­aged to update my boss on every­thing we’d accom­plished with the French com­pa­ny. And when I got home I thought about call­ing Clé­mence. But the idea of hear­ing her voice was sud­den­ly so scary that I felt the tears welling up again. It’s like I’d been infect­ed with this cry­ing dis­ease. This sadsweet feel­ing that I had no idea how to handle. 

It was around sev­en in the evening when my phone buzzed. I saw it was an email from her and I hur­ried to open it up. It said: “I don’t know how to love you and let you go.” 

I still can’t tell you why, but that sen­tence was too much for me. I start­ed hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing. I didn’t know what to do—so I called you. You didn’t answer, I fig­ured you were feed­ing the kids or putting them to bed, but I knew I had to do some­thing. I couldn’t breathe and I felt like I was going to die. So I called an ambu­lance. They picked me up and brought me to the emer­gency room. They gave me a tran­quil­iz­er. I’m feel­ing a lit­tle calmer now. 

I’ve nev­er had any­thing like this hap­pen, you know? I still don’t know what actu­al­ly hap­pened. I just don’t under­stand. I heard the words the nurse told me, it’s just a pan­ic attack, I know what each one of the words means. But I don’t under­stand what they mean togeth­er. Why attack? Why pan­ic?




From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry is part of a cycle that con­sid­ers the ways that encoun­ters with oth­ers affect our emo­tion­al con­sti­tu­tions more deeply than we real­ize at a giv­en moment. I want­ed to record, in fic­tion­al form, the cir­cum­stances lead­ing up to our real­iz­ing some­thing has hap­pened—but when we don’t yet know what. I also want­ed to cre­ate an homage, some­times more obvi­ous than oth­ers, to how lit­er­a­ture affects us in our lives: how it enters our con­scious­ness­es and changes who we are from the inside. In this sto­ry, I turn Sylvia Plath’s “John­ny Pan­ic and the Bible of Dreams” inside out, with the voice being giv­en to a “patient” who is cop­ing with his first-ever pan­ic attack.   

From a craft per­spec­tive, in approach­ing this expe­ri­ence from the “inside,” I asked myself a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple ques­tion: How do writ­ers con­vey events to read­ers? The pre­sumed answer to this ques­tion will almost always deter­mine the form and mode of a fic­tion­al work. No one can attempt to write any­thing with­out, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, apply­ing some mod­el. A lit­er­ary work is, in the end, addressed to a per­son who is meant to be reached—and in fic­tion, the per­son addressed in a lit­er­ary work is not iden­ti­cal to the one read­ing it in the real world. This is where the slip­page occurs, mark­ing the begin­ning of what I call abstract writ­ing

With this in mind, I want­ed to con­sid­er how sto­ry­telling is shaped by the fact that the peo­ple to whom we speak are usu­al­ly peo­ple we know—and this spe­cif­ic rela­tion between speak­er and lis­ten­er is the sto­ry­telling ele­ment that I began to abstract. When you speak to some­one you know, you don’t have time to go into every pos­si­ble detail of your sto­ry, because your time with them is lim­it­ed. You only say what’s most rel­e­vant to con­vey­ing the main events. But this kind of abstrac­tion requires read­ers to place them­selves in the shoes of some­one who is not direct­ly represented—the per­son lis­ten­ing to the narration—and to inter­po­late them­selves into the fic­tion­al world. This chal­lenges read­ers to enter into a dia­logue with the fic­tion, and to con­tin­ue it in their own lives. In this way, I invite read­ers to take part in the cre­ative project of fic­tion: to enter the sto­ry and to explore, in their own time and on their own terms, what it means to make lit­er­a­ture part of reality. 


David Stromberg is a writer, trans­la­tor, and lit­er­ary schol­ar. He has pub­lished fic­tion in The Woven Tale Press, Atti­cus Review, and the UK’s Ambit, non­fic­tion in The Amer­i­can Schol­ar, Lit­er­ary Mat­ters, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books, and trans­la­tions in The New York­er, Asymp­tote, and Con­junc­tions. In 2019, he pub­lished a series of per­son­al reflec­tions in Pub­lic Sem­i­nar about grow­ing up on the eth­nic and cul­tur­al mar­gins of Los Ange­les. He is the author of four car­toon col­lec­tions, includ­ing BADDIES (Melville House, 2009), and two crit­i­cal stud­ies, most recent­ly IDIOT LOVE and the Ele­ments of Inti­ma­cy (Pal­grave, 2020). He is edi­tor to the Isaac Bashe­vis Singer Lit­er­ary Trust, and an edit­ed col­lec­tion of Singer’s essays is forth­com­ing from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press. His spec­u­la­tive novel­la-length essay, A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, was pub­lished in The Mass­a­chu­setts Review’s Work­ing Titles series. 

Fall, Buck, and Scale

Fiction / Ken Post

:: Fall, Buck, and Scale ::

​​Muf­fled steps, occa­sion­al grunts, and blue­ber­ry bush­es whapped against their legs, punc­tur­ing the silence. Mon­ty fol­lowed as Don pushed through brush. Nobody said a word. Heat and sweat built inside Monty’s rain gear as it rose from behind his knees, chim­neyed up through his groin toward his armpits, and vent­ed out his neck. He self-bast­ed in his rub­ber out­fit as he entered anoth­er thick­et. Every mus­cle in his body fixed on the next step he took. Per­spi­ra­tion burned his neck and stung his eyes. 

Don packed a chain­saw across one shoul­der. It bobbed up and down on his back as he marched across the uneven ground. Matt was a half-dozen steps ahead of Don, shov­ing branch­es out of his way with one hand, the oth­er hand cling­ing to an aer­i­al pho­to clad in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. At the back, Mon­ty car­ried the .375 rifle for brown bear pro­tec­tion. He wished these guys would slow down. 

It was like a sea of leaves and a lat­tice of veg­e­ta­tion they pushed through, climbed over, or crawled under. Peri­od­i­cal­ly, a sil­ver hard­hat or a bright yel­low Helly Hansen rain coat was vis­i­ble before it dis­ap­peared back into the ver­dan­cy burst­ing forth in a for­est with over one hun­dred inch­es of rain a year. 

Mon­ty entered a small open­ing next to a trio of tow­er­ing spruce trees. Matt and Don stared at an aer­i­al photo. 

We’re almost there,” Matt said. 

They were not lost; they knew exact­ly where they were. It start­ed with the pin­prick Matt made in the aer­i­al pho­to before they left camp. Fif­teen min­utes ear­li­er, the heli­copter had descend­ed into the clos­est muskeg to the photo’s tiny pin­hole, and they were now trav­el­ing north­east to that spot. 

What’s ‘almost there’ mean?” asked Don. He looked at Matt with an expres­sion­less stare. Don was the faller—he cut down the trees and bucked them into six­teen foot logs. He wore an alu­minum, wide-brimmed hard­hat sit­ting low on his head, as if his head had been machined to fit it. All you could see were a few wet strands of hair with almost no trace of fore­head vis­i­ble. His gray eyes and aquiline nose gave him a sharp, pierc­ing look. 

Five, ten min­utes, maybe.” 

Mon­ty placed the gun against a tree. “Do you guys always walk this fast?” He used the inter­lude to catch his breath. 

Matt, a sinewy six-foot-three, with a black beard car­pet­ing his face, and Don, a fire hydrant of knot­ted brawn, were the odd cou­ple of the woods. The one thing they had in com­mon was their abil­i­ty to maneu­ver across roots, ravines, down­fall, thick­ets, and stream cross­ings. How the hell can two guys be so dif­fer­ent but trav­el so quick­ly? Mon­ty was the guy with the gun, and it was all he could do to fol­low them. 

We actu­al­ly slowed down,” Matt said, “to make it a bit eas­i­er on you.” 

Won­der­ful.” Mon­ty had been warned when he accept­ed the For­est Ser­vice job in Sit­ka and been hand­ed his Nomex fire-retar­dant heli­copter flight cov­er­alls and a sleep­ing bag. He had bumped into a beard­ed dude on his way out the door. As he walked out, the guy asked, “Where you head­ing, cowboy?” 

Tim­ber sale prepa­ra­tion in Gilbert Bay.” 

Oh.” The man gri­maced. “You must have drawn the short straw. Good luck.” 

It wasn’t imme­di­ate­ly clear what the man meant, but he under­stood now that he was work­ing with Matt and Don. He was their rifle bear­er and go-fer who held the “dumb end of the tape” when Matt measured. 

Matt wad­ed into a thorny devil’s club patch, their leaves yel­low-tinged and droop­ing. The saw was back on Don’s shoul­der and he dis­ap­peared into the devil’s club. Mon­ty picked up the gun and trudged on, hop­ing they arrived at the pin­prick soon. 

A few min­utes lat­er, Matt held up his hand. “Okay, I think we’re almost there.” 

Mon­ty cra­dled the rifle in his arm, mak­ing a con­scious effort to keep the muz­zle point­ed away from his part­ners. “Looks like the same stuff we’ve been walk­ing through for the last five minutes.” 

Agree, but we have to go to the ran­dom­ly select­ed plot. Oth­er­wise, we might as well just stop at the most con­ve­nient spots, and that would mess up all the sta­tis­ti­cal sam­pling.” In For­est Ser­vice par­lance, Matt was the “scaler,” the per­son who mea­sured the trees, looked for rot, and checked the qual­i­ty of the wood. He was much more; Matt man­aged the small camp, planned the crew’s work, and was a mas­ter for­est navigator. 

Screw the sta­tis­tics. I’m get­ting cold. Let’s go kill some trees.” Don shoul­dered the saw and start­ed off to the area Matt indicated. 

Matt kept walk­ing and looked at the trees. “Okay, this is going to be the cen­ter of the plot. Mon­ty, take this can of spray paint and shoot a dot on each tree I tell you to.” 

Mon­ty turned to look at all the trees around him. “Which tree do you want me to go to?” 

Just start walk­ing and I’ll direct you.” 

This one over here?” Mon­ty pat­ted the tree and paused at the base of a forty-inch diam­e­ter spruce and looked up at it. The first branch­es were thir­ty feet above the ground, and they kept going up like a giant beanstalk. Moss shroud­ed the limbs and hung sus­pend­ed in clumps. 

Yeah, spray that one.” 

What about that big suck­er behind it?” Don said. 

Matt eye­balled the tree. “Nah, that’s out.” 

Spray it any­way. That’s one beau­ti­ful tree.” 

Mon­ty hes­i­tat­ed and looked back at Matt, who shook his head side­ways. “Leave it.” 

For the next ten min­utes, Mon­ty walked in a clock­wise direc­tion spray­ing trees. Sweat built up again as he made his way through devil’s club, skunk cab­bage, and blue­ber­ry brambles. 

After Mon­ty accept­ed the job offer, it occurred to him he could qui­et­ly walk off and nev­er join the crew in Gilbert Bay. Things would be okay—they would find some­body else to do the work. But he didn’t want to aban­don it. He had dis­ap­peared much of his life, an invis­i­ble pres­ence in every­one else’s sto­ry. Too shy at first to make many friends grow­ing up. Too accom­mo­dat­ing to those who didn’t deserve it. In col­lege, he moved past the uneasy first days of dorm life, try­ing to fig­ure where he fit in, but the specter of being on the edge of the stage still hovered. 

Okay, that does it,” Matt yelled. 

Let’s get to work,” Don said. He point­ed to the first tree he was going to cut and ges­tured for Matt and Mon­ty to stay back of him in a safe­ty zone. Don pulled the cord and the motor emit­ted a WAAAAAAAAA! that blot­ted out the rest of the world. 

Mon­ty and Matt took refuge fifty feet back, behind an old hem­lock. Don cut a large wedge in the face of the tree, and chips sprayed out in a white stream, pil­ing up rapid­ly near his feet. He set the idling saw down and ges­tured to Mon­ty. “I’m gonna let you have the plea­sure of knock­ing your first wedge out of this tree.” 

Mon­ty walked to Don, who pulled a small ax from his pack. 

Take this and give it a whack, Mick­ey Mantle.” 

Mon­ty grabbed the ax and took a base­ball swing with the blunt ax head. A hunk of pie-shaped wood land­ed in the chip pile. 

Nice job. We’ll make a log­ger out of you yet. Now head back there with Matt behind that tree until I’m done.” Don read­ied for the back cut and turned around to check on them before start­ing. The saw bit into the tree, eat­ing through nine inch­es of wood in less than a minute. He pulled nar­row plas­tic wedges out of his pack and drove them into the cut with the ax head. Watch­ing the top of the tree, Don pulled the saw clear and backed away. The tip­ping point of a 150-foot col­umn of wood weigh­ing forty tons, changed. It thun­dered down, smash­ing two small­er trees in half. Large branch­es thud­ded to the ground, the weight and momen­tum yank­ing the tree six feet from the stump. The final crash shat­tered limbs and shook the ground. An eerie silence fol­lowed as spruce nee­dles and stray fil­a­ments of moss fil­tered down. 

Right on the mon­ey,” Don said. 

The limbs of the downed tree faced them, spread like giant fans. Don fired the saw up again, walked down the length of the tree, and cut them where they attached to the tree. A geyser of chips and blue exhaust. 

While the tree was limbed, Mon­ty count­ed the stump’s rings—all 397, give or take a few. The fall­en tree looked like a har­pooned whale about to have its blub­ber removed. Ahab, with his chain­saw, had limbed the tree almost to its top. Mon­ty turned away and looked off through the woods. Moments before, this was a liv­ing organ­ism pulling nutri­ents, water, and light into its bulk. His job was con­vert­ing it to two-by-fours. 

Work­ing in Alas­ka after grad­u­a­tion was a huge leap com­pared to Monty’s nor­mal incre­men­tal steps. But the offer was too good to pass up. Dur­ing his first sea­son­al stint in the woods ear­li­er in the year, he tast­ed Alas­ka: breath­tak­ing scenery, fly­ing in heli­copters, camp­ing in the depths of the wilder­ness. His last crew was a band of adven­tur­ers like a cast in an epic-scale play. He want­ed more of all of it. And he need­ed the mon­ey after an unin­sured drunk totaled his pick­up truck. At Gilbert Bay, he wasn’t sure of any of it. 

Matt looked at Mon­ty. “Our turn. Take this and work your way along the tree.” Mon­ty grabbed the end of a fifty-foot log­ging tape which unspooled from a blue alu­minum case attached to Matt’s suspenders. 

Mon­ty stum­bled and climbed over the pile of limbs until Matt yelled, “Stop! Mark it!” Mon­ty chopped a deep gash into the fis­sured bark. Halfway along the tree, Mon­ty noticed the quiet. 

Don had retreat­ed, watch­ing their work from atop the stump, large as the cof­fee table back in Monty’s home in Indi­ana. He reclined with one arm back prop­ping him up, and the oppo­site knee up. A cig­a­rette perched in his mouth as he exhaled and tilt­ed his head back like a wolf about to howl. A cloud of smoke float­ed upward into the mist and dis­si­pat­ed. He had the con­tent look of a man who just got laid.  

Matt was busy tak­ing notes and noticed Mon­ty arrive at the tree top, half a foot­ball field away. He looked in Don’s direc­tion and shout­ed, “You’re up!” 

Don flicked the nub of the cig­a­rette butt into a skunk cab­bage patch, hopped off the stump, and grabbed his saw. A few pulls and the saw rum­bled to life as Mon­ty and Matt pushed foam ear plugs in. Don cut chunks of tree out at every mark Mon­ty made. Matt inspect­ed the tree at each cut, scrib­bling in his yel­low note­book about wood defect, qual­i­ty, and volume. 

After sev­er­al more trees were cut down, Matt looked around and scratched his head with the brim of his hard hat. “I guess it’s time for lunch.” They hud­dled under a large spruce pro­vid­ing a roof over them from the mist. 

Damn, I’m hun­gry.” Sev­er­al large plas­tic bags emerged from Don’s pack, laden with sand­wich­es, can­dy bars, apples, crack­ers, cheese, and cans of pop. 

