Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina's poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America's Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.
Someone Failed This Man
The client laid his cheek against his palm and said it was like having sex with your mother. It's always the mother for you people, he announced. I glanced down at my clipboard when he said you, then back up again when he said people. It was like listening to song lyrics that said nothing was red except the coffee mug perched on the windowsill. I felt a cup when I needed a cardinal. There was this failure, now, between us.
Someone had failed him. Someone fibbed. A mother. An aunt. A best friend. Someone failed everyone, no exceptions. Someone carried the weight of the story. Someone else told it. No one knew the truth.
This isn't about the client's truth or his mother. This isn't about truth. Nor is it an essay about how to write fiction while smuggling in some Truth. I'm not writing for the story-as-vessel crowd. I can't satisfy the compartments of magnificence. Nor am I preparing a lecture on the topic of truth as it touches us dimly, wantonly, subversively under the table in an Italian restaurant where it brushes its thigh against ours and smells of green soap or faux shamrocks or forlorn footsies.
I am preparing to brush my teeth and lie to my children about what color my teeth would be if I hadn't brushed them. When I was their age. I never brushed my teeth. Instead, I used the sleeve of my jacket to wipe my teeth clean with tenderness. A little bit of white cream deposited on the navy blue sleeve and it was more satisfying than toothpaste. It was prophetic. I was Cassandra. I don't have anything to say about truth that I can't write on a mirror in Coral Reef lipstick.
Sometimes the best way to be fully present is by becoming a heat-seaking missile, namely, lying on the bed in your husband's bathrobe and imagining how it would feel to have a beard. Or scratch your balls in sad earnest. I scratch my scrotum and wait for the world to brush its teeth. Someone will lie about it. A literary scholar will call the lie suspense.
Rachel Cochran received her PhD in creative writing and 19th-century studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Ohio Review, Fugue, Masters Review, and others. Additionally, she serves as assistant editor for Machete, a nonfiction book series through Ohio State University Press. Find her on Twitter at @_RachelCochran.
Girls Kissing Girls
The first time I witness two girls kissing, I’m at Kaylee’s house for her thirteenth birthday party. When I walk into her living room it’s to find that she’s invited a bunch of girls I don’t really know, girls who aren’t in the cloister of advanced classes I’ve been shut away in since we started middle school. I didn’t realize Kaylee had so many friends I didn’t know--but then again, I don’t share many classes with Kaylee these days, and I suppose it’s been a while, over a month, since I’ve had her to my house. (It strikes me that, at my own thirteenth birthday party two months ago, she might have felt nearly as disoriented, in my living room which at one time was as familiar to her as her own, now populated by people she scarcely knew, laughing behind their hands at jokes she wasn’t invited to share.)
This isn’t where the kissing happens, of course: not out here, in the living room, with Kaylee holding court, one girl sitting splay-legged on the couch-back behind her, twisting two fat ropelike braids onto her head, and two other girls crouched at her toes, painting them dueling shades of glitter-pink. There is no kissing out in the open, here where the air smells of hairspray and acetone and cigarette smoke, where the TV shouting out the weekly VH1 countdown has been subsumed by the girls’ laughing voices; here where Kaylee’s aunt and brother and uncle and little cousins trickle through as if they’re going about their regular business, except that they’ve always got one eye trained on the girls, curious, teasing, awed, confused. I am an interloper, too: I may be seated among them, but still I am perched outside, squinting in.
One of Kaylee’s guests, a girl named H., I recognize from years ago, on the elementary school playground, from when Kaylee once pointed at her and giggled, insinuated something I couldn’t understand, in order to explain why she’d told H. she couldn’t sit at our picnic table. Yet here she is, with the others at Kaylee’s party, looking for all the world like she’s the same as the rest of them. She offers to braid my hair, but I decline; many childhood battles with headlice have left my scalp a tattered, flaky ruin, so I’ve never been able to take part in this vital feminine ritual, too afraid that if I allow another girl to twine her fingers through my hair she will uncover this hidden, grotesque part of me, and then everyone will know. In this moment, I worry my refusal has been too vehement, that my hands have twitched defensively toward my head, that I’ve given myself away. I see the suspicion in H.’s eyes, like she’s about to pin me down and pick through my roots to pluck out all my secrets. She could do it, probably-- I’m smaller than she is, have always been undersized--but she leaves me alone.
The kissing happens hours later, after we have retired to the bedroom Kaylee shares with her cousin Jessica, and their bedside lamp is the only light left in the house. The kissing happens when we’re all gathered around, cross-legged, knee-to-knee, ranged on the two twin bedtops and clustered in the valley between, and, in that ancient tradition of girls-in-the-nighttime, someone has suggested we share secrets.
My stomach clenches. What secrets do I have to share? Because I know I’ll be called on, and when I am, I have to offer up the right secret. It can’t be something embarrassing, or they’ll mock me, so I can hardly go with: when I was ten years old and they were casting the Harry Potter movies I sent a letter to the director explaining why I should play Hermione, citing my leading roles in elementary school theatricals as well as my “astonishingly accomplished” British accent, and for weeks I wanted it so badly, so incessantly, that I began to dream of being her, to believe that it would happen, until I logged into the library computer to find that the actors had been announced, and I logged out and walked home crying, and I’ve resented Emma Watson unreasonably ever since. It can’t be something sad, because that will make it look like I’m seeking attention, so I can’t say: sometimes my mother forgets to give me lunch money for weeks in a row, so I sit in the cafeteria every day and watch everyone else eat and, if they ever ask me about it, I tell them I’m on a diet, and hope they don’t tell me I’m too fat to be anorexic. It has to be the right kind of secret, the kind that will make me sound more interesting to them, that will make them like me more. But I’ve always wanted so badly to be liked; those aren’t the kinds of things I hide.
Luckily, nobody asks me to go first. Instead, Kaylee leaps in. “I’ve got a secret,” she says, conspiratory, demanding our attention. “Lately I’ve been thinking... I might be a lesbian.” The term shocks me. I’ve heard it before, but only ever in reference to my mom’s friend Shari, who lives out in New Mexico, and that Ellen Degeneres sitcom my parents used to watch before the divorce, after they’d put me in bed, when I’d sometimes sneak out to watch surreptitiously from the top of the stairs. Yet here is Kaylee, one of my oldest friends, applying it to herself, and I don’t know what it means, not really, and I don’t know exactly what I’m thinking, either, except, I wish she had told just me.
I see H.’s eyes go wide, and I think mine must be wide too, but before anyone can really react to what Kaylee has said, her cousin Jessica jumps in. “I... I think I might be a lesbian, too.”
And then, as if it is the logical next step, they are leaning toward each other, brushing lip to lip, eyes closed; for the first time since my arrival, the room of girls is silent, quiet enough that all I can hear is the ceiling fan clicking above and the two girls’ lip gloss smacking.
They pull apart. Nobody makes a sound. Then, a third girl says, “I think I’m a lesbian, too.” At which Kaylee turns to her, and dares her to kiss her, and there’s some hesitation, and then the other girls are egging them on, and they lean in and kiss too. Soon, a fourth girl says it, too, those magic words that have her leaning over her crossed legs and kissing Jessica.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I murmur, just to get away, but I’m stuck at the far end of the bed, against the corner of the wall, and so the kissing couples have to part to let me clamber through, the bedtop rocking and tilting in my wake, the sitting girls bobbing like buoys around me. H. stares at me as I leave.
I don’t go to the bathroom. Instead, I search through the heap of girls’ bags piled near the front door until I find my own, which is easy to spot because theirs are gymnastics duffels and Wal-Mart backpacks and mine’s only a ratty pillowcase. I dig out the book I brought, settle into the sofa in the darkened living room, and try to read by the light of the streetlamp that’s pouring through the window. I can’t focus on my reading, though--my heart is surging in my throat, and my eyes are swimming, and all I can think of are the girls’ faces, tilting together, mouths slotting, eyelids drooping sleepily shut.
I think I might be a lesbian, they had all said. How in the world had they known? And did you have to be a lesbian, to want to do that, what they were doing? Do you want to do it? a voice inside me chides. And then, more specifically, Did you want Kaylee to kiss you? Did you did you did you? But it had not been an option, not there in that room, not where I knew nobody and nobody knew me. And so I sit outside, staring at a book I can’t make out, thinking thoughts I can’t understand.
Someone comes up to me, moving quietly through the dark and then settling down on the couch cushion beside me. I don’t look up from my book, but I know it’s Kaylee. It’s the first time all night long we’ve been alone together, and it’s nearly the first time she’s spoken to me when she says, “We didn’t mean it.”
“That,” says Kaylee. “In there. We’re all pretending.”
“We’re trying to get H. to admit that she’s a lesbian. So we decided to pretend we were.” Then, nudging me with her elbow, “Sorry. I should have warned you.”
I realize she thinks I left because I was horrified by what I saw her doing. Maybe I was, but I won’t let her know I wasn’t horrified for the reason she thinks. And I won’t let her know that I’m even more horrified now, now that I know what was really going on. Selfishly, frightfully, in that moment all I can feel is gratitude: gratitude that H. is the one they were trying to trap.
“Come back in,” Kaylee says. “Nobody’s kissing anymore.”
“I want to finish this chapter,” I lie, just to get her to leave me alone. “I’ll be in later.”
She goes, and I watch her pick back through the living room, the kitchen, until she reaches the bedroom door again. She opens it, and for a moment I can hear the tittering girls, as almost as distinctly as if I am in the room with them once more. I think I will never shake that sound from my ears. But for now, I am far away, on the sofa, curled in against myself so tightly the edges of my book are pressing red lines into me through my nightgown, and when the door finally closes, it is mercifully quiet.
Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. Milbrodt lives in Salem, Virginia, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Roanoke College. She believes in coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, real-time conversation, and writing the occasional haiku. Read more of her work at: http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/
My barista sets clean coffee cups on the shelf behind the counter while she explains how the first-year med students do anatomical body painting at the end of the semester. They've spent three months working on a cadaver, but need to be exposed to all kinds of bodies and navigate the experience of touching people. Live ones.
“You've been working on one cadaver all semester?” I peer into my coffee cup.
“It's not gross once you get used to it,” she says. “But I'm excited that we're graduating to the next level. Not everyone wants to paint people, and our prof said that's fine. They can hold brushes.”
“Why are they going into medicine if they don't want to touch people?” I say.
“They have three more years to get there.” She shrugs, less concerned than I am, but the prospect of being painted is interesting. “You can decide which room you want to work in.
Different rooms focus on different parts of the body. I'm planning on bones. You're welcome to come and bring friends. We always need more bodies.”
On Wednesday morning I pick up my sister for this excursion, since she's arranged to leave her two-year-old at play group for three hours. She's said we need to have girl time, though she wants to be in the room with organs, and I'm going with bones. Afterward we can have coffee and a chat.
“And pictures,” says my sister. “We have to take lots of pictures.”
I wear a sports bra and biking shorts under my t-shirt, a loose layer I strip off when I walk into the bone painting room. My sister was more slender than me when we were growing up, but now she has her baby body, and a bulge over her biking shorts. I wonder if they will paint her uterus.
I stand by the window and stretch my arms over my head, then wave to my barista who's by a gurney. The students painting me won't be able to tell I have thinning bones, the result of being a teenager who got painfully skinny. My doctor says I have osteopenia, so I've been taking calcium and hormone replacement therapy and lifting weights to strengthen the structures no one can see. In seventh grade we had to memorize the names of our bones. That was when I was thirty pounds overweight and being prodded by my pediatrician to eat less. But it was the fear of dating that worked miracles in my mind, which was hopped up on hormones. I lost too much weight, along with the names of most of the bones in my skeletal system. I remember fun ones, like tibia and metatarsals and phalanges. My barista already asked if she could paint me, which is slightly less weird than painting a stranger.
She waves me over to the gurney to signal they are ready to begin, and asks if I would like to sit, stand, or lie down. I say whatever would give them the best access, and wonder if I should tell them to paint my bones to look thin, like they could crack if I fell the wrong way. Someday these med students will have to ask people like me for their medical history, but now all that matters is where my bones are.
My barista says it would be great if I could lie down, but she realizes the gurney doesn't have a pillow, so she excuses herself to find one. The pause gives me time to compare my body, childless and forty and sagging in the usual places, to other bodies in the room. According to my barista, last year there was a guy who had weighted three hundred fifty pounds, dropped to two hundred, and wanted people to see his skin folds. There was also a woman who'd had a C-section, and whose ribs had shifted position while she was pregnant.
“We need to feel for bones that aren't in the same place on bodies as they are in the pictures,” my barista said. As she brings my pillow, I watch a woman pace by the window, wearing a sport bra and biking shorts much like mine.
“I can do this, I can do this,” she says.
We are ready to donate our bodies to science for the afternoon. Perhaps I'm willing because I've seen too many doctors in the past year due to a bad bout of bronchitis that held on for months. Now I can choose to be vulnerable and educate someone, rather than being compelled to hop on that table.
When I lie down I wish I would've asked to be seated—it feels too much like I'm having an operation--but my barista says not to be shy to ask for fruit or water. They'll let me know what and where they're painting. Someone announces they're going to work on my scapula, another person on my ribs, my barista will start on my leg bones.
I hum the song “Dem Bones.” Someone giggles, and the artists chat about when they have broken bones. I feel the tickle of four paintbrushes, hear the slosh of water as they clean off one color and ready for another. The guy painting my scapula says he broke his arm while skateboarding. My barista broke her wrist while rollerblading. The guy working on my ribs fractured his ankle while playing basketball and going in for a slam dunk. Eighteen years ago when I was still a college student, I was walking across campus and watching two guys do skateboard tricks when I tripped and hit my arm on a curb just above my elbow. My joint absorbed none of the impact, breaking my bone neatly in two. I wore a hinged brace for two months, one with two metal bars that attached to my arm with cuffs. The hinge was set for a certain number of degrees so I couldn't move my arm too far.
I wait for someone to ask if I've broken a bone, but nobody thinks to do this. I'm a canvas. They talk about whether he's painting my ribs too wide, and how are they going to fit all the tiny bones in my hands?
“I'm going to work on your feet,” my barista says.
“Great,” I say. I understand why it's easy to talk around me, but when the scapula guy starts working on my arm without letting me know, I clear my throat and ask for a drink of water.
“Sure, you want a break to sit up?” says my barista. I do. She brings me a bottle and a banana. I stretch and shake my shoulders, admire my feet with the rainbow colored tarsals and metatarsals. The two other models are lying down. At the end of the day we'll look like Day of the Dead skeletons. The thought of death usually doesn't occur to people when they're young. It's a theory, a figment. Does it have to occur to medical students, or do they only believe in its prevention, even if they've spent a semester working on a cadaver?
“You're good at this,” my barista says. “You stay so still. Maybe you can come back next year.”
I smile and wonder if I should chat more to distinguish myself from a dead person, but when I lie back down and the scapula guy asks if it's okay for him to paint parts of my skull, I say go for it. So much for chatting.
The guy painting my ribs says they're weird. I feel a tickle on my arm. Is that where the bone broke, just above the elbow? When my parents see the pictures of my bright bones, will they ask about the results of my latest dexascan to check my bone density, or reflect on their own bones and joints and organs? My mother takes calcium to prevent thinning bones. Dad's seasonal respiratory infections have been getting worse. His doctors have been monitoring his white blood cell count, but he hasn't told me why. Over the past year we spent a lot of time coughing over the phone to each other, discussing the next regimen of steroids that would hopefully dry out our lungs. My bronchi are still recovering, but my doctor says it will take a few months. I don't like the lingering hint of a wheeze in my voice. My dad sounds the same way.
“You look great,” says my barista. Two hours have passed and I can sit up and look at my brilliant self. The four artists stand back and nod at their work. I peer down at my limbs, which are the color of fruit-flavored breakfast cereal. It’s fantastic. My barista promised to take pictures of me and my sister, so we walk to the organs room where people have multicolored hearts and livers and kidneys and gall bladders. The team did indeed paint my sister's uterus.
“I asked them to,” she says. My barista gets twenty pictures on both of our phones. This is not the stuff of next year's holiday card, but it's interesting.
“I spent the whole morning with other adults,” my sister says.
“Did they talk to you?” I ask.
“Not much,” she says, “but it was time without educational books, songs, or videos. Lila is great, but sometimes I want to be more than a mommy.”
There are buckets of warm water and washcloths if we want to wipe the bones and organs from our skin, but now that we are dry and beautiful, my sister and I put on our shoes and oversized t-shirts and go for coffee in the student union since they gave us coupons for a free cup. My sister's organs are mostly concealed by her t-shirt, though I feel like an art installation and smile at people who look at me sideways as we're standing in line. After we order her mocha and my sugar-free vanilla latte, we flip through the pictures on her phone.
“I'm doing this again next year,” I say. “Maybe my circulatory system.”
“I might be pregnant by then,” she says. “If we time it right Lila will be three or four when she gets a sibling. I just want one set of diapers at a time.”
I look down to my invisible uterus. I've never wanted to grow round with the weight of an infant, but I've been thinking about bodies since I got this freelance writing gig for two medical marijuana companies. I compose content for their blogs, manage their web sites, and call clients for interviews about how their lives have been changed by the therapeutic qualities of pot. I hear about muscle pain and joint pain and incurable everything, pondering the politics of prescriptions while wishing I could find a job that paid a bit more so I could afford all the doctor's appointments I needed this year. My partner's insurance didn't cover everything.
My sister shifts in her seat and says she and my brother-in-law are drawing up their wills and wondered if I'd like to be Lila's guardian if something would happen to them.