Mon­ty and Don used the spruce as a back­rest, and Matt sat on a large root. They gob­bled their lunch­es and the talk turned to the remain­ing work. The chat­ter fad­ed, and Matt laid down in full raingear with his pack under his head. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready for a nap.” Tak­ing a cue from their boss, Mon­ty and Don stretched out as well. 

Don rolled up his chain saw chaps and used them as a pil­low. “Best part of the job.” 



Mon­ty awak­ened to a hard driz­zle. He tried to remem­ber why he need­ed to keep prov­ing him­self, and won­dered how many sea­sons it would take before Matt and Don ever thought he was any­thing oth­er than a go-fer for them. 

Well, I guess lunch break is over,” Matt shiv­ered as the last chill from the nap passed. 

Don groped for his saw and eyed the spruce shel­ter­ing them. “You’re next,” he said to the tree. 

The cut­ting con­tin­ued until every large tree in the plot was down and denud­ed. Mon­ty count­ed twelve mas­sive trees on the ground, with sev­er­al oth­er small­er trees shat­tered, top­pled over, or oth­er­wise mashed by the behe­moths dur­ing their brief fight with grav­i­ty. The for­est floor lit­tered with cut limbs, emit­ted the pun­gent smell of fresh­ly cut spruce and hem­lock trees. The car­nage last­ed six hours, and it was too late to do anoth­er plot that day. Mon­ty sur­veyed the destruc­tion sur­round­ing him. It would take a cen­tu­ry to fill the hole in the for­est they cre­at­ed. Word­less­ly, they packed up their sod­den gear and walked out the way they came, back toward the land­ing zone. 

Not far from their pick­up point, Matt point­ed at the ground. “Check that out.” A large, steam­ing pile of bear scat lay in a mound ten feet in front of them. They fell silent know­ing the bear couldn’t be too far off. 

Did you hear or see any­thing?” Don asked. 

Noth­ing,” Matt answered. 

Me nei­ther,” Mon­ty added. 

They all paused and looked around for any sign of the bear that left behind the heap of semi-digest­ed grass and berries, insert­ing an excla­ma­tion point of fear into their march. 

Mon­ty, keep that rifle ready and your eyes peeled,” Matt said. 

Did you remem­ber to load it?” Don asked. 

Mon­ty gave Don a wry smile. “I’m ready, the safety’s off, I have four rounds in the mag­a­zine, none in the cham­ber, and three more in my pock­et. Any­thing else?” Their sched­ule had them work­ing “ten­ners”: ten days in the woods in between four days off in Sit­ka, for the next three months. If this crap kept up, it was going to be a long season. 



On the next ten­ner they slogged along­side a swollen creek to their next plot. 

Shit, that didn’t go as planned.” The tree Don cut tot­tered and wob­bled before dump­ing the butt end into the ground next to the stump. The top was sup­posed to clear a large spruce about a hun­dred feet away. Instead, it hung up in the spruce at a sev­en­ty-degree angle with the miss-cut spruce mak­ing a very large hypotenuse. 

Can you cut the bot­tom and get the top to drop out?” Matt asked. “That could do it.” 

Let’s take a clos­er look.” Don walked to the tree where the cut spruce was hanging. 

Matt and Mon­ty fol­lowed Don to the tree. Don stared up at the tree, scan­ning for some hid­den clue unlock­ing this large wood­en puzzle. 

What do you think?” Matt said. 

Mon­ty,” Don com­mand­ed. “Go get my saw, wedges, and ax.” 

Uncer­tain, Mon­ty looked at Matt. It didn’t look safe to cut the tree, but Don was con­fi­dent. Maybe too confident. 

Don’t be such a wee­nie, Mon­ty,” said Don. “Get the god­damn saw.” 

Matt’s face pinched with an unchar­ac­ter­is­tic taut­ness to it, “Do you think this is a good idea?” 

Don’s plan was now appar­ent. Mon­ty real­ized Don was going to take down the stand­ing tree with the cut tree loom­ing over the top of him, hop­ing both trees came down together. 

Just like domi­nos,” Don said. 

The only dif­fer­ence is you die if you lose this game,” Matt added in a mea­sured tone. 

Always with the dra­ma, Matt. I’ve done this before—don’t like to make a habit of it though. Mon­ty, go get the saw.” 

Mon­ty stayed root­ed in place, not sure how this was going to play out. The woods were silent; no thrush called, no breeze flut­tered the blue­ber­ry bush­es, no pat­ter of rain. 

We don’t need this fuck­ing tree, Don.” 

It is part of the plot, right? 

Yeah, but we don’t need to take a tree with this lev­el of risk. You’re not crazy, are you?” Matt asked. 

Maybe I am crazy, or maybe it’s a cal­cu­lat­ed risk.” 

Well Don,” Matt said, “I don’t like your math.” 

The tree is com­ing down; it’s part of the code.” 

What code?” Matt asked. 

All trees come to the ground—that’s the code.” Don gave Matt a pained look sug­gest­ing he didn’t care if Matt under­stood or not. Don looked again at Mon­ty. “Are you get­ting that saw or not?” Mon­ty went to get the saw. 

You are crazy. You know that, don’t you? I could fire you for this, right here too.” 

Fire away, the tree is com­ing down.” Don rum­maged in his back­pack and pulled a fist-size spool of para­chute cord out. “Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to tie one end of this cord to my sus­penders, and Matt is going to hold the oth­er end. The two of you will be behind that big hem­lock over there.” He point­ed to a shag­gy, moss-cov­ered trunk. “If you see any­thing fun­ny, pull the cord, and I’m gonna run like hell to where you are. That tree is under a shit­load of ten­sion from the one hang­ing up in it so when I start my back cut, I’m gonna real­ly let loose with the saw. It should go right over with that tree lean­ing on it.” 

Don yanked the pull cord of the saw and it roared for a sec­ond and slowed to a low-throat­ed growl. Matt and Mon­ty scur­ried to the hem­lock trail­ing the cord, the life­line to Don. Don drove the saw into the tree with a vengeance. A large wood­en chunk plunked out and fell to the ground among a pile of wood­chips. The tree hadn’t moved, but the dan­ger­ous back cut was about to begin. Don looked at the tops of the com­min­gled trees and back to Matt and Mon­ty. Matt gave a “thumbs up” and Don began the back cut as Matt fin­gered the cord in his hand. Don imme­di­ate­ly pressed the saw’s trig­ger and it ripped through the tree. There was a loud crack, but the tree appeared immov­able. The tree made a pop­ping sound and began to teeter. For anoth­er microsec­ond, Don gave the saw every­thing it had. The mass of branch­es at the top of the tree lev­ered the tree over, and Don tugged the saw from the tree and hur­ried to the big hem­lock for safe­ty. Don squint­ed at Matt who still had the cord in his hand, their eyes locked momen­tar­i­ly, and they watched the con­clu­sion of his work. 

The trees top­pled side by side in a cacoph­o­nous crash. The ground shud­dered and a Whumpf! car­ried across the for­est floor like a shock wave. Large limbs crashed to the ground near where Don stood moments before; any of them could have crushed him instant­ly. Mon­ty and Matt approached the stump, like two bystanders at a car crash. 

Don fol­lowed, streams of sweat drip­ping from under the brim of his hard­hat. Don hand­ed Matt his end of the cord. “So,” Don said, “let’s fin­ish the plot.”



Back at camp, their hair was still damp after using the propane-fired show­er. Din­ner call was not far off. The tin stove radi­at­ed warm air across the wall tent. The tang of wood smoke mixed with the funk of dry­ing, dirty pants and shirts hang­ing from nails in the wood­en tent frame. 

So am I fired?” Don was play­ing soli­taire on a small fold­ing table, each card snap­ping on the table as he played it. His shirt was off, reveal­ing a hair­less but pow­er­ful physique. Sus­penders hung down in a loop from his pants to the floor. 

No,” Matt answered. “I know one thing for sure, though.” 

What’s that?” 

You’re one crazy asshole.” 

I’ve heard that before,” Don said as he set a king down. 

You seem proud of that.” 

Not proud or ashamed if you want it straight up. It’s just me. That’s the way I am.” 

Matt set an aer­i­al pho­to down, rose from his bunk and stood in front of Don. Mon­ty, not sure what was going to hap­pen, put his book aside and watched for any sign of trou­ble. If it came to that, he knew he would have no choice but to join in. Don was much short­er than Matt, but there was no way Matt’s lanky body could han­dle Don’s strength in tight quarters. 

Don played anoth­er card and looked up at Matt, stand­ing in front of him. “What?” 

Promise you won’t pull any more shit like you did today.” 

Don looked at a card, wait­ed a few sec­onds. “Agreed.” 

Matt put out his hand and Don, still seat­ed, shook it. Matt walked back to his bunk, picked up the pho­to and stud­ied it while Don played anoth­er card. Mon­ty, wit­ness to this back­woods détente, picked up his book on the mat­tress and tried to find the place he left off. 



The rest of their ten-day tour in the woods was unevent­ful, with each pass­ing day a few less ticks of day­light. More than ever, the four days off seemed to be a pause, an exha­la­tion, every­one on the crew need­ed. The float plane swooped them away from Gilbert Bay, and forty-five min­utes lat­er it tax­ied on the lapis-col­ored water of Jamestown Bay in Sit­ka. Don, Matt, and Mon­ty and two oth­er crew mem­bers helped unload their gear from the plane and put it in a big pile of duf­fle bags, back­packs, and emp­ty fuel jugs on the dock. Don’s two large chain­saws dom­i­nat­ed the pile; he nev­er left them in the field and babied them like they were twin Stradivari. 

It was Thurs­day after­noon and Matt said to Don, “See you at 8:00 a.m. on Tues­day, right?” It was as if Matt had an unset­tling doubt about Don return­ing to the crew. 

Don placed his saws and a duf­fle in the back of a rust­ed Ford pick­up with one head­light miss­ing and opened the door of the truck. “Yup,” was all he said before the truck fish­tailed out of the park­ing lot. 

See what I have to deal with,” Matt said. 

How come you didn’t fire him?” Mon­ty asked. 

Good fall­ers are in short sup­ply. Don’s one of the best. He knows it too.” 



The late Octo­ber sun­light had lit­tle effect on the chill air pool­ing around them. Don, Mon­ty, and Matt walked out from the for­est with the sound of the approach­ing heli­copter. They crouched in the open and watched it cir­cle overhead. 

The heli­copter set down in the tiny muskeg at the base of a steep hill that led up to the pre­cip­i­tous flanks of a moun­tain. Its rub­ber pon­toon floats rocked gen­tly for a few sec­onds while the rotors flashed over their heads. Eli, their beard­ed heli­copter fore­man, jumped out with his hel­met visor down, hand­ed every­one Nomex flame-resis­tant cov­er­alls, and stowed the rifle under the bench seat in the back. Don suit­ed up first so he scoot­ed into the mid­dle with his pack in his lap. Matt and Mon­ty took seats by the door latched shut by Eli. There were three hel­mets on the back seat and each of them put one on, but only two hel­mets, those of Matt and Mon­ty, could plug into the two avail­able inter­com jacks. Eli climbed in, grabbed his clip­board and did a quick load cal­cu­la­tion. He gave Kirk, the pilot, a thumbs-up they were good to go. 

The heli­copter ascend­ed slow­ly and cleared a hud­dle of short, scrub­by trees. It climbed a bit more and trem­bled, like a May­tag on spin cycle, instead of con­tin­u­ing to glide upwards. They sat there sus­pend­ed momen­tar­i­ly, but the shak­ing only got worse until it became a hard shud­der. Kirk fever­ish­ly worked the con­trols. Matt and Mon­ty looked out the win­dow know­ing some­thing was not right. A red light flashed on the con­sole, fol­lowed by a loud alarm buzzing. Small trees loomed below, and the heli­copter began a very slow descent—each pass­ing sec­ond frozen in time. 

Kirk yelled into his mic, “We’re too heavy. Throw your packs out!” 

Mon­ty and Matt opened their doors and tossed their packs out the door. Don, with the biggest pack of all, couldn’t hear with­out an inter­com hookup, and was try­ing to under­stand what they were doing. Mon­ty ripped the pack out of Don’s lap and flung it out the door. For good mea­sure, he reached under the seat and heaved the rifle out the door too. 

The heli­copter stopped its descent, flut­tered momen­tar­i­ly and slow­ly rose. Mon­ty breathed a sigh of relief. But not enough weight was shed. It lurched for­ward to anoth­er area of the muskeg. If the heli­copter set­tled into the trees, the rotors would rip off, spew­ing met­al shards. When the chop­per hit the ground like a wound­ed duck, it would flop around with an angry tur­bo-charged engine attached to it. In front of them was a wall of taller spruce the heli­copter could not clear unless some­thing rad­i­cal hap­pened. Everyone’s eyes, wide with fear, were on the trees not far below. Kirk’s right hand clung to the Cyclic stick and his left hand on the Col­lec­tive con­trol. He tried to wres­tle a mechan­i­cal beast at the lim­it of its capa­bil­i­ties, strain­ing for the last bit of lift left in the rotors. 

Mon­ty opened the door and looked down at the spots between the trees and fig­ured it couldn’t be more than twen­ty-five feet down. It was a sim­ple deci­sion. They were going to crash and pos­si­bly die unless more weight was unloaded. He unplugged his hel­met from the inter­com, stepped out on the pon­toon and jumped. As soon as he did, the heli­copter popped up in the air like a cham­pagne cork, shot out over the trees, and disappeared. 

Mon­ty sunk a foot into the cush­iony muskeg and his rub­ber boots were still stuck in the peat while he lay on his side with his stock­ing feet. He had done a parachutist’s land­ing to help absorb the shock of his fall, some­thing he had learned from a few token sky­div­ing trips in col­lege. He lay pant­i­ng, star­ing up into an azure sky, men­tal­ly check­ing if all his body parts were still there. Except for an aching ankle, he was intact. He wres­tled his boots out of the mud and put them on, stand­ing up slow­ly, sus­pi­cious of a hid­den injury. Limp­ing slight­ly, he wan­dered the muskeg retriev­ing the dis­card­ed gear. The rifle was embed­ded, bar­rel down, two feet into the mud. 

A pow­er­ful thirst and chill hit. He grabbed his water bot­tle and drank when the radio in Matt’s pack called his name. 

Mon­ty, Mon­ty, are you okay?” Matt’s voice had a ten­sion he had not heard before. 

Mon­ty undid the pack straps and pulled the radio out. Before he could respond he got anoth­er call. 

Mon­ty are you there?” 

I’m a bit dazed and have a sore ankle, but I’m okay. Where are you guys?” 

We dropped off Don, Eli, and a few items in a muskeg down the hill to light­en our load and did a quick check of the heli­copter. Every­thing seems to be work­ing good though. We’re gonna come get you ASAP.” 

Mon­ty looked around the muskeg; the trees stood like silent ghost sol­diers in a field, and he sat on Don’s pack, not car­ing what squished. His ass was already wet, but he didn’t want to sit back down on the damp, cold ground. He felt grog­gy, like the tail end of a hang­over set­tling on him. The adren­a­line rush was fad­ing, and he won­dered if he was going into shock. “How long before you get here?” 

We’re in the air now. Should be there in five, max.” 

I’m not going any­where, but I’m start­ing to get cold. You sure you can find this place again?” 

There was a pause and Mon­ty real­ized how fool­ish his ques­tion was. A muskeg Matt couldn’t find? There was no way that could happen—his mind was like one large aer­i­al pho­to. Matt nor­mal­ly gave a sharp retort to a chal­lenge about his abil­i­ty to recon­noi­ter, but giv­en the cir­cum­stances he said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to for­get that spot. Hang on, we’ll be there in a bit. I have blan­kets and a first aid kit too.” 

Mon­ty draped his yel­low Helly Hansen over him­self and pulled the hood up. Light slant­ed through the trees, leav­ing thawed lines across the frost. “Okay, see you in a bit.” 