“I know it's a big and awful 'if,'” she says.
I nod. When Travis and I got married we decided we wanted cats, not kids, but when it comes to being Lila's guardian, the answer is yes. Should be yes. I should say yes without hesitation. I'm her only auntie, after all.
“My father-in-law said we should think about stuff like this now,” my sister says. “But it does feel kind of weird.”
What would Travis say if I told her yes? Is this question scarier than it should be since I've spent all morning thinking about everything I usually forget is under my skin?
“You don't have to answer now,” my sister says, but I should respond with Yes, of course, don't worry about it. Hesitation feels like an insult. I've spent hours with Lila on my lap reading books to her as she fixates on the page, imprinting everything in her growing brain.
“I'll check with Travis,” I say. “I'm sure it will be fine.” He will look at me with his head tilted and nod slowly, not entirely okay with the prospect.
“It's fine if you want to say no,” she says.
“It's my niece,” I say. My DNA, some of it anyway, lodged in our bones.
“You still don't have to say yes,” she says. I don't want to ask who else she had in mind, but wonder what it would feel like to take a kid home after being told she's mine forever. Do I remember well enough what it feels like to be in a kid's body? When I have lunch with my sister and Lila on the weekends, we drink coffee as Lila brings us her toys, takes them back, and runs around the house after the cat. Did we have that some boundless energy in our bodies when we were little?
My sister is always calling to ponder another child-rearing question: When is Lila’s nose runny enough to call the doctor? How dangerous is eating chalk? What should she do when Lila keeps picking off the band-aids to examine her scabs? It's okay if she just eats peanut butter and crackers for a week, right? I thought she was embarrassed to call our mom for some reason, but could it have been a possible parent screening test?
I flex my multicolored fingers. My sister leans back in her chair and checks her watch.
“Another whole hour to myself,” she says. “We need to do this more often.”
“It's only once a year,” I say.
“You know what I mean.” She smiles. This afternoon I will call a grad student who's studying physical therapy and started vaping to help her musculoskeletal pain. I imagine her fluorescent bones aching.
“I think we'll say yes,” I tell my sister.
“You don't have to,” she says.
“I think we will,” I say. Why does the thought of letting my niece live with someone else makes my invisible stomach wrench in a way I don't understand? Another mystery of bodies. Will my sister's gut churn in the same way when she signs that document to signify her knowledge that her heart will someday stop beating?
I’d rather shove mortality to the side of my (unpainted) mind, think of my sister's brilliant blue uterus painted underneath her shirt, and if next year it will house the start of another life. Perhaps we'll sit here, bodies concealed and revealed, with more stories of doctor appointments and play groups. My latest dexascan will have (hopefully) revealed that I’m not becoming dangerously fragile. Dad won’t have told me anything more about his white cell count and I’ll still be worried, but assume that no news is good news in that delicate balance of trusting our bodies to carry us over the miles, but knowing not to trust them forever.
Sarah Cavar is a PhD student, writer, and critically Mad transgender-about-town, and serves as Managing Editor at Stone of Madness Press. Author of two chapbooks, A HOLE WALKED IN (Sword & Kettle Press) and THE DREAM JOURNALS (giallo lit), they have also had work in Bitch Magazine, Electric Literature, The Offing, Luna Luna Magazine, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Cavar navel-gazes at cavar.club and tweets @cavarsarah.
"Again Soon," I'll call him. He is a large chestnut-bearded man. He looks like a large rock in the form of a person. He is satisfactorily tan in the summer months, pallid in the winter, always sporting several moles at the margins of his face. He enjoys literary fiction, but only ironically. Likewise he reads The New Yorker, mostly to poke quiet fun at the little dashes: teen-ager, e-mail––bull-shit, he says, nose-deep in film reviews. In the classroom he enjoys drawing little cartoons, each of which dances its way across the blackboard he refuses to switch to dry-erase, calling student after student to write shrieking, illegible words with white chalk, powder parachuting onto their shoulders.
Again Soon teaches underclassmen. He wishes he taught them exclusively. He says that unlike greener students, aware of their place within a wide sea of ignorance, upperclassmen believe themselves wise the moment we find any archipelago of wisdom. So he sticks with the squeaky little freshmen, sophomores who believe a year of high school has them world-weary, and keeps his office door open to strays and longstanding mentees like myself. I had worked with him on my college essay for months, from a desperate summertime outline to an intelligent, polished sob-story. When I told him that in mid-December, he laughed as he shooed me out the door, said, "a decent sob-story'll usually get you where you need to go." It did.
The last time I went to his office, two months ago –– about two weeks before it all happened, because right now before and after The Event are my only measurements of time ––he had a sign taped halfway up his little plexiglass office door window. In his all-caps block print, he had written on the grid-ruled paper
"A GRIM SENSE OF FOREBODING"
in thick black marker, no explanation given.
I'd gone up to his door, done the little door's-open-so-I'll-half-knock thing. He said, "Mallory!" as he always did, as if my arrival were a great surprise. He scooted from his undersized desk in his undersized wheelie -chair to a small, two-person table several paces from the door. We sat, his knees cramped beneath its low top.
I reached into my backpack and pulled out a thick red envelope. "I've decided on ––– U. I just...I wanted to, um, tell you. To let you know –– to say thank you, you know, for everything. For your help."
"A respectable choice, indeed!" he said, presumably of the U. His eyes smiled grudgingly. His mouth was business.
"Yeah. Glad you think so. That's more or less it... I just wanted to let you know. But, like, how are you doing?" I asked him, not wanting to be rude. A teetering stack of essays sat behind him, red pen lazing like a princess on top. He cleared his throat, smoothed several stray brown curls back into place, behind his ears. "Just ––" he opened a gas-station-sized bag of pretzels (lower sodium) from a heretofore unseen place on his bookcase. "––Getting excited about March! Camp!" Several pretzels firmly in his mouth, he drummed the table with his fingertips. No mind to the essays. "We've got baseball, football ("by which I mean 'soccer,'" he quickly added, rolling his eyes), swimming, we've got kayaks, tents, sleeping bags, bug spray, all the good shit."
"And pretzels, I assume?" I asked, taking, as I always did, illicit pleasure in hearing him curse.
"Oh, no. They've got, like, Doritos. Don't worry about that. "
I watched him take another handful of pretzels, crunch them, staring into space all the while.
An annual Spring Break tradition, free to anyone at the Academy who could sign up quickly enough, Camp was a beloved destination even for those who could afford Cancun. Nine days in tents, playing sports, scary stories and manhunt in the darkness, all while reveling in the familial atmosphere the Academy sold to parents for $30,000 a year.
"Sorry, I can't stay," I said, glancing at my phone. "I have to go to class in a second."
"Then go forth, Mallory!" He slid the red envelope, now open, back toward me. He had glanced through it without my noticing. I read the name, ––– UNIVERSITY, in its bold capitals, the carefully-posed photos of attractive, well-dressed, diverse students camped out in the library and on the green. Anxiety rushed to my mouth like bile.
"Thanks for letting me stop in," I repeated, trembling only slightly. "I want to, you know, use my time wisely now that I haven't got long left. See people I'm going to miss next year."
"Sure, sure," Again Soon rose from his tiny chair, cracking each knuckle in turn. "But it's not over yet, Malloy. No need to freak out. Solid three months to go, you know?"
I knew. I felt as if my stomach were made of glass. I imagined my life without his office, without the safety –– however wounded –– I felt after four Academy years. This must be the Grim Sense of Foreboding, I thought. I left the door ajar behind me and walked to class, oddly relieved that, in however small and foolish a way, I shared my pain with the universe.
Again Soon had a couple of different personalities, each curated for a different situation. In class he had the whole To Sir, With Love thing going on, except he was surrounded by white Academy kids with little American flags, slashed through with a thin blue line, stuck to the backs of their cars. These types were orders of magnitude more pigheaded than any so-called "urban youth,” yet Again Soon, with his unpretentious insight, wrangled even the worst of them.
As soon as the 2:00 bell rang, Again Soon metamorphosed from teacher to coach, a process in fact initiated not by the bell but one hour earlier, when he removed his button-down for his trademark mesh tank top. He would teach a raucous last period class in it, then run with the rest from the classroom to the fields, voice booming SPORTS! As if he had discovered the word himself.
His last personality was the rarest. I received it by accident the February of my freshman year. I was miserable at the time, but no one said anything about it. I sensed that it wafted off of me as a stench those in my life chose to ignore. Either that or Again Soon was exceptionally well-attuned. He confronted me that February with a shocking tenderness I did not know how to comprehend.
"Mallory," he had said, having already taken to calling me by my surname. I was the last person packing up after a last period class. Winter be damned, he wore the tank top.
"Sorry, almost done –– I know you have to go," I mumbled. He said nothing, walked over to my desk holding a packet of papers. It was my first essay of the semester, marked with a big red A.
"Best in the class. Excellent attention to detail. Astute." He pronounced the T sharply and chuckled to himself. I thanked him awkwardly, all of this feeling uncannily like a Lifetime movie.
"But I haven't kept you about the essay," he continued. "I've kept you because the person who wrote this
," he pressed his index finger against the packet I now held, "isn't the person I've seen in my classroom. Isn't the person I've heard in my classroom, considering all I've heard so far is crickets. You hardly come to class at all these days."
I bowed my head.
"So now, here I am –– acting in my capacity as a teacher –– asking, what's going on?"
And so opened the floodgates. All the fourteen-year-old angst I had piled away behind myself, until now addressed only in the language of blood, came crashing out with embarrassing speed. I was depressed. I was suicidal. I was covered in grotesque evidence of this and unable to resist the blade. On top of that, I berated myself, I was meta-depressed: berating myself for the fact of my depression when I had little to be sad
about. Though only a freshman, the few friends I had were genuine. My parents loved me. I was queer, and no one made a fuss about it. My grades were good; my appearance, as far as I could tell, about average. But even still this unremarkable life had me coming home from school to sit on my bed, head several beats outside my body, eyes too tired to tear, with my headphones screaming loudly enough that perhaps, if I continued listening, my eardrums would deflate like birthday balloons. I couldn't read, couldn't write, could hardly stand to think, and would thus attempt to drown the thoughts in screeching tones, themselves soon proving insufficient.
The cutting had begun as fall turned into long-sleeved winter. Not itself an attempt at suicide, I viewed the cutting as an engagement with death: reminding me of my existence as well as my cartoonish fragility. Either way, I was here, and had evidence, even if nobody cared to see. Again Soon didn't cringe or cry as I explained all this, not even when I later, hesitantly, rolled my sleeve halfway up. He only asked, "And do you have a plan?"
"If I tell you 'yes', you're going to tell the counselor, who will tell my doctor and my parents, and then..." I trailed off. For a moment we only stared at each other.
"Here's the deal. You get this." He took a pen from his pocket, wrote a phone number in the margins of my essay. And any time of day or night, you can tell me."
I made use of the number several times, probably should have done so several more. All this is beside the point. Again Soon paid attention to me. He asked me what I was reading. When he started to ask me what I was listening to, I hesitated, reluctant to say "Korn at full volume in complete darkness," like some overwrought stereotype.
Again Soon told me, grinning, that whatever was behind my hesitation probably meant I needed to learn better taste. To this end, he instructed me to listen to several bands, all of which, to my amusement, sounded exactly like Mumford and Sons. I told him so, and he pantomimed manic strumming as if confirming what I meant.
This was how he became my mentor, the only adult who dealt with the whole of me without making me feel inhuman; a much-needed contrast to the contemporaneous parade of counsellors that treated me at once like a child and like an escaped prisoner. I quickly shut up about my problems around the counsellors, bringing them instead to Again Soon. He made me feel heard. I shared my personal writing. I even (once he lifted his informal ban on Woolf, Plath, or Sexton) shared my perspective on suicidality and literature. Sometimes I'd send an interesting, unrelated article to the phone number he wrote on my paper all those years ago and get a little thumbs-up emoticon in return. Later, he would help me with the successful college essay about the power of collective care, chosen kin, and mentors beyond the family unit.
After all of this, he felt like a family member, a friend. I looked forward to changing his contact name to his first, no more Mr.-this-or-that. It was March. We were marching toward the end, the today I wish were here. But then Until Tomorrow stepped off that chair into a great emptiness called The Event and I christened Again Soon Again Soon.
The story as I heard it went like this. Until Tomorrow, a sophomore, went to camp. I didn't know much about the kid beforehand, but I had seen him around: a generic fifteen-year-old boy, brown hair, arms and legs a bit too long and a bit too skinny for the rest of him. When I try to recall what else I knew before the papers hijacked him, I draw a shameful blank. Until Tomorrow had decided to go to camp only after, we later learned, establishing a rapport with Again Soon. The two had spent the better part of a year periodically discussing Until Tomorrow's depression. Until Tomorrow suffered severely from loneliness. Again Soon
had apparently advised him to come to camp –– an "antidote to any loneliness" –– to make friends, kayak and eat Doritos.
So Until Tomorrow went to camp. To his great dismay, so did four unremarkable boys who slept just a few tents down. These boys had, unbeknownst to Again Soon, been responsible for much of the preceding year's depression, an ongoing campaign of harassment Until Tomorrow was too ashamed to disclose.
The boys' camp-specific acts of terror started small: a rotten banana in the back corner of his tent, a "misplaced" lantern in the middle of the night. Sometimes, in good fun, the boys would tease or wrestle with Until Tomorrow in the presence of Again Soon, like cats pawing at a little mouse. Everybody aww’s, but really, they’re playing with their food.
On the second-to-last day of camp, a Friday, the boys stole Until Tomorrow's knapsack while he swam nude in a secluded lake nearby. To retrieve the bag he walked two miles through the forest shoeless, naked, and cold, body on display for hiking passers-by. The boys watched through violent peals of laughter. That evening all the campers ate their s'mores by firelight and nothing seemed amiss.
Campers returned home the following day, two days before school started up again. I'm sure Until Tomorrow was relieved with this temporary reprieve from the boys, at least until he saw the photos: cell phone pictures of varying quality, all depicting his freezing, naked form, face red with anguish, and penis –– the subject, as one might expect, of much online ridicule –– dangling as he ran.
His father found him in the garage Monday morning.
News spread like sawdust. It got into everyone. My mother learned about it from the morning newspaper.
TRAGEDY STRIKES ––– ACADEMY. Cyberbullying A Factor in Teen's Suicide. She hid the paper from me, but I had already found out, waking up to a flurry of texts. They were all all dotted with are you okays and do you need someones. It was as if I were once again made of glass, a giant sign screaming SUICIDE hanging from my neck. Most of all, I wished selfishly for different timing, better timing, and shamefully raged at the ruin of my senior spring. I had by all accounts reached the dawn-side of my depression. I gripped my future, my U, with a trembling fist. And then this, this brutal conspiracy of fate, which shamed me for having the audacity to survive.
It’s been two weeks since then.
The boys have since admitted to "teasing" Until Tomorrow. At the request of their respective coaches, they were each given no more than three day's suspension so as not to disadvantage the Academy's varsity record. I would keep each newspaper article I could find on the "Tragedy at the Academy" in a manila envelope, read them each several times over, and mark them up with pen and highlighter until the typed text is hardly visible beneath. I made a list:
To understand the epidemic of teen suicide. To understand the epidemic of cyber-
bullying. We ought to change the conversation on mental health. Start the
conversation. No, change. No change. Ask where were the parents? Confront the
scourge of online bullying. To understand unfair emotional standards placed on
young boys. No picturesque campus is safe. No safe spaces. Snow. The way
tvinternetvideogames strips youth of their compassion, their very humanity.
Flakes. But where were the parents? Where were the teachers? In decline.
Again Soon declines requests for comment.
He is still teaching and coaching. He now keeps his office door closed and unadorned. At the school-wide assembly a week after the news, he appeared in the auditorium with hands clasped gently at his belt buckle and eyes downcast, body among all of our bodies in our identical grief.
For a moment it was as though we were all living inside the news stories, lives governed by nothing but sheets of manila text. Students cried in the halls. Students cried in classrooms. Students walked out of class and onto the green and stared at the springtime clouds, sometimes in large numbers, and in all our manic solidarity, we allowed them. I did not see Again Soon joining mourners on the green, but then, after that first assembly, I did not see Again Soon at all.
As spring passed and the flowers opened, the Until Tomorrow stories continued, unrelenting.
Again Soon once commented that writers enjoy death, enjoy tragedy, because they were free to pontificate on a subject who could not meet their gaze.
All my U brochures come by snail mail. In the warming weather I have taken to waiting for the beautiful postwoman, who unknowingly assuages my loneliness each afternoon at 3:45 sharp, on the front porch. She looks young for a postal worker, strawberry blonde and plump with freckles on her face and on her upper chest. She has a cherry blossom tree tattooed on her right calf, with branches extending up her thigh and beneath her shorts. I let myself desire her, stomach fizzing, relieved each day to feel human still.
It’s not like I’m back to old habits, or whatever else I’m supposed to call the cutting. I’ve committed already, that is, chosen. Instead I ritual my envelopes: Upon arriving home from school, I first brush my sour teeth. Then, I make one sandwich with tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss cheese, and mayonnaise and fill my favorite old mug with ice water. I bring my school books and food to the porch and camp out on the wooden steps, knowing that when the postwoman arrives I will rise and two particular spots on my ass will ache with the memory of the unforgiving wood, and I will be grateful for my ache as my desire, grateful simply to feel
I attempt to read while I wait, but most often end up staring at some particular word on the page –– one with interesting vowels, like vacuum –– until I hear the grey sound of the postal truck bobbing along the road. I check my face for food scraps in my phone's front-facing camera before going down to meet the postwoman.