The heli­copter appeared from behind a low ridge. He saw Matt point to him from inside the Plex­i­glas bub­ble as the heli­copter cut over the trees at a sharp angle. The heli­copter touched down, and Mon­ty took a step before he saw Matt hold up his hand to stop mov­ing. This time, Kirk shut the heli­copter down and nobody moved until the blades ceased turning. 

Matt approached like he was star­ing at an alien. “You okay?” 

The deci­sion hap­pened quick­ly, but the fall to the ground seemed to sus­pend him momen­tar­i­ly in the air like an out-of-body expe­ri­ence. In some ways it seemed like a dream now. “All things con­sid­ered, I guess I am.” Mon­ty reached down to pick up a pack. 

Don’t make any sud­den move­ment; you may have some inter­nal or spinal injuries.” Matt was by his side and put an arm around Mon­ty to escort him to the helicopter. 

I can do this. Let’s just take it slow because I think I rolled my ankle.” 

Kirk walked over to Mon­ty. “I’ve got 6,000 hours in a chop­per but nev­er had a per­son jump out of one before. You kept that ship,” Kirk ges­tured with his thumb over his shoul­der, “from going down. Damn­d­est thing I’ve ever seen.” 

It would be hard to explain to any­one. A per­son casu­al­ly steps out of a heli­copter, like drop­ping down a rab­bit hole, not know­ing how bad­ly he was going to get injured. It seemed so unheroic; five peo­ple were hit­ting the ground in a crash if one of them didn’t do some­thing. Only he, Eli, and Matt were eli­gi­ble can­di­dates since Kirk was nec­es­sary and Don was in a mid­dle seat. Monty’s door was still open from throw­ing the rifle out, so that made the deci­sion clear. Mon­ty sur­prised him­self with the ease of his decision—more a reflex than any­thing else. 

Matt ush­ered Mon­ty into the heli­copter. “Let’s head out. We can sort this out back at camp.” 



Mon­ty lay on his bunk with an ice pack on his ankle, a cup of hot cocoa steam­ing on an upturned crate next to it. Tylenol dulled the ache creep­ing into his ankle. 

Eli and Kirk, both still wear­ing their Nomex, pulled the tent flaps aside and came in. 

So what the hell hap­pened up there?” Matt jammed anoth­er piece of wood into the stove and strad­dled a fold­ing chair backwards. 

Eli and I have been try­ing to sort it out,” said Kirk. “Near as I can tell we were still with­in the load limit—just bare­ly. I checked Eli’s cal­cu­la­tions. And no sign of mechan­i­cal issues.” 

Eli sighed but said noth­ing. He looked addled, as if his body had stopped vibrat­ing and a qui­et thrum­ming had over­tak­en it. 

There must have been just enough of a down­draft off that peak,” Kirk point­ed in the direc­tion of the moun­tain, “and we were so close to the hill­side it was like an invis­i­ble riv­er flow­ing that made it hard for the chop­per to gain lift.” Kirk fid­dled with a zip­per on his flight suit, open­ing and shut­ting a pock­et. “Imper­cep­ti­ble. Nev­er seen any­thing like that.” 

Mon­ty couldn’t help but think back an hour ear­li­er. He had felt that cold air, but all it did was chill them while they wait­ed for the heli­copter. He had no idea it would be such an insid­i­ous force. Would they have died? No way to tell. Maybe burned or maimed; being swathed in ban­dages and splint­ed in a crit­i­cal care ward unnerved him. 

Don sat up in his bed, mat­tress frame springs groan­ing. “That high dive you took saved us from seri­ous­ly deep shit.” 

Mon­ty was so tired he could bare­ly keep his eyes open. In his bewil­dered state it dawned on him he wasn’t sens­ing friend­ship. It wasn’t cama­raderie. As near as Mon­ty could tell, it was kin­ship. The prim­i­tive form of belong­ing to a tribe. They toiled in the dark for­est, slept in the same tent, and broke bread at the same table. Con­nect­ing all those dots didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to friend­ship. At this point, Mon­ty would take it. 



Lat­er that week Matt was look­ing through the stere­o­scope star­ing at aer­i­al pho­tos and he pushed the scope over to Mon­ty. “Check out this plot we’re going to tomor­row. What do you think is a good route?” 

It took Mon­ty a minute for his eyes to adjust to stereo vision. He saw a pos­si­ble route up a small ridge from the land­ing zone. “I think this way could work,” as he traced a line with his fin­ger for Matt. 

Matt pulled the stere­o­scope back, “That’s what I was think­ing too.” His ever-present red grease pen­cil marked the route. 

The fol­low­ing night, Don was sharp­en­ing his chain­saw on a home­made bench in their wall tent. The famil­iar zzzzzt, zzzzzt, zzzzzt of the file on the chain stopped. “Why don’t you come over here and I’ll show you the fine points of sharp­en­ing a saw. Might as well learn from a pro.” 



At the begin­ning of Novem­ber, leaves laid in bunch­es on the ground, cov­ered in the morn­ing frost. It was too dark to work more than a few hours, and camp was shut­ting down now. In the past three months they criss­crossed this val­ley dozens of times by air, and cursed their way across it on foot. 

The heli­copter rose from the muskeg for the last time. It moved faster, skim­ming over the trees and pick­ing up alti­tude. Mon­ty was between Don and Matt in the back seat, their gear lashed to the pon­toon racks. 

Mon­ty watched as the val­ley unfold­ed below, rec­og­niz­ing the creeks, ponds, and ravines. Obsta­cles to avoid, not admire. He wished he had stopped more often, soak­ing in this spe­cial place of unend­ing soli­tude. He paid par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the muskegs since the heli­copter left them there to begin the jour­ney to each plot. Many of the muskegs were named based on their shape—the Air­port because it was so large; the Catcher’s Mitt was cir­cu­lar; and the Nee­dle was so hard to find. Then there was Shit­hole, where the steam­ing bear scat stirred their fears. 

Mon­ty craned his neck, search­ing for oth­er land­marks to give con­text to the immen­si­ty of the land­scape. Rain ran in streaks across the Plex­i­glas dome of the heli­copter and once or twice, Mon­ty thought he saw a plot, but it was hard to tell since the plot was a speck among the broad expanse of green. The only tell­tale sign was the tiny clear­ing and the white of fresh­ly cut stumps vis­i­ble below. 

Don was eat­ing a Her­shey bar and hold­ing a half-eat­en apple in his oth­er hand. He noticed Mon­ty look­ing at him, stopped in mid-chew, and gave him a thumbs-up with the Her­shey bar. Matt had an aer­i­al pho­to in his hand, com­par­ing it to the real thing on his side of the heli­copter. He saw the thumbs up and glanced at Mon­ty. Matt gave a quick nod and looked back down at his photo. 

The heli­copter passed the last of the trees and was over slate-col­ored water. The val­ley was gone. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I worked as a heli­copter fore­man for an Alas­ka tim­ber crew for one sea­son and want­ed to cap­ture the hard work, the cama­raderie, and the raw feel­ings that build liv­ing in very close prox­im­i­ty for weeks on end. It’s more than a tale about peo­ple since the land­scape is so awe-inspir­ing it’s almost anoth­er char­ac­ter in the sto­ry. The valley’s fate is in the hands of the tim­ber crew.


Orig­i­nal­ly from the sub­urbs of New Jer­sey, Ken Post worked for the For­est Ser­vice in Alas­ka for 40 years, includ­ing many sea­sons on a mil­lion-acre island with more brown (griz­zly) bears than there are peo­ple. He writes short sto­ries dur­ing the long, dark win­ters. His fic­tion has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in Cirque, Red Fez, and Poor Yorick and is forth­com­ing in Woven Tale Press and Kansas City Voic­es. The sto­ry, “Eno­la Gay,” in Red Fez, was nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Push­cart Prize.

The Rope-a-Dope Gambit

Fiction / Sunil Freeman

:: The Rope-a-Dope Gambit ::

Joy Jack­son had heard an occa­sion­al insult over the years, but nev­er “This will be quick.” She’d seen the white boy and woman as they approached, stop­ping just a few yards from her. The woman, pre­sum­ably his moth­er, said she’d be back, then some­thing about din­ner plans. The boy stared at Joy as the woman turned and walked away. Then he called back, more than loud enough for her and the dozen or more peo­ple who had gath­ered: “This will be quick.” She knew what he was think­ing, saw it in both their glances even before he spoke: Black girl play­ing chess means an easy win. The assump­tion no longer sur­prised her. But the loud con­tempt? In front of so many peo­ple? It stung. 

She had arrived at noon, an hour before the game was to begin. She liked to take in the sounds and rhythms of the city, clear her mind, and drift into an almost med­i­ta­tive tran­quil­i­ty before find­ing the sharp focus she’d soon bring to the chess­board. As good for­tune would have it, the orga­niz­ers had decid­ed to play a few games at Dupont Cir­cle when ren­o­va­tions had tem­porar­i­ly shut the old school build­ing. The place was a mec­ca for chess lovers, in the heart of the city just a mile from the White House. It was a per­fect blue sky Sat­ur­day right on the cusp of autumn, her favorite season. 

A steady stream of peo­ple wan­dered through the park. Tourists peered at guide books and snapped pic­tures. Dozens of peo­ple lis­tened to head­phones, read books, talked with friends, or just relaxed on bench­es that cir­cled the foun­tain. Far­ther back, almost to the road, a drum­mer played shift­ing rhyth­mic pat­terns on his array of plas­tic buck­ets. Pigeons flocked to the foun­tain or wad­dled around look­ing for stray crumbs of crois­sants, muffins, any­thing. Squir­rels in trees looked war­i­ly at two unleashed dogs. 

Joy had been there a week before after find­ing Mikhail Botvinnik’s One Hun­dred Select­ed Games just off the Cir­cle at Sec­ond Sto­ry Books. She spent the after­noon study­ing analy­ses of games from the 1920s into the ’40s by a world cham­pi­on who once taught future grand­mas­ters like Kas­parov and Kar­pov. Botvin­nik had an engag­ing writ­ing style and he gen­er­ous­ly shared his reflec­tions on games with Alekhine, Capa­blan­ca, and oth­er leg­endary play­ers who had been his con­tem­po­raries. This alone was worth the price of a used paper­back, but his book offered much more than a win­dow into that dis­tant era. Botvin­nik deep­ened her under­stand­ing of the Ruy Lopez, Sicil­ian Defense, Queen’s Gam­bit Declined, and sev­er­al oth­er open­ings. She played some of them often; oth­ers she planned to try some day. 

Read­ing Botvin­nik, Joy felt con­nect­ed across decades and con­ti­nents to an enor­mous com­mu­ni­ty, part of which had gath­ered right there in the city park. She saw class­mates, her old­er broth­er Bri­an, some fam­i­ly friends who had come to show sup­port, and a mix of acquain­tances and strangers. Curios­i­ty had attract­ed new­com­ers. They had heard the buzz about the shy, unas­sum­ing girl who was crush­ing most of her oppo­nents, even beat­ing some high­ly ranked adults. 


Peo­ple who got to know Joy saw her as an intro­vert, a qui­et 13-year-old who did well in school, knew the staff at the pub­lic library, and was rarely seen with­out a book or two. Bri­an, a senior who played tenor sax at Duke Elling­ton School of the Arts, had always been the out­go­ing child, pop­u­lar in and out of school. He’d gone from clar­inet to sax five years before. The switch, when it hap­pened, seemed pre­or­dained, as if he’d grown into his true self. He loved the instru­ment, prac­tic­ing for hours and study­ing tran­scribed John Coltrane, Son­ny Rollins, and Wayne Short­er solos. 

Some evenings he sat in with the old pros on jazz nights at West­min­ster Pres­by­ter­ian. A pianist, after learn­ing who she was, told her: “Your brother’s going places if he keeps at it like this.” That was the night Bri­an took a big solo on Charles Mingus’s “Bet­ter Get Hit In Your Soul.” The band was on fire, breath­ing life into the Bib­li­cal psalm’s com­mand­ment. They made a joy­ful noise that rocked the chapel, wash­ing away, at least for a while, what­ev­er wor­ries need­ed to be gone. 

Joy kept a low pro­file, hap­py to leave the spot­light to Bri­an. Intro­vert. The word, once applied, felt just right. She liked the image it con­jured of a per­son com­fort­able with soli­tude; she wore it well. Bran­don and Grace Jack­son had seen their chil­dren grow in dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent paths, each find­ing a tem­pera­ment that fit nat­u­ral­ly. “I think you might enjoy chess,” her father had said on her ninth birth­day. She was imme­di­ate­ly hooked by a sense of mys­tery, the won­der of hav­ing such an ancient game right there in their home. Soon she was drawn to the com­plex lines of attack and defense, the many open­ings and tac­tics to study. 

She loved the way her breath slowed, how stray thoughts dis­ap­peared as her focus on the chess­board sharp­ened, how she could feel her pulse beat­ing as she planned an attack, then watched the metic­u­lous­ly plot­ted sequence of moves fall into place. She knew all too well the jolt of adren­a­line when—too late!—she detect­ed an unavoid­able knight fork. Her heart pound­ed as she nav­i­gat­ed around obsta­cles to push a pawn to the end rank where it would become a queen. 

Some­times it felt like she was glid­ing, a con­trolled con­fi­dence smooth as the Smokey Robin­son songs her par­ents loved. Oth­er times, a jum­bled mess. All this pow­er­ful ener­gy was dri­ven and con­trolled by her mind. It was a bit addic­tive. As Joy gained con­fi­dence, she began to read about the great play­ers and their his­toric games. New worlds opened for her to explore. Chess had become an inex­haustible gift with ever greater rewards the more she learned. 

She joined the youth chess league a year after those first games with her father. Word began to spread about the girl whose well con­cealed traps caught even advanced play­ers by sur­prise. At home, she now con­sis­tent­ly beat him. Her moth­er did lit­tle to hide her amuse­ment at this turn of events. “Who’s win­ning?” she’d ask, tak­ing a break from grad­ing high school writ­ing assign­ments. He’d sigh, then offer a word­less grunt. It became a run­ning joke, with Brian’s sax more often than not wail­ing coun­ter­point from his bed­room upstairs. 

The Jack­son fam­i­ly roots in the city ran deep. Their ances­tors on both sides had come up from Raleigh, North Car­oli­na in the lat­ter part of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Brandon’s father had been friends with Mar­i­on Bar­ry since the days of Pride, Inc. That was a decade before Barry’s reign began as “May­or for Life.” Long before all that went down went down. The nation’s cap­i­tal had been known as Choco­late City, at times more than 70% Black, back in the day. Neigh­bors knew each oth­er, shared a com­mon his­to­ry, and cre­at­ed a home-grown cul­ture in close-knit com­mu­ni­ties that had forged tight bonds under the painful weight of legal segregation. 

Bran­don attend­ed Dun­bar High School and went on to Howard Uni­ver­si­ty, ulti­mate­ly grad­u­at­ing from the law school. He had worked in labor law almost twen­ty years. It pro­vid­ed a com­fort­able home life when com­bined with Grace’s job teach­ing Eng­lish to seniors at Dun­bar. Not near­ly as lucra­tive as cor­po­rate law, but more than enough. He was, as Grace liked to say, one of the good lawyers. 

Bran­don had imag­ined Joy would take to chess, sensed she’d be good at it, but had not antic­i­pat­ed what was hap­pen­ing. They enjoyed their games togeth­er, but both knew it was time to find more chal­leng­ing oppo­nents. Word quick­ly spread through the grapevine that Bran­don and Grace Jack­son were seek­ing chess play­ers for their daugh­ter. They soon learned about James Gilmore. 


They looked online after hear­ing his name a third time. The Google search brought up arti­cles in neigh­bor­hood news­pa­pers, a fea­ture in Chess Life, mag­a­zine of the U.S. Chess Fed­er­a­tion, seg­ments on local PBS and NBC TV chan­nels, and an item in the Sun­day Wash­ing­ton Post magazine. 