The shifts get lonely, sometimes, she's said to me. Going to door after door, knowing you're supposed to leave the mail and just leave, as if you don't exist. I always smile sadly and tell her that I hope she feels better soon. She says see you tomorrow.
Today we get two bills, a catalog, a thin afternoon paper, and a large Academy envelope, a premature issue of their Alumni Quarterly. The papers and Academy have quit discussing Until Tomorrow's suicide, protracted murder, or whatever it was, so I toss both aside with the bills. I suck on my water.
The U, I imagine, will soon send another round of glossy welcome cards, a parade of which already march across our family refrigerator: one congratulating me on my admission, one awarding me the coveted ––– U Admissions Essay Prize, another congratulating me for choosing to attend. We cannot wait to have you.
I return to my steps with the stack of mail. With my other hand, I pick up my untouched sandwich from the plate and throw it as far as I possibly can, past our empty driveway and into the hedges. I watch the bread and toppings peel apart in slow-motion, hearing several splatters as pieces reach the earth. By tomorrow it will have all vanished into possum bellies or raccoons'; birds, surely, will have played vulture with the lettuce and tomato.
When I'm through, I slip the stack of worthless mail below me as an ersatz cushion and sip my water. The time reads just-past-five, springtime sun shining still; my parents will not be home for hours.
I sit straight-up on my pile like some minute-monarch, still as my disfigured sandwich. Birds arrive.
Hannah Silverman is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. She earned her BFA in Film & Television with a minor in Creative Writing from NYU. She is an Editorial Assistant at Pigeon Pages Literary Journal. Her prose appears in Pigeon Pages, HASH Journal, and 3Elements Review.
She collected elephants. Paintings, figurines, magnets, key chains. A crystal candy bowl with tusks and a trunk. Grey slippers with big, flapping ears. The entire two-bedroom condo like a shrine, a zoo.
It made the holidays easy. We never wondered, what would great grandmother want? Only, does she already have a Dumbo t-shirt?
In her final years, she started to downsize. Every visit was, do you have a use for this elephant paperweight? and take one elephant before you leave. She displayed the most valuable treasures for our appraisal. Elephant-shaped jewels and wooden statues hand-carved in Africa laid carefully across the freshly vacuumed carpet. We’d kneel before the collection as she towered above. Which one speaks to you? Pick something to remember me by.
In the final months, everything was labeled, accounted for. Pink sticky notes went to the children, green to the grandchildren, and blue were for us, the great grandchildren. We each got a stack of blue sticky notes, a pen, and two hours to claim our inheritance. She watched us from the wicker chair beneath the elephant-in-a-bowtie painting. Initial your sticky notes, don’t be greedy, no ink stains on the carpet.
The youngest among us chose toys, stuffed animals, the deck of cards with two elephants for jokers. My brother, always pragmatic, laid claim to the valuables. The solid gold set of elephant earrings with pearls for eyes. Great grandmother frowned. You better pierce your ears and wear those to the funeral. But she let him have them and even gave him the gold pendant to match.
I circled the condo with my pad of blue sticky notes, admiring each item like artworks in a gallery. The framed postcard from my great aunt’s safari vacation. The greeting card with a smiling elephant inside, signed by all of the cousins. Artifacts beloved but ultimately borrowed. I wondered who would get the ceramic mug with big, chipped ears: a gift I’d presented proudly years earlier, before I could even speak.
While the others perused the living room and kitchen, I retreated to the second bedroom. Dim and untouched, prepared for some nameless visitor. The only elephant-less room in the condo. Except, on the windowsill, a lone figurine. Five elephants carved from a single material. They stood single file in descending size order, attached from trunk to tail. A family. I turned them over in my hands. Light as plywood, strong as marble. Ivory, great grandmother said, from tusks, like teeth. The beautiful and gruesome fruit of slaughter. You can’t buy ivory anymore.
We were there on the final day. The great grandchildren. The grandchildren, our parents, must have been there too. But it was we, the great grandchildren, who huddled together on her bed, encircling our matriarch. We told stories and played gin rummy with the elephant playing cards. She didn’t tolerate cheating, and she never let us win.
Elephants remember their dead. They carry the bones to keep them close. We didn’t know it was the last day until there were no more days.
The secret about the elephants, she told me in confidence: I never even liked them that much. She never bought herself a single elephant. The first was a gift, the second a joke. The third made it a collection, and for the next fifty years she was never gifted anything else. Why not tell the family, enough elephants? She took a sip from the mug with chipped ears, shrugged. It makes them happy.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and other stories" (HarperCollins). She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award June 2018 and was a nominee for Best Small Fictions 2019. She received an honorable mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction 2020. Her fiction has appeared in the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Gravel, Barren, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Jellyfish Review among journals.
Tango With God
Phil found god. On Monday morning, he marched into the conference room, all fire and brimstone, and gave us the news.
None of us knew how to respond. I smiled politely. Luckily, I didn’t have to congratulate him because he avoided me at meetings. He would stare at the white walls or the giant blue screen in front of us when he asked me a question. When he bustled past my work station in the day, he looked right through me like I was made of smoke.
Drunk on a glass of flaming Jamaican rum, I had let him kiss me at the last Christmas party. One kiss under the gangly tree. One drunken misstep, but the man read it all wrong.
Phil went all out for his affair with god. Showed up at church every Sunday, went to confession, quoted the Bible to us heathens who needed saving. Let’s pray, he’d say, at the start of our morning meetings. Let’s praise the Lord. Head bowed, I sat across him, trying to keep a straight face. Bible quotes, typed in big, bold letters by Phil’s personal assistant, glowered at me from the wall.
Phil gifted us pocket Bibles with matching red covers. A gold trim ran around the edges, glinting when it caught the light. I shoved it at the bottom of my desk and never saw it again. Some people took it home with them. The rest threw the book in the bin when he wasn’t looking.
We started betting good money on how long Phil’s tango with god would last. He’d stuck with ‘save the Asian elephant’ for six months. Four weeks with his vegan diet. His obsession with oceans and the absolute state they are—his longest streak—fizzled out in a year.
All through summer, Phil clung to god. Leaves turned amber, light liquid gold. Phil’s eyes grew brighter in the autumn. He spoke in the feverish tone of a fanatic. Faith was his shield. God, his strongman. He felt invincible. Nothing on earth could bring him down.
And then the fire broke out in office on a windy Monday evening. When the alarm wailed like a banshee, all of us sprung up and shuffled out of the building in single file. Computer screens blinked at empty work stations. Fluorescent lamps flickered like dying men. The whole floor emptied out, but Phil sat hunched over his desk, fingers flitting over the keyboard, ignorant to the alarm, oblivious to our warnings. He was untouchable. His god would watch over him.
In about 20 minutes, when he stumbled out of the building, his eyes bloodshot, his sandy hair singed, he shook his fist at the blue black sky. “Damn you!” he spluttered, squinting at the heavens.
I pocketed a neat pile of cash that evening from my colleagues. I’d bet that Phil’s love affair wouldn’t outlive the autumn.
Maryse is the author of Heartbreaker, Rag, Northwood, and The Seventh Mansion. She lives in Chicago.
He cut his hand on the bottle cap. A grunt, a bird’s wing grazing the water, why do they fly so
low? Almost into the head of the boat. A lot of flesh had slapped against its white sides, in and
out. Keir lay on his back. Blood on the glass bottle. Big hard belly wired with gray and black hair
over which he rubbed the bottom of his beer, up and down, from his navel to the waistband of his
slim yellow Speedo. Sit on it, he murmured, eyes closed. You did. You spread the cheeks of your
ass as delicately as a woman in another era might lift the folds of her many skirts. Easing onto
the bottle. You fucked the neck of it while looking at Keir’s smooth lids, the eyes rolling
beneath. His mouth relaxed into his slack cheeks. Perfect calm. The water knocking at the boat.
It hurt. Oh well.
You thumbed the fish apart on either side of the slit. From gill to fin. Watery guts, not deeply red
like a deer, not so full of grays as a rabbit. Something blue in there. You dump the chum into the
bucket. A bigger fish will eat them. Guts to make more guts, Keir said, sing-song. Whistling,
loud, de-dum, de-dum, the sharpest thing over the lake. It raised the hair on your arms. He liked
to sing. And he could, too, very well. You looked at his sweaty throat, full of sinew. At the blood
forming the thinnest crust in the slit skin on his hand.
You were forty. Keir telling some big story in the bar when he saw you dropping quarters near
the cigarette machine. You turned to look. Plenty of stupidity in your long face. Hey, ugly shit,
he said, Come have a drink. You looked back to the cigarette machine and got all the quarters in
and you could feel the tears in the back of your nose before they got to your eyes. You didn’t
even smoke. You just wanted to pretend. Keir came up behind you and slapped the Pall Malls
out of your hand with one fist and caught them in the other. Ha! he crowed. The bartender
laughed. It was your bar. Not anymore. Keir tapped a cigarette into his palm and stared at it with
bright eyes in a broad, pink face. Like I said, asshole. Come have a drink.
You did. Next to his friends in a booth. Your knees tight together. You didn’t talk and no one
expected you too. You drank and drank, trying to keep your chin from trembling. Keir banged
the table, had the loudest laugh, a missing tooth. Your got dizzy, your head almost hit the floor.
He caught you by the shoulder. Drove you home.
Who’s that? he asked, about the shape in the window, watching for you. Sister, you said,
swallowing, head back against the seat. Keir’s belly clenched in a silent laugh. Shit, he said. You
live with that fat bitch and you’re how old. Dunno, you breathed. You were so drunk you could
not move your hand on the door. Sick from smoking half the cigarettes. Look, Keir said
suddenly, hushed, serious. Hooking his pinky through yours. Best friends. You passed out.
You didn’t cook them by the lake. Keir said he fried his in a pan, at his apartment, he said they
tasted very nice, kind of green. You asked what he meant by green and he just patted your
shoulder. Plenty of stupidity. What you ate on the lake was a tin of tuna spread on white bread,
dill pickles, barbeque chips. An entire bag. And the beer. Keir thought it was funny, eating the
tuna in front of the dead fish. How’s that, he said, flicking a chunk of tuna into an eye peering
from the bucket. The tuna stuck. Then he leaned forward, licked his cut thumb, thumbed the tuna
from the eye, and ate it.
You heaved the boat upside down on the grass. You didn’t have to tie it anywhere, no one was
going to take it. Keir kicked the rope hanging from the metal ring at the fore. For no other reason
than that cheerful violence that was in him was still drooling, hungry. You had to feed it in little
pieces. Your ass was sore but it wasn’t bleeding, you checked with the side of your hand to make
sure. He had laughed and laughed when you told him you were a virgin. But in a way he was,
too. That was, what, four years ago? Five? Afterward, when he could tell without you saying
anything that you were in pain, he did it a second time even harder. Eventually the pain broke
apart into something else. Like pieces of an animal scattered on the water. You sank into it. I’m
just a baby, I don’t know right from wrong, Keir said, in a child’s voice, panting in your ear. The
lake shuddering beneath the boat. You grinned helplessly into the flaked paint.
You put the fish in the cooler. Even the heads had to come off, which you suppose you knew
before you met Keir, but now you really know. He liked to make you do it. That’s it, he said,
when something unpleasant squirts out of the severed body. All fish have evil eyes, you thought.
Not on purpose. It’s just how animals look. When you first cut into the belly of a pike you saw
another white layer beneath the skin and you thought there was nothing more inside, just this
same white stuff, pure and not disgusting at all. But of course that was a dream.
Why do you have a boat if you don’t even fish, Keir had wanted to know when you showed him
the lake. You didn’t tell him about your idea of shooting yourself on the water. Pitter patter of
blood pocking the waves. You didn’t want to drown. You just wanted to fall back against the
boards and rock and rock and rock. But standing beside Keir you let this idea go. He could tie a
cherry stem in a knot with his tongue in less than sixty seconds, holding it between his teeth for
you to see, then spitting it at your face. You flinched and he said, What. Don’t, you said, wiping
your cheek, and he shrugged. Then winked. So many pink cracks punishing the dry lips he kissed
you with. The mosquitos eating your arms. Life running its hands all over you.
You walked into the house with tight, self-satisfied steps, as if holding some big secret in your
ass. Your sister looking at you. Lips pursed. Where’ve you been. Out, you said. Loading the
word like a gun. Aren’t you so special, she said, tucking a cold hot dog into the side of her
You spent the money saved for the gun on a shirt for Keir. It had all these fish on it, little ones, in
a tight pattern of gray on a field of yellow. You literal son of a bitch, Keir said when you gave it
to him, but he kept looking at the shirt for a long time, holding it in his lap. You bought this
where? he asked. You said you got it in a store that was not in a mall but all by itself, tucked
behind a lush wall of ferns. They even put the shirt in tissue paper and everyone, all the men who
worked there, said Amazing choice. Keir didn’t like to wear a shirt on the water but this wasn’t
for the boat, it was for a time when you wouldn’t be seen with him. The shirt representing you,
holding that big stomach in. An embrace. Does it fit, you said. He squinted at the shirt as he held
it up to the sun, which fell through the silk onto Keir’s face, turning it the color of butter. Yeah,
he said. It’ll fit.
You loved that little drop of blood on the boat. From his thumb. Which had followed the neck of
the bottle into your ass as he griped the back of your head and came with a face so red it was
about to burst.
You brought some cupcakes in a napkin on your 49th birthday and when it was dusk you
unwrapped them so carefully and spread them on the bottom of the boat. Chocolate and vanilla,
each with sprinkles. He picked the chocolate one and pushed it into your face. Chocolate’s your
favorite, he said. Rubbing it in. Frosting sliding over your nose, your cheek, up to your forehead,
painting your lashes. You’d told him the week before about a movie you’d seen where a man
spread butter on a woman’s ass before fucking her. Everyone’s seen that, Keir had said, You
think that’s some big deal? You stayed very still, even when a piece of the cake got in your
nostril. Keir smiled. Happy Birthday, dummy.
You did know he was married but separated and there were five kids in the same town who took
his side in everything against the mysterious wife. Yet Keir lived alone. When you caught more
than six fish you could see him doing the math, imagining the grill on his porch, him turning the
fish for his brood. You’d never seen his apartment but you could imagine it, how neat it must be,
because Keir was very clean about his truck and his things. Even his swim briefs were bright,
spotless, tight. You could see Keir struggling to put together in his mind a life where someone,
his kids or wife or whoever, was always enjoying the fish from the grill. But the fish were small
and you needed a lot of them to feed a party and he never caught enough for that. You tried to
help but he took the rod out of your hands and said, Watch me do it. The tip of his tongue
between his teeth. Barking when the line went taught and he knocked you in the ribs with his
elbow to gloat no matter how little the fish was. Watching between his knees as the fish bent on
the bottom of the boat. Look at that fucker. Doesn’t know what hit ‘em.
It was supposed to be your house, too, half and half, but you could not penetrate beyond your
childhood room. You let your sister fill every corner up with unopened boxes from the QVC.
Your bed was so small, a child’s bed, you had to tuck your knees up to keep your feet from
falling off the end. Not poor but living like you were which was part of the problem, someone
told you, a counselor, someone on the other end of a hotline. A problem of not thinking right
about how to be a person. When you learned how to fish you fed all the medications into the
toilet bowl one by one.
You did not want to keep meeting in the bar. So you told him about the boat and he said Look
I’m going to take us shopping. And true to his word Keir paid. At the glass case you touched the
little knives folded in on themselves. Some of the handles made of plastic, some of wood, and
one made, shockingly, of glass. You like it? he said. You nodded. He bought one, slipped it into
his own pocket, though it was yours. I’ll just hold on to it, he said. And that was the way it was.
He held on to everything.
You spent your life thinking that if you weren’t careful little bits of yourself would just fall off.
You shook all the time, stared at things, had wet eyes. The boat had been yours for years but you
had never put it on the water, you went every week just to look at it, like an animal in a zoo,
waiting for it to do something. Your parents had died. Nobody cared. When you brought Keir to
see it he flipped it over and shoved it into the water in no time. Just like that. He showed you
how to use the knife, saying, Deeper, dummy. The fish were everywhere. Their smell. Scales like
sequins on your knees, your cheek.
You didn’t meet his friends after that first time. He didn’t meet your sister, didn’t see your room,
didn’t show you his grill. The lake, the boat, the truck, that was all.
When Keir put his hand against the hood and bent double all you could say was, What’s wrong.
I’m dying, fucker, Keir said. Then he bowed his head and concentrated. On breathing or
whatever it was his body was trying to do. Hand above his briefs, that hairy hill of fat. What if
there was only white in his belly. That’s what it felt like, when you touched it. Gutless. Immortal.
It did not make sense. Keir was 57. All those evenings he dropped you off at your house and
watched to make sure you got the door open. At the threshold you turned, you looked for his
eyes through the glass. That was the mystery, his waiting there. His pleasure in making sure you
were safe. Now you would have to fish the keys from his bag and drive his truck for the first
time. The stick shift sticky in second gear, you would punish it from its groove the way he did,
by slamming the knob with the heel of your palm. With relish. But to where? Keir dragged by his
ankles to the overturned boat. The crushed grass and the shorts stained with dew. You put your
tank top over his white-blue eyes because you worried something would eat them. Before you
had time to come back with whoever would come back with you. I’m going to make the call, you
said, out loud. Waiting for him to answer, I don’t give a shit what you do. When in reality, he
cared about everything you did. The lake went still as bone. Oh, you dreamer. His sudden
whistle, de-dum, de-dum, cheerful as a robin, slicing the evening to pieces.