James Gilmore was a Black man, about 50 years old, who lived and played chess at Dupont Cir­cle, pock­et­ing $5, $10, or more for a game or short les­son. It had been sev­er­al years since he last had a per­ma­nent address. Lessons with James often con­sist­ed of him patient­ly ana­lyz­ing the game that had just tran­spired, show­ing crest­fall­en oppo­nents just how and why they lost. Many drove or Metro’d in from the sub­urbs, oth­ers from every quad­rant of the city. He even played a few ambas­sadors, vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries, and embassy work­ers from around the globe. 

James had range. To max­i­mize his income, he spe­cial­ized in “blitz” games that last­ed no more than 10 min­utes. Dupont Cir­cle was home to a sub­cul­ture of chess hus­tlers who could beat almost any­one. James was sim­ply the best. Unlike the oth­ers, he also played clas­sic tour­na­ment-lev­el chess in cities along the east coast. Over the years he had won two tour­na­ments and he always fin­ished among the final­ists. Even high­ly ranked play­ers who avoid­ed the live­ly Dupont Cir­cle chess scene acknowl­edged that James Gilmore was one of the best in the entire metro area. 

Grace and Bran­don read the arti­cles and watched James play and phi­los­o­phize on YouTube videos. One warm April day they board­ed the Metro with Joy, des­tined for Dupont Cir­cle. He saw them join the small crowd that had gath­ered to watch as he dis­patched one oppo­nent after the oth­er. He fin­ished a sec­ond blitz game, then beck­oned them. 

We can for­get about the game clock,” he said, sur­pris­ing almost every­one. “Let’s just play.” He com­pli­ment­ed her best moves. He stopped the game when she made a mis­take. “Are you sure you want to do that? If you move there, I’ll do this,” play­ing out the next few moves. They played and talked for more than an hour. Chess talk, then rem­i­nis­cence with her par­ents about the North Car­oli­na roots they all shared, rel­a­tives who nev­er moved north, then more chess. All the while a small crowd of impa­tient cus­tomers wait­ed for their chance to play. 

James refused their mon­ey when it came time to leave. “Nah, that’s alright. I’ve real­ly enjoyed this. I hope y’all will come back.” The Jack­sons intend­ed to revis­it the issue of pay­ment at a lat­er date, but they knew to defer to him on that first vis­it. They were on his turf. Though it was nev­er spo­ken, they all under­stood that James had passed a test that after­noon, as had Joy and her parents. 

The next week she returned with her moth­er. Instead of cash, Mrs. Jack­son brought a gen­er­ous por­tion of the sweet pota­to pie they had dis­cussed at their first meet­ing, the recipe her moth­er taught her long ago. Mrs. Jackson’s sweet pota­to pie was an offer he did not refuse. 

Joy’s par­ents didn’t accom­pa­ny her the fol­low­ing week. Bri­an was eager to check out the chess guy he’d been hear­ing about. He brought his sax to try street busk­ing after her ses­sion with James. They’d enjoy the after­noon togeth­er, sib­ling time out in the city. James spent almost an hour with her, stop­ping to explain a few moves as he had done before. 

Bri­an saw his sis­ter in a new light that after­noon. James clear­ly was the star, but peo­ple noticed how he shift­ed gears for her. How his quick stac­ca­to pat­ter gave way to a slow­er, more reflec­tive side they had nev­er seen. The buzz spread­ing through Dupont chess cir­cles had become: “Oh my God. He stopped the clock.” It was usu­al­ly fol­lowed by: “Who is she?” Anoint­ed by James Gilmore, Brian’s shy lit­tle sis­ter was becom­ing a celebri­ty on Dupont Circle. 

I’m sor­ry. My par­ents asked me to do this.” Joy hand­ed James a $20 bill at the end of their last game. “They said they pay for music lessons, so it’s not right for you not to get at least some pay­ment when­ev­er we play.” 

If they insist,” James accept­ed the mon­ey. “But please be sure to let your moth­er know how much I enjoyed her sweet pota­to pie. That was …” he paused, search­ing for a word. “I believe that was the best sweet pota­to pie I’ve ever had.” 

Should I tell her you’d like more?”

Just tell her I liked it. Tell her I liked it a whole lot.” He said it to both of them like the words were music. Said it with a smile, so it was as if they were all in on a secret. James’s future def­i­nite­ly held the promise of more sweet pota­to pie. 

Joy was relieved to have the ques­tion of mon­ey resolved. She had been ner­vous all day in antic­i­pa­tion of the con­ver­sa­tion. “Well, I should be get­ting back to work. Good luck with the music. I’ll enjoy it while I play these guys.” James turned to face his new oppo­nent. Joy and Bri­an found an open grassy area set back from the cen­tral foun­tain but near one of the side­walks that bisect­ed the cir­cle. Bri­an put a dona­tion box on the ground, assem­bled his instru­ment, and began to play. He cleared just over $60 in two hours. 


Joy vis­it­ed James almost every week after that, some­times with Bri­an, some­times with her moth­er or father. Every now and then they all arrived togeth­er to enjoy the chess and hear Bri­an play. 

The pow­er dynam­ics that ruled most aspects of city life held no sway at James’s small cor­ner of the Cir­cle. Some oppo­nents came with no expec­ta­tion of win­ning. They only want­ed to enhance their bohemi­an hip­ster cred by play­ing the famous chess guy at Dupont Cir­cle. For them, even a loss was a win. It was proof of authen­tic­i­ty, a prized nugget of per­son­al infor­ma­tion to slip into con­ver­sa­tion at a par­ty or on a date. He enjoyed those games. They were upbeat, albeit lop­sided, win-win encoun­ters where every­one left feel­ing happy. 

Oth­er oppo­nents assumed their pro­fes­sion­al cre­den­tials (although not in chess), their grav­i­tas, and their supe­ri­or grad­u­ate degrees would give them the advan­tage over a slick chess hus­tler. He enjoyed teach­ing them a les­son. Some of them nev­er got over the con­fu­sion, return­ing over and over. After his sec­ond defeat, one such man looked, for all the world, like he thought there was a glitch in the uni­verse. As if he had stum­bled onto some quan­tum physics mys­tery, a por­tal to oth­er dimen­sions, right there on Dupont Cir­cle. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the sim­ple fact that James was a much bet­ter chess player. 

One after­noon Bri­an watched as Joy and James set­tled into a leisure­ly game and les­son. He first asked about their par­ents, then how they were doing in school. They even­tu­al­ly start­ed to play chess. As usu­al, a few peo­ple were wait­ing for their chance to play against him. James kept no sched­ule, had no appoint­ment cal­en­dar. He chose how to spend his time just as freely as he decid­ed his moves. 

We’re all wait­ing here and you’re giv­ing her all this extra time. It’s not fair.” 

The obser­va­tion that “life is unfair” lands with spe­cial author­i­ty when deliv­ered by a man who has no known street address. James had been on the los­ing side of “life is unfair” for much of his life. That wasn’t the only rea­son he loved chess, but it played a part. He rec­og­nized the absur­di­ty of the moment as he spoke the words. The young man knew he had blun­dered. The rest of the group turned on him with eye rolls, glares, a “hey man, shut up” fol­lowed by “bad move, bro.” That set off waves of mock­ing laughter. 

James turned away, leav­ing him to pon­der the error of his ways. Smil­ing, he asked Joy: “What do you think? Life is unfair. Isn’t it?” 

In all fair­ness, Joy and Bri­an were sur­round­ed by mate­r­i­al com­fort, lov­ing par­ents, music, chess, books, and home cook­ing. Still, they both had been fol­lowed by pri­vate secu­ri­ty guards in stores. Their par­ents had giv­en them “the talk,” the painful con­ver­sa­tion about how best to avoid get­ting killed by trig­ger-hap­py cops. 

Bri­an and his friends had been stopped twice in the so-called “jump outs,” plain­clothes police jump­ing out of unmarked cars to stop and frisk folks who were just mind­ing their own busi­ness. The peo­ple accost­ed always hap­pened to be Black. The chief of police claimed the jump outs had end­ed long ago, but local news reporters found more than a dozen neigh­bor­hood kids who claimed to see them all the time. 

Whom to believe, a bunch of chil­dren, some still in ele­men­tary school, or the chief of police in the nation’s cap­i­tal? She spoke again to reporters when the evi­dence became over­whelm­ing. Peo­ple across the city eas­i­ly saw through her attempt at dam­age con­trol. The para­phrased gist of it: Oh, you mean those actions the chil­dren were talk­ing about? Our vice squad some­times does engage in law enforce­ment activ­i­ties that could appear to be sim­i­lar. But like I’ve already said, we no longer do jump outs. We dis­con­tin­ued the prac­tice sev­er­al years ago.  

Dri­ving while Black. Walk­ing while Black. Breath­ing while Black. 

Yes,” Joy agreed with James, “life is unfair.” 

The sto­ry of “Bad move, bro,” and “Life is unfair” was repeat­ed dozens of times over the next few weeks, seal­ing its place in the shared com­mon lore, the real people’s his­to­ry of Dupont Circle. 


This will be quick.” The arro­gant sneer from a kid who looked to be her age. Voice like a slap to the face. The charged silence held for a long moment. Maybe three sec­onds, maybe four. Her friends flinched. Some looked to her, con­cerned. She tensed, lock­ing down the jolt of rage. She would not show him anger or pain. 

Bri­an broke the silence: “We’ll see about that.” His voice com­mand­ed atten­tion, not shout­ing like the boy, but loud enough for all to hear. 

Watch­ing it unfold, keep­ing a tight hold on her emo­tions, Joy thought it played out like a taut scene in a gang­ster movie. The fool­ish boy had lost the instant Bri­an spoke. Thank God he was there, and that her par­ents did not have to see it. Undoubt­ed­ly they would hear. The thought almost broke her. She blocked it from her mind. This was not the time. 

Bri­an shot her a glance that turned into a sly smile, like they were shar­ing a joke. All eyes were on them. Then he looked straight at the boy. He wait­ed two beats—perfect timing—and said: “This might be real quick.” He put the accent on “real,” stretch­ing it out long and slow. Like what a sax­o­phone might do with a cher­ished turn of a phrase. He smiled, then laughed. 

Peo­ple began to chuck­le in antic­i­pa­tion; bursts of snort laugh­ter sound­ed from the back of the crowd. Most every­one under­stood that what­ev­er hap­pened next, peo­ple would talk about this after­noon for years to come. 

Watch­ing the boy, who looked rat­tled, Joy thought of the old joke. Some peo­ple make things hap­pen. Oth­ers watch things hap­pen. And some peo­ple say: “What hap­pened?” Bri­an had saved the day and set the stage. She was about to make some­thing happen. 

She want­ed to smack him down so fast he wouldn’t know what hap­pened. Throw it right back. “That was quick.” She guessed he knew to avoid the Scholar’s Mate, the clas­sic four-move humil­i­a­tion play­ers suf­fer when they learn the game. It’s a suck­er punch check­mate con­struct­ed with queen and bish­op. Los­ing to the Scholar’s Mate is a rite of pas­sage; few vic­tims fall twice. Her father beat her once with the Scholar’s Mate four years ago. “You’ll win some and you’ll lose some,” he con­soled her. “One day you’ll beat me.” 

As Joy saw how her broth­er owned the moment, con­found­ing the boy with a deflec­tion of bad ener­gy that played out almost like Tai Chi, her own impulse turned. She would act as if she bare­ly under­stood the pieces, let alone forks, dis­cov­ered checks, pins, and the intri­cate chore­og­ra­phy of bish­op and knight check­mates. She would par­ry his attacks, gauge his skill lev­el, and cal­i­brate her response. She would drag it out. Make it slow. He would strug­gle to con­trol the game, grow ever more con­fused, then final­ly under­stand what was happening. 


We wear the mask,” Paul Lau­rence Dun­bar wrote in 1895 of life as a Black Amer­i­can. His open­ing stanza: 

          We wear the mask that grins and lies,  
          It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—  
          This debt we pay to human guile;  
          With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, 
          And mouth with myriad subtleties.



Play­ing the white pieces, the boy moved his king’s pawn for­ward two squares. She respond­ed in kind. Then each moved one knight, fol­lowed by the oth­er. She appeared to be mim­ic­k­ing him as the Four Knights Game took shape. It’s a per­fect­ly descrip­tive name, four knights poised around two cen­ter pawns, each side mir­rored by the oth­er, from which to proceed. 

She eas­i­ly blocked his clum­sy attacks, main­tain­ing crit­i­cal defens­es but oth­er­wise let­ting her pieces wan­der the chess­board as if they were out for a leisure­ly Sat­ur­day after­noon stroll. Point­less moves that did lit­tle more than take up time. All the while she play­act­ed like some­one unfa­mil­iar with the game. She grew dis­tract­ed, smiled as if remem­ber­ing some old joke. Some­thing her moth­er said that made her laugh. Some­times she stared at the board, eye­brows scrunched up as if in con­fu­sion. Strik­ing that pose, she looked as if she had nev­er played chess, as if she couldn’t fath­om how to proceed. 

Some in the crowd were con­fused. Whis­pered queries were met with shrugged respons­es that said: “No clue.” Was this the same girl they’d heard about, the one who dom­i­nat­ed her oppo­nents? What the hell was going on? Some wan­dered off toward the tra­di­tion­al Boli­vian group that had start­ed to assem­ble. Gui­tars and flutes played haunt­ing­ly beau­ti­ful songs from the Andes. Joy closed her eyes to enjoy it, her mind seem­ing­ly miles away. The chess crowd thinned out as a few more opt­ed for music or sim­ply left to get on with the day. Oth­ers took their cue from Bri­an, who smiled as if he knew exact­ly what was up. 

Just then James joined the group, nod­ding a silent greet­ing to Joy, Bri­an, and a few oth­ers. They quick­ly made room for him at the front. His arrival set off a rip­ple of hushed mur­murs, whis­pers of “Oh my God,” and “That’s him. That’s the guy.” Nudges, glances, raised eye­brows. Even those who’d nev­er heard his name caught the new charge in the air. James was here. He scanned the board, puz­zled by the bizarre sto­ry it hint­ed at. He knew how good she was. He shot her a quizzi­cal glance. Her smile car­ried just a trace of a wink. He half whis­pered to him­self, “Well all right,” and stood back to watch what would happen. 


Nev­er let them tell you he was just a smil­ing Black man, a great box­er, and every­one loved him.” Grace Jack­son had been on a mis­sion to counter the white­wash­ing of Black his­to­ry ever since sit­ting through yet anoth­er bland mid-Jan­u­ary pro­gram cel­e­brat­ing the I Have a Dream speech. Approved speak­ers nev­er talked about the last two years of Dr. King’s life. Peo­ple knew bet­ter than to recall him denounc­ing the war in Viet­nam, con­demn­ing “the great­est pur­vey­or of vio­lence in the world today: my own gov­ern­ment.” The speech at River­side Church on April 4, 1967, exact­ly one year before that ter­ri­ble day in Memphis. 

Ali was anoth­er coura­geous icon whose con­tro­ver­sial past was rarely men­tioned. Grace showed Joy and Bri­an pic­tures of him stand­ing tri­umphant­ly over Son­ny Lis­ton. So fero­cious. So young. The news film of him refus­ing to fight in Viet­nam. The sum­mit  meet­ing of Black ath­letes step­ping for­ward to sup­port him. Bill Rus­sell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jab­bar, known as Lew Alcin­dor back then, Washington’s own Bob­by Mitchell, and oth­ers. The years he could not box. 

They watched When We Were Kings, the doc­u­men­tary about the “Rum­ble in the Jun­gle” between Ali and George Fore­man. Grace described how Ali’s stature had grown beyond all imag­in­ing in the years of exile from the ring. After refus­ing the draft and pay­ing a price for his stand, he was admired around the globe. Joy could bare­ly watch the fight. She winced at the bru­tal body blows as he leaned against the ropes, tak­ing the punch­es. She mar­veled at his steady flow of insults through it all. “They told me you could punch, George. That all you got?” Fore­man, enraged and exhaust­ed, swing­ing wild­ly before Ali stunned him, stunned the whole world. The eighth round knock­out punch. 