Based in Chicago, Bruce Owens Grimm’s haunted queer essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Entropy, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Older Queer Voices, Ghost City Review, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an imprint of Hachette, in 2021. He has taught his Haunted Memoir: What Ghosts Reveal About Life workshop at StoryStudio Chicago and at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, which named him a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Fellow.
“Inventory of a Haunted House, No. 3”
I wait for someone to tell me I’m not allowed here. To tell me to go back to my own, less well-off neighborhood. But no one does. The logs blister against the flames in the fire pit. Crack and pop as they are consumed. I’m on the back patio in the crisp fall air with a classmate from the Catholic elementary school we attend. We are in the fourth grade. We have the same first name. We sit on thick square wooden stools. His mother and his older brother are with us. All of us are roasting marshmallows, which burst, ooze sugar, as we crush them between graham crackers.
Trees encircle the back of the house. They are not dense, not forbidding like the woods that run along the back of my street. Where I live nature fights against the asphalt and aluminum siding for space. Here, in this backyard with another family, there are jokes, laughs, easy conversation about the day without any sudden turns to anger, disappointment.
I yawn. I have difficulty sleeping at home, even at this age, and the cool night, the effortless sorcery of his family relaxes me, allows me to feel sleepy because I am comfortable here, safe.
We sit on the bottom half of the bunk bed flipping through his collection of Star Wars trading cards, his mother pops her head in to see if we need any blankets or anything else. “Don’t forget what we talked about, Bruce,” she points at her son. “You’re the top bunk.”
I’m nine years old, younger than my classmate who is already ten, but I’m taller and wider than him, husky as most adults called it then, so I assume the concern is that I’m too heavy for the top bunk, even one that looks expensive like this one. That this might be in reference to two boys sleeping on one mattress together doesn’t occur to me.
She closes the door behind her as she leaves. I hear another door close down the hall. Voices from the TV downstairs lift over the banister of the stairs. The ease from outside is still present inside.
Bruce flips through the cards. He’s told me he’s looking for Princess Leia because she is my favorite character. Whenever we play Star Wars on the playground at school, I want to pretend to be her because she’s the strongest, the funniest, the most capable. I don’t consider the difference in our genders and that boys are supposed to want to pretend to be men. It’s not until after snickers from the other boys that I remember the gender role expectations. But I stick with my choice. I can’t imagine being anyone else.
“Here she is,” Bruce hands me the card. It’s one with Leia from Return of the Jedi where she is in the Ewok community. Her long hair fully down for the first time in the original trilogy, the only trilogy we knew of then.
He gets up and flips the switch by the door to turn off the overhead light. A flood light that hangs from a wooden telephone pole by the driveway let enough light leak into the room to keep me feeling safe. At home, I have to fall asleep with my TV on. I cannot relax enough to fall asleep in the dark. I lay down, the card in my hand.
Bruce lays down next to me, tucks his arms into his chest so that we each have our own sides of the bed. We don’t say anything. I fall asleep.
I wake up.
Bruce is still asleep.
The seam between the dark floor and the flood light, somehow brighter, encroaches closer to the bed. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep. Minutes? Hours? There’s a crisp tap. Like long fingernails knocking against the glass one by one.
I rise up. Knock. “Bruce,” I whisper. “Bruce, Bruce.”
He doesn’t wake up, doesn’t even stir.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I push myself to the end of the bed. I cross the line on the floor where the darkness and light meet.
Pebbles are hitting the window.
Below in the driveway is a boy with dark hair like mine. Like Bruce’s. The boy squats down to pick up another pebble from the driveway. When he stands up, the light hits his face in such a way that his eyes are lost in shadow. He seems to be similar in age to me and Bruce. He hooks his arm back to throw another pebble when he seems to notice me at the window.
I’m not afraid until he motions for me to come down to the driveway. I’m tempted. I want to know who he is and why he chose this house. Does he know Bruce? Perhaps from down there he thinks I’m my classmate.
He bats his fingers faster for me to come down.
Perhaps he wants me to invite him in.
I glance back at Bruce asleep on the bottom bunk.
Knock. His motions become quicker, angrier.
I run back to the bed. Burrow under a blanket next to Bruce, hoping, as I do at home, that being covered will keep me safe. The knocks stop. Attending a Catholic school means my brain is steeped in the supernatural. I’m convinced the boy in the driveway is a vampire.
What is a vampire? The classic definition: a supernatural creature that must drink the blood of others to survive. Most people think of Dracula or other popular culture versions of vampires. They’re all thin. They’re all longing for the love of their lives. I’m not interested in the romance of vampires. Folkloric vampires were not thin as we see in movies, they were according to Paul Barber in his book, Vampires, Burial & Death, bloated. Folkloric vampires were fat. They barely spoke, if at all. They were not charming. They were not what we expect from Old Hollywood or more recent literary and movie renditions. However, the need, the desire for blood remains. Many folkloric vampires didn’t hunt randomly when they crawled out of their graves in the middle of the night. They went home to their families for blood, for the chance to turn them into vampires too.
I’m on the edge of my parents’ bed, folding maroon cloth napkins my mother needs for a catering job her employer has booked. The triangular folded ones stacked neatly in the box they came in. My mother is not here. She’s at Tom’s house, a cook where she works, a friend. I should be reading Flowers for Algernon for my junior high English class. Instead I’m watching Roseanne as I fold, the unfolded cloth in a pile on the bed next to me. Roseanne and Dan are fighting, yelling and making jokes at the same time. By the time the episode is over they will make up, express their love for each other in some way. If only that happened in real life. Yet, I laugh.
Down the hall, down the stairs to the next level of the house, I hear the hiss and crack of my father opening another beer. He grunts loudly to himself. I hear him bang up the stairs. He appears in the doorway with his beer bloated belly. I look his way for a second, careful not to lock eyes with him. I turn my head away, towards the wall, to avoid triggering an incident.
Pink and grey dribbles that look like candle wax run down the length of the wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom. My aunt had once told me that her blood was pink rather than red.
I’ve been given a task. I knew my mother would be angry if I wasn’t done before she got home. The studio audience laughs at the show.
He moves so that he blocks the TV. He rocks back and forth, his arms folded across his bloated belly shelf. His face bloated too. He clears his throat.
“Get out,” he says. “My room.”
“No one thinks of this as your room,” I say.
He slaps me. The crack of his skin against mine echoes off the walls. My head turns from the force of it. My cheek feels swollen already.
I throw myself toward the door and into the hallway. No matter how drunk he is, he moves with the speed and force of the undead when he wants to strike. He pushes me. I fall to the carpet in the hallway. He grabs at the waist of my sweatpants. Pulls me along the carpet towards him. It burns my arms and elbows.
I kick at his hand and arm with my left foot trying to get free from his grip.
No matter how hard I kick, his hand is solid trap. He grabs at the waist sweatpants. Begins to pull them off.
I kick quicker, harder. I kick his face. He’s dazed for a moment. It’s an accident, but now I see a weakness, I see the full strength of my thick legs. I kick him in the middle of his face. Again. Again.
Blood oozes out of his nose. I kick again and he lets go.
I run down the stairs and run to the house next door. It’s a short distance but feels long. Fear tingles up to the back of my skull. He could grab me at any second.
I make it to the door. I ring the doorbell. Bang on the door. I shout, “help me.”
The TV glows blue in the crack of the curtain in the bay window. Someone is awake. I keep ringing the doorbell. Finally, the light in the foyer pops on. A shadow moves down the stairs. Our neighbor, Bobby, opens the door. He’s the adult son of the elderly couple that lives here. He seems as elderly as his parents with bushy silver eyebrows and gray hair.
He looks down at me through the screen door. I gasp out that my father hit me, may be coming after me.
He opens the door. “Quick, get in here.”
I follow him up the stairs to the living room. Gertie, his mother, sits on the couch. She motions for me to come sit next to her. “Bobby, get me a towel.”
She wipes my face and asks me what happened. I tell her. She tells Bobby to call the police. I start to cry.
I stay on the couch with her and we focus on the television. I daydream about living in a relaxing, easy environment as this house. I cannot tell how much time passes before the red and blue lights flash through the window. Bobby goes down to the door. I hear murmurs in the foyer.
Bobby calls for me.
Gertie nods at me. I go.
A police officer stands there with my grandfather. My father stands behind them, his face points at the ground, his shoulders are hunched. “I hear you let your emotions get the best of you,” the police officer says to me as he steps over to me.
I don’t know how to respond as I grip the railing of the stairs.
“Let’s go home,” my grandfather says. “Stop bothering these nice people.”
The police officer puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Listen to your grandad, young man.”
My father says nothing. He lifts his eyes towards me. He smirks. Whatever he told my grandfather, his father, and the police, they believe him. They won’t believe me.
Vampire as Ghost
The line between a vampire and a ghost. For most of my life I thought of them as two different entities. A ghost hovers, can walk through walls, and you only see them out of the corner of your eye. They can be in your house, your room, your bathroom. Anywhere. They can show up whenever, wherever they want.
Vampires have also returned from the dead. However, it’s their actual body not their spirit that has climbed out of their grave. Unlike a ghost, they cannot enter whenever, wherever they want. They must find a way in or be let in. Invitations don’t matter for folkloric vampires. There is a story Paul Barber cites in his book a place in Serbia where vampires are called ghosts. They stalk around in the dark and make their relatives feel haunted. Later, in the book, he relates the story of vampires in South Russia that can be invisible, saying, “…there is no difference, functionally, between the concept of invisibility and that of absence…”. Absence hurts. Ghosts are absence. Like a ghost, you may feel absence standing behind you. It will make you feel guilty. It will make you sad. There is no way to have a last conversation, even if it’s one sided when people are absent, gone. It’s scary when I feel the presence of someone, which my brain has labeled as my father, behind me. Since I can’t see him, I’ll never know for sure it’s him. I’m at the same time afraid it might be him. I don’t want to speak out, ask him to identify himself, in fear that there might be an answer.
This is not a typical response. Many people would be happy to see and hear from a dead relative. The families in those folklore stories who saw vampires could see their dead relatives. It must have been upsetting. Perhaps also a comfort. Even though they had changed, bloated, lusting for blood, the family member could at least see a person they had wanted to see again.
The trees have long needles hanging off of them instead of regular branches and leaves. Some of them have fallen and now layer the dirt walking path. I’m careful because despite having flip flops, I worry that the needles will stab me. Tree roots have broken out of their graves and wait to grab my ankle, to make me fall, I imagine. The path feels dangerous. I keep my focus towards the ground. But I can see my father’s calves, his feet, enough to know that I’m not lost. He walks at a pace that he is only a few steps ahead, leading the way to the pool. I’m young, small, no more than four or five years old. My grandparents have taken us with them to visit friends who live in a RV complex. If there are other people around, I cannot see or sense them. It’s only my father and me.
Dirt transforms to concrete. A mixture of sour chemical chlorine mixes with the sweet, almost maple, scent of the green leaved, gray branched trees around the pool complex. I jog down the covered pathway, past the closed concession stand as my father signs in on the checklist posted on the wooden wall of building that forms the tunnel.
We have the pool to ourselves. I don’t even consider the lack of people around us then, at that age. Later, I will understand that we visited during the off-season. Later, I will be told that we could only take this trip because my grandparents, my father’s parents paid for it because my father was often out of work and my mother’s waitressing job money went to some groceries or fast food meals during vacation. But I don’t think about who is paying for what as I jog to the edge of the pool that looks like a vast but contained clear ocean.
My father holds my hand as we walk down the stairs into the shallow end. The glossy water reflecting the grey clouds moving across the blue sky above. He lets go and submerges underneath the water to the deeper end. I doggy paddle because I don’t want my feet to make contact with the rough, spikey plaster on the bed of the pool. The skin on my feet crack and peel, have not become thick and rough like my father’s.
He emerges. His hair slicked back. His wet chest hair forms almost the shape of a bird’s tail against his skin. I’m a buoy that has attracted the attention of my father. He pushes his way through the thick water towards me. I don’t remember being afraid of him. He gets closer, and I reach my arms out. He picks me up out of the water, holds me close to him. I shiver from the cold water and the cooler, early spring southern air. He spins us around back towards the deep end.
“Throw me. Throw me.” I shout as my teeth clatter.
“Get ready to launch,” he says.
I’m both afraid to let go of my grasp on his shoulders, and excited to soar through the air. He throws me. I splash into the water of the shallow end. A little water goes up my nose. My feet push into the bottom of the pool. The puckered plaster pokes into my soft skin. Blood leaks out as I swim up to the surface. My head makes it above water, my hair matted down to the top of my forehead. My father pushes through the water towards me. He smiles. I doggy paddle towards him.
“Again. Again,” I say.
Jordan E. McNeil [she/her] writes fairytales, rages at videogames, and takes selfies with goats. Her work can be found (or is forthcoming) at Curating Alexandria, The Arcanist, Arsenika, and Liminality. She can be found on Twitter, @Je_McNeil.
Grief is a palpable thing i can clutch from the air and hold, pulsing, in my hand, when i walked down the halls after a student took his life, when a kid from my sister’s grade did as well, when a family in the community lost a husband, a father, a child in an automobile accident, when another from a different community lost their mother to one as well, when a roommate lost her dad, when Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Chester Bennington and people took to the internet to grieve, because where else can they share this emotion over people they never really “knew” but loved deeply anyway. i cut the grief into slices and placed them one by one into my mouth to chew for eternity, for grief is not a fast emotion, but slow like molasses, sticky like saltwater taffy but rarely sweet.
i have experienced far too much grief for someone my age, and societal normalized jokes about loss about death about suicide are not funny to me anymore. If you tell me you want to jump off a bridge, i’ll believe you, and you bet your ass i will comment on that post saying “don’t” saying “i may not be much help, but wanna talk? want some cute animal videos?” saying “i may not know you, but i will notice your absence, i will grieve you, you are not alone, how can i make you believe that, please believe it.” while anxiety burns in my chest, while my heartbeat races because my mental illness also manifests as worry, as what-if worst case scenario pessimistic as hell and what-if that tweet is not a joke, what-if i’m not able to help because heaven knows i’m not qualified. i’m just a girl, barely out of teens it seems, with atypical neurology herself, what am i supposed to do but reach out and pray i won’t have to see others grieve again and again and again, pray that you’ll believe, pray that for once beautiful starlight can stay on this earth, for we are all made of star dust.
Hannah Cajandig-Taylor resides in the Upper Peninsula, where she is an MFA Candidate at Northern Michigan University and an Associate Editor for Passages North. Her prose and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Gordon Square Review, Drunk Monkeys, Third Point Press, Coffin Bell, and Sidereal Magazine, among others. She has a bike named Stella and enjoys murder documentaries.
On your eighth birthday, long before you were in love with weather, your dad took you to Big Surf Waterpark because your parents had just gotten a divorce, and you found out on the third of July, which you used to recognize as an anti-holiday, but now you just don’t recognize at all. You slouched in a bloated inner-tube, floating down a lukewarm lazy river, clouds popcorning in the humid sky. You were afraid of the tallest flume, the yellow painted tunnel in which your body would twist and turn before being dropped into a deep pool, and only took the ride to prove yourself wrong—that your fear would not pull you under with it.
When you parents sold the house you grew up in, you cried about the real estate agent’s insistence on painting over the abstractly ugly bathroom wall. One evening, you scratched out a four page essay with poorly drawn graphics that defended said bathroom wall. Said you saw other worlds in it. Saw the head of a wolf. A dancing voodoo doll. A boat with paper sails.
Nobody else saw your worlds.
You were anxious. Had trouble adjusting. Couldn’t keep track of homework assignments. Cried for three hours in the fifth grade because you forgot your backpack at home and had a meltdown in the bathroom. Moved into a sun-colored house. Called your mom when she was at work because the landscapers across the street looked like bad people, and you were sure they were going to break into your house, and nobody else saw that world either, because they weren’t bad people and your brain was in overdrive and it was sad and you were doing the best that you could.
Tornado sirens gave you panic attacks. Panic attacks gave you panic attacks. Your sister’s boyfriend hung himself. A boy touched you and it was okay. You were a storm warning, breaking however you could. During freshman year of college, you almost failed out halfway through spring semester because you were scared of touching doorknobs because what if you got ebola and died and what if that spot on your upper leg was cancer and what if you have head lice and what if there is no world after this one is over. That year, you saw a psychiatrist. Started taking medication. Finally lost your virginity. Wanted to spill your soul to somebody. Your parents were married to different people.
You wrote a poem about stratus clouds and didn’t hate the thunder of your own voice. Began jotting down birthdays in your planner. Broke up with your high school boyfriend. Adopted a dog. Got sick after pounding a red solo cup of cheap vodka in your best friend’s living room. Studied the names of your favorite constellations. Saw lions and planets in the unclaimed stars.
The falling sky loved you back. Watched you write letters to your eight year old self. Wept when you wept. You were alive for another birthday, and when you finally got an actual night’s sleep for the first time in weeks, you nightmared over water slides and wind storms and fireflies and airplanes and dark wine and a girl who might have been you, but you still can’t remember her face.
Alina Stefanescu- Someone Failed This Man
Rachel Cochran- Girls Kissing Girls
Teresa Milbrodt- Body Painting
Sarah Cavar- Again Soon
Tango With God
Maryse Meijer- ESSEN
Bruce Owens Grimm- Inventory of a Haunted House, No. 3
Jordan E. McNeil- What i Mean When i Say Empath
The Life Cycle of a Storm Cell Lullaby