Joy set­tled into a defen­sive game, a chess­board rope-a-dope, minus the pun­ish­ing bat­ter­ing. The insults were silent, but vis­i­ble enough for James, Bri­an, and oth­ers to see. Even the boy might even­tu­al­ly under­stand. He strug­gled to gain the elu­sive advan­tage he assumed was his for the taking. 

Joy allowed him to cap­ture a few pieces but was care­ful to grad­u­al­ly win back more. She left a bish­op unde­fend­ed just to observe his preda­to­ry glee. She looked shocked when he greed­i­ly seized it. She planned a knight fork, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly attack­ing his king and a rook. Then she pre­tend­ed not to notice the well-placed trap for two slow min­utes before gasp­ing with sur­prised delight as she took the rook it yield­ed. She almost laughed at the thought of how des­per­ate­ly he must have hoped she wouldn’t see it. How he must won­der why his game couldn’t gain trac­tion, why he was floun­der­ing against this girl who looked so clue­less and non­cha­lant. They trad­ed queens. 

The game had stretched on for more than an hour, rolling along on a stream of mean­ing­less moves. It was time to end things. Joy had enjoyed watch­ing him fid­get. She could sense him shift­ing first from con­fu­sion to annoy­ance, then con­cern and dis­be­lief, which final­ly gave way to pan­ic. The boy’s posi­tion was hope­less. He was down to one rook, one bish­op, and two pawns com­pared to her four pawns, two rooks, a bish­op and knight. A com­mand­ing lead. That was when he sur­veyed the board, put on a cocky smile, and deliv­ered the sec­ond worst insult of the day: “Draw?” 

Draw” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She didn’t even try to sti­fle the laugh. “Nah. That’s all right. It’s all good.” James cleared his throat loud­ly when she start­ed to move a pawn toward the end of the board. She would not look at him. She advanced the pawn three times to become a queen. Next, the boy was forced to move his king when she checked it with her new queen. That’s when he lost his lone rook, sud­den­ly exposed on the same long diag­o­nal. Soon only his king remained. 

Onlook­ers didn’t need to know chess the­o­ry, clas­sic end­ings, or tac­tics to under­stand what the chess­board showed. Didn’t have to know the dif­fer­ences between kings, queens, and knights. Didn’t need to watch online super­stars like Mau­rice Ash­ley, Tania Sachdev, or the Botez sis­ters. The rout was obvi­ous to every­one but the woman who had just joined them, walk­ing at a fast clip. She stormed to the front shout­ing: “We’re going to be late.” 

She scanned the chess­board, then looked at the boy. “Just check­mate her already. We’re run­ning late.” The laugh­ter star­tled her. She looked from the crowd back to the boy, then glared at Joy. She stared at the board again. Ever so grad­u­al­ly, embar­rass­ing­ly slow­ly, the woman began to under­stand that the white king did not belong to the Black girl. Her mouth still open, she fell silent. 

Joy had locked a fixed stare on the board, refus­ing all eye con­tact after declin­ing the draw. She picked up her next pawn and moved it for­ward. James cleared his throat even more emphat­i­cal­ly. The boy’s king was reduced to aim­less doomed moves. He appeared to be par­a­lyzed except when phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing it. Just anoth­er wood­push­er stum­bling toward defeat. He did not know how to resign to a Black girl who should have lost long ago. 

Joy final­ly glanced at James. He shook his head almost imper­cep­ti­bly, a beseech­ing look. He whis­pered two word­less syl­la­bles: “uh uh.” No. James knew all about chess play­ers who need­ed to learn some humil­i­ty. He under­stood that the boy deserved a whup­ping, and Joy had just deliv­ered one. Now it was time to end it with a check­mate. This was not Judit Pol­gar teach­ing Gar­ry Kas­parov a les­son and exor­cis­ing (most of) his sex­ism. This was not Phiona Mute­si, “Queen of Katwe,” rep­re­sent­ing Ugan­da at inter­na­tion­al tour­na­ments. This had become a slaughter. 

Trapped by his own pride, the boy refused to resign, so Joy would have to fin­ish it on the board. She want­ed to crush him, want­ed anoth­er queen. Maybe three queens. She want­ed to make his king run around the board. But when she looked to James, he shook his head. Anoth­er queen would be overkill. Joy sighed, shrugged her shoul­ders, and con­ced­ed to his request. With a queen and two rooks, she didn’t even need to herd the hap­less king to the side of the board. One rook on each side locked it on a sin­gle nar­row file. She made the king walk one step in that cor­ri­dor of shame. She end­ed it with her queen. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I played a lot of chess in my ear­ly teens, usu­al­ly at the Boys Club in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land, a sub­urb of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. I wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly tal­ent­ed, but thor­ough­ly enjoyed the game. About 25 or so years ago I read about a very tal­ent­ed Black girl in her ear­ly teens. One day an oppo­nent took one look at her and told his moth­er the game would be over quick­ly. The girl, appalled by the racist insult, decid­ed to beat him slow­ly. I imag­ined the ensu­ing game would have played out in a very cin­e­mat­ic way. That one game, with back­ground sto­ries, the play­ers’ fam­i­ly lives, etc., could have eas­i­ly been a full-length fea­ture movie. Mak­ing a movie wasn’t an option, but the inci­dent also seemed ide­al­ly suit­ed for a short story. 

I’m not Black, but did feel a con­nec­tion to the girl, just not by my lim­it­ed skill at chess. My moth­er was from India, and my father was a white Amer­i­can. That’s a whole oth­er sto­ry about young vol­un­teers meet­ing at the Kuruk­shetra refugee camp in the time of India’s inde­pen­dence and par­ti­tion. I’m often mis­tak­en for Mid­dle East­ern. On sev­er­al occa­sions Ira­ni­ans have assumed I speak Farsi. 

I’ve had severe anky­los­ing spondyli­tis, a form of arthri­tis, since my teens, and walk with a cane. Between hav­ing a vis­i­ble dis­abil­i­ty and being eth­ni­cal­ly “oth­er,” I’m well acquaint­ed with microag­gres­sions. Some peo­ple assume I must be stu­pid, or a ter­ror­ist. It’s annoy­ing, and on rare occa­sions it’s fright­en­ing. Undoubt­ed­ly some per­son­al expe­ri­ence came into play at the thought of a right­ful­ly angry girl crush­ing and humil­i­at­ing her racist opponent. 

Sev­er­al years ago I learned about Tom Mur­phy, the man James Gilmore is loose­ly based on. I want­ed to hon­or peo­ple of extra­or­di­nary tal­ent who con­tribute a lot to the vibrant life of a com­mu­ni­ty. It felt like James should play a sig­nif­i­cant role in Joy’s chess life. It was impor­tant that her par­ents and broth­er should rec­og­nize his gifts and find a con­nec­tion, across class lines, with him. It also was nat­ur­al to bring local and nation­al his­to­ry, cul­ture, and pol­i­tics into the sto­ry. I always pic­tured Dupont Cir­cle as the set­ting, so decid­ed the fic­tion­al old build­ing would be closed for renovation. 

Watch­ing the Queen’s Gam­bit series made me revis­it and final­ly try to write the sto­ry. I was born in 1955, so was at the peak of my chess phase in 1968 when the series end­ed. It hit a lot of chords, recon­nect­ed me with a pow­er­ful and (most­ly) joy­ful time in my life, and rekin­dled my love of chess. 


Sunil Free­man’s essays have appeared in Del­mar­va Review, Gar­goyle, Wash­ing­ton­ian, Jag­gery, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He has pub­lished poems in sev­er­al jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Delaware Poet­ry Review, Min­imus, Gar­goyle, Kiss the Sky: Fic­tion & Poet­ry Star­ring Jimi Hen­drix, and Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He has pub­lished one poet­ry col­lec­tion, That Would Explain the Vio­lin­ist (Gut Punch Press, 1993), and a chap­book, Sur­re­al Free­dom Blues (Argonne Hotel Press, 1999).

Angry Queens

Fiction / Amanda J. Bradley

:: Angry Queens ::

Maya fin­gered a long string of wood­en beads, won­der­ing if she’d ever actu­al­ly wear them back in New York. Are they exot­ic but earthy or just cheap and tacky? Near her in the stall of the open-air mar­ket, Sadie hag­gled with an old­er Jamaican woman, who was ample, with a green and red scarf scoop­ing up her braid­ed hair, gray­ing at the temples. 

I’ll give you five dol­lars for all three.” 

No, woman. Five dol­lars for one. That’s a good price.” 

For three or I’ll walk,” Sadie said. Maya could tell she meant it. Upper East Side. Nan­nies. Sum­mers in the south of France. Sadie had more mon­ey than God. This trip to Jamaica was slum­ming it for her. Sadie’s job entailed some sort of phil­an­thropic some­thing or oth­er she chose to do. Although Maya had known her since col­lege, she had yet to fig­ure out which insane­ly wealthy Amer­i­can fam­i­ly Sadie was a twig on a branch of, although she knew it was one of them. It made Maya a lit­tle sick to her stom­ach to hear her friend insist­ing on three beau­ti­ful­ly hand­craft­ed wood­en trop­i­cal fish for half the price of one, so Maya put the beads back and turned around to face them. 

You about ready?” Maya asked. 

Yes,” Sadie said too clear­ly, accen­tu­at­ing the s with a hiss, and then looked at the woman ped­dling wares to give her one last oppor­tu­ni­ty to take her offer. 

Five for two,” the woman said, sweep­ing her eyes over Sadie from head to foot in a slow, delib­er­ate way, a half-dis­guised sneer in her gaze. Sadie pursed her eyes, one hand on her hip. 

That’s very gen­er­ous,” Maya said to her friend. 

Fine. You dri­ve a hard bar­gain.” Sadie dug through her purse then flipped a five-dol­lar bill out of it, stick­ing it out at the woman with her thin, white, gold-ban­gled arm. The woman took it, tucked it into a pouch around her waist, and hand­ed the fish to Sadie. 

I would like a bag.” 

No bag.” The woman ambled around so that her back was fac­ing Sadie to arrange items on the shelves where she’d removed the two fish. 

I’m hun­gry,” Maya said, pulling Sadie away from the mar­ket. “Let’s find some­thing to eat. Do you want to return to that café we went to yesterday?” 

Sadie was still fum­bling with stuff­ing the fish in her purse, but man­aged to focus long enough to respond, “Let’s try some­where new.” 

Okay. Head to the strip?” 

Yes. That’s good.” The two women adjust­ed their strides to walk toward the heart of Mon­tego Bay. Back in New York, men tend­ed to gawk at Sadie more. She was tall, extreme­ly thin, her mus­cles light­ly toned, with a small nose, big eyes, and flaw­less peach skin. Her hair looked healthy and swingy and ranged through­out the year from blonde to light auburn, depend­ing on Sadie’s mood at the salon. Sadie took advan­tage of the perks of her mon­ey and had a per­son­al train­er, a per­son­al chef, a pri­vate hour of swim­ming at the pool in their build­ing. By con­trast, Maya felt pudgy and mot­tled and brown. 

But here in Jamaica, both women had noticed Maya got most of the male atten­tion. Jamaican men whis­tled at Maya, served Maya’s drink first at the restau­rants; all winks and nods went in Maya’s direc­tion. After a man had approached Maya as she and Sadie sat perched on stools sip­ping pineap­ple juice and coconut rum, the bar­tender had told her, “We love the light brown ladies here. Where you from?” Maya was from Queens, but her par­ents were both Filipino. 

As Maya and Sadie strolled to find a place for din­ner, the men they passed whis­tled at Maya, made grand ges­tures in her direc­tion with their hands as if she were a celebri­ty or roy­al­ty, blew kiss­es her way. Sadie didn’t mind; she was rarely fazed by much of any­thing. Maya did not want the atten­tion. She cast her eyes down­ward, their advances mak­ing her uncom­fort­able and wary. She was relieved when the women final­ly took a seat at an out­door table of a restau­rant on the main drag. Maya ordered a Red Stripe, Sadie a daiquiri, and the women relaxed into the ear­ly evening heat. 

What is Tom doing while you are away?” Maya asked her friend. Maya knew Tom the same way she knew Sadie: they’d all gone to a small north­east­ern lib­er­al arts col­lege togeth­er over a decade ago. Maya had been in love with Tom since the night they’d some­how end­ed up cou­pled as a team for a dance marathon. They’d danced all night, tak­ing turns reviv­ing each oth­er when one or the other’s ener­gy flagged, and they’d won ear­ly the next morn­ing when the last rival cou­ple final­ly con­ced­ed defeat. Maya and Tom had gone to break­fast togeth­er at a din­er near cam­pus. He’d been such a gen­tle­man, giv­ing her his jack­et on the walk across cam­pus into town, offer­ing to pay. Sadie had no idea Maya loved Tom, but Sadie was obliv­i­ous that way. 

Work­ing, as usu­al. He prob­a­bly won’t notice I’m gone unless the kids remind him.” Maya knew this was patent­ly false. She saw how Tom looked at Sadie when they all went to brunch or din­ner or a muse­um or con­cert. Maya usu­al­ly brought her broth­er or a friend from work to these out­ings so she would feel less like a third wheel. “When are you going to let me set you up with some­one to date?” 

I am hap­py with my life, I’ve told you,” Maya said. “I do not need some belch­ing, snor­ing man to clean up after and cook for. I like my job and my independence.” 

How can you like that job? It sounds so depress­ing. I mean, how can you leave it at work instead of cry­ing into your wine every night? Those help­less peo­ple in their dingy apart­ments! How do you stand it?” Sadie’s dis­dain for Maya’s social work clients was the one thing about her friend that real­ly made her bris­tle. Maya under­stood that Tom adored Sadie, so she for­gave that Sadie had won the man. Maya did not cov­et her friend’s wealth; she’d always felt mon­ey was a lit­tle wicked. Maya was grow­ing accus­tomed to the fact that she would prob­a­bly not have chil­dren, so she did not begrudge Sadie’s bright-eyed, sandy-haired brood. But her friend’s dis­dain for her clients real­ly angered Maya. 

Not every­one was born into a world of oppor­tu­ni­ty, Sadie. Have you no compassion?” 

I do have com­pas­sion. That’s why I’m ask­ing how you don’t cry your­self to sleep at night with so much sad­ness and pover­ty in your face all day,” Sadie protested. 

Ignor­ing the prob­lem is not the way to fix it.” 

I don’t ignore it. I give a great deal to caus­es that aim to end poverty.” 

You keep your dis­tance from it, though. You don’t under­stand the dai­ly strug­gles, the sys­tems and cycles of abuse in place.” 

Caus­es need workers—people like you, but they also need funds from peo­ple like me.” 

Well, then get off my back about how I can stand it if you think it’s a worth­while job.” 

Done.” Sadie said, turn­ing her eyes toward the dis­tant hori­zon behind Maya’s head. It was a famil­iar pose of hers and often made Maya think of an angry queen. A great rum­ble of engine noise clam­bered into hear­ing range and con­tin­ued to grow loud­er. Every­one on the patio adjust­ed their line of sight to see where the rack­et was com­ing from. A series of what appeared to be mil­i­tary Jeeps round­ed the cor­ner at much too high a speed for the small­ish road, and mus­cu­lar black men with long dreads secured back, ban­doliers of bul­lets hung like sash­es across their chests, and enor­mous black auto­mat­ic rifles in their hands clung to the bars of the Jeeps pre­car­i­ous­ly. One, two, three, four Jeeps trucked their way around the cor­ner and down the way, stern faces of the men aboard not even glanc­ing at the tourists ogling them from the restaurant’s patio. 

Well, that was a sight to behold!” Sadie said, the rare gleam of excite­ment in her eye. 

I won­der where they are going. What is the gov­ern­ment like here? Is there a mil­i­tary action under­way? Should we have researched more what the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is right now?” Maya’s ques­tions tum­bled out rapidly. 

I’m sure it’s noth­ing,” Sadie said. “They are prob­a­bly just going from here to there, and that’s how they do it—with style.” Maya admired her friend’s non­cha­lance. She used to inter­pret it as brav­ery but late­ly had begun to under­stand it was gen­uine indif­fer­ence. Maya felt she would be hap­pi­er if she could siphon off just a tiny bit of Sadie’s lack of con­cern for dan­ger or suf­fer­ing or the ills of the world; Sadie had enough to spare. “Are you fin­ished with your din­ner? We should scoot if we’re going to catch the sun­set from the beach.” Maya began rum­mag­ing around in her purse, and Sadie added, “I set­tled up for us when I went to the restroom.” 

You didn’t have to do that,” Maya said. She real­ly hat­ed how often Sadie picked up the tab, even though it made sense for her to and even though Sadie could not care less about pay­ing for her friend. 

Let’s go,” Sadie said, ris­ing from the table. 

Maya and Sadie had hap­pened to be on the beach as the sun went down their first night in Jamaica. The sight had been so spec­tac­u­lar that they decid­ed to make a point of wit­ness­ing the sun­set from the beach every night they were there. Now they bus­tled back along the sandy road toward the beach near their hotel to make it in time. They plopped in the sand sev­er­al yards from a cabana serv­ing drinks and play­ing reg­gae from loud­speak­ers; a breeze blew in off the water. The sun sat perched in the sky, a giant pink orb. Sec­onds lat­er, the orb had dropped to straight ahead, rest­ing on the hori­zon, a tor­rent of bright orange and pink, cast­ing a laven­der pall over the ocean, and then mere sec­onds lat­er, it was a half cres­cent, a bare­ly vis­i­ble sliv­er and then gone. It couldn’t have tak­en more than a minute for the sun to dis­ap­pear in one swift motion, drop­ping the friends into twi­light. It sim­ply fell out of the sky. Watch­ing it, Maya felt her breath catch at how quick­ly beau­ty could dis­ap­pear, just like that. She glanced at Sadie’s pro­file, and won­dered if she were think­ing, too, all the usu­al schlock about how quick­ly life pass­es, and how we are left with only the fleet­ing mem­o­ries of the spec­tac­u­lar events that make up our lives until we, too, cease to exist. Prob­a­bly not. She’s prob­a­bly think­ing, “Well, that was pret­ty.”  

Well, that was pret­ty,” Sadie said. Maya was dread­ing going to bed because every night Sadie had been sneak­ing out of their hotel room once she thought Maya was asleep. Maya then would read her book and slap her face against the pil­low in frus­tra­tion and shift posi­tions repeat­ed­ly, wor­ry­ing about her friend before she final­ly man­aged to sleep. Where did she go? What was she doing? Was she safe? To try to tire her friend out tonight, Maya sug­gest­ed they go danc­ing at a club. She knew from the many wed­ding recep­tions they’d attend­ed togeth­er that this would mean Maya sip­ping drinks at the bar, grown self-con­scious since her dance marathon days, and Sadie danc­ing lav­ish­ly for many hours, but Maya liked the idea of wear­ing her friend out tonight and get­ting a fuller night’s sleep her­self. “Let’s have one more drink then hit the hay,” Sadie said. 

Maya’s face was turned toward the win­dow on her pil­low, away from Sadie’s bed. She was secret­ly plot­ting to fol­low her friend tonight to see where she went out of sheer curios­i­ty. After some time of still­ness had passed, Maya heard Sadie slip out of bed and wan­der over to peek at Maya, who kept her eyes closed, lis­ten­ing. She heard Sadie dress and apply lip­stick, brush her hair in the bath­room, then slip out the door. As soon as she was gone, Maya threw on jeans and a pair of ten­nis shoes, grabbed her key card and wal­let, and snuck out behind her friend. She decid­ed to take the three flights of stairs, fig­ur­ing Sadie took the ele­va­tor, and Maya rushed down them as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, know­ing she was a minute or so behind Sadie. As Maya exit­ed the hotel and stepped out into the fresh ocean breeze, she quick­ly glanced at the beach direct­ly across from the hotel. No signs of Sadie. There was only one direc­tion down the one street with any nightlife, so Maya quick­ly scanned for signs of Sadie’s slim fig­ure and spot­ted her friend’s long stride head­ing toward the nightlife. 

Maya clam­bered down the steps and fol­lowed Sadie at a dis­tance, ready to side­step into the shad­owy palm trees lin­ing the street if her friend glanced back. But she nev­er did. Sadie sud­den­ly dart­ed across the street, wav­ing at some­one. Maya fol­lowed the direc­tion of her wave with her eyes and saw two young men out­side anoth­er hotel who appeared to be wait­ing for her near the lob­by. One of the men was tall with long, dark hair and was cov­ered in tat­toos. He wore ripped jeans and a con­cert t‑shirt with the sleeves cut out. He had some kind of leath­ery-look­ing black thing around his neck. The oth­er man was short­er, prep­pi­er. His hair was cut short and remind­ed Maya of Matt Damon in The Tal­ent­ed Mr. Rip­ley. He wore a pink polo shirt and kha­ki shorts with brown san­dals under mus­cu­lar calves. They were clear­ly togeth­er, but by appear­ances had noth­ing in com­mon. Maya won­dered if they were prostitutes. 

Sadie strode up the steps, put her arms out, one hand touch­ing each guy, and pulled them through the door of the lob­by. Maya crossed the street to see into the lob­by bet­ter. She watched the three of them enter an ele­va­tor. Maya remained where she was and wait­ed, con­sid­er­ing what to do. Soon, she heard a light swoosh sound above her and looked up to see Sadie and the tat­tooed guy step­ping out onto the patio of a hotel room. They were all over each oth­er, and he was remov­ing Sadie’s shirt. Maya turned away and swiveled to head back toward the hotel. 

As she walked, Maya tried to iden­ti­fy what it was she was feel­ing. All she could think of was Tom’s face as he set­tled his jack­et around her shoul­ders after they’d won the marathon, how he’d lis­tened so intent­ly as Maya had explained at the din­er why it had been so impor­tant to her to win the mon­ey for their char­i­ty of choice. Her father had been suf­fer­ing ALS then, before he’d died, and she had want­ed to raise mon­ey for ALS research. Tom had been so shocked to hear about her dad, so sym­pa­thet­ic. He’d asked her to tell him about her father and what their rela­tion­ship was like, what her fond­est mem­o­ries from child­hood were of him. He had real­ly listened. 

But the next time she and Tom were togeth­er, it had been like noth­ing ever hap­pened. Tom nev­er men­tioned Maya’s father to her again, nev­er asked how he was, didn’t even know when he died. The sud­den epiphany dawned on Maya as she walked the ocean­side street that Tom and Sadie real­ly were per­fect for each oth­er. Nei­ther of them cared about much of any­thing. Maya sus­pect­ed if she told Tom about Sadie and the tat­tooed man, he would lis­ten intent­ly and then act as if the con­ver­sa­tion had nev­er hap­pened. It would not eat away at him or cor­rode their rela­tion­ship or change any­thing whatsoever. 

Maya neared the hotel and decid­ed to go sit on the beach for a while before return­ing to the room. The cabana was closed now, and not many peo­ple were around at all. A cou­ple walked togeth­er down by the water, some peo­ple were milling about up by the hotel, but Maya felt more alone than she had in days, in years maybe. She found a spot by sim­ply stop­ping when it occurred to her to, and she sit­u­at­ed her­self on the soft sand. The world is ugly. Beau­ty is painful because the world is ugly, not just because beau­ty fades. Maya crossed her ankles and leaned back on her stretched arms. She dropped her head back to view the cas­cades of stars in the black sky. 

A tall man in shorts and a Hawai­ian shirt seemed to appear next to her out of nowhere and asked if he might sit. Maya found she could not care less whether the man sat next to her or didn’t, whether he kept walk­ing or she said yes or no, whether he smiled at her or spoke to her, or if she went back inside. She gazed up at the man blankly. He sat down. 

Where you from?” he asked. “You are beautiful.” 

New York,” she replied. Maya laid back in the sand, and the man leaned down next to her. She closed her eyes. He stuck his tongue in her ear. She didn’t care. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

Jamaica Kincaid’s book A Small Place, about colo­nial­ism and white tourism to her home coun­try of Antigua, was very much in my mind as I wrote this sto­ry. I first read that book long after I had made trips to the Bahamas and Jamaica, and it was eye-open­ing to me. I want­ed to show through a sto­ry the per­ni­cious­ness of wealthy white priv­i­lege, which is why the sto­ry opens with the well-to-do Sadie hag­gling rude­ly with a Jamaican arti­san. Maya is the more relat­able and lik­able char­ac­ter, but by the end of the sto­ry feels over­whelmed by Sadie’s and Tom’s non­cha­lance as peo­ple who have the priv­i­lege of not hav­ing to care about much. When Maya wit­ness­es Sadie’s mis­treat­ment of Tom with the oth­er men in Jamaica, Maya has an epiphany that Tom real­ly wouldn’t care that much any­way. This breaks Maya. 

More gen­er­al­ly, I am inter­est­ed in the bru­tal­i­ty of the world: inequal­i­ty, unfair­ness, vio­lence. I want­ed a sense of that bru­tal­i­ty high­light­ed in the sto­ry, too, and set in con­trast with the world’s beauty. 


Aman­da J. Bradley has pub­lished three poet­ry col­lec­tions with NYQ Books: Queen Kong (2017), Oz at Night (2011), and Hints and Alle­ga­tions (2009) and has pub­lished fic­tion, essays, and poems wide­ly in antholo­gies and lit­er­ary mag­a­zines such as Pater­son Lit­er­ary Review, Chi­ron Review, Lips, Rat­tle, The New York Quar­ter­ly, Kin, The Ner­vous Break­down, Apric­i­ty Mag­a­zine, and Gar­goyle. She lives in Bea­con, New York, and her web­site can be found at www.amandajbradley.com.


Fiction / Rachele Salvini


:: Unremarkable ::

My first remark­able moment in Lon­don involved wit­ness­ing a cat beat­ing the shit out of a fox right in front of my new flat. I knew Gior­gio would like the sto­ry, but I didn’t call him. I didn’t even take a pic­ture for him. 

I didn’t live in the out­skirts of the city—I rent­ed a tiny room in an alley in Strat­ford, just a few steps away from the tube sta­tion, the Strat­ford Shop­ping Cen­tre, and the West Ham Sta­di­um. Not exact­ly a place where I expect­ed to see such an inter­est­ing dis­play of wildlife. But I came from a town on the west coast of Italy, and I didn’t know shit. I was one of the many Ital­ians leav­ing good weath­er, espres­so, and lasagna behind to try to find some luck in London. 

Gior­gio was still in Italy. We hadn’t actu­al­ly decid­ed if we were break­ing up or not; it was more of an open-end­ed exper­i­ment. He didn’t want to come to Lon­don with me, and we didn’t like the idea of being long-dis­tance indef­i­nite­ly, but nei­ther of us had the guts to break up. 

We had met in col­lege, years before. We had fall­en in love though we didn’t want to. 


Gior­gio and I were hap­py togeth­er, him study­ing cin­e­ma, me study­ing lit­er­a­ture. We talked about art and music, and we laughed all the time. We went to Frankie’s, our favorite dive bar in town, which was open only from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. We drank gin and ton­ics and kissed in front of every­one and danced like every­one was watch­ing us because of how radi­ant­ly in love we were. Then, by day, we would go to the sea­side; by night, when we didn’t go out, we hid in his grand­par­ents’ garage, watched movies, made love, and smoked dope. We had bought a small bed from a thrift store for ten euros. We just want­ed to hide. We didn’t care about bed bugs. 

For three years, all that had been enough. Then, after grad­u­a­tion, our lives had to start. We weren’t spe­cial: peo­ple moved to oth­er places all the time and faced the deci­sion of what to do with their rela­tion­ships. Ital­ians were mov­ing all around Europe, espe­cial­ly grad­u­ates with human­i­ties degrees, some­what deeply under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed even in a coun­try that had built its fame on art. Gior­gio spent his days lying on the couch, watch­ing TV and send­ing resumes around, but no one would call. I want­ed to work in pub­lish­ing. Lon­don seemed the right place to be, but he wasn’t ready to come. 

We’ll see,” Gior­gio said, and kissed me good-bye. 


Wit­ness­ing the cat beat­ing up the fox seemed a remark­able moment—more than when I saw Mil­len­ni­um Bridge for the first time—because it made me real­ize how much I didn’t know about Lon­don. The cat growled and bare­ly moved, its ears back. When­ev­er the fox made any move­ment, either to dab or leave, the cat would stalk for­ward and sink its claws in the scrawny fur of the fox. I stood there, just look­ing at them. They seemed uncon­cerned by my pres­ence. I didn’t know fox­es would let humans so close. I didn’t know cats could beat the shit out of foxes. 

At some point I even won­dered if I was just hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. It seemed like­ly, on the day I had start­ed my job as a barista at Caf­fè Nero, a cof­fee shop chain. After my first shift, I had gone to get gro­ceries, try­ing not to fall into the easy trap of buy­ing Ital­ian pre-cooked meals that remind­ed me of home from the pic­ture on the wrap­ping but would remind me that I actu­al­ly wasn’t home as soon as I’d try a spoonful. 

As I watched the cat and the fox in silence, I thought of a remark­able moment in Italy—Giorgio and I were walk­ing on the sea­side. I was wear­ing a blouse, but a crisp breeze came sud­den­ly from the ocean and made my hands crawl up my sleeves. Gior­gio was telling me about Lon­don, giv­ing me all his rea­sons for not com­ing with me. He was sure that Brex­it was going to hap­pen, and the smug British ass­holes would kick us all out. Lon­don, he said—as if he knew—was turn­ing into a Euro­pean copy of New York City, the geo­graph­i­cal embod­i­ment of cap­i­tal­ism. He went on and on, keep­ing his eyes on the ocean; the wind didn’t seem to both­er him at all. His hands dan­gled slight­ly at every step he took. I told him I just real­ly want­ed to work in pub­lish­ing. I told him that I wasn’t sure Brex­it was going to hap­pen, and I didn’t know what it would entail either. I didn’t know how Gior­gio could be so sure about a whole country’s atti­tude toward econ­o­my pacts, immi­gra­tion reg­u­la­tions, and so on. I also didn’t know why Brits would want to kick oth­er fel­low Euro­peans out. I didn’t know why any­one would want to kick any­one out. 

But Gior­gio went on, telling me that he’d rather stay home with peo­ple he loved and save mon­ey in order to move to a bet­ter place in the future, and even­tu­al­ly have a bet­ter life. “You don’t have to hate your life to have a career,” he said. I imme­di­ate­ly knew that I would remem­ber that line as remark­able. “Maybe,” I replied, shiv­er­ing. An unre­mark­able answer. 


When I saw the cat and the fox, I had bare­ly slept in days, haunt­ed by the thoughts of leav­ing home, my moth­er, and, of course, Giorgio—only to find a lousy job as a barista at Caf­fé Nero in Pic­cadil­ly Circus. 

Maybe Gior­gio was right. That morn­ing I had served an end­less amount of watered-down cof­fees to British yup­pies who filled their mouths with Ital­ian words—ven­ti, grande, mac­chi­a­to, espres­so, cap­puc­ci­no—but couldn’t pro­nounce any of them. They com­plained about my cof­fee: too bit­ter. I smiled back and made their cof­fee again in less than two min­utes, under the gelid eyes of a spot­ty British assis­tant man­ag­er. I bit my inner cheeks, my gaze buried in the grates of the huge cof­fee machine, try­ing to hold on to the mem­o­ry of wak­ing up to the smell of my mother’s espres­so. She pre­pared it in ten min­utes, with a sim­ple cof­fee mak­er. No fan­cy machines: she just placed a tiny met­al per­co­la­tor on the old-ass stove. She had taught me how to switch on the gas and use a match to start the ring of blue fire. Extreme­ly dan­ger­ous, yet total­ly worth it. It was our secret; I felt like the prim­i­tive man dis­cov­er­ing fire. 

I real­ly thought about tex­ting Gior­gio to tell him about my first shift or the cat beat­ing up the fox. Even­tu­al­ly, the fox ran away. I dragged my gro­ceries upstairs, pant­i­ng and try­ing to ignore the smell of piss on the stairs and the bones of fried chick­en wings aban­doned on the steps. 


Gior­gio called me the morn­ing of June 23, 2016. I had been in Lon­don for a month, and Brex­it debates were all over the news. Peo­ple couldn’t stop won­der­ing if Britain was actu­al­ly going to leave the EU. The ques­tion was, in a way, per­son­al. I won­der what those British yup­pies who com­plained about my bit­ter cof­fee thought. They would glad­ly trav­el to Italy in the sum­mer and drink our espres­sos, sit in our bars in front of the sea­side, sigh with sat­is­fac­tion and say how great our weath­er was, how cheap every­thing was. Then they’d go back home and vote against or for leav­ing us behind. 

Still, for some rea­son, I didn’t feel like Brex­it was per­son­al at all. I kept mak­ing cof­fees, and mak­ing them again if they came back, “too bit­ter.” I learned Eng­lish, sent out my resume, and hoped for some­thing bet­ter to come. Gior­gio kept say­ing that he was “look­ing around.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. 

Then, that morn­ing in June, he called. I was sleep­ing, but he sound­ed excit­ed. It was the first time he called me before I was up. I usu­al­ly got up ear­ly in the morn­ing to go to work and cov­er the 6 a.m. shift at the cof­fee shop. “Hey. What’s up?” I asked, my voice raspy. 

I’m at Frankie’s with the guys,” he said, the accent from our home­town sound­ing estranged to me. I could hear the chaos in the background—the music, and the hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter of Frankie’s drunk­en crowd. They weren’t done danc­ing, even though the sun was prob­a­bly up. “Guess what,” Gior­gio went on. 

I threw my legs out from under the duvet. It was cold. Out of the win­dow, London’s sky was white, as every morn­ing. “What?”  

Brex­it fuck­ing hap­pened,” Gior­gio cried, enthralled. “I told you so!” 

I was sur­prised. I had felt so bom­bard­ed with head­lines, ques­tions and unso­licit­ed opin­ions for a whole month that I had for­got­ten when the ref­er­en­dum was actu­al­ly going to hap­pen. The days were all the same. 

Gior­gio laughed. I didn’t under­stand the fun part of it. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of Brex­it was one of the rea­sons why he had decid­ed not to come to Lon­don in the first place. 

They vot­ed Leave?” I asked. I glanced out of the win­dow again. I could see only the neon lights of the Strat­ford Shop­ping Cen­tre pierc­ing the fog in the distance. 

Yeah! Crazy, right?” he went on. “But I knew it. Remem­ber? I pre­dict­ed this shit.” I heard some­one yell in the back­ground but couldn’t work out what they said. 

We were mak­ing bets last night,” Gior­gio went on. His voice was shak­ing with enthu­si­asm, but maybe he was just drunk. “The man­ag­er at Frankie’s orga­nized a Brex­it-themed drink­ing game, and I won five shots of tequi­la. It was so fun. Hope­ful­ly you’ll be back here the night of the Amer­i­can elec­tion. If Don­ald Trump wins, I swear the world will fuck­ing col­lapse.” I heard him take a drag from his cig­a­rette. “You have to be here. We’ll have so much fun, like the old times. Oh—wait—someone just brought pizza.” 

I heard some muf­fled sounds in the phone, and I pic­tured him stag­ger­ing drunk­en­ly to go get his slice of pizza. 

I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at the time. My alarm would go off soon. 

I don’t think I’ll be there for the Amer­i­can elec­tion,” I said. 

What?” Gior­gio asked, his mouth full of pizza. 

I saw my face in the reflec­tion of the win­dow. I looked like shit even before start­ing the day, my skin blotchy, my hair a bit greasy. I tried to imag­ine my mother’s espres­so, the blue ring of fire on the stove, the smell of burnt match­es, and then the scent of cof­fee creep­ing up the stairs. 

Instead, for some rea­son, I thought that this was anoth­er remark­able moment, like the time the ocean wind made my hands crawl up my sleeves, like when I saw the cat beat­ing the shit out of the fox in front of my flat. 

Why are you so hap­py?” I asked. 

There was a silence. 

What do you mean?” Gior­gio asked after a while. He wasn’t chew­ing his piz­za anymore. 

I looked at my feet on the cold tiled floor of my room. The wrap­ping of some pre-cooked ravi­o­li stood out from my trash can. I felt a pang of dis­gust, like I was going to be sick, but didn’t talk. I wasn’t sure I knew what I want­ed to say. 

What do you mean?” Gior­gio asked again. 

My phone alarm went off, pierc­ing my ear. I dis­abled it. I still didn’t have an answer for Gior­gio. Why are you so hap­py, I repeat­ed in my head. 

Why am I so hap­py about Brex­it?” he asked. 

Anoth­er pang of dis­gust. “Maybe,” I said. 

An unre­mark­able answer. I hung up. I got up and walked to the kitchen to shove a cup of instant cof­fee in the microwave.




From the writer


:: Account ::

I wrote this sto­ry as a response to my expe­ri­ence liv­ing in Lon­don dur­ing the Brex­it cam­paign. At the time I was also involved in a painful long-dis­tance rela­tion­ship, like the nar­ra­tor of this sto­ry. While this is fic­tion, many scenes are drawn from my per­son­al expe­ri­ence: I remem­ber see­ing a cat beat­ing the shit out of a dog in front of my dirty-ass apart­ment in Strat­ford; I also remem­bered all the times my ex called from Italy when he was hav­ing fun with his friends, while I was lone­ly and mis­er­able, work­ing hard to get some­where. Most­ly, I want­ed my sto­ry to be about young Euro­pean immi­grants head­ing to the Unit­ed King­dom; I want­ed to write about the hopes and dreams of the ones who look for luck some­where far from home and have to nego­ti­ate their depar­ture with their ties with their home. While my expe­ri­ence was not as trau­mat­ic as the one of refugees, it did affect me great­ly. The polit­i­cal back­ground of this sto­ry is obvi­ous­ly the Brex­it cam­paign, which I regard as one of the first steps toward the storm of crazi­ness that the past few years have been. 


Rachele Salvi­ni is an Ital­ian woman based in the U.S., where she’s doing a PhD in Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty. She spent most of her life in Italy, and she writes in both Eng­lish and Ital­ian. Her work in Eng­lish has been pub­lished or is forth­com­ing in Prime Num­ber Mag­a­zine, Nec­es­sary Fic­tion, Taka­he Mag­a­zine, Sage­brush Review, BULL, and oth­ers. She’s also a trans­la­tor, and her trans­la­tion work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in sev­er­al lit­er­ary jour­nals, includ­ing Lunch Tick­et

A Secret Service

Fiction / Paul Negri


:: A Secret Service ::

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln is more silent than usu­al today. Now it is true that he has not spo­ken a word dur­ing the whole time of our incar­cer­a­tion here. But there are oth­er ways of being silent besides not speak­ing, and it is in this oth­er way that he is silent today. They’ve put him in a wheel­chair and rolled him in front of the TV in the day room. The sound on the TV is off, so it too is silent.  The only oth­er inmate in the room is the old man they call George (I don’t know what his real name is). George is talk­ing to him­self, but silently. 

It is in this kind of silence that I receive my instruc­tions. Chief Wood, the head of the Secret Ser­vice, is a man of few but com­pelling words. When the Chief speaks, you know what you must do. 

I glance at the door to the day room. Gre­go­ry, one of the reg­u­lar atten­dants, is stand­ing in the door­way. He is feign­ing inat­ten­tion. I wait. Wait­ing is a skill of mine. There is per­haps no one in the Ser­vice who can wait so well as I can. Wait and watch. Eter­nal vig­i­lance, it has been tru­ly said, is the price of liberty. 

Gre­go­ry final­ly deserts his post, although I know it will be only momen­tar­i­ly. I cross the room quick­ly and pull a fold­ing chair clos­er to the Pres­i­dent. I whis­per, “New direc­tive from the Chief, sir. He respect­ful­ly requests that we fore­stall any action. The time is not right. But soon. Very soon, I’m sure.” 

Pres­i­dent Lin­coln con­tin­ues to stare at the TV. His great crag­gy face, now beard­less (yes, they shaved him, the bas­tards), betrays no hint of dis­ap­point­ment or dis­cour­age­ment. Those dark, deep eyes have seen enough, I imag­ine, to endow him with the patience of the ages. 


Gre­go­ry is back and with a sin­gle word demol­ish­es the gold­en silence. He stands in the door­way, arms fold­ed across his chest, eyes hard on me. But you are too late, Gre­go­ry. I have deliv­ered my message. 

Now you leave Arthur alone. Leave him be.” 

Arthur. That’s what they call Mr. Lin­coln. Just as they call me Ben. They think that by sim­ply nam­ing us, they can con­trol who we are. They are not as smart as they think. I have always lived under pseu­do­nyms, and Ben is fine with me. I know who I am and they do not. And work­ing for the Secret Ser­vice, it is crit­i­cal I keep it that way. 

I return to my chair by the win­dow, plac­ing just enough dis­tance between the Pres­i­dent and me to sat­is­fy Gre­go­ry yet per­mit me to spring into action and inter­pose myself between Mr. Lin­coln and what­ev­er might threat­en him—knife, bul­let, or those sub­tler means of assas­si­na­tion employed by our cap­tors in their relent­less attempt to destroy who we are. Rest assured, Mr. Pres­i­dent, there will be no door pushed open, no dag­ger, no shot fired, no one leap­ing onto the stage shout­ing of tyrants to a con­fused audi­ence. Not this time. Not on my watch. 

Inmates file into the room. Bin­go must be over. Bin­go is one of our keep­ers’ most insid­i­ous weapons. They use it to implant direc­tives, using a numer­i­cal code, in the minds of the inmates. A remark­ably sim­ple but effec­tive strat­e­gy. Once those numer­i­cal codes are implant­ed, the inmates are as help­less as babies wrapped tight in swad­dling clothes. Along with the inmates comes one of Gregory’s con­fed­er­ates. They have so lit­tle regard for our capa­bil­i­ties that only two guards are thought nec­es­sary to keep more than a dozen of us in check. Bingo! 

Of what wars these poor pris­on­ers are, I do not know. It is sad that they have all sur­vived the strug­gle only to end up here, ware­housed and main­tained, stored out of sight and out of mind by the true ene­my, one they nev­er even knew they were fight­ing. My mis­sion neces­si­tates that I keep a dis­creet dis­tance from these men, engag­ing them just enough to gath­er infor­ma­tion that might prove use­ful to the Ser­vice or aid me in my pro­tec­tion of the Pres­i­dent. I think most of them pose no threat, although threat can come out of a clear blue sky and calm sea. That I’ve learned. But there are a few men who bear care­ful watch­ing. And watch them I do. 

I cir­cle the room, my usu­al route, sub­tle as a shad­ow, blend­ing into my sur­round­ings, bare­ly notice­able, look­ing here, lis­ten­ing there, pass­ing by Pres­i­dent Lin­coln with every com­plet­ed cir­cuit. Noth­ing unusu­al to report, Chief Wood. The Pres­i­dent is safe, for the moment. I am doing my duty. Yes, it is some­thing to be proud of. Thank you, sir. You are too kind.


Gre­go­ry deposits me in the office of Major Wirz for my week­ly inter­ro­ga­tion. I’m not absolute­ly sure it’s Hein­rich Wirz, the mon­ster of Ander­son­ville, exter­mi­na­tor of Union pris­on­ers. He now goes under the absurd­ly innocu­ous name Dr. Jack Horner. Lit­tle Jack, indeed. He is almost as skilled at con­ceal­ing his iden­ti­ty as I am at con­ceal­ing mine. We are even­ly matched. But I have the advan­tage. I have Chief Wood. I don’t know who whis­pers in Major Wirz’s ear. 

Wirz is a very aver­age-look­ing man, not tall, nor short; nei­ther fat nor thin; bland fea­tures, a face you could for­get while look­ing at it. That, of course, is part of his pow­er. I must admit I have a grudg­ing admi­ra­tion for it. I sit quite still in the com­fort­able chair before his desk. The seat and arms are padded. Yes, I sit in a padded chair. 

Wirz—or Dr. Horner as I must call him—looks up from the file he has been writ­ing in and smiles. “You look well today, Ben.” 

Thank you, Dr. Horner. I am well.” 

Are you sleep­ing bet­ter? Those dreams that were both­er­ing you, are you still hav­ing them?” 

Why, no,” I say. “I’ve been hav­ing rather pleas­ant dreams now. I believe that med­ica­tion you’re mak­ing me take has worked like a charm.” 

Dr. Horner leans back in his chair and looks at me in silence for a long moment. He is a man of long looks. “That med­ica­tion should not actu­al­ly be affect­ing your dreams.” 

Well, an unex­pect­ed side ben­e­fit then,” I say. Damn. I must be careful. 

Can you tell me a bit about these pleas­ant dreams?” 

Can you tell me about your dreams, Major Wirz? Do the breath­ing skele­tons of starved pris­on­ers wrap their boney arms around you? 


I’ve been dream­ing of the ocean,” I tell him, quick­ly impro­vis­ing. “A love­ly day at the shore.” 

The ocean? Do you remem­ber the last time you were by the ocean?” 

It was quite a while ago. It was very nice.” Care­ful now, care­ful. The dev­il is, as they say, in the details. “I love swim­ming in the ocean. I’m quite a strong swim­mer, you know.” 

Yes, I know,” says Dr. Horner. “And the last time you were at the beach. Were you alone?” 

I know what he wants me to say. He wants me to say I was with the wife they have invent­ed for me. Ben’s wife. But the name is some­thing I can’t recall. “Do you mind if I shut the win­dow, Dr. Horner?” I say, stalling for time. 

I’ll shut it for you,” he says, gets up and goes to the window. 

The name, damn it, the name, Ben’s wife. Dr. Horner sits back down. “Was any­one with you at the beach that last time?” 

Yes. My wife. Elsie.” 

Ellie?” says Dr. Horner. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” 

He nods. “Any­one else?” 

Well, there were lots of peo­ple there. It was a love­ly day.” 

Didn’t you tell me you always went ear­ly in the morn­ing? When there were few peo­ple there?” 

I think you’re right. That morn­ing there were few peo­ple there.” It’s like walk­ing a tightrope over an abyss. One slip and I’m gone. 

Did you swim that day?” 

Of course. The ocean was warm and calm. Per­fect for swimming.” 

And did Elsie swim with you?” 

Ellie,” I say. Got you, Wirz. Got him, Chief Wood. 

That’s what I said. Ellie.” Dr. Horner makes a note in the file. 

I must remain calm. Rea­son­able. They need to believe that I believe them. That I think I am this man Ben. If they believe I am Ben, then they will nev­er know who I real­ly am, the man who pro­tects the Pres­i­dent, and who always will. Sic sem­per

Is there any­one else in this dream of the ocean? I mean any­one you know.” 

Why, yes,” I say. Let’s give the good doc­tor some­thing to think about. “You’re there.” 


Yes. But it’s odd, Dr. Horner. You’re in a uni­form. Not very appro­pri­ate for the beach.” I watch his eyes. He doesn’t blink. He is good. But I am better. 

He leans back in his chair and smiles. “A uni­form? Like a policeman?” 

No. Like—a sol­dier. An offi­cer. Why, you look like a major.” 

I believe you’re play­ing with me, Ben,” says Dr. Horner. “I’m not real­ly in your dreams, am I?” 

I say noth­ing. Per­haps I’ve gone too far. Wirz is a dan­ger­ous man— 

I was think­ing of your grand­chil­dren, Ben. The twins.” 

Oh, yes. Lit­tle angels,” I bluff. This is some­thing new. They want Ben to have grand­chil­dren. My God, I’m get­ting tired. How can I keep up with them? I need a moment, a moment to think.… 

Would you like a glass of water?” 

For God’s sake, Chief, tell me what to do. But no. There is too much noise. I’m sweat­ing. Wirz shut the win­dow to take the air away. What’s next, bright lights in my eyes? 

They were four this year. Am I right?” 

I hear a great rush­ing sound, like waves crash­ing in my head. Before I can stop myself, I’m out of my chair. I stand at attention. 

All right, Ben. Let’s leave it at that for today. Ben?” 

Lit­tle angels,” I tell Dr. Horner. The twins … 

He takes hold of my wrist and glances at his watch. “I’m going to try a change in your med­ica­tion. It may upset your stom­ach a lit­tle. But just at first. Is that all right?” 

I nod. I’m afraid to speak. I may blurt out some­thing I shouldn’t. I bite down on my tongue. 

Dr. Horner stands and goes to the door. “Gre­go­ry?”

Gre­go­ry comes in and stands behind him. “I’d like Ben to stay in his room for a bit. Per­haps a day or two. We’ll be try­ing a new med­ica­tion.” He turns to me. “I’ve fin­ished your book, Ben,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much. I’m not one for his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, but you have a way of bring­ing the char­ac­ters to life. The scene with Lee and Grant at Appo­mat­tox Court House—well, I felt like I was there.” 

Thank you,” I say. So the man Ben has writ­ten a book. If that’s who they want me to be, I hope at least it’s a good one. 


The two days con­fined to my cell were almost unbear­able. Not for any depri­va­tion to myself but for the jeop­ardy in which I placed Pres­i­dent Lin­coln. My only con­so­la­tion was that the blan­ket­ing silence of that time alone gave Chief Wood ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to keep me informed and chide me, more gen­tly that I deserved, for my ill-advised thrust and par­ry with Major Wirz. And yes, he is indeed Major Wirz. The Chief has con­firmed it. 

My first action this morn­ing was to slip unno­ticed into the President’s cell. Not only did I find him unharmed and rest­ing peace­ful­ly in his bed, but his beard has actu­al­ly begun to grow back. He’s look­ing more like him­self. He looked at me and said noth­ing. His admirable restraint is a qual­i­ty I would do well to emu­late. With the faintest of smiles and a nod of his head, he indi­cat­ed his appre­ci­a­tion of my ser­vice to him. I think he feels safe. And I intend to keep him that way. If I must be this man Ben to oper­ate most effec­tive­ly in that regard, then Ben I shall be. At least until I have full intel­li­gence of our cap­tors’ inten­tions. It is a hard thing to be some­one you’re not. Who doesn’t want to sim­ply be him­self? With the excep­tion, per­haps, of you, Major Wirz. 

I sit in the gar­den and wait for Ben’s so-called wife to appear. Ellie. I must remem­ber the name. She’s work­ing for them, of course. And yet her heart doesn’t seem in it. I think she’s unhap­py with her work. Her efforts to make me into Ben, so ardent­ly desired by her supe­ri­ors, have been spot­ty at best. She seems so dis­cour­aged. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if at some point some­one else shows up pre­tend­ing to be Ben’s wife and we start all over. 

The gar­den is not real­ly a gar­den; that’s sim­ply what it is called. There are some met­al bench­es and a few pot­ted plants, and a small lawn sur­round­ed by a flag­stone walk. In the mid­dle of the lawn is a stone foun­tain, two lit­tle angels rid­ing the back of a dol­phin. Water slow­ly runs from the dolphin’s mouth as if leak­ing from a drowned thing. The largest part of the so-called gar­den is a con­crete square with met­al tables and chairs. A few inmates are sit­ting at the tables with their pre­sumed fam­i­lies. I sit on the bench oppo­site the win­dow to Pres­i­dent Lincoln’s cell. I keep my eye on the window. 

Ben.” It’s the woman called Ellie. Gre­go­ry is with her. 

You have a nice vis­it now,” says Gre­go­ry, and they exchange a know­ing look. 

Ellie sits down on the bench next to me. “How are you feel­ing today, Ben?” 

Quite well, Ellie,” I say, and smile the way I think some­one named Ben might smile. 

Ellie puts her hand­bag on the bench next to her. The mini-micro­phone in her bag is acti­vat­ed by con­tact with the met­al bench. Elec­tro­mag­net­ic, the Chief explained. That’s fine. They will hear what they want to hear and what I want them to hear. They will hear Ben talk­ing to Ellie. 

Dr. Horner tells me you had a bad day,” says Ellie. “So he put you on some­thing new. Has that helped?” 

Oh, yes. I’m feel­ing much better.” 

You’re look­ing bet­ter,” she says and smiles, but only for a sec­ond. The smile droops. She looks exhaust­ed. There are rings under her red-rimmed eyes. She plain­ly doesn’t sleep well. She must have been a very pret­ty woman once. But now she is fad­ed, like an old pho­to­graph. Still, she doesn’t seem a bad sort. What would make a woman like her work for them? I can only imag­ine. But mine is not to rea­son why, is it, Chief Wood? 

Julie and Kei­th are back from Paris. I think it did them a world of good. Julie may go back to work next month.” 

Good,” I say. “We all need our work, don’t we?” 

Wouldn’t you like to go back to work? Back to your writing?” 

Care­ful now. “It’s some­thing to consider.” 

She puts her hand on my arm. “Don’t you want to be well?” 

Doesn’t every­one?” I say. 

Ellie takes her hand away. “Why are you star­ing at that win­dow? Is that your room?” 

No. My room has no win­dow.” As if she didn’t know. 

Look at me. Please.” 

I look at her. 

No one is blam­ing you. Not Julie or Kei­th. Not me.” 

I nod. The strain of keep­ing my eyes on Ellie and the effort of main­tain­ing my Ben-like smile is wear­ing me down. My head is begin­ning to ache. Ellie stares hard at me. What does she want? If only I had your wis­dom, Mr. Pres­i­dent. We sit in silence for what seems like a long time. 

All right. They do blame you. But for God’s sake, Ben, give them time. And stop blam­ing your­self. You looked away. You were care­less. For just a few min­utes. And it took them. That heart­less ocean. Or a mon­strous God.” Ellie is crying. 

What a strange script they have her recite. There are appar­ent­ly grave con­se­quences to being Ben. No won­der they want me so bad­ly to be him. They’d have me then and even­tu­al­ly the Pres­i­dent too. “I think vis­it­ing time is over,” I say. I’ve got to check on Mr. Lincoln. 

We just sat down,” she says and dries her eyes. 

They have strict rules here. And I want to coop­er­ate. The rules are for my own good.” Lis­ten­ing, Dr. Horner? 

Ellie’s dis­tressed. She’s not get­ting what they want. Per­haps she’ll be pun­ished. God knows—monstrous God, she said?—they’re capa­ble of any­thing. She takes my face in her hands. Her hands are warm. “Be hon­est with me. Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are?” 

You’re Ellie,” I say, try­ing to speak down toward her hand­bag, so they can hear me loud and clear. “My wife. And I’m Ben. Who else could I be?” 

There is such anguish in her face. Per­haps I am wrong. Per­haps she doesn’t work for them. Could she, too, be work­ing for the Service?


Word has final­ly come. My silent orders from Chief Wood. I’m to affect the President’s escape today. It can’t come soon enough for me. For the past few weeks I’ve found it more and more dif­fi­cult to keep up the cha­rade of being the man Ben. Major Wirz is very sus­pi­cious. At our last ses­sion he told me the worst thing I could do was to humor him; it would be bad for him and worse for me. With his frus­tra­tion, his own façade is crum­bling. His speech is begin­ning to have a slight Swiss accent, yes, the accent of his home­land, some­thing notice­able only to my trained ear. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if he starts sprout­ing a beard next and don­ning his Con­fed­er­ate uni­form out­right. Well, with the help of God and Chief Wood, the Pres­i­dent and I will not be here to see it. 

The plan is sim­plic­i­ty itself. It depends just on being in the right place at the right time and pay­ing close atten­tion. So much in life depends on that, Ellie. The Pres­i­dent is in his wheel­chair before the TV in the day­room, as usu­al. I am sit­ting in my chair by the win­dow, as usu­al. Gre­go­ry has led every­one except George to the game room to be inoc­u­lat­ed with Bin­go, as usu­al, leav­ing us alone with the blond atten­dant Tyrone. In a few min­utes Tyrone will dis­ap­pear to smoke a cig­a­rette, as he does every morn­ing when Gre­go­ry is out of sight. 

Keep an eye on Arthur, will you, Ben? I’ll be back in five,” says Tyrone. “And you be good now, George,” he adds and works his lips silent­ly in deri­sive imitation. 

Sure, Tyrone,” I say casu­al­ly, yawn­ing for good mea­sure to impress him with how ordi­nary a day it is. George takes no notice and con­tin­ues to silent­ly talk to him­self. And Tyrone is gone. 

I move swift­ly. I take the President’s wheel­chair and maneu­ver it to the door. I glance at George, who stops silent­ly speak­ing and waves good­bye. I know I can count on him to do noth­ing. It’s a quick roll down the hall to the unlocked doors to the garden. 

The skies are over­cast and heavy with the threat of rain. I wheel Mr. Lin­coln past the table and chairs to the lawn, along the path, past the foun­tain and around the cor­ner of the build­ing, out of sight. The Pres­i­dent turns in his chair and looks up at me. “Everything’s going accord­ing to plan,” I tell him. “Chief Wood will explain it all when we see him.” The Pres­i­dent makes no protest. He is no stranger to tak­ing risks for freedom’s sake. 

I push the Pres­i­dent up the grassy knoll to the park­ing lot and wheel him to the far side. The ques­tion is, where will they land? The Chief said I’d know it when I saw it. I scan the streets beyond the park­ing lot, and sure enough I spot it. Of course. The cir­cu­lar clear­ing in the mid­dle of the round­about, a large con­crete island with a flag­pole in the mid­dle and a big Amer­i­can flag wav­ing in the high wind. It couldn’t be plainer. 

We cross the lot and go down the ramp to the side­walk. Cars and trucks are cir­cling the round­about at vary­ing speeds. They slow down and speed up unpre­dictably. There’s no pedes­tri­an walk to the island. I stand and watch the cars go round and round until I have to look away. Now is the time to trust Chief Wood. Yes, sir. I do believe. If I don’t believe in you, what is left? I step off into the street. 

Cars stop. Some speed by. Some swerve away from us. They honk, but whether they’re for or against us I can­not tell. Some­one is shout­ing. I walk with my gaze straight ahead now, focused, see­ing and hear­ing every­thing. We get to the island just as a yel­low car com­ing around the curve comes so close I feel its speed graze my back. I fall hard against the wheel­chair and the Pres­i­dent rolls rapid­ly for­ward. I lunge with all my strength and catch the wheel­chair just enough to slow it down before I fall. The Pres­i­dent stops inch­es from the curb and the onslaught of the man­ic traf­fic. I’ve banged my knees bad­ly and scraped my hands bloody, but I strug­gle up, breath­ing hard, and rush to him. He grasps my hand. He is all right. He is safe. I have saved him. 

Over­head, out of the heavy sky choked with clouds thick as smoke, over and above the hiss of the hard rain falling and the blare of horns and wail of sirens and the roar of waves and the shouts of the police rush­ing to the island toward the Amer­i­can flag that is always fly­ing and the peo­ple on the beach run­ning in pan­ic and scream­ing and the blood boil­ing loud­ly in my ears, over the din I hear it, the sound, the sound of the heli­copter, with its great blades slic­ing the thick air, spin­ning and swoop­ing down from the sky to take us away, home, out of dan­ger, to the only safe place.… 


Ellie and Dr. Horner stand at the foot of the bed and talk in whis­pers. I pre­tend to be asleep. It’s the only pre­tense I can man­age right now. I am too tired to do any­thing else. There is pain in my ban­daged knees. I go over things again and again in my mind. Why did the Chief abort the mis­sion? Was it my fault? Did I do some­thing wrong? I have a ter­ri­ble feel­ing I’ve done some­thing hor­ri­bly wrong. The Chief has not said a word to me since we were brought back. Not a sin­gle word. 

Ellie sits at the foot of the bed and watch­es me. She will fold me up into this man they call Ben and put me in Horner’s pock­et. And I will nev­er be seen again. 

I watch her through half-closed eyes. She pulls a chair to the head of the bed. “I know you’re awake,” she says. 

I say nothing. 

She sits in silence and con­tin­ues to watch me. Then she gets up and shuts the door. She pulls the chair even clos­er and leans over me. “All right. I can’t do this any­more. I know you’re not Ben.” 

I open my eyes and look at her. She seems sad beyond mea­sure. What have they done to her? 

They want you to be Ben and they want me to help make you Ben. But you are not Ben, are you?” 

I want to tell her, but I can’t. I cloak myself in silence. 

If I were you, I would not want to be Ben either. Not any­more. So I will not help them any­more. Do you under­stand? I will leave and not come back and you just be who you real­ly are, no mat­ter how much they try to make you some­one else.” 

Per­haps she is a friend after all. Perhaps. 

Can you just tell me some­thing?” She paus­es and takes a deep breath that seems to pain her. “What is your name? I promise I will nev­er tell any­one else. Can you just give me that?” 

There is some­thing in her eyes, some­thing I think I can trust. “I don’t have a name,” I tell her. I can’t help it. For­give me, Chief. “In the Secret Ser­vice, we have only code names.” 

Her eyes widen and a tear falls like a big drop of rain. “A code name?” 

I nod and take her hand. 

What is your code name, then?” 

Rip­tide. The Chief calls me Riptide.” 

The woman called Ellie drops her head on the bed and cries. “But please,” I whis­per, “tell this to no one. It’s as secret as secret can be.” After a while she lifts her head, dries her eyes, gets up, kiss­es my fore­head, and leaves. I sup­pose I will nev­er know who she real­ly is. I lie as still and as silent as I can. I close my eyes and lis­ten to the silence for a long time. When I open my eyes the lights are out, but stand­ing at the foot of my bed is Mr. Lin­coln. I can see him plain­ly in the dark. 

Mr. Pres­i­dent. You’re all right. You can walk.” 

The Pres­i­dent smiles. 

Chief Wood has said noth­ing to me since they brought us back here.” 

The Pres­i­dent nods. 

What are we going to do, Mis­ter Lincoln?” 

We are going to lis­ten,” says the Pres­i­dent, “to the bet­ter angels of our nature.” 


From the writer

:: Account ::

Not long ago, I read a sto­ry in the news about a man who acci­dent­ly dropped his baby grand­daugh­ter off the rail­ing of a cruise ship. He was hold­ing her before a pan­el, which he mis­tak­en­ly thought had glass before it. It did not. The lit­tle girl fell to her death. The child’s parents—including the man’s own daugh­ter and oth­er fam­i­ly members—were present. 

Among the peren­ni­al ques­tions about the human con­di­tion that intrigue and dis­turb me is this: how does one bear the unbear­able? How do ordi­nary peo­ple, imbued with the extra­or­di­nary sense and sen­si­bil­i­ty of our kind, the fac­ul­ty of ful­ly know­ing and appre­ci­at­ing all we do and the con­se­quences, sur­vive the guilt and unfath­omable pain of hav­ing com­mit­ted an act, even if ful­ly acci­den­tal, with such dread con­se­quences as the death of that baby girl? Does one live or die? And if one lives, how? 

Paul Negri is the edi­tor of a dozen lit­er­ary antholo­gies from Dover Pub­li­ca­tions. He was twice award­ed the gold medal for fic­tion in the William Faulkn­er – William Wis­dom Writ­ing Com­pe­ti­tion. His sto­ries have appeared in The Penn Review, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Pif Mag­a­zine, Jel­ly­fish Review, and more than 50 oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.